Category Archives: word sommelier

awesome, fantastic

Dear word sommelier: I’m at a friend’s place, and he’s made bobotie, and it’s really good. Should I say “This bobotie is awesome” or “This bobotie is fantastic”?

First of all, we must acknowledge that there is a certain set of people who will insist – quite vehemently – that neither is acceptable: that awesome can only mean “inspiring awe” and fantastic can only mean “characteristic of, or produced by, fantasy”. People of this set actually do have dictionaries, but if they look in them, they arrogate to themselves the right to declare the ones they disagree with (all of them, ultimately) wrong: only the “original” meaning of a word is correct, and by “original” they mean “etymological, as they understand it”. (In truth, awesome first meant “full of awe”, and only in the next century “inspiring awe”; the original term for that was awful, a word that picklepusses frequently use unreservedly in its much more modern meaning of “nasty”.)

But such people are among the most arrant fools in all of creation, and ought not to be heeded any more than one would heed an unknown petulant two-year-old’s admonitions. So let us proceed with reality. Reality does include the meanings mentioned above, to be sure, but it is not restricted to them.

The question you ask may reflect a shift in usage, though I’m not sure of it as yet. My friend Michelle remarked to me today that she had the sense that fantastic was overtaking awesome as a general adjective of enthusiastic approbation. This is quite difficult to assess objectively, as simple searches don’t sort semantically. In overall usage, fantastic has always been more common than awesome, but awesome is actually a newer word and has certainly increased in usage, reaching a soft peak around 1980 and holding fairly well since, if Google Ngrams are to be believed (and they do have their limitations!). A Google search for each does pick up twice as many hits for awesome, but places fantastic much farther up in the British National Corpus.

Awesome is the more bivalent of the words. It retains a more specific sense, and one may use it as such. When someone sings the hymn “How Great Thou Art” and pronounces “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,” there’s no risk of its being taken to be like saying “when I in totally wicked wonder” or “when I in way bitchen wonder” or something like that. But within the context of colloquial usage, it has a very clear air of youthful informality. It became so common and bleached in its peak (from which it has not subsided too much) that I used to think of this version of it as ossum, a sort of verbal marsupial hanging by its tail in the midst of the sentence. Which awesome is wanted can readily be specified by surrounding words and their tone: which would you take truly awesome to mean (I would take it to mean “awe-inspiring”)? How about totally awesome (“really good” for me)?

While awesome has had this bleached usage only since the late-mid 20th century, however, fantastic has been in similar broad service since at least the 1930s – which is still recent, given its existence as a word since the 1400s. But any use of it to mean anything other than “really good” now is very likely to have an air of quaintness. In the more cultured spheres, wherein dwell such people as know Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the sense of phantasm and fantasy is likely more present, and that large set of people who have see the musical The Fantasticks will have that charming tale (and its memorable tunes) imprinted in their minds, but hoi polloi will more likely think of a brand of spray-on cleaning solutions, Fantastik. (Observe the effects of the k with or without c, too, though.)

For either of the words, of course, usage on TV and in movies will have a strong effect, and we may assume those were prime vectors of the ascendancy of awesome for approbation. Fantastic likewise gets used by some notable personalities, and I can recall an ad from a few years ago for a lottery that paid $1000 a week for life in which  the protagonist exclaimed “Faaaaantastic!” on receiving each cheque.

And that takes us to the heart of the matter. The bleached sense of these words is fundamentally phatic, and relies strongly on expressive potential. Awesome allows the gaping “aw” to lead in, embodying an expression of awe, surprise, amazement, et cetera. It then closes off neatly with an unstressed second syllable. It works much better, rhythmically, with totally than fantastic does (try both and see what I mean). It’s a big, smooth, solid stroke.

Fantastic, on the other hand, has three syllables, the stressed one of which is the second – but the first may be stretched out and emphasized as well. Due to its rhythm, it is conducive to tmesis: you can slip in an expletive intensifier, as in fan-freaking-tastic, which is not done in a word such as awesome. So it is more flexible and extensible. Its sound is less full of round-mouthed amazement and more full of wide-mouthed joy, pride, or enthusiasm. It has voiceless stops and another fricative, giving it the éclat of fireworks.

