exgramination

Every so often, some beloved author or noted performer – often someone who earned a reputation decades ago for being progressive – speaks up and declares that today’s younger generations have taken things too far: they want special treatment and they complain all the time and they ought to be grateful for the work that was done by their elders and there are some things that just aren’t right…

Reactions are rapid and contrary. Relatives of a certain age post pictures of the rant with enthusiastic endorsement on Facebook. Young social activists and erstwhile fans express disappointment on Twitter. Overpaid jeremiadists weigh in with sesquipedalian asperity in legacy media. Some other equally famous person of similar age posts a cogent and trenchant takedown. The discourse moves on after a few days, but the air of cantankery follows the person’s name like a fart. 

And the mental borborygmus that started it all? The articulated indignation of a senior forward-thinker? On close examination, it’s exgramination: sheer get-off-my-lawnery.

You’re familiar with “Get off my lawn,” I trust: the stereotypical cry of the peeved senior faced with youths besporting themselves on his or her personal patch of grass. How dare they come onto this turf with no respect? If German had a word for this, it might be Rasenwut – from Rasen ‘lawn’ and Wut ‘rage’. But our word today, exgramination, is from Latin ex- meaning ‘off’ or ‘from’ and gramina meaning ‘turf’ (nominative singular gramen). If it sounds a bit like a grumpy grandpa’s fulmination of consternation, that’s just an apposite coincidence.

Sure, the exgraminator worked hard to earn that turf. In their youth, they fought against the thick-headed inertia of their forebears. They wanted freedom! And, to some extent, they got it. And they got their comfortable space as a recognized hero of freedom. But the times move on, and things that were at the leading edge at one time are overgrown and bygone at another. 

Some people are happy to see progress being made by younger generations, and endorse and encourage it. Others, however, feel that they have earned respect, they are the true forward-thinkers, and anything that is not consistent with their own established positions is simply wrong. Not progressive; freakish. Certainly disrespectful. Get off that lawn! How dare you!

Now, it is known that people who have been rich and famous for some time often lose perspective and empathy, sometimes strikingly, but that’s not universal. And, naturally, people who have always been known to be conservative are also typically grumpy at the changes wrought (or at least embraced) by later generations – and, frankly, by their own generation, too, but no one is surprised at that. (And who would come to play on their lawn anyway? It’s fenced off and has a guard dog on it.) It’s just those who endorsed change who have the inviting grass… though somehow someone else’s is always just a bit greener. And if their endorsement of change was based less on principle and more on self-interest, you can expect an exgramination that will draw some attention too.

I hope, of course, that I shall never be an exgraminator. Among other things, I do my bit by persisting in innovation – for instance, by confecting words that should have existed already. Such as exgramination. It’s a new old word. But who among you would object to it?

beach

At one time or another, we all want to reach the beach.

Martha and the Muffins, knowing it’s out of fashion and a trifle uncool, still want to watch the sun go down on Echo Beach.

Soldiers on D-Day, in their landing craft, wanted to land on Omaha Beach and survive crossing the beach and live to fight on.

Vacationers in Orlando take the Beach Line expressway to Cocoa Beach to get to the Shack on the Beach and frolic in the waves and enjoy margaritas and the sun.

The last lingering survivors of nuclear war in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach wanted to reach a beach of hope, and, finding it empty, found that, quoting Eliot, “In this last of meeting places / We grope together / And avoid speech / Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.” And then they faced eternity.

Once or twice a week all summer long, Aina and I rush to the ferry for the fifteen-minute trip to Toronto Island to set up on the beach and relax and imagine ourselves far away. 

And once or twice a week all summer long, we go swim at the Sunnyside pool and then sit at the boardwalk café watching the beach volleyball players on Sunnyside Beach, the beach that inspired the song “Echo Beach.”

If we travel to another country where there is a beach, we try to stop by it, to see the sand and waves.

When we relax on the beach, we sit on the sand and stare out at the waves. Behind us is solidity, life, assurance. Ahead of us is the liquid stuff of life, a home for countlessly many other living things, a playground for us within limit and reason, and outside of limit and reason a place of unlimited and unreasonable danger. (For fish, the perspective is reversed.)

