Monthly Archives: May 2021


What do you call a tree that’s had its top cut off?


Ha ha ha ha. But… actually… have you ever paused to wonder where the word truncated comes from?

Since you’re here and I’m here, I know you know I’m about to tell you. Our verb truncate comes from Latin truncatus, the past participle of the verb trunco, which means ‘I truncate’ (reasonably enough) or ‘I cut off pieces or extensions’ (of a thing or a person). Trunco comes from truncus, which means… ‘trunk’. As in a human torso or the main body of a tree. (And yes, truncus is the source of trunk.)

So just as we might, in English, call lopping off the top and branches of a tree trunking it (and in fact trunk was in use as a verb to mean ‘cut a tree down to its trunk’ from the 1400s to the 1800s, and perhaps some people still use it that way), in Latin, they did the same thing, just changing truncus to trunco (truncas, truncat, truncamus, truncatis, truncant).

But wait! There’s more! Not a whole lot more, but there is. Do you want to know where truncus comes from? We’re not completely sure, but it may have come from a Proto-Indo-European root (yes, yes, trunks come from roots) meaning ‘carve, cut off, trim’ (meaning that the trunk of a tree or of a human is conceived of as what’s left when you’ve cut the limbs off, ouch). And that root has been reconstructed as *twerḱ-. Which is apparently not related to the English word twerk, though certainly your trunk is involved in twerking.

And that’s all I have to tell you. I could go on about the ramifications, but I think I’ll cut it short.


“Well,” Bruce said, “if Jack was going to be the devil’s advocate, I decided to give him a taste of his own medicine. But I didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest, so I got cold feet, and then I ended up in hot water.”

It was an open house Zoom meeting for the Order of Logogustation, and Bruce, a prospective member and evident raconteur, was holding forth on some misadventure. Anthony, another prospective member, cut in. “I’m sorry, I really do prefer to hold to literal usages. Metaphors, especially overused ones, tire me. You mean to say that if he was going to take a contrary position for the sake of argument, you were going to do the same, but you were afraid of causing trouble, so you changed your mind, and then you found yourself in conflict anyway.”

You’re not going to like it here, I thought. Also, half the words you just used came from metaphors. Including metaphor.

Jess piped up: “Oh, you’re an advocate of kyriolexy!”

“Yes, that’s right!” Anthony said. “I’m so glad someone knows the term for the use of literal expressions.”

I prefer more curious lexis, myself – you may have noticed many cuter curios in my lexicon – but kyriolexy is perfectly snappy word, from Greek κύριος ‘authoritative, proper’ (also used to mean ‘lord, master’ as in kyriarchy, and you may know Kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy’) and -λεξια ‘speaking’. And yes, it means ‘using words literally’ or ‘using literal expressions’.

“Oh, but I did mean it literally,” Bruce said. “Jack is a lawyer, and he had decided to take a position as the legal counsel for the Church of Satan. But he’s also an… amateur pharmacologist, and I thought perhaps I could help him reconsider by sharing some of the finer drugs he had sold me. But when I got to his house, there was a hornet’s nest right at his front door, so I went around the back to avoid disturbing it. The problem was that I was wearing sandals and it wasn’t very warm, and his lawn was wet. So when I got around back I dunked my feet in his hot tub.”

“I—” Anthony said.

“Are you pulling his leg?” Jess said.

“No!” Bruce said. “We’re not even in the same room.”

“So,” Arlene said, “what happened then?”

“Well, someone let the cat out of the bag,” Bruce said.

“Someone alerted him to your presence,” Anthony said.

“He has a pet bobcat,” Bruce said, “and it likes to sleep in a burlap sack. But someone in the house woke it up and it came out.”

“Good grief,” Arlene said.

“Grief is seldom good,” Anthony said.

“It turned into a wild goose chase,” Bruce said. “I tried to be on the ball, but Jack had to let me off the hook.”

“It became a wild cat chase, I think you mean,” Anthony said, “and you attempted to keep up with it, but Jack had to relieve you.”

“Naw, man,” Bruce said. “There was a wild goose out by the pool, and that’s what the bobcat was going after. I tried to get out of the way by standing on a large exercise ball, but I fell backwards and my shirt caught on a coathook. Jack had to help me off it.”

Arlene and Jess were both dissolved in laughter. (Not literally dissolved.)

“Why was there a goose by the pool?” I said.

“I may have brought it,” Bruce said.

“You’re not sure,” Anthony said.

“I may have had a taste of my own medicine before arriving, so to speak,” Bruce said.

“So…” Arlene said, as best she could, “how did it all end up?”

“Oh, my goose was cooked,” Bruce said.

“Literally, I suppose?” Anthony said, wearily.

“Yes, stuffed and roasted,” Bruce said.

“I guess you bit off more than you could chew,” Jess said, giggling madly.

“Yes!” Bruce said. “How did you know? The goose was very good, but I gobbled it a bit too hungrily and Jack had to do the Heimlich maneuver on me.”

“That was really the icing on the cake!” I said.

Bruce looked at me (well, as best he could on a Zoom call) for a moment. “No, it was the goose. We didn’t have cake.”

“And were things been OK between you and Jack after that?” Arlene said.

“Well…” Bruce said. “He’s given me the cold shoulder.”

“Oh, leftover goose?” Arlene said.

“Nah! Geese don’t have shoulders. I just mean he hasn’t wanted to talk to me. I guess I might have opened up a can of worms.”

We all just looked at each other and no one said anything for a few moments. Finally Jess broke the silence. “So… kyriolexy. Nice word.” We all agreed that it had a certain something.


