Tag Archives: word tasting notes

dragonfly

A summer of young childhood is an entire life preserved in a magical crystal that you can look back into. You hold up different facets and see moments, places, stories. To a child everything seems timeless and famous and momentous and legendary, and that’s because it is. Adults walk in a faded blue world where all the strings are connected at the ends, a world that is endless sums of numbers that always add up the same and if they don’t you know you’re missing something, a world where even the most foreign places are on the same surface as you and can be reached by taking an ordinary trip in a well-known vehicle with everyday dirt on it. For a young child, even a door to the next room may be a portal to the golden kingdom you were sent from as an infant; nothing needs to be the same twice, and logic is just the cleverest trick. When your adult self looks back into the crystal, it all glows transparent gold, and you are famous to yourself, a glittering dragonfly darting and hovering.

I spent a few of my youngest years in Exshaw, a village at the mouth of the mountains in Alberta. Across the valley was a mountain with a large heart on the top, and another mountain that looked like the grade four teacher’s nose. On our side was Exshaw Mountain, gradually being blasted flat by the cement plant, and Cougar Mountain, a big bristly hump that of course we were afraid to go too far up because of cougars. On a summer day my brother and I, and perhaps another kid such as Tommy Lewis or Ricky Korzeniewski (both friends of my brother), might go exploring. We could visit the Candy Man: just one of us, never me, would go up and knock on the door of a small old house at the end of a street as it gave up against Cougar Mountain, and he would hand over a candy bar for each of us. My brother once offered to give me five bucks if I would hop on his back and let him throw me off, and, after I had let him toss me five times as from a horse, he informed me that I had just gotten five bucks. (He bucked me five times, if that needs explanation.) And sometimes we would go to Dragonfly. Continue reading

cuneiform

Cuneiform is kind of a wedge issue.

OK, ha ha, you see what I did there. Cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped’, from Latin cuneus ‘wedge’ plus form. But really, cuneiform was a wedge – one that slowly divided things that had been connected, but also one that slowly worked its way in, like a foot in the door.

I’ll give you an analogy. It won’t be exact, but you’ll get the idea. Continue reading

dudgeon

Have you ever heard of someone being in low dudgeon?

When someone’s in a dudgeon, when they leave a party or premises in a towering snit, when their dignity has been endangered and they will hold more grudge than an ordinary curmudgeon, if the altitude of their derangement is mentioned – and it often will be – it is always high. Continue reading

cantrip

 

Canadian flag by the Trans-Canada Highway at Pigeon Mountain, Alberta

Is there really a Canada, or is it all a cantrip? Lines on maps can trip you up; best take a trip across so you can see.

Not that cantrip as a word is related to Canada or to trip. It refers to hocus-pocus, a witch’s spell, a charm, a trick, a mischievous device. But such captious catnip can come from maps and capitals. And since we are today celebrating 151 years of a country called Canada, let us just look and see whether it be not a trick of optics. Continue reading

izzat

Izzat is a word for reputation.

Sometimes your reputation precedes you: “Izzat who I think it is?” Sometimes you create your reputation with your presence: “Hey, who izzat?” And sometimes your reputation is subject to question: “Izzat so?”

This isn’t a word I’ve made up. It’s a real word, in circulation in English for a century and a half so far. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means “honour, reputation, credit, prestige”; Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives two definitions, “personal dignity or respect honor” and “power to command admiration prestige.” And William Shakespeare says it is “an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”

Well, OK, that last quote was specifically about reputation, and it was words put in the mouth of the villain Iago from Othello. But Shakespeare liked to put uncomfortable home truths in the mouths of villains and clowns. And every izzat, whether it be “Izzat who I think it is?” (Webster’s first sense) or “Hey, who izzat?” (Webster’s second sense), is – or should be – subject to some “Izzat so?”

