Category Archives: word tasting notes


A few months ago I talked about the disconnects that resulted in – and from – the closure of the waterpark at Ontario Place. It was being taken down, dismantled. As the summer has gone by, I have seen it from afar, the stair tower standing forlorn, the water gone, the slides gone.

Yesterday I got to see it up close. I got to walk among the ruins. It was nostalgia; it was picturesque as ruins can be; it hurt to see it so, too – I can never quite be inured to loss. I wandered, ruing the decision that led to its ruin, remembering what it was a mere four years ago. It seemed so much longer gone than that. You will see.

Ruins are picturesque, of course. The detritus of superseded civilization: Greek ruins, Roman ruins, medieval ruins: all decaying testaments to decadence, decline and fall. To decline and fall was, in Latin, ruere. That is what gave English – and many European languages – the word ruin, noun and verb. And the plural noun is now what we use for a set of things that have declined and fallen, collapsed into heaps of rubble. We look on these architectural mementi mori with a cultural nostalgia and a sense of the triumph of wild nature. What humans build falls, and plants overtake it. But we don’t always picture the life that went on in these places when they were in their full vigour. We weren’t there.

But I was there. This waterpark: I was there yesterday, looking, remembering when I was there so few years ago, in my swim trunks, grabbing tubes and running up the stairs to slide down curvy couloirs and land with a splash in these…

…now-fetid sloughs filled with not lively joy but inert smithereens.

How did I happen to be there yesterday? There was a run in Ontario Place. I won’t call it a race, because it was not officially timed, and the distance was really 4.3 km, not the nominal 5. But the start-and-finish area was in the open plaza that was just outside the waterpark. We gained entry as participants.

You could see the waterpark ruins right there.

And there was time to wander around before the run. There was even more time after: there was a beer festival associated with the run, and so we could fill our mugs and relax or wander around.

So before the run I wandered over toward the waterpark entrance. It was not blocked off. There were no signs prohibiting entrance, no fences, no dogs, no guards.

Apparently they relied on the fact that that whole area of Ontario Place is normally closed and inaccessible. But yesterday it was not. We had been given access.

After looking briefly, I went over to the start area and, soon enough, ran. The run was as enjoyable as a hilly 5k on a warm, muggy day can be. It was very interesting to see all around Ontario Place again. Most of it is closed but unchanged; it is not in ruins, dismantled, disconnected. They did, I noticed, remove the log that could be swung to ring the large bell. I did not take a picture. I was running.

Back at the beer festival, I knew no one, so I wandered over to look some more.

I went to the splash pool of what had been named the Hydrofuge but was informally called the Toilet Bowl: you slid down a short chute into a big bowl, swirled around a few times, and fell through a hole in the bottom into this pool.

There were a couple of kids climbing on the stairs there. A man and his wife were watching them – their kids. The man told me of the irony of the circumstance: his job was in construction safety. And here was all this out in the open and unsecured, the tractor, the acetylene torch on the landing, the myriad places to fall and be hurt. A checklist of what not to do.

He called the boys down and they went back to the festival. I wandered in farther.

Past the stairs to the path to the stair tower.

To the pool the tubes landed you in. You can see the cutaways in the concrete where the slides sat. You dumped into the water, splashed, gasped, grabbed your tube, walked up and out and handed the tube to an assistant or kept it and ran back up for another go.

It’s all gone down the tubes now.

Some other people were wandering around, taking pictures. One of them offered to take a picture of me using my phone.

Yes, my phone – these are all taken with my iPhone. You didn’t think I ran races with a good camera on me, did you?

That bulge on my left hip is a water bottle in my pocket, by the way.

There’s a taller tower in the background you can see and probably recognize. The two towers in the picture, both entertainment attractions, have another thing in common: my wife has worked at both of them.

I continued on.

The big family-size tubes that went down a big chute landed in their own pool:

NO DIVING. No falling into oblivion and wet entropy.

That warning comes too late. It’s all ruined now.

Reflect on that. From the dry heights we come to the wet depths, but when we look down we see the heights.

I walked up the hill.

