Monthly Archives: September 2020


We all know what absenteeism is: not being at work when you’re supposed to be (or in class, or in church, or wherever you’re supposed to be). Bosses often fret about absenteeism. “Calling in ‘sick’? That costs me money! Get your butt in that chair!

But if there’s absenteeism, then of course there’s presenteeism, right?

Yes, right. I didn’t make this up.

And what is presenteeism?

You may think it’s being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, or even going the extra mile and being there longer (and therefore being more productive) than required. And indeed it has been used in those senses in the past. But that’s not the prevailing current use. Today, as you will find if you Google it, presenteeism refers to showing up for work (or class, or whatever) when you really shouldn’t – because you’re not well enough, physically, mentally, or both.

And why would people come to work when they’re too sick to work? See above about what bosses say. See also our general cultural attitude towards productivity, or at least seeming to be productive. And also see your employer’s sick day policy… if there is one. Many people would be risking their jobs to take as many sick days as they truly need. Many more would be risking their career advancement.

So we show up. We surrender to the boxtickery of attendance counting. We know that business is not charity, it’s ass-in-chair-ity. If, on any given day, we just can’t even, then we switch off the even-canning machine for a while and try to look busy. And if that’s not an option, we work ten hours to get six hours’ worth of work done, we collapse at home with a glass of wine and a goblet of headache, and tomorrow we go back, Jack, and do it again. Because that is how we display our virtue.

And if we have a cold, we tough it out, because we don’t want to waste a sick day on that. So what if coworkers would get it – they’ll all get colds anyway. So what if it takes longer to get over it – I mean, do you know that for sure? Just take some medication. And if we have a flu, we try to tough it out because we have work that we’ll still have to do even if we take the day off. And if we have, say, Covid… um, could I lose my job if I call in and say I have it? If I get tested and find out I have it, I’m off work and locked down for 14 days, right, and…

Presenteeism, notably including forced presenteeism (of the “show up or you’re fired” kind), is known to be a factor in the spread of contagious illnesses. But even when it’s just a case of people not being in top form, it can be a bigger problem than most people want to admit. Even if you just look at dollar values in productivity – as though people are made for the economy, rather than the economy for people – research indicates that presenteeism costs about ten times as much in lost productivity every year as absenteeism. Presenteeism has been very well studied and the results show strongly that it’s an important problem. But bosses tend to like simple, easy measures, and things that they can see, and butts in chairs at desks are a much more visible and straightforward measure than relative losses in productivity due to working while unwell. Also there’s that whole Protestant Work Ethic thing and the valorization of “toughing it out” in popular entertainments.

We’ve had this word presenteeism at least since the 1930s, though the current sense that features the downside has been prevalent only in the past few decades. It’s formed, as you’d guess, in contrast to absenteeism, rather than being made from a word presentee that is in turn made from present plus ee. Absenteeism was formed around 1820 from absentee, which has been in English since the 1500s, borrowed from Norman French abscenté and referring first of all to someone who owned an estate but, contrary to expectation or requirement, didn’t reside on it.

For years, when I was on salary and got four sick days per year, it was a point of personal pride for me to take only one or none each year. A cold? No problem – I’ll get through it. I finally realized that I would get through the cold sooner, do more and better work when I was at work, and not get my coworkers sick if I took a day off to stay home and drink lots of fluids and so on. If I went to work, I was just borrowing on the future anyway.

So if you’re in less-than-top form, if you at all can, call in sick for a day (or more) and take care of yourself. There’s no time like the present not to be a presentee. (And if you’re a boss, stop assuming your employees are just out to cheat you, and for heaven’s sake don’t do asinine things like requiring a doctor’s note for every sick day, which just costs the system, takes time from the person’s recovery, and probably forces them to go to a doctor’s office, where they will be surrounded by sick people and might pick up yet another illness to spread around your office…)

cullion, cullionry

There are many popular idioms that equate testicles and their related substances, including testosterone, with virtue, valour, substance, courage, fortitude, and so on. “Do you have the balls to do it?” “I think this individual is lacking in testicular fortitude.” “What you need, man, is cojones.” “Grow a pair.”

There seem to me to be fewer that are more honest about the fact that men intoxicated with testosterone and the dictates of the contents of their nutsacks have a record of doing appallingly stupid things, making amazing messes, wreaking wanton destruction, and stomping through the world oblivious to their own inanity. Fewer idioms, but not none at all. Now and then we see an honest reference to cullionry.

