Category Archives: word tasting notes


Isn’t this a pretty flower?

No it’s not. It’s dozens of pretty flowers. Hundreds, even.

This is a gerbera, also known as a gerbera daisy. It’s a popular, versatile flower: colourful like a party, a floral night of carousing (and I suppose if you’re trying to make up for a night of carousing, a few gerberas will do). When you look at the lovely top of a gerbera, you are looking at a capitulum, a saucer-shaped head that has three rings of small flowers (florets): an outer ring of ray florets, a middle ring of trans florets, and an inner ring of disk florets. The ones that have the petals that fall on your floor after a few days are the ray florets. They’re sort of like the eyelashes, if the trans florets are the iris and the disk florets are the pupil.

The different florets are all in origin basically the same thing, just developed differently because of where they are. Take a closer look:

The gerbera is also the Gerbera with a capital G, taxonomically, and the capital is fitting because it’s named after Traugott Gerber.

And what does this flowering plant have to do with its namesake? As Gerber might have said, gar nichts. Absolutely nothing. Well, OK, one thing.

Traugott Gerber was a medical doctor and herbologist. He was born in 1710 in Zodel, which is now in Germany, near Görlitz on the Polish border; he received his doctorate at Leipzig in 1735; for seven years after that he was a medical doctor in Russia and travelled around studying Russian plants; in 1743 he died in Vyborg, north of St. Petersburg, near the Finnish border, at the age of 33, and I don’t know what of. It was his love of botany and his friendship with Carl Linnaeus that likely inspired Linnaeus’s friend and patron, Jan Frederik Gronovius, to name a flowering plant after him. Gronovius first wrote of the Gerbera in 1737, and Linnaeus added it to his taxonomy the year after.

The Gerbera is native to tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and South America, and certainly not to Germany, Russia, or other nearby parts of Europe. Gerber liked and studied plants. The naming seems to be just out of honour and friendship, sort of like the Suzanniwana. (Apparently no one thought of asking the people from the native turf of the flower what they called it.)

But how about the name? Is it otherwise apposite? Well, Traugott Gerber (whose first name means ‘trust God’) was the son of a minister (who died a few months before Traugott was born), but Gerber is German for ‘tanner’, from gerben, ‘tan’. Now, tanning can make leathers prettier, perhaps, but really, it’s one heck of a stretch to connect it to flowers. The source of gerben is Proto-Germanic *garwijaną, ‘prepare’; it has descended to verbs meaning ‘do’ in Icelandic (gera), Norwegian (gjøre), Danish (gøre), and Swedish (göra) (in all of which the g is said like English “y,” I feel impelled to tell you). It has also descended to Modern High German gar, which literally means ‘cooked, done’ but is also used to mean ‘at all’ as in “gar kein Geld” (‘no money at all’) and “gar nichts” (‘nothing at all’) and a similar sense in “gar aus” (‘all out’, ‘all done’, the source of carouse). And it has descended to Modern English yare, a word seldom used now but meaning ‘ready, alert’ or (more often now) ‘eager, nimble, versatile’.

So. Just as the flowers on the capitulum of a Gerbera are essentially the same thing developed differently, yare, gar, göra, and Gerbera (and a few other words in other languages) have all developed differently in different places from the same origin. And if you’re looking for a fit between name and flower, it’ll have to do.


What is it that draws people to public office? To become president, or governor, or senator, or mayor, or school board trustee?

I suppose there are many things. Some people feel a strong sense of responsibility and want to make things work as best they can. Some people love power and want as much as they can get. Some people just love the attention.

I am occasionally reminded of this little bit from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions:

Trout couldn’t tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him. He wrote a story one time about an optimistic chimpanzee who became President of the United States. He called it “Hail to the Chief.”

The chimpanzee wore a little blue blazer with brass buttons, and with the seal of the President of the United States sewed to the breast pocket. . . .

Everywhere he went, bands would play “Hail to the Chief.” The chimpanzee loved it. He would bounce up and down.

Now, there are definitely politicians whose motivations and performance are better than that. But there are also definitely politicians who really just love the adulation, the pomp and ceremony, the crowds, the cameras and microphones, the bands… Today’s word is for these latter ones.

Empleomania is a weird-looking word, I’ll grant you that. You can see that it comes from Greek (via Latin) because it ends with -mania, as in pyromania, nymphomania, Beatlemania, and so on. But that empleo is unexpected.

Which is because it didn’t come directly from Latin. It went through French and Spanish first. Latin implicarebecame Old French empleiier, which has come to Modern French as employer but was also taken into Spanish to be emplear, ‘use’, ‘hire’; empleo means ‘job’, but the Spanish word empleomanía focuses on a specific kind of job: political office or the civil service. And, borrowed into English as empleomania, it has meant specifically ‘overweening desire to hold public office’.

