A cryptic crossword

For fun, because everything is unusual just now, and people may want some diversion, I have decided to make a cryptic crossword. It’s been years since I’ve made one, and never before for this blog, but what the heck.

Some of you know what cryptic crosswords are all about. This is one of those, and there is nothing unduly untoward about it; in fact, it’s smaller than most, and you’ll probably find it generally not too hard.

Some of you, however, will be unfamiliar with cryptic crosswords. They have a more spaced-out grid than the usual American ones, so you can’t fill in a word completely just by filling in all the words that cross it, but that’s not the fun part. It’s “cryptic” because each clue gives the answer two ways – one with a definition and one using wordplay – but you have to figure out which part is the definition and which is the wordplay, because it’s not made obvious for you. The wordplay can involve an anagram (signalled by a descriptor such as “mixed-up”), a pun (signalled by something suggesting “sounds like”), or a deconstruction of the form into smaller bits. Sometimes it’s something a bit more out of left field.

The first example I was ever given was the clue “Country song about sailor.” The solution is ARABIA. Why? Because it’s a country, and in form it’s a song (ARIA) about (on either side of) a sailor (AB – a short form for Able-Bodied Seaman). Other examples that come to mind are “A girl’s lies are savoury things,” which solves to HERBS (because HER = a girl’s and BS = lies, and HERBS are savoury things); “Endless bribery, i.e. corruption, and disease,” which solves to BERIBERI (because endless bribery = BRIBER, i.e. corruption means that I and E are mixing in with that, and disease = BERIBERI); and “Hear the price of corn? Pirate!” which solves to BUCCANEER (because it sounds like “buck an ear” – hear the price of corn – and it means pirate).

OK, here it is. Off you go. I’ll post the solution in a couple of days. Patrons on Patreon will get to see it tomorrow! You’ll see I’m using a letter-number grid to designate the starting squares rather than just numbering them; that’s because it’s easier to read.



A1. Birds responsible for nearly all of divorces, weirdly

A3. You slob, I’ve almost gotten confused, clearly

B5. Frosty? Try the south now, dude

A7. The upper limit of a bird’s call

C9. Johnson’s handlers are not worth keeping


A1. Slightly too short to go on your head, but you can eat it

C1. Nurse flies across avenue, says A7

E1. In scuffle, raise worn pot and kettle

G1. You shouldn’t need help on this, but here’s help

I1. When they’re blue, they play ball

G5. Love sounds like it could open up for you

A6. One, but absolutely huge

I6. They fought – like cats and dogs

C7. Five at a pot


Today I want to talk about corvid (the word and the bird).

This is a corvid. (Photo by Tyler Quiring.)

This is a COVID. (Artist’s rendering, courtesy of the CDC.)

This is neither, though it looks like one and it looks like it’s meant for dealing with the other. (It’s an illustration of Dr. Schnabel, a 17th-century plague doctor in Rome, by Paul Fürst.)

Corvid is a name for any member of the large family of birds known as Corvidae, which includes crows, ravens, and actually quite a lot of others: choughs (not coughs!), treepies, magpies, nutcrackers, jackdaws (which are really just more crows), and various jays

Corvids have relatively large brains and have been found to be as intelligent as some primates – and smarter than your dog or cat. Crows and ravens are even smarter than raccoons. Which also means that they have an… ambiguous place in mythology. Crows and ravens are thought of as smart – and as tricksters. They’re often associated with death.

On the other hand, corvids come in many different forms, and some of them (magpies) are more famous for stealing and collecting things. Which is quite fitting, because their names have mutated like a virus over the ages, resulting in quite a collection of forms.

The Latin for ‘crow’ is corvus, which has descended to many fairly plainly related forms: French corbeau, Spanish cuervo, Italian corvo, Finnish korppi (stolen from Swedish korp). They all trace back to an ancient k-r-w source… which may or may not be related to the source of crow, since the in crow is historically comparatively new.

