Category Archives: word tasting notes

dividual

There’s something vividly evident in the visual form of dividual: with nothing to lead it in, the symmetry of divid is highlighted – mostly cut already at the notch v – and we see an odd residual ual at the end.

But what to do? We have divide but not divid. We can take individual and divide it into in and dividual, but beyond that the axe breaks, unless we wish to break a morpheme, chop divi off (the fall ‘of a god’ in Latin) and get something truly dual. No, no, individual is dividual but dividual is individual.

Do I have your undivided attention now? We talk of individual things and of individuals; if we are writing stiff stuff, we may say, for example, “This treatment is not recommended in individuals under two years of age” or “I approached the individual with my sidearm drawn.” It is a long word and so carries more weight; it has more syllables and seems more unassailable. But there is a bit of a divide between our passing use of it and its construction and root sense.

An individual is not subject to division. Thus any individual animal sees its individuality given the lie by a vivisectionist. I may joint an individual chicken (defunct, decapitated, and deplumed) into individual pieces, and cut the individual pieces into cubes of meat: how the heck are they individual if they can be divided? Well, it’s like this: once they’re divided, they’re not individuals anymore. If I take an individual carrot and cut it in coins, it is not an individual carrot anymore. It has been redefined. It is the individual until it is divided, and it does not remain the individual after that, so an individual cannot be divided.

A bit of lexical hairsplitting? Certainly, but take a quantum of solace in one thing: a quantum is the one thing that is truly and utterly individual – it is an amount that cannot be divided into smaller amounts. Everything above that is dividual. From the perspective of the social and legal dividual, the group entity of a society, you are an individual, a single entry in a database (though each line of an Excel sheet has several cells), but from the perspective of your parts you are a dividual, even in the visual aspect: cut your hair or your nails and you have divided some of yourself from the rest. Your attention is dividual too; in the riot of daily life and its emotional upheavals, sometimes you need to split off a separate piece of your mind in order to make yourself a separate peace.

You will not find one part of an individual, visible or invisible, that is indivisible. There can always be a residual. But do not take a place in the vigil for individuals; send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for all of thee. No one is an island; we are all parts of the mainland but we are all also archipelagos. We are complex; nothing is simplex, not even the soul, which swirls with spirit aromas like a glass of wine poured from a bottle of the everything. There is joy in division: it is how you know thing from thing, thought from thought, moment from moment; it is how you taste so many things in life. If you were not dividual you would be lacking the whole picture; you would just be a pixel. A quantum. And a quantum is soulless.

righteous, wrongeous

The author of the blog Bag of Anything is a righteous poet.

When I say righteous, though, I don’t mean it in the sense ‘not wicked but good’; I mean it in the sense ‘wicked good’. I mean it like the righteous in The Righteous Brothers: right on.

If you go to Bag of Anything, you will see what I mean. But here’s what drew the blog to my attention: Near the end of my word tasting on mosaic, I wrote, “Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous.” The author of Bag of Anything, who signed the comment as “Rain, Rain,” gave this poem:

Deplore cast stones? Sinner, avoid the righteous;
Likely they are spoiling for a fight. Just
Follow Jesus’ counsel: in a throng, us
Common folk are safer with the wrongeous.

(It’s available on Bag of Anything at “Avoid the Righteous”.)

You may reckon that wrongeous is something I made up on the spot and is not to be found in the dictionary. You’d be half right. I did make it up on the spot, but I figured it would also be in a dictionary, and I was right – although the preferred spelling is wrongous. I also figured it would show in the Oxford English Dictionary as at best a historical word now generally disused, and I was right about that too. And I figured that it would mean something in the order of ‘having a wrong quality; tending to be wrong; acting wrongly or wrongfully’. And I was right again.

So I guess that makes me a righteous person. Well, except that we don’t typically mean ‘correcteous’ when we say righteous. (No, correcteous is not in the dictionary. But I bet you caught my drift.) We mean ‘holy’ or ‘highly justified or justifiable’ (an act or state can be righteous too – “so righteous was his need” is a line from Steely Dan) or ‘admirable’ or similar approbative things.

Now I want to ask you: do you find wrongeous righteous or wrongous? And do you find wrongous righteous or wrongeous? Which works better, if either does?

