Tag Archives: word sommelier

situated, located

Dear word sommelier: I have several Francophone colleagues who use “situated” rather than “located” everywhere, since the usual French word is “situé(e).” How do I explain the difference to them?

Geez, ask me something easy sometime. This is actually a tricky one because Anglophones tend to use them interchangeably a lot of the time, and in many cases it’s unnecessary stuffing either way:

The washrooms are located on the second floor.

The washrooms are situated on the second floor.

You can argue about which seems better, and it’s a viable argument, and we’re about to talk about it, but you should not overlook the fact that the best way to say that is

The washrooms are on the second floor.

But the question remains what difference it makes when you do use one or the other. And it does make a difference, not so much of denotation but of tone and of expected entailment and context. Each word has echoes of other words and is seen in particular collocations.

Located is often used with centrally, conveniently, ideally, strategically, physically, and abroad; things can be located at, between, close to, in, near, on, outside, within, etc. It’s used, in short, to establish the location – a spot on a map, a set of coordinates. It’s a common word, sometimes used in conversation, often used in stiff business writing and real estate ads.

Locate is also used to mean ‘find the location of’ and ‘put in a location’:

I have located the water fountain in the northwest corner of the garden. [This can mean you found it there or you put it there.]

Situate does not have the ‘find’ meaning; you can only mean one thing when you write

I have situated the water fountain in the northwest corner of the garden.

(In either case, if that’s what you mean, put or placed or installed would also be a viable option.)

Situated is less used in casual conversation, but it also used in the real-estate-ad kind of prose, in collocations with beautifully, delightfully, ideally, picturesquely, pleasantly, well, conveniently, inconveniently, centrally, remotely, and quietly. Notice the emotional tone: situated sits more pleasantly in the mind. And for many users, situated bears the context more in mind. You are located on a spot, but you are situated in a… well, in a situation. Situate also tastes of site (related) and sit (not related).

So when you’re talking about where something is, just as a spot on the map, located works:

Hamtramck is located in Wayne county, Michigan.

But when you’re talking about the context, situated can work well:

Lhasa is situated at the bottom of a small basin in the Himalaya mountains, on the northern bank of the Lhasa river.

You can use located in that sentence as well, but you may find it less natural to use situated in the sentence about Hamtramck, above.

Because situated carries the idea of context, you can also use it in to call forth the context in a more cogent way:

This sylvan abode is beautifully situated.

You get the idea of its being set in a lovely location surrounded by trees; your imagination likely fills in some more of the picture. Compare that with this:

This sylvan abode is beautifully located.

This seems to mean that the location is beautiful, or that whoever chose where to put it did a nice job. But it’s not quite as idiomatic. Add a bit more and you may see even clearer how situated seems to call forth context:

This sylvan abode is beautifully situated in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

This sylvan abode is beautifully located in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Compare this with the dot-on-the-map approach:

I’m trying to find West Clarksville; I don’t know where it’s located.

I’m trying to find West Clarksville; I don’t know where it’s situated.

Inasmuch as you’d use the second one, you’d probably be talking about the surroundings, not just the coordinates – unless you just felt you should use a word that’s one syllable longer.

There’s one more thing that affects the sense of the two words: situate also carries an echo of situation, which has a much broader range of usage than location:

How did you get me into this situation?

How did you get me into this location?

There’s also the question of the sounds – located has the liquid /l/ and the hard /k/, while situated has a voiceless fricative and affricate hissing and catching – and the rhythm, with located a dactyl and situated two feet of trochaic rhythm. Indeed, you will often make the choice less on the basis of semantics and connotations and more on the basis of where the word is located. Or, rather, where it is situated.

key, crucial, pivotal

Dear word sommelier: Today @BloombergStyle tweeted, “Key is vague as a modifier. Adjectives such as crucial and pivotal are more precise.” My question is just, “What?”

A valid question. Why is key supposed to be vague? What would make crucial and pivotal more precise? Have I missed something somehow all these years of being a professional word person? Or am I encountering yet another hoary prejudice of which I have heretofore managed to remain innocent? Or what?

