Category Archives: word tasting notes

spondulicks

Here’s a word to keep in your lexical change purse, a shiny coin you can slap down next time you have to shell out real metal or paper (or, in Canada and some other countries, polymer – shiny bills as brightly colourful as a coral reef). Perhaps when you spend the bucks and your paper ducks fly the pond you will be a little less despondent at the expenditure if you can sum up your simoleons lickety-split as spondulicks. Or, to seem more Belgian or Gaulish (perhaps if your wallet is bulging at the gall of it all), spell it spondulix.

One important thing to remember is that the stress is on the second syllable. It’s an amphibrach (nothing like a spondee, sux). So the emphasis is on the /u/, the big “do,” no foolin’. You can practically blow a whistle with that vowel, or hold it so long you drool. In that way it’s a bit like medulla, that part of the brain that makes your heart and breathing speed up when you spend your bux.

This seems like one of those classic 19th-century American phony-hifalutin’ words, doesn’t it? Like discombobulated and absquatulate and so on. Only maybe even a bit more hick-like, slappy and yuk-yuk. Maybe a word out of Mark Twain.

Well, it is that – he didn’t invent it, but here’s a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

“I ain’t as rich as old Jim Hornback, and I can’t be so blame’ generous and good to Tom, Dick, and Harry as what he is, and slam money around the way he does; but I’ve told him many a time ’t I wouldn’t trade places with him; for, says I, a sailor’s life’s the life for me, and I’m derned if I’D live two mile out o’ town, where there ain’t nothing ever goin’ on, not for all his spondulicks and as much more on top of it. Says I—”

Yep, as homey as Horlick’s but much more American… in origin. Actually now it’s more popularly used in Britain (like Horlick’s). But where does this word for your clams come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says “Of fanciful formation.” But the Online Etymology Dictionary, available as part of dictionary.com’s results, tells us it’s “said to be from Greek spondylikos, from spondylos, a seashell used as currency (the Greek word means literally “vertebra”).” You know, as in ankylosing spondylitis. (That’s an uncommon kind of arthritis of the spine, with an expensive name.)

Well, ain’t that a sesquipedalian classic! Literally. A gen-u-wine silver dollar of a word. Sorry, scratch that: a gen-u-wine sand dollar of a word. Fine, whatever, you didn’t have to shell out for it. Take it for free and use it to expand your lexical repertoire – put it in your word wallet next to your moolah and simoleons like a Croesus of the thesaurus, a wordbook high muck-a-muck.

Thanks to Larry Cooper for suggesting today’s word.

zeugma

The first thing zeugma makes me think of is Flanders & Swann.

Flanders & Swann gave the world the song “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,” which is full of some of the most hilarious examples of zeugma – they will make your eyes glisten with mirth. Here’s one:

She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.

The Greek original – ζεῦγμα – means ‘yoking’, as in yoking multiple words or phrases to the same word. Often this means conjugating a verb to a literal and a figurative noun (note that the jug root of conjugate also means ‘yoke’). Zeugma can be fairly dry, as in Alexander Pope’s “See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned,” where crowned refers to two different crowns on two different people. But it’s so much better when the yoke’s on you, or on someone else – when it produces what Arthur Koestler called bisociation, which Merriam-Webster tidily defines as “the simultaneous mental association of an idea or object with two fields ordinarily not regarded as related.”

The second thing zeugma makes me think of is Zeuxis. This is mainly because if the similarity of the words, but there is a bit more. Zeuxis was an ancient Greek painter; he painted grapes so realistically, birds tried to eat them. Legend has it that he died laughing at one of his paintings – of Aphrodite, commissioned by an un-Aphrodite-like lady who insisted on being the model. Beware of bisociation; it can be fatal.

The third thing zeugma makes me think of is Zaiga. Zaiga is my wife’s aunt. Her name sounds somewhat like zeugma, but Zaiga is also as much fun as zeugma. She’s always ready to fill your glass with wine, your plate with food, and the room with laughter. A few times a year I gladly take a load off my shoulders, a weekend away, a trip up to visit her (and the rest of the family), and a bottle of wine to drink there. And, as it happens, the name Zaiga comes from the Latvian verb zaigot, ‘glisten’. Which both your glass and your eyes will do in her company.

