Tag Archives: word tasting notes


Are we not now all as free as birds, or at least as cut-price as birds – birds in cages, at liberty to flap five times from bars to bars, before finding it otiose and retiring to indolence with a barely civil “Oi!”

Such is oisivity: idleness, lassitude, indolence, feckless mopishness, incessant siestatude. When you have nowhere to go and all day to get there… well, as Thomas Fersen says, “sorry, only got two feet” – though, lately, that means two feet of space.

A person might indulge verbal excess at great length, as a late 18th-century author in Fraser’s Magazine did, apparently under the influence of pipes and pints; here’s about one percent of the peroration:

The genius of Colburn is then bothered and confused by the diverse plagiarism, or the indolent and hallucinatory oisivity of Campbell. I shall indulge in none of these heteroclite and derogatory proceedings.

(Narrator’s voice: Oh, but he did.)

Well, words out the wazoo, or wha’s up? Who’s a oiseau? No, no, don’t have a bird – I mean, what would be the point anyway. This word oisivity looks like it’s related to the French word for ‘bird’, oiseau, but that word comes from a slurred version of Latin avicellus, ‘little bird’, from avis, ‘bird’, which is also the source of French oie, ‘goose’. The slurring in oisivity instead ultimately obnubilates otiosus, by way of oisive (and oisif). Yes, otiosus, the direct source of otiose, which means ‘futile, pointless, useless’. Like the t in the middle of otiose, I guess, for some people anyway. Oy.

But, since it’s an English word, oisivity is said like an English word. When it’s said at all, that is, which is generally never-ish. It has a sibling, ocivity, which is also never heard or written these days. What can I say – I guess, somehow, torpor notwithstanding, we just don’t have the time. 


As I have gained years and lost callowness, I have acquired an increasing canitude.

A canitude is not a can-do attitude, although I have gotten better at knowing what I can do and at saying I can do things when (and only when) I can do them. Likewise it is not the more certain form of mayitude, and even less of may-junitude (more like decembritude, or at least octobritude). It is not that I sing (as in Arma virumque cano, ‘Of arms and the man I sing’); I have done that since I was a dirty blond. And it is not doggedness (from Latin canis) – that’s a trait I’ve retained from my youth: if I have a problem to solve, I grip it like a bull terrier (and sometimes like a terrible worrier). 

Rather, canitude is this:

Grey hair. (Or, for the Americans, gray hair.)

How is canitude greyness? Is it because I’m an old dog? No, it is not: I’m an old cat, and not that old, and anyway I’m always interested in learning new tricks. Nor is it that my hair is singed, or sung of. It’s not even that it’s the colour of an aluminum can (nice and shiny thanks to shampoo). It’s that Latin for ‘grey’ as in hair is canus (or cana or canum, depending on the object) – which can also mean ‘white’ or ‘hoary’ or, when referring to water, ‘frothy’ (see picture above).

This word isn’t used much these days, but there is a related word also descended from canus that rears its head from time to time: canities. This is a medical term and is taken direct from Latin, wherein it means what it means in English: ‘whiteness or greyness of the hair’ (Latin also uses it metonymically to mean ‘old age’). So your canitude is your degree of canities. But because canities entered English in the early 1800s, its pronunciation is influenced by the usual English pronunciation of Latin at the time, so it is, officially and regrettably, “ca-nish-ee-eez.” Which sounds more like sneezing. 

But I don’t endorse use of canities; it presents a state of capillary pulchritude – the apogee of hair colour, something I have spent decades eagerly growing into – as a medical condition. Which, sure, like literally every other physical state, it is, but I don’t wish to see it treated as in the same class as pruritus or edema or, in the world of less reversible conditions, presbyopia and kyphosis. No, I will take canitude. As in yes-I-canitude. And if you don’t like my attitude, you can…


In my life, I’ve had particular fun with funiculars. They’ve figured into many of my most momentous travels.

A funicular, as you probably know, is a railway that is pulled by a rope. The Latin for ‘rope’ or ‘cable’ is funis (as in funambulist, a tightrope walker), and the diminutive of funis is funiculus – though, really, the cables they use on funiculars are not as diminutive as all that. 

