The sea is as still as gel in a Petri dish. A small boat moves idly along, mills about, sending smooth, even ripples in the glassy surface: |||| . It is on a booze cruise, perhaps, hopping from half-pint in one port to half-pint in another, or perhaps it can’t even be bothered to do as much as that. It’s just some lad and lass on it, and one of them cleans a fish and both have a glass of white wine to sharpen the appetite. And still the little swells follow, breaking up a bit from |||| into jill.

Jill? Without a capital j: jill. A verb for a boat moving idly about. It may come from the verb gill, pronounced the same, which in its time referred to doing a pub-crawl with just a small drink at each, or perhaps to having a little bit of white wine before dinner – so Oxford tells me. That comes from the liquid measure gill (same pronunciation again) equalling a quarter pint (thus a half cup, which is four ounces, eight tablespoons, or two dozen teaspoons).

But then there is another verb jill, a variant of gill meaning ‘clean a fish’. And of course there is the noun jill meaning ‘girlfriend’ or ‘sweetheart’, taken from the name Jill, as in Jack and Jill. There are other more recent uses (noun and verb) of Jill too, as female parallels to uses of Jack; some of them are about as impolite as their Jack counterparts.

The name Jill is usually short for Gillian (or the same with a J) or – dictionary.com tells me – Juliana. But just by itself, in its ripple shape on the page and its jarred liquid sound in the mouth, it stands apart a bit. And it has some associations for me, of course, as it likely does for most people. It’s a name just common enough that a person may know one or two Jills, just enough to give a clear character. The first Jill I knew, as a pre-teen, was a girl a bit older than me, daughter of some family friends; she had blonde hair and seemed a paragon of sensible prettiness. The second Jill I knew, in high school, was also, come to think of it, a blonde paragon of sensible prettiness. There was a third I knew, briefly, in university, a tall ash blonde from England, elegant, sensible, pretty. You see a pattern. (I haven’t met any new Jills lately, though.)

What has this to do with moving idly about, drinking in half-cups, and gutting fish? Hmm… Jill-squat, probably, other than coincidence. But can’t you picture some lucky Jack spending a pleasant afternoon with a sensible pretty blonde jill (named Jill or not) lolling in a boat jilling about on a jelly sea? It almost makes me jillous.

Proof that English spelling is an evil trap

My latest article for The Week looks at 10 words that are further evidence of the malicious character of English spelling. They look like they should be easy to pronounce, and many of us pronounce them as they look… but they’re really supposed to be pronounced quite differently:

10 words we’ve forgotten how to pronounce



Aina and I and two of my friends went skiing today. As my friend Trish drove us up through Dufferin County towards Collingwood, we passed through Melanchthon Township, home of not very many people but a decent number of wind turbines. Trish wondered out loud where the name came from.

I knew off the top of my head that Philipp Melanchthon was one of the protestant reformers, working closely with Martin Luther in Germany in the 1500s. I said that the name looked Greek – it looked like it should be Greek for ‘black earth’, from the melan ‘black’ and chthon ‘earth’ roots – but Philipp Melanchthon was German, so it had to be a coincidence. But then I said, Why don’t I look it up on the web? I pulled out my iPhone and checked.

The first thing I found out was that he wasn’t born Melanchthon. He was Philipp Schwartzerdt. OK, so he changed his name… but why? And (clickbait here) what I read next made me say (rather loudly) “Of course!” and start laughing.

How’s your German?

Schwarz is standard High German for ‘black’. Erde is standard High German for ‘earth’. Melanchthon’s family name, Schwartzerdt, was (in another dialect) ‘black earth’. He just changed it to the Greek: Μελάγχθων.*

OK, but why? Well, at school he studied Latin and Greek. Renaissance humanism – and admiration of the classics – was ascendant at the time. And his great-uncle, an influential figure in the set, suggested he change his name to the classical Greek version, as was a common practice among humanists at the time. Philipp was an eager and impressionable boy barely over 10 years of age. The Greeks were such a model to be enthused about and followed. Another language, another time, another place, an enlightenment, a bright harbinger of reason!

