I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Email is the cockroach of communication mediums: you just can't kill it.

Jeff Atwood


<March 2018>




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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 3/23/2018

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:32 AM Pacific

  08:01 AM

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.

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, this term was invented as police slang. A spate of recent articles has put the term into the news in the last week.

I always wonder whether a term that's based on wordplay will stick. But this one has been around for at least 25 years. I also think it fills a niche as a verb. We have something like perjure oneself to specifically mean lying under oath, but that feels legal-ish and is in any event sort of clunky. In contrast, testilying captures both the lying part and the "under oath" part. Granted, testilying doesn't capture that the perpetrator is a police officer, which is a part of the definition: in Wikipedia, testilying redirects to the page titled Police perjury.

Ick. Let's talk word origins instead. I sometimes listen to a radio program called The Score, and I eventually got around to wondering why we call movie music the score. Well, in the beginning was score to mean a cut or mark or scratch. (In this sense, it's related to shear.) From there it developed the sense of a drawn line, which we still have in underscore, and in the verb sense of scoring a piece of paper or other soft material.

A musical score is a written-out version of all the parts in a piece, with all the individual parts noted on separate lines:

(Individual musicians have only their parts; the conductor has the score.) The theory is that this notation was the "score" because of the practice of "connecting the related staves by 'scores' or lines continuing the bars." (OED) So basically, a score is a score because of lines (scores) on the music. And finally, from "complete musical notation of a piece" the word score came to mean the collection of music for a movie or other entertainment. From scratch to soundtrack, cool.

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  07:55 AM

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.

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."

For unexpected word origins, we're back to the kitchen. I was reading about soups the other day and somehow got to the Wikipedia page about minestrone, a primarily vegetable soup. In the history section, it says "The ancient Romans recognized the health benefits of a simple or 'frugal' diet," and then continues "from the Latin fruges, the common name given to cereals, vegetables and legumes."

This part is true. But the frux stem also meant "profit" or "utility" or "value," so there was a figurative sense to the word, which we still have today ("fruit of one's labors"). While the word frugal does literally mean "relating to fruit," our sense of frugal derives from the figurative sense: to get good value or utility out of a thing. At least, that's my take on the issue.

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  09:15 AM

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.

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 for tanking in this sense is from 2008, though it might well be older than that; the history of sports certainly has its share of thrown games.

Origins. In his weekly WSJ column, Lexicographer and General Words Person Ben Zimmer wrote about riders in the sense of amendments to a contract. Along the way he included the surprising (to me) history of the word schedule.

This all starts with the Latin word sceda, which referred to a strip of papyrus. The word spread out into other languages with this meaning of "strip of paper"; English got it in medieval times from French, where it was cedule. (Zettel in modern German, cool.) Back in the days when documents were written on parchment, a schedule came to mean a strip of parchment or paper amended to the document that included "explanatory or supplementary matter" (OED). We're talking the 1400s here.

Schedules (with this "amendment" sense) were added to legal documents, like Acts of Parliament, to contain details ("often in tabular form"—OED again) that were not in the original document. The word then generalized to mean a document that laid out information in a tabular or otherwise organized way, or even a blank form that was laid out that way. From there it was a not a huge leap, I guess, to refer to the tabular documents that listed timetables for trains. And from there, finally, to any reference to planned times. Is this history not great?

As an aside, there is the issue of pronunciation. Our British brethren say "shed-yule", whilst we North Americans favor "ske-jule". The OED has a surprisingly long disquisition on this question. In the 18th century, the British said "sed-yule", as one might expect from the French original. By the 19th century, they were saying "shed-yule". Some word-type people favored "sked-yule" in keeping with the ultimate root of the word, but that never caught on in the UK. Somehow—and this is not explained—Americans did adopt this hard "sk" pronunciation, which matches words like school and scheme and some others that came from Latin sc- words. One hesitates to note that American pronunciation is therefore more historically correct, but one might do that anyway, haha.

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  10:08 AM

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.

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 [badwebsite.com]." 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 like the word was invented in 2012. When John posted on Twitter about it, he was talking about a notification that he got from his bank about smishing. I know I'm behind the curve on new terminology when I'm learning it from a bank, dang.

An unexpected etymology came my way this week when I was reading the book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I think it was Stan Carey, editor and contributor to the Strong Language blog (NSFW, right?), who posted about it. Quiz yourself: where does the word sewer come from?

The word's history in English isn't particularly remarkable—in medieval English we had the word suer, which we got more or less directly from the French seuwire. When we got it, it referred to any type of channel that was created to drain water, like a pond or a marsh or whatever. (Cite from 1482: "Makyng of Sewers for avoidyng of lake waters.")

