Monthly Archives: February 2012

hesher

I was talking with my friend, colleague, and fellow word taster Amy Toffelmire today about the Oscar results, and how she had beaten me in the office Oscar pool by correctly picking the documentary (all the rest of our picks were identical). I had picked Paradise Lost 3. Amy commented that the characters in the movie were what she, growing up in Arkansas (where the movie is set) and California, had called heshers.

Now, if you know what hesher means, and you have read enough of my posts to know I have a certain liking for heavy metal music (many other kinds, too, have no fear), you will probably be surprised to learn that I was entirely unfamiliar with the term. Amy explained that they were metalheads, a particular breed thereof. She forwarded me the Urban Dictionary link.

I love Urban Dictionary. It shows very clearly that the way a lot of people approach semantics – trying to isolate abstract defining properties, and setting aside what they call “encyclopedic knowledge” – has real shortcomings. As a reliable dictionary, Urban Dictionary of course has its own shortcomings, but for a term like this one – a slang term used by just the sort of people who frequent the site – its assorted entries, which are contributed by whoever wants and voted on by site visitors, help to paint a pretty good picture of the way people picture the word’s object. I will quote several of its definitions at length, with vulgarities censored not because I have a problem with them but because I know they will unduly distract some readers:

Reebock-wearing, mulleted person in acid-washed jeans and a Judas Priest T-shirt who, at the age of 28, still lives in his/her parents’ basement and swears that he/she can really rock out on his/her Ibanez Stratocaster copy guitar and probably owns a Nova that hasn’t run in 5 years but you just wait, that ——er is gonna smoke those ——in Japanese rice burners once I put a new head gasket on it.

Long haired, usually mulleted person who listens and rocks out to Metal or Thrash music.Generally seen wearing acid-washed jeans, leather motorcycle or denim jacket covered with band and skull patches. Will often have a Molester Moustache

A grungy, long haired, plastic comb-brush in the back pocket stoner with an 80’s rock shirt. Sometimes, a little ‘off’ from the drug damage. Rides an adult sized BMX bike around town and knocks over trash cans by kicking out with his back tire.

By now you really have a pretty clear image, don’t you? It’s true that the definitions can be a little overly precise, but if you have the image, then you have the type, and you undoubtedly have seen that type of person. Not all metalheads are heshers. Not all stoners are heshers. Not all people with mullets (or similar hair) are heshers. Not all people who have a problem adapting to adult reality are heshers. But heshers exist as a subset in the intersection of those sets, and further characteristics are entailed as emergent or culturally determined properties.

To further define the type, a movie, Hesher, was made in 2010. The central character is actually named Hesher, but it’s after the type. The biggest-name actor in the movie was Natalie Portman. And yet you probably haven’t heard of it, let alone seen it. Neither have I. From what I’ve read, it sucked. Which seems oddly appropriate.

The term hesher itself has been around for somewhat longer than that. It seems to have come into being in the 1980s. The etymology is a little smoky, but of course there are plenty of ideas. The lamest one is one that I saw on Yahoo! Answers, suggesting that it’s from he+she+her in reference to the long hair. Other speculation is that it’s some kind of blend of headbanger or heavy metal and thrasher. Some think it was first a term for a drug user (possibly from a verb hesh, heshing), but aside from an obvious taste of hash there’s no particular account for this (nor any explanation for the necessary vowel shift). Certainly no one is attempting to say that the word comes from the sound and sensation of inhaling marijuana or the torrents of white noise you hear when too near a stage stack speaker, both of which hesher sounds a bit like.

Perhaps the most common theory attaches it to Hessian, which was a term that came into being in the 1980s, probably in self-reference first, for a certain aggressively masculine type of headbanger (metalhead), perhaps a specific subset who preferred German industrial metal and perhaps neo-Nazi imagery (metal in general is not a hotbed of racism), but Germanic and bellicose imagery are common currency in many metal circles. The reference is of course to the Teutonic mercenaries of the 18th century. Some references to Hessians (of the metal kind) use hesher as a shortened form. Given the frequency of -er words in reference to types of music fans (especially in these kinds of genres), as well as the palatalization of the /s/ before the /i/ in Hessian (and the frequent assimilation of the /i/ into that), the derivation is reasonable, though I do not have full proof for it.

