Monthly Archives: June 2020

Pronunciation tip: Canada’s provinces, territories, and main cities

Pronunciation tip: Canada’s provinces, territories, and main cities

July 1 is Canada Day, and so in honour of that, I’ve done a video about the names of all the provinces and territories and their capitals and largest cities. If you’re not Canadian and intend to talk about Canada, you will probably find this useful. If you are Canadian and know how to say all these names, you may still find this useful because I say where all the names are from. I bet you don’t know! Hint: It’s mostly rivers, lakes, and Queen Victoria’s family.

The performance of a text

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada

If someone says “How about some music,” and you say “Sure – Beethoven’s fifth?” do you think they’ll be happy if you just hand them a printed copy of the score?

A musical score is intended to be performed, and you don’t have a performance without musicians and a conductor – and the stage and lighting crew. And any two performances will be different, at least slightly and sometimes significantly.

A novel or a short story – or a nonfiction book or article – is, on the other hand, a finished work. You sit down, you read it, you get the same thing every time. Right?

Ha, no.

We’re all editors here, so we know how many pairs of eyes and hands have worked on a text before it’s published. But we might casually assume that once the wording is finalized and all the errors are fixed, the text is done and all printed versions are fungible.

Even though we know it’s not true.

We know it’s not true because we know that reading a nicely laid-out print magazine version of an article is a different experience than reading a text flow of it on a website. We know, if we’re proofreading, what a difference some seemingly small things can make – misalignments, for instance, or bad breaks.

And we also know it’s not true because when we’re shopping for books, if there are several different editions of the same work, we will choose carefully between them. Just as we may choose between a performance of Beethoven’s 5th that is fast-paced and percussive and one that is more stately and smooth, we may likewise choose carefully between two editions of, say, Jane Eyre. One of them might be on pulp paper in a casewrap hardcover with a photo on the cover and a small, tight type face with narrow margins and no paragraph indents, while the other might be a trade paperback with a stylish minimalist cover, creamy, durable paper, and well-set type in a graceful face. You’ll get the same story, sure, but you won’t get the same feeling from reading it – about the story or about yourself.

A book is a performance of a text. So is a magazine layout of an article. So is this website’s presentation of this article you’re reading now.

Different performances differ in so many details. If it’s a website, are there pictures? How wide is the text column? Is it cluttered with ads? What font is it in? If it’s a book, does it feel cheap or luxurious? Is it light or heavy, soft or hard? What does the cover look like? Do you like the type face? Is it easy to read in low light? Do the pages turn easily? And, for heaven’s sake, how does it smell?

Does all this seem peripheral to the actual text? Tell me this, then: if you’re buying an audiobook, does it matter whether it’s read by Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Waits? Helen Mirren or Siri? You’re getting the same story, right?

Sure you are. But a different performance. And the difference between type faces in which you read Sherlock Holmes stories can be as affecting as the difference between Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock and Basil Rathbone’s. The difference in page layout, paper, and binding can make as much difference as the set design of a production of a play. The page is a stage – or a concert hall.


Mike Mallet leaned back in his desk chair, swirled the ice cubes in his glass of cheap Scotch, took a slug, and leveled his eyes at the peculiar man sweating in his direction from the other side of the desk. “Mister Brainum, you won’t be seeing your clown in centre ring again.”

“I… understand there was some sort of mishap?” Brainum said, wringing his handkerchief. He dabbed his forehead with it and went back to wringing it.

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Mallet said, and leaned forward over his desk, “he was jugulated.”

“I… oh! I…” Brainum did two more cycles of dabbing and wringing. “I…” He took his spectacles in his hand and inspected them. At length he put them back on his face and looked up. “What does that mean?”

“Well, we came in, and found him on the floor with a considerable mess: broken eggs, a broken pitcher, and… Bonzo wasn’t looking in top form either.”



Brainum smiled faintly. “His name is Ziggy.”

“Well,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and tilted into his mouth an ice cube, which he crunched for a few seconds. “I think he was more zaggy by the time we found him.”

“It’s because he was a Libra,” Brainum said.

“…You’ve lost me.”

