Tag Archives: word tasting notes


Every time Aina and I drive to or from Collingwood via Airport Road, a scenic drive through rolling countryside in the part of the world in which Schitt’s Creek is set, we pass through a hamlet named Avening. It takes less than a minute to go by – it has only five named streets plus the highway, which is formally County Road 42 at that point. The most salient thing in town is a smallish town hall with an early-twentieth-century-looking hand-lettered sign that reads “Avening Community Centre” (I don’t have a photo, as I’m always driving when we pass it, but you can see it on Google Street View). And the one thing I always wonder is “How is Avening supposed to be pronounced?”

It’s a reasonable question. Small towns often manage to have names that are pronounced differently from how you might expect. And in this particular case, it’s not even obvious whether you would say it like “evening” but with an a as in “rave,” or whether the A would be as in “hat” or as in “father.” And should you say the e or just skip it? For that matter, can we even be sure about where the stress goes? Could it be “avenging” without the g after the n, or “Aveeno” with an ing in place of the o?

You might wonder why this all matters. How likely are you ever to need to say the name? Not very, I suppose – unless you’re talking about something happening at the Avening Community Centre. But what happens at the Avening Community Centre?

That turns out to be a much easier and more rewarding question to answer. The Avening Community Centre, to quote its website, “has a bowling alley in the basement, a picture of the Queen on the wall behind the stage, a main hall clad from floor to ceiling in wood and a faithful following of fans who like to see great old halls used for the reason they were built.” What reason is that? Concerts, some of which by rather well-known acts. They just had two sold-out shows by the Canadian group Sloan, for instance, and other acts that have played there include Neko Case, Sarah Harmer, Basia Bulat, Joel Plaskett, and Hawksley Workman. (If you haven’t heard of any of them, that’s fine, but they’re well known among a certain segment of the populace.)

One thing that the hall doesn’t have on its website, however, is a pronunciation guide. It does have a phone number you can call, but when I called, I got neither recorded message nor live person. Well, fine. I’ll just look on Wikipedia.

When you look up Avening, Ontario, on Wikipedia, it redirects to the article on Creemore (the town of a bit more than 1000 people just northwest, a short drive by two roads or an even shorter paddle on the Mad River), an article that does not anywhere even include mention of Avening. (Try it on Google Maps and it also takes you to Creemore, even though Avening is clearly labelled to the southeast just out of the frame.) However, you can readily find out that Creemore, a name made famous by an eponymous beer made there of exactly the kind you would expect to find at concerts by Sloan, Basia Bulat, or Hawksley Workman, is from Irish Gaelic croí mór ‘big heart’, and it was coined by the founder of the village, Edward Webster, an Irish-born entrepreneur – it is not named after a place in Ireland or anywhere else.

Well, OK, then, who founded Avening and how did it get its name? With a little poking around, we can learn that it was founded in 1860 by Frederick C. Thornbury, who was born in Avening, England. (If his surname seems oddly familiar, as it may if you have spent time in this part of Ontario, it’s because Thornbury is a village on the shore of Georgian Bay, as far northwest of Collingwood as Avening is south-southeast. But it may have been named after a different Thornbury – for one thing, it was founded 30 years before Avening was.)

Aha! So is there a Wikipedia article on that Avening? There is; it’s a town of almost exactly the same size as Creemore, but much older and more English-looking. Does the article say how to pronounce it? It does not. How about if you look at the page in any of the other languages it exists in – Cebuano, Spanish, French, Ladin, Polish, Portuguese, or Swedish? Nope, none of them say, either. 

But further poking around the interwebs comes up with some other resources. The Survey of English Place-Names tells us that it is probably formed on the same old suffix as many other English place names ending in -ing, a suffix referring to people who dwelt in a given place. And what place? In this case, it has been suggested “that the nameless stream which runs through the village might formerly have been called Avon (OE Afon from Brit *abonā ‘river’).” We can see that the oldest Old English citation for it is in the dative, Æfeningum, which would be from nominative Æfeningas (confirmed in Surnames as a Science [1883] by Robert Ferguson). 

This all confirms stress on the first syllable, and the Æ gives a hint that it might now be the same a as in, for instance, hat. But the only discussion of pronunciation on the site relates to a version of the name attested in 1697: “The last spelling Auning arises from the vocalisation of pre-consonantal -v – . . . but the pronunciation [ˈɔːniŋ] is not now heard.”

