On a day like this, the air is a thousand furry caterpillars crawling down your back. The sun shames you like a bad performance review, and all the envy you have ever felt creeps viscous from your skin and slinks to find the earth. Even the shadows of trees unwelcome you as though you had filled out paperwork in the wrong order. Your choice is to retreat to the hard artificial arctic of indoor air conditioning or to elongate yourself and allow the hot wet tongue of the dog star to lick you. Never mind how north you may be; your skin is in not the south but the sud, and it is torrific, horrific… sudorific.

If you’re in Canada, this word may be more familiar thanks not to the weather (which is only occasionally sultry) but to the toiletries: your antiperspirant (if you have one) says, on the French side, antisudorifique. Which can readily be anglicized as antisudorific, telling us that sudorific must mean perspirant and, from that, that sudor would seem to have to do with… sweat.

Which it does. It’s the Latin word for ‘sweat’. You may know it from the long and laborious medieval song “Olim sudor Herculis,” about the labours of Hercules, the title of which means “Once, the sweat of Hercules…”

But where does this word come from? Oh, that’s no sweat. No, wait, actually, it is. Or, anyway, it’s the same source as sweat, as scholars have found by poring over the historical record: sudor traces to Proto-Indo-European *sweyd-, which is also the source of Proto-Germanic *switjaną, which is the origin of, yes, sweat, and all the related words in other Germanic languages, such as German schwitzen and Yiddish shvitzn.

Well. This is the weather where we’re all shvitzers waiting for waiters to bring us spritzers (“sudo bring me a spritzer”). It’s not so terrific; it’s sudorific.


Sometimes a once-illustrious institution has lost its lustre. Perhaps (by way of illustration) its leader has been too great a luster, for power or money or luxury or adulation or adulteration; perhaps there has been less lucidity than one would like. The loutishness of the lotharios has gotten many into a lather of loathing for the leadership and its acolytes. It will all need to be laved, washed clean like the Augean stables, but more than that: it cannot have a mere whitewash; it must have performative purification. There must be a lustration.

Lustration is a word not often seen or heard, though it’s certainly not without occasion for use. One problem is that it sounds too much like a number of other words that don’t mean the same: lust and luster and lustre and illustration all leap to mind, and while the first two are not related to lustration the latter two may be. But while something that has had a lustration may seem sparkling clean and picture-perfect under illumination, that’s not what lustration means.

A lustration is, in the old and original sense, a rite of purification, especially of washing. Sometimes it’s more of a symbolic washing, or even a sacrifice, but it can also be a good and proper cleansing. And from that comes a more modern and figurative sense: to quote Wiktionary, “The restoration of credibility to a government by the purging of perpetrators of crimes committed under an earlier regime.” Not just slapping a new coat of paint on the walls and some perpetrators on the wrists, and not just making an example of one or two while letting the rest remain unexemplary; getting rid of all of them, and dealing with them according to their deserving. You can see where such a word could come into play from time to time.

But how has this word, which looks so lustrous and illustrative, taken a left turn to the lavabo and perhaps the guillotine? It comes from Latin lustratio, which is derived from lustro and ultimately lustrum, which refers to a purificatory sacrifice; it most likely is related to luo and lavo, both of which mean ‘I wash’ (they’re originally two versions of the same word); trace those back to Proto-Indo-European and you find the source of words to do with washing, including such as lather. But it may also (or alternatively) be related to luceo, ‘I shine’, source of words such as lucid; luceo traces to a Proto-Indo-European root that has as descendants words such as illustrationillustrious, lustre, luxury, light, and even leukemia and lynx. The evident fact that illustro (‘I elucidate’ or ‘I illuminate’ or ‘I make illustrious’) is formed from the same lustro as lustration gives some weight to this derivation.

It’s not too hard to see how brightness and cleanness can be related, anyway. As they say, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But a good scouring with soap, and a removal of those who made it dirty in the first place, can only help.


We all do it, from time to time, given the chance: we sit and watch the waves come in. The future rolls to you, becomes the present, and again, and again: change, incessant change, so similar one to another but never the same, and yet after half an hour, after an hour, what has changed?

