Monthly Archives: March 2010

vouchsafe

This word comes to you as two bits glued together awkwardly, or like an overstuffed sack. Originally it was in fact two separable words, as in “He vouched it safe on us.” And these words have something of an aesthetic contrast. Vouch has that /v/, be it virtuous or vile, that kneels the upper teeth onto the lower lip, along with clear echoes of ouch, grouch, pouch, slouch, and couch. Safe is a soft word, a word to sigh as one says it, those voiceless fricatives like down pillows. And yet the final /f/ is the same gesture as the opening /v/, but voiceless. The middle affricate and fricative have nearly the same place of articulation but different manner. The vowels are opposed: the first (/aU/) starts just back of the middle and moves up and back, with lip rounding, while the second (/eI/) starts ahead of middle and moves up and front with no rounding. An odd couple indeed.

And it might even seem a basically Anglo-Saxon word if you didn’t know better. Two homey monosyllables tacked together, nothing fancy… But your first clue should be that v: /v/ was not a separate phoneme in Old English, just a positional variant of /f/, and most places you see it have come to us from French or elsewhere. Indeed, vouch comes from Latin vocare “call”, and safe comes from Latin salvus “uninjured, healthy”. So this word casts off its humble beggar cloak to reveal itself as a nuncio from Latium! It has deigned to assume this more common form, and now we are vouchsafed a glimpse of its true self. And that’s what vouchsafing is: intransitively, deigning or condescending; transitively, granting or permitting as a favour, by grace. A person may only vouchsafe if he or she is of higher status.

One may use this word to address a high personage or deity, as in a prayer – perhaps William McKinley’s “Our earnest prayer is that God will graciously vouchsafe prosperity, happiness, and peace to all our neighbors, and like blessings to all the peoples and powers of earth,” or perhaps the Baha’i prayer that begins “Vouchsafe unto me, O my God, the full measure of Thy love and Thy good-pleasure.” Or, as a writer, like W.E.B. Du Bois, one may plead, “Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into the world-wilderness.”

On the other hand, one may use it to elevate a more ordinary person, perhaps in Walt Whitman’s words:

Let us twain walk aside from the rest;
Now we are together privately, do you discard ceremony,
Come! vouchsafe to me what has yet been vouchsafed to none – Tell me the whole story,
Tell me what you would not tell your brother, wife, husband, or physician.

One might even say that this word is not in the main about vouching someone or something safe, but rather about getting a voucher into the safe that is a person’s guarded dignity or vulnerability. When we grant someone a favour or give them a special glimpse, after all, it is like opening a door in our suit of armour. But in that speaking, that opening up, that hole, we show ourselves whole by making ourselves whole – uninjured, healthy; and, from the other side, the invocation, we are allowed into the safe and we are allowed to be safe. But without ceremony, you understand – slumming, a kind of kenosis.

Thanks to Roberto De Vido for suggesting vouchsafe.

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cataskeuastic

Now, here‘s a word that seems to be constructed of assorted bits. If you’re an inveterate word taster, you will probably break it into three right away: cata, skeu, and astic. The problem is that they give contrasting flavours, sort of like onions, oranges, and celery all blended together – the kind of thing that might make you wanna duck when you hear it coming.

Cata gives a strong taste of catastrophe off the top, not to mention cataplexy (oops, mentioned it – don’t faint), catapult, cataract… a whole catalogue of words, all having something to do with something going down (Greek kata).

Skeu might make you think of skeuomorph, or it might make you think of skewing or skewering, or you might, if you work in retail, think first of SKUs (stock-keeping units, i.e., product identifiers). The sk also has a sporty side, showing up in ski and skateboard.

Astic probably brings fantastic first to mind, or perhaps, in this context, the sardonic blend craptastic.

The whole thing, in its polysyllabicity, seems clearly to be an impressive word one way or the other, though it’s not obvious whether it’s positive or negative. It could be some crazy hepcat term – after all, it starts with cat: “Wow, that was cat-a-skeu-astic, man. You really blew that axe.” It could be one of those nineteenth-century confections like copacetic or perhaps one of those older similar pseudo-classical constructions like conundrum. One way or another, though, it looks like a chimera of a word – or perhaps a jabberwock.

