Which one is Floyd?

My latest article for The Week is in honour of Walter Becker, guitarist for Steely Dan, who died recently. It’s about bands like Steely Dan: ones that have names that make you think they’re the name of one of the guys in the band.

11 band names that don’t mean what you think they do


And when you’re done reading that, here are four honourable mentions that didn’t make it into the final version:

Duran Duran
The hit electro-group from the ’80s (and on) probably haven’t ever had anyone ask, “Which one is Duran?” But they’re named after a fictional character: Doctor Durand Durand, from the movie Barbarella.

The Ramones
The Ramones, great punk pioneers of the 1970s and later, did not have any members whose real last name was Ramone, nor were any members related to each other. But they all took stage names with the last name Ramone, starting with founding member Douglas Colvin, who called himself Dee Dee Ramone, inspired by Paul McCartney’s one-time use of the pseudonym Paul Ramon.

Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper is now the name of the shock-rocker born as Vincent Damon Furnier. But it was first the name of a band he sang with. When the brand broke up, he kept the name. Their — and his — namesake was an 18th-century witch who was burned at the stake.

Anonymous 4
Anonymous 4 is one of the world’s great medieval and folk music quartets. Its members aren’t anonymous; the four women with the ethereal voices are Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (Johanna Maria Rose was an original member; Horner-Kwiatek joined later). But, like many classical music ensembles, the group is actually named after a real person: Anonymous IV was the author of an important medieval treatise on music — an author whose name is lost to the ages, so he was later designated Anonymous IV (because Anonymous I, II, and III were already in use).


Oh… and there’s this line in a Pink Floyd song (click on it and it will take you to the line):



Memory is an immense pentimento, strokes of the past showing through but always partially extincted by more recent tincture. Given a means of external storage, we often avail ourselves of it to freeze time. But what do we choose to remember? What are the moments we digitize into a permanent convertible ephemerality? What mementos will we take with us?

Memento. That’s Latin for ‘remember’, second person imperative: “You! Remember!” Remember what? Often memento mori: remember dying, remember death, remember that you, too, will fade away and be deleted. But do memories die with us?

Does it matter? We amass them while we live to put together a narrative of our lives, a motif of moments. A constellation of our lives.

Constellations are made from stars, as we know. We seek stars to remember seeing: high points of light. This evening I stopped through the street festival for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). They have a red carpet area, well lit, and people surround it awaiting the famous ones, cameras ready for any glimpse. One person came up to a group of several standing on a planter for a better view and asked of a latter-day Zacchaeus, “Who’s coming out?” The spectator looked downward and said, “I don’t know.” But whoever it is, it will be a star, and a moment to remember.

Moment? Momento? It’s no surprise that the misspelling persists; the misanalysis has momentum. Magic moments make for mementos. And each memento moment may have two parts: the explosive effervescent of the moment, metaphorically like a sleeve of Mentos released into a bottle of Diet Coke, and the persistent image, made to be a meme, just a motif of emotion capable of captions multifarious. One is clear but evanescent, the other lasting but open to reinterpretation.

There is a movie, Memento, made in 2000, about a man who has anterograde amnesia. Digital cameras in every phone were not a thing at the time, and his memory was made of Polaroid photos that had physical persistance and could be written on – but also destroyed – and tattoos that were indelible but often inscrutable. He would never remember what had happened more than five minutes before, so he had to record the important parts to help him solve a mystery… or to create a mystery for his future self.

As we do. Flip through an album of photos, on paper or on your phone. See what things your camera has seen. Try to retrace a timeline of your life. What was that? And that? Was it really so? Or is it a pleasant part-fiction directed by previous you to mislead your future selves? It has all been selected and edited. It seems to make sense. But you will never breathe those breaths on those days again, so what is left?

