English is a wild ride, a climb of clatter and cacophony as of skeletons in halters, a slide ride down flung with centrifugal force and out-of control collisions, slaps and claps. It is a welter of words taken from here and there and ricocheting against each other like so many billiard balls, harum-scarum. And references and references to references and lost and forgotten references all going around and coming around.

Take helter-skelter. Where do you know that from? How old do you think it is? Who came up with it? What does it come from?

The last two questions are easy to answer because they are impossible to answer. Helter-skelter existed in common use by Shakespeare’s time, to mean ‘pell-mell; fast and out of control’. Why helter and why skelter? Obviously it’s a reduplicating formation, like hurry-scurry and the other couple I’ve already used. The skelter may come from an old word skelte ‘hurry’, with the helter added for effect. But the word just lands in the printed record out of nowhere, as if it slid in from above and dropped with a thump on the page.

It’s useful, anyway. It got a good workout in literature: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Longfellow, Trollope… Jonathan Swift made it the title of a poem about lawyers on the country circuit. It carries so many echoes: not just halter and skeleton but welter, swelter, shelter, pelter, kelter (the word we know better as kilter, meaning ‘good health, good spirits’ and best known to us in out of kilter), skelper (from skelp ‘slap, strike’), skelder (‘beg, cadge, swindle’), perhaps Hitler and kettle and skillet and kelp and helper… If you listen with an interested mind, the chaotic clatter of this word may carry echoes of many things climbing up from your unconscious or dropping down from your surroundings.

Helter-skelter is a good term for the behaviour of children on a playground, if a little scarier than higgledy-piggledy. And so in the early 1900s, when someone invented a fun park attraction that is a tower (looking like a little lighthouse, perhaps) with stairs up in the centre and a slide spiralling down around the outside, they named it a helter-skelter. The first one was at that famous seaside place called Blackpool.

It seems to have been one of those that Paul McCartney had in mind when he wrote the song “Helter Skelter.” McCartney wanted a truly wild and grungy sound, one that would soundly thrash musical expectations just as Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” thrashed exegetical expectations. He wanted to out-Townshend Pete Townshend. What is “Helter Skelter” about? It’s about the punkiest sound you can imagine, and not what one generally expects from The Beatles. It’s about four minutes and thirty-three seconds of quite the opposite of what John Cage did with his four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s skelping and out of kilter, it’s – here, listen. Listen to Paul McCartney singing it and his bandmates thrashing it out. Listen as it fades out and then comes back in at the end, with the shout (often thought to be from John Lennon, but actually it was Ringo Starr) “I got blisters on my fingers!”

What do you hear? What you hear and what you get from it will of course be conditioned by what you bring to it. What Charles Manson heard was his vision for a coming apocalyptic race war. The racket of the song echoed inside his head and mixed in with the other noises there and came out with murder. The song, for him, was apocalyptic violence.

Easy enough to hear it that way? Sure. Now hear it another way.


You may not know this word; it’s not used so much these days. So, after making a pun involving cats and/or mountains, you may want to compare it to other words that seem similar. Could it be a collision of paramount and cataclysm? Or tantamount and catapult? You may see the cata and think, “Ah, the Greek cata ‘down’ root – as in catastrophe, ‘downstroke’. So add that to the ending of paramount and you get something tantamount to a fall to the catacombs.”

Well. It depends on how you look at it. Or on how it looks at you before you can look at it. If you’re standing by a cataract in the mountains and a catamount creeps up and catapults itself in your direction, you may well end up in the catacombs, or something tantamount. You see, this word’s form has more to do with cat-o’-nine-tails and Jack-o’-lantern and cats and mountains.

Indeed, it’s hard to be pleased with yourself for making a pun when the pun is actually the etymology and meaning. So much for cat and mountain jokes: this word comes from catamountain, which comes from cat-o’-mountain, as in cat of the mountain. Catamountain has been applied to leopards, panthers, and ocelots; the shorter catamount has come to be mainly a term for cougars (I mean mountain lions, not… never mind).

So the word sounds so classical, and yet it’s so homey… if you ignore the fact that cat and mount both come to us, lightly changed, from Latin. Just like a catamount, or cougar, is also a puma, is also a panther. Sometimes these things just creep up on you.


Does this word look like it means ‘intimidate like a cat’? I think it sort of does.

How would that be, I wonder… Perhaps like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, smiling down creepily, pronouncing gnomically or gnostically and vanishing, the smile disappearing last.

I remember an acting class. Our professor told us to say “I hate you” to a seated student. Several of us in turn pulled an angry face, full of scorn, and practically spat out the words. Then one girl – a frankly attractive young woman – walked up, smiled sweetly, and purred, “I… hate… you,” those pretty curved lips suddenly sharp like scalpels.

