Category Archives: word tasting notes


There’s something timeless about dusk, when the night has swept from the east and is high in the sky and the sun is rounding away from it. Yes, dusk marks a time, the time when day becomes night, but every day it returns – because in fact it is always there as we are turning. Look at this blue marble from afar: the sun is always on one side, and so there is never a time when it is not sunset, and night, and sunrise, and day; we just spin through the series on this carnival ride, around and around, and the entire rest of the universe seems to rise and fall, rise and fall. And when the sun sets, be it behind sharp lake or blocky buildings or torn mountain edge, it signals again the settling of daylife and the rising of nightlife.

And with the nightlife rises the night light: the moon, the stars, the planets. Night is not a cloak, not for these lesser lights; it is the removal of the obscuring effect of greater competition. Just as the best conversations in a party take place when (or where) the noise is subsided, the best moments with the reflecting moon and planets and the emitting distant stars come when the loud sun is out of the room. They are always there, these lights and reflectors, but if they are in the sky when the sun is in sight, they can hardly hold up against it. Some would be invisible without the sun – the moon and planets have no light of their own – but they are nearly nothing seen next to it; we need to turn from the one to see the others.

There is a word for those lesser lights that, just when the sun is sloping to other parties, sneak in the dark door opposite. A celestial body that rises at sunset or dusk is acronical. From our perspective they creep in behind the cornice of the planet’s edge, into the cone of its shadow, although in reality they are where they are at all times. But they are not acornical or aconical or even achronical. Oh, that last one, it has its appeal: the spelling achronical has been seen from time to time. But this word truly is outside of time; there is no chron in it. It comes from Latin acronychos, and the nych has become nic through a reconstrual by analogy. But though we may point our fingers to indicate the stars, this word has nothing to do with onycho-, the root referring to fingernails. Latin got it from Greek ἀκρόνυχος, which is formed from ἀκρο- akro- ‘high’ and νύξ nux ‘night’. What is acronical is high at night – rising when the sun sets and setting when the sun rises.

Which really means nothing more than that at that time, our ball of warm mud (with us on it) is between the sun and those night-high things. This interposition allows us to turn away from our local loud light and see in the shadow what is always there but not always noticeable.

Consider the idea that dreams run through your head night and day, always there, always stirring and steering your gently, but when you are awake the noise and light of outside life drown them out, hide them, keep you from noticing them at all. These dreams are the heavenly lesser lights of your mind’s sky. And the ones that come around just as the sun sets on your awakeness, the acronical dreams, are the ones you notice and remember, because the grand distraction, the great domination, the day of the brain, has quieted for a time.

Perhaps or perhaps not. Perhaps it is all a matter of perspective. The parallel may or may not shed light on the question, but that is not the main matter; to notice the small points, we need to shed dark on them. So here is to the acronical imaginings.


My first acquaintance with this word was in the phrase filch a pilchard (though I’ll be damned if I can remember where I first saw it; when I Google the phrase, the first hit to use it is Sesquiotica). I’m not sure why one would incline to pilfering a small fish; one could as easily filch a flitch (a side of bacon) or a finch – although the finch might flinch, if it were quick.

Whatever you filch, though, it’s a peccadillo. You don’t filch a car or a million dollars – not unless you want to humorously play the theft as a minor matter (sort of like calling a mansion a “pile of bricks”). Filching is a dirty little thing, not a dirty big thing, and it’s quick and surreptitious (as Merriam-Webster reminds us). It has a sound perhaps of a hand grasping dry dust, like in a gulch, or something ground up, like mulch; it could be nothing more than rude air, like belch, or its constriction and stoppage, like squelch. But one thing’s clear: it’s closer to zilch than to much.

English filches words by the bagful, as we know. But did it filch filch? Probably not, but no one is absolutely certain. The Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat behind the curve on this, says “Of unknown origin.” Others are more venturesome: perhaps it comes from German filzen ‘comb through’; perhaps, as says, it starts with “Middle English filchen to attack (in a body), take as booty, Old English fylcian to marshal (troops), draw (soldiers) up in battle array, derivative of gefylce band of men; akin to folk.” Our language is so fickle, we sometimes end up filling in the blanks with whatever we can grab. And afterwards, we swear that it just fell off the truck.