Incidentally, the original Hessians were called Hessians because many of them were from Hesse, a state in Germany. It contains cities such as Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Offenbach. Hesse in turn gained its name from a Latin version of the original Germanic name of the inhabitants, the Chatti or Hassi. And there the trail runs cold. But it’s fair to imagine that the Chatti had long, greasy hair, wore leather jackets, smoked a lot of weed, listened to thrash metal, and drove burnt-out cars or BMX bikes. Not.

tranche

If letters were legs, this word might be a truncated tarantula. But aside from the faint echo of arachnid (mainly in the spelling), to my eyes this word looks more like it is in need of truncation. Perhaps don’t take the t off; then you’re left with ranche, which is a somewhat hokey-seeming olde-style spelling of ranch. Rather, dispense with the e. Or, better yet, dig the a right out of the middle and drop the e in. After all, this word sounds like someone with a certain kind of accent saying trench.

But which accent? Some say it to rhyme with ranch. The more “proper” way has it more like “tronsh”. And some people hear it – and misspell it – as trunch. That’s not a fancy spelling for trunk; it rhymes with lunch, I guess. But trunch is found in dictionaries only as an adjective meaning “short and thick” (derived from Latin truncus, which refers to the trunk of a tree) and an obsolete noun referring to a post or stake – or a truncheon (truncheon also comes from truncus, which, incidentally, at origin means “broken off” or “lopped off”). However lopped off a truncheon may be, it’s not fit for doing any cutting itself, and it’s not really related to tranches, unless you use a truncheon to aid you in depriving someone of a tranche.

Now, if you did wield a truncheon to ill effect, it would surely be a trenchant moment, but if you then wished to make the victim disappear into a trench, you wouldn’t be able to dig the trench with a truncheon or a trunk. Fair enough: none of them are cutters; all three have been cut, and all three words come from the same Latin root – the source of truncus is in turn truncare, “cut”, and that gives us not just truncate but trench as well.

But never mind trench. Our word tranche looks French. Indeed, to my eyes, tranche is a slice – of pie or cake. Well, as Pink Floyd (specifically Roger Waters) sang, “Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie.” With or without the aid of a truncheon, and whether or not at a luncheon. But what is the pie that a tranche is a slice of in English? Typically stocks or bonds or perhaps a loan: if a block of money (or paper promises) is handed over not all at once but in bits over time or to several parties, those shares are tranches. And, yes, tranche comes from a French word that ultimately comes again from truncare. Are we counting how many legs this linguistic tarantula has – or how many shares it is divided into?

Of all these different words, we may make two broad groups (or tranches, shall we say): ones in which the Latin c has retained its original /k/ sound, and ones in which it has become a fricative or even an English affricate “ch” (/tʃ/). There is a distinct phonaesthetic difference between these two tranches – one may even say there is a trench between them. The trunk side lands with a hard clunk at the back of the mouth, like knocking against wood. The trench side seems to have more of a cutting feeling: what is “ch, ch, ch” but the sound of chipping away at something? Both endings come in for a softer landing with the nasal: the tree is soft wood, or the cutting is in the ground.

But also either way, it starts with tr, which in French and Latin is a simple stop and liquid but in English with its retroflex /r/ causes the stop to become an affricate – another “ch”. Indeed, trench sounds a bit like the act of digging a trench: “trench, trench, trench.” But tranche? Well, first you have to take stock of whether you’re going to say it like “tronsh” or like “tranch” (or “trunch”), and you have to get past any echoes of trance and trash – and any spare change (to say nothing of drudge and trudge and so on) that might be lingering. And then? Well, I’ll let you say your piece.

stracotto

With food, it’s well known that you can put something in a whole new light – even affect the way the taste is received – by giving it a different name. Preferably a foreign one.

To be fair, if you’re giving it a non-English name you’re usually also doing something at least a little different with it – gelato is not quite the same as ice cream. But sometimes, it’s just that, for instance, calamari sounds better to us than squid, or escargots sounds better to us than snails. I’m sure that that factor had a little influence, too, when the Frenchified English upper classes during the Middle Ages started calling the cows and pigs they ate by French names – beef (bœuf), veal (veau), pork (porc).

