Category Archives: word tasting notes

chichi

At long last, we are able to meet with friends in person again – preferably at the patio of some restaurant, pub, bar, club, beer hall, coffee shop, or juke joint. I arranged to meet Maury at the back-lot beer garden of one of my local favourites, C’est What. 

Maury had said that Narcissa would be joining us, but as we received our first pints of local microbrews, she had yet to arrive. “Perhaps she went to the Front Street patio,” I said.

“Quite possible,” Maury said. “I’ll text and see.” He typed in his phone to let her know she should come down Farquhars Lane to The Esplanade. It vibed in reply almost immediately. He looked at it and arched an eyebrow so high I thought he might sprain his face.

“Is she defiant?” I said.

“I think perhaps she accidentally went to the French place next door,” he said. He held up his phone to show me a message. It read, “Just as well. Too sheeshy here. Oh la la!”

“Too… sheeshy,” I said. “Do you think she’s pulling your leg?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” he said. “I’m starting to walk with a limp.”

“I admit,” I said, “the first time I saw chi-chi, spelled with a hyphen, I thought it was pronounced ‘chai-chai’. But I was young. And I didn’t hear it before reading it, but if I had, I might have thought it was spelled that way too.” I gestured at the phone.

“I suppose a person who learned Italian first might think it’s said ‘ki-ki’,” Maury observed. “And a Spanish speaker… well, a Spanish speaker would have a different meaning for chichi.” (If you don’t know what the Spanish term chichi means, I leave it to you to look it up, but if you don’t like vulgar anatomical references, you would do better not to.)

“I think,” I said, “the French origin of the term may have had that pronunciation too, from a root tchitch- referring to smallness.” I wasn’t going to pull out my phone on the spot to look it up – I’m not Daryl – but I got that from the Trésor de la langue française. Other sources, such as Oxford and Wiktionary, go with a likely derivation from chiche, in turn from Latin ciccum, referring to a trifle, bagatelle, or worthless little thing. (Neither is related to chic.) Both French and English have used the word in senses relating to frills, frippery, and showiness. But before I could continue the conversation, a loud pair of glasses and a glittery pair of lips entered the beer garden, followed by the rest of Narcissa.

“You found us,” Maury said. Obvious things often make good conversation starters.

Narcissa smooched Maury on each cheek and then said, “I’m glad this is the place, even though it’s not so scenic.”

“I take it chichi is not a positively toned word for you?” I said.

Chichi as in the French word – what that other place probably wanted to be – is good with me,” she said, settling into a chair. “But I looked around and said, ‘Sheesh.’ Hence the wordplay.”

“Matching it, perhaps ironically, to the French usage,” Maury said. In French, chichi has a tone of excess, artifice, or vulgarity that is not always retained in the English.

Narcissa raised a finger and then pointed to Maury, indicating that he was spot on. “Just like another French thing that we in English use for approbation but the French use to express surprise, dismay, or sympathy. It was what I said when I thought that place was your favourite.”

Maury and I looked at each other and nodded and smiled with appreciation. Once again, Narcissa knew exactly what she was writing. Recalling the last time – long ago – I had dined at the French place, I shook my head slowly: “Oh là là!”

tide

In the Bay of Fundy, they have a sand sculpture competition. You may have heard of the tide in the Bay of Fundy: the water level changes by up to 15 metres (50 feet). It’s quite impressive – boats go from floating at a dock to resting on their keels well below, or vice versa. If you start building a sand sculpture there when the tide is out, you have no more than six hours before the tide will come in. You don’t want to be there at the time, and your sculpture is likely to face a sea-change once the tide floods it. 

