Oh, man. What do you do when the going gets fast and nasty? When you can hardly get a word out, and when you do, it’s two? Imagine running for the bus or climbing up a long flight of stairs. You might fancy a bit of finesse, but that’s defenestrated in inifinitesimal time. No, you’re trying not to breathe out too hard – biting your lip, putting your tongue tongue tip to the top of your mouth – but at the last you have to open up for a moment before sighing to stop and inhaling again. Now, how do you express that?

Old English has a fantastic word for it hiding in the attic: fnast, once spelled fnæst. OK, the noun fnast can mean simply ‘breath’, yes, but the verb fnast means ‘breathe hard, pant’. It’s passed out of common usage (centuries back, in fact), but can’t we press it into service once more?

I know what the problem is. We don’t start words with /fn/. If a word starts with /f/ it has to be followed by /l/, /r/, or a vowel. That’s just a rule. The exceptions are words that we (those of us who even know them) treat as lexical circus freaks: fnarr fnarr, ftang, fhtagn

The fnny, I mean funny, thing is that these are sound combinations we have no trouble making when we want to. I mean, most of us are physically capable of making pretty much any sound that features in any language – everyone has the same speech organs, after all – but many of us just plain can’t make ourselves do certain things. Start words with ng, for instance: the ways I’ve heard English speakers say (or, rather, fail to say) the name Nguyen are almost mind-boggling. But give just about any English speaker an old book that uses the “long s” form, which to our eyes looks like an f, and just to be funny they will readily say “ftop,” “fnort,” “fkin,” and so on. They would have trouble with Italian ſbagliato just as with sbagliato, yes; some combinations are harder. But not /fn/. It’s just something we, y’know, don’t do. Anymore.

Well, we could. I don’t see anything important stopping us. I think I shall finagle ways to utter fnast until I have finally fnasted my last fnast. As ought we all – exercise is good.


These word tasting notes are strictly need-to-know.

You’re probably familiar with that term, need-to-know. It showed up in the 1950s and has grown in use quite steadily ever since. It came out of the world of intelligence – by which I mean spying. Information of great value and great vulnerability couldn’t be shared with just anyone; in order to maintain proper security, avoid compromising lives, and keep the value of the information, only those who had a direct line-of-duty requirement involving the knowledge would get the knowledge.

It also came to be used in contexts of other restrictions. If, for example, information was costly to disseminate – perhaps it required hundreds of pages of reproduction back at a time when reproduction was expensive (or, as still happens, it required payment of rights at a confiscatory level) – it would be reserved for those who had a compelling case for knowing it.

Of course, once a concept or tool is available that allows control and domination, those who like to control and dominate will latch onto it. Need-to-know becomes need-to-no: the holders of knowledge need to say No to people who ask for it, even if there’s no risk to revealing and no important advantage to concealing. Or it becomes knead-to-know: you have to massage the holders of the information, rub them just the right way. It is they, after all, who determine what need is. And sometimes it is kneed-to-know: if you ask, you will get kneed in the groin in the process of finding out.

So you have a world of knowledge that is like navigating a library by flashlight, like going through a maze and drawing cards to determine each turn, like walking through a vault full of safe-deposit boxes with just one little key. This is the world where intelligence is don’t-tell-igence. If someone else needs you to know, you can, but you probably can’t because they probably don’t.

My world of intelligence is a little different. I believe intelligence is best served by knowing as much as possible. If I spy with my little eye something that is at all interesting, I must learn more. To me, opening a dictionary or encyclopedia or doing other research is not a chore, it’s Christmas morning. Knowledge is a gift, and may we all be gifted. If I am told I do not need to know, well, I can’t even – as the saying goes, there are not enough evens to can. It’s uncanny! I am not trying to be some gnostic; I simply seek the holy gnosis – which is knowing. Knowing, for instance, that the gn in gnostic and gnosis and the /k/ and /n/ in can and uncanny and know (the k used to be pronounced) are cognate (whereas the gn in cognate is not cognate with them!), and all those words and many more in many languages trace to the same origin. Knowing that need was first a noun referring to requirement or necessity, the compulsion of circumstance – which might, in many cases, just be a stronger version of desire. A need may be the compulsion of existing with a mind seeking knowledge and needing to be fed. Who determines what need is? When it’s my blog or my life, I do.

