Monthly Archives: March 2020


There are many words that, in saying, intend to imitate the sound of what they name – moo, to give an obvious example – but name me a word that, in saying, imitates the gesture of the thing it names.

Name me another word, I mean. Because today’s word is the obvious example. Yes, you can say “moue” without making a moue; you can even say it with your lips barely parted. But if you really emphasize the gesture, you moue. And if you make a moue and try to say something while doing so, the word you’ll say is most likely moue. It’s like if we called an air kiss a mwah (which sometimes we do).

A moue can be any sort of expression that causes the lips to purse outward: duck face, a grimace of pain at a blow to a sensitive part or of sympathy at seeing someone else receive such a blow, the face some wine tasters make while slurping the wine in their mouths so they can declare that it tastes like leather, tobacco, wet gravel, or cat’s pee. But most often it refers to a pout, often a playful one.

Of course it’s a French word. Making a pouty face playfully is on page one of the French gestural phrasebook. And in case it’s uncertain, I will assure all and sundry that moue is pronounced exactly the same as English moo, even when a French person says it: moue is the French way to spell the sound that in English is spelled moo.

And so you might expect that moue arose when some writer, lacking any more arbitrarily formed word, decided to describe a pursing of the lips with a gestural imitation. You might not expect this word to have an etymology that connects it to other, not identical forms.

So sorry to disappoint you, then. Don’t pout! The forms are similar. The Old French ancestor is moe, and that came not from Latin but from Frankish, a Germanic tongue, where the word (still meaning ‘pout’ or ‘grimace’) is conjectured to have been mauwu. That, in turn, is expected to have come from Proto-Indo-European *-mewH meaning ‘push away’.

So perhaps – perhaps – the word originally did not come from the gesture. Perhaps! But when you have a word that is close enough in meaning, and so well represents a particular sense, it is reasonable that the usage might have shifted and/or narrowed to match what seemed most suitable. It’s a thing we do from time to time.

And now, to make up for any deficit of charm, here is the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that made me think of this word today.

Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez
Envisagé de quelque moue
Pire si le rire secoue
Votre aile sur les oreillers.

Indifféremment sommeillez
Sans crainte qu’une haleine avoue
Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez
Envisagé de quelque moue.

Tous les rêves émerveillés,
Quand cette beauté les déjoue,
Ne produisent fleur sur la joue
Dans l’œil diamants impayés
Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez.

Here’s a translation of sorts, not trying to keep the rhyme (translations are always imperfect… sorry!):

Nothing, on waking, you never have
Considered with a sort of moue
Worse if the laugh should shake
Your wing upon the pillows.

You sleep indifferently
Without fear a breath would admit
Something, on waking, you never have
Considered with a sort of moue.

All the amazed dreams,
When this beauty foils them,
Do not give a flower to the cheek
In the eye diamonds not paid for
Nothing, on waking, you never have.


We usually like it when things are clear, when the sun shines through, when we understand the sense without a shadow of a doubt. But language is not always like that. Sometimes it’s outrageous. And sometimes it’s just… umbrageous. Shadowy, doubtful.

The word umbrageous may look like a less certain sibling of outrageous: you see the rage in the middle but instead of being right out it’s just, um, umb. But the rage is an illusion: outrage is taken from French and formed from outre (you may know outré, naming something that is just too extra), which comes from Latin ultra, ‘beyond’. Likewise umbrageous comes from umbrage, which comes from umbra, ‘shadow’. Yes, when you take umbrage at something, you perceive that you are having shade cast on you – and you can also give umbrage, meaning cast shade on someone, figuratively (or literally).

OK, but which is it? Is it umbrageous to cast shade, or to take shade (umbrage)?


This word has (you knew it was coming) shades of meaning, and meanings of shade. A large tree with broad branches and many leaves is umbrageous: it casts much shadow. And the area underneath it – like the plants that prefer to grow there – is umbrageous: it is in shadow; it takes shadow.

Likewise, if I throw shade on someone – if, for instance, I say of a chef “His restaurant has excellent butter, and the water is nice and cool,” or if I say of a singer “Her recital was a wonderful expedition in search of the lost key” – I am being umbrageous, and if on the other hand someone is inclined to take offense at something I say – such as the time in my lunkish youth I said of a fellow actor’s shirt, “Oh, Le Chateau, that must have cost a lot,” and he replied “Why are you such an aaarsehole” – they are being umbrageous. (And this latter sense is, I should say, the more common.)

