Monthly Archives: March 2021


Oh, it’s the time – the time of April wine and spring rain, the time of aperture and Aphrodite. Have an apéritif; April is here, ripe as an apricot, and it seems a prime time to be aprine.

What is aprine? Has it to do with rapine? No more than with rapini. Or with pannier or nappier? Not even as mixed-up doubles. No, it is the adjective formed from aper.

Is that as in aperture? Something will open up, perhaps, but no. As in apéritif? For the same reason, no, but you may want one Aperol – ahem, after all. As in ‘one who apes’? It’s not the ape you need to watch out for. As in apricot? Neither in apricity nor in precocity. As in Aphrodite in April? Oh, I hope not. It’s not that it would be a crashing bore. But it would be a crashing boar.

Yes, though April is a singular time of the year, this word is about the sanglier time of the year: in Latin, aper is a boar (it even traces back to the same Proto-Indo-European root as boar). And it’s said like “opper” – and aprine is likewise said with a short a. But while you should answer when opportunity knocks, it would be inopportune and, frankly, importantly importunate to open the door for apertunity.

Still, it’s spring. Get out of your rut and rut. Go whole hog. Don’t go overboard, but don’t be overbored; just be a boar, and pig out on April.


As I was cooking today, I was thankful that the spatch I was using was silicon so it was like a… hmm, a spatula. Sorry, I mean the spatula was like a rubber scraper. Oh… I guess I mean the turner, or pancake flipper, or something, was like a rubber scraper. Apparently the use of spatula (spatch for short) I grew up with, to refer to any of a wide variety of kitchen implements with a broad flat part and a handle, is nonstandard, and officially only some specific kind of thing is a spatula. Well, it’s my kitchen, and you can’t stop me… as long as I’m not writing a cookbook or something like that.

We all have usages that are particular to our families, and we may not even know that some of them are idiosyncratic. There are particular uses of specific words (or even entire words that other people don’t use), preferred words for things (I have learned to call a remote control a clicker to assimilate to my wife’s terminology), ways of saying things (my typical vowel slur to my wife, /jɐ̃iʔɘʔ/, meaning “you gonna eat that?”), and also certain expected locutionary turns: for instance, in my childhood, as the car pulled into our driveway after a family trip, my brother and I would typically sing (to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”) “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…”

You should not be surprised that there is a word for this kind of thing.

You know, of course, that a particular variety of a language as spoken by everyone in a particular region (or similar cultural division) is a dialect; you may or may not know that the equivalent as spoken by people in a specific social set (for example the factory workers in a particular small town, or the British upper class) is a sociolect; you might have heard that the particular speech patterns and vocabulary preferences of an individual are that person’s idiolect. All of these have -lect in common, which is from Greek λεκτος, derived from λέγω (legó), ‘I speak’. So what is the variety spoken by a family or within a particular household? 

It’s an oikolect.

That’s not because your family are oiks (though they may be). It’s because Greek for “home’ or ‘hearth’ or similar is οἶκος (oikos) – which, when it passed through Latin, became the root œco-, which generally shows up in English as eco-, as in economy, ecology, et cetera. It turns out that the home – the oikos – can be more broadly defined than you might think. And also that home economics is, etymologically, redundant.

But oikolect is not extensible to everything covered by an economy or ecology. It’s just you and those weirdos who you grew up with and/or grew up with you – and, as the case may be, those weirdos who currently share your domestic space. It’s yet another way that the language you use helps define your affiliations and belongings.

Watch the ACES Celebrity Spelling Bee

ACES, the Society for Editing, has an annual spelling bee as part of its conference, with proceeds going to its education fund, and this year it’s something extra special. Like the rest of the conference, it’s online – and this time it’s all editing celebrities! OK, it’s five celebrities and me. I will be competing against Benjamin Dreyer (of Penguin Random House, and author of Dreyer’s English), Mary Norris (of The New Yorker, and author of Between You & Me), Ellen Jovin (of the Grammar Table, and author of quite a few editing guides), Henry Fuhrmann (of the Los Angeles Times), and Steve Bien-Aimé (professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University). 

Only one will prevail! But the big winner (aside from you lucky audience members) will be the ACES Education Fund: your fee for getting to watch is a donation of at least $15. It’s on April 21, 4–5 pm Eastern time. Get your ticket at the ACES website.

They asked if I would make a promo video. Of course I would. Here it is.

