Tag Archives: word tasting notes


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?


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.


I have been known to take a tipple or two. A quick quaff. A wee dram. A shot of hooch, a bit of booze, a tiny toddy, a sip of the sauce. I have a taste for the hard stuff; if there’s a problem, I can offer a solution… of 40% ethanol. I take not just firewater, of course, and similar spirits (a mug of moonshine, perhaps? but skip the rotgut); much as I like the malt, I will take that malt-and-hops beverage too. Who doesn’t like the pint? Or fizzy by the flute or bumper, or other sorts of Bacchus’s favourite beverage – set out the stemware and replenish it with juice of the grape. There are just so many ways to drink.

How fortunate that there are so many synonyms for drink. Or perhaps how unfortunate.

Something so loved yet so louche is bound to accumulate synonyms and euphemisms. We want to talk about it without talking about it; we want to be coy. A while back I said offhandedly that there must be more than 365 synonyms for drunk, and I have long since validated that claim (see? include the comments).

Which does not mean we have to use them all incessantly. We can talk about alcoholic beverages without using a different word for them every time. There is a fear in some circles of using the same significant word twice in close proximity (within a paragraph or two, say), and it seems so… writerly… to toss in variants. Some of these words seem to be in the language just so people who are afraid of repetition have another word (see temblor).

Tipple shows up when a writer wants a fresh word for ‘drink’, noun or verb. It has a bit of a different tone to it, but it has some cross-currents. It can sound as prim as a steeple, or as bare as a nipple; it may make you a bit tipsy (just a sample) or it may make you topple. It shows up more in certain kinds of context: favourite tipple, tipple of choice; a tiplpe or two, the odd tipple, the occasional tipple; a local tipple, a summertime tipple, a sunset tipple. If you search newspapers, you will probably note a preponderance of noun usages.

Which is entertaining. Because it’s a kind of backwash. In real life we could say the tipple makes the tippler, because until you’ve tippled you aren’t a tippler and you require tipple to tipple, but in the history of this word the noun shows up last – in the later 1500s – and the verb shows up a bit sooner – circa 1500 – but the word tippler is the earliest of the three, dating as far back as the late 1300s.

But… that –le suffix… and the agentive –er that’s obviously tacked onto it… how can you go backwards through that? Well, to be fair, the sense of tippler meaning ‘drinker’ has been dated back only to 1580. The earlier instances all refer to a retailer of ales and other intoxicating liquors. A tippler was first a person who sold alcoholic beverages. And tipple meaning ‘sell liquor’ is the sense that showed up in 1500; the sense meaning ‘drink’ appeared around 1560. So we may have had a backformation from tippler in one sense, and then a forward formation in the other. If there is a tippler, then there must be tippling; but tipple sounds like a verb of action (get to tip a bit now and again, for instance), so…

…so where does tippler come from? It’s not completely clear, but it’s not formed from tip. It can’t be, unless tip was around in common use for quite a while before anyone got around to writing it down. More likely is that tippler comes from a Norse dialect word relating to drinking little bits. But we’re not really sure. It’s all rather hazy.

And now we have this word in our collection. It’s not the standard word; it’s become a quaint curio, a cute toy, a fun little thing to trot out for guests or just when we want to feel a bit more… special. The English lexicon is like a liquor cabinet, and a very well stocked one at that. And every now and then you just want to bring out that odd little bottle of liqueur. It serves its intoxicating turn (with the extra kick for the synonym addict), and it has a different flavour too, and on top of all that it marks you out as a sophisticated collector and tippler.

fnarr fnarr

I challenge you to read today’s word and not snarf or snicker.

Oh. Too late?

What does fnarr fnarr look like it might be? You may be inclined to imagine that, notwithstanding its chortling appearance, it’s really the name of a fruit or other food, or perhaps a folk dance of some sort. Or some furry little arboreal critter.

Well nope. It is, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, an interjection “representing lecherous or half-suppressed laughter,” or an adjective describing something “characterized by crude sexual innuendo; vulgarly or salaciously humorous.”