After all, we often get reputation by association. Perhaps we know the right people. Perhaps we come from the right place or the right family. Or perhaps we just look or sound the part – tall men tend to get much farther ahead in business and politics than shorter ones; people of any exclusive social set will judge others on the basis of their attire and their choice of vocabulary, grammar, and accent. A person who is near enough can often be pulled in and altered to fit.

Such happens, too, to the reputations and impressions of words. If a word sounds too much like an unpleasant word, it is likely to be avoided or at least altered in pronunciation (some may find this a niggardly harassment, but it undeniably affects usage more broadly than we think); if a word sounds similar to another more common one, there is likely to be some bleeding of sense and form (even though some may find such internecine interaction an outrage).

I won’t say that has happened with izzat. It did start as Arabic ‘izzah, meaning ‘glory’, but it became izzat in Urdu. Still, the crosstalk effect with “is that” is hard to miss (at least for those who like wordplay), even though its pronunciation is actually supposed to be like “is it,” not like a quick “is that.” On further reflection, one may even be tempted to say it means ‘the last word’ and associate it with izzard, a name for the last letter of our alphabet.

Well. I can try to steer it if I want, and if I’m the main press agent for this word for many people who have heard of it at all, I may even have some effect. But your reputation – and other people’s – is never entirely in your hands. Oscar Wilde wrote “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” But if you seek renown, you may, on gaining it, find yourself looking at clippings and quotes and the general evidence of your izzat – and the effects of your spending its credit – and asking yourself, “Izzat what you wanted?”

languor, languid, languish

The long, languorous days of summer are here. Depending on your disposition – and your reserves – you may move at a lush, delicious languid pace, or you may languish in torpid inactivity. Lolling about in otiose inaction is a luxury for those who have the means to thrive in spite of it; for those without all-access passes to the pleasure boat, a lack of activity is the anguish of languishing. It all comes down to who is peeling the grapes for whom.

And to the languid sense-shifts of our language.

It starts with classical Latin languere, which the Oxford English Dictionary translates as “to be faint, feeble, to be unwell, sick, to be languid, drowsy, to droop, wilt, to be dim or faint, to be weak or feeble, to be idle or inert.” It may be related, way back, to lax and slack. In our language, it gave us languish, which meant to enter or exist in a state of weakness and ill health. It has, over the centuries, gained figurative senses, such as wasting away out of love and longing. It is now often used to refer to resting neglected; the Corpus of Contemporary American English tells us that words it is often seen with include left, let, while, jail, continue, children, allowed, foster, and prison. It is a word of long anguish.

With that verb languish also came the noun languor, a word so slothful it can’t even be bothered to get the to go after the where you expect it. Languor first – back in the 1300s – referred to “pining, longing, sorrow, grief,” as Oxford says. Three centuries later it had come to mean physical or mental weariness, tiredness, or lethargy. It persists in a sense of summery torpor, but it also connects to languorous, which is now “characterized by pleasurable relaxation,” to quote Oxford one more time. When we look at what words are near languor, we find such as delicious, summer, loose-limbed, dreamy, exquisite, and tropical. It has become an Eva Longoria of the language.

But then there is that other adjective, languid, which partakes of the idiom of the id. Although it first – when we gained it, in the 1500s – spoke of weakness, fatigue, and inertia, it soon enough shifted to a sense of laconic slowness, the sin of sloth (itself such a word of economy of effort that it dropped the from slowth). But by the 1700s, and increasingly in the 1800s, idleness and leisure ad libitum became supportable and sustainable enough to be desirable. And now, near languid, we see words such as long, lady, pace, hand, grace, slow, air, days, body, pose, summer, ease, movement, and voice.

But in times of inactivity we also fantasize about activity. Andrew Lang wrote this poem in the later 1800s:

As one that for a weary space has lain
Lull’d by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Æean isle forgets the main,
And only the low lutes of love complain,
And only shadows of wan lovers pine—
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again,—
So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, and feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,
And through the music of the languid hours
They hear like Ocean on the western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.

