Category Archives: word tasting notes


“Why is it called oxtail if it’s from a cow?”

I’m glad you oxed. It’s not just a load of bull.

Ox is a word that, for many of us, is both familiar and strange. I grew up in ranch country in Alberta and I knew that oxen were somehow like the cows and bulls (and steers) that punctuated the pastures, but I had the sense that they were an animal found elsewhere – those parts of the world I saw on TV that had oxen pulling plows, trying to grow crops in a time of poverty and famine. Isn’t that how Oxfam got its name, from oxen and famine? (I actually believed that for a time. And indirectly it’s true: it’s from the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, so the fam is from famine, and the Ox in Oxford is from… ox. The famous university is in a town named after a place where oxen could ford the river Thames.) And of course an ox is something from the Bible: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his ox, nor his ass.”

So I really thought I had seen a real live ox zero times. (Get it? 0 x. Zero times.) And in one sense of the word that’s true: I had never personally seen a bovine used as a draft animal, and that’s the narrowest sense of the use of ox in modern English (more specifically, it’s a neutered male Bos taurus used as such). But in another sense, it’s like saying you’ve seen plenty of fiddles but never a violin, or vice versa. (How old were you when you learned that a violin and a fiddle are the same instrument? I may have been an adult already.) Or it’s like saying you’ve seen donkey, but never an… hmm, no, let’s skip that one. 

In the oldest and broadest sense, ox is to cow and bull as sheep is to ewe and ram. We just happen to have extended the female cow to cover the whole species, partly because most of the bovines we meet are female. The male ones aren’t good eating, and they’re extraordinarily truculent – and strong. That’s why ranchers convert some of them to steers (a mathematical operation: you take the root so they can’t multiply) and the rest don’t make it past veal. So in later drafts, ox was left for the draft animal – a steer with a steering mechanism (the yoke’s on it – usually in pairs, or should I say teams).

So here we have this lovely short highly usable word, more ancient than the language itself, with cognates in many languages (including aurochs, in which the ochs is the same old root as ox). It has a stylish something, and a playful air (O and X as seen in tic-tac-toe), and an affectionate one (a hug and a kiss, O X). And it has one of the two most rakish, branding-y letters in the language (Z being the other). But since we no longer need oxen for draft animals, and we eat cows and have as little to do with (actual) bulls as we can, we just don’t use the word ox much. How often have you, driving by a pasture, said “Look at the oxen”? If you’re like me, zero times. We’re more likely to use ox as a word for a person who is unusually strong, stupid, or (probably) both: in one sense, an ox is a moron.

But of course not an oxymoron. Ironically, the ox (really oxy) in oxymoron, which is the same one as in oxygen, is from Greek ὀξῠ́ς oxus, meaning ‘sharp, keen, bright’ and thus ‘wise’… although you could also describe the point of an ox’s horn with that word too. It’s a cute coincidence, especially because cute is from acute, which is from the same root as ὀξῠ́ς. And so is axe, in case you were about to ax. (By the way, modern English ask is from Old English acsian – somewhere along the line aks became ask – but it has no relation to axe or to ox.)

Oh, and since you might be oxen me about it, there’s also the matter of that plural. We don’t say oxes. Oxen is the sole surviving old weak plural ending in -en. We treat brethren as different from brotherschildren is a weird double plural (both the -(e)r and the -en are plural endings); we rarely use kine for the plural of cow, and anyway that also has historical umlaut on the vowel; and all the other ones have been supplanted by -(e)s, as eyen has become eyes.

So there you have it. Ox: dumb and sharp, a hug and a kiss (you can hug my cow, but don’t kiss my bull; save it for my… donkey), all cattle and only the teamsters. It’s quite the tale. But now you know that if someone gives you a bit of cow queue and calls it oxtail, you have no beef with them. …Except, of course, you do.


He said that he would recreate the park for recreation, but you’re wise to be of two minds on that – he was always doing mental double bookkeeping. He has broken faith, abandoned the trust that has been placed in him. But if he thinks his victory is accomplished, he has another think coming – it is he who will in the end admit defeat and retreat, the recreant!

We don’t see this word recreant much these days, though there would be ample opportunities to use it if we did. No doubt part of the problem is that it looks so much like recreation or recreate. But a recreant is more “wreck” than “parks and rec.” However, though its sense has nothing to do with recreation, the two have a curious detail in common: both have gained a second sense over time.

A moment’s reflection might suffice for the second sense of recreation. Of course it’s the same word as re-creation, ‘create anew’; what happened was that it was applied to taking refreshment – i.e., food and similar, which re-freshes and also re-stores (which is where restaurant came from, by the way: restoring, but French) and so re-creates – and from that it extended and shifted to pastimes of leisure and pleasure.