So these word tasting notes are strictly need-to-know because I strictly need to know.

I operate on a need-to-know basis. I need to know everything.

I’ve said that a few times. More than a few. Someone finally asked me to put it on a T-shirt. So I did. Coffee mugs too. You can buy one (and another one for a friend). They’re reasonably priced. Visit cafepress.ca/sesquiphernalia.


This word has a tidy near-symmetry. The l’s bookend or bedpost it – perhaps arms in the air, or bare banners or sticks or burnt-out torches. But doesn’t it look like one of the letters should be different? Perhaps swap in an r?

To make lorel? Certainly. Lorel and losel are synonyms, and the pronunciation is the same except for the middle consonant (losel is said like “low-zl”). They’re both formed from the past participle of leese. A more familiar form may be the actual participle, loren or lorn.

You know? As in lovelorn?

That means someone who has lost love. Lorn means ‘lost’ or ‘bereft’. Leese means ‘lose’. Someone who is lorel or losel, or who is a lorel or a losel, is lost. I don’t mean that they’ve had a GPS malfunction. I mean they are a ‘lost soul’, lost to the powers of perdition. They are worthless, a scoundrel, a blackguard, a sellout, not to be relied on for anything good. They have dedicated their life to damaging others for their own profit or perversity.

In short, a losel is someone you and I would probably call a loser.

Oh, yes, there’s that r swapped in, probably where you were expecting it in the first place. We tend now to see life as a game that we are supposed to play to benefit ourselves and others. If someone treats others badly – as objects from whom to take without consideration, for instance – we often call them a loser, even if they have objectively gained considerable wealth (which is often treated as evidence of winning), because they have lost our respect, and because we entertain the idea of defeating them. In some cases people have aligned themselves with causes that justly lost legal or military conflicts over their inhuman treatment of others, effectively joining a club of obvious literal losers, but in other cases they have simply made careers of depradation, and whether or not they have yet been convicted of anything, we all know they deserve to be.

But in past times the worldview in our culture was dominantly one of a celestial contest between the forces of good and evil (never mind that the determinations of what was good and what was evil were often made for strongly human reasons by strongly human persons whom most of us now would not esteem). It wasn’t a question of whether the person had won or lost the game of life; it was one of whether Satan and his sirens – perhaps I should say his Loreleis – had succeeded in tearing the person away from the righteous path and towards the pit. Not “You played badly” but “You were badly played”; not “You are a loser” but “You are a lost one – a losel, a lorel.”

It also opens the idea of winning them back, while at the same time not implying that winning is the most important thing – being won is.


What’s the take-away on abstracts?

Ha. Abstracts are the take-away.

An abstract can be any of several things, of course. It can be a short statement at the beginning of a paper or dissertation saying what the gist of the effort is – the synopsis, the tl;dr, the elevator pitch, the take-away. It can be an epitome, a microcosm or essence or distillation of a thing – when you take away all the variable excrescences, it is what you still have. It can be a work of art with most or all representation taken away – or should I say it has bits of what you can perceive taken away from all the other bits and presented in a purified form. Continue reading

Currying favour with your readers

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

Editing and writing have a lot in common with cooking. For one thing, people come to a text, as to a restaurant, with certain expectations and ideals, and you should satisfy them. You don’t have to give them something completely predictable – especially if you’re in a line more artistic than industrial – but you do want to curry their favour.

