This word takes a lexical game of noughts and crosses to the nth degree. Indeed, looking at it, your eyes may be o o or x x; it looks as artificial as nylon, like something from sci-fi or fantasy. It reveals itself gradually, perhaps acrimoniously. Tell me how it’s even pronounced.

When I look at it, in a little moment I see xantho – from a Greek root meaning ‘yellow’ – and xylon – which might look similar to, for instance, xylophone, and rightly so, because they share a root – meaning ‘wood’. So ‘yellow wood’ – which is correct, that’s where it comes from – and because in English we have this idea you can’t start a syllable with /ks/, we say “zantho” for xantho and “zylon” for xylon. Which is how it strikes my eyes: “zanthozylon.”

But when the two parts are put together and ready by people less familiar with Greek etymological elements, you get a single word that comes out as “zanthoksilon,” the dictionary pronunciation. Which kind of gives me a toothache. It sounds like a cross between an ocelot, an ox, and a Cylon (from Battlestar Galactica), from Xanth (a fantasy world created by Piers Anthony; most of the 38 books in the series have puns in their titles – I like Crewel Lye, subtitle A caustic yarn).

This word leads not into fantasy, however, but into botany. Which can be even more absorbing. Read this description of the plant:

Shrub 5 to 10 feet high, branches alternate, with scattered prickles, sharp, strong and straight. Leaves alternate, oddly pinnate, petiole round, often inerme, folioles 9 or 11 opposite, nearly sessile, ovate very sharp, with slight glandular serratures, somewhat downy beneath. Flowers in small sessile umbels, near the origin of young shoots, small and greenish. Diclinous polygamous, some shrubs bearing pistillate flowers, and others two kinds, both staminate and complete or perfect. These last have a 5 parted calyx with segments erect, oblong obtuse. Five stamens on the base of the gynophore, filaments subulate, anthers sagittate, 4 celled. Central gynophore divided into the stipes of the pistils, which are 3 or 4, oval, with a converging terete style and obtuse, stigma. Staminate flowers with an oval trifid abortive gynophore. Pistillate flowers with a smaller calyx. Capsules stipitate, elliptical punctate, reddish green, two valved, with one seed, oval and blackish.

That is from an 1830 book by C.S. Rafinesque, nicely quoted at Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Such welters of technical descriptions have a curiously relaxing effect on me. I suppose they may cause some people to tense up.

Anyway, it’s a shrub with fairly standard-shaped leaves. It is noted for some medicinal qualities. It is used for, among other things, digestion and relief of rheumatism. It has a citrusy smell and taste, but is astringent.

The acrimony is not felt at first, when the bark or liquid is taken in the mouth, but unfolds itself gradually by a burning sensation on the tongue and palate.

Its stems may have a numbing effect, and it has a common name of Toothache bush:

In toothache, it is only a palliative, as I have ascertained on myself, the burning sensation which it produces on the mouth, merely mitigating the other pain, which returns afterwards.

But at least while you’re reading the botanist’s notes, the pain disappears. Or else, depending on your leaning, the pain appears, to disappear when you are done reading.

You will not find this word exactly as such in Wikipedia. The English pronunciation has trumped the etymology, and Latinate endings have trumped the Greek; it’s in there as Zanthoxylum.

The plant comes in a few different kinds. I will allow one more observation from our 1830 botanist – an observation that presents an acrimony that unfolds gradually:

This genus, whose name means yellow wood, and which many botanists write Zanthoxylum by mistake, has many anomalies, because accuracy appears of very little moment to the Linnaean botanists.


My friend Trish’s daughter Nenya is a neologist. I’ve tasted one of her creations before: scratchative. (Trish’s husband, Jaba, is likely where Nenya inherited this from – he’s the coiner of fugxury, among others.) Today Trish told me of another word Nenya has come up with: clackled.

You probably won’t guess what it means from the sound, although once you know what it means, it may seem suitable – and will surely tell you a little bit about Nenya’s perceptions. It’s obviously formed on a phonaesthematic basis – made of bits that just sound right because of impressions picked up from other words. Kids do that a lot, and adults do it a fair bit too.

Nenya obviously knows inflectional and derivational morphology; she has the –ed ending on the word, making an adjectival past participle and implying a verb clackle or, perhaps, a noun clackled (yes, we can make certain kinds of adjectives by putting –ed on nouns – the kind that signify the noun having been imposed on what it modifies, or being worn by it). Either way, the word means something has happened to its subject.

But Nenya also knows what just sounds right to her. So do most people.

