Monthly Archives: November 2020


As December rolls in, the world of commerce and entertainment is usually all abuzz and ahum and aquiver and atwitch with excitement and energy. All is aglitter; doors and mouths alike are agape, and a time of amazement is anearing. You pretty much can’t avoid its appearance, and it can be a hassle to get away. But if you do allow yourself a little apartness, you can find yourself in a grove or a park, perhaps watching snowflakes alight as all is ahush.

For at least some of us this year, there is an almost astounding difference. In my home city, Toronto, offline commerce is largely closed at least until the winter solstice. And so the manic mall has instead entered apartments and homes, as we all scroll our browsers. But if we chance to exit – for me, to take the elevator down, to walk past the moraine of Amazon boxes in the lobby, and to go out onto the street – we can soon find ourselves out in the cool, fresh, uncrowded air, and at night if snow is falling all is again ahush.

Is ahush a word? Of course it is; it has been seen in texts for at least a century and a half. It’s not often used, but it’s a regular formation from the a- prefix you see on so many other words (etymologically related to on – this is not to say you could say afleek, but it’s not to say you could not) plus, of course, hush, a word that English has had for more than half a millennium and that I should hope needs no explanation as to its formation (as far as can be seen it really did come, like shh and whisht, from sounds people made to indicate silence).

I may seem, to some who encounter me, as someone so voluble, loquacious, even garrulous, as not to appreciate silence at all. In truth, there are few things so sweet to me as a lovely, soft, well-textured quietude. You are not so likely to see me enjoying it, for the simple reason that it’s more easily had when there’s no one else around. But here: here is a piece of music celebrating the wonder of the world when it’s ahush.


I’ve made a book. It’s a book of photos, but it has words in it, because they’re photos of graffiti. Not clever or funny graffiti, just graffiti that I find very visually attractive: the colours and textures and patterns. The book is available at in softcover (a hardcover will be coming, but due to factors beyond my control, the list price will be excessive). But I’m also going to send a copy of it to everyone who is supporting me on Patreon for $5 or more per month as of December 31, 2020. Also, I’ve made a PDF of the book that’s available for free to all Patreon supporters regardless of level. (I have almost 20,000 subscribers to Sesquiotica, but right now I have only 16 – sixteen – patrons on Patreon, and most of them are at $1 or $2 a month. It barely covers the cost of running the website.)

And I’ve made a video of the book. Take a look! (Advance warning: there are some vulgar words in it, because of course there are, it’s graffiti.)


It is a foible of mine that I am a connoisseur of etymology and of historical sound changes, and that I like to reconnoitre them – and write about them.

Foible? In truth, it’s as much a strength as a weakness, isn’t it? I mean, you’re here reading this, after all. But perhaps you don’t think of foible as a synonym of weakness, not quite. More like quirk or silly detail or something like that – after all, it has the oi that shows up in springy words like boing and less pleasant words like oily and moist, plus the ble that shows up in wobble and quibble and, um, feeble

Feeble? Ah, hello, meet your long-lost twin, foible. Yes, these two words are doublets, peeled apart by the fallibility of historical language change – oh, hello, fallible, you’re at a different table, sorry. Oh, don’t cry! That’s our business at this table.

Feeble and foible, you see, are alternate forms of the word that came from Latin flebilis, which meant ‘weepable’, i.e., ‘to be wept over’. That in turn came from fleo, ‘I weep’, which traces back to an Indo-European root reconstructed as *bʰleh₁-, which also has the modern English descendent bleat. You will notice that flebilis lost some bits in the passage: the -bilis became -ble, as it always did (like goats to cows – “billies” to “bull”), but it also lost the l after the f, just because. And then that vowel stuff happened.

