To sheel is to shell, meaning to de-shell.

And when you peel away the shell, how does it feel?

Clams and mussels are shell without and flesh within, which means that without the without they are soft. Turtles, de-shelled, are soft but have bones farther in. Humans have the hard deep within and are soft without – so we cannot be without something hard to go around us: buildings, and cars, and the assorted armour of culture. The world is our oyster because we are cultured oysters in our world: we build our shells and then take what irritates us and build shells around it so we have pearls. Of wisdom? Of great price? Of art? Sheel us and find out.

One sheeler I think of is Charles Sheeler. He was a photographer of things industrial, and a painter of them too. Factories, buildings, chimneys, bridges, iron scales, slate roofs, the hard diagonals and sharp angles of steel and stone: the bones and shells of our culture and means, all rendered with exquisite precision. Do have a look at some.

I first met Sheeler’s work in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston; I went there often to swim in the paintings. Take the red subway and the green streetcar (E) and walk a block until you are almost in a lush little fen-way park, and there is the flat stone face. Go in and you will know that museum smell. Upstairs, go left, then right, halfway to the other end, turn right, and there in the centre of it all is a gallery of moderns. The Sheeler is on a half-wall in the middle, facing left. Or at least it was two decades ago. Shale-grey steel carrying steam, an image of what we have made to produce things to protect us and convey us. This hardness we’ve produced, now flaked off in a flat pinacothèque rectangle for us to admire and see ourselves reflected in its sheen. Other painters show people; Sheeler’s pearls were our shells: he sheeled them for us. Does that seem inside-out? Remember that a pearl is just shell grown in the other direction. The outside is deep inside, a universe locked in a grain of sand; the inside is all there is to see, and it shines at the infinite within without.

Where does sheel come from? It is related to shell, of course, but also (and perhaps more closely) to shale. Shale was first a word for a husk, a covering; from that (we think) we got the name of the rock. And all this is also related to scale. As we scale the sheer heights in our buildings, so we scale the heights of our art, and we weigh our lives in the scales and the scales fall from our eyes. But we never stop making our shells within and without, even as we ever look to the sheeling.


Who is at the frontline of language change?

Sorry, should that be front line? I think it should. If you are at the foremost front, you are at the forefront, not the fore front, but the line that forms the front of a battle – or, more figuratively, any other advance (especially in conflict situations) – is the front line, according to, well, every dictionary you look in.

But a lot of those dictionaries have frontline too. Not as a noun, though: as an adjective. Staff who are dealing directly with customers are front-line staff or frontline staff. If they were written as front line staff, there could be confusion over whether they were line staff at the front rather than staff at the front line. So we hyphenate. And, over time, as with this adjective, we may merge.

Or we may not. Mergers happen sometimes and not other times. You can be a healthcare professional working in health care – or working in healthcare, because that noun has a closed-up version now too. And you’re reading this on a website – or, to be old-fashioned, a web site. But you can have an ice cream float or an ice-cream float, but if you had an icecream float you risk having some pedant with a marker draw a couple of lines to indicate that there should be a space there, implying that you need grammatical trainingwheels.

The front lines, in language change as in war, are very uneven, meandering up and down and in and out, and the main thing that keeps them from moving is just if they get really entrenched (yes, when you think about it, front line and entrenched both call to mind the ghastly battles of World War I – both predate it by centuries, but both have military origins).

So… could frontline become the noun form too? Some people want it to be – a colleague mentioned to me that one of the people he works with is pushing for that change in their published text. Mind you, his coworker isn’t saying “I know that front line is standard, but I think we are making a good move forward to close up this compound. We may be in the, erm, vanguard, but we can take the fire.” No, his coworker is saying “I looked in the dictionary and it has frontline as a form so I’m going to use it everywhere.” His coworker is heedless of the noun-adjective distinction.

Which is how language change so often happens: reanalysis, or what members of preceding generations tend to call mistake. The English language isn’t really an ongoing battle – if there is an enemy, they are us. It’s more like a complex game that gets passed on from one family to another, and it doesn’t have a rulebook, and each new group of players pick up a few things from the previous players but mostly figure things out for themselves, resulting in some shift of the rules over time. We hear our parents talk, and we work things out for ourselves, and they don’t correct all of our reconstruals.

