About

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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Where you don't have demonstrated collective excellence, you have process.

— "Mini-Microsoft"



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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 4/3/2020

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:42 AM Pacific


  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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  08:56 PM

Some related terms today, as I'll explain later. The new-to-me word for this week is paleography, which refers to old manuscripts and/or the study and decipherment thereof. I've put this term three times into the GDoc where I keep these words, it seems. I originally got it from a Fiat Lex podcast; it came up on Ellen Jovin's Facebook feed last week; and I ran across it again in a book about punctuation.

The root paleo means "old"; graph, of course, is "writing." One who performs the service of decipherment is a paleographer.

A term like "old writing" probably conjures up things like the Dead Sea Scrolls. And it's true that paleographers do work on documents that old. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was a big moment in paleography, providing a key to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphical writing.

But paleography can include more recent documents as well. For example, paleographers work on medieval manuscripts. Many a would-be paleographer has attempted to decipher the Voynich manuscript from the 1400s (assumed), which continues to be mysterious. And paleographers don't just decipher old manuscripts. They also do things like trace the lineage of the handwriting styles that the documents were written in.

The word paleography can also be used metaphorically to mean deciphering any handwriting. For example, in the Fiat Lex podcast, Kory Stamper talks about the paleography of reading the handwriting of many editors who have scribbled notes about dictionary entries.

Here's something fun: you might not know it, but you probably have participated in a paleographical exercise. If you've ever been prompted by ReCaptcha to type in a distorted-looking word to prove that you're not a bot, you've been helping with a crowdsourced paleography exercise:

This was an outgrowth of Google's gigantic project to digitize every book and newspaper they could get their hands on. They used optical character recognition (OCR) to turn the scans into text. Alas, OCR couldn't always decipher the words. So some smart folks turned the unrecognized words into a bot challenge that they could present to thousands of people. By asking a lot of people to squint at the weird-looking word, they could home in what the word probably said. You can read more about this project on, where else, Wikipedia. And if you want to participate more actively in some paleographic efforts, you can help transcribe old documents for the Library of Congress.

On to origins. For today I have the word ampersand, the punctuation character (&). There seem to be some fanciful explanations for the origins of this term. For example, on Urban Dictionary (not known for its etymological rigor), someone says that ampersand is from "Amper's and," Amper having supposedly been a 17th-century German typographer.

Anyway, forget that. Ampersand is not an eponym. The story is better than that, which I learned from the Keith Houston's book Shady Characters, a history of punctuation, while reading about, yes, paleography. The ampersand symbol started as Roman shorthand for et, the Latin word for "and." An ampersand symbol meant "and," just like we use it today. It was literally an and.

This is the good part. In the 1800s, the ampersand character was considered the 27th letter of the alphabet. If you recited the alphabet, you'd finish up with "… X, Y, Z, and per se and," where that last and referred to the ampersand character. When you said "per se and," you were saying "and by itself." This verbal clot, through a lot of repetition by bored schoolchildren and bit of mushiness, evolved into ampersand.

And … there you have it.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  05:32 PM

One more (maybe) post about the question of jargon in technical documents and how technical editors can tell good from bad jargon. Here are some real-world questions about jargon that came up this week in our shop and how they were resolved.

 

mTLS. A writer had mutual TLS in a document and then used mTLS later to refer to this. This felt like an initialism that the writer might have invented to make it easier to talk about mutual TLS. But a web search clarified that mTLS is as common initialism in other (i.e. not just our) texts.

Outcome: I added the initialism on first mention—using mutual TLS (mTLS)—and left the existing instances of mTLS.

 

CIAM. A similar situation. I ran into CIAM as a shortened form of customer identity and access management. I wanted to be sure that the writer wasn't just making up the initialism so I did a web search. It is used in the industry, but curiously, people have slightly different terms for C: customer, consumer, centralized.

Outcome: I made sure we wrote it out on first mention so that our reader would know which of these variants we intended.

 

casing. I found this text:

The email addresses johndoe@example.com and JohnDoe@example.com use different casing.

