Category Archives: word tasting notes


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.



Is petal a soft word?

To the eyes, there is no special light touch; it is a short word, raked from lower left to upper right, descender to ascender, formed by three vertical lines with a cross in the middle. Not pillowsome; more like a little trinket.

To the lips and tongue, it starts hard with the /p/ and, if you say it crisply, it is hard again in the middle with /t/. It does end with that soft liquid /l/; if you say it as most people do, the /t/ is just a voiced stop releasing directly to the /l/. But is that soft? Is pedal soft? Is peddle soft? How about metal, medal, or meddle? They all start with the soft /m/ and so would seem softer to say than petal, but do we think of them as soft words?

Does petal even have a soft origin? This word that anagrams to plate, does it have any hardness in its source? The Latin petalum and the Greek πέταλον petalon meant ‘petal’, yes, but also – Oxford tells us – ‘leaf of metal’, specifically (in the Septuagint) a plate of gold worn by Jewish high priests. Where did the Greek get the word from? It is based on the verb πεταννύναι petannunai ‘spread out’ or ‘be open’ and is related to the Latin patere ‘stand open’.

Perhaps, then, we need to be open to petal as an example of how something that is not so soft may nonetheless be so soft. I don’t just mean in the way Bernini’s marbles look softer than the softest human flesh; this word carries a sense of something soft, so it is by that a soft word. But there’s still more: the soft thing it names is emblematic of soft, sweet beauty (and in particular the most lovely of lips) and also of that evanescence, the withering and fading that makes the soft beauty all the more precious. And it is bolstered in art – think of the erotic orchids of Georgia O’Keeffe – and in poetry. Read these, now, and tell me how soft petal is for you:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn,
A flash of dew, a bee or two,
A breeze
A caper in the trees,—
And I’m a rose!
—“XCIII,” Emily Dickinson

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me.
—“Now sleeps the crimson petal,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The dawn was apple-green,
The sky was green wine held up in the sun,
The moon was a golden petal between.

She opened her eyes, and green
They shone, clear like flowers undone
For the first time, now for the first time seen.
—“Green,” D.H. Lawrence

The drifting petal came to ground.
The laughter chimed its perfect round.
The broken syllable was ended.
And I, so certain and so friended,
How could I cloud, or how distress,
The heaven of your unconsciousness?
—“Dining-Room Tea,” Rupert Brooke

But when o’er wastes of lily-haunted field
The tired birds had stayed their amorous tune,
And broad and glittering like an argent shield
High in the sapphire heavens hung the moon,
Did no strange dream or evil memory make
Each tremulous petal of its blossoms shake?
—“Athanasia,” Oscar Wilde

In each green leaf a memory let lie:
The pain that follows on the heels of bliss
In every thorn; each waft of incense be a sign
For love: each petal of each rose a kiss!
—“With Roses,” Beatrix Demarest Lloyd

The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.

But I send you a cream-white rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.
—“A White Rose,” John Boyle O’Reilly


The Oxford English Dictionary defines episcotister as “An apparatus for admitting light into a darkened room by means of adjustable discs.” Merriam-Webster ( defines it as “a device for reducing the intensity of light in known ratio by means of rapidly rotating opaque and transparent sectors.” defines it as “a disk with a sector removed that when rotated in front of a light source allows the periodic passage of flashes of light: used in studying the motion of a body.” The Wikipedia article on perceptual transparency defines it in passing as “a rotating disk that alternates open and solid sectors.”

With each successive pass it becomes a bit clearer. Take a metal disk. Cut out half of it at the diameter, or cut out a pie-piece-shaped quarter of it and, diametrically opposing, cut out another quarter, so you have two quarters solid and two quarters cut away. Maybe leave a little bit of rim to hold it together. You now have something that can be used as an episcotister if you spin it in front of a light source, with its axis to one side of the light source (especially with a lens) so it alternatingly blocks and reveals the light. Spin it fast enough and you get the fan effect: it becomes transparent, although dimmer.

This makes me think of the sound of the word: /ɛ ˌpɪ skə ˈtɪs tɹ̩/. Notice how your lips and tongue move to block and open the passage of air and sound: the vowels and syllabic liquid /ɛ ɪ ə ɪ ɹ̩/ let it through, like light; the consonants /p sk t st/ block it. Easy to hear where it’s vowel and where consonant. But speed it up (repeating) so that the stops are passing by a few hundred times a second and it will all blur together. Indeed, that’s how you can make musical tones: percussions repeated rapidly enough that they blend all together.

