Monthly Archives: March 2012


In matters of weather, sports, and politics, Canadians are surely comforted by Nietzsche’s pronouncement that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. (We generally ignore the entailment that what doesn’t make us stronger kills us.) Today’s word seems particularly germane in that vein.

Ah, roborant. So much there. To begin with the end, there is rant. Canadians are fond of rants, of course; we just love to complain. It’s prophylaxis for actually doing anything. Molson Canadian had a very successful commercial that was a Canadian rant. Rick Mercer is well loved for his political rants on his weekly new humour show (Canadians excel at topical humour, and most other kids of humour too; many of the funniest people in the US are Canadians).

And the robo is clearly topical: we are currently in the middle of the robocall scandal, in which voters in some ridings who were identified as likely Liberal or NDP voters were deliberately directed by automated phone calls (and sometimes by live callers) to the wrong polling stations. A rant on that topic would qualify as a robo-rant, to be sure.

Or, on the other hand, it could be a Toronto thing. Our mayor here, after all, is named Rob, and – aside from having a decade-long history as a councillor of ranting a lot and listening very little – he has done a variety of things as mayor that have led quite a lot of people to quite a lot of ranting. So perhaps roborant is a Rob-o-rant?

Or maybe it’s just a rubber ant: a bug that won’t be squished. No matter how hard you stomp, it bounces back. Or it could be a robber ant, a Robin Hood that can’t afford the inflated property prices in Toronto and has a rob a rent every month.

Nah. What roborant has in common with all those things is just that if they’re not killing us, they must be roborants, according to Nietzsche.

Would you like me to corroborate that? Well, you can look at the word corroborate, which has the same root: Latin roborare, strengthen. (Although this word is said with stress on the first syllable, it has nothing to do with robot actually; robot was invented by Czech playwright Karel Čapek from the Czech robotnik “peasant”.) So if they strengthen us, then they’re roborants.

Admittedly, I’m stretching the definition a bit. A roborant is a strengthening or restorative food, medicine, or treatment, really. Things that actually make you feel better. Like a nice big plate of poutine on a cold winter’s day. The “character-building” abuse we regularly weather from the inevitable weather and the unnecessary political stupidity don’t really count.

But anyway, who ever said Nietzsche was right about anything? We can get into all sorts of trouble from believing things just because they’re clever-sounding or provide tidy explanations.


Don’t you think the letter x looks a bit like two crossed swords? And the sound it makes – /ks/, like the sound of swords clashing. If they ring a little after, or slide one along the other, you might even imagine that the sound could be like /ksɪf/ – you might spell it xif, but why not go the extra bit fancier and make it xiph? Look, if the word phonetic isn’t going to be spelled phonetically…

Anyway, when the Latins were borrowing words from Greek, the Greek letter phi ϕ was rendered as ph rather than f because its sound was not actually the same as that of the Latin f. But they kept the xi ξ as x, since both languages had letters representing /ks/ as a coarticulated unit. Even at the beginnings of words. That set the pattern for the Greek ξιϕοειδής xiphoeidés, from ξίϕος xiphos “sword” and εἶδος eidos “form”, to become (actually in comparatively modern times) Latin xiphoides, whence we get English xiphoid.

And in Latin, this xiph would have been perfect – no need to fix it at all. Good look, good sound. An improvement over the Greek in the written form; that xi ξ looks like not a sword but a snake, although the phi ϕ does look a bit like a sword cutting something in two.

But in English we have the idea that we can’t start a word with a stop followed by a fricative. We need fricatives first: /sk/ is fine, /ks/ not at all. People have the idea they can’t even say it (except that you will often hear except reduced to /ksɛpt/). So we go with the /z/ sound, and the best you can say in terms of ensiform iconicity is that it’s reminiscent of Zorro.

Ensiform? Oh, that’s the Latin word for “sword-shaped”. Yeah, really. Biiiiiig yawn. Just makes you think of ensigns and such like. Give me xiphoid any time. Not that the two words are used for exactly the same things; xiphoid is usually used in anatomy, for instance to refer to lower end of the sternum (breastbone). It’s true that words such as xiphoid have likely caused many foreign English students to chew through their pencils, fingernails, desks, what have you: how in heck are you supposed to remember these bizarre caprices of spelling?

