Monthly Archives: May 2017


“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

Do you want a fiction based on a fiction, both more and less real than reality? Do you want a city of layers where buildings lie far below the streets, and streets have run beneath the river waters? A town of dreamlike inversions that, after all of it, is just a lovely place to sit and drink or go shopping, or listen to music?

Old Verona sits under a bend in the Adige river, smoothly triangular like an incense cone, water on the upper sides, walls no longer there across the base. Beyond the old part is more Verona, a modern Italian city not without its charm, but it’s not what you go there for.

No one is really sure just when and by whom Verona was founded, but it was there in Roman times. There’s a big Roman arena right at the biggest piazza in town. Every year you can go there to hear Verdi’s Aïda or something else. As you wander around the old town, here and there you can look down and see the Roman foundations, two or more metres down, visible through a hole left open for architectural exegesis. The city has piled stone upon stone and here we are, a metre higher per millennium.

If, instead of looking down, you look up just a bit, slightly higher than eye level, you will see, in desultory spots, a plaque on the wall with a line showing how high the waters of the Adige reached one day in 1882. After that, the river trade traffic that had been so important to the city was done away with: big banks were built in place of landings, and flood controls were put in upstream that left the river flow too low for boats.

Most people don’t come here to look at either of those things, though, it seems. They come because of a nasty tale of fatal adolescent infatuation written by an Englishman who had never been to Verona. They come to see a balcony that was built in the 1930s just to keep the illusion-besotted happy, on a house in which a young lady never lived because she never lived anywhere, and in which her family may not have lived either – if they existed at all. They come to see this fraudulent balcony on a probably fraudulent house just because of a scene in that Englishman’s play. A scene that doesn’t involve a balcony. The word balcony didn’t even exist in English then, not quite yet. The idea of balconies was a rather odd and scandalous one for the English when it was first told to them, a decade and a half after Romeo and Juliet was first performed. Here, read.

Well, people believe all sorts of strange things about Romeo and Juliet. But have a look at Act II, scene ii. Romeo starts:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Window. Not balcony. Window. She doesn’t come out onto a balcony. There isn’t one in the text, no matter how it’s been staged so many times more recently. Put her on one if you want, but Shakespeare didn’t.

And what does Juliet first say when she speaks, thinking herself unheard?

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Which means “Why are you Romeo?” She’s lamenting the fact that this desirable young man must be a member of a family that is a sworn enemy of hers. She’s not asking where Romeo is. I know that millions of people think “wherefore art thou” means “where are you,” but millions of people also come to stick love notes with bubble gum on a graffiti-covered wall in a passageway to a fake balcony that not only never existed in reality but never even existed in the play it’s supposedly from. At the very least, there should be a sign below the balcony that says “‘Wherefore’ means ‘why’.”

People do love their fantasies of Liebestod. Even Japanese literature has famous classics about love suicides. But, as the artist Jenny Holzer has written (on many surfaces), “Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid.” Especially when you’re only 13 years old.

You did know that Juliet was 13, right? It’s in the text: she turns 14 soon. Romeo’s age is not mentioned, but he’s likely in his late teens. Which would make him a child abuser and sexual predator in modern law, by the way (OK, he marries her before he beds her, but shall we get into that?). Well, whatever. He ends up dead five days after he first meets her. So does she. And, nearly four centuries later, Blue Öyster Cult writes “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

Romeo and Juliet were together in eternity (and the tomb), but Verona continued on in Shakespeare’s mind. The anti-hero of Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio, is from Verona; perhaps he left because he was sick of all the teenage emo love death, but anyway he brings his more cynical outlook to Padua (now Padova in Italian) and meets Katherine, whom he cheats into marrying him. There’s one more play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona; its main action takes place in Venice. It’s another silly concealed-identity love comedy, and is most notable for being the play in which a dog with no lines upstages everyone else. Why not? People seem to like what’s not in the script better than what is.

