Category Archives: Words


The [Saharan] dust particles provide nuclei for the formation of ice crystals in clouds above the rain forest and so help to enhance or maintain precipitation over the Amazon rain forests. Equally important, trace elements within the dust such as nitrates, phosphorous [sic], and potassium are a major source of plant nutrients.

Martin Williams, When The Sahara Was Green (2021)

The word in red should, of course, be phosphorus, the name of a chemical element vital to plant growth. The error will no doubt have slipped past a routine spellcheck, because phosphorous is also a word, just not the word required—it’s an adjective meaning “pertaining to, or rich in, phosphorus”. It also has a specific meaning in chemistry, in which it is contrasted with phosphoricphosphorous acid having a different chemical formula from phosphoric acid, for example.

This is the sort of slip that would normally be picked up by a good subeditor or proofreader, but I see this misspelling of phosphorus fairly frequently. There are a few other words that fall victim to the same kind of error. Here’s one I picked up in the very next book I read:

Erosion occurring on the outside of [river] bends pulls loose the alluvial deposits. Gravel, sand and soil are transported farther downstream, creating callouses [sic] of new terrain, overlapping on the inside of bends, redirecting flow and exaggerating curvature.

Patrick Baker, The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014)

This should be calluses, referring to the patches of hardened and thickened skin we develop in areas of frequent wear and tear. Again, callouses slips past the spellchecker because it’s a perfectly valid verb, referring to the process of causing calluses. And callous is both a verb and an adjective, so will again go undetected.

To this common misuse of phosphorous and callous, we can add mucous (for mucus) and humous (for humus). In all of these cases, an adjective ending in -ous is mistakenly used instead of a noun ending in -us. Which is actually rather odd, given that -us is a perfectly familiar ending for English words derived from Latin, whereas -ous is a vanishingly rare among English nouns. The few examples that do occur tend to be obvious foreign loanwords—there’s burnous (a hooded cloak, Arabic); nous (common sense, Greek), snous (powdered tobacco, Dutch); couscous (an alleged foodstuff, Arabic via French); houmous (Middle Eastern dip, Arabic again, often spelled hummus). The only -ous noun I can think of that looks like a conventional English word is scabious, a flowering plant with a name derived from a French adjective. So there’s not much precedent in English for -ous nouns; whereas a search of my electronic copy of the Oxford English Dictionary turns up a whopping 5640 hits for adjectives ending in -ous. Some of those will be duplicates, but still—the -ous suffix should scream ADJECTIVE! to a native English speaker.

But back to phosphorus. Before it was the name of a chemical element, it was a name for the planet Venus when it appeared in the morning sky. The name Phosphorus is Latin, but derives from Greek phosphoros, “light bearer” or “light bringer”. The latter translation seems appropriate, since when Venus rises as the morning star, the sun is not far behind.

It was also a word used by 17th century scientists to designate any plant, animal or mineral that could be induced to glow without heat—they were all called phosphori. Chemists devoted a lot of effort to producing chemical phosphori, which were often named after their discoverer. So we have Canton’s Phosphorus (calcium sulphide) and Homberg’s Posphorus (calcium chloride), among others. The phosphorus that turned out to be the element we now call phosphorus was discovered by the alchemist Hennig Brand in 1669, after boiling a very large quantity of urine. He had managed to produce the unstable form of phosphorus called “white phosphorus”, which glows in the dark as it combines with atmospheric oxygen.

As the processes underlying the various glowing substances came to be better understood, a more precise vocabulary was built up. Anything producing light without heat was designated luminescent, and the kind of luminescence could be stipulated with a prefix—bioluminescence comes from living organisms, chemiluminescence from chemical reactions, and photoluminescence is induced by exposing a substance to light. Photoluminescence is divided into two categories, one fast and one slow. The fast one is fluorescence, in which a substance absorbs a high energy photon and then almost immediately emits a photon of somewhat lower energy—fluorescent dyes are used in, for instance, “hi-vis” safety jackets, which absorb ultraviolet light and then emit visible light. The word derives from the name of the mineral fluorite, which can be induced to glow in this way. The slow form of photoluminescence is phosphorescence, in which a substance absorbs light energy when illuminated, but releases it only slowly, so that it can glow in the dark. So the name is a reference to the various “glow-in-the-dark” phosphori of the early chemists, rather than to the element phosphorus, which is chemiluminescent.

That’s a neat modern scientific classification, but in common usage the noun phosphorescence, the adjective phosphorescent and the verb phosphoresce are all still philosophically connected to all those various unclassified phosphori of 17th century science—anything that glows in the dark can be described as phosphorescent. In particular, the glow produced in the sea by tiny bioluminescent organisms is commonly called phosphorescence. This drives marine biologist Edith Widder wild. In her book about bioluminescence, Below The Edge Of Darkness (2021), she writes:

Phosphorescence is not bioluminescence, despite how often you hear the words equated. It’s a very common misconception that has been repeated so many times it borders on a disinformation campaign.

It’s not really a misconception at all, though—just a conflict between long-standing common usage and newer scientific usage, something which is widespread in the sciences.* So I’d guess Widder was left unimpressed by the title of Julia Baird’s recent book, which takes the experience of swimming in a bioluminescent sea as a metaphor for “flashes of life in the middle of the dark, or joy in difficult times”. It was, of course, entitled Phosphorescence (2020)—the persistence of the old usage is what lets the metaphor work, while insisting on scientific precision would have killed it dead.

There’s more to write about the word phosphorus, but I’ll come back to it another day.

* Widder undermines her position of authority a little, for me at least, by repeatedly describing bioluminescent organisms as “neon-blue”. Neon is the gas responsible for the classic orange colour of decorative gas-discharge tubes—it’s mercury that glows blue. The common usage of the word neon to indicate “a particularly vivid colour” is (ahem) a very common misconception that has been repeated so many times it borders on a disinformation campaign.

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 2

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

Last time, I introduced the concept of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, which I abbreviated “HG” to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic (“SG”). I did so in the context of a comic poem entitled “The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue“, which appeared in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897, probably written by the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. It’s a sort of puzzle poem, in which Gaelic hill names are rhymed with English words that have been spelled to match the Gaelic—serving to obscure the English meanings unless the reader knows the customary Hillwalkers’ Gaelic pronunciation of the hill names.

This time, I’m going to decode Hinxman’s poem a couplet at a time, revealing the “hidden” English words, and discussing the relationship between the Scottish Gaelic and Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. As a reference for the correct Gaelic pronunciation (or, at least, one dialectic version of the correct pronunciation) I’ll add, where possible, links from each hill name to the corresponding page on the Walkhighlands website, where a Gaelic speaker pronounces and translates the names.

So here we go:

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snow,

This is Beinn an Dòthaidh, the last word of which sounds like “doh-hay” in SG, but usually more like “doughy” in HG. However Hinxman, in omitting the Gaelic definite article “an”, seems to be invoking a recorded local pronunciation, “ben doe”—see, for instance, Frank Alcock’s article, “A Matter of Look”, in the Fell and Rock Journal of 1972.

And nothing will stay him
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;

This is most probably Sgùrr a’ Mhàim, which was listed as “Sgòr a’ Mhaim” in the first version of Munro’s Tables. There seems to be no reason to omit the Gaelic article “a’” on this occasion, apart from scansion. This is often “skoor uh viym” in HG, which is a good approximation to the SG heard in my link, but one also hears an English interpretation put on the “ai” diphthong, giving “skoor uh vame”, as in Hinxman’s rhyme. (See, for instance, the cheerfully titled “Give Gaelic a Go!” section of the Forestry Commission’s guide Explore The Glens Around Fort William.)

If he’s long in the leg he
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,

The HG “craig meg-ee” is a pretty good match for the SG pronunciation of Creag Meagaidh.

Or, job that is harder,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.

