Monthly Archives: January 2021

Authority? What authority?

Look, I know what I’m talking about.

Have you ever said that? And has anyone ever said that to you? It’s an appeal to authority, and, according to some people, it’s an instant fail: the argumentum ab auctoritate (argument from authority) – a famous logical fallacy!

Except when it’s not. Because if appeals to authority were always fallacious, our entire legal and educational systems would be voided. Among many other things. 

I’ll explain.

Continue reading


What does a mirror look like when it reflects only itself, and no one is looking?

You know what it is to know. To see things and people, and to recognize them, and to know that they are there, and that you are here seeing them. But that is not the same as knowing their thoughts or feelings or knowing what it is like to be them. You are here and they are there and there are two of you. How would it be if you looked and knew you were not two, but one?

The essence of knowing is the mind perceiving external things and concepts and modelling them and assimilating those models into its schemes and structures and mental Minecrafts. Which means that knowing is an intrinsically separate and separating act; even knowing yourself takes parts of your self as objects, models them, and adds them to your miniature village of the mind. So what do you call the knowing that knows that the knower and the known are the same? The realization that all that is realized is all that realizes, and that at root the watcher is watching the watcher, and any plurality is just the reflector reflecting?

Well, you can call it jnana, if you want.

Yes, yes, jnana looks (a) like the word banana if it were in the process of realizing that it is a banana (does not a j resemble a banana?) and (b) rather hard to say. In truth, English speakers who use the word tend to use it on paper more often than on tongue. But it comes from a Sanskrit word. And the usual transliteration of the Sanskrit is jñāna, with a tilde on the n to indicate that it’s palatalized just like Spanish ñ. The way it’s written in Sanskrit even makes one out of two: from ज “j” and ञ “ñ” comes ज्ञ “jñ” – which sort of looks like your tongue trying to say “jñ.”

How do you say it? In English, just try to say what you see – it’ll end up sounding like a posh merger of “Jenna” and “banana.” In Sanskrit, you could say it like English “j” immediately followed by “ñ” (with no intervening vowel) and then “ana” (like in “Ana Gasteyer”), but you could also say it like “gyana” – the affricate-nasal-palatal sequence becoming one, sort of, as a palatalized stop, because when you’re speaking Sanskrit all the time you’re going to merge things and simplify things just like any other human will. Just like ज्ञ merges ज and ञ.

Why did that j and ñ get that way in the first place, then? Well, we know that its root jñā also gave rise to jānāti ‘know’, which shows clearly its parts, but we also know that it came from Proto-Indo-European *ǵneh₃-, which also led to Greek roots (e.g., γνῶσις gnosis) and Latin roots (e.g., notio, source of our notion) and Slavic roots (e.g., Russian знать znat’ ‘know’) and English know. It’s always the blade or back of the tongue (first g, from which k and the affricate j and the fricative z) followed by n and an at least somewhat open vowel. Same general form, same general meaning.

So yeah, this word for knowing the knowing that is beyond (or at the root of) knowing is the word for… knowing. And indeed, in Sanskrit that’s just what it meant. The word jñāna is the Sanskrit word (well, one of several) for ‘knowing’ or ‘knowledge’, in all the everyday and specialized senses, and its modern descendants in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, Kannada, Telugu, and even Burmese, Khmer, and Thai all mean the same thing and are all pretty similar in sound. It’s a very basic and broad word, just as English know is, and we know that know can have many special and distinctive senses, a few of which are suitable for a nudge and wink.

So why use jnana (our English borrowing of jñāna) rather than just, you know, knowing or knowledge? Well, it has that special sauce – the same special sauce as salsa has. 

You probably know that salsa is Spanish for ‘sauce’; in Spanish that’s what it means, ‘sauce’, and there are plenty of people who will point out that salsa sauce is redundant. And yet we’ve borrowed the word salsa to refer to a particular kind of sauce – a sauce we specifically associate with Spanish cuisine (well, Latin American cuisine). It’s not the only sauce called salsa in Spanish, but it’s the one we decided we liked, and part of its charm for English speakers is its exotic quality, so of course we took the word with it. This kind of culinary borrowing is popular in English but, let’s be fair, is pretty widespread around the world. 