But what fun it is to say! It has a positively mechanical clicking and hissing. It gets better, too: strip it down – take out the vowels. What do you have? ctskstc. Yes! A palindrome! It bounces back and forth on the tongue, back-tip-blade-back-blade-tip-back. And the first and last /k/ are spelled with c, giving the word a shape like a suspension bridge or some similar construction. To match this peak in the middle, once you say it with the vowels, the middle syllable raises the lips to a pucker while the other four keep them back and relaxed.

But who uses this word, anyway? Well, more or less nobody. We know it was used at least once in 1645 and at least once in 1841, because OED gives a citation for the one and Google Books has it in a book dated to the other (not that Google Books dates are infallible, but for this book it looks accurate). We can feel sure that those two authors had one thing in common: Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle introduces the term kataskeuastikós in book II, chapter 26. Sensible translators render it as constructive, since that’s what the Greek term means (it derives from kataskeué “preparation”). But far too many people just can’t resist a nice, built-up, technical-sounding word, and no language is a packrat like English is.

So what the heck. Toss those oranges, onions, celery into the blender. Add some soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar, parsley, bay leaves, hot pepper, why the heck not – if you’re going to construct something, might as well be not just constructive but cata-freakin’-skeuastic. And then if you wanna duck, get a duck, and rub the blend on it. Marinate for four hours or overnight and roast. Guess what I’m making for supper tomorrow

You know this word just begs to be a meaningless intensifier. Go ahead, say it: that roasted duck sounds cataskeuastic, dunnit?

kitsch

A gasp of horror with the vocal catch of retching issued forth from the kitchen of Domus Logogustationis, the headquarters of the Order of Logogustation. I recognized Maury’s voice of dismay right away and went to have a look-see. There, in the kitchen, over a hutch, hung a diptych: a cricket match of fluffy kittens, and a poker game of puppies with bows on their heads.

“Who put the kitsch in the kitchen?!” Maury moaned, twitching.

“Which kitsch,” I said, unable to resist a chance to twist Maury’s knickers, “the kitten kitsch or the bitch kitsch?”

“Each. Both. Whatever! I know we’re not rich, but this gives me an itch – to pitch it in a ditch!”

“But it fills out this niche. Maybe adjust them a titch…”

Maury turned to look at me. “You didn’t do this, did you?”

“Oh, no,” I said, actually shivering a bit at the thought. “Perhaps they were picked up at Elisa’s kaffeeklatsch. Well, at least they match.”

Maury peered at them over the tops of his glasses – either for expressive effect, or just to see them less clearly; he’s unmistakeably myopic. “Kittens on a cricket pitch,” he said slowly. “I’d rather dispatch it down the coney hatch. The mutts, too. The worst sort of kitsch. Vulgar. Sentimental. Sickeningly saccharine. Wretched.”

“It’s funny,” I mused, “that something so invariably soapy, smeary, or fluffy as kitsch gets an unfluffy, unsoapy, unsmeary word like kitsch. I think our conversation has established how basically harsh and unpleasant that voiceless affricate is for a word ending. And the onset is the hardest phoneme going in English, /k/.”

“Ironic to say it’s unsmeary,” said Maury, “given that it comes from dialectal German kitschen, verb, ‘smear’.”

“Well, one does smear things in the kitchen,” I said.

“I’d rather have cockroach caca than this botch job. I mean,” he said, gesturing at the dog picture, “this one has taken archetypical schlock – C.M. Coolidge’s 1903 poker-playing dog series – and spatchcocked it with saccharine. The originals were done to sell cigars. These are not for the cigar crowd!”

“Curiously,” I said, “kitsch is only attested in English since the 1920s, if I recall correctly. …The word, I mean, of course. We’ve had the thing for much longer. Along with the words maudlin, mawkish, cloying, and tawdry.”

