Category Archives: word tasting notes



You can see the glint on the wall, a tingle on your retina, a tongue of light vibrating like the long tine of a tuning fork – a simple toning luminescence alighting lonely, lasting only a moment, not lingering. A gleam, a glimmer, a glancing glow, just a glimpse on the glassy glazing. Something you think you see for a moment, a movement, a brief brightness, as semi-soft and sudden as [g] and as light and liquid as [l].

There are so many words to do with light and shining things that start with gl. They don’t all come from the same source; they just all shine with the same brief light, that verbal glint of the gl phonaestheme. We choose the words we prefer, and we shape the words we choose. Language is a performance, and sometimes we like to do a little dance of the tongue and the sound to give a more vivid sense of what we’re describing – and when we do, we may prefer known choreography. We lean towards a gl for light, perhaps, or a sw for rapid motion or a sn for the mouth or nose. Then we pitch the vowel for effect: big and blazing as in glare, soft and cool as in glow, dark as in gloom, bright and shining as in gleam, medium and flat and hard as in glass, light and short as in glint… The final [t] adds to the shortness, too.

This word glint actually came from an older word glent, which basically meant – and came from the same Germanic root as – glance as in both ‘look quickly’ and ‘quickly bounce or strike aside’. The verb glint was well in use by the 1700s, but the noun glint waited until the 1800s to be glimpsed, although it glitters in common usage now.

It’s a word I think of more often than some. Not that I am exceedingly prone to having a glint in my eye (or perhaps I am, I don’t know; I don’t look at my own eyes); I simply see the glint on the wall as I wait for the subway at Eglinton station, flashing half-noticed before my eyes and fading back into the covering illumination, gentle but shifting and lambent – no, glimmering, barely superliminal.


That smooth, slightly smug smile, like being smeared with a small army of worms or swarmed by something squirmy and clammy. It’s the essence – the essential oil – of smarminess. The smarmy person is the opposite of a schoolmarm: no severe crispness for your betterment, just unctuousness in the service of cozening and deception. After talking to the smarmy person you feel you need a shower.

Who is smarmy? Politicians, maîtres d’hotel, funeral directors, used car salesmen, various con men… They are not all quite the same in manner, of course: some smarmy people are fawning and ingratiating, while others are simply slick and smug. The common element is oiliness. The word comes from smarm, a verb, meaning first to smear, as in put pomade on your hair, and from that meaning to behave in an oily, obsequious, flattering way. It in turn comes from smalm, a word for hair ointment – in British English, smalm and smarm (and smawm, another spelling) are pronounced the same way. Where did smalm come from? Just oozed up from somewhere, I guess. It sure sounds appropriate, though.

Surprisingly, it’s quite recent, as words go. Smalm showed up in the mid-1800s. Smarmy joined us by the early 1900s. And now there’s another variation: schmarmy, also spelled shmarmy. That joins in an assortment of sm- and sn- words (and perhaps some sl- ones as well) that are getting the s-to-sh phonaesthetic shift. The shm/shn phonaestheme tends to connote diminution, ridiculousness, derision, or occasionally cuteness (schnuggle), and it gets added especially to words that seem particularly informal to begin with. It borrows from Yiddish, which gave us words such as schmendrick, schmo, and schmuck as well as the dismissive schm- reduplication: “Poet schmoet. He scribbles.” “Cook schmook. I open a few cans.”

Does schmarmy have the same meaning as smarmy? The onset is a little mushier, the connotation a little shadier. Urban Dictionary, which is a great resource for finding out what 14-year-old boys think a word means or should mean but has a certain utility nonetheless, puts smarmy in the ‘slimy and smug’ bucket but shmarmy in the ‘creepy’ bucket.

