Category Archives: word tasting notes

hobnob, schmooze

I have reached the point in life, it seems, where hobnobbing is de rigueur. Aina and I were at another wine-and-nosh thing this evening at the Bata Shoe Museum, engaging in the willy-nilly give-and-take of politely bibulous conversation fuelled by canapés. It’s always a little bit of a raised-eyebrow thing, hobnobbing; it’s not the scuttlebutt you get with hoi polloi around the knob of a hot hob, it’s more of a respectable rhubarb, a bit of hemming and hawing and nobly nodding, not with the rabble but with the nobs. “Hobnob” is the sound echoing the halls of the local Olympus as the almost-somebodies enjoy being almost somebody.

But is it schmoozing? Oo. There’s maybe something a bit oozy about schmoozing. It’s the same kind of general polite conversation, but somehow there seems to be an oleaginous overtone to it, perhaps an avaricious intent. You can schmooze lightly with people, yes, but you can also schmooze someone into something or schmooze something out of someone. The ooze is unavoidable, but the schm also gives it a certain ludicrousness, thanks to other schm words – schmuck, schmendrick – and the dismissive reduplication: “Writer schmiter. He scribbles a bit.”

And where do all those schm come from? Yiddish. Schmooze is from Yiddish schmues ‘chat, gossip’, from Hebrew shemuah ‘rumour’. And here’s the thing. Less than a century ago, the nobs who hobnobbed were the rich WASPy sorts, and the people who schmoozed were not even permitted into establishments where one might hobnob. If you schmoozed you were Jewish, burdened with all the stereotypes that came with it. And still to some extent hang onto it. Which is a prime reason, I think, why schmooze has a different tone than hobnob. Entrenched prejudice.

Hobnob, by the way, comes from a phrasal adverb, hob and nob, referring to give-and-take and also meaning just ‘however it may turn out’ – because it’s from hab and nab, which is from have and ne have, with the old ne meaning ‘not’. Like willy-nilly from will ye, nill ye. To have and have not. To give and take.

Or to pretend there’s a give and take. Just passing the same goods back and forth above the heads of the have-nots. To take from those who give, and pretend that you’re the giver and they’re the takers. Look, I have a certain station in life! Oh, I shall bestow some largesse on you. Or maybe just some large s—.

Well, I’m being a bit overdramatic. Most of the people at the Bata this evening were associated with a local university, and most were not exceedingly well off, just comfortable enough to give a little money to the program. Nice people whose main priorities in life are something other than getting as much money as possible. We happily checked our coats and went in and had wine and nosh. I’m not sure we checked our privilege, though.

But we did schmooze.


As some of you know, I am on Twitter (@sesquiotic). Twitter allows you to post publicly, for the benefit of anyone who follows your feed or looks you up, messages of up to 140 characters each. This is not very much, and the terseness can lead to tenseness; Twitter is often like communicating in Morse code using car horns. So sometimes I will tweet sequences of tweets so I can fit in a larger thought. Instead of a message here about something, a message there about something else, I send out a spate of messages, six or ten or fourteen in a row, all in a sequence on a specific topic.

I’m certainly not the only person to do this. Actually, many tweeters do it from time to time. Some do it a lot. @HeerJeet practically specializes in it, numbering the tweets so they can be followed. He and some others of those who send such sequences call them Twitter essays.

The thing is, even if you send 14 tweets, that’s still less than 300 words. We’re talking about an “essay” that is less than a page. It’s a short essay, more like a fleshy thought. And on Twitter it’s experienced as a sudden burst of tweets, like a spring shower, a flash flood… a spate.

Yes, I think spate is the word we need here. It’s a word we get from Scots English, a word that may be related to spout. It referred first to a sudden flood, as from a heavy rain (we’ve had a few of those in recent years in Toronto, thanks in part to more extreme weather, and in part to paving over too damn much so the ground doesn’t absorb the rain before it flows into the sewers). It can also refer to a sudden and/or heavy rainstorm.

Or, more often, to a sudden intense pouring forth of something that comes in individual instances: a spate of books, attacks, bombings, shootings, incidents, mergers, murders, kidnappings, suicides, lawsuits; occasionally it refers to mass objects such as violence or publicity. But it is more often the raindrops than the flooding creek.

The sound of the word is so suggestive. Listen to its echoes: spit, spat, spout, spurt, also spite and spot. A spate can erupt from your pate until you are sated. What comes in a spate is no paste, nor is it even-paced. If it is words, it is a spatter of expatiation. And then, as quickly as it began, it is done.


What does space sound like?

What does the vast expanse between the burning stars sound like? What do the dark empty spaces around and between planets sound like? What does the space between my computer and yours sound like? What does the distance between me and the library on my wall sound like, what does the cliff gap between my window and the high-rise library of people across the street sound like? What does the space between an atom’s nucleus and its electrons, proportionally so much greater than the gap between sun and planets, sound like? The great unknown? The emptiness that is full of dark matter and potential matter? What do the spaces between thoughts sound like? The spaces between minds?

