An Unwriterly Life

The novel is progressing nicely, thanks for asking. At least, it seems to be. May be too close to it to tell for sure. On top of that, I’ve been editing two books for work, and my boss has suggested I write a book for him in a new series of volumes we’re creating, The Accessible _________ (some great but difficult classic that needs “unpacking,” explaining, annotating; he’s doing The Accessible Wealth of Nations, an annotated version of the magnum opus of the Scottish economist Adam Smith; I’ll probably do some work of philosophy or religion, but that hasn’t been decided yet). I’ve got several non-fiction irons in the fire, and we want to issue reprints of some of Adam’s books that haven’t received the audience they deserve, and move a couple of his new projects to the front burner. I’ve even been thinking about starting a new work of fiction that I haven’t told a single soul about yet.

But because I haven’t been attending to my blog, I’ve told myself that I haven’t been writing much lately.

I remember when I friend challenged me to list everything I had published. I was astounded at how much there was; I still felt like a rank beginner who had never achieved anything. Somehow I expected to become a writer who woke early to tap-tap-tap away for a few hours over a cup of tea, then stop to have a nice breakfast and exercise, then do some more writing—profound, moving, and well-paying—in a quiet house, uninterruptible. Or, if my life turned out darker, I might be one of those people who kept a bottle of Scotch in a file cabinet drawer and wrote only in fits of depression and drunkenness. You know, the two basic writerly stereotypes. Continue reading

Categories: Words, Writing | 8 Comments

Writing Like a Doctor

If graduate students in the humanities are not being taught how to write, how can we expect those in the sciences to do any better?

by Rachel Toor, Chronicle of Higher Education

I once asked my friend “Joe,” a distinguished professor of history, how he taught his graduate students to write. He reminded me that I had sat in on his mini-lecture about the three different ways to begin an article or a book. Then he stopped talking and looked kind of pleased with himself.

“That’s it?” I said.

Well, he stammered, he figured graduate students learned in some kind of osmotic process. They read a lot; surely while they did that they were picking up tips on how to write.

There were so many problems with that assumption that I think I probably started sputtering at that point. Having been an acquisitions editor of history books, I know as well as anyone that sometimes (often?) groundbreaking books with important arguments and exquisite research — field-changing books — are horrible examples of how to write. They end up being published, and read, but they should not serve as models.

The mere act of reading good books, if you are not stopping to scrutinize the moves and tools used by the writers, examining and dissecting the choices they have made and why they work, will do nothing for you when you sit down to write. If reading good literature was enough, I would have written the Great American Novel years ago.

A couple of summers ago, another friend of mine — let’s call him “Godfrey” — an academic physician, had volunteered to drive with me from Spokane to Chicago, where he had to give a talk. I was en route to Upstate New York for the summer. Godfrey is a good friend. He is a fantastic conversationalist, a terrific athlete, and the best, smartest reader of my work. He is not, however, a great driver. When he gets wrapped up in talking, he forgets about driving and tends to slow to a traffic-jamming crawl.

Godfrey realized that he had three journal articles to finish. So after we’d done enough sightseeing through Montana and Wyoming and had a couple of small spats about where to get gas, we got to work. He drove. I had his computer on my lap. There was a half-eaten bag of Kettle Korn between us. Continue reading

Categories: Words, Writing | 1 Comment

Un-, Dis-, Non-, and Im-

From the New Yorker, July 25, 1994

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn’t be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do. Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion. So I decided not to rush it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads or tails of. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings. Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savory character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. “What a perfect nomer,” I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

Categories: Humor, Words | 2 Comments


The diminutive suffix “-ish” to denote approximation is just plain lovely. Its attachment to time, as in “How about if we meet 4:00ish?”, was in use as early as 1916.

Apparently it started in Middle English to describe people’s ethnic origins: Spanish, Irish, Jewish. It moved from there to mean “like” or “characteristic of,” as in devilish or boyish, boorish or foolish or shrewish. As early as the 14th century it was used to soften the precision of color names, when the color in question was hard to describe: It was a greenish blueor “It had a reddish hue.” From there it came to mean “tending to be” or “verging on being,” as in a knavish look. Hence its broader use as an approximation.

I love the practice of using “-ish” as a standalone word. “How was the opera?” “Good. Ish.”

“Are you hungry?” “Ish.”

“Would you say she’s thirtyish?” “I’d say, heavy on the ish.” Continue reading

Categories: Language, Social Justice, Words | 4 Comments


Chuck Lorre is a gifted comedy writer, director, producer, and even composer for TV sitcoms. He wrote for Roseanne, about which he said, “One of the benefits of working 70 hours a week in hell is that the mind covers itself so you can’t remember it.” He created Grace Under Fire for Brett Butler, then left to create Cybill for Cybill Shepherd; both those jobs left him similarly battered and embittered.

He then created Dharma & Greg, which was a happy time, then Two and a Half Men, and now The Big Bang Theory, both of which are funny and sharp and intelligent. With Dharma & Greg, he started creating “vanity cards” that display a whole lot of text for maybe three seconds on the screen; you have to record the show and pause it carefully in order to read it. He now has a website where all of his vanity cards are archived.

