Category Archives: from the bookshelf


On my bookshelf, lower down, near the corner, behind the chair in which I sit when I make my word review videos, is an old book I first saw on my father’s bookshelf when I was a child. It’s sandwiched between books on editing and linguistics – to the right, study guides for an editorial certification exam; to the left, a workbook in the history of the English language. Farther to the right and out of focus are my father’s PhD dissertation and mine, one by the other. You can see that the book I am talking about today barely has a spine left. You can’t read its title.

This isn’t another copy of the book I saw on my dad’s shelf. This is the book. It was in dodgy condition even by then.

Phonemics. I didn’t know quite what it was, but it sounded important.

A technique for reducing languages to writing.

Phonemics – more often called phonology now – is more than just that, I should say. It’s the study of not simply the sounds of a language but what the speakers think are the sounds of a language. Which is not the same thing.

Most English speakers, for instance, have no conscious idea that they are making a different sound with the p in speak than they are with the p in peak, but they still do it. The difference is aspiration – a puff of air after the p in peak (put your hand in front of your mouth to feel it) – and if you really emphasize the word, you will almost certainly really emphasize the aspiration too. And if you hear a non-native speaker say it without the aspiration, you will hear that they sound different, even if you can’t say just how they do.

So when you’re a linguist analyzing a language, in particular one that doesn’t yet have a written form (there were many more such a half century ago), you can’t just record the sounds – the phonetics. You have to figure out what people think are the sounds – the phoemics. You have to figure out what sound differences are considered important and what aren’t.

In phonology as in so many other things, it matters at least as much what you think you’re hearing and saying as what you’re actually hearing and saying.

This copy was printed in 1961, but it’s the seventh printing of an edition that first came out in 1947, which is a revised and expanded version of one that was first made in mimeographed form in 1943.

Yes, mimeographed. How many of you even know what that was? My dad actually had a mimeograph machine when I was a kid. I can remember the smell of the ink and the sound it made when you hand-cranked it.

You can see that this book, though not mimeographed, is offset-printed from an original that was done on a typewriter.

And now you’re reading this on an electronic screen, transmitted instantly from a long distance away, infinitely reproducible, and with pretty proportionately spaced fonts too.

And we still think exactly the same things about the sounds we make when speaking as we did back then. We being the ordinary English speakers. Linguists have continued to advance the study, but quite a bit in this book looks very familiar. This problem set, for instance:

Can you figure out which two sounds have probably been conflated in the transcription? My dad’s red-pencil annotation may help you.

It would be great if I could say that I pulled this book off the shelf and learned all about phonemics from it as a kid. I did not. I was a kid. My eyes glazed over pretty quickly. It was too advanced for me and I didn’t want to admit it, which I would have had to do in order to ask questions about it. No, my first real introduction to the fascinating world of phonology and orthography came courtesy of J.R.R. Tolkien and the appendices in the complete Lord of the Rings: a little more basic and digestible – and fun. I later learned more from books that attempted to teach me other languages: Teach Yourself Norwegian, for instance (men jeg kan ikke tale Norsk). They explained the sound system of the language in question, but often they did so with British speakers in mind, which doesn’t really help a Canadian who is being told that one word has the vowel sound in cot while another has the vowel sound in caught (to Canadians, they are the same sound). Eventually it did help me learn something about British phonology, though.

But I souvenired this book off my father’s shelf and have transported it with me for decades now. Between the time I first saw at it and now, I finished school and have had two whole post-secondary academic careers, one culminating in a PhD in drama and the other in an MA in linguistics (win me the lottery and we can discuss a second PhD). Now I can open this book and say, Ah, yes, this looks familiar. And Yup, you betcha, that’s right.

I had it the whole time but I had to go elsewhere and learn before I could come back and understand it – and see that I’d had that knowledge with me all along.

Which is the way it goes when you’re studying language, especially phonemics. You have what was handed down to you by your forebears, perhaps altered by time and medium, and you may just take it with you without really inspecting or understanding it. Or you may, through expanding your horizons and looking elsewhere, learn to understand it. It’s still there, rather worn and old, but not gone, not irrelevant.

And such, too, is the goal of our education: To make us understand and appreciate what we already have… and to help us to understand the difference between what we think we’re hearing and saying and what we really are hearing and saying.