In other words, a mania for being mayor, or premier, or governor, or prime minister, or president, or MP, MLA, MPP, MNA, you name it…

And, I mean, OK, if there’s a job you really want to do, if you do it well, who’s to complain? If you say it’s a good job and you encourage people to do it well, at least that’s something. What I especially don’t like are empleomaniacs who spend their time talking about how bad the government is and how politicians shouldn’t be trusted. Or who rail at other politicians for living on taxpayer money when that is exactly what they are doing and have always wanted to do. Or, of course, those who do their jobs viciously and to the great harm of many of those they are elected to serve.

Beyond that, empleomania isn’t intrinsically bad. At least it helps guarantee a supply of people for jobs that government requires and that many people would really very much rather not do. It’s just up to the voters to choose the ones who can do the job well.


Nearly half my life ago, not long after I arrived in Toronto, I volunteered to usher at a dance festival. At the opening night party, I did my best to pretend to be extraverted; I chatted with a few people. I saw one young woman across the room who was sitting quietly, by herself, like a silent mermaid on a rock. She was, you might say, scenic. I lacked the nerve to go up to her and talk to her.

But on my first shift, two days later, I was assigned to work with her. I discovered she was not just beautiful but remarkably talented – a professional figure skater with a degree in dance, poetry in motion to behold; at the time she was on summer break from the touring spectacle Holiday on Ice. And we had similar taste in music. And she was very sweet.

The next day I signed up for extra shifts to work with her.

She was the one for me. And she still is, and (may it be so) always will be: a bit less than three and a half years later we were married.

She had – has – an unusual and beautiful name: Aina Arro. It is, of course, subject to incessant misspelling by all and sundry. Her last name, Arro, came from Estonia, like her father. Her first name, Aina, came from Latvia, like her mother. It is said like German eine, ‘one’, as in “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (“A Little Serenade,” or more literally “A Little Night Music”). As I might say in German, Aina ist die eine (Aina is the one).

Aina has, at times, been a popular name for women in Latvia. In Latvian, the word means ‘view’ (as in “mountain view”) or ‘sight’ (as in “see the sights”) or ‘spectacle’ or ‘scenery’. But it’s only been used as a name since about 1915.

It’s only been used as a name in Latvian since 1915, I should say. It’s actually been used in Estonian and Finnish for a bit longer. The word aina means ‘always’ in both languages, but that’s not really where the name comes from; it’s originally an alternate form of Aino, which is the usual form of the name in both languages.

Aino is a fairly popular name in Estonia and Finland for women (and girls). Like quite a few timeless elements of Finnish culture, it traces to the pen of Elias Lönnrot. When he assembled (and edited, and confected) the folk songs of Finland into the Kalevala, he included one in which a young singer (Joukahainen) gets into a contest with an old master singer (Väinämöinen), loses, and is on the verge of drowning in a swamp, and to get Väinämöinen to save him he promises the hand in marriage of his only sister:

Kun pyörrät pyhät sanasi, luovuttelet luottehesi,
annan aino siskoseni, lainoan emoni lapsen

(drawing on Keith Bosley’s translation:
If you whirl your holy words around and call off your spell,
I’ll give my only sister, I will yield my mother’s child)

Well, that was how it was in the first edition, of 1835. In the second, of 1849, Lönnrot capitalized aino and made it her name:

annan Aino siskoseni

(I’ll give Aino, my sister)

And that is where the name Aino came from. The popularity of the Kalevala and the desire for a strong Finnish cultural identity ensured immortality for the name; among its most famous bearers was the wife of Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer. It also became popular in Estonian, which is closely related to Finnish.

The character Aino achieved immortality another way: through mortality. She didn’t want to throw away her golden youth and be tied down in marriage to this crusty old singer, no matter how talented he was. So she drowned herself and became a water spirit.

Sitte sinne saatuansa asetaiksen istumahan
kirjavaiselle kivelle, paistavalle paaterelle:
kilahti kivi vetehen, paasi pohjahan pakeni,
neitonen kiven keralla, Aino paaen palleassa

(Keith Bosley’s translation:
Then, when she got there, she sits herself down
upon the bright rock, on the glittering boulder:
the rock plopped in the water, the boulder sank down,
the maid with the rock, Aino beside the boulder.)

But where did this word aino come from? It seems an entertaining coincidence (I know, right?) that it means ‘only’ and sounds almost like German eine, ‘one’.

In fact, aino is a poetic shortening of ainoa, which is the usual Finnish word for ‘only’. And while Finnish is a Finno-Ugaric language, unrelated to Indo-European languages such as German, Swedish, and English, it has borrowed some words and changed them as it has seen fit. One such was the Proto-Germanic *ainagaz, ‘only, unique’, which in turn came from *ainaz, ‘one’, which is the source of… yes… eine. And one, too.

Do you follow all that? The Proto-Germanic word for ‘one’ (and the ancestor of one and German eine), tentatively reconstructed as ainaz, was modified to (reconstructed) ainagaz, meaning ‘only’, which was then borrowed into Finnish and (over time) became ainoa, ‘only’, which was trimmed for the motion of poetry to aino, and that was turned into a name Aino, which became popular in Finnish and Estonian and was then modified to Aina (coincidentally the word for ‘always’), and that was borrowed into Latvian (where the word also means ‘a sight to behold’).