Do we wonder whether this is some obsolete holdover from 18th-century Scotland or Restoration England? It is not; it is one of the newest entries in the OED, with a first citation from 1987. And the source is clearly identified (and not just by the OED): It’s a British comic for adults named Finbarr Saunders & His Double Entendres. The title character is a youth who finds something off-colour to snicker at in absolutely everything (a dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste!), and the adults around him give him more than enough material to work with. He emits a wide variety of sounds of suppressed laughter in reaction; examples include (in all caps since the lettering in the comic is, as in most comics, in all caps) GRA! GRA!, YOOP! YOOP!, SNIT! SNIT!, WURP! WURP!, FOFF! FOFF!, AROOGA! AROOGA!, BIP! BIP!, YURK! YURK!, SPROOF! SPROOF!, PLEEB! PLEEB!, BOOF! BOOF!, and of course FNARR! FNARR!

The emotivity of the utterance is conveniently expressed with reduplication (in the ordinary tongue, that means you know he’s excited because it comes twice). Nearly all the words have some indication of stifling: a back vowel (/u/ or /o/ or similar), a retroflex (/r/), a lip-biting fricative (/f/).

These expressions haven’t all equally caught on. But fnarr fnarr has. It probably doesn’t hurt that fnarr can be contracted from Finbarr, but it is particularly effective in its expression; it’s a very good representation of a partially stifled snorting chuckle of a basely lecherous kind, a har that can’t be smothered by a pillow. It has a certain animality to it, too – dog owners probably recognize it as a sound their pet has made while contending with a chew toy or other plaything. It has made various appearances in the British popular press (music review magazines, for instance), and was helpfully noted by the Guardian in 1990. It sometimes shows up reduced to fnar fnar or just fnarr.

Not every double entendre is fnarr fnarr, though, just the obviously crude and crass ones. I have often said that a word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. I do love a good double entendre. But good is the word to watch here. It is possible for innuendo to be refined. Wit is like cane syrup: it can be heavy and sticky and hard to swallow, the sort of thing you can’t wait to rinse off, but if you refine it and dry it out you will get some sugar.

Oh, go ahead and say it.


“Oh, you’re here to install?” my coworker Amy said to our sysadmin today. “Great! I’m just gonna vamoose.”

Vamoose! Get out! It’s been like forever since I’ve heard that word. It’s one of those colloquial western-Americanisms you hear in the same places as gulch. You get a sense of the typical context from a common phrase that uses it: vamoose the ranch. Which has the same general sense as the vulgar French fous le camp and echoes of the same sounds. But you don’t picture the same people saying them.

What a sound vamoose has, too. Like someone disappeared lickety-split and left a dust of bits of other words: vanish, scram, move it, cut loose. It hits the scene with the va-va-voom of a sports car and in the next move disappears down the tracks like a caboose. And yet it has the obtrusiveness of a moose. (It doesn’t have the antlers, though. You’d have to stick the m on top of the v.)

You may already know where this word comes from. In the earlier half of the 1800s, English-speaking cowboys often saw their Spanish-speaking counterparts in the American southwest, and they picked up a few words from them, like canyon, rodeo, and lasso. Our word vamoose comes from Spanish vamos, ‘let’s go’. It has something else in common with lasso: an unstressed Spanish /o/ sound has been converted to a stressed /u/ pronunciation (the spelling of lasso doesn’t reflect that change, though). There’s something about that “oo.” When do you vamoose? Maybe when you’re a dude in cahoots with some galoot who looted lots of moola and you have to put your boots on the route or they’ll shoot you.

It’s a versatile word, vamoose; it can get around. It serves as a verb both transitive – “He vamoosed the jail” – and, more commonly, intransitive – “Are you going to vamoose? I think we should vamoose.” One way you can’t use it is to mean the first-person plural imperative ‘let’s go’, though: If you say “Vamoose!” the hearer will understand ‘scram!’ as in a second-person imperative.

Go figure. When we got it out of Spanish, it got out of the Spanish sense as it got out of the Spanish form. Well, we got out of it what we wanted to get out of it, and then we got out.


For me, there’s hardly a more western word than gulch. It immediately brings to mind pictures of cowboys on horses riding in – or towards – a deep dry ravine. The horses’ hooves make sounds as they brake against the gravel downslope: “gulch, gulch gulch”; a bad guy is shot off his horse and hits the dirt: “Gulch!” And afterwards the cowboys are thirsty and gulp some water to quench their thirst…

Funny, though, I don’t associate gulch with drinking. Ravines, yes; falling, yes; but not drinking, even though “gulch” is a perfectly reasonable-sounding word for gulping something cold and fresh to quench your thirst. Other people have thought so. When gulch first showed up in English in the 1200s, it was a verb meaning ‘swallow or devour greedily’ (per the OED), and from that sense there was a noun gulch current in the early 1600s – it has since bitten the dust – meaning ‘glutton or drunkard’. But there was also a noun gulch meaning ‘heavy fall’ that showed up in the later 1600s, and a verb gulch meaning ‘fall heavily’ that followed on that in the 1800s.

