Category Archives: Uncategorized


Cuneiform is kind of a wedge issue.

OK, ha ha, you see what I did there. Cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped’, from Latin cuneus ‘wedge’ plus form. But really, cuneiform was a wedge – one that slowly divided things that had been connected, but also one that slowly worked its way in, like a foot in the door.

I’ll give you an analogy. It won’t be exact, but you’ll get the idea. Continue reading

What’s with the password protection? This

Some readers may have been surprised at the need for a password to view the post on scotagon. That’s my fault – I buried the announcement of my premium subscriptions at the end of my post on subscribe. Here’s the tl;dr: I’ve added premium subscriptions, which you can buy on Patreon for as little as $1 a month, and some posts will be subscriber-only as a perk and incentive.

Why? I’ve upgraded the hosting plan for Sesquiotica to get rid of ads and to add extra features (including a shorter URL!), but that costs money. I’m also doing more videos and audio recordings, which take time I could be using on freelance projects that pay. You don’t have to subscribe if you don’t want – you won’t get any less if you don’t, but you’ll get more if you do.

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Well, that explains everything.

I’ll explain. A friend (Doug Linzey to be precise) suggested I taste this word. So of course I looked it up, not just what it means – it’s made of well-known parts anyway – but what and who brought it forth. And I found a bunch of links to articles and tweets attributing it to Karl Popper, the philosopher. And one link to a Wikipedia on Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist. But when I clicked through on the article, the word was not to be found – vicitim, I suppose, of some recent edit.

So I searched monocausotaxophilia Pöppel. And I found what I suspected: Ernst Pöppel invented the term. Thing is, he’s not very well known to the world at large; Karl Popper is somewhat better known (not least, I’m sure, because his name makes many people think of popcorn). So some people saw Ernst Pöppel and misremembered it as Karl Popper, because that was a path of less resistance. His name was more familiar. And it was plausible: he’s a philosopher, and in particular a philospher of science who argued against inductivist and justificationalist approaches to science (ironically, given the misattribution of the quote to him) and in favour of what is now accepted as standard scientific method: keep making experiments, and you’ll have more and more evidence for something, but you never know for certain that a generalization is true, you just know when it’s been proven false. So anyway, a philosophical thing a neuroscientist said could readily be misattributed to a philosopher of science.

And what I’m getting to is that this tendency to misattribute quotes to whichever person has the maximum combined fame and appropriateness (seriously, I think most quotes are more often attributed wrongly than rightly) tells us enough about the way people think that it can also help us to understand how words are formed and altered. For instance, internecine comes from Latin neco ‘I kill’ plus inter, which – like several other prefixes – served as an intensifier. It meant, originally, ‘killing them all’ or ‘thoroughly deadly’. But people saw inter and recognized it as a prefix that they were used to meaning ‘between’ or ‘mutual’ and so its sense became ‘mutually destructive’. The meaning swerved over to the track of least resistance.

Quite a few words have shifted sense on the basis of their sounding more appropriate to another sense because of other things they sound like. Some words have had their use affected in other ways – if a word sounds too much like a word we want to avoid, we tend to avoid that word too, even if its sense and origin are unrelated (I’m sure there’s some suitable remark about mutual destruction I could make here). And we also break words apart where it sounds best to us rather than at the places they were originally joined together, which is why we say copter rather than pter and shopaholic rather than shopcoholic.

All of this also tells us why we have a word such as monocausotaxophilia. Have a look at its bits: mono from Greek μόνος monos ‘alone, single’, taxo from Greek τάξις taxis ‘order’, philia from Greek φιλία filia ‘love’, but causo from Latin causa ‘cause, reason’. These are all parts of the lexical Lego bucket, but from two different sets that have been combined. It just happens that the Greek equivalent of causa, αἰτία aitia, is not much used in modern scientific neologism. Go with what you know. Like the guy who was looking for his car keys under the street light not because that’s where he most likely dropped them but because he could see better there.

Anyway, Pöppel’s term isn’t in as wide circulation as it could be, but it’s a valuable one, because it names a thing that’s quite common in scientific fields – and other intellectual endeavours. I’ve known and seen quite a few people who have exemplified it. The parts of it may or may not have made its sense clear, but I’ll tell you what it means: ‘the love of single causes that explain everything’.