But don’t fall on your sword (your xiphoid might interfere with that anyway). As if! You’re better off swallowing it. Aside from getting away from the front of the mouth and perhaps closer to the original /ks/ sound as your tongue closes, back to front, on the steel, you will give me the opportunity to confect the word xiphophage, a heretofore curiously unused term for a sword-swallower. But be careful not to confuse it with xiphopage or xiphopagus, an existing term for conjoined twins joined at the bottom of the sternum – the xiphoid.


I was sitting in the usual coffee spot with Margot and Jess when Arlene Chu, one of our newer student members, walked in with some friends. She spotted us and turned to her friends. “Hang on, guys, I’m just going to say hi over here.”

Margot was her usual charming self. “Your friends are guys?” she said as Arlene approached.

“Huh? No, they’re all female.”

“That’s what I thought,” Margot said, “but you called them guys. I thought perhaps they were in dis-guys.” Yes, she said it so as to highlight the pun.

“I’d say,” said Jess, “it’s just because they’re anonymous.”

“Anonymity does not confer a sex change,” Margot said primly.

“I think you’ve been out-Fawksed,” I said to Margot. Jess gave me a thumbs-up.

“Wait,” said Arlene. “You’re referring to how members of the hacker group Anonymous wear Guy Fawkes masks.”

“Very good!” Jess said. “Yes, as inspired by the movie V for Vendetta.”

“But all those Guys are guys,” Margot said.

“A woman may wear a mask,” Arlene said. “And words can mask gender too.”

“Interestingly,” I said, “though words can be evocative, this word, in the vocative – the plural vocative – is less specific than in its other senses. It is indeed a guise. A group of females are not guys, and are unlikely to be called the guys, but they can still be addressed as guys or you guys.”

“Our tongue is losing its specificity,” Margot said.

“Not always a bad thing,” Jess said. “One’s sex is not necessarily pertinent in all occasions. But I think this one has its roots in loss of number specificity a longer time ago. Once we started using you for all second persons and dropped the singular familiar thou altogether, we lost a good way of making it clear whether we were addressing one or many.”

“And you all sounds a little too Southern for many people’s tastes,” I added.

“We got along fine until just recently,” Margot said.

“How recent is recent?” I said. “When I was a kid in the ’70s, there was a magazine and TV show called The Electric Company – for kids who had outgrown Sesame Street. On it, there was a character, Millie the Helper, played by Rita Moreno, who would shout to a group of no-matter-what sex, ‘Hey you guys!’”

“For mixed-sex groups, perhaps,” said Margot, “consistent with the use of the male for any case where sex is not known…” Jess, Arlene, and I all rolled our eyes.

“It’s useful and it’s entrenched now,” Jess said, “at least in casual usage. After Legally Blonde and the sorority girls saying things like ‘Oh my God, you guys’ to each other, it’s a done deal. Women, especially young women, tend to be the cynosures of linguistic change.”

“So anyway,” Arlene said, “to make sure I have this straight: this old Anglo-Norman name happened to be the name of a guy – ha, literally a Guy – who tried to blow up parliament, and was hanged for real and then ever thereafter in effigy, and from those effigies Guy came to be a term for a grotesque or frightful or odd-looking man, and from that it transferred to a general term for a male. And now, just when you’re using it to address a group in the plural, it can refer to males or females.”

“Semantic bleaching,” Margot said with some asperity.

“Well,” Arlene said, “at least Fawkes’s first name wasn’t Dick.”

“Couldn’t be worse than Guy, could it?” Margot said.

Arlene’s friends had reached the front of the line and were calling to her for her order. She started to walk away. “OK, well, ’bye, you guys, nice chatting.” She paused and said to Margot, “’Bye, you dick.” And stuck her tongue out and went on her way.


There are many ungenerous souls who are convinced that the English language is degenerating, that it bears less and less of the marks of its original genius, and they indignantly point out all the aberrations and illogicalities and assorted other illiteracies they discern, and generally behave like obnoxious [genitals]. About them all one thing is dead certain: they have not studied the history of the English language. They have no real idea how the words they use now got to be the way they are.

Exhibit A in this case is one of the most bedeviling things in the historical development of English: the genitive. Old English, like modern German and a number of other languages, had four cases, which are typically called (after their Latin general equivalents) nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. All nouns changed form according to these (and according to number – singular or plural). In modern English, pronouns change according to nominative (subject) and accusative (object), but other nouns do not, and dative (indirect object) is indicated by position or with the preposition to. But the genitive has survived… in a spuriously altered way, and with the dreadfully misleading name possessive.