Thus we raise our lenses and sensors; we resolve to resolve life into pixels so that a flat chip of time may take us back and prove that we were there in that moment. We could also buy or retain a thing, a souvenir, a flake of a life. It will be forever the age it is; a memento is frozen in death the moment it is born, and in time it acquires other layers, as the fresh memory fades and other associations attach. We just remember that we were one such person in one such place, with these things and these people, and the thread of our life is seen not as a coloured line among many thrown by a shuttle in a loom but as a single tight string twisted from peg to peg, nail to nail, each tack polished to look like a star; in the end this twiny constellation is meant to present our image, but we can never step apart to see it so.

But those are the instant-thin mementoes, already moribund. There is another memento to go with mori: memento vivere, ‘remember to live, remember life’. We cannot capture that with our cameras, of course, but it is the other part of the same experience: each shutter click is a paddle dip in a river, each memento maintaining momentum in the stream of life. I was here now, and here now, and here now. And from this we see the way forward.


We all have our piers, and we would be stranded – and none the happier – were they to disappier. We say no person is an island, but in one sense we all are, or at least it shore feels like it: there are always fluid expanses between us and others – sometimes gulfs, sometimes straits (at times dire ones). To embark on our contact with the world, we need to extend ourselves outwards into the open waters. As others likewise build their piers, and we can launch our communications, we form our pier groups to group with our peers.

What is a pier, really, literally? A popular diagram of late shows differences between a quay, a wharf, a pier, and a jetty on the basis of whether they are fill (or stone, or concrete) or piles (wood or metal) and whether they are parallel or perpendicular to the shore: according to it, a quay is parallel fill, a wharf is parallel piles, a pier is perpendicular piles, and a jetty is perpendicular fill. In the real world it’s not quite so simple, and wharf, pier, and dock are used in overlapping ways. But you can generally count on a pier being perpendicular to the shoreline and built on piles.

You can’t, on the other hand, count on what it’s used for. Wikipedia divides piers into three types: working piers (for commerce boats), pleasure piers (as at Brighton and Santa Monica), and fishing (angling) piers. I like this division, mainly because it is also a suitable division of our peers in the world – some we work with, some we play with, some we just… angle with (see LinkedIn).

Pier is also a personal name, as for instance the Italian filmmaker and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini. There are quite a few Piers in the world, mostly Italian. (There are also people named Piers, but I really don’t want to have to talk about the best-known current bearer of that name.) Of course Piers have their peers and piers, but in this there is irony: piers are normally built on wooden (or metal) piles, but Pier, like Peter, comes from Greek Πέτρος Petros: ‘stone’.


I spent much of last Thursday in one of my favourite places, doing one of my favourite things. Since I was a kid, I have loved gardens and landscaping and trees and flowers – not that I have a garden myself (doing things that involve actual dirt under the fingernails may not be my forte), but I love being in a nice garden or well landscaped park. Such a place is, for me, like a stronghold of peace and pleasantness and endless interest. And aside from walking in gardens and being surrounded by them, I also like taking pictures of them, not for any good reason other than that I like taking pictures.

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IJ lijk IJkdijk!


No, I do know. There’s a lot to like about IJkdijk. And not (just) because it looks like it stands for “I’m just kidding, dude, I’m just kidding.” Nor (just) because it has such a lovely echo of sound and shape, and sounds like an answer in a car game I played as a kid called Hink Pink.

This is not an English word, which makes it unusual for my blog. But it’s Dutch, which is close enough, and, hey, why try to hold back the flood of words from other languages? Never mind this idea that if you let a little trickle through you’ll sooner or later have a complete breach. That may be true with dikes – in fact, it is true – but with languages it’s a different thing. OK, well, if a language starts borrowing words it will probably borrow more and more, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s worked out well enough for English.

This word wouldn’t come into English just as it is, though. Not with that IJ there. My Microsoft Word wanted to “fix” the double capitals! But in Dutch, ij is treated as one letter. Sort of.

