Monthly Archives: March 2023


“We really ought to start calling this a symposium, dontcha think?”

Yes, Andy, I do think so.

“Andy” in this case is Andy Hollandbeck, fellow editor, with whom I just, um, symposed at the ACES conference in Columbus, Ohio. And he was not sitting up from his spot on a couch when saying that – though he could have been; he tooted it on Mastodon in response to my observation, “A conference is a fountain of knowledge where editors gather to drink!”

Which is not an original witticism, mind you – though it’s usually said of universities. But I was saying it in response to Christian Wilkie characterizing the subjects of my conference photos as “the important stuff.” With which, given that they were largely pictures of people having animated conversations while holding drinks, I tend to concur.

That may not make sense to you if your familiarity with symposia is just with what are typically called “symposium” these days: events consisting of panel discussions or people reading scholarly papers one after another, always in some fluorescent-lit room with desks, dry as bones, fueled with bad coffee or nothing at all. If there is any lubricated conviviality, it takes place afterwards and unofficially.

Those who have some acquaintance with Plato know that his Symposium is the original literary pattern for such things: a philosophical discussion between a half-dozen – make that seven – eminent ancient Greeks, most eminent of whom being Socrates. They are making speeches, one by one, about Eros.

In the average layperson’s mind, this sounds like a literary description of a faculty dinner, all these erudite people saying such smart things. Those who know the subject – and faculty dinners – more intimately know that it was, indeed, like many a faculty dinner: all but one of them are in their cups (and a late arrival shows up having come from another party absolutely cratered), and they are talking about sex.

This is not to say that all symposia must take sex as their subject; not at all – any topic is fair game. (Editing, for instance, can be more interesting than you might think.) But the origin of the symposium is a drinking-and-talking party. To our English eyes, symposium seems formal, on the same level of dignity as symphony, with an air of posing questions perhaps (or intellectual poseurs?), and, um, all those words that end in um, from forum to opium. But it comes (via Latin) from Ancient Greek συμπόσιον sumpósion, from συν- sun- (‘together’) plus πίνω pínō (‘drink’). And no, you don’t have to drink pinot, although the Athenians did always drink wine – it was served from a large jar called a krater and drunk from shallow cups.

Symposia were common in Athenian society of about 2400 years ago. There would be dinner, and then there would be drinking and talking. Which is exactly what I go to conferences in hope of, and I am always pleased to get it. (The presentations are enjoyable, but I don’t go for formal education really; I can get that more efficiently by other means.) I have long been an advocate of conviviality: when I was heading an editorial department, I maintained “the team that lunches together has hunches together,” and I may also have said “the team that does shots together has thoughts together.” Meetings are de rigueur (mortis) but informal contexts are where the truth really comes out.

But there is one thing about a symposium in the original model that I don’t cotton to: women were not allowed.

Well, for heaven’s sake. How am I supposed to get any really valuable insight in a room full of nothing but men? Have you been in a room full of nothing but men trying to impress each other with how much they know? It’s an intellectual desiccant. Please. Let us include women, and the more the better (editors’ conferences are excellent for this), for the sake of a better balance of insight and perspective and for better conviviality.

Which is what the Romans did at their version of the symposium. Oh, I’m not talking about their famous orgies; I’m talking about the same kind of event as the Greeks had, with speeches and toasts and ample beverage. But the Romans did not exclude women from them. Also, the Romans didn’t wait until after dinner to start pouring the wine. Not that alcohol is essential; not everyone wants to drink, and if non-drinking was fine for Socrates (it was), it’s fine for anyone else. It’s not the spirits, it’s the spirit!

But the Romans also had a different name for their gatherings – one that already sounds more inviting: convivium. (Yes, by the way, its etymological origins are con- ‘with’ and vivo ‘I live’. I can live with that.) And perhaps convivium is the term we really want. Here’s to conviviality!

Sounding Like the “Right Sort”

I was in Columbus for the annual ACES conference for the last few days. I gave a presentation on how we use vocabulary and grammar to filter audiences in and out – often in subtle ways. Here it is!


