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There’s a link between rocks, looking, and Dutch cookies. I expect you’ll be skeptical, but it’s not just speculation: the path from one to another is scopulous, but the view in the end is spectacular.

Let’s start with the cookies. You may know speculaas; they are those spicy brown cinnamon ginger cookies, also called “windmill cookies,” that are typically shaped like animals or edifices, especially windmills. The Belgian version are called speculoos, and so are the crumbs made from them that are used for various purposes, sort of like delicious food gravel.

There are arguments about exactly why the cookies are named speculaas, but it is known that the spec is the same as in Latin speculum and speculator, which trace farther back to specula, Latin for ‘watchtower’ or ‘lookout’, which comes from the same root as scopulus, ‘crag’ or ‘rock’. Which is the origin of scopulous, meaning ‘rocky’. Promontories and crags are rocky, you see. It’s true that a pebble in your shoe can impede you from getting to the point of one, but if you can scamper up the escarpment you will find that much larger rocks can give much bolder outlooks. One way or another, it’s scopulous all the way.

Is it mere coincidence, or perhaps merging, that brings the spec of looking and the scop also of looking together with this scop as in rock? Nope, it really is that the rock, the headland, gets its name from the eyes in the head, or anyway from what they’re doing. The Latin scopulus came from Greek σκόπελος skopelos, ‘watchtower’ or ‘rock’ or ‘promontory’ or ‘crag’, which most likely came from σκοπέω skopeo, ‘I look’, ‘I contemplate’, ‘I consider’. It comes from the Indo-European *sḱep- root, which is a metathesis of the *speḱ- root. Apparently neither the Proto-Indo-Europeans nor the Ancient Greeks could mind their p’s and k’s. Anyway, an amazing number of words in many languages, including quite a few in English, trace back to these roots, all coming by one path or another from looking: spectrum, spectacle, species, specimen, expect, skeptic, scopophilia, telescope, and so many others.

And if you follow the crumbs to climb the scopulous path to the spectacular promontory from which you can trace your trail back with a telescope, do you get a cookie? I expect you may, if you bring one, but you’ll have to look out for yourself.


Say, what’s smew?

This is a cute but iffy little word, isn’t it? It brings all sorts of things to mind. Perhaps it has a smell, or perhaps it smears; maybe it mews like a kitten, or maybe it lives in a mews. It might spew from its maw. It seems small and perhaps new. It might be suited to smog or to snow or it might prefer to swim; it might like to eat s’mores or watch sumo. Who’s to know?

Well, this chap, for one:

You can see he’s a big fan of smew. Has been ever since he was a kid. The smew come over from Siberia and spend the winter in England, some of them right by where he grew up.

For those who can’t or don’t want to watch the video: a smew is a kind of little diving duck. The males are mostly white, with a striking black pattern, including a mask; the females are grey with brown heads; both of them have pointy bills and, typically, crests on their heads that would get them into the better kind of punk bars. Their calls sound like a cross between a chainsaw revving and a character from The Simpsons.

And they’ll just paddle along happily on the water, then abruptly dive in and, thereafter, resurface eating a fish. Icy water does not bother them.

OK, but… where the heck did they get this name? Why, of all the things they could be called, are they smew? And why, of all the things smew could be a name for, does it refer to these little ducks?

The answer is… no one really knows. The name has been in use since at least the 1600s. There’s another word, smee, that is used for several ducks, including the wigeon and the smew, and smew may be related to that, though they showed up at about the same time; smee in its turn is probably related to smeath, which is another word for the same thing and has been around about as long. Smew and smee may also be related to Dutch smient (which means ‘wigeon’) and German Schmeiente or Schmünte (which mean ‘wild duck’).

And… well, that’s all. The word might as well have flown in from Siberia. It didn’t, though; when they’re in Russia, the locals call them луток, lutok.


Mike Mallet leaned back in his desk chair, swirled the ice cubes in his glass of cheap Scotch, took a slug, and leveled his eyes at the peculiar man sweating in his direction from the other side of the desk. “Mister Brainum, you won’t be seeing your clown in centre ring again.”

