Monthly Archives: April 2010


Well, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty without shilly-shallying or dilly-dallying: we’re looking at another victim of phonetic profiling here, that kind of pseudo-etymological flim-flam that seeks to control others by imputing guilt for the very use of a word that just happens to bear a vague resemblance to a racist term. (See picnic – specifically, see Help stop a word-lynching.)

I mean, imagine. An innocent word is just walking down the street. Some self-appointed language cop sees it and says, “Hey, that word looks suspicious to me. Don’t like the colour of it. Looks a little bit too much like this bad word here. So it must be related to it. In fact, I’m gonna conjecture a story about it so I can bust it and toss it in the cooler.” We all know what happened to niggardly, eh? A word with purely Germanic roots tracing back to proto-Germanic and cognates in Germanic languages all meaning “stingy”, and it just happened to sound like the wrong thing. Well, here’s another victim.

Now, yes, I’m the first person to point out that you can’t escape the echoes and overtones of words. Niggardly pretty much can’t be used without a little hint of you-know-what-word. But – and this is the most important thing – it doesn’t automatically equate with intention. After all, no one has a problem saying suffocate or country even though they contain within them phonetic strings identical to those of very vulgar words. If you know someone will be offended by the use of the word, then, yes, intention comes into it; but one cannot escape asking what reason they have for being offended.

Typically the justification given is an etymological one, and that is where the arguments break down. Once someone claims picnic or niggardly or nitty-gritty is offensive on the basis of racism in the etymology, they have holed their argument below the waterline, because there is no racism in the etymology of any of these words. Moreover, they are committed to being offended by nice (which used to mean “foolish” or “ignorant”) and not being offended by silly (which used to mean “blessed”). Which is only lucky for them because I say that they are being very silly and not at all nice. But I mean that in the modern senses.

Today, class, we are going to learn rule number one of etymology: Coincidence is nothing. Evidence is everything. It is beyond easy to find sound coincidences. This was famously satirized in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the father invents an etymology for kimono on the basis of its sounding like the Greek word for “winter” (kheimón) and a kimono being a garment one may put on to keep warm in cold weather. True, I fill my word tasting notes with word plays, but while sound coincidences can (especially if you’re paying attention to them) affect how you receive a word (and they do sometimes affect the meaning of a word over time), they simply are not reliable guides to the origin of a word without further evidence. Oh, they can lead you to look for evidence. But if that evidence is not there, then you can’t make an assertion. And if there’s abundant counter-evidence (as there is, for instance, with picnic), then your theory is toast.

So, for instance, nitty-gritty is a word first attested in the 20th century. The oldest printed use of it so far found is from 1940, but it is generally considered to have been in use for at least a couple of decades before that. It was popular among black jazz musicians in particular back then, and it has always meant “the fundamental issues” or “the most important things”. Now, it happens that there is a conjecture being passed around (by people who don’t seem to think research is important) that it originated as a term for the dirt (grit) left behind after African slaves (ni…) had been unloaded from slave ships. The problem with this conjecture is that there is not even the merest scintilla of support for it. It is not really believable that this term could have been in use for two centuries without so much as once being documented. (There is also the matter of its documented uses always being positively toned and referring to essential things rather than negatively toned and referring to waste, but meanings can shift over time, as I have already pointed out.)

So, now, let us put that frankly obnoxious unsupported etymological conjecture about slave-ship origins behind us and let us taste this word on its own terms. Obviously there is an enough of an echo of “the n-word” for many people to have noticed it. On the other hand, no one is protesting that Niagara is racist (or if they are, I haven’t heard it), so we need not consider this word poisoned. The strong taste of its elements nit and grit, along with the tapping of the /t/s, gives it a certain get-dirt-under-your-fingernails edge, the kind of focus on specifics that can involve sifting through a lot of itty-bitty particles.

And then, yes, there’s that reduplication. We do like reduplication in English; it adds an ideophonic touch, that performative aspect to a word. There’s an insistence in nitty-gritty that isn’t there in nuts and bolts, for instance. Just as super-duper is a greater degree than super, and teeny-weeny is smaller (and cuter) than teeny or tiny, likewise nitty-gritty is more fundamentally fundamental for being reduplicative. And, hey, you want to dot the i‘s and cross the t‘s? Well, here are two i‘s and four t‘s – double your specificity!