This is a convoluted one. The abbreviation of “corrie” seems to be for scansion. The beautiful corrie east of Creag Meagaidh was recorded as Coire Ard Dhoire on the Ordnance Survey six-inch map of 1870, meaning “corrie of the high copse”, which would be pronounced in SG as something like “corr-yuh art ghorr-yuh”. But it seems that the local pronunciation had condensed the Gaelic, because the OS Name Book originally transcribed the corrie’s name as “Ardair”, which was then edited to read “Ard Dhoire”, presumably on etymological grounds. By 1903, the OS had plumped for “Ardair”, and it’s been that way ever since. You can hear a Gael pronounce “Ardair” on Walkhighlands’ page for the hill Stob Poite Coire Àrdair, which overlooks the corrie. Notice that the person speaking the name uses a “sibilant r” in the pronunciation of “rd”, turning “Àrdair” into “ars-tuhr”. But HG avoids this complication, and makes the corrie sound like “ardour”.
The “posts” are an array of gullies on the south-west face of the corrie wall, which is often called the Post Face, and the rim of this face has been labelled Puist Coire Àrdair (“Posts of Corrie Ardair”) by the Ordnance Survey.

He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest way

The SG pronunciation of Beinn Eighe gives it a second syllable, with the final “e” being pronounced as a short neutral vowel. English rarely has such a sound at the end of a word, so HG omits it, giving Hinxman his rhyme with “way”.

If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blue.

The “bh” is silent in SG Sgùrr Dubh, and in HG.

Very grand is the view he
Will get from Meall Buidhe,

The SG pronunciation of Meall Buidhe finishes with another of those short neutral vowels, making buidhe sound like “boo-yuh”. HG on this occasion errs on the side of over-emphasizing the terminal vowel, producing “boo-ee”.

But more will he see
From Bruach na Frithe.

There’s another of those terminal neutral vowels to Bruach na Frithe, and the “th” has an “h” sound—so “free-hih” in SG. HG ignores these subtleties, making frithe into “free”.

Then for sport that is royal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,

“Beinn Laoghal” was used on the OS six-inch map of 1878; by 1908 this had become Ben Loyal. The old form seems to have been an attempt to produce a Gaelic etymology for what was originally a Norse name (though the exact Norse meaning is debated). In SG the name is rendered Beinn Laghail, and you can hear it pronounced in my Walkhighlands link. The HG pronunciation accords with the modern spelling.

And surely will strive
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,

The “mh” at the end of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh, is pronounced “v”, and a silent “dh” separates two vowel sounds in chlaidheimh. So SG sounds like chly-iv. HG tends to merge the two syllables, leaning towards “clive”.

And gaze from afar
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.

The OS was rendering this hill as both Beinn Airidh Charr and Beinn Airidh a’ Char (one “r”) on maps available to Hinxman, who appears to have gone for a hybrid version in order to get the rhyme with “afar” while being able to distort the spelling. The OS subsequently settled on Beinn Airidh Charr until some time after the Second World War, when they shifted to the current spelling, Beinn Airigh Charr.

To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an hour,

This seems to be a typographical error for Stob Ghabhar. Hinxman here uses the classic HG pronunciation of ghabhar as “gow-er”, invoking a hard “g”, a silent “bh” and rounding the first “a”. Some HG speakers choose to retain the “bh”, saying “gav-er”. Interestingly, the Gaelic speaker at Walkhighlands pronounces ghabhar is if it were ghobhar (“goer”, but with a fricative initial “g”)—acknowledging, I think, its derivation from gobhar, “goat”.

But considerably less
The ascent of Carn Eas.

No Walkhighlands pronunciation for this Top of Ben Avon, but the SG pronunciation of eas, “waterfall”, can be heard at the Faclair Beag Gaelic dictionary—click the loudspeaker icon next to the top entry on the left in my link. It’s closer to “ace” than Hinxman’s HG version, “ess”.

Now one cannot conceal
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol

Hinxman had bad timing, here. “Sgriol” was the phonetic transcription used by OS maps of the time, but this was later revised to Gaelic Beinn Sgritheall, which would have allowed him a more elaborate spelling of “conceal”. The SG pronunciation gives the “th” an “h” sound— “skree-hal”. HG tends to ignore this, producing “skree-uhl” or even “skreel”.

Are hardly as sheer
As the crags of Carn Bheur,

Another change of spelling by the Ordnance Survey. This was Càrn Bheur on Hinxman’s maps, but changed to Càrn Bheadhair by 1902. There seems to be some doubt as to whether this name derives from Gaelic beur, “pinnacle”, or beithir, “serpent”. Despite its steep crags, this isn’t a prominent enough summit to have a Walkhighlands entry. The lenited Gaelic bheur would be pronounce “vee-uhr”. I’ve never heard the name of this hill pronounced in HG, but Hinxman’s “veer” would be a normal enough evolution.

Nor can one maintain
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin

Another apparent typographical error—the OS has always rendered this Beinn Mheadhoin (though very old maps sometimes mark it as “Ben Mean”). In SG it is “vee-un” or “vee-an”, but HG has worn it down to “vane”.* (Indeed, there’s a Ben Vane in Arrochar with the same Gaelic derivation.)

Surpasses the view he
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

An easy one to finish on. This hill is now more commonly known by its Anglicized spelling, Ben Lui, which reflects its pronunciation.

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.

* I was once sternly “corrected” on my pronunciation of Beinn Mheadhoin, by two worthies with posh Morningside accents who were sitting outside Derry Lodge as I passed by.
“Oooh, you’re walking exceedingly quickly,” called one, in rounded tones that would not have disgraced Miss Jean Brodie. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
I told them, giving Mheadhoin its two-syllable Scottish Gaelic pronunciation. They smiled patronizingly: “You mean Vane,” they assured me.
As I walked off without replying, one said loudly to the other: “He won’t last another mile, going at that rate.”

(Be the first)

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 1

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

The pronunciation of Gaelic hill names is fraught with difficulty for the non-Gael. One problem is the striking way in which some consonants are not pronounced at all. This is the Gaelic phenomenon of lenition, in which the addition of an “h” to a consonant changes and softens its pronunciation. Some lenited consonants, particularly “dh” and “gh”, have a tendency to disappear entirely when they appear towards the end of a word. More vexingly, when “bh” appears in a similar position it is sometimes pronounced (as “v”), and sometimes omitted—and the practice varies not only between words, but between dialects of Gaelic. So you can hear the second-person plural pronoun sibh pronounced “shiv”, “sheev” or “shoe”, for instance.* The “mh” pair is also sounded as a “v”, but rarely disappears; “th”, on the other hand, can either vanish or sound like “h”.

Then there are the vowels, which sometimes appear in clusters unfamiliar to English speakers, which sometimes indicate sounds not present in English, which are sometimes used to alter the quality of neighbouring consonants in unfamiliar ways, and which tend to reduce to short, simple sounds towards the end of a word—either a short neutral vowel or a short “ih” sound.

This tendency for consonants to disappear and vowels to collapse as one nears the end of a Gaelic word led one early (English-speaking) writer to remark:

[T]he terminations, where they exist, are so much curtailed, and in practice slurred over and cheated of their proper value in such a fashion, that for the common purposes of social communication they scarcely seem to exist.

Handbook for Travellers in Scotland, 4th Edition (1875)

Monoglot English speakers, confronted with disconcerting Gaelic orthography, tend to pass through three distinct stages in their Scottish hillwalking lives. First, there’s the nervous pointing at the map phase (“We’ll climb … um … this one here”). Then there’s the treat it like it’s English phase, usually delivered in an apologetic mumble (“Have you been up, um, Sgurr Nan Keith-Ream-Han?”). Then there’s the slow acquisition of “standard” Anglicized versions of the hill names, either from walking guides or other walkers. But Hillwalkers’ Gaelic (which I’ll abbreviate “HG”) is often some distance from the original Scottish Gaelic (“SG”)—there’s a strong tendency to bend Gaelic vowel sounds towards English norms, to ignore unfamiliar Gaelic colouring of the consonants, and to either drop or overemphasize short terminal vowels—Gaelic has a lot of words that end with an unstressed schwa vowel (like a little “uh”); English, very few.

So HG is a rendering of SG in which the vowels and consonants are made to sound more like English (often influenced by the English-speaker’s interpretation of the Gaelic spelling). Have a listen below, for instance, to Sorley MacLean’s Scottish Gaelic pronunciation of Aonach Eagach in an episode of The Munro Show, and then wait for a few seconds to hear Muriel Gray’s rendering of the same name in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. (Then turn the video off again, or you’ll go mad. Seriously.)