“I… understand there was some sort of mishap?” Brainum said, wringing his handkerchief. He dabbed his forehead with it and went back to wringing it.

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Mallet said, and leaned forward over his desk, “he was jugulated.”

“I… oh! I…” Brainum did two more cycles of dabbing and wringing. “I…” He took his spectacles in his hand and inspected them. At length he put them back on his face and looked up. “What does that mean?”

“Well, we came in, and found him on the floor with a considerable mess: broken eggs, a broken pitcher, and… Bonzo wasn’t looking in top form either.”



Brainum smiled faintly. “His name is Ziggy.”

“Well,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and tilted into his mouth an ice cube, which he crunched for a few seconds. “I think he was more zaggy by the time we found him.”

“It’s because he was a Libra,” Brainum said.

“…You’ve lost me.”

“Greek for Libra is ‘Zygos’,” Brainum said, more-or-less accurately.

Mallet nodded sagely, pulled open a low drawer in his desk, pulled out a bottle of whisky, and refilled his glass. He drank the glass down, refilled it again, and put the bottle back. “I did not expect to be learning Greek today,” he muttered as he shoved the drawer shut.

“But what happened?” Brainum said. He patted his jacket pockets as he spoke and found that he did not, in fact, have a flask on him, or a cigarette, or anything at all.

“Well, we think he was juggling some eggs…”

“Oh, ‘jugulated’,” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “It was interesting that he seemed to have dropped them just as they were in a perfect alignment—”

“A syzygy!”

“He might have done better with a squeegee.”

“‘Syzygy’ is also related to ‘Zygos’,” Brainum offered helpfully.

Mallet looked at him the way he would look at a raccoon trundling past a picnic table. He lifted his glass and then didn’t drink any of it. “We thought the smashed pitcher had something to do with it…”

“Smashed picture?” Brainum said.

“Pitcher,” Mallet said, and set his glass down. “Jug.”

“Oh, jugulated!” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “And it turned out that the pitcher didn’t hit him. He knocked it over as he fell.”

“So what… how… jugulated?” Brainum said, and dabbed his forehead, and wrung his hanky.

“You don’t know much Latin, do you, mister?”

“No,” Brainum said. “It’s all Greek to me.” He let out a quick squeaky laugh that he quickly stifled into a hiccup.

“You know what this is?” Mallet drew his fingertip across his collar bone.

“Eczema?” Brainum said.

“The collar bone,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and, eyes fixed on Brainum, pointedly drank 1.25 ounces of Scotch in a gulp. “The yoke.”

“Zygos!” Brainum said.

“In Latin, ‘jugulum’. I’m sure the Latin is related to the Greek.” He was right, as usual.

“He broke his collar bone?”

“Do you not know what the veins that go right past it are?” Mallet leaned forward, the veins in question bulging in his neck.

Brainum shrunk back and clutched his handkerchief until the blood all went out of his knuckles. “Uh… jugular?”

Mallet flopped back and raised his hands in hallelujah position. “Someone came up behind him and slashed his neck through the jugular veins. Jugulated him.”

Brainum’s eyes popped wide open like two overboiled eggs. “Jugulated means…” He shakily drew his finger across his throat in the classic gesture. Mallet responded with an emphatic thumb-up, a gesture which, by the way, in the Roman circus meant ‘Yes, go ahead and dispatch your opponent. Jugulate him, impale him, whatever!’

Brainum suddenly knitted his brows. “But… how did you not see that right away?”

“It didn’t take long to notice it,” Mallet said. “But all the eggs had landed right on top of his clavicle, obscuring the matter at first.”

“Oh…” Brainum said. He hiccup-giggled. “The yolk was on him!”

Mallet leveled his eyes on Brainum, to the extent possible. Then he shoved his glass across the desk. “Here. I think you need this.”


