Category Archives: word tasting notes

nictate, nictitate

What’s the difference between these two words? What dictates – or dictitates – the inclusion or exclusion of it?

You know, it – that intrusion, that blink in the middle of the word? It’s as though your eyes are seeing it as you are struggling to stay awake, and the sideways skipping saccades result in a double vision. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – you know how they say “Blink and you’ll miss it”? Well, perhaps in nictate you blinked and you missed it. And yet somehow, you’re still left with something intact, even if you don’t have something to tie it together.

I’ll give away the game: the two words are synonyms. But this isn’t an aluminum/aluminium or orient/orientate kind of thing; it’s not American/British. No, it’s just because there were two possible suffixes. The word comes from Latin, the verbal root being nict-; you can have the -are ending, a simple infinitive, or you can have the -itare ending, implying iteration: a frequentative… doing it over and over again.

So that would seem to mean the two words aren’t synonyms, right? Like, if you blink once, that’s not the same as fluttering your eyes, blinking repeatedly, right? And yet in modern English, both nictate and nictitate mean ‘wink, blink’ (but not ‘nod’). Well, experience says that if you blink once, you’ll probably blink again… and if your consciousness is going on the blink, after a series of blinks increasing in frequency you will end up with a blink that stops at the closed position, and consciousness will be a blank. Good nict, sleep tict!

Oh, yes, you do say it the way it’s spelled, and not like “nightate.” The nict is not related to night (which is a Germanic word, not Latin). But there is another word that it has fed into – one that refers to two parties winking at something together: com plus nictare somehow became connivere… which we have as connive.

Well, my two eyes are conniving to wink together, and that means sleep is heading my way. I am not like a Calabar angwantibo, either – the only primate to have a functioning nictating membrane (or should I say nictitating membrane), which is a third translucent eyelid under the regular two that allows a creature to wet the eye without closing out the light. Nope, my two eyelids per eye are intact, and nictating with increasing frequency. No need to intinct my eyes with any eye drops. A better tactic is simply to let the eyes drop and the lids fall as they may.

pilchard

We’ve sorted out what semolina is. So we know the semolina pilchard of which John Lennon sang in “I Am the Walrus” was not a girl (contrary to my youthful first impression). But I didn’t go into what a pilchard is.

I’m inclined to think it might be the sort of thing one filches. Who would filch it? Not a milch-cow – they prefer mulch. Perhaps a crabalocker fishwife. Who found it in a gulch. But if she eats it, will she belch? Or squelch it? (I’ll tell you this: whatever it is, lch notwithstanding, it doesn’t involve alchemy in a sepulchre. That would just sound wrong.)

So it’s an edible. No, it’s not chard that comes in a pill. Actually, it’s a sardine. You can buy these in cans and feed them to cats (or to yourself). Do pilchard and sardine mean the same thing? Depends on whom you ask. Some use sardine to mean ‘young pilchard’. Others divide them by species. Whatever, there’s a lot of overlap.

This word used to be pilcher or pylcher, and ended up with an ard ending by analogy with wizard, buzzard, laggard, etc. It was not pilcher because it wears a pilch (an outer garment made of animal skin, with the fur on the inside) – ew, it sure doesn’t – or a pilcher (in Oz and NZ, a flannel overcloth for diapers) – double ew – or because it is related to romance novelist Rosamunde Pilcher (a genetic connection has not been proven). No, etymologists have ruled out the red herrings. Unfortunately, what they have left to go on is… zilch. Hmm. Fishy.

semolina

This is a word from my childhood.

Not because we ate semolina pudding, or couscous made from semolina, or because I was aware of the spaghetti we ate having been made from semolina. No, it’s because I grew up listening to The Beatles, and the first Beatles album I owned myself (as opposed to belonging to my brother or parents) was Magical Mystery Tour. On that album is “I Am the Walrus.” If you give it a listen (you really should, and watch the video), you will hear, at about 2:53, “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.”

When I, less then ten years of age, heard that, I assumed Semolina Pilchard was the name of a girl. Why not? Serena Pritchard or Selma Pilcher would be. I had never heard of semolina, nor of pilchards. Come on, I was growing up in the Alberta foothills in the 1970s! Semolina Pilchard seemed to me to be a name to go with Semilema Tina. You know, from “Ferrajocka.” That actually turned out to be “sonnez la matine” from “Frère Jacques.” But for a while it made sense to me, and from the same song I also had the idea there was a word “donlayvoo,” which seemed to be something like an escalator and/or vaccum cleaner.