The unexpected part was how the word got into French. Here's Rose George, the author of the aforementioned book: "Somehow, in a way obvious only to etymologists, seuwire in turn derived from the Latin ex [out of] and aqua [water]." I'm not convinced it's particularly obvious to etymologists, either. But anyway, there you go: sewer is "Out, damned water!"

The modern sense of sewer specifically for wastewater arises in the 1600s. And very shortly thereafter we already find it being used metaphorically as "dumping ground."

Incidentally, read the book. It will change your thinking about things you probably try hard not to think about.

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[1] "Short" meant 160 characters; this length limitation is where the original 140-character limit came from in Twitter.

[2] Ha, remember when we used to worry about long-distance charges?

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  10:01 AM

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.

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.

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. The sense of sounding out letters is a form of announcing; there was a verb spellian in Old English meaning "to talk, announce." The noun version spell meant "talk" or "discourse." Related term: gospel, originally godspell, the Anglo-Saxon rendering of the original Greek euangélion "good news." The noun spell later took on a sense of an incantation with magical properties. Thus a spelling bee does have a kind of relationship to a magic spell. And which brings us back to hex, as promised.

Anyway, please enjoy this video of "witches" dancing:

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[1] I got this from a Twitter post, I think, tho I forget whose it was. (Sorry)

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  08:07 AM

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."

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 5 times out of 560 million words. And it's been on the decline since the 1800s. Perhaps circumstances will make the term newly popular again, who knows.

Unexpected etymology comes this week from a conversation we had at work the other day. We were talking about ancient Greece for some reason, and colleague Jay said, "People from Attica are 'Attic.' So where do you suppose the word for the storage space comes from?"

Well. This is why you keep bookmarks to dictionaries in your browser. Way much to my surprise, the name for the area under your roof—sometimes also called the garret—is in fact related to the Attics, the people whose capital was Athens.

The link is via architecture. It helps to know that attic was originally the attic story, where story refers to the floor of a building. (See #89 for more on story.) In the Attic style of architecture, the façade might feature a small structural element (an "order") placed above another, much taller element. Like this, thank you Wikipedia:

The name of this small story came to be applied to the space that it enclosed, and then was generalized to mean any space directly under a roof. So we go from classic architecture to the place to shove your Christmas decorations and unused sports equipment. What do you suppose the ancient Greeks called their version of the space for all that extra junk?

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  12:03 AM

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 for the design of neckdowns. Snowplows tend to pile up snow along the sides of the road, and especially at corners. This results in ephemeral neckdowns—they melt away, obviously—but while they exist, they not only form curb bulges, but they provide visual indicators about where cars actually drive. (A conclusion that traffic planners can draw from sneckdowns is that cars actually need less room in the roadway than they are often granted.) Here's a lovely image of a sneckdown:

I don't remember where I saw this term, but it was probably on social media during a snowstorm in the last few weeks. The word was invented in 2014 as a hashtag by an urban planner who wanted a name for this naturally occurring traffic alteration.

I don't think I'll ever look at snow on the street quite the same way again.

Delightful origins. I was reading an article the other day about Tina Brown, who helmed (ha) a series of magazines around the turn of the century, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. A throwaway comment in the article led me to the etymology of the word magazine itself.

Presumably when we hear "magazine," most of us think of the colorful publications we stare at while standing in line at the grocery store. If we have experience with guns, we might also think about the thing that holds cartridges (bullets[1]) for a pistol or automatic weapon. If we were in the military in an earlier time, we might also think about the room where we kept all our gunpowder.

Oddly, these senses are all related. You can see how a room for keeping gunpowder can evolve into the device for holding bullets: a storehouse for munitions. But People magazine? Also a storehouse, but this time for information. The term was applied to a periodical in the 1700s; before that, it was used in book titles to indicate a work that was a collection of information about a subject.

We in English got the term from French, where it appeared in the 1400s; there's an Italian version (magazzino) from the 1300s. A fun fact is that the word originates in Arabic, also as a word for storehouse. (This evolved in Spanish to almacén, "warehouse.") One might ask why we needed to borrow a word for something that surely existed long before the Middle Ages, but on that subject I have no information.

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[1] Yes, I realize that this is imprecise.

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  11:41 PM

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.

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 recently about a woman who was booted out of college for posting a racist video on her Instagram [account]. It's possible she thought this wouldn't be widely seen because she posted it on her finsta. This refers to a "fake+Instagram+account," a more-private account that's supposed to be just for close friends. One article notes that "The birth of the Finsta can be traced to the time period between the generational hijacking of Facebook and Instagram and the generational adoption of SnapChat." (The birth of young people doing dumb things goes back considerably longer than that.)

