Monthly Archives: February 2023


It’s stodgy weather, chums, when all
is muck and slush and sludge,
like guts full stuffed with porridge till
your brain and butt can’t budge.

We’re stood in mud in gumboots, chums,
while buses lumber by,
still wanting will to trudge alone
as drool drips from the sky.

We dine on fudge and dumplings, chums,
and, sausage-stuffed and drunk,
we slouch on chair or couch or bed
or slump in tub and dunk.

Such stuff late winter’s made of, chums,
all wet and wait and weight,
slide slowly, sleepy, congee-clogged,
and eat, and snooze at eight,

And have a beer or two, dessert,
read books or just a blog,
and give in to inertia like
a stodgy big old dog.

Stodgy. It’s a word that sounds like what it means, isn’t it? There’s a reason for that. It’s formed from stodge, the etymology of which is not properly known – no one has mustered the energy to trace it to its birth – but a common thought is that it’s “perhaps phonetically symbolic after words like stuff, podge,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. In other words, it’s likely phonaesthetic – the weight of existing words bogs down the sounds and gives them a kind of gravity that helps form new words and season existing ones.

Stodge, incidentally, was first a verb, meaning ‘stuff’ or ‘gorge’ and later ‘bog down’ or ‘trudge’; stodge the noun came along after meaning ‘mud’ or ‘porridge’ or ‘stuff that’s hard to get through’; at last, stodgy came around, first meaning ‘thick, glutinous’, and then more generally ‘heavy, hard to get through’, and then extending from that to more figurative uses: music, literature, ideas, moods, and people. And weather, chums.


I remember when I first encounteried this word, I had a sense of what it meant, generally – a liking for something, a fondness, you know – but I didn’t know exactly where it came from. I was a kid! I looked at it and I saw pen and I saw enchant and chant, and I assumed it was said like “pen chant” and referred to a sort of little enchantment – if not a petit enchantment, then anyway pen as in penultimate. Or perhaps just as in the size of something that would fit in a pen, or be connected by a pen like a pen pal.

In fact, it was some time after I learned the French word for ‘lean’ – pencher – that I put two and two together and realized that, of course, penchant was the word for ‘leaning’. And because it’s a word that one sees from time to time but hears seldom, I didn’t notice any time before that that many people say it the French way – [pɑ̃ʃɑ̃] – and that the rest say it to rhyme with trenchant, and no one (other than youne me) seems to say it in any way reminiscent of an enchanting shanty from Penzance.

That may seem funny, given my, um, taste for words and their origins and pronunciation. But we all start from somewhere, and, again, given my, shall we say, liking for language, it was inevitable that I would eventually come wise to it. The only issue for me now is that it has acquired the permanent perfume of my early sense of it – as a charming little fondness, of the type one declares oneself to have when it is in fact a low-key all-consuming obsession that only reveals itself to be so if obstructed. This idea that it’s a leaning – as Oxford says, “a strong or habitual inclination; a tendency to do something” – has me a bit off-kilter. Yes, they also allow “a taste or liking for a person or thing,” but in that context it gains an air of imbalance, and, more to the point, of acknowledged imbalance. After all, any inclination can lead to a fall, and while having a penchant for someone is often the moment before you admit you’ve fallen for them, it still to me seems to have the air of charm like a pendant, you know?

Which is not unreasonable, given that French pencher comes from late Latin pendicare, which is from pendere, ‘hang’. Yes, that’s right: the same root as gives us pendant, pendulum, suspense, depend, and so on. So if you declare that you simply have a penchant for someone, while you are in fact watching the clock pendulum in suspense as you depend on them to text about whether they want to hang out with you, well… it all just falls into place.


America has a set of matching acronyms for some of its most important people: POTUS, the President Of The United States; FLOTUS, the First Lady Of same; VPOTUS, the Vice President; SCOTUS, the Supreme Court (not the 13th-century theologian)… But how about hoi polloi, the huddled masses of America, the populace at large, the insignificant general nobodies of the United States? Is there not some matching word that may dignify one such for a glorious scintilla of history?