Moreover, because fantastic is widely established as a simple term of strong approbation, it doesn’t carry with itself the air of “valley girl” or similar teen in-group-ness (of course it was an “in” term back in the ’30s, but that’s too far back to have influence now), and so there is less likely a sort of winkingness to its usage, at least currently.

In your case, given the rhythm of bobotie and of the sentence as a whole, I would incline towards fantastic. It also more likely carries a tone that is more ingenuous and sincere and less self-observing. It may seem a stronger term of approbation, mind you, and the shape of the mouth in awesome may seem more suited to a comestible, so you do have to go with your own immediate sense of the occasion. The truth of it is that usage in such matters is an art, not a science, and one may defensibly use either, for different taste sensations.

You will also, by the way, want to consider what term, if any, you will use for the blatjang that (I presume) has been served with the bobotie.

avarice, greed, cupidity

Dear word sommelier: I’m unsure whether what I want to describe is best called avarice, greed, or cupidity. Which should I use for what where and when?

Oh, heck, why have just one if you can have all three?

If you’re wondering about the semantic difference between the three, you’re not the only one. This question was discussed today on the Editors’ Association of Canada email list, and there were differing opinions about whether one or another was more or less money-specific. And while a dictionary might tell you some little difference like that – or actually more likely won’t be so obliging – what really matters is how the people who actually read or hear it, who are unlikely to be running every word through a dictionary, will perceive it. And we know that there are different views on that. In other words, never mind the label or the guidebook, let’s taste it and talk about food matching.

Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And they also gain flavour by other words and sound patterns that they bring to mind. So let’s swirl and sniff and sip and spit (or swallow) each one of these.

Greed is now the most common of the three by a fair measure, though if Google ngrams are to be believed it was not always thus (remember, though, that the Google ngrams search books, not popular usage in general). Its popularity gives it a certain commonness but also gives it more accretions. There are the pop culture references – “Greed is good,” as Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, and Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged also glorified greed; meanwhile, Han Solo blasted a slimeball named Greedo in a cantina on Tattooine – and it tends to show up with words such as corporate, human, personal, pure, sheer, and simple.

It has a taste of green, as in envy, and creed, as in a fixed statement of belief. And it has that growling, gripping /gr/ onset. Generally it is the most purely negatively toned of the three, Gekko and Rand notwithstanding. Interestingly, while greed tends to focus on financial and material acquisition, greedy, its related adjective, can also be used comfortably to refer to such things as eating. Just by the way, greed actually comes from greedy, not the other way around; greedy is itself a derivative form of a Germanic root for “hunger” or “greed”, however.

Avarice is less popular than it used to be – the word, I mean, not the thing, which is quite durable. It is found in more elevated texts – it is more erudite in tone, and seems a more expensive word. It’s like greed as practiced by “the right sort” of people – greed with a bowtie. It’s also one of the seven deadly sins. It comes from Latin avaritia, from avarus “greedy”, and it’s been used in English at least since Chaucer.

The feel of it may vary a bit from person to person – it makes me think of avaler, French for “swallow”; also avalanche, avenue, rara avis, avid, average, maybe aviatrix, and perhaps advice… Its adjective, avaricious, on the other hand, carries an air of vicious. Avarice seems comparatively open and airy in sound; certainly the mouth is much more open than for greed.

Cupidity, in the here and now, is one of those words that people probably feel a little twinge of pride in knowing, because it’s sufficiently uncommon. It’s a bit like avarice with a PhD. It keeps pricier company – words such as pudor and rapacity may be seen in the same sentence. Or maybe I’m only thinking of education because someone pointed out to me once, as we were walking by it, the cupid that is on top of the spire of The Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, and I said it was a monument to cupidity (Harvard’s endowment is $26 billion. Yes, $26 billion). And, yes, that chubby little cherub shares a root with this word: Latin cupidus, “eagerly desirous”. It’s a little newer to our tongue, having arrived in the 1500s.