I left a query for the author and for another editor whether we were okay with using the word casing for an IT audience.

Outcome: Yes, IT people are familiar with lowercase, uppercase, camel case, etc., and they understand the word casing. (A programmer I know has a quiz that tests your knowledge of casing names.)

 

prefer [to]. Authors sometimes use prefer word as an imperative verb, as in Prefer using the console for this step, meaning "It's a good idea to" or "We recommend that you" (use the console). It's hard to look for examples of this usage as a verb. We had a discussion among the editors.

Outcome: We decided to recommend using We recommend instead.

 

[word]-aware, as in healthcare-aware. One of the editors asked whether the term healthcare-aware was okay. Another editor who works with the translators looked into it and determined that it wasn't always clear what the -aware part meant, and that different translators were handling it in different ways. A complicating factor is that -aware is in some of our product names, like Context-Aware Access and Identity-Aware Proxy.

Outcome: For the time being, we're recommending that writers not use the -aware suffix (unless it's part of a product name).

 

[word]-facing, as in customer-facing. This seems similar to -aware, but there are differences. For starters, a term like customer-facing is in some dictionaries. We had the same concerns as with -aware, but it looks like -facing is better established. We certainly had a lively discussion.

Outcome: None yet; to be discussed at the next style guide meeting.

 

quiesce. An editor raised an eyebrow about requires you to quiesce the database. Another editor said that it was common in the domain of databases, which we confirmed with a search.

Outcome: stet.

 

swim lane. The term swim lane was used in reference to a diagram (As shown in the swim lanes in the following diagram). I did a web search and found a Wikipedia article about this concept, suggesting that it's a term that's probably known to people who regularly see this type of diagram.

Outcome: I added a link to the Wikipedia article on first mention in case some readers don't know the term.

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  08:15 AM

In a webinar last week on technical editing, I talked about how technical editors need to be mindful of terminology: they need to be aware of the terms that are common in a domain but also be on the lookout for "jargon." There was a follow-up question about how you know which is which, and I don't feel like I did a good job explaining. So here's a second attempt. :)

What's "good" jargon?

Part of the issue is that the word jargon has two meanings. In the "good" sense, jargon is the specialized terminology of a domain. This can be technical terms themselves, words like the following:

  • macula and percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (medicine)
  • commoditization and Gini coefficient (economics)
  • affinitization and instantiation (computer programming)
  • em dash and down style (editing)

These terms have specific, technical meanings to practitioners in the field, and they're going to appear in specialized literature for the field. People who don't know the field quite likely won't know the terms.

Another kind of good jargon comprises terms that are used as a kind of shorthand in the field. They're not necessarily technical terms, but they're words or expressions that everyone in the field knows. Some examples might be well-known abbreviations or shortenings. A few examples:

  • Foley for Foley catheter in medicine
  • mono for monoaural in sound engineering
  • fintech in the investment world
  • sync and DevOps in IT (also, IT in IT, haha)

I say that these terms are good jargon because they work in the service of clear and concise communication. When I'm talking to a group of American copyeditors, I can say things like "AP and Chicago disagree in some of their guidance about hyphenization and passive,"[1] and it's hard to imagine that the audience would not understand this sentence, even though there are abbreviations (AP), shortenings (Chicago, passive) and technical terms (hyphenization, passive).

Audience

This of course brings up the question of audience and context. For that sentence about editing, I was explicit that I was talking to American copyeditors. The sentence probably wouldn't be entirely understandable to my wife, let's say (who's in healthcare), and I wouldn't assume that British copyeditors (subeditors) necessarily know the terms AP and Chicago. (They might, but it doesn't seem like a safe assumption.)

A responsibility for the technical editor during developmental editing is to work with the author to determine who the audience is and what they do (or don't) know

As I had noted during the webinar, a responsibility for the technical editor during developmental editing is to work with the author to determine who the audience is and what they do (or don't) know. An article in a specialized journal is going to have a different audience than a post on Medium, and the editor has to take that into account when gauging whether good jargon is appropriate. But if the author and editor agree that the audience has the background to understand this good jargon, there's no reason not to use it.

