Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10


when in rome, have a romance

“Wise men say only fools fall in love/but I can’t help falling in love with you.” (Lyrics from Can’t Help Falling in Love, written by Weiss, Peretti, and Creatore) Falling in Love, Falling in Love Again, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, When I Fall in Love … The song titles featuring the act of “falling in love” are seemingly endless. But hold on a second, lovers. Isn’t “falling” a bad thing to do?”

My friend David posed this dilemma to me recently and he inquired whence came the expression “falling in love.”

So I checked the OED to see if it could provide an adequate lexicographic answer to David’s query. The phrase “falling in love” is first cited in 1423. At first, though, one didn’t merely tumble “in love” but rather into “love’s dance.” The citation comes from James 1-The King’s Quire and states, “So fare I falling into love’s dance.” It took at least 100 more years for the phrase to be shortened to “falling in love.” This phrase has endured ever since as the quintessential expression of the dizzy loss of control of the lovestruck.

By the way, the concept of a fall into love is hardly restricted to English. In French and many other languages, love also causes a tumble and in the case of Icelandic, it captures you. The OED has many definitions of the word “fall,” but two in particular are instructive of the sense implied in “falling in love.” Fall (noun) is defined as “a succumbing to temptation, a lapse into sin or folly.” It is first used in this sense in 1225. Fall (verb) is defined as “to yield to temptation, to sin.”

Legend has it that the romance associated with Valentine’s Day descends from a custom in ancient Rome. On the eve of the Feast of Lupercalia, which began on February 15, the names of maidens were written on pieces of paper and placed in a jar. These slips were then plucked by young men who would partner with their selection for the duration of the festival. Valentine’s Day owes its name to Saint Valentine who was beheaded in the 2nd century A.D. for marrying couples counter to the orders of Emperor Claudius II.

Etymologically speaking, when a young lover is imbued with romance, the debt isn’t to love, but to Rome. The word “romance” comes from the Old French term Romans, a derivation of Romanus, “Roman.” The term was used to refer to the local dialects of Latin (which later became the Romance languages) and was used to differentiate them from official Latin. The practice arose in France of writing entertaining stories in the more popular spoken language and the term romans was used to refer to these adventurous tales. It was in this sense that the word was borrowed into Middle English. Because many of these stories in both English and French dealt with courtly love, “romance” came to mean simply a “love story” and eventually developed the sense of a “love affair.”

Seeing that Shakespeare is the greatest word progenitor in the history of the English language, it is not surprising that several love words are associated with the Bard. He seems to have coined the term “love affair” in Three Gentlemen of Verona in 1591, where Valentine says: “I part with thee, confer at large of all that may concern thy love affairs.” There is an obscure reference to “love letters” in the OED in 1240 but Shakespeare popularized the term in Merry Wives of Windsor when Mrs. Page asks: “I ‘scaped love-letters in the holiday-time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them?”

Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe is credited with the first usage of “love at first sight” in Hero and Leander in 1593: “Where both deliberate the love is slight; who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?”

Happy, Valentine’s Day, everybody. Enjoy the dance.

Howard’s book Strange Bedfellows: The Private Life of Words is being published in March 2010.


One man's skunk may not smell bad to another

December, 2009

“Niggardly” was a politically incorrect mishap in the offing. In 1999, Caucasian David Howard, a top aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, announced to a black colleague during a committee meeting “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money.”

Notwithstanding that “niggardly” means “miserly” and has no etymological connection to the N-word, Howard was forced to resign for uttering this nine-letter word, but subsequently reinstated and shifted to a different department. Howard wished he had used a different synonym such as “stingy.” He later stated, “I should have thought, this is an arcane word, and everyone may not know it.”

In a recent article in The New York Times, Jack Rosenthal called words such as “niggardly,” that look as if they have a particular meaning but mean something quite different, “phantonyms.” He cited members of this club: “noisome,” which doesn’t mean “noisy,” but rather “offensive,” “enormity,” which doesn’t mean “enormousness,” but “monstrous wickedness,” and “fulsome,” which does not mean “very full,” but rather “offensive to normal tastes.” Rosenthal says that “when careful writers … confront a shadowy phantonym, they’ll resist.” Hence Barack Obama’s use of “fulsome accounting” to mean “full” was both erroneous and sloppy.

In a similar vein, lexicographer Bryan A. Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage linguist states that “when a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another – a phase that might take ten years or a hundred- it’s likely to be the subject of dispute.”

An example of such is the word “effete” that traditionally meant “worn out” or “barren” but increasingly is used by some people to mean “snobbishly sophisticated.”

Garner adds that “a word is most hotly disputed in the middle of the process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers.” He characterizes these disputed words as “skunked” and best avoided.

The reality of what qualifies as a “shadowy phantonym,” or a “skunked” word is not as clear-cut as Rosenthal or Garner pretend.

Can anyone say definitively when a word has been “skunked”?

Garner includes in his list of skunked words, “decimate” and “hopefully,” whereas I regard the use of “decimate” to mean “kill one-tenth” and the exclusive use of “hopefully” to mean only “in a hopeful manner” and not “one hopes,” or “it is to be hoped,” to be hopelessly moribund.

Similarly, some language purists argue that the word “dilemma” should only be used to refer to a choice between two unpleasant alternatives and not a plight or predicament, but most dictionaries allow for this latter sense.

And who is to be the sine qua non arbiter on what qualifies as proper English? According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other US dictionaries, “infer” means the same as “imply,” “peruse” means not only to “examine carefully” but to “read over in a casual manner,” “disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as “impartial” and “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” Alas, these liberal positions are heresy to some language observers.

Recently deceased language commentator William Safire started out as a rigid prescriptivist but even he acknowledged in his book In Love With Norma Loquendi that the masses represent the final arbiter of language: “The rules laid down by elites are to be respected … but in the end democracy, which goes by the name of common usage, will work its will. … When the population challenges the order over a period of time, Norma Loquendi – the everyday voice of the native speaker – is the heroine who changes the order and raises a new standard.”

Howard Richler’s latest book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words, will be published in March 2010 by Ronsdale Press.


Oh Canada! We stand on cars and freeze

Growing up in the drug-hazed ’60s, I pondered the identity of the enigmatic Leslie referenced in the popular song “Groovin” by the Rascals:

“You and me and Leslie”

Leslie, however, was not a member of some threesome but rather a figment of my imagination, or more precisely of my imagined hearing. The lyric, I found out in later years was, “You and me endlessly.”

I had been “mondegreened.”

The term “mondegreen,” which is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. As a child she had heard the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray” which she interpreted thus:

Ye Highlands and Ye lowlands

Oh where have you been?

They hae slay the Earl of Murray

And Lady Mondegreen.

Wright was wrong in thinking a double homicide had occurred. “Lady Mondegreen” was a projection of her febrile imagination, for the last line in fact was not “Lady Mondegreen” but “laid him on the green.”

Children are particularly prone to this type of mistake, where an unfamiliar word or phrase is changed into something more familiar. This process has created some memorable “religious” personages such as “Round John Virgin” (instead of “round yon Virgin”); “Harold be thy name” (instead of “hallowed be thy name” and “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” (instead of “Gladly, the cross I’d bear”).

Many a familiar phrase has been mondegreened. A “dog eat dog” world has been rendered as a “doggy dog world”; “for all intents and purposes” has become “for all intensive purposes”; “duct tape” has turned into “duck tape”; and “no holds barred” has been phrased as “no holes barred.”

The majority of mondegreens seem to occur in the lyrics of songs. Word maven William Safire years ago cited an American grandmother who interpreted the Beatles’ lyric “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” as “the girl with colitis goes by.” The lyric “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” from Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze was interpreted by some as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Hendrix was aware of this misinterpretation and sometimes during a performance he would help perpetuate the misunderstanding by kissing a male associate after saying the line.

