Right now I’m in the part of Canada that has the best food: Quebec. And I’m in the part of Quebec that has the best food: Charlevoix. Québécois food is not precious, pretentious, status-hungry; it’s plain old enjoyable, but deeply, caringly so. Starch, fat, salt, sugar, and alcohol are your friends.

Quebec’s most widely popular culinary invention is also one of its most basic and demotic: poutine. It’s a Canadian classic, like Nanaimo bars (which are from the other side of the country, true), but easier to make. It’s not originally from Charlevoix – it’s apparently from the Montreal area. But you can get it in any pub in the country now, and quite a few other places too. Especially cafeterias at ski hills. It’s absolutely the classic ski fuel.

We didn’t have poutine in Alberta when I was a kid – it was invented in Quebec in the 1950s or ’60s, but didn’t start to catch on across the country until the later ’80s – but we had something that was two-thirds there. When I would go skiing, my lunch pretty much always involved French fries with gravy. Gravy is a classic on French fries in Canada, though fast food chains from America don’t seem to know that. Actually, Americans don’t seem to understand gravy on French fries in general: when I was in grad school in the Boston area, I tried asking for gravy on my fries once and they looked at me like I was a green man from Mars who had stepped off a flying saucer and asked where I could find the narcotics. I found this a bit gobsmacking, since gravy and fries are both such American standards. But I digress. (Some Americans have come close to the discovery with a thing called “disco fries.” Disco? They just need some very.)

So anyway, as soon as everyone in Anglo-Canada heard what they were doing with fries and gravy in Quebec, they all said, “Yeah!” What were they doing? Adding cheese curds. Cheese is a big thing in Quebec – actually, the best cheeses I’ve ever had have been from Quebec, and I’ve had a lot of different cheeses – and cheese curds are very popular. You can get them in bags next to the cash register in a chain grocery store. (I know; I saw them in a Metro in La Malbaie just this afternoon.) Curds are handy lumps, so you don’t even have to shred the cheese (though I have seen that version of poutine too, in pubs in Anglo-Canada). It may sound like a bit of an unholy mess – according to one story, that’s actually where it got its name; poutine is supposedly Quebec slang for a mess (there are other purported etymologies, including some relating it to pudding, which fail to account for the d/t alteration) – but actually so what? It’s delicious.

And, as I mentioned, perfect if you’ve been doing physical activity outside in cold weather. So when we went in for lunch today after a morning of skiing in –15˚C at Le Massif here in Charlevoix, you know what I was going to have.

Would you believe that in the cafeteria at a ski area in Quebec food central they don’t have poutine?

Maybe it’s because it was early season and they didn’t see it as worthwhile to fire up the chip fryer. It really wasn’t busy there. But daaaaaaamn. And, let me tell you, one of the joys of ordering poutine in Quebec is hearing them say the word in a Québécois accent. At Mont-Tremblant, I dined out longer on the [pu ˈtsɪən] than I did on the poutine itself.

So obviously I was pouting. We had to have some for supper. And we did, in the lobby bar here at the Manoir Richelieu, made the right way, and very satisfying. A good poutine will always leave a good taste in your mouth.


Is there a bad poutine? There is if you get into politics. Actually, there are two bad political poutines. (Word just wanted to change poutines to poutiness. Which, with one letter, change from a thing to its absence – or a reaction thereto.) The first is Vladimir Poutine. This is not a joke; this is how you transliterate Путин in French – and you get a more accurate pronunciation than the Bush-style “poot’n.” It just happens that a crypto-Soviet satrap shares a name with the ultimate Franco-Canadian basse cuisine. Just imagine if the president of Italy were called Giorgio Pizza and you get an idea.

In Canada, there’s another political reference with a bad taste: Pierre Poutine. This is the (obviously) fake name to which a phone number was registered that was used in what is now called the Robocall scandal. Voters in several ridings who were likely to vote against the Conservatives received robocalls (pre-recorded computerized phone calls) giving them false information about their polling station. The name Pierre Poutine is easily perceived as a snotty slap at Quebec (and parties more popular with it) by a party associated with western Canada and anti-Quebec attitudes. Which just added further bad optics to an illegal activity.

I have to assume that anyone who is fluent in French also has a taste of another off-colour word when they have the taste of poutine in their mouth: putaine, a negative-toned word for ‘prostitute’ that’s often used as an expletive. The vowels are not the same but they are similar. I’m not sure how that affects the tone of the word in French. But it doesn’t seem to hurt the popularity of the dish.

