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strand

Language is a strand.

Perhaps you read that as meaning a thread, a string, a part of a cord, perhaps a line of pearls. It could be that. But I had something else in mind.

I think of three uses of strand I encountered in my youth.

One was in “Scarborough Fair”: “Tell her to find me an acre of land (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) between the salt water and the sea strand, then she’ll be a true love of mine.”

One was the name of a street in London: The Strand.

One was in a translation of a monologue I delivered in Classical Greek in my fourth year of university: the words παραλίαν ψάμμαν were rendered by one commentator as “shingled strand.” The professor of classics who helped me with it informed me that “sandy beach” would be a more plain rendition. At which point I learned what a strand is.

Not a strand of a rope. That strand has a different source, and an uncertain one; the word seems to have washed up from parts unknown. But strand as in beach or seashore is a good old Germanic word that shows up in pretty much every other Germanic language too, and is even borrowed into Finnish worn down to ranta. All mean the same thing: ‘the land along the water’s edge’. A technical definition could be that section of the seashore that is exposed at low tide and submerged at high tide, but in general usage it’s less restrictive and can be used for freshwater places too, such as the beach on Lake Ontario I spent some time on today.

So The Strand in London is a street that used to be right where the river’s edge was, just as The Esplanade, where I live in Toronto, is a street that used to be a walkway on the lake’s edge. And there is no land between the salt water and the sea strand, certainly not an acre; the strand is defined by the edge of the sea.

Which means it is linear, strung along the lapping lip of the world’s water like an infinite thread, longer and longer as you measure it closer and closer but also changing with every instant. At every moment the edge of the strand winds around countless grains of sand, transposing with each successive shift of sea. The land is solid, slow to change; the sea is in constant flux. Hard pieces of silicon and calcium go into the water and are worn down over time into innumerable small grains, a mass object, no longer individual items. Rocks, shells, even pearls and other pieces of nacre are broken and worn to the size of seeds. And sometimes floating persons in their craft come to this land and are unable to depart: they are stranded. Not just beached but bleached and unreached.

The words of the world are rocks and grains of sand set down by wet, ever-shifting life on the edges of the islands of our minds. Or vice-versa: they are the pieces of the hard ground of the world that the waters of the psyche (and of culture) lap at. The salt of the water is the taste of the decay of ages. The grains of the strand are souvenirs of the sea on the land, and I can tell you they stay with you much longer than you thought they would. You find them days, weeks, months later. They start out as large bits of ideas and understanding and speech, and over time they are passed from one tongue to another and worn down – or made more specific. Sometimes we do commerce on them; sometimes we relax and frolic on them. But if you try to cling to them, to fix them in position and to hold the line, you will be stranded.

Look. It’s all metaphor, and metaphor is imprecise and shifting. All our meaning is based on things resembling – but being different from – other things. The solid reality of our interface with the world, our lapping and lapped-at language, is not an acre but an infinity of acres made from the evanescent infinitesimal edge – a thread thinner than any but endlessly involuted – between the salt water and the sea strand.

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juncous

Rush, rush, rush. So much of modern life is rushes. And what do you find in the rushes? What does all this rushing do to us? Junk us, I’d say.

Seriously. At every juncture you find yourself getting reedier and not readier. You’re hardy, yes, but you’re usually swamped.

Well, that’s what rushes are about, I guess. Rushes are, after all, hardy grasslike plants that grow in a variety of conditions but most often in swampy ones. Yes, yes, you can rush to see rushes of Geoffrey Rush’s latest film if you’re in the movie business, or just buy rush seats if you’re the public, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about what you find when you were hoping for pussywillows and cattails. I’m talking about juncous plants.

Juncous? That’s the adjective for rushes: if something resembles or pertains to a rush, as in the plant (and no, don’t tell me Plant is Zeppelin while Lee is Rush), it is juncous.

Why? Because Latin for ‘rush’ is juncus. And while rush meaning ‘hurry’ has no etymological connection to rush meaning ‘reedy grassy plant’, juncous may – just possibly – be related to junk. I won’t say it confidently. Here’s the thing: the word junk meaning ‘trash’ (not the one meaning a kind of boat; that has a completely separate origin) began as meaning more specifically ‘nautical refuse’ and originally ‘old or discarded bits of rope’. Usually that earliest sense was in the phrase old junk. Bits of rope, old and worn, probably made of cheap material. What could cheap rope be made from? Rushes, among other things.

But there’s no attestation for that. There’s a gap in the etymological chain. Although the link is plausible, it’s not demonstrated. As the saying goes, etymology by sound is not sound etymology. So while juncous and junk could be related, at the moment it’s just junk linguistics. We don’t want to rush to a conclusion.

But at least we have one thing: in the incessant rushes of daily life, every so often we discover something unexpected that turns out to be big. After all, do you remember who was found in the rushes? The infant Moses, floating in a little boat, saved from the slaughter of the newborns, destined to be raised under the pharaoh’s roof and then to lead Israel to freedom. He started with rushes but then took his time. Juncous, yes, but not junky.

conversate, incent

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

What?