I remember another theatre class, an improv exercise. A student was asked to draw an angry face. The leader of the exercise clearly expected a big frowny mouth. The student instead drew a smiley mouth. The leader was confused. But then the student added sharp teeth.

And then there was the guy I knew who talked about how his dog was impounded because it “smiled at an animal control officer.”

Well, the last one is definitely doglike. But the first two are catamount to a tat. I mean tantamount to a cat.

This word, I should say, is not a word about cats. The definition of the word – which OED tells us is obsolete, but it’s certainly not the only place on the web you will find the word – is (to quote a 1656 work) ‘To put one to open shame and punishment for some notorious offence, to scorn, to defame.’ Excatly (what a typo, I think I’ll keep it) what many of us want to do to certain politicians, and probably a few others too. Catamidiate them.

Those who know Greek roots will recognize the cata from catastrophe, catalogue, and various other words: it means ‘down’ or ‘downward’.

OK, but what is the midiate from? Well, the whole Greek root is katameidian καταμειδιᾶν, ‘despise’, so the back end of this is from a Greek infinitive μειδιᾶν.

Which means ‘smile’.

I’m not joking. The Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon (LSJ) gives the following definition for καταμειδιάω (the first-person singular present indicative, which is what Greek verbs are more often indexed under): ‘smile at, despise’.

Think about that the next time someone talks about the sun – or fortune – smiling down. All that time you thought it liked you…

I’ll think of the Cheshire cat, who is featured on one of my pairs of cufflinks. The Cheshire cat and that girl in my acting class. The smile. Everything disappears but the smile.

And then that disappears too.


I have of late, for no particularly good reason, been listening to a lot of covers (remakes) of Duran Duran’s song “The Chauffeur.” They’re easy to find on YouTube, and when you find one there are links to more.

“The Chauffeur” is the last song on the 1982 LP Rio. Rio was a seminal record of my high school years and is still one of my favourites. The album cover is a classic of early ’80s style. It features a painting of a beautiful vamp by Patrick Nagel, who died two years later at age 38. Rio’s biggest hits were “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio,” but the songs that I have been most drawn to have been “Lonely in Your Nightmare,” “Save a Prayer,” and – of course – “The Chauffeur.”

These songs are steamy, yearning, louche. “The Chauffeur” features an inexorable synthesizer riff like beads of sweat slowly rolling down smooth skin. Whose sweat? Yours, when you listen to Simon LeBon’s voice, torrid yet trending towards torpid, dripping down over the synthesizer and bass:

Out on the tar plains, the glides are moving
All looking for a new place to drive
You sit beside me, so newly charming
Sweating dew drops glisten, freshing your side

Yes, they have paid much attention to the sound of the words. Say that last line aloud: “Sweating dew drops glisten, freshing your side.” Not fresh on and not freshening and certainly not refreshing; freshing. Listen to how the vowel peaks roll in the line, /ɛ u ɑ ɪ ɛ ɔ aɪ/ (the reduced ones in second syllables simply drip away). Listen to the sequence of consonants, the weaving of stops and soft fresh hisses, the rhythm that insists and then pulls back for just a moment before pushing and holding. Every sound is in place.

But is that word out of place, freshing? Is that a word you have ever used that way? Does it seem like an unexpected, half-unknown, entirely perfect new companion, so smoothly fitting and yet so strange, like a piece that works as though always made for that spot and yet has come from nowhere? Does it make you nervous, does it seem too right and not familiar enough to be right?

Songwriters are known for making strange bedfellows at times. The sense can be obscure, obnubilated. The lyrics may be hazy and suggestive. What, after all, does the repeated line “Sing blue silver” mean at the end of each refrain in the song? Sometimes words are chosen for form, not sense; sometimes they are like books shelved by colour and shape. The more rigid among us may accuse the writers of being undereducated, semi-literate.

And yet fresh is a word we have had as a verb since the 1300s. It is converted, of course, from the even older adjective, a word that we have gotten from Germanic languages directly and by way of French. Fresh is ‘new’ and also ‘not stale’; freshing is ‘making new’ and ‘making not stale or wilted’. And ‘refreshing’. Why use freshing when we have a word already, refreshing? But before refreshing we had freshing. What was old is camouflaged as new. And you should use the part that fits more smoothly. Sometimes there is more than just the colour and shape. Listen: it is newly charming.

Yes, listen. Listen to Duran Duran’s original. Listen to the last stanza, ending “I’ll only watch you leave me further behind”; listen to the last refrain, ending “Sing me, sing blue silver”; listen then to the long instrumental tail of the song, what is left when the words have been doffed like cool silk, and you will hear, woven underneath, clips of a voice, a crisp accent saying things that may not fit at first but fall into place. “There’s more to this kind of camouflage, more than just colour and shape.” And… what is the next bit? The next bit is a stretch of words that prove that people will hear what they want to hear, even if it makes no sense.

