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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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The time-tested way to overcome language problems - the approach I used to learn French in the first place - is of course to find a volatile girlfriend who is fluent in the language. There is nothing like hysterical weeping over the phone at 3 a.m. to really flex your listening comprehension.

Maciej Ceglowski



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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 5/29/2020

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:00 AM Pacific


  07:47 AM

Today's new-to-me word was interesting to me in part because of the context in which I found it. I was reading a TPM article about this week's executive order that pertains to social media, and I saw the sentence "Trump revealed the kayfabe of the whole exercise." I wasn't sure I'd seen kayfabe before; it certainly doesn't come up much in my political readings.

The term apparently originated in the world of all-star a.k.a. professional wresting. This is a type of sport—and I suppose that label is questionable—in which the participants seem to be engaged in a contest, but which is more of a performance. An important part of the culture of professional wrestling is that it pretends to be real; to paraphrase a different type of sport, the first rule of the sport of professional wrestling is that everyone pretends it's a real sport.

This see-through illusion is referred to as kayfabe. As the Wikipedia article on it says, kayfabe is the suspension of disbelief that surrounds all aspects of wrestling, from the actual performances to the personas and supposed rivalries. As near as anyone can tell, the word kayfabe is a Pig Latin version of the word fake, used to (supposedly) hide the word fake from outsiders.

Back to the TPM article. Here's the full context:

Appearing with Attorney General Bill Barr, Trump revealed the kayfabe of the whole exercise: “If you’re gonna have a guy like this be your judge and jury, I think you shut [Twitter] down, as far as I’m concerned,” he said, referring to Twitter’s fact checks.

I think that the writer is suggesting that the executive order is theater, that everyone—including the participants—knows that this gesture is about playing to the fans. It can be a bit hard to tell, though, in contemporary politics. In professional wrestling, when the match is over, everyone goes home and nothing changes. We'll see about this EO.

Origins question for you: is it weird that the word irony includes iron? Surely the metal can have nothing to do with irony as "conveying the opposite of a literal meaning"?

No, whew. Irony comes originally from Greek eironeía, which means something like "dissimulation"—feigning ignorance. We got the iron-ical spelling from French via Latin, which had pre-borrowed the word from Greek for us.

The sense of irony as a way of being witty goes all the way back to the Romans. But the original Greek sense wasn't just about saying "I love it when it rains on the day I want to go hiking." For example, Socratic irony is a technique in the Socratic dialogues (I guess?) where someone pretends ignorance not to be funny, but to lure them into showing their ignorance.

I guess I'll note that there actually can be iron in irony, as I learned when I looked up the word; you can use irony to mean "iron-like" or "containing iron." The OED has a cite for this sense from 2009 ("the irony taste of blood"). People do get a little confused at times about what irony means, but I doubt they'd get these two senses mixed up.

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  01:32 PM

When there are attention-getting events like COVID/Covid/covid, it's natural that technical vocabulary leaks into popular media. For example, a friend of mine asked me why it's the novel coronavirus, and the best explanation I had was that the "novel" appellation was used by virologists and epidemiologists and had made its way (probably unnecessarily) into news stories.[1]

In this vein, while reading an article in the New Yorker recently, I ran across the word nosocomial. Granted, they were using quotation marks and explaining the term, so they weren't trying to sneak it past us or anything. But still, when have we previously seen this term? Outside specialty literature, I mean.

Nosocomial refers to an illness that's spread in a hospital; "hospital-acquired." I could not guess from looking at nosocomial what it could mean. It's ultimately Greek; the constituent parts are noso, meaning "illness," and kom, meaning "care."

As with many infections, putting a lot of people into proximity[2] has the unfortunate tendency to make it easy for the infection to spread. Thus the nosocomial coronavirus, which has had high incidence in places like nursing homes and, yes, hospitals.

