Whence? Whither? We don’t know—
Fill up the schooner! How she schoons!
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

The distant shore will host a show
Of distant stars and distant moons.
Whence? Whither? We don’t know!

Yes, shoes will walk, and arms will row,
But sail-ships scud across lagoons.
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

Our breath is breeze, so let it blow;
We’ll ride our lungs like air balloons.
Whence? Whither? We don’t know!

Our lives are fluid; let them flow,
Not shine contained in silver spoons.
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

And shall we bury treasure? No!
We’ll trade our jewels in saloons!
Whence? Whither? We don’t know…
Hoist glass and sail and let us go!

Who is not sparked to poetry by the sight of a tall ship? Or at least to imaginings? And hoistings of glasses? I set down the above villanelle just now in a libatious fraction of an hour. Here’s another poem, written a century and some ago by Richard Hovey:

The Sea Gypsy
I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again to-morrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.

Ah, the romance of the schooner, come from a distant past, heading to an uncertain future. Who would merely set shoe after shoe on soil who could sail a schooner on the sea?

What is a schooner? It’s a kind of ship, originally with two masts but sometimes with three or more; the foremast is shorter than the main mast. Schooners are larger than cutters, but smaller and easier to manouevre than frigates or galleons; they can move well with a small crew. They were, in their time, popular for fishing and shipping – and piracy.

One of the things schooners shipped was sherry, from Xerez in Spain. Sherry was traditionally served in two sizes of glass: a smaller glass was called a cutter, and a larger glass was called a schooner. From that, the name has transferred to beer glasses. In Australia, a schooner is a glass smaller than a pint; in Canada, it is larger than a pint (though you won’t find it everywhere).

Nowadays schooners are popular as tourist attractions. The star of Toronto’s harbour is a three-masted schooner built in Germany in 1930, originally named the Wilfried but bought in 1960 by a Danish captain and renamed Kajama after his children Kaywe, Jan, and Maria. It was bought in 1999 by a Toronto company – it is newer to this city than I am. The picture above is of the Kajama in Toronto harbour. Here’s a closer look (yes, taken with an old film camera).

The word schooner has a Dutch look to it, doesn’t it? The spelling does have a Dutch influence. But the word is not originally Dutch; it is English, or perhaps it is borrowed from Scots. The first schooner was (by some accounts) launched in 1713 at Gloucester, Massachusetts, and there is a probably apocryphal story connecting it to the Scots word scon, meaning ‘skip across the water’ (as a stone), by way of a bystander’s exclamation: “Oh, how she scoons!” We’re not really sure just how the word really came around. It was first spelled skooner or scooner, anyway. But the Dutch borrowed the word (with the ship), and made it schoener, which is kind of funny because schoen is Dutch for ‘shoe’. The current English spelling may have been influenced by that, or by school, or both.

You won’t see too many schooners these days. Unless you’re Canadian, that is. It’s true that most Canadians are not in Toronto or Nova Scotia (where other schooners may sometimes be seen), but all we need to do is look at a dime. The Canadian dime features the Bluenose, a schooner that was both a working fishing craft and a racing ship unbeaten for seven years in the 1930s. It was enough to get it onto the dime in 1937 (well, technically the image on the dime is a composite of the Bluenose and two others, but never mind), and it’s been there ever since.

But the Bluenose itself (or herself, if you hew to that usage) ended up in the Caibbean. A nice retirement? Not exactly. Fishing schooners were displaced by motorized boats in the 1930s, and the Bluenose was sold to work as a freighter. It wrecked, laden with bananas, on a reef off Haiti in 1947, just 10 years after making it onto the dime. No one died in the wreck – other than the Bluenose. You can go see a replica at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Or just pull out a dime, if you’re Canadian.

And if you carry cash. Many people don’t these days; coins seem to have an uncertain future (the Canadian penny has already gone under). But go to a pub and order a pint – heck, order a schooner – and hoist it to the Bluenose and other sailing ships, and while you’re doing that, look over at the bar for a glint like a star. It may be a dime, left as part of a tip, half-submerged in a lagoon of ale. Wish it a safe journey – but not a dull one.


My dwelling is an ecosystem of sorts. Yes, it hosts two people and some gradually dying deracinated flowers, not to mention all those unpleasant little bugs in the kitchen, but there are also the many books and magazines and pieces of music and books and artworks and – did I mention the books?

Yes, they are not what is normally considered alive, although they once were parts of various trees (among other things). But they have a living traffic of words, images, and ideas to and from the minds that inspect them. And words that appear one way in one of them appear another way in another. Also, they move.

Don’t believe me? Look at this stack of books on a stool (currently doubling as a side table). Obviously they belong on the bookshelf, right?

So if they belong on the bookshelf, how did they get onto the stool?

OK, fine, I put them there. Because I’m not done with them. I pulled them off the shelf to look at and have not achieved emotional closure with that liaison. Or I forgot to put them back. Or I acquired them and have yet to put them on the bookshelf for the first time because I’m still reading them (ones that I haven’t started reading yet may be on the floor), or I’m done reading but I want to refer to them or lend them to someone else. I have not made so bold as to return them to the fold.

Like this one on top. Here, let me show you the cover.

Its author, David Lukas, is a naturalist, a bird specialist, who became enchanted by the world of words. O brave new world, that has such creatures in it! (Yes, I know that’s not quite the original quote. Words can move around in living minds.) Such beautiful, sensual things, wild and free, shaped by the mental ecosystem, the community of minds, flying and landing, and reproducing and evolving. And, on the other hand, words and word parts are like tools, tools that we can use to touch the further world, tools that we can fashion from parts available to us.

