I like sparklers.

I don’t often buy the coated metal rods that, when ignited, burn down quickly, throwing off forks of sparks as they go, like a sprinkler of light. One time, for my brother’s bachelor party, I accidentally bought incense sticks instead, thereby giving my brother much more time to down a bottle of Coke than I had intended. He ignored me anyway.

But I do like sparkle-sticks. And things that are like them. Things that sparkle. Other things that are called sparklers.

Sparkling wines, for instance. Prosecco, cava, crémant, champagne: my kind of fizzy-o-therapy. Mixed with orange juice or Campari or taken straight and frothing, dotting my spectacles with picolitres of effervescence. Tasting stars? Tasting the evanescent asterisms of a sparkle-stick.

Sparkling eyes, too, green or grey or blue or onyx black, not staring but starring and sparring, promising solemnly that they are up to no good: a little mischief adds spice to life. Winking and twinkling, and more: literally glittering, sparkling with larkishness. And sparkling teeth below, white and smiling and sharp, inclined to bite just a bit. And sparkling wit. A mind that shoots soft little knives and bright feathers all in a flickering mix.

The first definition of sparkler in the Oxford English Dictionary is “One who sparkles or shines in respect of beauty or accomplishments; esp. a vivacious, witty, or pretty young woman.” That dates from the early 1700s. Also listed: a sparkling eye, a sparkling gem, a sparkling insect, a sparkling wine, a sparkling firework.

Sparkler of course comes from sparkle. Sparkle is spark plus the frequentative –le suffix, seen also on nestle, crackle, and quite a few others. Spark has been around as a word longer than English has been its own language, and it has always meant what it means. Sparkle dates back more than 800 years.

We have not always had sparkling wine, but we have always had sparklers, though we did not always name them thus. The word is so suited; it seems like an oral performance of what it names, with the crisp stops and just a bit of fluid. Even the shape of it helps, in particular the k, which shoots off a fork like the little sparks on a sparkle-stick. More complete still is sparkly, with the y for added shape.

And most complete is life when it includes sparklers, of all sorts.

Does this bother you alot?

If you’re like many highly literate people, seeing alot is like chewing on aluminum foil. It doesn’t sit well with me either. But I am of the considered opinion that while it may not become the formal standard, it’s not going away either – because it makes a certain intuitive sense. Read the reasoning in my latest article for The Week:

Hey, grammar nerds! Stop freaking out about ‘alot.’



It’s in the frozen remote north, so frozen and so remote that even Robert Service did not dream of it. Life and everything else stops here. Frozen earth heaping over frozen earth, ice capping on ice, growing, frozen from the top in, going frosty from the bottom up. A massive pimple of land and ice, swelling slowly, pinguid with frost.

And then something thaws. Deep below, the permafrost loses its perm. The gases in the ground expand, and bingo: with a “pingo!” the mounded earth is popping over the environs. And in place of the lumping obstacle is a gaping orifice.

This, anyway, is what some people think caused the 80-metre-wide hole in the Yamal Peninsula, surrounded by burst and spurted earth. No meteorite was seen that could have done it, and anyway the shape is wrong. Something erupted from below, a pocket of gas no longer held down by permafrost and the plug of ice above.

Was the eruption a pingo? Oh, no, how misleading. What was there before the eruption may have been a pingo. A pingo is a big mound of earth made by heaving and accumulating frost. It grows slowly, a fingertip’s length a year. Pingos may collapse, yes, but not normally so spectacularly. This was an exploding ex-pingo.

The word may seem to be expressive, a verbal performance of something pushing the flat earth up like a popping bump of plastic or metal. But actually it’s taken from an Inuvialuit word, Greenlandic dialect, and it first meant something like nunatak, except that a nunatak is a peak poking through the ice while a pingo is a peak perceptible under the ice. It was European geographers who borrowed it to refer to these permafrost pimples, which are especially abundant near Tuktoyaktuk. Europeans also added a /g/ to the pronunciation, so it now rhymes with bingo rather than thing-o.

So where is this Yamal Peninsula? If you’ve never heard of it, it’s not the end of the world. Or actually, it is, as the news media have been fond of pointing out in the stories today about this pit. In the local Nenets language, Yamal means ‘the end of the world’. But not the end with the penguins. Have a look at a map of Asia. Look at the top of Russia, the rough backbone of Siberia against the Arctic Ocean. There’s a canted eyebrow of an island east of Scandinavia: that’s Novaya Zemlya, which means ‘new land’. Directly south of its eastern tip, across the Kara Sea, is the Yamal Peninsula. New land lies above the end of the world, just like the heaped earth around the new crater that’s an empty pit, a pinhole somewhere in that gelid tip, the opening that perhaps was a pingo.


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.


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.