Tasting words like fine wine

Word fans love James Harbeck’s Sesquiotic blog and The Week articles. James believes that words are delicious and intoxicating. They do much more than just denote; they have appearance, sound, a feel in the mouth, and words they sound like and travel with... So why not taste them like a fine wine? Here’s our chat with the sentence sommelier.

What’s your story, James?
I grew up in a house filled with books. One time I counted my dad’s collection and it was about 2,000. But my favourites were the encyclopedia. We had a set of World Book Encyclopedia and I would read about all sorts of places and things in it. Later on we got Britannica and I read it with similar avidity. We also got the Great Books set that came with the Britannica, but I have to admit I read very little of it. I did read the first book of Dante, but I didn’t get more than a page or so into War and Peace or even that far into Aristophanes. This was in no small part to the horrid stiff antediluvian translations they were using. Had I been reading Aristophanes in the Sommerstein translations published by Penguin, as I did later, I would have gobbled it all up!

We went to schools in towns just off the reserve. The reserve school did not have as good an educational environment — the kids there didn’t see education as very important; the ones who did went to the off-reserve schools for the most part. We rode the bus with the Stoney kids. We didn’t fit in with them either, of course, because we weren’t Stoney. We didn’t speak the language. Our parents did — my dad is fluent in it and my mom can get by in it — and I learned a few words in my early years, but once the Stoney kids became more those kids who picked on us on the bus rather than potential friends, I seem to have lost my motivation, which is a pity.

Well, that’s not giving a very good account of it. Maybe I should go through it year by year. You may find it different from the average.