I’ve walked these streets many times. I know them, and I always recognize them, and they are never the same. I’ve cut across this endless downtown and known the geography not by recognition but by emotion. I’ve gone into this city centre by a lake, and I’ve taken the elevator in the hotel that goes up a tower and keeps on higher than the top of the building and never stops where it should and only opens the door when it shouldn’t. I’ve driven this freeway to the farther reaches of this city and I’ve known how to get to these endless neighbourhoods though they’re always different. I’ve taken this country turnoff down the exit and the rural road to this lake. I’ve been back to this small town that I spent my childhood in, always at night, and it’s always cold and foreign and always deeply familiar. I’ve continued on the road through the mountains and down into the valley, and I’ve walked the main street of the town there; I can draw a map of the church and the other church and the sanctuary in the one and the stage in the other, and I can describe the shopping lanes that lead off the main street of this town. I’ve been up this town on a hill. I’ve followed this curving street to the far side of this old European town. I’ve climbed to the eleventh storey of this endless house, to the secret rooms, countless times. I’ve gone into the annex of this ranch-style house, the one that keeps going and opens into another room and another and they’re all full of furniture and stored things and I’ve never seen them and always known they’re there. I’ve been to the sub-basement and lolled in the little hot tub. I know these places, and they are sometimes full of people, and no one other than me has ever been to them. They are often irenic, often ironic, always neurogenic.

We have a word, dreamy, that carries such a sedate and happy feeling, like a cloudy glowy love-world, that we can’t use it to describe dreams, which are so rarely dreamy. We have another word, dreamlike, that often draws trite, clichéd, and trivial images, and we can’t use it to describe dreams because they are not dreamlike, they are dream. What is the word that just refers to the world or true quality of dreams? What is the world for this universe that exists only in the mind of one person, arising unbidden when they are cut off from the world their body moves in? How do I characterize the experience of seeing a tornado coming towards me, of seeing waters rise and discovering myself far from shore and surrounded by the deeps, and yet being able to wake and sigh in the safe comfort of sheets? What is the word for when I am in a completely real world, and I think, “Am I actually dreaming? This is all so normal and banal and all-surrounding; how could I be lying in a bed somewhere at the same time? It can’t be” – and yet it turns out to be? What is it when I find myself on a stage in a part I didn’t know I was going to have to play, or stepping off a verdant and impossibly high cliff, and think, “This is a dream,” and make something up, or fly?

It is oneiric, adjective. Of course: so many of our words for the mysteries of the psyche come from classical Greek. Psyche, for one. Hypnopomp and psychopomp for two more. And oneiric comes from ὄνειρος oneiros ‘dream’ (or anything that is like a dream).

It is as different from dream as the world of dreams is from the “dreamy.” Oneiric is not creamy or drowsy; it twists like licorice and it claws at you like iron nails. When you see it, it reminds you that you are the only one in your dreams, and it hints at the eros and erosion of the dream world; when you hear it, it reminds you that sleep is ever nigh, and when you are dreaming wakefulness is ever nigh.

Humans have had many ideas about the meaning and quality of dreams. I can’t speak for anyone else; for me, they are the allegorical theatre of unsolved problems, and they are the discard pile of recent days’ awareness reshuffled back into the deck. They have sometimes pointed out to me what I feel about a person, and more often pointed out to me what I feel about my current situation. They have never told me my future. Not yet, anyway. They have never revealed to me the secrets of the ages, or at least I haven’t noticed if they have. I can’t tell you what your dreams mean, and I’m not going to go into what other people in other times and places have said about dreams. But I can tell you one thing: if you want to do a Google search (or similar) to find learnèd ideas, thoughts, and theories about dreams, a word that will help you is oneiric.


We usually like it when things are clear, when the sun shines through, when we understand the sense without a shadow of a doubt. But language is not always like that. Sometimes it’s outrageous. And sometimes it’s just… umbrageous. Shadowy, doubtful.

The word umbrageous may look like a less certain sibling of outrageous: you see the rage in the middle but instead of being right out it’s just, um, umb. But the rage is an illusion: outrage is taken from French and formed from outre (you may know outré, naming something that is just too extra), which comes from Latin ultra, ‘beyond’. Likewise umbrageous comes from umbrage, which comes from umbra, ‘shadow’. Yes, when you take umbrage at something, you perceive that you are having shade cast on you – and you can also give umbrage, meaning cast shade on someone, figuratively (or literally).

