Category Archives: word tasting notes


I was at a very good party last night. I was barely in the door before I was being acquainted with a gimlet, which turned out to be the drink of the evening. I had heard of it before (probably first in magazine ads in the 1970s) but to my recollection had never had one. Well, I had two last night. A gimlet is made with gin and lime cordial – the bartenders at this party used Bombay Sapphire (Broker’s probably would have been better, or Tanqueray; Bombay is a little delicate) and Rose’s Lime Cordial, plus a little lime juice, a cucumber garnish, and – heretically – a mint leaf. It was nice to have a classic cocktail that was also a relief from the usual drill. It augured well: the party was not boring.

Which was ironic. After all, a gimlet – the thing the drink is named after – is a small hand drill for boring holes. It’s like an auger, but smaller. Once the bit bites in, it keeps digging with each twist, spiraling the wood out as it goes. So it’s sharp and piercing, like the lime juice in the drink and like a look from a squinty eye – a gimlet eye, as they are sometimes called. A gimlet eye is not like being sloe-eyed (which is good, because there is no sloe gin in a gimlet). It’s an eye that may seem to throw down a gauntlet but more likely is just drilling you.

The g on this word, in case you’re not sure, is pronounced “hard” like the one in give, not “soft” like the one in gibe. It comes to us from Old French guimbelet, which is the source of modern French gibelet, which is not to be confused with Old French gibelet, the source of modern French gibelotte and modern English giblet, which has a “soft” g. (This is what you get for drilling down to the giblets.) The source of that Old French guimbelet is also the source of our modern English wimble, which means ‘gimlet’ and is not to be confused with wimple. There is also an unrelated adjective wimble ‘nimble’. Wimbledon is unrelated and it’s not my problem if you find lawn tennis boring.

So anyway, a gimlet – the drink – is for people who want to recast their gin and tonic with lime. Fair enough, since gimlet anagrams to lime GT. It’s maybe more like a lime Tom Collins, though – just replace the lime with lemon and you’re there. (Who was Tom Collins? It’s disputed but most often pointed at an Irish activist of the 1700s. On the other hand, I can tell you that the martini was originally called Martínez.) Now, if you want a different citrus, no need to go off on a tangerine, I mean a tangent; if you’d rather fill holes than make them, just use orange juice in place of the lime cordial – and vodka in place of the gin – and you have a screwdriver.

And, on the other hand, if you decided that the gimlet-eyed person is really sloe-eyed, you can take comfort in that – and complete the assembly – by adding sloe gin and Southern Comfort to your screwdriver and having a drink called a slow comfortable screw. I’m not making this up.

antanaclasis, polyptoton

Imagine lettering these letters on a sheet of letter paper, or articulating them in an article: antanaclasis with its forays of four a’s – see those two articles an an in an article, appearing as is – and polyptoton with its two p’s to tease (and two t’s too), like a pair of polyps until appearing in toto. Such repetition with variation – forms varying as they repeat and repeating as they vary. If you could map them to a map you might imagine an image of Antananarivo, perhaps, or some proximate topology (like the tsingy). But have these word forms landed on the page to inform us about land forms? Is antanaclasis doing its eye-breaking break-dancing to slide in in place of some slide about a landslide? Does polyptoton fall like some fell waterfall, pooling in a pool of manifold loops, so many loopy topoi like so many folds?

In fact, though the results echo by sheer reflex, though the shape reflects that echo and faces you like a sheer rock face, they are not geographic; and though the technique may be rhapsodic – even euphuistic – the technical terms are rock-hard canonical rhetoric, classed more in the classical canon than in hard rock.

Can you sense their sense? Are the above paragraphs sensible or nonsensical? Well, never mind, I’ll ease your mind – or I’ll remind you if you were once mindful of these terms: they refer to related figures in speech and writing.

Antanaclasis comes from Greek ἀντανάκλασις, from ἀντανακλᾶν antanaklan ‘reflect, bend back’, from ἀντί anti ‘against, in the opposite direction’ and ἀνακλᾶν anaklan ‘bend back, break’ (from ἀνα ‘back’ and κλᾶν ‘break’), and it refers to use of a word in multiple meanings: not to find the mean, nor to be mean, but just to mean in more than one way along the way.

Polyptoton comes from Greek πολύπτωτος, which comes from πολυ polu ‘many’ and πτωτος ptótos ‘falling’, and it refers to use of many cases or derived forms of a word: you derive forms by forming derivations to inform your readers formally.

