A passive aggressive quiz

Many people who like to give writing advice – or just pick at other people’s writing – like to hate on the passive voice. But quite a lot of those who do don’t actually know what they’re talking about. How about you? Try my latest salvo in The Week:

Grammar quiz: Do you know the passive voice?



I’m listening to Trouble in Paradise, the new album by La Roux, and it has motivated me to pull off the shelf the large clothbound hardcover book inscribed to me by my parents for my 14th birthday. On page 782 I find only what I knew already:

ROUX – Mixture of butter or other fatty substance and flour, cooked together for varying periods of time depending on its final use.

The roux is the thickening element in sauces.

There are three kinds of roux: white roux, blond roux, and brown roux.

It goes on to explain the differences, which consist mainly in the means and degree of cooking: the flour browns variously much.

The book, I should explain, is The New Larousse Gastronomique.

My copy is in English, but I think it would read better in French. I say this because in French the three types of roux would be roux blanc, roux blond, et roux brun. Which mean, respectively, reddish-white, reddish-blond, and reddish-brown. Which are three appealing hair colours but are also three varyingly sensible descriptions of the colours of the flour-and-butter mixtures. As The Oxford Companion to Food explains, the first roux must have been roux brun: “These early roux were made by cooking flour and butter together until a reddish tint was obtained then using this to thicken a sauce or broth.” By “early” they mean in the 1600s; before that, various other things, including bread crumbs, were used to thicken sauces.

The great glory of French haute cuisine is its sauces; to make a proper sauce, you spend days roasting bones, boiling them, reducing them, making a roux, adding the stock, adding fried onions and vegetables and wine, and so on. At the end you have, stored in your fridge or freezer, sauce espagnole, which is the basis for sauce demi-glace, and both are the bases for a myriad of others. A white sauce (béchamel) is more quickly done but also uses a roux and is also a base for many others. (I find simply reading the brief recipes for these sauces in the Larousse therapeutic: “Cook 2 tablespoons chopped onion in butter. Stir in 5 dl. red wine, season, add a bouquet garni (q.v.) and boil down by two-thirds. Add 3 dl. Espagnole sauce, boil down by half and strain. Before serving, add 50 g. butter.” Violà, sauce bourguignonne – version I.)

I cheated on the days’ work of sauce making. I just used liquid OXO plus wine and herbs and the roux – different, I know, but quicker and easier and it pleased my parents well enough. These days I don’t cook French style much. But if I’m going to, I still know that a proper French sauce is made with a proper roux. The roux is at the heart of French cookery.

Which was an epiphany for me as an adolescent. I learned to make gravy from my mother, and she taught me the technique I still use for thickening pan drippings: put flour, cold water, and salt in a plastic container with a lid and shake; add some pan drippings and stir, and then stir the flour and water into the pan drippings. Not nearly as fancy as a roux and not at all buttery, but gravy with a roast is home-style cookin’. (Years later, volunteering in a soup kitchen in Harvard Square, I learned another fun trick: make a roux with flour and oil and, when it’s good and brown, instead of gradually whisking the liquid in so it wouldn’t lump, just splash in the whole lot of water cold and start stirring. Works shockingly well.)

None of this seems to have much to do with electronic dance music about affairs of the heart, which is what La Roux does, but words have the flavour they have and you cook with them as you will. And La Roux cooks, musically. La Roux is really Elly Jackson, who has red hair. Those who know French will know that roux is actually the masculine form, while la is the feminine article; this works with Jackson’s androgynous look.

And what would the feminine form of roux, ‘reddish’, be? Rousse. The proper French family name meaning ‘the red’ is embossed on the burgundy-coloured cover of my copy of the paper heart of French gastronomy: Larousse.


Obviously, if yesterday was nook, today must be cranny.

I think it’s safe to say you’ve said or written cranny. But have you ever used it without nook and before? And, for that matter, without every nook and before?

Can you even tell me the difference in meaning between nook and cranny?

It seems to fall into those double-barrelled-shotgun phrases: search every nook and cranny; in this day and age; every jot and tittle; this is your last and final boarding call

What cranny really means is, as Oxford puts it, ‘A small narrow opening or hole; a chink, crevice, crack, fissure.’ It seems to come from French cran. So it’s not a nook per se, but it’s a similar thing on a smaller and perhaps more accidental scale. It is the tittle to nook’s jot.

