Picture an attic.

What do you see, what do you envision with the eye high inside your head? I suspect it is the space underneath the roof angle of an American-style wooden house. The roof makes a triangle with the floor; windows may project in dormers or gables, and there may be a window at the end. It is all wood. It is dusty. There may be a bed up there (but let me tell you, I sure don’t want to sleep in it), or there may just be boxes and old furniture and toys. (Yes, there are always toys in the attic. Ask Lillian Hellman, who wrote the play of that name.) There is always dust. And the floor is wooden. It creaks. The sound of a floorboard as you step on it is something reminiscent of the sound of “attic”: dry as dust, as dead memories, as desiccated childhood. It all seems like a setting for a short story by Stephen King.

Would you expect an attic to be made of stone? To have rectilinear walls and ceiling? To have classical columns? Perhaps even a cupola? Imagine a person building a stone house with classical columns on that truncated top storey, and calling it an attic. It would almost seem like a bit of architectural Attic salt.

Well, there would be an erudite pun in there, anyway, whether or not it would qualify as refined wit (that’s what Attic salt means, for the most of us who never use the term). People who study things classical or look at antiquities in museums may have noticed that Attic is used to refer to things from or pertaining to Athens and region. What is the region of Athens? Attica – Greek Ἀττική (Attiké).

It’s funny, isn’t it, that on the one hand Attic seems so classical and ancient, while on the other hand attic seems just old and dusty and spooky? (I’m not kidding about not liking to sleep in attics, by the way. Makes my flesh crawl.) How did those two words manage to have the same form?

Because, of course, they’re the same word. The attic that has all your heirlooms in it has one more than you think: the word attic. While you’re busy dusting off old potboiler paintings and chipped chamber-pots to take to Antiques Roadshow, you have a genuine piece of ancient classical history that you didn’t even know about. Pity you can’t sell it.

Here’s what it is: You may think that there are three orders of classical columns, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. (Or you may not even know what I’m talking about.) This is basically true, but there is also a thing called the Attic order: a square column of one of the aforementioned orders. And in the area around Athens, buildings were often built with a small upper storey fronted with pilasters of the Attic order. So a short storey crowning a building – even just a cupola – is the Attic storey.

Boy, that’s come a long way, hasn’t it?

But there is still something making it more fitting to call those triangular high parts of houses attics. Attica, you see, is a triangular projection of the Greek mainland – a peninsula. Its name comes from ἀκτή akté, which means ‘raised place’.

So a triangular raised place. And an old and dusty one at that. And full of history.


How I would like sometimes to be raffish. To have won the raffle of charm and looks: not to be suave or debonair but to be charmingly rascally and always to carry the air of a mostly harmless bad influence. Rumpled shirt, unshaven chin, messy hair, devil-may-care attitude. A bit of fun that you’ll want to slightly regret but more want to really not regret. Trouble with a capital tease. Not James Bond (though Daniel Craig could also do raffish if he wanted); someone who stepped forward from the riff-raff, with a stolen rose and a glint in his eye. Not a ruffian; someone refreshing. A human embodiment of a half-crumpled raffle ticket… one that is guaranteed to win something

I don’t think I can quite manage it. I gave it a little shot with the unshaven look and… no. (Well, see for yourself on flickr if you must.) I’m no Jimmy, I’m a James. Also I’m too blonde (or light grey) for the stubble to read as anything other than bad focus. Well, so be it. I’m not really one to make a mess of things or to leave a mess behind me. Heck, in Hedda Gabler I was a natural to be cast as Tesman, not as Løvborg… to my mild chagrin. You want someone raffish? I think the French do it best. Ah oui, les français.

Where did we get this word, anyway? This softish, roughish word with its flipped hair ff and its final winking “sh!”? Its echoes range from ruffian and naffish to rash and laugh and even fresh. It’s the near-reverse of sherriff. It seems somehow reputably disreputable, like someone with an unspecified past – a past that you just don’t care that much about.

Our present sense – which Oxford gives as “Showing an attractive lack of regard for conventional behaviour, appearance, or style; rakish; mischievous; offbeat” and which can actually be applied to men or women, though my own sense is that it lands more on men – is a semantic amelioration, in fact. The older sense, again per Oxford, is “Disreputable in character, behaviour, or appearance; vulgar, unrefined; sleazy.”