And it’s true, to look at it from the other side, that some of the things food can be called can seem rather unexciting. I was interested to learn, when touring the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, that one of the emperors of Austria (I can’t remember which) preferred boiled beef for dinner, reserving French food for formal occasions. Boiled beef! But of course it really matters what you boil it in and how you spice and what you serve it with. It doesn’t have to be boring.

Think of pörkölt, which is a Hungarian word meaning “singed” or “almost burnt”, and also the name of a meat dish that (with some noodles tossed in) is now known in English as goulash, which is mutated from a Hungarian word meaning “hunter”. It’s a flavourful dish, though the meaning of the name would mislead you. (As to the “hunter” name, consider the different catch you get from Italian for “hunter”: cacciatore. Chicken anyone?)

Now, look at stracotto. You can already guess that I’m going to tell you it’s something that sounds boring (you may even already know what stracotto is; if you do, ssshh, wait for it). But isn’t a lovely word? You may think of stracciatella, a name of both an egg-drop soup and a chocolate-chip flavour of gelato, or of ricotta, or some kind of frittata, or panna cotta, or, well, even terra cotta, I suppose.

Which leads us a little closer to this. Not just because cotta (and masculine cotto) means “cooked” but because terra cotta is ceramics (“cooked earth”), and when I made stracotto today I did it in a ceramic pot. Actually a slow cooker. Not a terra cotta one, but cut me some slack here.

So, now, what does stra mean if cotto means “cooked”? Here’s a hint: Latin ex, where it appeared, typically became Italian s. So, yes, extra cooked down, over time, to stra. “Extra cooked”? The English translation would actually be “overcooked”.

But we don’t call the dish “overcooked” in English. Even if, from the perspective of a lover of rare beef, it is. Say, I’m put in mind of something a friend of mine once told me. He was out for dinner with friends, and one of them ordered filet mignon. The waiter asked how he would like it done. The man said “Well done.” “Well done, sir?” “Yes.” As he walked away, the waiter was heard to mutter with disgust, “Might as well have ordered pot roast.”

I’m of the same mind as the waiter: filet mignon that’s not extra rare is overcooked. But not all cuts of beef are the same, and some cuts benefit from being incredibly overcooked. How incredibly? How about eight hours? Meet stracotto: Italian pot roast.

So here it is: This morning, I put five shallots cut in half and two chopped garlic cloves in the bottom of a slow cooker with two chopped sticks of celery, then put a 3-pound chunk of beef (with lots of nice fat) on top of it. Then I added about a quarter pound each of raisins and roasted plain almonds. I poured some tamari on the beef, and a bit more for good measure. (I don’t care that tamari isn’t Italian. My taste buds don’t care about “authenticity.” My kitchen is not in Italy, so that’s out the window already anyway. They only care about flavourful and interesting.) I poured a third of a bottle of Chianti over it all. And nestled four small potatoes around it for the sake of efficiency (in the time in which beef is cooked in a slow cooker to ultima ratio finis, or chicken to spreadability, potatoes are just past crunchy). And then set it on low and let it go for eight hours. (I did turn the beef a couple of times.)

Yes, there are usually more vegetables in with it. And maybe some other seasonings. Whatever. Faccio come voglio, io. The beef was splendid and juicy, the sauce flavourful but not oversweet (carrots might have pushed it over the top). I served it with celery fried in butter with more almonds and raisins. But does that sound like it should be called stracotto?

I mean, if you speak Italian, sure. Indeed, pot roast has a very similar level of crispness – stracotto has a voiceless fricative, a rolling liquid, and three voiceless stops (one of which, in Italian, is double-length), plus an /a/ and two /o/s; pot roast has a voiceless fricative, a rolling liquid, three voiceless stops, plus an /a/ and an /o/. But pot roast is ordinary to us, and rather demotic – of course, stracotto is about the same to Italians, but not to us: it’s Italian! We don’t know if they invented food and sex, but they sure have earned a reputation for both. Sometimes on the same plate. Eccolà: manzo a quel dio biondo!

