“It’s seven courses,” Arlene said, leaning forward, her eyes widening.
“Not including the little extras,” Jess added. “You know, little hors d’œuvres. Who knows what it might be. But the official first thing is the fish of the day.”
Arlene looked up, raised her palms to the ceiling. “Could be anything!”
“Who knows what they’re catching,” Jess said. “It’s the Spanish coast.” She leaned back on her chair and had a swallow from her class of cava.
“San Sebastian?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Arlene said. “And then – what was it? Naked shrimp?” She turned to Jess.
Jess held up a finger (one moment!), set down her glass, and flicked to an image on her phone. “Unclothed prawn.”
“Well, the clothing is hard to digest,” I offered.
“In two firings, with slight heat stroke and fried head,” she read off her screen.
“What,” I said. I leaned in to look at the image of a printed menu she was holding up.
Just then Maury entered. His gaze settled on the little scene before him. “A feast for the eyes?”
“We’re pregaling James with our trip,” Arlene said, beaming like a flashlight. She held up her glass of cava in a toasting gesture.
“Pregaling,” Maury said.
“Well, sure,” Jess said. “If we had already been there, we’d be regaling him with it. But we haven’t been yet, so it’s in anticipation.”
“Pre,” Arlene added, suppressing a little smile.
“Who’s Gail?” Maury asked drily.
“Who’s that gal…” Jess crooned.
“Why is it regale?” I mused aloud.
“A royal treat?” Arlene said.
“I suppose it might be related to Spanish and Italian regalo, ‘gift’,” I said.
“Yup,” said Jess. She was operating her phone again. It looked like Wiktionary on her screen. “Seems like it all comes ultimately from French régal…”
“Regal – royal!” Arlene exclaimed.
“Mais non, Manon!” Jess replied. “That would be royal or réal. Somehow it’s from régal ‘treat’ but that’s from Old French galer, ‘to enjoy oneself’.”
“As in gala,” Maury said from the sideboard, to which he had sidled. “At one of which I am due in half an hour.” He poured himself a glass of cava.
“Well, you can regale them with our pregaling you with our dinner at Arzak,” Arlene said. She took the phone from Jess’s hand and flipped back to the menu photo. “Look, after the Mandarin pigeon there’s something called ‘Enigma.’”
I leaned in, flipped my glasses onto my forehead, and read. “Yuzu and cherry cream with mint crisp.”
“You’ve solved it!” Arlene said. “Now solve how it got from gifts and galas to storytelling.”
“That’s easy enough,” Jess said. “It’s all pleasing entertainments. You can still regale someone with food and drink. You can regale yourself, too.”
“Dinner and a bedtime story for one!” Arlene said. “Netflix and chill by yourself. But first… pregale.”
“Oh, the things we will do. Let me tell you about them.” Jess raised her glass.
I turned to Maury, who was still at the sideboard, already refilling his glass. “You’re going to a gala?”
“Yes,” he said, “but it’s likely to be a dry evening.”
“Dull company?” Jess said.
“And an expensive cash bar,” Maury said.
“So let me guess,” Arlene said. “You’re…
Maury nodded and finished the sentence with her: “…pregaming.” He raised his glass in a toast.
This is the time of year you can get to be like a cat when it comes to heading outside. You spend too much time inside where it’s warm but you’re feeling cooped up, so when you have a chance to step out, you hotfoot it… until you get out that door, and suddenly you have cold feet. Literally. You might even nope right back into the house.
It’s fun how we have this pair, isn’t it? And also how they only kind of go together? After all, people rarely if ever talk of having hot feet, and no one is going to say they coldfooted it back inside. Plus, hotfoot refers to haste, with a possible implication of eagerness, whereas cold feet refers not to slowness but to hesitation or outright refusal on the basis of pusillanimity. If they were bookends, a person inclined to tidiness would take one look and say “Can’t you make them match better?”
To which the answer could readily be “They weren’t made together.” Because they almost certainly weren’t, nor do we have any evidence that one was made on the basis of the other. They’re just like decorative items on the same theme that were bought in different places at different times – like the decorative leather-bound-book-styled cushion and decorative leather-bound-book-looking rolling cabinet that my wife and I have, or our lamp and bottle holder both styled after the Eiffel Tower but not in exactly the same way.