Oh, well, phew. That’s a relief. Because even if that were how it’s said in England, it wouldn’t be how it’s said in Ontario. (Compare the name Balliol, which as a college at Oxford is said like “bailey-all” but as a street in Toronto is said like “ball oil.”) But we keep looking. And at length we come to Lippincott’s Pronouncing Gazetteer (1856), which – once you look up how to read its pronunciation guides – gives the a in Avening as in father, not as in hat (and the e as reduced but still pronounced).

Which is not to say that’s how it’s said in Ontario. For that matter, it may well not be how it’s said in England these days either; they sometimes just up and change it. (A friend emailed me and said, “Many years ago, I visited my cousin in England. She lived in a town called Felpham (Felp-ham). Years later, I visited her again, and she then lived in Felpham (Fel-pham, yes, with an “f” sound). I asked and she shrugged. Just the way things happen, I surmised.”) So, in spite of concerted effort, we still don’t have a solid answer. But we’ve at least had a scenic and informative trip, haven’t we?

Speaking of which, though I’ve told you where Avening, Ontario, is – by the Mad River, just southeast of Creemore, on Airport Road about a 20 minutes out of Collingwood towards Toronto – I haven’t mentioned where Avening, England, is. It’s on a little stream which – as mentioned above – doesn’t have a name. (Oh, come on. I’m sure the people who live there call the stream something. British History Online calls it “the Avening stream.”) It is in that cute stretch of hills northeast of Bristol called the Cotswolds. It is in Gloucestershire, which is pronounced “glostersher” (or “glostasha” to Canadian ears when said in usual British English). And the nearest town of note, a bit under 20 km east, is Cirencester, which Lippincott tells us is to be said “sisseter,” although in our alternately literalist and obscurantist modern times it is typically pronounced either “siren sester” or “sister.” Which makes Avening seem like an easy walk.

And speaking of an easy walk, there’s one more thing I typically do when researching pronunciation: check YouTube videos. And guess what. Here is a resident of Avening, Gloucestershire, going for a walk, and you can hear how he says it:

Yes, he says like like “evening” but with the a as in “rave.” And he calls the stream “the mill stream.”

OK, but how about the one in Ontario? The first video I found is a guy driving through who says the a as in “hat,” but he also says some other place names differently from how I know people around there say them. So I kept going. And I found a recording of a Zoom meeting (embedding is disabled, so click the link) of the board for the Avening Community Centre. Just about the first thing the convener says is “Avening Hall Board.” And he says it… exactly the same way.

And with that, I wish you a good Avening.


I did something this morning that I seldom enjoy – and didn’t enjoy today either: I went on a Saturday morning to St. Lawrence Market.

Oh, I love St. Lawrence Market. It’s close to where I live, and I love shopping there. But not on Saturday mornings. It’s busy then, but more to the point, many of the people in it are engaging in the most dilatory and directionless obambulation. I know exactly where I want to go and how to get there, but between where I am and where I am going are a pick-and-mix of populace who are there simply to walk around and look around – to stroll hither and thither, or thither and hither, or hi–thither. To look left and walk right, and vice versa. And, at random moments, simply to stop on the spot.

Of course they have every right to go there and look around and shop around for entertainment. And I, on the other hand, who know what I want and know where to get it, can go at times when my much more purposive perambulations are pursuable with much less interference. Except, of course, when I forget to buy cheese on Friday and have to go back and get some on Saturday morning before heading out of town. (Because one simply cannot head out of town without cheese.)

I won’t say that obambulation is my very vexation. Well, I won’t won’t say it – I am one who usually chooses where to go and efficiently goes there, and when people cruise the city’s footroutes in less predictable and more leisurely ways it can momentarily frustrate my course, but I know that when I am in tourist mode I often walk likewise, and I know I live in an area popular with tourists; the things they like about it are the things I like about it. So there you have it. And there. And… over… th–here!

