Monthly Archives: November 2011

Schadenfreude

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men (and women)? The Schadenfreude knows…

What is Schadenfreude? It’s a German word, first off, as is probably obvious, which is why I’m pretentiously spelling it with a capital S: in German, nouns are always capitalized. Of course, as a loan word into English, it gets a lower-case s. But since many people find Schadenfreude quite capital, and since the big S looks a bit like a snake rearing in the heart of the envious (while the rest of the word looks a bit like a train wreck to most English eyes), I’ll keep it upper case.

Schadenfreude is epitomized by Clive James’s marvellous poem “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered,” which you can, nay, must read in its entirety at artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/07/24/the-book-of-my-enemy/. It begins, “The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased.” And it plays out the glee of seeing his enemy’s vaunted work in the literary dust-heap with assorted undignified tripe:

And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor’s Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
“My boobs will give everyone hours of fun.”

Such joy in another’s misfortune is unseemly. It’s shady… somehow Freudian, or at least suggesting a need for therapy. You may think of the spiteful section from Handel’s Messiah: [soprano] “They shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying,” [chorus] “He trusted in God that he might deliver him: let him deliver him, if he delight in him.” And yet… to slightly modify the lyrics to Beethoven’s masterwork, “Schadenfreude, Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium!” It can be so gratifying.

The word is a nice, complex word for a complex emotion – so seemingly basic, but always with its hints of conflict. With this word, we get a Teutonic sound of machinations. Better yet, it starts with the lips pursed (shooting out) and the teeth biting together in that “sh” sound that starts some words and expressions of distaste, displeasure, or dismay; then the second half starts with /f/, the teeth biting the lip, ready to flip it out, making the first sound of a word of even greater asperity… but then rolling into the growling /r/ to make the onset of frustration and frenzy. And in the shadows of the word, behind the bites? It’s on the tip of the tongue, or at least the consonants are; the vowels open the mouth wider and then close it again, the jaw wagging twice in the word, perhaps as though chewing on a little ball of bitterness.

What parts make this word? Schaden, “harm”, and Freude, “joy”. It always makes me think of Schande, “shame, disgrace”, and Schatten, “shadow”. There’s also just a faint hint of Champagne fizz… that would be from the bottle I’ll uncork when a certain local politician is led from City Hall in handcuffs…

Not that this word sounds like what it describes; more like what comes before and what comes after. The Ancient Greeks had a word for Schadenfreude that sounds like the cackling one suppresses – or indulges – at the time: ἐπιχαιρεκακία, epikhairekakia.

Thanks to Christina Vasilevski for suggesting today’s word.

milli

This is my thousandth blog post. It’s not quite my thousandth word tasting note – actually, it’s number 906 – but depending on how you count, I can lay claim to having tasted more than a thousand words, since many notes cover more than one word. So the easy thing is to count the blog posts, and just roll in all my other articles too.

So what better to do for a thousandth than a thousandth? Admittedly, that makes this an affix tasting note – specifically prefix, and more generally a bound morpheme tasting note – but so what. Milli gets around. It has such a smooth flavour, and mixes so well, I’m tempted to say milli has a vanilla taste – but real vanilla, not fake like Milli Vanilli. Its clear mellifluity and overtones of mellifluous nothwithstanding, I don’t think it flows like honey (which is what mellifluous means in origin); honey is too thick and sticky. This morpheme is more like jelly, or sliding down nicely like an oyster (but not like oyster – more like mussel).

It mixes smoothly, but is a hard worker. It gets around quite a bit, and is popular enough to be impersonated on occasion. Some of its popular pairings include millimetre, milligram, and millilitre. You’ll see it in millipede, but that’s not a thousandth of a foot; and though ng stands for nanogram, milling is certainly not a thousandth of a nanogram.

It shows up with some cuter units, too – for instance, millibarn (a thousandth of a rather small barn – actually a unit of area used to measure atomic nuclei) and milligal (not a little woman, but a small unit of acceleration).

It also hangs out with many a famous eponym: millicurie, millidarcy, millidarwin, millifarad, milligauss, millihelen, millihenry, millijansky, millijoule, millikaiser, millikelvin, millilambert, milliroentgen, millisievert, millitorr, milliwatt, milliweber… All these Millies sound like the daughters of famous people. And look at them all on the screen there: it looks as though it’s been chiseled into with a toothed chisel or combed like hair. Perhaps it’s the famous hair of Helen of Troy. You know, she of the face that launched a thousand ships.