This, mind you, was the same Philipp who grew up to fight against the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, its foreign language and borrowed ideas, its fanciful and expedient adoptions, its irrational digressions from the plain, clear, and simple. The same man who had discarded his plain and comprehensible German name for a borrowed Greek one, an idealization from another time and place, and informed his mind with their opinions too.

Inconsistent? Perhaps not. The Greek ideas planted their seeds in the fertile black earth of Melanchthon’s mind and the grain that grew forth was one advocating rationality and a rigorous logical inspection of premises and entailments. As well, in both cases, Melanchthon was dissatisfied with what he saw around him. The German name was as base and debased for him as the common ideas of indulgences and the cult of the saints and various other appurtenances of the Church. He fought this melancholy miasma and ran in the marathon of reformation. He wanted to undo the dammed-up theology and draw power from the wind of the Spirit.

In spite of all that, his name is seldom remembered, whereas Luther’s is all over the place.

Well. Luther is an easier name to remember. It does have an overtone of Lucifer, true, but then Melanchthon has an overtone of Moloch. And of course it is melancholy and chthonic, and has that nchth cluster that is sure to put off many a reader. Not that Schwartzerdt would have been a whole lot more appealing.

Meanwhile, in Melanchthon Township, the rich dark earth does not protest when it is ploughed and seeded. It knows neither Greek nor Latin nor German, nor English, but only the recurring phrases of the seasons. And we drive through without stopping, paying mere passing attention to the signs.

*The sharp-eyed among you will notice that where he has nch the Greek has γχ. This is because in Greek you represent the [ŋ] sound before velars with γ, which is normally transliterated as g – but not in this case. When the root is not before a velar the [n] is written with the usual Greek letter for n, ν.

Swearing around the world

About a month ago, I got an email out of the blue from an editor at BBC Culture asking me if I was interested in doing an article for them on why different languages focus on different things in their swearwords (or whatever you want to call them). Of course I was interested. The article went live today. If you don’t like reading crude language, taboo language, coarse language, vulgarities, etc., don’t read this article. But if you’re curious about why people shout different things when upset…

Mind your language! Swearing around the world


This word seems to connote a little drip.

You may not know it if you’re from North America and haven’t read the right things. It may appear just to be the common part of fickle, mickle, pickle, prickle, sickle, stickle, tickle, and trickle (and, in sound, of nickel too), words that really don’t have a whole lot in common aside from sounding a bit like a small flow of water. It might seem a bit icky, too. But there are two things that ickle means in Britain.

Those of us who have read the Harry Potter books may recall Harry’s nemeses taunting him with “ickle Harry.” What does that mean? It’s actually just British baby-talk for little – it intentionally talks down by imitating child speech; it implies “you little drip.” It often shows up somewhere near bicky, which is baby-talk for biscuit (which, in Britain, means what we North Americans call cookie).

How do you get ickle from little? In North America, where we say the latter more like “liddle,” you don’t. But if you retain the manner (stop) more than the place (tip of the tongue), and turn the /t/ into a glottal stop, and – as one does – make that late /l/ into something halfway to a [w], the [k] is a reasonable outcome. And dropping the initial [l] is just baby talk. It wasn’t made up by JK Rowling, anyway. It shows up in Charles Dickens, EM Forster, George Orwell… It’s classic. If you’re British.

But there’s another word ickle too. Many people in England don’t use it either, but if you find someone who does, they’re probably from Yorkshire or parts near it. I hadn’t been aware of this word until I saw it mentioned in “The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape.” But it will be plain once I tell you what it means: ‘icicle’.

Does icicle seem like a good word for the thing it names, by the way? I’ve always thought so, but ice and icicle are words I learned at such a young age that they shaped my idea of what they named. The /k/ in icicle and ickle is hard like ice, yes; how about the syllabic /l/? Does it perhaps have a sense of the drips that trickle to the tip and make the icicle grow?