The darker side of raffish. That charming guy you met in the bar who had all these great stories and got into such fun trouble has now, after spending two weeks on your couch, disappeared with a bundle of your money and some of your electronics, and someone saw him getting into a bar fight and lying sloppy in a gutter. Because, in the end, he’s just a bit of riff-raff.

Literally. He’s the second half of riff-raff, or something like it: when we’re done the riff, we’re left with raff, and he’s at least raff-ish. He’s part of the raff, which is the people (hoi polloi), every one – riff and raff, as the old expression was. It seems to come from Old French rifler ‘spoil’ and raffler ‘ravage’. Well, if anyone knows about spoiling and ravaging, being spoiled and ravaged…

Ah oui, les français.

Alright, already

My latest article for The Week is on the spelling alright: why so many people hate it – and why you should ignore them:

It’s all right to spell it ‘alright’



I went on a bit of a spelunking expedition on a shared drive. I needed to find a certain set of files. It was almost like trying to get to the bottom of the Oak Island Money Pit (q.v.). I lowered a rope and eased myself down through the trapdoors, one after another. OK, main folder. Content folder. Working subfolder. General project folder. Specific subproject subfolder. Subdivision of subproject subsubfolder. Specific item subsubsubfolder. Final file subsubsubsubfolder. Ah, there you are.

Eight folders deep. The file path was 129 characters long, not including the file name.

That’s not a file path. That’s an oubliette.

Fun fact about file paths on Windows: they can’t be more than 256 characters long, including the file name. If you try to save a file with a longer path than that, it won’t let you. It used to be the case that if you put a file into a folder such that the total path then exceeded 256 characters, you would be able to see it there but you would never be able to do anything to it ever again. The far side of an event horizon.

But never mind that. Before you get to that you’ll probably have lost it in the Byzantine dungeons of your file structure. Dropped into an oubliette. A hole of forgetting.

Those of you who know French know that oublier means ‘forget’. The sense of oubliette should be somewhat evident. Specifically, it’s a secret dungeon accessible only through a trapdoor in the ceiling. A place you can drop people and forget them.

In this case, it’s dropped eight levels deep. When you run money through that many bank accounts, it’s called money laundering. When you nest a clause that deep, people just lose track. Try it: The cat that the woman that the dog that the man that the truck that the dealership that my uncle who died sold recalled hit owned bit petted purred.

It’s like being covered in oobleck, isn’t it? The core of it is eminently oubliable (forgettable). It leaves you loopy, googly-eyed and babbling.

And that’s what really makes an oubliette: not just the one trapdoor, but the total distance from the nearest windows or outside door. With just one trapdoor, you might still hear the screaming. But if the trapdoor is in a closed room at the end of a hallway at the bottom of a staircase off an anteroom of a locked room in a quiet wing of an isolated castle, well, who keeps track of these things? Who has all the keys?

I know who. Probably that rubicund soubrette. She may be bamboozled into helping you with her keys if she’s sufficiently blotto… but if she is, then she forgets. Better to take a long rope, some lock-picking tools, and a lot of chloroform.

Or just forget about it.


Yesterday I watched a short video on the New York Times site about the mathematics of lasso tricks – you know, the famous image we have of a lasso being spun in a flat circle. It wasn’t long on details of the math, though it did have a few nice demonstrations of the tricks. But what caught my attention was how the narrator said lasso.

How do you say lasso?

I posed the question on Twitter and got interesting results. It seems that Americans generally, or at least the ones who responded (who seem mostly or all to be urbanites, but from California, Texas, Massachusetts, Utah, Washington, and several other states, but not Wyoming or Montana), say it the way the New York Times guy did. The Canadians – as well as one British guy from Birmingham – say it the way I do. (I’m from Alberta and grew up surrounded by ranchers – i.e., “cowboys.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary lists both pronunciations, but quotes Fowler as saying that my pronunciation is preferred “by those who use it” (i.e., the actual thing, not just the word).

I won’t rope you along any longer. The way I say lasso – the only way I’ve ever really been used to hearing it, either (but I don’t listen to much country music or watch a lot of western movies) – is /læ su/, with the stress on the second syllable or close to even between the two. “Lassoo,” we might write it. The way the Americans all seem to say lasso (though I’m sure there must be exceptions) is with an o vowel at the end, and the stress on the first syllable: “lassoh.”