But I will say that obambulation, the word, is – for whatever I think of what it names – a quite enjoyable word. It has a sound of bim-bam-boom, like pinball bouncing off bumpers, which is similar to how some people navigate St. Lawrence Market. But beware of getting too close to Obama in how you say it: it’s from ob- – as in obstruct, object, obnoxious, and obnubilate – and ambulation, which is to say ‘walking’. There is also the related verb obambulate and adjective obambulatory. It doesn’t mean ‘walk obstructively’, though (let alone ‘walk obnoxiously’); it really just means wandering back and forth. A synonym of obambulatory is itinerant.

Which means that you could also say my regular itinerary in the market – first to Domino, the dry-goods store downstairs, then perhaps to The Roastery, then up the stairs to White House Meats (stopping at Olympic Cheeses and Scheffler’s Deli as needed), and ending at Urban Fresh Produce – is also obambulation, in one way of viewing the word. But it’s not really a back-and-forth wandering – there is no hither-thither looky-loo strolling. When I am in the mood for that, I go to the art gallery.


In a language as verbally efflorescent as English, the inevitable excrescent lexical vegetation can be a cause of vexation. But would you respond with vetation? Is any deviation from strict verbal elegance unallowable in your books, and is invitation to exuberant expansions and neoclassical confections met with anathema?

Or perhaps lexical recreation is acceptable only in estivation and vacation. Well, far be it from me… unless you’re vacationing in my town, that is. But if you are, I’ll allow it. Which is to say, it will not be met with my vetation, even if the power of such should be vested in me.

Lest you have not guessed, vetation is, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “a refusal to allow something.” It comes from Latin vetare, which means ‘forbid, prohibit, refuse to allow, oppose’. If you have been to Italy, you have seen its modern reflex: vietare, or more likely its past participle vietato, which shows up in signs that avail themselves of an emblematically Italian syntactic formation: vietato fumare, ‘forbidden to smoke’, meaning “no smoking,” and vietato l’ingresso, ‘forbidden the entry’, meaning “no entrance.”

But while vetation is well formed as a derivation from its Latin root into English, we have generally preferred to do a bad, bad thing, at least from the view of some sticklers: we have given our imprimatur to a conjugated form of the verb and made it into a noun. It’s the same kind of thing we did with imprimatur, which means ‘let it be printed’ (not as in ‘allow it to be printed’ but rather as in the third-person infinitive imperative that Latin uses a subjunctive for and that we have no really good way of expressing directly in English), and which we now use as a noun, as I just did. But in the case of vetare, we’re using the first-person singular present indicative, which is veto.

Yes, veto is Latin for ‘I forbid’ or ‘I advise not to’ or ‘I oppose’. We’ve taken a verb and we’ve nouned it. This is, depending in your particular bent, either elegant or inelegant. But the alternative, vetation, is longer and fussier and, depending on your bent, either more or less elegant.

Well, never mind. The decision has already been rendered in the legislature of popular opinion. The reason you’ve almost certainly never seen vetation before is that no one uses it. Even when it was used – in the 1600s through the 1800s – it wasn’t really used; as the OED puts it, it’s “apparently only attested in dictionaries or glossaries.” It is an inkhorn word, and we have, passively, tacitly, vetated it.


Heh. This is a word that sounds like it sounds like it means, or anyway sounds like it means what it sounds like. If you know what I mean.

One fun thing about this word is that its advent is not the usual. Each of us may well know where we first saw or heard a word, but we probably don’t have any way of knowing just when it first saw the light of day on this planet. Usually a word creeps out from under a rock or comes whiffling through the woods; we have some record of when it first started getting around, and we may have a trail of uses, forms, and other lexical spoor that leads us to infer where it came from, but there is no proper birth certificate. Chortle is quite unlike that.

You may or may not remember when you first saw or heard chortle, but I have no idea where I did. I am sure it was not in its original context – the place it first knew the earth and the earth knew it – and I know that when I subsequently saw it in its original context I didn’t realize it was in its birthplace. It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized that, like the numerous opaque words peppered around it, chortle was invented by Lewis Carroll (in real life, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and first published in Through the Looking-Glass in the poem “Jabberwocky.” Here is the stanza in which it blazes into glory:

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

And, unlike some of the other words Carroll introduced in the poem, it caught on and took off. You don’t see uffish used much at all, nor manxome; although vorpal has a certain something, you will rarely hear it outside of the realms of role-playing gamers; but within mere years, chortle was being used as if it had been around for centuries, like whiffling (also used in the poem) had.

