Tag Archives: new old words


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!


You step in, close the door behind you – click – and then, ahhhhh, you peel it off. You reach up behind your ear and hook your finger into the loop and strip that mask off and your face is free. You are, at last, maximally relaxed: you are at the moment of maxillaxation.

Not that maxillaxation comes from maximally relaxed. The laxation is related to relaxation – they both come from Latin laxare, which can mean ‘relax’ or ‘open’ but can also mean ‘undo, release, relieve, free’ – but the maxil is from maxilla, ‘jaw’. You could say that maxilla is bound so closely to laxation that the la and la have overlapped and become one.

There are other Latin confections that could be made to express the moment of freeing your face from an anti-infection mask. But they don’t all sound as good. And, really, unlike some other masks (which may cover the whole face or only the eyes), the contagion-stoppers are fitted mainly to the jaw, with the lower nose included. Plus, if anyone wants to say “mask” and turns this word into maskillaxation, well, that works too.

You don’t have to use this word, of course; you could use something based on the Greek for ‘unveiling’, ἀποκάλυψις – oh, sorry, apocalypse is already kinda taken. You could do something with ‘lips’ and ‘sheath’, but not using Latin roots, because the Latin words for those would get you caught in adult content blockers (see here). A Greek-derived word for ‘lip stripping’ would be something like cheiloecdysis, which, um, I like maxillaxation, don’t you?

Well, I hope Susan C-P (@booksnips) likes it, because she made the request that led me to this word:


Led me to it? Led me to make it, of course. The ingredients were all there, but this result is my own recipe. I’m sure you’re not surprised that it’s a new old word, first unveiled now before you. But it feels good to have it, doesn’t it?

PS @ottawasteph said “Now do bras!” and as far as I make it, that would readily be mammillaxation – because Latin for ‘breast’ (or anyway ‘nipple’) is mammilla.


We all do it, from time to time, given the chance: we sit and watch the waves come in. The future rolls to you, becomes the present, and again, and again: change, incessant change, so similar one to another but never the same, and yet after half an hour, after an hour, what has changed?

Tide comes to you and takes your time. You look to the horizon, but it is just waves all the way. It is the meeting of happenings you can’t see and things you can see that are not truly happening. The invisible wind brushes the surface of the water, and the water arches its back like a cat and pretends to move. You see it come towards you, but the water is not coming towards you, not piling up at your feet: instead, like generations passing down their thoughts and fears and hopes to later generations, each indistinguishable drop of water pushes the next and that one the next and that one the next, and at last the front of the line falls forward, reaches for you like a drowning person grasping at the shore, and then slides back. And again forward, and again back. In each lash of surf it falls to pieces and comes back together, and that shakes the air, and the air sends waves in the same way to you, and you hear the rush and froth and hiss but it is only the air that was already in your ear telling you what it was told, information passed from the splash through countless atoms until the last of them tumble forward and bump against your eardrum. And waves of light reflect and strike your eyes, and cells take note and nerves pass signals and your brain decides what it all signifies.

This is kymoskepsis. ‘Wave-gazing’. From Greek κῦμα kuma ‘wave’ and σκέψις skepsis ‘watching, considering’. You may know the similarly formed omphaloskepsis, ‘navel-gazing’; here, you look not at your own umbilicus, but at the lifeblood of the world.

You may also recognize in σκέψις the source of skeptic. A person who watches and considers may doubt. But when you watch the waves come towards you from the horizon, do you doubt them? Do you doubt the sea or the lake? More likely you doubt yourself, your significance, your existence. Well, you are also a wave: nothing stays the same inside your mind or your emotions; they change from moment to moment. And from moment to moment your body changes, too; it takes in new food and new air, and it destroys and rebuilds itself, and it lets go of what is no longer needed, and it all changes gradually. The waves know you as one of their own. All your life of watching yourself is so much more kymoskepsis: waves watching waves watching waves.

And words are waves, too, changing with the times, passed on by air and minds and other fluids. We can trace κῦμα and σκέψις back to their postulated Proto-Indo-European origins; everything before that is over the horizon of history, but it came from somewhere. And now we can see κῦμα and σκέψις come together in this word to roll forward: this article that you are reading is the first time of use of kymoskepsis, the new old word. I nearly used the Latinized spellings to make cymoscepsis, which is more wave-shaped and more wave-sounding, but I was… skeptical. Perhaps it is the better version; we shall see, in time.


We have reached a point of isopaleoscaticity.

