Category Archives: word tasting notes


This word is, in my opinion, overrepresented in newspaper headlines.

I see it quite regularly. Just in the past week, for instance, the Toronto Star has had two articles with headlines starting “Ontario Liberals vow”… It seems as though nearly any time some official figure states an intention, it is magically transmuted into a vow in order to fit the headline space. While at least this has a mechanical justification, unlike overuse of munch and croon in articles, it is still just not quite right. Not to my ears and eyes, anyway.

An avowal is more than a v and a vowel; indeed, it is so certain that it ends with a double-you-or-nothing (W against 0). Did you ever play “truth, dare, double dare, promise or repeat” in your youth? Vowing is like double daring yourself. Double dog daring yourself, in fact. You just can’t not do what you have vowed. A vow is a promise, and not just any promise: a solemn promise. It is solemn enough to make you say “wow” and solemn enough to harden that first [w] to a [v].

In my world, a vow is a constative, like a promise. It is a speech act; you vow by saying you are vowing (or a synonymous statement). Indeed, it is a deed in a word. I vow is instantly binding, like I promise but even more solemn, or like I swear but without as much religious overtone (you may swear on a Bible, but you just vow, not on anything – other than your honour). The idea that saying I vow was instantly binding seized my young mind for a time; easing myself into a hotel-roof hot tub in Honolulu at age 12, I thought – before I could stop myself – “I vow to stay in this pool for 20 minutes.” And that was that: I had bound myself to it. If I were to get out even at 19 minutes and 48 seconds, I would be that worst of creatures, an oath-breaker. I was pretty heated up by the time the clock released me.

Of course a compulsive thought that wanders across your mind like that need not be taken as a binding commitment; it has not even been uttered to another person. But you see the power that the idea of a vow has. In many times and places there really has been nothing worse a person could be than an oath-breaker, a person who does not keep vows. Even today, vows are associated with binding formal commitments: wedding vows, for instance, but also monastic vows of silence, celibacy, and poverty.

It must be an important and powerful word; it’s so short. It’s been sanded down from the Latin: the original verb is vovere, which gave us the noun votum – source also of our word vote, which is now a commitment of a different kind, though also constative.

Language changes, of course. But we don’t have to be willing participants in any change we dislike. We may lose the battle, but if there is a battle still to be fought, why not join it? Thus I pledge my resistance to use of vow as a short synonym for promise or state intention. I give you my word I will stand against it. But I won’t say I vow to do so; that’s still so solemn and binding it makes me nervous. Really, you may vow blood revenge, but you don’t vow added highway funding – nor, a fortiori, to get a drink or stay in the hot tub.

Here, try this: every time you see “vows” in a newspaper headline, replace it with “goes down on one knee with hand on heart and solemnly swears” or “raises fist to sky and proclaims to God and all humanity…” See how that feels.


Spring on Cougar Mountain, the rocky backyard hill of Exshaw, was a pulse of purple: waves and waves of rippling crocuses. We would go for a little hike to pick them. Such lovely things, these little purple flowers, looking like your grandmother’s eggcups, blooming around Easter on the wind-beaten slopes. The air was surely packed with pollen, but it didn’t bother me at all – my nose was filled with the fine spice of springtime, never a sneeze or a sniffle. My lungs, on the other hand, heaved with asthma from cats and dust mites, but breathed easier in the clear outdoor breeze.

In fact, my nose has rarely been a big problem for me. Colds, yes, of course, but allergies not really. One standout exception to my general sinus bienséance came when I was in graduate school in Boston. I got some kind of sinus infection. I think I may have aggravated it by trying to flush it with a neti pot. I sought some relief: I went to a bookstore and natural medicine shop in Harvard Square. I looked in their homeopathy reference and, flipping between different options and diagnoses, decided that I should give pulsatilla a try: it was associated with (among many other things) thick mucus in quantity. I bought a little vial of sugar pills that had been coated with water that had pulsatilla diluted in it to something like one molecule per mole of water. Would it provoke curative symptoms that would paradoxically result in a faster and more effective resolution of my problem?

I really can’t say for sure if the “pulsatilla” pills had anything to do with it, but my nose, for several days, produced the most prodigious quantities of phlegm imaginable. I recall teaching a test prep class – showing a couple dozen young people how to put their brains in gear for the SAT or GRE – and having to step out every five minutes to fill a half dozen Kleenices each time. (Kleenices? One index, two indices; one Kleenex, two Kleenices.) I really have no idea where all that white glop came from. Had I turned into a cousin of Moby-Dick, with my forehead all full of spermaceti?

Since then, I have associated pulsatilla with little pills and with phlegm in prodigious quantity, and also incidentally with all those things associated with phlegm, including slow pusillanimity. My sinuses are ill disposed towards it.

Which is really not fair to those pretty crocuses.