Tide comes to you and takes your time. You look to the horizon, but it is just waves all the way. It is the meeting of happenings you can’t see and things you can see that are not truly happening. The invisible wind brushes the surface of the water, and the water arches its back like a cat and pretends to move. You see it come towards you, but the water is not coming towards you, not piling up at your feet: instead, like generations passing down their thoughts and fears and hopes to later generations, each indistinguishable drop of water pushes the next and that one the next and that one the next, and at last the front of the line falls forward, reaches for you like a drowning person grasping at the shore, and then slides back. And again forward, and again back. In each lash of surf it falls to pieces and comes back together, and that shakes the air, and the air sends waves in the same way to you, and you hear the rush and froth and hiss but it is only the air that was already in your ear telling you what it was told, information passed from the splash through countless atoms until the last of them tumble forward and bump against your eardrum. And waves of light reflect and strike your eyes, and cells take note and nerves pass signals and your brain decides what it all signifies.

This is kymoskepsis. ‘Wave-gazing’. From Greek κῦμα kuma ‘wave’ and σκέψις skepsis ‘watching, considering’. You may know the similarly formed omphaloskepsis, ‘navel-gazing’; here, you look not at your own umbilicus, but at the lifeblood of the world.

You may also recognize in σκέψις the source of skeptic. A person who watches and considers may doubt. But when you watch the waves come towards you from the horizon, do you doubt them? Do you doubt the sea or the lake? More likely you doubt yourself, your significance, your existence. Well, you are also a wave: nothing stays the same inside your mind or your emotions; they change from moment to moment. And from moment to moment your body changes, too; it takes in new food and new air, and it destroys and rebuilds itself, and it lets go of what is no longer needed, and it all changes gradually. The waves know you as one of their own. All your life of watching yourself is so much more kymoskepsis: waves watching waves watching waves.

And words are waves, too, changing with the times, passed on by air and minds and other fluids. We can trace κῦμα and σκέψις back to their postulated Proto-Indo-European origins; everything before that is over the horizon of history, but it came from somewhere. And now we can see κῦμα and σκέψις come together in this word to roll forward: this article that you are reading is the first time of use of kymoskepsis, the new old word. I nearly used the Latinized spellings to make cymoscepsis, which is more wave-shaped and more wave-sounding, but I was… skeptical. Perhaps it is the better version; we shall see, in time.


There are times when things just don’t look right, don’t sound right, don’t match what you expect, and it seems to come out of nowhere; you can’t see clearly, like you’re in a mist, and you’re full of… kauch.

Kauch? Is that like a short form of “OK, augh!” or “OK, ouch”? Well, no, but it does express something of that attitude. It means ‘trouble, worry, anxiety’. And it’s said like…

…hmm, well, there are quite a few variations on the pronunciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Brits may say it /kjɔːx/, /kjɔː/, /kɔːx/, or /kɔːk/; Americans may say it /kjɔ/, /kjɑ/, /kjɔx/, /kjɑx/, /kɔk/, /kɑk/, /kɔx/, or /kɑx/; Scots say it/kjɔx/. And Wiktionary goes simply with /kjɑx/. Which, for those not familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, is like if you start to say “cute” but replace the “oot” with “ach” (as in the Scottish or German word), perhaps because you see something that troubles you.

Which might be, for instance, how you get to that pronunciation from the spelling kauch. Shouldn’t it at least be kiauch?

Would you settle for kiaugh? That’s the other spelling, and it helps account for those versions that sound like “kyaw” as well. But you can write it kauch and pronounce it /kjɑx/, or you can write it kiaugh and pronounce it /kɔk/. Because anxiety has its own secret reasons and distortions, hiding behind clouds, and nothing seems to go together as it should or to make clear sense.

And nothing has a good justification, either. This word, for instance. Where does it come from? Oxford doesn’t know. Wiktionary doesn’t know. Merriam-Webster (which goes only with the kiaugh spelling and the /kjɑx/ pronunciation) doesn’t know.

We do know that it’s a Scottish word, originally, and so it would seem to come from Scots Gaelic, which branched off from the same old tongue as modern Irish. And the way that /kjɑx/ would be spelled in Irish would typically be ceach or ciach. It happens that there’s no Irish word (modern or historical) spelled ceach, though ceacht means ‘lesson’ (a cause of anxiety for many people), but there is an Irish word ciach, a now-disused genitive form of the word ceo (ceo is said like “kyo” or “ko”). Of course many people get anxiety from their CEO, but this ceo means ‘fog’, ‘mist’, ‘haze’, or ‘vapour’ – or it can be used idiomatically in a phrase such as “Níl tú ag insint ceo den fhírinne dhom” (“You aren’t telling me a word of the truth,” or more literally “You aren’t telling me a mist of the truth”; thanks to Wiktionary for the example). So ciach used to mean ‘of fog’ or ‘of mist’ (or ‘fog’s’ or ‘mist’s’), but now they just use ceo unchanged for that.

