Tag Archives: new old words


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?


When I worked in a bookstore with a replete Penguin section, I came to know a whole lot about a whole lot of books. I knew who classic authors were, I knew what books they had written, I knew what the books were about.

I had not actually read all the books. 

Who has that much time? I read their back covers. In matters of classic literature, I was not a polymath; I was a perimath.

You know what a polymath is, I reckon: someone who knows a lot of things. That’s from πολυ- polu- (normally rendered as poly-) ‘many, much’ plus μάθη mathē ‘learning’ (and yes, that’s related to the math in mathematics). I imagine you’re also familiar with peri-, as in perimeter, periscope, periphrastic, and peripatetic. That’s from περί peri ‘about, around’. So, yes, perimath means someone who knows about things – you could say they know details peripheral to the things. (And a person who knows about a lot of things could be called a polyperimath.)

That might not sound like a good kind of thing to be. But believe me, there’s a lot to be said for knowing about things – knowing that information exists, and knowing where and how to get that information. Very few people will remember everything exactly as they read or learned it, and the amount of information available will be forever greater than any one person’s capacity for learning it all. But if you see some reference to a fact, and you can remember where and how to find out the details – if your mind is not an encyclopedia but a catalogue or search engine for a whole library – you can be very intellectually effective indeed. And, I must add, people who are sure they don’t need to look things up tend to get things wrong enough of the time to vitiate their effectiveness.

Let me give a little example. When I was in grad school, I taught test prep for the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, which are standardized tests for admission to graduate school, management school, and law school, respectively. They have a “reading comprehension” section, wherein you read a passage and then answer multiple-choice questions about it. A good way to do badly on it is to read the passage once and then answer the questions on the basis of what you’re sure you remember. The way to do well on it is to look back at the passage and confirm the exact answer to every question. (Remember: these tests are multiple-choice, so you are given the correct answer for each question, along with three answers that are incorrect in ways that people who rely on memory may miss.) But it’s a timed test, so you need to be able to find the information without rereading the whole passage every time. You need to have an idea where and how to look (numbers and capitalized words make great landmarks, for instance) – and then you need to pay attention to what it definitely does and does not say.

Real life isn’t like standardized tests, of course, but it does present unlimited opportunities to make dumb mistakes on the basis of what you’re sure you remember. The ability to find and check facts is very useful – and the inclination to do so is a mark not of insecurity or ignorance but of diligence and careful thinking. It should also go without saying that it’s better to know that a piece of information exists than not to.

So sure, it’s good to be a polymath. No one could say otherwise. But it’s also good to be a perimath. And, if we’re being honest, a lot of people we think of as polymaths are really mainly perimaths – or polyperimaths, if you want to insist. One of my favourite quotes about high intelligence (or producing the impression of high intelligence, anyway) is from a guy named Rick Rosner, who characterized it as “doggedness and reference skills.”

Which also characterizes essential traits for getting a graduate degree – and for several professions, such as librarian and editor. So here’s to the perimaths.

By the way: you won’t find this word in wide use… yet. I assembled it from existing parts, and its sense follows quite reasonably, but I have no prior attestations for its use. I do hope it catches on, though!


You may know that bibulousness is the state or quality of being bibulous, and bibulous (from Latin bibere) is ‘characterized by drinking’ – and by “drinking” we mean alcohol, generally. You may also know the Greek root biblio- relating to books, as in bibliophile, ‘book lover’. But did you know the word biblious or its derivative bibliousness?

Yes, that’s right. Biblious means ‘characterized by reading books’, and bibliousness is the state or quality of, well, being someone who reads (or, at the very least, acquires with the intention of reading, OK?) books, books, and more books.

And yes, I’m going to say that if you read books professionally (as I do – read them and edit them), that counts too. But there’s something special about having the printed volumes, isn’t there? Something about the feel, the look, the smell… you can just drink it in, so to speak. Or, um, so to read, anyway.

I am definitely a biblious person. I grew up in a house with about two thousand books (I counted), and here is a view of where I live now (I’m sitting in that chair as I write this):

I suspect that you, too, dear reader, are biblious. It seems likely that anyone who likes the taste of words also enjoys the taste (and presence) of books.