And, hey, those 14-year-olds are the future adult users of the language. What they think words mean is going to have a real effect on what they are used to mean a quarter century from now, if not sooner. There’s also the vocabulary those future standard users are using now. So it’s worth a peek at what Urban Dictionary considers “related words” for smarmy. Leaving out the simple vulgarities, we get words in the same sphere such as slimy, sleazy, smug, fake, sarcastic, cheesy, cocky, and greedy, as well as the carbuncular smarmer, smarmite, smarmodon, and smarmosour. A regular sweet-and-bitter smarmelade of lexemes.

A sincere thanks to Iva Cheung for requesting smarmy and shmarmy.


What would it be like to have wings on your back?

Imagine. Like an angel, or at least like a sculpture of an angel. To collapse them under a cape when you’re at rest, and to spread them to escape, to fly high above the streets and fields and forests and waters. Or to shelter others under them.

I happened to be listening to CBC radio this morning when they played a setting by George Malcolm of the Lenten offertorium “Scapulis suis,” which uses text taken from Psalm 91. The opening line is translated into English as “With his wings the Lord will cover you and under his feathers you will be safe.” The Latin is Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi Dominus et sub pennis ejus sperabis. In this, “wings” (or “with wings”) is scapulis. From scapula.

You know what your scapula is, don’t you? It’s your shoulder bone. You have two of them, on your back, like two little hard wings. See a shirtless person from behind and you can see where the wings would attach. Some people’s scapulae are positively beautiful, a smooth sculpted skin landscape, almost like capsules ready to open and unfold wings.

Scapula is not the normal Latin word for ‘wing’. The usual word is ala, although they could also use pennae, which more literally means ‘feathers’ – you see it in the text above as pennis.

So what is scapula normally Latin for? ‘Shoulder blade’.

It seems so prosaic, doesn’t it, as though in one moment you discover you have wings, and in the next you discover that they are just your shoulder blades. But look again at the word.

We here and now will find assorted echoes from our own language and cultural experience: scrape, escape, scrapple, copula, cupola, Dracula, spatula, cape, capsule. But in Latin the waving flag is the ula, which is a diminutive suffix. ‘Little scapa’.

What is scapa? Not a word in Latin, not one that survived. But it is probably related to a Greek word for ‘dig’. It is generally thought that scapula had the original meaning ‘little spades’ or ‘little shovels’.

The scapulae do look like digging implements. Indeed, if you had no tools but had a skeleton of some mammal with scapulae, and you needed to dig out some earth, the scapula would be your best available shovel.

From flying in the sky to digging in the earth. What a range. What a come-down. We are dust, and to dust we return? But we are made of star dust. Quite literally: our planet is an agglomeration of the dust that swirled around our star, the sun, in its formation. Our bodies are made from the physical materials present on our planet: star dust. When you dig into the earth you are digging into what was once star dust. And our planet is just a little ball of star dust swinging through the great sidereal blackness. Whether we flap our wings and fly or we dig our shovels into the earth, we are among the stars. We are always headed towards something and away from something else, but we are often headed towards what we are headed away from as well. And we return. And we do not leave the world, the solar system, the universe. We are made of it; we take it with us.

Your scapulae. Your wings, your shovels. As you wish. When you move your arms, you flap or dig.

Do this for me: it is summer, so you will see the bare backs of others at times. Look at their scapulae. Look at their scapulae and picture them digging into the rich, nourishing earth. Look at their scapulae and picture them as wings, ready to fly or to shelter. Look at their scapulae and just see them. They can be so lovely.


Imagine an eyeshadow like the wing of a butterfly or the coruscating scales of a tropical fish, shimmering, sprinkling your eyes parallactically with a shower of the spectrum. When you look at it it looks back at you, into you, and you see it is a rainbow, and the pot of gold itself is the eye, the iris, the pupil, locking you in as it licks you lightly with the glittering mist. You are irrigated by it; it is the sprinkler and the rainbow, a light alighting under the eyebrows. It is eerie, almost indecent, but it is strangely becoming, this dissent from the stably perceptible; it irradiates you with a delicate psychedelic cycle, a descant on the clear colours of daily life.

It is iridescent.