But after all the flood of tourists and illusions recedes, Verona remains, sitting on top of its historical accretions. The real Verona is just a nice place to have dinner and a drink out on the street on a warm evening, the acme of charming Italian cities. Even with the occasional pop concert in the arena drowning out more local sounds while you dine at a table in a stone-paved lane three inches from where cars roll past. It’s all good. Here are some pictures. Verona in the day is pretty, and Verona at night is like a dream. One in which people don’t kill themselves for stupid reasons.


Aina and I were touring northern Italy last week. I’ll be doing word tastings with pictures for several of our stops. Venice first.

A map of Venice, in its barest outlines, looks to me like two hands grasping each other in help or contention, or two fish trying to eat each other. Below them is a third thing, a table or piece of cloth or another fish swimming past.

But most people don’t think of the map first when they think of Venice. They think of a grand illusion, the ageless fantasy of a city rising from a lagoon, of glorious palazzi on the Grand Canal, of romance and gondoliers and music and masks and carnivalesque inversions and art and novels and golden light and water, water, water.

They may think of narrow alleys and passages between buildings and a myriad of small bridges.

They may think of the innumerable wooden pilings, permanently submerged, that every building in the city rests on. They probably think of buildings sinking and pavements flooding, problems that are only going to get worse unless – and possibly even if – hands join other hands to apply technology.

People who have been to Venice in the warmer months think of people, endless throngs of people. Especially near St. Mark’s Square you almost can’t get through at times.

The city gets 18 million visitors a year. That’s an average of nearly 50,000 a day (if you assume each visits for just one day, which not all do) – and you know that it gets rather fewer in the winter months, and far too many in the summer months.

The current population of Venice, the island part (not the mainland part), is 55,000.

That’s a third of what it was at its peak, or even a century ago. There’s not much work to do other than the tourist trade there now – not so much fishing, let alone marine conquest – and even people who work in tourism may find it better to live on the mainland and rent out such property as they own in old Venice to tourists. Or sell it to hoteliers.

Venice is being invaded by tourists. Venice is being invaded by water. But Venice is there in the first place because of invasion. The Veneti people took refuge on the islands in the lagoon to escape Germanic and Hun invasions. It was a good move. The citizens formed a republic and maintained independence for a long time. Venice became a military and commercial power, aided strongly by its location – and by its grasp of how to band together to work with the surrounding sea. Finally it was conquered by Napoleon, and then became part of Austria, no wait, Napoleon’s kingdom, wait, no, back to Austria. And finally it joined the Kingdom of Italy, which later became a republic. But through all of it, it accumulated wealth and culture and art.

Many of the bridges between Venice’s 118 islands owe their presence to the Austrians, who preferred to go around on horseback rather than use boats. I don’t think you can ride horses around Venice now. But you can spend all day in Venice without getting into a boat, although boats will still get you from A to B quicker over any real distance (not the gondolas, though – those are slow and expensive and for show; getting places requires motors).

And Venice is most archetypally a city of canals – when another city is called “the Venice of [wherever]” (have a look at how many cities have been called “the Venice of the North”), it’s not because it’s built on wooden pilings, not because it’s pretty, not because it’s sinking, not because it’s beset with impossible throngs of tourists. It’s because it has canals.

The irony of it. Canals are usually things dug into land, interruptions in the prevailing earth. In Venice, the water was always there; the land was built up between it, reinforcing marshy islands by dredging earth from below the water, pounding wooden pilings in to hold up the buildings. Hands joining hands, working together and taking together. Where there were fish, there are humans. The grand illusion and ageless fantasy – still there…


A person who is severely prescriptive in matters of English usage is often called a “grammar Nazi.” I must say I dislike this term. Real-life fascists and racists do not amuse me, and I am resistant to trivializing them. We wouldn’t think it reasonable to call a person a “grammar rapist,” after all, would we?

Various replacements have been suggested, among which I like “grammar numpty” – a numpty being a stupid person (it’s a Britishism). But that’s not quite optimal either; ‘stupid’ is arguably different from ‘obnoxiously purblind’. I find myself more partial to “grammar Nazgûl” (you can leave off the circumflex on the u if you want).