Twenty-three years ago, I blew off my master’s convocation ceremony and went wandering around a cemetery with a young lady. While hundreds gathered on the brick-ringed lawn of the academic quad at Tufts University to march through the glowing gates of new adult life, R. and I strolled through the iron gates of Mount Auburn Cemetery and meandered by the marble stones of people who had long since passed through the pearly gates. While my name was being read from the rolls of those who had achieved graduate degrees, a man in a golf cart was calling out to R. and me lying on the lawn that this was a cemetery and we should comport ourselves accordingly.

Mount Auburn Cemetery may be a village of the dead, but what a glorious village it is, a Butchart Gardens of the decadently decedent.

Were this April, I would be tempted to quote T.S. Eliot: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” But there is another poem that is better suited to this occasion: “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith (most famous for the play She Stoops to Conquer), published in 1770. It is a paean to a lovely place, a childhood home that, like all memories of youth, cannot be strolled back into. It is still there, but all the there that was there is not there anymore: it is depopulated and dilapidated. Its denizens have not died; no, it has fallen victim to the privatization of the commons, the appropriation of public goods to the pleasure domes of the overenriched few. It starts with this:

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!
How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill,
The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age and whispering lovers made!

But nothing stays the same. You can never go home again; the houses I grew up in are changed or gone, and the places I knew people in may still be there but the people have moved on. After stooping to conquer me, R. moved on as well, and so did I. And Mount Auburn Cemetery remained, having already been through its change to be an album of marmoreal memorials.

Sweet Mount Auburn. It was once not a farm of headstones but Stone’s Farm, a piece of peaceful rural land nicknamed Sweet Auburn by locals who had read Goldsmith. And, fittingly or ironically, it too was thereafter enclosed, taken from the planting of crops to the planting of corpses – just the well-off ones – and given its current name and state. But it is open to the public; it is credited as a pioneer in the American public parks and gardens movement. So just as death claims us all, the commons have, in their way, reclaimed this farmland, at least for visiting rights.

One may be tempted to say its name would be more apposite in the fall, when all is burning reds and browns. For what is auburn if not a rich brown as of hair that inspires poetry? But even that has not stayed the same. If you want to see the epitaph for the youth of this word, look at any pearly tombstone showing a century’s patina. Auburn comes from Latin alburnus, ‘whitish’ (you may recognize the alb from album). It came through Old French alborne or auborne, and in its middle age – a century or so before Goldsmith – it was sometimes written abrune or abroun. And by way of that it came to be thought of as more a burning brown.

Well, memory, like tombstones, becomes more golden as it fades. Our minds are the goldsmiths of time. And if time and the distillation of the years makes auburn auburn, poetry makes it Mount Auburn:

And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit in these degenerate times of shame,
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,
That found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excell,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!

Do you want to use a Germanic feature, or do you prefer using a Celtic one?

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

Learning other languages is fun. And to learn another language is to learn more about your own language – especially when it takes on the aspect of learning more about your family tree.

You’ve probably had the experience of meeting new relatives or learning about ancestors and thinking, “Oh, that explains something.” Well, consider this: English was brought to Britain by invaders from what is now northern Germany and was learned by the resident Celts; then Scandinavians invaded and had a significant influence on the language; then the French invaded and had a major influence; then the English started invading other places and stealing their words. So discovering these other languages is discovering English – to get to know them is to get to know our own weird tongue. Such as why we can use either a gerund – learning, discovering – or an infinitive – to learn, to discover – as the subject or object of a sentence.

In French, you learn that this function is served by the infinitive. If you want to say “Seeing is believing,” you say Voir c’est croire, using the infinitives: “To see is to believe.” German has it the same way – Sehen heisst glauben – and so does Norwegian: Å se er å tro. These languages also have in common that they don’t use a present progressive tense as we do: “I am walking” translates to Je marche, Ich laufe, Jeg går – “I walk.”

On the other hand, when you learn Irish or Scots Gaelic you find they have a thing called a verbal noun. “I am walking” in Irish is Táim ag siúl, “I am at walking.” Irish uses the present progressive much as English does, and it uses its verbal nouns where English would use gerunds. (Irish happens to have its own idiomatic phrase for “Seeing is believing”: Is é a chreidiúint, “It’s believing.”) The Celtic inhabitants of southeastern Britain when the Angles and Saxons arrived from Germany weren’t Irish, of course; the language displaced by English was the ancestor of modern Breton, which is still spoken by descendants of Britons who fled to northern France (Brittany). It has the same verbal noun feature, worn down a bit by the centuries and the influence of French.

