Category Archives: word tasting notes

phthiriasis

What kind of a lousy word is this? It bugs the eyes! It’ll have you pulling your hair out! It starts with such a cluster of consonants, and then it has a small infestation of dots. You can see as is at the end, but do you want to take it as is?

You don’t want to take what it names as is, I assure you of that. Here’s the Encyclopædia Britannica definition from the 1768 edition, courtesy of the Twitter feed @Britannica1768: “PHTHIRIASIS, in medicine, the pedicularis morbus, or lousy disease, is most incident in children, though adults are not wholly exempt.”

If that doesn’t make clear sense, I should amplify: although nowadays we use lousy always to mean simple ‘bad, of poor quality’, it actually first – and still literally, for those who know – means ‘infested with lice’. That’s what pedicularis morbus means. But why use straightforward English if you can use a peculiar – or particularly ridiculous – term?

I won’t say that phthiriasis is somehow reminiscent of scratching or of the sound of shears and razor clearing the hair from your head (the best way to rid yourself of lice, although many people so dread shaving their heads they would rather apply highly toxic treatments instead). To me it actually seems more like psoriasis (another skin problem, but not contagious) mixed with the sound you make when trying to get a hair or seed off your tongue, “fth.” And yes, if you’re wondering about how it’s said, it’s /θᵻˈraɪəsəs/ or /θaɪˈraɪəsəs/ (“thi-RYE-a-sis”) or, if you want to be truly nitpicky about it, the same with /f/ before the /θ/.

And whence comes this word? Via Latin from Greek, derived from ϕθείρ ftheir ‘louse’. That in turn is most likely from ϕθείρειν ftheirein ‘destroy’ – not because having lice destroys your life (it can make rather a mess of it) but because lice were believed to be generated spontaneously in decaying flesh.

It’s a long word for such a small beastie: one big foot of four syllables – extra ironic because the Latin name for one genus of lice (the one you’ll most likely find in your hair) is Pediculus, which comes from Latin for ‘little foot’. Well, you’ll have lots of little feet, anyway.

cría

One building at the Canadian National Exhibition – bearing the name Better Living Centre, thanks to its past contents but somehow still appropriately titled – is in recent years where to go to see all the cute (and slightly less cute) farm animals. Come in the front door and look to your left and you will see a small paddock of alpacas. A sign on the fence informs you that a baby alpaca is called a cría.

Or just cria, of course, because we normally don’t go for that fancy accented character stuff in English. Why even pretend our spelling represents the speech sounds? Might as well try to spell animal sounds, our alphabet is so mismatched to our language.

No, though, if you think that’s where I’m going, baby alpacas don’t make a noise like “cría.” Their cri de cœur is rather more adorable. Look, here’s a 30-minute-old one wobbling around and making its little noises as it does:

Here’s another one, even more adorable, but you have to block out the much less adorable sheep noise in the background:

Seriously, is that a squee or what? I don’t mean the noise they make, I mean the “squee” you may make at the sight. Who doesn’t like petting charming little things? These wee beasties are so adorbs they’ll adsorb you: put your hand on their fur and you will simply be sucked into animal bliss. Unless, of course, they dislike your touch (as they well may), in which case they might just spit at you. You do not want that to happen. It is not like being spat upon by a human.

Not only baby alpacas are called crías. So are baby llamas, vicuñas, and guanacos – in short, all those Andean camelids. The word is Spanish; more generally it’s the Spanish word for ‘suckling’ or ‘litter’, from criar ‘suckle, rear’. That’s from Latin creare, which is also the source of English create and creature. And while I won’t say these are the cutest creatures in all creation – I reserve that spot for kittens – spending quality time with them can be a recreation lending to better living.

Does this word cría seem a little crisp, not quite fluffy and curly enough for these ultra-cute beastlings? Well, that is as it may be… different people find different tastes in words; crisp comes from the Latin crispus, meaning ‘curly’, so it seemed to suit the Latins well enough. I’m sure if you wanted to call crías hmm hmm hmms, you could for yourself and among friends you had informed of your choice.