Tory

The new mayor of Toronto will be John Tory. The election campaign was hortatory, sometimes minatory, often accusatory and inflammatory, possibly defamatory. It was, as they are, a great civic laboratory. It was not – I hope – aleatory. Now that we have passed through that purgatory, the media have declared the victory, the losers have given their obligatory valedictory, and the mood is congratulatory but anticipatory. How will Tory write his story in history? How will his articulatory faculties hold up? And the councillors’ auditory ones? Will oratory and policy coming from his idea factory pass the olfactory test? Will his approach be desultory, dilatory, improvisatory, dictatory? Excretory, flagellatory, discriminatory? Or placatory and conciliatory? What inventory will he leave us in the end?

Well, for this evening, the tone is potatory. We can take a respiratory moment. The revelatory will come soon enough.

Canadians and Brits will find it fitting – though Americans may miss the connection – that John Tory is known for being generally on the conservative side and tied to the Conservative Party.

For the Yanks, I’ll explain. In both Canada and Great Britain, the Conservative parties are nicknamed Tories (singular Tory). This comes from the English Conservative party being the successor to a party that proudly wore the name, co-opting what had been directed at it as a term of abuse (sort of like Yankee). The Oxford English Dictionary gives a nice explanatory quote from 1740 by Roger North: “Then, observing that the Duke favoured Irish Men, all his Friends, or those accounted such by appearing against the Exclusion, were straight become Irish, and so wild Irish, thence Bogtrotters, and in the Copia of the factious Language, the Word Tory was entertained, which signified the most despicable Savages among the Wild Irish.” The word comes from Irish tóraidhe (pronounced the same, but with an Irish accent), literally ‘pursuer’ but in this case applied to a set of dispossessed Irish who had become outlaws.

So that’s the story of Tory. In the case of Toronto, John Tory (which truly sounds like a generic name for a Conservative) was aided considerably in his quest to become mayor by not being a Ford. The previous mayor, Rob Ford, of whom you have probably heard, is heartily detested by a significant part of the population here, and many people who might have voted for Olivia Chow, the more progressive major candidate (liberal, but not Liberal – actually New Democratic Party, although at the city level there are no parties), instead supported Tory because he looked like he could beat Ford where Chow could not. The late-game switch from Rob (diagnosed with cancer and in treatment) to his brother Doug did not change that. Also, Tory is anodyne in his blandness, and will probably play nicely with just about everyone, whereas a certain section of the councillors would line up against Chow.

Well, it’s nice to have a campaign where all the main candidates are four-letter words (Ford, Chow, Tory) but they don’t all inspire four-letter words. So now we sit back and watch the Tory unfold.

whelp

I sometimes jokingly refer to having children as spawning – for example, “She went on early mat leave, but has she spawned yet?” A friend of mine recently used the word whelp for the same purpose, as in “She was huge then, but that was before she whelped.”

I enjoyed the sound of that, partly because I could picture someone saying, “Welp, she had the kid,” and partly also just because of the novelty of the usage. Of course we may think it a bit impolite or derogatory to use the term, since it compares birthing humans to birthing dogs. But somehow we don’t have a problem with calling a child a kid, which originally refers to a young goat.

Probably more of the issue is that whelp is itself a derogatory term for a youth – it tends to imply unruly or impertinent behaviour. We may, as a culture, love dogs now – if a person is walking down the street with a young dog, strangers will feel free to come up to it and say, “Oh, puppyyyy, hi, puppyyyyyyy,” et cetera – but our language bears the marks of a different attitude: however much we may like our female lapdogs, bitch is not a nice word.

I’m inclined to think the sound may also have something to do with it. Yes, it sounds like well (especially since we have generally neutralized the wh/w sound distinction) and it has help in it, but it also has echoes of whale and wail and whip and yelp. In fact, it rather sounds like the noise made by a young dog, especially one that is upset or in pain. (It’s related to very similar words in other Germanic languages, but no one is sure what the original source was. So it could have been imitative. But we don’t know.)

