Category Archives: word tasting notes

phragmites

This word doesn’t belong where it looks like it belongs. Or it does, depending on where you think it belongs.

It sure looks like stalagmites, doesn’t it? You know, the stone spires in caves that stick up from the floor? (The ones that hang down from the ceiling are stalactites. As a kid I learned from some CBC kids’ show that stalactites have to hang on tite, while stalagmites grow up with all their mite. Of course they don’t; like coffee and comments sections, they increase drip by drip. But it’s memorable.)

It also looks like sparagmites, which are kinds of sandstones, conglomerates, and other fragmental rocks. Hmm… frag-mites. Only it’s phrag. As in phragma, a partition in the bodies of some insects. Or phragmocone, the chambered part of the shell in certain cephalopods. Or phragmoplast or phragmosome, which are subcellular things that show up during cell division in certain plants.

That phrag. It seems simultaneously erudite and ludicrous, perhaps even crapulous. It makes me think of attempts at locution while the mouth is stuffed with a rag. But no. Nor is it something to do with fragments. It does have to do with dividing, though. It comes from Greek ϕράγμα ‘fence, screen’.

So is a phragmite a fence kind of rock, then? No. It’s not a rock at all.

I first saw this word in an article in the New York Times. The sentence in which I saw it was “Friends of Ms. Vetrano said she ran frequently with her father along the trail, which is lined by the tall reeds known as phragmites.”

So. A phragmite is a kind of reed.

Nope. Wrong again.

A phragmite isn’t anything. Phragmites is a kind of reed. Yes, it’s a fake plural. It’s pronounced like “frag mighties.”

And what kind of reed is it? It is a common reed. In fact, it is the common reed. That’s its normal English name: the common reed. The author of the story might as well have just said the trail was lined by tall reeds.

Phragmites is everywhere. Its geographical spread is described as “cosmopolitan”; it’s a native species pretty much all over the globe. But at the same time, in North America it is described as an invasive species. What?

Well, there are different kinds of these reeds. Phragmites australis is native to North America, whereas Phragmites australis is an invasive European… what? Can’t see the difference? Oh, yeah, well, there are subspecies. The kind that was already here before the Europeans arrived is subspecies americanus. The other kind is the standard Eurasian kind. They look just slightly different – the Eurasian kind tends to grow in denser stands, have denser seedheads, and be lighter and bluer in colour. The main way you can probably identify it is that, unlike the americanus kind, it doesn’t grow mixed in with the other plants; it tends to crowd them out. Yeah, the native species was living here nicely, getting along with everything, and then the Eurasian kind came across the ocean and starting taking everything and crowding all the rest out. Even though they’re the same species. Huh.

I’ll tell you one thing: rocks don’t do that.

jubilee

Blow a horn! Shout for joy! Celebrate seven times seven times! Break the chains! Let the land and the people rest! Forgive all! Light a flame!

Where shall we light a flame? Hmm… how about on some cherries?

Chef Auguste Escoffier created the dessert we call cherries Jubilee (cherries flambéd with kirsch and served on ice cream) for the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Why was it a jubilee? A jubilee, in this sense, is a special celebration to mark a landmark anniversary (as, for instance, of the beginning of a reign): silver for 25th, gold for 50th, diamond for 60th. That is transferred from ecclesiastical special years: in the Roman Catholic Church, every 25 or 50 years there is a special year of universal pardon and remission of sins – pilgrimages are involved, to Rome of course – and other special jubilees may be declared in other years as well.

The Catholics in turn got the idea from the book of Leviticus in the Bible. The people of Israel were prescribed to have a sabbath year every seven years: the land was to lie fallow, to regenerate. After seven cycles of sabbath years, there was to be a jubilee year, when not only would the land lie fallow but slaves would be freed and property that had been sold would revert to the seller. It was to be a year of rest and restoration. And it would be announced by a blow on a ram’s horn during Yom Kippur.

A ram’s horn? A ram was, in the Hebrew of the time, yobhel; the announcing of the jubilee with a ram’s horn was, apparently, what gave it its name. But when that came via Greek to Latin, the word that should have been jobelæus appeared as jubilæus, almost certainly because of the pre-existing Latin verb jubilare ‘shout’ and its noun jubilum. So a year of liberation and rest became readily associated with shouting for joy. Everybody celebrate and have a good time! Jubilate! (Which comes from jubilare, not jubilæus.)