“Well, who knows what made kitsch catch on just then,” Maury said. He stepped forward, unhitched the kitten picture, and stood there for a moment, holding it, looking for a good place to stick it. “Hand me that butcher knife,” he said.

But just then Elisa came in. “Ah-ah-ahhh!” she sang, and snatched the picture from Maury. “Don’t touch!”

“You can’t be serious,” Maury said in a wounded voice as she replaced the picture.

“Oh,” Elisa chirped, “they won’t stay there forever. They’re on loan from my aunt. They’re just theme decoration for our upcoming vulgarity week.”

“Ross Ewage will oblige quite readily at the sight of these,” Maury rumbled.

“Kittens and vulgarity…” I smiled. “Never mind kitsch. Try Joel Veitch!” I went grabbed a slip of paper and wrote down a link for her: http://www.rathergood.com/Table/all_other_songs/ . “No kitsch there… but plenty of the other, unsentimental kind of vulgarity. And lots of kittens. If you don’t like the vulgar, you might want to skip the sweary kittens. And a few other things.” (This, by the way, is true: if you don’t like vulgarity, stick with his tamer pieces like Independent Woman.)

po

Two circles, one of them on a stick. Perhaps a lollipop heading towards a mouth? Or a pair of eyes, one with a monocle? One way or another, it’s a short word and a short vocal gesture, which might seem fitting for those who know po as the French abbreviation for “inch.” But for those who know Italy, Po is a name for a long river – the longest in the country, cutting across northern Italy from the Alps near France all the way to the Adriatic Sea south of Venice. (It comes from the Latin name Padus, which is based on a Celtic name.) Its water is not always potable, thanks to pollution.

Early in its journey, the Po passes through Turin, or Torino as it is known in Italian and now generally in the world of winter sports. The 2010 World Figure Skating Championships were just held there. Figure skating being a sport with highs and lows, one does not see too many po faces at them.

Po face? Would that be as in “can’t read my, can’t read my po face?” Well, the phrase may have been influenced by poker face, and certainly a po face is not notably more muscularly mobile than a poker face, but one can always read a po face. It is quite humourless and joyless, perhaps even p.o.‘ed, and says one thing: “Poh.” Or “pooh.” Or perhaps plain old “poo” – the po in po-faced may come from the expression of disapproval poh, cognate with the expression of disapproval (and word for “feces”) pooh or poo, but it may as readily come from where poo goes: a chamber pot, in French pot de chambre, the first word of which was borrowed into English as po meaning the same thing.

We see po in a few other places as well. I am told by Oxford that po – or p’o, indicating a Wade-Giles transliteration – is a word borrowed into English from Chinese, referring to the feminine or yin side of one’s spirit, the anima versus the animus as it were. It’s also an obsolete word for a little devil, and another obsolete word for a peacock, both motifs that – like yin – seem reasonably relevant to figure skating. And if the winning skaters seem radiant, then the fact that Po is also the abbreviation for polonium (a rare element produced by radioactive decay of radium) may be vaguely fitting.

This little word packs a lot in, it seems. Sort of like a po’ boy sandwich. Now, I am happy – delighted, almost ecstatic in fact – to tell you that the po’ in po’ boy has nothing to do with the po in po-faced. It’s just short for poor, and a po’ boy sandwich is a New Orleans kind of sub sandwich kind of like a Cajun sloppy Joe in a French loaf. Perhaps the p is a hand holding the end of one of those, ready to pop it into the o open mouth.

No, I have the answer – we had a little votive candle burning for light during Earth Hour (and a few hours past that), and I just picked it up and blew it out: the p the wick and flame, the o the open mouth, the /po/ the oral gesture of putting it out with a puff. And now good night.

yoik, yoicks

Yikes! What a pair have we here! The first might look like a typo for yolk, but the second looks like a plural of the first but with the addition of a c. They also may bring to mind yoink, a slang term for “steal”, and yonks, meaning “a long time” (as in “I haven’t seen him for yonks!”).

