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.

Read more ...

Blog Search

(Supports AND)

Google Ads


Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

See this post for info on full versus truncated feeds.


Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.

Richard Feynman


<February 2016>




Email me

Blog Statistics

First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 2/7/2016

Posts - 2358
Comments - 2526
Hits - 1,814,060

Entries/day - 0.51
Comments/entry - 1.07
Hits/day - 394

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:40 AM Pacific

  11:14 AM

Some years back, a friend of mine emailed me something he'd seen but couldn't make sense of:

We uber-ed over to Daniel and Sharon’s place [...]

Now, of course, this is perfectly clear, but at the time (2013) Uber-the-company as still relatively new, and verbing the company name was new to both of us. (Tho clearly it was in common use among actual Uber customers.)

Anyway, today I was reading the "Shouts & Murmurs" column in the latest issue of The New Yorker when I ran across this:

12:00 P.M. Lunch break. Seamless some soup and try to look extra sick when it arrives, so the delivery person doesn’t think you’re just lazy.

It took me a couple of runs at this sentence to realize that Seamless was intended as a verb. But based on the previous experience, I had a hunch and looked it up. Sure enough, Seamless is a company that delivers food.

I'm no hipper about these companies than I was before (well, I do buy things from Amazon and I watch Netflix[1]), but at least I now know to assume that when someone uses some odd verb, there's some chance that they're just weirding language.

[1] Tho I will observe when I say I want to Netflix and chill, I'm afraid that it generally means that I want to, you know, watch Netflix. And chill.



  12:07 AM

It's February and it's the week that the primaries start in the US for the presidential election, omg. As it happens, both of these things are applicable for this week's Friday words.

Here's a term I just ran across that pertains to the election season: Overton window. This refers to a range of acceptable notions in political discourse. Suppose that one extreme is no government at all, and the other extreme is a totalitarian government. The Overton window describes the area in the middle where the ideas lie about how much government is acceptable to most people. Here's the picture on Wikipedia that illustrates the Overton window:

I ran across this term in an article that talks about how both sides have been moving the Overton window. For example, the left has brought gay marriage, once unthinkable, into the Overton window. On the right, ideas like banning immigration for Muslims have become acceptable political discourse. Anyway, it's an interesting term for thinking about political science.

And now February. I imagine that a lot of people know who's to blame for the names of many of our months: them Romans. January is for Janus, the two-faced god. July is modestly named for Julius (Caesar), August for Augustus. Sept-, Oct-, Nov-, and Dec- are -embers based on numbers: 7, 8, 9, and 10.

But whence February? The lexicographer Katherine Barber has a surprising (to me) explanation: februa refers to purification; February was a month of purification. Even more surprisingly, Barber says "It's possible the word derived ultimately from the same Indo-European root word that gave Greek its word for sulphur, which was used in purificatory rites." (She has other interesting February Naming Facts, so go read the rest of her post.)

One word origin that isn't surprising at all is the term leap year, which we'll enjoy again this year. Perhaps there will be terms not yet known to me that refer to February 29.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  11:46 AM

Happy Friday, again! Time for another exciting installment of new-to-me words and unexpected-to-me word origins.

This week's new-to-me word is nocebo effect, which is sort of the opposite of the placebo effect. In the nocebo effect, people experience negative outcomes from treatments that are benign. As described on the FiveThirtyEight site, monosodium glutamate (MSG), the food additive, might have gotten a bad rap this way. Many people report experiencing an "MSG effect," but there's some evidence that this could be the power of suggestion; repeated studies don’t seem to be able to provide evidence for this effect. So: nocebo. Whatever the science, it's a great word.

On to unexpected etymology. Give a moment's thought to where the word magnet comes from. From the character Magneto in X-Men? No. Turns out that magnet is actually a toponymic term: the word comes ultimately from magnitis lithos, a Greek term meaning "Magnesian stone." Magnesia, who knew, is an area of Greece where the ancients found lodestones, which are naturally occurring magnets. Bonus: The name Magnesia is also the origin for the element name magnesium.

