kyabuka, kiabooca

How do you pronounce kyabuka?

How about kiabooca?

Are you sure?

You get that they’re two spellings of the same thing, of course. But what thing, now?

I’m watching the Oscars and drinking sparking wine right now (Santa Julia, from Argentina, a Champagne-tasting $15 bottle), so I’m going to mess with you a bit more. How do you pronounce Genghis Khan?

Yeah, maybe not. Kahlil Gibran?

Yeah no.

Here’s the thing. English expectations regarding pronunciation of non-English names, including transliteration of non-English names, have changed very much over the last century. Back when Kahlil Gibran was writing, a name pronounced /d͜ʒɪbran/, which we would now render as Jibran, was automatically spelled Gibran, because g was used for that sound before high front vowels, just as was the rule in English spelling. And the name that was really more like “chingis” but was taken as “jingis” was spelled with a g as well.

And then we started to be more aware of how other languages spelled things, and – more to the point – more accommodating of it, and everything changed. Except for spellings that were already established. Which we have come to reinterpret according to our current standards, where, in non-English names, g is always /g/ regardless of what it’s before.

Obviously kiabooca is an old-style English spelling. But while kyabuka looks really “foreign,” with its double k’s and that additional angular y – so stylish – it, too, relies on an old-style convention. If we were to borrow in this word today, we would take it straight from Malay, which, after all, is spelled (now) with the Latin alphabet. We would spell it kayu-buku. In Malay, kayu means ‘tree’, and buku means ‘knot’. If it grew in England we’d call it knotwood. It’s a tree that’s very knotty. It makes a nice ornamental wood.

But the problem of representing in English spelling what those who first wrote it down were hearing – after all, the phoneme we represent as /u/ doesn’t sound the same in all places in all languages – was also knotty. Other recorded spellings since it was first written in English in the early 1800s include kiabouka, kiabuca, kyabuca, and kyaboka. What do they all have in common? They all spell /aɪ/ as i or y rather than as ay. They spell it assuming the English “long i” – which is particular to English and came about as the result of the Great Vowel Shift in the 1400s and 1500s, before which English pronounced “long i” just like in, for instance, machine.

The spelling is very ornamental, of course. So many ways of putting it down. English is a bit knotty that way, eh? Or naughty, anyway. Well, it wood be.

Oh, did you want to know more about kyabuka wood? Here’s a bit from Edward Balfour’s 1885 Cyclopedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia:

The kyaboka wood of commerce is brought from Ceram, N. Guinea, the Aru and other islands of the Moluccas, to Singapore, being much esteemed as a fancy or ornamental wood for cabinet-work. Of late years its estimation seems to have decreased in Europe, but it is still much valued by the Chinese, and is sold by weight. It is sawn off in slabs from 2 to 4 feet long and 2 to 8 inches thick. It resembles the burr of the yew. It is used for making small boxes, writing-desks, and other fancy ornamental work. It is tolerably hard, and full of small curls and knots ; the colour is from orange to chesnut-brown, and sometimes red brown.


Some places have oom-pah-pah. Some have the hurdy-gurdy. Some have the tam-tam. Some have the kazoo. To this clan of musical instruments (and styles) with onomatopoeic names add this pleasant piece of work from East Africa: the nyatiti.

The nyatiti is an eight-stringed lyre-type instrument with a wooden frame and a gourd base. It’s popular among the Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania. It name is thought to come from the sound of the lowest string (“nya”) and two of the higher strings (“titi”); since it’s played in an arpeggiated style without stops on the strings, a three-note pattern of low-high-high is common enough.

There’s nothing about the sound of it that would make an Anglophone think immediately of “nya,” mind you – we think of that as a taunting nasal sound, “nyah-nyah.” (Oh, yes, by the way: it’s like “nyah,” not like “nye a.”) The higher strings, too, are a little lower than what you might expect from “titi” in our world filled with high clear bell-type sounds. Sound impressions and onomatopoeia do have a strong cultural basis.