It is like a fine wine’s bouquet on the nose, shifting from one thing to another: I ride scent, ride it like a dragon through the empyrean. I am the enticed sir.

It is instinct, a tincture of desire.

It is a riddle; it indicts as it indites.

It is intense, a sidereal incense or salitter for the occiput.

It is (Visual Thesaurus tells us) opaline, opalescent, nacreous, pearlescent; it is changeable, it is chatoyant.

It is not just the half-arc or a rainbow. It is the entire disc.

The disc of the iris. The disc of Iris.

Iris, the swift messenger of the gods, rider of rainbows. Iris, a rainbow, a ring for the irriguous. Iris, the rainbow of the eyes, the ring between limbus and limbo, the messenger that heralds and draws you into the singularity: the pupil that learns and teaches.

Iridescent, iri{s|d}-escent: becoming like an iris. Becoming like Iris. Shimmering with the many colours of the rainbow, bearer of infinitely mixed messages: a medium that massages and massacres. The eye.

And what becomes the eye. It may bow, or it may rain. Or both at the same time, as seen from separate eyes. It is whatever you discern in it, and always already also so much more.


Where Brugge is:

  1. Belgium.
  2. Get a map.

How to get into and out of and around Belgium:

  1. Thalys. The Belgian high-speed train. Belgium is too small to need high-speed to get around it. The trains exist to get you in and out. Book first class in advance and save money. First class comes with food and beverage that, outside the train, would cost up to half your ticket price.

    Lunch with Thalys

    Lunch with Thalys

  2. Any other train, if you like moving slowly and don’t feel like eating or drinking for some reason. Or the Thalys doesn’t go there when you want to go there.
  3. Well, it’s not that big a country anyway.
  4. I really don’t see why you’d want to drive. What’s relaxing about that? Also, beer. This is Belgium.

Things to do in Brugge:

  1. Beer. Germans made beer pure; Belgians made beer interesting.
  2. Chocolate.
  3. Beer.
  4. Look around.
  5. Beer.
  6. Take photos.
  7. Beer.



  8. Chocolate.
  9. Some other food who cares French fries or something with one of the eighty-three sauces you can put on it maybe a sausage too if you must.
  10. Beer.

How to get around in Brugge:

  1. Walk. The old cute part is not very large. The streets are medieval-style: stone, not all that wide, pedestrians and vehicles often mixed together watch where you’re walking and what’s coming at you there are cars and they go fast
  2. Local bus. Good to get to and from the train station. Goes on the same streets as you walk on. Somehow manages to go in both directions on a street not quite wide enough for one.
  3. Bike. Stay at a hotel that has bikes. Bike in the park along the canal that rings the oval heart of town. Bike up and down the streets. Pro tip: when a sign says Uitgezonderd it means “excepted” – so if the sign is a No Entry or One Way sign and it has a picture of a bike and it says Uitgezonderd, that means you can go that way even though the cars can’t. Oh, by the way, watch out for the cars holy cow.

    Follow that woman. She will lead you to beer

    Follow that woman. She will lead you to beer

  4. Take a horse carriage if that sort of thing turns you on and you have the money flopping around and you forgot you were going to buy beer and chocolate with it.
  5. Drive? Not. Don’t do it. Locals blast through in their cars. You are not local. There are canals and stone walls and people. And you will be drinking a lot of beer.

What to see in Brugge:

  1. Brugge.
  2. Look, dude, it’s an outrageously cute medieval town. Bring a camera. You’ll only be taking the same pictures as one hundred sixty-five other people today, but you’ll want pictures to remember it by, especially if you drink all that beer, and to prove to other people that it exists.

    Congratulations! You are the 5,783,624th person to take this picture. The slight tilt gives an authentic impression of squiffiness

    Congratulations! You are the 5,783,624th person to take this picture. The slight tilt gives an authentic impression of squiffiness

  3. Bruges.
  4. Yes, Brugge and Bruges are the same place. We call it Bruges but that’s the French name and they all speak Flemish (Dutch) there so I prefer to call it Brugge, which also allows me to surreptitiously clear my throat on the gg, because that’s how you say the gg. But if you say Bruges people think of that movie.

