Category Archives: word tasting notes

gasp

You are sitting alone at home in the late evening, staring at your computer screen, when something sends a sudden chill down your spine. A bit of news you read on the web? Or an unknown visitor dripping cold water on your back?

You’re watching TV, a live leaders’ debate before an election, when someone says something disarmingly frank… or utterly stupid. Maybe “Of course we don’t want a free press.” Or maybe “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

You dive into a swimming pool. You dive deep. Quite deep. You’re swimming down there, holding your breath, swimming, going upward, swimming, still under the surface, holding your breath, how deep can you be, um, are you actually moving up? Swim, come on, swim up, come on, can’t hold your breath forever, where is that surface where is and your head breaks through to air —

You’ve found a new romantic interest, and you’re in a secluded place… wondering how far it will go… and you find out when your lover touches you just… there…

What, in each of these moments, does your mouth do? What do your lungs do? What sound do you seem to be making?

Is not gasp one of the most perfectly expressive words there are? The tongue unblocks the back, the mouth gapes to let air through, then like a wave it closes again, washing at the tongue tip and stopping at the lips. A round intaking gesture.

But a sudden, grasping one! You may be inhaling deeply, but it’s sure not a yawn. Well, not in English, anyway. In the original Scandinavian source, that’s what it meant, and in modern Scandinavian languages the word it has become still means that – Swedish gäspa, for instance (which is said like “yes, Pa”): yawn.

In English, that yawn has come to a startled awakening and realized its full expressive potential. It has also accumulated expectations, images, and clichés: the crowd gave a collective gasp, an audible gasp; a gasp of surprise, horror, pain, or pleasure was heard – or perhaps it was a strangled or stifled gasp. But more than anything else, it comes down to that echoing last gasp.

Olean

I’m back for a day in the Southern Tier of Western New York, where my mom grew up. I’ve visited every so often since I was a kid, and more often since I moved to Toronto. It’s lovely lush rolling hilly country with no straight roads, and the Southern Tier Expressway (New York Route 17, now also Interstate 86) snaking through it like a dead anaconda dried into pitted concrete. For me, it is a land of family mythos and childhood memories, of the smells and sights I associated with visits to my grandmother and great-grandparents. And it is a land of towns and counties with names quite unlike any I knew in Alberta.

The Southern Tier is Chautauqua /ʃəˈtɑkwə/ (“sha-tok-wa”), Cattaraugus /ˌkætəˈrɑgəs/ (cat-a-raw-gus”), and Allegany /ˈæləˌgeni/ (“al-a-gay-nee”) counties. Towns that we passed through or heard of on the way to West Clarksville, where my great-grandparents lived and they and my grandmother are now buried, included Houghton /hotən/ [ˈhoʷʔn̩] (that business there with the International Phonetic Alphabet means // is what people think of the sounds as being but [] is how those sounds are realized – Berlitz-style would be “hoe-ton”), where my parents met in College; East Randolph; Salamanca /ˌsæləˈmæŋkə/ (“sal-a-mang-ka”) – stretched like a leisurely salamander next to the expressway in a scenic notch; Cuba (said as you’d expect), which I knew as a town before I’d ever heard of it as a country (and which is a good place for cheese); Bolivar (/ˈbɑləvɚ/, like “Oliver” with a B); Friendship; and the one we’re closest to right now, Olean, another set of newish large stores and oldish houses and no-longer-fresh businesses on the main drag, sitting by the expressway, a lump of human manufacture in this wiggling valley of trees.

Before I give a pronunciation guide, how do you think Olean pronounced?

Does it look sort of like Orleans?

Nope. Think more in the direction of linoleum. And petroleum. And oleander. It’s pronounced /ˈoliæn/, “oh Leanne.” And it has the same ol as in those other three words: related to oil and, originally, olives – oleander is so named because it looks sort of like an olive tree but is not; in fact, it’s poisonous.

Olean’s connection to oleander stops at the name and the basis of the etymology. It connects a bit more to the other two.

Olean is actually near the first place in North American that petroleum was sighted; there was an oil spring a bit east, near Cuba, originally discovered in the 1600s. When Europeans settled in the area in the 1700s, they first called it by a name given by the local Iroquois peoples, Ischua. But that name had multiple spellings and seemed odd to Anglophones, so a major who bought land in the area decided it should be renamed with the Latin-derived invention Olean in honour of the oil spring. That oil spring turned out to be quite a boon for the town. Once oil became a big thing, starting in the mid-1800s, Olean became a local depot and distribution point. Oil was a major part of the local economy until 1954. Between then and now, the city has lost nearly half its population – it’s a bit over 14,000 now.