For recreant, however, we should first establish the earlier sense. It comes, like the other words we’re looking at today, from Old French, but this creant has to do not with creation but with credo (Latin) and croire (Old French): ‘believe, have faith, think’. Recreant was first of all an adjective or noun for someone who would, in a battle situation, yield to second thoughts, see things in a new light, and, in particular, acknowledge defeat (“Run away! Run away!”). In short, as of Medieval times, recreant was a word for a coward, and was one of the worst things you could call someone.

As of the 1600s, however, and gradually eclipsing the earlier sense, recreant meant that the person had gone back on belief, had broken faith, had become an apostate, had abandoned a sacred trust. It’s in the same vein, but in this case it can be someone who is not merely cowardly but in fact dastardly, deliberately treacherous, not just breaking their word from weakness or inconstancy but never having intended to keep it in the first place. Someone you should always think twice about trusting.

As I said, we could still use this word. We do still occasionally use its sibling miscreant. But, for better or for worse, we at least have a well-developed lexicon of alternative terms for those who lie, cheat, and steal. And you’d better believe we use them, and not just recreationally.


Boy, there are some people these days who really need to get what’s coming to them. They need to get their coming-to-ance.

What I mean is that what goes around comes around, and these people really need to get their come-around-ance.

I mean, they’re too high on themselves – they need to come down a peg, ya know? Get their come-down-ance.

No, wait, what’s the word for getting your just deserts? It’s, uh…


Comeuppance? Come again? Who came up with that?

And yet we all know it and accept it, right? I mean as a word. (Few people happily accept their own comeuppance.) It has a certain something. Like in some historical television drama about intrigues among nobility. Can’t you just hear someone purring in toffee-nosed tones “Well, she’s gotten her comeuppance”?

Naturally, given that I’ve played that gambit, you may guess that it’s originally an American word. And yes, it is. First appeared in the middle 1800s in the USA. And some of the early usages are not comeuppance (or come-uppance) but come-uppings (or even come-upping). Which can make a person wonder, is come-uppance a reinterpretation of come-uppin’s, using the slightly fancier French-derived -ance? I don’t know the answer to that, but the evidence makes it plausible.

But that doesn’t solve for us where this come up comes down from. Wiktionary states flatly that it’s “from come up (“to appear before a judge”) +‎ -ance.” But the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it’s related to the now disused “to be (or get) come up with: (of a person) to get one’s comeuppance; to be outwitted, defeated, or overcome.” It has quotes to support, including this one from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1871 Oldtown Fireside Stories: “The way he got come-up-with by Miry was too funny for anything.” And the 1922 Radio Boys at Mountain Pass by Allen Chapman: “It will do me good if those scoundrels get come up with.”

OK, but who came up with that? How does get come up with connote the boomerang of karma? An adjacent entry in the OED gives a possible clue: “to come up with: to come alongside or abreast of, to reach; to catch up with.” In other words, what’s long been coming to them has caught up with them.

That’s not to say that that’s for sure where it comes from. But the earliest quotations for comeuppance don’t really go with the “come up before a judge” origin – though that could have played into it at some point as well.

One way or another, this word has come up in the world. Its form conduces to an impression of loftier origins than it has; and we have to wonder, if it had instead been come-uppings (or, even better, come-uppin’s), would it have had more or less force? In the frank unfancy tones of a Mark Twain, say, or a Will Rogers, or even a Walt Whitman, would it have given more of a sense of being truly brought to level? Or is it best suited to someone of elevated station being shown up, socially demoted, and yet still not of the servant class? We understand that it’s better to get your comeuppance if you’re an up-and-comer, but does it play the same way if in the final tally you’re down and out?


Damn, that last word tasting note really was a bit overstuffed, wasn’t it? I started working on it with the intention of doing just one word – gizmo – and then I decided I had to cover four other similar words, and then I decided I really ought also to cover another six words in passing. I suppose that’s not so out of range for a blog like this, which covers so many angles and styles, but still, talk about scope creep!

Scope creep is such a common dread in today’s world of work – a project starts out looking like five pounds of shit but before you know it it’s become ten. And if you figure you’re going to get through it like any shit sandwich (by eating quickly – nom nom!), you soon discover you have a footlong double-stuff shit sandwich. But then there are the projects that arrive with scope already crept. They have always already become. You get to your desk and there is a bag of shit that is labelled “5 lbs” but it clearly has 10 lbs in it. (And it’s on fire.) You have been given a blivet.

The word blivet is itself, in a way, a blivet. Not that it’s unpleasant per se, but it inevitably comes with at least twice as much as it pretends to. For one thing, as the 1967 Dictionary of American Slang by Wentworth and Flexner says, “The word is seldom heard except when the speaker uses it in order to define it.” So you get not just the word but the definition, pretty much every time. (“That there is a blivet. You know what a blivet is, right? Ten pounds of shit in a five-pound sack.”)