    They only take the plastic off when company is coming over

    They only take the plastic off when company is coming over

  5. OK, you want specifics? See the churches. See the streets. See the canals. See the bridges over the canals. That’s what the name of the place comes from, the Flemish word for “bridges.” Walk walk walk walk. Bring a map or you are doomed, even though you can see the Belfort tower on the market square from many places in town. Seeing it and getting to it are different things.

    Brugge is canal retentive

    Brugge is canal retentive

  6. The inside of a brasserie.
  7. Chocolate shops. These are easy to find. Simply start walking. You will see several soon enough. If you don’t succeed, go to the market square and follow a horse-drawn carriage. You will pass some. Watch where you step, these are real horses, with asses behind them… sitting on the carriage, driving.
  8. The inside of another brasserie.

What to eat in Brugge:

  1. Beer.
  2. The little dish of cheese they bring with the beer.



  3. Chocolate.
  4. Frites, maybe from a truck in the market square, doused with a sauce you would never have thought of putting on French fries but is good. Curryketchup? Samurai? Andalouse? All of the above? 50 cents each.
  5. Seriously, did you skip the part about beer? Have a sausage. Whatever.
  6. Yes, of course they have restaurants. Are you there to eat or are you there to drink beer?
  7. Beer.

What beer to drink in Brugge:

  1. Tripel Van de Garre. This is the house beer of Brasserie van de Garre. It is sweet with lemon notes and a lasting ring of bitterness around the back of the tongue. It comes with a big head. It is 11% alcohol. They limit customers to three each. You get to Brasserie van de Garre by going along Breidelstraat just off the market square, through a little doorway off the south side, and down a rough cobbled alley. This alley is a sobriety test. If you can’t make it to the brasserie, you’re done for the evening. If you’re in the brasserie and can’t make it out, well, shucks.

    Abandon all sobriety, ye who enter here

    Abandon all sobriety, ye who enter here

  2. Anything by Gulden Draak. Nice, caramelly, and strong.
  3. Anything by Boon if you like sweet fruity beers. Kriek means “cherry,” by the way. Do not expect the fruity beers to be strong.
  4. Definitely have a lambic. Anyone’s lambic. Lambic is made by sticking the wort (liquid) up in the attic and throwing open the window and letting the local airborne yeast get it going. Look, you’re not in Germany. Belgian beer is Saturnalia for your mouth.
  5. Gueuze. Heh heh.
  6. Oh, did I mention that gueuze is really sour? I gueuze I forgot. Well, it is. And super interesting. You just ordered one and you can’t finish it? Fine, give it to me, I’ll finish it for you.
  7. Literally anything else that looks interesting. Especially if it’s on tap. Unless the bartender makes a little face when you ask about it.

    Tripel van de garrulous.

    Tripel van de garrulous.

What to buy in Brugge:

  1. Seriously?
  2. Don’t bother with clothing unless you have a pressing need. It’s the same as everywhere else and no cheaper.
  3. Don’t bother with trite souvenirs unless you have friends who really like them, in which case go ahead, there’s plenty to be found.
  4. …um…
  5. Chocolate, obviously! Some for you, some for your friends, and some for you.
  6. Yes, beer. Buy some bottles in a store too, for when you get back to your hotel.

    Our hotel room

    Our hotel room

Where to stay in Brugge:

  1. Well, we stayed at the Adornes Hotel, and it was nice, we would go back. Good breakfast too. Yes, yes, OK, we had real food at breakfast, cold cuts and fruit and cheese and pastries and muesli and tea and juice. Then we went cycling on free hotel bikes and then we went beering.

