Monthly Archives: February 2021


We were starting another word tasting Zoom meeting, for want of anything at all better to do, when several of those of us already in the multiocular got a text at the same time. You could hear the various alert sounds and we all looked away and picked up our devices. It was a text to the group from Maury: “Sorry, can’t make, got stomachache”

Stomachache!” Elisa said. “Now, there’s a word to taste!”

“I have a feeling that Maury’s already done some tasting,” I said, “and that’s what’s resulted in his stomachache.”

“Just look at it,” Elisa continued. “It looks like it could be a dance – like a stoma-cha-cha.”

“Or a line of fashion,” Arlene said. “Like Jordache.”

Jess, who was in the same frame as Arlene, glanced at her, then looked back the rest of us. “Funny. I think of it as like an angry Scotsman, with the ‘ach! ach!’”

“Maybe he’s trying to put on jeans,” Arlene said. “But they’re too tight.”

“Because he’s been in lockdown for a whole-ass year,” Jess said.

“It’s the kind of word that gives English learners a headache,” Elisa said, circling back to the topic. “Like, it sounds almost like muckrake but sure doesn’t look like it.”

Daryl, who had been abiding quietly in his small corner, chimed in. “What the heck is the reason for those ch’s anyway? …James? You usually know.”

I looked up from my phone, on which I had been texting Maury separately to learn more of his predicament, since it was probably entertaining. “Greek to me,” I said.

“Do you mean that literally?” Jess asked.

“Kinda. It certainly smells of orthographic retconning.”

“I’m sure that means something,” Elisa said.

“Like, the words may have been spelled differently and then got respelled to display some etymology, real or imagined.” My phone vibed. It was a text from Maury: “Narcissa mistook Parthenocissus for Sambucus”

There is not another person in the world who would send a text like that and expect the recipient to understand it. And I wasn’t sure I entirely did either. I knew Narcissa was a friend of his with whom he was occasionally exchanging foodstuffs, presumably from a safe distance. The topic was clarified a little more with his next text, which was a picture of a small jam jar hand-labelled “Elderberry.”

Elderberry… genus Sambucus, right. And Parthenocissus is… oh. Virginia creeper. Um. Ooops.

The Zoom conversation, meanwhile, had continued. Daryl was looking at his iPad and talking. “OK, stomach comes from… well, French estomac, no surprise, and that’s from Latin stomachus with an h, which is from Greek στόμαχος. And in English it was spelled with just a c or a k or a ck until the 1500s, when they added the h to display its, uh, what’s James’s usual turn of phrase?”

“Glorious classical roots?” I said.


“Well,” said Arlene, “that was fruitful.”

“Like elderberries,” I said. Everyone seemed to ignore me.

“Now, ache,” Daryl said, tapping on his device. “Let’s see… oh, that’s fun.”

“Well, dude?” Jess said. “Don’t leave us hanging.”

Daryl looked up. “So… ache is from a Germanic root. The verb form was for a long time spelled with a k, and always said with a ‘k’ sound, but the noun form was spelled with a c and then sometimes a ch because for a long time it was pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound. Like the verb break and the noun breach. Oh, and the verb used to be strong, like I ake, I oke, I have aken.”

“So wait,” Elisa said. “The noun was said like the same as the letter H?”

“Yeah,” Daryl said. “There’s even a pun on that in Much Ado about Nothing.”

“So when did the pronunciation change?” Arlene said.

“Apparently,” Daryl said, with some scrolling and jabbing, “when the spelling of the verb switched to the ch. So the pronunciation went with the verb and the spelling with the noun, which… Oh, that’s hilarious.”

“Wait,” I said, “don’t tell me. Someone got etymological ideas.”

“Yeah,” Daryl said. “Someone… thought that they both came from Greek ἄχος. And guess who that was?”

Arlene rolled her eyes. “Your dad?”

“Doctor Johnson,” Daryl said, with a smile.

“I think I have some of his albums,” Jess said. 

Arlene parried with “I thought he made videos.”