Certainly key seems more popular right now as a modifier, especially in business writing (and we know how many language sticklers have a hate-on for business English – not without some justification, assuredly). It’s a nice, short word, and it carries an image of a key that opens a door – perhaps a golden key, something of value, something shiny. You readily read of a key role, a key question, key players, key issues, key elements, key factors, and so on (I’m getting these frequent collocations from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The keystone is the most important stone, and when you “set the tone” for something you “set the key.” Plus it’s a short word, two sounds and three letters, an explosion of air from the tongue tight at the palate.

So it’s easy to see why key would be popular, and overuse can dilute effect; we also see it a lot in more workaday terms like keyword. But that doesn’t make the word itself imprecise; it just means that it is sometimes used imprecisely. One may as readily use crucial and pivotal imprecisely. Perhaps @BloombergStyle dislikes it in part because it’s in origin a noun, not a “proper” adjective. I’m also tempted to wonder whether its plain Anglo-Saxon source counts against it.

Crucial certainly seems more dramatic, and if greater drama is what you want then it will be more precise (but if it’s not then it won’t be). The mouth screws up tight and puckers out as you say it, the tongue crushing air against the palate, and you can almost express excruciation just with the sound and vocal gesture. Its sense comes from Latin crucem “cross” with the idea of being at a crossroads, a decision point: something that’s crucial is deciding. Nowadays we would probably view it more as meaning “absolutely necessary” – something you can’t do without, as opposed to being merely important. We may speak of a crucial role, a crucial question, a crucial part, a crucial point, a crucial moment, a crucial factor – notice more singulars than for key: this indicates that crucial signifies greater importance. Key things may be multiple; crucial ones are more likely to be singular.

Pivotal has a clearer image because its original reference is still plain in the word: pivot, a word we got from French and French got from we’re not entirely sure where. This is a tidier word, starting and ending with stops, and with a possibly ambisyllabic /v/ right in the middle – which, in written form, even looks like it could be a pivot. Something that is pivotal is clearly something on which everything turns: a pivotal role (seriously, role is the most common collocation for each of these words in the COCA), a pivotal moment, a pivotal point, a pivotal player, a pivotal figure. Again, singular: pivots always come one at a time.

So key may seem vaguer to @BloombergStyle, but that may just be because it indicates something important but not as important. But that’s not the same thing as vague. It’s not at all precise to say something was hot when it was just warm, for instance.

I wanted more feedback on this, so I asked some of my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Canada for their off-the-top-of-the-head evaluation of the differences between these three words, leaving the dictionary on the shelf. Here are some of their responses:

crucial: very very important all by itself.
key:  the most important of a bunch of important ones.
pivotal: similar to key, except the less important concepts surround it; “key” they seem more like they’re in a hierarchy.
—Rosemary Tanner

key = it matters; this is important but not necessarily as much as the following
crucial  = it matters especially, it is critical to (for example) something happening or not happening
pivotal = crucial/critical but using the image of the pivot point, it is the factor/concept/assertion/etc. that could cause a change in direction, taking this path over that path, etc.
—Laura Edlund

“Key” and “crucial” are the most synonymous – both meaning “essential” – but “pivotal” of course also implies a moment of change or a feature that changes the way the entire context can be understood.
—Aaron Dalton

Key: important, but could be one of many. A key concept, another key concept… A key piece of evidence is important, but you wouldn’t lose the case by mucking it up.
Crucial: stronger than key and bordering on unique. An entire case may rest on a crucial piece of evidence.
Pivotal: something that changes the game/situation/direction.
—Paul Cipywnyk

key – one of the most important items
crucial – not to be overlooked, above all others
pivotal – having a bearing on outcome, associated with desired results
—Carolyn Wilker

We see some general trends here, especially as regards the hierarchy of importance and the imagery of pivotal, but on the other hand there’s not complete agreement either. And these are highly literate people who work with words all the time. So consider the effect the choice will have on the average reader (who will most certainly not be looking at a dictionary either): probably a fairly impressionistic one, determined in part by prosodic and phonaesthetic factors and strongly by current patterns of use. (As I’ve said many times, words are known by the company they keep.) I’m not arguing against maintaining certain distinctions of sense, but always be aware of what your readers will be aware of.

