Category Archives: word tasting notes


On a scale from squamous to squeamish, how would you rate Squamish?

Do you know where it is? Or what it is, even?

For me, Squamish is where you can buy Whistler day passes at a discount and get your coffee on the way. For at least one person I know, it’s where Quest University is. For a lot of people, it’s the midpoint between Vancouver and Whistler: It’s at the north end of Howe Sound on the Sea to Sky Highway.

But what makes it stand out is not Howe Sound but how it sounds. It doesn’t have the V-neck verve of Vancouver or the crisp sifflation of Whistler. It has the sounds of squat and squeamish and qualms and a balance of the scaly words squamous and desquamation and such like. And it sounds so wishy-washy at the end, not firmly squam but just squamish. If it were an English word, it would likely have flabby, queasy connotations.

But it’s not an English word. It’s a rough rendering of the name of a Coast Salish people, more accurately written Skwxwú7mesh. What’s that 7 doing there? It represents a glottal stop. And the w’s represent rounded labial coarticulation of the previous sound. And the x represents a voiceless velar fricative. For those who are squeamish about all of the foregoing, you can click and hear it pronounced at the beginning of

So the town is named after the people, but in a somewhat desquamated version. But what about the townspeople? Members of the Squamish tribe are Skwxwú7mesh, but that’s not who lives in the town. It’s full of the same sort of people descended from invaders and immigrants that make up most of the population of Canada. And what do they call themselves?

It turns out that this has not been firmly decided. Eva van Emden sent around the results of a poll of residents by the local newspaper, choosing between four options: Squamites (31%), Squams (13%), Squamcouverites (8%), and Squamptonians (48%). It seems the echo of the Hamptons is pleasing, although perhaps it’s more an echo of Compton, given the vowel rhyme; Eva notes that there are local bumper stickers and T-shirts that refer to Squampton. I note that Squamians was not on the list of options. Wikipedia lists two demonyms: Squamoleon (with a source request on it, meaning Is this for real?) and Squamite. The ite ending seems quite popular in western Canada; I know from my own youth that people from Banff are Banffites and people from Canmore are Canmorites, and although quite rationally people from Exshaw ought to be Exshavians, they most certainly are not: they are Exshawites, which doesn’t look very good on paper – you do not pronounce the w in it.

At any rate, although the sound associations may not be great for the average Anglophone, and although for many a tourist the town is a sprawl of stores and stoplights along the highway, those who live in Squamish seem enthusiastic: Squamsome! can be seen on promotional material.

And what about members of the Squamish people? We ought to call them Skwxwú7mesh, of course, although few of them speak the language anymore, thanks to the dominating effect of English. They have been an important presence from Vancouver through Whistler and beyond. It’s all on their traditional territory, seized but unceded. There are fewer than 4000 of them now, and little of the land is allocated to them, though their culture persists. But in the grand tradition of naming places after whatever or whoever was displaced to make way for what’s there now, we have not only Squamish but also various places named after Joe Capilano, whose Capilano is from a Skwxwú7mesh toponym, Kiapila’noq.

deuce, trey

Now, where the deuce is that book? I want to blog about it. Did I lend it to someone? It’s a hardcover, so it should be on the top shelf…

Ah, wait. Let me turn this pile of books aside for the reveal…

Can you quite see it? There are two books side by side there that are my own copies of books I first discovered in the Banff Public Library when I was a youth and spent much enjoyable time sitting in that glorious wood-and-carpet high-ceilinged room reading (the library has since moved and the building it was in is now a museum).

Not the Machiavelli book – that was grad school. No, both of these books promise knowledge unknown to most but valuable to initiates. Secrets arcane and possibly even a bit louche. For one of them, the time and place I got my copy is a forgotten secret. For the other one, I happened to remember it one time maybe a decade ago, and so I decided to look in the used bookstores here in Toronto for it. The first store I went into was Ten Editions, on Spadina not far south of Bloor. I walked in, looked for the relevant section, and there it was.

I mean, talk about luck.

Frankly, the odds of just walking into the first store and finding a nice copy of this 1957 book waiting for me were surely a bit less than the odds of filling a full house by drawing a three-of-a-kind to a pair of deuces.