The Old English genitive singular inflection, for most but not all nouns, ended in s or es: for instance, hund “dog” had hundes and cild “child” had cildes. Some nouns had other endings – oxa “ox” had oxan, and lufu “love” had lufes. For the genitive plural, it was an a version pretty much across the board: hunda, cildra, oxena, lufa.

Now tell me what you don’t see in those words.

An apostrophe.

Over time, the full set of inflections in English got simplified considerably, thanks in large part to contact with other languages and their speakers. The genitive came to be s everywhere, ultimately even on plurals. And somewhere in the Renaissance, some guys got the idea that the s on genitives was short for his: they figured that Johns feet was really John his feet contracted. (That kind of his-genitive was an occasional usage in Old English but was not the source of the suffix.)

Never mind that that doesn’t make sense for anything other than his; since then, all genitives in English (except the pronouns) have that apostrophe, which serves two purposes: a) to distinguish genitives from non-genitive plurals on paper (but not in speech, as it’s inaudible); b) to get a certain set of people riled up because another set of people can’t always manage to get the placement of those apostrophes straight – because they’re inaudible and a frankly inorganic imposition.

And this idea that it comes from a mark of possession also played into the habit of calling all genitives (and not just those indicating actual possession) possessives. Now, that’s a nice English word, so why not use it in place of that fussy Latin genitive, eh? (Aside from the fact that possessive comes from Latin too, of course.) I mean, what does genitive mean anyway? It does sound uncomfortably close to genitals. But there’s a reason for that.

The reason is that they have the same root, of course, as do generation and a number of other words (including genius, and even cognate has a common source – co-gn-ate – and is unrelated to cognition). The genitive case was named for the tendency of words in it to be the source or possessor of those they modify. But this is a tendency, and the name was applied post facto.

Cases are like prepositions: they can indicate quite a wide variety of things. The genitive case in English, even now, indicates not only possession but also, according to instance, agency (your editing of the book), source (dog’s breath), intended recipient (women’s shoes), honouree (Veterans’ Day), duration (a day’s work), thing or person affected (wolf’s bane), personal relationship (my enemy), and assorted similar others.

These are not possession: you do not possess your editing work once you have done it and sent it to a client, the dog does not possess its breath once it has breathed it, women’s shoes are women’s shoes even if they sit unsold in a store owned by a man, veterans do not possess the day that honours them, nor does a day possess the work done in it, wolves do not possess the herb that is purportedly their bane, and I do not have any title of ownership or other personal retention of my enemy.

Most of these forms can be rephrased with of phrases, and many of phrases can be rephrased with genitives. That tends to add to the confusion, especially when the of phrase goes the other way: two weeks’ notice (a notice quantified by two weeks) is also said as two weeks of notice. And the ending has become, in Modern English, not a suffix, really, but an enclitic – a particle that attaches to a word or even a whole phrase. Consider the Queen of England’s preference for tea and that guy you met at the café’s phone number. (The ambiguity this creates naturally increases the fun potential of English, the depth of the furrows in the brows of picklepusses, and the incomes of editors.)

Where it really gets interesting is cases where the genitive form has survived in old words. The genitive used to be used in even more ways than it is now; for one thing, back when it was apostrophe-free, it could be used without a following noun to indicate “of” or “by” or “at” the thing in the genitive. It could be used as a family name to indicate where a person lived – those who lived by the river might be called Rivers, and those who lived by the field might be called Fields. It could be used adverbially, too. If you worked at nighttime, you worked – and still work – nights. (Yes, that’s not a plural s, it’s a genitive s.) If you do something one time, you do it once (also an old genitive form, like twice and thrice). Some genitive forms even survive that don’t have the s on: in ten-foot pole, the foot is originally a genitive specifying ten (which, like numbers generally in English, is a kind of noun, not – as many mistakenly think – an adjective).

And if you’re adding something beside something else, you said – and say – besides, and if you did something by a side way, it was – and is – sideways, and something done of or by any way was – and is – anyways.

And there’s your proof that so many of those grammar gripers haven’t studied the history of the English language. How many people have you heard complain that anyways is an idiocy, an illogicality, an illiteratism, et cetera, because obviously it’s any way like it’s any thing? Well, it’s not. Obviously. And if someone starts in on you on something like that, you can sock it to them in the genitive.