So what did Lewis Carroll confect this word from? The Oxford English Dictionary’s full etymology is just “Quite unconnected with churtle v.” (And what does churtle mean? “Chirp,” apparently.) But Carroll himself was good enough to give some indication. The origins of chortle, as it happens, are chuckle (which in turn first appeared around 1600 as chuck – meaning not ‘toss’ but ‘cluck’, imitative of sound – with a frequentative -le suffix) and snort (another imitative word, with us since the 1300s). So this is a portmanteau word, but not in the usual fashion, with a first half of one part and a second half of another. Rather, it has a graft from snort right in the middle of chuckle. Why is it not snuckle? Well, that’s a different sound, isn’t it? More like snickering than snorting. And of course it couldn’t be something like chuckort – we need that -le.

Most importantly, because it was made from two imitative words and is itself audibly imitative, it conveys its sense quite engagingly. And we even know its parentage and have its literary birth certificate: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was published on December 27, 1871. O frabjous day! (Frabjous, by the way, comes from fair, fabulous, and joyous. It has not really caught on.)


English pronunciation is a balancing act, a tightrope between sound and spelling where even a mild crosswind can lead to a fall. And we can often be a bit myopic in our reading of words. Even if the way a word is put together is right there before our eyes, we might still be misled by an analogy with another word and say it wrong. You may have heard a coworker say charcuterie in a funny way at one time or another, or heard a journalist mispronounce integral – or you may be among the many who have snagged on misled or coworker, for that matter. So it’s not so surprising that I, in my youth, reading about Karl Wallenda, saw the word biopic and assumed – as many people do on seeing it – that it rhymes with myopic.

Well, why not? There’s also biopsy and -optic words like panoptic, not to mention other words ending in -ic like robotic. And sure, you might see bio and even understand that biopic refers to a biographical movie, but is it so hard to imagine that it’s like somehow putting the biography under a microscope or something? Most of us do not carry classical morphological dictionaries around in our heads.

And, frankly, even if we did, it wouldn’t help here. You see, biopic is made from bio – yes, as in biography, and in this case actually shortened from that rather than formed directly from the Greek root bio- – and pic, shortened from picture, which, yes, comes from Latin pictura, but if someone asks you for “a pic,” do you send them a movie? Sure, movies are “moving pictures,” but the use of pic for a movie is a bit dated. (There’s also that mixing of Greek and Latin, but we do that a fair bit, because most of us don’t know otherwise.) And, for that matter, putting stress on pic in the last syllable just seems odd. You sure it shouldn’t be pick then?

Of course not – this is the language where microphone is abbreviated mic and no one wants to have to spell out the present or past participle because of the perversity of c before i and e (look, we used to spell it mike and miking and miked; don’t blame me for all those hip kids changing it). So why shouldn’t we expect biopic to be bio plus pic, as in fact it is, and to be said exactly like “bio pic”?

Just because, in general, we don’t. Those of us who know better know better, and the rest don’t. And that includes some journalists I’ve heard on TV, plus people I know personally, including younger me. Now you know better, if you didn’t before – yes, I am recommending you say biopic as “bio pic,” not only because that’s what it’s meant to be (and Merriam-Webster and the OED insist too) but also because that way you won’t cause anyone to pop a vein in their heads about it, as people occasionally do about “wrong” pronunciations. But there still stands one question: Why not call it something else?

I mean, it’s too late, I suppose. But why don’t we call it, uh, biofilm? That makes sense, right? As long as that word doesn’t mean anything else… [checks earpiece] It what? It does? Oh. Folks, apparently biofilm has an established meaning: to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “A thin but robust layer of mucilage adhering to a solid surface, containing the community of bacteria and other microorganisms that generated it.”


OK, biopic, as in “bio pic,” as it has been since at least the 1940s. Back on the pronunciation tightrope…

Just like Karl Wallenda, the famous funambulist (tightrope walker). And why did I see biopic associated with Karl Wallenda? Well, it’s just that he was apparently filming a movie about his life when he did a tightrope walk between two 10-storey buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On the day of filming, there was an inadvisable crosswind, but, you know, shooting schedules… and, uh, well, anyway, he made a misstep and consequently concluded his life. And the biopic.