Full houses have cost me a fair few dollars over the years, too, I should say. Even ones that I was holding. (When you have a full house in Texas hold ’em, the odds of someone else having a better full house or even a four-of-a-kind are better than you might think.) This book, on the other hand, cost me $15. It’s written in pencil on the flap.

Poker, by the way, is a game of chance in about the same way as Scrabble is a game of chance. But most people don’t bet on Scrabble. Poker is only a game of pure chance if you’re not a very good player. Being a good poker player isn’t just about knowing the odds. It’s about knowing the people. It’s about thinking about what they’re thinking. This is similar to the advice I used to give when I taught test prep for the SAT, GRE, LSAT, and GMAT: think about what the test takers are trying to make you think. Get inside their heads.

Who is this Herbert O. Yardley, the author of this book?

If you looked at the smaller print on the front cover – which you would have had to click on to see in a larger version – you learned that he was a cryptographer. He cracked secret codes governments were using. You have to be smart to do that, but you don’t do it just by being a mathematician. You do it by thinking of what the other guys are likely to have been thinking of. And that is what makes a person good at poker.

What makes a poker book good reading, on the other hand, are good stories.

Of course, many people – including some of my relatives when I was a kid and (I think) even now – consider cards to be instruments of the devil. And gambling? Entirely unacceptable, sinful, satanic. (Let’s not go into how much of their retirement savings depend on the stock market.)

But if you like to figure things out, and you like to find out more about things you’re not supposed to know about, and louche things maybe attract you a bit as long as you’re not in danger… poker has a certain appeal.

It also has a certain vocabulary.

Some of them are for kinds of sets of cards (“hands”) you can have. A straight is five cards in numerical sequence, regardless of the suit. A flush is five cards of the same suit, regardless of the numbers. (If two people have the same kind of hand, though, the one with the highest card wins.) A full house is a pair and a three of a kind (e.g., two jacks and three 7s). A straight flush is a straight where all the cards are the same suit. A royal flush is the highest straight flush. In all my years playing poker, I’ve seen a royal flush in actual play exactly once. It beat a full house.

Some of the words are for cards. Ace, king, queen, jack, sure, you know them. The ace can be the lowest or the highest card, depending on the game. But there are two other special words for low cards. One is common; the other is not often used.

A trey is a three. It comes from Old French trei (standard modern French is trois), and is of course related to Italian tre and Latin tres. It is not commonly used by poker players now, but in Yardley’s time and place (early 1900s Indiana to start with), it was the standard term. Not that having a trey would give you anything on a tray, silver or otherwise. A trey isn’t even worth a try. If you have three treys, well, you have a three of a kind, and that will win often enough, but watch out.

A deuce, on the other hand, is always a deuce. In poker today you may well call a trey a three and you will be like everyone else, but if you call a deuce a two you are probably either naïve or joking around.

In general, a deuce is of no use. A pair of deuces has insufficient uses. Three deuces is a three of a kind, which will beat anyone who has a pair or two pair, but is otherwise the crappiest halfway decent hand. Four deuces is a four of a kind and will win almost all of the time, but you will almost never have it. Especially if you’re playing a version of poker where you start out with two cards and more are dealt after, because you’ll be building it from a pair of deuces, which is a hand you should fold unless you’re eager to give someone else your money.

You can also have a deuce in dice – the side with two spots on it – which is either fitting or ironic, etymologically. You see, dice is a singular that was reinterpreted as a plural and had a singular die backformed from it, while deuce is respelled with a c from earlier s: Old French deus (modern French deux). Not that it was a plural (aside from two being dual), but it is a movement in the other direction.

In tennis, if you have a deuce, that means both players have reached 40, which is really just 3 points – 15, 30, 40 – but it’s not a trey, it’s à deux, a deuce, and one of the players has to win by two more points.

And if you have a deuce coupe, that means you have a souped-up two-door car. Deuce because two doors.

It’s funny that deuce comes from Old French deus. In Latin, deus means ‘god’, while in English deuce is also a word for the devil. You may even have seen, in some older novel or play, a line such as “To the deuce with you!” This does not consign a person to a losing poker hand. Well, not directly. Its use for ‘devil’ came from its use for ‘mischief, plague, misfortune’, and that in turn came from… hmm, we’re not entirely sure, it’s the most deucèd thing… but it seems to have originated (in English or another Germanic language) in the deuce being the lowest card.