That vowel stuff happened a lot in French. Latin e sounds sometimes stayed e but sometimes became oi, as in voir and noir and quite a few others. But that oi in turn sometimes kept going – and sometimes English took the word at the oi stage but French moved it on to ai. (The shift in pronunciation from /e/ by way of /oi/ and /we/ to /ɛ/ can be inferred by those who care enough about it.) For example, françois became français except in the name François; reconnoistre (from Latin recognoscere) became reconnoître and was taken by English as reconnoitre, but then moved on to reconnaître in French; connoisseur (a noun formed from connoistre, which is reconnoistre without the re) stayed that way in English but became connaisseur in French. And Latin flebilis became Old French fleible, which became feble and foible, and feble came into English and became feeble while foible came into English and became the noun we know and love, foible; meanwhile, in French it moved on to become modern faible, which has a much broader sense of ‘weak’ (including instances we would translate as low or minimal).

So there it is. More alacrity than lachrymose, more sweeping than weeping, as far as I’m concerned, but, then, I’m the sort of person who spends a Friday evening on this kind of thing.


The capricious asperity, even rapacity, of the winter weather – prompting precocious crepitations and intemperate tremor – is relieved, only on insufficient occasions, by an aperture in the obnubilation, allowing a pleasing apricity: the warmth of the sun in winter-time.

Let it not be doubted that infrared radiation conveys heat. Step between shade and sunlight and you will know the difference. And while in summer the sun is often excessive, and we seek shadow, in winter overt sun can be all that makes a day tolerable. If the winter ground is a cold stone, apricity is the flesh of an apricot on it.

Apricity is not related to apricot as far as anyone can tell – well, not genetically, though perhaps by marriage. Apricot traces in an anfractuous rhizome of connections through French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and even Arabic and Greek, to an ultimate source in Latin that is also the root of modern English precocious – because apricots ripen early. But in the Arabic between Latin praecox and Spanish albaricoque the p became a b, and it likely only turned back to p in English because of a false etymology tying it to in aprico coctus, ‘ripened in a sunny place’. Which aprico is, yes, from the same root that gives us apricity.

To be precise, aprico is the dative form of an adjective apricus meaning ‘sunny’, which in turn comes from aperio, ‘I open’ – also the source of both aperture and overt. Nowhere in Latin does it specify ‘winter’ in this opening to sun; that detail was given to us by an Englishman named Cockeram in 1623 (though perhaps he got it from someone else). Well, winter in Italy is not as unpleasant as winter in England.

Both Oxford and Wiktionary assure me that this word is obsolete, but I beg to differ. It’s true that it’s not in common use, but it is one of the more coruscating gems in the lexical jewel-box. It often shows on people’s lists of favourite words – it was one mentioned when I asked last year for words people love irrationally much, so I worked it into a poem – and, like petrichor, it gets displayed as a pendant from time to time just to brighten the occasion, as for instance today by the BBC’s ray of weather sunshine, Owain Wyn Evans. We may not get enough of apricity – as we do not of what it denotes – but it still shines through.


Sidewalk. Just side and walk. A place to the side where you may walk. Something concrete to put your feet on, a safe lane whereon vehicles will not pass (you hope).

Streets didn’t use to have sidewalks. They were for walking on, and for riding horses on and pulling carriages on if you could make your way. Nobody went a whole lot faster than anyone else, generally. And much of the time it was all dirt and mud, and “mud” often meant what was left behind by the horses.

When it first appeared, in the 1600s, sidewalk meant a minor lane or path off to the side of a main one. We might call those alleys and side streets now. By the early 1700s it was also used to mean a raised pavement alongside the carriageway. And outside of North America, pavement is still the term commonly used for what Canadians and Americans call a sidewalk. But where I’m from, pavement is what’s on the streets – meaning where the cars drive, the asphalt – while the concrete on the sides is a sidewalk.

Which tells us that the foot-passers, the people walking and running and sometimes wheeling in wheelchairs and scooters, everyone who is not going forth clad in two or three tons of metal – a rigid, awkward mobility suit that takes up more than fifty times the space of the person in it (and most of the time it is just one person at a time) – is off to the side: peripheral, accessory, less important, less vital. 