The principle of a funicular is that what goes up must come down, and vice versa, and in fact for everything that goes up something else comes down at the same time. You don’t have a funicular railway with just one car; that would require too much energy to pull it up, and too much braking as it was lowered down. Instead, you have two cars, and they’re attached by a cable that loops through a pulley at the top, and they counterbalance each other, more or less. As one goes down and one comes up, they pass in the middle. They might be on completely separate tracks, or they might share a rail in the middle or even share both rails of the track – in the latter two cases they have a double-tracked passing section in the middle. Funicular railways have been popular in the less flat parts of Europe for about a century and a half. There are some in North America, too – but none in the parts where I grew up.

The first funicular I ever met, as far as I can recall, was between Territet and Glion, near Montreux, in Switzerland. I was there in the summer of 1984, staying at a grand old hotel that had become a conference centre on the mountain. I was a 16-year-old freshly graduated from high school and still trying to learn the ropes and find out which way was up. It was my first trip to Europe, my first solo trip of any magnitude, my first chance to experience parts of the world that to that point I had known just from movies and books. There’s a cog railway that runs from Montreux all the way up to the top of the Rochers de Naye, but there’s also a funicular that starts by the lake and runs in a straight line up to Glion, just a short way up the mountain. I rode it one day with an assortment of British and Swedish youth, just for something to do.

The next one I remember was somewhere you might not expect to find one: downtown Los Angeles. It turns out downtown LA isn’t completely flat. There’s a cute little funicular called the Angel’s Flight that runs up short a hill from one block to another. It was 1999 and I was visiting Aina Arro, who was at the time my girlfriend and not yet my fiancée; she was touring with Grease on Ice, a figure skating rendition of the musical, starring Nancy Kerrigan. We – and everyone in the show – were staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. In a few long days we covered an amazing amount of Los Angeles by foot and occasionally by public transport, including walking up and down a large hill in Griffith Park, where there is no funicular or anything of the sort. And one day when she had a daytime rehearsal, I went downtown and, among other things, rode the little funicular, up and back down.

The next one wasn’t one I rode in, not exactly; it was one I sang about. You know the song “Funiculì, funiculà,” right? It’s a love song (a bit fraught, as they may be) featuring a funicular railway that ran up Vesuvius. I sang a bit of it in Hedda Gabler in 2010. It was the first time in some years (and the last time so far) I had acted in a play: the Alumnae Theatre production of Judith Thompson’s adaptation of Ibsen’s classic. In one of the scenes my character, George (Jürgen), put on a gramophone record and sang and danced along with it. It was a moment of brief levity in a play in which one person’s fate goes up as another’s goes down until at last Hedda reaches the end of her rope, the connection breaks and all crashes.

My next funicular was in Wellington, New Zealand, on a trip Aina and I took in 2012. I had been wanting to visit New Zealand since my dad went there with a group 35 years earlier. Aina and I saw as much of the country as we could in 10 days (notably including sampling as much of its wine as we could). Wellington is the capitol; it’s at the south end of the North Island, and it’s not flat. It was about the halfway point of our trip, as we went ever farther south by car and train and car and then flew back up to Auckland to stay there a couple of days. On the way home from that trip, we stopped for a couple of days in San Francisco, with its famous cable cars – which, however, don’t really count as funiculars, cables notwithstanding.

Our next funicular was in 2017, with a wine tour group on a day stop in Bergamo, Italy. Bergamo has a low city and a high city; the high city is a cobblestone-street ancient town on a smallish steep hill that juts above the plain. The convenient way to get up there from where your bus has to drop you off is a funicular, which goes quite a ways up and around a bend and sure beats walking. That trip was our last time in Europe so far; we were supposed to go on another trip to Europe in 2020, but Covid hit (and, as it happened, it hit Bergamo early and hard – but we weren’t going back there; our destination was Spain).

The last funicular I can remember being on is one in Quebec City. It’s a short one that saves you the walk up or down a few hundred stairs between the cute shopping and dining area of the Vieux Port and the hilltop old town, by the Château Frontenac. Aina and I were there on a little getaway in December 2017, just before I was due to leave the job I had been at for more than 17 years and start a new one. As we were checking into the hotel, I got a phone call letting me know that the funding for my new job had been cut. What could I do but laugh and enjoy the rest of the trip? And now, a bit over three years later, I’m freelancing full time, and doing better than I was then. One thing goes down, another comes up.