Time and tide wait for no one, as the saying goes. In fact, it has been said many ways by many people: Robert Burns wrote “Nae man can tether time or tide” in 1791; William Somerville wrote “Time and tide for no man stay” in 1779; Andrew Barton wrote “time and tide waits for no one” in 1767; Robert Greene wrote “Time nor tide tarrieth no man” in 1592; and on and on, changing with the times. Time and tide is an idiomatic collocation in English, and one that, when it first arose (by the 1200s), was a deliberately redundant reduplication – almost like, say, vermin and varmints or creatures and critters – because tide was (as it rarely is now) a synonym for time.

And not just a synonym. It’s a sibling – a twin, even, though separated long ago. Back in Proto-Indo-European, there was a root that has been reconstructed as *deh₂y- having to do with sharing or dividing. It divided (we believe) into a few derived forms, including *déh₂itis, a noun meaning ‘period of time’, which descended to Proto-Germanic tīdiz, and *déh₂i-mō, which descended to Proto-Germanic tīmô (incidentally, cognate with Greek δαίμων, daemon). 

You can guess how tīmô developed: it became our time and several similar words in Scandinavian languages (such as Icelandic tími). It is not, by the way, related to Latin tempus ‘time’, which came from a root meaning ‘stretch’ or one meaning ‘cut’ (we’re not sure which). 

As for tīdiz, it became tide and a whole bunch of words meaning ‘time’ in other Germanic languages: Dutch tijd, for instance, Icelandic tíð, German zeit – you can see the sea-changes: the final consonant could become devoiced (as in German or Dutch – the d in tijd is said like “t”) or fricated (as in Icelandic, where ð represents the same sound as we make at the start of this); the first consonant could be affricated (as in German, where z is said like “ts”).

OK, but how did it go from ‘time’ to, well, ‘tide’ in sense? First it was used to refer to a particular time of day or year – a recurring time, as we still sometimes see or hear in Christmastide or Eastertide, or eventide or noontide. Some other Germanic languages started using a sibling form to refer to what English called the ebb and flood of the sea, and this usage of tide caught on in English in the 1300s. And most of the other uses fell off over time – or, I should say, time prevailed over them.

But there are still a few uses that relate more to time generally, or to opportune or unavoidable moments, or to occurrences. And there are words derived from tide. There’s betide, meaning ‘happen to’, as in woe betide. There’s tidings, which means ‘news’, as in things that have happened at the time. And there’s one quite popular derived form that showed up first in the 1300s meaning ‘timely’, then came to mean ‘opportune’ or ‘in good condition’, and gradually broadened in usage to be just a synonym for ‘orderly’. The word is not tidely, as you might expect by analogy with timely; no, that would be too tidy. Or, should I say, it would not be tidy enough – for the word is tidy.

Well. The tide might seem tidy, since it washes things away, but it’s hard to say – from the perspective of a sand sculptor, for instance – that it makes them more orderly. And when it ebbs, it often leaves a mess behind. Just like the tides of language change.

pissy-lit

These people who write ranting articles – what’s with them, right? Like complaining about people who have a whole “birthday week” or eat avocado toast or put up their Hallowe’en decorations early or leave their Christmas trees up late or other bits of harmless joy. Where do these scribblers get off being so pissy? If I want to steal extra moments of glee in a glowering world, who are they to tell me not to?

Sure, pissy-lit (literature that’s defined by being pissy) is fun to read, in its way – venting at the inanity of some self-important or overly enthusiastic or weirdly childish or frankly ostentatious or simply socially ungrammatical practice. They’re great clickbait. Admittedly, for many people they’re what’s called a hate-read, but a clickthrough is a clickthrough whether for or against, just as a book that’s bought to be burned is bought all the same. (And do you really hate reading it? Why are you reading it, then?)

Still, for all their curb appeal, their eye-catching emotional garishness, even if you enjoy them, pissy-lit pieces are not the same kind of positive contribution that some other articles are. They’re the literary equivalent of weeds. Yes, in one way a weed is an over-successful and underappreciated plant, but if you have it in mind to grow other plants that might bring different benefits, weeds can choke them out. Likewise, if you read pissy articles, you’re just engendering further pissiness. 