MacLean says /ɯːnəx ekəx/, starting with an unrounded vowel that doesn’t occur in English, using short neutral vowels in the second syllables of each word, and employing a soft “k” sound for the “g”; but Gray says /anax iɡax/, which is the standard HG pronunciation—simple Scottish front “a” sounds throughout, apart from an “ee” at the start of eagach where MacLean has an “ay”, followed by a hard “g” instead of his “k”. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about this—it’s just what always happens to foreign words when they’re imported into another language. And any Scottish hillwalker who was ill-advised enough to claim to have traversed the “oenuch aykuch” would find themselves swiftly put right: “Do you mean the annach eegach?”

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic was essentially invented in two stages—first by Ordnance Survey surveyors, who sought out a few locals (often literate landowners and ministers) and then did their best to transcribe what they heard into their regional Name Books; then by a succession of Victorian climbers and walkers, who reached a sort of gentleman’s agreement about the “standard” names of the things they climbed.

I was prompted to write about all this when I happened on a poem in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal for 1897 (Vol.4 p.238), which I reproduce here on the assumption that it’s long out of copyright, and in any case freely available from the SMC’s own website. While being entertaining and/or puzzling in its own right, it can also tell us a lot about the difference between Hillwalkers’ Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic.

The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue

Oh, a terrible tongue is the tongue of the Gael,
And the names of his mountains make Southrons turn pale;
It’s ill to pronounce them, to spell them is worse,
And they’re not very easy to hitch into verse.

A mountain’s a mountain in England, but when
The climber’s in Scotland, it may be a Beinn,
A Creag or a Meall, a Spidean, a Sgòr,
A Carn or a Monadh, a Stac, or a Torr.

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snothaidh,
And nothing will staim
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;
If he’s long in the leagaidh
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,
Or, job that is hardhoire,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.
He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest weighe
If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blubh.
Very grand is the vuidhe
Will get from Meall Buidhe,
But more will he sithe
From Bruach na Frithe.
Then for sport that is raoghal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,
And surely will straidheimh
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,
And gaze from afarr
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.
To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an abhar,
But considerably leas
The ascent of Carn Eas.
Now one cannot conciol
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol
Are hardly as sheur
As the crags of Carn Bheur,
Nor can one mainteadhoin
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin
Surpasses the vaoigh
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

And besides the above there are dozens which I’m
Unable at present to put into rhyme;
Whilst most of these hills, it’s no libel to say,
Are easier climbed than pronounced, any day!


I’m grateful to Dave Hewitt for identifying “L.W.H.” as (most likely) the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. (His middle name was “Wordsworth”, which seems almost appropriate.)

Next time, I’ll go through the middle part of the poem a couplet at a time, elucidating the various hills, Gaelic names and linguistic acrobatics involved.

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.

* This tendency to pronounce a terminal “bh” as “oo” explains why the hill with the Gaelic name Beinn Mheanbh is commonly known as Ben Venue.

Epicaricacy: Part 2

ɛpɪkærˈɪkəsɪ / ɛpɪˈkærɪkəsɪ

epicaricacy: malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others

Detail from "Return To The Abbey" by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)
Click to enlarge
Detail from “Return To The Abbey” by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)

What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet in more than one such a word is found. […] In the Greek ἐπιχαιρεκακία, in the German, ‘Schadenfreude’. Cicero so strongly feels the want of such a word, that he gives to ‘malevolentia’ the significance ‘voluptas ex malo alterius’ [i. e., makes ‘ill-will’ mean ‘joy in another’s ill fortune’], which lies not of necessity in it.

Richard Chenevix Trench, The Study Of Words (1851)

In my previous post about the rare English word epicaricacy, I traced its history and discussed some other words that use the Greek epi- prefix. This time, I’m going to deal with English words derived from the other components of epicaricacy—Greek kakos, “evil”, and khairo, “to be glad”.

Kakos has spawned a fairly large number of words for bad things of various sorts in English, but with the exception of cacophony, “bad sound”, most are quite obscure.

If you are cacopygian, you are possessed of ugly buttocks*—which might make you cacochymic, “ill-humoured”. Cacodoxy is the state of having wrong opinions—the opposite of orthodoxy. Cacœconomy is bad management, particularly of finances; cacotechny is bad art; a cacoethes is a bad habit; cacopathy is a bad or painful disease; and cacophagy is bad eating—the wrong food, or not enough food.

Something cacodorous smells bad—an example of which is the poisonous metallo-organic compound arsendimethyl, As2(CH3)4, which is possessed of such a repellent garlic odour that it was given the common name cacodyl.

A cacodæmon is an evil spirit. By association of ideas, Robert Hooper’s New Medical Dictionary of 1811 listed the word as a medical synonym for nightmare. He also defined cacosphyxia as a “disordered or bad state of the pulse”, reminding me that asphyxia is literally translated as “no pulse”—which was its original meaning before it was co-opted to refer to the process of suffocation. On which usage the Oxford English Dictionary notes wearily:

It indicates a curious infelicity of etymology that the pulse in asphyxiated animals continues to beat long after all signs of respiratory action have ceased.

Cacology is a bad choice of words, whereas a cacemphaton is a swear-word, and a caconym is a rude name. Cacography is bad handwriting, and a cacophemism is an unfairly harsh description. Finally, cacoëpy is bad pronunciation—which has a certain irony, given how difficult it is to figure out how to pronounce that word.

Khairo has fewer relatives in English than kakos, and those there are have followed independent routes into English from a cluster of Greek words related to khairo. The verb khairo meant “to be glad”, “to be cheerful”, or “to enjoy [something]”. Epikhairo was “to rejoice at [something]”, from which the Greeks derived epikhairekakia, “rejoicing at misfortune”, the origin of our word epicaricacy. (There was also epikhairagathos, “rejoicing at good events”, but that seems not to have produced an English equivalent.)

Eukharisteo meant “to give thanks”, and in the Greek of the New Testament that verb featured prominently in the story of the Last Supper. Here’s the King James translation of the relevant verses in Luke 22:

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:  
For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.

It’s the recurrent use of the verb eukharisteo in this story that led to the name Eucharist being applied to the Christian ceremony of sharing bread and wine, in ritual commemoration of the Last Supper. Charister is an obsolete word for a song of thanksgiving.

Kharis, in Greek, referred to the spiritual sensation of being in a state of grace, of being blessed—the sort of state that would make anyone rejoice. Kharisma was the gift of such grace, and the original meaning of the English word charisma referred to a “God-given” gift or talent. Only in the twentieth century did it take on its current meaning, designating an ability to inspire devotion or enthusiasm. The original meaning is preserved in those Christian churches described as charismatic, which practise speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy.

Kharientismos meant “gracefulness of style”, and it has given us the useful but largely disused word charientism—the ability to impart unpleasant information in a soothing and pleasant way.

Finally, there is the herb the Greeks called khairephullon, “joy leaf”, presumably because it could be used to perk up the taste of a spring salad, or perhaps because it was considered to be effective against gout. This became chærephylla in Latin, cærfille in Old English, and finally chervil in modern English. As one of the four French fines herbes, it’s still used to add flavour to food.

And I hope this little dissertation has added flavour to your day.

* You’ll be pleased to learn that cacopygian has an opposite, callipygian, reserved for those among us with particularly well-formed buttocks.
The emphasis is on the second syllable, and the central -coë- rhymes with “snowy”.

Epicaricacy: Part 1

ɛpɪkærˈɪkəsɪ / ɛpɪˈkærɪkəsɪ

epicaricacy: malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others

Detail from "Return To The Abbey" by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)
Click to enlarge
Detail from “Return To The Abbey” by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)

What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet in more than one such a word is found. […] In the Greek ἐπιχαιρεκακία, in the German, ‘Schadenfreude’. Cicero so strongly feels the want of such a word, that he gives to ‘malevolentia’ the significance ‘voluptas ex malo alterius’ [i. e., makes ‘ill-will’ mean ‘joy in another’s ill fortune’], which lies not of necessity in it.

