Category Archives: fun

omnibus notum, scilicet

Good scholars always want to add to their skill kits, obviously, but they can sometimes be a silly set too. There are times when levity is the only sensible response to the gravity of the situation – to wit, when there is something that everyone knows, or that follows easily from something everyone knows, but no one has bothered proving. It’s not that citations bring excitation, but there is an expectation that if you say it you can cite a source for it. If it’s notable, it should be footnotable; absence of a note would be ominous. So when you are making a point in a paper, and you get to something that’s important to the point, and it’s an “everybody knows” thing or a “well of course” thing, but you can’t find prior research to support it, what do you do?

What you want to do is footnote it with “Obviously” or “Everybody knows this.” But that seems rather… um… frank. Frankly English, for one thing. This is scholarship, you know! You don’t put “Smith, the same one I just cited,” you put “Smith, ibid.”; you don’t put “Smith, here and there throughout the book,” you put “Smith, passim.” So what do you put instead of “Everybody knows this” or “Obviously”? I’d be tempted to put res ipsa loquitur, a well-known phrase that means ‘the thing speaks for itself’, but it has a specific legal use – to wit: the very nature of a particular accident is evidence of negligence (i.e., that kind of accident can’t happen unless someone screws up).

So I put the question to fellow scholars on Twitter, which in such matters can be an omnibus full of notables. Various suggestions came through. One from Laura Gibbs that I especially liked was omnibus notum. This does not mean a post-it note on a transit vehicle; it’s Latin for ‘known by all’. It can easily be abbreviated to om. not. or o.n. If the reader sees you footnote “An egg will probably break if you drop it from shoulder height onto a tile floor” and says, “A footnote? Are you joking?” you can say “I om. not.

An even more cogent one could be what Gregory Stringer suggested: scilicet. It’s a term used in various Latin writings; it is actually a synthesis of scio licet, which means ‘it is permitted to know’, but the Romans used it to mean ‘obviously’ or ‘naturally’ or, in a concessive manner, ‘of course’, to be followed with a sed (‘but’) clause. It can be pronounced in the classical Latin way, “ski li ket,” or it can be said in the English way, like “silla set” or “sigh la set.”

The fact that there is an existing English-style pronunciation for it tells us that it is in use as an English word.1 So we’re all set, right? Hmm, well. There are two English usages. One, no longer current, means ‘doubtlessly’ sarcastically: “Should Trump become president, he will scilicet brush up his diplomatic skills.” The other one uses it in another sense available from its construction: ‘evidently’ or ‘to wit’. That is to say, it means ‘that is to say’ – i.e., it’s another way to say i.e. It’s like a clickable plus sign that has expanded to show the extra information. So if you set scilicet the reader may be conditioned to expect just that thing you were using it to avoid: an explanation.

Ah, drat. No rest for the learnèd. However obvious the thing, however needless an explanation seems to be, you can’t always conceal it, or skip it, or hope it’s too obvious for a note. Why not? Because, as Mark Twain wrote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”2 The great advances of knowledge have come from disproving the obvious.3 So you sigh and see what you can set down.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for setting this thought train in motion.


1Res ipsa loquitur.

2Actually, this can’t be found in any of Twain’s writings, though he did write “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar. A similar quote is attributed to Twain’s contemporary Josh Billings: “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.” This likewise does not appear in Billings’s work. But Billings’s 1874 Everybody’s Friend, or Josh Billling’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor has “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.” (Thanks to Bob Kalsey,, for this.) In any case, the idea itself has an intuitive appeal and a certain… obviousness?

3If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I can’t see why not.

Some travel shortcuts

I think it’s time for another poem from my book Songs of Love and Grammar. This is one of a small set that have nothing to do with romantic difficulty – though it does have to do with getting around.

When you’re referring to a couple of geographical features, such as the Bow River and the Elbow River, you can join them together and say the Bow and Elbow rivers, because river can be treated as a descriptive term in this case. If you’re talking about Green Bay and North Bay, you can say Green and North bays if you’re talking about the bays, but it might be misleading to use that when you’re talking about the cities. Some people like to extend this practice to city names, as in Forts Meyers and St. John, but that can get a little dodgy. Or maybe more than a little…

Getting around efficiently

Oh, all the places we have gone –
we’ve seen Forts Myers and St. John;
Green and Thunder Bays were nice,
and Frobisher, though full of ice;
Long and Virginia Beaches – spiffy;
Grand and Cedar Rapids – iffy;
I still recall how we did things
in Hot and Colorado Springs
and Sans Diego and Jose –
oh, yes, and don’t forget ta Fe;
Saints Petersburg and Paul were green,
Dart and Fal mouths were marine;
Ott and Osh awas were cool;
Grands Forks and Rapids, rather cruel;
Cals gary and ifornia, great;
Monts pelier and réal – don’t wait;
Wins dsor and nipeg, give a miss;
Den and Vancou vers, skiers’ bliss;
Columbs us and ia, just fair;
Phoeni and Bron xes – don’t go there;
Moose Jaw and Factory – no way;
Jun and Gatin eaux – OK;
Toes peka, ledo, ronto – yeah;
Men chester and itoba – nah.
Oh, yes, we’ve had the time that was
in Canad and Americ as!

