Monthly Archives: January 2010


Now, this is a nice word to have on your lips and tongue: it starts with a vibration – /v/ – and at the next stop releases with a trill. Such a stylish-looking word, too: like two people dining at a table – candles i i, and is that a bottle of Chianti b? One of the people is wearing a v-neck; the other, across the way, has a – turtleneck? choker? halo? And perhaps vibrio is the cell phone in her purse, or the setting she has it at for quiet; maybe it’s the car they drove to the restaurant in; perhaps it’s the Italian soda in her glass, or a name for the seafood appetizer they’ve ordered.

Well, as long as there aren’t any vibrios in their water, soda, or seafood. Oh, that would be bad. The word may be nice on your lips and tongue, but its object not so much. Um, I hate to break it to you, but the most common collocation of this word is Vibrio choleræ. Does that second word there shake a frightening image out of your memory tree? Look, the word may seem nice, but it’s no gentleman, cholera.

Vibrio, you see, is a type of bacteria, and with a capital V it’s the name of a genus of bacteria. Along with choleræ its members include vulnificus (oh, my, that’s a villainous-looking word), parahæmolyticus (kill you just by saying it), fischeri (which is symbiotic with the fishery – in fact, it produces bioluminescence), and harveyi (which also glows, and, like fischeri, is able to communicate with other bacteria). Also quite a few others. Many of them are very bad for marine critters, and many of them are bad for people too. But especially choleræ – no one wants cholera. It may come to you in water, but you won’t have much water left in you if you get it.

So how did these microbes, some of which so unpleasant, gain a name like some Italian fashion god? Well, they have flagella – little whip-like hairs (many have just one each) – that vibrate to help move the beastie. Vibrios are generally shaped like s or like a comma, by the way. But while a comma may come with a pause, this one is not a pause that refreshes.

I will be on vacation for the next two weeks, so word tasting notes will be more sporadic until early February.



Ods bodkin! Is this a dagger I see before me? Well, yes, but wrong play. If you know this word at all, it’s a fair bet you know it from one place and think of one phrase with it: “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?”

Yes, it’s that word from the most famous soliloquy in the English language, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” (translation: “Should I kill myself? Why not?”). Well, that speech is laden like an overgrown, overripe fruit tree with what linguists call “low-frequency words” (you don’t see them much!) – and, of course, oft-quoted phrases. And what instrument can help one to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, cut out the contumely, and unbind the fardels? Why, a bare bodkin.

Words, words, words… And what the heck do those words mean? Ay, there’s the rub. That soliloquy is worth a week’s worth of word tasting notes at the very least. Well, one at a time, and perhaps not all together; otherwise you would get something truly epic in your inbox. First to the bodkin! As word taster David Moody, who recommended this word, says, “if one needs to use a bare bodkin on oneself, it is a body’s kin, a boon to end what can so easily become a boondoggle…” A consummation devoutly to be wished, but we’re heading for undiscovered country here…

But what a punk little word it is, no? The kin is a diminutive – well, it is in some other words, and is thought to be in this one. (Actually no one is really sure where this word comes from; it seems to have appeared as though floating in midair, but it was around centuries before Shakespeare – Chaucer used the word too.) Kin can also call to mind family. Its shape is given a kick by the k. The bod is, well, a clear echo of body and perhaps of bawd too (“Get thee to a nunnery”? Nunnery was also a slang term for a whorehouse). It has that little perk like bud, but it’s not at all bad. It’s a very round little thing, too: three circles between two lines.

Put together, bodkin is more like a pumpkin than a poniard, but its object is something of the latter – a dagger, or an awl-like implement for piercing fabric, or a pin-shaped hair fastener. You probably don’t have one. Hamlet may not have, either – he used a sword, but in the end foiled and was foiled. Idiomatically, God has one: the expression of surprise ods bodkin means “God’s bodkin,” and evidently trades mainly on the rhyme. It is a family name, too: you may at some point meet a person with the last name Bodkin, and I don’t know whether there is a relation to this word (though most of us have relatives who are rather sharp or, anyway, brief and to the point). And then there was that hard-boiled Shakespearean-era murder mystery that was a hit at the Edmonton Fringe Festival two decades ago (I was there but missed seeing it), The Maltese Bodkin by David Belke.

