If you happen to wander into the be– section of the Oxford English Dictionary, you bump into all sort of verbs and adjectives: becalm, befuddle, beclap, bechance, becloud, bedaub, bebop, bechamel, oops, those last two aren’t made with the be– prefix, but the list goes on – in fact, the entry for be– (prefix) has 558 sub-entries. That’s 558 words other than the ones with their own separate entries starting with this prefix that signifies a becoming or imposition or “from side to side (within a space), to and fro, in all directions, in all ways, in or through all its parts, thoroughly.” Think of the poor lexicographer. The very thought has me trembling. I think I would end up bebunged like a barrel.

A barrel? No, no, not a barrel. A clavichord.

If behatted and bewigged mean bedecked with a hat and a wig, bebunged must mean having a bung, right? Or somehow affected by a bung?

Nope. There is no alcoholic delirium tremens in bebung. But there are tremors. Of the hand. Deliberate ones. And there is no bung, really. There is beb and there is ung.

Unlike the words around it, this word is a loan from German. And in German, –ung is a non-forming suffix similar to the gerundive –ing in English. The German verb beben means ‘tremble’; bebung – said /ˈbeɪbʊŋ/ (like “babe oong”) – means ‘trembling’. But not just any trembling.

I remember one time, when I was in university, one of my friends – can’t remember which, but given how my life was at the University of Calgary I should probably really put “friends” in scare quotes or just replace it with “people I associated with who variously tolerated and scorned me” – was playing something on the piano (probably with one hand) and, on sustained notes, shook the hand over the fingertip like a violinist does when playing tremolo. I didn’t say anything then, but I thought, “That doesn’t do a damn thing to the sound. Does it?”

The answer is no, it doesn’t. Once you’ve struck the piano key, the hammer has bounced off the string and the only way you can make the sound change with the key is to hit it hard enough to make the hammer bounce off the string again. Titillate the key all you want, you will only be bending your digit. But guess what: It’s different with a clavichord.

What is a clavichord? An instrument that sounds rather like a harpsichord but works a bit more like a piano. But it makes its sound by striking the string from below with a metal point that stays in contact with the string, and if you waver the finger on the key up and down – not sideways – it can vary the tension on the string to produce a tremolo effect. A tremor. A bebung. Here, watch:

The sound is about as unsteady as a somewhat be-bunged drinker. But of course be-bunged is not in the dictionary. You still understood what I meant, though, didn’t you?

So you can’t make bebung on a piano. Except that you can do something that is also called bebung: you can just tap the key a few more times to make repeated strikes of the string to extend the sound or produce a vaguely similar effect. Well, similar in the same way as cicada sounds like the sound a cicada makes. But it might be better for bebop.


Mmm, schmaltz. Delicious, yummy, dripping, greasy schmaltz. It’s like the smelted gold of the food world. Roast a chicken the right way and the schmaltz just drips down and bathes the vegetables. Make gravy with it, or save it for frying other things, or spread it on bread, or…

If you’re like me and first encountered the term in its figurative sense (I believe I learned it from MAD Magazine), the above might seem a bit odd. Who wants sentimentality in their gravy, or mawkishness spread on their bread? Elevator music for dinner, the Magical Strings for frying things in? But if you know only that meaning, the literal original will make it all make sense. Yes, schmaltz is chicken fat. Melted chicken fat. Primally pleasing, not a health food, not highbrow.

You can easily guess that this is a word from Yiddish. The schm is a good sign – we see it in other Yiddish loans such as schmuck and schmendrick as well as in the reduplicative derisive schm: “Chicken schmicken, it was a Cornish hen”; “Prefix schmefix, it’s a pseudomorpheme”; “Lean schmean, it’s covered in schmaltz.” All these Yiddish schm can also be spelled as shm, by the way, because they’re transliterations. Yiddish is properly written using the Hebrew alphabet. Schmaltz is שמאַלץ and can be transliterated shmalts.

So this word comes from Hebrew? Ha. Hebrew schmebrew. Like most of Yiddish, it’s Germanic. Yiddish is an offshoot of German with substantial Hebrew influence. The modern German equivalent is Schmalz, pronounced exactly the same way. It’s like if the German word for ‘fat’ were Fatt.