By the way, while Benito Mussolini may have been a devil, his nickname Il Duce does not come from deuce or a related word. It means ‘captain’ or ‘leader’ and comes from Latin dux, from duco ‘I lead’. Now, yes, depending on the card game, you may lead with a deuce, but in poker, a deuce is more likely to lead you to loss of money. But, hey, you gotta pay your dues one way or another. Just don’t reduce yourself by chasing deuces again.

melliloquent, melliloquence

Sweet words butter no bread. But they may put honey on your crumpets, and isn’t that even a little bit better?

Who doesn’t want to have a bit of blarney, a silver tongue, the power to charm with shimmering lexis and lithe syntax? Well, I guess some people don’t – there are those who pride themselves in being plain-spoken. But even plain speech can have the power of persuasion, and some of the sweetest words are direct and unadorned.

What, in fact, is the key characteristic of honey-tongued speech? Is it apposite use of adjectives and epithets? Is it careful control of the phonemes and rhythms? Is it striking use of imagery? Is it flattery of the addressee? Which of these is the sweetest sentence: “The sight and sound of you pulls me like iron filings to a rare earth magnet”; “You are a cross of the best parts of Cate Blanchett and Jeremy Irons”; “Your clothing caresses the eyes and your speech is a fabric of electric sparkles”; “You are visually elegant and orally melliloquent”?

I’m sure it comes down to taste. Not even everyone likes the taste of honey, for that matter. But this is about melliloquence, and the mell in there refers to honey, just as it does in mellifluous. In English it also has an echo of mellow, which smooths it out like oak aging, but that is an etymologically unrelated word. So is marshmallow, but sweet soft words can be as marshmallows to the mouth and ear. And somehow we overlook the overlap with smell.

If you ask people what the most beautiful words are, some will choose words with beautiful senses, but others will hew towards certain sounds. The sounds typically lean in the same direction: flowing vowels, nasals, a few soft voiceless sounds, and especially the liquids /r/ and /l/. Add the crisp whisper of voicelessness and the ll of Welsh is a sure-fire charmer, but we in English don’t have that phoneme. It’s no great surprise that Tolkien based his two Elvish languages on Welsh and Finnish (see namárië). I recall one person’s list of the most beautiful words – well, I recall two of the words it included: Shenandoah (a popular choice, I think) and diarrhea. Which does have a nice sound to it, the word I mean; its denotation detracts a bit much for many people.

A word that was not on the list was melliloquent. I feel confident that this was at least in part because the author didn’t know it. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? It starts with that soft, warm nasal, and then flows through parallel liquids; a crisp stop in the back moves into a glide, then another nasal and a stop. On the page it has those stripes llil and it is such a nice long word. And it means something so nice: sweet words, honeyed speech. Who doesn’t like to hear nice things? Well, I guess some people don’t, or at least not invariably – some dislike hearing good things about competitors, and some are uncomfortable with receiving praise, even though to others compliments are the ultimate honey (entrappingly so – even more than a spider’s web, honeyed words lead to the undoing of many flies).

I suppose the ultimate melliloquence would be words that have all of the above: praise, strikingly beautiful imagery, evocative and novel vocabulary, and an exquisite ensemble of sounds. And, of course, sincerity.

I hope you weren’t expecting an example. I kinda suck at that stuff.

Anyway, different people like different things. I’m sure each of you has encountered examples of exquisite melliloquence. I won’t mind hearing of any that you might recall.


There are many different things one can taste, and many different ways of tasting them. When you taste wine, some wines give you all they’ve got right away: you may love it or you may hate it, but if you taste it again and again and again, you will get the same thing every time. Other wines give you something new with every approach: Yes? Ah, plums, leather. Yes? Ah, blackberries, blueberries. Yes? Ah, coffee, and that girl you used to know. Yes? Tannins around your tongue like a ring of soft thorns. Yes? A line of bittersweet down the middle like a stripe of chocolate. Yes? A 20-year-old bomber jacket. Yes? Your grandmother’s bookshelf. Yes? That one Christmas in the country. And so on.

