My wife and I live in a building on The Esplanade. An esplanade, as you may know, is a walkway along the water. Our street was once just such a thing, but the water has been pushed several blocks south by landfill. Now if we want a view of the lake, we look out our 27th-floor bedroom window, and if we want to bask in the sun we can go up to the patios at the top of the building. But in summer, we really like to escape to the boardwalk.

There’s no boardwalk right near us. There would be no point. Boardwalks – walkways made of boards – are for places like beaches, where a paved sidewalk is less suitable. Coney Island has a big, wide, long boardwalk, and below it one heckuva beach. Atlantic City has a very famous boardwalk, quite possibly the original. The first Oxford English Dictionary citation for board-walk, as they spell it, dates from 1872 – two years after the construction of Atlantic City’s boardwalk. Generations of Monopoly players have learned that Boardwalk is the most valuable property, and some of them have even discovered that every single property in the game is in Atlantic City. Atlantic City’s boardwalk is the Boardwalk.

I’ve never been to Atlantic City.

I’m not sure which boardwalk Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick had in mind when they wrote “Under the Boardwalk,” the song that The Drifters made a hit in 1964. They both grew up in New York City, so Coney Island’s would seem the most likely (it’s the one I always assumed, too), but New Yorkers did like to vacation on the Jersey shore in the 1960s, and several New Jersey seaside towns have boardwalks – Asbury Park, Keansburg, Ocean City, Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights, Wildwood, and of course Atlantic City. And there are other New York boardwalks: Staten Island, Rockaway, Long Beach. They’re all down by the sea, as the song has it.

I’m not sure how many of them have enough room under them for two lovers to hide, though.

The Drifters, by the way, had another huge hit two years earlier with “Up on the Roof” (a song I first knew in a version by The Nylons, a Toronto-based a cappella group). The Wikipedia article on “Under the Boardwalk” notes rather drily, “The opening line of the song references the Drifters’ prior hit ‘Up on the Roof’, showing the occasional thermal weakness of the rooftop getaway and setting the stage for an alternate meeting location, under the boardwalk.”

You can’t meet under the boardwalk in Toronto. Or at least I’m not aware of any point where there’s enough room. But never mind thermal weakness; our rooftop patios lack the charm of a beachside boardwalk.

Toronto does have a boardwalk. More than one, in fact. In the east, there’s one lining and connecting the beaches in the neighbourhood known by many as The Beaches but by the pedantic among its residents as The Beach (even though, thanks to discontinuity, there is clearly more than one beach there). Aina and I don’t generally go there.

There are a few small boardwalks near us, at Harbourfront. But they don’t count. There’s no beach anywhere near them, just quays.

We go west. Life is peaceful there. Comparatively, anyway. There is a boardwalk that stretches from Palais Royale and the bridge at Roncesvalles past Sunnyside almost all the way to the Humber River.

It’s Sunnyside that we go for. Sunnyside beach is lovely; it inspired the song “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins. And it has a huge 1920s-era pavilion for swimming – with a café on the boardwalk (café? well, I guess some people go for coffee; most go for beer). From mid-June to Labour Day the beautiful huge swimming pool is open, and we go there to swim and then to have food and drink at the café, where there are umbrellas to shelter you from the sun. The café remains open into September, as the weather cooperates. We went there yesterday. The sun sets at 7:30 now, so we’re treated to an after-dark view by the time we leave. (You can click the picture to see it larger.)

We don’t sit on a blanket under the boardwalk – really, there’s no room there (and it’s down by the lake, anyway, not the sea). We sit at a table and watch the water, the waves, the boats, the squadrons of dragon boaters training, the beach volleyball players (up to 8 courts, and sometimes stray volleyballs bounce off tables at the café).

And then we walk back eastward along the boardwalk, and up over the bridge to Roncesvalles to catch the streetcar.