And, now, is key less precise? Or is it just more often used imprecisely? It does seem a little milder in tone, but that’s a different matter. I’d say @BloombergStyle is a little off-key here, myself.

reticent, reluctant

Dear word sommelier: When should I use reticent and when reluctant?

I’m a little, um, hesitant to wade into one like this, because this gets to be one of those pedantics-versus-the-universe points. Not that there’s a whole lot of debate over reluctant, mind you – though there is a little specification of sense that some may stipulate. But reticent is one of those words that some people will use as a net to catch you with if you so much as offer a penny for their thoughts – or even if you don’t.

There is, of course, a difference in the feel of the words that will always have some effect, whether you’re a semantic stickler or not. They are similar-looking words, re____nt; one has tice where the other has lucta, both with a t and a c, so the difference in look is mainly i and e versus lu and a. The feel of the sound is more different. The rhythm, for starts, is a dactyl in reticent and an amphibrach in reluctant; ironically, the vowel in re is (or may be) “long” in the word where it’s unstressed but not in the word where it’s stressed. More to the heart of the matter, reticent stays on the tip of the tongue, a little more tentative and delicate with the /tɪs/; in reluctant the mouth is locked up with a clucking coarticulation after the lick: /lʌkt/.

There’s also the relative frequency of the words. Reticent is a much less commonly used word than reluctant. That makes it a pricier word – used when people want to sound more erudite, impressive, what have you. It’s also a newer word by a couple of centuries; it first showed up in the early 1800s, while reluctant has been around since the early 1600s.

Both come from Latin, naturally: the re at the beginning is the same, meaning “back” or similar things, and the [a/e]nt is a present participle ending. The root difference is in the occupant of the space for re____nt. In reluctant, it’s luctari, “fight”. Originally, to be reluctant was to actively resist something; there’s a verb, reluct, which doesn’t get used now, at least in part because now we view reluctance as more of a passive resistance or even simple hesitation. It might be as little as not truly believing you’ve lucked into something – for instance, if you’re reluctant to believe that the person calling telling you you’ve won a cruise vacation is on the up and up. I’d like to think the effect of the tongue backing away in the luc adds to that sense, but of course I have no data for that.

In reticent, on the other hand, the root is tacere “be silent” (compare French Tais-toi! “Shut up!”/”Be quiet!”). The original use, and the one still preferred by those who make it their business to prefer such things, is closer to “taciturn” than to “hesitant” or “resistant”: it means “disinclined to express personal thoughts and feelings; the opposite of loquacious”. It stands alone: “Herb was reticent.” (That’s a quote from MAD magazine. Yes it is.) But you may often see reticent used to mean, well, “reluctant” – the same sense of “reluctant” as we use today, often taking an infinitive complement: “The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.”

That last quote, by the way, comes from 1875. This usage, which undeniably uses it to mean what there’s already another word to mean, but with the added air of elevation, erudition, or plain misplaced prissiness, has been around much too long and is much too well established to eradicate. That doesn’t mean you have to use it, of course; you’re perfectly within your rights to reserve reticent for what you wish pedants would be. But if you are not reluctant to use it as a shiny substitute for “reluctant”, just be aware that there may be a semantic retiarius ready to cast a net of condemnation without so much as one red cent in payment for their liberally expressed conservatism.

Thanks to Stan Backs for suggesting reticent. A retiarius, by the way, is a gladiator who uses a net.

awesome, fantastic

Dear word sommelier: I’m at a friend’s place, and he’s made bobotie, and it’s really good. Should I say “This bobotie is awesome” or “This bobotie is fantastic”?

First of all, we must acknowledge that there is a certain set of people who will insist – quite vehemently – that neither is acceptable: that awesome can only mean “inspiring awe” and fantastic can only mean “characteristic of, or produced by, fantasy”. People of this set actually do have dictionaries, but if they look in them, they arrogate to themselves the right to declare the ones they disagree with (all of them, ultimately) wrong: only the “original” meaning of a word is correct, and by “original” they mean “etymological, as they understand it”. (In truth, awesome first meant “full of awe”, and only in the next century “inspiring awe”; the original term for that was awful, a word that picklepusses frequently use unreservedly in its much more modern meaning of “nasty”.)