But hey. Songs often come through the ear to the mind like grains of wheat halfway through the grinding process. Which is what semolina is. And that’s why I assumed for some time that semolina was formed from Latin semi ‘half’ and molina ‘mill’. Doesn’t that make sense? Why grind your way through all the etymology if you can take some nice bits and make a pleasing porridge of them?

Actually semolina comes from Italian semolino, diminutive of semola ‘bran’, which in turn comes from Latin simila ‘flour’. There do seem to be some similar words out there, yes, but similis ‘like’ is a different root. Well, grind them down and they may start to assimilate. I just now told my wife I was writing on semolina and she said, “The flower?” And I said, “No, the – oh, yes,” and realized she had actually said “The flour?” Which would have been the logical thing for me to hear in the first place.

John Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” with the express purpose of confounding literary analysis. A student had written to him that his teacher was having the class analyze the lyrics of Beatles songs. So he went out of his way to make it impenetrable. My experience suggests he needn’t have tried so hard.

parsimonious

A colleague noted a sentence from a book her son the veterinarian was reading:

This suggests that one of the functions of burying faeces is to minimise the likelihood that the olfactory information they contain will be detected by another cat, although hygiene may provide a more parsimonious explanation.

She wondered what word they meant to use that they had mistakenly confused with parsimonious. After all, parsimonious is a rather prodigal way of saying ‘stingy’ or ‘miserly’. And what on earth would a penny-pinching or mean-spirited explanation be?

But a more parsimonious explanation for the choice would be that the word has a proper technical use in that context. That is also the correct explanation. In science, the law (or principle) of parsimony is just that you shouldn’t invoke any more causes or forces than you need to in explaining something. You might say “parsimonious” is the sound of someone shaving with Occam’s razor.

Think of explanatory factors as like money and be sparing in your spending. A parsimonious explanation is one that is pared down, has minimal parsley, needs minimal parsing. If you see hoofprints in the snow, think horses, not zebras; if you see a butterfly, do not assume it is a Parnassius simonius visiting from the Pamir Mountains.

Parsimonious – and its source noun parsimony – did not, after all, originally have a negative tone. It referred simply to frugality, thrift, economy. It comes ultimately from Latin parcere ‘save, spare’. It just happens that while people like money saved by them, they don’t so much like money saved on them. No one wants to have to say, “Please – some more?”

So we have a justification for calling something parsimonious if it’s simple clean and free of unnecessary parts. Another word used for equations and algorithms that are uncluttered is elegant. An explanation that is elegant is also parsimonious. Compare that to everyday life, where furnishings, clothing, or catering can be parsimonious or elegant but, in most people’s eyes, certainly not both!

How do we explain this? Well, elegant comes from Latin meaning ‘carefully selected’. In machines and alogrithms, that means an efficient and direct use of as few pieces as possible to maximum effect. In everyday life, that means simply the best, the finest. The one values mental mastery; the other, socioeconomic mastery. One privileges the parsing, and the other privileges the purse. So be particular when picking your parsimony.

chirm

Ah, the chirping and chirking of pretty birds. (Hooray! It’s spring! The birds are on the wing! – But that’s absurd. The wings are on the bird.) Who doesn’t like a bit of birdsong? Just think of waking up to the fresh country air, the lively twittering of some bright avian greeting the sun outside your window.

Now think of waking up after having been up partying until, say, 3 or 4. Planning to sleep until, say, 10 or noon. But outside your window is the tree. That tree. The tree all the birds love. And the sun has risen. It’s almost 6! And the birds have a lot to say about it. All at once. Kinda loses its charm, dunnit?

Charm? Yeah, no. Chirm. So many chirps they almost combine to a hum. But not really a hum… more like the dozens of voices all singing different lines in different tempi in Ligeti’s famous Kyrie. Only more strident and with greater tonal range. Or like the warm rumbling hubbub of the many voices of people lolling in the Banff Hot Springs on a winter day, a rumbling rhubarb… if you up the pitch several octaves and give yourself a truly fearful headache with it.

Oh, you can use chirm to describe the rhubarb of a crowd, too. Or the babble of school children, or the din of a field or hive full of insects. Especially as a noun. As a verb – “they were chirming” – its use seems more focused on those freaking birds. At least according to Oxford.