The restrictive which

I think it’s about time I posted another poem from Songs of Love and Grammar, the silly book of rhymes about grammar and romantic difficulties which I wrote a few years ago. This one focuses on the “restrictive which.”

Allow me to explain. Let’s say you have a noun that’s modified by a subordinate clause: “the cake that I ate” or “the cake, which I ate.” If there are several cakes, you specify which cake you’re talking about by using a restrictive clause: “the cake that I ate” (not a different cake that I didn’t eat). If there’s only one cake you could be talking about, and you just want to give a bit more information about it, you can do so with a nonrestrictive clause: “the cake, which I ate.”

It’s more common in North America to use that rather than which for restrictive clauses (the cake that I ate rather than the cake which I ate), but which is normal in England and elsewhere and many people use it in North America. The thing that really makes the difference between the two kinds of clause (in print) is the comma: with a comma (the cake, which I ate), it’s nonrestrictive; without (the cake which I ate), it’s restrictive. This poem is for those people who think the restrictive which doesn’t exist. Oh, yes, it does…

The restrictive witch

There is a certain house which sits upon a shady street
and in it lives a person which you may not want to meet.

She has a cloak and hat which she is never seen without
and owns a darkling cat which likes to yowl and prowl about.

And there is one key thing which makes this witch a cause of fear:
she has a special magic which she does to those who near.

Whatever thing she catches which is single of its kind,
she makes it simply that which is like others you may find.

This is an operation which she does with neat precision
by writing sentences which are subjected to excision

of one small curly mark which serves to separate the noun
from modifying phrase which newly serves to tie it down.

No longer have you just one job, which pays you well, to work;
your job which pays you well shares time with other jobs which shirk.

You had a dent, which is not big, alone upon your car;
now by the dent which is not big sit other dents that are.

Your marriage, which is happy, soon will find it’s not alone –
your marriage which is happy won’t be when the rest are known.

Your ring, which says Eileen, will lead Eileen to know your games:
your ring which says Eileen shares space with rings with other names.

It’s bad enough to have one bad divorce, which is near done;
the bad divorce which is near done awaits another one,

and though one lawyer’s bill, which could be worse, is not a lot,
the bill which could be worse is stacked with others which could not.

And all this loss which is not fair comes not from peeve or itch;
it comes from lack of caution with that bad restrictive witch.

Miss Knirps (a story)

This is a fiction I wrote several years ago for a book idea that I didn’t finish. I just remembered it. Here, read it.

One of the people who had a profound influence on my early development as a word taster was my grade two teacher, Miss Knirps. It was not quite that she had a word taster’s love for language and for the flavours of words. Oh, she loved certain words and ways of saying things, but she always seemed to approach words as though they were bees, useful for honey but capable of stinging you at any moment.

Miss Knirps of course seemed impossibly old, but I believe she was about 27 at the time. She was prim and pretty in a very tidy way. She was also very concerned with decorum. She wanted, I think, for all the children of the world to spontaneously join in a circle to sing decent songs about pleasant things. She was a naïve romantic at heart, her world view evidently shaped by too many Barbara Cartland novels. But she must have had a darker, funkier side to her, kept very far apart from her classroom life, because the songs she would recite to us, or have us recite, or even sometimes sing, were lively, popular songs from the current hit parade… bowdlerized. Songs from groups like The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.

I remember her sitting and reading to us in that exaggerated intonation and sing-songy voice that teachers of small children can have: “Old black water, keep on rolling. Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shining on me? Keep on shining your light; you’re going to make everything all right. And I don’t have any worries, for I am not in a hurry at all. I would like to hear some happy Dixieland; pretty lady, please take me by the hand.” She looked at us with a very proper smile of the sort intended for those of tiny brain. “And the lady would take him by the hand and say, ‘I shall dance with you, good sir, all day long.’”

Miss Knirps folded the piece of foolscap she had written her lyrics on. One of the girls – Shelly Priest, in whom one could see the spark of a Knirps-in-training – raised her hand and said, “And then what would they do?”