They don’t make linoleum in Olean; linoleum is a kind of tile originally made with an extract of linseed oil (lin for linseed oleum is the Latin for ‘oil’, related by way of Greek to olive), and the tiles that were made in Olean for a century were ceramic. Have you heard of American Olean? You can still buy it. It’s a very popular widely used brand of ceramic tile. (Speaking of ceramics, 95 miles further east is Corning; you have their casseroles, perhaps – but at least as likely you have their glass on your mobile phone.) The Olean Tile Company was founded in 1913 in Olean. After they were bought by another company, the products became American Olean. They continued to be made in Olean until 2013; now they’re made in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Which just happens to connect to why we’re here. My mom wanted to come to a reunion of descendants of the 154th New York Regiment from the Civil War. They came from around here but fought (along with many others) at Gettysburg, among other places.

Actually, I’ve never been to Gettysburg. I grew up in western Canada, and we learned very little about the American Civil War in school. But I did visit the Southern Tier a few times. And now I’m back here again and learning more about that war at least one of my ancestors fought in… and about these places with names that had been familiar as road signs passed by and as words on my nearer ancestors’ lips.

brattice

It’s true that when I was a minor I was often more than a little brattish. However, I did not like when others pointed it out, as my brother often did. Reg, three years my elder, often used his seniority as cause and means to torment me, and the fact that our rooms were divided by the merest of partitions – well, a standard domestic wall made of drywall, but not a very effective sound barrier – meant that a lot of venting went on, especially when he did such things as making a three-minute loop tape of himself whispering loudly “Jamie is a brat, a brat, a brat” and playing it at full volume on the other side of the wall. My dirty dark room became the pit of my despair, and I didn’t dig it.

So when I see the word brattice, it inevitably comes with a bitter taste of youthful torment. It’s no minor thing. However, it is a miner thing. Specifically, a brattice is a partition at the bottom of a mine shaft – most typically made of boards – to keep the outbound and inbound ventilation separate. (Better-made mines have two shafts.) It can also refer to other similar walls of planking. I can’t help having an image of it as some sort of lattice, thanks to the word form, but it’s not. It’s solid enough, although it can be makeshift. Indeed, the first sense of brattice – now obsolete – was a temporary wooden structure added to fortress battlements for use during a siege. Its etymology is convoluted and a bit brutish, or at least brutesche (one ancient spelling), but it comes by way of French and perhaps before that German. Other accepted modern versions of the word are brettis and brattish. Fair enough: a brattish is stiff boards, and I was brattish because I was bored stiff.

In its role as a ventilation partition, a brattice would typically have cool, fresh air on one side and hot, stale air on the other. As I am building a hasty analogy between it and the wall between my bedroom and my brother’s, you can easily guess which side I wish to present as being cool and fresh and which as being assailed by intolerable stale hot air. My brother’s puerile pesterings have poisoned even the word bratwurst for me, though I love a good sausage so much I can ignore the name. But I will tell you this: I may have been the worst brat, but my brother was a wiener.

whether

The life of the language maven can be weathering, even withering. When someone asks whether this or that is acceptable, should you be a weathercock, turning with the times? Or a weatherman, predicting the future? Or a bellwether, leading the flock?

Over the weekend, I got the following as a comment from Paula Tohline Calhoun on my tasting of however:

I have a question for you. I have been instructed on more than one occasion that the use of the word “whether” should never be accompanied with “or not.” The reason is that it would be redundant, because the “or not” is implied in the word “whether.” Is this a general rule, and are there exceptions, such as the phrase you used in the article above, “Most of those who had been writing were no longer certain whether to write or not.”

My short answer was as follows:

If your goal in writing is always to use as few words as possible, the “or not” is not necessary. However, the minimal use of words is not always the most important goal in writing, and sometimes it’s actually counterproductive. Restatements and emphasis of what is already implied are sometimes quite useful for the flow of the text. Using more words than the most economical phrasing possible is not an error or a grammatical fault, although it can be a flaw – but using too few words can also be a flaw if it makes the prose too choppy or abrupt, or too severe in tone, or insufficiently evocative.

But wait, there’s more. Consider the following quotations (all provided handily by the Oxford English Dictionary):

Whether this be, Or be not, I’le not sweare. —The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Thou shalt remaine here, whether thou wilt or no. —A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or no. —Letters, Percy Bysshe Shelley

What matters whether or no I make my way in life. —Henry Esmond, William Makepeace Thackeray

And then consider these:

whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s —Bible, King James Version

For Loyalty is still the same, Whether it win or lose the Game. —Hudibras, Samuel Butler

I knew he would act a good part whether he rose or fell. —Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith

That Reason which remains always one and the same, whether it speaks through this or that person. —The Friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It implies alternatives, but sometimes the choice is not between opposites but just between a field that has been limited to two: “I’m not sure whether to get the green ones or the red ones.” “It will upset him, but I don’t know whether it will make him angry or sad.” “I really don’t care whether we have steak or fish for dinner, as long as it’s not chicken.” So whether doesn’t always imply a simple yes-or-no choice.