And when all this pandemic goes down, I can’t wait to see what else comes up, travel-wise. Apparently there’s a funicular in Barcelona, and one in Lisbon, and…

This was inspired by a thread on Twitter of funiculars, started by @autogynefiles – have a look if you want to see many more.


It is thester out, ever more thesterly; thesterness descends from the thester dome and all thesters until today is thesterday. And thester way I like it.

Do I seem like thester-crazy kind? Oh, I am undimmed by dimness. When the sun is hidden, the countless little points of light come out, and it is so personally illuminating and downright photogenic; corners are contrasts, and life passes alternately in pools of vivid colour and expanses of wan thester.

Thester is not a word we use much anymore; it has slipped into itself over the centuries. It’s not that we truly need it—we have other words for the same function: dark, darkness, darken, to start with. But dark starts with a stab on the tip of the tongue and curls through the hollow mouth to finish with a hard stop at the back, while thester starts soft, stops in the middle with a hiss and tap, and then fades away, like a night cat finding your foot and retreating. Thester and dark may, strictly speaking, denote the same thing, but they’re painted by different artists.

You are most likely to recognize this word if you are familiar with Old English and Middle English literature. It shows up, for instance, in the Old English form (and inflection, in this case þystrum) in Beowulf:

Ða se ellengæst earfoðlice 
þrage geþolode, se þe in þystrum bad, 
þæt he dogora gehwam dream gehyrde 
hludne in healle; þær wæs hearpan sweg, 
swutol sang scopes.

Here, let’s put that loosely into Canadian:

Then the tough-guy trouble-getter
waited wearily, watching in thester,
as day after day they partied hearty
and loud in their hall—harps and harmony,
bards and ballads.

It’s kind of fitting that the word is most associated with the years around 1000, since that’s the time that’s often referred to as the Dark Ages. We should realize, of course, that they were not dwelling incessantly in thester; the sun rose as it does now, and people had fine lives, or as fine as one can have without full indoor plumbing. It’s just that certain snooty Renaissance men, noting a lack of their own illumination about the times, instead of realizing that there was plenty that they weren’t seeing, concluded that there wasn’t much there.

But we know perfectly well that when you walk down the thesterly street or through a park in thesterness, if you step where you can’t see, there’s still something you’ll be stepping into and on. And you might discover more than you expected. Another word, perhaps. Or even another world.


I confess: I have a ’tude.

You know, an attitude. But not so much one that’s inclined to making a fuss. Rather, one that is from too much time on my fesses – but keeps me even more on my fesses.

Sorry – for those who don’t know: fesses is French for ‘buttocks’. Basically, fessitude comes from being bummed out, perhaps from being on your bum but definitely with the result of being even more on your bum. It’s the result of wearing out: being weary.

I hope that doesn’t sound fussy. I don’t have much physical labour to do. I sit at my dining room table for all the working hours of the day, and some more (to dine), and you might think that a person who has not been tried by exertion could not be tired. But find an elastic band that has not been stretched in a long time and see how responsive it is. In the long run, I need to go for a long run; in the short run, I could stand – or rather not stand still for – a short run. I would not block a walk. It keeps the systems running, the fluids flowing, the metabolic reactions acting. Inertia makes one inert. Laxitude and lentitude lead to lassitude and fessitude.

Where does this word fessitude – and its adjectival sibling, fessive – come from? From Latin fessus, ‘wearied’. It looks like what you get if you’re festive too long and your ability to make a hard stop ([t]) gets worn down. It may be related to fatisco ‘I droop’ and fatigo ‘I weary’, but I’m too tired to keep digging to find out. Anyway, not too many people can be bothered to use this word anymore. If they ever could.


We were starting another word tasting Zoom meeting, for want of anything at all better to do, when several of those of us already in the multiocular got a text at the same time. You could hear the various alert sounds and we all looked away and picked up our devices. It was a text to the group from Maury: “Sorry, can’t make, got stomachache”

Stomachache!” Elisa said. “Now, there’s a word to taste!”

“I have a feeling that Maury’s already done some tasting,” I said, “and that’s what’s resulted in his stomachache.”

“Just look at it,” Elisa continued. “It looks like it could be a dance – like a stoma-cha-cha.”