I like the parallel with righteous, but we have a little problem: the t in righteous doesn’t stand for exactly the same sound as in right; it has palatalized and affricated due to the high front vowel after it, so it sounds like “ch.” The closest thing we could do with the ng would be to say “rongyus,” which would palatalize it and probably really convert it into a nasalized glide. But that’s not the pronunciation, according to Oxford: it’s “rongus.” So that e seems not to belong, although it is historically attested. So hmm.

To be fair, the e isn’t original in righteous either. Actually, the words righteous and wrongeous come from right+wise and wrong+wise, with a shift in the unstressed second syllable over time (a half a millennium or so) to match words such as perilous and integrous. If I listed the historical changes of form leading to the modern form it would more than double the length of this blog.

Well, everything changes. To try to cling to some fixed historical form, or to try to maintain some imaginary purity or fixity in the language, would be altogether wrongeous. To try to disallow unfamiliar but usable words is also wrongeous. But to have fun, and to write witty poetry… well, that’s righteous, dude.

spree

What is a spree?

Well, where do you use the word? What is it most often seen with?

Shopping spree. And spending spree and buying spree. But also shooting spree and crime spree and killing spree.

A spree is a jag, a sudden and time-limited torrent of aggressive activity that involves a series of the same type of event (buying, shooting, etc.), reiteratively performing a self-indulgence with reckless abandon.

Look at the scatter-shot suggestion of the word: the spr onset that you see in spray, spritz, and sprinkle, but also in eruptive words such as spring, sprig, sprint, sprout, and the undisciplined sprawl; the ending is the gleeful, fleeting ee. And it does not stop on a tidy consonant; it simply arcs across the sky like whee.

But shopping and shooting are not the best kind of sprees, nor the earliest kind. The earlier sense is reflected in an Irish Gaelic phrasebook I have. It is often bruited about (misleadingly and generally inaccurately) that the Inuit have 10, 100, 1000, or a googolplex words for ‘snow’; well, Irish has quite a few words for ‘drunk’. (So does English, mind you.) At the end of a list of terms indicating various degrees of drunkenness, from ‘tipsy’ to ‘blind drunk’, is this gem: dul chun drabhláis (said like “dool hoon drawloish”). The translation given: “to go on a spree of revelry and debauchery.” Following that is chuaigh muid ar na canaí aréir (“hooey midge air na canee arrair”): “we went on a spree last night.”

Yes, a spree was first of all not shopping or shooting (we’ve had the word since at least the early 1800s, so come on) but frolicking, enjoying boisterous and noisy enjoyment (typically with drinking because obviously). And the word came from… well, that’s not agreed on; some say from Scots Gaelic spreath ‘plundered cattle’; others say from French esprit ‘spirit’.

But never mind stereotypes of the Irish (or the odd idea that the word may have come to us from the Scots, whose reputation is a little different). If you want to go on a spree, go to Berlin.

Why? Is it because of its nightlife, so famous in the ’30s but not gone now? Is it because of the shopping, from the great KaDeWe department store to the higher-end fashion shops? Is it because of something darker?

It’s because of something wetter. The river that runs through Berlin is the Spree.

But that’s a bit of a trick answer. The pronunciation of Spree is like English “shpray.” Guess what the name comes from: a German cognate of spray, meaning ‘spray’.

So go on a spray. Get soaked if you want. Spray your money around. But please, do not spray bullets.

mosaic

Most of us know mosaic as referring to art made of little bits – small tiles, for instance, or squares of wood, or little broken bits of pottery. If broad brush strokes are legato, mosaics are staccato.

Some of us, however, also know Mosaic as in Mosaic law: the law of Moses.

I have to say, the first time I saw that, I had a picture of the law being put together from little bits. (I still do, actually.) There may be something to that, but I leave the exegetics and scriptural history to other times, places, and authors.

So now is the part where you expect me to say that these two words, identical but for the capital letter, are really the same word, one capitalized and the other not. Like attic and Attic.

And now is the part where you are disappointed in that. No, they are not the same word. They are like two little squares, perhaps both in ultramarine hue, but one of them made of lapis lazuli and the other of porcelain pained with International Klein Blue.

Our language is something like a mosaic. The words are like little shards, all put together to make images, such as this article. Sometimes you will have two tiles of different colour but broken from the same piece of stone or ceramic. Sometimes you will have two similar tiles broken from the same piece. Sometimes you will have two identical tiles from very different sources.

