Tag Archives: word tasting notes

conference

This weekend I’m attending the Editors Canada conference. And this year it has been… different.

Every year, I attend two conferences for editors, one in Canada, one in the US. In 2020, for reasons of global plague, both were cancelled; in 2021, both have moved online, at least for this year.

Before I became an editor, conferences I attended were academic ones – specifically theatre studies and performance studies. But the model was the same. Conferences are organized around speeches and presentations, some to smaller groups, some to bigger ones. You get to learn about all sorts of interesting and relevant ideas.

And then there’s what they’re really about.

Conference is a word that is used for more things than this sort of gathering, as we know; it can be a small meeting (between a lawyer and a client, for instance), or a grouping for the purposes of sports (the Eastern Conference of the NBA, for instance) or religion (e.g., certain sets of Methodists), or any of several other assemblies of people. Conference is the noun form of confer, which comes from Latin confero, from con- ‘together’ plus fero ‘I bear, I carry, I bring’.

And conferences are about bringing people together.

They’re about not just listening to information, but listening to it sitting next to someone interesting you just met. They’re about not just laughing at a witticism, but laughing about it in a room full of people. They’re about sneaking into a session late, sneaking out of a session early, standing listening at the back because the room is too full, live-tweeting, asking a question in person, sharing in the silent group indignation when someone goes on a rambling more-a-comment-than-a-question.

They’re about big rooms full of hundreds of people with a common interest, and smaller rooms with fewer people focusing on a niche subject.

They’re about banquets, with their curious mix of pro forma, exciting, starchy, and awkward presentations, plus the infinite logistical vagaries of mass food.

They’re about standing in front of a room full of people, talking to them as a group, seeing their faces, hearing them respond, and then getting to chat with some of them afterwards.

They’re about sitting at a picnic table with people from several continents, having lunch and talking about whatever really interests you.

They’re about bumping into people at receptions. They’re about banquet table strategy. They’re about going out touring the town and seeing other people from the conference doing the same.

They’re about sitting in a lobby bar, or a local pub, or someone’s hotel room, until rather late in the evening, with people you get to see in person for three days each year, talking about what’s happened with you and what you’ve seen and how business is going and…

They’re about getting to meet people in person whom you’ve long admired from a distance – or, these days, long interacted with online (more or less mutually).

They’re about group outings, and silent auctions, and events such as dance-offs and spelling bees (yes, really), and playing cards or Scrabble (or both) in the lobby.

They’re about all sorts of human interaction and observation. (And they’re about the best occasion you could ever want for taking pictures of people.)

But when you can’t get together in person, they’re still about coming together. Webinars are justly reviled – from the audience perspective, they’re not very engaging, and from the presenter perspective, they’re talking into the void, disorienting, unnerving, panic-inducing – but they do let you slip in late and slip out early without being noticed, and they do make question-and-answer less susceptible to domination by the most aggressive. And the small-group meet-ups – I took part in two of them today – still let you talk to other people and see their smiling faces, not to mention whatever part of their residence is behind them. And they let people from many places come together with minimal expense or inconvenience.

But online conferences still bring only about ten percent of what I go to a conference for. They don’t bring the same togetherness.

So I look forward to seeing people in person again… next time!

winx

If you were to see this word, perhaps on some packaging or in an ad, what would you think it meant?

It’s a hard one, isn’t it, to take a go at without making an ass of oneself. Let’s see…

It could be some version of Windows, I suppose. Actually, that’s Win XP, right?

It could be like Spanx, only for, uh, your eyes? Like somehow to keep them less baggy, in place of cosmetic surgery? Or maybe just wicked fake eyelashes. Sure, that could be it.

It could be a breakfast cereal. If Trix are for kids, Winx could be for adults. Rather than the unpleasant Trix rabbit, its mascot could be a pleasant donkey – in other words, a nice ass, if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, winx winx…

It could be a Dutch name. You know, like Schillebeeckx, Hendrix, Six (yes, that’s really a family name)…

It could be an animated series on Nickelodeon. Actually, it is – well, Winx Club is – but that’s not what I have in mind here. Because this winx is actually a common word – a verb, in fact.

