Saturday, October 24, 2009


There's a pattern here, with the words ending in -rey (cucumbery and so forth). Of course this word isn't exactly English, but it is from a 1961 food encyclopedia that was translated from the French:

Troyes--This creamy cheese can be eaten from November to May. It Is a soft cheese, resembling Camembert. It is also known as Barberey.

According to the book, Camembert season is October to June.

Twenty-five years later, I am guessing that for some cheeses, seasons are not what they used to be. It's a nice idea, though--a little like waiting for a tide to come in order to reach an island of land.

Ours really isn't the most favorable historical moment for the pleasures of waiting.

Friday, October 23, 2009


A beautiful word, no? From the Latin and from this morning at City Hall, where Councilmember James F. Gennaro was holding a City Council hearing on the modest proposal known as natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, in New York State. Mr Gennaro chairs the Council's environmental protection committee.

"Is there some kind of ongoing colloquy between DEC and DEP?"

He may have said "DEP and DEC." Don't know. It's possible my undermind would have preferred to be thinking about less vile subjects, such as the arrival of the ballet company I've been meaning to see for the past three years, or sailing, or beet ravioli.

Back to subjects less savory.

Is it fair to say that people who have little idea how to begin or sustain a conversation or a dialogue (col=together) put the rest of us in a lousy position? A Mr Appleton (hope it's spelled correctly), who gave some rather compelling testimony by the time I left, at 2:30 p.m., said that the DEC's draft SGEIS report had the fingerprints of the state budget office all over it. He also said that the oil, coal and gas industries were in the middle of a grand food fight. Would that were all it was; we could clean up and get on with the day.

For those of us who are not lacking in imagination or in table manners, we are wondering what the price of quotidian existence will be in this . . . uh . . . gassy (for about ten years, although the consequences of clearcutting forests will, of course, extend beyond that time period) world of the future. What will I be risking by hand-washing my socks? What potential explosion will await me when I run a bath? Will the simple act of washing lettuce become an exercise in slow death by endocrine system poisoning?

At the outset of the hearing, there were approximately 150 people; by 2:30 there were approimately 35. At 1:24 p.m., Councilmember Gennaro asked if a representative from DEC was in the room? No. The DEC's representative had left. Really? Really. Mr. Gennaro subsequently read aloud the telephone numbers for DEC offices upstate and locally, urging attendees to give a jingle and ask that a representative from the department whose commissioner supposedly cares for the future of our water supply actually be present for all testimony presented at the hearing. Whether such a respresentative would actually listen is, of course, unknown.

At the very least, it's dramatically honest--it "lands," as some say--for the DEC to represent its deafness/absenteeism/absentia/indifference/disregard/ignorance/blindness/muteness/invisibility on this issue by amplifying the presence of absence. It makes complete dramatic sense for the DEC to have its own representative leave the hearing midway through. In real life--not in the play--it comes off less earnest than comic.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer testified that this is "the most important environmental issue this city has faced in the last decade." I think he's off the mark by several decades. The implications of this grand jobs-creation plan to poison-the-well-child/adult-and-then-give-him-an-as-yet-uncreated-and-untested-antidote make this a city issue to the power of 10.

Mistakes are being made. (Gentlemen, start your lawsuits!)

From a Latin textbook, I read about Echo and Narcissus, neither of whom have met members of the DEP or DEC and both of whom are, one would like to imagine, having a better time with their water than NYC and the rest of the state is having with ours: Ōlim nympham vocāvit et eī dīxit, Posteā verba reddere poteris, sed tū ipsa colloquium incipere nōn jam poteris.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Usually I would dilate a little on the homophonic fun that could be had with this word, but today I was struck by a Daily Show video in my e-box reporting on the passage of the Franken Amendment to H.R. 3326, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act (an amendment whose time, according to an arbitrator I will meet tomorrow, has come some 25 years after Democrats began agitating for it). The idea is to make sure that taxpayers don't end up inadvertently financing companies (e.g., working as contractors for the U.S. government) who condone silencing woman (or, presumably, men) who are sexually or physically assaulted on the job.

