Tag Archives: word tasting notes


This word seems to communicate a blush-cheeked bareness, a rubbing of the ribs and a bald exposition. It has several ways it can be said: “ribbled,” “rib-bold,” “rib-alled,” “wry-balled.” They all boost its burlesque sense. It is the opposite of genteel, the opposite of lofty; it is a laugh from the gut that lands in the gutter.

Social class is essential to this word. Although people of great learning and high social stature may enjoy off-colour humour, they do so with a sense of a deliberate breach of the rules of their status, or with the understanding that their stature is such that they can enjoy such things without being counted among the…

…well, among the ribalds. This is what ribald first meant in English: a lowlife, a rascal, a vagabond, a guttersnipe. This can include a pillaging camp-follower in the retinue of an army, a person of loose morals, a louche jester, or just someone who absolutely will not stop telling dirty jokes and making lewd and irreverent remarks. It traces via Old French back to the Proto-Indo-European root *werp-, *werb-, making it a cousin of warped, rub, and wrap. Just gonna leave that there.

Anyway, the adjective followed on the noun and is now pretty much the only way it’s used. It usually modifies joke(s), humour, tales, laughter, remarks… you get the idea. It’s, what do we say, earthy. Like the people who work the earth or are covered with it, is the idea, I guess. Who are nothing like those with their eyes to the heavens, their thoughts in the empyrean.

Thing is, though, I’ve known lots of farmers and ranchers, and honestly, they’re not the people I would turn to first if I wanted to hear ribald humour. Actually they’re more often the people I would turn to if I wanted to avoid ribald humour or see repercussions meted out for it. I would go to them if I wanted to turn my eyes to the sky in reverent prayer. I mean, I’m sure that’s just an effect of the set of farmers and ranchers I know, but I grew up in rural Alberta, and I think they’re pretty representative. No, if I want rude jokes, I’ll do better to head to a university. Linguists aren’t bad for them. Theatre people are pretty good. But I think poets can really push the boundaries.

Poets? Sure. Poetry at its best exposes the raw nerves of life. A poet lives in the dirt and in the stars and finds they are made of the same thing. Ribald – and its French source ribaud, ribauld ‘scoundrel’ – makes me think of Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet who embodied much of the spirit of which I speak. Here is a thing he wrote to his friend Paul Demeny:

Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d’amour, de souffrance, de folie ; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n’en garder que les quintessences.

That means

The poet makes himself a seer through a prolonged, massive, and systematic disorder of all the senses. All the forms of love, of suffering, of madness: he seeks himself, he wrings out in himself all the poisons, to keep of them nothing but the quintessences.

The hour draws on now, but let me turn before bed to Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose name has nothing in common with ribald but who like Rimbaud knew her star was a blazing ball of dirt. You likely know her best for “Figs from Thistles: First Fig”:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

She lived a lively, ecstatic, exalted, ribald life, and it took its tolls – see “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

But you may find no truer embrace of the ribald life, finally, than in “The Penitent”:

I had a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
“And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I’ve been!”

Alas for pious planning—
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My Little Sorrow would not weep,
My Little Sin would go to sleep—
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!

So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, “One thing there’s no getting by—
I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I;
“But if I can’t be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!”




If it’s a sluggish, slushy day and you’re feeling beleaguered in the glare of the age, why not enlarge your lexicon with a garnish and regale your darling (or the lads or gals over lagers)? It is time to eslargish yourself and your tongue!

Eslargish? This must be one of those obsolete trouvailles picked like a meaty chicken bone from the lexical dumpster that is the Oxford English Dictionary, yes? Yes. The citations are from the 1400s, but why should that stop us? We’re not here to communicate with people right now. That’s the work of the daytime. Evenings are for merriment, amusement, fantasy, expansion, and regulated incoherence. Slosh a skosh of Scotch in a glass and declare tonight the night of the expanding mind. Knock back a Cognac and toast the ancient French, who lent the root eslargiss– to the English, then (like everyone else eventually) died and handed the language down and their descendants made it élargissement, verb élargir. But that all came from Latin ex plus largus, changed in its turn by time and mortality. Nothing stays the same. One may hope for eslargishment.

