Monthly Archives: April 2020

Words that glitter and splash

I was to have been presenting on this at the ACES conference in Salt Lake City this year, but, for pandemic reasons, that was cancelled. So the nice people of ACES asked me if I would be interesting in contributing an article to their website on the topic, with a limit of 3000 words. I was happy to do so… and managed to keep it just under the limit! I’m presenting it here as well. This is a longer read than my usual, but on the other hand it’s much shorter than my master’s thesis. Continue reading

Pronunciation tip: Mozart’s operas

It’s been too long since I’ve done a pronunciation tip. So here, to make up for that, are 23 of them. It’s all 23 of Mozart’s operas and opera-like works, with the original language and what you might say in English. I’ve done it in reverse chronological order, since people usually care more about the later ones.

If you’re just looking for a specific one, here are the times for all of them:
0:41 Die Zauberflöte
1:04 La clemenza di Tito
1:23 Der Stein der Weisen
1:44 Così fan tutte
2:58 Don Giovanni
3:39 Le nozze di Figaro
4:02 Der Schauspieldirektor
4:31 Lo sposo deluso
4:50 L’oca del Cairo
5:06 Die Entführung aus dem Serail
5:44 Idomeneo, re di Creta
6:16 Zaide
6:20 Thamos, König in Ägypten
7:06 Il re pastore
7:21 La finta giardiniera
7:49 Lucio Silla
8:06 Il sogno di Scipione
8:26 Ascanio in Alba
8:47 Mitridate, re di Ponto
9:04 La finta semplice
9:18 Bastien und Bastienne
9:37 Apollo et Hyacinthus
9:46 Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots


I grew up in houses, which are about as apart as a dwelling place can be, especially when they’re far out in the country with no one else in sight. Now my wife and I live in the city, so far downtown that downtown is up, with people living all around us, hundreds of them even within wifi radius, and somehow the space we have walled off for us in the middle of all that is an apartment. You’d think they might call the whole building a togetherment, but no. Well, each unit is its own little world, set apart from all the others, except for the noise that leaks through the ceiling, floor, and wall from those on the other side.

Anyway, here’s a poem, in fairly free verse.


Come in, welcome, let me
show you around. This
is the front door closing behind you and
this is the front closet, where
we keep a thousand pounds
of coats, but half of that
weight is dust and dead bugs.
If you push to the back of the closet,
far beyond the jumbled
stack of suitcases and tubes
of awkward wrapping paper, and step
where no foot has set in a decade
and shove through the fabric, you
will enter a different world—
of dead bugs and dust and wall.
And the stacks of boxes will all
collapse behind you and bury you.
Don’t go in there. Come.

Ahead is the door to the bedroom,
where you do not belong. This way.

Here is the guest toilet, with the tap
that is easy to use, except
if you are that one person for whom
it will always fall apart suddenly.
The walls in here are red, as red
as fresh blood, and I recommend
that if you shut the door, you
keep your eyes shut too. No,
we didn’t paint it that colour;
it was the previous owners.

Here is the hall and here
is a cute door that you must
never open, because—wait—no—
oh, ha ha, just kidding, it’s
our washer and dryer. Moving on.

Ahead is a view of the city,
as much of it as you can see,
which is about three blocks, because
all the other buildings
around us are taller. But
if you just press your face
against the window, you
can see the tower. Wait.
Here, this is paper towel
and this is Windex. Please
remove the greasy faceprint
you’ve just made on the glass.

Through that sliding door is
the little solarium, which
is small and contains nothing
that would interest you, just
cameras and boxes and boxes
and chairs and papers. The walls?
Oh, yes, you see that they
are murder red as well. Guess why.
Yes, the previous owners. Move
on, don’t bother, don’t touch that.

You are in the dining room.
You can see that it is part
of the same amorphous space
that is most of the dwelling;
we arbitrarily divide it
into nominal rooms,
each a part apart of apartment,
like Europe divided from Asia or
work time from happy time or
joy from terror, pet
from meat, head from neck.
Oh, now you’ve stepped
out of the dining room. Oh,
now you’re back in. Do you see?
Imagine a line from this shelf
to this liquor cabinet that
is next to my desk here. Look,
this matters. You should always
be able to say where you are. Here,
have a drink. Step this way.