“Greek for Libra is ‘Zygos’,” Brainum said, more-or-less accurately.

Mallet nodded sagely, pulled open a low drawer in his desk, pulled out a bottle of whisky, and refilled his glass. He drank the glass down, refilled it again, and put the bottle back. “I did not expect to be learning Greek today,” he muttered as he shoved the drawer shut.

“But what happened?” Brainum said. He patted his jacket pockets as he spoke and found that he did not, in fact, have a flask on him, or a cigarette, or anything at all.

“Well, we think he was juggling some eggs…”

“Oh, ‘jugulated’,” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “It was interesting that he seemed to have dropped them just as they were in a perfect alignment—”

“A syzygy!”

“He might have done better with a squeegee.”

“‘Syzygy’ is also related to ‘Zygos’,” Brainum offered helpfully.

Mallet looked at him the way he would look at a raccoon trundling past a picnic table. He lifted his glass and then didn’t drink any of it. “We thought the smashed pitcher had something to do with it…”

“Smashed picture?” Brainum said.

“Pitcher,” Mallet said, and set his glass down. “Jug.”

“Oh, jugulated!” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “And it turned out that the pitcher didn’t hit him. He knocked it over as he fell.”

“So what… how… jugulated?” Brainum said, and dabbed his forehead, and wrung his hanky.

“You don’t know much Latin, do you, mister?”

“No,” Brainum said. “It’s all Greek to me.” He let out a quick squeaky laugh that he quickly stifled into a hiccup.

“You know what this is?” Mallet drew his fingertip across his collar bone.

“Eczema?” Brainum said.

“The collar bone,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and, eyes fixed on Brainum, pointedly drank 1.25 ounces of Scotch in a gulp. “The yoke.”

“Zygos!” Brainum said.

“In Latin, ‘jugulum’. I’m sure the Latin is related to the Greek.” He was right, as usual.

“He broke his collar bone?”

“Do you not know what the veins that go right past it are?” Mallet leaned forward, the veins in question bulging in his neck.

Brainum shrunk back and clutched his handkerchief until the blood all went out of his knuckles. “Uh… jugular?”

Mallet flopped back and raised his hands in hallelujah position. “Someone came up behind him and slashed his neck through the jugular veins. Jugulated him.”

Brainum’s eyes popped wide open like two overboiled eggs. “Jugulated means…” He shakily drew his finger across his throat in the classic gesture. Mallet responded with an emphatic thumb-up, a gesture which, by the way, in the Roman circus meant ‘Yes, go ahead and dispatch your opponent. Jugulate him, impale him, whatever!’

Brainum suddenly knitted his brows. “But… how did you not see that right away?”

“It didn’t take long to notice it,” Mallet said. “But all the eggs had landed right on top of his clavicle, obscuring the matter at first.”

“Oh…” Brainum said. He hiccup-giggled. “The yolk was on him!”

Mallet leveled his eyes on Brainum, to the extent possible. Then he shoved his glass across the desk. “Here. I think you need this.”


This is an odd-looking word, isn’t it? It has a form that you don’t expect, with that cb together (not referring to citizens’ band radio, of course), and it’s not obvious where the stress should go. It’s like a basis with no basis in reality because what is parec, is it like paregoric? I bet a lot of people have trouble with it, except maybe not if not a lot of people have ever used it. But I don’t intend to go fishing here. This word is an odd duck but I don’t mean it’s plunging its bill into the water to pull out odd fish…

Where was I? Oh, right. This word parecbasis. It seems perhaps most akin to parabasis, if you’ve ever seen that word (it’s when the chorus in a Greek drama gets its own turn to address the audience directly), and parabasis has the stress on the antepenultimate syllable (third last), just like anabasis, which is a word for an expedition from the coast into the interior of a country and is the title of the most famous book by Xenophon.

But I digress. If we look in the Oxford English Dictionary (which is probably where you’re looking if you’re even seeing this word, to be honest), we see that the historical citations are… well, as the OED’s note says, “Though the sense is clear, it is interesting that almost all early uses evidenced involve transmission errors.” Transmission errors? Well, it’s just that there’s a 1584 citation that has it as parecuasis, and a 1589 citation that says “Parecnasis, or the Stragler,” and a 1599 that spells it pareonasis, and a 1678 that puts it as parechasis.

