In the most recent news cycle, much of our attention has been ruled by a distant object, a body entirely beyond the reach of the simple citizens of Earth, cold, presenting a surface with an odd combination of smoothness and roughness but undented by the usual expected projectiles, a body that might appear to have a heart but of course we know it is just an icy illusion, a body drawn to our attention by a fantastically expensive endeavour…

But enough about Donald Trump and his presidential bid. I’d rather read about the Pluto formerly known as a planet. It truly is amazing to me that while we have all learned about the “ninth planet” since our childhoods, only now is it being seen in any surface detail at all. And it is fascinating – see for yourself.

We can, of course, go about our lives quite happily without directly concerning ourselves with Pluto, fascinating as it may be to at least some of us. But we cannot go through our lives without being affected by plutocracy: rule by the rich.

Donald Trump is slightly unusual in the openness of his plutocratic philosophy. Most US presidential candidates are rich, but even the rich ones try to pretend to have the view of a common person, at least when talking to general audiences (some of them have been caught making more plutocratic comments to audiences they assumed were entirely well moneyed – hey, who let the help have recording devices?). But there is a common assumption, often followed even when overtly denied, that people with money are more virtuous or at least more worth listening to. After all, we learned in our youth that you get money by working, so those who have more money have worked harder and smarter and must thus be worth following (and perhaps one of these stars will throw some money our way as they pass nearby too, no?).

This turns out not to be altogether reliably the case. The way you get to have a lot of money is by finding the most efficient means of accumulating more of it. Once you come to have a certain amount (by work, cunning, luck, or inheritance), you can use that to give you a considerable advantage in further accumulation. Those of us who play poker know that if you have a big stack of chips you can make big bets that will bully many of the people with shorter stacks off the table, and even if you lose one or two hands a stack advantage tends to compound itself unless you get reckless and fritter it away. And many of us in the working world have noticed that a company with a big bottom line can use it to squeeze out smaller companies. Beyond that, though, the way they get all that money is simply by extracting value disproportionate to their investment of time, money, and effort.

This is true for everything at root: the sun constantly sends us energy that drives a renewing cycle of growth; without it we would not have plant life, which gives us food (and the food that eats that food, i.e., meat) and, over much longer periods, such things as petroleum, which we are currently extracting faster than it is being made (see above about reckless gamblers). We would be as cold and lifeless as Pluto if we did not have the abundant free heat and light of our nearby star. Similarly, in the world of business, you as a company owner are able to increase your wealth by taking a share of the value created by your employees. A person like Donald Trump does not have billions because he works a million times as hard as a person who has thousands. He has billions because he has found ways to take a goodly cut of the value created by millions of people. Those people have thousands because they do not get the full value of their own efforts, and they don’t get all that much of a cut of the value of anyone else’s efforts either.

Well, that’s how the system works. It has been popular, too, and not without reason. We have created laws to help keep the most egregious ways of extracting values from others from happening too much. People such as Donald Trump manage to keep their businesses generally legal, or anyway not to get caught and punished for doing illegal things. But in the eyes of many, there is only an artificial line between a plutocrat such as Trump and some lord of the underworld.

Hmm. Pluto was the lord of the Underworld. So why would not plutocrats be lords of the underworld?

Ha ha. That pun works in English because we don’t have contrastive vowel length between the two roots. It keeps us from telling two things apart that seem similar but actually have nothing in common other than coincidence. On the one hand is classical Latin Plūtō (they didn’t write the macrons, but we do to keep track of which vowels are long), which comes from ancient Greek Πλούτων. He’s the brother of Jupiter and Neptune and is the god of the underworld (by the way, to fill in the planets, Uranus was a Titan, but Titan is a moon of Saturn, who was a god; the gods are descended from the Titans, but… oh, never mind). On the other hand is πλοῦτος, Greek for ‘wealth’. Note the difference between ω, which is omega (meaning ‘big o’), and ο, which is omicron (meaning ‘small o’). The former is long; the latter, short. Also note that the accent mark is different between ού and οῦ – an intonation difference that is made now only by classicists, and not them always either.

