alas (word review video)

My latest word review video is about a word that may be more in use just around now than it usually is.

Not nice, not silly, actually rather awful

My latest article for The Week is about words with meanings that have travelled quite a bit over the centuries. It’s not that they’ve clouded or warped the senses, but their histories are likely to throw you, or at least leave you in doubt.

11 words whose meanings have completely changed over time



Apropos of nothing, Zoyander Street (@zoyander) asked me if I’d ever done anything on apropos. Well, I haven’t, but it seems… um… suitable… fitting… to the point… you know, to the purpose.

Which is what apropos is from: French à propos, ‘to the purpose’ or ‘to the plan’ – French propos is from Latin propositum, past participle of proponere, ‘set forth’. So it’s two words in the original. But anyway, nothwithstanding that, inasmuch as we write it as one word, it’s become one word for us now. It just pops in like a couple of firecrackers or a minor éclat of popcorn; it seems appropriate as a single lexeme.

Seems appropriate? Seems like appropriate. It’s almost as though we appropriated it just to have a way to say appropriate while popping in a bit of French – quick frippery for the unprepared. Also, instead of ending stopped short like appropriate, it sustains as it narrows on that final vowel. That vowel, by the way, that diphthong, is one of the good ones for telling what sort of person you’re speaking to: does it begin with the vowel in or (somewhat déclassé), or with the one in above (a bit better), or the one in met (now that’s toffee-nosed)? Does it end with the tongue high in the back (like a colonial) or high in the front (like a nob)? It gives you a way to display your social cachet.

Just don’t be confused by the fact that you can use it two different ways. There’s the way that replaces appropriate, and there’s the way that goes with of to replace in regard to or speaking of. That may not seem to make sense at first, because you wouldn’t say appropriate of. But don’t forget that it’s actually ‘to the point’ or ‘to the purpose’. So saying “That’s very apropos” is very much to the purpose, and saying “Apropos of that question” gets to the point of that question. It’s a nice little bit of apracadapra.

Just don’t use both at the same time. The two most common collocations of apropos in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are very apropos and apropos of nothing, but it would really be to no good purpose to say very apropos of nothing. Unless you were trying to be witty.

But, apropos of wit, you can be a little more pretentious and use the French (put it in italics). You can toss in the phrase à propos des bottes, which would best translate as ‘in regard to boots’ or ‘speaking of boots’ but idiomatically means ‘for no particular reason’ – or, you know, ‘apropos of nothing’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its earliest citation from a letter by Lord Chesterfield: “À propos de bottes, for I am told he always wears his; was his Royal Highness very gracious to you or not?” A nice conversational whiplash, and high-toned to boot. It’s your choice as to which you find more apropos: French boots or English nothings.


Earth. The soil, the ground, the surface, the orb of the planet, the world, the full expanse of our being, the people and places of it. All the worth, all the mirth, all that has a birth or a berth, every heart and every hearth, every dear and every dearth and every death, and every tongue and hand and eye and ear: earthlings all, all on the earth, of the earth. Compassed in this short word for the soil that holds us together, five letters but (for most speakers) only two sounds: a sustaining liquid /ɹ/ and a soft dusty fricative /θ/.

Liquid and dust. Water and soil. This is the surface of the earth. But it is also two of the four “elements”: earth, air, fire, water. A heuristic way of conceptualizing, but of course three of those things contain many elements and the other is a process that transforms. The earth, though, this sphere, is what gives us gravity, what holds us together; it keeps the water flowing over its surface, and the air clinging to it so that the fire may burn on it.

Earth: a handful of chaotic organic and inorganic molecules, intensely complex. And a word for the entirety of our realm of existence, save for the distant sun that powers it and the nearer moon that reflects on us and that we reflect on in turn. The earth is the counterpoise to the heavens; the earth is what we can touch. The heavens are simple and ideal and distant; the earth is complex and dirty and here. This earth is like the letters and sounds that make up our language, and the ideas that are played out in it.

And such an utterly English word. Not just the unnecessary spelling. The two sounds are both classic English sounds but generally uncommon in languages around the world. Alveolar approximant /ɹ/ is characteristic of few languages (Irish and Mandarin come to mind), and the syllabic version less common still; voiceless dental fricative /θ/ is so abnormal for speakers of many languages that they just can’t make themselves say it when speaking English, preferring /f/ or /s/ or /t/ instead – as do native speakers of some dialects of English.