For that matter, you might expect something more Polynesian, what with the faint taste of Tahiti in this word. Or you might expect something ancient Egyptian, reminiscent of Nefertiti, the wife of the pharaoh Akhnaten. You’d be too far south and possibly too modern for her, but at least you’d be in Africa, and you could draw two happenstance connections: first, the headdress of Nefertiti has a fan-like shape vaguely reminiscent of that of the nyatiti, perhaps with her head as the gourd; second, Akhnaten is the name of an opera by Philip Glass, who makes much use of arpeggios – but actually far more in the Balinese line, not the nyatiti playing style. Oh well.

If you look on YouTube for videos of people playing the nyatiti, you will find quite a few. You will find videos of westerners (and East Asians) playing it in a mannered, calm style, held at table or chest height. And you will find videos of Luo people playing it the way you’re supposed to, down at ground level between their legs, with one foot tapping against the frame and the other tapping bells, playing a lively tune and often singing along.

Someone went to the trouble of putting together a YouTube playlist of 78 videos of nyatiti music. Have a listen to at least one (I recommend number 57, if this blog insists on starting it at number 1 – click on the menu top left and scroll down):

If you’d like to find out about other stringed instruments you may have been unaware of, Iva Cheung did a series of tweets on them, with videos:


Hmm. Is this word pristine, or is it spry for such an old thing? Is it the very spring of printemps, or does it prick with brisk, crisp cold? Does it carry spirit or risk?


Age has spirit, and it has risks. This is surely a new word – to you, as it was lately to me – and yet it is actually pulled out from Oxford’s lexical cold storage. It has spring and vigour, like a name of a cold drink for hot days, and yet it is not new, and what it names is not new. It is pristine in its glittering appearance – and in the old ‘ancient’ sense of pristine.

Prisk is a rare, archaic Scots English word formed directly from Latin priscus. It means ‘old, ancient, old-fashioned, primitive’. Oxford’s only modern citation for it is from Forked Tongue by W.N. Herbert: “Sandy Hole Gaelic’s pirn’s unspoolan i thi prisk guschet o aa thocht’s birth’s biforrows.” If that sounds to you like old-style dialect from an ancient Scotsman who is pissed as an ewt, well, me too.

But it really is such a crisp word. Can’t we keep it? We could call Angela Lansbury “pretty, prisk, and spry”; we could refer to a coelacanth as a “prisk piscis” or just a “prisk fish.” There are, it’s true, other words with much the same sense, including two more descended from priscus: priscan and priscal. But neither of those is so brisk.

And why would we think we must limit ourselves to one word for any given semantic field? English is not a programming language. English is a collector’s language. No one with the collector spirit says “I have a camera; why would I need another?” or “I have one recording of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé; aren’t they fungible?” or “I’ve tasted a red Bordeaux; aren’t they all the same?” No, no, every word, even of ostensibly the same sense, has an at least slightly different flavour. A word is a performance; a word is a craftsman’s output. You can keep collecting them, from the prisk to the praecox, words without end.


A bit over two years ago, my wife and I went to a Leonard Cohen concert. The various band members walked onto the stage, one at a time, got set up. Then some guy came bounding onto the stage. We thought it was one of the techies bringing on something for someone. Then he took the microphone and started to sing.

Leonard Cohen, 78 at the time, had just jogged onto the stage like a 24-year-old.

Throughout the concert, he was here, he was there; now he was on his knees, now back up, now on his knees again. Not quite a sprinter, but sprightly. A spring in his step.

Leonard Cohen, after 8 decades of life, is pretty spry.

Last week we saw Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, live on stage. Angela Lansbury is 89½ years old. Angela Lansbury was up pacing around, dancing in a trance, flopping onto a sofa.

I described her on the phone to my parents as “pretty spry.”

Obviously spry is a relative word. A person in their prime has to be frankly gymnastic to earn the term. A nonagenarian can earn it by dancing. And not landing sprawled as a result.

