Tag Archives: word tasting notes


It’s a trap.

No, literally, a conibear is a trap. Some of you may know this already; some may have seen the word conibear and not been sure what it referred to; some may not know the word at all. I learned first in my childhood that a conibear was a kind of trap, but I don’t think I ever saw one in person. I saw an illustration of one, a trap made of two rectangles hinged together and spring-loaded near the hinges so that, when released, they would part from one orientation and scissor through 90 degrees to snap together in the other orientation (oh, just find a picture). I decided that the conibear must be an old, traditional kind of trap, with an old, traditional kind of name, preferred by those who liked things in the original style. I guessed that they must be mainly for trapping rabbits, since conibear looks like a compound of cony (which is another word for ‘rabbit’) plus bear. And from that I guessed how it is pronounced.

More recently, I decided to look up the conibear and find out more about it. I discovered that I was mistaken about its origins, not quite right about its purpose, misled by its name, and a bit off on the pronunciation. It turns out that things that look plain and obvious from what you see are not always plain and obvious at all, and it’s easy to step into a trap, so to speak (or write). Now that I have known the real story for… (looks at watch)… um, at least a few hours, I feel I should enter it into the record here.

First, the conibear exists because its inventor was determined to make a humane trap. And it is humane, in the same general way as a guillotine is humane: minimal pain for maximum death. The conibear’s inventor was a trapper and had been appalled at the effects of leg-hold traps: animals would be caught in them in great pain for a long time and would sometimes even chew their legs off to escape. He wished them a quick death, and one that also wouldn’t look so nasty or cause damage to the pelt or loss of the furry critter altogether. (There was, of course, no question of just not trapping them.) He worked out, over a number of years, a design that, when an animal of the right size came to the trap the right way, would snap the critter’s neck or crush its torso and kill it more or less instantly.

However, a conibear has more room for error than a guillotine; perhaps we should say a it is humane like hanging. When hanging is done as designed, it snaps the neck and causes quick death, assuming you don’t count all that stuff leading up to the actual hanging; when it is not done as designed, you get that dance-on-a-rope stuff from the Western movies and even worse. And when the wrong animal (e.g., your pet) comes into a conibear, or the right (i.e., intended) animal comes in the wrong way, the death can be a bit more protracted. Quite a bit, at times.

Funny thing is, I grew up surrounded by traps closely related to the conibear and didn’t realize it. We lived in a country house where there were mice, so we had mousetraps. The principle is identical; the design is a bit simpler. The results are also analogous, at smaller scale.

But the conibear was inspired by something else you might find in the kitchen of a country house: a certain kind of eggbeater. The trap’s inventor tried a few versions with middling success, but came back to it decades later with further inspiration from embroidery hoops and at last made the version that became very quickly popular. He patented it in 1957, when he was 61 years old. Which means that it was not 20 years old when I first heard of it.

And why the name? I will tell you that the trap was not designed mainly for catching rabbits. Mink, yes, and foxes, and beavers – the sorts of furry creatures that a trapper would seek in the area where its inventor lived: Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada (just off the northern boundary of Alberta; we could have driven there from where I lived in a day… an 18-hour day). The conibear trap got its name, indirectly, from a small place in Devon, England (which probably is named after conies, and maybe bears or maybe bearing them, but I can’t find the details on this one), and less indirectly from a family named after that place, one of whom was born in Plymouth, England, in 1896, moved to Canada in 1899 with his family, and ended up living in the Northwest Territories and making a good living guiding and running a hotel in the summer and trapping in the winter: Frank Ralph Conibear, inventor of the trap in question, who was still alive when I first heard of his device, as well as when this useful article on him was published (he died in 1988).

Since I already said I was wrong about how to say the name, and since I said my idea was based on cony, you may guess that my error was in how to say the vowels, and you will be right: it’s said like “con a bear,” not like “cony bear” as I had thought. And why is the name said like that? Well, why not? The word cony (which traces back to Latin cuniculus) originally rhymed with honey and money. But that sounded a bit… um, like a ruder word. So rabbit and bunny took over, and eventually people forgot the old way of saying cony and started saying it as we do now… when we say it at all.

And now you know just about all you con bear about this trap, I’m sure. And also about the importance of not assuming that what looks traditional really is traditional, and about more generally treading carefully, taking your time, and doing your diligence, lest you step into a trap – with crushing results.