Think of it as like English æ. We generally don’t use that as a single letter in modern English, but we used to. Sometimes we still write it that way, especially outside North America: encyclopædia, hæmorrhage, et cetera. We can equally write it as ae, and we alphabetize it between ad and af now. But in Old English it was a separate letter, as it still is in some Scandinavian languages.

Similarly, ij used to be alphabetized separately in Dutch. Guess where it fell in the order. Not between ii and ik, as it does now. No, between x and z. Wait, what goes there? Why, y, usually. And in Flemish (which is basically Dutch as spoken in Belgium) and Afrikaans (which is based on Dutch but with heavy influence from other languages), words have y – or (in Flemish) ÿ – that have ij in Dutch.

So does ij come from y? Or vice versa? It’s not entirely clear – there are various theories. It seems that it started as ii, and back when j was just a swash form of i they made ii into ij, and then because of its resemblance to y (which comes from Greek upsilon) it just merged in that direction. It was originally pronounced like the i we say in machine, but now it’s between the i in ice and the a in ache (in most instances, anyway).

But does IJ really hold water? In English, we may write Ægis (when we do), but if we split the digraph, we write it Aegis, not AEgis. Why should ij be different? I mean, if it’s merged to Y, obviously it holds water, just as a Y shape holds water – or, better, a martini – but if it’s the two separate capitals, IJ, it has a hole in the bottom. Sometimes it’s written as a single letter form, but when it is, it’s often rendered as like a U with a gap in the lower left. A cup with a hole in the bottom. A little leak that can only become bigger.

But yes, IJ holds water. Not just because Dutch speakers can decide what Dutch does, but because IJ is also the name of the body of water that Amsterdam fronts on, and because that name comes from an obsolete word meaning ‘water’.

Which is not what IJkdijk refers to, though, not directly. You see that k holding the IJ back? It tells us that this is from ijken, a Dutch verb meaning ‘calibrate’ or ‘gauge’. And the dijk means… oh, come on, just guess. Yes, ‘dike’. IJkdijk is a facility in the Netherlands dedicated to testing dikes and specifying their best construction and maintenance, and designing sensors to warn of possible points of failure.

If you’ve ever wondered what makes dikes last or fail and thought “I don’t know,” IJkdijk will help you know. Did you think that making dikes higher is the best approach? It turns out it is not. Dikes fail mainly not because they aren’t high enough but because they have water incursions – a bit of water gets into them and starts a stream and then you have a flood. Dikes (also known elsewhere as levees), you see, contrary to the cartoons we see of little boys plugging holes in them with their fingers, are not normally made of bricks or rocks or concrete. They are typically made of earth, clay. But they are also expensive to make or to make bigger. Sensors can be a cost-effective way of keeping water from overtaking.

Which, again, is different from language. Trying to dam one language off from another is not like keeping land dry from the surrounding water. It’s like dividing a pool of water from the rest of the water around it. It’s all water! We need neither sensors nor censors. Is English likely to accept IJ? No, it is not. But on the other hand it has accepted assorted letters (and sometimes their associated phonemes) from other languages: k and v, for instance. And j.


Thanks to IJva Cheung for suggesting today’s word.


Lunula sounds kinda like Dracula’s cousin, doesn’t it? Maybe a vampire who only bites during eclipses. Etymologically, though, a lunula is a ‘little moon’. But that’s not all that’s there. Actually, if it were, it wouldn’t be.

What is the shape of a moon? We all know what the standard image is: a crescent. But we also know the moon is a globe, and, seen flat on, is round. But so are so many other things. We distinguish it only when it is decreased, a shadow bitten out of it.

Crescent, by the way, is from Latin for ‘increasing’ or ‘growing’. When you see a crescent in the sky, though, half the time it’s decreasing. (The one I eat every day for breakfast is more fixed.)

