Category Archives: word tasting notes

celadon

“Celadon,” I explained to my niece Evangeline, “is the colour you get if you cross celery and a mastodon.”

Which, really, is almost true: if you were to look at the bedsheets Evie’s mother was considering, you would agree that they were a pale greyish-green, although really more towards cactus than celery. (The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “a pale shade of green resembling that of the willow” but many a Canadian would probably sooner associate it with goose poop.) But I was quick to clarify that that was not the actual origin of the word. (I think I was quick to. I don’t intentionally fill children’s minds with easily falsified confections.)

What is the origin? It’s nothing to do with the salad on your plate, happily (the last salad I ate of that colour forced a pre-emptive review shortly after). It also has nothing to do with teeth – the suffix that connectes beasts with teeth is –odon, as in mastodon, or –odont, as in “O don’t show me those awful green teeth again.”

Nor does it have to do with Celoron, which is a town (legally a village – in New York, a town is a subdivision of a county, not a civic unit like a village or city) next to Jamestown, New York, on Chautauqua Lake, not so far from the stamping grounds of my mother’s salad days. Celoron isn’t much of a muchness now, but it’s where Lucille Ball grew up, and it used to have one heck of an amusement park. Look at this:

(Coincidentally, I’m sure, that film has a bit of a celadon cast to it.)

Where did Celoron get its name? For a while I was under the impression it was from the roller-coaster – that does seem like a name for a roller-coaster, doesn’t it? A thing that accelerates? Sort of like Celeron, which is a kind of microprocessor made by Intel – for all I know, you may be viewing this with the aid of one. But no, the roller-coaster wasn’t named the Celoron; it was called the Greyhound. The village was named after a French officer who explored the region, staked French claims, hectored English settlers, and alienated some of his Iroquois travelling companions: Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville. After lumbering about like some mastodon for a while, he finished up in Montréal.

He had nothing to do with celadon.

No, celadon relates to something massive and historical and maybe a bit hairy, but it’s not a mastodon; it has its ups and downs, but it’s not a roller-coaster; it comes from France, but it’s not an explorer… It’s a book. A series of books. A novel of some 5400 pages in six parts, published between 1607 and 1627, even more digressive than this word tasting note. Its author: Honoré d’Urfé. Its title (and eponymous heroine): L’Astrée. Its hero: her lover, a shepherd named Céladon, who was as fond of wearing pale green ribbons as the later fictional heroines Trilby and Fedora were of wearing hats. The name Celadon was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where it is borne by two separate chaps (one in book V, one in book XII) who have in common that they appear just for the purpose of being slaughtered in the same sentence as they are first (and last) named, a rather shorter fictional course than the later French name-bearer.

It happens that d’Urfé’s novel was very popular around the time that jade-green glazed pottery from China first hit the market in France. Some suggest that the pottery was originally called Saladin, not because you put salad in it (and let us not speak again of salad of the colour celadon) but because of some historical association with the sultan of that name. But one way or another, it – the colour and the pottery – ended up with the name of d’Urfé’s green-ribboned shepherd. And the colour is now used on other things, such as kitchen cupboards, bathroom walls, and bedsheets.

And if you have something celadon among your possessions and you do not fancy it, you can always celadon ebay.

blatherskite

This word, originally bequeathed to us from Scotland, has become a great American tradition.

It’s not that the word itself is used so often, especially not lately, although it still shows up from time to time: a search of the New York Times archives finds the most recent instances of it in their newspaper date to November 2016, May 1994, October, 1983, September 1981, then 1971, 1967, 1965, 1967, 1956, and then a fair few back through the 1950s. But it was popular at the very birth of the United States as an independent country; the Scottish song “Maggie Lauder” was much sung in the American camps during the Revolutionary War, and the word blatherskite is used in the first verse. And since then, there has always been some blatherskite to be found if you are looking.

What is blatherskite? It’s what a blatherskite says. Who is a blatherskite? Someone who says blatherskite.