For another thing, if you want to do any research on it, you quickly realize there’s more to it than you thought there would be. To start with, it’s a word from the US Army during World War II, right? Yes… but the US Army apparently got it from the Australian army in New Guinea. And where did the Australian army get it from? Oh, good luck finding that out. I don’t have access to an Australian etymological dictionary, but, going by the sources I do have, if I did it would probably say “Etymology: NCM” and then I’d look up “NCM” and find it stands for “no clue, mate.”

And if you decide to look in Google Books to see what kind of old citations you get, you find that there are quite a few uses of the word that aren’t what you want. Leaving aside bad character recognition (such as a charming transmutation of “Mount Olivet” into “Mount Blivet”), there are instances where it’s a surname – although apparently no one famous enough to have gotten a Wikipedia article has ever borne the name. There are also citations for the blivet that Wikipedia sends you to when you search the word: the impossible fork or impossible trident, an optical illusion – it first had the name blivet applied to it in the late 1960s in a magazine called Worm Runner’s Digest, which was also something of a blivet, in that it contained both satirical articles and earnest scientific explorations, mixed indiscriminately. And there are citations in Swedish.

In Swedish? Yes. Blivet is also a Swedish word. But in Swedish it is the neuter form of bliven, which means ‘having become’. (It is also a word in Low German; I think it means ‘remain’ but I can’t confirm.) Well, it has become quite a lot, hasn’t it.

And it has become a word with two spellings, too, because you’ll also see it as blivit. And when you look for it in that spelling, you likely find Kurt Vonnegut’s use of it in the introduction to his book of collected writings, Palm Sunday:

This is certainly that kind of masterpiece, and a new name should be created for such an all-frequencies assault on the senses. I propose the name blivit. This is a word which during my adolescence was defined by peers as “two pounds of shit in a one-pound bag.”

I would not mind if books simpler than this one, but combining fiction and fact, were also called blivits. This would encourage The New York Times Book Review to establish a third category for best sellers, one long needed, in my opinion. If there were a separate list for blivits, then authors of blivits could stop stepping on the faces of mere novelists and historians and so on.

I’m sure I’d like it. But I’d have to see it to blivet.

doodad, doohickey, gizmo, gadget, widget

You got that thingumabob? Thingamajig? Whatsit? Doodad? You know, the widget, the gadget, the doohickey? The, uh, gizmo there?

Sometimes you have a thing of some function – perhaps manufactured by Acme or perhaps cooked up by Joe Schmoe or Fnu Lnu or by my dude Mister Whatsisname – and there’s totally a real word for it, but maybe you don’t remember it or maybe you never knew it. You need it to reticulate some splines or to foo the bar, so you need to ask for it. But thing is just too vague, you know? You need to communicate that it’s some kind of contrived device with a definite purpose, and also that you don’t remember a better name for it but you shouldn’t be judged for that. So you use a placeholder name. 

Of which there are several available. Some convey most directly that the speaker has forgotten the name: thingummy, thingumabob, thingamajig, thingy, whatsits, whatchamacallit. Others can convey not just thingummy-ness but obscurantism: “A differential is a caucus on the rear gadjet that centrifugally operates the twiggler in the doodad on the fifth wheel,” as The Marines Magazine had it in 1916. Some function more as a generic, of which a particular item’s particular name may be a subset. And some have become specific things in themselves, at least some of the time.

The “I totally have no idea and I’m going to be up front about it” words have a long pedigree. Thingummy showed up in the early 1700s as a diminutive form of thingum, which has been around since the mid-1600s (and was probably formed as a mock-Latin version of thing, which in its turn is a word from the Germanic mists of time originally referring to a council, then to a matter discussed before a council, and then to any act or matter, and at length to any old thing at all). Thingy showed up about a half century after thingummy. Thingumabob (also spelled thingamabob) also showed up in the mid-1700s, following on jiggumbob and kickumbob from the mid-1600s meaning the same thing (the exact reason for the bob is not altogether known), but thingamajig, which uses the same jig as in jiggumbob, didn’t appear until the early 1800s, followed a couple of decades later by jigamaree (which, again, means the same kind of thing). On the other hand, whatsit, which (I hope) requires no etymological explication, appeared near the end of the 1800s, and whatchamacallit not until the mid-1900s (although what-d’ye-call-it, spelled variously, including such as whatchicaltes, showed up starting in the 1600s).

The ones that have taken on a stronger sense than mere confusion are, overall, more recent. 

Doodad apparently dates all the way back to the later 1800s, though it shows up more starting in the early 1900s. It seems to have started by referring to ornamental items, either around the house or on the clothing: you could, for instance, “pin a doodad of some sort on your nightie.” Over time it has gained a sense of some minor instrumental item, such as an attachment or implement used for adjusting. In my own experience, doodads tend to be fiddly.

