Category Archives: word tasting notes


There was a time, I remember, in the 1990s, when it was considered deep and true and honest for singers of popular songs to sing with a certain… “style,” what one might think of as “poor voice placement” and a lack of what one might call, um, “tuning.” A sort of strained half-shriek, half-grunt one might hear from someone with a cold and dysentery who is sitting in an outhouse and has just seen a hornet headed straight for him. It was not eccentric, not exactly; that would mean they were off-centre, and as far as this goes that’s beside the point, because if the fashion is to be unfashionable, well…

Anyway, as I worked away in the mail room at the Tufts library to pay some bills while I was dissertating, I would have the radio on, and the local station would play stuff by, you know, Porno For Pyros and Bush and Jane’s Addiction and The Wallflowers and so on, and there was no lack of this style. And then I heard a song use a word that seemed like the mot juiced for this whole thing, this, um, kind of rough and underripe vocal styling paired with expensive studio production values that were pretending not to be expensive (like high-priced fake craquelure). The song introduced the word but didn’t explain it, just threw it down there, which was also so damn typical of these uber-cool guys who were trying so hard to be hip it was tragic, and were so tragic it was hip. (To be fair, the singer of the song in question was actually able to sing well when he chose to, which at key moments he did not.)

The etymology of the word was not completely obvious. The second part was clear enough: centric. But the first part? It sounded like “heb-I” or “heb-eye” but I assumed it was spelled hebi. The thing is, there’s no classical root that matches that. But there is a Greek root hebe-, referring to youth; perhaps it was blended with bi, meaning ‘two’ (as in the duality of expensive production values and good instrumentals with a singing style that I had always known as “bad”). Or maybe they were just being deliberately obscure and difficult. Like, hey, I just mutated this word, isn’t it so awful you have to love it and buy it. But there was no doubt that the song was about someone who embodied this value, because they sang it over and over again: “You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

I suppose if I had already been studying linguistics at the time (I was still a drama scholar) I might have decided that it was deliberately incomprehensible, like the famous sentence confected by Noam Chomsky to illustrate that a sentence could be syntactically coherent but semantically incoherent, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” After all, the whole line I heard sung was “That’s when the hornet stung meeee, and I had this furious dream! You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

In the end, though, I realized that I had created a mondegreen (but one every bit as plausible as classiomatic, I’d say). What I was actually hearing, which even contained the title of the song (not that radio deejays ever bothered saying the titles of the songs), was “You are ahead by a century.” (Also, the words before it were “feverish dream” and later “serious dream” but never “furious dream,” alas.) But I still think hebicentric is a good word for that hiply tragic, tragically hip style…

Anyway, here, if you don’t know the song. It’s “Ahead by a Century” by The Tragically Hip, from 1996.


Is there, truly, a Thule?

Edgar Allan Poe thought so: in his “Dream-Land,” he begins,

By a route obscure and lonely, 
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.

But we know there is no place out of space, out of time. There is no end of the earth. There is no where so far away that we cannot displace it, misplace it, replace it. We can go so far that we want to go no farther, but we will always want others to go farther for us. And when we go around, we come back around.

In ancient days, the people living on the sea between Europe and Africa thought it was the middle of the earth – that’s what Mediterranean means – and the ends were as far away from that as one could get. In 325 BC, around the time that Alexander the Great was expanding the Greek empire eastward, a man named Pytheas, who lived in the western reaches of that empire, in Massalia (now Marseille, France), headed north to see who they were trading with. He reached, he said, the end of the earth, a place so cold that land, sea, and air were all one like a jelly, and in the middle of summer the sun barely set. Of course there were people there already.

Pytheas called the place Θούλη, which would transliterate into English as Thoúlē, but it passed to us by way of Latin to be Thule. Officially, by the dictionary, in English we say it like “thoo-lee” or “thew-lee” or sometimes “thool,” but many people assume the Th is “t” – which it is in languages that don’t have the “th” sound, such as Danish. Pytheas may or may not have made the name up; either way, no one really knows its origin or etymon.

Pytheas, as is now known, improved his travels overmuch in the telling. If he made it to his Thule at all, it was some island off Norway (or perhaps Estonia), still south of the Arctic Circle (as we know from the fact that the sun set at all in midsummer). Or he may just have written down some accounts collected in a tavern. But Thule held onto the popular imagination, calling us into the unknown. Poe would know:

Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters—lone and dead,—
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

Does that sound like the idealized Canadian north, as represented by painters like Lawren Harris? I think it does.

