Category Archives: word tasting notes

gadzooks, zounds

Gadzooks! Zounds!

Be careful with those words. They’re ancient holy relics. They’re soaked with a divine spirit. They’re broken bits of oaths, pieces of sacred words of eternal commitment, now used as playthings. I’ll show you… but not quite yet.

We don’t utter oaths as exclamations and imprecations and expressions of emotional intensity much anymore. Most of us are more likely to call on sex and other bodily functions to express dismay at the arc of a crystal glass to a tile floor or a steel hammer to the wrong kind of nail. In general, we feel one of two ways about names for the divine: a few of us consider them so inviolable and sacred that we would never use them to express shock, anger, or other emotions of the edge; the remainder of us seldom consider them of enough account to be satisfactory for the purpose. But there were times when it was otherwise. Continue reading

kenophany

Yesterday, my Twitter friend @theoriginaledi drew my attention to this video by Hank Green, in particular the part between 2:42 and 4:14:

Hank Green says, in this part,

There is the sudden realization . . . that your life is not gonna be the same anymore, and there is no way to reacquire that sameness. . . . It’s such a specific feeling, this moment where you suddenly realize that you don’t know what the future holds anymore, and the story you’ve been quietly, silently telling yourself about what the future is going to be like, that story just… falls apart. It’s not there anymore. It doesn’t get replaced with something. It’s just gone. I wanted to know what this feeling is called, because it seems so specific that there should be a name for it. I’ve experienced it a bunch of times. I could not find a word for this in English.

Hank says that he asked Susie Dent, and she replied, “I’ve been wondering similar for days. I keep returning to ‘wuthering’: a rushing or raging that you’re powerless to stop. Emily Bronte described it as ‘atmospheric tumult’.” Hank allows that “this isn’t quite it”; he’s willing to make it it, but he’s open to suggestions.

I think the word required is kenophany.

That’s not what I replied to Edi right away. I first said, “Ah, a peripeteia and anagnorisis into the postmodern moment: the Wile E. Coyotification of life, when you look down and realize you’re in midair, and all the metanarratives are empty. The dark side of satori. Postmodern philosophers and Zen Buddhists write about it.” And I think Wile E. Coyotification has a certain something, but Wile E. Coyote had an assortment of calamitous moments, not just the one where he runs off a cliff and doesn’t realize at first that he’s in mid-air. Besides, at that point he does have a sense of a future. It’s a revised sense, but the gravity of the situation is clear and the consequences proceed inevitably.

No, this is more “the dark side of satori.” Allow me to explain. Satori is the moment in Zen Buddhist meditation where you achieve insight, understanding, awareness of the true nature of things; it comes from the Japanese verb satoru and it means ‘comprehension’ or ‘understanding’. But the true nature of things is that – well, I mean, one can’t actually put it in words, but it’s the lack of inherent essence; it’s what in Japanese is said mu, sometimes translated as “void,” but void has strong negative emotional connotations that are not intrinsic to it. It’s just that there’s no there there.

Which can be very disconcerting as an idea to many people. It’s similar to how Fredric Jameson described the postmodern: “incredulity towards metanarratives.” (By the way, if you’re about to rant about “postmodern thinking” as some kind of epitome of the airy stupidity of ivory tower academics, don’t bother; you’re just being lazy – what you think of as “postmodernism” has nothing to do with what it actually is. If you had an accurate idea of it, you wouldn’t be ranting against it, you’d be recognizing in it some of the folksy wisdom your grandparents dispensed about not structuring your life around something just because it’s a fancy story that sounded good.) But since we like to have stories in which we follow a clear path from A and go to Z and make overall sense of everything, we are very resistant to the idea that there is no path, there is no such thing as following, “clear” is our imagination, and “we” aren’t a single coherent unchanging entity either. It’s all… beyond our ken.

Hence the “dark side”: the dreadful feeling of emptiness and void, when in fact it’s just nothing – or, well, not nothing either, but not something; there is no intrinsic quiddity. And then there’s that ken, as in ‘knowledge’; it just by coincidence happens to have a sound-alike in Japanese. A synonym for satori, you see, is kenshō. That means ‘seeing the true essence’ or ‘seeing nature’. Ken means ‘seeing’, which is a bit of a pity since shō (‘nature, essence’) sounds like show, which is the other side of seeing.

