Category Archives: word tasting notes

smilax, sarsaparilla

Sometimes life seems like an impenetrable thicket of brambles. The more you try to push through, the more scratched up you get, and at the end of your efforts you don’t get what you want and you get what you don’t want. What is left for you? Smilax. Vegetate with sarsaparilla.

Smilax. Does that look like a portmanteau for smile and relax? That’s how you say it – there’s nothing tricky about the pronunciation. I suppose you could smile and relax with smilax, but that’s not what it means. It also doesn’t mean ‘smile and use an ax’, though you could do that with smilax. But it would be the smilax that you’re smiting with the ax: it’s a dense briery plant, in fact a whole genus of them. If you want to get to the root of the problem, though, eradicate it – e ‘out, from’ radic ‘root’ ate: pull it out by the roots. And then you may get to the sarasaparilla, if you take roots and make root beer.

Yes, Smilax is a genus with more than 300 species, and they’re all ornery little shrubs, the botanical equivalent of that dreadful project you’re stuck with at work. They include greenbriers, catbriers, prickly-ivys, various plants just called smilaxes, and sarsaparilla. What’s sarsaparilla, aside from a kind of smilax? It’s the plant whose roots give much of the flavour to root beer. Sometimes you’ll see root beer called sarsaparilla.

Kind of a classic-looking name, isn’t it, sarsaparilla? It seems to me to be a cross between a laid-back Southern something-or-other and a truculent simian or towering Japanese lizard. But it’s soft and liquid with a little pop, an ideal name for a carbonated beverage. You might be more energized by the sight of the Spanish version: zarzaparilla. It means ‘little brambly grapevine’: zarza ‘bramble’ and parilla ‘little grapevine’. Does that zarza look familiar? Yes, it’s the same one that shows up in Zarzuela, which is named after a place that’s named after brambles. And where does this zarza word come from? Basque sartzia.

Fair enough. Many are the days one may wish to lie back and bask in the sun with a glass of sarsaparilla and just… smilax. And think of what might have been. Which might have been Smilax.

Smilax, you see, was the name of a nymph: Σμῖλαξ. She was the object of unrequited love by a human youth. He pined for her, but his love was not evergreen; in the end it did not flower, but he did: he was turned into a flower that bears his name. He was Κρόκος; we know him as Crocus. And Smilax, the poor lass, was also turned into a plant, all because she wouldn’t Netflix and chill (or IMAX and climax). But she wasn’t turned into what we call smilax. She was turned into bindweed, a flowering vine. That’s what the Greeks called σμῖλαξ. Somehow more recent botanists managed to switch the name over to a less friendly, albeit tastier, plant.

Poor nymph. Just minding her own business when some random dude she couldn’t care less about develops a thing for her, and next thing she knows, she’s turned into a plant, just because she was pretty. And then she doesn’t even get to keep her name! Think about her next time you think you have troubles. A briery thicket? Pah. It’s nothing. Have a glass of root beer. And as you sip your sarsaparilla, raise it in memory of Smilax.

discreet, discrete

If you do not use your discretion in keeping words discrete, your lack of discernment may result in indiscretion – and it won’t be discreet.

Let’s be honest: discrete and discreet seem like the sort of word pair that just exist to be a sand trap in the golf course of the language, don’t they? They’re pronounced the same way and they have related meanings. But if you mix up the two, someone is sure to hold it up as evidence of a woeful lack of education. The English language is like a secret society where there’s a new password at every door, and sooner or later you’ll get one of them wrong and be stripped of your disguise and your power – your discretion and your discretion. And those who get it right will mock you indiscreetly. (Come to think of it, it’s more like an elementary-school secret club, isn’t it?)

Let’s start with the difference between the two words. One means ‘separate, distinct’, and it keeps its two e’s separate with the t: discrete. The other means ‘unobtrusive, prudent, secret or good at keeping a secret’, and it keeps both e’s hidden behind the t: discreet. So you see that the spelling suits them to a t and, remembering that, you can spell them with e’s. I mean ease.

