Monthly Archives: January 2022

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):

cantankerous

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.

medieval

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.

copacetic

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.

pinder

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.

pregret

I’m probably going to wish I hadn’t written about this word.

It’s not a word for a pregnant egret. It has nothing to do with pre-greeting either. Also, you won’t find it in Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary or even Wiktionary. But I didn’t make it up. It’s really far too obvious a coinage to have languished to the present day unstruck. Its earliest entry in Urban Dictionary is from 2006. And its top Google search result is an entry in CollinsDictionary.com – as a “new word suggestion” from 2016.

What does it mean? Well, what do you think it means? The definition Collins has is “Regretting an action before you have even done it”; the Urban Dictionary one is “The feeling of regretting something you’re about to do anyway.” It’s a feeling I think we all know, some of us much too well, and many of us experiencing it more often at the end of December. It’s a feeling probably mostly absent from the “Hold my beer” set – that is, people who attempt to one-up someone else’s extremely questionable act; they are sure to be thick with regret after the act, but if they were likely to pregret it they would more likely convert that pregret to caution, hesitation, second thought, continuing to hold their own beers and not leaping into action. But I think adult humans who have not experienced pregret are very few and far between, split mostly between the utterly reckless and the extremely deliberate or cautious. It surely deserves the word.

Nonetheless, pregret is not widely used. I searched for it in vain in the various databases at English-corpora.org. And while Google says it gets 63,000 hits, pretty much the whole first page is definitions of it. To this point, it seems to be a word that is only used when it is introduced and defined – in other words, people think “here’s a clever word” but no one is using it in conversation, really.

But that could change. I’m sure that if a character in a popular movie or TV show were to use it in conversation, it could catch on. Perhaps even someone famous on social media could be a vector. In the meantime, though, nothing stops any of us from using it. The sense is so clear and easily taken up, it may well be introduced without definition: “Yes, I agreed to go visit my uncle, the one with the… opinions. I told my mom I would, so I will, but I’m pregretting it.” We do have other words with similar meanings – dread comes to mind – but pregret has a different mood and shade of meaning, and it’s clever-sounding, and anyway if you don’t like adding words to your vocabulary why are you even here reading this?

You may be wondering, if there’s regret and now pregret, what on earth gret is, and how we’re doing it again when we regret. In fact, regret came (first as a verb, then as a noun) from the French verb regretter, which uses re- as an intensifying prefix (in other words, meaning not ‘again’ but ‘doubly so’ or ‘very’ – as in resplendent). The gretter was borrowed into French from a Germanic root – so, yes, it came from Germanic into French and then back into English, rather than being directly descended. The direct descendent of the Germanic root in English is greet, but not the greet that means, for example, ‘say hello’; no, this one means ‘lament, weep’. It also has descendants in other Germanic languages, such as Swedish gråta, meaning the same thing. 

So we could say that pregretting is greeting an upcoming event knowing that you will greet for it afterwards.

Sorry.

fizz

Many people like to go on a health kick for the beginning of the year. I prefer to give it a head start on New Year’s Eve – with a bit of fizzy-o-therapy.

Well, what? Who doesn’t like a little bit of pop and bang in life from time to time? If your life lacks fizz (as in Margaret Fishback’s poem “Blackout,” which I link to because it’s too short to quote from), you may well be justified in adding some. And, providing that you consume alcohol at all, what better way to bring some sparkle to the start of a new year than some sparkling wine? (Don’t say fireworks. A properly opened* bottle of champagne or other vin pétillant would never frighten a dog or set off a car alarm.)

I do not call all wine that spits and hisses champagne. I find it useful to surrender to the insistence of those in the eponymous region to maintain the sanctity of their trademark. Besides, there is much variety in frothy wines – sekt, cava, prosecco, and various others made by the traditional method or the “Charmat” (a.k.a. “bicycle pump”) method. But when I do want to refer to them all as a type, I most often call them fizzy – or, for short, fizz.

Not that fizz is a shortening of fizzy; the derivation goes the other way. The adjective fizzy was formed from fizz by the mid-1800s, and was used as a noun by the late 1800s. The noun fizz existed by the mid-1700s, and it in turn was formed from the verb fizz, which had come to us by the late 1600s – it’s imitative: onomatopoeia. Hold up a glass of Veuve Clicquot or Coca-Cola (or any of many other things, including some that actually existed in the 1600s) and listen to it and you will hear a sound that, if we’re being honest, is more like “ffff” or “shshsh” or “khkhkh,” but could plausibly be described with “fizz.”

It could, I suppose, also be described as being a little like flatulence. French allows that option: along with vin mousseux, a standard term for sparkling wine is vin pétillant, and pétillant derives from péter, a verb meaning ‘fart’ (it’s also the source of petard, q.v.). But if we called it farty wine, it would… fizzle.

Speaking of which. You would expect fizzle to be formed from fizz plus the suffix -le (as seen on sparkle, twinkle, and other verbs describing repeating or continuing action). On going to look it up, you would therefore be surprised to see that fizzle was around more than a century before fizz. Does that mean that fizz was backformed from it? There’s no evidence to support that (though we don’t know that there was no influence). But since fizzle plainly has the -le suffix, what was the root? It was fise, an alteration of fist, but not as in what you make with your hand; no, as in what you – or your dog – may make somewhere near the tail. It’s pronounced like “feist” (rhyming with heist), but by the time it got to fizzle the i shortened. 

So, yes, fizzle first referred to breaking wind – but surreptitiously, not loudly. Eventually (in the 1800s) it came to refer to failing: sputtering out like a damp squib.

Which is also a thing you do not want your year to do, especially not when it’s so new. Better to add some levity, some froth and sparkle, some fizz. Even if the price can be a bit steep… as Hilaire Belloc observed more than 120 years ago in The Modern Traveller:

And yet I really must complain
About the Company’s Champagne!
This most expensive kind of wine
In England is a matter
Of pride or habit when we dine
(Presumably the latter).
Beneath an equatorial sky
You must consume it or you die;
And stern indomitable men
Have told me, time and time again,
“The nuisance of the tropics is
The sheer necessity of fizz.”
Consider then the carelessness—
The lack of polish and address,
The villainy in short,
Of serving what explorers think
To be a necessary drink
In bottles holding something less
Than one Imperial quart,
And costing quite a shilling more
Than many grocers charge ashore.

A standard bottle of fizz is still just a pint and a half in size, and the good stuff is somewhat more per bottle than most of us would think to spend on non-fizzy wine of equal quality. But on the other hand, there are quite a few perfectly decent fizzies out there that cost no more than an acceptable bottle of dinner red. And they are quite suitable for adding levity!

*Oh, yes, there is that matter of proper opening. If you fire off the cork with a bang, it may be fun but you will almost surely waste some wine and make a mess, and you may break something or injure someone. The better way is to keep a grip on the cork and let it come out gradually, with a little sound like, um, a surreptitious fart. The point of the fizz is the drinking, not the wasting. We are not race car drivers, nor ships a-launching.