There are quite a lot of words that we use on a regular basis to smooth the flow of reading – or just to give the impression of more content – that are not, strictly speaking, essential to the basic sense.

We regularly use many words that don’t add information to help text seem smoother or fuller.

We frequently use filler words.

Verbal excipients abound.

Say, are you familiar with this word excipient? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s obsolete. My pharmacist friends and colleagues haven’t gotten the memo on that. And, in a way, neither have I – although I seldom use the word excipient, I spend a chunk of time every morning working on articles about prescription drugs, and one of the things I handle regularly are lists of what the articles call non-medicinal ingredients. Which are, in another word, excipients.

“Oh, filler, you mean.” Well, yes and no. Perhaps the best way to define excipient is that it’s everything in a medication except the active ingredient. Excipients aren’t just there to bulk up the pills (which can be necessary; the amount of active ingredient is sometimes very small because it’s very potent, milligram for milligram), and they’re not just the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down – although, yes, the substantial doses of sugar and flavouring you get in many medication syrups are indeed excipients and they do indeed serve to get people to take the stuff more willingly. But excipients also serve other purposes: they help the medication stay in pill form; they help the medication dissolve more easily when taken (and not before); they help the pills be more identifiable (prescription medications are expected to be visually distinguishable from other prescription medications, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining); they help the medication last long on the shelf (or in the fridge); they help the medication – the active ingredient – be more effective. In short, they are the vehicle taking the active ingredient to you.

And the same goes for many verbal excipients. It’s true that brevity is, typically, the soul of wit, and that concision aids cogency, but there are limits. Exiguous wording can be gnomic – sometimes two or three words make a thing much clearer than a single high-potency word, and sometimes dropping a seemingly unnecessary word such as, say, the that left out of “All your friends will try to do is sleep” (i.e., “All that your friends [etc.]”) will cause many readers to interpret a sentence one way up to a certain point and then have to rejig their interpretation – usually a small effort, but more than no effort. We also sometimes use words just to signal what kind of text the text is (in-group terminology) or what discourse it belongs to (citationality!). Parenthetical comments and other appositives and amplifications may seem extraneous, but they better furnish the mental room of the sentence. And beyond that, although some readers take exception to even the whiff of prolixity, there are the things that make text a pleasure to read: luxurious words, full of sound and rhythm and images. There’s a reason some people buy thick biographies rather than reading Wikipedia articles. There is a time and a place for a verbal bubble bath – and few readers eagerly seek out textual cold showers.

There are other less valuable kinds of verbal excipients too, mind you. There are the kinds that truly are there to bulk up, not to smooth the flow; academic and legal texts are typically full of this kind, and its main effect is to make the text seem more important – and often to disguise lack of substance. There are the kinds of circumlocutions that we use out of dread of excessive directness – what I often call verbal bubble wrap. And there are words that seem mainly to exist to make sure unabridged dictionaries are as ponderous and prepossessing as possible.

Of which one would seem to be excipient. After all, it may be concise, but it’s not clear to anyone who hasn’t had it explained to them. You could say that non-medicinal ingredient has more filler, in that it’s more words, but those are words that people already know; excipient is an extra word to stuff into your brain. But you wouldn’t be here reading this if you didn’t like having and knowing more words. And once you know that excipient means all those things I listed off three paragraphs ago, it does seem useful in context. 

And since you’re here for extra knowledge, you of course want to know where excipient comes from. It comes from Latin excipio, from ex- ‘out’ and capio ‘I take’ (which also shows up in words such as English capture and Italian capisci ‘you understand’). This excipio can mean quite different things: it can mean ‘I take out’, it can mean ‘I receive’, it can mean ‘I follow after’, it can mean ‘I rescue’, it can mean ‘I except’ (except is a direct descendent of excipio), and it can mean ‘I host or accommodate’ – as in what medical excipients do. Even in English, defunct senses of excipient include ‘one who takes objection’ and ‘one who takes up in succession’.