That puts me in mind of a recipe in the Larousse Gastronomique, 1977 English edition: “Chicken curry (Plumerey’s recipe).” The listed ingredients are two chickens (cut up), butter, 500 grams of diced uncooked ham, a tablespoon of flour, light veal stock to moisten, a bouquet garni (a standard French seasoning made of a bundle of herbs), and two teaspoons of curry powder.

I don’t think you’ll be served that recipe at any restaurant today. It would seem weirdly out of place (and just weird) in a French restaurant, and it would get the chef in an Indian restaurant fired. But there was a time when French cuisine was considered by many to be the apex of the culinary world, and anything you might eat could be “improved” by a French touch. Even curry.

Likewise, there was a time when a single standard prevailed throughout most of literature. Even if a given work didn’t meet that standard, it was understood that that was what it was aiming for. Certain things were simply infra dig, my dears. Other standards were sub-standard. It was important to show you had the right sort of education.

That time is past. Just as we no longer consider French ingredients and techniques the basis of all the best food, we – or many of us, anyway – are now wise enough not to think that starchy formal English is necessary or even appropriate everywhere. There are, alas, still some people who believe that an overarching consistent adherence to a single standard is the goal of writing and editing. If a writer aiming a rambunctious piece at an informal audience puts “There’s a couple things you should know,” such an editor will tut-tut and change it to “There are a couple of things you ought to know” – or “a few things” if there are more than two. Never mind that that changes the flavour completely; somehow, a palate that can’t taste the difference is supposed to be better.

And perhaps such an editor would be pleased to be served a curry cooked to the standards of Carême. For everyone else, let’s use appropriate ingredients and techniques. English – like any living language – has a multitude of styles suited for different contexts and people. When we recognize that and work with it, we aren’t letting go of rules, we’re choosing which rules to use to suit the occasion. When people come to a French restaurant, give them the best French cuisine, sure. When they come to a chain restaurant, give them a consistent demotic product. And if they’re after good barbecue, or tortellini, or nuer pad prik, or vindaloo, leave Larousse on the shelf.


How do you say postcard?

I don’t mean “How are you supposed to say it?” I mean “How do you say it?” I know how we’re supposed to say it. The citation form, as linguists call it, is /ˈpoʊstˌkɑrd/ (or, with a standard British accent, /ˈpəʊstkɑːd/). But that’s not the everyday form of it. Listen to yourself say it: you almost never say the /t/ in there.

Which is fine. It is thereby uttered more efficiently, which is also a point of using postcards: they are smaller and lighter and more quickly sent, supposedly. They also limit the text that can be included, thereby reducing the burden on both sender and receiver. As a message a postcard is a quick salutation, a social nicety nicely discharged. Postcards are lately increasingly displaced by Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, but there’s still something about physical evidence – and a tangible, durable, non-ephemeral form.

The evidential nature is key to a postcard. It says you were there. And it shows where there is, what it looks like. Not what it looked like to you when you were there, though. Not what you would have taken with your own camera (cell-phone or otherwise). Look, you just can’t get a good shot without all those doofuses (doofi?) and their stupid cars, cars, cars in the way. (If there are people or vehicles in postcards, it’s because you can always expect to see some people or vehicles there and these ones are no longer individuals but tokens standing for a general type – postcards are the opposite of reportage.) And the light is wrong and the sky is wrong and blah. This is one reason people still buy postcards even if they seldom mail them to anyone: the photos you take on your trip, no matter how good a photographer you are, will never be as perfect as postcard pictures, nor as close to memory. Besides, you’re busy taking pictures of your family and friends standing in front of the things you’re there to see. Evidence, remember? But a postcard shows what it’s supposed to look like. A typical view. Its citation form.

Except that postcards take on the aspect of memories, and we know that memories distort, exaggerate, simplify. While the uttered forms of words are generally reduced from their citation forms, the citation forms of places are typically reduced from their experienced forms: vivid and uncomplicated.