Imagine, a viewing of understanding: a ken show. But can’t we make a fancy single word of that? Well, how about pulling in the Greek φαίνω, ‘I shine, I appear’, whence –phany as in epiphany and theophany? From that we get kenophany.

Oh, but the ken in kenophany is not from Japanese ken – that wouldn’t work. And it’s not from English ken (meaning ‘understanding, awareness’) either. No, it’s from Greek κενό, which means ‘void’ or ‘emptiness’. So kenophany is a showing – or a coming to see – the emptiness, the lack of an actual overarching structuring narrative. It’s the moment of the carpet being whipped out from under your feet, and it turns out that there is neither a floor nor not a floor beneath it.

I think we all have had our kenophanies, moments where the storyline we were following is just gone, and nothing is there to replace it. It’s like in the song “La marée haute” by Lhasa de Sela: “La route chante quand je m’en vais; je fais trois pas… la route se tait. La route est noire à perte de vue; je fais trois pas… la route n’est plus.” (“The road sings as I set out; I take three steps… the road is silent. The road is black as far as I can see; I take three steps… the road is gone.”)

It seems inevitable to me, this word kenophany; it’s so neatly suited to this meaning and this moment.

But it doesn’t exist.

Yes, it does. It just didn’t exist until now. You won’t find it in a dictionary or anywhere else as such. I assembled it from the appropriate bits. That’s a thing one can still do with these classical Greek and Latin Meccano pieces. That’s not to say that I invented it; it was already there, just waiting to be put together. And it’s not to say that I didn’t invent it; no one else put it together. But who, then, is this “I” anyway? You won’t get the same results if you check back in a minute.

empyre

Comme on dit, l’empire empire.

That’s French for “As they say, the empire gets worse.” And if the empire’s failings are in the sky, you could say “L’empire empire dans l’empyrée” – “The empire gets worse in the empyrean.” Which is a phrase that could get some air from time to time.

But look at today’s word: empyre. What is its sense? Whence does it come? It looks like empire, but in some rakish old style, like vampyre and, um, umpyre; it looks like pyre, which is the same flame as burns within empyrean (celestial bodies are great balls of fire, after all); but somehow there is something… impure. Empirically, it seems impaired.

Well, it is imperfect; in fact, it is obsolete, not in use since about the time of Shakespeare’s birth, and of course spellings at that time were as fluid as fashion. But in its time it was neither imperial nor empyrean. It came from French, yes, but from that other empire – the one that means ‘get worse’, infinitive empirer, descended from Latin, formed from in (the one that connotes increase) and peior ‘worse’ (whence our pejorative).

Empyre has a pair, a modern English word descended from the same roots and meaning about the same thing: impair. But (o Fortuna imperatrix mundi) thanks to fortune impair has tricks and is mundane – we use it now as much to mean ‘impede’ or ‘intoxicate’ or other things that one might infer from terms such as impaired driving. We don’t mean specifically that the driving is made worse; well, we do, but we mean that it’s done by a person whose overall functioning is impaired, made worse (by intoxication, of course). Whereas if we said their driving was empyred, we would mean just specifically that it had been made worse. And if someone beleaguers you, you can say “You are empyring my day.” And if they hear “vampiring” it won’t go wildly astray.

And we can look at history and see how many empires have empyred our world, and we can say that incidents and accidents (and hints and allegations) empyre our lives. And if the form of this word makes us think that we want to toss some things on a pyre, well, so much the better – a word is best if it has extra flavours cooked in.

moue

There are many words that, in saying, intend to imitate the sound of what they name – moo, to give an obvious example – but name me a word that, in saying, imitates the gesture of the thing it names.

Name me another word, I mean. Because today’s word is the obvious example. Yes, you can say “moue” without making a moue; you can even say it with your lips barely parted. But if you really emphasize the gesture, you moue. And if you make a moue and try to say something while doing so, the word you’ll say is most likely moue. It’s like if we called an air kiss a mwah (which sometimes we do).

A moue can be any sort of expression that causes the lips to purse outward: duck face, a grimace of pain at a blow to a sensitive part or of sympathy at seeing someone else receive such a blow, the face some wine tasters make while slurping the wine in their mouths so they can declare that it tastes like leather, tobacco, wet gravel, or cat’s pee. But most often it refers to a pout, often a playful one.