And I won’t deny that I find the word cría capable of being cute on the one hand but harsh on the other. It may work well enough with its four letters for a little four-legged thing, but it can also take a decidedly Arctic turn. Or should I say Arctic tern: kría is the Icelandic word (sometimes borrowed into English) for the Arctic tern, a loud grey bird that makes a noise not unlike – yes – “kría!” And I bet if you pet it it’s rather less pleasant than a fluffy baby alpaca.

desaturate

The Canadian National Exhibition is a good place to reach saturation quickly. So much noise, so many people, so much food (fat sugar salt starch protein), so much beverage, so much merchandise, so much colour. You soak in it and soak it in. It’s like applying layer after layer of ink onto a piece of paper: it becomes more and more intense as the paper absorbs more and more. It goes beyond satisfaction, beyond satiation, beyond satiety, to saturation. At a certain point you need some desaturation.

Do you notice how satisfaction, satiation, satiety, and saturation all start with sat? It’s not because they’re all associated with Saturnalia (although there is a bit of that aspect in an annual fun fair). They’re all related words: satis is Latin for ‘enough’ and satur, a related root, is ‘full, satiated’. (Saturn is not part of the family.) This one root is soaked full of uses and meanings.

But desaturate has a little extra something that sets it apart. I mean the de, of course, but that also casts a particular hue on it. Or lack of hue. There are many things that can be saturated, but not quite as many that can be spoken of as being desaturated. One of the common uses of desaturate refers to decreasing the intensity of a colour. Complete desaturation results in a greyscale (black-and-white) image. All the intensity of the colour has gone out. Not only is the ink not saturating the page to produce a maximally intense colour, it’s not even there – just the black is left.

Of course, nowadays when you’re working with image colours you’re doing so on a computer, and there is no ink to speak of. So desaturation is really a smoothing out of the colour balance to make all three inputs (red, blue, and green) even, so that it has no intensity of anything except greyness. But we look at it and we experience it as a loss of ink intensity. Desaturation.

Now imagine being at the CNE or another similar collection of sound and colour and food and beverage and stuff and reaching the point of saturation. You want to desaturate, let some of the ink of the day drain out. Where do you go? Someplace quieter, less crowded. Over in one corner near the flower competition there is a local wine and microbrew beer bar. Sit down and have a glass and go grey for a bit. Thin your blood, wring out the sweat, de-magnetize, de-humidify. Desaturate.

But it may be a bit of a shock when you step back into the fully saturated and saturating world just beyond your quiet garden.

flummox

Oh, flip, you’ve fumbled this one – a flood of flim-flammery has left you flailing like a lummox and you’ve made a right bollix of it. You’re sure to flop and fall flat on your face; you’ve lost your moxie and are in line for full mockery. You don’t know what to do or say. You’re nonplussed, you’re confounded, you’re… words not… um, fail… And your wit and wicked tongue make like a floppy-footed clown all in white gown with flying feathers carrying a full stack of cake boxes, tripping on a filament and falling feet over fundament down a small set of stairs: flummox!

Some are flummoxed by the word flummox. What does it mean? Mainly what I have said: ‘bewilder, confuse, confound, nonplus’. Very often seen as the adjectival past participle flummoxed. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology notes that “The formation seems to be onomatopoeic, expressive of the notion of throwing down roughly and untidily.”

That sounds right, doesn’t it? The sometimes fluid but sometimes fluttery and floppy fl, the soft and heavy umm, the ox with its echo of a pointy-horned bovine and its feel of things landing and breaking or dispersing…

Of course, these are the things we’re used to in English. Other languages do not necessarily have the conventionalized feel of fluids or fluttering with /fl/ and the various other overtones throughout this word. Use it with a speaker of another tongue and expect them to be flummoxed.

One particularly fun part of this word is that other so-similar word lummox (naming an ungainly lout). Surely flummox is from the sound of a lummox falling flat or something like that, no? But there’s no evidence of that chain in the formation. Both were formed in England, both have related verbs with –ock instead of –ox, and both show up in the literature in the early 1800s, but lummox showed up in East Anglia (the lump on the lower right side of England, wherein Cambridge and Norwich may be found), while flummox showed up in Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Cheshire, and Sheffield – an arc up the mid-left side of England starting just above London and skirting the Welsh border. In New World terms that may all seem close (the distance of a day trip between two major cities), but the dialectal differences in England are immediately obvious to any listener. And the etymological record is not always replete; in such colloquial cases, it can be quite, um, bedeviling… confounding… erm… yes, flummoxing.