So, yeah, you could say that the front line in language change is the battle between the older generation, wanting to preserve what it knows, and the younger generation, wanting to do what suits them best. But from another perspective, the battle is as much like explorers having to put up with previous people – who didn’t get as far – shouting at them “No, you fools! You’ll fall off the edge of the planet!”

Fine, fine. The question remains: is frontline taking over from front line as a noun? Is it heading the way of healthcare and forefront? Will we soon see not only the frontline but the frontlines just as we see the headlines? Or is it like icecream and trainingwheels? Let’s have a look at a Google Ngram:

frontline_NOUN is way below front line_NOUN and both adjective forms, and not gaining very much

Hmm. Nope. Anyone who uses frontline as a noun is going to be awfully far in front of everyone else, exposed and prone to being shot at… from behind. And the general usage may not ever come close to catching up. It looks pretty well entrenched.

Addendum: I neglected to consider one important vector for change in this. Google ngrams are case-sensitive, and I only surveyed lower-case. But take a look at this:


So Frontline is increasing in usage much more than frontline. Why is that? I’ll tell you one reason. Since 1983, PBS has had a documentary series called Frontline. TV shows are important vectors for language change.

But that doesn’t mean the branding of the show is spreading the one-word noun throughout the language rapidly. A brand is a brand and may stay as such. Let’s put this in perspective:


After all, it’s on PBS, not NBC, ABC, or CBS. Public broadcasting is at the front line of knowledge, but most people don’t actually like to get too close to the front line. At least not intentionally.


You win some, you lose some. But if you’re winsome, how can you lose?

Winsome doesn’t mean you tend to win things. Well, OK, hearts, agreement, devotion, prizes for the best smile, those sorts of winning ways, sure. But it’s not quite like meddlesome or quarrelsome. The win that it’s for is not the win of competition – from an old Germanic verb meaning ‘labour, exert, contend, fight, gain’ – but the otherwise-disused win of joy and delight, from Old English wyn (or wynn), related to wish and more distantly to wine (but if you’re winsome and you wish for wine, you will surely win some). So winsome means ‘delightful, agreeable’ and refers most often to manners, mannerisms, or appearance.

I’m sure we all know someone who is exceptionally sweet without seeming fake – someone you like as soon as you meet them, and keep on liking thereafter. In the world of figure skating, I’m told Jason Brown (a current leading men’s single skater from the US) is such a person, and he certainly has a winsome smile. In the world of words, Carol Fisher Saller (of the Chicago Manual of Style and Subversive Copy Editor) may as well have her picture next to winsome in the dictionary. But in my own world, my wife (Aina) is the winner, and then some. Herewith I present evidence:

Obviously all you see from that is her smile when in a state of bliss, as for example when she is holding a bowl of sauerkraut in a Hofbräuhaus. But I can assure you that she has delightfully winning ways. The set of all the people who like both me and her is the set of all the people who like me (there may be a few, I’m not sure) and have even so much as met her. She gets me invited to social occasions just because I come with the set. (Ironically, she is more introverted than I am, and often has to be dragged to events.)

It’s unsurprising that smile is the word most often described by winsome. But other things can be winsome too. A person can have a winsome manner, for instance, or a winsome laugh. The term is sometimes used just to mean ‘good looking in an unthreatening way’. Which describes quite a lot of the editors I recently finished conferencing with in St. Petersburg, Florida. Relaxed, happy, cheery, non-threatening – I mean, yeah, that’s pretty usual for people at a collegial conference in a warm place. But these ones have the edge of both being winsome and knowing it. Not knowing that they’re winsome – knowing the word winsome and how to use it.


Flabbergast. F-L-A-B-B-E-R-G-A-S-T. Flabbergast.

This would make a good spelling bee word, wouldn’t it? Other than its being reasonably well known and predictable. It sounds long and floppy and loosely jointed, garrulous as a flibbertigibbet, frenetic as a flutterbudget, verbally flabby and flatulent (gaseous) and ultimately aghast.

