There are some things that seem so obvious. You look, and they’re there. They seem obvious to other people too. But obviously different from what you see. A different perspective gives a different conspectus. This does not conduce to consensus or common respect.

Words can be like that. We see the same thing (and hear the same thing), and yet they have different flavours for different people. This is why even onomatopoeia is still conventionalized. It’s also why a game like Balderdash can be the kind of fun it is.

I haven’t played Balderdash in years, but I remember playing it a few times when we lived in Edmonton. The game goes like this: for each turn, one person (a different one each turn) pulls a card and reads the uncommon word printed on it, and the players write down definitions. The first person collects them, reads each prospective definition (not in respective order) along with the real definition, and each other player guesses which one is right. Each vote your definition gets nets you a point. If you submit a definition that is pretty much the same as the real one, it doesn’t get read and you get two points.

One word I remember coming up was conspectable.

This word has parts that seem obvious enough to me: con, ‘with, together’, spect, ‘see’, able. I seem to recall I wrote a definition that was passably close to the real one and got two points. But what stands out for me is that one person’s invented definition was on the lines of “a policeman who goes around ensuring people respect each other.” A respect constable, in other words. A politeness cop, you might say. Someone who helps make sure people see it each other’s way, or at least understand one another’s points of view.

The definition given by Balderdash, as I recall, was (roughly) “visible from multiple points simultaneously.” Which really does seem obvious from the parts, doesn’t it? Just like the word itself: seen equally by all players, but seen from different sides. But those of us who grew up in the mountains know well that this does not mean the people are seeing the same thing. Seen from Exshaw there is a mountain we called Sproule’s Nose, after one of our teachers. Heading out of the mountains a bit east of Exshaw, there are two flat-faced mountains facing each other across the valley: Yamnuska on the north and Barrier Mountain on the south. It was years – honestly well into my adolescence, I think – before I realized that Barrier Mountain was Sproule’s Nose, seen from 90 degrees different. The flat face was the underside of the nose.

And some 25 years after conspectable came up in Balderdash, I find myself looking at the Oxford English Dictionary and seeing conspectable, with a obelisk on it (signifying obsolescence), two citations from 1727 and 1822, and the following definition: “Easy to be seen, obvious.”

The con, you see, is not the con in chile con carne. It is the con in conspicuous, confute, and convince, among others: an intensifier. It has the same origin, but Latin sometimes used prefixes such as per– and inter– and con– to mean ‘thoroughly’. Why use ‘with, together’ to mean ‘thoroughly’? For the same reason we use altogether, I rather think.

So. We all saw it. And it was obvious. I thought. Well, it was obvious. But as much as it can be seen from different points of view, it is not seen quite the same way. I was not conned by the contradiction; it was beyond my control. I just hope that, having inspected the difference, we can respect it.


You know what’s nifty? This word.

OK, OK, but seriously: a word like nifty is a nifty thing. Toss it in and you get just the right feeling – it’s a nifty little language trick. It doesn’t have any obvious relation to other words, and it doesn’t get used all that often, but it just fits neatly in its niche.

Its niche, for its users, is largely defined by the words it’s most often seen with: according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, these include little, trick, features, pretty (as in pretty nifty little trick), gadgets, stuff… You notice the tone and usage context of these words: not exactly formal; more endearing, fun, like things you use to charm a person (e.g., yourself) into buying a thing. Its synonyms (thanks, Merriam-Webster) include boffo, choice, crackerjack, groovy, jim-dandy, keen, neat, primo, righteous, swell, top-shelf, and a number of more formal words up to and including supernal (which might be a bit strong and self-regarding, to be honest).

But where does it come from? Hmm, that we don’t know. Its first published use – in 1865 – declares that it comes from Latin magnificat, but that is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, unlikely. More likely it has influence from the sounds of other words: natty, thrifty, spiffy (and perhaps the nif in magnificent); it has a nice lift to it, and though it may have some sounds of iffy and shifty, that neat nose of an n seems to set it up more nicely and endearingly. The /ɪ/ vowel is high, but not as high as /i/, so it’s small and sweet but not saccharine. The /ft/ is a soft touch, of course, and the y suffix adds a bit more diminutive potential. So it’s niftily put together: a clever little lexical doodad that serves the turn, not just denotation but connotation and a certain sense of fondness.

