paella

As I said in my tasting of chorizo, this week we’re having paella. Or is it? Does it qualify?

I don’t mean the absence of shellfish – that’s characteristic of a regional version of paella, but it’s not universal; this dish has many variations. But there’s one thing that doesn’t vary about this dish: the dish.

By which I mean the dish it’s made in. Or, in this case, the pan. You tell me if you can have a tuna casserole that’s not made in a casserole, or a beef skillet that’s not made on a skillet, or a chicken tajine that’s not served in a tajine, or pork skewers that aren’t cooked on skewers. But I made my paella in a nonstick electric pan, one shaped like a rounded square, and that is definitely not a paella.

Because, yes, a paella is a pan: a large shallow round metal pan with two handles. And when you cook the rice and all the other goodies in it, you don’t stir them after a certain point, so that the bottom develops a browned crust (which loosens up when you let it sit for several minutes after cooking); this does not happen in my nonstick pan. (But I couldn’t fit it all in my iron skillet.) 

So. I may have used exactly the right kind of rice (in fact, I did), and saffron, and various necessary vegetables, plus chicken, not to mention the chorizo, but would I call creamed tuna with noodles cooked in a saucepan on a stovetop a casserole? (On the other hand, there is “stovetop stuffing…”) Also, it wasn’t made in Spain by a Spanish person, but so it goes. 

We know paella as a Spanish word, which means that it’s said with the ll as like “y” – so “pa-eh-ya,” ish. But the word paella came into Spanish from Catalan, just as the culinary item made it in did, and in Catalan the ll is said sort of like in English million, or more like Italian voglio (if you don’t speak Italian, you won’t get it quite right, though). Catalan, in turn, got it from Old French paelle (which became modern French poêle, by the way), which in turn came from Latin patella.

Patella! What has this to do with kneecaps? Just that they’re shaped like a concave dish. Patella is in its turn a diminutive of patina, which is also a word for a broad, shallow dish or pan. (Patina refers in English to tarnish such as one may find on a metal pan, and it gained that sense by transference, rather as paella and casserole and all those other things came to name foods served in the dishes.) Patina in its turn descended to various words in various European languages, mostly for a pan-like dish.

One of those words, in fact, is probably pan. I say “probably” because the route from patina to pan is a windy and mysterious one by way of Old High German and Proto-Germanic. But the evidence is suggestive and the derivation is plausible. So pan is, in its way, the English for paella. And since the evidence is even more suggestive and the derivation even more plausible that what I made for suppers this week is based on Catalan paella, if a pan is, more or less, a paella, do I get away with it? Hmm…

Well, maybe next week I’ll make a casserole. If I do, I’ll probably use my slow cooker. …What?

chorizo

For this week’s suppers, I made a version of paella – though, since I used a nonstick electric pan, I suppose I should call it electric paella, or maybe something else, like electric barbarella. I make one dish on Sunday to last a few days, and don’t worry, I didn’t use any seafood in it (paella doesn’t have to have seafood). But I did use chorizo. Because of course I did.

There are two things no one seems to know about chorizo: what’s in it, and how to say it. I’m not going to get too far into the first – it has pork and paprika and usually garlic and lots of other good things, varying widely through the many places it’s made, but come on, it’s a sausage. But I will spend a moment on the second.

Let me start by saying that chorizo is not an Italian word. The ch is not said like “k,” and the z is by no means to be said as it would be in Italian. No, it’s a Spanish word. And the letter z in Spanish words offers multiple levels of opportunity for English speakers to be pretentious or at least self-conscious. First, in the Americas, we know – or should know – that in Latin American Spanish, z is said like “s” everywhere all the time. But second, those who know about European Spanish know that in the standard variety, z is said like “th” as in “thin” everywhere all the time. (There are stories about how this came to be, but I have the sense they’re about as reliable as the ingredient list on a package of sausages.) So you can say /t͡ʃoˈɾiso/ or you can say /t͡ʃoˈɾiθo/.