Consider the dandelion. It’s a hardy plant, very successful, and, if we’re being honest, pretty and useful. You can have it in salads. You can have wine made of it. You can boil the leaves to make a tonic. But if you have dandelions on your lawn, one thing you soon can’t have without a lot of work (and poison) is much of anything other than dandelions on your lawn. And maybe you don’t want just dandelions. What do they do for you, anyway? What does consuming dandelion tonic do for your health?

The French name for dandelions is a clue to that. I don’t mean dent-de-lion, ‘lion’s tooth’, the origin of English dandelion (based on the shape of the leaves, not the flowers). I mean what they’re commonly called: pissenlit. If you know French, you know what pisse-en-lit means: ‘piss in bed’. They got the name not because they’re yellow, but because they’re diuretics. Drink the tonic of pissenlit before bedtime and you might well wet the bed – as was known in France by the 1500s (the first citation in Littré).

So there is my paronomastic simile. Pissy-lit is like a pissenlit – pissiness begets pissiness. And why are the authors of pissy-lit so peeved about these social practices, anyway? The answer is usually obvious when you read the articles, and it’s just the same as with people who rail against certain words or turns of phrase: they don’t like the people they envision as doing them, people who they see as inferiors trying to claim some kind of superiority, or trying by implication to force them to value something in a way that would seem childishly weak to them.

But am I not just being pissy about pissiness? Raining on the parade of those who like raining on parades? Hmm, is asking someone not to be mean just as mean as being mean? The basic mathematical principle that subtracting a negative equals adding a positive is good here as in so many social things. And sure, venting can be good, but finding ways to like things you had previously hated is even better – trust me, I’ve done it many times, and it’s a winner, because you have one more thing you like, and wouldn’t you rather be surrounded by things you like than by things you hate?

You may object that I am being unkind to dandelions, which can have many benefits if we choose to avail ourselves of them. And perhaps, for the sake of a bon mot, I am. But on the other hand, if I said I thought pissy-lit was dandy, I’d be lyin’. Those who live by urination ultimately meet their ruination.

glitz

You know glitz, of course, of glitz and glamour (or, sometimes, glam and glitz), offspring of glitzy (no, not the other way around). Glitz made its arrival in English in the 1970s (yes, really), and the first quote the Oxford English Dictionary has for glitzy is from The New York Times in 1966: “Advertising will stress that Devil Shake is ‘glitzy’. This claim will be hard to deny, at least until someone defines the word.” 

I’m sure you could define glitz or glitzy if you had to… right? But you won’t need to, because it sounds and looks exactly like it should to mean what it means. It has the gl- that so often shows up on words to do with light or shininess, and in particular it has the gli- of glimmer, glint, glisten, glister, and glitter. Along with that, it has the -itz of blitz, fritz, Ritz, and spritz – which sounds exactly like the -its of so many words (splits, hits, bits), but we know that that z is there, with its lightning look and its relative rarity. Between the gli- and the -itz, its meaning shines out, sparkles, flashes… perhaps even a bit too much.

Some people might guess that glitzy was formed from, say, glitter and Ritzy. It wasn’t, but it’s not surprising they would think so. Other people, looking at form, tone, and context, would guess we got it from Yiddish, and they’re probably right. And Yiddish in its turn got it from German (the other possible language English got it from): in German, glitzern means ‘glitter’ (and is related to some of those other gli- words).

But tell me, now, is glitz good? Is it great to be glitzy, or is it somehow tawdry, meretricious, trite, excessive, gaudy, garish?

Or is it both: overdone and wonderful? Or does it depend on what you like?