At the base of the tower, I looked over and saw that other tower, its observation deck temporarily effaced by a cloud, its continuity maintained by memory and assumption – and physical persistence.

As I adjusted and saved these photos this evening I was playing Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions, some rescued and remastered recordings from 45 years ago. Just as I was working on these few, a live performance of “Stairway to Heaven” started playing.

“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” But all that glitters is not gold, and not all gold glitters. And stairways that can be bought can be ruined. And you can climb for all eternity and not be any closer to heaven. Or any farther away from it.

I did not climb the tower stairs. I walked back down the hill.

I saw a few others sitting in the ruins. Beyond, the festival: beer and sweaty runners.

Concrete that has weathered not the assaults of decades and centuries but just of jackhammers and similar heavy equipment.

Nearby is the Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport. I could look up and see planes flying away, taking others to new places, slipping for a short time the tangled vines of the earth – but as inviting as the sky is, they all decline eventually, coming back in their gracefully controlled falls.

As I walked out and back towards the beer, I took one last look and one last photo.

And my iPhone informed me that I had run out of room. It had no more memory available; it was too full of memories – and the present ruins.


I wore the wrong shirt today, I’ll tell you that right away.

You know how sometimes some people will say “Well, dressed like that, you were asking for trouble”? I’m not generally sympathetic to these judgements, but oh boy, today it was real for me. That thin cotton shirt decorated with a riot of colourful tropical flora was… a bad idea.

I got mugged.

By the weather.

OK, I got outside and found the weather was muggy. Very muggy. I wound up as soaked and woozy as a sot, and my shirt stuck to me like so much muck. Yuck. A rolling stone gathers no moss, perhaps, but a walking son of rock in a floral shirt may be a fecund site for flora to take root.

Why would anyone make a tropical shirt in a clingy fabric? I have a few others that are made with coarse weaves, and they’re fine (yes, coarse is fine). This one has a high thread count and when the weather is humid it’s like wearing tissue paper. Gah. I had to change my shirt before going for a stroll along King Street to inspect the crowds assembled for the film festival angling to see stars mugging. So much for looking like a movie mogul. I would have been more like a moggie, mouillé.

But why do we call humid weather muggy?

The adjective seems to be derived from a word mug that is not the coffee cup but a word for mist, drizzle, or damp atmosphere. Other Germanic languages (in particular the Scandinavian ones) have a related word, usually spelled mugg, for similar gross and close climatic conditions. It is related to muck and probably to mucus.

Does that disgust you? Have a drink. Only don’t leave yourself feeling muggy – in the sense ‘tipsy’ or ‘groggy’, also related to muzzy, which means ‘gloomy’ or ‘tedious’ but also ‘muggy’ as in weather, which may come from mosy, which means ‘furry’ or ‘decayed’ or ‘befuddled’ or ‘muggy’, and which seems to be related to or derived from mossy.

All of which, mushy and fuzzy and confusing as they are, suit well such weather as conduces to lolling about hazy-headed and sweating in tropical shirts, quenching the thirst with beverages that only aggravate the turbid mind and torpid mug… wasting away in Muggaritaville.


I was going to taste this before I tasted syllabus. But I decided I should taste syllabub before tasting the word syllabub. Well, now I have.

I have for many years been aware of this as a thing one might eat or drink. It always had the air of a treat for the smart set of the later 19th century, the sort of thing one might have after the mulligatawny or subgum and the roast (or perhaps the bubble-and-squeak) when one is not having Eton mess. A thing for the glee club to sing over. I had a vague idea of its being some kind of intersection of a nog and a pousse-café. I recalled speculation that its name may have referred to a sort of syllabification of the ingredients in vertical strata.

When I set out to make syllabub, I looked up recipes. I don’t recall seeing quite such a diversity of recipes for one thing any time recently. The methods vary, and the making time can be a few hours (or even less, somehow) or a couple of days. There is even lore about it: supposedly, it was originally made with milk squeezed fresh from the cow into the mix – an assertion I find dubious, given the nature of the results.

