Category Archives: word tasting notes


Iva Cheung, walking through the quad at Simon Fraser University, asked herself why the open yards of universities are called quads. Yes, yes, of course it’s short for quadrangle, but we don’t speak of Times Quadrangle, do we? Are university quadrangles notably other than square or at least rectangular? Can other parallelogram or even rhomboid college quads be found?

Mm-hmm, yes. It takes some looking, but in fact they can.

Most North American universities that have grassy areas called quads do indeed have rectilinear borders, although there are some notable exceptions – have a look at the Freshman Quad at Johns Hopkins University. A quad is, originally and tout court, a yard bordered by buildings at an educational institution, but these days we may be inclined to reserve the term for those actually so named, such as the residential and academic quads at my graduate alma mater, Tufts University (the academic quad is shaped rather more like a flattened stuffed duffle bag). However, those are more loosely quads in another sense: they are not actually fully walled in by buildings, as was originally the case – quads were first of all courtyards. They have buildings around them, yes, but gaps too, just as Harvard Yard does.

One good place to find odd quads is Oxford University. One of the oldest quads is at Merton College, Oxford; it is a bit of turf that was over time enclosed by student residential buildings. The grass came later, as did the now-common name for it, Mob Quad. But there are quite a few quads at Oxford. And, thanks to the non-rectilinear street layout, some of them are a bit off-kilter. Have a look at Oriel College, for instance.

So, again, why quad? Well, given that a square is a town meeting place (so the name is a bit common) and a square formally must have equal sides, and given that a rectangle must be perfectly rectilinear, and given that a university is a high-toned place where one at least used to study Latin and even study in Latin – study the great avenues of the trivium and quadrivium – quadrangle seems entirely apposite. It’s a technically correct architectural term, so there.

And given that the toffs who have long been the key denizens of Oxford and its sister Cambridge have had a habit of jauntily truncating Latin words (e.g., mob for mobile vulgus) – but only inasmuch as it would not be infra dig, you know – quad is very much to be expected.

But the truncating toffee-noses are not the only ones to trim a Latin term, and the open-topped parallelepipeds of Oxbridge are not the only things called quads. There’s a whole squad of quads, in fact. In typesetting (and don’t say “what’s that,” even if almost no one does it literally anymore), a quad is a quadrat, a square block of metal used for filling space; in telecommunications it’s a quadruplex, a set of four wires twisted together; obviously in housing it’s also a quadruplex; in some British colloquialism it’s a horse, because a quadruped; in boat racing it’s a large four-sided jib; it’s also the quadriceps muscle, which are those massive things that make up the tops of your thighs (I run, so my quads are my best muscles; you can also build your quads by doing squats); a quad is also a quadruplet or a quadriplegic. Which means that the quadriceps of a quadriplegic quadruplet who lives in a quadruplex on a quadrangle are a quad quad’s quads in a quad on a quad.

Oh. My. Quad.

But now here’s one for you. What is a quad when viewed from the other way?

Why, it’s a panb, of course. Turn it around and you’ll see.


Oh boy, did Toronto have a big kerfuffle today. A flurry, a fluttering, kaboom, kerplop, kabibble, kerflop… anything other than a careful card shuffle. Between 1 and 2 in the afternoon: Mayor Rob Ford dropped out of the mayoralty race. His nephew withdrew from his candidacy for councillor. Rob’s brother Doug – after difficulties with the paperwork – registered to run for mayor. Rob registered to run for councillor in his old ward, where Michael had just dropped out. And Michael registered to run for school trustee. My Twitter feed was scrolling like the electricity meter on the side of a house that was hosting a party in March for fourth-year university students.

Ah, kerfuffle. Such a good word. It sounds like a cat that has accidentally slipped on a stack of papers while padding across a desk and has fallen in the shuffling fluttering folio foliage to the floor. What you know for sure is that something has abruptly gone off the tidy norm and much ruffling has followed. Even the shape of the f’s in this word gives a sense of floppy things flapping and flipping.