But those senses have dissolved in the gut of time. This one pharmaceutical sense has survived. And so may it be. The truth is that, though we may discern verbal excipients, every word can be an active ingredient if well used – language is a drug.


If polyhedral means ‘many-sided’, and dodecahedral means ‘twelve-sided’, then it follows that cathedral must mean ‘cat-sided’, clearly. 

And if polyhedral is the adjectival form of polyhedron, it follows that cathedral must be the adjectival form of cathedron.

And, since hedron is from Greek ἕδρα ‘seat’, cathedron means ‘cat chair’. Which makes perfect sense, if you’ve ever seen the majesty with which a cat can occupy a chair.

You may have noticed, however, that ἕδρα is hedra, not hedron – the Greek root is originally feminine; for various reasons it came through in the neuter when referring to shapes. But this means that the word is not cathedron but cathedra

Are you chary of this idea that cathedra is a cat chair? Some of us know this word in the Latin phrase ex cathedra, which refers to pronouncements that are made by the pope in his official papal role, and as such doctrinally binding (“infallible”), set down in stone as it were. There aren’t all that many of these; most things the pope says (e.g., interviews, sermons, tweets) are not ex cathedra and are open to some level of disagreement. 

Cathedra is also an English word (by direct assimilation from Latin) referring to the chair of a bishop in his home church. That’s why the church is a cathedral – originally it’s cathedral church, as in the church with a cathedra.

So the top dog of dogma gets the cat chair, is that right? Well, if the bishop is a cardinal, you could say he’s the top bird (although the bird is actually named after the ecclesiast, and not the other way around; cardinals the bishops wear red robes, and so do cardinals the birds, but cardinals in the church are so named for the same reason that cardinal numbers are cardinal numbers: from Latin cardinalis, which means ‘important, pivotal’). But in any event he’s in the catbird seat.

But while there is something very appealing about the image of a majestic feline occupying an important chair in an important church, we do need to deal honestly with this cat. And perhaps you should be sitting down for this.

You see, we could catalogue an almost catastrophic number of words with cat at the start – certainly enough to make you catatonic – that all get it from the same Greek root: κατά. In some cases it trims to κατ; in others – words that have “rough breathing,” which is typically rendered as h in transliteration – it shows up as καθ. And that root κατά translates variously, because it’s a preposition, but it’s generally ‘against’ or ‘towards’ or ‘along’ or ‘according to’ or – perhaps most often, and in the present case – ‘down’. Which, since ἕδρα means ‘seat’, means that cathedra is ‘sit down’ – as a noun, mind you, not a verb.

But there are three more things to think about. One is that cats follow the principle of “If it fits, I sits” – they famously like to occupy boxes and bowls that you might not think they could even get into. And that means that a random parallelepiped of corrugated cardboard could become a cathedra for a cat – the infallible authority seated in whatever held your last shipment from Amazon.

The second is that cat, as in your furry friend, is not in fact related to κατά (I imagine you’re not surprised). Its origins are known to a certain point, traced back into Proto-Germanic, and it is thought to be cognate with, and perhaps derived from, Latin cattus ‘cat’ (seems likely, doesn’t it), but there are also similar words for the same thing in some unrelated languages, such as Nubian, Arabic, and Classical Syriac, and so it could be what’s called a Wanderwort – a “wander-word,” a word that has been spread around by travel. Which, frankly, seems altogether fitting for what it names, an animal as famous for its wandering as for its sitting.

The third is that while bishops and popes may stay in their seats (indeed, they are not known for wandering much on matters of dogma), words do wander – not just geographically, but in form too. If a word fits better in speakers’ mouths in a modified way, it will ultimately sit that way. And so syllables get trimmed and sounds get modified. And the word cathedra, over the centuries, passed through French and into English to become the modern words chaise (French) and chair (English). Which means that cathedral is, really, chairy in fancy traditional raiment. 

PS: The photo is of my wife, Aina, sitting in a chair in the cathedral in Rheims, France. And since Aina had the nickname “Ainacat” or “the Cat” among her skater friends…

Pronunciation tip: Irish counties

It’s St. Patrick’s again, and why would I pass up a chance to do a pronunciation tip on something Irish? This time it’s the counties (and provinces) of Ireland. And although there are 32 of them (and four provinces), it’s a quick one!



