Category Archives: Uncategorized

Balzac’s (Ryerson)

IMG_8350

(Mac)book, coffee, view.

Listen to this coffice space review (complete with ambient noise from the actual place) on Patreon.

Balzac’s is a local chain of coffee joints. They’re very popular and they make good coffee in all its wondrous forms. They have delicious snacks, too – I recommend the big peanut-butter parallelepipeds. And their locations are all nice looking, each in its own way. There are at least three of their outposts in walking distance from me, depending on what you consider walking distance. But I don’t often go to them to sit and work – especially not to the two nearest me. Continue reading

descript

“Stunning but nondescript.”

That’s how, fifteen years ago, Aina summed up several hours of Icelandic scenery along the road from Reykjavík to Akureyri: incessant mountains and dales and hills and valleys and nary a tree in sight, every bit of it scraped from the primeval earth by the palette knife of a beardless flat-haired Bob Ross. For the first hour or two you are in awe. Eventually you are still in awe but also in “aw, come on.” It is all breathtaking but there is nothing that makes any particular bit of it stand out. It is not really descript. Continue reading

cuneiform

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 some posts. 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.

To subscribe, visit www.patreon.com/sesquiotic and choose the level of subscription you want from the right column.

Thanks!

monocausotaxophilia

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’.

auburn

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.