Or you can be an English speaker speaking yet another word we’ve long since stolen from another language and say it like an English word, with the z sounding like “z”: /t͡ʃəˈɹi.zoʊ/. Yeah, yeah, we know the source of the word and it’s right there and we can try to honour that source, but have you stopped and taken a look at all the different places English words come from? Our language’s vocabulary is like if someone bought a full lunch from every establishment in a food court and dumped them all into the same big shopping bag. So if you say chorizo with the z as “z” there are other things to feel bad about (especially if you eat the whole shoppingbagfull). It’s better than trying to say it as though it were from a language it’s not even from, anyway.

Here, listen to my butcher say it (and several other things):

Speaking of where it’s from, though… Yeah, this is a Spanish word; it has a Portuguese cognate, chouriço, as well as equivalents in Catalan (xoriço), Galician (chourizo), and Basque (txorizo; yes, an unrelated language, but it’s right there). But since it’s present throughout Iberia, it must come from Latin… right?

Yeah, probably, in the same way as a chorizo comes from a pig. What I have in my paella doesn’t oink or have a curly tail, and the word chorizo doesn’t look a whole lot like salsicia, yet the package label (i.e., the etymologies in available sources) would have us believe that’s the source, um, probably. It may have come via a medial Portuguese souriço, though sources seem to insist that Portuguese chouriço comes from chorizo… hmm. But anyway, salsicia is also the source of Italian salsiccia (clearly), French saucisse, and English sausage. Every one a wiener. (Sorry, not true; couldn’t resist the joke, but it’s not the wurst that could happen either.) And salsicia comes from Latin salsus, which means ‘salted’; that in turn traces back to Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *séh₂ls-, which gives many languages many words for salt and some words for some other things as well. Salsus is also, for reasons of cookery, the source of both salsa and salad.

Which, if you look into your big shopping bag, should also be in there somewhere. How about you throw in some more rice and call it PIE-ella. As long as there’s chorizo, it will be delicious.

gowl

Margot had learned a word she liked from Haggard Hawks, and she had determined to use it in her fiction. She posted a draft of her latest short story to her Facebook writers’ group. Various members immediately seized on the passage containing the word, and by the time Margot got back to her computer there were several replies.

“Great story!” commented Talisa Curdy. “Loved the emotional truth of it. Noticed a typo: ‘She stood gowling in the rain,’ should be ‘glowing’ I think.”

Nan Jenkins replied to Talisa, “Like not perspiring but glowing? LOL”

Not responding to Talisa, Mark Tomlins gave a lengthy analysis of the story, including the comment, “I think you mean ‘howling’ in the rain, yes?”

Elver Kreek replied to Mark, “You sure that’s not ‘growling’? Made sense to me.”

Mark replied to Elver, “Why would anyone stand growling in the rain”

Elver replied, “Because she’s upset, because John just gave her cat away.”

Mark replied, “Is that a thing you would do, just growl? Just stand there and growl, in the rain, into the air?”

Elver replied, “Do you howl?”

Talisa Curdy replied in this thread, “It’s not glowing?”

Elver replied, “Why would she glow after he gave away her cat?”

Talisa replied, “Because she’s incandescent with rage, IDK, I would just want to absolutely kill the guy”

Nan Jenkins replied, “Not sweating then?”

Mark replied, “More like swearing maybe”

At this point Margot entered the discussion. She replied to Talisa’s short thread first. “Thanks! The word is actually gowling; I recently learned it and could not not use it.” She included a link: https://twitter.com/HaggardHawks/status/1370849151022419969?s=20

Then she replied to the thread started by Mark, after Mark’s last comment. “Hi, Mark! Thank you for all your analysis. I did in fact intend the word to be gowling, which, as Haggard Hawks mentioned, is ‘to weep with anger, not sadness’.” She included the same link.

Then she went to have dinner.

When she came back to Facebook, she found there had been some replies.

“I just checked this in Wiktionary,” Mark Tomlins wrote. “It says that in Scots English it means ‘to weep angrily; to howl,’ and that it’s obsolete. Maybe since your audience is modern and not in Scotland you could just make it ‘howl’?”

Margot said to herself as she read this – but did not type it, as there was more to read – “It’s not howling. It’s not the same as howling. She would not stand in the street baying like a hound in heat. What is wrong with you? They can look it up as you did.” She read on.