And our language can seem Mosaic too: governed by a set of laws that may as well have been handed down by the Almighty on a high mountain, not just ten neat commandments on two tablets but hundreds more as well that you probably don’t even know about, some commonsense enough and some of them seemingly designed just to keep you from enjoying things that other people enjoy.

So where do mosaic and Mosaic come from?

The capital version comes from Moses, of course. Where does Moses come from? The man who led the Israelites out of Egypt had an apparently Egyptian name – the same root as you will see at the end of pharaonic names such as Thutmose and Ramesses. The m-s root means ‘son’. Well, he was raised in the Egyptian royal household, after all, adopted by the pharaoh’s daughter. An adopted son of Egypt and true son of Israel, with a truly Egyptian name adopted by the Israelite.

And the lower-case mosaic? It’s not entirely clear; the history is too fragmented. But it appears to come from the same root as museum and music, which is assumed to relate to the muses. Perhaps because shrines to the muses were decorated with mosaic tiles. Art, arts, notes. Staccato bits of ceramic or precious stone. Things that inspire us: the fragments that we put together. Or that come together by coincidence. Governed not by law so much as by resemblance and happenstance.

That’s what our language is like, really. Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous. More broken bits of diverse provenance that we manage to put together into pleasing patterns.

attic

Picture an attic.

What do you see, what do you envision with the eye high inside your head? I suspect it is the space underneath the roof angle of an American-style wooden house. The roof makes a triangle with the floor; windows may project in dormers or gables, and there may be a window at the end. It is all wood. It is dusty. There may be a bed up there (but let me tell you, I sure don’t want to sleep in it), or there may just be boxes and old furniture and toys. (Yes, there are always toys in the attic. Ask Lillian Hellman, who wrote the play of that name.) There is always dust. And the floor is wooden. It creaks. The sound of a floorboard as you step on it is something reminiscent of the sound of “attic”: dry as dust, as dead memories, as desiccated childhood. It all seems like a setting for a short story by Stephen King.

Would you expect an attic to be made of stone? To have rectilinear walls and ceiling? To have classical columns? Perhaps even a cupola? Imagine a person building a stone house with classical columns on that truncated top storey, and calling it an attic. It would almost seem like a bit of architectural Attic salt.

Well, there would be an erudite pun in there, anyway, whether or not it would qualify as refined wit (that’s what Attic salt means, for the most of us who never use the term). People who study things classical or look at antiquities in museums may have noticed that Attic is used to refer to things from or pertaining to Athens and region. What is the region of Athens? Attica – Greek Ἀττική (Attiké).

It’s funny, isn’t it, that on the one hand Attic seems so classical and ancient, while on the other hand attic seems just old and dusty and spooky? (I’m not kidding about not liking to sleep in attics, by the way. Makes my flesh crawl.) How did those two words manage to have the same form?

Because, of course, they’re the same word. The attic that has all your heirlooms in it has one more than you think: the word attic. While you’re busy dusting off old potboiler paintings and chipped chamber-pots to take to Antiques Roadshow, you have a genuine piece of ancient classical history that you didn’t even know about. Pity you can’t sell it.

Here’s what it is: You may think that there are three orders of classical columns, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. (Or you may not even know what I’m talking about.) This is basically true, but there is also a thing called the Attic order: a square column of one of the aforementioned orders. And in the area around Athens, buildings were often built with a small upper storey fronted with pilasters of the Attic order. So a short storey crowning a building – even just a cupola – is the Attic storey.

Boy, that’s come a long way, hasn’t it?

But there is still something making it more fitting to call those triangular high parts of houses attics. Attica, you see, is a triangular projection of the Greek mainland – a peninsula. Its name comes from ἀκτή akté, which means ‘raised place’.

