Category Archives: Uncategorized

mode, model, modest

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0011.

I was recently wandering the art gallery – as is lately my mode – scanning the exhibited pictures but also appreciating the two-legged artworks engaging in the same activity. Galleries are good places to see society à la mode: the chilly cream that adorns the pie of life. The clothing is often especially modish. On this particular day, my eyes were drawn to a model of near perfection.

When I say a model, I do not think that she was actually a fashion model, although she did look like a fashion plate (perhaps the plate on which was served the pie). I was told by another person that she was a dancer. But what she was in any event was style itself: as long and lean as a stylus, wearing a dress draped loosely over her sleek figure from neck to toes and a hat with a brim so wide that from most angles her face was invisible. She was not the mode, because the mode is what is most common and she was uncommon; but as fashion is mode, and she was most fashionable, she certainly was the modest. And since her skin was covered completely and neatly concealed from view, her dress was modest, even as it was outstanding.

Is it right to play with mode and modest in that way? Surely modest is not just the superlative of mode…?

No, it’s not, but it does come from it, in a roundabout way. We start with modus, Latin for ‘measure’ or ‘manner’. From it we get mode as in the most common measurement in a set, one kind of ‘average’ (in {1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 72}, the mode is 3 although the mean is 14). We also get mode as in fashion, and as in music (Phrygian? Dorian? Phryg-Dorian?), and mood as in grammar but not as in thought (so the song ‘If I were a rich man’ is in a Phrygian mode and a subjunctive mood, and is not modest in its aspirations). And we get moderate.

Moderate, the verb, means to make something more measured, restrained. Something that has been moderated is, in Latin, modestus. Thus modest. Not extravagant. But one can have extravagantly much fabric leaving extravagantly little skin to be seen and yet consider it modest rather than simultaneously prodigal and parsimonious.

In modern times, modesty may seem outmoded. But remember that modern is a model of mode too: in Latin, modo means ‘to the measure’ or ‘in a certain manner’ and came to mean ‘just now’; that ‘just now’ sense gave birth to modernus. So, if we want to be measured and just now, we can be ‘just now’ and ‘measured’ and that will somehow be the modern way.

So let us measure this model now. We will find at length that she is at a great length, and in a great length of fabric, but she is just a little bit of the mode. Indeed, she is not modus but its diminutive modellus, whence model. We may not think of models as being modest, but in name, at least, each model is a little modest.

This one is more than a little modest. By which I mean she is immodest in her visual salience, but she is quite modest in the fabric module she has enclosed herself in. And she is the chief picture at this exhibition. Oh, there is art, and plenty of it: pictures of buildings, pictures of fairy tales, pictures of rich and poor, all well orchestrated. But she brings electricity to it, which means she is a conductor, and she brings exquisite composition to it, which means she is a composer. And we know who composed Pictures at an Exhibition.

Yes, of course. Modest Mussorgsky. He was named after a Saint Modestus, a man named for exemplify a virtue. Modest Mussorgsky was Modest but his music was specular and spectacular, and he drank immodest amounts and did not live longer than the mode for his time.

Meanwhile, in modern times, our chief picture at this exhibition, our modest model, leans forward to peer at a painting from beneath her brim (thus allowing the draped dress to reveal her callipygian quarters). And, having elevated the mood, she moves on.


English is a wild ride, a climb of clatter and cacophony as of skeletons in halters, a slide ride down flung with centrifugal force and out-of control collisions, slaps and claps. It is a welter of words taken from here and there and ricocheting against each other like so many billiard balls, harum-scarum. And references and references to references and lost and forgotten references all going around and coming around.

Take helter-skelter. Where do you know that from? How old do you think it is? Who came up with it? What does it come from?

The last two questions are easy to answer because they are impossible to answer. Helter-skelter existed in common use by Shakespeare’s time, to mean ‘pell-mell; fast and out of control’. Why helter and why skelter? Obviously it’s a reduplicating formation, like hurry-scurry and the other couple I’ve already used. The skelter may come from an old word skelte ‘hurry’, with the helter added for effect. But the word just lands in the printed record out of nowhere, as if it slid in from above and dropped with a thump on the page.