So where did this word come from? Yes, yes, imitative, I know. But there are many ways to imitate the kind of set-to, to-do, ruckus, hurly-burly, hoo-hah, or whatnot that this word signifies. So why kerfuffle? Well, we know that the ker- is common enough; we see it on kerplop, kerflop, kerslosh, kerthump, and so many others, and its related ka- on kaboom, kabang, kapow, and so on. It’s the backswing on the action of the verb, the backdraft before the explosion of fire. But this word did not begin its life as a ker- word.

No, kerfuffle is a modified version of curfuffle or carfuffle, matched by analogy to all those other ker- words. Curfuffle comes from Scots English; as a noun, it dates from the early 1800s, but there is a verb curfuffle that is seen as early as the late 1500s. It means (per the Oxford English Dictionary) “to put into a state of disorder; to ruffle,” and it is born (with maybe a little Gaelic help) from simple fuffle, a verb, which means, again from Oxford, “To throw into disorder; to jerk about; to hustle, treat with contumely.”

Which makes the word kerfuffle even more perfect for the disorder, hustling, contumely, and jerking about that took control of the Toronto news stream for some time today.


I pick the book up, its age-softened cardboard covers sweating dust, its linen pages foxy and feathering. It takes two hands to hold it. I carry it to the table and release it; the sound when it hits is percussive, then resonant: “tome.”

Tome. It is a grave word; it has the consonants of tomb and the vowel of stone. A tome is a book with the weight, size, and gravity of a tombstone; it is a hefty tome, a weighty tome, a heavy tome, a massive tome, a ponderous tome. It is also a dusty tome and a leather tome. A tome is the physical, bibliotechnical evidence of time; the candlestick of live words i in time is burnt down but leaves its fat printed wax o and that is this tome. It is the epitome of weighty learning, the last word in first words. Its morphemes lodge in your eyes as motes. It is age; it is words; it is paper; it is volume.

Yes, volume. A tome, in the first place, was a volume of a multi-volume work. It comes from Greek τόμος tomos, from τέμνειν temnein, verb, ‘cut’ (also the root of epitome, originally a cut-down account – a brief abstract). This is a sixty-four-ounce steak cut from the side of a beefy work. But we will not now call a paperback copy of one part of a trilogy a tome. A multi-volume work, in this image, is a great ancient encyclopedia, an august authoring imprinted in folio format. In modern times, of course, the requirement that it be but a part has been cut. Any two-hand book will serve.

This is a word kept in reserve for special occasions, a word that hangs in the closet next to your formal wear. Use it too much and you may tame its tone, but at least as likely you will simply look like a guy who wears a bowtie to a frat house party. Actually, I must confess, this word seems to me already somewhere in that direction: no more a genuine morning coat with tails or proper dinner attire; at best the adjustable rental waistcoat with elastic straps, and at worst the T-shirt with the waistcoat and tie printed onto it. It is used almost entirely by those who wish to assume on the moment an air of gravitas without having earned it. It serves as verbal clip art for journalists and feature writers and jokey friends and co-workers: “That’s a hefty tome you got there.” The word is a whilom duke’s carriage now pressed into service giving rides at a petting zoo.

Well, no mind. I have my tomes, and they are suitable to me.


A staple item is an essential, something that holds your life together. Sort of like a staple holding sheets of paper together.

Thirty years ago, starting university, I bought a stapler and a box of staples. I still have the stapler; it looks almost new (as many things and people do at 30 years of age). I still have the box of staples too. Haven’t finished it yet. But when I need it, I need it.

Some things can be staple items and yet not get used often.