And where else will this word lead us? I think Jamaica in the moonlight… What? Oh, those are words from “American Dream,” a song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Jamaica is also where the reggae singer who called himself Nitty Gritty hailed from. So take your pick: country-folk-rock or reggae… and let’s get down to the nitty-gritty!

Thanks to Elaine Freedman for asking for nitty-gritty.


A fellow member of the Editors’ Association of Canada recently posted a link to the New York Times “After Deadline” blog on usages that should have been corrected. The January 12 post referred to a news headline from December 31: “Good Players, Eh? / New Met spurs discussion on best Canadians.” The blogging editor’s comment: “This use of ‘eh’ as an all-purpose Canadian reference is both clichéd and condescending. Let’s stop.”

Condescending? What’s up with that, eh? Next they’re going to say that Canadians don’t like being called Canucks or that Canadians are Americans too or something. I mean, yeah, when I was in the US, it got a bit annoying whenever I would say eh and my friends would exclaim, “He said ‘eh’!” But, still, I wear that eh like a badge of pride! It’s Canadian, eh? (Or, as that famous book by Mark M. Orkin puts it, Canajan, Eh?)

I mean, think about the quintessential Canadian humour: SCTV‘s Bob and Doug Mackenzie, with their archetypal “Take off, eh!” For that matter, think about how often Canadian newspapers use eh to emphasize Canadianness. (How often? Go to a Canadian newspaper’s website and do a search on eh. Here are some recent examples from The Globe and Mail: “How Canadian was that, eh?”; “Canada 150, eh”; “A Canadian eh-book reader”; “Welcome to the Walk of Fame, eh?”; “What’s the score, eh?”; “More than bacon, eh?”; and many, many more…)

Why is eh so quintessentially Canadian? Probably for the same reason that sorry is the other quintessentially Canadian word (you know, what you say when someone bumps into you or gets in your way): we just don’t think it proper to be so cocksure of ourselves and disregarding of others (translation: we’re passive-aggressive). After all, eh started its life (by the 18th century in England) as specifically an interrogative, which is still its only current definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: asking for repetition, or inviting assent. It is as the invitation of assent that it has taken root in Canada. We’re not a nation hard of hearing; we’re just always wanting to show we’re listening. We seek the assurance of the other.

It’s like a verbal reach-out-and-touch. It’s actually functionally similar to uptalk (that way some people – especially young adult females – talk as though nearly every sentence is a question, which is really just to keep drawing on the interlocutor’s assent), but of course it’s much less annoying, partly because we don’t use it that much. As the American Heritage Dictionary says, it’s “Chiefly Canadian Used to ascertain or reinforce a listener’s interest or agreement.” Or, as Marion Johnson (“Canadian Eh,” Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 21 (1976): 153-60) puts it,

The general conversational function, of eh, therefore, is to question the situational assumptions associated with different speech acts, thereby showing that these assumptions are held in a weak rather than a strong form. In this way, a speaker can avoid an attitude of officiousness and at the same time avoid unfriendly formality. This interpretation of eh fits well with Canadians’ general conception of themselves as a rather cautious, rather retiring, but basically good-hearted nation. We are not afraid to form and express our own point of view, we just don’t like to force it too much on other people.

And there are so many ways we use it, eh! How do we use it? Let me count the ehs. Actually, I don’t need to; Elaine Gold has done so already (see her paper “Canadian eh?: A survey of contemporary use“). Here are her ten usages, with her examples:

1. Statements of opinion Nice day, eh?
2. Statements of fact It goes over here, eh?
3. Commands Open the window, eh?
Think about it, eh?
4. Exclamations What a game, eh?
5. Questions What are they trying to do, eh?
6. To mean ‘pardon’ Eh? What did you say?
7. In fixed expressions Thanks, eh?
I know, eh?
8. Insults You’re a real snob, eh?
9. Accusations You took the last piece, eh?
10. Telling a story This guy is up on the 27th floor, eh? then he gets
out on the ledge, eh . . .