Now, it’s our word, we rustled it fair and square,* so we can say it how we will – Americans one way, Canadians and Brits another – but we might want to look at its origin for some clue to why Americans say it that way while Canadians and Brits don’t. English got it from the Spanish word lazo, pronounced “la so.” And there are more Spanish speakers in the US to influence that. (Branding expert Nancy Friedman, a Californian, defended her pronunciation with “I live in New Spain, where we lasso words for desayuno.”) No doubt the Spanish influence also helps account for why Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills is “ro-day-o” rather than “ro-dee-o.” We don’t have that Spanish influence in Canada, so our pronunciation stays where it wandered off to.

But the word didn’t originally come from lazo. It originally came from Lazio. Well, that’s what they call the area around Rome now; back in the day, it was Latium, whence the name of the language, Latin. The Latin origin, by way of post-classical lacium, was laqueum. Which meant ‘noose’.

But that Latin word gave us something else, too. After the cowboys came home from a day out swinging lassos to catch their calves for branding – oh, yeah, that’s why they do it, you know, so I suppose that gives a bit more authority to Nancy Friedman, the branding expert (not that kind of branding, though) – they met their ladies, who might be dressed up all pretty in lace. And guess what: that lace that the ladies used to snare the cowboys comes from the same Latin root as lasso. (Now that ladies also lasso, the guys need to catch up with the lace. Though I don’t know if it will snare the ladies.)

*Yes, I know rustling is stealing. I’m making a funny.

Californian and Canadian accents: a podcast

Every so often, Lauren Hansen, the podcast producer for The Week, will email me and suggest we make one of my articles for into a podcast – a brief audio segment (typically 5 to 6 minutes) based on the article, with some illustrative sound clips added. I never say no because why would I? She does up an abridged version of the article, I make any edits I feel are necessary, and I record my voice reading it in the comfort of my apartment. I send that to her and she edits it together with the other clips and makes the podcast.

This week’s is based on my article from a while back on the similarities between Canadian and Californian accents:

Why it’s difficult to tell a Californian accent from a Canadian one



Let’s say you’re in a screening room.

So… what is being screened? Or who is? Screened in? Screened out? Screened for viewing?

What would you say are the defining characteristics of a screen? It’s something flat that comes between two things, yes. Usually it’s a thin, probably flexible thing mounted in a rigid frame. It impedes – usually just partially – the passage of air, light, fluids, solids, that order of thing. Originally, screens were things that you used to protect yourself from too-cold or too-hot air. But rarely now is a screen hard and opaque, permitting no passage of anything. Screens screen things out – and other things in.

A screen door lets some air and sound through, and some light too, passing through its mesh, but it keeps insects and larger life forms out (unless they operate the handle). The lint screen on your clothes dryer lets air pass through but grabs onto the lint and stops it from passing through. Silk screens for printing grab onto the ink and hold onto it until they are pressed to release it. Screening programs aim to act like filters, keeping all but the particularly desirable people out. Movie screens grab onto light and keep it from passing through unimpeded as air would: they glow with their luminous prey and you see it because they give it to you.

A screen grabs. That is what a screen does. It grabs some things and, perhaps, lets others pass. And then you can take what it will let you have.

Even the word screen works with that. It starts with that grabby scr, a very popular word beginning in English; many of the scr words have some taste of clutching, grabbing, or constricting: scrabble, scrape, scramble, scrawny, scratch, scrimp, scrounge, scrub, scrunch, scrutinize… After the scr comes the ee, the high and tight vowel, the one that lets the least air through. Then it closes softly but surely with n. Is this a word that could only have to do with holding tightly? Not necessarily; the word closest to it in sound is scream, which might come with gripping hands but then again might not. But the sound of screen certainly is reasonable concordant with its sense.

A screen is like a fishing net. It catches things for prevention or consumption. How you like what it does depends on whether you are the beneficiary of its catching – or are what’s being caught.

I was thinking of screens today because I was in the Royal Ontario Museum. Yes, in its decorative arts section it has a number of pretty folding screens. But where I really noticed the screens was on its windows. The ROM has many windows. Most of them have black screens on them: the threads of black fabric grab the light; light that does not snag on a thread passes through. You can see through the screens – as through glass darkly.

The more oblique the angle you look from, the less you see; the more the screen obtrudes and presents its own peculiar patterns, moirés and ripples.

A screen is always less than clear. It always selects what you see. It grabs and keep and gives as it will, by design. If you think you’re seeing the world through it, remember that you’re just seeing what it has let go.

Don’t forget that you’re reading this on a screen, too.