It’s useful, anyway. It got a good workout in literature: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Longfellow, Trollope… Jonathan Swift made it the title of a poem about lawyers on the country circuit. It carries so many echoes: not just halter and skeleton but welter, swelter, shelter, pelter, kelter (the word we know better as kilter, meaning ‘good health, good spirits’ and best known to us in out of kilter), skelper (from skelp ‘slap, strike’), skelder (‘beg, cadge, swindle’), perhaps Hitler and kettle and skillet and kelp and helper… If you listen with an interested mind, the chaotic clatter of this word may carry echoes of many things climbing up from your unconscious or dropping down from your surroundings.

Helter-skelter is a good term for the behaviour of children on a playground, if a little scarier than higgledy-piggledy. And so in the early 1900s, when someone invented a fun park attraction that is a tower (looking like a little lighthouse, perhaps) with stairs up in the centre and a slide spiralling down around the outside, they named it a helter-skelter. The first one was at that famous seaside place called Blackpool.

It seems to have been one of those that Paul McCartney had in mind when he wrote the song “Helter Skelter.” McCartney wanted a truly wild and grungy sound, one that would soundly thrash musical expectations just as Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” thrashed exegetical expectations. He wanted to out-Townshend Pete Townshend. What is “Helter Skelter” about? It’s about the punkiest sound you can imagine, and not what one generally expects from The Beatles. It’s about four minutes and thirty-three seconds of quite the opposite of what John Cage did with his four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s skelping and out of kilter, it’s – here, listen. Listen to Paul McCartney singing it and his bandmates thrashing it out. Listen as it fades out and then comes back in at the end, with the shout (often thought to be from John Lennon, but actually it was Ringo Starr) “I got blisters on my fingers!”

What do you hear? What you hear and what you get from it will of course be conditioned by what you bring to it. What Charles Manson heard was his vision for a coming apocalyptic race war. The racket of the song echoed inside his head and mixed in with the other noises there and came out with murder. The song, for him, was apocalyptic violence.

Easy enough to hear it that way? Sure. Now hear it another way.


My wife is a generally frugal person, but she does like to blow the occasional wad on something frivolous. I wouldn’t say she’s penny-wise and pound-foolish – she’s generally pound-wise too – but she has her breakout moments from fiscal restraint. We were talking about it today, and I confected a word for it. Fruval? Frigolous? No, let’s blend just a little bit more. Frugvolous.

And of course you have to know the two words blenderized into this one or you won’t know how to pronounce it. After all, the frug is obviously a closed syllable, so we don’t normally do the “long” sound – indeed, we usually do a whole other sound altogether, the sound in drug. But English is a language with a rather frugal set of letters (not much more than half as many as we have sounds that they represent) but a frivolous way of using them to represent sounds. So this frug is the same sound as in frugal – and in the dance called the frug, which is frugal in the footwork and frivolous in the arm movements.

Where do the two bits of this word come from? From Latin, both of them. The frugal part is from frugalis, ultimately from frux, ‘profit, utility, fruit’ (yes, fruit and fructose come from it too). And frux is properly pronounced to rhyme with cooks. The frivolous part is from frivolus ‘silly, empty, trifling, brittle’, ultimately from friare ‘break, rub away, crumble’. So somehow frugvolous derives from crumbly fruit.

I guess you could also spell this word frugvalous – why don’t I let the readers (and any future users) vote on that in action. But I wonder which of the two would tempt more to mispronunciation: i.e., to putting the stress on the second syllable instead of the first.

No surprise that anyone would do that, though. The two consonants /gv/ back to back make it harder for the second syllable to be entirely reduced and unstressed. We don’t normally pattern sounds that way. But there’s no specific rule that forces stress to be on one syllable and not another in English; we have general patterns, but so many exceptions, largely thanks to having stolen so many words from various other languages.

I guess we could look for a single word that would express the alternation of frugal and frivolous. But that word would not, in form, actually be constructed from an alternation of frugal and frivolous. Why not be frugal with the available word forms and frivolous in how we combine them?

Exotic city names that are actually pretty dull has posted another article by me, this one on city names that may sound exotic but actually mean something rather plain in the language their residents speak:

14 exotic city names that sound boring when translated

Kuala Lumpur just doesn’t sound as magical when you translate it to Muddy Confluence


This is a little different as word tastings go. But then I often veer more into fantasia than simple sniff, swirl, and spit. This is a short story on annunciation – on the idea of The Annunciation, that point of departure in the Christmas story where the angel tells Mary she’s going to be the mother of the saviour. But this isn’t a story about Mary. She’s just the springboard. It’s a more modern and personal idea – fiction, but with a seed in my life. This is a short story I wrote 14 years ago, and I think it’s about the best I can do on this theme.