In dense traffic, a city block can fit about 40 cars, which will typically hold about 50 people. The sidewalk can hold hundreds moving smoothly without collision. But our heavy expensive devices are our empires of the mind. No matter that every car must park sooner or later and the person inside go walking; no matter that streets were made for walking before they were given to cars. Walking is off to the side. It’s where you meet and pass people, where people ask you for money and directions, where you go into and out of stores, where you see the weather and the birds and the buildings close up and in detail. It’s where you truly encounter the concrete. But it’s off to the side now, and going-somewhere-else, insulated in a big expensive box, is the rule.

I’ve been thinking recently, for some reason, about a poem I wrote in 2007. It’s really why I decided to taste this word sidewalk today. Here it is.

A patch of sidewalk speaks

Well, I was
a rock, yes,
I did that thing
for a few million years.
It was fun, it had
a certain solidity,
and you know how
people think of rocks.
It was good.
But things change.
And I’m not willing
to say it was not
for the better, or it was
somehow not good;
I think I’ve been opened
to a whole new set 
of experiences:
soles, paws, 
tires, papers.
Where I was before,
those trees, that grass, 
the other rocks, 
they can be peaceful, 
but it loses its attraction.
Now every hour brings
thousands of new 
And I have new friends, 
we’re all in this together,
a lot of us who
did the rock thing back when
(though it doesn’t seem
so long ago, in
the grand scheme of things).
And I’m not kidding
myself, I won’t be
a rock again.
So I have to accept it.
But things change.
What’s not to like?


Some days, you know, you have plans, you have designs, you have desires, but at the end of the day, you’ve done jactiate. And other days, you have duties, you have instructions, you have obligations, but at the end of the day, you haven’t done jactiate. And either way, it’s the same.

It’s the same because jactiate is the kind of thing where the result is identical whether you do it or not. Literally – that’s the definition: ‘stuff that can be done or not done with no difference in ultimate effect’. And I say “stuff” and not “things” or “a thing” because it’s a mass noun, like water, air, rice, and business: it doesn’t get an article and it doesn’t get a plural. Mostly, in fact, it just shows up in two collocations: do [or did] jactiate and don’t [or didn’t] do jactiate. And those two phrases mean exactly the same thing, in spite of the opposite polarity.

Where does this word jactiate come from? You might recognize the jact root, as in Julius Caesar’s famous Alea jacta est! That means “The die is cast!” More often, though, jacta (or jactus or jactum) would be translated as thrown or tossed – and you can see the root (mutatis mutandis) in other English words, such as eject and reject, both of which can be paraphrased as toss out.

You recognize the -ate ending, of course; more often it’s on verbs, but it can show up on adjectives describing things that have had the verb done to them, and nouns naming those things. A noun you might recognize in this form is ejaculate, which refers to stuff that has been ejaculated. And an adjective you might recognize is cruciate, as in anterior cruciate ligament, so named not because it’s excruciating when you tear it but just because there are two of them and they cross over (= they are cruciate). In the same pattern, jactiate is stuff that’s tossed out (or will be tossed out, or has been tossed out), and so doing it or not doing it makes no difference; you might as well have done nothing.

You can take the cue for pronunciation of jactiate from the analogous words, too. Although verbs ending in -ate say it like the word ate, adjectives and nouns reduce and destress it. Just as cruciate sounds like “crewshit,” jactiate sounds like “jackshit.” So when you say “You’ve done jactiate” and “We haven’t done jactiate,” it sounds like…

…well, ha ha, yes, it is “You’ve done jack shit” and “We haven’t done jack shit.” I just made this word up because I didn’t have anything better to do at the moment. It’s a Latin joke for word geeks. (It’s not even perfectly formed from the Latin, but whatevs, did you even notice?) You probably know the term jack shit, which first appeared in colloquial English usage by the 1970s (Oxford’s first citation is 1968). Well, now you can spell it jactiate instead of jack shit (or jackshit) and say “So there!” to the tut-tutters. Just tossing that out there…


It is a popular thing, in corporate environments, when an egomaniacal fool does not get sufficient toadying from his underlings (because they were hired by people who, for whatever reason, chose them for their qualifications to do the job), to hire constultants who will constult with the top dog and his nearest puppies and make grandiose plans in exchange for ludicrously lucrative sums.