On the beach, we watch the waves come in. We see the expanse of the water beyond, stretching to the horizon. What we are not looking at is the firm and consistent supports of our life and identity; what we are looking at is change and danger. But, as Jenny Holzer wrote, “It is fun to walk carelessly in a death zone.” When we are in a dire condition, the beach is the place of safety or of threat, the place where we are dry or drowned; but when life is calm, it is relaxation, worries behind us, limitless potential before us. 

And under our feet is sand: the ground stones and bones and shells of the ages, at last settled in a shifting mass that can take erasable traces, words and images to be washed away, but when you leave you always take some sand with you.

Your interface with daily life is like a beach. The beach is your eyes, your mouth, your skin. The waves of life lap at you. Sometimes the tide is low and you have room; sometimes the tide is high and you are restricted or already on the way to drowning. 

And when the sand has not seen water in some time, it is soft but yielding and hard to walk on. And when the sand was recently under the waves, it is hard but easier to walk on.

When life is dire, you just want to reach the beach and cross the beach and survive. And when life is good, you want to set out your blanket and have your food and drink in the sun and hope you don’t eat any sand. You are there with close friends and closer strangers, and for a few hours you are officially relaxing.

Where does this word beach come from? We aren’t entirely sure, just as we aren’t sure where any given grain of sand might have started. But as likely as not, it’s from a word for ‘bank’ that came from a word for ‘brook’ or ‘stream’ – Old English bece, related to Dutch, German, and Swedish words for ‘brook’ or ‘stream’, including Old German beck, which I carry with me every moment of my life as the second syllable of my surname. My own hidden stream, my own secret beach.

And throughout my life I seek to reach the beach. Not always the place of relaxation, the place where I can look across the waves and relax on the sand, but always the moment in time and space where I have all solid things behind me, and all fluid things before me, and I am at the point of letting go, accepting the changing nature of all things and also accepting that I will always take a bit of every moment with me. Letting the waves roll, letting the sand shift. As The Fixx sang on their album Reach the Beach, “Stretched by fewer thoughts that leave me … Holding onto words that teach me … Saved by zero.”

And yes, Aina and I reached the beach today, and we relaxed on the sand, gazing at the waves and the stretching horizon. And now we are home again.

cellar

Cellars are where life happens in slow motion while we’re not looking.

What you put in a cellar changes, gradually, coolly, over time. A cellar even has the smell of slow life and slow change: earth, mold, mildew, and the various things you store in it. A cellar is a collection of cells – etymologically, because it’s from cellarium, a place with a lot of cells, as in small rooms, but also literally, because it has roots and plants and crawling things, things made of membranes and cytoplasm and mitochondria and nuclei, and it has things made from those things, processed and put in jars and cans and bottles. Things that, even if they have stopped cellular processes, have not stopped changing.

I grew up where people didn’t have cellars. We had basements. A basement is not a cellar. A basement is a dry, dusty place, full of boxes and old machinery, perhaps dark and creepy but in truth lifeless. What you put in a basement changes only in geological time: the slow flow of inert matter governed by gravity, with the occasional threat of a flood. If you have a finished basement, there is life, but it’s life at full speed, just with less light and less formality and more dust. No moss, just shag carpet.

But in more recent years I’ve spent time in cellars. Not root cellars, though. Not cellars under houses. Cellars in wineries. Cellars that you walk into and instantly your nose finds a story of grapes and yeast and years. Not all of these cellars are dank and chthonic; some are astonishingly clean and modern. But even if there is no cake of mold on decades-old bottles, nor even an inscribable layer of dust, there is life. There is breathing. There is history being written in liquid, to be consumed in the fullness of time. Within the wooden casks and the corked glass bottles is a chemical process, a biological process, that develops like our own lives. And eventually we taste the ends of time.

turbot

Sometimes you have to go the long way around and get through a lot of complications before you are reminded how nice simple things can be. That may seem a flat statement, and even a bit fishy, but really, I’m just thinking of a flatfish.

