Thursday, December 31, 2009

Y Word of 2009: Broomy

Keeping in mind that perhaps the y-est of them all is syntaxy, this year's winner--edging out waffly, smouchy, porphyry, corduroy, firry, and squicky (these the unofficial quarter-finalists)--is broomy.

Broomy happens to be one of the few spoken words of the year's lot, and so had immediate ear sense. In print, it gains, I suppose, something by its association with heather and the like.

I doubt Bernard Berenson would like this word.

While mulling over this year's candidates, I recalled a dinner many years ago with a publisher. We were having dinner, and the waiter set down our meals and said "Enjoy," before walking away. The publisher looked at me and said, "I hate that word, 'enjoy.'" I was taken aback. Every now and then I had met the morality-bound word objector, but this was the first time I had encountered someone who objected to a word on aesthetic grounds. (The publisher might have been objecting to the phatic speech but I think he really was objecting to the word itself.)

Wordy people being who they are, his opinion of enjoy may have changed by now. In time, my opinion of broomy might change, as well. For the moment--and the next thirteen minutes--it's tops.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


A late newcomer to the 2009 finalists, this is from a June 1, 2009, article/post, "All talk: My Dinner with André and the art of filming conversation," in a film magazine called thebigpicture:

Static and waffly, then.

The author, Nick Riddle, has just been discussing My Dinner with André action figures.

My Dinner with André is one of my favorite movies. I place André Gregory in the same group as Peter Matthiessen. Wally Shawn's performance in this movie is as wonderful as his performance in The Princess Bride, and, to me, there are bits that link up.

Meanwhile, waffly. What can I say? It can be mispronounced on contact (bringing to mind Václav Havel), taken for the brand name of a product, and is adorable in an uncutesy way. It's a little like Wally Shawn in word form.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


From the 1902 Collections (vol. 1) by Vincent Stuckey Lean, quoting from William King's The Art of Cookery, "n. Ed of 1744."

This bit is in the "Relating to Counties" section (the county being Cornwall), under "Local Proverbs."

Squab-pie, herby-pie, pilchard pie or star-gazy pie, muggety pie are a few of the them.
Cornwall squab-pie, and Devon whitepot brings,
And Leicester beans and bacon fit for [food of] Kings.

Star-gazy pie (also starrey gazey pie, among other variants) is the dish that the people in Cornwall (especially in Mousehole) love to love, and others, including the late writer Laurie Colwin, do not (or did not) love.

The pie's fame is linked to the legend of a Cornish fisherman called Tom Bawcock, who saved the village of Mousehole from starvation one Christmas season. He braved the icy waters and returned with a large catch of seven kinds of fish.

I was trying to track down the origin of the pie's name, and while doing so kept turning up the same information about the legend of the fisherman. Given the amount of information on the Web and also given Mr. Lean's quotation (via Google books, I'm either ashamed to admit or happy to report), I pondered the pie and its legendary origins. A short trawling session turned up the below, dating to a 2005 posting on rootsweb by one Sandra Pritchard (the question it raises is "Was it ever possible to fish off Mousehole in December?":

"I would just like to put on record that I was born and brought up in Newlyn, some 2-3 miles from the village of Mousehole [Its distance depended on which route you walked!] I spent much of my social time in and around the villages of Paul and Mousehole....

" "Starry Gazzy Pie" was unheard of as a local dish in my memory, until the landlady of the "Ship Inn" at Mousehole had the idea of re-creating it. sometime around 1958 she organised a fund-raising event for Mousehole AFC....

"The landlady of the time hit on the bright idea of having a special night at the 'Ship' with singing and a story telling, based on the old folk tale of Tom Bawcock and the starving village. She would make a dish that was based on the 'seven sorts of fish' and sell off portions to raise money.... The 'pie' was ceremoniously paraded down through the street by a character dressed up as Tom Bawcock who carried a huge white enamel pie dish, fitted with a pastry lid with various fish heads appearing to poke out of it.

"Followed by all the village cats and dogs and whistled at by us youngsters, he entered the inn and placed the dish on the counter and a tremendous roar of approval went up from the drinkers inside. The pasty lid was lifted off and baked underneath were pieces of fish in a thick stock It was more like a bouillabaisse soup. Before cooking the heads had been stuck onto the thick pastry lid as a decoration. The Cornish often ate pies in this manner. The thick pastry crust acted as a lid, to keep in the goodness, and was always lifted off before serving up the contents. The pastry was divided up and was often "dunked" into the dish and eaten with the fingers. Any stray bones were dealt with in a similar way. Kippers were always eaten with fork and fingers in our house.
As the years went by the fundraising "pie" was paraded for show only, to portray " 'ow they used to do 'un" and the fish pie sold to raise funds was made with mashed potatoes and pieces of fish, in season or not; a sort of Captain's Fish Pie.
I have my doubts as to whether the tale was ever meant to be taken so literally.