Anyway, we did the same thing with jnana. All the other senses of knowing we pretty much have covered. But this idea of knowing that one is not separate from the ultimate unity of the universe (specifics depend on religion – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh – and particular sect or school within the religion), well, that’s something that we particularly wanted to see as an exotic thing we could borrow from them, like a jewel from the East, the prize of a secret journey to find a holy man. Not that such ideas didn’t exist in the Western traditions – oh yes they did, and do, thanks to our own “mystical” traditions – but yeah, look, man, it’s jnana! It’s like, um, tikka masala of the mind!* Yum yum!

Do you discern a certain irony? That this word for knowing non-duality, non-otherness, is the result of a deliberate othering, a focused exoticism that treats something that has been known in our own cultures – and names something that, if it’s real, applies exactly the same to everyone everywhere – as something apart, distinct, foreign? And with an added bonus of a flagrant resistance to our own phonological rules (i.e., things we consider pronounceable)?

But, then, even the very idea of a word and concept for the realization of utter unity is irony on irony. And all words are a form of alienation. So perhaps this jnana split is as much apposite as opposite.

*Tikka masala, by the way, is a dish based on Indian cuisine but most likely invented in England, though most people who eat it don’t know that last bit.


Last word tasting, we looked at Longyearbyen, which, aside from being a word that you probably feel unsure how to say at first, is the name of a town of almost 2400 people just 12 degrees from the North Pole. Today, for the sake of balance, and because I thought of it while talking to my mother, we’re going to look at McMurdo.

McMurdo is a Scottish name, yes, you probably guessed that; it’s from the Hebrides, and it comes from Gaelic Mac Murchaidh or Mac Murchadha, meaning ‘son of Murchadh’, where Murchadh is a personal name that means ‘sea battle’. So… Seabattleson. 

It matters to us here today because of Archibald McMurdo.

Archibald McMurdo was born in 1812. He joined the Royal Navy in 1824 (yes, at the age of 12). He was made a lieutenant in 1836; he progressed through the ranks, making captain in 1851; he retired as a rear-admiral. He had command of the ship HMS Contest, detailed to the west coast of Africa, but he had already made his name in much colder climates, as a lieutenant on the warship HMS Terror. The Terror had made its mark in the year of McMurdo’s birth at Fort McHenry, firing rockets that glared red and bombs that burst in the air; McMurdo was on it first in 1836–37 in an expedition to try to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic (it failed and returned to England, but nearly a decade later, without McMurdo, it went back under Sir John Franklin, and you may have heard how that went), and then in 1840–43 to find Antarctica – successfully – with James Clark Ross. And that’s where McMurdo gained his fame.

It’s not that he did anything special in particular. But I guess Ross liked him well enough, or at least found him to be a sound officer. When Ross’s two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, sailed into an Antarctic bay of the Ross Sea (as it had just been named), Ross named the two nearby volcanoes after his ships, and he named the bay McMurdo Sound.

And when, in 1956, the United States opened a base on one of the few patches of bare ground in Antarctica (technically on Ross Island rather than the mainland, but it’s all iced together), right near where Robert Falcon Scott had set up a camp in 1902, they called it McMurdo Station, because it’s on McMurdo Sound. Today, McMurdo Station, or McMurdo for short, or Mac-Town for shorterer, is the biggest human place in Antarctica. In the summer (the warmest months are November, December, and January, because it’s the South Pole, not the North one), its population gets up over 1200. In the winter, there are about 250 people keeping it going. It provides services and support for a number of research stations in the area. It’s just over 12 degrees north of the South Pole, but its location shelters it from the worst of the polar weather; midwinter temperatures are usually in the –20s (Celsius), and the coldest it’s ever been recorded is just below –50°C (for Antarctica, that’s not so bad). On the other hand, the warmest it’s ever been recorded is just under 11°C, and average daily temperatures never break freezing any time of the year.

Most people who have heard of McMurdo, including – I suspect – many of those who spend some or all of their year there every year, don’t know who it’s named after, let alone that it might as well have been called Seabattleson. But so it goes; we usually don’t know much about where our words come from. And Archibald McMurdo couldn’t have guessed the fame his name would gain from his service as a lieutenant on an exploring ship. But everything turned out well enough for him. After the two polar trips, he headed for someplace warm while his former ship ended its days frozen in the Arctic Sea. And his name carries on.