But what if it meant something quite different? What if it meant ‘cranberry’ or ‘granny’? What about ‘narc’ or ‘cramp’ or ‘crane’? Look, if you Google “every nook and granny” (exact phrase) you get more than 25,000 hits. “Every nook and cranberry” gets more than 22,000 results. Even “every nook and crane” gets 29,000 hits, most of which appear not to be “every nook and crane-y” puns. Imagine! Imagine searching corners, alcoves, and grandmothers, or corners, alcoves, and cranberries, or corners, alcoves, and, for heaven’s sake, construction cranes (or the birds called cranes)!

Well, there it is. Cranny was once a word that people knew how to use, but it became just an attachment, a trailer, a little linguistic cranny in the wall of words. And you know what we do with those: fill them with available materials. Fill them full – don’t let them go half-caulked. Stuff them with your cranberries and grandmothers and little origami cranes. And you’ll spend all your time searching those berries and babushkas and birds for meaning, when in fact they’re what’s in the way of it.

Welcome to language!


If you took a look in a nook, what would you see? And where would you be? Would it be a breakfast nook in a kitchen, or a book nook? Or some other nook and cranny? Or would it be an e-reader? I suppose you could read a cookbook on a Nook in a kitchen nook. Or you could look at a book that had every word ending in ook: book, brook, cook, chook, crook, forsook, hook, look, shook, took, kook… uh-oh, that last word doesn’t rhyme with the others.

Actually, neither did nook, originally. Until not much more than a century ago, the standard pronunciation rhymed it with Luke. And before that it had a long o: nok. But it finally nuked that and fell in line with the others; it didn’t want to be a kook.

What is a nook? It’s easy enough to picture, at least sketchily, in your mind’s eye. It’s a cozy little corner, an architectural diverticulum perhaps – a secluded place where you can escape from the madding crowds, even as they flow by (like trains rushing past in a tunnel where our heroine has flattened herself into the merest nook in the wall). A corner to wedge into when cornered by life. A quaint and curious dead-end byway in the village or countryside. A nook that is by a chimney or fire is an inglenook. A nook is to a person – especially a bookish introvert – as a small cardboard box is to a cat: it contains you comfortably in its hard but open embrace. It is a place where you can hide from a shnook or shelter from a Chinook or just hook up with a good book, a place where you can simply say to the world, “No, OK?”

If that seems bearish, well, think of Nanook: an English rendering of nanuq, the polar bear. But are there nooks in the Arctic? The great barren landscape, open and windswept, pimpled by pingos and reflected by frozen lakes, and at least formerly dotted by igloos, which, being circular, are apparently lacking in nooks… No, but there are always corners and nestling spots in everything, and just by the way some of those Arctic islands are exceptionally mountainous.

Where did nook come from? It’s uncertain – some long-forgotten historical nook, or nok anyway; it’s probably Norse. It has meant an assortment of things, but first and foremost a corner, seen and taken separately from the rest of the object, edifice, or lot. There is often a connotation of out-of-the-way-ness. It can be a triangle of land, too, and sometimes has even named a triangle jutting into the sea. And aside from being a corner of a yard, a nook has been a quarter of a yard, too: a yard being a standard measure of 50 acres, a nook was 12½ – or, elsewhere and at other time, 20.

It serves well, though, this word, wherever it came from. It is short and presses like a pillow into a corner: the soft /n/, the retreat to the back of the mouth /ʊ/, the abrupt stop against the hard wall at the back /k/; the shape of the book in hand n, the eyes (with glasses?) looking at it oo, the corner itself k. Kindle a fire and kindle some interest: this secluded nook is a portal to a world of imagination and escape; it is the corner of the mind’s eye.


What is a flautist? A flutist, but perhaps a little snootier. Fowler wrote, “Flutist is more than 350 years old; flautist (from Italian flautista) dates only from the middle of the 19th c., and there seems no good reason why it should have prevailed. … But it has.” Well, it has in England and perhaps in Canada, rather less so in the United States.