But then there’s the 1989 citation from Modern Language Notes (modern! this is ancient Greek, really) that says “It is the absolute of irony, of the parecbasis, the function of the relentless play of language and thought scrutinizing, among other things, their own staging.”

So is parecbasis language scrutinizing its own staging? Are all those other spellings just the word standing in front of its wardrobe mirror trying on outfits before settling on the one it’s gone out in? …I mean, maybe, but really the par is from para, παρα-, ‘beyond’, and the rest is from ἔκβασις, ‘go out, digress’. And the word means not so much self-scrutiny, or trying on different looks, but just wandering off topic. As the 1678 quote says, “a digression, in Rhetorick, it is a wandering in discourse from the intended matter.” To quote a Monty Python sketch, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so anyway, I said to her, I said, they can’t afford that on what he earns, I mean for a start the feathers get up your nose, I ask you…”

But if you want to know more about something you can always start with Wikipedia, right? This is a rhetorical term (or a term for a rhetorical failure rather than a rhetorical figure), and Wikipedia is replete with articles on rhetoric. And Wikipedia does have an article on Parecbasis. I’ll quote it in full:

Parecbasis is a genus of freshwater fish in the family Characidae. It contains the single species Parecbasis cyclolepis, found in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru.


You know, I really epxose myself to risk writing this blog. I make much of my living corecting and otherwise tiyding up people’s prose, and any typo or other slipu-p I make in writing is here on pubic display. Every pecadilo is like cutting open a vien and spiling my copruscles and sphalma.

No, no, not plasma. I really did mean sphalma. All the other errors in that paragraph are mere samples, a few shreds of the sphagnum of orthographic mishaps that afflict even the best and most careful of us from time to time. And of course I make a bit of my income tidying it up for other people – but I don’t have a budget to hire someone else to tidy it up for me! (Fortunately a few people volunteer unbidden to let me know of my errors.)

What is a sphalma? In Greek, σϕάλμα is a noun meaning ‘false step, stumble’, or ‘fall, failure’, or ‘error, fault’. In English, when it’s used (as it seldom is), it means, according to Oxford, “An error or slip in writing or copying.”

That’s a pretty broad definition. It includes not just typos but a whole sphere of faults. Usually if you put, for instance, stationery for stationary (or vice versa), and someone says “You have an error,” you might defensively say “Oops, it’s a typo,” because you’re miffed that they seem to think you don’t know the difference and you want to make sure they know it’s a mere fault of reflexes, not a deficiency in your knowledge. But if I make a sphalma, it may be my fault, but it’s not my failing.

What’s more, sphalma sounds like some biological thing, either a bodily fluid or some kind of small-scale crawly slimy entity. So people who speak of it can direct their disgust at the word rather than at the person who generated the textual mishap. And a proofreader can hang out a shingle: SPHALMA EXTERMINATOR.


I was sitting outside working the other day when a ladycow came for a visit. It alit on the table next to my computer, then crawled up the side of the case and paused for a respite at the top; at last, and suddenly, it flew away.

“Wait,” I hear you saying. “That’s not a ladycow, that’s a…”

…a what? What you call it depends on where you’re from. If you’re from Canada or the US, you probably call it a ladybug. If you’re from England or most of the rest of the English-speaking world, you probably call it a ladybird. A few people call it a ladycow, or even a cow-lady, and some at least used to call it a ladyfly.

All of these names have something in common with pineapple: they are compounds of two roots, neither of which correctly names the object.

A ladycow is, of course, neither a cow nor a lady. When you call it a ladybird, it is still not a bird. And, strictly speaking, it is also neither a fly nor – at least in the entomologists’ sense – a bug. It’s a beetle! A pretty little red beetle. A member of the Coccinellidae family, which is so named because of their scarlet colour; if you go down the rabbit hole of the etymology of Coccinellidae you arrive eventually at Greek κόκκος, which refers to a grain, seed, or berry, but especially a scarlet berry, or the colour scarlet, or a dye made from crushing scarlet beetles.