Sometimes you are kept in the dark. Sometimes you keep others in the dark. Meaning in language is a ball that is thrown from one to another. Sometimes the ball is not caught. Sometimes it is not even thrown but faked: a deliberate mystery, a perdition of meaning.

For tonight’s word, let me go to my bookshelf. But not the usual bookshelf. My much-photographed library shelves are not the only place we have books. They’re piled all over. And if you open this kitchen cupboard…

I have a collection of cookbooks. Sometimes I even open them. One or two of them. Some of them go years without being opened. I used to use them more. I wonder if there are words in some of them that have never been seen in that copy with human eyes – and never will be.

Some of these cookbooks are gifts. One of my favourites – though I’ve never made much actual use of it – is one my cousin the food-and-wine lover gave me. She sought it for years and it finally appeared in a reprint.

The Art of Cuisine, recipes and art by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, assembled by his friend Maurice Joyant, translated by Margery Weiner, with culinary notes by Barbara Kafka. Culinary notes? Yes, well, the recipes were not written for beginner audiences; they were noted down by a gourmet for use by other gourmets comfortable in the kitchen. So, for our rather more helpless and literal modern cookbook-buying audiences (who also may be unfamiliar with some things that were matters of course in the France of the 1800s), the noted cookbook author Barbara Kafka has given usable clarifications. We wouldn’t want the meaning to be missed.

It certainly has some engaging recipes, and it tells them in that lovely conversational way that old cookbooks often do.

Admittedly there are some recipes I am quite sure I will never make because I will never happen to have a key ingredient. They sit there on the page, connecting to my eyes and brain, giving me an aesthetic anticipation, but never eventuating in action.

At the very end of the book is a section called ULTIMA RATIO FINIS. It is (after its section title page) just this one page, facing another illustration.

As you can see if you look closely, it contains three recipes: grasshoppers grilled in the fashion of Saint John the Baptist; saint on the grill; and ancient recipe.


Full of mystery. It will never be known.

God revealed the knowledge only to his Prophet, who uttered no word about it. This recipe will, therefore, remain forever unknown to all other human beings.

A culinary equivalent of Arthur Sullivan’s lost chord.

An owsell.

Did you not see the word owsell in the recipe? Anywhere in the book?

It’s not there.

I first became aware of this word last week thanks to a tweet by Simon Horobin, professor of English at Oxford. He tweeted a picture of the Oxford English Dictionary entry for it.

The first thing you see is that the word is preceded by an obelisk, a dagger indicating the obsoleteness of the word: †. It is dead. No one uses it.

But at the time the OED was first assembled, it was found and noted in a book. So there it is. The OED has a few hapax legomena that appear just because someone used them once in a book. It takes rather more than that to get into it now, but they are loath to expunge an old entry.

The second thing you see in the entry, after † owsell, n., is

Origin: Of unknown origin.
Etymology: Origin unknown.

There is, below that, a little note about the sense as conveyed in the one text citation: “Although perdition is later sometimes described as black (following Milton On Death Fair Infant, 1673), and there are instances of figurative use of ‘ouzel’ (blackbird) in allusion to the colour black (compare ouzel n. 1c), it is not easy to see how this might be interpreted in the quot. here.” The text citation, which is at the very end of the entry, is a quotation from A six-folde politican by John Melton, published in 1609: “Neither the touch of conscience, nor the sense..of any religion, euer drewe these into that damnable and vntwineable traine and owsell of perdition.”

After the usage note, you see the characterization “Obs. rare—1.

Then you see the definition:

(Meaning unknown.)
Possibly a typographical error for some other word.

Say no more.


My dwelling is an ecosystem of sorts. Yes, it hosts two people and some gradually dying deracinated flowers, not to mention all those unpleasant little bugs in the kitchen, but there are also the many books and magazines and pieces of music and books and artworks and – did I mention the books?

Yes, they are not what is normally considered alive, although they once were parts of various trees (among other things). But they have a living traffic of words, images, and ideas to and from the minds that inspect them. And words that appear one way in one of them appear another way in another. Also, they move.

Don’t believe me? Look at this stack of books on a stool (currently doubling as a side table). Obviously they belong on the bookshelf, right?

So if they belong on the bookshelf, how did they get onto the stool?

OK, fine, I put them there. Because I’m not done with them. I pulled them off the shelf to look at and have not achieved emotional closure with that liaison. Or I forgot to put them back. Or I acquired them and have yet to put them on the bookshelf for the first time because I’m still reading them (ones that I haven’t started reading yet may be on the floor), or I’m done reading but I want to refer to them or lend them to someone else. I have not made so bold as to return them to the fold.

