Daily Archives: January 6, 2011


A colleague, Rob Tilley, noted that he came across the word virch in Bruce Stirling’s novel Holy Fire: “Why don’t you hang up and virch in through our primary server.”

And what would this virch be? It rather looks like it might be someone’s family name, and in fact it is a surname, but that’s not the source of this word. Nor is it from “Nautron respoc lorni virch,” a phrase which Captain Nemo said every morning on scanning the horizon from the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (and what does nautron respoc lorni virch mean, and in what language? Probably something like “we have nothing in sight,” in language invented by Verne, though nautron makes me think of sodium and respoc anagrams corpse).

Still, a nautilus may have something to do with this word, just glancingly. Hold a nautilus shell (if you have one) to your ear and what do you hear? Where does it take you? I think Jamaica in the moonlight, sandy beaches, drinking rum every night…

Ah, yes, that great song of imaginary travel, “American Dream,” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It puts me in mind of another one such, by the Moody Blues: “The Best Way to Travel,” from In Search of the Lost Chord: “And you can fly high as a kite if you want to, faster than light if you want to… Speeding through the universe, thinking is the best way to travel.”

And then there’s “The Inner Light,” by The Beatles: “Without going out of my door, I can know all things on earth; without looking out of my window, I can know the ways of heaven. The farther one travels, the less one knows.” As if to illustrate the point somehow, the song is in a very much Indian musical style and instrumentation (rather charmingly done, a George Harrison special)… while the words, as it happens, are cribbed directly from chapter 47 of the Tao Te Ching, the great (and brief) Chinese classic of Taoism ascribed to Lao Tzu (Laozi).

It gets even better. When I open my visually appealing copy of the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English to chapter 47, I see that it is illustrated by a view from above of steps down a spiral staircase… looking ever so reminiscent of a chambered nautilus shell. So we have made a tour and returned where we started. Because we never left.*

And how can you do that? Well, virtual reality is one way – like the holodeck in Star Trek, or something a bit less fancy (just put on the hologram headset and it’s like dreaming… careful not to move your body unduly; that would be like singing along with the music on your earphones. In fact, for a little travel within your mind, just put on your earphones and click around the web…). But the trip of the tongue from beginning to end of virtual reality is so long… And we know the tongue is a lazy thing; for example, it takes (or has long since taken) the stop and off-glide (“ty”) in virtual and turns (turned) them into an affricate (“ch”). So it might prefer to leave you in the lurch and stop at “virch”. Which is where this word comes from. It’s not a pretty word, true, and it may sound trendy, but it’s hardly the first truncation ever in English – or the first verbing (just like that, a thing becomes an action!). And it gets you where you want without unnecessary travel.

And so you can canoe off on vacay in your virch barque, perhaps to the tune of “O Pastor” by Madredeus:

Ao largo ainda arde
A barca da fantasia
E o meu sonho acaba tarde
Acordar é que eu não queria

“Afar still burns / the barge of fantasy / my dream ends late / I didn’t want to wake up.” (Thanks to Eliza Mogha for that translation, from comments at the YouTube video I’ve linked to above.)

*There’s a travel agency in Toronto called Zen Travel. My idea of Zen travel is that they tell you that you already are where you want to go.


The first time I can recall seeing this word was in an English translation of Peter Handke’s theatre piece Offending the Audience. At the beginning of the piece, the performers come forward gradually, speaking quietly and then more loudly, saying various words just as words, not directed at the audience, and in random order; the words are “You chuckle-heads, you small-timers, you nervous nellies, you fuddy-duddies, you windbags, you sitting ducks, you milquetoasts.”

I figured out pretty readily what the word was intended to mean. After all, milk and toast are two rather bland, safe foods, and the addition of the Frenchified spelling milque makes it even more effete and effiminate. Clearly this was a word for some feckless lily-livered poltroon. Right?

Right, in fact. It has various synonyms and near-synonyms: sissy, namby-pamby, jellyfish, pantywaist, doormat, nebbish, wimp, milksop… They all have their variations of tone, flavour, level, and expected context. Milquetoast, for its part, thanks at least in part to its pseudo-French spelling, seems like the sort of word that should have rococo curlicues on it. In truth, it strikes me as the sort of word that comes from, perhaps, a character in an English comedy of the Restoration era (with its characters named such as Millamant, Dorimant, Pinchwife, Flutter, Fainall, Witwoud, Wishfort, Bellair…). So utterly English and of that era, don’t you think?

Well, it is indeed an eponym; it is from a character named Caspar Milquetoast. (By coincidence, another play by Handke I have in the same volume as Offending the Audience is called Kaspar, but there’s no relation.) But the character is from a newspaper comic (a one-panel comic, not a strip) of the early-to-mid-20th century. An American newspaper comic, at that. The strip was called The Timid Soul; it was drawn by H.T. Webster. As you may guess, Caspar Milquetoast was the aforementioned timid soul, a thin, pale, bespectacled fellow with a white moustache. You can see three examples at john-adcock.blogspot.com/2009/01/timid-soul.html and another at www.comicartfans.com/gallerypiece.asp?piece=454658&gsub=5381 . We get from these the impression that Milquetoast was something of a flutterbudget, too, in his effete way.

You might have noticed that one of the synonyms for milquetoast is milksop. Its spelling is plainer and more English, but the word has a similar feel when spoken – milk is soft until the /k/, and sop has a /s/ and a voiceless stop like toast, making it whispery and crisp – and a similar limpness. In fact, sop is certainly limper than toast in its imagery and sound, which is compensated for in milquetoast by the Frenchified spelling. In the end, milksop does seem rather like a low-rent, proletarian version of the salaried (or private-income) milquetoast. And what means sop? Why, a piece of bread soaked in liquid. So a milksop is food for babies.

But! Before milksop was ever used to refer literally to food for babies, it was used to refer to a feeble, effete, wimpy person. By Chaucer, in fact, even (from the Monk’s Tale): “Allas …that evere I was shape To wedden a milksop or a coward ape.” The literal reference doesn’t show up in literature until almost a century later. And then, about 535 years after Chaucer, we got Caspar Milquetoast, whose name passed into common usage for the same meaning as milksop within a few years.

Well. Let me now toast H.T. Webster and his character with some milk… or, well, the last of the eggnog, what the heck. Even if Caspar would be too afraid to drink it.

Thanks to Laura, who commented on my blog posting of onychophagia, for suggesting milquetoast.