Category Archives: word tasting notes

comet

Speaking of things beautiful and strange, comely and kimet, let us look to the comet.

No, I don’t mean look out the window. There certainly isn’t one to be seen while I’m writing this. Perhaps at some later date there will be, and if you’re reading this then you’ll know. But consider the celestial body, the long-haired nine days’ wonder that will come t— I was going to say come to be seen, but it was gone already.

Or not. The comets are always out there. There are more than 5000 of them swinging around our Sun, and countless many more around the countless other stars. Every alien civilization on a distant planet has arisen under the periodic portents of comets. But you only see them when they’re close to the light. And even then, you don’t really see them. You see what they leave behind.

A comet is a dirty snowball in space, or sometimes an icy dirtball. It is dark: it has low albedo; it reflects only about 3–4% of the light that hits it. But it is also light: a comet is only about 60% as dense as liquid water, and only 2/3 the density of ice (which is 92% as dense as liquid water, generally). And while it’s bigger than a snowball, it’s not really bigger than a big city – even Halley’s comet, which is large as they go, is only 15 km by 8 km by 8 km. Oh, yeah: they’re oblong and odd-shaped because they’re too small for gravity to round them out.

But that is the dark and dirty part of them, the part that’s always there, the part without which they would not exist, but not the part that we see. What we see and seek in comets is the sublime. Or, more to the point, the sublimation: the solids becoming gases under the heat of the sun. It’s not all water steam – there are various volatile compounds. But it takes up a sweep of space, and it glows. And that glow catches our eyes and imaginations – and anxieties and myths, perhaps. It has taken a long time to learn the truth about comets, and we’re still discovering new things, thanks to such expeditions as the Rosetta spacecraft.

What is it we see when a comet awakens from its sleep, or should I say from its coma? We see its coma, and its tail, like long sweeping white hair drawn through a pool.

Out of coma and into coma again? Thereby hangs a tale. The coma that means ‘deep sleep’ comes from Greek κῶμα, which means ‘sleep’. The coma that you see on a comet – or around glowing objects in an imperfect lens, or around some plant heads, flowers, or seeds – is from Greek κόμη, ‘hair of the head’. And it is from κόμη that we get κομήτης, ‘long-haired’, which came to name a long-maned celestial body, and thence into Latin cometes and now our comet.

And all of that appears just when there is light and heat to make it visible. But comets are still there the rest of the time. It’s like the famous people you see on TV: they don’t just hang them on hooks in warehouses when they’re not glowing before you. They aren’t Schrödinger’s kittens, indeterminate until a gaze fixes them. Turn off the lights on a comet and you have a dark, light, cold, dirty, uneven object. Turn them on and you have a glowball that may be bigger than the earth, a tail that may be longer than the distance between us and the sun. Until it gases off all its gassable bits and becomes just another eccentric asteroid.

But ah, what discoveries the light of attention brings. I can’t see the sun set on this word until I direct you to the Wikipedia page for comet, and specifically to the long mane of languages down the left side. There are many tongues there, an article on comets in each of them. There are languages there that I guarantee you have never heard of before. There are languages there that I had been unaware of. Scroll down and see what you light on, and click to read about it in Bân-lâm-gú, Livvinkarjala, Qaraqalpaqsha, Seeltersk, Vahcuengh, Winaray, Žemaitėška, or any of many others, all languages that have grown up under the same sky seeing the same celestial sweeps and talking about them in their own ways. These languages have been there all along but you’re only now noticing them – or their digital traces – and perhaps you’ll forget about them again in a few days or as soon as your attention moves on. And sure, you don’t understand what they’re saying, but you know what the topic is, and you know it’s all pretty much true and yours to discover over time if you wish. Wikipedia is your own Rosetta Stone.

comely, kimet

English – like many other languages – is beautiful and strange, both attractive and intractable, graceful and confused, pleasant and foolish, comely and kimet. You can’t have one without the other, not any more than a coin can have heads without tails.

You know the word comely, of course: ‘beautiful, attractive, graceful, pleasant’. A word for someone who is nice to look at, or – less often now – for an attractive inanimate thing. Through the wicked perversity of the English language it has become an antonym of homely, which looks like it differs only as /k/ differs from /h/ but actually has a different vowel on the o. A late learner of English might reasonably wonder, going by these two words, whether the imperative “Come home” means things are going to be pretty ugly.

But comely is not related to come – well, not by direct etymology; there has undoubtedly been some cross-influence. Its origin is in the Old English cyme, which was said rather like “cue meh.” That word meant ‘weak, delicate, fussy, beautiful’ – I think ‘fine’ might fit too. Its sense of delicacy led to a sense of refinement and prettiness, and it gained the adjectival –ly suffix that you also see on ugly and leisurely to become, over time, comely.

