peony, paean

I wish to sing a paean to a peony. It is such an auspicious floof-ball of a flower, like eggshells and ice cream wrapped in shreds of loose tissue paper. It is the infinite millefeuille of an old-fashioned dress, tipped skyward. Its crumpling, exploding, cheek-soft petals cannot be brought to heel… but they can be brought to heal. It is medicinal, you see. Hence its name.

The peony gets its name from Paion (Latin Pæon), later Paian (Pæan). He was a god. Or another name for a god. Or another name for another god. He was perhaps a student of Asclepius, the god of healing, transmuted to a flower to escape the jealousy of his teacher. Or he was Asclepius by another name. Or he was the father of Asclepuis: Apollo. Anyway, the peony has healing powers, and is associated with whichever Græco-Roman god you wish to call Pæon.

And when the name became Pæan and was attached to Apollo himself, it was applied also to a song glorifying Apollo – a song of supplication or a song of praise. Now a paean is a solemn song of praise and thanksgiving, especially for victory or deliverance. So peony is the floral pair to paean, and paean the musical pair of peony. So many soft layers.

I must admit, the peony seems not so Apollonian to me, healing powers notwithstanding; I find it downright Dionysian. Delicious, too. You can use the leaves in salads. Confucius insisted on having peony sauce on everything he ate. Oh, yes, peonies are also common in China; in fact, the peony is one of the floral symbols of the country and a common motif in art. Its name is 牡丹 (mǔdān) but it is also called 富貴花 (fùguìhuā) ‘flower of riches and honour’ and 花王 (huāwáng) ‘king of flowers’.

All hail the glorious floof-ball! And its glorious aroma! A flower that smells about as much like a flower as a flower can smell. A flower that bursts out like popcorn but is no crunchier than a lover’s soft skin.

Which seems a good cue for this poem from a century ago:

The Lover Sings of a Garden
by Helen Hoyt

Oh, beautiful are the flowers of your garden,
The flowers of your garden are fair:
Blue flowers of your eyes
And dusk flower of your hair;
Dew flower of your mouth
And peony-budded breasts,
And the flower of the curve of your hand
Where my hand rests.



Pecksniffery is a word for doings of a Pecksniffian character, which is to say characteristic of a Pecksniff. It is, in short, the output of Pecksniffianism.

If this sounds like an eponym from a Charles Dickens novel, you have it exactly. Seth Pecksniff is an architect – or, well, he runs an architecture school, lives off the students’ tuition, and passes off their work as his own. His assistant and former student is Tom Pinch. But it is another student, and his travails and detour to the United States, who is the title character of the book: Martin Chuzzlewit.

I could really go into the characteristics of Dickensian names, but I’m not going to. Here, take this Wikipedia cataloguing of them and play a drinking game: read them aloud in turn and every time someone laughs they have to do a shot. You’ll all be under the table.

But if you were all Pecksniffs, you would not be, or would not admit to being. A Pecksniff, as we use the term now, is a person who presents a high moral character and proclaims moral virtues but in practice has pretty much none of them. As Dickens wrote, “Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.”

A useful detail of a Pecksniff, unlike some other kinds of hypocrite, is that a Pecksniff may well truly believe himself (or herself) to be a person of virtue. A Pecksniff also tends to be a busybody. You likely know some such people (though you may keep them at arm’s length – or farther). A person who, for instance, is an ardent outspoken advocate for the rights of others (perhaps some group of which he or she is not a member), never failing to shame and control anyone who might be accused of some minor transgression or sin of omission against those others, but somehow never doing anything actively helpful for those whose concerns he or she uses as cudgels. Or a business owner who adamantly refuses to allow the business to support or condone certain things on moral grounds but somehow manages to justify questionable activities that sluice money to violent criminals.

The world is full of Pecksniffery. In truth, nearly all of us probably have at least some small amount of Pecksniffianism in us, talking a great show, wanting to be seen as good people, denouncing others for failings, but, when it comes down to it, being a bit too busy or financially pinched or or or… Our high moral pronouncements need to be taken with a grain of salt. Or several kilograms of it.