Glitz can refer to the sights of a fairground midway at night, sure, and similar sparkly things. But if you look at songs that use glitz – and there are quite a lot of them – or most other contexts of us, it’s almost always associated with show business, the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood, the hyperreality of the world of stage and screen, even in more figurative senses: shiny glamorous people. And the implication is always that it’s not real at the core: it’s all a Fabergé eggshell, a gilded cage with Swarovski crystals on the bars. A wild ride, flashy and trashy, at the heart of it signifying nothing.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s why you go see these things – and for some of us, it’s why we go perform in them: to create and experience something special and exciting and far flashier than the ordinary. The mistake is just thinking that it’s real all the way down, and durable. You can’t have Champagne as your only beverage, no matter how much of a glamourpuss you are.

What is glitz? What gives it that blitz, that glint? What makes a spangle sparkle, a sequin scintillate, a crystal coruscate? Four things: a source of light, something capable of reflecting that light, eyes to see the light, and a situation in which the eyes will see the reflection in just the right way. It’s just like a word such as glitz: we have the sounds, the letters to represent them, a person to read the letters, and a language usage context in which that sound and spelling shines forth as the meaning. Take away any of those and it falls flat.

So enjoy it while you get it. And if it’s not what you want, don’t worry – it won’t last. Glitz flits to and from the spots it fits.

anthophilia

As I think you know, I love words. Like many people, I also love flowers. And you may infer from various word tastings I’ve done that I love words for flowers. So it would follow, then, that I am very good at naming flowers, right?

Nah. I’m terrible at it. Odds of my successfully naming a flower on sight are very low. But what does it matter? They don’t come when you call them.

Don’t I need to know the names of flowers when buying them? I guess so. When I’m buying cut flowers, they all have the same name, and yet it always seems to work, because the name is “those ones.” And when I’m buying flowers to grow at home…

…ha ha, trick question. I have never bought flowers to grow at home. I have some plants, sure, of the kind I’m unlikely to kill while growing them inside a high-rise apartment (without a balcony). Flowers are more daunting to me.

And yet, as I said above, I love flowers. I grew up in a house filled with flowers and other plants. My mother has one of the greenest thumbs you could ask for. I’m sure she knows the names of a great many flowers, since that makes it much easier to buy them and to find information on caring for them. For my part, I have taken pictures of them, such as the photos I’ve included here, all of which I took as a teenager in 1985 (with my dad’s Nikon F2 – but that’s another story). I have many more on my Flickr.

Don’t I need to know their names if I’m taking pictures of them? Nah, not unless I’m doing it for documentary purposes. A picture is not worth a thousand words, you know. A picture is not worth words and words are not worth pictures. There is no exchange rate. You may as well try to convert a novel to a symphony, or a sculpture to a perfume. One can inspire the other, yes, but one can never contain or match the other. And it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a visual experience without getting words tangled up in it. Can you imagine going up to a bellflower and saying, “OK, but what’s it about?”

But I do have a word for you, a word related to flowers. It’s a word for a gift my mother gave to me: anthophilia.

Is anthophilia a kind of flower? No. Does it have to do with ants? N— well, I suppose if they like flowers it does. You may recognize the -philia part, which denotes loving (or being attracted to, as in hydrophilia). It’s from a Classical Greek root. So is antho-, which comes from ἄνθος, ‘flower’ (and yes, you see it in chrysanthemum and anthurium). 

So anthophilia means ‘love of flowers’. A person who loves flowers may be said to be anthophilous or to be an anthophile (both of which terms are, I should say, most often applied to insects, though they probably don’t know or care).

My mother, a first-rate anthophile, still has the gift of growing beautiful flowers, a gift that gives to others who get to see the results. The gift of anthophilia she gave me has flowered into a lifelong love for flowers – not for growing them or analyzing them, but just for enjoying them. (My wife also enjoys them, which makes me happy.) 

But while I am not a flower gardener, I am a word gardener, so the gift I can give back to my mother is a garden or bouquet of words, and photos. And since today is her 80th birthday, I have put together today’s word tasting for her. Happy birthday, Mom!

splunge

It’s hot, sticky, humid, sweaty. Time to dive, time to get wet, time to hurl yourself off a pier or quay or jetty or wharf or convenient boulder into a fresh cool lake. Lunge, take the plunge, splash: splunge.