And from that, the one for me, now and always, happened to be named Aina, who is a sight to behold, poetry in motion. And I get to see her every day, and listen to a little music with her every night.


“What? Who knocks at my door? Begone, varlet! Wouldst thou break the quarantine?”

“M’lord, ’tis I…”

“Who, varlet? Answer!”

“The valet.”

“The valet? …Oh. Enter.”

We know what a varlet is: a knave, a rogue, a scoundrel, a low sort, a villain – one whose crimes show violet on the sketch of life. And we know what a valet is (though we disagree on how to say valet): a serving-man, valid, of good avail. They are both of lower status, of course, but one knows his place and fills it suitably, and the other is a rogue.

Well, it’s not that simple, is it.

Is it?

If you’re from North America and say valet as though it were French, then the resemblance with varlet isn’t as strong, but if you’re from England or another country where the English-style pronunciation is used, then it’s quite similar, especially if you don’t actually say the “r.” But the tone of varlet is quite different from that of valet… these days.

We use varlet as we do because, since before Shakespeare was born, it has meant (to quote the OED) “A person of a low, mean, or knavish disposition; a knave, rogue, rascal.” But it got that meaning because it was, first, a word for a servant – a common person attending on a knight or other person of rank. In other words, a valet.

Is varlet an English reconstrual of valet? Or vice versa?

Not at all.

In fact, we got them both from French. It’s in French that the two forms pulled apart. In French, varlet is a now-archaic term for a servant of a knight; it was an alternate form of valet. Both were anglicized in pronunciation after being taken into English, but valet has gotten the high-class French-style reversion (like garage and homage) in some versions of English, and it never suffered the degradation its r-ful version got.

Does it seem unfair to call serving-people and commoners villains? Well, villain was originally by definition a local rustic servant of the villa, or, in the feudal system, a peasant entirely subject to the lord of the manor. They weren’t the property-owning job creators, just unskilled ungrateful local slaves! (Oh, slave has a heck of a history, by the way, and yes, it’s related to Slavic; the connection is Western European conquest and subjugation of the Slavonic countries.)

But how did we come to think of valets and villa-servants as knaves? Oh, say, do you know what a knave is? Originally, a knave was a varlet, a valet, a serving-boy to a knight. If you speak German you’ll know the word for ‘boy’ is Knabe. Yes, it’s the same word, just split apart by the yawning centuries. A knight had his boy, and when he was angry at someone he might compare that person to a serving-boy. “Boy! Why do you speak to me like that, boy?!” (Or, to quote Shakespeare, from Coriolanus, “Measureless liar, thou hast made my heart Too great for what contains it. Boy! O slave!”)

So apparently people of the lower classes are all supposed to be rogues? Well, the ones who don’t know their places, anyway.

Are you guessing where this is leading? OK, I’m not being quite fair. The origin of rogue is still a matter of speculation and dispute. But evidence suggests that, in its origins meaning ‘haughty, aggressive’ and its likely link to arrogant, it meant someone of the lower sort who was… uppity. Didn’t know his place.

But at least rogue is gaining a certain charm lately. Like rascal. Which was once a purely opprobrious term, referring to a… well, a low-class person. The rabble. Rascal apparently comes from a French verb meaning ‘scrape’, as in the bottom of the barrel. Because people who shine our shoes and work in our fields and factories and pour our coffees just aren’t worthy of the respect accorded to those of us who sit in offices and move money around, right?

So, once again, our language bears the still-bleeding scars of centuries of classism and status-based contempt. Varlet, villain, knave, rogue, rascal: someone who is “not our sort, dear,” someone who is a low hick, someone who doesn’t know their place. They probably split their infinitives and dangle their participles too.

But of course we still need them to clean our suits and mop our floors. Diffidently.


I am a faint scabbald set within a formicated frail.

Or at least that feels right to me. It’s actually the third definition of Franken’s anti-Atlantic, according to Dictionarish.

Dictionarish, @dictionarish, is “Dictionary entries, as dreamt by a neural network | bot by @mewo2”; in other words, it’s what you can get if you set artificial intelligence to trying to imitate a dictionary. You might say it’s a computer’s answer to prisencolinensinainciusol. Obviously as soon as I saw it I followed it.

The three definitions of Franken’s anti-Atlantic, tweeted on May 8, 2020, are “1 relating to the lower class. 2 a medieval conflict, especially by assistance; last of: she was able to resign about drugs 3 a faint scabbald set within a formicated frail.” I shall leave the first two aside; number 1 is too clear, and number 2 is its own story. But number 3 touched something within me. Something that loves vaguely unsettling things that I can’t entirely understand.