But everyone knows Thule is in Greenland.

I certainly knew. I knew Thule was in Greenland long before I heard of its mythical connections. In fact, the first time I saw mention of Ultima Thule – it might have been in one of Umberto Eco’s novels – I thought, “Huh? Someone made some myths about this cold town in northern Greenland?”

Well, someone brought myths. Knud Rasmussen did. Knud Rasmussen was part Inuit, born and raised in south Greenland; he went to study down south in Europe, but came back to Greenland and made his name as an Arctic explorer. He gave the name Thule to his northernmost trading post. Of course there were people (Inughuit) already living in the area, as there had been for nearly four millennia; little point having a trading post if there’s no one to trade with. In 1912 Rasmussen set off from Thule to transit the ice cap at the north end of Greenland. He succeeded, and then came back around to Thule again.

Four decades later, the United States Air Force arrived to bring the Cold War to the cold world. The site they chose had people living there, so they chose another site some 60 miles north – not for the air base, for the people. They told them they had four days to get out, so they got out. And then the Americans built the air base where the people had been. 

We can go so far that we want to go no farther, but we will always want others to go farther for us.

Thule Air Base (said the Danish way, with a “t”) is still there. The place farther north where the Inughuit were made to move to is also still where it is. It is home to more than 600 people; it has stores, a hospital, a church, all ranged up a hillside between the sea ice below and the inland ice above and beyond. But there is less ice than there used to be. The world there is changing, rapidly and obviously, thanks to the doings of those of us far to the south. Still, though, it is never what we would call warm, and for four months of the year the average temperature is below –20°C. The forecast for tomorrow is –32°C all day, with zero hours of daylight. On February 13, the sun will rise, briefly, for the first time since October 27. It always comes back.

This town, which was once called New Thule, then just Thule, is now known as Qaanaaq. Indigenous place names in Greenland generally mean something – they name a land feature or a thing that happens there. But Qaanaaq? It seems to mean as much as Θούλη, which is to say, nothing other than the name of the place: “According to the language secretariat for Greenland,” writes one American who now lives in southern Greenland, “Qaanaaq is only a place name and has no literal meaning.” (But The Great Danish says it means ‘caves by the beach’.)

And when Qaanaaq goes, it comes back around, like Rasmussen and like us, and like the sun: It starts out with q at the back of the throat, comes forward to touch the tip of the tongue softly at n, and returns the same way to q. It, too, like Poe, has, at the end, 

wandered home but newly 
From this ultimate dim Thule.


When the pandemic arrived, we all expected shortages: toilet paper, medicine, paper towels, fresh vegetables, toilet paper, imported electronics, coffee, toilet paper, oil, voyages, fun, and toilet paper, among other things. But what we may not have anticipated were the longages.

I don’t mean the long ages, as in endless expanses of time, except yeah, I do mean that too, because we have a longage of available time. Just ask the managers of people who are still employed; they generally seem to believe no one has anything better to do, and yet simultaneously to think if they don’t hold their employees hostage to a longage of work they will just skive off and, uh, go for walks to see the foliage or something. 

What, in fact, many of us do do is try to avoid shortages of items by buying on line and having them delivered, resulting in a longage of mileage for people in the haulage and porterage business and a longage of packages in the lobbies of buildings – and a longage of some kinds of items in our homes. At this time last year, my wife and I had two devices for making coffee and two kinds of coffee beans in bags ready for the making; now we have four different devices and a dozen kinds of beans. 

We also have, in spite of our shortage of storage, an increasing longage of wines of various vintages. And our stacks of books waiting to be read have grown like the skyscrapers that continue to sprout fungally around us here in downtown Toronto – construction is “essential,” even in the ice age, and if you’re in the building trade here and now you have a longage of work adding to the longage of office and dwelling space. If, to take advantage of my longage of spare time, I go for a stroll, I often encounter a shortage of sidewalk space because the construction is hoarding it up.

In short, many people have a longage of work hours, and many have a longage of leisure time and leisure devices and the various baggage of adultage; many – especially those with a shortage of employment – also have a shortage of funds, while a few people (Bezos, Gates, and the ilk) have a considerable longage thereof, thanks to their leverage on percentages. And everything seems to be overage and underage and never average. It’s easy to get discouraged and to disengage.

