Halloween season is upon us, and why not Halloween season? As far as I’m concerned, Halloween lasts from October 1st, if I can manage to restrain myself from putting up decorations in September, to, oh…November? December? Whenever the lease ends and we are forced to pack? The house is festooned in several years’ worth of skulls and pumpkins, eventually to be joined by even more decorations purchased at deep discounts, once the rest of the world inexplicably loses interest in THE BEST HOLIDAY EVER. “The witching hour” is whenever I decide we need to balance out the black fur and feathers, exposed bone and fangs with some pointy hats and green skin. Or should it be the wizarding hour? Or the warlock-ing hour?

All three terms — witch, wizard and warlock — are applied to practitioners of magic and can be used interchangeably, but warlock has the most overwhelmingly negative connotations. Pop culture abounds with positive portrayals of female witches, like the Owens sisters (three PAIRS of sisters, actually) of Practical Magic, one of whom uses her extensive knowledge of plants to manufacture fancy personal care products. Dorothy could crush someone to death and still be asked “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Of course there are bad witches, but a witch could just as easily be some good-hearted person (as a witch can be either male or female) who unintentionally takes out an evil-doer or makes a mean herbal face scrub. Wizard literally means “wise man.” You can be a financial wizard or a pizza wizard or a burrito wizard or a lasagna wizard…sorry, dinner just came out of the oven. As a slang term, wizard means excellent. It is sometimes used as a term for a male witch, but overall a wizard seems like a good person to be, someone who probably doesn’t have Satan on speed dial.

A warlock, however? Uh…probably. It is a very old word, stretching back to the Middle Ages, and aside from being another term for a male witch, which (aagggghhh) isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can’t seem to catch a break. In its earliest senses, it meant a traitor or a scoundrel, and it’s all downhill from there — a damned soul, a demon, ACTUALLY THE DEVIL, a savage, dangerous creature that probably likes to eat people and then pick its teeth with their bones, a sorcerer who colludes with and draws their powers from Satan, Satan, demons, Hell, demons, Satan, Satan, Satan. Do not buy their bath bombs. Do not eat their lasagna. Don’t even bother checking their cell phone history because you’re better off not knowing what kind of texts Satan sends at three in the morning.

You’d think that, given all that…Satan stuff…a warlock would be a more fitting Halloween archetype, but I guess, here in the United States at least, we have the Salem witch trials, the victims of which were largely female, to thank for cementing the image of the female witch in the public consciousness.


Life is so hard. There are dogs that pretend to love you but only have eyes for your sandwich, library books that tell you as much about your fellow patrons’ literary tastes as their culinary ones, and vacuum cleaner cords that reach their limit at the same time as your singing voice, shattering your fantasies of karaoke stardom.

But of course the greatest indignity of all is that you just. keep. having to. get up in the morning. I don’t want to freak anyone out, so I’ll just come right out and say it: I’ve woken up at least 365 times in the past year alone. I tried to avoid it or at least cut back, and when that failed, I tried to switch it up a bit. I don’t want to brag, but I think I’ve done pretty well for myself. Some people draw, or write their names on public property, or knit really awesome socks. I screw over my circadian rhythm. It’s the first meeting of a middle school orchestra class in there. My biological clock looks like something out of a Dali painting. When I want to go to sleep, I stab my pineal gland with a toothpick.

Where was I going with that? Umm..

Getting up is terrible. Being awake isn’t so bad. There are socks to wear, books to read, songs to butcher, slavering dogs to pet — at least after you let them scan your hands for traces of food. But that terrible moment..knees bending, hips resuming the awful weight of your torso, head clearing to admit thoughts longer and more complex than “Bladder” and “Coffee.” Ugh. I thought I had bad joints, but it’s probably just a repetitive stress injury. Reverse yoga. One too many sun quick!-duck-behind-somethings.

But that is all behind me. Oh, sure, I once led a sedentary lifestyle. It was okay. I stared down at crochet projects and books and steering wheels. And then I found another way. A better way. A less elitist way, because really, you shouldn’t look down on anything. You should look forward, or at least across.

It’s the end of this post and I know it..and I’m supine.

Awww..I ordered an autographed copy of Peter Bowler’s The Superior Person’s Book of Words and got an unautographed copy. I wrote to the seller, but I only paid $0.01 for the book itself, so..whatever. It’s disappointing but not really worth the trouble of exchanging it.

