Category Archives: word tasting notes


skulk. verb. Lurk in the dark; slink in back alleys and murky walks; cloak your bulk; shirk your work or watch the clock.

OK, really, what is it about the liquid-plus-k ending? And even moreso with this word, which slides in with the /s/ before giving that choking dark click-liquid-click. It could be the sound of a guillotine, but more likely it’s a secret door sliding open – or closed. Whatever it is, it carries a skull-crossbones sign.

Skulk comes from some Scandinavian language or other – Norwegian or Danish, we would assume (they’re so similar; Danish sounds like Norwegian that was left in a pocket and run through the wash). The Oxford English Dictionary notes, “There is apparently a remarkable lack of evidence for the currency of the word in the 15th and 16th centuries, compared with its frequency in earlier and later use.” This is, of course, utterly apposite: it skulked for a couple of centuries. Why not?

And what kind of a creature might skulk? A skunk or a skink? Perhaps a snake? As likely a sleuth or a sloth, but those are softer. I would stake my luck on a grimalkin. I will tell you this: the liquidity is crucial. When you skulk, you move like milk, or more likely sulky silk. You do not clunk.


Life is lived in the gap between the real and the unreal. Which is the gap between the unreel and the reel. The film of life unreels from the future – is it predetermined? how can you actually possibly know? – and flicks past your eyes, and by the time it is fully real for you, it is fully reeled up, spooled on the reel of experience. You know it has happened because it is already gone and stored; your eyes are glued to the flickering of the present, but your awareness is always a moment behind, and working with what has been spooled in memory.

Today at the Art Gallery of Ontario I watched a 20-minute film, made in 2011 by Francis Alÿs, called Reel-Unreel. In it, two boys run through Kabul. One rolls a red film reel along the street as he runs, unreeling film from it as he goes. The other one follows him at variable distance, never catching up, rolling a blue film reel and winding the same film back up on it as he goes. Through the dusty and muddy streets and walks and the crowded market, over bridges and around corners and up a hillside road they run, the one in front unreeling, the film dragging in dust and wrapping around things and under feet and tires, the one coming behind reeling it back up in whatever condition it is in.

The film had some clear and important political points about Afghanistan to make. But for me it was life. The unreeled film was meant to be seen, but it was not projected for an audience. Its countless frames, known only to itself, were muddied and scratched and twisted and at risk of being broken. Coming off the reel, all was perfect and pristine; going back on, nothing was quite as it was intended, and who in the end had seen it? The reality of life is the unreel, still not grasped but also not seen, and when it is finally the reel, it is too late and all that it has been – with all its mutations and wounds – is wound up and immutable.

What is a reel? A reel is a wheel with something real wound around it. This sense comes right from the Germanic origins of the word. Life is a wheel, a wheel of fortune, but it is a wheel with the thread of fate spooled on it – or the film of the moments of existence in infinite succession of frames.

And what is the reel? What is the unreel? Though we become enured to it, we are not neutral; in our neural circuitry we seek renewal, we seek to learn, but in order to realize that, we must subject the unreel to the damage and distortions of reality, so that when it becomes reel it can truly bear the marks of what we have been through.

And in the end? In the end of Reel-Unreel the film passes through a garbage-heap flame and is burnt so that it breaks, but the boy with the red reel continues unreeling oblivious as the boy with the blue reel chases on farther behind; the red reel escapes and goes off the road and down the mountainside cliff back into the busy tawny dusty town. The boy with the blue reel runs up, looks where it has gone, stunned for a moment. And then he smiles and, with a spin, finishes reeling up the film he has.


Pay attention.

Give attention.

Take attention?

I have just seen the movie Finding Vivian Maier. Vivian Maier was a nanny and housekeeper. She was a very guarded person who collected things and kept them. Trinkets, buttons, receipts, transfers. Newspapers, piles and piles of newspapers. And photographs.

Not other people’s photographs. Hers. Always, everywhere, she had her camera slung around her neck. Taking her young charges out for walks, or out on the street by herself, she would take pictures. People. People in places. People in moods. People with things, people doing things, people looking at her. She used – for her younger years, up to about age 50 – a twin-lens Rolleiflex, a nice camera and perfect for taking pictures of strangers on the street, because it hung low, and you looked down at the ground glass screen. It was not up at your eye level. It was not an obvious ocular prosthetic. Looking up, it gave majesty, and it looked at the lowly at their level. And the shutter was quiet. So she could walk up, stop, take, go.

