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Yes, this is going to be one of my periodic photography rants. But if you ever plan to buy or even think about digital cameras, you’ll want to read this.

Megapixels is a word that sells cameras. “How many megapixels is your camera?” “Mine’s 10.” “Mine’s 12.” “Mine’s 18!” “Wow, that little pocket auto-zoom camera has 18 megapixels! Ossum possum!”

Listen to it for a moment. It would be too much of a stretch to say “mega” sounds like a lens focusing (it doesn’t) and “pixels” like a shutter clicking (it sorta does). But the mega has a soft, muddy sound, and the pixels has a crisp, sharp, keen sound – sort of like the different image qualities due to other effects that can make the actual pixel count irrelevant, as I will tell you about below.

Mega, of course, is a morpheme about big that sounds big and sells big. It’s from Greek for ‘large’ and is used as the metric prefix to mean ‘million’. It reeks of lotteries: megabucks! Yeah! And yes, I’m going to tell you that there’s more than a little bit of the lottery in megapixels on cameras.

Pixel is a word invented just under a half century ago that refers to the smallest bit of a digital picture: pix from picture and el short for element. Reality is always more detailed than a picture, of course; ever micrometre contains not just a book but a whole library of information if you can but read it, but to our naked eyes several micrometres are only the visual equivalent of a single letter, and a photograph may condense even more than that into the equivalent of the dot of an i. Given that i, you have no means of extracting even a full word from it, let alone libraries of information. And so, contrary to what many TV crime shows would have you think, there is no way to “enhance!” a blob of 12 pixels into a detailed face or parking sticker on a windshield. “Enhancing” photos just means smoothing and heightening the contrast of what is there so our brains can parse it more easily (I have another article where you can find out about sharpening and how it’s like language). You simply can’t get more than a pixel out of a pixel.

But never mind that. In many – perhaps most – digital photos, each of those 10 or 12 or 18 million pixels contains not even a whole pixel’s worth of information, actually. The truth is that when dealing with the pixelated (rendered in pixels), you may often find yourself pixilated with an i – a fine old word that means pixie-led, bamboozled, drunk (in this case with fatuous information).

Let’s start, though, with how many pixels you actually need – how many will even make a difference. If you’re printing a photo on 4 by 6 paper, 300 pixels per inch is really the upper limit of what your eyes can generally discern in sharpness (and the printer can output effectively). So 1200 by 1800 pixels. This is 2.16 megapixels. Print it out large, at 8 by 12, and you need up to 8.64 megapixels. You are very unlikely to have a digital display that will come close to that. HDTV gives you 2.1 megapixels; a high-end 4K monitor gives you 8.3 megapixels. So unless you’re cropping tight or printing posters, you will never actually need more than 10 megapixels in your camera. Even 8 will do fine, but almost every current camera does more than that. For most non-pro purposes, even the camera in your phone has enough. (My iPhone 4 has 5 megapixels.)

But then there are the factors that can limit the resolving power of your camera, so that each pixel really is only worth a fraction of what a pixel is worth in a truly sharp picture:

Lens sharpness. Not all lenses are equally sharp. Some produce pictures that are pretty “soft” even to the naked eye.

ISO. We used to call this ASA. It’s the “film speed” – the light sensitivity. The higher the ISO (as required when the camera is getting less light into it), the less sharp the picture, because it’s having to pool light from multiple pixels and fill in as best it can.

Sensor size. I mean the physical size. This of course makes a difference in regard to lens sharpness; a lens that can resolve 3000 lines per inch will resolve 1/4 as many actual lines on a sensor that’s 1/4 the dimensions. But usually the cameras with smaller sensors also have crappier lenses, so you get even less final sharpness. It also can relate to ISO performance: a smaller sensor size with the same number of pixels has smaller pixel sensors that individually gather less light, so they can start getting dodgy at lower ISO numbers. (Sensor technology is improving, though.)

