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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Without variables, programs would not be very interesting.

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 8/26/2016

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Posts - 2394
Comments - 2540
Hits - 1,874,761

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Entries/day - 0.50
Comments/entry - 1.06
Hits/day - 390

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 1:03 AM Pacific


  10:28 PM

It's Friday again (kind of barely), meaning it's time for another batch o' words. I must note that I have been enjoying these later days of summer—not just because of the weather (that too, of course), but because we're seeing the last days before school buses and student-bearing minivans again clog the streets. However: words!

The first new-to-me word this week is sickboating. This term refers to an attempt among certain politicians or partisan media commentators to suggest that Hillary Clinton is ill in some way—epilepsy, dementia, something. I got this term from an article in Esquire. Almost all of the references I can find point back to this article, although the article itself uses the term without quotation marks. The whole story started only a few weeks ago, so perhaps this really is a brand-new term.

Politics aside, the term is linguistically interesting in a couple of ways. It alludes to swiftboating, a term invented during the 2004 American presidential-election season to refer to the smear campaign mounted against John Kerry, who had served in the US Navy on a so-called Swift Boat, a fact he touted as part of his campaign. During the election season, Kerry was attacked via an orchestrated effort (supposedly by other Swift Boat veterans) that sought to discredit Kerry's service. This type of political smearing quickly became known as swiftboating.

In sickboating, we see boating breaking further away from its original sense of the actual boat and taking on more clearly the semantics of "smear campaign." This is reminiscent of the way that gate become unmoored from Watergate (the name of a hotel) to become a generic suffix meaning "scandal." With boating serving as a particle for "smear campaign," we're now free to add words to the front of it to suggest the nature of that campaign. In this case, it's Clinton's supposed illness, hence sick. It would be not surprising at all to see other compounds along these lines.

Full disclosure: There might already be such compounds. I was mostly interested in sickboating this week as a term new to me.

For etymological fun this week I have the word code. Recently I was reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. He writes about DNA as a code, and at one point he says "The word code comes from caudex--the pith of the tree that was used to scratch out early manuscripts." So a code—something encoded—derives from a word for tree pith?

The sequence of code < codex < caudex is solid. What's not entirely clear is Mukherjee's reference to pith and "scratching out" manuscripts. Caudex does refer to a tree trunk (per the OED). In my reading, pith is the soft part of a plant's core, whereas it sounds like early books were wooden tablets covered with wax upon which people scratched writing. So I'm a bit mystified by the pith part, but am otherwise happy to learn that code refers a tree trunk. Whodathunk.


Maya codex

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  12:56 PM

Friday words! Only today they happen to be on a Saturday. That's how it goes sometimes.

For this week's new-to-me word, I have wind throb, which I learned just a few days ago from an article (paywall) in the Wall Street Journal. This refers to the "wub-wub-wub" noise that happens when you open only one window while driving fast in a car. The more technical name for this phenomenon is Helmholtz resonance, but good luck getting far with that term at your next dinner party.

Fun fact: per the article (and a slew of others that appeared this week), wind throb is more of a problem with latter-day cars because they are designed to be aerodynamically tight. Certainly I've noticed that it's more of a problem with my 2015 Maserati than with my 1973 Dodge Dart. (Yeah, right.)

For surprising etymology this week I have two! The first is the word geyser, referring to a hot spring that sends up a plume of water. Give a moment of thought to the word, and you'll observe, I believe, that its meaning doesn't seem to be obvious, nor does it have cognates. That's because geyser has an unusual source (haha): it comes to English from modern(-ish) Icelandic (!), not exactly a historically rich source for English vocabulary. Geysir is the name of a particular geyser in Iceland; the name derives from an Icelandic word meaning "to gush." Our general term in English comes from the name of this specific geyser in Iceland. John Kelly has a great writeup of all this on Mashed Radish, a site well worth exploring for more fun with everyday etymology.

The other surprising etymology this week is for the word cemetery. On Twitter I follow Haggard Hawks Words, where they post unusual and obscure words. They recently created a words quiz, from which I learned that cemetery comes from the Greek word koimetarion, which means "a sleeping place." R.I.P. indeed.

Here are a couple of bonus etymologies this week, both inspired by political goings-on:
  • Katherine Barber discussed the word nostalgia.

