Category Archives: word tasting notes


I have had good response to the first instalment of from the bookshelf, so I will do another today. I don’t intend to make it a daily thing – it’s more time consuming than a post without pictures – but I won’t run out of books however often I do it.

Today’s book is a time-abused little volume of instruction that came into my possession I know not how (though I think my mother-in-law picked it up at a rummage sale for me). It has seen rain (though not fire) and curious white substances. But it stands proud and confident nonetheless.

Behold Cobbett’s English Grammar, a volume far more sure in its learning than even those far more knowledgeable books piled beneath it. Ah, grammar: one of those fields, like painting and sartorial fashion, in which many people feel that the confidence of their opinion is the surest index of their rightness, and they just make things up on the basis of their own felt discernment – and publish them (caveat emptor). Grammar is like feces unto the flies of prescription: people who believe that we must have rules are naturally drawn to it and impose rules willy-nilly, brooking no question or opposition, giving no quarter.

And of course they seek to impress those rules on the still-curing cement of young minds, to pre-empt any grammatical libertinism that could take hold. Flip this book open and the very first page you see – before even the title page – is this:

Whoever this Harry Martin was, he was a dab hand with a pen. We can see that this book was set to brand its rules on his brain fully an eighth of a millennium ago, and on the far side of the Atlantic: the Thomas Rawlins Grammar School in Quorn, Leicestershire.

Here is the title page:

This book is, as I say, very confident in its prescriptions. It is no respecter of persons; however great they may be, if they do not meet the standards of the author, they are given no courtesies, as you will see from the table of contents:

Doctor Johnson, the king, various other statesmen: all guilty of “false grammar” and “errors and nonsense.”

Would you let a creature such as this slip his crusty avuncular arm in its shiny sleeve around the shoulders of your impressionable offspring today? But this is just his approach. The book is written as a series of letters to his fourteen-year-old son, James. You will see that the letters are dated beginning 1817, a full human lifetime before this volume was entrusted to the instruction of master Harry Martin.

Why is he writing letters to his son? He is on Long Island, New York. What on earth for? The footnote is instructive: “In March, 1817, Cobbett fled from England to the United States, partly influenced by political reasons, and partly, no doubt, by the fact that he had contracted debts in England to the amount of £34,000.”

£34,000 is a fair chunk of change even today. But a debt of that size at that time would be equivalent to almost exactly one million pounds in 2015 spending power. A million pounds! What did Mister Cobbett do with that? I’ll tell you what I think he did: poured it into his book. Every reader of this work is weighed down with a million pounds of high-handed prescription, of which not a featherweight is honest linguistic research and understanding. (He doesn’t even use the term etymology correctly.) And Harry Martin made notes and underlinings in the book, giving thereby at least the impression of heeding its admonitions.

I am confident that Cobbett was as conscientious and scrupulous in matters of learning as he was in matters of finance. He may have brooked no idleness or shortcuts, but he was apparently quite fine with deciding things without considering that they may not be true.

There are so many words in this book. Which one shall I taste? Well, you know already; it’s at the top of this article. On what page do I find it? I find it in a speech by Lord Castlereagh reproduced on page 150.

The sentence is long, but here is the part of it with which we are concerned: “there is reason to foresee that French ship-owners might be induced to renew the Slave Trade, under the supposition of the peremptory and total abolition decreed by Napoleon Bonaparte having ceased with his power…”

Mister Cobbett does not like this. He does not like the speech at all. He states no position regarding the slave trade; it is a mere trifle in the face of such terrible writing. He presents his own revision of this unintelligibly obscure speech, including this revised passage: “there is reason to apprehend that the French ship-owners may be induced to renew the Slave Trade, from a supposition that the total abolition recently decreed by Napoleon, has been nullified by the cessation of his authority…”

If you think his version is worse than the original, well, so do I. But Cobbett is a man on a mission. He picks the speech apart sternly, mercilessly, decisively, conclusively.

“If the abolition were total, what had peremptory to do there? Could it be more than total?” Well. Is that what peremptory means? It’s not a word we often use. What is peremptory?