And, of course, observe the turn of an important year. In Alberta, two large auditoriums were built – one in Calgary, one in Edmonton – to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the province, in 1955. They are called the Jubilee Auditorium (specifically the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium and the Northern same same same). I think that was where I first saw the word jubilee. But it shows up in all sorts of places. I especially like it when it shows up with cherries.

For me, though, its significance right now is that I have completed seven times seven years of my life, and today I have embarked on my fiftieth year (at the conclusion of which, in one year, I will be 50 years old). So, naturally, I took an extra day off from work to make a nice, restful long weekend of it. Now let’s see what I make of the rest of the year…

owsell

Sometimes you are kept in the dark. Sometimes you keep others in the dark. Meaning in language is a ball that is thrown from one to another. Sometimes the ball is not caught. Sometimes it is not even thrown but faked: a deliberate mystery, a perdition of meaning.

For tonight’s word, let me go to my bookshelf. But not the usual bookshelf. My much-photographed library shelves are not the only place we have books. They’re piled all over. And if you open this kitchen cupboard…

I have a collection of cookbooks. Sometimes I even open them. One or two of them. Some of them go years without being opened. I used to use them more. I wonder if there are words in some of them that have never been seen in that copy with human eyes – and never will be.

Some of these cookbooks are gifts. One of my favourites – though I’ve never made much actual use of it – is one my cousin the food-and-wine lover gave me. She sought it for years and it finally appeared in a reprint.

The Art of Cuisine, recipes and art by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, assembled by his friend Maurice Joyant, translated by Margery Weiner, with culinary notes by Barbara Kafka. Culinary notes? Yes, well, the recipes were not written for beginner audiences; they were noted down by a gourmet for use by other gourmets comfortable in the kitchen. So, for our rather more helpless and literal modern cookbook-buying audiences (who also may be unfamiliar with some things that were matters of course in the France of the 1800s), the noted cookbook author Barbara Kafka has given usable clarifications. We wouldn’t want the meaning to be missed.

It certainly has some engaging recipes, and it tells them in that lovely conversational way that old cookbooks often do.

Admittedly there are some recipes I am quite sure I will never make because I will never happen to have a key ingredient. They sit there on the page, connecting to my eyes and brain, giving me an aesthetic anticipation, but never eventuating in action.

At the very end of the book is a section called ULTIMA RATIO FINIS. It is (after its section title page) just this one page, facing another illustration.

As you can see if you look closely, it contains three recipes: grasshoppers grilled in the fashion of Saint John the Baptist; saint on the grill; and ancient recipe.

Here is ANCIENT RECIPE:

Full of mystery. It will never be known.

God revealed the knowledge only to his Prophet, who uttered no word about it. This recipe will, therefore, remain forever unknown to all other human beings.

A culinary equivalent of Arthur Sullivan’s lost chord.

An owsell.

Did you not see the word owsell in the recipe? Anywhere in the book?

It’s not there.

I first became aware of this word last week thanks to a tweet by Simon Horobin, professor of English at Oxford. He tweeted a picture of the Oxford English Dictionary entry for it.

The first thing you see is that the word is preceded by an obelisk, a dagger indicating the obsoleteness of the word: †. It is dead. No one uses it.

But at the time the OED was first assembled, it was found and noted in a book. So there it is. The OED has a few hapax legomena that appear just because someone used them once in a book. It takes rather more than that to get into it now, but they are loath to expunge an old entry.

The second thing you see in the entry, after † owsell, n., is

Origin: Of unknown origin.
Etymology: Origin unknown.

There is, below that, a little note about the sense as conveyed in the one text citation: “Although perdition is later sometimes described as black (following Milton On Death Fair Infant, 1673), and there are instances of figurative use of ‘ouzel’ (blackbird) in allusion to the colour black (compare ouzel n. 1c), it is not easy to see how this might be interpreted in the quot. here.” The text citation, which is at the very end of the entry, is a quotation from A six-folde politican by John Melton, published in 1609: “Neither the touch of conscience, nor the sense..of any religion, euer drewe these into that damnable and vntwineable traine and owsell of perdition.”

After the usage note, you see the characterization “Obs. rare—1.

