It’s the muddy season, and when you trudge on streets and paths the soles of your shoes and the margins of your pants may not emerge in good condition – may not, in fact, emerge intact. A shoe stuck in the wrong mud may be sucked from your foot, leaving you with naught but sock or stocking, and even that covered in murgeon.

Don’t get the idea that murgeon is a synonym for mud, though. It’s an old word for dirt and dregs and an only slightly newer one for mortar or peaty soil. It likely does come from the same source as mud, as reflected by the alternate form mudgeon (and is a curmudgeon like a cur in mudgeon? Perhaps, but there’s no evidence that that’s the origin).

But there is some sort of phonaesthetic urge in this word. It clings at the margins and thickens in the midgen, if only a smidgen. (Midgen, by the way, is the fat around an animal’s entrails.) It has a murky murmur or a grumbling hum to begin, and then you are mired in a midden with a burgeoning virgin sturgeon surgeon. Which, by the by, is a sequence of words that sounds like someone imitating an American on a military radio, a festival of retroflex and affricate.

Ah, frick it. This word begins and ends with nasals, so it’s not just dirty but soft. But listen carefully and take it to heart – or, I should say, take it as the heart of your two options when your shoe is mired in the murgeon: emergence or emergency.

The rest of the subtitle

Movie subtitles are often missing something important.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw Ai Weiwei’s The Rest. It’s an excellent documentary, and I feel a little bad criticizing it about anything, but its subtitles really needed one more thing – though, to be fair, very few movies include it. Continue reading

Nine Bars


The working life

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The walls are alternating brick and panel, some painted white, some not; the tables are a mix of small two-person ones – no two of them identical, seven in total – plus a big heavy wooden high-top six-seater; the logo is painted big on one wall: a stylized lion shield with NINE BARS, whatever that means; the whole of it could be in some hip part of town and the place could be littered with hipsters, or it could be on a déclassé side of the city centre and packed with wage slaves. But this particular coffee joint is in Deer Park. It’s on St. Clair, just east of Yonge. It’s a good part of town to work if you’re a high-priced accountant. It’s a good part of town to live if you’re a high-priced accountant’s client. So the clientele here are largely a mix of quiet young ladies, guys in suits, and people well north of 50. Continue reading

blet, medlar

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The tree of English lexis produces many and varied fruit, and some are quite unexpected. Some are old and overripe to the point of… not rotting, but developing a dense, aged form that has made a mush of the original: a timeless tradition with the richness of antiquity. Others are strange blends and borrowings: they seem like gifts of the ancient but they are more grifts and grafts of the moderns. You may eat all day for many years of the many different fruits this tree bears and still, on some bright day, taste not one but two that you do not recall knowing before.

And so it was yesterday for me. I was wandering through the buzzing hay-meadow of Twitter and I saw a short sequence of tweets by an Italian friend, Costanza: Continue reading


Is this word good or not?

I guess it depends on who you ask. Continue reading


It’s time for another fresh old word from James Orchard Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic Words. And it’s a word for spring.

In fact, it’s a word for springing, For sproinging. Even for spronging. It’s for someone or something who’s spring-fresh, even frightfully so, like the friskiest fry or some other friendly tyke. Continue reading


Spring is here, and everything is spurking up.

Does spurk seem like a word I just invented? It… sort of is, but it’s not. I wondered if it existed, so I looked, and it does. It has been in English for more than three centuries, though no one seems to use it these days.

And what would you suppose it means? Continue reading