Category Archives: word tasting notes


You know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, right? How a little girl with golden hair wanders through the woods and find a cabin and goes in? And sees three chairs and finds one too big, one too small, one just right, and then breaks the just-right one? And sees three bowls of porridge laid out, tries each, finds one too hot, one too cold, and one just right, and eats the whole bowl of the just-right one? And then finds three beds, one too hard, one too soft, and one just right, and falls asleep in the just-right one? And then the owners, who are three bears (!), come home (how far away could they have been, given that the porridge was sitting out and still hot) and survey the destruction (“Someone’s been sitting in my chair!” “Someone’s been eating my porridge!” “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!”) and find her? And she runs away?

This is a very popular fairy tale, in English-speaking culture at least (and I think generally in Western Europe), and it has given rise to the idea of the “Goldilocks principle”: you want to find a solution that is between extremes, something that is just right. In astrobiology, a Goldilocks planet is one in the “habitable zone” around a star – neither too hot nor too cold, et cetera.

Well. Do you know what that fairy tale is called by bears? “The weird little pale hairless destructive invader.”

Seriously, I can’t have been the only kid who found the behaviour of Goldilocks weird and unsettling. You wander alone in the woods (um, really? look, I grew up next to a forest and I would not wander alone through it as a kid) and happen on a cottage you don’t know, and you just… go in… and you can see it’s inhabited but you don’t stop and say, “Huh, I really don’t belong here.” No, you just take everything as though it’s been put there for you. Break the chair. Eat all the porridge. Sleep in the bed.

Sleep. In a bed. In an inhabited house. Owned by strangers. Who can’t be far away.

And apparently because she’s just a little blonde white kid this is expected behaviour, as opposed to the opening of a horror movie.

I grew up in bear country. Close encounters with bears were known to end with blood spatters.

Now, yeah, I know, kids. They wander through a new place and discover a playground or a garden or a rhubarb patch and they’re sure no one has ever seen this before and look what I discovered! and so on. (Did I ever in my childhood “discover” a rhubarb patch and eat a portion of someone’s crop? No comment.) Kids are natural-born imperialist colonial settlers, treating the entire world that has been the work of so many hands as a thing that was put there just for them to exploit. They’re little narcissists who think only of what they have done and suffered (usually not much), not what others have done and suffered (often much more). But the idea is they’re supposed to grow out of this. Adults are supposed to guide them and help them to grow out of it. Help them to see things from the other side. “What if you came home and found a bear – or even another kid – sleeping in your bed, having eaten your food and broken your chair?”

And some kids, at least, from a very young age recoil at the thought of going into a stranger’s house and eating their food and sleeping in their bed. Even if the door is unlocked. For them a fairy tale like this may just reinforce the sense that the world is a weird, creepy, thoughtless, invasive place. With bears that have better manners than people.

But, now, “Goldilocks solution.” At least we have the fact that of each set of three, one was just right, right?

There will, of course, be the “No, Frankenstein’s monster” set who eagerly point out that it is really a middle-bear’s-chair-porridge-and-bed solution or something like that (perhaps, for short, the “bear middle”). Smile and nod and let them wander off, hopefully to discover the meaning of the word metonymy.

But they’re not altogether off base. You see, the idea of a Goldilocks solution is that it’s just right. But just right for whom? The papa bear’s chair was just right for him. The mama bear’s chair was just right for her. The baby bear’s chair was just right for – erm, can’t remember baby bear’s gender, so I’ll say them. The porridges likewise were of the appropriate temperatures for their respective future diners. (The fact that it was left sitting out and yet retained its temperature suggests to me that it was really congee, which, in my experience, never cools off at all.) And the beds too.: each one was just right… for its rightful occupant.

Why on earth should we care which one was “just right” for someone who had no right to sit in it, eat it, or sleep in it? Who had no ownership? No reason to be there at all? Make the title character some adult male who is definitely not blonde and see how the story plays to general audiences.

Aw, but this was a little fair-skinned blonde kid. Midas turned everything to gold and suffered; Golilocks brings the gold(en hair) and just takes what she wants (until she’s scared off). The Goldilocks solution looks good just like she looks good, right? The world is just there for her taking, right? Well, we’ve made that sort of assumption many times. But it’s time for us to grow up now.