I said that the names were compounds of two roots, but really lady is itself originally two roots: it comes from Old English hlæfdige, ‘loaf-kneader’. This little beetle that visited me did make some gestures a bit like kneading a loaf while it was resting, but many insects do that, and it’s not exactly what this one is known for. So why all this lady? It’s referring to Our Lady, the Blessèd Virgin Mary, who was sometimes depicted wearing scarlet and who, though immaculate, had seven sorrows, which are reflected by the seven spots (maculae, you could say) on the best-known kinds of ladybug. Some other languages have similar associations for it: German Marienkäfer and Spanish mariquita name it for Mary; Russian божья коровка names it for God; Dutch lieveheersbeestje names it for the “dear lord” (lord, by the way, comes from hlæfweard, ‘loaf-guardian’ – you see, nobles really are well bread!).

OK, but why bird? Well, it does fly… and some regional German and Swedish names for it call it a ‘hen’. And it’s so much prettier than the average insect, no? As lovely to see as a bird?

OK, but why cow?

I mean, uh… why not… ? Cows eat grass and, uh…

Well, ladycows mostly don’t eat grass. Most kinds of them eat smaller insects, such as aphids. (Some years ago, a surplus of aphids in Ontario’s wine region led to a surplus of ladybugs, which in turn lent a marked flavour to the wine, because you can’t easily remove them all from the grapes before crushing. No word on whether they made the wine redder at the same time.) So they’re pretty, and they eat insects… how about ladyfrog? No? Some frogs look awfully similar. Well, then, why not ladycat?

But neither of those has been used. Ladycow, on the other hand, showed up in the 1500s and is apparently still used on occasion.

I’ll say this: I’m sure glad it wasn’t any other kind of cow stepping all over my computer.


I almost always look away when I unknot a knot. I let my fingers find it, feel the way, untangle, seek the loose parts and the windings, pull. The sight of an unknotting is always so… messy. It seems like there’s more there than there is. It always looks impossible.

All of life is tying knots and unknotting. Some ties that bind are blest, and we want them to stay strong. Some hold sails in place; some keep ships from drifting and window-washing stages from plummeting. But some keep hands and arms straining behind backs. Some hold legs together so they cannot run. Some help one person take another where they do not want to go.

Some knots are held together by friction. Threads meet threads and, though their paths are different, they come together and can’t ignore each other, can’t let go. Others hold by resistance. They will not let a thing go as long as their fibres have enough… fibre.

Some knots are ugly, yes, but beautiful knots are tidy and fascinating. Loose ends, on the other hand, are free but may seem sloppy. Nonetheless, sometimes you have to get from one to the other: sometimes you must unknot. And you can’t always have Alexander come and swing his sword to cut the knot as he did in Gordion. Some cords must stay whole.

Every year at the office, we would decorate the Christmas tree. Every year, this started with the untangling and unknotting of the strands of decorations. One year, a beautiful string of miniature gift boxes had gotten so knotted that I spent more than a half an hour unknotting it, pulling each twist and tangle apart, until at last it was a long lovely spangling string of presents. The next year, a colleague pulled it from the box and, finding it knotted again, simply pulled it apart, snap, snap, snap. Then we had many small boxes, utterly disconnected from one another and never again to be related, and we had a pile of knots that were still tied and would always remain tied, disconnected connections, nothing but a pile of trouble rubble on the floor. I will never not be sad about that.

This word, unknot, seems to have a knot in it. Consider: if you spelled it as we say it, it would be unnot. Then you wouldn’t have that k in the way, standing like a post with two ropes tied to it, daring you to foolishly pronounce it. But if it were unnot, we would more likely say the nn just as /n/, as in tunnel and linnet. So the k, ungainly as it is, serves as a knot not keeping the two together but keeping them distinct while together.

Of course the k is not a knot; it goes with knot. And in the mists of history it was pronounced, too. In Old English the word was cnotta, and you would say the c as “k”; it came from the same Germanic source as German Knoten, Dutch knot, and Swedish knut, among others, all of which keep the “k.” The Proto-Indo-European source is speculated to be *gnod-, which is also the source of Latin nodus, ‘knot’, source of node and nodule and the French word for ‘unknotting’, dénouement. English speakers are not the only ones who dropped the stop at the start. Be we can still see it there, a decorative hitch.