Flinchworthy isn’t in the dictionary as such, but of course it’s a word, and I’m not the first to use it. You see “flinchworthy,” it doesn’t startle you, you know what it means: something worth flinching at.

Flinch is a good word, rhyming with pinch and inch and cinch and starting with that fluttery, flicking fl. It apparently comes from Old French flenchir or flainchir, likely related to flechir ‘bend’, which probably came from Latin flectere ‘bend’ although there are some phonological issues unresolved. Worthy is an adjectival form of worth, which comes from Old Germanic *werþaz, which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *wert-, also the origin of German Wurst (‘sausage’), English weird, and Latin vertere (‘turn’, source of all those -vert words in English).

Well! That turned, didn’t it. And so do you, when you encounter something flinchworthy.

And there are flinchworthy things. We should not think that nothing is worth flinching at. If you always boldly go, unhesitating, you will at some point meet with grievous bodily harm. Elisa Gabbert, on Twitter today, wrote,

I’m reading a memoir that’s described as “unflinching” but actually it flinches a lot, it’s full of textbook flinching. Also I think flinching is fine; normalize flinching?

Yes. Although there are things I am happy not to flinch at, I am a noted flincher: just almost break a glass and you will see. Or drop a knife. Or scream. Or, if you’re a newscaster, stumble several times trying to say a name. Or, um, I suppose, do any of several things depicted in Un chien andalou:

Not everyone finds all the same things flinchworthy, of course, but if you meet someone who finds nothing at all flinchworthy, do try to survive the encounter and avoid them ever thereafter. Here is a small compendium of flinchworthy things:

Dropping of knives and near-breaking of dishes,
Webs that touch faces and toes that touch fishes,
Cold slimy celery, telephone rings:
These are a few of my flinchworthy things.

Spiders, loud bangs, being tapped on the shoulder,
Creaks from dark houses at night getting older,
Razors near eyeballs and worms that have wings,
These are a few of my flinchworthy things!

When the dogs bark,
When the wasps buzz,
When I see some gore,
I take out my list of my flinchworthy things
And add to the end… one more!


A principle often elucidated, and famously so by such paper deities of prose styling as Strunk and White and George Orwell, is that in any circumstance where the total word count of an expression may be surplus to requirement, it is best to strive to diminish the quantity of lexemes so as to achieve a cogent, coherent, cohesive conciseness. This is to say, in other words, and to cut the long short: perish perissology.

Perish perissology! What is this judgment of perissology, this hard choice between the lush love of words and the militant wisdom of brevity? Is this the phrase that launched a thousand cuts?

Well… yes. Perissology is also known as garrulousness, verbal diarrhea, prolixity, verbosity… To be fair, though, it is focused more particularly on the phrase level: saying “in spite of the fact that” in place of “although,” or “at this point in time” in place of “now,” or “when everything is considered” or “in the final analysis” or “at the end of the day” in place of, hmm, nothing at all, really.

Editors, of course (“of course”! Now there’s a phrase that can often be left out), are possessed of perisscopes to spot these and deal mercilessly with them. Yes, perisscopes is a word I just made up, but perissology does have the same peri as in periscope: it’s Greek περί ‘round about’ derived into περισσός (perissos) ‘superfluous, redundant’ plus, of course (oh, allow me my twitches), the ology that comes from λόγος (logos) ‘word’. So it means ‘superfluous speech’ or ‘roundabout words’.

Whichdoes actually have a Latin counterpart, come to think of it: circumlocution. That isn’t used in exactly the same sense as perissology these days, but there’s plenty of overlap.

So, yes, perish perissology. But it doesn’t automatically follow from that that, as Orwell wrote, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” (and as has been pointed out, that dictum doesn’t strictly heed itself); there are some cases where adding a few extra words will help the meaning to be clearer and require less effort in the reading. And while “Omit needless words” seems almost trivially true, it leaves the judgement of “needless” up to the writer or editor. Should I konmari the prose, and cut a word out if it doesn’t give me a spark of joy? But what if I’m paid by the word and every extra dime I get is another spark of joy? Or what if I just love frolicking in a lush word garden? And how short could some classic books become if the trimming were overenthusiastic? (Proust: “I dipped a madeleine into my tea and it reminded me of my whole life. The end.”)