Let us first flush out any misconceptions about what this word comes from or what it might mean. Cistern is not a seabird (tern) that has stayed on the same side (cis) of the road, the pond, or whatever (why would it do that anyway, instead of crossing? I guess because there’s a fellow tern there, and one good tern deserves another). Cistern is not, though it sounds like it could be, a converse to brethren (in fact that’s sistren). And it is not a medieval stringed musical instrument (that’s a cittern). Any proposal that it is related to those is thus tanked.

I presume you know what a cistern is: it’s a reservoir for water – not a cup, not a jug, a proper fixed container of substantial size. It may be a tank for catching and holding rainwater; it may be the large reservoir at the top of your (and my) building that holds the drinking water supply (why up there? water pressure depends on the height of the vertical column – that’s why so many towns have water towers rather than just ground-level reservoirs); it may be the vessel surrounding the condenser on a steam engine; it may be the tank on your toilet – well, if you’re in England, anyway. I’ve never heard it used as such in North America, and was first made aware of the cultural difference in a bit of Marxist graffiti from England (in a book, collected by Nigel Rees) where someone had written on a water closet (WC), “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains. Smash the cistern.” (I didn’t get the pun at first either.)

So where did this word come from? English got it from Old French cisterne; Old French got it from Latin cisterna; that was formed from Latin cista (‘trunk, chest, casket’); that in turn came from Greek κίστη kístē (‘box, chest, casket’). And κίστη also, at length (and via Proto-West-Germanic), transformed into English chest.

But we are in general oblivious to the deeper histories of the words we use. No one is likely to see cistern and think of a box or chest that doesn’t hold water. And similarly, though words can have echoes of other words (which can also be useful in puns from time to time), you won’t hear tern or stern and think of a tank (though if you hear sternum you might think of a tank top – “tanks for the mammaries” so to speak). Ultimately, cistern is now, in the main, just a fancier, perhaps thirstier-sounding word for tank.

Not for just any tank, of course; only the kind that is filled from rain or a well. Tanks are also military vehicles, so named because they looked at first like large rolling cisterns. I am reminded of Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 war movie Cross of Iron, in which a soldier, seeing such vehicles approaching, screams “Tanks! Tanks!” In the French version, the translator did not render this as “Chars d’assaut! Chars d’assaut!” (the standard French term) nor as “Citernes! Citernes!” (the direct translation of the word). No, it came out as “Merci, merci!”

Well. You’re welcome.


One of the comic strips I liked in my childhood was a quirky one set in the “old west” and starring an eponymous cowpoke, viz., Tumbleweeds. You would not think that a comic set in a frontier town called Grimy Gulch would be the sort of strip from which one might learn recondite vocabulary (unlike Calvin and Hobbes), but Tom K. Ryan, who drew it, clearly had a literary sensibility. For example, the lawyer in town was named Larsen E. Pettifogger, from which I learned the word pettifogger. But that is not today’s word. Today’s word is not in fact a word but a condensation thereof, viz., an abbreviation.

Abbreviations are not often encountered in comic strips, except on signs – certainly not in dialogue, for who speaks abbreviations? But one character in Tumbleweeds, named Lotsa Luck, did not speak but rather wrote small notes on a small notepad and peeled them off and handed them to his addressees. The notes were in a pointedly erudite style, and one of them – at least one; I don’t have the source material to hand anymore – used an abbreviation that has stuck with me, namely viz.

I didn’t know at the time that it was an abbreviation. I figured out from context that it meant something like ‘to wit’ or ‘namely’ (as indeed it does), and, not knowing any better, went with what my eyes told me and assumed that it was to be pronounced “viz,” rhymes with “wiz.” I also reckoned from context that it was about as stilted as, say, ye olde. I believe the first time I was confronted with its being an abbreviation was when I tried to play it in Scrabble. It would be a very useful word to play in Scrabble, but you may not play it in Scrabble any more than you may play etc.  At length I learned that it stood for videlicet. Which left me with three questions: first, what exactly does that mean; second, how do you say videlicet; and third, how do you say viz.? Oh, and a fourth question: where the heck does that z come from?

