Monthly Archives: June 2022


The word earnest puts me in mind of two works of literature. The concluding words of one of them are “we shall not sacrifice the truth for the sake of unity, but we shall contribute to greater unity in the truth.” The concluding words of the other are “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest.”

You may have an idea of what the second one is, but I am confident that you will not recognize the first. This may be a little ironic, since although the second one (which was in fact written half a century earlier than the first) has a lot of talk about being earnest, the author of the first one truly was earnest. 

I mean this two ways. For one, while the second work has ironic things to say about truth – “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”; “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” – the first one is earnest about it: “while there are many short cuts to error, there is no short cut to the truth”; “we must be careful that we do not undermine the truth by attempting to prove what needs no proof”; “in our very zeal for the truth we may actually do violence to the cause of the truth by attempting to prove too much for too little.” It even openly advocates earnestness: “God has graciously designed that the riches of His Word should be open to all, however uneducated, who come to it with a humble heart and an earnest mind.”

And, more to the point, while the second one is about a man who pretends to be someone named Ernest – as you may have guessed, it’s Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest – the first one was written by a man who actually was Ernest. That was his name.* He was my grandfather, and the book in question was his magnum opus, unpublished in his lifetime: First Principles of Biblical Theology.

Oscar Wilde
My grandfather Ernest

I don’t doubt that my grandfather was well attuned to the overtones of his name. And he does seem to have been an especially earnest person: not just a minister but a missionary. You could say he honestly earned the a that makes Ernest earnest.

But what does make the difference – or the connection – between Ernest and earnest? In all honesty and earnestness, it’s not quite as direct a connection as you might think.

It’s not that they’re not connected. It’s true that etymology by sound is not sound etymology, but there are paper trails here to keep us honest. And those paper trails also, I should say, keep earnest not honest – I mean not honest. One may be tempted to wonder if there is a connection between earnest and honest as there is between varmint and vermin, between parson and person, between travel and travail, but there is not. Honest comes by way of French from Latin honestus, related to honor. Earnest comes from a Proto-Germanic root *ernustuz related to struggle, fight, strength, and zeal. 

And Ernest? It, too, is descended from *ernustuz – but the adjective and the name split apart a long time ago, even though they’re now spelled the same in modern German (Ernsternst).

Wilde’s play plays much on the ‘honest’ sense of earnest, even if it is not quite honest to do so; yes, saying something in earnest means you are being honest, not dissembling (which latter behaviour is essential to the plot of the play), but being earnest is more than that: it’s being zealous, ardent, sincere, and serious. My grandfather’s book does not dissemble (arguments can certainly be made about its accuracy, but the sincerity of its author is beyond doubt), nor does it show even the shadow of cynicism or irony. But of course you could expect no less; its author was not only a man of the Bible, he was a young one at that. 

And here we will come to a final irony, or rather two. 

First, The Importance of Being Earnest is about a young man who, having pretended to be named Ernest, discovers that his real name is Ernest, and the discovery of truth, when he is Ernest in earnest, realizes his dreams and sets him free. The author of the play, Oscar Wilde, shortly after the opening of the play, discovered that the truth could do the opposite: the disclosure of his sexual involvement with another man led to his imprisonment, because the laws of the time and place were based on a particular version of Biblical morality.

Second, the lead character of The Importance of Being Earnest is 29 years old when he truly becomes Ernest. My grandfather, on the other hand, was 29 years old – and had completed his book the year before – when he ceased to be Ernest. Or, more to the point, he went from “is Ernest” to “was Ernest.” He was on his way to take up a post teaching theology – the realization of his dreams – when he died in an accident.

But of course coincidences are coincidences, whether ironic or not. They may be memorable, but one need not take them in earnest.

* I’m not putting his last name here because that would tell the casual passer-by my mother’s maiden name, which might still be used by ne’er-do-wells for purposes falsely in earnest.


Every so often, some beloved author or noted performer – often someone who earned a reputation decades ago for being progressive – speaks up and declares that today’s younger generations have taken things too far: they want special treatment and they complain all the time and they ought to be grateful for the work that was done by their elders and there are some things that just aren’t right…

Reactions are rapid and contrary. Relatives of a certain age post pictures of the rant with enthusiastic endorsement on Facebook. Young social activists and erstwhile fans express disappointment on Twitter. Overpaid jeremiadists weigh in with sesquipedalian asperity in legacy media. Some other equally famous person of similar age posts a cogent and trenchant takedown. The discourse moves on after a few days, but the air of cantankery follows the person’s name like a fart. 

And the mental borborygmus that started it all? The articulated indignation of a senior forward-thinker? On close examination, it’s exgramination: sheer get-off-my-lawnery.