Doohickey names a doodad or a hickey or, more to the point, a merger of both. Hickey, I should say, first showed up in the early 1900s as a word that used to be like doodad and the rest of these, but once it gained the particular sense of ‘love-bite mark’ starting in the 1930s, that pretty much eclipsed the rest. However, doohickey had already shown up by 1914 and was not necked out by that shift in sense. It seems to convey more pointedly than doodad, gizmo, gadget, or widget the fact that the speaker doesn’t know the name of the thing and perhaps also that the speaker is uncertain as to its exact nature and function; it may or may not be relevant that, unlike those other words, it has three syllables, of which the first is stressed and the second may be as well.

Gizmo showed up during World War II. Life magazine in 1945 said gizmo “is Marine and Navy usage for any old thing you can’t put a name to.” In 1944 Jim Griffing Lucas in Combat Correspondent called gizmo “a Marine Corps term. It is the equivalent of the civilian ‘doo-dad,’ and is applicable to anything for which more descriptive terminology is not immediately available.” There’s no clear indication of how the name was confected. I would venture to say that, inasmuch as gizmo is used today, it is typically used for something that has some degree of technical ingenuity. The z helps that.

Gadget is now in a class of its own, thanks in part to Inspector Gadget (and perhaps also to Gidget, movie surfer girl played by Sandra Dee; Gidget is supposedly from girl plus midget but, come on, she was 5 foot 4) but also thanks to broad usage, matched only by widget. It has even been used as a fictional name on various occasions as early as the first decade of the 1900s. As evidence that gadget is considered a completely normal word, note that Green’s Dictionary of Slang doesn’t even list its usual senses (because they’re not slang), just a couple of prurient meanings

Gadget has been around longer than some; its earliest published uses are from the mid-1880s. There is some suggestion that it comes from French gâchette, which refers to a locking mechanism. However, there’s no clear observed path from the one to the other in usage and sense, and the /ʃ/ to /dʒ/ development is, if we’re being honest, only middling plausible. In any event, gadget is now used to mean, as Wiktionary puts it, “any device or machine, especially one whose name cannot be recalled. Often either clever or complicated” – and in particular, as an informal sense, “any consumer electronics product.”

Widget has wandered farthest in sense from whatsit and thingamajig: it is now treated as an actual kind of thing – or multiple kinds of things. It’s so well established as a word that it doesn’t appear at all in Green’s. Many of us know it as a name for simple applications and interface elements in computers, mobile devices, and websites (for example, all of the boxes you see down the right column of my blog are widgets); it has had this sense since the early 1990s. Some of us also know widget as the name for the small pressurized item floating in a can of “draft-style” beer that squeals out nitrogen when you open the can – a sense that also showed up in the early 1990s. But it has been used as a generic placeholder name for commercial items, used in examples in economics texts and such like, at least since the 1930s. 

There are a few different accounts of the etymology of widget, and if you find one that sounds cute or clever or clear you can assume it’s pure fiction – for instance, in one B-movie I watched one Saturday afternoon in my teens (I think it was the 1942 Wildcat), one of the characters claims it came from a misreading of midget. The real original source is known, or at least seems to be: the 1924 play Beggar on Horseback by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, in which it is some undescribed fanciful manufactured item:

Yes. Big business. What business are we in? 

Widgets. We’re in the widget business. 

The widget business? 

Yes, sir! I suppose I’m the biggest manufacturer in the world of overhead and underground A-erial widgets. Miss You! 

Yes, sir. 

Let’s hear what our business was during the first six months of the fiscal year. [To Neil.] The annual report. 

“The turnover in the widget industry last year was greater than ever. If placed alongside the Woolworth Building it would stretch to the moon. The operating expenses alone would furnish every man, woman and child in the United States, China and similar places with enough to last for eighteen and one-half years, if laid end to end.” 

How’s that? 

It’s wonderful! 

And wait for September 17th! 


That’s to be National Widget Week! The whole country!

What we don’t know is how Kaufman and Hart came up with the word. Probably it just sounded good, but exactly why it sounded good is another matter – likely from resemblance to gadget and perhaps wedge or whatsit or fidget or… 

Anyway, the word caught on, and, like widgets generally, has proven a useful simple little implement. Not quite as mechanical as a gadget, perhaps, or as gee-whiz as a gizmo, or as fiddly as a doodad, but definitely more definite than a doohickey.


There are dad words, and there are granddad words, and there are great-granddad words. Over the years, zowie has progressed upward in those ranks. Even when I was a kid it was the sort of word I saw in cartoons and old books (as a 1962 article in the Spectator put it, “Think of the United States as a 3,000-mile-broad comic strip where significant occasions go bam, pop and zowie”). 