So could it be a combination of wink and wince? That’s a thing for sure. I’ve seen people do it. Also some people who have really pronounced dry-contact-lens blinks do similar. But that’s not what the Oxford English Dictionarysays winx is.

According to the OEDwinx is a now-obsolete verb meaning “to bray as an ass.” Its formation is apparently analogous to whinnock (meaning ‘whinny’) and whink (meaning ‘yelp, bark’).

But can you even picture a donkey’s bray sounding like “winx”? I mean, I guess if you give it some latitude… or maybe asses sounded different in the 1400s, when this word was attested.

But just imagine if this word had stuck around and caught on. That great TV variety show Hee Haw could have been called Winx. And then it could have had its own line of cereal and fake eyelashes and…

disjune

You wake up. It’s 8:30 am, May 31. Your beloved is standing nearby. “Disjune?” you say.

“May,” your beloved replies. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” you say. “Why may we not today?”

“May not what?”

“Disjune!”

“No,” your beloved says. “Dismay!”

“I am dismayed!” you say. “Not only that, I’m hungry!”

“Well, let’s eat, then,” your beloved says.

“You said we may not,” you say, slowly attaining the vertical.

“No, I said we June not. It’s May.”

“If we june not, then let us disjune.”

“I don’t want to diss it,” your beloved says. “It’s not even here yet.”

“What?”

“June!”

“Disjune!”

“Look,” your beloved says, “I can’t deal with this on an empty stomach. Let’s have breakfast.”

That’s what I was saying,” you say.

At this point you’re awake enough to sort out that perhaps your beloved does not know the word disjune, and you are about to explain it. However, your beloved has already escaped the room and is headed for the kitchen.

You (dear reader) may not know disjune either. But you may know the French word déjeuner, which these days usually means ‘lunch’, and petit déjeuner, which is ‘breakfast’. Well, déjeuner is just the modern French of the same word that has come to us (and especially to Scots, apparently) as disjune. It is formed on the French jeun, as in à jeun ‘on an empty stomach’ and jeûne ‘fasting’, which comes from Latin jejunus, ‘fasting’. (No connection to jeun/jeune meaning ‘young’.) So to disjune is to un-fast, de-fast, or, um, break fast. (Disjune is mainly used as a noun, but has been verbed, though not often.)

Yes, disjune literally means the same as breakfast, etymologically.

It has nothing to do with the month June, though. The month is named after the Roman goddess Juno. Now, it happens that jejunus traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root referring to sacrifice and worship (well, fasting has its religious uses), but Juno does not – it probably comes from roots meaning either ‘heaven authority’ or ‘lifetime authority’.

But that’s all good news, d’you know? It means you can still have breakfast between May 31 and July 1 without any disjunction.

escal

So… we have some food. Heh. “Food.” “Snack food.” 

Well, it’s escal.

Escal? Isn’t that just a scale you stepped on too hard and the end spun around to the beginning? Nope, it’s a word for ‘fit to be eaten’ or ‘pertaining to food’. In other words, it’s pretty close to edible. But… edible has taken on a new sense lately. At least in my neighbourhood, where there are various cannabis emporiums springing up like, uh, weeds. And after you’ve had an edible or two, what do you call the kind of thing you may want some of?

Just to be clear, by the way, I have not been eating edibles. I mean, I have, but not of the tetrahydrocannabinol kind, just… food. Escal things. We had some leftover barbecue ribs with beans for supper. And after a little bit we each had a Werther’s. And I finished the cheese-and-caramel popcorn. And then I felt like opening the taco chips. And… it kind of escalated. Ya know? It was escal and I ated.

That is not where escal comes from, though. Nor from escalier, the (related) French word for stairs, which are 27 storeys from the street to our apartment and yes, I have taken them, yes, recently (our building’s elevators are not always reliable and we have no escalators), and yes, it does build up an appetite. But no, escal comes from esca.

