Category Archives: word tasting notes


Some days lately it’s almost impossible not, by the end of the day, to be stunkard. However bright and chirpy you may arise in the donzerly light, by the gathering of the gloaming you are gloomy and ready for a cup or two or seven and a half of analgesic, anaesthetic, or liquor of lethe.

Which is not to say that stunkard refers to being a stinking drunkard. No, though many a stunkard person is stunned by a tankard, this is more of a mood than a boozing. It lands with a thunk and keeps you hunkered. And along with being dejected, it is an adjective. It means, according to Oxford, “sulky, sullen.” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary makes it “stubborn, sullen.”)

Like so many of the more spiky-delicious words in Oxford, it is Scots (they gave us haggis and peaty whisky, so what less could we expect from their lexis?). It is also “of obscure origin.” (Webster’s curtly says “origin unknown” and turns back to its book, which you should not have pulled it away from.) And – again an Oxford house specialty – it appears to have had its peak popularity some two centuries ago. Here’s from The Saxon and the Gaël by C.I. Johnstone: “I was speerin’ for you at my Lord, but he is sae stunkard and paughty.”

So, yes, this is certainly a word for a mid-adolescent. It is also a word for anyone else who is given to sulking and unlikely to be moved to action. It is undeniably a word for the Grinch: not just “stink, stank, stunk” but a decisive “stunkard” there too. But, because many of us have perfectly good reason not to be super chippy and chirpy and a ray of damn sunshine, it gets around somewhat more. Laurie Anderson may tell us that “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much, much better,” but that just reminds us that there is much, much better that we could have. If only we weren’t beholden to the whims of the high and mighty who are so much more stunkard than we. Hmmmmmmmmmmph.


A fenester is a fenster in the fenestration allowing a finesse from the sinister finster infinity to the fine and friendly finite interior.

Our common Anglo-Saxon word for a fenester is window, which is from a Scandinavian source, seen in Icelandic vindauga, literally ‘wind eye’. In Icelandic that now means ‘opening, vent’, but in English the wind-eye sees the wind (take that, W.O. Mitchell) but does not let it in. But in this other word, fenester, it sees through the Finsternis of the ages, perhaps to infinity.

When we walk in day and see a window from outside, we most often see a reflection, not an eye but a mirror: glass, darkly, not to be seen through. When we are inside we see the infinite outside, but a finite amount of it. But at night when we look from outside in we see a glow in the dark, a welcoming light that calls us from the infinite and ageless darkness to the younger, warmer (or at least more welcoming) inside: walls that have been raised to keep the endless space at bay, and fenesters that let only the photon breeze blow in.

Let me first shed some light on Finsternis and finster. They are in fact German words, come forth from the mists of ancient Proto-Germanic, changed by the ages; they mean ‘darkness’ and ‘dark’ (and ‘gloomy’ and such like). They are not part of English, and they are not related to fenster and fenester and such like, but I thought they were worth at least a glance.

Fenster is an English word, borrowed from German. In German it means ‘window’. In English it means (per Oxford), in geology, “An opening or ‘window’ eroded through an older stratum in a region of overfolding or overthrusting, exposing a younger stratum beneath.” You look through the accumulated dirt of ages and see something newer.

Fenester is a now-obsolete English word meaning ‘window’, taken not from German but, via older French, from the same place German got it: Latin fenestra. Latin in turn got it from Etruscan, as far as we can tell. Etruscan is a linguistic bear in a forest: you don’t see it; you only see the traces it left behind. (No one has seen Etruscan face to face and remained alive to this day. It is a grizzly language.)

Latin fenestra also sheds light on the development of other European languages. I thank the contributors to Wiktionary for this list of its descendants: Breton prenestr, Catalan, Corsican, Italian, Sicilian, and Venetian finestra, Cornish fenester, Dutch and Afrikaans venster (whence Sotho fenstere, Xhosa ifestile, and Zulu ifasitela), French fenêtre, Galician fiestra, German Fenster (as already mentioned), Portuguese fresta, Romanian fereastră, Romani felyastra, Spanish hiniestra, Swedish fönster, Welsh ffenestr, and Yiddish פֿענצטער‎ fentster.

And of course there is English fenestration, which is still in current use. It refers to the arrangement of windows in a building – and, medically, to an opening made surgically to allow passage, for instance into the labyrinth of the ear to restore hearing. Not a wind-eye, but a wind-ear.

And there is defenestration. But I’ll just chuck that out the window for now.

nuit blanche

Nuit blanche. French. Two words, one syllable each: /nɥi blɑ̃ʃ/. When spoken aloud, soothing. When whispered, like an invitation to something secret. It means, literally, ‘white night’.

How can a night be white? What if the night is never black? Is it a night in white satin, never reaching the end? If a night is white, it can’t end because it can’t become light. When dawn comes, how will you know it’s dawn? Is there any special art to it? Does a white knight appear? Is the knight in white satin? Continue reading


Some people just love to use the dictionary as a stick to beat others with. “It’s in the dictionary!” is perhaps a yardstick, and “It’s not in the dictionary!” is more like a nightstick or baseball bat.

I think you will understand if I shindle back at that attitude. Continue reading


It’s orange, except when it isn’t. And it’s big, except when it isn’t. But when it’s big, it can be very big, and it can keep getting bigger and bigger, sometimes until it’s too big and it just breaks right open. Hazards of competitive growing! Continue reading


This word is marginal at best.

“This word,” Samuel Johnson wrote in an explanatory note, “is, I fancy, peculiar to the learned Hooker.” And which learned Hooker would that be, which erudite textworker? We get some idea with the quote Johnson appends for further amplification: Continue reading


Hammock. From a Cherokee word meaning ‘to dump abruptly on the ground.’

No, no, I’m kidding. It’s from English ham plus mock and first meant ‘to make fun of a pig.’ Continue reading