Category Archives: word tasting notes


Yes, I like accumulating things – judiciously, not wantonly – and I am disinclined to part with my treasures. I have an indeterminate number of books, but anyway more than there is room for, especially merged with my wife’s equally prodigious and constantly growing collecting; I have nearly a thousand CDs and no more room for new ones, so now I buy on iTunes; I have about a dozen cameras, about as many lenses for the ones that can take different lenses, and thousands upon thousands of photos stored up from them; I still have every email of any significance at all from the past sesquidecade; my section of the bedroom closet is packed like a Tokyo subway, but two thirds of them haven’t been worn this year or last; I have a dozen or so watches and two dozen or so ties; I have every issue of the Literary Review of Canada that I’ve ever worked on (nearly 20 years’ worth), and almost every issue of The Walrus since its first; I have a couple dozen bottles of liquor, but at least I finish those… gradually…

Aina thinks I may be a hoarder. But she’s the one whose clothes drawers erupt black fabric when she opens them, and she’s the one with more than a hundred books piled against the wall by her side of the bed. So.

I am not a true hoarder. A true hoarder is like this bloke I read about today, who incessantly accumulates old doors and window frames in his yard (click on the link just to see the pictures). It’s like this woman who died after a pile of her accumulated stuff collapsed on her. It’s like this person who had more than five dozen cats in a one-bedroom apartment.

Wait! Can you hoard cats? I know you can’t herd them. But are “crazy cat people” hoarders? Hoarding is for treasures, but inanimate ones, no? If I see a platoon of puddy tats, I’m more likely to think it’s a horde than a hoard.

Horde is not related to hoard, by the way. Horde comes ultimately from a Turkic word for ‘camp’. Hoard is a good old Germanic word that since the beginning of English (when it was hord) has been a noun for a collection of valuables laid away for future reference, and thence a verb for the act of laying them away. This word has been in the collection as long as there has been a collection.

English has increased its collection quite substantially since then, of course. We still have many of the oldest words, some of them at the bottoms of piles, some much worn from regular use, some brightened or bent over time – how does a gathering of treasures harden so it is heard as a bad thing, anyway? because it sounds like a hoary horror? – but we have accumulated an unmanageable treasury from our millennium and more of excursions and inventions. The English vocabulary is like Smaug’s gold-hoard (and the mot juste that’s on the tip of your tongue is its Arkenstone of the moment).

Is a word-hoard a bad thing? Robert Macfarlane seems not to think so; he glories in adding local landscape terms to his display cabinet. I don’t think so either, as my blog’s ton of word tastings (if they’re a pound each) attests. English may have an utter superfluity of words, but somehow we can always make use of one more to add just the right bit of flavour that was missing before. Unlike Scotch or Bordeaux, additions to your vocabulary are usually free and don’t occupy a lot of space.

I suppose excess words could collapse on you if you’re not careful with them. But really, my myriad of words is to me not so much a yard of dirty doors and windows (though words are, in their ways, doors and windows to the world) as a mewing mass of moggies waiting to be petted, to taste you with their sandpaper tongues, and to dig their tiny claws into you and your friends.

dirigible, blimp

What’s the difference between a dirigible and a blimp?

They have the same general form, but you don’t want to be misled. It’s tempting to assume, as I did for so many years, that the difference between the airships is visible when they’re deflated: a dirigible is rigid and a blimp is limp. It just seems so obvious, no?

Obvious but wrong. Similarity is not identity. Hydrogen and helium can both keep an airship aloft, but if you choose the wrong one you can go down in flames.

The truth is that a blimp is a dirigible. But not all dirigibles are blimps.

One may be forgiven for seeing rigid in dirigible, but I can see gerbil in it too and yet I am confident that airships are not held aloft by rodents running on wheels. Likewise, the presence of dirge, bridge, and bilge in it do not guarantee funereality, traversivity, or seawater. To find the origin of the word you must look in the right direction.

The right direction is direction itself – specifically the Latin word (and etymological origin) for it: dirigere. Something (in fact anything) that is dirigible is capable of being directed – i.e., steered. This is what all those cigar-shaped, finned, lighter-than-air vessels have in common, be they rigid (like Zeppelins – a brand name, by the way), semi-rigid, or blimps: unlike the classic “balloon-shaped” balloons, they can be steered and propelled. They are not merely at the mercy of the winds.