Look at her photos. Look at them. Give them your attention. You can see many of them on the website John Maloof made for them.

John Maloof is the man who made the film. He is the man who bought her photos. Her negatives. Her hundred thousand negatives and transparencies. Her hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. You must pay to develop, and she did not have a lot of money. It was all in boxes, boxes stored with all the other boxes of her things. No one had seen them. Almost no one: a few photo processors. This great photographic genius – I have thought so since I first saw her work a couple of years ago, and many others who have seen it agree – did not show her pictures. For many of them, she did not show them even to herself. She took.

She took attention. She did not pay attention. For her, attention was something that took. She did not want other people’s attention; she did not like the idea that anyone might see into her room. She kept the door locked, kept her life guarded. Gave false names to stores she shopped at. She did think of having her pictures printed by a processer in the small town in France where she grew up, but she was in America and it didn’t happen. Perhaps she didn’t talk much to processers in Chicago or New York, the cities where she lived, because that would have come with a risk of its actually happening. Oh, she printed a few, but not a lot. She accumulated and did not let go. Stacks of hundreds of newspapers. Tchotchkes, receipts, transfers, hats, the little things of life. The thousand items and moments that pass our eyes. Most of us discard them, or file them into the far cabinets of our memories where they simply age unlooked at and inaccessible. Vivian Maier kept them. She kept them, all these moments of attention. She pressed the shutter release and she advanced the film. And she put them away. Not into the little corners of her mind, or not just there. Into boxes.

When you look at her work, it is attention, a soft flick of the shutter at a time. Every person in a photo is the centre of its attention. The world is a performance, every moment of it is people performing themselves, and Vivian Maier attended it. The attainments, the attempts, the attenuations. The photos find the human. There is a tenderness. And a tension, a tension of attention. Her camera so low-slung, looking but not looking like looking. Some subjects felt the pull, felt that when she was taking the picture she was taking from them. Others were glad to give, because her attention gave to them. She was paying them attention. Even if that was not her intention. She was there to take, and keep, and not let go.

John Maloof – the filmmaker, the man who bought her photographs – describes himself as the sort of person who can spot a thing of value at a distance. He has a history of buying at flea markets and auctions. Things cross his attention, and something sometimes attracts. He has bought unclaimed storage lockers and found things of value, and he has tossed out negatives by the boxfull. When he was working on a project for which he needed historical pictures, he went to an auction near where he lived, and for a few hundred dollars he got thousands of negatives taken by someone unknown to him. They turned out not to be what he needed for his project, but they caught his attention and held it. He had to find out who the artist was.

And he found out that she had died, only just. Leaving no family, no heirs. When a person dies, it is, as Laurie Anderson has said, like a whole library has burned down. All those moments, all the perfect things that pass the eyes, the crossings and stops of day-to-day existence, a myriad million perfect flowers of time and space and emotion, all like rain in the rain, now running to the gutter. But Vivian Maier’s moments, so many of them, so perfectly framed, so perfectly composed, were not running away. They were pressed flat in perfect flakes, ready to be flicked through again. Attention taken, attention kept, attention available for your attention, unattenuated.

Your attention is your attention, of course. Your eyes are not mirrors. They are hands of the mind that reach out and grab what the mind wants; they are fingers that stroke reality, and tongues that taste it. They stretch out towards what they want, they extend you towards it: ad+tendere, ‘stretch to’, source of attend, source of attention. The reaching eyes mould life as they grasp it, and they select what they will seize. You keep what you want. So did Vivian Maier. She didn’t keep every last sixtieth of a second of her life. Just the moments she wanted. Seen her way, judged her way, framed her way.

The people she knew knew little about her. They might know her for a decade and yet not know what family she had, if any, or where she was from. She had that slight French accent, Americanized but perceptible. I listened – she made recordings of herself, and occasional movies of her with the children she cared for – and I thought, perhaps near the German border. Alsace? Different people who had spoken to her had different opinions. One whom she had nannied was quite sure she was French: the intonation in particular was characteristic. Another, who met her when she was at a university language lab, was entirely sure she was not French, the accent was a put-on. He had a PhD in linguistics and had done a thesis on vowel length in French and her vowels were not French vowels. He knew. He was paying attention.

