I have been invited to blurb a book.

This does not mean I need to burble bumf or blur the work into a verbal suburb. It’s a perfectly honourable assignment, a trade between promotional text for the author and a free copy of the manuscript for me, plus something to point to that says I must be a worthy blurber. I am no publishing landlubber; I am see-worthy, as in “See what James Harbeck says?”

The function of a blurb is similar to that of a wine review. You are considering buying some source of pleasure that takes time to consume, but you would like someone to vouch for its bona fides. Just a few words from the right person can make the book stand out like the proverbial purple cow (which, for a time, everyone in business seemed to want to have, which tells you about their limited view: there’s no relation between cow colour and milk quality or quantity; you can sell a purple cow once, and then you have to find a new thing to push).

The big question in all this, of course, is “What’s up with this word blurb?”

It does look a bit like a word someone just plain made up because it sounded good, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It has the phonaesthematic air of well-known pieces being grabbed from the mental pantry and assembled ad libitum, just for the sake of making a name, and that’s what it is. And we know who assembled it, and when.

The thing we call a blurb existed before the word for it, which is the normal sequence of events. The first blurb – albeit not written to be one – was a nice line from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” which Whitman had stamped in gold letters on the spine of the second edition of Leaves of Grass in 1856.

It took until 1907 for the word blurb, meaning a glowing testimonial on a book jacket, to hit the world, and when it did, it was presented as an eponym, the name of one Belinda Blurb, supposed author of the encomium on the dust cover bearing her image:

The word was created by the humorist Gelett Burgess, and it came in the company of another lexical invention of his: bromide. OK, yes, that word already existed – it’s a chemical compound, medicinally used as a sedative – but Burgess was the one who used it to mean a sedatingly dull person or the sedatives such a person utters.

Which seems suitable, inasmuch as blurbs are often basically bromides on cocaine: low on content, high on stimulation – verbal purple cows: eye-catching, but what then? I say “often,” but of course not always – a good blurb imparts useful information. A blurb will never be bad, but you do well to take note of which things it highlights and which ones it doesn’t mention.

Oh, and does the name Gelett Burgess ring a bell? You may know him for some of his other work. One of his most popular was one of his briefest, a nonsense quatrain that runs as follows:

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!

And now, if you don’t mind, I’ll leave you with the purple cow. I have a book to read.



According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb chork means “To make the noise which the feet do when the shoes are full of water.”

There are four things I’d like to address about this:

a) This is a perfect word for that sense, and that’s a perfect sense for this word.

b) No, I’m not pulling your leg. It’s not April Fool’s anymore. My Dark Tongue of Mordor pronunciation tip was my nod to that day of silliness.

c) Does that definition seem somehow… just a little less dictionary-ish than the usual?

d) Oxford says it’s now Scottish English.

To address those one by one:

a) I don’t really mean the written form of the word, though have a look at it, there’s something possibly boot-like in its near-symmetry with the high stems, and something squelchish in the contrast of the ch at the front with the k at the back. No, though, it’s the sound: the affricated onset “ch” that already suggests friction or fluid motion of some sort, and the curling messy undignified wet-rubbery “or” stopping at hard “k” as the foot stops up against the boot. The word as a whole sloshes from the tip of the tongue back through the mouth to the velum. It has echoes of other words, but none of them would complete the sound impression: cork, chuck, chore, soak, choke, lurk, chug… This is a word both phonaesthematic and onomatopoeic.

b) Seriously, I just stumbled on this word today, like forty minutes ago as I was surfing the OED for something to taste. It’s for realz. But if I were pulling your leg, I would be pulling it into a wet rubber boot. And I mean wet on the inside. Which, given that it’s early April, is a likely thing, at least around where I live.

c) I think there are a few things that make it more like a thing an ordinary person says and less like the usual dictionary register. For one, “make the noise” is rather more peevish in tone than “make a sound.” For another, why “which the feet do” and not “which the feet make” or just “of the feet” (or “of a foot in a shoe full of water”)? For a third, yes, “when the shoes are full of water,” because not “if” but “when” AW COME ON DO YOU HAVE TO RUB IT IN yes it’s inevitable, when.

d) You can still use it. Honestly, see (a): it’s perfect. Context will tell. If someone accuses you of making it up, you can tell them it’s been around for more than 500 years – probably a lot more, because shoes full of water have existed for at least as long as the English people have had shoes, but the first sighting was in the 1400s. And now it is April and now it is chorking time again. So if you want to use it but you are getting cold feet, THAT’S WHY TO USE IT, BECAUSE YOUR FEET ARE COLD BECAUSE THEY’RE CHORKING AND IT’S APRIL THE THIRD AND IT’S BUCKETING DOWN THE FULL NOAH AND YOUR SHOES HAVE CHUCKED IT IN. Chork chork chork.

