Category Archives: word tasting notes

clint, grike

Here comes Clint and his pet grike!

Actually, there are two clints, and the grike is a sort of rift between them…

Noticed that I lower-cased clint? Yes, I’m not actually talking about the name Clint here, which is short for Clinton, which is an English toponym that I’m not going too far into. Rather, I’m talking about something even more chiselled than Clint Eastwood’s face and more flinty than his voice. And grike, though it may look like a word for some squawking white seabird, is, per the OED, “a fissure between clints.”

Well, that’s the technical use of it in geology. More generally (inasmuch as it is used more generally), it is (OED again) “a crack or slit in rock, a ravine in a hill-side.” I don’t know about you, but to me something that hard and cut should be crike. But it’s not. It’s grike to me and grike to you. Address any gripes to a crack in a rock.

From that you may have some notion of what a clint is. It is not a cliff (though it may be part of one), not a cleft (though it is between clefts); it is a flat bare slab of limestone, that bit between the grikes. It can also be a hard or flinty rock projecting from a hillside or standing out between fissures. In a sense, then, it may be to rock as a glint is to light. But then it again perhaps not. What it surely is is obtrusive and obdurate, like some clients.

Does it seem that the ologies are all agee in geology? How does clint not call forth a crevice, a cleft cloven as with a cleaver, at least a crack? But the Scots who brought it into the tongue got it honestly from old Germanic roots, reflected in Scandinavian languages: Danish and Swedish klint, in particular. And grike, should it not be a great spike, if it can’t be the bird its name may seem to suggest? But it is not, and in limestone lands such as England, grikes are not mere empty crevices; they are places for greenery to grow. In the deep crack in the rock, the dirt builds up and the plants root down, and it can be as green as you like. James Joyce used it in Ulysses, so it must be a word to use (had he used it in Finnegans Wake, you could rest confident of the opposite): “He climbed over the sedge and eely oarweeds and sat on a stool of rock, resting his ashplant in a grike.”

So there you have it. Faced with a fissured limestone surface, you see clint, grike, clint, grike, clint, grike, clint. Do you notice, on saying that, that the onsets are quite similar? /kl/ – velar stop, liquid; /gr/ – velar stop, liquid. The vowels are the two ways to say the letter i, as /ɪ/ or /aɪ/. The word that rests flat up front gets an ending up on the front of the tongue, /nt/; the one that is cut to the depth gets the /k/ at the back. So we do have some topological iconicity. And a bit more knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the lexicon.


To my eyes, this word tumbles forward like a landslide of eggs and eggshells, of eyes and calling mouths, biting mouths, with the repetition of letter forms o o c c c: “Oh! Oh! See! See! See!” as the various busy bodies spot, point, call others, gather the forces, tumble down on the object…

Tumble? Perhaps more like tweet. You recognize the –cracy, of course: you’ve seen it in democracy and autocracy and theocracy and so on. It’s from Greek κρατία kratia ‘rule’. But ochlocracy is not a form of government any more than a fever is a durable state of health. Ochlocracy is a stampede, an avalanche, a corybantic frenzy; the very leaders of the group may be ripped to pieces as though by Bacchae. Ochlocracy is a Twitter-pile, when a strident voice calls out an infraction, gathers the censure, and within hours thousands or even millions have ridden the group emotion focused on the destruction of the miscreant. In a slightly less acute way, ochlocracy is demagoguery that loses control of its hounds.

Most basically, ochlocracy is mob rule. The ochlo comes from ὄχλος okhlos ‘mob, crowd’. Mob, by the way, is a clipping of Latin mobile vulgus, where vulgus – yes, the source of our vulgar – refers to the common people, and mobile is the same as in “La donna è mobile”: it means ‘changeable, fickle’. So a mob was originally a fickle crowd; now it’s just any crowd – but, then, any crowd is fickle, so the sense hasn’t really changed, has it…

Crowds may be fickle, but they are fickle en masse. Change races through them like divine fire, as though by echolocation or a psychopathic telepathy. A mob may be ridden or directed for a time, but if it does not finish the fast-burning fuel available before the rider has achieved his or her end, the rider too will be consumed. Mobs may serve noble goals, to be sure, and in fact members of any ochlocratic caucus will almost always feel certain of their moral rightness. The ideal of the collective good and the rights of workers are beautiful goals and yet they fuelled some of the worse ochlocratic catastrophes of the world’s various communist revolutions – and gave way to authoritarianism, as all those who had lost their minds in pursuit of a cause gladly accepted a head to lead them.

