Category Archives: word tasting notes

chowter, chunter

Life can sometimes be kinda thick and chunky. Things don’t always go smoothly. And perhaps we’ll protest that we don’t like bringing it up, but quite often we do seem to like chewing on these tough little bits half-quietly for quite a while. Maybe not all of us, but not none of us, that’s for sure, if you know what I mean. When our discontents are our dish contents, we make a fine chowder of chowtering. And if we can’t keep it down, I won’t say we chunder (look, we’re not in Australia here, as the typical weather ought to tell you), but we sure enough do chunter.

These are both verbs, chowter and chunter, and they’re pretty similar. I’m tempted to think that chowter is a misreading of someone’s sloppy handwriting for chunter, because it was only documented briefly in the early 1700s, and you know how people were at that time, everything in mansucript and don’t bother saying that their handwriting was all perfectly schooled if you haven’t had a nice look at it for yourself. Anyway, Doctor Johnson included it in his dictionary with the charming definition “To grumble or mutter like a froward child” (who even uses froward anymore? so Shakespearean).

You know exactly what that means. The husband who hangs back from his wife in the shop saying sotto voce to the dust bunnies, “If you were going to say we can’t afford it, why did you take me here to look at it in the first place?” The dog owner who pass-aggs the pooch with “Sure, no problem, I just love getting dressed at this hour to take you out to redecorate the streetscape like you didn’t want to do when I was perfectly ready and dressed and not lying in bed reading the most interesting chapter of the book.” The reader who gestures at the website and says  “OK, move on, I get your point, I got it ages ago, come on.”

So chunter means the same thing as chowter? Nearly. The Oxford English Dictionary’s not-quite-so-cute definition of chunter reads “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain. Also in extended use.” Well, it sure as heck is in extended use around where I live nine months of the year, thanks to our weather, which is not only disgusting but unpredictable for the duration of hockey season, like there’s anything of that worth staying inside for. But that’s not what they mean, of course; they mean like if I were to say “His car chuntered down the uneven pavement” or “My fridge is chuntering in its late-night way.”

And where does this word chunter come from? “Apparently of imitative formation,” Oxford says, without so much as hinting how it is that grumbling sounds to any normal person like “chunter.” When I was a kid, we tended to imitate it with “ritz-a-frickin” or “skrtzifrtz” or similar closed-up collections of retroflexes and fricatives. “Chunter” seems rather crisp and open.

Well, whatever. People just make up words because somehow in their world they think it sounds right and other people for their own strange reasons hang onto these words or don’t. I mean, mutter, grumble, murmur, kvetch, how many words do we need for this crap? Maybe if the weather were better in England (and Canada) we wouldn’t have so many words for expressing annoyance. OK, yeah, it was really nice today for a switch, but I’m sure that it’ll pass through spring in three days and then make the rest of the leap from cold and wet to sweltering and muggy. But you know me, I don’t like to complain.


umthink, umbethink

What, between two half-minutes, do you turn away to take to mind? What moments do you look to see receding in the farther distance? What memories do you seek the sea-bound masts of from the high perch of your stolen moments? Do you recall a word from a high-school crush on the stairway between classes, or the taste of cold lunch in an alpine meadow? Grass on the back of your head with a lake a distance downslope, or a steady stare across a table at a spark you never talked to again? An almost-accidental hand caress as you passed a glass, or the musty mythic smog smell of an ancient city visited for the first time? A word misspoken once and regretted needlessly at flashing moments in heavy traffic, or a defiant dance in a nightclub with a half-stranger?

Proust ate some French pastry or toast, I’m told, and it made him think of things. I need no such starch to fuel my umthinking. I may umbethink myself of any old moment at any new moment; my memory is an effervescent glass and the past is the gas – or perhaps it is more a thick old stew burping in a pot at the merest stir.

I look up from the words on my screen, I look away, I look over the shoulder of my mind, to hear a voice of a person long buried calling me to remember them just for these twelve seconds. We are told to live in the now, but life is only a long pulled taffy of nows, and what if now and again it bends back to touch another now? I can umthink, I can umbethink myself; I can, um, think, and, um, be thinking myself somewhere I am not standing at the moment.

These words, umthink and umbethink. The think is obvious, the um and umbe are about from old. The latter, umbethink, is still with us, I am told; it is a reflexive referring to reflecting, calling to mind. The former, umthink, is obsolete, obelisked, been but not to be any more, but in its transit it could be intransitive. I do not mind using it, calling it to mind, staring one more time after its sail at the horizon’s edge. For a moment its now is now again.


If looks could kill, eh?

Well, what? What if? Would they run you down like a runaway Volkswagen Jetta striking a tourist? Or would they reach out and strangle you? Would they torture you to death, or would they just treat you as you deserve?

