A few days ago, a colleague said something (I forget exactly what) which sparked a memory of encountering a word which I had never encountered before and have never encountered or had occasion to use since. I can remember the circumstances in moderate detail and there is some supporting evidence, but just why I can remember it is a complete mystery. (I often ponder the mechanism and nature of random memories, with no firm conclusions. I think that my memory for what I remember if good, but on the other hand I forget an awful lot along the way). The word is sessile

At the end of my first year of high school (I’d just turned 13) I was awarded the citizenship prize for our year (possibly jointly with one other student – another random memory which surfaced as I was typing this). The class teacher asked what book I wanted and I said the current edition of the Guinness Book of Records (which I still have, which is most of the reason I am certain this memory happened). Sometime over the summer holidays I was staying with our grandparents. While reading the book, I encountered the record for pushing a hospital bed, a “usually sessile object”, and asked my grandmother what it meant. I can’t remember if we checked a dictionary (if so whether it was in a dictionary the size my grandparents were likely to have had (I can’t remember that they had a dictionary)) or reasoned it out between us. Clearly, the context shows that this object is not usually pushed, but is capable of it (eg a hospital bed compared with a domestic bed). 

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An article on the Sydney Morning Herald website (and presumably in the print edition) states:

Stand-up paddle boarding lives up to the hype
I’ve discovered just how much work it takes for what I mistakenly assumed was a mainly sedentary sport.

Sedentary, as in “requiring or characterised by a sitting position” (from Latin sedēre, sedēns)? Maybe,  because’s second definition is “accustomed to sit or rest a great deal or to take little exercise” (emphasis added). Etymology isn’t destiny.

And cheers to the writer for actually doing it. Because of my (non-)sense of balance I wouldn’t be able to stand up, let alone paddle.

(Note: the writer/subeditor uses stand-up paddle boarding. The Wikipedia article is titled standup paddleboarding.)


Yesterday, a colleague advised us that it was International Chocolate Cake Day. Another colleague shared an image of a chocolate cake with the text: 

I had this delicious omlette this morning. I seasoned the eggs with sugar, oil and chocolate, and threw in a little flour for texture. 

Ha ha.

A third colleague pointed out that there should be an e after the m

Inquiring linguistic minds want to know why omelette is right and omlette is wrong. 

Courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, the story begins with Latin lamina (plate, layer) (with a variety of modern meanings) and lamella (small plate, layer) (also with a variety of modern meanings) and progresses through French la lemelle > l’alemelle > alemele > alemette (which is a double diminutive) > omelette to arrive in English. American English prefers omelet. Omlette and omlet exist but are rare, and at this stage are probably still mistakes rather than genuine alternatives. Pages for Mac autocorrects omlette and omlet to omelette and omelet. So omelette has the first e because Latin lamella had/has one.

For me, omelette is solidly two syllables, but gives the two- and three- syllable pronunciations.

A vague vagary

A legal officer referred to a claimant’s claims and evidence as vague and inconsistent (which is not unusual) but also as containing significant vagary and inconsistency.

By itself it is possible for claims and evidence to contain significant vagary:

1. an unpredictable or erratic action, occurrence, course, or instance
2. a whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action

but the closest noun equivalent of vague is vagueness. In fact, doesn’t have a separate definition for vagueness, redirecting searches for it to the definition for vague. Vagary may at one time have been the best equivalent for vague, but it isn’t now. –ness is a very common and productive noun morpheme. Also, vagaries is much more commonly used than vagary

We most often talk or write about (a/the/-) vague idea(s), sense, feeling, notion(s), term(s), way, hope (they are mostly internal), (a/the) vagary of nature, thought, fashion, fate, fortune/Fortune, imagination, taste, mine, fancy and vagaries of life, nature, weather, chance, climate, fortune, fashion, politics, fancy, imagination (they are mostly external). 

But vague/vagueness and vagary share an origin in Latin vagus, wandering,  vagārī to wander (compare vagrant/vagrancy).

Ceiling wax

One song I remember from my childhood is Puff, the magic dragon, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. For some time I wondered what

ceiling wax

is. I don’t know how I found out that it is, in fact

sealing wax.

I obviously knew about ceilings before I knew about sealings.

