What do you do if you’re in the rottenest place there is? A veritable rat’s nest? An isolated place, a real penal colony?

Smile. Because you can’t do anything else.

And eat a leaf.

You’re a quokka, after all.

A quoi? Que? Do I mean a duck, a quacker? No, and I don’t mean a quagga either. Quaggas are extinct and being phenotypically resurrected. But they’re also zebras. A quokka is not extinct, nor is it a zebra. It is a small marsupial, a fuzzy microkangaroo, a wanna-be wallaby. And it is, to all appearances, quite content. Laid-back, even. Have a look:

It is, at least to look at, the Arthur Weasley of the animal world (though it doesn’t look very weaselly). Nature, evolution, and human perceptual schemata have endowed it with a face of perpetual friendly amusement, and the beneficence of its environs and general lack of local predators have given it a gentle contentment (well, mostly gentle) and a fearless quest for food. It is the sort of animal that gets more or less the same cheery guitar-strumming soundtrack on quite a few of the videos about it you can find on YouTube.

Where does this word come from, this quokka, /kwɑ kə/, that is laid back in the mouth, the tongue touching only at the back, the vowels back and middle, with the lips only blowing a Marilyn kiss at the beginning? It’s from a local language, Nyungar: kwaka. It just happens to have been introduced to the English language at a time when /kw/ was spelled qu as a matter of course.

And where is this animal from? You know it’s a marsupial, so yes, it’s from Australia. But not all over. Just the western tip, near Perth. But especially on a little island that’s just 19 km off the West Australian coast, a ferry trip from Perth: Rottnest Island.

Rottnest? That doesn’t sound encouraging. You may be relieved to know that earlier forms were Rottenest… and Rotte Nest. Which makes it clear that it hadn’t to do with rottenness. No, it had to do with rats. At the very end of 1696, Willem de Vlamingh landed on the island. He found it lovely, fecund, temperate: “a paradise on earth.” So, naturally, he named it, in Dutch, Rat’s Nest. Why? Because of the quokkas. They’re all over the place (though especially so after dusk; when the earth casts its shadow to hide the overbearing sun, these happy lesser lights emerge).

De Vlamingh thought the quokkas were rats. Big hairy ones. But, I guess, very friendly ones that were prone to springing around. At any rate, they didn’t make him think poorly of the island.

And what do you do with a lovely little island like that? Hmm, how about put a penal colony on it? Or a reform school? Yes, in 1838, a penal colony for Aborigines was established there. And in 1881 a reform school for boys was built. Both were closed in the early years of the 1900s. But it was used for internment camps for enemy aliens during both World Wars, and there was a military base there too.

And all through that time the quokkas were there. And after the prisoners left and the prisons closed, the quokkas were still there. Now people come by boat to bike around, enjoy the scenery, and take selfies with the smiling little marsupials.

People who live in heavily touristed areas sometimes get sick of the tourists. The quokkas seem fine with tourists. How happy to be a quokka!

Laurie Anderson once sang, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” For quokkas, this seems not to be true. The second part isn’t, anyway; the first is right on. Their name could as well be taken from the French quoique, pronounced the same as quokka with a French accent, and meaning ‘although’. Quoique les prisonniers sont venus et partis, et les touristes venues, les quokkas sont heureux. Although the prisoners have come and gone, and the tourists have come, the quokkas are happy. Ils ne sont ni des rats ni des souris, mais ils sourient. They are neither rats nor mice, but they smile. Or at least they seem to our eyes to smile. They are none the less for all that; for all that, they are nonetheless. Quoique. Quokka.

Here’s a little more quokka video exploration for you, complete with cheery guitar music.


A while back, I introduced you to the ubac: the shady side of the peak. Every hill or mountain on the planet, being of three physical dimensions (as far as we know), has parts that are more towards the equator and parts that are more towards the pole – the exceptions, of course, being those few peaks that are right on the equator (neither pole has a peak on it). Those parts that are more towards the equator are more exposed to the sun; those that are more towards the pole are more in the shadow. The sunny side of the peak is called the adret.

The exception may rightly be made that any mountain within the tropics will have the sun directly overhead twice a year and, for a segment of the year, have the sunny and shady sides reversed. So, for instance, in Cuba the ubac and adret may trade places in the height of summer. Employ of ubac and adret might take one aback or at least seem maladroit in those circumstances. But these words are from French and Occitan, and ultimately from Latin, so the tropics are off-topic, etymologically.