When I watch the world, I see many things, big and small, being unknotted. Some are bends and splices that hold people together, and hitches that make things function, and their undoing will hasten our own undoing; we should be glad they are so hard to pull apart. But there are also binding ropes centuries old that are at last being let free, and no Alexander can come and slice, because the rope that was used to hold captive will be needed to hoist sail. The slow, messy process of pulling apart with hands and fingers takes time and looks terrible while it is happening, but we cannot not unknot.

yuky, yekth

You know why I spend so much time online? ’Cuz I’m yuky.

Not yucky! Yuky! I have a yekth to know!

Look, scratch that. …No, I don’t mean disregard it. I mean scratch it. It’s a yuke. Which means an itch. That should be obvious, right?

Here’s how it goes. Yuky (that’s with a long u) is a word that (as of 1921, anyway) is supposedly still used in Scottish and northern English dialects to mean ‘itching’ or, by extension, ‘itching to know’; it comes from yuke, ‘itch’, noun and verb. Yekth is an obsolete form of the word with a ­-th signifying a health condition (pruritus, i.e., itchiness). All of those and itch are from the Old English word for ‘itch’, giccean, which in its turn comes from a Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as *jukjǭ, which is also the source of Dutch jeuk (‘itch’, noun) and German jucken (‘itch’, verb).

I’m sure at this point you’re altogether yuky to find out how giccean became both yuke and itch. The first thing to know is that in Old English – like in modern Italian – c before i or e was said like “ch” as in child (in fact, the Old English word for ‘child’ is cild). This is because in Old English, c was “k,” but before those high front vowels the tongue’s point of closure moved forward, so far forward that it had increased constriction even after saying it, and ultimately it became like “ch” (try saying “cute” really really emphatically and you may begin to get a sense of how this could happen). That’s also how Classical Latin c, which was always “k,” got to the “ch” of Vulgate Latin and Italian. (Later on, English respelled that sound as ch and picked up the French style of making c sound like “s” in the same position. Old English didn’t have the letter k and French seldom uses it, so by the time it got into heavy use in English that business was all over, and on the other hand English didn’t get into the Scandinavian style of making klike “sh” or the ch in German ich before high front vowels.)

The second thing to know is that the same thing happened to g, except in Old English (unlike in Modern English) it didn’t stop at “j”; it released even further and continued on to a “y” sound, which is also what it does in Swedish before high front vowels. Some languages (including some Latin American varieties of Spanish) treat the “j” and “y” sounds as interchangeable. I’ll skip the details of what happened to it in English after that, because it’s not a short digression, but if you’re yuky about it you can Google it easily enough.

The third thing to know is that while the Old English word didn’t have an “u” or “ü” sound in it, it had passed through “ü” on the way from “u” to “i” (I hope it’s easy to see how that could progress), and other Germanic languages still had the “u,” and that seems to have influenced the yuke version.

So. Got that? The Old English word giccean was pronounced like “yitchan,” but the c was considered to be a “k” that before e and i got a little scratchier (this is also why in yekth it’s a k), and the i came from a u that was brought back in the northern version. The g was said like “y” and in the southern version (which became the standard version) disappeared altogether (you can see how “yitch” could become just “itch,” right?).

By the way, Old English did have a word that sounded like “itch.” It’s the word ic, which was the first-person singular pronoun – in other words, I. Yes, yes, I was surprised and doubtful the first time I learned that – surely the c would be like “k” or like German ch, no? No. – but that is what you get when you are yuky about language. Yekth, that’s right.


The chemical composition of many things is much more complex than we suspect, and the same goes with words.

We typically think of words as pure, simple things made up of the sound (specific individual sounds put in sequence and said with a particular rhythmic pattern) and the sense (what the word denotes and how it’s used in a sentence). Some people are also aware that the sense includes not just denotation but connotation (just as a violin and a fiddle are the same instrument but occupy different status positions). But, oh, it’s all so much more complex than that.

