Monthly Archives: August 2021

A cryptic crossword

I think cryptic crosswords are fun. If you’re not familiar with them, the way it goes is that each word is described two ways – once by meaning and once by some aspect of its form (usually spelling or sound) – but it’s done in a clever and coy way. An example would be “Booze works heartlessly in writer’s oeuvre (5)” as a clue for BOOKS: if you take BOOZE WORKS and remove the middle of it (ZE WOR) – in other words, if you have it heartlessly – you get BOOKS, and that’s also described as a writer’s oeuvre.

Anyway, here’s a small one. I made it available for my Patreon patrons early yesterday as a bonus for their paying something ($1, $2, or $5 a month) for all my articles that the rest of you get for free. I’ll make the solution available tomorrow on Patreon… but it won’t be visible to non-patrons until a bit later.


A1 Eclipses? Take them to the beach! (9)

A3 Wise raptor or incomplete fowl? (3)

E3 Strum weirdly… and “drang!” (5)

A5 Steals eel unexpectedly, dies (9)

A7 Alive, busy, jumping—a nasty way to do things (9)

A9 Allows to buy preparation for physical with Olivia (4,3)


A1 Winter comes too soon, brings deficit (9)

C1 Nothing, just French flax the back way (3)

C5 Almost erupts badly in gush (5)

E1 Draining last of fuels, engines out of order (9)

G1 Eliot’s April in a wild Celt’s rule (9)

I1 Sounds all at once torpid (7)

Want to get things like this crossword and its solutions sooner, or just feel good about paying a bit for what you get on Sesquiotica? Go to That’s also where you’ll get the answers to this crossword… in a couple of days.

And let me know if you’d like to see more of these!


You know glitz, of course, of glitz and glamour (or, sometimes, glam and glitz), offspring of glitzy (no, not the other way around). Glitz made its arrival in English in the 1970s (yes, really), and the first quote the Oxford English Dictionary has for glitzy is from The New York Times in 1966: “Advertising will stress that Devil Shake is ‘glitzy’. This claim will be hard to deny, at least until someone defines the word.” 

I’m sure you could define glitz or glitzy if you had to… right? But you won’t need to, because it sounds and looks exactly like it should to mean what it means. It has the gl- that so often shows up on words to do with light or shininess, and in particular it has the gli- of glimmer, glint, glisten, glister, and glitter. Along with that, it has the -itz of blitz, fritz, Ritz, and spritz – which sounds exactly like the -its of so many words (splits, hits, bits), but we know that that z is there, with its lightning look and its relative rarity. Between the gli- and the -itz, its meaning shines out, sparkles, flashes… perhaps even a bit too much.

Some people might guess that glitzy was formed from, say, glitter and Ritzy. It wasn’t, but it’s not surprising they would think so. Other people, looking at form, tone, and context, would guess we got it from Yiddish, and they’re probably right. And Yiddish in its turn got it from German (the other possible language English got it from): in German, glitzern means ‘glitter’ (and is related to some of those other gli- words).

But tell me, now, is glitz good? Is it great to be glitzy, or is it somehow tawdry, meretricious, trite, excessive, gaudy, garish?

Or is it both: overdone and wonderful? Or does it depend on what you like?

Glitz can refer to the sights of a fairground midway at night, sure, and similar sparkly things. But if you look at songs that use glitz – and there are quite a lot of them – or most other contexts of us, it’s almost always associated with show business, the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood, the hyperreality of the world of stage and screen, even in more figurative senses: shiny glamorous people. And the implication is always that it’s not real at the core: it’s all a Fabergé eggshell, a gilded cage with Swarovski crystals on the bars. A wild ride, flashy and trashy, at the heart of it signifying nothing.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s why you go see these things – and for some of us, it’s why we go perform in them: to create and experience something special and exciting and far flashier than the ordinary. The mistake is just thinking that it’s real all the way down, and durable. You can’t have Champagne as your only beverage, no matter how much of a glamourpuss you are.

