Monthly Archives: May 2022


“The word of the day,” Maury said, sipping on his Berlin,* “was incondite.”

“OK,” I said, “but what was the word?”

“Do not try me, James,” said Maury. “I have not been enjoying myself.”

“More’s the pity,” I said. “I have always liked your con-do attitude.”

Maury had been at one of his occasional pastimes, looking at show units for condos not yet built. There’s quite a lot of this recreation available in Toronto these days, but it’s not always exhilarating. I was also making a pun on incondite, since it is from Latin inconditus, formed from in- ‘not’ and conditus, past participle of condo, ‘I build’ (ironically not the origin of English condo, which is short for condominium).

“So the building is not well built?” I said.

“They are trying for the Jenga ethos, I think, but it’s more in the line of Jumanji. As processed through the back racks of a TJ Maxx.”

“Incondite,” I said. Incondite can mean ‘poorly constructed’.

“Well, that’s not what I was thinking of, but I suppose so, or it will be once it’s built, assuming it gets built and stays built long enough for anyone to say a word about it.”

“So the unit design is not good, then?” Incondite can mean ‘poorly designed’.

“Although that’s not what I was referring to, you are again right. Once you get through the serpentine entry hallway, you may be searching for a lever to depress to dispense a food pellet, but good luck finding and identifying all the rooms, in spite of there being so few of them. You wish they had hung arrows and signs.”

“And instead they hung something less tasteful?” Incondite can describe bad art and bad literature.

“Though that is not what I meant, you are again right. I would have thrown down a twenty for a glimpse of something even as coherent as an ersatz Klimt of dogs playing poker under the banner ‘Live – Laugh – Love.’ I believe the paintings were done by members of the Group Grope of Seven, or anyway of Six-ninety-nine. I was unable to extract any clear information from the agent about the art. Or about anything else.”

“I see. Words failed them? Or their speech was… lacking in polish?” Incondite can refer to unrefined speech.

“Incoherent, perhaps. Not erudite. But on the other hand, they may have been nonplussed by what I had uttered in the first place.”

“And… was that incondite?”

“Yes, in the sense taken from incondita vox, referring to phatic interjections. My response was automatic and involuntary. I looked around at the cataclysmic vomitrocity and said” – his face pruned paroxysmally as he repeated it – “Uuuuggghhhhhh.”

*A Berlin is, of course, the cocktail you have after you have had a Manhattan. It is made with four parts Cognac, one part Becherovka, and a bit of orange bitters, plus a big ice cube. Garnish if you want with something expensive and tasteless, like gold leaf or a Rolex.


On a lazy early evening, this word appeared in my reading, almost as in a vision: letabund. It was, I learned, used half a millennium ago, at least once, in Scotland. But it seemed to me immediately suitable for our own time, and it reminded me of one of my favourite artists.

If you look at it and try to guess its meaning and its morphology, you’re unlikely to see through it right away. The -abund – does that have to do with abundant? It does not; abundant comes from Latin ab ‘from’ and undo ‘wave, swell’, with the sense of ‘overflowing’. This is rather from the Latin suffix -bundus, which makes adjectives from verbs on the model of moribundus ‘dying; prone to death’ from morior ‘die’; this -bundus comes from an old root meaning ‘become’ or ‘grow’.

You may suspect that the let is not English let, and indeed we can let that go. If you sleep on it, you may dream of Italian letto ‘bed’. That comes from Latin lectus. Could this be lectabund? But these -bundus words are formed from verbs, and lectus ‘bed’ is a noun. There is another lectus, past participle of a verb, and that means ‘chosen’ (compare select and elect) or ‘read’ (compare lecture), but the present verb is lego, ‘I choose’ or ‘I read’, and so our word would be legabund, which puts a leg out of bounds.

So is it leto, then? You might reasonably expect that, but you would not be glad when you found out that leto means ‘I slay’, and so letabund would be ‘slaying’ or ‘inclined to kill’. No, let it not be so lethal; let us pour lethe upon the idea. We have had far more than enough death. Surely there is something missing?

There is, as an encyclopedia – or an encyclopædia – might tell you. As sometimes happens in English, the Latin letter æ, a digraph of a and e, has been rendered as just e. And what is læto? As a transitive verb, it means ‘I gladden’ and ‘I cause to rejoice’, but the passive form of the verb – lætor – translated as ‘I rejoice’. And so letabund means, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, ‘full of joy’.

Which is how I came to think of Jenny Holzer, one of my favourite artists. She is known for texts displayed in various ways in public places. Her second series, “Survival” (1983–85), contains many sharp and even cynical lines, such as “The future is stupid,” “You are trapped on the earth so you will explode,” and “You are so complex that you don’t always respond to danger.” But it also has the inscrutable positivity of “Turn soft and lovely any time you have a chance,” the serendipity of “You live the surprise results of old plans,” and the line that today’s word led me to:

“In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.”

elsehow, elsewhen, elsewho

Somehow, anyhow, you just want to go somewhere – anywhere – as long as it’s elsewhere. But how? Not how you’re doing it now. Elsehow.