This word longage is not of my coinage; it already existed in our language, though it’s not often seen. Wiktionary assures me it’s in informal use in economics (“A shortage of supply is a longage of demand”), while the Oxford English Dictionary has never heard of it, except as a Middle English variant spelling of language. (Oxford does inform me that shortage has been with us since the mid-1800s and appeared first in the USA.) 

But Wikipedia knows the word… OK, it knows Longages. Which is the name of a commune in the department of Haute-Garonne, 35 kilometres south of Toulouse. Longages has been around a long time. The town website says that the name comes from a Gallo-Roman root, longaticum campus, meaning ‘long field’; the only catch with that is that longaticum isn’t proper Latin, and the only search results I’ve found for it so far are as the Latin form of the name of the Slovenian town Logatec, a Latin word itself apparently derived from a Celtic root. But one Jacques Lacroix, looking at the many French place names that have Long- in them, has reckoned in his article “Le thème gaulois longo- dans les noms de lieux” that it traces to a Celtic root (France was Celtic before it was overrun by Romans, and its place names and many other parts of its language – including its weird way of saying 80 – have considerable Celtic pentimento). The Celtic root in question, longo-, relates to boats and other vessels. Many of these Long- places are nowhere near where you could use a boat, but Lacroix views the usage as more figurative, relating to topographical forms. In addition, for names with -ag- he cites research connecting it to Germanic awja ‘humid meadow’ (or, as he gets to it ere long, ‘swamp’). So, in his view, Longages gets its name from being on a hillside dominating a plain between two rivers. (Google Street View makes it look pretty flat, but I dunno.) The possibility that this Celtic root long- comes from Latin navis longa, as is sometimes suggested (though not by Lacroix!), is beside the point, though it would be an interesting long way around.

Yes, yes, that’s a longage of verbiage and gymnastics on a tangent about historical onomastics. Well, what. I have a longage of time and a longage of resources. And what’s your hurry?


What does a mirror look like when it reflects only itself, and no one is looking?

You know what it is to know. To see things and people, and to recognize them, and to know that they are there, and that you are here seeing them. But that is not the same as knowing their thoughts or feelings or knowing what it is like to be them. You are here and they are there and there are two of you. How would it be if you looked and knew you were not two, but one?

The essence of knowing is the mind perceiving external things and concepts and modelling them and assimilating those models into its schemes and structures and mental Minecrafts. Which means that knowing is an intrinsically separate and separating act; even knowing yourself takes parts of your self as objects, models them, and adds them to your miniature village of the mind. So what do you call the knowing that knows that the knower and the known are the same? The realization that all that is realized is all that realizes, and that at root the watcher is watching the watcher, and any plurality is just the reflector reflecting?

Well, you can call it jnana, if you want.

Yes, yes, jnana looks (a) like the word banana if it were in the process of realizing that it is a banana (does not a j resemble a banana?) and (b) rather hard to say. In truth, English speakers who use the word tend to use it on paper more often than on tongue. But it comes from a Sanskrit word. And the usual transliteration of the Sanskrit is jñāna, with a tilde on the n to indicate that it’s palatalized just like Spanish ñ. The way it’s written in Sanskrit even makes one out of two: from ज “j” and ञ “ñ” comes ज्ञ “jñ” – which sort of looks like your tongue trying to say “jñ.”

How do you say it? In English, just try to say what you see – it’ll end up sounding like a posh merger of “Jenna” and “banana.” In Sanskrit, you could say it like English “j” immediately followed by “ñ” (with no intervening vowel) and then “ana” (like in “Ana Gasteyer”), but you could also say it like “gyana” – the affricate-nasal-palatal sequence becoming one, sort of, as a palatalized stop, because when you’re speaking Sanskrit all the time you’re going to merge things and simplify things just like any other human will. Just like ज्ञ merges ज and ञ.

Why did that j and ñ get that way in the first place, then? Well, we know that its root jñā also gave rise to jānāti ‘know’, which shows clearly its parts, but we also know that it came from Proto-Indo-European *ǵneh₃-, which also led to Greek roots (e.g., γνῶσις gnosis) and Latin roots (e.g., notio, source of our notion) and Slavic roots (e.g., Russian знать znat’ ‘know’) and English know. It’s always the blade or back of the tongue (first g, from which k and the affricate j and the fricative z) followed by n and an at least somewhat open vowel. Same general form, same general meaning.

