Tag Archives: word tasting notes


You can carpe diem, or you can carp all day long.

Yes, I know my use of carpe diem as infinitive complement was grammatically incoherent, since it’s an imperative. It’s also a piece of a different language, so don’t be captious.

Which leads to an obviously important question: is carp as in ‘complain’ related to carpe diem and/or to captious? And do fish come into this? The etymology of all this turns out to be about as interwoven as a carpet, and it has threads of many words, but I’ll try to keep focused on an excerpt.

Let’s start with carpe diem. That means ‘seize the day’. The verb carpe, imperative of carpo, meaning ‘seize’ or also ‘pluck, tear, criticize, erode’, traces to Proto-Indo-European *kerp–, which has a sense of harvesting or cutting. I can almost hear those ancient iron shears clipping grape stems: “kerp, kerp, kerp.” (I am not saying that the word is originally onomatopoeic. I’m just enjoying it.)

This Latin carpo shows up in a few modern English words. One is excerpt (something cut out of something larger). Another is carpet, evidently through an association with carding wool.

Captious, on the other hand, traces to Latin capto, ‘I grasp at’ or ‘I long for’, which traces in turn to capio ‘I seize, I take’, which traces to Proto-Indo-European *keh₂p–, ‘seize, grab’, which seems very much a vocal gesture of capture, like a fish biting its prey (again, not saying that’s the origin). *keh₂p–has many descendants, including haven and Havana (and thus habanero, if you like to grab it while it’s hot), and – through the Latin forms and via French – captive, capture, catch, and chase.

So what about carp? The fish is unrelated (somehow that word carp in English is traced through Latin carpa to Gothic *karpa rather than more directly from Anglo-Saxon to Gothic). And officially the verb is unrelated, too, except there’s something fishy… The original senses came from Old Norse karpa ‘brag’, and they were senses more of just speaking or of prattling on. It is conjectured that the more recent sense (well, “recent” – it dates to the late 1300s rather than the mid-1200s) may show some influence of Latin carpo.

So this word form carp carries more voices and history than a car pool. It veritably capers. But, alas, its sense is mainly crappy. Better to seize the day and leave the cold fish behind.


How is antimony even an element? Or the name for one? Of all the names on the periodic table, antimony has long seemed to me to be the one that most looked like it wandered into the wrong party.

And I don’t just mean because the chemical symbol for antimony, Sb, has nothing in common with the word. Ha! That’s run-of-the-mill. Gold is Au. Lead is Pb. Mercury is Hg. Antimony’s nextdoor neighbour, tin, is Sn. We all eventually learn that these come from the Latin names for the elements, which are often entirely different: aurum, plumbum, hydrargyrum, stannum. In the case of antimony it’s stibium. But, um, gold and lead and tin don’t look anything like Latin or Greek (mercury does, but then hydrargyrum is obviously running over from Greek). Antimony kind of… does? So why does it need another Latin name?

That’s just one of several paradoxes to watch out for with this metalloid. Yes, metalloid – it’s kind of metal and kind of not (like several musical groups I could name). In some states, such as the mineral stibnite, it looks very much like metal, though it’s rather friable (crumbly). If you melt it it also looks like metal. But it has other forms; one of them is a black powder better known as kohl, which was used as eye makeup and is, for reasons I won’t trace here, from the same Arabic word that gave us alcohol. Antimony can also be in a form that will smoke when scratched and will explode when rubbed, struck, or heated (look for it in matchheads). So, naturally, antimony is used in fire retardants. It’s also used for its nonconductive properties, like most metals aren’t. And it’s included in various other commonly used alloys; you surely have some close to hand, and the odds are high it was mined in China, just by the way.

The Latin name for it, stibium, came to Latin from Greek, and to Greek probably from Egyptian. The very Latin-and-Greek-looking antimony comes to English from medieval Latin (antimonium), and there are various conjectures of how it got there (including one that it means ‘against monks’, supposedly because medieval monastic alchemists would kill themselves experimenting with it – oh, by the way, besides being explosive it’s also poisonous, which is why it was a popular laxative, and no I’m not making that up). But the most reasonable etymology traces it to Arabic aṯmad, which came from earlier iṯmid, which may well trace to Greek στίμμιδα, a variant of στίμμι, which also became στἰβι, which in turn became stibium, meaning that, way back, stibium and antimony are actually the same word, if you can believe it.

Oh, and one more thing. Antimony looks more like a philosophical concept, doesn’t it? Or some kind of state of things? Like enmity or immunity or antimatter or… antinomy?

Yes, antinomy, which comes from Greek ἀντί ‘against’ + νόμος ‘law’. It means an apparent contradiction in laws, principles, or logical conclusions – in other words, a paradox.

And antinomy looks so damn much like antimony that people mix the two up all the time. Such a close resemblance between two words so different in origin and referent oughta be against the law.


A couple of days ago, Dr. Eugenia Cheng, @DrEugeniaCheng, who is always worth reading, tweeted something that really made me stop and look again:

Omg I occasionally click on the “recommended” articles on my firefox homepage despite my best intentions, and they are universally terrible. I have finally got up the ertia to work out how to stop them appearing.

Ertia! I was, needless to say, plussed. Gruntled, in fact, and entirely combobulated, though a bit chalant. Such a sensical and ept word – and quite feckful and ruly, too. You would expect it to be more inlandish. But it is just not in regular use. Continue reading


You may not like how this ends.

Bran is good for you, right? We make muffins with it. We make cereal with it. Some of us even eat it just as it is – and ready ourselves for a trip to the “throne.” It’s the part of the grain that keeps our system running! Regardless of your moral fibre, you will at least get your physical fibre – that grand old gut feeling – if you’ve got your bran.

But do you like it? Even if you like how it comes out in the end – which will depend entirely on your personal needs – do you like how it goes in? Do you find it flavourful? Or even pleasant? I mean, we’re eating seed husks here. Not all of us are game for that. Continue reading


Negative is a negative word. Right?

Are you positive? Continue reading


This is a word with a lot of get-up-and-go, but all of it has gotten up and gone. Behold a word that is simultaneously an annoyingly clumsy and cute new confection and so old and out of use that even the obelisk declaring its obsoleteness has a layer of dust on it. Thank heavens for historical dictionaries such as my perennial friend the Oxford English Dictionary, which still let me get there to it. Continue reading


Our idea of mothers is very much shaped by the way our own respective mothers were when we were young. My mother, in the 1970s when I was in my most formative years, was winsome, sanguine, sage, easily amused, gastronomically expert, mellifluous of voice, statuesque, and lissotrichous.

No, I did not know the word lissotrichous at the time. I may have been a boy genius and super annoying and all that but come on. Here, though, see her in the summer of 1976: Continue reading