Tag Archives: word tasting notes


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.)


Water carries not just minerals and particles and viruses and bacteria; it carries blessings and hexes as well. It transmits light but in such a way as to make clear your own influences and expectations.

Consider: If you look down in a swimming pool at your legs, you do not see them where you expect. You’re used to the way air carries light, but water makes it arrive at other angles. They’re not lies; they’re just differences in the refractive index, the same thing that allows me (and many of you) to see more clearly thanks to curved glass having similar effects.

Consider: If you walk into a cool mist on a hot day it will refresh you. But if someone near you in a public place sneezes, the aerosol produced – just another mist, and a smaller one – can carry something to you that will make you sick.

I am not here to cast aspersions on the dispersion of water droplets. That would be redundant, since every aspersion is a spray, a spatter, or a mist opportunity. Aspersion, noun, comes from asperse, verb, also seen as asperge, from Latin ad ‘to’ plus spargere ‘sprinkle’. A synonym used by Oxford and Webster is bespatter– but typically with intent: a priest may asperse you with holy water, spraying blessings on you with a brass aspergillium or perhaps a moist branch; an enemy or frenemy may cast aspersions on your character or aspirations, spattering you with metaphoric mud (dirty water).

Look at this picture, taken of a fountain on a breezy day. The park it’s in is popular because it is blessed with this dog-themed three-tiered asperger. Unlike public fountains of old, it supplies no household water for drinking or washing; it just glitters water on its surroundings without stopping or discriminating. I held up my camera and the lens received droplets. And those droplets refracted light, making little lenses on the surface of the lens, and those revealed what you would othewise have missed: hexes.

Why hexes? The hexagons you see are due not to the water but to the lens – the aperture in it, the diaphragm (or iris), has six blades that cut off light. That is what I brought to it: with my receptivity to light, a restriction of the light received. The aspersions show me hexes, but they are my hexes. I am hexing myself, and the water is just making it clear by being slightly less clear. As with all aspersions, the spatters just water what’s already there.


I love words. And I love plants. But for some reason, I really suck at remembering words for plants. This may be for the same reason that I have trouble remembering the names of people I meet (or have known for even quite a long time). Which may be for any of a host of reasons.

It’s not that I’m hostile to them. Quite the opposite. Every afternoon, I go sit in a coffee shop (a different one each day) to work, because it’s hard for me to get through a day without having people around me, just as I don’t like going through a day without going somewhere where there are plants around me. I enjoy their presence. They’re nice to look at. But I don’t talk to them much. Not the plants, either.

So what do I do when I’m at a party, for those many times I’m not talking? Same thing as I do when I’m in a garden: I bring a camera. Some silly person once said a picture is worth a thousand words. I think this is true just in the sense that every picture I take obviates a thousand words of talking. But there’s no actual conversion. If I put a Warhol print in your kitchen cupboard I don’t expect you to eat it. Look, I know words, and I love words, but I also know and love visual arts, and I know the limits of words. And I know how nice it is to have a friend you can sit with and not talk because you don’t need to fill the air with verbal packing chips because you’re just there together.

Even when I’m a host of a party, I don’t need to spend all my time talking with people. I’m happy being not a wallflower but a leaf in the book-garden of the event. A leaf with a camera. Taking nice pictures of nice people, often in marmoreal monochrome to bring out their lights and shadows, with life shining on them like dewdrops on leaves.

And so, too, plants. I love green, so you might think I would always take pictures of plants in colour. But there is one plant of which it turns out I have always put my pictures in monochrome to bring out its lights and shadows. True to form, I didn’t actually know what it’s called until, yesterday, I asked some friends. It’s a hosta, they told me.

The hosta is not one type of plant. It’s a whole host of them: it’s a genus of which there is an uncertain number of species (botanists disagree) and more than 3,000 cultivars. The website of a local greenhouse offers me 233 different kinds. They’re all lovely. And many of them are named after people: Abby, Allan P McConnell, Amos, Amy Elizabeth, Andrew, Barbara Ann, Brother Stefan, Captain Kirk, Diana Remembered, Empress Wu, Frances Williams, Hans, Katie Q, Lacy Belle, Lady Isobel Barnett, Lakeside Meter Maid, Lakeside Shoremaster, Leading Lady, Margie’s Angel, Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Big, Paul’s Glory, Queen of the Seas, The King, The Queen, Veronica Lake… It’s like a whole party right there. And an interesting one at that. I wonder who would host it.