And here, as you pass between
the computer desk Charybdis
and the Scylla of chaise longue,
is the library, so called
because obvious reasons.
Here, sit down, have a chair
that I’ve dragged from the dining room
to set your drink on. Good.
Sit on the chaise longue. No,
you can’t sit on the big
baseball-glove-shaped chair.
Why? It’s mine. Sit. Drink!
The wall? Behind the books? You
can see it? Oh. No, heh, that
was the previous owners.

Sorry, I don’t know. We still
get mail for them, all these
dozen or so years later. Huh.

As you can see from your seat
on the chaise longue, over here
is the kitchen: where the magic
happens. No, no, stay there.
Yes, iron pan, yes, fridge, yes,
knives, only the best, you know,
and behind all those jars are jars.
No. Stay there. You can hear me
well enough as I cook.
There is one thing you should know
about my kitchen, and that is
stay out.

Say, if you’re getting bored
with the view of my three thousand books
while I whip up dinner for you,
here’s a special treat:
let’s go see the view
from the bedroom window. No, really.
It’s OK. I’ll go with you.

Why is that door open?
Yes, still the washer and dryer.

Here is the bedroom, and as
you can see, it is facing the other
way. Ignore those books. Yes,
there is a bed under all that.
Here is the window. See? There
is the island, and the tracks,
and the freeway, and the holes
in which they are going to put
more huge buildings. Yay.
In there is the master
bathroom, but wait, no,
don’t look, it’s, no, wait,
no, you don’t, ah, no, well,
yes, as you can see, there is
a shower and a separate tub,
and some shelves and dust and a sink
and, oh, that wall? Sorry, that
was the previous owners. Now
do come have a sit
and let me refresh your drink
and I’ll go cut some things.


What do you see here? And with what eyes do you see it?

I see these words on my screen with eyes that are myopic and presbyopic, and when I look at what else my screen shows me, my mind tends to hyperopic. I mean that I am nearsighted – I have been since my childhood, when I decided that I would look better with glasses (I was right) and so started reading books close up in low light, and I got what I wanted – and I now have eyes that have gotten old and don’t have as great a range of focus – so I have several pairs of glasses, depending on what I’m planning to do with my eyes, so accessorize your eyes! – and yet when I read what the web sends me I tend to see far-away things with more clarity than nearby ones: I am figuratively farsighted. (However, sometimes what I see makes me turn away and feel sick.)

In politics and planning and other matters of the world it is supposedly good to be farsighted, but of course you need to see near as well, and it is best to have a good range of focus. So really you need to have good focus at all ranges. And you cannot turn away, no matter how sick it makes you feel.

Is there a word for that?

Let’s look at this word emmetropic. Do you discern bits? Your eyes may settle quickly on tropic – we all like to think of warm climes at times, especially if we can’t go to them and it’s not so hot where we’re at – and then you are left with what emme might be. If it were emmet it could mean ants, but I don’t want to see tropical ants, if you don’t mind. How about the Greek root ἐμέω, which shows up in emetic? In that case, since tropic actually refers to turning, and since ἐμέω means ‘I vomit’, emetropic would mean ‘turning and vomiting’. But that’s one m too few, and one emesis too many.

Look again. Broaden your view to take in words such as myopic, presbyopic, and hyperopic, and narrow it from tropic to opic. You see that emmetropic has to do with eyes and sight, and it splits at a seam that’s not at the syllable boundary – sort of like how helicopter is from helico- ‘spiral’ and pter ‘wing’, not from heli ‘sun’ and copter‘absolutely nothing that the Greeks ever talked about’.

OK, but if it’s emmetr- plus opic (and it is), what is emmetr-? It is from ἔμμετρος emmetros, from ἔν en ‘in’ plus μετρος metros ‘measure’. So emmetropic means ‘having sight in [good] measure’, or ‘having emmetropia’, where emmetropia is ‘sight in [good] measure’ – in other words, having eyes that are in focus at all distances (save, of course, too damn close, which we can define as so close you might accidentally get what you’re looking at in your eye). The New Sydenham Society Lexicon, quoted by the OED, defines emmetropia as “The normal or healthy condition of the refractive media of the eye, in which parallel rays are brought to a focus upon the retina when the eye is at rest and in a passive condition.”

