Category Archives: Word Country


There was a gnome on the gnomon, guarding the garden.

“You will pass,” he said.

“I—” I was about to ask about the missing “not” but thought then I should not. I walked forward. He reached out a red concrete hand and blocked me. The path was too narrow for me to go around without traipsing on flowers. I stopped.

“I didn’t say you will pass now.”

“Well, when?”

“When you say something gnomic.” He folded his arms.

“Gnomic,” I said.

“Economic with words but soaked in gnosis.” He tilted his little hatted head a bit.

“I know.” I could have said “γινώσκω,” but it may have been Greek to him. It would have made the point: something gnomic is of the nature of a gnome – but not a diminutive guardian spirit of the earth; this gnome is a shorty, pithy statement of a general truth, from γνώμη gnomé, ‘thought’.

We don’t know why the gnomes we all know as gnomes are called gnomes. Ask Paracelsus, the German Renaissance scientist and occultist par excellence – he may have invented the name. He may even have invented the gnome!

But that’s academic. I was standing here at the gate to a garden that I so dearly wanted to enter, and I was interdicted by an enchanted chunk of concrete. Beyond: a firework of flowers, a mosh pit of moss, wooden benches backed with capes of leaves ready to be draped on my back as I sat, and cats. But in front was this sundial and its angling guardian taking my time. Puffy blue coat, red mittens, pointy red hat, brown pants, all on a pyknic figure, and all formed of curiously flexible concrete.

He leaned forward and his brow somehow scowled in an oddly animatronic way. “Without something gnomic you won’t be coming any further.”

“Don’t get short with me.” I stepped forward on the path. His hand shot out again.

“Gnome,” he said.

Beyond him I could see a cat curl up on the bench.

I so desired to sit and smell the petrichor and pet the cat. To shower in flowers and dream again in green.

But I did not like this little no-man. A soreness surged in me to spite him in spite of myself. It was thoughtless, but so was I; I could not have piece without giving him a piece of my mind, but I was dry.

“How do you know I will pass?” I folded my arms.

“I know you. You always pass, without fail. You want to go in.”

I leaned close, my mouth next to his ear, and spoke with a scalpel softness. “We can’t have everything we want.”

A concrete hand smacked me on the back of the head and I tumbled forward. I was in. Rubbing my occiput, I went and planted myself on the bench. Now, where did that cat go?

And who still has garden gnomes?

tiny, perfect

In one small corner of Word Country is a tiny, perfect garden. Yes, if good things come in small packages, it seems natural, doesn’t it, that tiny things may be perfect. This is a carefully pruned garden, each leaf just so, every frond so simply fond, everything so beautifully and precisely arrayed like a small jewel in the most exquisite setting on a little pendant hanging over the finest clavicle your eyes will ever merely glimpse. It is as neat as a pin, a pin with an infinity of angels dancing delicate quadrilles on its head simply to capture your interest.

And in this garden the flowers are passages, pieces from books and articles, and every one of them contains “tiny, perfect” or “tiny perfect” – comma or no comma; one is tinier and one is more perfect, but together they are homozygotic twins, between them tiny and perfect, the only difference a beauty spot.

Such an interesting pair of words, tiny and perfect. We know what perfect is and has been: it comes to us ultimately from Latin perfectus, ‘thoroughly made, entirely realized’; a thing is perfect if it has reached its pinnacle of… well, of perfection, of course. And grammatically the perfective aspect is an action that has been entirely completed: present perfect, “I have done it”; past perfect, “I had done it.” But tiny we are not so sure of. It may be related to a Scots word, tine; some people would trace it to plausible French or Latin etymons, but there is no trail of evidence. So perfect is fully formed and we know how it came to be, while tiny seems to have sprung into the world fully realized from the forehead of a faerie.