Of course it’s a French word. Making a pouty face playfully is on page one of the French gestural phrasebook. And in case it’s uncertain, I will assure all and sundry that moue is pronounced exactly the same as English moo, even when a French person says it: moue is the French way to spell the sound that in English is spelled moo.

And so you might expect that moue arose when some writer, lacking any more arbitrarily formed word, decided to describe a pursing of the lips with a gestural imitation. You might not expect this word to have an etymology that connects it to other, not identical forms.

So sorry to disappoint you, then. Don’t pout! The forms are similar. The Old French ancestor is moe, and that came not from Latin but from Frankish, a Germanic tongue, where the word (still meaning ‘pout’ or ‘grimace’) is conjectured to have been mauwu. That, in turn, is expected to have come from Proto-Indo-European *-mewH meaning ‘push away’.

So perhaps – perhaps – the word originally did not come from the gesture. Perhaps! But when you have a word that is close enough in meaning, and so well represents a particular sense, it is reasonable that the usage might have shifted and/or narrowed to match what seemed most suitable. It’s a thing we do from time to time.

And now, to make up for any deficit of charm, here is the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that made me think of this word today.

Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez
Envisagé de quelque moue
Pire si le rire secoue
Votre aile sur les oreillers.

Indifféremment sommeillez
Sans crainte qu’une haleine avoue
Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez
Envisagé de quelque moue.

Tous les rêves émerveillés,
Quand cette beauté les déjoue,
Ne produisent fleur sur la joue
Dans l’œil diamants impayés
Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez.

Here’s a translation of sorts, not trying to keep the rhyme (translations are always imperfect… sorry!):

Nothing, on waking, you never have
Considered with a sort of moue
Worse if the laugh should shake
Your wing upon the pillows.

You sleep indifferently
Without fear a breath would admit
Something, on waking, you never have
Considered with a sort of moue.

All the amazed dreams,
When this beauty foils them,
Do not give a flower to the cheek
In the eye diamonds not paid for
Nothing, on waking, you never have.

twill

Take a bit of twill fabric and rub it between your fingers. It is not so smooth as satin, nor even as a plain weave; it is rough, it has ribs, it has traction. Whether it be cotton, or wool, or even silk, it grips. It does not shine, nor does it whiffle like corduroy as you ruffle it, but ’tis rugged and ready: ’twill serve. It is not a thrill from the mill, but it is twill.

How is it made? It starts one way but then skips ahead. Where in a plain weave your weft (cross thread) goes under your warp (long thread) and then over and then under and then over, in twill it goes under and then over and then over again, and sometimes again: a repeat, a three-peat, maybe even a four-peat. Sometimes it goes under more than once before going over. And the next thread is offset by one alternation, so that a diagonal pattern is formed.

Want to find some twill? Skip your suits and head to your jeans: denim is made with a twill weave. It’s not that twill is never used for formal wear – you’ll see some on the couture runways – but it’s more rugged and less prone to showing stains and smirches.

And the name, twill? So many names of fabrics come from places – denim is from serge de Nîmes, satin is from Zayton (the medieval Arabic name for Quanzhou), tulle is from Tulle. But twill comes from two places: Rome and England.

OK, I’m going diagonal; it’s obviously not a blend of those two place names. It’s just that it started as Latin bilix, from bis ‘twice’ and licium ‘thread’, but then it skipped ahead and turned that bi into two to make Old English twili, which became twilly, which became twill. (There was originally a thrili to go with twili, but it’s all just called twill now.) It’s sort of like how we went from repeat to three-peat – and then back to two-peat.

Two-peat? Yes, that’s in use; I wrote about it years ago. You are free to dislike it, but it is in use, especially among a set of people who wear twill more often than satin, and like it or not, it will serve. And if you will call twill twill, as one does, you have one less basis for objecting to word forms developing diagonally… as ’twere.

basil

Ocimum basilicum, the herb of kings and king of herbs, an herb so basic as to be only one letter different from basic. But at the same time, as kings are wont to be, a herb that does not blend into the background, a herb that will be different just for the sake of being different, even having pronounced differences with itself.

Pronounced? You don’t believe? Like herb itself, basil has a choice of two ways to say it. Look in a dictionary: while the supervenient pronunciation rhymes with dazzle, an accepted alternate rhymes with hazel.