This boardwalk was once made of wood planks. Most of it is now made of recycled plastic. The planks are durable but deform gradually over the years and occasionally need replacement. I do not care if you (like some Wikipedia editors, apparently) think this makes it not a boardwalk; I am pre-emptively board, I mean bored, with you already. It is exactly the same thing as any other boardwalk, just without the nasty splinters and the weathering. And, for us, it is our tropical retreat, complete with potted palm trees, right here in the city, less than an hour from home by streetcar or running legs.

The most valuable property indeed. While the season lasts.

You can’t use it however you want; however, you can use it

My latest piece for The Week is on the word however, which just happens to be one of Wikipedia’s favourite words – however, people aren’t always sure how to handle it.

However: Everything you need to know about a commonly abused word



I wore the wrong shirt today, I’ll tell you that right away.

You know how sometimes some people will say “Well, dressed like that, you were asking for trouble”? I’m not generally sympathetic to these judgements, but oh boy, today it was real for me. That thin cotton shirt decorated with a riot of colourful tropical flora was… a bad idea.

I got mugged.

By the weather.

OK, I got outside and found the weather was muggy. Very muggy. I wound up as soaked and woozy as a sot, and my shirt stuck to me like so much muck. Yuck. A rolling stone gathers no moss, perhaps, but a walking son of rock in a floral shirt may be a fecund site for flora to take root.

Why would anyone make a tropical shirt in a clingy fabric? I have a few others that are made with coarse weaves, and they’re fine (yes, coarse is fine). This one has a high thread count and when the weather is humid it’s like wearing tissue paper. Gah. I had to change my shirt before going for a stroll along King Street to inspect the crowds assembled for the film festival angling to see stars mugging. So much for looking like a movie mogul. I would have been more like a moggie, mouillé.

But why do we call humid weather muggy?

The adjective seems to be derived from a word mug that is not the coffee cup but a word for mist, drizzle, or damp atmosphere. Other Germanic languages (in particular the Scandinavian ones) have a related word, usually spelled mugg, for similar gross and close climatic conditions. It is related to muck and probably to mucus.

Does that disgust you? Have a drink. Only don’t leave yourself feeling muggy – in the sense ‘tipsy’ or ‘groggy’, also related to muzzy, which means ‘gloomy’ or ‘tedious’ but also ‘muggy’ as in weather, which may come from mosy, which means ‘furry’ or ‘decayed’ or ‘befuddled’ or ‘muggy’, and which seems to be related to or derived from mossy.

All of which, mushy and fuzzy and confusing as they are, suit well such weather as conduces to lolling about hazy-headed and sweating in tropical shirts, quenching the thirst with beverages that only aggravate the turbid mind and torpid mug… wasting away in Muggaritaville.


I was going to taste this before I tasted syllabus. But I decided I should taste syllabub before tasting the word syllabub. Well, now I have.

I have for many years been aware of this as a thing one might eat or drink. It always had the air of a treat for the smart set of the later 19th century, the sort of thing one might have after the mulligatawny or subgum and the roast (or perhaps the bubble-and-squeak) when one is not having Eton mess. A thing for the glee club to sing over. I had a vague idea of its being some kind of intersection of a nog and a pousse-café. I recalled speculation that its name may have referred to a sort of syllabification of the ingredients in vertical strata.

When I set out to make syllabub, I looked up recipes. I don’t recall seeing quite such a diversity of recipes for one thing any time recently. The methods vary, and the making time can be a few hours (or even less, somehow) or a couple of days. There is even lore about it: supposedly, it was originally made with milk squeezed fresh from the cow into the mix – an assertion I find dubious, given the nature of the results.

I’m not the only one to find that assertion questionable, on the level with Kiplingesque accounts of spatchcock. One of the best articles I’ve seen on syllabub (though without a recipe as such) is Alan Davidson’s short piece in The Oxford Companion to Food, and he references experiments by Vicky Williams and Ivan Day that rather put paid to the notion of milking a cow right into the jug. Davidson tells us that Day, in his essay (which the curious about syllabubs must read), “acknowledges … help received (presumably on the particular question of direct milking) from cow 53 at Thrimby Manor Farm, Cumbria.”