Hospitals are a particularly insidious vector because the healthcare professionals treating patients in one hospital can easily spread it to another one. This means that the concept of nosocomial spread is related to iatrogenic, meaning you got sick from a doctor. I am reminded of a book I read not long ago, The Butchering Art, about Joseph Lister's efforts to introduce antisepsis to medical procedures in Victorian times. In those days, one place you definitely did not want to be treated was in a hospital.

Update: I asked my wife, who's in healthcare, if she knew nosocomial. "Oh, yeah," she said.

For origins this week the word soldier. It doesn't appear to have obvious cognates that suggest where we got it from. So off we go to the dictionary.

Not surprisingly, the -ier ending tells us that it's from French. The sol- part is the interesting bit: it's a historical word that used to refer to a type of French money or coin. It goes back to the name of a Roman coin, the solidus, whose name is indeed related to the word solid. You want people to soldier for you, you'd better pay them with some solid money.

The French sol does have a modern descendant, namely the French sou. I guess that the sou is not in use anymore, but it does retain a metaphorical sense of "a coin or thing of very little value," sort of like the British use of farthing (?).

Anyway, a soldier is essentially someone who's paid for military duty. Not to be confused with a mercenary, who gets paid to soldier for other people, which is to say, whose loyalty is to the sol, not to the person/country/entity that's paying it.

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[1] Decades of technical writing have hammered into me the value of using the vocabulary of your audience.

[2] I would have written "close proximity," but that would earn me an editorial spanking: pleaonasm.

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  04:14 PM

I learned at term at work this week that's another example where I was familiar with the idea, but didn't know there was a name for it. The term is the XY problem. It takes a slight bit of explanation.

Let's say you're watering your garden and you notice that there's a leak in your hose. We'll call this problem X. You get out some duct tape and wrap it around the hose. We'll call this solution Y. But the duct tape doesn't stick to the wet hose. So you ask someone "How can I get duct tape to stick to a wet hose?"

Perhaps you see the issue. You have problem X and are struggling with solution Y, and you ask for help with solution Y. What you really want is help with problem X, namely how to fix the leaky hose. Thus the XY problem. As one page defines it, "The XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem."

Most of the writing about the XY problem pertains to computer-y stuff. The classic example is someone writing code and asking "How can I get the last 3 characters of a filename?" when what they really want is the filename extension. If you're curious, you can read about other examples.

As I say, I was familiar with this idea. Many times over the years I've asked "What's your real question?", probably mostly at my kids. (I conveniently forget instances when it was me asking about Y.)

The XY problem is considered a problem, such as it is, because it takes longer for people to help you while they suss out what the real issue is. Like I said, the discussions I've seen of the XY problem are mostly in the realm of computers, and boy, people in that realm can be … not nice … about this.[1] (In one example, the would-be helper finally resorts to yelling: Then ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT!) But issues with personal interaction aside, it does seem useful to know the name XY problem, because it gives one (well, me) a framework for recognizing and dealing with instances of it.

Origins. One of my FB Friends had a thought-provoking question for these times: "Why am I carrying around cash in my pockets?" Thought-provoking in several ways, one of which is making a person wonder where the word cash came from.

As Douglas Harper says, "Like many financial terms in English (bankrupt, etc.), it has an Italian heritage." The word was originally cassa, which referred to a box to keep money in—that is, a case or chest. (You can see the family resemblance.) Naturally, this goes back to a Latin word (capsa), which likewise meant "coffer."

We imported the sense of cash as a box. Very soon thereafter, the name of the container became the name of the contents, an evolution we've seen before (as with marzipan, maybe). At least, it did in English; as the OED notes, this didn't happen in other languages.[2] The "box" sense eventually became obsolete. (You might wonder, as I did, whether the word cache is related to the "box" sense of cash. Answer: no.)

The Dictionary.com site suggests that cash might be a back-formation from cashier. But they don't explain this, and it isn't in other sources, though it sounds like an intriguing story.

To get back to my Friend's question, if you are carrying cash, may I suggest that you use it to generously tip anyone who delivers things to wherever you're spending this quarantine.

[1] Some people in the computer industry aren't nice?! Whatever will we learn next!