In the entry for this word – the noun, a whelp, as opposed to the derived verb, to whelp – dictionaries tend to tell us helpfully that it has largely been superseded by puppy. I certainly suspect sound has played some role in that. Can you see a person going up to a little dog on the street and saying, “Oh, whelp, hi, whelp”?

exclave

No, I’m not doing this one just because it sounds kind of like sex slave and exclaim and autoclave (which is what you use to sterilize the tools you use to make your sex slave exclaim, but no this is not about that, no no no). Nor am I doing it just because of the [kskl̥] in its heart – those two crisp voiceless velar stops, the hissy fricative [s] and that voiceless liquid [l̥] (so mystical-sounding!) isolating the second [k] even as it spreads its aspiration onto the /l/ after it… Nor am I doing it even because of the lovely play of shapes in it, the xcl cross curve line ensemble and the half-echoing shape v, all between the squinchy eyes of the e and e, with just the normal a in the heart allowing it to salute you with ave. (Yes, ave sclavussclavus being the source of English slave and Italian ciao, ciao being the modern equivalent of ave and coming from an utterance signifying ‘I am your slave’ – but not sex slave.)

No, I am doing it because of Dahala Khagrabari and, metaphorically, because of Vulcan Point Island. I am doing it because of matryoshka dolls.

Here is what is what. You may know what an enclave is: a country or piece of a country (or other political entity: state, city) that is surrounded on all sides by another country (or same-level political entity). The Vatican is one such, a whole country that is an enclave. There are many enclaves that are pieces of another country, little flecks of territory, administrative spatter over the border. You have to pass through another country to get to them. There may be geographic barriers involved, or it may simply be vagaries of boundaries. Kaliningrad (belonging to Russia) is thought of as one such, although you can also pass across the sea to get to it rather than having to pass through another country per se. There are little exclaves of Germany and Italy in Switzerland.

An exclave is to an enclave as an emigrant is to an immigrant. Broadly, an enclave is an exclave viewed from the surrounding country; an exclave is an enclave viewed from the country from which it is separated. Loan a book to someone else and you could say it becomes an exclave of your property on their bookshelf. Exclaves are not enslaved, but they are not exactly free either. An exclave may be surrounded by more than one country, but it is not in touch with the rest of its own country.

So imagine an exclave of one country in a neighbouring country: a district that belongs to country A but is separated from it in country B. Now imagine that in that exclave of country A there is an exclave of country B. Like a pool of vinegar in the pool of oil floating on your pool of vinegar. Got that? Now imagine an exclave of country A in the exclave of country B in the exclave of country A in country B.

Does that matryoshka-doll-like arrangement sound like Dr. Seuss? It’s not. Country A is India and country B is Bangladesh. And the exclave in an exclave in an exclave is called Dahala Khagrabari #51. It’s not all that large – 7000 square metres – and is not inhabited (it’s a farm field). It’s not separated from the rest of the Indian enclave by much, but it is separated by an exclave of Bangladesh inside an exclave of India in Bangladesh. I do not think there are border guards. It is owned by a Bangladeshi, but it belongs to the country of India. I don’t know why, but the separation of Bangladesh from India was not one of the tidiest things ever to happen. When you rip things apart, sometimes there are rough edges and shreds.

When you look at these things on maps, they sort of look like lakes of one country inside land of another country. So Dahala Kagrabari #51 would be like a lake in an island in a lake. Which can make one think of islands as exclaves of the mainland in the sea, and lakes as like exclaves of the sea in the land (ignoring the river connections and the different salinity).

So now imagine an island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island.

It’s called Vulcan Point Island.

It’s in the Philippines. Try the cosmic-zoom-style view.

Exclave, sex slave, schmexlave. This is more like Inception.

In fact, ask yourself: How do you know your wakefulness today is not an exclave of yesterday’s wakefulness inside last night’s dream? And how do you know last night’s dream was not an exclave of the previous night’s dream inside the wakefulness of yesterday, which was an exclave of the day before, which was…

Or, on the other hand, maybe we start life in an exclave of wakefulness in an exclave of dream and so on, tens of thousands of levels down, and when you finally break through all the shells in this matryoshka doll of reality, you exit to eternity.

Something to think about as you fall into sleep… or rise out of wakefulness.

Schwärmerei

There was a time when I thought this word literally referred to a coddled or shirred egg. It sounds so warm and soft and slushy and smarmy, like an egg (German Ei) swirled egg-drop style into a soupy swarm. Hmm, how could you make a recipe that would suit this word? Perhaps warm up a glass of Asbach Uralt (a wintry German brandy) with an equal amount of butter and a bit of honey until just steaming lightly, then drop a raw egg into it and swirl it slowly and gently with – not your finger, that would become uncomfortable, but perhaps something similar (someone else’s finger? No, no, um, how about a wooden spoon handle). Once the white is soft white and the yolk is just dreamy, I mean creamy, take it off the stove, splash in a bit of cold cream, and drink it.