Most of the words in it are no problem. Everyone knows what faint and frail mean; although frail is normally an adjective, it appears to be a noun here, and I think our parsing engines are robust enough to sort it out. Formicated is an excellent and underused word; literally it means ‘ant-infested’ or ‘moved like an ant’, but by transference it also means ‘having [or having had] a sensation like crawling ants’ – in other words, what we call “pins and needles” but what in Spanish (as I learned from Salvador Dali and Luís Buñuel thanks to Un chien andalou) is sometimes called “las hormigas,” literally ‘the ants’, and you can see hormiga descended from Latin formica, which means ‘ant’, not ‘artificial countertop’ (weirdly unrelated etymologically) – although I have certainly gotten the ants from jamming the tender spot of my elbow against a Formica counter edge. I have also gotten formicated from sitting tapping on my computer too long, as I am doing right now.

OK, fine, after so long in lockdown my meatshell is surely a formicated frail. But what is a scabbald?

Scabbald certainly looks familiar, doesn’t it? It obviously resembles scabbard and perhaps ribald and the family name Sibbald (which makes a cameo in Calgary place names; Sibbald’s rorqual is also an alternate name for the blue whale). And yet it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and it’s not on Wiktionary. It’s not even on Urban Dictionary (you’d think some 14-year-old might have imagined something disgusting to say it means, but not yet). And if you Google it, you think you’ve gotten hits, but they’re all one of three things: a mis-scanned scabbard, the words scab and bald next to each other, or, now, the phrase “A faint scabbald set within a formicated frail,” which since May 8 has, for a lark, been my display name on Twitter and consequently has been polluting the search results (the Dictionarish definition is in an image and so doesn’t show up as text).

So scabbald is a word that seems familiar but is actually utterly inscrutable because entirely meaningless. You could make guesses as to its sense, but they would just be on the basis of other words it looks like (which is, yes, how we most often work out the meanings of words new to us, which sometimes leads to words shifting in sense towards more common words they resemble). It came up by accident and just seems real enough to be acceptable.

In other words, a scabbald is the hood ornament on a classiomatic.

And also, it seems, a word for the dim light glimmering from the back room of my mind: a faint scabbald set within a formicated frail.

So mote it be.


I grew up in and near Banff, Alberta, so Revelstoke is a familiar name to me. Familiar enough that I never really stopped to wonder where it came from.

If you drive the Trans-Canada Highway west into British Columbia, over the Great Divide at Kicking Horse Pass, then up and over through Glacier National Park (the Canadian one) and over the Rogers Pass (don’t do this when it’s snowing if you don’t have to), Revelstoke is the first town (technically a small city) that you come down to, ranged up slopes on one side of one of BC’s endless mountain valleys. It’s about halfway from Banff to Kelowna, distance-wise (not stress-wise). As you continue to Kelowna, you’ll pass through Sicamous, Enderby, Armstrong, and Vernon, so you probably won’t stop to think about where the name Revelstoke came from. It’s just another one of those place names, you know?

Besides, it seems appropriate. From the perspective of an Albertan, all these BC interior towns are places to go to the ski hill and get stoked in powder and revel in the steep and deep – maybe at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which boasts the greatest vertical drop of any resort in North America (and Revelstoke holds the record for the snowiest winter in Canada) – and later to go to the cabin and stoke the fire and revel all night long with a bottle of whatever you brought, which might be a flavoured whisky named Revel Stoke (not made in Revelstoke).

So while I appreciated the obvious party-cabin overtones of Revelstoke, I never really paused to consider where that name actually came from. Not until today, when someone I follow on Twitter, @EbThen, tweeted, “I’m trying to figure out where the title of Baron Revelstoke came from. Like what the hell does ‘revelstoke’ mean? It’s not the name of any of the places or estates or…”

And I thought, wait, who is Baron Revelstoke?

At first I thought maybe this was the name of some character in a TV show, perhaps named after the town. So of course I looked. And no. Exactly not. Baron Revelstoke is a member of the English peerage. We are now on the seventh Baron Revelstoke, Alexander Rupert Baring, who turned 50 on April 8, 2020. The first Baron Revelstoke was Edward Charles Baring, 1828–1897, and it was in honour of him that the town of Revelstoke was named, as thanks for his bank helping to save the Canadian Pacific Railroad (the reason all these towns are even there) from bankruptcy in 1885 by buying up its unsold bonds.

His bank? That’s the other thing that was named after him – or, well, after his grandfather, Sir Francis Baring. Have you heard of Barings Bank? It was a large and prominent institution. It’s forever associated with one of the great teachable moments in banking: in 1995, a bloke named Nick Leeson, the head of futures trading (a form of legal gambling on which far too much of the world economy relies) at the Singapore branch of Barings, went rogue and made some rather bad judgement calls on derivatives and, oops, torched nearly a billion pounds, double the bank’s entire available trading capital. At which point the bank collapsed.