Like this one on top. Here, let me show you the cover.

Its author, David Lukas, is a naturalist, a bird specialist, who became enchanted by the world of words. O brave new world, that has such creatures in it! (Yes, I know that’s not quite the original quote. Words can move around in living minds.) Such beautiful, sensual things, wild and free, shaped by the mental ecosystem, the community of minds, flying and landing, and reproducing and evolving. And, on the other hand, words and word parts are like tools, tools that we can use to touch the further world, tools that we can fashion from parts available to us.

So he wrote this book. It is at the top of this stack because I have been diving into it like a forest pool every so often since I got it. (I acquired my copy from the hand of the author, but you can get yours at

Lukas looks at the materials available to us, and he looks at how we can put them to use. I have a special fondness for Old English, and he gives a nice list of words from Old English that he feels are worth reviving.

At the top of page 82, I see foldbold, “an earthly dwelling.”

(I also see, slightly farther down, lustgrin, “a snare set by pleasure,” which is, in its own way, another word for an earthly dwelling. Its closest modern equivalent would probably be honey trap.)

Foldbold. This seems like a name for a house of letters. Fold like paper, bold like print. If I were to name my dwelling as many in England have traditionally named theirs, Foldbold would suit it well. It’s such a savoury word, too. It has two syllables that rhyme with each other – and with so many other words, old, mold, cold, sold, but also gold, hold, told, bankrolled – and it has stops, liquids, a soft fricative; it uses the lips, the teeth, the tip and back of the tongue, the whole bodily home (or halfway house) of words.

This is a word seen in Beowulf. I looked it up. That’s why that Guide to Old English is there in the pile. Here’s the section.

Beowulf has Grendel by the arm, and will not let go; the struggle threatens the mead-hall they are in, which the poet gives the epithet fæger foldbold. That word faæger, which was pronounced like how we now say fire, meant ‘fair’; the glossary in the Guide defines it as “building,” but Lukas’s “eathly dwelling” is more likeable. The fold in foldbold means ‘earthly’, after all. (Yes, the language has changed quite a bit in the intervening millennium-and-some; language evolves more quickly than the bodies that speak it.)

So. My shelves and stools are fair foldbolds for my books; this book is a fair foldbold for this word. Or is it the book that is its home? How about the mouth? No, the mouth is a way-point, a transporter beam sending it to the receiving ear so that it may occupy another mind (without leaving the first one, however – language is, perhaps, more accurately called a virus). The foldbold of a word is a mind, or the community of minds that share it and keep it current and evolving. But is a mind earthly? A brain is, if I may be so bold as to fold the one into the other (a conflation I must confess I do not necessarily hold to invariably). And brains walk the world in bodies – bodies that dwell in houses and carry books from place to place, servants of their ostensible tool, language. We move them, because they move us.

Xenakis, Euryale

I have always been far-wandering, even in enclosed spaces. I have always welcomed the exquisitely extrinsic. You may say that I am to some extent xenophilic. It was natural that, when I was in university, I would at times cruise the shelves in the library looking for books that could be new friends and fascinations. I would look up a title on some subject of interest, and then I would explore its neighbourhood. This is so much easier with books than with people: you can’t, having visited a friend or gone on a blind date, simply knock on neighbours’ doors to see who else might be fun. There is something stochastic about such human propinquity anyway: aside from a desire and ability to live in the same part of town, neighbours may have nothing at all in common. Not so with books. They stand in ranked parade, spines in line, and you can easily find several to pull out and get to know better. You don’t know what you’ll find until you look, of course, and you will always have to make choices: you simply can’t read them all – there aren’t enough hours in your life. But some, when you open their doors, reach and grab your shirt or neck or hair and pull you in. And some of those turn into lifelong companions. You can’t keep the library’s copy, of course (no, you can’t, and I will be displeased with you if you think otherwise), but you can buy your own copy thereafter. I have a few books on my shelf that I came to know through the university library.

I can picture the original of this one on its shelf, on the left as you face outward towards the window to a view over the hilly housescapes of northwest Calgary; on the same row as works by and about John Cage (which was who brought me to the neighbourhood), a shelf or two along from the inside end, about halfway from the floor to the ceiling. (Any book I have ever liked in a library I could walk up to and pull off the shelf thereafter almost without looking.) I read it through. Some time later, I bought my own copy in paperback (the university’s was hardcover). I think it likely that I ordered it in. Here is where it sits on my shelf, not far from a window with a view of the concrete cliffs of downtown Toronto but not in sight of it.