Then you see the definition:

(Meaning unknown.)
Possibly a typographical error for some other word.

Say no more.

sulcus

Hmm, this is a succulent-looking word, don’t you think? A little lexical Lucullan delight? Or perhaps a sultry seducing succubus? Are you doing a mental calculus on how it inculcates its sense? Are you furrowing your brow? Do you dig this word, is it groovy?

It is a groove, that much is true. A furrow. A wrinkle. A trench. An involution, a mark of graving. That’s what it signifies in Latin, and it has come to English with the same general sense, but it has fit itself into more specific niches. It is a groove made with an engraving tool. Or a rut, or a fold in the landscape. Or it is a groove or furrow somewhere on or in the body. But especially it is a groove in the brain.

Your brain, as you probably know, is as wrinkled as a shar-pei’s face. Your cerebral cortex (that’s Latin for ‘brain bark’) has a lot more area than your skull does, so it just folds in and out like a T-shirt stuffed in a can. The parts that are folded out so you can see them if you’re holding a brain are called gyri (singular gyrus), and the parts that are folded in are called sulci (plural of sulcus, obviously). The brain also has a few deeper splits between parts; these are called fissures.

That plural, sulci. Think for a moment about how you would pronounce it. If you think about it from the pronunciation first, you may come up with “sulk eye.” If you start with the spelling, you may prefer “sull sigh.” Or you may get sulky.

I mean “sulky,” another possible pronunciation. All are attested, and all are acceptable (though the older English style is “sull sigh” and the original Latin is closer to “sulky” – actually more like “sool key”). You should decide which you like best, because sulci often come in groups.

Or you could just stick with the little ones. A little sulcus is a sulculus, and if that isn’t succulent I don’t know what is. And its plural is sulculi, so at least you don’t have to worry about that “k” versus “s” thing. But if you do worry about it, you have your sulci – and gyri – to thank for it.

ketchepillar

No matter how you try to hold things, sometimes they get out of hand. This is especially true with language. To some extent, we are all ketchepillars.

What is a ketchepillar? Is it a caterpillar covered in ketchup (or some other red fluid)? Or a caterpillar you can’t catch? Or a pillar covered in ketchup, or on a ketch? Or a pillar you can’t catch? Or… wait, pillars don’t move. Unless you’re so intoxicated that they do. Or so dizzied by change.

No, a ketchepillar is…

…actually, let’s play our way to what it is. Let’s get on the ball. Let’s get a grip on the ball. Let’s get the ball in hand. Let’s play handball. Or, perhaps, play jeu de paume, ‘game of palm’, a game that was played starting in the 1200s and 1300s in long indoor courts with a gallery on one side. (Some of these courts still exist. One is an art gallery now. Another is a theatre.) The ball was hit with the palm. That was kind of brutal and bruising, and people sometimes need their hands for other things, so they started using gloves. And then they used vaguely palm-shaped paddles on sticks. These eventually became things we would call racquets.

Once racquets came in, it wasn’t really the game of the palm, was it? It’s still called jeu de paume in some places, but another name caught on, tenez, which is French for ‘hold’, ‘receive’, or ‘take’ (second person plural, imperative in this case). That got adapted into English as tennis.

But tennis isn’t played in walled-in courts, is it? No, it moved out onto the lawn on the 1800s and got a new set of rules. Now lawn tennis is just called tennis and the original indoor tennis is called real tennis by its players, because language sometimes moves about as fast as tennis balls.

And is subject to reconstruals, too. Take the term for ‘zero’ in tennis: love. You may have heard that it comes from French l’œuf, ‘the egg’. It’s an appealing story, but it lacks historical attestation. The evidence more supports the idea that the term came from the joke that if you weren’t scoring, you were just playing for the love of the game (or of your opponent, perhaps). In which case the reconstrual is not from l’œuf to love but from love to l’œuf!

But this doesn’t take us any closer to our ketchepillar. For that, we have to go Dutch, and then go Scottish. I am not making some oblique reference to economies, either. The Flemish name for the game, way back when, was caetse-speel, where speel means ‘game’ and caetse comes from Dutch kaats ‘place where the ball falls’ – taken from a northern French word cache, it seems, which meant ‘chase’. This got dragged into English as cachespule, cachespell, caichpule, catchpule, catchpole, cachepole, cache-puyll, cachespale, cachepill, kaichspell, and just who knows what-all else!