And this is where episcotisters really make their difference. I’ll quote Nick Burlett, who suggested I taste this word: “The human visual system can perceive flicker below about 50–60 Hz (or 50–60 on-off transitions per second), but above that rate the light source appears constant (the flicker “fuses” into a continuous experience). Modern movies are shot (nearly universally) at 24 frames per second, which is below the threshold of flicker fusion, meaning that we would perceive a flickering image were it not for the episcotister in the projector. Rather than displaying 24 images per second, the projector displays 48 or 72… flashing each frame of the movie onto the screen two or three times before advancing.”

That’s right. If you were watching a movie at just 24 flashes of the light per second, you would see it as 24 flashes of the light, just as you would hear 24 “t”s a second as a succession of “t t t t t” et cetera. If you watch a fan pass across a light slowly, you can see the blade. But speed it up and you hear not “t t t t t” but a note; you see not a blade again and again and again but a steady transparent slight dimness. Drive across a cattleguard slowly and you feel every bump; do it quickly and it’s just a quick vibration like a pass of a back massager.

The fascinating thing here, of course, is that the frame actually only changes once every 1/24 of a second, the movement only moves 24 times a second, but because you’re seeing it twice or three times for each frame, somehow the jerkiness of the movement is elided. Our brain and eyes establish perceptual continuity with the light, and the motion is inferred by the mind as continuous and so seen as such. (There’s a lot of “this must be this” in the brain’s visual processing.)

The other term for this device, as it’s used in movie projectors, is rotary disk shutter. But episcotister is more fun. It comes on strong with a taste of Episcopalian, though it has no particular relation to English bishopric, and a contrary Scot, though it is no more Presbyterian; it also gives you some pisco, that South American grappa, again irrelevant but beyond control. There is also a bit of an echo of taster and of twister. But it comes (as you may have guessed) from Greek. The source is ἐπισκοτίζειν episkotizein ‘throw darkness or shadow’ (note from the accents that the long syllables were the first and second-last syllables in the Greek); that comes from ἐπί epi ‘upon’ and σκότος skotos ‘darkness’, which we see also in scotomata.

We always think we need to cast light on a subject in order to see it more clearly. Perhaps, perhaps. But sometimes we need to cast a bit of darkness on a subject in order to make more sense of it.


A favourite place in my childhood was the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. It is a full-on history museum, with rooms covering many different times and places. It was always worth the money to visit (well, my parents paid, but at least for a time a visit there was one available weekly reward for cleaning my room).

There was a room full of suits of armor, for instance. There was, in a recreation of an early 20th century store awaiting customers, an old machine that you could put a nickel in and crank the handle to watch a flip-frame of a buxom lady in a Victorian one-piece dancing a shimmy. And there was the dark-walled, dimly lit room labeled Numismatics.

Numismatics! Such a heavy, impressive word. Four syllables, with twin m’s in the heart and an n to start (echoes of museum?), and then the scientific, esoteric atic, smacking of charismatic and automatic and mathematic and perhaps just a little lunatic. It was a dark, heavy word for a dark room, a complex word like the name of some secret society or the password they use as a token for entry.

Of course, they could have just labelled the room Coins, with its two coin-shaped letters no less (c and o, I mean), and had done with it. But that is a light and common word. Numismatics is a word that has the fug and pong of alchemy; it feels almost as though it has been discovered in a pharaoh’s tomb. Coins, after all, are things you dig out of your pocket in daylight and use as parsley to the main dish of your banknotes or drop into slots with the hope of unjust return. Numismatics are stamped slugs of metal resting in velvet under glass and spot lighting. Or, anyway, numismatics is the branch of study that involves such displays.

In numismatics you will hear the influence of the Latin for ‘coin’, nummus. This may seem a soft word for hard metal clinking things, but if you listen to “In terra summus rex” from the original (not Orff’s) Carmina Burana, you can hear it shouted as though striking coins – it lacks the clang but it has the heft and punch. Which fits the attitude: the song is a critical piece about venality and the money-centred customs of the church and other segments of society.

And customs is a good word here, because the Greek word that is the true root of numismatics is νόμισμα nomisma, ‘money, coinage’, which comes from νόμος nomos ‘usage, custom’, a root that also shows up in places such as autonomous. I’m sure it’s almost coincidence that you may have to pay coin at customs (an organ of an autonomous political entity) to bring in any of a number of nummy things. And, for that matter, things numismatic too, if they are ancient and of value.

What good fortune that the coin of my realm is words. There is no barrier to their importation. On the other hand, they are not so remunerative either, as they are easily replicable. But we may nonetheless view them in velvet under carefully controlled conditions.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting today’s word.


