Tag Archives: word tasting notes

breth, brath, broth

There are some people whose every breath is wrath. They don’t merely stew; they are a seething broth of ire, ever at the boiling point. They are a bucket of gasoline looking for their perfect match. They are not just brash, they are brath, broth, full of breth.

These are old and disused words, breth and brath and this sense of broth. They all come from the same Old Norse: bráðr, ‘hasty, sudden, rash, passionate’. One might say ‘impetuous’. ‘Quick to anger’. All up in your Face-book. A-Twitter with rage. Except that no one has really used them for a bit over 500 years now.

That’s not that surprising. Breth, a noun meaning ‘fury’ or ‘rage’, sounds exactly like breath and while it can make neat wordplays – such as this line from a play written in 1500: “While I am in this breth, let me put him to death” – it is likely to cause confusion. True, a beautiful sight can take your breth away, but “fresh breth” may be misleading. Still, there could be some value in calling the raging trolls of the interwebs the breth-ren.

Broth, for its part, is of course going to land you in the soup. The broth we know is derived from brew just as sloth is from slow and death is from die. This other broth, an adjective meaning ‘impetuous, violent, wrathful’, has no origin in common with its doppelganger. And while it’s true that in some kitchens every day is a broth day, some may find it a bother to have to deal with both. But again, how could we not want to call a member of the breth-ren a broth-er? Aside from the fact that exactly no one would get the wordplay, that is. I won’t even try to anagram it productively into throb.

But brath! Well, now, that’s a word of its own. It’s even two words – the Scottish variant is braith. Brath is the northern English version, broth the southern, of the same word. In the south it’s a bubbling broth, in the north more of a hot bath, one that rhymes with wrath (or, in Scotland, wraith). And it has such a nice taste of brash. It gets that br in there, as in bratty and brusque and brutal and broken, and rhymes with psychopath and aftermath. And we could still make a wordplay with brathren and brather – which would remind us of their steam-powered blather.

threap

As you “SO?!” so shall you threap.

To threap is to make a threap, but not to make a threat – you are not talking of action, you are taking action, and the action is disagreement. You may threap a person, in which case you are rebuking or scolding the person; you may simply threap, in which case you are arguing, bickering, or wrangling about terms; or you may threap that something is so, in which case you are maintaining your position in the face of contradiction or doubt.

Let us imagine a case, let’s say a spokesperson, whom – to spice things up – we may call the Grim Threaper. He is representing some enthroned mammothrept who has not thruppence worth of thrift, but the Grim Threaper has heard that you have said as much, and he calls you out from the throng. He threaps you: you are a very naughty person for threatening the mammothrept’s reputation for thrift. You clear your throat and throw in some facts. He threaps: that is a manner of speaking, and besides the mammothrept did not mean what he said or say what he meant, and in any case he did not say what he said. Your temples start to throb but you thrust forth your evidence. He threaps that it is not so: the mammothrept is the chieftain of thrift. And so the Grim Threaper makes a threepeat, three threaps… but he may threap-eat yet when all is laid on the table (and why not – threptic has to do with eating and nutrition), so he ought to have put more honey on his tongue.

There are more ways you can use threap, too. You can threap someone out of something – wear them down with incessant argumentation. You can threap something upon someone – press it on them, urge that they accept it. You can threap someone down – prevail in discourse through threaping (“A man will say of a clamorous talker, he did not convince me, but he threaped me down” —Richard Winter Hamilton, Nugæ Literature, 1841; thanks to the OED for that and much of the rest of this information).

In short, threaping is badgering, bullying, talking a blue streak, and thereby prevailing or at least attempting to prevail. The word does not have the same bludgeoning bluntness as words that begin with b, and perhaps that is a weakness for modern use: thr can have driving force – thrusting, throwing, thrilling – but the vowel is too high (the same as in “three”) and thereby weak-seeming.

At any rate, you seldom see it. Well, I think it is nonetheless a useful word, one that can come in quite handy in our times. Allow me to insist and to persuade you…

distaff

This isn’t a word you see as often as you once would, but some writers seem to like it for some purposes. Here are a couple of recent hits from The New York Times:

Her apple-cheeked robustness seemingly hollowed out by the final curtain, Ms. Piper vaulted in a single performance to the top ranks of distaff talent in a town where women across the spectrum of age and experience reigned supreme in 2016. —Matt Wolf, “In a Year of Surprises on the London Stage, Women Held Pride of Place,” January 3, 2017

Trump is surrounded by a bitchy sewing circle of overweight men who are overwrought at the prospect of a distaff Clinton presidency. —Maureen Dowd, “Girl Talk at Trump Tower,” October 1, 2016

Another recent NYT hit refers to Batwoman as “a distaff crimefighter.”

Distaff is an old-fashioned or newspaperese word for ‘woman’ or ‘female’ or that sort of thing. Sometimes you’ll see references to “the distaff side.” Those who use it likely see it as a handy synonym to enlist in that texturbation they like to think of as “elegant variation” (also known as tawny-gourd-ism; see pontiff and temblor). It seems to be lacking in negative connotations or connections. I mean, what, exactly, is this word distaff anyway? What does it mean? Where does it come from? I’m here to ’splain it for you.

First off, the staff in distaff is the staff in staff, as in shepherd’s staff and flagstaff.

Next, although it is pronounced with a “short” i as in dis (so not “Di staff”), the di is not short for dis- or de-. Which means that distaff does not mean ‘without a staff’. No, it’s from Old English dise (also spelled dis), which is an old Germanic word referring to a bunch of flax for spinning. “Here, spin dis!” A distaff is a staff about 3 feet long that was used for holding flax or wool for spinning into thread. The spinner held the staff under the left arm and drew the flax or wool through the left fingers, and twisted it into thread with the right thumb and forefinger as it was wound onto a spindle.

Oops! Did I say spinner? Sorry, the word is spinster.

Does that sound familiar? Like, hmm, a word for an “old maid”? Yeah. Spinning, you see, was woman’s work – or, anyway, work for women who didn’t have a husband to take care of. Starting in the 1600s, spinster was even the official legal designation in England for a woman who was still unmarried. That was how her name was to be written: “Elizabeth Harris, of London, Spinster.” And of course every spinster had a distaff – after spinning wheels were brought in, the distaff was mounted on the spinning wheel rather than being held under the arm.

Have a look at the shirt you’re wearing. Presumably it’s made of fabric that is composed of threads woven together. Imagine every one of those threads being spun by hand (and then woven together with a loom, and the resulting fabric cut and sewn together by hand). Until the Industrial Revolution, that’s how it was done. It required a lot of very dull work. Badly paid dull work, if clothing was to be at all affordable. Work for women who had nothing better to do – because they weren’t allowed to do anything better. Like, you know, work on rockets.

That’s an anachronistic ha-ha, but the irony is that they did have rockets back when distaffs were used. Remember that spindle that thread was wound onto from the distaff? It was called a rocket. The space projectiles that came later were so named because of the resemblance of shape. (The distaff was also called a rock – different origin than rock as in rock climber or rock as in rock the cradle.)

Well, now women can work on the newer kind of rocket on the staff of NASA. Or, if they want, they can work on the older kind of rocket and rock. Or whatever else. I’m sure a few women – and maybe some men – spin because they like the craft of it. I’m also sure far more now go to “spinning classes” involving stationary bikes. Women have infinitely more things they can do than carry the distaff’s burden and be known as spinsters.

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.

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.