Bibliousness is a wonderful thing (at least I think so, and so does my wife), and it’s a wonderful word, and yet somehow, if you look in dictionaries or online, you won’t find it… until now. Yes, it’s a new old word, but it truly has always existed and was just waiting for its moment. What about bibliophile? That’s someone who loves books, That’s someone who loves books, but just as there’s a distinciton between, say, an oenophile and someone who’s bibulous, there’s a distinction between a bibliophile and someone who’s biblious.

And if you object to the mixing of Greek and Latin roots, well, macaroni to you. Go read a book.


Arteclination: ‘lying in art, lying on art, or leaning on art’.

If you are inclined to recline on or in an artwork, should you decline? We rely on art, but may we lean on it? In art is truth, but may you also lie in art – I mean lie down in an artwork?

The answer is not simple. Some art is made for leaning on or lying in, sometimes even for sleeping in (I’ve stayed in hotels that had that feel); some… less so. 

In the Aidekman Arts Center at Tufts University, where I got my PhD, there is a sculpture court that features several large, sturdy, metal abstract sculptures. Receptions for various things to do with the fine arts are often held there. On one occasion I was on a clear liquid diet (for a medical procedure the next day) but that didn’t stop me from attending an reception for something there; wine, after all, is a clear liquid. However, wine goes to one’s head quickly after a day on clear liquids. I reached out to one of the sculptures to steady myself. Immediately an art student materialized and asked me not to do that. Arteclination prohibited!

On the other hand, in Toronto, where I live now, there is a lovely and popular park south of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and on one side of it is a large metal Henry Moore sculpture. Like many Moore pieces, it is holey. But it is not sacred. There are no guards or art students shooing people away from it. Children play on it. People lean on it (as I have – recently, too). And, sometimes, people recline in it.

Imagine lying in art: the delight of arteclination. It’s almost beyond articulation. To put yourself at the centre of the holy, to be incumbent in the transcendence of form. The exaltation of relaxation. The artificial divide between aesthetic and everyday is unmoored. You become a transient part of art.

And yet sculpture is nothing other than the exaltation of aspects of everyday life. Figural art imitates those ordinary forms and beings that so many people think are too mundane to touch it; abstract art presents the forms and relations, the colours and textures, taken from the skin of the earth and its denizens. Art relies on life: life is what it rests on. And we rely on art to take parts of life, set them apart, and present them back to us for our own abstracted emotional and aesthetic responses, our own – often restful – exaltation. 

We want art in our lives, and we want our lives to touch it. And when we want to relax, where better to support our inclination than an ostentatiously aesthetic object? Or even some piece of everyday life that we have decided to see as art, and to rest ourselves in it or on it as part of it?

Hence arteclination. The arte- is clear enough, and you recognize it from artefact. The -clination shows up in inclination, but its root -cline is also in recline, and many other words; it means ‘lie’ or ‘lean’.

Yes, it’s true, you won’t find any historical uses of this word. It’s a new old word. But it’s for real.


Some days, you know, you have plans, you have designs, you have desires, but at the end of the day, you’ve done jactiate. And other days, you have duties, you have instructions, you have obligations, but at the end of the day, you haven’t done jactiate. And either way, it’s the same.

It’s the same because jactiate is the kind of thing where the result is identical whether you do it or not. Literally – that’s the definition: ‘stuff that can be done or not done with no difference in ultimate effect’. And I say “stuff” and not “things” or “a thing” because it’s a mass noun, like water, air, rice, and business: it doesn’t get an article and it doesn’t get a plural. Mostly, in fact, it just shows up in two collocations: do [or did] jactiate and don’t [or didn’t] do jactiate. And those two phrases mean exactly the same thing, in spite of the opposite polarity.

Where does this word jactiate come from? You might recognize the jact root, as in Julius Caesar’s famous Alea jacta est! That means “The die is cast!” More often, though, jacta (or jactus or jactum) would be translated as thrown or tossed – and you can see the root (mutatis mutandis) in other English words, such as eject and reject, both of which can be paraphrased as toss out.

You recognize the -ate ending, of course; more often it’s on verbs, but it can show up on adjectives describing things that have had the verb done to them, and nouns naming those things. A noun you might recognize in this form is ejaculate, which refers to stuff that has been ejaculated. And an adjective you might recognize is cruciate, as in anterior cruciate ligament, so named not because it’s excruciating when you tear it but just because there are two of them and they cross over (= they are cruciate). In the same pattern, jactiate is stuff that’s tossed out (or will be tossed out, or has been tossed out), and so doing it or not doing it makes no difference; you might as well have done nothing.