But such people are among the most arrant fools in all of creation, and ought not to be heeded any more than one would heed an unknown petulant two-year-old’s admonitions. So let us proceed with reality. Reality does include the meanings mentioned above, to be sure, but it is not restricted to them.

The question you ask may reflect a shift in usage, though I’m not sure of it as yet. My friend Michelle remarked to me today that she had the sense that fantastic was overtaking awesome as a general adjective of enthusiastic approbation. This is quite difficult to assess objectively, as simple searches don’t sort semantically. In overall usage, fantastic has always been more common than awesome, but awesome is actually a newer word and has certainly increased in usage, reaching a soft peak around 1980 and holding fairly well since, if Google Ngrams are to be believed (and they do have their limitations!). A Google search for each does pick up twice as many hits for awesome, but wordcount.org places fantastic much farther up in the British National Corpus.

Awesome is the more bivalent of the words. It retains a more specific sense, and one may use it as such. When someone sings the hymn “How Great Thou Art” and pronounces “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,” there’s no risk of its being taken to be like saying “when I in totally wicked wonder” or “when I in way bitchen wonder” or something like that. But within the context of colloquial usage, it has a very clear air of youthful informality. It became so common and bleached in its peak (from which it has not subsided too much) that I used to think of this version of it as ossum, a sort of verbal marsupial hanging by its tail in the midst of the sentence. Which awesome is wanted can readily be specified by surrounding words and their tone: which would you take truly awesome to mean (I would take it to mean “awe-inspiring”)? How about totally awesome (“really good” for me)?

While awesome has had this bleached usage only since the late-mid 20th century, however, fantastic has been in similar broad service since at least the 1930s – which is still recent, given its existence as a word since the 1400s. But any use of it to mean anything other than “really good” now is very likely to have an air of quaintness. In the more cultured spheres, wherein dwell such people as know Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the sense of phantasm and fantasy is likely more present, and that large set of people who have see the musical The Fantasticks will have that charming tale (and its memorable tunes) imprinted in their minds, but hoi polloi will more likely think of a brand of spray-on cleaning solutions, Fantastik. (Observe the effects of the k with or without c, too, though.)

For either of the words, of course, usage on TV and in movies will have a strong effect, and we may assume those were prime vectors of the ascendancy of awesome for approbation. Fantastic likewise gets used by some notable personalities, and I can recall an ad from a few years ago for a lottery that paid $1000 a week for life in which  the protagonist exclaimed “Faaaaantastic!” on receiving each cheque.

And that takes us to the heart of the matter. The bleached sense of these words is fundamentally phatic, and relies strongly on expressive potential. Awesome allows the gaping “aw” to lead in, embodying an expression of awe, surprise, amazement, et cetera. It then closes off neatly with an unstressed second syllable. It works much better, rhythmically, with totally than fantastic does (try both and see what I mean). It’s a big, smooth, solid stroke.

Fantastic, on the other hand, has three syllables, the stressed one of which is the second – but the first may be stretched out and emphasized as well. Due to its rhythm, it is conducive to tmesis: you can slip in an expletive intensifier, as in fan-freaking-tastic, which is not done in a word such as awesome. So it is more flexible and extensible. Its sound is less full of round-mouthed amazement and more full of wide-mouthed joy, pride, or enthusiasm. It has voiceless stops and another fricative, giving it the éclat of fireworks.

Moreover, because fantastic is widely established as a simple term of strong approbation, it doesn’t carry with itself the air of “valley girl” or similar teen in-group-ness (of course it was an “in” term back in the ’30s, but that’s too far back to have influence now), and so there is less likely a sort of winkingness to its usage, at least currently.

In your case, given the rhythm of bobotie and of the sentence as a whole, I would incline towards fantastic. It also more likely carries a tone that is more ingenuous and sincere and less self-observing. It may seem a stronger term of approbation, mind you, and the shape of the mouth in awesome may seem more suited to a comestible, so you do have to go with your own immediate sense of the occasion. The truth of it is that usage in such matters is an art, not a science, and one may defensibly use either, for different taste sensations.

