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mike pope's Web log

Published: Sunday, April 22, 2018 1:04:34 AM

Last Build Date: Fri, 20 Apr 2018 06:29:50 GMT


Friday words #117, 2018-04-20

Fri, 20 Apr 2018 06:29:50 GMT

In case you missed it: Thursday was the 90th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Ben Zimmer reports:
My term for this week is brand new, for a change. It isn’t a very practical one, but I was pretty amused by it: Silurian Hypothesis. Suppose that humans are not the first industrial civilization that arose on earth. If there had been another florescence of civilization, say, 60 million years ago, how would we know? After all, the big cities of the Maya all but disappeared after just a few centuries, and we have only the faintest traces of pre-Biblical habitations in the Middle East. 60 million years ago is geologic time; entire mountain chains have come and gone in that time.

This was the gist of an interesting thought-experiment by a couple of scientists that resulted in the paper “The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?” Since such a civilization could not have been human (we’ve only been around 300,000 years), it would have to be some other species. Thus the Silurian Hypothesis: maybe they were lizard-people. Silurian comes from the TV show “Dr. Who.” In that show, Silurians are (per Wikipedia [more]

Friday words #116, 2018-04-13

Fri, 13 Apr 2018 07:25:43 GMT

Earlier this month I made a long-delayed upgrade to Office 365. My life hasn’t yet been transformed, but I guess I could give it a few more days.

For this week, I have another one of those terms that you didn’t realize you needed, but you can immediately appreciate: the cobra effect. This refers to an attempted solution for a problem where the solution not only doesn’t work, it makes the problem worse. And it comes from an actual effect with actual cobras. Or so goes the story.

(image) Per the article where I learned this term, during British colonial times, the city of Delhi had a problem with too many cobras. (How many is too many? As far as I’m concerned, anything more than zero cobras is too many.) So they offered a bounty for cobra skins. This worked, in that they got a lot of skins and paid a lot of bounties. But it didn’t solve the problem; the locals, responding to principles generally taught in Economics 101, started breeding cobras, because hey, money. The cobra population did not diminish.

But wait, there’s more. When the British realized that their bounty program wasn’t working, they (reasonably) decided to stop paying a bounty. The locals were now stuck with a bunch of cobras that weren’t worth anything. They let them all go. In the end, Delhi had even more cobras than when the whole program began.

The incident gave us a name for the phenomenon, via German: Der Kobra-Effekt was the name of a book written in 2001 by a German economist about this phenomenon of unforeseen consequences, or blowback [more]

Grandboy talk

Thu, 12 Apr 2018 22:51:36 GMT

My grandson turned 2 today (April 12). We spent a long weekend with the family last week, so I got an opportunity to listen to his language development. I don’t know very much about stages of language development—as in, at what age a child typically grasps certain language structures—so I don’t where he fits into all this. But it’s astounding to me to see how quickly humans develop language facility, including some constructs that can be hard to explain to adults.

It’s pretty clear to me that he’s building up his vocabulary in chunks. The best example was probably please may i, which he’s quickly learned is a key to getting something he wants. But it also seems to me that he’s internalized certain structures and can create new sentences from those structures. Which of course is the coolest thing that we humans can do.

Anyway, here’s a sampling of what I was hearing, with a few jottings about why I found these particular utterances interesting. A couple of notes:
  • I’ve deliberately not capped or punctuated these in order to avoid making these look more developed than they are.
  • Opa is me (grandpa), and Oma is my wife (grandma).

i have it in my hand
Complete subject-verb-object sentence
Prepositional phrase (in my hand) used adverbially
Pronoun (it)

i want to go see my daddy
Modal verb (want) with infinitive (to go)
Possessive pronoun

this is a big pistachio
Demonstrative pronoun (this)
Understanding of antecedents (this == pistachio)
Attributive adjective

this is oma’s
Demonstrative pronoun (this)
Possessive with implied antecedent (namely, whatever this refers to)

i'm going to eat some banana
Progressive form for implied future (am going to)
Adjectival some with banana [more]

Friday words #115, 2018-04-06

Fri, 06 Apr 2018 12:16:40 GMT

We’re having an extended-family (as opposed to extended family) outing to Long Beach, WA. Where at this time of the year you wear your raincoat to go down to the outdoor pool.

