Monthly Archives: October 2010


“I have a hunch,” Maury said, “we’ve beaten the lunch bunch to the punch.”

“Yes,” I said, surveying the still-deserted food court, “we’re ahead of the crunch.”

Jess nodded approvingly. “That’s good. I hate to have to use a truncheon to approach my luncheon.”

Maury looked at his watch. “Of course, the fact that it’s barely eleven would have something to do with it.”

“So we’ll call it a brunch,” Jess said.

I shrugged. “I just want something to munch.” I looked around. “Not too many options in that respect.”

“We’re surrounded by food places!” Jess protested. “Not too many options?”

“Most of what they serve does not make an audible crunch,” I said. “I am not of that school who – like some restaurant reviewers – would use munch for eating foods such as fried eggs or mashed potatoes.”

“Or soft tacos or hamburgers,” Maury added. He looked over to his left and jabbed me with his elbow. “You could get a Double Down.”

I looked down at his elbow. “What was that?”

“A dunch,” he said. “A short sharp blow, with the elbow.”

“Well,” I said, returning to the main topic, “double down is what I want in my pillow, not on my plate – and goose down, not chicken down.”

“Well, then, what sounds tastiest?”

“So far,” I said, “unch.”

“You can’t make a meal of a phonaestheme,” Jess pointed out.

“True,” I said, “but it works the jaws and, with that final affricate, makes a sort of crunch.”

“Would you really call it a phonaestheme?” Maury mused. “Do the words all have some element of sense in common?”

“They mostly seem to have an onomatopoeic origin,” I said. “Even bunch is thought to have an imitative basis.”

“Well,” said Jess, “I don’t know that I’d be as definite as that. I seem to recall that the OED gives ‘of obscure origin’ for several of them.”

“My favourite is its source for luncheon,” I said. “It says ‘related in some way to lunch.'”

“Which, in its turn,” Maury said, “may have formed on the basis of lump the same way hunch may have been based on hump and bunch may be related to bump.”

“And then there’s the other lunch,” I said, “basically obsolete now: ‘the sound made by the fall of a soft, heavy body.'”

“A lump, perhaps?” said Maury. “Does a lurch by a lump count?”

“Well,” declared Jess, “I would like a lump of something for lunch.” She looked around again. “Holy cow!”

We looked up. In the short time we had been tasting words, lines had formed at all of the food places. Maury threw his hands up as if crying “Uncle!” and audibly collapsed onto the nearest seat.

“Well,” said Jess, “that was our ‘lunch.'”

Thanks to Gabriel Cooper for suggesting the unch words.


After mentioning dryad at the end of naiad, I hadn’t really intended to return to it right away, but this evening I saw The Andersen Project, directed by Robert Lepage. (If you don’t know who Robert Lepage is, and you have any taste for live theatre, look for an opportunity to see one of his pieces.) It just happens that it’s about a guy who is hired to write a libretto for an opera production in Paris of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Dryad.”

A dryad is a kind of nymph that lives in, or is associated with, a tree. And by nymph I don’t mean simply a young girl (I was going to name the eponymous lead female in a book by Nabokov, but then I remembered that that name is snagged by spam filters due to its use to signify young girls in prurient contexts). I mean a spirit, a sprite (not a Sprite, even if it’s a Canada dryad, but it may be effervescent – if evanescent), the sort of thing the aid of which you’re enlisting when you knock on a tree after saying something hopeful – and if not on a tree, then on the nearest wooden thing (which, however, seems a bit like expecting a steak to eat grass and say “moo”).

Dryad may or may not seem woody to you. The hint of druid in it may connect you to the forest, but otherwise its connection is pretty much through its sense and its etymology (from Greek δρυς drus “oak”).

But for some reason, to me the word dryad has always had a bit of an erotic tinge. Obviously, nymphs may have one, and dryads do always take the form of beautiful young women, but beyond that, nearly every context in which I can remember encountering the word dryad has had some at least faintly sexual tinge to it. I do wonder whether I don’t also associate dryness with bareness…

But dryads have a well-established place in literature. Andersen’s dryad (who pines to see the city, and then, having done so, dies wishing she had stayed in her tree) is among the less known of the literary dryads. The Victorian ilk, with their barely repressed prurience – that society that produced Lewis Carroll as well as the pre-Raphaelites – certainly had a taste for these little darlings of the woods; in fact, it had arisen even before the Victorian era. Keats, Wordsworth, Wilde, Coleridge, all mentioned them in one place or another (be they startled, leaf-crowned, light-wingèd, what have you); so did Milton, in Paradise Lost.