“Or a line of fashion,” Arlene said. “Like Jordache.”

Jess, who was in the same frame as Arlene, glanced at her, then looked back the rest of us. “Funny. I think of it as like an angry Scotsman, with the ‘ach! ach!’”

“Maybe he’s trying to put on jeans,” Arlene said. “But they’re too tight.”

“Because he’s been in lockdown for a whole-ass year,” Jess said.

“It’s the kind of word that gives English learners a headache,” Elisa said, circling back to the topic. “Like, it sounds almost like muckrake but sure doesn’t look like it.”

Daryl, who had been abiding quietly in his small corner, chimed in. “What the heck is the reason for those ch’s anyway? …James? You usually know.”

I looked up from my phone, on which I had been texting Maury separately to learn more of his predicament, since it was probably entertaining. “Greek to me,” I said.

“Do you mean that literally?” Jess asked.

“Kinda. It certainly smells of orthographic retconning.”

“I’m sure that means something,” Elisa said.

“Like, the words may have been spelled differently and then got respelled to display some etymology, real or imagined.” My phone vibed. It was a text from Maury: “Narcissa mistook Parthenocissus for Sambucus”

There is not another person in the world who would send a text like that and expect the recipient to understand it. And I wasn’t sure I entirely did either. I knew Narcissa was a friend of his with whom he was occasionally exchanging foodstuffs, presumably from a safe distance. The topic was clarified a little more with his next text, which was a picture of a small jam jar hand-labelled “Elderberry.”

Elderberry… genus Sambucus, right. And Parthenocissus is… oh. Virginia creeper. Um. Ooops.

The Zoom conversation, meanwhile, had continued. Daryl was looking at his iPad and talking. “OK, stomach comes from… well, French estomac, no surprise, and that’s from Latin stomachus with an h, which is from Greek στόμαχος. And in English it was spelled with just a c or a k or a ck until the 1500s, when they added the h to display its, uh, what’s James’s usual turn of phrase?”

“Glorious classical roots?” I said.


“Well,” said Arlene, “that was fruitful.”

“Like elderberries,” I said. Everyone seemed to ignore me.

“Now, ache,” Daryl said, tapping on his device. “Let’s see… oh, that’s fun.”

“Well, dude?” Jess said. “Don’t leave us hanging.”

Daryl looked up. “So… ache is from a Germanic root. The verb form was for a long time spelled with a k, and always said with a ‘k’ sound, but the noun form was spelled with a c and then sometimes a ch because for a long time it was pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound. Like the verb break and the noun breach. Oh, and the verb used to be strong, like I ake, I oke, I have aken.”

“So wait,” Elisa said. “The noun was said like the same as the letter H?”

“Yeah,” Daryl said. “There’s even a pun on that in Much Ado about Nothing.”

“So when did the pronunciation change?” Arlene said.

“Apparently,” Daryl said, with some scrolling and jabbing, “when the spelling of the verb switched to the ch. So the pronunciation went with the verb and the spelling with the noun, which… Oh, that’s hilarious.”

“Wait,” I said, “don’t tell me. Someone got etymological ideas.”

“Yeah,” Daryl said. “Someone… thought that they both came from Greek ἄχος. And guess who that was?”

Arlene rolled her eyes. “Your dad?”

“Doctor Johnson,” Daryl said, with a smile.

“I think I have some of his albums,” Jess said. 

Arlene parried with “I thought he made videos.”

“Doctor Johnson’s Dick-tionary,” Jess said.

Elisa rescued the topic once more: “It’s a shame that Maury isn’t here to join in this.”

“Well,” I said, “his predicament turns out to parallel this word’s. It’s the difference between elderberries and Virginia creeper.”

“Your mother smells of elderberries,” said Jess, who was getting so silly she had slipped into Monty Python references.

“If you want to eat elderberries, you have to cook them, or you get a stomachache,” I said. “But Virginia creeper has berries that an inattentive person might mistake for elderberries—”

“Inattentive!” Elisa said. “Intoxicated, maybe!” Over in their little window, Arlene elbowed Jess.

“—and even if you cook them,” I continued, “you will still regret eating them.”

“Goodness gracious, yes,” Elisa said. I had forgotten that botany was a thing she knew about.

