This is a word picture.

commensal. /kəˈmɛn səl/. adjective. 1. Sharing the same table. 2. Living in the same area as a different person, organism, or group without competition or harm. From Latin con ‘with’, ‘together’ + mensa ‘table’.


“There are monsters,” Kalan says as he chews his stew.

His grandfather raises an eyebrow. His grandmother smiles benignly. His father says “Don’t eat and talk at the same time.”

Kalan looks over at his friend Ethan, who is visiting them for supper. Ethan has red-sandy short hair and fine features. He’s sitting in front of the window, which has twelve panes. It looks out onto a front porch with powder blue square balusters and railing, and beyond that a tidy lawn, still green, still bearing the scuffs and rolling indents from the two boys’ play last hour. Kalan has dark hair and all the adults say to each other that he is a very good looking boy. Some say the girls had better watch out for him, and some say he had better watch out for the girls, and the rest don’t say that sort of thing. Behind Kalan on the wall is a framed reproduction of a Renoir restaurant scene, a lively litter of young men and women with tidy straw hats around a messy still life of a table featuring three half-empty wine bottles and plenty of messy white linen.

“That’s so dumb,” Lily says. Lily is four years older than Ethan and is, as her grandmother says, “budding.” In a half dozen years she could be in that painting, which is getting more of her gaze than her brother or his friend.

“I heard Ethan’s parents talking about them when I was over there,” Kalan says. Continue reading



Black earth, rich and moist, a chocolate cake of decayed plant matter and minerals, the “tsar of soils,” the mother of Mother Russia and the womb of grass and grains in the great plains: chernozem. Where chernozem lies there are few trees but much grass and whatever farmers plant. It is a soil found in a wide dark streak from southeastern Europe across the Urals into southern Siberia, and in a smaller curved stroke in the heart of North America, and in just a few other places – though similar soils are found elsewhere; the terra preta (also ‘black earth’) of Brazil, for example, is a rich black soil that traces back to clearing and burning more than a millennium ago by the indigenous peoples.

The black earth belt of chernozem in Ukraine and Russia is also thought to be the birthplace of the Indo-European languages, a family including nearly every language spoken in Europe (excepting Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, Sami, and a few others) as well as several spoken in Asia (including Hindi and Farsi). Language: our Promethean fire, speading a culture’s knowledge and particular way of speaking about the world – the staple crop and food of the mind. So what language does chernozem come from? Russian: чернозём, from чёрная ‘black’ (said like “chornaya”) and земля ‘earth’ (said like “zimlia”). In Russian it’s pronounced more like “chirnazyom” – that ё, so often mistakenly transliterated as e, is really pronounced more like “yaw.” In English we tend to say chernozem like “churn a zem” because we don’t know any better, and it would be quite unexpected in English to say it the Russian way given how we spell it. The black marks on the page may be there to record the words that passed through the air, but once they’re planted the speech roots itself in them.

Humans have been growing things in chernozem for longer than we have been writing things down. Notwithstanding that, chernozem has lately been threatened with loss in some places – in Russia, for instance, thanks to heavy mechanized agriculture that leaves the soil exposed, heavy planting that uses up the nutrients, and loss of windbreaks that would help keep the soil in place. Revised land management policies and replanting of windbreaks are helping to reverse this. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, although the land can’t legally be sold, the earth is being sold: in what could be used as a metaphor for the spread of Indo-European languages, the black soil is being loaded onto trucks to be taken elsewhere for planting.

It’s not that you can’t grow in other soil. But good earth is good earth. This is why the early Indo-European speakers lived there, it would seem: it was good for growing. Only… was it there because they were there? Remember the terra preta I mentioned above? Studies in the past 20 years have found that central European chernozem contains burned biomass dating to several millennia ago: grass and brush fires and perhaps forest fires. The fires could have been set by lightning or by humans (or, of course, both).