There are a lot of variations on poutine now. There’s a restaurant in Montreal called La Banquise that has more than 30 types of poutine (mostly relying on added ingredients). I’ve eaten there. It’s good. So are many, though not all, of the precious artisanal variations available in Toronto.

But there’s just one word poutine. And you cannot say it accurately to the Quebec French accent while staying within English phonotactics. So shut up and eat.


Memories. You can taste them.

Tastes bring them back, in fact. Tastes and smells. Smells do it so accurately – a hand cream or shampoo or floor cleaner and I can almost see the place from my childhood where I smelled it then. Or the taste of something I haven’t had in so…

We know what a taste trigger of a memory is, a little ping into the wall of memory that cracks it and releases a flood. It’s Proust’s madeleine.

Remember Proust’s madeleine? “Everyone” “knows” about Proust’s madeleine. Actually, the first time I heard about it I was quite irritated. I was driving my dad’s car home from downtown Edmonton, having ushered a show at the Citadel Theatre, and I had CBC Radio on and some talking people were talking. “We all know about Proust,” said one, “that he ate a madeleine and…”

No, I didn’t. Who is Proust? And what is a madeleine? And why should I know? It was like my first time, as a child, visiting an Anglican church (on my first visit to Toronto, too, as it happens) and being very put out when everyone else seemed to know exactly where to turn to in their prayer books and what lines to recite by heart, theretofore unheard of by me. Do you mind?

Well. Proust dipped a madeleine, a little biscuit, famous from Commercy in France, in a cup of tea – no, actually, of limeflower tea, or tisane, or what some Anglophone tea-makers are trying to call teasan but no I don’t think so no – and memories of his childhood came flooding back. Flooding back. And apparently Proust is one of the greatest novelists of all time and he wrote an extraordinarily long novel that people are still studying and arguing over (those 32 or so who have read it, anyway) and it was so long he couldn’t manage to see the ass end of it off to press before he was toast, pushing up limeflowers himself. And here’s an author on Slate (nice web magazine, Slate, they sometimes publish me, though I never find out in advance because it’s always a pick-up from The Week) going through baking exercises to see if he can produce a madeleine of just the right kind of crumbs that Proust wrote of stimulating memories. Proust wrote it so we must replicate it or diet trying. Because that is what people do: Someone or something becomes famous and people revere it and argue over it and rearrange their kitchens for it because it is famous. Mona Lisa. Tell me why the Mona Lisa is so much better than any of several paintings by Gerhard Richter or Andrew Wyeth. Because it’s so famous. Life is a succession of idols to burn incense before, apparently.

I’ve never really understood why people would rather argue over, for instance, whether Kant said this or that, exactly, than over whether this or that idea Kant expressed is more optimally in correspondence with observation and experience. And yet there are scholars whose whole career is based on that. Because famous person. Don’t burn your fingertips trying to write with that stick of smouldering incense.

What? Oh. Yes. Sorry, easily incensed. Madeleines. I haven’t eaten one, as far as I can remember. (Wouldn’t it be delicious irony if I had, sometime in my youth, but had forgotten it? I probably have.) But I also haven’t read Proust’s magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past. No, no, sorry, the title that everyone knows and refers to has been corrected. That may sound better because it’s the famous title, but really it’s actually In Search of Lost Time. No, actually, it’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust, that crafty beggar, wrote it in French.

Look, I read Joyce’s Finnegans Wake end to end when I was in second year university, ten pages a day like an exercise program (ergo 63 days). I think that absolves me from reading any other literary tome-stone. Oh, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow too. I think I can skip past David Foster Wallace and proceed into heaven now, thanks. If I want to research lost time, I don’t want it to take all the time I have remaining. I still want what T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock had to look forward to,

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

During which I will taste the mad leanings of words, sometimes maudlin and sometimes middling and sometimes my delight. So. What is a madeleine?

Well, according to my copy (in English translation) of Larousse Gastronomique (inscribed “To James, on your 14th birthday – with love and great expectations! Mom + Dad”), “The recipe for madeleines remained a secret for a very long time. It is said that it was sold for a very large sum [two verys – wow, such important] to the pastry-makers of Commercy, who made of this great delicacy one of the finest gastronomic specialties of their town.” It then proceeds to the recipe, which is 625 g of fine sugar, 625 g or sieved flour, 12 eggs, 1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda, the grated rind of a lemon, a pinch of salt; work together in a bowl until smooth, then add 300 g melted butter, mix well, put in buttered madeleine molds and bake in “a very slow oven.” Seems straightforward enough, but I guess it was one of those “pedo mellon a minno” things, gastronomic version? Or maybe it was improved in the telling. Or maybe the Larousse recipe isn’t quite right. After all, The Oxford Companion to Food says they are “made from egg yolks creamed with sugar and lemon zest, with flour, noisette butter, and stiffly beaten egg whites folded in before baking in little shell-shaped moulds.” Oh, separate the eggs and handle the whole thing like a soufflé? Now, why wouldn’t Larousse say so? Preserving the secret? Who paid them off?