Aperture. A lens has an opening in it that can be wider or tighter, like the pupils of your eyes. This is expressed in f-stops, which are the ratio of the focal length to the opening (aperture): f/4 means the aperture is 1/4 the focal length. Why this affects sharpness is the same reason that we squint to see better, and the same reason it’s harder to see sharply in low light (when your pupils are dilated): the smaller the aperture, the sharper the image and the more of it that’s in acceptable focus: this is called depth of field, because it’s how deep the in-focus area is. But when the aperture gets too small, you lose sharpness due to what’s called diffraction effect. I’ll spare you the details; they’re Google-able.

Camera shake. If you’re taking pictures at too slow a shutter speed – because the light is low and/or your aperture is small (to improve sharpness) and/or your ISO is low (ditto) – the motion of your hand, such as you get when pressing something like, say, a camera shutter, will cause the camera to move perceptibly during the time of exposure, which of course will blur the image a bit.

There are other things you really should consider more carefully than pixels and sharpness:

Colour. Different lenses convey colour and contrast differently, and differently well. Some lenses really wash it out; some make it vivid and contrasty; some are better for some colours than others. This is also true for different cameras.

Lens speed. The “faster” the lens, the lower the minimum f-stop, which means the wider the aperture. Given that lower f-stops make a photo less sharp, why would you want this? Because they let you blur out the background more (see bokeh), focusing in on the subject – a shallow depth of field is quite desirable for many kinds of photos. If it’s a good lens, the subject will still be sharp enough, even at a low f-stop.

Sensor size (again). This also relates to depth of field: the in-focus distance is a portion of the distance between the camera and its effective “infinity,” and its effective “infinity” is determined by the actual focal length of the lens. The smaller the sensor, the smaller the focal length for the same field of view. A 25 mm lens on my Olympus has the same field of view as a 50 mm on a full-frame camera (full-frame means the sensor is the same size as a frame of 35 mm film: 24 mm by 36 mm) and as about a 9 mm lens on a 1/2.33” sensor such as many pocket cameras have, but its infinity is half as far away as on the full-frame and almost 3 times as far away as on the pocket camera. Meaning you get much less depth-of-field effect on the really small sensors. This is also why everything is always in focus on your camera phone: its sensor is less than half the size of your little fingernail, so its focal length is about 1/8 of an inch, so its “infinity” is closer than almost anything you’ll photograph with it.

Ease of use. The camera you have with you will always take better pictures than the one you left at home because it’s too much of a nuisance to carry around, as my dad regularly says. And if you miss the moment because you’re futzing around with the controls, well, that’s not a good picture either. So balance the desire for a large sensor with the effect that will have on your equipment size (see my rant on zoom lens) and consider what you really want and need. I use an Olympus E-PL3, which I can fit in a jacket pocket; its sensor is half the size of a full-frame sensor, but that’s just fine for me.

Because you’re my friend, I took a little time to take a few pictures out my window of the Cathedral Church of St. James here in Toronto, using three cameras, the third of which with three different lenses. These will help you to see why, for most people, with even the cheapest cameras giving at least 8 megapixels, the megapixel count in your camera doesn’t matter; it just leaves you mega-pixilated.

This is the zoomed-in version taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21, reduced to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21 8 megapixel pocket camera, with the lens zoomed in; I’ve reduced the image to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in. Not so sharp, eh? How many pixels in one usable bit of photographic information?

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out to widest. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above. The lens is sharper at this length, but still not so great.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church, which is also pixel-for-pixel size at 72 pixels per inch.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 (10 megapixels, micro 4/3 format) with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels. This is my favourite lens. Sharp and good colour; notice the slightly dreamy effect it has, though.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

See the difference the ISO makes?

See the difference the higher f-stop but higher ISO makes?

Here's with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that cropped to just the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s that cropped to just the church, at pixel-for-pixel.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here's what I get at the widest, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here’s what I get at 42 mm focal length, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's pixel-for-pixel on that.

