Category Archives: lexicon

How the Mind works when left to Its Own Devices

I awoke thinking about Material and Immaterial Touchstones, and about Touchstones as property, as fungible, as shareable.

Becoming slightly more lucid, after first sips of coffee, I wondered why would it occur to my semi-waking mind to even consider Touchstones as legal entities, as assignable property? Aren’t they imagine-ary? Creations/creatures of the mind?

And by then fully awake, I realized that Touchstones are ways that the mind notes and labels Significance, such that one can make a mental map of things that matter, tantamount to personal wampeters

Reminder from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963):
a wampeter is the pivot of a karass,
“a central element around which a karass
is formed, which can be practically anything:
a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea,
a book, a melody, the Holy Grail”

And just to remind anyone not with the Program already,

a karass is “a network or group of people
linked in a cosmically significant manner,
even when superficial linkages are
not evident”

A quick Google search for ‘karass’ gets 225,000 results, of which the third is my own 2004 explication, which is a subpart of something I wrote 16 years ago to the bloody DAY, and still find a clear and relevant summary, despite a few rotten hyperlinks! YCMTSU, folks.

in the parlance of our time

As I recently commented to a friend via email, I’m realizing that I enjoy, indeed revel in, a broad interpretation of ‘folkloric’ which takes in “the parlance of our time” (Lebowski reference) in all its guises.

Among the tools at my fingertips:

…and others re: various dialects of English.

(for more on parlance, see In the parlance of our time and Repetition in The Big Lebowski)


The first thing out of the gate in my RSS feed this morning was a pointer to

1. a legal document giving instructions concerning the legal rights and duties of a deceased person “he signed the first deuteroire for this subject”
2. a word that does not exist; it was invented, defined and used by a machine learning algorithm.

1. relating to a mental process or the rate at which they develop from peripheral attachment to the cortex or nervous system “epimotor neuron activity”
2. a word that does not exist; it was invented, defined and used by a machine learning algorithm.

Link / New word / Write your own

Hm. I thought. The scrabble/clabbers player in the family will be amused.

And then I picked up the book that arrived yesterday, All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo: 1963 – 2018 (Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker) and found this in Jacques Duchateau’s “Lecture on the Oulipo at Cerisy-la-Salle, 1963“:

…if all literature contains artifice, since artifice can be mechanized, at least in theory, does this mean that literature in turn can be mechanized as well? Literature and machines has a bad ring to it, it even sounds, a priori, perfectly contradictory. Literature means liberty; machines are syonymous with determinism. But not all machines are the kind that dispense train tickets or mint lozenges. The essential characteristic of machines that interests us is not the quality of being determined but that of being organized. Organized means that a given piece of information will be processed, that all possibilities of this piece of information will be examined systematically in light of a model given by man or by another machine, a machine whose model can be furnished by still a third machine, one whose model etc. etc.

…In the OuLiPo, we have chosen to work with machines, which is to say we are prompted to ask ourselves questions about these notions of structure. This is not new. Writers have always used structures…. From a structuralist perspective, shall we say, all that is evident is suspect. Those forms that are relatively general, accepted by all, and modeled by experience can conceal infra-forms. A systematic re-questioning is necessary to uncover them. A re-questioning which will lead, beyond the discovery of subadjacent forms, to the invention of new ones… (pp 15, 16)

So 55+ years between those two, exactly the time in which my own sentience has been firing on all cylinders, which I might date from my first introduction to hands-on with computers and lexicon, via awareness of Phil Stone’s General Inquirer project (a used copy of General Inquirer: A Computer Approach to Content Analysis [1966] duly ordered…)

…which is of course part and parcel of my lifelong engagement with words and word play. One of the early examples that squirted out when I began to inquire of the Mind for instances:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, [for] to make an apple pie; and at the same time [coming down out of the woods] a great she-bear /coming up the street/, pops its head into the shop. ‘What! no soap?’ So he died, and she [buried him and] very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with little round button at /the/ top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

([my version] /not my version/)
(see here for the marvelous backstory)

which my brother John quoted to me when I was 5 or 6, and I took to mind… along with many other snatchets of verse and balladry, from John and from records in the family library. My engagement with Ogden Nash and Edith Sitwell and Tom Lehrer all spring from the same font of lexical foolishment, and Archy and Mehitabel and of course Pogo are other ur-text examples. More will doubtless surface as the day progresses.