So yeah, this word for knowing the knowing that is beyond (or at the root of) knowing is the word for… knowing. And indeed, in Sanskrit that’s just what it meant. The word jñāna is the Sanskrit word (well, one of several) for ‘knowing’ or ‘knowledge’, in all the everyday and specialized senses, and its modern descendants in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, Kannada, Telugu, and even Burmese, Khmer, and Thai all mean the same thing and are all pretty similar in sound. It’s a very basic and broad word, just as English know is, and we know that know can have many special and distinctive senses, a few of which are suitable for a nudge and wink.

So why use jnana (our English borrowing of jñāna) rather than just, you know, knowing or knowledge? Well, it has that special sauce – the same special sauce as salsa has. 

You probably know that salsa is Spanish for ‘sauce’; in Spanish that’s what it means, ‘sauce’, and there are plenty of people who will point out that salsa sauce is redundant. And yet we’ve borrowed the word salsa to refer to a particular kind of sauce – a sauce we specifically associate with Spanish cuisine (well, Latin American cuisine). It’s not the only sauce called salsa in Spanish, but it’s the one we decided we liked, and part of its charm for English speakers is its exotic quality, so of course we took the word with it. This kind of culinary borrowing is popular in English but, let’s be fair, is pretty widespread around the world. 

Anyway, we did the same thing with jnana. All the other senses of knowing we pretty much have covered. But this idea of knowing that one is not separate from the ultimate unity of the universe (specifics depend on religion – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh – and particular sect or school within the religion), well, that’s something that we particularly wanted to see as an exotic thing we could borrow from them, like a jewel from the East, the prize of a secret journey to find a holy man. Not that such ideas didn’t exist in the Western traditions – oh yes they did, and do, thanks to our own “mystical” traditions – but yeah, look, man, it’s jnana! It’s like, um, tikka masala of the mind!* Yum yum!

Do you discern a certain irony? That this word for knowing non-duality, non-otherness, is the result of a deliberate othering, a focused exoticism that treats something that has been known in our own cultures – and names something that, if it’s real, applies exactly the same to everyone everywhere – as something apart, distinct, foreign? And with an added bonus of a flagrant resistance to our own phonological rules (i.e., things we consider pronounceable)?

But, then, even the very idea of a word and concept for the realization of utter unity is irony on irony. And all words are a form of alienation. So perhaps this jnana split is as much apposite as opposite.

*Tikka masala, by the way, is a dish based on Indian cuisine but most likely invented in England, though most people who eat it don’t know that last bit.


Last word tasting, we looked at Longyearbyen, which, aside from being a word that you probably feel unsure how to say at first, is the name of a town of almost 2400 people just 12 degrees from the North Pole. Today, for the sake of balance, and because I thought of it while talking to my mother, we’re going to look at McMurdo.

McMurdo is a Scottish name, yes, you probably guessed that; it’s from the Hebrides, and it comes from Gaelic Mac Murchaidh or Mac Murchadha, meaning ‘son of Murchadh’, where Murchadh is a personal name that means ‘sea battle’. So… Seabattleson. 

It matters to us here today because of Archibald McMurdo.

Archibald McMurdo was born in 1812. He joined the Royal Navy in 1824 (yes, at the age of 12). He was made a lieutenant in 1836; he progressed through the ranks, making captain in 1851; he retired as a rear-admiral. He had command of the ship HMS Contest, detailed to the west coast of Africa, but he had already made his name in much colder climates, as a lieutenant on the warship HMS Terror. The Terror had made its mark in the year of McMurdo’s birth at Fort McHenry, firing rockets that glared red and bombs that burst in the air; McMurdo was on it first in 1836–37 in an expedition to try to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic (it failed and returned to England, but nearly a decade later, without McMurdo, it went back under Sir John Franklin, and you may have heard how that went), and then in 1840–43 to find Antarctica – successfully – with James Clark Ross. And that’s where McMurdo gained his fame.

It’s not that he did anything special in particular. But I guess Ross liked him well enough, or at least found him to be a sound officer. When Ross’s two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, sailed into an Antarctic bay of the Ross Sea (as it had just been named), Ross named the two nearby volcanoes after his ships, and he named the bay McMurdo Sound.

