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June 29, 2018  |  Friday words #127, 2018-06-29  |  315 hit(s)

Here it is June in the northern hemisphere, and already I'm sad that the days are starting to get shorter. Perhaps if I got outside more I wouldn’t have this problem.

I got a great new word this week by watching one of John McIntyre's periodic videos. This week he talked about thinnernyms, which constitute a special set of words that tend to show up in headlines, because the words are short. You've seen them: to vie, to vow, to quell, a pact, to dub, ire, a probe, to slate, to mull, to ink, to rue.

The UK writer and editor Andy Bodle cataloged a bunch of thinnernyms, which he lists as a "thinnernymicon" in an article in The Guardian from 2014.[1] (Brilliant headline for the article: "Sub ire as hacks slash word length.") In that same article, Bodle reports that he was "inordinately pleased" with himself for coining the word thinnernym, but was told that others had done so before him. (I can't antedate the word, tho.) As McIntyre notes, thinnernyms are useful when a writer needs a headline in a constrained space like a narrow newspaper column, and that perhaps the move to web-based news removes this constraint. It would be a bit of a shame if the art of wielding thinnernyms were lost.

Origins. One thing we talk a lot about in corporate America these days is bias (well, more specifically anti-bias training and unconscious bias.) Where does the word bias come from, I occasionally wonder.

Our corporate usage of the term is metaphoric, meaning having preconceived notions about something—that is, leaning to one side. But there are also more concrete definitions in math, electronics, and sewing and cooking ("cut on the bias "). In these cases, the word more specifically means oblique or diagonal.

Some of the earliest uses in English refer to sports: in the game of bowls, a ball could be weighted on one side, causing it to roll not-straight, so that the ball was said to "have bias." But there are also cites that show bias meaning just "diagonal." The OED has a note telling us that they can't decide which sense appeared first.

But everyone seems to agree that we got the word from French, and that it has cognates in other languages like Old Catalan. That means it probably came into French from Latin (bigassius), and Latin got it from a Greek word epikarsios, meaning "on the oblique." Is a theory. (The initial ep- lost its e and p became b, because phonology.) Douglas Harper relates the karsios root to an old proposed root *sker that is the source of many words, including scar, sheer, screw, shard, and shore, all having to do with obliques and diagonals in one form or another.

[1] I wondered about the -icon ending that Bodle used. In England, a pantechnicon is apparently used to mean a warehouse for furniture (also, a big truck for moving furniture). I can't otherwise suss out how the -icon ending might represent a collection of things.

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