  • Nancy Friedman addressed a term much in the news recently: sarcasm.
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  05:44 PM

As we know, F is for Friday, and also for, um, filology. Wait, no, that's philology. Whatever, let's look at some new-to-Mike words.

The first new-to-me word is drunkorexia, which refers to "behaviors such as skipping meals or exercising heavily to offset calories from a heavy night of drinking, or to pump up alcohol's buzz," according to the page on the NBC website where I saw this. I looked for other sources, and many of them also have this dual definition, where avoiding eating is done either to offset the calories in alcohol or to enhance the effects of drinking. Anyway, I find cites going back at least to 2010. Apparently I'm not in college anymore, or I probably would have known this term.

A second new-to-me term this week is Liebig's Law. This is actually quite old, and I knew of the concept, which is also sometimes referred to as the law of the minimum. But I didn't know there was a name for this. (Of course there is, duh.) Liebig's Law states that the expansion of a system is capped by the availability of the scarcest critical ingredient. For example, on a broad scale, life on earth cannot expand indefinitely; at some point when you chemically build living systems, you'll run out of a critical ingredient. (If I remember right, that's phosphorous, but don't quote me on that.)

The same principle applies in more trivial contexts as well. If you need to make cookies for your kid's potluck at school, the number of cookies you can make is limited by the ingredient you run out of first, whether that's flour, sugar, chocolate chips, or whatever. (Assuming the store's closed, of course.)

Ok, etymology. I got to wondering recently about the -ade in lemonade. This is a productive suffix we can use for "drink made from": limeade, orangeade, pineappleade, pom-ade (from pomegranate). But why can we do this—where did -ade come from?

We seem to have gotten lemonade as a unit from French, where the suffix has long been used to indicate "action or product of an action" to cite Douglas Harper. As such, lemonade shares this suffix with some pretty interesting words: grenade, crusade, and comrade, to name three. (This comes from Latin, which is why you'll find words with similar constructions in Spanish and Italian.)

Ah! But observe that after borrowing lemonade into English, we naturalized the -ade suffix and use it in our own and much narrower way. You can't create arbitrary words meaning "product of" in English by just whacking -ade onto the end of another word. But if you've got some fruit around, you can make yourself a refreshing beverage, both to drink and to say.

Homework: be ready to discuss whether -ade is a so-called cranberry morpheme.

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  10:57 AM

Friday again! I had to skip last week because I took a wee trip to Canadia to drop my bride at the Vancouver (BC) airport.[1] So today I'm just going to have to have to compensate with Extra Words.

The first new-to-me term this week (er, fortnight) is faxlore and a related term xeroxlore, which I got from the linguist Gretchen McCulloch (again). These refer to stuff—jokes, cartoons, funny stories, etc.—that are (were) distributed via fax machine and photocopiers, respectively. (I like this in the Wikipedia article: "compare samizdat in Soviet-bloc countries.") Obviously, these aren't yugely useful terms anymore, but I think the reason I seized on them was precisely that I am old enough to be able to remember faxlore and xeroxlore examples taped to colleagues' office doors or pinned to cubicles, and can remember the smeary look of a cartoon that had been copied from a copy of a copy. And! I lived through the transition when the exact same material stopped being sent around in hardcopy, so to speak, and started circulating as emails. Exact same.


Prototypical faxlore cartoon

Number 2 new-to-me word this week (er, fortnight) is depave. The literal meaning of this word is obvious: to remove concrete and asphalt. But I was interested in its use as the name of a movement that promotes this practice both for aesthetic reasons and for the practical benefit that it helps alleviate problems with runoff and flooding. The term made me think of the kind-of similar term daylighting to refer to uncovering streams and creeks that had been buried by urban development.


Busily depaving

Spring and summer in Seattle were (are) perfect this year, and our fruit trees have produced vast quantities of blueberries, apples, and pears. This has led me to this week's surprising-to-me etymology: bumper crop, where bumper means "abundant." In this collocation, bumper is used an adjective, which is pretty rare. (In fact, it's possible (?) that bumper crop is what someone has referred to as a stormy petrel, a phrase in which one of the terms—here, bumper—doesn't appear without the other one. Only CROPS can be BUMPER, to phrase it their way.)