So a triangular raised place. And an old and dusty one at that. And full of history.

raffish

How I would like sometimes to be raffish. To have won the raffle of charm and looks: not to be suave or debonair but to be charmingly rascally and always to carry the air of a mostly harmless bad influence. Rumpled shirt, unshaven chin, messy hair, devil-may-care attitude. A bit of fun that you’ll want to slightly regret but more want to really not regret. Trouble with a capital tease. Not James Bond (though Daniel Craig could also do raffish if he wanted); someone who stepped forward from the riff-raff, with a stolen rose and a glint in his eye. Not a ruffian; someone refreshing. A human embodiment of a half-crumpled raffle ticket… one that is guaranteed to win something

I don’t think I can quite manage it. I gave it a little shot with the unshaven look and… no. (Well, see for yourself on flickr if you must.) I’m no Jimmy, I’m a James. Also I’m too blonde (or light grey) for the stubble to read as anything other than bad focus. Well, so be it. I’m not really one to make a mess of things or to leave a mess behind me. Heck, in Hedda Gabler I was a natural to be cast as Tesman, not as Løvborg… to my mild chagrin. You want someone raffish? I think the French do it best. Ah oui, les français.

Where did we get this word, anyway? This softish, roughish word with its flipped hair ff and its final winking “sh!”? Its echoes range from ruffian and naffish to rash and laugh and even fresh. It’s the near-reverse of sherriff. It seems somehow reputably disreputable, like someone with an unspecified past – a past that you just don’t care that much about.

Our present sense – which Oxford gives as “Showing an attractive lack of regard for conventional behaviour, appearance, or style; rakish; mischievous; offbeat” and which can actually be applied to men or women, though my own sense is that it lands more on men – is a semantic amelioration, in fact. The older sense, again per Oxford, is “Disreputable in character, behaviour, or appearance; vulgar, unrefined; sleazy.”

The darker side of raffish. That charming guy you met in the bar who had all these great stories and got into such fun trouble has now, after spending two weeks on your couch, disappeared with a bundle of your money and some of your electronics, and someone saw him getting into a bar fight and lying sloppy in a gutter. Because, in the end, he’s just a bit of riff-raff.

Literally. He’s the second half of riff-raff, or something like it: when we’re done the riff, we’re left with raff, and he’s at least raff-ish. He’s part of the raff, which is the people (hoi polloi), every one – riff and raff, as the old expression was. It seems to come from Old French rifler ‘spoil’ and raffler ‘ravage’. Well, if anyone knows about spoiling and ravaging, being spoiled and ravaged…

Ah oui, les français.

oubliette

I went on a bit of a spelunking expedition on a shared drive. I needed to find a certain set of files. It was almost like trying to get to the bottom of the Oak Island Money Pit (q.v.). I lowered a rope and eased myself down through the trapdoors, one after another. OK, main folder. Content folder. Working subfolder. General project folder. Specific subproject subfolder. Subdivision of subproject subsubfolder. Specific item subsubsubfolder. Final file subsubsubsubfolder. Ah, there you are.

Eight folders deep. The file path was 129 characters long, not including the file name.

That’s not a file path. That’s an oubliette.

Fun fact about file paths on Windows: they can’t be more than 256 characters long, including the file name. If you try to save a file with a longer path than that, it won’t let you. It used to be the case that if you put a file into a folder such that the total path then exceeded 256 characters, you would be able to see it there but you would never be able to do anything to it ever again. The far side of an event horizon.

But never mind that. Before you get to that you’ll probably have lost it in the Byzantine dungeons of your file structure. Dropped into an oubliette. A hole of forgetting.

Those of you who know French know that oublier means ‘forget’. The sense of oubliette should be somewhat evident. Specifically, it’s a secret dungeon accessible only through a trapdoor in the ceiling. A place you can drop people and forget them.

In this case, it’s dropped eight levels deep. When you run money through that many bank accounts, it’s called money laundering. When you nest a clause that deep, people just lose track. Try it: The cat that the woman that the dog that the man that the truck that the dealership that my uncle who died sold recalled hit owned bit petted purred.

It’s like being covered in oobleck, isn’t it? The core of it is eminently oubliable (forgettable). It leaves you loopy, googly-eyed and babbling.

And that’s what really makes an oubliette: not just the one trapdoor, but the total distance from the nearest windows or outside door. With just one trapdoor, you might still hear the screaming. But if the trapdoor is in a closed room at the end of a hallway at the bottom of a staircase off an anteroom of a locked room in a quiet wing of an isolated castle, well, who keeps track of these things? Who has all the keys?

I know who. Probably that rubicund soubrette. She may be bamboozled into helping you with her keys if she’s sufficiently blotto… but if she is, then she forgets. Better to take a long rope, some lock-picking tools, and a lot of chloroform.

Or just forget about it.