What is glitz? What gives it that blitz, that glint? What makes a spangle sparkle, a sequin scintillate, a crystal coruscate? Four things: a source of light, something capable of reflecting that light, eyes to see the light, and a situation in which the eyes will see the reflection in just the right way. It’s just like a word such as glitz: we have the sounds, the letters to represent them, a person to read the letters, and a language usage context in which that sound and spelling shines forth as the meaning. Take away any of those and it falls flat.

So enjoy it while you get it. And if it’s not what you want, don’t worry – it won’t last. Glitz flits to and from the spots it fits.


As I think you know, I love words. Like many people, I also love flowers. And you may infer from various word tastings I’ve done that I love words for flowers. So it would follow, then, that I am very good at naming flowers, right?

Nah. I’m terrible at it. Odds of my successfully naming a flower on sight are very low. But what does it matter? They don’t come when you call them.

Don’t I need to know the names of flowers when buying them? I guess so. When I’m buying cut flowers, they all have the same name, and yet it always seems to work, because the name is “those ones.” And when I’m buying flowers to grow at home…

…ha ha, trick question. I have never bought flowers to grow at home. I have some plants, sure, of the kind I’m unlikely to kill while growing them inside a high-rise apartment (without a balcony). Flowers are more daunting to me.

And yet, as I said above, I love flowers. I grew up in a house filled with flowers and other plants. My mother has one of the greenest thumbs you could ask for. I’m sure she knows the names of a great many flowers, since that makes it much easier to buy them and to find information on caring for them. For my part, I have taken pictures of them, such as the photos I’ve included here, all of which I took as a teenager in 1985 (with my dad’s Nikon F2 – but that’s another story). I have many more on my Flickr.

Don’t I need to know their names if I’m taking pictures of them? Nah, not unless I’m doing it for documentary purposes. A picture is not worth a thousand words, you know. A picture is not worth words and words are not worth pictures. There is no exchange rate. You may as well try to convert a novel to a symphony, or a sculpture to a perfume. One can inspire the other, yes, but one can never contain or match the other. And it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a visual experience without getting words tangled up in it. Can you imagine going up to a bellflower and saying, “OK, but what’s it about?”

But I do have a word for you, a word related to flowers. It’s a word for a gift my mother gave to me: anthophilia.

Is anthophilia a kind of flower? No. Does it have to do with ants? N— well, I suppose if they like flowers it does. You may recognize the -philia part, which denotes loving (or being attracted to, as in hydrophilia). It’s from a Classical Greek root. So is antho-, which comes from ἄνθος, ‘flower’ (and yes, you see it in chrysanthemum and anthurium). 

So anthophilia means ‘love of flowers’. A person who loves flowers may be said to be anthophilous or to be an anthophile (both of which terms are, I should say, most often applied to insects, though they probably don’t know or care).

My mother, a first-rate anthophile, still has the gift of growing beautiful flowers, a gift that gives to others who get to see the results. The gift of anthophilia she gave me has flowered into a lifelong love for flowers – not for growing them or analyzing them, but just for enjoying them. (My wife also enjoys them, which makes me happy.) 

But while I am not a flower gardener, I am a word gardener, so the gift I can give back to my mother is a garden or bouquet of words, and photos. And since today is her 80th birthday, I have put together today’s word tasting for her. Happy birthday, Mom!


It’s hot, sticky, humid, sweaty. Time to dive, time to get wet, time to hurl yourself off a pier or quay or jetty or wharf or convenient boulder into a fresh cool lake. Lunge, take the plunge, splash: splunge.

Is that a word, splunge? It is now – but, more to the point, it has been for a couple of centuries. Oxford’s first citation is from 1839, but the quotation treats it as already existing: “Here are two real American words:—‘Sloping’—for slinking away; ‘Splunging’, like a porpoise.” Splunge shows up in various American books of the 1800s, especially works of fiction, and it always means just what it sounds like it means.

