Category Archives: word tasting notes

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’

dividual

There’s something vividly evident in the visual form of dividual: with nothing to lead it in, the symmetry of divid is highlighted – mostly cut already at the notch v – and we see an odd residual ual at the end.

But what to do? We have divide but not divid. We can take individual and divide it into in and dividual, but beyond that the axe breaks, unless we wish to break a morpheme, chop divi off (the fall ‘of a god’ in Latin) and get something truly dual. No, no, individual is dividual but dividual is individual.

Do I have your undivided attention now? We talk of individual things and of individuals; if we are writing stiff stuff, we may say, for example, “This treatment is not recommended in individuals under two years of age” or “I approached the individual with my sidearm drawn.” It is a long word and so carries more weight; it has more syllables and seems more unassailable. But there is a bit of a divide between our passing use of it and its construction and root sense.

An individual is not subject to division. Thus any individual animal sees its individuality given the lie by a vivisectionist. I may joint an individual chicken (defunct, decapitated, and deplumed) into individual pieces, and cut the individual pieces into cubes of meat: how the heck are they individual if they can be divided? Well, it’s like this: once they’re divided, they’re not individuals anymore. If I take an individual carrot and cut it in coins, it is not an individual carrot anymore. It has been redefined. It is the individual until it is divided, and it does not remain the individual after that, so an individual cannot be divided.

A bit of lexical hairsplitting? Certainly, but take a quantum of solace in one thing: a quantum is the one thing that is truly and utterly individual – it is an amount that cannot be divided into smaller amounts. Everything above that is dividual. From the perspective of the social and legal dividual, the group entity of a society, you are an individual, a single entry in a database (though each line of an Excel sheet has several cells), but from the perspective of your parts you are a dividual, even in the visual aspect: cut your hair or your nails and you have divided some of yourself from the rest. Your attention is dividual too; in the riot of daily life and its emotional upheavals, sometimes you need to split off a separate piece of your mind in order to make yourself a separate peace.

You will not find one part of an individual, visible or invisible, that is indivisible. There can always be a residual. But do not take a place in the vigil for individuals; send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for all of thee. No one is an island; we are all parts of the mainland but we are all also archipelagos. We are complex; nothing is simplex, not even the soul, which swirls with spirit aromas like a glass of wine poured from a bottle of the everything. There is joy in division: it is how you know thing from thing, thought from thought, moment from moment; it is how you taste so many things in life. If you were not dividual you would be lacking the whole picture; you would just be a pixel. A quantum. And a quantum is soulless.

righteous, wrongeous

The author of the blog Bag of Anything is a righteous poet.

When I say righteous, though, I don’t mean it in the sense ‘not wicked but good’; I mean it in the sense ‘wicked good’. I mean it like the righteous in The Righteous Brothers: right on.

If you go to Bag of Anything, you will see what I mean. But here’s what drew the blog to my attention: Near the end of my word tasting on mosaic, I wrote, “Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous.” The author of Bag of Anything, who signed the comment as “Rain, Rain,” gave this poem:

Deplore cast stones? Sinner, avoid the righteous;
Likely they are spoiling for a fight. Just
Follow Jesus’ counsel: in a throng, us
Common folk are safer with the wrongeous.

(It’s available on Bag of Anything at “Avoid the Righteous”.)

You may reckon that wrongeous is something I made up on the spot and is not to be found in the dictionary. You’d be half right. I did make it up on the spot, but I figured it would also be in a dictionary, and I was right – although the preferred spelling is wrongous. I also figured it would show in the Oxford English Dictionary as at best a historical word now generally disused, and I was right about that too. And I figured that it would mean something in the order of ‘having a wrong quality; tending to be wrong; acting wrongly or wrongfully’. And I was right again.

So I guess that makes me a righteous person. Well, except that we don’t typically mean ‘correcteous’ when we say righteous. (No, correcteous is not in the dictionary. But I bet you caught my drift.) We mean ‘holy’ or ‘highly justified or justifiable’ (an act or state can be righteous too – “so righteous was his need” is a line from Steely Dan) or ‘admirable’ or similar approbative things.

