Category Archives: word tasting notes


This name may look odd and perhaps funny to Anglophone eyes, with its rubbery double b and the quirky z, and the hints of bozo and booze. But it’s not an English word, it’s a German one, and the z is pronounced /ts/. It’s the name of a village in northern Italy.

Why would an Italian village have a German name? Because a century ago it was an Austrian village. The borders were redrawn after World War I. As with all towns in this part of Italy, it now also has an Italian name: Soprabolzano. Which looks even more superb. But both names mean the same thing: ‘over Bozen/Bolzano’. Or, I guess, ‘above Bozen/Bolzano’. It’s not exactly above Bozen (Bolzano); it’s uphill from it. Way uphill. And a little ways over (not over Bozen, over from Bozen). You can’t actually see Bozen from Oberbozen (or Bolzano from Soprabolzano).

What is Bozen/Bolzano? A city in the Italian (formerly Austrian) province of Trentino-Alto Adige (or, in German, Südtirol). On our recent lavish wine and food tour of Italy, we stopped through there and did a bit of sightseeing. We were left to our own devices for a few hours before we had to rejoin the group and go visit more wineries.

Bolzano (let’s just call it that henceforth, shall we? I could have used Bozen but I like the sound of Bolzano better) is a very attractive place for tourists once you get to the part that is attractive to tourists. There is a big square in its heart.

There are several blocks of cute pedestrian streets full of shops and cafés.

There is a musem there where you can see the more-than-5000-year-old body of the fellow now known as Ötzi. He was found by serendipitous chance by a couple, Helmut and Erika Simon, who were hiking on a high pass above the Ötztal, a valley north of Bolzano. His recovery and preservation have been a joint Italian-Austrian effort, but the place he fell and lay for five millennia was about 93 metres inside Italy. Well, not at the time; in fact, not until about a century ago. But when he was found, he was found in Italy (as a reanalysis of the borders after his finding revealed – the previous lines were on top of glaciers that were now no longer there), so the Italians get to show him off in a whole museum dedicated entirely to him and his appurtenances.

Photos are not allowed.

Never mind. You can look him up if you want to see him. He looks like a big scary doggie-chew-toy coated in whatever that stuff is they put on Krispy Kremes. Actually, in this case it’s just ice.

After Aina and I had seen him and gone for an Aperol spritz and bought a military-sized loaf of olive cheesebread,

we had more time to fill.

I had a map. On the map I saw that there were three cablecars of some sort (the map indicated each as funivia and Seilbahn) that went to places high above the town. One of them, the Rittner Seilbahn (Funivia del Renon), had a base that was an easy walk from the centre of town. We walked there, bought tickets, and got on, having no idea what we would see.

A heck of a view on the way up, for one thing.

It reached a summit and then kept on going, high across an alpine valley.

And let us off, 12 minutes after we got on and 1000 metres farther above sea level, in Oberbozen. We had found something higher, unexpected, out of sight, far above the valley.

People sat drinking beer on a patio. Hotels ringed a large open lawn. Everything looked Tyrolean. How charming. And alpine. And not at all what we had thought, when we got up that morning, that we would be seeing.

There was a church farther uphill.

We walked up to see it. It’s a striking modernist edifice, dedicated in 1991.

It has a statue outside it of its namesake: Blessed Rupert Mayer (1876–1945), a German priest who was outspoken for justice, a vocal opponent of Nazis and fascism.

I’m not sure the statue does him justice, but the building does. (Ötzi gets just ice, but Rupert Mayer gets justice.)

And the door was open.

How serendipitous.


“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

Do you want a fiction based on a fiction, both more and less real than reality? Do you want a city of layers where buildings lie far below the streets, and streets have run beneath the river waters? A town of dreamlike inversions that, after all of it, is just a lovely place to sit and drink or go shopping, or listen to music?

Old Verona sits under a bend in the Adige river, smoothly triangular like an incense cone, water on the upper sides, walls no longer there across the base. Beyond the old part is more Verona, a modern Italian city not without its charm, but it’s not what you go there for.