  • Born 1967 in Calgary. At that time we lived on the Big Horn Reserve near Rocky Mountain House, north of Calgary. In the next few years we also lived in a log cabin on the Morley Reserve west of Calgary; in Calgary briefly; in California for part of a year; in Mexico for part of a year; in Seebe, west of the reserve, at the beginning of the mountains, a small town by a dam; in Morley, the town at the heart of the reserve; and in Exshaw, a town just a bit farther west just into the mountains, with the largest cement plant in Canada. We lived in a little teacherage that had five rooms upstairs that would could run in a circle through. That’s where we lived when I was in grade 1.
  • I was an avid student and read well ahead. I was accelerated to grade 3 (i.e., I skipped grade 2). My parents had a nice house built two blocks away in Exshaw; we lived there when I was in grade 3. I actually played with other kids sometimes!
  • My parents decided they really should be on the reserve. We moved to a house in the countryside on the reserve. It needed renovations, so we lived in a trailer at first, and for a while we used an outhouse until it got indoor plumbing. We were there when I was in grade 4. I saw other kids in school and on the school bus and at family events, and the rest of the time it was me, my brother, and our parents.
  • In grade 4, a school psychologist tested me and my brother and found that we had quite high IQs. This was a sort of Harry Potter moment for me. He recommended we go to a private school south of Calgary, Strathcona-Tweedsmuir.
  • So we did that when I was in grade 5. For the beginning of the school year, we stayed with friends who lived in the northwest of the city. Then our family moved into a house in northwest Calgary. My parents drove an hour one way to get to work; my brother and I took a bus one hour the other way to get to school.
  • The private school was expensive and we decided it was not sufficient value for the money. We moved back onto the reserve into a teacherage in the town of Morley, just across the schoolyard from the school where my mother taught, and a couple of blocks from the Stoney tribal administration building where my father worked. We took the bus nearly an hour to school in Springbank, a fairly well-off country area west of Calgary, when I was in grade 6. I remember reading Lord of the Rings on the bus. Tolkien’s languages and alphabets fascinated me. So did the maps. I have always loved maps. Also photography (my dad was a photographer), music (he had a good collection of albums), plants (my mother has always had many of them around the house)…
  • For grade 7, I went back to Exshaw school, taking the bus 40 minutes west.
  • In grade 8, we moved to a large house just off the western edge of the reserve, at the foot of the first mountain, a flat-faced sentinel called Yamnuska. It had been the home of the owner of a game farm, which was just a short drive or walk further along the road from it. Nobody else lived near there, but it was only 15 minutes on the bus to Exshaw. It could be a bit spooky at night when at home alone. We lived there until I was in second year university, but I didn’t reside there full-time after grade 10, because…
  • …the Exshaw school goes to grade 9. We could have gone to high school in Canmore like the other Exshaw kids but we didn’t really have a happy time with them; we were the dorky kids, remember? So since our house was in an undistricted location, we went to Banff. My brother was two years ahead of me. He drove us both to and from school, 40 minutes each way, when I was in grade 10.
  • In grades 11 and 12 I stayed with people in Banff and actually began to develop a social life. I was still dorky, of course, but I began to feel accepted. Computers were the new big thing then too. My brother and I both did very well at them. My brother went into computers and has made his career in them. I found that I was sometimes spending hours working on things rather than going out and doing things with my classmates, so I backed off from it. I have always needed attention and social contact, even though I’m an introvert!
  • There were many years in my school career when I wanted to be an architect. I was very good at math and physics (and many other things — I graduated with six scholarships). But when it came time to decide on what to do in university, I decided to follow another fantasy that had more pull because it involved more attention: I wanted to be an actor. I went to the University of Calgary and took drama. It took me a while to realize I wasn’t actually a good actor, and by the time I did realize it, I wasn’t quite so bad anymore.
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts, University of Calgary, 1988. Moved to Edmonton, where my parents had moved two years earlier due to political issues at Morley. My mother was teaching at a reserve west of Edmonton. Edmonton has a lot of live theatre, and I managed to do some, but I was still not that good an actor. I made my living working in bookstores. As a result, I came to know the titles, authors, and blurbs of many books I have never read.
  • I noticed that while it was always a struggle to convince people I could act, I never had any trouble convincing people I could think. I decided to go to grad school. I applied to a few places, some in Canada, some in the US. I had to take the Graduate Record Exam. One of my most cherished accomplishments is getting a perfect score on all sections of it.
  • I went to Tufts University, which is a mile and a half north of Harvard and two dozen spots below it on the US News and World Report rankings. I enjoyed my time at Tufts very much (aside from a bout with panic disorder and depression near the end of my time there, but that wasn’t caused by Boston). I discovered semiotics and performance theory and various other things that still inform my thinking.
  • MA, Tufts, 1995; PhD, Tufts, 1998.
  • I decided to move back to Canada in 1997, when my PhD was all done but the last revisions. I chose Toronto so I could make my own way rather than relying on my parents again. I didn’t have to move back — I have dual citizenship because my parents were American when I was born (they became Canadian citizens a few years later). But I wanted to, as much as I liked Boston. Jobs for theatre academics were not in plentiful supply.
  • I met a beautiful figure skater while we were both volunteer ushering at a dance festival, a month and a half after I arrived in Toronto. We got married in 2000.
  • I got a job as an advertising copywriter in 1997, and in that job I also learned desktop publishing software. After that job disappeared from under me a couple of years later, I got a freelance gig designing the Literary Review of Canada, which I still do on the side.
  • I volunteer-edited the national magazine for Mensa Canada (I’ve been a member since the 1990s) and the journal of a higher-IQ society, the Prometheus Society. Those societies were good sources of social contact for me for a while, though they aren’t as important to me now.
  • I sang with a group that did music from the Republic of Georgia. Then I got into the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which I was a member of for about 13 years, until I decided I didn’t have enough time for it anymore.
  • I joined the Editors’ Association of Canada. I got to know a lot of people worth knowing. I’ve been a regular fixture in their conferences for years.
  • After a short job with a web start-up and another short job with a commuter newspaper, I started working in 2000 for the company I’m with now, which does health information websites. I’ve been there for 15 years now. It also does, as a side project, the website of one of Canada’s top wine critics. I love wine. My wife and I have done a lot of wine touring.
  • I started taking courses in linguistics at undergraduate level, from scratch, after one of my editor friends mentioned doing so. I took them one at a time, sometimes having to arrange my work schedule around it. Over the years I built up the equivalent of a solid major in the subject. But why get another BA? I decided to get an MA, still taking it one course at a time. I am just about to defend my master’s thesis. Unless it fails, I will have an MA in linguistics from York University, dated 2016.
  • You really want to know the title of the thesis? Fine. It’s Relative Use of Phonaesthemes in the Constitution and Development of Genres. It’s actually quite interesting — if such things interest you.
  • In 2008, I started blogging. I got the idea for word tasting notes from wine tasting (remember the wine critic site I work on?). I knew I could do one a day and not run out of subject matter.
  • I got to know language people on Twitter. In 2013, out of the blue, The Week contacted me — having gotten my name from someone who follows me on Twitter (to whom I owe an eternal debt of thanks, but I don’t know who it was) — and asked if I’d like to write articles for them on language. I said sure! Since then I have written for various other publications and websites, including the BBC.

So anyway, that’s the short version. You asked!


Where did your fascination with words come from?
Heredity, environment, and the stars, I guess! I was surrounded by people who spoke a language I didn’t. I was also surrounded by my dad’s books. I asked for and got a New Testament Greek textbook for my ninth birthday. Around the same time I bought a little book with a floppy little record for learning Italian. I’ve already mentioned Tolkien’s influence on me. In high school I bought Teach Yourself German. Since we’re in Canada, I started learning French in school — from grade 5, in fact. A certain amount of my interest in languages has been fed by music, too (I’m playing Rammstein — they sing in German — as I write this!). I discovered Irish Gaelic thanks to the group Altán, and bought Teach Yourself Irish when I was in university in Calgary. I have always been a language hobbyist and collector. I have a reference shelf with dictionaries in dozens of languages (mostly bilingual English-whatever dictionaries, but also grammars, teach-yourselfs, and a few others).