Spry showed up in English by the later 1700s, meaning (as it still does) “Active, nimble, smart, brisk; full of health and spirits” (Oxford). It has also sometimes been used to mean ‘spruce’ (as in spruced up). But it’s not clear just where it came from. The best guesses trace it to sprightly or to an Old Norse word meaning ‘brisk, active’. But there’s no clear trail. Somehow it just sprang into the language. And sounded right.

Right? Let’s see common words that start with spr: sprain, sprat, sprawl, spray, spread, spree, sprig, spright, spring, springe, sprinkle, sprint, sprit, sprite, spritz, sprout, spruce, sprue, spruik. Most of them have to do with spreading or distributing motion, or with things that move quickly or grow forth. There’s an accumulated association of that general sense with this sound, even though the words aren’t all related. It’s what is sometimes called a phonaestheme.

And the vowel, the diphthong /aɪ/ (spelled y)? That’s not as concentrated, to be sure. But there can be a sense of movement away: fly, try, sigh, die, hie. There’s also the sound of wry embedded in spry. And of course there’s the unfinished sprightly and sprite, and there’s pry and almost prize and prime. Associations between words and sounds may in general be arbitrary, but people automatically look for patterns and make associations on the basis of resemblance. Word meanings can shift because a word sounds like another word. Language is sometimes a nimble thing.

Nimble? That’s a rough synonym for spry. But tell me what you feel the difference to be. I find that nimble is like agile with a particular sense of quick and sure feet and ability to negotiate tricky situations (it commonly shows up with fingers and feet), while spry focuses more on the athletic vigor and youthful sinew, still with a sense of indefeasibility. And it’s commonly used to refer to older people – the most frequent modifier for it (by far) is still. It’s relatively more easily attainable in greater age, and it connotes retention of a youthful vigour.

Come to think of it, it sounds like a word Sean Connery might use, doesn’t it? He’s still spry, too, you know… at 84 years old.


Outside, the temperature is brisk, but the air boils: snow rolls and roils, billows and piles into soft pure pillows. When the storm is past and all is settled and halcyon, the world takes on a pure, primeval aspect: crystalline white, untrodden, a fantasy. This is the moment just after the fall. The sheet white of the land is a page yet to be written on, new, immaculate, not bearing the trace of any conception: no stripe, nor even the prints of a sprinter. Clean and glowing like spirit. Pristine.

Not only snow can be pristine. Forests, beaches, lakes, wilderness, but especially – in the words of today’s writers – anything clean, pure, and white: teeth, china, clothing, clouds… What is pristine is printless, priceless, primeval, like a clear running stream fed by snows from the dawn of time. It is not some passing pretty interest or painting to be pinned on your Pinterest; it is the epitome of ideals of purity. Time and tide have not happened to it yet.

Pristine puts me in mind of Seneca. I don’t mean the Seneca Nation of American Indians, although fantasies about the natural natives and unexplored wilderness could come into play. I mean the Roman author and statesman, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, playwright, stoic, advisor to Nero. His plays feature dark and brutal happenings, but they also feature a yearning for times that were not so dark and brutal. In Phaedra, Hippolytus, soon to be dragged to death by horses (though he doesn’t know it), rhapsodizes about the life in the forests primeval: “There is no life so free and innocent, none which better cherishes the ancient ways, than that which, forsaking cities, loves the woods.” He goes on to say that people in the primal age lived thus, in communion with the gods, without cities and civilization and greed, tools and towers. This is Seneca’s presentation of the pristine.

But where he uses the word pristine – its Latin etymon, to be precise – is in another play, Agamemnon: Clytaemnestra says “Surgit residuus pristinæ mentis pudor – quid obstrepis?” Which can be translated as “The remnant of my old time chastity revives; why dost thou cry against it?”

So pristinæ (an inflected form of pristina, feminine of pristinus) translates to chastity? No; that translates pudor (or mentis pudor; I think modesty would really be a closer translation, though). Pristinæ translates to old time.