We don’t know whether the early humans chose to grow crops where there were chernozems, or whether there are chernozems there because that’s where they chose to grow crops, as is the case in the Amazon basin. But the Promethean gift of fire, for good and for bad, fostered the culture that spread across Europe and into India and took its tongue with it, ultimately acquiring from Afro-Asiatic languages the gift of letters, and so giving these black marks I am writing and you are reading, displayed by means of glass and enslaved lightning. From chernozem, ultimately, comes this: chernozem.

aucupate, aucupation

Business, we generally assume, is all about busyness. But sometimes the best occupation is aucupation. They also serve who stand and wait, and sometimes the best angle is to go angling. Bide your time. Watch while you wait willingly. Don’t just do something, sit there. Aucupate: go bird-catching.

The verb aucupate and its noun derivative aucupation trace back to Latin avis ‘bird’ and capere ‘take’. Remember that v in Latin was really u, classically said as a vowel /ʊ/ or consonant /w/ (u is a more recent way of writing it, and v has come to represent a version of the consonant that, in Latin, developed later). When avis joined capere to make aviceps ‘bird-catcher’ it was originally said like “owie keps,” which is how it came to be cooked down to auceps – which is a more immediate source of aucupate.

We know how you catch a squirrel: Climb up a tree and act like a nut. But how do you catch a bird? Not while it’s flying, that’s for sure. And not when it could fly away from you either, which it surely would if it saw you coming to catch it. No, unless you’re planning to blast it with birdshot or bullets (which the Romans didn’t have anyway), you’ll want to be crafty: set a trap for it and wait. A net, perhaps, or a snare.

Ah, that reminds me of a song I learned in Sunday school: “My soul has escaped as a bird, out of the snare of the fowler…” Oh, hey, that’s the occupational name for aucupation: if you aucupate, you are a fowler. You catch fowl. But I bet many of you reading this know Fowler as the name of the author of a much-revered guide: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by Henry Watson Fowler. Subsequent editions have involved other hands; I have a copy of The New Fowler’s by R.W. Burchfield. It is a thick, detailed manual of all the snares and other traps awaiting the casual peregrinator in English. The grammarian’s occupation may seem indeed to be aucupation.

Not the editor’s, though. We go through and release all those traps, render them inert, disable them. Our jobs do not focus on sitting and waiting, either: once we have the text, it won’t move until we touch it. No, it is writing that is more the aucupation: to snare the birds of the mind and the world, or to catch them in flight. It is best done as a solitary, quiet craft. Group brainstorming sessions often make such a show of busyness that their noise and distraction scare the more delicate birds away, bringing only the buzzards. Let the writer do the fowling carefully, craftily, quietly. And then pass the results to the editor, who will clean and dress them, perhaps with the aid of a Fowler.

loury, lowery

This is another word picture.

loury also spelled lowery. /laʊ(ə)ri/. adjective. Frowning, scowling, threatening, dull, gloomy; especially used of weather. From lour, lower, noun and verb, meaning ‘frown, scowl’.


It’s such a beautiful scene, such a fine picture: the sea-swell of the field, still early-summer green, smudged with sunlight, cut off at the top in an unsteady line to meet the blue and white and filthy grey of the sky. At the bottom it is fringed by ruffs of cattails and tickling prairie grass, and then a gravel road. Wind is coming, and everything tingles waiting to bend in it. Rain is coming, and all this will shine five shades darker.

Will this man walking along the edge of the road be in it when it comes? Continue reading

Writing “smart” versus smart writing

An impression of intelligence is readily achievable, even in the absence of significant information value, through the expedient of adhering to the expected usages of a genre associated with intellectual output.

Let me put that another way: You can sound smart without saying much by just following the rules of the “intelligent writing” game.