    Before beer and bike, breakfast

    Before beer and bike, breakfast

  2. If you want to look at other options, go on TripAdvisor. Look at the reviews. Make sure to look at the pictures. If many of the guest pictures of a hotel feature a steep, narrow, long staircase, that means you will have to drag your bags up and down it. Our hotel had an elevator, although you had to cower at the back as though hiding from a hitman or you would interrupt an electric eye by the door and it would stop.

Whether Brugge (Bruges) is like that movie:

  1. Yes.
  2. Minus the hitmen. I think.
  3. And the dwarf.
  4. Have another beer, you might see them anyway.


Eyes. Blue eyes. Eyes like pools. Eyes like pools you can dive into. No. Eyes like pools that dive into you. Eyes, blue eyes, deep, hypnotic. You can see to the bottom. No. You can see that there is no bottom. Look in these eyes and you are seven leagues deep and in the gathering darkness as the surface slips behind. So much. To see. You are impelled.

Is it clear? We know what things are limpid. Pools are limpid. And eyes are like limpid pools. Wide eyes are like limpid Olympic pools. But what does that mean?

Do they limp? Are they limp? Are they lambent? Impish? Implied? Dimpled? Simply liquid? A Spanish speaker will know that limpiar means to clean. But limpido means limpid. Or, as in Italian, clear. Right from Latin limpidus. Pellucid, free from turbidity.

But limpid is a word of turbulence: the emotions of poetry. It is a word that says “I want to look into your eyes, I want you to feel that I want to look into your eyes, and I am a poet.” It says this even when it is being used to describe something other than eyes.

Limpid is the feel of a blink held just a moment longer, springing then back open to reveal orbs with a hint of outward ripples as of a pool with a simple drop in the middle. It is a word that makes you the more turbid within as you use it and read it. Here, here are quotations from poems; see if after them you can even come to the surface.

He has no need to steal a sip
From Hafiz’ bowl, or bathe his lip
In honey pressed from Pindar’s comb,
Or taste of Bacchus’ philtered foam,
Or filch from Chaucer’s bounteous grace
Some liquid, limpid, purling phrase.
—“The Brook,” William Bull Wright

Ray’d in the limpid yellow slanting sundown,
Music, Italian music in Dakota.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool bed of the river;
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out of the river.
—“A Musical Instrument,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning

O little shells, so curious-convolute! so limpid-cold and voiceless!
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
—“The Buried Life,” Matthew Arnold

Ebb stung by the flow, and flow stung by the ebb—love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching;
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice;
Bridegroom night of love, working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn;
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

and each, as soon as it felt the antennæ, immediately lifted up its abdomen and excreted a limpid drop of sweet juice, which was eagerly devoured by the ant.
The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

Limpid. All that is limpid is pure poetry and ecstasy and clarity. It is a lamp, but a lamp filled with the late-night oil of the quill-pen wielder. It infects. It sweetens.

All who say limpid thirst for clarity, the clarity that says nothing is clear. The word is shaped like a dream bed by a stream, l and d the posts, and i and i candles or heads; the m is a pillow or a pair of legs, and the p is an arm dipping into the stream. Dipping into the dream. Not dreamy eyes: eyes that you dream about. Not eyes that you see through: eyes that see through you. Limpid like the night sky when you see stars, millions of miles away and thousands of years ago: you see clearly that all is dark and unreachable, and all that you see is past. And you thirst for it and it enters you and breaks you. You limp into limpid eternity. And the eyes never stop looking, so cool and blue.


If you’re not from Britain, this term may not be all that familiar to you. Allow me to quote the synonyms given in Visual Thesaurus: dolt, stupid person, stupid, stupe, pudding head, pudden-head, poor fish, dullard. To these I think I could reasonably add a common term from Canada: dickhead.

I think that’s a viable synonym not just because of the resentfully abusive way in which the word pillock tends to be used – it carries implications of not just dullness but obnoxiousness too – but also because of its literal reference.