OK, but which is it? Is it umbrageous to cast shade, or to take shade (umbrage)?


This word has (you knew it was coming) shades of meaning, and meanings of shade. A large tree with broad branches and many leaves is umbrageous: it casts much shadow. And the area underneath it – like the plants that prefer to grow there – is umbrageous: it is in shadow; it takes shadow.

Likewise, if I throw shade on someone – if, for instance, I say of a chef “His restaurant has excellent butter, and the water is nice and cool,” or if I say of a singer “Her recital was a wonderful expedition in search of the lost key” – I am being umbrageous, and if on the other hand someone is inclined to take offense at something I say – such as the time in my lunkish youth I said of a fellow actor’s shirt, “Oh, Le Chateau, that must have cost a lot,” and he replied “Why are you such an aaarsehole” – they are being umbrageous. (And this latter sense is, I should say, the more common.)

Well, sometimes you cast the shadow, and sometimes the shadow is cast on you. Either way, it is – you are – umbrageous. It may seem odd to conflate the cause of shade with its recipient, but remember that the underside of a tree is also in the shade, and that when, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of “The umbrageous loveliness of the surrounding country,” it covered both aspects of the matter.

Of course, people who take umbrage often create their own shade, and so in a way of seeing it are umbrageous in both senses as well – as one L. Hansen wrote in 1802 (thanks to the OED for this, and note the variant spelling), “Most punctilious with respect to forms and Ceremonies: and excessively ombrageous, with regard to the Non-observance of trivial points.”

I am reminded of the word nauseous: on the one hand, it is normally used to mean ‘feeling nausea; queasy; nauseated’; on the other hand, there are people who will inform you crisply that it can only mean ‘causing nausea’, and will imply that you are an illiterate barbarian for using it the way it is nearly always used. Those people, you see, are also umbrageous – in both senses: they take umbrage at the usual usage, and they throw shade at those who use it.


We must moble; we must not be mobile; we must not be mob-led; we must be mobled. So may we be both hobbled and ennobled. Wrap a scarf around your face and giggle demurely; peer past the wool or tulle like a vagabond or mobster or some marbled statue; wait for the time when you may again be emboldened.

I’m sure you, like me, know this word first from Shakespeare, reading Hamlet by the firelight: the prince is watching the players rehearse, and one of them, narrating the fall of Troy, says “But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen—” Hamlet (like many a listener) says “‘The mobled queen’?” and Polonius replies, “That’s good; ‘mobled queen’ is good.” None of which helps you to know what it means.

Nor helps you to know how to say it, by the way. I suspect that you, as I, assumed it rhymed with “nobled.” But no. It rhymes with “hobbled.” And, I say with relief, it is (unlike contumely) the part of speech it appears to be: a past participle, pressed into use as an adjective. The verb is moble, a word uncommon enough that your autocorrect will get into a fight with you over the absence of an i between and l.

And what does it mean? Muffled, scarf-wrapped. I’m sure that wearing a surgical mask counts too. In 1985, A.S. Byatt used it in Still Life: “He remembered this time in very bright, clear primary colours, but all softly muffled, or mobled, as if seen through white veiling.” In 1926, Victoria Sackville-West wrote in Land “How delicate in spring they be / That mobled blossom and that wimpled tree.” And in 1877, the Earl of Southesk was kind enough to use it in Meda Maiden in a way from which the sense may be deduced: “There rested a woman,—close mantled in brown, / Mobled and muffled from sandal to crown.”

Why is said it like it comes from mob? Perhaps it does – one speculative etymology ties it to mob plus the frequentative –le suffix. But perhaps it does not. (Note that mob in turn comes from mobile vulgus, ‘rabble, common people’, and does not show up in English before moble does.) It has a certain kinship with muffle in form as well as sense, and mobble used to be a spelling of it (the one-version prevailing probably because that’s how it was spelled in editions of Shakespeare and that’s where nearly everyone who knows it knows it from).

