What Is Must?

I was driving to work yesterday when The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald came up on my iPod. What a happy little tune.

Life ring from the "Edmund Fitzgerald"

Hey, Life Ring. Nice Job (Photo credit: Piper 92R)

There are two things that make The Edmund Fitzgerald a happy song. The first is that it is the only hit song that contained the name Gitche Gumee.

The other nice thing is that everyone dies. Usually that takes away from my enjoyment of a song. But Edmund Fitzgerald is my go to song to listen to on the way to do something I don’t want to do. When I hear it, I tell myself how glad I am that Gordon Lightfoot isn’t singing about me in that song.

One verse mentions a memorial service for the lost sailors of the Fitzgerald held a “musty old hall in Detroit”. We can infer that this happened in the part of Detroit that wasn’t on fire or bulldozed.

But what is must?

Well, If You Must Know…

We all know what I’m talking about if I say “the house down the street smells musty inside”. But I’ve never known anyone who can identify must.

My career takes me to some of the most foul places in my community. It isn’t unusual for me to leave a place and have an exchange like this:

Did you see all the _______ in the corner? It made taking without gagging almost impossible.

I know, I tried not to look. It wasn’t any better to look up. There was _______ all over the ceiling. I was just praying none fell on me.

Think of something unpleasant and put that word in the blanks. Chances are, I have seen that inside someone’s house. The only thing I haven’t seen is must.

Adding the suffix -y indicates that something is somehow like the root word it attaches to. If you hear that I am in a grumbly mood, you know that I am not happy and likely to grumble. When you tell me that the table is dusty, the message communicated is about the amount of dust on the table.

If something is musty, it implies that something called must exists. We recognize the smell of mustiness, but we cannot identify the must which is its source.

…The Truth Is, I Don’t Really Know

Wikipedia defines must as the first step in wine-making. It is the juice of the freshly crushed grapes and still contains solids like the grape skins and seeds. I’m sure this must smells better than the musty must.

So, exactly what is must?

I have some of the brightest readers on the net.* Today, I bring a request to those readers – would you please define must for me? I don’t care if you actually know what must is. Just define it for me. What do you think it looks like, where does it come from?

*Ha ha, I have readers. Who saw that coming three years ago? No one. Thanks y’all.


29 Comments on “What Is Must?”

  1. I’m glad I don’t have your job.

    But you raise an excellent point. I think must is a bad smell that either (1) you can’t assign to anything specific, (e.g., excrement) or (2) you can identify, but the company you are in prohibits you from using a more specific term, (e.g, the colloquial term for excrement.)

    • omawarisan says:

      Are you sure, because I’m going to give my job away to some lucky person next fall.

      I have seen excrement on the ceiling. I’m not sure why, but there seems to be a convention that prohibits asking the person who actually knows how it got there how it got there. I always walk outside and ask the person who was with me “how does _____ get on the ceiling?” The answer is usually, “I don’t do that at my house”.

  2. Laura says:

    I’ve always thought that a musty smell was a moldy/mildewy smell, so must would be mold or mildew. And in fact, the dictionary sort of agrees with me — the first part of the second definition of the 4th entry for “must” at Merriam-Webster ( is “mold”.

  3. How many times have we been over this? You, sir, are a geniusy observer of the human condition, not to mention grammary whatchamacallits.

    Must is a verb. Verbs that function as nouns are called gerunds. Verbs that function as adjectives are called participles.

    Must, however, is a modal verb, and, according to Wikipedia, one of the easiest places to find things on the ‘net to support whatever you want to believe because you can put it there yourself . . .

    Modal verbs are defective insofar as they cannot be inflected, nor do they appear as gerunds, infinitives, or participles. . . .

    Therefore, your astute sense of something being amiss here is spot on. Must is defective, and as such, Gordon Lightfoot should cut it some slack and not sing about it.

    As always, I, one of your long time readers, am grateful for your bringing this and so many questions that we all wonder but are too timid to say aloud, to the spotlight.

    Good day to you.

  4. k8edid says:

    I saw Gordon Lightfoot in concert in Michigan a couple of years ago. I meant to ask him about this very thing, but unfortunately, he wasn’t taking questions from the audience. (His concert was really, really good). As a Great Lakes Girl, the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is almost something of an anthem.

    Must, if you must know, is a combination of mold and dust.

    • omawarisan says:

      I’m going to look when I get home, but I don’t know that anyone has ever covered that song. I’m guessing Edmund Fitzgerald is a late in the concert song for him.

      • k8edid says:

        He had major abdominal surgery (he almost died) and some songs he doesn’t have the breath control or range for any more. Maybe that is one of them. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone else perform the song, either.

  5. Betty says:

    I’ve never before associated the smell of something “musty” with wine. Thanks for the buzz kill.

  6. Must is any substance that simply MUST be removed from a ceiling before I walk under it.

  7. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I’m going with k8edid’s answer. Mold and dust. A place that needs some Mr. Clean and a vacuum. Not speaking out of experience, mind you.

  8. We Found Him Captain! says:

    Must must be what you must see
    When you must rush to take a wee
    You only see the must see, when you go
    In places you shouldn’t be.
    Stay out of places you shouldn’t be
    And you won’t see the must you see.
    When duty calls and you must be
    In places where must you’ll see
    Refrain from staying more than you must
    Because I fear you may bust from must.

  9. We Found Him Captain! says:

    Hey! The Captain has some poetic flair…’s another thought, if you want to know how that —- got on the ceiling, you must go to the source. Find the man who made “Dancing on the Ceiling” a hit and maybe he can tell you. Were any footprints on the ceiling? You Must start somewhere,must you not?

  10. Debbie says:

    I always think of “musty” as being old, stuffy, smelly. That said, I think it’s kind of like describing the scent of lemons. You know it when you smell it, but it’s not easy to put into words. Not that lemons are musty, of course!

    • omawarisan says:

      Smells and flavors are so hard to describe, aren’t they? I don’t read wine reviews and descriptions often, but things like “a woody tone with hints of leather” don’t tell me much since I drink wood and leather so rarely.

  11. robincoyle says:

    Someone open the door. This blog smells musty.

  12. Lenore Diane says:

    This is so easy. Next time, please try to challenge me.
    What is “must”? Oma, “uust” is moist dust.
    A place that is dusty and damp typically contains “must”. Take some dust, add moisture, and you get “must”.
    You’re welcome.

    P.S. Rob and I really like Gordon Lightfoot, and the song The Wreck of the Ella Fitzgerald.. wait, I mean Edmund… Edmund Fitzgerald.

    • omawarisan says:

      I try to throw you an easy one sometimes so the tough ones won’t…oh, I don’t know.

      I do know that I heard some guys do a parody of the song, they involved Ella Fitzgerald and it was pretty raunchy.

  13. Blogdramedy says:

    I don’t care for the word must. It implies I have to do something. And, of course, that means I mustn’t. 😉

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