Not that modern times have no fascination with them, of course; we have not lost our taste for lithe young females, be they ever so sylvan and shy. Simply do a Google image search on dryad and you will see what I mean. Mind you, many of these dryads are not so wispy – they tend to have the buxomness characteristic of fantasy (and gaming) artwork. (Dryads are also characters in World of Warcraft, after all.)

I wonder, too, whether, the shape of the word doesn’t have some influence. Look at it: in the heart is the y, which may seem like two forks of a tree coming together, but may also resemble the meeting point of the legs (y), a shape you will see in many paintings of dryads. And those d and d on the sides – they could be trees, or branches, or blossoms, but they could also be parts of a feminine form. (Perhaps even a double-d feminine form.)

And no doubt other similar words influence. Other words for nymphs, certainly – naiad is notable – but also maenad. Ah, but dryads are at least not associated with Bacchanalian frenzy, however woody they may be.


Not too long ago I read an article about a swimmer. Not just any swimmer: a woman who holds the record for the fastest ten-mile swim across Lake Ontario. A woman who swam 102.5 miles from Bimini, Bahamas, to Jupiter, Florida. And then took 30 years off. And now is planning a 103-mile swim from Cuba to Key West… at age 60.

A regular spirit of the water, eh? Now, what did the Greeks call the spirits that lived in the water? Naiads. Specifically, a naiad is a water nymph (of the sort painted gladly by the pre-Raphaelites such as John William Waterhouse). The word naiad by extension also refers to juvenile dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies; a certain flowering plant; a freshwater mussel; and an expert female swimmer.

So clearly the freshwater (and saltwater) muscles of this expert female swimmer belong to a naiad, yes? Yes and yes, in fact. Her name is Diana Nyad. And no, that’s not a made-up name; she was born Diana, and her mother married a man whose last name was Nyad. It just happens that nyad is an alternate spelling of naiad (though I cannot say for certain that naiad is the origin of her stepfather’s family name), and Diana is an anagram of naiad. Really, how perfect is that, eh? (But maybe don’t call her a nymph.)

Perhaps it’s just me, but the na seems to have a bit of a water association. Maybe I’m thinking natation (swimming); maybe I’m thinking French words such as navire, naufrage, and nager; maybe I’m thinking of Nadi, capital of Fiji (which is a bunch of islands); maybe I’m thinking of navy. Perhaps the source of that association is at root not available (n/a). The word naiad as a whole at least is pleasing to the eye, with a certain central symmetry; in the mouth, the word’s symmetry is nearly exact, as long as you don’t take into account the raising of the velum, which makes the nasal /n/ become a stop /d/.

The word naiad might seem also to have something of a flavour of not only ocean but Oceania, the naia tasting a bit of Polynesian tongues, but like Oceania and Polynesia the word naiad comes to us from Greek – the ad ending might be a hint: there’s Iliad, myriad, pleiad, and quite a few others, including some other types of nymphs.

Speaking of other types of nymphs, it’s worth pointing out that naiads are associated specifically with springs and fresh water. Diana Nyad is perhaps better known for her saltwater feats, and the nymphs associated with saltwater are called oceanids. Unless they’re in the Mediterranean, that is, in which case they’re called nereids. But, you know, you go with what you have…

Oh, and if a naiad is wet, what do you call a nymph associated with something dry? Well, if that dry thing is a tree, then the nymph is a dryad. Convenient, no?


This word looks as though it’s formed by bonding two somewhat disparate parts, one suggesting liveliness (not just pep but pepper, Pepsi, peppermint, and for that matter those yummy peppermint patties called Pep), the other suggesting massive fluid action (or laundry detergent, or perhaps a time of the year, as in Christmastide) – in other words, two parts suggesting action but otherwise some distance apart, sort of like two distant mountain states (say, Colorado and New Hampshire). On the other hand, it could be the cheerleading squad of the University of Alabama (whose sports teams are called the Crimson Tide).