Which word is older? As it happens, the verb hotfoot and the verb phrase get cold feet are both first attested in print in English in the 1890s… but hotfoot the verb comes from hotfoot the adjective and adverb (as in “he was coming hotfoot from the village”), and hotfoot has been in English as adverb and adjective since the 1300s. Yes, it was much more eager to appear, though it was (may we say ironically) hesitant to be a verb.
And where did English get hotfoot from? French. Old French has chaut pas (modern French would make it chaud pas), meaning literally ‘hot step’ and figuratively ‘immediately’, and that’s where we seem to have gotten hotfoot by translation and adaptation.
OK, so where did we get cold feet from? That one’s a bit less forthcoming. The first known published use of it in the current sense is in Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: Girl on the Streets, where someone says “They got cold feet” and the reader understands that the people referred to were overcome with reticence. It seems reasonable that the phrase was already current in colloquial use for it to be used that way in that book, and in the following decades its use spread – people who refused to fight in World War I were called cold-footers, for example. But where did the phrase come from?
There are idioms referring to cold feet in other languages. The most reasonable suspect is German kalte Füße bekommen, literally ‘get cold feet’, which refers particularly to gambling: if you are on a losing streak, you may get cold feet – perhaps because you’ve lost your shoes – and back out, and if you’re even just afraid of losing what you’ve won, you could also be said to have cold feet. And in 1878, an English translation of a German novel, Seed-Time and Harvest by Fritz Reuter, had a character saying “haven’t I as good a right to cold feet as you? Don’t you always get cold feet, at our club, when you have had good luck?” The sense of hesitancy to join in gambling could be applied more broadly, to such things as social engagements (up to and including engagements to be married). But I have no idea whether that novel was popular among the set of people who would make the turn of phrase popular, or whether the same idiom might have spread another way, say in actual casinos.
But there is an earlier appearance in English of an idiom about cold feet – it’s in Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, from 1605. He makes reference to a Lombard turn of phrase, which is avegh minga frecc I pee (Italian aver freddo ai piedi, ‘have cold in the feet’), but then, as now, it doesn’t mean ‘hesitant’; it means ‘broke’. As in you have holes in your shoes – or no shoes at all.
Which could, after all, dispose a person to hotfoot it to work, I suppose. But not to something that would cost them money. Which may be a pity – as we learn from Vimes Boot Theory, propounded by Terry Pratchett in Men at Arms:
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.
Meaning, if we extrapolate from wet feet to cold ones, that the people who are best disposed to hotfoot it are not the ones most likely to get cold feet, and vice versa. And all the best occasions boot little if you have little boot – and cold conditions to boot.
He pounced on a piece of text and fairly bounced with outrage. “Words don’t get meaning from sounding like other words!” he pronounced, and, having thus denounced, flounced out of the room.
And fair enough: in general, words don’t get their meaning by sounding like other words. If they did, puns would be rather duller, and all those caterers with fare and thyme in their names – and all those hairstylists with mane – would just seem like they were making spelling errors. But there are always exceptions. We do sometimes shift the sense of a word towards what we think it sounds like it’s supposed to mean – outrage, for instance, has nothing in its origins to do with rage, and yet…
Of course, that’s an etymological conjecture. But conjectures on the basis of similarity are always conjectures of relatedness; we need to remember that most speakers of a language don’t actually know which words are cognate and which are not, and so if cognate sounds related to cognition they will think of them as having a similarity of sense. (The two words are, in fact, unrelated.)
And anyway, it goes the other way too: we will take bits from words and put them together to make other words. Of course we will! And we’ll do it in a way that just feels like it makes sense. So we get chocoholic, from choco-, trimmed from chocolate (it is not a word made from a root and a suffix), plus -holic, trimmed from alcohol, which is a one-piece word in English but traces back to Arabic al-kuhl.
So, now. Flounce. You know that it has something in common with bounce, jounce, pounce, and perhaps trounce, but not with ounce or any of the Latin-derived words containing -nounce (pronounce, announce, denounce, etc.). If you were to define flounce, what would you say? Would ‘bounce in a floppy or flailing way’ work? But then can we say that that fl- is adding an element of sense, if not in the origins then at least in the way we think of the word?
