Category Archives: word tasting notes


If you like to taste words, I have a hunch this one will give you much to munch on. You may have seen it before, with or without enough context to know its sense. It seems to me that it would be perfect for the act of chewing down a little seed (as of strawberry or sesame) between one’s incisors, but that’s not what it means. It could name a cross between nunchuks and a truncheon, but doesn’t have that punch. I thought at one time that it was a word for luncheon used by the same sorts as give then name Ned to Edward and may call their uncle nunk. But no, not quite.

It is a noontime thing, yes, or mid-afternoon, but not so much a meal as a nonchalant shench to quench. Shench? That’s a disused word now, but it means a drink. A tipple. A little nip. Yes, a nuncheon is day-drinking between meals. More broadly, it can be any sort of refreshing little snack – a nibble to keep you going. But remember where it comes from: a schench at noon – a noneschenche.

Does that look like drunken nonsense? Well, that’s just what you’re going to get if you’re going to get drunk senseless at noon. Your afternoon scribal duties will be sloppy. I have a pet hypothesis that every historic scribe who transcribed this word had been imbibing interprandially. Have a look at all the different spellings of it over the centuries in the Oxford English Dictionary: noensshynches, nonchynche, nonesenches, nonschenche, nonschenches, nonschonches, nonsenche, nonsenches, nonsenchis, nonsynches, noonschench, nounschenches, nunseynches, noneschankis, noneschanks, noneshankis, noneshanks, novnschankis, nownschankis, noynsankys, noynschankis, nunschankis, nwnschankis, noncyens, nonshynges, nonshyns, nonsiens, nooncense, noonchyns, noonnchyns, nunsens, nunchings, nuncions, nuntions, nunchions, nunchens, noonshyns, noneshyne, noonshun, noonchine, noonchin, noonshun, noonchion, nunchin, nuncion, nuntion, onchion, nonchion, nunchion, nunching, nuncian, nuncheon, nunching, nunchin, nunchion, nunchun, nunshon.

Now, I know that much of this is due to the fluidity of English spelling over the centuries, and to various misconjectures and reconjectures, but it’s hard for my modern mind not to imagine other kinds of fluid in play when I see a sentence such as this one from Scotland in 1529: “Haiffand ilk werk day ane half hour afor nyne houris afor none to his disjone, and ane othir half hour afor four houris eftyr none to his nunschankis.” I think if I were to put back a pint or a pair as a nuncheon in place of my mid-afternoon coffee, or – worse yet – some moonshine for noonshine, I would risk producing just such prose.



Here, listen to a good song while you read this. The one is not an explication of the other. They’re just on the same general subject, and in the same kind of mood.

Our lives are in league with the freeway. I grew up in the wide-open west, and the limited-access twinned highway was the power line of life. Once you have connected to it, you move fast and smooth, and at night you are a streak of light. I love being in motion. For many or even most of us in North America, our cars are extensions of our selves, two-ton metal protective prosthetics that let us be free to go, that give us power and speed. And the freeway is the freest way.

We’ve had the word freeway for a century and a quarter to refer to an unimpeded access way. For three quarters of a century we’ve meant a highway that you are free to use for free, free to drive on freely and free not to stop – but not free to stop, and not free to get on or off except at interchanges. Free to go fast, but not free to go as fast as you want – if you do, and you’re caught, it’s sure not free. Free to use a car, but cars are not provided for free. And you’re not free to go anywhere but where it goes. It is an electric cord of traffic: enter it and exit it only where it connects. And the cities fly by. There is no turning back.

“Freedom is a scary thing,” Laurie Anderson sings. “Not many people really want it.” What we want is freedom not to have to be too free. We don’t want the burden of too many choices, too many people to have to contend with, too many things to have to look out for. Just give us a limited set of options and let us take the express route on one. Freeways are not freedom to choose; they are freedom from having to keep choosing.

But even that much freedom is not free. I don’t just mean that we pay for the freeways with our taxes – for their construction, their maintenance, their policing, their ploughing – I mean that when we all choose them, they are full of all of us. Freeways exist as an extension of society, they are built by our governments, and they get us from people to people, but when we are on them we want to be free from other people, and the drivers on a busy freeway are no longer free from having to deal with strangers. Strangers on a sidewalk have eyes that see and extensions that swing and are somewhat soft, but strangers on a freeway are nothing other than chaotic boxes, hostile, hard, unpredictable, with eyes that beam light at you rather than taking it in from you. You are not free even to move at speed. You have become a mote in a flow of cooling magma.

But we can build more freeways, yes? Widen them? Offer freedom to more people? Freedom to tie up so much of your money and time and nervous energy in your car, yes. Freedom to go with thousands of others to an off-ramp that leads somewhere that is no larger than it was before, that can handle no more cars than before. Yes. Try connecting a fire hose to your dishwasher and see how that goes.

I drive freeways. When I have to. I choose the smooth fast flow when I can’t get where I’m going within a reasonable time any other way. And then, at last, I exit. I turn away, to a two-lane highway that weaves through the trees and connects to driveways and sidewalks and stores and people walking. A thousand choices to make and things to think about. And that way I am free.