Well, some things just show up and no one has the last word on how they got there or how they spread. So it is. But if you don’t want them to spread further, you can stay in your bubble, or, if you must venture out in the mob, you can self-moble. You may feel hobbled, but it is more noble.


Finagle: procure by deceit or trickery. Tangle your fingers into it and snag it away. Or talk it out of someone with your gift of the Blarney.

Supposedly finagle comes from an earlier English word fainague, from French roots meaning ‘act’ (feign) ‘sick’ (ague). Never mind that acting sick has to do with indolence, not with procurement. Never mind that I can only find this word fainaigue as the conjectured etymon of finagle. I’m not saying that there definitely was no such word; I’m just saying “Hmmmmmm.”

The first documented use that I (or Oxford) can find of finagle in its modern sense is a 1926 citation from the USA. Google Books gives me further hits that show it was established in use in the USA (though as a colloquialism not familiar to all readers) by the 1930s, though some claimed it came from England. Oxford seems to think it came first from England but doesn’t produce evidence. Wiktionary presents it as American. There are also a couple of variant spellings, presumably from people who heard the word said and spelled it how they thought it was likely written – phenagle is notable, because it shows the cod-sophistic association of ph.

So can we finagle some kind of explanation for this word’s presence in our language?

I should say that there are earlier hits for Finagle in Google Books. It appears as a name in two works of short fiction of the 1800s. The first, in a volume dated 1821, Winter Evening Tales Collected among the Cottagers in the South of Scotland, by James Hogg, makes it the name of a town in the south of Scotland. The second, appearing first in Scribner’s Monthly in summer 1872, in a story by John S. Barry, makes it an Irish family name. The latter, titled “Shane Finagle’s Station,” is as thorough a slander of stereotypes against the Irish as you would ever wish you had not cast eyes on, and it features an assortment of peasant rogues blathering their way through catechism and confessional before ending with a massive drinkfest. But there’s nothing other than bare resemblance of form to link these Finagles to our word finagle.

Also, there’s nothing in those two fictions to say how the names should be said, and one could easily imagine a stress on the first syllable intended – compare Fingal and Finnegan, after all. With our word today, on the other hand, the stress is decidedly on the second syllable, and phonaesthetically, that makes an important difference.

Consider if the stress were on the first syllable. The word would have the same kind of pattern as miracle or risible or any of a number of other tumbling trisyllabic words with various effect. The most important bit would be the fin. But as it is, that’s just a flick of the fingers as they reach to grasp the main business.

And the main business has a –gle on it, one that has a stressed syllable right before. There are many words of that form in English, some with before the gand some not, but have a look at this selection: boggle, bungle, dangle, dingle, dongle, newfangled, gaggle, gargle, giggle, goggle, gurgle, haggle, inveigle, jangle, juggle, mangle, mingle, muggle, snaggle, spangle, squiggle, straggle, struggle, tangle, tingle, toggle, waggle, wangle. Nearly all of them are formed with the old –le frequentative suffix, used to make verbs referring to repeated action, but there’s something more in many of them: a certain disorder, disarray, loose motion, or chaotic or uncontrolled or messy nature. There are certainly words of the –gle form that don’t match that meaning at all – beagle, eagle, and triangle come to mind – but we form impressions of what senses go with what sounds mainly from general habitual association, and we can always allow exceptions for familiar words.

There is, I am inclined to think, some sense of complication and disorder in what’s meant by finagle. Consider that Webster’s Third New International defines it with reference to other terms that include wangle and swindle, which have similar phonaesthetics (swapping the in for does change things a little, but they differ only in the tongue’s contact point when saying them). It’s not to say that the word sprang up just because the form demanded it! But when people confect terms, the ones they choose and the ones that stick tend to have sounds that catch on for a reason.