And here is the cover.

How could I not be interested in the avant garde? I am the sort of person who throws open the front doors of books as they rest quietly in their neighbourhood. I am the person who made, in hand calligraphy, a poster that said “If at first you don’t exceed, try, try again” – and I did not mean it in the business “Did we exceed your expectations?” sense.


Let us wander through this palace of text about music, this guide to the avant-garde of sound that presents the subject silently, to see what synaesthetic or transaesthetic stimuli it may present. Understand as we do so that I was not a highly skilled musician; in fact, I was a rather lazy one, and would not have gotten into a university music program. No matter; I was a drama student, and loved the idea of these musical adventures.

The book is illustrated with images from scores. It starts out innocuously enough.

At this point the text is more intriguing than the score. “Wolff tried to free himself from ‘the direct and peremptory consequences of intention and effect’ by grossly simplifying the materials he used in his fully notated pieces.”

Flip over the page.

Well. That’s a little stranger. It looks very mathematical but in fact it leaves much room for interpretation, as the score says. But wander on: turn one more page.

That, too, is a score (for December 1952 by Earle Brown). How does one interpret it? Each player will do it differently. Players with more learnèd backgrounds and more skill will likely do more proficient and impressive things with it. Rank amateurs with no discipline are unlikely to produce a result worth listening to. But it uncages the music (even as it John-Cages it – Brown was part of the same set as Cage); it makes it a Calder-style mobile that relies explicitly on judgement, intervention, interpretation.

Cage, for his part, loved to experiment with chance and the mapping of other areas to music. Star maps, for instance, as with Atlas eclipticalis.

The composers’ peregrinations were not just in the written indications. They were in technique as well. And sometimes that called for new approaches to the scoring, like this from Penderecki.

Sylvano Busotti wanted the players to approach the instrument erotically. In Per tre sul piano (For three on the piano), “the instrument becomes a prone body, alternately caressed, cajoled and assaulted by its suitors.” His notation, Paul Griffiths declares, “is not unhelpful in suggesting a properly erotic manner of performance.” We may consider that Paul Griffith – and Sylvano Busotti too – may have had a different sense of the erotic than some of the rest of us.

This was all fascinating, of course, but I was familiar with Cage already, and would inevitably have met Stockhausen and some of the others. The section of this book that is most memorable to me – the one I think of first when I think of this book – begins like this:


This doesn’t mean that everyone should play badly. It means that the scores are designed to defeat even the best players. Whereas scores such as Brown’s and Cage’s encourage the players to invent and fill in, the anti-virtuosic scores give more than enough and it is up to the player to decide what will be left out. A decade later I would learn that this was a necessary approach in scholarship too: when you write a thesis, you can’t be exhaustive or you will be exhausted (and your readers will too). You have to decide not only what to put in but what to leave out.

And that is where I saw this.

Griffiths tells us (as if we don’t have eyes, or just for the sake of saying it) that this “would appear unlikely ever to fit comfortably under two hands.”

The sight of the score has surely gorgonized you; those racked-out stems may as well be abstract expressionist snakes on Medusa’s head. But the piece can be played. Here, look, and listen:

It challenges you: can you even hear it all, take it all in? If this score is a neighbourhood, can you walk every alley? Or are you afraid of what may await you down one of the darker ones? Something strange, perhaps, and unwelcoming? You know you will have to choose what to attend to and what to let fall.

This piece is Evryali by Iannis Xenakis. If that seems like Greek to you, you have it exactly. Evryali is a modern transliteration of a name more commonly rendered Euryale from the classical pronunciation; the original is Εὐρυάλη, which means ‘far-roaming’. It was the name of the middle of the three gorgon sisters. The youngest and most famous of the three was Medusa, famously decapitated by Perseus with the aid of an ocular prosthetic (his shiny shield). Medusa was mortal; her sisters, Euryale and Stheno, were immortal, so Perseus avoided them altogether. He had one thing he needed, and he took it; he was a simple careerist, focused on getting ahead. No room for feelings or far-roaming explorations.