No one is really sure just when and by whom Verona was founded, but it was there in Roman times. There’s a big Roman arena right at the biggest piazza in town. Every year you can go there to hear Verdi’s Aïda or something else. As you wander around the old town, here and there you can look down and see the Roman foundations, two or more metres down, visible through a hole left open for architectural exegesis. The city has piled stone upon stone and here we are, a metre higher per millennium.

If, instead of looking down, you look up just a bit, slightly higher than eye level, you will see, in desultory spots, a plaque on the wall with a line showing how high the waters of the Adige reached one day in 1882. After that, the river trade traffic that had been so important to the city was done away with: big banks were built in place of landings, and flood controls were put in upstream that left the river flow too low for boats.

Most people don’t come here to look at either of those things, though, it seems. They come because of a nasty tale of fatal adolescent infatuation written by an Englishman who had never been to Verona. They come to see a balcony that was built in the 1930s just to keep the illusion-besotted happy, on a house in which a young lady never lived because she never lived anywhere, and in which her family may not have lived either – if they existed at all. They come to see this fraudulent balcony on a probably fraudulent house just because of a scene in that Englishman’s play. A scene that doesn’t involve a balcony. The word balcony didn’t even exist in English then, not quite yet. The idea of balconies was a rather odd and scandalous one for the English when it was first told to them, a decade and a half after Romeo and Juliet was first performed. Here, read.

Well, people believe all sorts of strange things about Romeo and Juliet. But have a look at Act II, scene ii. Romeo starts:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Window. Not balcony. Window. She doesn’t come out onto a balcony. There isn’t one in the text, no matter how it’s been staged so many times more recently. Put her on one if you want, but Shakespeare didn’t.

And what does Juliet first say when she speaks, thinking herself unheard?

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

Which means “Why are you Romeo?” She’s lamenting the fact that this desirable young man must be a member of a family that is a sworn enemy of hers. She’s not asking where Romeo is. I know that millions of people think “wherefore art thou” means “where are you,” but millions of people also come to stick love notes with bubble gum on a graffiti-covered wall in a passageway to a fake balcony that not only never existed in reality but never even existed in the play it’s supposedly from. At the very least, there should be a sign below the balcony that says “‘Wherefore’ means ‘why’.”

People do love their fantasies of Liebestod. Even Japanese literature has famous classics about love suicides. But, as the artist Jenny Holzer has written (on many surfaces), “Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid.” Especially when you’re only 13 years old.

You did know that Juliet was 13, right? It’s in the text: she turns 14 soon. Romeo’s age is not mentioned, but he’s likely in his late teens. Which would make him a child abuser and sexual predator in modern law, by the way (OK, he marries her before he beds her, but shall we get into that?). Well, whatever. He ends up dead five days after he first meets her. So does she. And, nearly four centuries later, Blue Öyster Cult writes “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

Romeo and Juliet were together in eternity (and the tomb), but Verona continued on in Shakespeare’s mind. The anti-hero of Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio, is from Verona; perhaps he left because he was sick of all the teenage emo love death, but anyway he brings his more cynical outlook to Padua (now Padova in Italian) and meets Katherine, whom he cheats into marrying him. There’s one more play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona; its main action takes place in Venice. It’s another silly concealed-identity love comedy, and is most notable for being the play in which a dog with no lines upstages everyone else. Why not? People seem to like what’s not in the script better than what is.

But after all the flood of tourists and illusions recedes, Verona remains, sitting on top of its historical accretions. The real Verona is just a nice place to have dinner and a drink out on the street on a warm evening, the acme of charming Italian cities. Even with the occasional pop concert in the arena drowning out more local sounds while you dine at a table in a stone-paved lane three inches from where cars roll past. It’s all good. Here are some pictures. Verona in the day is pretty, and Verona at night is like a dream. One in which people don’t kill themselves for stupid reasons.