Incidentally, today is the twelfth anniversary of my wedding to the woman who helped give me the resolution to the inspiration for this story.


The Annunciation
by James Harbeck

Dark, rich, loving asphalt, comfort me. Dark, rich, loving asphalt, heal me. Pavement of the wounded souls, reach up through my feet-hearts and caress my unwanting being. In your stillness there is confirmation. And the echoes of my hard heels on your flat and gum-speckled surface are the sound of chants in cathedrals. With you flowing through me like a river, I am not alone.

*  *  *

It starts with an idea that angels could be dirty little children, or stones, or spires of cement, or thickets of nettly shrubs, or cats and dogs. Or the lady standing on a sidewalk in minus five doing her makeup in a palm-sized mirror. What is special, what makes an angel an angel, is the grinning joy of reality, the peeking underskirt hem-edge of the universe’s delight, the spirit-tickle of sanctity, showing through like a delightful joke. And not the person’s joke, not the stone’s or the tree’s or the dog’s or the child’s or the woman’s, but rather the universe’s itself, in such a delightfully unselfconscious way that the only way one can be an angel is first of all not to be in the slightest bit conscious of the fact that one is an angel.

And so it was. This idea, you see, did not show up internally first, as they tend to do. This idea came in the back way. It was a physical entity first. It was five grinning children in white cotton nightshirts, standing barefoot in the snowy ground and lifting their arms in what might have been an imitation of wings. Five grinning children, not singing glory to God in the highest but physically manifesting it. Not some stern glory, either, but a rather wobbly and sometimes distracted one. For unto us a child is born: I knew the meaning. A new spirit enters the world, an action waiting to be seen through to its completion. Some of it for me, some of it for others. And those five silly grinning kids in the snow, just waiting for God the almighty to call a juice and cookie break.

*  *  *

I took my leave of Carrie in the bus station. We sat staring across steaming coffees at each other, each speaking not a word, wondering what the other was thinking, thinking that it were best to say little. How much can be said? Once there was something between us; now there are thousands of miles between us. She left to make a new life in another city with another job, and I was left in a Toronto now wiped clean for me, empty of family, my rarely-seen acquaintances stale past date. The aftertaste of yearnings and attachments has an aging sweetness, but the promise of a fresh slate, a city sparkling in the frozen air like new-fallen powder, is another sweetness, and this one flashed of a history to be found in the future. As Carrie blew on her coffee, an angel walked behind her, muddy-hemmed white dress sweeping the loose papers on the floor. Oh, what a city! And then I looked at Carrie and her smudging lipstick coffee-flavoured and I saw—in her hopefulness and her slightly-used floppiness, in her blue hat and the air about her that suggested that things and persons would be parted with regretfully but hopefully like an outgrown favourite shirt deposited into a basement box—I saw the same angel. The angel of the muddy skirts and of the blue hats and of the coffee that was proud of getting to be $1.35 a cup. It was just in that breath, I think, that I realized that they’re all the same angel, there is only one angel, just as there is only one primary blue, only one 440-hertz A, and every time you see the one or hear the other, it is the same as always but also its own instance.

And so there are angels and angels, and angel and angel.

My angel. My fresh, new, empty city. And Carrie’s angel, in her wet Vancouver.

I began to walk. I have always walked; I began to walk even more. Motion was my holy spirit.

*  *  *

My sense was that the angels were—even always are—heralding the advent of some new spirit, some saving light; they were, as I watched them, the forerunners or fingertips of a miracle, of a divine sneeze. I was a shepherd, watching my flocks by night. As I stood in the front of the subway train, seeing through the window the blackening walls flow toward me and past me, every concrete tie whirring beneath me another beat in the anticipatory drum roll, I felt as though I were being sucked into the future. Bursting into the light of the platform at Bloor, it was as though I had made it through the after-death tunnel into the other world, and the down-coated muesli of transit passengers edging the yellow line were heavenly hosts. I would step through the door and it would be Christmas morning, and the truth would be made known after all our living.