And when, in 1956, the United States opened a base on one of the few patches of bare ground in Antarctica (technically on Ross Island rather than the mainland, but it’s all iced together), right near where Robert Falcon Scott had set up a camp in 1902, they called it McMurdo Station, because it’s on McMurdo Sound. Today, McMurdo Station, or McMurdo for short, or Mac-Town for shorterer, is the biggest human place in Antarctica. In the summer (the warmest months are November, December, and January, because it’s the South Pole, not the North one), its population gets up over 1200. In the winter, there are about 250 people keeping it going. It provides services and support for a number of research stations in the area. It’s just over 12 degrees north of the South Pole, but its location shelters it from the worst of the polar weather; midwinter temperatures are usually in the –20s (Celsius), and the coldest it’s ever been recorded is just below –50°C (for Antarctica, that’s not so bad). On the other hand, the warmest it’s ever been recorded is just under 11°C, and average daily temperatures never break freezing any time of the year.

Most people who have heard of McMurdo, including – I suspect – many of those who spend some or all of their year there every year, don’t know who it’s named after, let alone that it might as well have been called Seabattleson. But so it goes; we usually don’t know much about where our words come from. And Archibald McMurdo couldn’t have guessed the fame his name would gain from his service as a lieutenant on an exploring ship. But everything turned out well enough for him. After the two polar trips, he headed for someplace warm while his former ship ended its days frozen in the Arctic Sea. And his name carries on.

Do you want to know what it’s like at McMurdo? Of course you do. It’s different from what you probably imagine. PBS Terra did a series on it (and its environs). Here are the three little episodes you’ll certainly want to watch to know about the town:


If you lived in a place where there were only 127 days in a year – where the sun rose only 127 times and set only 127 times in a year – would you think of it as having a long year or a short year?

How about if the year was exactly the same length, in hours, as any other year (8760 hours, except in leap years), but it had 127 days, and one of those days had almost 3095 hours of sunlight, and one of the nights was almost 2687 hours without sunlight? Do you feel differently about that now?

In Longyearbyen, the northernmost settlement of more than 1000 people in the world, the sun sets at 12:54 pm on October 26 and doesn’t rise again until 11:42 am on February 15, and after it rises at 1:31 am on April 18 it doesn’t set again until 12:19 am on August 25 (ending the day of August 24).

Those of us who live in relatively boreal latitudes – which is more people than you might think – can feel like the year is dragging quite a bit in the dark, cold days of December and January. But imagine going nearly four months without any daylight at all. (And imagine going more than four months without any night!)

Not that that’s why Longyearbyen has its name. No, it has its name because it was (and still is, but only a bit) a coal mining town.

It’s not that being down in the mines makes night out of day, and all that stuff. It’s not that every year mining in a place at 78 degrees north is like two years anywhere else. No, it’s just that the mining company that set up on the island of Spitsbergen in 1906 was run by John Munro Longyear, and he named its company town Longyear City, because of course he did. And eventually, in 1926, a decade after the company was taken over by a Norwegian company, the name of the town was changed to Longyearbyen, because in Norwegian byen means ‘the town’ or ‘the city’ (by ‘town’ + en ‘the’).

Which, by the way, resolves what is probably the most vexing issue of this place for language freaks like me: how to pronounce it. You see, in Norwegian, the letter y is pronounced like German ü (in other words, like English “ee” with the lips rounded), and for quite some time after first seeing this town’s name and learning that it Norwegian, I wondered if the y in Longyear was a Norwegian y. Well, it’s not. But the y in byen is. So if you want to say the place name as accurately as you can (disregarding Norse intonation), it’s like “long year bü en” (with the “en” basically like as in “broken”). But if you’re just a regular English speaker who wants to say place names with sounds from the spice jars of English vowels, say it as “long year bee-en.” Anyway, don’t say the by like English by.

You probably won’t have that many reasons to say it at all, admittedly. Longyearbyen is a small place (not quite 2400 people, but more than that many snowmobiles, and far more than that many polar bears in the suburbs). But it does have one thing that might lengthen our years on this earth: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008, which stores seeds from around the world to insure against loss of biodiversity in the world’s plants. It’s located in what was formerly a coal mine.

But, by the way, what is the deal with this surname Longyear? Well, John Munro Longyear was the son of US Representative – and later district court judge – John W. Longyear, who was descended from one Jacob Longyear, who was born as Jacob Langjaer in the Netherlands. And this family name Langjaer in turn appears to come from Geman Langjahr. Which, if you know German – or if you know historical variations in Dutch – will tell you that the family name actually means… ‘long year’.