Language is fun. It’s not the only thing I love. I love maps, travel, photography, food, alcoholic beverages, music… I often say I operate on a need-to-know basis: I need to know everything. I also really like figuring things out.

What’s your process for choosing and writing about the words in your blog?
Often a word will strike me as something worth writing about and I’ll make a note, and sometimes people will email or tweet suggestions my way, but the actual process of writing is pretty straightforward: Around 11 pm or so, I sit down to write. I may have a word in mind, in which case I go to it. If not, I’ll look through suggestions and ideas. If any of them seems like something I can reasonably do and feel like doing, I’ll do it. Otherwise I may dictionary-surf — start with some made-up word and look to see what’s like it, and maybe bounce around from that. Once I’ve chosen a word, I look at the historical citations and the etymology, mainly in the Oxford English Dictionary but also sometimes in other places such as dictionary.com, and I may look at collocations in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and elsewhere. If it refers to some natural object in the world, I’m likely to look up more information on it; if it has cultural references, I’m pretty sure to dig up more on them. I use Wikipedia and whatever more authoritative sources I can find. And I just sit down and write it. Generally I have a plan in mind. I revise a bit while writing. I give it a read-over and revise a bit more. Usually it takes me less than an hour to research and write the blog post; I think they average about 600 words. Then I post it and email it out and go to bed. The next morning, I’ll read it over and fix any typos I missed.


Your favourite words and why?
This is an extremely difficult question. I’m not strongly inclined to choosing favourites, and my mind just doesn’t offer up ready lists of such things. I do have a considerable fondness for vulgar words, and for long words, and for words that offer a lot of potential for wordplay. I can tell you that a thousand-some-odd of my most favourite words are listed here.

The truth is that I tend to enjoy words from other languages often even more than English words, just because they’re new to me and more exotic to me (obviously banal to native speakers of those languages), and I like stepping beyond the bounds of English’s phonemic repertoire.


The words you most dislike and why?
Just as I don’t lean much to favourites, I also don’t lean much to least-favourites. In addition, I dislike the popular tendency to word-hate. Many people have an intense dislike for words they perceive as business-speak innovations, but they’re almost always wrong in the reasons they give for disliking them (typically they’ve been around much longer than the people think, for instance). Many people hate verbing even though much of their vocabulary (unbeknownst to them) is made up of words that have been verbed, nouned, adjectived, even adverbed. Some people hate words such as moist because of bad associations, which is their prerogative, but I disagree with attempts to proscribe them universally — disgusting to you is not the same as offensive to a large group of people who have not elected you as spokesperson. Some people also hate certain words on the basis of false etymologies.

It’s not that there aren’t words I have a distaste for. When I was a kid I really hated the words onus and decanter. I still avoid onus, though I am fine with decanter, its object, and its contents. But I don’t really want to encourage people to hate on words. It’s a very immature perspective on the world to believe that rejection is superior to acceptance. Even an infant can push food onto the floor; even a toddler can say “No! Don’t want!” It takes a well educated adult to develop a deep appreciation for something complex, possibly even prima facie unpleasant (like much art), and to be able to elucidate it. I do try to help in that direction.


The ten words everyone should know about in their lifetime?
Hmm. Hard to get by without your name, your siblings’ and parents’ names, mom, dad, hi, bye, please, thanks, and fuck. :P If you have something more like luxury words in mind — lexical ornaments that you may not use often but will always be glad you know — that’s a tougher question. Different people have different favourite books and clothes and art, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable for them to have different favourite words too. I really think that things people should know about in language are how syntax works, how words and their meanings change over time, why their language is actually a system of varieties of language suited for various situations rather than one correct language with errors to avoid, and — just incidentally — how statistics work. Also, people should learn more than one language. They don’t have to be perfectly fluent in more than one, but they should be able to make sense of a newspaper, for example, in at least two or three, and they should learn about the grammar and vocabulary and sound systems of those languages. You understand your own language better when you understand something of other languages.


Finally, the books you cannot live without?
The Oxford English Dictionary has to be top of the list. I don’t use anything else as much as I use that. Mind you, I use it online. Aside from that, I have (as mentioned) a large collection of reference books for other languages. Wikipedia isn’t a book but I’m very happy it exists even though it’s not perfectly reliable. Twitter isn’t anything like a book but it gives me great links to articles. I love magazines. I would not want to go through life without National Geographic, though I am taken aback that it has been bought (in majority) by Rupert Murdoch and I’m a little concerned about the effect that might have. There are many books I’m glad to have read (such as the oeuvres of Kurt Vonnegut and Spike Milligan, both enjoyed in high school, and James Joyce, enjoyed in university), but now that I’ve read them I don’t really look at them again (except to look up quotations occasionally), so it depends on what you mean by do without.

It would be hard to live without access to a university library, though, I’ll tell you that. I already have lines on access for when I’ve done my MA.

Check out Sesquiotica, follow James, or follow Capioca for more interviews with people we find fascinating.