Oh, you don’t know what part of the body the pillock is? Would you care to make a guess? The Oxford English Dictionary reckons that it’s probably shortened from pillicock. The pill is Scots and northern English dialect, probably taken from Scandinavian influences (the Danes used to run that part of the country); it refers not to, say, a little blue pill such as Viagra but rather to that part of the body that the little blue pill is meant to affect. The rest of the word pillicock should be sufficiently obvious. As to the aphetic form pillock, I have to wonder whether it may not have been affected by bollock, a word usually seen in the plural (like its referent).

The word seems like what you get when you expect a pillow and get a rock. It has a taste of someone who gets in a mixed-up pickle, someone who brings ill luck. And at the same time the /p/ and /k/ with a liquid and /ɪ/ between have a bit of a taste of prick as well as bilk and a bit of an echo of kill.

Although the word has been in at least some versions of English since the 1500s, it hasn’t been very evident in print until the last third of the 20th century, when it started being used as a term of abuse. I can’t say whether there was one particular work that served as a primary vector for this, but the word evidently caught on like wildfire.

I like this definition of pillock from 1978 in Approach: The naval aviation safety review: “An idiot who, having gotten himself into the wrong lane, then expects everyone else to give way so that he can get to where only he knows he wants to go, with or without use of flashing indicators or consideration for traffic flow.” You can see where, with such images in mind, the word might have proven quite appealing for general use. And might seem a nearly exact synonym for dickhead.


My friend Michelle wondered aloud to me, “Why is the word meatball so funny?”

I’m inclined to think the answer lies in large part in its combination of two words often used in humour, especially rather impolite humour, and sometimes in terms of abuse – meathead is a well-known example of the latter. As well, meat and ball are both basic things, learned early in life, free of any veneer of politeness (except in alternative usages, e.g., society balls, ballrooms, etc., which are etymologically unrelated – but even there the simple basic image and sense lurk in the background, as we see in the comedy shows done to benefit Amnesty International, The Secret Policeman’s Ball and The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball).

Meat gives an image of a dense, red lump of muscle, or perhaps of an equally dense brown bit of cooked food, not brain food but brawn food. Actually, the word meat originally referred to pretty much any food, and its sense narrowed over the centuries to the main attraction of the meal, that bit of insensate but strangely desirable dead animal that all the other bits attend on (does this sound like your workplace?). It also shows up places such as meathook (slang for hand), meat market (slang for that bar across the street from us, you know who you are), meathead, meat-eater, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, bush meat, red meat

Ball can be a simple sphere, used for playing games, or it can be a conglomerate of items packed densely and probably messily together, or some formerly flat thing rolled or crumpled in a not-necessarily-tidy approximation of a sphere, or any of a number of things that happen to resemble spheres in some way, I’m sure a few come to mind. Balls are blunt things, projectiles, insensate objects. You’ll see ball in such combos as ball boy, ball handler, ball of wax, ball peen, be on the ball, play ball, keep your eye on the ball, blackball, butterball, cannonball, disco ball, eyeball, highball, pinball, snowball, spitball, the names of several sports, and various expressions referring figuratively to the testes.

So all of that is balled up, complete with seasoning and filler, into meatball. The seasoning includes a few popular culture references, chief among which the 1979 summer camp movie Meatballs, which was the first movie starring Bill Murray, and the popular children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The flavour also includes the sound: coming in on /m/ with the lips together like a pitcher reader to throw, adding the quick /i/ like a windup, cocking at /t/ and percussively releasing with /b/, and flying through the air and trailing off with /ɑl/. It’s a word just made to be shouted by a sports announcer through a PA – or by a boy on a playground.

Meatballs, the real things, are not (especially not under that name) thought of as highbrow cuisine. Take a bunch of thoroughly ravaged ex-animal and wad it up as you would something undesirable? No, this isn’t fancy cuisine, it’s just cuisine that people practically everywhere love to eat. In world cuisine, there are many kinds of meatballs, with many flavours and sizes, and having many different names in the various languages.