This can be fuzzy. It's not like there's a single canonical reader for every piece of writing. It's fair for an editor to make queries to the author: Will the reader understand Foley? Do we need to define affinitization? Are you sure that readers know what AP means? Do IT people really say sync for "synchronization"?[2]

Editors lean toward spelling out and defining. This tendency is generally good; the editor is advocating for the set of readers (perhaps small but non-zero) for whom a term is unfamiliar. In many cases, the editor and author might agree to define on first mention, or use the full form, or at least link to an explanation.

But it can be overdone. Spelling out or defining terms that every reader knows can not only be annoying ("Why are you telling me this?"), it can subtly affect the reader's perception of the piece ("Do you think I'm a noob?"). I sure hope never to encounter a text that talks about "amplitude modulation/frequency modulation (AM/FM)" radios. In technical articles for computer programmers, I would strike well-meaning attempts to spell out HTML or API, because if the reader doesn't know these terms, the rest of the article is not going to very comprehensible either.

What's "bad" jargon?

So that's good jargon. What makes for "bad" jargon? One kind of bad jargon is slang. For example, programmers talk about cruft to refer to code that's no longer useful but that hasn't been removed and is still junking up the system. Anyone who's been in the programming world probably knows this term, but it's probably not appropriate in documentation.

Another example of bad jargon is domain-specific terms for a non-domain audience. The issue here is context: words that are perfectly fine in one context and for one audience are problematic for a different context and different audience. An example that I used in the webinar is that terms that might be fine for an auto repair manual might not be acceptable in that same auto's owner's manual.

So-called business-speak (aka corporate jargon) often combines slang and domain terminology. If you read about "having a one-off face-to-face to iterate on the cadence of deliverables" or "the candidate has been actioned and will be onboarded next week," you might throw up your hands at his hopeless jumble of jargon. But it's important to keep in mind that these sentences are (usually) perfectly understandable to people who write these things and to their intended audience. In other words, context is important. Where this becomes a problem is if the text is aimed at someone outside the "speech community" that understands it, like a press release or an all-hands email.

Finally, there are invented terms. For example, I've often seen an author invent an abbreviation or initialism for a gnarly multi-word term because they don't want to have to repeat it. Officially, we frown on this practice, because it introduces unfamiliar terms that the reader has to then keep track of ("What does that mean again?"), not to mention that it might cause problems for translators later.

How can you tell good from bad jargon?

A big question is how a technical editor can tell the good jargon from the bad jargon. As you can probably guess by now, I'm not going to propose any sort of absolute measure.

Back to first principles: who's the audience and what do (don't) they know? I can't emphasize enough how critical this is to sorting out the question of what constitutes acceptable jargon.

But suppose that while technical-editing a piece, you've run up against a term that feels like jargon and you're wondering whether you should allow it. Here's what I would do:

  • Look at the style guide. I don't mean AP or Chicago here; I mean the usage guide you use for the domain. For example, imagine you're reading draft programming documentation and you keep running across foo and bar. Is this okay? If you're at Microsoft, probably yes. Obviously, this means you have to be familiar with the usage guide or guides for the domain you're editing in.

    Corollary: If you don't already have a style sheet, create one to track the decisions you've made about these terms.
  • Research. Do a web search for the term. If you get results, see if they seem to be in the same domain as what you're editing. If it looks like other writers in the field use the term, it might be okay. But be sensitive to whether you're seeing the term in official documentation or in less formal text, like blog entries.

  • Ask other editors. If you have colleagues, discuss it with them. They might have seen the term before and know whether it's acceptable. If you don't have colleagues nearby, put the query out on editor-facing[3] social media, targeting other editors in your field if possible. Include as much context as you can, because, as I keep saying, context is important.

  • Ask the author. Tell the author that a term seems jargon-y to you and you'd like their input it. (I would be careful to phrase the query to make it clear that it seems jargon-y to you, not that it necessarily is jargon.) The author might point you to other examples[4] or to information that can help you both make a decision about keeping or replacing the term.