“Doctor Johnson’s Dick-tionary,” Jess said.

Elisa rescued the topic once more: “It’s a shame that Maury isn’t here to join in this.”

“Well,” I said, “his predicament turns out to parallel this word’s. It’s the difference between elderberries and Virginia creeper.”

“Your mother smells of elderberries,” said Jess, who was getting so silly she had slipped into Monty Python references.

“If you want to eat elderberries, you have to cook them, or you get a stomachache,” I said. “But Virginia creeper has berries that an inattentive person might mistake for elderberries—”

“Inattentive!” Elisa said. “Intoxicated, maybe!” Over in their little window, Arlene elbowed Jess.

“—and even if you cook them,” I continued, “you will still regret eating them.”

“Goodness gracious, yes,” Elisa said. I had forgotten that botany was a thing she knew about.

“So what you’re saying, in your weird allusive circuitous way,” Jess said, “is that stomach is like elderberries, because it’s actually Greek if you boil it down or juice it up, and ache is like Virginia creeper, because even if you try to treat it like Greek, it’s just not.”

I paused to see if I could think of anything witty to say. I could not. “…Yeah.”

Stomachache kinda makes me think of cake when I hear it,” Daryl mused from his corner.

“Like having your cake and eating it too,” I said. “Like this word.”

“Really, don’t hurt yourself reaching for it,” Jess said.

“Well, it’s too bad Maury didn’t have cake,” Elisa said. “But at least we got to taste this word!”

“And he got to taste what it refers to,” Arlene concluded.


“It’s grand to make your acquaintance! On this monitor, you don’t look half as old as I thought you were.”

It was word tasting Zoom time again, and since travel was not a consideration, Maury had invited a fellow named Éamon, who was somewhere in Ireland, where it was somewhere past midnight. Éamon clearly fancied that he had the gift of the blarney. I thought it was more the gift of the stone.

“Well, I’m pleased to meet you,” I said. “I enjoyed myself very much the last time I was in Ireland.”

“I didn’t think you’d ever been!” Éamon said. “I happened to see your video on pronouncing Irish, and the other one too, and that third one, and I thought you weren’t nearly as dreadful at it as I would expect from an American.”

I was trying to think of where to start with that when Maury stepped in, so to speak. “James is from Canada, like me.”

“Ah, that explains why you have that look of someone who’s been enjoying the acme of Canadian cuisine, what do you call it – Brezhnev? Gorbachev?”

There was a moment of dead air and then the penny dropped for me and Maury. “Poutine,” we both said at the same time.

“That’s the one!” Éamon said. “Sure, it’s grand. When Maurice was visiting me he attempted to make it. He’s not at all a bad cook for a lad.”

Maury glanced off to the side with a face like a cat that had been petted the wrong way. Éamon’s praise was, shall we say, understated; Maury is a very good cook.

“Perhaps you’d like to visit Canada sometime,” I offered.

“I might yet,” Éamon said. “I’ve heard it’s like the heart of Galway, a whole lot of not much but scenic for all that. Nearly as nice as Ireland itself if it was much larger and the weather was worse.”

“Say, James,” Maury said, “don’t you have a book given to you by your friend from Galway, on Irish slang?”

I paused for just a moment. “Oh! Yes.” I reached behind me to the stack of books that permanently nuzzled a back leg of my desk chair. On the top of it was Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang by Bernard Share, which the estimable Stan Carey gave me. I held it up for the camera. “Perhaps we should taste a word from here.”

“There’s nothing quite like a taste of Ireland,” Éamon said.

“I’ll drink to that,” Maury said, and held up what appeared to be a half-finished glass of Guinness.

“Oh, that’s the good stuff,” Éamon said. “It’s Murphy’s, now, isn’t it?” At which point I realized that he must be from Cork or environs.

I flipped through the book, landed on page 299, and scanned it quickly. “Oh, here’s a good word, I think.”

“They’re Irish, they’re all good,” Éamon said.

“This one’s from Ulster, so you may not know it,” I said. “Slouster.”