Do you want to know what it’s like at McMurdo? Of course you do. It’s different from what you probably imagine. PBS Terra did a series on it (and its environs). Here are the three little episodes you’ll certainly want to watch to know about the town:


If you lived in a place where there were only 127 days in a year – where the sun rose only 127 times and set only 127 times in a year – would you think of it as having a long year or a short year?

How about if the year was exactly the same length, in hours, as any other year (8760 hours, except in leap years), but it had 127 days, and one of those days had almost 3095 hours of sunlight, and one of the nights was almost 2687 hours without sunlight? Do you feel differently about that now?

In Longyearbyen, the northernmost settlement of more than 1000 people in the world, the sun sets at 12:54 pm on October 26 and doesn’t rise again until 11:42 am on February 15, and after it rises at 1:31 am on April 18 it doesn’t set again until 12:19 am on August 25 (ending the day of August 24).

Those of us who live in relatively boreal latitudes – which is more people than you might think – can feel like the year is dragging quite a bit in the dark, cold days of December and January. But imagine going nearly four months without any daylight at all. (And imagine going more than four months without any night!)

Not that that’s why Longyearbyen has its name. No, it has its name because it was (and still is, but only a bit) a coal mining town.

It’s not that being down in the mines makes night out of day, and all that stuff. It’s not that every year mining in a place at 78 degrees north is like two years anywhere else. No, it’s just that the mining company that set up on the island of Spitsbergen in 1906 was run by John Munro Longyear, and he named its company town Longyear City, because of course he did. And eventually, in 1926, a decade after the company was taken over by a Norwegian company, the name of the town was changed to Longyearbyen, because in Norwegian byen means ‘the town’ or ‘the city’ (by ‘town’ + en ‘the’).

Which, by the way, resolves what is probably the most vexing issue of this place for language freaks like me: how to pronounce it. You see, in Norwegian, the letter y is pronounced like German ü (in other words, like English “ee” with the lips rounded), and for quite some time after first seeing this town’s name and learning that it Norwegian, I wondered if the y in Longyear was a Norwegian y. Well, it’s not. But the y in byen is. So if you want to say the place name as accurately as you can (disregarding Norse intonation), it’s like “long year bü en” (with the “en” basically like as in “broken”). But if you’re just a regular English speaker who wants to say place names with sounds from the spice jars of English vowels, say it as “long year bee-en.” Anyway, don’t say the by like English by.

You probably won’t have that many reasons to say it at all, admittedly. Longyearbyen is a small place (not quite 2400 people, but more than that many snowmobiles, and far more than that many polar bears in the suburbs). But it does have one thing that might lengthen our years on this earth: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008, which stores seeds from around the world to insure against loss of biodiversity in the world’s plants. It’s located in what was formerly a coal mine.

But, by the way, what is the deal with this surname Longyear? Well, John Munro Longyear was the son of US Representative – and later district court judge – John W. Longyear, who was descended from one Jacob Longyear, who was born as Jacob Langjaer in the Netherlands. And this family name Langjaer in turn appears to come from Geman Langjahr. Which, if you know German – or if you know historical variations in Dutch – will tell you that the family name actually means… ‘long year’.

Yeah. That took the long way around to end up in the same place. And why were they called that? I don’t know. Maybe if I had a year – a long one – to do some research, I could find out.

But don’t you like the digging, as in coal mines? And don’t you like how every little bit like that plants seeds for future discovery?

If you want to know more about Longyearbyen, here are some videos about it, showing the different ways you can present the same not very large place:


“Not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

That’s really a throwback to the days of oratory past, isn’t it? How about this:

“While once we asked, ‘How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe,’ now we assert, ‘How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us.’”

It really gets your heart racing a bit, doesn’t it? What a turnaround that represents!

Not just a turnaround in the outlook or course of a country, but – easy enough to see – a turnaround in the sentence. It’s a syntactic mirror of a mental transformation, a discovery, what Arthur Koestler called bisociation, what Edward de Bono called lateral thinking. The first phrase comes along, and the second throws it right back. That’s why the rhetorical figure is called antimetabole, from Greek ἀντιμεταβολή, from ἀντί (anti, ‘in the opposite direction’) and μεταβολή (metabolé, ‘turning around’) – which is in turn from μετα- (which means all sorts of things but as a prefix indicates change or transformation) and βολή (noun, ‘throw’). (Your metabolism is called metabolism because it’s all the constant changes happening in your body.)