Aina and I were touring northern Italy last week. I’ll be doing word tastings with pictures for several of our stops. Venice first.

A map of Venice, in its barest outlines, looks to me like two hands grasping each other in help or contention, or two fish trying to eat each other. Below them is a third thing, a table or piece of cloth or another fish swimming past.

But most people don’t think of the map first when they think of Venice. They think of a grand illusion, the ageless fantasy of a city rising from a lagoon, of glorious palazzi on the Grand Canal, of romance and gondoliers and music and masks and carnivalesque inversions and art and novels and golden light and water, water, water.

They may think of narrow alleys and passages between buildings and a myriad of small bridges.

They may think of the innumerable wooden pilings, permanently submerged, that every building in the city rests on. They probably think of buildings sinking and pavements flooding, problems that are only going to get worse unless – and possibly even if – hands join other hands to apply technology.

People who have been to Venice in the warmer months think of people, endless throngs of people. Especially near St. Mark’s Square you almost can’t get through at times.

The city gets 18 million visitors a year. That’s an average of nearly 50,000 a day (if you assume each visits for just one day, which not all do) – and you know that it gets rather fewer in the winter months, and far too many in the summer months.

The current population of Venice, the island part (not the mainland part), is 55,000.

That’s a third of what it was at its peak, or even a century ago. There’s not much work to do other than the tourist trade there now – not so much fishing, let alone marine conquest – and even people who work in tourism may find it better to live on the mainland and rent out such property as they own in old Venice to tourists. Or sell it to hoteliers.

Venice is being invaded by tourists. Venice is being invaded by water. But Venice is there in the first place because of invasion. The Veneti people took refuge on the islands in the lagoon to escape Germanic and Hun invasions. It was a good move. The citizens formed a republic and maintained independence for a long time. Venice became a military and commercial power, aided strongly by its location – and by its grasp of how to band together to work with the surrounding sea. Finally it was conquered by Napoleon, and then became part of Austria, no wait, Napoleon’s kingdom, wait, no, back to Austria. And finally it joined the Kingdom of Italy, which later became a republic. But through all of it, it accumulated wealth and culture and art.

Many of the bridges between Venice’s 118 islands owe their presence to the Austrians, who preferred to go around on horseback rather than use boats. I don’t think you can ride horses around Venice now. But you can spend all day in Venice without getting into a boat, although boats will still get you from A to B quicker over any real distance (not the gondolas, though – those are slow and expensive and for show; getting places requires motors).

And Venice is most archetypally a city of canals – when another city is called “the Venice of [wherever]” (have a look at how many cities have been called “the Venice of the North”), it’s not because it’s built on wooden pilings, not because it’s pretty, not because it’s sinking, not because it’s beset with impossible throngs of tourists. It’s because it has canals.

The irony of it. Canals are usually things dug into land, interruptions in the prevailing earth. In Venice, the water was always there; the land was built up between it, reinforcing marshy islands by dredging earth from below the water, pounding wooden pilings in to hold up the buildings. Hands joining hands, working together and taking together. Where there were fish, there are humans. The grand illusion and ageless fantasy – still there…


A person who is severely prescriptive in matters of English usage is often called a “grammar Nazi.” I must say I dislike this term. Real-life fascists and racists do not amuse me, and I am resistant to trivializing them. We wouldn’t think it reasonable to call a person a “grammar rapist,” after all, would we?

Various replacements have been suggested, among which I like “grammar numpty” – a numpty being a stupid person (it’s a Britishism). But that’s not quite optimal either; ‘stupid’ is arguably different from ‘obnoxiously purblind’. I find myself more partial to “grammar Nazgûl” (you can leave off the circumflex on the u if you want).

If you’re a Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) fan, I don’t need to tell you what a Nazgûl is, so off you go. You can spend the next few minutes writing a piece explaining something like how Gollum would not fall into lava with the ring; lava, being molten rock, is still so dense that a person falling on it would fall onto it, not into it, and would immediately combust on the surface (and the ring would of course melt). Facts, after all.