“I think I’ve not heard it,” he said.

“It’s both noun and verb, and comes from Irish slusaí,” I said.

“Ní aithním é,” Éamon said, which meant he didn’t recognize it, “but I’m sure you made a game try at saying it.”

“It gives a quote from someone called Todd defining it: ‘flatterer who lacks the art of flattering successfully.’”

At that point, I think Maury burst into a coughing fit, but I couldn’t see him, as his camera had gotten covered with Guinness. 

Éamon, however, was unfazed. “Isn’t that the most Irish word I’ve ever heard,” he said. “If you had any more luck in finding words, James, you might make a good Irishman!”


What do you call a place to sleep when you’re half asleep?

Well, sure, berrum, I suppose, as in “Whayya doon immy berrum?” But I mean something simultaneously more and less fancy: dorter, as in “Gwan gi outa my dorter.” It’s more fancy because it’s Latin-derived, and less fancy because, well, a dormitory is less fancy than a bedroom. But also, it’s simultaneously both because it’s especially associated with monks.

Anyway, berrum isn’t officially a word and no one would understand it without context (or perhaps even with context). You have to go with bedroom. But dorter is a word, and it’s been an English word longer than dormitory has.

How can that be? How can the worn-down form precede the full form? Just because it got worn down in French, and then the un-worn-down form was brought in later on. Sort of like how you might get introduced to blended Scotch before you come to know the single-malt kind.

The Latin original is dormitorium, which is a place for sleeping like a scriptorium is a place for writing and a crematorium is a place for being burned. It went into Old French and became dortoir, also spelled dortour, which is also another way we can spell our English word dorter. That word came over to English in the late 1200s, when monks were common and had separate sleeping-places while other common people didn’t always. So dorter became associated with monasteries – ironically, because no Englishman would ever send his dorter to a monastery (that’s a pun, see, because in a typical modern British accent dorter and daughter sound the same).

And dormitory came into English about 200 years later, also first to do with monasteries. It wasn’t until the 1800s in the US that the term came to be associated with university student residences. Bedroom, by the way, has been with us at least since Shakespeare used the word in 1600s; it supplanted the earlier bedchamber, present since the later 1300s and now long restricted to royals, who at the time of its introduction were more likely to have them anyway.

The English language, as it passed through the Renaissance, was a bit like a sleepy student gradually coming awake to find his Latin and Greek tutors at the foot of his bed. It had all these inheritances by way of French (since the French ran the place for a while after 1066 and all that), but once it became aware of its glorious classical roots – and wanted to be thought not inattentive but appreciative of its noble roots – it started striving to make more of them. And education became more and more available to broader segments of society – not just for the sleepy monks in their dorters, but for the diligent (ha!) students in their dormitories.


Home, humble home, the same everywhere and different everywhere. The old inner suburbs, the city-edge sprawl with intestinal streets, and the long sidewalkless half-rural roads; the cities of the west that stop where they stop, the cities of the east that fade like dusk and dreams, the cities of the much farther east that cast monsoon rain off their roofs; the hilly and the flat, the treed and the barren; the cement-plant village I lived in as a child, the foothill suburb I lived in as a child, the Indian reserve I lived on as a child, the resort town I lived in as an adolescent, the flat shopping-mall satellite I lived in as a young adult… All jumbled with humble bungalows, the subtle tigers of the homebuilding business.

Beneath a sky of oatmeal gray, the land slides downwards from a Kmart parking lot
Into a distance lined with bungalows, and then a vague horizon.
—“Early Morning in Milwaukee,” John Koethe

They are the same aren’t they,
The presumed landscape and the dream of home
Because the people are all homesick today or desperately sleeping,   
Trying to remember how those rectangular shapes
Became so extraneous and so near
To create a foreground of quiet knowledge
In which youth had grown old, chanting and singing wise hymns that   
Will sign for old age
And so lift up the past to be persuaded, and be put down again.
—“The Bungalows,” John Ashbery

Once you’re in, there is not much up—it’s kitchen and dining room and living room and bedrooms all on one floor, and then perhaps another space, finished or unfinished, downstairs. Or perhaps there is an upstairs, spooky rooms under the slant of the canted roof, dormitories with dormer windows. And maybe, just maybe, if you are in the right place, a veranda.