But it also turns around and looks back. It puts itself in history by putting history in itself. The two quotes above are from Joe Biden and Amanda Gorman, from Biden’s inauguration today, January 20, 2021. Sixty years ago to the day, January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It has not been forgotten.

Antimetabole is a long-loved effect for the mental jiujitsu it performs. There is the grand old saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” And on the other hand, there is Malcolm X’s “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

There are less solemn instances, too. A type of joke called the Russian reversal is often associated with Yakov Smirnoff but pre-dates him; an example from Laugh-In is “Here in America, is very good, everyone watch television. In old country, television watch you!” Garry Kasparov made more trenchant use of it: “Every country has its own mafia; In Russia, the mafia has its own country.” The movie Mystery Men had a character called The Sphinx who was overly fond of such turns of phrase: “To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn” is a basic example; “When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack” is a bit more… convoluted. Some other fine examples, including one from the (not a comedy) movie Sophie’s Choice, are perhaps a little less polite.

This kind of turn of phrase is sometimes called a chiasmus, but chiasmus is a broader term that mainly denotes a reversal of grammatical structure without repetition of words: “By day the frolic, and the dance by night” (Samuel Johnson). I think antimetabole is a more likeable term anyway, not only because it’s longer (six syllables! two dactyls – an-ti-me-ta-bo-le – like two fingers crossing) but because, once you know the etymology, you know that it means what it says and it says what it means.

And when it is used on a grand occasion marking an important change, it uses a new order of words to make words for a new order.

Pronunciation tip: waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals, forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail

Shanties are the thing just now, so I thought I’d take the occasion to use one for a pronunciation tip on some words that have undergone sea changes between spelling and pronunciation. Here it is:

And here are the words:

Oh, I was a sailor without a mess kit
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
I came aboard in a top hat and waistcoat
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

They stripped me down, I was half frozen
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
Got fifteen lashes from a surly boatswain 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

There’s many a sight in land and sea to cause good people consternation
But the cursedest thing that ever be is English spelling and pronunciation

I said where’s me grog, they gave me a funnel
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
Till I emptied me guts hanging off a gunwale 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

I’m a man of letters, jots and tittles,
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
But I nearly died from the lack of victuals 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

You think it’s funny; I tell you, jokes’ll
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
Fall damn flat lashed down to the forecastle 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

There’s many a thing that tries your hand in ocean and geography
But you will never understand phonemics and orthography

They all called me weak, they called me a laggard
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
I’ll never forgive the captain, that blackguard 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

Taking to sea in search of yarns’ll
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
End with you hanging up by the topgallant sail 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

Oh, I have faced the worstest riddles that mind and tongue will ever say:
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals, forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!


Sometimes you get to some words you just want to… you know… go around. Throw the reader a curve, maybe. Overlook some shortcomings. Stay in orbit around a point, or circle rather than land, if you get my…

Leaving out words may seem a bit dotty to some, but it’s downright dashing to others. And historically, dashes showed up a bit before dots to indicate omissions; they’re still used for parts of words (“What the f— did D— T— do now?”), but by the early 1700s the dots were remorselessly supplanting them to encode elision. (If you want to know their whole history, with as little omitted as possible, Anne Toner wrote a book about it.)

But let’s get around for a moment to how this function (and its dotty indicator) is called ellipsis, or in plural ellipses, which is also the plural of ellipse. Are ellipsis and ellipse related? Sure, they’re really the same word originally. And does that mean that ellipsis got its name from going around? No; rather, the ellipse got its name from coming short. The Greek origin is ἔλλειψις, which is the noun form of ἐλλείπειν (elleipein), which means ‘come short’ or – by extension – ‘omit’. It’s not that an ellipse comes short of being a circle; rather, it comes short of the slope of the side of a cone. You have to picture this in three-dimensional geometry: get a cone, and slice through it at an angle not as steep as the side but not as flat as the base (in other words, slice on a bias through an ice cream cone), and you will see an ellipse. (If you slice through it at a steeper angle than the side, you get a hyperbola. Remember: ellipsis is the opposite of hyperbole, at least in geometry but also in many other ways.)

Ellipsis in words is not quite so geometric, however, and trying to tie the function of the three dots to conic sections might lead to circular reasoning. It just happens to use the same word to indicate omission (by the way, elide is unrelated; it comes from Latin meaning ‘strike out’).

There are still debates about how to handle ellipses. As far as Microsoft Word is concerned, if you type three periods they should automatically become a single Unicode character… But as far as the Chicago Manual of Style is concerned, when I edit your book, I’m supposed to go through and replace all those with spaced periods . . . (and if the end of a sentence is involved, add a fourth. . . .). Other guides take various positions.

And how may you romp in the elision fields? Many authors (including sooooo many people over a certain age on Facebook) like to use them just to seem conversational and not to close off discourse (“So good to see you… you look so happy, LOL… wish you could join us here…”). Some well-known novelists used them for similar effect, but more literarily; the French novelist Céline is especially noted for it, in his case almost the literary equivalent of puffing a cigarette while talking. Normally in fiction the three dots indicate that speech has trailed off (whereas the dash indicates that it has cut off abruptly: consider the difference between “Why don’t you…” and “Why don’t you—”). But in nonfiction, they more often indicate that something has been left out of a quotation.

And just how it has been left out, well… There are rules about that, or at least established standards. You don’t have to put an ellipsis at the beginning or end of a quotation, even if it picks up and leaves off mid-sentence. But anything taken out of the middle requires one, and if you leave off in the middle of one paragraph and pick up in the middle of the next, you will need two with a paragraph break in between. And it is uncouth to use it to cause two strings of words that are far apart to seem connected (“To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether . . . conscience does make cowards of us all”), or to otherwise change the tone or tenor (reducing, for instance, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up” to “To every thing there is a season . . . a time to heal . . . and a time to build up”). And it is really quite out of the question in polite, responsible company to use the movie poster ellipsis, which can change “an astounding avalanche of bad taste that left me speechless with dry heaves” into “astounding . . . left me speechless!”

Which means that the subterfuge in this poem from Songs of Love and Grammar is thoroughly outré. But it wouldn’t be worth a poem otherwise:

Ellipsis that shall never touch

“Dot, Dot, Dot,” I asked my belle,
“will you stay and love me well?”
“Darling,” she said, “I’ll . . . be true;
there’s nothing that I’d . . . rather do.”

“Dot, Dot, Dot, please let me know,”
I asked her, “if our love will grow.”
“My dear, your words are . . . so sublime;
we must together spend . . . sweet time.”

“But Dot, Dot, Dot,” I said with doubt,
“I sense that you’ve left something out.”
“My words are true, where’er they fall;
not less, not less, I’ve told you all.”

And when she’d spent my funds and left,
’twas then that I, morose, bereft,
saw Dot, Dot, Dot’s words reconciled
and knew how I had been beguiled.

Although the words of truth were there,
her ellipsis spoke unfair;
not, less, not, less, had been estranged
and by mean dot, dot, dot exchanged.


Flights of fancy and wit are great, but the landing can be a bit rough at times, and occasionally you draw flak. It helps to have a thick skin.

We may at first think of being thick-skinned as something that does not go together with cleverness. After all, to be clever, you need to be lithe, and burning with hot wit, yes? And thick skin is heavy and stiff. When someone’s really cracking wise or showing ingenuity, we say they’re on fire, and how can you be on fire if you’re all callused?

Well. You tell me how you can survive being on fire if you’re not. And if you’ve been on fire a few times and come out of it intact, I’m willing to bet your skin is not too thin.

This is why this word, callid, which means ‘crafty’ or ‘cunning’ (when it’s used at all, which is seldom anymore), does not trace to Latin calidus, ‘warm, hot, on fire’. No, it is from callidus, which means ‘clever, ingenious, crafty’ and – most to the point – ‘wise from experience’. And it is formed in turn from the verb callere, meaning ‘harden’. That root also gives us the (rarely used) noun and adjective callent, meaning ‘[one] knowledgeable or skilled in a particular area’ – and also the noun callus and the adjective callous.

We don’t think of a “callous” person as crafty or cunning, of course; we think of them as uncaring. And yet you can be said to be “thick-skinned” and still be likeable and thoughtful – and even caring. You are experienced to the point of being largely impervious to hurts to yourself, but you are not necessarily uncaring towards others. Funny how words that literally mean the same thing can have such different isotopes of sense.

And while callous humour is unpleasant and not really funny, people who are thick-skinned are more likely to be able to laugh at themselves, and to take risks and not be afraid of a bit of friction. A good and experienced cook probably has tough skin on skilled hands. What is calidus can thicken the skin and make it callidus. Wisdom means experience, means some amount of learned durability.

Look at it another way: we don’t really expect someone to be usefully quick-witted and inventive if they’re thin-skinned, do we?


Sometimes circumstances can make us look a little exotic, perhaps even to the point of unrecognizability. Just yesterday I happened to encounter someone I’d known for about 23 years – since she was very young – and she didn’t recognize me at all at first. I chalk it up to my plague-length hair, though the mask I was wearing might not have helped. Well, at least it wasn’t because I looked, you know, terrible, as in unhealthy or something. (I am older than I once was, but younger than I’ll be. That’s not unusual.) Honestly, even without masks or unreaped hair we can look different. I’ve seen pictures of people made up for attending a wedding and would never have known it was them if they hadn’t been tagged in the photo on Facebook. And I’ve seen people who’ve long been unwell and they can truly be changed.

That can happen to words, too. It’s a frequent occurrence for people to get a word just slightly wrong. I watched a couple of people lose hundreds of dollars that way on Jeopardy! tonight. If the word is well known, well, it might be recognized anyway; though it won’t win you the money, they’ll know what you’re saying: the overall shape will be close enough – after changes upon changes, words are more or less the same. But if the word is rare, some exotic lexeme from the bibliotechnical jewel box, it might be quite hard to pick out. Sometimes it looks worse, sometimes better, sometimes just… different. And sometimes that can make a whole new word.

Consider katexic. David Foster Wallace used the word in a description of Goran Ivanisevic:

Goran Ivanisevic is large and tan and surprisingly good-looking—at least for a Croat; I always imagine Croats looking ravaged and katexic and like somebody out of a Munch lithograph.

We can guess by context that “looking . . . katexic” means, approximately, “looking like shit.” All that remains to be determined is the specific lexicosemantic scatology. (Just by the way, I worked with a number of Croatians years ago, and overall they were good-looking and healthy. So DFW was just being a dick here. Shocking.)

But if we look up katexic, we do not find it. If we Google it, all we find is articles discussing what the heck it means. It’s sort of like classiomatic: a word that only exists through a misunderstanding, and is only perpetuated by people trying to get their fingers in to unknot it.

But it tickled my mind in just the right way, because I am a weirdo, specifically the kind of weirdo who goes rambling through dictionaries looking for words that crunch in my mouth and mind like snack food. And so I headed right away to my little vignette on cachexy, of which the adjectival form is cachexic. Since the ch is said as “k” you can see how DFW, by dissimilation, could arrive at t for it. (I can also picture an editor putting a note on it: “Is this the right word? Can’t find in dictionary” and DFW writing in response “Get a better dictionary. STET.”) And what does cachexy mean? Malaise. General ill health. Weight loss, muscle atrophy. Feeling – and looking – like caca.

Can we confirm that this is what Wallace wanted? Well, as is pointed out on Wordnik, he used the word again, with one difference in spelling, in Infinite Jest (one of the most accurate book titles going, at least the Infinite part, because most readers never get to the end):

Joelle is surrounded by catexic newcomers crossing and uncrossing their legs every few seconds and sniffing compulsively and looking like they’re wearing everything they own.

This is on page 707, if you want to flip to it in your copy. The setting is a meeting of the Narcotics Anonymous splinter group Cocaine Anonymous. Which really kinda undermines speculations about it coming from katexis, which is normally rendered cathexis now and refers to investing libidinal energy into the mental representation of person or thing. The contexts also don’t work well with an origin tracing to katexoken (also spelled catexochen), meaning ‘preeminently’.

No, I can say with some confidence that, just as a person may be hard to recognize due to some bout of ill health, a word may be hard to recognize because of some fever in the mind of a writer. And so I see this and I say, ah, cachexic – I hardly knew ya!

But since it’s a word, it’s always open to becoming a new word. If vermin and varmintvictuals and vittlesperson and parson, can all be the same word cloven in two by reconstrual, so can cachexic and katexic. The consonant dissimilates and so does the word. A little shift of form, a little shift of usage… it’s not as though it’s an actual person with a coherent stream of consciousness…

Thanks to Chris Lott for requesting this word, about which he assembled some bits at


When I was young, I thought thou was a term of the greatest respect, so formal and lofty it was reserved only for God (and thus should be Thou). As I got a bit older, I realized that it was also used in Shakespeare and other olde thinges, and I inferred from that that it was poetic and formal and lofty. And so its use was for lofty things, including but not limited to God.

And then I learned the truth.

Many people get through their entire lives never learning the truth about thou. There are people who have lived full educated adult lives whom I have met (and even been related to) who insist on using Thou with God and not with anyone else and would tell you quite hotly that it is inappropriate and demeaning and so on to call God You (let alone you).

Which is how misunderstood old things that have lost their original function become signifiers of adherence to tradition and social subordination. (Looking at you, certain grammatical traditions and certain bibliographic practices. Also some items of clothing.)

You know the truth about thou, right? If you’ve learned French or German or Spanish or any of several other Indo-European languages, you will have learned tu or du or a similar word, depending on the language; they all descend from Proto-Indo-European *túh₂, and they all signify the second person singular… familiar. They’re the word you use for people who are close to you and/or are below or at least equal to you in the social order. I like this video on choosing between du and Sie (‘thou’ and ‘you’) in German:

The short of it is that general usage is leaning ever more towards du, but if someone is older than you and/or less familiar and/or a policeman (!), you should use Sie.

And that’s generally the way of it throughout Western Europe. Respect for monarchs and their various hangers-on and other self-important creeps required using the plural, which in English was (and is) you. (It used to be ye and you like I and me or thou and thee, but we stopped using ye and now many of the thou-revering people also believe that ye is a very formal and holy way of addressing People Who Are Definitely Not God.) 

In much of Western Europe, this distinction remains a bedevilment and a cause for awkward self-conscious social navigation, but in England they at last cut the Gordian knot and treated everyone like kings and queens. Just about the only people who insisted on using thou with every singular person were the people who refused to dress ostentatiously or do “hat honour” – taking off one’s headwear in the presence of a social superior – or anything else that signified inequality of persons: the Quakers. (Modern-day Quakers – of whom I know a few – are still focused on being humble and down-to-earth, but they use youthou has become ostentatious.)

Not all Western European societies went with the formal/familiar distinction, I should say. The Celtic languages and cultures have reliably kept the singular form for everyone – in Irish, you can address the head of the government or a priest or even the best footballer in the nation as  if you’re talking to just the one of them. And the same holds true in Icelandic; it’s not just that the language has changed little over the past millennium, it’s that when the courtly norms of politeness were being established in Western Europe, the newspapers (and pretty much anything else) weren’t being delivered to Iceland. So, again, everyone from lowest to highest, lover to stranger, is þú when addressed individually.

Which, incidentally, is the Old English form – well, þu without the accent. It got respelled due to various orthographic changes and then repronounced due to various vowel shifts, all of which I talk about in a presentation I gave a while ago.

So how did God come to be thou? Well, in the original source texts (Greek and Hebrew, and the secondary Latin), God was addressed using the second-person singular, which was taken as indicating a very close, even intimate relationship (quite the opposite of what many “conservative” Christians envision today, which fuels the confusion). As it happens, that’s also the kind of relationship that the 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber described as ideal not only between human and deity but between any human and any other human – or any other thing at all. He made a distinction between ich–es (I–it) relationships, in which one views the other as an object, separate from oneself, and ich–du (I–thou in translation, not I–you), in which one has an actual personal relationship with the other without hard boundaries, recognizing the other as a potential I (and the other does not have to be a person, either). Effectively ich–es is the way of atomism and ich–du is the way towards monism.

I am definitely in favour of ich–du relations, though I am not especially better than many another in creating and existing in them. But I think this would be a good year to focus on such. After all, it’s 2021, and the 20th letter is tand the 21st letter is u, so 2021 is the year of tu, which means also du and thou and the rest. It’s a year to be casual and friendly and open – to the extent permitted by circumstances, of course. Oh, and then we can keep it up in 2022 and beyond.