Anyway, how did bumper come to mean "abundant"? Well, bumper is also an old (obsolete?) noun referring to something unusually large ("Cf. whopper," sayeth the OED), and to a vessel filled to the brim, where "vessel" here can even mean a crowded theater. This sense of the noun goes back as far as the 1600s. A related verb to bumper means "to fill up." But where did that sense come from? Well, bump might have originally meant to hit hard, which led to swelling or bulging, which led to the sense of fullness. And if I try to eat all of this fruit, I, too, shall experience a sense of fullness.

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[1] That might seem weird, but Seattle-type folks know that when heading to Europe, flying out of Vancouver can be substantially cheaper. Border crossings, such an experience!

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  10:49 AM

Hey, it's Friday again. So soon! Fortunately, we have the consolation of words.

Today's new-to-me term is conformist distinction. I got this from a FiveThirtyEight podcast in which Tom Vanderbilt was discussing his new book on taste, You May Also Like. In the podcast, Vanderbilt was discussing "tokens of identity" by which we project ourselves, and the dual desire to fit in but also have a unique style. This, he says, is conformist distinction, apparently a term from psychology. (I don't find hits on this using normal-Google, fwiw.) As he summarizes the term, "We all want to be like each other, more or less, but with a little twist."


Here we all are, showing our distinct style while conforming to hipster fashion

For unexpected etymology this week I have a term that's actually timely: candidate, as in someone running for office. This one came up when I was reading about Roman senatorial elections in Mary Beard's SPQR.

The tl;dr on the word is that it means "clothed in white," referring to the white togs (er, togas) that candidates wore. A little bit of delving, what the heck, tells us that candidate shares a root with candid (something that, arguably, candidates often are not), which means "white" and "shining" or "glistening." In fact, the first definitions in the OED (in historical order) for candid are "white"; "splendid"; "pure"; "impartial"; and "free from malice." It's only after that that we get to "frank." The shared root also appears in the word incendiary, where -cend- comes from a verbal form meaning "to cause to glow, shine." How about that.

I suppose that as an aside, I could note that toga comes from the Latin word for "to cover."

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  11:00 AM

Friday again?! I missed last Friday due to visitors visiting, but we're back today!

For today's new-to-me term, we have Null Island. This term isn't entirely new to me; I learned it when I started work at Tableau, but it came up again recently. Null Island is a jocular name for latitude 0, longitude 0—where the prime meridian meets the equator. This happens to be a point off the west coast of Africa:


The name Null Island alludes to the fact that in many systems, a null (missing data) is interpreted as a zero. In our software, for example, if you're creating a data visualization that involves maps, we use 0 for any missing latitude or longitude information. Thus you might be surprised to find in, say, your sales analysis that you appear to be making sales in the Gulf of Guinea. Whoops. (In our software, you can click a button to remove null values from your analysis.)

There's an article in Popular Mechanics that describes the issue. This article goes on to note that computer systems often have trouble with people whose last name is Null (and there are many such people). Someone has (of course) created a website for The Republic of Null Island. Buy the t-shirt!

For etymology, I got to wondering about cattle rustling. I was listening to a Planet Money podcast ("Cow Noir") and the reporter talked about "cattle theft, or as they call it in Oklahoma, cattle rustling." Uh … they call it that a lot of places besides Oklahoma, reporter person from New York. Anyway, why do "they" call it cattle rustling?

Rustle in the sense of what leaves do is "probably ultimately imitative," says the OED, eschewing the opportunity to use the word onomatopoeia. But how does this relate to stealing cattle? One theory is that it's a special case of "to move with quiet sound," meaning (I guess?) that when you steal cattle, you do it on the QT. Per the OED, this term goes back to the late 1880s. They don't specifically list it as a term of American origin, but I do note that Australians have other words for this, like raiding and duffing.

Definitions of rustling in this sense discuss it in terms of stealing livestock. I find a lot of examples of cattle rustling and some of horse rustling and sheep rustling. Interestingly, the OED lists an example where rustling is used with something decidedly not livestock-ish: "Saguaro cacti are popular with gardeners in the south-western US and have been rustled in large numbers in many areas." For what it's worth, this is an example from the BBC. He said very slightly snottily.

As a bonus etymology and in case you missed it, John McIntyre recently discussed the origin of the expression to have [no] truck with. Spoiler: nothing to do with vehicles.