English, given a choice of two influences, chose to keep both of them. Typical.

English isn’t the only Germanic language that normally uses a present progressive, by the way, as you will discover if you learn Icelandic. Icelandic’s version uses the preposition plus the infinitive, but in the same way as Irish uses its verbal nouns: “I am walking” is Ég er að ganga. Oh, and it just happens that early Icelanders brought over a lot of Irish and Scottish people to, um, help around the house. Nearly two-thirds of the maternal gene pool and about a quarter of the paternal gene pool in Iceland is of Irish or Scottish descent.

So there you have it. In languages as in families, to learn is to discover, and seeing is believing.


On University Avenue in Toronto a memorial sculpture reaches heavenward commemorating fallen Canadian airmen and -women. It takes for its name the motto of the Royal Air Force: Per ardua ad astra. This is often translated as “Through hard work to the stars,” but ardua is the accusative plural or a noun, nominative singular arduum, literally meaning ‘steep place’ and figuratively ‘difficulty’. It is the source of our English word arduous. The motto could perhaps even be translated as “Climbing steeply to the stars.”

We have never reached the stars. We have never even come close. Their light comes to us, but our bodies cannot get to them. We have gotten to the moon, and we have sent probes to the sun, our one local star, but those pinhole glimpses of the empyrean that freckle the night sky are beyond reach, no matter how steep the climb. There’s no point in promising otherwise.

But that’s not the point, is it, really. I mean, yes, the stars are supposed to be metaphors for our dreams, but they’re not a great literal metaphor; they’re entirely unreachable, and what would we do with them if we got them? No, the point is not the attainment. The point is what they spark in us: desire. Here is a poem that Heather Wheat (@heatheryreads) wrote recently:

We were never
meant to touch

the stars,
only to lust


their burning.

We receive their light, the rays of their flames, and something in us glows in response. This is the point. Hard work is of no value if it has no relation to desire. It should be fuelled by desire, and its result should be either the attainment of desire or the enjoyment of feeling it. The arduum is a route, the steep stairway to heaven, but the true means and end is ardor: Latin for ‘flame’, for ‘brilliance’ (literal), and for, well, ‘ardour’: fervent desire or love. (When we spell it ardour it is because of the word’s transit through French on its way to us.) The accusative plural is ardores, and I would say Per ardores ad astra: through ardours to the stars.

The flames of the stars cause our own flames to burn, sympathetic ignition at a distance. They will never receive our bodies – they would just burn them if they did – but our burning desires will send our light back towards them and, more importantly, towards those nearer to us.

And in our lives, too, we have more local stars, inspirations and aspirations; we do not need to touch them, it is not to us to capture them; only see what burns in them and the same flame will lick up in us. Through ardour we become stars, the objects of our own yearnings.


There are words we learn from songs; they rise out of the music and appear in our ears. Sometimes they’re completely new words to us, words we have to figure out from context. Boogaloo in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” was one such for me. Sometimes they’re words that are so reasonable in form we may not realize we haven’t heard them before. The Beatles were good for that for me: I easily accepted Blackburn, Lancashire in “A Day in the Life” even if I didn’t know its exact location, and hogshead in “For the Benefit of Mister Kite” even if I didn’t have an exact mental image of one.

And sometimes they’re not actually real words at all. There are no naspritus trees in Tripoli; no one is going, now or at any other time, into a Classiomatic. Welcome to the wide world of mondegreens, misheard words that lie in wait in lyrics and seize and drag away your mind as a leopard seizes and drags away a hare.

Music is an especially fertile field for mishearing because it interferes with our usual way of identifying sounds. We recognize vowels and consonants by the resonances they create in our mouths. Every sound that comes from our larynx has not just its base frequency (its pitch, in musical terms) but a number of harmonics above it (resonances that are some multiple of the base frequency), and the ones that come out the strongest are the ones that echo at just the right frequency for the size of the cavity they’re resonating in. Your tongue, as it constricts the air flow to make speech sounds, makes an angle that creates two resonating chambers, one at the back and one towards the lips, and the smaller each chamber is, the higher the resonances that dominate. The one towards the lips is also smaller than the one at the back, so you have two sets of resonances that can be variously closer together or farther apart, and their relation tells us what sound we’re hearing. There are some other, even higher sets of resonance that also come into play, but they mainly help us hear things like the difference between a vowel with a retroflex /r/ and one without it, or a vowel that’s nasalized (representing a following /m/, for instance) and one that’s not. Those sets of resonances are higher and not as strong as the main two sets. You can read and hear lots more about all that if you want.