Dirk Oldman – where did he come from? dammit – replied to Mark, “Wiktionary also says that in Ireland it means ‘An annoying person; an idiot; a dishonest person’ and also ‘Vulva’ and I think we all know a word that can be used for all of those.” Dirk had already been banned once but apparently he had been let back in, and he was treading a very thin line. As she read this, Margot’s skin temperature lowered so much the heating in the apartment kicked in.

Mark Tomlins replied again, “I just looked in the OED, and the closest it gets is ‘To howl, yell, cry bitterly or threateningly; also, to whine. Said of men and animals.’ Also it’s chiefly Scottish and northern dialect.”

Jess Long – oh, thank heavens, at last a well-balanced adult, only occasionally upsetting – commented, “Oxford also says it’s ‘The throat. Also, the front of the neck.’ I don’t think she was necking, though.”

Why. Why would Jess do that. Taunting Mark does not justify derailing this. “Can’t she just support me once,” Margot said to herself.

Elver Kreek replied to this, “It’s also a gummy secretion in the eye.” Who gave him access to the OED?

Nan Jenkins replied, “From crying with rage?”

Elver replied, “It’s also a verb meaning ‘To stop up with gowl,’ like ‘Her eyes were all gowled up.’”

Nan replied, “So maybe she was standing there crying and her eyes got snotty and closed up.”

Mark replied, “That wouldn’t work. For one thing, your eyes get snotty when you’re asleep. For another, the rain would wash it away.”

Talisa replied, “Maybe if your LOOKING UP but who would look up? Oh right, you look up EVERYTHING”

Mark replied, “*you’re”

Nan replied, “You guys, he gave away her cat. I’d be screaming.”

Mark replied, “Right, or howling. I think we can agree that she should be standing there howling. Also, when you howl, you often look up, so the rain would wash her eyes and flow down her cheeks. So you couldn’t tell whether she was weeping or not.”

At reading this, Margot slammed her laptop shut. Daryl, hearing the sound, walked into the room, saying “Everything alright?”

Margot turned to face him, tears of anger streaming down her face. “Do—” she sniffed— “I look—” sniff— “all right?”

Daryl paused for a moment. Then he said, “You look like you’re gowling. Let me get you a glass of wine.” And he disappeared again.

oisivity

Are we not now all as free as birds, or at least as cut-price as birds – birds in cages, at liberty to flap five times from bars to bars, before finding it otiose and retiring to indolence with a barely civil “Oi!”

Such is oisivity: idleness, lassitude, indolence, feckless mopishness, incessant siestatude. When you have nowhere to go and all day to get there… well, as Thomas Fersen says, “sorry, only got two feet” – though, lately, that means two feet of space.

A person might indulge verbal excess at great length, as a late 18th-century author in Fraser’s Magazine did, apparently under the influence of pipes and pints; here’s about one percent of the peroration:

The genius of Colburn is then bothered and confused by the diverse plagiarism, or the indolent and hallucinatory oisivity of Campbell. I shall indulge in none of these heteroclite and derogatory proceedings.

(Narrator’s voice: Oh, but he did.)

Well, words out the wazoo, or wha’s up? Who’s a oiseau? No, no, don’t have a bird – I mean, what would be the point anyway. This word oisivity looks like it’s related to the French word for ‘bird’, oiseau, but that word comes from a slurred version of Latin avicellus, ‘little bird’, from avis, ‘bird’, which is also the source of French oie, ‘goose’. The slurring in oisivity instead ultimately obnubilates otiosus, by way of oisive (and oisif). Yes, otiosus, the direct source of otiose, which means ‘futile, pointless, useless’. Like the t in the middle of otiose, I guess, for some people anyway. Oy.

But, since it’s an English word, oisivity is said like an English word. When it’s said at all, that is, which is generally never-ish. It has a sibling, ocivity, which is also never heard or written these days. What can I say – I guess, somehow, torpor notwithstanding, we just don’t have the time. 

canitude

As I have gained years and lost callowness, I have acquired an increasing canitude.

A canitude is not a can-do attitude, although I have gotten better at knowing what I can do and at saying I can do things when (and only when) I can do them. Likewise it is not the more certain form of mayitude, and even less of may-junitude (more like decembritude, or at least octobritude). It is not that I sing (as in Arma virumque cano, ‘Of arms and the man I sing’); I have done that since I was a dirty blond. And it is not doggedness (from Latin canis) – that’s a trait I’ve retained from my youth: if I have a problem to solve, I grip it like a bull terrier (and sometimes like a terrible worrier). 