But that’s not where kauch comes from either. Remember: etymology by sound is not sound etymology! You need to have a trail of attested uses. And there’s no known link. Sometimes when you try to go back in the mists of time, you just get more mist.

Just like how sometimes when you dive into anxiety, worry, trouble, kauch, kiaugh, whatever, you just get more of it.


Can you divine what this funny-looking word means?

The -oscopy is the easier part, since we see it in a variety of terms: arthroscopy, colonoscopy, microscopy, horoscopylaparoscopy, spectroscopy… In general they involve taking a look at something, and sometimes doing something to or about what you’re looking at. This -scop- is the same one as in periscope, telescope, horoscope, and assorted other words such as scopophilia; it comes from Greek -σκοπία -skopia, ‘observation’, from σκοπεῖν skopein, ‘look at’, but its various uses in English exhibit some amount of scope creep.

The gel- part might stop you cold at first. Is that the same gel as in gelid, ‘cold’? Which is the same, at root, as in gelatin and congeal and assorted other words tracing back to coldness or freezing? Then geloscopy would be, what, a cold glance? Or a cold read? Or looking at something cold? Or just looking cold?

H, no. Sorry to cast a chill on the idea, but that gel- is from Latin gelare, ‘freeze’ or ‘cause to congeal’ or ‘petrify with fright’. It traces to a Proto-Indo-European root that also descended to Greek γελανδρόν gelandron, ‘cold, chill, frost’, but that Greek root isn’t the source of this gel-.

No, the Greek root that this word draws on is γελάω gelaō (Modern Greek γελώ), verb, ‘laugh’.

So… does that mean that this word, which is funny looking (and also funny sounding, in that the stress is on the o, “jell oss co pee”), also means ‘the state of looking funny’?

No, it’s even more laughable than that. You see, -scopy can refer to looking at something for scientific or medical purposes, but it can also refer to looking at something for purposes of divination – as in horoscopy, whish is time-based divination, or scatoscopy, which is divination by looking at feces (perhaps watching certain TV channels would serve today), or, well, geloscopy, which is divination by looking at laughter.

Looking at? Who has seen the laughter? Not even W.O. Mitchell or Christina Rossetti! Obviously this is the broader sense of ‘look at’, meaning in this case ‘listen to’. But what can you divine from laughter?

You tell me. Don’t say you’ve never listened to how someone laughs and formed expectations of their character from it. It’s as common a clue to their persona as how they shake hands or how they dress. Can it predict what will happen to them in the future? Well… it sets up odds of how you’ll interact with them, anyway. Don’t laugh! That’s part of their future, right?

Besides, divination has also been used for things hidden in the here and now, not just in the future. You can know something about a person by how they’re laughing. Also by when they’re laughing, and at what – or whom. Not so laughable when you think of it that way, is it?


Say, what’s smew?

This is a cute but iffy little word, isn’t it? It brings all sorts of things to mind. Perhaps it has a smell, or perhaps it smears; maybe it mews like a kitten, or maybe it lives in a mews. It might spew from its maw. It seems small and perhaps new. It might be suited to smog or to snow or it might prefer to swim; it might like to eat s’mores or watch sumo. Who’s to know?

Well, this chap, for one:

You can see he’s a big fan of smew. Has been ever since he was a kid. The smew come over from Siberia and spend the winter in England, some of them right by where he grew up.

For those who can’t or don’t want to watch the video: a smew is a kind of little diving duck. The males are mostly white, with a striking black pattern, including a mask; the females are grey with brown heads; both of them have pointy bills and, typically, crests on their heads that would get them into the better kind of punk bars. Their calls sound like a cross between a chainsaw revving and a character from The Simpsons.

And they’ll just paddle along happily on the water, then abruptly dive in and, thereafter, resurface eating a fish. Icy water does not bother them.

OK, but… where the heck did they get this name? Why, of all the things they could be called, are they smew? And why, of all the things smew could be a name for, does it refer to these little ducks?