[2] I've always found it interesting that a Spanish word for cash is efectivo, because cash surely is effective.

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  08:10 PM

For new-to-me terms, I don't usually list words whose meaning seems sort of self-evident. But this one amused me, and maybe it's not that self-evident.

The term is sleep divorce. Whatever we might think about how couples do or don't have independent interests and hobbies and lives, the default assumption in our culture is, I believe, that married couples sleep in the same bed. Why else do people have queen and king and even California king beds, if not to share?

But the sleeping habits of one person can have a negative effect on another. Different schedules? Snoring? Restlessness? Different temperature preferences? Your partner "wakes you up with nocturnal needs"?

So the idea has arisen that perhaps couples should sleep separately. Or as the term goes, they should undergo a sleep divorce. According to a survey commissioned by a sleep-products company (perhaps not perfectly unbiased?), 39% of couples would prefer sleeping separately. Apparently sleep divorce can mean just separate beds, or it can also mean—and this seems like it would be most effective—sleeping in separate rooms.

As far as I can tell, the term sleep divorce goes back at least as far back as 2013. It might go back further, but my casual research hasn't turned up any earlier cites.

Anyway, I'm not here for marital counseling, just words. So I'll let you sort out your sleeping arrangements with your partner, and good luck to you.

My origins quest today was piqued when a coworker was talking about her chickens. One of them, she said, was a bantam. I knew that bantam referred to small things, like a small chicken, and that it's a weight class for boxing. (Technically, that's called bantamweight, all one word.)

But why do we call small things bantam? The word turns out to be a toponym: a word based on the name of a place. Banten is a city on the island of Java in Indonesia; another rendering of the name was Bantam. It's not clear where the name originally came from; perhaps from one of the indigenous languages on the island.

The word started out as referring to a breed of chicken, a usage that's of course still current. The theory is that sailors picked up these "bantam" chickens when making port in Java. (Though the breed itself might have originated elsewhere.)

By the 18th century, the word bantam had developed its metaphoric sense of "small," with overtones of "cocky," as in, acting in the manner of a rooster. Boxing adopted bantamweight as a weight class in the late 1800s.

I've always been partial to the idea of someone or something that's small but that doesn't let this be an impediment to them. Surely bantam chickens exemplify this characteristic, so I'm happy to know how they got their name.

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  05:53 AM

We continue with our theme of mostly relevant words. Last week, an article in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull introduced us to the term disastertising. This is a portmanteau of disaster+advertising; it refers to the "pivot" by which companies adjusted their advertising to cope with the new realities of a quarantined world.

If you've seen any ads at all in the last month or two, you've probably seen a disastertisment. The ads (dis-ads?) describe ways in which the company are responding to the virus and how they're helping out their customers. For example, Mull says this about the pizza chain Domino's:

The pizza giant scrapped an ad campaign that showed customers standing close to one another, rolled out information about its hands-free food-packaging practices, and repurposed a Risky Business–themed ad to address social distancing. (Sliding around at home in your socks and underwear is all too relevant to many viewers now.)

I choose not to classify the earnest emails I get from, say, my car-insurance company about how they're "actively managing all aspects of the situation" as disastertising. I mean, they probably think that that's what they're doing—advertising—but those don't seem like ad campaigns that have been rethought so much as scrambles by the PR department to say something, anything. Then again, disastertising is such a new term, who knows how it will play out.

And speaking of new, as far as I can tell, this really is a new-new word. All the references I can find to the word are from a few days ago and point back at Mull's article. (Nancy Friedman also noted disastertising in her monthly link fest of new and interesting word stuff.) Let's hope that in the time to come, disastertising will just be a memory of a peculiar time, and that—wait, am I about to say this?—we go back to normal ol' ads.

For origins this week, I read a word history that I didn't believe until I was able to verify it in authoritative sources. The word is dunce, as in, a stupid person, as in, one who wears a dunce cap.