And speaking of entomology, Language Log had a piece the other day about where butterfly comes from. (See what I did there?) Possible spoiler: it might not be because a butterfly flies and is butter-colored. It's an interesting post, including a bit of a detour into Chinese (the author is a professor of Chinese at Penn). For a totally unexpected bit of etymology, there's a bit at the end that suggests a common root for lepidoptera ("scale-wing," the scientific name for the butterfly/moth genus), leprosy (a disease involving scaling/peeling), and leaf, which might also originate from a term referring to peel. Isn't etymology amazing, dang.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,

[1] |

  07:30 AM

Oh, boy, Friday words again. I'm going to do two new words today, since I have such a stack.

The playoff season in (American) football has brought me a term that's not new, but (as with all Friday words) new to me: bandwagon fan. This refers to a fan who shifts loyalty to a winning team when their own team has had a losing season. So, for example, we might expect in the next couple of weeks to discover a cohort of heretofore unknown Carolina Panthers fans. In an entry for the related term fair-weather fan, Urban Dictionary captures the sense of bandwagon clearly, and verbs it to boot:
fair-weather fan: A fan of a sports team who only shows support when the team is doing well. During hard times they usually bandwagon other teams.
Since loyalty to one's team is taken very seriously among sports fans, being a bandwagon fan is pretty much universally considered negative (example, example, example).

N.B. The fact that this term is new to me might in itself suggest a certain whiff of bandwagonness to my sports fandom. Draw your own conclusions.

Word #2: transcreation. This is (I guess) a portmanteau of translation+creation; it refers to the process not of translating a term, but of recreating it in another language, with the appropriate flavor for that language. "Creative translation" was one definition I found. I gather that the term is pretty well known in marketing and branding circles. Imagine having the job of translating the McDonald's slogan "I'm lovin' it." Not only does it use to love in that sort of general sense of liking that we have in English, but it's explicitly casual, with that final -in'. It seems unlikely that you can use any translation of the English words in the slogan to render the same idea in, dunno, Japanese or Arabic or Russian.

Anyway, not being in branding or marketing, I only recently ran across it in my own field (technical writing). It's not surprising to me that I don't see this term in my work, since you don't tend to think of "creative translation" when it comes to documentation for programmers.

This week's unexpected etymology is for the word marmalade. Marmalade is of course a jelly-like thing made with citrus peel. What surprised me was the fruit that marmalade was originally made from: quince. We got the word from Portuguese, where marmel- goes back a long way (pre-1000 CE) to refer to quinces. The mar- part is in turn probably related to mel-, a Latin stem referring to honey (compare mellifluous in English and miel for "honey" in Spanish).

This all was particularly interesting to me because I had a fondness in my youth for a Mexican confection called ate de membrillo, or in English, quince paste or quince cheese. This is made simply of quince (which is sour) boiled down with sugar, then formed into a loaf. Here's a picture:

This stuff is awesome, by the way, assuming you like sweet stuff. You can just eat is out of hand, although it's sticky. (Not a problem for me when I was young.) People also put it on bread and often combine it with cheese.

Until I ran across a discussion of marmalade this week in the book The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky, I would never have made the connection between marmalade and membrillo. I'm not sure what I would have imagined to be the source of the word marmalade, but that was definitely not it.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  09:35 AM

Friday again! They come around so fast, innit. I've got quite a few new-to-me terms now, so it's getting hard to pick just one. But this week I'll go with the term that amused me the most: the Dobler-Dahmer Theory, which states something important about how you interpret the actions of others. The theory was articulated (well, named) in 2013 on the TV show How I Met Your Mother. Here's a formulation (video):
If both people are into each other, a big romantic gesture works, like Lloyd Dobler holding up the boombox outside Diane Cort's window in Say Anything. But if one person isn't into the other, the same gesture comes off serial-killer crazy, or … Dahmer.
And here's Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything:

Dahmer, of course, refers to Jeffery Dahmer, a convicted serial killer. (I'll leave it to you to research why he's particularly notorious.)

For the most part, the references I find tie directly back to the TV show episode, so it feels like the term hasn't broken out on its own yet. A post on the Glamour blog, after reviewing where the term originated, asks a question that comes the nearest I've found to a generic usage: "Ever have a Dobler? Or a Dahmer?" It's possible that Dobler-Dahmer is just too tied to pop culture to be able to become a standalone term. And even then, I suspect that it would only apply in romantic contexts, tho it seems to me that Dobler-Dahmer captures a phenomenon that applies to many interactions, not just romantic ones.

Fun fact: there's a band named The Lloyd Dobler Effect.