Thanks to Roberto Blizzard for mentioning flummox on Facebook a while back.

dicatspora

This is another word I made up myself from bits that were lying around. It’s a blend of diaspora and cat.

It turns out that I am not the first person to whip up this lexical canapé ex tempore; Georgie Anne Geyer used it in her book When Cats Reigned Like Kings. But she used it to refer to the global spread of cats (and cat adoration) from Egypt. I have something in in mind that is both more local and more universal, for all times and places where there are cats. Every litter – or almost every litter – becomes a dicatspora.

When a cat has a litter of kittens, it is only a matter of time before they are given away (or sold, I guess). They spread to friends, family, neighbours, strangers who answer ads; if you live in the country, they may just strike out on their own. They are dispersed, spread like dandelion seeds on the breeze of human connections: δια dia ‘across’ and σπορά spora ‘sowing’ (related to spore).

This is how we received and gave cats when I was a kid: a friend’s cat had had kittens and we wanted one; it grew up and had kittens of its own, and we gave them away in turn. In some cases we eventually got the cat spayed, but not before our friends were well supplied with quality felines (we kept a few to add to our set as well). We lived in the country, so we could have quite a few – and we could keep them outside as much as inside, which, along with medication, helped me not to suffer too much from my allergy. Never mind Oscar Wilde’s “each man kills the thing he loves”; I simply become allergic to it. It was an early and durable habituation to the idea that there would be things I wanted a lot that I would not be able to have.

It is not so cruel to cats to split up the litter; they are quite independent and tend to disperse in adolescence anyway. I like that, that independence (I too lived away from my parents most of the time starting in mid-adolescence, for educational reasons) and their low-intensity socialization combined with a desire for and expectation of attention on their own terms. They are like an introverted, questing mind, collecting experiences from various and sundry quarters and returning them to the repose of their quiet corner for curling up.

In grad school I was a teaching assistant for a course on intercultural studies. One theme we looked at was diasporas. There are the literal ones, of course, starting with the first to be called a diaspora: that of the people of Israel, across the world and away from the Promised Land. It has a resonance with many of us, Jewish or not; the longing for return can be powerful. The professors of the course took a liking to the idea of what they called each person’s “intellectual diaspora”: the many places the mind and interests had wandered to. I disagreed with this use of the term. Your mind, going to its many diverse interests, does not leave parts of itself in those places, never to return to its first home. Rather, it goes out and gathers things in and keeps them. Diaspora is centrifugal; the active intellect is centripetal, even hegemonistic.

Relative to itself, of course. It is not that a questing and acquiring mind is incompatible with diaspora. The wanderer, moving away from home whether or not by choice, may in the journeys acquire much knowledge and bring it along, keeping it in the moving library of the mind. The body moves away; the mind gathers towards.

Of course, I don’t really know what goes on in a cat’s mind. They don’t seem to have career plans; they don’t seem to desire fame or fortune, even if some of them get it. They rather prefer food and comfort… and exploration: the incessant curiosity for which they are famous, and their quest for superiority, even if literal (climbing high on the furniture). So they too embody the contradiction: each purring pawing part of each dicatspora puts the pet in centripetal.

infenestration

Do this: click “play” on the first video below and then click to skip the ad, and then immediately click “play” on the second video below, so they play at the same time. Watch the second one while the first one provides a backing soundtrack.*

Infestation may be a problem with insects, but with birds, infenestration can be a bigger problem. Especially if the bird or the window – or both – aren’t as resilient as in that video. One time when I was a little kid, we heard a smash and went and looked, and a bird had flown into the high window in our entryway. Neither survived.

Oh, is infenestration not a familiar word? I’m not surprised. Don’t bother looking for it in a dictionary; you won’t find it. But it’s a perfectly reasonable confection of parts. Defenstration means throwing something or someone out of a window: de ‘out’ plus fenestr ‘window’ (root) plus ation. Replace the out with an in and you get infenestration. Logical? I think so, and so does Ken Broadhurst, who – independently – used the same reasoning to arrive at the same word with the same meaning: see ckenb.blogspot.ca/2014/05/infenestration.html:

We have the term “defenestration” meaning to throw someone or something out a window. It’s related to the French word for window, which is fenêtre. We don’t have the word *infenestration* as far as I know. If we did, it would mean to collide with a window. People do it, and birds evidently do it a lot.

