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When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar. Ahahahahahaha

I presume you, like me, first heard that joke in your childhood. You probably also heard “You make a better door than a window,” meaning you can’t be seen through, so get out of the line of sight. You’re a closed door; open up.

So is a door that’s ajar closed or open?

It’s a jarring question. If a door is ajar, you can’t necessarily just walk right in. But it’s not quite closing you out either. You don’t know if it’s meant to be open, or to be closed, or to be… neither. Just to leave a crack to let the light get through, or to allow a bit of fresh air. This door, this boundary, this limen, is in a liminal condition. It is not sealed, but it is not open enough for a person to pass through. It may or may not be open enough for a cat to pass through. The only way to know for sure is to ask Erwin Schrödinger to lend us his, and then observe.

But wait. Schrödinger’s cat is in a closed box, and its state becomes known when the box is opened. What if the box is ajar?

A jar, as we know, is a round container. Usually jars have lids that screw on. They turn, deturn, return. Is an incompletely screwed-on lid ajar?

Can a sliding door be ajar?

In my world, ajar is not a word for a sliding door. Ajar means the possibility of nudging and turning. Of jarring it open or closed. It is just that disturbance that would resolve it.

Is that what ajar comes from? There is a word ajar which means ‘to be in a jarring state’; it’s roughly synonymous with ‘awry’. But the ajar for doors is not that ajar. Its jar comes not from jar as in discord (“a jarring sound”); rather, it is a turn served on char, an old word which means ‘turning back, returning’. So. Returning to closed or to open?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, on char is ‘on the turn, in the act of shutting’. Which would seem to answer the question of whether a door that is ajar is slightly open or slightly closed: by origin, it is pushed towards shut but not fully closed. Who, after all, would push a door just slightly open?

Who but a person who wanted to indicate that the door was openable, perhaps. Awaiting an arrival… or a return. Perhaps the person on the other side is listening to Steely Dan on their album Aja singing “Peg”: “It will come back to you…” (Steely Dan also sing “go back, Jack, and do it again,” but that’s on Pretzel Logic, and it seems to me that the logic of ajar is not so much of a pretzel as of a Möbius loop, the one side being in truth the same as the other.)

Or perhaps the person wants to come out but doesn’t want to. Or doesn’t want to but wants to. Or simply hasn’t gotten the momentum. Or wants to be neither in nor out. Or wants you to be neither in nor out.

Or is a cat, of course. In a perpetual state of uncertainty: in theory neither one nor the other; in reality oscillating and vacillating.

Does every door that opens eventually shut, and does every door that shuts eventually open? When you say “ajar,” your tongue swings shut onto the ridge behind your teeth, and then with a slight hesitation swings open again. Returning is the motion of the tao, and it seems to be the motion of the door. But returning to open or to closed? What is the destiny of the door, what is its assigned role? Open, shut, both, neither? Would Arjuna counsel it to be unajar? Is a door that is barely open or barely closed a real door? Or is it the only real door, the only door that, when you come to it, frames the decision as yours?

Books on linguistics for non-linguists

I recently asked Twitter for suggestions for introductory books on linguistics I could recommend to people who have no background in it and don’t want a full-on university text. Here’s what I got. If you have more suggestions, do add them in the comments!

Aitchison, Jean. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon.

Crystal, David. What Is Linguistics?

Everett, Daniel. Language: The Cultural Tool.

Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature.

Matthews, Peter H. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.

Winkler, Elizabeth Grace. Understanding Language.

Vatikiotis-Bateson, Eric; Déchaine, Rose-Marie; and Burton, Strang. Linguistics for Dummies.

Yule, George. The Study of Language.

An online course was also recommended: Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. Which reminded me that you can access MIT courseware online for free too (see Introduction to Linguistics, for example), but that is full-on university.

“ಠ ಠ what is that alphabet?” “ ツ easy!”

Another article for The Week! Actually, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but it took a while getting posted because they were busy with the thing I wrote my other piece this week about, which shall not be mentioned here.

Anyway, this piece is the necessary sequel to the “How to identify languages” piece. That one focused on the Latin alphabet. This one looks at all the other alphabets. (Well, most of them. The Cree and Cherokee syllabic alphabets were cut to save length. And I skipped a few others that you really are unlikely to bump into.) It even has tips on telling apart languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet – and ones that use Arabic script!

How to identify Asian, African, and Middle Eastern alphabets at a glance


What’s one way to go up in the world? By brevet.

By what? Oh, didn’t you get the memo? Tsk. Don’t mispronounce it if you see it, and don’t misspell it if you hear it – darlings, that would simply be undone. And so would you. You no more say this word with a “silent t” than you do claret. There is a t in claret, and you declare it; so likewise here, you may want to spell it brevette, but you should drop the last te for the sake of brevet-ty. Sort of as was once done by some publications with cigaret.

There. You have your marching orders, in brief. The letters have dropped. Although, in fact, they were never there in the first place, those two French letters we would add as orthographic prophylaxis: te. The original French source is brevet, which they say just as you would expect the French to say it: /bʀɛ ve/. It comes from a diminutive form bref, ‘letter’ (as in a written document you send to someone). You could say it is a brief brief.

Very well, but what function does the brief brief serve? Tsk tsk. So many questions. Knowledge is its own reward. You have been elevated with this etymology and phonology. Why ask for more? Are you not riveted already? Do you not fear being reverted?