Here’s pixel-for-pixel on that.

And here's the 14 mm view, shrunk to 500 pixels.

And here’s the 14 mm view from the same lens, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that, cropped down to the church and visible pixel-for-pixel.

Here’s that, cropped down to the church and at pixel-for-pixel resolution.

Scroll up and down and look at them a few times. Which do you like, really? What stands out most? If you’re still thinking mostly about sharpness, here’s a tip: look at the copper-green part of the church roof, to the left of the steeple. Some are mega-muddy, some pixel-sharp. But what about colour and feel? And what really matters when you see it at 500 pixels wide?

Get the point? Ignore all the megapixel stuff on your camera (unless you’re actually a pro or serious large-photo geek, in which case you know all this already). There are much better things to worry about.

But if you want to see what kind of resolution you really can go for if that’s your thing, a while back I scanned in two medium-format negatives at high resolution (they’re 56 mm square – that’s 2¼” on a side). They’re not of the church; sorry. One’s a forest scene in fall, and the other is a city scene at night. Here are the links to the full-resolution images on Flickr. Warning: these will take a minute to load, eat up a lot of memory, and will not fit on your screen (but there are links above the pictures to smaller versions).

Trinity Square at 28 megapixels

Leaves at 28 megapixels


Obviously, if yesterday was nook, today must be cranny.

I think it’s safe to say you’ve said or written cranny. But have you ever used it without nook and before? And, for that matter, without every nook and before?

Can you even tell me the difference in meaning between nook and cranny?

It seems to fall into those double-barrelled-shotgun phrases: search every nook and cranny; in this day and age; every jot and tittle; this is your last and final boarding call

What cranny really means is, as Oxford puts it, ‘A small narrow opening or hole; a chink, crevice, crack, fissure.’ It seems to come from French cran. So it’s not a nook per se, but it’s a similar thing on a smaller and perhaps more accidental scale. It is the tittle to nook’s jot.

But what if it meant something quite different? What if it meant ‘cranberry’ or ‘granny’? What about ‘narc’ or ‘cramp’ or ‘crane’? Look, if you Google “every nook and granny” (exact phrase) you get more than 25,000 hits. “Every nook and cranberry” gets more than 22,000 results. Even “every nook and crane” gets 29,000 hits, most of which appear not to be “every nook and crane-y” puns. Imagine! Imagine searching corners, alcoves, and grandmothers, or corners, alcoves, and cranberries, or corners, alcoves, and, for heaven’s sake, construction cranes (or the birds called cranes)!

Well, there it is. Cranny was once a word that people knew how to use, but it became just an attachment, a trailer, a little linguistic cranny in the wall of words. And you know what we do with those: fill them with available materials. Fill them full – don’t let them go half-caulked. Stuff them with your cranberries and grandmothers and little origami cranes. And you’ll spend all your time searching those berries and babushkas and birds for meaning, when in fact they’re what’s in the way of it.

Welcome to language!


Pick up the crystal glass and hold it by the stem. Moisten your fingertip and run it in a ring around the lip at top. Its sound names it: “rim.”

The rim, the brim, the perimeter. A trim and prim ring, or a grim edge; the beginning of merriment, or an interim rest, or the end for a criminal. As Daniel Trujillo wrote to me, “A boundary, an insurmountable frontier that both denies passage and invites trespassing.” Transparent yet intransgressible like a scrim, or opaque yet surpassible. An edge that is at the heart of so many uses. Glasses, tires, oceans, coins: inside the rim is value, but use comes from touching the outside.

The word rim does not have such a taste of the edge; it is something found crimped in the middle of other words. It rings and hums, but its sounds are made with the heaping heft of the tongue and the closing of the lips. A word that made more of the edges in the mouth (tip of tongue, ridge, teeth, lips, back) would be loving. Or living. Or leaving. The contact points of our existence, the interface between the value within and the use without. But while these are our rims, our word is rim; it collects the rime and the rhymes.