Later this month I’ll be going to a 30th anniversary reunion for my high school class. It will be the first time I will have seen most of the people there since we graduated, though from their Facebook pictures I can see they seem to have held up well. I do not think we will all just pick up where we left off. Actually, I hope we won’t; we’re more mature now, and I for one have no intention of being the dweeb I was then. We’ll all be back in Banff, a place I only get to every year or two now – but a place that is still essential for me. It’s reasonably stable, though it changes, and it is a staple of my existence: it’s holding the sheets from the 1980s together with the sheets from now – and years to come.

A staple is something stable, or something that keeps you (or other things) stable. Or both.

Are staple and stable related? Not etymologically. But staple and staple are. They both come from the same original Germanic word, stapel, meaning ‘pillar, post, block, beam’. How does a pillar become a standard good or a bent bit of metal? The history is fasten-ating. It proceeds in two prongs from the original.

On the one side you have the pillar or pillars associated with the marketplace; by way of Latin stapula and French estaple and back to English you get a word for an emporium or mart, and from that a name for a town or place where by royal authority the merchants had exclusive purchase rights on a certain class of good for export. From that, the principle industry or output of a place; from that, an essential commodity or basic foodstuff.

On the other side you have a pillar or post, and from that somehow you come to a U-shaped piece of metal driven into a pillar or post to serve as a hook-hold or rope attachment. Make this big metal staple a somewhat smaller item meant for driving into things to hold them together and we have that staple of offices and university rooms. Everyone has them, but they don’t always use them. The stapler on my desk at work is used every couple of years. The one at home is used more, mainly by my wife (whom I have had for half as long) for invoices and such like. But yes, it is still on its first box of staples.

Words travel together sometimes, commonly collocated as though bound with a staple. What word is seen most often near staple? You may think it’s food, but it’s not – though that’s a close second. It’s become.

Become? For something that holds fast, that is so stable and essential? Yes: what is now essential was once unknown. Tomatoes are a staple of Italian cuisine, and chili peppers of Indian, but both were imported from the New World; they gained their staple status within the last few centuries. Here are some examples from various publications cited by the Corpus of Contemporary American English: “huge paydays have become a staple of American corporate life”; “mocking the fans’ choices has become an annual staple of the baseball writer’s schedule”; “dollar menus have become a staple of many fast-food restaurants in New York”; “Gesell devised what would become a staple of parenting advice books, the illustrative anecdote”; “Crime has become a staple feature of many cities in Latin America”; “This image has subsequently become a staple of tribology lectures and overview articles”…

So what is a staple? Something ubiquitous, expected, standard, perhaps almost hackneyed at times… A thing has become a staple if it has gained an essential place, if it has moved from “that’s a new thing” to “of course.” It can be something monthly, even something annual (though I don’t know about tridecennial), perhaps even something sporadic but expected. Something you were once unaware of but would not now do without: it holds the pages of your life together, even if not needed often. Something that has been around for 30 years but is still new, or something that was unknown three years ago but is now pinned prominently on the bulletin board of your day. A stipulation. A staple.


Where there’s ash, there’s been passion.

And may still be. Ash is evidence of burning; ash is dust of ecstasy, of transcendence of state. When you set the world on fire, you end with ashes; when the world sets you on fire, you end in ashes. Like phoenixes, we rise again from ashes; like all things, to ashes we return: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Ash is some of what wood wants to become when it is done being wood. All its life, it moves soft, sweet sap through it, and builds cells, and sprouts leaves, but in the heat of its last moments, it returns to its true fundamentals: the hydrogen and carbon in it want to join with the air around it more than they want to retain structure, and they recombine in a flagrant metempsychosis, free now to the air, releasing the heat captured and contained for years, and what is left is simply powder. If that wood is in a thriving forest, or built as boards into a house, the bacchanal of its burning takes much else with it unwillingly, painfully; if it is in a fireplace, it gives warmth, joy, comfort, romance, and perhaps it cooks your food too. And ash can fertilize as well; it is not inert.

