Monthly Archives: January 2022

Pronunciation tip: Umlaut

One of the viewers of my last pronunciation tip asked if I could do one on letters with umlauts on them. So I did – with a little digression on articulatory and acoustic phonetics just to explain a bit of what is going on, and because I’m a huge linguistics geek.


Quite unexpectedly, recently, I have had a little visitor. Of the botanical kind.

Let me go back to – not the beginning, but as far back as I know. We acquired a couple of tropical plants last year and put them in our window on a small piece of IKEA furniture that had been intended to hold a large TV, but we didn’t get a large TV, we got two plants. One of those plants is a yucca, and perhaps I’ll talk about it another time. The other is what is commonly called a snake plant.

When I look at it, I do not think of a snake; I think of a garden. It’s a set of long green blades, stabbing up from the planter, a bit like very close-up views of grass. You might think it looks like swords, but gladiolus, Latin for ‘little sword’, is already taken. Some people call the snake plant Saint George’s sword, but I don’t know who. Some people, I read, call it mother-in-law’s tongue, because it is long and sharp, but I think whoever decided to call it that should have worked on their relationship with their mother-in-law, and probably with their wife too. My mother-in-law is a very nice person and we get along well, and I will not be calling a plant after her tongue – though I should say that, like my mother-in-law, this plant is very agreeable and undemanding (and occasionally gives you nice things you didn’t ask for. But I get ahead of myself). So I am inclined to call it by the name my own mother uses for it, a name that is common enough: sansevieria, from its Latin name, Sansevieria trifasciata.

Our sansevieria requires little water and grows anyway – some of the leaves have added almost a metre in a year. It’s not flashy, but it’s green; it’s as durable as an aspidistra, and we keep it flying. We repotted it into a bigger pot with more soil not long after getting it, since the pot from the store was clearly temporary. Aina bought it, and I’m not sure where, but one of the local grocery stores probably (which, I guess, is like having an adoption agency in a mortuary, from the plant’s perspective). Where they got it from I don’t know. The species apparently originates in Africa, but this one surely has only know northern climes.

Now, what is this name, sansevieria? It makes me think of Sansa Stark, from Game of Thrones, and indeed it is stark, but I will eventually tell you why it’s more like Danaerys, Mother of Dragons. The spelling confuses people a bit –you also see sanseveria and sanseviera – and it turns out that such confusions run through the history of the plant. The genus name is in honour either of two men with similar names, both from the same general part of Italy; one is Pietro Antonio Sanseverino, Count of Chiaromonte, and the other is Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of San Severo. It happens that San Severo is a town in Apulia (on the other side of the peninsula from Naples) that was also originally named after San Severino. So by both ways the plant’s name traces to Saint Severinus (to use the English version, which uses the Latin name). 

And who was Saint Severinus? There were several, but the one in question was a monk who ministered to the poor and sick in Noricum, which was about where modern Austria is. But he wasn’t from there. He was from… well, we’re not sure. When asked, he wouldn’t say. But it seemed that he was from somewhere far away originally, but that he was “of purest Latin stock”; it’s commonly thought he was born in southern Italy, or perhaps Africa. His name gives no clue, anyway. You may see the sever and think of swords, but you should think instead of severe, which comes from the same Latin root, severus – meaning ‘serious’. (If you want to make a pun about “Snape plant,” you go ahead.)

And this plant is, in its way, serious and severe. But serious and severe things sometimes hold mysteries and surprises. Just a few years ago, molecular phylogenetic studies revealed that plants in the genus Sansevieria were actually part of the genus Dracaena. What is Dracaena? It’s the genus that includes dragon trees – hence the name, a Latinization of the Greek δράκαινα (drakaina), meaning ‘dragon [female]’. Yes, this snake is actually a dragon.

But that’s not the last surprise. The Garden of Eden had a snake, but this snake – or dragon – has its own garden. A few weeks ago, I noticed that there was something quite different and unexpected growing in it. A different plant, I thought, perhaps riding in on the potting soil from who knows where?

I took a picture and asked Twitter, and I was promptly told that this stolid, serious plant occasionally, and without being asked, bursts into flower, and that’s what was going to happen here.