Yes, I didn’t invent this word. And it doesn’t come from chirp (or hum); it traces to Old English cirman ‘cry out, make a noise’, which has some cognates in other Germanic languages. But its sources are obscured beyond that by the noise of history.

Chirm has lots of resonances. Chum, charm, germ, worm, squirm, smirch, Sherman, shirred, chrism, church, sperm, chert, churn… Such a blend of different tones and tastes, all together in a muddy brown sense and sound. Like one of those photos where they take a whole bunch of different faces and superimpose them and you get a sorty of very fuzzy blurry average. Like the chirm of thousands of voices.

This word doesn’t get used very much anymore. Not sure why not. Frankly, I think when the deep freeze finally clears (if it does) and all the birds are making their ruckus – much more than a murmur, to be sure, and not quite as graceful and shaped as a murmuration – or, for that matter, any time when you’re hearing the indistinct but slightly spiky roar of a group of folk, beasts, or bugs, this is a word you should have ready to use. Along with the other less polite ones you’ll be muttering if you’re reaching for the earplugs.

Not that anyone would hear you saying it, of course. Over that noise?

nostalgia

My friend Selena had a moment of nostalgia today. One of her friends’ parents, she learned, had just been house hunting, and they had looked at the house Selena grew up in. Selena’s parents had sold it a few years ago and the buyers had just put it up for sale. A memory walks across unbidden, like a cat across your blanket as you doze.

What would that be like, to go back to a house you used to live in? A house you grew up in? A place where there are so many memories, so many ghosts?

For some of us, this is easy: it’s still there, still in the family, go back and see it. For some of us, the house is there, in different hands; perhaps we have seen it since we left, or perhaps it is inhabited by strangers now, living their stories and building their memories in our quiet personal spaces, their children playing with strange toys on strange rugs where once the monsters lived under our beds. And for some of us, the house is simply gone.

But you know you always want to go home, want to return to the mold that shaped you, the intimate geography of fantasy and food, books and brothers or sisters and sleep, games and fights and countless hours of television, guests and thefts and pets and plants.The secret gnosis, the nous and nostrums, the pride and pain. It is all stored in the cabinet of your mind, all indexed like library books; surely you can simply go to the shelf, pull out the book, open it and step back in?

Literary works conclude tidily with a return home, as Homer had his Odysseus head homeward: the return journey, νόστος nostos. So fitting, for home is what is ours, Latin noster (nostra, nostrum). Between now and the dénouement of our stories, we will always carry a yearning for it, a pain, ἄλγος algos: the source of -algia, as in myalgia, neuralgia, and also analgesic. The Germans call nostalgia Heimweh: ‘home pain’.

But songs and plays remind us: You can never go home again.

Your childhood will not be where you left it. The very places you lived it may be revised or erased. It lives now in your memories, in the memories of those you worked it with, and in the history of the universe, its innumerable rearrangements.

I do not recall exactly how many places I lived as a child. We moved quite a few times, perhaps a dozen by the time I finished high school. I think some of those houses are still there. Some I have not seen in decades. But the house of my strongest memories is the one we lived in from 1980 to 1985, through the heart of my adolescence: grade 8 into my second year of university. It was a large house, two storeys plus basement, 1500 square feet on each level. It had belonged to Mickey Bailey, a TV producer who opened a game farm at the edge of the Stoney Indian Reserve. The game farm failed to thrive, and Bailey left; the house was bought up by the Stoneys, who rented it to my parents, who worked for them. It was at the foot of Yamnuska, the big flat-faced mountain at the beginning of the Rockies in the Bow Valley.

It was lonely, four of us rattling around in that place, especially if three of the four were out. On windy nights when I was alone, and the hot water baseboard heating creaked and pinged, and the trees howled outside the window, it was a place to make the adolescent flesh crawl. I could not stand to play the soundtrack from 2001: A Space Odyssey in there after dark, especially the hundreds of swirling voices of the Ligeti Kyrie. So many spaces for nightmares to lurk, a dark ground floor and basement below and empty bedrooms down the hall.