The rimes, in fact. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge:

The sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

The rim of consciousness, The Day-Dream of Tennyson:

And o’er the hills, and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim,
Beyond the night, across the day,
Thro’ all the world she followed him.

The rim of an acquaintance, Parting at Morning by Robert Browning:

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun look’d over the mountain’s rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

On the rim of the air, The Skylark of James Hogg:

Over the cloudlet dim,
Over the rainbow’s rim,
Musical cherub, soar, singing, away!

The rims of flowers on the rim of a house, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Whitman:

As we wander’d together the solemn night (for something I know not what kept me from sleep),
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

The feeling you get on the rim of the west. At last, past the rim of the earth and the rim of consciousness, past sun, hills, mountains, rainbows, without recrimination, we touch the lip and enter the heart, or the heart enters us. Or both. We drain the cup, but then we are the cup, and we overflow. No: we are the rim, and the overflow is our living, loving, leaving.


“We are game-playing, fun-having creatures, we are the otters of the universe. We cannot die, we cannot hurt ourselves any more than illusions on the screen can be hurt. But we can believe we’re hurt, in whatever agonizing detail we want. We can believe we’re victims, killed and killing, shuddered around by good luck and bad luck.” —Richard Bach, Illusions

I think Richard Bach is the person who came up with the phrase otter of the universe. It has gotten around some since.

When I first saw it, used by someone else, it struck me as a useful play on author of the universe. Many people want to know who the author of the universe is. They want to find out how everything got here. They want to understand the author’s intentions.

When children approach a playground, how many of them ask themselves what things the designer had in mind, and try to do only those things? The ones who do (there may be some) are the annoying ones who suck the fun out of it. They probably grow up to be grammatical prescriptivists or similar dogmatists. Or I should say fail to grow up, because while play is childlike, dogmatism is just plain callow.

Otters don’t show up and try to establish first causes. They just look at what can actually be done. And one thing that can be done is play. Otters reallyliketo play. They make good use of what’s around them. And by good I mean fun.

The first time I saw otter of the universe was actually about the first time I became aware of otters as playful animals. I had always thought of otters as just sleek aquatic animals with a name that sounded like a ruler when you hold one end of it against a desk near the edge, bend and release the free end, and pull the ruler back towards the desk: “ott-tot-tot-tt-tt-ttttrrrrrrrrr.” Wooden, rigid as a rudder, a hard sound at odds with the water in which the animals moved. I oughta have known better.

The word otter is easily played with, after all. It’s practically made for a Dr. Seuss treatment: If an otter bites the butter that a potter put on platter for his daughter, will the potter hit the otter with a putter or a rudder? Will the potter’s daughter titter at the otter’s pitter-patter? Will the bettered, battered otter battle bitterly for butter? Or do otters bite on potters’ pretty daughters’ butter patties just to put on pity parties when they’re battered by the potter with a butter-splattered putter as they skitter to the water?

There’s more than that, though. The word otter comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *udr-, ‘water’. This water has followed many courses: the hydro- root we get from Greek (and that multi-headed water serpent, the hydra); some of the words for ‘otter’ in some other languages (Slavic languages in general have something in the line of vidra; Latin had lutra, which has shown up variously changed in Romance languages); and of course various words for ‘water’, including water.

So this word has flowed around and frothed and leapt like water – and like otters in the water. Do the various flows and changes of words over time seem like utter madness? I’d say they’re more like otter happiness.

Language is my favourite sport. A word isn’t worth much in my world if it can only mean one thing at a time. Rules are made to serve communication, not the other way around, and sometimes what’s being communicated is first of all “Have some fun with this.” And sometimes that’s the best thing to do – whether or not the utterer thought of it, go with what the otterer will do with it. I want to frolic in the stream of consciousness. I want to push language play to the otter limits. And beyond!

And then, at the end of the day, we can rest like otters in the water, floating, holding hands, allowing ourselves even in sleep some play in the stream.

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.