The wheels on the tour bus go round and round, and when we stepped off we were a short stroll away from a restaurant named after the first person to circumnavigate the globe, Juan Sebastián Elcano. He didn’t do it by bus, and he didn’t do it twice – he died of malnutrition halfway around the world from his home in Getaria, Spain.

We were not due for a similar fate, even if we had travelled far. When you’re on a food and wine tour, it can seem a bit turbo-charged: by the end of it you may need several days of very light consumption to recover. But there’s turbo-charged and then there’s turbot-charged.

By the way, is that even a pun? The answer depends on two things: what language you’re speaking and what etymology you choose. In English, turbot is said pretty much like “disturb it” without the “dis”; in French, however, the t is silent and it’s said just the same as (the French pronunciation of) turbo. What’s more, there’s some thought that Latin turbo – meaning ‘spinning top’ – might be the origin of the word, but there’s no explanation for why the French would have added the t. It may, on the other hand, have come to French from Old Swedish tornbut, meaning either ‘thorn-butt’ or ‘thorn flatfish’ (that but would be the same but as in halibut). In which case English, in taking turbot from French but pronouncing the final t, would have been taking it back home, pronunciation-wise.

However it was, we were definitely coming back to basics by the time we got to the turbot. It was the last day of a tour (with many difficulties and delays even getting to the start of it), and the turbot was the eighth item on an eleven-item menu (Elcano would have been amazed); it was preceded by octopus, mackerel, lobster, squid, and a couple of other kinds of fish, each prepared with careful and delicate seasoning and detail. And then we stepped outside to see our next course on the grill by the roadside.

There was no seasoning to speak of other than the most basic, but it didn’t come across flat – even though a turbot is a flatfish. It was as delicate and charming a flavour as I have had from a fish.

Of course, since this was in the Basque Country in Spain, they wouldn’t normally call it turbot with or without the final t. The Basque name is erreboiloa, but I know nothing more about that. The Spanish, however, is rodaballo, a name that apparently comes from Proto-Celtic for ‘wheels’ and ‘wheel-sack’ – which is rather odd for a flatfish, I think. But it did seem to suit the tour bus that we ultimately made it back to…

Pronunciation tip: Ancient Greek philosophers

I’ve been wanting to do this pronunciation tip for a while, but I needed to wait until I could get my two friends to give the Classical and modern Greek pronunciations to go along with the English versions of the names. The time has come! (Advisory: The Greek pronunciations are for fun only. If you go around saying these names in those ways, no one will understand you and/or they’ll think you’re a pretentious weirdo.)

pintxo

Basque cuisine is very good. And one of the most classic bits of Basque cuisine is the pintxo (pronounced “pincho”). Or, as you usually see it, pintxos, because you never have just one.

A bit of Basqueground is in order, perhaps. The Basque Country is an area of northeast Spain (and southwest France) where Basque culture is dominant. The life’s blood of Basque culture is the Basque language – the language’s name for itself is Euskara. Euskara is fascinating linguistically because it’s an isolate: it is not related to any other languages that we know of. It has been spoken by people in that region since time immemorial, and in spite of efforts to stamp it out (the Franco government of Spain made it illegal and severely punishable to speak it), it persists – indeed, since the end of the Franco regime, it has had a resurgence and is a matter of great pride for many Basques, and is omnipresent in Basque Country.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t had any influence from Spanish, of course. Languages always have influence from their neighbours, and Basque has borrowed words from Spanish – and, I think it’s safe to say, its phonology has also been influenced over the centuries. But grammatically, Basque is nothing like Spanish. 

It’s not just that verbs tend to go last in the sentence, rather than between subject and object as in Spanish and many other Indo-European languages. It’s not just that Basque has a complex inflectional system that is reminiscent of that of Finnish (to which it is nonetheless not related!). It’s not just that Basque has an inflectional indefinite–definite distinction, a bit like Swedish (to which it is most certainly not related!). It’s also that Basque is an ergative-absolutive language, which means that the subject of an intransitive verb is inflected like the object, not the subject, of a transitive verb. If English were like that, instead of saying “I went and I met him” we would say “Me went and I met him” – or, perhaps, “I went and me met he.”

