Category Archives: word tasting notes


It is mid-April. April is supposed to breed lilacs out of the dead land. It is supposed to be, at least nascently, lush.

What it actually is, in Toronto today, is slush.

Such a difference one little sound makes! It’s the difference between flush and blush, which mean opposite but related things, or between plush and lush, which seem quite well matched. Flush and slush sound so similar and are both watery; blush and plush differ only in the voicing at the beginning, but at least both belong in a boudoir. But in all of them is lush, which has one less sound but conveys the most richness. It is, as words go, luscious.

Well, the adjective lush is, anyway. The noun lush is another thing. It showed up in the late 1700s to refer to alcoholic drink, and by a century later was referring to alcoholic drinkers, the habitually and excessively intoxicated. But at least a lush is usually thought of as somehow luxurious, not quite like a sot or any ordinary drunk. The sound surely has something to do with that.

Lush, the adjective, was one of the first words I tasted when I started this exercise in 2008. Words are intoxicating, and this blog has been a bibliographic binge, a lexical bender, for a decade so far. It is lucky that there is no harm in being a word lush, soused with lush words.

What there is in it is a book. More than one, but so far one. Eliot says April mixes memory and desire, and in that respect this book is fitting. For a few years I regularly wrote fictional vignettes that played out interpersonal foibles focused on a particular word; I had always meant to collect them into a volume, and now I have. I’ve left out a few that do not look so good to me now, but there are still 89 to pour out and pore over. It’s available as ebook and paperback. The cover is at the bottom of this post; it features a painting by the 17th-century Dutch master Jan Steen.

I’ve tasted well over a thousand words since beginning this blog. I want to put together at least one more book assembling the best of the non-narrative ones. But I don’t think I should just trust my own judgement. So I ask all of you who have read them over the years: which ones do you remember most fondly? Help this word lush pick the tallest poppies from his lush garden and make a proper opiate of them.




The world can be awful, and words can be awful.

Wait! Things change!

The meanings of words, for one thing. Take awful for example. It’s a word bequeathed to us from Old English, made of the parts that have become our words awe and full.

So wouldn’t that mean that something that is awful is full of awe? So that if something inspires awe in you you’ll be awful?

Well, yeah, there are many people who use being awestruck to excuse awful behaviour. But the earliest sense of the word, by centuries, is ‘awe-inspiring’ – and by ‘awe’ we can also mean ‘dread’ or ‘fear’. It’s as though awe is a thing that its possessor imbues its beholders with, like radiation.

That sense, and that sense alone, was what the word held until the late 1500s, when it finally gained the sense of ‘filled with awe’. Both those senses were current in Shakespeare’s time: In Henry VI, part 2, we get “Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer’s staff, And not to grace an aweful princely sceptre”; in Richard II, speaking of kneeling before a king, “how dare thy joints forget To pay their awful duty to our presence?”

Not until the early 1800s did the negative sense emerge, and even then it still conveyed dread at first – awful was used conversationally (especially in New England) to mean ‘dreadful’ in a sense initially literal but soon somewhat bleached… like dreadful, and terrible, and other things such as lousy (rarely used to mean ‘lice-infested’ now). The path of awfully has been similar: first ‘causing reverence or fear’; only in the early 1800s used as a general intensifier.

Such is the way of words. Senses change over time, and there is no use in fighting it; as in the world, so with the words: we are the speakers of the language, and so we make the trouble, and the enemy is us. We would do better to make light of it. Look, for instance, at old poems with the earlier sense intended. See Kiping in 1899 rhyme off this:

Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine

That dominion does seem awful to us now. See Walter Scott in 1820 call the Bible “that awful volume,” a sentiment that has remained popular with the shifting sense of awful (but never forget that it is the book that tells us that peacemakers and gentle people are blessed). And consider a more sesquiotic reading of this bellicose verse from 1785 by William Cowper:

Should England prosper, when such things, as smooth
And tender as a girl, all essenc’d o’er
With odors, and as profligate as sweet,
Who sell their laurel for a myrtle wreath,
And love when they should fight; when such as these
Presume to lay their hand upon the ark
Of her magnificent and awful cause?