OK, who said it? Who do you associate bodacious with?

Let me guess. Snuffy Smith, perhaps, or his wife Loweezy, from the cartoon strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith?

No? How about the bull Bodacious, considered the most dangerous rodeo bull in the world, retired in his prime lest he maim too many riders?

No? Hmm, let’s see…

Bill and Ted, played by Alex Winters and Keanu Reeves?


Some words really do acquire a strong association with one specific person, place, or work. Strong? Bold. Bold? Audacious. Bold and audacious? Bodacious.

Yes, that’s where this word is thought to come from: bold plus audacious. And its first known published uses – back in the mid-1800s – are not inevitably positive in tone: it modified words such as idjit (i.e., idiot), blurt, and (as a bare adverb) unreasonable. And bodaciously could be seen before used up or fast. Even into the middle of the 20th century you could see lines in fiction like “That’s bodacious big talk, boy.”

But it’s too, uh, bodacious a word not to shift toward being a general-purpose strong positive intensifier, a sort of pet word. Like in a story published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935: “I’m keeping the bodacious score for the day. Got a bet I’ll hear the word a thousand times. If you want a reputation for wit in this lunatic fringe on the shirttail of society , all you’ve got to do is know how to pronounce the word.” And in a 1966 issue of The Leatherneck (the magazine of the US Marine Corps), we get “‘We climbed some ‘bodacious’ hills,’ Sgt Robert Rho puffed, using the company’s favorite expression, ‘bodacious,’ meaning huge or gigantic.”

By that time, it was also well established in use in the cartoon Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, which started in 1919, and in which it was used – is used, in fact, since the strip is still running after 104 years – as a kind of backwoodsy all-purpose term of intense approbation: “Now that thar is one bodacious full moon!” “Snuffy an’ Loweezy are still doin’ bodaciously good after all these years, too!!” And so on.

Which also gives it a kind of, um, low-falutin’ hifalutin-ness. Although its polysyllabic presentation may seem like audacious with a bow on it, its history has established it as less suited to an archduke and more suited to Bo and Luke Duke.

But most people don’t read up on the history and etymology of a word before they use it. Words are known by the company they keep. And I feel confident that Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, when they wrote the script for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the late 1980s, picked up the earthy associations from literature and cartoons, even if they didn’t know that the word had always been associated with rural southern Americans. Anyway, it just sounds right, you know, dude?

And then it launched into eternity, thoroughly associated (along with the word bogus as an antonym) with a certain kind of high school dude… and perhaps a bit with an actor who, in his subsequent career, has proven quite bodacious indeed.

If you want a good example of how people acquire and think of words, here’s Keanu and Alex discussing the meaning of bodacious:

“On the extreme periphery of outstanding, somewhere between excellent and savory. . . And there’s a mystical quality as well.”

And that’s no bull.


Who can rival the nival scenery of the True North Strong and Free? There’s no place like a snow place. It’s not simply that it brings the curious combination of frigid and fluffy (never mind the snirt), nor that it has the shocking smooth brightness (again, skip the snirt), nor that you can do winter sports on it, though all of these are certainly virtues.

No, it’s that it evinces the evanescence of scenery itself. I can walk down a snowy street and know not only that it will look entirely different in the warmer seasons, but that it will look at least somewhat different even the next day. Snow blows and drifts and piles up and melts away… water, the stuff of life, is become a sort of butterfly, but even less permanent.

I’m ambivalent about this word nival. It is exemplary, showing the drift from its Latin origin nivalis in both form and pronunciation, and it has its uses: it can mean ‘snowy, made of snow, made in snow’ (like niveous but a bit shorter and without the beauty lotion overtones); it can relate to a region of perpetual snow (we have some of that in Canada, but I have no photos, not having visited there); it can relate to “the falling, accumulation, or melting of snow,” to quote the OED (in other words, relating to nivation, and not only by invitation). But it rhymes with rival, and also of course revival and survival, and that “long i” just somehow doesn’t seem… on the level. At least to me.