Which, by the way, is what? Oxford declares the origin to be “imitative,” but let’s be honest about what it’s imitating. Yes, you can say that splunging into water sounds like “splunge,” but you could as soon say it sounds like “plush” or “kaff” or any of quite a few other onomatopoeics. Splunge has a conventional form shaped by precedent: it imitates not just a sound, but another word – or, really, more than one word. 

It draws on plunge, of course, which has been in English since at least the 1300s, and came from Norman French, which had had it at least a couple of centuries already by then; it probably traced ultimately to the same Latin root (meaning ‘lead’, as in the metal) that gives us plumb. (Lunge, incidentally, didn’t hit English until the 1700s, at first as a fencing term trimmed down from allonge.) But it got that initial s from somewhere too. Splash has been around since the late 1600s, and it was formed by adding s to plash, which has been around since at least the mid-1500s, so we already had a model to follow. Various other spl- words have hit the scene over the centuries, and roughly half of them have to do with something wet and messy; the remainder include some other words with similar expressive aspect, such as split and splendid. It only makes sense that we would take plunge and add an s; really, we were bound to take the leap sooner or later.

So, yes, diving into water – especially deep water – has a certain “splunge!” about it, but in part that’s because we’re used to such a thing being expressed by words of similar sound. Why not splunge where others have splunged before? It wouldn’t be the first time anyone had given in to pier pressure… I mean peer pressure, I’m sure. We could equally say dive or immerse (from Latin mergo, ‘I dive’), or if we wanted to imitate the act and sound we could call it weeooo-froosh or something like that. But, since splunge is available, like a body of deep cool water for leaping into on a hot day, and a suitable spot for jumping in, why not avail ourselves of it?


The island is a jewel, and full of delight and discoveries. It was formerly thinly attached to the mainland, but a storm severed that.

We left home late in the day and just made it onto the ferry. The forecast had been for rain and lightning, but, as so often this year, it faded away when squinted at. As we passed a freighter on the nod on the surface of the bay and debarked onto the island, we heard wind, but when we got to the beach it was calm and warm and lovely, and there was almost no one there, like a private resort. We sat looking out at the timeless lake, mind on eternity.

And after our time relaxing on the sand and in the water, we went to the little café spread out across the grass and found – like a mirage come to life – live music and people dancing. It was the first time in nearly two years that there had been live music there, and the next time would be another week and a half. We had just wonderfully chanced on it. And it was calypso… including, at times, Aina’s favourite musical instrument to listen to: an accordion.

Aina had been wishing for moussaka for some time, and lo, it was the daily special. She ordered it. And we learned that the draft taps had been taken over for the week by a favourite local brewery, so we ordered a flight of seven. The server dropped them off at the table without a legend or so much as even one word of description. Here: discover. A perfect cap on an evening of serendipity, like some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me.

Serendipity: delightful discovery, or the faculty of making such. Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole on the basis of the story “The Three Princes of Serendip” (an English version of “Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo” by Michele Tramezzino, of Venice in 1557). As Walpole wrote, the heroes of the story “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” The story is said to have been based on an old Persian fairy tale, and a key part of it – ignored by Walpole – gave an important contribution to the detective story genre. But I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

And where is Serendip? It’s an island in the Indian Ocean. You may have heard of it by other names. Serendip is from Persian Sarandip,* from from Pali Sīhaḷadīpa, from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpa, from dvīpa ‘island’ and Siṃhala, which refers to the people of the island – a word that has come to us in English as Sinhala, the name we give to the language of that people. The word Siṃhala passed through several European languages (notably Portuguese, which is the Zelig of etymology throughout the South and East Asian seaboard, showing up again and again where you didn’t expect it) and arrived in English as Ceylon, our old name for the island we now call by the unrelated (though remarkably related-sounding) name Sri Lanka, which means, more or less, ‘holy island’.

OK, but where did Siṃhala come from? I know you were wondering; so was I. The -la part is a suffix; the root is siṃha, which means ‘lion’. The island got the name because, evidently, it was a place where the lions were, in case Bruce Cockburn was wondering at the time. And in its turn, siṃha is related to a large number of other words for ‘lion’, including Punjabi siṅgh, seen very commonly in Sikh names. The Swahili word for ‘lion’, simba, is strikingly similar, but there is nothing I can find to indicate an etymological connection – just a happy coincidence.