Both of these have been used judiciously by great writers for subtle effect – they are certainly most effective when used subtly. Mind you, antanaclasis is really a way of punning; when Pistol in Shakespeare’s Henry V says “To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal,” he’s using just the same kind of figure as in the joke “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” But polyptoton sounds more rhetorical, more speechy: “The Greeks are strong, and skillful to their strength, Fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant” (Troilus and Cressida, by Shakespeare again).

Anyway, you can figure out whether and how they will figure in to your writing. You may enjoy writing their figures – their repeating loops of a’s and o’s and p’s – or you may find them disfiguring; you may like playing with the play and interplay of that their senses denote, or you may find it a senseless display. It’s up to you.

This late loopy type foray is for a type IVa who has lately closed another loop.

Tuareg, Touareg

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about a Volkswagen midsize luxury SUV, come a little closer. Closer… closer… [cuffs you on the side of the head]

The wilderness-despoiler mass-marketed by VW, and often heard pronounced like “tour-egg” or “tore-egg,” has taken its name from a Saharan nomadic people. It’s like calling a vehicle Apache or Aztec or Basque or, I dunno, Inuvialuit. Touareg because exotic nomadic desert-dwelling blue-veiled people from near Timbuktu!

Well, I’m not writing about SUVs and I’m not going to dwell on the VW swiponym (swiped name) anymore. My motivation for tasting Touareg – more typically spelled Tuareg in English, and properly said /ˈtwɑ rɛg/ – is an email I got in response to yesterday’s tasting on oud. I had mentioned how Arabic music is very good studying and writing music for me (I didn’t mention, because it was off-topic, that Indian ragas are generally even better for that). Jean Rossner emailed me that she had lately discovered another genre that is similarly good for her: Tuareg desert blues. She mentioned three groups who play it: Tinariwen, Tamikrest, and Etran Finatawa.

This is a kind of music with what I immediately recognize as a modern West African style, with a variety of electric and acoustic instruments. If you want to sort out all the different influences and sources, go right ahead. Anyway, here is some of it to start playing while you read the rest of this tasting – and long thereafter. I’ve found a playlist of 15 videos, and an hour-long concert by Tinariwen; there’s plenty more out there too.

Does it sound like blues to you? It doesn’t make use of the blues hexatonic scale, but the songs may have some bluesiness in the lyrics – I actually don’t know; I don’t speak the language. But there’s a pun involved, to be sure: the Tuareg, especially the men, are – as I mentioned above – known for wearing blue veils on their faces, which can even colour their skin.

Their language, now. The Tuaregs are a Berber people, and their language falls into the Berber family, which is part of the Afro-Asiatic phylum, the same broad family that includes Hausa, Somali, Arabic, and Hebrew. (English is part of the Indo-European phylum; so are French, Albanian, Hindi, Russian… There are four language phyla in Africa, or five if you count the invasive Indo-European.) It is a language more spoken than written, but it is written. It is written multiple ways. There is a Latin-based orthography – actually more than one. There is also Arabic-based orthography. And there is the Tifinagh orthography, their own writing system, long reserved for special purposes (magical formulae, writing on the palm to maintain silence) but sometimes now in broader use.

What is Tifinagh? It is an alphabet that has no particular resemblance in form to any other alphabet you’ll find. It is what one might call very geometric – which is kind of silly, because everything using lines on paper is geometric. But in this case it’s using a lot of simple (easily described) geometric forms: squares, circles, crosses, dots. It couldn’t look less like Arabic script if it tried. Have a look at it on Omniglot:

Where does it come from? It’s not certain, but in any case, it came from there a long time ago. It’s probably descended from Phoenician letter forms – Tifinagh may come from Phoenicia, even if it looks like an Irish place name.

Oh, about that final gh: that’s meant to represent a voiced velar fricative, which in the Latin-based orthography for Tuareg is typically written ɣ. So it’s different from the g on the end of Tuareg. But it’s the same as the gh on Imuhagh, which is what the Tuareg actually call themselves.

So where is this word Tuareg from? We’ve had it borrowed into English since the early 1800s. It’s from a Berber word, possibly even a Tuareg word a bit modified, and seems to refer to one of the areas they live in, a part of Libya. At least it’s not an insulting exonym like Eskimo!

It is also, I think, catchy and attractive. It starts with the crisp, sturdy T and ends with the firm snub-nosed g (polysyllabic words that end in eg are exotic in English, but not ostentatiously so); it has that /ware/ or /uare/ in the middle, which may recall ululation, or the African board game wari, and maybe has a taste of wadi or water; there is a little flavour of the middle of Sahara even. It may play to fantasies of the desert, which pulls a little tug within to ask you who you are. Or not. But I think, anyway, it sounds more sandy and attractive to English audiences than Imuhagh. I can’t guarantee that, of course…


This word is not loud. It’s not just that it’s not loud minus a letter; it’s not just that it’s pronounced /u:d/ (the spelling is a French-influenced one; you can also see it as ud); it’s also that what it names is not unusually loud. It can be somewhat loud or very quiet, but you are unlikely to want to stop your ears due to the loudness of the noise it produces.