But like a soul that has wandered into two directions in different realities, or like a person who cannot reconcile two divergent tendencies – Jekyll and Hyde or, frankly, just about anyone to some degree if you really admit it – cyme also followed the ‘delicate’ sense in the direction of ‘weak, feeble’ and from thence went to ‘feeble-minded’ and thence to ‘strange, intractable, confused, foolish’ – or, to be concise, ‘daft’. Its verbal form seems to have developed a past participial cymed that the warping of time made into kimet, said like a rhyme of “rhyme it.”

And so here we are, and they may meet at a bar, comely and kimet, and not even talk to one another, or perhaps fall madly in love with one another, or first one and then the other (or – one hopes not – vice-versa), not knowing that they are two sides of the same coin, two sprigs off the same root. Beautiful strangers in paradise. Such is the kismet of English.

cucullate

Look at that c u c u – like little hoods and cowls, maybe for playing peek-a-boo: “Cuckoo! I see you! I C U!” Which makes it a fitting collation of letters, because cucullate means ‘hooded’ or ‘shaped like a hood’, from Latin cucullus ‘hood’ (also related to cowl). It’s said like “Q ka late” or “Q cull it.”

When it’s said at all, that is. It may be colourful, perhaps even lexically lucullan, but it does not have a lot of collocations, especially in lay use. Kids in hoodies are not called “cucullate youth” by even the most self-regarding prose stylists (although if someone wants to comb the works of Conrad Black to contradict me, go for it). It is, rather, biologists who put it to use: botanists, for instance to describe the flower of the aconite, or entomologists, for example to describe the prothorax of the Ptinus.

But I think this word is too luscious to keep in obscurity, even if its pronunication is a bit vexatious. I would not cull it, and I do not think it is too late to cue its entrance – though we may prefer to allocate it to select locutions and to audiences that will look it up rather than assume, by its shape, that it is like ululate but with cucu instead of ulu. With a few looks and a little luck we could inculcate it and see writers putting on the dog with a cute cucullate Chihuahua or kidding around with a cucullate snowsuited infant or, who knows, calling on South Park’s cucullate Kenny.

edaphic

What can you get out of this mix of stems and loops, descender and ascenders and straight lines and curls and a dot? It seems like letters left from other words, decomposed into an assortment from which something new might spring. A peach, a pie, a chip, an epic head ache, a heap?

If it looks like alphabetic floor sweepings, that’s fitting; it comes from Ancient Greek ἔδαφος, ‘floor’. But edaphic doesn’t relate to the floor of your house; it relates to the floor of the forest, of the grasslands, of the world. The soil. Biologists often contrast edaphic with climatic – plants are conditioned by both climate and soil.

But soil is not just some unitary thing, a jumble of dirt. It’s made of particles of the earth’s crust, yes, the rocks that make up the landforms, ground into grounds of ground of various sizes: sand, silt, clay. But it’s also made up of the remains of plants, animals, and insects, and of all the things they deposit as they go about their living. Their organs may now be disorganized but they are still organic, and it matters. And in with that are living bacteria and worms and other things that move and stir in and stir up the earth. All of that is necessary, plus the water that flows through, plus the climate that meets it.

The edaphic mass is evidence of entropy. Things fall apart, get broken down, mix up into bits. But then life happens. Things come together, organize, make coherent forms, grow again out of the spare material. The earth may be edacious – it devours all in time – but it is also aphrodisiac: how can things not come together in the right edaphic conditions and make something new? So remember, when after a spring rain you smell the petrichor: we may return to dust, but dust returns to us. Forget not the edaphic.

kohlrabi

This is a strange-looking word for a strange-looking plant.

Many people get boxes of produce delivered regularly. Many others go wandering through farmers’ markets or surfing the interesting-vegetables corner in their local grocery store. And many times they see this plant, this word, or both, and say “What the heck is that?”

The plant they behold is a sort of creepy sphere with up-dripping appendages, like an organic earth sputnik or an amputee vegan squid or a modernist house design fad from 1952, or some ineffable eldritch animate orb bemusing space travellers on the cover of a mid-century sci-fi novel.

The word they behold is more ungainly than rutabaga. It is an oversized Scrabble-grab of letters that defeat permutation into a single word fitting the usual Anglo-Saxon practices. It could almost name a famous diamond or a southern African desert or an Asian range of mountains.

Or a cabbage-turnip.