The obscure lyrics and indistinct pronunciation of many songs facilitate misinterpretations. On a website dedicated to misheard lyrics, I noticed that in Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery,” her lyric “you strut your rasta wear and a suicide poem” was interpreted as “you stretched your ass to where in a suicide home.” In the Aerosmith song “Dude looks like a lady,” the titled lyric is somewhat squealed. I always thought the line was “Do the funky lady.” This website confirmed that I was not the only confused listener. Others had misheard this line as “Do the shockalayley”, “Do the rock-a lady” and “Doodoos like a lady.”

Some song lyrics are almost impossible to decipher. I suspect few people know that the lyric that follows “Willie and the Poor Boys are Playin’ (by Credence Clearwater Revival) is “bring a nickel tap your feet.” Small wonder that someone at this website reported hearing the lyric as “singing pickles can’t be beat.” Also misinterpreted by this musical group is the lyric “there’s a bad moon on the rise” which has been heard as “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Unilingual troglodytes claim to have heard the Beatles’ “Michelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble” as “Michelle, my bell, some day monkey play piano song, play piano song.”

Some mishearings are somewhat incredible. Dylan’s line “the answer my friend” in “Blowin’ in the Wind” has apparently been interpreted entomologically as “the ants are my friends.” A Crystal Gayle song years ago was heard as “Doughnuts Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” and at the aforementioned website somebody claims to have heard the lyric from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” “no dark sarcasm in the classroom” as “no Dukes of Hazzard in the classroom.”

Montreal-born Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct says that the “interesting thing about mondegreens is that the mis-hearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics. He relates the anecdote of a student who heard the Shocking Blue song “I’m Your Venus” as “I’m your penis” and thus was amazed that it wasn’t censored.

Howard Richler’s latest book Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words will be published in March 2010 by Ronsdale Press.


Language evolution not always fun

October, 2009

Reader Wendy McDonald asked, “Can you tell me when ‘fun’ became an adjective rather than a noun? I suppose this is a case of the language evolving, but I must say I’m glad I’m not an English teacher these days. Where does one draw the line?”

Like Ms. McDonald, whom I presume to be over 40, I tend to cringe when I hear the word “fun” used in an adjectival sense, particularly when it is expressed in the comparative (“funner”) and superlative senses (“funnest”). The construction “so fun” also leaves me with a queasy feeling. I should perhaps explain that “fun” should not be confused with “funny” which means “amusing”; the adjectival meaning is more akin to “enjoyable.”

Having admitted that adjectivally, at least, I’m not a “fun” guy, I have to concede that there is nothing inherently ungrammatical in the use of “fun” as an adjective. One of the hallmarks, and I would argue, one of the strengths of English is its flexibility. Nouns can be “verbed,” verbs and adjectives can be “nouned,” and as is the case of the word “fun,” nouns can be turned into adjectives.

It’s often difficult to state categorically what function a word is fulfilling in an English sentence. Take the word “steel.” If I say “Steel is a metal,” it is obvious that “steel” is being used as a noun. If, however, I declare “The steel bridge rusted,” “steel” is modifying the noun “bridge” and acts like an adjective. We happen to know that in the latter sense “steel” is a noun because of its use in other contexts. If we were not aware of these other contexts we might conclude that it was an adjective.

This is how the word “fun” is used in many situations. People refer to a “a fun time” or “a fun activity.” Many of us say things such as “This game is fun” or “It’s really fun” or “This party is more fun than the last one” where the distinction between adjective and noun is rather hazy.

It is likely that this use of “fun” began playfully in expressions such as “It’s fun to travel” where “fun” was behaving syntactically like an adjective. This usage became popular in American English by the 1960s, but there is some evidence to suggest that it had 19th century antecedents. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in 1876, Huck tells Tom Sawyer, “Tom-honest injun, now – is it fun or earnest?” Here “fun” is more adjectival than noun-like because of its pairing with “earnest.”

In any case, while the original intent of the adjectival sense of “fun” may have been jocular, it is usually used in earnest nowadays. Typical of this tendency is the blurb I read recently on a book entitled Cell Wars: “This book describes in a fun manner the way the body fights off bacteria and viruses.”

Under the heading “fun” the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists situations where the word appears in combination forms such as “fun-filled” or “fun-loving.” Increasingly, these combined forms are being supplanted and replaced merely with the word “fun.” This follows a pattern prevalent particularly in American English where words are shortened. I noticed, for example, that the term “winningest” is accepted by Encarta World English Dictionary, published in the USA, whereas the word is not listed in the OED, published in the UK.

Although the OED, unlike some dictionaries, still does not give its blessing to the adjectival use of “fun,” I was surprised to discover that the word is cited as a verb going back to 1685: “She had fun’d him of his Coin.” Here the verb “to fun”’ means “to cheat.” I suspect the day will come when we find that this usage does not raise any elderly eyebrows, probably when today’s 30-year-olds will be using “funner” and “funnest” as octogenerians. Entering “funner” and “funnest” into Google yielded thousands of hits, and not all of them to youth-oriented sites. One online travel magazine headline announced “Cruises: Bigger, Fancier, Funner Than Ever” and advertises “the funnest movies to watch.”

So should “fun” be used as an adjective? My advice is that it is fine to use in informal contexts such as conversation, letters, or e-mail, but for the time being, because there are so many people “funning fun,” it is best to avoid in formal writing.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?


Making language work for workers

September 5 marked Labour Day and if your labour is merely laborious, take solace that this was the original connotation of the word. When the word first surfaced in English in the 14th century, its sole sense was as “arduous toil”; by the late 16th century the word was used to refer to the rigours of childbirth. It was only in 1776 that its main sense today of work done in order to obtain material wants and needs surfaced, in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: “The annual labour of ever y nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, which it annually consumes.”

The first Labour Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labour organizations, and in 1885 Labour Day was celebrated in many U.S. industrial centres.

In Canada, on April 15, 1872, the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first North American “workingman’s demonstration.” Some 10,000 Torontonians turned out to watch a parade and to listen to speeches calling for abolition of the law which decreed that “trade unions were criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.” On July 23, 1894, the Canadian government enacted legislation making Labour Day, the first Monday of September of each year, into a national holiday.

The labour movement appropriated some common English words and gave them specific work-related senses. The use of “strike” to mean “withdraw labour, ” developed in the mid-18th century and was first recorded in the Annual Register in 1768: “A body of sailors … proceeded … to Sunderland … and at the cross there read a paper, setting forth their grievances. … After this they went on board the several ships in that harbour, and struck (lowered down) their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea.” The word “scab” is first noted in the 13th century and referred to a “disease of the skin.” The OED relates that by the end of the 16th century the word acquired a slang sense as a term of abuse or depreciation applied to persons: “A mean, l ow, ‘scurvy’ fellow; a rascal, scoundrel, occasionally applied to a woman.” By the end of the 18th century this negative sense was extended to refer to a person who refuses to join a strike or who takes over the work of a striker.

“Picket” also has been extended in meaning. It comes from the military sense of a small, detached body of troops, sent out to watch for the approach of the enemy or its scouts. Ultimately, the word comes from the French “piquet,” which referred to a wooden stake driven into the ground.

To paraphrase Paul Simon, “There must be fifty ways to lose your job,” such as “rightsize,” “can,” “let go,” “deselect,” “axe,” and “rif ” (short for reduction in force). If you bemoan these 20th century euphemisms for job dismissal, you can take small comfort that the euphemistic process started even earlier. In Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, a character states “I wonder what old Fogg ’ud say if he knew it, I should get the sack, I s’pose- eh?” This expression goes back to the days when workmen had to provide their own tools that were kept in a bag at the employer’s workshop. When you were given back your sack it meant you were dismissed. Even the seemingly non-euphemistic “fire” came into American English in the late 19th century as a punning alternate to “discharge.”

I trust you enjoyed a non-laborious Labour Day. Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? Contact him at


You might not like the overuse of “like,” but, like, get used to it

July 2009

“When I told him, he got, like, so mad.” “I want to get a car that’s really, like, fast.” “I know, like, what’s that about anyway? I can’t believe that she would even, like, say that to you!”