A blimp, then, is a kind of dirigible that does not have a rigid framework. Deflate it and it will be limp. So of course it is tempting to assume that the limp in blimp is the limp in, well, limp. There are even stories about how the word came to be, such as that the airship was “Type B: Limp.” Alas, there is a striking lack of actual historical evidence for limp­-based accounts. At least as likely are accounts linking it to the sound it makes when struck with the hand, or other more impressionistic sound-symbolic explanations. But no one’s entirely sure. Yet.

What we do know is that the word blimp showed up during World War I, when the things it names did. Of course, coming up with the ability to fly, we soon look to it for ways to hurt other people, for example by dropping bombs from above. Now, though, we have even more efficient and effective ways of killing people, so the place you’re most likely to see a blimp is floating above a sporting event – the continuation of way by other means. And actually the current Goodyear airship is the continuation of blimps by other means: it is an airship, and a dirigible one, but it is actually a semi-rigid airship made by Zeppelin.

So be wary of relying on forms! They may be nothing but hot air. They may be limp. They may be misdirecting you.


Why do I so enjoy writing these word tastings? Partly it is because I enjoy writing and I enjoy an audience. But partly it is because I have a lexicographic wanderlust – and, for that matter, an encyclopedic wanderlust. When I was a child, I would often pull out a volume of our World Book Encyclopedia and look up something that had caught my fancy, and from there I would wander through other entries. (I operate on a need-to-know basis: I need to know everything.) This wanderlust – which I have by no means lost; indeed, the internet has greatly facilitated it – may seem a wanton acquisitiveness, a noetic cupidity, and I won’t say it’s not, but it’s another thing too: an excellent way of wasting time.

I am much better than I should be at wasting time. It’s not that I have more of it than anyone else (though I do use less of it for sleep than I should); it’s just that I have an aversion to using every last moment in some pointedly productive fashion. I must use some of it frivolously, distractedly; I must fritter it away pursuing my latest intellectual dipsomania. I must squander time, in fact. Not that time spent looking up facts is always wasted, but let me tell you, I do waste a lot of time I could be using to do important things.

It could be worse. It could be money. Imagine having a need to waste money. I know some people do. Indeed, many people who find themselves with quite a lot of it seem quite avid in seeking ways to dispose of it recklessly. It’s both a way of proving to oneself that one has it, and an attempt to rectify the unaccustomed situation by reducing the excess.

Some people also, finding themselves endowed with fame, respect, responsibility, reputation, what have you, react similarly: they do spectacularly ill-judged things. A person who has everything shoplifts an item of little consequence and is caught. A movie star or politician practically goes out of his way to arrange liaisons that will be looked on very dimly by much of the populace. A beloved singer develops an excessive liking for intoxicants and has a nasty mishap.

Squanderlust. They – and, in my temporal way, I too – have squanderlust.

I didn’t invent this word. I found it while not wasting my time: I was, in fact, doing actual linguistic research. But not on this word; I just happened to see it. And I knew I had to taste it.

The word is not new; it has been around at least since 1935. But it is not often used. The Oxford English Dictionary has three citations, and the first two are to do with politicians (in their official roles, going on sprees with tax dollars). The third, from Time magazine, July 18, 1977, is this: “No longer the ultimate expression of corporate and personal squanderlust, the private plane is now a ubiquitous … means of air travel to smaller cities.”

So squanderlust is, of course, money (or time, or reputation, or whatever) spent in large quantity on things not worth the expense. It is buying an item that is far surplus to any reasonable requirement (and perhaps even unsuited to it): a Lamborghini just for picking up the groceries; five hundred dollars on a pair of jeans; a beautiful piece of quality equipment one doesn’t even know how to use; four times as much food as is required for an event.

But then, considering our ways as a society – overloading ourselves with unnecessary luxuries that we really only think we need, acquiring many things entirely surplus to requirement just because they make us feel good, wasting untold amounts of food – do we not all have some measure of squanderlust? The waste that makes us comfortable in our bounty? Or are we simply so numb and heedless we don’t even enjoy our squandering?


I was listening to The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham this evening, and it reminded me of a review I read of it when it came out back in 1996. The reviewer praised it for its honesty.

But how did the reviewer know?

Honest is a term of high praise for a performer. It basically means “He/she is doing or saying things that I, or most people, would hesitate to do because they would show me, or them, in a bad light or make me, or them, unwontedly vulnerable.”

Here, have a look at an example: “The Ten Most Brutally Honest Songwriters.” These songwriters are disclosing personal details, talking about things one simply doesn’t normally talk about.

Well, heck. One doesn’t normally sing, either.

