What is a spree?

Well, where do you use the word? What is it most often seen with?

Shopping spree. And spending spree and buying spree. But also shooting spree and crime spree and killing spree.

A spree is a jag, a sudden and time-limited torrent of aggressive activity that involves a series of the same type of event (buying, shooting, etc.), reiteratively performing a self-indulgence with reckless abandon.

Look at the scatter-shot suggestion of the word: the spr onset that you see in spray, spritz, and sprinkle, but also in eruptive words such as spring, sprig, sprint, sprout, and the undisciplined sprawl; the ending is the gleeful, fleeting ee. And it does not stop on a tidy consonant; it simply arcs across the sky like whee.

But shopping and shooting are not the best kind of sprees, nor the earliest kind. The earlier sense is reflected in an Irish Gaelic phrasebook I have. It is often bruited about (misleadingly and generally inaccurately) that the Inuit have 10, 100, 1000, or a googolplex words for ‘snow’; well, Irish has quite a few words for ‘drunk’. (So does English, mind you.) At the end of a list of terms indicating various degrees of drunkenness, from ‘tipsy’ to ‘blind drunk’, is this gem: dul chun drabhláis (said like “dool hoon drawloish”). The translation given: “to go on a spree of revelry and debauchery.” Following that is chuaigh muid ar na canaí aréir (“hooey midge air na canee arrair”): “we went on a spree last night.”

Yes, a spree was first of all not shopping or shooting (we’ve had the word since at least the early 1800s, so come on) but frolicking, enjoying boisterous and noisy enjoyment (typically with drinking because obviously). And the word came from… well, that’s not agreed on; some say from Scots Gaelic spreath ‘plundered cattle’; others say from French esprit ‘spirit’.

But never mind stereotypes of the Irish (or the odd idea that the word may have come to us from the Scots, whose reputation is a little different). If you want to go on a spree, go to Berlin.

Why? Is it because of its nightlife, so famous in the ’30s but not gone now? Is it because of the shopping, from the great KaDeWe department store to the higher-end fashion shops? Is it because of something darker?

It’s because of something wetter. The river that runs through Berlin is the Spree.

But that’s a bit of a trick answer. The pronunciation of Spree is like English “shpray.” Guess what the name comes from: a German cognate of spray, meaning ‘spray’.

So go on a spray. Get soaked if you want. Spray your money around. But please, do not spray bullets.


Most of us know mosaic as referring to art made of little bits – small tiles, for instance, or squares of wood, or little broken bits of pottery. If broad brush strokes are legato, mosaics are staccato.

Some of us, however, also know Mosaic as in Mosaic law: the law of Moses.

I have to say, the first time I saw that, I had a picture of the law being put together from little bits. (I still do, actually.) There may be something to that, but I leave the exegetics and scriptural history to other times, places, and authors.

So now is the part where you expect me to say that these two words, identical but for the capital letter, are really the same word, one capitalized and the other not. Like attic and Attic.

And now is the part where you are disappointed in that. No, they are not the same word. They are like two little squares, perhaps both in ultramarine hue, but one of them made of lapis lazuli and the other of porcelain pained with International Klein Blue.

Our language is something like a mosaic. The words are like little shards, all put together to make images, such as this article. Sometimes you will have two tiles of different colour but broken from the same piece of stone or ceramic. Sometimes you will have two similar tiles broken from the same piece. Sometimes you will have two identical tiles from very different sources.

And our language can seem Mosaic too: governed by a set of laws that may as well have been handed down by the Almighty on a high mountain, not just ten neat commandments on two tablets but hundreds more as well that you probably don’t even know about, some commonsense enough and some of them seemingly designed just to keep you from enjoying things that other people enjoy.

So where do mosaic and Mosaic come from?

The capital version comes from Moses, of course. Where does Moses come from? The man who led the Israelites out of Egypt had an apparently Egyptian name – the same root as you will see at the end of pharaonic names such as Thutmose and Ramesses. The m-s root means ‘son’. Well, he was raised in the Egyptian royal household, after all, adopted by the pharaoh’s daughter. An adopted son of Egypt and true son of Israel, with a truly Egyptian name adopted by the Israelite.

And the lower-case mosaic? It’s not entirely clear; the history is too fragmented. But it appears to come from the same root as museum and music, which is assumed to relate to the muses. Perhaps because shrines to the muses were decorated with mosaic tiles. Art, arts, notes. Staccato bits of ceramic or precious stone. Things that inspire us: the fragments that we put together. Or that come together by coincidence. Governed not by law so much as by resemblance and happenstance.

That’s what our language is like, really. Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous. More broken bits of diverse provenance that we manage to put together into pleasing patterns.


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.