Now, I don’t know about you, but Esca looks to me like a name. Maybe the name of a Roman nobleman – like Casca – or maybe a Celtic deity – like Ecne – or maybe a soft drink – like Fresca. (One of those three is wise and hasn’t killed anyone. Hint: the Irish one.) But esca is really just a Latin word for ‘food’.

It isn’t the only Latin word for ‘food’. There’s also cibus (modern Italian for ‘food’ is cibo), victus (as in victual but not as in invictus or victim), and alimentum (alimentary, dear Watson). But esca has its own related words: esculent is a fine word, and the related Latin verb edo gives us edacious, a good adjective for a caterpillar or any other incessantly esurient entity. Oh, and come to think of it, edible also comes from edo.

Ya know what else comes from Edo? Sukiyaki, teriyaki, tempura… oh, um, Edo is the name of a chain of Japanese restaurants, no relation. But they excel in the escal, the kind of thing you might want if you’re peckish. Still, I’m not going out to get food, not at this hour, and not when we have all this stuff in bags. Well, look. It was on sale, see?

esbatement

This word is presented here just for your diversion; you won’t get to use it in earnest – it hasn’t been current in English since before Shakespeare’s time. But what is fun if a bit of ultimately otiose intellectual exercise isn’t? Those of us who go running for fun and exercise aren’t trying to get anywhere, and there are various other ways of killing time that amuse without direct issue.

Esbatement may look like basement, but it’s not, though some people may find self-abasement to be an esbatement. It also looks like abatement, and to that it is related, though we need to beat back the semantic connections. Both esbatement and abatement trace to the same Latin verb, battuere, but with different prefixes: ab- versus ex-. The route to esbatement is especially diverting, however.

Let’s start with battuere, also known by its first-person singular indicative form, battuo: ‘I beat’ or ‘I fight’ or, as Wiktionary puts it, “I bang (have sex with)” (Latin is not the only language in which a word for bonking is a word for boinking). That combines with ex- ‘out’ to give exbattere. This has passed into modern Italian as sbattere with an assortment of uses: ‘beat’, ‘bump’, ‘shake’, ‘whip’, ‘whisk’, ‘chuck’, ‘force’, ‘wear out’, and – again – ‘boink’ (i.e., ‘bang’). But that’s not where our esbatement came from.

No, we got it from French, Old French in specific. The Old French verb was esbattre, and the noun derived from that was esbattement, or esbatement. It has come to be spelled ébattre and ébattement in modern French. Littré gives some nice historical examples of its use. Here’s from the 1300s: “En certains esbattemens comme luittes ou courses pour soy eschauffer et exerciter” – that can be translated as “In certain esbatements such as wrestling or races to get energized and exercised.” Here’s from the 1500s: “Les dames se trouvoient aux esbatemens publiques et assistoient à veoir les jeux” – “The ladies found themselves at public esbatements and attended to see the games.”

So it means fights, competitions, matches? Well, sure, but it has come to have a broader meaning: ‘amusement’, ‘diversion’, ‘recreation’. The word came over into English by the 1400s with that trend of sense, and Oxford has some nice historical quotations. Here’s one from 1531: “If he haue pleasure in wrestling … where shall he se any more plesant esbatementes, than that.” 

Apparently wrestling and other things involving beating were considered excellent sport at the time. We often incline to less physical, more verbal entertainments in our time. But words are not only recently a good sport – here’s William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, in 1484: “These wordes are but sport and esbatement of lordes.”

So… we have verbally mastered esbatement for our own diversion, as it has been diverted from thrashing or even tongue-lashing to just a lush luxury of linguistics. Doesn’t that beat all!

prepone, postpare

“Sorry,” Jess said just after her window appeared in our Zoom chat. “My meeting was preponed and so I was busy postparing.”

“You what was what and you what now?” Daryl said.

Behind him, Margot said “Her meeting was postponed and she was busy preparing.”

“No…” Jess said, with that you-did-not-get-that-right dip in intonation. “My meeting was preponed. You know, moved earlier.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “that’s apparently a common term in India.”

“It is,” Jess said, “but they’re not the only people who have meetings moved earlier on them.”

“We usually just say moved up,” Daryl said.