If you’re a Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) fan, I don’t need to tell you what a Nazgûl is, so off you go. You can spend the next few minutes writing a piece explaining something like how Gollum would not fall into lava with the ring; lava, being molten rock, is still so dense that a person falling on it would fall onto it, not into it, and would immediately combust on the surface (and the ring would of course melt). Facts, after all.

For the rest of you: ring? Yes, ring. Sauron, the great sorceror, forged rings of power, which gave their wearers great powers but gave him greater powers over them, for he had the one ring that had power over all of them, a ring that bore this inscription:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Which means

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It’s a tidy little exercise in morphology – frankly, I’m surprised it’s not more often used in introductory linguistics classes. You can see readily enough that ash nazg must mean ‘one ring’, that a verb root plus –atul means the verb is done to ‘them’ and a verb root plus –atulûk means it is done to ‘them all’ (meaning –ûk must mean ‘all’, more or less). Other details that are known, though not inevitable from the text, are that burzum means ‘darkness’ and ishi is a postposition, and agh means ‘and’, and in –atul the –at is a verbal ending (meaning something like ‘to’) and –ul means ‘them’. Also, ash means ‘one’ and nazg means ‘ring’, not vice-versa (nothing in the sample itself makes that necessarily so).

So is nazgûl ‘ring them’? No, because of the difference between ul and ûl – the circumflex means it’s a long vowel (literally: hold it longer, just like you hold the /k/ in bookkeeper longer than the one in bookie). That makes it a different sound. Also, nazg isn’t a verb. Nazgûl is from nazg plus gûl, which means ‘wraith’. What’s a wraith? Kind of like a ghoul. Hmm.

Well, it is a constructed language. ‘Bind’ uses the root krimp, like English crimp, for instance. Whether Nazi influenced Tolkien’s invention of nazg here I don’t know (the Nazis did like Wagner’s Ring Cycle), but he was writing this in the 1940s.

What is a Nazgûl, then? A ring-wraith, yes, but what are those? Men who took up rings of power forged by Sauron, came under Sauron’s control, and, after Sauron lost the One Ring, were tasked with seeking it out mercilessly. If anyone was carrying it, and especially if anyone was wearing it, they could sense it, and they would swoop down with the aim of destroying the wearer and restoring the ring to its rightful condition. They descended as if from nowhere, uttering unbearable sounds.

I’m not saying that the parallel is exact. But consider: A person learns a set of tidy rules about English that give a sense of knowledge and control. They believe that in enforcing them they are serving the betterment of English and their own expression, but the rules become ends in themselves, and their enforcement an exercise in condemnation and destruction. They dedicate themselves to seeking out transgressions. A hapless person uses a bit of grammar that falls within their set of magical rules – or, rather, strays against it – and they swoop in as if from nowhere, making sounds terrible to the hearer.

Does that seem a bit of an extreme caricature? Not all that extreme. Look, I was one in my younger days, so I have some idea.

That does mean that, unlike a Nazgûl, one may always stop being one. Nonetheless grammar Nazgûl is at least as viable as any other similar term. And it has a good ring to it.

conversate, incent

Hmm. I wonder what will incentivize me to conversate today.



(Clears throat.) Hmm. I wonder what will incent me to converse today.



Would you prefer I orate? Would that make you ovate? Would you be less disorientated? Or disoriented?

Look, I’m not sure why you’re fixated on something that’s not fixed. I will be happy to notate these usages if you will note them.

Conversate is, according to many people, “not a word.” Of course that’s not true; it’s a distinct lexical item, established in usage, with a clear meaning. But it’s generally dispreferred in many a person’s idea of the prestige standard version of English. It’s not new, though of course age doesn’t automatically make a word part of the prestige standard (ain’t is very old indeed); it’s attested since 1811, mainly in American colloquial usage. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is “In later use associated esp. with African-American usage.”