The answer is… no one really knows. The name has been in use since at least the 1600s. There’s another word, smee, that is used for several ducks, including the wigeon and the smew, and smew may be related to that, though they showed up at about the same time; smee in its turn is probably related to smeath, which is another word for the same thing and has been around about as long. Smew and smee may also be related to Dutch smient (which means ‘wigeon’) and German Schmeiente or Schmünte (which mean ‘wild duck’).

And… well, that’s all. The word might as well have flown in from Siberia. It didn’t, though; when they’re in Russia, the locals call them луток, lutok.

By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept

Here is another sentence tasting. This one is 4000 words long, but it is divided in ten parts.


Sentences do not pass through you like trains through a station. Ideas and words and strings of words come together in your mind, they have affairs, and they give birth to sentences through your tongue and your lips and your teeth and your fingertips.

Everything you hear is like something you’ve heard before. Every sentence you read reminds you of previous sentences and evokes feelings you had about those sentences. Sometimes the resemblance is weak and general, like a face in the crowd that is like other faces you’ve seen in other places. Sometimes the resemblance is strong and deliberate, calling forth all the memories you have of an old friend, or like someone you have not known but have long wanted to meet. Sometimes a sentence takes familiar bits and puts them together in a new way that is like someone you’ve never known before but suddenly feel like you have wanted to know all your life. And when you now meet, you are carried away, captured by the fame – no, you capture it and you carry it away. And make a new meaning.

And then life moves on. With or without you, it moves on. But you still are still pregnant with this sense. And you may dwell with it in palaces or in flophouses, on clean silk or on reeking cotton, or both by turns, but it is always yours, in paradise and in exile.


Have you ever read “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept”?

Have you ever read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept? Continue reading

Pronunciation tip: Canada’s provinces, territories, and main cities

Pronunciation tip: Canada’s provinces, territories, and main cities

July 1 is Canada Day, and so in honour of that, I’ve done a video about the names of all the provinces and territories and their capitals and largest cities. If you’re not Canadian and intend to talk about Canada, you will probably find this useful. If you are Canadian and know how to say all these names, you may still find this useful because I say where all the names are from. I bet you don’t know! Hint: It’s mostly rivers, lakes, and Queen Victoria’s family.

The performance of a text

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada

If someone says “How about some music,” and you say “Sure – Beethoven’s fifth?” do you think they’ll be happy if you just hand them a printed copy of the score?

A musical score is intended to be performed, and you don’t have a performance without musicians and a conductor – and the stage and lighting crew. And any two performances will be different, at least slightly and sometimes significantly.

A novel or a short story – or a nonfiction book or article – is, on the other hand, a finished work. You sit down, you read it, you get the same thing every time. Right?

Ha, no.

We’re all editors here, so we know how many pairs of eyes and hands have worked on a text before it’s published. But we might casually assume that once the wording is finalized and all the errors are fixed, the text is done and all printed versions are fungible.

Even though we know it’s not true.

We know it’s not true because we know that reading a nicely laid-out print magazine version of an article is a different experience than reading a text flow of it on a website. We know, if we’re proofreading, what a difference some seemingly small things can make – misalignments, for instance, or bad breaks.

And we also know it’s not true because when we’re shopping for books, if there are several different editions of the same work, we will choose carefully between them. Just as we may choose between a performance of Beethoven’s 5th that is fast-paced and percussive and one that is more stately and smooth, we may likewise choose carefully between two editions of, say, Jane Eyre. One of them might be on pulp paper in a casewrap hardcover with a photo on the cover and a small, tight type face with narrow margins and no paragraph indents, while the other might be a trade paperback with a stylish minimalist cover, creamy, durable paper, and well-set type in a graceful face. You’ll get the same story, sure, but you won’t get the same feeling from reading it – about the story or about yourself.

A book is a performance of a text. So is a magazine layout of an article. So is this website’s presentation of this article you’re reading now.

Different performances differ in so many details. If it’s a website, are there pictures? How wide is the text column? Is it cluttered with ads? What font is it in? If it’s a book, does it feel cheap or luxurious? Is it light or heavy, soft or hard? What does the cover look like? Do you like the type face? Is it easy to read in low light? Do the pages turn easily? And, for heaven’s sake, how does it smell?

Does all this seem peripheral to the actual text? Tell me this, then: if you’re buying an audiobook, does it matter whether it’s read by Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Waits? Helen Mirren or Siri? You’re getting the same story, right?