A century earlier, William Blake wrote this stanza in “Song: My silks and fine array”:

My silks and fine array,
My smiles and languished air,
By love are driven away;
And mournful lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave:
Such end true lovers have.

“Smiles and languished air.” There is a sun-bleached something about it, isn’t there? And really, that’s the heart of it. As delightful as languors may seem, as much as it may be fun to lie on the beach and sun ourselves, to drink wine and take water in wafting warmth, there is no great energy to it. At the first breath of coolth, the first free shrill wind, our vigour is reignited. Algernon Charles Swinburne captured it in “Dolores”:

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

Many a moment in hammock-hung days, on white sofas in shady verandahs and around the corner from patio lunch prosciutto and mimosas, and draped on lawn or beach, have taught us all that there may be vice in languour. But rapture? We’ll get to that… in a few months. Relax.

 

If you enjoy these word tasting notes, I encourage you to stop by Patreon and buy a subscription for as little as $1 a month – you’ll get extra blog posts and can even hear me read them for you. And there are more goodies for the especially word-dedicated.

subscribe

I hope this word tasting doesn’t seem underwritten. No, wait, I hope it does.

Subscribe, as you may know, comes from Latin sub ‘under’ and scribere ‘write’. It meant, originally, writing your name at the bottom of a document, under the rest of the text – you know, adding your signature – to signify agreement. Could be agreement with what it says; we still have that sense figuratively: “I don’t subscribe to that theory.” Could be agreement to do what it specifies – in particular, pay for something; we have that sense too, as in “subscribe to a stock option.” A few hundred years ago, if someone wanted to start a periodical publication, since the internet was not widely available at the time, they generally couldn’t use Kickstarter or Patreon, so they would issue print appeals for people to underwrite them: give me so much money and in return you’ll get so many issues. Nowadays when you subscribe to a magazine, that’s still technically what you’re doing – but you can also subscribe to some things for free, in which case you’re not underwriting them but you still get their writing under your door (or probably in your email inbox).

So subscribe runs the gamut from ‘have no issues with’ to ‘get issues from’. And it can mean ‘underwrite’ or just ‘read over’.

English being the lexical overstuffed pillow that it is, it has two words where nearby languages have one each. We have both underwrite and subscribe; other Western European languages have a word that means one, the other, or both, but always literally means ‘write under’. German has unterschreiben, which means ‘sign’ or ‘endorse’ (endorse, by the way, comes from Old French and Latin meaning ‘on the back’, as in write on the back of, as in what you do with a cheque, or check for Americans). Dutch has ondertekenen, which means ‘write your signature at the bottom of’ but can also mean ‘sign up for’. Italian has sottoscrivere, which means about the same as English subscribe. French has souscrire, which is understood like underwrite but they also use it as we use subscribe (though they have another word for that too, s’abonner) because they have not lost the connection. Spanish has suscribir, likewise.

Along with the Romance/Germanic doublet, though, English has one more thing that the others don’t: anagrams. Well, nearly. Subscribe needs just an extra to anagram to issue bribe. As in bribe someone to get issues of a publication, or bribe someone with issues of a publication to get their actual money.

I’m tasting this word today as a… well, let’s say an inducement. I’ve switched my blog to a paid plan so it no longer has ads (and I will also, in the fullness of time, add a feature to buy signed copies of my books directly). I’m not going to make people pay for the stuff that’s always been free – my word tasting notes, my occasional articles on linguistics and editing, and my pronunciation tip videos. But as an incentive to get people to underwrite my site, I’m going to add a subscription-only section. All of my “new old word” entries (following on soray) will be for subscribers who put as little as $1 a month on the table – and I’m going to record myself reading my blog posts, for those who prefer to listen (for $2 a month). And there’s more!

Visit https://www.patreon.com/sesquiotic to find out more, or watch this video. (Oh, and if you don’t want to subscribe, that’s fine! I’m not expecting most people to. It’s just an extra perk for those who wish to underwrite my writing.)