To one thing. Vowel length. And which kind of French did he study, I wondered? So many dialects. Not all the same. But he was paying – or taking – his kind of attention.

In fact, she was born in New York City.

And spent much of her childhood with her mother in a small village in the French alps near the border. The Italian border. Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur.

And moved back to the US as a young adult.

She took many pictures in France, especially when she returned there as an adult for visits. It was unusual. Normal people would take pictures at first communion and at weddings. She was taking pictures of all sorts of people all the time. It was taking something. They were not sure what to make of her. But they tolerated her attention.

And now John Maloof has brought back her photos of them, and hung them on the wall, and they can see again how their village was, how they were if they’re old enough; they have those moments of attention back. It was taken, but it is paying back. Or forwards.

And this is what Vivan Maier has left. Myriads of flakes of attention, a sixtieth of a second each more or less, pressed flat, taken from their subjects and now waiting to catch your attention and give attention back.


In Aberdeen, where I once had been, there was the prettiest tureen you ever had seen. It was green and had a picture of the queen. Its owner had once used it to hold poteen, but now, as parent of a tween, preferred to use it to hold mangosteens. Alas, what its owner had not foreseen was the effect that pre-teen could have on the tureen. She was preening in some velveteen when she bumped into a screen and careened into the tureen – and, surely as a ball-peen hammer, smashed the tureen to smithereens. And its poor owner was left to keen and vent his spleen on what might have been.

English can be like that tureen sometimes, entropic, shattering into shards and sherds. But sometimes things converge rather than diverge. Imagine as many smithereens as you’ve ever seen all gathering together and, if not merging to make a never-before-existing pot, at least all pointing the same way. Some words converge in form, such as cleave and cleave (opposites in sense, formerly spelled differently and from different sources), and sometimes part of a word does: we see this in English names ending in -ell and -ett, and we see it in word endings such as -een.

In smithereens, which is pretty much always in the plural – imagine reading “He held in his hand a smithereen of the pot”: conceivable, but funny, no? – the -een is the same as in Colleen, poteen, shebeen, and a few other words borrowed from Irish Gaelic: it represents the -ín diminutive suffix. The smither has nothing to do with smiths; it’s from smiodar, ‘fragment’. So smithereens are small fragments. You are unlikely to break a tureen into just seventeen smithereens; more like it will be umpteen, or perhaps hundreds. And you will probably smash it rather than just break it if the result is smithereens. (And now, tell me, doesn’t the sound of “een” suggest the pieces scattering at high speed? It has the high pitch of [i], with the associations of smallness and speed, and the sustain of the final nasal [n].)

The various other -eens are from all sorts of sources: seen and been use an -n-based past tense (see > seen; be > been); tureen comes from terrine with its derivative -ine suffix coming from Latin -inus; all the -teen words relate to ten (well, velveteen doesn’t, it traces to -ine again); the various one-syllable words (queen, green, preen, spleen) come from their own individual etymologies – and keen has two sources and meanings converging on one form, the ‘sharp’ one coming from Germanic and the ‘weep’ one coming from Irish Gaelic again (but not related to the diminutive – indeed, the modern spelling is caoin, still sounding like English “keen”). What we have in the end is a rhyme with just a bit of reason. Or multiple reasons coming together, little bit by little bit.

So language comes together, e’en as it breaks apart. Perhaps we should call this convergence of smithereens eentropy.


Does it seem to you that shard and sherd have something shared? Their shape, of course, but more: they name shreds of things that don’t shred – they smash or shatter as they are dashed against something hard.

In fact, according to Oxford, the two are the same old Germanic word, just different spellings. But is that still true? Have they not by this time diverged somewhat, as person and parson or perilous and parlous or vermin and varmint or any of a fair few other pairs that have grown apart to some degree? Would you use them in exactly the same way?

They have a difference of sound, to be sure. Shard is wider open but also sharper, and indeed has echoes of sharp and shatter and hard. When you think of shards, what material do you think of? I suspect broken glass comes to mind first. Glass is certainly the most common noun to go with shard.