If this seems as circular as a little dust devil or trash tornado whirling in an empty lot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, you’ve got the general gist. Blather should be clear enough; it’s the verbal lather you needlessly froth the air with when you’re blathering on – or blithering, which is about the same thing (and comes from the same source). And skite? It may or may not be related to the skate in cheapskate (but less likely to the skates one uses on ice), but it is likely from the verb skite meaning ‘shoot, dart, slip quickly’. A skite is also a contemptible person, but it’s not impossible that this comes from blatherskite; in the antipodes, skite can mean ‘brag, boast’, and this is likely shortened from blatherskite (one of the few occasions when blatherskite can be shortened). And then there’s a word common in Scotland (and Ireland) that is almost the same as skite, just swapping an h for the k… very much in the same ballpark for this sense.

So a blatherskite is a word-salad-shooter, one might say, and blatherskite is the word salad so shot by the shooter. To the unfortunate ear they are one and the same, an obnoxious source and an obnoxious output. Not autonomy but metonymy. The excess of words and insufficiency of sense leads to a reduction, a telescoping of hose and water to a single point of reference. Well, what the heck. You want to avoid them both.

Would you like to see an example of blatherskite in the wild? I think a letter from one Warren E. Cox published in The New York Times on January 24, 1954, will serve well:

Of all the blatherskite I have ever read in the public press your article “Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect” (Jan. 3), by Aline B. Louchheim, takes the cake. The religious cult of the gruesome, the repulsive, the inane and the degenerate, called “Modern Art,” preached in such temples as the Modern Art Museum, and cried to the four winds by such frantic priestesses has, over the past thirty years, become boresome to all save those whirling dervishes who are obsessed with their own nastiness. The fanatics of this cult have made their own purgatory on this earth and one can wish them no worse hell than that of their own creation.

There you have it: that completes the circle: blatherskite by a blatherskite inveighing against blatherskite. Like a kite held aloft by the hot wind of blathers emitted by… none other than the person strapped to it… who is also holding the string. A hell of their own creation.

marjoram

                   Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun,
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age. You’re very welcome.

That’s from The Winter’s Tale, by Shakespeare. I must report that I have not lately been given any of the above. But I did buy some marjoram recently. Not the flowers, or even the whole herb; the dried and ground kind. I used a bit of it to season some pörkölt (along with a quarter cup of paprika).

Marjoram is a soft, mild, sweet herb, with a flavour that hints of camomile or perhaps… hmm… like another herb, but without an edge… what is it…

I’ve been aware of marjoram since I was a small child. It was one of the crowd of tins and jars of dried herbs that filled a large drawer in my mother’s kitchen, most of them made by Empress. Paprika, cayenne (the mildest cayenne I’ve ever met), oregano, rosemary, basil, thyme… these are all well-known, commonly used spices. Cumin, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, coriander. So many more, a domestic armamentarium. And marjoram in there with them, like someone everybody recognizes, everybody thinks they know, but few can tell you much about, few have really spent much time with. Sweet and quiet.

Sweet marjoram. Sounds like it should be a girl’s name, no? Margaret, Margery, Marjoram. She could be friends with Rosemary and her brother Basil. If she were French she probably would be; French for marjoram is marjolaine, and Marjolaine is a common enough name for a woman in French. It takes just that little difference between ram and laine (ask my good friend Eram about that, I mean Elaine).

How did that little difference come about? The Latin name for the herb was maiorana, though it does not seem to come from maior (also spelled major), ‘greater’. The French took that at first as majorane, and then marjolaine, duplicating the r before the j and then dissimilating the second r to l. English grabbed it somewhere in that process before the dissimilation and then mirrored the final nasal to the first, giving us an almost symmetrical word, marjoram (if it were marjoran it would sound too much now like a spread for bread).

The name is not used quite consistently either. In English we have it pretty much nailed down, but for clarity we may call it sweet marjoram (a name Shakespeare used in other places). It can also be called pot marjoram (and I think if you light it on fire it may smell rather like pot – you know, maryjane). It has a sister – well, it has several sisters, but it has a well-known, widely used one, in some places called wild marjoram and in some just called marjoram. We, however, call it oregano.

Ah! Oregano! Such a popular herb, but it can be so bitter. It lends flavour readily and even dominantly, but if you have too much it gets too sharp. If you could take away that sharp bitterness, though, I suppose it would be a bit less popular – everyone would know it but they wouldn’t use it as often. It would be more… marginal.