Now, there are all sorts of words this word can bring to mind. Cackle, heckle, tackle, trickle, spackle, pickle, shackle… some of them are formed with the verbal –le frequentative suffix, like dazzle and twinkle; some of them (an overlapping set) involve binding or other forms of physical contact, and some (again overlapping) involve messiness. The cl calls forth cloth, clothes, class, clock, click, clap; some of them are things that may encompass or apply to the skin.

What Nenya uses clackled for is ‘all wrapped and twisted up in bedclothes’. If you’re the sort of person who twists and turns in your sleep, you may wake up with the sheets and covers all twisted around you and difficult to disengage from. To be in this condition is to be clackled.

That interests me. I find clackled rather hard, percussive, like clap and clatter, which bedclothes never are (well, if yours are, maybe don’t tell me about it). But yes, it has the close-to-the-skin cl, and it has the catching mess of ackled. It also crackles as words enjoyed by children often do.

But it’s not to me to say whether I find it suitable or not. Might as well say orange doesn’t seem very orangey. The word is clackled; it is there, and when you are awake to it, you already cannot escape it.


I guess I’m doing a letter tasting today. But this letter has piqued my attention a few times just recently.

On Sunday, for one thing, I was in the antiques market, and I saw a set of cloth bookmarks embroidered Warren. I could have bought them, but I didn’t see it as worthwhile. Why would I have bought them? For my dad. That’s his name. He has a lot of books, too, but some musty old cloth bookmarks probably wouldn’t be the number one thing he wanted.

So that brought the initial W to mind. Also recently, I noticed that one of my friends has a middle initial W. I have no idea what it stands for. I should ask.

But there’s so much more to W. It’s the beginning of some very common names (especially William, one of which I work with), though not so many other words. It’s in the bottom third of the alphabet in terms of frequency of use. It’s worth 4 points in Scrabble. And it has a few striking cultural associations.

One of them is George W. Bush, of course, who went by “Dubya” to distinguish him from his father, George H.W. Bush (the W’s stood for the same thing: Walker). For many people, that’s a rather bitter taste to the letter. But the buffed-down “dubya” version at least takes it a little away from the letter itself. I would rather have another W politician: Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario.

Another cultural association is a magazine, W, originally Women’s Wear Daily, an oversized glossy fashion arbiter (but split the letter and you get VV, which at least among some Canadians stands for Value Village, which is a very economical place to get clothing). Another is a chain of modernist hotels (W Hotels, obviously) run by Starwood and aimed at youthful travellers (but just the ones with an adult amount of cash).

And there are Watts: you’ll see a W on every lightbulb. There is tungsten, which is found in some bulbs and has the symbol W on the periodic table (from German Wolfram). There is the first letter of every US radio station east of the Mississippi (versus K in the west). And of course there is the world wide web, www.

Which is… three letters or six? I mean, it’s a double U, right?

Well, now, in French, they call it double V. Doesn’t that make more sense? This pair of plunging necklines – or fangs, or notches, or or… It’s not UU, right?

Not now it’s not. But it’s time I broke the news to you about U.

You know how in Latin inscriptions all the u’s are v’s? SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS and all that. Well, in Latin there was just one letter, shaped V, and it stood for a vowel in some places and a consonant (classically pronounced [w]) in others: VENI VIDI VICI. These days we render the vowels in Latin as u and the consonants as v. But just because that’s what we’ve been doing in English… for the last couple of centuries, but not much more than that.

Seriovsly! The shape u appeared several hundred years ago from scribes writing v cursively. It came to be a variant form of the letter. They were used interchangeably; some printers would prefer one for the start of a word and the other for elsewhere, but it was not formalized. Look at 16th and 17th century texts and you uuill see. Even in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, they are treated as one letter – although by that time the practice was well established of the new u shape being for the vowel and the old v shape being for the consonant.

Old English didn’t actually need a v consonant, because there was no phoneme /v/ in Old English; [v] was just how /f/ was pronounced between two vowels. The French influence helped English come to treat /v/ as a sound in its own right, since French already had that as a separate phoneme and English borrowed a lot of words from it.

But one thing Old English did have as a phoneme was /w/. Yes, they had a /w/ phoneme before they had a /v/. How did they write that? Not with V! Old English used a character borrowed from runes, called wynn and shaped like a cross between a p and a y: ƿ. If you read modern editions of Old English texts, they use a w in place of it for reasons that are probably obvious.