Certainly there is, and it’s been around longer than any of the others – as long as you don’t mind a backronym. It’s IGNOTUS (or, in the original Latin, IGNOTVS, since they didn’t have the variant rounded U form for the vowel). We may say it stands for Insignificant General Nobody Of The United States. But the ancient Romans would have just said it meant ‘unknown’ – or ‘strange, odd, weird’, or ‘ignorant’. Literally it is just the negated form of the past participle of nosco ‘I know’ (there’s a phantom g, lost from the verb, that reappears in places like this).

And because it’s a past participle, it varies according to gender. Ignotus is masculine; the feminine form would be ignota (which, as IGNOTA, can be Insignificant General Nobody Of The America, and if you protest that that’s ungrammatical, I don’t know why you have such high expectations), and the neuter form – should we have any need for it – is ignotum, which you might actually see in real life from time to time in its Latin use, as in, for instance, the musical work Magnum Ignotum (‘the great unknown’ – nothing to do with guns or ice cream bars) composed by Giya Kancheli. The plurals are also available: ignoti, ignotae, ignota. And, for the plural genitive (should you be so possessed), ignotorum and ignotarum.

There is, I should concede, an actual English word that was formed from ignotus in the way English words often have been: ignote. It can be an adjective, suitable mainly for use in poetry, meaning ‘unknown’; or it can be a noun, suitable mainly for use in the 17th century, meaning ‘unknown person’ – or, as the ignotes, the whole class of persons of no repute. Which matches pretty well Insignificant General Nobodies Of The United States (only, of course, it is not so nationally specific). But ignote does not quite convey ‘weirdo’ or ‘ignorant’ as ignotus does.

Of course we don’t need a word for someone who’s ignorant; we already use ignoramus. But before you go ahead and form ignorama, ignoramum, et cetera on the basis of that, I have something to tell you that you might not know: ignoramus is neither a noun nor an adjective in Latin. It’s a present tense plural verb. It means ‘we don’t know’. English got the word when it was used as the name of the title character in George Ruggle’s 1615 play Ignoramus. This also means that there is no plural ignorami; in fact, since it means ‘we don’t know’, in one sense it already is plural – the singular would be ignoro, ‘I don’t know’.

But we know ignoramus. It is ignotus that is, for most of us, unknown. Still, we may be forgiven. Why not? After all, ignotus also means ‘forgiven’. In that sense, it’s the past participle of ignosco, which is formed on the same nosco root, but in this case is negated and then adjectivized, rather than being adjectivized and then negated. It’s like the difference between inflammable formed from inflame and able and meaning ‘able to be inflamed’ and inflammable formed from in and flammable and meaning ‘not able to be flamed’.

Well, it’s not quite that big a difference – it’s not an opposite. It’s just that forgiveness is putting something out of mind, whereas the unknown is something that is just not put in mind. Either way, it’s something that’s let slide: as a POTUS or FLOTUS might think on encountering an IGNOTUS, “Never mind.”


Every time Aina and I drive to or from Collingwood via Airport Road, a scenic drive through rolling countryside in the part of the world in which Schitt’s Creek is set, we pass through a hamlet named Avening. It takes less than a minute to go by – it has only five named streets plus the highway, which is formally County Road 42 at that point. The most salient thing in town is a smallish town hall with an early-twentieth-century-looking hand-lettered sign that reads “Avening Community Centre” (I don’t have a photo, as I’m always driving when we pass it, but you can see it on Google Street View). And the one thing I always wonder is “How is Avening supposed to be pronounced?”

It’s a reasonable question. Small towns often manage to have names that are pronounced differently from how you might expect. And in this particular case, it’s not even obvious whether you would say it like “evening” but with an a as in “rave,” or whether the A would be as in “hat” or as in “father.” And should you say the e or just skip it? For that matter, can we even be sure about where the stress goes? Could it be “avenging” without the g after the n, or “Aveeno” with an ing in place of the o?

You might wonder why this all matters. How likely are you ever to need to say the name? Not very, I suppose – unless you’re talking about something happening at the Avening Community Centre. But what happens at the Avening Community Centre?