Well, sometimes you cast the shadow, and sometimes the shadow is cast on you. Either way, it is – you are – umbrageous. It may seem odd to conflate the cause of shade with its recipient, but remember that the underside of a tree is also in the shade, and that when, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of “The umbrageous loveliness of the surrounding country,” it covered both aspects of the matter.

Of course, people who take umbrage often create their own shade, and so in a way of seeing it are umbrageous in both senses as well – as one L. Hansen wrote in 1802 (thanks to the OED for this, and note the variant spelling), “Most punctilious with respect to forms and Ceremonies: and excessively ombrageous, with regard to the Non-observance of trivial points.”

I am reminded of the word nauseous: on the one hand, it is normally used to mean ‘feeling nausea; queasy; nauseated’; on the other hand, there are people who will inform you crisply that it can only mean ‘causing nausea’, and will imply that you are an illiterate barbarian for using it the way it is nearly always used. Those people, you see, are also umbrageous – in both senses: they take umbrage at the usual usage, and they throw shade at those who use it.


We must moble; we must not be mobile; we must not be mob-led; we must be mobled. So may we be both hobbled and ennobled. Wrap a scarf around your face and giggle demurely; peer past the wool or tulle like a vagabond or mobster or some marbled statue; wait for the time when you may again be emboldened.

I’m sure you, like me, know this word first from Shakespeare, reading Hamlet by the firelight: the prince is watching the players rehearse, and one of them, narrating the fall of Troy, says “But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen—” Hamlet (like many a listener) says “‘The mobled queen’?” and Polonius replies, “That’s good; ‘mobled queen’ is good.” None of which helps you to know what it means.

Nor helps you to know how to say it, by the way. I suspect that you, as I, assumed it rhymed with “nobled.” But no. It rhymes with “hobbled.” And, I say with relief, it is (unlike contumely) the part of speech it appears to be: a past participle, pressed into use as an adjective. The verb is moble, a word uncommon enough that your autocorrect will get into a fight with you over the absence of an i between and l.

And what does it mean? Muffled, scarf-wrapped. I’m sure that wearing a surgical mask counts too. In 1985, A.S. Byatt used it in Still Life: “He remembered this time in very bright, clear primary colours, but all softly muffled, or mobled, as if seen through white veiling.” In 1926, Victoria Sackville-West wrote in Land “How delicate in spring they be / That mobled blossom and that wimpled tree.” And in 1877, the Earl of Southesk was kind enough to use it in Meda Maiden in a way from which the sense may be deduced: “There rested a woman,—close mantled in brown, / Mobled and muffled from sandal to crown.”

Why is said it like it comes from mob? Perhaps it does – one speculative etymology ties it to mob plus the frequentative –le suffix. But perhaps it does not. (Note that mob in turn comes from mobile vulgus, ‘rabble, common people’, and does not show up in English before moble does.) It has a certain kinship with muffle in form as well as sense, and mobble used to be a spelling of it (the one-version prevailing probably because that’s how it was spelled in editions of Shakespeare and that’s where nearly everyone who knows it knows it from).

Well, some things just show up and no one has the last word on how they got there or how they spread. So it is. But if you don’t want them to spread further, you can stay in your bubble, or, if you must venture out in the mob, you can self-moble. You may feel hobbled, but it is more noble.

Book sniffing note: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1964 edition

I first met this set of encyclopedias in 1976, when they were a dozen years old and I was just a bit younger. They were on a bookshelf in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Fredonia, New York. I courted them again and again over three decades: whenever I was visiting and not occupied with other things – setting up domino reactions, blowing soap bubbles, photographing family, seeing local sights, watching television, playing darts in the cool empty basement – I might pull out a volume and look for something to read, just as I would at my own home with the World Book encyclopedias and, later, a much newer set of Britannica with soft covers that smelled of educated leather, a very different smell from any other encyclopedia.

This set travelled with my grandmother to a seniors’ residence. And then, when she was reducing her possessions to those few that would fit in a smaller apartment, I finally took it home with me in a rented car. It has anchored the bottom shelf of my bookcase for about fifteen years now, half of that since its original owner departed in hopes of meeting the source of all knowledge.