Vivid and uncomplicated. That is the essence not just of the subjects and compositions of most postcards but also of the colours in them until more recent decades. I’m quite fond of old postcards – I don’t collect them, but I love seeing them online on sites such as messynessychic.com. And they have a look that stands out. The colours are often somewhat faded and yellowed with age, but you can still see that the exigencies of inexpensive printing in quantity meant that the inks were very contrasty, and so the blacks are often a bit thick and punchy, and the colours are vivid and uncomplicated. There’s a lot of colour but not a lot of subtle variations in the colour. In technical terms, they’re very saturated but lacking in colour depth. The earliest colour postcards are even more so: they were black-and-white photos with colour added, so of course the colour doesn’t have a lot of detail – the black ink gives all the detail.

Another feature of many older postcards, usually absent from more recent ones, is captions on the pictures. Oh, you can buy postcards with very splashy florid writing proclaiming Miami! for example, but the older ones had more detailed captions, sometimes even whole sentences, printed on the picture or beneath it.

So. On the front you have the vivid and uncomplicated citation forms of the sights you see. There may be a pithy statement. On the back you get to write some anodyne distillation or simple evidentiary salutation. The contents vary; the classic is “Hawaii is fun, wish you were here,” but my personal experience ranges from one relation who, on at least one occasion, copied text from a tourist brochure just to have something to write, to another relation (an extremely close one, often inches away) who has at times fit 200 or more words of travelogue on a standard postcard.

As may be known, I like taking pictures. I decided lately to do a series of photos of Toronto done up somewhat like old postcards, with the simple colours, the contrasty blacks, the aged look, the on-photo captions. Because why not. I also kept strictly to a 4-by-5 size, although I did allow some of them to be vertical (a little bit of a cheat). I put a number of them on my Flickr on Saturday. On Sunday I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario and found – and bought – a little book of mid-century postcards of unremarkable sights around Britain, titled Boring Postcards. It was obviously meant to be.

Here are a few of my postcards from Toronto. The captions may be slightly different from the classic style. Oh well.

kenspeck, kenspeckle

Sometimes a word brings more – or other – than you can expect. It may present itself proudly as though its sense is conspicuous, but you are as like to feel henpecked as to ken it.

Take a look, for instance, at this pair, which are obviously related; they have the same origin and meaning, but one gets the little –le suffix, making a spatter of speckle from speck (which to me is as readily a cured meat as a spot, but that’s the way my mind goes). If you know what ken is, well, then you ken it. So does that mean this word means ‘know your bacon’ or ‘know your spots’?

No, that would make it mean more like ‘perspicacious’, when it actually means more like ‘perspicuous’. “As kenspeck as a cock on a church broach” is a Yorkshire saying quoted in an 1855 glossary cited in the OED. Just as these words look outstanding, their sense is ‘stand out’ – and not necessarily in a good sense. Just… be conspicuous. “He was… a kenspeckle figure in the neighbourhood,” someone had the temerity to write in The Lancet in 1971.

Is kenspeck a funky modification of conspicuous? It’s not impossible, but there are no known printed instances that show a link beyond the surmise from similarity. There’s actually a very closely resemblant word in Norwegian – kjennespak – and Swedish – känspak – and it has a related sense: ‘quick at recognizing’. But, as the OED says, “the change from the active to a passive sense makes difficulties.” Nonetheless, as nauseous as it may make you, such transformations have been seen elsewhere.

But why would the word come from a Scandinavian language to English? Don’t forget that northern and eastern England was invaded by, and under the control of, Danes and Norwegians around a millennium ago. Scandinavian languages have had a very substantial effect on English – notably on place names, but also on common usage (our pronoun they is taken from Scandinavian; the Anglo-Saxon third person plural was hie). That effect is more pronounced in the north of England.

Oh, yes. If you know either or both of these words already, then you’re probably Scottish or northern English. That’s really where they’re used, when they’re used at all. But I suppose you could press one of them into service, if you don’t mind that the word form is quite kenspeck but the sense is not so kenspeckle.