Why are they called madeleines? After some woman named Madeleine, to be sure, but which one? Some say a pastry maker called Avice who worked for Talleyrand invented them. Others say they were brought into fashion by Stanslas Lezinski, father-in-law of Louis XV. In either case, they may have been named for Madeleine Paulmier, who was a pastry cook for one or the other of those aforementioned dudes.

But where does the name Madeleine come from? Not from my friend Madeline Koch, I’m pretty sure, because she’s younger than all that, though she’s so lively you never know, and after all Koch does mean ‘cook’. No, no, it comes from Magdalena as in Maria Magdalena, which is Mary Magdalene, which is Mary of Magdala. She’s the character whose song gets everybody teary-eyed from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I don’t know how to love him,” although I’ve always sort of liked “Pilate’s Dream,” but then I would, it’s a baritone number and I used to do it at auditions. So yeah, she is, according to tradition, the prostitute saved from stoning by Jesus, but actually the Bible doesn’t say that, just that Jesus cast out seven demons from her and she was one of the first to see Jesus after he was resurrected. More recent books have said she was married to Jesus and they had kids, but really that idea came out ages ago in Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which is a towering example of hyperventilative speculative results-oriented “research.”

Towering. Magdala actually comes from Hebrew migdal מגדל meaning ‘tower’. She was from a place with a tower, and researchers think probably it was Magdala Nunayya, ‘fish tower’, near Tiberias, which is now Teverya; I stopped through Teverya when I was in Israel and it was hot and I walked a bit to a box beach and dipped a page of my journal into the Sea of Galilee just so I could say I did and some machine I tried to buy a soft drink from ate my shekels (that’s not slangy, shekels are the unit of currency in Israel). So I got on another bus and went to Nazareth. Which is where Jesus is said to have been from. But let me tell you, you want improved in the telling, try religious sites in the Holy Land. All you see is structures from a few hundred years ago, some of them really gaudy and overdone, built on top of spots that supposedly are where some event in the life of Christ happened two thousand years ago. Somehow the crucifixion and the burial happened upstairs-downstairs from each other in a smoke-smeared church in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is pretty darn new, you sure wouldn’t see anything like what was there for the angel to tell Mary she was going to have Jesus, but of course it’s nice and all for a church (I prefer gardens, but hey). When I was there the church was suddenly filled with the sound of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque on their loudspeakers. Now that’s layered history for you.

So anyway, the Mary the mother of Jesus is a different Mary from Mary of the fish tower and the tasty little dry biscuits. But they both had the same name, which wasn’t Mary, that’s a New Testament version (and an Anglophone one at that) of a name that’s rendered differently when you see it in the Old Testament. Just as James is really the same name as Jacob (now there’s a story, but later) and Jesus is really the same name as Joshua, Mary is really the same name as Miriam, which is to say Maryam. There are different ideas as to what that name means but never mind, nobody really knows, what it means to people is what it makes them think of. Which is all the people they know named Mary, including of course Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Tyler Moore, and Queen Mary, and Mary Mary Quite Contrary, but not my mother because she’s Mary Anna, which is different.

Well, there it is. Things change over time. Memories get improved in the telling through a hundred visions and revisions. From a few stones we build a tower. Time toasts it, and you drink toasts to it, and then you’re toast. Memory may be provoked involuntarily, cued by a myriad of things, more likely by a jolt to the amygdala than by a bite of mini-Magdala, but what you get when it pours forth is not the small beer of daily life but the small-batch whiskey that it has been distilled to, soaking in the toasted wood of say, why is my glass empty?

Life is full of madeleines, every moment or word another dip in the cup and nibble and recall, but pretty much none of them are actually madeleines. Even the memory cues are improved in the telling. Proust’s prolix peregrinating prose perambulation is thought to have been at base autobiographical, but in an early draft of the book, it was not a madeleine that he took with tea. It was a bit of toast.


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.


My latest article for The Week is on Hulkspeak, an idiom that has proven popular in some quarters, based on the locutionary style of The Incredible Hulk:

A linguist’s guide to HULK SMASH



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…