Miss Knirps got a dreamy look in her eye. “They would have to part ways, of course, as the sun came close to the evening. But he would give her his calling card, and he would say –” she produced another sheet of foolscap and unfolded it carefully like a blintz or a diaper – “Missy, don’t lose my name; you don’t want to dance with anyone else. Send it off in a letter to yourself! Missy, don’t lose my name, for it is the one you will own. You will use it when we are together and have a home.” (We didn’t know at the time that Miss Knirps – Melissa Knirps – was called “Missy” by many of her friends.)

Then she taught us that chorus to a rather stiffly simplified version of the music – the refrain from Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” of course. I have to say that, stripped of its louche jazzy tone, that tune is as stiff as an old dry washcloth. But we didn’t know any better. We sang it together.

We sang it a few times through, in fact, so that some of us could actually remember it when we got home. Joey McTavish was singing it around his house when his teenage sister Janis heard him, did a spit take with her Coke, and fell about the place in a paroxysm of laughter for more than ten solid minutes. Then she pulled out Pretzel Logic and played it for Joey.

Joey’s eyes, so I’m told, were the size of dinner plates by the end of the song. Naturally, she played it again, and sang along. And for good measure she played him a the rest of the record too. And when she asked him if Miss Knirps had taught them anything else, Joey’s muddled recollections ultimately allowed her to sort out enough to pull out the Doobie Brothers and play “Black Water.”

When show and tell came the next day, Joey had a look on his face like he had a unicorn with side-mounted machine guns in his bag. When his turn came, he toodled over to the record player, which was already out and in position from some Burl Ives songs Miss Knirps had played for us. As he pulled out his record, Miss Knirps naturally went over to help him.

As she reached for the record, which was not in the album cover, she spotted the label on it and froze for approximately one half second. Then, with her smile held with the firmness of rigor mortis, she took it from him, placed it on the player, and played “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Which, in case you don’t know, has no words and is a Duke Ellington tune of the sort children would enjoy and teachers would not object to. Even if it is being played by Steely Dan.

“But that’s not –” Joey started to say.

Miss Knirps pressed one finger on her lips and another, firmly, on his. “Let’s listen.”

The tune done, she handed the record back to Joey and said, “You must thank your sister for lending us her record.” He hadn’t mentioned that it was hers. Apparently this was an easy guess. “But tell her to be careful and make sure it doesn’t get damaged. I think it could get scratched if you keep bringing it here.” And, smiling ever so sweetly, she sent him back to his seat, his face now looking like someone else had just eaten his ice cream. We couldn’t figure out why.

But of course we found out later, after school, and several of us got Janis to play it for us until she heard her mother coming home.

As for Miss Knirps, she switched genres, preferring to base her verse on literature that no one’s teenage sister was likely to be reading. She read us “The Highwayman” largely unaltered, quite a thing to do for grade two kids in 1974. She also read us something that to this day I haven’t traced for certain but strongly suspect was based on Charles Bukowski; I remember her saying “We danced and danced and danced and danced. And danced.” Heh. Danced indeed.

In retrospect, I do believe that Miss Knirps would have been more disturbed to hear us singing the nonstandard negatives (“you don’t wanna call nobody else”; “and I ain’t got no worries”) than to hear us singing about adult romantic entanglements. Such poor language was not for good children! I know for certain that it was those, and not the entanglements – more adumbrated than explicit, and opaque to us at that age anyway – that really blew away Joey. And the rest of us, too. Hearing them in those songs was the linguistic equivalent of seeing Miss Knirps taking a pee.

Here are the songs mentioned:

Joe Neanderthal

In my tasting of cartoon, I mentioned that I had other cartoons that I wanted to dig up.

Well, I dug up the one I most wanted to dig up.

It’s not really all that great. Especially the artwork, if you can even call it that. But I find it amusing. It’s an embellished version of an origin-of-theatre story one of my theatre production professors used in a lecture. (He was a great dude; owned a propeller beanie and introduced us to the acronym WAFWOT*.)

It has a couple of swearwords in it. I’m telling you that just in case you prefer to avoid seeing swearwords. (I have nothing against people who don’t like swearwords. They’re the people who maintain the potency of taboo language.)

joe-1 joe-2 joe-3 joe-4 joe-5 joe-6

*WAFWOT = what a fucking waste of time

You can have Danishes with your giant beaver, but maybe not croissants

In one episode of Big Bang Theory, Amy and Sheldon are playing a game they call “Counterfactuals” (let’s leave aside the linguistic use of that term, which is a little different). They challenge Leonard with this question: “In a world where mankind is ruled by a giant intelligent beaver, what food is no longer consumed?”