That turns out to be a much easier and more rewarding question to answer. The Avening Community Centre, to quote its website, “has a bowling alley in the basement, a picture of the Queen on the wall behind the stage, a main hall clad from floor to ceiling in wood and a faithful following of fans who like to see great old halls used for the reason they were built.” What reason is that? Concerts, some of which by rather well-known acts. They just had two sold-out shows by the Canadian group Sloan, for instance, and other acts that have played there include Neko Case, Sarah Harmer, Basia Bulat, Joel Plaskett, and Hawksley Workman. (If you haven’t heard of any of them, that’s fine, but they’re well known among a certain segment of the populace.)

One thing that the hall doesn’t have on its website, however, is a pronunciation guide. It does have a phone number you can call, but when I called, I got neither recorded message nor live person. Well, fine. I’ll just look on Wikipedia.

When you look up Avening, Ontario, on Wikipedia, it redirects to the article on Creemore (the town of a bit more than 1000 people just northwest, a short drive by two roads or an even shorter paddle on the Mad River), an article that does not anywhere even include mention of Avening. (Try it on Google Maps and it also takes you to Creemore, even though Avening is clearly labelled to the southeast just out of the frame.) However, you can readily find out that Creemore, a name made famous by an eponymous beer made there of exactly the kind you would expect to find at concerts by Sloan, Basia Bulat, or Hawksley Workman, is from Irish Gaelic croí mór ‘big heart’, and it was coined by the founder of the village, Edward Webster, an Irish-born entrepreneur – it is not named after a place in Ireland or anywhere else.

Well, OK, then, who founded Avening and how did it get its name? With a little poking around, we can learn that it was founded in 1860 by Frederick C. Thornbury, who was born in Avening, England. (If his surname seems oddly familiar, as it may if you have spent time in this part of Ontario, it’s because Thornbury is a village on the shore of Georgian Bay, as far northwest of Collingwood as Avening is south-southeast. But it may have been named after a different Thornbury – for one thing, it was founded 30 years before Avening was.)

Aha! So is there a Wikipedia article on that Avening? There is; it’s a town of almost exactly the same size as Creemore, but much older and more English-looking. Does the article say how to pronounce it? It does not. How about if you look at the page in any of the other languages it exists in – Cebuano, Spanish, French, Ladin, Polish, Portuguese, or Swedish? Nope, none of them say, either. 

But further poking around the interwebs comes up with some other resources. The Survey of English Place-Names tells us that it is probably formed on the same old suffix as many other English place names ending in -ing, a suffix referring to people who dwelt in a given place. And what place? In this case, it has been suggested “that the nameless stream which runs through the village might formerly have been called Avon (OE Afon from Brit *abonā ‘river’).” We can see that the oldest Old English citation for it is in the dative, Æfeningum, which would be from nominative Æfeningas (confirmed in Surnames as a Science [1883] by Robert Ferguson). 

This all confirms stress on the first syllable, and the Æ gives a hint that it might now be the same a as in, for instance, hat. But the only discussion of pronunciation on the site relates to a version of the name attested in 1697: “The last spelling Auning arises from the vocalisation of pre-consonantal -v – . . . but the pronunciation [ˈɔːniŋ] is not now heard.”

Oh, well, phew. That’s a relief. Because even if that were how it’s said in England, it wouldn’t be how it’s said in Ontario. (Compare the name Balliol, which as a college at Oxford is said like “bailey-all” but as a street in Toronto is said like “ball oil.”) But we keep looking. And at length we come to Lippincott’s Pronouncing Gazetteer (1856), which – once you look up how to read its pronunciation guides – gives the a in Avening as in father, not as in hat (and the e as reduced but still pronounced).

Which is not to say that’s how it’s said in Ontario. For that matter, it may well not be how it’s said in England these days either; they sometimes just up and change it. (A friend emailed me and said, “Many years ago, I visited my cousin in England. She lived in a town called Felpham (Felp-ham). Years later, I visited her again, and she then lived in Felpham (Fel-pham, yes, with an “f” sound). I asked and she shrugged. Just the way things happen, I surmised.”) So, in spite of concerted effort, we still don’t have a solid answer. But we’ve at least had a scenic and informative trip, haven’t we?