And it reminds us of how crisp this word is, how spicy. Stracotto the dish is delicious, but in a distinctly different way than stracotto the word. Honestly, stracotto the word has a flavour that to my tongue is more like that of the dry sparkling shiraz from Australia that I’m drinking while watching the Oscars right now. Or maybe of the almonds and raisins if I had mixed them with the iced whipped cream I have in the freezer, and sprinkled some cinnamon on it all… hmmm… So, yes, I’ll have the stracotto first, and then the stracotto after. That seems like a good flavour progression. And in fact that’s just what I’ve just done.

Italian translations:
Faccio come voglio, io
: “I do what I want.”
Eccolà: manzo a quel dio biondo! “Here it is: beef fit for a blonde god!” (a quel dio biondo is a stock Italian phrase of approbation)

clerihew

How would you like to be an eponym?

I suppose it would depend on how you came to be eponymous. Some people have diseases named after them because they identified them (Down, Parkinson, et al. ad naus.); others have diseases named after them because they had them (legionnaires, for instance). Some people have forms of humour named after them because they inspired them (Spooner); some have forms of humour named after them because they created them.

In this last set belongs a certain Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who, as a British schoolboy, penned a little loose-rhythm quatrain:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

(Was not fond of was later revised to Abominated.) He subsequently penned a number of others on the same model. Another example:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

I think you can see the model. The first line is someone’s name (typically someone famous). This sets a pattern of usually two stressed syllables per line, but that is very loosely handled. The poem has two rhyming couplets, and tosses in some biographical detail about the person (Bentley’s books of clerihews include Biography for Beginners (1905), More Biography (1929), and Baseless Biography (1939)). It is important that the poem be amusing!

We note that the poems are not called bentleys. That would sound rather posh, and in particular would associate them with expensive cars typically driven by old-money types of people. (Even in Toronto, where Jaguars are a common sight and Lamborghinis can be seen driving by on infrequent occasion – and of course BMWs are more common than dirt – I see only a few Bentleys a year.) They are also not called edmunds. That would have some echoes of Shakespearean characters and a few other literary presences, and at the same time would be too well-known a person name to be all that distinctive. And it can’t help that it’s a sort of blunt sound with a dull vowel in the middle.

No, they are Clerihews, the least common of his three names. Clerihew is actually a Scottish family name, and in fact I know someone who comes from that family. [See the comments below for more on its origin.] You probably do not, as it really is not a common family name (neither is Harbeck, but I must say Clerihew has a certain idiosyncrasy that Harbeck does not). It seems almost to be the name of a bird, something like a curlew or a whippoorwill or perhaps a heronshew, or some other thing such as a creature like a fitchew hiding in the greenhew. Or perhaps an architectural feature like a clerestory in some mews.

The opening cl has a crisp clarity and cleanliness, a touch of class, though perhaps clerkish. All the vowels are front vowels (although the last one moves into a /w/), so there is a brightness to it, and the wheeze or sigh of the /h/ in the middle adds a softness, as of a pale or pastel hue – or a person breathing whew or phew.

The word as a whole anagrams to whericle, which is not a word but really should be; may I suggest that we now christen it one and use it to name a clerihew-type poem featuring not a person but a place, and (since the order of the word is reversed in four pieces) with the place name at the end, not the beginning, and starting (naturally) with where:

Where is an immenser
Historical dispenser
Of cheese, stone, and hassle?
Caerphilly Castle.

Where will you traipse
Over hills of peaches and grapes,
But find no cranberry bog in?
The Okanagan.

Where did the English entrench
Use of, and resistance to, French
More than at claret tastings?
The Battle of Hastings.

Most of the other words you can find in clerihew are not particularly related: chew, while, rice, rile, where, crewel; I do think rich is semantically relevant, but it doesn’t have much of the flavour of clerihew.

The big challenge of clerihews, aside from being witty, is to find a rhyme for the name; this can be on the difficult side at times. I’ve written a few recently for friends’ names, and you can see the contortions sometimes necessary:

Arlene Prunkl
Knew a little spunk’ll
Serve you in writing
And all kinds of uniting.

Antonia Morton
Waits for men to come a-courtin’:
Be they clients, be they lovers,
She knows her way between the covers.