What is it? It is not some kind of dictionary (like the OED) nor a long-term contraceptive (that’s an IUD). It’s not an acronym at all. Nor is it a centuries-old colloquial way of saying would (you will see ’ould or ’ud, but not oud). It is, according to the OED, an instrument of the lute family. But if you look at the history, you may wonder whether it would be more sensible to call a lute an instrument of the oud family.

It’s not simply that the oud is the more ancient. It’s that lute comes from Arabic al-ʿūd, ‘the oud’. (Where does ʿūd come from? Well, it’s Arabic for ‘wood’, and the instrument is made of wood – and whatever you use for the strings. Some people think the word in this case may have been borrowed from Persian, but that’s not universally agreed).

There are two general kinds of ouds: Turkish and Arabic; the Arabic kind has several sub-types. The main difference, though, is that the Arabic oud is a bit larger than the Turkish oud.

Of course you can play all sorts of things on an oud; it has enough strings, and enough of a range, that you can really play the music of your choice – especially since there are no frets on it, so you can choose your scale. But it’s associated with the music that is normally played on it: Arabic and Turkish music of various kinds. I happen to like this kind of music quite well, and I think it’s very good for reading or studying or writing to. I ought to know – when I was in grad school at Tufts, I spent a lot of time in their music library listening to CDs from all over the world, and Arabic music was one kind I could count on for getting quite a bit done while enjoying what I was hearing. It is – for me – simultaneously relaxing, enjoyable, and mentally stimulating. Sort of like Arabic or Turkish coffee, but without the shakes. (Now I look at oud and I see a small coffee cup – from above o and the side u – and an oud, d.)

Your results may vary, of course. But here are a couple of performances on the oud, one Arabic and one Turkish. If you like them, there are plenty more:

I have this idea to cross the Aeolian harp with the oud, just so I could call it an oud-wind. But I probably won’t.


This word may seem familiar to linguists – familiar but misspelled. To just about everyone else, it probably looks like some made-up expressive or imitative word. But it does have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not marked “archaic” or “obsolete” (though they may just not have revised the entry recently).

I will explain first why it looks familiar to linguists. There are a few ways in casual conversation to quickly smoke out someone with an education in linguistics. One is to see if they pick up on an oblique reference to Noam Chomsky’s sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” grammatically coherent but semantically incoherent. Another way is with a reference to wugs.

Back in 1958, Jean Berko Gleason was doing some research with small children to determine how they learn language. She showed that young children (but not the very youngest) could apply generalizable morphological rules. A most famous example was this: She showed a picture of a vaguely bird-like thing and said, “This is a WUG.” Then she showed a picture of two of them, and said, “Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two________.” And although the children had never seen the word wugs before, they readily inferred that it would be the plural of wug. Without overt encouragement, they knew how to go forward.

But that is a one-g wug. You know that a one-l lama is a priest while a two-l llama is a beast, so you can imagine that a two-g wugg is not a one-g wug. And indeed it is not. In fact, it’s not even a noun. It’s an intransitive verb.

So what do you suppose it means? It sounds like a wet ball landing in a drain, maybe, or some sodden dipsomaniac being aroused abruptly from snoring: “Huh? Wugg? Wugg you wong?” It has a wave of an onset, nothing abrupt, and a blunter stuck ending, but not a crisp one. The double g could make us think of wiggle or nugget or bugger or any of a fair few other words. It also makes me think a bit of walk.

And, actually, I rather wonder whether walk is related. You see, wugg comes from a southern English dialect word used to call a horse. You may call a pig by shoulting “Soo-eee!” but, at least in some parts, you would call a horse with “Wugg!” And you would likewise use the word to encourage it to go forward. “Wugg, you nag!” It could also be used referentially: “Nothing I could do would make that horse wugg.”

So there that is. A little lexical souvenir, a tiny tin horseshoe for the trinket shelf, bound to gather dust… starting now. Because why would you ever have use for it?

But at least you know about wugs. You still won’t pass for a linguist, though, not with just that. The moment someone asks you for some sib you’ll be lost…

You want to know the good linguist in-group stuff? Wugg now, go on, get learning.