Wait. Is elsehow a word? Well, it’s not really in use here and now, but it may be elsewhere, and it certainly was elsewhen. Just a few centuries ago, we used it – or, I suppose, not we, exactly, but elsewho.

Hmm, though. We don’t say somewhen or somewho, or anywhen or anywho (well, OK, some people occasionally say anywho as a jokey version of anyhow). We say sometime, somebody, anytime, anybody. So we should say elsetime and elsebody, right? 

That would be tidy, but it would also be less precedented. Although elsewhen and elsewho were in some use before Shakespeare’s time, and persist in at least some dictionaries today, there’s no similar historical basis for elsetime or elsebody. So what do we do?

We could use them anyway, I guess. They suggest themselves readily and have been confected by people more recently (Elsetime is the title of a 2020 novel by Eve McDonnell, for instance, and Elsebody is the name of a 2021 album by Hazelord – I should say I have not yet read the one or listened to the other). 

But which would you rather use? Would you prefer “I don’t want to do this now with them; I want to do it elsewhen with elsewho,” or “I don’t want to do this now with them; I want to do it elsetime with elsebody”? 

Or would you prefer it elsehow?

languid, languish

If you’re lolling about with little to do, take a look at these lines of verse:

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

—“The Lotos-eaters,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And I am weary of the anguish
Increasing winters bear;
Weary to watch the spirit languish
Through years of dead despair.

—“Stanzas,” Emily Brontë

Lazy laughing languid Jenny,
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,
Whose head upon my knee to-night
Rests for a while, as if grown light
With all our dances and the sound
To which the wild tunes spun you round

—“Jenny,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
’Tis too soon for hartshorn tea

—“A Receipt to Cure the Vapors,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Night, and beneath star-blazoned summer skies
Behold the Spirit of the musky South,
A creole with still-burning, languid eyes,
Voluptuous limbs and incense-breathing mouth

—“The South,” Emma Lazarus

Flowers whose long regrets and stems appear
Drenched in a lonely vase to languish there…

—“Hérodiade,” by Stéphane Mallarmé, translated by Henry Weinfield

Love listens, and paler than ashes,
Through his curls as the crown on them slips,
Lifts languid wet eyelids and lashes,
And laughs with insatiable lips

—“Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs),” by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Thine, thine the one grace we implore is,
Who would live and not languish or feign,
O sleepless and deadly Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

—also “Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs),” by Algernon Charles Swinburne

You see it, right? Languid is good; languish is bad. And of course you knew it already, but there it is. A languid afternoon or evening is delightfully lazy, slow-moving, like a world swimming in honey. Languishing is anguishing at length, failing in strength and will and wit.

And yet, they are siblings. They come from the same root, the root that also gives us languor. And, as it happens, languor came first to the language, around the year 1300; languid followed not long after. It was another nearly three centuries before languish showed its face. But it all traces back to Latin languere ‘be faint or unwell’ and its derived forms languidus ‘weak, sluggish, faint’ and languor ‘faintness, weakness, apathy’. (Languish is based on French languisse and English languysshen, forms of the verb languir, from languere.)

So, yes, the negative sense came first. And indeed, even languid has more negative than positive senses listed in the dictionary. But the first positively toned uses of it showed up by the early 1700s. Perhaps the liquid elegance of the word seems to have led it along to less malign angles in the language, but we should note that languor and languorous have a similar development: languor not so great, languorous not so bad—and the timeline for the development of their senses is similar, suggesting that pleasurable leisure came to be more appreciated beginning in the 1700s, at least in the language. (By the way, language is not related etymologically.)

Now I’m wondering lazily whether we might not have some other such pairs to match languid and languish. To go with anguish we could have anguid, but that is the name of a family of slowworms and related lizards (hmmm). A cryptid might go shady and become crytpish, but no one has said so. There is a rare verb splendish meaning ‘make splendid’; perhaps we could find something bad about that to make the match. There is a verb livish; but it means ‘alive-ish’ and is pronounced as such, so it’s not an actual sibling of livid, but it does have a contrariety to it. 

There is no ravid to match ravish, nor brandid to match brandish, at least not yet. There is no horrish to match horrid, nor fervish to go with fervid. And let us never ask for any use of covish. And there is no lavid to go with lavish, unless we make it so, but perhaps we should: something that is lavid might be rotten with fugxury. Oh, and if you publish something and it doesn’t splendish in print, is it publid? We could decide it is.

Well. I’ll just let that lie there and see where it gets to, if it does. I think I’m overdue now for a bit of rest.

Sleep, the fresh dew of languid love, the rain
Whose drops quench kisses till they burn again.

—“Epipsychidion,” Percy Bysshe Shelley


I have always been fond of the word atrocious, and, alas, it has never stopped being useful. I was pleased to hear it used several times in documentary movies I watched over the past week, mostly to describe details of geopolitical reality, though I believe once or twice it was describing something in severe bad taste.