Those beautiful crocuses that populate the springtime hills and mountains of Alberta are, in fact, not crocuses, not actually. They look like crocuses. They are called, among other things, prairie crocuses. But actually they are related to buttercups. And I have learned lately that they belong to the genus Pulsatilla, flowers including the anemone and the windflower – indeed, the name Pulsatilla appears to be a reference to their being beaten (the Latin pulsa root) by the wind. (The italics aid the visual impression: Pulsatilla.)

Real crocuses grow in Europe and Asia and Africa, and some of them produce saffron, that finest, most expensive of spices. My beloved little succour of spring youth produce purple and pollen and that’s pretty much all. And they have not offended my nose; they have not stirred my sinuses; they simply palliated my perennial chest congestion with an excuse to climb into the fresh air and spur my pulse and respiration.

So now when I hear or read of pulsatilla, something nicer than an overloaded nose will spring to mind.


I came out of the swimming pool yesterday, toweled off my hair, looked at myself in the mirror, and thought I looked positively stupeous.

Yes, that’s a real word, but not one often used. What does it mean? The context may not be especially helpful. Could it be… stupendous? No deal: the missing nd makes all the difference. Could it be… stupid? Stupefied? In a stupor? No again – no relation, in fact.

On the other hand, it does have a little in common with that towel I used. Towels tend to have little fibres sticking up from them, at least the kind of terry towels one uses after bathing. And the effect they have on hair is similar: they leave it sticking up in tufts and clumps or matted down. The appearance can be of what is called tow – which is the third resemblance to towel, in that it’s the first three letters (purely by coincidence; no relation).

And what is tow? In this case, it’s something you may not have much truck with: a bunch of flax or hemp (or other) fibres, untwisted – ready for making into rope – and thus sticking up like, hmm, well, like the hair on the head of Bart Simpson or Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Incidentally, this tow is unrelated to the tow that you can do with the rope that will be made of it.

And what has this all to do with stupeous? Well, stupeous comes from Latin stupeus, from stupa, ‘tow’. If something is stupeous, it is like tow. More to the point, it is covered in matted or tufted hairs or filaments. You could say it’s floccose or tomentose; the sense at least overlaps.

So if you have toweled hair or bedhead, you may look stupendous or you may look stupefied or just stupid, but if your hair is short and stand-up-eous you will at least look stupeous.


Those of us who watch sports – especially tennis – may admit to some deep-seeded uncertainty about a particular usage. Oh, no, sorry, deep-seated uncertainty. The usage in question is when a player is referred to as, say, the fourth-seeded player. Or is that fourth-seated? Seated would make so much sense, wouldn’t it? If it’s a ranking, we tend to talk about where people sit in relation to others, so if someone is sitting in fourth place, they’re fourth-seated, no? Except no, not in this case.

The merger of unstressed /t/ and /d/ between vowels sows the seeds of confusion here: they both become not [d] but a light flap or tap of the tongue, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [ɾ]. So seeded and seated sound the same for us in Canada and the US. The confusion is avoided in any version of English that keeps the /t/ crisp there – or turns it into a glottal stop, Cockney style. We could say that British dialects avoid this problematic direct competition more than North American ones do, generally.

Which is ironic, because the practice of seeding in sports tournaments originated in a desire to avoid problematic direct competitions that would eliminate important distinctions, and because, according to this 1924 quote from the Times, it was not so congenial to the British way of thinking:

This year, for the first time, the draw has been ‘seeded’; how little seeding accords with British notions may be gathered from there being no reference in the Oxford Dictionary—at any rate in the smaller one… In some countries the seeding is designed to keep the better players apart until the final stages.

Indeed, the first reference to seeding of this sort in the full-size Oxford English Dictionary is from 1898 in a periodical on American lawn tennis. So the Americans designed a way of avoiding problematic direct competitions in sports but in so doing created a problematic direct competition in language, while the British, who did not have the language problem, were more prone to the sport problem.

And what exactly is the sport problem? Well, in a multi-tiered playoff format, if there are random draws there is always the risk of the best competitors facing each other early on, resulting in early elimination of a competitor who would otherwise have a good chance at making it rather far. To avoid this, players known to be the best are seeded carefully – that is, placed with care in slots where they would be up against lesser players rather than each other. Just like carefully planting seeds in evenly spaced arrangement so that they will grow optimally, rather than simply scattering them carelessly.

This of course naturally led to a ranking of players, so that you knew who to keep apart for as long as possible and who could be put up against the best ones early on. The slots are prioritized for filling, with the best being seeded first: the first-seeded player. And so on. Thus those who hear “seated” will have to cede the point; we do not want this seed to grow into an eggcorn.

We may also note with interest that seat and seed come from similar-sounding roots all the way back from Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Germanic and into Old English and on up, but have always been different words meaning different things. And only now, after all those rounds, are they finally up against each other for an elimination round.

Thanks to Ron and Joan Callahan for suggesting today’s topic.


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.