You can take the cue for pronunciation of jactiate from the analogous words, too. Although verbs ending in -ate say it like the word ate, adjectives and nouns reduce and destress it. Just as cruciate sounds like “crewshit,” jactiate sounds like “jackshit.” So when you say “You’ve done jactiate” and “We haven’t done jactiate,” it sounds like…

…well, ha ha, yes, it is “You’ve done jack shit” and “We haven’t done jack shit.” I just made this word up because I didn’t have anything better to do at the moment. It’s a Latin joke for word geeks. (It’s not even perfectly formed from the Latin, but whatevs, did you even notice?) You probably know the term jack shit, which first appeared in colloquial English usage by the 1970s (Oxford’s first citation is 1968). Well, now you can spell it jactiate instead of jack shit (or jackshit) and say “So there!” to the tut-tutters. Just tossing that out there…


Here’s another word we all need, especially right now. Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) asked Twitter,

What is the German word for “feeling physically nauseous from anxiety at the news but also morbidly unable to look away and stop scrolling”

She got a number of responses, of course. I’ve decided, however, that the mot juiced is Geierfaszination – “vulture fascination,” i.e., inability to look away when you see a vulture eating something (e.g., your cat).

Don’t bother looking it up; it’s not in any dictionary. I’m not even going to call it a “new old word”—I’m owning this puppy up front. (And any German speakers out there who find it ill formed are welcome to issue a correction.) If you want to say it out loud, it’s said like “guy-er-fass-i-na-tsyon” or however close to that you’re up to.

The word is made of two plain parts. Geier means ‘vulture’ (it traces back through German roots relating to ‘greed’ and ‘desire’ to a root that mainly gave rise to words meaning ‘gladly, willingly, eagerly’ in various Germanic languages, such as German gern and Swedish gärna). Faszination is plainly the German cognate of English fascination, from Latin fascinare ‘bewitch’, which traces to fascinum, which meant ‘evil spell, witchcraft’ but also meant ‘penis’ and, binding the two senses together (and – according to some people – the origin of both), ‘a phallus-shaped amulet worn around the neck as a preventive against witchcraft’ (to quote Wiktionary).

Which means that the roots of this word for ‘vulture-fascination’ could also have developed to mean ‘eagerly wear a magic dildo around my neck’. And, frankly, if you saw someone walking down the street proudly wearing a magic dildo around their neck, you might well feel queasy and worried but have a hard time looking away.


When I was young we used to call them “rejects” (said as “re-jects”). Maybe you did too. Maybe people still do.

I mean the kind of people (more often guys, now that I think of it) who rejected and were rejected. They were the unpleasant ones who hated everything and found something to condemn in everything, and everyone hated them. You’d see them walking around school or the university campus looking like they were wearing underwear made of greasy turkey skin, and even the cafeteria cashiers would only speak to them under duress. If you had the dreadful fortune of being trapped with one in some occasion – perhaps a classroom – they would lecture you about the depravity of all the things you liked best, or they would go on about all their autoexcoriatingly sketchy designs on members of the opposite sex, or both. The rejects thought themselves better than everyone and everything, and everyone else thought themselves better than the rejects. It was mutual rejection.

We generally thought these people would go away or grow up or, ideally, both.

But imagine having them running your country. Or even your city or your province or state.

There’s a word for that. Because of course there is. The Meccano set of classical roots is an almost infinite resource. 

The word is aporrhiptocracy.

Wow, that’s an unpleasant-looking word, innit? Especially that rrh in the middle, which looks less like the purr of a cat or even of a motorcycle engine and more like a belch or… wait… what common word contains it? Oh… yes… diarrhea.

It happens that diarrhea is not related to aporrhiptocracy, except in that they both come from Classical Greek, and in Classical Greek if you put a prefix ending in a vowel onto a root that starts with a devoiced “r” you get a doubling of that devoiced “r” that is transliterated into the Latin alphabet as rrh. And in the case of today’s word, the prefix is apo, απο (‘from’ or ‘away’ or ‘remove’), and the root is rhiptō, ῥίπτω (‘I throw’). And then there’s –(o)cracy (from -κρατία), having to do with rule (democracy, autocracy, etc.). So it’s throw-away-rule – or, more to the point, reject-rule.