Which it’s not. It’s Fett. But there’s another word for fat, in modern German meaning ‘lard’ but historically broader in sense. That word is, yes, Schmalz. In Yiddish it came to mean chicken fat specifically, because that was the main fat that was available for cooking with. (It did maintain a broader sense of just ‘fat’ in schmaltz herring, an especially fatty kind of pickled herring.) Frying in butter is a no-no (not kosher to mix dairy with meat); lard (from pigs!) is no good either; and for assorted reasons, beef fat is not really a good option either. And there just wasn’t a whole lot of olive oil available in northern Europe in previous centuries, know what I mean?

Fortunately, melted chicken fat can be a pretty good thing. That’s why getting really lucky can be referred to as “falling in the schmaltz.” To dive into a vat of delicious liquid chicken fat… it’s like falling into molten gold. Only without the fatal burns that you get from molten metal.

But the connection is a good one. There is an English word related to schmaltz, you see. It’s a verb referring to melting… metals now, mainly: smelt.

Ha. Can you smelt a chicken? Well, guess what: I can. I smelt one yesterday, and it smelt damn good.


I promised to come back to this book. Remember? This bookshelf at my parents’ place?

This book.

I have it on my bookshelf too. Not the same edition. It’s back behind a post. See it?

Look closer.

A box set.

The set also contains The Hobbit, but the volumes of The Lord of the Rings are thick from being read, so I keep The Hobbit next to the box (I read it before I got this box set, so this copy is less read).

Did you know that books get thicker with reading? They absorb some of you each time you go through them. Every book you read, part of you is passed into it through your fingers and the pages are fattened with your spirit and imagination. Return to the book and you will find it there. And add some more. And as you pass through life, that soul you left in the book still feeds into you and sends images to you. You never truly say farewell to a book once you welcome it and it welcomes you.

I swear it’s true.

And I read this copy twice. At least twice, but twice for sure. So it’s thickened.

I like this edition because it has the appendix in the back with the alphabets, runic and Fëanorian.

I cannot tell you how much I fell in love with these alphabets in my childhood and youth. I loved alphabets. I once made a volume of fantasy languages; at that age, I couldn’t be bothered much with the syntax or lexis (let alone the morphology), but I came up with a complete sound system and alphabet for each of them. I’m sure I have that book somewhere. It’s a graph Nothing Book: a hardcover book with empty pages of graph paper. I filled quite a few of them.

I shall have to dig it out. If I have it here it’s under a hundred pounds of other boxes in the closet, probably. Not tonight.

Tolkien is famous for creating languages for his different races. He’s not the only person to create languages, of course; Klingon and Na’vi are two recent examples of thoroughly created “conlangs,” constructed languages (I find the term conlang a bit fanboyish – sci-fi fans have an absolute fetish for syllable acronyms – so don’t count on seeing me use it much). But he was one of the seminal ones to do so, and he did it in a truly thoughtful way, like the philologist he was: complete with history, sound and morphosyntax changes, and more.

Tolkien based his languages on human languages he liked. He like Welsh and he liked Finnish, and he created two elvish languages, one inspired by each. The language of the Grey-elves is Sindarin, inspired by Welsh. It’s the language that elves in The Lord of the Rings generally use in everyday use. But then there is the one based on Finnish: Quenya, the language of the High Elves, the ones who went to the west and for the most part stayed there. Some of them came back to Middle-earth and lived with the Grey-elves and came to speak Sindarin, but kept Quenya – a gradually changed dialect of it – as a formal tongue. The language of their home and heritage, brought out now for formal occasions. And for when they look to the west and their spirits are crying for leaving, remembering Valinor, the western land, and Valimar, its capital.

That might seem familiar to many people in Canada, children of immigrants, who speak English every day but, when they go to church on special occasions or to community gatherings, still have the language of their forebears, wherever they came from. The language that their parents, or their parents’ parents, said farewell to their native home in. The language that is at the same time the connection, the thread, that holds them to their homeland. The language they read the book of their heritage in, and that connects them to the part of themselves they left there.

The longest text Tolkien wrote in Quenya is this poem – a song, actually:

That’s in the single-volume edition my parents have. Here’s in my edition:

He helpfully gives a translation of it below the text.

It’s in the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring.