The taste of cupidity is conditioned by various odd echoes: stupidity, cube, cubic zirconium, cubit… It is a word with a cup that runneth over (and still wants to be refilled). And it may well have a tinge of sexual desire, not just from Cupid but from concupiscence (which might be practiced in combination with a cupidous concubine). But it is the crispest of the three words, chunky, blocky, or at least tapping; its four syllables have four stops, each with a vowel, while avarice has three syllables with fricatives and a liquid (and vowels before consonants), and greed has two stops, a liquid, and only one vowel.

So which to use? Consider the rhythm and the sounds of the sentence around; consider also the tone – how lofty or plain? How harsh or mitigated?

But certainly keep all three in your bank to use. Look, you can never have too many words at your disposal. And spending them is actually your best investment.

under the sea

Dear Word Sommelier: I was just watching The Little Mermaid and I was struck by the song “Under the Sea.” The sea is the water, right? All the creatures are in the water; only the sea bed is under it. So shouldn’t it be “in the sea”? Or is this one of those idiomatic things? If I wanted to write about the beauty of sea life, should I write about the colours in the sea or the colours under the sea?

Oh, prepositions are bedeviling. Which preposition goes with what is one of the least predictable things about any language. But I’m not going to wave this off with “It’s idiomatic” (which might be read as “It’s idiotic, Ma”). In this case you have two usable options, depending on your choice of schema for the sea: as container or voluminous body, or as surface with or without depth: without, like a boardwalk (“under the boardwalk, down by the sea”), or with, like a blanket of snow.

Under the sea uses the “surface” schema; it means below the surface of the sea, and – giving the sense that it’s a surface with depth – usually towards the bottom; the fact that it’s actually in the seawater doesn’t change the “under” relationship to the surface and to all the water on top of whatever is under the sea. Jules Verne’s book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is something that often hovers in the mind when one speaks of being under the sea, as does the Beatles’ “I’d like to be under the sea, in an octopus’s garden in the shade.” Another phrase that makes use of the same schema is beneath the sea – or, perhaps more commonly, as in “Octopus’s Garden,” beneath the waves (do remember that waves are more than just a pure surface phenomenon in reality). We must remember, too, the very common word and image underwater (and its counterpart underground).

In the sea, on the other hand, uses the “container” or “voluminous body” schema (that’s two different schemata, not two names for the same one). It presents an image of being in the water, surrounded by it or as part of it or using it as a medium. It can even involve being partly out of the sea (e.g., swimming, which you do not do “on the sea”).

There’s also the question of vantage point. If you’re looking at the colours in the sea, you’re most likely looking at them from outside, perhaps on a boat looking down into it. To see all the colours under the sea, you’d more likely have an undersea perspective yourself – if not in a submarine or scuba diving, then at least snorkeling or in a glass-bottom boat. Also, colours in the sea could imply or at least include the colours of the water itself, which colours under the sea would less likely do – though it might imply the colour of the light coming down through the water.

There’s also the phonaesthetic angle, which is a little fuzzier: under has that depth of sound, that hollow central vowel with the resonant nasal-stop /nd/ and the echo syllabic /r/, just like thunder (and also, of course, blunder, chunder, plunder, and wonder). Anyone who has had their head under water and heard hard things bonking together in the water (even if it’s just your shampoo bottle falling into the tub) will have some sense of that hollow sound. In, on the other hand, has a high front vowel into a simple nasal. It’s short, direct, less resonant, less capable of evocativeness. One might say it’s a jackknife dive to under’s cannonball, but it’s not really amenable to even that much flourish.

In a song like “Under the Sea,” of course, the rhythm is an important part of it. But for other uses, you may also want to consider the sound and the rhythm along with the image. Oh, and less-common usages tend to have a certain dearness compared to more-common ones… and under the sea is and (indications are) has always been somewhat less common than in the sea.

Just as a parting shot, ask yourself whether you would use under the ocean. I suspect most people would find it less idiomatic. Sea, an English word as long as there has been an English, has more native idioms and a greater literary accretion. Ocean is a loan from Greek (via Latin and French, arriving in English in the 13th century) and, like many such, is a little more technical and precise, and a little less flexible.