Now I want to ask you: do you find wrongeous righteous or wrongous? And do you find wrongous righteous or wrongeous? Which works better, if either does?

I like the parallel with righteous, but we have a little problem: the t in righteous doesn’t stand for exactly the same sound as in right; it has palatalized and affricated due to the high front vowel after it, so it sounds like “ch.” The closest thing we could do with the ng would be to say “rongyus,” which would palatalize it and probably really convert it into a nasalized glide. But that’s not the pronunciation, according to Oxford: it’s “rongus.” So that e seems not to belong, although it is historically attested. So hmm.

To be fair, the e isn’t original in righteous either. Actually, the words righteous and wrongeous come from right+wise and wrong+wise, with a shift in the unstressed second syllable over time (a half a millennium or so) to match words such as perilous and integrous. If I listed the historical changes of form leading to the modern form it would more than double the length of this blog.

Well, everything changes. To try to cling to some fixed historical form, or to try to maintain some imaginary purity or fixity in the language, would be altogether wrongeous. To try to disallow unfamiliar but usable words is also wrongeous. But to have fun, and to write witty poetry… well, that’s righteous, dude.

spree

What is a spree?

Well, where do you use the word? What is it most often seen with?

Shopping spree. And spending spree and buying spree. But also shooting spree and crime spree and killing spree.

A spree is a jag, a sudden and time-limited torrent of aggressive activity that involves a series of the same type of event (buying, shooting, etc.), reiteratively performing a self-indulgence with reckless abandon.

Look at the scatter-shot suggestion of the word: the spr onset that you see in spray, spritz, and sprinkle, but also in eruptive words such as spring, sprig, sprint, sprout, and the undisciplined sprawl; the ending is the gleeful, fleeting ee. And it does not stop on a tidy consonant; it simply arcs across the sky like whee.

But shopping and shooting are not the best kind of sprees, nor the earliest kind. The earlier sense is reflected in an Irish Gaelic phrasebook I have. It is often bruited about (misleadingly and generally inaccurately) that the Inuit have 10, 100, 1000, or a googolplex words for ‘snow’; well, Irish has quite a few words for ‘drunk’. (So does English, mind you.) At the end of a list of terms indicating various degrees of drunkenness, from ‘tipsy’ to ‘blind drunk’, is this gem: dul chun drabhláis (said like “dool hoon drawloish”). The translation given: “to go on a spree of revelry and debauchery.” Following that is chuaigh muid ar na canaí aréir (“hooey midge air na canee arrair”): “we went on a spree last night.”

Yes, a spree was first of all not shopping or shooting (we’ve had the word since at least the early 1800s, so come on) but frolicking, enjoying boisterous and noisy enjoyment (typically with drinking because obviously). And the word came from… well, that’s not agreed on; some say from Scots Gaelic spreath ‘plundered cattle’; others say from French esprit ‘spirit’.

But never mind stereotypes of the Irish (or the odd idea that the word may have come to us from the Scots, whose reputation is a little different). If you want to go on a spree, go to Berlin.

Why? Is it because of its nightlife, so famous in the ’30s but not gone now? Is it because of the shopping, from the great KaDeWe department store to the higher-end fashion shops? Is it because of something darker?

It’s because of something wetter. The river that runs through Berlin is the Spree.

But that’s a bit of a trick answer. The pronunciation of Spree is like English “shpray.” Guess what the name comes from: a German cognate of spray, meaning ‘spray’.

So go on a spray. Get soaked if you want. Spray your money around. But please, do not spray bullets.

mosaic

Most of us know mosaic as referring to art made of little bits – small tiles, for instance, or squares of wood, or little broken bits of pottery. If broad brush strokes are legato, mosaics are staccato.

Some of us, however, also know Mosaic as in Mosaic law: the law of Moses.

I have to say, the first time I saw that, I had a picture of the law being put together from little bits. (I still do, actually.) There may be something to that, but I leave the exegetics and scriptural history to other times, places, and authors.

So now is the part where you expect me to say that these two words, identical but for the capital letter, are really the same word, one capitalized and the other not. Like attic and Attic.

And now is the part where you are disappointed in that. No, they are not the same word. They are like two little squares, perhaps both in ultramarine hue, but one of them made of lapis lazuli and the other of porcelain pained with International Klein Blue.