Words are like that too. Some – typically ones of which you have less knowledge and ones that connect to less in your life – don’t bring a whole lot. Some bring so many things they’re like the grey murmur of a large crowd in a swimming pool. Some connect to a few things, then a few more things, then a few more. They are doors to libraries; they are Proustian madeleines.

Pictures can be like that too. I like photography, and I try to get photos that engage the eye, that bring a moment or a clear tidy story. But I also love photos that you can spend a lot of time looking at and digging into. Photos that you really have to see in magnification to catch every detail. And yet that you have to see in one broad view to get a sense of the structure, the occasion. Imagine if the events of a novel were laid out before you in the dimensions of space all at once, rather than along the line of time, and you could wander through them and look here, look there, look in different orders. Or imagine if it were not about one person’s narrative but about all the things that occur in a place at a time. This is a picture that teems with detail, information, events.

We all know some paintings and drawings like this. As children, we may have looked at Richard Scarry books. We may have gone on to spend endless time with Where’s Wally books, not only looking for Wally but enjoying the endless little actions and interactions Martin Handford put in. As museum-going adults we may have gone swimming in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

The Germans have a word for such pictures: Wimmelbild. I have been made aware of this word by Ming Thein, an excellent photographer and blogger. Read his article (it’s in English, don’t worry) and look at his photos at . No, really, read it. I consider it required reading for this. Do it now, then come back and continue.

Wimmelbild is a German word made from two German words: the verb wimmeln and the noun Bild. Bild means ‘picture’; wimmeln means ‘teem’.

Teem. This is a word that teems with meaning and overtones. It is more than one word, even. Of course it sounds like team – and team comes from the same root, etymologically. Team is a word for a group or set or lot of people; teem is a verb for a lot of people, or a lot of things. Or a lot of rain. If something is teeming, it is abounding, overflowing, florescing, crawling with… or pouring with so much rain the drops are like avid army ants by the billion. And that is the other root: the abundance sense comes from Old English teman (with a long e), which also gives us team; the rain sense, which also has a related sense of ‘pour’ as in molten steel, comes from Old English temen (with short e’s). The two have converged; history has led them to meet.

I do not like being in crowds. But I esteem that which teems when it is a thing I can examine at length and leisure. A crowd like a cloud of steam, perhaps, each individual like a droplet in its own path, meeting other droplets backward and forward, all viewed frozen in time or at a comfortable distance. Or any picture that you need to click on to go to the full-size version that you can inspect at length. Perhaps a sweeping array of roofs.

Or a crowd in a square.

Or a crowd in an art gallery full of paintings of teeming crowds.

Or a rink full of skaters in motion, Heisenbergian in its denial of fixed detail for those that are moving, and denial of movement for those with fixed detail.

Or perhaps even just an evening scene of diners on a patio. Does this teem enough? So many stories, moments, invitations to look and read and speculate.

Or flowers and leaves, a symposium all posing and peering at you peering at them.

Or windows – a building side of windows, each with its own life. I would like a wall-size photo of a building side of windows that you could peer at closely almost like an Advent calendar, the prizes being the lives and stories within.

Or people arrayed across a beach. Perhaps an assembly stitched from several exposures – can you see where the same person appears twice? Who is with whom? What will come next? Don’t forget to click to see the full-size view in all its megapixels!

Or books. A whole library of books. Spines with names. A universe of universes. A team of literature, a teeming of literature, an esteeming of literature.



The dimmer the light, the harder a time I have of seeing things. I spent nearly half an hour trying to find this book.

Can’t see it? Let me sharpen things up a little.

Still can’t see it?

Neither could I. I knew where it was supposed to be but… Turns out it was between the Bernini and Holzer books. Behind the Doonesbury box set. Bottom shelf, near the post.

Here, this book. Photography with Large-Format Cameras.

I’ve set it on the futon in our guest room. Let me sharpen up more of that for you.

It’s a book I “borrowed” from my dad. It covers clearly but in good detail the optics of cameras, and notably of large-format view cameras – cameras that allow you to shift and tilt the lens. I don’t currently own a large-format camera, and I can’t afford the time or money to use one either. But an understanding of the principles is valuable to any photographer’s understanding of the technical details of photography.