How does it feel to be outside and inside at the same time,
The delicious feeling of the air contradicting and secretly abetting
The interior warmth?
—“The Bungalows,” John Ashbery

A bungalow isn’t, or is, a house for wealthy people. If it’s your vacation house, then you are the sort who can afford a vacation house. If it is your one and only home, it is humble but it’s life, and it has more room than most apartments, after all.

It’s the ragged source of memory,
a tarpaper-shingled bungalow
whose floors tilt toward the porch,
whose back yard ends abruptly
in a weedy ravine.
—“The House on Moscow Street,” Marilyn Nelson

What, exactly, a bungalow is defined as depends on where you are. In Canada, it is a single-storey single-family dwelling. In theory that includes big ranch-style houses, but everyone knows the difference between a sprawling ranch house and a boxy bungalow. In South Africa, the definition is much the same. In the United Kingdom, it often refers to a prefabricated single-storey seaside house. In Ireland, if you pass a house in the countryside, it’s probably a bungalow and quite likely one storey. Throughout the United States, there are many different kinds of bungalows, often strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts style, pretty much all with sloping roofs and some with second stories; in Australia, it is much the same, but they have second storeys, not stories. There are Chicago, Michigan, Milwaukee, and California Bungalow styles. All have doors, of course, but the Doors have a Hollywood bungalow:

But where do bungalows come from? The clue is in the name, though it has changed shape as much as the house has. The house style is named for the place it originated, where it was—and is—a house with a sloped roof and a veranda, and often a second storey under the roof: Bengal.

Yes, Bengal, the region that holds the northeast nook of India and the whole of Bangladesh, home of the deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, and the cities Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) and Dhaka (erstwhile Dacca) and Chittagong and several others. The Hindi word for Bengal is Baṅglā, and the Gujarati word is Baṅglo; from these we got bungalow. In Bengal they often call such houses Bangla ghar, which just means “Bengal-style house.”

Which, to North American ears, might make it sound exotic, and yet a bungalow is as homey as home can be. But it is a fun word—it sounds like your younger brother tumbling down the stairs, doesn’t it? But what stairs? It’s a bungalow!

So now you know. All the little houses, four to a Monopoly property until they are displaced by hotels, what each of us from places where they build them think are a defining local residential style, even as in each place they are different like the families in them are different, they all trace to the Ganges delta, to the home of the ancient kingdom of Vanga, mentioned in the Mahabharata.

You who were directionless, and thought it would solve everything if you found one,
What do you make of this? Just because a thing is immortal
Is that any reason to worship it? Death, after all, is immortal.   
But you have gone into your houses and shut the doors, meaning   
There can be no further discussion.
—“The Bungalows,” John Ashbery


Snow had fallen, snow on snow, 
Snow on snow

Christina Rossetti’s vision of the bleak mid-winter is one that quite a few people are seeing just now, including many who haven’t seen it in a long time. Temperatures have plunged throughout the heart of North America and snow has fallen on snow on snow. It’s a blizzard.

The defining feature of a blizzard, for most of us these days, is snow. Lots and lots and lots of snow. Great blizzards are often memorialized with photographs of snow by the yard: cars buried to the roofs and streets and sidewalks carved out between human-high snowbanks. If there is wind, so much the worse; you are trapped by the weather, and power may be knocked out. You most certainly should not try to travel, although once the storm has passed you may want to go outside to shovel, and sled, and shovel, and ski, and shovel.