In the US, the dominant image is of the meatballs that one gets with spaghetti: large-ish ones with Italian herbs and spices – probably a jar mix – floating in tomato sauce – probably from a jar or can – and sometimes shoved into long bread in possibly the single most awkward sub sandwich idea ever.

Anyone who lives near an IKEA (including, of course, the entire population of Sweden, along with all the other places that look like Sweden, notably Canada) may be more likely to think of the smaller, differently spiced Swedish variety, often served with a cream sauce and/or lingonberry sauce, and potatoes rather than pasta. (See for a genuine southern Swedish smörgåsbord, already more than half eaten. You will notice that the meatballs were made in greater quantity than anything else.)

Still other people may think first of one of the many variations of kofta/kofteh/etc. eaten in the periphery of the Mediterranean and parts eastward. But it might seem vulgar to call those meatballs. It’s too familiar a word and suggests that this exotic discovery you are eating at the charming restaurant in that strip mall you usually don’t venture near is really something quite homey. Which, of course, for the people for whom it is not exotic, it is.

What meatballs are best? What are the most authentic? What kind should you eat? Is it OK to find meatball funny? An answer to these questions and more is provided by the film Meatballs:



Name a tree that has all five vowels in it.

Well, I kind of gave that one away, didn’t I? It’s the title of this word tasting note – today’s word to taste. It’s a seven-letter word, and the only two letters in it that aren’t vowel letters are s and q. Seven letters makes it a possible bonus word in Scrabble – but it’s not really all that long a word given that it names a very, very tall tree. (A longer word for a larger tree, also having all five vowel letters, is Indo-European… but of course that’s a language tree, i.e., a family, not an actual physical tree.)

Still, it’s fairly comprehensive: its consonant sounds involve the tip of the tongue [s], back of the tongue [k], blade of the tongue [j] (that’s a “y” sound; I’m using the International Phonetic Alphabet), and lips [w]. And the vowel sounds are one in the front, one in the back, one in the middle.

So did you notice how I just listed four consonant sounds and three vowel sounds? And yet this word has five vowels and two consonants.

No it doesn’t. It has five vowel letters and two consonant letters. The u and i are standing for glide consonants, which are pretty much vowels acting like consonants or consonants that sound like vowels…

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have all five English vowels. Actually, it can’t have all five English vowels, because English has more than five vowels. The six letters that can stand for vowels – don’t forget y – stand for, depending on your dialect, ten to twelve different individual vowel phonemes (monophthongs), plus several two-vowel combos (diphthongs) (some of the monophthongs tend to be said with some movement, making them really diphthongs, but I won’t go into that now). So my opening sentence was not accurate. Always remember: vowels and consonants are sounds, not letters. The letters just represent the sounds. The language exists without its written representation; the written form can have a feedback effect on the spoken language, but it is not primary.

And, in the case of English, it’s rather difficult and not all that transparent. It has some relation to sound, but it’s inconsistent and capricious. If you want to know how it got that way, read “What’s up with English spelling?” The point, anyway, is that while it’s a fun game for those who are good at it, it really fights the learner.

Consider the case of the Cherokee nation in the southern US in the early 1800s. They did not have a written form for their language. But one of the Cherokee, a clever and somewhat driven fellow, decided that it would be very helpful to them to have one. They were trading with white English speakers, so there was an example of a written language – albeit one that the particular Cherokee in question did not speak or read. He tried at first to come up with a written form that would have a different symbol for every word, but this took too long and would require too much memorization, and anyway his wife burned his efforts because they were keeping him from working. So he tried again, this time creating a syllabary, borrowing some forms he had seen in use in English (but with no relation between their English use and the Cherokee use) and inventing a number of others, for a total of 86.