We’ve had the word since forever, of course. And for a long time, one of its available uses was as a pronoun, like which or whichever: “Whether do you want, this or that?” “Whether of the two will it be?” “I don’t care whether of them you choose.” “Pour it into a mug or a cup, whether you have.” It was also sometimes an interrogative particle that would seem superfluous to us now: “Whether does it work better this way or that?” “Whether is it necessary?” But these usages didn’t survive quite to our times, though some lasted into the 1800s. What we have kept is the conjunction that signals a choice between two things. Sometimes those things are both named, and sometimes only one is named and the other is by implication the opposite or the absence of the one.

So we can see that the practice of including the or not with the whether is time honoured and draws on usages where both options must be named. The issue remaining is whether it’s bad to include the or not, and if not, why not. As I have said, it’s not an error. Superfluity often makes for poor writing, but it is not ungrammatical; indeed, sometimes it is a good idea. Consider this well-known passage spoken by Winston Churchill:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

You could certainly tidy that up to this:

We shall fight hard everywhere to defend England without surrendering.

I just don’t think you should, and I will fight you on the pages and on the websites, on Twitter and on Facebook if you do. While I do not wish to foster bombast and prolixity, I do think we should resist at all costs a totalitarian regime of textual concision. Sometimes your text demands that you put in those extra words, whether you think you should.

Or not.

sessionable

Although I am not a compulsive camp-follower of the fashionable, I do like interesting beers. I am not always as charmed by some of the precious vocabulary surrounding them – in-group usages for which the impressionable are insatiable. Just like the much-beloved and varied hops, there is a reason for their being there, but too much can leave an unpleasant taste.

In recent years there have been beers called session ales. Never on the bottle or can do they explain what this means; you are expected to pick it up or figure it out somehow, just as you are expected to know what kind of beer a saison and an IPA are. (Linguists often lean towards IPAs just because IPA also stands for International Phonetic Alphabet, but the kind of beer – India Pale Ale is its full name – is a bit bitter for some.) Well, fine, one learns about these things. But then I started noticing beers that were not labelled session ale but were described as sessionable.

Well, now, what does that mean, then? That you can do whatever it is you do to a beer to make a session ale? Or that session ales are so called because they are sessionable? How exactly do you session a beer? Or do you session with a beer? I mean, a saison is seasonable, and an IPA is I-pee-able, but how do you session?

Oh, we can make –able adjectives with nouns; saleable and marriageable are two good examples. I suppose for a Zen Buddhist a good but knotty koan is sesshinable. (A sesshin is a multi-day meditation spree – not necessarily binge thinking but perhaps something of a mind bender.) So if you can make a sale with something saleable, you can make a session with something sessionable. Fine, then. What the heck is a session in this context?

A session, as it turns out, is – or at least shades into – what some crypto-prohibitionist literature calls a binge: several drinks in one sitting. (In the time and place I grew up, you called it a binge if it lasted several days, but apparently now if you go to a five-hour party and have five drinks, you have been on a binge. I do not think this is a very sensible and usable extension of the meaning.) The point is not that a sessionable beer is one that will keep you drinking it – sessionable is not a synonym for moreish. It’s that a sessionable beer is one that you can have several of in one sitting and not be blitzed. (Session does come from Latin for ‘sit’, after all. Not from Latin for ‘fall off your chair’.)

In other words, sessionable is another word for weak. Or, um, low-ABV, if you want to use more in-group terminology. (ABV is alcohol by volume. You know, as opposed to alcohol by weight, the other way of measuring it. Though low ABV is also low ABW, and honestly, the BV doesn’t really add anything except the ability to make a TLI – three-letter initialism – thereby allowing you to sound all technical and knowledgeable and stuff.)

So calling a weak beer sessionable is like calling some snack food dinnerable or (as has been seen) lunchable because it’s supposedly not so unhealthy that you can’t just eat your fill of it. But the intention is more like calling a song singable because you won’t hurt your voice or make a fool of yourself or get bored singing it. Stick with this beer and you’ll be able to drink all evening without having to be dragged out. It’s bingeable without being shitfaceable. If you have an insatiable thirst but are out with someone impressionable, go with the sessionable. That way you won’t end up in an intercessionable state.

ecdysis, ecdysiast

Summer is indeed here! (And a little “sorry” on the side for my readers in New Zealand and Australia.) Unless the day is insufficiently sultry, you can expect an general exodus to the exterior, especially the sandy strand but also the concrete edge of the pool, for a general ecstasy of ecdysis. When chocolate, ice cream, and perhaps even people are quickly molten, it’s time for moulting.