Well, fl- isn’t a morpheme – it doesn’t automatically carry meaning. Sure, there are flail, flap, flutter, flounder, and a few others like that; but there are also flat, flake, flank, floor, and a few others that seem to have to do with two-dimensional surfaces; and there are fly, flower, floss, fleer, flaw, and assorted others that relate to neither. In fact, of all the etymologically unrelated words in English that start with fl, about one in seven have something to do with loose motion and about one in six have something to do with surfaces. That’s arguably more than chance, but it’s far from a sure thing. And yet if you’re casting around in your mind looking for words with a similar sense, perhaps to use as a basis for a portmanteau, it could be a quorum.
But that’s not where flounce comes from, is it? Well… we’re not completely sure. There is a verb flunsa that in Norwegian means ‘hurry’ or ‘work briskly’ and in Swedish means ‘fall with a splash’; it seems like it could be related to flounce, but there’s no actual trail of evidence to connect the two; also, the Scandinavian words are first attested from the 1700s, and flounce is first seen in texts from the 1500s, whereas the development of sound and form would require the two to have split apart from their common source at least a few centuries earlier.
And on the other hand, words – especially expressive words – do have something of a history of being formed imitatively in English: sometimes imitating the sound (e.g., splash), but sometimes just imitating other expressive words. And yes, there is the possibility that flounce was formed by analogy with bounce and pounce plus that fl at the start, which might flap or flutter or might just soften the overall effect. After all, we did just that kind of thing with plounce, a (now rare) word that showed up in the 1600s and means ‘plunge into water’ or ‘flounder in water’.
And then, on the other hand, given that people are often more prone to flouncing (either literally, moving in an exaggerated fashion, or more figuratively, making an ostentatious departure, say) when they have had a bit to drink, could a connection to fluid ounce be worth a shot? …No, it could not.
Incidentally, however ostentatious both may seem, the flounce that names a decorative fringe or ruffle is not related to the verb flounce; it comes from the Middle English verb frouncen ‘curl’.
It turns out my sense of traipse is a little out of step with some other people’s. A few readers expressed surprise at or disagreement with my assertion that it always has a negative tone, whether it means ‘walk in an untidy way’ or ‘walk trailing through mud’ or ‘walk aimlessly or needlessly’ or ‘tramp or trudge about’ (all of these are definitions the Oxford English Dictionary has). One friend did some searching and, along with assorted usages that allowed but did not demand a negative tone, found a few that did not fit that sense at all: traipsing comfortably, traipsing warmly, traipsing blithely. And while if I were to read those I would arch an eyebrow as I did when I first read of someone “munching fried eggs” (how long were they fried for, to be munchable?!), it just illustrates once again that sometimes people live in parallel worlds for the senses of certain words.
But let’s just sashay over to a different word today. And when I say different, I mean different: I feel confident that there is no well-read world in which traipse and sashay could be used as synonyms.
You could often use either to describe the same act, certainly, depending on the tone you wish to give it: “I traipsed over to the post office this afternoon”; “I sashayed over to the post office this afternoon.” You might have taken the exact same steps at the exact same pace with the exact same look on your face, but the attitude you are conveying towards the trip in your recounting is frankly different. A sashay may be happy, or sassy, or even insolent, but you are always putting your best foot forward; there is no foot-dragging or aimlessness in a sashay, and yet no undue haste either – you could say that sashaying is not a way of moving as if you were being chased.
Not that everyone agrees on exactly what sashay does or does not convey. Oxford and Merriam-Webster agree that it can imply an ostentatious or conspicuous manner of moving, but while Oxford also specifies that it can also mean “To glide, walk, or travel, usually in a casual manner,” Merriam-Webster does not. But surely no one among us would object to sashaying blithely, and on the other hand few of us would not snicker at sashaying sullenly.
It’s a fun word, isn’t it, sashay? It sounds like the feet are sliding across the floor in slippers, perhaps. There really is something a bit deliciously sassy about it. I’m tempted to make a pun involving French sachet (as in tea bag, for instance) and “papa’s got a brand new bag,” but perhaps I should leave the French out of it.
Which is, in a way, how we got sashay in the first place: leaving the French behind. It’s formed by metathesis (sound-swapping) from a French word for a dance move, chassé. At least to the tongues of some people in America in the earlier 1800s, /sæʃeɪ/ was more sensible to say than /ʃæseɪ/ (let alone /ʃase/). And since this word was used not just in ballet but in folk dances as well, it did come up from time to time.