Don’t look busy

This article originally appeared on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

It’s a good thing I’m not working in-house anymore. I’ve been far too busy lately to look busy.

Those of you who have worked in corporate environments know what I’m talking about: You can spend an awful lot of time and effort looking busy instead of getting things done. There are a few reasons for that.

One reason is that, since we know work requires effort, and effort is tiring and demanding and becomes more unpleasant the more you do, we tend to assume that we’ll get more done if we make our lives hell.

Another reason is that a corporate environment is a social hierarchy, and it’s important to display your place in the hierarchy appropriately. You have to perform compliance behaviour to show your superiors that you are properly subordinate: showing up by a certain time, being at your desk looking like you’re doing work, attending meetings, doing emails late into the evening, displaying great effort for your masters. And if you have people reporting to you, you have to behave consistently with having responsibilities and status, which includes attending meetings to decide things, delegating tasks, and making sure your subordinates are performing their compliance behaviour. That’s a lot of time spent on looking busy and making sure other people are looking busy.

A third reason is that people who don’t know how to do things get to decide how they’re done. Since knowledge is assumed to confer status, status is assumed to come with knowledge, and anyway status trumps knowledge regardless. Bosses and clients have the status and get to make the decisions, whether or not they know the most. So things are often done inappropriately, ineffectively, and on unrealistic timelines. And you may spend a lot of time trying to convince your bosses and clients of better approaches.

A fourth reason is that because a lot of what we do is unpleasant (for reasons just given), many of us put it off until it requires rushing and working overtime, which is messier and less efficient but produces an illusion of being effective (for reasons also just given).

The result of all this is that many of us take a long time to learn an essential fact: If you know what you’re doing and plan well, you can get a lot done and still have time to rest and recharge.

Now that I’m a freelancer, I’m not part of anyone’s command structure. I’m a hired expert. As long as I deliver good results on time, the rest doesn’t matter. So I can plan to do the work when and as will be most efficient and effective.

So why am I so busy right now? Just because of one of the great benefits and hazards of freelancing: whereas in a corporate environment I was on salary and didn’t get any extra money for working extra, now every extra hour worked is money in the bank. And who doesn’t like making more money?

Pronunciation tip: French philosophers

In response to my guide on how to say the names of German philosophers, I had a request to do one for French philosophers. Personal experience tells me that giving pronunciation tips for French words or names is a good way to get into an argument – probably with another English speaker who is very confident in French pronunciation but shouldn’t be (although French speakers are also known for having little leeway for deviation from what each considers the best French, even though it varies quite a bit from person to person). But what the heck. It’s fun. And at the very least, it will help English speakers who really aren’t sure. So here you go: the full names of Abélard, Althusser, Bachelard, Barthes, Bataille, Baudrillard, de Beauvoir, Bergson, Bourdieu, Brunschvicg, Camus, Canguilhem, Cavaillès, Cixous, Comte, Debord, Deleuze, Derrida, Descartes, Diderot, Duhem, Foucault, Gilson, Kojève, Lacan, Levinas, Lévi-Strauss, Lyotard, Macherey, Malebranche, Merleau-Ponty, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Poincaré, Ricœur, Rousseau, Sartre, Saussure, Tocqueville, Voltaire, Vuillemin, and Wahl.


As I said in my tasting of chorizo, this week we’re having paella. Or is it? Does it qualify?

I don’t mean the absence of shellfish – that’s characteristic of a regional version of paella, but it’s not universal; this dish has many variations. But there’s one thing that doesn’t vary about this dish: the dish.

By which I mean the dish it’s made in. Or, in this case, the pan. You tell me if you can have a tuna casserole that’s not made in a casserole, or a beef skillet that’s not made on a skillet, or a chicken tajine that’s not served in a tajine, or pork skewers that aren’t cooked on skewers. But I made my paella in a nonstick electric pan, one shaped like a rounded square, and that is definitely not a paella.

Because, yes, a paella is a pan: a large shallow round metal pan with two handles. And when you cook the rice and all the other goodies in it, you don’t stir them after a certain point, so that the bottom develops a browned crust (which loosens up when you let it sit for several minutes after cooking); this does not happen in my nonstick pan. (But I couldn’t fit it all in my iron skillet.) 

