Category Archives: word tasting notes


Do not be the snools of the captious.

The Economist’s style guide proscribes “split infinitives” (which is like proscribing Antarctic polar bears – they’re a myth) not because they’re an error – it acknowledges they’re not – but because “to see [the rule against them] broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.” In response, the redoubtable Stan Carey posted a mini-rant. My position is in accord with his: they are fools to be snools of the captious.

What does that mean? It means they are fools to snool before snooty peevers. It means they are fools to let priggish pedants snool them. They should, instead, school the captious wretches.

OK, but what is this word snool?

The context should give you some clue. As a noun, it means a snivelling, drooling lickspittle tool, a uselessly pusillanimous stoolie. Someone who has o no engraved in their heart, someone terrified of crossing anyone less they get bonked on the snoot (or punched in the groin: “Snool!”). As a verb, it means (transitive) to make a snool of someone, or treat them like a snool, or (intransitive) to be a snool.

Don’t hear this word much? That’s no surprise; it’s not current in most places. It may still be used in Scotland and Northern England. It’s a Scots English word, the origin of which is unclear. It fits tidily into poems by Robert Burns: “O, for ane and twenty Tam” and “A Bard’s Epitaph.”

You may have observed that the printed form of the word is like a spool with the bottom cut off, or backward loons, or a school with something missing, or a snow owl without its wings. You may have noticed that its opening /sn/ is often found in words to do with the nose (sniff, snout, snot, sneeze, snore). This word has many flavours in it for those who wish to explore it.

But it is a word for the sort of people who would avoid exploring flavours and meanings for fear of giving pique to captious people with personality disorders – the last people who should get their way on anything. Give way to them and they will just take it as further proof of their unassailable rightness.

So do not be snooled by the captious. School them instead.


riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Wander over to the shelf and pick up James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, open it to its ostensible beginning, and those are the words you join it at. It picks up in the middle of something. You find you are coming back around to wherever it was you were supposed to be, by way of “a commodius vicus of recirculation.”

I think that is a fine phrase for a detour.

Of course, every evening when I sit here at my laptop I make a detour: I turn abruptly into a particular word and inflate it like a balloon universe; I whirl around like an epicycle and, having had the tour, land back at my cluttered table in time (or a bit late) to head off to bed. But I had another detour today, on the way to work.

There is construction on Overlea Boulevard. There is construction everywhere in Toronto right now; there is no reasonable way for me to get from home to work without passing through a bottleneck caused by some – or going wide around it. Today, abruptly, and with barely any announcement, the bus driver decided to go around. He turned south, into a neighbourhood I see passing by on the right every morning but have never been in: Thorncliffe Park.

Some passengers on the bus were concerned. One young woman, whom I have seen on the bus dozens of times over the past couple of years but have never spoken to, a pretty blonde woman in her early twenties who sometimes applies her makeup while travelling but today was wearing a fur-lined hood, looked up and around, suddenly alarmed. I explained that the driver was detouring to avoid the construction. I reassured her that it would end up back on Overlea and back on its usual route. She smiled and explained she had been half asleep and had just looked up and realized she didn’t recognize any of it.

The route the bus took was new to me, too. It was fascinating to see this neighbourhood, denser than it looked from a distance, shops and schools and all that, almost more reminiscent to me of suburban south London. But I knew that the route was actually the route another bus regularly took. One bus’s routed is another’s detour – suddenly preposterous, out of order, even though all still there as ever. And then when you have toured you are returned to what you turned away from.

That is, after all, what detour is from: French détour, ‘change of direction’, from détourner, ‘turn away’. But after you turn away you turn back. You turn again.

Or after you have turned towards, you turn away. We turned towards the neighbourhood. We turned into it. We toured it briefly. We turned back. We returned. The tour was over. But I had seen what I had not seen before, and I will remember it, though for all I know I may not see it again.

And I had conversed, briefly, with a familiar stranger. The glass wall slid open, but just for a moment. When you ride the bus first thing in the morning you don’t want to have to talk, not really. You don’t want to incur a social obligation, an expectation to chat every time. You want to read or sleep. So if you talk with someone, it’s understood that it’s a detour. An open door of a house, walked past and glanced into, is not a house you have visited. This is still officially a stranger.