Yes. Prior. Prime. The opposite of procrastinated (crastinus means ‘later’). Originally, even in English, what was pristine was, to quote Oxford, “Of or relating to the earliest period or state; original, former; primitive, ancient.” From this came a sense of “unspoilt by human interference,” as witness this quote from the 1910 Encyclopædia Britannica: “This presence of the pure, the pristine, the virginal in the verse, this luminousness, spaciousness, serenity in the land.” And from that we came to general freshness, spotlessness, newness.

Obviously this word pristine is not quite pristine, then; use has shifted its sense. Some would insist that it be reserved for things in an ancient and unspoiled state, either preserved or atavistic; one could not in this sense speak of pristine lines of modernist architecture. But languages changes all the time; rare indeed is the word that has not shifted form, sense, or both in the past millennium. This is not despoilment. This is simply change, which always happens. Do you see that new snow? Each pretty crystal is made of water that has passed through the cycle countless times since the world was new. It has been drunk, passed, watered on roots, transpired to the air, rained down from the clouds, swum in, frozen, thawed, boiled, made into snow and packed and shovelled and melted, and it will go back and do it all again. Everything does that. Every bit of matter in your body was once matter in some other animal’s body, and will in future times be matter in others still. Pristine is a fantasy. But on a fresh, snowy day, it is a pleasing one.

Pristina, on the other hand, is the capital of Kosovo. It is not a new place; people have been living thereabouts for a hundred centuries – a literal myriad of years – and it has had its name for at least seven centuries. It is not untouched; a war was fought there even not so long ago. And yet it has a lovely name, a name that brings to mind the printemps of time, prior to imprints. Its name does not come from the Latin, though. It sounds like Serbian for ‘boil’, but more likely it comes from a personal name, much changed over the ages.

Thanks to Benjamin Dreyer, @BCDreyer, who mentioned a month ago his appreciation for this word and so, without intending to, provoked this tasting.


You know what lurve is, don’t you, baby? Yeah, baby, you do. You want to feel my lurve. You want to know my lurrrrve. Yeah, baby, you know. You know my lurvature. I know you’re lurvaceous. We need to relieve, baby, relieve with verve. And make lurve. Lurve is a butterfly… and we are its lurvae.

Aw, come on, baby, you know I’m not some kind of lurvert. I’m the man with the velvet voice and the velvet glurve. I just want to give you what you desurve. Yeah, baby, you deserve my lurve. Because you’re lurvely. You’re sent from heaven aburve.

Baby? Baby?

Aw, baby, you know what lurve is. Aw, come on, don’t make me say it. It’s that word… that worrrd without the purr… if you take away the purr, it’s naked. It’s unpurrtected. It’s…

But lurve isn’t a new word. No, baby, no. It’s in Oxfurrd. They quote the Daily Mirror from 1936: “Which means..that (a) you’re in Lurve, but (b) you’re not sure he’s in Lurve with you.” But you’re sure, baby. You can be sure of my lurve.

What’s the definition? Oh, baby, come on, you know. Okay, be cool, baby, this is what it says: “Romantic infatuation; sex; love. Freq. when regarded as being treated (esp. in films, pop music, fiction, etc.) in a hackneyed or clichéd manner.”

No, baby, that’s just those British people, baby. No, oh come on, baby. I say lurve is love with a purr. It’s like a one-word aphurdisiac.

That’s what, baby? Where’s it come from? Oh, lurk, baby, I mean look… Yeah, baby, yeah, okay, here’s what it says: “Sometimes specifically parodying the slow, smooth, crooning pronunciation of love in romantic popular songs. In some cases perhaps also reflecting British perceptions of the U.S. pronunciation of love n.1

Well, look, baby, what do they know about lurve? They’re British, baby. They don’t make lurve. They make awkward half-hinting proposals. Or they sing songs about, you know, well, “wouldn’t it be lurvely.”