Surprise! Dunce is an eponym, a word based on someone's name. The person in question was John Duns Scotus (John Duns the Scot), a Franciscan philosopher from the 13th century. He was a heavy hitter, in the same league as Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham (of "Occam's razor" fame).

But in subsequent centuries John Duns Scotus's teachings fell on hard times. For one thing, his philosophy relied on a lot of complexities ("needless entities," as the OED says) and subtle distinctions. In addition to this, followers of his school were obstinate about the "new learning" of the 16th century. Thus the term Duns men, or just Dunses, became associated first with the hair-splitting (as some saw it) of their philosophy and later with general obtuseness. From there, dunce finally settled on its current meaning of someone who's incapable of learning. Fun, no?

How about a couple of word-origin shorties this week? If you squint hard enough, you can probably make these be topical.

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  05:58 PM

I have another term this week that could be interpreted to be related to current events, you decide. The word is sadopopulism. I'll note that people of any political persuasion will probably argue that the other side engages in sadopopulism, so it's one of those terms that's handy across the political spectrum.

Sadopopulism refers to a style of governance that actively hurts the governed. Obviously, it includes the word populism, which is normally thought of as appealing to the common person (whether sincerely or for cynical political gain). But it adds the prefix sado-, which is the "combining form" of sadism, which here is used in a general sense of exhibiting cruelty.

Why would someone engage in sadopopulism? According the historian Timothy Snyder, who invented the word, "the logic of sadopopulism is that pain is a resource." You get into power by promising people things, as in traditional populism. But once you're in power, you deliberately make people suffer. Then you tell a story about how their pain is the fault of "others," however it's useful for you to define then. Did you lose your job? Those outsiders took it. Does your healthcare suck? It's because outsiders are ruining it. Are people running around doing things that you're uncomfortable with? It's those outsiders trying to destroy our traditional values. And so on.

As Snyder says:

The way politics works in that model is that government doesn't solve your problems, it blames your problems on other people. […] Not so long ago, the currency of government was achievement. Government had to do something. Now, the currency of government is discourse. Government has to make you feel worse about people around you.

In the meantime, the government of those in power is blameless. In fact, it can continue to amass power—people will willingly cede power to is—as long as people believe that it wields that power to punish the bad people who are ruining everything. Anyway, that's the theory. Snyder uses the term to frame how he sees the current US government working, but I believe I've seen evidence that it's just as much a talking point for the right when the left is in power.

For word origins this week I've got the word mafia (or Mafia, capped). We were watching an Icelandic detective show, and from among the few words we could pick out, there was "mafia." I thought dang, a word that's been adopted into Icelandic, that's a pretty successful word.

We know for sure that word mafia comes from Sicily. This is an island near the Italian mainland[1] where they of course speak Italian (an Italian dialect, anyway). But the island was occupied for a couple of centuries by the Arabs, so there is some mixed linguistic heritage there.

There is a set of related words: not just mafia, but also mafioso (-osa for the feminine, -i for the plural). The theory is that the original was mafiusu, and Mafia is a "re-formation" or backformation from that word.

This is where things get hazy. The OED suggests somewhat conservatively that mafiusu might be a blend of words that meant "scoundrel" and "cheat." Douglas Harper suggests that the mafiusu has connotations of "bully, arrogant, but also fearless, enterprising, and proud." There's a theme here of "spirit of hostility to the law." The modern sense of Mafia as a criminal enterprise might come from the title of a 19th-century play I mafiusi di la Vicaria ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") about a gang of prisoners. All of this insight comes from Diego Gambetta, an ethnologist who studied the Mafia.

This still doesn't entirely resolve where the word ultimately comes from. People propose an Arabic source, but there are different ideas about which word in Arabic exactly mafiusu came from. The Wikipedia article on Mafia lists seven (!) Arabic words as possible sources, including words meaning "exempted," "cave," "excessive boasting," "rejected," "protection," and a couple of others.

You can see how a concept like "[the] rejected" might be taken up proudly by an outgroup to describe themselves (a process known as reappropriation). And boy, surely among the most out of out groups is the mafia. Even in Icelandic.