I don’t doubt that many songwriters who are praised for honesty really are being truthful about details of their lives and feelings. But, in general, how do we know? How do we know that they’re telling the truth and not just making up things for better effect? They’re performers, and the point of performance is not what you feel, it’s what your audience feels.

Which is why the saying goes, “The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Actually, there are many different versions of the saying; Quote Investigator has traced its origins back to actors Celeste Holm and Ed Nelson.) If people could always tell when someone was being honest, life would be different. So different.

There are cases where we can evaluate more surely whether they’re honest. I don’t mean instances where a performer is singing “honestly” about something that can be documented not possibly to have happened. I mean the even more nebulous kind of “honesty,” a kind that was very popular 15 years ago and still shows up: the band sound like they’re recording it in a public washroom while their lead singer unloads a vicious case of diarrhea (and is also suffering from a Biblical bout of catarrh). So true! So like real life! So bare and raw and unprocessed! So unlike, say, Madonna, who is clearly heavily produced in a million-dollar studio!

Except that the Folding Bowels Band (or whoever) is also in a million-dollar studio, processed and produced, but pretending not to be. And, incidentally, is it more honest to expect people to pay for a technically highly competent performance or for one that your neighbour’s shaky adolescent squawks out in the shower? I think you’re making a more honest living – delivering expected quality for money paid – in the former case, though I must admit that if people really (for whatever reason) prefer the trans-tracheal evisceration sound, then yes indeedy, it is more honest to give it to them. De gustibus non est disputandum, eh?

But what, exactly, do we even mean by honest, really? A lot of time it’s in the line of “Dude was on. Dude was onner than anyone else. Dude was onnest!” Id est, it’s a plain term of approbation for a virtuous character or performance. We say it to honour someone. And why not? Honour (or, rather, honor, the Latin original without that dishonest pseudo-classical intrusive u that I, as a Canadian, refuse to relinquish) is the etymon; its derivative honestus (which came to us by way of Middle French) means ‘deserving honour; honourable; fine; top rank; doubleplusgood; meritorious of utmost respect’.

It just happens that we esteem highly – and (whether justifiably or not) associate with people of high station – truthfulness: a correspondence between what the person appears to intend and what the person actually turns out to intend. But we used the word honest as a more general approbation for nearly a century (in the 1300s) before starting to use it specifically to mean ‘truthful; not cheating’, and we still use it sometimes in more general sense to mean ‘respectable’ without specifically referring to lack of deceit.

But here is where we run into an issue with using it for performers – actors, singers, painters (a painting is a performance too, though the movement has stopped before you get to see it), so on. We turn to aesthetic performances in order to connect with things that expand our experience without actually involving us in real-world consequences. We want a vicarious experience, a fantasy. Even if it’s not a fantasy for the performers (as in a documentary), it is one for us, our reflexive responses no more imminently significant than the refreshing fear we feel standing on the glass floor in the CN Tower. We may want to have a sense that what we are seeing truly expands our grasp of the world in some way and doesn’t just comfort us – that it’s honest and not escapist – but our experience of it is not more honest, in the sense we think of today, than a roller coaster is an honest experience of a car crash.

We want well-faked honesty. We want not honest but Heston, a great thundering Moses leading us across the gap in a rearing Red Sea between our enslavement in reality and the promised land of truer (but non-damaging) understanding and experience. We want a performance that is honest only in that it delivers to us what we are paying for: a stirring deception.


When I was a child, and there were cigarette vending machines in various places, one of the names I saw on them (along with Players and du Maurier) was Craven A. If you were cravin’ a cigarette, you might well buy a pack of those. It seemed to me an odd name for cigarettes, like a name for a bird perhaps (a bird kicking the habit? “Quoth the craven, ‘Nevermore’”) or an large cave (a cavernous one, in fact). The v in the word could make a person think of a V-neck sweater, perhaps with a cravat tucked into it.

When I first saw the word craven as an adjective, it naturally made me think of the cigarettes. I knew that it didn’t refer to them – more to some cringing person craving protection – but once I learned its meaning it did make me wonder why anyone would name cigarettes for cowardice.

It turns out that the cigarettes are named after the Third Earl of Craven. The earl in turn is so named because the surname of the First Earl of Craven was Craven, and that surname comes from a place in West Yorkshire, which seems to have come from a Celtic word meaning ‘garlic’. The cigarettes do not taste of garlic, I assume, but I am sure they leave a more lasting scent in room, on clothes, and in breath.