Cullionry? It sounds… culinary, doesn’t it? And so it may be, if you mean prairie oysters. Huevos, you know, and not necessarily rancheros. Cullionry is the conduct of a cullion as roguery is the conduct of a rogue, and a cullion is… literally, a testicle; figuratively, a, um, dickhead. Loser. Jagoff. One who thinks himself among the lions but is more fit to be culled. I mean, just imagine if the world were run by 15-year-old boys trying to impress and dominate their peers and the objects of their attraction. (Alas, it’s not that great a stretch of the imagination.)

Cullion comes from French couillon; it’s related to Spanish cojon (you see it now, don’t you) and comes from Latin culleus (‘sack’ or ‘testicle’), which in turn comes from Greek κόλεος koleos (‘sheath’). It’s a well-formed word that could stand for anything, really; look at galleon, scallion, mullion, bullion, and billion and you will be reminded of the usually arbitrary basis of the relation between a word’s form and meaning. Cullion just happens to refer to the orchids (I mean figuratively, but also literally: it can be used to refer to the finicky flowering plants, and why not, they’re named after testicles – Greek ὄρχις orchis means both ‘orchid’ and ‘testicle’).

And cullion just happens to be used figuratively to mean ‘lowlife’. Somehow it seems not unreasonable that, in the time of Shakespeare, you might call a scoundrel or rascal a testicle (“Away, base cullions!” —Henry VI, part 2, I.iii.43), even as you would in other contexts highly value the same bits as jewels of manhood and emblems of fortitude.

The ambivalence has ever been with us; after all, a popular vulgarity referring to destruction and catastrophe also literally refers to the act that the same speakers most ardently wish to engage in as often as possible. And, of course, the organ so often used as an emblem of fortitude is famously the most vulnerable and sensitive – kick someone in the cullions and see for yourself. (And why would you do that? Because of their cullionry, of course.) But such is the contradictory nature of the classic cullion: both hyperaggressive and hypersensitive.


This is a cracking good word. I’m not suggesting you try to pronounce it, but if you do, you may well make the sound that inspired the name in the first place.

But your tongue isn’t the only thing put under strain by this word. Lexical and even intellectual faculties can be challenged by the definitions and descriptions. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary: “A form of aragonite, occurring as pisolites under strain, which decrepitates.” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has never heard of it.) If that’s Greek to you, the original description, in the Journal of the Chemical Society, explains: “When heated to low redness, the pisolites violently decrepitate, and detached scales are then observed to be partly transformed into calcite. . . . The violent decrepitation, on account of which the name ktypeite is given, shows that the pisolites must be in a state of considerable strain.”

You too, eh? A lot of us are in a state of considerable strain, and many of us are decrepit because of it. But decrepitation has just a slightly different sense here. If a house or a person is decrepit, that literally etymologically (though not necessarily actually, but probably) means it emits cracking sounds, like the walls of an old house or the knees of a no-longer-young guy. The Latin source is ultimately crepare, ‘rattle, rustle, crack, creak’. Decrepitation, however, is the noun for the shattering of minerals when heated, which typically involves a loud cracking sound.

Which means that Alfred Lacroix heated up some samples of this mineral, which he found in Carlsbad, Bohemia, and they went “crack!” and shattered. Well, not the whole piece at once; just one or more of the pisolites. What are pisolites? Imagine one of those jawbreaker candies with concentric layers. Now imagine that all the layers are grey. And that actually they’re sedimentary rock. And that they conglomerate. And that if you hold one over a lit burner, it makes a sharp noise and, as mentioned, shatters. Leaving a hole. Oh, yes, that’s another point of strain: if you have anything on the order of trypophobia – which is to say, if things with lots of small holes in them creep you out – don’t look up any pictures of ktypeite. Eek, so creepy.

But does this mean that Lacroix spent some jolly time exploding bits of this rock like some gleeful adolescent with a sheet of bubble wrap and then transcribed the sound they made as “ktype”? (The ite is a standard mineral suffix.) Or perhaps scrawled something and then added a note to his secretary, “K, type that”? Not quite. As scientists so often do, he turned to the Greeks. And he found this charming agglomeration of phonemes in the word κτύπος (‘crash, bang’).

Alas, English (or anyway its speakers) does not tolerate a /kt/ onset. The ktype in this word is expected to be said like “tippa” – though “tippa-ite” (/ˈtɪpəʌɪt/) is itself about as awkward as trying to step around some doggie doo on a ledge. And it has a hole in it where the /k/ should be.