Why does the score look as it does? It is not simply to confound the player; after all, pianists do practice – concerts aren’t cold readings. Xenakis divided the staves between different parts of the hands; in some scores he had a separate staff for each finger. But Evryali is not playable as written; the pianist simply can’t reach all the notes as indicated. There will always need to be interpretation. The intervention of the performer, which in truth is inevitable, is forced to be explicit. At the same time, the audience member, who is the receiving host of this visitation of notes, is forced to relinquish an accounting of every note and follow the overall shape and flow.

Here is a relevant quote from an autobiographical sketch by Xenakis:

These uncertainties in the appreciation of music are not restricted to contemporary music. I have encountered the same variations during performances of works by the classical musicians I prefer: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Monteverdi, Chopin. Music does not transmit a representation in a direct and immediate way. It acts more as a catalyst. The composer chooses his music because it creates in him, via the ear that detects repetitions and symmetries, an effect that promotes expression of his representation. This music then sets off in the listener a psychological effect that may be close to or far from that which the musician has felt. Moreover, music comprises several levels of comprehension. It can be sensual and only sensual, in which case its effect on the body can be very powerful and even hypnotic. Music can also express all the facets of sensitivity. But it is probably alone in sometimes arousing a very specific feeling of expecting and anticipating mystery, a feeling of astonishment, which suggests absolute creation, without references of any kind, like a cosmic phenomenon. Some forms of music go further, drawing you intimately and secretly towards a sort of gulf where the spirit is happily submerged.

I’m not surprised if you skimmed some of that. That’s how we read these days, isn’t it? That’s also how you must listen sometimes. Allow this piece to spread through your awareness:

Who was Xenakis? He was (among other things) an engineer, and an assistant to Le Corbusier; they co-designed the Dominican priory of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette, among other buildings, and Xenakis by himself designed the Phillips Pavilion at Expo 58 (see this MIT course handout for a picture of it, a plan for it, and a similar-looking score by Xenakis). He had a lifelong love of music and went back into it, becoming one of the most important composers of the 20th century – which, of course, does not keep his name from being a stranger to many.

Which is only fitting. This name, Xenakis, Ξενάκης, pronounced like “kse-na-kis” (yes, you have to say the “ks” at the beginning; no, you may not say “z” instead, tough it out, the Greeks can and they have the same mouth muscles as you do), is formed from two simple Greek parts. The suffix, -άκης, is a diminutive suffix and is also used in forming family names. The root is – as far as I know, anyway – ξένος, which shows up in English in various xeno- words. It means ‘stranger, foreigner, guest’ – and sometimes ‘host’ too, inasmuch as the host and guest are equally strangers but equally bound by obligation of welcome. We may think strange is meant to be a bad thing; we see the word xenophobia. But xenial means ‘welcoming, hospitable’, as we are supposed to be to our guests (although not all people are equally so). So, in a way, Ξενάκης is ‘a little stranger’.

Small wonder, then, that the work of Xenakis seemed so simultaneously strange and inviting to me, as I in my wanderings came to its door and was drawn in on sight – and, later, on sound.

Here is a good article on the music of Xenakis. And here are a couple more videos of his works. You may or may not like them. It is always up to you; the performance, after all, arrives in your head, whether or not you have a bed made up for it.

deuce, trey

Now, where the deuce is that book? I want to blog about it. Did I lend it to someone? It’s a hardcover, so it should be on the top shelf…

Ah, wait. Let me turn this pile of books aside for the reveal…

Can you quite see it? There are two books side by side there that are my own copies of books I first discovered in the Banff Public Library when I was a youth and spent much enjoyable time sitting in that glorious wood-and-carpet high-ceilinged room reading (the library has since moved and the building it was in is now a museum).

Not the Machiavelli book – that was grad school. No, both of these books promise knowledge unknown to most but valuable to initiates. Secrets arcane and possibly even a bit louche. For one of them, the time and place I got my copy is a forgotten secret. For the other one, I happened to remember it one time maybe a decade ago, and so I decided to look in the used bookstores here in Toronto for it. The first store I went into was Ten Editions, on Spadina not far south of Bloor. I walked in, looked for the relevant section, and there it was.

I mean, talk about luck.

Frankly, the odds of just walking into the first store and finding a nice copy of this 1957 book waiting for me were surely a bit less than the odds of filling a full house by drawing a three-of-a-kind to a pair of deuces.