To be precise, it grows a stalk, separate from its long leaves; the stalk grows bulbs; eventually the bulbs open into flowers. Pretty little fragrant flowers. They won’t last all that long, I read, but they rejoice while they are here. And so do we. They are welcome, unexpected as they are, wherever they might have come from.


I have quite a few cameras. I’ve acquired them variously. A few I bought new; rather more I bought used; a couple I was given; and at least two I gained through usucapion.

Does that word even look right, usucapion? It seems like a partial double-exposure of a word, caused by the film advance malfunctioning. There’s usu, as in usual and usufruct and usurpation; there’s cap, as in escape and cap and caption; and there’s ion, as in – hey, should this be usucaption? That would already look better.

There is a word usucaption. And it means exactly what usucapion means. But neither is an error for the other; they just both made it into English via slightly different paths from the same origin, Latin usucapio, from usus ‘use’ and capio ‘I take, I hold, I possess’ – yes, the origin of English capture, as in capture an image in a photograph, as well as catch and chase.

Usucapion is when you come to have ownership of something by just… having it and using it. It’s like commonlaw marriage, but for property and stuff. (As is often said, possession is nine points in the law.) It originates in Roman law, which had very complex means of formally transferring ownership of property – too complex for many circumstances, so often ownership was taken to be properly transferred through usucapion if five criteria were satisfied: (1) you have uninterrupted possession for a specific length of time (one year for stuff, two for turf); (2) the thing can be owned (so not a public common area or a free person); (3) the person you got it from had the right to have it; (4) you have a proper cause for acquiring it (e.g., you paid for it); (5) it can’t have been stolen or taken by force at any time.

So, for instance, my Yashica Mat-124G (pictured with a strap that was given to me by my wife’s uncle) (1) has been in my possession for, um, well, more than 30 years. That seems plenty long enough. And (2) it’s plainly capable of being owned. And (3) the person who had it before had the right to have it – he bought it, back in the 1970s, from a legitimate store. And (4 and 5) I have a proper cause for acquiring it: the former owner is my dad, and I just… you know, came to have it, as one sometimes does. My dad never objected to my diverting it to my own use (pretty sure I asked him, but you know, that was so long ago), and he hasn’t taken film photographs in many years now, whereas I still do. And the cherry on it all is that I recently took it in and paid for a proper maintenance on it (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment), so it works nicely. Also I added that strap.

So, yes, usucapion. There is no usurpation in my usufruct. It’s the same way as English has gotten so many of its words – including usucapion (and usucaption). Consider: (1) it’s been in our language since the 1600s – generally the length of time a word from another language needs to be in English before we stop italicizing it like a strange word is a matter of decades at most; (2) lexical items used in a language are part of that language’s lexicon, tautologically – if you can use the words in ordinary sentences in ordinary ways, they are words of that language; (3) questions of ownership rights don’t come into individual words (outside of trademarks and similar proper nouns, and occasionally invented words associated with a specific author), since they are infinitely reproducible, infinitely fungible tokens – you don’t have to remove a word from one place to use it in another, and besides, nearly all words come into any language by taking them from another language or inheriting them from a language that is an ancestor to that language; and (4 and 5) while some words have been brought into English through abusive means such as colonization and have been used or altered in such a way as to have a negative effect on the speakers of the original language, rendering our cause for acquiring and using them questionable, that is plainly not the case with a word we got from legal Latin. 

What’s more, we’ve already long since altered the pronunciation (and spelling) to suit ourselves. Usucaption with the t is said as you probably expect, like either “use a caption” or “use ya caption”; on the other hand, in usucapion, it’s like “use ya cape, Ian.” Nothing like the Latin. So usucapion is our word now, and so is usucaption.

tribulation, thlipsis

Some people talk a great show about facing tribulation. They declare themselves willing to face the greatest hardship. They give condescending advice on resilience to others who are facing hardships. And when any little cross-breeze ruffles the feathers on their hats, they proclaim loudly that they are being persecuted – often using it as a pretext for inflicting true tribulations on those who are not of their tribe. And yet when there is any true pressure – any existential threat that they need to endure or do something about, any cause for the greater good for which they must make moderate sacrifice, any of the true pressure that they so loudly proclaim creates diamonds – they… cannot handle pressure.

