Category Archives: word tasting notes


Who can bear life adjacent to the jaculiferous? Who would not rather let sleeping fugu lie than suffer the slings and arrows of tetrodotoxin? Who would not reject a brush with a porcupine? And yet it can be so hard to spot them, swimming through social spheres innocuously until someone darts an odd glance or malapert word… and then the spines come out.

Well, there’s the long and the short of it: It can take a sharp eye to spot the danger, to see what will lie and what will dart. In Latin, jacere (really iacere, since Latin did not have separate letters for i and j, and what we now write as j was a consonantal version said like “y”) with a long e before the r (often represented now as jacēre) means ‘lie’ – as in lie there. Something that lies next to something else is adjacent. But jacere (iacere) with a short e (sometimes set down as jacĕre for clarity) means ‘throw’. As in alea jacta est, ‘the die is cast’. Modern words such as reject derive from that root. The Latin word jaculare is derived from it; it is a verb meaning ‘dart’. The noun jacula means the noun ‘dart’.

There are a few words that derive from this. Today’s word is one such. It combines with Latin ferre ‘bear, carry’ (ferre is related to the verb bear way back) to give us jaculiferous, ‘dart-bearing’ (if it were a common word, the puncturing would surely lead to occasional misconstrual as draculiferous, but it’s not). It refers to things that have darts or dart-like spines on them. An example is the genus Diodon, which contains the pufferfish, among which is one kind of fugu, a name for a few different blowfish that bear a deadly tetrodotoxin and just happen to be a famous item in Japanese cuisine. Of course you try to eat the parts without the toxin, or with just enough toxin to give you a slight tingle in the lips without actually, you know, paralyzing your respiratory system and killing you. As happened to the Kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, who rolled the dice (so to speak) and finally lost.

And we thought porcupines were hazardous. Oh, yes, porcupines are jaculiferous too. They don’t puff up like the fish, but they have the dart-like spines (the fact that they don’t throw them does not disqualify them). Both kinds of porcupines count. Say, did you know that New World porcupines are only distantly related to Old World porcupines? Old World porcupines are Hystricidae; New World porcupines are Erethizontidae. Something to think about when you’re pulling out the quills.

Jaculiferous things are best avoided. Jaculiferous people (figuratively speaking, of course) are also usually better treated with circumspection. But, as with the written form of the word, we carry on with life in the midst of them. We are always rolling the dice, never quite sure for whom the darts are borne.


As a rule, I do tastings of English words here, and the occasional loan that is at least partly adopted. Plus a few inventions. But today I saw an entirely non-English word that most Anglophones are unlikely ever to see, and I wanted to toss it in.

I am subscribed to word-of-the-day emails for several languages. It’s my idea of fun. I am variously incipiently able in the languages: Mandarin (been studying it for years off and on, but forget almost as much as I learn), Dutch (I got by in Amsterdam, but they all speak English), Portuguese (helped me on my recent vacation), Swedish (a useful interest, as I actually have relatives on my wife’s side in Sweden), Danish (added because we visited Copenhagen last year, but I don’t enjoy the language as I thought I would), Japanese (I know I will never get too far in it; if I plan a trip there I’ll add some elbow grease), and Finnish (because why not). Guess which one this word is from.

Did you guess Finnish? If so, you got it. Some clues include the length of the word, the number of double letters, and the unrecognizability of practically all of it.

Practically? Well, there is that moottori. Bear in mind that in Finnish a double letter is said like the single letter held for longer, so moottori sounds like motori said by someone trying to be creepy. Take off the i – which is there to make it more like a Finnish word following Finnish rules – and you have motor. Which, in fact, is what it is.

OK, so fine. What is the rest of this train wreck?

Train wreck? I don’t know if that’s actually quite the best word for it. To me it looks more like the skid marks left on a highway by a motorcycle that has slid on its side at highway speeds. Or perhaps like a Muybridge-style filmstrip of someone getting into a great difficulty at high speed. But if you’re Finnish you’ll spot the pieces and know how it’s put together. You’ll see moottori, then pyörä, then onnettomuus – which is in turn formed from onnetton plus uus, and onnetton in its turn is from onni pus ton.

So. Let’s pick up the pieces and reconstruct what’s happened here. Start with onni: it means ‘happiness’ or ‘luck’. Next ton, a suffix that’s like English –less, so onnetton means ‘happiness-less’ or ‘luckless’ or, more to the point, ‘unhappy’ or ‘unlucky’. The uus is a nominalizing suffix, like English –ness. So onnettomuus (note the shift from n to m; Finnish has little alternations like that just to keep agglutination interesting) could be translated as ‘unhappiness’ or ‘unluckiness’. Except it’s not.