“So what you’re saying, in your weird allusive circuitous way,” Jess said, “is that stomach is like elderberries, because it’s actually Greek if you boil it down or juice it up, and ache is like Virginia creeper, because even if you try to treat it like Greek, it’s just not.”

I paused to see if I could think of anything witty to say. I could not. “…Yeah.”

Stomachache kinda makes me think of cake when I hear it,” Daryl mused from his corner.

“Like having your cake and eating it too,” I said. “Like this word.”

“Really, don’t hurt yourself reaching for it,” Jess said.

“Well, it’s too bad Maury didn’t have cake,” Elisa said. “But at least we got to taste this word!”

“And he got to taste what it refers to,” Arlene concluded.


“It’s grand to make your acquaintance! On this monitor, you don’t look half as old as I thought you were.”

It was word tasting Zoom time again, and since travel was not a consideration, Maury had invited a fellow named Éamon, who was somewhere in Ireland, where it was somewhere past midnight. Éamon clearly fancied that he had the gift of the blarney. I thought it was more the gift of the stone.

“Well, I’m pleased to meet you,” I said. “I enjoyed myself very much the last time I was in Ireland.”

“I didn’t think you’d ever been!” Éamon said. “I happened to see your video on pronouncing Irish, and the other one too, and that third one, and I thought you weren’t nearly as dreadful at it as I would expect from an American.”

I was trying to think of where to start with that when Maury stepped in, so to speak. “James is from Canada, like me.”

“Ah, that explains why you have that look of someone who’s been enjoying the acme of Canadian cuisine, what do you call it – Brezhnev? Gorbachev?”

There was a moment of dead air and then the penny dropped for me and Maury. “Poutine,” we both said at the same time.

“That’s the one!” Éamon said. “Sure, it’s grand. When Maurice was visiting me he attempted to make it. He’s not at all a bad cook for a lad.”

Maury glanced off to the side with a face like a cat that had been petted the wrong way. Éamon’s praise was, shall we say, understated; Maury is a very good cook.

“Perhaps you’d like to visit Canada sometime,” I offered.

“I might yet,” Éamon said. “I’ve heard it’s like the heart of Galway, a whole lot of not much but scenic for all that. Nearly as nice as Ireland itself if it was much larger and the weather was worse.”

“Say, James,” Maury said, “don’t you have a book given to you by your friend from Galway, on Irish slang?”

I paused for just a moment. “Oh! Yes.” I reached behind me to the stack of books that permanently nuzzled a back leg of my desk chair. On the top of it was Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang by Bernard Share, which the estimable Stan Carey gave me. I held it up for the camera. “Perhaps we should taste a word from here.”

“There’s nothing quite like a taste of Ireland,” Éamon said.

“I’ll drink to that,” Maury said, and held up what appeared to be a half-finished glass of Guinness.

“Oh, that’s the good stuff,” Éamon said. “It’s Murphy’s, now, isn’t it?” At which point I realized that he must be from Cork or environs.

I flipped through the book, landed on page 299, and scanned it quickly. “Oh, here’s a good word, I think.”

“They’re Irish, they’re all good,” Éamon said.

“This one’s from Ulster, so you may not know it,” I said. “Slouster.”

“I think I’ve not heard it,” he said.

“It’s both noun and verb, and comes from Irish slusaí,” I said.

“Ní aithním é,” Éamon said, which meant he didn’t recognize it, “but I’m sure you made a game try at saying it.”

“It gives a quote from someone called Todd defining it: ‘flatterer who lacks the art of flattering successfully.’”

At that point, I think Maury burst into a coughing fit, but I couldn’t see him, as his camera had gotten covered with Guinness. 

Éamon, however, was unfazed. “Isn’t that the most Irish word I’ve ever heard,” he said. “If you had any more luck in finding words, James, you might make a good Irishman!”


What do you call a place to sleep when you’re half asleep?

Well, sure, berrum, I suppose, as in “Whayya doon immy berrum?” But I mean something simultaneously more and less fancy: dorter, as in “Gwan gi outa my dorter.” It’s more fancy because it’s Latin-derived, and less fancy because, well, a dormitory is less fancy than a bedroom. But also, it’s simultaneously both because it’s especially associated with monks.