Let us lift some of these delicate leaves in our tiny, perfect garden and reveal the tiny, perfect blossoms that shelter beneath them. They come from many places and many times. There is a strong collection from Toronto, where there was a mayor in the 1970s, David Crombie, who was called the “tiny, perfect mayor”; the seeds of that plant have spread locally. But we see tiny, perfect in all sorts of places. I cannot begin to display all the little blossoms in this garden; the closer you look the more of them there are. But let us look at a tidy triad of recent appearances:

a quavering New York voice with little range singing songs of alienation and despair, with flashes of impossible hope and of those tiny, perfect days and nights we want to last for ever, important because they are so finite and so few
—Neil Gaiman on Lou Reed, The Guardian, October 28, 2013

We praise the tiny perfect Moles
That garden underground;
The Ant, the Worm, the Nematode,
Wherever they are found
—Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Order quail and you receive exactly half the bird: one tiny, perfect breast, cooked swiftly in foie gras butter, and one tiny, perfect leg, simmered in stock and deep-fried.
—Ligaya Mishan, review of The Musket Room, New York Times, December 12, 2013

We have the sense, perhaps, that tiny is somehow not enough and tiny little is just too little and not perfect enough. Food reviewers seem to particularly like tiny, perfect, as in “tiny, perfect tea sandwiches,” “tiny, perfect canelé,” “tiny, perfect strawberries,” “tiny, perfect vegetarian hamburgers,” “tiny, perfect pizzas,” “tiny, perfect Melba toast rolls,” and on. I think food reviewers simply love to listen to themselves write; they want to write reviews as delicious as the food they fantasize of eating. But their reviews are often as self-conscious as a tiny, perfect dollop of the most exquisite finger-whipped cream scented with just a breath of lavender and perched delicately on top of your locally raised organic tempeh cheeseburger.

I do not wish to be too hard on food reviewers, although their reviews often leave me feeling as crusty as the slabs of perfectly golden toast on which they are forever munching. Art reviewers also like tiny, perfect, and anyone speaking of gardens and flowers runs a considerable chance of using the phrase. Certain other delicate things such as small birds can likewise be “tiny, perfect.” But really quite anyone wishing to call forth an air of the sensitive and exquisite and lexically sapid may be tempted by this saffron tendril of literary seasoning. Even when writing a eulogy of Lou Reed.

Let us wander into the oldest corner of the garden. I have been trying to find a mother plant, one whose seeds have blossomed into all these others, but I have not found a certain source, a tall poppy of tiny, perfect dispersing its tiny, perfect seeds over this tiny, perfect plot. All I can say with some certainty is that this collocation shows up first in my searches in the middle 1800s, and its usage has grown unevenly over the years but is now higher than ever before. Here is a gift set of three of the most time-tempered stock:

her tiny, perfect figure looks quite fairy-like when contrasted with his six feet of stature.
—Virginia De Forrest, “How Effie Hamilton Spent Christmas,” Godey’s Magazine, volume 55, 1857

As the bold Lomonds, bold to a Southern, and the little secluded den, and each tiny perfect leaf and flower and dim floating fleecy cloud were to Janet’s bodily vision, so was Shakespeare to her mental regard
—Henrietta Keddie, “Lady Strathmore’s Daughter,” Family Herald, volume 15, 1857

This last one I am fondest of. It recounts a plumber’s dream:

He is – so his fancy paints him to himself – crawling about upon a church roof, about to solder up a defect in it, when, by one of those unaccountable incidents which we take very quietly when they come to us in dreams, down goes the ladle of boiling metal into a pool in the street below. “Try again,” says old Honesty; and he descends to get his ladle and his lead. The former is there sure enough, but the latter is represented by a myriad of tiny, perfect spheres. With real material lead, and his eyes wide open, he goes through next morning the exact process he has noticed in his dream, and – inaugurates the manufacture of lead-shot!
—J. Coryton, “Accidental Inventions,” Macmillan’s Magazine, volume 4, 1861

Tiny, perfect spheres of lead, to load into your less-than-tiny gun. Perfect for massacring tiny, perfect birds and making confetti of tiny, perfect flowers. Even tiny, perfect things may be perfectly bad, and the angels dancing on the pinhead may after all be angels of death.

You may have deduced that I find this cute little collocation to be a bit twee at times. But I do like tiny, perfect things, mistake me not. Indeed, it is easier for things to be perfect if they are tiny; greatness leads to grossness, and in Brobdingnagian close-up one can see all sorts of defects. When we follow the florets of fractals down, we know that the small ones are simply the same as the larger, but in their tininess it is easier to see perfection, because the frayed ends are simply too small for our eyes to resolve. Kittens are more perfect than cats, even though they are less fully formed, just because they are tiny, and they fill our needs in just the right way – their downy hair and their wondering eyes, but also their innocuous but biting teeth and their little pin claws that hurt only just enough and not too much.