Isogloss bundles

This morning, while waiting in the barn for today’s Zoom yoga session to start, I gathered up a few word books in the general realm of American English and one fell open to a map of isoglosses, which immediately called to mind a song written Donkey’s Years ago by my dear friend Ken Stallcup, who said that he got one good song out of every career. I quarried the mind for all that I could remember of the text as I lay on the mat, and here it is (there might be verses I haven’t remembered, indeed I hope there are…):

Little peasant upon the land
what’s that implement in your hand?
How many years have you been here?
What do you call your mother’s brother?
Tell me what you shouldn’t do and what you oughta,
Now that I’ve got my data I’m on my way

Anthropologist pen in hand
Now you’re standing here on my land
You to me are but a passing breeze
Kroeber, Lowie, Leach and Levi-Strauss
and even Malinowski have stayed in my house,
Now that you’ve got your data, where’s my pay?

Dialects run along isogloss bundles
Leaving little wavy lines across the land
And everybody knows they must be documented carefully
Fron the Andaman Islands to the Rhenish Fan

Academics flow in a circular motion
Hurrying and scurrying across the Earth
With money from Ford and it’s all very interesting
But other than that, tell me what is it worth?
Other than that, tell me what is it worth?

I’m contemplating a heap of books on American English and on dialects thereof and trying to figure out how to make an efficient and interesting summary of their whats and whys, via comparisons and tasty extracts. How is one to make sense of these riches, thousands of pages of words and analysis and commentary, difficult of access and best consumed in sporadic tastings, not in epic bouts of reading? The collection or more exactly collocation would be perfect for bit-by-bit consumption in the Locale of Easement, but for the unwieldy format of the Large Book. A cleverly designed hinged or rolling desk might be the solution, but would perhaps not meet with universal enthusiasm if constructed and installed as a fixture in the Smallest Room. Perhaps a Dictionary Alcove built onto the side of the house…

At work upon several future posts in these realms.

Lexicon of Musical Invective

Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) is famous for several things, the most immediately relevant here being his Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. The Amazon blurb:

A snakeful of critical venom aimed at the composers and the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. Who wrote advanced cat music? What commonplace theme is very much like Yankee Doodle? Which composer is a scoundrel and a giftless bastard? What opera would His Satanic Majesty turn out? Whose name suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka? And finally, what third movement begins with a dog howling at midnight, then imitates the regurgitations of the less-refined or lower-middle-class type of water-closet cistern, and ends with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow? For the answers to these and other questions, readers need only consult the “Invecticon” at the back of this inspired book and then turn to the full passage, in all its vituperation.

The Invecticon lists 30+ pages of calumnies and disparagements:

and examples of Critical Response: Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse

There’s a lovely Nicolas Slonimsky Documentary- A Touch of Genius (56 min)

and an interview with Slonimsky about his friendship with Frank Zappa:

Another example of Slonimsky’s genius is his Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns, known to Jazz and Classical musicians alike.

Taking Stock: langue & parole

This adventure into the word books on my shelves began on March 21 and has gathered steam on its downhill run, but snowman-like it has also swept lots of nearby materials into its gravitoid mass.

gravitoid appeared out of nowhere, as a nonce word [or occasionalism]: “a word coined for one single occasion only…”, “a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate problem of communication” (Wikipedia) “…term coined by James Murray],” but also, as Google tells us, “…A jumping puzzle game in space! Use gravity to your advantage and travel through the stars/galaxies/cosmos…” ” …truly settling matter in coastal waters [vs. colloids]…” “…an upcoming physics puzzler set in space, and developed by the folks over at Endless Tea Studios. It sees you, as an astronaut, trying to survive amongst the stars as you hop from planet to planet using gravity to help you…”

Well, so it goes, as Vonnegut says. I see no obvious end to this Project, since more and more relatable books keep leaping out at me and snuggling up to one another, demanding my attention and reminding me that I’ve been word-smitten all my life. I can certainly claim this linguistic territory as a realm tangent to anthropology, and even as a legit branch of Nacirema and Naidanac studies.