Does it seem reasonable to equate tribulation with pressure? As though the kind of deadline stress or financial disruption we all face from time to time is of the same kind (if not degree) as the great sufferings of the ages? Well, hey, don’t blame me if you think it is. I’m not the one who used the word tribulation to translate the word θλῖψις, nor have I been an avid participant in the modern development of the sense of tribulation.

We know, of course, that tribulation is a word with a Biblical tone. People don’t use it all that much in reference to great hardships in modern times, let alone to the travails of daily life. In the Authorized (King James) translation of the Bible, it is used mainly in reference to persecutions and physical hardships that will be faced in latter days or end times – here, have a look at the results of a concordance search for tribulation and tribulations.

We also know, or we damn well ought to, that the King James Version is a translation produced 400 years ago by people who (a) were writing in the language of their own time and not ours, (b) were aiming to make it lofty and poetic, not overly vernacular, and (c) knew little about the cultural realities and understandings of the time and place the text originated. The King James Bible matches our ideas of “classic,” “elegant,” “elevated” English not because it is intrinsically so but because it is what those ideas were based on in the first place. So when we see a word like tribulation, which we rarely see outside of a context with some reference to the Bible – and which is in that version of the Bible because the translators thought it fitting – we assume that it is a great word for great things, not merely a historic word but an historic word. But what we should do is look and see what the translators saw.

And the translators, when translating the text of the New Testament, saw a Greek word, because all their primary sources were Greek – because Greek was the lingua franca of that place and time, and while the people in the gospels may have originally been speaking Aramaic, the surviving texts are in Koine Greek. And they also saw a Latin word, because along with the Greek original they also had a Latin translation to refer to – the one universally authorized and accepted Latin translation, made mainly in the late AD 300s.

So what was the Greek word they saw? It was, as I mentioned above, θλῖψις (thlipsis). It literally means ‘pressure’; it is also used figuratively to mean ‘oppression’ or ‘affliction’ – really rather like what we use pressure to mean, though there does seem to be an upper limit on how bad things we call pressure can be, since we have other words we can also draw on. This word thlipsis has also made it into English, though it’s not much used, no doubt in part because it’s so weird-looking to us. It has been used in the past in a medical sense, notably for external compression of veins; it is still used occasionally in a figurative sense by Biblical scholars in place of tribulation, because some Biblical scholars really love them some Greek-derived lexical oddities.

And what was the Latin word that translated the Greek word? Why, tribulatio, of course. The sense of tribulatio was ‘affliction, trouble, distress’; it came from a literal sense of tribulare meaning ‘press’ or ‘thresh grain’, likely by way of tribulum, which was a wooden block with sharp teeth used for threshing grain – no word on whether that was also used for torture, as was the trepalium, an unpleasant cross-like device the name of which has descended to us as both travail and travel. But speaking of fun with etymology, tribulare came from a root for ‘rub’ that has descended to us in such diverse words as triturate, trite, and tribe.

This word tribulation had been in English for a couple of centuries at the time King James commissioned the translation; it came by way of French and the church. Chaucer used it in Troilus and Criseyde: “Myn herte is now in tribulacion.” But it has always been a classic polysyllabic word with lofty and momentous tones. Meanwhile, the Greek source pressed a much more everyday word into service.

And that seems reasonable enough. The daily grind rubs us down; we all have our pressures, some greater than others, and some eras are times of greater pressure for everyone. Those who talk a great show about how much tribulation they are putting up with – and are willing to put up with – are not necessarily dealing with any more or less than others who are too busy surviving to expend syllables at leisure. We are already, and always have been, in times of tribulation. Ay, there’s the rub! So what do we do? Give ourselves one more chance, perhaps, and give love…

exacerbate, exasperate

Exacerbate and exasperate form a tidy pair, not because they travel together (they seldom do) but because they are like siblings that closely resemble each other, so much so that one is often mistaken for the other. The fact that one is a bit better known than the other exacerbates this, and exasperates sticklers. Consider these quotations:

Two injuries on the head; one of which was so much exasperated by his subsequent fatigues.

Not considering that the law should be exasperated according to our estimation of the injury.

This visionary opulence for a while soothed our imagination, but afterwards fired our wishes, and exasperated our necessities.

