Category Archives: Uncategorized


On University Avenue in Toronto a memorial sculpture reaches heavenward commemorating fallen Canadian airmen and -women. It takes for its name the motto of the Royal Air Force: Per ardua ad astra. This is often translated as “Through hard work to the stars,” but ardua is the accusative plural or a noun, nominative singular arduum, literally meaning ‘steep place’ and figuratively ‘difficulty’. It is the source of our English word arduous. The motto could perhaps even be translated as “Climbing steeply to the stars.”

We have never reached the stars. We have never even come close. Their light comes to us, but our bodies cannot get to them. We have gotten to the moon, and we have sent probes to the sun, our one local star, but those pinhole glimpses of the empyrean that freckle the night sky are beyond reach, no matter how steep the climb. There’s no point in promising otherwise.

But that’s not the point, is it, really. I mean, yes, the stars are supposed to be metaphors for our dreams, but they’re not a great literal metaphor; they’re entirely unreachable, and what would we do with them if we got them? No, the point is not the attainment. The point is what they spark in us: desire. Here is a poem that Heather Wheat (@heatheryreads) wrote recently:

We were never
meant to touch

the stars,
only to lust


their burning.

We receive their light, the rays of their flames, and something in us glows in response. This is the point. Hard work is of no value if it has no relation to desire. It should be fuelled by desire, and its result should be either the attainment of desire or the enjoyment of feeling it. The arduum is a route, the steep stairway to heaven, but the true means and end is ardor: Latin for ‘flame’, for ‘brilliance’ (literal), and for, well, ‘ardour’: fervent desire or love. (When we spell it ardour it is because of the word’s transit through French on its way to us.) The accusative plural is ardores, and I would say Per ardores ad astra: through ardours to the stars.

The flames of the stars cause our own flames to burn, sympathetic ignition at a distance. They will never receive our bodies – they would just burn them if they did – but our burning desires will send our light back towards them and, more importantly, towards those nearer to us.

And in our lives, too, we have more local stars, inspirations and aspirations; we do not need to touch them, it is not to us to capture them; only see what burns in them and the same flame will lick up in us. Through ardour we become stars, the objects of our own yearnings.



There are words we learn from songs; they rise out of the music and appear in our ears. Sometimes they’re completely new words to us, words we have to figure out from context. Boogaloo in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” was one such for me. Sometimes they’re words that are so reasonable in form we may not realize we haven’t heard them before. The Beatles were good for that for me: I easily accepted Blackburn, Lancashire in “A Day in the Life” even if I didn’t know its exact location, and hogshead in “For the Benefit of Mister Kite” even if I didn’t have an exact mental image of one.

And sometimes they’re not actually real words at all. There are no naspritus trees in Tripoli; no one is going, now or at any other time, into a Classiomatic. Welcome to the wide world of mondegreens, misheard words that lie in wait in lyrics and seize and drag away your mind as a leopard seizes and drags away a hare.

Music is an especially fertile field for mishearing because it interferes with our usual way of identifying sounds. We recognize vowels and consonants by the resonances they create in our mouths. Every sound that comes from our larynx has not just its base frequency (its pitch, in musical terms) but a number of harmonics above it (resonances that are some multiple of the base frequency), and the ones that come out the strongest are the ones that echo at just the right frequency for the size of the cavity they’re resonating in. Your tongue, as it constricts the air flow to make speech sounds, makes an angle that creates two resonating chambers, one at the back and one towards the lips, and the smaller each chamber is, the higher the resonances that dominate. The one towards the lips is also smaller than the one at the back, so you have two sets of resonances that can be variously closer together or farther apart, and their relation tells us what sound we’re hearing. There are some other, even higher sets of resonance that also come into play, but they mainly help us hear things like the difference between a vowel with a retroflex /r/ and one without it, or a vowel that’s nasalized (representing a following /m/, for instance) and one that’s not. Those sets of resonances are higher and not as strong as the main two sets. You can read and hear lots more about all that if you want.

Anyway, the thing is that singing can interfere with all that at least a little, and distract from it too, and the instruments accompanying the voice can add to the confusion, and the lyrics are very often not the kinds of strings of words we usually heard, and they’re not said with the usual speech rhythms. So I can listen to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and think I’m hearing “Hit me with those lettuce and beans” when it’s actually “Hit me with those laser beams.” Why “lettuce and beans”? I dunno, man, I assumed it was some Cockney rhyming slang.

And that’s the thing: we do a lot of our language learning by abduction. I don’t mean by kidnapping; I mean by observing an instance (or what we take to be an instance) and inferring a rule on the basis of it. It’s the reverse of deduction, which is where we know the rule and work out the instance. It’s backfill: we make a decision and create assumptions to justify it.

