language writing

A Quaggery of Quotted Queme

A thread on reddit (the original post has been deleted by its author) spawned a number of reworkings of V’s alliterative introductory monologue from V for Vendetta.  Recall:


In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition!

[carves a ‘V’ into the sign]

The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.


Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me “V.”

Variants include A, B, (and another B from 4Chan’s /b/), C, D, M, O, P, S, and even a doubly abecedarian version.  By the time I made it in with Q, general attention had flittered elsewhere, so I reproduce it here for posterity.  While not perfectly capturing every nuance of the original (and with a few soleicisms and, dare I say, arguable malaprops), it does a manage to exhaust a good chunk of the relevant sections of Chambers and OED.  Should your Scrabble ruleset allow you to use a proper dictionary, you may find it of some actual use.

Please note that, unlike the original, it was declaimed between sessions at an archaeology conference (the reader is left to determine where), and the speaker is sporting an unusual hairstyle rather than a Guy Fawkes mask.


Quidam, a quaint and quondam quipster, queased to the quomodo of quarry and quisling by the queerness of kismet. This quirled quiff, no mere quixotic quodlibetary, is a quantum of the quisquose quorum, now quiesced and quieted. However, this quercine quintessence of a queasomed querimony quinches quickened, and has quested to quelch these quæstuary, quisquilious, and quinsied quabs quapping with quedhead and quething the quatting quassation and quackling quodding of querulation.

[quinses a ‘Q’ into the podium’s quadra]

The quale of the quest is quietus for the qued; held as a quæsitum, not quiddling, for the quality and quiddity of such shall one day queme the querist and the quiddle.

[quacks with laughter]

Quand même, this quarring quagmire of quethery quirks most quotted, so let me quickly qualify that it quite quiches me to meet you, mon capitaine, and you may call me ‘Q’.

Should you not have your copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to hand (for shame!), here’s a rough extraction of the meaning (as also posted here):

Original De-Q-ified
Quære! (An exhortation to inquiry)
Quidam, a quaint and quondam quipster, Someone, an old-fashioned and peculiar person who was once a jester,
queased to the quomodo of quarry and quisling pressed into behaving in the manner of one who is hunted and one who is a collaborating traitor
by the queerness of kismet. by the oddness of inescapable destiny.
This quirled quiff, This twisted and curled forelock,
no mere quixotic quodlibetary, more than an impractically romantic, academic flight of fancy
is a quantum of the quisquose quorum, is an infinitesimal part of the troublesome polity, (quorum is here used fig. to refer to the participants in a democracy)
now quiesced and quieted. now made inactive and suppressed.
However, this quercine quintessence However, this oaken embodiment of the essence
of a queasomed querimony of a smothered complaint (fig., the disquiet of the populace)
quinches quickened, stirs into life,
and has quested to quelch and has engaged in a mission to crush
these quæstuary, quisquilious and quinsied quabs these money-grubbing, rubbishy, diseased sea-slugs
quapping with quedhead and quething throbbing with wickedness and proclaiming
the quatting quassation and quackling quodding of querulation. the pressing beating-down and choking imprisionment of complaint.
[quinses a ‘Q’ into the quadra] [cuts a ‘Q’ into the podium’s plinth]
The quale of the quest The essence of the mission
is quietus for the qued; is death for the evil;
held as a quæsitum, held as the goal that is sought,
not quiddling, not trifling,
for the quality and quiddity of such for the excellence and essential nature of such
shall one day queme the querist and the quiddle. shall one day please the seeker and the fastidious. (This sense of ‘quiddle’ is a bit more pejorative than I’d like, but perhaps it fits the speaker’s general attitude of condescension.)
[quacks with laughter] [brays with harsh laughter]
Quand même, Nevertheless,
this quarring quagmire of quethery this coagulating morass of blather
quirks most quotted, veers to the cloying,
so let me quickly qualify let me briefly state
that it quite quiches me to meet you, that I am much moved by meeting you,
mon capitaine, and you may call me “Q”. my captain, and you may call me ‘Q’.

CC-licensed image of an incised letter ‘Q’ by flickr user chrisinplymouth.

language miscellanea

Branding the Axolotl

Drawing of an Axolotl by William Steig from “Alpha Beta Chowder” Eliot claimed that feline onomasty was a vexed endeavor, but most people seem to have neither creativity nor compunction. Too many cat names range from the banal (“Mindy”) to the heinous (“Smoke Dancer”). When such unfortunates become part of one’s family, renaming is a strict requirement.