Which leads me to the other thing ochlocracy makes me think of: Okhlopkov. Nikolai Pavlovich Ohlopkov was a Russian theatre director of the 1930s. He was a very good, thoughtful, innovative director. In his aim to make theatre more direct, he pulled it away from the thoroughly detailed realism that had been prevailing, stripped down the stage, highlighted the theatricality. It was involving and engaging, and at the same time it made the magic of theatre obvious, put frost on the window that is the signifier, pulled back the curtain on Oz. He wanted to serve socialism, but in some ways he helped people notice the glasses they had been wearing – and so he was forced to be less “formalist.” I wrote a paper on him, still one of my favourites from my academic theatre career: “Okhlopkov and the Nascence of the Postmodern.” (That link is to a PDF.)

His name has no relation to ochlocracy. But the connection is heuristically useful. Those staring eyes o o in the ochlocracy: they are not wide-open eyes but rather goggles, focusing, colouring, and distorting your vision. They are uninspected metanarratives: overarching stories and schemas that guide the construction and interpretation of the stories you use to justify diving into the mob. You put them on to keep the blood out of your eyes, and then take them off when they are too spattered. But if you can get enough frost or dust on them first, you may take them off and then see more clearly before there is any blood flying.

Every mob, after all, is an Emerald City, so appealing just because each member has chosen to put on emerald glasses made of his or her own justifications. “To make an omelet you have to break a few eggs!” they say. But if you are not cool and chary enough, you will find yourself surrounded by empty shells, with egg on your face.


Across the desert we walked, the sere heat flushing my face. Perspiration sublimated so that my skin was left with a fine powdery coating of my own salt. We had our eyes on one thing: the oasis, the pools, the cool drinks. Our respite waited in the decreasing distance marked by a flaming O.

Flamingo. Marked by a flamingo. The bird. The pink one. Sheesh.

Well, what do you want? We were in Las Vegas.

Pink flamingos are, as we all (I hope) know, an emblem of mid-20th-century American kitsch: lawn ornaments bespeaking a balmy plastic paradise. Florid like Florida – a blazing blushing colour like that ghastly “white zinfandel” that wine infidels marketed to the brunch set. Emblematic not just of middle America and its TV-dinner cult but of the louche underbelly of the same, the trailer park of Pink Flamingos, an early John Waters film that I would not recommend watching unless you are exceedingly fond of obscene deeds.

Or, you know, pink like shrimp. You are what you eat, and flamingos eat pink things. Those that don’t eat enough carotenoid-containing crustaceans and algae turn out pale. (This is a nota bene to my sea-insect-avoiding wife: if you wish to be in the pink of health…)

Did you think such obvious food-plumage linkage didn’t have a leg to stand on? It does. One leg. Flamingos are well known for standing on one spindly leg at a time, the other one retracted like landing gear. This is proof that they eat a balanced diet, for they could hardly be so balanced otherwise, no?

They probably stand on one leg for the same reason that people shift from foot to foot: to give one leg a rest. Mind you, they’re not standing on hard floors. They mostly hang out in water with muddy bottoms, and they scoop their pink food from the muddy water and filter it with their upside-down-smile beaks. Again, just like people: we are all standing in the mud, but some of us… are eating from the mud too, and grimacing while doing it. Never mind.

But a flamingo is not a big flaming zero in life. It’s in the pink. And it’s flaming, o, it’s flaming! That’s what the name comes from, after all: Portuguese flamengo, Spanish flamenco, and so on, all meaning ‘flaming’. Bright, blazing pink. Burning like a flamenco dancer.

Or a neon sign across the desert. Or the hot desert wind, and the neon signs beckoning to the pool…

IMG_2977 IMG_2994Me with my weight on one leg, standing in the water, having eaten plenty of shrimp, at the Flamingo.