Maybe it was the flowers or the bonsai bushes in the underground mall, or perhaps it was the empty fountain that begged me to be its water. Perhaps it was the thrusting, punching, humping music following me from the HMV, asking me to live it, to be its avatar. All I know is that somewhere in the Holt Renfrew Centre, as I walked between the four-foot-high poster heads and headless lingerie mannequins, I became aware that the one who was to give birth was I. Me. The entire world had turned into an annunciation for the beauty of God, and I was the one who was going to have to bring it forth.

Quite naturally, I panicked.

*  *  *

What did Mary feel? Alone in that room on a bed of straw, only twelve years old, her life neatly arranged for her, nothing to have to worry about or think about, what did she feel when an angel appeared? And how did it appear? Did she roll over and realize the light of God was emanating from a piece of straw near her eye? Did her vision suddenly become so acute that every atom, every whirring electron, in the glistening walls was visible, could she hear it hum the music of the spheres?

Mary gasps as she sits bolt upright, dropping sleep like an iron pot. Something is stirring inside her. He own body, her own soul-manifested flesh, is creating God, and it presses the understanding into her mind. Wherever she looks, she sees angel. Door-shaped angel, ant-shaped angel, shoe-shaped angel, dog-shaped angel, straw-shaped angel, air-shaped angel. And she knows what the angel’s going to say even before the angel says it, so the angel doesn’t have to say it.

The angel tells Mary—Mary knows the angel is telling her—not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid: that’s a bad sign right from the start. Like when a person begins with “Don’t get angry, but . . .”

So she’s pregnant. Bad enough for her. But how can the small, insignificant girl that she is, engaged to a carpenter at that, how can she be the mother of the great saviour of Israel? It’s not a small responsibility.

Either she’s losing her mind, or it’s true. Trouble no matter what. How can she be comfortable, insignificant Mary? How could she ever stand having her name invoked by hundreds of millions every day, as though she were some rock star?

I understand Mary now, or so I imagine it. Her predicament. Glad tidings of great joy? What a crock! Doesn’t God know my eating habits?

Depression is my delicacy. I feast on it raw like sushi or ever so lightly sautéed. That sweet taste of “I can’t,” the relaxing reassurance that I’m not worth anything. And when I want some zip, I pour on liberal dashes of anxiety. Nothing makes me feel more real than questioning my own existence, attempting negation of everything that’s important to me. I can moan in weakness: “To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do we send up our sighs, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, your ears of mercy towards us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O pious, o clement, o sweet virgin Mary!”

Only she’s on my side of the fence. How could she go to the other side of the equation without losing herself entirely?

Now I walk like a madman up and down my beloved streets, my face twisting with my inner dialogue. I pound on walls at the slightest noise. I am unbearable. And I am alone: all my loved ones are in other cities. I have left them all behind, chasing after the rescue from God like a dog chases a car. I leave behind me a trail of unfinished friendships. Now I have caught, or I have been caught.

Help me.

*  *  *

Your arrival is the death of my comfort. I hide when I smell your beauty approaching, I tremble like a dog fearing its master, for you dare me to be someone worthy, you dare me to live up to potential I kept buried, slumbering, unacknowledged, safe. I will have to burn my mediocre works, and this self-absorbed story will burn first.

*  *  *

In the evening pool I float, eyes to the ceiling, ears tuned to the clotted sounds of the water. It’s still in this room, and the water is warm. The lifeguard shuffles and kicks, walks this way and that, nothing to do. I flip over and, expelling air, strive for the tiled bottom, for the amniotic comfort of a watery womb. But I don’t stay down. I can hardly even touch the bottom, though it’s only four feet beneath the surface. I float back up and spew my remaining breath into the air.

My angel is here. I know it. Somewhere between the tiles, somewhere in the spaces between echoes, in the gap between inhale and exhale, the tentacle of God slips and sneaks. This calmness is resounding with the portentous peace. The air, by its very leanness, is fat with blessing waiting to be grasped. Me, I would hide from my joy. If I were to let it in I would burst.

My life is a balloon full of blood and the angel is a razor.