This is not to say that beachgoers are the ones typically intended by the term ecdysiast. That’s normally reserved for those whose stripping is meant to tease – and is done indoors, in contexts more figuratively than literally sultry. The word was introduced into English for just that purpose, by H.L. Mencken in 1940, in a supplement to The American Language: “It might be a good idea to relate strip-teasing in some way … to the associated zoölogical phenomenon of molting… A resort to the scientific name for molting, which is ecdysis, produces both ecdysist and ecdysiast.” The latter, which has come to be the preferred word, is pronounced like “eck dizzy assed,” and I suppose some dizziness of the ass may come from twerking or swinging on the pole, but I would not want this word to be thought of as derogatory. Indeed, it seems more enthusiastic if anything.

Ecdysis, on the other hand, is pronounced like “eck da sis.” It comes (since 1867 in English) straight from Greek ἔκδυσις ekdusis, which is from the verb ἐκδύειν ekduein ‘put off’. It refers to moulting, but principally to sloughing not feathers but cuticle (as with crustaceans) or dead skin (as with caterpillars and snakes). This is a suitable simile in the summer season: peel off your winter clothes, and your indoor clothes, and hit the swelter in your fresh skin – probably clad in a bathing suit, but whatever. If you happen to be where complete disattirement (not to say excoriation) is allowable, doffing your togs down to the epidermis does not make you an ecdysiast unless you do it gradually for an appreciative audience – or, I suppose, even one that is put off by your putting off. But it is, I would say, ecdysis: the annual self-revelation, the ecstasy of exposure. After all, ecdysis does rather sound like ecstasis, from ἔκστασις ekstasis, ‘standing out’ or ‘placing outside’, from ἐκ ek ‘out’ and ἱστάναι histanai (verb) ‘place’.

So place yourself outside! Stand out! Slough your old skins! No need to strip altogether if you don’t want; just desist from your extra clothing. No one needs an anorak in the summer.

sultry

The sultry season: the sun’s sweltering assault and the incessant insult of the sweaty thick air. Your skin drips and your lips are salty; you are swimming and your fingers seem as sultanas. Unless you are a sultan, you are likely to become sulky and sullen… and truly thirsty.

Or, if you follow Noel Coward, you could be a mad dog or an Englishman and survive. Coward’s jaunty (and somewhat racist) song glorifying the oblivious hardiness of the pasty imperialists has this stanza:

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire to take their clothes off and perspire.
It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is far too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray.

Truth be told, I find the word sultry almost too alluring in that context. Although it refers to heat, and by typical implication humidity too, it has overtones lacking in, for instance, sweltering. That word has a welter of heat in it and a strong sense of sweat. Sultry, on the other hand, though it has such negative echoes as sullen, sulk, and insult, somehow has something silky in it too. It has come to be used figuratively in reference to sexual allure, especially feminine and especially in specific performative aspects. The most common word seen in the company of sultry is voice – speaking, singing, growling, murmuring, what have you: it is a voice that will make you sweat. There are also sultry eyes. And there are sultry days, afternoons, nights, scenes of languor and of lust.

The attribution to a sensuous siren is a recent one – less than a century old in this kind of use. References to passions and lusts go much farther back, as we may expect: to the 1600s, not long after the word first appeared. But even in the poetry of the 1800s the references are nearly all literal or barely extended: sultry dawn, sultry day, sultry mead, sultry breeze, sultry silence, sultry scents, sultry leagues of tropic seas, sultry stars of summer, sultry passion-flowers, sultry wings, a sultry, yellow sky, and much sultry heat.

Sultry is heavy, hot, sweaty, yes, but somehow almost alluringly so, at least sometimes. It is an ulterior sweltry. Quite literally, in fact. Sultry comes from sulter, which is an alternate form of swelter, which gives us sweltering and sweltry. And where does swelter come from? It is an old word, one that has always been in the language, but at first it referred not to heat, nor just to fading away from heat. Here it is in the third verse of the third chapter of Genesis, in Old English:

and of ðæs treowes wæstme þe is onmiddan neorxnawange, God bebead us ðæt we ne æton, ne we ðæt treow ne hrepodon, ði læs ðe we swelton.

Do you see it? The last word, swelton. Here is what the above means:

and of the tree’s fruit that is in the middle of Paradise, God commanded us that we not eat, nor that we touch the tree, lest we die.

So we see from the story of the creation of the world how the word has evolved, in its form and in its sense: Die. Evanesce. Fade away. Then fade away from hunger, from heat. Then experience the heat. Then be the heat. Then be hot. But from the first to the last, it is wrapped up in fatal desire…