So that’s the thing. To me, “Goldilocks solution” brings to mind “just right for someone who decided they just have the right to it, regardless of their stake in it.” And that taker just has the right “look” – to the “right” people. Nobody asked the bears about what they liked.

I’m not saying that that’s how it’s always used and intended. But I’m sure that’s how it sometimes is.

It’s not as though there’s no other way to put it. I like the term “minimax equation” from math – often a set of inputs will produce a curve that has one or more peaks rather than increasing/decreasing infinitely. There’s also “optimality,” from linguistics (and probably other fields). And when you talk about optimality, you usually have to ask (pretty soon) “Optimal for whom? And in what context?”

But we can do that with “Goldilocks” too. Every time we hear of a “Goldilocks solution,” we can picture it being a solution that is “just right” for someone who hasn’t even considered the possibility that they might not be the only user or recipient – and indeed might not even be the intended one. And we will be reminded that each of those options in the story was “just right” for its intended user.

Bears remembering, as they say.


The act of communication is a tying together, wouldn’t you agree? Like the ligature between the o and e as œ, a joining of two entities into one common sound? After all, communication traces back to Latin communis, meaning ‘common’ as in ‘have in common’ – that’s self-evident, right?

If someone asks you a rhetorical question that presumes your answer, do you feel included? Does it give you a sense of mutuality? If a salesperson says “Who could ask for anything more?” or a friend caps a peroration with “Do you see what I mean,” do you feel that something common has been formed between you? Is there mutuality? Or do you feel, on the contrary, that there is a one-way passage between you, with corridors preventing freedom of movement on your part? How could that be mutual, really?

Now, if I came up with the Greek equivalent for communication, you would expect it to express mutuality, yes? If I give you a word made from ἀνά ana ‘back’ and κοινοῦν koinoun ‘make common’, would you expect it to signify anything other than mutuality or reciprocality? And if that word, ἀνακοίνωσις, passed through Latin into English as anacœnosis, what would you expect of it?

Well, we can agree you wouldn’t say it like the Greek, yes? With the English pronunciation shifts, you wouldn’t expect anything other than “ana-see-no-sis,” would you? But since we already have a word communication, would you wonder whether it came in to serve some at least slightly different function? Given the ligature and the length of this lexical anaconda, wouldn’t something more technical and showier be more suitable? And yet wouldn’t it be ironic if that sense were an artificial mutuality, an undermining of real commonality in communication?

Now, you’re familiar with rhetoric, aren’t you? Do you know how there are fancy terms for things people do all the time without knowing the fancy term for them? Do you want to know what the term is for asking a question that expects no real answer but forces the other person into agreement or leads to a forced response? Can’t you guess by now what it is?


I learned today from Bryan Gividen on Twitter (@BryanGivi) that ginormous has been used for the first time in a US federal judge’s written opinion, and for the first time in any US judicial opinion not quoting a party. The passage, from J Thompson (CA1): “But by the early to mid-2000s, competition with ginormous retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Toys ‘R’ Us caused Old K’s financial distress.”

I’m sure that has a few people dumbfounded. It will undoubtedly give many others something to snark about over brunch – and prompt a few emoticons on the internet. Is it bodacious? Or craptacular? A trial is not a sitcom, after all, and while the opinion in question was on a commercial case, you can sense an impending dread that it will be used in sentencing someone for, say, a carjacking – or even condemning someone to electrocution (“The murder was a ginormous shock to the family, but not as ginormous as the shock you will receive to end your days”).

The word clearly has something undignified about it, more fitting to a motel room than some workaholic’s office. But I am not with those who see it as so much lexical smog. It’s been with us for at least 65 years – and don’t say that means it’s ready for retirement! Its usage has been increasing steeply since the 1980s, and it can be seen in fitting occasions in fiction and in magazine articles – and now in the law.

It’s not a small thing to have a word enter the formal records of the law. Legal English, stiff and verbose as it can be, sets a standard, and always has. The formal standard for English was first set centuries ago by law clerks in England. After all, if there’s one place you need things not only written down but written down in an exact and careful form, it’s legal matters!