*  *  *

Days go by. Sometimes I feel that I am back to normal living, that everything is as it used to be and my panic was a passing illusion. Underneath it, most of the time, is the side-glimpsed sense, like an itch you can feel but can’t find, that the “normal” is the illusion, and reality awaits through the next door, smoke gently curling from its green nostrils, its squamous tail coiled, tip tapping. And at moments I am like one drifting to sleep who suddenly jerks awake as though sparked by a plug, my gradually accreting sense of existence scattered as a film on stirred water. I work and bury myself in yes, no, and projects that I must do. Then I walk and I am alone, alone with my thoughts and fears, and from the bricks behind me in the after-work alleyway I think I hear again the angel breath.

*  *  *

The glow of the dirty brick walls, the rust on the bumper of the 1970s Impala, the transcendent shimmer of the kneaded and crumbled pavement, the wan but hopeful halogen glow from the light in the concave corner, it is all new, new like I am new. I left something behind, I left somebody behind; I can’t find myself now. This alleyway is empty. I am empty. I’ve tried on all the definitions and in frustration I’ve shredded my persona, crumpled it, left it in a corner or on a pile of perceptions somewhere. I’m like the patch of land where a building was, is not. If these walls up and down this alley were to evanesce, what would I see? If the brick structures were gone, or if I reversed the clock to before they were built, what would come next? Must something be built at all?

I feel that I will have to build myself a new living space. Right now I’m like a squatter in my body, taking cover in the most ramshackle hut in a barely sheltered corner of my head, a refrigerator box and a few blankets perhaps. Has there been a hurricane? Or did I blow the walls down myself? Were they ever there?

If I turn around and go back, will the alley look the way it used to?

*  *  *

Mary is the angel, projecting her angel-ness on the whole world. Before she even knew it, she had manifested God, she had become the miracle in order to bring forth the miracle. Everything she eats now, all her blood, her breath, her body, all feeds into this child. The child is made of Mary just so the child can be apart from her and give back to her the miracle. Or draw the miracle out from her.

Lightning does not come down from the clouds. It comes up from the ground. The clouds wait; the earth gives.

*  *  *

It’s like waking up.

I haven’t had a coffee in months and still I’ve been a nervous wreck. I’ve cut my sugar intake down to near nil and the walls of my mind are furrowed with fingernail marks. Finally, finally, after tearing around the palace of my potential being, I found a familiar sofa to sit on and feel like myself again. I wasn’t lost, I’m not lost.

And now this.

Like someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned and opened my eyes and realized that I had been dreaming and was now in the world I had forgotten. Back in Kansas with Toto. And you, Auntie Em. You, my omnipresent angel. You, my firstborn.

It’s like that moment in Tolkien when they realize the password to Moria was, had always been, right before their eyes, wasn’t even intended to be concealed. Not “speak, friend, and enter,” but “speak ‘friend’ and enter.” And you, angels, are my friend.

When I first knew the birth was going to happen, it had already happened. The angels: they’re the miracle. The angel is everything. Everything is the miracle.

But I already knew that.

*  *  *

Dark, rich, loving asphalt, you are my city. On you I walk, in you I curl. On my way home I pick up a bunch of flowers, limply dripping with the first mists of artificial hothouse spring. I am the bee. I find the honey where I flit, or I come home to the honeycomb. What will it be? It will be a table already set, steam rising from pots. It will be a kiss in the doorway. It will be a comfort I left behind in search of the comfort I had left behind. It will be a failed sojourn in another truth, an abandoned voyage. It will be my return as well as hers.

And yet my comfort is in searching, my place is in walking. I can only know where I am when I am moving.

The kids are there again, only this time they’re five superannuated t’ai chi practitioners swimming their molasses arcs into the air. The ground is covered with mud and the black slip-on dollar-forty-nine shoes of the air painters are already tempura-battered with it. They dance their impossibly slow and smooth abstractions and the mud eats them gradually; they sink further and further into it, to knees and to waists, their motions not slowing, and they become golden black-and-white-topped windbreaker- or track-suit-clad flowers, waving in their insouciantly oblivious spirals a goodbye from the angels.

I want to look at my bible: did Mary see the angel again afterwards? Having made the messiah out of her flesh, did she even need to? And having become separate from her miraculous child, having parted from her night-tickling angel, did she not spend the rest of eternity dining on the sorrows and cares of others, becoming in her angel-consciousness the mirror in which all the other, unconscious angels could look and see the divine fingertips reflected? What things did she, does she, see and feel?

I am at the door, quivering flowers in hand, lips prepared. I hold the key, and she is on the inside. And?