Of course (eeps) we don’t mean that you should remove words that add enjoyment and flavour, do we. Perissology is use of words that really don’t add a damn thing: not insight, not clarity, not ease of reading, not enjoyment. So “perish perissology” means “don’t be tedious.” This doesn’t resolve the issue universally, however; different people find different things tedious. So how about this: Know your audience and try not to waste their time.

And, after all is said and done, if you just wanted that last sentence, without all the information in between, well… I guess you’re not my audience. Heh heh.


Have you, after this social season, attained satiety with society? Have you had your fill? Have you had enough? Have you had so much that you are starting to satiety things about it?

Wait. What, now?

The pronunciation of satiety is a bit of… a blivet, I guess you could say, in Kurt Vonnegut’s sense of “ten pounds of shit in a five-pound sack.” Since everyone who reads Sesquiotica is painfully well educated or at least is quite lexically attentive, you all know that satiety is the noun for the state of being satiated. And there is general agreement on how to say satiated: although a few people might be heard saying it like “say tee ate id,” it’s well enough established and accepted that it’s like “say she ate it” only with “id” instead of “it.” But that fact just causes mischief when we turn to satiety.

I should give a bit of an appetizer here about the origins of this word. The English word has, as the OED puts it, multiple origins: “Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin.” The French source, satieté, came from the Latin source, satietas, of course, but the point is that English wasn’t fully satisfied with what it got from French and reached past it to Latin to get some more. And it just happens that when it first came to English from French, it reflected the phonological derivations current at the time: we spelled it with a c as in sacietye. In other words, it sounded like “society.”

Indeed, it kept sounding like that well into the early 1800s. But by that time the spelling had long since been updated to reflect its glorious Latin origins, and, as has often happened, pronunciation eventually followed spelling, and so it came to be said with a /t/ in place of the /s/: “sa tie a tee.”

Except, of course, for those of us who think first of satiated. I do not recall if I ever earnestly thought that “say shitty” was the proper pronunciation of satiety, but I do know I’ve long been aware of it as the pronunciation one might expect by analogy with satiated. And now I have confirmation that I am not alone in this. I was watching a History Channel documentary on YouTube this evening and the narrator pronounced it exactly that way (and yes, he was definitely saying satiety).

So what we have with this word now is a feast and a half. There’s one way you’re supposed to say it, but there are other ways you could say it, at least one of which seems more logical to many people. And you have multiple options for wordplay too.

And, for that matter, there are multiple shades of sense. These days it’s usually positive: you’re full and happy about it, not overstuffed; you have been fed and the world is just right. Back when it sounded like “society” it was as often used to mean ‘overstuffed, fed up to the point of disgust, surfeited, crapulous, and so on’. And I would venture to say that you could still try your luck at using it that way – if you can get away with saying it as “say shitty,” why not use it to say shitty things?


The first time I saw jape, somewhere in my earlier teens, I was japed and japed again (japers crapers!). It was in the introduction to Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 classic The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of cynical definitions (“Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding”; “Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious”; “Vote, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country”).

Many of Bierce’s definitions are several sentences long, and some even have illustrative poems, which I did not at first understand were all made up by Bierce himself (ironic, that, given that I did the same myself for high school English class, inventing poets with names like Les McLove and Dirk E. Oldman to flesh out an anthology rather than bothering to dig through the library). Most notable of Bierce’s fake poets was – well, here, read the sentence in question for yourself:

A conspicuous, and it is hoped not unpleasing, feature of the book is its abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of whom is that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials.

I was not particularly familiar yet with this word jape (I may have seen it in Wodehouse somewhere, but those books were full of all sorts of quaint toffee-nosed terms). I was also not in the least familiar with the initials S.J. and I thought at first that this was some literary way of indicating that his initials were S.J. rather than G.J. However, I quickly saw that all the Jape poems were attributed G.J.; I think I then inferred that it was one of those obscure Latin references like Ibid. (which for years I thought was some often-quoted Latin work like the Iliad or the Aeneid, but boringer). It was a number of years before I somehow learned that it meant the bearer was a Jesuit priest, and when I learned that I immediately thought of Gassalasca Jape and thought “Ohhhhhh.”