It would be marjoram.

aposiopesis

There are times in the chess game of life when you seem outnumbered, or lack a good move; things just aren’t…

And you look up—a sigh—your pieces sit silent and you feel faint; you feel a feint would be—yes—

Perhaps, to hold your pieces, hold your peace: become silent, take a tacit turn, and just when the other is ready to strike there is nothing to strike at and your opponent’s fist hits—what?—

Or in telling a story: your move may be not to move—guide the reader forward and then at a climax let go, and over the cliff they step, and…

And sometimes in life you simply can’t even. There are not enough evens in the world to can. Words fail you; thoughts pass you. Not to act is also to act; not to say is to let the silence speak. For the moment’s seizure, a caesura; let the lacuna be laconically eloquent, a silence that says all the things that cannot be said and says they cannot be said. Not stubborn muteness but a breaking off in mid-phrase, like snapping a pencil: choke off the voice, suck the air out of the conversation, and then—

This is aposiopesis. It is said “apo sci-o pee sis.” It comes from Greek ἀποσιώπησις, noun, ‘becoming silent’ (those who watch the accents may notice that the Greek accent was on the o). It is that moment when, as the saying goes, the cat’s got your tongue… except it hasn’t; your tongue has flown unseen out of your mouth like a dark silent destroying angel, ready to…

Sometimes, of course, it is a bluff. You don’t want your mouth to write cheques your butt can’t pay, so instead of signing on the line you wave a piece of plastic and hope the other person will give you credit: “If you don’t give that back to me, I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” they say. And then you remember credit comes with interest, and if there’s no interest, well, then…

And sometimes it’s a way to let the conversation wander off to bed, to be replaced by another or by none at all. You’ve played that game out but there’s no great ending and no smooth segue. You need the equivalent of “repeat and fade.” You know? So yeah, you just…

phonemics

On my bookshelf, lower down, near the corner, behind the chair in which I sit when I make my word review videos, is an old book I first saw on my father’s bookshelf when I was a child. It’s sandwiched between books on editing and linguistics – to the right, study guides for an editorial certification exam; to the left, a workbook in the history of the English language. Farther to the right and out of focus are my father’s PhD dissertation and mine, one by the other. You can see that the book I am talking about today barely has a spine left. You can’t read its title.

This isn’t another copy of the book I saw on my dad’s shelf. This is the book. It was in dodgy condition even by then.

Phonemics. I didn’t know quite what it was, but it sounded important.

A technique for reducing languages to writing.

Phonemics – more often called phonology now – is more than just that, I should say. It’s the study of not simply the sounds of a language but what the speakers think are the sounds of a language. Which is not the same thing.

Most English speakers, for instance, have no conscious idea that they are making a different sound with the p in speak than they are with the p in peak, but they still do it. The difference is aspiration – a puff of air after the p in peak (put your hand in front of your mouth to feel it) – and if you really emphasize the word, you will almost certainly really emphasize the aspiration too. And if you hear a non-native speaker say it without the aspiration, you will hear that they sound different, even if you can’t say just how they do.

So when you’re a linguist analyzing a language, in particular one that doesn’t yet have a written form (there were many more such a half century ago), you can’t just record the sounds – the phonetics. You have to figure out what people think are the sounds – the phoemics. You have to figure out what sound differences are considered important and what aren’t.

In phonology as in so many other things, it matters at least as much what you think you’re hearing and saying as what you’re actually hearing and saying.

This copy was printed in 1961, but it’s the seventh printing of an edition that first came out in 1947, which is a revised and expanded version of one that was first made in mimeographed form in 1943.

Yes, mimeographed. How many of you even know what that was? My dad actually had a mimeograph machine when I was a kid. I can remember the smell of the ink and the sound it made when you hand-cranked it.

You can see that this book, though not mimeographed, is offset-printed from an original that was done on a typewriter.

And now you’re reading this on an electronic screen, transmitted instantly from a long distance away, infinitely reproducible, and with pretty proportionately spaced fonts too.

And we still think exactly the same things about the sounds we make when speaking as we did back then. We being the ordinary English speakers. Linguists have continued to advance the study, but quite a bit in this book looks very familiar. This problem set, for instance:

Can you figure out which two sounds have probably been conflated in the transcription? My dad’s red-pencil annotation may help you.