Why does ginormous seem unseemly, undignified, to so many of us? There is a certain adolescent something to overemphasis of magnitudes – you can almost hear the carbuncular voice shouting “Ginooooormous!” In mannered formal speech we might say large or quite large or even of considerable magnitude before we get to huge, let alone enormous. Giant is not quite as undignified, somehow – but jam it together with enormous and you have wordmash that is almost bionic in its artificiality and strength. And yet now, it seems, it is as likely to earn a peruke as a rebuke in a court of law. It has made its way into polite company. That’s a ginormous step for a word.

It’s not as though such formations are inevitably undignifed, low-grade, and adolescent, anyway. Ginormous is what is called a portmanteau word (a coinage by Lewis Carroll) or a blend (a plainer way of saying it for linguists): take part of one word and part of another and glue them together without regard for the parts they were originally made from. Thus, for instance, workaholic comes from work plus alcoholic even though alcoholic is absolutely not formed from alc plus oholic.

The origins of ginormous are not intrinsically a bar to formal use. While portmanteau words may seem sloppy or unrestrained or otherwise ill-conceived, there are quite a few of them in regular use, and not all of them are looked at askance. Examples you may be familiar with include dumbfounded (dumb + confounded), snark (snide + remark), brunch (breakfast + lunch), emoticon (emotion + icon), internet (international + network), bodacious (bold + audacious), craptacular (crap + spectacular), sitcom (situation + comedy), carjacking (car + hijacking), electrocution (electronic + execution), motel (motor + hotel), smog (smoke + fog), and bionic (biological + electronic). An exhaustive list of them would be ginormous.


On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.

Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure. Continue reading

peony, paean

I wish to sing a paean to a peony. It is such an auspicious floof-ball of a flower, like eggshells and ice cream wrapped in shreds of loose tissue paper. It is the infinite millefeuille of an old-fashioned dress, tipped skyward. Its crumpling, exploding, cheek-soft petals cannot be brought to heel… but they can be brought to heal. It is medicinal, you see. Hence its name.

The peony gets its name from Paion (Latin Pæon), later Paian (Pæan). He was a god. Or another name for a god. Or another name for another god. He was perhaps a student of Asclepius, the god of healing, transmuted to a flower to escape the jealousy of his teacher. Or he was Asclepius by another name. Or he was the father of Asclepuis: Apollo. Anyway, the peony has healing powers, and is associated with whichever Græco-Roman god you wish to call Pæon.

And when the name became Pæan and was attached to Apollo himself, it was applied also to a song glorifying Apollo – a song of supplication or a song of praise. Now a paean is a solemn song of praise and thanksgiving, especially for victory or deliverance. So peony is the floral pair to paean, and paean the musical pair of peony. So many soft layers.

I must admit, the peony seems not so Apollonian to me, healing powers notwithstanding; I find it downright Dionysian. Delicious, too. You can use the leaves in salads. Confucius insisted on having peony sauce on everything he ate. Oh, yes, peonies are also common in China; in fact, the peony is one of the floral symbols of the country and a common motif in art. Its name is 牡丹 (mǔdān) but it is also called 富貴花 (fùguìhuā) ‘flower of riches and honour’ and 花王 (huāwáng) ‘king of flowers’.

All hail the glorious floof-ball! And its glorious aroma! A flower that smells about as much like a flower as a flower can smell. A flower that bursts out like popcorn but is no crunchier than a lover’s soft skin.

Which seems a good cue for this poem from a century ago:

The Lover Sings of a Garden
by Helen Hoyt

Oh, beautiful are the flowers of your garden,
The flowers of your garden are fair:
Blue flowers of your eyes
And dusk flower of your hair;
Dew flower of your mouth
And peony-budded breasts,
And the flower of the curve of your hand
Where my hand rests.



Pecksniffery is a word for doings of a Pecksniffian character, which is to say characteristic of a Pecksniff. It is, in short, the output of Pecksniffianism.

If this sounds like an eponym from a Charles Dickens novel, you have it exactly. Seth Pecksniff is an architect – or, well, he runs an architecture school, lives off the students’ tuition, and passes off their work as his own. His assistant and former student is Tom Pinch. But it is another student, and his travails and detour to the United States, who is the title character of the book: Martin Chuzzlewit.