NASA has recorded electromagnetic pulsations in space and converted them to sound. Hear them at if you wish; they are reminiscent of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (such as Kontakte), and not altogether coincidentally.

But to me, space sounds more like Ligeti.

Ligeti György Sándor. The closest you can come to saying that with English sounds is “Liggety Jrrj Shahndor.” Hungarians put the family name first. Ligeti was a Hungarian Jew born in Romania who moved to Hungary and later Austria and Germany.

Ligeti was one of the great modern composers. Even his name is musical. It is three canonical syllables, licking and bouncing tip-back-tip of the tongue, the vowels all up and front. It sounds like legato and ligature, and it looks almost like light. And no one seems to know what it means. Like life and music, it is there and we use it anyway.

Ligeti will remind us of space because his music was used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and some other films. It is music that I learned, in my youth, not to listen to when I was alone by myself at night in our large house surrounded by dark woods at the foot of a mountain. The foreboding, the voices so discordant and confused and full of empty and howling like the wind through the trees, building and swirling. The famous Kyrie that we hear when the monolith is first revealed on the moon. Kubrick’s movie, in so many scenes, keeps space entirely silent, amazingly so. But here, no.

But this is not why Ligeti’s music is the sound of space. Stanley Kubrick doesn’t get to decide everything for everyone. Listen to Lux Aeterna, “eternal light”:

And listen to the famous Kyrie:

Watch them, watch them sing, watch. They stand there, scores out, reading, counting, hitting every note.

The words are simple: kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’. It is from a requiem mass, the mass for the dead, those whose voices have stopped generating and are now forever dissipating into space. Can you hear that, the words, the supplications, the mercy, can you make it out from all of those voices?

I have seen the score to that Kyrie. Every note is written on it. Each voice has a line. Each voice has its own notes, its own bar divisions and rhythms. Every one of them has its plan and its clear line and purpose and statement. Every one of them has been rehearsed, has rehearsed carefully, sedulously, has burned the midnight oil to prepare for this. We hear them all together and we simply hear an enormous texture. We hear an ebb and flow and a hive of noise. We hear so many individuals and intervals that what we hear is not them but the relation between them, the attempt to reach and meet and join, the negotiations and failed connections. The space between them. The concert of solipsisms. Like a hundred metronomes, each in its own tempo, all making individual sense, together making… noise.

Space is voices. Voices express minds, minds that experience. Space is the experience of space, is the experience of reaching and not touching. It is full of the dark matter of the mind, the belief in distance and separation. Space is the only way that everything is not just one thing. And yet we are tied across the gaps, legato, with ligatures. We are all celestial bodies, burning in our dark suspension, and the reaching out is light.


I love being in galleries.

Every city I visit, if there is an art gallery, a nice, large art museum, I will surely go to it. (Unlike museum, gallery can also name a place you can buy art; but the ones I go to are mostly art museums.) I will walk in the door and dive into the art. I will inhale the smell of old oil and acrylic and the myriad modes of preservation, mixed with the aroma of the cafeteria – they always smell the same, museum and gallery cafeterias, and the aroma of their coffee wafts through the halls and mixes with Matisse and Titian and O’Keeffe and Sheeler and Cassatt and Caravaggio and Degas and the gallery itself – and I will wander past these windows onto other worlds, the heightened moments and vivid observations of so many hypersensitive minds and eyes and skilled hands, and I will swim through and past the other people too, peering and photographing and sketching and resting. I will read placards and I will pull off my spectacles and lean close to inspect the strokes. I will soak in this inland sea, the water of life and breath saturated with the salt of artists’ sweat and fretfulness.

A sea? An aquarium. The paintings are the windows. But they are not the windows to the exotic tanks; I am a fish, we all in the gallery are fish, and the paintings are the windows looking out, through which we are seen or ignored by the people and plants and animals, the scenes and dreams, the abductions and abstractions, that we see through them. They are a view for us to the divine, the transcendent, the hyperreal, the world the way we always try to make it be but never quite succeed – and they are a view of us by that world, as it looks in for a moment and continues on. Every artist has been given a window, or several, to clean, and they have cleaned them in different ways so we can see differently, always at least a little obscured or smeared or diffracted; this is how we know we cannot allow ourselves to believe that we see it exactly as it is (a mistake we often make in the “real” world). We know we see layers and angles, freezes and melts, the slashing and dotting gestures of the painters and the hard caresses of the sculptors. All so that we may see, and all so that we may be looked into. Or ignored, pointedly.