But it’s OK. You don’t need to turn up the heat on yourself to say this word. You can just set it there on the page, comfortable in the knowledge that its object is probably just aragonite anyway, and for the moment let the reader take on the strain – and perhaps hope they don’t crack while you’re around.


It’s a trap.

No, literally, a conibear is a trap. Some of you may know this already; some may have seen the word conibear and not been sure what it referred to; some may not know the word at all. I learned first in my childhood that a conibear was a kind of trap, but I don’t think I ever saw one in person. I saw an illustration of one, a trap made of two rectangles hinged together and spring-loaded near the hinges so that, when released, they would part from one orientation and scissor through 90 degrees to snap together in the other orientation (oh, just find a picture). I decided that the conibear must be an old, traditional kind of trap, with an old, traditional kind of name, preferred by those who liked things in the original style. I guessed that they must be mainly for trapping rabbits, since conibear looks like a compound of cony (which is another word for ‘rabbit’) plus bear. And from that I guessed how it is pronounced.

More recently, I decided to look up the conibear and find out more about it. I discovered that I was mistaken about its origins, not quite right about its purpose, misled by its name, and a bit off on the pronunciation. It turns out that things that look plain and obvious from what you see are not always plain and obvious at all, and it’s easy to step into a trap, so to speak (or write). Now that I have known the real story for… (looks at watch)… um, at least a few hours, I feel I should enter it into the record here.

First, the conibear exists because its inventor was determined to make a humane trap. And it is humane, in the same general way as a guillotine is humane: minimal pain for maximum death. The conibear’s inventor was a trapper and had been appalled at the effects of leg-hold traps: animals would be caught in them in great pain for a long time and would sometimes even chew their legs off to escape. He wished them a quick death, and one that also wouldn’t look so nasty or cause damage to the pelt or loss of the furry critter altogether. (There was, of course, no question of just not trapping them.) He worked out, over a number of years, a design that, when an animal of the right size came to the trap the right way, would snap the critter’s neck or crush its torso and kill it more or less instantly.

However, a conibear has more room for error than a guillotine; perhaps we should say a it is humane like hanging. When hanging is done as designed, it snaps the neck and causes quick death, assuming you don’t count all that stuff leading up to the actual hanging; when it is not done as designed, you get that dance-on-a-rope stuff from the Western movies and even worse. And when the wrong animal (e.g., your pet) comes into a conibear, or the right (i.e., intended) animal comes in the wrong way, the death can be a bit more protracted. Quite a bit, at times.

Funny thing is, I grew up surrounded by traps closely related to the conibear and didn’t realize it. We lived in a country house where there were mice, so we had mousetraps. The principle is identical; the design is a bit simpler. The results are also analogous, at smaller scale.

But the conibear was inspired by something else you might find in the kitchen of a country house: a certain kind of eggbeater. The trap’s inventor tried a few versions with middling success, but came back to it decades later with further inspiration from embroidery hoops and at last made the version that became very quickly popular. He patented it in 1957, when he was 61 years old. Which means that it was not 20 years old when I first heard of it.

And why the name? I will tell you that the trap was not designed mainly for catching rabbits. Mink, yes, and foxes, and beavers – the sorts of furry creatures that a trapper would seek in the area where its inventor lived: Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada (just off the northern boundary of Alberta; we could have driven there from where I lived in a day… an 18-hour day). The conibear trap got its name, indirectly, from a small place in Devon, England (which probably is named after conies, and maybe bears or maybe bearing them, but I can’t find the details on this one), and less indirectly from a family named after that place, one of whom was born in Plymouth, England, in 1896, moved to Canada in 1899 with his family, and ended up living in the Northwest Territories and making a good living guiding and running a hotel in the summer and trapping in the winter: Frank Ralph Conibear, inventor of the trap in question, who was still alive when I first heard of his device, as well as when this useful article on him was published (he died in 1988).

Since I already said I was wrong about how to say the name, and since I said my idea was based on cony, you may guess that my error was in how to say the vowels, and you will be right: it’s said like “con a bear,” not like “cony bear” as I had thought. And why is the name said like that? Well, why not? The word cony (which traces back to Latin cuniculus) originally rhymed with honey and money. But that sounded a bit… um, like a ruder word. So rabbit and bunny took over, and eventually people forgot the old way of saying cony and started saying it as we do now… when we say it at all.

And now you know just about all you con bear about this trap, I’m sure. And also about the importance of not assuming that what looks traditional really is traditional, and about more generally treading carefully, taking your time, and doing your diligence, lest you step into a trap – with crushing results.