But in Revelstoke, the only banks that might collapse are those of the Columbia River, and they probably won’t either. Revelstoke was sited where the Illecillewaet flows into the Columbia, and at first it was named Farwell. Arthur Stanhope Farwell, a government surveyor, seeing that the railroad would be coming through, bought up a bunch of land and started a townsite, which of course he named after himself. He charged the Canadian Pacific Railway quite a bit of money for running the tracks across his land; they determined that they sure weren’t going to pay even more to put their station on his land, so they put it (and yards, repair shops, and a whole town) farther uphill, starting an Upper Town and Lower Town divide that persists to this day. And, as mentioned, they named it after Lord Revelstoke. And, in the long run, the town fully said farewell to Farwell, whose gamble did not pay off – he did not get so far or do so well.

OK, fine. But why is Lord Revelstoke called Lord Revelstoke?

This turns out to be harder to pull back the veil from than you’d expect.

Normally, if you go to the Wikipedia article for a member of the British peerage, you’ll find out right away where they got their name. And often enough, it’s not hard to work out anyway – one Canadian newspaper publisher, when he got his peerage, became Lord Beaverbrook (after not just any beaver and not just any brook, but a small community near where he grew up). Another (formerly) Canadian (former) newspaper publisher became Baron Black of Crossharbour, after a place in the docklands of London, near where his offices were. But Revelstoke?

You go look. Wikipedia doesn’t say where it’s from. It just says Edward Charles Baring was Baron Revelstoke of Membland in the County of Devon.

And then, if you look up Membland, it explains that it’s a historic estate near Plymouth, purchased in about 1877 by Edward Baring; after Baring had financial difficulties, he sold it in 1899, and the house ultimately became derelict and was demolished in 1927, although there are still some buildings there, plus a gate put up in 1889 by Baring featuring a bull and a bear. The article gives just one clue about Revelstoke: “Membland, in about 1877, and the manor of Revelstoke were purchased by Edward Baring (1828–1897), who in 1885 was elevated to the peerage as ‘Baron Revelstoke of Membland’.”

The manor of Revelstoke? It doesn’t explain and it doesn’t link.

I mean, come on.

Fortunately, the internet is a big place and we have Google to help us. And so I managed to find this:

“REVELSTOKE parish has it church on the sea coast, near Stoke Point and Bigbury Bay, but most of its inhabitants are in the large fishing village of NOSS MAYO, which lies in a low situation, on the south side of a creek from the mouth of the Yealm, opposite Newton Ferrers, nine miles S.E. of Plymouth. Crabs, lobsters, herrings, and other fish are caught at Noss Mayo, where the villagers suffered severely from cholera in 1849, when about 50 of them died, and more than 200 were afflicted with the dreadful malady. . . . The parish had 613 inhabitants in 1841, and contains 1470A. 2R. 19P. of land. The manor of Revelstoke was long the property and seat of the Revells, and was sold about 12 years ago, by Sir J. Perring, to its present owner, Robert Robertson, Esq., of Membland. W.W. Pendarves, Esq., owns the manor of Lambside, and part of the parish belongs to a few smaller owners. The Church is an ancient structure, with a small belfry and two bells; and in Noss Mayo, is a small Chapel of Ease, erected in 1838. The benefice is a perpetual curacy, consolidated with the vicarage of Yealmpton. . . . ” [From White’s Devonshire Directory (1850)]

So. Revell plus stoke. It is now very easy. I will unravel each part in sequence for you.

Revell, as it happens, is a name associated with something quite close to where I live now: Toronto City Hall, which was designed by Viljo Revell. But Viljo Revell was born Viljo Rewell in Finland; he changed the spelling to Revell (perhaps because he was tired of hearing his name mispronounced by English speakers or perhaps because he was tired of seeing it misspelled by Finnish speakers; I don’t know). And I can’t trace much farther back on his family name, but there are quite a few Rewells in Finland and I have nothing to tell me if there’s any connection to Rewells and Revells from farther west in Europe.

I do, however, have plenty to tell me where the Revells of Revelstoke, Devon, got their name: from Norman French, like many of the English gentry. There is some suggestion that the name is related to French reveler, ‘reveal’ (which comes from Latin meaning ‘pull back the veil’), but the more common view is that it is really the same word as revel. As in party. It ultimately traces back to Latin rebellare, also the source of rebel (as in go rogue). In other words, cut loose. Partying is the hallmark of rebellious youth, after all. Mountain resort towns are no strangers to it, and apparently neither are country piles in Devon.

And stoke? Does it have to do with putting logs on a fire?

…Yeah. But not quite directly.

When you see -stoke in an English place name, such as Basingstoke, it comes from Old English stoc, which in discussions of place names is generally treated as meaning ‘outlying settlement’ or ‘stockade’, but basically is a name for a place, a home, a stump to call your own – in fact, one of its meanings is ‘tree stump’. It’s the old form of the modern word stock in all its senses: ‘tree trunk’, ‘length of wood’, ‘stored goods’, ‘capital raised through the issue of shares, subject to trading on exchanges’ (hmm). It’s also from the same root (ha ha) as stoke, meaning ‘put another log on the fire’.

So. Yes. Now we have gotten our Barings, I mean bearings: Revelstoke means ‘party cabin’, when you come down to it. Which, at the end of the day, you will.