So why did wynn lose? Continental type sets, mainly. Same reason we no longer have eth (ð) and thorn (þ), which would actually be very useful. Printing was invented on the European continent, and they didn’t have those letters. So eth and thorn were replaced by th (and, in a few instances for a while, y as in ye olde), and wynn was replaced by two U’s, which had been in use on the continent for some centuries already to stand for /w/, since the Latin /w/ had shifted to /v/ in many places, causing the consonant V to stand for, well, /v/. The two U’s could be shaped as either UU or VV at first, but the practice of using VV won out, and a single letter W came to be. English is certainly not the only language in the area to use that letter – although other Germanic ones used it for a fricative, not a glide. We got the practice from Norman French. Standard Parisian French, on the other hand, resisted the letter W for many centuries.

The result of all that is a letter that, unlike the others, has a three-syllable name (how ironic that it should be the one we have to say three times: double u double u double u dot whatever dot com) – and a name that does not use the letter itself in the spelling. It is a contrary, uncertain letter, redundant yet necessary, the letter of questions (who? what? when? where? why?), sharp in shape yet smooth in sound, an old sound with a new form but named after an old form of that new form, presenting to the eyes allure or threat: V-necks or fangs? Could be a fifty-fifty chance… or, in Roman numerals, a five-five chance.

Five-five? Yes, W can be a little pun on the US speed limit, 55. But you know speed limits are made to be transgressed. Take a risk: Double you or nothing.

misophonia, misophony

Doug Linzey has drawn my attention to the article “The Horrible Anger You Feel at Hearing Someone Chewing Is Called Misophonia.” Ah, misophonia. Not a word in the OED per se, but made of serviceable combining parts: miso, from Greek μισο miso, from μισεῖν misein ‘hate’ (verb), and phon, from Greek ϕωνος phonos, from ϕωνή phoné ‘voice’ but referring to sound in general, and the ia that makes it a noun of condition (like schizophrenia). We have misanthropy, ‘hatred of people’, and misoneism, ‘hatred of new things’, and we have telephone and microphone and all those other phone words. So hating sounds is easily called misophony, and a condition in which you hate sounds is misophonia. Sounds good, no? So to speak.

Now, I don’t feel horrible anger at hearing someone chewing. Heck, I was recently in front of someone on a bus who was chewing gum so loudly it was almost drowning out everything else (it sounded like a gruesome sci-fi sound effect), and I didn’t feel anything more than mild annoyance and greater curiosity. I do feel actual pain in response to certain kinds of loud, sharp noises, but not anger. If I feel distaste for a certain noise, it’s typically because of bad associations: it kept me awake or otherwise disturbed me several times, perhaps. I don’t like the sound a phone ringing, but just because it’s so demanding. I’m not sure any of that is misophonia.

Doug tells me he experiences something like misophonia in response to certain radio and TV personalities’ voices. Not horrible anger, perhaps, but certainly irritation. He has long disliked Jian Ghomeshi’s voice (way ahead of the curve on that one); he doesn’t like Rex Murphy’s either (I bet there’s a club for people who dislike Rex Murphy’s voice), but he tolerates it on occasion; and he used to be OK with Stuart McLean, but since McLean started trying to be a cross between Garrison Keillor and W.O. Mitchell he has to turn him off – actually, I’m right with him on that one: his theme music makes me dash for the off button before I can hear him speak. And if wanting to turn off the radio or TV as soon as you hear someone counts as misophonia, Ben Folds is on the list for me too, as are a number of singers featured in commercials, and, come to think of it, ukulele strumming too – just because of overexposure.

That’s not a medical condition, though. The misophonia – or, in Dutch, misofoniedescribed by the University of Amsterdam Academic Medical Center is a psychiatric condition, much stronger, not just a matter of taste. There is debate over whether it should be a diagnosis included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. So real misophonia would be to garden-variety misophony – just hating sound like we hate bad smells or certain foods – as, say, bipolar disorder is to moodiness.

Which means if you simply miss euphonia, if you’re mainly miffed at messy phonetics, if the sound of a phone musters your ire, if you’re nettled at slurping or munching, you are experiencing what we can call misophony but do not necessarily have a clinically problematic case of misophonia.

It’s a rather euphonious word itself, isn’t it, misophonia? Mellifluous. It has two nasal consonants and two voiceless fricatives, and the rest are vowels. If you feel misophony towards stops (/b d g p t k/) or affricates or even voiced fricatives, this word is perfectly fine for you. Also if you dislike mid or low front vowels or high back vowels. But, honestly, if you have a problem with those, you really have to recuse yourself from speech communication altogether.