For the rest of you: ring? Yes, ring. Sauron, the great sorceror, forged rings of power, which gave their wearers great powers but gave him greater powers over them, for he had the one ring that had power over all of them, a ring that bore this inscription:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Which means

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It’s a tidy little exercise in morphology – frankly, I’m surprised it’s not more often used in introductory linguistics classes. You can see readily enough that ash nazg must mean ‘one ring’, that a verb root plus –atul means the verb is done to ‘them’ and a verb root plus –atulûk means it is done to ‘them all’ (meaning –ûk must mean ‘all’, more or less). Other details that are known, though not inevitable from the text, are that burzum means ‘darkness’ and ishi is a postposition, and agh means ‘and’, and in –atul the –at is a verbal ending (meaning something like ‘to’) and –ul means ‘them’. Also, ash means ‘one’ and nazg means ‘ring’, not vice-versa (nothing in the sample itself makes that necessarily so).

So is nazgûl ‘ring them’? No, because of the difference between ul and ûl – the circumflex means it’s a long vowel (literally: hold it longer, just like you hold the /k/ in bookkeeper longer than the one in bookie). That makes it a different sound. Also, nazg isn’t a verb. Nazgûl is from nazg plus gûl, which means ‘wraith’. What’s a wraith? Kind of like a ghoul. Hmm.

Well, it is a constructed language. ‘Bind’ uses the root krimp, like English crimp, for instance. Whether Nazi influenced Tolkien’s invention of nazg here I don’t know (the Nazis did like Wagner’s Ring Cycle), but he was writing this in the 1940s.

What is a Nazgûl, then? A ring-wraith, yes, but what are those? Men who took up rings of power forged by Sauron, came under Sauron’s control, and, after Sauron lost the One Ring, were tasked with seeking it out mercilessly. If anyone was carrying it, and especially if anyone was wearing it, they could sense it, and they would swoop down with the aim of destroying the wearer and restoring the ring to its rightful condition. They descended as if from nowhere, uttering unbearable sounds.

I’m not saying that the parallel is exact. But consider: A person learns a set of tidy rules about English that give a sense of knowledge and control. They believe that in enforcing them they are serving the betterment of English and their own expression, but the rules become ends in themselves, and their enforcement an exercise in condemnation and destruction. They dedicate themselves to seeking out transgressions. A hapless person uses a bit of grammar that falls within their set of magical rules – or, rather, strays against it – and they swoop in as if from nowhere, making sounds terrible to the hearer.

Does that seem a bit of an extreme caricature? Not all that extreme. Look, I was one in my younger days, so I have some idea.

That does mean that, unlike a Nazgûl, one may always stop being one. Nonetheless grammar Nazgûl is at least as viable as any other similar term. And it has a good ring to it.

when all is said and done

No word is an island, when all is said and Donne.

No phrase is an island either. Everything comes from somewhere and goes to somewhere else. Even if it’s an isolated utterance, it draws on established meanings and references and a history of uses. Just try saying “when all is done and said.” And everything you say implies a future, even if just a near one. If you’re saying something to someone else, it’s to have some effect on them.

And everything you say is something you do. Speech is a kind of action, like all communication. If you’re on an island and you see a boat in the distance, you may wave at it, which is something you do. But you do it to communicate, just like shouting “Hey!” Communicating is moving muscles to produce gestures intended to be seen and/or heard to produce some effect (usually multiple effects) on the seers and hearers.

So in theory you could just say “when all is done,” since saying is doing. And yet we do divide them in our minds. We tend to use done to mean that some physical change has been accomplished – a change that has usually been started and guided by saying, but not usually fully accomplished by saying. Getting married, getting fired, getting commended, getting cussed out, sure, saying will do for those. But not doing the dishes, doing the laundry, or even doing the taxes. Talk may be a kind of action, but we can still say someone is “all talk and no action” because we see a divide. Fine words butter no bread, and “I’m doing it right now!” doesn’t get it done right now. And yet it still has an effect on the hearer – even if it’s not the effect you wanted.