(image) I’m sure you know the term vanity plate to mean a personalized auto license plate where you create your own combination of numbers and letters. (At least, you can do this in some or all US states; I’m not sure if the idea is common in other countries.) Some fun: Daniel Nussbaum rewrote the Oedipus story using only vanity plates from the state of California: Oedipus the King (of the Road).

I recently learned that vanity plate is also a term for a credit that identifies the production company for a TV show or movie. For TV shows, vanity plates typically follow the credits; for movies, they’re often at the beginning. Some are static (hence vanity plate or vanity card), but a lot are animated. Surely one of the most recognizable vanity plates is the MGM lion:

width="640" height="360" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen>

But you might recognize many others as well (all videos): the Disney castle animation, the Dreamworks fishing kid, the Paramount flying stars, as but three examples. I like the vanity plate for Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company:

width="560" height="315" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen>


Friday words #114, 2018-03-30

Fri, 30 Mar 2018 00:05:24 GMT

Today is the last day of March. I sure hope that we've met our Q1 2018 goals here at Friday Words.

This week's new-to-me word came up when I was reading Fire and Fury, the gossipy book by Michael Wolff about the Trump White House. Let me give you the sentence and then we'll talk about the word:
What's more, in one-on-one meetings, CEOs were reporting good vibes from Trump's effusive and artful flattery—and the sudden relief of not having to deal with what some knew to be relentless Clinton-team hondling (what can you do for us today and can we use your plan?).
The book was famously rushed to print, and there were reports of some sloppy editing, so I initially read hondling as handling. That didn't entirely make sense, but I'd never heard the word hondling before, so it was the best I could come up with.[1]

But I eventually looked it up, and whaddya know. To hondle means to bargain or negotiate. It's yet another word in the lexical trove that we've gotten from Yiddish. (In this case, and as is true of many Yiddish words, it goes back to medieval German. The word Handel means "trade, traffic, commerce, business" in modern German.) I will note, tho, that hondle is a pretty rare word in English; it's missing in my normal go-to dictionaries (it is in the OED) and as far as I can tell, it doesn't appear even once in the COCA corpus. Perhaps Wolff will help popularize it.

(image) Let's move to word origins. One of my co-workers showed up today in shorts and a t-shirt; he'd just finished playing badminton. Badminton. Where do you suppose that word came from? Is there such a thing as good [more]

Friday words #113, 2018-03-23

Fri, 23 Mar 2018 08:01:47 GMT

I guess we're technically in spring up here in the northern hemisphere. I suspect that people in various parts of the country other than Seattle are not so sure of that. But we did pass equinox, so at least daylight is on our side.

(image) I have a couple of new-to-me words this week that pertain to current-type events. The first is data sleaze, a term invented by Kaiser Fung, a statistician who works in the advertising business. He defines the expression this way: "data about [a company's] own customers that are obtained secretly by businesses, and then sold to the highest bidders, also in secret transactions." He adds: " The production of data sleaze is frequently justified by giving services away for 'free.'"

A few people use the term, but they still reference Fung's blog posts about it—it hasn't broken free from where it was first defined. Or to put it another way, Fung hasn't quite made data sleaze happen. Still, given recent events and some promotion by Fung himself, it might get a little traction.

A second term arrived via Nancy Friedman (@fritinancy on Twitter), who alerted me to the word testilying (testifying+lying), which refers to the police giving false testimony. Per an article from 1994 in the New York Times [more]

Friday words #112, 2018-03-16

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 07:55:07 GMT

We're coming up on tax season here in the US, which as usual for me consists of digging around for forms and statements and random documentation. Selling our house last year just made it even more of an adventure. And speaking of adventures, let's talk about words.

(image) I ran across the word cakeism the other day, which made me chuckle. Cakeism derives from the somewhat opaque idiom about how "you can't have your cake and eat it too," which is generally glossed as meaning that you can't have two incompatible things, or more generally, you can't have everything you want.