A new cat recently entered our household from the local rescue and, somewhat surprisingly, he arrived with an acceptable name. While not exotic, ‘Alexander’ has impeccable Macedonian roots, and also evokes the first poem from Jeanne and William Steig’s fine abecedarium, Alpha Beta Chowder:

Abhorrent axolotl, scat!
Unless you’d like to feed my cat.

Come at once , dear Alexander,
Have a bit of salamander.
See its tasty little gills?
Don’t they look like lamb-chop frills?

Amphibian, avoid thy fate:
Slither off! Absquatulate!

Photo of an AxolotlThis bit of verse recalled to mind, I began wondering about the the axolotl. One can deduce its Mexican indigenity from the distinctively Nahuatl ‘tl’ at the end of its name (made explicit by its scientific name, Ambystoma mexicanum). The Internet yields up many attractive pictures of these aquatic amphibians. Wikipedia, as ever, provides a reasonable overview, but I found that my attention was captured by this somewhat curious paragraph:

In Japan, axolotls are known by the trademark WuperRuper (ウーパールーパー). Originally the trademark was going to be registered as “SuperRuper”, but since there are many trademarks starting with “super,” the S was changed to a W so the name could be registered more quickly. It is said that the reason why they are not sold as “axolotl” is to avoid them being called “aho no rōtoru”, a similar-sounding Japanese phrase meaning “stupid old man.”

Capitalism once again joins with the Adamic impulse to name the creatures of the land and the sea! This unavoidably calls to mind the mighty Sea-Monkey. (Disclaimer: proceeds from your brine shrimp purchase may be used to support neo-Nazi causes.)

I’m curious: how many creatures have been “rebranded” to make them more marketable? Offhand, I recall that “Chilean sea bass” is a marketing name for the Patagonian toothfish (and the Chileans, in fact, call it “bacalao de profundidad“). More basically, I suppose, we use the language of our Norman overlords for our beef, mutton, and pork, rather than that of those rude peasants who raise the dirty oxen, sheep, and pigs. In truth, though, I’m thinking more of specific acts of commercially-minded naming rather than general linguistic trends.

Anything else come to mind?

[Photo of axolotl courtesy of amphioxus at flickr.]

language peevishness

Words and Obsession

If you are at all obsessive, I’m sure you know well the gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction that arises when something just isn’t right. For me, that something is often a problem of knowledge: something I don’t know, something I can’t figure out, or (worst of all) something I’ve forgotten. It can strike without warning, a whim of iron that crowds out all other thought until it is satisifed.

Over time, one develops a pattern of strategies for dealing with the most common of these eventualities. Chief among my precautions, I try to make sure that I’m never more than arm’s length from a dictionary. Even for words I know, I am often seized by the need to verify shades of connotation.

Ah, dictionaries. Having the right edition at hand is indispensable.

I have little good to say about the standard American dictionaries. The glib banalities of Merriam-Webster and American Heritage only reinforce the apathy of most students toward the treasure-house of language. We shall speak of them no more.

More pleasingly, consider the OED. The full, twenty-volume edition is, alas, horrifically expensive and unwieldy. The single-volume, photo-reduced, Compact OED is too crabbed and inacessible to be a pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, you need a copy of the OED, but find yourself a copy of the older, two-volume Compact with only four pages-per-page. Despite its necessity, the OED is not for quick reference; its dark vortex will suck you into the fifty near-variants of a single word, leading to an afternoon of scholarly enjoyment that is incompatible with actually finishing whatever writing task you were previously attempting to complete.

Allow me to commend to you the best single-volume English dictionary for ready reference: the Chambers, which is an unmitigated pleasure. It is accessible, engaging, and playful without sacrificing the richness of linguistic history. Consider, for example, the entry for weasel words:

weasel words plural noun words used to deliberately make statements evasive or misleading.

Etymology: Early 20c: such words suck the meaning out of neighbouring words in the way a weasel sucks the contents out of an egg, leaving the shell empty.

One skates stutteringly through the Chambers, tripping on something interesting a dozen times on your way to your goal, building a ramified stack of serendipitous discoveries to trace down.