Anyway, I’ve heard that Sri Lanka is nice, full of delight and discoveries, but I’ve yet to visit it. An interesting fact is that although it’s off the southeast coast of India, it was for a long time attached by a thin land bridge to the Indian mainland, finally entirely severed by a storm.

And the same is true for Toronto Island, just across the harbour from downtown Toronto: until waves coming through in a storm a century and a half ago, it was a peninsula attached by a sandbar. Many things have changed since then; the island has only gotten more lovely… and serendipitous.

Some kinda ecstasy got a hold on me…

*Neither Persian nor Pali nor Sanskrit has a capital–lower case distinction, but I’ve capitalized the word in each transliteration just to indicate it’s a proper noun.


When is the same kind not the same kind?

There are many words that have meant one thing, have come to be used mainly in one way, and through misgrasping of their common mode of appearance have gained a different common sense. Internecine is one such, a word originally meaning ‘devastating, very destructive, killing many’ but, through misunderstanding of its inter – used in this case as an intensive in Latin – come to be understood as ‘mutually destructive’. Prodigal is another, thanks to the parable of the prodigal son; its original and still occasional use is ‘lavish’ or ‘extravagant’, but now most users think it means ‘wayward’. And of course thou, originally a familiar pronoun applied to individuals of equal or lesser status, has – through persisting only in Biblical and poetic contexts – come to be seen by many as a particularly exalting term of address.

Well, ilk is another of that ilk.

We don’t use ilk often these days, but when we do, it’s nearly always in phrases such as all of his ilk or others of their ilk or with an adjective inserted, such as his ideological ilk or her communist ilk or their libertarian ilk. And nearly always it has a rather dim tone to it, conveying disapproval or even disgust. It’s like kind (as in of that kind) but rather less kind. I’m tempted to suspect that echoes of ill and yuck and perhaps bilk (but, I guess, not milk) have some influence, but I have no data to support that (nor any to negate it either, though).

Knowing that sense, I was just slightly confused when I picked up a book some years ago (U and Non-U Revisited) and saw, as one of its contributors, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk. 

Erm… of which ilk? Was this some kind of in-joke or winking reference to something opaque to me?

In fact, it turned out I had stumbled unawares on the phrase that had been the pivot in the usage of ilk. Historically, ilk did not mean ‘type’ or ‘group’ or ‘family’. It came from Old English ilca, which in turn drew on the same root as gave us like, and it meant ‘same’. And it became standard usage among the Scottish landed gentry that those who shared their name with the place they were from were “of that ilk.” So Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk was Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe. Meaning he was from the family that basically owned the place. Sort of like Lord Revelstoke of Revelstoke Parish.

But people saw of that ilk and took it to mean ‘of that family’ – in other words, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of the Moncreiffe family, you know, the Moncreiffe family, that one. Sort of like if someone were talking about someone named Trudeau and said “Yeah, those Trudeaus.” And from that, by the mid-1800s, ilk had come to be used to mean ‘family’ or ‘class’ or ‘kind’ or ‘sort’ and no longer to mean ‘same’. And somehow – perhaps by sound echoes; perhaps because that as in that one and of that ilk can tend to have a more negative tone than, say, the as in the one and of the ilk due to established usage patterns that I’m not going to try to explore here; perhaps because of attitudes towards the landed gentry; or perhaps for whatever other reasons you may imagine – it came to have a generally (though not quite universally) negative tone.

So ilk has become prodigal – extravagant in having two differing senses, and also wayward – but not internecine. When I said “ilk is another of that ilk,” I meant ‘another of the same’ but you likely read it as meaning ‘another of the kind’; however, it communicated equally well and had the same referent… except not entirely, because you probably saw a negative tone that, in the original sense, it didn’t have (in a way, mirroring the positive tone thou has gained). And thus of that ilk and of that ilk are the same kind… and not the same kind.


Socially, language functions in many ways like a scaffold.