I could really go into the characteristics of Dickensian names, but I’m not going to. Here, take this Wikipedia cataloguing of them and play a drinking game: read them aloud in turn and every time someone laughs they have to do a shot. You’ll all be under the table.

But if you were all Pecksniffs, you would not be, or would not admit to being. A Pecksniff, as we use the term now, is a person who presents a high moral character and proclaims moral virtues but in practice has pretty much none of them. As Dickens wrote, “Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.”

A useful detail of a Pecksniff, unlike some other kinds of hypocrite, is that a Pecksniff may well truly believe himself (or herself) to be a person of virtue. A Pecksniff also tends to be a busybody. You likely know some such people (though you may keep them at arm’s length – or farther). A person who, for instance, is an ardent outspoken advocate for the rights of others (perhaps some group of which he or she is not a member), never failing to shame and control anyone who might be accused of some minor transgression or sin of omission against those others, but somehow never doing anything actively helpful for those whose concerns he or she uses as cudgels. Or a business owner who adamantly refuses to allow the business to support or condone certain things on moral grounds but somehow manages to justify questionable activities that sluice money to violent criminals.

The world is full of Pecksniffery. In truth, nearly all of us probably have at least some small amount of Pecksniffianism in us, talking a great show, wanting to be seen as good people, denouncing others for failings, but, when it comes down to it, being a bit too busy or financially pinched or or or… Our high moral pronouncements need to be taken with a grain of salt. Or several kilograms of it.

Or a pinch of snuff, I suppose. A pinch? No, a pinch is a moderate amount. More like a peck (which, since we don’t use such measures anymore, I will tell you is two dry gallons, which is a quarter of a bushel – and, yes, that means a literal ten-gallon hat would be a bushel and a peck). I’m not going to say that Dickens had immoderate amounts of snuff in mind when he named Pecksniff, but I do note that his assistant – a fellow of moderation and genuine good character – is named Pinch.

I suppose you could say that’s a test of a person’s character: whether they come through in a pinch… or come through as a Pecksniff.


Look at this.

It was docked – or moored, or whatever you want to say – in Toronto all weekend. It’s the world’s largest, um, what would you call it…

You know, of course. It’s the world’s largest rubber duckie.

Duckie? Why not just rubber duck?

You could call it that too, sure. Rubber ducks have been called rubber ducks since they hit the market decades ago. The first floating rubber ducks – the iconic uncapsizeable shape designed by sculptor Peter Ganine – came out in 1940. But duckie is a term of endearment, with that diminutive –ie on the end, and it seems altogether fitting for a bathtub toy with such a fond cartoonish appearance.

Besides, Jim Henson.

You know, the creator of the Muppets. That was his voice you heard as Ernie, singing about his favourite bathtub toy. (Since Henson’s death, Steve Whitmire and then Billy Barkhurst have done the voice.) Jeff Moss wrote the song.

The phrase rubber duckie took off starting in the late 1960s, when the song came out. Rubber is by far the most common word preceding duckie.

But this big duck in Toronto Harbour would not fit in a bathtub. It may be cute, but it’s not diminutive. Heck, even the little duckie behind it is not squeeze-toy size.

The big duckie is six storeys tall and weighs 13.6 tonnes. I’m not sure it’s even made of rubber. It’s inflatable (I guess if it springs a leak they can fix it with duck tape). You could fit a suburban house inside it. But it’s still a duckie, which shows that diminutives do not necessarily imply small size.

But, as you can see in the photos, it was very popular. Lots of people wanted to play with it. Some people have carped about the cost, but it all seems just ducky with merchants in the area.

Oh, yeah, ducky. We’ve recently passed the 120th anniversary of the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of ducky meaning ‘fine’ in print. But it’s been almost 200 years since ducky as a term of endearment first showed up (“Come over here, ducky”) – if you’re going to be lovey-dovey, a ducky holds more water than a dovey.

Could we spell rubber duckie as rubber ducky? Sure, we could, and many people do. It’s an available alternative. But, for the record, the Sesame Street song is “Rubber Duckie.” And the big duck – now departed from Toronto – is, as its Twitter account proclaims, a duckie.