Richard Chenevix Trench, The Study Of Words (1851)

The Classical Greek word quoted by Trench, above, transliterates as epikhairekakia, from epi-, “upon”, khairo, “to be glad”, and kakos, “evil”. To be glad about evil, in other words. It was familiar to scholars of the nineteenth century because Aristotle uses the word in his Nicomachean Ethics (translated here, by the Loeb Classical Library, as “malice”).

Latin, as Trench says, seemed to lack a single-word equivalent. While Cicero struggled and failed to find a word to do the job, Thomas Aquinas (in his Commentary On The Nicomachean Ethics) went with gaudium de malo—“joy of evil”.

The Greek word turns up, vaguely anglicized, in Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721):

EPICHARIKA’KY  [of ἐπι upon, χαρα Joy, and  κακον  Evil] a Joy at the Misfortunes of others

This is more than a century before the Oxford English Dictionary first cites an English writer using the German borrowing schadenfreude (literally “harm-joy”). And we’re into the start of the twentieth century before the OED reports anyone using schadenfreude in English without explaining what it means.

So it seems English speakers first met their need for such a word by stealing from Greek*, but then forgot the Greek and stole again from German.

Joseph Shipley resuscitated the Greek version (with modern spelling) in his Dictionary Of Early English (1963):

epicaricacy. Rejoicing at, or taking joy in, the misfortunes of others. From Greek epi, upon + chara, joy + kakon, evil. Bailey’s DICTIONARY (1751) spells it epicharikaky; the accent falls on the ick. The O.E.D. (1933) ignores the word, but alas! the feeling is not so easily set aside.

For Shipley, I’d guess it probably falls into the category he mentions in his Introduction: “Words that are not in the general vocabulary today, but might be pleasantly and usefully revived.”

And from Shipley, I suspect, it started finding its way into various lists of unusual words—first in sporadic paper format, and then in the burgeoning cottage industry of word lists on the internet. I turn it up, for instance, in my old copy of Josefa Heifetz’s Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary Of Unusual, Obscure, And Preposterous Words (1974).

And that’s how it exists today—limping along in the shadowy half-life of words largely unused except in word-lists. Shipley and Heifetz follow Bailey’s direction to place the stress “on the ick”; but such on-line resources as bother with an attempt at a pronunciation guide seem nowadays to favour putting the stress on the “car”. I think one could defend either, so I’ve given both options in my phonetics at the head of this post.

The Greek prefix epi-, with the sense “upon”, has spawned a host of English words, too numerous to deal with individually; I’ll restrict myself to listing a few that I think are of interest.

We’re tediously familiar with epidemic (“upon the people”), of course. Epicentre is the Anglicized version of Latin epicentrum, from Greek epikentron, “upon the centre”. Its original meaning comes from seismology in the nineteenth century—the point on the surface of the Earth directly above the subterranean origin of an earthquake’s shock waves. From there, people started to interpret it as meaning “the centre of something important”. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this new meaning is dated 1970, in which Snape Maltings Concert Hall is rather dramatically characterized as the “epicentre” of the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. We’ve recently become used to politicians and journalists talking about the “epicentre” of the Covid outbreak in Wuhan. This can be relied upon to produce pedantic groans from those who cling to the original etymology, but the word is now demonstrably a term of art used by those who study the spread of disease, so the etymological groans are as futile as they always are.

Location of the adrenal glands

The name of the hormone epinephrine comes from Greek epinephros, “upon the kidney”. This refers to the fact that it is produced by the adrenal glands (Latin prefix ad-, “to”, + ren, “the kidney”), which perch atop our kidneys like jaunty little hats. The hormone is therefore commonly referred to as adrenaline in British English, with epinephrine being the primary usage among American physicians. And when the hormone is prepared as a drug, its “British approved name” was adrenaline, while the “recommended international non-proprietary name” is epinephrine. When the UK (as part of the European Union) began to shift towards adopting international standard drug names at the start of this century, changes like frusemide to furosemide and amoxycillin to amoxicillin passed off with only a little eye-rolling among more elderly doctors, but there was a fairly stiff resistance to the replacement of the name adrenaline with epinephrine, for reasons summarized here.

Epicene adds epi- to Greek koinos, “common”, and started life as a technical term for Greek and Latin nouns which, without changing grammatical gender, can refer to either sex. French has a few of these, too—a male or female mouse is always une souris; a male or female nightingale always un rossignol. Back in the seventeenth century, the word was used for garments suitable for either sex—what we came to call unisex in the twentieth century. And epicene was also used, generally in a disapproving way, for people who did not conform to prevailing gender stereotypes in appearance or behaviour.

The adjective epicurean pertains to the Greek philosopher best known today by his Latin name, Epicurus. In Greek he was Epikouros, which means “assisting” or “defending”, and seems to have been derived from epi- and an unattested word that probably meant something like “running”. So perhaps the original sense was of a person who travelled with someone else in order to help or protect them. Whatever the origin of his name, Epicurus is now largely remembered for advocating philosophy as a way of allowing people to live a happy life—and so, rather unfairly, the noun epicurean now principally refers to someone who makes the pursuit of pleasure their primary goal. An epicure is someone who derives their pleasure from refined enjoyment of food and drink; in pursuit of that enjoyment, they are said to epicurize.

An epidiascope was a device for projecting images of an opaque object on to a screen. The name derives from the diascope (“see through”), which projects transparent images. So an epidiascope is an “upon diascope”—it was placed on top of something like a photograph or book page in order to project its image. The shorter, but rarer, alternative name episcope is less etymologically confused, but the point is now almost moot—the ubiquity of networked digital cameras has driven the device to near-extinction.

An epigraph (“written upon”) is an inscription on a building, or a short quotation placed at the head of a piece of writing in order to summarize or hint at its content (like the quotation at the head of this post, for instance). An epigram was also originally an inscription on a building, but usually written in verse. Its meaning shifted to label short, witty poems with the pay-off in the last line, and then to its current usage, designating a short, incisively witty saying. An epistle (“send upon”) is a written communication sent to someone who is elsewhere—a letter. An epitaph (“upon the grave”) is an inscription on a tombstone, or a short statement suitable for that use. An epitome (“cut upon”) is a brief summary of a longer work; if a person or thing can be considered to be a perfect example of something, they can be said to be an epitome of that thing. An episode (“entering upon”) was originally a short bit of speech sandwiched between choral parts in the performance of Greek Tragedy—the sense being of something extra added to the main performance. The meaning was then carried over into pieces of writing that were digressions from the main narrative of a novel or poem, and thence to the modern meaning, referring to the self-contained stories that make up each instalment of a television or radio drama. The Greeks would be puzzled to learn that much modern entertainment consisted of nothing but episodes.

Epilepsy is literally “seizing upon”—a disease that makes its sufferer fall to the ground and shake, as if in the grip of an invisible assailant. An epistaxis is a nose-bleed, from the Greek staxein, “to let fall in drops”.

Episcopal is an adjective meaning “pertaining to a bishop”, from the Greek episcopos, “overseer”. Our word bishop is just an Old English abbreviated form of the Latin equivalent, episcopus. Episcopalian churches are those in which administrative authority rests with a group of bishops.

And an epilogue (“upon the speech”) is a short statement delivered at the end of a narrative. Like this one. Next time I’ll write about words deriving from the paradoxical pair khairo and kakos.

* However, when Bailey wrote his dictionary, the philosophy of dictionaries was still settling down into the present descriptive format. It’s therefore possible that epicharikaky was never in use among English speakers of the time, but merely a word that Bailey thought could be usefully adopted. It doesn’t seem to be attested elsewhere.

Keplerian Orbital Elements

1. All planets move in elliptical orbits, with the sun at one focus.
2. A line that connects a planet to the sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times.
3. The square of the period of any planet is proportional to the cube of the semimajor axis of its orbit.

Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (formulated 1609-1619)

Okay, this is probably a bit niche, even by my standards, but it’s part of a longer project. I eventually want to write some more about the Apollo spacecraft, and the orbits they followed on their way to, and return from, the Moon. And the problem with that is that (for various good reasons) NASA didn’t document these orbits with a list of “orbital elements” that would allow the spacecraft trajectories in the vicinity of the Earth to be plotted easily. Instead, the flight documentation includes long tables of “state vectors”, listing the position and velocity of the spacecraft at various times—these are more accurate, but unwieldy to deal with. So in a future post I’m going to write about how to extract orbital elements from a few important state vectors. But first I need to describe the nature and purpose of the orbital elements themselves. Which is what I’m going to do in this post, hopefully enlivened by explanations of how the various orbital elements came by their rather odd names.

But first, the “Keplerian” bit. Johannes Kepler was the person who figured out that the planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits, and who codified the details of that elliptical motion into the three laws which appear at the head of this post. In doing that, he contributed to a progressive improvement in our understanding, which began with the old Greek geocentric model, which placed the Earth at the centre of the solar system with the planets, sun and moon moving in circles around it. This was replaced by Nicolaus Copernicusheliocentric model, which placed the sun at the centre, but retained the circular orbits. Kepler’s insight that the orbits are elliptical advanced things farther. (Next up was Isaac Newton, who provided the Theory of Universal Gravitation which explained why the orbits are ellipses.)

So Keplerian orbits are simple elliptical orbits.* They’re the sort of orbits objects would follow if subject to gravity from a single point source. In that sense, they’re entirely theoretical constructs, because real orbits are disturbed away from the Keplerian ideal by all sorts of other influences. But if we look at orbits that occur under the influence of one dominant source of gravity, and look at them for a suitably short period of time, then simple Keplerian ellipses serve us well enough and make the maths nice and simple. (And that’s what I’ll be doing with my Apollo orbits in later posts.)

Before going on, I’ll introduce a bit of necessary jargon. Henceforth, I’ll refer to the thing doing the orbiting as the satellite, and the thing around which it orbits as the primary. In Kepler’s original model of the solar system, the “satellites” are the planets, and the primary is the Sun; for my Apollo orbits, the satellites will be the spacecraft, and the primary is the Earth. Kepler’s First Law tells us that the primary sits at one focus of the satellite’s elliptical orbit. Geometrically, an ellipse has two foci, placed on its long axis at equal distances either side of the centre; only one of these is important for orbital mechanics. Pleasingly, focus is the Latin word for “fireplace” or “hearth”, so it seems curiously appropriate that the first such orbital focus ever identified was the Sun. Kepler’s Second Law tells us, in geometrical terms, that the satellite moves fastest when it’s at its closest to the primary, and slowest when it’s at its farthest. I’ll come to the Third Law a little later.

The Keplerian orbital elements are a set of standard numbers that fully define the size, shape and orientation of such an orbit. The name element comes from Latin elementum, which is of obscure etymology, but was used as a label for some fundamental component of a larger whole. We’re most familiar with the word today because of the chemical elements, which are the fundamental atomic building blocks that underlie the whole of chemistry.

The first pair of orbital elements define the size and shape of the elliptical orbit. (They’re called the metric elements, from Greek metron, “measure”.)

For size, the standard measure is the semimajor axis. An ellipse has a long axis and a short axis, at right angles to each other, and they’re called the major and minor axes. As its name suggests, the semimajor axis is just half the length of the major axis—the distance from the centre of the ellipse to one of its “ends”. It’s commonly symbolized by the letter a. The corresponding semiminor axis is b.

To put a number on shape, we need a measure of how flattened (or otherwise) our ellipse is—so some way of comparing a with b. For mathematical reasons, the measure used in orbital mechanics is the eccentricity, symbolized by the letter e. This has a rather complicated definition:


But once we’ve got e, we can easily understand why it’s called eccentricity, because the distance from the centre of the ellipse to one of its foci turns out to be just a times e. Our word eccentricity comes from Greek ek-, “out of”, and kentron, “centre”. So it’s a measure of how “off-centre” something is. And multiplying the semimajor axis by the eccentricity does exactly that—tells us how far the primary lies from the geometric centre of the ellipse.

The metric orbital elements, a and e
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For elliptical orbits, eccentricity can vary from zero, for a perfect circle, to just short of one, for very long, thin ellipses. (At e=1 the ellipse becomes an open-ended parabola, and at e>1 a hyperbola.)

Before I move on from the two metric elements, I should mention another concept that’ll be important later. The line of the major axis, which runs through the centre of the ellipse and the foci (marked in my diagram above), has another name specific to astronomy and orbital mechanics. It’s called the line of the apsides. Apsides is the plural of Greek apsis, which was the name of the curved sections of wood that were joined together to make the rim of a wheel. The elliptical orbit is deemed to have two apsides of special interest—the parts of the orbit closest to the primary (the periapsis) and farthest from the primary (the apoapsis), and these are joined by the line of the apsides.

Then there are three angular elements, which specify the orbit’s orientation in space. They’re specified relative to a reference plane and a reference longitude. A good analogy for this is how we measure latitude and longitude on Earth. To specify a unique position, we measure latitude north or south of the equatorial plane, and longitude relative to the prime meridian at Greenwich. For orbits around the Earth, like my Apollo orbits, the reference plane is the celestial equator, which is just the extension of the Earth’s equator into space. The reference longitude is called the First Point of Aries, for reasons I won’t go into here—it’s the point on the celestial equator where the sun appears to cross the equator from south to north at the time of the March equinox, and I wrote about it in more detail in my post about the Harvest Moon.

The first angular element is the inclination, symbolized by the letter i, which is the angle between the orbital plane and the reference plane. The meaning of its name is blessedly obvious, because it’s the same as in standard English.

Following its tilted orbit, the satellite will pass through the reference plane twice as it goes through one complete revolution—once heading north, and once heading south. These points are called the nodes of the orbit, from Latin nodus, meaning “knot” or “lump”. The northbound node is called the ascending node, and the southbound node is (you guessed) the descending node—names that reflect the “north = upwards” convention of our maps. The angle between the reference longitude and the ascending node of the orbit, measured in the reference plane, is called the longitude of the ascending node, symbolized by a capital letter omega (Ω), and it’s our second angular element.

Those two elements tell us the orientation of the orbital plane in space—how it’s tilted (inclination) and which direction it’s tilted in (longitude of the ascending node). Finally, we need to know how the orbit is positioned within its orbital plane—in which direction the line of the apsides is pointing, in other words. To do that job, we have our third and final angular element, the argument of the periapsis, which is the angle, measured in the orbital plane, between the ascending node and the periapsis, symbolized by a lower-case Greek omega (ω). The meaning of argument, here, goes back to the original sense of Latin arguere, “to make clear”, “to show”. That sense of argument found its way into mathematical usage, to designate what we’d now think of in computing terms as an “input variable”—a number that you need to know in order to solve an equation and get a numerical answer.

The angular orbital elements
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Those five elements exactly define the size, shape and orientation of the orbit, and are collectively called the constant elements. In addition to those five, we need a sixth, time-dependent element, which specifies the satellite’s position in orbit at some given time. (The specified time, symbolized by t or t0, is called the epoch, from Greek epoche, “fixed point in time”.) There are actually a number of different time-dependent elements in common use, but the standard Keplerian version is the true anomaly, which is the angle (measured at the primary) between the satellite and the periapsis. Different texts use different symbols for this angle, most commonly a Greek nu (ν) or theta (θ).

To understand why it’s called an “anomaly”, we need to go back to the original geocentric model of the solar system. Astronomers knew very well that the planets didn’t move across the sky at the constant rate that would be expected if they were adhering to some hypothetical sphere rotating around the Earth. Sometimes Mars, Jupiter and Saturn even turned around and moved backwards in the sky! These irregularities in motion were therefore called anomalies, from the Greek anomalos, “not regular”. And there were two sorts of anomaly. The First or Zodiacal Anomaly was a subtle variation in the speed of movement of a planet according to its position among the background stars. The Second or Solar Anomaly was a variation that depended on the planet’s position relative to the Sun. Copernicus explained the Second Anomaly by placing the Sun at the centre of the solar system, because he realized that much of the apparent irregularity of planetary motion was due to the shifting perspective created by the Earth’s motion around the Sun. The First Anomaly persisted, however, until Kepler’s Second Law showed how it was due to a real acceleration as a planet moved through periapsis, followed by a deceleration towards apoapsis. Because this “anomaly” was a real effect linked to orbital position, the word anomaly became attached to the angular position of the orbiting body. And if you’re wondering why it’s called the “true” anomaly, that’s because there are a couple of other time-dependent quantities in use, which are computationally convenient and which are also called “anomalies”. But the true anomaly is the one that measures the satellite’s real position in space.