Man, when you’re locked down, locked in, and locked up, it’s nice from time to time (if you’re not afraid of getting locked out) to go out into some outdoor space, get (and give and take) a bit of space, and just… space out. Go for a walk for a while.

I’m sure they feel the same in Germany. When you can do little else, you can still go for a walk: spazieren gehen. Yes, I’m cheating today: spazieren is a German word, not an English one. I’m going for a stroll in the linguistic neighbourhood.

So spazieren is the German word for ‘walk’? Hmm, well. German doesn’t have one specific word that it uses in all the places English uses walk. In fact, it will often just use gehen, ‘go’. But if you’re going for a walk – or going strolling – that’s spazieren gehen. So spazieren could be translated as ‘to stroll’. But the more interesting thing about this word, I think, isn’t where it’s going; it’s where it’s come from.

First let me pause to tell you how it’s pronounced, so you don’t have the wrong sound in your head. The s is like “sh” because it’s before p, and the z is like “ts,” and the stress is on the second-last syllable, so it’s /ʃpaˈtsiːʁən/, like “shpatseeren.” Now let’s move on.

That z may seem like Italian. In fact, that’s the usual way to say z in German, but, in this case, it actually is Italian. This word wandered all the way from Italy, where it’s spaziare. That, in its turn, came from Latin spatiari, which meant ‘go for a walk’ – but it also meant ‘spread, expand, space out’.

‘Space out’? Yes: it’s a verbalization of the noun spatium, which is the origin of our word space and had all the same meanings in Latin, pretty much.

So even the Romans, when going for a walk, might have said “I’m going to space out” (or maybe “I’m going to distribute myself” or “I’m going to spread myself around”). And that stuck into Italian (in which, by the way, spaziare also means ‘spread’ or ‘scatter’). And at last just the peregrine perambulatory sense made it all the way to German.

Hey, even words need to get out and around and space themselves a bit.


Genealogy runs in my family.

Seriously: both my mother’s mother and my father’s father were very interested in it, and as a result I know the histories of some lines of my ancestors back to the 1600s and 1700s. It can be fascinating to follow it back. People typically visualize it as looking up a tree and seeing the branches, but when you’re doing the research it’s more like going down a bunch of tunnels that fork (and sometimes merge). And you can go down one quite far, and another not too far, and you’re constantly hitting dead ends and backing up and so on. It feels like you’re a rabbit in a warren.

Etymology is the same kind of adventure. You follow words back as far as you can go, through the tunnels of history, sometimes branching and sometimes merging. It’s one of the many fun parts of linguistics.

I inherited my interest in linguistics, too. I got it from my dad (along with some of his books – Pike’s Phonemics and Quirk and Wrenn’s Old English Grammar, oh, and Rehder and Twaddell’s German and Kritsch’s Modernes Deutsch and the American Bible Society Greek New Testament and… I’m sure some others as well, and some of them were even taken with permission). I reckon my interest in etymology might also have drawn on the family genealogy habit.

Let’s do a little genealogical tracing of a word so you can see for yourself. I think warren will do nicely.

A warren is, as I’m sure you know, a system of burrows dwelt in by rabbits, and by extension any other maze of tunnels or halls (and many a large old bookstore, come to think of it). But warren also used to be a word for a game preserve; the current sense narrowed down from that: it turns out that people used to set aside land specifically for breeding rabbits (do they still? I don’t know, but I grew up in a province much of which seemed to be set aside for breeding gophers). And from that came the ‘tunnel complex’ sense.

The ‘game preserve’ sense traces back to Old French warenne, which came into modern French as garenne (and also now means ‘rabbit warren’) but also as varenne, an old word for a game park (i.e., a place privileged people could go to try and kill free-ranging animals) that now survives in some place names. From those place names it has shown up in some family names, for example François Pierre de la Varenne (1615–1678), author of Le Cuisinier françois, one of the great bases of the French cuisine tradition (from which descended, centuries later, another book I have: the Larousse Gastronomique, which my father and mother gave me on my request for my 14th birthday).

Varenne – or, rather, its lexical progeny – also shows up in some English names. It is one of two (!) sources of the English name Warren. So yes, Warren is a cousin of warren. But there is another source for some of the Warrens: a German word warin, meaning ‘guard’. Warin is also the source of the German name Werner (and the English name Warner and, I think, the name Vernor, maker of a ginger ale still popular in western New York State, where my parents grew up).

But Warren is, originally (and still), a surname. I’ll come back to how it got to be a personal name. First, though, I want to keep following the etymology deeper into the tunnels.

This Old French warenne most likely traces to Proto-Germanic *warjaną (that asterisk means it’s reconstructed by inference – it’s the linguist’s mark meaning ‘unattested’; it’s sort of like those paleontological and archeological reconstructions of faces and beasties from bones and what we know about critters and phizogs). That word was a verb meaning ‘ward off’ or ‘defend against’. But warenne may also trace to *warōną, ‘watch, protect’ (how does this keep happening! – I know, it’s because people often mingle and merge similar-sounding words). One or both of those is also the source of warin, the other source of Warren, which means that the two Warrens are kissing cousins. Quite the family reunion, so to speak!

