fog

The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted – to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was the ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.
—Edmund, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

When I was a young aspiring actor, that was one of my favourite audition monologues. Edmund is a young man whose life in no way resembled what mine was or is – his family life was dreadful, and he was dying of tuberculosis. But I could understand the desire to be alone, out in the fog, where all is peaceful, colours are soft, sights fade in and fade out, and you can only see so much at once. Such a soft aloneness, a world that coalesces and evanesces like anticipations and memories. And the smell, the rich cool humidity. For a boy who grew up in dry Alberta, humid air is a treat. For a person who has a low noise limit – sonic, visual, social – the fog is where I want to be, when it’s there. To be at the glowing light as trees and shadows loom in the mist, where a tapestry of light and shadow is woven by a loom of mystery. So little there, and none of it sharp, just like this ancient northern word, fog, bequeathed to us by Scandinavians.

And yet. Fog is not your friend either. When you are out where you can’t see what’s land and what’s sea, the fog will make a ghost of you. When you are driving in fog… well, don’t drive in fog. Not being able to see is peaceful if you have nowhere you need to go and nothing you need to avoid. If plans and memories are of no great matter, you can dissolve them in fog-get-fulness. But you will not find meaning in fog. Fog gives the impression of light spreading in the dark – such a glow – but all you see is the glow, not what the light would otherwise show.

The Fog Index is a simple measure of how much a text is obnubilated by obfuscatory sesquipedalian paraloquies. Long words and long sentences may have their beauty when well handled, but the clear sense is hard to hear in them. Too many pulses of sound dissipate the energy. This is why foghorns are low: the low notes push through. Make a lower note with the same energy input and there is more energy per sound wave, just as that two-hundred-pound panther looming just out of view in the fog will hit you so much harder than twenty ten-pound house cats, which will hit harder than two hundred one-pound kittens.

But two hundred one-pound kittens would be delightful. All those small padded feet with their innocuous claws.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
—Carl Sandburg

This is what the fog is, and more: a near-infinity of tiny feline water nymphs, lightly brushing you, delighting and de-lighting. Every droplet deflects the light so you see it rather than seeing through it. The means of vision hides life from vision. But it purrs coolly as it wraps you. So soft, so glad to forget in, such a welcoming suffocation. A relaxing cocktail, an opiate.

An opiate. That is what Edmund’s mother has turned to. As the one long day in four acts of Long Day’s Journey into Night rolls into its night, she embraces the fog of morphine, and truth becomes lies and she can see neither future nor present; she is lost once more in a mist of the far-back past.

We all have our ways of forgetting and our things we want to forget. The fog makes a lovely invisibility while it lasts. Just us and a phantasy of ghosts of things.

The things will still be there when it lifts. They are still there even in the fog. And we may encounter them if we go wandering.

peccary

A peccary is not a pessary. (And neither has anything to do with a cassowary.) I suppose a peccary would eat pecorino and piccalilli and pickles, but only if you picked it and packed and left it out. Otherwise a peccary eats what’s available, but will prefer a prickly pear. I won’t say its diet is precarious, though its habitat is occupied.

Well. They live in a lot of places, some of them well forested still. And they can be expected in packs of up to 100. But they’re not big space hogs or food hogs. They’re not big hogs at all. They’re not big: they’re about a metre long, and they weigh 20 to 40 kilograms (much of which appears to be the head and not too much of which appears to be the prancing, spindly legs). And they’re not hogs. But, boy, do they look like them.

Here are some peccaries.

Don’t they look just like pigs? Well, they do until you inspect the dentition. Pigs have curved tusks. Peccaries have straight ones and they’re shorter. Also, they snap them together to make a sound indicating irritation at any particular peccadillo. Also, peccaries are not closely related to pigs.

They’re not! Oh, they are related. They belong to the same suborder, Suina. But they belong to a different family, Tayassuidæ (the Old World pigs are Suidæ). They came over to the New World a long, long time ago. So they’re New World pigs. They’re also called javelina in Spanish. (The name peccary comes from a Carib word.) They’re also called skunk pigs. Because they smell. They have scent glands, which they use to mark their territory and each other.