But a stranger you have spoken to. Just ever so slightly different. A neighbourhood visited once. All of a universe in the space between two taps of the tip of the tongue. Like wandering off the beaten path into a field. Like walking down the dirt road that runs west off Don Mills north of Overlea, between the tall flowers to an end at a declivity, convexing towards the valley, and then turning back to come to the street again. Or like dreaming briefly, or waking briefly from a dream. Perhaps, as with Joyce, a dream that took 17 years to complete. And then back to the origin.

Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the


It is somewhere around 1980. In a house at the end of a gravel road on an Indian Reserve in southern Alberta, I am looking through my father’s collection of LPs. It is not a vast collection, unlike his collection of books, but there are some I do not know. One album presents a mystical eruption on its cover: a seated figure in a chthonic submergence, flanked by a newborn and a skull in the hues of an old stone jungle temple, but from the head of the figure pushes up a jetof light that sprays up to a human figure bursting forth in sunlike splendor, breaking through a crust of eldritch lettering, IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD. And radiating as an orange nimbus or celestial petals from the head of the glorious figure are the letters of THE MOODY BLUES.

I open the album. The interior fold displays, full before me on the recto, in stark black lines that beg unrequited for a crayon, a yantra – a mandala of sorts, a visual mantra, as the text above it explains.

Clearly this is a religious record of some sort. It bespeaks mystical awakening, resurgence, recrudescence. The seed of the soul emerging from its bed in the body and splitting the hard shell of the material world, to enter – or create – heaven, nirvana, whatever transcendence you may discover, so far beyond words.

In fact, my father subsequently tells me, it is simply a rock record that my cousin Sharon – only four years my father’s junior, and like a sister to him in their youth – gave to him some years earlier. He didn’t really fancy it, so he had simply buried it in his collection.

I fancied it.

When I first put it on the record player, I heard an arpeggio, a crash, and then the sounds of a synthesizer emulating the take-off of an airplane or something far more advanced, over which were spoken a poem. Graeme Edge’s “Departure,” with segue into “Ride My See-Saw.” In the poem, one line stuck in my memory: “The wonder of flowers to be covered and then to burst up, through tarmac, to the sun again.” The first time I remember hearing tarmac.

In that sound context, what struck me first was “to burst up through tarmac”: once I knew that tarmac was a British word for pavement or a runway, I imagined an airplane, passing down the tarmac – through it as one goes through a stretch of road – and off up to the sun. But of course the tarmac is not simply a surface you can launch yourself from. No. It is the shell, the cocoon, the hard pavement through which flowers break nonetheless. Buried but life will out.

This happens everywhere. It happened in the cracked sidewalks of the towns and cities of my youth, in the underused pavements of playgrounds and parking lots, and at the edges of highways. And hopes, fears, anxieties, loves, joys, yearnings, the things we learn to contain and repress and hide within: we pave them over, we run a crust of tar and gravel on top of them so that we can drive our lives over them, but at some time they may still push their tender stems through and embarrass the dusty dark hard surface with a spray of vulnerable joy.

But I will not scorn tarmac too glibly. I grew up in a place where many roads are gravel. In rural southern Alberta, every windshield has its cracks. Even on the car mat under your feet there will be little stones. If we went for an evening into the city, my slumber in the back of the car would at last be disturbed by the sound announcing our impending arrival home: we had turned off the highway and onto the growl spit and clatter of sharp little rocks. You can hear cars coming a long way away on gravel; you can see their dust clouds at a distance. Paved roads permit much more speed, much less noise, far fewer cracks in the glass. Paved roads are not an acquired taste; they are something you almost certainly like immediately if you know the alternative.

Which is why tarmac took off so quickly when it was invented. This mixture of tar and macadam, paving and sealing the surface. Such a smooth trip.

We know what tar is. What is macadam? In its own time, an improvement, too: a road surface made of crushed stone, but properly assembled, smaller on top of larger. A well-made gravel road – better, certainly, than many of the gravel roads in rural Alberta. Invented by John Loudon McAdam. You will see that there is an extra a inserted like a sweet little nut in the word: McAdammacadam. This John McAdam is thus not the John Macadam after whom macadamia nuts were named.

