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On the wings of a whim.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “on a lark,” as in “On a lark we went bowling”? — Chris.

“On a lark we went bowling”? Really? Dude, “lark” and “bowling” do not belong in the same sentence. “On a lark we flew to Paris” works. “On a lark I bought a Lamborghini” is believable. “On a lark we eloped and got married at Disney World” would be a credible premise for a romantic comedy. But “on a lark we went bowling” is just weird. Not that there’s anything wrong with bowling, I hasten to add. But for most people, the noble sport of bowling is not synonymous with wild-and-crazy carefree spontaneity. Unless, of course, you’re sitting in a day-long meeting with people you loathe at a job you hate. Then going bowling “on a lark” might be your ticket to a whole new life.

There are actually two “larks” in English (three, if you count the obscure 18th century use of the word to mean “a small boat”). The older “lark” is a small bird (also known as both the “laverock” and the “skylark”) famed for its melodious call and its love of flying at great heights. The name “lark” comes from the Old English “lawerce,” which came in turn from Germanic roots. Oddly, some of the earlier forms of “lark,” especially those found in Old Norse, imply that the original meaning of the word “lark” was related to “treason” in some way. There may be some rationale for this to be found in some folktale somewhere (“The Tale of the Perfidious Lark”?), but so far it’s a mystery and probably nothing to worry about. After all, a batch of the little birdies has been known as “an exaltation of larks” since the 15th century, which certainly beats “a murder of crows” in the avian public-relations department.

The other sort of “lark,” the one meaning “a lighthearted adventure, a spree, an impulsive action,” is of much more recent vintage, first appearing in the 19th century (“My mother … once by way of a lark, invited her to tea,” 1857). A “lark” is a brief but daring departure from routine, a flight of fancy, a bit of forbidden fun or a harmless prank, and “to lark” since the early 18th century has meant “to frolic or play.” The generally positive tone of this “lark” fits well with one theory of its source, namely that it is simply a reference to the light, soaring flight of the “lark” bird. A related verb of the same meaning, “skylarking,” apparently originated aboard sailing ships, and was used to describe crewmen roughhousing in the upper rigging of the ship’s masts, probably by analogy to the soaring flight of actual “skylarks.”

But it’s also possible that “lark” in this “frolic” sense came from a source unrelated to the “lark” bird. Some authorities point to the English dialectical verb “lake” or “laik,” meaning “to leap, play, spring up,” dating back to Old English and derived from Germanic roots. The transition from “lake” to “lark” would, in this theory, be explained by the particularities of pronunciation in southern England, where “r” sounds tend to creep into words lacking the actual letter. Of course, the similarity of the result to the name of the “lark” bird no doubt also played a role in the spread of this “lark.”

April 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was fun.

Back in the first week of April, I was putting together this issue when I noticed that some comments needed approving. So I started combing through them as usual, approving the sane ones and nuking the spam, when I noticed that one of the less coherent spam comments could not be deleted. As they say on Law & Order, DUM dum. That ain’t right.

So I decide to think on it for a while (which is my response to almost every crisis that doesn’t involve either loaded weapons or the fire department) and went back to updating the site. Which is when I noticed that the entire site had suddenly gone bananas. Password-protected subscriber-only posts were appearing on the front page (not good), the Ask a Question page was non-functional (really bad), and the Index of one zillion pages suddenly consisted of just two entries, both in the category of “Odds & Ends.” Boy howdy. OK, now I’m freaking out.

You may not know this, but when you read a blog or other site running on WordPress, what you’re seeing is actually data pulled from a separate MySQL database. Everything on this site — posts, comments, categories, dates, etc. — is data in tables in that database. So evidently My Little Database is borked. No problemo! I have site backups created every day by a plugin and stashed elsewhere in my hosting account at I’ll just fire up the old FTP program, fetch them and restore the whole shebang. Uh, no. Apparently the permissions on that target directory got changed at some point and all my backups since March 2011 have been sliding straight into the bit-bucket. They don’t exist. It is now 3 am and I am seriously starting to freak.

