Category Archives: Words and Phrases

Essays and notes about language.

Scenes From My Writing Workshop

I suspect that cartoonist Grant Snider visited my shop one day when I was off at work and sketched some of my tools:

I’m quite fond of Grant’s work; you can see more of it here, and even buy posters!

Incidental Comics

My Personification Press was given to me by a grateful grove of talking trees!




Filed under Humor, Visual Arts, Words and Phrases

Bracts of the Holy Involucre

I’m very fond of arcane botanical terminology. I learned many of these terms years ago when I was first learning the technique of “keying out” flowering plants and fungi. A key is a branched list, a series of yes and no questions. “Are the leaves oppositely arranged on the stalk or alternately?” “Are the spores rusty red?” “Are you still alive after tasting this?” — just kidding on that last one!

[to be continued this afternoon]

[24 hours later, as it turned out!]

The Dictionary Demon, a useful beast who spends most of his time curled up by my computer’s power supply, has been sulking lately. This morning he poked his scaly head out of the computer case and yawned, revealing ichor-stained fangs. He said:

“Damn, Larry, why don’t you give me a mission? I’m bored!”

“Okay — how about fetching me a definition and etymology of the word involucre?”

The dragon-like creature expanded as it flew from the computer case, causing the kitchen to seem rather crowded. I opened the screen door and the demon flew out, soaring low over the somnolent Quincy roof-tops.

While I waited I read a passage from a wonderful little volume, a memoir by Elisabeth Tova Bailey titled The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating:

In most languages, the word for “snail” refers to its spiral shape: in the Native American language Wabanaki, the term is Wiwilimeq, for “spiraling water creature”. Giovanni Francesco Angelita, an Italian scholar, wrote an essay in 1607 titled “On the Snail and That It Should Be the Example for Human Life”. He praises the creature’s thoughtful pace and good morals and credits it for inspiring everything spiral, from the invention of drill bits to Europe’s most famous staircases.

I was startled by a scrabbling of claws at the screen door. The demon swooped in with a dramatic flourish and dropped a quivering parcel into my outstretched and cupped hands. It appeared to be made of the wings of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies stitched together with .. were those barely-visible fibers milkweed floss?

I looked closer. It wasn’t just wings — entire living butterflies were sewn together to form the pouch! Thus the quivering, which began to intensify. With a soft wafting of air the parcel burst apart and the Fritillaries flew away, most of them finding their way to the still-open screen door. I was left with an oval piece of some sort of fabric in my hands. It looked to be made of the pressed breast-down of mourning doves bound together with milkweed stem-milk. The feathers were oriented so that the feather barbules all pointed to my left; stroking the surface was like petting a cat, both with and against the “grain”.

The definition was written upon the pressed-flat and silky surface with a purple-black substance which I suspected was pokeweed-berry ink:

   Involucre \In"vo*lu`cre\, n. [L. involucrum a covering,
        wrapper, fr. involvere to wrap up, envelop: cf. F. 
        See {Involve}.] (Botanical)
        (a) A whorl or set of bracts around a flower, umbel, 
            or head.
        (b) A continuous marginal covering of sporangia, in 
            certain ferns, as in the common brake, or the 
            cup-shaped processes of the filmy ferns.
        (c) The peridium or volva of certain fungi. Called 
            also {involucrum}.

An aside: isn’t it intriguing that there are three similar words containing two “v”s which are almost homonyms?

  1. Volva, a fungal membrane — the white flecks on the cap of a Fly Agaric mushroom are volval remnants.
  2. Volvo, a Swedish make of automobile
  3. vulva, an anatomical structure

Botanical terms such as rachis, corolla, and pistil are mostly derived from Latin roots, a modern survival from an era when Latin was the language of science.

For some reason the phrase “bracts of the involucre” rose to the surface of my mind the other day while I was driving. My consciousness streamed — “involucre” reminded me of “sepulchre” and “bract” reminded me of “brat”. A scene appeared before my mind’s eye:

An order of green-clad monks inhabit a monastery located on a mountain terrace in some remote land, perhaps somewhere in the Balkans. They are botanical and horticultural monks who occupy their hours with identification and cultivation of rare plants brought to them by supplicants from every corner of the Earth.

These monks keep their precious relics of past abbots and saints in an elaborately-carved stone replica of the involucre of a sunflower — the Holy Involucre.

Menial chores around the enclave are performed by an unruly cadre of novitiates known as the Bracts of the Holy Involucre.

Imagine drama… imagine an ailing abbot and behind-the-scenes strife between potential successors to the revered office. A lowly Bract learns of the struggle and is inexorably drawn in…



Filed under Natural History, Photos, Words and Phrases

Obscure Sorrows

It just amazes me how I continually come across new and innovative web-sites. Photo sites, music sites, and so many well-written text-based sites. I can assure myself a steady supply of excellent sites by hanging out at virtual places frequented by people smarter and more gifted than I am. I’m challenged sometimes, but it helps keep me away from the infinite number of crappy and mediocre web-sites out there.