Civilization has its sweets. The aroma of roads being paved smelled like dark cunning candy to the youthful me. But you can have too much of a good thing. London is now experiencing worse floods because so many Englishmen have paved their gardens over, and the rain goes straight to gutter rather than soaking into soil. Toronto seems to have something of the same problem. If you ask people for their vision of paradise, it is unlikely they will see it as paved. And yet this is what we do a bit too much.

And this is what we are a bit too much, too. The railroad in its time came and pushed through the green, dark forest that was too silent to be real, but in our days the highway does that, and more, and we are the highway, our cars and our markets are the tarmac that lay the hard crust over what was there before.

Ask a Stoney.

The Stoney Indian Reserve is the reserve I grew up on, at Morley. I am not Stoney, I am not fresh earth, I am not gravel, I am tarmac. My culture is the culture that steamrolls the world, even as individuals in it may feel steamrolled too. I may feel the need for my own personal flowers to burst up through the tarmac. But ask a Stoney about not just small things but all things being covered, about wanting to burst up to the sun again. Ask Thomas Snow, who will tell you about the strength in bursting up through and then putting roots in and growing higher.

We do not all experience that. But we all experience our efflorescences. We all have memories that send tendrils forth through the forgetting; we all have records that are drawn out again from time to time.

I’ve pulled one out now. It’s resting, leaning, next to the plush chair in which I sit as I write this. It’s the same album I pulled off the shelf those many years ago, the figure erupting in a spiritual sun-geyser on the cover. On the back cover, photos of The Moody Blues, a listing of songs and, on the upper left corner, a sticker bearing my father’s name and our mailing address as it was more than 40 years ago.


Oh, this is a word to make a person squirrelly: the sound of the scurrying, lustful claws of something not so much scary as carelessly scandalous, curious for secrets and ludicrously lurid excoriations. What things do we call scurrilous? Attacks, charges, remarks, allegations, rumours, all in a scurrilous campaign of careless whispers. The verbal scrawls of such shady commentary are sucrose to craven ears, currying favour with the callous and giving succour to the discourteous.

What is scurrilous? The gross or obscene, yes, and typically the defamatory. That which makes the tongue coil and the lips curl. What is scurrilous is scandalous, or faux-scandalous – rumours about certain personages, especially political ones. If someone accuses you of something particular seedy, whether the accusation is true or not you are expected to characterize it as scurrilous.

But scurrilous can also be simply vulgar, juicy, delectably louche. Vile, darlings, simply vile, what was that again? Such scurrilous murmurings, oh, do say them closer to my ear so I don’t miss any. Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne both used scurrilous to characterize jesting. Lewd, bawdy, uncouth, scurrilous jesting. A furtive upskirt kind of turn.

Which leads us more towards the origin of this word. Scurrilous comes from scurrile, meaning about the same thing; it came, via French, from Latin scurrilis, which came from scurra, ‘buffoon’. So to be scurrilous was first to be buffoonish, ludicrous, and in particular coarse or indecent. Which means it hasn’t scurried far from its source.

Which is fitting. When you say “scurrilous,” your tongue barely curls as it rolls across your palate, making a soft hiss to start, then catching at the back and rolling to front again for a soft press and a final hiss. It’s like a gentle caressing motion, almost. But perhaps that’s not quite what it is really… Let me tell you what I heard…


This is the sound of someone being knocked on the head with a stack of accumulated knowledge, knocked so hard that they are dizzied and off-kilter. It is also the sound of the person doing the knocking, who is probably pretending that the assault is really banging on the door to greater knowledge – most of all, though, they want (wonk?) you to know that they know. They know this stuff backwards.

Know, backwards: wonk.


No, that is not where wonk comes from, or at least there is no evidence for it beyond the form coincidence (which in itself is never enough). But I wouldn’t be surprised if it has played a little role in the semantic evolution of the word.

So where does this word come from? I know you’re looking at me to find out, since I’m a word wonk. Well, I will wonk this word. I will wonk you with this word. I will wonk out on this word. Actually, the use of wonk as a verb is not well established (the only definition I’ve seen that includes it as a verb form is in Urban Dictionary), so why don’t I do all three.

Wonk has been around for a few decades, but it really hit its stride in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton came into office with a staff of smart nerdy guys, who came to be called policy wonks – still by a long chalk the most common collocation for wonk.