Speaking of which, though I’ve told you where Avening, Ontario, is – by the Mad River, just southeast of Creemore, on Airport Road about a 20 minutes out of Collingwood towards Toronto – I haven’t mentioned where Avening, England, is. It’s on a little stream which – as mentioned above – doesn’t have a name. (Oh, come on. I’m sure the people who live there call the stream something. British History Online calls it “the Avening stream.”) It is in that cute stretch of hills northeast of Bristol called the Cotswolds. It is in Gloucestershire, which is pronounced “glostersher” (or “glostasha” to Canadian ears when said in usual British English). And the nearest town of note, a bit under 20 km east, is Cirencester, which Lippincott tells us is to be said “sisseter,” although in our alternately literalist and obscurantist modern times it is typically pronounced either “siren sester” or “sister.” Which makes Avening seem like an easy walk.

And speaking of an easy walk, there’s one more thing I typically do when researching pronunciation: check YouTube videos. And guess what. Here is a resident of Avening, Gloucestershire, going for a walk, and you can hear how he says it:

Yes, he says like like “evening” but with the a as in “rave.” And he calls the stream “the mill stream.”

OK, but how about the one in Ontario? The first video I found is a guy driving through who says the a as in “hat,” but he also says some other place names differently from how I know people around there say them. So I kept going. And I found a recording of a Zoom meeting (embedding is disabled, so click the link) of the board for the Avening Community Centre. Just about the first thing the convener says is “Avening Hall Board.” And he says it… exactly the same way.

And with that, I wish you a good Avening.


I did something this morning that I seldom enjoy – and didn’t enjoy today either: I went on a Saturday morning to St. Lawrence Market.

Oh, I love St. Lawrence Market. It’s close to where I live, and I love shopping there. But not on Saturday mornings. It’s busy then, but more to the point, many of the people in it are engaging in the most dilatory and directionless obambulation. I know exactly where I want to go and how to get there, but between where I am and where I am going are a pick-and-mix of populace who are there simply to walk around and look around – to stroll hither and thither, or thither and hither, or hi–thither. To look left and walk right, and vice versa. And, at random moments, simply to stop on the spot.

Of course they have every right to go there and look around and shop around for entertainment. And I, on the other hand, who know what I want and know where to get it, can go at times when my much more purposive perambulations are pursuable with much less interference. Except, of course, when I forget to buy cheese on Friday and have to go back and get some on Saturday morning before heading out of town. (Because one simply cannot head out of town without cheese.)

I won’t say that obambulation is my very vexation. Well, I won’t won’t say it – I am one who usually chooses where to go and efficiently goes there, and when people cruise the city’s footroutes in less predictable and more leisurely ways it can momentarily frustrate my course, but I know that when I am in tourist mode I often walk likewise, and I know I live in an area popular with tourists; the things they like about it are the things I like about it. So there you have it. And there. And… over… th–here!

But I will say that obambulation, the word, is – for whatever I think of what it names – a quite enjoyable word. It has a sound of bim-bam-boom, like pinball bouncing off bumpers, which is similar to how some people navigate St. Lawrence Market. But beware of getting too close to Obama in how you say it: it’s from ob- – as in obstruct, object, obnoxious, and obnubilate – and ambulation, which is to say ‘walking’. There is also the related verb obambulate and adjective obambulatory. It doesn’t mean ‘walk obstructively’, though (let alone ‘walk obnoxiously’); it really just means wandering back and forth. A synonym of obambulatory is itinerant.

Which means that you could also say my regular itinerary in the market – first to Domino, the dry-goods store downstairs, then perhaps to The Roastery, then up the stairs to White House Meats (stopping at Olympic Cheeses and Scheffler’s Deli as needed), and ending at Urban Fresh Produce – is also obambulation, in one way of viewing the word. But it’s not really a back-and-forth wandering – there is no hither-thither looky-loo strolling. When I am in the mood for that, I go to the art gallery.