Well, especially aghast. The word may be fluttering and rubbery but its meaning is slackjawed: “to overwhelm with shock, surprise, or wonder,” to quote Merriam-Webster ( The Oxford English Dictionary shows us a nice quotation well suited to our times: “Now we are flabbergasted and bored from morning to night.” That does seem the incessant go-round of digitally mediated modernity, no? But this observation was made in 1773, in the Annual Register for 1772, in a jeremiad on faddish new words, signed “Observator,” and the author was inveighing not on the state of life but just on the words used to speak of it.

So flabbergasted (and flabbergast) was new in 1772. Where did it come from? There has been speculation and there have been observations – related forms in Suffolk and Perthshire – but no one knows (yet). It is likely a collision of flabby and aghast and who knows what else, formed on the basis of sound symbolism and phonaesthetics on the nonce by some fashionable lark in London society and passed about as a bit of the latest lexical frippery.

And it has lasted, especially among those who love lively syllables. I had occasion to use it myself lately when I described a haul of prizes from a spelling bee. You see, the ACES (American Copy Editors’ Society) conference, in St. Petersburg, FL(abbergast), which I was attending, had a spelling bee sponsored by Lingofy, with officials from Merriam-Webster and Scripps, to raise money for the ACES Education Fund scholarship program. There were 15 entrants and a goodly audience. It went to 7 rounds, I think. And the last person standing, successfully spelling agelast, A-G-E-L-A-S-T, was… me. For which I won a nice little lucite trophy. And a Bananagrams game. And a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which weighs 18 pounds. And an iPad Pro. And a messenger bag to carry it all in (which I did, and was nearly Grendelized, disarticulated at the shoulder by the weight). Flabbergasting indeed.

breth, brath, broth

There are some people whose every breath is wrath. They don’t merely stew; they are a seething broth of ire, ever at the boiling point. They are a bucket of gasoline looking for their perfect match. They are not just brash, they are brath, broth, full of breth.

These are old and disused words, breth and brath and this sense of broth. They all come from the same Old Norse: bráðr, ‘hasty, sudden, rash, passionate’. One might say ‘impetuous’. ‘Quick to anger’. All up in your Face-book. A-Twitter with rage. Except that no one has really used them for a bit over 500 years now.

That’s not that surprising. Breth, a noun meaning ‘fury’ or ‘rage’, sounds exactly like breath and while it can make neat wordplays – such as this line from a play written in 1500: “While I am in this breth, let me put him to death” – it is likely to cause confusion. True, a beautiful sight can take your breth away, but “fresh breth” may be misleading. Still, there could be some value in calling the raging trolls of the interwebs the breth-ren.

Broth, for its part, is of course going to land you in the soup. The broth we know is derived from brew just as sloth is from slow and death is from die. This other broth, an adjective meaning ‘impetuous, violent, wrathful’, has no origin in common with its doppelganger. And while it’s true that in some kitchens every day is a broth day, some may find it a bother to have to deal with both. But again, how could we not want to call a member of the breth-ren a broth-er? Aside from the fact that exactly no one would get the wordplay, that is. I won’t even try to anagram it productively into throb.

But brath! Well, now, that’s a word of its own. It’s even two words – the Scottish variant is braith. Brath is the northern English version, broth the southern, of the same word. In the south it’s a bubbling broth, in the north more of a hot bath, one that rhymes with wrath (or, in Scotland, wraith). And it has such a nice taste of brash. It gets that br in there, as in bratty and brusque and brutal and broken, and rhymes with psychopath and aftermath. And we could still make a wordplay with brathren and brather – which would remind us of their steam-powered blather.

Hebrew and Yiddish words, we have them

My last article for The Week was on words we got from Arabic. This time it’s words we got from Hebrew and Yiddish. You’ll probably know about some of these. You’ll probably be surprised by some others.

15 English words you probably didn’t know came from Hebrew and Yiddish


Whoever is the subject?

Who will inherit the investigation?

Oh, whoever will inherit the investigation?

Whoever will inherit the investigation, he will be someone Mr. Trump nominates.

Whoever will inherit the investigation, Mr. Trump nominates him.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Wait, says the writer. Mr. Trump nominates him. So it must be whom. Whomever. And so, in The New York Times, appears this:

Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Because formally correct. So whom. Yeah?