One may also point out that not all mountains have faces that are neatly north or south. This is true, too: a knife-edge peak aligned north-south will have no adret and ubac to speak of. But on the greener, softer slopes of agrarian France, the distinction is more easily and consistently made.

Since I have said this word comes to us from France, you may infer that it is said like “a dray,” and if so you are right. If, however, you think of it as “a dret,” you are also right. We stole it and we do these things to words we steal into English, after all. But to say it “ad ret” would be beyond the pale.

Or you could join the small cadre that make it adrec, or be precious (what a drag) and put on the Old Occitan adreg, but both of those look more like brands of Scotch whisky and would not be illuminating – or adroit. Well, they would be related to adroit, as this word is. You may know that adroit means ‘skilful, adept, dexterous’; ‘dexterous’ brings to mind the further origin of adroit: French à ‘to’ plus droit ‘right’ – ‘to the right’. That droit used to be droict (hence the c or even g rather than t in adrec and adreg); that in turn traces back not to dexter but to directum, ‘straight, direct, right’. It is the right not of the right hand but of rightness or correctness (and, yes, correct has the same rect, which incidentally traces even further back to the verb regere ‘rule’).

If you read my note on ubac you will know that it comes from the root that gives us opaque, which in this case means the dark side. So a mountain has a light and a dark side, and light makes right in this view. You are right to want the right to the light side if crops are your trade, for the sunny sides are much more highly rated. I don’t mean to throw shade on the ubac: direct sun has its drawbacks too. But you will probably tread your dray horse on the adret. Seek the lesser lights in the shadows, but make hay where the sun shines.


There’s something timeless about dusk, when the night has swept from the east and is high in the sky and the sun is rounding away from it. Yes, dusk marks a time, the time when day becomes night, but every day it returns – because in fact it is always there as we are turning. Look at this blue marble from afar: the sun is always on one side, and so there is never a time when it is not sunset, and night, and sunrise, and day; we just spin through the series on this carnival ride, around and around, and the entire rest of the universe seems to rise and fall, rise and fall. And when the sun sets, be it behind sharp lake or blocky buildings or torn mountain edge, it signals again the settling of daylife and the rising of nightlife.

And with the nightlife rises the night light: the moon, the stars, the planets. Night is not a cloak, not for these lesser lights; it is the removal of the obscuring effect of greater competition. Just as the best conversations in a party take place when (or where) the noise is subsided, the best moments with the reflecting moon and planets and the emitting distant stars come when the loud sun is out of the room. They are always there, these lights and reflectors, but if they are in the sky when the sun is in sight, they can hardly hold up against it. Some would be invisible without the sun – the moon and planets have no light of their own – but they are nearly nothing seen next to it; we need to turn from the one to see the others.

There is a word for those lesser lights that, just when the sun is sloping to other parties, sneak in the dark door opposite. A celestial body that rises at sunset or dusk is acronical. From our perspective they creep in behind the cornice of the planet’s edge, into the cone of its shadow, although in reality they are where they are at all times. But they are not acornical or aconical or even achronical. Oh, that last one, it has its appeal: the spelling achronical has been seen from time to time. But this word truly is outside of time; there is no chron in it. It comes from Latin acronychos, and the nych has become nic through a reconstrual by analogy. But though we may point our fingers to indicate the stars, this word has nothing to do with onycho-, the root referring to fingernails. Latin got it from Greek ἀκρόνυχος, which is formed from ἀκρο- akro- ‘high’ and νύξ nux ‘night’. What is acronical is high at night – rising when the sun sets and setting when the sun rises.

Which really means nothing more than that at that time, our ball of warm mud (with us on it) is between the sun and those night-high things. This interposition allows us to turn away from our local loud light and see in the shadow what is always there but not always noticeable.

Consider the idea that dreams run through your head night and day, always there, always stirring and steering your gently, but when you are awake the noise and light of outside life drown them out, hide them, keep you from noticing them at all. These dreams are the heavenly lesser lights of your mind’s sky. And the ones that come around just as the sun sets on your awakeness, the acronical dreams, are the ones you notice and remember, because the grand distraction, the great domination, the day of the brain, has quieted for a time.

Perhaps or perhaps not. Perhaps it is all a matter of perspective. The parallel may or may not shed light on the question, but that is not the main matter; to notice the small points, we need to shed dark on them. So here is to the acronical imaginings.