Not? No. The direct English equivalent is accident. An accident may once have been just a “thing that happened,” but now it’s a bad thing that came about. An unhappy, unlucky incident.

Oh, and pyörä? It means ‘wheel’ or ‘cycle’. So: moottoripyöräonnettomuus means motorcycleaccident. Doesn’t it look fitting? I think it does.

Does it sound like one? I don’t think so, not so much, but here’s how to say it. Let’s start with the fact that all words in Finnish have stress on the first syllable. It’s separate from vowel and consonant length. This can take a lot of getting used to. Anyway, compound words have intermediate stress at the start of each of their compound parts: moottori pyöonnettomuus.

Finnish spelling is entirely phonetic. The sound of Finnish has been mistaken for Italian (by those who know neither language); the vowels are “pure.” But Finnish, unlike, say, Italian, also has front-back “vowel harmony”: all vowels in a given word (or part of a compound) are either front or back (neutral vowels can be in either). But this is a language-internal perspective: i and e are “neutral”; a, o, and u are the “back” vowels, and each has its “front” pair – a as in father pairs with ä as in hat (the sounds are closer together than the English pair for many dialects of English, though); o as in Italian solo pairs with ö as in German schön; u as in English chute pairs with y, which is like ü in German Führer or u in French lune.

And there are a few diphthongs; in this word, we see just one, probably the hardest one for Anglophones to nail: , which is like saying the English letter names “E-A” with your lips rounded tight. (You’ll need to learn it early; by itself is the Finnish word for ‘night’. ‘Goodnight’ is Hyvää yötä.)

So. From that, and remembering that double letters are like single letters but held longer, you have all the information you need to say moottoripyöräonnettomuus.

Which is like saying that if you’ve read about motorcycles and ridden a bicycle, you have all the information you need to drive a motorcycle: in reality you may lay it down sideways when you try. So you may need to practice a few times. If you feel that a bit of International Phonetic Alphabet would help, here you go: [ˈmoːtːoriˌpyøræˌonːɛtːomuːs].

Oh, sorry. Did that look like an even worse accident? Well, Finnish is one of those languages where the IPA won’t really make your life any easier.

And why did they choose this word, of all the words they could have chosen, for word of the day? Actually, they didn’t. The word of the day was moottoripyörä; there were several phrases using it included as illustration. This word came from the illustrations. But I must say that some of those WOTD emails have some pretty messed-up choices for illustrative sentences.


My undergraduate alma mater (well, my first one, when I got my BFA in drama) is the University of Calgary. The campus was built in the mid-late 1960s, as were the neighbourhoods next to it, standard curvy-street suburban developments utterly typical of that sprawling hilly city (and many others). To the south is University Heights. To the north are Varsity Acres, Varsity Village, and Varsity Estates.

Those neighbourhoods were my first encounter with the word varsity. (I knew of them in my childhood, well before I went to university – a mall we often shopped at was right there too.) At first I didn’t know what it meant; I just took it as a name, like James or Calgary or Dalhousie (another neighbourhood in the area, and one we lived in for a year). Once I grew enough to learn that names came from somewhere and meant something, I knew that varsity referred to scholastic things, higher education – or rather the air and milieu of higher education, especially the sports.

Varsity, to me, is a word like a V-neck sweater with an athletic team name or letter or logo sewn onto it. (And this from a Canadian – you have to understand, collegiate sport means nothing to Canadians, and we are always at least a little nonplussed at the mania Americans have for it.) Its most common collocations are with sport things: junior varsity, varsity team, varsity athletes, and various specific sports such as varsity football. It can also be found in terms such as varsity cheer.

Athletics in higher education serve – or at least used to serve – a social function, an opportunity for group solidarity and boosterism. Places of education have an unavoidable social function, after all, and I think that’s good. As the saying goes, a university is a fountain of knowledge where students gather to drink. Perhaps varsity is a fountain of sports.

The words likewise have different flavours. University may be a place where you go to learn the classics and unlock the knowledge of the universe, a noble city of learning, with that cold but embracing U at its head and that unifying air of uni, even as it embraces diversity; varsity is more vibrant and aggressive, more rah-rah, more party, but also more class-conscious. It could be a word for varmints who just like team sports, but it could more readily be a word for the louche rich who go to Darby.