“And you tell me whether that means moved earlier or later,” Jess said.

“It’s simple,” Margot said.

“Deceptively simple,” Jess said.

“What do you mean by that?” Daryl said, apparently speaking to Jess but turning to look back at Margot as he did.

“Exactly,” Jess said.

“So your meeting was preponed,” I said, to get the conversation back on the rails. “A perfectly reasonable word. Postponed is ‘put later’; preponed is ‘put earlier’.”

Daryl was looking up data as we spoke. “Been in the language more than a century,” he said, “and not just in India. In the US and England too.”

“Because it’s obvious,” Jess said. “And, obviously, if you were supposed to prepare for a meeting, but as you were about to start preparing you got a message that the meeting was moved to, say, five minutes from that very moment, you won’t be able to prepare.”

Prepare from præ- and parare,” I said, trying to contribute, “‘make ready before’.”

“So you make ready after,” Jess said. “You postpare. Obviously you have to BS your way through the meeting, but if it has deliverables or required background knowledge, there are things you’ll still need to do.”

Arlene appeared behind Jess. “Sort of like doing the readings after the lecture,” she said. Arlene was more recently graduated from university than some of the rest of us.

“Exactly right,” Jess said. “You pretend you know what they’re talking about, and you fill in the blanks later.” Arlene wandered off screen again.

Catching up, you mean,” Margot said as she passed behind Daryl.

Postpare is a perfectly cromulent word,” Jess said, with a little smile. Needling Margot was one of her favourite sports.

Daryl was tapping on his device with the same look on his face as Thomas Dolby had at the Grammys when his keyboard was producing no noise. “It’s not in there,” he said.

Postpare?” Jess said.

“Not in Oxford or even Wiktionary.”

“Try Urban Dictionary,” I said. I knew – because I had just looked – that it had an entry for postpare from 2010.

“Urban Dictionary is not authoritative,” Margot said, busying herself with something or other.

“I guess they’ll just have to catch up,” I said.

“Well, we’ll have to catch up with you later,” Margot said. She turned to Daryl. “Dinner’s on.” She continued bustling back and forth in the background.

I checked the time. “I haven’t even started cooking,” I said. “I should, though.”

Jess looked off screen. “Hey, Lene. Everyone’s having dinner. Where’s ours?”

Arlene reappeared. “Just put it in the oven.”

“You knew when I was going to be done the meeting.”

“Did I, though?” Arlene smiled angelically. “Sometimes these things run long. I didn’t want it to be overpared.”

Jess looked back at the camera. “I think I’m overmatched.”

“I think I’d better preheat the oven,” I said. I knew this would nettle Margot, who considers the pre in preheat to be unnecessary. 

I was not disappointed. She stopped in her tracks and glared towards the camera. “Why don’t you just postheat it? Eat your food first, cook it later.” And then she resumed her bustling.

“Oh, you’ve worked for my company, have you?” Jess said. She turned back to Arlene, who was just off screen. “What are we having?”

Arlene leaned in. “Corn pones with pears.”

Daryl stood up from his chair. “Sounds pre-post-erous. See you later!” He waved and disconnected.

“See you sooner!” Jess said, and then she, too, waved and blinked out.

nychthemeron

How long is a day?

Did you say 24 hours? How about if someone says to come for a day – do you need more context before you know whether they mean until some afternoon or evening point or to stay the night? And how about if someone says you’ll get something by the end of the day?

Or did you say how long a day is depends on what time of the year and what latitude, because the sun is up for variable amounts of time? But does that mean that “three days” is longer in summer than in winter?

Of course we can be more precise when the context isn’t clear. But so often we want to be able to say “day” and just mean a contiguous span of 24 hours – either any span of 24 hours (say, starting right now and ending at the same clock time tomorrow) or one night plus one day, beginning at either sunset or sunrise (allowing, of course, the slight shift in sunrise and sunset times from day to day). In those cases, the problem may just be that day is not long enough.