In promoting my book Take My Words some years ago, I was the guest “expert” on several radio call-in programs. The theme of these programs was the ever-popular whinge, “What are your pet peeves about the English language?”

Callers vented their spleen on their most disliked usages, such as the word “hopefully,”split infinitives, using “who” in place of “whom,”etc. I explained that it was not altogether clear there was anything wrong with the usages they disliked. As writer Anthony Burgess said in his book A Mouthful of Air,“the emotions aroused by group loyalty obstruct the making of objective judgments about language. When we think we are making such a judgment,we are merely making a statement about our prejudices.”

The No. 1 hated usage was the word “like,” as in the quartet of examples provided by my peeved listeners that I listed at the start of this article. Given that most of the people who phoned to vent their spleen were over 40, recent research by University of Toronto linguistics professor Sali Tagliamonte bears out that the usage of “like” is an age marker. Her study showed that the use of like to narrate a story was found in 65 per cent of 17 to 19 year-olds, 29 per cent of 30 to 34 year-olds and 18 per cent of 35 to 49 year-olds; among octogenarians usage was zero. According to Tagliamonte, the use of “like” to narrate a story arose in California in the 1980s and “it gained prestige as a trendy and socially desirable way to voice a speaker’s inner experience.”

The recreation of language by the young is hardly a new phenomenon. Connie Eble in Slang and Sociability points out that even in the Middle Ages when young students flocked to academies in Paris and Bologna they changed language to strengthen group identity and set themselves apart from others.

I was unable to offer the radio callers any cogent defence of the viral use of “like,” but many linguists see nothing wrong with it. Tagliamonte claims that it doesn’t “reflect stupidity or poor grammar – it is merely a recent linguistic fact.” Linguist Marcel Danesi provides an even more spirited defense of “like” in his book Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence. Danesi says that while the liberal usage of “like” is disparaged by many grammarians, he believes it “actually improves the rhythms of English by making our language flow in a manner similar to the Romance languages.” According to Danesi, “like” is a functional word because it gives the speaker slightly more time to formulate thoughts.

Danesi says this emotive form of speech starts at around age 10 and he has dubbed this pre-adolescent talk as “pubilect.” Children who are approaching puberty acquire this speech pattern unconsciously from their teen peers, and Danesi calls pubilect an “emotive code with tendencies toward exaggeration especially in tone and voice modulation. Expressions such as ‘She’s faaaaar out!’ exemplify the common… pattern of overstressing highly emotional words by prolonging their tonic vowels.”

This emotive way of talking may have its place and function among the young, but I would hope that it dissipates once a person becomes a member of a largely non-emotive workplace. Perhaps, as Burgess might say, I am merely expressing my own prejudice, but I believe that by age 30 a person could transcend the rampant use of “like” and be able to express himself or herself in more nuanced and reasoned terms.

After all, English possesses the largest vocabulary of any language, so, like, why not use it?

Like, if you haven’t already read it,Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?


Outgoogled, yes, but at least we’re not ant-like

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

–Mark Twain

June 2009

Let’s admit it, dads: Father’s Day does not have the profile of Mother’s Day. Even on the eve of Our Day, Mom’s day “outgoogles” Dad’s 2-1, and according to commercial calculations, people spend significantly less on Father’s Day than on Mother’s Day. On the other hand lads, let us refrain from diluting our brew with maudlin tears, because there are several lexical advantages to being male.

Most importantly, there is no term in English that recognizes the right of a woman to kill her husband. We have the word “uxoricide,” which entered our lexicon in the mid 19th century to refer to the murder of a wife by her husband but (so far) no word to describe the legitimate or illegitimate murder of a husband is recorded in any dictionary. So ladies, remember that from a lexical perspective, while the English language will countenance you killing your mother (matricide), your sister (sororicide), your brother (fratricide), your father, (patricide), and even your dog and rabbit (canicide & leporicide), the offing of your husband is verboten.

Aside from not possessing a word that legitimizes “hubby-whacking,” here are several other lexical pluses to carrying the y chromosome. To extend Simon & Garfunkel’s list, I’d rather be a hammer, major, and governor than a nail, majorette and governess. Also, as a male, I can be described as avuncular, which means resembling an uncle, with connotations of being friendly, helpful and good-humoured, whereas a woman can only be so described by the entomologically sounding “aunt-like.”

Notwithstanding that maternity is a matter of fact and paternity often a matter of opinion, men easily outdistance woman in their ability to pass on surnames based on their chromosomal arrangement. The term “patronymic” receives 391,000 Google hits; whereas “matronymic” receives a paltry 16,100. Patronymics – names derived from a male’s ancestors such as Davidson, Ivanov, MacDonald, and O’Connor – are very common. Matronymics, such as Dworkin (named after Devorah) or Rifkin (named after Rivka), are quite rare. The presumption when one hears the word polygamy is that it refers to a man having more than one wife, but in fact, it merely refers to having more than one spouse of either gender. The actual word for having more than one wife is “polygyny,” which receives 510,000 Google hits compared to “polyandry” (having more than one husband), which gets 317,000 Google hits. Of course, the propensity of men having a greater quantity of concurrent spouses than women will not seem advantageous to some men.

Cynics would have us believe that Father’s Day was established as a result of effective lobbying by the Hallmark Corporation. In fact, when the holiday was proposed, there was no such thing as a Father’s Day card. American Louise Sonora Smart Dodd first proposed the idea of a “father’s day” in 1909 after listening to a Mother’s Day sermon. Mrs. Dodd wanted a special day to honour her father, William Smart, who became widowed when his wife (Mrs. Dodd’s mother) died in childbirth with their sixth child. He was left to raise the newborn and his other five children by himself on a rural farm in eastern Washington state. It was after Mrs. Dodd became an adult that she realized the strength and selflessness her father had shown in raising his children as a single parent.

The first Father’s Day was observed on June 19, 1910 in Spokane, Washington. At about the same time in various towns and cities across America, other people were beginning to celebrate a “father’s day.” In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge supported the idea of a national Father’s Day. Finally in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation declaring the third Sunday of June as Father’s Day.

Father’s Day, however, was not widely celebrated in the US until the mid-1930s and was not recorded in print before 1943. In Canada, the holiday gained status in the late ’40s and took hold by the early ’50s.

Enjoy your cologne or tie, guys.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?


The glass of language can be replenished

May, 2009

There are approximately 50 native languages in Canada and many linguists say that only three – Inuktitut, Ojibwa and Cree – are likely to survive this century.

But language rejuvenators take heart as language prognosticators enjoy a spotty record. Referring to the improbability of being able to revive Hebrew as a vernacular in the 20th century, scholar Simon Bernfeld wrote at the turn of the century: “To make the Hebrew language a spoken tongue in the usual sense of the word is … impossible. It has never occurred in any language.… A broken glass can no longer be put back together.” May 14 marked the 61st anniversary of the State of Israel, and so far the Hebrew glass shows no signs of shattering.

Bernfield was espousing “common knowledge.” Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, and Nathan Birnbaum (coiner of “Zionism”) didn’t believe the vernacularization of Hebrew was really possible in the foreseeable future. Time has proven these men wrong. How did this happen?

With the expulsion of Jews from Israel in 70 A.D., the everyday usage of Hebrew faded and was replaced by Aramaic and Greek. Although Hebrew stopped being a vernacular, it retained its position in Jewish communities as a language of study and prayer. Jews in the diaspora commonly used Ladino, the traditional language of Jews of Spanish descent, or Yiddish, for internal communication, and a non-Jewish vernacular for external communication. There were occasions when two Jews from different areas might meet who could communicate only in Hebrew. A Jew from Morocco (who didn’t speak Yiddish) might meet a Jew from Russia (who didn’t speak Ladino). These encounters, however, were rare.