Rather, canitude is this:

Grey hair. (Or, for the Americans, gray hair.)

How is canitude greyness? Is it because I’m an old dog? No, it is not: I’m an old cat, and not that old, and anyway I’m always interested in learning new tricks. Nor is it that my hair is singed, or sung of. It’s not even that it’s the colour of an aluminum can (nice and shiny thanks to shampoo). It’s that Latin for ‘grey’ as in hair is canus (or cana or canum, depending on the object) – which can also mean ‘white’ or ‘hoary’ or, when referring to water, ‘frothy’ (see picture above).

This word isn’t used much these days, but there is a related word also descended from canus that rears its head from time to time: canities. This is a medical term and is taken direct from Latin, wherein it means what it means in English: ‘whiteness or greyness of the hair’ (Latin also uses it metonymically to mean ‘old age’). So your canitude is your degree of canities. But because canities entered English in the early 1800s, its pronunciation is influenced by the usual English pronunciation of Latin at the time, so it is, officially and regrettably, “ca-nish-ee-eez.” Which sounds more like sneezing. 

But I don’t endorse use of canities; it presents a state of capillary pulchritude – the apogee of hair colour, something I have spent decades eagerly growing into – as a medical condition. Which, sure, like literally every other physical state, it is, but I don’t wish to see it treated as in the same class as pruritus or edema or, in the world of less reversible conditions, presbyopia and kyphosis. No, I will take canitude. As in yes-I-canitude. And if you don’t like my attitude, you can…

hypaethral

Hypæthral, also spelled hypethral, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, like “hi-pee-thral,” means ‘roofless; open to the sky; exposed to the heavens’ – and, in noun form, ‘someone who lives in the open air’. The hyp is the same as hypo, from Greek ὑπό meaning ‘below’ and related things (a hypodermic needle is one that goes below the skin; hypothermia is having below-normal body heat); the æthr is the same as the source of ether, Greek αἰθήρ ‘air’.

Here’s a poem.

hypæthral

The open sky is my anodyne, 
the aether is my ether.
In my box of clouds and leaves
and on my ground-grass bed,
I lie for staring stars to see,
no lid concealing me.
From the broad blue field of planes,
a glowing hole pours heat
in my box of clouds and leaves
for colder days to come.
In dark the shining needle points
expose worlds without end.
When the earth calls home its sweat,
It pelts me or I hide
to be asperged by gathering boughs.
And in the diamond times,
when soft is hard and dry is wet,
the human heat steams off
in my box of clouds and leaves
me spent and shivering.
I turn, and turn, and turn, and turn,
but never see me in
the mirror of eternity,
the stern and sheltering sky,
the mothering and murdering
anaesthetizing heaven.

funicular

In my life, I’ve had particular fun with funiculars. They’ve figured into many of my most momentous travels.

A funicular, as you probably know, is a railway that is pulled by a rope. The Latin for ‘rope’ or ‘cable’ is funis (as in funambulist, a tightrope walker), and the diminutive of funis is funiculus – though, really, the cables they use on funiculars are not as diminutive as all that. 

The principle of a funicular is that what goes up must come down, and vice versa, and in fact for everything that goes up something else comes down at the same time. You don’t have a funicular railway with just one car; that would require too much energy to pull it up, and too much braking as it was lowered down. Instead, you have two cars, and they’re attached by a cable that loops through a pulley at the top, and they counterbalance each other, more or less. As one goes down and one comes up, they pass in the middle. They might be on completely separate tracks, or they might share a rail in the middle or even share both rails of the track – in the latter two cases they have a double-tracked passing section in the middle. Funicular railways have been popular in the less flat parts of Europe for about a century and a half. There are some in North America, too – but none in the parts where I grew up.