And those are the six standard orbital elements, together with their odd names. However, we generally need to know one more thing. Kepler’s Third Law applies to all orbits—the larger the semimajor axis, the longer it takes for the satellite to make one complete revolution, with a cube-square relationship. But for a given orbital size, the time for one revolution also depends on the mass of the primary. A satellite must move more quickly to stay in orbit around a more massive primary. So we need to specify the orbital period of revolution (variously symbolized with P or T) if we are to completely model our satellite’s behaviour. The word comes from Greek peri-, “around”, and odos, “way”.

So—six elements and a period. That’s what I’ll be aiming to extract from the Apollo documentation when I return to this topic next time.

* Parabolic and hyperbolic “orbits” are, strictly speaking, trajectories, since they don’t follow closed loops. The word orbit comes from the Latin orbis, “wheel”—so something that is round and goes round.
Periapsis and apoapsis are general terms that apply to all orbits. Curiously, they can have other specific names, according to the primary around which the satellite orbits. Most commonly you’ll see perigee and apogee for orbits around the Earth, and perihelion and aphelion for orbits around the Sun. See my post about the word perihelion for more detail.

(Be the first)

The Sound(s) Of wh

Lauren Bacall, To Have And Have Not

You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.

Lauren Bacall, To Have And Have Not (1944)

No, your browser hasn’t had a stroke—this post really has wh in its title—that is, the two letters at the start of the word whistle. For most of the English-speaking world, these letters are pronounced like the letter w alone. So the word pairs whether and weather, whales and Wales, which and witch, sound identical—they’re homophones. Because of this, you can often see people mixing up w/wh pairs in their spelling, particularly if one of the pair is unusual, and they’ve only ever heard it spoken, rather than seen in written. For instance, “This snack will only wet your appetite,” (instead of whet); “You haven’t made a wit of difference,” (instead of whit).

I was reminded of this when I ran into a question on Quora: What does the Latin phrase “semper ubi sub ubi” mean? Semper ubi sub ubi doesn’t mean anything in Latin, of course. It’s just a jokey string of words that can be translated individually as “always where under where”, but which the listener can hear and interpret as the injunction, “Always wear underwear”. (Ho ho ho, I hear you say.) This is all explained neatly in the answer to the Quora question, but I was struck by the final paragraph in the respondent’s answer:

One might say this to a Scotsman who is anxious about the proper accoutrements to his kilt.

(Ho ho ho, I hear you say again. Particularly if you’re Scottish.) But the problem is that a Scot is exactly the wrong person to try this Latin pun on—to a Scot, “always where under where” is no more than a source of puzzlement, because in Scottish English we pronounce w and wh differently. So the w/wh homophones listed above are minimal pairs in Scottish English—they’re words that are distinguished by only one sound.

Phonetically, the sound usually associated with the letter w is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /w/ and is called a voiced labial-velar approximant. The labial bit refers to the lips, the velar bit refers to the soft palate, and the approximant bit means that your lips are close together (forming a characteristic “w” moue that’s evident to lip-readers), while the back of your tongue rises to be similarly close to your soft palate. Voiced means that your vocal cords are vibrating while you breathe out to make the sound. But when Scots pronounce wh, they generally use a sound symbolized by /ʍ/, the unvoiced labial-velar fricative. Lips and tongue are in the same position, but this time the vocal cords don’t vibrate—air just passes smoothly through the lips, producing soft, audible friction. In other words, to paraphrase Lauren Bacall, to pronounce wh the Scottish way, you just put your lips together and blow. The usual sound of a Scots wh is pretty much the same as the sound of someone blowing out a candle.

The pronunciation distinction between w and wh isn’t unique to Scottish English–it’s also present in Ireland, and it used to be standard in New Zealand, though it’s fading among younger speakers. In the USA, there’s a broad swathe across the south and east of the country where the distinction still exists, but nowhere where it’s the dominant form of pronunciation.

As you’ll perhaps have guessed from the fact that the w/wh distinction is embedded in the spelling, it was once the case that every English speaker observed this difference in pronunciation. The sound has its origin in a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European consonant, written as kw, which was like a k pronounced with the lips in w position. In Latin, this turned into a sound like a k followed by a w, written as the familiar digraph qu. In the Germanic languages the k softened into something like the fricative sound at the end of Scottish “loch”, which is written in the IPA as /x/. And thence into Old English, where it was spelled hw, and pronounced /xw/.

Perhaps the most famous use of that hw digraph is in the opening word of the Old English epic poem Beowulf: “Hwæt!” This can be literally translated as “What!” but has generally been taken to be some sort of stereotypical injunction along the lines of “Lo!” or “Listen!” (There’s an argument, however, that it never should have been interpreted as an exclamation in the first place, and that the hwæt should be understood as part of the succeeding sentence.)

But however it’s interpreted, hwaet points up something interesting. The Proto-Indo-European kw seems to have been recurrently used at the start of single-word questions, and that pattern has persisted in the Latinate and Germanic descendants of Proto-Indo-European. So we have quid, quare, quando, quam, qua, quis in Latin; and hwæt, hwí, hwanne, (hwó)*, hwǽr, hwa in Old English, which turned into Kipling’s “Six Honest Serving Men” in Modern English: what, why, when, how, where, who.

After arriving in English, the /xw/ sound continued to evolve, its fricative /x/ softening in some dialects towards the huffing sound of the letter h, (written in IPA as /h/), or disappearing entirely to leave the unvoiced /ʍ/ I described above. So depending on your dialect, hw could be pronounced /xw/ or /hw/ or /ʍ/.

And of course the spelling changed, from hw to the familiar wh, probably standardized by Norman French scribes so that it matched other digraphs, like ch and ph, with which they were familiar.

And then came the so-called Wine-Whine Merger, a slow process of pronunciation shift, mainly spanning the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries (but still going on today!), during which most English speakers gave up on the effort to distinguish between wh and w, leaving just a dialectic fringe in Scotland and Ireland (together with some colonial exports) where the distinction was routinely maintained.

In regions where wh sounds different from w, you can still hear all the variants spawned by the original Old English hw. The predominant sound in Scottish English now seems to be /ʍ/, but /hw/ occurs too. You can hear /xw/ in the Hebrides, and the vigorous fricative is also often used when people are pronouncing something emphatically. And there are other variants, too—I hear /ʍw/ when Scots add a bit of voicing as they move into a following vowel, and /xʍ/ occurs, too.

The /xw/ pronunciation was once standard in Scotland, and accounts for one of the many puzzles Scottish proper names present for the uninitiated. When the sound was still in common use in English, British printers sometimes rendered it typographically as quh rather than wh. The practice was slowly abandoned as the fricative disappeared during the Wine-Whine Merger, but persisted for longer in Scotland, where the sound remained in use. Some time around the start of the seventeenth century, the schoolmaster Alexander Hume vigorously defended the quh spelling in his book Of the Orthographie and Congruitie of the Britan Tongue.

To clere this point, and alsoe to reform an errour bred in the south, and now usurped be our ignorant printeres, I wil tel quhat befel my self quhen I was in the south with a special gud frende of myne. Ther rease, upon sum accident, quhither quho, quhen, quhat, etc., sould be symbolized with q or w, a hoat disputation betuene him and me.
Then (said I) a labial letter can not symboliz a guttural syllab. But w is a labial letter, quho a guttural sound. And therfoer w can not symboliz quho, nor noe syllab of that nature. Here the doctour staying them again (for al barked at ones), the proposition, said he, I understand; the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false.