But why this word blizzard? Why the zz? What is so buzzy about snow? We can understand that blitz is a great word for lightning, fast and zappy; we can think that lizard and buzzard are acceptable words for unpleasant hot-climate creatures; we can imagine that a wizard has some magic, and whizz is almost as onomatopoeic as buzz; but snow is soft and quiet. Unless you have too much caffeine or a migraine, you can’t even hear it falling. The wind that brings it, yes, perhaps, but…

No but. It’s the wind that brings us this word, the whizzing of the windspeed and the blowing hard – especially the blow. In fact, before blizzard was a word for weather, it was a word in some parts of America for a sharp blow or shot, probably formed on the basis of sound symbolism (think of not just blow but blast, blister, bluster, and blunt). It was in the wicked winter of 1881 that its use for hard winter weather was introduced to the broader American readership, as the New York Nation noted: “The hard weather has called into use a word which promises to become a national Americanism, namely ‘blizzard’. It designates a storm (of snow and wind) which men cannot resist away from shelter.”

The definition of blizzard in the Oxford English Dictionary, first included in 1887, is “A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish; a ‘snow-squall’.” It was that condition that Robert Falcon Scott had in mind in 1913 when, two weeks before his own death on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition, he wrote, speaking of his companion Captain Oates, “It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.” 

And it is, really, that condition that I have always thought of with the word blizzard. When I grew up in southern Alberta, snow, even snow on snow on snow, was not a rare thing, but you had to watch out for the times when it was not only snowing a lot but blowing so hard you couldn’t see – or do anything else sensibly outside. And the zz seemed somehow appropriate, not because the wind buzzed (it did not; it howled and roared) but because it was hard, like the angles in zz, and it was uncommon, like the letter z, and it was the last thing you wanted, just as the letter z – also called the izzard ­– is the last thing in the alphabet.


“It’s – aieee!”

At least that’s what I thought I heard Jess say. She was sitting in her apartment, and I in mine, and with us were a few other members of the Order of Logogustation, peering into our respective computer cameras and thus out of our respective windows in the fly’s eye of a Zoom screen. (Word tasting, like everything else, is not quite the same in the Year of the Plague.)

“What’s wrong?” I said. Some of the others said “What?” and “Huh?” and “You OK?” Daryl said, “Did you just get stung by a bee?”

“No,” Jess said, and held up her iPad to her camera. “It’s eyey! It has lots of eyes!” Once the camera had focused, we could see a word in the Cyrillic alphabet: многоꙮчитїи.

Margot, in one square of the screen next to Daryl, flinched and turned away. “Sorry,” she said sideways, “I have trypophobia.”

“Oh, these aren’t holes,” Jess said. “They’re literally eyes! Seven eyes looking out at you from the centre of the word!”

“Eugh!” Margot said, shuddering, and absented herself, leaving Daryl to hold down the frame.

“Is…” Maury said, and leaned in as he pulled his glasses away from his eyes. “Is that Old Church Slavonic?”

“Of course it is!” Jess said. “Mnogoochitii, ‘many-eyed’. As in many-eyed seraphim.”

“Nice,” I said. “Genuine typographical eye-conicity.” No one seemed to recognize the clever pun I had just made.

Elisa, up in the corner, snorted and giggled. “Sorry,” she said. “It looks like a potato with all those eyes!”

“The eyes have it,” Jess said. “Old Church Slavonic scribes liked to make eyes out of O’s.”

“That gives a new sense to ‘dotting eyes,’” I said. Nobody also laughed.

“Here,” Jess said, scrolling and flipping through some things on her eyePad. She held up a page of what I now know was a PDF from 2007 about the inclusion of additional Cyrillic characters in Unicode. The key paragraph was hard to see until I clicked the button to put her full screen:

MONOCULAR Ꙩꙩ, BINOCULAR Ꙫꙫ, DOUBLE MONOCULAR Ꙭꙭ, and MULTIOCULAR ꙮ are used in words which are based on the root for ‘eye’. The first is used when the wordform is singular, as ꙩко; the second and third are used in the root for ‘eye’ when the wordform is dual, as Ꙫчи, ꙭчи; and the last in the epithet ‘many-eyed’ as in серафими многоꙮчитїй ‘many-eyed seraphim’. It has no upper-caseform.