This week’s Big Bang Theory vanity card reads:


Tonight’s vanity card is about censorship. It was censored.
As always, you know where to look.

It’s not the first card that was censored by the Powers That Be. I think it happens at least once each season. At his website, you get to see the card in all its uncensored glory. Here’s this week’s:

words that confuse the CBS censor

fecund, penal, taint, titmouse, cockamamie, cockatoo, cocksure, coccyx, ballcock, cockeye, prick, prickly, kumquat, titter, cunning linguist, prick, insertion, gobble, guzzle, swallow, manhole, rimshot, ramrod, come, fallacious, lugubrious, rectify, Uranus, angina, paradiddle, spotted dick, dictum, frock, cunctation, engorge, turgid, stiff, bush, uvula, crapulence, masticate, Dick Butkus, gherkin and, of course, the always bewildering lickety-split.

As you can see, context is everything.

“Paradiddle” is a new one for me. I’m going to try to use it three times this week, though I can’t think when the topic of a snare drum’s tempo would come up naturally in conversation.

Categories: Humor, Words | 5 Comments

Everything’s Copasetic

I don’t think I’ve ever posted an entire Wikipedia article before, but this one was too full of delight for me to stop myself. One of my favorite words has always been “copasetic,” though I never knew exactly how to spell it before. I found myself wondering about its origins. The dictionary etymologies weren’t particularly helpful, but Wikipedia was a gold mine. This lovely, mysterious word may be Chicago gangster argot, Chinook Jargon, ancient Hebrew, or even Louisiana Creole. Who wouldn’t adore a word like that? Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words | 5 Comments

“I have a catapult. Give me all the money, or I will fling an enormous rock at your head.”

That’s the translation of one of my favorite Latin phrases: Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem mihi dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane mittam. Of course, I don’t actually speak Latin. I just subscribe to that famous dictum, Quidquidne latine dictum sit, altum viditur. (Whatever is said in Latin sounds profound.)

I may have mentioned before how much I like the phrase olet lucernam (it smells of the lamp), which describes writing that has been worried over too much: its lack of free flow betrays the long hours spent writing beside a smoky oil lamp. Here are some new favorites:

Nihil curo de ista tua stulta superstitione.
I’m not interested in your dopey religious cult.

Feles mala! Cur cista non uteris? Stramentum novum in ea posui.
Bad kitty! Why don’t you use the cat box? I put new litter in it. Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words | 4 Comments


Aibohphobia is a very rare psychological disorder and is characterized by the unusually fearful reaction elicited by the sufferer upon recognizing a palindrome. It was first discovered by Dr. Hans Eresnahrd in 1991, who himself was a chronic sufferer of the disorder.


A palindrome is defined as a word, phrase, verse, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward, as in “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!”

The Discovery of Aibohphobia

Eresnahrd first became interested in the then-unknown disorder at the age of 18 when his own symptoms lead to several misdiagnoses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. His theory that his frequent panic attacks and blackouts were caused by a completely new psychiatric disorder spurred him on to study psychology at the University of Nëmen, Germany. While at university he founded the popular website http://www.idonthaveschizophrenia.net where he met other people with similar symptoms and misdiagnoses. Encouraged by the positive response to his website, he decided upon doing a detailed study of the disorder for his Ph.D. Within a year Eresnahrd had made the link between palindromes and the acute panic attacks that sufferers experienced. In his paper he named the disorder “Disposition to Acute Uneasiness in Relation to Palindromes”; however, this was not very catchy and the paper was never published. When Eresnahrd protested, one editor replied that “it was simply too silly to publish,” and for good measure added “Madam, I’m Adam {snigger}.” Continue reading

Categories: Humor, Words | 6 Comments

Peruse This

Over coffee this morning (Raven’s Brew‘s delicious Resurrection Blend, which I highly recommend), Adam, newly graduated from massage school, read me part of a magazine article written by an expert in the field. It may have been chock full of good information, but I couldn’t get past the truly awful writing. Egregiously awful. With poor grammar to boot.

One error the writer did not make, mainly because I doubt that she’s ever heard the word (OK, that was unfair; I’m sure she’s heard the word, even if she’s never uttered it), is the misuse of the word “peruse.”

Peruse does not, as is popularly thought, mean “browse, glance over, skim.” It means “to read through with thoroughness or care; to examine in detail.” It was used as early as 1479 to mean “use up, wear out, go through,” from the Middle English per- “completely” + use. Its meaning of “to read carefully” is first recorded in 1532. Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words, Writing | 8 Comments

The Woman with Twenty Thousand Dictionaries

A propos of yesterday’s post, a little poem. Poem-ish. Poemishness:

I recently read of a woman who
Lives in a loft
In Lower Manhattan.
She owns twenty thousand

Though Madeline is a bookseller,
The article implied
These twenty thousand
Were the home’s tomes,
Not the store’s store.

She is, at the very least, a
I used to own all of two
The ultra-ultra-condensed
OED, with its own magnifying glass (a
Necessity if there ever was one), and
My beloved
American Heritage.