But while the cigarettes are not afraid of being smoked, craven people are. Smoked, or beaten, or crushed. A craven was originally someone who was defeated, utterly crushed, and who admitted being crushed; it likely comes from an old French word meaning ‘crush’ (compare modern French crevé ‘burst, worn out’; it is only coincidence that it is reminiscent of vaincre ‘defeat, vanquish’). It thence signified a fearful, pusillanimous person, one who cries out and cringes. And so it came to mean a coward, self-confessed or at least known as such. (Coward, by the way, is another English surname that does not mean what it looks like it means; its original bearers were cowherds.)

There will ever be those who shrink from the slightest shadow. There will also be those who are always craving attention but cannot stand scrutiny, who seek glory but seek it behind a cover. We should be wary of such craven images… If once we cave in to them, if we mistake craven voracity for veracity, we must learn to say “Nevermore,” lest we let ourselves in for such horrors as the craven avoid (or Wes Craven creates).


“Tonight’s episode has been pre-empted.” Pre-empted! How peremptory! Is it cancelled or just postponed? Wait – pre-emption is postponement? Well, that’s preposterous.

And yet there you have it. We may be tempted to think it unkempt, and perhaps a sign of contempt, for a third party to attempt to exempt itself from the usual rules and schedules. But broadcast schedules, like so many others, tend to follow the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules. If someone has the money or the power, they can bump you or gazump you. They can even buy the spot before you get a chance at it.

Which is what pre-empt means. Its source (via French) is Latin prae ‘before’ and emptio ‘purchase’. Its first sense is ‘purchase a property before it is offered to another party’. Its use in broadcast started from ‘buy a time slot to keep others from using it’ and progressed to ‘cancel a planned broadcast in order to give the time to something else’ (generally something that’s worth more money, or at least will get more interest, which is largely the same thing).

Now it can be used in an even broader sense if you’re careful about it. One could raise a certain topic in conversation to pre-empt discussion of another topic; one could use a certain political manoeuvre to pre-empt a decision or action. But if you’re tempted to pre-empt, do be aware that it may provoke resemptment. I mean resentment. If your pre-emptees have enough gumption, at the resumption of business as usual – or even before it – you may in turn be gazumped or otherwise thumped. So caveat pre-emptor.



If even the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley, you can well imagine how often and how badly the chaotic gallimaufry and salmagundi that is English spelling goes awry. I’m sure you and your coworkers have often been misled onto a pronunciation sideroad. The epitome of this would be some biopic or miniseries where the heroine, on a moped, seeks out the best sundried tomatoes, and finds that infrared light works best (or perhaps her story predates that). What is needed is a kind of orthographic clerestory to let some light in, or a sewer to stitch the spelling together, or at least a blast on a conch so that you would be wary… rather than awry.

Really. Raise your hand if you thought once – perhaps for a long time – that awry was pronounced “aw-ree.” Raise the other hand if, once you realized it’s a plus wry, you thought it was just you making the mistake.

Both hands raised? Congratulations. You have now surrendered to English spelling. Join the club. Words that are often misread because their parts are misconstrued are called, by some people, misles; some years ago, some people on a forum (alt.english.usage) compiled a “misle list.”

Awry is one of the worst of the set for a few reasons: 1) we don’t often form new words with a-, and when we do we typically put a hyphen after the a; 2) aw is a common spelling pair; 3) -ry is a plausible word ending (a search on that word ending in the OED online produces “around 8800 results in 7648 entries”); 4) wry is itself a problematic word, thanks to the silent w (it was not always silent, but it’s been centuries since anyone said the w – don’t be fooled by the fact that your lips round when you say the “r”; they always do that in English with “r”). A medical condition most formally known as torticollis is also called wry neck (because your neck goes awry); “rye neck” hits in Google slightly outnumber “wry neck” hits (though many of them are for a place in New Jersey called Rye Neck).

Wry, anyway, is a very old English word; its earliest form was a verb for moving, going, or turning (it may be related to wriggle), and then for going astray or turning aside. From that it came to be an adjective and adverb meaning ‘twisted, contorted, distorted, deflected, etc.’ Its modern-day use relates mainly to the attitude conveyed by a wry smile, and I must confess I find wry humour exceedingly appealing. But give it the a- that shows up in aright, awrong, ahead, aside, and so on, and you have a similar kind of adjective and adverb.

So it makes sense, historically. But because our pronunciation has changed while our spelling has persisted, it catches the unwary. Aw, such is always the story. English spelling is as it is because people are greedy, lazy snobs. Best to make a wry smile, say “Tha’s a’righ’,” and move on to the next turn.

Thanks to @TheLingSpace for mentioning this word.