Anyway, berrum isn’t officially a word and no one would understand it without context (or perhaps even with context). You have to go with bedroom. But dorter is a word, and it’s been an English word longer than dormitory has.

How can that be? How can the worn-down form precede the full form? Just because it got worn down in French, and then the un-worn-down form was brought in later on. Sort of like how you might get introduced to blended Scotch before you come to know the single-malt kind.

The Latin original is dormitorium, which is a place for sleeping like a scriptorium is a place for writing and a crematorium is a place for being burned. It went into Old French and became dortoir, also spelled dortour, which is also another way we can spell our English word dorter. That word came over to English in the late 1200s, when monks were common and had separate sleeping-places while other common people didn’t always. So dorter became associated with monasteries – ironically, because no Englishman would ever send his dorter to a monastery (that’s a pun, see, because in a typical modern British accent dorter and daughter sound the same).

And dormitory came into English about 200 years later, also first to do with monasteries. It wasn’t until the 1800s in the US that the term came to be associated with university student residences. Bedroom, by the way, has been with us at least since Shakespeare used the word in 1600s; it supplanted the earlier bedchamber, present since the later 1300s and now long restricted to royals, who at the time of its introduction were more likely to have them anyway.

The English language, as it passed through the Renaissance, was a bit like a sleepy student gradually coming awake to find his Latin and Greek tutors at the foot of his bed. It had all these inheritances by way of French (since the French ran the place for a while after 1066 and all that), but once it became aware of its glorious classical roots – and wanted to be thought not inattentive but appreciative of its noble roots – it started striving to make more of them. And education became more and more available to broader segments of society – not just for the sleepy monks in their dorters, but for the diligent (ha!) students in their dormitories.


Home, humble home, the same everywhere and different everywhere. The old inner suburbs, the city-edge sprawl with intestinal streets, and the long sidewalkless half-rural roads; the cities of the west that stop where they stop, the cities of the east that fade like dusk and dreams, the cities of the much farther east that cast monsoon rain off their roofs; the hilly and the flat, the treed and the barren; the cement-plant village I lived in as a child, the foothill suburb I lived in as a child, the Indian reserve I lived on as a child, the resort town I lived in as an adolescent, the flat shopping-mall satellite I lived in as a young adult… All jumbled with humble bungalows, the subtle tigers of the homebuilding business.

Beneath a sky of oatmeal gray, the land slides downwards from a Kmart parking lot
Into a distance lined with bungalows, and then a vague horizon.
—“Early Morning in Milwaukee,” John Koethe

They are the same aren’t they,
The presumed landscape and the dream of home
Because the people are all homesick today or desperately sleeping,   
Trying to remember how those rectangular shapes
Became so extraneous and so near
To create a foreground of quiet knowledge
In which youth had grown old, chanting and singing wise hymns that   
Will sign for old age
And so lift up the past to be persuaded, and be put down again.
—“The Bungalows,” John Ashbery

Once you’re in, there is not much up—it’s kitchen and dining room and living room and bedrooms all on one floor, and then perhaps another space, finished or unfinished, downstairs. Or perhaps there is an upstairs, spooky rooms under the slant of the canted roof, dormitories with dormer windows. And maybe, just maybe, if you are in the right place, a veranda.

How does it feel to be outside and inside at the same time,
The delicious feeling of the air contradicting and secretly abetting
The interior warmth?
—“The Bungalows,” John Ashbery

A bungalow isn’t, or is, a house for wealthy people. If it’s your vacation house, then you are the sort who can afford a vacation house. If it is your one and only home, it is humble but it’s life, and it has more room than most apartments, after all.

It’s the ragged source of memory,
a tarpaper-shingled bungalow
whose floors tilt toward the porch,
whose back yard ends abruptly
in a weedy ravine.
—“The House on Moscow Street,” Marilyn Nelson

What, exactly, a bungalow is defined as depends on where you are. In Canada, it is a single-storey single-family dwelling. In theory that includes big ranch-style houses, but everyone knows the difference between a sprawling ranch house and a boxy bungalow. In South Africa, the definition is much the same. In the United Kingdom, it often refers to a prefabricated single-storey seaside house. In Ireland, if you pass a house in the countryside, it’s probably a bungalow and quite likely one storey. Throughout the United States, there are many different kinds of bungalows, often strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts style, pretty much all with sloping roofs and some with second stories; in Australia, it is much the same, but they have second storeys, not stories. There are Chicago, Michigan, Milwaukee, and California Bungalow styles. All have doors, of course, but the Doors have a Hollywood bungalow:

But where do bungalows come from? The clue is in the name, though it has changed shape as much as the house has. The house style is named for the place it originated, where it was—and is—a house with a sloped roof and a veranda, and often a second storey under the roof: Bengal.