Many things we used to think were awful have turned out to be, yes, awful. There can be much that is awful in the world and in the words.

But never forget: there can be much that is awfully good too.


I have been invited to blurb a book.

This does not mean I need to burble bumf or blur the work into a verbal suburb. It’s a perfectly honourable assignment, a trade between promotional text for the author and a free copy of the manuscript for me, plus something to point to that says I must be a worthy blurber. I am no publishing landlubber; I am see-worthy, as in “See what James Harbeck says?”

The function of a blurb is similar to that of a wine review. You are considering buying some source of pleasure that takes time to consume, but you would like someone to vouch for its bona fides. Just a few words from the right person can make the book stand out like the proverbial purple cow (which, for a time, everyone in business seemed to want to have, which tells you about their limited view: there’s no relation between cow colour and milk quality or quantity; you can sell a purple cow once, and then you have to find a new thing to push).

The big question in all this, of course, is “What’s up with this word blurb?”

It does look a bit like a word someone just plain made up because it sounded good, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It has the phonaesthematic air of well-known pieces being grabbed from the mental pantry and assembled ad libitum, just for the sake of making a name, and that’s what it is. And we know who assembled it, and when.

The thing we call a blurb existed before the word for it, which is the normal sequence of events. The first blurb – albeit not written to be one – was a nice line from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” which Whitman had stamped in gold letters on the spine of the second edition of Leaves of Grass in 1856.

It took until 1907 for the word blurb, meaning a glowing testimonial on a book jacket, to hit the world, and when it did, it was presented as an eponym, the name of one Belinda Blurb, supposed author of the encomium on the dust cover bearing her image:

The word was created by the humorist Gelett Burgess, and it came in the company of another lexical invention of his: bromide. OK, yes, that word already existed – it’s a chemical compound, medicinally used as a sedative – but Burgess was the one who used it to mean a sedatingly dull person or the sedatives such a person utters.

Which seems suitable, inasmuch as blurbs are often basically bromides on cocaine: low on content, high on stimulation – verbal purple cows: eye-catching, but what then? I say “often,” but of course not always – a good blurb imparts useful information. A blurb will never be bad, but you do well to take note of which things it highlights and which ones it doesn’t mention.

Oh, and does the name Gelett Burgess ring a bell? You may know him for some of his other work. One of his most popular was one of his briefest, a nonsense quatrain that runs as follows:

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!

And now, if you don’t mind, I’ll leave you with the purple cow. I have a book to read.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb chork means “To make the noise which the feet do when the shoes are full of water.”

There are four things I’d like to address about this:

a) This is a perfect word for that sense, and that’s a perfect sense for this word.

b) No, I’m not pulling your leg. It’s not April Fool’s anymore. My Dark Tongue of Mordor pronunciation tip was my nod to that day of silliness.

c) Does that definition seem somehow… just a little less dictionary-ish than the usual?

d) Oxford says it’s now Scottish English.

To address those one by one:

a) I don’t really mean the written form of the word, though have a look at it, there’s something possibly boot-like in its near-symmetry with the high stems, and something squelchish in the contrast of the ch at the front with the k at the back. No, though, it’s the sound: the affricated onset “ch” that already suggests friction or fluid motion of some sort, and the curling messy undignified wet-rubbery “or” stopping at hard “k” as the foot stops up against the boot. The word as a whole sloshes from the tip of the tongue back through the mouth to the velum. It has echoes of other words, but none of them would complete the sound impression: cork, chuck, chore, soak, choke, lurk, chug… This is a word both phonaesthematic and onomatopoeic.