Yeah. That took the long way around to end up in the same place. And why were they called that? I don’t know. Maybe if I had a year – a long one – to do some research, I could find out.

But don’t you like the digging, as in coal mines? And don’t you like how every little bit like that plants seeds for future discovery?

If you want to know more about Longyearbyen, here are some videos about it, showing the different ways you can present the same not very large place:


“Not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

That’s really a throwback to the days of oratory past, isn’t it? How about this:

“While once we asked, ‘How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe,’ now we assert, ‘How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us.’”

It really gets your heart racing a bit, doesn’t it? What a turnaround that represents!

Not just a turnaround in the outlook or course of a country, but – easy enough to see – a turnaround in the sentence. It’s a syntactic mirror of a mental transformation, a discovery, what Arthur Koestler called bisociation, what Edward de Bono called lateral thinking. The first phrase comes along, and the second throws it right back. That’s why the rhetorical figure is called antimetabole, from Greek ἀντιμεταβολή, from ἀντί (anti, ‘in the opposite direction’) and μεταβολή (metabolé, ‘turning around’) – which is in turn from μετα- (which means all sorts of things but as a prefix indicates change or transformation) and βολή (noun, ‘throw’). (Your metabolism is called metabolism because it’s all the constant changes happening in your body.)

But it also turns around and looks back. It puts itself in history by putting history in itself. The two quotes above are from Joe Biden and Amanda Gorman, from Biden’s inauguration today, January 20, 2021. Sixty years ago to the day, January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It has not been forgotten.

Antimetabole is a long-loved effect for the mental jiujitsu it performs. There is the grand old saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” And on the other hand, there is Malcolm X’s “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

There are less solemn instances, too. A type of joke called the Russian reversal is often associated with Yakov Smirnoff but pre-dates him; an example from Laugh-In is “Here in America, is very good, everyone watch television. In old country, television watch you!” Garry Kasparov made more trenchant use of it: “Every country has its own mafia; In Russia, the mafia has its own country.” The movie Mystery Men had a character called The Sphinx who was overly fond of such turns of phrase: “To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn” is a basic example; “When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack” is a bit more… convoluted. Some other fine examples, including one from the (not a comedy) movie Sophie’s Choice, are perhaps a little less polite.

This kind of turn of phrase is sometimes called a chiasmus, but chiasmus is a broader term that mainly denotes a reversal of grammatical structure without repetition of words: “By day the frolic, and the dance by night” (Samuel Johnson). I think antimetabole is a more likeable term anyway, not only because it’s longer (six syllables! two dactyls – an-ti-me-ta-bo-le – like two fingers crossing) but because, once you know the etymology, you know that it means what it says and it says what it means.

And when it is used on a grand occasion marking an important change, it uses a new order of words to make words for a new order.


Sometimes you get to some words you just want to… you know… go around. Throw the reader a curve, maybe. Overlook some shortcomings. Stay in orbit around a point, or circle rather than land, if you get my…

Leaving out words may seem a bit dotty to some, but it’s downright dashing to others. And historically, dashes showed up a bit before dots to indicate omissions; they’re still used for parts of words (“What the f— did D— T— do now?”), but by the early 1700s the dots were remorselessly supplanting them to encode elision. (If you want to know their whole history, with as little omitted as possible, Anne Toner wrote a book about it.)

But let’s get around for a moment to how this function (and its dotty indicator) is called ellipsis, or in plural ellipses, which is also the plural of ellipse. Are ellipsis and ellipse related? Sure, they’re really the same word originally. And does that mean that ellipsis got its name from going around? No; rather, the ellipse got its name from coming short. The Greek origin is ἔλλειψις, which is the noun form of ἐλλείπειν (elleipein), which means ‘come short’ or – by extension – ‘omit’. It’s not that an ellipse comes short of being a circle; rather, it comes short of the slope of the side of a cone. You have to picture this in three-dimensional geometry: get a cone, and slice through it at an angle not as steep as the side but not as flat as the base (in other words, slice on a bias through an ice cream cone), and you will see an ellipse. (If you slice through it at a steeper angle than the side, you get a hyperbola. Remember: ellipsis is the opposite of hyperbole, at least in geometry but also in many other ways.)