Flinchworthy isn’t in the dictionary as such, but of course it’s a word, and I’m not the first to use it. You see “flinchworthy,” it doesn’t startle you, you know what it means: something worth flinching at.

Flinch is a good word, rhyming with pinch and inch and cinch and starting with that fluttery, flicking fl. It apparently comes from Old French flenchir or flainchir, likely related to flechir ‘bend’, which probably came from Latin flectere ‘bend’ although there are some phonological issues unresolved. Worthy is an adjectival form of worth, which comes from Old Germanic *werþaz, which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *wert-, also the origin of German Wurst (‘sausage’), English weird, and Latin vertere (‘turn’, source of all those -vert words in English).

Well! That turned, didn’t it. And so do you, when you encounter something flinchworthy.

And there are flinchworthy things. We should not think that nothing is worth flinching at. If you always boldly go, unhesitating, you will at some point meet with grievous bodily harm. Elisa Gabbert, on Twitter today, wrote,

I’m reading a memoir that’s described as “unflinching” but actually it flinches a lot, it’s full of textbook flinching. Also I think flinching is fine; normalize flinching?

Yes. Although there are things I am happy not to flinch at, I am a noted flincher: just almost break a glass and you will see. Or drop a knife. Or scream. Or, if you’re a newscaster, stumble several times trying to say a name. Or, um, I suppose, do any of several things depicted in Un chien andalou:

Not everyone finds all the same things flinchworthy, of course, but if you meet someone who finds nothing at all flinchworthy, do try to survive the encounter and avoid them ever thereafter. Here is a small compendium of flinchworthy things:

Dropping of knives and near-breaking of dishes,
Webs that touch faces and toes that touch fishes,
Cold slimy celery, telephone rings:
These are a few of my flinchworthy things.

Spiders, loud bangs, being tapped on the shoulder,
Creaks from dark houses at night getting older,
Razors near eyeballs and worms that have wings,
These are a few of my flinchworthy things!

When the dogs bark,
When the wasps buzz,
When I see some gore,
I take out my list of my flinchworthy things
And add to the end… one more!


A principle often elucidated, and famously so by such paper deities of prose styling as Strunk and White and George Orwell, is that in any circumstance where the total word count of an expression may be surplus to requirement, it is best to strive to diminish the quantity of lexemes so as to achieve a cogent, coherent, cohesive conciseness. This is to say, in other words, and to cut the long short: perish perissology.

Perish perissology! What is this judgment of perissology, this hard choice between the lush love of words and the militant wisdom of brevity? Is this the phrase that launched a thousand cuts?

Well… yes. Perissology is also known as garrulousness, verbal diarrhea, prolixity, verbosity… To be fair, though, it is focused more particularly on the phrase level: saying “in spite of the fact that” in place of “although,” or “at this point in time” in place of “now,” or “when everything is considered” or “in the final analysis” or “at the end of the day” in place of, hmm, nothing at all, really.

Editors, of course (“of course”! Now there’s a phrase that can often be left out), are possessed of perisscopes to spot these and deal mercilessly with them. Yes, perisscopes is a word I just made up, but perissology does have the same peri as in periscope: it’s Greek περί ‘round about’ derived into περισσός (perissos) ‘superfluous, redundant’ plus, of course (oh, allow me my twitches), the ology that comes from λόγος (logos) ‘word’. So it means ‘superfluous speech’ or ‘roundabout words’.

Whichdoes actually have a Latin counterpart, come to think of it: circumlocution. That isn’t used in exactly the same sense as perissology these days, but there’s plenty of overlap.

So, yes, perish perissology. But it doesn’t automatically follow from that that, as Orwell wrote, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” (and as has been pointed out, that dictum doesn’t strictly heed itself); there are some cases where adding a few extra words will help the meaning to be clearer and require less effort in the reading. And while “Omit needless words” seems almost trivially true, it leaves the judgement of “needless” up to the writer or editor. Should I konmari the prose, and cut a word out if it doesn’t give me a spark of joy? But what if I’m paid by the word and every extra dime I get is another spark of joy? Or what if I just love frolicking in a lush word garden? And how short could some classic books become if the trimming were overenthusiastic? (Proust: “I dipped a madeleine into my tea and it reminded me of my whole life. The end.”)

Of course (eeps) we don’t mean that you should remove words that add enjoyment and flavour, do we. Perissology is use of words that really don’t add a damn thing: not insight, not clarity, not ease of reading, not enjoyment. So “perish perissology” means “don’t be tedious.” This doesn’t resolve the issue universally, however; different people find different things tedious. So how about this: Know your audience and try not to waste their time.