“These are all in Unicode,” Jess said. “You can insert them as characters in a document. James, you could use it on your blog.”

“I was just about to ask you for the link,” I said. I clicked Zoom back to the multi-person view.

“But these are scribal ornaments,” Daryl said. “They’re just decorative forms of the Cyrillic letter O. Right?”

“Yup,” Jess said. “But I guess it’s worth keeping them for archival purposes.”

“Well, it will get many more eyes on them,” Maury said.

“Eye eye, sir,” Jess said.

“I think I’d like to have Unicode characters for some of the ornamental capitals in medieval documents, in that case,” Daryl said. In the background, off camera, Margot’s voice came in: “Just what we need. More rabbit penises.” She reappeared and sat back next to Daryl, turning their Ꙩ into Ꙫ.

“Too bad we can’t do that with the English word for ‘eye’,” Elisa said.

“There’s always cular,” Maury said. It seems to me he dotted the o as he said it.

I said, “I think the word eye looks like the e’s are two eyes giving someone the side-eye.”

“What was the word you said before, Jess?” Elisa asked.

“Which one?” Jess said. “Mногоꙮчитїи?”

“No, the one that sounded like you found an eyeball on your chair.”

“Oh – eyey! A great word, not used often enough, and usually applied to potatoes and cheese.”

“And Zoom screens,” Daryl said.

We all paused a moment and looked at our screens. There were our eyes, Ꙭ, looking out from our respective frames, and the whole thing looking like a squared-off version of ꙮ.

Margot breathed “Aieeee” and absented herself abruptly once more.


You are out by the lake shore, you and one other person. You hear the susurrus of the tall grasses, the soughing of the trees in the breeze, the lapping plashing of the little waves, perhaps the whiffle-fluffle of corduroy walking. A dog off leash darts from the boardwalk onto the strand, whereupon a half hundred wings lift fitfully off the soft shore and, feathers flapping frenetically aloft, a flock of waterfowl fly far from the bounding hound. Your companion, jolted from reverie, says “Whut?”

You have just heard a whutter.

Not your companion. Well, perhaps your companion too. But in the main, it’s the birds you heard. A simple flipping and flapping of feathers is a flutter, but when the source is something larger – a big bird, or a bunch of birds (a big bunch of birds or a bunch of big birds or a big bunch of big birds) – the word for it is whutter. Even a murmuration does not murmur; for startling starlings, you are rewarded with whuttering.

Why? Why not. Who knows when this word was first heard, but the Oxford English Dictionary has an 1831 quote from John Wilson in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: “A sound like the whutter of wild-fowl on the feed along a mud-bank.” It has been used since, not often but enough to keep it in the air.

And where did it come from? You know perfectly well: nothing other than the ears of the hearer and a sense for the feel of words. Flutter has been around since English’s earliest days, and the whispering and whistling of “wh” is always available, round, soft, dark, and hollow, heavier and harder to capture than “fl.”

Don’t you love it when words take flight?


As Steve Martin put it, “Let’s face it: some people have a way with words, and other people… oh, ah… not have way, I guess.”

Cacology looks like it could mean ‘talking shit’ – you know, caca plus -logy. But this is caco, as in cacophony, from Greek κακός; it means ‘bad’.

Of course, that could still mean talking bad about someone – you know, vilipending them, as the kids say, or, yes, talking shit, as professors say (well, the ones I know, anyway). And back in the 1600s, that’s what cacology meant. But that sense has fallen into desuetude, and now, when this word is used, it’s used to mean ‘talking badly’.

Which can still mean a number of things. It could mean talking wildly and crazily –

– or articulating insufficiently –

– or, even if speaking (or singing) smoothly and clearly, still incomprehensibly –

– but it can also mean just, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “Bad speaking, bad choice of words; vicious pronunciation.” (Does that sound like a reprimand to a talking dog?) 