[1] Sicilia īnsula magna est, as my Latin textbook informs me.

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  07:13 PM

Today's new-to-me word isn't entirely new to me, but I did learn something interesting about it. Does that count?

The word is washlet. What's a washlet? Well, it's a relative of the bidet (bee-DAY), which is a standalone fixture in a bathroom that you use to wash your nether parts after doing your business. Bidets are surprisingly rare in the US, which is one reason we had the Great Toilet Paper Panic about a month ago.[1]

Bidets can also be hard to fit or retrofit into a bathroom, because they require plumbing, not to mention enough room for another floor-mounted fixture. Enter the washlet. Or technically the Washlet, because the name Washlet is a trademark of Toto, a Japanese toilet company. The Washlet is a device that you can fit onto an existing toilet, replacing the seat, that has bidet-type functionality: wash, dry, etc. Unlike bidets, washlets can be pretty easy to retrofit, because they can use the plumbing that's already in use for your toilet.

A picture will help:

Traditional bidet on the left; Washlet on the right

Why am I yammering on about this? Because I think the word washlet is being genericized to refer to any washing-type device that fits onto a toilet. You won't see most manufacturers use the word—they're careful to use terms like bidet seat or spa because, as noted, Washlet is a trademark. But some do: example, example, example. And ordinary speakers have no compunctions about brand names ("Let me google that," "Do you have a kleenex?"). This became clear to me when I was listening to a podcast where the topic came up, and where one of the hosts explicitly said that a washlet is "the technical term for toilet seats that have got the stuff built into them." There you go.

This duty having been discharged, let me turn my attention to origins. Where does the word sugar come from? What about candy? Interestingly, from the same place.

Sugar cultivation started in India, so it's not surprising the sugar derives ultimately from a Sanskrit word sharkara that referred to grit or gravel or pebbles. From there it moved to Persian (shakar) and Arabic (sukhar) and then spread into the Mediterranean and Europe. Something I hadn't realized is that saccharine is basically the same word, this time from Greek.

A slight mystery is how English ended up with a -g- in the middle of the word. We have a few examples in English like it (flagon from French flacon), and there was a late Latin word zugurum. But nothing certain. It's also not 100% clear why we pronounce the word sugar with an sh sound, but the theory is that the u used to be long and the word underwent a process that also gave us sure.

And then there's candy: also from Sanskrit (khanda), which meant "piece of sugar." The word moved along the same trade routes that sugar did—Persian, Arabic, Romance languages, us. A fun fact is that the term was originally sugar candy and referred specifically to the crystals (compare rock candy). In medieval times it came to refer to sugar processed during cooking. I guess I also mostly knew that it's primarily Americans who use candy as a general term for confections made of sugar; the Brits use sweets.

More Useful Facts for your indoor life! You're welcome. :)

[1] I highly recommend (again) the book The Big Necessity by Rose George, which is all about engineering the unpleasant but all-too-necessary infrastructure for dealing with human waste.

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  09:24 AM

"Fewer your words": advice, not fetish

A couple of weeks ago, a (virtual) discussion broke out among the writers at work about "empty words" and how these should be eliminated. The original posting was about removing phrases like allows you to, helps you to, is intended for, and some others.

The topic generated a lot of interest, and people came to the conversation with different perspectives. One person: "Fluff should be eliminated." Another: More words make it that much harder for people who use assistive devices like screen readers.

You'd think that as an editor, I'd be delighted to see such keen interest among writers in the topic of "fewering your words," as we editors like to joke. There was a lot of advice that seemed helpful. And there were some nuanced points about reducing text too much.

But a number of issues came up that rubbed me the wrong way. I had to think about why that was, and I thought I should write down what I found.

The first thing that bugged me was a suggestion that we could train a machine-learning tool to eliminate these "unnecessary words." The proposer suggested that if there were a large enough training set that showed the work of human editors, this would be a good approach for suggesting changes. And I thought, how do you think grammar checkers work now?