OK, fine, you’re not all linguistics geeks. But who doesn’t like food? And pintxos are food. Delicious food, of incessant variety and flavour and very affordable price, and meant to be consumed in social settings with wine or beer. They’re lots of small dishes, and…

Does that sound like tapas? Well, yes, they have a lot in common. Quite a lot. But the pintxo culture is perhaps a little different. The classic way of doing pintxos is to pick them off plates, or take them as they’re offered by passing waiters (if this sounds a bit like dim sum to you, I agree), and each one has a little wooden skewer through it; as you eat them, you leave the skewers on your plate, and when you’re done, the waiter adds up all the skewers and charges you accordingly. Not all pintxos are served that way now, but it’s still a thing you can do.

I keep calling them pintxos, and you may wonder whether that really is the plural of pintxo. And the answer is that it is… in Spanish and in English. But in Basque? The plural is pintxoak, said like “pincho-ak.” Well, that’s the absolutive plural. The ergative plural is pintxoek. And the dative plural, if you want to make pintxos an indirect object, is pintxoei, and the instrumental plural, if you want to use your pintxos for something, is pintxoez, and the genitive plural is pintxoen, and the causative plural is pintxoengatik, and the benefactive plural is pintxoentzat, and the terminative plural is pintxoetaraino, and the directive plural is pintxoetarantz, and the destinative is pinxoetarako, and… there are 17 cases in all, but it’s like pintxos themselves: if you have 17 skewers on your plate, you sure must have been hungry!

So anyway, pintxos are classic Basque food and pintxo is a classic Basque word – you can even see it with the txspelling for the “ch” sound, which is actually quite sensible given that x spells “sh” (and given that c is not used in Basque spelling). But if pintxos seem very similar to tapas, because after all Spain and Spanish culture are right there, then you might well wonder if pintxo has anything in common with any Spanish word.

And it does. Actually, it’s a loan from Spanish. The Spanish word it’s taken from is pincho, which means ‘skewer’. As in those little wooden things that are typically found sticking out of pintxos. Pincho in turn traces through the Spanish verb pinchar to the same Latin root that gives us English puncture and punctuation.

But just as Basque cuisine has long interacted with Spanish cuisine – and the cuisines of other countries, such that not too far from where you can get inexpensive plates of little pintxos in San Sebastián (Donostia) you can get extremely expensive little plates of Basque-style nouvelle cuisine at Michelin three-star restaurants (see above) – the Basque language has taken this Spanish word and made it its own, so that you can eat pintxorik (partitive indefinite!) all you want.

incondite

“The word of the day,” Maury said, sipping on his Berlin,* “was incondite.”

“OK,” I said, “but what was the word?”

“Do not try me, James,” said Maury. “I have not been enjoying myself.”

“More’s the pity,” I said. “I have always liked your con-do attitude.”

Maury had been at one of his occasional pastimes, looking at show units for condos not yet built. There’s quite a lot of this recreation available in Toronto these days, but it’s not always exhilarating. I was also making a pun on incondite, since it is from Latin inconditus, formed from in- ‘not’ and conditus, past participle of condo, ‘I build’ (ironically not the origin of English condo, which is short for condominium).

“So the building is not well built?” I said.

“They are trying for the Jenga ethos, I think, but it’s more in the line of Jumanji. As processed through the back racks of a TJ Maxx.”

“Incondite,” I said. Incondite can mean ‘poorly constructed’.

“Well, that’s not what I was thinking of, but I suppose so, or it will be once it’s built, assuming it gets built and stays built long enough for anyone to say a word about it.”

“So the unit design is not good, then?” Incondite can mean ‘poorly designed’.

“Although that’s not what I was referring to, you are again right. Once you get through the serpentine entry hallway, you may be searching for a lever to depress to dispense a food pellet, but good luck finding and identifying all the rooms, in spite of there being so few of them. You wish they had hung arrows and signs.”

“And instead they hung something less tasteful?” Incondite can describe bad art and bad literature.