It has been proposed that there be a standard unit of beauty, the Helen, representing sufficient beauty to launch a thousand ships. A millihelen (did you spot it in there?) would be enough beauty to launch one ship. But we would have to use a different unit for beauty in hats – a milliner, of course.

And, speaking of women, how about Millicent? Is she worth a hundred thousand (would that make her worth a hundred pictures?) or a thousandth of a hundredth? Naw, her name – cognate with Melisande – is composed of German roots for “labour” and “strength”. So a tenth of a Millicent is not a myriad – or a Muriel.

Milli comes from Latin mille, “thousand”; it is partially coincidental that M is the Roman numeral for 1000 (the original symbol came from the Greek letter Φ and later mutated to look more like the initial of mille; D for 500 comes from half Φ). The m may help milli feel more mini than maxi; it’s no category killer like the Greek-derived kilo, maybe more home with micro (also Greek-derived), though mega (also Greek!) brings the m too.

Speaking of which, what’s with this million thing? How confusing is that, to have milli be a thousandth and million be, well, a thousand million times as much (which is either a milliard or a billion, depending on your system – but not a mallard; that’s a canard). We can thank Italian for that: the milli for “thousand” combined with the suffix one (as in panettone) to make not a thousand and one but a big thousand, milione: a thousand squared.

Mm, a thousand squared. OK, but what about the illi? James Harbeck would be the silliest if he made it illeist. It could be two ones and two fifties (in Canadian terms, that’s two queens and two Kings), or perhaps two candles and two rockets – celebration for a thousand posts? Or, I should say, for a thousandth post? And then the m is a slice of cake, the fork with which to eat it, what you say while eating it. And the espresso to follow the expression must expressly be Illy brand.

feral

This is a word I’m seeing more often in the wild these days. Indeed, it’s come to the point where, this past summer, I saw a retweet by novelist William Gibson (@GreatDismal) of a plea to ban feral from public discourse.

That’s quite a step up for a word that, not so long ago, was seen almost exclusively in comparatively elevated (or wanting-to-seem-elevated) discourse on cats, dogs, and horses that were undomesticated, and sometimes on a child that had not been raised in human conditions. Now it expresses fury and fuels fear. It has an insidious sound to it, especially if you say it like “fear’ll” – it slips in softly like a weasel or some vermin, with that high /i/ vowel, wheedling or knife-like or perhaps a seeping steam, and then it rolls on the tongue, from one liquid to another. If you say it like Ferrell (as in Will), it’s a bit more held back, with a taste of fair and an overtone of a comedian (or two, if you think back to Mike Farrell, B.J. Hunnicutt in M*A*S*H). But it still has fur and fangs.

And what does it mean? And how is it used? The Oxford English Dictionary definition is “wild, untamed” and “of, pertaining to, or resembling a wild beast; brutal, savage.” But often it is used in a narrower sense, the one Charles Darwin gives in his glossary (actually written by W.S. Dallas) to The Origin of Species: “Having become wild from a state of cultivation or domestication.” A good example is this quote from a Globe and Mail article: “Wolgan has implemented an experimental ‘feral-free’ zone on the property in partnership with the University of Western Sydney, aimed at protecting indigenous wildlife from the encroachment of feral animals such as dingoes, cats and fallow deer.”

This is the use of feral. It is not enough to say wild; that could be something that has always been untamed, or it could be simply ungoverned behaviour; moreover, it is often used as a term of approbation, and collocates with such things as night and party. Now think of spending a feral night at a feral party. That’s actually frightening, isn’t it?

Similar issues come up with beastly: it’s a blunt word, brutal, without that direct hint of fur in feral that may make you think of an animal but may also make you think of the rough down on the fleering upper lip of a mid-adolescent boy with sloe eyes who is blocking your path and slowly slicing the air with a knife. And beastly is a term of disapprobation for boorish manners or unpleasantness: “The weather has been positively beastly, and so have you.” Now try “The weather has been positively feral, and so have you.” Oh… my…

Other choices also fall in different directions by sound and sense. Police brutality versus police ferality, or a brutal assault versus a feral assault; savage criticism versus feral criticism, and does music have charms to soothe the feral breast? No, there is something unnervingly free about feral, free and fearsome.