But the verb converse has been around far longer. And why have that extra –ate when you don’t need it, right? You’d think that logic would incent people to accept incent. Instead, many get incensed by it. “Give incentive to!” some insist. Others allow incentivize. But before the mid-1800s, there was no verb form for incentive, and between the 1840s and the 1960s the only available verb for it was incent. Finally someone added those extra syllables to make incentivize – so much more acceptable, right?

Well, yes, incent is a backformation from incentive. But if you want to edit it out, remember that edit is a backformation from editor. And if, like some excitable word-warriors, you would like to get a syringe and euthanize anyone who uses incent, you might pause to consider that syringe is backformed from the plural syringes – the original singular is syrinx – and euthanize is backformed from euthanasia. And orate is backformed from oration, and ovate is from ovation, and yet, although those two words have similar ages and traditions of use (both tracing back to the 1600s), I’ll bet orate sounds more acceptable to you than ovate does (though, to be fair, some people dislike orate too – not so much now as a century ago, however).

And then of course there are fix and fixate, and note and notate, which have different meanings. And the verbs orient and orientate, which mean exactly the same thing except one says you’re American or Canadian and the other says you’re from Britain or Australia or New Zealand or…

Meanwhile, incent is generally associated with business-speak, that buzzword-laden argot that seems far too impressed with itself and not nearly thoughtful enough. And yet it’s short and effective. Like orient.

Conversate, of course, is the converse: longer than it needs to be. Just like orientate. But it’s not really about length, is it. Not when incent is just as ardently dispreferred. When people inveigh against “abuses” and “barbarisms,” if you listen for a bit, you find that what exercises them is often that they attribute the words to people who don’t know how stupid they sound. Who think too highly of themselves. Who lack educational status and don’t know their place. Who are, in short, uppity.

Hmm. Almost makes you wonder if the word-peevers are compensing for something.

Say what?

Oh. Yeah. The tidy verb compense, directly formed from Latin compensare, was current from the 1300s to the 1700s but, starting in the 1600s, came to be displaced by compensateCompense can’t be used as a verb anymore. What a botheration.

We can’t magically instantly change which words are associated with which variety of English, of course, and we are not obliged – or even obligated – to use words that we dislike if words we like are available. Skillful writers should be aware of how their audiences will receive and react to the words they choose. But we should stop to consider how we react to words we dislike, and ask ourselves why.

Well, nice conversating with you. So to speak.

Beatboxing: the podcast

A couple of years ago, I did an article on beatboxing for The Week – how much of it is made of tweaked-up speech sounds. We’ve dug it up and turned it into a podcast now. If you have seven minutes and are curious, give it a listen:

A phonological description of beatbox noises

when all is said and done

No word is an island, when all is said and Donne.

No phrase is an island either. Everything comes from somewhere and goes to somewhere else. Even if it’s an isolated utterance, it draws on established meanings and references and a history of uses. Just try saying “when all is done and said.” And everything you say implies a future, even if just a near one. If you’re saying something to someone else, it’s to have some effect on them.

And everything you say is something you do. Speech is a kind of action, like all communication. If you’re on an island and you see a boat in the distance, you may wave at it, which is something you do. But you do it to communicate, just like shouting “Hey!” Communicating is moving muscles to produce gestures intended to be seen and/or heard to produce some effect (usually multiple effects) on the seers and hearers.

So in theory you could just say “when all is done,” since saying is doing. And yet we do divide them in our minds. We tend to use done to mean that some physical change has been accomplished – a change that has usually been started and guided by saying, but not usually fully accomplished by saying. Getting married, getting fired, getting commended, getting cussed out, sure, saying will do for those. But not doing the dishes, doing the laundry, or even doing the taxes. Talk may be a kind of action, but we can still say someone is “all talk and no action” because we see a divide. Fine words butter no bread, and “I’m doing it right now!” doesn’t get it done right now. And yet it still has an effect on the hearer – even if it’s not the effect you wanted.