Paul Cipywnyk
Doesn’t settle for what he’s giv’n: ich-
thyologic or prosaic,
He’s reliably apotropaic.

Margaret Gibbs
Keeps dolls in cribs.
She sees no analogy
Between that and genealogy.

They make a fun little challenge. (I also do them on request.)

Semicolons are recess periods

The semicolon is one of the most confusing punctuation marks, and many people are really unsure what to do with it. Some use it in place of a colon; others use it where a comma would be correct.

In fact, a semicolon is really a period that’s wearing a comma costume. It’s a full stop, but it’s pretending not to be. In French it’s a “point-virgule”: a period-comma. I think I would prefer to call them recess periods; they’re really periods, but they’re like a short recess between classes, rather than the full stop at the end of the day – you have a class on one side and a class on the other, or, in this case, an independent clause on one side and an independent clause on the other.

Semicolons are not like colons, and they’re not like commas either. Commas are multipurpose things, but one of the things you can’t do is use them to join two syntactically independent clauses; that’s called a comma splice. A colon is like a pair of eyes, looking expectantly. What is on one side of a colon depends on what is on the other side in some way – syntactically and/or thematically.

A semicolon, on the other hand, is like a tightrope walker – you can see the head on top and the one leg carefully balancing (the other is directly behind and not visible). For the tightrope walker to stay balanced, what is on either side must have equal weight: they must be either syntactically independent clauses or complex list items (by complex list items I mean things in a list that have internal punctuation: We went to see some movies: I, Claudius; Dawg, the Bounty Hunter; and Unforgiven).

To know whether a clause is syntactically independent, look for a subject and conjugated verb; you need one of each (unless it’s an imperative) on either side of the recess period.

Bad: He likes going to the races; usually on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races; he usually goes on Sunday.

Also look for conjunctions, which make it not syntactically independent.

Bad: He likes going to the races; which he does on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races, which he does on Sunday.

Unless you’re using the semicolons to separate complex list items, the rule is that it would still be grammatically correct if you replaced the semicolon with a period – because, really, it is a period, and when you whip off the comma mask, it will reveal itself. Like in a Mozart opera.

Singular or plural?

The question that comes up every so often among editors has come up again: what do you do in a case such as Fish breed for one stage of their life cycles – or is it Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle?

If that one leaves you feeling uncertain, you’re in great company. Everyone who works with the English language has wondered about that one for ages. Even the style guides are mushy on it. So don’t feel as though somehow there’s a clue space that you’re not in on this one. It’s one of those things that the English language is not suitably designed to handle (another one is Either you or I [are/am] going).

Generally, I think, the leaning is towards using the singular where reasonable. In case like Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle, there is additional justification for this because one could assert that all the fish have the same life cycle in the abstract.

But what do you do with something like They each held a cake in their hands? After all, each person might have the cake in both hands. They each held a cake in their hand is clearer but might sound ugly. Each one held a cake in his hand is a problem if there are males and females, and Each one held a cake in his/her hand is ugly. Best to do something like Each of them held a cake in one hand if you can, or, better, There was a cake in the hand of each of them.

But isn’t it annoying that we should feel the need to shift flow and emphasis just to deal with a syntactic inadequacy of our language!

hubbub

“What’s the hubbub, Bub?” said Bugs Bunny. But, buddy, what is a hubbub? Is it the murmuring rhubarb and babble of a rubbernecking rabble, or the bawdy hubba-hubba of bad boys eyeballing a bobbysoxer, or the blubbering and bawling some lub who’s been robbed? Is it simply general hullaballoo? Or is it something more threatening? A band of barbarians? A howling, perhaps as of a haboob?

If you look in Visual Thesaurus, you see only one node: “loud confused noise from many sources”; synonyms are brouhaha, uproar, and katzenjammer. But the Oxford English Dictionary, with its historical perspective, gives a small set of definitions, at the softer end of which is the rumbling murmur I remember from the mobs in the Banff Hot Springs, where I often bathed as a child, but at the louder end of which is a general hue and cry, even the shouting of a war cry. Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, used it thus: “They heard a noyse of many bagpipes shrill, And shrieking Hububs them approching nere.” Shrieking hubbubs! They sound almost like banshees.