But how did these words come to be so similar? Indeed, the noun form of the one is discretion and of the other is discretion. Which is to say there is no way to keep them discrete.

The reason for this is that they were originally the same word. The Latin source is discretus, which comes from the past participle of discernere, which is dis ‘apart’ plus cernere ‘decide, separate’. So if keeping things discrete and keeping things discreet both require discernment, now you know why. The connection between distinction and secrecy comes through prudence: knowing what’s what.

The two words were kidnapped into English in the late 1300s as one word with the two senses already in use. The spelling shifted around for the next couple of centuries as all English spelling did – discreyt, disgret, dyscrete, discreate, discrite, dyscrete, discreete – but it was only in the late 1500s that the spellings became discrete. English users sensed that there were two senses and thought it sensible to keep one for one and the other for the other. And so, almost discreetly – certainly it’s still difficult for many to see the difference – they became discrete.


When I was a kid, we sometimes did long car trips. We would pass through city after city and state after state (provinces, too, but not as much) on the kind of itinerary normally plied just by those who drive rigs. One thing that stood out to me when we passed through capital cities was that their capitol buildings tended to have green domes. I don’t mean a verdant green; more of a turquoise. I just assumed, being a kid, that this was something that went with important architecture. I had no idea that they were once bright, shiny, and copper-coloured.

Copper-coloured because, of course, copper. What colour does copper rust to? Green – that turquoise-y green. You will see it on other formal things: pennies, of course, though regular handling keeps if off most of them, but larger declarations of worth too, such as plaques and church steeples:

This green patina is verdigris. The state house domes were green because they were covered in a fair degree of verdigris.

Oops. Was that meant to be a wordplay? Fair degree and verdigris? The problem is this: the word is properly said like “verdigriss.” Hmm. The word looks like French, no? Yes. But it’s not directly borrowed, spelling, pronunciation, and all. It has changed and acquired a patina over the years, and is vulnerable to being reinterpreted through misconstrual.

Wouldn’t be the first time, though. Its French forms go back through history: modern vert-de-gris, which has a related adjective form vert-de-grise meaning ‘greyish green’ or ‘green of grey’ because that’s what it literally means, and it does look like that too; 14th-century vert de grice; 13th-century verte grez; and back to 12th-century vert de Grece: ‘green of Greece’. Yep, Greek green; the Latin equivalent is viride Graecum. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “the terminal syllable at an early date was no longer understood and hence underwent various corruptions of spelling and pronunciation.”

Various? Here are some of the spellings it’s had since it showed up in English: verdegrez, verdegreys, verdegrease, verdegreece, verdygresse, verdygrace, verdegrise, and, somehow, vargrasse. Well, what the heck, it was used for grass in some paintings.

Paintings? Yes, verdigris is seen in paintings as well as patinas; it used to be used as a pigment. But just when you want to rely on it, it turns out that it changes. Well, it goes from turquoise to a truly verdant green over about a month, which is good. But then it can keep changing. It holds its colour in oil, but not in other media, and if the pigment is made by boiling verdigris in a resin, it can turn brown even in oil paints. I’d like to quote Wikipedia on this, for reasons that will soon be apparent:

This degradation is to blame for the brown or bronze color of grass or foliage in many old paintings, although not typically those of the “Flemish primitive” painters such as Jan van Eyck, who often used normal verdigris.

So they painted the grass and leaves green, but, like the real thing, they went brown in time.

But not van Eyck. Who was van Eyck? Here, I happen to have a photo of his statue in Brugge:

There you have it: appositely (not ironically; iron rusts red) colourfasted into nobility by verdigris, changed by time like a word.


How can you tell a photo from a telephoto lens?

You… can’t, actually. You can spot some photos that are almost certainly not from a telephoto lens, and you can spot some that very likely are from a telephoto lens. But the thing that makes a telephoto lens a telephoto lens is not discernible in a photograph.