Sen. Franken's amendment particularly responds to the ongoing multi-year attempt by a woman named Jennifer Leigh Jones to have her day in court. Ms. Jones alleges that four years ago, while living in Iraq and working for KBR as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom she was inconveniently drugged, gang-raped and then, after waking up bruised and bleeding (where is a SurvivaBall when you need one?), locked without food or water in a shipping container guarded by an armed guard. Reportedly after Jones made a lucky cell-phone call to her father, who called the State Department, the State Department sent employees to rescue her. (KBR stands for Kellogg, Brown & Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, the company known to some as "a disaster innovator.")

Ms. Jones wants to put this case before a jury, but an arbitration clause in the contract she signed with KBR states that any wrongs cannot be righted by jury; they must be settled by arbitration, and behind closed doors. As Rachel Maddow put it, this means a cash settlement instead of a court hearing.

Where the 600-year-old word nay enters the picture is with the vote on the Franken Amendment. Talk about a negative attitude. Thirty Senators, including John McCain, voted nay. Should the government be meddling in the matters of private companies whose employees flaut--nay, break--the law?









I'm reminded of that untitled 1981 Barbara Kruger photo (photo collage?) showing the man in the hat with the finger to his lips and the words laid over "Your comfort is my silence"?

An OED definition of rape when it refers to the plant seems apt here (and do understand husbandry not as agriculture or farming but industrial occupation generally): 1899 Racine (Wisconsin) Weekly Jrnl. 25 May 12/3 The progress in rape culture in this country is one of the marvels of latter day husbandry.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Many people pronounce this to rhyme with spiny, though pronounced correctly it rhymes (I believe) with spinney. (I'll put off any discussion of the debate over how to pronounce Delphi.)

I heard it said by my friend Annie Novak, who with a man named Ben Flanner runs what must be the best-dressed and hands-down sexiest farm in the city. On Sunday I was one of a group of people sorting seed packets over at Rooftop, this before we staked some burlap in the rows.

We were passing around challah with farm honey, and for somebody who declined the bread, Annie coated a carrot with honey. As she was doing so, she mentioned that according to Burt Greene (a Hamptons chef), Pliny the Elder references honey-cooked-carrots in his recipe books.

[Shameless plug: Annie said her knowledge comes by way of her work at Growing Chefs, a program which (among other things) creates curriculum for garden-based classroom education.]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


From the wild and wonderful 71 year-old story A Night of Serious Drinking, by René Daumal and translated from the French by David Coward & E.A. Lovatt:

Professor Mumu upbraided me for my naivety and explained to me that the patient being questioned was, in intention at least, a dangerous criminal who if he had been less cowardly in his youth would have mutilated his father, outraged his mother, horrified his sister, and scandalized his uncle in the most appalling manner; he added that his veiled confessions would cure him of his wayward impulses, which would be transformed into charming artful objects, amongst which we would soon be making our way, for the converse of the proverb was true: Paradise is paved with bad intentions.

How honest, somehow, for the word to be translated into English without the French spelling.

Naivety does not appear in the Index.

Of course one might look at the word and think (in the undermind at the very least) of nativity. One does not think of myrmidon or caster sugar or the Jets and the Sharks, or the supposed war.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Not the fish or the cloth; not the groove in the rifle barrel and not the other name for rye-grass. Not the rank and not the roy. Not the dance, not the distemper found in sheep. This one is the line of light, though not the kind that lies at the base of the child's bedroom door when the parents are still having a lighted nighttime of it in the hallways and rooms beyond.

This ray feels a little more ethereal and packs all its etymological baggage--Anglo-Norman rae, rei, reie, roi, roie; Anglo-Norman and Middle French rai, raie; French rai, raie; Modern French rayon; classical Latin radius; Old Occitan raia (12th cent.), Spanish rayo (13th cent.), Portuguese raio (14th cent.; 13th cent. as rraya); and Italian raggio (1308).--as described in the OED.