Do you know how to sashay, which is to say to do a chassé? I think you do, even if you don’t know that’s what it’s called. It’s just the step – usually to the side, though you can also do it en avant or en arrière – where one foot is always forward: each time you step with the leading foot, the trailing foot swings to join it but doesn’t pass, and then the leading foot leads on again. It’s a light, springing step, with no trace of traipse or trudge in it. The one foot chases the other, but any time it catches up to it, the other escapes again. Which is why it is called chassé – French for ‘chased’.
Well. If it must be chased, then it’s chased like the gingerbread man, light and fleet of foot, show-offish, and not at all traipsing or trapped. On any given day, I know I would rather sashay, if not literally then at least attitudinally. And if you won’t let me sashay, I will flounce away.
Thanks to June Casagrande for responding to my traipse WTN with “This right here is why I always sashay.”
In her song “Language Is a Virus,” Laurie Anderson says “paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” Well, traipsing is exactly like walking, only much much worse. “I went down to the store”: neutral. “I walked over to the store”: neutral. “I traipsed over to the store”: you hated every step.
Why was it bad? Why is traipsing always bad? Sometimes it’s because you’re going through mud or snow – walking dirty, you might say. Sometimes it’s because you’re tired or it’s a tiring trip, perhaps needlessly so. Sometimes it’s because you’re bored. Sometimes it’s because you have to and you don’t want to. But traipsing can’t be positively toned.
It’s not to say that the destination or cause of traipsing is necessarily undesirable. Heck, that’s often the only reason you’re traipsing at all! “I sure am glad to see you! I traipsed through twenty blocks of snow drifts to get here!” Or perhaps “I traipsed all over hell’s half acre that summer with the most beautiful person I had ever seen.” But if you say “It’s been nice traipsing around the city with you,” you are assuming that the other person agrees that it has at least been a considerable physical effort – or understands that you’re being playfully ironic.
The word itself seems to take extra effort in getting to its destination. Why not a shorter spelling, such as trapse or trapes? Admittedly, there is the issue that trapsing looks like the a is short, and trapesing looks like the e might not be silent, but in fact both spellings have been used in times past. Not only that, it has also been rendered in the 1800s as trapess, trapus, traipass, and some similar words, and pronounced accordingly.
Which kinda suggests an etymology, doesn’t it? Indeed, the source of traipse is thought by many to have been trespass, or, more to the point, its more recent French version, trépass. Not everyone agrees, though; there is an old word trape that seems to trace to Middle Dutch and Middle Low German trappen, ‘tread, trample’. But there’s something of a gap between that word and this one. Sorting out with certainty which is the real source will require more legwork.
What we do know is that traipse has that tr- onset that shows up in some other words relating to effort: trudge, tramp, travail, try, and trek, to name a few. It also has that “long a” (/eɪ/) for extra effort, plus a final s that is not a plural. But of course none of that has any necessary bearing on the sense.
Well, neither does the fact that it’s an anagram of parties, which are quite the opposite of traipsing and yet at the same time are good motivations for traipsing through bad weather. But the relation of sign and signified is supposed to be arbitrary, however much fun we may have finding extra ways to enjoy it. On the other hand, we often focus too much on the denotation and not nearly enough on the connotation, as though the subtle sense differentiations were just something to get through to reach the goal of dictionary meaning. But the trip is worth it, I think, if only for being able to tell of it after.
My mother-in-law, Arisa, when she left us, left us some books. This one in particular caught my eye.
It was published by Clarke, Irwin & Company (now defunct) and was released by the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Stratford, Ontario, on the occasion of its second season, in 1954. I’m sure that Arisa acquired it used – she was barely a teen when it was published – but I’m not surprised that she had it. She was a lifelong fan of the performing arts, including the Stratford Festival, which she joined us to on several occasions.
I too am a lifelong fan of the performing arts, as my three degrees in theatre may suggest. I even auditioned for Stratford once, when I was a mere university stripling of about 19 years old. I didn’t get cast, of course. But within a year or so I went to the festival for the first time, in 1987. I saw Othello with Colm Feore, if memory serves.