The ensemble of it may seem almost more to match style than substance: not so much intelligent as fashionable. Fair enough; although it has meant ‘ingenious’ for a long time, its first sense was ‘stylish, attractive’, a sense it has retained in some quarters up to the present. So you can call someone’s bowtie nifty and mean that it is pleasing to the eye or that it is stain-repellent and doubles as a beer opener. Either way, it’s smart… at least in the eyes of certain beholders.

Wines, the world, and so on

I love wines. Especially good ones. From all over. Aina and I go on trips just to taste wines. My serious wine education started when I was 19 (thanks, cousin Sharon). For the past 16 years I’ve edited the website of Tony Aspler, Canada’s wine guy, and that was where I got the idea of doing word tastings.

So, naturally, when I got the opportunity to write an article for a travel website about wines to choose for a starter wine cellar, I very happily took it. And I sure enjoyed writing it. Here it is. If you don’t enjoy reading it, have a glass of wine and try again (I recommend a chilled sparkling wine – a blanc de noirs from Champagne if you want to spend the money, or a Gloria Ferrer from Sonoma, or a crémant de Loire or, heck, why not Seaview Brut?).

The world in your home: How to build the ultimate international wine collection



On a scale from squamous to squeamish, how would you rate Squamish?

Do you know where it is? Or what it is, even?

For me, Squamish is where you can buy Whistler day passes at a discount and get your coffee on the way. For at least one person I know, it’s where Quest University is. For a lot of people, it’s the midpoint between Vancouver and Whistler: It’s at the north end of Howe Sound on the Sea to Sky Highway.

But what makes it stand out is not Howe Sound but how it sounds. It doesn’t have the V-neck verve of Vancouver or the crisp sifflation of Whistler. It has the sounds of squat and squeamish and qualms and a balance of the scaly words squamous and desquamation and such like. And it sounds so wishy-washy at the end, not firmly squam but just squamish. If it were an English word, it would likely have flabby, queasy connotations.

But it’s not an English word. It’s a rough rendering of the name of a Coast Salish people, more accurately written Skwxwú7mesh. What’s that 7 doing there? It represents a glottal stop. And the w’s represent rounded labial coarticulation of the previous sound. And the x represents a voiceless velar fricative. For those who are squeamish about all of the foregoing, you can click and hear it pronounced at the beginning of

So the town is named after the people, but in a somewhat desquamated version. But what about the townspeople? Members of the Squamish tribe are Skwxwú7mesh, but that’s not who lives in the town. It’s full of the same sort of people descended from invaders and immigrants that make up most of the population of Canada. And what do they call themselves?

It turns out that this has not been firmly decided. Eva van Emden sent around the results of a poll of residents by the local newspaper, choosing between four options: Squamites (31%), Squams (13%), Squamcouverites (8%), and Squamptonians (48%). It seems the echo of the Hamptons is pleasing, although perhaps it’s more an echo of Compton, given the vowel rhyme; Eva notes that there are local bumper stickers and T-shirts that refer to Squampton. I note that Squamians was not on the list of options. Wikipedia lists two demonyms: Squamoleon (with a source request on it, meaning Is this for real?) and Squamite. The ite ending seems quite popular in western Canada; I know from my own youth that people from Banff are Banffites and people from Canmore are Canmorites, and although quite rationally people from Exshaw ought to be Exshavians, they most certainly are not: they are Exshawites, which doesn’t look very good on paper – you do not pronounce the w in it.

At any rate, although the sound associations may not be great for the average Anglophone, and although for many a tourist the town is a sprawl of stores and stoplights along the highway, those who live in Squamish seem enthusiastic: Squamsome! can be seen on promotional material.

And what about members of the Squamish people? We ought to call them Skwxwú7mesh, of course, although few of them speak the language anymore, thanks to the dominating effect of English. They have been an important presence from Vancouver through Whistler and beyond. It’s all on their traditional territory, seized but unceded. There are fewer than 4000 of them now, and little of the land is allocated to them, though their culture persists. But in the grand tradition of naming places after whatever or whoever was displaced to make way for what’s there now, we have not only Squamish but also various places named after Joe Capilano, whose Capilano is from a Skwxwú7mesh toponym, Kiapila’noq.

Omitting periods? It’s about genres.

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada.

Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style,” declared a New York Times headline. Noted linguist David Crystal had made some comments noting that the period is not requisite in text messages, and as such is used only “to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression,” as article author Dan Bilefsky paraphrased Crystal. From this, Bilefsky – who, just to be cute, left the period off the end of every paragraph in the article – drew the conclusion that the period is going out of style in English generally. As did (obviously) the headline writer.

Which is rather ironic. Tell me: how often are periods used at the ends of newspaper headlines? (Rarely, in case you’re not sure.) And yet this insistent omission has not, over the course of the past century, ushered in the demise of periods in the language generally, or even in newspaper articles in particular. (Bilefsky’s is an ostentatious exception, but that is not because its headline doesn’t end in a period.) Nor has the programmatic omission of forms of ‘be’ in headlines led to their omission elsewhere, although they are left out in other forms that are equally “telegraphic” – for the same reason: economy of space trumps smoothness.

And there is the point. Not all occasions of use of English (or any other language) are the same. Different occasions of communication for different purposes use different components, structure, vocabulary, grammar, and – yes – puncutation. In short, different purposes use different genres. Of course they do! You don’t write a shopping list like a personal letter (“Dear Me: It has been a while since I’ve been shopping, hasn’t it? Could I by any chance manage to pick up some eggs, milk, onions, celery, and fenugreek? That would be splendid if I could. Thanks so much, Yours, Me”). You use what you need, add things as befits the occasion (for politeness, clarity, ornament, what have you), and leave things out for the sake of effect or efficiency.

And if you have declared a particular item unnecessary for the run-of-the-mill functioning of the text, you have it available to use for special effect. Your full name on a government form is a simple requirement of the genre; your full name when spoken by your mother is not required, so it can carry a connotation of concern or disapproval. Poetry, with its line breaks, has less need for capitals and punctuation, so their use and omission can have stylistic significance.

And so it is with periods in text messages. As they are superfluous to the needs of the genre, they have gained expressive potential. Since a simple “end of message” is conveyed by (wait for it) the end of the message, a period can be extra firm, pointedly conclusive. Wilf Popoff has recently given us some instruction in this and similar details of the text message genre, and Frances Peck has addressed the related sub-genre of email salutations. These genre-specific recastings of pieces of punctuation are not losses to the language or even the genre – how can an increase in expressive potential be a loss? But it is also unlikely to spread to genres that need periods to separate sentences in paragraphs, such as the body of news articles… even if it has long since been a feature of headlines.

The Donald: The podcast

You may recall that I recently wrote an article on Donald Trump’s language techniques. We’ve made that into a podcast now, so you can listen to it rather than just reading it – if you can stand the sound of Trump’s voice.

How Donald Trump hypnotized America


deuce, trey

Now, where the deuce is that book? I want to blog about it. Did I lend it to someone? It’s a hardcover, so it should be on the top shelf…

Ah, wait. Let me turn this pile of books aside for the reveal…

Can you quite see it? There are two books side by side there that are my own copies of books I first discovered in the Banff Public Library when I was a youth and spent much enjoyable time sitting in that glorious wood-and-carpet high-ceilinged room reading (the library has since moved and the building it was in is now a museum).

Not the Machiavelli book – that was grad school. No, both of these books promise knowledge unknown to most but valuable to initiates. Secrets arcane and possibly even a bit louche. For one of them, the time and place I got my copy is a forgotten secret. For the other one, I happened to remember it one time maybe a decade ago, and so I decided to look in the used bookstores here in Toronto for it. The first store I went into was Ten Editions, on Spadina not far south of Bloor. I walked in, looked for the relevant section, and there it was.

I mean, talk about luck.

Frankly, the odds of just walking into the first store and finding a nice copy of this 1957 book waiting for me were surely a bit less than the odds of filling a full house by drawing a three-of-a-kind to a pair of deuces.

Full houses have cost me a fair few dollars over the years, too, I should say. Even ones that I was holding. (When you have a full house in Texas hold ’em, the odds of someone else having a better full house or even a four-of-a-kind are better than you might think.) This book, on the other hand, cost me $15. It’s written in pencil on the flap.