But a sultry song like this is like a hazy, hot afternoon, when nothing is quite real and you piece it together from memory even as it is happening. The dewdrops glisten and fresh. But the dewdrops have come from within: you are refreshed by yourself, by something that has come from within you – and then falls away and evaporates, leaving just a faint trail. Freshing.

The vinyl version of Rio has a very full back side, full to the inner groove. After the dripping words laid over the inexorable refrain, after the almost-impenetrable stolen clips of voice, after the synthesizers and flute grind and swirl to their climax, there is a sound of chains or coins being dropped on the floor – and then, just like that, without even a moment of final hiss, the needle on my record player would pick up and return to inert.


The game farm house was at the foot of a mountain with a large cliff at the top. I spent my adolescence with that face hanging above and behind me.

If you’ve ever driven to Banff from Calgary you will have seen it. It’s the first mountain on the north side of the valley. The cliff face across the top is vaguely reminiscent of a yam that has been – not cut, rather broken in half. Here is a photo of it.

Climbers call the mountain “the Yam.” But they don’t call it “the Yam” because it looks like a yam. They call it “the Yam” because it’s Mount Yamnuska.

There are a few things in the area called Yamnuska: touring companies, a summer camp, such like. They are all named after the mountain. It cuts quite a figure. It is very popular with rock climbers; there are hundreds of routes up that cliff face. My dad bought a book detailing many of the routes. I found it fascinating. I loved looking through it, imagining climbing up.

I have never actually done any rock climbing. (My father most certainly hasn’t either.)

But you can climb up to the top of Yamnuska without ropes or risk of falling. You just go up the trail up through the trees on the lower front and, when you get to the part where the cliff is, go around the back way. Only the front is a cliff, you see; the back is quite accessible. Don’t take the mountain just at face value.

I have hiked Mount Yamnuska. But I have never gotten all the way to the very top, just because the group I was with didn’t want to or didn’t have the time. I should go back and do it. Unlike many of the things from my childhood, the mountain is still there. And probably isn’t going anywhere for a while.

So what is this word Yamnuska? Let’s start with how it’s said. It follows English spelling. English spelling can be weird at times, but at least we know it doesn’t do things like, say, put “m” and “n” sounds together at the start of the same syllable. The Yam is easy. The ka is also easy. The nus rhymes with plus. I’ve heard some people say it “yam-noose-ka,” presumably because they think they shouldn’t say it as though it’s an English word, although the spelling is as it is to match English spelling. People leap to conclusions, and sometimes the conclusion is at the bottom of a cliff. But wherever the fault may be, there’s no sense in assigning blame; it’s something we’re conditioned to as English speakers: favour the marked. Don’t take things at face value.

But where did this word come from? The local language: Nakoda, also called Stoney. The Stoneys were the people for whom my parents worked and on whose reserve (“Indian Reservation”) I spent much of my childhood. Now, if you’re a language person, you will be aware that the sounds that make up one language are often not exact matches to the sounds that make up another one. So you may expect that our English pronunciation of Yamnuska is not quite the way it’s said in Stoney. And this is true.

Actually, it’s not even spelled that way in Stoney. In Stoney (Nakoda – do you see the resemblance to Dakota and Lakota?), it’s Îyâ Mnathka. The circumflexes indicate nasalization. The a represents a low-central vowel, like the a in bar. Stoney has two apical voiceless fricatives, spelled th and s, but they’re really in the spaces between English th, s, and sh, so Stoney s sounds sort of like “sh” and Stoney th is less toothy than English th. Also, while Yamnuska has three syllables with the stress in the middle, Îyâ Mnathka has four, with the stresses on the first and last. So what you think you see at first is actually quite different from what really is there. But the real not-face-value of Yamnuska is quite different from the jumped-to-a-conclusion not-face-value.

The name Îyâ Mnathka, by the way, means ‘flat-faced rock’. Which is pretty much right on, although actually there’s a mountain across the valley that has a similar cliff that’s flatter in the face, Barrier Mountain. (But that one is less spectacular; frankly, it’s more distinctive in the side view from Exshaw: it looks like a nose.)

But Mount Yamnuska is not the official name, nor is Îyâ Mnathka. Of course that’s the name that the people who have been there longer gave it, but the invading Europeans saw fit to give it a different name: Mount John Laurie.

If you’re from Calgary, you’ll recognize John Laurie. There is a boulevard running around the base of the nose of Nose Hill called John Laurie Boulevard. Now guess how it’s pronounced.

If you said “Like ‘John’ and like ‘Laurie’,” you’re right. But some students I knew at the University of Calgary – and who knows how many other people in Calgary – said the Laurie as like Laurier or Laurié, i.e., like “Laurie, eh.” Because apparently, being a Name and all, it couldn’t be said just like you’d normally say it; it must not be English, the John notwithstanding. Favour the marked; don’t take it at face value. Another bit of conclusion-jumping to add to the scree pile at the bottom of the cliff.