But that doesn’t make it invalid – just alive. We do those sound changes in English, and yet you can look at a word and see the shape of what was there before. And words keep changing, and also coming and going. And we’re not out of the woods yet with this one – tell me if you’ve ever used it!

It’s fun to think, isn’t it, that the same stuff that can support naval vessels, and stretch beyond our eyes to the horizon, can blow and drift, pile up on cars and be made into balls for handy tossing? It’s all a matter of phase. In other days or other ways, it’s also steam, and clouds. And life in places that lack this version of water is somehow… incomplete. We will always have that rival season summer in its turn, but when the streets and beaches are warm and dry, I sometimes catch myself picturing what they have been – and will be again – in the nival time of the year.

ensconced, sconce

At the evening’s length, as I love to do, I abscond with my laptop into my library and I sit ensconced in my comfiest chair, ready to taste another word. But first: some illumination.

No, I don’t need to turn on a light; they’re already lit. But I need to find a light – a photo of a particular kind of one – to fortify my lexical explorations. And, as it turns out, this entails an exploration of more than a myriad of photos in my Flickr files. For some reason, good pictures of sconces are hard to spot. The sconces are always… well, not hidden, but not necessarily in focus.

But if I am tasting ensconced – and that is my aim – is it truly appropriate to put in pictures of sconces? In one way, I might as well have pictures of scones. You see, ensconced does mean ‘in a sconce’, but the kind of sconce it means I have no pictures of at all, and it has nothing to do with light – other than being a light fortification.

Though you might expect a word like sconce would come only once, there are somehow two kinds of sconce. One is the one you probably have in mind: a wall-mounted candle or lamp, typically with some kind of screen or tube or shade or similar protection (not to say fortification). This comes from Old French ensconse ‘lantern’, from Latin absconsus, past participle of abscondere, ‘hide’ (for the same sense, modern Italian uses nascondere, from inabscondere, which is just in plus abscondere). It is not the case that a sconce must hide the light it holds, however; it only needs to give it shelter.

The other sconce is borrowed from Dutch schans, from German Schanze (possibly but not necessarily deriving from a word meaning ‘basket’), and it means a kind of fortification: a small fort or earthwork for defending a pass or ford, or a castle gate, or to be a counter-fort of a castle – just a shot away, even in range of rolling stones. Also a kind of shelter, therefore, and also a snug one – protection when a storm or flood is threatening, but made for war.

Well. My armchair is not so bellicose. And just as the Dutch word schans was (after the stopping of the fricative) respelled sconce under the influence of the existing words sconce (yes, we’ve had the wall-candle word longer), and just as I’m gradually taking on the shape of this chair, our sense of ensconce – and its most common form, ensconced – has come to be a little more comfy, and the glow of Gemütlichkeit is not so often hidden under a basket. We get shelter so we do not fade away.

Not that ensconced is always so enhanced by happenstance; bad things can be ensconced too: consider “a wasps’ nest ensconced in the hedge-bank,” as Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns describes. But on the other hand, Greg Delanty, “from The Splinters,” demands,

Tell us of the rain
tapping a pane while you’re ensconced
by the fire cradling a pregnant brandy glass.

Deborah Landau, describing “The Wedding Party,” rhapsodizes,

Marie, you are not unclean.
You are rose-oiled and shiny
and ensconced in the corner

with the witty anesthesiologist,
inhaling ladysmoke
at the café.

It’s a pleasure
just to watch you scratch the crud
off your lotto ticket tonight.

And James Schuyler rounds off “A Man in Blue” with

Where is Brahms?
And Bruno Walter?
Ensconced in resonant plump easy chairs
covered with scuffed brown leather
in a pungent autumn that blends leaf smoke
(sycamore, tobacco, other),
their nobility wound in a finale
like this calico cat
asleep, curled up in a breadbasket,
on a sideboard where the sun falls.