Is that a word, splunge? It is now – but, more to the point, it has been for a couple of centuries. Oxford’s first citation is from 1839, but the quotation treats it as already existing: “Here are two real American words:—‘Sloping’—for slinking away; ‘Splunging’, like a porpoise.” Splunge shows up in various American books of the 1800s, especially works of fiction, and it always means just what it sounds like it means.

Which, by the way, is what? Oxford declares the origin to be “imitative,” but let’s be honest about what it’s imitating. Yes, you can say that splunging into water sounds like “splunge,” but you could as soon say it sounds like “plush” or “kaff” or any of quite a few other onomatopoeics. Splunge has a conventional form shaped by precedent: it imitates not just a sound, but another word – or, really, more than one word. 

It draws on plunge, of course, which has been in English since at least the 1300s, and came from Norman French, which had had it at least a couple of centuries already by then; it probably traced ultimately to the same Latin root (meaning ‘lead’, as in the metal) that gives us plumb. (Lunge, incidentally, didn’t hit English until the 1700s, at first as a fencing term trimmed down from allonge.) But it got that initial s from somewhere too. Splash has been around since the late 1600s, and it was formed by adding s to plash, which has been around since at least the mid-1500s, so we already had a model to follow. Various other spl- words have hit the scene over the centuries, and roughly half of them have to do with something wet and messy; the remainder include some other words with similar expressive aspect, such as split and splendid. It only makes sense that we would take plunge and add an s; really, we were bound to take the leap sooner or later.

So, yes, diving into water – especially deep water – has a certain “splunge!” about it, but in part that’s because we’re used to such a thing being expressed by words of similar sound. Why not splunge where others have splunged before? It wouldn’t be the first time anyone had given in to pier pressure… I mean peer pressure, I’m sure. We could equally say dive or immerse (from Latin mergo, ‘I dive’), or if we wanted to imitate the act and sound we could call it weeooo-froosh or something like that. But, since splunge is available, like a body of deep cool water for leaping into on a hot day, and a suitable spot for jumping in, why not avail ourselves of it?

serendipity

The island is a jewel, and full of delight and discoveries. It was formerly thinly attached to the mainland, but a storm severed that.

We left home late in the day and just made it onto the ferry. The forecast had been for rain and lightning, but, as so often this year, it faded away when squinted at. As we passed a freighter on the nod on the surface of the bay and debarked onto the island, we heard wind, but when we got to the beach it was calm and warm and lovely, and there was almost no one there, like a private resort. We sat looking out at the timeless lake, mind on eternity.

And after our time relaxing on the sand and in the water, we went to the little café spread out across the grass and found – like a mirage come to life – live music and people dancing. It was the first time in nearly two years that there had been live music there, and the next time would be another week and a half. We had just wonderfully chanced on it. And it was calypso… including, at times, Aina’s favourite musical instrument to listen to: an accordion.

Aina had been wishing for moussaka for some time, and lo, it was the daily special. She ordered it. And we learned that the draft taps had been taken over for the week by a favourite local brewery, so we ordered a flight of seven. The server dropped them off at the table without a legend or so much as even one word of description. Here: discover. A perfect cap on an evening of serendipity, like some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me.

Serendipity: delightful discovery, or the faculty of making such. Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole on the basis of the story “The Three Princes of Serendip” (an English version of “Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo” by Michele Tramezzino, of Venice in 1557). As Walpole wrote, the heroes of the story “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” The story is said to have been based on an old Persian fairy tale, and a key part of it – ignored by Walpole – gave an important contribution to the detective story genre. But I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

And where is Serendip? It’s an island in the Indian Ocean. You may have heard of it by other names. Serendip is from Persian Sarandip,* from from Pali Sīhaḷadīpa, from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpa, from dvīpa ‘island’ and Siṃhala, which refers to the people of the island – a word that has come to us in English as Sinhala, the name we give to the language of that people. The word Siṃhala passed through several European languages (notably Portuguese, which is the Zelig of etymology throughout the South and East Asian seaboard, showing up again and again where you didn’t expect it) and arrived in English as Ceylon, our old name for the island we now call by the unrelated (though remarkably related-sounding) name Sri Lanka, which means, more or less, ‘holy island’.