Don’t ask me why, but yesterday I had reason to type swive into my iPhone. Now, iPhones have (as you may know) an autocorrect feature that makes up for the general sloppiness of typing on its small touch-screen keyboard; if you didn’t type a word it recognizes, it guesses what word you really wanted to type. For swive it reckoned I really wanted sauce. Hmm…

What is swive? It has that swooshing sw onset… Is it related to swivel? Is it something like swinging? Is it something swine might do? Is there a connection to swinge? Can we make anything of the fact that it sounds like part of housewives?

Well… Yes; In a manner of speaking; Indeed; If you stretch it; and Of course we can, where do you think you are?

One at a time, now. What is swive? It’s a word descended from Old English swifan ‘move in a course, sweep’. This verb is also the source of the noun swivel, something that turns or swings freely from a fixed point, whence also the verb swivel. But swive doesn’t mean ‘swing’ like that. No, it has taken on another meaning. I can think of a similar word that has taken on the same meaning for a second sense: screw. However, while we still use screw in a literal mechanical sense, swive is only ever used (inasmuch as it is used at all) to refer to the act of copulation.

So is swiving like swinging? Well, if you’re a swinger, you may find yourself swiving – other people’s wives or husbands. And, obviously (to address the next question), swine do it, just like birds, bees, and fleas (Ella Fitzgerald tells us that the educated fleas fall in love, but evidence suggests that the uneducated ones at least swive lovelessly).

Is there a connection to swinge? Not an etymological one. Swinge means ‘beat, hit, strike’; there are some slang terms for coitus that avail themselves of this kind of imagery (the verbs boink and bang; the – odious to me – slang expression I’d hit that). Frankly, I’d rather keep the swiving and the swingeing in separate spheres.

Obviously swive is not etymologically related to housewives. But I’m told that there is a “reality TV” franchise, Real Housewives of [fill in name of town here], that sounds like it has quite a focus on swiving – these how-swives certainly know how to swive, at least. And that puts me in mind of a joke. Four women who have just met are talking about themselves. The first says, “I’m a YUPpie – you know, Young Urban Professional.” The second says “We’re DINKs – you know, Double Income, No Kids.” The third giggles and says, “I’m a DILDO – you know, Double Income, Little Dog Owner.” The fourth pours herself more wine and says, “I’m a WIFE – you know, Wash, Iron, F—, Et cetera.”*

Saucy enough?

*Apologies for the censored word, but I know some of my readers would be unduly distracted by the sight of it. Also: In real life, wife comes from Old English wif, ‘woman’, and is not derived from an acronym. Just in case there was any question.


Oh, you sad scraper, scruting some screed scribbled by a scruffy scribe, be it scrubbed on your screen or scrawled in scrimped script on a scroll, or scratched like scrimshaw: so much lexical scree to scramble through, you could just screech. Can a scrupulous scrutator scrounge some scrap of sense from it, or should you just tell the scoundrel to scrute themself?

Scrute? And why not? We have scrutiny and scrutineer and scrutinize, with that in in, but we also have scrutate, and we have inscrutable and also (yes) scrutable. And they all trace back to Latin scrutari ‘examine, scrutinize’. It, in turn, apparently comes from scruta ‘old or broken stuff, trash, frippery, trumpery’ (per OED). Which means that the source sense of scrutiny and all the other scrut words is rag-picking. Digging through the detritus, scraping and scrabbling in the scraps and scree. Scruting.

And yes, scrute is in the dictionary. OK, OK, it’s in the OED, marked with an obelisk, attested with a single citation from 1536. But look – search it in Google Books or where you will – it does get used. True, it is often referring back, ostensibly wittily, to inscrutable, but that doesn’t revoke its word status. And yes, many of the usages you will find are French – scruter is a French word meaning (yes) ‘scrutinize’, so je scrute, tu scrutes, il scrute, elle scrute, nous scrutons, vous scrutez, ils scrutent. But so what? It is also used in English.

It’s a nice, grabby, short word. It has the same scr onset, which shows up on words to do with contracting, grasping, detritus, and writing (among others); it’s a multivalent phonaestheme. The ute gives a rhyme with loot, boot, chute, and various others, but here its high tight round back sound works nicely with the claws and drawstrings of scr. Some speakers may even hear a couple of naughty echoes. It sticks nicely in the mind.

Scrute the record all you want; screw your perspicacity to the sticking point. The word, whether it be backformation or scrupulous Latinate derivation, is out there, and it is clear and sensible and, at least for the moment, a bit brisk and witty. If we prefer the cogent, surely a shorter form is superior. If you insist that we must instead say scrutinize, I invite you to go scrute yourself and your assumptions.