cambric, Scarborough

What fine vestments memory and associations weave and work for us, needing neither needle nor thread to imbricate the pieces that have come from the looms of the fates.

Take cambric, a rich word, cambered with c’s and bricked with m, learnèd as Cambridge and savoury as turmeric. Where have we heard this? Is it a kind of cheese? No, hum and you will know it:

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Without no seams nor needlework,
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.

A shirt. But what shirt bears this rubric? One made of fabric from Cambrai (called Kameryk in Flemish, and so the French and Flemish come together in one cloth). It is a fine, dense fabric, of high quality, made originally of linen but now also of cotton.

And who will make this shirt, and who will wear it? For many in modern times, it must be Mrs. Robinson, or perhaps her daughter, Elaine, in The Graduate, scored incessantly with this song, sung by Simon and Garfunkel. I don’t mean the eponymous “Mrs. Robinson,” of course; I mean “Scarborough Fair,” an English folk song of some antiquity, known as an anthem to the impossibility of foregone and bygone attachments, and incidentally as a good recipe for seasoning roast chicken.

Are you going to Scarborough fair,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?
Remember me to one who lives there;
She once was a true love of mine.

Where is Scarborough? In my youth I knew only that it was in England, though I can tell you now that it is on the sea coast in North Yorkshire, its castle sitting on bluffs above the salt water and the sea strand. It is those bluffs that led to its name being given to a suburb of Toronto, now thought of by many as the great Siberia of Metro Toronto (they call it Scarberia, in fact). It has an unjust reputation thanks to pockets of rough neighbourhoods, but much of it is leafy green neighbourhoods, rolling parklands and shopping centres, cliff crests and golf courses. It has been around long enough to become a land of memories and futures, adverted to in songs by such as Bruce Cockburn and Rush, the archetype of the Canadian suburb, a forgotten fabric for some but still present and woven seamlessly into the warp and woof of Toronto’s streets. And why Scar? For no other reason than that the original Scarborough was settled a millennium ago by a Viking named Skathi and his clan. We know no more of him and yet he is the mark on this fabric.

And so what colour is our cambric shirt? Is it scarlet? Blue? Or a plain clean white? I think it has been calendered to give it a shine. The remembrances of which it is made are as well seasoned as a fowl. Is it fair? Not all in life is, and scars burrow into our hearts and minds like runs and rough fibres and rend us so that we are left with separate pieces. We may seek sage advice, but what we need most is time. And in time, however we are torn, we do our best to assemble it coherently and leave no scraps on the floor. It may seem impossible, but we do it anyway. We find at long last that we can do no other, and so we make our own cambric shirts.

skelp, skelt

Skelp that skelp! Skelp it, I say, and skelt – do not skelt it helter-skelter, or I’ll skelp you!

Uh… help?

If you’re scratching scallops into your scalp over these ones, I can’t blame you. One of these words has not been in use since Chaucer’s time, and the other one is archaic and mainly northern English and Scottish. But they have some promise and value, so I’m blowing the dust off them and setting them here in front of you for your diligent and hasty study.

Do diligent and hasty seem at odds? Haste makes waste, after all; hasty efforts are often scattered to the wind. This is one of the odd and appealing things about skelt. The Oxford English Dictionary gives it two senses: intransitively, it means ‘hasten; be diligent’; transitively it means ‘spread or scatter hurriedly’. There is no known etymology to help sort this all out and tie this all together, and no one seems to have used the word in modern times. But if we think of the intransitive as meaning ‘throw oneself into something’, it makes sense, and the transitive can be in the line of ‘throw from oneself’, which will tie in well enough. It also fits with the sound-symbolic effect of /skɛlt/. Is it related to helter-skelter? Quite possibly.

Skelp also seems to have sound-symbolic or directly imitative origins. It can be a noun or a verb, and as a noun it has another sense as well. The main sense is ‘slap, smack’ – verb or noun – and in most recent use the verb seems to have narrowed to ‘spank’, i.e., it’s specified the location of the slap as the breeches. The other noun sense is (to quote Oxford) “A thin narrow plate or flat strip of iron or steel, which by twisting and welding is converted into the barrel of a gun.” It shows up in the early 1800s and probably comes from the main sense. That is, you skelp the steel (with hammers or whatever) into a skelp.