He guesses wrong, of course, because that’s how the show works. The correct answer, according to Sheldon and Amy, is cheese Danish. The explanation: “In a world ruled by a giant beaver, mankind builds many dams to please the beaver overlord. The low-lying city of Copenhagen is flooded. Thousands die. Devastated, the Danes never invent their namesake pastry. How does one miss that?”

So anyway, that never sat quite right with me, and I was thinking about it today while I was face down on a massage table. First of all, it didn’t sit quite right because Denmark isn’t all that low-lying overall, certainly not as much as the Netherlands (hence the name: nether lands). Of course, Copenhagen is at sea level, but so are many other cities, some of which may likewise be associated with particular foods. I think Dutch pancakes and other Dutch foods would be at least as endangered. Except, of course, the Dutch would build dams to keep the water out of Amsterdam. As in fact they have.

Which leads me to the key point. Dams would not make the sea level rise. I mean, yeah, if they put dams around more low-lying land to reclaim more of it from the ocean, that might have a modest effect, but you know that’s not why or where beavers build dams. Beavers build dams on rivers. To make big ponds. Lakes, even. Reservoirs. Just like people do. Only presumably more dams would be built than we have already.

And all those dams would keep water from getting to the oceans. So, if anything, the sea level would be a bit lower. Not a whole lot, probably, but maybe a bit.

But meanwhile, big cities on rivers would be flooded. Sorta like what has happened to some cities in China where they’ve built dams. Whole cities have been submerged, their residents relocated.

So name a big city on a river that would be submerged, a big city associated with a famous pastry.

I’m going with Vienna. It’s on the Danube. I think it would be likely to be underwater. Vienna is associated with croissants. (The story of their being invented in honour of bakers hearing moorish armies tunnelling under the walls has no historical basis – and in fact croissants aren’t as old as that – but still, Vienna. Croissants. Anyway, Paris would also be underwater, don’t you think? Damming the Seine? I think so.) So you probably wouldn’t be able to get croissants. Maybe several other things invented in Vienna and Paris and other river cities too.

But you’d be OK. You could have a Danish instead.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s a TV show. Remember, I was lying face down on a massage table. You’re supposed to relax, so I wasn’t going to lie there planning my day or week. I needed to think of completely irrelevant things.

Is my point that the writers of Big Bang Theory aren’t geniuses? Oh, no, they’re geniuses. (Or genii if you prefer.) But geniuses at being funny. They pulled it off. And they kept me thinking about their show after.

I’m not even going to go into other things, such as how Sheldon, Leonard, et al. would surely recite the rhyme of the One Ring not in English, as they did in one episode, but in the Dark Tongue of Mordor (as I did at the TV in response). Again: What, were they going to translate it for their audience? If the show were written at true full-on geek level the audience would be much smaller. See? They know what they’re doing.

But I just thought you would like to know. Not Danishes. Croissants.


To say or spell indict
or, even worse, indictment
could lead to much excictment
but not so much insict…
If spelling’s your delict,
you know that dereliction
could lead to interdiction
if you don’t keep it tict.
If out loud you indite,
pay close heed to the diction
lest you pronounce a fiction
due to an eye-tongue fict.
But if you will recict
and wrict as indicated,
you will be vindicated –
not derelict but delict.
Pay heed to my invict
and you’ll be an invictus,
your face a grinning rictus
because you did it rict.

Ah, isn’t English spelling a treasure? Sure, like a treasure-hunt in a sandbox – one that’s in current use as a kitty litter box.

But actually the offending nuggets are not so fresh. Most of the worst booby-traps in English orthography came about during and after the English Renaissance (i.e., the time of Shakespeare and thereafter), when various scholars felt that English words that were descended from Latin ought to wear their fine ancestry on their sleeves. (See “What’s up with English spelling?”) The idea that spelling should simply reflect sound was too plebeian; orthography offers such a panoply of finery, why not come out in full dress, unburdened by quotidian chores? 太好了! 你學吧!

So we had a word endyte or endite coming from Old French enditer, which in turn came from Latin in plus dictare ‘say, declare’, and the scholarly pedants of the time felt that it should therefore claim its nobility and sit on the page as indict. The same fellows gave us the o in people (because of Latin populum) and the b in debt (because of Latin debitum).

I do not think we owe a det of gratitude to these peple. I would rather see them indicted.

But not indited. You see, the unaltered spelling indite also persisted, with a slightly different sense: ‘dictate; enjoin; compose; put in words; recite’. It’s a word of literature now, and a rather high-toned precious one. Meanwhile, indict is a word known to the basest members of society. Oh, the irony.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for reminding me that I wanted to taste this one.