Addendum: See comments below – it turns out the designer of the plastic pink flamingo lawn ornament died the very day the above photos were taken.


What do you call the caboose of a mountain? You know, the part where the sun doesn’t shine? If you’re standing on a peak, and there’s one side that’s facing south (or towards the equator, I should say) and another that’s not (so it’s always in the shadow), and you’re like, “You – front; you – back,” what do you call the “you – back” bit?

How about ubac?

Yes, it’s a real word, and yes, that’s what it means: the side of a mountain where the sun doesn’t shine. Or, as skiers call it, the part where the good powder is and the snow stays around late in the season.

But I have to be fair: ubac isn’t pronounced like “you back.” No, it’s like “oo bac.” Sort of like oobleck (you know, the non-Newtonian fluid named after some good from Dr. Seuss). Or like caboose said backwards without the /s/. And with an actual /a/ or /æ/ for the a rather than the /ə/ in caboose. Whatever.

And, like Cognac, Armagnac, Frontignac, Monbazillac, Sazerac, serac, and cul-de-sac – five alcoholic beverages, a glacial tower, and a dead-end street – it comes to us from French. (Various other ­ac words such as maniac and demoniac are formed from Latin sometimes coming by way of French, but I’d rather deal with alcohol and geography than with maniacs and demoniacs if you don’t mind.) Actually, ubac comes from Occitan, from a language of southern France that has resisted being completely eclipsed by French, but French did steal this word from it fair and square.

It’s an odd-looking word, isn’t it? Its etymology is opaque. Well, it’s opaque to the person simply looking at it – it doesn’t show you clearly where Occitan got it from. But it’s also opaque because that is where Occitan got it from. It came from Latin opacus, source of opaque. Not that the back of a mountain can’t be seen through – actually, come to think of it, it can’t; that’s why it’s in the shade, mountains are opaque – but the Latin word opacus means ‘shady’.

So there it is. A word taken from Latin that wore down and became unrecognizable in the shady corners of a post-Latin language. Many common words have gone through such transformations. They get mossy, as it were. (Moss grows on the shady side of things.)

I like mountains. I even like the shady sides of them. But if you prefer to be in the sun somewhere warm and flat and sandy rather than out of the sun somewhere cool and steep and snowy, that’s easy enough. Just hit the sea first. I mean the C. Take it from the end of ubac and put it at the beginning. Congratulations: now you have Cuba.


You do well to be cagey when unlacing a language’s insouciant linguistic genius, for you may find its dark underside, its cabinet of Doctor Caligari, its closet of Caligula. But sometimes these dark undersides are callipygian: light and lithe on the tongue, prettily curved for the eyes, exquisite for lexical carousing. So fine, in fact, that they may slip into a party purely by pulchritude and do a star turn on a stage not their own.

Consider this line from The Wizard of Oz: “You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!” So expressive, so sound-symbolic. But therein is an obscurity: caliginous. What is this abecedarian coelacanth or architeuthis dux doing scaling de profundis into the mechanical racket as a sesquipedalian expletive? What, in fact, would caliginous junk be?

I’m rather inclined to think it’s what one finds in a Jawa sandcrawler or perhaps the corners of an HR Giger painting or an issue of Heavy Metal magazine, or second after second of Blade Runner. We know what junk is, especially clinking, clanking, clattering collected junk. But what can make it caliginous is just darkness and mist.

Caliginous is not just an obscure word; it is a word of obscurity. It is obnubilation. Latin caliginosus means ‘misty, dark, obscure’; it comes from a root referring to fog. You may thus picture dim heaps of rusting metal dripping with oil and condensed smog. And yet they are named with this shining lexeme, so suited to lamprophony. It is a light and dry way to refer to wet darkness.


Is the meaning of this word clear when you look at it?

It’s a lovely long word with a nice balance on the page. If you are an inveterate word taster, you will surely see that phony and know that it’s not a fake: it’s the same as you see in symphony and cacophony. So this word refers to a kind of sound. And the sound of this word, you will also guess correctly, puts the stress on the pivot o in the middle. But what kind of light do we get from the lamp?