But smell notwithstanding, people still eat them. I presume they taste porky. I’m sure they’d make good paprikash or pörkölt.

margate

The margate, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is “a deep-bodied grunt . . . found in the western Atlantic.” Moreover, the black margate is a “largely nocturnal grunt.”

Um… great? Let’s see, would that be like the deep grunts and growls of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, attacking seaside leisure-trippers?

Wait, how about these guys by the seaside? They’re called Margate.

But they’re in California. The original Margate is in England. That’s the one Conventional Weapons were singing about in that first video, where Cthulhu is marring the gates – and other things.

But that’s not how Margate got its name. It also was not governed by a margrave, and it is not known for a population of margays. No, it was originally Meergate, where meer means ‘lake’ or, in this case, ‘sea’ and gate means, in this case, apparently ‘gate’. It’s been a popular seaside destination in Britain since the dawn of forever. JMW Turner lived there and made a number of lovely paintings with all the sharp detail he’s known for (i.e., none). See this one of Margate jetty, for instance (made available without restrictions by Wikipedia):

And TS Eliot spent some time nearby recuperating, and wrote these lovely lines:

On Margate sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.

But speaking of connecting with nothing, Margate is in Kent, not far from Canterbury; it is nowhere near the western Atlantic. And what is all this about grunts?

Grunts are fish. Here’s one:

Sounds like it’s snoring, doesn’t it? That’s a sound those fish make when they’re about to die. I was going to say “sleep with the fishes” but no, exactly not. They also apparently make that sound at other times. They’re bottom-feeding predators. (Not drawing any connection to those low-ranking army men also called grunts.)

Anyway, a margate is a kind of grunt. We established that, remember? It belongs to the family Hæmulidæ. But why would a fish from the western Atlantic be named after a Kentish seaside town? One possibility is that there were people in the Bahamas originally from Kent. The fish has other names, including market fish, maggot fish, and Margaret fish, all of which could at least as plausibly have been reanalyzed from Margate as the other way around.

One way or another, the margate is apparently delicious, though not caught all that often. Which sounds reasonable enough for nocturnal grunts. Speaking of Lovecraft, though, I would watch out for Cthulhu, in case he awakes from his dream. It might take more than a little margate to satisfy him.

What’s logical about English?

A common complaint about English – by those who are inclined to complain about English – is that it’s not logical enough. Whatever that means. Words aren’t premises and sentences aren’t syllogisms, after all.

If you inspect the targets of their opprobrium, you find soon enough that what they mean is that English isn’t tidy enough for them. It’s inconsistent. Lacking in symmetry. Their experience has led them to believe that for every up there should be a down, for every in an out; when they see an over, they think “therefore under,” and if there is no under, they are… underwhelmed.

They’ve condemned themselves to a lifetime of disappointment. English does not satisfy their need for an overarching tidiness. It is not a Zen garden; it is a forested mountain, every tree grown unplanned in its place and conditions, every rock where the ineluctable complexities of physics left it. It is not an edifice of modernist design with proportions based on the golden mean; it is a Winchester House of a language, a veritable Heathrow Airport of accretions (for those who have not been to Heathrow, let me just say I suspect that J.K. Rowling based Hogwarts on it). Like any natural language, English has been built up by habit, need, association, and analogy. It does have structure – in fact, it has some inflexible syntactic requirements. We have slots to fill, and fill them we do. We just sometimes grab whatever’s ready to hand to fill them.

Let’s consider a few examples. One case where a desire for logic has actually prevailed is “double negatives.” Anyone who has studied logic will tell you that in “not not” the second not undoes the first one. “There will not be cake” is disappointing; “There will not not be cake” is affirming. Thus, the reasoning goes, “I do have nothing” and “I don’t have nothing” are opposite. But anyone who has learned a Romance language ought to know ça ne vaut rien, no vale nada – that ain’t worth nothing.