Who knows? The Scots know. Well, they did back in the 1500s, when they called it something more like ketchepill. And from that they gave us – and the Oxford English Dictionary – the word ketchepillar, meaning ‘tennis player’. (All of the above historical info is obligingly yielded up by the OED.) In this game of lexical tennis, you don’t just hit the ball back, you change it every time you try to get a grip on it.

Of course anyone who speaks English is playing a game – an ever-changing game with shifting rules and equipment, and you can’t win unless you, too, can shift as needed, crawling like a caterpillar across a tennis court. But, then, who needs to win if you’re playing it for love?

schooner

Whence? Whither? We don’t know—
Fill up the schooner! How she schoons!
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

The distant shore will host a show
Of distant stars and distant moons.
Whence? Whither? We don’t know!

Yes, shoes will walk, and arms will row,
But sail-ships scud across lagoons.
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

Our breath is breeze, so let it blow;
We’ll ride our lungs like air balloons.
Whence? Whither? We don’t know!

Our lives are fluid; let them flow,
Not shine contained in silver spoons.
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

And shall we bury treasure? No!
We’ll trade our jewels in saloons!
Whence? Whither? We don’t know…
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

Who is not sparked to poetry by the sight of a tall ship? Or at least to imaginings? And hoistings of glasses? I set down the above villanelle just now in a libatious fraction of an hour. Here’s another poem, written a century and some ago by Richard Hovey:

The Sea Gypsy
I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again to-morrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.

Ah, the romance of the schooner, come from a distant past, heading to an uncertain future. Who would merely set shoe after shoe on soil who could sail a schooner on the sea?

What is a schooner? It’s a kind of ship, originally with two masts but sometimes with three or more; the foremast is shorter than the main mast. Schooners are larger than cutters, but smaller and easier to manouevre than frigates or galleons; they can move well with a small crew. They were, in their time, popular for fishing and shipping – and piracy.

One of the things schooners shipped was sherry, from Xerez in Spain. Sherry was traditionally served in two sizes of glass: a smaller glass was called a cutter, and a larger glass was called a schooner. From that, the name has transferred to beer glasses. In Australia, a schooner is a glass smaller than a pint; in Canada, it is larger than a pint (though you won’t find it everywhere).

Nowadays schooners are popular as tourist attractions. The star of Toronto’s harbour is a three-masted schooner built in Germany in 1930, originally named the Wilfried but bought in 1960 by a Danish captain and renamed Kajama after his children Kaywe, Jan, and Maria. It was bought in 1999 by a Toronto company – it is newer to this city than I am. The picture above is of the Kajama in Toronto harbour. Here’s a closer look (yes, taken with an old film camera).

The word schooner has a Dutch look to it, doesn’t it? The spelling does have a Dutch influence. But the word is not originally Dutch; it is English, or perhaps it is borrowed from Scots. The first schooner was (by some accounts) launched in 1713 at Gloucester, Massachusetts, and there is a probably apocryphal story connecting it to the Scots word scon, meaning ‘skip across the water’ (as a stone), by way of a bystander’s exclamation: “Oh, how she scoons!” We’re not really sure just how the word really came around. It was first spelled skooner or scooner, anyway. But the Dutch borrowed the word (with the ship), and made it schoener, which is kind of funny because schoen is Dutch for ‘shoe’. The current English spelling may have been influenced by that, or by school, or both.

You won’t see too many schooners these days. Unless you’re Canadian, that is. It’s true that most Canadians are not in Toronto or Nova Scotia (where other schooners may sometimes be seen), but all we need to do is look at a dime. The Canadian dime features the Bluenose, a schooner that was both a working fishing craft and a racing ship unbeaten for seven years in the 1930s. It was enough to get it onto the dime in 1937 (well, technically the image on the dime is a composite of the Bluenose and two others, but never mind), and it’s been there ever since.

But the Bluenose itself (or herself, if you hew to that usage) ended up in the Caibbean. A nice retirement? Not exactly. Fishing schooners were displaced by motorized boats in the 1930s, and the Bluenose was sold to work as a freighter. It wrecked, laden with bananas, on a reef off Haiti in 1947, just 10 years after making it onto the dime. No one died in the wreck – other than the Bluenose. You can go see a replica at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Or just pull out a dime, if you’re Canadian.