It is as ancient an English word as may be found, there from the beginning. Related to Afrikaans aard as in aardvark (in the beginning was the word, and the word was aardvark) and to German Erde and Scandinavian jord. You will find old earth in the first sentence of Ælfric’s translation of the Bible into Old English:

On angynne gesceop God heofenan and eorðan. Seo eorðe soðlice wæs idel ond æmti, ond þeostra wæron ofer ðære nywelnysse bradnysse; ond Godes gast wæs geferod ofer wæteru.

It is eorðe, accusative eorðan. Those are, of course, the famous first sentences of Genesis, best known to Anglophones in the King James version:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

“The poetry of the earth is never dead,” John Keats wrote. Where there is trouble there is poetry, so what Ella Wheeler Wilcox says is true:

Laugh and the world laughs with you.
Weep, and you weep alone;
For this brave old earth must borrow its mirth
But has trouble enough of its own.

Laughter is fire: not a thing but a process that changes things – and helps keep the things warm. But the earth is stoic; ask Walt Whitman:

The earth does not withhold, it is generous enough;
The truths of the earth continually wait, they are not so conceal’d either;
They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print;
They are imbued through all things, conveying themselves willingly,
Conveying a sentiment and invitation of the earth—I utter and utter,
I speak not, yet if you hear me not, of what avail am I to you?
To bear—to better—lacking these, of what avail am I?

The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out,
Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out.

It is the ground of our being. We are processes on it, like lightning made by moving clouds of water, evening out again at last with the earth, as it was in the beginning, earth without end.

Thanks to Laurie Miller for suggesting that I taste earth. As he is a rugby player, I suspect that he has tasted plenty of earth in his time.


Look at this cute word. It’s cool – it’s extra cool! It has an excellent shape, rounded at one end and cross-tailed at the other, and winged in the middle with the ascending l. It could be the name of a company. Or it could be some other lexical Lucullan: a relative of ilex, perhaps, or some other lex thing, with a bit of cul in the tail? Is it a cue being called right on 60 (LX)?

No, it’s gnat.

Worse than that, in fact. It’s gnasty. It’s one of the most obnoxious pests on the planet, a vector for viruses and bacteria and parasites.

It’s a mosquito.

Not just any kind of mosquito, though. There are several subfamilies of the family Culicidae, which encompasses all the mosquitos and their ilk. Culex is just one genus. But it happens to be one of the most common (it has more than 1000 species), and it’s the one after which the family Culicidae and subfamily Culicinae were named. It’s known to carry a number of diseases, including West Nile virus and possibly Zika virus.

But not malaria. Malaria is carried by anopheles mosquitoes, which look a little different if you have the mischance of inspecting them up close. They also carry a few other diseases. You’ve probably heard of the anopheles mosquito. Its name comes from Greek for ‘useless’, which is pretty on-the-spot.

You may not have heard of the culex mosquito by that name. People just call them mosquitoes – when they call them anything repeatable. Well, culex is the Latin word for ‘gnat’. Linnaeus pressed it into service for this genus. It seems a bit of a shame – such a word could have a much cooler, sexier use. It’s used as the name of a character in a Super Mario role-playing game, so that’s something. But in the coolness department it doesn’t come close to Skrillex.

Unless it bites him.


I’m not a peever. There are some usages I’m not too keen on, but I usually don’t dwell on them, because there’s no accounting for taste. There are a couple of words, though, that get some journalistic go-ats exceeding what I can swallow – the sense stretched just too far for me. I am left with hands on face, jaw agape, a bit like a person in a rather famous painting.

Not to say I’m screaming like the figure in Edvard Munch’s famous work is. But just as the figure is surrounded by much thick swirling colour, I’m a bit overcome by rather bold strokes in the word-painting. And some rather overused terms too.

I’ve occasionally joked about making a parody of newspaper food writing; I’d call it Munching Thick Crusty Slabs. But at least in that sentence munching is being used for something that involves an audible “munch” sound, or anyway a very pronounced movement of the jaws. Which are classic components of the meaning of munch, which has been with us, in its imitative formation, since the 1400s.

We know from Chaucer and others around the time that one may munch bread, and from Shakespeare that a donkey may munch dry oats and a person may munch chestnuts. We also know, though, from Thomas Dekker in 1631 that one may munch up cheese, and from Joanne Baillie in 1798 that one may munch up plum-cake, but note that those are both munch up – add the up and it seems to connote ‘gobble’. We also know from Baroness Orczy in her 1905 Scarlet Pimpernel that one may munch grapes. But they do make some sound, do they not?