Which is, really, the classic response to a jape, especially if you are the object. Jape is both noun and verb, and is now mostly treated as meaning ‘joke, trick, jest’ – not so much a humorous story as a one-liner, sly dig, or practical joke. But when it first showed up in English in the 1300s, it meant ‘trick, cheat, deceive’ (and also ‘seduce’ and ‘have sex’). It moved on through ‘mock’ to its current sense, which is perhaps less unkind. Perhaps. We’re not sure where we filched the word from, by the way; evidence suggests that the form came from the Old French verb japer (‘bark, yelp’) and the sense came from the Old French verb gaber (‘mock, deride’), because why wouldn’t a tricky word be tricky.

And jape has the jab of jab and the capering vowelscape of caper, not to mention that it apes ape. So it sounds right, or at least I think it does. And it has by our own times become just merry and innocent enough not to break any commandments, at least most of the time.

Speaking of which, I would be playing too mean a trick if I were not to quote one of Bierce’s poems by Father Jape. Here is Bierce’s definition of decalogue:

Decalogue, n. A series of commandments, ten in number – just enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian.

Thou shalt no God but me adore:
’Twere too expensive to have more.

No images nor idols make
For Robert Ingersoll to break.

Take not God’s name in vain; select
A time when it will have effect.

Work not on Sabbath days at all,
But go to see the teams play ball.

Honor thy parents. That creates
For life insurance lower rates.

Kill not, abet not those who kill;
Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.

Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unless
Thine own thy neighbor doth caress.

Don’t steal; thou’lt never thus compete
Successfully in business. Cheat.

Bear not false witness – that is low –
But “hear ’tis rumored so and so.”

Covet thou naught that thou hast not
By hook or crook, or somehow, got.
G. J.


I can’t think of any good reason for this word to be easy to read or easy to guess how to say. Or even suitably derived from its etymological roots. What would be the point of that? It’s not just that English spelling and pronunciation are like a bad relationship that has been allowed to get too tangled and to play too many perverse games for too long, grabbing bits from one place and applying rules from another place with the evident goal of keeping everything from being too easy – enforcing the idea that following a tangle of capricious and arbitrary rules is some sign of intellectual and moral superiority. It’s that this word in particular is an apposite instance for form to follow function.

Can you see what it is and where it comes from? Do you want any clues? OK: it’s three syllables. And the vowel at the heart of each syllable is what we (for anachronistic reasons, seldom explained or understood, that mess with the perception of millions of people) call “long.” And, of course, the ch is said as /k/.

Got it? Yeah, it’s from chaos (from Greek χάος, naming the primordial state of the universe, and also the state of the spoon-and-spatula drawer in my kitchen) plus ize as in Bette Davis (surely we all Bette-Davisize on occasion).

Of course the Greek pronunciation of χάος is just like the English pronunciation… if you only count the last sound in it, and don’t get too sticky about the specific articulation of /s/. The first consonant is different and so are the vowels, but that’s just because English merged the voiceless velar fricative with the stop, the long vowels changed during the Great Vowel Shift, and the short vowels shifted a bit except for where they didn’t. And then, when chaos and ize got mashed together and the s disappeared (about which more in a moment), the o also became “long” because there’s another vowel right after it and we just wouldn’t know what else to do there. Because while we’re all trying to follow and enforce weird rules to make sure we don’t look dumb (and other people do), we’re actually just guessing and making it up by analogy a lot of the time. When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind!

Anyway. About the form of this word. The usual way to make it, on the basis of Greek morphological derivation (which of course we all know, right?), the same thing that gave us chaotic rather than chaosic, would be chaotize. And that’s a word, and it means the same thing as chaoize. But I think we can all agree that chaoize is a much weirder, messier, more chaotic word (does it not K.O. your eyes?), and also it looks like Charlize (it’s right theron the page) and sort of like a weird spelling of chaise, which I can get onto as well. So we owe a little debt of thanks to Cyril Tourneur, author of The Transformed Metamorphosis (1600), who for his own reasons transformed and metamorphosized those roots into this version of the word, and whose book provides the sole citations for it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I think we can all agree that a word meaning (again, quoting Oxford) “reduce to chaos or utter confusion” is quite handy, pretty much all the time but now more than ever. And I trust you can see why I prefer the version that’s more patently chaotic, capricious, unpredictable, and all those other things. Sometimes language change is like natural processes such as erosion and glaciation and sometimes it’s like letting kids loose in a sandbox, not just chaotic but chaoizing; why shouldn’t we have a word to name that that represents it?