Slapping steel? Well, pounding it. It’s not the same kind of skill as to sculpt, and you’re not sharpening a scalpel, but it does need to be reasonably precise. Which is perhaps suggested by the /ɛ/ vowel, not quite as high as the /ɪ/ in whip (and slip) but higher and tighter than the /æ/ in slap, to say nothing of the /ɑ/ in slop. We don’t seem to use /ɛ/ as much now for this kind of impact, but clearly in centuries past it had a more direct appeal. (And the “short” vowels haven’t changed since then, whereas the “long” ones have.) Perhaps our sense of this sound has changed scope.

Well, it’s not too late to put it back in use – although it does risk being misheard as scalp. I think skelt has more hope, especially the transitive sense. Maybe if we skelt it here and there it will get picked up.


What does a fidgety flibbertigibbet become with age? Not a fuddy-duddy, for sure. Would we have to fudge it a bit to imagine she might be a fussbudget?

Of course you can be a flibbertigibbet at any age, and a fussbudget too. But I think a young fussbudget is more likely than an old flibbertigibbet.

Well, whatever’s your bag. Some people make a fuss about every bug and widget. Not all fretful sorts are full-fledged fussbudgets, of course, and many a chatterbox is blithe and garrulously agreeable, but there are always the Felix Ungers of the world, fluttering fingers, noodging neighbours, futzing with widgets, fussing over dust and fuses, and budgeting down to pencil stubs.

Not that a fussbudget is someone who fusses over budgets. Budget is an old word with more meanings than just ‘a set plan or limit for spending’. It first hit the language as meaning a purse, bag, pouch, or wallet (typically leather), a sense that hasn’t been seen in use in well over a century; it came from French bouge, ‘leather bag’ or ‘wineskin’, from Latin bulga. And yes, bulga is also the source of bulge. To have a bulging wallet is almost cliché; to have a bulging budget may seem an inane extension of an image, but etymologically it’s tautological.

From that purse or bag, anyway, we got the sense of the money in it, and the limitations thereto; we also got a sense of ‘bundle’. It is more likely that last sense that was intended in the first confection of this word, since it only showed up in the earliest 1900s, around the same time as fuss-box and somewhat before fuss-pot, both of which mean the same thing: a person who is a walking cluster-fuss, so to speak. But fussbudget has had the greatest staying power, perhaps because of the echoing vowels and the muttering ending of budget. To my ears it just seems fussier, for whatever reason.

And what is fuss? Whence comes it? Since its first huffing and snuffling onto the scene in English around 1700, it has had the sense it still has. Its source is uncertain. It may be imitative, metaphorically onomatopoeic or anyway somehow phonaesthetic. It may come from Danish fjas ‘foolery, nonsense’. It seems to show up first in Anglo-Irish writers, but it has no clear connection to Irish Gaelic. I note with pleasure that in older texts with the long s (ſ) it would look like fuſs and, when inflected, like fuſſes, fuſſing, and fuſſed.

But no fuſſbudget, alas; the long s was long gone by the time this word appeared. Pity. That teeny difference – just the right side of the crossbar, projecting like a little sliver in your fingerpad – seems ideally suited, the ſort of fine ſilly offſetting detail that only a fuſſbudget or ſimilar ſuch ſelfſtyled miſfit with an infinite budget for fuſſing with ſtuff would inſiſt on perſiſting with. (Although in truth they would not be ſatisfied with ſatiſfied; the sf combination is an exception.)

veg, veggie, vegan

Let’s start with a little tone association. What kinds of phrases does each of these words – veg, veggie, vegan – bring to mind? Here are some that come to me.

“Meat an’ two veg.” “I’m just going to veg for a while. I’m bagged.”

“I’ll have the veggie burger.” “So go ahead and have fun livening up your menu with lots of fresh healthy veggies!”

“Don’t you have any vegan options on your menu?” “She’s a vegan, so we have to consider that in the menu planning.”