Most of the sources where I found this word use it when discussing Britain and Brexit. In that context, cakeism describes the idea that Britain can leave the EU but still get the benefits that it's theoretically leaving behind. Depending on who you ask, this is either Britain's actual negotiating strategy or folly. When it's used in this way, the word is of course pretty new. It was submitted as a new-word suggestion to the Collins Dictionary people in February; that's also when Urban Dictionary got an entry.

As an aside, the article where I saw cakeism talks about the origins of the idiom in English and helpfully provides equivalent idioms in other languages, most of which seem to make more sense. For example, according to them, in French you say "to want the butter and the money from the butter."

(image) [more]

Friday words #111, 2018-03-09

Fri, 09 Mar 2018 09:15:41 GMT

This weekend we'll start Daylight Saving Time here in the US, which will, I predict, be accompanied by the usual editorial finger-wagging that it's Saving, singular. Won't that be enjoyable.

(image) The other day I ran across a sports term that was new to me. (Admittedly, my grasp of the vocabulary of the domain of sportsing is modest.) The term is tanking, which means to deliberately lose games, but with strategic intent. In the business of (American?) sports, the losingest team in a league gets first choice in the next year's draft picks. So once your team is out of the running for any sort of championship, it makes perverse sense to go in the other direction and try to be the champion at losing. The article I got this word from calls it the "race to the bottom." Just to be clear, this is not an endorsed approach in professional sports: Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, was fined $600,000 for essentially telling a player to lose.

The verb to tank is well established as a term for failing. ("The movie tanked at the box office.") The narrower sense of deliberately losing has made it into a few dictionaries—for example, it's in Merriam-Webster. The first Urban Dictionary entry [more]

Friday words #110, 2018-03-02

Fri, 02 Mar 2018 10:08:47 GMT

I've been up to my earballs in work this week. I still enjoy the occasional crunch mode; for one thing, I'm always extremely sure about what I should be working on. But it does mean that other interesting work—like, oh, say, Friday words—gets relegated to the few gaps in the schedule.

(image) For new-to-me words this week, I have the term smishing, which I learned on Twitter from John Espirian. Smishing is like phishing—trying to get you to reveal personal info or to download malware—but using text messages. Like, you get a text message saying "We will charge you $10 unless you cancel the order. Go to []." Panic! Tap! Pwned.

The origin of the word might not be obvious unless you know that the texting facility of your phone is more formally known as SMS, for Short Message Service.[1] So smishing is actually SMS + phishing and was originally spelled "SMiShing." An article says that the term was invented by researchers at McAfee Avert Labs.

(As an aside, the ph in phishing ultimately comes from phone phreaking, an early form of computer hacking in which people would break into telephone networks for fun or to get free long distance calls[2].)

It looks [more]

Friday words #109, 2016-02-23

Fri, 23 Feb 2018 10:01:11 GMT

We had a work outing today that included the Living Computers Museum + Lab. Each of us found a corner of the museum where they had our first computer, representing, as it happens, several decades of computer history.

(image) The other day someone on Twitter said something to the effect that we need a word for that fleeting moment when you notice a typo just as you send an email. It turns out that we do have a word sort of like that, one that was new to me: an ohnosecond. Clearly the concept is familiar enough to people that someone invented that word back in 1993.

An ohonsecond isn't specifically about sending email; it refers to any similar moment when you hit the wrong key, or when you realize you've just lost a bunch of work. But it certainly works for the email-sending scenario.

(image) I have two words for unexpected origins today, but they're thematically related. The first is the word hex, as in to put a hex on someone. This is from the German word Hexe, meaning "witch."[1] This should not have been surprising to me, but it was. I was further surprised to learn that this is primarily an American term that entered English via Pennsylvania Dutch, which is actually German ("Deutsch"). As the various sources point out, hex is related to the term hag, which has an obsolete definition of "an evil spirit in female form."

The second fun origin is the verb to spell [more]

Friday words #108, 2018-02-16

Fri, 16 Feb 2018 08:07:21 GMT

I decided to add numbers to the titles of these posts. I might go back and change the older ones when I'm avoiding something that's actually important.