Baby, baby, you know I said it: you’re lurvaceous. Between us we can make a beautiful smooth lurvature. Lurve, lurve me do, baby, you know I lurve you… Oh yeah… you want a whole lotta lurve…


A word bursts on the scene, fresh, faddish, perhaps consciously classical or rebellious or hip. It has its Warhol-appointed quarter-hour or its full Shakespearean hour on the stage, and then it slips back, retreats into the thin pages of the dictionary, eventually dies with a dagger through its heart and has its grave condition marked with an obelisk. Such is life; vanity may be glorious, but all glory is vain.

But just because this too shall pass doesn’t mean we should despise it. Indeed, the very evanescence of life’s delights enjoins us to enjoy them: if not now, when? Every moment is a new opportunity. Take it. Just don’t become attached to it. Relish it and relinquish it. Spend the moment well; just don’t give it meaning beyond its worth. Don’t think your first-class upgrade makes you a first-class person. Take the meretricious for its merry tricks, knowing you will be rapt one moment but unwrapped the next, and discard the rapper when it is empty.

Take this word, kenodoxy. Is it not glittery like a cut diamond, or at least like glass costume jewelry? The two hard velar stops are represented with sharp angular strokes in k and x; the third set of angles are a tail, a vowel y. It touches at the back, tip, tip, back and tip of the tongue. It sounds crisp and detailed and looks stylish in an expensive-watch sort of way: a beautiful machine so exquisitely made, you will pay much for it even if it doesn’t perform its ostensible function as accurately as a cheaper one may do. It glitters like a lottery winner; it has the meretrix’s merry tricks.

Lottery? How about keno? There’s a fun game, involving drawing numbers to match pre-selected numbers – originally five, hence the name keno, from Latin quinque. And meretrix? That’s an old word for a lady who has the oldest profession, one who will share her glories for a price and a limited time – ah, such is life. Another (perhaps less nice) word for the same is doxy. So. Keno and doxy? Free money and pricey love, twin impermanent luxuries? Perhaps you would not appreciate something so much like a diamond-studded balloon that will, when optimally filled, pop from the diamonds’ sharp points. But perhaps others would. And perhaps we all engage in a little kenodoxy.

Kenodoxy is not from keno the game plus doxy the gamer. Actually, it’s from Greek κενοδοξία kenodoxia, from κενός kenos ‘empty’ (whence kenosis) and δόξα doxa ‘glory’. (My, doesn’t that xi – ξ – look like a snake coiled and ready to bite?) Kenodoxy is, according to Oxford, an obsolete rare word meaning “The love, study, or desire of vain-glory.”

Oh, yes, vainglory! We do glory in our vanities, and remind ourselves of their impermanence. Riding high in April, shot down in May, but we’ll be back in June. Quicquid enim florui, felix et beatus, nunc a summo corrui, gloria privatus. Worldes blis ne last no throwe. But you might as well get it while you can. As we are counselled by much of the entire œuvre of rap and hip-hop.

O vainglory, how can we not be captivated by you? Here is a little bit of kenodoxy from Old Goriot by Balzac:

Love in Paris is a thing distinct and apart; for in Paris neither men nor women are the dupes of the commonplaces by which people seek to throw a veil over their motives, or to parade a fine affectation of disinterestedness in their sentiments. In this country within a country, it is not merely required of a woman that she should satisfy the senses and the soul; she knows perfectly well that she has still greater obligations to discharge, that she must fulfill the countless demands of a vanity that enters into every fiber of that living organism called society. Love, for her, is above all things, and by its very nature, a vainglorious, brazen-fronted, ostentatious, thriftless charlatan.

The vainglory of love, the love of vainglory, the vainglory of the love of vainglory.

We do not have to engage ingenuously in vainglory. We can always stand apart, observing ourselves bouncing in the ballroom of the world, delivering keynotes and savouring the finest things. This aesthetic appreciation that leads to insight, what the Sanskrit philosophers called rasadhvani, can also be applied to vainglory. Take your kenodoxy out from your lexical jewel-box and wear this rock on your ring finger. Be engaged in it. Just know that all vainglory is a jilt, and in the end you will be disengaged, whether you want or not.