  • Ask the translators. If the material is going to be translated and if you have access to the people who manage translations, you might be able to ask them. Translators often have databases of terminology; for example, they might reassure you that they can handle foo or onboarding just fine.

In a sense, I'm suggesting that you put the brakes on your hard-won editorial sensibilities. More on that in a second.

Update: I added a post with some real-world examples that illustrate jargon that we encountered and how we resolved questions about it.

But that's a terrible term!

One of the things I noted during the webinar is that it's not the editor's job to pass judgment on terminology. If people in a domain have settled on terms like operationalize or onboarding or upsert, it's not our job as editors to come in later and say "You shouldn't use that term because it's ugly" (or "it doesn't make sense to me" or "I don't like it"). Our concern is not with our personal reaction to a term, but whether it's being used correctly for the audience. As Judith Tarutz says, “The jargon and conventions of technology are sometimes incompatible with or different from the rules of English.”

Our concern is not with our personal reaction to a term, but whether it's being used correctly for the audience

This isn't to say that you have to love every word you encounter. We editors wouldn't be text-sensitive readers if we didn't have aesthetic preferences for language. But there are times when our personal preferences are not the factor by which we judge usage.[5] You might never develop a fondness for the word onboarding or actioned, but that's what folks in HR say, and our concern is that they're using that word correctly and consistently for their audience for this document.

However, …

However, there is an exception. If a term is potentially offensive or triggering, or if it perpetuates harmful stereotypes, then it is our job as editors to bring this to a writer's attention. An example from the world of software is the term whitelist. This was coined to contrast with blacklist. In IT, whitelisting means to explicitly allow something or someone—for example, an email spam filter allows you to create a whitelist of senders whose message you'll accept.

Over the years, we've asked writers to move away from terms that assign good/bad values to black and white. So instead of saying "Add users to a whitelist," we suggest "Add users to an allowlist" or something similar.

This is an ongoing effort, because whitelist is widely used in software. Still, by changing this usage one instance at a time, we're hoping to move writers toward less charged language.

There are other, similar terms that we try to move writers away from. In a couple of instances, this has resulted in some pretty lively discussions. Authors who defend these terms make much the same argument that I was making earlier about good jargon—namely, that when you're writing for a known audience, you should use the vocabulary that that audience knows. Generally, our compromise is to include a term to establish a mapping, something like "Add users to an allowlist (whitelist)." This also helps if the user performs a search for the term. But after that first mention, we don't use the term again.

Authors are usually satisfied with this compromise. But not always. And in those cases, we have to rely on our author-editor relationship to see what we can do.

It's not easy

The original question—how can you tell good jargon from bad jargon?—doesn't have an easy answer. I hope I've provided some context and some useful suggestions. I would love to hear how other tech editors approach this question.

Since we're talking about jargon, let me finish by including links to some funny lists of domain-specific jargon:

and lest we forget …

[1] I don't actually know this is true, but bear with me.

[2] It's always a fun discussion to ponder the past tense form of "to sync."

[3] "editor-facing": jargon?

[4] Embarrassingly, more than once an author has pointed to a similar usage in our own doc set.

[5] I suppose I should add that I feel that any argument to the effect of "But it's degrading English!" is irrelevant, unless someone can show data showing how and how much a usage degrades the language.

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  05:33 PM

We could probably all use a break from the Serious Stuff, so here's a new-to-me word that's just for fun. What do you call the button on the top of a baseball cap? Like this:

If you guessed "button on top of a baseball cap," I would commend you, because really, does that thing have its own name? Even companies that make baseball caps call it a button. But in certain circles there actually is a special name for it: squatchee. (Hold that thought.) You're not going to find the word in Merriam-Webster, but it's in Urban Dictionary and if you go hunting for the word, it turns up plenty.