They don’t seem… quite right, do they? In every one, the word that would sound better to my ears, and probably to yours, is exacerbate. But before I tell you where the quotes are from – which I will do in the fullness of text – I should say that there are exasperating circumstances for them. Or, well, I’m sure you’ll understand.

First, though, have you ever stopped to look at the parts these words are made of? 

Each one plainly has a root with a prefix and a suffix, and the same prefix and suffix for each: ex-[root]-ate. The -ate is no big problem; it makes verbs of things, to indicate doing, or inflicting, or making. The ex- is of course familiar, but it can be confusing. It doesn’t mean ‘former’ here, as in ex-president; it uses its Latin sense of ‘out’ to intensify, just as the out in outdo does. You could say it means ‘way’ or, um, ‘as all get out’.

That leaves the roots. Do they look familiar? You may recognize them from their roles in acerbic and asperity. The acerb- comes from Latin acerbus, ‘harsh, bitter, rough’, from acer ‘sharp’. The asper- comes from Latin asper, ‘rough, harsh, bitter’. And yet, somehow, the two are not etymologically related.

So anyway, one of them means, in its origins, ‘make really harsh, bitter, or rough’, while the other means, in its origins, ‘make really rough, harsh, or bitter’.

And yet.

Exasperate, I should say, has been in the language apparently about a century longer than exacerbate; the one showed up in the 1500s, the other in the 1600s. And exacerbate is perhaps slightly less used, but it has always been used as we use it now: to mean ‘embitter, aggravate, irritate’. Or, as Samuel Johnson put it in his 1755 dictionary, “To imbitter; to exasperate; to heighten any malignant quality.” Meanwhile, exasperate has…

Say, what did Johnson say back there?

“To imbitter; to exasperate; to heighten any malignant quality.” 

I see. Um, what was his definition of exasperate?

As it happens, since exasperate is the older and more used word, he gives it more definitions (as it does in the Oxford English Dictionary, among others) – these three: “To provoke; to enrage; to irritate; to anger; to make furious”; “To heighten a difference; to aggravate; to embitter”; and “To exacerbate; to heighten malignity.”

What the—

Well, that would be why Johnson felt quite comfortable writing “This visionary opulence for a while soothed our imagination, but afterwards fired our wishes, and exasperated our necessities,” as I quoted above. And why John Milton (yes, the famous one), in 1643, could write “Not considering that the law should be exasperated according to our estimation of the injury.” And William H. Prescott, in his History of the Conquest of Mexico, could write “Two injuries on the head; one of which was so much exasperated by his subsequent fatigues” – in 1843.

Now, Oxford assures us that the third sense as defined by Johnson is currently “obsolete.” But it wasn’t at the time, and it seemed perfectly sensible in view of the word’s analytical sense.

However, most people who use these words these days don’t know where they come from, and for that matter aren’t aware of knowing much Latin at all. So the words are free to come unmoored from their origins. But they aren’t drifting too far. Exacerbate hasn’t really drifted at all, in fact, no doubt helped by the fact that it’s not used so often (partly because ‘worsen’ serves the turn well, and perhaps partly because it sounds a bit like a word many people would blush to say in polite company). 

As to exasperate, it has not only drifted away from that sense – well, we don’t need yet another word for that, really – it has also drifted into calmer waters. Whereas exasperated once plainly meant ‘embittered’ or ‘enraged’ and could be used as Benjamin Franklin did, in a context such as “The poor are … exasperated against the rich, and excited to insurrections,” now it’s more on the order of a mother’s exhaustion with her intransigent offspring, or a customer’s impatience with a company’s endless phone maze and hold music.

Or a stickler’s feeling towards someone who uses exasperate where exacerbate is called for: peevish aggression wearing the mask of injury. Because, as usual, when language is used to filter out the “wrong sort,” it’s a pretty fine filter, calibrated to small distinctions – including ones that haven’t always been real distinctions at all. And such weaponization of language only exacerbates the hair-splitting.