It’s sung by Galadriel as the company of the ring leave Lothlórien, the elvish tree-garden-river-home, a green dreamland. In fact, Lothlórien means ‘The Dreamflower’. If you saw the movie, Galadriel is the one played by Cate Blanchett, a rather perfect bit of casting. You can hear it sung in many versions on YouTube. Here’s one by Adele McAllister:

The name of the poem is also the word that comes around in the last stanza:


Four syllables: /na ma: ri ɛ/.

Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar.
Nai elyë hiruva. Namárië!

Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar.
Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!

You can glean quite a bit from even just this stanza. Nai means ‘maybe’; hiruva means ‘shalt find’; elyë means ‘thou’ and can be attached to the end of hiruva to make hiruvalyë ‘thou shalt find’ or can stand alone to be emphatic ‘even thou’; namárië means ‘farewell’.

Except there’s more you can’t see from that passage. Namárië comes from á na márië, which means ‘be well’. It is used not only for farewell but for greeting and welcome.

Be well. Go well. Fare well. But in English we say farewell only as a parting. We may say hail as a greeting, and that comes from a wish of good health. But we have lost the literal sense of both in our common use anyway. We may say Good day as a greeting and as a parting, but we only perfunctorily wish a good day if we think of it at all. I cannot say how sincere Tolkien’s elves were in their salutations; remember, this is a word in what had become for them a ceremonial language. It is as though we in English said Latin Salve in greeting and parting. Or, perhaps, Namaste.

But wellness is good, coming, staying, or going. And the road goes ever on. You travel through space and time, taking yourself with you and yet leaving yourself everywhere, and taking everywhere with yourself. There is some of you where you came from, some where you are, perhaps some already where you are going. And every meeting and well-wishing is also an acknowledgement of the unbridgeable distance between two persons, and the transience of our passage through that moment.

We are always everywhere we have been, and yet we are never completely anywhere: we carry our absences like wishing wells in our shirt pockets; we yearn for places we no longer are, places we’ve lost, places we have not yet been. We fatten the pages of the book of life, pages made from the trees of our lost and future homelands. We wish each other well. Namárië.

exitious, eximious

This turn of the moon is proving exitious for the eximious. Lemmy, Bowie, Rickman, and in fact a few more, cancelled by cancer all. That vision of the Thin White Duke looking more exiguous than would be exigent. One day he exists; the next, he exits. No one is exempt, not even the exemplary.

Out, out, brief candle. Exit: Latin for ‘he goes out’, conjugated from Latin ex ‘out’ + ire ‘go’. Something that causes things or people to go out was exitialis, and by “go out” we don’t mean pass through a literal door. From that we got English exitial and exitious, meaning ‘harmful, fatal, destructive, catastrophic’, and so on. These words are rarely used now; I will not say they are valetudinarian, but they are not being taken out much. Unlike our three late luminaries.

But they do stand out. These fine words are not famous (if they were, they would be thriving); they are likewise not eminent, though they are impressive. But I’d buy them for a dollar, caveat emptor be damned. And I’d buy Lemmy, Bowie, and Rickman for more than a dollar – in fact, I’ve buffed up my Bowie collection since he was pre-empted. Isn’t it funny how much more often artists get taken out after they’ve been taken out.

And isn’t it funny that while ‘go out’ is exire, which gives us exit and exitious, ‘take out’ is exemere, which gives us exempt – and eximious, which means ‘exceptional, outstanding, choice’. And yet we have seen that even the exceptional are no exception, the eximious are not exempt, even the eminent are immanent and will sooner or later meet imminent elimination or at least manumission to luminosity. But in the world of Latin metaphor, being famous and talented and so on is something that happens to you – you are taken out – while dying is something you do: you go out.

Such a small difference and such a big difference. That switch from t to m is a switch from empty to eminent, and it adds a syllable too. Adding a side of irony is the fact that in Cyrillic handwriting and half-uncials, m is the shape for small T (small M is just a small M). But this is Latin. And this is life, borrowed time – and some of us pile up more interest than others. However recognizable your ™, you will in the end pay your IOUs; the price exacted, you will be an ex-act.


This word may sound waspish, like a bee attitude, but it’s a much more blessed attitude of being. It sounds too much like platitude – an anodyne pronouncement that feels beatifying in the abstract but when someone asks you to live up to it you say “Beat it, dude.” But a beatitude is an example, a prescription, not just a description.