I saw a crescent in the sky today – a lunula, a small crescent-shaped thing. Well, it wasn’t actually small; it was just far away. But it was what it was because of what was not there. What I saw was a crescent out of a glowing ball, white hot like molten iron, but it was really solid irony: I did get a little moon, yes, but the moon I got was what I didn’t see, and the lunula I saw was what was not the moon. It was the sun. You can see it in the photo above. It’s not digitally enhanced, it’s manually decreased – I held eclipse glasses in front of a long lens to take the picture.

A lunula is also a digital enhancement, though. Look at your fingernails. Every one of them almost certainly has a lunula at its base: that pale bit. Which is not actually shaped like a crescent; it’s really a little lens shape, sort of like the bit that’s missing from the moon when it’s in crescent. But it’s called a lunula.

The term also applies to assorted other things. Golden crescents hanging from necklaces, for instance. And other little things shaped like bite marks, of which I saw quite a few today. Behind the lips in eclipse you get this bite line c:

Do you see all the lunulas? Or lunulae? That’s my favourite thing about eclipses: the shadows. When the sun shines through a tree or similar shadowing thing with gaps, there is a lensing effect; little images of the sun through. Normally we don’t think of the bright spots as images of the sun. But when the sun is crescent, so are the little bright parts we see, and so we recognize them because they are clipped. They are clippings. Like bits of nails. I wrote a haiku about that the last time I saw an eclipse, in 1994:

toenails of the sun
in the branches songs of birds
can’t chase them away

We only see them because of the shadows blocking the rest. The moon is visible (when it is) because of borrowed (reflected) light; the lunulas of the eclipse are visible because of light taken away – first by the moon, then by the leaves or other things. A metal table with a grid of holes in it, for instance, produces phalanxes (phalanges) of Pac-Men.

Each Pac-Man is biting, but each Pac-Man is only there because the moon bit a bit out of a circle.

Closer to the centre of the eclipse path, you see thinner clippings in the shadows, as the moon has bitten more out of the sun. The reverse shadows you see depend on the type of eclipse.

On the page or screen, on the other hand, it’s the eclipse of type: in lunula you have u n u, three stretched lunulas with added stems, arched interruptions of the prevailing white. As ever, you recognize what’s there thanks to what’s not there. We all need the sun, but we all want a little moon, too.


There’s a lot to be said for distance learning.

For instance, I can go online and learn about animals I’d never heard of a few minutes before. I can look up articles and I can watch videos. I can find out, for instance, that there’s a creature in Indonesia that looks like a badger but is really related to skunks.

I could also go to Indonesia and have someone tell me about these creatures there, at some distance from them. Maybe I could see one a little ways away in the forest. That might still be distance learning, sort of.

Or I could come closer and closer. And then, within a certain radius of the badger-looking beastie, I could discover just how much like skunks they really are. I would get a direct personal experience of their scent-spraying abilities… still at a distance from them. Which, I guess, would also count as distance learning. Not only because I’d be learning at a small distance (and a greater inconvenience), but because I’d be learning to keep my distance.

Such are the dimensions of teledu.

No, teledu is not formed from tele, as in television, referring to distance, and edu, as in education (from Latin e, ‘out of’ – as in e pluribus unum – and duc– ‘lead, draw’). It is not a word for distance education. The du is pronounced like “do” or “doo,” not like “due” or “dew” or “d’you” (actually, in the speech of a Canadian like me, do, due and dew all sound the same, but I know there is a difference for many other people). The word, as a whole, is taken from Malay.

Yes, teledu is the name of that badger-looking skunk relative from Indonesia. It’s not the only name of it. It’s also called the Sunda stink badger, Malay stink badger, Javan stink badger, and Indonesia stink badger (there’s another kind of stink badger, the Palawan stink badger, or pantot, which is native to an island in the Philippines).

I can’t give you a direct experience of the smell of the teledu – just as well, I’m sure. But I can give you a look at it. Just turn on your television – ha, I mean click on the video below – and see one wandering around in the night, harried by a flashlight and video camera, though not quite to the point of spraying. And there’s your teledu distance education.