Another thing that bothered me in the conversation was the confident assertion of absolutes. "The phrase in order to is never necessary," was one opinion. Hard disagree, as I explained a while back in the blog post "In order" to clarify meaning.[1]

For that matter, the original assertion that phrases like allows you to, helps you to, and is intended for are fluff was itself an absolute statement that I disagreed with. Many times I've added these with forethought and for good reasons. For example, many times we add the phrase helps [to] at the request of our lawyercats, who are extremely sensitive to what we might be claiming. Put on your lawyer hat for a second and compare the following:

Using our anti-virus tool makes your computer secure
Using our anti-virus tool helps make your computer secure

… and think about which of those statements you'd prefer to defend in court.[2]

Here's another thought: shorter isn't always clearer. By reducing words, you might make it harder to understand a sentence. Or maybe not harder for you, but for someone who's not a native speaker, or for a translator who sees the sentence with very little context.

My biggest objection, though, was with the whole premise that removing "fluff" and "needless words" was the ultimate good. One writer said they liked to see how many words they could eliminate or how many drafts they could go through. I had to marvel at the time that some writers must have to go over draft documentation again and again, and whether those last couple of passes to squeeze out just a few more words are really the best use of that writer's time.

An unnecessary in order to is virtually never the thing that's preventing the reader from finding and using the information they're looking for.

We're in the business of solving the reader's problems with the least amount of friction. Sure, reducing word count can be part of that strategy. But an unnecessary in order to or allows you to is virtually never the thing that's preventing the reader from finding and using the information they're looking for. As an editor, I am way, way more concerned that a document I'm looking at addresses a real user need, and that the reader can find the information as fast as possible, and that the information is presented in an order and at a level of detail that's correct for that reader, and that the information is accurate and complete. I have edited many documents that initially failed in some or all these ways, and it was far more important to take care of these things than it was to worry about "empty words."

Reduce word count when you can, but don't make a fetish of it, and don't turn it into a set of absolute rules ("in order to is never necessary"). Do not make reduced word count some sort of gauge of editing quality. There's a strong likelihood that there are more important things to concentrate on in your document.

[1] The longer I work as an editor, the less I believe that there are any absolute rules about anything to do with usage.

[2] I am not a lawyer, don't cite me on the legal implications of anything I say here.

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  09:07 PM

In a tweet last week, word person and naming expert Nancy Friedman introduced me to a new term: hustlebro. Nancy used it in reference to some dudes on Twitter who were exhorting (more like pre-shaming) people about what they weren't going to accomplish during this pandemic downtime:

Obviously, Nancy was using the term in a negative way, and I was pretty sure I got the idea, but I found it harder than I thought to articulate exactly how you'd define it. Poking around for other uses muddied the waters a little bit. If you search Twitter with the hashtag #hustlebro, you get a mixed bag. There are references to sports. There are general requests to hurry ("The only man I want on my doorstep is the delivery guy #hustlebro").[1] There are self-professed entrepreneurs, about which more in a minute.

It's complicated because both parts of the word—hustle and bro—have negative and positive connotations. Last year, Ben Zimmer tracked the history of hustle in his WSJ column (paywall), noting that it describes both scam artists and "diligent go-getters." And bro is used neutrally to refer to a companion ("hey, bro") but also negatively ("an alpha male idiot," thanks, Urban Dictionary).[2]

This duality (quadrality?) shows up in how people use hustlebro. To return to Nancy's example, a number of people (men?) proudly label themselves as hustlebros; they talk about hustling in an entrepreneurial sense, out there working hard ("grinding") to make the big bucks. (It can be a chore to read the Twitter bios of people who talk about being hustlebros.) Jason Zook claims he made up this term, which he intended negatively, in reference to "hustle porn" culture.

Update I overlooked a great writeup on the history of hustle on Nancy Friedman's blog. Plus she notes on Twitter that the hustlebro culture is about side hustles, i.e., ways beyond one's day job to earn.