b) Seriously, I just stumbled on this word today, like forty minutes ago as I was surfing the OED for something to taste. It’s for realz. But if I were pulling your leg, I would be pulling it into a wet rubber boot. And I mean wet on the inside. Which, given that it’s early April, is a likely thing, at least around where I live.

c) I think there are a few things that make it more like a thing an ordinary person says and less like the usual dictionary register. For one, “make the noise” is rather more peevish in tone than “make a sound.” For another, why “which the feet do” and not “which the feet make” or just “of the feet” (or “of a foot in a shoe full of water”)? For a third, yes, “when the shoes are full of water,” because not “if” but “when” AW COME ON DO YOU HAVE TO RUB IT IN yes it’s inevitable, when.

d) You can still use it. Honestly, see (a): it’s perfect. Context will tell. If someone accuses you of making it up, you can tell them it’s been around for more than 500 years – probably a lot more, because shoes full of water have existed for at least as long as the English people have had shoes, but the first sighting was in the 1400s. And now it is April and now it is chorking time again. So if you want to use it but you are getting cold feet, THAT’S WHY TO USE IT, BECAUSE YOUR FEET ARE COLD BECAUSE THEY’RE CHORKING AND IT’S APRIL THE THIRD AND IT’S BUCKETING DOWN THE FULL NOAH AND YOUR SHOES HAVE CHUCKED IT IN. Chork chork chork.


Why be an editor, or an organizer, or even a bricoleur, when you can be a curator?

What does a curator do? Why, curates, of course. Which means – now – select and arrange and present. What things? Texts, precious artifacts, artworks, perhaps even parties by now. (I just checked and yes.) It is a seemingly popular title just at the moment. Curator is a prestige position, one that bespeaks museums and galleries; it is at the upper end of the job ladder that is being held at its bottom rungs by the caretaker.

You just know what I’m about to tell you, don’t you: curator comes from Latin for ‘caretaker’ – the agentive –ator onto cura (noun) and curare (verb) ‘care’, which is the source of all our cure words (our care words, on the other hand, are etymologically related only way back at the Proto-Indo-European). That doesn’t mean that a curator is the same as what we now call a caretaker, of course, but a curator takes care to carefully take things and present them and care for them. It does mean that curate is (like edit, from editor) a backformation – curator came first, and the original related verb was cure, but that has shifted in sense.

But it may still make sense. A curator assembles or receives assorted works, like sick souls into a ward to be cured. And they will be cured, by being concretized together (cement cures into concrete) and by being preserved (you know what cured meats are, don’t you? hams and such like?). They can thus, if properly handled, be solid and tasty. But watch out: although curare ‘care’ is not related to curare the poison – a strychnine used on arrow tips by the Macusi of Guyana, who called it wurali, which was somewhat mutated in the transmission by Europeans – poor or confused curation can have a truly deadening effect, like aesthetic (or anaesthetic) curare.


Now that I have set up shop as a full-time storyteller and story-helper, I have decided to create something to help shop myself around – with the past aid of some bookshops and the present aid of Photoshop. Since I have the camera, computer, and consciousness, I can do it myself on the cheap. Here is the image I have made for my business cards:

This image may not bring to mind a shop, and fair enough – it makes me think more of Mary Poppins, though you see the steeple of St. James Cathedral in Toronto (the view is out my apartment window on a foggy evening). But even though the clock on the church tells you it’s nearly past the shopping hour, there is something of Schopenhauer in it, in the absorption of the representer into the representation. And so it has the ambivalence of shop, which can be a place, or an act you do, or an act you do to something, or an act you do to yourself.

There are no shops in the picture, to be sure, except perhaps on the screen of the laptop, leaning to the darkness, but a shop was at first a lean-to, or shed, or vestibule, the front end of a workshop where shoppers could shop for what had been made. And here we see someone leaning between the works and the world.