You’re familiar with “Get off my lawn,” I trust: the stereotypical cry of the peeved senior faced with youths besporting themselves on his or her personal patch of grass. How dare they come onto this turf with no respect? If German had a word for this, it might be Rasenwut – from Rasen ‘lawn’ and Wut ‘rage’. But our word today, exgramination, is from Latin ex- meaning ‘off’ or ‘from’ and gramina meaning ‘turf’ (nominative singular gramen). If it sounds a bit like a grumpy grandpa’s fulmination of consternation, that’s just an apposite coincidence.

Sure, the exgraminator worked hard to earn that turf. In their youth, they fought against the thick-headed inertia of their forebears. They wanted freedom! And, to some extent, they got it. And they got their comfortable space as a recognized hero of freedom. But the times move on, and things that were at the leading edge at one time are overgrown and bygone at another. 

Some people are happy to see progress being made by younger generations, and endorse and encourage it. Others, however, feel that they have earned respect, they are the true forward-thinkers, and anything that is not consistent with their own established positions is simply wrong. Not progressive; freakish. Certainly disrespectful. Get off that lawn! How dare you!

Now, it is known that people who have been rich and famous for some time often lose perspective and empathy, sometimes strikingly, but that’s not universal. And, naturally, people who have always been known to be conservative are also typically grumpy at the changes wrought (or at least embraced) by later generations – and, frankly, by their own generation, too, but no one is surprised at that. (And who would come to play on their lawn anyway? It’s fenced off and has a guard dog on it.) It’s just those who endorsed change who have the inviting grass… though somehow someone else’s is always just a bit greener. And if their endorsement of change was based less on principle and more on self-interest, you can expect an exgramination that will draw some attention too.

I hope, of course, that I shall never be an exgraminator. Among other things, I do my bit by persisting in innovation – for instance, by confecting words that should have existed already. Such as exgramination. It’s a new old word. But who among you would object to it?


At one time or another, we all want to reach the beach.

Martha and the Muffins, knowing it’s out of fashion and a trifle uncool, still want to watch the sun go down on Echo Beach.

Soldiers on D-Day, in their landing craft, wanted to land on Omaha Beach and survive crossing the beach and live to fight on.

Vacationers in Orlando take the Beach Line expressway to Cocoa Beach to get to the Shack on the Beach and frolic in the waves and enjoy margaritas and the sun.

The last lingering survivors of nuclear war in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach wanted to reach a beach of hope, and, finding it empty, found that, quoting Eliot, “In this last of meeting places / We grope together / And avoid speech / Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.” And then they faced eternity.

Once or twice a week all summer long, Aina and I rush to the ferry for the fifteen-minute trip to Toronto Island to set up on the beach and relax and imagine ourselves far away. 

And once or twice a week all summer long, we go swim at the Sunnyside pool and then sit at the boardwalk café watching the beach volleyball players on Sunnyside Beach, the beach that inspired the song “Echo Beach.”

If we travel to another country where there is a beach, we try to stop by it, to see the sand and waves.

When we relax on the beach, we sit on the sand and stare out at the waves. Behind us is solidity, life, assurance. Ahead of us is the liquid stuff of life, a home for countlessly many other living things, a playground for us within limit and reason, and outside of limit and reason a place of unlimited and unreasonable danger. (For fish, the perspective is reversed.)

On the beach, we watch the waves come in. We see the expanse of the water beyond, stretching to the horizon. What we are not looking at is the firm and consistent supports of our life and identity; what we are looking at is change and danger. But, as Jenny Holzer wrote, “It is fun to walk carelessly in a death zone.” When we are in a dire condition, the beach is the place of safety or of threat, the place where we are dry or drowned; but when life is calm, it is relaxation, worries behind us, limitless potential before us. 

And under our feet is sand: the ground stones and bones and shells of the ages, at last settled in a shifting mass that can take erasable traces, words and images to be washed away, but when you leave you always take some sand with you.

Your interface with daily life is like a beach. The beach is your eyes, your mouth, your skin. The waves of life lap at you. Sometimes the tide is low and you have room; sometimes the tide is high and you are restricted or already on the way to drowning. 

And when the sand has not seen water in some time, it is soft but yielding and hard to walk on. And when the sand was recently under the waves, it is hard but easier to walk on.

When life is dire, you just want to reach the beach and cross the beach and survive. And when life is good, you want to set out your blanket and have your food and drink in the sun and hope you don’t eat any sand. You are there with close friends and closer strangers, and for a few hours you are officially relaxing.