Ash is sacred, the last dust of immolation and the fine white trace of incense that has been spent and sent to heaven. Ash traces hopes and prayers and despairs: not just the ashes of incense but the ashes that are worn with sackcloth, a sign of desolation. Ashes of a whole burnt offering, ashes of a holocaust. Chinese artist Zhang Huan has made paintings – even some very large ones – using temple ash as pigment. He had an exhibition two years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario; on their page for that exhibition there is a video wherein he explains why he uses ashes. When you see the paintings, you see a country and its movements brought to life again from ashes.

Ash is profane, the traces of tobacco inhaled for effect; the old stereotype was of smoking a cigarette after intercourse – first the fire, then a smoke: passion and ashes. But the smoke tars your inside; ash is what remains outside, innocent… unless it is ash from a factory or a volcano, and you and your machines are at risk of intaking it and breathing less or no more. Or ash from burning garbage, still smelling of the toxic and greasy fumes of detritus reaching for its own redemption.

Ash is the final grade in the lesson of the moth. Don Marquis wrote that poem; I cannot quote it here in entirety – that would be an infringement – but you can read it on, and you should. Let me quote just a bit:

but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while

Thus says the moth, seeking self-immolation, but the poet differs;

myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

As a moth to a flame, seeking to become ashes. But what flame?

David Bowie found one answer to the question of what, and nearly burned himself out in an ecstasy of addiction that left him smoldering and ashen, singing “Ashes to Ashes,” wherein his famous Major Tom turns out to be not a self-exploring hippie but a drug addict. No, these passions are not what we want to burn us; confutatis maledictis flammis acribus addictis voca me cum benedictis (when the accused are damned and consigned to flames of woe, call me among the blessed). We want something that leads to true transcendence, not a blinding binding in the flesh, a burning from the inside that makes you a walking sack of ashes.

Ash is in fashion too. I do not necessarily mean it is a popular thing to use or to wear (who can keep track of the fickle flames of style and time? not I), but it is a colour. It is more than one colour. Hair can be ash. It can be ash blonde; it can be ash brown. It can be pure ash, as on my own temples. And to what divinity has the ash of those temples been burnt? Think of ash showing in the hair as evidence of flames of passion within, the divine and self-transcending existence, the joy of fulfillment and transformation. And the incense is not done burning yet.

Ash is a tree, too. It is a dioecious tree of the genus Fraxinus; its name meant ‘spear’ in Old English (æsc) and in Latin (fraxinus), because it is suited for making spears, bows, bats, and axes – by axes I mean guitars such as Stratocasters. Instruments all of passions good and bad. It is a coincidence that it has come to have the same name as what it will become when burnt; in Old English, the fire-dust ash was asce. Note that in both æsc and asce the sc was said as we now say “sh.”

And ash is a sound. Yes, “ash” has a sound of a voice of a person (“a”) walking through ashes (“sh”). But it is also the name of the vowel sound itself that begins “ash,” that word sound that hides in the middle of passion and emerges from it when the “pun” is burnt away. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, we write that word sound as /æʃ/, and the vowel called ash is æ. The letter æ, a digraph of a and e, is called ash because it represents the sound represented by an earlier rune, which in turn was named for a word that began with the sound: æsc, the tree. The tree that may rise from ashes and return again to them, having grown to burn and burnt to grow.


The United States’ Wilderness Act of 1964 seems to have been a great vector for this word, as it contains this statement, rather less dry than most legislation:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

A visitor who does not remain? Ah, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.

Wait, though. If you’ve left footprints, haven’t you trammeled it? (Or, in the non-American spelling, trammelled it?)

Nope. You’ve trampled it, maybe. Perhaps even pummelled it a bit. If you were in a national park you might have taken a tram, but a federally designated wilderness in the US has none of those – not even roads (nor are motorized vehicles permitted). But as long as you have not bound it to your will, fettered it, constrained it, entrapped it, you have not trammelled it. It remains wild, untrammelled, though perhaps not untroubled. Immaculate? Hard to conceive in nature. Virgin? Perhaps. But not necessarily.

