Category Archives: word tasting notes

whether

The life of the language maven can be weathering, even withering. When someone asks whether this or that is acceptable, should you be a weathercock, turning with the times? Or a weatherman, predicting the future? Or a bellwether, leading the flock?

Over the weekend, I got the following as a comment from Paula Tohline Calhoun on my tasting of however:

I have a question for you. I have been instructed on more than one occasion that the use of the word “whether” should never be accompanied with “or not.” The reason is that it would be redundant, because the “or not” is implied in the word “whether.” Is this a general rule, and are there exceptions, such as the phrase you used in the article above, “Most of those who had been writing were no longer certain whether to write or not.”

My short answer was as follows:

If your goal in writing is always to use as few words as possible, the “or not” is not necessary. However, the minimal use of words is not always the most important goal in writing, and sometimes it’s actually counterproductive. Restatements and emphasis of what is already implied are sometimes quite useful for the flow of the text. Using more words than the most economical phrasing possible is not an error or a grammatical fault, although it can be a flaw – but using too few words can also be a flaw if it makes the prose too choppy or abrupt, or too severe in tone, or insufficiently evocative.

But wait, there’s more. Consider the following quotations (all provided handily by the Oxford English Dictionary):

Whether this be, Or be not, I’le not sweare. —The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Thou shalt remaine here, whether thou wilt or no. —A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no. —Letters, Percy Bysshe Shelley

What matters whether or no I make my way in life. —Henry Esmond, William Makepeace Thackeray

And then consider these:

whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s —Bible, King James Version

For Loyalty is still the same, Whether it win or lose the Game. —Hudibras, Samuel Butler

I knew he would act a good part whether he rose or fell. —Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith

That Reason which remains always one and the same, whether it speaks through this or that person. —The Friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It implies alternatives, but sometimes the choice is not between opposites but just between a field that has been limited to two: “I’m not sure whether to get the green ones or the red ones.” “It will upset him, but I don’t know whether it will make him angry or sad.” “I really don’t care whether we have steak or fish for dinner, as long as it’s not chicken.” So whether doesn’t always imply a simple yes-or-no choice.

We’ve had the word since forever, of course. And for a long time, one of its available uses was as a pronoun, like which or whichever: “Whether do you want, this or that?” “Whether of the two will it be?” “I don’t care whether of them you choose.” “Pour it into a mug or a cup, whether you have.” It was also sometimes an interrogative particle that would seem superfluous to us now: “Whether does it work better this way or that?” “Whether is it necessary?” But these usages didn’t survive quite to our times, though some lasted into the 1800s. What we have kept is the conjunction that signals a choice between two things. Sometimes those things are both named, and sometimes only one is named and the other is by implication the opposite or the absence of the one.

So we can see that the practice of including the or not with the whether is time honoured and draws on usages where both options must be named. The issue remaining is whether it’s bad to include the or not, and if not, why not. As I have said, it’s not an error. Superfluity often makes for poor writing, but it is not ungrammatical; indeed, sometimes it is a good idea. Consider this well-known passage spoken by Winston Churchill:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

You could certainly tidy that up to this:

We shall fight hard everywhere to defend England without surrendering.

I just don’t think you should, and I will fight you on the pages and on the websites, on Twitter and on Facebook if you do. While I do not wish to foster bombast and prolixity, I do think we should resist at all costs a totalitarian regime of textual concision. Sometimes your text demands that you put in those extra words, whether you think you should.

Or not.

sessionable

Although I am not a compulsive camp-follower of the fashionable, I do like interesting beers. I am not always as charmed by some of the precious vocabulary surrounding them – in-group usages for which the impressionable are insatiable. Just like the much-beloved and varied hops, there is a reason for their being there, but too much can leave an unpleasant taste.

In recent years there have been beers called session ales. Never on the bottle or can do they explain what this means; you are expected to pick it up or figure it out somehow, just as you are expected to know what kind of beer a saison and an IPA are. (Linguists often lean towards IPAs just because IPA also stands for International Phonetic Alphabet, but the kind of beer – India Pale Ale is its full name – is a bit bitter for some.) Well, fine, one learns about these things. But then I started noticing beers that were not labelled session ale but were described as sessionable.

Well, now, what does that mean, then? That you can do whatever it is you do to a beer to make a session ale? Or that session ales are so called because they are sessionable? How exactly do you session a beer? Or do you session with a beer? I mean, a saison is seasonable, and an IPA is I-pee-able, but how do you session?

Oh, we can make –able adjectives with nouns; saleable and marriageable are two good examples. I suppose for a Zen Buddhist a good but knotty koan is sesshinable. (A sesshin is a multi-day meditation spree – not necessarily binge thinking but perhaps something of a mind bender.) So if you can make a sale with something saleable, you can make a session with something sessionable. Fine, then. What the heck is a session in this context?