Well, hubbub does appear to have something in common with banshee: an Irish origin. It is, by old accounts, an Irish outcry, cognate perhaps with the Scots Gaelic interjection of aversion or contempt, ub! ub! ubub! This is not to say we know its source ab ovo, but earliest citations lead me to think this purported source is no booboo.

But does hubbub sound threatening enough? There’s a reason it has shifted to a more general crowd sound, and I’m inclined to think it has to do with its greater resemblance to muddled incoherent speech sounds. After all, our word barbarian comes from the Greeks’ impression of the speech sounds of foreign rabble: barbarbarbar.

Still, for the Celts, ubub was not simple urban rumble, nor even some exuberance. Indeed, the war cry of the ancient Irish was abu! (Compare this to the war cry of the juvenile Anglophone, leaping out from behind a piece of furniture: Boo!)

It’s not the noise of a thousand tongues, though, not if they’re all saying hubbub, because this is one of those few words one can say entirely without the use of the tongue. Orthographically it’s at least as odd: almost a palindrome, except the h is an incomplete or burst b; its repeating sequences look a bit like one of those 3-D smudgeeos that used to feature in newspaper funny pages. Rotate it 180˚ and you get something spelling about as opposite a sound sequence as you could want: qnqqny.

But it hasn’t always been spelled exactly that way, as the Spenser quote hints. Other forms the OED lists through its history are hooboube, hooboobe, hoeboube, whobub, hubub, hobub, whoo-bub, whoopubb, hoobub, howbub, how-bub, and hub hub. Put them together and they make a regular whoop-up, more like a frat-boy noise than some hot pool conversation. And you thought word tasting was a subdued hobby!

Thanks to Carolyn Bishop for suggesting hubbub.

carnival

I grew up in Canada, so my first acquaintance with carnival was in reference to a travelling fair – merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels and so on are called carnival rides, and the archetypal sound of a carnival is that of a calliope. It all tastes and smells of candied popcorn, and has that air of dizziness and queasiness from grease and sugar and circular motion.

But outside of Canada and the United States, carnival has not really slid over to that meaning. No, it’s still the original: something else, much bigger, less like Disney and more like Dionysus. I imagine that we all, as adults aware of the world, know of the carnival in Rio de Janeiro and many other countries (notably in the Caribbean): a massive festival of music and dancing and masked parades, and an incredible spree of consumption. A real Mardi Gras.

Exactly a real Mardi Gras. Carnival is an event that takes place on, or leading up to, Mardi Gras, “fat Tuesday,” the last day before Lent: today. Shrove Tuesday (shrove is not an old word for “pancake”, by the way). Look, if you’re going to have to spend 40 days being lean and austere, you really want a blow-out beforehand. And so carnival is a time of unrivalled carnality, of craving and devilry, with more pyrotechnics than Cape Canaveral (and perhaps more pirates than old Cornwall). Never mind the calliope: here come the bands and drums. It’s like being on a cruise ship (a Carnival ship, to be precise) times a thousand.

And then you wave goodbye to the meat, all that fabulous fat and flesh, and put it away. Which is where carnival comes from. Not from carne vale, “farewell to meat”, as I (like many others) thought for a long time, but from Italian carne levare or Latin carnem levare, “putting away (or removing) flesh”. It passed through carnelevarium and carnelevale before trimming down to Latin carnevale. The word as we have it has a smorgasbord of consonants: voiceless stop, liquid, voiced fricative, liquid, dancing from the back to the tip of the tongue to the teeth and lips to the tongue tip again (with the tongue raising up at last in back like the massive feathers attached to many a carnival dancer’s backside).

And so people remove a lot of clothing (and put on some costumes that don’t even cover the navel) and put away a lot of flesh (i.e., eat a lot of meat) – and drink a lot, and eat fat, and so on – in a celebration that is named for what happens right after it. But first, the dizziness and queasiness from all the consumption and dancing!

plump, steatopygian, zaftig, buxom

“Last time I buy leather from him,” Marilyn Frack said. She was recounting with dissatisfaction the acquisition of her latest black leather jacket and skirt. “He called me plump.”

I sucked in my breath and raised an eyebrow. It’s true that Marilyn isn’t exactly a stick figure, but that did display poor judgement on the part of the salesman.

Pleasingly plump,” Edgar Frack, her other half, said. “I do believe he misjudged.”

“It’s not that I think I’m skinny,” Marilyn said, “nor would I want to be, but plump is just not right. It suggests fat, round about the middle. Like a big plumped-up pillow. Or a purple plum. Or a pink lump. Someone who just plumps down on the couch. I get out and around, you know.”

Yes, you do, I thought, but said nothing. Maury, also sharing a bottle of wine with us around a high table at Domus Logogustationis, added a little lighter fluid to her flame. “Not that etymology is any guide to current usage,” he said, “but there is also the fact that plump comes from a Germanic root originally meaning ‘crude, clumsy, stupid’.”

“I think the salesman was plump!” Marilyn snorted. Then she snorted back the rest of her glass and refilled. “Then there was that guy – do you remember him, Edgar? – who thought it would be amusing to call me steatopygian.”

I remembered that guy. He was a guest at one of our word tasting events. He fancied himself witty, but he leaned a bit too far towards the rude in erudite. I seem to recall him having to leave early to remove a wine stain from his shirt.

“It doesn’t matter how expensive the word is,” Marilyn continued, “it still means ‘fat ass’.” True: from Greek στέαρ stear “fat” and πῡγή pugé “buttocks”.

“It sounds a bit like a dinosaur,” Edgar added. “Or an obese prehistoric bird.”

“Some people like large buttocks,” Maury offered. “Some cultures value them quite a bit. I’m not saying that you have a lot of ‘booty,’ but if you did, there would be fellows out there who would want it.”

Marilyn leaned close to Maury and purred into his ear, “Leave the booty for the pirates.” She lingered a moment or two longer, just to make sure he was beginning to feel nervous, and then settled back onto her stool. “They don’t call Dolly Parton plump or steatopygian.”

“That’s true,” I said. “They do call her zaftig.”

Marilyn pondered this for a moment. “Isn’t zaftig just a Yiddish way of saying ‘fat’?”

“Not really,” I said. “Nor even necessarily ‘Rubenesque’.”

Rubenesque in Yiddish refers to a sandwich,” Maury interjected.

Zaftig means ‘juicy’,” I said. “Dolly Parton, Gina Lollabrigida, Marilyn Monroe, all zaftig. You might recognize Saft from German – as in Orangensaft, ‘orange juice’.”

“Thus referring,” Edgar said, “to someone you would like to squeeze like an orange.”

“But that zed,” Marilyn said. “Zaftig seems a little too zany. Or like Ziegfeld of the follies. And it’s an anagram of fat zig. No, I know what I prefer. Buxom.”

We all nodded. This was the perfect word for her figure. “It occurs to me,” I said, “that if we pronounce the u as in rude and the x as in xenial, then b-u-x-o-m can be said like ‘bosom’.”

“I like the x,” Marilyn said. “It sits in the middle like in a cross-your-heart bra. And the /b/ is like breasts about to burst out of a bodice. It’s happy, smiling, pleasing.”

“Goes with wench,” Edgar added. Marilyn seemed to like this.

“The xo recalls a kiss and hug,” Edgar continued.

“And right in the middle of a bum,” Maury observed.

“Well, then,” Marilyn said, “kiss and hug my bum. Now, how did that limerick go… ‘I know of a lass who’s quite buxom; You should find her and go try your luck some. You won’t have to chase Her all over the place; Guys she likes, she just throws down and—’”

She was cut short by Maury having a sudden coughing fit from having aspirated some wine. She reached over and patted him on the back. “Dear Maurice,” she said, “surely you’ve heard naughty limericks before.”

“Yes,” Maury gasped, and cleared his throat. “I was just going to add that the limerick matches well with the etymology of buxom.”

Edgar pursed his lips and glanced upwards, pensive. “On the model of winsome, fearsome, noisome, bothersome, and so on, does it mean prone to bucking or to being bucked?”

