What do you call the caboose of a mountain? You know, the part where the sun doesn’t shine? If you’re standing on a peak, and there’s one side that’s facing south (or towards the equator, I should say) and another that’s not (so it’s always in the shadow), and you’re like, “You – front; you – back,” what do you call the “you – back” bit?

How about ubac?

Yes, it’s a real word, and yes, that’s what it means: the side of a mountain where the sun doesn’t shine. Or, as skiers call it, the part where the good powder is and the snow stays around late in the season.

But I have to be fair: ubac isn’t pronounced like “you back.” No, it’s like “oo bac.” Sort of like oobleck (you know, the non-Newtonian fluid named after some good from Dr. Seuss). Or like caboose said backwards without the /s/. And with an actual /a/ or /æ/ for the a rather than the /ə/ in caboose. Whatever.

And, like Cognac, Armagnac, Frontignac, Monbazillac, Sazerac, serac, and cul-de-sac – five alcoholic beverages, a glacial tower, and a dead-end street – it comes to us from French. (Various other ­ac words such as maniac and demoniac are formed from Latin sometimes coming by way of French, but I’d rather deal with alcohol and geography than with maniacs and demoniacs if you don’t mind.) Actually, ubac comes from Occitan, from a language of southern France that has resisted being completely eclipsed by French, but French did steal this word from it fair and square.

It’s an odd-looking word, isn’t it? Its etymology is opaque. Well, it’s opaque to the person simply looking at it – it doesn’t show you clearly where Occitan got it from. But it’s also opaque because that is where Occitan got it from. It came from Latin opacus, source of opaque. Not that the back of a mountain can’t be seen through – actually, come to think of it, it can’t; that’s why it’s in the shade, mountains are opaque – but the Latin word opacus means ‘shady’.

So there it is. A word taken from Latin that wore down and became unrecognizable in the shady corners of a post-Latin language. Many common words have gone through such transformations. They get mossy, as it were. (Moss grows on the shady side of things.)

I like mountains. I even like the shady sides of them. But if you prefer to be in the sun somewhere warm and flat and sandy rather than out of the sun somewhere cool and steep and snowy, that’s easy enough. Just hit the sea first. I mean the C. Take it from the end of ubac and put it at the beginning. Congratulations: now you have Cuba.


You do well to be cagey when unlacing a language’s insouciant linguistic genius, for you may find its dark underside, its cabinet of Doctor Caligari, its closet of Caligula. But sometimes these dark undersides are callipygian: light and lithe on the tongue, prettily curved for the eyes, exquisite for lexical carousing. So fine, in fact, that they may slip into a party purely by pulchritude and do a star turn on a stage not their own.

Consider this line from The Wizard of Oz: “You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!” So expressive, so sound-symbolic. But therein is an obscurity: caliginous. What is this abecedarian coelacanth or architeuthis dux doing scaling de profundis into the mechanical racket as a sesquipedalian expletive? What, in fact, would caliginous junk be?

I’m rather inclined to think it’s what one finds in a Jawa sandcrawler or perhaps the corners of an HR Giger painting or an issue of Heavy Metal magazine, or second after second of Blade Runner. We know what junk is, especially clinking, clanking, clattering collected junk. But what can make it caliginous is just darkness and mist.

Caliginous is not just an obscure word; it is a word of obscurity. It is obnubilation. Latin caliginosus means ‘misty, dark, obscure’; it comes from a root referring to fog. You may thus picture dim heaps of rusting metal dripping with oil and condensed smog. And yet they are named with this shining lexeme, so suited to lamprophony. It is a light and dry way to refer to wet darkness.


Is the meaning of this word clear when you look at it?

It’s a lovely long word with a nice balance on the page. If you are an inveterate word taster, you will surely see that phony and know that it’s not a fake: it’s the same as you see in symphony and cacophony. So this word refers to a kind of sound. And the sound of this word, you will also guess correctly, puts the stress on the pivot o in the middle. But what kind of light do we get from the lamp?

Too easy, isn’t it? There’s no way that that lamp could be the same lamp that lights your desk. Perhaps it is part of a lamprey? Or an electric eel on an electric guitar? Or perhaps it is softly glowing, lambent.

But in fact this really is one that you can see clearly through. Greek λάμπειν lampein meant ‘shine’; the derived λαμπρός lampros meant ‘shining, bright’. From the first we get lamp, and from the second we get lamprophony and a few other lampro– words. So lamprophony is bright, shining sound. Specifically, it refers to a quality of voice: loud and clear – good enunciation, good projection, good resonance. The sort of person you can hear across a crowded room, like a bright lamp in the caliginous fog.


Sometimes you meet someone and you sit to talk or listen for a spell. They say a few words and you listen closer, led, and you are bewitched, gradually or suddenly, until you list ensorcelled and you cast your lot with this person, you know this mouth full of words is your sort. The die is cast, and he is killing you softly with his song – or she with hers – and he is a magic man, she a magic woman; the curtains flew and he or she appeared, saying don’t be afraid… you started to fly… you were bewitched, bothered, bewildered. It is all a song; it soars as it sings, and it is sorcery.