Kohl, German, ‘cabbage’. Rabi, related to German Rübe and both ultimately from Latin rapa, ‘turnip’. The plant’s Italian name is cavolo rapa, also ‘cabbage turnip’. The Germans just took that and did that thing that German does with words. Why have a farfalla flutter above your cavolo rapa when you can have a Schmetterling besetting your Kohlrabi?

But even if you don’t find the word appealing, and don’t find the look of the plant appealing, if you buy it, you will be a-peeling, because it’s best to take the skin off. What’s inside is crispy and juicy and similar in taste to the heart of a broccoli stem. Fair enough: they’re related. Kohlrabi was selectively bred from the same wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) progenitor of cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and other crucifers. Technically they’re all varieties of the same plant in the same way as victuals and vittles are varieties of the same word, or thresh and thrash, or vermin and varmint. Or Kohlrabi and cavoli rapa. It’s not a turnip, it’s a cabbage, but it’s a turnip-looking cabbage.

Well, fine, whatever. Here’s a fact for you: some of the ugliest food is some of the best. Same with words.

poltroon

To me, this is, always has been, and always will be a Captain Haddock insult.

You know Captain Haddock, from the Tintin books? He is given to very colourfully cussing out the various reprobates and recreants he and Tintin have to face in the adventures. Well, not cussing out. They’re kids’ books, after all! His shouted epithets for the fleeing villains include such wonders as bashi-bazouks, coelecanths, troglodytes, visigoths – look, there’s a whole list of 213 of them at www.tintinologist.org – and poltroons, which, if my memory is true, serves to set off a Himalayan avalanche.

Not all of these words are, in our real world, names for bad things or bad people. But a poltroon? A poltroon is just about the worst kind of person you’re likely to encounter. “A spiritless coward” and “a mean-spirited wretch,” Merriam-Webster Unabridged says; “an utter coward; a mean-spirited person; a worthless wretch,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us. A poltroon is a soldier who shoots at his countrymen if they try to make him fight the enemy. A poltroon is a middle manager who won’t lift a finger to help his employees or advocate for them to upper management but will eagerly trap them in his office and belittle them at length. Captain Queeg, Herman Wouk tells us in The Caine Mutiny, is a poltroon.

But somehow, this term is not much used for full effect these days. As the OED says, it’s now chiefly archaic or humorous. For me, the Haddock effect is insuperable, but that can’t be the case for everyone. I think the echoes of goon, buffoon, baboon, loon, and such words probably have some effect. Echoes of dragoon, pantaloon, and saloon might add to the archaic feeling. And we have much more vulgar – and vividly metaphorical – terms to replace it, anyway.

What, originally, is a poltroon? It brings poultry to my mind, but that’s not quite what it is. A 17th-century author suggested that the word came from pollice truncus ‘maimed thumb’, referring to men who mutilated their thumbs to avoid military service. This was long accepted as the source, but it probably isn’t. Poltroon comes from Middle French poltron ‘coward’, from Italian poltrone ‘worthless person, coward’, tracing back to Latin pullus ‘young animal’ – which does connect closely to pullet and poultry, but they’re not the direct source of this word. But a poltroon is a chicken, so to speak – a chicken crossed with a jackal. Also an anthropophagus, an ostrogoth, a picanthropic pickpocket, and so much more…

vellum

Today brought the news that the opening of the British parliament is being set back by the time required for the ink to dry on the official copy of the Queen’s speech. And with that comes the disappointment of Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper that lookups for vellum have not spiked.

Not that the Queen’s speech is calligraphed on vellum. No, it’s done on an archival paper called goatskin, although it’s not made of goat skin. Well, fine. Onionskin isn’t made of onions either, and, for that matter, vellum is these days not often made of calf skin.

Why should it be? Ah, well. The name is not quite as pellucid as vellum is. It has a flavour of historical importance and gravitas, and of fillum – sorry, I mean film – but is nearly as factitious as Velma, Selma, and Thelma (all three names literary inventions, as far as can be seen). Its historical origin has been masked in the process of making it seem more historic.

Vellum was originally made of calf skin, yes: a parchment made of membrane cured and scraped and further prepared for receiving ink and sealing with a signet or binding in a volume. Latin for ‘calf’ is vitulus, and ‘of calf’ or ‘from calf’ is vitulinum (in the neuter). From vitulus came, scraped and polished by time, Old French veel (whence modern French veau and modern English veal), and from vitulinum came velin (whence modern French vélin), which – by some velleity of dissimulation – shifted the final n back to m in English to make it sound more Latin (compare venom from venin and pilgrim from pelegrinus). So now that parchment-type material called vellum is often not made from animal skin at all, the name has gained a fake classical look that masks its real classical origin. It has been treated to make it not what it simply is but what better serves our desires and displays our impressions. Let that soak in.