Where did such a strange little word come from? There's an interesting story here. The term was associated with the baseball commentator Bob Brenly, who'd been a catcher during his playing years. He learned it in the 1980s from his then-teammate Mike Krukow. Krukow had in turn picked it up from Sniglets, which was a kind of joke dictionary listing "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should." Sniglets was the work of Rich Hall, a comedian in that era, and "his friends," as the cover says. It sounds like they sat around and made up words, and they seemed to have a talent for coining funny ones.

Here's a twist. For Sniglets, they invented the word squatcho (-o, not -ee) to name the button on top of a cap. Mike Krukow was browsing the book and picked up squatcho, which he thought was funny, and started using it with other baseball players on his team. Somewhere in the everyday banter of the players, the variant squatchee emerged. When Krukow and Bentley retired and when into sports commentary, they took the words with them and used them both variants on the air so that the terms spread out into more general use. (You can read all of this, including interviews with these guys, in an article on the Uni-Watch site.)

It seems remarkable to me that a word invented for fun by a comedian seems poised to become a "real word." All that's really needed now is for all of us to say "squatchee" or "squatcho" every time we talk about that button. I suppose I should also note that that word sniglet, which Rich Hall also invented, is now in the dictionary. Bonus.

As an aside, what's the squatchee for? According to one answer I found, it was there originally to help hold the cap together, but now is decorative. I'm no clothes designer, so I'll take their word for it.

Just a short one for origins today. Did you ever wonder where zigzag came from? Those Z's, they could be from a lot of different places. Reputable sources suggest that it ultimately comes from German. They have a word Zacke, which means "point, peak, jag, spike." That makes sense, since the pattern formed by a zigzag is a set of teeth-like points. We got it from French (where else: en zigzag), who seem to have gotten it from an existing German word zickzack, which described military fortifications.

If the -zag part comes from Zacke, what about the zig- part? The theory is that zickzack/zigzag was formed through reduplication (aka lexical cloning), in which a word is formed from repeated elements. In English, reduplication gave us words like goody-goody, bye-bye, hoity-toity, chit-chat, and flim-flam. You can see that reduplication works a little differently in different words—sometimes the word is repeated outright (goody-goody), and other times there's variation. In chit-chat and zigzag, the main vowel is varied[1], so this is sometimes called ablaut reduplication. We like reduplication in English, and it looks like 18th-century Germans liked it too. Hence zickzack, hence zigzag. Which certainly describes the origins of many words in English.

[1] Interestingly, it varies in a somewhat predictable way; we say chit-chat, but we don't have words like chat-chit.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  08:23 PM

I suppose I've worked with the idea that these new-to-me words on Fridays are existing words in English. Today, though, I'm going to bend that rule, if it even is a rule, and talk about a word in German. It is new to me, and it's timely, so there's that.

The word is hamsterkaufen, which is the German word for "panic buying," or Hamsterkauf for a "panic purchase." We have, of course, seen a lot of that as people hoard supplies like face masks, hand sanitizer, and (mysteriously) toilet paper.

The German word is a compound: hamster refers to the animal, just like in English. Whether this is zoologically correct or not, the idea is that hamsters store food in their cheeks. This leads to the word hamster ("one who hamsters") being used in a more metaphoric sense for a hoarder. There's even a verb hamstern, "to hoard."

The -kaufen part means "to buy"; -kauf without the -en is "a purchase." So Hamsterkaufen is "hoarder-buying," or more literally and more colorfully "hamster-buying."

As I say, I normally concern myself with English words, so I'll make a proposal regarding hamsterkaufen/hamsterkauf: let's make it an English word. We could import the word as a calque, or loan-translation, and start talking about "hamster-buying" in English. I can see that: "Shelves cleared in hamster-buying sprees." Or heck, we could just import the word as is, why not. This is the proposal of the writer Hardy Graupner, who points out that we did that with words like dachshund ("badger-dog"), kindergarten ("children-garden"), and blitzkrieg ("lightning-war").

The longer this, er, hamster-buying continues, the more it feels like we'll want a word for it. So here's that nomination.