The book in my hand certainly serves memory: it is an archive of a moment in Canadian theatre, when it was just beginning to come into its own. The first season of Stratford drew audiences with stars from across the ocean – James Mason, who came back for the second season, and Alec Guinness, who spoke the festival’s very opening lines as Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York.” Its artistic director, Tyrone Guthrie, joined with noted Canadian author Robertson Davies and illustrator Grant Macdonald to make a book, Renown at Stratford, which sold so well that the same trio made another book for the second season, and titled it Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded – a line from Measure for Measure.
This copy – like any copy of the book – is nearly 70 years old now, but it’s in good condition. The dust cover is only a bit tattered at the edges, and the while the binding, like any old cloth binding, has a few places where it falls open more readily, it is not at all coming apart or losing pages. The paper is solid – halfway to card stock – and smooth and shiny, just slightly creamy in colour, and well suited to the reproduction of its numerous illustrations in line and watercolour interspersed with the text in good-quality four-colour offset. There is no colophon, so I don’t want to say what the text type face is, but it’s at least similar to Times New Roman – perhaps a type enthusiast can comment:
This book is full of entertaining observations that are very much of their own time, and yet… Tyrone Guthrie writes, in his essay “A Long View of the Stratford Festival,” “A large number and a wide variety of Canadians are becoming more and more conscious that in many important respects Canada is a very dull place to live in; that economic opportunities are immense but, having made enough money to live comfortably, there is comparatively little in Canada to nourish the spirit.” The Canadian populace, he says, “are equipped with money, leisure, and an awareness of ‘culture’ for which there is therefore a large demand but, as yet, a very small supply.” What was available from south of the border got no comment.
At length he comes to the point that “Canadian artists, if they are to thrive, must express what the Canadian climate, the Canadian soil and their fellow-Canadians have made of them. It is vital for their health as artists; and it is no less vital for the health of the community that those with artistic talents should contribute to its life, instead of taking the first opportunity to escape to places where their gifts are welcomed, understood, respected and even rewarded with money.” He does not directly mention the various Canadian talents who had over the years escaped to the American screen, or were on a path to do so. But he is realistic: “Stratford, as I see it, should provide an outlet for frustrated and gifted ‘hams’ who for the greater part of the year earn their bread and butter in the studios.”
Mister Guthrie, we must remember, was not Canadian. He was born in England of an Irish family; he arrived here with a reputation already established in Britain, and after his stint in Canada he moved on to Minneapolis. And he had views not just on Canadian culture but on Canadian pronunciation too. He didn’t want Canadians to sound British – “It really seems of no importance whether the word ‘No’ is pronounced in what passes in London for good English, or with the much more nasal production which is usual in Canada” – but he notes that “most of the Canadian actors who are seriously interested in their craft, as opposed to their careers, have already at command what seems to me an entirely acceptable accent. No one could mistake them for Englishmen, yet they avoid the more rasping mannerisms and slovenliness of much current Canadian speech.”
He protests that he “would not dream of telling an actor how to pronounce his words” – except where “his pronunciation seems to belie his characterization.” So, for instance, he “would check an actor who was cast to play the role of an educated person” if the actor did such “bad speaking” as, for example, “if he slurred his dental consonants à l’américaine (‘wazza maddurr’ for ‘what’s the matter’)” or “if he made a dissyllabic out of a trisyllabic word (‘Tranna’ for ‘Toronto’ or ‘Can’da’ for ‘Canada’),” notwithstanding that these “mistakes” are “made by many Canadians of the very highest education and most eminent attainments.”
Above all, as befits a director of Shakespeare, Guthrie in his essay emphasizes the rhythm and phrasing. “In general a good speaker should be able to speak, loudly and at moderate speed, seven lines of blank verse without a breath,” he declares. (You try it.) But he notes that almost everyone breathes “far oftener.” And he avers that “meaningless pauses and breaks in the sense, due to inadequate breath-control, are in my opinion the single worst fault in contemporary acting.” One wonders what he might have thought of the phrasing of some TV and film stars of more recent decades.
Robertson Davies, whose text takes up the larger part of the book, does not spend so much time on admonitions or theory, although he does have some thoughts on “psycho-analysis” as it relates to Oedipus Rex. In the main, he gives descriptions of the staging and comments on the performances of the cast in the season’s three plays: Oedipus Rex, Measure for Measure, and The Taming of the Shrew. And what a cast it is: many actors who came to be luminaries of Canadian theatre, illustrated with drawings by Grant Macdonald. You may or may not recognize all of these people, but if you’re a Canadian theatre buff you likely will.