In a language as verbally efflorescent as English, the inevitable excrescent lexical vegetation can be a cause of vexation. But would you respond with vetation? Is any deviation from strict verbal elegance unallowable in your books, and is invitation to exuberant expansions and neoclassical confections met with anathema?

Or perhaps lexical recreation is acceptable only in estivation and vacation. Well, far be it from me… unless you’re vacationing in my town, that is. But if you are, I’ll allow it. Which is to say, it will not be met with my vetation, even if the power of such should be vested in me.

Lest you have not guessed, vetation is, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “a refusal to allow something.” It comes from Latin vetare, which means ‘forbid, prohibit, refuse to allow, oppose’. If you have been to Italy, you have seen its modern reflex: vietare, or more likely its past participle vietato, which shows up in signs that avail themselves of an emblematically Italian syntactic formation: vietato fumare, ‘forbidden to smoke’, meaning “no smoking,” and vietato l’ingresso, ‘forbidden the entry’, meaning “no entrance.”

But while vetation is well formed as a derivation from its Latin root into English, we have generally preferred to do a bad, bad thing, at least from the view of some sticklers: we have given our imprimatur to a conjugated form of the verb and made it into a noun. It’s the same kind of thing we did with imprimatur, which means ‘let it be printed’ (not as in ‘allow it to be printed’ but rather as in the third-person infinitive imperative that Latin uses a subjunctive for and that we have no really good way of expressing directly in English), and which we now use as a noun, as I just did. But in the case of vetare, we’re using the first-person singular present indicative, which is veto.

Yes, veto is Latin for ‘I forbid’ or ‘I advise not to’ or ‘I oppose’. We’ve taken a verb and we’ve nouned it. This is, depending in your particular bent, either elegant or inelegant. But the alternative, vetation, is longer and fussier and, depending on your bent, either more or less elegant.

Well, never mind. The decision has already been rendered in the legislature of popular opinion. The reason you’ve almost certainly never seen vetation before is that no one uses it. Even when it was used – in the 1600s through the 1800s – it wasn’t really used; as the OED puts it, it’s “apparently only attested in dictionaries or glossaries.” It is an inkhorn word, and we have, passively, tacitly, vetated it.

Pronunciation tip: 10 useful German words

My latest pronunciation tip is about 10 German words that I rather like and occasionally find the chance to use in English contexts: gemütlich, Sitzfleisch, Korinthenkacker, Sehnsucht, Weltschmerz, Kummerspeck, Schnapsidee, verschlimmbessern, fremdschämen, and Backpfeifengesicht. It includes a bit of background information too!


Heh. This is a word that sounds like it sounds like it means, or anyway sounds like it means what it sounds like. If you know what I mean.

One fun thing about this word is that its advent is not the usual. Each of us may well know where we first saw or heard a word, but we probably don’t have any way of knowing just when it first saw the light of day on this planet. Usually a word creeps out from under a rock or comes whiffling through the woods; we have some record of when it first started getting around, and we may have a trail of uses, forms, and other lexical spoor that leads us to infer where it came from, but there is no proper birth certificate. Chortle is quite unlike that.

You may or may not remember when you first saw or heard chortle, but I have no idea where I did. I am sure it was not in its original context – the place it first knew the earth and the earth knew it – and I know that when I subsequently saw it in its original context I didn’t realize it was in its birthplace. It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized that, like the numerous opaque words peppered around it, chortle was invented by Lewis Carroll (in real life, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and first published in Through the Looking-Glass in the poem “Jabberwocky.” Here is the stanza in which it blazes into glory:

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

And, unlike some of the other words Carroll introduced in the poem, it caught on and took off. You don’t see uffish used much at all, nor manxome; although vorpal has a certain something, you will rarely hear it outside of the realms of role-playing gamers; but within mere years, chortle was being used as if it had been around for centuries, like whiffling (also used in the poem) had.