The most commonly used types, according to a survey she did, were I know, eh; Thanks, eh; What a game, eh; and Nice day, eh. The narrative style, in the last kind, was generally seen as a mark of a less educated user.

But the general use of eh is certainly not the mark of an uneducated user. I think we can all accept that members of the Editors’ Association of Canada are not insufficiently educated, and I’ve had no difficulty finding instances of eh in emails to the EAC’s listserv. For example, “Jelly bean houses, eh? Very cool.”; “Okay, I stand corrected. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, eh?”; “Well, it’s all relative, eh?”; “Let’s hope there are no more, eh?”; “Pretty rough treatment for dissenting senators, eh?”; “Kind of dense, eh?”; “I guess that’s not the correct way to go about it, eh?”; “Yes, I know that’s no excuse, but … everyone needs editors, eh?”; and “how ’bout them verbs, eh!”

As the last example shows (in case there was any doubt), eh is colloquial. In fact, it’s the acme of colloquial: it clearly implies, even demands, colloquy (which is from Latin for “speaking together”). But it is, at least, our word – it may have come from elsewhere, it may be used elsewhere, but no one else uses it as a badge of identity, eh? Consider this quote: “Canadians will readily acknowledge this tag as being quintessentially ‘Canuck,’ but many will then go on to either disclaim usage or to make disparaging comments about others’ usage of it.”

Wait, does that sound not quite right? Well, that’s because it isn’t quite right. The quote, from an article by Miriam Meyerhoff in Language in Society volume 23 (page 367), actually begins “New Zealanders will readily acknowledge this tag as being quintessentially ‘Kiwi,’ but…”

Uh-oh. Not only are they claiming it as theirs, they’re even being more self-effacing about it than we are (some Kiwis even think it vulgar, apparently). What’s up with that, eh?


Imagine the scene in a black-and-white B movie: James Cagney is playing a gangster, again. He’s hiding out in a step pyramid. He thinks he’ll never be found. But his trusted lieutenant Ziggy, a round little bulb-nosed schlimazel, has led his arch-nemesis right to him. Cagney looks up at the door of his secret chamber deep inside the Babylonian building and sees Ziggy leading in a group of men with Tommy guns and a mysterious trench-coated feminine figure, and he exclaims, “Oh, Zig, you rat!” But how was Ziggy seduced to betrayal?

Well, OK, no. Ziggurat doesn’t really have anything to do with gangster movies. Nor, for that matter, with Ziggy, whether we be talking about Ziggy the cartoon character created by Tom Wilson, or Ziggy Stardust as played by David Bowie, or some other person whose birth certificate probably reads something like Sigmund. (There was a recent contretemps involving Ziggy and a rat, however; the rat was from Pearls Before Swine and it was protesting Ziggy’s lack of pants. See See also

It also doesn’t have anything etymologically to do with zig-zag, at least as far as anyone knows – zig-zag may have referred early on to battlements, but it comes from a Germanic word, whereas ziggurat comes from Mesopotamian ziqquratu, from the verb zaqaru, “be high” (and we don’t mean be high on the stuff you roll with Zig-Zag papers).

But the shape of z plays nicely into the zigs and zags of the stepped sides of ziggurats as well as of any crooked jaggers one might call zig-zaggers. The gg, on the other hand, can give a more earthy feeling, as from digger, or a bluntness, as with mugger, or even silliness, as with giggle. The gur could be from figure but just might also call in gurgle or gurn – or augury, perhaps as performed at the peak of a ziggurat. At the end, though, it smacks sharply with rat, like the zap of a lightning bolt, or like the hapless rodent the bolt has just frazzled.

And just think how much more wicked – and foreign-looking – it would be if we spelled it ziqqurat. It would also sound like a crack of lightning, or a lock breaking… or like Marlene Dietrich requesting a cigarette as she holds her gun steadily pointed at Cagney… and the little bulbous guy, hand shaking, flicks his Zippo and lights her one.


Those kids in Keds didn’t cod when they claimed they could cozen a dozen kudus to cut the kudzu. Hey! Kudos to the kiddos who got the kudus to chew the kudzu.

Hmm. How many kudos? Would that be one kudo per kiddo? Could do…

Waitaminit there! This isn’t a coup of karate or judo done to the vocab. You cad! I must object: kudos is a mass object. You’d have me keening kaddish for the lexis.