Weirdly, I first learned neither of those pronunciations. You see, I had a great-uncle Basil whose name was said like “base’ll” – that is, with a “long” and a voiceless s. So it did not exactly go with hazel. Which is amusing, because his wife’s name was… yes… Hazel. (But his name had always been said that way, even before he met her.)

Anyway, on the basis of my uncle, I assumed that that was the proper pronunciation of basil. When a kid’s TV show I watched had a character named Basil the Beagle, I assumed his name was spelled Bazzle. I mean, wouldn’t you, anyway?

But this herb is not avuncular. I love it, to be sure, and use it in tomato sauces and soups whenever I can (among other things), but I learned an important lesson when I once told my housemate “It’s impossible to use too much basil.” The dude proved me wrong decisively. And allow me to inform you: an excess of basil produces a truly horrible flavour. Just as basil can be (as in Portugal) a token of love or (as in ancient Greece) a symbol of hatred, its effect on your food will vary very much according to the dosage.

This is not to say that basil is tyrannical in a dish. It is not a tyrannos; it is a basileus.

I’ll explain that. Tyrannos, more accurately τύραννος, means ‘king’ and is the term applied to Oedipus in the play Οἰδίπους Τύραννος, most often called Oedipus Rex from the Latin but translated into English as King Oedipus (I’d make that King Piercefoot). But it is also the root of tyrant, which gives you a little sense of what kind of king we mean: an absolute ruler, a dictator, a despot. On the other hand, βασιλεύς, basileus, also means ‘king’ but otherwise means ‘chief, master, patron’, so it’s maybe a little more agreeable. Unless you go too far, take a risk, and it becomes a basilisk: a mythical snake-dragon with a deadly gaze and a name that comes from the same kingly root. So, overall, uh… like a boss.

But basil also has holy overtones. And by that I don’t just mean holy basil, which is a different (but related) herb also called tulsi. I mean assorted saints, especially in the Eastern Orthodox church. You may know that the big church on Red Square in Moscow is Saint Basil’s Cathedral – well, that’s its short, unofficial name. But which Saint Basil is it named after? There were several, about half of them bishops: not quite kings, but men of power and influence. The Saint Basil in honour of whom this magnificent cathedral took its common name (though not until more than a century after its construction) was a holy man who is now buried in it, a man who once rebuked the man who had the cathedral built, Ivan the Terrible (a terrible translation of Иван Грозный – Ivan the Fearsome would better), for not paying attention during church. He is called Василий Блаженный, commonly rendered in English as Basil Fool for Christ. He went around wearing shackles and literally nothing else, destitute by choice, and he had Ivan the Fearsome himself as a pallbearer at his funeral and now is memorialized by a building that epitomizes everything he wasn’t – especially since it’s no longer even a functioning church.

A small further digression must be permitted. Василий is not pronounced “Basil” however you say “Basil”; it is the name normally rendered in English as Vasily or Vassily or Vasiliy or… You know, as in Wassily Kandinsky, whose paintings are as colourful as that cathedral, but with different structure and a different palette. The /b/ of Ancient Greek eased off to a /v/ in modern Russian, and in several other languages – including modern Greek, in which β has also softened to /v/, sort of like how basil’s flavour softens when it has dried.

If you have a kitchen with a standard collection of herbs and spices, you almost certainly have flakes of dried basil. You can shake some into your hand and taste it. Yup! That tastes like basil! As in the stuff you put into spaghetti sauce (along with oregano). It’s vaguely sweet, with reminiscences of chamomile, mint, and anise, and maybe a bit of hay. But do you have access to some of the fresh stuff? Take a leaf and chew it. It’s recognizably the same herb, but the dials have been turned up from 2 to 10, except for the anise dial, which is somewhere between 13 and 20, and there may be a hint or three of your neighbour’s lawn. Its taste suggests that if it were a person, it would be trying to decide whether to kiss you or kill you.

My edition of the Larousse Gastronomique (1960), in translation by Marion Hunter, paints a picture of an erstwhile grand dame: “Basil . . . Plant cultivated in gardens for the sake of its fragrance. . . . Basil was once considered a royal plant; only the sovereign (basileus) could cut it, and even then only with a golden sickle. The plant has now come into common use.”

Oh, but don’t take their word for it (no, seriously, don’t). Throw a naked leaf or three into a sauce. It will beatify the sauce. (Throw in two dozen and it will murder it.) And when you get to the leaf, soft and soggy, it will not resist you like a bay leaf; it will go easily into your mouth, where it will at its last remind you that it was once, and still is, royalty.