Sounds change, as you can see. The can become or or even p. And the can become h, and sometimes an disappears. That’s what happened with hræfn, the Old English word that became raven.

The raven is Corvus corax. What’s the corax? It’s the ancient Greek for ‘raven’ or ‘crow’: κόραξ. And, yes, there’s a and a there… and it also seems related etymologically to raven, via an impression of the loud sound the bird makes. But, though they all relate originally to noise, raven and corax are not definitely directly related to corvus or to crow, which, just, come on.

Corvus corax, by the way, is also the name of a musical group that is among the most metal of medieval impressionists.

You may well wonder whether this is also related to some flattened version of curve, since, after all, there’s that k-r-v and corvids have shown they can throw a few curves. The, answer, however, is no… but curve traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root with many descendants, including not just curve but cancer, crisp, crux, and corona, as in Coronavirus. Which seems a little starker than raven.

But corvids have nothing in specific to do with COVID. We don’t even know (at the moment) if they can carry it. They can, however, say what we all want to say about it:

“Nevermore.” (Illustration by Édouard Manet.)


Ocimum basilicum, the herb of kings and king of herbs, an herb so basic as to be only one letter different from basic. But at the same time, as kings are wont to be, a herb that does not blend into the background, a herb that will be different just for the sake of being different, even having pronounced differences with itself.

Pronounced? You don’t believe? Like herb itself, basil has a choice of two ways to say it. Look in a dictionary: while the supervenient pronunciation rhymes with dazzle, an accepted alternate rhymes with hazel.

Weirdly, I first learned neither of those pronunciations. You see, I had a great-uncle Basil whose name was said like “base’ll” – that is, with a “long” and a voiceless s. So it did not exactly go with hazel. Which is amusing, because his wife’s name was… yes… Hazel. (But his name had always been said that way, even before he met her.)

Anyway, on the basis of my uncle, I assumed that that was the proper pronunciation of basil. When a kid’s TV show I watched had a character named Basil the Beagle, I assumed his name was spelled Bazzle. I mean, wouldn’t you, anyway?

But this herb is not avuncular. I love it, to be sure, and use it in tomato sauces and soups whenever I can (among other things), but I learned an important lesson when I once told my housemate “It’s impossible to use too much basil.” The dude proved me wrong decisively. And allow me to inform you: an excess of basil produces a truly horrible flavour. Just as basil can be (as in Portugal) a token of love or (as in ancient Greece) a symbol of hatred, its effect on your food will vary very much according to the dosage.

This is not to say that basil is tyrannical in a dish. It is not a tyrannos; it is a basileus.

I’ll explain that. Tyrannos, more accurately τύραννος, means ‘king’ and is the term applied to Oedipus in the play Οἰδίπους Τύραννος, most often called Oedipus Rex from the Latin but translated into English as King Oedipus (I’d make that King Piercefoot). But it is also the root of tyrant, which gives you a little sense of what kind of king we mean: an absolute ruler, a dictator, a despot. On the other hand, βασιλεύς, basileus, also means ‘king’ but otherwise means ‘chief, master, patron’, so it’s maybe a little more agreeable. Unless you go too far, take a risk, and it becomes a basilisk: a mythical snake-dragon with a deadly gaze and a name that comes from the same kingly root. So, overall, uh… like a boss.

But basil also has holy overtones. And by that I don’t just mean holy basil, which is a different (but related) herb also called tulsi. I mean assorted saints, especially in the Eastern Orthodox church. You may know that the big church on Red Square in Moscow is Saint Basil’s Cathedral – well, that’s its short, unofficial name. But which Saint Basil is it named after? There were several, about half of them bishops: not quite kings, but men of power and influence. The Saint Basil in honour of whom this magnificent cathedral took its common name (though not until more than a century after its construction) was a holy man who is now buried in it, a man who once rebuked the man who had the cathedral built, Ivan the Terrible (a terrible translation of Иван Грозный – Ivan the Fearsome would better), for not paying attention during church. He is called Василий Блаженный, commonly rendered in English as Basil Fool for Christ. He went around wearing shackles and literally nothing else, destitute by choice, and he had Ivan the Fearsome himself as a pallbearer at his funeral and now is memorialized by a building that epitomizes everything he wasn’t – especially since it’s no longer even a functioning church.