The book The Nine Tailors (which is in my reading pile) has this sentence:

The tiny ray of the lantern picked out here the poppy-head on a pew, here the angle of a stone pillar, here the gleam of brass from a mural tablet.

Tablet! Great word.

I wanted to see about ray because I thought it might be interesting the way key is interesting. Now it seems I should have also looked up way.

Anyhoo, there is a description of bells ringing that actually does bring to mind . . . the sound of ringing bells: Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo--Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo bom--and so forth.

Apparently the bells have names. There's a memory ditty, viz., The voice of the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul: Gaude, Gaudy, Domini in laude. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Saboath. John Cole made me, John Presbyter paid me, John Evangelist aid me. From Jericho to John A-Groate there is no bell can better my note. Jubilate Deo. Nunc Dimittis, Domine. Abbot Thomas set me here and bade me ring both loud and clear. Paul is my name, honour that same. Then there's a paragraph break and Gaude, Saboath, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. Another break introduces the centerpiece sentence Nine Tailors Make a Man.

I am going to read this book even though it's a mystery novel. What I do for nunc.

In a totally unrelated matter, I must say that some mysteries remain mysterious. Today's mystery is why some people ostracize the beautiful word attorney while putting out the welcome mat for lawyer. (I realize there's a technical difference, but still.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Here's the kind of word you can really hang a hat on. Look it up in the OED and you get:

(Meaning not clear.)
1803 LAMB Let. to Manning 19 Feb., The Tartars, really, are a cold, insipid, smouchy set.

Now, I don't think the dictch (that's like sitch but not really) means "meaning not clear" in the way, say, Stephin Merritt sings in what surely must be one of the song of songs about language and the way (as Virginia Woolf might say) words fail.

Cause I always say I love you when I mean Turn out the light
And I say Let's run away when I just mean Stay the night

How much of your day do you spend mired in misunderstanding simply because everybody is working from a different lexicon? Words have valence.

To me what's funny about smouchy is that it's a word I use to approximate smush--"It's getting smouched in there with all those apples." Tonight I looked it up, however, because the OED is going to publish a thesaurus. On the sample page, I passed over an entry for smouching (more a bit farther down).

Consider: Smouchy, smoochy.

I once dated a man who (after committing actual romantic gestures) told me "Maybe I'm not a smoochy guy." Perhaps he had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps that's a love-rune (that's another thesaurus word, c. 1225) to be.

If the thesaurus page on kisses and related emotions (does it include throwing glassware? speaking of which: I actually passed Philip Roth on West 79th this weekend) is any indication of the tome to come, it will be fine reading in its own right and for the way it will illuminate so many other texts.

Passado (1606–1656), for example, means "interchange of confidences/amorous relations." Now Mercutio's line makes so much more sense--"Come, sir, your passado." Excellent. That line has been in my head for many months now. The Folger Shakespeare edition footnote explains that a passado is fencing step forward with a thrust, but is any thrust in Shakespeare ever just a thrust? I wasn't thinking clearly. Given Mercutio's feelings toward Romeo this finally makes more sense.

The thesaurus sample also has, under " (n.) Amorous love," the real thing (neither specific to Stoppard nor to Kurt Andersen, 1857–); love-money (coins broken in two as love-token, 1856); lightilove (inconstancy in love, 1578), and turtle (person showing affection for mate, c. 1500–1865).

Under the vt. of Kiss there is the smouch (1588–1600). So were the Tartars really and truly a cold, insipid and smouchy set?

Addendum that has nothing to do with dictionaries: In the latest episode of "Mad Men," my favorite television show, there is a disjointed scene in which Betty takes Sally into the living room (ruined now by the hulk of the fainting sofa, or whatever it's called) and attempts to explain a little something about first kisses. I get the feeling the writers wanted her to say this but the kairos is a little wrong, and the whole presentation doesn't parse. For one thing, she doesn't care enough about Sally's emotional well-being, else she would have comforted her when Grandpa Gene died. Back to bussing.