Don’t be misled or go awry

My latest article for The Week is about book words – words you’ve learned from a book without learning the pronunciation. We’ve all had them, and there’s no shame in it:

Don’t be misled or go awry with ‘book words’

And here’s my companion pronunciation tip video (also embedded in the article):


As people get older, they are sometimes thought of as getting more cantankerous. You know, “Get off my lawn!” et cetera. With age comes crustiness, supposedly. But really, a lot of the time, it’s just that they’re not here to be supporting characters in your movie starring you. You want to be the hero of your story, the captain of the ship of your life? Great – you go do that. But you can’t anchor us to your ship. OK? We spent our youth being condescended to by older people, and maybe we’ll try not to do the same to younger people now that we’re older, but we sure as heck aren’t here to be condescended to by younger people.

This is not, of course, where the word cantankerous comes from. But there is some dispute over where the word does come from.

It’s a great word, no debate over that. It sounds like tin cans tied to a jalopy’s bumper. It has an air of crankiness, of rancour, of the irritation caused by cankers. But it also has that polysyllabic machination that shows up in words confected in America in the later 1800s. So you may be interested to learn that this word comes from England, and was first put down on paper by the early 1700s.

It seems to have come from southern England, perhaps Wiltshire (which is west of London) or Kent (which is southeast of London). We know, anyway, that by 1773 it had made its way to London, because that’s when Oliver Goldsmith used it in his wildly successful, permanently famous play She Stoops to Conquer: “There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous toad in all Christendom.”

You will notice the slight difference in spelling. That’s not surprising; spelling of 250 years ago was more fluid than now, and especially with words that were recently added from spoken vernacular. Earlier spellings include contancrous and contankerous, which, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, show some likelihood that the word traces to conteck, an old and obsolete noun and verb for ‘quarrel’ (apparently not related to contest, but possibly related to contact).

But on the other hand, it could be a blend; Wiktionary suggests that it could be from a blend of contentious and rancorous – in other words, an assemblage of sounds that seem suitable to the sense. It’s possible, indeed, that the conteck origin met with the influence of other words with related senses to make this all-dressed word for ‘cranky, surly, crabby’. We don’t really know for sure.

But, on the other hand, we don’t absolutely have to know. It would be nice, but hey, the word is here now, it’s been here for quite a while, and it suits. It wasn’t put in the language to cater to your personal glory. It’ll do what it does, and if you like that, then good. And if you don’t, how about you just move on.


The medieval period was a time of notable scholarship and enlightenment (not to mention some excellent music) (oops, I just mentioned the music). So I feel that, in honour of Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus, it is appropriate to conduct a word tasting of medieval with a bit of Q&A.

Q: Is it spelled medievalmediaeval, or mediæval?

A: Yes.

Q: Is medieval said with three or four syllables?

A: Yes.

Q: Come on, man.

A: Both versions are in use. In fact, there are quite a few ways to say it, all of them established and accepted on both sides of the Atlantic (no word on the antipodes): the first syllable can be said “med,” “mid,” or “meed,” and the i can be pronounced or not (however, you should not say “med-eye-evil”). A quick Twitter poll got about a two-to-one ratio of three-syllable sayers over four-syllable sayers.

Q: What is the difference between the medieval period and the middle ages?

A: Whether you prefer your terminology to come from Latin or Anglo-Saxon. The word medieval comes from Latin medium (‘middle’, in case it’s not obvious) and ævum (‘age’). (This does not mean that people between the ages of about 40 and 65 are medieval. But they could be if they want.) That -eval is also seen in primeval (from the ‘first age’) and coeval (‘of the same age’).

Q: When was the medieval period?

A: Um. Well, it started after the fall of the Roman Empire, so the Early Middle Ages began around AD 500 (also known as 500 CE). That was before Anglo-Saxons even invaded Britain. But the High Middle Ages, the glory days of the medieval era, started around AD 1000 (which is also about the time Old English shaded into Middle English), and the Late Middle Ages – which had plagues and things like that and sloped into the Renaissance – started around 1300 and ended around 1500 (which is also when Middle English graduated to Early Modern English). But it’s fuzzy, not least of which because the Middle Ages are typically defined as having been before the Renaissance, and the Renaissance started at different times in different parts of Europe and, let’s be honest, kind of overlapped with the medieval period, because the future does not arrive at the same speed everywhere and for all people. Oh, and outside of Europe, which is most of the world, they had their own cultural developments at their own speed and in their own ways. I heartily encourage studying cultures all around the world through history, because they’re absolutely fascinating. You also get insights into your own perspectives.