Ellipsis in words is not quite so geometric, however, and trying to tie the function of the three dots to conic sections might lead to circular reasoning. It just happens to use the same word to indicate omission (by the way, elide is unrelated; it comes from Latin meaning ‘strike out’).

There are still debates about how to handle ellipses. As far as Microsoft Word is concerned, if you type three periods they should automatically become a single Unicode character… But as far as the Chicago Manual of Style is concerned, when I edit your book, I’m supposed to go through and replace all those with spaced periods . . . (and if the end of a sentence is involved, add a fourth. . . .). Other guides take various positions.

And how may you romp in the elision fields? Many authors (including sooooo many people over a certain age on Facebook) like to use them just to seem conversational and not to close off discourse (“So good to see you… you look so happy, LOL… wish you could join us here…”). Some well-known novelists used them for similar effect, but more literarily; the French novelist Céline is especially noted for it, in his case almost the literary equivalent of puffing a cigarette while talking. Normally in fiction the three dots indicate that speech has trailed off (whereas the dash indicates that it has cut off abruptly: consider the difference between “Why don’t you…” and “Why don’t you—”). But in nonfiction, they more often indicate that something has been left out of a quotation.

And just how it has been left out, well… There are rules about that, or at least established standards. You don’t have to put an ellipsis at the beginning or end of a quotation, even if it picks up and leaves off mid-sentence. But anything taken out of the middle requires one, and if you leave off in the middle of one paragraph and pick up in the middle of the next, you will need two with a paragraph break in between. And it is uncouth to use it to cause two strings of words that are far apart to seem connected (“To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether . . . conscience does make cowards of us all”), or to otherwise change the tone or tenor (reducing, for instance, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up” to “To every thing there is a season . . . a time to heal . . . and a time to build up”). And it is really quite out of the question in polite, responsible company to use the movie poster ellipsis, which can change “an astounding avalanche of bad taste that left me speechless with dry heaves” into “astounding . . . left me speechless!”

Which means that the subterfuge in this poem from Songs of Love and Grammar is thoroughly outré. But it wouldn’t be worth a poem otherwise:

Ellipsis that shall never touch

“Dot, Dot, Dot,” I asked my belle,
“will you stay and love me well?”
“Darling,” she said, “I’ll . . . be true;
there’s nothing that I’d . . . rather do.”

“Dot, Dot, Dot, please let me know,”
I asked her, “if our love will grow.”
“My dear, your words are . . . so sublime;
we must together spend . . . sweet time.”

“But Dot, Dot, Dot,” I said with doubt,
“I sense that you’ve left something out.”
“My words are true, where’er they fall;
not less, not less, I’ve told you all.”

And when she’d spent my funds and left,
’twas then that I, morose, bereft,
saw Dot, Dot, Dot’s words reconciled
and knew how I had been beguiled.

Although the words of truth were there,
her ellipsis spoke unfair;
not, less, not, less, had been estranged
and by mean dot, dot, dot exchanged.


Flights of fancy and wit are great, but the landing can be a bit rough at times, and occasionally you draw flak. It helps to have a thick skin.

We may at first think of being thick-skinned as something that does not go together with cleverness. After all, to be clever, you need to be lithe, and burning with hot wit, yes? And thick skin is heavy and stiff. When someone’s really cracking wise or showing ingenuity, we say they’re on fire, and how can you be on fire if you’re all callused?

Well. You tell me how you can survive being on fire if you’re not. And if you’ve been on fire a few times and come out of it intact, I’m willing to bet your skin is not too thin.

This is why this word, callid, which means ‘crafty’ or ‘cunning’ (when it’s used at all, which is seldom anymore), does not trace to Latin calidus, ‘warm, hot, on fire’. No, it is from callidus, which means ‘clever, ingenious, crafty’ and – most to the point – ‘wise from experience’. And it is formed in turn from the verb callere, meaning ‘harden’. That root also gives us the (rarely used) noun and adjective callent, meaning ‘[one] knowledgeable or skilled in a particular area’ – and also the noun callus and the adjective callous.

We don’t think of a “callous” person as crafty or cunning, of course; we think of them as uncaring. And yet you can be said to be “thick-skinned” and still be likeable and thoughtful – and even caring. You are experienced to the point of being largely impervious to hurts to yourself, but you are not necessarily uncaring towards others. Funny how words that literally mean the same thing can have such different isotopes of sense.