OK, but where did Siṃhala come from? I know you were wondering; so was I. The -la part is a suffix; the root is siṃha, which means ‘lion’. The island got the name because, evidently, it was a place where the lions were, in case Bruce Cockburn was wondering at the time. And in its turn, siṃha is related to a large number of other words for ‘lion’, including Punjabi siṅgh, seen very commonly in Sikh names. The Swahili word for ‘lion’, simba, is strikingly similar, but there is nothing I can find to indicate an etymological connection – just a happy coincidence.

Anyway, I’ve heard that Sri Lanka is nice, full of delight and discoveries, but I’ve yet to visit it. An interesting fact is that although it’s off the southeast coast of India, it was for a long time attached by a thin land bridge to the Indian mainland, finally entirely severed by a storm.

And the same is true for Toronto Island, just across the harbour from downtown Toronto: until waves coming through in a storm a century and a half ago, it was a peninsula attached by a sandbar. Many things have changed since then; the island has only gotten more lovely… and serendipitous.

Some kinda ecstasy got a hold on me…

*Neither Persian nor Pali nor Sanskrit has a capital–lower case distinction, but I’ve capitalized the word in each transliteration just to indicate it’s a proper noun.

ilk

When is the same kind not the same kind?

There are many words that have meant one thing, have come to be used mainly in one way, and through misgrasping of their common mode of appearance have gained a different common sense. Internecine is one such, a word originally meaning ‘devastating, very destructive, killing many’ but, through misunderstanding of its inter – used in this case as an intensive in Latin – come to be understood as ‘mutually destructive’. Prodigal is another, thanks to the parable of the prodigal son; its original and still occasional use is ‘lavish’ or ‘extravagant’, but now most users think it means ‘wayward’. And of course thou, originally a familiar pronoun applied to individuals of equal or lesser status, has – through persisting only in Biblical and poetic contexts – come to be seen by many as a particularly exalting term of address.

Well, ilk is another of that ilk.

We don’t use ilk often these days, but when we do, it’s nearly always in phrases such as all of his ilk or others of their ilk or with an adjective inserted, such as his ideological ilk or her communist ilk or their libertarian ilk. And nearly always it has a rather dim tone to it, conveying disapproval or even disgust. It’s like kind (as in of that kind) but rather less kind. I’m tempted to suspect that echoes of ill and yuck and perhaps bilk (but, I guess, not milk) have some influence, but I have no data to support that (nor any to negate it either, though).

Knowing that sense, I was just slightly confused when I picked up a book some years ago (U and Non-U Revisited) and saw, as one of its contributors, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk. 

Erm… of which ilk? Was this some kind of in-joke or winking reference to something opaque to me?

In fact, it turned out I had stumbled unawares on the phrase that had been the pivot in the usage of ilk. Historically, ilk did not mean ‘type’ or ‘group’ or ‘family’. It came from Old English ilca, which in turn drew on the same root as gave us like, and it meant ‘same’. And it became standard usage among the Scottish landed gentry that those who shared their name with the place they were from were “of that ilk.” So Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk was Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe. Meaning he was from the family that basically owned the place. Sort of like Lord Revelstoke of Revelstoke Parish.