For those of my readers who are not notably enthusiastic about or well versed in photography, let me say first that any lens that is a telephoto lens is a lens with a relatively long focal length – but (and this will surprise some camera buffs too) the converse is not true.

What is focal length? Imagine looking through a cardboard tube from a toilet paper roll or a paper towel roll or a wrapping paper roll. The longer the tube is, the narrower the angle of view at the other end. Camera lenses are like that, except that whatever you see at the other end fills the whole picture, no matter how long the lens. Perspective narrows. So long lenses make far-away things look closer because they enlarge them. But they also compress perspective: buildings at different distances can look like photos stacked together.

What is long, by the way? If you’re using a 35 mm film camera (named after the width of the film, not any lens), or its digital equivalent, a “full-frame” sensor, a “normal” lens has a focal length of 40 to 50 millimetres (50 is the usual standard length). Anything shorter than that is at least a bit “wide” and anything longer than that is at least a little “long.” 85 mm is a “portrait” lens (good for taking head shots of people because their features are not distorted by perspective and because the background is blurred out a bit – oh, no, I am not going into depth of field today), and real “long” lenses start at 100 mm or so and go on quite far, increasing in price as they go (there are other factors that also increase the price and no, I’m not digressing into them today). Smaller sensors or film will have a correspondingly shorter focal length for the same angle of view, and longer ones (medium and large format) will have longer focal lengths.

I’m going to give an illustration of all this below.

Since you’re reading this, you’re probably a word buff, and that means you almost certainly recognize tele and photo. That’s tele from Greek meaning ‘far’, as seen in television, and photo from Greek meaning ‘light’ as in… oh, come on, you know as in what. If you’re a photography buff, you may well think of telephoto as another way of saying ‘long’ as in ‘long lens’ because long lenses let you see far-away things better, like a telescope. But it’s not. It’s really a way of designing a lens so that the light paths telescope in, so to speak. That is, the lens acts like it’s longer than it really is. It might be a lens with a 135 mm focal length that’s physically less than 130 mm from front to film (or sensor). Considering that focal length is nominally the distance to the back of the glass in the lens, not the front, you can see that this lens is somewhat shorter than a simple design would make it.

So if you’re in a camera store and someone’s trying to sell you a lens that’s comparatively long, and they keep calling it a telephoto lens, should you point out that not all long lenses are telephoto lenses? No, you should not. They probably know that, and anyway, nearly all modern long lenses are telephoto lenses, because why have a lens that’s physically larger than it has to be? Telephoto lens designs have been around since the late 1800s. So unless you’re buying a lens for a bellows-based camera (a large-format camera or certain medium-format cameras), the salesperson is not wrong. And what do you care about anyway? Taking pictures you like or making sure everyone knows you know the exact meaning of something?

Now. That was the words part. Here’s the photo part. I took a few photos out my bedroom window tonight with three different lenses. Here are the lenses.


The one on the left is a 20 mm lens. Since my camera has a “four thirds” format sensor, which is smaller than a full-frame sensor and so cuts down the angle of view in the picture, this lens has about the same angle of view as a 40 mm lens on a full-frame camera would. The middle lens is that 135 mm lens I was talking about above. When I put it on my camera, it’s like having a 270 mm lens on a full-frame camera. The one on the right is a 350 mm lens, and yes, it’s telephoto too. There’s only so much you can do with the materials available to make the lens shorter. It has an angle of view like a 700 mm lens on a full-frame camera.

How long is 700 mm? About 2 feet 4 inches. What angle of view is that? Well… Here are some pictures taken using that 350 mm lens.

Here are some pictures of the same subjects taken with the 135 mm lens.

And here is a picture of the whole scene taken with that 20 mm lens. It all fits in the one shot, with so much more.

Obviously not a telephoto design. But also, because this is a mirrorless camera, not a retrofocus either. A what? …Never mind.