So. At the end of the day uses a metaphor of time. The bottom line uses a metaphor of accounting. When all is said and done uses a metaphor of speech and action. Actually, it doesn’t really use a metaphor at all. When you’re talking about the situation at the end of everything, it may or may not be the end of the day, and it’s probably not on a spreadsheet, but it is after all the words and other actions… within the scope of the particular arbitrarily delimited event you have in mind.

And at the end of the day connects us to the world of work; the bottom line connects us to the world of money; but when all is said and done connects us to the world of things that happen between people. Things said are things said to other people. You may be more likely to use when all is said and done than the others in reference to interpersonal relationships. Like this ABBA song, which was written about the divorce of two of the members of the group:

(The other two members had gotten divorced a couple of years earlier; that divorce is said to have produced “The Winner Takes It All.”)

What I particularly like about that song, though, is the cover for the single. The B-side was a song called “Should I Laugh or Cry.” So the cover appears to say “When all is said and done, should I laugh or cry”:

Which, really, is a viable question in many circumstances.

There’s just one thing about when all is said and done. It’s a fine phrase, with good rhythm (iambic trimeter), the consonants riding nicely on the tip of the tongue, one liquid /l/ to expand the all, then apical fricatives /z/ /s/, and then just the /n/ and /d/ dancing together. And the turn of phrase has been in the language since the 1500s. But it’s a bit long. After all this time, you’d think we could have come up with a shorter way of referring to the state that exists after all other events and states.

Which we did, within a decade or two at most. English can be very efficient when we want it to be, after all.

the bottom line

OK, so now we know the bottom line on the end of the day. But at the end of the day, what’s the bottom line?

They seem to be roughly the same thing, right? A summative discourse marker? But one refers to the situation after everything has happened; the other refers to the situation when everything is tallied up. They tend to be used in generally interchangeable situations, but can we think of a place where we would use one and not the other, or at least would incline more to one than to the other? Or even where the tone or sense might be a little different?

They make great cakes, but at the end of the day, I’d still rather eat at home.
They make great cakes, but the bottom line is I’d still rather eat at home.

He’s capricious and demanding, but the bottom line is that he makes great cakes.
He’s capricious and demanding, but at the end of the day, he makes great cakes.

You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but at the end of the day you’re still older.
You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but the bottom line is that you’re still older.

These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but the bottom line is that they just don’t suit me.
These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but at the end of the day they just don’t suit me.

At the end of the day, while there are differences in tone and general suitability, the bottom line is that I can’t think of an example where one or the other would be too awkward to use. Unintentionally funny, perhaps:

It may have fancy expensive ingredients, but at the end of the day, it’s breakfast.
Your bass and tenor and alto parts are all singable, but the bottom line is that the soprano part is too high.

And in some cases, you really should ask: Why this clichéd metaphor and not another? (Why any clichéd metaphor is sometimes a good question too.)

What, anyway, is the bottom line? Is it the bass part in a score? The end of a novel? The weighted lower edge of a fishing net? Well, that last one is the first definition for bottom line in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s not the one that’s the basis for the sense ‘final analysis’ or ‘crux of the argument’ – though this cliché does seem to be a rather wide net, dragging the lexical ocean to corral coral and filter in flotsam. No, it’s the summation of an accounting: the last line of a bill or ledger, showing the balance after all has been added and subtracted. It’s what a restaurant gives you at the end of the evening.

The bottom line has been used in this figurative sense since at least the 1830s, but its use rose rapidly starting in the 1970s. At the same time, the phrases “the bottom line is” and, more narrowly, “the bottom line is that” first appeared in print. Have a look. Before then, its use really was mostly literal (and sometimes referring to geometric drawing). In the early 1970s we start seeing it in fiction and plays but also in political writing and speeches. It seems to have become popular among a certain set. By 1979 there was a book called The Bottom Line: Communicating in the Organization by T. Harrell Allen. And once the 1980s came, it was a current phrase used to convey a pragmatic, hard-edged, business-minded sensibility. Not the weariness or nostalgia of at the end of the day. Just whatever’s right on the money.