When you think of sherds, on the other hand, can you think of broken glass? Perhaps some can; I cannot. It has to be ceramic. The most common nouns that go with sherd are pottery and ceramic, and there is also the word potsherd that shows up quite often.

So think of these two words not as the same word, not as twins that have grown apart, but as fragments of some frangible thing – a pot, perhaps, with a repeating pattern on it. One of them has most of the pattern, but is stronger on one side of it; the other one has less of the pattern and is limited to the other side of it. There will be no mending or replacement, either; the pot wasn’t insured, and now it’s in sherds.


You may not know this word; it’s not used so much these days. So, after making a pun involving cats and/or mountains, you may want to compare it to other words that seem similar. Could it be a collision of paramount and cataclysm? Or tantamount and catapult? You may see the cata and think, “Ah, the Greek cata ‘down’ root – as in catastrophe, ‘downstroke’. So add that to the ending of paramount and you get something tantamount to a fall to the catacombs.”

Well. It depends on how you look at it. Or on how it looks at you before you can look at it. If you’re standing by a cataract in the mountains and a catamount creeps up and catapults itself in your direction, you may well end up in the catacombs, or something tantamount. You see, this word’s form has more to do with cat-o’-nine-tails and Jack-o’-lantern and cats and mountains.

Indeed, it’s hard to be pleased with yourself for making a pun when the pun is actually the etymology and meaning. So much for cat and mountain jokes: this word comes from catamountain, which comes from cat-o’-mountain, as in cat of the mountain. Catamountain has been applied to leopards, panthers, and ocelots; the shorter catamount has come to be mainly a term for cougars (I mean mountain lions, not… never mind).

So the word sounds so classical, and yet it’s so homey… if you ignore the fact that cat and mount both come to us, lightly changed, from Latin. Just like a catamount, or cougar, is also a puma, is also a panther. Sometimes these things just creep up on you.


Does this word look like it means ‘intimidate like a cat’? I think it sort of does.

How would that be, I wonder… Perhaps like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, smiling down creepily, pronouncing gnomically or gnostically and vanishing, the smile disappearing last.

I remember an acting class. Our professor told us to say “I hate you” to a seated student. Several of us in turn pulled an angry face, full of scorn, and practically spat out the words. Then one girl – a frankly attractive young woman – walked up, smiled sweetly, and purred, “I… hate… you,” those pretty curved lips suddenly sharp like scalpels.

I remember another theatre class, an improv exercise. A student was asked to draw an angry face. The leader of the exercise clearly expected a big frowny mouth. The student instead drew a smiley mouth. The leader was confused. But then the student added sharp teeth.

And then there was the guy I knew who talked about how his dog was impounded because it “smiled at an animal control officer.”

Well, the last one is definitely doglike. But the first two are catamount to a tat. I mean tantamount to a cat.

This word, I should say, is not a word about cats. The definition of the word – which OED tells us is obsolete, but it’s certainly not the only place on the web you will find the word – is (to quote a 1656 work) ‘To put one to open shame and punishment for some notorious offence, to scorn, to defame.’ Excatly (what a typo, I think I’ll keep it) what many of us want to do to certain politicians, and probably a few others too. Catamidiate them.

Those who know Greek roots will recognize the cata from catastrophe, catalogue, and various other words: it means ‘down’ or ‘downward’.

OK, but what is the midiate from? Well, the whole Greek root is katameidian καταμειδιᾶν, ‘despise’, so the back end of this is from a Greek infinitive μειδιᾶν.

Which means ‘smile’.

I’m not joking. The Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon (LSJ) gives the following definition for καταμειδιάω (the first-person singular present indicative, which is what Greek verbs are more often indexed under): ‘smile at, despise’.

Think about that the next time someone talks about the sun – or fortune – smiling down. All that time you thought it liked you…

I’ll think of the Cheshire cat, who is featured on one of my pairs of cufflinks. The Cheshire cat and that girl in my acting class. The smile. Everything disappears but the smile.

And then that disappears too.


I have of late, for no particularly good reason, been listening to a lot of covers (remakes) of Duran Duran’s song “The Chauffeur.” They’re easy to find on YouTube, and when you find one there are links to more.