Davidson also tells us that syllabub is “a sweet, frothy confection which was popular in Britain from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and has since been revived in a small way as a dessert.” (We learn from Day in his essay that Shakespeare’s godson mentions it.) Davidson expands: “Originally syllabub was a drink with a foamy head, but the foamy part was the object of chief interest and later became the main element.”

But that’s as much detail as Davidson gives on the recipe. Well, luckily, Ivan Day has made – well more than a decade ago, by the look of it – a site on historic food, and he presents us with historical recipes. Can I just say that I find reading historical recipes as relaxing and euphoric as drinking historical alcoholic beverages? I feel that I must present you these two, as relayed by Day:

To make a very fine Sillibub
Take one Quart of Cream, one Pint and an half of Wine or Sack, the Juice of two Limons with some of the Pill, and a Branch of Rosemary, sweeten it very well, then put a little of this Liquor, and a little of the Cream into a Basin, beat them till it froth, put that Froth into the Sillibub pot, and so do till the Cream and Wine be done, then cover it close, and set it in a cool Cellar for twelve hours, then eat it.
From Hannah Wooley, The Queen-like Closet (London:1674)

To make whipt syllabubs
Take a quart of thick cream, and half a pint of sack, the juice of two Seville oranges, or lemons; grate in the peel of two lemons; half a pound of double-refined sugar, pour it into a broad earthen pan, and whisk it well; but first sweeten some red wine, or sack, and fill your glasses as full as you chuse; then as the froth rises take it off with a spoon, and lay it carefully into your glasses, till they are as full as it will hold.
From Charles Carter, The London and Country Cook (London: 1749)

Really, just reading those recipes gave me much the same soft, glowing, pink nerve endings that consuming a goodly syllabub lately has. O salubrious libation!

Now. Whence cometh this word syllabub? The act of articulating its sibilant and liquid causes a lapping such that one might take the beverage sublabially with it. It has an obvious resemblance to syllabus and syllable. But, as Davidson says, “The origin of the word ‘syllabub’ is a mystery. Lexicographers find no compelling reason to accept any of the explanations offered so far.” The Oxford English Dictionary directs our attention to the existence of the alternate form sillibucke or sillibouk, dating from the 1500s (though not appearing before solybubbe). There are also forms in the line of sullibib and selybube, as though the treat were known to sully the bibs of slobbering silly bibbers.

Bearing in mind, of course, that silly comes originally from a word meaning ‘blessed’ (its modern German cousin is selig). Those who have syllabub are surely among the blessed, and if they have enough they will equally be among the silly. Somewhere in there, their rate of syllables may increase.

As mine have. I made a goodly quantity – hmm, let’s see, 3 ounces of Marsala (I think I would use a different sweet wine next time), an ounce of brandy, 3 ounces of sugar, nearly an ounce of lemon juice, some lemon rind, let sit for two hours; a cup of cream, whipt to stiffness; blend A with B and pour into large glasses; let them sit in the fridge, covered, for an hour or two. I happen to have divided it between just two glasses, as there are two of us. I do think I had to help Aina a little with her portion.

I can attest to the liquor settling to the bottom. Syllabub may be a solution to many things, but not all of its parts are mutually soluble, it seems. So you use a spoon to eat the top and to help you drink the bottom. Though it may leave you feeling a bit heavy, it is light and enlightening, and as I finish it to flashes of lightning from outside, I feel positively sibylline.


“Happy estival season,” Laurence Senelick (Fletcher Professor of Oratory) said to me as we passed on a walkway between Professors Row and the library at Tufts University some score of years ago. He said it because he knew I would understand it – and he liked nicely turned words. (He still does; he still holds the same post, and while I am 20-some years older, he seems to be the same age as he was then.)

I did understand it, of course, but it was not until later that day – ah, esprit de l’escalier – that I formulated what I ought to have said in reply: “It is my estimation that there will be an estival festival followed by estivation.” Which was not mere assonance; there was a summer party coming up, followed by a duration of dormancy for much of campus life, to be disturbed by the return of students in the fall.

And here we are again. Today has been Labour Day (for the Americans reading: not u). Aina and I went for one last swim in the suddenly crowded Sunnyside pool before they pulled the plug at 5 pm (literally: as we walked past at 5:15 – after drinks and food at the boardwalk café – the level was already perceptibly down, though not so far that the lifeguards couldn’t throw each other in). It has been a swelter of a summer, one suited for sundry sultry activities and inactivities and not for excessive exertion. I have been besporting myself within the constraints of heat and humidity, and I have not written any books or otherwise launched my desk chair like a Goddard rocket. Well, the sun has set on that, and while technically summer persists until the equinox, I am awakening from my estivation. As it were.

What is estivation? You have likely figured it out – and, for that matter, you may have seen the word once or twice already this summer, as I have – but if you want clarity, it is the counterpoise to hibernation. Where hibernation is sleeping through the winter, estivation is sleeping (or being sluggish at least) through the summer. (No word on whether anything sleeps specifically through spring or fall, but by analogy that would be vernation and autumnation. However, vernation in current use refers to the inflorescence of spring; I guess everything is waking up then, even those things that take a nap once it gets hot.) But it is also used to refer to the slightly more wakeful thing that many humans do: pass the summer in torpor somewhere, or anyway retire to a place or go on vacation to place. Why say “We summer in Iqaluit” when you can say “We estivate in Anguilla”?

Estivation looks like a v-necked estimation, perhaps as done by Emilio Estevez. But whereas estimation is related to esteem, there is no word esteev (or esteeve). The verb is estivate, to match estimate. And, of course, the adjective is estival, which really is made to be used much more than it is – if millions of poetasters can rhyme June with moon, we ought to see more estival with festival. The Latin origin is æstivus, which is the attributive form of æstas, ‘summer’, which French polished down to été (don’t miss the relation between French hiver ‘winter’ and hibernate either). This means that æstivate is also an acceptable form of this word, especially in England – for the set who like not only encyclopædia but also anæmia, œstrogen, and diarrhœa.

Which would not include Laurence, by the way, since he’s American through and through (and besides, who really likes anæmia and diarrhœa?). But, Professor Senelick, should you happen on this lexico-gustatory peregrination: Happy autumnal season… Sleepers awake!


Classes are starting. Universities are reawakening from their estivation. For the first September in a long time, I am not a registered student at a university. My time is subject to my own dictates. I have no textbooks to buy, no classes to attend, no papers to write, no syllabus to read.

Ah, the syllabus. Apparently it often goes unread. I don’t understand how students have any idea what books to buy and what to read for what class without looking at it, but professor after professor can be seen (for instance on Twitter) complaining that the students don’t read the syllabus.

Are the students afraid of it? Perhaps it has the aspect of a sharp-toothed monster that may devour them if they come too close. But in the odyssey that is a course, if you avoid the Scylla-bus monster, you head to the whirlpool of Charybdis and go down the drain. (As indeed some of them do.)

Not that we ought to lay the blame altogether on the students. Syllabuses are subject to many silly abuses by the professors too. One professor I had (within the last decade) hand-wrote everything on lined paper and photocopied it, which could lead to misreadings. Another one gave us a nice, tidy printed-out syllabus; I read it thoroughly, assembled my readings for each week and did them as listed, and a few weeks in discovered that there was a reading we were to discuss that I had not read. The professor, it turns out, had revised the syllabus after handing it out and had unceremoniously posted the revision online.

But many students don’t get even that far. They’ll glance at it, sure, to find just what they need – next week’s reading, or the due date for the assignment (though of course the professor might change either of those later). But read the whole thing?

And yet they’re university students. Reading is a central competency; you can assume a decent percentage of them actually even like reading. Could it be that, in at least some cases, the syllabus actively repels the reader? And that the standard expectations of the genre, from the perspective of the creators of the syllabi, require a pharaonic level of dusty desiccation?

It could be, yes. But I don’t need to go into depth on that, or on the remedy for it; Iva Cheung had a conversation with others on Twitter about it, and adduced some resources, and she has put together the whole thing in a readable form at You should read it there.

My task here, rather, is to taste this word syllabus. You will already have noticed (if you have read all the words to this point) that it has two viable plurals: the English-form syllabuses and the Latinate syllabi. But if you stop and look at this word and think about it for a moment, you may make a syllogism based on the first syllable: it has a y in it; Latin used y just in words borrowed from Greek; syllabus must be borrowed from Greek; the –us ending in Latin words taken from Greek was generally a conversion of the Greek –os ending; the plural of –os in Greek is, as a rule, –oi; thus there should be a syllaboi option.

Ah, alas, silly boy! (Or silly girl! Or man or woman!) This Jenga of assumptions has a faulty one we must take out, and then the whole tower collapses. The assumption is that the Latins read the Greek carefully, without making any unwarranted leaps of their own.

The Latin syllabus, as it turns out, seems to have been based on a misreading of σιττύβας. The Greek that they (or at least one of them) thought they had seen was σύλλαβος. Easy enough to see the difference here, but remember that this was all hand-copied in someone’s idiosyncratic handwriting (or hand-printing, anyway). The actual Greek, σιττύβας, was a plural of σιττύβα (sittuba), meaning ‘parchment label’ or ‘book title-slip’. But if it had come from σύλλαβος, that word in turn would have come from the verb συλλαμβάνειν ‘put together’ – which was the origin of the word συλλαβή, which became Latin syllaba, and now exists in English as syllable.

You can see how easy the assumption would be to make. Indeed, that assumption seems to have guided the usage of the word, so that we could say it traces as much to the (unattested in Greek) σύλλαβος as to its actual etymon. After all, a syllabus is not simply a rubric or title; it is rather an assembly of the titles of all the sessions of a course (or similar set of things), and, in the modern university, a statement of the required readings, assignments, office hours, and other such pertinent information. And so we might say that the word was not only misread but partially revised mid-course.


Every bookkeeper needs a bookcase, right?

If you’re keeping a book that was kept by a saint, then surely you’ll want a case for that, at least. Given the pure rareness and preciousness of the work – a holy relic, sure as the hair on the saint’s head (after all, books fill the space under the hair) – if you wish to argue for armored and bejewelled protection, you have a case.

Especially if you want to carry that book into battle (perhaps on a chain around your neck) as a talisman for troops. A mighty fortress is our God, but saints can make do with a parallelepiped of armor. Anyway, if a commitment to battle is binding, why not commit to a battle with a binding? You want to provide your warriors some hard cover – there’s no respect for a paperback rider.

So what is this book-shaped armour – which can also carry other relics of the saint, such as the aforementioned hair or some bones or skin? It’s called a cumdach. That’s with the ch pronounced hard (as in ach and loch), and the m not pronounced at all – apparently that little book of a letter has been bundled away somewhere.

Actually, it hasn’t. The letter that’s been absconded with is h. The Irish word that we stole away is cumhdach; the h was for a long historical period written as a superscript dot over the m (so much easier to purloin like a loose jewel). That mh can, depending on the word and the dialect of Irish, be said like “v” or “w” or not much of anything, but generally nasalized one way or the other. So the first syllable of this word would sound, in casual speech, not much different from the first syllable of coondog. If you just say it /ˈkuːdəx/ as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, you’ll be the one stealing away a phoneme.

Cumdachs aren’t available in quantity. The vogue for them is almost a millennium in the past (especially the carrying into battle part); some of them have had their contents stolen, and others have themselves been stolen – ornamented as they typically are with precious stones. But, given that, I see no reason not to bring the word to the present for an expanded sense. If you happen to own a book that’s been hollowed out for holding precious relics of your own life (jewelry or documents, say), or if you happen to have a nice-looking box in which to carry a book of value, why not call it a cumdach? I have two nice boxes that are fashioned to look just like books. They hold my ties. They may not be saintly, but they are formal, and anyway, blest be the ties that are in a binding, right?

If you want to know more or see pictures, have a look at medievalfragments and medievalbooks.