Monthly Archives: February 2009

slum

A word that seems just made to be down at the heels. The opening sl is wet or messy: don’t slouch or slur or you’ll slide down a slippery slope like a slug into the slush. It commects with um, heard in dumb and bum and, um, um – also in hum and strum and thumb and come and yum, but the sl opening and the definite slump echo are likely to clarify which set of ums it goes with! If this word sounds louche, well it should; it comes from the cant of the criminal class (attested by 1812), and originally meant a room. Of course, given whose word it was, it was not a high-class room, and soon enough it came to refer to the cramped quarters of the English outcastes. And if some toff wished to ditch his pile for some infra dig digs, he could cutely enough call it slumming – we now use the verb fairly broadly, but always with the sense of taking a downward holiday from one’s regular station. Slums are cramped quarters where many may brush shoulders, and this word brushes shoulders with quite a few in regular use: dweller, lord, clearance; also sprawling, housing, urban, city; lately Sadr City in Baghdad has come often in the same sentence; and, now tattooed into our tongue, slumdog (which for contrast goes with millionaire).

The majority of these second-guesses are wrong

There are some bits of usage that people are more likely to get wrong if they stop and try to get them right. I encountered one of the most noteworthy and commonly confounding cases in a recent edit, when I had to change “the majority was” to “the majority were” and “the remainder was” to “the remainder were.”

In ordinary speech, we generally have a natural feel for these things. Continue reading

languor

Ah, languor! Can you bear it any longer? Are you desperate, like Eva Longoria? Look: you are so weak u can’t even make it past the o. This word will not end as in favour or colour; instead, it has the beginnings of anguish but also of languidity. Such lassitude – confuse it not with lentitude, which may be present, but (to make a Tolkien mention) in Fangorn is no languor. This word starts out with la, which may be a listless note, perhaps sung in a boat adrift at sea, unable to make it all the way to land. The tongue lolls back, touching at the velum. There is the beginning of language, but it fails to come of age, stymied by choice: the or turns it aside, and then we lapse into silence. The very air in the mouth is viscous, as though gummed with guar. The word itself has made a stirring and lain back: it is Latin languor, same in sense, which in Old French tried to eject the o or the u, but they failed to achieve escape velocity. Its kin languish, a verb, managed some change, but this noun… ah, what can be done.

koi

This word’s sound may suggest affected shyness on the part of its object, but one would hope otherwise. After all, if you have bought that common collocation of koi, a pond, you will want these variously coloured (selectively bred) fish to be on ornamental display, or else you will be more inclined to the English name of the species: carp. In Japan, whence this word, the fish are symbols of love and affection, because another word koi means “love” and “affection” (koi no ochiru is “fall in love” – or perhaps “drop the carp”?). So if you present a pond to your paramour, you will hope that neither koi nor companion will be coy. But spelling can matter more than just that much: the k beginning and i ending on this word both signal foreignness; a coloured carp pond is not exotic, and a coy pond would not seem so, but a koi pond, now, that “ain’t from around here.” One may be tempted to see the word in ideographic ways: the k like a fish tail, the o like an eye or a pond, and the i… well, perhaps like the lonely sweetheart standing by pond’s edge wondering where his fish and fiancée have fled to.

fandango

Its association with a whiter shade of pale nothwithstanding, this word has always seemed rather florid to me, with its wide-open a‘s like an arm flourish and its bouncy nasals with stops. Its object is a lively dance in 3/4 time, fitting for a word that springs in three steps from the front of the mouth to the back. How light can the light fandango be? And would vestal virgins leaving for the coast take time for it, really? Much more likely Scaramouche – but he’d do it to a Bohemian rhapsody, which might cause thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening. Well, and the word does have those fang and fungus resonances, which apparently didn’t help the computer game Grim Fandango to get enough dang fans. The dance (and music) is brought by the grace of Spain, whence medially also this word; the word’s ultimate source may be African, but the steps have not been traced back, etymologically. The word has a sense of dance about it, anyway, and enthusiasm too. The dance could be a fan dance, perhaps like a tango (with music by Django Reinhardt?), originally done by the Mandingo. But whatever it is, it’s what you get when fantastic meets hot dang.

yam

A word meant for a food. Its apparent source, the west African word nyam – which refers originally to the act of eating – is even more so: not simply onomtopoeic but, more than most words could be, mimetic. Naturally this word is likely to make one think “yum.” It also has the yeah echo, which may be positive, reserved, or ironic. We know that Popeye loved spinach, but he surely made many people think of this word: “I yam what I yam.” Those who encounter Latin often, for instance in choral music, may also think of it whenever they meet the word iam – as in iam amore virginale totus ardeo (a love for virginal yams burns everything up?). Yam is a small word for what is actually a rather large tuber; the y does root into the ground, but the rest is just there, more in size like the smaller sweet potatoes, which often borrow this name. Sweet potatoes are actually unrelated to yams (and they’re sweeter), but when west Africans came to the new world (not usually voluntarily), like most people moving to new places they tended to name unfamiliar things with available familiar words (think buffalo, for instance, or sparrow – and we should remember that hippopotamus comes from Greek for “river horse”). Recently wild yam has become popular in natural health circles, while habitués of brew pubs are more likely to ask for yam frites.

carfax

This word looks like a complement to car phone. (Unsurprisingly, it’s also the name of a company that offers vehicle history checks.) It may also make you think of a town in England, or rather a place in a town (Oxford, among others) or even a building at that place (Carfax Tower). It will have a special resonance for stokers of Stoker, as Carfax Abbey is where Dracula beds down in England. If you read Asterix comics, it may strike you as a name suited for one of the Britons Asterix meets in Asterix in Britain. It has a pleasing crispness to it, [k]s and fricatives, and the a‘s around the r and f have an appearance that may be reminiscent of people passing a turnstile – or perhaps a turnpike, a large turnstile used in centuries past at road toll gates. The x could look like a top view of the turnpike. As it happens, it also resembles a top view of this word’s object: a crossroads. The word is related to French carrefour, which comes from Latin quadrifurcus, “four-forked.” And if you come to one such in a car, it is best to have your facts straight.