But I did hear it used in full earnest once. I was riding in a car, somewhere in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when the driver exclaimed “Zowie! He almost hit him!” I didn’t even pay attention to the near-accident, so entertained was I by the word uttered by the driver… who was my dad.

This word has a few surprises awaiting you if you go digging up its early days. Although its popularity crested in the 1940s, it emerged around the turn of the century: Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an earliest citation from 1902, and I haven’t found an earlier one… in the sense in question. 

If you look in Google Books, you will get quite a lot of hits that are not the sense in question.

This is because Google Books also has books in Polish. The Polish word zowie – now archaic; the more modern version is zwie – is the third-person singular present of zwać, which means ‘call’ or ‘be called’ (i.e., ‘name’ or ‘summon’). It has nothing at all to do with our English word zowie, and it doesn’t sound the same either – it’s said about like “soviet” but with a “z” in place of the “s” and without the “t” at the end.

It’s also because it shows up from time to time as a first name.

You’re may think of Zowie Bowie, the son of David Bowie. As David Bowie was the stage name of David Jones, Zowie Bowie is actually Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones; note that this Zowie rhymes with Bowie, making it a homophone for the name Zoë (which, however, is typically a woman’s name). I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that at least some of the people named Zowie who show up sporadically in the early 1900s – such as one of a couple named Walter and Zowie and another of the couple Seymour and Zowie Tufts – might have been using a variant of Zoë. On the other hand, the musical group Zowie’s Zobo Band, which played in Dartmouth in 1908, might not have followed that pattern.

Beyond those instances, however, pretty much every other use of zowie that you’ll find is an interjection. But while most of the time it is the same class as “Wow!” “Yikes!” “Holy cow!” and “Hot damn!” – and nearly always has an exclamation mark on it – there are a few more violent uses too. 

There’s the “potato bug exterminator” mentioned in The American Flint in 1913, wherewith one may dispose of said bugs “by taking two blocks of hard wood, hickory for instance, and cutting them about five inches long, three inches wide and two inches thick, placing one in each hand, gently treading to the potato patch, placing one bug at a time on the block in one hand and ‘zowie’ with the other.” In Pearson’s Magazine in 1914, there are explosions:




The explosions followed each other rapidly…

And there are gunshots, as seen in Our Navy in 1915: “Nothing was heard but the steady purr of the beating motor, when suddenly—‘Zowie! Zowie!’—two shots rang out through the balmy California air.”

Which is arguably ironic, because zowie is thought originally to have been more like the steady purr of the beating motor: as Merriam-Webster says, “The word zowie was inspired by the sound of a speeding vehicle—a new phenomenon when the word entered the lexicon in 1902, the year before the Ford Motor Company sold its first car.” GDOS agrees that it’s “echoic of speed.” But the OED and Wiktionary are mute on its origins. And when you look at the available quotations – in the dictionaries and in Google Books – even the earliest ones aren’t imitative of a speeding vehicle; they all go with the “astonishment” and “admiration” that are part of the dictionary definitions.

OK, but how about astonishment (if not admiration) at a speeding vehicle? I really do feel like my dad gave me the whole deal there – or would have if there had been actual violence (gunshots? explosions? bug-squashing at least?). Especially if one of the cars had been driven by someone called Zoë.


Aina recently described something she was dealing with at work as “a real humdinger.”

You know what a humdinger is, don’t you?

Can you define or describe it?

I thought I’d look at some instances of early usage of the word in Google Books – and by early I mean the first couple of decades of the 20th century; Wiktionary says the word is “first attested in a newspaper article in the Daily Enterprise of June 4, 1883, at Livingston, Montana” but Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s earliest citation is from 1898 (from Yakima, Washington) and the Oxford English Dictionary has nothing before 1905. Anyway, when a cherry-bomb of a word like humdinger is still fresh, people like to define it when they use it, and here are some hits (forgive the [sic] insertions but I really want you to understand they are not typos):

Vicegerent [sic] M. D. Jameson pulled off at Portland, Oregon, on the evening of December 9 a concatenation that has been termed a “humdinger.” We of the South do not know exactly what a “humdinger” is, but we do know that when the Hoo-Hoo boys of Oregon get together for a Hoo-Hoo meeting and call it a “humdinger” that there was joy and fun there for everyone.
The Bulletin (of the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo), volumes 16–17, 1909

It was our second annual industrial exposition, and it was a corker—a humdinger, to put it mildly and intelligently. It jammed the big Curling Club building for a week, and the total attendance was over 100,000, which tells for itself something of what it was like.
The Rotarian, November 1913

In the words of one subscriber the meeting was “a humdinger.” First of all let us analyze who or what is “a humdinger.”
In the unwritten dictionary of slang the word is used to most forcibly describe a gathering at which a very high degree of enthusiasm over a successful achievement, prevails.
American Fertilizer, volume 40, 1914

spizzerinctum … was defined as that quality which Wid Card [sic] possessed which made him the youngest man among the assembled people. And when Wid Card got up he said, “anything that is filled with spizzerinctum is a humdinger.” He said, “I am a humdinger.”
Proceedings of the New York Farmers, 1919