It would be great if I could say that I pulled this book off the shelf and learned all about phonemics from it as a kid. I did not. I was a kid. My eyes glazed over pretty quickly. It was too advanced for me and I didn’t want to admit it, which I would have had to do in order to ask questions about it. No, my first real introduction to the fascinating world of phonology and orthography came courtesy of J.R.R. Tolkien and the appendices in the complete Lord of the Rings: a little more basic and digestible – and fun. I later learned more from books that attempted to teach me other languages: Teach Yourself Norwegian, for instance (men jeg kan ikke tale Norsk). They explained the sound system of the language in question, but often they did so with British speakers in mind, which doesn’t really help a Canadian who is being told that one word has the vowel sound in cot while another has the vowel sound in caught (to Canadians, they are the same sound). Eventually it did help me learn something about British phonology, though.

But I souvenired this book off my father’s shelf and have transported it with me for decades now. Between the time I first saw at it and now, I finished school and have had two whole post-secondary academic careers, one culminating in a PhD in drama and the other in an MA in linguistics (win me the lottery and we can discuss a second PhD). Now I can open this book and say, Ah, yes, this looks familiar. And Yup, you betcha, that’s right.

I had it the whole time but I had to go elsewhere and learn before I could come back and understand it – and see that I’d had that knowledge with me all along.

Which is the way it goes when you’re studying language, especially phonemics. You have what was handed down to you by your forebears, perhaps altered by time and medium, and you may just take it with you without really inspecting or understanding it. Or you may, through expanding your horizons and looking elsewhere, learn to understand it. It’s still there, rather worn and old, but not gone, not irrelevant.

And such, too, is the goal of our education: To make us understand and appreciate what we already have… and to help us to understand the difference between what we think we’re hearing and saying and what we really are hearing and saying.

Xanadu

O Xanadu, our home and native land…

No, that’s not how it goes, is it? Something more like this:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Yes: a magnificent edifice, riparian on a flow with a name of beginning and an end in dark obscurity, the unconscious hollows of the planet’s inner mind. A dome like a giant igloo;

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Yes, a smiling sunny outside, and a frozen inner chamber. Welcome to the Pleasuredome, the ultimate pipe dream.

We think of Xanadu as like Shangri-La. But Shangri-La was invented in a 1933 novel (The Lost Horizon) as a mythical reflex of Shambhala. Xanadu was a real place.

Well, not with the river and ice caverns. Those were dreamed up by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One comes up with what one wants to come up with, and one’s visions are conditioned by one’s experience and expectation – and one’s condition. It is all conditional, and culture-bound.

Xanadu, for instance, said with an initial “z,” is a repronunciation and modification of Xandu, which used x to spell a sound an Englishman would normally spell as sh. Coleridge found it in a 1614 work called Purchas his Pilgrimes by Samuel Purchas. It had this:

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.

He expanded his description in the 1625 edition. He was drawing on Marco Polo, who wrote in 1298 of his 1275 visit to the city, which Polo rendered as Ciandu and had been translated to English as Chandu (modern Italian versions make it Giandu). The X is of course more exotic-looking. We would, in modern transliteration, call it Shangdu; it means ‘upper capital’. It was the capital of Kublai Khan’s empire until he moved to the city that today is called Beijing. He was, after all, the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty of China – the first non-Chinese ruler of China. Shangdu remained his summer capital, as the weather was cooler there.

Kublai Khan died in 1294. Shangdu was destroyed in 1369 by the Ming Army, but there’s still a historical site you can visit, mostly mounds of earth. It’s about a 7-hour drive north of Beijing, in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia (which is the part of China next to the country of Mongolia).

Kublai Khan did have two lovely palaces there. One was a beautiful marble palace with gilding and paintings. The other was a cane palace, made of lacquered cane lashed and nailed, well designed, well built, and able to be taken down, moved, and set up again fairly quickly. It was set up there each summer. Marco Polo was so impressed with it, he dedicated much of his description of Ciandu to structural specifics of the cane palace.