Other options:

  • Send it to Bowler, who is 79 and lives in Australia, and beg him to sign it for me.
  • Post an ad on Craigslist and find an old man who’s willing to meet up, introduce himself as Peter Bowler, preferably in an Australian accent, and sign it for me. Bowler hat optional.
  • Send letters and books to both Peter Bowler and Ammon Shea in which I claim that they are both my #1 favorite lexicographer, who would never turn down an autograph request, unlike that other bastard, who is infinitely less clever than them.
  • Just write to Ammon Shea, because he is way cooler than Peter Bowler. You hear that, Bowler?!?


This word comes from poco (little) and curante, the present participle of curare, meaning “to care.” Thus it means “caring little” — indifferent, nonchalant. You can also refer to an indifferent, apathetic person as a pococurante. If you’re in a self-deprecating mood, saying “I am a pococurante” in a terrible fake accent while flipping a scarf over your shoulder and sticking your nose in the air before running trudging off to write a three-page entry on the subject of ennui would make for a lovely evening.

Signor Pococuranté is a character in Voltaire’s Candide who is unimpressed by..well, practically everything. Here is the chapter in which he appears.


A shoal is an area of shallow water or a sand bar or sand bank. It can also mean a school, as in a school of fish, or a flock of birds, or a large group of people or inanimate objects, or an iceberg or ice floe, or shallow (in both a figurative and literal sense), or to become shallow, or to separate/divide, or to fall apart..you get the picture. Shoal has a lot of homonyms, some true, some not, and someday I will probably read it while sleep-deprived and utterly lose sight of its context and get so confused that I have to just give up and put the book down..or I will flash back to the image search results for shark shoal and, as I live about a mile from the ocean, be filled with a terror that manifests itself in anything from a sudden urge to build a loft bed or to relocate to Kansas, where a storm surge will never, ever send a hammerhead crashing through my sliding glass door.


Hey, your favorite director came out of retirement and is working on a new movie! Your favorite band got back together! Your favorite show has been picked up again! Great news all around!

Pssh. For you, maybe. As for me, I ascribe to deteriorism, the belief that things — specific things or ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING — tend to get worse over time. I love endings! Then I can rest easy in the knowledge that rather than having nowhere to go but down, there is simply nowhere to go.

But, you know, good for you. I’m sure it’ll be fun..for a while.


Despite having spent most of my life living in a small town in the south-eastern US, my diction is far from country. I blame it on my mother, a Pennsylvanian, and shyness. Even these two forces combined were not enough to fully insulate me from my surroundings, but I am not and never have been a Southern Baptist, and over time, the Deep South has just about lost its already tenuous grasp on my manner of speaking. I can still fake a convincing southern accent, but it no longer takes over when I’m angry. I stopped saying “dang” once I summoned the courage to switch to “damn.” And when I started using the internet and realized that most people said “swear” and “curse,” I stopped saying “cuss.”

To cuss is to utter expletives (you may cuss at someone or cuss someone out), a cuss word is a swear word, and a cuss is a swear word or an annoying or annoyingly stubborn person — someone who makes you want to cuss. Until today, I thought that my father’s “lazy cuss” was simply a cleaner version of “lazy fuck,” with the cuss in question having no notable qualities aside from a strong aversion to work or a seeming inability to get out of bed at a decent hour. I also assumed that “cuss” was unique to the southeastern US, when actually its usage is much more widespread. It hails from England, was absorbed by some American dialect or other, and is currently in common use all over the United States, and, given its origin, perhaps outside of it as well, though I was unable to find confirmation of this.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, cuss the verb is an alteration of curse and was in use by the early 1800s. Cuss the noun, however, was in use by the late 1700s and while it may also come from “curse,” it’s equally possible that it is a shortening of “customer,” which, as a slang term, and as used by Shakespeare, means “prostitute.” Hmmph. Maybe I should be glad I skimped on this year’s Father’s Day present.


The Pantechnicon was a large, Greek-style building that stood in London’s Belgrave Square from sometime around 1830 until 1876, when it burned down. It contained a gallery, a furniture shop and a warehouse for storing furniture and other merchandise prior to sale. Special carriages, Pantechnicon vans, were designed for and employed in carting furniture to and from the building. These vans proved so useful that, while retaining their original name, their design was adopted by other businesses. Thus “pantechnicon van,” or simply “pantechnicon” in colloquial usage, became a generic term for any large van of the sort used for moving furniture.