Let’s start by noticing that there’s beatitude and there are beatitudes. Beatitude, the abstract mass object, uncountable, is also unaccountable, blissful – supreme blessedness or happiness. You can be in a state of beatitude. It means you are #soblessed. The word comes from Latin beatus, ‘blessed’, which may look ironic, since if we’re so blessed, you can’t beat us. It sounds ironic, too, because beatus is said like “bay at ooss” but if we’re so blessed, it would be obtuse to bay at us.

Beatitudes, on the other hand, are individual pronouncements about who is blessed. They are rather like desiderata. If some set of people are blessed, then it’s a good idea to be one of those people. There’s a specific set of beatitudes that the term usually refers to. Here’s the Latin – it’s not the original; it’s translated from Greek, which may not have been the original language either but then again may have, but in the Latin you see the point:

beati pauperes spiritu quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum

beati mites quoniam ipsi possidebunt terram

beati qui lugent quoniam ipsi consolabuntur

beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam quoniam ipsi saturabuntur

beati misericordes quia ipsi misericordiam consequentur

beati mundo corde quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt

beati pacifici quoniam filii Dei vocabuntur

beati qui persecutionem patiuntur propter iustitiam quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum

beati estis cum maledixerint vobis et persecuti vos fuerint et dixerint omne malum adversum vos mentientes propter me

Hard to miss, isn’t it? Nine beati in a row. That’s the plural of beatus, and here it’s the predicate – it means not just ‘blessed’ but ‘blessed are’. Here’s the same set in an English translation:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Does that sound familiar? Some of my readers will know it well; others may not. It’s the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a section of the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian Bible (I used the New International Version translation). The Sermon on the Mount is presented as one great extended sermon by Jesus to a crowd, but it was probably put together from various teachings of Jesus remembered from various occasions, passed on by word of mouth, and written down in various times and places, all put together in a coherent format. Notwithstanding that, it is one of the central texts of Christianity – even if some of its teachings can be rather challenging and open to competing understandings – and these nine beatitudes that make the opening lines of it are statements of essential values that Christians are supposed to try to live up to.

Supposed to. Well, some do, and some pay great lip service. Some remember the last two very well and fancy that when people criticize them it’s proof that they’re among the blessed. But people may be criticizing them for not living up to some of the others, such as “blessed are the meek,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “blessed are the merciful.”

And here is one indubitable thing: if you are too waspish about your beatitudes, you should look carefully to see who is stinging and who is being stung.


Back behind the big plush chair in the corner, down on the bottom shelf at floor level, next to the large-format comic anthologies, stuffed in and rarely touched these days, are my books of sheet music.

I’m going to pull out two of them by the same artist. I don’t own much rock sheet music but I own these. I bought one in Calgary in a long-gone music store in Brentwood Mall, near the university, if my memory doesn’t betray me. I know exactly when and where I got the other one: in the summer of 1984 in a music shop in Montreux (on the Lake Geneva shoreline – the shop was a few blocks uphill, though). It was one of my biggest splurges in a summer spent at a conference centre up the mountain in Caux.

It’s the left-hand one.

Really, who else did you think I would be talking about today?

Yes, of course I’ve been a fan of David Bowie for a long time. From the time a high-school classmate drew my attention to him, I latched on and never really let go. Not that I always listened to his stuff all the time; I still don’t own all his albums. But Bowie had talent, and he had presence. Animal grace. Screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo. Those canine teeth. Eyes of two different colours that could stare for a thousand years. And that voice. Not the voice of a great singer. The voice of a great presence.

At an age when one wants idols, I easily devoted myself to Bowie. I even prevailed on my brother to go with me to a rerun of the Ziggy Stardust concert movie when it was showing in Calgary. I am quite sure my brother did not enjoy it as much as I did, so it was very sporting and brotherly of him. Bowie did not represent to him someone he would want to be like. To me Bowie was a doorway, a gateway, a stargate. I was under no illusions; I knew he had weaknesses, imperfections, an eggshell of humanity, his presence a performance that even he didn’t fully buy into. But that’s why I liked him. He was a star, a starman, come from the stars, fallen to earth.

Just like the rest of us. But he knew it.

Look at this book. I haven’t opened some of these pages in decades now. As I flip through I have to peel them apart here and there. It was in some damp place somewhere for some time, I guess: it has these dark patches. Age has grown into it.