Opinions vary widely on what is “bad,” of course. Some people cannot abide the word get in any circumstance; some promote superstitions such as that you should not end a sentence with a preposition; some believe that “[person] and me” is always an error for “[person] and I.” On the other hand, some dislikes have some basis in fact and established usage. Think people most this that sentence grammar correct not has, and as long as we’re following the established rules of any variety of English I’ve ever seen, they’re right. But blenderized syntax is uncommon. Tired clichés, needless circumlocutions, other obfuscations, and dime-machine buzzwords, all quite common in usage, are also disliked with good cause.

And of course so are vicious words – racial epithets, for instance.

And, for that matter, swearwords, cusswords, naughty words – whatever you want to call them. I’m not at all opposed to swearwords; they serve a necessary function, and they do not bespeak poor character or intelligence (oh, believe you me: some of the nicest and best-educated people I know use cusswords freely as the occasion demands, and some of the worst people I’ve ever met would never utter an impure word – though there are plenty of very nice people who don’t swear, too, and no shortage of nasty people who do). But I do think they need to be seen as cacology, or else they lose their charge. After all, talking shit is less effective if the shit is just… caca.


There was a time, I remember, in the 1990s, when it was considered deep and true and honest for singers of popular songs to sing with a certain… “style,” what one might think of as “poor voice placement” and a lack of what one might call, um, “tuning.” A sort of strained half-shriek, half-grunt one might hear from someone with a cold and dysentery who is sitting in an outhouse and has just seen a hornet headed straight for him. It was not eccentric, not exactly; that would mean they were off-centre, and as far as this goes that’s beside the point, because if the fashion is to be unfashionable, well…

Anyway, as I worked away in the mail room at the Tufts library to pay some bills while I was dissertating, I would have the radio on, and the local station would play stuff by, you know, Porno For Pyros and Bush and Jane’s Addiction and The Wallflowers and so on, and there was no lack of this style. And then I heard a song use a word that seemed like the mot juiced for this whole thing, this, um, kind of rough and underripe vocal styling paired with expensive studio production values that were pretending not to be expensive (like high-priced fake craquelure). The song introduced the word but didn’t explain it, just threw it down there, which was also so damn typical of these uber-cool guys who were trying so hard to be hip it was tragic, and were so tragic it was hip. (To be fair, the singer of the song in question was actually able to sing well when he chose to, which at key moments he did not.)

The etymology of the word was not completely obvious. The second part was clear enough: centric. But the first part? It sounded like “heb-I” or “heb-eye” but I assumed it was spelled hebi. The thing is, there’s no classical root that matches that. But there is a Greek root hebe-, referring to youth; perhaps it was blended with bi, meaning ‘two’ (as in the duality of expensive production values and good instrumentals with a singing style that I had always known as “bad”). Or maybe they were just being deliberately obscure and difficult. Like, hey, I just mutated this word, isn’t it so awful you have to love it and buy it. But there was no doubt that the song was about someone who embodied this value, because they sang it over and over again: “You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

I suppose if I had already been studying linguistics at the time (I was still a drama scholar) I might have decided that it was deliberately incomprehensible, like the famous sentence confected by Noam Chomsky to illustrate that a sentence could be syntactically coherent but semantically incoherent, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” After all, the whole line I heard sung was “That’s when the hornet stung meeee, and I had this furious dream! You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

In the end, though, I realized that I had created a mondegreen (but one every bit as plausible as classiomatic, I’d say). What I was actually hearing, which even contained the title of the song (not that radio deejays ever bothered saying the titles of the songs), was “You are ahead by a century.” (Also, the words before it were “feverish dream” and later “serious dream” but never “furious dream,” alas.) But I still think hebicentric is a good word for that hiply tragic, tragically hip style…

Anyway, here, if you don’t know the song. It’s “Ahead by a Century” by The Tragically Hip, from 1996.


Is there, truly, a Thule?

Edgar Allan Poe thought so: in his “Dream-Land,” he begins,

By a route obscure and lonely, 
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.