“The Chauffeur” is the last song on the 1982 LP Rio. Rio was a seminal record of my high school years and is still one of my favourites. The album cover is a classic of early ’80s style. It features a painting of a beautiful vamp by Patrick Nagel, who died two years later at age 38. Rio’s biggest hits were “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio,” but the songs that I have been most drawn to have been “Lonely in Your Nightmare,” “Save a Prayer,” and – of course – “The Chauffeur.”

These songs are steamy, yearning, louche. “The Chauffeur” features an inexorable synthesizer riff like beads of sweat slowly rolling down smooth skin. Whose sweat? Yours, when you listen to Simon LeBon’s voice, torrid yet trending towards torpid, dripping down over the synthesizer and bass:

Out on the tar plains, the glides are moving
All looking for a new place to drive
You sit beside me, so newly charming
Sweating dew drops glisten, freshing your side

Yes, they have paid much attention to the sound of the words. Say that last line aloud: “Sweating dew drops glisten, freshing your side.” Not fresh on and not freshening and certainly not refreshing; freshing. Listen to how the vowel peaks roll in the line, /ɛ u ɑ ɪ ɛ ɔ aɪ/ (the reduced ones in second syllables simply drip away). Listen to the sequence of consonants, the weaving of stops and soft fresh hisses, the rhythm that insists and then pulls back for just a moment before pushing and holding. Every sound is in place.

But is that word out of place, freshing? Is that a word you have ever used that way? Does it seem like an unexpected, half-unknown, entirely perfect new companion, so smoothly fitting and yet so strange, like a piece that works as though always made for that spot and yet has come from nowhere? Does it make you nervous, does it seem too right and not familiar enough to be right?

Songwriters are known for making strange bedfellows at times. The sense can be obscure, obnubilated. The lyrics may be hazy and suggestive. What, after all, does the repeated line “Sing blue silver” mean at the end of each refrain in the song? Sometimes words are chosen for form, not sense; sometimes they are like books shelved by colour and shape. The more rigid among us may accuse the writers of being undereducated, semi-literate.

And yet fresh is a word we have had as a verb since the 1300s. It is converted, of course, from the even older adjective, a word that we have gotten from Germanic languages directly and by way of French. Fresh is ‘new’ and also ‘not stale’; freshing is ‘making new’ and ‘making not stale or wilted’. And ‘refreshing’. Why use freshing when we have a word already, refreshing? But before refreshing we had freshing. What was old is camouflaged as new. And you should use the part that fits more smoothly. Sometimes there is more than just the colour and shape. Listen: it is newly charming.

Yes, listen. Listen to Duran Duran’s original. Listen to the last stanza, ending “I’ll only watch you leave me further behind”; listen to the last refrain, ending “Sing me, sing blue silver”; listen then to the long instrumental tail of the song, what is left when the words have been doffed like cool silk, and you will hear, woven underneath, clips of a voice, a crisp accent saying things that may not fit at first but fall into place. “There’s more to this kind of camouflage, more than just colour and shape.” And… what is the next bit? The next bit is a stretch of words that prove that people will hear what they want to hear, even if it makes no sense.

But a sultry song like this is like a hazy, hot afternoon, when nothing is quite real and you piece it together from memory even as it is happening. The dewdrops glisten and fresh. But the dewdrops have come from within: you are refreshed by yourself, by something that has come from within you – and then falls away and evaporates, leaving just a faint trail. Freshing.

The vinyl version of Rio has a very full back side, full to the inner groove. After the dripping words laid over the inexorable refrain, after the almost-impenetrable stolen clips of voice, after the synthesizers and flute grind and swirl to their climax, there is a sound of chains or coins being dropped on the floor – and then, just like that, without even a moment of final hiss, the needle on my record player would pick up and return to inert.


The game farm house was at the foot of a mountain with a large cliff at the top. I spent my adolescence with that face hanging above and behind me.

If you’ve ever driven to Banff from Calgary you will have seen it. It’s the first mountain on the north side of the valley. The cliff face across the top is vaguely reminiscent of a yam that has been – not cut, rather broken in half. Here is a photo of it.

