No, I’m not doing this one just because it sounds kind of like sex slave and exclaim and autoclave (which is what you use to sterilize the tools you use to make your sex slave exclaim, but no this is not about that, no no no). Nor am I doing it just because of the [kskl̥] in its heart – those two crisp voiceless velar stops, the hissy fricative [s] and that voiceless liquid [l̥] (so mystical-sounding!) isolating the second [k] even as it spreads its aspiration onto the /l/ after it… Nor am I doing it even because of the lovely play of shapes in it, the xcl cross curve line ensemble and the half-echoing shape v, all between the squinchy eyes of the e and e, with just the normal a in the heart allowing it to salute you with ave. (Yes, ave sclavussclavus being the source of English slave and Italian ciao, ciao being the modern equivalent of ave and coming from an utterance signifying ‘I am your slave’ – but not sex slave.)

No, I am doing it because of Dahala Khagrabari and, metaphorically, because of Vulcan Point Island. I am doing it because of matryoshka dolls.

Here is what is what. You may know what an enclave is: a country or piece of a country (or other political entity: state, city) that is surrounded on all sides by another country (or same-level political entity). The Vatican is one such, a whole country that is an enclave. There are many enclaves that are pieces of another country, little flecks of territory, administrative spatter over the border. You have to pass through another country to get to them. There may be geographic barriers involved, or it may simply be vagaries of boundaries. Kaliningrad (belonging to Russia) is thought of as one such, although you can also pass across the sea to get to it rather than having to pass through another country per se. There are little exclaves of Germany and Italy in Switzerland.

An exclave is to an enclave as an emigrant is to an immigrant. Broadly, an enclave is an exclave viewed from the surrounding country; an exclave is an enclave viewed from the country from which it is separated. Loan a book to someone else and you could say it becomes an exclave of your property on their bookshelf. Exclaves are not enslaved, but they are not exactly free either. An exclave may be surrounded by more than one country, but it is not in touch with the rest of its own country.

So imagine an exclave of one country in a neighbouring country: a district that belongs to country A but is separated from it in country B. Now imagine that in that exclave of country A there is an exclave of country B. Like a pool of vinegar in the pool of oil floating on your pool of vinegar. Got that? Now imagine an exclave of country A in the exclave of country B in the exclave of country A in country B.

Does that matryoshka-doll-like arrangement sound like Dr. Seuss? It’s not. Country A is India and country B is Bangladesh. And the exclave in an exclave in an exclave is called Dahala Khagrabari #51. It’s not all that large – 7000 square metres – and is not inhabited (it’s a farm field). It’s not separated from the rest of the Indian enclave by much, but it is separated by an exclave of Bangladesh inside an exclave of India in Bangladesh. I do not think there are border guards. It is owned by a Bangladeshi, but it belongs to the country of India. I don’t know why, but the separation of Bangladesh from India was not one of the tidiest things ever to happen. When you rip things apart, sometimes there are rough edges and shreds.

When you look at these things on maps, they sort of look like lakes of one country inside land of another country. So Dahala Kagrabari #51 would be like a lake in an island in a lake. Which can make one think of islands as exclaves of the mainland in the sea, and lakes as like exclaves of the sea in the land (ignoring the river connections and the different salinity).

So now imagine an island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island.

It’s called Vulcan Point Island.

It’s in the Philippines. Try the cosmic-zoom-style view.

Exclave, sex slave, schmexlave. This is more like Inception.

In fact, ask yourself: How do you know your wakefulness today is not an exclave of yesterday’s wakefulness inside last night’s dream? And how do you know last night’s dream was not an exclave of the previous night’s dream inside the wakefulness of yesterday, which was an exclave of the day before, which was…

Or, on the other hand, maybe we start life in an exclave of wakefulness in an exclave of dream and so on, tens of thousands of levels down, and when you finally break through all the shells in this matryoshka doll of reality, you exit to eternity.

Something to think about as you fall into sleep… or rise out of wakefulness.


There was a time when I thought this word literally referred to a coddled or shirred egg. It sounds so warm and soft and slushy and smarmy, like an egg (German Ei) swirled egg-drop style into a soupy swarm. Hmm, how could you make a recipe that would suit this word? Perhaps warm up a glass of Asbach Uralt (a wintry German brandy) with an equal amount of butter and a bit of honey until just steaming lightly, then drop a raw egg into it and swirl it slowly and gently with – not your finger, that would become uncomfortable, but perhaps something similar (someone else’s finger? No, no, um, how about a wooden spoon handle). Once the white is soft white and the yolk is just dreamy, I mean creamy, take it off the stove, splash in a bit of cold cream, and drink it.