Do we not all seek, at one time or another, to be ensorcelled? To take leave of our senses, to rise up from the world, wafting on the draft of the scent of another, the words, the inner curves, the corners of the mind, the webs of the fingers, the tongue and eyes and their many uses? To pass through a lens to the core of… of what? Ourselves or what we want to be or what we want another person to be? Remember that every magnet is a dipole, and one pole is attracted to another: the face we present to the world is one pole, and our deepest internal is the other, and we are attracted to those who present the same as that inner pole to us. We are drawn to this rare person of the earth.

Because there are only two kinds of magnets but there are many sorts of people. And it is perhaps aleatory to find the right match. But when we meet, it is sorcery indeed. And it pulls together and it pulls apart, on both sides. Here is a passage from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje:

Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.

He has been disassembled by her.

And if she has brought him to this, what has he brought her to?

He and she have ensorcelled each other.

I think we all seek at one time or another such ensorcellment. We all seek to look back, later in life, on having been ensorcelled. To know that our plot could not have been as it was without it.

Such as soft silver word, ensorcel. All the consonants on the licking tip of the tongue or with a little caress of its curve: the nose-kiss of /n/, the purr of /r/ and the liquor chill of /l/, and the curving serpent s whispering softly in the ear c, which echoes the same sound. It is a word made to be spoken in a breath across a dim table. And yet it is a word for fireworks.

I have a book of paintings from the Albright-Knox Museum. On page 47 is a bold, symmetrical fountain of yellow and red on a dark blue background: “Fireworks” by James Ensor. The original French title is “Le feu d’artifice” – the artificial fire, the fire of artifice. It is an artifice by Ensor, celestial fire touched off by sparks on powder on the ground, calculated magic and a ballistic result.

Ballistic? From Greek βάλλω balló ‘I throw’. Throw and it leaves your hand, and you see the result. What do we throw? All sorts of things. Dice, yes – alea iacta est, the die is cast, an aleatory situation – but also glances, caution, hearts, lots. Not just lots of things; things called lots: any of various objects used for casting in random divination. The practice of using this is sortition, also called allotment; a person who divined using lots was, in Latin, a sortarius.

But divination is magic. If someone divines, by wit or by feel, what note to strike to resonate with the strings of your heart, so that you will cast your lot with them or feel out of sorts, they are surely a mage, a magician, a witch, a sort of sorcerer. A sortarius, which is where our word sorcerer comes from, by way of French. To bewitch was, in Middle French, ensorcerer, which became ensorceler to make it easier to say. And from that we gained English ensorcel, also spelled ensorcell.

We are told to avoid sorcerers and sorcery. But while we do not want necromancers, we want neck romancers, not a Dracula but someone who will give us love bites. We know there are lots of people in the world, and we want to find the right sort, the divine one who will divine what is in us. The other half to our magnet, perhaps. The one who will cast his or her lot with us, and stay with us for a spell. We want, if only to sing songs of it later, to have been ensorcelled.


“How,” Maury’s owlish uncle Evelyn harrumphed, “could they have let such a howler pass?” He swatted his newspaper onto the table in front of him and jabbed a nicotine-stained fingertip at the offending line. “I shall have to write a letter.”

Maury and I leaned towards the paper from our respective sides. “Monkey business?” Maury said.

“Mournfully bad,” Evelyn said, drawing forth his fountain pen and a small coil-bound notebook.

“Cart before horse or leg before wicket?” I said. Evelyn merely turned his head towards me for a moment, lowered his lunettes so he could peer at me significantly over them, and turned back to his scrawling in bilious green ink.

Since it takes Evelyn a few minutes to write one of his wonted screeds, I have time to explain the comments above. A howler is a thing that howls, of course, but it is seldom applied to wolves. Rather, it is often a short form for howler monkey, a kind of monkey that – well, you can guess what kind of noise it makes. Howler is also a now-rare term applied to professional mourners at funerals (one does see them so seldom today). And it also refers to an egregious error. That can be an error on the sporting field, especially in British parlance, or it can be an error of fact, logic, or grammar.

Is an error so named because it makes you howl with angst or laughter? It seems that it is in fact the error itself that exclaims: as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, it is “Something ‘crying’, ‘clamant’, or excessive; spec. a glaring blunder, esp. in an examination, etc.” Glaring is a visual metaphor; its auditory equivalent is howling. We don’t refer to things as glarers, however, perhaps in part because that’s a word that requires extra effort to say. But I do think that people like howler because of the how and ow that it contains – and perhaps the suggestion of who, as in “Who is responsible for this?”

Now, then. Maury’s uncle Evelyn (and we can understand how a man with a name that in the past century has gradually become a “woman’s” name might be sensitive to gaffes) finished writing his latest lance at the boils of journalism. He held up the notebook – I could see the numerous cross-outs and interlinear additions – and commenced reading aloud.