“Though that is not what I meant, you are again right. I would have thrown down a twenty for a glimpse of something even as coherent as an ersatz Klimt of dogs playing poker under the banner ‘Live – Laugh – Love.’ I believe the paintings were done by members of the Group Grope of Seven, or anyway of Six-ninety-nine. I was unable to extract any clear information from the agent about the art. Or about anything else.”

“I see. Words failed them? Or their speech was… lacking in polish?” Incondite can refer to unrefined speech.

“Incoherent, perhaps. Not erudite. But on the other hand, they may have been nonplussed by what I had uttered in the first place.”

“And… was that incondite?”

“Yes, in the sense taken from incondita vox, referring to phatic interjections. My response was automatic and involuntary. I looked around at the cataclysmic vomitrocity and said” – his face pruned paroxysmally as he repeated it – “Uuuuggghhhhhh.”

*A Berlin is, of course, the cocktail you have after you have had a Manhattan. It is made with four parts Cognac, one part Becherovka, and a bit of orange bitters, plus a big ice cube. Garnish if you want with something expensive and tasteless, like gold leaf or a Rolex.

letabund

On a lazy early evening, this word appeared in my reading, almost as in a vision: letabund. It was, I learned, used half a millennium ago, at least once, in Scotland. But it seemed to me immediately suitable for our own time, and it reminded me of one of my favourite artists.

If you look at it and try to guess its meaning and its morphology, you’re unlikely to see through it right away. The -abund – does that have to do with abundant? It does not; abundant comes from Latin ab ‘from’ and undo ‘wave, swell’, with the sense of ‘overflowing’. This is rather from the Latin suffix -bundus, which makes adjectives from verbs on the model of moribundus ‘dying; prone to death’ from morior ‘die’; this -bundus comes from an old root meaning ‘become’ or ‘grow’.

You may suspect that the let is not English let, and indeed we can let that go. If you sleep on it, you may dream of Italian letto ‘bed’. That comes from Latin lectus. Could this be lectabund? But these -bundus words are formed from verbs, and lectus ‘bed’ is a noun. There is another lectus, past participle of a verb, and that means ‘chosen’ (compare select and elect) or ‘read’ (compare lecture), but the present verb is lego, ‘I choose’ or ‘I read’, and so our word would be legabund, which puts a leg out of bounds.

So is it leto, then? You might reasonably expect that, but you would not be glad when you found out that leto means ‘I slay’, and so letabund would be ‘slaying’ or ‘inclined to kill’. No, let it not be so lethal; let us pour lethe upon the idea. We have had far more than enough death. Surely there is something missing?

There is, as an encyclopedia – or an encyclopædia – might tell you. As sometimes happens in English, the Latin letter æ, a digraph of a and e, has been rendered as just e. And what is læto? As a transitive verb, it means ‘I gladden’ and ‘I cause to rejoice’, but the passive form of the verb – lætor – translated as ‘I rejoice’. And so letabund means, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, ‘full of joy’.

Which is how I came to think of Jenny Holzer, one of my favourite artists. She is known for texts displayed in various ways in public places. Her second series, “Survival” (1983–85), contains many sharp and even cynical lines, such as “The future is stupid,” “You are trapped on the earth so you will explode,” and “You are so complex that you don’t always respond to danger.” But it also has the inscrutable positivity of “Turn soft and lovely any time you have a chance,” the serendipity of “You live the surprise results of old plans,” and the line that today’s word led me to:

“In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.”

elsehow, elsewhen, elsewho

Somehow, anyhow, you just want to go somewhere – anywhere – as long as it’s elsewhere. But how? Not how you’re doing it now. Elsehow.

Wait. Is elsehow a word? Well, it’s not really in use here and now, but it may be elsewhere, and it certainly was elsewhen. Just a few centuries ago, we used it – or, I suppose, not we, exactly, but elsewho.

Hmm, though. We don’t say somewhen or somewho, or anywhen or anywho (well, OK, some people occasionally say anywho as a jokey version of anyhow). We say sometime, somebody, anytime, anybody. So we should say elsetime and elsebody, right? 

That would be tidy, but it would also be less precedented. Although elsewhen and elsewho were in some use before Shakespeare’s time, and persist in at least some dictionaries today, there’s no similar historical basis for elsetime or elsebody. So what do we do?