But what gust of linguistic afflatus would lead us to flout standard sensible English derivational morphology and the usual rules of English pronunciation just to flaunt a foreign word as the preferred form? Here’s a little thought experiment: Let’s say that you met someone who played the bassoon, or even just someone who seemed to know a fair bit about music, and he said not “bassoonist” but “bassenist.” Would you think, “Wow, that’s weirdly wrong,” or would you think something more like, “Huh, I guess bassenist must be the more cultured way of saying it, because it’s not the simple predictable way and there’s no reason for this knowledgeable person to say it unless it’s the more correct way, just like all those other weird exceptions we have in English”?

Linguistic insecurity is very common in English and tends to cause us to prefer what linguists call the “marked” form — our lexicon is a flock of odd ducks chosen for their oddness. We learn as small children that there are many words where the seemingly logical form is the “grossly uneducated and illiterate” one. We must learn to play the instrument of our language as carefully as a delicate and fickle fipple flute.

It also doesn’t surprise me that we would go for flautist more in Canada; Americans lean a little more towards the straightforward, dropping silent letters willy-nilly. We also retain greater ties to Britain in Canada. But there’s also the little matter of pronunciation. Oxford gives the pronunciation just as /ˈflɔːtɪst/ – as in “flawtist.” But the preferred pronunciation among North Americans who are “in the know” is the one modeled on Italian: /ˈflaʊtɪst/, the main vowel like “ow” rather than “aw.”

And why shouldn’t we take the word from Italian? That’s where we got flute, after all, isn’t it? Hmm, no, actually. Italian got its word flauta from Old Provençal or Old French, which didn’t get it from Latin. Now, yes, the form at that time was flaute. But it moved up through French to English and in so doing the vowel changed a little. Modern French is flute and flûtiste. We rather likely borrowed flautist from Italian later on because we borrow all sorts of musical terms from Italian. But we didn’t borrow it intact, flautista; we clipped the a off the end, making it not so much a borrowing as an affectation… and a mark of linguistic insecurity: we think it highfalutin’, but others may think it flat-out flawed.

Thanks to several of my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Canada for discussing this word today on the email list.


I like sparklers.

I don’t often buy the coated metal rods that, when ignited, burn down quickly, throwing off forks of sparks as they go, like a sprinkler of light. One time, for my brother’s bachelor party, I accidentally bought incense sticks instead, thereby giving my brother much more time to down a bottle of Coke than I had intended. He ignored me anyway.

But I do like sparkle-sticks. And things that are like them. Things that sparkle. Other things that are called sparklers.

Sparkling wines, for instance. Prosecco, cava, crémant, champagne: my kind of fizzy-o-therapy. Mixed with orange juice or Campari or taken straight and frothing, dotting my spectacles with picolitres of effervescence. Tasting stars? Tasting the evanescent asterisms of a sparkle-stick.

Sparkling eyes, too, green or grey or blue or onyx black, not staring but starring and sparring, promising solemnly that they are up to no good: a little mischief adds spice to life. Winking and twinkling, and more: literally glittering, sparkling with larkishness. And sparkling teeth below, white and smiling and sharp, inclined to bite just a bit. And sparkling wit. A mind that shoots soft little knives and bright feathers all in a flickering mix.

The first definition of sparkler in the Oxford English Dictionary is “One who sparkles or shines in respect of beauty or accomplishments; esp. a vivacious, witty, or pretty young woman.” That dates from the early 1700s. Also listed: a sparkling eye, a sparkling gem, a sparkling insect, a sparkling wine, a sparkling firework.

Sparkler of course comes from sparkle. Sparkle is spark plus the frequentative –le suffix, seen also on nestle, crackle, and quite a few others. Spark has been around as a word longer than English has been its own language, and it has always meant what it means. Sparkle dates back more than 800 years.

We have not always had sparkling wine, but we have always had sparklers, though we did not always name them thus. The word is so suited; it seems like an oral performance of what it names, with the crisp stops and just a bit of fluid. Even the shape of it helps, in particular the k, which shoots off a fork like the little sparks on a sparkle-stick. More complete still is sparkly, with the y for added shape.

And most complete is life when it includes sparklers, of all sorts.

Does this bother you alot?

If you’re like many highly literate people, seeing alot is like chewing on aluminum foil. It doesn’t sit well with me either. But I am of the considered opinion that while it may not become the formal standard, it’s not going away either – because it makes a certain intuitive sense. Read the reasoning in my latest article for The Week:

Hey, grammar nerds! Stop freaking out about ‘alot.’