Sure you are. But a different performance. And the difference between type faces in which you read Sherlock Holmes stories can be as affecting as the difference between Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock and Basil Rathbone’s. The difference in page layout, paper, and binding can make as much difference as the set design of a production of a play. The page is a stage – or a concert hall.


Mike Mallet leaned back in his desk chair, swirled the ice cubes in his glass of cheap Scotch, took a slug, and leveled his eyes at the peculiar man sweating in his direction from the other side of the desk. “Mister Brainum, you won’t be seeing your clown in centre ring again.”

“I… understand there was some sort of mishap?” Brainum said, wringing his handkerchief. He dabbed his forehead with it and went back to wringing it.

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Mallet said, and leaned forward over his desk, “he was jugulated.”

“I… oh! I…” Brainum did two more cycles of dabbing and wringing. “I…” He took his spectacles in his hand and inspected them. At length he put them back on his face and looked up. “What does that mean?”

“Well, we came in, and found him on the floor with a considerable mess: broken eggs, a broken pitcher, and… Bonzo wasn’t looking in top form either.”



Brainum smiled faintly. “His name is Ziggy.”

“Well,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and tilted into his mouth an ice cube, which he crunched for a few seconds. “I think he was more zaggy by the time we found him.”

“It’s because he was a Libra,” Brainum said.

“…You’ve lost me.”

“Greek for Libra is ‘Zygos’,” Brainum said, more-or-less accurately.

Mallet nodded sagely, pulled open a low drawer in his desk, pulled out a bottle of whisky, and refilled his glass. He drank the glass down, refilled it again, and put the bottle back. “I did not expect to be learning Greek today,” he muttered as he shoved the drawer shut.

“But what happened?” Brainum said. He patted his jacket pockets as he spoke and found that he did not, in fact, have a flask on him, or a cigarette, or anything at all.

“Well, we think he was juggling some eggs…”

“Oh, ‘jugulated’,” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “It was interesting that he seemed to have dropped them just as they were in a perfect alignment—”

“A syzygy!”

“He might have done better with a squeegee.”

“‘Syzygy’ is also related to ‘Zygos’,” Brainum offered helpfully.

Mallet looked at him the way he would look at a raccoon trundling past a picnic table. He lifted his glass and then didn’t drink any of it. “We thought the smashed pitcher had something to do with it…”

“Smashed picture?” Brainum said.

“Pitcher,” Mallet said, and set his glass down. “Jug.”

“Oh, jugulated!” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “And it turned out that the pitcher didn’t hit him. He knocked it over as he fell.”

“So what… how… jugulated?” Brainum said, and dabbed his forehead, and wrung his hanky.

“You don’t know much Latin, do you, mister?”

“No,” Brainum said. “It’s all Greek to me.” He let out a quick squeaky laugh that he quickly stifled into a hiccup.

“You know what this is?” Mallet drew his fingertip across his collar bone.

“Eczema?” Brainum said.

“The collar bone,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and, eyes fixed on Brainum, pointedly drank 1.25 ounces of Scotch in a gulp. “The yoke.”

“Zygos!” Brainum said.

“In Latin, ‘jugulum’. I’m sure the Latin is related to the Greek.” He was right, as usual.

“He broke his collar bone?”

“Do you not know what the veins that go right past it are?” Mallet leaned forward, the veins in question bulging in his neck.

Brainum shrunk back and clutched his handkerchief until the blood all went out of his knuckles. “Uh… jugular?”

Mallet flopped back and raised his hands in hallelujah position. “Someone came up behind him and slashed his neck through the jugular veins. Jugulated him.”

Brainum’s eyes popped wide open like two overboiled eggs. “Jugulated means…” He shakily drew his finger across his throat in the classic gesture. Mallet responded with an emphatic thumb-up, a gesture which, by the way, in the Roman circus meant ‘Yes, go ahead and dispatch your opponent. Jugulate him, impale him, whatever!’

Brainum suddenly knitted his brows. “But… how did you not see that right away?”

“It didn’t take long to notice it,” Mallet said. “But all the eggs had landed right on top of his clavicle, obscuring the matter at first.”

“Oh…” Brainum said. He hiccup-giggled. “The yolk was on him!”

Mallet leveled his eyes on Brainum, to the extent possible. Then he shoved his glass across the desk. “Here. I think you need this.”