A look is a gesture, after all. Imagine the Roman emperor looking from his high chair down on you in the arena, pronouncing ex cathedra with a single thumb your persistence or demise. Imagine a guard in a prison camp judging you in a glance and waving you one way or the other, to a quick death or a slow one. These gestures are seen and they cause actions. Now imagine a flat gaze from a person you wished to impress. Imagine cut-eye from someone near to you at a comment you made. You see and you could just die, you know?

But those are semiotic: message received, response effected. If a person gives you a hard stare, the hairy eyeball, a mad-dog, and you see it, they may as well have said a harsh word, or even have slapped your cheek in challenge. But what if they throw it at you behind your back, when you can’t see it?

The eyes may seem the beacon of the soul, but they do not shine; they only reflect and absorb. The gaze may seem to leap and dart, but there is no real jeté. They are not searchlights. They are buckets, not fire hoses. When you see what the eyes tell you, you see not what the eyeballs do but what the eyelids and eyebrows and other surrounding muscles do. And you see it with your eyes just because light lands on them and bounces in through your pupils.

But that’s all scientific. You tell that to someone who has had the jettatura, or seen it. A jettatore throws a glance – no, not a glance, an arch and evil gaze, shooting out of the eyes like jets. The kind that needs to be warded off, preferably with a gesture with an obscene referent: the horns will do – index and little finger pointing outwards, distracting the demons for a moment with thoughts of cuckoldry. (This is also the source of the devil-horn gesture popular among heavy metal fans.) What, they don’t protect? I defy you to say light does not bounce off them. I defy you to be as rational as that and yet by implication accept the possibility of a curse coming from someone’s gaze.

And that someone is a jettatore and the look they throw is a jettatura. It’s from Italian (but you still say the as in English), from the same source as jet and jeté: a Latin word meaning ‘throw’. You throw a bad look at someone, even behind their back, and they have bad luck. It’s a convenient way to explain mischance – and dislike. And perhaps to hope that a good hard look at someone will be enough to make them go away.


I’ll assume you’re familiar with the word ombudsman, which refers to a person who arbitrates complaints for a newspaper, government agency, or similar organization. It comes from Swedish, where it’s been a word for a good long time, descended from Old Swedish umboþ ‘commission, order’ plus man. English borrowed it in the late 1800s.

In the late 1800s, and for a while after, every ombudsman was in fact a man. But by the later 20th century there were ombuds…women? But it seems a bit clunky to have to specify the sex of the ombuds…person? But, then, why say man, woman, or person at all? We already resolved this neatly with chair, which replaces chairman, chairwomanchairperson with a nice bit of metonymy (like using crown or state to refer to government things). And whereas chair is a thing of its own and so in some contexts may be ambiguous, there is no ambiguity if we say ombud. It’s clearly a short form of ombudsman (or whatever). K?

Question, though. If we take man off ombudsman, that makes it ombuds, not ombud. But then what’s the plural? Ombudses? But if we make it ombud, which can pluralize to ombuds if you ever need to, where’s the original s? But the in the original is a genitive, not a plural; it allows ombud (or in the original umboþ) to modify man.

But do we have a real basis for changing ombudsman in the first place? This question has come up on various occasions, and various people have had various things to say about it. A colleague pointed me to a briefing paper from the Northern Ireland Assembly that quoted a couple of people weighing in on it as certain kinds of people will:

Put simply, the word ‘Ombudsman’ is not an English word: it is Swedish. It does not therefore lend itself to conversion to the ‘ombudsperson’ or ‘ombudswoman’ that the manual suggests… it makes it meaningless because such suffixes are not recognised as Swedish’.

“Ombudsmand”, a Scandinavian word, has the etymological meaning a “man who is asked for something”, ie, help or redress. Washington has shorn the title down to a meaningless “ask-for”.

There are… problems, let’s put it nicely (why?)… with these objections. Ombudsman, borrowed into English, is no longer a Swedish word. If I call either of the persons who made this objection ignoramus, I’m not saying in Latin “we don’t know,” which is what Latin ignoramus means; I’m saying in English a noun that describes the person as pointedly ignorant. If I see him in a restaurant and ask the maitre d’ to show the ignoramus out, he can object all he wants that maitre d’ is meaningless because it just means ‘master of’ (with the original hotel deleted), but he’s still going to find his butt (and the rest of him) on the street, hopping the next bus. And even though bus is short for Latin omnibus, which is a dative Latin plural of the adjective omnia ‘all’, and even though the bus is part of the inflectional ending and not the root, the short form bus is not meaningless for us. We know exactly what it means in English, regardless of what a Latin speaker might have thought.