And, after all is said and done, if you just wanted that last sentence, without all the information in between, well… I guess you’re not my audience. Heh heh.

Pronunciation tip: German philosophers

For my latest pronunciation tip, I’m focusing on something that has given me some issues over the years: the names of German philosophers. One can’t grow up in Canada without seeing their names just all over the place, of course, and yet no one seems to know how to say many of them. So I called in some help. Now you too can find out the German way to say the names of Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich (von) Schlegel, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach, Jakob Friedrich Fries, Wilhelm Dilthey, Ernst Alfred Cassirer, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl, Karl Theodor Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Jürgen Habermas. Sing along, now!


Have you, after this social season, attained satiety with society? Have you had your fill? Have you had enough? Have you had so much that you are starting to satiety things about it?

Wait. What, now?

The pronunciation of satiety is a bit of… a blivet, I guess you could say, in Kurt Vonnegut’s sense of “ten pounds of shit in a five-pound sack.” Since everyone who reads Sesquiotica is painfully well educated or at least is quite lexically attentive, you all know that satiety is the noun for the state of being satiated. And there is general agreement on how to say satiated: although a few people might be heard saying it like “say tee ate id,” it’s well enough established and accepted that it’s like “say she ate it” only with “id” instead of “it.” But that fact just causes mischief when we turn to satiety.

I should give a bit of an appetizer here about the origins of this word. The English word has, as the OED puts it, multiple origins: “Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin.” The French source, satieté, came from the Latin source, satietas, of course, but the point is that English wasn’t fully satisfied with what it got from French and reached past it to Latin to get some more. And it just happens that when it first came to English from French, it reflected the phonological derivations current at the time: we spelled it with a c as in sacietye. In other words, it sounded like “society.”

Indeed, it kept sounding like that well into the early 1800s. But by that time the spelling had long since been updated to reflect its glorious Latin origins, and, as has often happened, pronunciation eventually followed spelling, and so it came to be said with a /t/ in place of the /s/: “sa tie a tee.”

Except, of course, for those of us who think first of satiated. I do not recall if I ever earnestly thought that “say shitty” was the proper pronunciation of satiety, but I do know I’ve long been aware of it as the pronunciation one might expect by analogy with satiated. And now I have confirmation that I am not alone in this. I was watching a History Channel documentary on YouTube this evening and the narrator pronounced it exactly that way (and yes, he was definitely saying satiety).

So what we have with this word now is a feast and a half. There’s one way you’re supposed to say it, but there are other ways you could say it, at least one of which seems more logical to many people. And you have multiple options for wordplay too.

And, for that matter, there are multiple shades of sense. These days it’s usually positive: you’re full and happy about it, not overstuffed; you have been fed and the world is just right. Back when it sounded like “society” it was as often used to mean ‘overstuffed, fed up to the point of disgust, surfeited, crapulous, and so on’. And I would venture to say that you could still try your luck at using it that way – if you can get away with saying it as “say shitty,” why not use it to say shitty things?


The first time I saw jape, somewhere in my earlier teens, I was japed and japed again (japers crapers!). It was in the introduction to Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 classic The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of cynical definitions (“Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding”; “Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious”; “Vote, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country”).

Many of Bierce’s definitions are several sentences long, and some even have illustrative poems, which I did not at first understand were all made up by Bierce himself (ironic, that, given that I did the same myself for high school English class, inventing poets with names like Les McLove and Dirk E. Oldman to flesh out an anthology rather than bothering to dig through the library). Most notable of Bierce’s fake poets was – well, here, read the sentence in question for yourself:

A conspicuous, and it is hoped not unpleasing, feature of the book is its abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of whom is that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials.

I was not particularly familiar yet with this word jape (I may have seen it in Wodehouse somewhere, but those books were full of all sorts of quaint toffee-nosed terms). I was also not in the least familiar with the initials S.J. and I thought at first that this was some literary way of indicating that his initials were S.J. rather than G.J. However, I quickly saw that all the Jape poems were attributed G.J.; I think I then inferred that it was one of those obscure Latin references like Ibid. (which for years I thought was some often-quoted Latin work like the Iliad or the Aeneid, but boringer). It was a number of years before I somehow learned that it meant the bearer was a Jesuit priest, and when I learned that I immediately thought of Gassalasca Jape and thought “Ohhhhhh.”