Sorry, I mean to Derby. Funny, that, how Derby came to be said as Darby. Well, not so funny, really; we may associate that sort of shift with a specific moneyed class in England, but it was common enough at one time. Person became parson (though we also kept the former); clerk became Clark (and those same upper-class types say clerk as “clark”); vermin became varmint (and then got taken up by certain people in the US); at one time mercy was said as “marcy” and certain as “sartain,” though those have not lasted generally. If this shift seems odd, then you haven’t been listening to many younger people (females even more than males) lately, especially among the university-educated set: a similar lowering is audible in many cases, making test sound like “tast,” for instance. It’s a quite unexceptional kind of sound shift.

It just happens to have become associated with a sartain, I mean certain, set in the case of varsity. Undoubtedly this has something to do with who would even be talking of varsity: those who could manage to go to one of the great universities of England, notably Cambridge and Oxford. It is they who have done the most to preserve this word, this aphetic and vowel-shifted variant of university, by having an annual extramural slaughter: the Varsity Match, a rugby game between Ox’ and ’Bridge. This casual, group-solidarity colloquial version of university persisted with the sports and spread to North America, while the precise and attentive university retained its reign over the institutions as a whole. In England, they shorten university to uni as they shorten television to telly; one might imagine that uni is where they learn and varsity where they play.

So in the classrooms and libraries we learn how university came to be varsity, while on the field they play varsity and chant and sing and drink and all that and care not a whit about the provenance of the word. But really they are the two sides of the university – north and south, if you will.


The world is my cloister.

That isn’t to say that I would want to be clustered too closely with monastics. That could induce some closet-like claustrophobia. But outside of such cloying, there is much to be said for cloisters, the oysters of the academic and spiritual worlds: enclosed shells within which may be found great pearls. Shells, moreover, that are open on one side, often to a beautiful, peaceful little space. A place to walk, and think, and breathe, where the clutter of the world is occluded. A warm heart made of cool stone: all that cloisters is not cold.

There are many famous cloisters in the world. One of my favourites is a museum in New York City, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the far north of Manhattan, in Fort Tryon Park. The building is a bricolage of medieval stonework, a modern monastery of centuries-old aesthetics. If you wish to try on this overcoat of stone and art, just take the A Train past where Duke Ellington got off, walk through the park, and meander in the enclosure taking in some of the best works of six, seven, and eight centuries ago.

The Met is not the only museum to have cloisters. We were in another one such in Madrid recently: the Prado (pray do not confuse that with Prada). Enter at the Jerónimos entrance and, instead of going to the right towards the main building, go to the left, up the escalators, up and up; follow the signs that say Claustro and you will find yourself in an old cloister, the Jerónimos building. (Does Jerónimos look like Geronimo or Hieronymus? Yes.) It features sculpture, sublime statuary frozen in poses of passion and devotion for all time, like Lot’s wife but not subject to dissolution in tears or rain.

We saw some other cloisters on the trip, too. We stayed in a hotel that was a converted (and substantially reconstructed) 12th-century monastery. It is now named Le Domaine. It has a lovely central garden surrounded by a quadrangle of cloistered walks. It remains a place for serene and rarefied pursuits, but now those pursuits are, while sublime, not metaphysical; the devotion is to the epicurean, and the pearls are of pecuniary price. It is surrounded by vineyards, and we drank sparkling wine in our finery where monks had once chanted. One may say we brought in some of what they had been closing out – but we still left behind what we had to face most every day.

When we were in Porto, we passed by cloisters on our visit to their cathedral. I won’t say we visited the cloisters; they required time, and an entrance fee, and we hadn’t enough of the first to justify the second. I satisfied myself with a photo through the door, a glimpse, past the sign that says Claustro, past the guard. Click.


As one gets: a glimpse of what one could have if one had the time and the money. But of course that was our whole vacation – what we had because we had the time and the money. A step through a half-open door into a closed world, inward-looking, peaceful. A place for contemplation and appreciation. If you are not claustrophobic.

Yes, cloister is related to claustrophobic. And to close, and closet, and occluded. They all trace back to the Latin root claus- and claud-, having to do with closing, shutting, locking. Cloister came altered by Old French (Latin claustrum, clostrum > Old French clostre, cloistre). At first it was just a closed and enclosed place; then a place of religious seclusion; then a structure often found in those, an inward-looking arcade.