She tells Sally the following, about a first kiss:

"You're going to want it to be special, so you remember." Wrong. You remember it if and/or because it's special, and possibly not even happily so. [BD Translation: I remember my first kiss with your father.]

"It's where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone"; this is truthful. Well put. [BD Translation: It made me want to know your father more intimately.]

"And every kiss with them after that is a shadow of that kiss." We bounce into the rough. [BD Translation: I married your father because of the fur jacket, the set of his shoulders, his jawline, his eyes, his voice, his hands, his lips, his posture, his hair, everything between his legs, the way he looks in a suit, the way he looks in an undershirt, his drive (all drives), and because it was time to get married and bring you and your brother into the world, since this is the 1950s. My kisses cabinet is shadowy, if not ghostly, although now I've had that first kiss with Henry Francis. . . . ]

I wrote a short piece about kissing (for Nerve) and had it been published later I might have addressed this shadow-of-the-former issue. Indeed, I was half-undone one night by a kiss that bore very (very very) little resemblance to the first kiss with the kisser. The only reason he made it to that point was because of a chain of gestures that had nothing to do with the first kisses. This man was less an aficionado than a notcher. His first kiss was memorable for its utter lack of emotional depth. It was clinical and Trojan Horse; it was just to get in. There was nothing tender or self-delighting about it--thus it was somewhat interesting (and a reminder to never form another attachment, no matter how casual, with a man who kissed this way). That a later kiss could have so much real emotion in it, therefore, was, it must be said, remarkable.

So it turns out that Betty, like umpteen parents who have no idea, really, what they're talking about, has not considered that a first kiss can turn out to be a shadow. It's likely Sally will remember that kiss as her first, anyway.

The person who could explain a thing or two to Betty about how life really works is the only woman on the show who's whole (wholesome?), and who makes Don whole: Anna. She's so sturdy, she probably knows something about kissing, and I bet when her husband was alive she was a turtle.

Until Betty's next piece of questionable advice, we have the memory of Don lighting her cigarette ever so quickly and smoothly. Smoking and fencing. . . .


According to the OED this word is fewer than a hundred years old. Apparently.

Some people say okey-dokey and some say okey-doke. I suppose some say both (wishy-washy?) I say alrighty sometimes, and when I do it conjures up the way the bed-space air felt when we would bounce quarters before inspection, at camp. Alrighty has to do with the tautness of that flat blanket and the hope of a 10 and that space of time at the beginning of the day. (There's a bounce test for cranberries, too, but alrighty has little, if anything, to do with that.  I have wondered for years about the floodings of the bogs on Nantucket, though . . . .)

March 21, 2010 addendum, okey-dokey sighting: Forty-five minutes into the play Red, Rothko tells his assistant, "Okey-dokey, let's prime the canvas."

Some might argue that okey-dokey is synonymous with hunky-dory, but they would probably be wrong.

February 23, 2018 addendum: The website of The American Scholar has an entire post dedicated to reduplicatives, of which okey-dokey is an example.  My favorite bit: the sentence beginning "What is a dokey anyway . . . ?

Sunday, October 4, 2009


From The Winston Simplified Dictionary:

In mythology, one of three grasping and filthy winged monsters with a woman's face and boady, and the wings, tail, and claws of a vulture.

This appears on the same page as harry (2. to annoy or vex; tease; harass); hasty pudding (a pudding made by stirring Indian meal or, in England, flour, into boiling water; mush), and hatchet (a small ax with a short handle, used with one hand: to bury the hatchet, to cease hostilities).

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why Lamey is Not a Chosen Y Word

A letter from a friend reads:

Dear Ms. Woman,

I just read in the NY Times (my only media source) [Ed. Note: Pity my friend this] that describing something as "lame" is a derogatory term. For instance, if one were to exclaim:"It's so lame that you bought me this cucumbery substance from Gristedes," it might offend a nearby cripple. Who knew?

Perhaps you should address this, O Worded One. If we add a "y" to the end, does it qualify for your prefered subject matter? Or will your readers confuse that with "lamé"?

