Monthly Archives: May 2019

Sweat & Soda


Not sure where they keep the soda

The only thing in the name of this place that doesn’t practically scream NOT A COFFEE JOINT is the &. And yet. Continue reading


For some reason I have an open, barely used box of Javex2 (“Bleach for Unbleachables”) sitting with the other toxic household chemicals. I vaguely recall needing it a few years ago to get something clean. I guess a bit of lemon juice wouldn’t do for whatever it was.

The origin of the name Javex is pretty clear if you turn to the French side of the box (if you’re not from Canada, that may not make sense until I tell you that all packaging in Canada is in English and French, and boxes usually have an English side and a French side). There it says “Javellisant pour non-Javellisables.” French for ‘bleach’ is javellisant, or eau de Javel, or just plain old javel.

Javel! Isn’t that the villain from Les Misérables? No, no it is not, and how dare you fling mud at this fine word.

Well, you wouldn’t be the only one to fling mud at it or besmirch its character. You see, there is an English word javel that is not related to the French javel and it is not sparkling clean. Continue reading


You can carpe diem, or you can carp all day long.

Yes, I know my use of carpe diem as infinitive complement was grammatically incoherent, since it’s an imperative. It’s also a piece of a different language, so don’t be captious.

Which leads to an obviously important question: is carp as in ‘complain’ related to carpe diem and/or to captious? And do fish come into this? The etymology of all this turns out to be about as interwoven as a carpet, and it has threads of many words, but I’ll try to keep focused on an excerpt. Continue reading


How is antimony even an element? Or the name for one? Of all the names on the periodic table, antimony has long seemed to me to be the one that most looked like it wandered into the wrong party.

And I don’t just mean because the chemical symbol for antimony, Sb, has nothing in common with the word. Ha! That’s run-of-the-mill. Gold is Au. Lead is Pb. Mercury is Hg. Antimony’s nextdoor neighbour, tin, is Sn. We all eventually learn that these come from the Latin names for the elements, which are often entirely different: aurum, plumbum, hydrargyrum, stannum. In the case of antimony it’s stibium. But, um, gold and lead and tin don’t look anything like Latin or Greek (mercury does, but then hydrargyrum is obviously running over from Greek). Antimony kind of… does? So why does it need another Latin name? Continue reading


A couple of days ago, Dr. Eugenia Cheng, @DrEugeniaCheng, who is always worth reading, tweeted something that really made me stop and look again:

Omg I occasionally click on the “recommended” articles on my firefox homepage despite my best intentions, and they are universally terrible. I have finally got up the ertia to work out how to stop them appearing.

Ertia! I was, needless to say, plussed. Gruntled, in fact, and entirely combobulated, though a bit chalant. Such a sensical and ept word – and quite feckful and ruly, too. You would expect it to be more inlandish. But it is just not in regular use. Continue reading


You may not like how this ends.

Bran is good for you, right? We make muffins with it. We make cereal with it. Some of us even eat it just as it is – and ready ourselves for a trip to the “throne.” It’s the part of the grain that keeps our system running! Regardless of your moral fibre, you will at least get your physical fibre – that grand old gut feeling – if you’ve got your bran.

But do you like it? Even if you like how it comes out in the end – which will depend entirely on your personal needs – do you like how it goes in? Do you find it flavourful? Or even pleasant? I mean, we’re eating seed husks here. Not all of us are game for that. Continue reading


Negative is a negative word. Right?

Are you positive? Continue reading

What my fingertips tell me of books

Paper, in general, is hard.

We may be used to thinking of paper as soft. It bends, doesn’t it? But take a dozen or a score of pages, a quire or even a ream, and pinch. It doesn’t give. Not most kinds of paper, anyway. Crumple a sheet of printer paper and rub it against your face. Not exactly pillowsome, is it? Run your finger along the edge of a single page. Oops. Feathers don’t cut you like that.

But not all paper meets the fingers the same way. And while the paper in many books is merely functional, cool and flat and impersonal and barely textured under my fingers like an institutional wall, some paper has a rich texture. Some has a soft give. And, yes, some bends more than other. But the bend and the texture and the softness are entirely separate things. Continue reading


This is a word with a lot of get-up-and-go, but all of it has gotten up and gone. Behold a word that is simultaneously an annoyingly clumsy and cute new confection and so old and out of use that even the obelisk declaring its obsoleteness has a layer of dust on it. Thank heavens for historical dictionaries such as my perennial friend the Oxford English Dictionary, which still let me get there to it. Continue reading


Our idea of mothers is very much shaped by the way our own respective mothers were when we were young. My mother, in the 1970s when I was in my most formative years, was winsome, sanguine, sage, easily amused, gastronomically expert, mellifluous of voice, statuesque, and lissotrichous.

No, I did not know the word lissotrichous at the time. I may have been a boy genius and super annoying and all that but come on. Here, though, see her in the summer of 1976: Continue reading