Remember, too, that we don’t hear words as discrete items in our sound stream. We have to work out where the divides are. And we don’t always work them out right. That’s how a norange and a nadder became an orange and an adder, but that’s a whole nother thing.

But today I’m talking about a lepress. And Africa.

You know “Africa,” right? The ’80s hit by Toto? I’ve always liked that song, and I can sing you all the words. It has a few slightly overworked images, true, but the music is so nice. One line that has always seemed just a little pushed for me is “I know that I must do what’s right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a lepress above the Serengeti”:

Rises like a lepress? I guess that means it sits like a female leopard, soft, dappled, muscular, ready to take whatever it wants to have. I never spent much time thinking about it.

If I had, I might have thought, “Wait, a lepress isn’t to a leopard as a lioness is to a lion. That’s not quite the right derivation. Leopard comes from leo, a root we all know refers to lions, and pard, which is from a Greek word for panthers. There’s no basis for deleting the last d. That should be leopardess.” Which in fact is true. A female leopard is a leopardess, if you insist on using diœcious terminology that treats the masculine as the default and the feminine as the marked.

But he’s clearly not singing leopardess. I mean, singers can mispronounce things – heck, Tom Cochrane sang Somalian as “soma-lion” in “White Hot” – but there sure ain’t no [d] in there. So what’s a lepress? Could it be formed from leporine? Isn’t that the adjective for leopards?

No, it’s not. It’s the adjective for hares. If lepress were formed from leporine, there would be a great big lady Bugs Bunny rising above the Serengeti. (Bugs Bunny may be called a rabbit but is obviously – by body shape, ear length, etc. – a hare. They’re not the same thing.)

Of course, following the model of seamster and seamstress, or mister and mistress, or matter and mattress, a lepress is a female leper. (OK, lay off, I was only joking about mattress.) And this is true: the dictionary entry for lepress – if your dictionary has one, as the Oxford English Dictionary does – tells you first that no one uses it anymore, and second that when they did it meant a female leper. As in a girl or woman affected with leprosy.

There is exactly no reason for a lepress to be rising above the Serengeti in that song.

I’ve been mishearing and misconstruing it for years. And by “for years,” I mean the whole time between when it came out in September 1982 and today, December 10, 2017. I only found out because I’m not the only one who was hearing lepress, and one of the others commented on Twitter about it:

If you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll tell you: the real words are “sure as Kilimajaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

That makes more sense than a lepress, doesn’t it?

Sure, but why would I think Olympus? I mean, it’s just, you know, a byword for a high, noble mountain. But not one in Africa per se, right? Look, we just heard “The wild dogs cry out in the night as they grow restless longing for some solitary company,” so my mind’s on animals. And leopards have a greater affinity in my mind to Kilimanjaro than some Greek mountain does. And it’s not like I see the word Olympus all the time. Well, OK, I literally carry a camera made by Olympus in my pocket every day, but, uh, I didn’t in 1982, or for years after.

It’s those higher resonances. I just wasn’t getting them right. I mean the resonances of the lofty idealized mountain of Greek gods, yeah, but also the ones that would have told me that I was hearing a nasalized vowel before the /p/ and not an /r/ after it. Remember how I mentioned that those higher resonances are more easily drowned out?

What was drowning them out? I dunno, man, the wild dogs crying out in the night, maybe? All I can say is that once something like that gets set into my head, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from it.


Fasten your fascinators and let us festinate to the feast and festival! Our finery will be infested with festivity and will foster neither fasting nor fustian fussiness. Oh, make haste! There is mickle shopping to do and so many people to party with. Molecules may be slowed by cold, but the advent of the cool dark (and the cool dark of Advent) causes the bodies on sidwalks and in malls to bounce and vibrate ever quicklier. Yes, festinate!

Not that festinate has an etymological relation to feast and festival. Those latter words are from a Latin root meaning just what they mean, while festinate comes from the Latin verb festinare, which means ‘make haste, go fast’ (as does festinate). But our word fast meaning both ‘speedy’ and ‘fixed in place’ (see also fasten) comes not from that but from a Germanic root. So does our word fast meaning ‘don’t eat’, but a different root. Fascinating, eh?

Well, whatever. I hardly need to hasten you to your innate festive inclination to get mixed up in it and taste fine and eat finest – and to hop to the shopping, so that you may give and get. Or, if you are observing Hanukkah, to have a fest in eight days. Or, if you hold to no holiday, just to hurry around so you can enjoy a little break, if you get to – because if you don’t, you’re sure to be festinating because of others’ festing. But in that case, may I suggest you follow the Italian advice and festina lente: make haste slowly.



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.



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.



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



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.



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.

“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 ( 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.