I’m listening to “Suffragette City” as I write this. It’s one of the best high-school dance songs ever. It was played at every single dance at Banff Community High School when I was there. If you want to see the adolescent equivalent of the jump to hyperspace, watch the dance floor at “Awwwww, wham bam thank you ma’am!” – an interjection not found in the sheet music. Oh, sheet music: it just lies there, dry inklings in sprinklings of ink on paper. Without breath and bone and blood and muscle it is nothing. It needs that stardust.

What else? Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie was stardust, and to stardust he… no, has not returned; he always was and always will be. As are we all. But he knew it.

Bowie didn’t invent the word stardust, of course. In 1844 one astronomer first used the term star dust to describe the innumerable stars he saw, too small to be discerned individually. In 1879 a geologist used star-dust to name that dust that constantly falls from outer space on the surface of the planet. By 1933 it was a by-word for illusory, insubstantial things. Hoagy Carmichael had already in 1927 written his song “Star Dust,” now usually called “Stardust,” and in 1929 Mitchell Parish added the words: “…Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by” … “But that was long ago / Now my consolation / Is in the stardust of a song.” In 1970 in her song “Woodstock” Joni Mitchell sang “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.” In 1972 Bowie became Stardust.

But he was already stardust, as are we all. 40,000 tons of stardust fall on earth each year – read this. It becomes us, bit by bit, through our skin and lungs and food, but we are already it. What other matter could we have been made from than the same celestial powder that powers and spins the galaxies? What burns above us burns within us and rests beneath our feet. The earth is not a separate thing; we are all dust in the universe, coming and going, forming and reforming, zigging and zagging. Whoever we were, whoever we will be, moving in this world, is only always and already stardust, an oddity in space, held together by gravity and chemistry and forces of attraction and imagination. We take in and give out and are never the same from year to year, day to day, moment to moment. No matter how you hang onto yourself, you are no more permanent than a daydream, never truly here, so never truly gone, like Ziggy Stardust. Perform it but do not truly believe the performance, just enjoy it. Let’s dance.

To David Bowie.

rapscallion, rascal

Here they come, a whole battalion – a million, a jillion, all in rebellion. But not a stallion among them, just slubberdegullions fed on slumgullion, slavering for bullion but barely getting bouillon. What do we do with this cotillion of tatterdemalion hellions? Why, rap them with scallions and they’ll scatter, the rapscallions.

Not that that’s where rapscallion comes from. You know what a rapscallion is, don’t you? If the word looks like rascal decked out for a cotillion, you pretty much have it. A rapscallion is a rascal, a rogue, a vagabond (to quote the OED), a raffish scalawag. The word is just rascallion with a rap of p to make it smarter and sharper. And rascallion? Just rascal with a fillip on the end. The OED tells me that rampallion may have had some influence too – it’s a now less-used word with similar sense.

Of them all, though, rapscallion is the one with the smartest double-slap and dribble: DUMP—DUDdadum! The first syllable takes up about as much time as the other three. You can say “Don’t give a damn” with the same rhythm. Actually, that rhythm shows up in various guises in many places – the Carol of the Bells springs to mind.

Rascal, by the way, has undergone amelioration in its history. It was first a collective term for hoi polloi, the low folk, the mobile vulgus, the rabble. It was soon used also for a singular member of that bunch. From there it came to refer to a scoundrel or rogue. But while scoundrel still has its negative tone, rogue is now often used with a certain approbation. And rascal has also gotten an endearing tone, especially through application to children. You may think of the mid-century TV series, earlier movie series, and much later movie The Little Rascals, also known as Our Gang, featuring characters with names like Alfalfa and Buckwheat. It was notable for featuring kids behaving like actual kids, and for including girls and African-American children in main roles. The children were rumbustious and endearing. Small wonder that little rascal is the most common collocation for rascal.

But not for rapscallion. It’s not used enough to have a clear most common collocation. Rascal is a common enough word, ready for use like some napkin from your coat pocket; rapscallion is a flourish with a tattered silk handkerchief, a name suited for a swordsman or a pirate. To me it gives an image of an 18th-century highwayman in vermilion coat with lace at his throat, threatening travellers with not a shot from a pistol but a – a little lash with leek? No! Just a rap with a scallion!