Monthly Archives: September 2019


Hammock. From a Cherokee word meaning ‘to dump abruptly on the ground.’

No, no, I’m kidding. It’s from English ham plus mock and first meant ‘to make fun of a pig.’

Nope, not that either. Sorry. It’s from hummock, which (as everyone knows) means ‘little hill’, from what the damn thing dumps you on when you try to lie in it.

Kidding again. It’s from Hamtramck, the name of the town where it was first… wait… this just in: Nope.

It’s actually from Swedish hammock, which means ‘porch swing’.

Oh. Sorry. Swedish hammock, which means ‘porch swing’ (this is true), is from English hammock.

It is, in fact, from hamhock, which I assume you know, transferred from the netting in which hamhocks are hung to age in barns, attics, garages, or wherever.

Sorry: It is, in falsehood, from hamhock, etc.

Damn, so much hangs on this, and this hangs on so much, and every turn you get dumped in the dirt. Can we put this to rest?


The truth – the real truth, and no kidding now – is that English got it from Spanish hamaca, which got it from Taino (a language of the Caribbean), originally hamaka. And it means…

…a net that is suspended from both ends, for sleeping in.

My first encounter with a hammock was as a little kid. My parents had one (they probably bought it in Mexico, where we lived for a short time, just long enough for me to have a dodgy encounter with a tarantula, from which I got my superpowers). It was the kind that didn’t have a stick across each end to spread the net so you could find your way on. It was just a sort of mesh anaconda: you would lie in it (eventually) and look like the latest meal of a fishnet snake suspended at both ends from two trees.

Of course I got dumped in the dirt more times than I ever actually reposed in it.

But lying swinging in a hammock, once you’re in and comfy, is many a person’s idea of bliss, and with good reason. It’s like being in one of those baby carriers. And you’re out in the lovely warm (one hopes) outdoors, with trees and grass and so on, swinging gently.

Or you’re a sailor in the dark innards of a ship, swinging like a bunch of bananas at every wave. It was sailors, after all, who got hammocks from the Taino, and spread them to other sailors, who used them a lot. Apparently swinging like a bunch of bananas is better than the alternative, which is being dumped on the deck like a defunct squid. Also a hammock can be slung temporarily in limited space.

Oh, incidentally, banana hammock is a slang term for Speedo bathing shorts. I’m not going to explain why. This is a digression and you are free to pretend you never read it.

And no, I don’t know where Taino hamaka came from. Believe me, if I knew, I would tell you. (I know you believe me.) But the hammock was a good invention: it keeps you away from assorted things on the ground that might want to bite you while you sleep.

It would not keep you safe from bears. But it dumps them too.

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive.

Words are known by the company they keep, of course; words that show up most often in texts by or about children will have something of a childish air. But words are also often thought of on the basis of how they sound: we engage in phonetic profiling. If I said “I’m just credging this glivver,” before you find out what credging and glivver mean you might well imagine credging as something involving some effort or strain, and perhaps pushing or scraping, and glivver as something wet, shiny, fishlike, and/or mechanical. This is because credging sounds like dredging, budging, and several words to do with effort or constraint starting in cr– such as crank, crunch, and crush, and glivver sounds like flivver, river, glimmer, and other words related to light that start with gl– such as gleamglitter, and glint.

Words with sound clusters such as “kr–” and “gl–” and a number of others (including “fl–,” “sn–,” “spl–,” “spr–,” “tw–,” “–ump,” “–ash,” “–irl/–url,” and “–op”) have a greater-than-chance tendency to share some aspect of meaning with otherwise unrelated words containing the same sound clusters. These clusters are what linguists call phonaesthemes. They also tend to feel especially vivid – expressive, unrestrained, sometimes even childish. Glowing has one, while radiant doesn’t; snout does, while nose doesn’t; flop has two, while fail has none.

Phonaesthemes aren’t all onomatopoeia, though some are: “splash” sounds rather like a splash, but “glitter” doesn’t sound like glittering – glittering doesn’t have a sound. But they all have some degree of a performative air to them, which is why they seem so lively: their expressivity gains by association with onomatopoeia and sound symbolism (which is the sound associations we have that lead us, for instance, to expect a character named Tika to be smaller than one named Dubo).

But can throwing in a few words like dumpsplay, or snoot really make a text seem less dignified? The answer is yes. I know – I did a detailed study of how words containing phonaesthemes are used in different genres of writing and in different time periods in comparison with other words having the same general sense and length. And what’s most telling is how much some genres avoid them. Any writing where the author would not want to see unduly undignified will have far fewer phonaesthematic words than average. Academic writing in particular avoids them. Newspaper articles used to use very few; now they’ll sprinkle them throughout, tabloids especially. Political speeches avoided them in times past, but now they’ll plop the occasional one in. It doesn’t take more than one or two to add just that little glimpse of glee.

So if you’re at your desk working on a text that could be just a little spunkier, you may already know that you could be more gleeful with gleam than with shine, with slash than with cut, and with swirl than with circle. Now you know why.


Some people, you just don’t know what is going on in their heads. Continue reading


Continue reading


As the Beach Boys sang (more or less), “It’s my little goose poop… you don’t know what I got!” And whatever you may think of filthy lucre (or anyway dirty dollars), thanks to their radio activity, that song surely filled their pockets with a lot of silver. Some of which may have started out as a little goose poop… or at least looked like it. Continue reading


“’A were a chendle, drownin’ now in what erst fueled ’am.”

The character may be from an old book (Ezra Winfield, by Charlotte Anne Mountbank), and speaking in a regional dialect, but you can understand right away the situation and may even get the image. Continue reading

Jimmy’s (Ossington)


Head on back

Click above to listen to this, complete with ambient soundscape!

It’s right next to Sweaty Betty’s. And I’ll bet you’ll walk right past it without noticing it the first time you come. Continue reading