We all know this, of course. You can use ten-dollar words instead of two-bit ones, and the mental effort associated with their retrieval and decoding will stand in for the mental effort associated with working out information-rich content. More than that, though, words are known by the company they keep; words seen in “smart” content will cue your mind that what you’re reading is smart. It’s just like going to a restaurant with expensive décor and smartly dressed waiters: they could serve you frozen dinners and cheap wine and you’d still assume, at least at first, that the food and bev were of high quality.

But wait. There’s more. Continue reading


There are some words that we pull out of our linguistic spice cupboard like an old yellowed tin we’ve seen in the bottom drawer so long we can’t remember the occasion of its acquisition but by golly we gotta use it sometime to add flavour to a text. OK, we’re not quite sure how it should be used, but give it here, let’s have a go. I like to think of them as turmeric words, though turmeric is not really such a word. I will explain.

When my age was in the lower double digits, I enjoyed familiarizing myself with the couple dozen herbs and spices jammed into a drawer in my mother’s kitchen in their squared Empress tins and round faceted McCormick’s jars. I enjoyed finding uses for them, sometimes in food and sometimes for other things (we shall not speak of my raids on them to make sneezing powder or itching powder). Turmeric in particular caught my attention.

Why did it catch my attention? Probably because it had an odd name I was not familiar with, and I really wasn’t sure what it was used for. I tasted it. I decided it could be good in a sandwich. I made ham and cheese sandwiches for my lunch and added some turmeric. I found they didn’t taste quite right. I adjusted the ingredients of the sandwich. Still not quite right. Finally my mother suggested to me that the reason the sandwich was tasting not quite right might be the turmeric. She was, of course, quite right.

And so it is with some words that writers see here and there and fancy might be apt, and when the prose doesn’t quite work they can’t quite see the reason it has turned not meritorious but meretricious. It’s like an article of clothing you buy that you really want to work somehow but never quite does with anything else you have, and when you insist on wearing it you always look a bit… off.

Turmeric actually does work well with other things, mind you, if you know how to use it. It’s an important ingredient in curry. But it’s less used, flavour-wise, as a stand-alone. When it is used as a stand-alone, it imparts excellent colour. Indeed, a simple solution of it, poured on a formica countertop, will leave a yellow stain that will still be there the day the house is demolished or burns flat. Take my word on this. Turmeric was used to colour clothing and other things even before it was used to flavour food. Like many other old herbs, turmeric has also been used for health effects, to treat an assortment of different conditions.

Turmeric, the spice, is made from a root, or more precisely a rhizome; the plant is related to ginger. Turmeric, the word, comes from some kind of root or roots too, but it has not been handled very gingerly. In fact, as with many uncommon words from unfamiliar sources, it has been modified to taste on the basis of conjecture and what we think it should be, as we see in citations in the Oxford English Dictionary since the 1500s: it appears as tarmaret, turmirick, tormarith, turn-merick, turmerocke, tamarnick, tamarluk, and at last – by the late 1700s – turmeric.

It probably came to have the –ic ending by analogy with arsenic and other such old linguistic lace. The evidence is that tarmaret and tormerith are likely closer to the source, which is believed to be Latin terra merita, which one might translate to ‘earth of merit’ or ‘earth of deserving’ (turmeric is not much used in desserts, so it seems to be just deserts). The Latin name for the actual plant is curcuma, which comes from Persian-Arabic kurkum, ‘saffron’ (because of the colour, not the flavour), but no one has come up with a plausible chain of transformation from curcuma to turmeric.

So be it. We’ve taken it, we have it, we use it – occasionally. We don’t always know how to use it. But we feel like we should, anyway, just because it’s there. It merits a turn.

Prayers and thoughts and inefficacious speech acts

My latest article for The Week is actually one I wrote a few months ago. We decided to keep it in reserve until another mass shooting brought the topic into the news again. Sadly, we knew that it would happen. And it did. Here’s a piece on that thing that people say as a substitute for doing anything effective:

How ‘thoughts and prayers’ became the stock phrase of tragedies