What does eslargish mean? What is it used for? It may look like an adjective, but it is a verb; when it was used, it meant ‘extend the range or scope of’ or ‘free [oneself]’ – i.e., be at large. If you eslargish yourself, you cast off your fetters. If you eslargish your vocabulary, you add words and forms to it.

They don’t all have to be words you use during the day, you know. My grandfather, a minister, had an extensive vocabulary replete with words unknown to his congregants; he reserved those for his prayers, because they were good words and God would understand them. If you do not pray, at least you can say eslargish to yourself as encouragement, perhaps while gargling in the morning.


As Aina and I were waiting for a subway train today, we read news headlines on the TV screen above the platform. We saw one about an incident in Florida where a police officer had to wrangle a 3-metre python. Whatever they meant by wrangle. What did they mean by wrangle?

I grew up in ranch country in Alberta, so wrangle is very familiar to me. I wore Wrangler jeans, saw Jeep Wranglers (though pickup trucks are more common vehicles for actual wranglers), and of course saw people wrangling horses and cattle. Wrangling involves an assortment of activities dedicated to getting those animals where they oughta be, but when I thought about that snake in Florida, I thought about the endgame of calf-roping: wrestling the critter to the ground and tying three of its legs together.

Obviously you can’t tie three of a snake’s legs together. You can wrestle with it, though, and maybe get tangled up with it. I mean, the dude could have used a stick and a bag or a pole and a net – in fact, that seems more likely – but to me that’s just, you know, catching or capturing. Wrestle just seems a kindred word to wrangle.

It’s not, though. Yes, it has the same –le suffix, which indicates ongoing repeated action. It also starts with wr. But plenty of Old English and Proto-Germanic words started with wr, and modern descendants of them still do: wreak, writhe, wretch, wriggle, write… No, wrangle is not related to wrestle. It is, however, related to wring and wrong.

Yes, all three words – wring, wrong, wrangle – come from the same old root, with different vowel grades (you know, as in stink, stank, stunk). That root has to do with opposition, contrariety, hostility, and similar things such as sourness. Wrong first meant ‘physically crooked or bent’ and from that gained a more abstract sense. Wring started with the ‘squeeze’ sense and over time gained the specific connotation of twisting (which even now is not absolutely required; a clothes wringer – I mean the machine – doesn’t twist the clothes, it presses them).

And wrangle didn’t first mean ‘control animals’. It comes from a sense meaning ‘struggle’ but, in the form wrangle (as opposed to wrang), it first meant ‘bicker, argue, debate’. Yup, if you see a mention of someone wrangling with someone else, as in arguing, that’s not a figurative reference to cattle; it’s the sense the word has had since at least the 1300s. In usages dating back to the 1600s, you can wrangle someone out of a possession or into a condition. The sense referring to managing horses and other critters dates back only to the end of the 1800s.

So, with that in mind, I get a different image of the officer wrangling with the snake. “Get in the bag!” shouts the officer. “No, you get in the bag!” the snake hissshouts back. “You’re out of line!” the officer says. “Out of line?!” the snake protests. “I am a line!”

But then it gets good, because the officer knows etymology and sees that the snake is crooked. “You’re wrong!” the officer says. And the snake… well, all the snake can do is tie itself up and declare, “I’m knot!” But then the officer can pick it up and wrangle it into a bag.


There is good proximity and bad proximity. There is closeness that makes you purr and closeness that makes you grrr. You may go out (say, to walk the poodle) and find yourself beset by oodles of rude dudes, rushing and brushing and pushing and crushing, and your nerves will curdle and something crude’ll escape your lips and you’ll want to do away with the whole brutal kit and caboodle. So what’ll you do? Maybe go home and cuddle up in bed with your loved one or your pet or both (or maybe they’re the same) and bill and coo like two doves in a nest, cozy and comfy. You will croodle.