The revival of a language that has ceased being used as a vernacular is a rare event, but Hebrew was not so much revived as revitalized. Hebrew was on the threshold of speech, having only lost its position as the language of the market place. There were several factors that influenced its renaissance. The Jews of Palestine wanted to break ties to the diaspora and a distinct national language was necessary to effectuate this divorce. Although English, French and German were common languages, none of them was dominant enough to stymie Hebrew’s resurgence. Hebrew’s main rival, Yiddish, never seriously challenged the predominance of Hebrew for many of the secular Yiddishists were anti-Zionist and didn’t immigrate to Israel in large numbers. Hebrew was thus able to fill a void by serving as a common vernacular to all the Jewish communities in Palestine. The Hebrew language was also blessed with many texts with varied Hebraic styles.

The person most associated with the revitalization of Hebrew was Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who left Europe in 1881 to live in the cramped quarters of Jerusalem. Both he and his wife shared a burning enthusiasm for the promotion of Hebrew. They established a policy in their home that Hebrew was the only language one was permitted to speak. Any visitor who could not speak Hebrew was forced to resort to gestures in order to communicate. Thanks in large part to Ben Yehuda’s zealousness, writer Robert St. John says it is now possible “for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love and curse out their neighbours in Hebrew.”

Ben Yehuda coined the word et-on for newspaper by an adaptation of the phrase michtav-et, “a letter of the time.” A dictionary had previously been referred to as sefermillim, “book of words” and Ben Yehuda used the Hebrew word millah, (word) as a base and created the word millon to refer to a dictionary. The youth of ancient Judea lacked bouncing balls and when Ben Yehuda saw his son playing with a ball, the lad apparently uttered a sound like cadurr, hence a ball in Hebrew became kadur. He also coined the word dagdegan, “clitoris” from the root dagdeg,“to tickle.” Not all of Ben- Yehuda’s neologisms, however, caught on. For example, his word for tomato, badura, was rarely voiced outside the Ben-Yehuda kitchen, and Hebrew speakers’ word for tomato is agvania. Similarly, although the official Hebrew word for sandwich is karich, you’ll be probably served faster at a Tel Aviv restaurant if you ask for a “sendvich.”

Although other attempts at reviving a language, such as Maori and Irish, have been hampered by a lack of widespread knowledge of the written language, no case is hopeless. Linguist Kenneth Hale says even though there aren’t any speakers of Mohican, “you could take books and deeds published back in the 1600s, and from what we know about comparative Algonquin, you could figure out pretty closely what it sounded like. People could learn it and begin to use it and revive it.”

Israeli scholar Naftali Tur-Sinai stated, “even an artificial language which has never been alive, such as Esperanto, can be made to live, if only there is a recognized need for it and a stubborn will of people to make it come alive.”

Happy 61st birthday, Israel. Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?


Fossilized words are embedded in our language

April, 2009

The English language is littered with thousands of archaic words. Some have pleasant connotations, such as “franion,” which the OED defines as a “gay reckless fellow,” and “halch,” which means “embrace.”

These words, for better or worse, have flickered out. Alas, words are organic. They are born, they live and they die. Sometimes, however, words don’t quite expire but enjoy a vestigial existence by being employed in an expression or a hyphenated word.

For example, while the word “kith” has probably been uttered recently by a romantic lisper, the OED documents that its last usage without its partner “kin” was in 1848. “Kith” is an old word first used in 1000 AD to refer to one’s friends and countrymen. Similarly, “kilter” is an archaic word that referred to the “good condition” of something, and nowadays is only employed in the negative sense of something being “out of kilter” or “off kilter.” The last attestation of “caboodle” in the OED without “kit” was in 1923. “Caboodle” appears to be a corruption of “boodle,” which developed in the 1830s in America to refer to the “whole lot.” By the end of the 19th century this usage was all but extinct.

One can only be in “cahoots” (never in “cahoot”) with someone in some devious partnership, but the word “cahoot” developed in the southwest of the United States in the early 19th century as a form of the archaic Scottish word cahute which meant “cabin,” or “poor hut.” We only talk about new fangled things, but “fangled” never really enjoyed a separate existence in our language. The OED says that the both the noun and verb “fangle” had the sense of “fashion,” but this arose from a mistaken analysis of newfangled, later form of newfangle, “eager for novelty.” The “fangle” part of this word derived from the Old English fangol, “inclined to take.”

The word “dudgeon” is only employed when attached to “high” and sometimes “great” or “deep,” and it refers to intense irritability. Similarly, “shrift” is only available when married to “short.”’ Shakespeare, however, had other options for the word. In Measure for Measure, the Duke says, “I will give him a present shrift, and advise him for a better place.” In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet’s nurse asks her young mistress, “Have you got leave to go to shrift today?” “Shrift” referred to the confession of sins and the granting of absolution, so to receive “short shrift” meant one wasn’t getting the attention one merited. In Old English, “short shrift” referred to an even more precarious situation and this was alluded to by Shakespere’s Duke. It referred to the short period of time allotted someone about to be executed to say their confession. The past participle of “shrift” was “shriven,” and this word lives on in the associated adjective “shrove” as in Shrove Tuesday.

There are many words featured in expressions or hyphenated words that may appear to be familiar as they have homographs in our language. Originally one would pay a “scot” for some service and particularly one related to entertainment. Later, the term was applied to the payment of a local tax that was levied based on the financial means of the inhabitant. So just as today there is no free lunch, in days of yore, there was no “scot-free.” The word “hue,” as in “hue and cry,” does not refer to shading but to the outcry of a multitude. It derived from the Old French huer, “to hoot.” Similarly, the word “pale,” as in “beyond the pale,” is an old word for “stake.” “Poke,” as in the to-be-avoided purchase of a “pig in a poke,” is an old word for a “small sack,” and this sense lives on in the word’s diminutive “pocket. ”The term “poke,” I am told, is still used as a term for a bag in some parts of the American South, and according to the OED, in Scotland “applied to the bags or wallets in which a … beggar carried provisions and portable property.”

While some words with negative connotations have become extinct, one old word survives only in a negative form. “Couth” until the 16th century was a word that meant “known.” The reverse process, however, can occur. The word “ept” is a back-formation of “inept” first recorded in a letter written by author E.B.White in 1938: “I am much obliged to you for your warm, courteous, and ept treatment of a rather weak, skinny subject.”

A rather “ane” word, if you ask me.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?


Think movies don’t help shape language? Forgeddaboutit!

March 2009

The movie Slum Dog Millionaire, which won the Best Picture award at the Oscars, demonstrates the power of movies on society, showing how a boy from the slums of Mumbai can seemingly defy Indian fate through his own efforts.

Similarly, it can be argued, the movies Deep Impact (1998) and Head Of State (2003), featuring Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock as U.S.presidents, paved the way for the election of Barack Obama.

While the power of films to shape society is oft noted, their power to shape language is often forgotten. When Rhett Butler tells Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” it marks the first time the word “damn” was allowed to be voiced either on the radio or in a film. Also popularized this same year is the expression, “Are you a man or a mouse?” asked of Jimmy Stewart by Carole Lombard in the movie Made for Each Other.

Many expressions from movies display a cool insouciance or an attitude of defiance that explains why they so readily become buzzwords, particularly for young males. Some examples of such are “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” (The Godfather – 1972); “Go ahead, make my day” (Sudden Impact – 1983), and “You’re a funny guy. …I like you. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.” (Commando – 1985.)

Also, movie dialogue helps us express ourselves. Let’s say you want to convey frustration. You could do no better than Peter Finch’s rant in the 1976 movie Network, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” If you want a catchphrase that explains the need for an ambitious plan to have a large initial investment, try, “If you build it, they will come.”(Field of Dreams –1989). Movie phrases also provide us with shorthand expressions. In 1996, for example, Jerry Maguire gave us a pithy way of saying that rather than making things complicated, one should merely do what is required: “Show me the money.” Sometimes new expressions come into our vernacular from films regardless of the context of the film being lost. A case in point is Robert De Niro’s line from the 1976 film Taxi Driver, “You talkin’ to me?” which is usually stated in a whimsical way. However, in the movie, De Niro plays deranged taxi driver Travis Bickle, who taunts himself in a mirror repeating in a belligerent mantra, “You talkin’ to me?”