You will also, by the way, want to consider what term, if any, you will use for the blatjang that (I presume) has been served with the bobotie.

daft & daffy

Dear word sommelier, if my friend suggests something like, say, matching cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna, do I call him daft or daffy?

You’re so polite. I probably wouldn’t think of either of those words first, but if I had to choose one, it would be daft. To my palate, daft has fewer positive overtones; it bespeaks an insufficient grip on reality, and gives a sort of sense of a draft blowing from one ear to the other. It also has a strong British flavour. North Americans would be more likely to say crazy or insane; crazy has too much of a positive tone, however – no one says a wild and daft guy, for instance – and even insane can have a sort of admiring tone, whereas daft is more likely to be dismissive and, at the very least, not edgy or admirable. (For much more on crazy versus insane, see sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/crazy-insane/.)

Daffy, for its part, is just too, well, silly. Daffy Duck names a cartoon character prone to fits of “woo-woo”; daffy is also the name of a ski jump move (a sort of flying front-and-back split). And it sounds like taffy. You may also get an image of someone cavorting in daffodils. It’s possibly loveable and at the very least deliberately amusing. None of which seems appropriate for cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna. Eiswein with pancakes, perhaps, but there’s a difference between, well, cute and disgusting.

It’s ironic, actually, that daffy is the word with more of a silly flavour. Silly actually has more in common with daft in their histories. Both have undergone considerable pejoration. Silly started off as a word meaning “blessed” (compare German selig) and shifted through “innocent” to “inane”. Daft started off as a word meaning “meek” and “mild” and passed through “innocent” to “irrational” and thence to the present sense. It may have had a nudge from the apparently etymologically unrelated word daff, which means “simpleton” or “fool”. Daff, for its part, took on a lighter tone with the addition of the y suffix to make daffy – in other words, it underwent amelioration, the opposite of the pejoration of daft.

I can’t say with any certainty that the softer sound of daffy helped it to a softer sense, though the y, as I hinted, likely helped in that direction with its diminutive effect. The stop at the end of daft sharpens it a bit, makes it a bit more deft on the tongue, and I suspect that the single f in the spelling gives it less of a sense of a featherweight puff.

Again, though, faced with someone proffering a glass of cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna, I’d probably say something other than “You’re daft” (let alone “You’re daffy”). If I were really trying to be nice, I might say “No tuna for me, thanks,” or, more frankly, “Um. I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” but otherwise I would probably use something rather spicier and more full-bodied. I mean the word, not the wine. (For the wine, I suppose I’d lean towards a chardonnay or a riesling, depending on presentation. Or perhaps a grüner veltliner.)

incessant & unceasing

Dear word sommelier: Is it better to speak of unceasing devotion or incessant devotion?

Well, I’d say that depends at least in part on how you feel about the devotion: is it commendable or annoying? It also depends to some extent on whether the devotion is continuous or continual. The two words are supposedly synonymous, but we shall see that they do have differences in flavour and usage patterns.

Incessant and unceasing are like long-lost twins separated at birth. Only they’re not quite identical anymore – they’re sort of like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins. Well, not quite, but they have elaborated differently from the same root. Both come from the Latin verb cessare “cease, stop”, which is in turn derived from cedere “yield, cede”. Both came to English by way of French. But in the case of unceasing, just the verb root was borrowed over and Anglicized as cease in the 14th century, and English affixes were added to make unceasing (also dating from the 14th century). In the case of incessant, the whole French word was borrowed over (with a change in pronunciation) – about 200 years later than cease showed up.

We can note the different sounds and feels of the two words: although both have a scissor-like quality, unceasing starts with the dull, mid-central “uh” vowel and has a “long” vowel peak (written with that more open-feeling ea), while incessant is higher and tighter from start to finish: in is more acute and perhaps pushier than un, the stressed vowel [ε] is a bit lower than the [i:]  in unceasing but tighter because shorter, and the following [s] may be thought of as longer (without actually being so) because it’s written doubled. As for echoes, unceasing has sounds of sea, sing, and seizing, while incessant is more likely to bring to mind such words as incense and necessity and perhaps insensitive.

