Monthly Archives: December 2015


I had a zesty evening.

Flavourful, certainly. Zippy. Zingy. Leave the daily grind for a bit of the extra-daily rind. A little bit goes a long way. An evening with friends sizzling with joie de vivre. But before they even arrived the zest had begun.

Required: one rasp and one rind. Well, OK, the rasp is actually a fine grating implement; it only looks like it’s made for filing metal or planing wood. And the rind is still the skin of an orange. But run the one against the other and you get thin bright orange shavings, ready for tossing in with port to cook a pot roast, or with mashed potatoes and butter (and eggnog, because Christmas), or with whipped cream. Sharp, sweet, a bit bitter. It doesn’t take much to get a lovely bright edge in the flavour, and at the end you still have the orange to eat.

We know that zest connotes a certain emphatic élan, fresh, if not tropical then at least topical, with its electric z and its echo of best. A flavour that is zesty is one with a spiky balance of sweet and sour and bitter that sparks your tongue. A person who has a zest for life always plays it full-contact with all their skin in the game. So I sometimes used to wonder how this sparkle came to be the name for the rind of an orange or lemon.

But I was viewing it inside out. Zest is first of all the name of the citrus rind or the seasoning that is made from it. English gets it from French zeste. French got it from some other place. We’re not sure where. We can’t get much below the surface with this etymology; it loses the trace. What we know for sure is that the zip that zest gives to food transferred itself with the word to other parts of life. We were using it to mean ‘relish’ or ‘gusto’ by the late 1700s, even as it has continued to mean what you use in marmalade.

And so the zest I had was first in the food, the orange rind zapping the flavour in its feet, and second in the company. Zest may speak only of the surface, but while the flesh inside is juicy, the outside is not to be discounted; the skin with which one meets the world is surface but not mere surface. As life shaves off bits of us day by day, those bits can add life to wherever they land, especially if we are alive and juicy inside. We give the world the most pungent part of ourselves, and it’s always in season.



What, knave! Are you so naïve or vain as not to know a nave?

If you speak Italian, this word will look familiar: pronounced in the Italian way, it’s the word for ‘ship’. It comes from Latin navis, whence navigator. But in English it’s pronounced as an English word, and while it refers to a place where the people are, so to speak, all in the same boat, it is not at sea.

Consider a church, in particular one in a classic cathedral style. It may be cross-shaped; there are probably aisles up the sides separated from the main body of the church by pillars; but in any case there is a main body of the space, with rows of pews or chairs. Imagine those rows as benches in an ancient ship, each filled with oarsmen. Or as seats on a more modern ferry. The church is a ship, and the congregation are the passengers or oarsmen. The priest is the captain. The name for that central section of a church wherein the congregation are seated is the nave. (In a cross-shaped church, the wings to right and left form the transept.) The name for the top part of the cross – or just the front part of the church near the altar – varies, but depending on form and time it may be a sanctuary or chancel.

But ships haven’t always had such a direct interface between captain and crew, or between captain and passengers. And churches haven’t always either. In medieval times, the sanctuary was separated from the nave by a screen, called a rood screen (how rood! actually rood means ‘cross’). The clergy would celebrate the mass and take communion in the sanctuary, and the common folk – who generally didn’t understand the Latin anyway – would be in the nave in their own private devotions, heeding the moment of the elevation of the eucharist by the priest. For those to whom this terminology is opaque, I’m referring to the moment when the priest holds up the consecrated bread and wine which are about to be consumed – in small amounts – by those present. Only back then, the ordinary knaves in the naves didn’t receive it. It was just for the navigators up front. You know, the captain and officers. The clergy.