So what did Lewis Carroll confect this word from? The Oxford English Dictionary’s full etymology is just “Quite unconnected with churtle v.” (And what does churtle mean? “Chirp,” apparently.) But Carroll himself was good enough to give some indication. The origins of chortle, as it happens, are chuckle (which in turn first appeared around 1600 as chuck – meaning not ‘toss’ but ‘cluck’, imitative of sound – with a frequentative -le suffix) and snort (another imitative word, with us since the 1300s). So this is a portmanteau word, but not in the usual fashion, with a first half of one part and a second half of another. Rather, it has a graft from snort right in the middle of chuckle. Why is it not snuckle? Well, that’s a different sound, isn’t it? More like snickering than snorting. And of course it couldn’t be something like chuckort – we need that -le.

Most importantly, because it was made from two imitative words and is itself audibly imitative, it conveys its sense quite engagingly. And we even know its parentage and have its literary birth certificate: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was published on December 27, 1871. O frabjous day! (Frabjous, by the way, comes from fair, fabulous, and joyous. It has not really caught on.)


English pronunciation is a balancing act, a tightrope between sound and spelling where even a mild crosswind can lead to a fall. And we can often be a bit myopic in our reading of words. Even if the way a word is put together is right there before our eyes, we might still be misled by an analogy with another word and say it wrong. You may have heard a coworker say charcuterie in a funny way at one time or another, or heard a journalist mispronounce integral – or you may be among the many who have snagged on misled or coworker, for that matter. So it’s not so surprising that I, in my youth, reading about Karl Wallenda, saw the word biopic and assumed – as many people do on seeing it – that it rhymes with myopic.

Well, why not? There’s also biopsy and -optic words like panoptic, not to mention other words ending in -ic like robotic. And sure, you might see bio and even understand that biopic refers to a biographical movie, but is it so hard to imagine that it’s like somehow putting the biography under a microscope or something? Most of us do not carry classical morphological dictionaries around in our heads.

And, frankly, even if we did, it wouldn’t help here. You see, biopic is made from bio – yes, as in biography, and in this case actually shortened from that rather than formed directly from the Greek root bio- – and pic, shortened from picture, which, yes, comes from Latin pictura, but if someone asks you for “a pic,” do you send them a movie? Sure, movies are “moving pictures,” but the use of pic for a movie is a bit dated. (There’s also that mixing of Greek and Latin, but we do that a fair bit, because most of us don’t know otherwise.) And, for that matter, putting stress on pic in the last syllable just seems odd. You sure it shouldn’t be pick then?

Of course not – this is the language where microphone is abbreviated mic and no one wants to have to spell out the present or past participle because of the perversity of c before i and e (look, we used to spell it mike and miking and miked; don’t blame me for all those hip kids changing it). So why shouldn’t we expect biopic to be bio plus pic, as in fact it is, and to be said exactly like “bio pic”?

Just because, in general, we don’t. Those of us who know better know better, and the rest don’t. And that includes some journalists I’ve heard on TV, plus people I know personally, including younger me. Now you know better, if you didn’t before – yes, I am recommending you say biopic as “bio pic,” not only because that’s what it’s meant to be (and Merriam-Webster and the OED insist too) but also because that way you won’t cause anyone to pop a vein in their heads about it, as people occasionally do about “wrong” pronunciations. But there still stands one question: Why not call it something else?

I mean, it’s too late, I suppose. But why don’t we call it, uh, biofilm? That makes sense, right? As long as that word doesn’t mean anything else… [checks earpiece] It what? It does? Oh. Folks, apparently biofilm has an established meaning: to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “A thin but robust layer of mucilage adhering to a solid surface, containing the community of bacteria and other microorganisms that generated it.”


OK, biopic, as in “bio pic,” as it has been since at least the 1940s. Back on the pronunciation tightrope…

Just like Karl Wallenda, the famous funambulist (tightrope walker). And why did I see biopic associated with Karl Wallenda? Well, it’s just that he was apparently filming a movie about his life when he did a tightrope walk between two 10-storey buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On the day of filming, there was an inadvisable crosswind, but, you know, shooting schedules… and, uh, well, anyway, he made a misstep and consequently concluded his life. And the biopic.