Insofar as there is method in this madness, it seems to involve some combination of early-morning thoughts (scrawled on bits of paper before forgotten or superceded), serendipitous bibliology, pilings-up of candidates, and results of googlings. Today’s bit of paper has these entries:

roiling cauldron of speech [waking thought]
hacker speak
shelf life
bunny boiler [a newly-encountered catchphrase]

and that’s more than enough inspiration for today’s blog post.

I’m guessing that ‘bunny boiler’ is as novel/incomprehensible to most of whatever readership this post may have as it was to me. I found it as the result of a search for ‘catchphrase’, which I was impelled to by looking at Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, of which I have the 1977 edition (Amazon offers the 1992 edition), and reflecting that such dictionaries have shelf life [the OED dates the first example of that phrase to 1927: “Manufacturing Confectioner Jan. 12 (heading) What is the shelf life of your hard candy?”]… and then looking for some more contemporary resources, and so finding a list of English (well, American) idioms that included ‘bunny boiler’, which I’d never encountered. And so: bunny boiler: An obsessive and dangerous female, in pursuit of a lover who has spurned her. Ew. Almost sorry I asked, but its derivation is from the 1987 film Fatal Attraction (which I’ve never seen) …

The phrase comes from the plot device whereby Forrest, in a fit of frenzied jealousy, boils her erstwhile lover’s daughter’s pet rabbit… At the time that the phrase first came into general use it referred to someone unable to remain rational at the end of a romantic relationship. Very quickly that usage became moderated and it came to be used, often with some degree of irony, in much less extreme situations. Any needy, possessive or even just mildly annoying woman is now liable to be described as a ‘bunny boiler’.

And there we have it, the whole /ball of wax/ of linguistic invention, complete with misogyny and irony and humo[u]r and Grand Guignol rolled into one. And I missed it, by being not particularly well-connected to Popular Culture. And so reflect that I miss a lot of Pop Culch references by being a non-participant in the lexico-fertile social media of the Facebook and the Twitter. Some Nacirema ethnographer I am, to ignore the Media which are the Message…

Here’s a page from Partridge 1977, reflecting the [notably British] linguistic world of 40+ years ago:

Here we skate perilously close to the field of slang, which needs its own separate treatment in future posts. For the moment, let’s go back to today’s slip of paper and follow Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) in distinguishing langue and parole: “language: Saussure intended the term to mean internal arrangement and relationship of rules understood by a social group, however, rarely thought of in everyday life…” (Wikipedia), and parole: language as she is spoke by folk. The latter encompasses idioms, jargon, memes, dialect and so on, where the real fun is, in the scum on the top levels of the roiling cauldron. The sober realms of etymology and *PIE and OED definition surely have their charms, but the rubber meets the road in the pragmatics of metaphors and allusions and in-jokes and synecdoche.

To finish off today’s post, let’s take a look at Mark Forsyth (The Inky Fool) The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (Amazon blurb: “a completely unauthorized guide to the strange underpinnings of the English language”)

A toe dipt into Etymologies

Nowadays many old reference works are, as they say, on line, either as downloadable page images (pdf, kindle, etc.) or in their own Web presentations (OED, etc.). Using them often requires some juggling, but that’s of course also true of the hard-copy paper, too. I’m not sure how best to set up a workflow for easy access to the just-discovered electronic form of A dictionary of English etymology (by Wedgwood, Hensleigh, 1803-1891; Atkinson, J. C. (John Christopher), 1814-1900), now that I’ve downloaded its 75 MB pdf form, but here’s an example of the richness:

…and compare with the much briefer entries in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology:

…and, for the sheer fun of it, compare with the entry for *PIE beu; bhel, bhleu in Shipley:

…and, for full measure, the OED entry:

and a part of the detail of the first sense in the OED:

Each is its own sort of fun.