Before that, starting by 1962 (when it appeared in Sports Illustrated), wonk was a term for an overly studious person. Sort of like a nerd or a geek (I’ll leave the shades of meaning between those two for another time). About as awkward sounding as dork. Somehow the exact opposite of punk. Who’da thunk it? Ha. The wonk woulda. He woulda dropped his books on the table, “thunk,” and there you’d have it. (I say he because wonks have long been stereotypically male. A counterexample to that – but the suffix proves the default – is the snarky smart policy-and-politics blogger who goes by Wonkette.)

So where did that wonk come from? The data is (are) inconclusive. Could be from British naval slang for ‘midshipman’. But yyyeeaaahhhh probablynot. Could be from wonky meaning ‘unstable, off-kilter, unreliable’, but how it got from that to a swot is unclear. Or it could be from wanker. Which strikes me as semantically most plausible, what with wanker meaning ‘onanist’ (if you do not know either of those words, well, um, Google). But phonetically it’s a bit off because the vowel shift is unaccounted for. It could be ablaut: wank, wonk, wunk – I wank today, I wonk yesterday, I have wunk. But there is no wunk. Well, except for this Urban Dictionary definition, which was probably made up by the submitter and is clearly derived from wink.

Urban Dictionary is actually not a bad source for wonk, as it happens. Some wonk posted a summary of the Oxford English Dictionary data for a definition; true to Urban Dictionary form, it’s been voted into fourth place, right behind the definition “The sound a goose makes when hit over the head with a shovel.” Wonks are still ostracized. Better to give a nice clear definition without too much tl;dr, like the top-voted definition:

(1) Noun – An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent.

(2) Verb – To use ones mastery of a specific subject to perform some type of work.

Oh – there is one more meaning of wonk, even older than the others. No one seems to think it’s related. It means ‘dog’ or, more specifically, ‘yellow dog’, in particular ‘Chinese yellow dog’, and was often used in the term wonk dog. It appears to come from Mandarin huang gou (which sounds rather like “whonk-o”) and was used only in contexts related to China. The OED quotations for it point up its assonance with a racist term for Chinese people that also ended in nk. No one seems to use wonk dog now. It has become unknown. Which is the opposite of wonked.

glögg, grog

Today Aina and I went to the annual Swedish Christmas fair at Harbourfront in Toronto. We go there mainly to do three things: 1) buy some Swedish packaged foods that are hard to get at other times (notably round tins of Nyåkers pepparkakor, which are gingerbread-like round wafers, and a 1.5 litre tub of lingon-sylt, which is lingonberry sauce, and which will be empty by this time next week); 2) buy some tickets in their tombola, which means you reach into a revolving drum and pull out the appropriate number of rolled-up slips of paper, and for each one that has a number in it, you can choose a prize according to what range the number is in (this year I won two, and chose a 5-DVD set of Attenborough’s Planet Earth – hey, these are all things donated by Swedes who live in Canada – and a copy of Den fantastiske Walt Disney, Från Musse Pigg till Disneyland, a Swedish version of a book my dad has in English that I read and looked at in my youth); 3) drink glögg. Two or three three-dollar cups each.

The first time I saw the word glögg, many years ago, I assumed it was a made-up fake-Swedish word. It just looked too much like a cross between grog and glug (as in glug, glug, glug, the sound of drinking a lot) with an exotic Teutonic umlaut thrown in for good measure. But no. It’s actually from the Swedish verb glödga, ‘make hot, mull’; in Norwegian and Danish, it’s spelled gløgg, because they use ø instead of ö (this is a super easy tip for telling Swedish apart from those other two: Swedish uses umlauts and the other two don’t. Icelandic does, but Icelandic sticks out because it has þ and ð. Finnish uses umlauts but Finnish looks completely different, a double-letter festival – though it does have a borrowed word for glögg, glögi).

So, if you’ve mulled all that over, you’ve probably concluded that glögg is mulled wine. This is true. It’s what the Germans call Glühwein. It’s something I was familiar with long before ever seeing the word glögg. When I was a youth, on Christmas Eve after going to the church service in Banff we would go to the house of a member of the congregation who was German and we would all eat snacks and drink Glühwein. I didn’t think at the time about what the glüh meant; we just called it “glue wine” and knew it was hot and sticky (cheap jug wine, spices, lots of sugar). But the glüh is… not another version of the same word as glögg. Surprise! It’s from a German word meaning ‘glow’. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some connection, but there are practical limits to my Teutonic etymological spelunking just here and now.