I think, if nothing else, it might induce in you fairly soon a feeling of schwarmerei. If you feed it to a person with whom you are infatuated, you could hope that they too will feel the swarming warmth. And forgive you for using their finger to stir it.

Or you could just use eggnog. Made with brandy, rum, condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream, rum, brandy, and I guess an egg. You will be sure to be filled with a swirling, swarming enthusiasm. Schwärmerei.

Oh, does this word have two dots on the a or not? Well, it depends on whether it’s had its glass of alcohol, milk fat, and egg. You can see the dots as an incipient pyrotechnic nimbus, or at least scotomata.

No, no, it depends on whether you spell it true to its German origin or not. Use two dots and capitalize, or leave the dots off and lower-case. But either way, the dictionaries tell me you have to say it the German way: “shver-ma-rye,” not “shwar-ma-rye” (say, how about some shawarma with those eggs? no?).

Well, that’s a pity. It sounds so much more like someone drunkenly saying “Sure I’m alright” if you say it the wrong way. It also sounds more like schwa, which is that lax neutral vowel we use in place of other vowels in unstressed positions, sometimes insert where it doesn’t belong (as some do after the l in film and athlete), and may be heard to moan incoherently when in the grips of Schwärmerei.

What is it, then, this Schwärmerei, and whence comes it? The word is the German word for what we would call swarmery if we used that word: swarmery is to swarm as foolery is to fool, bravery is to brave, or cookery is to cook. The root of swarm and schwärmen (the German verb source of this word) is the same, way back. But in German it came to have a more figurative sense, an internal sense, more of an intense warmth (swarmth?), an enthusiasm. An infatuation, even. Sentimentality, headiness, excessive warmth of feeling. Zeal. A crush. Your brain and emotions go swirling and swarming and surely warming as though you had just coddled them with fat, cholesterol, sugar, and alcohol.

Your head feels heavy (German schwer). Your mind is slipping into a pipe dream. It is delicious. Yes, yes, you swear: more, aye, more Schwärmerei.


This word is so succulent I can scarce believe I haven’t done a tasting of it before. Given my occasional inadvertent retastings, you might expect to have spotted it here five times already. But no dice. Well, my quidnunc, today you get your quincunx, and cuncti simus concanentes.*

You may think this a novel word, but it is no new coinage. Indeed, though it is the title of a well-known recent novel by Charles Palliser (I’m told it’s very good), it comes from an old Latin coin. And it has since then acquired a phalanx of uses.

Let us start at the origin. Latin for ‘five’ is quinque; Latin for ‘twelfth’ is uncia (source of our word ounce), and uncia in Roman coinage was a twelfth piece of an as, as it happens – an as was the standard bronze coin. Put the two together and you get quincunx, the coin worth five twelfths. It was marked with five dots, and often the five dots were in the pattern we now associate with the 5 side on a die: ⚄ (box not included). Ergo, it is like the symbol for “therefore” ∴ and the same again inverted (why? “because”: ∵) and meeting in the middle at the tips. What’s it there for? Because! Connect the dots.

The pattern is in many places if we wish to find it. We may plant trees in this formation, or arrange heraldic patterns, or design buildings, or draw maps, or deploy legionaries into battle, or form the engines on a rocket, or get a tattoo (Thomas Edison had a quincunx tattooed on his forearm). Mark your ballot with a cross in a box and the vertices are in a quincuncial arrangement.

It is thus a surprise and a pity that we do not see the word more often; I can go through twelve fifths of Scotch (at no more than an ounce a day) between hearing it and hearing it again. Perhaps people delight in it so much they are a little afraid to put their tongues to it? Look, it uses the mouth so well: it starts with a kiss of the lips and a release at the velum, /kw/, and then it feints toward the tip but stays back, twice a nasal and crisp stop /ŋk/ before at last softly hissing with the licking tip /s/. The vowels move, but gently: they are the first sounds of “in” and “under.” It is so crisp and sweet, like biting a red delicious – or a slice of quince.

And the spelling! There are two cups and two caps, u and n and again and again, and i c as well. And there are our two craziest letters, q and x; the first is incomplete without u, and the second is two sounds lying together as one, like the crossed line segments that make it x – forming, at their tips and intersection, the fulfillment of the sense itself: a quincunx.