"Fishing off Mousehole is impossible in winter-time as the timber "baulks" come down across the entrance called 'the gaps', and the harbour is closed for the season. It was ever thus. There is little fish to be had in western waters in the cold hard months of December and January, as they have mostly migrated to their spawning grounds further south. Most families guarded against this "hungry gap" by salting, smoking & drying fish, which they then set store by, for the times when they could not go out in their boats. Ling, haddock, hake, and sometimes cod, were strung up on communal wooden racks on the corner platt above the beach, which faced south....

"Oily fish, like pilchard, mackerel and herring, were preserved by each family group salting their own supplies and then storing away into great bussas [cloam pots] in the family cellar. The pilchard and the herring could also be smoked and there was often one family in the village who set up a smoke house for a season. This was usually in a old shed on the beach, fuelled by sawdust from the carpenters sheds and driftwood from the beach. They would charge by the "score" brought in for smoking and when "cured" they would often hang up in the fishermen's sail-lofts over winter. When required they could be "scrawled" by hanging in front of the bars of the range fire, usually to within an inch of their usefulness, and eaten with the fingers. Cooking indoors was often barred by their wives as the smell of a burning kipper is appalling. Little bonfires out on the cliff or in the back courts were then the cooking source. When the drift fishermen came in from the first night of the season they were fond of a 'scrawled' herring for their breakfast. Perhaps by then they knew that they could safely eat their emergency food store, as the fishing season had returned once more.

"Perhaps the Tom Bawcock tale was meant to warn of the dangers of not preserving for the bad times in times of plenty, much like the parable of the ten foolish virgins. Perhaps Tom Bawcock had been the only one to secret away a store of fish and when his fellow villages were in need he brought forth the fish, albeit in all sorts of variety. This may hint at the true meaning of the moral within the old tale. Fishing was usually undertaken at the flush times, when shoals of one species of fish were 'running' in the bay feeding. It was not until the much later era of 'deep sea' trawling that all and sundry fish varieties were caught in the same nets."

I don't know if this is the truth of the legend but I like the idea (in this case anyway) of puncturing a myth and setting the record straight. I also take the writer’s point about fair fishing.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


From Sam Sifton's Wednesday's review of La Grenouille, in the Times:

Accompanied by a small bit of demi-glace made piney with rosemary, they provide an instant view of a world in which plenty is not nearly so important as quality — a world in which the point is to experience small, rich pleasures, one by one by one.

Why the word is in the list: for one, this appearance unhinges piney from an exclusive association with the scent of pine trees. I like pine trees, all for the alpine, but the word piney has been associated with, for example, Pine-Sol for too long.

For another (reason): La Grenouille must be one of the three New Yorkiest restaurants in New York, partly for the reasons Sifton describes and partly because it offers two ambiances. The first floor feels jaunty and glam all around. Word-wise, by a hyperbolist, it might be described as tremendous. The second floor, which long ago was the artist's studio, more recently became a room for private parties. One winter, in the pre-private days, I ate dinner up there. It was like eating a meal to the tenth power, the ambiance was so charged (dreamy, romantic, lush). When the markets align again (if the markets align again), the second floor may return to its un-private state. In short, La Grenouille encloses Manhattan's two best sides in one restaurant, and being in town as long as it has, it has its bona fides.

Finally, Sifton uses the word bathmat (albeit in hyphenated form) in association with the word flounder, which reminded this reader of his days at The New York Press and so the fact of The Press at all. Those gritty front-page squibs--which had a touch of MAD Magazine and anticipated The Onion--the Press were part of my weekly intake.

The 2009 Semi-Finalists

This contest stuff is riveting.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009


An interesting word not because of the Bunny Suicides or Knuffle Bunny or Pat the Bunny. None of these.

Interesting because the etymology of this one, at least OED-wise, is unknown. I would guess that it ranks among the most commonly spoken words among American children--but how it came to be? Tonight I have no idea. It has something to do with bun, but that's where the question mark begins. Bun does refer to the tail of a hare but that still doesn't suffice.

Sometimes I want answers more than I want to sit with questions; this situation is an example of one in which I like the question--how did the word bunny come to be?--in and of itself, whether or not I find the answer.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Harry is a nice name.

Luke, Owen, and George are pretty good, too.

Y Finalists for 2009

Because this blog was born of surfy, and because surfy had been a favorite word of the year, I am continuing this deeply shallow tradition.

Going over this year's favorites, it's clear that many were striking in context. Below are the ones which strike me instinctually.

Finalists so far, in alphabetical order (not chronological order):


Monday, December 21, 2009


From a telephone conversation I had today with a man talking about a well plowed sidewalk on a hill on the Upper East Side.

I didn't take the exact sentence down but he was saying that walking on a hill covered with snow can be dicey.

The word, according to my Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and to Eric Partridge and Paul Beale's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English dates to c. 1940, when American Air Force and Royal Air Force men played games of dice in their off-hours, and subsequently made the connection between gambling and flying a mission.

