Tag Archives: Crux


Here’s an excruciating question: Can you talk about the crux of a book? A book’s crux? Or a movie’s? Can you say that the crux of The Crying Game is Dill’s disrobing?

What, in fact, do we even mean when we talk of the crux of something? Does it seem sometimes that we are at cross-purposes with it?

If you know Latin you know what crux is: ‘cross’. Not cross as in intersection, or as in deletion; cross as in crucifying, as in excruciating. An instrument of physical torture (and execution) used metaphorically for mental torture. An analogous case is travail and travel, which trace back to trepalium, a three-staked torture device. (If you’ve flown to, or in, the US lately, the link between travel and torture may make sense.)

Crux in this non-literal use showed up in English in the early 1700s to mean ‘something that is torturous to figure out or explain’; it may have been taken from Latin crux interpretum and/or crux philosophorum. By the late 1800s this had evolved to be the ‘central problem or point of interest’ – the crux of the matter or crux of the case. Meanwhile, by the late 1800s, it had also come to be used by mountaineers and rock climbers to refer to the toughest part of a route: the crux pitch or crux move or crux of the ascent. Again, a most difficult problem to solve. Not murderous in creation and resolution like a horcrux, but still something you would not want to double-cross.

So. Can we have a central problem of a book or movie? A central point of interest, sure. But let’s look at the words that crux of the usually goes with: according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the top ones are matter, problem, issue, case, argument, debate… and story. So in general, things that require resolution have cruxes; the crux is, in a way, the central knot. Stories aren’t problems in the same way as arguments are, but they have a structure, and that structure normally entails a problem and resolution.

And a novel is a story, right? Except it’s mentally schematized differently. How do we know? We know because we don’t use the same words and phrases to talk about it. And a book, and a film. A book is a container; it may contain a narrative conflict, but that is in the book. A novel is an elaborated presentation of a story or stories. It’s not that no one speaks of the crux of a novel, book, or movie; it’s just that almost no one does, and anyway somewhat fewer than speak of the crux of a story – let alone of an argument or problem.

But why? Schematization: the mental entailments we have for a concept. All the threads and connectors it has. Also collocations – the other words a word tends to travel with – which come from and reinforce the schematization. Words are known by the company they keep. And we learn them by hearing and habit – much less so by looking them up or applying logic to them (both of which can produce some of the most egregiously deadhanded dyslocutions). Just consider how many people speak of the problem’s crux or the matter’s crux (hint: no one, really). If you can talk of the problem’s resolution rather than the resolution of the problem, why can’t we talk of the problem’s crux?

For that matter, why not the exercise’s point rather than the point of the exercise, or the day’s soup rather than soup of the day? They should mean the same and be interchangeable, but they’re not. The longer version has two the’s because it has two noun phrases, each of which can have a determiner, whereas the shorter one is one noun phrase with a possessive noun modifier and as such can only have one explicit determiner (the determiner attaches to the possessive noun, but the possessive noun itself functions as a determiner for the other noun). But that’s not a problem for such things as the problem’s resolution. In the cases in question, the prosody seems to be important – when the modifying noun is dangling off in a prepositional phrase (of the problem), it is less central, more clearly a peripheral modifier that can be dropped off.

We might also consider some influence of the sources – soupe du jour and crux interpretum. Of course we don’t have that in mind when we say the crux of the matter. But we do have the gravity of tradition and habit. And that is the crux of this word tasting note.

If I may say that.


Thanks to colleagues on the email list of Editors Canada for discussing crux and inspiring this word tasting.


This word is an eye-catching, if rarely beheld, asterism of graphemes; it seems made for Scrabble, but your chances of getting away with it are variable at best (it’s not in the official dictionary). And yet, in an interesting twist, for all its visual éclat, it is a simple little workhorse word – in fact, one that merely speaks for others, a proxy. But it is not idle speech or just blowing hot air.