*Latin for ‘let us sing together’


There’s something vividly evident in the visual form of dividual: with nothing to lead it in, the symmetry of divid is highlighted – mostly cut already at the notch v – and we see an odd residual ual at the end.

But what to do? We have divide but not divid. We can take individual and divide it into in and dividual, but beyond that the axe breaks, unless we wish to break a morpheme, chop divi off (the fall ‘of a god’ in Latin) and get something truly dual. No, no, individual is dividual but dividual is individual.

Do I have your undivided attention now? We talk of individual things and of individuals; if we are writing stiff stuff, we may say, for example, “This treatment is not recommended in individuals under two years of age” or “I approached the individual with my sidearm drawn.” It is a long word and so carries more weight; it has more syllables and seems more unassailable. But there is a bit of a divide between our passing use of it and its construction and root sense.

An individual is not subject to division. Thus any individual animal sees its individuality given the lie by a vivisectionist. I may joint an individual chicken (defunct, decapitated, and deplumed) into individual pieces, and cut the individual pieces into cubes of meat: how the heck are they individual if they can be divided? Well, it’s like this: once they’re divided, they’re not individuals anymore. If I take an individual carrot and cut it in coins, it is not an individual carrot anymore. It has been redefined. It is the individual until it is divided, and it does not remain the individual after that, so an individual cannot be divided.

A bit of lexical hairsplitting? Certainly, but take a quantum of solace in one thing: a quantum is the one thing that is truly and utterly individual – it is an amount that cannot be divided into smaller amounts. Everything above that is dividual. From the perspective of the social and legal dividual, the group entity of a society, you are an individual, a single entry in a database (though each line of an Excel sheet has several cells), but from the perspective of your parts you are a dividual, even in the visual aspect: cut your hair or your nails and you have divided some of yourself from the rest. Your attention is dividual too; in the riot of daily life and its emotional upheavals, sometimes you need to split off a separate piece of your mind in order to make yourself a separate peace.

You will not find one part of an individual, visible or invisible, that is indivisible. There can always be a residual. But do not take a place in the vigil for individuals; send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for all of thee. No one is an island; we are all parts of the mainland but we are all also archipelagos. We are complex; nothing is simplex, not even the soul, which swirls with spirit aromas like a glass of wine poured from a bottle of the everything. There is joy in division: it is how you know thing from thing, thought from thought, moment from moment; it is how you taste so many things in life. If you were not dividual you would be lacking the whole picture; you would just be a pixel. A quantum. And a quantum is soulless.

What’s wrong with “anyways,” anyway?

One word that gets some people in a lather is anyways with an s. It’s illogical! Senseless! Illiterate! Etc. But none of them ever seem to bother looking up its origins and history. So, for those who want to know, I’ve given the details in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

In defense of ‘anyways’


righteous, wrongeous

The author of the blog Bag of Anything is a righteous poet.

When I say righteous, though, I don’t mean it in the sense ‘not wicked but good’; I mean it in the sense ‘wicked good’. I mean it like the righteous in The Righteous Brothers: right on.

If you go to Bag of Anything, you will see what I mean. But here’s what drew the blog to my attention: Near the end of my word tasting on mosaic, I wrote, “Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous.” The author of Bag of Anything, who signed the comment as “Rain, Rain,” gave this poem:

Deplore cast stones? Sinner, avoid the righteous;
Likely they are spoiling for a fight. Just
Follow Jesus’ counsel: in a throng, us
Common folk are safer with the wrongeous.

(It’s available on Bag of Anything at “Avoid the Righteous”.)

You may reckon that wrongeous is something I made up on the spot and is not to be found in the dictionary. You’d be half right. I did make it up on the spot, but I figured it would also be in a dictionary, and I was right – although the preferred spelling is wrongous. I also figured it would show in the Oxford English Dictionary as at best a historical word now generally disused, and I was right about that too. And I figured that it would mean something in the order of ‘having a wrong quality; tending to be wrong; acting wrongly or wrongfully’. And I was right again.

So I guess that makes me a righteous person. Well, except that we don’t typically mean ‘correcteous’ when we say righteous. (No, correcteous is not in the dictionary. But I bet you caught my drift.) We mean ‘holy’ or ‘highly justified or justifiable’ (an act or state can be righteous too – “so righteous was his need” is a line from Steely Dan) or ‘admirable’ or similar approbative things.