Thanks to Gael Spivak and several other editorial colleagues for input and inspiration.

Questions for the word sommelier are always welcome!

incessant & unceasing

Dear word sommelier: Is it better to speak of unceasing devotion or incessant devotion?

Well, I’d say that depends at least in part on how you feel about the devotion: is it commendable or annoying? It also depends to some extent on whether the devotion is continuous or continual. The two words are supposedly synonymous, but we shall see that they do have differences in flavour and usage patterns.

Incessant and unceasing are like long-lost twins separated at birth. Only they’re not quite identical anymore – they’re sort of like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins. Well, not quite, but they have elaborated differently from the same root. Both come from the Latin verb cessare “cease, stop”, which is in turn derived from cedere “yield, cede”. Both came to English by way of French. But in the case of unceasing, just the verb root was borrowed over and Anglicized as cease in the 14th century, and English affixes were added to make unceasing (also dating from the 14th century). In the case of incessant, the whole French word was borrowed over (with a change in pronunciation) – about 200 years later than cease showed up.

We can note the different sounds and feels of the two words: although both have a scissor-like quality, unceasing starts with the dull, mid-central “uh” vowel and has a “long” vowel peak (written with that more open-feeling ea), while incessant is higher and tighter from start to finish: in is more acute and perhaps pushier than un, the stressed vowel [ε] is a bit lower than the [i:]  in unceasing but tighter because shorter, and the following [s] may be thought of as longer (without actually being so) because it’s written doubled. As for echoes, unceasing has sounds of sea, sing, and seizing, while incessant is more likely to bring to mind such words as incense and necessity and perhaps insensitive.

Have those factors helped shape the current shades of meaning and usage of the two words? I can’t say. Actually, it would take a lot of work to come up with even a suggestion of an answer. But we can see what has shaped up. Words are known by the company they keep, and have a look at the kinds of words each one is likely to travel with: unceasing shows up with such as struggle, flow, activity, rain, wind, and demands; on the other hand, incessant shows up with demands, noise, rain, activity, wind… Whaddya mean they look the same?

Actually, while there are overlaps, the emphasis is indeed a little different. Something that is unceasing is typically continuous (like flow), and may be positively, negatively, or neutrally toned (it can be applied to kindness, as by Walter Scott, or a progression, as by Willa Cather, or care or change or toil, as by William Wordsworth). Something that is incessant may be continuous or may be iterative (repeating), and is usually at least slightly negatively toned (like noise; it can be applied to shocks or war, as by Wordsworth, or slashing, as by Sherwood Anderson, or weepings, as by Shakespeare, or pain, as by Christopher Marlowe, or uneasiness, as by H.G. Wells).

Consider, for instance, incessant visits versus unceasing visits. Neither is likely to be very positively toned, though unceasing visits could be; but also, incessant visits means the person is visiting, for instance, every day, without cease, while unceasing visits may mean that or may mean that the visits are of great duration, or both.

And so, too, unceasing devotion may be admirable (though it may be annoying), but it is certainly truly unceasing – as the affixes indicate, is doesn’t cease; it’s continuous. Incessant devotion, on the other hand, is much more likely to be annoying, and has the option of something that happens with great frequency (though that would be more likely with a plural: incessant devotions). It’s a little more removed from the clear literalness of cease because of its lesser resemblance.

For what it’s worth, incessant is also the more common of the two words; if Google Ngrams are to be trusted, it shows up about two and a half times as often as unceasing, and has done so pretty consistently for at least two centuries – although both words had a peak in the mid-1800s and have been subsiding ever since. But, yes, their use has not ceased – which is not to say it is incessant (which implies a very notable frequency).

At a guess, you probably want unceasing devotion – it’s the safer choice in that case anyway (but you can see that you may do better with incessant in some contexts). But there are many other cases where incessant would be the better choice.