I’m not the only one to find that assertion questionable, on the level with Kiplingesque accounts of spatchcock. One of the best articles I’ve seen on syllabub (though without a recipe as such) is Alan Davidson’s short piece in The Oxford Companion to Food, and he references experiments by Vicky Williams and Ivan Day that rather put paid to the notion of milking a cow right into the jug. Davidson tells us that Day, in his essay (which the curious about syllabubs must read), “acknowledges … help received (presumably on the particular question of direct milking) from cow 53 at Thrimby Manor Farm, Cumbria.”

Davidson also tells us that syllabub is “a sweet, frothy confection which was popular in Britain from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and has since been revived in a small way as a dessert.” (We learn from Day in his essay that Shakespeare’s godson mentions it.) Davidson expands: “Originally syllabub was a drink with a foamy head, but the foamy part was the object of chief interest and later became the main element.”

But that’s as much detail as Davidson gives on the recipe. Well, luckily, Ivan Day has made – well more than a decade ago, by the look of it – a site on historic food, and he presents us with historical recipes. Can I just say that I find reading historical recipes as relaxing and euphoric as drinking historical alcoholic beverages? I feel that I must present you these two, as relayed by Day:

To make a very fine Sillibub
Take one Quart of Cream, one Pint and an half of Wine or Sack, the Juice of two Limons with some of the Pill, and a Branch of Rosemary, sweeten it very well, then put a little of this Liquor, and a little of the Cream into a Basin, beat them till it froth, put that Froth into the Sillibub pot, and so do till the Cream and Wine be done, then cover it close, and set it in a cool Cellar for twelve hours, then eat it.
From Hannah Wooley, The Queen-like Closet (London:1674)

To make whipt syllabubs
Take a quart of thick cream, and half a pint of sack, the juice of two Seville oranges, or lemons; grate in the peel of two lemons; half a pound of double-refined sugar, pour it into a broad earthen pan, and whisk it well; but first sweeten some red wine, or sack, and fill your glasses as full as you chuse; then as the froth rises take it off with a spoon, and lay it carefully into your glasses, till they are as full as it will hold.
From Charles Carter, The London and Country Cook (London: 1749)

Really, just reading those recipes gave me much the same soft, glowing, pink nerve endings that consuming a goodly syllabub lately has. O salubrious libation!

Now. Whence cometh this word syllabub? The act of articulating its sibilant and liquid causes a lapping such that one might take the beverage sublabially with it. It has an obvious resemblance to syllabus and syllable. But, as Davidson says, “The origin of the word ‘syllabub’ is a mystery. Lexicographers find no compelling reason to accept any of the explanations offered so far.” The Oxford English Dictionary directs our attention to the existence of the alternate form sillibucke or sillibouk, dating from the 1500s (though not appearing before solybubbe). There are also forms in the line of sullibib and selybube, as though the treat were known to sully the bibs of slobbering silly bibbers.

Bearing in mind, of course, that silly comes originally from a word meaning ‘blessed’ (its modern German cousin is selig). Those who have syllabub are surely among the blessed, and if they have enough they will equally be among the silly. Somewhere in there, their rate of syllables may increase.

As mine have. I made a goodly quantity – hmm, let’s see, 3 ounces of Marsala (I think I would use a different sweet wine next time), an ounce of brandy, 3 ounces of sugar, nearly an ounce of lemon juice, some lemon rind, let sit for two hours; a cup of cream, whipt to stiffness; blend A with B and pour into large glasses; let them sit in the fridge, covered, for an hour or two. I happen to have divided it between just two glasses, as there are two of us. I do think I had to help Aina a little with her portion.

I can attest to the liquor settling to the bottom. Syllabub may be a solution to many things, but not all of its parts are mutually soluble, it seems. So you use a spoon to eat the top and to help you drink the bottom. Though it may leave you feeling a bit heavy, it is light and enlightening, and as I finish it to flashes of lightning from outside, I feel positively sibylline.


“Happy estival season,” Laurence Senelick (Fletcher Professor of Oratory) said to me as we passed on a walkway between Professors Row and the library at Tufts University some score of years ago. He said it because he knew I would understand it – and he liked nicely turned words. (He still does; he still holds the same post, and while I am 20-some years older, he seems to be the same age as he was then.)