Well, if we are ignored by some of the art, we at least do not always ignore each other. In a gallery I love the art, and I love the architecture, but I also love the art lovers, the gallery-goers, the human element. They are often so amusing, and some are so pleasing to the eyes. I hope it will not gall you too much if I say I like the gals in galleries, especially the elegant ones, lingering long, eyes open, looking well and looking good. There are often entertaining gentlemen too. When we were recently in the Rijksmuseum I took photos of the people looking at the art, like brightly coloured fish at the glass. You see, just as we tap on the glass to get the fish to respond, the paintings put on a show to catch our attention and bring us around in hopes of feeding on the soul food they promise. They feed us regal lies, but they tell us too that the world is not all grey, even if it largely is; they provoke our allergies with the lees of the grail from which we have drunk, but as we cross their sill we are eager still for all that is within their gyre.

Not all galleries are art galleries, of course. There are rogues’ galleries, shooting galleries, the cheap seats in a theatre (whence playing to the gallery, which the paintings too are doing), and assorted long arcades: architectural features with a wall on one side, a ceiling above, and arches on the other. Gallerias. There’s a galleria in front of the building I live in; it extends along the front of the hotel next door, too. It’s a great place on a weekend to watch people shoot their wedding photos. Yes, it’s not quite the same word, galleria, but that’s just because galleria is the Italian version of the word. A galleria is a good place for viewing art: sheltered but daylit. Now we may see art in a gallery that has the name but neither daylight nor arches.

Whence comes the word? Oddly, we are not entirely sure, but it seems it’s from Galilee. The porch of a church – next to the narthex – was sometimes called galilea, possibly because it was at the far end from the altar as Galilee (Galilaea) was far from Jerusalem. Its name transferred to the colonnaded form, as will happen (think of your attic). But while the galilea is far from the altar, Galilee is where the person came from that the churches are all about; he is the entry point to the faith.

Have you been to Galilee? It is hilly, but it is also laky: one big lake, to be exact. If you take the road there from the Mediterranean, you drive uphill for a bit, and across the plain of Megiddo, and drive back downhill for a bit, and you can reckon you are at about sea level. And then you crest an edge and see that you are going much farther down still, down to the lake, more than 200 metres below sea level. It is as though some massive gravity has warped the space-time of the landscape, and everything flows towards it. Well, not everything; it has one outlet, the river Jordan, which drains it and flows as the axis of the Holy Land down to the Dead Sea, which has no outlet but the air and is so saturated with salt you can easily float on it.

Galleries have a similar gravitational pull on me. I flow towards them and pool in them and swim in them. They are places where I can cast my glance to one side and catch nothing, and cast it to the other side and find it overflowing. They are places where storms may be bred by mistrust and stilled by rebuke. They are places where water is walked on. I am not the one walking; I am one of the fish holding up the feet of the walker, because I crave the touch of the transcendent.


Here’s a word to keep in your lexical change purse, a shiny coin you can slap down next time you have to shell out real metal or paper (or, in Canada and some other countries, polymer – shiny bills as brightly colourful as a coral reef). Perhaps when you spend the bucks and your paper ducks fly the pond you will be a little less despondent at the expenditure if you can sum up your simoleons lickety-split as spondulicks. Or, to seem more Belgian or Gaulish (perhaps if your wallet is bulging at the gall of it all), spell it spondulix.

One important thing to remember is that the stress is on the second syllable. It’s an amphibrach (nothing like a spondee, sux). So the emphasis is on the /u/, the big “do,” no foolin’. You can practically blow a whistle with that vowel, or hold it so long you drool. In that way it’s a bit like medulla, that part of the brain that makes your heart and breathing speed up when you spend your bux.

This seems like one of those classic 19th-century American phony-hifalutin’ words, doesn’t it? Like discombobulated and absquatulate and so on. Only maybe even a bit more hick-like, slappy and yuk-yuk. Maybe a word out of Mark Twain.

Well, it is that – he didn’t invent it, but here’s a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

“I ain’t as rich as old Jim Hornback, and I can’t be so blame’ generous and good to Tom, Dick, and Harry as what he is, and slam money around the way he does; but I’ve told him many a time ’t I wouldn’t trade places with him; for, says I, a sailor’s life’s the life for me, and I’m derned if I’D live two mile out o’ town, where there ain’t nothing ever goin’ on, not for all his spondulicks and as much more on top of it. Says I—”

Yep, as homey as Horlick’s but much more American… in origin. Actually now it’s more popularly used in Britain (like Horlick’s). But where does this word for your clams come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says “Of fanciful formation.” But the Online Etymology Dictionary, available as part of’s results, tells us it’s “said to be from Greek spondylikos, from spondylos, a seashell used as currency (the Greek word means literally “vertebra”).” You know, as in ankylosing spondylitis. (That’s an uncommon kind of arthritis of the spine, with an expensive name.)