The sense we all know now, though, showed up in US English in the early-mid 1800s. There was more of a need for it in the sere and dusty west than in the verdant east, so it’s hardly surprising that it has cowboy associations. It is also associated with gold miners – the OED lists a number of gold-rush terms such as gulch-diggings, gulch-gold, gulch-mine, gulch-washing, and gulch-man.

The gold rush today, of course, is not so literal. If you go out west and find yourself in a gulch with gold, it will more likely be Glitter Gulch, the casino strip on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. But there’s more gold to be dug farther east now: the corridor outside the meeting room of the Ways and Means Committee in the Capitol in Washington, DC, is nicknamed Gucci Gulch for all the lobbyists who loiter there.

One thing’s for sure: if you’re in a gulch you’re less likely to find culture and more likely to meet a vulture. But if westerns have taught us one thing, it’s that greed comes to a bad end: follow your gluttony for gold into a gulch and the gulch will devour you… and belch dust. Ouch!


“Celadon,” I explained to my niece Evangeline, “is the colour you get if you cross celery and a mastodon.”

Which, really, is almost true: if you were to look at the bedsheets Evie’s mother was considering, you would agree that they were a pale greyish-green, although really more towards cactus than celery. (The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “a pale shade of green resembling that of the willow” but many a Canadian would probably sooner associate it with goose poop.) But I was quick to clarify that that was not the actual origin of the word. (I think I was quick to. I don’t intentionally fill children’s minds with easily falsified confections.)

What is the origin? It’s nothing to do with the salad on your plate, happily (the last salad I ate of that colour forced a pre-emptive review shortly after). It also has nothing to do with teeth – the suffix that connectes beasts with teeth is –odon, as in mastodon, or –odont, as in “O don’t show me those awful green teeth again.”

Nor does it have to do with Celoron, which is a town (legally a village – in New York, a town is a subdivision of a county, not a civic unit like a village or city) next to Jamestown, New York, on Chautauqua Lake, not so far from the stamping grounds of my mother’s salad days. Celoron isn’t much of a muchness now, but it’s where Lucille Ball grew up, and it used to have one heck of an amusement park. Look at this:

(Coincidentally, I’m sure, that film has a bit of a celadon cast to it.)

Where did Celoron get its name? For a while I was under the impression it was from the roller-coaster – that does seem like a name for a roller-coaster, doesn’t it? A thing that accelerates? Sort of like Celeron, which is a kind of microprocessor made by Intel – for all I know, you may be viewing this with the aid of one. But no, the roller-coaster wasn’t named the Celoron; it was called the Greyhound. The village was named after a French officer who explored the region, staked French claims, hectored English settlers, and alienated some of his Iroquois travelling companions: Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville. After lumbering about like some mastodon for a while, he finished up in Montréal.

He had nothing to do with celadon.

No, celadon relates to something massive and historical and maybe a bit hairy, but it’s not a mastodon; it has its ups and downs, but it’s not a roller-coaster; it comes from France, but it’s not an explorer… It’s a book. A series of books. A novel of some 5400 pages in six parts, published between 1607 and 1627, even more digressive than this word tasting note. Its author: Honoré d’Urfé. Its title (and eponymous heroine): L’Astrée. Its hero: her lover, a shepherd named Céladon, who was as fond of wearing pale green ribbons as the later fictional heroines Trilby and Fedora were of wearing hats. The name Celadon was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where it is borne by two separate chaps (one in book V, one in book XII) who have in common that they appear just for the purpose of being slaughtered in the same sentence as they are first (and last) named, a rather shorter fictional course than the later French name-bearer.

It happens that d’Urfé’s novel was very popular around the time that jade-green glazed pottery from China first hit the market in France. Some suggest that the pottery was originally called Saladin, not because you put salad in it (and let us not speak again of salad of the colour celadon) but because of some historical association with the sultan of that name. But one way or another, it – the colour and the pottery – ended up with the name of d’Urfé’s green-ribboned shepherd. And the colour is now used on other things, such as kitchen cupboards, bathroom walls, and bedsheets.

And if you have something celadon among your possessions and you do not fancy it, you can always celadon ebay.