So there is no more connection between Pluto and plutocrats, really, than between people who gain political influence by being able to pay to look like they care and those who gain it by actually caring (I think there are some), or between government of the people by the rich people for the rich people and government of the people by representatives of all the people for all the people. Or between the planet Pluto and the Disney dog Pluto. Or, for that matter, between the dog Pluto and that other dog, Goofy.

How does that happen, now, that they’re both dogs, but Goofy gets a voice while Pluto just barks? Hm. Well, I’d rather listen to someone who makes some kind of sense, however goofy, than someone who just makes noises for attention.

No such thing as “American English”?

I received this afternoon the following email in response to my latest article for the BBC, “Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?”:


I am surprised by your article at today. First of all, there is no country by the name of America. Secondly, if you wish to refer to Americans, you are including everyone who lives anywhere in North or South America. Here in Canada we have many English dialects, as they do in the U.S.A., but ours align with the British English usage. Yes, that U.S.A. stands for United States OF America, as it is a republic within North America. I am a Canadian who is also an American, as Canada is in North America.

Therefore your article is specious. There is no such language as “American English”. The habit of US citizens calling themselves ‘Americans’ is hubris at its finest. One well known example is the ‘World Series’ which is anything but.

However, you are entitled to your misguided views, as I am mine. {;-)

Gordon W. Sharpe

As you may expect, I did not agree with his line of reasoning. Here is the response I sent to him:

A good day to you, Mr. Sharpe. I have a few points to make in response to your email.

First of all: I am a Canadian. I was born here, I grew up here, and I am sitting in my residence in Toronto as I type this.

Second: In my world, a Canadian is not an American. Call me a North American. Every Canadian I know (I do not count you among my acquaintances) bristles at being taken for an American – we all grew up resenting the USA, just as you evidently did. You are, in fact, the very first actual Canadian I recall seeing insist that Canadians are “Americans” tout court; everyone else I recall who has said that has been from the USA or Europe. The word “American” by itself is well established as referring only to a citizen of that country to the south of us, and Canadians rarely want to be confused with them, as you demonstrate. The rest of us on this land mass are North Americans and South Americans.

Third: The short form for “United States of America,” established virtually from its inception and accepted around the world – and in Canada, among Canadians, as you cannot avoid hearing – is “America.” The globally accepted demonym is “Americans.” A few people have attempted to call citizens of the USA “USians,” but it has not caught on. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia are called Micronesians, even though the region Micronesia includes other countries; citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are called Congolese, even though citizens of the Republic of the Congo are as well; citizens of the Republic of Ireland are called Irish, Northern Ireland notwithstanding; and so forth. Back when our country was the Dominion of Canada – I am sure you remember when it was stripped down to one word, in 1982 – we were nonetheless Canadians and our general standard dialect was Canadian English.

Fourth: I am a linguist with substantial education in dialects and variation, and I know quite well – and said so in the article – that there is considerable variation in American English. Notwithstanding that, American English as a whole is quite distinct from British English as a whole, and each of the two has a standard variety that is the basis of dictionaries, usage guides, and textbooks. I made reference to that in the article as well, but perhaps you didn’t finish reading it before you started typing.

Fifth: I make the larger part of my living as an editor and expert on Canadian English, and I must correct you on your belief that Canadian English aligns with British English usage. In fact, although we prefer certain British-style spellings, the larger part of our vocabulary hews to the American. We do not have boots and bonnets on our cars, or park the cars in carparks; we do not send unruly chavs to gaol or eat ices at the weekend; we recognize “centre” and “colour” but usually not “recognise”; our accents are closer to American accents – in fact, the non-Canadian accent closest to a standard Toronto accent is from California. I had originally intended to make mention of Canadian in the article, but the BBC has tight length limits, so that was one of a few things I trimmed out in the final draft.