So. I may have used exactly the right kind of rice (in fact, I did), and saffron, and various necessary vegetables, plus chicken, not to mention the chorizo, but would I call creamed tuna with noodles cooked in a saucepan on a stovetop a casserole? (On the other hand, there is “stovetop stuffing…”) Also, it wasn’t made in Spain by a Spanish person, but so it goes. 

We know paella as a Spanish word, which means that it’s said with the ll as like “y” – so “pa-eh-ya,” ish. But the word paella came into Spanish from Catalan, just as the culinary item made it in did, and in Catalan the ll is said sort of like in English million, or more like Italian voglio (if you don’t speak Italian, you won’t get it quite right, though). Catalan, in turn, got it from Old French paelle (which became modern French poêle, by the way), which in turn came from Latin patella.

Patella! What has this to do with kneecaps? Just that they’re shaped like a concave dish. Patella is in its turn a diminutive of patina, which is also a word for a broad, shallow dish or pan. (Patina refers in English to tarnish such as one may find on a metal pan, and it gained that sense by transference, rather as paella and casserole and all those other things came to name foods served in the dishes.) Patina in its turn descended to various words in various European languages, mostly for a pan-like dish.

One of those words, in fact, is probably pan. I say “probably” because the route from patina to pan is a windy and mysterious one by way of Old High German and Proto-Germanic. But the evidence is suggestive and the derivation is plausible. So pan is, in its way, the English for paella. And since the evidence is even more suggestive and the derivation even more plausible that what I made for suppers this week is based on Catalan paella, if a pan is, more or less, a paella, do I get away with it? Hmm…

Well, maybe next week I’ll make a casserole. If I do, I’ll probably use my slow cooker. …What?


For this week’s suppers, I made a version of paella – though, since I used a nonstick electric pan, I suppose I should call it electric paella, or maybe something else, like electric barbarella. I make one dish on Sunday to last a few days, and don’t worry, I didn’t use any seafood in it (paella doesn’t have to have seafood). But I did use chorizo. Because of course I did.

There are two things no one seems to know about chorizo: what’s in it, and how to say it. I’m not going to get too far into the first – it has pork and paprika and usually garlic and lots of other good things, varying widely through the many places it’s made, but come on, it’s a sausage. But I will spend a moment on the second.

Let me start by saying that chorizo is not an Italian word. The ch is not said like “k,” and the z is by no means to be said as it would be in Italian. No, it’s a Spanish word. And the letter z in Spanish words offers multiple levels of opportunity for English speakers to be pretentious or at least self-conscious. First, in the Americas, we know – or should know – that in Latin American Spanish, z is said like “s” everywhere all the time. But second, those who know about European Spanish know that in the standard variety, z is said like “th” as in “thin” everywhere all the time. (There are stories about how this came to be, but I have the sense they’re about as reliable as the ingredient list on a package of sausages.) So you can say /t͡ʃoˈɾiso/ or you can say /t͡ʃoˈɾiθo/.

Or you can be an English speaker speaking yet another word we’ve long since stolen from another language and say it like an English word, with the z sounding like “z”: /t͡ʃəˈɹi.zoʊ/. Yeah, yeah, we know the source of the word and it’s right there and we can try to honour that source, but have you stopped and taken a look at all the different places English words come from? Our language’s vocabulary is like if someone bought a full lunch from every establishment in a food court and dumped them all into the same big shopping bag. So if you say chorizo with the z as “z” there are other things to feel bad about (especially if you eat the whole shoppingbagfull). It’s better than trying to say it as though it were from a language it’s not even from, anyway.

Here, listen to my butcher say it (and several other things):

Speaking of where it’s from, though… Yeah, this is a Spanish word; it has a Portuguese cognate, chouriço, as well as equivalents in Catalan (xoriço), Galician (chourizo), and Basque (txorizo; yes, an unrelated language, but it’s right there). But since it’s present throughout Iberia, it must come from Latin… right?

Yeah, probably, in the same way as a chorizo comes from a pig. What I have in my paella doesn’t oink or have a curly tail, and the word chorizo doesn’t look a whole lot like salsicia, yet the package label (i.e., the etymologies in available sources) would have us believe that’s the source, um, probably. It may have come via a medial Portuguese souriço, though sources seem to insist that Portuguese chouriço comes from chorizo… hmm. But anyway, salsicia is also the source of Italian salsiccia (clearly), French saucisse, and English sausage. Every one a wiener. (Sorry, not true; couldn’t resist the joke, but it’s not the wurst that could happen either.) And salsicia comes from Latin salsus, which means ‘salted’; that in turn traces back to Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *séh₂ls-, which gives many languages many words for salt and some words for some other things as well. Salsus is also, for reasons of cookery, the source of both salsa and salad.