You can perhaps puzzle through that with the knowledge that quh should be read as wh, but here’s my translation:

To clarify this point, and also to correct an error arising in the South [ie, England], and now wrongfully adopted by our ignorant printers, I will tell what befell me when I was in the South with a special good friend of mine. There arose, by accident, a serious argument between him and me, [as to] whether who, when, what, etc. should be symbolized with a q or w.
Then (said I) a labial letter cannot symbolize a guttural syllable. But w is a labial letter, [and] who [is] a guttural sound. And therefore w cannot symbolize who, nor any syllable of that nature. Here the doctor silenced them again (for all barked at once). “The proposition,” said he, “I understand; [but] the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false.”

So, at the turn of the seventeenth century, it seems the Scots were still saying /xw/, while the English (or at least, the people with whom Hume found argument) had moved on. But the quh orthography has persisted in several Scottish proper nouns. The little village of Milton of Cultoquhey, for instance, is pronounced cull-TOE-whey. And the clan name Colquhoun has now polished the original /xw/ sound down to a simple /h/, so that it’s pronounced cull-HOON, or (more often) just cuh-HOON.

The pronunciation of wh continues to evolve in Scotland. There’s evidence that some younger speakers in the larger cities are dropping the w/wh distinction entirely. Meanwhile, in the Doric dialect of the Northeast, /ʍ/ has been transformed into /f/, so that (combined with a vowel shift) “where” sounds like far, and “what” sounds like fit. (Visitors to the region often bear an expression of anxious incomprehension.)

Meanwhile, in the erstwhile prestige English accent called Received Pronunciation, one can occasionally hear wh rendered as /hw/. John Wells, in Accents Of English (1982) writes:

But I think it is true to say that those who use it almost always do so as the result of a conscious decision: persuaded that /hw-/ is a desirable pronunciation they modify their native accent [ie Received Pronunciation] in this direction.

Whatever the reason, and despite its rarity in real life, it seems to have become part of the perception of “posh British” speech among non-British speakers of English. Hence, I suppose, the running joke in the TV series Family Guy, in which /hw/ is part of the weird Trans-Atlantic accent affected by the character Stewie Griffin:

* I put hwó in brackets because it’s a reconstructed early form. The attested form in Old English is , already partway towards modern how. How some hw-words lost their /w/ sound is a story for another day.
In Accents Of English, John Wells tells us that the use of /w/ for wh was at first considered a “vulgarism”, and that it crept into “educated speech” only during the eighteenth century. So the English doctor who disagreed with Hume, at the start of the seventeenth century, was presumably making a distinction between Scottish /xw/ and the non-guttural English /hw/.



complimentary: 1) expressive of, or conveying, polite praise or commendation; 2) presented as a gift or gratuity

Complimentary Therapies
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So a guy’s sitting at the bar, drinking beer, when he hears a voice say, “You’re looking good tonight.” And he looks around, but there’s no-one there. After a while the same voice says, “That new haircut really suits you.” But still there’s no-one there.
The barman, seeing the guy looking around puzzledly, asks him if there’s a problem. And the guy confesses that he keeps hearing a disembodied voice saying nice things about him.
“Ah,” says the barman, “That’ll be the peanuts. They’re complimentary.”

Old joke

The joke plays on the two meanings of complimentary given at the head of this post. The use of compliment to designate an expression of praise or commendation goes back to the seventeenth century. A hundred years later, people began to use the phrase to make a compliment of [some item] when they were describing giving a gift as a mark of praise or respect. That usage of compliment has fallen into disuse, but the second meaning acquired by complimentary lingers on.

Compliment comes (by a roundabout route) from Latin complementum, “that which fills up or completes”, related to the verb complere, “to fill up”, and the adjective completus, “completed”. Complere is the origin of our word complete and the old word complish, “to fill up or complete”, which gives us modern English accomplish. Completus appears (in feminine form) in the Latin phrase completa hora, “finished hour”, which is the origin of the name compline for the final prayer-service of the day in Catholic ritual.

Complementum turned into Spanish cumplimiento, which referred to a very special type of completion—that of fulfilling the complex requirements of formal courtesy. This was adopted into French as compliment, and thence into English. Meanwhile, the idea of meeting an obligation was reflected in the associated Spanish verb cumplir, which passed through Italian and ended up in English as comply.

To further complicate matters, complementum had already found its way more directly into Middle English as complement, “that which completes”. Nowadays, it crops up in specialist uses in grammar, music, optics, mathematics and astonomy. And there’s a set of small blood proteins called the complement system that is activated when our immune system is triggered, helping it complete its destruction of invading microorganisms. The verb to complement means “to make complete”, and things that are complementary serve to complete a whole of some kind—complementary angles sum to ninety degrees, for instance, and complementary colours combine to produce white.

Which brings me, contentiously, to the topic of complementary therapies and the practice of complementary medicine. The underlying claim, evidently, is that these practices somehow complete conventional medical practice by providing something that medicine lacks.* (But at least it’s a better adjective than alternative, which sends the message that you don’t need conventional medicine if you’ve got alternative medicine.)

But we’ve reached the point that refers back to the photograph at the head of this post. It’s a view of the rather pleasingly frosted and lettered window of an establishment quite near my house. (I’ve cropped it down quite severely to remove the establishment’s name, so you’re not seeing it to its best advantage.) There are a couple of things to take issue with in the lettering I’ve shown, but the relevant one for this post is in the top line. I suppose it’s possible that the establishment provides “complimentary therapy”—presumably either free to the recipient or consists solely of flattering remarks—but I’m betting that what was intended was “complementary therapy”. (The error is, of course, extremely common—I once found it in an official hospital communication.)

Latin complere, “to fill up”, is derived from the prefix com-, a marker of intensity, and the adjective plenus, “full, complete”. Plenus has given English a family of words beginning plen- that have something to do with fullness or completeness. To plenish is to fill something up; to replenish is to do that again. Plenty indicates a full supply of something, as does plenitude. Plenary implies that something is full or complete—plenary powers are the most power you can be granted; a plenary session is a meeting at which an entire organization assembles. And an ambassador plenipotentiary has full power to make decisions and take actions on behalf of the administration she represents.

As rare curiosities, I can offer plenilune, “the time of the full moon”, and plenicorn, which designates those ruminants possessing solid horns (like deer) as opposed to those with hollow horns (like cattle) which are cavicorns. A plenisphere is a perfect sphere, and a plenum is a space completely filled with matter—the opposite of a vacuum.

Finally, Latin manus, “hand”, combined with plenus, “full”, to produce manipulus, “handful”. That came into English as the old word maniple, which could be used literally to mean “handful”, or figuratively to mean “small group of soldiers”. And the original meaning of manipulate was “to gather in handfuls”.

And I hope you’ve found something interesting among this latest few handfuls of words.

* But then there’s another the old joke that goes: “What do you call complementary medicine that works? Medicine.”

More About “Anti-Agathic”

Artwork for Charles L. Harness's short story "Fruits Of The Agathon" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec. 1948)

From beneath the bushy V of satanic eyebrows, Rachs’ jet eyes seemed to shower sparks at him. As usual, that immobile face was incandescent, and Toring fancied he could almost hear the creaking of a carbon-arc in the brain of his superior. The Hungarian’s incredible energies frightened, rather than soothed patrons, and for years he had worked solely in the advancement of extra-sensory mechanics.
“Toring,” he clipped. “I want you to kill a man.”
[Toring] swallowed rapidly, and he was conscious of a dark silence in the room.
“I take it that the Council has finally approved your agathon program?” he asked the eyes.

Charles L. Harness, “Fruits Of The Agathon” (1948)

Browsing through the bibliography of Charles L. Harness the other day (as you do), my eye was drawn to a very early short story entitled “Fruits Of The Agathon” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948). It was, in fact, only his second piece of published fiction after “Time Trap” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1948). Courtesy of the Luminist Archives, my links will take you to copies of the two magazines in which these stories appeared. Unlike “Time Trap”, which has appeared in numerous collections over the years, “Fruits Of The Agathon” fell into obscurity fairly rapidly, and perhaps deservedly—it’s a complicated little story, chaotically full of ideas, which seems to start off in one direction, then changes course several times.