“In fact,” Maury said, “the buck comes from Old English bugan, which has become bow. Someone who was buxom was easily bowed, and therefore compliant.”

“So the idea is the stereotype that chesty women are easy?” Marilyn said.

“No, actually,” Maury said, “from ‘compliant’ it came to mean ‘blithe’ and ‘gladsome’, and from that ‘healthy’, ‘comely’, and so on.”

“The perfect word,” Marilyn said, smiled, and sipped her wine. Then, just as Maury was in mid-sip, she leaned over, settling her chest into his shoulder, and purred into his ear, “Not that I’m not easy.” Maury gagged and coughed, spraying his wine over the environs, including his shirt and mine.

“You see,” Marilyn said, settling back onto her stool. “This is why Edgar and I wear black leather. It’s so easy to just wipe wine right off it.” She smiled pleasantly, raised her glass, and tossed the rest back.

grackle

What’s the difference between crackle and grackle? I don’t mean “tell me what the dictionary says.” Look at them and listen to them: the only difference is that first letter, that first phoneme, and in fact the only difference between the two sounds is that one is voiced and one is not. Indeed, it’s not even that much, since “voiced” stops just have less voice onset and offset time – we don’t actually use our voice during a stop in English, or in most other languages – and, in English, the voiceless stop is aspirated, meaning that in this word the /r/ after it is also devoiced. That’s it. So they should seem very similar words, no?

Well, as similar as grow and crow. Now tell me how often you think of those two words as similar. How about good and could? Gable and cable? Glue and clue? Grab and crab? Each of these pairs has just that one difference: /g/ versus /k/, voiced versus voiceless (and aspirated). Oh, they rhyme; easy to hear that. But so do tackle, wood, stable, blue, and flab, respectively. And the /g/ words hardly seem much closer to the /k/ words than those other rhymes do. The /g/ words lack the crispness of the /k/ words; they seem blunter, or more colourful, somehow a bit more like that guy in the loud polyester suit than like the lean woman in the black dress.

And, now, let’s imagine for the moment that both words, grackle and crackle, are onomatopoeic: we know what a crackle sounds like – a fire, a candy wrapper, a sparkler, a newspaper crumpled perhaps. What does a grackle sound like? More like some ugly bird, no? Or a toad?

Well, crackle is sort of onomatopoeic – it’s formed from crack, which has an onomatopoeic origin, and the le suffix indicating that it’s a bunch of little cracks in sequence. And grackle? It may be sort of onomatopoeic, but way back in its Latin origins. The word it comes from is gracula, which may be imitative of the sound of the bird it named.

Gracula! Goodness gracious! That sounds like it should be something black and vampiric, no? Well, it somewhat is. The grackle is a large-ish black bird, larger than a blackbird; it may be found flocking with starlings, though its sound is no murmuration – depending on the specific type of grackle, and the time of year, it might be something like “chewink” or “oo whew whew whew whew” or “jeeb” or whistles and whines… unpleasant in any event. And loud. Oh, and they are also known to imitate humans, though not as well as mockingbirds, with which they sometimes flock.

Ah, but its feathers are sombre, yes? Well, no, actually: they’re iridescent; up close, they shimmer with different colours. Common grackles even rub ants on themselves to add to the sheen. And grackles are aggressive and grabby. They eat pretty much anything. Even things that other birds had in their beaks just a moment ago. I gotta tell you, these birds can be like having the worst neighbours with the loudest party not just next door but coming into your kitchen. No wonder a guy named Michael Berry made a short film called Day of the Grackle about a guy grappling with a grievously grating grackle (view the trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfCRBW-V0V8 – it has a link to the full 15-minute version).

So avian Dracula indeed, eh? Oh, except that gracula was the Latin word for jackdaw. Which is a different bird. And in fact grackle in Europe refers to a different bird from the North American birds called grackles. Is the European grackle a jackdaw? No, it’s a kind of myna. Or actually any of a few different kinds.

So how the did the name shift? It seems that at first grackles were thought to be of the same family as jackdaws. Now, though, the North American ones are all known to be icterids, and most belong to the genus Quiscalus. But naw, dude, never mind the formal classification. That black bird with the loud voice and loud black feathers is a grackle. The name suits it.