Never mind, I know who: either the person who named the genus Hosta or the person after whom the genus is named. It was named by the Austrian botanist Leopold Trattinnick in 1812 in honor of the Austrian botanist Nicholas Thomas Host. It’s not that the plants didn’t have names before, it’s just that they hadn’t been grouped into a genus before.

It’s tempting to think of N.T. Host as the genial host of a party of plants, and perhaps he was, but that’s not where his name came from. Our English word host traces to Latin, while the German and Austrian family name Host is apparently a toponym: there are villages by that name. Alas, my etymological resources run out of words at this point, and so I don’t know just how the villages came by the name.

But it’s OK. Not everything has to have a lot of words. Especially things that aren’t in a hurry to use them back to you. Hosta leaves have such a beautiful play of shadow and light, and they host raindrops and dewdrops so nicely, shining on them like life.


What pasts and presents we drown in pursuit of our futures.

Minnewanka is a name of a lake near the town of Banff, Alberta, Canada. I visited it a week ago for the first time in decades and walked a path on its shore that I don’t remember ever walking before. The path starts paved, then becomes well-worn dirt, and over its course gradually roughens as it traverses roots and rocks. Within a half hour you’re at a bridge over a small canyon, and then the trail climbs up to bend around the mountain and follow the farther shore from on high. Past a certain point you are advised to travel in tight groups in case of bears; hikers can continue to overnight campsites many hours of bootsteps farther on. But up to the bridge, it is well worn and friendly.

At the trailhead is a parking lot and a snack bar and a motorboat rental. You may, if you will, speed across its surface, a score of metres above ghostly streets where people used to walk and talk and kiss and eat. You may, if you will, strap on a can of atmosphere and dive down to look at a town drowned seventy-seven years ago, a town on a site where people had lived even ten thousand years earlier. See the video with this article from Smithsonian – you may find it spooky and wonder what waterlogged ghosts are over your shoulder.

There has always been a lake here, though it wasn’t always this big. A long, long time ago it was bigger, but glaciers and moraine rise and fall and so do lakes. By 1888 it was eighty feet down from where it is now, and a hotel and then a town were built on its shore: Minnewanka Landing. Fifteen years later, up the hill, a mine was started and a town of a thousand souls sprouted up there. It was called Bankhead and had a power plant that supplied power for Minnewanka Landing.

In 1912 a dam was built on the lake to store water for another power plant. In 1922 the Bankhead mine closed and its power plant shut down. A new power plant was built to replace it. The houses of Bankhead were mostly unmoored from their foundations and moved to nearby towns, leaving a cluster of concrete lumps in the woods for local schoolkids to visit on field trips and a small selection of buildings with interesting pasts mixed in with the others in Banff and Canmore.

But in 1941 there was a war on, and more power was needed. A dam was built across the end of the valley for a new power plant, and everyone in Minnewanka Landing had to leave. They didn’t get to take their houses. Fifty-three years a town, ten thousand years a place people passed through and sometimes lived, now a dim dreamworld like a far-gone childhood, walked in only by people long passed, seen from above darkly by the eyes of our time.

As we ever see other worlds darkly. Their sacred fabrics become burial shrouds. Look at the name of this lake. For a time, the European settlers called it Devil’s Lake. Beyond its end is a place called Devil’s Gap (now also the name of an establishment in the town of Banff where you may buy bites and spirits). A sign near the snack bar will now tell you that Minnewanka comes from local Native words meaning ‘spirit lake’. One website I found declares it’s from “Minn-waki (Lake of the Spirits).” But that’s not quite it.

How do I know that’s not quite it? The local language it’s from is Nakoda, or (in settlers’ terms) Stoney. That’s the language of the people on whose land I grew up. It’s a language I don’t speak, alas – but my dad does, quite well. So I asked him. The name of the lake in Nakoda is mînî wakâ, which means ‘sacred water’. The circumflexes indicate nasalization – the sort of thing you hear in French and Portuguese when an nor mis written after a vowel. So mînî, which means ‘water’, has nasal vowels, and wakâ, which means ‘sacred’, has a nasal vowel just at the end.

Did you catch that? If it were wâka it would sound like “wanka” to English ears, but it was wakâ, more like “walk on” without fully saying the n. We’ve shifted the sound. Just as we’ve shifted the sense, from ‘sacred’ (a fluid quality) to ‘spirits’ (individual beings) and then, for a time, because we feared the spirits of the people we invaded, to ‘devil’. We forced it with our own constructions just as we forced the water when, in one of our wars, we stopped it from flowing freely and used its holy fabric to shroud the ghost of a town because we wanted power.