Frances Hyland, who also performed at the Shaw Festival and in Road to Avonlea on the CBC.
William Needles, a grand old fixture in Canadian theatre. Also father of Dan Needles, noted for his one-man Wingfield Farm comedies.
Barbara Chilcott, another luminary of Canadian theatre across the country.
Douglas Rain, who did much live theatre in Canada, but you most likely know his voice as HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (such phrasing he had!).
Don Harron, famous to Canadians of a certain era for his persona as the bumpkin Charlie Farquharson.
Mavor Moore, part of the bedrock of Canadian theatre and television and, for some time, a theatre professor at York University (where many theatre students have had winters of their discontent – and where I, having moved on from theatre, studied linguistics).
William Hutt, the great godfather of Stratford, looking much younger than he did when Aina and I last saw him on the Festival Theatre stage: in 2005, as Prospero in The Tempest, on a summer day with a literal tempest outside, rain hammering on the metal roof of the Festival Theatre to make a racket that threatened to drown out the actors.
Bruno Gerussi, who was actually from Exshaw, Alberta, where I lived as a kid, and who was to become famous to Canadians as Nick Adonidas, the bearded, grizzled marine scavenger from The Beachcombers on CBC.
William Shatner, a 23-year-old from Montreal whose “self-assured and somewhat brassy delivery of his first speech” was “in itself a pleasant bit of comedy, and all through the play he gave a dimension of comedy to a character which can very easily be a romantic bore.” You may have heard of some of his later performances in American television shows and movies, wherein he gained some renown for, among other things, a certain… style of phrasing.
But this was all back in 1954. That other great Stratfordian luminary I mentioned, Colm Feore, would not even be born for another four years. The Stratford Festival was performing in a large tent, which Guthrie notes was “not well adapted to extreme weather conditions. On hot nights the audience and actors are fried in their own fat. . . . Rain drumming on the canvas roof makes a most glorious Wagnerian effect but it completely, if temporarily, obliterates the puny competition offered by the actors.” Obviously he hoped that a proper building would remedy the faults. The authors of Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded could only speculate and offer opinions on what permanent theatre building might be erected; if, Guthrie says, “the Governors do plump for an ‘Elizabethan’ stage and an amphitheatre, their building will not be suitable for the production of all and sundry kinds of dramatic entertainment.”
The Festival Theatre, to which I – and my wife, and her mother – have been many times was finally opened in 1957. It is indeed an “Elizabethan”-inspired thrust stage, with the audience wrapping more than halfway around it, designed with the “two planks and a passion” attitude to Shakespearean production. And of course it’s still there, now joined by some other theatres. The last show Aina, Arisa, and I saw in it was just this past season: a splendid production of the musical Chicago. Stratford really is doing excellent musicals these days.
We three were to go see one more production at Stratford, but a few days before we were to go, Arisa went instead into the hospital, from which she did not return home. At length, the summer of our loss turned a vivid autumn, Aina and I went, just the two of us, to the intended play, the first one for us in the newest theatre building at Stratford, the Tom Patterson Theatre: a production of Richard III, starring Colm Feore.
I have to admit, my word tastings have been somewhat desultory lately.
In truth, they’ve always been desultory, topic-wise – and in fact the largest exception is the two months I lately spent covering one topic (words for ‘butterfly’ around the world). But that’s a horse of a different colour. What I mean is that in recent times the frequency has been a bit uneven, just jumping around the calendar. This is the result of a couple of things: on the one hand, I realized I was writing more than most people would get around to reading, so I reduced my frequency to increase my value; on the other, I travelled unusually often in the past year – sometimes to where it’s more sultry but less suitable for literary pursuits. So it has involved a bit of horsing around, but – rest easy – no physical insults.
Which is a bit different from the original desultors, who were making literal leaps while engaging in extravagant horseplay.
Desultory, you see, means ‘jumping around’ (and extended senses such as ‘irregular’ and ‘haphazard’), and that’s close to what the Latin roots mean – de- meaning ‘from’ or ‘down’ and sult- from salire ‘leap’ (the etymon that also gives us result, insult, exult, and salient). But it didn’t start in the obvious figurative sense of leaping around a document or schedule or a train of thought. No, it started in the circus.