But at the end of the day, is the bottom line really the last word?

at the end of the day

At the end of the day, in the final analysis, when all is said and done, the bottom line is…


It’s not as though discourse markers are some weird excrescence in English. We may not quite joint our sentences with them as much as Italian does with its dunque, comunque, and quindi (Italian, contrary to some stereotypes, is a language with discursive habits that are optimally suited to intellectual discourse – much more engagingly so than German, in my experience), but we still have lots of but, then, so, as a result, which means, and on up the formality scale to therefore and hence and in sum… and beyond into Latin.

And it’s not as though hackneyed metaphors are foreign to the language either. An enormous amount of our daily-use vocabulary traces back to physical references used for abstract concepts. Hackneyed originally referred to a horse worn out from being rented out all day, for instance – rental horses were hackneys, named after a town in England. Trace was first a literal reference to a path. Then there’s marker, scale, stereotype (a printing reference), joint, and all the terms we borrowed as abstract from Greek and Latin, where they began as literal references (metaphor meaning something carried beneath, for instance).

But hackneyed phrases aren’t just metaphorical discourse markers. They’re long metaphorical discourse markers, and they still flaunt their literal reference. We’ve generally forgotten the literal sense of hackneyed and stereotype, but we can’t miss the literal reference of a longer phrase made of common words. It’s in your face (so to speak). So people tire of them.

People have been tiring of them for a long time. George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (a hypocritical, xenophobic, classist clarion call for cranks, but not without its points) inveighs against this kind of bombast; two examples of “flyblown metaphors” he cites are “explore every avenue” and “leave no stone unturned.” Both of them are indeed flyblown, as it were. So is flyblown, but it’s a single word and so slips in like a quiet party crasher in a decent suit. (Bombast has lost its original reference entirely, but that’s not Orwell’s word here, it’s mine.)

Orwell didn’t mention “at the end of the day,” and it’s likely he didn’t have it in mind. Although the phrase in its literal use has been around for a long time, its summative use wasn’t especially common by his time. Before that, it slid in (hmm) very gradually, sometimes still having literal reference but also perhaps a more metaphorical sense – here’s a quote from William Cobbett, writing in 1806 but paraphrasing a speech from 1773: “that common fame, it was true, might set the enquiry on foot, but could never have sufficient ground for accusation; that is might be a very good breakfast, but at the end of the day would prove to be a very bad supper.” Other written texts using the phrase refer to the parable of the labourers, in Matthew 20, where Jesus talks of day labourers being hired at different times of the day but all getting the same pay at the end of the day. This no doubt had some influence on its occasional use in a metaphorical or at least partly metaphorical sense.

But the tired, sun-bleached (hmm) use that irritates some people so much first started spreading in the 1970s, it seems, and really took off (hmm) in the 1980s. Somehow some people – possibly more at first in England, and certainly among the moneyed business and law set – came to have the phrase stuck in their heads in such a way that it offered itself up when they reached for something equivalent to “when all is said and done.”

It may not be a coincidence that Les Miserables was a West End (and, after that, Broadway) hit starting in 1985, given that it included this song:

It didn’t invent the phrase. It didn’t even invent the figurative use of the phrase; it wouldn’t have been very effective if the phrase hadn’t already been established – it would have been just confusing. (The French original, by the way, was “Quand un jour est passé” – same rhythm, similar sense, but literally ‘when a day is done’.) But it may well have served as a vector for it, amplifying its popularity.

That’s not the song that comes to my mind first when I hear “at the end of the day,” though. I first hear this one, by the Canadian group Great Big Sea:

It’s not an originator and it’s not as widely influential. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all your state of mind. What’s just vivid enough to stick? And if metaphors aren’t vivid and sticky, well, then vivid and sticky might as well not be metaphors.