I did understand it, of course, but it was not until later that day – ah, esprit de l’escalier – that I formulated what I ought to have said in reply: “It is my estimation that there will be an estival festival followed by estivation.” Which was not mere assonance; there was a summer party coming up, followed by a duration of dormancy for much of campus life, to be disturbed by the return of students in the fall.

And here we are again. Today has been Labour Day (for the Americans reading: not u). Aina and I went for one last swim in the suddenly crowded Sunnyside pool before they pulled the plug at 5 pm (literally: as we walked past at 5:15 – after drinks and food at the boardwalk café – the level was already perceptibly down, though not so far that the lifeguards couldn’t throw each other in). It has been a swelter of a summer, one suited for sundry sultry activities and inactivities and not for excessive exertion. I have been besporting myself within the constraints of heat and humidity, and I have not written any books or otherwise launched my desk chair like a Goddard rocket. Well, the sun has set on that, and while technically summer persists until the equinox, I am awakening from my estivation. As it were.

What is estivation? You have likely figured it out – and, for that matter, you may have seen the word once or twice already this summer, as I have – but if you want clarity, it is the counterpoise to hibernation. Where hibernation is sleeping through the winter, estivation is sleeping (or being sluggish at least) through the summer. (No word on whether anything sleeps specifically through spring or fall, but by analogy that would be vernation and autumnation. However, vernation in current use refers to the inflorescence of spring; I guess everything is waking up then, even those things that take a nap once it gets hot.) But it is also used to refer to the slightly more wakeful thing that many humans do: pass the summer in torpor somewhere, or anyway retire to a place or go on vacation to place. Why say “We summer in Iqaluit” when you can say “We estivate in Anguilla”?

Estivation looks like a v-necked estimation, perhaps as done by Emilio Estevez. But whereas estimation is related to esteem, there is no word esteev (or esteeve). The verb is estivate, to match estimate. And, of course, the adjective is estival, which really is made to be used much more than it is – if millions of poetasters can rhyme June with moon, we ought to see more estival with festival. The Latin origin is æstivus, which is the attributive form of æstas, ‘summer’, which French polished down to été (don’t miss the relation between French hiver ‘winter’ and hibernate either). This means that æstivate is also an acceptable form of this word, especially in England – for the set who like not only encyclopædia but also anæmia, œstrogen, and diarrhœa.

Which would not include Laurence, by the way, since he’s American through and through (and besides, who really likes anæmia and diarrhœa?). But, Professor Senelick, should you happen on this lexico-gustatory peregrination: Happy autumnal season… Sleepers awake!


Classes are starting. Universities are reawakening from their estivation. For the first September in a long time, I am not a registered student at a university. My time is subject to my own dictates. I have no textbooks to buy, no classes to attend, no papers to write, no syllabus to read.

Ah, the syllabus. Apparently it often goes unread. I don’t understand how students have any idea what books to buy and what to read for what class without looking at it, but professor after professor can be seen (for instance on Twitter) complaining that the students don’t read the syllabus.

Are the students afraid of it? Perhaps it has the aspect of a sharp-toothed monster that may devour them if they come too close. But in the odyssey that is a course, if you avoid the Scylla-bus monster, you head to the whirlpool of Charybdis and go down the drain. (As indeed some of them do.)

Not that we ought to lay the blame altogether on the students. Syllabuses are subject to many silly abuses by the professors too. One professor I had (within the last decade) hand-wrote everything on lined paper and photocopied it, which could lead to misreadings. Another one gave us a nice, tidy printed-out syllabus; I read it thoroughly, assembled my readings for each week and did them as listed, and a few weeks in discovered that there was a reading we were to discuss that I had not read. The professor, it turns out, had revised the syllabus after handing it out and had unceremoniously posted the revision online.

But many students don’t get even that far. They’ll glance at it, sure, to find just what they need – next week’s reading, or the due date for the assignment (though of course the professor might change either of those later). But read the whole thing?