Those of us who grew up in Protestant churches know sanctuary as the word for the entire interior where the service happens. This is because of the reformation. The people were effectively invited into the sanctuary by erasing the distinction and expanding the sanctuary to include the whole space. In other churches the old terminology still holds, but you don’t have to peek through gaps in the rood screen – or listen to Latin. For those who attend Roman Catholic services, you can thank various reforms – some from centuries past, some just a half century old – for making the experience a more inclusive and engaging one and bringing the priest and the people into a face-to-face relationship in the same space. If you are an atheist, you may think this all naïve, and that is your right. But to those in the pews, it’s all nave. These days everyone is in the same boat.

Except the choir, of course. Choirs are special.


This word may look like it should be capitalized as a name. I must admit that the first time I saw it I thought so, especially since some of my family’s oldest friends are a family called the Emmetts: two doctors and three children (well, the children have their own children now). But emmet is more interesting and curious. And so I must pre-empt the Emmetts, but you will find that by the end I must admit I have – perhaps paradoxically – re-pre-empted the emmet for an Emett.

Let us start with emmet. What does it signify? An ant. Yes, that’s right, we have a longer word for ant, one with six legs (mm) and two pairs of letters and two syllables. Why would we have this longer word for a small thing? It happens to come from the same origin. The n in ant comes from an old Germanic m. Various regional Dutch and German forms include emt, empt, emte, amete, and so on. We could have kept it as empt, but instead we assimilated the nasal consonant to the t and lowered the vowel a bit, and we had ant. Except that people in some parts of England kept the m and added a vowel (e) for distinction from the t. In English, you see, there is no amity between m and t. They tend to have something between them – a vowel, a p, a syllable boundary. And with that a small distinction builds into quite the anthill.

Ants. Formidable, to be sure. Small but not to be underestimated. Axiomatically industrious; the cartoon version of them is as a living machine, crawling in coordination. And this is where I get back to Emmet.

I should say that the family name Emmett, also spelled Emmet or, as in today’s case, Emett, does not come from the ants – unless you have an Aunt Emma. The family name Emmett (with however many m’s and t’s) is actually taken from the diminutive form of the female name Emma. Who the heck was Emma and why was she so special? She was the mother of Edward the Confessor. But Emma is not originally a full name tout court; it arose as a diminutive of Irmgard (meaning ‘whole enclosure’ as in a castle) or Ermintrude (meaning ‘entirely beloved’, which this name no longer is). So the path from origin to end is a bit of a Rube Goldberg machine.


Or a Rowland Emmet machine. Who is Rowland Emmet? He was an artist and a creator of whimsical machines. If you have seen the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang you have seen some of his creations, intricate Victorianesque follies with spinning bits and wry humour. If they weren’t so clean and consciously self-amused, some might call them steampunk. They have assorted bits spinning and processing industriously like ants, and they have mannequins and other anthropomorphisms.





The Ontario Science Centre has a small collection of Emett’s machines. It brings them out every December. They are delightful. They are every bit as entertaining and cultured as the Emmetts I have known since my childhood, and every bit as busy as the emmets I try not to step on as they march across the sidewalk or mob an apple core. Admit it: Emett was an eminent animator.




Keep the Ziemas in Ziemassvētki

My latest piece for The Week is on Christmas – and Noël, and Navidad, and Weihnachten, and Jul, and Ziemassvētki… Christmas has different names in different languages, and most of them don’t mention Christ. In fact, many of them are retained names of pagan festivals. Does that seem inappropriate? Do you mind Christmas trees, or mistletoe, or – for that matter – the name Easter?

Almost every language has a word for ‘Christmas.’ Few reference Christ.



Never mind the elephant in the room. It’s impossible to ignore the elephant in this word.

But wait. Let’s look at the rest first. What’s this chrys? Does Chrysler leap to mind? You may think this is an adjective for a Chrysler 300C, or perhaps a Town & Country. Huge, padded vehicles. But chryselephantine is not related to Chrysler (which is actually an old Dutch name), and it’s not pronounced the same way either. Our chrys of the day is said “kris,” the same as in chrysalis and chrysotile. And it means the same thing.