The crisis hasn’t passed, but – for most of us – it’s gotten pretty damn boring. Bad news, stress, et cetera, and it’s all potentially life threatening, but all we can think much of the time is “This again?”

And we get up in the morning and we go to another part of our residence and remain there for a while doing a thing and then to another and do another thing, and it’s basically the same as it was yesterday and the same as it will be tomorrow. And nothing is right and nothing is normal and the world is upside down and yet it’s so. f—ing. boring.

Well, at least we can talk about it. At length. Isn’t it great that we have the great Lego set of classical Greek we can use to assemble words to describe this? They may be the same old bits, but they’re still useful.

As witness today’s word. Let me show you how it’s put together, and then you’ll also know how to say it.

Iso- is from ἴσος, which means ‘equal’, and generally signifies ‘the same’ when it’s used as a prefix.

Paleo-, or palaeo- if you use British-style spelling, is (via Latin) from παλαιός, which means ‘old’ – you will recognize it from paleontology.

Scat- is (via Latin) from σκᾰ́τος, which means – yes, you probably guessed it already – ‘shit’. (The polite dictionaries define it as ‘dung’ or ‘feces’ or or or, but the grand old English word for it is definitely shit.)

And -icity is a common English suffix (well, two suffixes put together, -ic and -ity) meaning, among other things, ‘the state or condition of’. It’s ultimately traceable through French and Latin to Greek, but whatever. This isn’t really a Greek word. It’s an English word made with Greek parts. It’s made from old stuff, but it’s new stuff.

Yet it’s still the same old shit.

That’s what it means, obviously. Iso ‘same’ paleo ‘old’ scat ‘shit’ icity. Isopaleoscaticity, /ˌaɪ.soʊ.ˌpeɪ.li.oʊ.skæ.ˈtɪ.sɪ.ti/, is the condition or degree of being the same old shit.

Yes, this is a new old word.

You’re welcome.


Beautiful bread.

Everyone is baking beautiful bread. Just look at those loads of lovely loaves. Home is where the hearth is, and the hearth – or the oven, rather – is the right place for baking. As we are stuck at home, while some of us just rise and loaf all day, many of us choose to let the dough rise and then the bread loaf: all they need is all they knead. Boulevardiers are become boulangers, and the cosmopolitan is replaced by the calliartian.

Yes, there it is, you’ve been waiting for it long enough: calliartian. Of, about, pertaining to, consisting of, or consuming beautiful bread. From Greek καλλίαρτος kalliartos, from κάλλος ‘beautiful’ and ἄρτος ‘bread’. Just as callipygian means having well-shaped buttocks, which is to say beautiful buns, so calliartian means having… beautiful buns. Or lovely loaves: fine focaccia, beguiling baguettes, seductive sourdough, even pretty pitas.

Well, you do you. In a house with just the two of us, we would become overloaved quite quickly (there are also other factors I will leave aside). I am instead spending my time coming up with things that are perhaps less aromatic but surely have longer shelf-life. Like this word. Yes, it’s a new old word; no, the Greeks didn’t have a word for it – they had κάλλος and ἄρτος but not καλλίαρτος, at least as far as I know. Well, just consider this a late riser – and don’t call it half baked. You know you knead it.


Yesterday, my Twitter friend @theoriginaledi drew my attention to this video by Hank Green, in particular the part between 2:42 and 4:14:

Hank Green says, in this part,

There is the sudden realization . . . that your life is not gonna be the same anymore, and there is no way to reacquire that sameness. . . . It’s such a specific feeling, this moment where you suddenly realize that you don’t know what the future holds anymore, and the story you’ve been quietly, silently telling yourself about what the future is going to be like, that story just… falls apart. It’s not there anymore. It doesn’t get replaced with something. It’s just gone. I wanted to know what this feeling is called, because it seems so specific that there should be a name for it. I’ve experienced it a bunch of times. I could not find a word for this in English.

Hank says that he asked Susie Dent, and she replied, “I’ve been wondering similar for days. I keep returning to ‘wuthering’: a rushing or raging that you’re powerless to stop. Emily Bronte described it as ‘atmospheric tumult’.” Hank allows that “this isn’t quite it”; he’s willing to make it it, but he’s open to suggestions.

I think the word required is kenophany.