Q: The medieval era wasn’t a great time to live, was it?

A: If you require central heating, indoor plumbing, and internet, the medieval period may not be for you. But people in nearly all places and times find ways to be happy, and there was certainly a lot of great culture. Intellectual advancements. Splendid art. Excellent music. Here, listen to this.

Q: But weren’t they the “dark ages”?

A: You’re thinking of the Early Middle Ages, which are sometimes called the “dark ages” not because they were dim and nasty but just because we don’t have all that much surviving information from the time – more gets dug up (literally) every year, but, you know, it was a while ago, and not nearly as many things got written down then, either.

Q: So you’re saying the medieval era wasn’t evil.

A: Not medi-evil, not maxi-evil, just people being people. It had its wars and nasty politics and so on, to be sure, but so do we. And yes, we know more and understand more now than they did then, but they knew more and understood more than the people who came before them. Just bad luck that medieval sounds that way.


In ancient Rome, there was a tavern that operated under the sign of a sea monster. It was run by a woman who was of an especially cheery disposition. When you came to the sign of the sea monster – the cetus – no matter what the problem, the woman of the tavern – the copa – could make it perfectly fine. And since Latin for “female tavern keeper of the sea monster” is copa ceti, the state of being absolutely fine came to be called copacetic.

That story is 100% false. I just made it up.

But why not? There are at least five other stories about the origin of the word copacetic, and there’s no solid reason to think that any of them are true. Some of them are no less unlikely than the one I just laid before you (in fact, three of them set off my etymological BS detector so much I have to pull its needle out of the opposite wall). 

But, you know, that’s a thing people do: when they don’t know where a word comes from (even sometimes if some people do know), they make up stories. Most often those stories follow on a resemblance of the sound to the sounds of words in some other languages that have, however, no demonstrated connection to the origin of the word. (A popular truism is historical linguistics is “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.”)*

Well, fine. What we do know is that the first known published use of copacetic was in a 1919 biography of Abraham Lincoln, though the book implied that it was a known colloquial turn of phrase. And we know that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a (perhaps the) early major popularizer of the word. In fact, he claimed to have made it up when he was working as a shoeshine boy in Richmond, Virginia – but it’s possible he may have heard it and forgotten that he had; other people from his time and place suggested that it was already around.

We also know that while the spelling has standardized to copacetic in more recent decades (helped, no doubt, by that being the spelling dictionaries have preferred), it has been rendered as copasetic, kopasetee, copissettic, and copesetic, among others. We know that it has a hifalutin’ air, no doubt deliberate – four syllables, with a kind of crisp mechanical sound ending in that -ic ending characteristic of long technical adjectives – and that it was in its origins associated particularly with socioeconomically disadvantaged sets of people. Oh, and that it unquestionably came from the United States.

And we know that people don’t use it as much as they used to.

But that’s all copacetic. It’s just fine. Words come, words go. In its heyday it was a faux-fancy word that bespoke a certain folksy charm. Now it’s a word that suggests a user who came to adulthood in the last century (i.e., when the years started with “19”). It fits in with words like zowie and jalopy. You feel that someone who you hear using “copacetic” in a sentence has, at some time in their life, owned an entire suit of clothing made of polyester.

And by the time copacetic disappears almost entirely from use (if it does), we still might not actually know where it came from. But you know what? That’s also copacetic. Most of us go through life not knowing where nearly any of our words come from. We can use helicopter our whole lives not knowing that it’s made from helico ‘spiral’ and pter‘wing’, and using copter as a blending form because that works for us. And when most of us find out where a word comes from, it’s almost always just an entertaining story with no real effect on how we use it. (Almost always, and most of us. There are certainly exceptions.) And that’s all copacetic too.

Look, our language is really like a tavern with sailors from all over coming in and mixing words and stories, and swapping wares. Sometimes you just have no idea where it comes from. But you like it nonetheless. So let yourself be served by the copa ceti, drink deeply, and all will seem just fine… for a time.