On Tuesday night, I was at a reception hosted by the Literary Review of Canada (of which I have been the designer for more than 15 years), and I had the chance to chat with Andrew Coyne, a fairly well known political commentator. I particularly liked one thing he said: Radical and extremist are not the same thing. Bernie Sanders is a radical but he’s not an extremist. Donald Trump is an extremist but he’s not particularly radical.

We have ideas about what a radical is, who is radical, what is radical, and so forth. When I was young, radicals were “wild-eyed,” and you would have a mental image of some young communist or anarchist with hair like a basket of deep-fried exclamation marks, eyes like devilled quail eggs with olives, and the personal hygiene habits of an indolent hippopotamus, and he (or occasionally she) would be waving and shouting and maybe tossing a bomb or something. These days you’re more likely to see it with “Islamic” or “cleric,” or occasionally “feminist.” It tends to be used as a way of othering people, casting them into an irrational role. It implies that the person is about as peppery as a radish and hell-bent on eradicating civil society. Many people are strongly resistant to proposals that they make fundamental changes to their ways of living. And radicals are always exponents of fundamental change. So, in defence of their comfort, people cast radicals as ridiculous extremists.

Hmm. Fundamental change versus radical change – do you notice the difference in tone? If your CEO says “We’re going to have to make some fundamental changes,” that means the basic ways of doing things will have to change, but it will be done in an authoritative, considered way. If your CEO says “We’re going to have to make some radical changes,” it will probably give more of an idea of suddenly jerking the steering wheel and going off road. It also probably means you have a new, likely younger, CEO. Fundamental change doesn’t always take you out of your comfort zone. Radical change seems to require going out of your comfort zone. And yet… leaving aside the difference in tone and implication, how would you define the difference in denotation?

Meanwhile, there are other uses of radical. Free radical, for instance (at the beginning of Never Say Never Again, M tells 007 he needs to go for a health cure; Miss Moneypenny asks him what his next assignment is, and he says “I am to eliminate all free radicals”). Whatever those are, they must be very bad, like little wild-haired bomb-tossing anarchists in your blood, right? And then there’s radical mastectomy, which is the biggest, baddest kind of boob removal, for women whose breast cancer is no small thing. On the other hand, there’s also the shortened form rad, as in Totally rad, dude, which shifts the sense from the bad kind of ‘wild’ to the good kind. And there are other uses, such as in Chinese orthography, where the basic characters (of which there are some 400) that are combined to make other characters are called radicals.

And there’s this: √. That’s not a check-mark; it’s the thing you use to indicate a square root (or, with a superscript number in the notch, some other kind of root). It’s called the radical sign. When you first encounter that term, you may wonder if it’s because of its rakish tilt. But no. It’s time to get to the root of what radical really is.

Radical is an Anglicization of Latin radicalis, which is derived from the root radix. Radix is not just a root; it means ‘root’. It’s the source of our word radish. When we speak of eradicating something, the original image is pulling it up by the roots – removing the whole plant, in other words.

So everything that is radical has to do with roots (well, except when someone is using the term more loosely to mean “wild” because they don’t know its origin). Political radicals want change from – or to – the roots. Fundamental change. As Bernie Sanders shows, it does not have to be extremist; heads do not have to roll. And (though Sanders is no example for this) their hair can be quite tidy, right down to the roots.

Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that are highly reactive and ready to form bigger molecules – and may cause damage in doing so. A radical mastectomy removes a breast by the roots, muscles and all. Chinese radical characters are the roots, the basic forms. And the radical sign signifies a root – square root, or, with the necessary exponent, some other kind of root.

You know what I mean by exponent, right? If I put x2, the superscript 2 is the exponent. It says to what power the number is raised. It just so happens that you can express the root of a number without using a radical sign. You just use a fractional exponent. The square root of x, which you can write as √x, can also be written as x½. So a radical is a fractional exponent.