Parallel rays, like parallel lines, like the parallel tracks of a metro or the stems of mm. And of course as you look closer and your eyes change focus, the lines converge. Which is good. Because parallel lines never meet, and everything that involves seeing well enough to change anything eventually involves getting close enough to meet.

And how is that realized with our real eyes? …We’ll see. Just keep focus and don’t turn away.


Are you dwelling on what you’re dwelling in?

These days we seldom tell of dwelling, unless in a compound such as city-dwelling. The word dwell with its related forms is dwindling; it seems almost to have gone astray somewhere. We talk of where we live, of our home, of our house, of our residence. We reside there. But dwell? It’s more of a special-use word.

It has a holy overtone to it, dwell, thanks to its frequent use in the King James Bible. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever,” the 23rd Psalm concludes. The 24th Psalm tells us “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” At the time of that translation, reside had not overtaken dwell, nor was live so commonly used for this narrower sense.

But as Tennyson wrote,

In me there dwells
No greatness, save it be some far-off touch
Of greatness to know well I am not great.

All is not holy with this word, and its past is not so blessed. Let us turn from psalms to a palindrome:

Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel.

You know that’s old, not just because it cheats with the & but because it spells dwel with one l, a form disused for a half a millennium now: our old monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words ending in /l/ have all doubled it up, hell, well, bell, smell, fill, kill, fall, roll, dull, and so on, dwelling just a little longer with the benefit of more easily distinguishing lfrom any other slender grapheme.

But how does one dwell evilly, whether with one l or two? Is not a dwelling good, or at least neutral?

In fact, dwelling was, at one time, more evil than good. We would do well to dwell on this detail for a few minutes.

It is not that we were all nomads and did not want to be boxed in. It is that the word itself was in a bad neighbourhood. We get a clue to this in the fact that we can speak of dwelling on something, which is related to the fact that dwell also refers to the time a train (especially a subway train) spends stopped in a station. Dwell meant – and in some usages still means – ‘tarry’, ‘hang back’.

Which is not intrinsically evil, of course. But if you are not going forward, then you are not going forward on the right path, a fact many a subway rider will be sensitized to if their train dwells a minute too long. And the relation between “not going anywhere” and “not going on the right path” is the core of the early history of this word.

A millennium ago, to dwell someone was to lead them astray, and so to dwell yourself – or just to dwell – was to go astray. This sense of the word came from a Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as *dwaljaną meaning ‘delay’ or ‘hold up’ or ‘be confused’ or ‘perplex’ and a closely related word *dwelaną meaning ‘go astray’. And that is the ambivalence at the root of dwell: to go no rightly, or just not to go rightly.

The English use of dwell (or earlier spellings) meaning ‘abide’ or ‘continue in a state, place, or action’ was established by about 800 years ago, and there it has dwelt ever since. It gained the sense ‘reside’ by the 1300s, and dwelling meaning ‘residence’ was in use before 1400. The usage dwell on meaning ‘linger’ or ‘brood over’ or ‘sustain a musical note’ was in place by the 1400s. And no one has seen the ‘lead astray’ or ‘go astray’ sense since about the same time. You may recall being told, in your childhood, “If you don’t know where you are, stay there”; the history of these two senses supports that: the ‘stay’ one has been found, and the ‘go’ one has been lost.

And that is how a word can have meant both ‘go astray’ and ‘stay at home’. Words are full of possibilities, and poetic words even more so, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior—for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of eye—
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors—the fairest—
For Occupation—This—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

For Paradise is not a fixed, complete, perfect place and state; just as infinity is always increasing at infinite speed, or it would not be infinity, creation must ever be creating, truth must be ever adapting and updating, and meaning must ever be multiplying to stay meaningful. And if this means that it encompasses movement and non-movement, good and bad, so be it.