Unknown knowns

It’s opening the door to meet a stranger and realizing you know the person already. It’s sitting down to do a thing for the first time and finding that somehow you know how to do it. It’s trying long and hard to figure something out and at last realizing that you always knew the answer, but just didn’t know you knew. Sometimes it’s because you didn’t have the chance to see that you had been seeing it; sometimes it’s because you had chosen not to see it sooner.

What am I going on about? Let’s look at what can be called a Rumsfeld square or Rumsfeld matrix. It’s named after Donald Rumsfeld, who famously said, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Some people have characterized this as incomprehensible, but I have no idea what they’re talking about.) If we diagram it out in Greimas style, we see there’s a fourth square he doesn’t mention:

The existence of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns implies the existence of unknown knowns. It’s right there. Yet people don’t seem to talk about them* – perhaps that’s why they’re unknown.

But the fact we have a space for them in the matrix doesn’t mean that they actually exist. Putting things into tidy diagrams and taxonomies can be rewarding, but it doesn’t necessarily add information any more than organizing your bookshelf adds information about what’s in the books. Mainly, it tells you about how your mind – and the structures it has learned – views and organizes things. But inasmuch as it describes aspects of reality, it may also be a heuristic for discovering things we aren’t aware of yet, or at least for knowing where to look for them – or, as the case may be, for becoming consciously aware of them.

Linguistics is a great place to look for this kind of example, and I mean that in several ways. Here’s a table of the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for consonants (thanks to Kwamikagami on Wikimedia Commons):

I won’t explain all the terminology because we don’t have all night. But you’ll see that this chart has grey areas: those are sounds that are considered impossible. A pharyngeal lateral fricative, for instance, would require having your something like the tip of your tongue stuck back deep in your throat – which, even if it were physically possible, would stimulate your gag reflex. So the grey areas help us confirm aspects of reality. They also force us to clearly define what we mean by our terms. For instance, “lateral” it means going around the side(s) of the tongue, like the sound [l]; a labiodental lateral fricative is impossible because it would require going around the sides of your tongue without using your tongue, because “labiodental” means using a lip and the teeth (and not the tongue). If “lateral” could mean the side of something other than the tongue, such as air going out the sides of the mouth while biting your lip, the labiodental lateral fricative box would not be grey.

But it still might be empty, like the labiodental trill, which is considered possible (I think it would take practice!) but no known language uses it as a speech sound. But look right above that empty box, and you’ll see the symbol ⱱ, which represents a labiodental flap: a sound you make by flipping your lower lip out brushing it past your upper teeth. That box was empty until fairly recently, when the people who agree on the chart were made aware of an African language that uses the sound as a distinct speech sound. 

In a way, an empty box is a challenge to fill it – just as a grey area is a challenge to prove it wrong, or to scrutinize the definitions. So these taxonomies help turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns, and sometimes eventually to known knowns, and they also help us understand how we know – but they don’t produce the data themselves; you still have to go find speakers of real languages for that. 

But our choice of what to include in the grid – what questions to ask – can still leave unknown unknowns unknown and unknown, and it can also divert attention away from known knowns. For example, there is no column for linguolabials (tongue and lip), which is altogether possible (you could do it right now: touch your tongue to your upper lip). In this case, it’s not because they’re judged impossible, nonexistent, or unimportant; it’s just that they’re treated as variants on bilabials and coronals, and so are represented with a mark under a letter: [n̼] and [l̼], for instance. They’re known knowns but more easily overlooked because they’re not given equal weight in the taxonomy – which effectively makes them lesser-known knowns.

But there’s one more thing that linguistics tells us about all of this. Every linguistics student comes in feeling sure they know all about the sounds we make in our mouths and how we make them, and every linguistics student comes to realize they were doing things they weren’t aware that they were doing. For instance, before I encountered phonetics, I knew how to say “pot” and “spot” like a usual English speaker, but I didn’t realize that, like a usual English speaker, I was making a puff of air after the p in “pot” but not so much after the sp in “spot.” Every introductory linguistics course has one class where the students are all holding their hands, or pieces of paper, in front of their mouths and discovering that they’re doing something that they know to do but don’t know they’re doing. This is was what is often called tacit knowledge.