Now, if your encounter with untrammelled has not been in the context of wilderness or the collocation untrammelled by man, you may well have seen it first in untrammelled sovereign or untrammelled sovereignty. That would have given you at least a slightly different sense of it. It’s easy to picture wilderness being trampled, but sovereigns and sovereignty? Perhaps, but not so much.

What does untrammelled come from? It means (the dictionary will tell you) ‘not caught in a trammel’ or ‘not impeded by a trammel’. And what is a trammel? Broadly, it is fetters or hobbles or something that catches or snares you. Originally it’s a kind of fishing net made of three layers of mesh, the two on the outside being loose and the one in the middle being fine; the fish comes through a big mesh, runs into the small one, pushes it through a hole in the other big mesh, and is caught. So it traces back to Latin tri ‘three’ and macula ‘mesh’. Does that macula look familiar? The same word in Latin also meant ‘spot’ or ‘blemish’. We get immaculate from it.

But remember that something that is untrammelled may yet not be immaculate (spotless). It simply needs to be free. Unfettered. Not netted.

Unlike this word. This word is hobbled by its strong resemblance to untrampled and its echoes of words such as pummel and hammer and perhaps troubled. They hold it back. They walk all over it. They trammel it.


A screw is a cylinder with a point on the end and a spiral thread around it. A ball is a sphere, not really amenable to screwing into things. Is that why something that’s odd or quirky is sometimes called screwball?

Nope. (Also, no, a screwball is not a fancy-dress dance that devolves to frank sexual encounters.) In cricket parlance, spin on a ball – what snooker players might call English – is screw, because it screws through the air. The bowler has put a twist on it. So, originally, a ball thrown with a pronounced twist could be called a screwball. But the sense has narrowed somewhat – and shifted mainly to baseball. Now it refers not to any spin (a curveball also has spin, in the other direction) but to a counter-spin, which causes the ball to behave in a way not quite anticipated by the batter… it’s kinda screwy. (And no, screwy doesn’t come from screwball; actually, it predates it by a few decades.)

Want a demonstration of how this works in baseball? Here:

Does that look awkward, maybe hard on the arm? Many pitchers believe so, and so don’t throw it. But it’s not actually true. Read about both facts in a recent New York Times article, “The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball.”

So if few pitchers throw screwballs anymore, why care so much? Does the word seem familiar? Do you associate it with baseball? Or do you associate it with comedy? Movies, perhaps? Classic screwball comedies of the 1930s? Yeeeesssss. Actually, most uses of screwball now refer to a genre of romantic farcical comedy that involves eccentric characters, social inversion (including class conflict and – o shock! – dominant females), and lots of rapid witty banter and sexual tension. Classic examples include Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, You Can’t Take It With You, and His Girl Friday.

Why are these called screwball comedies? Well, they’re wonky and unexpected and involve odd and nutty situations – a crazy person can also be called a screwball, no doubt under the influence of screwy as well as the oddness of the screwball pitch. But also, they’re sex comedies without explicit sex; they’re loaded with carefully crafted innuendo. Scruples turn into screwballs. A word seeming to be a sporting reference but made of two words that are also slang words for sexual things is a pretty apt choice.

Screwball comedies are, strictly speaking, a thing of the past now – although there are certainly modern movies that have inherited aspects of the genre. So again, if no one is making screwball comedies and almost no one is pitching screwballs, why does the word have any currency?

Probably because it’s fun to say, with its throwing-and-catching motion of the mouth: starting with the /skr/ you scrimp and scrunch your lips, then push them full forward with the /u/, and then you bounce them off the /b/ and pull them back and open them for the /ɑl/. Hmm, pitching and catching – or blowing a kiss and then taking it back? It has a playful hidden lewdness to it (as mentioned) too. This word is like a toy you happen to notice when looking through a dusty old drawer, and you can’t help taking it out and playing with it. Don’t worry… you won’t get hurt.

Thanks to John Rorke for suggesting screwball.