But it was also where we lived, and played games and watched TV and hosted guests, and saw dozens of kittens through to adolescence and adoption (watching them learng to commute to and from the balcony via the closest tree). Where I read the encyclopedia. Where sometimes my brother and I and visiting friends would walk down the driveway to the abandoned empty game farm and just look around at where the animals had been. Where we would put empty Lysol cans in the trash burning barrel and watch from a safe distance as they burst with a “Pung!” and a fireball. Where one of our several sequential dogs chewed the right arms off our living room furniture. Where I watched World’s Worst Film Festival on Saturdays after midnight, after the earlier evening was destroyed by the imposition of Hockey Night in Canada. Where I once stayed up until 5 in the morning playing Avalon Hill’s Caesar: Epic Battle of Alesia against myself, the radio playing quietly.

After we moved out, we moved north, to Edmonton, and later my parents moved back down to farther east in the Bow Valley. But I did go back by the game farm house, as we called it, a few times. The house was on the highway 1A, a detour if you wanted to go past it on your way from Calgary to Banff, but worth a passing glance on occasion. On my last visit to it, home from university in Boston, it was easy to go in and see it.

You just stepped through the broken sliding glass door on the ground floor. Or through the broken front door.

The house had been left unoccupied for a few years, and had been vandalized. The house was associated with a particular chief, and the spray paint on the walls was clear about who that chief was and what the writers thought of him. I walked across bits of broken glass on the green carpet that had given me rug burns years before from having my face dragged across it by my brother. I looked at the walls where my father’s hundred-score books had sat on block-and-board shelves. I climbed the spiral staircase, walked past the corner where at age 14 I had given my forehead the scar it shows to this day. Walked down the hall, looked into the bedroom where I had slept. There was a hole in the wall.

I smiled. I remembered putting that hole there. And covering it with a poster after. I kept the poster when we moved. I left the hole.

There were other holes too. The place was less and less whole, more and more hole. It was becoming a place-shaped absence. It was filled with silence. Its placeness was blowing away with the Bow Valley winds. It gave cues to my memories, but my growing years were not there. The pride, the warmth, the loneliness, the night fears were not there. I had brought them with me and would take them when I left. It was like visiting a grandparent who, through the ravages of time, was nearly gone, so little of the personality you had known before.

The next time I came back, I brought my girlfriend – who is now my wife – to show her where I came from. (I see where she came from whenever I take the bus to or from Coxwell, Woodbine, or Main stations here in Toronto.) We were on our way to Banff. We stopped by. Got out of the car.

Walked across the flat gravel where the house had been.

It had burned down the previous year. Been burned down. It was not an accident.

Memories accumulate in your mind like algae on a pond, but what they recall is lost with the turning wheel of time. Lost. Algae. Time is a thread and memories are knots, knots that get tighter and tighter or that undo like shoelaces as you walk. Knots algia.

You head to your dénouement – your unknotting – but you want to go backwards to what was knot but is not. You try to retie the undone past, you try to return by the way you came and put it all back in order. No. Lost again. Nostalgia.

Odysseys don’t truly return. Arthur C. Clarke knew that. At the end of 2001, Dave Bowman is not at home. He is on a planet far away. And alone, watching himself watching himself.

Nostalgia. A pain for returning. And a pain from returning. Pain because you cannot feel the warmth you felt as strongly as you felt it then. Pain because you can still feel the pain at least a little, maybe more than a little.

Pain because real stories do not tie up tidily with a return home. Life is lived forwards.

But then joy. Because life is lived forwards. To new things, always new things. Creation, which requires things to stop being what they were.

Enjoy your nostalgia. You could not have that, either, without the loss of the past.

enfeoff

“For my knightly service, what will you offer me?”

“Hmm. Some hasenpfeffer?”

“Eff off! That’s not enuf!”

“No fee.”

“No fee? Ff… Get stuffed.”

“I’ll enfeoff you.”

“You’ll what? Eff you too!”

“No, enfeoff.” (He writes it down.)

“Enf— that’s a rather naff word.”

“Look, I grant you the fee off some turf. I don’t pay, you just collect from the tenants. You get your own little fiefdom.”

“Mm… OK, but don’t make me spell it.”

Really, this word – its spelling is as much of a relic as the practice it names. It looks like some stuff written by Jules Feiffer set to music by Jacques Offenbach. In fact, it has just the right letters for its sound – if you take away two of them, and leave enfef. But that wouldn’t be much fun.

It’s not that we need the word that much anymore, not literally anyway. We don’t have a feudal system, so there aren’t any fiefdoms to grant knights (and others) for their service. Meaning there is no enfeoffment. No one gets enfeoffed anymore. But it’s so ornamental. Or ornery. Fluffy, anyway.