Yes, Bengal, the region that holds the northeast nook of India and the whole of Bangladesh, home of the deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, and the cities Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) and Dhaka (erstwhile Dacca) and Chittagong and several others. The Hindi word for Bengal is Baṅglā, and the Gujarati word is Baṅglo; from these we got bungalow. In Bengal they often call such houses Bangla ghar, which just means “Bengal-style house.”

Which, to North American ears, might make it sound exotic, and yet a bungalow is as homey as home can be. But it is a fun word—it sounds like your younger brother tumbling down the stairs, doesn’t it? But what stairs? It’s a bungalow!

So now you know. All the little houses, four to a Monopoly property until they are displaced by hotels, what each of us from places where they build them think are a defining local residential style, even as in each place they are different like the families in them are different, they all trace to the Ganges delta, to the home of the ancient kingdom of Vanga, mentioned in the Mahabharata.

You who were directionless, and thought it would solve everything if you found one,
What do you make of this? Just because a thing is immortal
Is that any reason to worship it? Death, after all, is immortal.   
But you have gone into your houses and shut the doors, meaning   
There can be no further discussion.
—“The Bungalows,” John Ashbery


Snow had fallen, snow on snow, 
Snow on snow

Christina Rossetti’s vision of the bleak mid-winter is one that quite a few people are seeing just now, including many who haven’t seen it in a long time. Temperatures have plunged throughout the heart of North America and snow has fallen on snow on snow. It’s a blizzard.

The defining feature of a blizzard, for most of us these days, is snow. Lots and lots and lots of snow. Great blizzards are often memorialized with photographs of snow by the yard: cars buried to the roofs and streets and sidewalks carved out between human-high snowbanks. If there is wind, so much the worse; you are trapped by the weather, and power may be knocked out. You most certainly should not try to travel, although once the storm has passed you may want to go outside to shovel, and sled, and shovel, and ski, and shovel.

But why this word blizzard? Why the zz? What is so buzzy about snow? We can understand that blitz is a great word for lightning, fast and zappy; we can think that lizard and buzzard are acceptable words for unpleasant hot-climate creatures; we can imagine that a wizard has some magic, and whizz is almost as onomatopoeic as buzz; but snow is soft and quiet. Unless you have too much caffeine or a migraine, you can’t even hear it falling. The wind that brings it, yes, perhaps, but…

No but. It’s the wind that brings us this word, the whizzing of the windspeed and the blowing hard – especially the blow. In fact, before blizzard was a word for weather, it was a word in some parts of America for a sharp blow or shot, probably formed on the basis of sound symbolism (think of not just blow but blast, blister, bluster, and blunt). It was in the wicked winter of 1881 that its use for hard winter weather was introduced to the broader American readership, as the New York Nation noted: “The hard weather has called into use a word which promises to become a national Americanism, namely ‘blizzard’. It designates a storm (of snow and wind) which men cannot resist away from shelter.”

The definition of blizzard in the Oxford English Dictionary, first included in 1887, is “A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish; a ‘snow-squall’.” It was that condition that Robert Falcon Scott had in mind in 1913 when, two weeks before his own death on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition, he wrote, speaking of his companion Captain Oates, “It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.” 

And it is, really, that condition that I have always thought of with the word blizzard. When I grew up in southern Alberta, snow, even snow on snow on snow, was not a rare thing, but you had to watch out for the times when it was not only snowing a lot but blowing so hard you couldn’t see – or do anything else sensibly outside. And the zz seemed somehow appropriate, not because the wind buzzed (it did not; it howled and roared) but because it was hard, like the angles in zz, and it was uncommon, like the letter z, and it was the last thing you wanted, just as the letter z – also called the izzard ­– is the last thing in the alphabet.