But people saw of that ilk and took it to mean ‘of that family’ – in other words, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of the Moncreiffe family, you know, the Moncreiffe family, that one. Sort of like if someone were talking about someone named Trudeau and said “Yeah, those Trudeaus.” And from that, by the mid-1800s, ilk had come to be used to mean ‘family’ or ‘class’ or ‘kind’ or ‘sort’ and no longer to mean ‘same’. And somehow – perhaps by sound echoes; perhaps because that as in that one and of that ilk can tend to have a more negative tone than, say, the as in the one and of the ilk due to established usage patterns that I’m not going to try to explore here; perhaps because of attitudes towards the landed gentry; or perhaps for whatever other reasons you may imagine – it came to have a generally (though not quite universally) negative tone.

So ilk has become prodigal – extravagant in having two differing senses, and also wayward – but not internecine. When I said “ilk is another of that ilk,” I meant ‘another of the same’ but you likely read it as meaning ‘another of the kind’; however, it communicated equally well and had the same referent… except not entirely, because you probably saw a negative tone that, in the original sense, it didn’t have (in a way, mirroring the positive tone thou has gained). And thus of that ilk and of that ilk are the same kind… and not the same kind.

scaffold

Socially, language functions in many ways like a scaffold.

I’ll explain. But first I’ll talk briefly about this word scaffold and where it comes from and what it is used to mean now. Because of course I will.

Scaffold has to do with neither folds nor scafs, nor for that matter with holds. It’s yet another word that came to English from French, and came to French from Latin (and Greek), and changed quite a lot en route. The modern French reflex of it is échafaud; both words came from a word that went through quite a few forms, but had the early form escadafaut, which was es- (from Latin ex-, ‘out’) plus cadafaut, which, like modern French catafalque, comes from later Latin catafalcum (‘viewing platform’), which in its turn was probably made from cata-, from Greek κατα- (‘back, against’) and Latin falicum, in turn from fala (‘wooden gallery; siege tower’).

So it started with a siege tower and then became a viewing platform and then became a… oh, yes, I didn’t say: escadafaut generally referred to a platform for viewing a tournament.

But of course that’s not what scaffold (or scaffolding) is usually used for now. It’s that structure of metal supports and wooden platforms you may see in front of a building. Sometimes the building is being built; sometimes it’s being restored or preserved; sometimes it’s just being kept standing. And, less commonly these days, scaffold can also refer to a platform for viewing something, or for a theatrical performance, or for public executions, or, in some cultures, for disposal of dead bodies. (And let us not forget its cousin catafalque, which in modern English usage is a temporary ornamental platform for a coffin to go on in funerary rites.)

OK, then. So how does language function socially like a scaffold?

To start with, we use language to mediate the development and maintenance of social structures and interactions. Language is an essential social tool; our social structures may not be made of it (though some arguably are, but that doesn’t work with the current metaphor, so let it slide), but they are made with it. You want to add a glorious new tower or wing to the edifice of our culture? You scaffold it with language: new words, new ways of using old words, new turns of phrase, sometimes even new grammar.

But we also use language to shore up, maintain, and refresh existing social structures. Turns of phrase, common idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors can embed biases and presuppositions (as just one example, are you familiar with the term Indian giver?). Even basic grammatical details can function this way, as for instance insistence on he as the default pronoun (which it never was, though some people starting in the 1800s tried to claim it was in places where that would mean not having to explicitly recognize women, but somehow not in places where it might entail giving women completely equal rights – see Dennis Baron’s great book What’s Your Pronoun? for extensive details on this). And peeving about “new” usages reinforces an ideology of “old” as better – adherence to “tradition,” which always turns out to be just what the speaker remembers having learned in youth, plus some additions that reinforce their prejudices: the linguistic façade of the social structures and hierarchies that the person has learned and participated in and is quite comfortable with, thank you.