This word is nothing to blink at. Or maybe it is – that stack of vertical lines might throw your eyes off for a moment. But how do we open it up?

You might look in the middle first and see blep, which probably sounds like dyspepsia. Add a letter, though, and you have bleph, which you may have seen in a medical term somewhere. Blepharitis? Blepharospasm?

Let’s start at the beginning. You have call, which seems familiar enough. Or perhaps you have callible. Able to be called? But what is able to be called? Um, phary? Would that mean you could call Pharrell Williams? Well, that would make some people happy, though others might throw shade. Perhaps it’s related to phare, which means ‘lighthouse’? So calliblephary would be a lighthouse available on call?

In fact, it does have something to do with shining beacons that can be swung your way. But the real bits are calli, as in callipygian, from Greek κάλλος kallos ‘beautiful’, and blephary, from βλέϕαρον blefaron ‘eyelid’.

So it means ‘beautiful eyelids’? Or ‘the state of having beautiful eyelids’? Not quite. The –ary in this case is an instrumental suffix, as in aquarius ‘water carrier’ (yes, I know that’s from Latin; this is an English word, not a Greek one). So calliblephary – which, by the way, is meant to be said “cal a blef a ree” (/ˌkæləˈblɛfəri/) – means ‘eye makeup’ or, more specifically, ‘eyeshadow’.

I came of age in the ’80s, and I must say I still have a bit of a fondness for a nice striking green or blue (especially mildly iridescent) eyeshadow. One doesn’t get to see that too often these days, but it seems to me at least that it’s on the way back. Perhaps the word will be too. I have hope that occasionally a literate lady or lad will say from the bathroom, “Have you seen my calliblephary applicator?”



A kaleidoscope seems such a quaint thing now, so… analogue: a tube like a telescope in which little flakes of stained glass (or plastic) collide and are mirrored. A literal physical collide-o-scope! A toy patented in 1817, so much simpler than the incessant stream of fragmented digital images that now fill our days with brain flakes.

The word kaleidoscope doesn’t come from collide, mind you. It’s καλός kalos ‘beautiful’ plus εἶδος eidos ‘form’ plus σκοπος skopos, which I’m sure you know has to do with looking; it traces to the verb σκέπτεσθαι skeptesthai ‘look out’ which, yes, is also the source of skeptic. So a kaleidoscope is an instrument for looking at beautiful forms.

Which, in my view, is just my eyes. The world is full of beautiful shapes, from the simplicity of soft shadows from stained glass to the intense complexity of people passing in a shopping mall or on an urban street – and I can have both within a quick walk of each other.

Nothing is unproblematic, of course; in our world we bounce off each other, and our frictions and collisions generate heat. But where would the world be without warmth and interaction? No need to take all at face value; there is beauty in wisdom, and wisdom comes from seeing twice, seeing deeper, seeing past, doubting what you see. Enjoy looking, but look out, be skeptical. See the slivers in the floor that is so prettily dappled with coloured light. Get the picture – and see how your own self getting the picture gets in the way of seeing it all clearly. And enjoy that too.


sh, shh

Is sh a word? Sure. It’s even in dictionaries. They call it an interjection, though it really functions as an imperative – when you say “Sh!” you mean ‘shut up’ or ‘be quiet’ or ‘shut your festering gob’ or ‘stop making that dreadful noise’. But we can’t say it really is an imperative, syntactically, unless there are other forms that show it to be a verb: “Will you sh?” “OK, I am sh-ing. I have sh-ed.” Doesn’t really work, at least on paper.

We could say “Will you shush, I am shushing, I have shushed,” but we all know that shush is not sh. No, shush is almost polite. There’s nothing polite about sh. It’s most often a high-handed command issued with full assumption of the right to correct and boss around. When not irritable, it is at least familiar: a winking correction to a friend or descendant.

Well, OK, I suppose that’s all more true of shh. The shorter form, sh, is quicker and less expressive, a drive-by hushing. Conversely, a more forceful one would be shhh. Or maybe sshhh? Hm. Hmm. Are those different words or are they multiple versions of the same word? Hmmm.

Well, at least hm, hmm, and hmmm are clear enough in the spelling department. We lean towards shhh over sshh by convention, but it’s all just one sound, not two; there’s no place where s ends and h starts – that would be something of a mishap. We need two letters just because we got saddled with this alphabet from a language that didn’t have the sound we spell sh at the time the alphabet was set.

Just that little movement of the tongue back towards the palate can make the difference between peccadillo and tibia (sin and shin), between drink and transport (sip and ship), between being seated and… you get the idea. The “sh” sound, which linguists render in the International Phonetic Alphabet as /ʃ/, is palatalized. While /s/ belongs to the higher-pitched “hissing” fricatives, /ʃ/ belongs to the lower-pitched “hushing” ones. Both are sibilants; both are stridents. Both are audible at some distance, but I’d say “sh” carries more.