And that’s part of the charm of atrocious. It has two spheres of usage: moral and aesthetic. It’s either gut-wrenching or eye-rolling. About half the time it describes trash, and about half the time it describes… well, atrocities.

Which gives us a clear hint as to which it meant first, since atrocity – a patently related word – is much less often applied to simple bad taste or poor performance. An atrocity is not when some artwork is horribly executed; it is when some artist – or other person – is, horribly, executed. It applies to crimes against humanity, not crimes against the humanities. 

And so it was in the beginning with atrocious, which came to us from Latin atrox ‘fierce, bloody, vicious, cruel’; the first definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives for atrocious is “characterized by savage enormity; excessively and wantonly cruel; heinously wicked.” Samuel Johnson characterized it as meaning “horribly criminal.” But it was only a matter of time (about two centuries after its late-1600s arrival in English) before it was also in use as meaning “criminally horrible.”

And that’s how it splits now. Look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and you’ll see that sometimes it’s seen in atrocious crimes, atrocious acts, and atrocious conditions (as in prisons, labour camps, slave ships, and other depravities against humans and beasts), but sometimes it’s seen in atrocious behavior, atrocious spelling, and atrocious accent (mostly in criticism of actors’ performances), and when it’s seen in the collocation absolutely atrocious it’s more often referring to software performance, pro athletes’ records, and things of that order. And so we have a situation where both an army and a sports teams might be described as doing atrocious things, but only in the case of the army would they be called atrocities.

I make no commitments as to whether the sound of atrocious has affected the development of its usage, but I will say that it probably hasn’t hindered it. Atrocious sloshes around enjoyably in the mouth, sort of like “trash” in a cement mixer or washing machine – which atrocity does not. Its currency also can’t have been hurt by the line in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in Mary Poppins, “even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious” (and the following rhyme with precocious). And I have long liked its contribution to a classic word I know from How to Eat Like a Child by the delightful Delia Ephron: vomitrocious. Which is another word that is, alas, only ever more useful lately.


Sometimes I feel that sleep is like a thick and heady liquid and I am a piece of drying bread, and I am dropped into a pool of it or it is poured over me, and even if I am trying to be as dry as toast I sop it up until I am soaked and squishy and swimming in dreams. And when I wake, I am lifted out of it and it drains only slowly from me.

Sometimes I feel that sleep is like a delicious treat thrown to me, and even if I was busy being awake, I devour it and I am wrapped up in dreams until I am done it. And then, with a last swallow, I am awake again.

Both of these are sops: a sop is a piece of bread, soaked in wine or something wonderful, and perhaps even fried thereafter (yes, French toast starts as a sop). And a sop can be a loaf soaked in honey and thrown to the dog that guards the gates of Hades. When we talk about something being done or given as a sop to someone, the reference is to Sibyl throwing Cerberus a sop so Æneas could get past.

And neither of them has anything literal or etymological to do with soporific. And yet.

Soporific, as you may know, means ‘causing or conducing to sleep’. A soporific is a thing that puts you to sleep.* And if you say something is soporific – perhaps a movie or TV show you’re watching through your eyelids, or perhaps a speech or sermon – well, it ain’t exciting, we’ll put it that way. 

For as long as I’ve know this word, I’ve thought of it as a little sloppy-seeming (sleep droolers of the world represent!), but especially I’ve thought of it as sopping. Which, for those of us who experience sleep as a heavy liquid draining into and out of our veins, seems sensible enough. But I’m not surprised that it’s mere coincidence.

The Latin root of soporific is sopor, which means ‘deep sleep’. It has a doublet that may look familiar, somnus, as in somnolent. Both come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *swep-, a verb meaning ‘sleep’. Though they are related by that root to hypnotic (by Greek ὕπνος hupnos), they are not etymologically related (as far as I know) to stupor or to sleep. But there is an Old English word for ‘sleep’ that is related, a word that somehow to me seems even more sleepy than sleep: swefn (said “swevn”). A pity we have left it behind, but sleep is often a forgetting that is in turn forgotten.

But so it goes. We took a liking to classical roots; the myths and philosophies of the Romans and Greeks appealed to us more than those of the Celts and Saxons. And so we think soporific is somehow more exalted than sleep-inducing. But when we descend to dreamland, soaked in a soup of delicious sopor, what words matter anyway?

* In medicine they prefer the Greek-derived hypnotic to refer specifically to sleep-inducing drugs; however, the most popular drug for that effect is actually an antihistamine: if you’re in a hospital and they want you to sleep, you’re probably getting Benadryl.

How do you say “succinct”?

My latest article for The Week looks at a divide that not everyone is even aware is a divide: how people say the word succinct – and a few other cc words such as flaccid and accessory… and why there would be any divergence on the subject at all.

A succinct but not flaccid examination of English pronunciation

A poem: Tidbits from Another Janeite, by Emma Clive Brown

One of the viewers of my YouTube videos asked me if I would take a small commission to make a video reading a poem. I would! I rather like the poem, too. Here is the video.