Not that all “old” words are acceptable in such a perspective, of course. Social stratification is maintained through ideas of “good” English (as opposed to the kind that people from the wrong region or socioeconomic level speak – by the way, “good” English is just as weird and arbitrary as many kinds of “bad” English, and in fact some things are “bad” because they’re not quite weird and arbitrary enough: just watch someone correct a kid who says “goed” instead of “went”). It is also maintained through taboos based on ideas of purity and sexual propriety. You display your conformity to these social structures by treating “bad” words as “bad” and at the same time by rejecting changes in usage that try to undo social subordination of certain groups of people. A person may argue “politely” that we needn’t change the names of any sports teams, for example, while at the same time objecting to the “bad English” or “bad words” uttered by people on the other side of the debate who are upset at being treated as stereotypes. 

Well. All good buildings have basements, dears, and they will collapse without them, but we don’t go down into them ourselves, do we? Oh, no, dears, we do not. A nice, tidy scaffold helps maintain decorum. And when we focus on the scaffold, we also don’t necessarily notice the structure that it’s there to maintain. We get stuck on the words and ignore the tilting tower of crumbling bricks behind it.

But the language has its own ostensive value too. With it, as on a scaffold (next sense), we can perform our identities and our attitudes – and we can watch others perform theirs. In fact, that’s a central function of language: words are known by the company they keep. We always use our language to let others know things about ourselves, our attitudes, and where we stand. Some of us, for example, will make sure to use some terms and avoid using others so as not to perpetuate social injustices, while others will make sure it’s understood they don’t brook “woke” “politically correct” “virtue signalling” and will stand for “family values” (which assume very specific kinds of families and exclude families that don’t meet the model).

And, of course, with language, as with scaffolds, we can view the tournaments of our societies, we can conduct – and display – executions, and we can show off the resulting corpses and expose them for the carrion birds. Choices of words and phrasing let you know who’s been cut dead, and they help keep it that way.

But at least, unlike (most) real-life scaffolds, language is here to stay – and it is deserving of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. And is an essential part of culture, not just an accessory. Metaphors have their limits… but language wouldn’t exist without them.

châthole

Doesn’t this word look fancy, with its little ornamental roof on the â? And yet doesn’t it also look a bit, um, well, are you sure you want it?

Let’s start with how to say it. The chât is “shat” as in château – in fact, that’s why the circumflex, because that’s where it comes from, and while you could write it without it, chathole doesn’t suggest its origin and sense as clearly. And the hole is “hole” as in hole – or, to be specifically frank and frankly specific, as in shithole. You know, that colloquialism meaning ‘highly undesirable place’.

So yeah. This word is a blend of château and shithole. It has two available senses: it can be one of those ghastly monster McMansions, wretched hives of kitsch and fugxury; or it can be a luxury accommodation, such as a grand hotel or a castle or château, that has, hmmm, seen better days. You know, it looked great in the ads or on the website, but when you get there the paint is peeling, the stairways are dirty, the tub has stains, and everything looks kind of faded and dingy and sad.

Well, what do you expect from a château, really. They’re all old, and that takes upkeep. And there are a lot of things that might have been functional once but are just decorative now. Just look at that cute roof, for instance: ˆ. Once upon a time, that cute roof on château was an s (as is usually the case for circumflexes in French spelling). But that’s not the only thing that changed with the fashion of the times. That water feature at the end – eau – was once a whole other ell of the edifice – in fact, an ellum, later reduced to an el. And that soft ch there, in the mists of ancient time, was a solid “k” – spelled c. Yes, this château is a faded, fashioned relic of chastel, which in turn is a modification of castellum. So this fancy-looking French château is a gussied-up old cold stone castle.

But we can agree, or at least most of us can, that the word château has been well maintained and is presentable. It is a lamentable fact that the same is not true for all actual châteaux. And it is also a shame to say that many a similarly grand and palatial accommodation – hotel or residence or whatnot – is not what it used to be: it started out inviting but has ended up as a hole – not just a shadow of its former self but a châthole of it. 

But at least it once was something good. Which is more than can be said about many of the suburban disasters that have been turded onto the landscape in recent times…