What thing is that? Gold. Greek χρῡσός chrusos. So is this a word for a golden elephant? Not so much the whole elephant. What have elephants been most valued for? I don’t mean their intelligence, loyalty, and work ethic – I’m talking about what thing has gotten them killed most often so people could steal it from them. Yes, ivory. The Greek word for ‘elephant’, ἐλέϕας elefas, is the same as the Greek word for ‘ivory’, and there’s an obvious reason for that.

So there we have it. Gold and ivory. And the ine? Just an adjectival ending. It doesn’t mean it’s a mineral or someone’s name (although that would be a heck of a name to have). It’s pronounced like “in.” The whole word is said /krɪsɛlɪˈfæntɪn/.

So a thing that is chryselephantine is… no, not made of gold and ivory, not generally. Just inlaid or overlaid with them. I mean, come on. That stuff is expensive. And, actually, in one of the two cases, illegal now for new production (I mean theft from its now-dead producers).

So you won’t be using this word much literally unless you deal in expensive antiques and antiquities. But you can still use it figuratively, especially if you want to be opaquely precious. Prose, verse, or music that is shining, gleaming, very valuable, can earn this sobriquet in high approbation. It’s sort of like throwing an overpriced statue at it. It’s a heavy word, so old, so expensive. It will drive the avid reader to the dictionary and the less avid reader to lighter reading. But it’s a word to keep in your collection. Just be careful who you show it to.


All motion is relative. And all relatives are emotional. Some are easily carried away. Some carry others away easily. When the season demands seeing relations, expect occasional elations along with levity. But while some will choose to be elated, others may find elation less elevating and, as the day grows late, may seek the elative (and perhaps the elevator).

And if those relatives are Finnish or Estonian, then ever the more so will you have their elatives. Elative, you see, is a case in such languages as those – along with illative, ablative, prolative, and translative, and abessive, adessive, and inessive – and instructive, and more. Things we in English do with prepositions and word order, they in Finno-Ugric languages do with suffixes (case endings) on nouns. If something is moving towards, into, out of, or away from something, or is becoming something or staying something – in short, if noun A has some particular relation to noun B – that relationship will be expressed by means of these noun cases rather than by any added words. So in Finnish, Mä otin lasin kaapista means ‘I took a glass out of the cupboard’, with kaapista meaning ‘out of the cupboard’ – the sta part is the ending that says it’s in the elative. The reverse direction is illative.

So why elative? Is it that Finns are very happy to get out of places? I won’t say that’s not true, but in this case the elation is not extreme happiness. It’s just e as in egress and eject and e pluribus unum – it means ‘out of’ or ‘away from’ – and lat as in ablate, translate, relate, and, yes, elate: it refers to taking or carrying. A person who is elated is, etymologically, carried away – or anyway taken away, transported. In the usual sense this means transported to joy, even ecstasy (a word that comes from Greek for ‘standing outside’), but in the grammatical sense it just means what you do to a glass when you reach into the cupboard and take it to go put something in it (which will be illative).

So if you find yourself with relatives who are very taken with you, but you would rather be taken from them, you can simply say “I’m feeling elative!” and leave it – withdraw with your glass for some illation of libation and illuminating liberation.


On the right side of my bookshelf, around where I keep a lot of my camera stuff, I have a section of books on Buddhism and related topics.

That photo is quite yellow. The shelf is lit by halogen lights and Christmas tree bulbs. It looks normal enough in person (well, a bit dark) because my mind adjusts to the colour. But the camera takes it and then we see the picture in a different context and we see the colour imbalance. So I reset the balance on the camera using a blank white sheet of paper – actually the back of an airline boarding pass that I have sitting around.

It’s not that that is perfectly neutral white balance. It’s just that it more closely matches our default bias. There is no such thing as unbiased, perfectly balanced colour, any more than there is such a thing as accent-free speech or an unbiased opinion. There is no neutral act of seeing. You just have to know what balance you want, acknowledge it, balance yourself according to it, just as you have to focus on what you focus on and choose what to have in the frame and outside the frame.