Oh.

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

Huh?

(Sigh)

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.

lackadaisical

By my desk, I have a page-a-day calendar. In my email I get a few word-a-day emails (in several different languages, since of course I know all the words in English 😛 ). And on Twitter, I get my lack-a-day: what’s gone missing now? Ah well, so it goes.

Not to be lackadaisical about it, but yeah. When you see a lack, and you lament it, you can say “Ah, lack!” as you might say “Ah, loss!” to a loss. Or, to go with alas for a loss, you say alack for a lack. That’s where it comes from.

But it has grown past that. Once it became a one-word exclamation, it was also available to swap in for woe or pity, or, of course, alas. You could say “woe to the day” or “pity the day” or “alas for the day,” but you could also say – like Juliet’s nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – “Alack the day!” Or, if you’re not lamenting a specific day, you can say, like many people in literature and life since, “Alack a day!”

Or even just lack-a-day. Or, perhaps to match phrases such as ups-a-daisy, you can say lack-a-daisy, like a character named Betty in Tobias Smollett’s 1748 novel Roderick Random:

With these words she advanced to the bed, in which he lay, and, finding the sheets cold, exclaimed, “Good lackadaisy! The rogue is fled.”

And from all of that came the somewhat whimsical adjective lackadaisical, first seen spelled lack-a-day-sical by Laurence Sterne in his 1768 Sentimental Journey:

Would to heaven! my dear Eugenius, thou hadst passed by, and beheld me sitting in my black coat, and in my lack-a-day-sical manner, counting the throbs of it, one by one, with as much true devotion as if I had been watching the critical ebb or flow of her fever.

Now, lackadaisical doesn’t express a whimsical mood, or at least it’s not supposed to refer to one. And yet there’s something more whimsical, quizzical, even nonsensical, and perhaps musical, than physical or dropsical about it. Or just… slack, lax, and lazy, but with more syllables. Maybe even happy-go-lucky. It sounds like a string burbled by a chickadee looking on a daisy.

And so we see it used often to mean more ‘careless’ than ‘despondent’, more Pooh than Eeyore. Here are some quotes from the Corpus of Contemporary American English, with publication sources cited (they don’t give the article and author):

So, the theory goes, pollinators that drink spiked nectar get lackadaisical about grooming and careen around in a disheveled state delivering unusually large amounts of pollen.
Science News

The spelling is slightly different, but people were lackadaisical about such things in those days.
Analog

“It’s easy to get lackadaisical about these things, especially flying domestically. And we shouldn’t, ever.”
USA Today

To begin with, he was surprisingly lackadaisical about politics for someone who wants to reshape it.
National Review

The Oxford English Dictionary defines lackadaisical as “Resembling one who is given to crying ‘Lackaday!’; full of vapid feeling or sentiment; affectedly languishing.” That seems a bit strong for the above, doesn’t it? Merriam-Webster (m-w.com) gives “lacking life, spirit, or zest : languid.” But even that is a bit strong for most current instances. ‘Unmotivated’ or ‘unconcerned’ would be more to the point.

It’s as though English speakers just haven’t had the… whatsits… to maintain the original strength of meaning for this word. Not so much that they’re filled with woe and utterly demotivated, or even that they’re making a point of fecklessness, as that it just… doesn’t seem important to them to do so. The word has a more common and suitable use based on what it, you know, sounds like. Not much good old Lackaday! but lots of modern lackadaisical.

MORALS

This is the seventeenth chapter of my month-long work of fiction, NOV.

This sidewalk café, this black mass of circular latticework metal tables and matching chairs set out on fresh brickwork, is not deserted. People may for the most part be background noise, filler, and props in his life, but they are there, and he is happy for that. He is usually happiest when he has people to ignore.

Except when they can’t be ignored. Like that kid over there.

He and one are seated near a wall, coffee freshly served, but just a couple of tables away is a family with a small child and this kid is a demon screamer. Our man is sensitive to loud noises, but triply sensitive to screaming: it sets up an alarm in his body, an emergency state that is pulled three ways between wanting to fix the emergency, wanting to escape, and wanting to start screaming along. As he cannot do the first or third, he is stricken by a desire to do the second. But he can’t. He is nearly transfixed by the screaming, but his shaking hand holds the pitcher of — for his coffee.

Wait.

He holds up the — towards the source of the s—ing and cancels out the blanks: sing.

“Lalala lalalalala lala lalalala” babbles the suddenly happy child. Continue reading

BOUND

This is the sixteenth chapter of my month-long work of fiction, NOV.

Same as yesterday morning. He awakes in this guest bed; he is alone. The evening was take-out food and wine, enjoyable conversation and word games. One slow shirtless hug and kiss. And then she retreated again. Click. One layer at a time. Strip-tease? Or -torment?