I’ll explain. But first I’ll talk briefly about this word scaffold and where it comes from and what it is used to mean now. Because of course I will.

Scaffold has to do with neither folds nor scafs, nor for that matter with holds. It’s yet another word that came to English from French, and came to French from Latin (and Greek), and changed quite a lot en route. The modern French reflex of it is échafaud; both words came from a word that went through quite a few forms, but had the early form escadafaut, which was es- (from Latin ex-, ‘out’) plus cadafaut, which, like modern French catafalque, comes from later Latin catafalcum (‘viewing platform’), which in its turn was probably made from cata-, from Greek κατα- (‘back, against’) and Latin falicum, in turn from fala (‘wooden gallery; siege tower’).

So it started with a siege tower and then became a viewing platform and then became a… oh, yes, I didn’t say: escadafaut generally referred to a platform for viewing a tournament.

But of course that’s not what scaffold (or scaffolding) is usually used for now. It’s that structure of metal supports and wooden platforms you may see in front of a building. Sometimes the building is being built; sometimes it’s being restored or preserved; sometimes it’s just being kept standing. And, less commonly these days, scaffold can also refer to a platform for viewing something, or for a theatrical performance, or for public executions, or, in some cultures, for disposal of dead bodies. (And let us not forget its cousin catafalque, which in modern English usage is a temporary ornamental platform for a coffin to go on in funerary rites.)

OK, then. So how does language function socially like a scaffold?

To start with, we use language to mediate the development and maintenance of social structures and interactions. Language is an essential social tool; our social structures may not be made of it (though some arguably are, but that doesn’t work with the current metaphor, so let it slide), but they are made with it. You want to add a glorious new tower or wing to the edifice of our culture? You scaffold it with language: new words, new ways of using old words, new turns of phrase, sometimes even new grammar.

But we also use language to shore up, maintain, and refresh existing social structures. Turns of phrase, common idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors can embed biases and presuppositions (as just one example, are you familiar with the term Indian giver?). Even basic grammatical details can function this way, as for instance insistence on he as the default pronoun (which it never was, though some people starting in the 1800s tried to claim it was in places where that would mean not having to explicitly recognize women, but somehow not in places where it might entail giving women completely equal rights – see Dennis Baron’s great book What’s Your Pronoun? for extensive details on this). And peeving about “new” usages reinforces an ideology of “old” as better – adherence to “tradition,” which always turns out to be just what the speaker remembers having learned in youth, plus some additions that reinforce their prejudices: the linguistic façade of the social structures and hierarchies that the person has learned and participated in and is quite comfortable with, thank you.

Not that all “old” words are acceptable in such a perspective, of course. Social stratification is maintained through ideas of “good” English (as opposed to the kind that people from the wrong region or socioeconomic level speak – by the way, “good” English is just as weird and arbitrary as many kinds of “bad” English, and in fact some things are “bad” because they’re not quite weird and arbitrary enough: just watch someone correct a kid who says “goed” instead of “went”). It is also maintained through taboos based on ideas of purity and sexual propriety. You display your conformity to these social structures by treating “bad” words as “bad” and at the same time by rejecting changes in usage that try to undo social subordination of certain groups of people. A person may argue “politely” that we needn’t change the names of any sports teams, for example, while at the same time objecting to the “bad English” or “bad words” uttered by people on the other side of the debate who are upset at being treated as stereotypes. 

Well. All good buildings have basements, dears, and they will collapse without them, but we don’t go down into them ourselves, do we? Oh, no, dears, we do not. A nice, tidy scaffold helps maintain decorum. And when we focus on the scaffold, we also don’t necessarily notice the structure that it’s there to maintain. We get stuck on the words and ignore the tilting tower of crumbling bricks behind it.

But the language has its own ostensive value too. With it, as on a scaffold (next sense), we can perform our identities and our attitudes – and we can watch others perform theirs. In fact, that’s a central function of language: words are known by the company they keep. We always use our language to let others know things about ourselves, our attitudes, and where we stand. Some of us, for example, will make sure to use some terms and avoid using others so as not to perpetuate social injustices, while others will make sure it’s understood they don’t brook “woke” “politically correct” “virtue signalling” and will stand for “family values” (which assume very specific kinds of families and exclude families that don’t meet the model).