So who was John Laurie? John Lee Laurie was born in Ontario and moved west as an adult to teach in Calgary. He became familiar with the Stoney people and volunteered to work as secretary for the Indian Association of Alberta. He put a lot of time in as an advocate for the causes and rights of Indians (we now often say First Nations), and later compiled history of the Stoneys for the Glenbow Foundation. He died in 1959 and the mountain was officially named after him in 1961.

So it wasn’t really the invading Europeans trampling over the people who were there before, not quite. It was more of a way of honouring someone who did something meaningful, and quite recently at that. Again, the real story is not the face value and is also not the not-face-value you might assume. But anyway, everyone still calls the mountain Yamnuska; I’d wager that not five percent of people who know Yamnuska know its “official” name.

Here’s another nice picture of the mountain, a painting by Roland Rollinmud, a really excellent artist and old friend of my family: www.harbeck.ca/cww/cww_080305.html (you will see that it’s featured in a column written by my dad). Have another look at it, try to get a grip on where I’m coming from. Have you stopped to wonder about the geology of the mountain?

We know that, as a general rule, rocks on top are newer than rocks underneath because, well, that’s how things pile up. But what caused the cliff face to be there? A thing called the McConnell Thrust Fault. The shifting that happened because of this fault brought the rock on one side from a ways farther up the valley (I doubt it happened just one morning, but I do like the image that brings; here’s a more useful image: myrockymountainwindow.com/2012/03/05/wall-of-stone/mybuild/#main). The fault is right at the base of the cliff. The cliff is made of Cambrian limestone, hard, prone to forming cliffs, 500 million years old. The rock at the base of the cliff is Cretaceous, sedimentary, soft, 80 million years old.

Yup, the upper part – the cliff part – is older, way older. Again, things are not always what they may seem on the face of it. The older prevails, though you need to get over the younger part to get to it. No need to assign blame… but the fault remains.


Life with language is a parlous proposition. Every foray into a parlour for a parley with those present can be a precarious parlay. You have come out ahead so far in the competition of conversation, but one quick trick from a crafty, unscrupulous, captious interlocutor can upset the applecart.

Confidences in particular are prey to the parlour parlous: a joke, or a little bit of venting, can be taken at face value. In gambling parlours the risk of gambling with fake money is that it will be recognized as fake money. In conversation the risk is the opposite: of its being treated as real currency. All of a sudden you have made a bet that you have to pay out on, or your twitch or tie tug has become a bid at an auction.

But it can be simpler than that. The right word to the right ears and you have been trumped. There are some words that, among those who know them, are like the most expensive jeans: to you they look like ordinary jeans, but those who recognize the brand or cut know that they bespeak a higher socioeconomic status. Sometimes a word is like furniture with a craquelure finish. I remember seeing such things in the ’90s in a fancy furniture store in lower Manhattan. Why on earth would anyone want this scabby old vanity, I thought. I had grown up in the country and recognized cracked paint as a sign of something abandoned and on its way back to the dust from whence it came. But rich New Yorkers liked this finish, especially when it was fake. Turn up your nose at it? They will turn up their noses at you. And they have more money.

So, now, let us take a word as an example. Start with Latin periculosus, ‘causing fear’. Run it through French and into English back in medieval times. You get perilous. Very good: you can picture a trip on the Caminito del Rey, perhaps, or a ship on the high seas.

But now run that through lazy and relaxed mouths. Drop the i. Loll the tongue on the first vowel as though you’re some creaky-phonating young-adult girl doing the latest drawl despised by the older generations. Make it sound lower-class, like varmint instead of vermin. You get parlous.

But oops. Did you think parlous is a low-grade word? Oh, how can it be, when it sounds like parlour and parliament and French parler? And when it partakes of the same vowel shift as in parson, Darby, and Clark? No, no, no. This is a word that consciously erudite writers like to use when writing jeremiads about politics and finances: the parlous state of… or these are parlous times or or or. This is a word that writers who enjoy being eloquently unpleasant like to keep in their travel bags next to their tooth powder. Read enough A.A. Gill and you will be sure to see it.

Perhaps, then, it is apposite that parlous means not just ‘dangerous, uncertain, precarious’ but also ‘keen, cunning, clever, malicious’. What in Irish English is termed cute. But there is one more usage as well: ‘extreme, marvellous’ (or ‘extremely, marvellously, very’) – available as a positive intensifier too: “You’re parlous pretty.”

In short, this word has craquelure on it. The expensive kind. You would do well not to treat it or its speaker too lightly.

And, in sum, it can be parlous parlous to partake in a parlour parley with a parlous person.

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.