As it was spoken today, almost two days after a blizzard, there is of course a hint at the ice within.

Friday, December 18, 2009


From a paragraph discussing grating cheeses, in The Complete Book of Pasta: An Italian Cookbook, by Jack Denton Scott:

Incanestrato, impressed with a braided basket design, is bitey, "different" and excellent.

I associate this word by turns with a (biteworthy) neck and the word matey. The phrase al dente arrives as an after-thought.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Notice the missing y. This is not a typographical error

From Moll Flanders, which was, I currently believe, serialized in 1722 in The London Post and The Kentish Post, and which does not appear in the OED between the Locke example and the Coleridge one. The word appears in the part of the story where everybody (except, perhaps, the youngest sister in "August: Osage County") wishes this woman could begin her life all over again.

I confess I was moved to pity him when I spoke it, for he turned pale as death, and stood mute as one thunderstruck, and once or twice I thought he would have fainted; in short, it put him in a fit something like an apoplex; he trembled, a sweat or dew ran off his face, and yet he was cold as a clod, so that I was forced to run and fetch something for him to keep life in him.

I imagine a linguistics historian could explain why this word is y-less in this instance, as well as in the few other ones listed by the OED dating to between 1533 and 1790. The word is from the French, apoplexie, derived from Greek, and is cited as early as c. 1386, in Chaucer's Nun's Priest tale. (In Nouveau Larousse Illustré, there is, alas, no diagram of a person in the throes of apoplexie, but the definition extends more than half a column.) Apoplexy was (is?) used in falconry, specifically to refer to an illness or disease in hawks.

In any case, this is a y word that is, obviously, not one, but my expectation of the y makes it eligible for inclusion. It is, I suppose, a variation on a y word.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


From the chapter "A Complete Analysis of Winnie-the-Pooh," by Duns C. Penwiper, in The Pooh Perplex, by Frederick Crews:

"We may thus set ourselves the all-important task of deciding just which, among the many potential forms of art, inhabits the essential entelechy of Pooh."

Entelechy, to put it mildly, an unattractive word. It is not even ugly-beautiful. One part blech and two parts bad orthopedic shoe--at least, in this early/late hour, after seeing a beautiful black and white film featuring metal type and people speaking Italian. It also reeks of the academy, though whether more or less so since the book's publication in 1963 I cannot hazard a guess.

However, it did send me to the dictionary (Webster's Tenth , 3-D version, lists as its second definition: "a hypothetical agency not demonstrable by scientific methods that in some vitalist doctrines is considered an inherent regulating and directing force in the development and functioning of an organism."

Because entelechy sent me to the dictionary, it gains in inner beauty what it lacks in visual and, debatably, aural beauty (Entebbe, anyone?), though stress-wise, it is perfectly fine, having undulate aural qualities not entirely unlike those of cacophony, Schenectady, Hermione, and olfactory.

I think it's just fine to be sent to the dictionary, with its etymological references and dates and that pronounciation guide in the lower right corner (the regularly placed Tiffany ad of Webster's Tenth--note how I'm not even saying anything about the frog and the dragonfly appearing as a couple in Tiffany's holiday windows). I like to imagine that once upon a time, many people shared my pro-dictionary sentiment--people such as headmasters, all over New York City.

This is a roundabout way of arriving at one of the dominant thought bubbles of my day, featuring an article from today's New York Times, about the "more current" and "fresher" Harvard Business Review. This translates into good riddance for the cover list of articles and a welcome mat for a redesigned logo as well as cover art.

How unfortunate that Harvard or the B School has arrived at this point where its . . . trustees? . . . are no longer content to have a standout cover which signals no-nonsense gravitas (even if the Minto Method doesn't ensure clarity of expression in those case studies), much in the way that Foreign Affairs stands out. For me the Review has always been one of the easiest magazine to pull from a crowd. Its cover has always been so easily distinguised from the rest of the crowd.

But truly puzzling were these comments by the editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review Group, which, according to the article by Stephanie Clifford, read like so: "The magazine in the past was sort of one 10-page story after another. I think we've kind of insulted our readers' intelligence with the assumption that everything has to be serious, everything has to be long form."

The difference between these statements and the statement, above, by Frederick Crews-Duns C. Penwiper, is that Crews was being intentionally satiric.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


From Hayden Carruth's memoir of James Laughlin, Beside the Shadblow Tree:

Incidentally, Jas was the one who taught me that in the succession of adverbial ordinals it is correct to say "first, secondly, thirdly," etc.

Carruth goes on to say: "Not one in five professional copy editors know it."

Secondly is striking because it is extinct. People do not say secondly as often as they do say -- cover your ears -- the word hopefully.

Some months ago, a woman speaking on her cell phone told the listener that she would be there momentarily. That one is merely rare, not quite extinct, thanks to electronic phone drones. Debatably, though, one could say that the phone drones have ruined the word, and so it's one of the walking dead.