A small further digression must be permitted. Василий is not pronounced “Basil” however you say “Basil”; it is the name normally rendered in English as Vasily or Vassily or Vasiliy or… You know, as in Wassily Kandinsky, whose paintings are as colourful as that cathedral, but with different structure and a different palette. The /b/ of Ancient Greek eased off to a /v/ in modern Russian, and in several other languages – including modern Greek, in which β has also softened to /v/, sort of like how basil’s flavour softens when it has dried.

If you have a kitchen with a standard collection of herbs and spices, you almost certainly have flakes of dried basil. You can shake some into your hand and taste it. Yup! That tastes like basil! As in the stuff you put into spaghetti sauce (along with oregano). It’s vaguely sweet, with reminiscences of chamomile, mint, and anise, and maybe a bit of hay. But do you have access to some of the fresh stuff? Take a leaf and chew it. It’s recognizably the same herb, but the dials have been turned up from 2 to 10, except for the anise dial, which is somewhere between 13 and 20, and there may be a hint or three of your neighbour’s lawn. Its taste suggests that if it were a person, it would be trying to decide whether to kiss you or kill you.

My edition of the Larousse Gastronomique (1960), in translation by Marion Hunter, paints a picture of an erstwhile grand dame: “Basil . . . Plant cultivated in gardens for the sake of its fragrance. . . . Basil was once considered a royal plant; only the sovereign (basileus) could cut it, and even then only with a golden sickle. The plant has now come into common use.”

Oh, but don’t take their word for it (no, seriously, don’t). Throw a naked leaf or three into a sauce. It will beatify the sauce. (Throw in two dozen and it will murder it.) And when you get to the leaf, soft and soggy, it will not resist you like a bay leaf; it will go easily into your mouth, where it will at its last remind you that it was once, and still is, royalty.

And yet it has the common touch, and really always has. Look, here is a recipe, presented to us by Achille Bruni, Professor of the Royal University of Naples, from his Nuova enciclopedia agraria (New agricultural encyclopedia) for “Genoese low-fat lasagne,” which they already had back in 1859 (and if you want to quibble with the spellings, click that link and check it for yourself):

Lasagne di magro alla genovese. — Cuoci in acqua con sale le lasagne, le quali riesciranno più saporite se avrai fatte in casa. Intanto per condirle metti in un mortaio due e tre spicchi d’aglio, foglie di basilico in abbondanzo e alquanta polpa di cacio di Roma, o d’Olanda, o di Sardegna, secondo il gusto, e pesta tutto ben bene; aggiungi dell’olio fino in quantità, e tre o quattro cucchiaiate dell’acqua stessa in cui cuocono le lasagne. Quando queste son cotte, colale e condiscile suolo per suolo col pesto che hai preparato, aggiungendo ancora del formaggio grattato.

Here is a translation (mine, with some help from Google and Wiktionary):

Genoese low-fat lasagna. — Cook the lasagna in water with salt; it will be tastier if you have made it at home. Meanwhile, to season it, put in a mortar two and three cloves of garlic, basil leaves in abundance and some ground cheese from Rome, or Holland, or Sardinia, according to taste, and pound everything well; add fine oil in quantity, and three or four spoonfuls of the water in which the lasagna is cooking. When these are cooked, strain them and season them layer by layer with the pesto you have prepared, adding more grated cheese.

Remember: foglie di basilico in abbondanzo [sic]: basil leaves in abundance. Ma non troppo, sai?


“There is bummerism in politics – in fact, it is the heart core.” Thus wrote an unnamed author in Varieties, of San Francisco.