Yes, kudos is not like dittos, it is like pathos. The final s is, to be correct, [s] and not [z], as it is not a pluralizing morpheme. Which has not stopped it from being backformed by reanalysis to kudo, just as pease was taken as peas and backformed to pea, and cherise was backformed likewise to cherry. So perhaps we should say kudos is like congeries: still in process of reanalysis, with some people putting up a fight. (And the existence of a cell phone company called Koodo is probably not adding clarity to the matter.)

This is an interesting word in that its exoticism, at least at first meeting, might seem to make it something either formal or, like kismet, apart from the English cline of formal–informal. Yet its usage is very often chummy or newsy or sportstalky. Indeed, it seems to have gained greater spread through journalistic use in the 1920s, though it was at first a word of loftier spheres.

Another interesting detail in its shift is that its meaning in the Greek original is not “thanks” or “congratulations” but “glory, fame, renown”. We see this in usage by, for instance, Benjamin Disraeli (1841), “I am spoken of with great kudos in ‘Cecil’.” On the other hand, Charles Darwin’s 1859 “Lyell has read about half of the volume in clean sheets, and gives me very great kudos” evinces a shift in progress.

And why stop the shifts with sense and number? Verbing is to be expected, and indeed kudos’d was seen already in 1799, but as a direct reference to its use in Greek. More recently we have kudized, as in “He kudized Louisa, who blushed when he compared her to Penthesilea.” Does that set your teeth on edge? Do you wish anything but kudos to the author of that abomination? No need to tar and feather him; Mortimer Collins, whose 1873 Squire Silchester’s Whim that is a quote from, died in 1876 – but received much kudos during his life. Or should we say he was greatly kudized?


Another international word tasting event was drawing to its conclusion. A few last lexical minutiae were being wrapped up; goodbyes and phone numbers were being exchanged. I was talking to Anne Wharton, of Buffalo.

“Next time I’m passing through, then,” I said, “I’ll give you a dingle.”

Ravi Ramakrishnan happened to be adjacent. “You will give her a wooded dell?” he said, leaning over from his conversation with Albert Denton. “The gift of geography! I know you Canadians have a surplus of it.”

Albert, who is from Sheffield, offered a correction. “A deep cleft between hills, rather, you mean.”

Ross Ewage’s ears are radars for opportunity, and he materialized instantly. “You two are fixated on the anatomy of the wrong sex,” he said. “A dingle is something only dudes have.” He looked at Anne. “He’s offering you a sex change.”

“I’m offering her a phone call,” I said, though of course all those present knew that already and were just being disingenuous.

“That’s a verb, lad,” Albert said. “Ding plus the frequentive suffix le.”

“There are plenty of verbs one may give a person,” I said. “Kick, slap, kiss, ring – of course those are all nouns too, but why shouldn’t dingle be allowed the same conversion?”

“And here I thaht you were affering me an Irish town,” Anne said.

“An Irish fort, perhaps,” said Ravi. “That Dingle is after all from the Irish Daingean Uí Chúis, ‘Ó Cúis’s fort.'” Ravi’s Irish was rather good – I made a mental note to ask him where he picked it up.

“Or you might well get some English characters,” Albert said. “The Dingles are a family in the popular British television series Emmerdale, set in West Yorkshire.”

Emmerdale!” said Ross. “Well, we know what kind of place that must be, since the name looks like a blend of dale and emmerder, which is French for –”

Ravi cut him off. “We know what merde means in French, so we can work it out, thank you.”

“Maybe it should be Emmerdingle,” Anne said.

“Well,” Ross rejoined, “my point is that this farm seems like the kind of place they grow dingleberries.” He smirked.

Anne’s eyebrow raised. “They grow cranberries in Yorkshire?”

“That’s not the kind of dingleberries I think he has in mind,” Albert said. “These ones you might know as will-nots or clingons.”

“If you don’t mind,” Ravi said, “some of us intend to eat within the next twenty-four hours.”

“You will be relieved to know,” Ross said, “there’s yet another use for dingleberries, and in this case it’s for something that, among the group of us, only Anne has.”