What does this word go with?

You might well say dark. Or basement, room, cold, air, or smell. These are all commonly seen with dank. But for me, first of all, dank means vacation.

It’s not that I like to vacation in dank places. I don’t really fancy dankness any more than the average person: that cool moisture clinging to the walls and to your skin as you walk into it, and the slightly rank stink of mould or mildew or what have you. When we found it was a fixed characteristic of our hotel room in Cuba last fall, we were not overwhelmingly charmed by it, but we survived. Better that than cigarette smoke, anyway.

But the thing is, I grew up in Alberta. Alberta is not a place for dankness. It is a dry and dusty place. Even the basements smell just of cement dust. My childhood vacations were to places like Vancouver and western New York, places where things got dank. If we explored a basement, it had that unmistakeable smell: the smell that meant I wasn’t in Alberta anymore, I was somewhere humid and old, somewhere where even buildings put down roots and drank water from the soil.

So dank has a pleasant tinge for me, similar to how the smell of French farmhouse cheese does. That soft, ripe cheese, which is really a crusty glob of spoiled milk, smells rather like Charmin in its least charming state. It smells more like the back end than the business end of a cow. And yet that smell is a harbinger or index of an enjoyable experience. So too, for me, the dank smell.

Notice how I speak of it as a smell. This is how many of us tend to think of it now. Why not? Many dank things do have that rank reek, the stink of damp. And the word has such nose-holding echoes with that unthanking ank. But the word originally referred to wetness or humidity, to soaking ground as in fens and marshes, and even simply to rain, clouds, wetness.

But not everyone likes the moist. Not everyone likes the sharp, pungent, clinging, pervasive pong that is the life partner of dankness. Most people will not say to it “vielen dank” – German for ‘many thanks’ (a cheap pun, given that it’s said like “feelin donk,” but so what). Damp can be OK; dank cannot.

But if you’re from someplace dry, at least it will tell you you are not at home. You are somewhere the air actually has aroma. And, what’s best, you’re not the one who’s going to have to worry about the effects of all the moisture in that basement.

Vielen dank to Laurie Miller for suggesting today’s word.


This is a mighty western word, I reckon. It names a thing you get in places like the sere dirtscapes of the American Southwest, sure, but that’s not all: it names it with a sound that is a staple of the soundtrack of stereotypical life in the cowboy world, the top item in a Foley artist’s bag of sound tricks for western movies, a sound that follows people like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood around.

Listen: The cowboy jumps off his horse; his feet land on the dirt and gravel: “Gulch!” He spits into the dirt. “Gulch.” He puts a feed bag onto his horse and it munches philosophically, “gulch gulch gulch.” He heaves the saddle off the horse and drops it onto a wooden rack, “Gul-ching.” Then he hears a rustle from the chaparral, just offscreen: “Gulch. Gulchgulch.” He takes a cautious step in the rough turf: “Gulch…” He swallows quietly, “gulch,” and a drop of sweat crawls down his forehead. He draws his gun quietly, cocks it slowly, “k-klik…” (Not everything sounds like “gulch,” come on.)

Yep, that sure sounds like a gulcher culture. But what is a gulch really? A narrow ravine with steep sides, created by erosion from runoff and perhaps flash floods. It may or may not have a stream in the bottom. It’s a sort of place where gold panners may be found if there’s gold in them thar hills. An arroyo is a kind of gulch. A wadi may be a gulch. So may a coulee.

Where did the word come from? Well, that’s a whole nother thing. If the form of a word is like a gulch carved into the lexscape, where it came from is like the water that made the gulch. But that stream may not still be running through it. We’re not entirely sure how gulch came to be gulch, but there are other words gulch that have some likely relation. There’s a noun used in the early 1600s for a glutton or drunkard (someone who gulps too much, you may say). There’s another noun used from the later 1600s through the early 1800s for a heavy fall. There’s a verb from the early 1800s meaning ‘fall heavily’. And, most signally, there’s a verb that’s been around since at least the 1200s and seems to relate to other Germanic words with a gulk- root, meaning ‘swallow or devour greedily’.

So if that’s the source, it compares a gaping gully to a gulping gullet. What we know is that the word shows up in the ‘steep ravine’ sense in the early-mid 1800s. And it sounds so earthy and evocative that simply using the term in a place name – especially if it’s in a movie – plunks down a backdrop of tawny dust and squinty-eyed cowboys with guns and spurs, and maybe some gold panners or other denizens of the big dry dusty dangerous empty.