The reason the second picture has more in focus than the first is the same reason I see more sharply in brighter light (as does everyone, but you notice it more when your eyes have a more limited focal range). It’s also why people sometimes squint to see more sharply. It’s something mentioned on page 9.


Can’t see which word I have in mind?

That isolates the subject a bit more, doesn’t it?

Aperture. From Latin apertura, from aperire, verb, ‘open’. An aperture is an opening.

We’re always looking for an opening, right? And we always want to keep our eyes wide open for one?

In a camera lens, the aperture is a roughly circular opening in the middle that constrains the light coming through. It keeps it within a certain distance from the exact middle point. The bigger the aperture, the more light gets through, but the less precise the light that gets through. Any part of the picture that isn’t exactly in focus gets even less exactly in focus, so that you notice the blurriness more and can make out the details less. In technical terms, the circle of confusion is larger for any given distance from the plane of exact focus. (This means what should be a dot is a circle due to the imprecision of focus at that point.)

Paradoxically, when there’s less light let in, you can see more details of more things (the circle of confusion is closer to being a dot); you can make out the foreground and background in more detail too. Just as long as you expose for longer or increase the sensitivity to make up for the reduced light level. But you have to watch out: when you increase the sensitivity, you can lose detail through noise – from overinterpreting the limited light that comes through. And if you narrow the aperture too much, diffraction effect starts to reduce the sharpness of everything. It may be in equal focus, but it’s in equally iffy focus.

When everything is in sharp focus, nothing stands out as much. The constraint of a narrower aperture is great when you have a lot that you want to be equally in focus. There is less “confusion” but less differentiation. When you want to isolate something more, draw the eyes to it, de-emphasize the less important parts, you don’t want everything in equal focus. You open up the aperture and the field of acceptable focus narrows down. The more wide open your pupils are – or the diaphragm (iris) on your camera lens – the more clearly one thing stands out and the more the rest is blurred out, confused. It allows you to focus on a pertinent part, whatever appertains most… or, if you mishandle it, to single out something malapert, to let it erupt at the expense of the broader parts. We can be enraptured by it… or trapped.

On a camera, you can control the aperture: let in as much light as possible and one thing stands out, or restrict the light and make more things come into focus. With your eyes, it’s involuntary (aside from what you can achieve by squinting). The brighter it is, the more your pupil contracts, the more things are in sharp focus. The dimmer the light, the more your pupil dilates, the fewer things you can see clearly and the more just a little bit stands out. And not necessarily the bit you want.

So yes, in a way, we are looking for the right opening. But we don’t always want to keep our eyes wide open. Or our lenses. Sometimes, yes. But let’s keep our options in sight.


There are many roads that have entirely different spatial narratives for me depending on which direction I travel them in. The same buildings, trees, hills, curves, and power lines seem and feel not the opposite but entirely elsewhere when seen from a diametrically opposed perspective. Sometimes I do not even think of the places as the same places, the route as the same route; it takes an act of mental abstraction to unify them if I can at all. But only when a route is walked over both ways can it be fully understood.

This has a parallel, or anyway an analogue, in relations between people. Any two people may see the same things, the same moments, the same interactions, as parts of two quite different schemata, two quite different narratives, two quite different ideas of what is happening and how and why and what its significance is. Each may feel sure that his or her view of the situation is accurate, and yet what is happening for one is not the opposite of what is happening for the other, but not the same. At best, it may be the reciprocal.

What is the reciprocal? Reciprocal has different uses in different places. Between persons it is used to imply mutuality or at least an even balance sheet. In mechanics it (or its related form reciprocating) can refer to something that comes and goes repeatedly, like a piston (the word reciprocal seem to me a natural fit for such an engine, sounding like a cycling cylinder). In math, it is – to quote the Oxford English Dictionary – “A function, expression, etc., so related to another that their product is unity.”