I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey yesterday for the first time in a number of years. I remember first seeing it in the 1970s (although it came out in 1968). I didn’t entirely follow it then. (Now I know why.) But there were certainly things I remembered. Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, of course, and the Kyrie by György Ligeti, which – when we played the soundtrack record at night in our big house in the country – made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and had me closing the drapes and looking over my shoulder. Music like that can really awaken things from the basement of your mind that seem to lurk in wait for you.

But also, and perhaps even primarily so, I remembered the ending. I didn’t understand the ending – again, no big surprise, given that even now I can think about it and discuss it with others at length and inconclusively, each interpretation reflecting something about the interpreter – but I remembered the vivid colours swirling past. To quote the Mad magazine parody (“201 Min. of a Space Idiocy”): Bowman (Bowtie, as they call him) says, “WOW! What a fantastic psychedelic display!!” and the monolith responds, “What did you expect . . . ?! You just crashed through the brand new 105-story ‘Jupiter Museum of Op Art’!”

Yes, psychedelic. A word that has a strong taste of the late 1960s, with its acid trips and intense colour choices. I almost feel as though the word should be represented in wildly contrasting colours: psychedelic. Doesn’t that look right? After all, what is psychedelic about but colours, wild, swirling, vivid colours? In my youth I had the idea that if psychedelic meant “psycho colours”, then something that had all colours must be pandelic. That’s how indelible the association was for me.

But the delic, as delicious and indelible (and perhaps inedible) as it may be, is not related to colours. It calls not so much for pompous pageantry of paint as for a psychopomp (as befits the circumstance). It is not that psychedelic drugs are so named because of the psychedelic colours they are associated with; it is rather the converse. The word is from ψυχή psyché “breath, life, soul, spirit” and δηλοῦν déloun “make manifest, reveal”.

The idea with psychedelics is thus not that your psyche is a delenda (thing to be destroyed) but rather that it is to be displayed so you can deal with it. If you’re going to blow your mind, you’re going to blow it wide open.

This is not mere food for thought; it is a transmogrified smorgasbord, a psycho deli. It takes what lies down in the root cellar of your mind, like the descenders on p and y, and sprouts it into shoots reaching heavenward h d l, and finally detaching i – yes, and at the end you say “i c.” Your eyes go from merely open c to half-closed e e to fully open at last c. But beware of the snake lurking s.

You can even hear it hiss, that snake: /s/ as you slide into the word. But then you shoot to the back and knock hard /k/, bounce back and against the front /d/ and /l/, and finally again to the back /k/ again. It’s like Bowman blasting into the airlock to get back into the ship: he flies in to the back, bounces again to the door, and finally ends at the back. (But that scene is before he gets to Jupiter.)

And what words does psychedelic most often modify? What you would expect: drugs, music, colors, rock. It truly is part and parcel of an era. But we must acknowledge that the word was actually confected in 1956 – by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley. Huxley did more to popularize it. But Timothy Leary et al. did somewhat more to spread the actual experience.

Which reminds me of one of my favourite albums of rock from that era, the more literally than just stylistically psychedelic In Search of the Lost Chord by the Moody Blues, which includes a song, “Legend of a Mind,” about Timothy Leary. I suggest giving it a listen with stereo headphones on to get the full psychedelic experience – you can get the rather trippy stereophonic version at

You may want to follow that with the possibly even trippier “The Best Way to Travel,” “Speeding through the universe,” they proclaim, “thinking is the best way to travel.” Perhaps 2001’s Bowman should have travelled by thinking instead of by spaceship. Perhaps, in the end, he did…


I was out for brunch with a couple of friends and their young daughter today. At the daughter’s request, some syrup was poured on the little pieces of toast she had cut. Several minutes later, she noticed that the syrup seemed no longer to be on the plate. Her mother explained that it had soaked into the toast. I added that it was syrup-titious.

Har, har, har. Of course surreptitious is really something that requires conscious agency of the actor – it refers to an undertaking, specifically one that the undertaker hopes will be overlooked. It is not typically thought of as pertaining to syrup dishes, the echoes notwithstanding; it is, on the other hand, easily associated with susurrus and slurpy whispering – sshhh! one must preserve the reputation!