This book and its author, that’s what. Peremptory comes from Latin perimere ‘kill, destroy’, which in turn comes from per ‘thoroughly’ and emere ‘take’. That same emere later came to mean ‘buy’ and shows up in caveat emptor and pre-empt. (It is not related to emetic, which comes from Greek ἐμεῖν emein ‘vomit’, but in a case such as this there may be some concinnity.) That which is peremptory takes a merciless attitude: slaughter and scorched earth. Decisive, conclusive, fixed, dogmatic, intolerant of other positions, hyperconfident.

So peremptory would not mean more than total. It could seem to be redundant with total, at least until you stop to think that a person may peremptorily declare a partial ban: “The slave trade shall be limited to [place X] and [persons Y], and all others shall be punished without mercy.”

If you were Napoleon, you could make such a decree and expect it to be enforced. If, on the other hand, you simply had a Napoleon complex, you might make your pronouncement emptily. Well, you could enlist a children’s crusade, perhaps, and these children, some at least, could grow to have brains as desiccated and obdurate as yours – mistaking the wizened for the wise – and pass the instruction to the next generation.

Peremptory is an important-sounding word, proud with its p’s, conservative with its tory. It may describe good things, such as abolition of slaving, or bad things, such as, well, books like this. But this is a nice volume to have for historical interest and entertainment. The paper is soft and still resilient, though it is clearly wood pulp and not quality linen bond. I do not know what the type face is; there is no colophon. But I have noticed – have you? – that there are wide spaces after the periods. They would probably create what designers call “white acne” on the page… if the sentences weren’t several lines long each. I don’t like those big spaces. But that’s a hot topic for another time.


I’m going to try a special feature every so often, at least if people like it. It’s called from the bookshelf. I’ll take a book off the shelf and find a word in it to taste, and add some bibliotechnical cheesecake shots while I’m at it.

I’m going to start with one of my most alluring volumes, part of a two-volume set of Paradise Lost that I saved from perdition at Tufts University two decades ago (it was part of a bequest but was not needed and, frankly, would not have survived in a circulating collection).

It has illustrations by John Martin and was published in London by Septimus Prowett in 1827.

It has the dusty-honey smell of an old book, with those age spots called foxing. Open it carefully; the binding is falling apart, though the pages are still strong. It is tempting to think of it as like a smudged old window, the glass rippling, the view obscured. But the words on the page are there as plain as any day, and when you can read them you can see with the clarity of the mind’s eye into the world it describes.

Let us turn to page… 27. O look, they put spaces before colons and semicolons and exclamation points! And larger spaces after them and – is it? – a double space after a period. Double at least. A space as wide as the sea and more transparent.

The sea? The glassy sea. Line 619: “On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea”… We have our word: hyaline. A word that rhymes with violin. What note does it play?

Is the glassy sea the hyaline? Is it then the high line? It is haline – salty, that is. It may be healing, but it may consume you. Not this sea, though, this glassy sea, this clear hyaline. It is as smooth as water in a glass, and as clear as a looking-glass. It may even reflect.

Which would be why we see the sense and then the same sense again. Hyaline, you see, comes to us from Latin hyalinus, which (as the y should tell you) is a loan from Greek, where the original root is ὕελος huelos ‘glass, crystal’ – a word that Greek may have gotten from Egyptian. A word, then, that has sailed on the Mediterranean, smooth or rough, more than once.

Glass and glass again. Elegant variation, ramified repetition. Use of a fine and pricey word, and then explanation of it with plainer stock. And that poetic trick of taking an adjective and using it as a substantive noun. Milton was not the only to use hyaline this way, though perhaps the first, but its longer and fuller history in English is as an adjective. It means, as the OED says, “Resembling glass, transparent as glass, glassy, crystalline, vitreous.”

Transparent not as the pages of a book, nor as an old and foxy word that requires looking up, but as plain text that, once read, shines an image into your mind. Or as a camera lens, letting the image pass through and be recorded to be re-presented to your own eyes, with their lenses and their vitreous fluid. And, so launched, it sails on them.


Look at this word. Read it. Try to say it. Ask yourself whether it’s five syllables – /kɛljuːzˈmætɪklɪ/ – or six – /kɛljuːzˈmætɪkəlɪ/ – or even seven – /kɛliuːzˈmætɪkəlɪ/. Decide, correctly, that it is most properly six but, honestly, if you’re ever going to say it, really five or at best five and a half (a long /l/ as in /kɛljuːzˈmætɪklːɪ/ is less than a syllable but more than not a syllable). Question whether your command of it will ever be such that you would use it. Wonder whether it will ever be imperative that you do so.