Where does this word beach come from? We aren’t entirely sure, just as we aren’t sure where any given grain of sand might have started. But as likely as not, it’s from a word for ‘bank’ that came from a word for ‘brook’ or ‘stream’ – Old English bece, related to Dutch, German, and Swedish words for ‘brook’ or ‘stream’, including Old German beck, which I carry with me every moment of my life as the second syllable of my surname. My own hidden stream, my own secret beach.

And throughout my life I seek to reach the beach. Not always the place of relaxation, the place where I can look across the waves and relax on the sand, but always the moment in time and space where I have all solid things behind me, and all fluid things before me, and I am at the point of letting go, accepting the changing nature of all things and also accepting that I will always take a bit of every moment with me. Letting the waves roll, letting the sand shift. As The Fixx sang on their album Reach the Beach, “Stretched by fewer thoughts that leave me … Holding onto words that teach me … Saved by zero.”

And yes, Aina and I reached the beach today, and we relaxed on the sand, gazing at the waves and the stretching horizon. And now we are home again.


Cellars are where life happens in slow motion while we’re not looking.

What you put in a cellar changes, gradually, coolly, over time. A cellar even has the smell of slow life and slow change: earth, mold, mildew, and the various things you store in it. A cellar is a collection of cells – etymologically, because it’s from cellarium, a place with a lot of cells, as in small rooms, but also literally, because it has roots and plants and crawling things, things made of membranes and cytoplasm and mitochondria and nuclei, and it has things made from those things, processed and put in jars and cans and bottles. Things that, even if they have stopped cellular processes, have not stopped changing.

I grew up where people didn’t have cellars. We had basements. A basement is not a cellar. A basement is a dry, dusty place, full of boxes and old machinery, perhaps dark and creepy but in truth lifeless. What you put in a basement changes only in geological time: the slow flow of inert matter governed by gravity, with the occasional threat of a flood. If you have a finished basement, there is life, but it’s life at full speed, just with less light and less formality and more dust. No moss, just shag carpet.

But in more recent years I’ve spent time in cellars. Not root cellars, though. Not cellars under houses. Cellars in wineries. Cellars that you walk into and instantly your nose finds a story of grapes and yeast and years. Not all of these cellars are dank and chthonic; some are astonishingly clean and modern. But even if there is no cake of mold on decades-old bottles, nor even an inscribable layer of dust, there is life. There is breathing. There is history being written in liquid, to be consumed in the fullness of time. Within the wooden casks and the corked glass bottles is a chemical process, a biological process, that develops like our own lives. And eventually we taste the ends of time.


Sometimes you have to go the long way around and get through a lot of complications before you are reminded how nice simple things can be. That may seem a flat statement, and even a bit fishy, but really, I’m just thinking of a flatfish.

The wheels on the tour bus go round and round, and when we stepped off we were a short stroll away from a restaurant named after the first person to circumnavigate the globe, Juan Sebastián Elcano. He didn’t do it by bus, and he didn’t do it twice – he died of malnutrition halfway around the world from his home in Getaria, Spain.

We were not due for a similar fate, even if we had travelled far. When you’re on a food and wine tour, it can seem a bit turbo-charged: by the end of it you may need several days of very light consumption to recover. But there’s turbo-charged and then there’s turbot-charged.

By the way, is that even a pun? The answer depends on two things: what language you’re speaking and what etymology you choose. In English, turbot is said pretty much like “disturb it” without the “dis”; in French, however, the t is silent and it’s said just the same as (the French pronunciation of) turbo. What’s more, there’s some thought that Latin turbo – meaning ‘spinning top’ – might be the origin of the word, but there’s no explanation for why the French would have added the t. It may, on the other hand, have come to French from Old Swedish tornbut, meaning either ‘thorn-butt’ or ‘thorn flatfish’ (that but would be the same but as in halibut). In which case English, in taking turbot from French but pronouncing the final t, would have been taking it back home, pronunciation-wise.

However it was, we were definitely coming back to basics by the time we got to the turbot. It was the last day of a tour (with many difficulties and delays even getting to the start of it), and the turbot was the eighth item on an eleven-item menu (Elcano would have been amazed); it was preceded by octopus, mackerel, lobster, squid, and a couple of other kinds of fish, each prepared with careful and delicate seasoning and detail. And then we stepped outside to see our next course on the grill by the roadside.

There was no seasoning to speak of other than the most basic, but it didn’t come across flat – even though a turbot is a flatfish. It was as delicate and charming a flavour as I have had from a fish.