*In English, it’s also popular to come up with acronyms that words are supposedly derived from. Please be aware that no word that’s more than about 100 years old was formed from an acronym, and no vulgarity of any kind ever was (acronyms are used to hide vulgarities, not to create them, WTF). Among words that were definitely not formed from acronyms are posh and golf. The actual historical research is available to people who feel like checking reliable sources.


Somewhere in my early adolescence, I took it upon myself to organize my family’s collection of LPs, a sort of menagerie of two-dimensional caged birds. There were some I was quite familiar with – the Ormandy/Philadephia recording of Scheherezade, for example, and The Beatles’ red and blue albums – and others I had not really gotten to know. 

One of the latter had cover art that clearly expressed a spiritual awakening: a skull on one side, an embryo on the other, a seated man in the middle, his soul rising to exaltation at the top, and some very painterly rendition of text. It was in album presentation, and when you opened it the first thing you saw was a yantra – a visual pattern for use in meditation – with an explanation above it of mantras and yantras, and below it a poem about the word om. On the facing page was text: a listing of the tracks and the band members; text at the bottom, four paragraphs beginning “It’s as dark as a tomb!, shadows appear from nowhere, great long arms reach upward into the gloom, and sinister coiled shapes lurk in every corner—even the walls seem to hold their breath”; and at the top, there was a more legible version of the cover text: “THE MOODY BLUES IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD.”

I put it in the “Religious music” section.

My father, on seeing it there, told me that it was misfiled, and should be in the “Rock” section. It was, he explained, an album my (much older) cousin had given him. He didn’t seem to think much of it; he never played it.

Obviously, I took my next chance to listen to it.

It made an impression.

Here, hear this:

“And you can fly… high as a kite, if you want to. Faster than light, if you want to. Speeding through the universe… Thinking is the best way to travel!”

Imagine. Uncage your thoughts. Or let them be free even as they are impounded in your mind. If your mind is a whole universe, and it has a big bang event at its beginning, then, if its outer boundaries are fixed at your skull, everything within gets farther apart by getting smaller and smaller. It gains as much room to move as it needs just by making the room bigger relative to itself. Free your mind? It is free within. Unbind, escape the bounds; let your mind be more than a mound; when you seek to find, you have already found.

On the back of the album were pictures of the band members: John Lodge. Mike Pinder. Justin Hayward. Ray Thomas. Graeme Edge. All quite normal English names, really. Except Pinder, the name of their keyboardist, one of the group’s co-founders. I had never seen the name Pinder before, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it on anyone since.

But pinder, like lodge and edge, is an English word – like hayward too, but about as uncommon in modern use. 

I’ll bet you don’t know what a pinder is.

It’s someone who pinds stray animals. Which means puts them in a pound. Pind is just another version of pound, under the influence of ablaut. It’s pronounced like “pinned,” and pinder rhymes with tinderPind has been part of the English word-hoard for as long as there has been an English, and pinder has been around nearly as long. 

Someone in the distant past of Mike Pinder’s patrilineage found stray animals and impounded them for a living.

Mike Pinder collected stray sounds and freed them (perhaps he still does; he just turned 80). He coaxed amazing sounds out of his Mellotron. He was responsible for the incredible stereo effects in “The Best Way to Travel” (you did listen to it, right? if you’re still listening, pause reading and let it play a bit). He left the band by the late 1970s – escaped the gilded cage to spend time with his family (I was told this by someone I met who had worked with them, and Wikipedia thinks so too).

He collected ideas and words and freed them, too, by penning them – penning them up in a recording studio, and thence on a record. Within the confines of their spiralling line, and in your mind, they create their own space. Pinder, co-founder and finder, pinds the sounds in his pound, and we travel without moving. 

He wrote only a smaller portion of the Moody Blues’ songs, and his voice can be heard on just a few tracks each album, but he wrote and sang “the Best Way to Travel.” And he wrote the last track on In Search of the Lost Chord, the song that connects to the yantra you see when you open the album, the song that begins with the poem below it (written by Graeme Edge) about om, which he read. This one:

I don’t think I was altogether wrong in my original filing decision.

The album isn’t still there, though.

It’s sitting on the table next to my computer as I write this. It still has my dad’s address label from the early 1970s on the upper left corner of the back. It… strayed from the collection. I collected it, and have pinded it with my other LPs on my own shelf.