Things I learned as a word taster:

You have never seen them all.

One reason you have never seen them all is that they keep making new ones.

“They” being those words, themselves, which you will find in compromising positions when you least expect it.

Yes, I know that words exist entirely within people’s minds, and in usage contexts, as socially agreed constructions, and always as each individual’s impression of something received, which means that word DNA mutates at least a little with every transmission. That doesn’t really matter. That poltergeist you are sure doesn’t exist is still smashing a flowerpot over your head. And it does hurt. The stitches you get are, curiously, real. Likewise, people will respond to a word that they recognize as a word even if it’s never existed before and may never show up again. See classiomatic.

Morphemes matter less than you think they do. All those copter and oholic words should have taught you that. Once people forget where a word came from, rhythm and phonemics and recognizable sequences matter a lot more than which bits that were put together to make it. And people forget more quickly and readily than you think.

Take a word like evolution. You know how emotion is shortened to emo sometimes? It sure makes sense to shorten evolution to evo, doesn’t it? Of course it does. Tell me what other word that evo could make you think of. Exactly. But now tell me what evolution comes from. The word, I mean. What’s its evolution? How did it turn out that way?

Once upon a time (way more than once, in fact, but let’s go with that), there was a Latin word, volvere, “turn, roll”, and a Latin prefix, ex, “out, out of”, which shortened to e in some cases. They got together, as these things do, and made evolvere, “roll out, roll away, unwind, unfold, etc.” You might say “turn out”. And when someone needed a word to apply to things in nature that changed, to talk about how they came to turn out as they turned out, this seemed like a perfectly good one. Evolve. Noun, evolution. It’s not really evo plus lution anymore than solution is so plus lution. But that doesn’t really matter, actually, because even people who know Latin would rather make words that aren’t ugly. Everyone wants a pretty baby. Words want pretty babies too. And we like it best if we can recognize the parents on both sides. Word paternity tests can be so vexing. This is why we say chocoholic rather than chocolatic.

Some words, though, are just too delicious to cut up. You want the whole thing on your tongue. Take propinquitous. And propinquity. I’m sure that there are many people who think that these words are delicious. I know of at least two: myself and Christopher Schmitt.

They’re pretty words, of course. Long. Propinquitous has thirteen letters, twelve phonemes, four syllables. It has those pretty p’s and q looking at each other, with their pert prim tops and trim descenders. Two each of i, o, and u. Three letters that go below the body and three that go above. It’s crisp but with a little soft bit, and it starts by popping on the lips but then drops to the back before tapping off the tongue tip. It’s a word that might be proper, might have property, yet might still proposition you iniquitously like a delinquent. Or a pro. It’s a word you want to get near. Word, meet tongue.

Do you wonder, if pro means “for” or “forward” or “before”, what pinquity or pinquitous means? You’ve been fooled again. That pro is there, but only as a progenitor of prope, “near”, which got together on some hazy peach-sky evening with inquus (would you? doesn’t it look dangerous? naahhhh…) just to get even closer. And then their love-child went through French and landed in English. Their love-children.

You thought it would be easy and straightforward. Clear, direct strands of DNA and descent, flowing together side by side like streams of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream. You thought that when words get together in the little room of your mind with other words, with the curtains drawn, they would just take off their clothes. You had no idea that they would take off some of their limbs too, and mix and match like paper dolls in the hands of a naughty boy. You didn’t expect to be walking through the jungle of words and encounter a full-grown hippogriff or manticore or sphinx.

But now you’re feeding it. And helping it propagate.

Because someone who studies how animals evolve and spread put it there. Just as a lexical embodiment of the fascinations and complications he encounters in the rain forest watching monkeys and getting spit in the eye by them and stepping on electric eels and brushing against poison plants and getting eaten by ants and. Because he wanted to be near to evolution. So he became part of it. His mind, infected with language, succumbed to the will of the parasitic lexis and became the womb for the gestation of one of its perplexing and ecstatic miscegenations. And now he has spread it, this new lexical ornithorhynchus. It has infected me. It has now infected you. Evopropinquitous. Being near to evolution (and evolutionary biology), or inclined to be near to it.