The choice of what word to use is a delicate one; one simply does not wish to make a balls-up of it. Thus one may consult a word sommelier:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We have, so far this week, addressed the first four options. Yesterday we looked at the most formal, prim, perhaps even feminine one, effrontery. Today we are at the other end of the scale. I can’t believe he had the balls to do it is not something a politician is likely to say in an interview – you’ll sooner hear it in a sports bar or a garage.

There are, of course, other anatomical references available to express roughly the same concept. Gall is one (a bodily fluid); cheek is another; nerve is a third; guts is slightly different in sense but still in the same general vein. There is even an anatomical reference in effrontery (the forehead). But balls hits below the belt. It is a direct reference to pudenda, and as such is particularly impudent.

Also obviously masculine. Which makes this word undeniably sexist, in that it assigns a certain brashness and nerve to males. This is, of course, a reflection of a general cultural norm; aggressive women have long been described with masculine terms. But at least it’s not a put-down to call a woman ballsy, even if it is an implied put-down of the average member of her sex (let’s see, is there a good way to phrase that without using member and sex? never mind).

Nor is it a put-down of the woman in question to say I can’t believe she had the balls to do it (and it has been said; you can find that very phrase, and others like it, with a simple Google search). Anatomically inaccurate, to be sure, unless the balls in question happen to be some dude’s nuts that she’s squeezing (had having multiple shades of sense available). But aside from the sexism (and, of course, because of cultural sexism), this may be the most admiring of the options. If you use a word like this, it is because you admire courage and confidence and you associate them with masculinity – or at least because you’re willing to make use of a cultural norm that assigns such values.

Now, one might well point out that she had the balls to do it could be a reference to some craft project involving spheres, or perhaps a game of some sort – maybe she just tossed her bat aside and walked to first base. But you know, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, that such reference would have to be specified clearly, and even then the sexual reference would bleed through like pentimento. To give a parallel example, military pilots, referring to flying full throttle, made reference to the dual ball ends on the throttle stick in the phrase balls to the wall, but they clearly did so with a smirk.

Ball, singular, is, true enough, a word that one may use quite innocuously without provoking Beavis-and-Butt-head-type snickerfests. It’s a good old English word with cognates of the same or similar meaning throughout the Germanic languages; it also comes from the same Indo-European root as Latin follis “inflated ball, bellows” and Greek ϕαλλός phallos… yes, that’s right, phallus and balls have the same root. OK, OK… can we continue now?

The point (stop that) is that balls in the plural is by default a reference to balls in the dual, and you know which two balls. The paradoxical association that testicles carry of masculine aggression with vulnerability (and pain!) has led to a few different balls expressions: don’t bust my balls, we’ve got him by the balls, he really made a balls of it, and of course the exclamation Balls!

So, is balls the word you want? If you want to be coarse and admiring and you don’t mind the sexism of it (and you don’t think your audience will mind), then it’s your top choice. It has the same general sonic features as gall, except that it has the /z/ at the end to cap it off; it is a word that is practically made to be bawled loudly. If you want to be even a little proper, however, you’d have to be nuts to use it.

Stop that.


So, we have been addressing this question:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We have so far tasted the first three; now it is time for effrontery. This is the longest of the list above (and in fact one is hard put to find a longer synonym; audacity and impertinence are other four-syllable words in the same set, but other rough synonyms include such as insolence, impudence, and cheek). It pushes forward in its heavy, soft petticoats, ff, and it has the force of a formal, uncommon, polysyllabic word, that forbidding soft stiffness, perhaps, of the schoolmistress or mother superior chastising one for effrontery (or mayhap it’s the sound of the impudent hussy as she goes about whatever it is for which she is chastisable).

And it’s very up-front: the front pushes forward, and, yes, it’s the same front as our word front – well, more accurately, it comes from the same source: Latin frons, meaning “forehead”. It has an overriding echo of affront – in fact, it’s misspelled as affrontery about one time in ten (if a Google poll is to be believed). But affront comes from ad frontem, “to the forehead” or “to the face”, referring to a slap, where as in effrontery in place of the ad is an ex, “from” or “out”.