And, of course, with language, as with scaffolds, we can view the tournaments of our societies, we can conduct – and display – executions, and we can show off the resulting corpses and expose them for the carrion birds. Choices of words and phrasing let you know who’s been cut dead, and they help keep it that way.

But at least, unlike (most) real-life scaffolds, language is here to stay – and it is deserving of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. And is an essential part of culture, not just an accessory. Metaphors have their limits… but language wouldn’t exist without them.


Doesn’t this word look fancy, with its little ornamental roof on the â? And yet doesn’t it also look a bit, um, well, are you sure you want it?

Let’s start with how to say it. The chât is “shat” as in château – in fact, that’s why the circumflex, because that’s where it comes from, and while you could write it without it, chathole doesn’t suggest its origin and sense as clearly. And the hole is “hole” as in hole – or, to be specifically frank and frankly specific, as in shithole. You know, that colloquialism meaning ‘highly undesirable place’.

So yeah. This word is a blend of château and shithole. It has two available senses: it can be one of those ghastly monster McMansions, wretched hives of kitsch and fugxury; or it can be a luxury accommodation, such as a grand hotel or a castle or château, that has, hmmm, seen better days. You know, it looked great in the ads or on the website, but when you get there the paint is peeling, the stairways are dirty, the tub has stains, and everything looks kind of faded and dingy and sad.

Well, what do you expect from a château, really. They’re all old, and that takes upkeep. And there are a lot of things that might have been functional once but are just decorative now. Just look at that cute roof, for instance: ˆ. Once upon a time, that cute roof on château was an s (as is usually the case for circumflexes in French spelling). But that’s not the only thing that changed with the fashion of the times. That water feature at the end – eau – was once a whole other ell of the edifice – in fact, an ellum, later reduced to an el. And that soft ch there, in the mists of ancient time, was a solid “k” – spelled c. Yes, this château is a faded, fashioned relic of chastel, which in turn is a modification of castellum. So this fancy-looking French château is a gussied-up old cold stone castle.

But we can agree, or at least most of us can, that the word château has been well maintained and is presentable. It is a lamentable fact that the same is not true for all actual châteaux. And it is also a shame to say that many a similarly grand and palatial accommodation – hotel or residence or whatnot – is not what it used to be: it started out inviting but has ended up as a hole – not just a shadow of its former self but a châthole of it. 

But at least it once was something good. Which is more than can be said about many of the suburban disasters that have been turded onto the landscape in recent times…


In competitions for certain sports, such as rowing, there’s a kind of “second chance” round for competitors who didn’t finish at the top of their first round. Rather than being brutally and finally knocked out after one try, they go on to the… what was that called?

For years, I thought that it was called rapprochage – ‘approaching again’. (I didn’t pause and realize that the French noun from rapprocher is actually rapprochement. If I had looked it up, I would have known, but I was busy watching sports just at the moment, OK?) Finally I became aware that it’s actually repechage.

OK, but, wait… is that from French repêchage, as in re-, like ‘again’, plus pêcher, ‘to fish’? So, like, they’re being fished again, or fished back out, or…?

Yes, that’s right, hook, line, and sinker. If you drop something in the water, you fish it out; si on laisse tomber quelque chose dans l’eau, on le repêche. Ça c’est le repêchage! That doesn’t mean that it’s to give another chance to rowers who fell in the water, though – the English term draws on the common figurative sense in French of ‘rescue’ or ‘do-over’ or ‘de-oops’ or, um, ‘unfumble’. If you muff an exam and get to redo it, that is also repêchage.

But what I really like about the word is the image of fishing in the same pool again to get more fish. That’s not really how it’s used in French, but it gives the other point of view on the effort – not the contestants trying to recover what they let go, but those holding the competition going back and getting a few more.