Anyway, the thing is that singing can interfere with all that at least a little, and distract from it too, and the instruments accompanying the voice can add to the confusion, and the lyrics are very often not the kinds of strings of words we usually heard, and they’re not said with the usual speech rhythms. So I can listen to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and think I’m hearing “Hit me with those lettuce and beans” when it’s actually “Hit me with those laser beams.” Why “lettuce and beans”? I dunno, man, I assumed it was some Cockney rhyming slang.

And that’s the thing: we do a lot of our language learning by abduction. I don’t mean by kidnapping; I mean by observing an instance (or what we take to be an instance) and inferring a rule on the basis of it. It’s the reverse of deduction, which is where we know the rule and work out the instance. It’s backfill: we make a decision and create assumptions to justify it.

Remember, too, that we don’t hear words as discrete items in our sound stream. We have to work out where the divides are. And we don’t always work them out right. That’s how a norange and a nadder became an orange and an adder, but that’s a whole nother thing.

But today I’m talking about a lepress. And Africa.

You know “Africa,” right? The ’80s hit by Toto? I’ve always liked that song, and I can sing you all the words. It has a few slightly overworked images, true, but the music is so nice. One line that has always seemed just a little pushed for me is “I know that I must do what’s right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a lepress above the Serengeti”:

Rises like a lepress? I guess that means it sits like a female leopard, soft, dappled, muscular, ready to take whatever it wants to have. I never spent much time thinking about it.

If I had, I might have thought, “Wait, a lepress isn’t to a leopard as a lioness is to a lion. That’s not quite the right derivation. Leopard comes from leo, a root we all know refers to lions, and pard, which is from a Greek word for panthers. There’s no basis for deleting the last d. That should be leopardess.” Which in fact is true. A female leopard is a leopardess, if you insist on using diœcious terminology that treats the masculine as the default and the feminine as the marked.

But he’s clearly not singing leopardess. I mean, singers can mispronounce things – heck, Tom Cochrane sang Somalian as “soma-lion” in “White Hot” – but there sure ain’t no [d] in there. So what’s a lepress? Could it be formed from leporine? Isn’t that the adjective for leopards?

No, it’s not. It’s the adjective for hares. If lepress were formed from leporine, there would be a great big lady Bugs Bunny rising above the Serengeti. (Bugs Bunny may be called a rabbit but is obviously – by body shape, ear length, etc. – a hare. They’re not the same thing.)

Of course, following the model of seamster and seamstress, or mister and mistress, or matter and mattress, a lepress is a female leper. (OK, lay off, I was only joking about mattress.) And this is true: the dictionary entry for lepress – if your dictionary has one, as the Oxford English Dictionary does – tells you first that no one uses it anymore, and second that when they did it meant a female leper. As in a girl or woman affected with leprosy.

There is exactly no reason for a lepress to be rising above the Serengeti in that song.

I’ve been mishearing and misconstruing it for years. And by “for years,” I mean the whole time between when it came out in September 1982 and today, December 10, 2017. I only found out because I’m not the only one who was hearing lepress, and one of the others commented on Twitter about it:

If you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll tell you: the real words are “sure as Kilimajaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

That makes more sense than a lepress, doesn’t it?

Sure, but why would I think Olympus? I mean, it’s just, you know, a byword for a high, noble mountain. But not one in Africa per se, right? Look, we just heard “The wild dogs cry out in the night as they grow restless longing for some solitary company,” so my mind’s on animals. And leopards have a greater affinity in my mind to Kilimanjaro than some Greek mountain does. And it’s not like I see the word Olympus all the time. Well, OK, I literally carry a camera made by Olympus in my pocket every day, but, uh, I didn’t in 1982, or for years after.

It’s those higher resonances. I just wasn’t getting them right. I mean the resonances of the lofty idealized mountain of Greek gods, yeah, but also the ones that would have told me that I was hearing a nasalized vowel before the /p/ and not an /r/ after it. Remember how I mentioned that those higher resonances are more easily drowned out?

What was drowning them out? I dunno, man, the wild dogs crying out in the night, maybe? All I can say is that once something like that gets set into my head, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from it.