So does effrontery mean “get outta my face”? Well, no; there is an ongoing argument about the exact sense, but it’s either “pushing the forehead forward” or, using the sense frons also has of “ability to blush”, it may be “unblushing”. I am more inclined to the latter, for what that’s worth; Oxford is too, which is worth a fair bit. Anyway, if it’s “unblushing” it’s rather akin to impudent, from Latin for “shameless”; either way, the forehead forward and the face unreddened, one displays a fair amount of cheek.

This word makes me think of the name Ephron, as in Nora and – perhaps especially – her sister Delia, the author of the pleasingly impertinent How to Eat Like a Child. Also Zac Efron. And, for that matter, Jean Effront, a noted enzymologist (8156–1931), born Isaac Effront. All these names (Jewish family names all) trace to a Biblical character, Ephron, who sold the patriarch Abraham a plot of land in which to bury his wife Sarah – a deal pressed with smoothness rather than effrontery.

The question that remains, in regard to the taste of this word, is whether it has any positive tone, as nerve and especially chutzpah do. I would have to say that it does not carry any particular sense of admiration; it may not be as harsh a put-down as gall (which empties a bladder on the person, whereas this one simply defaces), but it lacks a particular element of praise. Indeed, being the most technical-sounding and formal of the lot, it is the most neutrally toned. Inasmuch as one may speak in neutral tones of such a shameless infraction, of course (most likely a social infraction, incidentally).

Tomorrow we go to the wall with balls!


The question of the week:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We’re onto chutzpah today, and this word is something special. For starts, it’s special because it’s Yiddish. And that means two things right off the bat: a, you don’t say it like a chutney disaster – the first sound is /h/ or a stronger fricative, like the end of loch, and it rhymes with foot spa (and indeed with chutzpah there’s always something afoot); b, it carries with it very overt tones of Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Those tones are very deep and complex and are received differently by different people, and you need to be aware that how you intend it may be different from how it is received, not only due to the listener’s attitudes but also due to who you are and who your listener is. That’s not to say this is a word to be avoided; in most contexts it will communicate very effectively. But when you use it, you are making a cultural reference.

Yiddish is a Germanic language, but it has a lot of vocabulary items from Hebrew, and this is one. It comes from Hebrew khuspa, a negatively toned word for “insolence, audacity, impudence”. Chutzpah (anglicized a bit from Yiddish khutspe), however, is at least partly positively toned – even if you’re using it to refer to someone whose character you would not advise anyone to emulate, it still carries a grudging admiration, perhaps even a sort of amazement at the audacious effrontery and, probably, shrewdness. Chutzpah has more guts than nerve does, even more than balls does. And neither nerve nor balls conveys the kind of intelligence that chutzpah conveys.

The best definition of something like chutzpah is an example, and the best example I’ve seen is Leo Rosten’s, from The Joys of Yiddish: “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” No wonder some dictionary definitions include words like “unbelievable gall” – it’s the “unbelievable” that really comes in. More than any of the other choices, this one says “Did he really just do that?!” – and it says it with that kind of laugh that one makes almost involuntarily.

Chutzpah can have more of a business tone to it, too, as well as a natural suitability to the air of a courtroom – famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz titled his 1991 book of essays Chutzpah. Contrast that with some of the other options, such as gall and effrontery, which lean more to the social sphere.

And chutzpah has a bit of electricity in it – that zap in the middle, with the z and the look and sound of tz /ts/. And after the zap… ah. The whole thing sounds a bit like a firework, in fact.

Chutzpah is often defined as “effrontery”. But would you rather use effrontery here? We’ll taste that one next.


Here’s the question:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We’ve already tasted gall. Now let’s try nerve.

Nerve has opposing aspects to it. On the one hand, you have the nerve that it takes a lot of – if you have the nerve to do something, it means that you have actually mustered the nerve to do it, an amount of nerve most people wouldn’t have. Even if, as is often the case, it’s a complaint – The nerve of that guy! Where did he get the nerve to do that? – there is at the very least a sense of strength of will, and perhaps even a grudging admiration: “I could never have the nerve to do that!” And if there are two opposing parties each trying to stare the other down, it can come to a war of nerves.