As a bonus, the article asserts that the more-public account is a rinstagram, for "real Instagram." According to local sources (i.e., daughters), the term is real insta or rinsta. These same local sources also alerted me to the sinsta, where people post nude/drug photos (or "scandalous photos," as UD has it), a compound of sin+[In]sta[gram]. One of the daughters summarized it this way: "Instas (or rinstas) are for photos, finstas are for double lives, and sinstas are for confessing to murders." But, she added, "sinsta is more or less another word for a finsta. most people don't actually have three bc that's just extra af." There was more amusing discussion of the different use cases and privacy settings, but I'll have to leave that for another time. In the meantime we hope that socio-dialectologists are on the case.

Fun as that was, let's talk word origins. Last weekend I was staring at the toaster oven waiting for the cheese to melt and got to wondering where the word nachos came from. A story that a lot of food writers accept is that it's an eponym. According to the story, in the 1940s, some American women were in the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras and went to a restaurant looking for something to eat. The kitchen was closed, but the maître d' put together a snack from fried tortillas and cheese. The dude was Ignacio Anaya, whose nickname was Nacho, and he (again supposedly) named his snack Nacho's especiales. I'm not sure whether this story holds up to lexicographic scrutiny, but as I say, it's a popular tale, and it's not by any means implausible. Even if it's not true, I did learn that Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio (how did I not already know this?), which is another reason to like the character of Nacho Vargas on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

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  09:54 AM

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 are examples of the "incorrect options as solutions"? These types of generalized, "it just doesn't work!" observations don't help the PM learn anything specific about what to fix. And they don't necessarily help other users, either, since it doesn't tell a user what to look out for.

As a PM, I might also have some questions about how prevalent these errors are. What percentage of the time does the grammar checker correctly flag errors? 15 percent of the time? 40 percent? 85 percent? In other words, are the issues that people report exceptions in an otherwise functioning tool, or are errors the norm? (If errors are the norm, I as PM would be surprised, since it's not like the company doesn't test the grammar checker.)

There's also a question about what constitutes an error. The grammar checker can find actual, non-controversial errors, like subject-verb disagreement. It can also check style—things like the use of passive:

As the PM, I might ask people to adjust the various knobs and levers to see whether the "mistakes" made by grammar checker are simply suggestions that they disagree with.

If I were that PM, I'd say that sure, please let us know where you're running into issues with the grammar checker. But be specific. Show us the error. Will we be able to reproduce it on the current version of Word? If you adjust the settings, do you still see the issue? And I would ask that in addition to posting on social media about the error, why not engage with the Microsoft community to see if your issue is known? In short, I as PM would ask you to use your experience to help make the product better.


Let's move on and talk about who the audience is for the grammar checker in Word. Let me posit this: the grammar-checker tool in Word is not designed for professional editors. No, let me take a step back: Word itself is designed for corporate use. When the Office team thinks about improving their product, they're not thinking primarily about freelance editors, or novelists, or programmers who are creating README files. They think a great deal about employees at companies that are going to buy 500 or 5000 or 50,000 site license of Office. Merge tools for mailing labels? Two-click tables of contents? Let's face it: the prototypical Word user is someone who sits in a cubicle.[1]

My point is that I think the prototypical user is not expert in spelling or grammar. Nor are they producing works of art— no, they're working on reports and memos and other contributions to the great stream of prose that moves corporations forward every day.

I note this because one editor I know said that she had once taken an article by Louis Menand (Harvard faculty, writer for the New Yorker) and run it through the Word grammar checker. She reports that the grammar checker had substantially worsened the article.

This does not surprise me. Let me give you an analogy. Suppose you want to make a dress. You buy a dress pattern and carefully follow all the directions. When you're done, you have a dress! But you do not have a Pierre Cardin dress, or a Dior, or a Vera Wang.

A dress pattern lets a person of modest skills produce a functional finished product. A dress pattern in the hands of an ordinary person does not produce a work of art. Similarly, the grammar checker in Word helps a writer of ordinary skills produce workable copy. It is not designed to help an ordinary writer produce extraordinary prose. It will not turn the average denizen of a corporate cuberhood into Louis Menand.

We professional editors cannot make broad judgments about a tool because we think it isn't as smart as we are about grammar and style. (Though it is probably more thorough.) We have to consider whether it's useful for its intended audience, and gauge the tool in terms of how well it helps that audience.

Finally, we have to help people use the tool to its best advantage. If someone who is unskilled is using some tool incorrectly, you don't say to them "Yeah, that tool sucks." You teach them how to use it right. How about if we do that?

Related posts:
[1] Full disclosure: this is speculation on my part. I am not privy to the planning process of the Office team, past or present.



  09:25 AM

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.

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