Wonder where this word comes from. Look it up, either in the Oxford English Dictionary or, if you don’t have that, right here in this article you’re reading right now. Find that it’s an Anglicization of Greek κελευσματικῶς plus the adverbial –ally ending. Find that that in turn comes from κελεύειν, which is a verb meaning ‘order’. Conclude that this is a fancy word meaning ‘as an imperative’ or ‘in the form of an imperative’ or just ‘imperatively’.

Muse. Ponder this word. Think about how it seems like keloid (a kind of cicatrix) and Kelita (a kind of singer), and decide that you would rather order up the latter than the former. Reflect further that it has a taste of charismatically, and decide that it would be helpful to be charismatic if you are going to be keleusmatic. Also not to be asthmatic.

Look in your wallet and wonder if you can afford this word, which is clearly not some stock five-dollar word. Wonder if it appears anywhere other than the OED, and chuckle as you think of it showing up in Urban Dictionary, that hotbed of crude slang and fourteen-year-old-boy definitions.

Find it in Urban Dictionary, complete with a definition that uses vulgarity.

Think about how it is odd to have such a long word referring to the imperative, which is generally by dint of circumstance a clipped form.

Use it anyway that one time you have a chance and remember it. Keep it on your lexical trinket shelf until then.


A scene utterly ridden with (as opposed to rid of) flowers, or having that general sense or quality literally or metaphorically, is called florid. What about when there aren’t many flowers but there are a whole lot of leaves and other green things?

Well, yes, there’s verdant, which is a fervent-sounding word, faintly suggesting vermin but generally with more verve and offering something covered and dancing with green, perhaps in Vernon, BC, or some place yet to be discovered. But verdant is a Latinate word, with that open-shirted v and all that. How about something Greek-derived? And to rhyme with florid?

What’s the Greek root for ‘green’? You see it in chlorophyll, which is formed from χλωρός khlóros ‘green’ and ϕύλλον fullon ‘leaf’ (note how Latin transliterated the Greek differently from how we tend to today). Yes, that chlor that also shows up in chlorine. Does it sound unpleasant? We may have bad associations with it, thanks to Clorox. But it has two lovely liquids – /l/ and /r/ – and that velar fricative in the original, so often written as ch in Gaelic and German and other languages, and when you hear it in Irish Gaelic, the language of the Emerald Isle, it sure doesn’t sound so horrid. Not that Irish uses a chlor word for ‘green’; actually, the Irish word is glas, which can also mean ‘grey’. Yes, in Ireland green and grey are thought of as the same colour. From what I’ve heard (and pictures I’ve seen), this makes sense: grey shades into green there. And many other places too.

But that is a digression. The word we are looking for is obviously chlorid. As in “I walked into a concrete-walled room dripping with mist and overgrown with plants but few flowers; it was not arid or frigid but humid and vivid, suitable for annelids and aphids and triffids, and probably also orchids, but it was not florid, simply pervasively and irrepressibly chlorid.”

But is this a word? A real word? Well, I can’t swear that anyone would understand it were you to use it. Not so many people know the sense of the chlor root. But it has been used and is in a dictionary. A dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary. With one citation, from 1822. And that citation appears to refer to complexion or skin tint.

So a person might say “You’re looking a little greenish, lad. Positively chlorid, in fact.” Sure, that would work. But I can think of no especially good reason not to take this word made of known parts and press it into service for other green-hued things if we want. As long as we don’t mind that many readers will think it a typo for chloride and will come to a variety of inferential misadventures on that basis.

Still. Why not have another special secret word for verdant? With a different flavour and tone? A word like a special room full of green plants and rain hidden in a brutalist building?


This article first appeared in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada.

What’s English for Schadenfreude? Schadenfreude, of course.

Words are like Barbie dolls or trading cards or Hummel figurines or camera lenses or kitchen gadgets: if we see one that fills a spot that we don’t already have filled, we want it. Even if we didn’t know we needed to fill that spot until we saw the word.