Perhaps I am being too particular. But I still remember reading a review of some brunch places in a Toronto newspaper and seeing a reference to one patron “munching on eggs,” and thinking, “Goodness, how over-fried those eggs must have been – or did they not remove the shells?” And I can look through articles in The Toronto Star from recent years and see people “munching” on “a charcuterie plate with local cheeses and ethically-sourced cured elk and beef,” “souvlaki, perogies and sangria,” and “sliders” (small burgers, in this case made using meatballs). All of which are soft things.

Well, there it is. Consumption has its risks along with its pleasures. We all munch on the foods and words we choose as we like, and sometimes we are served something that is not quite to our taste. I have opinions about food, too, after all: I like peppers only if they are hot or roasted or both; I like nutmeg only if I can’t actually notice it; I like cilantro only if it is on my wife’s plate and not mine (in exchange I get the “nasty sea insects” she abominates). That doesn’t mean they’re intrinsically bad. I just have my pertinacities, and they are relatively few. I can also get bored of clever things that are overdone – I’m tiring of heavily hopped beers, for instance, and I don’t mind if a fancy meal involves neither smoke nor foam. But on the other hand, I like a good many things that quite a lot of other people can’t abide.

Modern art, for instance. And expressionist art too. Like that bloke Edvard Munch. Poor Edvard, though: he had a rather austere, pietist upbringing, and he lost his mother and one sister to tuberculosis, or, as it was called at the time, consumption – the only kind of consumption he likely had more than enough of. There was also mental illness in the family. As he at one time wrote, “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies – the heritage of consumption and insanity.” It made for outstanding art, but I don’t mind not being him.

So I can hardly complain about a few things I’m not (so to speak) crazy about in the words I consume. And anyway tastes are such tricky things. The name Munch is pronounced like “moonk,” not at all like the nice eating word. I do wonder, if we pronounced our verb munch the same way, whether I would expect different things of its sense. Probably…


It is a season of much asperity.

Yes, there is, as Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler, “The nakedness and asperity of the wintry world.” But there is also, as he wrote another time in the same periodical, much “Quickness of resentment and asperity of reply” – if not in our personal daily lives, then certainly in the larger world. (Thanks to the OED for the quotes.) As we traipse through the precipitation, we could aspire to something much more auspicious: prosperity, sincerity, perhaps a party (or parties). Something to leave a better taste in the mouth.

Taste? To me, asperity has a clear taste, and that taste is the taste of Aspirin. Have you every chewed an Aspirin? It is acetylsalycylic acid, and as such is as sour as ascorbic or acetic acid (vitamin C or vinegar), but since Aspirin also contains cornstarch, hypromellose, powdered cellulose, and triacetin, it has a chalky bittersweetness to it as well, and a texture not made for chewing really. So hard to swallow by itself.

And asperity of speech or circumstance is hard to swallow, and is sour and bitter. But I think asperity tastes like Aspirin just because the words sound the same. I could in other conditions have thought of it as poisonous like an asp, or as thick as aspic, or perhaps as poor as the opposite of prosperity. None of which have anything to do with its origin, and their resemblance to its sense is essentially coincidental.

What cool hell has spawned asperity? Like so many other words, it came to us by way of French – Old French asprete, which in modern French is âpreté – from Latin. The Latin is asperitatem, which is taken from the root asper. That may look like a name (indeed, by coincidence it is: Asper is a family name, but not from the Latin), and it may look like it’s related to aspiration, but it’s not. It’s just Latin for ‘rough’. Rough as a rasp.

That’s a good way to think of it. Take up a rasp in your hand and rub it: it is covered in asperities (yes, you can say that: the plural asperities literally names the things that cover a rasp or any rough rugged surface). It has an asperity of feeling. If you rub it against furniture, it makes a sound with asperity. (Here’s Johnson in The Rambler again: “Our language, of which the chief defect is ruggedness and asperity.” Speak for yourself, Samuel.) And when your significant other sees what you have done to the furniture, you will likely experience further asperity. Which is to say, things will be rough between you for a bit.

What can you do about asperity? The world will always have its friction, its roughness, its points. But it will also have its smoothness, and over time roughness will wear more and more to smoothness, even as other things break and become rough. Winter comes and it is cold; the summer comes and it is warmer. And interim we seek such solace as we may find: pastry, parties, art, repast, pay… there’s always something in the mix. And something more to aspire to.