So such things as we can afford come to pass. We need not fire cannons; we can take pot shots via the glowing screens before us. But, as we sit ensconced, we are able to look out on the world and make light of our troubles.


Would you rather go to a sketchy place or a scuzzy place?

What would you say is the difference between the two?

What about people – would you more likely avoid someone who was sketchy or someone who was scuzzy? What about if they were scummy? Slimy? Sleazy? Skeevy? How would you describe the differences?

Now how about a mountain – would you rather go for a climb on a mountain that was described as sketchy or one described as scuzzy?

That last one is a trick, because there actually is a mountain called Scuzzy Mountain. It’s beyond Hope. It’s beyond Hell’s Gate. In other words, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Vancouver up the Trans-Canada Highway along the Fraser River, right near Boston Bar. But when I look at pictures of hikes up it (on Steven’s Peak-Bagging Journey and on Alpine Baking), although it does look sketchy in a few places, it doesn’t look scuzzy at all – when you get to the top it’s nothing but clean, clear air.

Apparently the mountain has had that name for longer than English has had the word scuzzy in the way we know it. The mountain got its name from Scuzzy Creek, a creek that was used for gold panning by prospectors during the gold rush, but however scuzzy the prospectors probably were, its name doesn’t come from that; it may be a rendition of a word meaning ‘jump’ in Nłeʔkepmxcín, a local language, or it may be from Skuzzy, the name of a sternwheeler that was the first such boat to get through the rapids north of Yale on the Fraser. (I don’t know where the Skuzzy got its name.)

OK, so you probably wouldn’t call a mountain “scuzzy” normally, because scuzzy comes (as far as we know) from a blend of scummy and fuzzy and basically means ‘gross, shady (not in a good way), unclean, disreputable, unkempt’ and similar things. Sketchy, meanwhile, as I’ve written about before (two times), has an assortment of senses ranging from ‘difficult to discern’ to ‘baleful’. But how about a place – say, a bar (not necessarily a Boston bar)? A sketchy bar would be like the one on Tatooine where Luke Skywalker nearly got killed by some intergalactic dirtbag. But that bar was quite clean. A scuzzy bar might or might not be dangerous, but it wouldn’t be clean. You could expect your arms to stick to the bartop if you leaned on it.

And a scuzzy person? Unclean, to be sure, but probably also a little disreputable. But not as chancy as a sketchy one. On the other hand, you could meet someone in a bank boardroom or a capitol office who you would describe as scummy, slimy, or sleazy, or maybe even skeevy, but it would be unusual to meet someone sketchy in such a place, and almost unthinkable to meet someone scuzzy in the shiny wood-panelled corridors of wealth and power.

Now let’s try it with derivative nouns and see how it goes: scuzzbag, sketchbag, scumbag, sleazebag, slimebag (admittedly slimeball is more usual). You’ve probably met all of these kinds of people; I know I have. But I have met someone I would describe as a sleazebag, a slimebag, in fact a scumbag (really about the lowest you can go in terms of character), in a high-floor boardroom in the financial district of Toronto (not to do business with him per se; he happened to be on the board of an organization I was, coincidentally, about to end my association with). I have also met scuzzbags and sketchbags, but always at street level – sometimes in drinking establishments or similar, and sometimes more literally at street level. I think I would trust my wallet around a scuzzbag but maybe not around a sketchbag; around a scumbag slimebag sleazebag, on the other hand, my wallet would not likely be the issue – that kind of person often does crime through institutional means.

We have always had scuzzy people and scuzzy things, of course. But we have only had the word scuzzy since – would you like to guess? – the late 1960s. The noun scuzz (sometimes spelled scuz) showed up at the same time. Scuzzbag, scuzzball, and scuzzbucket appeared in the 1980s.

Oh, and also in the 1980s, we got the Small Computer System Interface connector, universally abbreviated as SCSI, which is also pronounced “scuzzy.” But while it was a standard connector two decades ago, if you find one now it might very well be scuzzy – because it’s old and dirty. Everything I used to use SCSI for I now use USB for… or wireless. And there’s nothing less scuzzy than clean, clear air.