“Papa, what is a humdinger?”
“A humdinger, my son, is a man that can make a deaf and dumb girl say, ‘Oh, daddy!’”
The Gargoyle, volume 18, 1920

In loud accents we want to inform this old world of ours (and a few of the larger planets) that our house-party last commencement was a “humdinger” (for definition of “humdinger” see Whiz Bang).
The Scroll of Phi Delta Theta, volume 46, 1921

The dictionaries of the future will contain the word “humdinger.” It is a good word and an expressive one.
A humdinger is one who does things. Blessed be the humdinger. Let us have more of him.
The Gateway, volume 36, number 2, 1921

So what we can gather from those is that a humdinger is something on the order of a very impressive party – either party as in ‘social occasion’ or party as in ‘person’. 

But that’s not what Aina was talking about, and if you’ve used the word humdinger (which, let’s be honest, is really a Jason Sudeikis kind of word, isn’t it), you may have had something else in mind too: a corker in some other sense, not always positive. Quite a thing. Not something to be taken lightly. An eyebrow-raiser. A sockdolager. Something remarkable, outstanding, unusual, exceptional…

All sources agree that the word is American (no surprise there), and we may note that the earliest citations all seem to be from the Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Montana. Some other ten-dollar words from the same era of Americana have come from the South and from New England or New York, but this one has those Northwest bona fides.

But what does it come from? We’re not completely sure – the OED professes to have no idea – but Wiktionary suggests it’s from hummer (‘something that moves fast’) and dinger (‘something outstanding’). Merriam-Webster also thinks it’s probably an alteration of hummer. Which, we imagine, might come from the humming sound machinery makes, or something like that. And to the “whizz” of the humming we add the “bang” of the dinging, to make a real whizzbang humdinger.

I have thoughts about that dinger, too – not to say that this has any connection, but I recall that in the southern Alberta of my youth (and probably many other parts of Canada and perhaps the US), if you wanted to express how unimpressed you were with something, you could say “Whoopee ding” – which was shortened from “whoopee ding-dong,” as in cheer and ring a bell. There is a certain something in that ding – a bit like the nine in cloud nine, dressed to the ninesthe whole nine yards, and so on. This is all very impressionistic, of course, but it does have a familiar ring.

Well. Zowie. There you have it. This is a classic old white dad word, ya know? Or maybe old white granddad word now. But nothing’s stopping the youth from using it… It’s a mighty impressive bit of lexis, if you ask me.


“We really ought to start calling this a symposium, dontcha think?”

Yes, Andy, I do think so.

“Andy” in this case is Andy Hollandbeck, fellow editor, with whom I just, um, symposed at the ACES conference in Columbus, Ohio. And he was not sitting up from his spot on a couch when saying that – though he could have been; he tooted it on Mastodon in response to my observation, “A conference is a fountain of knowledge where editors gather to drink!”

Which is not an original witticism, mind you – though it’s usually said of universities. But I was saying it in response to Christian Wilkie characterizing the subjects of my conference photos as “the important stuff.” With which, given that they were largely pictures of people having animated conversations while holding drinks, I tend to concur.

That may not make sense to you if your familiarity with symposia is just with what are typically called “symposium” these days: events consisting of panel discussions or people reading scholarly papers one after another, always in some fluorescent-lit room with desks, dry as bones, fueled with bad coffee or nothing at all. If there is any lubricated conviviality, it takes place afterwards and unofficially.

Those who have some acquaintance with Plato know that his Symposium is the original literary pattern for such things: a philosophical discussion between a half-dozen – make that seven – eminent ancient Greeks, most eminent of whom being Socrates. They are making speeches, one by one, about Eros.

In the average layperson’s mind, this sounds like a literary description of a faculty dinner, all these erudite people saying such smart things. Those who know the subject – and faculty dinners – more intimately know that it was, indeed, like many a faculty dinner: all but one of them are in their cups (and a late arrival shows up having come from another party absolutely cratered), and they are talking about sex.

This is not to say that all symposia must take sex as their subject; not at all – any topic is fair game. (Editing, for instance, can be more interesting than you might think.) But the origin of the symposium is a drinking-and-talking party. To our English eyes, symposium seems formal, on the same level of dignity as symphony, with an air of posing questions perhaps (or intellectual poseurs?), and, um, all those words that end in um, from forum to opium. But it comes (via Latin) from Ancient Greek συμπόσιον sumpósion, from συν- sun- (‘together’) plus πίνω pínō (‘drink’). And no, you don’t have to drink pinot, although the Athenians did always drink wine – it was served from a large jar called a krater and drunk from shallow cups.