Infenestration is an infernal frustration, whether you’re a bird or a homeowner. It’s also a problem for people who have sliding glass doors, especially clean ones. A co-worker told me of a friend who broke her nose rushing inside – or rather, attempting to rush inside through a closed glass door. We have a big glass door on a boardroom where I work, and there have been collisions but no fractures. There’s also one in my apartment, at the entrance to the “solarium” (guest room/spare room/etc.), which is a great place for a sleepy person not to see the glass.

What is a defense against infenestration? In my apartment, there’s a tripod in front of the fixed section of the door, and a sticky note at eye level on the sliding section. Public buildings put dots on glass that people might walk into and paper silhouettes of birds of prey on windows that birds might fly into. Or they put nothing, of course. Dead birds are a common enough sight on the sidewalks of downtown Toronto. The offices leave their lights on at night and the birds try to fly in. They usually don’t get to go back and do it again.

*Intense thanks to Iva Cheung for this.

superior

From an 1827 edition of Paradise Lost. You can tell it’s especially fancy because it has the u. And the comma tells you to expect more – you can always expect more from a superior person.

Superior is Latin for ‘higher’. In English, it is a word for a boss or a bossy person, someone who is noteworthy or a footnote, someone or something that is the greatest, or the highest, or just all wet: upper crust or uppity and crusty, super or spurious. Unlike its antonym inferior, superior can refer to reality or pretension; like inferior, it can refer to physical position or more abstract qualities.

A truly superior person or thing has greater qualities: finer, rarer, nobler, more intelligent, more attractive. A person with a superior attitude simply pretends to such, and is in fact inferior and infuriating. A person may also be a superior: a boss, someone superordinate in the command chain. A supervisor, a manager. Paradoxically, a person may have superior qualities for an inferior position – be very good at doing the work – but inferior qualities as a superior – not good at managing those who do the work. Their superiority peters out, as per the Peter Principle. But we naturally hope that our superiors are persons of superior personal qualities. And sometimes they are.

Superior is the name of a lake, the largest of the great lakes, the farthest north, and the highest in elevation. It has fewer people living on its shores than the others do, however; superior position in this case, as in many, results in less accessibility. It is rough-edged, cold, and deep, qualities that sometimes also come with being a superior person. And it is all wet, just like people who have superior attitudes.

Superior is also a typographic term. It is or isn’t (depending on whom you ask) a synonym for superscript. Even for those who maintain a distinction between the two terms, the difference is small: they use superior to refer specifically to superscripted minuscule letters in abbreviations, such as the th in 9th and the re in French Dre. So footnote numbers and symbols may or may not be superior. But those people who insist that it is incorrect to refer to them as superior certainly are superior – I leave it to you to decide whether by that I mean having superior knowledge or just a supercilious attitude.

Superior is also an astronomical term. A superior planet is a planet that is farther from the sun than the Earth is. Why? Is it that they are more rarefied, or have greater affinity to the empyrean? No, silly, it’s because they’re further up. Up and down really mean ‘away from the direction of gravitation’ and ‘towards the direction of gravitation’. In the solar system, the centre of gravity is the sun. We may think the sun is above us because we’re thinking in Earth-centric terms, but in solar system terms it is below us: it’s the big heavy.

Which is rather funny. If you wish to be superior, it helps to be lighter – and indeed I more greatly esteem people whose levity exceeds their gravity. But in the business world, the person at the top is the big heavy around whom all others revolve, and you don’t want to be seen as a lightweight. But to become a superior, you have to climb your way to the top, and that takes effort, which proves that you’re moving away from gravity.

And towards heaven, perhaps – if you are the mother superior or father superior of a convent or monastery, for instance. Except that the sun is in heaven, and the sun is really below us in the bigger picture. But other parts of the heavens are farther away from the sun, but include suns of their own, many of them much heavier than our sun. Every star up there is a sun, the absolute down in its own system. Meanwhile, the superior planets are towards the darkness, but in our usual thinking light is superior to darkness. And superior letters are light subordinates to the letter or numeral they are attached to: they report to it and it is in that sense superior to them.