Two More on the Indo-European Account

I realize that I’ve blithely assumed that “everybody” knows the Proto-Indo-European backstory but just in case not: it’s conventional to begin with William Jones, a judge in British India in the latter part of the 18th century, who saw similarities between Sanskrit and European languages (the Wikipedia article on *PIE corrects the simple version of the story). In any case, in the 19th century European philologists became obsessed with figuring out the details, and speculatively reconstructing the totally-vanished (because unwritten) *PIE by positing regularities in sound- and grammatical/syntax-shifts (the ‘Laws’ mentioned below). See for much more.

Rooting around on the shelves of word books, I turned up two that I’d missed a few days ago, both strange enough to be worth pondering further. I bought N.E. Collinge’s The Laws of Indo-European because I was sure I’d never see it again (a silly reason to buy something, but one to which I’ve returned again and again…) and because it was one of the most recondite I’d ever encountered. The Amazon blurb: “This book collects all the named laws of Indo-European, presents each in its original form and rationale and then provides an evaluation of all major attacks, revisions and exploitations, along with a full bibliography and index. Complete – thorough – exhaustive.” One reviewer puts it thus:

sets out all the important rules of sound change that any student of comparative Indo-European linguistics should acquaint themselves with. Grimm’s law, Grassman’s law, the law of the palatals, they’re all here. Besides the general laws affecting the major Indo-European languages (Germanic, Sanskrit, and Greek), Collinge also addresses the laws of the Baltic and Slavonic accents. This field is a mess, and it seems that most of the laws covered in the book somehow relate to the accent. An appendix covers minor laws (although some, such as Watkin’s Law, have become major in their ramifications) and major tendencies.

One major downside to Collinge’s presentation is that he fails to give a simple algebraic form of each law suitable for making flashcards. Another complaint, somewhat frequent in the academy, is that Collinge is so attentive in presenting seeming exceptions that he makes certain well-fixed laws appear as if they are undependable when in fact few would dispute them.

Here’s the Table of Contents, which should strike fear into just about any heart:

The Introduction will provide a mild corrective to any overinflation of the reader’s idea of own erudition:

Joseph Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots is much more approachable (Amazon says: “Anecdotal, eclectic, and always enthusiastic, The Origins of English Words is a diverting expedition beyond linguistics into literature, history, folklore, anthropology, philosophy, and science.”), and one reviewer says

This book is a must own if you have international friends or live in a multi lingual house hold. I satisfy both criteria and at dinners we will always talk etymology and meanings. The internet has nothing on the Red Book, as I call it. I invariably pop it out to settle a linguistic dispute. Very entertaining. I keep it in the kitchen with the cookbooks.

My kind of folk. The Red Book has 180-odd pages of “Index of English Words” which provides entrée to 450 pages of Indo-European roots, each with (as promised) a fascinating discursive entry. Consider the entries for abel and kerd:

The Joys of Anglo-Indian

I’ve had Yule and Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological,historical geographical and discursive for 50 years, but its provenance extends back to the 1870s, in what Yule’s preface describes as “the portly double-columned edifice which now presents itself”. The title itself is marvelous, and as Yule says

If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot (“peculiar to the British soldier and his surroundings”) which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular.

And so :

The section below makes it clear that ‘caste’ is a term foisted upon Indian society by Europeans attempting to make sense of what they observed: “Distinguished by the different modes of binding their turbats…” “…reckoned by travellers to be 84…” “…from these 4 castes are derived 196…”

Ivor Lewis Sahibs, Nabobs, and Boxwallahs: A Dictionary of the Words of Anglo-India is a century after Yule & Burnell and represents “an attempt to fill in some measure certain lacunae in Hobson-Jobson in order to achieve a better balance between the words of the common sort and those in the learned registers of theology, indology, philosophy and the like.”

These two books document with an English that is pretty much gone, since the end of the British Empire with Indian Independence and the foundation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, but present-day “Indian English” is vibrant and continues to evolve. Braj Kachru’s The Indianization of English: The English Language in India contains eight scholarly studies of aspects of “the nativization of the English language in India” and is poised midway between 1947 and 2020; in search of something more contemporary, I can’t resist Lonely Planet’s Indian English: Language & Culture (“total timepast… ‘Indian English’ is India’s informal and colourful take on the English language, a mash up of American and British English poured over the Indian tongue. Bollywood jargon, Hinglish slang, you know you want to talk that talk! “). I’m tempted by Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film but can’t really justify the indulgence.