Well, I’ll say for sure that you can hear it across a theatre. It is irrefutable evidence of the presence of someone who does not have proper respect for others or for the occasion. Seldom do I attend a live performance of music, dance, or drama without hearing someone on the far side of the place issuing a “Shh!” to some noisemaker near them. I rarely hear the person they’re addressing; the quiet speech that provokes it doesn’t carry nearly as far. One ought not to talk during performances, of course; it’s not very considerate. But far less considerate is the person who, instead of leaning forward or back and quietly saying, like a proper Canadian, “Sorry, could you please not talk?” prefers to issue a loud passing of gas through tongue and palate audible across the auditorium and almost certainly on the stage. So rude – far worse than the offence that provoked it. For heaven’s sake, shushers, do be less strident.


narcissus, daffodil

Life is not always a bed of roses. (Good thing, too, what with those thorns in the stems.) For some people, it is more a bed of narcissuses.



Did you know that a daffodil is a narcissus? You did? I guess some people actually pay attention to what flowers are called and all that.

For the rest of us, Narcissus is a whole genus of pretty flowering plants that bear names such as narcissus, daffodil, and jonquil. Some are yellow through and through. Others are white but orange in the fuzzy bits. Some look like stars, some like shooting stars, some like cartoon characters. They are all just as pretty as their namesake.

Who is probably not their namesake.

You know who Narcissus was, right? The mythological youth who was extremely good looking but only had eyes for himself? He drove would-be lovers to despair; he was finally tricked into seeing his reflection in a pond, fell in love with what he saw, and died staring at his unattainable idol: himself. It has been said that Narcissus is the namesake of the flower. It has also been said, by equally classical sources, that he is not. The overall historical record suggests that the flowers had the name before the mythical character was ever spoken of.

Which is not to say the self-gazer was named after the flower. The Greek root that the flower probably traces back to, and the person may or may not, is ναρκάω narkaó ‘I grow numb’, the same root that gives us narcotic. The smell of the flower may be anaesthetizing, perhaps – or it may be because the flower is poisonous when eaten (and in large-enough quantities can be fatal). Why not just lie back in a bed of them and become comfortably numb instead. Forget your worries… and all those other people out there who seem to cause them.

Think instead about daffodil. Not Daffy Duck, the spluttering cartoon character who always blamed his problems on those around him (I won’t say he had narcissistic personality disorder, but inability to accept responsibility for negative things goes along with insistence on taking credit for positive things as a key feature of it). That would be a name confusion, whereas daffodil is just, like narcissus, sort of a name confusion.

It goes like this: there is a Greek word, ἀσϕόδελος asfodelos, which is another name for the narcissus and for some similar-looking flowers. You may have heard of asphodels, which are not the same as narcissuseseses. Well, the name attached to the narcissus and came through French and some other languages and landed in English as affodill. But through some mysterious attachment, perhaps from a French d’ carried along, perhaps from a Dutch de attached, perhaps from some English cling-on such as what turned Ed into Ted, it gained a d at the beginning. It may be daffy, but will you, nill you, it will do it.

Subsequently the word asphodel was re-borrowed in unaltered form for a lily-type plant. Just to add to the confusion.

But why be confused? Lie back in the daffodils and think only of yourself, and become numb. Or eat one. Wait, don’t do that; they’re poisonous. But like many things that are poisonous, they also have a medicinal use (the dose makes the poison, you know!). Well, they have several traditional medicinal uses, but there is one prescription drug that is made from one of the alkaloids in it: galantamine. It’s used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Although I suppose a true narcissist would refuse to accept the possibility of needing galantamine. Well, forget about that. Come look at this pond over here.



Trees are the nerve endings of the earth, sensing the sky, and they are the nerve endings of the sky, sensing the earth. In full leaf they are also the two-way circulation system, bringing water and energy from the earth to the air and from the air to the earth. Trees, strictly, are not dendritic; dendritic means ‘branching like a tree’ – nerves, blood vessels, watersheds viewed in reverse, suburban subdivision streets, the consciousness of an incessant rabbit-holing researcher, the deflections and equivocations of many a tender critic, the process of publishing and distributing copies of written works to many people in many places.

To those for whom water is not wet (something is wet if it has water on it and can be dried off; water just is water), trees are not dendritic – although you could argue back that every tree is like a tree, any other tree. And like, not identical. Never mind snowflakes, which are built on a tidy hexagonal crystalline structure; no two trees are alike. But, yes, trees covered in snow are doubly unalike.

I am tempted to say that snow on a tree branch is dendruff. But I should say that dandruff is of uncertain and difficult and probably Germanic origin (I mean the word, not the thing, although…), while dendritic and dendrite and dendron (and thus rhododendron and philodendron and so on) come from Greek δένδρον dendron ‘tree’ and δενδρίτης dendrités ‘of or pertaining to a tree’.

People are dendritic too, in our little motile ways. We have limbs, after all, and at the ends of those limbs are smaller branchings, toes and fingers, feeling their way through the earth and air. The fingertips are fed by arterioles and capillaries and the world is sensed through the nerves, the almost infinitely many little ends of the line yearning for contact, taking any wave that comes to them.

I have sat in a library where at a nearby table people were whispering, and I have held my hand in the air, fingertips forward, to feel the waves of susurrant sibilance washing over. And then have turned them back to the books and the words, themselves the end of a dendritic process of publishing and distribution, and the end of several trees, too.