Symposia were common in Athenian society of about 2400 years ago. There would be dinner, and then there would be drinking and talking. Which is exactly what I go to conferences in hope of, and I am always pleased to get it. (The presentations are enjoyable, but I don’t go for formal education really; I can get that more efficiently by other means.) I have long been an advocate of conviviality: when I was heading an editorial department, I maintained “the team that lunches together has hunches together,” and I may also have said “the team that does shots together has thoughts together.” Meetings are de rigueur (mortis) but informal contexts are where the truth really comes out.

But there is one thing about a symposium in the original model that I don’t cotton to: women were not allowed.

Well, for heaven’s sake. How am I supposed to get any really valuable insight in a room full of nothing but men? Have you been in a room full of nothing but men trying to impress each other with how much they know? It’s an intellectual desiccant. Please. Let us include women, and the more the better (editors’ conferences are excellent for this), for the sake of a better balance of insight and perspective and for better conviviality.

Which is what the Romans did at their version of the symposium. Oh, I’m not talking about their famous orgies; I’m talking about the same kind of event as the Greeks had, with speeches and toasts and ample beverage. But the Romans did not exclude women from them. Also, the Romans didn’t wait until after dinner to start pouring the wine. Not that alcohol is essential; not everyone wants to drink, and if non-drinking was fine for Socrates (it was), it’s fine for anyone else. It’s not the spirits, it’s the spirit!

But the Romans also had a different name for their gatherings – one that already sounds more inviting: convivium. (Yes, by the way, its etymological origins are con- ‘with’ and vivo ‘I live’. I can live with that.) And perhaps convivium is the term we really want. Here’s to conviviality!


There are quite a lot of words that we use on a regular basis to smooth the flow of reading – or just to give the impression of more content – that are not, strictly speaking, essential to the basic sense.

We regularly use many words that don’t add information to help text seem smoother or fuller.

We frequently use filler words.

Verbal excipients abound.

Say, are you familiar with this word excipient? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s obsolete. My pharmacist friends and colleagues haven’t gotten the memo on that. And, in a way, neither have I – although I seldom use the word excipient, I spend a chunk of time every morning working on articles about prescription drugs, and one of the things I handle regularly are lists of what the articles call non-medicinal ingredients. Which are, in another word, excipients.

“Oh, filler, you mean.” Well, yes and no. Perhaps the best way to define excipient is that it’s everything in a medication except the active ingredient. Excipients aren’t just there to bulk up the pills (which can be necessary; the amount of active ingredient is sometimes very small because it’s very potent, milligram for milligram), and they’re not just the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down – although, yes, the substantial doses of sugar and flavouring you get in many medication syrups are indeed excipients and they do indeed serve to get people to take the stuff more willingly. But excipients also serve other purposes: they help the medication stay in pill form; they help the medication dissolve more easily when taken (and not before); they help the pills be more identifiable (prescription medications are expected to be visually distinguishable from other prescription medications, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining); they help the medication last long on the shelf (or in the fridge); they help the medication – the active ingredient – be more effective. In short, they are the vehicle taking the active ingredient to you.

And the same goes for many verbal excipients. It’s true that brevity is, typically, the soul of wit, and that concision aids cogency, but there are limits. Exiguous wording can be gnomic – sometimes two or three words make a thing much clearer than a single high-potency word, and sometimes dropping a seemingly unnecessary word such as, say, the that left out of “All your friends will try to do is sleep” (i.e., “All that your friends [etc.]”) will cause many readers to interpret a sentence one way up to a certain point and then have to rejig their interpretation – usually a small effort, but more than no effort. We also sometimes use words just to signal what kind of text the text is (in-group terminology) or what discourse it belongs to (citationality!). Parenthetical comments and other appositives and amplifications may seem extraneous, but they better furnish the mental room of the sentence. And beyond that, although some readers take exception to even the whiff of prolixity, there are the things that make text a pleasure to read: luxurious words, full of sound and rhythm and images. There’s a reason some people buy thick biographies rather than reading Wikipedia articles. There is a time and a place for a verbal bubble bath – and few readers eagerly seek out textual cold showers.

There are other less valuable kinds of verbal excipients too, mind you. There are the kinds that truly are there to bulk up, not to smooth the flow; academic and legal texts are typically full of this kind, and its main effect is to make the text seem more important – and often to disguise lack of substance. There are the kinds of circumlocutions that we use out of dread of excessive directness – what I often call verbal bubble wrap. And there are words that seem mainly to exist to make sure unabridged dictionaries are as ponderous and prepossessing as possible.

Of which one would seem to be excipient. After all, it may be concise, but it’s not clear to anyone who hasn’t had it explained to them. You could say that non-medicinal ingredient has more filler, in that it’s more words, but those are words that people already know; excipient is an extra word to stuff into your brain. But you wouldn’t be here reading this if you didn’t like having and knowing more words. And once you know that excipient means all those things I listed off three paragraphs ago, it does seem useful in context. 