Arcade? This sounds like a place of amusement. Ah, but there are so many kinds of amusement. We have an arcade on the ground level of the building I live in; in fact, it is 27 floors directly down from my feet and butt now as I sit near my window. It is open to the city, though; my personal cloister is more likely my library. But oh, et in Arcadia ego. The world is still my cloister.


There is a certain class of odd ducks one will quickly have one’s fill of: the philodoxes. They are easily found, especially these days: Twitter, Facebook, and especially comments sections of news websites and YouTube. For some reason, some of them are even paid to appear on television or radio.

We may readily discount any etymological association with phallus or dicks, but it’s quite a coincidence of sense, as phallic imagery is readily used in unkind descriptions of philodoxes. In actuality, the philo is the same as we see in philosophy, philomath, and such like, as well as in Philadelphia (with an a in place of the o), and the dox is the same as in orthodox and paradox. But a philodox is not some mere orthodox philosopher – well, he or she may be, but usually not – and is unlikely to be a paradox from Philadelphia. (Phlox won’t come into it at all unless the person is a philodox on the topic of horticulture.)

What, then, is a philodox? Allow me to pillage a couple of quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary. Here is a line from the Eagle of Berkshire, Massachusetts, in 1958: “One grows weary of the sickening sophomoric twaddle of our local pansophic philodox.” And here’s from the 1609 Poetical Recreations of Alexander Craig: “No greater fools then Philodoxes fond, And such as loue opinions of their own.”

Yes, philo, from ϕιλεῖν filein ‘love’ and δόξα doxa ‘opinion, glory’: one who loves opinion, glories in opinion, loves the glory of his or her own opinion. In short, a person who is dogmatic (or at least inflexible) and argumentative. The word sounds like it could name an ox from Philadelphia, but the reality is all ox and never mind Philadelphia, unless that’s the subject of conversation. It’s someone most people would agree is full o’… well, not ducks or docks. It is often said that opinions are like assholes – everyone has one. In the case of the philodox, you have an asshole who has opinions.

So now you have a word as crisp, clean, and starchy as white table linen, dedicated to naming a sort of people for whom you and others typically use much earthier descriptors. It has a related adjective, philodoxical, which is how I came to be aware of it: a little while ago, Erin McKean (@emckean) tweeted about its wordnik entry. I’m sure you will want to use these words on occasion. I know you will have occasion to.


I like learning languages, even if they’re not likely to be useful to me specifically. I may not visit the country, but if the language is fun, why not enjoy picking it up? I mean, I go running even though nothing I do for money requires running. It just makes me feel better and makes my body work better. I think that’s useful. Likewise, I think learning languages is useful, even if I don’t learn very much of a given language.

But what is a good way of learning a language? What things are useful? Different people will tell you different things and offer different approaches. It is likely to vary from person to person and depending on how the person intends to use the language. For instance, some people swear by audio-based acquisition methods – learn just by listening. However, if you’re in another country, my experience is that you will need the language most for reading signs and other instructions; spoken communication is both more flexible and longer in development. And if you have a strongly visual memory, having written forms to hang the words on may be a big plus.

I have found that getting used to the sounds of the language helps a lot – listen to it in videos, music, et cetera. In fact, learning songs in the language can be very useful and memorable… but for some languages, the sung version departs notably from the spoken version. If I’m going to actually use the language in another country soon (as for instance Portuguese on my recent vacation), it is best to learn things first that I am most likely to use: buying drinks, buying tickets, finding bathrooms, getting through airports… But if I just want to learn the language for literary purposes, and to get to know the culture, well, it makes sense to learn the standard cultural literary background, doesn’t it? Or at least selected highlights? A chrestomathy?

Chrestomathy. There’s a word you won’t see often; it is unlikely to show up in a chrestomathy of English. It is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable (and with the ch said as /k/). It means, per Oxford, “A collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language.” It has tastes for me of chrysalis, that intermediate form leading to a butterfly, and crest, a ridge point one must pass over, and stoma, which is basically a hole or a tube, and math, although this is more about language (still, why not be a polymath too if you can be a polyglot?), and more distantly of mastery and stretch and a few less pertinent things such as matches and Chester and torch.