But it’s still there. It’s all still there. For us now it seems a pleasant thing to look at when we’re not looking at our screens, a fun thing to invade, a present of nature from our past selves and our ages-old planet, but it’s still there. And when we have walked on, when we have drowned our last memory and spent our own futures, and the evidence of our passing slowly drains out of time, it will be still there. Mînî wakâ.


Well, that explains everything.

I’ll explain. A friend (Doug Linzey to be precise) suggested I taste this word. So of course I looked it up, not just what it means – it’s made of well-known parts anyway – but what and who brought it forth. And I found a bunch of links to articles and tweets attributing it to Karl Popper, the philosopher. And one link to a Wikipedia on Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist. But when I clicked through on the article, the word was not to be found – vicitim, I suppose, of some recent edit.

So I searched monocausotaxophilia Pöppel. And I found what I suspected: Ernst Pöppel invented the term. Thing is, he’s not very well known to the world at large; Karl Popper is somewhat better known (not least, I’m sure, because his name makes many people think of popcorn). So some people saw Ernst Pöppel and misremembered it as Karl Popper, because that was a path of less resistance. His name was more familiar. And it was plausible: he’s a philosopher, and in particular a philospher of science who argued against inductivist and justificationalist approaches to science (ironically, given the misattribution of the quote to him) and in favour of what is now accepted as standard scientific method: keep making experiments, and you’ll have more and more evidence for something, but you never know for certain that a generalization is true, you just know when it’s been proven false. So anyway, a philosophical thing a neuroscientist said could readily be misattributed to a philosopher of science.

And what I’m getting to is that this tendency to misattribute quotes to whichever person has the maximum combined fame and appropriateness (seriously, I think most quotes are more often attributed wrongly than rightly) tells us enough about the way people think that it can also help us to understand how words are formed and altered. For instance, internecine comes from Latin neco ‘I kill’ plus inter, which – like several other prefixes – served as an intensifier. It meant, originally, ‘killing them all’ or ‘thoroughly deadly’. But people saw inter and recognized it as a prefix that they were used to meaning ‘between’ or ‘mutual’ and so its sense became ‘mutually destructive’. The meaning swerved over to the track of least resistance.

Quite a few words have shifted sense on the basis of their sounding more appropriate to another sense because of other things they sound like. Some words have had their use affected in other ways – if a word sounds too much like a word we want to avoid, we tend to avoid that word too, even if its sense and origin are unrelated (I’m sure there’s some suitable remark about mutual destruction I could make here). And we also break words apart where it sounds best to us rather than at the places they were originally joined together, which is why we say copter rather than pter and shopaholic rather than shopcoholic.

All of this also tells us why we have a word such as monocausotaxophilia. Have a look at its bits: mono from Greek μόνος monos ‘alone, single’, taxo from Greek τάξις taxis ‘order’, philia from Greek φιλία filia ‘love’, but causo from Latin causa ‘cause, reason’. These are all parts of the lexical Lego bucket, but from two different sets that have been combined. It just happens that the Greek equivalent of causa, αἰτία aitia, is not much used in modern scientific neologism. Go with what you know. Like the guy who was looking for his car keys under the street light not because that’s where he most likely dropped them but because he could see better there.

Anyway, Pöppel’s term isn’t in as wide circulation as it could be, but it’s a valuable one, because it names a thing that’s quite common in scientific fields – and other intellectual endeavours. I’ve known and seen quite a few people who have exemplified it. The parts of it may or may not have made its sense clear, but I’ll tell you what it means: ‘the love of single causes that explain everything’.

chowter, chunter

Life can sometimes be kinda thick and chunky. Things don’t always go smoothly. And perhaps we’ll protest that we don’t like bringing it up, but quite often we do seem to like chewing on these tough little bits half-quietly for quite a while. Maybe not all of us, but not none of us, that’s for sure, if you know what I mean. When our discontents are our dish contents, we make a fine chowder of chowtering. And if we can’t keep it down, I won’t say we chunder (look, we’re not in Australia here, as the typical weather ought to tell you), but we sure enough do chunter.

These are both verbs, chowter and chunter, and they’re pretty similar. I’m tempted to think that chowter is a misreading of someone’s sloppy handwriting for chunter, because it was only documented briefly in the early 1700s, and you know how people were at that time, everything in mansucript and don’t bother saying that their handwriting was all perfectly schooled if you haven’t had a nice look at it for yourself. Anyway, Doctor Johnson included it in his dictionary with the charming definition “To grumble or mutter like a froward child” (who even uses froward anymore? so Shakespearean).