Just incidentally, x0 is always equal to 1, regardless of x – if you’re looking out for number one, you’re not going to be a radical or an exponent of anything, really. Also, if the exponent is a negative number, it means the reciprocal of the positive – that is to say, x–3 is the same as 1/x3. And x–½ is the same as 1/√x. It’s easy to get confused between fractional exponents and negative ones, but it’s worth remembering: negative exponents always want to divide, but radicals are not always negative exponents. Some radicals are exponents of quite positive things – change for the better.


Today has been Rabbie Burns Day, the 257th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the poet. I did not have haggis (my wife can’t abide it), but I’m having a wee (or not-so-wee) dram of Scotch as I write this. I’m celebrating, but more about that anon. I’d like to toast dear Rabbie with a toast that was probably written after he was under the turf: Here’s tae us! Wha’s like us? Gey few, and they’re a’ deid!

This is best translated into standard English as “Here’s to us! Who’s like us? Damn few, and they’re all dead!” But gey does not mean ‘damn’. It means ‘very’ or ‘rather’ or ‘pretty’ (in the intensifier sense). Gey few means ‘rather few’ or ‘a good few’.

This is Scots English, of which there is more than one variety. I don’t have any books on the Ayrshire dialect of which Burns was a native speaker (and anyway he was a native speaker of the 18th-century variety), but I happened to acquire an entertaining book on another dialect at some book sale or store or honestly I can’t even remember. It’s hiding on the top shelf of my dictionaries and phrase books.

It’s not very big; you can barely see it between the Czech and the Dutch. Here it is in my kitchen.

This is an entertaining, charming book, replete with cartoons. It is meant to be amusing, but it is at the same time accurate – it’s not taking the piss; it’s written by someone who grew up speaking the Doric dialect.

Doric, to me, always meant one of the orders of classical architecture. It was the one with the boring columns (Ionic had the curly capitals and Corinthian had the leaves). But this Doric is a dialect of Mid Northern (aka Northeastern) Scots. Here’s a Wikipedia article on it: Oh, sorry, that’s in Scots. Try this one; it’s in standard English: Anyway, if you’ve ever tried to understand someone from around Aberdeen, Doric is what you were up against. If Scotland had its own army and navy, Scots could be a separate language (I don’t mean Gaelic; I’m talking about the “dialect of English”), but as it is, we kid ourselves that we should be able to understand it. Well, Swedes and Danes understand each other, generally, sorta, and there’s about as much difference. The Doric dialect, as it happens, is named after the Greek area, apparently because the Scots were being compared to Spartans.

Here’s a page from that fun book:

At the top you see the end of a “Useful Phrases” section, including such as “Ye’d maak a better door nor a windae,” dryly translated as “Excuse me, please. I cannot see past you.” The translations assume you can figure out the literal translation (‘You’d make a better door than a window’, which is also a common phrase used by Canadians, usually addressed to school-aged youth who haven’t figured out where not to stand). But look a bit farther down the page and there’s this nice line:

Es taiblie’s gey shoogly. It means ‘This table is very wobbly.’ And so here is our word of the day, gey. Shoogly would be a good one too, but it can wait.

Whence comes gey? The Oxford English Dictionary is helpful on that, since the word is fairly widespread, not only in Scotland but also in Ireland and northern England. It comes from the same source as English gay – you could say it’s another version of the same word. English gay came into the language meaning ‘bright, brilliant, lively, showy’ and also from that ‘happy, light-hearted’. More than a century ago (just how long ago is unclear because it was surely used orally long before it showed up in the printed record) it came into use to refer to men preferentially attracted to other men, and that usage has become the supervenient one now, at least in part because so many people who aren’t homosexual avoid using it lest they be mistaken for such. The long history leading up to that usage is a whole other story that I’m not going to spend time on today just because gay isn’t the word of the day. Gey is. And gey went from a specific positive to a general intensifier (like very, originally ‘truthfully’; damn, short for damned and you damn well better know the literal meaning of that; and more modern colloquial usages such as wicked).