This is surely one reason listicles about “untranslatable words” are currently popular. Perhaps you never thought before about wanting a word that means “the look on a person’s face as they watch the person ahead of them at a bakery take the last one of the pastry they wanted,” but once you see a word for it, goshdarn it, you have to have it.*

The funny thing about those articles on untranslatable words is that they always give translations for the words. And not just “Schadenfreude (n.): Schadenfreude,” either, but “Enjoyment of someone else’s suffering.” So, really, the words aren’t untranslatable, are they? Not any more than anything else is. There just isn’t a single word for them.

Actually, if you want a really untranslatable word, try a preposition. How about French à? Does that mean “to”? Hmm. In C’est à moi? In J’habite à Montréal? In poulet à la crème? You can’t come up with a single equivalent word for any preposition, because different languages always use them in different ways. And yet within the sentence you can always translate them, as much as you can translate anything else.

But the dirty secret of translation is that you can’t really translate anything else either.

You can only come sufficiently close in the context of the text and your culture. And sometimes barely even sufficiently. Every word has different overtones and associations and references for different cultures – and for different sets of people (and even for each different individual) within a culture. It has different phrases it typically shows up with, different places it’s been heard, different rhymes, different sets of things it has been used to refer to commonly. And there are different attitudes towards what it refers to.

The idea of a purely accurate translation is like the idea of a truly authentic culinary experience from another culture. Say you want an authentic Thai curry. You go to a Thai restaurant. But they’re using Canadian-grown ingredients. So you go where they have imported Thai ingredients. But you’re still in a Canadian restaurant. So you go to Thailand. Ah. But you’re still… a Canadian in Thailand. You didn’t grow up eating Thai food. Look, imagine a person from another country (maybe Namibia or Vanuatu) eating fruitcake or roast turkey or tuna casserole for the first time. There is no way their experience of it is going to be like yours. You just have to accept that. Cultural experiences are not truly fully translatable. And language is a cultural experience.

Of course, there are many things that are purely functional, and the cultural accretions are quite incidental. “Push to open.” “Tear here.” No problem there; cultural attitudes towards pushing and tearing can be treated as separate issues. That lulls us into thinking that accurate translation is possible.

But even there, we’re taking tone and connotation for granted. Why doesn’t the packet say “Rip here”? Why doesn’t the door say “Shove to open”? And once we get even a little farther from the purely mechanical, judgment calls are a regular thing. Send the same document, even on a technical subject, to two different translators and you will get two different renditions, each with its merits and detractions. And if you get into fiction or plays or – the worst – poetry, you’re really just getting a sort of harmonic resonance of the original, on a different instrument.

Consider this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

The famous first stanza of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Lovely, flavourful Italian. Here’s Robert Pinsky’s version:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

Here’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Here’s Courtney Langdon’s:

When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.

Right road? Straightforward pathway? Path which led aright? Wood, woods, forest? Dark, gloomy? Midway, half way?

This is why Italians say traduttore traditore. Which has been translated “to translate is to betray.” But really I think it’s better rendered as “Translator? Traitor.”


*Oh, you want a word for that? How about discrescent? Or pain-déçu? I know: bedrøvet. That’s the Danish version of “sad.”


Every morning on my way to work, I pass a fence entirely overgrown with a very vigorous vine. The fence is a standard-issue chain-link fence; on the other side of it is a broad green expanse, a playing field with soccer goals and such like, and reigning over it are power lines.

There are also trees next to the fence. The vine climbs on them too.

As you can see, the vine has berries on it, pretty blue berries on anfractuous red stems.

For whatever reason, as much as I love words, and as much as I love trees and plants and such things, I seldom know the names of the plants I so enjoy being surrounded by. Perhaps it’s because I know they won’t come when I call them. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never had to buy or sell or otherwise manage them. Perhaps it’s because I know the limits of words. A picture is not worth a thousand words; in fact, there is no exchange rate. (And anyway, if there were, the values of pictures and words vary widely. An article I write for a site such as or will net me a cheque with which I could buy art, but not very big or expensive art. I am rarely paid for my photos, but that’s because they’re rarely used by anyone other than me.)

But I was curious, finally, about this plant. What are these berries? Are they edible? I set to finding out.

They’re not blueberries, of course; I could see that well enough. And they’re not really edible either. As it turns out, they contain oxalic acid, and while eating a few of them is unlikely to cause you lasting harm, you will almost certainly wish you hadn’t. Birds, on the other hand, have no problem with them, it seems. And they are a right feast for the eyes.