Which, if you look into your big shopping bag, should also be in there somewhere. How about you throw in some more rice and call it PIE-ella. As long as there’s chorizo, it will be delicious.


Margot had learned a word she liked from Haggard Hawks, and she had determined to use it in her fiction. She posted a draft of her latest short story to her Facebook writers’ group. Various members immediately seized on the passage containing the word, and by the time Margot got back to her computer there were several replies.

“Great story!” commented Talisa Curdy. “Loved the emotional truth of it. Noticed a typo: ‘She stood gowling in the rain,’ should be ‘glowing’ I think.”

Nan Jenkins replied to Talisa, “Like not perspiring but glowing? LOL”

Not responding to Talisa, Mark Tomlins gave a lengthy analysis of the story, including the comment, “I think you mean ‘howling’ in the rain, yes?”

Elver Kreek replied to Mark, “You sure that’s not ‘growling’? Made sense to me.”

Mark replied to Elver, “Why would anyone stand growling in the rain”

Elver replied, “Because she’s upset, because John just gave her cat away.”

Mark replied, “Is that a thing you would do, just growl? Just stand there and growl, in the rain, into the air?”

Elver replied, “Do you howl?”

Talisa Curdy replied in this thread, “It’s not glowing?”

Elver replied, “Why would she glow after he gave away her cat?”

Talisa replied, “Because she’s incandescent with rage, IDK, I would just want to absolutely kill the guy”

Nan Jenkins replied, “Not sweating then?”

Mark replied, “More like swearing maybe”

At this point Margot entered the discussion. She replied to Talisa’s short thread first. “Thanks! The word is actually gowling; I recently learned it and could not not use it.” She included a link:

Then she replied to the thread started by Mark, after Mark’s last comment. “Hi, Mark! Thank you for all your analysis. I did in fact intend the word to be gowling, which, as Haggard Hawks mentioned, is ‘to weep with anger, not sadness’.” She included the same link.

Then she went to have dinner.

When she came back to Facebook, she found there had been some replies.

“I just checked this in Wiktionary,” Mark Tomlins wrote. “It says that in Scots English it means ‘to weep angrily; to howl,’ and that it’s obsolete. Maybe since your audience is modern and not in Scotland you could just make it ‘howl’?”

Margot said to herself as she read this – but did not type it, as there was more to read – “It’s not howling. It’s not the same as howling. She would not stand in the street baying like a hound in heat. What is wrong with you? They can look it up as you did.” She read on.

Dirk Oldman – where did he come from? dammit – replied to Mark, “Wiktionary also says that in Ireland it means ‘An annoying person; an idiot; a dishonest person’ and also ‘Vulva’ and I think we all know a word that can be used for all of those.” Dirk had already been banned once but apparently he had been let back in, and he was treading a very thin line. As she read this, Margot’s skin temperature lowered so much the heating in the apartment kicked in.

Mark Tomlins replied again, “I just looked in the OED, and the closest it gets is ‘To howl, yell, cry bitterly or threateningly; also, to whine. Said of men and animals.’ Also it’s chiefly Scottish and northern dialect.”

Jess Long – oh, thank heavens, at last a well-balanced adult, only occasionally upsetting – commented, “Oxford also says it’s ‘The throat. Also, the front of the neck.’ I don’t think she was necking, though.”

Why. Why would Jess do that. Taunting Mark does not justify derailing this. “Can’t she just support me once,” Margot said to herself.

Elver Kreek replied to this, “It’s also a gummy secretion in the eye.” Who gave him access to the OED?

Nan Jenkins replied, “From crying with rage?”

Elver replied, “It’s also a verb meaning ‘To stop up with gowl,’ like ‘Her eyes were all gowled up.’”

Nan replied, “So maybe she was standing there crying and her eyes got snotty and closed up.”

Mark replied, “That wouldn’t work. For one thing, your eyes get snotty when you’re asleep. For another, the rain would wash it away.”

Talisa replied, “Maybe if your LOOKING UP but who would look up? Oh right, you look up EVERYTHING”

Mark replied, “*you’re”

Nan replied, “You guys, he gave away her cat. I’d be screaming.”