Let’s answer the fourth question first, because it relates to ye olde as well. You may know (as I have mentioned it occasionally in the past) that the y in ye olde is not actually a y but a rendering – within the limitations of type bought from the Netherlands – of the character þ, which stood for what we now write as th. It’s similar to how the z in names like Kenzie and Menzies is a representation of an old character ȝ, which stood for what we might now write as gh – except we don’t use that sound anymore. The names Menzies and Mingus were originally the same. So does that mean that viz was originally viȝ? No – it’s a different abbreviation, something more abstruse and wicked.

OK, you may not agree that medieval scribal abbreviations for Latin are wicked. After all, these scribes had to copy out countless pages of text and had good reason to make their work a bit lighter, even if it made life troublesome for scholars of later centuries. So, just as we might use Ltd. in place of Limited and Dr. in place of Doctor, they would regularly reduce common Latin suffixes to standard abbreviations – -um (or often any other thing involving m or n) might be converted to a simple ~ or just ¯ above the letter before, for example, and -et was sometimes represented by . And occasionally the abbreviation might grab a few more letters under its umbrella. So videlicet could be viꝛ. Which, if you’re trying to set it in type and you have only the letters produced in Dutch foundries, or you’re just going with what your eyes tell you, might – in fact, would – come out as viz

What does videlicet mean? Well, first off, the et is not the et that means ‘and’ (though  was also used to stand for that et). Videlicet is itself a contraction, of videre licet, which is videre ‘to see’ and licet ‘it is permitted’. But in Latin it would be said as videlicet, not as videre licet, and that would be with the stress on the first e – which is the only long vowel – and if you’re going with classical pronunciation, the v is like “w” and the c is “k,” but if you’re going with ecclesiastical pronunciation the v is “v” and the c is like “ch.” But in English pronunciation, the word is said “videliset.”

So is that how you also say viz., just as you say etc. as “et cetera”? You could… but that’s not the usual way, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So does one say it as “viz”? One does not. No, apparently, “in reading aloud [it is] usually rendered by ‘namely’.” So, for instance, Please send $3K of Au to my residence, viz. 27 St. James St. would be read “Please send three thousand dollars of gold to my residence, namely twenty-seven Saint James Street.”

I’ll have to take their word for it. I am not aware of ever having heard it read aloud. In fact, I have rarely seen it even in print – though I did just encounter it this week in an academic book I’m editing. I seldom see it even in academic books, but the author of this one is not American; he’s from the same country that supplied early English printers with their type sets, viz., the Netherlands.

pregale, regale

“It’s seven courses,” Arlene said, leaning forward, her eyes widening.

“Not including the little extras,” Jess added. “You know, little hors d’œuvres. Who knows what it might be. But the official first thing is the fish of the day.”

Arlene looked up, raised her palms to the ceiling. “Could be anything!”

“Who knows what they’re catching,” Jess said. “It’s the Spanish coast.” She leaned back on her chair and had a swallow from her class of cava.

“San Sebastian?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Arlene said. “And then – what was it? Naked shrimp?” She turned to Jess.

Jess held up a finger (one moment!), set down her glass, and flicked to an image on her phone. “Unclothed prawn.”

“Well, the clothing is hard to digest,” I offered.

“In two firings, with slight heat stroke and fried head,” she read off her screen.

“What,” I said. I leaned in to look at the image of a printed menu she was holding up.

Just then Maury entered. His gaze settled on the little scene before him. “A feast for the eyes?”

“We’re pregaling James with our trip,” Arlene said, beaming like a flashlight. She held up her glass of cava in a toasting gesture.

“Pregaling,” Maury said.

“Well, sure,” Jess said. “If we had already been there, we’d be regaling him with it. But we haven’t been yet, so it’s in anticipation.”

“Pre,” Arlene added, suppressing a little smile.

“Who’s Gail?” Maury asked drily.

“Who’s that gal…” Jess crooned.

“Why is it regale?” I mused aloud.

“A royal treat?” Arlene said.

“I suppose it might be related to Spanish and Italian regalo, ‘gift’,” I said.

“Yup,” said Jess. She was operating her phone again. It looked like Wiktionary on her screen. “Seems like it all comes ultimately from French régal…”

Regal – royal!” Arlene exclaimed.

“Mais non, Manon!” Jess replied. “That would be royal or réal. Somehow it’s from régal ‘treat’ but that’s from Old French galer, ‘to enjoy oneself’.”