So I write to support at And they answer about five minutes later. At 3:30 am! I love Pair. They say they have a backup, but it’s a general server backup, so no guarantees. And, in fact, it makes things worse. So I go back to square one, install the latest version of WP, restore the site to what it was a year ago, and start manually editing the database.

As it stands now, the site contains everything it should, but there are gaps in its memory (sounds familiar). If you’re looking for a particular word or phrase, the search box at the top of the left column is probably the best way to find it. I’m going to keep working on it. As to how all this happened, I don’t know. It may have been a botched hack (I was using a version of WP that apparently had vulnerabilities) or it could have just been a toxic conflict between two of the dozen or so plugins that I use to make the site run. Part of my problem is that I’ve been tinkering and adding things for years, and I am no longer sure just how everything works. As to why this all took so long to sorta-fix, it’s because my eyes have been on the fritz lately, making it hard to see much of anything.

Anyway, we’re up and running, at least. This issue is a bit short, but I will do my best to produce a proper May issue withing the next two weeks. If you’d like to boost my morale, you might consider subscribing.

And now, on with the show.



Dear Word Detective: What’s the deal with “nonetheless” or “nevertheless”? We all know what they mean, but when you reflect on the separate words, “none the less,” it makes no sense whatsoever (another weird, perhaps related, contraction). — Lee Hixson.

That’s a good question. But it’s also a bad question (Bad question! Bad!), because it gives me a headache when I think about it for more than a minute or two. There’s something about this whole class of jammed-up words that seems slippery and difficult to think about methodically. I vividly remember a friend of mine asking me, and this was at least fifteen years ago, to explain what in the world the word “notwithstanding” really meant (and why anyone had decided it meant that). That question ruined my whole day.

“Nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” are all English adverbs of considerable age. “Nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” first appeared in print in the late 14th century, and “nonetheless” in the early 16th century. These three are actually the survivors of an entire passel of words and phrases with the same general meaning in use at at various times but now obsolete, including “natheless,” “nautheless,” “naught the less,” “noughtwithstanding” and “notagainstanding” (“gainstand” being an archaic word meaning “to resist or oppose”).

All of these words mean roughly the same thing: “despite that,” “in spite of that” or “all the same.” The constituent parts of each word (“not,” “never,” “the,” “more,” “less,” etc.) are not a mystery; “withstand” is our familiar English word meaning “to resist or oppose, usually successfully” (“You have not the will to withstand your aunt,” 1882). But the sense of these words can be hard to explain precisely because they have acquired an idiomatic meaning over the years a bit different from the simple sum of their parts.

The key to “nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” is that they all require and refer to an antecedent statement, which may or may not be referred to elsewhere in the sentence. “Nonetheless” “notwithstanding” and “nevertheless” mean that what has been said or known (call it “X”) does not prevent, diminish or invalidate, etc., the fact that the primary statement “Y” is true, valid, etc. (“Limo services Los Angeles have been in demand for years. Nonetheless, their business is fairly limited…,” 10/01/11). The first statement makes the second “none the less” (or “never the less”) true.

“Notwithstanding” is a bit odd in that it means that the primary assertion does, in fact, “withstand” the other statement or condition (“Notwithstanding his previous convictions for fraud, Bob was given a license to practice law”). The thing to remember is that no matter how strange these words may seem, they’re all ultimately just synonyms for “despite” or “in spite of.”

“Whatsoever” is another weird word, but it’s a bit easier to explain. “Whatsoever” is simply a more ornate and emphatic form of “whatever,” meaning (as a pronoun) “anything at all” (“In a few months we shall have stores of whatever we want,” 1832) or (as an adjective) “any” (“The Governor-General has been stripped of whatever little authority he retained,” 1887). Given the current dominance of “whatever” as a catch-all response indicating a pose of insolent apathy (“He said I was fired and I’m like ‘Whatever'”), I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t seen the emergence of “Whatsoever” for those times when you truly, madly, deeply don’t give a hoot.