Movies also have provided us with expressions that affirm our fondest desires. The line “There’s no place like home” was popularized in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Thanks to the 1977 film Star Wars in which Ben “Obi-wan” Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, “May the force be with you,” we now have a secular blessing in our lexicon.

Another mob movie, 1997’s Donnie Brasco, features Johnny Depp in the title role as an undercover police officer taping the illegal activities of gangsters. He is asked by a fellow officer listening to the tape about the meaning of the ever-repeated expression “forgeddaboutit” and provides the following analysis: “ ‘Forgeddaboutit.’ It’s like if you agree with someone, like ‘Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass’ – Forgeddaboutit! But then if you disagree like ‘A Lincoln is better than a Cadillac’? – Forgeddaboutit! But then if something is the greatest thing in the world, like those peppers – Forgeddaboutit! But it also means ‘Go to hell,’ like if I say to Paulie, ‘You have a one-inch pecker,’ and Paulie says, ‘Forgeddaboutit!’ Sometimes it just means ‘Forget about it.’”

And you thought the TV’s The Sopranos popularized the term “forgeddaboutit?”


Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?


X marks the spot in chiasmus

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” – Bill Clinton

“A lawyer starts life giving $500 worth of law for $5, and ends giving $5 worth for $500.” – 19th century U.S. Attorney-General Benjamin H. Brewster

Welcome to the symmetrical world of chiasmus. Chiasmus is defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms as “a figure of speech by which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second. This may involve a repetition of the same words (“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes sin’s a pleasure”– Byron) or just a reversed parallel between two corresponding pairs of ideas.”

Chiasmus (pronounced kye-AZ-muss) is named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a “crisscross” arrangement of terms. One can literally mark many chiastic expressions with an X. Take Mae West’s contribution to this genre:

It’s not the men in my life

It’s the life in my men

Certain chiastic statements such as “all for one and one for all,” and the shortened Cicero quote “eat to live, not live to eat” are word palindromes. The rhetorical elements of chiasmus are always rendered in palindromic order, seen in the above Mae West quote. In Genesis 9:6, we have a longer structure: “whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed.”

Chiastic statements appear to reveal hidden truths and are thus popular in Biblical writing: Aside from the Genesis 9:6 quote, other examples include “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) and “many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). According to The Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, chiastic structure is built into Biblical Hebrew.

Physicist Nils Bohr said: “There are trivial truths and great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Rhetorical devices are useful in exhibiting Bohr’s point. Oxymoron is sometimes erroneously defined as a contradictory expression. A true oxymoron, such as Shakespeare’s “sweet sorrow,” or Milton’s “darkness visible” is a rhetorical device, where the seeming contradiction involves a point. Chiastic transpositions can be similarly employed. Take the French proverb “love makes time pass, time makes love pass,” or Ernest Hemingway’s fondness for asking people which of these two statements they preferred: “Man can be destroyed but not defeated,” or “Man can be defeated but not destroyed.”

Chiasmus can also be employed as a form of wit. Humour that uses incongruity often uses chiasmus, especially with implied statements. Oscar Wilde was a master at this type of transposition. Some of his classics are: “work is the curse of the drinking class” (parodying “drink is the curse of the working class”) and “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” and “the English have a miraculous power of turning wine into water.”

Other implied chiastic quips include Mae West’s “a hard man is good to find” and “a waist is a terrible thing to mind,” Groucho Marx’s “time wounds all heels,” and the amphibian philosopher Kermit the Frog’s observation that “time’s fun when you’re having flies.”

This type of transpositional humour can also be used in defining matters. A hangover has been described as “the wrath of grapes” and a critic who provides a harsh opening night review is said to have “stoned the first cast.”

The rhetorical elements need not even be whole words. Two of my favourite examples of chiasmus are of this genre. There’s Randy Hanzlick’s song, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than have a frontal lobotomy” and an Edwardian toast that went “Here’s champagne for our real friends and real pain for our sham friends.”

It is only appropriate that Bill Clinton should utter a great chiasmus, as he was the subject of one in a contest held some years ago by The Washington Post. In reference to the Monica Lewinsky debacle, here was the winning entry:

Bill Clinton before: “I don’t know how I can make this any clearer.”

Bill Clinton after: “I don’t know how I can clear this with my Maker.”

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at


Santa's wrong: it's naughty and nice

He’s making a list
Checking it twice
He’s gonna find out
Who's naughty or nice
– “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Haven Gillespie & J. Fred Coots, 1932

It is quite apparent that the duo of Gillespie and Coots had no etymological training or they’d have realized that etymologically there is no dichotomy between the states of naughtiness and niceness. The word “nice” emerged in the English language and originally meant “foolish” or “ignorant” (it derives from the Latin, nescius, “ignorant”) but before long it carried the connotation of wantonness or lasciviousness. In quotations from the 14th and 15th centuries it is associated with ribald and lustful behaviour. Observe the following from Chaucer’s Romance of the Rose written in 1366: “Nice she was, but she meant no harm or slight in her intent.” More than two centuries later Shakespeare uses the word in much the same manner in Love’s Labour Lost: “These are compliments, these are humours, that betray nice wenches that would be betrayed.”

The Shakespearean line reminds me of thesophomoric joke that made the rounds in the early 1960s that purported to explain the difference between a good girl and a nice girl in this manner: The good girl goes to a party, goes home and then goes to bed, whereas the nice girl goes to the party but goes to bed before going home.

In the 16th century “nice” went through a shift of meanings and came to mean such things as “delicate,” “elegant,” “cultured,” and “respectable” but it would not be until the 19th century that it became synonymous with the word “pleasant.”

While most readers are probably not cognizant of the original naughty sense of nice, I suspect few people are not aware of the change of meaning of a certain word that appears in the Christmas songs Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Deck the Halls. Observe the following lyrics from these two melodies: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Make the Yule-tide gay” and “Don we now our gay apparel, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la.” Nowadays, if someone were exposed to this latter lyric for the first time, he/she would be excused for believing that the theme involved cross-dressing.

Although today the word gay still possesses the sense of “merry,” the homosexual connotation is the dominant one. How did this transformation occur? “Gay” is first used with the homosexual connotation in the 1920s by American expatriates living in Paris and the word is first recorded with this sense in the OED in 1935.

“Gay” didn’t suddenly metamorphose in meaning from “merry” to “homosexual.” By the 15th century it referred to one “addicted to social pleasures and dissipations.” A “gay dog” referred to a man given to reveling or self-indulgence. In 1630, William Davenant in The Cruel Brother and Nicholas Rowe later in 1703 in The Fair Penitent unveiled libertine characters they dubbed “Lothario.” As a result, in the 18th century, the term “gay Lothario” was used to refer to such a character. In the 19th century, the word was sometimes applied to a woman deemed to lead an immoral life, such as a prostitute. Also, the term “gaycat” may have influenced the semantic change of the word “gay.” By the turn of the twentieth century, the word was used by hobos to refer to a tramp’s companion, usually a young boy, and often his catamite, which is defined by the OED as “a boy kept for unnatural purposes.”

Incidentally, the word “gay” is still evolving If a teen tells you that “a party was gay,” he/she is probably not describing the sexual preferences of the party-goers but rather is stating that it was not a good party.

A merry Christmas to all.

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at


Some surprising house origins

In this Housing edition of The Senior Times we reveal the original meanings of your place of abode.

House and home are among the oldest words in the English language, both being in use before the year 1000. Similar words can also be found in virtually all other Germanic-based languages such as the Dutch huus, German haus and Swedish hus. Etymologically (if not in reality!) a husband is bonded with a house, as originally it meant “master of the household” and not “male spouse.” The word home comes from the Old English hām that referred to a place where one lives and the “ham” spelling lives on in place names such as Birmingham and Durham.