Nothing, you see, is not not. It’s a noun, not an operator. And one thing languages like is agreement. Concord. Adjectives tend to take the same gender as the nouns they modify, for instance. In English, we use concord with tenses in some contexts: “Should we expect them tomorrow?” “They said they weren’t coming.” Notice how we use weren’t even though we’re talking about the future? We even let negative concord pass unremarked in some contexts: “They won’t be coming, I don’t think.” This doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t be coming; it just retains the negative aspect.

But since it’s possible, with shifting emphasis, to make “There ain’t no one here” and “There ain’t no one here” mean opposite things, an argument can be made for disallowing negative concord for the sake of unambiguity. So the proscription stuck, defended by pleas for logic – although “if negative noun, then negative verb” is perfectly reasonable if that’s the rule in the language.

Syntax has its requirements – as linguists would say, there are principles and parameters that specify how it functions in a given language. Negative concord is one parameter we have managed to turn off. Others are not so easily disabled. It’s necessary to have an explicit subject (except in imperatives), for instance; I can’t write “Is necessary to have an explicit subject,” so I stuff in an it that has no meaning. It may not seem logical to have a pronoun with no referent, but consider that, from the view of our syntax, “if it has a sentence then it has a subject” is solid. Sometimes we grab and stuff on the fly – we may jam a word in the place where a word like it normally goes, even if in this case it’s a whole nother thing and what even were we thinking? This, too, comes from a simple if-then – just a little simpler than it might have been.

Another plea for logic comes when a word is pressed into service in a way that seems untidy. One I saw recently was an objection to using disconnect as a noun, as in “There is a real disconnect between the labourers and the management.” We don’t say “There is a connect between them,” we say connection, so it’s illogical not to say disconnection. Indeed, this is untidy, in the same way as it’s untidy that when my wife is at home I heat two servings of food and pour two glasses of wine, but when she’s not at home I heat one serving and open a beer (or go out for sushi). But our little untidinesses have reasons: my wife doesn’t drink much beer and doesn’t like sushi. And disconnect is an allusive use borrowed from electronics and telephony.

A line of communication is expected to remain connected, so there is no instance where we would say that it has experienced a connect. We grabbed a bit and stuck it where it fit, and in so doing made a metaphorical connection. There’s no need to construct a symmetrical positive use any more than there is a need for a 33-storey building to have 33 levels of basement. And there’s no need to disallow allusions just for the sake of tidiness – we don’t forbid lights on Christmas trees just because there are none on the house plants. If you want to make a connection, you make it; if you don’t, you don’t. That’s logical, no?

Some people also like to laugh at how “illogical” English words are. “Why do our noses run and our feet smell? Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? Why do we say a bandage was wound around a wound? How come you can object to an object?” OK, now tell me why these are illogical.

Every one of them comes from a well-motivated historical development founded on consistent principles: metaphor, ergativity, historical sense developments and standard compounding rules, phonological shifts, stress-based differentiation of nouns from verbs. In every case there was an if-then judgement based on analogy. It just happened not to be exactly analogous to some other if-then judgements, and it produced results that seem inconsistent when juxtaposed. I think that’s fine – why not have funny things? But more than that, it’s not even illogical. In every case, we got to it from “if A → A´, then B → B´.” They just happened to be local judgements made in the context of a big, multifarious, inconsistent world.

But it would be illogical to treat a multifarious, inconsistent world as though it were elegant and pervasively consistent, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t be well adapted. It would be like laying down a strict grid street plan for a very hilly city (and San Francisco knows how well that worked out). It wouldn’t be as much fun, either. And it might do real harm.

vexatious

There are those among us who oft wax litigious, not because they wish to convey justice or even because they carry a flag for a cause, but just because they wish to harass, harry, shake, and generally wear their opponents down. It may be a means of asserting personal dominance – the world has a back-drawer infestation of such pests – or it may be a way of silencing opponents or winning in business by draining the resources of others. Such cases, and such people, are vexatious.