Nah. Hyperformalism.

Of course cases like this bedevil writers. The construction is complex and whom is not part of standard daily English; in effect, it is a foreign word for most of us. Wherever we think it might be appropriate for formally correct speech, we are tempted to slip it in, sort of like how some people stick –eth on every conjugation when they want to sound old-fashioned. But sometimes we go overboard and use it where it doesn’t belong.

When people write sentences like the one in question, the rule they’re turning to is that the object must be whom, not who.

The rule that they’re forgetting is that every verb must have a subject.

What’s the subject of will inherit?

It has to be whoever, because whoever else would it be?

One loophole that writers miss that would resolve some grammatical dilemmas is that a whole clause can be an object, as in “Mr. Trump will nominate {whoever gives him the most money}.” Another loophole they miss is that the subject or object of an embedded clause can be made to disappear by what linguists call moving and merging, leaving just an embedded trace (that we know exists thanks to psycholinguistic experiments). That’s what goes on here. The him in Mr. Trump nominates him gets tossed like a baseball in a double play back to the Who, and the catcher’s mitt on the Who is ever. (It can also be an emphatic as in “Oh, whoever will help us?” but it’s not one here.)

Look at “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” (I put the m in parentheses because if you use whom as the object you would use whomever here, but in normal non-prickly English we use whoever as the object too.) Notice that you (almost certainly) wouldn’t write “Who(m) Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” The ever sets up a second reference, the he. It can also set up an object (him): “Whoever gives the most money, Mr. Trump will nominate him.” (All of this works with she and her too, but we can see that Mr. Trump does not work with very many shes and hers.) So the ever can refer to an object while attached to a who that’s a subject, or the converse.

Our sentence du jour, however, is not derived from “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” Not quite. In “Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” the main verb of the sentence is clearly will inherit (will is the auxiliary that takes the actual inflection, and inherit is the infinitive that conveys the sense); the subject of will inherit is Whoever, as already pointed out. Mr. Trump nominates is an insertion – a subordinate clause modifying Whoever. By itself it would be Mr. Trump nominates him, but, as I said, the him is tossed back and caught by the ever.

Let’s diagram that like a good linguist, shall we? This is the fun part! Syntax trees have details that non-linguists will be unfamiliar with, so let me set down a couple of basic facts:

  1. A sentence is a TP, which means tense phrase – because it conveys tense (when the thing happens), not because it’s too wound up. The heart of it is thus the part that conveys when it happens: the conjugation on the verb. The verb phrase (VP) is subordinate to that, but it merges with it unless there’s an auxiliary verb taking the tense.
  1. A subordinate clause is also a TP, because it has a conjugated verb, but it’s inside a CP, which means complement phrase, because it’s a complement to something else in the sentence. Often there’s a complementizer, such as that or which, but not always.


The subject is Whoever. Because in English conjugated verbs (except for imperatives) have to have explicit subjects and they have to be in the subject (nominative) case, this can’t be Whom or Whomever. The tense goes on will. The verb is inherit. The object of that (its complement) is the noun phrase (NP) the freakin’ mess – sorry, the investigation. (I haven’t broken that down further, but actually it’s a determiner – the – and a noun.) The complement of Whoever, by which I mean the subordinate clause that describes who the Whoever is, is Mr. Trump nominates [him]. The him is tossed back to the ever.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Whoever will inherit the investigation?

Who will inherit the investigation?

He will inherit the investigation.

(Mr. Trump nominates him.)

So why doesn’t the NYT version instantly sound bad, as “Whom will inherit it?” would? It’s a more complex and unfamiliar construction, and what we tend to do in such cases is go with the salient rules we can remember and basically make up rules to make the rest work. For people who don’t balk at the “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” I believe what’s probably going on is that it’s an underlying “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation,” and the he is getting tossed back to the ever. So you have a trace of the subject rather than the object. Now, you can have a trace of a subject when you have more than one verb conjugated to the same subject – “Whoever gets the nomination inherits the investigation” – but it’s not normal formal standard English for a subject to be deleted and merge with an object that is not deleted. We need the subject!

But then, really, whoever speaks formal standard English all the time? Well, not whoever wrote that sentence, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been written, because it would have sounded wrong.