It is unlikely to be flavoured by the fact that there is a homonym feral that means “deadly, fatal funereal” – pretty much nobody sees or uses that one anymore. (It comes from Latin feralis “pertaining to rites for the dead”, whereas the feral we know and increasingly love comes from fera “beast”.) No, it is the echoes and phonaesthetics of the word, probably, but also the fear that comes when confronted with an invasion of the wild, a failure of culture and civilization, an erasure of the things that let us sleep securely at night. Not just an erasure – a rejection.

And so it is that during the London riots, it was the term feral that was used. A clothing shop owner spoke of the “feral rats” – youths as young as 13 – who looted her business. The justice secretary of England, Kenneth Clarke, decried “a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism.” And the word has been in something of a vogue ever since – though, to be fair, its usage has been increasing steadily for some time, doubling from 1960 to 1980 and almost doubling again from 1980 to now, if Google’s ngrams are to be believed.

So what are we seeing as feral now? There are certainly also references to feral cats, doves, pigs, and so on – the literal sense has not died off; if anything, it’s had a boost. But the figurative use is making the cocktail circuit, like some celebrated feral human discovered in the wilds and now learning to eat caviar and hold a champagne flute. From the New York Times, I see Maureen Dowd, on November 5, referring to “one of New York’s most feral anthropological tableaus: the biannual Manolo Blahnik sample sale.” On November 8, Brian Siebert, reviewing a dance piece, referred to choreography “remarkable for its amalgam of cold formality and feral wildness” – note how feral wildness somehow does not seem redundant to the writer? And A.O. Scott, in a review of the movie A Dangerous Method on November 22, described one character as “a feral and charming emanation of pure id, an imp of the Freudian perverse”. Now a person can be feral, it seems, simply by being oral-retentive. Feral becomes the sound of the belt and trousers of civilized restraint being undone and let drop. How feral, darling… let’s go loot some more caviar blinis and do things we can’t be held responsible for.

Spuzzum

My friend Antonia Morton drew this one to my attention recently. It’s the name of a town I’ve passed through – it’s on the way to Vancouver if you drive there on the Trans-Canada Highway from points east, which I have done, though not recently; it’s about 50 km north of the town of Hope, which allows the joke that it’s “beyond Hope.”

Spuzzum is a very small town. It was never big; it used to have a sign on the highway that read on both sides, “You are now leaving Spuzzum.” It had a gas station and general store until the building burned down in the 1990s. The population is in the double digits, and is heading towards the single digits.

And there’s that name. Spuzzum. It seems made for mocking. My first tastes of it match Antonia’s: “All the associations I have are dirty-minded or otherwise disreputable: spasm, sputum, jism, sperm, scuzzy, bosom, buzzard, spud…” Indeed, the salient parts all have some associations that give it an off flavour. The opening /sp/ often shows up in words to do with messy liquids, such as spit, spurt, splatter; of course it shows up in many other words with other tones, too, but the associations are steered in the dodgy direction because that’s the overlapping area of the sets of associations of its parts. The um is a Latin neuter ending, used on many innocuous and frankly boring things, but also on words for various things (medical or otherwise) indelicate to discuss over tea, as well as commercial creations such as Stickum. And it has the dull echo of dumb and ummm. And in the middle, between the u’s, is that double z with its buzzy sound. Oh, it could have the verve of jazz or the effervescence of fizz, but in the context it more likely brings to mind buzz, muzzle, guzzle, buzzard… Also, as it happens, the insertion of zz into various words as a fad in gangsta rap argot and related speech styles (e.g., guzzun for gun). Indeed, this word may, to the person seeing it afresh, have the appearance of a chimera made of bits of the uglier animals.

But Arlene Prunkl, who lives much nearer to Spuzzum than Antonia does, says, “It’s funny how, if you hear a name or a word like that all your life, you don’t notice how odd it is.” Indeed. And the word comes from somewhere other than bits of odd English words; it comes, it is thought, from Salish spozem “little flat”, because it’s a little flat area, I s’poze.