But on the other hand, you have nervous; if you have an attack of nerves, that means (paradoxically!) that you lack the nerve to do something. The same vibration (you can hear it in the /v/, even) that can give verve to nerve can also be the vibration of shivering with anxiety.

And of course there’s also the nerves that someone gets on. If someone has a lot of nerve, it can really get on your nerves, that’s for sure. (The /r/ nucleus in this word, with its straining growl, can be a very good vehicle for expressing this.) And in fact they may do something that touches a nerve – perhaps even touches a raw nerve.

Ah, nerves are electric. There is always some energy, always some vibration, but it can be positive or negative, bold or timorous, admirable or annoying. And all of those flavours are present whenever you use this word, though of course a particular sense will be more forward.

This multiplicity of sense comes in even in the sentence in question. If you say I can’t believe he had the nerve to do it, you could be admiring his courage, or you could be speaking resentfully of his impudence. The intonation will give the clue as much as anything. Is it “Wow, that took a lot of nerve!” or is it “The nerve of that guy!”?

Nerve, by the way, as you might suspect from the form of it and from its related form nervous, comes from Latin: nervus, “sinew, tendon, nerve, penis, etc.” (isn’t that quite a set of things!). The Latin has a cognate in Greek: νεῦρον neuron, meaning (in Greek) the same things as nervus. But while nerve, borrowed into English well before Shakespeare, has become a very common and often figurative word in English, neuron, which was borrowed in just over a century ago, is still rather technical and literal. You couldn’t say I can’t believe he had the neuron to do it, and if you say I can’t believe he had the neurons to do it people will probably assume you thought he was stupid.

Now, speaking of a term that expresses admiration, grudging or even ungrudging, we will look next at chutzpah.


Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

Ah, now here’s a choice that really brings in the nuances that word tasters learn to discern. We will choose on the basis of the subtle tones a word gets from the various contexts of its usage – words are, after all, known by the company they keep – as well as by other words they have sound echoes of and by other senses of the word. So let’s taste these five words, one at a time, to see which one might fit your need.

First of all, if you feel like using the word unimitigated before the word, then your word is gall. Those two often travel together. But what we need to remember is that the use of gall to mean “impudence” is relatively recent – it showed up in the late 1800s – and particularly American.

Gall, you see, is what the gall bladder squeezes out: bile. And bile is a bitter thing. For most of the history of this old Anglo-Saxon word, figurative references were exclusively to that bitterness. We still use it for that reference, but mainly in the present participle of the verb form: galling. Something that’s galling leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. (Are gall stones galling? Usually one wouldn’t say so – unless, say, you had them when your dissolute uncle who ought to have every disease under the sun is as healthy as a horse, while you’ve been drinking wheatgrass every day for two years. So we can see that galling has the bitterness of envy.)

The bitterness (especially the spiteful or envious bitterness!) of galling is going to flavour the noun gall we’re looking at. If person A has the gall to do thing X, there’s more than a hint that thing X will be galling to some person(s) B (and perhaps C, D…). Person A might do X in spite of B, and B might be spiteful as a result.

One may also think that a thing one has the gall to do is a thing that will make someone else say, “Gaahhhhh!” But the stronger echo, I feel, is from all, with its expansive sweep – gall is likely to carry a tone of greater-than-expected magnitude, even completeness, and in particular an entirely undeserved and impertinent arrogation of that completeness. There’s also the effect of appalling. And probably of balls, too. (Not of small, however!)

Gall has the straightforwardness of being a single syllable, but it is very sustainable. Not only that, the /l/ here is that notably English allophone, where the tongue is raised at the back and the tip just manages to reach up to touch the alveolar ridge; the body of the tongue is thus in a straining U-type curve. And there’s a slight hint of choking in the constriction produced at the back of the tongue.

But, as mentioned, gall often travels with unmitigated. After all, sometimes a single syllable feels insufficient – it needs a nice polysyllabic wind-up to give it more punch.

One thing is certain: there is no great sense of admiration in gall. A recent New York Times editorial that displays it in full asperity (and uses galling too) is “.24 Karat Gall.”

Next up: nerve.