At any rate, the words seem suited to a high-sharp shout – which is what yoicks is, really: a shout in fox hunting to encourage the hounds. Apparently the sound of yoicks really gets the dogs going. It is thought to have come from hike. It can also be used as a non-dog-related shout of encouragement or exultation.

Yoik, on the other hand, sometimes seen as yoick but also seen as joik (or even joiggus or joiku), is a kind of song. Some of it may involve sharp, high shouts, but mostly it sounds to many ears more like Native American songs. If you guessed from the spelling joik that the source is actually northern Europe, however, you’re right: specifically, the Saami, who live in Scandinavia. They speak Finno-Ugric languages (thus related to Finnish and Estonian and, more distantly, to Hungarian) – actually about ten different languages. They were traditionally reindeer herders, and some still are; their nomadic lifestyle led them often to live in portable residences that will look to many eyes very much like teepees. And because they got to northern Scandinavia first, they are considered the indigenous people of the area – one might say autochthonous: belonging to the land. Which seems, unfortunately, to have resulted in their being treated like dirt, historically, after the north Germanic people landed in their laps. (Oh, laps: the Saami are often called Lapps or even Laplanders. They would rather be called Saami.)

Anyway, yoik is sometimes used to refer to any Saami song, but it is often more specifically referring to the luohti song of the North Saami, a song that aims to communicate the essence of an individual person or place. It often has a repetitive, chanting kind of sound, and the text itself is often elliptical and has many nonlexical syllables. It can often be heard performed with more modern instrumentation and arrangements now; I was first made aware of it by the music of Mari Boine. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbEfoOMlo4Y for a yoik from her with images of the Saami and their native land. (For more in-depth information on yoiks, see www.fimic.fi.)

I’ll take a yoik over yoicks – so much more durably exalting to my ears, and not at all gone to the dogs.

frith

A short word, exhibiting thrift in form, soughing like the sound of a small, furry animal passing freely through grass or heather on the heath, or the breeze in the branches of a brushwood thicket. You can see the grass or the thicket in the varying-height ascenders, too… perhaps the r is a rabbit, seeking the sun.

Well, in the world of Watership Down by Richard Adams, that rabbit would be a follower of a sun-god named Frith. (Watership Down has nothing to do with ships sinking, a fact I discovered after agreeing to go see the movie when I was 10. Watership Down is the name of a hill in Hampshire. But there are some bloody battle scenes between rabbits.) If the word rings a bell for sci-fi fans, you may be thinking of scrith, which is what the Ringworld is made out of in Larry Niven’s books.

But this word is also a real word, come up from the old Anglo-Saxon roots. In fact, it’s at least five words – three nouns and two verbs. And, frankly, you’re unlikely to encounter any of them in the wild – the words, I mean; their referents persist.

The first noun is related to freedom and, in fact, means “freedom and security” – the freedom one has among one’s own people in a secure society, like the freedom of a rabbit in a warren. It has current cognates in other Germanic languages meaning “peace”: German Friede, Dutch vrede, etc.

The second noun refers to a wooded area, or more specifically to brushwood or underwood, such as rabbits out of the frith of their warren might hop through (the furry fellows swiftly whiffling from frith to frith).

The third noun is just a metathetic form of firth, not as in Colin Firth (a great actor) but as in an estuary, e.g., the Firth of Forth (which has a great bridge over it). The two verbs are just derived forms of the first two nouns.

This word has other overtones in sound, too. Frisk comes to mind, as does rift. Fifth is present, as is fourth. So is forth, as in what must be Frith’s first and greatest command to the rabbits: Go forth and multiply.

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting frith.

flutterbudget

I was giving a class in word tasting, and from a book by L. Frank Baum I had pulled a real winner – not only a flavourful word that trips a pretty fillip on the tongue, but one signifying something that could well use a word like this to signify it. I wrote it on the blackboard: flutterbudget.

I turned to the class. “Let’s all say this together.”

Most of those in attendance obliged, if perfunctorily. One hand shot up. I quickly glanced at my diagram of who was sitting where. “Yes, Eleanor?”