One could also think of it as pept with the ide ending, of course – that chemical ide that shows up in bromide and hydride and other such things as may be pipetted in a lab. And in fact that’s where it comes from. The pept comes from peptone, which is not some group of harmony singers from a pep rally but rather (per the OED) “a mixture of proteins made soluble by partial digestion or hydrolysis”; peptone in turn comes from German Pepton, which comes from ancient Greek πεπτος peptos “cooked”, source in turn of pepsin and, from that, Pepsi.

What is a peptide? Even if you haven’t been tipped off, you probably have a sense that it’s something biochemical; I’m quite sure some of you reading know exactly what it is, and in much greater depth than I do. But, in short, it’s a chain of amino acids of the same type as a protein, but generally shorter (there is some overlap). When two amino acid residues are held together to make a chain (a peptide chain), the bond that holds them gets a name that is a common collocation for this word: a peptide bond. That’s specifically a carbon-nitrogen bond, CO linked with NH.

CO-NH peptide bond, eh… Makes me think of a ski chase in some Bond flick (Bond? Peptide Bond), taking place on the mountains of Colorado and New Hampshire. Or maybe he goes to the ocean and encounters a rip tide… Or maybe he just has too much dodgy food (with his martinis) and takes some Pepcid.


For many people, Shakespeare is reduced to two generally misunderstood quotes from monologues: Hamlet is all “To be or not to be” (which not all hearers may realize is not some existentialist meditation but rather serious suicidal ideation), and Romeo and Juliet is all “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Ah, Romeo and Juliet. Two star-crossed lovers. Most of those who haven’t seen or read the play don’t know that Romeo and Juliet actually get married or that they’re both awfully young (Juliet is approaching her fourteenth birthday). And I’d venture to say that most of them don’t know what “wherefore art thou Romeo” means.

The thing is, wherefore just isn’t used today, with some fairly rare and rarefied exceptions. Most people know it only from that phrase. And, now, where does that phrase get uttered in the play? Juliet says it on her balcony, mooning over Romeo, who is lurking below unbeknownst to her. Now, if you’re a girl with a mad crush on a guy and you’re out on a balcony and you don’t know where he is, what’s more plausible: that you’re wondering where he is or pondering why he is? And since wherefore starts with where, the former interpretation seems quite natural, no?

Well, it sure does to a lot of people. I remember seeing a Saturday morning Warner Brothers cartoon where, after Juliet (played by a bird) utters the line, Romeo (another bird) climbs up and says, “I’m here, my love.” For that matter, it seems to have been a suitable reading for whoever wrote the headline for a recent theatre review in the Globe and Mail: “Wherefore art the love, Romeo?” Bonus points on that one for the quite common failure on archaic conjugation (art being of course what goes with thou and certainly not with the love, but the headline writer may have known that and just felt it was worth the joke).

Frankly, I think this word gets a fair amount of wear for one that’s not well understood. But anyone who happens to read or listen to what Juliet says afterwards will be confused if they think wherefore means “where”, as she wishes Romeo could deny his name and she declares “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, OK, people, what’s the central conflict in the play? Their families are enemies, that’s what! She’s fallen in love with a guy from the wrong gang! Ah! Romeo, Romeo, why you gotta be Romeo, eh? What for are you Romeo? What are you Romeo for? Couldn’t you be called something else?

Funny, isn’t it, that “What for are you Romeo” sounds so uneducated, whereas “Wherefore art thou Romeo” sounds so high-level – rather at opposite ends of the scale of fiscal wherewithal? At Shakespeare’s time, of course, thou was not a starchy word; it was a normal term one used for one’s equals and inferiors. And wherefore was just a one-word way of saying “for which” or “for what”.

Yes, that fore is really for. And the where? Well, it’s where, but used in the extended sense we see in whereupon and whereby – which mean “upon which” and “by which” (it’s also the where in wherewithal). Wherefore can be a relative pronoun (“He explained to me wherefore he had done it”) or, as we usually see it, an interrogative.

So is this whiffling on wherefore some kind of warfare on the fair words of English, or simply a bonk from a ball out of the blue on the fairway, and where was the “fore”? In fact, as irksome as it is to some, it’s unsurprising – a word that doesn’t get used much anymore is likely to be misunderstood if it looks too much like it means something else. What’s to do? Well, you could always use it more, preferably in contexts that make its meaning clear. But do be aware that everyone you say it to will think of Juliet…


…we looked around through the detritus, strewn about the room like a hurricane-tattered landscape, and at length discerned a grey cloth heap in the corner in the shape of a cloaked lad. A nudge with the toe provoked a peek from inside the cape, and then the raffish ragamuffin threw off his covering, stood up with a wry smile, adjusted the ragged red scarf at his throat, surveyed the remnants of his uninvited sojourn and, without so much as a “please” or “thank you,” swung himself through the window and on to his next adventure. What a scapegrace!