Nancy manages a trick: while using hustlebro to refer to people who label themselves using that very word, she manages to invert it and make it negative. These guys have a whiff of the icky sense of hustler. They're bros in the sense of, you know, jerks. That's not their sense of hustlebro, but it seems to be how Nancy intends it. Perhaps I'll actually ask her about it.

For origins this week I have the word baleful. But first I had to make sure I knew what it meant; I've heard, like, a baleful look, but what is that, exactly? Sad? No, it's "foreboding; evil; pernicious."

If it's baleful, it must be full of bale, right? But my sense is that we don't toss around the word bale much these days to mean foreboding or evil or pernicious. The OED backs this up; the dictionary says that this use of bale fell into disuse by the 1600s.

But it had a pretty good run until then. It goes back to the Germanic ancestor of English (no French, for a change) and appears in Old English texts like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A cite from 1340 has "Þe [the] day of bale and of bitternes"; from about 1400 we have "Hire blesse turnde to Bale." Even though bale was on its way out in the days of Shakespeare, it hung around for use by the poetically inclined, so that a 19th-century translation of the Iliad included the line "Tidings of bale she brought."

I tried some searches to see whether bale is still sometimes used in this poetic, olde-tyme sense. But I didn't have much luck, because the more common uses of bale drowned it out, including things like bale of hay and (ha) Christopher Bale. But I did make the interesting discovery that bale (with a different etymology) is used as a collective term: a bale of turtles.[3]

[1] I'm going to assume an innocent interpretation of this.

[2] It's left as an exercise to the reader to determine whether Bernie Bro has only negative valence.

[3] Probably a made-up term, not one that arose organically in English. And as someone points out, turtles don't hang around in groups.

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  07:52 AM

I am not a trend chaser (I'm a "thought-follower," as one my colleagues refers to themself), but I have had a run of topical Friday words recently. And today comes another (maybe two!).

People these days are doing a lot of video conferencing, and a popular app for that is Zoom. Mischievous or malevolent people have discovered an interesting new way to harass people, namely by zoombombing meetings. (Sometimes, but less frequently[1], called zoom-crashing.)

To use Zoom, you join a meeting using a nine-digit meeting ID. It's apparently not hard to find meeting IDs online. And although nine digits sounds like a lot (a billion!), simply picking those numbers at random might get a determined hacker into some live meeting or other. Once the Mallory has gotten into the meeting, they might try sharing disruptive images or otherwise causing trouble.

The genesis of the term (terms) is interesting, though at this point maybe still speculative? Zoomcrashing seems like a natural coinage, analogous to something like gatecrashing and wedding-crashing. As noted, zoombombing seems for the moment to be more popular. The ‑bombing part is probably based on something like to photobomb. The sense of unexpectedly appearing somewhere is a fit, as is the sense of perhaps doing this as a prank. And I guess if the zoombomber spoils the meeting the way a photobomber spoils a photo, that fits also. Ok, then.

By the way, if you're a Zoom host, the company has published some guidelines to help you reduce the possibility of being zoombombed, or if you are, how to mitigate the breach.

For origins this week, I have a term that with some imagination might be considered timely. The term is petri dish, which is used to grow microbes and other tiny fauna.[2] The term is often spelled lowercase these days, but formally it's still spelled with a capital P—because it's an eponym.

Petri was Julius Petri, a German microbiologist who invented the dish that's now named for him. He worked as an assistant to Robert Koch, a pioneering microbiologist who (to quote Wikipedia) "gave experimental support for the concept of infectious disease." (See how timely this is?) While Petri worked in Koch's lab, he and some others invented what became the technique of putting agar (gelatin) in the dish and then adding cultures to be studied.

At least, that's the story. It turns out that the Petri dish might have been invented by others, or at least independently. If that's true, this wouldn’t be the first time that an invention was named for someone who was lucky, influential, or who had the right friends.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] In my experience over, like, the last week.

[2] Obligatory joke: there's a special name for that? I thought it was just the plate at the back of the fridge.

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