Well, you may blow a bit of air, hot or cool, when saying it, given the voiceless stop it opens with and the following aspiration that will whistle through your rounded lips. (Reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European roots suggest quite a lot of velar obstruent–rounded glide pairs, /kw/ and /gw/ and fricated and aspirated versions as well. It may or may not be coincidence that it’s something like the oral gesture infants perform when breast-feeding.)

It also has three amusing orthographical features: on one end, it has a letter that is as a rule only ever seen with the letter following it to indicate a coarticulated/off-glided stop, /kw/ spelled qu; on the other end, it has a letter that actually stands for two sounds in sequence, /ks/ spelled x; at its heart it has two instances of the same letter, but standing for two different sounds, neither of which the original vowel sound it stood for (the u after the q stands for a related glide, /w/, but the second u stands for /ʌ/ or /ə/, as most versions of English shifted it to that sound from /ʊ/ or /u/). In other words, it’s a little salad of orthographic oddities.

But what is quux? Is it an ancient word returned, atavistically? No, actually, just a modern confection on old models. It’s a metasyntactic variable, invented (in youth) by a luminary of American computer programming named Guy L. Steele. What is a metasyntactic variable? It’s like a math variable – a placeholder – but used for programming functions and similar. It can be used in conversation – instead of saying “The title of your blog entry will show in the URL as the final string,” you can say “If your blog entry is titled quux the URL will be http://www.somewebsite.com/blog/quux.” And instead of “If female person A submits an application,” you can say “If Ms. Quux submits an application.” Normal people do this with terms like “Joe Blow”; nerds, when putting variables in their syntax, prefer something nerdier – say, fake Latin, which this is (Steele came up with a whole declension for it, including the genitive plural quuxuum). It happens that Steele also wrote computer science geek poetry under the name The Great Quux, and that the phrase the quux of the matter is sometimes used in joking contrast to the crux of the matter to mean a non-essential point.

So, then, say you are searching for some word, and this word has a particular property, you could say, “I’m looking for a word quux such that quux is an English word with the letter sequence quu. What lexical values are there for quux?” Admittedly, you could perhaps more perspicuously phrase it (or, to be precise, a closely related question) the way Joe Kessler, @kessling, did today: “I can’t think of any #English words that contain /kwu/ or /kwə/. Is this just due to the strangeness of spelling ‘quu’?”

One answer to Joe’s question is, of course, quux, but only if you accept it as an English word. There are, as it happens, other values for that variable besides quux, but very few, and, in spite of their visual éclat, rarely seen. The one still in common use is really medical Latin: obliquus, a name for several muscles, such as the obliquus externus and obliquus internus, abdominal muscles involved in exhalation and abdominal torsion – blowing hot air and twisting.

Also in the Oxford English Dictionary are ventriloquus, meaning “ventriloquist” (which comes from Latin for “chest speaker”, by the way, though of course everyone uses the chest in speaking, if obliquely; a ventriloquist gets some other thing’s mouth to seem to speak for him or her) and inaniloquus, an obsolete word – in fact, probably a nonce word – meaning “idle or foolish speech”. And that’s all the quuxes in the OED such that quux contains quu (quux itself is not in the OED).

But we may want to allow the name of a constellation as well: Equuleus. This charming name, which I first saw on a bottle of wine (a Bordeaux-style blend made by the Niagara winery Château des Charmes), means “little horse” or “foal”, and it’s a small, faint constellation – the second-smallest of the 88 modern constellations.

And what’s the smallest modern constellation, by the way? One that’s much more visually salient – in fact, it features on a couple of national flags. Or, rather, its dominant asterism does, the Southern Cross. The constellation as a whole is called Crux.

But, of course, while the vagaries of “the stars” (fate) may be variable (even disastrous), and while Equuleus and Crux may seem to move through the skies, we know that, unlike, say, quux, they are not variable: they are firm in the firmament. And that’s the quux of the matter here.