The en is actually the same en as in endow, enslave, entitle, et cetera. The fun part is the feoff. It’s actually the same as fief – which in turn comes (by way of French) from Latin feudum, which also gives us feudal; fief also comes into English as fee, which referred first of all to a heritable estate held on condition of homage and service, i.e., a fiefdom, and subsequently came to be a word for the money paid from it.

And how did fief come to be feoff? The word was taken into English in the Middle English period, when some Old English spellings – such as eo for what became our “short e” sound – were still around for influence. And the ff just falls in line with the grand old English tradition of luxuriating in double final letters.

Look, we got this word free and clear. No pledge of service required, nor any ownership persisting with its source. We can do as we wish with its spelling. It’s not like we use it every day. So there. Eff off.

ides

Originally published on BoldFace, the blog of the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada.

Beware the ides of March!

Beware the ides of every other month, too. And the nones. And the calends. Actually, beware Roman calendars pretty much altogether. But beware the ides of March especially.

We generally think of ides as being a March thing, since Julius Caesar was stabbed on that day. But every month in the Roman calendar was marked by three days: calends, nones, ides. All the other days were counted in relation to them. But how they were counted serves as a reminder that things we take for granted as plain and obvious are actually not inevitable and have been done differently in other places and times.

The Roman calendar was originally a lunar calendar. A month started with the new moon. That was the calends (Latin kalendae), which appears to trace back to calare (“proclaim”). About a week later would be the half moon. That became the nones (Latin nonae), so called because it was the ninth day before the ides—which is to say, it was eight days before the ides. (Confused? We’ll get to that.) The third day of note was the full moon, which was the ides (Latin idus, from some Etruscan word). And then…apparently nothing of note between full and new moon.

The calendar came to be standardized and no longer attached to lunar cycles. In the eighth century BC the calendar of Romulus featured ten months of alternating lengths, 30 and 31 days: Martius (31), Aprilis (30), Maius (31), Iunius (30), Quintilis (31), Sextilis (30), September (30), October (31), November (30), December (30). Does that not add up? Well, the rest of the days of the year between December and Martius were just there, not part of any month. Kind of toss-away. Which is how we feel about them even still.

A few decades later Ianuarius (29 days) and Februarius (28) were added. Months with 30 days were trimmed back to 29. The whole year was 355 days long, so every now and then a whole extra month would be stuffed into the end of February (of all the times to have an extra month!). It took quite a long time for the exactly right number of days in a year to be sorted out. More than two millennia, actually.

With the fixing of the months, the specific positions of the nones and ides were set according to the length of the month. The ides fell on the thirteenth day of months with 29 days and the fifteenth day of months with 31 days. The calends was of course the first day of the month. The nones was the fifth or seventh day of the month, because it was nine days before the ides, counting the ides as the first day.

And, of course, counting backwards. Because that’s what they did. The day before the ides, nones, or calends was the pridie of that day—so March fourteenth was the pridie of the ides of March. And the day before that was the third day before the ides. The day before that was the fourth day before the ides. And so on. Everything was in countdown.

Which means that the entire second half of a month, after the ides, was numbered in reference to the calends of the next month. The day after the ides of March is the seventeenth day before the calends of April. That’s what it was called. They didn’t number forwards. There was no Martius twenty-fourth; it was the ninth day before the calends of Aprilis. But still part of the month of Martius. You may be beginning to think the dates were called ides, nones, and calends because people would say “Any idea where we are on the calendar?” “None.”

But hey, if you think that seems like something from Harry Potter, don’t forget that when they added an adjustment month of 22 days, they stuffed it in after the twenty-fourth day of February. Not the twenty-eighth. The twenty-fourth.

But if we just want to wave our hands and say, “Well, those Romans were crazy,” ask yourself this: would it seem crazy to start the new year right in the middle of a month? So that, say, the first 24 days of March were in one year and the last week was in the next? Because guess who did that.

Not the Romans. Nope.

We did.

OK, by “we” I mean western Europe, notably including England and its dominions — such as Canada. Of course, Canada wasn’t a country then and wouldn’t be for another 115 years.