Mark replied, “Right, or howling. I think we can agree that she should be standing there howling. Also, when you howl, you often look up, so the rain would wash her eyes and flow down her cheeks. So you couldn’t tell whether she was weeping or not.”

At reading this, Margot slammed her laptop shut. Daryl, hearing the sound, walked into the room, saying “Everything alright?”

Margot turned to face him, tears of anger streaming down her face. “Do—” she sniffed— “I look—” sniff— “all right?”

Daryl paused for a moment. Then he said, “You look like you’re gowling. Let me get you a glass of wine.” And he disappeared again.


Are we not now all as free as birds, or at least as cut-price as birds – birds in cages, at liberty to flap five times from bars to bars, before finding it otiose and retiring to indolence with a barely civil “Oi!”

Such is oisivity: idleness, lassitude, indolence, feckless mopishness, incessant siestatude. When you have nowhere to go and all day to get there… well, as Thomas Fersen says, “sorry, only got two feet” – though, lately, that means two feet of space.

A person might indulge verbal excess at great length, as a late 18th-century author in Fraser’s Magazine did, apparently under the influence of pipes and pints; here’s about one percent of the peroration:

The genius of Colburn is then bothered and confused by the diverse plagiarism, or the indolent and hallucinatory oisivity of Campbell. I shall indulge in none of these heteroclite and derogatory proceedings.

(Narrator’s voice: Oh, but he did.)

Well, words out the wazoo, or wha’s up? Who’s a oiseau? No, no, don’t have a bird – I mean, what would be the point anyway. This word oisivity looks like it’s related to the French word for ‘bird’, oiseau, but that word comes from a slurred version of Latin avicellus, ‘little bird’, from avis, ‘bird’, which is also the source of French oie, ‘goose’. The slurring in oisivity instead ultimately obnubilates otiosus, by way of oisive (and oisif). Yes, otiosus, the direct source of otiose, which means ‘futile, pointless, useless’. Like the t in the middle of otiose, I guess, for some people anyway. Oy.

But, since it’s an English word, oisivity is said like an English word. When it’s said at all, that is, which is generally never-ish. It has a sibling, ocivity, which is also never heard or written these days. What can I say – I guess, somehow, torpor notwithstanding, we just don’t have the time. 


As I have gained years and lost callowness, I have acquired an increasing canitude.

A canitude is not a can-do attitude, although I have gotten better at knowing what I can do and at saying I can do things when (and only when) I can do them. Likewise it is not the more certain form of mayitude, and even less of may-junitude (more like decembritude, or at least octobritude). It is not that I sing (as in Arma virumque cano, ‘Of arms and the man I sing’); I have done that since I was a dirty blond. And it is not doggedness (from Latin canis) – that’s a trait I’ve retained from my youth: if I have a problem to solve, I grip it like a bull terrier (and sometimes like a terrible worrier). 

Rather, canitude is this:

Grey hair. (Or, for the Americans, gray hair.)

How is canitude greyness? Is it because I’m an old dog? No, it is not: I’m an old cat, and not that old, and anyway I’m always interested in learning new tricks. Nor is it that my hair is singed, or sung of. It’s not even that it’s the colour of an aluminum can (nice and shiny thanks to shampoo). It’s that Latin for ‘grey’ as in hair is canus (or cana or canum, depending on the object) – which can also mean ‘white’ or ‘hoary’ or, when referring to water, ‘frothy’ (see picture above).

This word isn’t used much these days, but there is a related word also descended from canus that rears its head from time to time: canities. This is a medical term and is taken direct from Latin, wherein it means what it means in English: ‘whiteness or greyness of the hair’ (Latin also uses it metonymically to mean ‘old age’). So your canitude is your degree of canities. But because canities entered English in the early 1800s, its pronunciation is influenced by the usual English pronunciation of Latin at the time, so it is, officially and regrettably, “ca-nish-ee-eez.” Which sounds more like sneezing. 

But I don’t endorse use of canities; it presents a state of capillary pulchritude – the apogee of hair colour, something I have spent decades eagerly growing into – as a medical condition. Which, sure, like literally every other physical state, it is, but I don’t wish to see it treated as in the same class as pruritus or edema or, in the world of less reversible conditions, presbyopia and kyphosis. No, I will take canitude. As in yes-I-canitude. And if you don’t like my attitude, you can…