Are the words of English efflorescences or confections? Often enough, they are at least a bit of both. Consider wymote. It looks as though it could be an uncommon surname, or a speck (mote) joined to a small dragon (wyvern). It sounds like a semi-articulate protest from someone unable to approach a castle. What it really is is something more of a treat for the eyes and tongue.

It’s not often used, obviously. But the word it grew from is even less used today: wymalve. That word in turn seems to trace back to a conjecture Latin viscomalva, which would have come from hibiscomalva, formed in its turn from hibiscus (from Greek ἱβίσκος hibiskos) and malva (from Greek μαλάχη malakhé). It names a flowering plant, common enough in Europe, Althæa officinalis, of the family Malvaceæ. The Althæa comes from Greek ἄλθειν althein, verb, ‘heal’. And indeed it has long been used for medicinal purposes. Its roots (the plant’s, not the word’s) are quite comestible when cooked; they are fibrous, and can be used in halvah or processed into something more gelatinous. The French added egg white and sugar to this and produced a soft dessert item, which they named after the plant.

Oh, did I not mention the French name? It was formed from viscomalva and was in turn the source of wymalve. Its modern form is guimauve. If you have ever sat around a Canadian campfire, you have likely seen that word on some packaging, next to the English. The English name comes from the common name for Althæa officinalis: it is a kind of malva that sometimes grows in or near marshes; malva has become mallow over the centuries; put that together and you have marshmallow.

Just to add to the fun, there is no Althæa officinalis in the modern marshmallows (guimauves). Gelatin, sugar, water, maybe flavouring. Probably not even egg white. We have taken the name (the French have too) and walked away with it. And if you see the plant – which has pretty flowers but nothing on it resembling the food (cattails are closer in appearance) – you may or may not want to use the name with the confectionary overtones. If you’d rather give the plant a distinctive name, try wymote, which has, like the marshmallows you toast over an open fire (or in the flames of a small dragon), very little left in common with its origin – partly through natural efflorescence and perhaps partly through deliberate confection – and yet is quite palatable.


Most of the many rivers and streams and brooks of London have now gone underground, been buried in culverts, perhaps in some cases been driven to extinction altogether. For the most part, you won’t know that a course of water ever flowed past that point unless it is marked by some monument or momentary emergence. Two such are named Tyburn: one of them is purported to flow briefly in a conduit down the middle of the lower floor of an antiques shop; the other, smaller one’s persistent presence can be suspected thanks to a monument marking an eponymous location near Marble Arch.

Well. Monument. Have a look at this Google Street View if you wish: there are three young trees, still so spindly as to need support in tripod arrangements. The trees themselves form a triangle. Inside the triangle is a circle on the ground, barely noticeable to those passing, its metal letters not legible in Street View. Have a closer look, courtesy of Wikipedia, if you want. It says THE SITE OF TYBURN TREE.

This must have been an important tree, this tree sited by a brook, yes? Perhaps it is the tree by a brook where there’s a songbird who sings, and sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven, as Robert Plant once sang?

It was not exactly a usual tree, and such singing as there may have been was always abruptly strangled. Here is another picture, if you wish to see it. If you prefer not to look, I will tell you: it was just three tall posts in a triangle, with crossbeams between their tops. It stood on that site, in the area named after the passing brook, from 1571 to 1783 (it was rebuilt several times). From its crossbeams were suspended, by the neck, until dead, humans.

Yes. Felons (including some political and religious prisoners) were carried there by cart from Newgate Prison, a three-mile trip that took up to three hours due to the surrounding throng and a possible stop at the Bowl Inn to partake of drink (I don’t know about you, but I would want at least a half pint of strong liquor, undilute), and then the cart was parked below the beam, the rope – already noosed around the prisoner’s neck – was tied to a crossbeam, and the cart was driven away while its passenger hung behind and the assembled crowd – whoever wanted to come and look – could enjoy it in real life, not just on iPhone-sized YouTube videos.

And for longer than a viral video, too: this was not the more modern version of hanging, where there is a calculated drop that breaks the prisoner’s neck at the bottom and death is usually quite quick; this was an asphyxiation, a fording of the divide between life and death that took rather longer than fording Tyburn Brook or, for that matter, swimming the Thames. But whereas you could always swim or ford back across the water, once the suspense was over at Tyburn you were in the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

Bourn? That’s the word from the Hamlet soliloquy. We would say boundary now. But the older word shows up (perhaps a little changed) in place names. Such as Tyburn. Which, in its original form, meant ‘boundary stream’.