Not all the greenery in word country is equally easy to tend. One of the fussiest is the persnickety bush. It demands proper water, light, and tending, and must not be overused. It has a delightful flavour, almost lemony, with clear hints of persimmons and snickerdoodles, but if it is overpicked or used too persistently it will surely make you purse your lips.

This bush is a variant plant, a version of pernickety – that quaint and curious word that seems to have sprung from a Scottish source – grown in a tight little alley (a snicket). It is rather prickly, and you would do well to avoid a thicket of it, lest you nick yourself.

Different gardeners do different things with persnickety. Some let it grow as is, though you should be careful not to let anything grow too persnickety. Others prefer to prune, to snip with shears or snap off with snee. Some like to get to what they see as the very heart of it, though it loses some of its more involved flavour. You can see the results in this bush here: the gardener has clipped away some letters – they’re on the ground; are they tenser or resent? Both are part of the character of persnickety. And what is left once those are removed? Just p ick y – ah, picky. A synonym, largely. But no, no, nowhere near the flavour. Bad gardener. One really must do these things just so, you know.


In word country, every word is esculent. I will not say that all are excellent, nor even succulent, but all are suitable for ingestion. Serve some in many contexts, others in the fanciest feasts, others in heavily spiced dishes, a few in just the most brutish contexts or perhaps under glass. Be aware that some words that are perfectly fine by themselves may combine into recipes that will make the heartiest word-eater gag, send your dear diners dashing for the door, end up crammed down your own throat. Some words provoke reactions up to anaphylaxis in some diners, and you must be aware. But there exists no word that is intrinsically so poisonous that none can eat it.

Esculent itself is especially esculent. It is not a word for just any recipe; the readers may need a schooling in it before they can digest it well, and its rarity makes it a caviar or morel word, except that it comes at no great price. The taste of it on the tongue is especially sapid; the initial /ɛsk/ is so much like the sound from intaking and swallowing the extra saliva that blossoms in the mouth after a taste of something exceptionally savory – or spicy. Then the tongue releases with a glide, licks the liquid /l/, lifts up for the mid-front vowel and laps forward again like a second small wave of surf at the beach edge of your alveolar ridge.

The letters of this word likewise lap, lick, dance; they give clues when rearranged, and form their secret cult, and after the glass is drained leave behind wet lees to be reflected in the cute lens of the drinker’s eye, tense with a lust for language. They hint of foreign or classical things, of an escuela or an escudo or something lucent.

Climb the escalier to heaven and you will see that the table is set with esca. What is the case here? In paradise Latin has a place at the table, and esca is ‘food’. From this came esculentus: fit to be eaten. This word esculentus is cute unless… unless what? Unless you’re not speaking Latin, I suppose. So we have English esculent, suitable for use as ‘suitable for use as food’. Such a dull definition for such a sensually palate-cleansing word, so excellent when used consensually. Cultivate it and cut a little esculent when it’s ready for serving; place it on the tip of your tongue, taste it, and serve it delicately. All words are esculent; this word is esculent.

to wit

The owl of word country is a wise bird. It speaks of the two most important things: knowledge and love. I came to it to know.

“To wit?” it asked.

“To wit,” I confirmed. This is how it speaks: using the old verb wit rather than the one more common now, know. To wit – that means ‘to know’ or, more loosely, ‘just so you know’.

“To who?” it asked.

“To you, of course,” I said.

“To it,” it said. Meaning go to it: ask the question.

“I want to know of love,” I said.

“To woo,” it said.

“Yes. Is that all there is?”

“To it?”

“Yes. What is the best way to make my love known?”

“To who?” it asked.

“To the object of my affection,” I said. “There must be a best way to make my desires known.”

“To wit: to woo,” it said. I suppose a more Latinate bird might have said “videlicet” rather than “to wit,” but this is an Anglo-Saxon owl.

“But I lack the nerve,” I said.

“Twit,” it said. Abusive creature, this bird.

“You’re telling me that having nerve is its own justification?”

“True,” it said. Or at least I think that’s what it said.