Bummerism? Yeah! Politics is a total bummer, and it’s full of people who are total bummers too, like, y’know, dude? It’s such a downer, like a real drag. But that’s not quite what the author meant. Here’s another quote, from Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, that might help clarify the sense: “Corruption will run riot; bummerism and bribery will walk rough shod over decency and honesty.” It seems (and I take the word of the Oxford English Dictionary on this) that bummerism is corruption, or venality, or laziness – conduct characteristic of a bummer, which in this case is a kind of person: someone we might also call a bum.

You see how that would trace, right? A bum bums and so is a bummer, and bummerism is being like a bummer. Likewise, the more common modern sense of bummer is that the thing is bum, meaning ‘bad’, as in had a bum trip or got a bum steer. And from that we go back to bum, which has been brought to us by posteriority. Right?

Sorry, dude. Big bummer. That’s not how it goes. But the truth might ring a bell.

There’s one bit that’s basically right: bummer as in “That’s a real bummer, dude” does come from bum meaning ‘of poor quality’. But the rest? The relationship of bum to bummer is, in fact, like the relationship of edit to editor: the word that looks like it is a derived form is the one that actually came first. Edit is formed from editor, and when an indolent, indigent person is called a bum (which is also apparently the source of the bum that means ‘of low quality’, but is not related to the bum you’re sitting on), that is a backformation of bummer, meaning ‘vagrant’ and related things. Bummer in its turn most evidently comes from German Bummler, ‘unemployed person, wandering vagrant’, from the verb bummeln, meaning ‘wander, ramble; dawdle, laze’. It seems (it has been asserted by at least one established source) that bummeln comes from ‘swing back and forth like the clapper of a bell’ – you know, “boom-boom,” as we would write it in English, or „bum-bum“if you’re German.

Do you feel led on by that etymological peregrination? Bummer, dude. But it kind of comes back around, if you think of bummerism in politics as being like the clapper of a bell, swinging back and forth and making noise for whoever pulls your rope.

And are you kind of bummed out by “walk rough shod” and “it is the heart core” in those quotes back at the beginning of all this? Well, what can I say? That’s how they wrote it back then. Which, by the way, was farther back than you might have guessed: the quote from the Rocky Mountain News was from 1883, and the one from the San Francisco Varieties was from 1858.

Plus ça change, eh? Well, what goes around comes around (especially if it’s just lying around). Oxford skewers this word with the obelisk of obsoletion, but there’s plenty of bummerism to go around these days, and I’m sure we could bring it back.


A long time ago, in the comic strip B.C. by Johnny Hart, a caveman picked up a trumpet-shaped piece of wood. He blew into it. It went “BLUNT!” He looked at it and said, “I’ve invented the blunt instrument.”

Blunt isn’t often applied to sounds, but it does have a good sound for what it means, doesn’t it? With the blowing, blasting bl and the abrupt unt?

What does it mean, though?

If I call a person “a bit of a blunt instrument,” I may mean that the person is dull, i.e., not too bright…

Hmm, notice the seamless shift from tactile to visual metaphor. Let’s say not too sharp, or not too acute, shall we? But more often when I describe a person as “blunt” or say they’re “being blunt,” I mean that they are not sugar-coating their opinions…

Hmm, that’s a shift to taste-based metaphor. I mean that their opinions come without padding…

Which is weird, because padding tends to be blunt – put some on a knife and see.

I don’t mean that what they say isn’t cutting, doesn’t hurt, doesn’t draw blood (figuratively); in fact, bluntness often does all three, in spite of its being the literal opposite of sharpness. But a person who is cutting is deliberately trying to hurt, whereas a person who is being blunt is just being direct, plain-spoken, et cetera.

Except when they are trying to hurt, even if they’re pretending they’re not. If I see someone trying to be hurtful, I probably won’t call them “blunt” – there are other, better words – but if a person describes himself (it’s not always a guy, but usually) as “just being bluntly honest,” then my experience is that they actually are trying to hurt, but they’re trying to get away with it.