And by that brook stood the robber plant, the triple gallows pole for people whose thoughts were misgiven. Sometimes people (such as Oliver Cromwell) were exhumed and hanged as posthumous punishment. The display was important, especially when the stakes were high. The stakes at Tyburn were always high, of course, high enough to keep the feet off the ground. But though they were stakes, the executioners did not tie and burn the prisoners; Tyburn was always a gallows.

But even as the place name Tyburn became a more worldwide byword for a site of execution, the famed original tree was fated to be driven underground and behind walls just as its brook was. Executions were moved to Newgate Prison. More recently, they were halted altogether – at least for people in England; deaths in other lands due to bellicose excursions are not officially considered to be executions, since they’re not, you know, personal. Usually. At least in England, though, as in Canada and many other places, death has moved largely out of sight, and the public and pre-appointed ferrying of people across the final bourn is, we think, a purely antique notion from the dark basements of the past.


“Were you cavorting covertly with that cavalier in a cravat in his Corvette convertible?”


“No? I can verify it! You were consorting with him!”

“Indeed I was. But there was nothing covert about the cavorting. I was even crowing a little afterwards.”

Cavort. Synonyms? Frolic, romp, besport oneself. But somehow it has an extra air, no doubt in part because of its echoes of consort, a word with which it has been occasionally confounded (see this William Safire column from 2002 – but wait until you’ve finished reading this word tasting). Its basic, older sense, as Merriam-Webster puts it, is “to jump or move around in a lively manner,” but it has the additional sense “to spend time in an enjoyable and often wild or improper way” (they do make it sound fun, don’t they?). The second definition you get if you just plain Google cavort is “apply oneself enthusiastically to sexual or disreputable pursuits.”

If you look in The New York Times you find recent examples of things that cavort including mummers, clowns, carousel horses, celebrities, and lovers – and baked goods (one must assume they are not as tired and overdone as the newspaper-food-writing-ese that fills the article). What we get the sense of is that cavorting is a kind of vortex of fun, one that may swirl you down into it and yet without any protest from you. It is a vibrant, vivacious, plunging V-neck kind of fun; it is capering, but it is also a caper, an escapade.

Where do we get this word? Our language has cavorted so much, it is unclear. But the evidence is that it is converted from cavault, which in turn is contorted from curvet. What is curvet? A kind of leap of a horse, in which the front legs are extended in parallel, and the rear legs spring off the ground before the front legs touch it. It comes from Italian corvetta, which comes from Latin curvus ‘bent’.

Ah! Corvetta! As in the car, then, right? While I admit that a Corvette could be a good car for (figuratively) cavorting, it is a coincidence that it sounds so much the same. The car is named after the smallest kind of naval boat to merit a captain (rather than some lower-ranking commander), and the boat – which has been a naval class since the age of sail – got its name from French, which formed it from Dutch corf, a name for a kind of boat; the Dutch took the word from Latin corbis ‘basket’. Which is not to say that the driver of a Corvette is a basket case.

Nor, for that matter, that he or she is doing a little crowing (though it’s not impossible). Latin for ‘crow’ is corvus, and Italian is corvo, so a little crow could be corvetto (in fact, Corvetto is a family name – there’s a station in the Milan Metro going by that name too, not to be confused with Cavour, a station on the Rome Metro).

And, as I imagine you can guess, covert and cravat also have no common origin with cavort (or each other). But they’re there for the endless cavorting of English vocabulary. It’s part of what makes us crave it.


This word presents to me a choice cut of memory, which in turn presents another more recent, both of them snippets from someone speaking on a raised platform to instruct an audience.

Sometime in the first decade of this millennium: A panel discussion after some film or other at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. One of the panelists was the publisher of a local alternative newspaper. She asserted that 2012 was going to be very big, that something very big was going to happen on December 21 2012, because it had been predicted by the Mayan calendar, and the Mayans were “a very technologically advanced civilization.”