Naturally, nothing of the cane palace has survived the ages. But in the late 1800s a British visitor reported that there were still remains of the marble palace. They have since been taken up, apparently for use by people living in nearby Dolon Nor to use in building their houses. Fragments of artwork can be seen in some structures. Well, why leave a beautiful old thing just lying around if you can make it part of your life? Otherwise it was just a broken, forgotten dream.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a dream. His dream led to a reality… of sorts. After smoking a pipe of opium while staying in the southwest English village of Nether Stowey in 1797, he awoke with the plan for a great poem in his head. But he was interrupted, he tells us. An importunate visitor from the nearby town of Porlock, who detained him for more than an hour on a small matter of business. Afterwards, the remaining lines of the poem were shattered, blown to the wind or drained to the unconscious again; he had kept a poor lock on the door of his mind. Drat that man from Porlock! Assuming there actually was one – Coleridge may have been making excuses for just not being able to finish the work.

So. An Italian visited a Mongol emperor of China and found a lovely town with a marble palace and a cane palace. The emperor was dead by the time the Italian wrote of it. More than three centuries later, an Englishman wrote of the Italian’s travels and slightly changed the name of the place. Nearly two centuries after that, another Englishman digested that report into his own pipe dream, and awoke with visions of a glorious dome and a gorge and icy caverns and subterranean seas, and started to paint it in words. It evaporated with the first interruption, leaving barely more to the ages than an Ozymandias, just some lovely lines and images traced and broken. Meanwhile, the marble of the original Mongol palace is used in quotidian functions, fragments of beauty in walls here and there. The cane is long gone but not forgotten.

Our past crumbles but we keep it and reshape it. Memories go and come, deform and reform. We make our present and break our present. We blame others for our problems, rightly or wrongly. Nothing stays the same, but while our dreams evanesce, beautiful fragments still peek from our walls. All is conditional and conditioned. It was a dream and yet it’s still there, where we live; it dwells deep inside us and in fragments around us and, when we find it, we dwell in it. Our home and native land.

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

And so it ends without ending, at Paradise, our world without end: a mostly-faded pipe dream, glittering fragments of memory, interrupted by daily business.

apropos

Apropos of nothing, Zoyander Street (@zoyander) asked me if I’d ever done anything on apropos. Well, I haven’t, but it seems… um… suitable… fitting… to the point… you know, to the purpose.

Which is what apropos is from: French à propos, ‘to the purpose’ or ‘to the plan’ – French propos is from Latin propositum, past participle of proponere, ‘set forth’. So it’s two words in the original. But anyway, nothwithstanding that, inasmuch as we write it as one word, it’s become one word for us now. It just pops in like a couple of firecrackers or a minor éclat of popcorn; it seems appropriate as a single lexeme.

Seems appropriate? Seems like appropriate. It’s almost as though we appropriated it just to have a way to say appropriate while popping in a bit of French – quick frippery for the unprepared. Also, instead of ending stopped short like appropriate, it sustains as it narrows on that final vowel. That vowel, by the way, that diphthong, is one of the good ones for telling what sort of person you’re speaking to: does it begin with the vowel in or (somewhat déclassé), or with the one in above (a bit better), or the one in met (now that’s toffee-nosed)? Does it end with the tongue high in the back (like a colonial) or high in the front (like a nob)? It gives you a way to display your social cachet.

Just don’t be confused by the fact that you can use it two different ways. There’s the way that replaces appropriate, and there’s the way that goes with of to replace in regard to or speaking of. That may not seem to make sense at first, because you wouldn’t say appropriate of. But don’t forget that it’s actually ‘to the point’ or ‘to the purpose’. So saying “That’s very apropos” is very much to the purpose, and saying “Apropos of that question” gets to the point of that question. It’s a nice little bit of apracadapra.

Just don’t use both at the same time. The two most common collocations of apropos in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are very apropos and apropos of nothing, but it would really be to no good purpose to say very apropos of nothing. Unless you were trying to be witty.

But, apropos of wit, you can be a little more pretentious and use the French (put it in italics). You can toss in the phrase à propos des bottes, which would best translate as ‘in regard to boots’ or ‘speaking of boots’ but idiomatically means ‘for no particular reason’ – or, you know, ‘apropos of nothing’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its earliest citation from a letter by Lord Chesterfield: “À propos de bottes, for I am told he always wears his; was his Royal Highness very gracious to you or not?” A nice conversational whiplash, and high-toned to boot. It’s your choice as to which you find more apropos: French boots or English nothings.