A session, as it turns out, is – or at least shades into – what some crypto-prohibitionist literature calls a binge: several drinks in one sitting. (In the time and place I grew up, you called it a binge if it lasted several days, but apparently now if you go to a five-hour party and have five drinks, you have been on a binge. I do not think this is a very sensible and usable extension of the meaning.) The point is not that a sessionable beer is one that will keep you drinking it – sessionable is not a synonym for moreish. It’s that a sessionable beer is one that you can have several of in one sitting and not be blitzed. (Session does come from Latin for ‘sit’, after all. Not from Latin for ‘fall off your chair’.)

In other words, sessionable is another word for weak. Or, um, low-ABV, if you want to use more in-group terminology. (ABV is alcohol by volume. You know, as opposed to alcohol by weight, the other way of measuring it. Though low ABV is also low ABW, and honestly, the BV doesn’t really add anything except the ability to make a TLI – three-letter initialism – thereby allowing you to sound all technical and knowledgeable and stuff.)

So calling a weak beer sessionable is like calling some snack food dinnerable or (as has been seen) lunchable because it’s supposedly not so unhealthy that you can’t just eat your fill of it. But the intention is more like calling a song singable because you won’t hurt your voice or make a fool of yourself or get bored singing it. Stick with this beer and you’ll be able to drink all evening without having to be dragged out. It’s bingeable without being shitfaceable. If you have an insatiable thirst but are out with someone impressionable, go with the sessionable. That way you won’t end up in an intercessionable state.

ecdysis, ecdysiast

Summer is indeed here! (And a little “sorry” on the side for my readers in New Zealand and Australia.) Unless the day is insufficiently sultry, you can expect an general exodus to the exterior, especially the sandy strand but also the concrete edge of the pool, for a general ecstasy of ecdysis. When chocolate, ice cream, and perhaps even people are quickly molten, it’s time for moulting.

This is not to say that beachgoers are the ones typically intended by the term ecdysiast. That’s normally reserved for those whose stripping is meant to tease – and is done indoors, in contexts more figuratively than literally sultry. The word was introduced into English for just that purpose, by H.L. Mencken in 1940, in a supplement to The American Language: “It might be a good idea to relate strip-teasing in some way … to the associated zoölogical phenomenon of molting… A resort to the scientific name for molting, which is ecdysis, produces both ecdysist and ecdysiast.” The latter, which has come to be the preferred word, is pronounced like “eck dizzy assed,” and I suppose some dizziness of the ass may come from twerking or swinging on the pole, but I would not want this word to be thought of as derogatory. Indeed, it seems more enthusiastic if anything.

Ecdysis, on the other hand, is pronounced like “eck da sis.” It comes (since 1867 in English) straight from Greek ἔκδυσις ekdusis, which is from the verb ἐκδύειν ekduein ‘put off’. It refers to moulting, but principally to sloughing not feathers but cuticle (as with crustaceans) or dead skin (as with caterpillars and snakes). This is a suitable simile in the summer season: peel off your winter clothes, and your indoor clothes, and hit the swelter in your fresh skin – probably clad in a bathing suit, but whatever. If you happen to be where complete disattirement (not to say excoriation) is allowable, doffing your togs down to the epidermis does not make you an ecdysiast unless you do it gradually for an appreciative audience – or, I suppose, even one that is put off by your putting off. But it is, I would say, ecdysis: the annual self-revelation, the ecstasy of exposure. After all, ecdysis does rather sound like ecstasis, from ἔκστασις ekstasis, ‘standing out’ or ‘placing outside’, from ἐκ ek ‘out’ and ἱστάναι histanai (verb) ‘place’.

So place yourself outside! Stand out! Slough your old skins! No need to strip altogether if you don’t want; just desist from your extra clothing. No one needs an anorak in the summer.

sultry

The sultry season: the sun’s sweltering assault and the incessant insult of the sweaty thick air. Your skin drips and your lips are salty; you are swimming and your fingers seem as sultanas. Unless you are a sultan, you are likely to become sulky and sullen… and truly thirsty.

Or, if you follow Noel Coward, you could be a mad dog or an Englishman and survive. Coward’s jaunty (and somewhat racist) song glorifying the oblivious hardiness of the pasty imperialists has this stanza:

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire to take their clothes off and perspire.
It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is far too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray.

Truth be told, I find the word sultry almost too alluring in that context. Although it refers to heat, and by typical implication humidity too, it has overtones lacking in, for instance, sweltering. That word has a welter of heat in it and a strong sense of sweat. Sultry, on the other hand, though it has such negative echoes as sullen, sulk, and insult, somehow has something silky in it too. It has come to be used figuratively in reference to sexual allure, especially feminine and especially in specific performative aspects. The most common word seen in the company of sultry is voice – speaking, singing, growling, murmuring, what have you: it is a voice that will make you sweat. There are also sultry eyes. And there are sultry days, afternoons, nights, scenes of languor and of lust.