Now, it’s true that being rejected doesn’t automatically mean you are a bad person. Anyone who knows Händel’s Messiah knows the aria that goes “He was despised, rejected of men,” which reminds us that a great person may be scorned by the middling multitude. And I’m sure that many of you reading this had experiences in youth like mine: of being generally unpopular because of being different and awkward. It is known that some people we look up to now were looked down on by their peers in their time.

But that’s also part of the problem. Because being rejected can be taken as a sign of virtue, of being scorned because you’re better. I think a lot of kids who are rejected by their agemates decide that must be the case. I did. It helped for a long time to keep me from noticing that I was often obnoxious, rude, condescending… Sure, they were defensive responses, but eventually we’re all supposed to grow up, right?

Except for those who don’t. And aporrhiptocracy isn’t about being ruled by people who were scorned as children due to their virtue. It’s about being ruled by people who even as adults take every negative response as proof of their rightness and superiority. People, for instance, who insist priggishly that every “modern” “innovation” (meaning they became aware of it after their seventh birthday) is “degenerate,” that one race or gender or language or mode of clothing or style of architecture is intrinsically superior, that if you can trip someone you must be better than them and you can prove it by kicking them while they’re down… People who rule by rejecting. As they themselves were rejected.

Obviously, the fewer reasons we have to use the word aporrhiptocracy, the better. But, people being people, it will never cease altogether to be of use.

…Though I will confess that, as you may have suspected, it’s a new old word. I put it together myself from the Greek roots. And, yes, if you know Classical Greek, you may have noticed that I cheated: I used the present indicative of the verb, rather than the past participle. This is because I didn’t like apoerriphocracy as well. But, hey, most people will never notice. 

In fact, I could have made it rejectocracy, mixing Latin and Greek. But that would be obvious, and where’s the fun in that? But if you prefer to use rejectocracy, I can’t blame you, and I won’t object.


I came then at last, after much walking and climbing, to the door. It was set at the top step, without so much as a landing; and it was beautifully fashioned, and its handle was ornate. The lock was a master piece: cleverly crafted, designed as much for admission of its maker to the highest level of the guild as for admission of key-holders to what lay on the other side. I had carried the key for it these many miles, an intricate and nearly cylindrical item with the aspect of a forest of metal. I carefully inserted it into the lock, and with some manipulation at last caused it to work. The bolt slid with surprising ease. I turned the handle and opened the portal. It swung and revealed… nothing. And everything.

The door at the climax of my travels was a nulleporte.

—Alexis de Saint-Morissette, La Couronne des hommes (Corona virorum), translated by Alana Leroy

The translator can be forgiven for not translating nulleporte: there is no single word in English for it. Oh, yes, we have an expression, door to nowhere, and it serves well enough, I suppose (and, at least for me, immediately cues up “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads). But it’s so much tidier and cuter as nulleporte: French for ‘nowhere’ is nulle part, and French for ‘door’ is porte.

We expect doors to go to places. They are limens, literally; they are transition points, places to stop and reflect for a fleeting instant as you move from one state of body and mind to another. Gaston Bachelard asks in The Poetics of Space (translated by Maria Jolas, and my apologies for the default to masculine), “is he who opens a door and he who closes it the same being?” My answer is that we are not ever the same from moment to moment, but doors give a particularly clear and prescribed instant of change. The state you are in as you approach them is known; the state on the other side is expected or at least guessed at. A door is a conjunction in the grammar of spaces.

A nulleporte is a door that you open and.

A door is a passage through a boundary. A nulleporte has a boundary but no passage, or a passage but no boundary. It is a solecism in the grammar of spaces.

Of course a door, even a nulleporte, always has not-nothing on the other side. It may defeat your expectation of a room, or a hallway, or the enterable outdoors, and at least something to step forward onto. But even if you pull it open only to find a wall, or open air and a drop-off, there is still not nothing. And if, as is the case with some nulleportes, it’s just a door to more of the same space (there are doors standing in the middle of the countryside, inviting you to pass through though you could always just go around), there is no less potential than there was – you just have the added experience of a gratuitous transition. But in all cases, a nulleporte is not a door you can use as you expected to. The expected potential has not been realized, so the options are undefined.

One thing has been prescribed: you have to do something other than what you thought you would. If the door is in the middle of a field or standing free in a gallery, you can pass through and continue, and your mind will tell you both that something has changed and that nothing significant has changed, and you have a decision to make about what you tell yourself. If it opens to wall or to sky, you can turn around and go back where you came, perhaps; that’s usually an option with doors (though certain doors in places such as airports – remember those? – have a requirement of not reversing course). But you came with a plan to go forward, no? Is there, after all, turning back?