Origins. The other day I was editing a photo and wondered how crop came to mean "cut off." We also have a crop as in "crop of wheat"; are they related?

Yes, in a roundabout way. A version of crop appears in a bunch of old Germanic languages with a sense of "swelling, protuberance." That seems to be where we got crop as in the crop of a bird. In English, this sense also came to be applied to the top ("rounded head") of a plant. From there, it developed into the familiar sense of produce harvested from a field.

The verb crop seems to have come from the term for plants. The oldest recorded sense is the fairly general "cut the top [i.e., the crop] off." A slightly specialized sense pertains to animals eating (for example, a sheep that crops the grass). Other cut-related senses are to crop the hair of an animal or person, or the ears (!) of an animal like a dog.

Crop is also used in minerology and geology in a "top" sense to refer to a rock stratum that comes to the surface (to the top). That's where we get crop up. Another evolution is crop to mean "handle," as in a riding crop, which refers to the "top" of the whip (as opposed to the lash).

In a particularly weird turn, or so the OED speculates, the Germanic word crop was adopted into French and Italian. In French it became groupe, which we borrowed back as group for a collection of things. They do qualify this chain with "probably," so we can't be sure. But it sure is a lot of juice out of that original sense of crop as "protuberance."

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  09:28 AM

What do you call it when a father babysits his own kids? We actually have a word for that in English: parenting. But it's not unheard of for men's parenting efforts—any effort whatsoever—to be celebrated. And this type of admiration is the subject of today's word: dadulation.

Dadulation is when a man earns praise for performing "even the most basic caretaking responsibilities for their children," as one definition has it. It's a portmanteau, of course (dad+adulation) that works on the same principle as the many man- words that have emerged recently, like mansplaining and manspreading.

It also captures an inflection point in attitudes toward men's family responsibilities. When I was a kid (I'm old), fathers had a role in child-rearing, but it was largely in teaching children about what at the time would have been considered traditional roles: you learned how to throw and how to drive from your dad, for example[1]. These days many men participate fully in parental duties[2], but older attitudes linger, and men often do get kudos for performing parenting tasks that women mostly don't get credit for. Thus dadulation, which mocks this continuing divide in attitudes about parental responsibilities.

I got this word from Friend Tod, who pointed me to the WaPo article where it was defined. The article has a dozen similar blended terms like male pattern blandness, femwork, and redudedant.

Origins. In Seattle these days, schools are closed, Costco is cleaned out, and tech workers have been told to work from home. The coronavirus is engendering what some people call "an abundance of caution." There's another word that might also apply, and I started wondering where we got it: panic.

And a surprising origin it is. We got the word from French, as we so often do, but it goes back to Greek. And in Greek, it was an eponym, based on the god named Pan (!).

As the OED explains, the Greeks thought that Pan hung out in forests and caves, on mountains, and in other "lonely places." Suppose that you, too, are hanging out in such a place and you hear some strange noises. You might find yourself feeling fear at the noises, which the Greeks might have referred to as panikon deima, "fear caused by Pan." The full expression is attested in French (terreur Panice in the 1500s). But soon enough the latter part of the term rubbed away and by the 1600s the English were writing about "That great Army..were put into that pannick."

It will be interesting to see how long the current Pan-ic fear lasts. Hopefully all that abundance of caution will keep things under control and we return to normalcy soon.

[1] Such was the stereotype. Me, I learned to drive from my girlfriend's mother.

[2] I realize that studies suggest that duties are rarely divided equally between parents, with women still performing the bulk of parenting tasks.

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  06:57 AM

As the old joke goes, why should you never believe a minotaur? Because half of everything they say is bull. HAHA. Which brings us to this week's new-to-me word: therianthrope. A therianthrope is a creature that combines features of an animal with features of a human. The term comes from Greek: therion ("wild animal") + anthropos ("human being").

From the basic premise, we get three slightly distinct meanings. One meaning describes something that's a half-and-half mix. The minotaur is one example, as are satyrs (man+goat[1]), centaurs (human+horse), and merpersons (human+fish). Not to mention the Egyptian gods Meretseger (woman+snake), Bastet (cat+woman), and Taweret (hippo+woman).