Poker, by the way, is a game of chance in about the same way as Scrabble is a game of chance. But most people don’t bet on Scrabble. Poker is only a game of pure chance if you’re not a very good player. Being a good poker player isn’t just about knowing the odds. It’s about knowing the people. It’s about thinking about what they’re thinking. This is similar to the advice I used to give when I taught test prep for the SAT, GRE, LSAT, and GMAT: think about what the test takers are trying to make you think. Get inside their heads.

Who is this Herbert O. Yardley, the author of this book?

If you looked at the smaller print on the front cover – which you would have had to click on to see in a larger version – you learned that he was a cryptographer. He cracked secret codes governments were using. You have to be smart to do that, but you don’t do it just by being a mathematician. You do it by thinking of what the other guys are likely to have been thinking of. And that is what makes a person good at poker.

What makes a poker book good reading, on the other hand, are good stories.

Of course, many people – including some of my relatives when I was a kid and (I think) even now – consider cards to be instruments of the devil. And gambling? Entirely unacceptable, sinful, satanic. (Let’s not go into how much of their retirement savings depend on the stock market.)

But if you like to figure things out, and you like to find out more about things you’re not supposed to know about, and louche things maybe attract you a bit as long as you’re not in danger… poker has a certain appeal.

It also has a certain vocabulary.

Some of them are for kinds of sets of cards (“hands”) you can have. A straight is five cards in numerical sequence, regardless of the suit. A flush is five cards of the same suit, regardless of the numbers. (If two people have the same kind of hand, though, the one with the highest card wins.) A full house is a pair and a three of a kind (e.g., two jacks and three 7s). A straight flush is a straight where all the cards are the same suit. A royal flush is the highest straight flush. In all my years playing poker, I’ve seen a royal flush in actual play exactly once. It beat a full house.

Some of the words are for cards. Ace, king, queen, jack, sure, you know them. The ace can be the lowest or the highest card, depending on the game. But there are two other special words for low cards. One is common; the other is not often used.

A trey is a three. It comes from Old French trei (standard modern French is trois), and is of course related to Italian tre and Latin tres. It is not commonly used by poker players now, but in Yardley’s time and place (early 1900s Indiana to start with), it was the standard term. Not that having a trey would give you anything on a tray, silver or otherwise. A trey isn’t even worth a try. If you have three treys, well, you have a three of a kind, and that will win often enough, but watch out.

A deuce, on the other hand, is always a deuce. In poker today you may well call a trey a three and you will be like everyone else, but if you call a deuce a two you are probably either naïve or joking around.

In general, a deuce is of no use. A pair of deuces has insufficient uses. Three deuces is a three of a kind, which will beat anyone who has a pair or two pair, but is otherwise the crappiest halfway decent hand. Four deuces is a four of a kind and will win almost all of the time, but you will almost never have it. Especially if you’re playing a version of poker where you start out with two cards and more are dealt after, because you’ll be building it from a pair of deuces, which is a hand you should fold unless you’re eager to give someone else your money.

You can also have a deuce in dice – the side with two spots on it – which is either fitting or ironic, etymologically. You see, dice is a singular that was reinterpreted as a plural and had a singular die backformed from it, while deuce is respelled with a c from earlier s: Old French deus (modern French deux). Not that it was a plural (aside from two being dual), but it is a movement in the other direction.

In tennis, if you have a deuce, that means both players have reached 40, which is really just 3 points – 15, 30, 40 – but it’s not a trey, it’s à deux, a deuce, and one of the players has to win by two more points.

And if you have a deuce coupe, that means you have a souped-up two-door car. Deuce because two doors.

It’s funny that deuce comes from Old French deus. In Latin, deus means ‘god’, while in English deuce is also a word for the devil. You may even have seen, in some older novel or play, a line such as “To the deuce with you!” This does not consign a person to a losing poker hand. Well, not directly. Its use for ‘devil’ came from its use for ‘mischief, plague, misfortune’, and that in turn came from… hmm, we’re not entirely sure, it’s the most deucèd thing… but it seems to have originated (in English or another Germanic language) in the deuce being the lowest card.

By the way, while Benito Mussolini may have been a devil, his nickname Il Duce does not come from deuce or a related word. It means ‘captain’ or ‘leader’ and comes from Latin dux, from duco ‘I lead’. Now, yes, depending on the card game, you may lead with a deuce, but in poker, a deuce is more likely to lead you to loss of money. But, hey, you gotta pay your dues one way or another. Just don’t reduce yourself by chasing deuces again.