So he wrote this book. It is at the top of this stack because I have been diving into it like a forest pool every so often since I got it. (I acquired my copy from the hand of the author, but you can get yours at

Lukas looks at the materials available to us, and he looks at how we can put them to use. I have a special fondness for Old English, and he gives a nice list of words from Old English that he feels are worth reviving.

At the top of page 82, I see foldbold, “an earthly dwelling.”

(I also see, slightly farther down, lustgrin, “a snare set by pleasure,” which is, in its own way, another word for an earthly dwelling. Its closest modern equivalent would probably be honey trap.)

Foldbold. This seems like a name for a house of letters. Fold like paper, bold like print. If I were to name my dwelling as many in England have traditionally named theirs, Foldbold would suit it well. It’s such a savoury word, too. It has two syllables that rhyme with each other – and with so many other words, old, mold, cold, sold, but also gold, hold, told, bankrolled – and it has stops, liquids, a soft fricative; it uses the lips, the teeth, the tip and back of the tongue, the whole bodily home (or halfway house) of words.

This is a word seen in Beowulf. I looked it up. That’s why that Guide to Old English is there in the pile. Here’s the section.

Beowulf has Grendel by the arm, and will not let go; the struggle threatens the mead-hall they are in, which the poet gives the epithet fæger foldbold. That word faæger, which was pronounced like how we now say fire, meant ‘fair’; the glossary in the Guide defines it as “building,” but Lukas’s “eathly dwelling” is more likeable. The fold in foldbold means ‘earthly’, after all. (Yes, the language has changed quite a bit in the intervening millennium-and-some; language evolves more quickly than the bodies that speak it.)

So. My shelves and stools are fair foldbolds for my books; this book is a fair foldbold for this word. Or is it the book that is its home? How about the mouth? No, the mouth is a way-point, a transporter beam sending it to the receiving ear so that it may occupy another mind (without leaving the first one, however – language is, perhaps, more accurately called a virus). The foldbold of a word is a mind, or the community of minds that share it and keep it current and evolving. But is a mind earthly? A brain is, if I may be so bold as to fold the one into the other (a conflation I must confess I do not necessarily hold to invariably). And brains walk the world in bodies – bodies that dwell in houses and carry books from place to place, servants of their ostensible tool, language. We move them, because they move us.

bombastic [video]

I’m not normally going to do more than one word review in a week. But my last one was kind of long and full of words, so I thought I’d throw in a short, punchy one… ironic, given the word I’m reviewing.

The ongoing demise of English

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be. As people who have to deal every day with the abuses of common users, we will surely all agree with this sentiment: “our unfortunate ears are doomed not only to excruciate in the torments of bad grammar, but to agonize under the torture of a viciousness of expression and a corruption of phraseology, the ridiculousness of which alone saves us from the death with which we are frequently threatened.”

Does that seem just a touch overstated and stiff? Well, it’s from The Vulgarisms and Improprieties of the English Language, published in 1833 by W.H. Savage, so we have to allow for minor changes in common phraseology. But look, here’s an author not from the 1800s who agrees: “the English language, as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of the most approved authors, often offends against every part of grammar.”

That was Robert Lowth, writing in 1762, and standards have obviously degraded since then without our noticing. Even in Lowth’s time things had gone downhill over the preceding half century; compare Jonathan Swift in 1712 telling us “that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; … and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Surely we can agree that it is better, and more consistent, to capitalize all Nouns, as Swift and his Contemporaries did.

Too late on that. Our language has been sliding, sliding, sliding. We could have heeded the advice of the pseudonymous author of Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech in 1885, and we would not now say “transpire” when we mean “occur,” or “fix” instead of “make fast” to mean “put in order, repair,” or “smart” to express “cleverness, brightness, or capability.”

We would also, in heeding other style guides of a mere century ago, know better than to write such a monstrosity as “The suspect was planning to use a car to raid the warehouse.” We would know that “suspect” should be “suspicious person,” that “plan” and “raid” are not verbs, and that “car” does not mean “automobile.” But, alas, we have fallen too far.

Or we have grown too far. Growing pains are felt more sharply by some than by others. Just as many of my generation will swear that the best music was written before 1990, quite a few people will insist that the best English is the kind they remember having learned as children. We don’t know, of course, how reliable their memories are, and we may wonder why they haven’t put childish things away, but so it goes. Stern voices over the centuries have taught us that English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be… and it never has been.

professional [video]

I’ve made another word review video. This one is longer – 14 minutes – because I have a lot to say about the word. I promise future ones will generally be more like 5 minutes. Also, I decided to see how it would come across if I did it without a script. I’ll tell you this: it takes a lot more time! You’re watching take number 6. Because a professional needs to do what it takes to get it right.

Going off the rails on a gravy train

Donald Trump tweeted that line about the gravy train again. How Rob-Ford-esque can he get! I decided to do a little digging to find the origin of the phrase. It’s my latest article for The Week:

Was there ever an actual train that carried gravy?

Singlish damn shiok lah, can speak or not?

My latest article for the BBC is on Singlish, which is the local multilayered vernacular of Singapore. I’m not a Singlish speaker myself, but I happened to have a couple of good sources and a fair bit of useful research. It’s an interesting study in emergent language change – and social and governmental attitudes towards it. And the article is worth it just for the Singlish-overdubbed video I found of a scene from Frozen!

The language the government tried to suppress