Cherokee syllabics were not systematic like the Korean or Amharic syllabic forms; they were an arbitrary-looking set. But they represented the language quite tidily, and once a Cherokee learned them, he or she was fully literate: there were no booby-traps in the spelling, and they all knew how to speak the language (and no fools had taken it upon themselves to publish works declaring that they were all speaking it incorrectly). So once the Cherokees adopted this syllabary officially – because they could see how useful it was – they had higher literacy rates than the whites in neighbouring communities, who were afflicted with the perverse English orthography.

The Cherokee who invented this syllabary – which you can see at Wikipedia and various other places – was named Sequoyah.

Coincidence? Or is the tree sequoia named after the man Sequoyah? It’s debated. In fact, the Wikipedia article on the tree declares it very likely that Stephan Endlicher, the botanist – and linguist – who named the tree in 1847, did it in honour of Sequoyah, using a Latinized version of the name, and considers alternatives with some thought and detail, while the Wikipedia article on the man Sequoyah declares flatly that “this hypothesis has long been questioned and has now been rejected” – yet another illustration of why you should not take a Wikipedia article as final authority on anything, useful though it may be.

Whatever the case, I think this word sequoia is a good word for talking about language and spelling, and the vagaries and variations available therein. But since I like finding extra layers of meaning and levels of communication in language, I have an inclination to lengthen this word by half, to make it a bit more sesquipedialian – literally ‘foot-and-a-half long’. It has seven letters, so we’ll round up and add four more. Which four? I’ll say s, i, t, and c, and I’ll interleave them in the word, one after se, one after qu, one on either side of i. And what do I get?

Sesquiotica, of course.


Thanks to my brother, Reg, who brought up the link between sequoia and Sesquiotica. In case you’re wondering, sesquiotics is actually a pun on semiotics, and Sesquiotica a pun on the international journal of semiotics, Semiotica. In which, incidentally, I once published an article.


One nice thing about kids: they haven’t been trained out of scratching itches, linguistically.

Take for example my friend Trish’s daughter Nenya, not (quite) yet in grade 1. She asked Trish why some hand weights were on a towel. Trish told her it was to protect the floor. Nenya’s response: “Why? They’re not scratchative.”

You will not find scratchative in the dictionary. The more desiccated among us will therefore insist that it is not a word and must be replaced by something that is. Because, as we all know, every word that is a word was in the dictionary before anyone used it.

As long as by “every” we mean “one” – and that word is flauccinaucinihilipilification, which means ‘the action of estimating something as worthless’… fitting, no? Pretty much every word except that one (and maybe a slight few others) was invented by someone at some time and then, after people used it enough, put in a dictionary.

And how did those invented words catch on? They scratched the right itch. They were appropriately scratchative.

So why shouldn’t Nenya learn to put a different, more established word in place of scratchative? Well, what word? “They’re not scratchy” doesn’t really carry the same sense – scratchy has applications to clothing and sounds, but is ambiguous with something like hand weights. “They’re not scratching” is definitely out; of course they’re not scratching right now, they’re just sitting on a towel. Nor need we form a Latinate neologism such as, say, grattive. I mean, really, that’s just pretentious. If we can say someone who talks a lot is talkative, we can say something that scratches a lot (or perhaps at all) is scratchative.

Anyway, grattive wouldn’t truly trace to Latin. It would trace to the German root that Italian got grattare from. That German root showed up in two English words: cratch and scrat. They both meant about the same and both had rather suitable sounds, and eventually this doublet started to chafe and people simply merged the two into scratch. And Nenya took that new root and the established suffix ative and made a word. A perfectly serviceable word. She didn’t have to start from scratch. Just from scratch.

She’s not the first person to make up the word, either. It gets a couple of Google hits. We find that the word was used in a Missouri newspaper in 1889 (as transcribed in 2011) in reference to getting “a good scratchative cat.” And a 2007 account of using poetry for psychoanalysis reports a 10-year-old referring to her gerbil as “a good scratchative pet.”

So clearly this is a word that has been contained in potential in the available morphemes, just scratching to get out. And every so often it has managed to come free. Rather than scratch it out, why not admit it’s up to scratch?