Harness was underrated throughout much of his lifetime. He specialized (as “Fruits Of The Agathon” demonstrated to excess) in idea-stuffed narratives of the kind James Blish called “intensively recomplicated”, featuring the sort of sprawling plots Brian Aldiss called “widescreen baroque”. Some day I’ll write about his first novel, The Paradox Men (1953), which features time travel, sword fights, colonies on the Sun, and a protagonist with a variety of talents indistinguishable from superpowers.

“Fruits Of The Agathon” features a device that can predict the date of someone’s death, but not the circumstances. The satanic Rachs, in my opening quote, wishes to exploit this knowledge for the greater good of humanity, by ensuring that the deaths of certain prominent citizens occur “under the circumstances considered most beneficial to the world”. That is, a carefully planned murder is carried out, rather than leaving death to potentially embarrassing chance. This “death plan” is called the agathon, and Harness helpfully opens his story with the etymology of his coined word, using one of those fake “Encyclopedia Exposita” entries with which science fiction writers often contrive a data-dump.

AGATHON: (From Greek, agathos, good, and thanatos, death.)

I won’t trouble you with the rest of the plot, which includes Freudian psychology, a mutually murderous family, extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and a set of artificial eyes which overheat after prolonged us.

The interesting thing about Harness’s agathon (for me, at least), is it predates James Blish’s use of the word anti-agathic, for a drug that prevents death, which first appeared in his story “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954). Blish’s coining went on to become a science-fiction staple but (as I described in my original post on the topic) its etymology has always been a mystery, since agathic seems to lack a root relating to death. Instead, as Harness points out, the Greek agathos means “good”.

But Harness’s agathon pretty much elides the thanatos from which he claims it derives, so in his story we’re left with an agath- word that refers to death. Is it possible, then, that this is the origin of Blish’s idea that an anti-agathic would combat death?

It’s an appealing story, but there’s a sizeable fly in the ointment. As I pointed out in my original post, it took a while for Blish to settle on anti-agathic for his anti-death drugs. In his story “Bindlestiff” (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950), he uses anti-agapic. The same word appears in “Sargasso Of Lost Cities” (Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, Spring 1953). In “Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953) it’s anti-athapic. Neither of these has any evident etymological connection to death. He only settled on anti-agathic in 1954, and later revised the text of his earlier stories to reflect that choice, when they were collected into the four novels of the Cities In Flight series.

So if we’re to invoke Harness as the origin of Blish’s usage of anti-agathic, we need a fairly convoluted scenario. Why would Blish have used a couple of similar words before eventually coming up with anti-agathic? Did he misremember Harness’s word, and only finally check back in 1954? But if so, why wouldn’t he have noticed Harness’s opening etymology of agathon (it’s right there on the title page of the story)? If he had noticed, he could readily have made the switch to the etymologically defensible anti-thanatic.

So. I’d love to claim that I’ve tracked down the origin of Blish’s word, but I’m afraid I’m unconvinced. I suspect we’ll never know where anti-agathic really came from.



Festivity: Rejoicing, mirth, gaiety, such as befits a feast

Christmas Eve, by George Cruikshank
Click to enlarge
Christmas Eve as illustrated by George Cruikshank

Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas.

Charles Dickens, “Christmas Festivities”, Bell’s Life in London (1835)

Dickens would have considered The Oikofuge a misanthrope indeed, and would not be the first to do so, but the title of his short story (later collected as “A Christmas Dinner”) gives me the hook for this year’s Christmas word.

A festivity is an occasion on which one is festive, the original meaning of which is “pertaining to a feast”. Nowadays, though, festive has come to have connotations of joy and mirth and gladness. And the current Festive Season has links to both feasting and (as Dickens pointed out) “jovial feelings” of various kinds. A festival was originally a time for feasting, usually tied to the ecclesiastical calendar of feast days, but now has broader connections to themed celebrations, in the form of book festivals, music festivals, and so on. Things pertaining to festivals are festal; and if you write a treatise concerning ecclesiastical festivals, you have written a festilogy.

All these words come from Latin festum, “feast day”. So also, by a more circuitous route, does festoon, originally the name for a garland of flowers hanging in a curve between two points of support. Nowadays, we can refer to anything hanging in that sort of curve as a festoon. The word comes from Italian festone, which is thought to derive from festum—festoons were apparently considered to be appropriate feast-day decorations. The French turned festum into fête, a word we borrowed directly into English, originally as another word for festival, but now rather downgraded to designate mild-mannered charity bazaars. We also stole fest from the Germans, embedded in the word festschrift (“festival writing”), which refers to a collection of writings in honour of a scholar or author. And of course the idea of an Oktoberfest beer festival is no longer confined to Munich, these days.

Latin festum is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as dhes, which seems to have been used in relation to religious concepts like gods and sacred places—and its various descendants in English tend to be connected to religion, in one way or another, as we’ll see. Dhes also found its way into Archaic Latin as fesiae, which was transformed into Classical Latin feriae, “religious holiday”, from which we derive our noun fair, which originally referred to mass gatherings of buyers and sellers during religious festivals, but now is also used to designate other gatherings with a holiday atmosphere, such as a fun fair*. Latin feriae also came into English as feria, an ecclesiastical term for a day of the week that isn’t Sunday. A greater feria is such a day of the week that has some special religious significance, like Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday.

A suffixed form of dhes reconstructed as dhesnom also ended up in Latin as fanum, “temple”. This gives us a largely disused English word for a temple, fane, which generally only turns up in wilfully archaic writings nowadays. Something profane is literally “outside the temple”. And our word fanatic comes from Latin fanaticus, “belonging to a temple”. Make of that what you will.

In Classical Greek, dhes gave rise to theos, “divine being”, which has been a fruitful source of god-words in English, from atheism (“no god”) to pantheism (“god everywhere”) via monotheism and polytheism. Sitting between mono- (one god) and poly- (lots of gods) is the rather rarely encountered henotheism, which is a belief that only one god is relevant to one’s own tribe, while accepting that other people may have other gods. A pantheon is a temple dedicated to all gods. An apotheosis is a promotion to godhood, though its meaning has worn smooth enough over the years that achieving A-list celebrity status also counts. An entheogen is a drug that creates a sensation of divine inspiration. (The term was coined in 1979 as a way of emphasizing the spiritual nature of the experience induced, while dodging the negative connotations acquired by hallucinogen and psychedelic.) Enthusiasm was original a state of divine inspiration—another word with a meaning that has worn down over time. And the cacao tree, from which we derive chocolate, belongs to the genus Theobroma (“food of the gods”).

A theophany is a “god manifestation”. This is the name the Eastern Christian calendar applies to the feast day known as Epiphany in the West, which falls on January 6th, marking the traditional date of the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. Male children born on that date were sometimes named Theophanes, while female children were given the name Theophania—the origin of the English girl’s name, Tiffany. And the names Dorothy and Theodore both come from theos, “god”, coupled with doron, “gift”, albeit with the male order reversing the female.

There are many more theos words, and I’ve merely cantered through the ones I find interesting, in the hope you’ll feel the same way. But to end this festive post, I’ll loop back to Latin festum, and mention the “non-commercial secular holiday” Festivus. In Latin, festivus is an adjective, meaning “pertaining to feasts”, but that seems not to have been in the mind of Daniel O’Keefe when the name for an idiosyncratic family celebration “just popped into his head” in 1966. Originally a rather protean affair, the concept leaked into consensus reality when O’Keefe’s son, Dan, ended up as a writer for the television series Seinfeld. “Festivus for the rest of us” featured in a 1997 episode entitled “The Strike”, in which the date was nailed down to December 23rd, and the various components of the celebration (including the “Airing of Grievances”) were laid out.

I’m making this post on December 22nd, so you may well become aware of it in time to construct your own Festivus Pole, and to admire its simplicity, lack of decoration, and philosophical opposition to all that a Dickensian Christmas stands for. Have a good one, or at least have one as good as circumstances permit.

* The Oikofuge’s misanthropy, previously established, means that that phrase fun fair came very close to featuring scare quotes on the fun. But hey, it’s Christmas …