The sounds, for instance, are not at all distinct; they flow together and we divide them into bits in our heads. And what we think of as the same sound in two different places will often be two perceptibly different sounds (for instance, the /æ/ in back is thought of as the same sound as in bag but most of us say the /æ/ in bag with the tongue a bit higher and more forward).

The sense is even more complex. It’s not just that a word has a certain tone, and is typically used in certain places with certain other words; it can also embody a certain ideology, which we usually won’t stop to question or even think about. It’s like a secret ingredient – an undisclosed chemical.

What do you think of when you hear the word chemical? What words do you associate with it? Does it go with toxic, artificial, industrial? Does it go against natural, pure, healthy? If I search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I find that frequent phrases using it include chemical weapons, toxic chemicals, hazardous chemicalsharmful chemicals, dangerous chemicals, exposure to chemicals, chemical or biological weapons

We have an ideology of “pure” versus “impure,” which also ties into “natural” versus “unnatural” and “healthy” versus “unhealthy.” Things we call “chemicals” are in general thought of as bad, artificial, unhealthy, unnatural, impure… But how do you get a chemical, and what is its composition? It’s a particular molecule that you can name, right? Ammonium chloride, para-aminobenzoic acid, ethyl mercaptan, sodium monofluorophosphate… How do you get those? By, uh, some process that, uh, extracts them or synthesizes them from other chemicals and purifies them by…


Well, yes, the things we think of as chemicals are generally individual molecules, and that means that they have had other things that are not them taken away. They are purified.

But still, chemicals aren’t pure and natural, right? Because they’re not purely natural. They’re taken away from nature.

So something gets to be purely natural by not being purified. Hmm, OK.

But what is natural? How about water? A bit of nice H2O? Well, of course, the water we drink has lots more in it than dihydrogen oxide, just as the air we breathe always has many different things in it (and you wouldn’t want it to be pure oxygen! in fact, it’s mostly nitrogen). Some of the things we get in our air and water aren’t so great for us, true, and distilled water is purer, um… but…

OK, what is not a chemical? Your all-natural fruit juice doesn’t have chemicals, right? Your body doesn’t have chemicals in it if you don’t put chemicals in it, right?

Have you heard of the famously hard pre-med university course often called “orgo”? It’s a course in organic chemistry. Which means, among other things, the chemical reactions going on in our bodies every moment of our lives, and in all other living things too. The things that happen in cells are fantastically complex and involve the interactions of numerous molecules with very long names. Look up “Krebs cycle” and brace yourself.

And it’s all chemicals. Your body isn’t just full of chemicals; if you took out all the chemicals, there wouldn’t be any body left. Bones and teeth? Calcium is a chemical element, and the various compounds it’s in are chemical compounds. Water? A chemical. Cells? Lots and lots of molecules, every one of which is a chemical compound.

If you want to limit the meaning of chemical to things that have been artificially extracted from organic things, then the sodium chloride in your body isn’t a chemical but the iodized salt you put on your food is, and the wine you drink is, and the sausages you eat would have to be, and… And if you say that wine isn’t a chemical, do you say that rubbing alcohol is? If not, why not? And if so, what’s the line? Is vodka a chemical? Is cheap vodka a chemical but expensive vodka not? Is acetic acid a chemical when used in processing film but not when it’s in vinegar? Is hydrochloric acid a chemical except for when it’s in your stomach?

There’s no hard line. Because there’s no line at all. It’s just how you want to think of it – and how you want other people to think of it. In other words, ideology. And marketing, too: if someone is talking about “chemicals,” ask yourself what they’re trying to sell you.

No matter how much or how little processed, everything is chemicals. If you eat a hot pepper, for instance, you’re eating very complex chemicals in very complex arrangements. And if someone takes hot peppers and processes them to get capsaicin, and purifies it as much as possible, it’s a chemical. If they mix it with water or alcohol or both, that’s all chemicals too. And every substance out there, however terrifyingly “unnatural,” started out at some point as something (or several things) from nature, because of course it did, where did you think it all came from, magic?