Gentle Reader

Well, Gentle Reader, I've got to break the news to you now: using the word lame displays bad taste in language, not because it might offend the cripple but because it's imprecise Valley Girl speak. Acceptable imprecise language is American WASP--for example, "So long" instead of "Good-bye"--or restrained slang: "She's all that." (Unacceptable is cloaking I Can't Handle Life" euphemisms, such as " X passed away"; better to say "X died.")

Lamé I have no issues with unless it pollutes the water supply.

American WASP, by the by (or bye), is really a branch of what should be termed Midcentury American English (and is right up there with Italian, though I would never date an Italian man now). I truly like Midcentury American English. Few people I know these days are actually fluent in it. One is a member of my family; a few work in a law firm; a few in schools; a few at certain magazines; and many are writers. If you go up to the Academy of Arts and Sciences on an awards day you are certain to hear many people speaking it. Most of them are older than I.

When John Updike was a boy, basket ball appeared like so, I believe. (The Winston Simplified Dictionary students might have used once upon a time at The Packard School, 253 Lexington Avenue, NYC, for instance, shows that in or around 1931 basket ball came first under the forefinger and basketball came second.) Then basket ball took up a hyphen. Then it sustained a merger. Some time after that John Updike died. I'm just saying.

(Tom Beller writes entertainingly about basketball, I find--or maybe I just like his courts. But I digress.)

A woman I met this week told me about her teenage children, how often they press her to hurry up, especially on the computer. I wanted to tell her that she might be of the last generation able to convey something of the good that comes from slowing down. Well-made things can often take time. Certainly it's useful to understand a little about the nature of time and our fashioning of it and our perception of it.

Sometimes I think about the whole "work to live" or "live to work" idea. This meets up with that question about going on vacation, viz., Is real life what happens on vacation, or is real life what happens when not on vacation? Turns out (after taking a real vacation for the first time in nine years) that real life is what happens. So when the kids tell the Mom that they want her to hurry up, she's really the only person who can put her foot down and demonstrate that there is much in a moment.

Today, for instance--are you sorry you wrote in . . . --a woman handed me a pen after putting the cap back on. She performed this pen-capping gesture that made it clear that we had a relationship and were passing this pen between us, and she took the time to look at me, and I looked back. It was a taffy moment. It was stretched out. She somehow created a little clearing spot of time just for us--and it was tiny but it felt roomy.

Was there anything so wrong with basket ball? Are we one day going to write tenniscourt? Because that would be seriously lame.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


I looked this up (on my way to another word) in Webster's Eleventh but am checking it now in Webster's Tenth.

Tintinnabulary adj. [L. tintinnabulum bell] (1787) : of, relating to, or characterized by bells or their sounds.

I think of hand bells at Christmas, a dinner bell, a cow bell, and a clarine.

Unless living in the middle of "A Clockwork Orange," the sounds of bells seem to inhabit the opposite of what a clattering kind of environment must be. For instance, in a hostile environment (legalistic terminology), life must be, well, hostile.

When I picked up Lord of the Flies last night, it seemed to me that a litigator arguing a case about workplace violence or a hostile environment could mention that book quite handily in order to convince a jury that without rules people (at least the civilized ones) can behave rather savagely. (Sheepishly?) Of course, rules mean little at the end of a day. And anybody who thinks that surveillance keeps mean people in check is misguided in more ways than one (consider the panopticon).

Back to bells.

The fact is that simply being in the vicinity of precise language, being in the presence of people who speak with an economy of speech, for whom the word "Um" generally does not exist (unless spoken deliberately), who say "You guys" only to men and boys, and seldom "gonna" in lieu of "going to": this is a 21st century privilege (probably beyond words).

People who create tailor-made vocabularies for their own selves using hundreds of words that already exist and have existed perhaps for centuries must be the true inhabitants of the land of bells. I don't mean people who speak stilted perfect pretentious textbook English; I mean people who can mix it all up and have it come out ringing.