We also see longevity and Germanic origins in the basic ingredients of a house: room, wall, floor, door, and roof. Not quite as ancient in English is the word window that arrived in our language in the 13th century, replacing the Old English eyethurl that meant “eye-hole.” But isn’t window a far more poetic word, literally meaning the “eye of the wind?”

The word for the prettiest of homes, cottage, is first recorded in the 13th century and derives from the Old English word cote that referred to a humble dwelling. This spelling has survived the ages in the word dovecote. Until the 18th century the word cottage was restricted to the homes of the poor, and the OED states that it was only in the 19th century that “the name is divested of all associations with poverty.” Methinks this was a ploy foisted on us by Victorian realtors to increase the market value of hovels.

Likewise, mansion and manor had humble beginnings and etymologically both refer to a place one stays or dwells, deriving from the Latin manere, “remain or stay.” By the late 14th century, however, the word’s meaning ameliorated and its prime sense came to refer to the chief residence of a lord.

At the other end of the real estate scale, the key to understanding the etymology of apartment is in isolating “part,” as the word was first used in the 17th century to refer to the part of a house or building consisting of a suite or set of rooms, allotted to the use of a particular person or group. Only in 18th century North America did it acquire its present meaning of a single unit within a multi-unit residential building that is leased by an individual who occupies the space.

However, if you are male and pride yourself on your suave bachelor apartment, you might not want to relay to your urbane dates that the word bachelor derives from the Latin baccalaria and is related to the Latin word for cow, bacca. Also, a baccalarius referred to a person employed on a grazing farm, though it is unlikely that any academic degree was conferred as a result of a passing mark in sheep grazing.

A bungalow is of more recent and exotic vintage. In Hindustani, bangla means belonging to Bengal, and in the 17th century a bungalow referred to a lightly built house, usually with a thatched roof. Over time, the term became generalized for any single-storey house.

Bringing us up-to-date, the sense of condominium as an owned apartment unit only goes back to 1962, but the word’s first usage can be traced back to 1714, when the Danes believed that the Duke of Holstein’s construction of new forts “was contrary to the condominium, which that king and the duke have in that duchy” i.e. joint rule or sovereignty.

Many a contemporary feuding condo or townhouse owner will identify with this snippet of Danish/German real estate history.

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at


How to overcome SADD (Shakespearean Attention Deficit Disorder)

Recently, I saw an excellent production of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival but was disheartened by the great number of empty seats.

While the musicals playing at the festival were well-attended – notwithstanding seat prices that were many times more expensive – a fine production of arguably the greatest play ever written was at least 40% vacant. Don’t blame the critics – this production has received universal rave reviews. Why then was this Hamlet so poorly attended?

I think that lack of comprehension of the language used by the Bard is a partial answer. Shakespeare’s comedies, with their myriad double entendres, are even more inaccessible, but the tragedies present many situations not really appreciated by a modern audience. For example, when Hamlet resolves to avenge his father’s murder he states, “Yea from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records.” Here “table” has the sense of “writing tablet” and “fond” means “frivolous.” When Hamlet’s mother, terrified by her son’s behaviour, is struck with “admiration,” she is struck with “astonishment” and not “approval.” When Horatio says to Hamlet that “one with moderate haste might tell a hundred” he is using “tell” in the now obsolete sense of “itemize.” Similarly, in Hamlet, Shakespeare employed the word “abuse” to mean “deception,” “accident” to mean “incident,” “coil” to mean “turmoil,” “conceit” to mean “understanding,” “dismal” to mean “sinister,” “flaw” to mean “squall” and “protest” to mean “proclaim.”

This brings up the obvious question: does anybody aside from a rarefied elite understand Shakespeare’s vocabulary? Take the following famous passage in Hamlet when Polonius provides fatherly advice to his son Laertes who is embarking on a journey:

And these few precepts in thy memory

See thou character. Give the thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.

Here “character” means “to inscribe,” “thoughts” refers to “intention” or “plan,” and “act” means “execution.” Thus, Polonius is advising his son to mark his advice in his memory – not to show his hand, and not to act on his intentions until they are completely thought out. Later on in the passage Polonius advises his son to “bear’t” and to “take each man’s censure.” It would appear to the modern listener that he is telling his son “to cope” and to “turn the other cheek,” but this is not the intent of Polonius. “Bear’t” here means “make sure that” and “censure” means “to judge.” Thus Polonius is telling his son not to “grin and bear it” but to “strive for excellence” and not “to defer” but to view people with insight.

There are times when the context helps make the meaning evident. I suppose when Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus, “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me,” many people will fathom that “let” here does not mean “permit” – in fact it means “hinder” or “prevent.” But one may be easily thrown off assuming that Shakespeare was employing it in the modern sense.

The meaning of words over the past 400 years has changed enough to render any comprehension of Shakespeare by a modern audience partial at best, and only the Shakespearean cognoscenti or a trained expert in Elizabethan English can get a full understanding. Ironically, the French can appreciate Shakespeare to a greater extent than we do, being able to enjoy it in a language they understand.

Clearly, English-speaking theatregoers are suffering from a case of SADD: Shakespearean Attention Deficit Disorder. Well-annotated programs explaining Shakespeare’s vocabulary would be very helpful in bringing back what the author intended – a thrilling and witty narrative understood by a large audience.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?


Linguistic chauvinism reigns supreme

The French hate the Germans, The Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, And I don't like anybody very much!

The Merry Minuet, Kingston Trio, circa 1960

One of the less attractive qualities of ethnic and linguistic identity is its association with intolerance towards outsiders. Many languages designate those who are mutually intelligible as "speakers" or "people" — Those who speak a language deemed incomprehensible are labeled as the "others," or "babblers."

A few examples are in order. The Ancient Greeks used the onomatopoeic term barbaroi ("babblers") to mock anyone whom they deemed incomprehensible, i.e. anyone who used a language other than Greek. This word came into Latin as barbarus, with the same meaning, and bequeathed to us the words "barbarous" and "barbarian." The Chinese bestowed on the Miao and Moso tribes of South China the name "southern barbarians" and "miserable ones" because they did not understand their speech. The Slavs conferred the name Nemet ("mute" or "dumb") on their German neighbours.

The view that one's own language is superior to others is widespread, and many reasons are supplied in defense of this chauvinistic hypothesis. A language might be viewed the oldest, the most logical, the most phonetic, or the language of the gods. Some of the claims have been particularly preposterous. Sixteenth-century German writer J.G. Becanus argued that German was superior because it was the language Adam spoke in Eden. Luckily, he claimed, it was not affected by the later Babel debacle because the early Germans (the Cimbrians) did not participate in the tower construction. Becanus informs us that the Almighty later caused the Old Testament to be translated from an original but now defunct German into Hebrew.

Languages are prone to attribute negative qualities to foreign influences. In the English language we refer to an unauthorized absence as taking "French leave." The French retaliate by taking "English leave," (filer à l'anglais). Norwegians and Italians join the French in also taking "English leave."

Foreign idioms referencing English provide a snapshot of attitudes towards those in the English-speaking world and it would appear that the honesty of anglophones is questionable. In French to "fleece somebody" is to anglaiser quelqu'un and both the French and the Italians refer to con games as the "American swindle." In Serbo-Croatian the expression praviti se Englez translates as "to act like an Englishman," i.e. to act as if nothing is wrong in the hope that a situation will sort itself out. One humourous French idiom that references the English is les Anglais ont debarqué which is used as a euphemism for "I have my period."