It’s true that some chemicals are more toxic than others, but that’s not a question of how “natural” they are or not; purified botulin toxin and purified cobra venom are more toxic than their less purified “natural” versions (which, however, are plenty toxic enough, thank you), but “natural” water can be much more toxic than its more purified versions, and many alcoholic beverages are distilled (purified) from grain or fruit mashes that would be much more toxic.

Speaking of processing, by what process has this word chemical arrived as an ingredient in English? Where does it come from? You get a clue from the ch, which often shows up in Greek words that have passed through Latin. And that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Our various chem- words (chemistry, chemical, etc.) are derived from alchem- words (notably alchemy); the al- was removed in a sort of linguistic biochemistry. But that al- tells you something about where it’s from: when you see a word starting with al-, such as algebra and alcohol and albatross, there’s a pretty good chance it came from Arabic, where al means ‘the’ but has been borrowed over with the root. Such is the case here too.

So it’s really an Arabic word! Well, yes, it comes from اَلْكِيمِيَاء‎ (al-kīmiyāʾ). But Arabic got it from Ancient Greek, χημεία (khēmeía). And that in turn came from from χύμα (khúma, ‘fluid’), which traced to χέω (khéō, ‘I pour’). Which, farther back, came from a Proto-Indo-European word provisionally reconstructed as *ǵʰew-, ‘pour’. And we’re not sure where that came from. No point in purifying it further… or, wait, doesn’t the refinement move forward in time? Or…

Well, no, it’s not more or less pure, it’s just change. The sense has shifted too; alchemy had a lot to do with trying to turn base metals into gold, but it also had to do with pharmaceuticals – distilling natural compounds into more effective versions, like getting acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) from tree bark, or morphine from poppies, or, for that matter, capsaicin from hot peppers.

So if someone tells you something isn’t a chemical, or doesn’t have chemicals in it, stop to think about what they’re trying to feed you. Because the secret ingredient is ideology.


In the news recently was an item about a young man who was planning to bomb some cheerleaders – apparently because he resented the fact that they didn’t want to have sex with him – but in the process of making the bomb he blew his hand off. Hoist with his own petard!

It’s a popular phrase, “hoist with [his/her/their/your/my] own petard.” I’m a little more partial to “went hunting and shot [his/her/their/your/my] dog,” though that doesn’t mean quite exactly the same thing. But many people also prefer a slightly different version: “hoist on [his/her/their/your/my] own petard.” The with version has always been the more popular – currently about five times as popular, if Google Ngrams are any index – but the on has a certain appeal.

I mean, hoisting, right? It lifts a person up? Like a hook?

Say, what is a petard, anyway? It’s like a halberd or something, isn’t it? So you would be hoisted in the air on your own long stafflike pointy weapon thingy?

That is not what a petard is. And the scope of implications of hoist has changed over the centuries since Shakespeare first wrote the line.

Oh, yes, the phrase “hoist with his own petard” – which is really the only way petard is even used anymore – is from Hamlet, act 3, scene 4: “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard.” He’s talking about his plan to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deliver a letter that, unbeknownst to them, orders their own execution – in place of the letter they think they are delivering, ordering Hamlet’s execution. Hamlet continues from that line: “and ’t shall go hard But I will delve one yard below their mines, And blow them at the moon.” He promises to deliver both injury and insult – sort of like the Frenchman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the one who says “I fart in your general direction” and then catapults a cow at the Englishmen. Except these schoolfriends of Hamlet will be having their own cow and farting in their own general direction.

Do you know the French word pet, by the way? It’s the source of petard, which, because it’s from French, is pronounced with a short e and the stress on the second syllable (but these days we do say the d at the end). Pet doesn’t have to do with dogs, but it does have to do with something dogs often do: fart. A petard is a small explosive device that goes off with a loud bang; the ‘farter’ name is a bit of soldier humour. Petards were typically limpet mines and were used for such things as blowing gates and doors open. Of course if you’re going to attach one to a door, you have to put a short fuse on it or there’s a good chance the people on the other side of the door will knock it off before it blows.

So when Bill Spearshaker wrote his line, he meant ‘blown into the air by his own short-fused explosive’. And while these days hoist implies lifting with some solid device (hook, knotted rope, platform), at Shakespeare’s time it could also imply lifting by explosive force.