“And so we return to anatomy,” I sighed. “Look, why don’t I just say that next time I’m in Buffalo I’ll look you up?” I glanced over at Ross and flinched slightly.

“In England,” Albert offered, “we’d say ‘I’ll knock you up.'”

Ross’s grin widened. I sighed, buried my face in my hand, and wished for a wooded valley I could go hide in.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting dingle.


This word has a distinctive aroma, and one that varies notably depending on who’s seeing or hearing it. Mellow and friendly, or dangerous? Does the sense of illegality and opprobrium dominate, or is it simply moderately risqué, just a little louche? I must leave that much up to the individual word taster.

The taste also varies according to a few other factors. One is how you pronounce it: do you say it the fully anglicized way, which makes it sound like part of a sentence – “Does Mary wanna smoke some?” – and gives its beginning an echo of American too? Or do you say the vowels more like the Spanish way, which highlights its pun on the female name Mari-Juana, a familiar form of María-Juana, which translates to Mary Jane, which is one of many nicknames for marijuana (like all illegal or immoral but desired things, it has gotten quite a few ways of speaking about it)? Either way, it’s not too likely you’ll actually have a [h] or devoicing of the [w] in the middle of the word; we rarely do that even at the beginnings of words anymore (e.g., when, where), and it’s that much less likely between two vowels in the middle of a word.

Another factor is how you spell it. Its origins are still a matter of speculation, but older forms are mariguana and marihuana. Mariguana is generally not seen now, and just as well; with its clear taste of guano and the more squalid and fat air the g gives it, who would want it as much? Marihuana, for its part, is a current alternate spelling and one used in Canada by some branches of the government (Justice, Health Canada, the RCMP) at least some of the time. To my eyes, it gives them an air of official out-of-touchness, a starchy “correctness” that alienates them instantly from those who actually use the stuff. But for what it signifies, I must admit the spelling marihuana has a certain something marijuana doesn’t: the sense of inhalation or exhalation that the h presents, quite appropriate to something that is smoked. Compare the different tastes that could be gotten from different spellings of some other words: Cojiba instead of Cohiba, Tihuana instead of Tijuana, halapeño rather than jalapeño, or jabanero in place of habanero.

But the j has staying power. It sort of looks a little like a long doobie – the ij together in fact make a spliff-like form – but neither that nor the fact that a joint is also called a j (you’ll hear that one in Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening”: “I stepped outside and smoked myself a j”) is likely why the j has been preferred. I am of the mind (though this is purely speculation) that it is probably actually because of the salience of j in that position (what linguists call its markedness): it stands out more and is more memorable; Anglophones have a habit of assuming that if there’s a more marked form and a less marked form, the more marked form is the more correct one; it looks Spanish; and it resembles Tijuana, which just incidentally tends to have a similarly louche overtone.

Marijuana has of late gained other overtones as well, however. While on the one hand you see use, using, and users right by it very often, and it is quite often featured in a list with cocaine, alcohol, and even heroin, one of its most common collocations in recent times is with medical (or sometimes medicinal). And you will not likely be surprised to know that legalize, legalizing, and legalization are also often seen near it (and that’s from the Corpus of Contemporary American English; I suspect that collocations might tip even a bit more towards the positive in Canada, a country where one of the great national historians and literary icons made a TV appearance explaining humorously how to roll a joint:

Now here’s a little take-away thought experiment for you: which do you think would seem more favourable to legalize – marijuana, marihuana, or mariguana?

Where to link to?

One of my fellow editors mentioned that she was taught, in the electronic publishing program she was in, that links to pages other than a website’s home page may infringe the website author’s moral rights because, depending on the design of the website, the viewer may not see the name of the author and perhaps may not see the ads that help pay for the site.

To me, this isn’t a moral rights issue. It’s a know-how-to-design-your-website-issue. If linking to internal pages infringes moral rights, after all, then Google is the most massive infringer of moral rights that has ever existed in all of human history. And guess what… Google is probably the number one way people will find your site. And unless every single keyword they’re ever likely to search for is represented on your home page (which would probably make an incredibly busy home page), you’ll actually be counting on internal pages to draw them. So you’d better design with that in mind. Continue reading