But what about the objection that in Swedish man doesn’t mean ‘man’? We don’t change human to huperson or hu, after all. But, then, we don’t say “hu man” as though it’s another kind of man; we say it as though it’s an adjective derived with the suffix –an from hume. (In fact, that’s pretty close; it’s from Latin humanus, derived from homo, which is indeed gender-neutral; ‘man’ is vir.) Well, what is the word for ‘man’ in Swedish? Why, it’s man. Man is also the word for ‘husband’, and it is not the word for ‘woman’ (that’s kvinna) or ‘wife’ (fru). Swedish for ombudsman is ombudsman, using that same man; the spelling ombudsmand comes from Danish (there is no language called Scandinavian; the several Scandinavian languages do have differences in their words). Swedish man is directly related to English man – by which I mean it’s the same word used in the same way in a not-that-distantly-related language. The fact that man is used broadly in Swedish the way it used to be used broadly in English does not mean it’s gender-neutral; it means Swedish is still masculine-normative in this regard.

So we borrowed ombudsman into English, which really means we borrowed ombud(s) and already had man. And when we hear it, we hear the man at the end, and it is masculine-normative. If it weren’t really from man, there would be a different argument to make – should we change a word just because it sounds like something problematic?* But it is from man. It is accurately read as English man and is received and dealt with as such.

Editors know that if there’s a tricky phrasing, one that leads to syntactic vexation, the best solution is to rephrase. And if there’s a turn of phrase that might upset some people, you’re best rewording if you can. An important tool in the editor’s toolkit is a nice sharp sword for cutting Gordian knots. Ombudsman is a place to use that sword. Slice true and clean and you get ombud and ombuds. And if anyone objects too strenuously, the sword is still sharp; let them look to it. Any complaints can be addressed to the ombud.


*That’s a fun debate, but if you want to cut to the chase, we already do that in various ways. Newscasters say harassment and Uranus in ways that avoid saying ass and anus per se, and the British pronunciation of bomb is no longer identical to that of bum, as it once was. There are other examples I probably don’t need to list of words that sound like even less acceptable words; though unrelated, they’re often avoided, because why bring unpleasant things to mind? Like it or not, we do it, because we can hear it.


Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
—from “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg

Chicago was a big, young, driving, thriving city in 1914 when Sandburg wrote that. It had already been the home of the first skyscraper and was destined to be home of many more; it had seen its famous fire in 1871, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (which gave us the term midway); it was already a mid-continent commercial nexus and had for a time been the fastest-growing city in the world; it already had its famous elevated train loop around the central district. It had not yet seen the roaring ’20s and their gangsters; it was not quite yet the place about which the musical Chicago (set in the 1920s) was written. It did not yet have its famed deep-dish pizza, which first hit plates in the 1940s. It was not yet the town of the 1964 song “My Kind of Town,” made famous by Frank Sinatra. But it was all there, sprouting and growing, like a bulb (or perhaps a whole field) of wild garlic in the heart of America.

I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days in Chicago for the conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. We were at the Palmer House, now a Hilton hotel; it’s in the middle of everything, pretty much. It has a glorious lobby, a dimly lit cross between Grand Central Terminal (or should I say Union Station, since it’s in Chicago) and the Sistine Chapel, dominated by a busy cocktail bar. Up a grand staircase is the Empire Room, which through the heart of the 20th century hosted every entertainer who might perform in such a room (their photos line the hallways by the guest rooms) and this past week hosted a spelling bee for editors as part of the ACES conference (I was one of the judges, having won the event at last year’s conference). We also had events in the Chicago Athletic Club, which is no longer an athletic club – it has a hotel, bar, and event spaces in its classic old building.

Chicago is home to many classic old buildings. It has shiny newer buildings, to be sure, including the second and third tallest in the US, but it has not gotten rid of its gems from its booming years, all the American art deco and prairie style designs, all the steel and stone. This is a city that never stops reminding you that it was the epitome of architectural chic several decades ago.

Which is not where its name comes from. Chicago is a French-style rendition of a word from the language of the Miami-Illinois, an Algonquian people: shikaakwa, the name for a plant that grew abundantly in the area. The Latin for the plant is Allium tricoccum; it is more commonly called ramp, wild leek, or wild garlic. It’s smaller than a leek but larger than garlic.

To me, Chicago feels like a cross between Toronto and New York – it’s smaller than New York, more comfy and manageable in its central area, and with a nice lakefront, and often reminds people of Toronto in ways, but it has the urban grit and American empire feel of New York. I took some pictures at the conference. You can see the whole album on Flickr, but here are a few.


This lexeme is meant to be vexatious.