A different sense of therianthrope is a creature that can shift between a human and animal shape—something that "exhibits its animal and human aspects serially rather than simultaneously," as Michael Quinion put it. A part-time animal, as it were. This type of therianthrope is represented by werewolves, vampires, selkies, and a variety of other creatures from world mythology.[2]

Finally, you'll find therianthrope (or just therian) used to refer to a person who "experiences being and identifies as a non-human animal on an integral, personal level," as the Therian-Guide.com site defines it. This is in the constellation of otherkin culture.

I ran across this word back in December when reading about the discovery of some cave paintings that seem to show therianthropic images. The paintings are believed to be about 45,000 years old, which suggest that people in 43,000 B.C. probably had religious or myth-ious beliefs, able to imagine creatures that did not exist. An exciting find!

For origins today I have an unexpected pair. Let's start with achieve, which is "to complete, accomplish." This came to us from old French, where it was a chef—"to (a) head," as in bring to a head. As you'd guess, the -chieve part is the same root that has given us many "head" words: chef, chief, captain, cap, and decapitate, to name only some obvious cousins. (The word head is ultimately from the same root.)

A surprise to me was that achieve is related to the Spanish verb acabar, which means "to finish, complete." (La fiesta se acabó, "The party came to an end.") When I see achieve and acabar side by side, the relationship seems a lot more obvious.

Another surprise was that achieve has a relative I'd never recognized: mischief. The word mischief is a noun for us today, meaning "misfortune," but you can see that it's the same construct: mis-("bad") + -chief ("head, outcome"). And there used to be a verb mischief meaning "to do harm," although that sense is rare after the 1600s.

While reading about this, I also learned that mischief has softened considerably since its introduction into English. These days it has a playful air to it, enough so that it's used a lot in brand names. But it originally was a bad condition indeed, as we see in the book of Deuteronomy: "I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them." That's a kind of mischief I'd rather not see.

[1] I think only man+goat, not woman+goat?

[2] We're currently watching The Outsider on HBO, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and it seems that a therianthrope might be playing a role.

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  10:12 AM

Everyone knows what distress is: "great pain, anxiety; acute suffering," to quote Dictionary.com's definition. Distress is bad, of course. Just like stress is bad, right? And stress appears to be part of distress, as you can see. (But hold that thought.)

At a work meeting not long ago, I learned about a different kind of -stress: eustress. Eustress is a good kind of stress—"having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being," this time from Merriam-Webster. It is, seemingly paradoxically, a positive stress.

Eustress can occur when something is challenging but not impossible. It results not in pain, anxiety, or suffering, but in a sense of fulfillment. An important distinction between distress and eustress is that it's in the eye, so to speak, of the beholder. Something that makes me curl up in the corner might make you roll up your sleeves and look forward to an interesting day.

The word eustress has apparently been around since 1975 (but it still isn't in every dictionary). Aside from the definition, what interested me was the structure of the word. It looks like someone broke apart dis+stress, and then whacked eu- (Greek for "good") onto the -stress part to create "good"+"stress."

But if you back up a sec and look at distress, it doesn't entirely make sense to break -stress off from that word and treat it as, well, stress. If you do, you're left with a prefix di- ("two") or possibly dis- ("un," or "de" as in disadvantage or disallow). How do di- or dis- work with stress?

It turns out that we didn't build up distress by combining di(s)- and -stress. We inherited distress as a unit from French. The term comes from Latin dis- ("apart") and the stringere ("squeeze"). But even as far back as the Middle Ages, the dis- part lost its sense and as the OED puts it, "became merely intensive." So distress is getting squoze hard. In fact, the word stress might in part be a shortened form of distress.

But no matter. However we cut up distress, the word eustress makes a neat pairing.

Ok, origins for real. In my random reading this week, I stumbled across the origins of the word gossip.