The first funicular I ever met, as far as I can recall, was between Territet and Glion, near Montreux, in Switzerland. I was there in the summer of 1984, staying at a grand old hotel that had become a conference centre on the mountain. I was a 16-year-old freshly graduated from high school and still trying to learn the ropes and find out which way was up. It was my first trip to Europe, my first solo trip of any magnitude, my first chance to experience parts of the world that to that point I had known just from movies and books. There’s a cog railway that runs from Montreux all the way up to the top of the Rochers de Naye, but there’s also a funicular that starts by the lake and runs in a straight line up to Glion, just a short way up the mountain. I rode it one day with an assortment of British and Swedish youth, just for something to do.

The next one I remember was somewhere you might not expect to find one: downtown Los Angeles. It turns out downtown LA isn’t completely flat. There’s a cute little funicular called the Angel’s Flight that runs up short a hill from one block to another. It was 1999 and I was visiting Aina Arro, who was at the time my girlfriend and not yet my fiancée; she was touring with Grease on Ice, a figure skating rendition of the musical, starring Nancy Kerrigan. We – and everyone in the show – were staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. In a few long days we covered an amazing amount of Los Angeles by foot and occasionally by public transport, including walking up and down a large hill in Griffith Park, where there is no funicular or anything of the sort. And one day when she had a daytime rehearsal, I went downtown and, among other things, rode the little funicular, up and back down.

The next one wasn’t one I rode in, not exactly; it was one I sang about. You know the song “Funiculì, funiculà,” right? It’s a love song (a bit fraught, as they may be) featuring a funicular railway that ran up Vesuvius. I sang a bit of it in Hedda Gabler in 2010. It was the first time in some years (and the last time so far) I had acted in a play: the Alumnae Theatre production of Judith Thompson’s adaptation of Ibsen’s classic. In one of the scenes my character, George (Jürgen), put on a gramophone record and sang and danced along with it. It was a moment of brief levity in a play in which one person’s fate goes up as another’s goes down until at last Hedda reaches the end of her rope, the connection breaks and all crashes.

My next funicular was in Wellington, New Zealand, on a trip Aina and I took in 2012. I had been wanting to visit New Zealand since my dad went there with a group 35 years earlier. Aina and I saw as much of the country as we could in 10 days (notably including sampling as much of its wine as we could). Wellington is the capitol; it’s at the south end of the North Island, and it’s not flat. It was about the halfway point of our trip, as we went ever farther south by car and train and car and then flew back up to Auckland to stay there a couple of days. On the way home from that trip, we stopped for a couple of days in San Francisco, with its famous cable cars – which, however, don’t really count as funiculars, cables notwithstanding.

Our next funicular was in 2017, with a wine tour group on a day stop in Bergamo, Italy. Bergamo has a low city and a high city; the high city is a cobblestone-street ancient town on a smallish steep hill that juts above the plain. The convenient way to get up there from where your bus has to drop you off is a funicular, which goes quite a ways up and around a bend and sure beats walking. That trip was our last time in Europe so far; we were supposed to go on another trip to Europe in 2020, but Covid hit (and, as it happened, it hit Bergamo early and hard – but we weren’t going back there; our destination was Spain).

The last funicular I can remember being on is one in Quebec City. It’s a short one that saves you the walk up or down a few hundred stairs between the cute shopping and dining area of the Vieux Port and the hilltop old town, by the Château Frontenac. Aina and I were there on a little getaway in December 2017, just before I was due to leave the job I had been at for more than 17 years and start a new one. As we were checking into the hotel, I got a phone call letting me know that the funding for my new job had been cut. What could I do but laugh and enjoy the rest of the trip? And now, a bit over three years later, I’m freelancing full time, and doing better than I was then. One thing goes down, another comes up.

And when all this pandemic goes down, I can’t wait to see what else comes up, travel-wise. Apparently there’s a funicular in Barcelona, and one in Lisbon, and…

This was inspired by a thread on Twitter of funiculars, started by @autogynefiles – have a look if you want to see many more.

thester

It is thester out, ever more thesterly; thesterness descends from the thester dome and all thesters until today is thesterday. And thester way I like it.

Do I seem like thester-crazy kind? Oh, I am undimmed by dimness. When the sun is hidden, the countless little points of light come out, and it is so personally illuminating and downright photogenic; corners are contrasts, and life passes alternately in pools of vivid colour and expanses of wan thester.