The more you look at superior, the murkier and less pure the subject seems to become. The letters and the concepts dance around. It leaves a sour-ripe taste. Does it rise up or get mixed up? Prior use leads only to greater confusion.

Finally we must realize that it is all relative, and the way to superior intelligence is to keep everything in perspective – and to maintain a sense of levity.

Keuka

 

Keuka Lake from Bully Hill

As I mentioned in my tasting of traminette, I spent some time last weekend tasting wines along Keuka Lake. Keuka Lake is one of New York’s Finger Lakes; it’s on the west side of the bunch, and it has a distinctive feature: it’s forked. In fact, it looks not so much like a finger as like your thumb and forefinger and a continuation of their joining down to the wrist. Actually, it looks more like a forked branch you’d use to roast hot dogs or marshmallows. Or, you know, like a lake with a fork in it halfway up.

Keuka would seem a distinctive name, with its two k’s and its echoes of cucumber and cue card and eureka, but I imagine many people get confused between Keuka Lake and the lake two to the east, Cayuga Lake. It’s not that they look similar – Cayuga is longer, not forked, and has much gentler slopes on its sides – but the names sound nearly identical. If you say them slowly, it’s “key you ka” versus “cay you ga,” but who says place names carefully more than a couple of times? In the more relaxed pronunciation, the only real difference is the /k/ versus /g/ in the middle. Coincidence? Not altogether.

It’s not that the two words are really the same name. But they are related. Keuka comes from a word meaning ‘canoe landing’ and Cayuga comes from a word meaning ‘canoe carrying place (trimmed of a final syllable). Canoe see the common element? Of course, in both cases, the names aren’t accurate; they’re really names for shoreline places – the lakes themselves are more canoe rowing places.

Or, today, boat sailing places. Or looking at the pretty water from the shore places. Or, for a lot of people, wine tasting nearby places.

Which is where Keuka comes in for me. A trip down Keuka Lake for me is a trip down memory lane. I went on my first wine tasting trip there about a quarter of a century ago with my cousin Sharon, a wine aficionado (and somewhat older than me). That’s also when and where I first tasted icewine (at Hunt Country, which still makes an excellent icewine, full of brown sugar flavours). I don’t drink too much icewine – just too sweet for me after the first sniff and sip – but I love wine touring. That first experience made Keuka a bit of a eureka for me: it opened up whole new vistas.

Vistas are another reason this isn’t my first return to Keuka. Other Finger Lakes have wineries too – even more of them, in fact – but none are as pretty as Keuka. None have as European a feel. The hillsides sloping into Keuka Lake are dramatic. And there is a high bluff over the fork. With houses on it that look like a stiff rain might just wash them down into the drink.

Ah, never mind the houses, and never mind the canoes, either. I will prefer the drink. The wineries have not improved as rapidly as the ones in the Niagara region of Ontario, but they are catching up now. And I have some more catching up with them to do… next time through.

View from Heron Hill.

traminette

I was off on a little wine-tasting excursion over the weekend. We went to Keuka Lake, one of New York State’s Finger Lakes. Wine has been made in that area for about a century, but it’s been only a half century since Dr. Konstantin Frank introduced vinifera grapes to the area – the kind of grapes usually used in the non-benighted world to make wine. The grapes that had been used in New York before – and are still used for some products – tend to produce what Tony Aspler has called “block and tackle wines”: one drink and you can walk a block and tackle anyone.

The climate in New York can be hard on some varieties of grapes, so the winemakers are always looking to improve their stock with something that tastes good and is also sufficiently hardy. Enter traminette, a pleasant little white wine grape that is now being used by a number of the wineries in the area. It is a hybrid created in about 1965 at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign by Herb Barrett. It would be fun if Barrett had been trying to create a kind of urban champagne, but actually he just want to make a nice table grape that had some of the taste of Gewürztraminer. He made it by crossing Gewürztraminer with the hybrid Joannes Seyve 23.416 (does that look like a scriptural reference?). He sent some of it to the experimental grape breeding program at Cornell University, which is at the south end of Cayuga Lake, which is another one of the Finger Lakes. It has spread from there because it survives and it tastes good.