The new-to-me word is a somewhat obscure terms that John McIntyre might select someday for one of his "In a word" columns. The word is pelf, which I ran across in one of those fancy magazines that we have in big stacks around here. Pelf is defined as "money" or "wealth," but has a connotation that the riches were acquired "by reprehensible means," to quote one dictionary. The example sentence I found it in talked about "Trump family pelf."

(image) It's an old word, which might not be surprising. We got it from French in the Middle Ages, and its first sense was "stolen goods" or "booty, spoil." So we can see where the negative connotation came from.

Update On Twitter, Edward Banatt notes that pelf is related to the verb pilfer.

Because I was curious about why I had apparently not seen this word before, I looked in the COCA corpus to see how common it is. Not very: as a noun (as opposed to a proper name), pelf appears [more]

Friday words #107, 2018-02-09

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 00:03:56 GMT

We had a jolly talk about the word impactful on Twitter earlier this week. I think some of the people in that discussion are still speaking to me, but maybe not many.

Today's new-to-me term combines seasonal appropriateness (it's winter, hey) with a topic that I'm perennially interested in: traffic. The word is sneckdown, which requires some explanation.

First, a neckdown is one of several words for an area that extends the sidewalk into the street. Other words for this are curb bulge, curb extension, pinchpoints, bump-out, and bulb-outs. Here's a picture:


Neckdowns are traffic calming devices, and they also reduce the distance that pedestrians have to traverse while crossing the street. In case you were wondering (I was), the neck in neckdown comes from the narrowing or "neck" formed by the bulges. According to one dictionary, this was originally a verb: to neck down, i.e., to narrow down.

So what's a sneckdown? This is a blend of snow + neckdown. It turns out that snowfall provides a kind of laboratory [more]

Friday words #106, 2018-02-01

Thu, 01 Feb 2018 23:41:37 GMT

February, finally. We had a bug in one of our internal tools at work that caused February to disappear, but some quick work by one of the writers saved the month just in time! PS Happy Groundhog Day.

Facebook Friend Doug recently posted something that alerted me to an emerging danger on American streets. Should you be worried? Maybe, if you're a petextrian: someone who texts while walking. (pedestrian + texting, right?) This term is older than I would have guessed—the first (only) entry in Urban Dictionary is from 2009, and that's hardly guaranteed to be the oldest attestation. Not that the idea of a pedestrian glued to their smartphone is surprising, or was as soon as texting was available.

(image) For that matter, the idea of pedestrians being oblivious goes waaaay back: jaywalking— someone who "walks jay"—goes back pretty much as far as cars. And who can forget that delightful German children's story about "Hans-guck-in-die-Luft" (often translated as Johnny-look-in-the-air), a boy who walks around staring at the sky. Since this is a German children's story, it of course has a bad ending, for young Hans walks straight into the river and loses his books. (Compared to some of the other children in the story collection, he got off easy.)

Another new-to-me term (but old news to the younger set) came up in a news story [more]

Let's change our attitude about the Word grammar checker

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 09:54:15 GMT

A fairly regular occurrence in the editor groups I participate in on Facebook or Twitter is that someone posts about how the spelling or grammar tools in Microsoft Word have gotten something spectacularly wrong. As I've noted before, editors in particular seem to take glee in bashing the grammar checker.

I find this frustrating for a couple of reasons, and I've pushed back a bit on social media when I see posts that dismiss proofing tools. But I thought I owed it to people to explain why I think it's not productive exercise to bash the tools. (Modulo the entertainment value of hilariously bad advice, which is by no means limited to advice dispensed by tools.)

I'm going to focus on two issues: the measurable deficiencies of the tool, and the question of audience.

Measureable, reproducible deficiencies

Imagine that you are a program manager (PM) at Microsoft whose job it is to improve the grammar-checking tool. It's not news to you that the tool gets things wrong sometimes.

You go out into the world to find out what sorts of problems people are having with the grammar checker. You find no shortage of complaints. An article in Slate claims that the grammar checker "makes your writing worse." At least that article has some explicit examples. Other complaints are more abstract:



Put yourself in the place of that PM. How is the grammar checker "creating problems"? Which things is it flagging that are "not errors"? What [more]

More on spite-y things

Sat, 27 Jan 2018 09:25:44 GMT

After yesterday's word post that discussed spite mounds, I got a couple of notes from some folks that I thought I should share.