Ceiling is a strange word. It ends with -ing, but it’s not related to a verb; we don’t usually ceil ceilings like we build buildings. (Someone has flippantly suggested that we should call them builts.) In fact we do, or buildingers do, whether they call it that or not. records the verb ceil, meaning

1. to overlay (the ceiling of a building or room) with wood, plaster, etc.
2. to provide with a ceiling 

dating from 1400–50, from late Middle English celen to cover, to panel, followed by a rather vague < ? 

Seal is ultimately from Latin signum and is related to sign. The animal seal is from Old English with cognates in Old Norse and Old High German. There is a story that one holder of the British government office of Lord Privy Seal objected to being addressed as such because he wasn’t a lord, a privy or a seal.  

While I was researching for this post, I found a blog called of ceiling wax, which is about “reading YA, graphic novels and the spaces in between”. Its not-immediately-named author quotes Lewis Carroll’s The walrus and the carpenter (text, Wikipedia), which I’m not as familiar with and didn’t think of. She/he also originally mistook this for ceiling wax.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” 

Some of Carroll’s poems are direct parodies of the poems Alice Liddell would have been familiar with, but this seems to be totally original. 

PS 3 Oct: information about the poems Carroll parodied.


Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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A pane in the glass

A document referred to someone working as a panebeater. I speculated whether that had something to do with making glass, or breaking it. I had never previously considered that panes and panels are related, from Middle French pan and Latin pannus, a piece of cloth. Panels are, literally, little panes

Nowadays, a pane is almost certainly glass, though also records it in connection with wood panelling, while a panel can be wood, metal, plastic, glass or people. We probably say pane of glass and glass panel, though, while wood panel and panel of wood etc are probably interchangeable. (Note expert panel and panel of experts.) Panels overlap with boards, in referring to both the pieces of wood and the people who sit at them. 


A document referred to a circumstance stymying someone.

Stymying looks wrong, but so does stymieing. Stymie is by far the preferred spelling, but stymy is attested. Stymies and stymied look reasonable. Although it is more often used as a verb (1850s), it was first used as a noun (1830s). Its origin is uncertain, but, given its connection with golf, it is possibly a Scottish dialectal word. 

vegetarian and non-vegetarian

A local kebab and burger shop is advertising:

Special vegetarian and non-vegetarian menus

The default kebab or burger contains meat. In fact the default main course food, whether at a café, restaurant or home, contains meat, so much so that English doesn’t have a word for food containing meat. A kebab or burger containing meat is hardly “special”, any more than a vegetarian salad is. 

I am also pondering the use of menus in that way. includes the dishes served (at a meal) as its second definition, behind, a list of of the dishes served at a meal, but “vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes” doesn’t quite suit a (mainly takeaway) kebab and burger shop. A dish is not only the container, but the also the food served on/in it. (Also a plate, as in “Bring a plate” to a community gathering and meal.)

dumb and stupid

After I mentioned Stephen Pinker’s phrase euphemism treadmill in a reply to a comment on my recent post on TARD, and also mentioned Sharon Henderson Taylor’s euphemism cycle, I searched for further information. Google showed me Will Styler’s blog post about The R Word and the Euphemism Treadmill, which starts with a mention of a post on the Special Olympics blog by John Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics athlete and global messenger in response to Ann Coulter’s use of retard while tweeting about a presidential debate in 2012. He starts:

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow.

I was struck by his use of dumb. This word began as meaning lacking the power of speech, but later came to mean lacking intelligence or good judgment. Some people are unable to speak because of some deficit in the trachea and/or larynx, some because of a stroke or other injury in a language-related area of the brain, and some because of a congenital neuro-developmental condition. Inability to speak does not necessarily mean lack of intelligence, partial or total. Even if it does, these people deserve our support, not our insults. How we talk about people matters. marks the lacking the power of speech meaning as “offensive when applied to humans” (so the lacking intelligence or good judgment meaning isn’t?). If someone can’t speak, we probably say X can’t speak, not X is dumb

A similar word is stupid, which only ever means lacking ordinary quickness and keenness of mind. I have a vague memory of reading that a particular classroom or household banned the use of stupid. 

I’ve referred to people as dumb or stupid (from a distance), but I hope not to their face, and also to myself, either out loud or internally. There may be some difference between calling someone intrinsically dumb or stupid as opposed to calling something they say or do dumb or stupid, but that may be of small comfort to someone repeatedly on the receiving end.