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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.

quokka

What do you do if you’re in the rottenest place there is? A veritable rat’s nest? An isolated place, a real penal colony?

Smile. Because you can’t do anything else.

And eat a leaf.

You’re a quokka, after all.

A quoi? Que? Do I mean a duck, a quacker? No, and I don’t mean a quagga either. Quaggas are extinct and being phenotypically resurrected. But they’re also zebras. A quokka is not extinct, nor is it a zebra. It is a small marsupial, a fuzzy microkangaroo, a wanna-be wallaby. And it is, to all appearances, quite content. Laid-back, even. Have a look:

It is, at least to look at, the Arthur Weasley of the animal world (though it doesn’t look very weaselly). Nature, evolution, and human perceptual schemata have endowed it with a face of perpetual friendly amusement, and the beneficence of its environs and general lack of local predators have given it a gentle contentment (well, mostly gentle) and a fearless quest for food. It is the sort of animal that gets more or less the same cheery guitar-strumming soundtrack on quite a few of the videos about it you can find on YouTube.

Where does this word come from, this quokka, /kwɑ kə/, that is laid back in the mouth, the tongue touching only at the back, the vowels back and middle, with the lips only blowing a Marilyn kiss at the beginning? It’s from a local language, Nyungar: kwaka. It just happens to have been introduced to the English language at a time when /kw/ was spelled qu as a matter of course.

And where is this animal from? You know it’s a marsupial, so yes, it’s from Australia. But not all over. Just the western tip, near Perth. But especially on a little island that’s just 19 km off the West Australian coast, a ferry trip from Perth: Rottnest Island.

Rottnest? That doesn’t sound encouraging. You may be relieved to know that earlier forms were Rottenest… and Rotte Nest. Which makes it clear that it hadn’t to do with rottenness. No, it had to do with rats. At the very end of 1696, Willem de Vlamingh landed on the island. He found it lovely, fecund, temperate: “a paradise on earth.” So, naturally, he named it, in Dutch, Rat’s Nest. Why? Because of the quokkas. They’re all over the place (though especially so after dusk; when the earth casts its shadow to hide the overbearing sun, these happy lesser lights emerge).

De Vlamingh thought the quokkas were rats. Big hairy ones. But, I guess, very friendly ones that were prone to springing around. At any rate, they didn’t make him think poorly of the island.

And what do you do with a lovely little island like that? Hmm, how about put a penal colony on it? Or a reform school? Yes, in 1838, a penal colony for Aborigines was established there. And in 1881 a reform school for boys was built. Both were closed in the early years of the 1900s. But it was used for internment camps for enemy aliens during both World Wars, and there was a military base there too.

And all through that time the quokkas were there. And after the prisoners left and the prisons closed, the quokkas were still there. Now people come by boat to bike around, enjoy the scenery, and take selfies with the smiling little marsupials.

People who live in heavily touristed areas sometimes get sick of the tourists. The quokkas seem fine with tourists. How happy to be a quokka!

Laurie Anderson once sang, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” For quokkas, this seems not to be true. The second part isn’t, anyway; the first is right on. Their name could as well be taken from the French quoique, pronounced the same as quokka with a French accent, and meaning ‘although’. Quoique les prisonniers sont venus et partis, et les touristes venues, les quokkas sont heureux. Although the prisoners have come and gone, and the tourists have come, the quokkas are happy. Ils ne sont ni des rats ni des souris, mais ils sourient. They are neither rats nor mice, but they smile. Or at least they seem to our eyes to smile. They are none the less for all that; for all that, they are nonetheless. Quoique. Quokka.

Here’s a little more quokka video exploration for you, complete with cheery guitar music.

glimpse

Some lexemes excite scintillas of recollection, bright sparkling hints from the memory – a sight, a smell, a song, here and then gone, just a corner of an envelope of reality peeking into the picture. A glimpse. So for me with glimpse: it fades into this bit from Bowie and then fades out as quickly…

I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets and
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

Listen to the song if you want:

Caught a glimpse. There are things you have and things you take (like a break or a pee or a photograph, for example), but glimpses are caught, like fish and colds and figurative wind. Your eye is a net, an open hand, and it closes on that momentary lick of light. And then it changes.

This onset, /gl/, is like a night searchlight, or a diamond turning in the sun. Consider some of the words that start with it: glance, glare, glass, gleam, glisten, glitter, gloss, glow… although there are others that are less light-like (gladiator, glucose, gluteus), there is nearly a glut of the shining kind; it could almost merit a glyph of its own, just as /ks/ gets x. Could we write *ance, *are, *eam?

But, now, look at some of these other /gl/ words: they emit light rather than perceiving it. And yet glimpsing is something you do; you glimpse, you don’t see a glimpse.

Do you?

What else is catching with your eye than seeing?

Originally, glimpse is of a set with glimmer and glitter: first ‘shine quickly, faintly, intermittently’; then, from that, ‘come into view quickly, faintly, intermittently’. From that came the noun: first ‘quick shining, flash’; then ‘brief appearance, fast transit through the visual field’. Finally it turned around to the percipient: if you catch a glimpse, you glimpse, and your act of glimpsing is a glimpse. The seer and the seen are one. The shine of a dime as it flips through the air merges head and tail. If you catch a glimpse, but your catching of the glimpse is a glimpse, you are caught in the act by the act; your eye is the mirror of the mirror. You turn yourself to face you.

No, you turn and face the stranger, who is the you of an instant in the past – or the future. The essence of the glimpse is changes, fleeting imps of vision, much too fast to take that test. The eye that sees itself sees only its former self of the last instant, awaiting the reflection. Glimpses are caught like pictures are taken: frozen moments, permanent pasts, the marks left by evaporated reality. You still don’t know what you were waiting for, but it has already happened. Or is just about to

ajar

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

brevet

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.