That’s right, England marked the new year on March 25 until 1752 (meaning 1751 was a short year—but so was 1752: they cut out 11 days in September because of the necessary adjustment in the switch from Julian to Gregorian calendar…that’s a whole other article again!). Other countries switched over to January 1 sooner—Scotland in 1600, most of western Europe at various times in the 1500s. To be fair, the new year had in previous times been on January 1; it was switched to March 25 in the middle ages. Why March 25? It’s the feast of the Annunciation: the day marking Mary’s being told by the angel that she was pregnant with Jesus. Somehow that led to the conception that it would be a good day to start a new year…

So the ides (the fifteenth day) of March of 1599, when Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, would have been almost a year later than the twenty-fifth day of March of 1599…and would on the same day have been the ides of March of 1600 just across the border in Scotland. Beware—or be where—indeed!

xoloitzcuintli

Now, there’s a word to make your hair stand on end. If you have any.

Look at it – its hair is already standing on end – those i i i and l t t l. Plus the two staring eyes o o, and the cup being flipped over u n. Oh, and then there’s the x and z, which are always rakish. An x at the beginning of a word is a frank dare to the Anglophone reader. But so is a tzc cluster. Even though it starts with xo, this is not a word you want to kiss and cuddle. Frankly, it looks like a nasty mess, and may seem vaguely vulgar.

So, um, how do you say it? Words that start with an x usually have a front vowel like e, i, or y after it. And they’re usually from Greek. This is not a Greek-looking word. No, in fact, it has some characteristics that point to another place: the tl, the use of c and z and x… and that daunting length, 14 letters. Could it be from the place that gave us axolotl and quetzalcoatl and Chicxulub? Why, yes. Those are all features of Spanish transliteration of indigenous Mexican words. And this word is Nahuatl (Aztec): Xolotl was the Aztec god of lightning and death, and itzcuintli means ‘dog’.

So we know the x is a “sh” sound, and we know that originally the tl represented the same voiceless lateral affricate we see in other languages in words such as Lhasa, but is in English said like any other “tl” – with a syllable boundary in the middle. Let me untangle it further for you: It’s five syllables, “show-low-eats-quint-lee.” (You can also say the beginning as “zo” rather than “sho,” but that’s an English-style spelling pronunciation.)

See it? Xoloitzcuintli. Also spelled xoloitzcuintle.

Also spelled Mexican hairless dog.

Yeah, that’s what this is. A big hairy name for a little hairless dog. (You can also call it just xolo to save some seconds because, you know, yolo.) If you have one of these guarding your house, you might as well just let the name do the guarding while the pooch shivers under your duvet.

victual

OK, this is one that makes my vittles a little tender. I mean makes my victuals a lictual tender. I mean…

Here’s the thing. This is one of those words that many people know by sound and sight but have not put sound and sight together. It’s sort of like knowing someone by name (from the web, perhaps) and knowing someone by face (circle of friends, or they work in a store you go to, or…), but not realizing the two are the same person. Until you accidentally find out, and it’s usually embarrassing.

You may well display ignorance by saying this word as it’s spelled. But on the other hand, not too many people would belictual you for spelling this word as it’s said: vittle (or vittles, since it’s nearly always plural). Grammar grumblers are of course more brictual than the average person, but even they seldom spewed much spictual onto the brand name Tender Vittles (off the market in 2007 anyway – it was kind of like skictuals for kictuies). And why would you spell a cat food victuals when so many people think the word is vittle and when victual looks a bit too much like victim (and convict and evict, and actually a bit like ritual too)? Tell the truth: doesn’t it seem just a little precious to spell it victual while saying it “vittle”?

But then, why would you spell this word victual? Or why would you pronounce victual like “vittle”? Ah, food for thought (as opposed to food for the belly, which is what victuals are). Let’s take an intellettle look at the attle fattle historical details.

The original late Latin word was victualia, from victus ‘food’. That got whictualed down in pronunciation and spelling to Old French victaille and vitaille. English borrowed that, at first keeping the spelling and then modifying it variously (by the way, vital is from a different Latin root). But in the 1500s and 1600s there came to be quite the fad for changing spelling to reflect the glorious Latin origins of words: faucon became falcon because of falx; ile became isle because of insula; peple became people because of populus; and vitaile (among other spellings, all said as we say it now) became victual because of victualia.

So… what happened, in short, is that the word aged as words do, and then it got a face-lift, so to speak, to restore it to something like its older form. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the big reasons English spelling doesn’t match English pronunciation: those meddling jerks a half millennium ago who thought that spelling should display etymology rather than matching pronunciation. And that is what gets my goat – and tenderizes my victuals too.

Thanks to Hal Davis for prompting me to do this one.