Full houses have cost me a fair few dollars over the years, too, I should say. Even ones that I was holding. (When you have a full house in Texas hold ’em, the odds of someone else having a better full house or even a four-of-a-kind are better than you might think.) This book, on the other hand, cost me $15. It’s written in pencil on the flap.

Poker, by the way, is a game of chance in about the same way as Scrabble is a game of chance. But most people don’t bet on Scrabble. Poker is only a game of pure chance if you’re not a very good player. Being a good poker player isn’t just about knowing the odds. It’s about knowing the people. It’s about thinking about what they’re thinking. This is similar to the advice I used to give when I taught test prep for the SAT, GRE, LSAT, and GMAT: think about what the test takers are trying to make you think. Get inside their heads.

Who is this Herbert O. Yardley, the author of this book?

If you looked at the smaller print on the front cover – which you would have had to click on to see in a larger version – you learned that he was a cryptographer. He cracked secret codes governments were using. You have to be smart to do that, but you don’t do it just by being a mathematician. You do it by thinking of what the other guys are likely to have been thinking of. And that is what makes a person good at poker.

What makes a poker book good reading, on the other hand, are good stories.

Of course, many people – including some of my relatives when I was a kid and (I think) even now – consider cards to be instruments of the devil. And gambling? Entirely unacceptable, sinful, satanic. (Let’s not go into how much of their retirement savings depend on the stock market.)

But if you like to figure things out, and you like to find out more about things you’re not supposed to know about, and louche things maybe attract you a bit as long as you’re not in danger… poker has a certain appeal.

It also has a certain vocabulary.

Some of them are for kinds of sets of cards (“hands”) you can have. A straight is five cards in numerical sequence, regardless of the suit. A flush is five cards of the same suit, regardless of the numbers. (If two people have the same kind of hand, though, the one with the highest card wins.) A full house is a pair and a three of a kind (e.g., two jacks and three 7s). A straight flush is a straight where all the cards are the same suit. A royal flush is the highest straight flush. In all my years playing poker, I’ve seen a royal flush in actual play exactly once. It beat a full house.

Some of the words are for cards. Ace, king, queen, jack, sure, you know them. The ace can be the lowest or the highest card, depending on the game. But there are two other special words for low cards. One is common; the other is not often used.

A trey is a three. It comes from Old French trei (standard modern French is trois), and is of course related to Italian tre and Latin tres. It is not commonly used by poker players now, but in Yardley’s time and place (early 1900s Indiana to start with), it was the standard term. Not that having a trey would give you anything on a tray, silver or otherwise. A trey isn’t even worth a try. If you have three treys, well, you have a three of a kind, and that will win often enough, but watch out.

A deuce, on the other hand, is always a deuce. In poker today you may well call a trey a three and you will be like everyone else, but if you call a deuce a two you are probably either naïve or joking around.

In general, a deuce is of no use. A pair of deuces has insufficient uses. Three deuces is a three of a kind, which will beat anyone who has a pair or two pair, but is otherwise the crappiest halfway decent hand. Four deuces is a four of a kind and will win almost all of the time, but you will almost never have it. Especially if you’re playing a version of poker where you start out with two cards and more are dealt after, because you’ll be building it from a pair of deuces, which is a hand you should fold unless you’re eager to give someone else your money.

You can also have a deuce in dice – the side with two spots on it – which is either fitting or ironic, etymologically. You see, dice is a singular that was reinterpreted as a plural and had a singular die backformed from it, while deuce is respelled with a c from earlier s: Old French deus (modern French deux). Not that it was a plural (aside from two being dual), but it is a movement in the other direction.

In tennis, if you have a deuce, that means both players have reached 40, which is really just 3 points – 15, 30, 40 – but it’s not a trey, it’s à deux, a deuce, and one of the players has to win by two more points.

And if you have a deuce coupe, that means you have a souped-up two-door car. Deuce because two doors.

It’s funny that deuce comes from Old French deus. In Latin, deus means ‘god’, while in English deuce is also a word for the devil. You may even have seen, in some older novel or play, a line such as “To the deuce with you!” This does not consign a person to a losing poker hand. Well, not directly. Its use for ‘devil’ came from its use for ‘mischief, plague, misfortune’, and that in turn came from… hmm, we’re not entirely sure, it’s the most deucèd thing… but it seems to have originated (in English or another Germanic language) in the deuce being the lowest card.