Not the day. The word day. What you really want is a nice, luxuriantly long word, one that has, say, a letter for each hour – well, OK, a letter for each two hours, we’ll say, since there are hours of the day and hours of the night, and anyway 24 letters would be an awfully long word. How about a word that morphologically maps to the circadian cycle? And how about if, as an added bonus, it’s really hard to spell and confusing to pronounce?

Oh. Lost you on that last bit, did I? Well, so it goes. That’s what we have. The word, my friends, is nychthemeron, also spelled nycthemeron. It comes directly from Greek νυχθήμερον, which in turn formed it from νυκτ- (nukt-) ‘night’ and ἡμέρα (hemera) ‘day’. You may notice that the t in the one root and the h in the other have come together to make th, which is not pronounced like “t” and then “h” (or just like “t”) but is in fact θ, said like “th” as in “thin”; the collision of the two words in Greek made a sort of twilight zone where the “k” (κ) also became “kh” (χ), though we say it “k” now in English. Oh, and the stress is on the them, which can be said with the e as in “them” or, if you want to Anglicize further, can be said like “theme.”

And there it is. Night and day, you are the one… It’s a bit of a pity that this word is so unwieldly, because it could be quite useful in some contexts (such as hotels, where night means ‘nychthemeron’ but they always start at 3 or 4 pm and the last one – or the only one if you’re only there for one night – is a few hours short). And while “See you in twenty-four hours” is accurate but sounds cold and dorky, “See you in a nychthemeron” sounds poetic – though perhaps a bit frightening.

luxurinate

The other day, I was listening to the radio and I thought I heard the person speaking say “luxurinate” rather than “luxuriate.” And if that’s what they said, they said it straight-facedly, not as a joke. 

Now, I’m sure it was a slip of the tongue (or a mishearing on my part), but I think this is a word at least some of us could use.

It’s a pretty self-evident construction – in fact, it shines out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark: a blend of luxuriate (or just luxury) and urinate. So what could that mean?

Well, it could mean go wee-wee on a golden toilet, sure, but how often do you get to do that?

It could mean get to use a really nice washroom facility rather than having to use a port-a-potty or shrubbery – something anyone who’s returning from a camping trip will appreciate. I recently watched a movie, Man in the Field, about Jim Denevan, a chef and artist who runs a program called Outstanding in the Field of fine dining in farmers’ fields, and for the 20th year of the program, he announced with considerable excitement that they would have proper (frankly luxurious, to look at them) toilet facilities in a trailer. I think that could qualify.

It could mean, as Riffat Yusuf (@ryusufedit) suggested, “not having toddlers banging on the bathroom door.” (We really are getting a sense of how luxury is relative, aren’t we!)

Or, I suppose, rather than following urinate disposition, it could have a less literal use – not taking a piss at leisure but taking the piss at leisure. Taking the piss is a mainly (but not exclusively) British term that has a rough equivalent in some parts of America of taking the mickey or pulling [someone’s] leg. It means ‘making a mockery’ or similar things – it can be flagrantly roasting someone, or wink-nudge playing along with something, or deliberately overdoing something, or trying to get away with the bare minimum, or slipping in a naughty word-play… And if you’re taking the piss and having a right old time doing it, well, then, why not luxurinating?

I remember, as a kid, looking at a book listing great historical scientific discoveries, and seeing a picture of some guy gazing with ecstasy on a test tube of yellow liquid, which the caption informed me was the discovery of urea. You can bet that I thought at first that they were, um, pulling my leg, and doing so at some expense. And since an emblematic feature of luxury is its wanton expense, I think that if they had in fact been taking the piss rather than just talking about piss, it would be the marquee instance of luxurinating. (It turns out, however, that Friedrich Wöhler’s synthesis of urea in 1828 was the first production of organic compounds from inorganic materials without the intervention of a living organism, which put paid to the theory of vitalism, and so it really was important – and my classic example goes down the drain.)

Alas, the way popular usage goes, if this word catches on, it probably won’t be in the ‘taking the piss’ sense; that’s just a bit too clever. Perhaps it will be for those sweet restroom trailers Jim Denevan got. Or maybe it will be for some extremely fancy high-tech high-quality urinal, featured in the home of the latest tech whiz kid. But if the responses I’ve gotten on Twitter are any indication, it may be best used for just closing the bathroom door for a bit and getting a little, uh, piss and quiet.

solitude

Laurie Anderson said,

Paradise
Is exactly like
Where you are right now
Only much much
Better.