Or a pinch of snuff, I suppose. A pinch? No, a pinch is a moderate amount. More like a peck (which, since we don’t use such measures anymore, I will tell you is two dry gallons, which is a quarter of a bushel – and, yes, that means a literal ten-gallon hat would be a bushel and a peck). I’m not going to say that Dickens had immoderate amounts of snuff in mind when he named Pecksniff, but I do note that his assistant – a fellow of moderation and genuine good character – is named Pinch.

I suppose you could say that’s a test of a person’s character: whether they come through in a pinch… or come through as a Pecksniff.

The donzerly spangles

I timed my latest article for The Week for July 4. I thought it might be nice to have something light and fun on an American theme to get away from the unpleasant stream of daily political news, at least briefly. (Oh, and if you’re raising an eyebrow at the first-person statements in the article, I am, after all, an American citizen – dual Canadian-American, in fact – and have lived in the US, though I’m happy in Toronto now.) How many of these did you know?

Impress your fellow Americans with the patriotic etymologies of these July 4 words



Look at this.

It was docked – or moored, or whatever you want to say – in Toronto all weekend. It’s the world’s largest, um, what would you call it…

You know, of course. It’s the world’s largest rubber duckie.

Duckie? Why not just rubber duck?

You could call it that too, sure. Rubber ducks have been called rubber ducks since they hit the market decades ago. The first floating rubber ducks – the iconic uncapsizeable shape designed by sculptor Peter Ganine – came out in 1940. But duckie is a term of endearment, with that diminutive –ie on the end, and it seems altogether fitting for a bathtub toy with such a fond cartoonish appearance.

Besides, Jim Henson.

You know, the creator of the Muppets. That was his voice you heard as Ernie, singing about his favourite bathtub toy. (Since Henson’s death, Steve Whitmire and then Billy Barkhurst have done the voice.) Jeff Moss wrote the song.

The phrase rubber duckie took off starting in the late 1960s, when the song came out. Rubber is by far the most common word preceding duckie.

But this big duck in Toronto Harbour would not fit in a bathtub. It may be cute, but it’s not diminutive. Heck, even the little duckie behind it is not squeeze-toy size.

The big duckie is six storeys tall and weighs 13.6 tonnes. I’m not sure it’s even made of rubber. It’s inflatable (I guess if it springs a leak they can fix it with duck tape). You could fit a suburban house inside it. But it’s still a duckie, which shows that diminutives do not necessarily imply small size.

But, as you can see in the photos, it was very popular. Lots of people wanted to play with it. Some people have carped about the cost, but it all seems just ducky with merchants in the area.

Oh, yeah, ducky. We’ve recently passed the 120th anniversary of the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of ducky meaning ‘fine’ in print. But it’s been almost 200 years since ducky as a term of endearment first showed up (“Come over here, ducky”) – if you’re going to be lovey-dovey, a ducky holds more water than a dovey.

Could we spell rubber duckie as rubber ducky? Sure, we could, and many people do. It’s an available alternative. But, for the record, the Sesame Street song is “Rubber Duckie.” And the big duck – now departed from Toronto – is, as its Twitter account proclaims, a duckie.

semi, sesqui

Are you looking for some kind of sign? It’s right here. These dark marks on your screen, the absence of light letting you know there are letters. Which are signs. They stand for something when you sit and read them. Once you see them, you’re halfway to the meaning. Take something away (light) and get something (signs, provoking sense). Welcome to semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs – things that signify other things. It comes from Classical Greek σημεῖον sémeion ‘mark, sign’, which is an extended-play version of σῆμα séma (which signifies about the same thing, but it’s smaller). The semi in semiotics looks just like the semi in semiconscious, but it’s not, and you’re probably at least half aware of that. That latter semi is from Latin and means (as I sure hope you know) ‘half’.

Now, if you have the semi that’s a sign, you’re halfway (semi) there because it’s the seed of understanding. ‘Seed’? Another semi – as in seminal and disseminate – this time coming from Latin semen. So the seed is planted and takes root, and soon you have the whole thing. And then it bears fruit with its own seeds in turn.

Because meaning begets meaning. Signs provoke ideas but signs resemble other signs and ideas resemble other ideas. You don’t go from half to whole and stop there. You overshoot. You don’t double up, you triple up – and at the same time go just half again up: you add the semi to the whole. The sign and the signified bring a bonus. And you get a bit more by taking a bit off.