What does it taste like? Well, I’m not here to give you wine tasting notes. You would do better to go see for yourself. I will tell you that it’s reminiscent of Gewürztraminer but toned down, with some flavours that might remind you of pinot blanc or vidal or just maybe Riesling. Or, if you aren’t a wine geek: it’s a nice, moderately fruity white wine, not buttery and not too tart or crazy, but just a little quirky.

What I am here to give you is word tasting notes. Come on, now: we have the word right in front of us. Let’s taste it together. Say it slowly: /træ mi nɛt/. It starts crisp on the tip of the tongue /t/, with a little rolling release into the liquid /r/; the vowel can be realized a bit harder as /æ/ or a bit milder as /a/. The lips come together softly /m/ as though considering a taste. Then another vowel, which can be high and sweet /i/ or more restrained /ɪ/ or rather subdued, almost dull /ə/. The tongue tip presses in again softly and quickly /n/ to start the ending, which is strong and clear, medium-bright and dry /ɛ/ with a fast, crisp final stop /t/.

The word can’t avoid seeming feminine; it has that ette ending. But such a range of flavours swirl around: a mechanical conveyance tram, with a rough hint of tramp and a suggestion of jam; a tighter, tidier trim; perhaps a girl’s name, Tammy; a net effect that could be an ensnaring mesh or a tennis game. It may bring to mind a stern and hectoring martinet, or a dangling, dancing marionette, and perhaps something to marinate in the interim. Look at its shape on the page and you may get a glimpse of a mitten to make it handle the cold better, perhaps a bit of mint (absent from the wine’s flavour), a questionable marine influence, possibly inert, and a backwards look at the commercial mart. But you will certainly see how balanced it is, with the i in the middle and humps and crosses on either side – to the left one cross and two humps, to the right one hump and two crosses. It even looks vaguely reminiscent of rows of grape vines in an orchard.

Will all this affect how the wine tastes to you? I don’t know. It would be a fun experiment to have a number of wine aficionados taste a new hybrid and tell some of them it had one name – say, merlina – and some another – say, xenoraz – and see if their tasting notes seem to be influenced by the name.

But whether or not it would, it’s best to be conscious of all aspects of what you’re tasting. When you taste the wine, taste the word too.

kerof

I was still rather young, I remember, when I pointed to a percent sign and asked my mother, “What’s that called?”

“Kerof,” she said. Or maybe it was “kerrof.” Or “kerif”? I decided on “kerof.”

OK, sure, things have odd names. After all, & is called ampersand. (This turns out to be from and per se and, apparently, but how many people know that?) People can’t even agree on what # should be called. Why not kerof for %?

Look at it. Its line cuts through between the two circles like a kerf. It has an ornamental quality to it and is typographic, like a serif. It can seem as official as a sheriff or a seraph.

Not that I was fully aware of all these words at the time. I was, on the other hand, aware of the word carafe, so I knew when I saw carafe that it wasn’t a fancy spelling for kerof because I knew the stress was on the other syllable. Anyway, % looks more like two cups than one carafe.

I didn’t mind carafes. I took a dislike to the word decanter, though. Also to the word onus – actually I still don’t like onus, which seems like an average of anus and penis and would therefore be an apt name for the perineum (that’s the taint, for you plain folks). I decided that one of the most irritating sentences in English would be The onus is on the decanter.

And – here is where we come back to kerof – I discovered the word schwa (yes, I knew what it meant, and at first it seemed awfully self-important and prissy) and decided that Kerof Schwa would be a name for the sort of band that would sing annoying songs of all the things your teachers condescendingly tell you to do, and all those irritating phrases grown-ups say. Like “The onus is on the decanter.” With an instructional smile and over-gesturing finger. (If the phrase teachable moment had been around at the time, I would have determined it was the name of Kerof Schwa’s number one hit. Or maybe even a whole album.)

None of this told me, at the time, what the point of this oogly symbol was. All I knew was that my mother told me it was a kerof. And my mother was a teacher (one of the good ones, of course), so she knew.

Thing was, it wasn’t a percent sign actually that I was looking at. I realized a few years later that it had been a c/o on an envelope address.

My mom had said “Care of.”

Such a kerfuffle because I wasn’t kerof-ful…