And if you carry cash. Many people don’t these days; coins seem to have an uncertain future (the Canadian penny has already gone under). But go to a pub and order a pint – heck, order a schooner – and hoist it to the Bluenose and other sailing ships, and while you’re doing that, look over at the bar for a glint like a star. It may be a dime, left as part of a tip, half-submerged in a lagoon of ale. Wish it a safe journey – but not a dull one.

foldbold

My dwelling is an ecosystem of sorts. Yes, it hosts two people and some gradually dying deracinated flowers, not to mention all those unpleasant little bugs in the kitchen, but there are also the many books and magazines and pieces of music and books and artworks and – did I mention the books?

Yes, they are not what is normally considered alive, although they once were parts of various trees (among other things). But they have a living traffic of words, images, and ideas to and from the minds that inspect them. And words that appear one way in one of them appear another way in another. Also, they move.

Don’t believe me? Look at this stack of books on a stool (currently doubling as a side table). Obviously they belong on the bookshelf, right?

So if they belong on the bookshelf, how did they get onto the stool?

OK, fine, I put them there. Because I’m not done with them. I pulled them off the shelf to look at and have not achieved emotional closure with that liaison. Or I forgot to put them back. Or I acquired them and have yet to put them on the bookshelf for the first time because I’m still reading them (ones that I haven’t started reading yet may be on the floor), or I’m done reading but I want to refer to them or lend them to someone else. I have not made so bold as to return them to the fold.

Like this one on top. Here, let me show you the cover.

Its author, David Lukas, is a naturalist, a bird specialist, who became enchanted by the world of words. O brave new world, that has such creatures in it! (Yes, I know that’s not quite the original quote. Words can move around in living minds.) Such beautiful, sensual things, wild and free, shaped by the mental ecosystem, the community of minds, flying and landing, and reproducing and evolving. And, on the other hand, words and word parts are like tools, tools that we can use to touch the further world, tools that we can fashion from parts available to us.

So he wrote this book. It is at the top of this stack because I have been diving into it like a forest pool every so often since I got it. (I acquired my copy from the hand of the author, but you can get yours at www.languagemakingnature.com.)

Lukas looks at the materials available to us, and he looks at how we can put them to use. I have a special fondness for Old English, and he gives a nice list of words from Old English that he feels are worth reviving.

At the top of page 82, I see foldbold, “an earthly dwelling.”

(I also see, slightly farther down, lustgrin, “a snare set by pleasure,” which is, in its own way, another word for an earthly dwelling. Its closest modern equivalent would probably be honey trap.)

Foldbold. This seems like a name for a house of letters. Fold like paper, bold like print. If I were to name my dwelling as many in England have traditionally named theirs, Foldbold would suit it well. It’s such a savoury word, too. It has two syllables that rhyme with each other – and with so many other words, old, mold, cold, sold, but also gold, hold, told, bankrolled – and it has stops, liquids, a soft fricative; it uses the lips, the teeth, the tip and back of the tongue, the whole bodily home (or halfway house) of words.

This is a word seen in Beowulf. I looked it up. That’s why that Guide to Old English is there in the pile. Here’s the section.

Beowulf has Grendel by the arm, and will not let go; the struggle threatens the mead-hall they are in, which the poet gives the epithet fæger foldbold. That word faæger, which was pronounced like how we now say fire, meant ‘fair’; the glossary in the Guide defines it as “building,” but Lukas’s “eathly dwelling” is more likeable. The fold in foldbold means ‘earthly’, after all. (Yes, the language has changed quite a bit in the intervening millennium-and-some; language evolves more quickly than the bodies that speak it.)

So. My shelves and stools are fair foldbolds for my books; this book is a fair foldbold for this word. Or is it the book that is its home? How about the mouth? No, the mouth is a way-point, a transporter beam sending it to the receiving ear so that it may occupy another mind (without leaving the first one, however – language is, perhaps, more accurately called a virus). The foldbold of a word is a mind, or the community of minds that share it and keep it current and evolving. But is a mind earthly? A brain is, if I may be so bold as to fold the one into the other (a conflation I must confess I do not necessarily hold to invariably). And brains walk the world in bodies – bodies that dwell in houses and carry books from place to place, servants of their ostensible tool, language. We move them, because they move us.