I think, if nothing else, it might induce in you fairly soon a feeling of schwarmerei. If you feed it to a person with whom you are infatuated, you could hope that they too will feel the swarming warmth. And forgive you for using their finger to stir it.

Or you could just use eggnog. Made with brandy, rum, condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream, rum, brandy, and I guess an egg. You will be sure to be filled with a swirling, swarming enthusiasm. Schwärmerei.

Oh, does this word have two dots on the a or not? Well, it depends on whether it’s had its glass of alcohol, milk fat, and egg. You can see the dots as an incipient pyrotechnic nimbus, or at least scotomata.

No, no, it depends on whether you spell it true to its German origin or not. Use two dots and capitalize, or leave the dots off and lower-case. But either way, the dictionaries tell me you have to say it the German way: “shver-ma-rye,” not “shwar-ma-rye” (say, how about some shawarma with those eggs? no?).

Well, that’s a pity. It sounds so much more like someone drunkenly saying “Sure I’m alright” if you say it the wrong way. It also sounds more like schwa, which is that lax neutral vowel we use in place of other vowels in unstressed positions, sometimes insert where it doesn’t belong (as some do after the l in film and athlete), and may be heard to moan incoherently when in the grips of Schwärmerei.

What is it, then, this Schwärmerei, and whence comes it? The word is the German word for what we would call swarmery if we used that word: swarmery is to swarm as foolery is to fool, bravery is to brave, or cookery is to cook. The root of swarm and schwärmen (the German verb source of this word) is the same, way back. But in German it came to have a more figurative sense, an internal sense, more of an intense warmth (swarmth?), an enthusiasm. An infatuation, even. Sentimentality, headiness, excessive warmth of feeling. Zeal. A crush. Your brain and emotions go swirling and swarming and surely warming as though you had just coddled them with fat, cholesterol, sugar, and alcohol.

Your head feels heavy (German schwer). Your mind is slipping into a pipe dream. It is delicious. Yes, yes, you swear: more, aye, more Schwärmerei.

quincunx

This word is so succulent I can scarce believe I haven’t done a tasting of it before. Given my occasional inadvertent retastings, you might expect to have spotted it here five times already. But no dice. Well, my quidnunc, today you get your quincunx, and cuncti simus concanentes.*

You may think this a novel word, but it is no new coinage. Indeed, though it is the title of a well-known recent novel by Charles Palliser (I’m told it’s very good), it comes from an old Latin coin. And it has since then acquired a phalanx of uses.

Let us start at the origin. Latin for ‘five’ is quinque; Latin for ‘twelfth’ is uncia (source of our word ounce), and uncia in Roman coinage was a twelfth piece of an as, as it happens – an as was the standard bronze coin. Put the two together and you get quincunx, the coin worth five twelfths. It was marked with five dots, and often the five dots were in the pattern we now associate with the 5 side on a die: ⚄ (box not included). Ergo, it is like the symbol for “therefore” ∴ and the same again inverted (why? “because”: ∵) and meeting in the middle at the tips. What’s it there for? Because! Connect the dots.

The pattern is in many places if we wish to find it. We may plant trees in this formation, or arrange heraldic patterns, or design buildings, or draw maps, or deploy legionaries into battle, or form the engines on a rocket, or get a tattoo (Thomas Edison had a quincunx tattooed on his forearm). Mark your ballot with a cross in a box and the vertices are in a quincuncial arrangement.

It is thus a surprise and a pity that we do not see the word more often; I can go through twelve fifths of Scotch (at no more than an ounce a day) between hearing it and hearing it again. Perhaps people delight in it so much they are a little afraid to put their tongues to it? Look, it uses the mouth so well: it starts with a kiss of the lips and a release at the velum, /kw/, and then it feints toward the tip but stays back, twice a nasal and crisp stop /ŋk/ before at last softly hissing with the licking tip /s/. The vowels move, but gently: they are the first sounds of “in” and “under.” It is so crisp and sweet, like biting a red delicious – or a slice of quince.

And the spelling! There are two cups and two caps, u and n and again and again, and i c as well. And there are our two craziest letters, q and x; the first is incomplete without u, and the second is two sounds lying together as one, like the crossed line segments that make it x – forming, at their tips and intersection, the fulfillment of the sense itself: a quincunx.

*Latin for ‘let us sing together’