To set the stage, in Old English, the word gossip was godsibb(e). As you can see, the go- part in today's word was god in Old English, and just like it says, it was the word for god. The -sip part (-sibb(e) in Old English) is the same word part that we see in sibling, referring to a relative.

The word evolved in stages. The word godsibb or godsibbe originally meant something like "god parent." From this explicitly familial sense, the word was extended to mean a friend or neighbor. This sense narrowed somewhat to mean a woman. This sense was common in Elizabethan times, and as late as 1855, "my mother's gossip" referred to her female friend.

From this sense of referring to a person, it made a leap and started referring to conversation among those friends, especially talking "about persons or social incidents." And that brings us today, where the "conversation" sense is the primary one.

This sib-/-sip connection surprised and delighted me. (Remember also the word nibling from last year.) It's fun not only when we have a word that goes back straight to Old English, but one that carries around its etymology out in the open, so to speak.

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  07:48 AM

I was recently reading one of my Christmas books, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, when I ran across this passage about how commercial bread-baking in the 1920s and 1930s was promoted as a scientific and modern improvement over home-baked bread:

Bakers' smug paternalism might have infuriated the ranks of middle-class women championing food reforms and social improvement—except that they were just as ensorcelled as the bakers.

I had to stop reading and look up ensorcelled. A great word, ensorcell: "to betwitch." From the French ensorceler, which has the same root as sorcerer.

Then shortly thereafter the editor Sarah Bronson used the word in a tweet. How can I run across the same obscure word twice in such a short time? Is it just the frequency illusion?

And obscure it is. Although the word ensorcell has been in English since at least the 1500s, it shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English a mere 27 times—and 13 of those mentions are in a single book. (It shows up only as ensorcelled, past tense, with zero hits for ensorcell or ensorcells, present-tense forms.)

Update: There is a spelling variant with one L, ensorcel, past tense ensorceled, which adds another 13 COCA hits. The dictionaries I was looking at seem to prefer the double L variant, and it doesn't seem to be a British/American difference. Dunno.

The other mentions in the COCA search results suggest to me why I don't run across this work more often, namely, it shows up primarily in fantasy and sci-fi writing. Clearly, if I read more widely in those genres, I would expand my vocabulary with useful terms like ensorcelled.

On the word-origins front, I was thinking about a word that's been much in the news lately: virus. Since starting my casual work with Latin, I've been looking at words through that lens. This one looked promising: vir means "man"! The -us ending is second declension! Does virus have something to do with "human," maybe?

Yeah, no. Well, yeah, it's from Latin, but no, it doesn't have anything to do with vir, "man." Our word virus comes more or less directly from the Latin word vīrus, which meant "poisonous secretion" or "venom."[1]

As is true for some other words (for example, germ), our medical sense of the word is the later and metaphoric sense. The Romans applied the word vīrus to poisons and other substances that had generally unpleasant sensory qualities—"acrid juice," as the OED says. That meaning made it into English, and there are cites from about 1600 to the 20th century in which virus referred to snake or insect venom. ("I note that there is a quite a demand for snake virus," 1899) A weird flex is that vīrus was also used sometimes to refer to semen.

The term has been used in medicine since the 15th century, albeit in the original and general sense of "poison." For example, Edward Jenner referred to "cow-pox virus" in 1798 when he was writing about his work with inoculations.

The modern medical sense developed in the late 1800s to refer to an infectious agent that was so small that it could pass through a filter that blocked bacteria—people understood that there was a thing there that caused disease, but the microscope technology of the time couldn't resolve just what it was. The first visual evidence of viruses had to wait till 1931 and the use of electron microscope.

These days we have computer viruses, which take the "infectious agent" metaphor into the digital realm. And something can go viral if it spreads in the manner of a swiftly-moving disease. And to complete the circle, I suppose, we could say that much of what we encounter this way is acrid-tasting and possibly even poisonous. haha.

[1] Something I'm not yet used to in my modest Latin studies is paying attention to whether vowels are long or short. The Romans didn't mark long vowels (I guess?), but the difference between a short and long vowel can distinguish a pair of words (I guess?).

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