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July 28, 2017  |  Friday words #81  |  2509 hit(s)

By this time next week, I should be living in a new domicile. Moving, it's so … fun. I can imagine some interesting and colorful words being used as part of that experience. We'll see.

Anyway. The first new-to-me word today is deadname, which has some slight relevance to events of this week. A deadname is the birthname assigned to a trans person, a name that that person no longer uses. Somehow this term passed me by during what was probably the most prominent discussion of this concept, namely when Caitlyn Jenner revealed her new identity in 2015.

Deadname is a noun, obviously, but also a verb: to deadname is to refer to someone by their deadname. Both the term itself and the practice of deadnaming are controversial in more ways than I want to be covering here. You can read more about that here and here and here and here.

I can't get a clear read on how old the word is. As noted, deadname sprang to prominence in the mainstream media in 2015, but I assume (?) that it was in use in the trans community before that. Alas, my search-fu fails me here.

Ok, on to a less charged term. During a discussion on FB this week, a Friend used the term ROFLcopter, as in "Roll On the Floor Laughing-copter." ROFL has been around a long time, but I hadn't seen that particular compound before. But again, I'm just behind the curve. Per the Know Your Meme site, ROFLcopter is a superlative ("-est" version) of ROFL that goes back at least to 2004. A theory propounded on the KYM site (with cites) is that the term originated among players of an online game.

Since you're not here just to listen to me whine about how out of touch I am, let me talk about why ROFLcopter appealed to me when I saw it. The -copter part derives from helicopter, of course. Which seems like it's heli- plus -copter, right? Sure: we've got not just the shortened form copter but also terms like gyrocopter and quadricopter, where copter identifies a flying machine with one or more horizontally oriented propellers. Indeed, someone created an ASCII-based graphic for ROFLcopter that illustrates this:

But that's not actually how the word originated. Helicopter was constructed from the Greek roots heliko ("spiral") and pteron ("wing," which we also know from pterodactyl, the winged dinosaurs). Here's the thing: different languages have different rules for how they can construct words from the myriad sounds that humans can produce; the set of rules (well, patterns) that an individual language uses is known as phonotactics. In ancient Greek, it was perfectly fine to use pt- to start a syllable, as in pteron. But phonotactics in English doesn't "allow" this; there are no native/Germanic words in English that have syllables that start with pt-.

Since heliko + pter is odd per English phonotactics, we native speakers have "reanalyzed" this word into heli- and -copter. Do you see what we did there? We carved up the word differently so that it more closely conforms to English phonotactical constraints—specifically, so that the p and t are split across syllables. And then we ran with copter. And thus ROFLcopter, and thus my interest in that term.

Update In a FB comment, Jonathon Owen points out that Greek pteron is related to the English word feather. (Many words that start with p in other languages start with f in Germanic languages e.g. pater > father).

For surprising etymology today, a short one that came up just this morning on Twitter. Adolescent and adult derive from the same Latin verb, adolere, which means "to (make) grow." Adolescent is from the present participle ("growing up"); adult is from the past participle ("grown up"). An interesting footnote is that the "grow" part of adolescent and adult is in the -ol-/-ul- part, a proto-root that went in all sorts of directions, including altitude, old, haughty, oboe (!), and world. Once again Douglas Harper has details.

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