There’s one word that shows up a few times on the spines of those books. I could pull out any of them and feature it. I’ll pull this book out because I want to. I found it quite by chance in some used book occasion. It’s a book from 1960, although the first blank page has “January 1965” handwritten in fountain pen diagonally across the lower right corner. The pages are yellowing and smell of the gradual decay of tree-pulp paper and a bit of the basement it must have sat in for many years.

Here is the back cover.

That is the author. Does he look familiar? Here is his dedication.

The author was a motion picture actor. If you recognize him, it’s probably from The Bridge on the River Kwai. He played the Japanese Colonel. His name is Sessue Hayakawa. Actually, Sessue is a name he took when he started acting in movies; his given name – given at his birth in 1889 – was Kintaro.

Here is the front cover.

It’s his autobiography. The title kind of gives away the ending, doesn’t it? But it’s how he gets there that is of interest. He came from a noble Japanese family. He was all set for a career in the navy when, in a reckless diving misadventure, he burst his eardrum and was rendered unfit. He decided that he had dishonoured his family, and he resolved to do the honourable thing.

He in fact did commit seppuku, also known as hara-kiri (not hari-kari!). But he did not die. He didn’t have anyone to cut his head off at the end. So he was hospitalized with very substantial injury to his lower abdomen.

How do you follow up an act like that? With a visit to a Zen Buddhist priest. Followed by a lot of meditation. And then a career as an actor and more meditation and, well, this book.

I have several books on Zen. I have read much about it. Which is like shouting much about silence.

Whatever you think Zen is, it’s not. I can’t tell you just what it is. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that I am not a Zen master. I have meditated various ways at various times, including with Zen Buddhists, although in recent years my only meditation has been running, which doesn’t quite count. But I have no experience of enlightenment in the Zen Buddhist sense. I think I can see the shadow of a corner of it, maybe. I’m probably wrong.

The second is that you can’t explain silence with shouting.

I can tell you what Zen is. It’s a school of Buddhism, best known in its Japanese version although it also exists in China. Zen is the Japanese rendition of the word禅, which in Mandarin Chinese is chan. The full forms are zenna and chánnà. They come from Sanskrit ध्यान (dhyāna). Which means ‘meditation’.

Zen is meditation. In the plainest sense, that is what Zen is. To quote Sylvia Boorstein, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

In some schools of Zen, that is it. You focus your mind, you watch the thoughts arise and pass by like clouds in the sky, you taste existence. In others, you strive to break your mind free from the ruts it travels in by meditating on paradoxical ideas.

In the end, you learn that you and the things around you are not many, not two. You come to recognize your position, your bias, your perspective, your focus, your frame. You learn that nothing has permanent existence, everything is changing, and what exactly is this “everything” and what exactly is this “changing” and what exactly is this “is” and what exactly is “what exactly” and

As in all Buddhism, the aim is non-attachment. I have some ideas about what is and is not non-attachment, but I’m not, you know, attached to them. Some people interpret non-attachment as meaning eschewing things of the world, but it seems to me that rejection is no more equanimitous than craving. Enjoying while it’s there and letting go when it’s not seem the best options. Fine words, of course, and badly self-incriminating, as witness the two thousand books I can’t bear to get rid of. Fortunately, like all fine words, they will eventually be forgotten.

The simplicity of Zen spills over into an aesthetic associated with it. But Zen gardens are not Zen any more than bedrooms are sleep.

I would like to eschew all marketing and branding that uses the word Zen. Putting Zen on commercial products is like putting vegan on roast prime rib.

I do remember fondly, though, one business in Toronto, no longer there I think – I used to see their sign in an upper window on Spadina: Zen Travel. I liked that. I imagined a place where you go in and they tell you that you are already where you want to be; you just have to realize it. But it’s how you get there that is of interest. In exchange, you pay them all you have, which is nothing.

But perhaps you will get a boarding pass. Which you can use in place of a blank sheet of paper to set your white balance.