No, I made no typographical errors. Yes, yes, consultants and consult could have worked there. But I had a point to make. And I’m not the first to make it thus. The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations in support of constult and both of them are plays on consult. One is from a John Taylor, in 1630: “Some English Gentlemen with him consulted And he as nat’rally with them constulted.” The other is from a John Gauden in 1660: “What do they meet, and sit, and consult (or rather constult) together?”

Well, OK, we get the idea. Except we don’t, unless we know stult. Of course we all know stultify and stultifying (the latter an adjective often applied to the experience of listening to consultants). But we tend to think of stultifying as like stupefying without pausing to think what those roots mean. Um, dulling, mind-numbing? Well, yes, in the sense of making like someone who is dull or numb of mind. Stupefying is related to stupid. But the Latin source for stultifyingstultus – never made it into English.

So what is stultus? ‘Foolish’. Also ‘fatuous’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘ill-considered’ and a whole lot of other words and phrases we have in English for the same thing (“dumb as a sack of hammers” and “couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel” are two I learned in my Albertan youth). The Latin word traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘stiff’. Related words include strenuous, stolid, sterile, torpid, stare, and stereo (which comes from a Greek root meaning ‘solid’, extended to ‘three-dimensional’ and from that to binocular vision and binaural hearing, both of which are wasted on people who are strenuously stolid and staringly torpid).

So OK, this is going on a bit. The tl;dr of it is that the verb constult, supposedly no longer used (but ha! just watch me), means ‘be foolish together’. And the reason I took so long to get to that is… well, I’m getting paid by the minute.*

*I pay myself. Zero cents a minute. It’s not quite $20,000 a day, but I guess I could say it was, since it all zeroes out in the end.


This word sure looks like cod Latin for meat, doesn’t it? Like “Omnes stuffunt meatus in mouthorum.” But there are two problems with that (aside from the extremely dodgy Latin): one, it’s not pronounced “meat-us,” it’s pronounced “me-ate-us” (/miˈeɪtəs/); two, it’s not something you stuff into a hole, it is a hole.

The Latin word meatus (with a long a) originally meant ‘path’ or ‘passage’, and came from a verb meare meaning ‘pass’ or ‘traverse’. That in turn came from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as *mey- that gave rise not only to words for paths (as well as Latin trans-) but also to English mean (‘think, intend’) and, up a different path, English mean (‘common, nasty’). It even led to immune.

So what kind of a hole is a meatus? Well, it’s not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat, but it’s also not a hobbit-hole. It’s a hole in your body – the kind that is standard with the body, not the kind added by an external article of metal, stone, or wood. 

There is, for instance, the meatus auditorius, also known as the auditory meatus, or the hole of hearing (that’s what one H. Crooke called it in 1615), or the earhole. Various other simple holes into the body also get called meatuses (I’m sure you can think of the most popular ones). However, it seems the mouth is not typically called a meatus – it’s too complex an opening, I think. Pity; I think I could like meatus crusti (‘cake hole’; actually Latin for ‘cake hole’ would more likely be meatus placentae, but we couldn’t use that) or perhaps meatus carnis (‘meat hole’) – though it would probably really just be something like meatus escarius, ‘eating hole’.

So there that is. You can put the figurative meat of a message or meaning into your auditory meatus, but you shouldn’t try to put actual literal meat into any meatus, especially the hole of hearing; that would be mean.