Notwithstanding – or even perhaps because of – the season, I think many of us are getting to be a little wabbit.

No, I don’t mean Elmer Fudd–style, although, well, come on, here, you may need this:

But, regardless of the wiles of Bugs Bunny, if you are wabbit (not a wabbit), you are more likely to be wiped out than to prevail. Not that it has anything to do with being hunted or being a rabbit. No, wabbit means ‘exhausted’, ‘dog tired’, ‘not feeling at all up to it’, et cetera, and it’s from Scots.

I don’t mean Scotch – though that may help you if you’re wabbit (or, on the other hand, it may help you to end up wabbit if you have too much). Scots is a sister language to English spoken in Scotland (as distinct from Scots Gaelic, which is a Celtic language and sister to Irish). And in Scots, the past participle suffix (which in English is -ed) is -it. As in that little rhyme by Robert Burns I first learned as a child and was instantly irritated by, because I didn’t see why they had to use all these weird versions of words and that forced rhyme:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

So if thankit equals thanked, wabbit equals… uh…

Well, Scots is a different language, you know, and it doesn’t always have one-to-one word correspondences with English. And its etymological record is less replete too, due to its having fewer speakers, fewer books, and less investment in its teaching and research. So anyway, exhaustive search has turned up only possibilities. It might be a past participle of the verb wap, which has a good reason for looking like English whap: it means ‘throw quickly or with violence” (per the OED). (No explanation is given for the shift from p to b.) Or it might be somehow from woubit, which is a “woolly bear” kind of caterpillar or, figuratively, a contemptible person. Or it might be from neither. Ah, who knows?

Wabbit has been borrowed into English, anyway, so you can use it without having to try to emulate Rabbie Burns. But if you’d like to see it in context, here’s a poem by William Stewart, from his 1895 book Lilts and Larks frae Larkie (look for our word halfway through the second stanza):

Adversity Sweetens Success

Here, within my cot in Machan,
I’ve got landed richt and ticht,
Face aglow, an’ lungs apechan’,
Wi’ the fury o’ the nicht.
Hech, but I’d a michty battle
Comin’ ’tween the toon an’ manse,
Hail, like jaury-bools, play’d rattle
’Gainst my nose an’ garr’d me dance.

Doon it pelted, helter skelter,
Like as gif my banes ’twould pyke,
Deil the bit whaur I could shelter
Till I got to Crichton’s dyke.
Braithless, blinded, a’ but wabbit,
On I sprauchled, heid agee.
Till against the wa’ I labbit,
Frae the bitin’ halestones free.

Noo I’m plantit by the ingle,
King or prince can never ken
Hoo wi’ joy my heart strings tingle,
Noo my trauchel’s at an en’.
Wife an’ bairnies a’ sae cheery,
Pipe aluntin’, hearth aflame,
Mak’s me bless the ootside fury,
For it hichtens joys o’ hame.

Would ye ken sweet plenty’s pleesure?
First ken poortith’s bitin’ sting;
Would ye ken true comfort’s leisure?
First ken labour’s constant hing.
Would ye ken the joys o’ simmer?
First ken winter’s bitin’ blast,
Hope’s bit stamy’s faintest glimmer
Beems a bleeze whem storms are past.

Are you wabbit now? That poem might have been a bit much exercise for some readers. But so is quite a lot of life these days. Well, noo yer trauchel’s at an en’, at least for the time being. Go get some rest if you can. It may be all the sweeter if you been befuddled.


I’ve been biking quite a bit this summer, and running too, and while this is unlikely to make a kallipyg of me, one can but hope. My wife, like pretty much all lifelong high-level figure skaters, is a noteworthy kallipyg. One need not be athletic to be a kallipyg, but it seldom hurts.

It is not always easy to judge whether a person is a kallipyg. It depends on the clothing they’re wearing, but more particularly it depends on the angle you see them from. If you can see their face, for instance, you are probably not in a position to judge whether they are a kallipyg.

Does this word look like somehow it’s been cut off? It has not. Does it make you think of a pygmy? It has nothing to do with pygmies (except for inasmuch as any among them may be kallipygs, which some probably are, but not because they are pygmies). Perhaps a calliope? No, though a kallipyg may be music to the eyes of some. And the connection between kalli and calli is well made: they both come from Ancient Greek κάλλος kallos, ‘beauty’.