But wait, there’s more! The forked tunnels merge again farther back: both of those Proto-Germanic roots are descended from the Proto-Indo-European root *wer-, meaning ‘cover, heed, notice’ (I’m getting this info via Wiktionary, by the way).

It just so happens that this *wer- is the source of many words in different Indo-European languages. They all have a family resemblance, if you know what to look for. The r appears in pretty much all of them; there is often an n after it (or sometimes a d, which is the nose-stopped-up version of n), and sometimes a vowel between the two; before the r is typically an a or sometimes an e; and then there is the opening consonant. W is a fun one, because it can change to or from v and to or from gw (often spelled gu), and from there we can get g. This is why there’s garenne and varenne from warenne.

So let’s follow the tunnels back to the present from *wer-. Down one tunnel (via a Proto-Germanic word for ‘worry, care, heed’), we get to a group of words that includes garnish. Down another (via the Proto-Germanic *warnōną, ‘warn, be careful’), we get to warn. Down the *warōną line, we arrive at ware, wary, aware, beware, guard, and garage. Down the *warjaną line, we come – through various splits over time – to weir, garrison, guarantee, and warranty. And, as you now know, through both of those last two we arrive at warren.

And at Warren. Which was, as it happens, the family name of an early hero of the American Revolutionary War: General Joseph Warren, a physician whose spirited advocacy of independence gained him his commission as an officer in the colonial army. When fighting broke out with the British, the 34-year-old Warren, who was among the “minutemen” who alerted others to the arrival of British soldiers, demurred when asked to lead the troops, insisting that others with greater military skill do so, and instead served as a foot solider in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 – where at least two of my ancestors also fought, one on Warren’s side, the other a Hessian serving the British. Both of my ancestors survived, and the Hessian happily settled in the new country (no hard feelings!). But General Warren did not survive: one of the British officers recognized him, shot him in the head, and brutalized his body. He became an early martyr to the cause of independence, and a painting of his death made some 40 years later by John Trumbull cemented his legacy.

His legacy was also cemented by eponyms. There are various counties and towns in the US called Warren, for example – one I think of right away is the little city of Warren, in Warren County, Pennsylvania; it’s a short drive south of Jamestown, New York, which, along with sharing a name with me, is also in the part of New York where my mother grew up.

And largely because of General Warren, the name Warren became a popular name for American boys. I have always known it first and foremost as a personal name – because it’s the name of a close relative: my father, who grew up an hour and a half’s drive north of Jamestown (and two hours north of Warren), in Buffalo (probably drinking lots of Vernor’s, I don’t know). My father, who is descended from that Hessian soldier who was definitely not the person who shot General Warren, though he might have fired in his direction for all we know. My father, whose gift of language and linguistic fascination – and, oh yeah, another book, a little volume of family genealogy hand-printed and hand-bound by his father – helped me do this fun run through the warren of etymology of warren, all the way back past garrisons and guarantees and guards and garages and warrants and warnings and so many other things to be aware of.

And today is his 80th birthday. Happy birthday, dad!


What do you see here? And with what eyes do you see it?

I see these words on my screen with eyes that are myopic and presbyopic, and when I look at what else my screen shows me, my mind tends to hyperopic. I mean that I am nearsighted – I have been since my childhood, when I decided that I would look better with glasses (I was right) and so started reading books close up in low light, and I got what I wanted – and I now have eyes that have gotten old and don’t have as great a range of focus – so I have several pairs of glasses, depending on what I’m planning to do with my eyes, so accessorize your eyes! – and yet when I read what the web sends me I tend to see far-away things with more clarity than nearby ones: I am figuratively farsighted. (However, sometimes what I see makes me turn away and feel sick.)

In politics and planning and other matters of the world it is supposedly good to be farsighted, but of course you need to see near as well, and it is best to have a good range of focus. So really you need to have good focus at all ranges. And you cannot turn away, no matter how sick it makes you feel.

Is there a word for that?

Let’s look at this word emmetropic. Do you discern bits? Your eyes may settle quickly on tropic – we all like to think of warm climes at times, especially if we can’t go to them and it’s not so hot where we’re at – and then you are left with what emme might be. If it were emmet it could mean ants, but I don’t want to see tropical ants, if you don’t mind. How about the Greek root ἐμέω, which shows up in emetic? In that case, since tropic actually refers to turning, and since ἐμέω means ‘I vomit’, emetropic would mean ‘turning and vomiting’. But that’s one m too few, and one emesis too many.

Look again. Broaden your view to take in words such as myopic, presbyopic, and hyperopic, and narrow it from tropic to opic. You see that emmetropic has to do with eyes and sight, and it splits at a seam that’s not at the syllable boundary – sort of like how helicopter is from helico- ‘spiral’ and pter ‘wing’, not from heli ‘sun’ and copter‘absolutely nothing that the Greeks ever talked about’.