Have those factors helped shape the current shades of meaning and usage of the two words? I can’t say. Actually, it would take a lot of work to come up with even a suggestion of an answer. But we can see what has shaped up. Words are known by the company they keep, and have a look at the kinds of words each one is likely to travel with: unceasing shows up with such as struggle, flow, activity, rain, wind, and demands; on the other hand, incessant shows up with demands, noise, rain, activity, wind… Whaddya mean they look the same?

Actually, while there are overlaps, the emphasis is indeed a little different. Something that is unceasing is typically continuous (like flow), and may be positively, negatively, or neutrally toned (it can be applied to kindness, as by Walter Scott, or a progression, as by Willa Cather, or care or change or toil, as by William Wordsworth). Something that is incessant may be continuous or may be iterative (repeating), and is usually at least slightly negatively toned (like noise; it can be applied to shocks or war, as by Wordsworth, or slashing, as by Sherwood Anderson, or weepings, as by Shakespeare, or pain, as by Christopher Marlowe, or uneasiness, as by H.G. Wells).

Consider, for instance, incessant visits versus unceasing visits. Neither is likely to be very positively toned, though unceasing visits could be; but also, incessant visits means the person is visiting, for instance, every day, without cease, while unceasing visits may mean that or may mean that the visits are of great duration, or both.

And so, too, unceasing devotion may be admirable (though it may be annoying), but it is certainly truly unceasing – as the affixes indicate, is doesn’t cease; it’s continuous. Incessant devotion, on the other hand, is much more likely to be annoying, and has the option of something that happens with great frequency (though that would be more likely with a plural: incessant devotions). It’s a little more removed from the clear literalness of cease because of its lesser resemblance.

For what it’s worth, incessant is also the more common of the two words; if Google Ngrams are to be trusted, it shows up about two and a half times as often as unceasing, and has done so pretty consistently for at least two centuries – although both words had a peak in the mid-1800s and have been subsiding ever since. But, yes, their use has not ceased – which is not to say it is incessant (which implies a very notable frequency).

At a guess, you probably want unceasing devotion – it’s the safer choice in that case anyway (but you can see that you may do better with incessant in some contexts). But there are many other cases where incessant would be the better choice.


The choice of what word to use is a delicate one; one simply does not wish to make a balls-up of it. Thus one may consult a word sommelier:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We have, so far this week, addressed the first four options. Yesterday we looked at the most formal, prim, perhaps even feminine one, effrontery. Today we are at the other end of the scale. I can’t believe he had the balls to do it is not something a politician is likely to say in an interview – you’ll sooner hear it in a sports bar or a garage.

There are, of course, other anatomical references available to express roughly the same concept. Gall is one (a bodily fluid); cheek is another; nerve is a third; guts is slightly different in sense but still in the same general vein. There is even an anatomical reference in effrontery (the forehead). But balls hits below the belt. It is a direct reference to pudenda, and as such is particularly impudent.

Also obviously masculine. Which makes this word undeniably sexist, in that it assigns a certain brashness and nerve to males. This is, of course, a reflection of a general cultural norm; aggressive women have long been described with masculine terms. But at least it’s not a put-down to call a woman ballsy, even if it is an implied put-down of the average member of her sex (let’s see, is there a good way to phrase that without using member and sex? never mind).

Nor is it a put-down of the woman in question to say I can’t believe she had the balls to do it (and it has been said; you can find that very phrase, and others like it, with a simple Google search). Anatomically inaccurate, to be sure, unless the balls in question happen to be some dude’s nuts that she’s squeezing (had having multiple shades of sense available). But aside from the sexism (and, of course, because of cultural sexism), this may be the most admiring of the options. If you use a word like this, it is because you admire courage and confidence and you associate them with masculinity – or at least because you’re willing to make use of a cultural norm that assigns such values.