Well, ain’t that a sesquipedalian classic! Literally. A gen-u-wine silver dollar of a word. Sorry, scratch that: a gen-u-wine sand dollar of a word. Fine, whatever, you didn’t have to shell out for it. Take it for free and use it to expand your lexical repertoire – put it in your word wallet next to your moolah and simoleons like a Croesus of the thesaurus, a wordbook high muck-a-muck.

Thanks to Larry Cooper for suggesting today’s word.


The first thing zeugma makes me think of is Flanders & Swann.

Flanders & Swann gave the world the song “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,” which is full of some of the most hilarious examples of zeugma – they will make your eyes glisten with mirth. Here’s one:

She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.

The Greek original – ζεῦγμα – means ‘yoking’, as in yoking multiple words or phrases to the same word. Often this means conjugating a verb to a literal and a figurative noun (note that the jug root of conjugate also means ‘yoke’). Zeugma can be fairly dry, as in Alexander Pope’s “See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned,” where crowned refers to two different crowns on two different people. But it’s so much better when the yoke’s on you, or on someone else – when it produces what Arthur Koestler called bisociation, which Merriam-Webster tidily defines as “the simultaneous mental association of an idea or object with two fields ordinarily not regarded as related.”

The second thing zeugma makes me think of is Zeuxis. This is mainly because if the similarity of the words, but there is a bit more. Zeuxis was an ancient Greek painter; he painted grapes so realistically, birds tried to eat them. Legend has it that he died laughing at one of his paintings – of Aphrodite, commissioned by an un-Aphrodite-like lady who insisted on being the model. Beware of bisociation; it can be fatal.

The third thing zeugma makes me think of is Zaiga. Zaiga is my wife’s aunt. Her name sounds somewhat like zeugma, but Zaiga is also as much fun as zeugma. She’s always ready to fill your glass with wine, your plate with food, and the room with laughter. A few times a year I gladly take a load off my shoulders, a weekend away, a trip up to visit her (and the rest of the family), and a bottle of wine to drink there. And, as it happens, the name Zaiga comes from the Latvian verb zaigot, ‘glisten’. Which both your glass and your eyes will do in her company.


The new mayor of Toronto will be John Tory. The election campaign was hortatory, sometimes minatory, often accusatory and inflammatory, possibly defamatory. It was, as they are, a great civic laboratory. It was not – I hope – aleatory. Now that we have passed through that purgatory, the media have declared the victory, the losers have given their obligatory valedictory, and the mood is congratulatory but anticipatory. How will Tory write his story in history? How will his articulatory faculties hold up? And the councillors’ auditory ones? Will oratory and policy coming from his idea factory pass the olfactory test? Will his approach be desultory, dilatory, improvisatory, dictatory? Excretory, flagellatory, discriminatory? Or placatory and conciliatory? What inventory will he leave us in the end?

Well, for this evening, the tone is potatory. We can take a respiratory moment. The revelatory will come soon enough.

Canadians and Brits will find it fitting – though Americans may miss the connection – that John Tory is known for being generally on the conservative side and tied to the Conservative Party.

For the Yanks, I’ll explain. In both Canada and Great Britain, the Conservative parties are nicknamed Tories (singular Tory). This comes from the English Conservative party being the successor to a party that proudly wore the name, co-opting what had been directed at it as a term of abuse (sort of like Yankee). The Oxford English Dictionary gives a nice explanatory quote from 1740 by Roger North: “Then, observing that the Duke favoured Irish Men, all his Friends, or those accounted such by appearing against the Exclusion, were straight become Irish, and so wild Irish, thence Bogtrotters, and in the Copia of the factious Language, the Word Tory was entertained, which signified the most despicable Savages among the Wild Irish.” The word comes from Irish tóraidhe (pronounced the same, but with an Irish accent), literally ‘pursuer’ but in this case applied to a set of dispossessed Irish who had become outlaws.

So that’s the story of Tory. In the case of Toronto, John Tory (which truly sounds like a generic name for a Conservative) was aided considerably in his quest to become mayor by not being a Ford. The previous mayor, Rob Ford, of whom you have probably heard, is heartily detested by a significant part of the population here, and many people who might have voted for Olivia Chow, the more progressive major candidate (liberal, but not Liberal – actually New Democratic Party, although at the city level there are no parties), instead supported Tory because he looked like he could beat Ford where Chow could not. The late-game switch from Rob (diagnosed with cancer and in treatment) to his brother Doug did not change that. Also, Tory is anodyne in his blandness, and will probably play nicely with just about everyone, whereas a certain section of the councillors would line up against Chow.

Well, it’s nice to have a campaign where all the main candidates are four-letter words (Ford, Chow, Tory) but they don’t all inspire four-letter words. So now we sit back and watch the Tory unfold.