“But do you think she’ll care even one whit what I think?”

“Two whits,” it said. Great. Not sure how to take that. Two very small bits. Not a lot, God wot. (Oh, hey: God wot – there’s another form of the verb wit.)

“Well, OK, but surely she might turn her affections to someone else.”

“To who?” This owl doesn’t really go for formal inflections, I notice. Never to whom.

“You know, you’re right,” I said. “Who else indeed. A-wooing I will go.”

“Do it,” it said.

“Thanks. Thanks for the encouragement.”

“To-whoo,” it said. I think it was just being owlish. As if to confirm that, it added, “Tu-whit, tu-whoo.”


In word country, where the realms of different languages meet, there is mist. The view is unclear; on peut perdre le sens. There is a mystique. The greenery hisses as you brush past it, all mixed: insalata mista. You hear it: “mist, mist.” But be careful of what you may have missed.

You know this word mist, of course, this good old word of Germanic origins, recognizably cognate even with Sanskrit (mih). You know where you hear it, coming through the morning mist, a fine mist, a light mist; you see the mist-covered mountains of home. You see mist on bottles of beverages, shampoos, cleaners. You cannot mistake it, the fountain m, the spray-top i, the sinuous s, the capped-off t. You say it: the mouth starts warm, /m/, and then the nozzle opens and tightens to a spray, /ɪs/, and then stops, /t/. Short. Simple. Clear.

But mists are not clear. They are things you get lost in, and not just the mists of time but the mysteries of language. Even with so few letters, you can get mixed up, ISTM. Wandering in English, you may smell must and find your shoes messed. This cannot be dismissed. Perhaps you have wandered over into German, where Mist means ‘dung’ or ‘rubbish’. Your ears and eyes and mouth may have taken you astray, and now you find you are in something you do not want to be in at all.


As you wander through word country, as you pick and serve your delicacies of syntax and lexis, keep an eye open for the snares. There is a subset of the word country population who are there not to nurture and relish but to hunt, trap, capture. They are the catchers, the captors, the cacciatori. They are the captious.

Captious, because they set snares and seize on any small fault they can find. For them, the language is already too capacious and needs to be more rapacious. They have self-printed hunting licences declaring open season at all times. They forge on them the signatures of authorities, but in truth there is no central office, for the language is a common creation, cultivated by all. The jackbooted brigades that these trappers would like to call forth are not to be found; there is only this infestation of the captious, individuals with apparent common cause but in actual disagreement on many points, and their thirst to cavil outweighs their understanding of the subject. True understanding can be gained only by tending and nurturing, not by darting raids on the eggs and seedlings.

There is no fault too small for the captious. Nor need the fault be real: these cacciatore chickens play by invented rules, snaring and bagging on the pretext of imaginary laws that were confected only to give a smirking justification for hanging the language to drain its blood. Hanging from what? Flimsy scaffolds that they pretend are living syntax trees.

You can see them in the wild, scratching out captions and imposing Sharpies on apostrophes. Online you will find even more: the screen captious are the horseflies of cyberspace, buzzing and stinging between the tweets. Today has likely been an extra busy day, as it has been Grammar Day. Imagine: a groaning buffet table of the best and most beautiful of language, set out for all to take, but beset at the edges by the captious, who fling food to the floor, measure distances between dishes, set mousetraps beneath the fruits and cheeses, brandish bodkins at would-be diners. The gastronomy becomes an occasion of paranoia and competition. The gardeners and chefs of words must set out their defences and swat away the parasites.

But while we do not welcome the captious, beleaguerers of words and of word-lovers, we do welcome captious. It is a good word from a decent family with many close resemblances. From the progenitor capere ‘take, hold’ come capture, catch, caption, cacciatore (Italian for ‘hunter’), captor, and captious, among others, as well as cousins such as capable. This crisp word, captious, snaps like a trap or the clap and echo of a gunshot. It is well used to say ‘inclined to find fault on whatever pretext, to entrap’.

When you encounter the captious, as you inevitably will, counsel them: Do not be so captious. And when they start ringing ropes around you on the basis that there must be standards, and unitary enforced standards at that, ask them to start by setting and exemplifying standards for good manners, respectfulness, maturity, and thoughtfulness.