I have a similar thought about solitude: Solitude is exactly like loneliness, only much much better.

To put it another way, the difference between loneliness and solitude is that you hate the one and want the other.

I spent many years in corrosive loneliness, single, unattached, walking miles by myself hoping to find someone else but unable or unwilling or afraid to reach out. Now, I happily go for long walks or runs by myself, because I know there is someone there for me when I get back. I can be by myself because I know I have friends who will spend time with me. Being apart from others is no longer a subtraction; it is an addition.

Solitude, etymologically, means exactly the same thing as loneliness: sol- as in sole, solo, solivagant, plus -itude; lonely plus -ness, where lonely is lone plus -ly and lone in its turn is shortened from alone, which is from all one. (The difference between only and lonely, etymologically, is just that the latter has the last remnant of all.) Why have they gained different tones? I don’t know for certain, but I have a guess: poetry. Solitude comes from French, which took it (altered) from Latin, and poets for a long time, especially in the educated and courtly traditions, preferred the classically derived words. Lonely comes from base old English, the language of the commoners when, after the Norman conquest, the rich spoke French. Rich, well-educated people can afford solitude; poor peasants are stuck with being lonely.

There’s no shortage of poetry on solitude; just search “solitude” at poetryfoundation.org and see. You will also find enough entries for solitude in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Some of it is very much the kind of mood I like, when I like that kind of mood:

That inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude

—William Wordsworth

I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

—Henry David Thoreau

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.

—Tillie Olsen

For those of us who have been too much isolated, solitude is not available, only loneliness. But for those of us who are well supported and have as much social contact as we need – or perhaps even more – solitude can be a sweet gift, a refreshing time away.

And it doesn’t need to be in the far countryside. It can be in the middle of a city. If you can be alone in a crowd, you can have solitude in the heart of a city.

I wish you as much solitude as you desire, and as little loneliness as you want.

subsidence

The first time I remember hearing the word subsidence – though I’m sure I must have heard it before – was in the movie Schindler’s List. The scene is a Nazi camp in winter; a barrack is being built. A young Jewish engineer, Diana Reiter (played by Elina Löwensohn), strides up to Kommandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) and tells him, “the entire foundation has to be torn down and repoured. If not, there will be at least a subsidence at the southern end of the barracks. Subsidence, and then collapse.”

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what Goeth does about this: he turns to a subordinate, Oberscharführer Hujar (played by Norbert Weisser), and tells him to shoot her. She protests that she’s only doing her job, but Goeth insists that she be shot right then and there. Hujar pushes her onto her knees on the snow and pulls out his gun. “It will take more than that,” she says. “I’m sure you’re right,” Goeth says as Hujar fires into her skull. As Goeth walks away, he says, “Take it down, repour it, rebuild it, like she said.”

What is a subsidence? It’s not a fault in the materials or the structural design in and of itself. It’s that the ground beneath the structure will fail to support it. However solidly made your foundation is, if the ground it’s on gives way, the building will tilt and may eventually collapse. 

In a way, Schindler’s List documents a subsidence: the German war effort relied on massive industrial production, but that production needed people and materials; when willing people were less available and available people were less willing, the base started to give way. Oskar Schindler, factory owner, contracted to supply the German army with munitions, but he – and those who worked for him – undermined it by making the materials just slightly substandard, so guns jammed. Historians of World War II will tell you that numerous such subsidences of willing participants and suitable supplies were important factors in the collapse of Hitler’s plans.

I’m going to suggest that we’re facing a kind of subsidence in our own times too. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Most subsidences are more plain and literal, if often insidious. I can go for a walk on Bright Street, not too far from where I live in Toronto, and see houses leaning back from the street, as the soil has compressed unevenly beneath them. They’re still standing, but it does make things a little iffier (and harder to furnish) for the residents. Visitors to Pisa have the subsidence of an alluvial (sedimental) soil to thank for the special picturesqueness of its famous tower, but they have the assiduous (and subsidized) efforts of more recent engineers to thank for arresting the tilt so that the tower is still leaning and not now strewn across the ground.