Because there are plenty of fish in the sea, right? Isn’t that what your mom always told you?* So after every breakup there can be a repechage. Sure, sure, all the people clamoring for your attention who didn’t get it before get another shot, so it’s a repechage in that sense, but from the other perspective, you get to drop your line back into the sea and fish out another. (And perhaps another, and another, and…)**

And of course you can apply it to a wide variety of other life circumstances, too: flubbed job interviews, ruined recipes, cancelled travel plans, and, uh, quite a lot of things since Covid hit, come to think of it.

In fact, since life just keeps on going, we all just get to keep on trying. Every day brings a chance for repechage of things that had gotten out of hand and slipped away. We don’t necessarily get to redo the exact same things that didn’t work out the first time, but, you know, drop one in, fish another out…

*Actually, I’m not sure my mom ever told me that, but that would just be because I didn’t ever lament a breakup to her, which in turn is mainly because you have to be in a relationship before you can have a breakup, and my romantic life before age 30 was a pretty damn empty pond. But never mind. I’m told that normal people get that kind of insight from their mothers as appropriate.

**But let’s remember, this is from pêcher, ‘fish’, not pecher, ‘sin’; tempting as the image may be, repechage is not ‘sinning again’.


You could see it from the road: a dining table set up in the field near a winery,* with chairs, bowls, glasses, bottles… Someone’s dining al fresco!

But no one was there. So, since it was just a short walk from our destination of the hour, I went and had a look. And what did I find? 


Well, no, technically I didn’t find the Barmecide, though I did find a barmecidal feast of sorts.

But what does that mean? You may not be familiar with the term. Did it feature the bodies of murdered barmen? Was it, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland, on the barmy side? Is there some barm- root indicating some pest that it was there to kill?

No, it’s just that, well… have you heard of a Potemkin village? A village that appears in passing to be real but is just façades, like one of those Olde Weste townes at some touriste trappe (though in the case of Potemkin originally referring to a deception of a tsar)? Well, a barmecidal feast is a kind of Potemkin dinner, or, I guess, a Pot-emkin-luck (say, do people still do potlucks?): an illusory feast, or anything similarly illusory. And the person who serves it – perhaps the same person who made the king’s new clothes, but now moved from tailoring to catering – is a Barmecide.

The term comes from a story in the Thousand and One Nights. A beggar is invited into the house of a rich person, one of the Barmecides, a family noted for their prodigality, and is served a feast… but everything is imaginary. The host pretends to enjoy delicious food and wine, and the beggar, for want of a better option, plays along, savouring every imaginary bite, even though he is terribly hungry.

So what’s with this name Barmecide? Does it have anything at all to do with homicide, pesticide, fungicide, or, um, can’t decide? It has served up such a clear morpheme, ready for immediate consumption, so…

It has done so barmecidally.

The Barmecide family was actually the Barmakid family, originally a Buddhist family from Balkh, now in Afghanistan, but subsequently converted to Islam and risen to a position of wealth and influence in the area now known as the Middle East under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. They’re named in a few of the tales of the Thousand and One Nights. At the time, they were a byword for wealth and generosity. Imagine a set of fantastic stories set in the United States in, say, the early 1900s – if someone mentioned Carnegies or Rockefellers or Roosevelts, you’d have an idea right away of what sort of people they were, right? Well, same with the Barmakids.

And the tale that gave them this particular fame – known to English speakers under the needlessly mutated version of the name, Barmecide – did not slander them. It doesn’t end with the illusory feast. After the beggar has played along gamely, the Barmakid laughs and says how happy he is to have found someone of good grace and good humour, and then he has his servants bring out an actual feast, and he invites the beggar to stay in his household. 

So in the original Barmecide feast, the illusion was ultimately only an illusion (how meta!). But in established English usage, since at least 400 years ago, the happy ending is forgotten.

And how did the barmecidal feast in a field I found end? No, no one served real food at that particular table. But we ate and drank quite well nearby. And I got some nice photos. So I can’t complain, you know?

*13th Street Winery, in the Niagara region of Ontario.