How do you say “laptop” in Lakota?

I’ve been on vacation the last few days, so I haven’t gotten to posting a word tasting. But my latest article for The Week is up. This one came at the suggestion and with the assistance of several people involved in the Lakota language preservation projects, and it took me far too long to get around to writing. I was lucky to have enough background in the other languages I mention: Mandarin, Icelandic, French… but the Lakota is the centrepiece, and the point is:

This is how old languages add new words


English’s offspring

English is descended from Anglo-Saxon, which is descended from Proto-Germanic. French is descended from Latin. Both are descended from Proto-Indo-European. Fine, fine. What about the future? What will be descended from English?

Future? What about the present? English already has descendants! I talk about a few of them in my latest article for the BBC:

How English gave birth to surprising new languages



My first acquaintance with this word was in the phrase filch a pilchard (though I’ll be damned if I can remember where I first saw it; when I Google the phrase, the first hit to use it is Sesquiotica). I’m not sure why one would incline to pilfering a small fish; one could as easily filch a flitch (a side of bacon) or a finch – although the finch might flinch, if it were quick.

Whatever you filch, though, it’s a peccadillo. You don’t filch a car or a million dollars – not unless you want to humorously play the theft as a minor matter (sort of like calling a mansion a “pile of bricks”). Filching is a dirty little thing, not a dirty big thing, and it’s quick and surreptitious (as Merriam-Webster reminds us). It has a sound perhaps of a hand grasping dry dust, like in a gulch, or something ground up, like mulch; it could be nothing more than rude air, like belch, or its constriction and stoppage, like squelch. But one thing’s clear: it’s closer to zilch than to much.

English filches words by the bagful, as we know. But did it filch filch? Probably not, but no one is absolutely certain. The Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat behind the curve on this, says “Of unknown origin.” Others are more venturesome: perhaps it comes from German filzen ‘comb through’; perhaps, as Dictionary.com says, it starts with “Middle English filchen to attack (in a body), take as booty, Old English fylcian to marshal (troops), draw (soldiers) up in battle array, derivative of gefylce band of men; akin to folk.” Our language is so fickle, we sometimes end up filling in the blanks with whatever we can grab. And afterwards, we swear that it just fell off the truck.


Some lexemes excite scintillas of recollection, bright sparkling hints from the memory – a sight, a smell, a song, here and then gone, just a corner of an envelope of reality peeking into the picture. A glimpse. So for me with glimpse: it fades into this bit from Bowie and then fades out as quickly…

I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets and
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

Listen to the song if you want:

Caught a glimpse. There are things you have and things you take (like a break or a pee or a photograph, for example), but glimpses are caught, like fish and colds and figurative wind. Your eye is a net, an open hand, and it closes on that momentary lick of light. And then it changes.

This onset, /gl/, is like a night searchlight, or a diamond turning in the sun. Consider some of the words that start with it: glance, glare, glass, gleam, glisten, glitter, gloss, glow… although there are others that are less light-like (gladiator, glucose, gluteus), there is nearly a glut of the shining kind; it could almost merit a glyph of its own, just as /ks/ gets x. Could we write *ance, *are, *eam?

But, now, look at some of these other /gl/ words: they emit light rather than perceiving it. And yet glimpsing is something you do; you glimpse, you don’t see a glimpse.

Do you?

What else is catching with your eye than seeing?

Originally, glimpse is of a set with glimmer and glitter: first ‘shine quickly, faintly, intermittently’; then, from that, ‘come into view quickly, faintly, intermittently’. From that came the noun: first ‘quick shining, flash’; then ‘brief appearance, fast transit through the visual field’. Finally it turned around to the percipient: if you catch a glimpse, you glimpse, and your act of glimpsing is a glimpse. The seer and the seen are one. The shine of a dime as it flips through the air merges head and tail. If you catch a glimpse, but your catching of the glimpse is a glimpse, you are caught in the act by the act; your eye is the mirror of the mirror. You turn yourself to face you.

No, you turn and face the stranger, who is the you of an instant in the past – or the future. The essence of the glimpse is changes, fleeting imps of vision, much too fast to take that test. The eye that sees itself sees only its former self of the last instant, awaiting the reflection. Glimpses are caught like pictures are taken: frozen moments, permanent pasts, the marks left by evaporated reality. You still don’t know what you were waiting for, but it has already happened. Or is just about to