First, Friend Rick shared the photo that had moved him to talk about bygone spite mounds:


He added the comment "I had felt there was some mound (if that makes any sense), though certainly not the likes of which there was in the regrading days!" It's true, it does have that feel.

Second, Friend Leon pointed out another, similar term: nail house, which is a Chinese term for the same thing[1]. There's an article about nail houses with some quite amazing photos. Here's one:


Leon also noted the term spite house, which has a different sense of spite. A spite house is deliberately built or modified in order to spite someone—for example, to block someone's view. There's a related term spite fence, a construction that has the same purpose but is generally cheaper to build.

I will note that Leon is from a land down under, so it's possible that in his ozzy dialect, spite house has a different meaning. I'm sure he'll let us know if so. :-)

[1] A calque, I guess.

Friday words #105, 2018-01-26

Thu, 25 Jan 2018 23:55:48 GMT

You know what would be nice? Some sunshine.

I have a geo-topo-graphical term today that came up during a Facebook discussion with Friend Rick: spite mound. Based on what I can find, this might be quite specific to Seattle, and references some of the city's curious history.

Seattle was built on a set of hills overlooking Elliott Bay in Puget Sound. Hills can be inconvenient, though, so in the late 1800s, the city decided to "regrade" one of the hills by using water power to sluice it down into the bay. The story goes that some residents stubbornly refused to give up their homes. So the workmen sluiced around the houses, leaving them stranded on "spite mounds." Here's a picture:


(The history where I got this photo says that in fact people did not refuse to move; some just didn't get around to moving their houses before the job began. But the term stuck.)

The reason Rick brought this term up at all was in reference to what he called "modern-day spite mounds": so-called holdout properties where owners refuse to sell, so new development happens around them. Here's an example:


The analogy isn't perfect (no hill, hey), but I liked Rick's invocation of some Seattle history for these property owners who stick to their hills while development sluices on around them.

Not long ago I got to wondering about the expression a bum steer, as in "That tip about horses was a bum steer." Did this refer to an ox? And why do we call boy-cows steers anyway?


Friday words #104, 2018-01-19

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 00:13:42 GMT

We were off work for the MLK holiday on Monday. It threw me off all week about what day it was, in a most pleasant way.

(image) I have a couple of new-to-me terms today that relate to recent politics. The president got a physical exam this week, and among the reported results were his height and weight. The report set off speculation in some quarters that these numbers had been finessed, and that the weight report was purportedly at odds with photographic evidence of the president's physique.

Trump was (is?) a prominent birther, i.e., someone who maintains that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. So I was quite amused to read that there's a name for people who are skeptical of the president's reported weight: girthers. This term was obviously invented just this week, so it's not just new to me, it's actually new-new. Related terms are girther movement and girtherism. This is funny, right? But let's see whether anyone remembers this word in a month.

(image) There was also that incident last week in which the president allegedly referred to "shithole countries." This was reported second-hand, which led to a confusion of assertions and reactions: Trump didn't say it; he said something different; anyway, it's true.

I recently learned that there's a name for this sort of sequence of explanations: kettle logic [more]

Signposting in documentation

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 21:46:18 GMT

Suppose you're on vacation and you're driving to a place named Lisbon Falls. You see this sign, so you turn right.



After you turn, you drive for a long time, but you don't see Lisbon Falls, and you start to doubt that you're on the right road. How helpful would it be to see a sign that said "Lisbon Falls—keep going "?

Obviously, we need signposts to tell us where to turn. But sometimes we need signposts to reassure us that we're going the right way. Since I work in documentation, I'm going to talk about this applies when you're writing instructions.

The first and least controversial example is to show the results of the user's action, like this:


This type of signpost reassures the reader that they've run the command correctly, or made the right gestures in the page, or whatever.