So anyway. Glögg. Pronounced not like “glog” but with a mid front rounded vowel that we don’t have in English; the closest we get within the confines of our phonemes would be “glurg.” Which sounds a bit like gurgle, which goes with glug, and also reminds us of giggle which leads us to jigger and jiggle and on the other hand there’s glee and by the way glow and glass and jug and Yule log and chug and I’ll have another mug, please, of glögg, thank you, oops, guess I’m wearing that on my scarf, whatever, where were we?

After a few slugs of glögg you may feel a bit groggy. But while glögg is spicy and alcoholic and so is grog (well, maybe citrusy and alcoholic), there is no etymological connection. Grog, which is (or originally was – it can refer to a lot of things now) a mixture of rum with water or weak beer and lemon or lime juice, was introduced into the Royal Navy (in place of straight rum) by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who was called Old Grog, or Old Grogram, because he wore a grogram coat. Grogram is an English version of the French gros-grain, which means ‘large grain’ and names a kind of cloth that has a ribbed pattern, the sort of thing often used on ribbons for medals these days. Anyway, groggy meaning ‘sleepy, dazed, intoxicated’ comes from grog because obviously if you’ve had a lot you are. Or, if you’ve had glögg, you could be glöggy, I guess.

So glögg. Grog. Glug. Don’t forget eggnog. Which is seasoned with nutmeg. Beer is beer but comes in a keg or jug. There seems to be a theme of g words sticking when it comes to naming beverages. Given the spirits of the season, I think the Irish word for Christmas may be most in tune: Nollaig (pronounced “nollig”). But in Swedish Christmas is Jul and you get the g at the start when you give the greeting: God Jul! (Said like “Go Yule!”)

Anyway, the Swedish Christmas fair starts off the Christmas season for us, a sort of prologue to Advent – pro-glögg, I should say. It’s emblematic: crowded, hot, kind of expensive, more than a little pagan around the edges, we do it once a year, and if all else fails have another drink. God Jul!


“They live in a tony part of town.” “It’s quite a tony crowd.” “A rather tony little restaurant.” “One tony relative in every family.”

We know what tony means here, don’t we? It’s another way the bon ton would say smart – not as in intelligent but as in, you know, cultivated and sweating money. Liberal in spending, but more of a Tory set. What lower sorts might term swanky (but doesn’t that word have such vulgar overtones, dears). The word has been with us since the later 1800s.

But who is tony? Who is Tony? Why is tony tony? What is tony is often not tiny; it is noteworthy. The name seems somewhat equivocal: there are so many people named Tony, after all. There’s Tony Soprano. There’s Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino in Scarface). There an auto mechanic named Tony hidden in every Fiat logo: FIAT = Fix It Again, Tony. And a Fiat is not the toniest car you can get!

But there’s also the Tony Award, named after Antoinette Perry. There’s Tony Blair, formerly prime minister of England (not exactly a toff – a bit more blaring than all that – but he did move in some tony circles). There’s Tony Aspler, Canada’s top wine critic – who often drinks and eats at some pretty tony places, though he’s an entirely unpretentious fellow (disclosure: I edit his website).

But what’s tony is not named after a Tony. It’s just that adjectival –y tacked onto tone. There are, of course, several kinds of tone. There’s muscle tone, skin tone, your tone of voice or the tone of what you’re saying – if you strike the wrong tone, you may be detonated! – and any smooth and steady note. Or even a rising or falling – or falling and rising – tone, as you might hear in a language such as Mandarin Chinese.

What we have in mind in this case, of course, is high tone. As in a high-toned affair. Attended by the bon ton. Perhaps like the one in the video for La Roux’s “I’m Not Your Toy.” Loaded with the toys of the rich, but the people there are not ones to toy with. Tony could be a melting of no toy; ignore that at your peril. If you try to crash a tony reception and you are no one of note, your reception will be stony.

Thanks to a reader who signs as Snowbird of Paradise for suggesting tony.