Well, I think we have covered the point here, and may put up. The hour is late, after all. To bed, to bed… To sleep? Perchance to dream!

high muck-a-muck

Oh, you’ve known one of those lucky ducks who have it made in the shade – a whale of a guy, a mogul, a big kahuna with lots of moola, so stuck up, so high and mighty he leaves you muttering – or singing with Billy Joel,

All the servants in your new hotel
Throw their roses at your feet, ohh
Fool them all, but baby I can tell
You’re no stranger to the street

Yes, the nose may be high in the air, but the feet are still stuck in the muck. And we all know anyway, don’t we, that what goes on at those upper levels is a dirty business – mucking around with all sorts of dark and desperate things.

Well, we may call such a person a high muck-a-muck (or even, by further alteration and with a more muttering sound, a high muckety-muck), but what really counts is not his dirty shoes but his full belly… at least in the origins of the phrase.

High muck-a-muck, you see, may have been attracted to some relevant-feeling English words (with that nice contrast, too, between the lofty and the… well, in fact, muck referred first to dung, and is also cognate way back there with mucus), but it comes from Chinook (west coast) jargon hayo makamak, “plenty food.” That, in turn, comes from Nootka words for “ten” and for the part of the whale meat between the blubber and the flesh.

Some days you eat the whale… some days you are the whale.


Oh, how the mighty may become small – a glorious rise, then downhill… Think of Temüjin (“Ironworker”), a Mongol who overcame many obstacles to become such a great leader that he was named Chinggis Khan, “Ocean Ruler” (“ocean” seems to be a term of great approbation in the high mountains and plateaux of east Asia; Tibetan dalai as in Dalai Lama also means “ocean”) – better known to us as Genghis Khan. He took an army west and conquered vast domains. Some of those who came with him stayed and settled northeast of Persia. They took on some Persian customs and languages, and converted to Islam, but were still called Mongols (Persian mugul). From these muguls came a line of emperors who conquered India and established a dynasty that flourished for centuries before slowly fading and finally being displaced by the British: the Mughal dynasty – better known to us as the Moguls.

Wait, do you still have that glorious image in your head, of great palaces, of the Taj Mahal and many other splendid edifices, of a great empire of the subcontinent that lasted centuries? Or are you thinking of a movie mogul, media mogul, music mogul, or real estate mogul – Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, David Geffen? (It seems that while czar has managed to stay in politics, mogul has moved entirely out of it into entertainment – but also, yes, buildings.)

Or are you thinking of a bump of snow on a ski slope?

While the first great Mogul emperor, Babur, was expanding his rule into the subcontinent, Austrians were using a word for a lump of bread, Mugel (from Mocke, “lump, clod, chunk”, probably from the same Indo-European root as mow) to refer to little hill. In the 1960s, that word was borrowed into English to refer to the bumps that may form on a ski slope, usually on the steeper bits, due to the way skiers push snow where they turn. The existing word mogul, already in use for at least three centuries in the general “bigshot” or “high muck-a-muck” sense (and does not mogul seem large-ish, with its big m, heavy /g/, and back vowels?), evidently exerted an influence on this borrowing. And so a great race of great rulers are reduced not even to Ozymandias’s stone in the sand but to one in a field of hundreds of ultimately evanescent, slowly mobile obstacles – bumps on the side of a mountain, made of an ocean of snow. O, glum!

But the moguls nonetheless provide thrilling viewing for winter sports fans, and I will surely be watching the mogul competition at the Vancouver Olympics, as skiers make their way down scores of these bumps (each one a brief rise, then sharper drop), with jumps in two spots: rise, turn in graceful splendour, come down again, and hope for a smooth landing so they can continue to mow down the lumps in speed and style.

I’d say that if you want to, you can write it this way

A fellow editor was having a contretemps with a colleague who insisted on putting a comma after that in constructions such as I’d say that, if you want to, you can write it this way and You can see that, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. The theory is that these are appositives – parenthetical insertions, effectively – and should be set off on both sides by commas.

The two cases cited are actually not identical. When the phrase is integral, one cannot treat it as parenthetical, and so in particular it’s actually incorrect to put You can see that, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. This would imply that one could have You can see that the more you know you don’t know, which one cannot; the the…the is a coordinated pair (and, for the curious, this the is not actually the normal the but is in fact descended from an instrumental case form of the demonstrative pronoun).