Too easy, isn’t it? There’s no way that that lamp could be the same lamp that lights your desk. Perhaps it is part of a lamprey? Or an electric eel on an electric guitar? Or perhaps it is softly glowing, lambent.

But in fact this really is one that you can see clearly through. Greek λάμπειν lampein meant ‘shine’; the derived λαμπρός lampros meant ‘shining, bright’. From the first we get lamp, and from the second we get lamprophony and a few other lampro– words. So lamprophony is bright, shining sound. Specifically, it refers to a quality of voice: loud and clear – good enunciation, good projection, good resonance. The sort of person you can hear across a crowded room, like a bright lamp in the caliginous fog.


Sometimes you meet someone and you sit to talk or listen for a spell. They say a few words and you listen closer, led, and you are bewitched, gradually or suddenly, until you list ensorcelled and you cast your lot with this person, you know this mouth full of words is your sort. The die is cast, and he is killing you softly with his song – or she with hers – and he is a magic man, she a magic woman; the curtains flew and he or she appeared, saying don’t be afraid… you started to fly… you were bewitched, bothered, bewildered. It is all a song; it soars as it sings, and it is sorcery.

Do we not all seek, at one time or another, to be ensorcelled? To take leave of our senses, to rise up from the world, wafting on the draft of the scent of another, the words, the inner curves, the corners of the mind, the webs of the fingers, the tongue and eyes and their many uses? To pass through a lens to the core of… of what? Ourselves or what we want to be or what we want another person to be? Remember that every magnet is a dipole, and one pole is attracted to another: the face we present to the world is one pole, and our deepest internal is the other, and we are attracted to those who present the same as that inner pole to us. We are drawn to this rare person of the earth.

Because there are only two kinds of magnets but there are many sorts of people. And it is perhaps aleatory to find the right match. But when we meet, it is sorcery indeed. And it pulls together and it pulls apart, on both sides. Here is a passage from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje:

Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.

He has been disassembled by her.

And if she has brought him to this, what has he brought her to?

He and she have ensorcelled each other.

I think we all seek at one time or another such ensorcellment. We all seek to look back, later in life, on having been ensorcelled. To know that our plot could not have been as it was without it.

Such as soft silver word, ensorcel. All the consonants on the licking tip of the tongue or with a little caress of its curve: the nose-kiss of /n/, the purr of /r/ and the liquor chill of /l/, and the curving serpent s whispering softly in the ear c, which echoes the same sound. It is a word made to be spoken in a breath across a dim table. And yet it is a word for fireworks.

I have a book of paintings from the Albright-Knox Museum. On page 47 is a bold, symmetrical fountain of yellow and red on a dark blue background: “Fireworks” by James Ensor. The original French title is “Le feu d’artifice” – the artificial fire, the fire of artifice. It is an artifice by Ensor, celestial fire touched off by sparks on powder on the ground, calculated magic and a ballistic result.

Ballistic? From Greek βάλλω balló ‘I throw’. Throw and it leaves your hand, and you see the result. What do we throw? All sorts of things. Dice, yes – alea iacta est, the die is cast, an aleatory situation – but also glances, caution, hearts, lots. Not just lots of things; things called lots: any of various objects used for casting in random divination. The practice of using this is sortition, also called allotment; a person who divined using lots was, in Latin, a sortarius.

But divination is magic. If someone divines, by wit or by feel, what note to strike to resonate with the strings of your heart, so that you will cast your lot with them or feel out of sorts, they are surely a mage, a magician, a witch, a sort of sorcerer. A sortarius, which is where our word sorcerer comes from, by way of French. To bewitch was, in Middle French, ensorcerer, which became ensorceler to make it easier to say. And from that we gained English ensorcel, also spelled ensorcell.

We are told to avoid sorcerers and sorcery. But while we do not want necromancers, we want neck romancers, not a Dracula but someone who will give us love bites. We know there are lots of people in the world, and we want to find the right sort, the divine one who will divine what is in us. The other half to our magnet, perhaps. The one who will cast his or her lot with us, and stay with us for a spell. We want, if only to sing songs of it later, to have been ensorcelled.