By the way, while Benito Mussolini may have been a devil, his nickname Il Duce does not come from deuce or a related word. It means ‘captain’ or ‘leader’ and comes from Latin dux, from duco ‘I lead’. Now, yes, depending on the card game, you may lead with a deuce, but in poker, a deuce is more likely to lead you to loss of money. But, hey, you gotta pay your dues one way or another. Just don’t reduce yourself by chasing deuces again.


The dimmer the light, the harder a time I have of seeing things. I spent nearly half an hour trying to find this book.

Can’t see it? Let me sharpen things up a little.

Still can’t see it?

Neither could I. I knew where it was supposed to be but… Turns out it was between the Bernini and Holzer books. Behind the Doonesbury box set. Bottom shelf, near the post.

Here, this book. Photography with Large-Format Cameras.

I’ve set it on the futon in our guest room. Let me sharpen up more of that for you.

It’s a book I “borrowed” from my dad. It covers clearly but in good detail the optics of cameras, and notably of large-format view cameras – cameras that allow you to shift and tilt the lens. I don’t currently own a large-format camera, and I can’t afford the time or money to use one either. But an understanding of the principles is valuable to any photographer’s understanding of the technical details of photography.

The reason the second picture has more in focus than the first is the same reason I see more sharply in brighter light (as does everyone, but you notice it more when your eyes have a more limited focal range). It’s also why people sometimes squint to see more sharply. It’s something mentioned on page 9.


Can’t see which word I have in mind?

That isolates the subject a bit more, doesn’t it?

Aperture. From Latin apertura, from aperire, verb, ‘open’. An aperture is an opening.

We’re always looking for an opening, right? And we always want to keep our eyes wide open for one?

In a camera lens, the aperture is a roughly circular opening in the middle that constrains the light coming through. It keeps it within a certain distance from the exact middle point. The bigger the aperture, the more light gets through, but the less precise the light that gets through. Any part of the picture that isn’t exactly in focus gets even less exactly in focus, so that you notice the blurriness more and can make out the details less. In technical terms, the circle of confusion is larger for any given distance from the plane of exact focus. (This means what should be a dot is a circle due to the imprecision of focus at that point.)

Paradoxically, when there’s less light let in, you can see more details of more things (the circle of confusion is closer to being a dot); you can make out the foreground and background in more detail too. Just as long as you expose for longer or increase the sensitivity to make up for the reduced light level. But you have to watch out: when you increase the sensitivity, you can lose detail through noise – from overinterpreting the limited light that comes through. And if you narrow the aperture too much, diffraction effect starts to reduce the sharpness of everything. It may be in equal focus, but it’s in equally iffy focus.

When everything is in sharp focus, nothing stands out as much. The constraint of a narrower aperture is great when you have a lot that you want to be equally in focus. There is less “confusion” but less differentiation. When you want to isolate something more, draw the eyes to it, de-emphasize the less important parts, you don’t want everything in equal focus. You open up the aperture and the field of acceptable focus narrows down. The more wide open your pupils are – or the diaphragm (iris) on your camera lens – the more clearly one thing stands out and the more the rest is blurred out, confused. It allows you to focus on a pertinent part, whatever appertains most… or, if you mishandle it, to single out something malapert, to let it erupt at the expense of the broader parts. We can be enraptured by it… or trapped.

On a camera, you can control the aperture: let in as much light as possible and one thing stands out, or restrict the light and make more things come into focus. With your eyes, it’s involuntary (aside from what you can achieve by squinting). The brighter it is, the more your pupil contracts, the more things are in sharp focus. The dimmer the light, the more your pupil dilates, the fewer things you can see clearly and the more just a little bit stands out. And not necessarily the bit you want.

So yes, in a way, we are looking for the right opening. But we don’t always want to keep our eyes wide open. Or our lenses. Sometimes, yes. But let’s keep our options in sight.

to craunch the marmoset

I have something special today. A special book from my bookshelf – well, aren’t they all – but this one calls for a special lens on my camera to photograph it.

The lens is an ordinary enough lens by description: 50mm f/2. There are quite a few of these out there, and 50mm f/1.8, and 50mm f/1.4. The f/2 maximum aperture may stand out for some because two of the most revered lenses in photography, the Leica Summicron and the Zeiss Sonnar, use it.

This lens is not one of those.