As to the sentence I’d say that, if you want to, you can write it this way, one can indeed remove the if you want to and still have a coherent sentence (if, in this case, a jerky one), and so it can be treated as a parenthetical, but one is not required to do so. That introduces a subordinate clause that can stand on its own syntactically (unless it’s subjunctive), and anything that can stand on its own as a sentence can follow the conjunctive that without a comma. Anything – try it. (Sometimes it’s a bit lumpy, of course, but it’s not wrong.) That includes if X, Y as well as similar constructions such as because X, you can Y.

So you have a choice: either that introduces you can write it this way with the parenthetical insertion of if you want to, or it introduces the whole clause if you want to, you can write it this way. In the latter, no comma is used.


This is a nice, long word for a not-so-nice condition of length. And look at it: the letters start at the normal size, but then grow outside the lines at the end. The word seems brutish, especially with the overtones of mug and ugly, and one might be led to imagine perhaps some Cro-Magnon hominid.

Now, if we decompose it into parts, we may or may not come to an accurate conclusion as to its meaning. Mega is a popular morpheme these days, and an increasingly unbound one; since huge can be turned to hugely, can mega to megaly be far off – “He megaly kicked your butt”? And acro is well enough known: acrobat, acrophobia. Gotta do with heights, right? So if he kicked your butt halfway to heaven, he acromegaly kicked your butt, right?

Uh, no. For one thing, the ly is not the adverbial ly. The Greek root of megaly has a combining form megal, and that became megalie in French for a noun, and thence to English megaly. And the acro actually isn’t referring specifically to height; it’s not from akros, which means “the highest, the most extreme”, but from akron, which just means “extremity” (it can also mean “at the top”, which is why they named a city in Ohio after it – though you may as soon find yourself in extremis there as singing “You’re the Top,” and though it’s the seat of Summit County, it’s not especially elevated). Acromegaly is a medical condition in which your extremities – hands, legs, fingers, toes, nose, chin – overgrow.

Well, yes, your body does tend to overgrow, too. Acromegaly is almost always caused by a pituitary adenoma – a non-cancerous tumour on the pituitary gland that causes it to ovesecrete growth hormone. (Acromegaly is basically the same as gigantism, except that its onset is after puberty rather than before.) So people with acromegaly manifest it not only by overgrowth of these extremities but by, well, extreme overgrowth. Height over 2 metres is quite common. Do you remember the character Jaws in the James Bond movies The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker? The actor who played him, 7’1.5″ Richard Kiel, has acromegaly. So does famous motivational speaker and writer Tony Robbins.

So if being tall is so impressive (just as being long makes a word impressive), is acromegaly a bad thing? Yes, not only because being too tall is more of a disadvantage in many ways, but because acromegaly brings with it a host of complications. The famous wrestler André the Giant died of cardiac complications of acromegaly at age 46. Fortunately, it is treatable – not reversible per se, but the overproduction of growth hormone can be stopped.

Elaine Phillips saw this word and it grew on her, so she suggested I taste it.

mucous, mucus, nauseous

Mucous makes me nauseous.

At the sight of this sentence, the hairs on Margot’s neck stood straight up. She pushed the paper back towards her student, Marcus, and, jabbing her finger at the sentence, said “That’s wrong.”

“No it’s not,” he said. “It really makes me sick. Can’t stand to look at other people’s snot.”

“No,” said Margot, feeling vaguely queasy, due more to the grammatical infraction than to the imagery, “you have two incorrect usages in that sentence. Here –” she pointed to Mucous – “you’ve used an adjectival form where you should use a noun. The noun mucus is spelled m-u-c-u-s.”

Marcus scratched out the sentence and rewrote it: Mucus makes me nauseus.

“No,” Margot said, “now you have mucus right but there’s no such word as nauseus without the o. It has to be an adjective.”

“But you said it was wrong!” Marcus protested.

Sigh. “It’s the wrong word there. Nauseous should not be used to mean ‘nauseated’; it means causing, not feeling, nausea. You could write mucus is nauseous.”

Marcus pulled a face. “That’s really gross! That sounds like the mucus is about to puke!”

“But using nauseous to mean ‘feeling sick’ is a mark of an insufficiently educated user,” Margot said primly.

“Try telling that to my mother,” Marcus replied.

“Your mother is paying me to improve your English. If she were paying me to improve hers as well, I would. Now, you could say mucus nauseates me. That avoids the issue altogether.”