We could use them anyway, I guess. They suggest themselves readily and have been confected by people more recently (Elsetime is the title of a 2020 novel by Eve McDonnell, for instance, and Elsebody is the name of a 2021 album by Hazelord – I should say I have not yet read the one or listened to the other). 

But which would you rather use? Would you prefer “I don’t want to do this now with them; I want to do it elsewhen with elsewho,” or “I don’t want to do this now with them; I want to do it elsetime with elsebody”? 

Or would you prefer it elsehow?

languid, languish

If you’re lolling about with little to do, take a look at these lines of verse:

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

—“The Lotos-eaters,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And I am weary of the anguish
Increasing winters bear;
Weary to watch the spirit languish
Through years of dead despair.

—“Stanzas,” Emily Brontë

Lazy laughing languid Jenny,
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,
Whose head upon my knee to-night
Rests for a while, as if grown light
With all our dances and the sound
To which the wild tunes spun you round

—“Jenny,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
’Tis too soon for hartshorn tea

—“A Receipt to Cure the Vapors,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Night, and beneath star-blazoned summer skies
Behold the Spirit of the musky South,
A creole with still-burning, languid eyes,
Voluptuous limbs and incense-breathing mouth

—“The South,” Emma Lazarus

Flowers whose long regrets and stems appear
Drenched in a lonely vase to languish there…

—“Hérodiade,” by Stéphane Mallarmé, translated by Henry Weinfield

Love listens, and paler than ashes,
Through his curls as the crown on them slips,
Lifts languid wet eyelids and lashes,
And laughs with insatiable lips

—“Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs),” by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Thine, thine the one grace we implore is,
Who would live and not languish or feign,
O sleepless and deadly Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

—also “Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs),” by Algernon Charles Swinburne

You see it, right? Languid is good; languish is bad. And of course you knew it already, but there it is. A languid afternoon or evening is delightfully lazy, slow-moving, like a world swimming in honey. Languishing is anguishing at length, failing in strength and will and wit.

And yet, they are siblings. They come from the same root, the root that also gives us languor. And, as it happens, languor came first to the language, around the year 1300; languid followed not long after. It was another nearly three centuries before languish showed its face. But it all traces back to Latin languere ‘be faint or unwell’ and its derived forms languidus ‘weak, sluggish, faint’ and languor ‘faintness, weakness, apathy’. (Languish is based on French languisse and English languysshen, forms of the verb languir, from languere.)

So, yes, the negative sense came first. And indeed, even languid has more negative than positive senses listed in the dictionary. But the first positively toned uses of it showed up by the early 1700s. Perhaps the liquid elegance of the word seems to have led it along to less malign angles in the language, but we should note that languor and languorous have a similar development: languor not so great, languorous not so bad—and the timeline for the development of their senses is similar, suggesting that pleasurable leisure came to be more appreciated beginning in the 1700s, at least in the language. (By the way, language is not related etymologically.)

Now I’m wondering lazily whether we might not have some other such pairs to match languid and languish. To go with anguish we could have anguid, but that is the name of a family of slowworms and related lizards (hmmm). A cryptid might go shady and become crytpish, but no one has said so. There is a rare verb splendish meaning ‘make splendid’; perhaps we could find something bad about that to make the match. There is a verb livish; but it means ‘alive-ish’ and is pronounced as such, so it’s not an actual sibling of livid, but it does have a contrariety to it. 

There is no ravid to match ravish, nor brandid to match brandish, at least not yet. There is no horrish to match horrid, nor fervish to go with fervid. And let us never ask for any use of covish. And there is no lavid to go with lavish, unless we make it so, but perhaps we should: something that is lavid might be rotten with fugxury. Oh, and if you publish something and it doesn’t splendish in print, is it publid? We could decide it is.

Well. I’ll just let that lie there and see where it gets to, if it does. I think I’m overdue now for a bit of rest.

Sleep, the fresh dew of languid love, the rain
Whose drops quench kisses till they burn again.

—“Epipsychidion,” Percy Bysshe Shelley