Pronunciation tip: schism and schedule

People have opinions on how to say schism and schedule. Strong opinions. I’m here to set the matter straight.


“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” as Terence (i.e., Terentius) wrote in Heauoton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor): “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” Or, more idiomatically, “I am human; human affairs are my affairs.” In other words, everything’s your business (the character speaking was very nosy), and nothing’s off topic.

Well. You see the alienum there, and you see the alien in alieniloquy (which, by the way, is said like “soliloquy” but with “alien” instead of “sol”). Does it seem strange? Out of place? Incongruous? Yes, well, yes, that’s the point. Alien, our English word, comes from alienum, which comes from alius, meaning ‘other’ (also inflected as alium, as in Spem in alium, which is a lovely piece by Thomas Tallis, not a recipe for canned meat in garlic), which comes from Proto-Indo-European *h₂élyos, ‘beyond, other’, which is the source of English else and Irish eile (‘other’) and various other ‘other’ words; *h₂élyos in turn comes (according to the reconstructions) from *h₂el-, which has nothing to do with hell but does trace back forward to English all and Latin ultra and olim (‘one day’ or ‘often’ or ‘at that time’ or ‘once upon a time’, as in the Medieval song “Olim sudor Herculis,” a lengthy recitation of all the occasions Hercules happened to sweat), and of course a whole bunch of other words too.

But that’s neither here nor there. Well, no, actually, it is there, as in back in time. And it’s here, because alieniloquy is nothing alien to us in modern times, alas. There are some people who, given a microphone, will have quite a lot to say about quite a lot, and if you ask them a question, you get the answer to everything – well, perhaps everything but the question, because it’s been a great year, and we’ve accomplished a lot of things, like John over there, whose business has really been dealt a blow but he’s been helped by us, and it’s important to make sure he can keep feeding the children of the community, which has been here for a long time, the heart of the city, which is why we want to take this moment to talk about our plans for tax relief.

Given a microphone? Given any opportunity, in fact, some of them; you’ve met them at parties, I’m sure, where you manage to find out far more about the political climate of Transylvania or the intricacies of HO-scale train sets (also and more originally correctly H0, because half zero, but not half of nothing) than you had intended (which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with either of those, or for that matter both at the same time, if you would like to construct a model train environment of Transylvania, complete with Carpathian mountains and, of course, some of that forest for being on the other side of which Transylvania is named – you did know that Transylvania means ‘land on the other side of the forest’, right? as in trans ‘other side’ plus sylva(n) ‘forest’ plus -ia ‘place’? obviously so called from the view of people to the west, in particular Hungarians, Latin speakers, and so on).

But the truth is that, while alieniloquy is annoying when people such as politicians and speakers at charity events and essayists do it, and some people who don’t let you get a word in edgewise, it’s nonetheless largely how our conversations go: we start with one topic and then we move on to another and another and another by tangents. And even more so our internal monologues proceed by alieniloquy, and that’s not just OK, it would be worrisome if it didn’t happen at least some of the time; the mind needs to wander, you know?

Oh, have I actually defined this word? the Oxford English Dictionary definition is “An instance of straying from the subject one is supposed to be talking about; rambling or evasive talk.” Which, yes, includes the proviso “one is supposed to be talking about,” whereas casual conversation and thoughts are not always so directed, but we do always suppose that we have a topic, at least until we have another. But, then, if we’re just talking about life, it’s all on topic, right? Because humani nihil a nos alienum puto? We can wander as wide as Molly Bloom’s closing thought soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting for that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear them I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope Ill never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats especially then still I like that in him polite to old women like that and waiters and beggars too hes not proud out of nothing but not always if ever he got anything really serious the matter with him its much better for them to go into a hospital where everything is clean but I suppose Id have to dring it into him for a month yes and then wed have a hospital nurse next thing on the carpet have him staying there till they throw him out or a nun maybe like the smutty photo he has shes as much a nun as Im not yes . . . [it continues for quite a long time]