“As in gala,” Maury said from the sideboard, to which he had sidled. “At one of which I am due in half an hour.” He poured himself a glass of cava.

“Well, you can regale them with our pregaling you with our dinner at Arzak,” Arlene said. She took the phone from Jess’s hand and flipped back to the menu photo. “Look, after the Mandarin pigeon there’s something called ‘Enigma.’”

I leaned in, flipped my glasses onto my forehead, and read. “Yuzu and cherry cream with mint crisp.”

“You’ve solved it!” Arlene said. “Now solve how it got from gifts and galas to storytelling.”

“That’s easy enough,” Jess said. “It’s all pleasing entertainments. You can still regale someone with food and drink. You can regale yourself, too.”

“Dinner and a bedtime story for one!” Arlene said. “Netflix and chill by yourself. But first… pregale.”

“Oh, the things we will do. Let me tell you about them.” Jess raised her glass.

I turned to Maury, who was still at the sideboard, already refilling his glass. “You’re going to a gala?”

“Yes,” he said, “but it’s likely to be a dry evening.”

“Dull company?” Jess said.

“And an expensive cash bar,” Maury said.

“So let me guess,” Arlene said. “You’re…

Maury nodded and finished the sentence with her: “…pregaming.” He raised his glass in a toast.

cold feet, hotfoot

This is the time of year you can get to be like a cat when it comes to heading outside. You spend too much time inside where it’s warm but you’re feeling cooped up, so when you have a chance to step out, you hotfoot it… until you get out that door, and suddenly you have cold feet. Literally. You might even nope right back into the house.

It’s fun how we have this pair, isn’t it? And also how they only kind of go together? After all, people rarely if ever talk of having hot feet, and no one is going to say they coldfooted it back inside. Plus, hotfoot refers to haste, with a possible implication of eagerness, whereas cold feet refers not to slowness but to hesitation or outright refusal on the basis of pusillanimity. If they were bookends, a person inclined to tidiness would take one look and say “Can’t you make them match better?”

To which the answer could readily be “They weren’t made together.” Because they almost certainly weren’t, nor do we have any evidence that one was made on the basis of the other. They’re just like decorative items on the same theme that were bought in different places at different times – like the decorative leather-bound-book-styled cushion and decorative leather-bound-book-looking rolling cabinet that my wife and I have, or our lamp and bottle holder both styled after the Eiffel Tower but not in exactly the same way.

Which word is older? As it happens, the verb hotfoot and the verb phrase get cold feet are both first attested in print in English in the 1890s… but hotfoot the verb comes from hotfoot the adjective and adverb (as in “he was coming hotfoot from the village”), and hotfoot has been in English as adverb and adjective since the 1300s. Yes, it was much more eager to appear, though it was (may we say ironically) hesitant to be a verb.

And where did English get hotfoot from? French. Old French has chaut pas (modern French would make it chaud pas), meaning literally ‘hot step’ and figuratively ‘immediately’, and that’s where we seem to have gotten hotfoot by translation and adaptation.

OK, so where did we get cold feet from? That one’s a bit less forthcoming. The first known published use of it in the current sense is in Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: Girl on the Streets, where someone says “They got cold feet” and the reader understands that the people referred to were overcome with reticence. It seems reasonable that the phrase was already current in colloquial use for it to be used that way in that book, and in the following decades its use spread – people who refused to fight in World War I were called cold-footers, for example. But where did the phrase come from?

There are idioms referring to cold feet in other languages. The most reasonable suspect is German kalte Füße bekommen, literally ‘get cold feet’, which refers particularly to gambling: if you are on a losing streak, you may get cold feet – perhaps because you’ve lost your shoes – and back out, and if you’re even just afraid of losing what you’ve won, you could also be said to have cold feet. And in 1878, an English translation of a German novel, Seed-Time and Harvest by Fritz Reuter, had a character saying “haven’t I as good a right to cold feet as you? Don’t you always get cold feet, at our club, when you have had good luck?” The sense of hesitancy to join in gambling could be applied more broadly, to such things as social engagements (up to and including engagements to be married). But I have no idea whether that novel was popular among the set of people who would make the turn of phrase popular, or whether the same idiom might have spread another way, say in actual casinos.