What was the source from which gay and gey came? French gai, which meant and still means ‘happy, cheerful’, and a variety of extended senses. The history before that is surprisingly complicated but apparently involves Old High German. Yes, even the Old High Germans could be happy. And the French of course know quite well how to be happy. The interjection o gai or just gai can be heard in some French folk songs such as “En montant la rivière” and even the Breton “Tri martolod.”

So, now. What cause have I to be happy and drink a toast today? Aside from good auld Rabbie, of course (and for more of him, spin back a few years to my vignette on skirl). My cause to be happy is just this: I have finished the first draft of a thesis. So let’s have some whisky already!


De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. “Of the dead, nothing but good is to be said.” Well, that’s a fairly exact translation, but not so idiomatic – Latin liked passives and other constructions that used est (‘is’) far more than English does. Better to render it as “Don’t speak ill of the dead” or “Speak only well of the dead” or that sort of thing. There are a lot of dreadful translations into and out of Latin. I’ve sung and heard music written in English and then translated word for word into Latin, which is a ghastly and villainous thing to do, sort of like using a computer like a typewriter, hitting return at the end of each line and aligning using spaces and so on. I’ve seen books and poetry translated equally badly into Latin, somehow adding more words where Latin would use fewer, as though translation were an exercise in explication (imagine! a Latin translation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with a title that, translated back from Latin, means ‘how an evil little being called the Grinch stole the birth of Christ’).

Where was I. Oh, yes. De mortuis et cetera. It’s often shortened to Nil nisi bonum, ‘nothing but good’. Have you seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia? I recommend it; well made, highly quotable. But don’t quote the pronunciation of Nil nisi bonum you hear near the beginning. Oh, it’s accurate – to British schoolboy Latin of nearly a century ago, which is what would have been used. But gah. A great exhibition of the effect of the Great Vowel Shift of English on pronunciation of Latin, but really: “Nill nice eye bone ’em.” A more accurate-to-the-original version (allowing for the usual Anglophone incompetence at loan phonetics) would be like “Kneel knee see bon oom.”

Why am I going on about this? Oh, yes. So anyway, at a funeral, someone delivers a eulogy. That’s from Greek εὐ eu ‘good’ (you see it in euthanasia, ‘good death’, and a number of other words too) plus λογία logia ‘speech’ (or ‘words’; you see it in all those –ology words and many others). You say nice things about the dead person. It’s a sad time, someone’s been lost, no one wants to be reminded about the unpleasant parts of the person’s character because that kind of poisons the grief. Anyway, there’s no risk in saying nice things; the person isn’t going to get a swollen head from them or use them against you later.

But if there’s good speech, there must be bad speech, right? Such as the speech we often make of others before they die? Various kinds of criticism and kvetching? The Greeks had a word for it, surely? Well, no, they didn’t, not as such, but that didn’t stop us from taking Greek parts and jamming them together, because the ancient Greeks are dead and they’re our parts now, never mind those modern Greeks, they’re two millennia removed from it too. We just took the opposite of eu, that negative dys (from δυσ), not dis as in dislocation (that’s Latin and means ‘away from’ or similar senses) but dys as in dyslexia, and stuck it onto the logy. Dyslogy. With one swell foop we have dislodged the eulogy. And, like eulogy, it’s said with the accent on the first syllable. But it’s a bit harder to say. And it’s harder to look at, too: tandem y’s (we are not used to seeing two of them with four letters in between) and quite a slog through “sludge” in the middle.

So where do you use dyslogy? Be honest: you probably use it all the time; it doesn’t take much to dislodge the cup of malcontent. Dyslogy will spill out about the weather, perhaps, unless you live somewhere where the weather is always nice. About sports, politics, people who cut in front of you and then move slowly, people who live where the weather is always nice and flaunt it on Facebook, anyone who uses the hashtag #soblessed, maybe even anyone who uses the word hashtag, lousy translations, people who complain about everything all the time, and, of course, those pretentious dicks who use words like dyslogy.