Our language is something like a mosaic. The words are like little shards, all put together to make images, such as this article. Sometimes you will have two tiles of different colour but broken from the same piece of stone or ceramic. Sometimes you will have two similar tiles broken from the same piece. Sometimes you will have two identical tiles from very different sources.

And our language can seem Mosaic too: governed by a set of laws that may as well have been handed down by the Almighty on a high mountain, not just ten neat commandments on two tablets but hundreds more as well that you probably don’t even know about, some commonsense enough and some of them seemingly designed just to keep you from enjoying things that other people enjoy.

So where do mosaic and Mosaic come from?

The capital version comes from Moses, of course. Where does Moses come from? The man who led the Israelites out of Egypt had an apparently Egyptian name – the same root as you will see at the end of pharaonic names such as Thutmose and Ramesses. The m-s root means ‘son’. Well, he was raised in the Egyptian royal household, after all, adopted by the pharaoh’s daughter. An adopted son of Egypt and true son of Israel, with a truly Egyptian name adopted by the Israelite.

And the lower-case mosaic? It’s not entirely clear; the history is too fragmented. But it appears to come from the same root as museum and music, which is assumed to relate to the muses. Perhaps because shrines to the muses were decorated with mosaic tiles. Art, arts, notes. Staccato bits of ceramic or precious stone. Things that inspire us: the fragments that we put together. Or that come together by coincidence. Governed not by law so much as by resemblance and happenstance.

That’s what our language is like, really. Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous. More broken bits of diverse provenance that we manage to put together into pleasing patterns.

attic

Picture an attic.

What do you see, what do you envision with the eye high inside your head? I suspect it is the space underneath the roof angle of an American-style wooden house. The roof makes a triangle with the floor; windows may project in dormers or gables, and there may be a window at the end. It is all wood. It is dusty. There may be a bed up there (but let me tell you, I sure don’t want to sleep in it), or there may just be boxes and old furniture and toys. (Yes, there are always toys in the attic. Ask Lillian Hellman, who wrote the play of that name.) There is always dust. And the floor is wooden. It creaks. The sound of a floorboard as you step on it is something reminiscent of the sound of “attic”: dry as dust, as dead memories, as desiccated childhood. It all seems like a setting for a short story by Stephen King.

Would you expect an attic to be made of stone? To have rectilinear walls and ceiling? To have classical columns? Perhaps even a cupola? Imagine a person building a stone house with classical columns on that truncated top storey, and calling it an attic. It would almost seem like a bit of architectural Attic salt.

Well, there would be an erudite pun in there, anyway, whether or not it would qualify as refined wit (that’s what Attic salt means, for the most of us who never use the term). People who study things classical or look at antiquities in museums may have noticed that Attic is used to refer to things from or pertaining to Athens and region. What is the region of Athens? Attica – Greek Ἀττική (Attiké).

It’s funny, isn’t it, that on the one hand Attic seems so classical and ancient, while on the other hand attic seems just old and dusty and spooky? (I’m not kidding about not liking to sleep in attics, by the way. Makes my flesh crawl.) How did those two words manage to have the same form?

Because, of course, they’re the same word. The attic that has all your heirlooms in it has one more than you think: the word attic. While you’re busy dusting off old potboiler paintings and chipped chamber-pots to take to Antiques Roadshow, you have a genuine piece of ancient classical history that you didn’t even know about. Pity you can’t sell it.

Here’s what it is: You may think that there are three orders of classical columns, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. (Or you may not even know what I’m talking about.) This is basically true, but there is also a thing called the Attic order: a square column of one of the aforementioned orders. And in the area around Athens, buildings were often built with a small upper storey fronted with pilasters of the Attic order. So a short storey crowning a building – even just a cupola – is the Attic storey.

Boy, that’s come a long way, hasn’t it?

But there is still something making it more fitting to call those triangular high parts of houses attics. Attica, you see, is a triangular projection of the Greek mainland – a peninsula. Its name comes from ἀκτή akté, which means ‘raised place’.

So a triangular raised place. And an old and dusty one at that. And full of history.