And since you’re here for extra knowledge, you of course want to know where excipient comes from. It comes from Latin excipio, from ex- ‘out’ and capio ‘I take’ (which also shows up in words such as English capture and Italian capisci ‘you understand’). This excipio can mean quite different things: it can mean ‘I take out’, it can mean ‘I receive’, it can mean ‘I follow after’, it can mean ‘I rescue’, it can mean ‘I except’ (except is a direct descendent of excipio), and it can mean ‘I host or accommodate’ – as in what medical excipients do. Even in English, defunct senses of excipient include ‘one who takes objection’ and ‘one who takes up in succession’.

But those senses have dissolved in the gut of time. This one pharmaceutical sense has survived. And so may it be. The truth is that, though we may discern verbal excipients, every word can be an active ingredient if well used – language is a drug.


If polyhedral means ‘many-sided’, and dodecahedral means ‘twelve-sided’, then it follows that cathedral must mean ‘cat-sided’, clearly. 

And if polyhedral is the adjectival form of polyhedron, it follows that cathedral must be the adjectival form of cathedron.

And, since hedron is from Greek ἕδρα ‘seat’, cathedron means ‘cat chair’. Which makes perfect sense, if you’ve ever seen the majesty with which a cat can occupy a chair.

You may have noticed, however, that ἕδρα is hedra, not hedron – the Greek root is originally feminine; for various reasons it came through in the neuter when referring to shapes. But this means that the word is not cathedron but cathedra

Are you chary of this idea that cathedra is a cat chair? Some of us know this word in the Latin phrase ex cathedra, which refers to pronouncements that are made by the pope in his official papal role, and as such doctrinally binding (“infallible”), set down in stone as it were. There aren’t all that many of these; most things the pope says (e.g., interviews, sermons, tweets) are not ex cathedra and are open to some level of disagreement. 

Cathedra is also an English word (by direct assimilation from Latin) referring to the chair of a bishop in his home church. That’s why the church is a cathedral – originally it’s cathedral church, as in the church with a cathedra.

So the top dog of dogma gets the cat chair, is that right? Well, if the bishop is a cardinal, you could say he’s the top bird (although the bird is actually named after the ecclesiast, and not the other way around; cardinals the bishops wear red robes, and so do cardinals the birds, but cardinals in the church are so named for the same reason that cardinal numbers are cardinal numbers: from Latin cardinalis, which means ‘important, pivotal’). But in any event he’s in the catbird seat.

But while there is something very appealing about the image of a majestic feline occupying an important chair in an important church, we do need to deal honestly with this cat. And perhaps you should be sitting down for this.

You see, we could catalogue an almost catastrophic number of words with cat at the start – certainly enough to make you catatonic – that all get it from the same Greek root: κατά. In some cases it trims to κατ; in others – words that have “rough breathing,” which is typically rendered as h in transliteration – it shows up as καθ. And that root κατά translates variously, because it’s a preposition, but it’s generally ‘against’ or ‘towards’ or ‘along’ or ‘according to’ or – perhaps most often, and in the present case – ‘down’. Which, since ἕδρα means ‘seat’, means that cathedra is ‘sit down’ – as a noun, mind you, not a verb.

But there are three more things to think about. One is that cats follow the principle of “If it fits, I sits” – they famously like to occupy boxes and bowls that you might not think they could even get into. And that means that a random parallelepiped of corrugated cardboard could become a cathedra for a cat – the infallible authority seated in whatever held your last shipment from Amazon.

The second is that cat, as in your furry friend, is not in fact related to κατά (I imagine you’re not surprised). Its origins are known to a certain point, traced back into Proto-Germanic, and it is thought to be cognate with, and perhaps derived from, Latin cattus ‘cat’ (seems likely, doesn’t it), but there are also similar words for the same thing in some unrelated languages, such as Nubian, Arabic, and Classical Syriac, and so it could be what’s called a Wanderwort – a “wander-word,” a word that has been spread around by travel. Which, frankly, seems altogether fitting for what it names, an animal as famous for its wandering as for its sitting.

The third is that while bishops and popes may stay in their seats (indeed, they are not known for wandering much on matters of dogma), words do wander – not just geographically, but in form too. If a word fits better in speakers’ mouths in a modified way, it will ultimately sit that way. And so syllables get trimmed and sounds get modified. And the word cathedra, over the centuries, passed through French and into English to become the modern words chaise (French) and chair (English). Which means that cathedral is, really, chairy in fancy traditional raiment. 

PS: The photo is of my wife, Aina, sitting in a chair in the cathedral in Rheims, France. And since Aina had the nickname “Ainacat” or “the Cat” among her skater friends…