A final, minatory note: avoid the disappointments of the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary and the Pocket Chambers. The Chambers 21st Century is sadly vitiated, stripped of the most pleasing archaisms and much of its character. The Pocket Chambers is simply pointless, as it chooses to omit any word for which you might actually need a definition.

language reflections

On Not Having a Classical Education

When I was in my last year of college, I took a course on ancient comedy and satire. Sure, I’d grown up reading Greek myths. I could rattle off names of lineages of Roman god. Even so, I’d never really been exposed to the historical events of that period. The first part of the course was a historical “refresher” for something I had not previously realized I was lacking. Until that course, I had never even heard of the First or Second Triumvirates, never head of Pericles outside of a list of Shakespeare’s plays, nor given any thought to how much of our modern systems of governance are derived from Greece and Rome.

At that point, I began to wish that I’d had a proper classical education, that I had grown up reading Caesar and Livy, that I’d been forced to decline and conjugate until it was burned into my schoolboy brain.

Instead, I had grown up with a computer. That had, of course, its own pedagogical fecundity, but I wanted Greek and Latin. I had studied a bit of biblical Greek at the local community college during high school, but I didn’t really understand what other doors it could open. When I arrived at Simon’s Rock, Japanese had seemed much more exotic, complex, and appealing.

After college, I began reading, trying to fill the void inside with knowledge: Herodotus and Suetonius, Durant and Fuller, Courtesans and Fishcakes. For a while, it was enough.

Now, though, the classics are calling. On the bookshelves downstairs are volumes in Latin from the library of my wife’s grandfather, who was a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. For years, I’ve snapped up Loeb editions when I’ve encountered them in used bookstores. Still, they are unread. It’s always, someday, I’ll learn Latin. Someday, I’ll be able to read classical Greek.

In December, I determined that someday should not be postponed forever, and that I would take action. I was tempted to wait until I was finished with grad school (in computer science, so twist it how I might, I can’t connect the two), but I knew that there would always be a dozen very good reasons to put it off.

Over the holidays, I began to research the best way to proceed. I found two great resources: TextKit and LatinStudy. The former collects a large number of textbooks and grammars, and maintains a forum for discussion. LatinStudy takes a different approach, running a mailing list for groups who are working through the same texts. I’ve joined one of these groups; in forty weeks, I’ll have worked through Wheelock’s.

Old school as it may be, I’ve been carrying my handwritten flashcards with me. A classical education postponed still has its satisfactions.

language politics

Protologistic Vocabulary of the Day: "To Wuck"

My friend Craig mentioned a phrase he’s been using lately: ‘to wuck up’, which he defines as, “to screw up as badly or worse than the current president has managed to over the last six years”.  His question to me was this: How does one go about spreading its use into popular language?

While it doesn’t have the intensely scatological memes of ‘santorum‘, ‘wuck’ is still a protologism with some propagation potential.  (Incidentally, the ‘santorum’ Googlebomb has managed to retain its #1 Google rank as of this writing.)

Here are my suggestions to get things off the ground: start posting comments on liberal blogs, try to get a few people using it.  Once there are some independent references out there, add it to Wiktionary’s list of protologisms.  Set up a one-page website on wucking and submit it to reddit and digg; if it’s clever enough, it will have a good chance of rising high enough in the rankings that lots of people will see it.

What are you waiting for?  Get out there and wuck things up.

language zenoli

On the other hand….

According to Wikipedia, zenoli is also the Friulian word for ‘knee’. The same article informs us that Friulian (also called ‘Eastern Ladin’) is spoken by at least 600,000 people–about twice the number that speak Icelandic. When I first discovered that the language existed, I had to blink several times and realize that I’ve never spent that much time digging into linguistics beyond the big categories. Even so, I’d never noticed that there’s a Friulian version of Firefox.

Last night I was browsing through the language shelf at the bookstore, and was struck by the number of lesser-known languages represented, including many Indian and African dialects. It reminded me how easy it is to fall into mental ruts; after a certain point, our models of the world tend to ossify, and areas of lesser familiarity (such as, in my case, non-big-name-brand languages), tend to be chucked into very general mental buckets. (“Let’s see, they speak Hindi in India, right?”) lists hundreds of living Indian languages, some with millions of speakers, others with as few as 150…enough diversity to satiate lifetimes of linguistic scholarship.

I’m always happy to be reminded of the complexity of the world, but for the sake of any speakers of Friulian it’s worth noting that this site has very little to do with knees.