Some of you will see the meaning of this word coming by now. But all of you have seen it going. The pyg, you see, is from Greek πυγή pugé, ‘buttocks’. I think many of you know the word callipygian, which means ‘having beautiful buttocks’. It comes from an epithet for Aphrodite: καλλίπυγος, an adjective meaning ‘callipygian’ which, as a substantive used as an epithet, could be rendered as “sweetcheeks” or “the one with the nice bum.” (“You know, Aphrodite, the one with the buns.”)

Well, kallipyg is a rather less common word, but it comes from the same source, and it’s a noun for a callipygian person. If you want to say it out loud, the stress is on the beginning – although we could say the weight is on the end.


There’s a link between rocks, looking, and Dutch cookies. I expect you’ll be skeptical, but it’s not just speculation: the path from one to another is scopulous, but the view in the end is spectacular.

Let’s start with the cookies. You may know speculaas; they are those spicy brown cinnamon ginger cookies, also called “windmill cookies,” that are typically shaped like animals or edifices, especially windmills. The Belgian version are called speculoos, and so are the crumbs made from them that are used for various purposes, sort of like delicious food gravel.

There are arguments about exactly why the cookies are named speculaas, but it is known that the spec is the same as in Latin speculum and speculator, which trace farther back to specula, Latin for ‘watchtower’ or ‘lookout’, which comes from the same root as scopulus, ‘crag’ or ‘rock’. Which is the origin of scopulous, meaning ‘rocky’. Promontories and crags are rocky, you see. It’s true that a pebble in your shoe can impede you from getting to the point of one, but if you can scamper up the escarpment you will find that much larger rocks can give much bolder outlooks. One way or another, it’s scopulous all the way.

Is it mere coincidence, or perhaps merging, that brings the spec of looking and the scop also of looking together with this scop as in rock? Nope, it really is that the rock, the headland, gets its name from the eyes in the head, or anyway from what they’re doing. The Latin scopulus came from Greek σκόπελος skopelos, ‘watchtower’ or ‘rock’ or ‘promontory’ or ‘crag’, which most likely came from σκοπέω skopeo, ‘I look’, ‘I contemplate’, ‘I consider’. It comes from the Indo-European *sḱep- root, which is a metathesis of the *speḱ- root. Apparently neither the Proto-Indo-Europeans nor the Ancient Greeks could mind their p’s and k’s. Anyway, an amazing number of words in many languages, including quite a few in English, trace back to these roots, all coming by one path or another from looking: spectrum, spectacle, species, specimen, expect, skeptic, scopophilia, telescope, and so many others.

And if you follow the crumbs to climb the scopulous path to the spectacular promontory from which you can trace your trail back with a telescope, do you get a cookie? I expect you may, if you bring one, but you’ll have to look out for yourself.


Marry gup! This is fishy indeed.

What, sir, what is fishy? What say you, ha?

This… hodge-podge of hucksters and mountebanks, this hippo-crate of hypocrites, this convention of worms and weeds and watersnakes, this whited seppuku, this monstrous erection of eructations and vice versa, this pond of piranhas, this immoral morass of morays… Gup! ’Tis an ill thing indeed.

But “gup,” sir? Is this like “welp,” sir? or “gulp”? Or is it of a guppy?

Like “welp”? Or a little fish named in 1866 after one R.J. Lechmere Guppy and not to be gulped by bumptious youths? Mary and gup, you whelp! “Gup” is a word one says to express surprise, dismay, derision – or to chide a recalcitrant horse. It comes from “go up”; it has on occasion arrived by some oblique process to be said or written “quep”; it is frequently prefaced with “marry,” which is to say “Mary,” which is to say an invocation of the mother of Our Lord.

Ah, I see. So “gup” is more readily pronounced than if the g were replaced with w, the u with t, and the with f? And otherwise is used to much the same effect?

Indeed, just as “marry” is better said than “Mary,” which is better said than the name of her Son.

And people still say this, do they? Today, in our times?

I’ faith they do, so long as ’tis understood that “our times” are mainly before the year 1700, when many a fine author (such as Messrs. Heywood, Middleton, and Fletcher) had recourse to it. Later than that… not so much. But I find that what goeth around cometh around. And a brief but not censorable exclamation is often needed in many a time.