Now, one might well point out that she had the balls to do it could be a reference to some craft project involving spheres, or perhaps a game of some sort – maybe she just tossed her bat aside and walked to first base. But you know, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, that such reference would have to be specified clearly, and even then the sexual reference would bleed through like pentimento. To give a parallel example, military pilots, referring to flying full throttle, made reference to the dual ball ends on the throttle stick in the phrase balls to the wall, but they clearly did so with a smirk.

Ball, singular, is, true enough, a word that one may use quite innocuously without provoking Beavis-and-Butt-head-type snickerfests. It’s a good old English word with cognates of the same or similar meaning throughout the Germanic languages; it also comes from the same Indo-European root as Latin follis “inflated ball, bellows” and Greek ϕαλλός phallos… yes, that’s right, phallus and balls have the same root. OK, OK… can we continue now?

The point (stop that) is that balls in the plural is by default a reference to balls in the dual, and you know which two balls. The paradoxical association that testicles carry of masculine aggression with vulnerability (and pain!) has led to a few different balls expressions: don’t bust my balls, we’ve got him by the balls, he really made a balls of it, and of course the exclamation Balls!

So, is balls the word you want? If you want to be coarse and admiring and you don’t mind the sexism of it (and you don’t think your audience will mind), then it’s your top choice. It has the same general sonic features as gall, except that it has the /z/ at the end to cap it off; it is a word that is practically made to be bawled loudly. If you want to be even a little proper, however, you’d have to be nuts to use it.

Stop that.


So, we have been addressing this question:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We have so far tasted the first three; now it is time for effrontery. This is the longest of the list above (and in fact one is hard put to find a longer synonym; audacity and impertinence are other four-syllable words in the same set, but other rough synonyms include such as insolence, impudence, and cheek). It pushes forward in its heavy, soft petticoats, ff, and it has the force of a formal, uncommon, polysyllabic word, that forbidding soft stiffness, perhaps, of the schoolmistress or mother superior chastising one for effrontery (or mayhap it’s the sound of the impudent hussy as she goes about whatever it is for which she is chastisable).

And it’s very up-front: the front pushes forward, and, yes, it’s the same front as our word front – well, more accurately, it comes from the same source: Latin frons, meaning “forehead”. It has an overriding echo of affront – in fact, it’s misspelled as affrontery about one time in ten (if a Google poll is to be believed). But affront comes from ad frontem, “to the forehead” or “to the face”, referring to a slap, where as in effrontery in place of the ad is an ex, “from” or “out”.

So does effrontery mean “get outta my face”? Well, no; there is an ongoing argument about the exact sense, but it’s either “pushing the forehead forward” or, using the sense frons also has of “ability to blush”, it may be “unblushing”. I am more inclined to the latter, for what that’s worth; Oxford is too, which is worth a fair bit. Anyway, if it’s “unblushing” it’s rather akin to impudent, from Latin for “shameless”; either way, the forehead forward and the face unreddened, one displays a fair amount of cheek.

This word makes me think of the name Ephron, as in Nora and – perhaps especially – her sister Delia, the author of the pleasingly impertinent How to Eat Like a Child. Also Zac Efron. And, for that matter, Jean Effront, a noted enzymologist (8156–1931), born Isaac Effront. All these names (Jewish family names all) trace to a Biblical character, Ephron, who sold the patriarch Abraham a plot of land in which to bury his wife Sarah – a deal pressed with smoothness rather than effrontery.

The question that remains, in regard to the taste of this word, is whether it has any positive tone, as nerve and especially chutzpah do. I would have to say that it does not carry any particular sense of admiration; it may not be as harsh a put-down as gall (which empties a bladder on the person, whereas this one simply defaces), but it lacks a particular element of praise. Indeed, being the most technical-sounding and formal of the lot, it is the most neutrally toned. Inasmuch as one may speak in neutral tones of such a shameless infraction, of course (most likely a social infraction, incidentally).

Tomorrow we go to the wall with balls!