It’s not a matter of being superstitious; this word has a history of real misrepresentation – at first not simply a sly sneakiness (as is the more common meaning now), but deliberate concealment of facts with an aim to obtaining something, for instance a dispensation or ordination. It is derived from subreption, which refers to fudging facts by leaving things unsaid; it is a partner to obreption, which is saying things that are overtly false.

Ah, but this is a double-tongued word if ever there was one. It starts with su but by the end has turned it around to us; in between you have the rr tracks and a tiny-voiced titi to try and keep everything small. But keep your eye on those tracks: you noticed, didn’t you, that surreptitious comes from subreption? Indeed, there is an in-between form, subreptitious.

So what happened? Did the b just not want to be obstreperous? Well, it was a matter of assimilation. But through that going with the flow and taking on a resemblance, it came to dissemble. Tell me: what does sur mean? You probably think “on” or “over”, as in French. Actually, in Latin, that would be super. But sub means “under”, as I imagine you know. So the “under” passes under, and lets what goes over be taken for “over”.

Taken for it? Those who take it will be taken, as will what there is to take from them. The reption that goes with the sub is no mere subtle insurrection; its reptilian form hides a raptor – rapere, “seize, snatch, take”. And so in the subtle slide of the surreptitious you may see that you have been overtaken by the undertaker. But it goes both ways – your own surreptitious activities may land you in a sticky situation, and then you’re toast.


I love people-watching about as much as I love word-watching. I take transit to and from work every day, and at assorted other times too; it’s a great place for watching people come and go. And of course the sidewalks of downtown Toronto are a veritable museum of human form and behaviour.

An experience I often have is seeing someone from behind and wondering what the face looks like. Sometimes I get to see; sometimes I don’t. I have found that backsides do not always correlate with front sides. First impressions can indeed be misleading.

Well. Of course what you see is what you see; if someone has an appealing dorsal aspect, it is appealing regardless of their ventral aspect. Any given person is likely to have some parts that are comelier than others. Or at least more intriguing, more inviting. Some people look quite exotic from one side and quite ordinary from another; some are a mixed bag of assorted visual flavours, just as words may be. I had a friend in graduate school whose voice and speech manners were actually quite strikingly at odds with her appearance; I didn’t realize how much so this was until the first time I phoned her. She was short and lean and had short red hair and never wore makeup. Someone answered the phone who sounded like a curvy blonde party girl from California who wore heavy lip gloss. I asked to speak to Julie. “This is Julie,” the voice said, and I realized it was.

Usually the impressions of different aspects may be varied but are not necessarily strikingly contrasting in attractiveness. But sometimes they are, at least to a given person’s eyes. I don’t know whether, in English, we have a term for a guy who looks good from one angle but bad from another (we should – let me know if you know one), but we do have a term sometimes used for a woman who appears good from behind: butterface, as in “nice backside, butterface…” I am also put in mind of the song by the Monks, “Nice Legs Shame About Her Face” – in which, I must say, the narrator gets put in his place in the end.

There is a rather appealing word in Japanese for a woman who looks nice from the back but not from the front: bakkushan. The main stress, I should tell you, is on the first syllable; the second syllable is very reduced. The word thus has a sound resemblance to ricochet – or baccarat, or Yucatan. You may get a kick out of the shapes of the letters: the b like a nice bum, the kk perhaps like legs in high heels; the bakku ends in u while the shan ends in n, a sort of reversal, from thumbs-up to thumbs-down. You get a sense of the exotic from this word, with its kk, and the sh in the middle rather than at one end or another; it has nine letters and yet nary a hint of European morphology.

But appearances can be deceptive. This word is not only a loan from Japanese but, before that, a loan to Japanese – actually, two loans: bakku, from English back or perhaps German Backe “cheek” (also used in reference to the buttocks, as in English), and shan, from German schön “fine, beautiful”. Yes, that’s right, it’s a Germanic word in disguise. It looked so exotic!

But, you know, sometimes to see something as exciting and new you have to see it as – well, as something exciting and new. Several years ago I published a paper on how intercultural encounter can serve as a catalyst for us to reintegrate things of our own that we had excluded: “The Transcendent Function of Interculturalism.” It’s a bit dry, but an interesting topic.

It’s a similar thing: gazing at something exotic and interesting, only to see that the other side is not what was expected. But in this case the face turns out to be your own. And how do you like it? Does it put you in your place?