“I don’t think we should say that.”

I blinked. “Well, why not?”

“It just sounds vulgar.”

I was momentarily taken aback – as were, from what I could tell, most of the others in the class. “It’s not vulgar,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything vulgar. If it were vulgar, you would know it. And we can’t have phonetic profiling. There’s no value in avoiding words just because they sound like something bad. You’d cross out a huge portion of the English vocabulary. …Although I can’t really think exactly what vulgar thing you think this sounds like, aside from its starting with f and having an ‘uh’ sound in it.”

“If we said this on the street,” Eleanor protested, “someone might think we were saying something rude.”

“They might think that no matter what you say if they don’t understand it,” I said, and noticed another hand up. “Brian?”

“I think it sounds like flibbertigibbet,” Brian said. “Or… butterfly.”

Fussbudget,” piped up a voice from the back that I determined was Anna.

I put one finger on the tip of my nose and pointed the other at her. “Bingo. Same budget. Slightly different sense.”

Another hand, at the back. I glanced quickly… “Kayley?”

“A fussbudget is someone who worries about money a lot, right?” Kayley asked.

“Just someone who fusses a lot,” I said. “Someone who finds fault and makes fusses all the time. A nitpicker. The budget is not our most common sense now but the sense that it grew out of. Just as bank comes from a table for handling money, budget comes from a purse for storing it in. It’s from French bougette, diminutive of bouge, which means ‘bag’ and also gave us bulge – so if the bulge in your pocket is a wallet, then it’s perfectly apposite. Anyway, from the bag sense came the contents sense – a budget can still be a bundle, the contents of a wallet or sock. Now picture that being a bunch of fusses.”

“Or flutters!” Anna interjected from the back.

“Well, it’s not right,” Eleanor said. “Talking about fluttering budgets just invites trouble.”

“Because a budgie might flutter away with your money?” Anna chirped.

“You don’t want to talk about losing money,” Eleanor said primly.

“Well, this doesn’t,” I said. “The flutters here are needless worries – butterflies in the stomach, what-ifs. The word is from L. Frank Baum’s The Emerald City of Oz – the Flutterbudgets are a group of people who spend all their time worrying about things that could happen or that might have happened but didn’t. Their favourite word is if. For example, one of them has pricked her finger with a needle.” Eleanor winced, whether at pricked or at the description of violence I’m not sure. “She is terribly afraid that she will get blood poisoning. Dorothy tells her that she – Dorothy – has pricked her finger many times and survived. At first the woman is relieved, but then she starts wailing again: ‘Oh, suppose I had pricked my foot! Then the doctors would have cut my foot off, and I’d be lamed for life!’ And so on.”

“I’d rather be a flibbertigibbet.” Of course that was Anna.

“It’s not nice to make fun of people who are concerned,” Eleanor said.

“There are the concerned,” I said, “and then there are the worrywarts and hand-wringers. Anyway, we are here to taste words. And this one trips around nicely on the lips, the tip of the tongue, the teeth, with just one retroflex. …Brian?”

“In a British pronunciation there wouldn’t be the retroflex r,” Brian said. “There would be three of basically the same vowel, three syllables in a row.”

“True, more or less,” I said, “but we’re Canadian, and Baum was American, so we and he get the alternating pattern. We all get the nice, bouncy four syllables, though. There are quite a few words with that kind of double trochee, all the way from pitter-patter and fuddy-duddy to paternoster.”

“That’s sacrilegious!” Eleanor exclaimed.

I was about to respond to that, but at the same time, from the back of the class, the voice of Anna chimed in, “Or motherf—”

I very nearly leapt across the room, but Kayley saved me the trouble, clapping her hand over Anna’s mouth.

Eleanor’s eyes widened accusingly as she looked at me over her glasses. “What if someone had been here? What would they think?”

Credit where it is due: I have http://www.anglaisfacile.com/forum/lire.php?num=3&msg=51851&titre=Traduction%2520-%2520flutterbudget to thank for bringing this word to my attention.