The question of the week:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We’re onto chutzpah today, and this word is something special. For starts, it’s special because it’s Yiddish. And that means two things right off the bat: a, you don’t say it like a chutney disaster – the first sound is /h/ or a stronger fricative, like the end of loch, and it rhymes with foot spa (and indeed with chutzpah there’s always something afoot); b, it carries with it very overt tones of Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Those tones are very deep and complex and are received differently by different people, and you need to be aware that how you intend it may be different from how it is received, not only due to the listener’s attitudes but also due to who you are and who your listener is. That’s not to say this is a word to be avoided; in most contexts it will communicate very effectively. But when you use it, you are making a cultural reference.

Yiddish is a Germanic language, but it has a lot of vocabulary items from Hebrew, and this is one. It comes from Hebrew khuspa, a negatively toned word for “insolence, audacity, impudence”. Chutzpah (anglicized a bit from Yiddish khutspe), however, is at least partly positively toned – even if you’re using it to refer to someone whose character you would not advise anyone to emulate, it still carries a grudging admiration, perhaps even a sort of amazement at the audacious effrontery and, probably, shrewdness. Chutzpah has more guts than nerve does, even more than balls does. And neither nerve nor balls conveys the kind of intelligence that chutzpah conveys.

The best definition of something like chutzpah is an example, and the best example I’ve seen is Leo Rosten’s, from The Joys of Yiddish: “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” No wonder some dictionary definitions include words like “unbelievable gall” – it’s the “unbelievable” that really comes in. More than any of the other choices, this one says “Did he really just do that?!” – and it says it with that kind of laugh that one makes almost involuntarily.

Chutzpah can have more of a business tone to it, too, as well as a natural suitability to the air of a courtroom – famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz titled his 1991 book of essays Chutzpah. Contrast that with some of the other options, such as gall and effrontery, which lean more to the social sphere.

And chutzpah has a bit of electricity in it – that zap in the middle, with the z and the look and sound of tz /ts/. And after the zap… ah. The whole thing sounds a bit like a firework, in fact.

Chutzpah is often defined as “effrontery”. But would you rather use effrontery here? We’ll taste that one next.


Here’s the question:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We’ve already tasted gall. Now let’s try nerve.

Nerve has opposing aspects to it. On the one hand, you have the nerve that it takes a lot of – if you have the nerve to do something, it means that you have actually mustered the nerve to do it, an amount of nerve most people wouldn’t have. Even if, as is often the case, it’s a complaint – The nerve of that guy! Where did he get the nerve to do that? – there is at the very least a sense of strength of will, and perhaps even a grudging admiration: “I could never have the nerve to do that!” And if there are two opposing parties each trying to stare the other down, it can come to a war of nerves.

But on the other hand, you have nervous; if you have an attack of nerves, that means (paradoxically!) that you lack the nerve to do something. The same vibration (you can hear it in the /v/, even) that can give verve to nerve can also be the vibration of shivering with anxiety.

And of course there’s also the nerves that someone gets on. If someone has a lot of nerve, it can really get on your nerves, that’s for sure. (The /r/ nucleus in this word, with its straining growl, can be a very good vehicle for expressing this.) And in fact they may do something that touches a nerve – perhaps even touches a raw nerve.

Ah, nerves are electric. There is always some energy, always some vibration, but it can be positive or negative, bold or timorous, admirable or annoying. And all of those flavours are present whenever you use this word, though of course a particular sense will be more forward.

This multiplicity of sense comes in even in the sentence in question. If you say I can’t believe he had the nerve to do it, you could be admiring his courage, or you could be speaking resentfully of his impudence. The intonation will give the clue as much as anything. Is it “Wow, that took a lot of nerve!” or is it “The nerve of that guy!”?

Nerve, by the way, as you might suspect from the form of it and from its related form nervous, comes from Latin: nervus, “sinew, tendon, nerve, penis, etc.” (isn’t that quite a set of things!). The Latin has a cognate in Greek: νεῦρον neuron, meaning (in Greek) the same things as nervus. But while nerve, borrowed into English well before Shakespeare, has become a very common and often figurative word in English, neuron, which was borrowed in just over a century ago, is still rather technical and literal. You couldn’t say I can’t believe he had the neuron to do it, and if you say I can’t believe he had the neurons to do it people will probably assume you thought he was stupid.

Now, speaking of a term that expresses admiration, grudging or even ungrudging, we will look next at chutzpah.