A second type of signpost is one that makes sure the reader is properly oriented at the beginning of a procedure. This comes up a lot in the complex tutorials I work with, which might have many separate procedures. What I tell my writers is that at the beginning of each procedure, they should make sure that the user is clear about where they are. Here's an example:



Friday words #103, 2018-01-12

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 06:06:38 GMT

If these first two weeks are any indication, 2018 is shaping up as a lexicographically interesting year, right?

Ok, two new-to-me words today from the world of relationships. Let's start with dating. You won't have trouble finding lists of "the lingo of [online] dating," as one page puts it. In these lists you'll find words like ghosting (previously noted here), breadcrumbing, and cuffing season.

(image) One term that's specific to online dating is catfishing, which means to have a false identity to entice someone for various reasons, generally unethical ones. The word catfish spawned one of the terms I'm interested in today: kittenfishing, which some people liken to "catfishing lite." (cat/kitten, probably you noticed this.) In kittenfishing, you don't present a made-up persona. But you do enhance your profile—misrepresenting yourself descriptively or visually, which some people refer to as "lying"—in order to lure someone into dating you. Note the distinction between the words in terms of motive: catfishing often has a quasi-criminal intent; kittenfishing just aims at getting a date. According to an article on the site [more]

Using styles to set spell-check options in Word

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 08:28:46 GMT

There are many reasons to use styles in Word, as I've noted before. One feature I find handy is using styles that have different spell-check options for different types of text. I'll explain a couple of examples: one where I set a non-default spell-check option (Spanish), and another where I disable spell check for code snippets.

Note: If you'd rather see this on video, see the links below.

Spell check for non-default languages

Suppose you're writing a document that has quotations in different languages. If you run spell check over the document, it'll barf when it gets to your citations in Spanish or French or Latin or whatever.[1]

The hard way to solve this problem is to select the text of each citation, one by one, and then to set the proofing language (Review tab > Language > Set Proofing Language).

The easier way to do it is to define a style and set the language for that style. Then you can just apply the style to your citations.

Suppose I'm writing about One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez:


I run spell check, and uh-oh: if it's going to stop on every word of Spanish, it's going to be a long night proofing this doc:


Instead, I'll create a style just for my quotations in Spanish. In this case, I'll create a paragraph style, although I can set language options for character styles also, which is useful for cites in running text.

Here's the [more]

Friday words, 2018-01-05

Fri, 05 Jan 2018 07:39:05 GMT

I'm at a linguistics conference, one where today (Friday) we'll be voting on the Word of the Year, as chosen by the American Dialect Society and anyone who wants to show up and raise a hand. You're sure to read about the results over the next few days.

And speaking of words. Something that crossed my radar this week is the term groyper. This is another term that's emerged from the alt-right subculture. The groyper (A groyper? Just "Groyper"? Mr. Groyper? Protocol unclear) is a sort of mascot, like the blobbish Pepe the Frog, but with the particular pose of having his chin on his hands, like this:


The Twitter user Respectable Lawyer, from whom I got all this, refers to the groyper image as "a fatter, more racist Pepe for the true paranoid weirdos."

People in this subculture appear on Twitter with names like Groyper Washington, Irish Groyper, and Otto von Groyper, with their groyper avatar suitably decorated to match the name. By extension, then, people who use a groyper avatar are themselves known as groypers.

The name groyper appears to have originally been a user name on 4chan, at least according to the Know Your Meme site. It seems to be unclear what the name signified then, and how the name got transferred to the image. Perhaps by next year's Word of the Year discussions we'll know more.


Friday words, 2017-12-29

Fri, 29 Dec 2017 08:29:56 GMT

Final Friday Words for this year. I can't wait to see what new terms are lurking out there in 2018.

(image) Just the other day I ran across a seasonally relevant term: porch pirate, which is a name for people who steal packages off your porch. In this era of everything-delivered, it would seem to be both a crime with growth potential and of course a keen problem for the victims.

The term seems to be reasonably new. Most of the cites I found are not just from 2017, but from late in 2017. This latter, however, might just mean that writing articles about porch pirates is a new holiday-season tradition, dunno. The earliest that I can find the term is 2015.