Here’s what I mean. If a person says “I don’t like how that shirt looks on you,” that is blunt, and is probably honest (it’s a statement about their own reaction). But people who say they are being “bluntly honest” tend more often to say things like “That’s an ugly shirt” and “Why do you dress like that? Are you blind or just stupid?” This is not honest.

It’s not honest because it presents one person’s opinions and characterizations of the other – all subjective, based on taste, inclination, and interpersonal attitudes – as objective fact. It’s also not honest because it presents the speaker as objective (reinforced by the insistence that the speaker is being bluntly honest), thus implying that there is no subjective element, nothing that involves the speaker’s relation to the hearer.

A quick lesson in linguistics here: Every utterance – everything you say, write, gesture, etc. – draws on, participates in, and asserts a definition of the relation between you and the person(s) you are addressing.

Often the relationship is well-defined and unproblematic – you’re reading my blog for information and entertainment, for instance, and I’m writing it to provide some, and there’s nothing intrinsically degrading about either position. But there are many times when one person wants to assert a specific status relationship: often to claim a higher-status position, which is to say to dominate, to “put someone in their place,” to assert authority. (On the other hand, sometimes they want to claim a lower-status position, which also has its uses.)

When you say something that you have every reason to know will hurt, degrade, humiliate, or otherwise negatively affect another person, and you make no effort to acknowledge that, to mute its effect, or to accommodate their feelings, you are asserting a dominance relation to them (to which they may well object). If you claim that what you’re saying is simple objective fact, that reinforces and adds to the claim – it implies that your feelings and opinions are unquestionably important, and theirs are not worth considering – and attempts to make the assertion unanswerable. The possibility of treating the addressee as someone who does not need to be abused or demeaned does not enter the discourse, though in any reasonable world it would be the default position. Imagine a doorman at a bar who hits you with a club as you walk in and, when you object, he says, “I’m sorry that you would rather be stabbed! We don’t do that here! It’s a nightclub, dumbass!”

Which brings us back to blunt objects. While the figurative use of blunt has quite a wide range, it is at least all led by the literal sense, which is to say, having an edge or point that is rounded and not prone to severing or penetrating. Right?

So. A wall is not blunt; it’s flat. But a cricket bat is blunt because it has those rounded sides. Is an unattached sheet of plywood blunt? Generally I would say not, but if someone were to hit me over the head with one, I think I would not dispute its being called a “blunt object.” (Unless it’s the corner. The corner of a wall may not cut steak but I would not call it not blunt. I have stitches in my forehead to prove it.)

So blunt is ‘dull’, but only in the edge sense, not the light sense? We can’t speak of blunt light or blunt vision? I guess if we’re being poetic we can…

…or if we’re being historical. Because, not to put too fine a point on it, the original sense of blunt is not just dull but really stupid.

Sorry, I mean not just ‘dull’ but really ‘stupid’. The physical sense, referring to edges, is, as far as we can see, a transferred sense from an earlier sense that meant, as Oxford puts it, “dull, insensitive, stupid, obtuse” – and “said, it appears, originally of the sight, whence of the perceptions generally, and the intellect.”

This is because it seems – we’re not sure, at this distance, but it is distinctly possible – that blunt is originally related to blind. Its sense developed as unable to see, to perceive, and from that to understand; thence, not acute, not sharp; and so on.

And if we extend it to willful obtuseness, deliberate not seeing, then those people who cover abusive behaviour with the protestation that they are being “blunt” are being blunt – just in an older sense.

Oh, one other thing. If you’re wondering about Emily Blunt, Anthony Blunt, and all the other Blunts, and their distant kinfolk the Blounts (Blount is from the same origin as Blunt), that name comes from an old word meaning ‘having light-coloured hair’, and you should be able to guess what modern word for hair colour is descended from that. In other words, they’re not dumb; they’re blonde.

Advice to a beginning editor

I am regularly invited as a guest expert in an online editing course taught by a friend. This time around, one of the students asked “Do you have any tips for aspiring editors or editors that are just getting started on their first project? Also, what resources are some of your holy grail must-haves?” Here is my advice for her.