In fact, most of language is tacit knowledge for most speakers. We know how to put together a sentence, but we aren’t really aware of how we do it or why some things sound right and others sound wrong. And we learn rules in school and think that anything that doesn’t follow those rules doesn’t follow any rules, when in fact “nonstandard” varieties of languages have grammars that are every bit as developed and constraining as “standard” varieties. 

Some of the things we learn don’t just block knowledge, they put in false belief in place of accurate knowledge. If you say “doin’” instead of “doing,” for instance, we typically say you’re “dropping the g,” but there is no g. The difference between those two consonant sounds – [n] versus [ŋ] – is only a matter of where they’re said in the mouth; it just happens that we don’t have a separate letter for [ŋ] so we write it as ng, which also sometimes stands for [ŋg].

That’s not just an unknown known; it adds a whole new dimension to the Rumsfeld square. As the popular saying goes (seen in many versions, and often inaccurately attributed to Mark Twain), “It ain’t so much the things that people don’t know that makes trouble in this world, as it is the things that people know that ain’t so.” But I’m not going to redraw the diagram with veracity versus delusion as another dimension right here and now, because that would be a very mentally taxing digression.

Beyond linguistics, and beyond tacit knowledge and knowledge blocked by falsehood, there are also other unknown knowns in life. I think of the time more than 20 years ago when I was looking for a job and a friend said a friend of his needed someone to do some proofing corrections on HTML. So I phoned the friend-of-a-friend and we chatted a bit and he told me to come in. When I walked in the door to the office, this person I had chatted with already on the phone looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both said, “I know you!” We had had a great long conversation at our mutual friend’s place at a party some months earlier, but had not learned each other’s full name, so when we were talking on the phone we didn’t know we knew each other. The knowledge wasn’t tacit, and it wasn’t blocked; it was transiently and accidentally obscured. (He remains one of my closest friends.)

And then there’s the Karate Kid kind of moment. In the first Karate Kid movie, the hero wants to learn karate, so he apprentices himself to an old Japanese man who makes him do menial tasks such as washing and waxing the car according to very specific instructions and painting the fence with exact strokes. When at length the hero complains that he hasn’t learned anything and is just being used for free labour, the master throws some punches at him, which by reflex he blocks using the muscle moves he had internalized through doing the scut work. He knew how to do it, but he didn’t know he knew. This, too, is tacit knowledge, but not one that had already been demonstrated, like speech knowledge; it was first manifest at the point of awareness.

That’s also how I learned how to do structural editing. I picked it up through researching and writing essays and through evaluating and grading very large numbers of student essays as a grad student and instructor. I wasn’t fully conscious of the sense of flow and structure and the intuitions I was developing, but when I first sat down to actually edit articles and books, I realized that I knew how to do something I hadn’t known I knew. Of course, once it’s a known known, it can be further developed – but I have to watch out that I don’t start misleading myself into “knowing” things that aren’t so!

And then there’s the ultimate unknown known: the “enlightenment” (satori, kensho) of Zen practice. If my sense of it from accounts I have read is accurate, it involves seeing the world and realizing that you always knew its true nature, but you just didn’t know you knew… because you were too busy putting it into boxes and matrices and categories and words. Which reminds us again that while logical deductions and categorizations can lead us to discoveries, they can also lead us away from them.

Unknown knowns are some of life’s greatest pleasures, its greatest serendipities. There are also, yes, great discoveries of unknown things you either suspected might exist (as a known unknown) or had no idea would be there like that (unknown unknown). But as T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,” 

We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

In an important way, our lives are a course of coming to know ourselves and our worlds – of coming to know the things we had always known but had not been aware we knew. The unknown knowns.

* Well, Slavoj Žižek has – he has used the term for “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.” These are not so much unknown as “unknown” – we agree to pretend not to know them so as to avoid cognitive dissonance. He was responding to Rumsfeld’s use of the idea of unknown unknowns to justify attacking Iraq.