And yet it has the common touch, and really always has. Look, here is a recipe, presented to us by Achille Bruni, Professor of the Royal University of Naples, from his Nuova enciclopedia agraria (New agricultural encyclopedia) for “Genoese low-fat lasagne,” which they already had back in 1859 (and if you want to quibble with the spellings, click that link and check it for yourself):

Lasagne di magro alla genovese. — Cuoci in acqua con sale le lasagne, le quali riesciranno più saporite se avrai fatte in casa. Intanto per condirle metti in un mortaio due e tre spicchi d’aglio, foglie di basilico in abbondanzo e alquanta polpa di cacio di Roma, o d’Olanda, o di Sardegna, secondo il gusto, e pesta tutto ben bene; aggiungi dell’olio fino in quantità, e tre o quattro cucchiaiate dell’acqua stessa in cui cuocono le lasagne. Quando queste son cotte, colale e condiscile suolo per suolo col pesto che hai preparato, aggiungendo ancora del formaggio grattato.

Here is a translation (mine, with some help from Google and Wiktionary):

Genoese low-fat lasagna. — Cook the lasagna in water with salt; it will be tastier if you have made it at home. Meanwhile, to season it, put in a mortar two and three cloves of garlic, basil leaves in abundance and some ground cheese from Rome, or Holland, or Sardinia, according to taste, and pound everything well; add fine oil in quantity, and three or four spoonfuls of the water in which the lasagna is cooking. When these are cooked, strain them and season them layer by layer with the pesto you have prepared, adding more grated cheese.

Remember: foglie di basilico in abbondanzo [sic]: basil leaves in abundance. Ma non troppo, sai?

bummerism

“There is bummerism in politics – in fact, it is the heart core.” Thus wrote an unnamed author in Varieties, of San Francisco.

Bummerism? Yeah! Politics is a total bummer, and it’s full of people who are total bummers too, like, y’know, dude? It’s such a downer, like a real drag. But that’s not quite what the author meant. Here’s another quote, from Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, that might help clarify the sense: “Corruption will run riot; bummerism and bribery will walk rough shod over decency and honesty.” It seems (and I take the word of the Oxford English Dictionary on this) that bummerism is corruption, or venality, or laziness – conduct characteristic of a bummer, which in this case is a kind of person: someone we might also call a bum.

You see how that would trace, right? A bum bums and so is a bummer, and bummerism is being like a bummer. Likewise, the more common modern sense of bummer is that the thing is bum, meaning ‘bad’, as in had a bum trip or got a bum steer. And from that we go back to bum, which has been brought to us by posteriority. Right?

Sorry, dude. Big bummer. That’s not how it goes. But the truth might ring a bell.

There’s one bit that’s basically right: bummer as in “That’s a real bummer, dude” does come from bum meaning ‘of poor quality’. But the rest? The relationship of bum to bummer is, in fact, like the relationship of edit to editor: the word that looks like it is a derived form is the one that actually came first. Edit is formed from editor, and when an indolent, indigent person is called a bum (which is also apparently the source of the bum that means ‘of low quality’, but is not related to the bum you’re sitting on), that is a backformation of bummer, meaning ‘vagrant’ and related things. Bummer in its turn most evidently comes from German Bummler, ‘unemployed person, wandering vagrant’, from the verb bummeln, meaning ‘wander, ramble; dawdle, laze’. It seems (it has been asserted by at least one established source) that bummeln comes from ‘swing back and forth like the clapper of a bell’ – you know, “boom-boom,” as we would write it in English, or „bum-bum“if you’re German.

Do you feel led on by that etymological peregrination? Bummer, dude. But it kind of comes back around, if you think of bummerism in politics as being like the clapper of a bell, swinging back and forth and making noise for whoever pulls your rope.

And are you kind of bummed out by “walk rough shod” and “it is the heart core” in those quotes back at the beginning of all this? Well, what can I say? That’s how they wrote it back then. Which, by the way, was farther back than you might have guessed: the quote from the Rocky Mountain News was from 1883, and the one from the San Francisco Varieties was from 1858.

Plus ça change, eh? Well, what goes around comes around (especially if it’s just lying around). Oxford skewers this word with the obelisk of obsoletion, but there’s plenty of bummerism to go around these days, and I’m sure we could bring it back.