Subsidence comes, of course, from subside; that in turn comes from Latin – the verb subsido, which is sub ‘under’ plus sido ‘I sit’ (or ‘I sink’). Related words are many, including sediment, insidious, assiduous, subsidize, and resident. The causes of subsidence are many, too: natural ones, such as earthquake, dissolution of limestone, or thawing of permafrost (the causes of which may not be quite so natural); less natural ones, such as buildings compressing a soft soil, literal undermining – mines being dug under areas, or, more recently, fracking – or depletion of groundwater: draining of the aquifer for various human purposes, resulting in a desiccation and depression of the ground. Sometimes sinkholes appear spontaneously; other times, the ground seems normal until you try to put a house on it.

More figurative subsidences can also occur in many ways and places. Any time something such as noise or desire or hunger subsides, you could, I suppose, call it a subsidence, but the term does carry an image of the subsidence of underlying ground through compression, undermining, or depletion.

So consider, for a detailed example, the economic trends of the past four decades. We have had a recession or two; we suppose we have avoided a depression, though we have had something specially catastrophic in the pandemic. But overall the usual measures of economies have been trending upward, and the people who have the gold and make the rules have been gaining more gold and making more rules for others and fewer for themselves. The economic structures seem sound. But their foundation may be having a subsidence. 

I’ll explain. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the top 10 percent have seen about a 40% increase in income since 1980; the bottom 10 percent have had about a 6.3% increase in income, and those at the median about a 9% increase. Different demographic groups have done differently well – women have seen a larger increase, mainly reflecting the fact that they used to be horrifyingly underpaid (just over 60% of what men made) and are now only indecently underpaid (just over 80% of what men make), but men at the median and in the bottom 10% have actually seen a decrease in income (by 3% and almost 8%, respectively). And the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is just over 75% of what it was 40 years ago.

All of that may or may not look like a subsidence. But what about if you try to put a house on it? In 1980, the median house price was about 2.7 times the median annual income; in 2020, it was almost 4.5 times. And that’s a nationwide figure for the US – specific markets (in the US and in other countries such as Canada and the UK) have seen much greater increases in house price. In Toronto, for instance, prices of houses – and condominiums – have approximately doubled in the past 10 years and quadrupled in the past 20. (Those leaning townhouses on Bright Street, which were worth about $250,000 each in 2000, are now going for well over a million dollars – when someone wants to sell one.) Incomes in these markets have not kept pace, unless you’re among the very few. So the pressure of the cost of a house on an income is more likely to be too much to bear.

Some other things have also pulled away from median incomes. University and college tuitions have increased at about twice the rate of incomes – which means that if in 1980 you could pay for a year of university by working all summer, you’d need to work at least two summers for it now.

Does this all amount to a subsidence? Consider one more bit of the metaphor: often a subsidence is due to the groundwater being piped up out of the ground. Now consider that housing prices are higher due in no small part to the activities of those higher up on the income scale (buying to rent out, or sometimes just to park money); tuition prices are higher largely due to government support drying up, since governments have less tax income thanks largely to decreasing tax rates on the top earners and corporations; and low and median wages are stagnant because those higher up have found ways to keep more for themselves while paying relatively less to most employees. Not trickle-down but pipe-up. 

And consider that people at low and medium income levels are what the economy is built on, as they produce goods and services and generate profits, pay tuitions, pay rents, and eventually (it is hoped) buy houses. But they just can’t support that like they used to. They need something: not a subsidy, you understand, but a return of what has been drained away.

So we may not be in a Great Depression or a Great Recession, but the numbers suggest we’re well into the Great Subsidence. And a subsidence won’t go away if you ignore it. And it won’t help to shoot the messenger, so to speak.

Now, if you’re making comfortable money, you may feel that you’re safe as houses. But how safe are houses, really, if what they’re relying on is less and less up to supporting them?