Not quite. After World War II, the Russians and their proxies took over some German lens factories and their designs, though not necessarily their production standards. This lens is a Russian copy of a Zeiss Sonnar. It’s called Jupiter-8. It cost me well under $100 on ebay a couple of years ago. It’s uncoated, prone to flare and not very contrasty, and tends to do interesting things with colour, especially when I adjust the files to recover some contrast.

Which makes it a favourite of hipsters. In fact, a remake of it is now being released. I’m not sure why; you can still get an original for well under $100 on ebay. But whatever. Some people like to revive old, questionably made translated copies. They have some charm, after all.

Now. Let’s look at my bookshelf. The part in the corner behind the chair. As you can see, it’s so full I have started stacking books in front of the standing books.

Here’s the one I want. It’s a reprint of a classic that I first read about years ago.

The author, Pedro Carolino, set out in 1855 to make an English phrasebook for Portuguese speakers. He was a native speaker of Portuguese. He did not speak English at all. He also did not even have an English-Portuguese dictionary. But he did have a French-English phrasebook and a Portuguese-French dictionary. Why wouldn’t that work just fine, eh? Find the equivalent word and slot it in.

Ha ha ha.

It was so classically awful, Carolino had made himself the Ed Wood of translation. The book was subsequently reissued under the title English as She Is Spoke for the amusement of all and sundry.

How bad is it? Here, read.

You see, it’s not just that the translations are awful, it’s that some of the things that are being said are quite iffy too.

The crowning glory, however, is the last section.

And its greatest moment, surely its most quoted line, comes at the very end of this edition.

To craunch the marmoset.

This may sound like something one does at brunch, but it is presented as a translation of Esperar horas e horas, which means ‘To wait hours and hours.’

So we have three questions. First, what is craunch? Second, what is marmoset? Third, how on earth did he get from Esperar horas e horas to To craunch the marmoset?

Number one, then: craunch. Does it sound like crouch? Understandably, but that’s not quite it. How about crunch? Yes, there we are. It has alternate form cranch, which has related form scranch, which has 16th-century Dutch cognate schranzen ‘split, break’, which has become modern Dutch schranzen ‘eat greedily’. To craunch a marmoset means the same as to crunch a marmoset.

Number two: What is a marmoset? It is a small simian, a funny little long-tailed monkey. Johnny Carson had one of his classic moments on The Tonight Show when one of them relieved itself on his head:

Does marmoset sound like it should be a marmot or some similar rodent? The words marmot and marmoset are almost certainly related. A marmot is, in French, une marmotte. The word marmot now refers to a small child, but it used to refer to a monkey. Both words seem to come from the same root as murmur, though it’s not entirely established (but it may be spoken of quietly). The diminutive form of marmot came to English as a name for this little monkey, marmoset.

They don’t call marmosets marmosets in French, though. They call them ouististis, a word formed in imitation of a sound they make. That word shows up in an idiomatic phrase as well: un drôle de ouististi. I am assured by my Collins Robert French-English dictionary that that means “a queer bird” – I suspect we would now say an odd duck to mean about the same thing.

Speaking of idiomatic phrases, if I open my Le Robert Mini, which is entirely in French, I find at marmot that there is an idiom meaning “attendre longtemps” (‘wait a long time’): croquer le marmot.

Remember how Carolino made his book? He used French as an intermediary.

Having found that croquer le marmot meant, in Portuguese, esperar horas e horas, what remained was to translate it into English: croquer became – well, it should have become crunch or munch, but I guess he liked craunch better; marmot became marmoset, because marmot could be translated thus as easily as croquer could be translated craunch (and anyway it didn’t mean ‘marmot’ in the English sense of ‘big squirrel-like critter’).

This, however, leaves us with another question: What does crunching a marmot or marmoset or monkey or small child have to do with waiting for a long time? Does it just take hours to eat one?

I’ve gotten the answer from a couple of handy French reference sites. The first is the eminently useful Wiktionary. The second and more detailed on this point is Both of these are in French, so I will just tell you the answer here in case you don’t easily read French or can’t be bothered. In times bygone (up to a half millennium ago), doorknockers on French dwellings (that had them) were often done in the style of grotesque figures like monkey heads, and so they came to be called marmots. In that same time period, croquer was used to mean ‘knock, hit’. So croquer le marmot meant ‘knock at the door’, and by implication ‘stand outside the door waiting and knocking’. And thus ‘wait hours and hours’.

At last. I bet you’ve been craunching the marmoset for that little explanation, eh? Well, it’s one for the books now, by Jupiter.