And yet they’re university students. Reading is a central competency; you can assume a decent percentage of them actually even like reading. Could it be that, in at least some cases, the syllabus actively repels the reader? And that the standard expectations of the genre, from the perspective of the creators of the syllabi, require a pharaonic level of dusty desiccation?

It could be, yes. But I don’t need to go into depth on that, or on the remedy for it; Iva Cheung had a conversation with others on Twitter about it, and adduced some resources, and she has put together the whole thing in a readable form at You should read it there.

My task here, rather, is to taste this word syllabus. You will already have noticed (if you have read all the words to this point) that it has two viable plurals: the English-form syllabuses and the Latinate syllabi. But if you stop and look at this word and think about it for a moment, you may make a syllogism based on the first syllable: it has a y in it; Latin used y just in words borrowed from Greek; syllabus must be borrowed from Greek; the –us ending in Latin words taken from Greek was generally a conversion of the Greek –os ending; the plural of –os in Greek is, as a rule, –oi; thus there should be a syllaboi option.

Ah, alas, silly boy! (Or silly girl! Or man or woman!) This Jenga of assumptions has a faulty one we must take out, and then the whole tower collapses. The assumption is that the Latins read the Greek carefully, without making any unwarranted leaps of their own.

The Latin syllabus, as it turns out, seems to have been based on a misreading of σιττύβας. The Greek that they (or at least one of them) thought they had seen was σύλλαβος. Easy enough to see the difference here, but remember that this was all hand-copied in someone’s idiosyncratic handwriting (or hand-printing, anyway). The actual Greek, σιττύβας, was a plural of σιττύβα (sittuba), meaning ‘parchment label’ or ‘book title-slip’. But if it had come from σύλλαβος, that word in turn would have come from the verb συλλαμβάνειν ‘put together’ – which was the origin of the word συλλαβή, which became Latin syllaba, and now exists in English as syllable.

You can see how easy the assumption would be to make. Indeed, that assumption seems to have guided the usage of the word, so that we could say it traces as much to the (unattested in Greek) σύλλαβος as to its actual etymon. After all, a syllabus is not simply a rubric or title; it is rather an assembly of the titles of all the sessions of a course (or similar set of things), and, in the modern university, a statement of the required readings, assignments, office hours, and other such pertinent information. And so we might say that the word was not only misread but partially revised mid-course.


Every bookkeeper needs a bookcase, right?

If you’re keeping a book that was kept by a saint, then surely you’ll want a case for that, at least. Given the pure rareness and preciousness of the work – a holy relic, sure as the hair on the saint’s head (after all, books fill the space under the hair) – if you wish to argue for armored and bejewelled protection, you have a case.

Especially if you want to carry that book into battle (perhaps on a chain around your neck) as a talisman for troops. A mighty fortress is our God, but saints can make do with a parallelepiped of armor. Anyway, if a commitment to battle is binding, why not commit to a battle with a binding? You want to provide your warriors some hard cover – there’s no respect for a paperback rider.

So what is this book-shaped armour – which can also carry other relics of the saint, such as the aforementioned hair or some bones or skin? It’s called a cumdach. That’s with the ch pronounced hard (as in ach and loch), and the m not pronounced at all – apparently that little book of a letter has been bundled away somewhere.

Actually, it hasn’t. The letter that’s been absconded with is h. The Irish word that we stole away is cumhdach; the h was for a long historical period written as a superscript dot over the m (so much easier to purloin like a loose jewel). That mh can, depending on the word and the dialect of Irish, be said like “v” or “w” or not much of anything, but generally nasalized one way or the other. So the first syllable of this word would sound, in casual speech, not much different from the first syllable of coondog. If you just say it /ˈkuːdəx/ as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, you’ll be the one stealing away a phoneme.