I can’t even remember what convoluted path of link-stepping brought me to this site, which is composed of a sequence of definitions of imaginary words:

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

The words defined aren’t intended as usage suggestions. They serve as a scaffold for ruminative short essays. Here are a few examples:


n. the imaginary committee of elders that keeps a running log of your mistakes, steadily building their case that you’re secretly a fraud, a coward, a doofus and a douche, and who would’ve successfully revoked your good fortune years ago had they not been hampered by bitter squabblings over grammar and spelling.


acronym [“when you think about it”] a feature of modern society that suddenly strikes you as absurd and grotesque—from zoos and milk-drinking to organ transplants, life insurance and fiction—part of the faint background noise of absurdity that reverberates from the moment our ancestors first crawled out of the slime but could not for the life of them remember what they got up to do.


n. fear that your connections with people are ultimately shallow, that although your relationships feel congenial at the time, an audit of your life would produce an emotional safety deposit box of low-interest holdings and uninvested windfall profits, which will indicate you were never really at risk of joy, sacrifice or loss.


n. the feeling that everything has already been done, that the experiment of human culture long ago filled its petri dish and now just feeds on itself, endlessly crossbreeding old clichés into a radioactive ooze of sadness.

Visit the site linked above; I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to read well-written and evocative short prose pieces. There is a mixture of humor and melancholy in the definitions which suits my mood these days. I bookmarked the site!



Filed under Words and Phrases

Good Advice But Hard To Follow

Back in the early seventies I became accustomed to seeing posters on apartment walls which featured the Serenity Prayer, usually with a scenic landscape as background. For whatever reason I saw it mostly in females’ apartments.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The pithy sentence has been attributed to a sermon by German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but there are other theories; we’ll never know for sure. The saying was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and it is commonly recited at the beginning of many AA meetings.

I got a kick out of finding this 1695 nursery rhyme, which expresses similar sentiments:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

Here’s a rather wordy poster chock-full of well-meaning advice:

One sentence from that poster applies to everyone who would like to find a soul-mate, and there are hordes of them out there. Look at the profusion of dating and matchmaking web-sites!

If you are looking for the love of your life, stop. They will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.

The power of such inspirational and pithy apothegms has its limits, though. Unless real action is taken in your life, both in how you choose to live it and in how you interact with other people whose lives are intertwined with yours, the end result of reading such sayings can be a fleeting feeling of vague inspiration followed by the resumption of well-entrenched dead-end life-choices.

Personally I don’t like aphorisms and such-like on my walls. After a while you just don’t see them; they become background noise. But, to each his own!



Filed under Essays and Articles, Words and Phrases

Excerpts From A Commonplace Book

Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat — these words have been drained of all but shreds of meaning. I like to read just about any essayist, as long as they:

  • Actually have real thoughts and conclusions
  • Don’t succumb to mindless ideology, often found at the loony fringes
  • Don’t obtusely ignore the lessons of history.
  • Avoid pointless self-aggrandization while vilifying other writers.
  • Acknowledge personal limitations; a little self-deprecation always helps.

Okay, now that I’ve eliminated three-quarters of the internet’s torrent of words, allow me to introduce a writer whom I found to be perceptive, well-educated, and a damn good writer. His name is George Scialabba. This essay (in PDF format) deals with a wide range of subjects, including depression and political philosophy. The link:

Divided Mind

For several years George Scialabba has been making entries in a commonplace book, just a growing notebook where short passages and sentences can be recorded for future reference. I’ve cherry-picked a few of my favorites from his commonplace book, leaving out the French and Latin entries, as I’m monolingual.

  • It would be subversive of all human civilized society if the female population … were imbued with the idea that they might safely indulge in unchaste intercourse without fear of any of the consequences such intercourse entails upon them.

    Sir George Jessel, Master of the Rolls, 1880, depriving Annie Besant of custody of her daughter because of her authorship of a birth control pamphlet.

  • Mental work, labor in the higher regions of the mind, is one of the most strenuous kinds of human effort. The quality that above all deserves the greatest glory in art is courage; courage of a kind of which common minds have no conception. … To plan, dream, and imagine fine works is a pleasant occupation, to be sure. It is like smoking magic cigars, like leading the life of a courtesan who pleases only herself. The work is then envisaged in all the grace of infancy, in the wild delight of its conception, in fragrant flowerlike beauty, with the ripe juices of the fruit savored in anticipation. Such are the pleasures of invention in the imagination. The man who can explain his design in words passes for an extraordinary man. All artists and writers posses this faculty. But to produce, to bring to birth, to bring up the infant work with labor, to put it to bed full-fed with milk, to take it up again every morning with inexhaustible maternal love, to lick it clean, to dress it a hundred times in lovely garments that it tears up again and again; never to be discouraged by the convulsions of this mad life, and to make of it a living masterpiece that speaks to all eyes in sculpture, or to all minds in literature, to all memories in painting, to all hearts in music — that is the task of execution.

    Balzac, Cousin Bette

  • One who knows that “enough is enough” always has enough.