Now I want to ask you: do you find wrongeous righteous or wrongous? And do you find wrongous righteous or wrongeous? Which works better, if either does?

I like the parallel with righteous, but we have a little problem: the t in righteous doesn’t stand for exactly the same sound as in right; it has palatalized and affricated due to the high front vowel after it, so it sounds like “ch.” The closest thing we could do with the ng would be to say “rongyus,” which would palatalize it and probably really convert it into a nasalized glide. But that’s not the pronunciation, according to Oxford: it’s “rongus.” So that e seems not to belong, although it is historically attested. So hmm.

To be fair, the e isn’t original in righteous either. Actually, the words righteous and wrongeous come from right+wise and wrong+wise, with a shift in the unstressed second syllable over time (a half a millennium or so) to match words such as perilous and integrous. If I listed the historical changes of form leading to the modern form it would more than double the length of this blog.

Well, everything changes. To try to cling to some fixed historical form, or to try to maintain some imaginary purity or fixity in the language, would be altogether wrongeous. To try to disallow unfamiliar but usable words is also wrongeous. But to have fun, and to write witty poetry… well, that’s righteous, dude.

You can have Danishes with your giant beaver, but maybe not croissants

In one episode of Big Bang Theory, Amy and Sheldon are playing a game they call “Counterfactuals” (let’s leave aside the linguistic use of that term, which is a little different). They challenge Leonard with this question: “In a world where mankind is ruled by a giant intelligent beaver, what food is no longer consumed?”

He guesses wrong, of course, because that’s how the show works. The correct answer, according to Sheldon and Amy, is cheese Danish. The explanation: “In a world ruled by a giant beaver, mankind builds many dams to please the beaver overlord. The low-lying city of Copenhagen is flooded. Thousands die. Devastated, the Danes never invent their namesake pastry. How does one miss that?”

So anyway, that never sat quite right with me, and I was thinking about it today while I was face down on a massage table. First of all, it didn’t sit quite right because Denmark isn’t all that low-lying overall, certainly not as much as the Netherlands (hence the name: nether lands). Of course, Copenhagen is at sea level, but so are many other cities, some of which may likewise be associated with particular foods. I think Dutch pancakes and other Dutch foods would be at least as endangered. Except, of course, the Dutch would build dams to keep the water out of Amsterdam. As in fact they have.

Which leads me to the key point. Dams would not make the sea level rise. I mean, yeah, if they put dams around more low-lying land to reclaim more of it from the ocean, that might have a modest effect, but you know that’s not why or where beavers build dams. Beavers build dams on rivers. To make big ponds. Lakes, even. Reservoirs. Just like people do. Only presumably more dams would be built than we have already.

And all those dams would keep water from getting to the oceans. So, if anything, the sea level would be a bit lower. Not a whole lot, probably, but maybe a bit.

But meanwhile, big cities on rivers would be flooded. Sorta like what has happened to some cities in China where they’ve built dams. Whole cities have been submerged, their residents relocated.

So name a big city on a river that would be submerged, a big city associated with a famous pastry.

I’m going with Vienna. It’s on the Danube. I think it would be likely to be underwater. Vienna is associated with croissants. (The story of their being invented in honour of bakers hearing moorish armies tunnelling under the walls has no historical basis – and in fact croissants aren’t as old as that – but still, Vienna. Croissants. Anyway, Paris would also be underwater, don’t you think? Damming the Seine? I think so.) So you probably wouldn’t be able to get croissants. Maybe several other things invented in Vienna and Paris and other river cities too.

But you’d be OK. You could have a Danish instead.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s a TV show. Remember, I was lying face down on a massage table. You’re supposed to relax, so I wasn’t going to lie there planning my day or week. I needed to think of completely irrelevant things.

Is my point that the writers of Big Bang Theory aren’t geniuses? Oh, no, they’re geniuses. (Or genii if you prefer.) But geniuses at being funny. They pulled it off. And they kept me thinking about their show after.

I’m not even going to go into other things, such as how Sheldon, Leonard, et al. would surely recite the rhyme of the One Ring not in English, as they did in one episode, but in the Dark Tongue of Mordor (as I did at the TV in response). Again: What, were they going to translate it for their audience? If the show were written at true full-on geek level the audience would be much smaller. See? They know what they’re doing.

But I just thought you would like to know. Not Danishes. Croissants.