Yes, that circus. The Roman one, where there were chariot races and gladiatorial pursuits and assorted things involving beasts tame and wild. The desultors were not assaulters, don’t worry; they were equestrians who leaped from galloping horse to galloping horse. Similar stunts are still to be observed from time to time at rodeos and modern circuses and – more often involving motor vehicles – carnivals.
It gives a bit of a different vibe to desultory coverage of a topic or schedule, though, doesn’t it? All of a sudden we realize we are not hopping around on a still surface; we are leaping from one train of thought to another, and if it’s hard to maintain a consistent schedule, it may after all be that your many conflicting commitments are wild horses carrying you in different directions (and if you’re tied to several of them, it’s a literal distraction). Life doesn’t stop, and we’re riding it as best we can, but how can we keep from being jumpy now and then?
Speaking of things that make us jumpy, there’s the little matter of pronunciation, which with this word is particularly stressful. But where in particular does the full stress go? The available pronunciations are, well, desultory. If you ask the Oxford English Dictionary, the stress must go on the first syllable, but the third syllable must not have a secondary stress – you are to say it “dessultery,” in that tumbling-downward way in which British English often handles Latinate polysyllabics. But if you ask Merriam-Webster, you can put the stress on the first or the second syllable, and you can pronounce the s in sul as “s” or “z”; if you put the stress on the second syllable, the tor can be reduced so it sounds like “de sultry,” but if you put the stress on the first syllable, the “tor” gets full value: “dessel tory.”
So which way should you say it? Hmm, why not do what I do: don’t be a one-trick pony; go with whichever takes your fancy, changing choices from one context to the next. It only seems apt, after all.
My latest pronunciation tip is about three words that my mother often corrected me on when I was young. I decided to bring the subject up again when I was visiting my parents… so this one has some cameos!
I spent a week at my parents’ house over Christmas doing as little as possible. I went to slothe, and slothe I did.
No, that’s not a misspelling. Just as you bathe by going into a bath, or you clothe by putting on cloth, so too you slothe by engaging in sloth.
Not a word? Of course it is! I just used it and you just understood it. Just half a month ago, Iva Cheung declared “‘Slothe’ should be a word,” and in so doing made it so.
It’s a fun derivation, because sloth is itself already derived from slow (just as the state of being warm is warmth, the state of being slow is slowth, long since respelled as sloth). Now, for full disclosure, there is historical precedent for just using sloth as a verb meaning ‘to be lazy’, and English does have a grand (if often vituperated) tradition of zero-derivation – i.e., converting a word from one class to another without changing its form, the most remarked-on variety of which is commonly called verbing, which is what “Are you going to sloth all day?” does. But who said we can’t have fun with words, deriving new forms on the analogy of other forms?
I won’t say no one said it, because some people do say such things from time to time. But their opinions are no great matter; they’re just being intellectually indolent in the interests of preserving the comfort of their fixed worldview from the faded and stained armchair of their minds. There are better and worse ways to slothe, and I do not count the stodginess of the curmudgeon among the better.
No, if I am going to slothe, I wish my slothing to have at least the tinge of hedonism, and ideally some satisfaction of idle curiosity. I do not want to slothe in hoarded heaps of intellectual candy wrappers. I want to slothe by reading a book (specifically one for which I have no obligation), or cooking something fancy (I know that many people consider cooking an unpleasant chore, but I do not; I do it for recreation), or going for a walk with my camera (again, if walking is not pleasant for you, you will not see it as slothing, but perambulation is one of my favourite ways of squandering the hours). I like to slothe by having a leisurely breakfast with champagne. And, to mix it up, it is nice to slothe in hotels.
In response to Iva’s desideration of lexification of slothe, Karl Martin suggested “Beslothen.” I like that well too. When I am on vacation – be it in a hotel or at my parents’ home or wherever – I am well and truly beslothen. I pledge myself to leisure: I plight thee my sloth. And slothe it goes… slothe a heck down.
Patrick Neylan, Eeditor of business reports. Permanently angry about the abuse of English, maths and logic. Terms and conditions: by reading this blog you accept that all opinions expressed herein will henceforth be your opinions.
The Economist "Johnson" language blog
In this blog, named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world