Climbers call the mountain “the Yam.” But they don’t call it “the Yam” because it looks like a yam. They call it “the Yam” because it’s Mount Yamnuska.

There are a few things in the area called Yamnuska: touring companies, a summer camp, such like. They are all named after the mountain. It cuts quite a figure. It is very popular with rock climbers; there are hundreds of routes up that cliff face. My dad bought a book detailing many of the routes. I found it fascinating. I loved looking through it, imagining climbing up.

I have never actually done any rock climbing. (My father most certainly hasn’t either.)

But you can climb up to the top of Yamnuska without ropes or risk of falling. You just go up the trail up through the trees on the lower front and, when you get to the part where the cliff is, go around the back way. Only the front is a cliff, you see; the back is quite accessible. Don’t take the mountain just at face value.

I have hiked Mount Yamnuska. But I have never gotten all the way to the very top, just because the group I was with didn’t want to or didn’t have the time. I should go back and do it. Unlike many of the things from my childhood, the mountain is still there. And probably isn’t going anywhere for a while.

So what is this word Yamnuska? Let’s start with how it’s said. It follows English spelling. English spelling can be weird at times, but at least we know it doesn’t do things like, say, put “m” and “n” sounds together at the start of the same syllable. The Yam is easy. The ka is also easy. The nus rhymes with plus. I’ve heard some people say it “yam-noose-ka,” presumably because they think they shouldn’t say it as though it’s an English word, although the spelling is as it is to match English spelling. People leap to conclusions, and sometimes the conclusion is at the bottom of a cliff. But wherever the fault may be, there’s no sense in assigning blame; it’s something we’re conditioned to as English speakers: favour the marked. Don’t take things at face value.

But where did this word come from? The local language: Nakoda, also called Stoney. The Stoneys were the people for whom my parents worked and on whose reserve (“Indian Reservation”) I spent much of my childhood. Now, if you’re a language person, you will be aware that the sounds that make up one language are often not exact matches to the sounds that make up another one. So you may expect that our English pronunciation of Yamnuska is not quite the way it’s said in Stoney. And this is true.

Actually, it’s not even spelled that way in Stoney. In Stoney (Nakoda – do you see the resemblance to Dakota and Lakota?), it’s Îyâ Mnathka. The circumflexes indicate nasalization. The a represents a low-central vowel, like the a in bar. Stoney has two apical voiceless fricatives, spelled th and s, but they’re really in the spaces between English th, s, and sh, so Stoney s sounds sort of like “sh” and Stoney th is less toothy than English th. Also, while Yamnuska has three syllables with the stress in the middle, Îyâ Mnathka has four, with the stresses on the first and last. So what you think you see at first is actually quite different from what really is there. But the real not-face-value of Yamnuska is quite different from the jumped-to-a-conclusion not-face-value.

The name Îyâ Mnathka, by the way, means ‘flat-faced rock’. Which is pretty much right on, although actually there’s a mountain across the valley that has a similar cliff that’s flatter in the face, Barrier Mountain. (But that one is less spectacular; frankly, it’s more distinctive in the side view from Exshaw: it looks like a nose.)

But Mount Yamnuska is not the official name, nor is Îyâ Mnathka. Of course that’s the name that the people who have been there longer gave it, but the invading Europeans saw fit to give it a different name: Mount John Laurie.

If you’re from Calgary, you’ll recognize John Laurie. There is a boulevard running around the base of the nose of Nose Hill called John Laurie Boulevard. Now guess how it’s pronounced.

If you said “Like ‘John’ and like ‘Laurie’,” you’re right. But some students I knew at the University of Calgary – and who knows how many other people in Calgary – said the Laurie as like Laurier or Laurié, i.e., like “Laurie, eh.” Because apparently, being a Name and all, it couldn’t be said just like you’d normally say it; it must not be English, the John notwithstanding. Favour the marked; don’t take it at face value. Another bit of conclusion-jumping to add to the scree pile at the bottom of the cliff.

So who was John Laurie? John Lee Laurie was born in Ontario and moved west as an adult to teach in Calgary. He became familiar with the Stoney people and volunteered to work as secretary for the Indian Association of Alberta. He put a lot of time in as an advocate for the causes and rights of Indians (we now often say First Nations), and later compiled history of the Stoneys for the Glenbow Foundation. He died in 1959 and the mountain was officially named after him in 1961.