Well, we see someone sitting on the edge of his highest kitchen counter, having set the light just so and the put the camera on timer and used a chair to climb to the precipice, and then from the resulting photo cut out and copied over and adjusted in assorted ways to appear in a place he never would in reality. But that’s what storytelling is for, isn’t it? Why have imagination if it is going to stop where the real would? A fall from a balcony would be costly, but a picture is cheap. We now have the means for creation to be as costless and evanescent as any of the endless photons spraying from the screen. All it takes is time.

And it is valid that what is shopped should be cheap. Cheap comes first from a word for any bargaining or bartering, related to modern Dutch koop and German kaufen, ‘buy’. It is also fitting that it be a story, for scop or sceop (said “shop” or just sometimes “skop”) is an Old English word (though unrelated), survived narrowly into the modern age, for a poet or minstrel – a storyteller.

And likewise might it be a creation, for the Old English word for ‘create’, scieppan, became in the past tense gesceop, said like “y’ shey op” – as in Ælfric’s translation of the Bible, the very beginning of it all: On angynne gesceop God heofenan and eorðan. ‘In [the] beginning created God heaven and earth.’

You will hear a kin of gesceop in the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, in the text of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”: “Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?” Which means ‘Do you sense the creator, world?” And the next line is “Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!” ‘Seek him over the canopy of stars!’

But when you hold a million stars in your hand, and you can use it to sit at an edge of the sky you have seen through your window, with the knowledge of years behind you and the years of experience ahead, where is your canopy?

On your shop.

Oh, and here’s mine:


If you like to taste words, I have a hunch this one will give you much to munch on. You may have seen it before, with or without enough context to know its sense. It seems to me that it would be perfect for the act of chewing down a little seed (as of strawberry or sesame) between one’s incisors, but that’s not what it means. It could name a cross between nunchuks and a truncheon, but doesn’t have that punch. I thought at one time that it was a word for luncheon used by the same sorts as give then name Ned to Edward and may call their uncle nunk. But no, not quite.

It is a noontime thing, yes, or mid-afternoon, but not so much a meal as a nonchalant shench to quench. Shench? That’s a disused word now, but it means a drink. A tipple. A little nip. Yes, a nuncheon is day-drinking between meals. More broadly, it can be any sort of refreshing little snack – a nibble to keep you going. But remember where it comes from: a schench at noon – a noneschenche.

Does that look like drunken nonsense? Well, that’s just what you’re going to get if you’re going to get drunk senseless at noon. Your afternoon scribal duties will be sloppy. I have a pet hypothesis that every historic scribe who transcribed this word had been imbibing interprandially. Have a look at all the different spellings of it over the centuries in the Oxford English Dictionary: noensshynches, nonchynche, nonesenches, nonschenche, nonschenches, nonschonches, nonsenche, nonsenches, nonsenchis, nonsynches, noonschench, nounschenches, nunseynches, noneschankis, noneschanks, noneshankis, noneshanks, novnschankis, nownschankis, noynsankys, noynschankis, nunschankis, nwnschankis, noncyens, nonshynges, nonshyns, nonsiens, nooncense, noonchyns, noonnchyns, nunsens, nunchings, nuncions, nuntions, nunchions, nunchens, noonshyns, noneshyne, noonshun, noonchine, noonchin, noonshun, noonchion, nunchin, nuncion, nuntion, onchion, nonchion, nunchion, nunching, nuncian, nuncheon, nunching, nunchin, nunchion, nunchun, nunshon.

Now, I know that much of this is due to the fluidity of English spelling over the centuries, and to various misconjectures and reconjectures, but it’s hard for my modern mind not to imagine other kinds of fluid in play when I see a sentence such as this one from Scotland in 1529: “Haiffand ilk werk day ane half hour afor nyne houris afor none to his disjone, and ane othir half hour afor four houris eftyr none to his nunschankis.” I think if I were to put back a pint or a pair as a nuncheon in place of my mid-afternoon coffee, or – worse yet – some moonshine for noonshine, I would risk producing just such prose.