Which is, really, the classic response to a jape, especially if you are the object. Jape is both noun and verb, and is now mostly treated as meaning ‘joke, trick, jest’ – not so much a humorous story as a one-liner, sly dig, or practical joke. But when it first showed up in English in the 1300s, it meant ‘trick, cheat, deceive’ (and also ‘seduce’ and ‘have sex’). It moved on through ‘mock’ to its current sense, which is perhaps less unkind. Perhaps. We’re not sure where we filched the word from, by the way; evidence suggests that the form came from the Old French verb japer (‘bark, yelp’) and the sense came from the Old French verb gaber (‘mock, deride’), because why wouldn’t a tricky word be tricky.

And jape has the jab of jab and the capering vowelscape of caper, not to mention that it apes ape. So it sounds right, or at least I think it does. And it has by our own times become just merry and innocent enough not to break any commandments, at least most of the time.

Speaking of which, I would be playing too mean a trick if I were not to quote one of Bierce’s poems by Father Jape. Here is Bierce’s definition of decalogue:

Decalogue, n. A series of commandments, ten in number – just enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian.

Thou shalt no God but me adore:
’Twere too expensive to have more.

No images nor idols make
For Robert Ingersoll to break.

Take not God’s name in vain; select
A time when it will have effect.

Work not on Sabbath days at all,
But go to see the teams play ball.

Honor thy parents. That creates
For life insurance lower rates.

Kill not, abet not those who kill;
Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.

Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unless
Thine own thy neighbor doth caress.

Don’t steal; thou’lt never thus compete
Successfully in business. Cheat.

Bear not false witness – that is low –
But “hear ’tis rumored so and so.”

Covet thou naught that thou hast not
By hook or crook, or somehow, got.
G. J.


I can’t think of any good reason for this word to be easy to read or easy to guess how to say. Or even suitably derived from its etymological roots. What would be the point of that? It’s not just that English spelling and pronunciation are like a bad relationship that has been allowed to get too tangled and to play too many perverse games for too long, grabbing bits from one place and applying rules from another place with the evident goal of keeping everything from being too easy – enforcing the idea that following a tangle of capricious and arbitrary rules is some sign of intellectual and moral superiority. It’s that this word in particular is an apposite instance for form to follow function.

Can you see what it is and where it comes from? Do you want any clues? OK: it’s three syllables. And the vowel at the heart of each syllable is what we (for anachronistic reasons, seldom explained or understood, that mess with the perception of millions of people) call “long.” And, of course, the ch is said as /k/.

Got it? Yeah, it’s from chaos (from Greek χάος, naming the primordial state of the universe, and also the state of the spoon-and-spatula drawer in my kitchen) plus ize as in Bette Davis (surely we all Bette-Davisize on occasion).

Of course the Greek pronunciation of χάος is just like the English pronunciation… if you only count the last sound in it, and don’t get too sticky about the specific articulation of /s/. The first consonant is different and so are the vowels, but that’s just because English merged the voiceless velar fricative with the stop, the long vowels changed during the Great Vowel Shift, and the short vowels shifted a bit except for where they didn’t. And then, when chaos and ize got mashed together and the s disappeared (about which more in a moment), the o also became “long” because there’s another vowel right after it and we just wouldn’t know what else to do there. Because while we’re all trying to follow and enforce weird rules to make sure we don’t look dumb (and other people do), we’re actually just guessing and making it up by analogy a lot of the time. When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind!

Anyway. About the form of this word. The usual way to make it, on the basis of Greek morphological derivation (which of course we all know, right?), the same thing that gave us chaotic rather than chaosic, would be chaotize. And that’s a word, and it means the same thing as chaoize. But I think we can all agree that chaoize is a much weirder, messier, more chaotic word (does it not K.O. your eyes?), and also it looks like Charlize (it’s right theron the page) and sort of like a weird spelling of chaise, which I can get onto as well. So we owe a little debt of thanks to Cyril Tourneur, author of The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), who for his own reasons transformed and metamorphosized those roots into this version of the word, and whose book provides the sole citations for it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I think we can all agree that a word meaning (again, quoting Oxford) “reduce to chaos or utter confusion” is quite handy, pretty much all the time but now more than ever. And I trust you can see why I prefer the version that’s more patently chaotic, capricious, unpredictable, and all those other things. Sometimes language change is like natural processes such as erosion and glaciation and sometimes it’s like letting kids loose in a sandbox, not just chaotic but chaoizing; why shouldn’t we have a word to name that that represents it?