Maybe we can add some extra morphemes to specify the kind of misophony or misophonia. Hate the sound of chewing? Misomasticophony, perhaps (though that does sandwich a Latin root between two Greek ones). Hate the sound of a phone ringing? Misotelephonophony. And if you are driven to rage at the sound of someone slurping soup in a sushi restaurant, that would be misomisophonia. (Also, if you have that, stay away from me.)

A podcast we made, yes

My recent article on the syntax of Yoda-speak has been made into a podcast. If you’d like to hear me do a half-assed impression of Yoda, and/or if you would like to hear movie sound clips to illustrate the points, give it a listen:

Why so strangely Yoda speaks

Infixes? Absofreakinglutely… not.

The tools of linguistics are like a fancy set of lock-picking tools, different ones suited to different locks. Some locks are hard to pick and linguists try a few different tools, proclaiming varying amounts of success in the effort. Sometimes you may want to conclude that a new tool is needed. One case that’s given a lot of fun in the attempt is the case of words such as abso-freaking-lutely. What, exactly, is taking place, morphosyntactically? Or is morphosyntax even the right way to look at it?

Well, here’s what I think, in my latest article for The Week:

Why linguists freak out about ‘absofreakinglutely’

They don’t even really know what to call it


Descant. For me, it decants to a song, a play, a magazine, a poem, a dance.

Of course to a song; descant comes from Latin dis ‘apart’ and cantus ‘song’ by way of French. It referred originally to part singing, especially the highest part, and these days usually refers to a special high line added above the melody. I first became aware of the term and the concept when I was a child at church in Banff, at Christmastime. On the last verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Inge Sheppard – a good soprano of German extraction, and host of the glühwein party after the midnight service – would come out on the top with “O come! O come!” and a line of crystal diffractions of the melody following. This, I learned, was a descant, which I took to calling a “desk calendar.” To my father’s credit, though he was the one who taught me to pun, he never said “She descant keep herself from doing it.” Well, not in my earshot, at least.

The next distinctive sighting of this word, for me, was in the play Richard III by Shakespeare. The title character, a hunchback, in his opening soliloquy – the one that starts “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York” – says,

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity

Obviously he’s not singing a high line. This is a figurative extension: he means comment on it, muse on it, wax philosophical on it. And so we have a paradox in action: the high-flown poetry and the word for a high-floating voice take an indecent descent into scandal, filling five acts before the scoundrel is chastened.

The next thread of sound that separates from the choral mass for me for this word is a magazine, Descant, a book-thick Canadian literary organ of considerable quality. Its candle is made all the more incandescent for me by its having published a prose poem of mine, in an issue focused on dance and edited by Mary Newberry (a lovely person worth knowing).

Alas, I have learned just yesterday that Descant is ceasing publication. Its funds are scanted, and now Canadian literature will likewise be scanted. This is sad. To honour it, or at least to remember it, I present here what they presented for me those few years ago, my descant on dance and dancer, dance as a dancer’s incandescent descant.

Your Feet

I have an issue with your feet. Your feet, your two bound servants, your two eternal cigarettes you snuff out on the stage with telegraphic stuttering, your feet, your feet, that you disown and bind to stumps, your feet that launch you into air and hold you hovering, drifting, fluttering, twisting, your feet, your feet, your feet feet feet feet arms are waving, hands sweep smoothly like gulls in glycerine, your nose your chin your washboard chest, your tits that are nothing but dots, your stomach like a soft-shelled crab, all pulling upwards, frightened upwards, lifting high and pushing, urging, all by force of repulsion and fear of your feet, your feet, your underlying unacknowledged candy ribbon-wrapped stilts, two bunches of cracked firewood, cracked and dirty tar-stained bloodstained ribbon-wrapped glue-bound dripping lit torches burning with a fire that creeps up, up, up and up your legs, the pain, the flames, the hellish earth, the planet, curling smoke from frantic tapping to snuff out the agony, everything fleeing, reaching to stay up above it, and the more you snuff it the fiercer it burns and the bones, the serpent muscles, brown dot nipples, chimney throat, razor chin, straining nose, gothic cheekbones, boiling eyes, hair, arms, fingers flickering into the smoky ceiling, all are fire, all are the flame and nothing but the flame that peels and curls and furls and arcs to the lighting grid, a body of flame that only wants to escape from flame, the fire from the wood from the feet that shoots through your insect legs and forgetting itself screams for heaven and cannot for even the length of a breath last away from the earth, but leaps and smokes and strives to lie in the blackening blue, and you flicker and burn like a moth with its wings on fire, and in all of this I can’t even see your feet. Take off those shoes, touch them to me, ignite me now.