So. Veg meaning ‘vegetable’ has, in my world, a distinctly British tone, and is especially associated with the phrase meat and two veg. But veg meaning ‘vegetate’, as in ‘relax and do nothing of any importance’, is quite common in Canada and, I suspect, much of the US (I note that the Oxford English Dictionary has a first citation from a Canadian newspaper, and two of the five it cites are Canadian). Sometimes you’ll see it with out (i.e., veg out).

Veggie meaning ‘vegetable’ seems perky. Too perky sometimes. The sort of forced perkiness that you often see in lifestyle writing. It’s a common word, of course; I suspect many people say veggie more often than vegetable.

Did you know that both of these words have, in the past (not so much in the present), also meant ‘vegetarian’?

Veg meaning ‘vegetarian’ showed up first in the 1880s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Veg meaning ‘vegetable’ first showed up even earlier, in the mid-1800s. It’s very difficult to do a proper Google Ngram search to see historical frequency, because veg. is also used as an abbreviation in technical documents, which doesn’t really count. So I don’t know when exactly it became really popular. But meat an’ two veg (in literal reference to a standard menu) shows up in the early decades of the 1900s.

Veggie meaning ‘vegetarian’ (noun) shows up first in the 1950s; meaning ‘vegetarian’ (adjective), which is the same as meaning ‘vegetable’ (attributive noun), shows up first in the 1940s; meaning ‘vegetable’ (noun) shows up first in the early 1900s. But if you do a Google Ngram, you will see that it was used barely at all until the late 1970s, and then it just shoots up. (It’s still running way below vegetable and vegetables, though.) So it’s really a fad term of the last few decades. (Don’t bother checking the post-2000 numbers on the ngram, because a large number of historical books were added and it registers them erroneously as when they were added rather than when they were first published, so the numbers for recent terms slump.)

Both veg and veggie can also be annoying to many people named Reg or Reggie, who may occasionally be called Veg or Veggie, since vegetable also has an unpleasant use referring to someone who is comatose or brain dead, and it seems to bleed over when these words are used on a Reg or Reggie. I suspect it’s more of a nuisance for adolescents than for adults. My brother, Reg, is over 50 now. I should ask him whether he still has a distaste for the words veg and veggie.

How about vegan? Does that seem like an even newer fad? When was the first time you heard of vegans? I heard of them in the 1980s. You know what a vegan is, right? If not, here’s a quote from the person who invented it, in the place where he introduced it:

‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Fruitarian’ are already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits’ of cows and fowls, therefore… we must make a new and appropriate word… I have used the title ‘The Vegan News’. Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as the vegan diet, and we should aspire to the rank of vegans.

This is from the first issue of the The Vegan News, published by Donald Watson in November, 1944, wherein he started a society for people who eat nothing that has come from animals, living or dead.

So yeah. Veganism has been around for 72 years.

And while we associate veg with either working-class vegetables or just classlessly vegetating after work, and veggie with perky colloquial vegetables, many of us associate vegan with dietary difficulty and restriction. After all, it’s just so hard to find food that doesn’t use things made from animals or animal products!

Well, less hard than it used to be. (And most alcoholic beverages just happen to be vegan. So, by happenstance, do many other treats, such as Oreo cookies.) And there are all sorts of other things we could eat but we don’t. Generally in our society we don’t eat cats or dogs or certain parts of cows and pigs, or sheep’s eyeballs or live monkey brains, and we get along fine.

I’m not a vegan, but I do know some vegans. I even work with two of them. While vegan might, for food, seem first of all to many of us to involve restriction, and for some might call to mind militant animal rights activists, all the vegans I can think of whom I personally know are happy, pleasant, good looking, and healthy. (And not averse to a drink or two.)

I wonder if people named Regan are at all bothered by the word vegan. People named Megan ought not to be, since it doesn’t rhyme with their name, anyway. But vegan doesn’t have any connotation of the sort vegetable has. It just has that confusion with Vegan, which means someone or something from Vega.

Vega, aside from being a model of car, is a star. The star is so named because in ancient Egypt the constellation it was part of was called the Vulture, and the Arabic al-nasr al-wāqi ‘the vulture coming down’ was shortened and mutated to Latin Vega.

So, um. That set of people who distinguish themselves by not eating dead animals or anything to do with animals have a name that coincidentally is the same as a name that traces back to a vulture, an eater of dead animals. Well, at least this should help ensure vegans get enough irony.