Of course, since this was in the Basque Country in Spain, they wouldn’t normally call it turbot with or without the final t. The Basque name is erreboiloa, but I know nothing more about that. The Spanish, however, is rodaballo, a name that apparently comes from Proto-Celtic for ‘wheels’ and ‘wheel-sack’ – which is rather odd for a flatfish, I think. But it did seem to suit the tour bus that we ultimately made it back to…

Pronunciation tip: Ancient Greek philosophers

I’ve been wanting to do this pronunciation tip for a while, but I needed to wait until I could get my two friends to give the Classical and modern Greek pronunciations to go along with the English versions of the names. The time has come! (Advisory: The Greek pronunciations are for fun only. If you go around saying these names in those ways, no one will understand you and/or they’ll think you’re a pretentious weirdo.)


Basque cuisine is very good. And one of the most classic bits of Basque cuisine is the pintxo (pronounced “pincho”). Or, as you usually see it, pintxos, because you never have just one.

A bit of Basqueground is in order, perhaps. The Basque Country is an area of northeast Spain (and southwest France) where Basque culture is dominant. The life’s blood of Basque culture is the Basque language – the language’s name for itself is Euskara. Euskara is fascinating linguistically because it’s an isolate: it is not related to any other languages that we know of. It has been spoken by people in that region since time immemorial, and in spite of efforts to stamp it out (the Franco government of Spain made it illegal and severely punishable to speak it), it persists – indeed, since the end of the Franco regime, it has had a resurgence and is a matter of great pride for many Basques, and is omnipresent in Basque Country.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t had any influence from Spanish, of course. Languages always have influence from their neighbours, and Basque has borrowed words from Spanish – and, I think it’s safe to say, its phonology has also been influenced over the centuries. But grammatically, Basque is nothing like Spanish. 

It’s not just that verbs tend to go last in the sentence, rather than between subject and object as in Spanish and many other Indo-European languages. It’s not just that Basque has a complex inflectional system that is reminiscent of that of Finnish (to which it is nonetheless not related!). It’s not just that Basque has an inflectional indefinite–definite distinction, a bit like Swedish (to which it is most certainly not related!). It’s also that Basque is an ergative-absolutive language, which means that the subject of an intransitive verb is inflected like the object, not the subject, of a transitive verb. If English were like that, instead of saying “I went and I met him” we would say “Me went and I met him” – or, perhaps, “I went and me met he.”

OK, fine, you’re not all linguistics geeks. But who doesn’t like food? And pintxos are food. Delicious food, of incessant variety and flavour and very affordable price, and meant to be consumed in social settings with wine or beer. They’re lots of small dishes, and…

Does that sound like tapas? Well, yes, they have a lot in common. Quite a lot. But the pintxo culture is perhaps a little different. The classic way of doing pintxos is to pick them off plates, or take them as they’re offered by passing waiters (if this sounds a bit like dim sum to you, I agree), and each one has a little wooden skewer through it; as you eat them, you leave the skewers on your plate, and when you’re done, the waiter adds up all the skewers and charges you accordingly. Not all pintxos are served that way now, but it’s still a thing you can do.

I keep calling them pintxos, and you may wonder whether that really is the plural of pintxo. And the answer is that it is… in Spanish and in English. But in Basque? The plural is pintxoak, said like “pincho-ak.” Well, that’s the absolutive plural. The ergative plural is pintxoek. And the dative plural, if you want to make pintxos an indirect object, is pintxoei, and the instrumental plural, if you want to use your pintxos for something, is pintxoez, and the genitive plural is pintxoen, and the causative plural is pintxoengatik, and the benefactive plural is pintxoentzat, and the terminative plural is pintxoetaraino, and the directive plural is pintxoetarantz, and the destinative is pinxoetarako, and… there are 17 cases in all, but it’s like pintxos themselves: if you have 17 skewers on your plate, you sure must have been hungry!

So anyway, pintxos are classic Basque food and pintxo is a classic Basque word – you can even see it with the txspelling for the “ch” sound, which is actually quite sensible given that x spells “sh” (and given that c is not used in Basque spelling). But if pintxos seem very similar to tapas, because after all Spain and Spanish culture are right there, then you might well wonder if pintxo has anything in common with any Spanish word.

And it does. Actually, it’s a loan from Spanish. The Spanish word it’s taken from is pincho, which means ‘skewer’. As in those little wooden things that are typically found sticking out of pintxos. Pincho in turn traces through the Spanish verb pinchar to the same Latin root that gives us English puncture and punctuation.

But just as Basque cuisine has long interacted with Spanish cuisine – and the cuisines of other countries, such that not too far from where you can get inexpensive plates of little pintxos in San Sebastián (Donostia) you can get extremely expensive little plates of Basque-style nouvelle cuisine at Michelin three-star restaurants (see above) – the Basque language has taken this Spanish word and made it its own, so that you can eat pintxorik (partitive indefinite!) all you want.