Do you wonder where the word came from?

It seems plain enough at first glance: ickle must be a clipped form of icicle, yes? But then where does icicle come from, anyway? It must be ice plus… what?

Plus ickle.

Ickle comes from an old Germanic word relating to pieces of ice. It mostly referred to these aqueous stalactites, but its cognate in Icelandic is jökull. Does that look vaguely familiar? You may remember Eyjafjallajökull; if you’ve learned anything much about Icelandic geography, you may know that the frozen centre of the country is a huge glacier, Vatnajökull. As it happens, jökull is the Icelandic word for ‘glacier’. (IPA geeks: it’s said [jœːkʏtl̥]. The rest of you: never mind.) So one way or another, ickle is a piece of ice, but in Iceland it’s rather bigger.

Well, like glaciers, icicles do grow under the right conditions – but glaciers are added to by snow on top, while icicles add a drip at a time, rolling down from the top to the bottom. A bit more, a bit more… sort of like how ickle became icicle. I guess the plain ickle (which, in Old English, was gicel, said like “yickel”) was just too, uh, ickle for them. So, for clarity, they added the ice part.

Hmm. One more drip and they would have had a means of conveyance.


One of the reasons I love National Geographic is the new words each issue brings. Look at this one! I particularly like how the p and q are facing off across a jumble of other letters. A jumble? Look closely and you’ll see that pitera anagrams to pirate. It’s like a pirate and another pirate attacking each other in a melee, each trying to win the letters.

And what is that q doing at the end? I bet National Geographic has a much-higher-than-average rate of words with q not followed by u thanks to transliterations of languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Inuktitut… and its use in the spelling of Albanian, among others. But which language is this word from?

This word is from the article “End of the Earth,” by Murray Fredericks, who went to Greenland (also known as Kalaallit Nunaat) and photographed the scenery on the ice cap. You can see some of the photos online in “What Does Nothing Look Like?” The views are transfixing, infinite, white on white (not green – that name was just marketing by Erik the Red). But in all these pictures, you can’t see one of the most powerful things he encountered.


In Tunumiisut, the Inuit language of the east coast of Greenland, this means ‘attacker’.

It is an apt name.

Is it a polar bear? No. You can take pictures of those. This is something that besets you – besets whole towns, even – for a day or longer. You have no choice but to hide from it and hope it does not tear your protection away from you. It can cause massive damage. The only blessing is that you can see the sign of its approach hours in advance. In the snow, rising up in the distance.

But you can’t see a piteraq.

And it’s pretty hard to see much when a piteraq is attacking.

Because the snow is flying.

But who has seen the wind?

Yes. A piteraq is a wind. It’s a katabatic wind: a cold wind formed on high that comes sweeping down, aided by gravity. It can move at over 200 km/h. Here’s a nice rundown of the facts of piteraqs from the blog Ultima Thule.

And here’s a video of someone up on the ice cap experiencing one. Now imagine that sweeping down a fjord into a town.

Since Tunumiisut is an Inuit language, we know that the q stands for a voiceless uvular stop. Imagine you’re trying to get rid of a popcorn hull stuck at the very back of your mouth and you should get the tongue position about right for this sound.

So when you say piteraq, it bounces back in your mouth like a tent being blown through town by a piteraq: first off the lips, then off the tip of the tongue, fluttering for a moment more there (snagged on something?), and then accelerating to knock off the back and – it’s gone. Nothing left to be seen.

What do we do when a language is dying?

The Pitkern language is dying. It’s dying because it has a small number of speakers and it’s not the language of opportunity for the youngest generations, who are moving away to Australia and New Zealand. Even the Pitkern-language version of Wikipedia has been proposed for closure – twice. What can we do? What should we do? Is saving endangered languages like saving endangered species? Are there reasons to let a language die? I look at all this in my latest article for The Week… and when it comes to Pitkern, there’s an additional twist. Read it now:

Why do we fight so hard to preserve endangered languages?