“Sirs: Your author has committed one of the most egregious schoolboy howlers in his choice of a rhetorical connective: he begins a sentence with ‘Now, then,’ a patent contradiction in terms. Is it now, or is it then? As the great Roman orator Cato – unlikely known to your woefully undereducated scribblers – was wont to say…”

Somewhere in the middle of his baterful oration I was seized by a coughing fit and had to leave the room to treat it with ethanol in solution taken orally. It occurs to me that I have failed to mention the use of howler commonly seen among dyspeptic writers of letters to the editor: to refer to something that few other than the author would even consider an error, but that the author wishes to present as about as bad as calling the pope a Muslim. In these uses, howler means “Ha! You have touched on a fine point that I have learned or figured out and that I am confident sets me above you ignorant fools, and now I get to run it up the flagpole! Howl in despair and bow before me, ye wretches! Et cetera.”

I remained in the other room for some time, coughing occasionally as needed, until the sound of the re-lifting of the newspaper signaled a return to quietude… at least until the next owlish hoot and holler.

No kudo for your bicep

After a bit of a pause to work on other things, I have gotten back to writing for The Week. My latest article went up this week:

Why there’s no such thing as a ‘bicep': A tour of words that sound like plurals but aren’t


Ah, to put on the Ritz. To be rich, or live the life of the rich. Money, it seems, is power: the power to have luxuries, the power to be treated as though you’re always right…

In my world, Ritz was first of all a cracker. And I don’t mean a white person (you may know that cracker is a negatively toned word for a white person in the US). I mean a roughly circular orange crunchy thing made of flour and who knows what else. You probably know them; their current campaign is “Life’s Rich.” I ate many a square of cheddar on top of many a Ritz cracker in my youth. Thus, when I first saw reference to a Ritz Hotel, I wondered why a cracker hotel was so special.

Ritz also makes me think of a taco – specifically Taco Ockerse, who in 1983 came out with a hit version of Irving Berlin’s 1927 song “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” By that time, I knew the reference. I knew a Ritz Hotel was a luxurious place, old-school luxury, something like the Palliser Hotel in Calgary or the Banff Springs Hotel, both CP Hotels at the time and now both Fairmont Hotels. Grand lobby, plush rooms, classic service. I knew what ritzy meant and what Taco was singing about: the well-to-do strolling up and down Park Avenue, “high hats and Arrow collars, white spats and lots of dollars, spending every dime for a wonderful time.” Ritz was a name, but I didn’t think that much about where the name came from; it was just rich razzmatazz.

The name, as it happens, comes from César Ritz, a poor Swiss boy who came to be one of the great hoteliers of a century ago. He moved up through the ranks, becoming general manager of the Savoy in London, where he installed the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier. If you’re wondering who to blame for “the customer is always right,” apparently it’s him – of course, he was following the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules. It’s a productive approach in expensive hotels (though it can produce questionable results in more modest establishments). After he was sacked from there at age 48, accused of fraud, he started up his own hotels, the Ritz in Paris and the Carlton in London, and several others thereafter, including one in Madrid.

Which is where I come back in. Our recent trip to Portugal and Spain was the sort of thing one saves up for, and our last hotel was the Ritz Madrid. It’s the kind of hotel where, with the light switches by the bed, there are buttons to call for the bellboy, the maid, and the handyman:

The rooms were plush, though of fairly normal size:

The hotel did not have a swimming pool. We wouldn’t have booked it by our own choosing for that reason alone. It did have a lobby bar, where, if you wanted, you could have very good champagne for as much as €150 a glass. Our breakfast, if it had not been included with our room rate, would have cost us €35 each in its restaurant:

It was not the most luxurious and exclusive hotel of our stay; actually, I would put it in third or fourth place out of four, though its published rates make it nearly the most expensive. But, yes, plush, posh, all that. A good place to display your ability to pay, and the power that comes with it.

Well, the word rich does come from an old Germanic word meaning ‘power’ first of all, and ‘wealth’ just consequently. You can see this same root in Richard and Heinrich, one or both of which contributed to the Swiss personal name Rizo, which is the evident source of the family name Ritz. All the Ritz words we have trace back to César Ritz – even Ritz Crackers, which managed to take the name once it had become common coin with such phrases as putting on the Ritz.

About that song, by the way. The version Taco Ockerse sang, which was the version Fred Astaire sang in Blue Skies, was the 1946 version. The original 1927 version was not about rich white people. It was about poor black people from Harlem spending all their money to dress up. They weren’t up and down Park Avenue; they were up on Lenox Avenue. It wasn’t “where fashion sits,” it was “where Harlem sits.” Not “lots of dollars” but “fifteen dollars” (admittedly the equivalent of a couple hundred today). Not “Come let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks and umberellas in their mitts” – one of the great masterstrokes of lyric writing – but “Come with me and we’ll attend their jubilee and see them spend their last two bits.” After all, it wasn’t “putting on the ritz”; it was “puttin’ on the ritz.”

But while the customer may be always right, Berlin found that the customer was not always white, and the original lyrics were, shall we say, belittling. So Berlin ritzed it up a bit more by filling it instead with rich crackers, loaded with real cheddar. So to speak.