Unity? There are two ways of looking at mathematical reciprocals. One is to see all numbers as fractions, and the reciprocal of each as being the reversal of it – topsy-turvy, upside-down, arse over teakettle. The reciprocal of 3/4 is 4/3; the reciprocal of 2 (which can be written as 2/1) is 1/2.The other way is to see a reciprocal as 1 divided by the number. The reciprocal of 3/4 is 1/(3/4), which is 4/3; the reciprocal of 2 is 1/2.

If you multiply a number by its reciprocal you get 1: for example, 3/4×4/3 = 12/12 = 1 and 2/1×1/2 = 2/2 = 1. This might seem a magical fact the first time you see it if you have thought of a reciprocal as being the flipped version of a number, but if you think of it as 1 divided by the number then you see it is necessarily true. Mutual reciprocals must multiply to unity. The road out and the road back combine to make the whole route.

It is tempting to add that this mutuality leading to unity can only work if both sides keep “I” out of it. You may know that i is a mathematical constant equal to the square root of –1. Thus if you have reciprocals such as 3/4 and 4/3, but you multiply i into each, you have 3i/4 and 4i/3 (which are no longer reciprocal), and if you multiply them together the result is a negative one: 3i/4×4i/3 = 12i2/12 = (12×–1)/12 = –1. But, you know, that’s just convenient, coincidental. You can’t have a perspective without a percipient; you can’t have an eye without an I. And in real life, the result of squaring up an I with another I is not a negative one. Any time you bring two roots or routes together you gain something.

Where does this word reciprocal come from? Apparently from Latin recus ‘backward’ (from re– ‘back’) and procus ‘forward’ (from pro– ‘for’). Something that is reciprocal is complementary, or mutual, or mutually dependent, or back and forth, or alternating, or contrary, or opposing. You see: even the meaning covers a 180-degree arc from sense to countersense.

And yet it still all makes sense. I see you: you see me. We see different things. Perhaps our views are in concord, perhaps in discord; it may be that we don’t even realize that they are as different as they are. But if we are on the same road, or sitting at the same table, the product of our fractions can put us at one.


“When I get home, I am going to flumf and have a nap.”

That was me this afternoon, after we had swum, steamed, been massaged, and had lunch with sparkling wine. In short, it was a spa day, and there’s nothing I want more after all that than to flumf onto the bed and snooze for a piece of the rest of the afternoon.

Don’t bother looking up flumf in a dictionary. It’s not there. So what. I just used it and don’t pretend you didn’t understand it. Sound symbolism and phonaesthetics are an inexhaustible well, especially in English.

What do words that start with fl tend to signify? OK, many of them don’t have any special meaning in common, or any evident connection between sound and sense (fleet, flint), but those that do often have a sense of loose motion (the flapping and fluttering of a flag, for instance). There is a soft looseness to /fl/, onomatopoeically.

And how about that umf? First we should note that I’m spelling it umf and not umph. We’re more likely to spell that set of sounds umph in English, but I find that a bit too weighty – simultaneously precious (because of the ph, heavily associated with expensive words taken from Greek) and hard (because it manifests a connection to p). I want to make it clear how soft and fluffy this bed is. And flumf has those feathery f’s bedposting it, and is only one letter from fluff. But that one letter is m, and the /ʌmf/ has a dull, dense heaviness to it. Words ending in /ʌmp/ have a solid tendency to be associated with heaviness and bluntness (bump, clump, dump, lump, slump, thump). That /m/ is resonant, and the /ʌ/ is a vowel that tends to be associated with dullness (“uhhhh”). So soften it to /ʌmf/ and you have a heavy but soft landing.

And since this is English, which so freely converts words of one type to another type, thanks to its minimal requirements of derivational and inflectional morphology (i.e., you don’t have to change the form of a word to change what you use it for), I don’t have to say “I’m going to fall with a flumf on the bed” (imitative noun) or “I’m going to fall on the bed flumf” (ideophonic adverb). I can just flumf on the bed. Which in fact I did, and remained there for a halcyon hour.

And now you have had a nice brief lesson in the nature and function of phonaesthetics. Want more? Lots more? I wrote a whole master’s thesis on it. The official conferral of my Master of Arts in linguistics is this Tuesday, June 21. Don’t bother coming (I’ll be at the office). Just read the thesis. Or anyway the abstract. Or the conclusion, which is better. It’s pages 141–144 here: