That’s Mandarin Chinese for ‘Let’s play ping-pong!’ It’s understandable to imagine that ping-pong was invented in China, since they dominate the game now. Have a look:

And then there’s that name. The actual ‘ping-pong’ part is 乒乓, pronounced just like we say it in English (but with level tones, which we usually don’t use). It looks just perfect, doesn’t it? As though it was invented for it. The characters together look like a ping-pong table with a net. (They also kind of look like squared versions of eyes with lines under, perhaps tired from playing too much ping-pong…)

In truth, the original Chinese character those characters come from is 兵, which is pronounced “bing,” means ‘soldier’, and is derived ultimately from a representation of two hands holding a short weapon. From it came two onomatopoeic words, 乒 and 乓. They didn’t come from it for the game, though. They showed up during the Ming Dynasty to represent the sounds of a fight. In fact, 乒乒乓乓 is idiomatic for consecutive percussions, as in a gunfight, a ruckus, or – these days – a ping-pong match.

Ping-pong, however, was invented in England (or perhaps by British in India) in the later 1800s. It was popular as an after-dinner parlour game among the upper class. The various equipment was still evolving at first, of course, as was the name. Ping-pong was an obvious onomatopoeia, imitating the percussion and using the i/o alternation to indicate back-and-forth, here-and-there. And it was in common use as a name for the game in 1901 when J. Jacques & Son came out with a proper high-quality kit for playing it… and trademarked the name. They sold the US trademark to Parker Brothers. This is why in official tournaments, including the Olympics, it’s called table tennis.

Various improvements to the equipment have been made over the years, but the play itself is pretty simple. Especially if you’re just playing it with friends and none of you are all that good at it. It’s the sort of game you can just kind of play without, you know, keeping score. As I have on various occasions at such places as a friend’s country house.

As we did this past Saturday at a friend’s birthday party at a ping-pong club. Yes, that’s right. Ping-pong tables, bar service, platters of meat and cheese and so on, and a guy going around with a nifty device made from a modified tennis racket on a stick with which he picked up balls by the dozen. Once we saw him do that, we stopped bothering to pick them up ourselves.

You can play singles ping-pong.

You can play doubles ping-pong.

You can even play with a beer in your non-racquet hand.

Maybe you won’t always hit the ball with your racquet. But what is this, the Olympics? Name another actual sport you can play in a normal-sized room while holding a beer. And not care about keeping score. And not worry too much about getting injured. Because those balls are pretty light. They weigh about the same as a half teaspoon of beer. Meaning that a big bucket’s worth of 200 will weigh the same as the beer in a pint glass. And, the way I play it, will take about as long to get through.


As I stroll through the neighbourhood where I work, I see mostly apartment blocks and trees. I like the trees; they are calming, anodyne. There is one tree that is especially salient. It rains green on the lawn between a road and a building; none of the others around can match its winsome nobility. It is an elixir for the eyes.

I am told that if I were to lick its bark, I might be absolved of pain temporarily. I think it’s better to leave that extraction to others. But this tree, this regal green-duster, is a salix. It is from its bark that we derive salicylic acid. If that has a familiar sound, it is because its acetate – acetylsalicylic acid, also called ASA – is the active ingredient in Aspirin.

I like this word, salix. It starts with a curve and ends with a cross, and in the middle there is a tree or perhaps two. The word as a whole is slick, even slippery, but crisp.

Perhaps you don’t see the word too much. It names a whole genus, comprising some 400 species. Do they have other names? Some are called osier; some are called sallow (a word that is cognate with salix); but as whole, and for most individual species, they are known as willow.

Yes, willow. That famous tree of love and longing, of wisdom and wind, of weeping and whomping. The usual word is soft as a pillow, liquid and gliding, and in shape so willowy with the w and w fairly dripping with leaves and the ll reaching above. It is a tree of pain and relief, of despair and perseverance: where there is a willow, there is a way. But why not, as the occasion allows, use the Latin word, which has been formally adopted into English as well, though not often used? Why not call it salix? We can call holly ilex if we want, and there are other plants that also carry a Latin name for dropping into conversation. We may, if we will, wallow in willow, but I will on occasion elect to relax in the sunlight under a salix.


Times are dark, thoughts are dim. The current tense celebrity of some shady figures tempts many to ebriety in hopes of managing at least some glow in the turbidity to match the afterglow of retreating brightness. How may we frame the situation? How do we see ourselves in this tenebrity, overshadowed, benighted? Are we left to pray in the dark hours?

That might seem suitable; tenebrae is the name of a Christian service held in the dark hours before the last three days before Easter. It is marked by the extinguishing of candles, leaving the congregation in the gathering gloom. But tenebrity refers not specifically to this but to darkness more generally, not only of the earth and firmament but of the mind and mood and spirit and heart. Its Latin etymon is tenebræ, but in Latin that just means ‘darkness’.

But what is darkness? Are you now, as you read this, in darkness? If not, is there anywhere that is brighter? If you are inside, you are not in the brightest circumstance you could be in; step outside into daylight and you may squint at first. If it is after dusk and before dawn, however bright your surroundings, they are still too dim for high-quality photos from many a camera. If you are in darkness, how do you read this? The glow from your screen is bright, yes? But if it is like my computer or my phone, the screen adjusts its brightness according to context. Sit where there is light on the screen but not on the camera and the screen will seem excessively dim. The truth of tenebrity is that there is almost nowhere that brightness is ten out of ten. We simply adapt our eyes to the dimness. It’s all a matter of how you frame it.

Consider the photo above, taken by the elevators in the building where I live. I am in the dark, little light reflecting off my face, my eyes almost vanishing in the well of shadow. If it were not for the glowing frames of the repeating mirrors, there would be nothing at all. And yet that’s true anyway: without a light source, whatever wherever, we can’t see – our eyes don’t reach out and grab objects to perceive; they await the light, and they adjust to its level.

And sometimes they adjust too well. And sometimes we adjust our view too much to try to bring the truly bright down to an acceptable level so we can see its contours better. When I am standing at those mirrors, I can see the surfaces of the lights and yet I can also see myself well: the hallway is not dim but quite acceptably bright. But when I point my camera at the mirror, it adjusts its narrower dynamic range to the brightness; my face, quite clearly lit to the eye, shows in the image as badly overshadowed.

Tenebrity is relative. What light level is shadow in one place is a bright spot in another. Likewise in our minds and our lives: we know tenebrity by contrast. If we adapt too much to the brightest lights, all else will seem unduly dim. The truly dark will always seem dark, but there is much else that could be bright if we would let it.


Does this word seem to be missing something? Is it sticking in your throat? If you’re undecided, let me needle you a bit. I first came to know this word as the name of a run at Sunshine Village ski area in Banff. Like so many of the black-diamond runs at Sunshine, it’s just a quick steep plunge from a moderate slope above to a nearly flat runout below, and there are few trees in sight – few but not none.

Did they misspell it? Surely it should be larynx, no? No. In the end it is voiceless. It is named after something you might happen to get a glimpse of while you’re there. Is it a rock, like onyx? Or a wildcat, like lynx? Or an ungulate, like oryx or ibex? Or a furry little critter, like hyrax (or its Seussian reflex the Lorax)? Or part of a bird, like syrinx? Or a shrubbery, like ilex? Well, you’re getting closer.

How close? Let me put it this way: If you’re busy trying to spot some elusive creature while skiing down Laryx, you might just run right into a laryx. And you would probably be hospitalized if you did.

It’s a tree.

It’s not a shrubbery. It’s the larch.

What is a larch? It is a tree with needles – like a pine or spruce – but ones that fall off every fall: it is deciduous. When I was a kid, we would hike every fall to Larch Valley, above Moraine Lake near Lake Louise, farther up the highway from Sunshine, to look at the larches as they changed colour and dropped their needles, and to eat cold Shake ’n Bake chicken roughly the colour of those needles.

At the Lake Louise ski area, they have a much larger run (and a chairlift) named Larch. Not at Sunshine. Sunshine Village, which for me has always had the most classic ski-bum-hippy vibe of the Banff areas and which is probably the most family-friendly area there, has managed to insert an uncommon Latinism into its trail map. And an uncommon spelling at that. The normal spelling is larix. The y version is just by analogy with… well, see above for words that might have influenced it. As you may have suspected, larix and larch are etymologically related.

They are quite similar words. And yet there is something of the lurch and starch and large in larch, while laryx seems a curious spry item sitting tensely in wait in its lair or at least relaxing rakish and sparkling (perhaps like a cup or its contents – a calyx or pyx). Larch, naming one of Louise’s most popular wide blue-square intermediate freeways, is a common word. Laryx, naming a short, steep, lightly trafficked slope off the back of Standish abutting the boundary of Sunshine, is a rare small jewel. And it is an expert run, black diamond – perhaps there is onyx there too after all. But more likely you will find the skier’s white elixir: powder snow.


On a pluvious day, having neglected to pack a parasol and wearing pervious clothing, I elected to persist a half hour longer in the Art Gallery of Ontario. I do not think modern art is dry, but I do think modern art museums are dryer than rainy streets. They also add more life and show more ways of seeing. Pulverous they are not.

I normally carry at least one camera with me, and when I’m in the AGO I tend to use it. Not on the art – go see that for yourself – but on the architecture, some (the most interesting) parts of which are by Frank Gehry. And occasionally there are people in it too. And views. Buildings across the street, seen through the rainy windowpane.

People (seated rather than supine) sleeping off the storm or the slow friends and family.

In Toronto, you can often look to the west and get a feeling from the sky where the weather is going, because that’s where the weather is usually coming from.

But when I want to know whether it’s raining at the moment, if the windows are not dripping, I look for one thing: parapluies.

An umbrella is a parasol, right? Well, the sol in parasol is for ‘sun’, but yes, it holds back the rain, and after all, the umbr in umbrella is for shadow. If I say parapluie it may seem pretentious (because French) but at least it means it’s for rain. Because the pluie refers to rain.

Because there’s always more (plus) rain to come? No, because ‘rain’ in Latin is pluvia, and that’s where French got it from. The via has nothing to do with ways (as in Via Appia and impervious) or life (as in French vie), and yet rain is a way of life. And a view of rain is also a portent of petrichor, especially in springtime.

I hope you pardon the purple prose and the mostly monochrome photographs. Everything is more beautiful after rain: the colours are more saturated, as is the chiaroscuro, as is the soil, and the shirts too. In a pluvious cityscape, I may not want to soak in the raindrops and puddles, but I do want to soak in the scenery.


We spend our lives seeking pearls of wisdom, rare gems of insight acquired at great price. We will plough an acre of racinated soil in hopes of finding one shiny stone; we will sluice and pan a creek in hopes of sifting the nugget that will settle our debts with enough for a bottle of Cognac remaining. But this is playing the lottery: it loses a lot. If we want hard truths now, we would do well to alter our perspective.

Look down, for instance. At your shirt. What holds it on? Those buttons – how they iridesce. What colour are they? What colour aren’t they? If, as buttons and some other things sometimes are, they are made of nacre, they will be hard, durable, pieces of some bygone bivalve’s shell, shining in elusive phantasms of colours. If you do not see the colour you want, look another way. If you do see the colour, it will shift in an instant. It is all soft, glowing, never too vivid. It is a durable reminder that what you see often depends on your position. And that things perceived are not always so – and can at the same time be quite different when seen from another perspective. Such is the mother of wisdom.

Mother of wisdom? Mother of pearls of wisdom. Mother of pearl. That’s what nacre is: mother-of-pearl. It comes from the shells of various molluscs: oysters, mussels, nautiluses, various others. Not all molluscs make nacre, but some of the most ancient lineages do.

Why does it shimmer and glow and shift its colours so? It is made of stacks of plates of aragonite held together with elastic biopolymers, producing a very strong material. The thickness of the plates is similar to the wavelength of visible light, and it causes interference with light rays differently at different angles. The shimmering colours are not intrinsic to the material; they are an effect of its arrangement and interaction with the surrounding. Shine a light on nacre and it will simultaneously reflect many different colours at many different angles, but you will only see what is in your angle of view. This is not the one true colour, but it is not a false colour either: it is what you see, and it came to you through light reflected from what you’re seeing, as colours do. Without reflection there is no seeing.

In this way is nacre like our minds, our personalities, the world: reflecting many things in many directions at the same time, and what another person perceives depends on their angle. And because it is a material in a shell, it helps protect the tender being inside. Shells have their uses, after all.

So nacre is the mother of wisdom: when we learn that what we see depends on our angle, we are one step farther forward. And then we can enjoy the light show for what it is. And why is nacre the mother of pearl? Pearls are made with nacre too.

Pearls, those very precious pieces, are made when an irritant intrudes inside an oyster’s tidy shell, a little flaw in its serene world, and the oyster encloses this irritating flaw in the shell material – the nacre. Gold is gold, and is as scarce as it is, but pearls are just a special arrangement of common materials – not even like diamonds, which are highly disciplined carbon; pearls are made of the very same calcium carbonite structures as line billions of shells. But because we want just the pure sphere, we seek it and kill countless other less irritated oysters in the course of finding it. The great price of pearls is the cost of the hours of slaughter required for finding one. We are obsessed with finding the perfect flaw.

In our own lives, we may often be as happy as clams, but we are never as serene as unslaughtered oysters. Life is too irritating, and we gain our own flaws and wounds that we coat with hard shimmering layers to make cherished things of beauty. After all our sea-changes, each of us grows as many pearls as a whole bed of oysters. But most remain hidden from sight, even our own.

And so, looking outward, we still toil to seek the pearl, shuck an acre of shells and chuck the nacre because it’s not in the form of our desire, while the same shifting shine, unnoticed, lines our shells and holds our shirts on.

The old “ye olde”

Originally published on BoldFace, the blog of the Toronto branch of Editors Canada

If you want to make something look, y’know, old, and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta, has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And of course there are all these plain old olde things.

And that’s where we cranky up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in ye olde candy shoppe. And As ye sow, so shall ye reap. And perhaps, at the RancheHouse, ye haw.*

Only those aren’t the same word. And the ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y.

English used to have the letters ð and þ, which stood for sounds we now spell as th as in this and thin. They mostly fell out of use during the medieval period, but a few words often kept them, such as þe (the) and þat (that). They would be reduced with the aid of superscripts, like þe and þt. But when we got printing presses, the moveable type that came with them was forged on the continent by speakers of languages that didn’t use those letters.

What was the closest letter? You might think it would be p or b, but the way þ was written in cursive was more open topped and looked like a rakish y with an ascending first line. So y became the substitution, and the was often rendered as ye (often with the e right on top of the y). This became so well established it was done that way even in hand-carved inscriptions such as tombstones, where the carver could have used a proper þ – if he had known to do so.

So. Ye as in ye olde is really just the. But how about hear ye and so shall ye reap? This is part of what causes the confusion. The ye in ye olde might be their problem, but the ye in hear ye is you.

Literally. It’s the old nominative form of you. Just as we have I and me, and she and her, we had ye and you. It happens to have fallen out of standard use over the years, gone from normal discourse by the time Shakespeare died, and gone from formal discourse before Churchill was born, but persisting in regional dialects. It’s as if the formal standard had come to be “Me gave it to her, but her didn’t want it.”

Well, ye can still keep it if ye want to be olde style. And, now, what is up with all those e’s? Well, Old English had a lot of inflectional endings that wore down over time. They included such suffixes as –an, –en, and –um. These ended up reduced to an unstressed vowel during the Middle English period. The spelling of English was in flux at the time, and scribes and, later, typesetters could make decisions about what letter to use to represent this minimal vowel. At times they used y or i, but in the end e, the easiest one, prevailed. And over time it stopped being pronounced, too. So we got all those silent e’s that make e the most common letter in English usage.

And when you’re a scribe paid by the letter, or a typesetter who needs to make the text fit the line, and these e’s are silent and seem to show up in random places, why not toss in extra ones here and there? And so a word that in Old English was eald and came with the changes of the time to be auld and aud and awd and old – and many other forms – could not avoid being olde occasionally.

Between then and now, some advocates of tidying up English spelling have had some minor success, and one of the things they prevailed in was removing most of the unetymological e’s from words. So all those unnecessary oldes became good old olds again. But when we want something to look old (and perhaps therefore classy), we herd towards that little mark of antiquity, the easy e. We see old (but, except for in Scots, not auld or awd) and shoppe (but not schopp) and crowne (but not croun or crowune). And we see ranche, which really was spelled with that e at times in the 1800s in spite of coming from Spanish rancho.

And what about the missing space in RancheHouse? Aw, that’s just branding. You know, as they do to cattle at ranch houses.


*Calgarians, please do not write to me telling me that it should be yahoo, not yeehaw. I know. I was making a funny.