Thester is not a word we use much anymore; it has slipped into itself over the centuries. It’s not that we truly need it—we have other words for the same function: dark, darkness, darken, to start with. But dark starts with a stab on the tip of the tongue and curls through the hollow mouth to finish with a hard stop at the back, while thester starts soft, stops in the middle with a hiss and tap, and then fades away, like a night cat finding your foot and retreating. Thester and dark may, strictly speaking, denote the same thing, but they’re painted by different artists.

You are most likely to recognize this word if you are familiar with Old English and Middle English literature. It shows up, for instance, in the Old English form (and inflection, in this case þystrum) in Beowulf:

Ða se ellengæst earfoðlice 
þrage geþolode, se þe in þystrum bad, 
þæt he dogora gehwam dream gehyrde 
hludne in healle; þær wæs hearpan sweg, 
swutol sang scopes.

Here, let’s put that loosely into Canadian:

Then the tough-guy trouble-getter
waited wearily, watching in thester,
as day after day they partied hearty
and loud in their hall—harps and harmony,
bards and ballads.

It’s kind of fitting that the word is most associated with the years around 1000, since that’s the time that’s often referred to as the Dark Ages. We should realize, of course, that they were not dwelling incessantly in thester; the sun rose as it does now, and people had fine lives, or as fine as one can have without full indoor plumbing. It’s just that certain snooty Renaissance men, noting a lack of their own illumination about the times, instead of realizing that there was plenty that they weren’t seeing, concluded that there wasn’t much there.

But we know perfectly well that when you walk down the thesterly street or through a park in thesterness, if you step where you can’t see, there’s still something you’ll be stepping into and on. And you might discover more than you expected. Another word, perhaps. Or even another world.

fessitude

I confess: I have a ’tude.

You know, an attitude. But not so much one that’s inclined to making a fuss. Rather, one that is from too much time on my fesses – but keeps me even more on my fesses.

Sorry – for those who don’t know: fesses is French for ‘buttocks’. Basically, fessitude comes from being bummed out, perhaps from being on your bum but definitely with the result of being even more on your bum. It’s the result of wearing out: being weary.

I hope that doesn’t sound fussy. I don’t have much physical labour to do. I sit at my dining room table for all the working hours of the day, and some more (to dine), and you might think that a person who has not been tried by exertion could not be tired. But find an elastic band that has not been stretched in a long time and see how responsive it is. In the long run, I need to go for a long run; in the short run, I could stand – or rather not stand still for – a short run. I would not block a walk. It keeps the systems running, the fluids flowing, the metabolic reactions acting. Inertia makes one inert. Laxitude and lentitude lead to lassitude and fessitude.

Where does this word fessitude – and its adjectival sibling, fessive – come from? From Latin fessus, ‘wearied’. It looks like what you get if you’re festive too long and your ability to make a hard stop ([t]) gets worn down. It may be related to fatisco ‘I droop’ and fatigo ‘I weary’, but I’m too tired to keep digging to find out. Anyway, not too many people can be bothered to use this word anymore. If they ever could.

stomachache

We were starting another word tasting Zoom meeting, for want of anything at all better to do, when several of those of us already in the multiocular got a text at the same time. You could hear the various alert sounds and we all looked away and picked up our devices. It was a text to the group from Maury: “Sorry, can’t make, got stomachache”

Stomachache!” Elisa said. “Now, there’s a word to taste!”

“I have a feeling that Maury’s already done some tasting,” I said, “and that’s what’s resulted in his stomachache.”

“Just look at it,” Elisa continued. “It looks like it could be a dance – like a stoma-cha-cha.”

“Or a line of fashion,” Arlene said. “Like Jordache.”

Jess, who was in the same frame as Arlene, glanced at her, then looked back the rest of us. “Funny. I think of it as like an angry Scotsman, with the ‘ach! ach!’”

“Maybe he’s trying to put on jeans,” Arlene said. “But they’re too tight.”

“Because he’s been in lockdown for a whole-ass year,” Jess said.

“It’s the kind of word that gives English learners a headache,” Elisa said, circling back to the topic. “Like, it sounds almost like muckrake but sure doesn’t look like it.”

Daryl, who had been abiding quietly in his small corner, chimed in. “What the heck is the reason for those ch’s anyway? …James? You usually know.”