I don’t mean you should be half-assed, but… consider the sestertius. Do you know what that is? It’s a Roman coin, and it got around. If you used British currency before decimalisation, you knew £/s/d for pounds/shillings/pence, but you may have assumed the s was for ‘shillings’. It was not: the d was for denarii and the s for sestertii. Well, never mind that: in England there were 12 d in an s, but in Roman coinage the point of a sestertius was that it was two and a half asses.

Wait! An as was a Roman coin, first worth a pound of bronze but later worth half an ounce of copper. The sestertius was worth two of those plus half the third: semis tertio. See how semistertio was telescoped into sestertius? See how you’re never going to think about sestertii or shillings again without thinking about two and a half asses? That’s because you have the sign and the thing and a further signification. “Not half,” as they say in England, meaning ‘entirely and then some’. A whole and a half.

Or, as the ever-economical Latin put it, just ‘and half’: semisque. You did know that que (pronounced /kwe/) was used in Latin to mean ‘and’ when tacked onto the end of a word, right? As in Senatus Populusque Romanum, ‘senate and people of Rome’, abbreviated SPQR (which I have been assured really stands for “sono pazzi questi Romani,” Italian for “these Romans are crazy”). So semisque meant ‘and half’, but like sestertius it got telescoped in so it’s not two words but just one and a half: sesqui. Which means ‘one and a half’.

And sesqui isn’t even a word. It’s a prefix. It’s not used independently; it’s tacked onto what you have one and a half of, to add to the meaning. A favourite example is sesquipedalian, which comes from an original that meant ‘foot and a half long’ but showed up in the Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) of Horatius (Horace) in sesquipedalia verba, ‘foot-and-a-half-long words’. Now sesquipedalian refers to very long words and their use.

That’s not the only sesqui word out there, though. There are quite a lot of things you can have one and a half of. One you might hear is sesquicentennial, referring to the 150th anniversary of something, such as the getting together of assorted politicians to sign papers agreeing to join together colonies to make a country – a sort of political wedding anniversary. The USA had its sesquicentennial on July 4, 1926; Canada’s is July 1, 2017. (Of course there were people in both places before then, some of whom were not invited to the wedding, so to speak. Such celebrations always have much more going on than just the face value.)

And, of course, there’s my blog, Sesquiotica. You will recall semiotics from the start of all this; a leading academic journal of semiotics (and one which published a paper of mine once) is Semiotica. Well, a person who likes to go from half to one and a half without falling into the whole is a person who likes a good wordplay. I am one such, and my friend Kevin Schwartz is another. Kevin is now a standup comedian in Wisconsin, but I first met him in Boston when we were both members of a couple of high-IQ societies. My interest in semiotics led him at one time to make the pun sesquiotics, and I have kept it. After all, what good is a word that can only mean one thing at a time? Let’s have some meaning and some more! And so, naturally, my blog, being the centre of sesquiotics, is Sesquiotica. I aim to keep the “squee” in sesquiotics.


Speaking of things beautiful and strange, comely and kimet, let us look to the comet.

No, I don’t mean look out the window. There certainly isn’t one to be seen while I’m writing this. Perhaps at some later date there will be, and if you’re reading this then you’ll know. But consider the celestial body, the long-haired nine days’ wonder that will come t— I was going to say come to be seen, but it was gone already.

Or not. The comets are always out there. There are more than 5000 of them swinging around our Sun, and countless many more around the countless other stars. Every alien civilization on a distant planet has arisen under the periodic portents of comets. But you only see them when they’re close to the light. And even then, you don’t really see them. You see what they leave behind.

A comet is a dirty snowball in space, or sometimes an icy dirtball. It is dark: it has low albedo; it reflects only about 3–4% of the light that hits it. But it is also light: a comet is only about 60% as dense as liquid water, and only 2/3 the density of ice (which is 92% as dense as liquid water, generally). And while it’s bigger than a snowball, it’s not really bigger than a big city – even Halley’s comet, which is large as they go, is only 15 km by 8 km by 8 km. Oh, yeah: they’re oblong and odd-shaped because they’re too small for gravity to round them out.