That’s not what I replied to Edi right away. I first said, “Ah, a peripeteia and anagnorisis into the postmodern moment: the Wile E. Coyotification of life, when you look down and realize you’re in midair, and all the metanarratives are empty. The dark side of satori. Postmodern philosophers and Zen Buddhists write about it.” And I think Wile E. Coyotification has a certain something, but Wile E. Coyote had an assortment of calamitous moments, not just the one where he runs off a cliff and doesn’t realize at first that he’s in mid-air. Besides, at that point he does have a sense of a future. It’s a revised sense, but the gravity of the situation is clear and the consequences proceed inevitably.

No, this is more “the dark side of satori.” Allow me to explain. Satori is the moment in Zen Buddhist meditation where you achieve insight, understanding, awareness of the true nature of things; it comes from the Japanese verb satoru and it means ‘comprehension’ or ‘understanding’. But the true nature of things is that – well, I mean, one can’t actually put it in words, but it’s the lack of inherent essence; it’s what in Japanese is said mu, sometimes translated as “void,” but void has strong negative emotional connotations that are not intrinsic to it. It’s just that there’s no there there.

Which can be very disconcerting as an idea to many people. It’s similar to how Fredric Jameson described the postmodern: “incredulity towards metanarratives.” (By the way, if you’re about to rant about “postmodern thinking” as some kind of epitome of the airy stupidity of ivory tower academics, don’t bother; you’re just being lazy – what you think of as “postmodernism” has nothing to do with what it actually is. If you had an accurate idea of it, you wouldn’t be ranting against it, you’d be recognizing in it some of the folksy wisdom your grandparents dispensed about not structuring your life around something just because it’s a fancy story that sounded good.) But since we like to have stories in which we follow a clear path from A and go to Z and make overall sense of everything, we are very resistant to the idea that there is no path, there is no such thing as following, “clear” is our imagination, and “we” aren’t a single coherent unchanging entity either. It’s all… beyond our ken.

Hence the “dark side”: the dreadful feeling of emptiness and void, when in fact it’s just nothing – or, well, not nothing either, but not something; there is no intrinsic quiddity. And then there’s that ken, as in ‘knowledge’; it just by coincidence happens to have a sound-alike in Japanese. A synonym for satori, you see, is kenshō. That means ‘seeing the true essence’ or ‘seeing nature’. Ken means ‘seeing’, which is a bit of a pity since shō (‘nature, essence’) sounds like show, which is the other side of seeing.

Imagine, a viewing of understanding: a ken show. But can’t we make a fancy single word of that? Well, how about pulling in the Greek φαίνω, ‘I shine, I appear’, whence –phany as in epiphany and theophany? From that we get kenophany.

Oh, but the ken in kenophany is not from Japanese ken – that wouldn’t work. And it’s not from English ken (meaning ‘understanding, awareness’) either. No, it’s from Greek κενό, which means ‘void’ or ‘emptiness’. So kenophany is a showing – or a coming to see – the emptiness, the lack of an actual overarching structuring narrative. It’s the moment of the carpet being whipped out from under your feet, and it turns out that there is neither a floor nor not a floor beneath it.

I think we all have had our kenophanies, moments where the storyline we were following is just gone, and nothing is there to replace it. It’s like in the song “La marée haute” by Lhasa de Sela: “La route chante quand je m’en vais; je fais trois pas… la route se tait. La route est noire à perte de vue; je fais trois pas… la route n’est plus.” (“The road sings as I set out; I take three steps… the road is silent. The road is black as far as I can see; I take three steps… the road is gone.”)

It seems inevitable to me, this word kenophany; it’s so neatly suited to this meaning and this moment.

But it doesn’t exist.

Yes, it does. It just didn’t exist until now. You won’t find it in a dictionary or anywhere else as such. I assembled it from the appropriate bits. That’s a thing one can still do with these classical Greek and Latin Meccano pieces. That’s not to say that I invented it; it was already there, just waiting to be put together. And it’s not to say that I didn’t invent it; no one else put it together. But who, then, is this “I” anyway? You won’t get the same results if you check back in a minute.


“At the end of the day, this is, you know – and it’s important to have, it’s important to understand these things – but in the final analysis, we’re going to make sure that the people who work hard for their families, that when it comes down to it, there’s an opportunity, and I want, and I think you all understand and respect, but there are priorities, and we need to make sure we take action on what matters.” Continue reading


Coworker is a funny word. It’s often misread, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. And while I love a good double entendre, in my editorial role as a professional clarifier I feel it is worthwhile inserting a hyphen to make it clear what it really is: cow-orker. Continue reading