For this week's unexpected etymology, we have a couple of words from the navy. The first is head, in the sense of bathroom. This came up in a conversation in which we were talking about the euphemism treadmill, in which a euphemism takes on the taboo nature of the term it replaces. The canonical example is toilet, which began as a euphemism but is now no longer said in politest society (in the US, anyway).

Anyway, in the navy they say head for bathroom. Wherefore? We speculated that head seemed to represent the wrong end of things in a variety of ways. (Hold that thought.) But that's because we apparently don't know our ship-building history: the, um, facilities in olde-tyme ships were indeed at the bow of the ship—the front, aka at the head of the boat, where sailors did their business to the side of the bowsprit. (No accommodations for ladies were required, since women were not allowed on ships.) The OED has the term in this direct sense of an on-board bathroom going back to 1712, and as a generic term for bathroom going back to the 1920s.

You might be wondering: while we were discussing ships and bathrooms and how head seemed like the wrong end, did anyone make a joke about the poop deck? I forget, and yes, I'm going there. It's innocent enough, tho: this came from a French word for the stern of a boat, which is where you'll find the poop deck. Well, where you used to in the age of sail … as I have very recently learned, the mechanisms and functionality that the poop desk was designed to accommodate—like the wheel—are now on the ship's bridge. Which might be another word whose origins we could speculate about, but enough for today.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  09:04 AM

I was reading a thread on a computer forum, and someone asked this question:
Your password should contain at least 6 characters

If you're going to require it; don't say "should", say "must".
This set off an interesting discussion on the semantics of should in this context. I've written about this before, so I was interested to hear how people interpreted the example.

Here is a sampling of the more serious posts on the thread:

From the requirements document: "The password entered by the user should be rejected if it does not contain at least six characters." If I received that requirement from my boss, I would make darn sure that the password is rejected. I don't think I would randomly reject some and not others.

The software is being polite; it's anticipating users who do not like being told what to do.

If it says "should" then it is not optional, like in "could". You should be "this tall" to ride this ride.

A number of people pulled out dictionary definitions (Wikitionary, heh). And one person cited RFC 2119 ("Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels"), which states:

MUST This word, or the terms "REQUIRED" or "SHALL", mean that the definition is an absolute requirement of the specification.

SHOULD This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.

All of which goes to the original poster's point—the message was ambiguous and should (ha) have been written with must. For those of us who don't keep a mental catalog of RFC recommendations, the more accessible Microsoft style guide says:

Use should only to describe a user action that is recommended, but optional. Use must only to describe a user action that is required.

In documentation, in error messages, in any context where the message needs to be clear and you aren't there to help the reader understand, avoid should when you mean must.

[categories]   , , ,


  02:31 PM

I thought maybe others would enjoy a few of the terms that came across my radar today during various linguistics presentations. I know what a few of them mean.

Double aux inversion
Presentation dative
Pragmatic convergence
Phonetic iconicity
Forced choice elicitation
Paroxytone verbs
Teleological modal
Socioindexical meanings
Sequential multilingual

Bonus phrase from today:

"In terms of operationalizing my proposal ..."



  07:50 PM

Time again for Friday words. I'm a little late today because I'm attending the Linguistics Society of America conference, where I am cramming my head full of linguistical-type Knowledge. The sessions are all firehoses, peppered with terms like coarticulation, pre-oral, copy raising, mirative, and clitic reflexive. Interesting activity of the day: I participated in a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, organized by the endlessly energetic Gretchen McCulloch. And talked to a series of people are all so smart about language, omg. It's a little frightening.

Anyway. The word this week is Mary Sue, which is not a new term, just new to me, because it's from the world of fan fiction (fanfic), a universe I have only the slightest acquaintance with/of. People who know this world know all about this word, I suppose, so if that's you, go ahead and skip this part. A Mary Sue was originally a character in fan fiction who is young but preternaturally skilled, named after a character of that name who appeared in some Star Trek fanfic back in 1973. These days, it seems that it can also refer to such a character that represents "wish fulfillment" (not my term) for the fanfic author. You can read more here and here. The male analog is a Marty Stu or Gary Stu. Creating a Mary Sue character is generally considered an amateur move, in spite of the fact that's it's practically a trope of a lot of manly-men movies. FWIW, the term seems to be in news again in discussions of the character of Rey in the new Star Wars movie.