But it comes from χρηστός khréstos ‘useful’ and μαθεια matheia ‘learning’. There is a related word, chrestomathic, which means (again per Oxford) “devoted to the learning of useful matters.” It’s a bit presumptuous to hold choice literary passages to be the epitome of useful learning, more than songs, say, or “Excuse me, where are the washrooms?” This is a basis not in the business of life – perhaps this is a vision for thelemites, who have servants to see to such little things – but in the standard references of culture. Famous scenes from movies? Snippets of children’s books? Apparently we should think more of scenes from Shakespeare and lines by John Donne and Alexander Pope and (if there is any justice at all) Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or even a single-author chrestomathy (perhaps Hemingway for the introductory readers, Nabokov for the more advanced, and Joyce or Faulkner or Pynchon for the exceptionally odd).

Well, whatever. If I were to christen my own chrestomathy for English, my choice of passages certainly would include music (“There are places I remember…”), children’s books (“The night Max wore his wolf suit…”), movie clips (“…We’ll always have Paris…”), comic strips (“…Tyrannosaurs in F-14s!!”), and perhaps even an ad or two (“Where’s the beef?”), to go alongside “To be or not to be…” and “No man is an island…” and “A little learning is a dangerous thing…” and “I burn the candle at both ends…” (and perhaps “…yes I said yes I will Yes” and “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins…” and “A screaming comes across the sky…”).

Or, you know, just some paragraphs from my blog.


Is it wrong to want more money? To accumulate wealth? To use money to get money? To stand passing along wealth and, with each stack of bills you hand over, taking one as a transaction fee?

Different people have, and have had, different views on this. Aristotle opposed the accumulation of wealth for its own sake; he viewed usury, brokerage, and even retailing as reprehensible. The Catholic Church opposed it for a long time too (even during eras when it was notably good at it). But having more money is very appealing, and those who have found ways of making their pies higher can also find ways of justifying doing so. It is a sign of skill! It motivates! It helps stimulate the economy! It provides necessary services! Et cetera.

And it is a short step from that to the idea that accumulation of wealth is a sign of virtue, even evidence of blessing. If you have found a way to divert some of the stream of money to your own pocket, and you thereby rise to the top – of the heap, of the opportunity ladder, of the luxury availability scale – you must be the cream.

Which makes chrematistics the math and statistics of the crema, the crème, the cream. Chrematistics is the “art of getting rich” (per Thales of Miletus), and chrematistic means (per Oxford) “Of, pertaining to, or engaged in the acquisition of wealth.” James Frederick Ferrier, in Lectures on Greek Philosophy, wrote of “The chrematistic class, from χρήματα, the Greek for money or wealth, this being the end which they aim at.”

To be more exact, the term traces back to χρῆμα khréma, which my Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary defines as “a thing, matter, business; piece, copy; fact; enterprise; amount, money; pl [χρήματα] goods, money, power.” It in turn belongs to a set of verbs and nouns relating to necessity; χρή khré, for instance, means “it is necessary.”

So riches are needful things. Goods, money, power: all these are wealth. The necessities – bare or otherwise. It is necessarily so, in this view. You can’t butter your bread without cream to make the butter! (The word cream does not come from this, though – it comes, by way of French, from chrism, the oil that is used for anointing, which Latin took from Greek; it is a coincidence, happy or otherwise, that if you are chrematistically endowed or fortunate, you may seem to be among the anointed.)

We may wonder whether, in fact, it is necessarily so, and may protest that it ain’t – that diverting the flow of value into accumulated deposits is like building up fat. True, every body has some fat. But too great a buildup can have negative consequences, and at any rate it’s energy that’s not being used.

For most of us, though, the philosophy and ethics of chrematistics are matters of abstract argument but not likely to change much in real life. We really want to know how. How do you get more money, anyway? Will charm be the right match-maker? Connections? Luck, wiles, sociopathy? It can’t hurt to be charismatic. We know that it has at best a loose connection with level of effort; a person may slave away twelve hours a day at a menial and exhausting job and make in a year what another person makes in half a minute with a stroke of a pen. This contest seems to have unfair handicaps, and you can’t blame many people for wanting a rematch.

The outcomes of experiments in communism at various scales have indicated that you can’t eliminate chrematistics from society altogether. Anyway, nearly everyone has some chrematistic bent, because having money is a very agreeable thing. The question is more whether there isn’t some point at which is becomes truly disordered, even morbid – and, if so, where that point is and how to keep societal chrematistics within functional bounds.

At the very least, though, we could recognize chrematistic skill as a skill like many others (musical, intellectual, et cetera), not intrinsically more virtuous, just more remunerative. Your magnetism for chremata doesn’t make you crema. It just makes you richer in what we think of as the necessities – and the luxuries.