We have a whole set of colloquial words for distasteful, disreputable, insalubrious things that you would generally shy away from or eschew outright: scuzzy, sleazy, sketchy, skeezy, skanky, scurvy, skeevy

You can notice some commonalities, and you would not be off base to suspect some cross-influence. Usage of words can be influenced by the senses of other words they sound like, and if we make up a new word – especially one meant to be particularly vivid – we tend to draw on established sound patterns from other words of similar sense (I covered this in my master’s thesis, if you’d like some substantiation for it).

But of course there are some words that established the pattern and others that followed it. We can feel confident that scurvy, for instance, was an early entrant in this group; it showed up in its present form in the 1500s, and it traces (by way of scurf) back to Old English. Sleazy has been with us since the 1600s, though its origins are sketchy (while sketchy is more recent, but its origins aren’t sleazy).

And how about skeevy? That seems like a portmanteau, doesn’t it, or at least a phonaesthematic confection? It’s not. It showed up in English quite recently, apparently the 1970s, but its origins are, in their way, ancient and clear: it comes from an Italian word, schifo, ‘loathing’ or ‘crap’ (and its related verb, schifare, ‘loathe’). For those who don’t know, sch in Italian is pronounced like “sk.” And while the f is “f” in standard Italian, it can be voiced to “v” in regional varieties – such as the variety spoken in South Philadelphia, where skeevy appears to have entered English (this is the kind of Italian where prosciutto is said like “brazhoot” and capicola like “gabagool”).

And where does schifo come from? Not from Latin! Rather, Italian seems to have gotten it via Old French from Frankish, which in turn took it from Proto-Germanic *skeuhaz… which is also the source of English shy and eschew.

So skeevy just happened to sound appropriate when it was imported (in modified form) into English. But of course it might not have been imported if it had not sounded suitable! Now, if you’re looking for a word made up on the basis of just sounding right, try skeezy, which showed up in the early 1990s, evidently on the model of skeevy, sleazy, and the rest.

And what are the subtle shades of meaning between all these words? You know, that would probably make a good journal article… if not a whole dissertation. But if you have a sense of differences in how you would use them, don’t be shy, tell me; I love good usage data points.


I stopped by my neighbourhood lachanopolist – or so I thought – to acquire some basil. The emporium in question is Urban Fresh Produce in St. Lawrence Market, a couple of blocks from my front door, and I am on friendly terms with its proprietors.

As I came up to its frontage, I first encountered Anthony, co-owner, a fit fellow somewhere in his thirties with assorted tattoos. “How is my friendly neighbourhood lachanopolist?” I said.

“Your what?” he said.

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller.”

“That’s a word?” he said.

“I’ve been told,” I said.

“I’ll sell you herbs,” he said. “Whaddyou want? We got some fresh basil in.”

“Perfect,” I said.

His phone went off. “Sorry,” he said, “I gotta take care of this. You can find it, right?” And he detached.

I went in through the entry between the berries and the cash register. The universally beloved Fiona, busy at cash, waved hi. I headed towards where the herbs usually were. Lou, the other co-owner, about the same age and description as Anthony but a bit taller, was in that aisle.

“I’ve come to my friendly neighbourhood lachanopolist,” I said.

“Your what?” Lou said.

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller.”

“Do you get paid to know that?” he said.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “You got herbs, though…” I said.

“Yeah, whaddyou need? It’s all right here.”

I started looking through the various vegetation: rosemarysagethyme

Lou started walking away to take care of some stocking. “Don’t leave without having an espresso,” he said.

I gave him a thumbs-up. Then I looked back to the shelf.

Huh. Where’s the basil.

Fiona, who had detached from the cash, came by. “Hellooooo. What you looking for?”

“I came to my local lachanopolist to buy some basil.”

“Your what?” Fiona said.

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller.”

“You want some herb?” Fiona said. “Will you sell me some herb?” She made a smoking gesture, then laughed.

“I’m not in the business!” I said. “But you are.”

“We don’t sell that kind,” she said. “Maybe try Front Street!” And she laughed again.

“I’m actually here for basil,” I said.

“Ohhhhh,” Fiona said. “Basil out front. That way. Past the berries.” She pointed to the far corner of the establishment (admittedly not a great distance). Then she headed back to the cash register to ring through a customer who had walked up.

I walked back over towards the front corner. Sure enough, there was fresh basil in large bunches. There was also Bianca, sister of Anthony. 

“Hello!” Bianca said.

“Hey,” I said. “I came to my friendly neighbourhood lachanopolist for some fresh basil.”

She made a bit of a face. “Your friendly neighbourhood what?”

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller. I swear I read it in a dictionary.” I pulled out my phone.

“If you were selling words, you could charge a lot for them, you know,” she said.

“I charge enough to be able to afford your stuff,” I said. I opened the Oxford English Dictionary, still displaying the entry for lachanopolist. “See?” I said, handing the phone to her. “A seller of herbs and vegetables.” I didn’t bother boring her with the etymology, from Greek λάχανον ‘vegetable’ and -πώλης ‘dealer’.

She looked at the phone. Her eyes are younger than mine and she saw some smaller text below the definition. “Apparently only in dictionaries,” she read, and handed it back to me.

I took the phone and pulled my glasses off my face (I’m nearsighted, so this is what I do to read small things) and looked closely. Yes, right under the definition, as I had read it, was the caveat, as she had read it.

“I don’t think I’m selling herbs in a dictionary,” she said. “I’m selling them in a market!”

“Well, that’s one for the books,” I said. “I have no idea who sells herbs in dictionaries, but I guess they sell them by the leaf.” Bianca made another wry face. “Anyway,” I said, “you’re not lackin’ basil.” I held up the bunch.

“Glad you found what you need,” she said. “You want an espresso?”

Disclaimer: The people named here are all real people, and very nice ones too, but this particular interaction never actually happened.