For this week's unexpected etymology, consider the word cult. Spend a few moments contemplating where this word might have come from. Then consider that cult appears as part of the word agriculture, and that this not coincidence.

Cult came via French into English from the Latin word cultus. From our friend the OED:
Classical Latin cultus has a wide range of senses, including: cultivation, tilling, training or education, personal care and maintenance, style of dress or ornament, adornment, stylistic elegance, mode or standard of living, state of being refined, devotion, loyalty, respect.
The religious sense of cult therefore derives from the senses of devotion and loyalty, whereas agriculture got its cult from the sense of tilling, i.e., cultivation. (The agri- part comes from the Latin word for field, agre, which is related to acre.)

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  09:08 AM

Friday words! The new(-to-me) word for this week concerns gendered architecture. I am writing this while sitting in my so-called man cave, a "male retreat or sanctuary in a home, such as a specially equipped garage, spare bedroom, media room, den, or basement.[1]" (Wikipedia) And what do we have for the ladies, Bob? A she shed, which is "somewhere to retreat for some solitude, to create or grow, to write or paint, or just to enjoy the view," per one definition I found and which I won't take personal responsibility for.

This term seems pretty new; the references I find for it are all from 2015, although admittedly I haven't tried too hard to antedate it. As an aside, if there's a term for when a woman uses the garage or den as a retreat, I haven't yet run across it. At our house, the analog for my man cave is my wife's "woman cave," which has parallelism but lacks the lovely alliteration of the standalone building.

For this week's unexpected etymology we turn to sports, and specifically to the sport in which a ball is kicked into a goal. In English-speaking countries outside North America, this is known as football. Indeed, it's even called fútbol in Spanish. In the US, we call it soccer. What the heck?

Two phenomena are at work here: shortening a word, and then adding -er to the end. This morphological fun actually has a name: the Oxford "-er". It's responsible for terms like rugger for Rugby [football], brekkers for breakfast, and Beckers as a nickname for the footballer David Beckham.

I guess I should note that this is a feature of British English; we don't do this (much?) in the US.

So, um … soccer? A formal name for the game is Association football, which helps distinguish it from other football-y games like Rugby football (aka rugby) and, well, American football (aka football, haha). Somehow Association was shortened to soccer, which is not only a slightly weird shortening (association > assoc > soc), but in the process it picked up a hard K sound. (An alternative early spelling was socker.) But weird or not, that's where the word came from.

A mystery to me is how this term wended its way from the playing fields of Oxford to the US, and why soccer is dominant name for the sport in North America (and nowhere else?). More research is indicated.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] "Specially equipped" in my case consists of an excessive number of computer screens and a Couch Suitable for Napping.

[categories]   ,


  01:38 PM

It's time again for Friday words, but it's also Christmas, hey. In the list of new (to me) terms I've encountered recently, none seem particularly festive, so instead I'll just have a couple of seasonal etymological nuggets.

The first is carol: have you ever wondered why Christmas songs, and pretty much only Christmas songs, have a ladyname? Haha. We get this word via French, where carole refers to a dance or celebration. In English, the progression seems to be that we imported carol to mean a ring dance or the "merry-making of which such dances formed a leading feature" (OED). This extended to the music that accompanied such dances, but eventually narrowed in modern English to just religious, and specifically Christmas, songs.

The other term for today is mistletoe. Seriously: toe? Turns out the word is more or less straightforward, as long as you happen to speak Old English. It's a compound: mistle+toe, and it has cognates in most (all?) the Germanic languages. The mistle part refers to the plant. There's speculation that mistle might ultimately derive from the same root as mix (the berries are dispersed in, that is, mixed with bird droppings) or mash (the berries are sticky). The -toe part, which I think we can agree is the funner end of the compound, was originally -tan, which meant twig. Here's the great part: as far back as Old English, English speakers confused the -tan in mistiltan with tān, the plural of , meaning toe. No doubt there were thundering blog posts about how ðos Kids to-day can't speak Anglo-Saxon properly.

Speaking of Christmas-related words, I must commend to you the series that the lexicographer Katherine Barber has done in which she examines the sometimes surprising words in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Like, those "calling birds"? Not because they call. And why it's ok to refer to the Virgin Mary as a "bird." Here's the link:

12 Days of Wordlady: Partridge

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,