Outsiders are liable to be blamed for vice and immorality in our midst. No example better exemplifies this than the disease syphilis. The Italians attributed it to the French and called it Mal francesse. The French turned the tables and called it Mal de Naples. The Germans also targeted the French and labeled it Franzosen bšse Blattern ("French bad blisters"). The English called it "French pox," or the "French disease" and referred to the baldness that syphilis produced as a "French crown." To be "Frenchified" meant to have a venereal infection and a "French pig" was a venereal sore. The Russians blamed it on the Poles, who in turn called it the "German Disease." To the Dutch, it was Spaensche Pokken ("Spanish pox"). Once the disease was transmitted eastward to India, Japan and China, it emerged as the "Portuguese disease" and not surprisingly, Turks held Christians responsible. Finally, in the 16th century it received the designation "syphilis" which seemed to have universal appeal. The name derives from the name of a fabled syphilitic shepherd in the poem Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus by Italian poet Girolamo Fracastoro. This fable relates the story of the shepherd Syphilis whose blasphemy so angered the Sun God that he saddled poor Syphilis with an eponymous new disease.

Linguistic chauvinism dictates that not only is one's mother tongue "infected" by foreign influences, but that the alien languages are even responsible for the infections.

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at


Your body language may be bawdy to some

Linguist Edward Sapir defined non-verbal communication as the “elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.” He could have added to the end of the sentence the clause “members of a particular culture.” For if you don’t understand the rudimentary gestures of a society, you’ll find it difficult to communicate effectively notwithstanding some fluency in the particular language.

I was reminded of how varied gestures can be while enjoying a café écremé at a Parisian café two years ago. Some English-speaking patrons were trying to get the attention of a waiter and were gesticulating wildly with their hands and fingers. This led to their waiter swearing under his breath because in French society such palpable pointing is considered rude, and one seeking the attention of a waiter would be better advised to tip the head back slightly and just say s’il vous plait.

Mind you, the French do gesticulate a lot with their hands and one can sometimes even discern details of a conversation from a distance without hearing a word. There are many other useful gesticulations that may be helpful to know while in France. For example, if you want someone to speak in a softer voice, raise your index finger in the air. In order to emphasize the importance of what you are about to say or to indicate that you are going to reprimand someone, wave your finger back and forth. On the other hand, if you want  someone to “shut up,” the ferme-la gesture gets the point across by holding your hand out in the shape of a C and then squeezing the fingers and thumb together.

Beware though that a gesture you are familiar with might mean something entirely different in France. The O.K. sign (thumb and forefinger forming a circle) is usually a Gallic way of expressing that something is worthless.

More serious still, while for us a sign made with the second and fifth fingers is a challenge towards the veracity of someone’s position, i.e. the “B.S.” sign, for University of Texas football fans, it is known as the “hook ’em horns” sign and is flashed as a signal of support for their team, the Longhorns. But in Italy, this sign can signify that a man is being cuckolded and hence it would not be prudent for two Texas alumni to flash their alma mater’s symbol in an Italian bar, notwithstanding that both gestures have their origin in livestock – the longhorn for Texans, and the goat for Italians.

When shopping in Rhodes this summer, I saw an American tourist extend his palm outward in an effort to stop the come-on of an aggressive street vendor. The vendor visibly recoiled, as in Greece this gesture is known as the moutza, and dates back to ancient Greece when fecal matter was thrown at war prisoners.

Even when traveling in a fellow English-speaking country, we must adapt our gestures. The “V for victory” sign, immortalized by Winston Churchill and adopted by peaceniks, is only valid in the palm-outward position. When the palm is in the inward position, one is literally giving someone “the finger.” Brits are, generally speaking, not aware that this dichotomy does not transcend the British Isles. Desmond Morris, in Manwatching, relates that “Englishmen when travelling abroad have often been nonplussed at the total failure of this sign (palm inward) when directed, say, towards an Italian driver.” Chances are that the Italian motorist will just wave and smile, leaving the Brit in an apoplectic state.

When travelling abroad it is wise to know when your body language could become bawdy language.

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?
He can be reached at


Whose word is it anyway?

Who owns a word? Recently, three residents of the island of Lesbos laid claim to the word “lesbian,” filing suit against the organization Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece for using the word “lesbian” in its name. The litigants claim the organization’s name “insults the identity” of the people of Lesbos, who are also known as Lesbians. One of the plaintiffs, Dimitris Lambrou, claims that the global dominance of the word “lesbian” in its sexual context violates the human rights of the islanders of Lesbos and causes them world-wide humiliation.

This case brings to mind a 1998 protest that occurred in England over the name Mecca Bingo for a bingo hall chain. Muslim protesters felt insulted that the name of their holiest city be associated with gambling and this led to some violent demonstrations, although to my knowledge no legal action was launched claiming a proprietary right to the word “Mecca.” It’s also interesting to note that as Mecca Bingo Ltd. was established in 1884, the protests about the use of the name were hardly immediate.

These actions prompt the question of who owns a word. While the first OED usage of lesbian in the 17th century refers to people living on the island of Lesbos, by the end of the 19th century the term lesbian referring to same-sex female couples entered the dictionary and was entrenched in the English language. Similarly, by the middle of the 19th century, the word “Mecca” was often used for a place which attracts people of a particular group or with a particular interest.

The aforementioned contentions are by no means the only litigious possibilities. So far, no protests have been heard from the residents of Bohemia over the usurping of the word “bohemian” by artsy-fartsy vagabonds who lead irregular lives. Nor have I heard any murmurs of dissent from the residents of Donnybrook, the former Irish suburb of Dublin, that the word donnybrook has come to refer to a riotous brawl.

And where will it all end? Shouldn’t Bulgarians take umbrage that the word “bugger” comes from Bulgarian? The OED relates that it was “a name given to a sect of heretics who came from Bulgaria in the 11th century, afterwards to other ‘heretics.’” Perhaps Slovenians will come to feel that the word “slovenly” casts aspersions on them, notwithstanding the word does not derive from Slovenia, but merely sounds as if it could?

Personally, I’ll be astonished if the courts in Greece rule in favour of the Lesbos litigants. An etymological close precedent, the word gay, has long been usurped by the homosexual community. Along with merry folks, people whose first name or surname is Gay could well be upset by puerile people who ask “are you Gay?” Also, who can listen to the lyrics “don we now our gay apparel” and not be prone to a vision of cross-dressers? The reality, however, is that “gay” to refer to a homosexual is now an entrenched meaning – like it or not, words do acquire new meanings.

On the other hand, some will argue that politically correct society has decided not to use certain terms like the verbs “to jew,” “to welsh” and “to gyp” as they attribute certain traits to the Jews, Welsh and Gypsies, respectively. Clearly, these are seen as a different situation from the “bohemian” and “donnybrook” usages because there is a consensus in society that stereotyping certain groups by supposed negative traits is offensive. The Lesbians’ strongest legal argument seems therefore to rest on the fact that they are being negatively tarred and this at a time when society is largely tolerant of sexual preference. Not a compelling argument.

So, given the entrenched and acceptable nature of “lesbian” to refer to same-sex female couples, I have a suggestion for the Greek litigants. Why don’t you demonstrate largesse, and compromise by adopting the word “Lesbonians” as an English term to refer to the inhabitants of Lesbos?

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?
He can be reached at


One man’s veranda is another woman’s gallery...

During a recent party at a friend’s summer home overlooking the St. Lawrence, I commented that the “veranda commanded a magnificent view of the river.”

This anodyne declaration drew the rebuke of another guest who insisted that we were standing on a “porch” not a “veranda.” The hostess then said rather firmly, “you’re both wrong. It’s a gallery.”

A spirited discussion then ensued. Some people were insistent that a veranda must be covered, while a porch need not be. To complicate matters even further, one person averred that since the said veranda/ porch was built well above the ground, why couldn’t it be referred to as a balcony or a deck? Here at last we reached some sort of consensus and most of the attendees felt a balcony was something quite different and a deck was at ground level, similar to a patio but built of wood. Another person declared that it depended on your origins and that while Ontarians tended to opt for the word porch, Quebec Anglos were prone to say gallery. Veranda was thought to be a word from India, thus the insistence on it being covered and possibly screened.

It was an interesting albeit incon­clusive conversation and I am happy to say it ended without too much rancour having been unleashed. Since I had started the controversy by my initial innocuous declaration of it being a veranda, and since I was the supposed “language expert,” I was given the burden of investigating this semantic debate.