OK, but if it’s emmetr- plus opic (and it is), what is emmetr-? It is from ἔμμετρος emmetros, from ἔν en ‘in’ plus μετρος metros ‘measure’. So emmetropic means ‘having sight in [good] measure’, or ‘having emmetropia’, where emmetropia is ‘sight in [good] measure’ – in other words, having eyes that are in focus at all distances (save, of course, too damn close, which we can define as so close you might accidentally get what you’re looking at in your eye). The New Sydenham Society Lexicon, quoted by the OED, defines emmetropia as “The normal or healthy condition of the refractive media of the eye, in which parallel rays are brought to a focus upon the retina when the eye is at rest and in a passive condition.”

Parallel rays, like parallel lines, like the parallel tracks of a metro or the stems of mm. And of course as you look closer and your eyes change focus, the lines converge. Which is good. Because parallel lines never meet, and everything that involves seeing well enough to change anything eventually involves getting close enough to meet.

And how is that realized with our real eyes? …We’ll see. Just keep focus and don’t turn away.


Are you dwelling on what you’re dwelling in?

These days we seldom tell of dwelling, unless in a compound such as city-dwelling. The word dwell with its related forms is dwindling; it seems almost to have gone astray somewhere. We talk of where we live, of our home, of our house, of our residence. We reside there. But dwell? It’s more of a special-use word.

It has a holy overtone to it, dwell, thanks to its frequent use in the King James Bible. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever,” the 23rd Psalm concludes. The 24th Psalm tells us “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” At the time of that translation, reside had not overtaken dwell, nor was live so commonly used for this narrower sense.

But as Tennyson wrote,

In me there dwells
No greatness, save it be some far-off touch
Of greatness to know well I am not great.

All is not holy with this word, and its past is not so blessed. Let us turn from psalms to a palindrome:

Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel.

You know that’s old, not just because it cheats with the & but because it spells dwel with one l, a form disused for a half a millennium now: our old monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words ending in /l/ have all doubled it up, hell, well, bell, smell, fill, kill, fall, roll, dull, and so on, dwelling just a little longer with the benefit of more easily distinguishing lfrom any other slender grapheme.

But how does one dwell evilly, whether with one l or two? Is not a dwelling good, or at least neutral?

In fact, dwelling was, at one time, more evil than good. We would do well to dwell on this detail for a few minutes.

It is not that we were all nomads and did not want to be boxed in. It is that the word itself was in a bad neighbourhood. We get a clue to this in the fact that we can speak of dwelling on something, which is related to the fact that dwell also refers to the time a train (especially a subway train) spends stopped in a station. Dwell meant – and in some usages still means – ‘tarry’, ‘hang back’.

Which is not intrinsically evil, of course. But if you are not going forward, then you are not going forward on the right path, a fact many a subway rider will be sensitized to if their train dwells a minute too long. And the relation between “not going anywhere” and “not going on the right path” is the core of the early history of this word.

A millennium ago, to dwell someone was to lead them astray, and so to dwell yourself – or just to dwell – was to go astray. This sense of the word came from a Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as *dwaljaną meaning ‘delay’ or ‘hold up’ or ‘be confused’ or ‘perplex’ and a closely related word *dwelaną meaning ‘go astray’. And that is the ambivalence at the root of dwell: to go no rightly, or just not to go rightly.

The English use of dwell (or earlier spellings) meaning ‘abide’ or ‘continue in a state, place, or action’ was established by about 800 years ago, and there it has dwelt ever since. It gained the sense ‘reside’ by the 1300s, and dwelling meaning ‘residence’ was in use before 1400. The usage dwell on meaning ‘linger’ or ‘brood over’ or ‘sustain a musical note’ was in place by the 1400s. And no one has seen the ‘lead astray’ or ‘go astray’ sense since about the same time. You may recall being told, in your childhood, “If you don’t know where you are, stay there”; the history of these two senses supports that: the ‘stay’ one has been found, and the ‘go’ one has been lost.

And that is how a word can have meant both ‘go astray’ and ‘stay at home’. Words are full of possibilities, and poetic words even more so, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior—for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of eye—
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors—the fairest—
For Occupation—This—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

For Paradise is not a fixed, complete, perfect place and state; just as infinity is always increasing at infinite speed, or it would not be infinity, creation must ever be creating, truth must be ever adapting and updating, and meaning must ever be multiplying to stay meaningful. And if this means that it encompasses movement and non-movement, good and bad, so be it.

It also encompasses you being in something and something being in you. As we are learning, there is incessant discovery and revision in our dwellings and dwelling in us. Denise Levertov brought us the truth in “Matins”:

Marvellous Truth, confront us
at every turn,
in every guise, iron ball,
egg, dark horse, shadow,
of breath on the air,
in our crowded hearts
our steaming bathroom, kitchens full of
things to be done, the
ordinary streets.

Thrust close your smile
that we know you, terrible joy.