I don’t often pull out a volume and open it. I don’t need to; fresher information is available in fire-hose quantity through the same device I’m typing this on, and even the entertainment value of this dinosaur of knowledge is not as great as other options.

But a computer does not feel like a volume of this 1964 set of Britannica. And it certainly does not smell like it.

I have pulled out volume 7, Daisy to Educational Psychology, this evening. It is in good shape, less bumped and broken than some of the others. It feels solid, like a volume you would pull off the shelf in the first library where you learned what solid, smart books feel like. Though it would make a poor pillow, it is as comforting as down and cool, dry linen, inviting you to black-and-white dreams of knowledge. It has a hard cover in a deep red textured material that is at least meant to recall leather. When I open it, it makes a high, resonant creaking-cracking sound, something between a straw slurp and the opening of an ancient coffin from inside.

And then I smell it. Because that is what one does. There is nothing other that plucks the strings of memory as smartly as smell. You don’t know for sure that you are getting the real, authoritative, well-aged knowledge unless it smells like a book from your school library.

And this does. It smells like the grey-suit-with-school-tie version of a book. It is a crisp smell but not sharp, neither flowery nor floury, but partway between an HB pencil and a soda biscuit. It smells like the book where I first learned of logarithms; it smells like the book in which I made my first explorations of the German language. It smells like the official records of things my parents and teachers did. It smells like the elaborate mathematical equations it displays: it is the book-smell version of a schoolchild’s idea of an Ivy League physics classroom. It smells like maps and diagrams and dot-screened documentary photographs as you first learned the smells of such things. It smells like a Christmas morning of the mind.

It is the smell of plywood desks with laminate tops engraved by ballpoint pens; it is the smell of sitting lotus-legged on the hard rug floor between rows of shelves in the library, the comforting cliffs of knowledge towering above you as you relax in the quiet canyon of discovery, secure that no dedicated ignoramus will smoke you out. This one smell conveys structure and potential; it tells you that you are about to know more, and there may be a test.

This smell is the wrapping on a gift from God, the God of knowledge, the God my grandmother surely looked forward to meeting. What sort of a grandmother has a set of Britannica? A tall, graceful, smart, witty grandmother, magazine-model beautiful, lifelong teetotaller, former missionary, small-town western New York pragmatic, widow, high-school teacher. A woman who believed in gifts from God and believed that knowledge was one such. A woman whose name was literally a gift from God: Dorothy, from δῶρον (doron, ‘gift’) and θεός (theos, ‘god’).

And these books are a gift to me from my grandmother. She is ashes now, but this yard and a half of unburnt paper – bought when she was younger than I am now – remains. It takes up space I could use for other things, yes, but that’s what memories do.


Take a bit of twill fabric and rub it between your fingers. It is not so smooth as satin, nor even as a plain weave; it is rough, it has ribs, it has traction. Whether it be cotton, or wool, or even silk, it grips. It does not shine, nor does it whiffle like corduroy as you ruffle it, but ’tis rugged and ready: ’twill serve. It is not a thrill from the mill, but it is twill.

How is it made? It starts one way but then skips ahead. Where in a plain weave your weft (cross thread) goes under your warp (long thread) and then over and then under and then over, in twill it goes under and then over and then over again, and sometimes again: a repeat, a three-peat, maybe even a four-peat. Sometimes it goes under more than once before going over. And the next thread is offset by one alternation, so that a diagonal pattern is formed.

Want to find some twill? Skip your suits and head to your jeans: denim is made with a twill weave. It’s not that twill is never used for formal wear – you’ll see some on the couture runways – but it’s more rugged and less prone to showing stains and smirches.

And the name, twill? So many names of fabrics come from places – denim is from serge de Nîmes, satin is from Zayton (the medieval Arabic name for Quanzhou), tulle is from Tulle. But twill comes from two places: Rome and England.

OK, I’m going diagonal; it’s obviously not a blend of those two place names. It’s just that it started as Latin bilix, from bis ‘twice’ and licium ‘thread’, but then it skipped ahead and turned that bi into two to make Old English twili, which became twilly, which became twill. (There was originally a thrili to go with twili, but it’s all just called twill now.) It’s sort of like how we went from repeat to three-peat – and then back to two-peat.

Two-peat? Yes, that’s in use; I wrote about it years ago. You are free to dislike it, but it is in use, especially among a set of people who wear twill more often than satin, and like it or not, it will serve. And if you will call twill twill, as one does, you have one less basis for objecting to word forms developing diagonally… as ’twere.


