louche

I like the taste of louche, and I like a taste of the louche.

I don’t mean I actually like hanging out in shady, sketchy places. Genuine criminals lack charm for me. But I like the fantasy of infraction, of impropriety, of pulling at the seams on the underskirts of life. I like it some in movies – film noir, British thieves, American gangsters – and I like it in music.

When I tell you what music, you’ll see how I mean it’s a charming fantasy. I especially fancy two popular musical duos for their louche touch: the Pet Shop Boys and Steely Dan. Here, listen to the lush lashings of the louche, from the licks and the lips of Tennant and Lowe and Fagen and Becker.

Just listen to that music slouch, the sly undercuts like a low-slung deuce. I could have given you many Pet Shop Boys tunes and just about any Steely Dan song at all – I nearly picked “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Babylon Sister.” It’s all so loose and sly, looking at you sideways from a squinting eye. But of course those musicians aren’t gangsters at all. They’ve never hurt anyone or been shot at. It’s all an act.

But it’s still the opposite of spending the Sabbath at shul (literally the reverse: /luʃ/ – /ʃul/). No, this word doesn’t come from a reverse reading of the Yiddish word for ‘synagogue’. If you want a backwards echo, look at the word itself: louche – echuol. It can echo you well. It shows you not the mirror but the shadow you cast, and if you follow your shadow it will always lead you farther away from the light, always just ahead of you. Watch that it lead you not straight to ouch.

But you really need to squint to see this word. Or you need to be squinting: French louche, from Latin luscus ‘one-eyed’. Do you think of pirates with eye patches or criminals with ocular scars? You could also think of a wink, a flash of the lashes. A delicious pair of soft peepers, one of them open to look you over, the other closed just for a moment to signify an invitation to come over to the dark side. And then a lick of the lip – “l,” but so silent, so soft – a luscious exhalation of release and delight, “oo,” and a “sh” to silence you as you slip into something shadier… just a little role-playing, nothing dangerous

“I know, right?”: the podcast

I’ve done another podcast for The Week, this one based on my latest article on “I know, right?” Listen to it here. It may take a few moments to load. Click on the white > in the orange circle to make it play.

coryza

I think this is a rather pretty word. It balances in the middle on that rakish funnel y, it has the chic and angular z, and it contrasts them at the sides with curls and just a little bit of straight line. It looks like it could be a name – a merging of Cory and Liza, perhaps. It’s a little crazy, strangely cozy, subtly racy. Spicy like a chorizo. It’s a word like a smart, sharp, small woman who wears careful but angular makeup, perhaps a piercing or tattoo – or perhaps the sweet-tartness comes entirely from a wicked wit.

Whatever it is, though, she has a cold. A runny nose. Hope she doesn’t have a nose ring; that would be uncomfortable when you have coryza.

Yeah, this word falls into the category of nice words for unpleasant things. Sorry. The common cold has a couple of those – the other is the mellifluous, or anyway something-fluous, rhinorrhea, so soft and pleasing, though admittedly with an echo of the unpleasant-meaning diarrhea.

If you want a less charming word for the common cold, use catarrh. Both words come to us from Greek via Latin; catarrh is a clipping of the Greek for ‘downward flow’ (that rrh is the same as in rhinorrhea and diarrhea, but the ea flowed away). Coryza is from the Greek κόρυζα, which a modern Anglophone might more likely transliterate as koruza (that letter υ is a little problematic due to historical sound changes; in modern Greek it’s pronounced “ee” and in Biblical times more like German ü). In the Greek it meant ‘runny nose’ (or, as some dictionaries put it, ‘running at the nose’, which technically isn’t exactly the same object, but in looser usage will come to be applied to the same condition).

You can, if you wish, insist on a distinction between coryza and catarrh – I mean aside from the feelings of the words themselves: to quote from the medieval Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum,

Si fluat ad pectus, dicatur rheuma catarrhus:
Ad fauces bronchus: ad nares esto coryza.

Which is to say, if the flow is in the chest, it’s catarrh; if in the nose, it’s coryza.

One more thing: because the word came from Latin into English by the 1600s, the y is pronounced as in “why.” So while you may want to say “co-ree-za,” to be correct to the established English standard you should say “co-rye-za” (with the o probably reduced to a schwa).

Having a cold is unpleasant. You want to get rid of it as soon as possible; drink lots of liquids and get lots of rest. But while you have it, you can at least – if you want – call it by a more chic, more erudite, name: “I am indisposed by a touch of coryza.”

I know, right?

My latest piece for The Week is about a currently popular expression. It’s idiomatic, and when people hear it they understand it, but some people still insist it makes no sense. …I know, right? Read it here.

rim

Pick up the crystal glass and hold it by the stem. Moisten your fingertip and run it in a ring around the lip at top. Its sound names it: “rim.”

The rim, the brim, the perimeter. A trim and prim ring, or a grim edge; the beginning of merriment, or an interim rest, or the end for a criminal. As Daniel Trujillo wrote to me, “A boundary, an insurmountable frontier that both denies passage and invites trespassing.” Transparent yet intransgressible like a scrim, or opaque yet surpassible. An edge that is at the heart of so many uses. Glasses, tires, oceans, coins: inside the rim is value, but use comes from touching the outside.

The word rim does not have such a taste of the edge; it is something found crimped in the middle of other words. It rings and hums, but its sounds are made with the heaping heft of the tongue and the closing of the lips. A word that made more of the edges in the mouth (tip of tongue, ridge, teeth, lips, back) would be loving. Or living. Or leaving. The contact points of our existence, the interface between the value within and the use without. But while these are our rims, our word is rim; it collects the rime and the rhymes.

The rimes, in fact. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge:

The sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

The rim of consciousness, The Day-Dream of Tennyson:

And o’er the hills, and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim,
Beyond the night, across the day,
Thro’ all the world she followed him.

The rim of an acquaintance, Parting at Morning by Robert Browning:

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun look’d over the mountain’s rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

On the rim of the air, The Skylark of James Hogg:

Over the cloudlet dim,
Over the rainbow’s rim,
Musical cherub, soar, singing, away!

The rims of flowers on the rim of a house, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Whitman:

As we wander’d together the solemn night (for something I know not what kept me from sleep),
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

The feeling you get on the rim of the west. At last, past the rim of the earth and the rim of consciousness, past sun, hills, mountains, rainbows, without recrimination, we touch the lip and enter the heart, or the heart enters us. Or both. We drain the cup, but then we are the cup, and we overflow. No: we are the rim, and the overflow is our living, loving, leaving.

glint

GLINT

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.

smarmy

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.