But there is an earlier appearance in English of an idiom about cold feet – it’s in Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, from 1605. He makes reference to a Lombard turn of phrase, which is avegh minga frecc I pee (Italian aver freddo ai piedi, ‘have cold in the feet’), but then, as now, it doesn’t mean ‘hesitant’; it means ‘broke’. As in you have holes in your shoes – or no shoes at all.

Which could, after all, dispose a person to hotfoot it to work, I suppose. But not to something that would cost them money. Which may be a pity – as we learn from Vimes Boot Theory, propounded by Terry Pratchett in Men at Arms:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

Meaning, if we extrapolate from wet feet to cold ones, that the people who are best disposed to hotfoot it are not the ones most likely to get cold feet, and vice versa. And all the best occasions boot little if you have little boot – and cold conditions to boot.


He pounced on a piece of text and fairly bounced with outrage. “Words don’t get meaning from sounding like other words!” he pronounced, and, having thus denounced, flounced out of the room.

And fair enough: in general, words don’t get their meaning by sounding like other words. If they did, puns would be rather duller, and all those caterers with fare and thyme in their names – and all those hairstylists with mane – would just seem like they were making spelling errors. But there are always exceptions. We do sometimes shift the sense of a word towards what we think it sounds like it’s supposed to mean – outrage, for instance, has nothing in its origins to do with rage, and yet… 

Of course, that’s an etymological conjecture. But conjectures on the basis of similarity are always conjectures of relatedness; we need to remember that most speakers of a language don’t actually know which words are cognate and which are not, and so if cognate sounds related to cognition they will think of them as having a similarity of sense. (The two words are, in fact, unrelated.)

And anyway, it goes the other way too: we will take bits from words and put them together to make other words. Of course we will! And we’ll do it in a way that just feels like it makes sense. So we get chocoholic, from choco-, trimmed from chocolate (it is not a word made from a root and a suffix), plus -holic, trimmed from alcohol, which is a one-piece word in English but traces back to Arabic al-kuhl.

So, now. Flounce. You know that it has something in common with bounce, jounce, pounce, and perhaps trounce, but not with ounce or any of the Latin-derived words containing -nounce (pronounce, announce, denounce, etc.). If you were to define flounce, what would you say? Would ‘bounce in a floppy or flailing way’ work? But then can we say that that fl- is adding an element of sense, if not in the origins then at least in the way we think of the word?

Well, fl- isn’t a morpheme – it doesn’t automatically carry meaning. Sure, there are flail, flap, flutter, flounder, and a few others like that; but there are also flat, flake, flank, floor, and a few others that seem to have to do with two-dimensional surfaces; and there are fly, flower, floss, fleerflaw, and assorted others that relate to neither. In fact, of all the etymologically unrelated words in English that start with fl, about one in seven have something to do with loose motion and about one in six have something to do with surfaces. That’s arguably more than chance, but it’s far from a sure thing. And yet if you’re casting around in your mind looking for words with a similar sense, perhaps to use as a basis for a portmanteau, it could be a quorum.

But that’s not where flounce comes from, is it? Well… we’re not completely sure. There is a verb flunsa that in Norwegian means ‘hurry’ or ‘work briskly’ and in Swedish means ‘fall with a splash’; it seems like it could be related to flounce, but there’s no actual trail of evidence to connect the two; also, the Scandinavian words are first attested from the 1700s, and flounce is first seen in texts from the 1500s, whereas the development of sound and form would require the two to have split apart from their common source at least a few centuries earlier.

And on the other hand, words – especially expressive words – do have something of a history of being formed imitatively in English: sometimes imitating the sound (e.g., splash), but sometimes just imitating other expressive words. And yes, there is the possibility that flounce was formed by analogy with bounce and pounce plus that fl at the start, which might flap or flutter or might just soften the overall effect. After all, we did just that kind of thing with plounce, a (now rare) word that showed up in the 1600s and means ‘plunge into water’ or ‘flounder in water’.

And then, on the other hand, given that people are often more prone to flouncing (either literally, moving in an exaggerated fashion, or more figuratively, making an ostentatious departure, say) when they have had a bit to drink, could a connection to fluid ounce be worth a shot? …No, it could not.

Incidentally, however ostentatious both may seem, the flounce that names a decorative fringe or ruffle is not related to the verb flounce; it comes from the Middle English verb frouncen ‘curl’.