So. At the end of the day uses a metaphor of time. The bottom line uses a metaphor of accounting. When all is said and done uses a metaphor of speech and action. Actually, it doesn’t really use a metaphor at all. When you’re talking about the situation at the end of everything, it may or may not be the end of the day, and it’s probably not on a spreadsheet, but it is after all the words and other actions… within the scope of the particular arbitrarily delimited event you have in mind.

And at the end of the day connects us to the world of work; the bottom line connects us to the world of money; but when all is said and done connects us to the world of things that happen between people. Things said are things said to other people. You may be more likely to use when all is said and done than the others in reference to interpersonal relationships. Like this ABBA song, which was written about the divorce of two of the members of the group:

(The other two members had gotten divorced a couple of years earlier; that divorce is said to have produced “The Winner Takes It All.”)

What I particularly like about that song, though, is the cover for the single. The B-side was a song called “Should I Laugh or Cry.” So the cover appears to say “When all is said and done, should I laugh or cry”:

Which, really, is a viable question in many circumstances.

There’s just one thing about when all is said and done. It’s a fine phrase, with good rhythm (iambic trimeter), the consonants riding nicely on the tip of the tongue, one liquid /l/ to expand the all, then apical fricatives /z/ /s/, and then just the /n/ and /d/ dancing together. And the turn of phrase has been in the language since the 1500s. But it’s a bit long. After all this time, you’d think we could have come up with a shorter way of referring to the state that exists after all other events and states.

Which we did, within a decade or two at most. English can be very efficient when we want it to be, after all.

the bottom line

OK, so now we know the bottom line on the end of the day. But at the end of the day, what’s the bottom line?

They seem to be roughly the same thing, right? A summative discourse marker? But one refers to the situation after everything has happened; the other refers to the situation when everything is tallied up. They tend to be used in generally interchangeable situations, but can we think of a place where we would use one and not the other, or at least would incline more to one than to the other? Or even where the tone or sense might be a little different?

They make great cakes, but at the end of the day, I’d still rather eat at home.
They make great cakes, but the bottom line is I’d still rather eat at home.

He’s capricious and demanding, but the bottom line is that he makes great cakes.
He’s capricious and demanding, but at the end of the day, he makes great cakes.

You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but at the end of the day you’re still older.
You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but the bottom line is that you’re still older.

These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but the bottom line is that they just don’t suit me.
These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but at the end of the day they just don’t suit me.

At the end of the day, while there are differences in tone and general suitability, the bottom line is that I can’t think of an example where one or the other would be too awkward to use. Unintentionally funny, perhaps:

It may have fancy expensive ingredients, but at the end of the day, it’s breakfast.
Your bass and tenor and alto parts are all singable, but the bottom line is that the soprano part is too high.

And in some cases, you really should ask: Why this clichéd metaphor and not another? (Why any clichéd metaphor is sometimes a good question too.)

What, anyway, is the bottom line? Is it the bass part in a score? The end of a novel? The weighted lower edge of a fishing net? Well, that last one is the first definition for bottom line in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s not the one that’s the basis for the sense ‘final analysis’ or ‘crux of the argument’ – though this cliché does seem to be a rather wide net, dragging the lexical ocean to corral coral and filter in flotsam. No, it’s the summation of an accounting: the last line of a bill or ledger, showing the balance after all has been added and subtracted. It’s what a restaurant gives you at the end of the evening.

The bottom line has been used in this figurative sense since at least the 1830s, but its use rose rapidly starting in the 1970s. At the same time, the phrases “the bottom line is” and, more narrowly, “the bottom line is that” first appeared in print. Have a look. Before then, its use really was mostly literal (and sometimes referring to geometric drawing). In the early 1970s we start seeing it in fiction and plays but also in political writing and speeches. It seems to have become popular among a certain set. By 1979 there was a book called The Bottom Line: Communicating in the Organization by T. Harrell Allen. And once the 1980s came, it was a current phrase used to convey a pragmatic, hard-edged, business-minded sensibility. Not the weariness or nostalgia of at the end of the day. Just whatever’s right on the money.

But at the end of the day, is the bottom line really the last word?