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June 22, 2018  |  Friday words #126, 2018-06-22  |  405 hit(s)

I had an interesting close call with Friday Words last week. I was considering jobbymoon as a new-to-me term, a proposed term that’s supposed to refer to a break that you take before starting a new job. (Compare babymoon.) But John Kelly clued us in to the mocking that the term had gotten in certain parts of the British Isles, places where the word job has a, um, vernacular meaning that led to some jolly giggling. So, whew, dodged that bullet.

But there are plenty more new-to-me terms where that came from! For example, just this week I learned the word snaccident (sometimes snackcident). Let’s say that you buy a box of Ritz crackers, and somehow end up eating an entire sleeve of them, or gah, the whole box. Not your fault! It was a snaccident.

Obviously, the word is a portmanteau of snack + accident. The first Urban Dictionary entry I can find is from 2007. Nothing in the mainstream dictionaries. Nothing in the COCA corpus, slightly surprisingly. But it’s obviously out there; there are various t-shirt options, and some great memes. I got it from Twitter, where it made the rounds this week.

Ok, we all know what a litmus test is, right? A common definition is that it’s a kind of binary test. For example, a politician’s attitude about something—gun control, abortion, immigration, environmentalism, etc.—can be a litmus test for some people.

That’s the metaphoric meaning. In chemistry a litmus test tells you whether something is acidic or alkaline (that is, it tells you something about the pH value). You dip a piece of paper—litmus paper—that’s been coated with a special dye into (say) a glass of some solution that you’re testing. If blue litmus paper comes out pink, the solution is acidic; if the red litmus paper comes out blue, the solution is alkaline.

As I say, we all know this! But what I got interested in is what where the term litmus actually comes from. Perhaps it was invented by someone named Litmus? (Or, like, Litm, whose name was then Latinized?) No. The -mus part is related to moss; the dyes used in litmus paper were originally extracted from various lichens. The lit- part might be from an old Germanic word that meant "color" or "dye." But it might also be related to lac-, as in shellac and lacquer; those both refer to a resin obtained from the lac bug and used as a dye and finish. Depending on how speculative you want to get, it might also be related to lox, as in salmon, due to the color of that fish. I wouldn’t take any of the lac- part of this to the bank, tho.

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