Fall of 1993, a lecture hall at Tufts University, a campus on top of a hill cut in the middle by the border between Medford and Somerville, Massachusetts: An early lecture in a compulsory World Civilizations interdisciplinary course for which I was a teaching assistant. The professor was showing pictures of various items of Aztec culture. An image: a recumbent stone figure, elbow-braced, knees peaked, head turned to us, face like a rough hewing of a horrified inflatable doll, and a large bowl held on its belly. “This is chacmool,” the professor said. Then she moved on to the next picture.

Chacmool. Such a sound, like calcareous stone on French shellfish, or like chocolate milk. The word is first crisp, then melting: did the pot hold some mystic chocolate mixed with chilpoctli, suitable for sale at Starbucks? (No, that was called Chantico® – a name taken from an Aztec goddess of hearths and volcanoes.) The figure did have a moue of shock on its face; perhaps it was from tasting its heart’s delight.

Perhaps it was from someone tasting its heart.

Chacmools were a genre of sculpted object found throughout Central America, including among the Aztec and Maya. They were used for ritual purposes; the bowl was functional. It could hold offerings to gods such as food, drink, herbs… and human hearts. The one I saw first, from Tenochtitlán, is generally thought to have been used for this last purpose, as we eventually learned. On raised platforms in temples and on pyramids, captives had their hearts excised – no doubt using the best technology available, nice sharp knives – and presented in the bowl. I do not think they were asked whether that was their heart’s desire. We were not given an in-class demonstration.

The word chacmool is not Aztec, although it may look as though it could be. Its advent on this earth – as Chac-Mool – occurred in Worcester, Massachusetts, as a mutation of chaacmol. That was, according to the amateur archaeologist Augustus Le Plongeon, Maya for ‘thundering paw’, which Le Plongeon named the figure because he believed (we think mistakenly) it represented a former ruler of Chichen Itza, where he found it. So, to get to the heart of the matter: A French-American explorer (born in the Channel Islands) gives what he believes is a just Mayan name, which is mutated by an American sponsor publishing it, and is further merged subsequently, and is applied to the whole class of artifact, none of which were ever called that originally.

This seems more thoroughly confected than a cup of “drinking chocolate” from Starbucks. And, like that “drinking chocolate” with its plundered suitable-sounding name, it says more about what we want to take from other cultures than about what they have to offer us. Time and the transfer of memory cuttings are tricky things. What goes around doesn’t always come around the same way.


In the season of the cicada, I went seeking a truce between the wounding heat and the inner cacophony. I followed a board trail on a hillside and saw a break in the edge, an off-cutting path slicing through the woods. I left the main way to see what transpired: leaves, leaves, and more leaves as I wound my way through, and then, in a trice, this wounded tree.

Such succour in these cicatrices! All these carvings of cravings, young longing and shorting stabbed and hacked through the bark, memorialized in a tree you will only see if you go where you are not meant to be. The sap bled fresh some times in the past when the tree’s skin was fresh and tight; now it has healed and filled, and the tree is plumper and wiser and less bending. But still, even if stretching and half-illegible, it bears the cicatrices.

Cicatrice. This is French for cicatrix, Latin for ‘scar’; it comes into English as a longer, more surgical word for the same. The written form bears three sickles c c c to cut and two candles i i to burn in memory, and the remaining letters atr e may suggest arte: Vissi d’arte, I lived for art, I burned my candle at both ends and cut myself in the soft tentative skin of society.

We all have scars, of course. Few reach adulthood without wounds in our skin, and none make it without healed cutlines in our minds. I can look at my own trunk and see, southwest of my omphalos, a stretching solder from four dozen years ago, a souvenir of not dying yet. I could have kept my belly skin pristine, untouched into my grave at age one; instead I received my cicatrice and my indefinite surplus years. Remember that: our scars are our memories – so often there would be no us to remember without them.

So I see, off the official path, this tree, with its cicatrices from passing passions. I don’t know who made these marks, and I don’t know what followed; the incandescent moments of youth usually burn down to guttering trunks of wax and weaving threads of smoke. But they make their cicatrices in the growing lives of those involved, healed but not wholly: holes but holy – trenchant moments, the cuts that make the etchings of our lives, the healed but ever-present scars that prove we have been alive.

And behind them and below them and above them, smooth now but still keening, the round places where entire branches once were but are now gone.