When a door is a literal nulleporte, the realistic decision can be clear-cut and unavoidable: few people will step into open air with a long drop down, and fewer still will walk into (or through) a wall, and let us not condemn those who choose to keep living unbruised. When it is not clear-cut, it is likely inconsequential: some will step through a door that leads to the same space, and some will go around it, and the result is, physically, functionally indistinguishable.

But when in the course of our lives we reach a figurative nulleporte – a transition point anticipated but not providing the expected outcome – we still must do something. We can walk into a wall and somehow pass through it (or at least hope to). We can step off into air and manage to fly before we become a Wile E. Coyote canyon-floor dust cloud. We can pass through into the same space as we were in and truly see it and be in it differently. Nothing… and everything: a transition because you decide it is one.

Or not, of course. We can also come up to a nulleporte in our lives and find no sensible way to go through, and go back and choose another route. That’s better than hitting a wall or becoming a dust cloud on the canyon floor, or pretending things have changed when they haven’t. Sometimes a nulleporte opens a door only to recognizing our own assumptions, expectations, and plans. It makes a difference, of course, whether no door was expected and you came to one only to find it not what it looks like, or whether you’ve been waiting for this moment for all your life only to find it’s all been a pack of lies.

Now here’s a question: if we have a meaning for something, and a phrase to signify that meaning, does it make a difference if we have a single word? We know what door to nowhere is; it’s a collocation, well established, and clear enough for most people. The idea of a word is that it unlocks new meanings, but nulleporte means nothing more than ‘door to nowhere’; it just says it in one word, and more cleverly, and plainly borrowed from French (which is classy or something). It gives it a new air and a new thingness, but is that just imagination? Is nulleporte a nulleporte? Are you exactly where you were before you had it? Or has it led to a state change? Is there something not just liminal but numinous about doors, and about the linguistic doors that words are? Per Bachelard, “Why not sense that, incarnated in the door, there is a little threshold god?”

And have you, by the way, stopped to think about who goes and puts nulleportes in places? It seems like such a frank (and perhaps passive-aggressive) bit of spatial communication. Or perhaps it’s a gift, meant to give a new perspective. Or it’s just fun or diversion or fantasy. Bachelard: “And what of all the doors of mere curiosity, that have tempted being for nothing, for emptiness, for an unknown that is not even imagined?” What of them? In fact, life is full of them, incessantly, and we don’t even notice most of them.

I can’t speak for everyone, of course. But I can speak for the person who created the word nulleporte, because I am that person. It’s a new old word. (I created the quoted passage at the start as well, but the Bachelard quotes are all real.) And I suggest using this nulleporte for the best reason for using a nulleporte: because why not.


Where are you from?

What is the landscape of your childhood imagination, the place where you learned placeness, the paths and houses and landscapes that taught you the lines and limits of being somewhere and going somewhere? When you imagined other places, what is the mental modelling clay you used? What are your archetopes?

Now that you have grown, you have seen much more of the world, many places that are many different ways, but as you travelled, each new-to-you place had things about it that surprised you in how they differed from what you were used to. Piccadilly Circus was smaller than you expected, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was bigger, Manhattan was more homey, Tel Aviv was more modern, Quebec was older, San Francisco seemed so closed in, Mexico City seemed so vast, Ireland had endless stone walls, Boston had brick sidewalks, New Zealand had one-lane bridges; lanes didn’t go the way you thought they would, and buildings were used differently, and hills had odd shapes, and roads took odd routes up them, and houses welcomed you different ways and smelled different from the houses you knew when you were small. And these are all wonderful discoveries, and as you live you build your knowledge of somewhereness in the world – of ubiety – as surely as you build your understanding of people and things. Every mental ramification is exciting. But all those new branches are grown on the same roots, of where you learned what it was to be somewhere, to have a world around you with places to go and to be. They are all built on and with your archetopes.

I live in Toronto; I have lived here for nearly a quarter of a century now. I am at home, I know the geography, the shape of the city, the wheres and whats of it, and have seen more of it than many people who have lived nowhere else. But it’s not where I’m from. It’s not where I learned how places are connected, or what going away and coming home feels like. It’s not where I mapped my desires and hopes over hills and valleys, where I draped my dreams on peaks and plains. It’s not steeped in the mythos of my childhood.