I won’t argue with you about the hubris of “Word Series,” nor about American cultural self-centredness in general. But they were being called “Americans” well before they had their own country. As far as I’m concerned, they can keep it. Amerigo Vespucci was no one really worth commemorating so much anyway.

If you are wondering why I, a Canadian, wrote an article on American English for the British Broadcasting Corporation, it is because (a) they asked me to do so, (b) they paid me to do so, (c) I know the subject, and (d) I enjoy writing about it. Should Canadian English merit a mention? I’d like to think it is worth an article of its own. We shall see whether I can convince the BBC of that. :)


James Harbeck.


Sing to me, muse, of silicon dioxide,
of flint, of jasper, of agate, of onyx;
sing now of opal, of quartz and chalcedony.
Shiver a sharp-edged carol to chert.

Sing of its greys, its browns and its reds,
its greens and its blacks, its solids and stripes;
sing of its beds, its diatom sediments,
sing of its nodules in lime, chalk, and marl.

Let now this chert be my teacher, my razor:
conchoidal fractures will bless it with edges.
Strike it to break it and strike it to spark it:
arrows for hunting and fire to start cooking.

Chert for creation, chert for destruction,
cher for my dear, and черт for my devil,
harder than teeth, than steel, than spite,
holder of fossils and cut-off remembrance.

Local to Kent, this word without tracings,
found round the world and used through the ages,
red edged for hunters in times lost to words,
red underlined in my Microsoft Word.

Chert is a flint, or flint is a chert,
or chert here and flint there, or no line to draw:
gravel and gemstones and axes and headstones,
fire and earth rock, microcrystalline muse.

America’s liberties with English

My latest article for the BBC is about how American English came to be so different from British English – and why it didn’t come to be more different:

Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?


clint, grike

Here comes Clint and his pet grike!

Actually, there are two clints, and the grike is a sort of rift between them…

Noticed that I lower-cased clint? Yes, I’m not actually talking about the name Clint here, which is short for Clinton, which is an English toponym that I’m not going too far into. Rather, I’m talking about something even more chiselled than Clint Eastwood’s face and more flinty than his voice. And grike, though it may look like a word for some squawking white seabird, is, per the OED, “a fissure between clints.”

Well, that’s the technical use of it in geology. More generally (inasmuch as it is used more generally), it is (OED again) “a crack or slit in rock, a ravine in a hill-side.” I don’t know about you, but to me something that hard and cut should be crike. But it’s not. It’s grike to me and grike to you. Address any gripes to a crack in a rock.

From that you may have some notion of what a clint is. It is not a cliff (though it may be part of one), not a cleft (though it is between clefts); it is a flat bare slab of limestone, that bit between the grikes. It can also be a hard or flinty rock projecting from a hillside or standing out between fissures. In a sense, then, it may be to rock as a glint is to light. But then it again perhaps not. What it surely is is obtrusive and obdurate, like some clients.

Does it seem that the ologies are all agee in geology? How does clint not call forth a crevice, a cleft cloven as with a cleaver, at least a crack? But the Scots who brought it into the tongue got it honestly from old Germanic roots, reflected in Scandinavian languages: Danish and Swedish klint, in particular. And grike, should it not be a great spike, if it can’t be the bird its name may seem to suggest? But it is not, and in limestone lands such as England, grikes are not mere empty crevices; they are places for greenery to grow. In the deep crack in the rock, the dirt builds up and the plants root down, and it can be as green as you like. James Joyce used it in Ulysses, so it must be a word to use (had he used it in Finnegans Wake, you could rest confident of the opposite): “He climbed over the sedge and eely oarweeds and sat on a stool of rock, resting his ashplant in a grike.”

So there you have it. Faced with a fissured limestone surface, you see clint, grike, clint, grike, clint, grike, clint. Do you notice, on saying that, that the onsets are quite similar? /kl/ – velar stop, liquid; /gr/ – velar stop, liquid. The vowels are the two ways to say the letter i, as /ɪ/ or /aɪ/. The word that rests flat up front gets an ending up on the front of the tongue, /nt/; the one that is cut to the depth gets the /k/ at the back. So we do have some topological iconicity. And a bit more knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the lexicon.