Very well. A brevet is an official letter (or, you know, note) conferring specific privileges; in its most common usage, it is a document giving a nominal rank to an officer without increasing his or her pay grade. It’s the military promotion equivalent of a morganatic marriage (where, sure, you can marry the king or queen, but you get no royal rank from it). You get the honour of officer but no more dough. It’s the opposite of the actor’s adage, “Don’t clap, just throw money.”

And it has a British pronunciation and an American one. The difference is the stress: Brits put it on the first syllable (as with claret); Americans put it on the second (as with Sucrets). Which makes it a particularly sneaky spelling-bee word.

And what do you get if you know how to spell it? Just that little bump in your intellectual stature that you get from knowing how to spell anything that not everyone knows. Knowledge is its own reward, right? Well, yeah, that and the social rank you can claim.

If and when you ever get to use it.

Why is English spelling so weird?

Here’s the PDF of the handout for my presentation at the 2016 ACES conference.

Here’s the PowerPoint I’m using for the presentation.

Here’s the text of the presentation (based strongly on an earlier version previously presented). It is keyed to the PowerPoint presentation with bracketed numbers (e.g., [3]) indicating slide transitions. It does not include ex tempore additions.

[sing] A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…[/sing]

So… wait. What the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? Spelling in English is like one of those video games where, no matter how well you play, you will lose eventually. And how it got to be so is a long sordid tale of greed, laziness, and snobbery. Continue reading

Something about me

I have lately had the very flattering experience of being “interviewed” by email by  Rebecca Findley of Capioca, a site that features interviews of people someone there has found interesting. For those who are curious about the route I took to this point and have 15 minutes to read something that would probably have been better expressed in 4 or 5, the interview is here:




How perverse is it to taste a word that hasn’t been used in about 800 years and that includes a character that’s been out of use in English for half a millennium? That has two morphemes, one of which is not only no longer productive in English but is not even in use, and the other of which is obscure, untraced, and unseen eslewhere? How deliciously wanton is that?

Not half as deliciously wanton as including it in a modern dictionary.

Oh, but this is the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the most colossal lexicographic effort available in the English language. It is the output of senseless devotion, of a decades-long Bacchanale in the love-den of the language by the most unrestrained of word nerds. The life they led! And an unled life it was – they were not pulled around by others; they were drawn by their own fascination and linguistic concupiscence. They were esurient for words. When the objects are words through the ages, lust and gluttony, however untoward they may be, are not deadly sins but a waywardness that brings and preserves life in the language. They are prodigal in their promiscuity and promiscuous in their prodigality.

And so we have this word, sitting with the others in the Oxford English Dictionary, like an innocent in the crowd – an innocent wearing two large clogs and an enormous feather and nothing much else to speak of. Asked for its bona fides, its invitation, its affiliation, it has but two citations to show, both from the same book circa AD 1200, and not even spelled quite the same as it. Here’s one: “All þe flæshess kaggerrleȝȝc. & alle fule lusstess.” The usher squints at the cite, then at the word sitting there, and with a sigh hands back the credentials and moves on.

So what is it, kaggerleȝc? It’s pronounced like “cogger like” or “cogger lake” and is made of two bits, kagger and leȝc. The second bit is a suffix equivalent to modern ness; it was usually spelled laik but is seen in the Ormulum as leȝȝc. What is the Ormulum? It is a 12th-century work of Biblical exegesis, and it is a treasure for historical linguists because the author, rather than adhering to old standard spellings, developed his own phonetic spellings and wrote the work in strict meter, all for the purpose of ensuring priests’ ability to pronounce the vernacular appropriately. It thus helps us to know how English was pronounced at the time too.

The OED dropped the second ȝ, presumably because the Ormulum tended to double letters where they were normally singular. But it did not normalize the spelling to laik, perhaps because this word is a hapax legomenon (a one-off), and perhaps because at the time it was collected from the Ormulum its morphology was not understood.

And what is this great feather, this ȝ? It is yogh. It represented a voiced velar fricative. You know the Scottish or German ch as in ach? Just add some voice to that. But it could be weakened to a simple glide like “y.” It was eventually replaced with g and y and other respellings, but sometimes it was replaced with z because the cursive z looked a lot like it, and then that sometimes led to the pronunciation changing to “z.” Names that have this ȝ-to-z change include Mackenzie, Menzies (said “mingus”), and Dalziel (said “deal”). Such wayward carrying on!

And kagger? The context of the quote could help if you understand Middle English. The hints I’ve been carpet-bombing you with might also help. It meant ‘wanton’ – or anyway, that’s inferred; no one ever saw it by itself, only in these instances of kaggerleȝc. And kaggerleȝc means ‘wantonness’.

Wanton, by the way, is another word made of old bits that you can’t get in stores anymore. The wan is roughly equivalent to un as in undone. The ton is a past participle of tee, which means – meant, because who uses it now? – ‘draw, pull, lead’. So: Unled. Untoward. Froward (not forward).

And so this wanton use of dusty ancient lexis is a little self-referential note about the compilers’ wanton use of dusty ancient lexis. It’s like that old book on the shelf you have just because you have it. You keep it for special occasions, and then you pull it out and open it carefully and admire it, and wonder who first set eyes on it.