And often more than one reason. Let’s be honest: finagle does have a bit of an “Irish” sound to many English-speaking ears, doesn’t it? I don’t think it has any real “French” sound, fainaigue be damned. But the idea that some Blarney-tongued dissolute Finnegan might charm something out of someone by finagling– well, it doesn’t altogether run against English-speakers’ easy-minded stereotypes, and it goes with the –gle association too.

I’m not saying that’s where finagle comes from. I’m not even saying these things definitely had an influence on it. I don’t have data to support the conjecture. But if it had to come down to it, I think it’s an easier idea to talk someone into going with than many another might be.


Today I want to talk about corvid (the word and the bird).

This is a corvid. (Photo by Tyler Quiring.)

This is a COVID. (Artist’s rendering, courtesy of the CDC.)

This is neither, though it looks like one and it looks like it’s meant for dealing with the other. (It’s an illustration of Dr. Schnabel, a 17th-century plague doctor in Rome, by Paul Fürst.)

Corvid is a name for any member of the large family of birds known as Corvidae, which includes crows, ravens, and actually quite a lot of others: choughs (not coughs!), treepies, magpies, nutcrackers, jackdaws (which are really just more crows), and various jays

Corvids have relatively large brains and have been found to be as intelligent as some primates – and smarter than your dog or cat. Crows and ravens are even smarter than raccoons. Which also means that they have an… ambiguous place in mythology. Crows and ravens are thought of as smart – and as tricksters. They’re often associated with death.

On the other hand, corvids come in many different forms, and some of them (magpies) are more famous for stealing and collecting things. Which is quite fitting, because their names have mutated like a virus over the ages, resulting in quite a collection of forms.

The Latin for ‘crow’ is corvus, which has descended to many fairly plainly related forms: French corbeau, Spanish cuervo, Italian corvo, Finnish korppi (stolen from Swedish korp). They all trace back to an ancient k-r-w source… which may or may not be related to the source of crow, since the in crow is historically comparatively new.

Sounds change, as you can see. The can become or or even p. And the can become h, and sometimes an disappears. That’s what happened with hræfn, the Old English word that became raven.

The raven is Corvus corax. What’s the corax? It’s the ancient Greek for ‘raven’ or ‘crow’: κόραξ. And, yes, there’s a and a there… and it also seems related etymologically to raven, via an impression of the loud sound the bird makes. But, though they all relate originally to noise, raven and corax are not definitely directly related to corvus or to crow, which, just, come on.

Corvus corax, by the way, is also the name of a musical group that is among the most metal of medieval impressionists.

You may well wonder whether this is also related to some flattened version of curve, since, after all, there’s that k-r-v and corvids have shown they can throw a few curves. The, answer, however, is no… but curve traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root with many descendants, including not just curve but cancer, crisp, crux, and corona, as in Coronavirus. Which seems a little starker than raven.

But corvids have nothing in specific to do with COVID. We don’t even know (at the moment) if they can carry it. They can, however, say what we all want to say about it:

“Nevermore.” (Illustration by Édouard Manet.)


Cenesthesia is, according to Merriam-Webster, “the general feeling of inhabiting one’s body that arises from multiple stimuli from various bodily organs.” It is also spelled coenesthesia, reflecting its roots in Greek κοινός koinos (Latinized as coen–) ‘common’ and αἴσθησις aisthesis (Latinized as aesthesis) ‘sensation, feeling, perception’. But coenesthesia tempts a person to say it as “co-enesthesia,” when in fact it is to be said as “seen-esthesia” – very similar to synaesthesia, which, however, it is not (that’s cross-modal perception, as when a person has a tactile or visual sensation in response to a sound). There’s no point in trying to make it closer to the Greek or Latin pronunciation; it was assembled from the classic plastic bricks in the mid-1800s.

I think a poem is appropriate. Here. Continue reading


Another poem for you. Today’s word is chirapsia, which means ‘manual friction’ or ‘massage’; it comes from Greek χειραψία, which could mean ‘gentle friction’ or ‘hand-to-hand combat’ (!), from χείρ kheir ‘hand’ and ἅπτω hapto ‘I touch’. Continue reading