But we know there is no place out of space, out of time. There is no end of the earth. There is no where so far away that we cannot displace it, misplace it, replace it. We can go so far that we want to go no farther, but we will always want others to go farther for us. And when we go around, we come back around.

In ancient days, the people living on the sea between Europe and Africa thought it was the middle of the earth – that’s what Mediterranean means – and the ends were as far away from that as one could get. In 325 BC, around the time that Alexander the Great was expanding the Greek empire eastward, a man named Pytheas, who lived in the western reaches of that empire, in Massalia (now Marseille, France), headed north to see who they were trading with. He reached, he said, the end of the earth, a place so cold that land, sea, and air were all one like a jelly, and in the middle of summer the sun barely set. Of course there were people there already.

Pytheas called the place Θούλη, which would transliterate into English as Thoúlē, but it passed to us by way of Latin to be Thule. Officially, by the dictionary, in English we say it like “thoo-lee” or “thew-lee” or sometimes “thool,” but many people assume the Th is “t” – which it is in languages that don’t have the “th” sound, such as Danish. Pytheas may or may not have made the name up; either way, no one really knows its origin or etymon.

Pytheas, as is now known, improved his travels overmuch in the telling. If he made it to his Thule at all, it was some island off Norway (or perhaps Estonia), still south of the Arctic Circle (as we know from the fact that the sun set at all in midsummer). Or he may just have written down some accounts collected in a tavern. But Thule held onto the popular imagination, calling us into the unknown. Poe would know:

Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters—lone and dead,—
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

Does that sound like the idealized Canadian north, as represented by painters like Lawren Harris? I think it does.

But everyone knows Thule is in Greenland.

I certainly knew. I knew Thule was in Greenland long before I heard of its mythical connections. In fact, the first time I saw mention of Ultima Thule – it might have been in one of Umberto Eco’s novels – I thought, “Huh? Someone made some myths about this cold town in northern Greenland?”

Well, someone brought myths. Knud Rasmussen did. Knud Rasmussen was part Inuit, born and raised in south Greenland; he went to study down south in Europe, but came back to Greenland and made his name as an Arctic explorer. He gave the name Thule to his northernmost trading post. Of course there were people (Inughuit) already living in the area, as there had been for nearly four millennia; little point having a trading post if there’s no one to trade with. In 1912 Rasmussen set off from Thule to transit the ice cap at the north end of Greenland. He succeeded, and then came back around to Thule again.

Four decades later, the United States Air Force arrived to bring the Cold War to the cold world. The site they chose had people living there, so they chose another site some 60 miles north – not for the air base, for the people. They told them they had four days to get out, so they got out. And then the Americans built the air base where the people had been. 

We can go so far that we want to go no farther, but we will always want others to go farther for us.

Thule Air Base (said the Danish way, with a “t”) is still there. The place farther north where the Inughuit were made to move to is also still where it is. It is home to more than 600 people; it has stores, a hospital, a church, all ranged up a hillside between the sea ice below and the inland ice above and beyond. But there is less ice than there used to be. The world there is changing, rapidly and obviously, thanks to the doings of those of us far to the south. Still, though, it is never what we would call warm, and for four months of the year the average temperature is below –20°C. The forecast for tomorrow is –32°C all day, with zero hours of daylight. On February 13, the sun will rise, briefly, for the first time since October 27. It always comes back.

This town, which was once called New Thule, then just Thule, is now known as Qaanaaq. Indigenous place names in Greenland generally mean something – they name a land feature or a thing that happens there. But Qaanaaq? It seems to mean as much as Θούλη, which is to say, nothing other than the name of the place: “According to the language secretariat for Greenland,” writes one American who now lives in southern Greenland, “Qaanaaq is only a place name and has no literal meaning.” (But The Great Danish says it means ‘caves by the beach’.)

And when Qaanaaq goes, it comes back around, like Rasmussen and like us, and like the sun: It starts out with q at the back of the throat, comes forward to touch the tip of the tongue softly at n, and returns the same way to q. It, too, like Poe, has, at the end, 

wandered home but newly 
From this ultimate dim Thule.