And while callous humour is unpleasant and not really funny, people who are thick-skinned are more likely to be able to laugh at themselves, and to take risks and not be afraid of a bit of friction. A good and experienced cook probably has tough skin on skilled hands. What is calidus can thicken the skin and make it callidus. Wisdom means experience, means some amount of learned durability.

Look at it another way: we don’t really expect someone to be usefully quick-witted and inventive if they’re thin-skinned, do we?


Sometimes circumstances can make us look a little exotic, perhaps even to the point of unrecognizability. Just yesterday I happened to encounter someone I’d known for about 23 years – since she was very young – and she didn’t recognize me at all at first. I chalk it up to my plague-length hair, though the mask I was wearing might not have helped. Well, at least it wasn’t because I looked, you know, terrible, as in unhealthy or something. (I am older than I once was, but younger than I’ll be. That’s not unusual.) Honestly, even without masks or unreaped hair we can look different. I’ve seen pictures of people made up for attending a wedding and would never have known it was them if they hadn’t been tagged in the photo on Facebook. And I’ve seen people who’ve long been unwell and they can truly be changed.

That can happen to words, too. It’s a frequent occurrence for people to get a word just slightly wrong. I watched a couple of people lose hundreds of dollars that way on Jeopardy! tonight. If the word is well known, well, it might be recognized anyway; though it won’t win you the money, they’ll know what you’re saying: the overall shape will be close enough – after changes upon changes, words are more or less the same. But if the word is rare, some exotic lexeme from the bibliotechnical jewel box, it might be quite hard to pick out. Sometimes it looks worse, sometimes better, sometimes just… different. And sometimes that can make a whole new word.

Consider katexic. David Foster Wallace used the word in a description of Goran Ivanisevic:

Goran Ivanisevic is large and tan and surprisingly good-looking—at least for a Croat; I always imagine Croats looking ravaged and katexic and like somebody out of a Munch lithograph.

We can guess by context that “looking . . . katexic” means, approximately, “looking like shit.” All that remains to be determined is the specific lexicosemantic scatology. (Just by the way, I worked with a number of Croatians years ago, and overall they were good-looking and healthy. So DFW was just being a dick here. Shocking.)

But if we look up katexic, we do not find it. If we Google it, all we find is articles discussing what the heck it means. It’s sort of like classiomatic: a word that only exists through a misunderstanding, and is only perpetuated by people trying to get their fingers in to unknot it.

But it tickled my mind in just the right way, because I am a weirdo, specifically the kind of weirdo who goes rambling through dictionaries looking for words that crunch in my mouth and mind like snack food. And so I headed right away to my little vignette on cachexy, of which the adjectival form is cachexic. Since the ch is said as “k” you can see how DFW, by dissimilation, could arrive at t for it. (I can also picture an editor putting a note on it: “Is this the right word? Can’t find in dictionary” and DFW writing in response “Get a better dictionary. STET.”) And what does cachexy mean? Malaise. General ill health. Weight loss, muscle atrophy. Feeling – and looking – like caca.

Can we confirm that this is what Wallace wanted? Well, as is pointed out on Wordnik, he used the word again, with one difference in spelling, in Infinite Jest (one of the most accurate book titles going, at least the Infinite part, because most readers never get to the end):

Joelle is surrounded by catexic newcomers crossing and uncrossing their legs every few seconds and sniffing compulsively and looking like they’re wearing everything they own.

This is on page 707, if you want to flip to it in your copy. The setting is a meeting of the Narcotics Anonymous splinter group Cocaine Anonymous. Which really kinda undermines speculations about it coming from katexis, which is normally rendered cathexis now and refers to investing libidinal energy into the mental representation of person or thing. The contexts also don’t work well with an origin tracing to katexoken (also spelled catexochen), meaning ‘preeminently’.

No, I can say with some confidence that, just as a person may be hard to recognize due to some bout of ill health, a word may be hard to recognize because of some fever in the mind of a writer. And so I see this and I say, ah, cachexic – I hardly knew ya!

But since it’s a word, it’s always open to becoming a new word. If vermin and varmintvictuals and vittlesperson and parson, can all be the same word cloven in two by reconstrual, so can cachexic and katexic. The consonant dissimilates and so does the word. A little shift of form, a little shift of usage… it’s not as though it’s an actual person with a coherent stream of consciousness…

Thanks to Chris Lott for requesting this word, about which he assembled some bits at