“You know,” Marcus said, looking at the paper, “I don’t like that, mucus without the o. I think it looks slipperier and grosser with the o. Also without it it looks too much like my name.”

“Well,” explained Margot with obvious patience, “it’s a noun-adjective distinction. The o before the u makes it an adjective. Like callous and phosphorous.”

“So I could become an adjective if I added an o in my name,” Marcus said. “Marcous. …What’s an adjective?”

Margot paused for a moment to decide exactly when to have the splitting headache she could see in her future. “An adjective,” she said, eyes closed, hand on forehead, “is something that modifies a noun. So you have a callus on your hand, no o, but you exhibit callous indifference with an o.”

“And calloused hands, with an o, right?”

“No, because in that case you’re taking a noun and making it an adjective with the ed. So callus with no o gets the ed to be callused. Likewise, phosphorous with an o means ‘containing phosphorus’ or ‘glowing.'”

“So,” Marcus said, nudging the paper forward, “this is Marcous writing, with an o.”

Margot almost smiled. “Unfortunately, we can’t do that with proper nouns. Names, like yours.”

Marcus pursed his lips. “Nothing wrong with a bit of fun now and then,” he muttered. Pause. “So where do we see mucous with an o? Like ‘I don’t want that Kleenex, it’s all mucous?'”

Margot was about to say something and then realized that what she was about to say was not true. “Em… you could. They might not understand you. The most common place to see mucous with an o is mucous membrane, a membrane in your body that has mucus as an essential part of it. Like the inside of your nose.”

Marcus remembered something. “Or mucous relief.”

“No, in that case it’s mucus with no o because it’s really what’s being relieved – like cough suppressant: cough is a noun, not an adjective. If it were mucous with an o, it would suggest that the relief itself was like mucus, or had mucus in it.”

“I don’t think you’re right about that,” Marcus said.

Margot opened her mouth in astonishment at the impudence and was about to set him right on the likelihood of his knowing better than her. He held up a finger. “Hang on.” He jumped up, went into the bathroom, and reappeared in record time. He was holding a bottle of cough syrup, which proclaimed itself Mucous and Phlegm Relief.

Margot took the bottle in her hand, stared at it, and, trying not to hurl it through the nearest window, trying not to scream, and with an overwhelming sense of betrayal, hyperventilated herself to unconsciouness.

Poor Margot. Hard to blame her when a rule of usage proclaimed by all the dictionaries and taught as revealed truth is wantonly trashed by a very large corporation. But the poor lass didn’t even get to expostulate on the origins of mucus and nauseous; by the time the smelling salts were brought out and she came to with that splitting headache she had seen coming down the street, the hour was over.

Well, mucus isn’t a difficult one; it’s Latin, straight down – spelled the same, with the same meaning. Mucous is from Latin mucosus, which could also mean “slimy”. You may remember a slimy glue called mucilage that you used in rubber-tipped bottles in kindergarten and elementary-school days. That’s also derived ultimately from mucus. (Marcus, for its part, is not related.) You may find something gluey about the [mju] or [miw] at the beginning of mucus, and the [k] may bring to mind the closed and phlegmy velum one gets when one has a cold. You may or may not agree with Marcus that it’s slimier with an o.

Nauseous, for its part, comes (as you may now guess) from nauseosus. Of course, there is no nauseus and never was; the noun is nausea. (Needless to say, Mucus makes me nausea is not good.) As to whether one ought to use nauseous to mean “nauseated”, well, be aware that many people will consider you not merely wrong but grossly ignorant and offensive if you do. People can be so touchy about language. And indeed, Latin nauseosus means “causing nausea” and nauseous has been used to mean the same in English since at least 1628, while it has been used to mean “nauseated” only since the later 19th century – though it was in use by 1618 to mean “inclined to nausea; squeamish”.

Still, meanings shift; there are many words that have changed quite completely in meaning over the centuries. And what a word is used for is, ultimately, what it is used for – we can try to enforce specific meanings, but if everyone ignores them and goes with a different meaning, then the language has shifted, which it does all the time. And nauseous is now used almost exclusively to mean “feeling sick”. It is very commonly preceded by feel, feeling, or felt, as well as by become and became, and may also come with forms of make, as in Today’s word tasting note made me nauseous. Who but the “It is I” crowd would ever say, or expect anyone to understand, Today’s word tasting note was nauseous to mean the same thing?