Which, incidentally, it doesn’t seem the incel in the news story was – all of his body except his hand stayed at floor level, though that one hand was definitely displaced (I’ll spare you further details). But he sure did to himself what he was hoping to do to others. I don’t think he will be repeating that, either.


I recently ran into a story about the origin of this phrase that I hadn’t heard before, which surprised me, given my familiarity with the subject – usually one runs into these amusing accounts from time to time, but I don’t know the original source of this one. The story is that “hoisted by my own petard” (the person I saw telling this story made the usual mistake with the quote) comes from “a very old theater trope in which a character intends to throw a bomb (petard) at someone but accidentally blows himself up, being hoisted in the air by a rope to the amusement of the audience.”

Now, the “with” versus “by” goof is no problem; it works either way. But we know, first of all, that Shakespeare is the common point of reference for the line. Now, the person relating the story pointed out it was possible that Shakespeare was quoting a common expression of the time, and in theory it is (though we will see in a moment why in practice it’s not so likely), but if you want to declare that he got it from somewhere else you actually have to give some evidence that he did, or at least that it existed before he said it. That’s how this all works; otherwise I could just say everything was actually made by elves and it would be unanswerable.

In any event, since the Shakespeare citation is unimpeachable, if Shakespeare got it from another source, Shakespeare’s reference to it should be consistent with the supposed source – and, of course, the source has to be no newer than Hamlet. So let’s look at that.

First, I will allow that hoist could already at Shakespeare’s time be used with ropes; the difference between now and then is just that now it can’t be used with being blown in the air. But those ropes…

Here’s the thing: English theatre in Shakespeare’s time was not performed in theatres as we’re used to them. They didn’t have fly lofts or rigging or anything of that sort. Many of them, including Shakespeare’s famous Globe, were open to the air – completely open; nothing to hang ropes from. The plays of the Elizabethan theatre were made to be performed wherever one could set them up: “two planks and a passion,” as the saying goes. Minimal scenery, and certainly nothing that would have to be raised or lowered from above. Stagecraft on the Continent at the time was overall not much more involved (there are some famous Italian Renaissance examples of indoor proscenium theatres, but even those were not equipped for this kind of stunt), and most of Shakespeare’s audience would not have gotten references to Continental theatre anyway. (How do I know all this stuff? Funny the things one learns in the course of getting a PhD in theatre. But do feel free to verify it.)

And then there’s the matter of what Shakespeare wrote: “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard; and ’t shall go hard But I will delve one yard below their mines And blow them at the moon.”

So… engineer. Which is a bit inconsistent with the story, but let’s pretend the villain was an engineer (in the Elizabethan sense: no trains at the time!). But what’s this bit about delving one yard below their mines? How in the heck does that work with the story?

Well, it doesn’t. And there’s also the matter of a petard not being a thrown bomb. As I mention above, it was generally a limpet mine with a short fuse; its use was to blow open gates and other fortifications (an effort that was vulnerable to being undermined as Shakespeare describes). A hand-thrown bomb was then, as it is now, a grenade (also called a grenado or granade at the time). Grenades were in use (somewhat limited, but at least a bit) in warfare at Shakespeare’s time, though he doesn’t mention grenades even once in his plays.

I will say, too, that I can’t think of a play from the Elizabethan era (let alone earlier) where a villain attempts to throw a grenade, but there could be one, I suppose – I haven’t read them all, and not all of them have survived. But a plot device of a bomb-wielding villain being blown in the air by his own device seems much more modern to me, just going on my own education; if you have contradictory evidence, I’ll be genuinely interested to see it.

My guess is that whoever made up that story saw a play from the nineteenth or early twentieth century that had something like that in it and decided that that was where the phrase came from. That is, in my experience, a pretty common way for people to make up folk etymologies. But folk etymologies are the fairy tales of historical linguistics. They’re bad history (and bad theatre history in particular in this case), often bad sociology and bad psychology, and always bad linguistics. And they’re not a great thing to stake one’s intellectual credibility on. Research is easy these days; I recommend it.