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  03:04 PM

Always good to start a holiday weekend with a few words. (Holiday offer good in the U.S. and Canada only. Words offer good anywhere, anytime.)

The new-to-me word this week is ratting, a verbed form of RAT, which stands for "remote access Trojan." A RAT is software that's installed on a computer to let someone control it or spy on the user; ratting is the installation of such software. By ratting, a hacker can log your keystrokes (thus capturing passwords), use your camera, monitor your microphone, and engage in other nefarious activities. I got the term from an article in The New York Times that encourages people to cover their cameras when not using them. (I do this.)

I should note that RAT can also stand for "remote access tool," and that there are legitimate reasons for letting someone control your computer. For example, it might be a way for a tech-support engineer to help you resolve a problem. But in the more sinister version of RAT and ratting, the purpose is malicious.

The term RAT is not new; I see references at least as far back as 2002. It's even spawned variants—a particular RAT for Android phones is referred to as an AndroRAT. The verb ratting is somewhat newer, and the NYT article still has it in quotation marks to signal its newness. I find a reference to the verb in Wired from 2013.

Fun fact: ratting is a plot point in the TV series Mr. Robot.

On to unexpected etymology. We recently started watching Indian Summers, a miniseries/melodrama set in 1932 India. In one scene, a character asks the bartender for a club soda, which got me wondering. Was this perhaps an anachronism? And what club did club soda refer to?

The OED reveals that club soda (or Club Soda) started as a brand name of the company Cantrell & Cochrane in Dublin. The brand name goes back to 1877, so that's one question answered—it wasn't an anachronism in the TV program we were watching. The term has of course been genericized to refer to carbonated water generally.

My investigations did take an interesting turn, because another term for club soda is seltzer, at least in certain areas of the U.S. This is actually more interesting—seltzer comes from the town Nieder-Selters in Germany, which was a source of naturally occurring carbonated mineral water. Reading between the lines of the OED, I extrapolate that seltzer was probably Selterserwasser—Selters-water—at some point in its development, seltzer therefore being an adjectival form in German ("of Selters"), like hamburger and wiener. Anyway, seltzer water from Nieder-Selters was peddled as far back as the 1720s for its supposed health benefits. (A strategy still very much with us, hey.) The association between "seltzer" and carbonation and health was strong enough that it was the source of such brands as Bromo-Seltzer (1888) and Alka-Seltzer (1931). Anyway, this is what I learned from a short article on the CulinaryLore.com site.

I never did find out what club they meant when they named it Club Soda. If anyone should happen to know, I'm all ears.

Bonus etymology for Canada Day! The Canadian lexicographer Katherine Barber, a.k.a. Wordlady, examines the origin of poutine, that uniquely Canadian delicacy. (Haha: "Even my devotion to real-world research for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary could not persuade me to sample the Quebecois poutine.")

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  02:30 PM

Whoa, Friday again! And what a Friday to wake up to. (Linguistic angle: a trending hashtag on Twitter today is #regrexit.) But anyway, on to the words!

This week I'm inspired by a conversation at work about baseball, which yielded two new-to-me terms. The first is Mendoza Line. Mario Mendoza was a baseball player who played for various major-league teams in the 1970s and 1980s. One year when he played with the Seattle Mariners, he finished the season with a .198 average, well below the league average of .270 that year. In Mariner lore, it became a joke that someone who was hitting poorly might fall below the "Mendoza Line"—i.e., below .200. This term spread in baseball, especially via the ESPN show "SportsCenter."

The cool thing is that it's gone beyond baseball to refer generally to a threshold for mediocrity. For example, an article about movie revenues used it this way:
A sub-$2,000 per theater average means that it likely cost more for the studio to make and ship the physical print of the movie than their share of the box office. It is the Mendoza Line of box office numbers and regardless of the reviews, there's nearly no way to describe the film in positive terms.
There's more detail in the Wikipedia article, should you be curious.