“It’s been too long,” I thought. “Surely we can get oolong.” And with that, the black dragon reëntered my life.

By a simple fortuity, tea for two. But had I the fortitude? My medulla annotated a noology of longing as I spooned the oblong rolls of leaves into the pot. It would be exquisite.

My relationship with oolong took root a long time ago. When I was young, it was one of many tea options, but it was the one with the googly, gangly, foolish-looking name. The tea we had came in bags and was none too precious; at best I might tell orange pekoe from Earl Grey. Oolong was notable first for its name, which to my childish eyes might have been an English estate, though to my adult eyes it looks more like an Australian city. But oh! long way off there.

Oolong is, in fact, mutatis mutandis, a Chinese term. It is 烏龍, wū lóng, black dragon. Does that 烏 look like a dragon? It is a crow, and from that it is black. The 龍 is the character for dragon, and it has a rich and complex history. As rich and complex as the tea it names.

In wine there may be truth, but in tea there is wisdom, and none more so than this oolong owling its two o eyes at you for long too long. Tea is oxymoronic: it can heat or cool the mind; it is fit to foment ferment or distillation in stillness. But oolong is different from other teas in that it is half-fermented and is also well oxidated. There are many ways of making it, with many different results; the variety and depth of the results make it akin to a fine wine grape, the taste as sublime as Laocoön.

And, like fine wine, the best oolong can cost more than a few doubloons. Go to a tea shop and see: the top pick will be a lulu, a real doozy. It may cost you one or more of your right oöcytes. But ah, what a fine cup it will make, and another and another. It is a good way to get through a long afternoon.

All it takes is opening the cupboard or cabinet. And looking. And seeing it, there in a lagoon of black, coolly looking back.


What’s one way to go up in the world? By brevet.

By what? Oh, didn’t you get the memo? Tsk. Don’t mispronounce it if you see it, and don’t misspell it if you hear it – darlings, that would simply be undone. And so would you. You no more say this word with a “silent t” than you do claret. There is a t in claret, and you declare it; so likewise here, you may want to spell it brevette, but you should drop the last te for the sake of brevet-ty. Sort of as was once done by some publications with cigaret.

There. You have your marching orders, in brief. The letters have dropped. Although, in fact, they were never there in the first place, those two French letters we would add as orthographic prophylaxis: te. The original French source is brevet, which they say just as you would expect the French to say it: /bʀɛ ve/. It comes from a diminutive form bref, ‘letter’ (as in a written document you send to someone). You could say it is a brief brief.

Very well, but what function does the brief brief serve? Tsk tsk. So many questions. Knowledge is its own reward. You have been elevated with this etymology and phonology. Why ask for more? Are you not riveted already? Do you not fear being reverted?

Very well. A brevet is an official letter (or, you know, note) conferring specific privileges; in its most common usage, it is a document giving a nominal rank to an officer without increasing his or her pay grade. It’s the military promotion equivalent of a morganatic marriage (where, sure, you can marry the king or queen, but you get no royal rank from it). You get the honour of officer but no more dough. It’s the opposite of the actor’s adage, “Don’t clap, just throw money.”

And it has a British pronunciation and an American one. The difference is the stress: Brits put it on the first syllable (as with claret); Americans put it on the second (as with Sucrets). Which makes it a particularly sneaky spelling-bee word.

And what do you get if you know how to spell it? Just that little bump in your intellectual stature that you get from knowing how to spell anything that not everyone knows. Knowledge is its own reward, right? Well, yeah, that and the social rank you can claim.

If and when you ever get to use it.

Why is English spelling so weird?

Here’s the PDF of the handout for my presentation at the 2016 ACES conference.

Here’s the PowerPoint I’m using for the presentation.

Here’s the text of the presentation (based strongly on an earlier version previously presented). It is keyed to the PowerPoint presentation with bracketed numbers (e.g., [3]) indicating slide transitions. It does not include ex tempore additions.

[sing] A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…[/sing]

So… wait. What the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? Spelling in English is like one of those video games where, no matter how well you play, you will lose eventually. And how it got to be so is a long sordid tale of greed, laziness, and snobbery. Continue reading