It also encompasses you being in something and something being in you. As we are learning, there is incessant discovery and revision in our dwellings and dwelling in us. Denise Levertov brought us the truth in “Matins”:

Marvellous Truth, confront us
at every turn,
in every guise, iron ball,
egg, dark horse, shadow,
of breath on the air,
in our crowded hearts
our steaming bathroom, kitchens full of
things to be done, the
ordinary streets.

Thrust close your smile
that we know you, terrible joy.


Beautiful bread.

Everyone is baking beautiful bread. Just look at those loads of lovely loaves. Home is where the hearth is, and the hearth – or the oven, rather – is the right place for baking. As we are stuck at home, while some of us just rise and loaf all day, many of us choose to let the dough rise and then the bread loaf: all they need is all they knead. Boulevardiers are become boulangers, and the cosmopolitan is replaced by the calliartian.

Yes, there it is, you’ve been waiting for it long enough: calliartian. Of, about, pertaining to, consisting of, or consuming beautiful bread. From Greek καλλίαρτος kalliartos, from κάλλος ‘beautiful’ and ἄρτος ‘bread’. Just as callipygian means having well-shaped buttocks, which is to say beautiful buns, so calliartian means having… beautiful buns. Or lovely loaves: fine focaccia, beguiling baguettes, seductive sourdough, even pretty pitas.

Well, you do you. In a house with just the two of us, we would become overloaved quite quickly (there are also other factors I will leave aside). I am instead spending my time coming up with things that are perhaps less aromatic but surely have longer shelf-life. Like this word. Yes, it’s a new old word; no, the Greeks didn’t have a word for it – they had κάλλος and ἄρτος but not καλλίαρτος, at least as far as I know. Well, just consider this a late riser – and don’t call it half baked. You know you knead it.


This word looks like it is to hope as dopey is to dope, or as happy is to hap (which, if you’re not sure, is roughly synonymous with luck), or as snippy is to snip, or as jumpy is to jump.

And yeah, it is.

But wait! We have a word hopeful. Why do we need hopey if we have hopeful?

Well, heck. Why do we have both cheerful and cheery? Why both lustful and lusty? Why both masterful and masterly?

And why both bountiful and bounteous, both joyful and joyous, both dutiful and duteous, both deceitful and deceptive, both lawful and legal? Each of these pairs of words could be covered by one word with a wider ambit of sense. Frankly, they’re used in overlapping ways as it is.

But why do you have so many different mugs in your cupboard? Why so many spoons of different designs in your drawer? Why so many functionally fungible belts or ties or scarves in your wardrobe? Why do I have both a chef’s knife and a carving knife, why do I have wine glasses of at least eight different shapes, why do I have almost a dozen 50mm lenses that can go on the same camera?

I mean, some languages get by with a spare, konmari-style vocabulary, while English gets by with a vocabulary that is as restrained, elegant, and tidy as the mansion of a millionaire kleptomaniac hoarder. But there’s always somelittle difference between words, even if just a subtle one of tone or form.

Don’t tell me you can’t sense a difference between hopeful and hopey. Heck, the rhyme with dopey and the echo of happy give hopey a distinct tone right away. Hopeful is a clear future-oriented state: you have an expectation, or at least a sense of probability, that some particular desire will be fulfilled. Hopey is more of… a mood, a general disposition. You feel good about how things are going. There was a lot of that when Barack Obama first took office, for instance (especially thanks to his famous HOPE poster). But any time you’re in a mood that’s the opposite of dreading or worrying…

Of course, we know the distinction between truthful and truthy. There is the risk of hopey leaning the same way, but don’t forget that truth is something that is conceived as externally verifiable, whereas hope is an internal state, and it’s harder to say how it would be faked. Maybe just weakened: “I wasn’t entirely hopeful… just hopey.” But that doesn’t contradict the more general sense.

Don’t bother pulling out (or surfing to) a dictionary to check what it says; you won’t find hopey in most of them. But it does exist as a word! You can find it on Urban Dictionary (I mean, yeah, you can find a lot of completely fake words there too, but…). And it has shown up in a few other places. I claim no invention. It’s out there. Can’t you feel it?

Doesn’t everyone want to feel hopey? If we can find a reason to?