    Tao Te Ching

  • Dr. Bourbon said, “You know, boy, these young kids come out here from the east, read Cassirer and Buber and all that stuff, they’re pretty darn sure of themselves. They think they’re mighty good. ‘Taint always so. I always make it my rule, beware of intellectual arrogance. Now take me, I’m a scholar. That’s what I’ll be hung for. But those boys, know what they are?”

    “No,” said Walker.

    “Critics!” said Bourbon in some disgust. “That means they can go around spoutin’ their own opinions all the time as much as they want, without ever havin’ to check a fact. Needn’t use the library ever.”

    Malcolm Bradbury, Stepping Westward

  • Liberty is so much latitude as the powerful choose to accord to the weak.

    Judge Learned Hand

  • … The man
    Who sold his country is here in hell; the man
    Who altered laws for money; and a father
    Who knew his daughter’s bed. All of them dared,
    And more than dared, achieved, unspeakable
    Ambitions. If I had a hundred tongues,
    A hundred iron throats, I could not tell
    The fullness of their crime and punishment.

    Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (trans. Rolfe Humphries)

  • The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights

    J. Paul Getty

  • “I hate a stupid man who can’t talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don’t like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine; but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing. … A man who would tell me that I am pretty, unless he is over seventy, ought to be kicked out of the room. But a man who can’t show me that he thinks so without saying a word about it, is a lout.”

    Violet Effingham in Phineas Finn by Trollope

  • English visitor (after Lincoln apologizes for the condition of his boots): “Why, sir, in England a gentleman never blacks his own boots.”

    Lincoln: “Indeed. Whose does he black?”

  • A long life may not be good enough, but a good life is long enough.


  • Oh, what a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to deceive!
    But when we’ve practiced quite a while,
    How vastly we’ve improved our style!

    Jim Holt

  • How many charming talents have been spoiled by the instilled desire to do “important” work! Some people are born to lift heavy weights. Some are born to juggle with golden balls.

    Max Beerbohm

  • Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.

    John Wayne

  • The horse that farts will never tire.
    The man that farts is the man to hire.

    New Hampshire proverb

Well, I’m tired of cutting and pasting. Here’s the link for the complete commonplace book — there are some real gems in it!

George Scialabba’s Commonplace Book



Filed under Words and Phrases

On Matters Slinkish

I’ve been living here at Ava and Doug’s place for a week or so now.  Their home is about two miles from downtown Hannibal.

The past few days I’ve been surveying the local area on my bicycle. One thing I like about Hannibal is that, due to the hilly terrain, isolated “pocket” neighborhoods abound. Typically there is just one entrance, and the far side of such a neighborhood is a creek, steep bluff, or a ravine.

One such neighborhood lies along the north slope of a quarried bluff which looms over the nearby animal shelter. Five mailboxes at the terminus of a gravel road indicate how many households likely are arrayed along that steep road. I was mightily intrigued by the name on the first mailbox: Slinkard.

What a name! It sounds so archaic, and it carries the negative connotation of the word “slink”. And the “tard” suffix! Generally, words which end in that suffix are negative. “drunkard”, “stinkard”, “retard”… can you think of any others? An imaginary bit of medieval invective bubbles to the surface of my mind: “Thou vile slinkard!”

“Slink” is an interesting word. Entities which slink or are slinky are usually up to no good. There is an implication of furtiveness, although cats while slinking in search of prey don’t seem to care who is watching.

“Slink” got a new lease on verbal life during the 1960s, when the Slinky toy was introduced by the Wham-O toy company. Who wasn’t charmed by the simulacrum of conscious intent when observing for the first time a Slinky sinuously stepping down a staircase! Slinkys were fun for a while but I suspect most had short lifetimes, victims of sibling squabbling. Once a Slinky suffers a bad kink its fate is sealed; the trashcan awaits.

Before concluding this short dispatch I’ll mention that the Wham-O company had an enormous effect on the idle youth of my generation. All through the late 1950s and the 1960s the innovative firm produced one incredibly cool toy after another. The Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, the Frisbee… I’ll write more about this company and its products after I’ve done some research. My curiosity is aroused!



Filed under Hannibal, Words and Phrases

An Annoyingly Common Misusage

In journalism there is often a confusion of the two words pour and pore.  One pours liquid from a decanter — one pores over a hitherto secret document.  I see this all of the time, and sometimes wish I didn’t.  A contrived example: “He eagerly poured over the communique from headquarters.”  This mistake only works one way; no-one writes “The bartender pored more whiskey into the sot’s fingerprint-begrimed glass.”  Here’s an example from the Financial Times in a headline, no less:

Why does this mistake escape the editors and proofreaders?  Possibly because the error almost makes sense — I suppose one could imagine someone “pouring” their attention, if that attention is visualized as a metaphorical liquid; a bit of a stretch, but one which leads to errors in print.

When I first contemplated writing about this burning issue, which threatens Western civilization as we know it (just kidding!), the word solecism came to mind — but the word didn’t seem quite right.  I did a bit of desultory research and came across this quote which explains why that word isn’t apropos:

Samuel Johnson once wrote:

A barbarism may be in one word; a solecism must be of more.

Just some early-morning musings…



Filed under Words and Phrases