But that is the dark and dirty part of them, the part that’s always there, the part without which they would not exist, but not the part that we see. What we see and seek in comets is the sublime. Or, more to the point, the sublimation: the solids becoming gases under the heat of the sun. It’s not all water steam – there are various volatile compounds. But it takes up a sweep of space, and it glows. And that glow catches our eyes and imaginations – and anxieties and myths, perhaps. It has taken a long time to learn the truth about comets, and we’re still discovering new things, thanks to such expeditions as the Rosetta spacecraft.

What is it we see when a comet awakens from its sleep, or should I say from its coma? We see its coma, and its tail, like long sweeping white hair drawn through a pool.

Out of coma and into coma again? Thereby hangs a tale. The coma that means ‘deep sleep’ comes from Greek κῶμα, which means ‘sleep’. The coma that you see on a comet – or around glowing objects in an imperfect lens, or around some plant heads, flowers, or seeds – is from Greek κόμη, ‘hair of the head’. And it is from κόμη that we get κομήτης, ‘long-haired’, which came to name a long-maned celestial body, and thence into Latin cometes and now our comet.

And all of that appears just when there is light and heat to make it visible. But comets are still there the rest of the time. It’s like the famous people you see on TV: they don’t just hang them on hooks in warehouses when they’re not glowing before you. They aren’t Schrödinger’s kittens, indeterminate until a gaze fixes them. Turn off the lights on a comet and you have a dark, light, cold, dirty, uneven object. Turn them on and you have a glowball that may be bigger than the earth, a tail that may be longer than the distance between us and the sun. Until it gases off all its gassable bits and becomes just another eccentric asteroid.

But ah, what discoveries the light of attention brings. I can’t see the sun set on this word until I direct you to the Wikipedia page for comet, and specifically to the long mane of languages down the left side. There are many tongues there, an article on comets in each of them. There are languages there that I guarantee you have never heard of before. There are languages there that I had been unaware of. Scroll down and see what you light on, and click to read about it in Bân-lâm-gú, Livvinkarjala, Qaraqalpaqsha, Seeltersk, Vahcuengh, Winaray, Žemaitėška, or any of many others, all languages that have grown up under the same sky seeing the same celestial sweeps and talking about them in their own ways. These languages have been there all along but you’re only now noticing them – or their digital traces – and perhaps you’ll forget about them again in a few days or as soon as your attention moves on. And sure, you don’t understand what they’re saying, but you know what the topic is, and you know it’s all pretty much true and yours to discover over time if you wish. Wikipedia is your own Rosetta Stone.

comely, kimet

English – like many other languages – is beautiful and strange, both attractive and intractable, graceful and confused, pleasant and foolish, comely and kimet. You can’t have one without the other, not any more than a coin can have heads without tails.

You know the word comely, of course: ‘beautiful, attractive, graceful, pleasant’. A word for someone who is nice to look at, or – less often now – for an attractive inanimate thing. Through the wicked perversity of the English language it has become an antonym of homely, which looks like it differs only as /k/ differs from /h/ but actually has a different vowel on the o. A late learner of English might reasonably wonder, going by these two words, whether the imperative “Come home” means things are going to be pretty ugly.

But comely is not related to come – well, not by direct etymology; there has undoubtedly been some cross-influence. Its origin is in the Old English cyme, which was said rather like “cue meh.” That word meant ‘weak, delicate, fussy, beautiful’ – I think ‘fine’ might fit too. Its sense of delicacy led to a sense of refinement and prettiness, and it gained the adjectival –ly suffix that you also see on ugly and leisurely to become, over time, comely.

But like a soul that has wandered into two directions in different realities, or like a person who cannot reconcile two divergent tendencies – Jekyll and Hyde or, frankly, just about anyone to some degree if you really admit it – cyme also followed the ‘delicate’ sense in the direction of ‘weak, feeble’ and from thence went to ‘feeble-minded’ and thence to ‘strange, intractable, confused, foolish’ – or, to be concise, ‘daft’. Its verbal form seems to have developed a past participial cymed that the warping of time made into kimet, said like a rhyme of “rhyme it.”

And so here we are, and they may meet at a bar, comely and kimet, and not even talk to one another, or perhaps fall madly in love with one another, or first one and then the other (or – one hopes not – vice-versa), not knowing that they are two sides of the same coin, two sprigs off the same root. Beautiful strangers in paradise. Such is the kismet of English.