That’s the recognized word, and it’s a good one. You know what vex is, I’m sure. In its shape and sound it even suggests the cross, squinty face one makes when subject to annoyance. We often use it to refer to objects and situations that senselessly annoy us, but in its first sense vexing is deliberately causing annoyance: a good synonym is harass. It is done to shake the person up and rub them the wrong way, disturb them, agitate them – that’s what Latin vexare means. It is most likely related to vehere, which means ‘carry’, which we see in convey and convex and also in vexillary ‘of or relating to flags’.

Those of us who think of vexation as a reaction to some irritant might assume vexatious means ‘disposed to be vexed’. In fact, it means ‘disposed to vex’ – i.e., ‘tending to cause vexation’. Certainly insensate objects and situations may be vexatious, for example the dreadful weather in which I recently drove to Montreal from Mont-Tremblant, the dreadful traffic on the roads, the dreadful lack of ploughing on the highways, the dreadfully unhelpful signage, the pasta-plate of roads around the airport, and the apparently pilgarlic “winter” tires on my rental car. But the word is best used for people who are deliberately obnoxious.

There are many ways a person may be vexatious; it is the quotidian sport of internet trolls and those “free speech” advocates who insist on their right not to convey the truth or bear the flag of justice but just to insult and irritate and maximally vex those they disdain, especially ones who can’t easily fight back. But vexatious has a special legal stature. It is an established term of art, and in some courts a judge may declare you to be vexatious and in so doing prevent you from bringing further suits unless you get express permission.

Of course courts are formal establishments with formal rules; speech in them is subject to explicit conventions and enforced restrictions. Other areas of interaction in society are not as explicitly governed; we communicate using courtesies and conventions that we tacitly agree on and cooperate in. Vexatious people abuse the cooperation and subvert the agreement; in the dance of communication, they are the ones wearing spike-soled shoes that damage the floor. Their “free speech” destroys the basis of speech in society; it claims a right to that which it negates. It insists on the cooperation of others while it is utterly uncooperative; it demands goodwill serve badwill; it breaks faith. Since the point of the right of free speech is the preservation and reinforcement of communication in society, vexatious communicators work to destroy what they claim to be building. Speech is like building bridges on bridges on bridges on bridges; vexatious speech is like driving demolition equipment onto those bridges to damage them. Speech is like a ball game; vexatious speech sets out to break the balls.

Most parts of society are not courts of law; we can’t, in declaring someone vexatious, force them to get permission before they can speak again. But though we may not be able to stop a vexatious person from talking, we don’t need to give them an audience. We don’t need to let spike-shoed dancers onto our floors, demolition machines onto our bridges, or ball-breakers onto our playing fields. Freedom of speech not only lets but expects us to nix the vexatious.

ramifications

In one of my essays for one of my seminars when I was getting my PhD, I wrote something about “ramifications accruing.” The professor, Laurence Senelick, wrote a comment there: “Can ramifications (branches) accrue?”

It was at that point that I learned what the literal reference of ramification was. This word had taken root in my mind years earlier, but its reach, as it spread through my synapses and along my neurons, had not before touched the tree its seed had come from.

That’s not so surprising, really. We always see it in phrases such as “the ramifications of this decision” and “this will have ramifications we can’t anticipate” and… let me pull some quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary: “The extensive ramifications of a conspiracy long prepared” (Walter Scott, Rob Roy); “Like all central truths, its ramifications are infinite” (G.D. Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, The Reign of Law); “Such are the ramifications of this complex civilization of ours” (P.G. Wodehouse, Bill the Conqueror). So inference tells a person that ramifications are implications, consequences, perhaps the ramparts and fortifications of a castle built on the foundations of our actions. What in ram would tell the average Anglophone it had anything to do with branches?

But branches it is, and we know that branches are not usually tidy and predictable. They fork off in all directions, and crook and curve and break like bronchioles, as though trees were the lungs of the air breathing the earth, and each splits into smaller ones, and those into still smaller, and you don’t know just where they will and won’t touch, or which will green and bear fruit.

There is something wild about branches; the woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but sometimes they are forbidding and always they are unruly. We have an adjective ramage (sounds like rummage but with ram) meaning (per OED) ‘wild, untamed, unruly, violent’ of an animal or a person – or a shrubbery. But branches can be trained and tamed too; they can be cut into topiary, but they can also be woven or swirled or…

A ramada is, after all, an open shelter made with branches. It comes from Spanish: rama ‘branch’ plus –ada a past participial suffix used to derive an adjective. I’m sure that however many of you have been in a ramada, quite a few of you have been in a Ramada: a chain of hotels with branches widely distributed. Sleeping in a Ramada is rather more ordinary and interior than sleeping in a ramada, which may have… ramifications.

Ramifications are everywhere. Not just trees have them; your lungs and nerves and circulatory system do too, as does lightning, as do rivers (when you view them in reverse), as do many more metaphorical things. We do not always appreciate them, but they appreciate – they increase over time. They compound. They crack like earth lightning – darkning, perhaps – into our squared-away worlds.

But they do not just reach. Although they stand relentlessly stark in winter, every spring is re-leaf time, and they fill the air with glories of green. Likewise with our figurative ramifications: every page of a book or a legal brief, every greenback, every piece of printed paper is a leaf of a ramification. Someone did something and it has come to this.

And this comes to you. As you go about your life, not noticing what you leave behind, what seeds you plant, they grow outside your window, tap on the glass, fill the air, send forth leaf after leaf, and when they are the most colourful, that is when it all will fall and the ramifications be laid bare. Do you see it there?

aloft

I live aloft, not in a loft apartment but in a lofty one: three times three times three floors above the pavement. I’ll often look up to my window as I approach from the street, and when I am up in my apartment I’ll often look up from the same window at still taller buildings nearby. Being aloft gives me a lift (as it should, since loft and lift are related); the regular hubbub below is left, and I am aloof as one afloat in the Luft (air, in German). The higher the fewer, you know.

What is aloft? It is relative: it is whatever is loftier than you. Look at the picture above: there’s a lamppost, its pinnacle reachable by an ambitious drunk; there’s a peak of a theatre building; there are towers, some higher than others, some closer than others. You can’t tell from the photo which is highest, so I’ll tell you: it’s the corrugated one on the far right, barely peeking in and summarily bested by the lamppost… until we change our point of view. From where I sit as I write this, I can step to the window and look far down at the lamppost, or tilt my head almost equally up to see the top of that tallest tower. (There’s a taller building, but it’s hidden. Taller still that that is a true tower, a half-kilometre in height; the tip of its needle top is barely perceptible in the photo, like a long blade of grass at the crook in the theatre roof.)

Half of the buildings you see there – the ones towards the right – are offices. But the other half, starting with the tall knife-shaped one, are dwellings.

Aloft, here, half a village shines, arrayed
In golden light; half hides itself in shade

That’s Wordsworth, waxing on an alpine hamlet, but these downtown mountains that we live in here are made of the same minerals, just more carefully arranged. And at the golden hour of dusk they do indeed shine half in golden light.

Such a word as aloft deserves a lofty diction, think you not? As we mount, striving against gravity, we separate ourselves from the quotidian; so too might we take it as cue to adduce lexemes and syntagms that are seldom seen in the street. This is the choice we make, we are told by Ronald Ross:

Heav’n left to men the moulding of their fate:
To live as wolves or pile the pillar’d State—
Like boars and bears to grunt and growl in mire,
Or dwell aloft, effulgent gods, elate.

(He says nothing of women; they were probably beyond his ken.)

But however lofty you are, there are others still loftier, less tied to the ground: larks, “the pear-shaped balloon,” “sailing clouds,” and “Thou orb aloft full-dazzling!” – those last three all from Whitman. Even other humans have untied and levitated. As aloof and alone as you are, there will still be another one who is beyond you.

Look again at that photograph.

Click on the picture, so you can see it at fuller size. Click again on the web page that opens. Look, there, just past the spire of the TD tower that grows its soft little fleece of steam: in the heart of the sky, there is a small airplane, straight-winged, scudding above the dusty downtown dollar-piles, aloft.