He is Christopher Schmitt. His blog is It is hilarious and true. You will be glad he is there experiencing it and writing about it and you are not.

more chiaroscuro

Eight years ago I did a little spate of night photography with my Bronica SQ, a very nice medium-format camera (a bit of a tank, though – not light to carry around). I would have included a couple of photos from those sessions with my post on chiaroscuro, but I thought I would have to find them and upload them, and I didn’t want to take the time to do that after midnight.

If it had been before midnight, perhaps I would have remembered that I already had them on flickr.

I add them here as an adjunct and just because I adore night photography. Click on either of them to go to the flickr version, where you can view it larger.

If you like black and white photography, I have a gradually growing set of such images on flickr.

munted, munter

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Janet Hughes.

Antipodean debates about etymology (and other kinds of cultural property) often head swiftly into a cul-de-sac, where Australia and New Zealand both lay claim to the disputed item, and evidence either way is scarce or non-existent. The evidence for munted is typically equivocal for recent slang – late 20th Century, say the dictionaries. They attribute it variously to New Zealand and Australia, and it apparently has a life in Britain too. I wouldn’t be rash enough to arbitrate. Let’s just say I heard it first in 1992 on the lips of an Australian who had “jumped the ditch”.

A taste, then.  The short u sound generates two sorts of echoes: sunny, clumsy, funny ones, and grumpy, grudging ones that warn us to watch where we blunder. Munted sets off both kinds. You get grumpy when something is bust, buggered, ruined, beyond use or repair. You might well have cause to grumble; things get munted more often by an accidental or malicious thump or bunt than by use or old age. A thing that is munted has typically had something done to it. (Not invariably: there’s an Australian diabetes support website called muntedpancreas.)

People get munted specifically by alcohol; many sources give this as its primary meaning. It figures in all those lists of synonyms for drunk, redolent of blundering post-fun muddlement, communication reduced to grunts. This sense has elicited some obscene and dubious etymological punts. Let’s avoid the mucky corners of the cul de sac.

People can also be munters, and not just because they bust things, put dunts in bumpers or heads. It generally mean a useless, unattractive person,a runt maybe; munted, you might think, rather than given to munting. But Munter, a petty criminal character in a popular NZ soap opera,was dumb, accident-prone, a bit of a grunter, but loyal and endearing. “Ya munter!” has joined the many Antipodean insult-endearments, and somehow lost a little of its ugly edge.

Munted too has gone up in the world. When huge earthquakes struck the city of Christchurch in September 2010 and February 2011, the destruction was unthinkable, unprecedented, with black sludge bubbling up through the torn streets and wreckage. Sober, standard words just wouldn’t cut it. The commentators reached for munted, with its connotations of complete destruction, beyond restoration to fitness for purpose, by something external. This defective little verb (an orphan participle) began to sprout new derivatives. The distinction between muntage and muntance, for example, is a fine one: the latter perhaps more abstract and conceptual, the former conrete and even quantifiable by insurance assessors. The ugly overtones were precisely what gave this blunt instrument an edge, elevating it from its sullen slang origins to pretty much a term of art.

New ebook, and send those guest tastings in

Just a little two-fer note:

1. Songs of Love and Grammar is now available as an ebook as well as in a print edition. (The print edition is prettier but the ebook is cheaper.)

2. If you’re writing a guest word tasting for me to post next week or the week after, send it in! I’d like to get them all ready before I leave.


An invitation

I will be on vacation for two weeks in the middle of May. Rather than just stop the word tasting notes then, I’d like to invite other word tasters – you all – to fill the slots. If you’d like to write a word tasting note, of whatever word you choose, in your own style, do so, and send it to me at (with a suitably perspicuous subject line so I don’t mistake it for spam, of which I get a lot) by the beginning of May. I’ll schedule them all for posting and sending while I’m away.

Things to think about when tasting words:

  • What does it look like on the page?
  • How does it feel in your mouth? Where does your tongue move?
  • How does it sound? What is the feel of the individual sounds and what is the rhythm of the word?
  • What does it sound like? What other words does it have resonances of?
  • What words does it go with? What words is it often seen with?
  • What contexts is it used in? What tone does it have – casual, formal technical?
  • What quotations is it found in?
  • Where does it come from? How did it come to be as it is? What other words are related?
  • Oh, yes: and what does it mean? What interesting things about its object catch your attention and come to mind when you think about it?

And of course have fun. Play around with it as you wish. Do your own thing.

I look forward to your submissions!