I looked up from my phone, on which I had been texting Maury separately to learn more of his predicament, since it was probably entertaining. “Greek to me,” I said.

“Do you mean that literally?” Jess asked.

“Kinda. It certainly smells of orthographic retconning.”

“I’m sure that means something,” Elisa said.

“Like, the words may have been spelled differently and then got respelled to display some etymology, real or imagined.” My phone vibed. It was a text from Maury: “Narcissa mistook Parthenocissus for Sambucus”

There is not another person in the world who would send a text like that and expect the recipient to understand it. And I wasn’t sure I entirely did either. I knew Narcissa was a friend of his with whom he was occasionally exchanging foodstuffs, presumably from a safe distance. The topic was clarified a little more with his next text, which was a picture of a small jam jar hand-labelled “Elderberry.”

Elderberry… genus Sambucus, right. And Parthenocissus is… oh. Virginia creeper. Um. Ooops.

The Zoom conversation, meanwhile, had continued. Daryl was looking at his iPad and talking. “OK, stomach comes from… well, French estomac, no surprise, and that’s from Latin stomachus with an h, which is from Greek στόμαχος. And in English it was spelled with just a c or a k or a ck until the 1500s, when they added the h to display its, uh, what’s James’s usual turn of phrase?”

“Glorious classical roots?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Well,” said Arlene, “that was fruitful.”

“Like elderberries,” I said. Everyone seemed to ignore me.

“Now, ache,” Daryl said, tapping on his device. “Let’s see… oh, that’s fun.”

“Well, dude?” Jess said. “Don’t leave us hanging.”

Daryl looked up. “So… ache is from a Germanic root. The verb form was for a long time spelled with a k, and always said with a ‘k’ sound, but the noun form was spelled with a c and then sometimes a ch because for a long time it was pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound. Like the verb break and the noun breach. Oh, and the verb used to be strong, like I ake, I oke, I have aken.”

“So wait,” Elisa said. “The noun was said like the same as the letter H?”

“Yeah,” Daryl said. “There’s even a pun on that in Much Ado about Nothing.”

“So when did the pronunciation change?” Arlene said.

“Apparently,” Daryl said, with some scrolling and jabbing, “when the spelling of the verb switched to the ch. So the pronunciation went with the verb and the spelling with the noun, which… Oh, that’s hilarious.”

“Wait,” I said, “don’t tell me. Someone got etymological ideas.”

“Yeah,” Daryl said. “Someone… thought that they both came from Greek ἄχος. And guess who that was?”

Arlene rolled her eyes. “Your dad?”

“Doctor Johnson,” Daryl said, with a smile.

“I think I have some of his albums,” Jess said. 

Arlene parried with “I thought he made videos.”

“Doctor Johnson’s Dick-tionary,” Jess said.

Elisa rescued the topic once more: “It’s a shame that Maury isn’t here to join in this.”

“Well,” I said, “his predicament turns out to parallel this word’s. It’s the difference between elderberries and Virginia creeper.”

“Your mother smells of elderberries,” said Jess, who was getting so silly she had slipped into Monty Python references.

“If you want to eat elderberries, you have to cook them, or you get a stomachache,” I said. “But Virginia creeper has berries that an inattentive person might mistake for elderberries—”

“Inattentive!” Elisa said. “Intoxicated, maybe!” Over in their little window, Arlene elbowed Jess.

“—and even if you cook them,” I continued, “you will still regret eating them.”

“Goodness gracious, yes,” Elisa said. I had forgotten that botany was a thing she knew about.

“So what you’re saying, in your weird allusive circuitous way,” Jess said, “is that stomach is like elderberries, because it’s actually Greek if you boil it down or juice it up, and ache is like Virginia creeper, because even if you try to treat it like Greek, it’s just not.”

I paused to see if I could think of anything witty to say. I could not. “…Yeah.”

Stomachache kinda makes me think of cake when I hear it,” Daryl mused from his corner.

“Like having your cake and eating it too,” I said. “Like this word.”

“Really, don’t hurt yourself reaching for it,” Jess said.

“Well, it’s too bad Maury didn’t have cake,” Elisa said. “But at least we got to taste this word!”

“And he got to taste what it refers to,” Arlene concluded.