What is croodle? Well, true, it’s not a new word, nor a current one, nor one that has ever been especially Canadian or American. It’s more of a Scottish one, and generally disused now. But so what. I like it, I want it, I am picking it up and cuddling it close to me like a crocheted teddy bear.

Croodleis a word for two actions, both of which doves do when they are happily nesting. One means ‘gather close together’ – as in ‘cuddle or snuggle’ or as in ‘cower or huddle’ (as, for instance, to escape the cold) – and is related to the word crowd. The other means ‘make a low murmuring sound’ – as in the cooing of a dove or something similar, quieter than crooning, perhaps even a purr. Yes, I’m sure a pile of kittens would be croodling in both ways… although I must admit the “oo” has more of a high sound to it, a tribble kind of treble.

Who could refuse such a goodly croodling?


How are you faring in this chill weather? In Toronto, anyone who rides or drives from neighbourhood to livelihood is in for a brisk experience the moment they step into the outside.

How cold is it? It depends on where you are, of course, but in Toronto it is scheduled to pass –18˚ Celsius within 24 hours. For you Americans, that’s below 0˚ Fahrenheit.

I say “for you Americans” because Americans are pretty much alone in the world in adhering to their non-metric measurement scales. While the rest of us deal tidily in decimal, Americans luxuriate in units more suited to measuring quidditch scores and potion portions at Hogwarts. Continue reading

celsitude, Celsius

It’s that season when the Celsius sits incessantly at unnecessarily insufficient celsitude. But in compensation we raise our spirits – well chilled as they may be – to much more suitable celsitude. And as the last year represented in many ways for many people a nadir, now that we have sung our gloria in excelsis, there is no direction to go but up, excelsior! And may we excel and accelerate.

What is celsitude? Height. And highness. It comes from Latin celsus, ‘lofty, high, sublime’. That root shows up also in excelsis, excelsior, and excel, but not accelerate (that comes from celer ‘fast, swift’ – which, by the way, is not related to celery). We don’t use celsitude much anymore (if we ever really did), and when we do, Oxford tells me, it is mainly for jokey effect. But why not have an attitude of excelling in the highest? No need to sit secluded. Take to the air, rise to the empyrean. To celsitude!

Where, we may hope, it will be warmer than it is now. In Toronto, where I live, the current forecast doesn’t see us crossing above zero for a fortnight at least. One easy hack for that would be to reverse the temperature scale: make freezing 100 and boiling 0. Then we would at least cool ourselves with lower numbers as it got hotter and warm ourselves with higher numbers as it got colder, so that no matter which way it went, something would be getting celsius. Continue reading


You know what discombobulation means, right? It’s a jokey term meaning ‘upset, confuse, put out of order’. It comes from a 19th-century American fad for fake-highfalutin words. Absquatulate (‘leave, get out’) is another such. Discombobulation starts with clear, well-known parts – dis indicating an undoing, com indicating joining or togetherness – and ends with ation, which makes it clearly a noun formed from a verb of doing or making, and if you know your Latin bits well you may also recognize the probably diminutive ul before that. But in the middle is this bob that is just… um a thingamabob. Probably the same bob as in thingamabob, even. The earliest form of discombobulate, seen in 1825, is discomboberate; in 1834 there’s a discombobracate. But by 1839 we were seeing discombobulation for the noun.

Anyway. The general logic of English derivational morphology tells us that if something can be discombobulated, it was probably previously combobulated, and it may by implication in the future be recombobulated (provided the discombobulation isn’t irreversible). Neither of those latter two is in any standard published dictionary, but so what? They’re no less understandable than discombobulated, and I for one am perfectly gruntled by them. Continue reading