In the same conversation I learned another term: Eephus pitch (or Ephus pitch). This is a "blooper pitch"—very slow (60 mph or slower) and with a high arc. Used judiciously, it can fool MLB batters, who are expecting much faster pitches. It's odd to watch; here's a video (0:27) of a 57-mph Eephus (and a confused batter):



And what about that name? It goes back to 1941, from a game in which the pitcher Rip Sewell threw a blooper. Here's the story:
After the game, Pirates manager Frankie Frisch demanded to know what, exactly, his pitcher had thrown to Wakefield. Maurice Van Robays, an outfielder with the club, replied that Sewell had thrown an eephus. When asked to elaborate, Van Robays said, "'Eephus ain't nothing, and that's a nothing pitch."
There's speculation that eephus is related to the Hebrew word efes, which means "nothing." I have no authority on this beyond the article where I read all this.

Onward to unexpected etymology. Today I have the word praline, the confection. I had no idea that this was an eponym, named after the Maréchal du Plessis-Praslin (a field marshal, I guess), whose cook is said to have invented this particular delight. (In the way of earlier eras, the actual inventor, a mere worker, remains anonymous.) We borrowed the word into English from French, and have cites that go back to the early 1700s. Anyway, there's your etymology; I'll leave for another discussion the question of how to pronounce the word.

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  09:07 AM

For new-to-me words this week I have a couple of acronyms/initialisms. The first is SLAPP: "strategic lawsuit against public participation." This is the practice of filing a lawsuit as a weapon, or as one definition puts it, "a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition." A colleague introduced me to this term a few weeks ago, and as happens (frequency illusion), I've seen it multiple times since then. Not a new term at all (legislatures have passed anti-SLAPP statutes), but a useful addition to the vocabulary for anyone who follows the sausage-making of local policy, gah.

Oh, I should mention that SLAPP feels like a backronym—an initialism whose constituent terms were selected in order to make a word. Someday I'll look into that.

Another relatively new-to-me (tho not new) initialism is HiPPO: "highest paid person's opinion." I heard this in a Planet Money podcast about A/B testing, in which they contrasted the value of empirical testing with the traditional decision-making process that's based on the gut feel of the most senior person in the process, i.e., on HiPPO. Not that I've ever been in a room, or reviewed a set of edits, where HiPPO was the basis for a decision. Nope, not me.

Surprising etymology this week takes us back to the Greeks and their admirable scholarly traditions. I was reading something by Diane Ackerman in which she used the word symposium, and just mentioned that this involved drinking. Hello, what? Yup, totally true: sym for "with," posium derived from a word meaning "drinking." A symposium is, in short, a drinking party.

Now, I have been to a few academic and professional conferences, and have attended some symposiums. Little did I know that the folks at the lectern were not, in fact, the actual symposium; that came afterward, at the open bar. Ha.

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  12:32 AM

In September 1991, my son stood in front of the Hartwell village school outside Northampton, England, clutching his Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. He was a "rising 5," ready to start the academic journey for our kids' generation.

This last Saturday we celebrated two graduations—one for my wife's older daughter, who just finished college, and one for her younger daughter, who just finished high school. In between, my kids went through high school and college (my son for two degrees), and my wife got a master's degree, and her kids went through high school and one through college, and my daughter-in-law finished not only college but medical school. (Me, my only matriculation was to take some extension classes.)

It occurred to me this weekend that for the first time since that day in 1991, no one in the immediate family is in school or is planning to be. After two and a half decades, our lives are no longer organized around the rhythm and protocols of school. We won't need to plan vacations around school breaks. There are no more report cards, or late-night homework sessions, or parent-teacher meetings, or term papers, or end-of-semester projects. No more emails and phone calls and texts from the school. No more permission slips. No more back-to-school shopping. No more standardized tests or SATs or GREs or board exams. No more college catalogs. No more tuition.

It's not as if there's no more school for anyone. My son now teaches high school, so of course his life is very much organized around school. And the likelihood is strong that the family's break from school won't last very long; the youngest has no college plans at the moment, but that's likely just to be a gap year (or years). And you never know which of us might decide that a little graduate school, or a little more, might be fun.

Still, at our house, Saturday marked the end of an era. For the time being, everyone is as educated as they want to be. It's been a vastly interesting (if sometimes stressful) enterprise. For now and for us, school is finally finished.

First day of school, September 1991

High school, June 2005

High school, June 2006

Bachelor of Music Performance, May 2010

Bachelor of Science, June 2010

Master of Science in Nursing, June 2011

High school, June 2012

Master in Teaching, June 2013

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, May 2016

Bachelor of Science, June 2016

High school, June 2016
 

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