And everywhere is somewhere, and everwhere people live has meaning for those people. Many important places in my life are such towns, places that seem like odd little hiccups in the landscape but that have whole lives’ histories in them, places that were the centre of some people’s universes, places that have memories. I am put in mind of the Beatles: “There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed: some forever, not for better; some have gone, and some remain…” My great-grandparents lived in a small, small town called West Clarksville, and good luck finding it (there is no nearby Clarksville or East Clarksville), but their house held many memories for four generations, some of whom are now buried just across the road. I spent much of my childhood in and around a town called Exshaw. It’s not much to look at, but you only have one early childhood, and mine was spent there, picking crocuses and chasing dragonflies and hiking up to look at the “ice castles” formed by a leaky pipe that came down from the dam above town. There are quite a few people who love the place dearly even now. And back before I was a kid, it used to be a resort town…

So did Spuzzum. It used to be a place to stop through or even to go to. It was there when the Canadian Pacific Railroad was being built. It was there in the 1940s for the Japanese Canadians who had been interned and were released but still couldn’t settle within 100 miles of the coast. I enjoin you to read more about it at Michael Kluckner’s site for his book of watercolours, Vanishing B.C.: www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw6spuzzumhouse.html and www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw6spuzzum.html, complete with memories shared in correspondence from people with Kluckner. You will become fond of it, I think.

The more you know about the thing a word names, the more it tends to take over the taste of the word. The initial phonaesthetics never vanish, but there is so much greater richness of flavour that you discover something to love in even the most awkward word. They are like George Eliot, the English novelist, real name Mary Anne Evans, about whom Henry James once wrote, “She is magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw-bone qui n’en finissent pas. . . . Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

hurt

This is one of the basic words of English, a word so common that it has a great depth of flavour from all its uses and associations, and the flavours that stand out will be particular to each individual at each time.

For me right now, what comes to mind first is Johnny Cash’s moving rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” – listen to it and watch the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=l95D7leeU3w. Words often bring songs to mind for me; another that comes to mind is “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. (now there’s also an “Everybody Hurts” by Avril Lavigne for some reason). It also makes me think of two actors: John Hurt, who is very good at looking hurt, and William Hurt, who is a bit too smoothly good looking to quite match his last name. It reminds me, too, of my time working in a bookstore, when we had a big bin of Penguin “hurts”: books that had been damaged a bit and so were marked down. And you can follow hurt down the path of poetry, down the path of country music, down the path of childhood bruises or of adult betrayals. Oh, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…

Hurt comes in many places, in many forms, in many magnitudes. And hurt has the classic versatility of short old English words. It can be a noun, either countable (So many hurts I have felt) or mass object (I’ll open up a can of hurt on you); it can be an adjective (You look hurt at the price we charge for these hurt books); it can be a verb, either present and future (“I’ll hurt you if you hurt me”; “Love hurts” – see Nazareth or Joan Jett) or past (“I hurt you you ’cause you hurt me” – The Pretenders). The noun and the verb have been in English since the 1200s, the adjective since the 1400s – but the past tense used to be hurted, as in “he never hurted any” (as you can hear in “Geordie,” a truly lovely song sung by Joan Baez), now reduced, probably thanks to haplology.

Is the word suited in form to its meaning? It’s hard to tell – it’s one of those words that set the tone. It starts with an exhalation, a sigh but not a soft sigh, more like the sharper exhalation of pain or impatience. In the writing this is followed by a cup u perhaps of sorrows, but in pronunciation the cup is taken away and only the liquid remains: a syllabic liquid /r/ and no vowel at all. And then it knocks smartly at the end with /t/, like the crack of a whip.

What other words is it like? Hunt, heart, curt, hurl, hurtle… Oh, yes, hurtle is derived from hurt. Hurt first meant “knock, strike, dash”, and the iterative ending le gave it a sense related to collision. What other word could be used? A related one is smart, as in “cause pain” (that smarts) or “feel pain” (I’m still smarting). It relates specifically to a sharp pain, and it is from that sharpness that the adjectival sense eventually slid all the way to “intelligent”. It’s cognate with German Schmerz, which seems like a good word for hurt. But smarting is not the same as hurting; smarting is a sharp pain but one you will get over, while hurting is a deeper, more sorrowful pain, one you are less likely even to want to acknowledge openly. But it’s the kind of pain you write songs about.

haplology

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (An Appreciation of English: A language in motion), language changes, constantly, and there are two main reasons people change language (deliberately or accidentally): to make their lives easier, and to make themselves feel better. In-group inventions, which give a sense of superiority and belonging, are a good example of the latter group, and include slang and technical jargon. The various reductions and weatherings that speech undergoes make up an important part of the former, and among these is haplology.

Haplology is a sort of reduction – syncopation, in fact – that might be made by some hapless guy provoking “LOL,” or it might be done deliberately with no apology. It’s simply removing one of two sequential identical or similar sounds or syllables. For instance, if haplology were to become haplogy, it would have been subject to haplology.

It can happen because you lose track – in a word such as unununium, for instance (and, by the way, if you were to lose track the other way and make ununununium or haplolology, that would be dittology, as would dittotology). It can happen because it’s a real nuisance to say – in a word such as peroration or library (especially in British pronunciation), the sequential /r/s are extra exercise for the tongue, like a couple of sit-ups, so they do tend to smear into one /r/. Or it can just happen because to heck with it. Who needs morphophonology when you can have morphonology? You probably can’t be bothered with both /b/s in probably most of the time. (Dropping both of them down to “prolly” is not only haplology but also deletion.)

On the other hand, you’re less likely to do it with a word such as titivate or mimetic or gigabyte; you can skip over bits in the mushy middle of a word, especially when they’re unaccented, but up front the salience adds distinctiveness.

We know that there are many languages where reduplication is actually an important morphological feature; Hawai‘ian gives us mu‘umu‘u and humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, among others, for instance, and you would not expect them to trim those down, because that would change the meaning. But many people think haplology is also infra dig for the language of Englaland, a sign of a simpleton.

No, Englaland was not a dittograph (reduplication in writing or typing); it’s what the name of the place was at first (or Anglaland, Englalond, or a few other versions). Say it a few times and it should be clear why it easily folded into England. It stands as a bit of a counterbalance to those who would maintain some sort of idololatry of the original. Oh, sorry – although idololatry would be true to the Greek and subsequent Latin source, it’s always been idolatry in English.

But it’s true it’s simple. That’s the point: simplify. The haplo is from Greek ἁπλοῦς haplous “single, simple”. The term was actually coined in the late 1800s by the American philologist (not philogist) Maurice Bloomfield. It doesn’t get used a lot, but we sure do what it names a fair amount. With the double lick of /l/ it’s like a la-la lark or glossolalia, and if it makes you happy make no apology.

Thanks to Lynne Melcombe and her blog post The Happy Haplologist? for bringing this word to my attention.

administrivia

Write this word out longhand. Bit of a nuisance, isn’t it? (Especially if, like me, you make your n’s and m’s generally with points rather than bumps, so they look like sets of i’s without dots.) Along with all those up-and-down letters, you have to cross the t and dot all four of the i’s – make sure every jot and tittle (iota and titulus) is as it must be. If you do this a lot, you’re probably a four-i’s too. And the word starts at the beginning – a – and the consonants go, with one exception, in alphabetical order, but at the end you’re back at a where you started! What’s more, just as its referent keeps you on your toes and fingertips, this word stays at the tip of your tongue or slips forward to your lips.

Alas, administrivia! Surely there must be some third way, between utter chaos and this amazing round of endless paperwork designed to satisfy government or ISO standards. It can be a frustrating struggle – and so often things that should be separate end up being joined on, like the s on adminis ganging up with the tr on trivia for strength to strike and strangle you with constraints. And many strive to find a way to somehow get the paperwork to go away or go more easily, but there’s bad luck awaiting – administrivia’s half-dozen syllables bring 13 letters, and many more forms and emails than that. Your many ministrations must make use of all the grammar, rhetoric, and logic you can muster. Not to mention time and patience.

Administrivia is made, obviously, from administration and trivia, and the sense of the blend is pretty apparent. But just as you accept the various formalities of administration without necessarily knowing where they all came from, you can accept and use this word (as with pretty much any other word) without knowing where its bits came from. But isn’t etymology trivial anyway? Well, not in the mathematical sense – you can’t simply deduce the source of a word from present information – but it may make use of grammar and logic, and perhaps even rhetoric.

I’ll explain. The seven liberal arts, as defined in the Middle Ages, comprised four higher arts – the quadrivium (four ways), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music – and three lower arts – the trivium (three ways), grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Things less exalted and more commonplace came to be called trivial, and the sense shifted to the insignificant and insubstantial thereafter. The word trivia is actually a modern addition to English – about a century ago – as a plural of trivium to refer to those inconsequential little things, the knick-knacks of the mind.

And the staples of administration. Which comes from ad “to” and ministrare “serve, provide, manage, control”. It is, or is supposed to be, what government ministers (a term not in use in the US) do. But the British TV series Yes, Minister reminds us that ministers, like many others, often leave the administrivia to their assistants.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting today’s word.