It is in a class with a nice few others, all invented by Lewis Carroll for his poem “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass. In that poem we learn that a sword can be vorpal, that thought can be uffish, that a wood can be tulgey, that a boy can be beamish, and also that toves can be slithy, borogoves mimsy, and Bandersnatches frumious (but can Cumberbatches be benedict?). And we learn that a foe can be manxome.

And we have precious little other than context and form to guide us on the senses of these odd words, as they are all isoglosses, deliberately so – or, anyway, were at the time they were written: confections all, dropped as hot congealing sweet goo from the sugary mind of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Carroll’s real-life name). For some of them, comments made elsewhere give hints; for instance, brillig (as in “’Twas brillig,” the first two words of the poem) is not an adjective of quality such as bright or brilliant or something like that but merely a reference to the time of the day: around 4 pm, the time to begin broiling things for dinner, as we learn from Humpty Dumpty just after the poem in the book. But manxome? No hints.

There are ideas, of course. Manx appears to the eyes right away, but why the Jabberwock should have anything to do with the Isle of Man is perfectly unclear; no one has found anything to say that Dodgson hated the Manx. Some suggest it could come from manly plus buxom – bearing in mind that until fairly recent times buxom could be applied to anyone or anything and meant ‘pleasing, amiable, compliant’ (from Old English buh ‘bow, submit’ and sum, the source of the same suffix we see on gladsome, noisome, fearsome, etc.). But I do not think any sense of buxom Dodgson might have used could suit a daunting foe.

The Oxford English Dictionary has its thoughts (though, amusingly, Wiktionary does not, nor does Urban Dictionary). It suggests that it traces to manky, which means ‘gross’ or ‘crappy’ or ‘yucky’. Manky might trace to an old word mank meaning ‘maimed’ or ‘mutilated’, or it might trace to French manqué, ‘missing, wanting, defective, unsatisfactory’. Or the mank could just be echoing rank and dank and stank. In any case, the mank crosses swords with some to give us manxome, and in any case, the hero of the poem would be going off into battle against a shoddy, gross, disgusting, generally unpleasant foe, probably a wonky and jabbering one at that.

What we can say we know is that manxome describes some unpleasant characteristic of a foe. And it intentionally defies clear understanding (that’s the point of the poem). It is vexatious and ‘vexatious’, it seems, most clearly defining itself by its own lack of clarity. That is to say: it is not its definition but the nature of its indefinition that defines it.

What, you think that’s impossible? If you can’t believe impossible things, to quote Through the Looking-Glass again, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. …Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Some of them rather manxome, I might add.


“‘I ha’ paid her to keep awa’ fra’ me. These five year I ha’ paid her. I ha’ gotten decent fewtrils about me agen. I ha’ lived hard and sad, but not ashamed and fearfo’ a’ the minnits o’ my life.’”

That’s from Hard Times, by Charles Dickens. And the obvious question is…


Is that some sense of the future details? Or a few things that give nice scents to your nostrils? Is it that he’s managed to get a few thrills, even if cheap ones? Or is it some flowery tendrils? This word has that accordion-file w in the middle of it and I really want to dive my hand into it to find some little thing that will tell me what sense it holds.

I don’t have to, though. I can just look in that little (no, large) shop of lexical geegaws in which I found it: the Oxford English Dictionary. Or I can pick up my massive Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which also has it. Webster tells me it’s ‘odds and ends’ or ‘trifles’. But I like Oxford’s definition better, which comes from a 1763 quote: ‘little things’. (Or, yes, ‘trifles’; Oxford allows that too.)

Life is a sort of packing exercise. First you get the big things in, home, food, you know. Big pieces of furniture. Essentials, the anchor tenants of your life. Then you add the medium-sized things: more chairs, some kitchen appliances, various necessaries. What lets you live a functioning existence without having to run out or go wanting. But you are not comfortable until you have the little things.

Take a big box and put in big rocks. OK, you have a box of rocks, but will you rest on it? Not for the sake of your back. Add some middle-sized rocks. Fill in the space with pebbles. Better now? Now you can sit on it if you must. But wait: pour in sand, those millions of little grains. Now you can lie back, perhaps.

But in the structures of our lives, we don’t need millions of little things. We just need a few. A few thrills. Just a little bit of an eye to the future details. A few pleasant passing scents to make passable sense to our nostrils. A few flowers to take root in our hearts. Fewtrils.

No one’s quote sure where fewtrils comes from. Oxford hints that there may be a connection to fattrels, ‘ribbon-ends’, from French fatraille ‘trash, trumpery, things of no value’.

But those little things of no value… how often we value them the most! Everyone deserves a few thrills and some fewtrils. Not too many – just a few – but they are the trills in the songs of our lives.