So it wasn’t really the invading Europeans trampling over the people who were there before, not quite. It was more of a way of honouring someone who did something meaningful, and quite recently at that. Again, the real story is not the face value and is also not the not-face-value you might assume. But anyway, everyone still calls the mountain Yamnuska; I’d wager that not five percent of people who know Yamnuska know its “official” name.

Here’s another nice picture of the mountain, a painting by Roland Rollinmud, a really excellent artist and old friend of my family: (you will see that it’s featured in a column written by my dad). Have another look at it, try to get a grip on where I’m coming from. Have you stopped to wonder about the geology of the mountain?

We know that, as a general rule, rocks on top are newer than rocks underneath because, well, that’s how things pile up. But what caused the cliff face to be there? A thing called the McConnell Thrust Fault. The shifting that happened because of this fault brought the rock on one side from a ways farther up the valley (I doubt it happened just one morning, but I do like the image that brings; here’s a more useful image: The fault is right at the base of the cliff. The cliff is made of Cambrian limestone, hard, prone to forming cliffs, 500 million years old. The rock at the base of the cliff is Cretaceous, sedimentary, soft, 80 million years old.

Yup, the upper part – the cliff part – is older, way older. Again, things are not always what they may seem on the face of it. The older prevails, though you need to get over the younger part to get to it. No need to assign blame… but the fault remains.


Life with language is a parlous proposition. Every foray into a parlour for a parley with those present can be a precarious parlay. You have come out ahead so far in the competition of conversation, but one quick trick from a crafty, unscrupulous, captious interlocutor can upset the applecart.

Confidences in particular are prey to the parlour parlous: a joke, or a little bit of venting, can be taken at face value. In gambling parlours the risk of gambling with fake money is that it will be recognized as fake money. In conversation the risk is the opposite: of its being treated as real currency. All of a sudden you have made a bet that you have to pay out on, or your twitch or tie tug has become a bid at an auction.

But it can be simpler than that. The right word to the right ears and you have been trumped. There are some words that, among those who know them, are like the most expensive jeans: to you they look like ordinary jeans, but those who recognize the brand or cut know that they bespeak a higher socioeconomic status. Sometimes a word is like furniture with a craquelure finish. I remember seeing such things in the ’90s in a fancy furniture store in lower Manhattan. Why on earth would anyone want this scabby old vanity, I thought. I had grown up in the country and recognized cracked paint as a sign of something abandoned and on its way back to the dust from whence it came. But rich New Yorkers liked this finish, especially when it was fake. Turn up your nose at it? They will turn up their noses at you. And they have more money.

So, now, let us take a word as an example. Start with Latin periculosus, ‘causing fear’. Run it through French and into English back in medieval times. You get perilous. Very good: you can picture a trip on the Caminito del Rey, perhaps, or a ship on the high seas.

But now run that through lazy and relaxed mouths. Drop the i. Loll the tongue on the first vowel as though you’re some creaky-phonating young-adult girl doing the latest drawl despised by the older generations. Make it sound lower-class, like varmint instead of vermin. You get parlous.

But oops. Did you think parlous is a low-grade word? Oh, how can it be, when it sounds like parlour and parliament and French parler? And when it partakes of the same vowel shift as in parson, Darby, and Clark? No, no, no. This is a word that consciously erudite writers like to use when writing jeremiads about politics and finances: the parlous state of… or these are parlous times or or or. This is a word that writers who enjoy being eloquently unpleasant like to keep in their travel bags next to their tooth powder. Read enough A.A. Gill and you will be sure to see it.

Perhaps, then, it is apposite that parlous means not just ‘dangerous, uncertain, precarious’ but also ‘keen, cunning, clever, malicious’. What in Irish English is termed cute. But there is one more usage as well: ‘extreme, marvellous’ (or ‘extremely, marvellously, very’) – available as a positive intensifier too: “You’re parlous pretty.”

In short, this word has craquelure on it. The expensive kind. You would do well not to treat it or its speaker too lightly.

And, in sum, it can be parlous parlous to partake in a parlour parley with a parlous person.