Here are my findings:

I feel confident asserting that the assembled revellers were not revelling on a balcony. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD) describes balcony as a “usually balustraded platform on the outside of a building, with access from an upper-floor window or door” and the Encarta World English Dictionary describes it as “a platform projecting from the interior or exterior wall of a building, usually enclosed by a rail or a parapet.”

But after eliminating balcony, matters become fuzzy.

The Oxford Guide to Canadian Usage (OGCU) has this entry for porch, veranda, patio, deck: “A porch can be large or small, covered or uncovered. Thus the term porch can be applied to the structures that some people call either verandas or stoops. Veranda usually labels a structure that is quite grand, attached to a large, elegant house. Patio and deck are newer terms, describing more recent additions to domestic architecture. Unlike porches, they are generally attached to a back or side entrance; neither is normally roofed. A patio is usually stone or cement, while a deck is made of wood; both are large enough to allow several people to sit in a group.”

However, this entry does not address the regionality of these terms. The COD defines veranda from Hindi varanda, from Portuguese varanda, “railing,” as a “usually roofed porch or external gallery along one or more sides of a house, especially the front,” but it adds that in Australia and New Zealand it refers to “a roof over a sidewalk in front of a shop.” If that isn’t confusing enough, the COD’s first definition of “porch” is “a covered shelter for the entrance of a house,” but its second definition adds, “North America, a veranda.” Also, a porch originally only referred to a covered entrance affording protection, but in many North American locales the term would be widely used to refer to all but the largest verandas.

Excluded from the OCGU variety of porch was the term gallery. The COD states that in North America, particularly Quebec, Newfoundland and the Gulf States, this is “a veranda, especially one surrounding a building on all sides.”

In conclusion I will say that one man’s veranda is another woman’s gallery is another guy’s porch…

Howard Richler will be attending the Ruth Richler Memorial Lecture, Aging Gracefully and Gratefully, Sunday, June 8 at 8 pm at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. He can be reached at


What hath progress wrought?

First proposed 27 years ago by Frank Mankiewicz, a onetime aide to American Senator Robert Kennedy, the word “retronym” has finally come of age. It auditioned in the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary in September 2006, and by 2007, it was the answer to the following clue in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle: “acoustic guitar” or “push lawn mower.” The Oxford Companion to the English Language characterizes a retronym as a “phrase coined because an expression once used alone needs contrastive qualification; acoustic guitar because of the electric guitar... mono sound equipment because of stereo sound equipment.”

Technology and science are the most prolific providers of neologisms. Space exploration has necessitated new words such as “moonwalk” and “earthrise” to describe novel experiences.

But alas, the complexity that progress has wrought extends even to language. In bygone days, one could describe things only with nouns. Not only was a rose a rose, but a book was also just a book and coffee was merely coffee. Now we must specify whether we are talking about a hardcover or softcover book (not to mention electronic or paper) or which coffee of the seemingly endless varieties. Technological innovations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spawned a plethora of new vocabulary: “telephone” came into the language in 1849; “typewriter” in 1868; “television” in 1907; and “movie” in 1912. Due to technological advances, the above singular inventions have turned into the following retronyms: “rotary phone,” “manual typewriter,” “black & white television” and “silent movie.” (For readers of the millennial generation, I should explain the anachronistic “typewriter.” It is a single font, mechanical system for applying ink to paper that handled only alphanumeric characters.)

Remember when people just received mail? Now it could be certified mail, priority mail, email, voicemail, or snail mail, not to mention blackmail or greenmail. Due to the advent of satellite radio, we may soon be referring to the old-fashioned variety as “terrestrial radio.” Likewise, “text messaging” already necessitates distinction from “voice messaging.”

Any change in society can spawn a retronym. A partner used to be somebody with whom you shared a business venture or some manly activity such as cattle herding. Now that the sense of sharing has been extended to the concepts of “life partner” and “same-sex partner,” it has become necessary for entrepreneurs to specify “business partner.” With the development of the synthetic oil “Olestra,” we now have a “fat-free fat.” So what was previously just called fat is now, retronymically speaking, “fat-fat.”

In the old days, your grocery list might read: chips, milk, peanut butter, beer, and gum. Now we must specify if the chips are potato, corn or tortilla; if the milk is skim or whole; whether the peanut butter is crunchy or creamy; the beer, light or full; the gum, sugarless or regular.

Retronyms need not be related to commerce or technology. “Jewish ghetto” is a case in point. The original “ghetto” was a Jewish quarter in Venice in 1516, which had previously been the site of a cannon foundry. Getto is the Italian word for “foundry.” Later, the word ghetto came to mean the Jewish quarter of any city. Near the end of the 19th century, the sense was extended to refer to any poor neighborhood populated by a minority racial or cultural group. Similarly, “Italian Mafia” was once a wholly redundant term. Increasingly, however, the term Mafia is used to apply to ethnic persuasions other than Italian.

What retronyms beckon in our ever-changing world? “Human chess champion” is a safe bet. With ever-increasing fears about sexually transmitted diseases, “physical sex” (as opposed to virtual) is another retronymic possibility. With the online variety of sex you may still contract a virus, but at least it will be your computer and not you that will be crashing.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at


Why people are dying to have a mortgage

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, nothing is certain, except death, taxes and a mortgage.

This thought comes to me during the spring of our discontent — tax season, coinciding with the arrival of The Senior Times real estate issue. The etymologically minded will have noticed that at least two of the three blights itemized above involve the departed. “Mortgage” literally means “death pledge” as it marries the Old French mort (death) and gage (pledge). The depressing idea underlining this word is that if the mortgagor fails to repay the loan, the property pledged as security is lost or “dead” to him or her.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of such cause for angst to mortgage holders, but to mitigate the pain of the word “tax,” I thought I might be able to eviscerate its sting by an etymological deconstruction of terms connected to taxation.

During the Middle Ages in England, taxes were exacted from underlings by the upper echelons of society. Among these servile dues were the merchet — a fine paid for marriage, the heriot — seizure of a family's prime beast on the death of the tenant, and the compulsory use of the lord's mill for grinding the family corn.

Not surprisingly “tax” as a verb took on the sense of “to take to task” by the 16th century and “to burden or prosecute” in the following century. “Income tax” was first introduced as a war tax in England from 1709 and occasioned this naive comment some years later: “The existing income tax should not be retained a moment after it is dispensed with.” Yeah, right!

While working on your income tax return you will no doubt encounter the nefariously wee word “fee.” Originally, under feudal law, this word referred to an estate held on condition of homage and service to your lord, who retained full ownership of the land. So although we might not be happy to pay a tax on services, we can take heart that the essence of the word was transformed as we moved from feudalism to capitalism. Originally, “fee” only referred to something owed to a superior as an obligation, whereas in the post-feudal period the word is more associated with choices available in the marketplace.

If you are exuding saline sweat and tears to earn the salary income tax is based on, you are etymologically correct. In Roman times, salt was so highly valued that soldiers were allowed a sum of money to buy salt, since salt was not easy to obtain and served the purpose of maintaining as well enhancing the savour of food. Later this money, called salarium, came to refer to the stipend paid to the soldiers. Hence, if you are indeed earning your salary, you are “worth your salt.”

If you are working your heine off to increase your purchasing power and fill coffers with goods and services taxes, take note of the original rapacious and disorderly meaning of the word “purchase.” The “pur” part is a variant of the innocuous French pour (for), but the “chase” element relates to hunting or wresting by force — in other words, obtaining an object by whatever means necessary. In Old French, an enfant de porchas did not refer to an adopted or “purchased” child but to an illegitimate one.

So, I hope this etymological perspective serves as a reminder to file your return by April 30th, and you need not feel guilty if you have attempted to lower your tax burden. Economist John Maynard Keynes claimed “the avoidance of taxes is the only pursuit that still carries any reward.”

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at