Does she even sleep there? She could as soon be heading down her Escher stairs to sleep elsewhere, or nowhere. He heard her sink, the brushing of teeth. After that? But he will not open the door and peek. He has a strong sense of propriety; he doesn’t go wantonly snooping. This is life, not someone’s novel. Right?

At least she has left toothpaste, a fresh toothbrush, and shaving supplies in the guest bathroom. Shampoo, towels. She may not have men’s shirts – except one artful one – but she is equipped for male visitors.

Who have brought their own change of clothes.

He needs to get clean underwear, at least.

Oh, and his shirt. Continue reading

boardwalk

My wife and I live in a building on The Esplanade. An esplanade, as you may know, is a walkway along the water. Our street was once just such a thing, but the water has been pushed several blocks south by landfill. Now if we want a view of the lake, we look out our 27th-floor bedroom window, and if we want to bask in the sun we can go up to the patios at the top of the building. But in summer, we really like to escape to the boardwalk.

There’s no boardwalk right near us. There would be no point. Boardwalks – walkways made of boards – are for places like beaches, where a paved sidewalk is less suitable. Coney Island has a big, wide, long boardwalk, and below it one heckuva beach. Atlantic City has a very famous boardwalk, quite possibly the original. The first Oxford English Dictionary citation for board-walk, as they spell it, dates from 1872 – two years after the construction of Atlantic City’s boardwalk. Generations of Monopoly players have learned that Boardwalk is the most valuable property, and some of them have even discovered that every single property in the game is in Atlantic City. Atlantic City’s boardwalk is the Boardwalk.

I’ve never been to Atlantic City.

I’m not sure which boardwalk Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick had in mind when they wrote “Under the Boardwalk,” the song that The Drifters made a hit in 1964. They both grew up in New York City, so Coney Island’s would seem the most likely (it’s the one I always assumed, too), but New Yorkers did like to vacation on the Jersey shore in the 1960s, and several New Jersey seaside towns have boardwalks – Asbury Park, Keansburg, Ocean City, Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights, Wildwood, and of course Atlantic City. And there are other New York boardwalks: Staten Island, Rockaway, Long Beach. They’re all down by the sea, as the song has it.

I’m not sure how many of them have enough room under them for two lovers to hide, though.

The Drifters, by the way, had another huge hit two years earlier with “Up on the Roof” (a song I first knew in a version by The Nylons, a Toronto-based a cappella group). The Wikipedia article on “Under the Boardwalk” notes rather drily, “The opening line of the song references the Drifters’ prior hit ‘Up on the Roof’, showing the occasional thermal weakness of the rooftop getaway and setting the stage for an alternate meeting location, under the boardwalk.”

You can’t meet under the boardwalk in Toronto. Or at least I’m not aware of any point where there’s enough room. But never mind thermal weakness; our rooftop patios lack the charm of a beachside boardwalk.

Toronto does have a boardwalk. More than one, in fact. In the east, there’s one lining and connecting the beaches in the neighbourhood known by many as The Beaches but by the pedantic among its residents as The Beach (even though, thanks to discontinuity, there is clearly more than one beach there). Aina and I don’t generally go there.

There are a few small boardwalks near us, at Harbourfront. But they don’t count. There’s no beach anywhere near them, just quays.

We go west. Life is peaceful there. Comparatively, anyway. There is a boardwalk that stretches from Palais Royale and the bridge at Roncesvalles past Sunnyside almost all the way to the Humber River.

It’s Sunnyside that we go for. Sunnyside beach is lovely; it inspired the song “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins. And it has a huge 1920s-era pavilion for swimming – with a café on the boardwalk (café? well, I guess some people go for coffee; most go for beer). From mid-June to Labour Day the beautiful huge swimming pool is open, and we go there to swim and then to have food and drink at the café, where there are umbrellas to shelter you from the sun. The café remains open into September, as the weather cooperates. We went there yesterday. The sun sets at 7:30 now, so we’re treated to an after-dark view by the time we leave. (You can click the picture to see it larger.)

We don’t sit on a blanket under the boardwalk – really, there’s no room there (and it’s down by the lake, anyway, not the sea). We sit at a table and watch the water, the waves, the boats, the squadrons of dragon boaters training, the beach volleyball players (up to 8 courts, and sometimes stray volleyballs bounce off tables at the café).

And then we walk back eastward along the boardwalk, and up over the bridge to Roncesvalles to catch the streetcar.

This boardwalk was once made of wood planks. Most of it is now made of recycled plastic. The planks are durable but deform gradually over the years and occasionally need replacement. I do not care if you (like some Wikipedia editors, apparently) think this makes it not a boardwalk; I am pre-emptively board, I mean bored, with you already. It is exactly the same thing as any other boardwalk, just without the nasty splinters and the weathering. And, for us, it is our tropical retreat, complete with potted palm trees, right here in the city, less than an hour from home by streetcar or running legs.

The most valuable property indeed. While the season lasts.