I first ran across the term in a Washington Post article on December 19 about a dude in Tacoma, WA, who invented a booby trap: an empty box with a (blank) explosive device in it. (The videos of startled would-be porch pirates are kind of funny.) When I went looking for earlier uses of the term, I found something called The Original Porch Pirate Bag, a lockable bag that has been sold on Amazon since October 2016.

The aggro of losing a package aside, porch pirate is a good term. There's that nice alliteration, and it harkens to a use of pirate that reminds us that pirates were not jolly, Captain Sparrow-type fellows. Look for another wave of articles about these thieves in, oh, around 11 months.


Rare mid-week Words update

Thu, 28 Dec 2017 07:49:57 GMT

I feel like I need to make a rare[1] mid-week update to a Friday Words post, because Comments.

First, thug, which came up last Friday. Not one but two people pointed me at the word Thugee, the name for a group or gang or organization of criminals in India hundreds of years ago who murdered people. (There's a BBC article about this origin.) This is in fact the first (hence oldest) entry for thug in the OED.

This raises (begs? haha) a point I've kind of danced around in discussing word origins. The Indian gang (the Thugees) probably got their name from a Hindi word for cheat or swindler. But it's a fair question to ask whether we're interested in a word's original-original source or in the path by which the word got into English: ultimate versus proximate origins. Our use of thug in English came from the gangs, and not directly from the Hindi word. Another and similar example is the word assassin. The proximate origin is a gang of murderous thugs (ahem); the ultimate origin is an Arabic word that also gave us hashish. (Details)

Anyway, in the future I guess I'll be a little more explicit about these differences to the extent that they apply.

And one more. In a recent post I mused about why the Spanish word palomera ("popcorn maker") is feminine. Friend Jared pointed out that these type of agent-constructions follow the gender of the thing they're derived from. I had been led astray; a butter dish is a mantequera (from mantequilla [more]

Merry instructions

Mon, 25 Dec 2017 12:21:19 GMT

Christmas is always an interesting time for the professional editor, what with so many instructions to be read. I've run across (so far) a couple of fun little language issues.

I.  An elegant gift I got this year is a Citizen "Eco-Drive" watch. The distinctive feature of these watches is that their battery is charged by exposure to light. Naturally, the manual goes into some detail about how charging works. I was interested to see this odd construction (click to embiggen):

(If you can't read it, it says "If watch is continued to be used without charging")

I had to think for a moment about why this seems off. I concluded that the writer was trying to use "continue to" in the passive, presumably out of some sort of all-too-common Fear of Passive. But passive doesn't work that way; you need a transitive verb, and "continue to" doesn't take an object. And hey, you don't even need passive—this could just read "If watch continues to be used …". (Note that "is used" is already in the passive.)

The instruction are in 8 languages, and I don't even know whether English is the primary. Anyway, a Christmas tip of the hat to the fellow documentarians at Citizen Watch Inc. and what I'm sure is a hectic writing and editing process.[1]

II.  I like popcorn and have been using our wok (!) to make it on the stovetop, which my wife finds odd. (I do use a lid on the wok.) So she got me a microwave popcorn maker; this lets you make your own popcorn in the microwave as opposed to using the yucky prepackaged microwave popcorn.


Friday words, 2017-12-22

Fri, 22 Dec 2017 06:37:47 GMT

Solstice today. Here in Seattle, it did feel remarkably twilight-y by 4:00pm.

(image) A new-to-me word came up this week after the Seattle football team, the Seahawks, was slaughtered by the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday. During the post-game commentary, one of the sports analysts said the Seahawks had been boat-raced. I heard this and immediately cranked up ye olde search engine. Turns out that to be boat-raced (or boatraced) is to get behind in a contest and never catch up. The definition in Urban Dictionary also adds that the being boat-raced means not just getting behind early, but being beaten badly.

The UD definition also pinpoints the origin as being from the annual Boat Race, an annual event held between Oxford and Cambridge. In rowing, the boat that gets out ahead has an advantage because they do not have to row against their opponent's (or opponents') wake.

As far as I can tell, the term is still confined to sports; I saw it used in articles about football and hockey. It's not hard to find examples, meaning it's not a particularly exotic term. Still, I was somewhat mollified to see that I was not the only person who wondered what it meant.

(image) [more]