The common name of this vine is Virginia creeper. I can’t say I much care for that name. It’s misleading, given that we are not in Virginia here (and the plant’s native range covers a huge expanse of North America), and it’s, erm, creepy. It sounds like the nickname of a serial killer.

Fortunately, like all plants, it also has a Latin name: Parthenocissus quinquefolia, or just Parthenocissus for short. The genus Parthenocissus comprises 12 species, but this one is the flagship species, it seems, so we can use just the first word on it if we want.

Do you like this word, Parthenocissus? It sounds like a combination of Parthenon and narcissus, doesn’t it? The one is a classic marble structure, now thought of as pure white though it may have been brightly painted in its heyday, and the other is a flower and the self-regarding mythological Greek who was supposedly transmuted into it.

Parthenocissus means ‘virgin ivy’. The parthen part is the same as in Parthenon, which was dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena. The cissus is a Latinization of Greek kissos ‘ivy’. I supposed parthenokissos would seem like a kiss from a virgin. Is parthenocissus a self-regarding virgin? And, on the other hand, does narcissus mean ‘sleepy ivy’, from the narc ‘sleep’ root plus cissus?

It seems not. The origins of narcissus are unclear but are probably from a loanword into Greek. It’s not related to ivy, anyway. As to the parthenocissus, it’s obviously fecund, but it may have gotten the “virgin” name from its ability to form seeds without pollination. Or it may have gotten it from being Virginia creeper. Virginia is named after the virgin queen, after all (that’s Elizabeth I). Oh, and it may act like ivy, but it’s not very closely related to it. Oh well.

Does it act like a virgin? Well, what ever do virgins act like? 14-year-old boys are not known for modesty but most of them are virgins. But this vine does enforce some modesty, covering as it does buildings, fences, and whatever else it attaches itself to. The long stretch of it that owns the fence along Don Mills Road on my way to work does a good job of shielding Flemingdon Park from the traffic.

Fall is coming, of course. Its leaves will turn and fall, and the berries will be gone as well. But this parthenocissus will still be queen, like Elizabeth I, or goddess, like Athena, of the fence… even if wearing something a little more see-through.


Who is this man in white? A plaintiff, a caitiff, Hiram Abiff? A bailiff, a mastiff, a hippogriff? A sheriff with a tariff for a whiff of spliff? Nope. It’s the pope.

That’s what pontiff means? ‘Pope’? Almost. Pontiff means ‘That’s the pope and I’m a journalist’. Journalists have it hammered into them that they must not say the same word over and over again. “Elegant variation,” y’know? So to avoid saying pope over and over again, they say pontiff over and over again.

It’s like those people who latch onto some counterculture clique so they can be themselves, just like all the other people who are being themselves the same way. I’m put in mind of a writer I worked with once who fancied herself a great journalist – in spite of being neither – who objected to my changing impacted to affected because impacted was her style. Really? That’s your style? You couldn’t find a better one to hitch your wagon to?

Pontiff sounds somehow “official,” like a committee (or like the word committee). It’s newsy. Sort of like temblor, another word that only news story scribblers use, or tawny gourd, a way of avoiding saying pumpkin twice. These words are in a similar register to the announcements the management in my condo building posts in the elevators: “The cleaning of the lobby floors will commence starting Tuesday. Please exercise caution when walking.” Oversized and starchy and not quite the right colour… Pontiff is a tawny gourd of a word.

Where did this word even come from? From Latin pontifex (which is also the Twitter handle of the pope). The generally accepted etymology is from ponti, a combining form of pons ‘bridge’, and fex, a combining form of facere ‘make’. So a pontifex is a bridge-builder, by this account.

But not literally. The term was originally used for any of a variety of high priests. It ultimately came to be narrowed down to the Bishop of Rome – the pope, who is currently Pope Francis. (Note that it’s Pope capitalized as a title, but pope lower-cased as a descriptor.) I’m sure that the press popularity of pontifex has in part to do with its starting with po as pope does. The words aren’t related, though; pope traces back to Greek παπᾶς, papas, which means… “papa.” You know, “daddy.” The pope is a father-figure.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Call him pontiff and he sounds more like an official from a committee… someone with double letters in his title. More legal. Legalistic. But especially journalistic.