Ah, scapegrace. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a likeable definition: “A man or boy of reckless and disorderly habits; an incorrigible scamp. Often used playfully.” And the quotations confirm the impression that this is a word of 19th-century literature – an era when scapegraces often showed up in novels, perhaps in a tattered cap and with a hearty “Wotcher, mate!” The word has a certain dash to it, not only through the internal echo of vowels but through the rough beginning – scape so much like scrape, and with its hissing catch and the dangerous echo of escape – followed by the smooth, nay, grace-ful ending, which subsides into another hiss but carries such a smoothness of sense.

And why would we use this word for that kind of person? Well, the idea is that he escapes, or has escaped, the grace of God – in other words, he’s a little heathen, ain’t he. Sounds kind of Huck-Finn-ish, dunnit? Or perhaps Oliver Twistish. So, yes, the scape is taken from escape (which ultimately comes from Latin ex “out of” and cappa “cape, cloak”, suggesting an uncloaking). It is altogether unrelated to landscape (which really ought to be landship if you want it to match the modern forms of its components). And the grace is of course the same grace as in grace of God (and also the grace of my wife when she’s in skates on the ice) – which traces back to Latin gratus “pleasing”, which is also the source for several words for “thanks” (grazie, gracias, etc.).

Just incidentally, scapegrace is also used for birds. I don’t mean female humans – it’s only very rarely used for them – but rather as a name for the red-throated loon, which is seen (among other places) around New England and the Maritimes, including Cape Race in Newfoundland.


I have a CD from the mid-1990s of the Tufts Beelzebubs, the all-male a cappella group from Tufts University (where I went to grad school); it has a number of excellent renditions of popular songs (one of my favourites is Pink Floyd’s “Hey You”). Among those songs is Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening.”

If you’re familiar with that song, you’ll remember the line “There was music coming from the room next door, And my mother laughed the way some ladies do.” Well, as it happens, I’ve always had a sort of idea of what that laugh might be like – a sort of pleasant closed-mouth chuckle. Other people have other ideas; Paul Simon didn’t imitate it, so it’s open to imagination. Well, guess what: one of the members of the Beelzebubs did imitate his idea of it in the recording. The sound that follows that line, in their version, is no melodius chuckle or titter. No, he cachinnates.

Cachinnates! I mean, how cack-handed! Like some cartoon witch! Most unpleasant; a fly in the ointment of an otherwise good rendition. Such cacklin’ ain’t my idea of a good performance.

From context, you probably have an idea (if you didn’t before) of what cachinnate means. You also may have a sense of how it’s pronounced (like “cack innate”). You may nonetheless have some questions about this funny-looking word.

First of all, there is no established link to cackle, though both likely have origins in imitating what they name, and some people believe there is a link between them. But lest I mislead you, cachinnate does not mean “cackle” exactly; it means “laugh loudly or immoderately” – in other words, the word’s tinny taste conveys accurately the unpleasantness of its objectionable object.

Secondly, it’s from Latin, if you weren’t sure – the ch may have led you to suspect Greek, but the Latinate ate suffix is gotten honestly, so to speak. So why the ch for /k/? Well, Latin didn’t have a k – it represented the sound with c. But later on the c came to be an affricate before /e/ and /i/, and so in order to represent /k/ an h was written after the c, which is just as they do it in Italian now.

The result, to English eyes, is of course a bit odd, though not necessarily risible. While the sound of the word echoes cackle and crack, the sight of it may bring to mind Cochin China (an old colonial name for southern Viet Nam) or perhaps not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin (a phrase that may be accompanied with cachinnation, but that is of course followed by huffing and puffing and, ideally, blowing the house down). And of course both sight and sound have a taste of tinny, as mentioned, the sight doubly so with the two tin cans c and c.

But although the cachinnation in the Bubs’ recording of “Late in the Evening” jars me, I suppose I ought not to be too hard on them. Cachinnation is at least a sign of a sense of humour. I will always prefer someone with an innate cache of cachinnation over an agelast.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting cachinnation.