Editors who are just starting out often have a combination of overzealousness and insecurity: they won’t ask about things they should ask about, but will ask about things that are actually covered in the style sheet or standard references. Remember: whatever document you’re working on, it’s part of a certain genre for a certain publication in a certain field, and there will be things that are standard or assumed in that context that you may not know about yet. If a thing seems weirdly wrong or nonstandard, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. But also don’t be afraid to look it up and look at other examples from the publication in question.

Many eager editors have “hills to die on”: points of usage that are dogmatically beyond compromise for them. Having a hill to die on is a great way to be slaughtered in full view of the neighbourhood. Beginning editors shouldn’t have them. Experienced editors also shouldn’t have them, but the more experienced you are, the more you know that anyway. Any position you take you should be able to support, and if you can’t persuade the client, (a) there may be a good reason for it, and (b) it’s their document with their name on it and their money they’re paying for it, so at a certain point it’s better to lay down your arms and go to the pub.

You should get to know the preferred style of the publisher you’re working with, of course, but standard guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style ought to be part of your repertoire and you should refer to them for advice as needed (advice! not law! unless it’s in the style sheet). I also like the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage. Some people love the Canadian Press and Associated Press guides; as far as I’m concerned, if your client is a newspaper or is specifying CP or AP style, go with it, but otherwise it will have advice and take positions that may be inappropriate for your document. These styles have been developed for a specific genre, and there are debates that can be had over whether they’re even optimal for that genre. You will find that some people who have taken journalism courses tend to think that CP or AP is the absolute God-given legislation and optimal for all contexts. They are not right about this.

I’m a big advocate of studying at least some linguistics, but not everyone is in a position to take an intro course. It’s important to know how all the machinery of the language actually works, though. It’s very, very important not to heed the self-important counsel of curmudgeons, peevers, “grammar Nazis” (a term that should be abolished), and similar sorts. Stay far, far away from Lynne Truss and Nevile Gwynne and anyone of that ilk. You can identify them by their habit of declaring that well-known and well-respected authors are wrong on points of grammar, and by their use of such terms as “barbaric” and their endorsement of such acts as vandalizing signage. None of this has anything to do with clear communication; it’s all dominance behaviour, classism, brutishness, and schoolyard punkery in a gabardine suit.

On the other hand, there are authors who are well informed and worth a read for enlightenment and entertainment; you need not take everything they say as law, but it is at least well founded. They tend to be experienced professional editors. These include ones such as Emmy Favilla in her A World Without “Whom,” Mary Norris in Between You & Me (which is also autobiographical), and Benjamin Dreyer in Dreyer’s English. Other editors who have written books worth turning to include June Casagrande and the late, great Bill Walsh. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list! For the art of being an editor, read The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller.

That should be a good start! The good news is that you never stop learning. (Or, if you do, stop editing.)

snidge, snudge

A snidge is a greedy, miserly person. You can almost hear it, can’t you? The sniffly nasal “sn” and the incisor-biting “idge” – it’s a word that could be muttered sotto voce.

Where does this word come from? It’s an altered version of snudge, which also means a miser, but can also be a verb meaning either ‘be miserly’ or ‘walk in a stooped manner, looking down’ (and possibly also some meanings relating to snug, depending on the dictionary you look in). And where does snudge come from? The historical record is keeping that to itself.

Here’s a poem, for sharing.

Neither hoard your affections nor snudge,
For no int’rest accrues to the snidge,
But fortune and love hold a grudge
To curmudgeons who seek to abridge

And store sweets in their hearts like a fridge.
Oh, the courts of the courting will judge
Those whose love-bug’s as pinched as a midge.
Neither hoard your affections nor snudge—

Take touches and winks as a nudge:
Love’s coinage is nothing to gnidge,
For no treasure was found by a drudge,
And no int’rest accrues to the snidge.

(You may remember from my poem on tregetour that gnidge means ‘rub, squeeze, press’.)