You know exactly what that means. The husband who hangs back from his wife in the shop saying sotto voce to the dust bunnies, “If you were going to say we can’t afford it, why did you take me here to look at it in the first place?” The dog owner who pass-aggs the pooch with “Sure, no problem, I just love getting dressed at this hour to take you out to redecorate the streetscape like you didn’t want to do when I was perfectly ready and dressed and not lying in bed reading the most interesting chapter of the book.” The reader who gestures at the website and says  “OK, move on, I get your point, I got it ages ago, come on.”

So chunter means the same thing as chowter? Nearly. The Oxford English Dictionary’s not-quite-so-cute definition of chunter reads “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain. Also in extended use.” Well, it sure as heck is in extended use around where I live nine months of the year, thanks to our weather, which is not only disgusting but unpredictable for the duration of hockey season, like there’s anything of that worth staying inside for. But that’s not what they mean, of course; they mean like if I were to say “His car chuntered down the uneven pavement” or “My fridge is chuntering in its late-night way.”

And where does this word chunter come from? “Apparently of imitative formation,” Oxford says, without so much as hinting how it is that grumbling sounds to any normal person like “chunter.” When I was a kid, we tended to imitate it with “ritz-a-frickin” or “skrtzifrtz” or similar closed-up collections of retroflexes and fricatives. “Chunter” seems rather crisp and open.

Well, whatever. People just make up words because somehow in their world they think it sounds right and other people for their own strange reasons hang onto these words or don’t. I mean, mutter, grumble, murmur, kvetch, how many words do we need for this crap? Maybe if the weather were better in England (and Canada) we wouldn’t have so many words for expressing annoyance. OK, yeah, it was really nice today for a switch, but I’m sure that it’ll pass through spring in three days and then make the rest of the leap from cold and wet to sweltering and muggy. But you know me, I don’t like to complain.


Twenty-three years ago, I blew off my master’s convocation ceremony and went wandering around a cemetery with a young lady. While hundreds gathered on the brick-ringed lawn of the academic quad at Tufts University to march through the glowing gates of new adult life, R. and I strolled through the iron gates of Mount Auburn Cemetery and meandered by the marble stones of people who had long since passed through the pearly gates. While my name was being read from the rolls of those who had achieved graduate degrees, a man in a golf cart was calling out to R. and me lying on the lawn that this was a cemetery and we should comport ourselves accordingly.

Mount Auburn Cemetery may be a village of the dead, but what a glorious village it is, a Butchart Gardens of the decadently decedent.

Were this April, I would be tempted to quote T.S. Eliot: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” But there is another poem that is better suited to this occasion: “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith (most famous for the play She Stoops to Conquer), published in 1770. It is a paean to a lovely place, a childhood home that, like all memories of youth, cannot be strolled back into. It is still there, but all the there that was there is not there anymore: it is depopulated and dilapidated. Its denizens have not died; no, it has fallen victim to the privatization of the commons, the appropriation of public goods to the pleasure domes of the overenriched few. It starts with this:

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!
How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill,
The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age and whispering lovers made!

But nothing stays the same. You can never go home again; the houses I grew up in are changed or gone, and the places I knew people in may still be there but the people have moved on. After stooping to conquer me, R. moved on as well, and so did I. And Mount Auburn Cemetery remained, having already been through its change to be an album of marmoreal memorials.

Sweet Mount Auburn. It was once not a farm of headstones but Stone’s Farm, a piece of peaceful rural land nicknamed Sweet Auburn by locals who had read Goldsmith. And, fittingly or ironically, it too was thereafter enclosed, taken from the planting of crops to the planting of corpses – just the well-off ones – and given its current name and state. But it is open to the public; it is credited as a pioneer in the American public parks and gardens movement. So just as death claims us all, the commons have, in their way, reclaimed this farmland, at least for visiting rights.

One may be tempted to say its name would be more apposite in the fall, when all is burning reds and browns. For what is auburn if not a rich brown as of hair that inspires poetry? But even that has not stayed the same. If you want to see the epitaph for the youth of this word, look at any pearly tombstone showing a century’s patina. Auburn comes from Latin alburnus, ‘whitish’ (you may recognize the alb from album). It came through Old French alborne or auborne, and in its middle age – a century or so before Goldsmith – it was sometimes written abrune or abroun. And by way of that it came to be thought of as more a burning brown.

Well, memory, like tombstones, becomes more golden as it fades. Our minds are the goldsmiths of time. And if time and the distillation of the years makes auburn auburn, poetry makes it Mount Auburn:

And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit in these degenerate times of shame,
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,
That found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excell,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!