The attribution to a sensuous siren is a recent one – less than a century old in this kind of use. References to passions and lusts go much farther back, as we may expect: to the 1600s, not long after the word first appeared. But even in the poetry of the 1800s the references are nearly all literal or barely extended: sultry dawn, sultry day, sultry mead, sultry breeze, sultry silence, sultry scents, sultry leagues of tropic seas, sultry stars of summer, sultry passion-flowers, sultry wings, a sultry, yellow sky, and much sultry heat.

Sultry is heavy, hot, sweaty, yes, but somehow almost alluringly so, at least sometimes. It is an ulterior sweltry. Quite literally, in fact. Sultry comes from sulter, which is an alternate form of swelter, which gives us sweltering and sweltry. And where does swelter come from? It is an old word, one that has always been in the language, but at first it referred not to heat, nor just to fading away from heat. Here it is in the third verse of the third chapter of Genesis, in Old English:

and of ðæs treowes wæstme þe is onmiddan neorxnawange, God bebead us ðæt we ne æton, ne we ðæt treow ne hrepodon, ði læs ðe we swelton.

Do you see it? The last word, swelton. Here is what the above means:

and of the tree’s fruit that is in the middle of Paradise, God commanded us that we not eat, nor that we touch the tree, lest we die.

So we see from the story of the creation of the world how the word has evolved, in its form and in its sense: Die. Evanesce. Fade away. Then fade away from hunger, from heat. Then experience the heat. Then be the heat. Then be hot. But from the first to the last, it is wrapped up in fatal desire…

harpy

The first time I saw this word, context told me it was referring to a celestial being, so I assumed that it was some magnificent angel with a harp. Until it became clear that it was not. At all. It didn’t take long. The realization was like that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A harpy does not carry a harp. And, in the original, it does not harp on about things. It just shows up and deals horrible punishment. This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A fabulous monster, rapacious and filthy, having a woman’s face and body and a bird’s wings and claws, and supposed to act as a minister of divine vengeance.” More generally, as applied to people, it describes not someone acting as an agent of righteous retribution but simply a vicious, predatory person.

Or, in commonest use, a belligerent, captious, verbally abrasive woman. The kind who won’t stop harping on about things. Often, in fiction, an ex-wife, or an ex-girlfriend, or a mother-in-law, or someone’s sister or aunt.

Yes, a common usage of this word is inescapably misogynistic. The original beast had a woman’s face, so you may say that’s just how it is, but do stop to wonder why it didn’t have a man’s face, and whether it would have been given a different character if it did. What, in fact, is our equivalent word for a man? I mean, I don’t want to harp on about this, but…

Oh, and while the ‘go on and on about something’ sense of harp has quite evidently helped shape the current usage of this word, the instrument harp and the beast harpy really are not related. The musical instrument’s name comes from an old Germanic root. The nasty celestial being, on the other hand, comes to us by way of Latin harpyia, usually seen in the plural harpyiæ; that is taken (as the y strongly hints) from Greek, in this case ἅρπῡιαι harpuiai ‘snatchers’, which have actually been different things in different myths: personifications of winds and storms in Homer, goddesses in Hesiod, and later on the winged creatures, which carried people and things off, such as the souls of the dead to Hades.

Snatchers? That sounds rapacious. Could we imagine the harpy is a raptor? We could – in particular if we refer to the harpy eagle, which is an eagle of the Americas, larger than the golden eagle. It’s named after the mythical beast, reasonably enough. Your soul may be safe around it, but your cat probably isn’t.

plutocracy

In the most recent news cycle, much of our attention has been ruled by a distant object, a body entirely beyond the reach of the simple citizens of Earth, cold, presenting a surface with an odd combination of smoothness and roughness but undented by the usual expected projectiles, a body that might appear to have a heart but of course we know it is just an icy illusion, a body drawn to our attention by a fantastically expensive endeavour…

But enough about Donald Trump and his presidential bid. I’d rather read about the Pluto formerly known as a planet. It truly is amazing to me that while we have all learned about the “ninth planet” since our childhoods, only now is it being seen in any surface detail at all. And it is fascinating – see for yourself.

We can, of course, go about our lives quite happily without directly concerning ourselves with Pluto, fascinating as it may be to at least some of us. But we cannot go through our lives without being affected by plutocracy: rule by the rich.