Finagle: procure by deceit or trickery. Tangle your fingers into it and snag it away. Or talk it out of someone with your gift of the Blarney.

Supposedly finagle comes from an earlier English word fainague, from French roots meaning ‘act’ (feign) ‘sick’ (ague). Never mind that acting sick has to do with indolence, not with procurement. Never mind that I can only find this word fainaigue as the conjectured etymon of finagle. I’m not saying that there definitely was no such word; I’m just saying “Hmmmmmm.”

The first documented use that I (or Oxford) can find of finagle in its modern sense is a 1926 citation from the USA. Google Books gives me further hits that show it was established in use in the USA (though as a colloquialism not familiar to all readers) by the 1930s, though some claimed it came from England. Oxford seems to think it came first from England but doesn’t produce evidence. Wiktionary presents it as American. There are also a couple of variant spellings, presumably from people who heard the word said and spelled it how they thought it was likely written – phenagle is notable, because it shows the cod-sophistic association of ph.

So can we finagle some kind of explanation for this word’s presence in our language?

I should say that there are earlier hits for Finagle in Google Books. It appears as a name in two works of short fiction of the 1800s. The first, in a volume dated 1821, Winter Evening Tales Collected among the Cottagers in the South of Scotland, by James Hogg, makes it the name of a town in the south of Scotland. The second, appearing first in Scribner’s Monthly in summer 1872, in a story by John S. Barry, makes it an Irish family name. The latter, titled “Shane Finagle’s Station,” is as thorough a slander of stereotypes against the Irish as you would ever wish you had not cast eyes on, and it features an assortment of peasant rogues blathering their way through catechism and confessional before ending with a massive drinkfest. But there’s nothing other than bare resemblance of form to link these Finagles to our word finagle.

Also, there’s nothing in those two fictions to say how the names should be said, and one could easily imagine a stress on the first syllable intended – compare Fingal and Finnegan, after all. With our word today, on the other hand, the stress is decidedly on the second syllable, and phonaesthetically, that makes an important difference.

Consider if the stress were on the first syllable. The word would have the same kind of pattern as miracle or risible or any of a number of other tumbling trisyllabic words with various effect. The most important bit would be the fin. But as it is, that’s just a flick of the fingers as they reach to grasp the main business.

And the main business has a –gle on it, one that has a stressed syllable right before. There are many words of that form in English, some with before the gand some not, but have a look at this selection: boggle, bungle, dangle, dingle, dongle, newfangled, gaggle, gargle, giggle, goggle, gurgle, haggle, inveigle, jangle, juggle, mangle, mingle, muggle, snaggle, spangle, squiggle, straggle, struggle, tangle, tingle, toggle, waggle, wangle. Nearly all of them are formed with the old –le frequentative suffix, used to make verbs referring to repeated action, but there’s something more in many of them: a certain disorder, disarray, loose motion, or chaotic or uncontrolled or messy nature. There are certainly words of the –gle form that don’t match that meaning at all – beagle, eagle, and triangle come to mind – but we form impressions of what senses go with what sounds mainly from general habitual association, and we can always allow exceptions for familiar words.

There is, I am inclined to think, some sense of complication and disorder in what’s meant by finagle. Consider that Webster’s Third New International defines it with reference to other terms that include wangle and swindle, which have similar phonaesthetics (swapping the in for does change things a little, but they differ only in the tongue’s contact point when saying them). It’s not to say that the word sprang up just because the form demanded it! But when people confect terms, the ones they choose and the ones that stick tend to have sounds that catch on for a reason.

And often more than one reason. Let’s be honest: finagle does have a bit of an “Irish” sound to many English-speaking ears, doesn’t it? I don’t think it has any real “French” sound, fainaigue be damned. But the idea that some Blarney-tongued dissolute Finnegan might charm something out of someone by finagling– well, it doesn’t altogether run against English-speakers’ easy-minded stereotypes, and it goes with the –gle association too.

I’m not saying that’s where finagle comes from. I’m not even saying these things definitely had an influence on it. I don’t have data to support the conjecture. But if it had to come down to it, I think it’s an easier idea to talk someone into going with than many another might be.

Cryptic crossword solution

Here’s the solution to the cryptic crossword. If you’d like an explanation for any of the clues, ask away! Continue reading