The title refers obviously to the Umberto Eco work which anyone who cares about knowledge and its preservation ought to read if only for fun; but the picture refers only to itself. With exegesis from Larry Wall. [Oh, my; give this audience a chance to indulge in linguistic pedantry and, well, you don’t have to ask twice. If you like this kind of stuff, don’t miss the comments.]

[My first published draft credited Calvino instead of Eco for the book, which explains the first comment below.]

The Number of the Rose

The number in this case is part of our address; the previous owner of our house left some massive pieces of driftwood behind; I erected one in our front yard, bolted the number to it, and have been trying to encourage this nice old white rose to to grow for a few years now.

The resulting edifice is not unlike a standing stone, only it’s wood. I wondered what to call it. The only professionally-trained linguists whom I know on a first-name basis are Larry Wall and his wife Gloria, so I wrote them wondering if there were an existing word for megalith-only-wood and if not, what one might reasonably invent. I seem to have lost the email I sent, but I have Larry’s reply, which I reproduce from a 2001 email exchange without permission but probably with his approval:

Tim Bray writes:
: I live in hope of being able to coin a word and get into
: a reputable lexicon anywhere... would anyone chez Wall
: care to venture a suggestion? -Tim

Well, wood/tree in Greek is xulon (where x is a xi, not a chi—see xylem for a related word). Unfortunately, mega-xul (or mega-xyl) is hard to get your mouth around even when you're used to pronouncing “ks” consonant clusters at the beginnings of syllables. The only way to pronounce it as an English speaker is to put the stress on the middle syllable, and then you lose the accessibility of the “mega” morpheme.

You may need to abandon Greek. Glo suggests mega-flotsam or some such. Flotsam is from Old French, so maybe they have something that would stand in for mega. I'm not fluent in Old French. I'm not fluent in any kind of French, except maybe for English.

In German, anything you coin would probably start out gross-, which is pretty gross. But you get things like gross-holz, “big wood”, or gross-treib-holz, “big driftwood”, or gross-zweig, “large twig”.

From Japanese we can coin words like okii-kare-ki, “big dead wood” (if you go with native Japanese syllables) or dai-boku, “big wood”, if you go with borrowed Chinese syllables, which make up at least half of Japanese these days, much like half of English used to be French.

If you go for more humor, “big stick” would be dai-bookire, but getting English speakers to pronounce the long “o” and the final "e" right would be a trick.

Unfortunately, “big driftwood” in Japanese would be dai-hyooryuu-boku, which I can guarantee you is not going to catch on.

For it, that's now.



Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Marco Bertini (Jul 02 2007, at 01:07)

Tim, "The name of the rose" was written by Umberto Eco.

Italo Calvino ( is perhaps a much greater writer.

I'd suggest to start with the "trilogy" composed by: The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, The Nonexistent Knight and Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Umberto Eco is a professor of semiology, whose essays are usually much better than is novels (MHO).

If you liked the Name of the rose I'd suggest to read Baudolino. The transaltor may have had some problems with the language but its great.


From: Dustin (Jul 02 2007, at 01:46)

I would suggest "megalog" for your structure. It's just a few letters away form megalith and could be quite catchy.


From: Chris Burdess (Jul 02 2007, at 01:50)

I'm not sure why you need the "mega-" prefix in any case, since you're not talking about something the size of a Stonehenge menhir. Maybe "xylolith" is more appropriate for a fossilised piece of wood (obviously pronounced "zailolith" by your average English speaker).


From: Matěj Cepl (Jul 02 2007, at 02:00)

If you want to read something from Italo Calvino then run, don't walk, to get a copy of Invisible Cities ( -- it's the most weird and interesting book I read for a long times.


From: Sophie (Jul 02 2007, at 02:15)


In Breton, standing stones megaliths are called menhir. Men is stone, hir is the 'standing' part. Wood in breton is koad, so you standing wood would be koadhir.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Jul 02 2007, at 04:57)

Hmm, for a Greek coinage, I would suggest _megaloxylon_, which rolls off English tongues as nicely as off Greek ones.


From: davidleetodd (Jul 02 2007, at 05:11)

Instead of using the prefix "mega" (large), you could use "mono" (single), as in "monolith", which carries roughly the same sense as "mega" when used in this context. A "monoxylon" is a boat carved from a single tree trunk -- a dugout. Hoever, since xylon means tree, not boat, monoxylon should also do fine for your big piece of wood.


From: stephen o'grady (Jul 02 2007, at 07:18)

+1 on the Baudolino recommendation.


From: Barton George (Jul 02 2007, at 08:09)

Hey Tim,

Since you erroneously cited Calvino the first time around Ill take this opportunity to put in my 2c about my favorite Calvino book (Ill have to admit Ive never read Eco): If on a Winters Night a Traveler. I really enjoyed this and the way it was constructed, Some find it a bit gimmicky but I found it inventive and trippy and enjoyed the way it evolved. Its a quick read and I love the way the chapter titles tell a story when read together. If you do decide to read it, Id recommend not reading any plot summaries before hand because half the fun is the mystery with which the story unfolds.


From: Carolyn (Jul 02 2007, at 09:08)

I couldn't see your picture with clarity on my browser at home like I can from work. I didn't see the numbers. Everyone is focused on the wood. I was focused on the thirty petals. :-)


From: Victor Rodriguez (Jul 02 2007, at 19:40)

The Tarahumara of the north of Mexico have a word for structrues like the one you describe: "cusihuiriachi". (They have many other interesting words.)

You can read about the Tarahumara in Wikipedia: There is an old mining town by the same name, founded in 1688 by the spaniards. The following page (in spanish!) has some information about it:

Best Regards,

Victor Rodriguez.


From: Timberlith (Jul 02 2007, at 23:30)

I suppose Woodhenge presents a precedent.

A nonsensical composite - that could make sense to the modern ear - mightbe TIMBERLITH

Both Calvino and Eco are revered in Ital, I value them as good stabs at 20C lit..


From: Shelley (Jul 03 2007, at 08:20)

First of all, time to change captcha...Tony who?

Second, my suggestion: big-stick-a-wood.

Third, to you and others in thread, thanks much for recommended reading material. I like comment threads where I get a chance to discover such interesting new stuff.


From: James Brunskill (Jul 05 2007, at 21:35)

My contribution from NZ Māori thanks to Ngata Maori-English Dictionary (I'm not a speaker)

rākau oro (Wooden Stand) - As in 'Stand of Trees'


tūroa rākau (Long Standing Wood)

Driftwood is tāwhaowhao (wh is pronounced like an 'f' sound)


From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Jul 09 2007, at 21:21)

This thread not only made me think of the excitement of reading Eco's book but of his others. From there I went to another sleuth of the middle ages, Brother Cadfael. And I blogged him in relation to a rose in my garden by that name.



From: Carolyn (Jul 10 2007, at 10:25)

Hi, Tim. Maybe this is a terrible pun. The name and number of the rose (petals), in Greek, sounds like "Tree in Daphila" to me.


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