Cumdachs aren’t available in quantity. The vogue for them is almost a millennium in the past (especially the carrying into battle part); some of them have had their contents stolen, and others have themselves been stolen – ornamented as they typically are with precious stones. But, given that, I see no reason not to bring the word to the present for an expanded sense. If you happen to own a book that’s been hollowed out for holding precious relics of your own life (jewelry or documents, say), or if you happen to have a nice-looking box in which to carry a book of value, why not call it a cumdach? I have two nice boxes that are fashioned to look just like books. They hold my ties. They may not be saintly, but they are formal, and anyway, blest be the ties that are in a binding, right?

If you want to know more or see pictures, have a look at medievalfragments and medievalbooks.


There is what you know in your mind, your brain, that soft blancmange encased in your nutshell behind your eyes. And then there is what you know in your heart, your lungs, your liver, your kidneys, your chest – your thorax. Your vitals, your vittles, those meats that animate you and that, were you a cow for the slaughter, would be cut out and packaged by the butcher to sit under the counter forlorn and unasked-of – or used in the making of haggis or hot dogs. We believe ourselves in rational control of our world, but our minds are chiefly used for justifying those motives we feel more primally in our thoraces – what makes the heart race or the liver lunge or the lungs convulse. Never mind Occam’s Razor; we live by Thor’s Ax.

“Thor’s Ax?!” you’re probably thinking. “Thor has a hammer!” Yes, that’s true, he wields the massive hammer Mjölnir, and he also has a belt, some gloves, and a staff, all of which also have names. But listen to this: “Jarnbjorn was the Dwarven-forged battle axe wielded by Thor. Thor used this axe long before obtaining Mjolnir.” Jarnbjorn can cut almost anything, and is indestructible. But eventually, we are told, “Thor lost Jarnbjorn. Kang the Conqueror recovered Jarnbjorn from Baron Mordo’s tomb in Brazil.” Thor eventually got it back: “When Thor could no longer wield Mjolnir after his battle with Nick Fury on the Moon, Thor took up Jarnbjorn once again.”

Does that sound like it might not have come from the Sagas? Marvel, mere mortal! Marvel Comics, I mean. Read all about it on Wikia.

What, are you annoyed about this fictional invention imposing itself on… uh… a fictional invention? Well, fine. If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it. But you may want to consider this authoritative debate of whether Jarnbjorn is better or worse than Mjolnir.

In the end, of course, you choose your hero – and your hero’s weapon – more from things you feel in your thorax than ones you tally in your cerebral cortex. But the thorax isn’t just your inner Thor with an Ax, ready to attack and defend and cut through anything (especially reasoning). It’s also your inner Thoreau, camping out at Walden, fantasizing about nature, and it’s your inner Lorax, lamenting the loss of that nature. It’s your inner hyrax, too, related to the mighty elephant but really smallish and cuddly.

OK, OK, the overlearning of autodidax can make a person prolix. In the plain world, your thorax is your chest. Your ribcage and what’s within it. That part of your torso that is above the abdomen and below the neck. It attracts its share of attention, to be sure, more on some people than on others. Much of that attention is driven by equipment located closer to the ground, and is often about as welcome as anthrax.

Indeed, the various effects of the thorax can make a person downright waspish. Which is a way of bringing me to what bugs you may think of on the garden path. Insects have segmented bodies; the unpleasant end of a wasp is the abdomen, but the middle part with the legs and wings (and other important things) is the thorax. I’m pretty sure diagrams on insects were where I first saw this word and abdomen.

But if we want to make an insect connection, it should be to not wasps but ants, which in Greek are μύρμηξ murméx, which word is (it is said) related to Μυρμιδών, in Latin Myrmidon, which names a set of warriors. They would all have had thoraces, but not all Greeks would have, because Greek θώραξ meant ‘breast-plate’ or ‘cuirass’ (a double-sided bit of armor for the upper body) – from that it came to Latin as thorax, which had the ‘chest’ sense and came directly to English as such, showing up first in the 1400s (but making the extension to bugs only in the 1700s).

We can say chest or breast, of course. But thorax, being classical, sounds more technical. It also has the soft, heavy start and the cutting end. It is a good name for that part of the body that feels the many cuts of the emotions – and learns to resist them over time.

Unless, of course, they come from Thor’s Ax. That thing can cut almost anything.