If I go with my wife through the east side of Toronto, past certain intersections and into certain parks, we pass the places where her childhood and youth happened: this is where her track team ran, that is where she broke her arm, here is the arena she learned to skate in, there is the McDonald’s she worked in. For her it is blood, running in her veins; for me it is water, like a stream I am stepping into and can step out of. If we go to Alberta, to Calgary and Banff and the Bow Valley in between, it is the converse: though my family lived in many different houses, everything I see is where I imagined a million things, where I extrapolated the lands of books and movies and televisions shows from, where I ran and sat and read and sang and made things and broke things and imagined what I would be in fifty years. And for my wife it is scenery and a place to visit.

These are our archetopes, our original places. You know archetype, I’m sure; it is from Greek ἀρχή arkhé ‘beginning, origin’ and τῠ́πος tupos ‘type, sort, impression’. Archetope has the same arche, but in place of type is tope, as in biotope and chronotope: ‘place’, from Greek τόπος topos.

There is an important distinction to be made: whereas archetypes are, per Jung, stored deep in our collective unconscious – the operating-system software we are born with – and they shape stories and understandings in generally the same ways wherever there are humans, archetopes have a more individual quality. Certainly we may be born with ideas of shapes of places, and narratives of going through places, but each of us learns geography in a way that anchors certain places deep in our imaginations and helps shape even the world of our dreams. We develop our archetopes also by travelling as children, and if we live in many places in our early years we build our archetopes from all of them. But each of us has navigated the places of the world differently, has learned differently what to feel about certain houses and roads, has come to different encounters with the wild parts.

Have you seen or heard this word archetope before? Perhaps not. You may have if you’ve read the revisionist physics of one James Carter, but he uses it differently, to name an atom’s most “archetypal isotope.” But his models of physics are, shall we say, not widely adopted; I don’t mind ignoring him. This word is much more needed for a facet of lived being that I have always felt existed but never had a word for. And now I do, and so do you. Yes, it’s a new old word, but everything is new at some time or another.


I’m fed up with being fed up, and I’m sick of having to avoid getting sick. I am surrounded by fulsome wholesome advice, and I am feeling much more partial to something on the middling side. I do not want to replace potato chips with celery sticks. I do not want something so morally improving that it is as warm and welcoming as a marble sculpted peach. I want to cut loose, I want a cut of the louche, I want some cheese on my cheese and hold the cracker, I want some sparkle in my life and I want it served in a stem glass, and I don’t want anyone to tell me how good for me it isn’t. It’s not that I’m interested in hopping on the helter-skelter to hell – I’ll seek the endorphin high of exercise on my own time and terms, don’t you worry – but let me have something halfsome.

That’s some word, halfsome, but for some reason we don’t see it much. It has the same pattern as wholesome and fulsome. That some shows up in cumbersome, handsome, gladsome, loathsome, and some more (such as wlatsome), to make a word that means its object has or provokes the quality, act, or response named; the whole in wholesome is of course the same as whole but is also related to hale and health (a person who is whole is healthy and vice versa, and whole and hale trace back to the same word, while health is from hale as width is from wide); the ful in fulsome is just a less fully written full with the same sense and some extensions (though woe betide you if you run afoul of the lexicranks on that one). So if there’s whole and full, there’s half, right?

I’m partial to it. Half comes originally from an old word for ‘side’, as in one side of a person (or a cow, or a cookie, or a nagila) or, by extension, one side of a two-party relationship or deal (which is why “on my behalf” means “taking my side” – these days specifically “acting as my proxy”). So it doesn’t originally convey a situation such as a glass that is somewhere between full and empty (in the middle, one might say – maybe midsome, though that word is no more popular than a midden at midsummer); rather, it implies a one-sidedness, an imbalance, or anyway a partialness or partiality. It names a diet and lifestyle that tend more to one kind of thing – just the kind of thing to which a person is partial – rather than one of those annoying wholesome regimens recommended by people who seem not to understand the concept of enjoying food.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend all my days eating nothing but potato chips and fancy cheese. There are delicious ways to serve things that even the most morose martinet of a medical fanatic would recommend. But even moderation is best enjoyed in moderation. Every now and then, have something halfsome.

Oh, by the way, for some dumb reason, this word is not in any dictionaries. Yet. So I get to decide what it means, and I just did. I guess that makes it a new old word, and I’m serving it up fresh for you. Have some!