Tag Archives: word tasting notes


Nyctinasties, according to John Ben Hill (in 1936), “are the most common nasties.” Like all nasties, they don’t care where what they’re reacting to comes from – that’s what sets them apart from tropics.

Ah, tropics! Who – or what – doesn’t love following the sun? I’ll tell you: these nasties don’t. They don’t care which direction the sun goes, as long as it goes away. That’s why they’re nyctinasty. During the day, everything’s lain flat, basking in the sun, but when night comes, the blades flip up. As Peter V. Minorsky said (just last year), “the vertical orientation of the blades … would be especially beneficial to flying nocturnal predators … whose modus operandi is death from above.”

Which, in its way, is quite cooperative. Just as long as you’re not a nocturnal herbivore, suddenly exposed to bats, owls, and other flying threats to your life. But the death-dealers surely like it quite well.

Perhaps I should shed a little more light on the subject. Nyctinasty is not related to the nasty that you’ve probably used on occasion to refer to perfumes, politics, movies, music, sex, clothing, and potluck contributions. Nor does it have anything to do with NYC, the city that never sleeps. No, it comes from nycti–, which refers to night and traces to Greek νύξ nux ‘night’, and German nast–, from Greek ναστός nastos ‘pressed together’, which in German and English botany refers to a non-directional influence on a plant. A directional influence, you see, is tropic, as in heliotropic, ‘turning towards the sun’, like sunflowers. A nasty is an influence that is directionally indifferent. A nyctinastic plant – one that exhibits nyctinasty – changes the orientation of its foliage at night, but it doesn’t pay any heed to exactly which way the sun went. Just as long as it’s gone.

People, during the day, are mostly vertical, or at least upright of torso, and at night – for at least the heart of the night – usually go horizontal. Nyctinastic plants are the opposite. Their leaves and petals splay wide open during the day, basking as though on a beach. Then they shut up shop when the sun goes down: as Minorsky says, “At night, the positions that the leaf blades assume, regardless of whether they arise by rising, falling or twisting, are essentially vertical.”

But why? Why not just stay as they were? Are they afraid of muggers, or of mugginess, or of nightmares, or of night rabbits? Minorsky lists some usual hypotheses:

Among the ideas put forth to explain the raison d’être of foliar nyctinasty are that it: (i) improves the temperature relations of plants; (ii) helps remove surface water from foliage; (iii) prevents the disruption of photoperiodism by moonlight; and (iv) directly discourages insect herbivory.

But then he sets forth another, which I have already mentioned: to blow the cover of creatures that go “munch” in the night. To all the plant-eaters that want to sneak out and dine at fashionable hours, these plants say “Surprise! You’re nicked, my nasties!”

Of course, it’s up for debate who are the nasty ones. The herbivores are just out for a late-night salad, and salads usually stay put. These ill-behaved greens don’t play along, and as a result, there will be blood, and bats, and owls. Ichneumon wasps, too.

Oh well. Nature is ever red in tooth and claw – and blade, too. It’s bedtime now. Pull your sheets and blankets snugly over you. I’m sure they’ll stay in place and keep you safe from even the most common nasties. Sweet dreams!


What would you do if you looked down on your page and saw hnecxian looking back up at you?

Would you sneeze? Would you flinch? Would you soften and fade back? Or would you be fascinated by this ink-insect?

You needn’t fear. Although you have just seen it looking back at you, snuffing and snorting and crisp and vexing, whether or not you softened, it has. Hnecxian is the Old English version of the word – in its infinitive verb form. The modern English form, verb, adjective, noun, and adverb, is nesh.

Which is more reminiscent of a bug after it has been squished. Or any other soft and perhaps unwelcome thing. Continue reading


Here’s a word that really flexes its sense. Flex what? U O U S – a set of curves countercurving, bending like barrels or ship bows, veering and careering like a river. It’s like a chart of a fluxus, deflecting and reflecting. Even your tongue, as it says it, rolls and laps like waves at the shore of your alveolar ridge. Continue reading


What will please me more than gazing? Gazing at a lovely view, gazing at a lovely open structure with a lovely view, gazing at a lovely word for the lovely structure, gazing at a lovely etymology of the lovely word? Continue reading


Perhaps because she was too savvy for the bovver of chivvying me with a bevvy, my friend Julie just straight-up asked if I would blog about words with double v’s. Naturally, the suggestion revved my mind up like a flivver. Continue reading


Pogonotrophy is growing a beard. Pogonotomy is cutting a beard (or shaving it off altogether). Pogonology is writing about beards. And so pogonosophy is knowledge about beards – or perhaps wisdom signified (or conferred?) by a beard. Continue reading

avid, flavid, gravid, nimravid, pavid

What can take a person from avid to pavid in an instant – and not just pavid, but flavid?

I’ll back up for a moment. Avid you know, of course; it comes originally from Latin aveo ‘I crave’ (yes, that’s also the origin of avarice). But add a simple and you go from being full of piss and vinegar to peeing yourself: pavid means ‘fearful’; it comes from Latin paveo ‘I fear’ (not ‘I hit the pavement’, though that might be a consequence), which is the source of modern Italian pauro and French peur, both nouns meaning ‘fear’. Puff and flutter that in flusteration and you get flavid, which means ‘yellow’ and comes from Latin flavus (not to be confused with flavius, which means ‘yellower’ or ‘goldener’ and was apparently a good thing in Rome, as it shows up in names of numerous important people, including some emperors).

OK, so what – aside from a wanton – could take a person from avid to pavid? And what – aside from wayward pee – could make them flavid? Well, how about a gravid nimravid? Continue reading