Wikipedia, no surprise, has a nice summary: Indian English, and YouTube offers lots of examples of Indian English (Hinglish, Manglish [Malayalam and English], Kanglish [Kannada and English], Tenglish [Telugu and English], and Tanglish or Tamglish [Tamil and English]). Here’s one:

consider also this Tamglish video:

I hear you ask: Tamglish? Soup song? Soup boy? If you happen to be among those not quite abreast of the latest internet trends, Tamglish is a conflation of the south-Indian language Tamil and English. For those who are up to speed, it is synonymous with Kolavari Di – a song of rejection hummed by an inebriated jilted lover… (Kolavari Di: how India’s ‘Tamglish soup song’ went viral (Priya Virmani)

Indo-European and Germanic

It’s such fun to go chasing after the narratives of language evolution and distribution, via books like Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (which is global in scope and well illustrated with maps, and has a fine ear for illustrative quotations from many languages), Kenneth Katzner’s The Languages of the World (which offers brief characterizations of about 200 languages, with exemplary texts), Merritt Ruhlen’s A Guide to the World’s Languages: Volume I, Classification (which is especially concerned with taxonomy of 17 major language families and their subgroupings), and Florian Coulmas’ The Writing Systems of the World (which takes on graphic representations of sound systems, mostly ignored by linguistics). I can’t claim to have assimilated any of these, but I’ve been in and out of all of them quite a bit in the last 40-odd years.

Thinking back through a few thousand years of linguistic history is a rainy-day delight:
Robert Claiborne’s The Roots of English: A Reader’s Handbook of Word Origins is mostly concerned with Indo-European roots in English words (“…two thousand or so basic Indo-European roots have been reconstructed… (which) begot at least ten times that number of actual words…”). Germanic, Latin, French and Greek (all in the Indo-European family) are the primary contributors to the English we use.

Another fascinating resorce for IE: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots “enlarges upon the history of 13,000 English words, spanning over 5000 years from Indo-European to Modern English” (cover blurb)

Two pages suggest the riches of Watkins:

The historical epic of the development of modern English (its Anglo-Saxon roots, Norman additions, Latin and Greek ecclesiastical and scholarly elements) are recent enough and well attested in sources like the always-interesting History of English Podcast, but the Indo-European and Germanic background to English is further back in the mists of time, and less well-known. English is, after all, a Germanic language in its grammatical and syntactical organization (“English sentences are organized with GERMANIC grammar. Subject first, verb after. Prepositional phrases, pronouns, and verb tenses are all used in the Germanic style. English sentences use, the same rules that are used for sentence construction in German and Dutch, Swedish and Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish…”), and in the majority of its high-frequency words, so it’s worthwhile to include explanatory videos like


(though the accompanying music is turnable-off…)

See also Wikipedia’s list of Germanic and Latinate equivalents, and note Poul Anderson’s essay “Uncleftish Beholding” (“Atomic Theory”), which “shows what English would look like if it
were purged of its non-Germanic words, and used German-style compounds instead of borrowings to express new concepts”:

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called *unclefts*.
These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a
tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most
unclefts link together to make what are called *bulkbits*. Thus,
the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the
sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some
kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling
together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet
more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make
*bindings*. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts
with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the
forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more
unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and

At first is was thought that the uncleft was a hard thing that
could be split no further; hence the name. Now we know it is made
up of lesser motes. There is a heavy *kernel* with a forward
bernstonish lading, and around it one or more light motes with
backward ladings. The least uncleft is that of ordinary
waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a
*firstbit*. Outside it is a backwardladen mote called a
*bernstonebit*. The firstbit has a heaviness about 1840-fold that
of the bernstonebit. Early worldken folk thought bernstonebits
swing around the kernel like the earth around the sun, but now we
understand they are more like waves or clouds.

In all other unclefts are found other motes as well, about as
heavy as the firstbit but with no lading, known as *neitherbits*.
We know a kind of waterstuff with one neitherbit in the kernel
along with the firstbit; another kind has two neitherbits. Both
kinds are seldom…

…and see this venture into Anglish:

…and this, just in, about grammatical case.