Donald Trump is slightly unusual in the openness of his plutocratic philosophy. Most US presidential candidates are rich, but even the rich ones try to pretend to have the view of a common person, at least when talking to general audiences (some of them have been caught making more plutocratic comments to audiences they assumed were entirely well moneyed – hey, who let the help have recording devices?). But there is a common assumption, often followed even when overtly denied, that people with money are more virtuous or at least more worth listening to. After all, we learned in our youth that you get money by working, so those who have more money have worked harder and smarter and must thus be worth following (and perhaps one of these stars will throw some money our way as they pass nearby too, no?).

This turns out not to be altogether reliably the case. The way you get to have a lot of money is by finding the most efficient means of accumulating more of it. Once you come to have a certain amount (by work, cunning, luck, or inheritance), you can use that to give you a considerable advantage in further accumulation. Those of us who play poker know that if you have a big stack of chips you can make big bets that will bully many of the people with shorter stacks off the table, and even if you lose one or two hands a stack advantage tends to compound itself unless you get reckless and fritter it away. And many of us in the working world have noticed that a company with a big bottom line can use it to squeeze out smaller companies. Beyond that, though, the way they get all that money is simply by extracting value disproportionate to their investment of time, money, and effort.

This is true for everything at root: the sun constantly sends us energy that drives a renewing cycle of growth; without it we would not have plant life, which gives us food (and the food that eats that food, i.e., meat) and, over much longer periods, such things as petroleum, which we are currently extracting faster than it is being made (see above about reckless gamblers). We would be as cold and lifeless as Pluto if we did not have the abundant free heat and light of our nearby star. Similarly, in the world of business, you as a company owner are able to increase your wealth by taking a share of the value created by your employees. A person like Donald Trump does not have billions because he works a million times as hard as a person who has thousands. He has billions because he has found ways to take a goodly cut of the value created by millions of people. Those people have thousands because they do not get the full value of their own efforts, and they don’t get all that much of a cut of the value of anyone else’s efforts either.

Well, that’s how the system works. It has been popular, too, and not without reason. We have created laws to help keep the most egregious ways of extracting values from others from happening too much. People such as Donald Trump manage to keep their businesses generally legal, or anyway not to get caught and punished for doing illegal things. But in the eyes of many, there is only an artificial line between a plutocrat such as Trump and some lord of the underworld.

Hmm. Pluto was the lord of the Underworld. So why would not plutocrats be lords of the underworld?

Ha ha. That pun works in English because we don’t have contrastive vowel length between the two roots. It keeps us from telling two things apart that seem similar but actually have nothing in common other than coincidence. On the one hand is classical Latin Plūtō (they didn’t write the macrons, but we do to keep track of which vowels are long), which comes from ancient Greek Πλούτων. He’s the brother of Jupiter and Neptune and is the god of the underworld (by the way, to fill in the planets, Uranus was a Titan, but Titan is a moon of Saturn, who was a god; the gods are descended from the Titans, but… oh, never mind). On the other hand is πλοῦτος, Greek for ‘wealth’. Note the difference between ω, which is omega (meaning ‘big o’), and ο, which is omicron (meaning ‘small o’). The former is long; the latter, short. Also note that the accent mark is different between ού and οῦ – an intonation difference that is made now only by classicists, and not them always either.

So there is no more connection between Pluto and plutocrats, really, than between people who gain political influence by being able to pay to look like they care and those who gain it by actually caring (I think there are some), or between government of the people by the rich people for the rich people and government of the people by representatives of all the people for all the people. Or between the planet Pluto and the Disney dog Pluto. Or, for that matter, between the dog Pluto and that other dog, Goofy.

How does that happen, now, that they’re both dogs, but Goofy gets a voice while Pluto just barks? Hm. Well, I’d rather listen to someone who makes some kind of sense, however goofy, than someone who just makes noises for attention.

chert

Sing to me, muse, of silicon dioxide,
of flint, of jasper, of agate, of onyx;
sing now of opal, of quartz and chalcedony.
Shiver a sharp-edged carol to chert.

Sing of its greys, its browns and its reds,
its greens and its blacks, its solids and stripes;
sing of its beds, its diatom sediments,
sing of its nodules in lime, chalk, and marl.

Let now this chert be my teacher, my razor:
conchoidal fractures will bless it with edges.
Strike it to break it and strike it to spark it:
arrows for hunting and fire to start cooking.

Chert for creation, chert for destruction,
cher for my dear, and черт for my devil,
harder than teeth, than steel, than spite,
holder of fossils and cut-off remembrance.

Local to Kent, this word without tracings,
found round the world and used through the ages,
red edged for hunters in times lost to words,
red underlined in my Microsoft Word.

Chert is a flint, or flint is a chert,
or chert here and flint there, or no line to draw:
gravel and gemstones and axes and headstones,
fire and earth rock, microcrystalline muse.