Like the Pantechnicon itself, the word “pantechnicon” was created in England but inspired by Greece, in particular (and obviously) the Greek language, with pan meaning “all” and techne meaning “art” or “craft.” Hence we also have pantechnic, meaning relating to or comprising all of the arts.

I must admit that despite being charmed by the history of this word, I have derived more pleasure from gaining a very impressive-sounding term for a van, as in “I live in a pantechnicon down by the river.” I suppose having to open up a wall of my home in order to get sunlight and fresh air would wear on me, but how many vehicle-dwellers have room for a couch?


"When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide the book to preserve it from profanation. The contents of the book go up to heaven like the soul."
-Solomon Schechter

Genizah (or geniza) is Hebrew in origin and literally means “hiding” or “hiding place.” It comes from ganaz, meaning “to hide.” It refers to a particularly marvelous sort of hiding place, a room or depository attached to a synagogue where unwanted Hebrew-language written and printed materials as well as ritual objects such as prayer shawls are stored. “Genizah” may also refer to the contents of a genizah. As it is forbidden to simply throw away documents containing the name of God, religious materials are the genizah’s mainstay, and modern genizahs tend to focus entirely on saving such documents. For hundreds and hundreds of years, however, genizahs were also used to store absolutely anything written using the Hebrew alphabet. Heretical texts are also stored in genizahs in order to prevent their circulation. Thus a genizah both protects its contents from the outside world and the outside world from its contents.

The materials in a genizah are waiting to be disposed of properly, generally via burial in a cemetery, sometimes in a plot that has been purchased by or donated to the synagogue for that very purpose. Sometimes the burial is accompanied by a sort of memorial service. In Jerusalem, synagogues bury the contents of their genizahs every seventh year and during drought years. It seems like a very dull life. You’re printed, spend a decade or two being carefully passed around during services, spend several years languishing in a room full of your peers, a sort of nursing home or hospice for the written word, and then you’re wrapped in white and buried. Yet some of the revelations that have resulted from explorations of genizahs and their contents’ final resting places are nothing short of explosive.

Take the story of how rabbinical scholar Solomon Schechter became involved in the study of the Cairo Genizah, or the genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue. When the synagogue was renovated in 1890, a lot of material from the genizah, mostly fragments of documents, ended up being sold at nearby markets. A pair of Scottish twins, Agnes Lewis Smith and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, purchased a few of these fragments while touring Cairo.  Upon returning to England, they gave two to Solomon Schechter, then employed as a reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, who recognized one as having come from the Wisdom of Sirach.

At the time, Schechter was embroiled in a sort of feud with his Oxford counterpart, D. S. Margoliouth, over the ultimate origin of Sirach. He contested that it was originally written in Hebrew, although only Greek and Syriac versions had been found; Margoliouth begged to differ. Imagine how Schechter must have felt, sitting in his office, holding proof that he was RIGHT — a fragment of a Hebrew version of Sirach that had been lost for a millennium.

To make a long story short (and a long post even longer), Schechter was granted permission to enter the Cairo Genizah and take what he liked back to England with him. He climbed in..


..or maybe it has a door but I can’t figure out how exactly he got in and that sounds cooler..and spent four weeks sorting through the genizah. He was waist-deep in paper. Clouds of smoke, comprised of bits of paper that time had reduced to dust, rose every time he moved. He limited himself to manuscripts (handwritten documents) but still managed to return to England with four trunks full of papers. What sort of papers? Poems. Biblical texts. School workbooks. Legal documents. Letters. Every manner of written material you can possibly imagine, ranging from the 800s to the 1800s, as that’s how long the Cairo Genizah was in use. He found a written record of daily life for Jews in the Middle Ages, solutions to mysteries that people had given up on ever solving — historical wealth almost beyond comprehension.


Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles

In Dutch, plaatsvervangende schaamte literally means “place-exchanging shame,” referring to the sense of embarrassment you get from watching someone else make a fool of themselves. Many languages have a term with the same or roughly the same meaning as plaatsvervangende schaamte, including Spanish (vergüenza ajena), German (Fremdschämen) and English (secondhand embarrassment).