To my eyes, this word tumbles forward like a landslide of eggs and eggshells, of eyes and calling mouths, biting mouths, with the repetition of letter forms o o c c c: “Oh! Oh! See! See! See!” as the various busy bodies spot, point, call others, gather the forces, tumble down on the object…

Tumble? Perhaps more like tweet. You recognize the –cracy, of course: you’ve seen it in democracy and autocracy and theocracy and so on. It’s from Greek κρατία kratia ‘rule’. But ochlocracy is not a form of government any more than a fever is a durable state of health. Ochlocracy is a stampede, an avalanche, a corybantic frenzy; the very leaders of the group may be ripped to pieces as though by Bacchae. Ochlocracy is a Twitter-pile, when a strident voice calls out an infraction, gathers the censure, and within hours thousands or even millions have ridden the group emotion focused on the destruction of the miscreant. In a slightly less acute way, ochlocracy is demagoguery that loses control of its hounds.

Most basically, ochlocracy is mob rule. The ochlo comes from ὄχλος okhlos ‘mob, crowd’. Mob, by the way, is a clipping of Latin mobile vulgus, where vulgus – yes, the source of our vulgar – refers to the common people, and mobile is the same as in “La donna è mobile”: it means ‘changeable, fickle’. So a mob was originally a fickle crowd; now it’s just any crowd – but, then, any crowd is fickle, so the sense hasn’t really changed, has it…

Crowds may be fickle, but they are fickle en masse. Change races through them like divine fire, as though by echolocation or a psychopathic telepathy. A mob may be ridden or directed for a time, but if it does not finish the fast-burning fuel available before the rider has achieved his or her end, the rider too will be consumed. Mobs may serve noble goals, to be sure, and in fact members of any ochlocratic caucus will almost always feel certain of their moral rightness. The ideal of the collective good and the rights of workers are beautiful goals and yet they fuelled some of the worse ochlocratic catastrophes of the world’s various communist revolutions – and gave way to authoritarianism, as all those who had lost their minds in pursuit of a cause gladly accepted a head to lead them.

Which leads me to the other thing ochlocracy makes me think of: Okhlopkov. Nikolai Pavlovich Ohlopkov was a Russian theatre director of the 1930s. He was a very good, thoughtful, innovative director. In his aim to make theatre more direct, he pulled it away from the thoroughly detailed realism that had been prevailing, stripped down the stage, highlighted the theatricality. It was involving and engaging, and at the same time it made the magic of theatre obvious, put frost on the window that is the signifier, pulled back the curtain on Oz. He wanted to serve socialism, but in some ways he helped people notice the glasses they had been wearing – and so he was forced to be less “formalist.” I wrote a paper on him, still one of my favourites from my academic theatre career: “Okhlopkov and the Nascence of the Postmodern.” (That link is to a PDF.)

His name has no relation to ochlocracy. But the connection is heuristically useful. Those staring eyes o o in the ochlocracy: they are not wide-open eyes but rather goggles, focusing, colouring, and distorting your vision. They are uninspected metanarratives: overarching stories and schemas that guide the construction and interpretation of the stories you use to justify diving into the mob. You put them on to keep the blood out of your eyes, and then take them off when they are too spattered. But if you can get enough frost or dust on them first, you may take them off and then see more clearly before there is any blood flying.

Every mob, after all, is an Emerald City, so appealing just because each member has chosen to put on emerald glasses made of his or her own justifications. “To make an omelet you have to break a few eggs!” they say. But if you are not cool and chary enough, you will find yourself surrounded by empty shells, with egg on your face.

2050: The podcast

Remember that article I did on what American English will sound like in 2050? The one I had radio interviews about? We’ve made a podcast of it:

What Americans will sound like in 2050