These days such large volumes are
Too cumbersome, and I’m too lazy,
To heft their heft. Particularly when
The world’s my oyster, and pearls are
Uncovered with keyboards.

I certainly admire Madeline’s
Sticktoitiveness (you might say),
But I worry for her,
Not to mention her downstairs
Neighbors, should she ever get
Twenty thousand and

Many thanks to Adam for the quick nip-and-tuck on it.

Categories: Language, Words | 1 Comment

From A to Zyxt

by Nicholson Baker, The New York Times

Ammon Shea, a sometime furniture mover, gondolier and word collector, has written an oddly inspiring book about reading the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary in one go. Shea’s book resurrects many lost, misshapen, beautifully unlucky words — words that spiraled out, like fast-decaying muons, after their tiny moment in the cloud chamber of English usage. There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose) — all good words to have on the tip of your tongue when, for example, you’re stopped for speeding.

Shea’s book offers more than exotic word lists, though. It also has a plot. “I feel as though I am eating the alphabet,” he writes halfway through, and you want him to make it to the end. This is the Super Size Me of lexicography. Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words, Worthwhile Reading | Leave a comment

My Favorite New Word

Well, it’s not a new word, by any means. Just new to me. I do this. I run across a word that just excites me, though I’ve never been able to explain why it does, and I savor it for months or years.

I think it started a long time ago when a fast food chain—Roy Rogers, if I’m not mistaken, which shows you how long ago this was (at their peak, they had 650 restaurants, then in the 90s they sold most of them to Hardee’s, and now they’re down to, like, 51 nationwide)—ran a commercial that included a “word of the day,” which I think was one of their sandwiches or a side item. The ad ended with this line: “Tomorrow’s word: Windowsill.” The announcer said “windowsill” as if it were a deliciously foreign concept, mysterious and intriguing. I loved the idea of making the mundane something new and bizarre. To this day, “windowsill” (always pronounced in the same stentorian tones) remains a favorite word.

I’ve picked up other favorite words along the way. Continue reading

Categories: Words | 6 Comments

Deeply Spiritual Inquiry

Tao (pronounded “dow”), as everyone knows, translates roughly to “the Way,” specifically the way water runs downhill, effortlessly, seeking its own level, clear, colorless, unremarkable, yet even the hardest stone cannot stand in its way forever.

Do (pronounced like Homer Simpson’s exclamation, “D’oh!”) is the Japanese form of the same word.

Do is found in lots of different Japanese words. Judo, for example, means “the gentle Way.” Aikido means “the Way of unifying with life energy” or “the Way of harmonious spirit.” Bushido is “the Way of the warrior,” the samurai fighting code.

So here’s my question: would Dodo then be “the Way of being stupid”? If so, I think I’ve found the perfect path for me!

Wait. What if it means “the Way of Becoming Extinct”? Perhaps I need to rethink this.

Categories: Humor, Spirituality, Words | 5 Comments

“Chopping at the Bit”

I may have spoken too soon with yesterday’s post. I just heard an ESPN commentator say an athlete was “chopping at the bit.” (You may well ask why I was watching ESPN. If you know me, you know it’s a rather odd pairing. Blame it on Mom and her obsession with tennis.)

Most people would recognize that he was wrong, believing that he meant to say “chomping at the bit.”

But even they would be wrong. It is “CHAMPING at the bit.”

To champ is to bite or chew upon noisily, or to work the jaws and teeth vigorously, the way a horse often does with a bit in its mouth. To chomp is to bite down hard on something (a dog chomping on a child’s arm), and when it is used as a dialectal variant of champ, to chew noisily or repeatedly (a man chomping on a cigar).

It started out as “to champer at the bit” and was an old horseracing term. Over the years it was shortened to “champ.” And, through misuse, to “chomp.”

In a similar fashion, “My old stamping ground” has also become “stomping.” The stamping ground on a farm was where the chickens and roosters gathered, ate and… you know.

I guess it could be worse. An acquaintance someone in a meeting say, “We’re beating a dead corpse here!” And the governor of New Jersey released a statement that said they were going to “pour through” suggestions from citizens, and “reign in” spending.

If I keep gnashing my teeth this way, pretty soon I’ll need dentures.

Categories: Humor, Words | 3 Comments

The Gods of Jeopardy!

Playing Jeopardy! together is a nightly ritual for Mom and me. One of the categories on last night’s Jeopardy! (a repeat from last year, I believe) was on the Greek gods. And I wondered aloud if the Greek name Zeus was in any way related to the Latin word for God, Deus.

Mom just rolled her eyes at me and said, sardonically, “You know you’re just going to look it up on the Internet, so why ask me?”

So I looked it up on the Internet.

Homer’s Iliad calls him “Zeus who thunders on high” and Milton’s Paradise Lost, “the Thunderer,” so it is surprising to learn that the Indo-European ancestor of Zeus was a god of the bright daytime sky. Continue reading

Categories: Buddhism, Classic civilizations, Hinduism, Words | 3 Comments

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