Pronunciation tip: The One Ring inscription

Everyone knows the inscription inside the One Ring from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, of course, but most of us can’t get the pronunciation quite right. Discover the secret to saying it so Sauron will seek you out, and get a little bit of linguistic insight while you’re at it:

Oh, and happy April 1.

Foreign accent syndrome

We learn a lot about how language works in the brain from cases where the brain doesn’t work quite right. Most of the time, something’s obviously broken, so it’s like dropping a bowl and picking up the pieces. But what if you drop a bowl and you get… a different style of bowl? My latest for The Week:

The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents

I tell Boston about Celtics

Edgar B. Herwick III, of the National Public Radio station WGBH in my erstwhile stomping grounds of Greater Boston, got me on the phone (Skype, actually) to find out why Celtic music is “keltik” but the Boston Celtics are “seltik.” Of course, I told him. You can listen to the radio show, or read the script, or both:

Why We Pronounce ‘Celtic’ Music And Boston ‘Celtics’ Differently


Why be an editor, or an organizer, or even a bricoleur, when you can be a curator?

What does a curator do? Why, curates, of course. Which means – now – select and arrange and present. What things? Texts, precious artifacts, artworks, perhaps even parties by now. (I just checked and yes.) It is a seemingly popular title just at the moment. Curator is a prestige position, one that bespeaks museums and galleries; it is at the upper end of the job ladder that is being held at its bottom rungs by the caretaker.

You just know what I’m about to tell you, don’t you: curator comes from Latin for ‘caretaker’ – the agentive –ator onto cura (noun) and curare (verb) ‘care’, which is the source of all our cure words (our care words, on the other hand, are etymologically related only way back at the Proto-Indo-European). That doesn’t mean that a curator is the same as what we now call a caretaker, of course, but a curator takes care to carefully take things and present them and care for them. It does mean that curate is (like edit, from editor) a backformation – curator came first, and the original related verb was cure, but that has shifted in sense.

But it may still make sense. A curator assembles or receives assorted works, like sick souls into a ward to be cured. And they will be cured, by being concretized together (cement cures into concrete) and by being preserved (you know what cured meats are, don’t you? hams and such like?). They can thus, if properly handled, be solid and tasty. But watch out: although curare ‘care’ is not related to curare the poison – a strychnine used on arrow tips by the Macusi of Guyana, who called it wurali, which was somewhat mutated in the transmission by Europeans – poor or confused curation can have a truly deadening effect, like aesthetic (or anaesthetic) curare.


Now that I have set up shop as a full-time storyteller and story-helper, I have decided to create something to help shop myself around – with the past aid of some bookshops and the present aid of Photoshop. Since I have the camera, computer, and consciousness, I can do it myself on the cheap. Here is the image I have made for my business cards:

This image may not bring to mind a shop, and fair enough – it makes me think more of Mary Poppins, though you see the steeple of St. James Cathedral in Toronto (the view is out my apartment window on a foggy evening). But even though the clock on the church tells you it’s nearly past the shopping hour, there is something of Schopenhauer in it, in the absorption of the representer into the representation. And so it has the ambivalence of shop, which can be a place, or an act you do, or an act you do to something, or an act you do to yourself.

There are no shops in the picture, to be sure, except perhaps on the screen of the laptop, leaning to the darkness, but a shop was at first a lean-to, or shed, or vestibule, the front end of a workshop where shoppers could shop for what had been made. And here we see someone leaning between the works and the world.

Well, we see someone sitting on the edge of his highest kitchen counter, having set the light just so and the put the camera on timer and used a chair to climb to the precipice, and then from the resulting photo cut out and copied over and adjusted in assorted ways to appear in a place he never would in reality. But that’s what storytelling is for, isn’t it? Why have imagination if it is going to stop where the real would? A fall from a balcony would be costly, but a picture is cheap. We now have the means for creation to be as costless and evanescent as any of the endless photons spraying from the screen. All it takes is time.

And it is valid that what is shopped should be cheap. Cheap comes first from a word for any bargaining or bartering, related to modern Dutch koop and German kaufen, ‘buy’. It is also fitting that it be a story, for scop or sceop (said “shop” or just sometimes “skop”) is an Old English word (though unrelated), survived narrowly into the modern age, for a poet or minstrel – a storyteller.

And likewise might it be a creation, for the Old English word for ‘create’, scieppan, became in the past tense gesceop, said like “y’ shey op” – as in Ælfric’s translation of the Bible, the very beginning of it all: On angynne gesceop God heofenan and eorðan. ‘In [the] beginning created God heaven and earth.’

You will hear a kin of gesceop in the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, in the text of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”: “Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?” Which means ‘Do you sense the creator, world?” And the next line is “Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!” ‘Seek him over the canopy of stars!’

But when you hold a million stars in your hand, and you can use it to sit at an edge of the sky you have seen through your window, with the knowledge of years behind you and the years of experience ahead, where is your canopy?

On your shop.

Oh, and here’s mine: