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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Earn a reputation over time through excellent work. This is much more powerful in commanding attention than intellectual prowess.

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 1/20/2020

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Comments/entry - 1.01
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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 12:24 PM Pacific


  10:19 PM

A couple of months ago, I started learning Latin by using Duolingo, a language-learning app for your phone or browser. I sort of knew about Duolingo because my kids had been using it, one to work on Spanish and the other to work on Japanese. They'd shared with me some of the amusingly strange sentences that Duolingo produces, like "A cat does not play piano" in Japanese.

When I learned that Duolingo had a course in beta for Latin, I thought I'd give it a shot. I'd somehow managed to never study Latin, a language that's always seemed not only inherently interesting but useful for understanding Spanish and, of course, for grokking English word origins.

We pause briefly here for my favorite scene from the movie "Life of Brian":

As soon as I started Duolingo, I recognized the pedagogic technique they were following. When I was learning German in high school, we knew this as the audio-lingual method[1]. To quote one source, this "foster[s] naturalistic language acquisition in a classroom setting." The idea is that you learn (internalize) patterns of the language. They don't explain any grammar. Instead, the instruction teaches you short snippets that it then changes in very controlled ways so that you can follow along. Here's an example:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Vir domi est. (The man is at home)
Puer domi est. (The boy is at home)
Puella domi est. (The girl is at home)

The hope is that you internalize xxx domi est for "xxx is at home." Once they've drilled you on this for a while, they change the pattern:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

Now they've introduced the concept that xxx domi sunt == "xxx are at home". You spend a fair amount of time drilling these variations until you seem like you've mastered both domi sunt and the various plural forms.

At no point do they stop and say that est and sunt are verbs, and est is used for 3rd person singular, or any of that stuff that you get in traditional language learning. The "naturalistic" approach of ALM is supposed to follow how children learn a language (I guess?), since we all learned our mother tongue without a single grammar lesson.

How can you use this to learn a language from scratch? I'll show you in the next installment.

[1] When I got to college and was studying German, one of our professors who specialized in pedagogy was from Germany and had a strong German accent. Ever since those days I only hear this as "ze odd-yo ling-val messod."

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  11:43 AM

There is a class of person who looks to a foreign culture and sees something there that they like. A person might be a fan of all things French, which makes them a Francophile. A person who's enamored of British things is said to be an Anglophile. There is such a thing as an Americanophile.

These terms are more or less neutral. A more judgmental term for someone who obsesses about another culture is a wannabe. As Urban Dictionary tells us, a British wannabe is "A person who makes numerous attempts to seem British." (Take a quiz to see if you're a British wannabe.) A wannabe is less neutral than a -phile, in the sense of someone who might be trying maybe a little too hard to identify with the other culture.

Ok. The other day I ran across a term that's of this flavor, but not of this pattern: weeaboo. This is a definitely negative way to refer to a person who's obsessed with Japanese culture, and especially if they go beyond appreciation to thinking of Japanese culture as better than all others. As the anime expert Justin Sevakis explains, "Being into Japanese stuff by itself isn't the problem, it's the special hell that results when the Japanese fixation combines with obnoxiousness, immaturity and ignorance that makes a weeaboo." (He has plenty more on this topic in his post.)

As I say, weeaboo doesn't follow pattern of other culture-fan words. According to the Know Your Meme site, weeaboo originated as a sort of nonsense word in the absurdist ("offbeat") Perry Bible Fellowship comic. From there, it was adapted as a term to get around filters on 4chan that looked for derogatory terms (like wapanese).

Anyway, when I ran across weeaboo, it was in a context that had nothing to do with Japanese culture. I was reading a blog post about the Spartans, and the author said that the Greek poet Tyrtaeus, who was not a native Spartan, was a weeaboo for all things Spartan. (Which we explored earlier under the more predictable term of laconophilia.) This is the only instance I've found in which weeaboo was not specifically about Japan, but you can see how a word that's not attached to Japan (unlike Japanophile) could be applied to other cultures as well.

For origins today, a quick one. You probably know the word cultivar, referring to a strain of plants. I just found out that the word cultivar is a portmanteau, a combination of cultivated and variety. (Seems obvious once you know that.)

What I did not know, having only modest horticultural knowledge, is that there's a difference between a variety and a cultivar. A variety is just what it sounds like—a variant, and especially one that can reproduce its characteristics naturally. In contrast, cultivars don't produce seeds that are "true to type." Instead, they generally have to be propagated through cuttings or grafting or some other human-involved means.

And as if that isn't enough knowledge for one day, there are rules for how cultivars are named. This Iowa State University Extension site has the details:

The first letter of a cultivar is capitalized and the term is never italicized. Cultivars are also surrounded by single quotation marks (never double quotation marks) or preceded by the abbreviation "cv.". For an example of a cultivar of redbud, consider Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' (or Cercis canadensis cv. Forest Pansy) which has attractive dark purple spring foliage and pinkish-purple flowers.

I'm not sure exactly why, but the insistence on single quotation marks around the cultivar name struck me as unusual. But to each field its own conventions.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  07:04 AM

Just yesterday I learned a new term from the editor and linguist Johnathon Owen. On Twitter, he said he'd run across the term wet signature. As other people noted, there are related terms wet ink, wet stamps, and wet documents.

Why this interest in wet things? How can a document be wet? And isn't all ink wet?

This last question leads us to an understanding of the term. Wet ink is contrasted with digital ink or e-ink. A wet stamp is one that uses a stamp pad and (wet) ink. A wet document is one printed out on paper and signed with a wet signature, which is to say, with a pen and not with a digital signature.

These are terms used in the world of contracts and document-signing and document-approving, where they're well established. Should you be curious, you can find information about all forms of signing on a page from the Upcounsel site[1].

Aside from the strange picture that terms like wet ink and wet document conjure up, they're interesting because they're retronyms—terms that are used to distinguish an older version of a thing from a newer version of it. The classic example is acoustic guitar; until electric guitars were invented, all guitars were acoustic, so you didn't need the term acoustic guitar. Other examples are brick-and-mortar store, snail mail, and analog clock. I'm sure you can think of more. So once such a thing existed as a digital signature, we inevitably were going to need a retronym for the old-fashioned kind. Interesting that it turned out to be wet.

On to origins. Suppose you were going to move house this weekend and you lined up some friends to help carry stuff. But they call and say that they can't come after all. Uh-oh, they've left you in a lurch.

To lurch is to stumble around, so how does that relate to being left abandoned? This is an example where two words—lurch and lurch—look the same but might come from different roots. The origin of the verb to lurch isn't certain, but it might be related to lurk. Or it might be related to an old sailing term lee-larches that described a ship heaving to its side in rolling waves.

In the expression leave in a lurch, lurch is a noun of an apparently different origin. One theory is that comes from lorche or lourche, the name of a game (everyone says it was something like backgammon). Here, lurch referred to a state in which one player was hopelessly behind. (In cribbage, a lurch is a term similar to skunk.) Another possibility is that lurch is a variant on lash; there are examples from the late 1500s that sound like this ("My Nell hath stolen thy fynest stuff, & left thee in the lash"). This second theory has evidence but no real explanation.

Because neither sense of lurch goes back to a definitive origin, it's possible that they go back to a common ancestor. But the trail goes cold before the 1500s, so we're left … yes, in a lurch.

[1] I was amused by this definition of a signature: "a signature involves each party drawing amateur art next to his name as an indication of authenticity."

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  07:09 AM

My life has been blessedly free of the need for pharmacological intervention, but I recently went for a checkup and left with a fistful of prescriptions. Because this routine drug-taking was sort of new to me, I actually read the inserts that came with the several prescriptions because, well, perhaps there was something I needed to know.

The text was hard for me to read, but that was only because it was in such small print—8 points, perhaps less. And there was quite a lot of it. But this technological limitation at aside, I was surprised at how readable the words themselves proved to be. Perhaps—and this is my observation—by design?

Some details. There are about 1230 words in all, which is about two and a half pages. The text is printed in blobs, aka “walls of text.” The only formatting is ALL CAPS and ALL CAPS IN BOLD. The text is not laid out with an eye to scannability. You can get an idea from the following, with a US quarter coin (about 1 inch/24 mm) for scale.

But as I read the text, I noticed that it seems written for clarity. Here’s an example:

Use this drug as ordered by your doctor. Read all information given to you. Follow all instructions closely. Take this drug at the same time of day. Take with or without food. Keep taking this drug as you have been told by your doctor or other health care provider, even if you feel well.

I noticed these things:

  • Sentences are short.
  • Words are (for the most part) simple and direct.
  • Instructions are clear and are written as imperatives.
  • The text anticipates possible reader questions (“… even if you feel well”).

The headings for the text—the ALL CAPS bits—either lead the reader toward instructions or function as a kind of FAQ:

Ingredient name (includes a pronunciation guide!)
Common uses
Before using this medicine
        What do I need to tell my doctor before I take this drug?
        Tell your doctor if …
        Tell your doctor if …
        Tell your doctor if …
How to use this medicine
        How is this drug best taken?
        How do I store and/or throw out this drug?
        What do I do if I miss a dose?
Cautions
Possible side effects
        What are some side effects that I need to call my doctor about right away?
        What are some other side effects of this drug?
Overdose
Additional information

It’s not perfect (I’d certainly edit this a bit), but I think a lot of work went into deciding what information to put into this text, how to organize it, and how to phrase it. The result, I think, ends up being pretty readable.

So-called readability scores aren’t considered particularly precise, but I ran the text through Word’s readability checker and got these results:

The averages in the middle are the ones that seem significant to me:

  • An average of 13 words per sentence is great. A study from 2008 suggested that comprehension dips below 90% when sentence are longer than 14 words. (And many sentences in the text are shorter than that.)
  • The average of less than 5 characters per word is also good. This is supposed to index the proportion of monosyllabic—hence “simpler”—words.

The “reading ease” score of 78 is good (out of 100), and of course the “grade level” score of 5.4 is likewise is supposed to tell you that this text is intended to have the same readability as a text aimed at 10-year-olds. (All of this, let us remember, supposedly.)[1]

But the numbers are only an imperfect way of capturing what I think is going on here, namely that the text has been designed to be comprehensible to as many readers as possible. The whole setup of providing instructions for drugs works against the pharmacist and other interested parties. The medium is bad (a printed insert in a prescription bag). A lot of people don't want to read this type of text. Some of the patients might not be strong readers. So the people who created this text tried to distill the information to the essentials and to present them as clearly as possible.

By the way, it doesn’t escape me that this text was almost certainly not written-written; it was probably assembled. I’m sure there’s a database of “drug insert text,” and a computer pulls out individual sentences to create text that’s relevant for a specific drug, and then prints it along with the labels for the pill bottles and the other stuff that’s stuck into the bag. Nonetheless, the result mostly works; not in layout, but in terms of the text itself. I give this a good grade and salute the many people who probably spent a long time putting this whole system together.

[1] By way of comparison, this post clocks in at 2.8 sentences per paragraph, 15.3 words per sentence, and 4.3 characters per word.

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  02:31 PM

Happy New Year! If you follow words, you've undoubtedly seen a selection of "words of the year" from various sources: Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, Oxford, and Collins, among others. Today (Jan 3) this culminates with the American Dialect Society picking not only its word of the year for 2019, but its word of the decade for the 2010s. If you happen to be in New Orleans, by all means, show up at the ADS conference and vote—it's open to anyone who happens to be in the room. Otherwise, the voting is live-tweeted, or you can check out the results on their website.

Ok, words. Where to start in 2020? Well, over the holidays I watched the full season of Netflix's The Politician, a black comedy about a high school election. (Black, yes; comedy, sporadic.) At the end of the season I encountered a word new to me: thrupple (or throuple, though it was spelled with upp in the subtitles).

This is a portmanteau of three + couple; it describes a three-way relationship. One page goes into some detail about what a thupple/throuple is and isn't. For example, it's an actual relationship, not just an encounter or a triangle.

I found this term interesting for a few reasons. One was that it's new enough that it hasn't made it into mainstream dictionaries, though of course it's in crowd-sourced dictionaries (e.g. Urban Dictionary). I thought we also had the term ménage à trois for this, although it's possible that the French-based term is used for a wider array of senses than throuple (for example, just for encounters). Plus the French term is harder to pronounce, ha.

It also was interesting in that we seem to have an expanding vocabulary for non-traditional relationships; another term I learned recently is polycule. As people feel free to discuss their relationship arrangements, they find that they need to have terms for them. And English is happy to accommodate their needs.

On to origins. I've been fooling around with Latin recently (about time, dang) so I've taken a more specific interest in words that come from Latin besides just that they, you know, come from Latin. One of these is the word placebo, which refers to a substance that has no pharmacological effect but is given to patients—for instance, as part of a drug trial.

In classical Latin, placebo means "I shall be pleasing" from the verb placere ("to please"). In medicine, placebo arose in the 18th century to mean a medicine given to a patient to please them as opposed to treat them. (Of course, the joke's on the medical community, sort of; the placebo effect describes a benefit that the patient reports even when given only a placebo.)

Once you know the origin of placebo, it's easy to see that it's a direct relative of to please, which we got via Norman French plaisier. Other terms with this root are plead, pleasure, placate, placid, and supplicant.

I should also note that a long time ago, one of my then new-to-me words was nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect—people reporting negative outcomes from what they think is bad for them. Thus not only did we take "I shall be pleasing" from Latin, but we mangled that one up to produce something like "I will be unpleasing." Very pleasing.

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  09:33 PM

One of our accomplishments for 2019 was to complete the next phase of our downsizing. In 2017 we sold our big house and moved into a nice urban apartment. In 2019 we had a small condo remodeled that I owned, and then moved into that. This involved initially making many decisions (cabinets, carpeting, fixtures) and then doing some work (painting), and then of course actually moving and arranging many things. So many things.

I decided recently that I was going to mentally declare this remodel-and-move-in phase done. From here on out, I decided, we weren't crossing off the last items on the remodel-and-move-in list; we were starting a new things-to-improve list. But there was one final thing I wanted to get done before I could do this.

Bear with me a sec while I explain the situation. A feature I like of our new place is what we call the "book nook." In the area that was originally designed to be a little dining room (emphasis on little) we put a wall of bookshelves:

As you can see, there's a corner bookcase. It turns out that a "corner bookcase," at least as conceived by IKEA, is not a bookcase that fits into a corner. It's a bookcase that's angled against the two bookcases to either side and held in place with some brackets. As a result, there's space behind the angled bookcase. The following schematic shows the arrangement, looking down from the top. The bookcases are outlined in blue, and the open space is shaded:

I didn't think much about this until one of the kids visited shortly after we moved in and asked "What if one of the cats gets trapped down there?"

I had never thought about this. The cats are not bookcase climbers, or they hadn't been in our earlier places. But who knows—maybe the move would make them anxious and they'd try to hide on top of the bookcases or something. The bookcases are 7 feet high, and if a cat wound up behind one, it would mean dismantling a good part of the book nook. Not to mention a seriously traumatized kitty.

That very evening I jury-rigged a pile of big books and notebooks to sort of cover the top of the open area. This looked sloppy and it detracted from that nice book-nook look.

So I decided that my last move-in project would be to deal with this, which I did on December 31. I used a piece of pegboard that I happened to have around. As you can see from the earlier schematic, there's nothing really to hold up the board on the wall. I ended up screwing an angle bracket into the wall in a way that the pegboard can rest on it. Here's the finished cover:

It's nothing you'd want to show in Architectural Digest, but I think it will work to prevent a cat from falling down behind the bookcase. And better yet, I can now declare that as of the last day of 2019, we were finished moving in.

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  07:43 PM

The vocabulary of American and British English differs a little bit—I mean, we all understand terms like clockwork orange and dark materials and deathly hallows. But there are words that mean different things on either side of the Atlantic, like biscuit and pants and flannel. And there are words that are generally found on only one side or the other of the Atlantic, like skint and dosh, or cooties and dumpster.

In this last category, I (an American) don't often run into words from Britain that are new to me. Generally speaking, even if I don't use British words, I know what they mean. But recently I ran across a term that I had never heard before: to gurn.

My American friends, take a moment to study this sentence, which is from the BBC article where I found the word:

So now you have made your entrance – hopefully without gurning like a maniac – experts agree that the next key to likability is to make your interaction about the other person.

Truly I had no idea what it might mean to gurn like a maniac, although it was clear that it was something to be avoided.

Merriam-Webster, an American dictionary, has no entry for gurn. My default spell checker setting in Word—English (United States)—underlines it. But I found other entries that identified this as a British term, and it seems that it's a term that's well understood in the UK. Hence, we can suppose, why the BBC can use gurn in an article and assume everyone knows what it means.

Anyway, to gurn means "to grimace; to make a distorted or grotesque face." (It might be a related to grin.) From Wikipedia, I learned that there's such a thing as a gurning contest, and even a World Gurning Championship. Apparently the ability to bring your lower lip over your nose is a competitive advantage?

There are still apparently plenty of well-known British words (well known in Britain, anyway) that I have yet to learn. Now I wonder if there are other competitive sports that I should be investigating.

For origins, I have to start by noting that I've been using Duolingo to work on Latin. I'm in a section that's about school, and according to Duolingo, the word lection is translated as "chapter." The Latin word lection is obviously related to legit ("to read"), which we see in lecture, lectern, lexicon, and legible.

I assumed there was probably more subtlety to this translation than the lesson provides, but it did make me wonder where the word chapter actually comes from. Well, it too comes from Latin (filtered through French), namely from the word capitulum, meaning "little head." (See also capital/capitol, decapitate, and capo).

The word capitulum was used in late Latin to refer to a section of a book, just as we might use it today. Many people have probably heard the expression chapter and verse, which refers to chapters (i.e., sections) and verses within books of the Bible. Per the OED, this can be "A short ‘lesson’ or passage of Scripture read in certain services of the Latin Church." What's not clear to me is how "little head" comes to mean "section," unless perhaps it refers to a title or other "little head(ing)" that divides the sections of a book.

The word chapter is also used to mean a subdivision of an organization, as in the Seattle chapter of the International Society for the Promotion of Etymological Research (ISPER). This is a metonymic sense that derives from the more literal one. People might read chapters at a meeting (or service), so the gathering by extension came to be known as a chapter.

And so we bring the—ready?—2020 chapter of Friday words to a close. I wonder what new words and etymological surprises I'll find in 2020!

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  08:07 AM

Christmas carols are songs that you learn as a youngster, at an age when you don't spend too much time thinking about the lyrics. Everything else is sort of mysterious when you're a kid, and the oddball words to seasonal songs are just one more thing you don't quite get.[1]

By the time you're an adult, the songs are ingrained, and you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about the lyrics. Or at least not the lyrics that you mostly know, namely those in the first verses of all your favorites.

But I went to a Christmas carol sing-along the other evening, during which we sang verses two and beyond. I guess I was surprised at a few of the weird turns that otherwise familiar songs took when we got past that one verse that you know. Herewith a few examples.

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," verse 2:

Christ, by highest heav'n adored:
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the favored one.
Veil'd in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th'incarnate Deity

Seriously, I had to stop singing and marvel at "Offspring of the favored one."

"Away in a Manger," verse 4:

I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle 'til morning is nigh.

I thought that took quite a turn toward the personal. Also, … cradle?

"Jingle Bells," verse 3:

Now the ground is white
Go it while you're young
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song
Just get a bob tailed bay
two-forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you'll take the lead

As someone sitting behind me said, "Uh-huh, now we know what that's about."

Guess the song:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the Age of Gold

Apocalyptic much?

This is not even to mention the vocal machinations it took to cram or stretch some awkward lyrics into the familiar tunes, all in real time. (Did not always succeed.)

If nothing else, I learned that people's ability to versify was not significantly better in, say, the 19th century than it is now. This gave me … comfort and joy. :)

[1] Tho when I told my then-young daughter that "Silent Night" had originally been written in German, she said "That explains the 'round yon virgin' part."

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  11:17 AM

Last week I was working on a NYT crossword, and one of the clues was “At full speed,” 5 letters. Even once I’d gotten far enough to have A M A _ N filled in, I still didn’t know what the word might be. It turned out to be amain, which as far as I remembered I’d never encountered. (And this was just the Tuesday puzzle, where one doesn’t expect to encounter obscure words.)

I turned to the dictionary (several, in fact). In addition to meaning “at full speed,” amain means “with all one’s might; with full force; suddenly; exceedingly.” For the first sense, Merriam-Webster offers the example “the soul strives amain to live and work” from Emerson. And for the sense of “exceedingly,” they offer “they whom I favour thrive in wealth amain” from Milton. The OED has “Down came the storm, and smote amain the vessel” from Longfellow.

When you find a word whose cites are Emerson and Milton and Longfellow, you might guess that it’s not a word that’s in common use today. M-W says that two of the senses (“at full speed” and “exceedingly”) are archaic. It doesn’t attach that label to the sense of “with all one’s might,” but Dictionary.com labels all senses archaic. The most recent (dictionary) cite I can find for amain is Longfellow in 1851, a person also given to using smote, so draw your own conclusions.

In addition to it being an archaic word, its relatives in English are not necessarily obvious. But they exist: the main part comes from an Old English word mægen, which means “power, force.” Although you might not guess it, that word has the same ultimate root as might, machine, and magic. The a- part of amain was tacked on eventually, probably by analogy with terms like afoot.

It might be useful to revive amain, not only to have a compact way to say “at full force,” but so that more puzzle authors can use the term with the confidence that they’re not expecting you to know an archaic word.

Ok, we all know that Fiddlesticks! is an interjection for dismissing what someone has said. This week I was reading about what’s called old-time music, a style of music that’s a precursor of bluegrass. This learned me something interesting about fiddlesticks.

The interjection fiddlesticks was originally just fiddlestick (singular) or fiddlestick’s end. There’s a similar usage to not care a fiddlestick or not care a fiddlestick’s end, an older form of something like not give a damn. In these usages, a fiddlestick (or its end) is something worthless.

But what is a fiddlestick? Simple: it’s a violin bow—the stick that you use to play the fiddle. Once you know that, it’s obvious; I wonder whether violinists today use fiddlestick to refer to their bow.

It turns out, though, that there’s a second literal meaning for fiddlesticks, which is the one I learned while reading about old-time music. When a fiddler is playing, a second person might beat rhythms on the violin strings using, yes, fiddlesticks. A Wikipedia article suggests that this combination of playing melody and rhythm on the same instrument might have been inspired by African instruments, which would explain why it’s found in American music but not Celtic or British music.

Here’s a video that shows someone playing this particular kind of fiddlesticks:

It’s not certain how a violin bow came to mean something trifling. People have theorized that it's “perhaps simply because the word sounds intrinsically silly.” What we know for sure is that a metaphoric sense of fiddlestick was established by the 1600s. Although now that I think about it, maybe fiddlesticks in the interjection sense is starting to become archaic also?

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  09:25 AM

Fun fact for today: this is my 200th Friday words post, not counting some early, pre-every-Friday word posts. Check out the complete list!

And speaking of words. We got email at work recently advertising some sort of information fair (about commuting, if I remember right), and one of the things on the agenda was a tabling event. I’d never heard of this, I think, so I poked around a bit to see what that might mean.

As often happens, this is an established term that just hadn’t crossed my radar. Perhaps you, too, don’t know it: a tabling event is “working at a table to bring attention to an event/cause/organization,” to quote a user on the Yahoo Answers site.

I didn’t spend a lot of time looking, but the earliest references I found go back to at least 2008. Even then, though, the references appear in texts where the writer seems to assume that everyone knows the term. (Just not me, I guess.) Based on that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the term goes back substantially further.

I think that what interested me was that it seemed like a bit of domain jargon that escaped into the world. (This is all speculation, don’t quote me on this.) People who organize events have their own vocabulary, I assume, and maybe when they plan a vendor fair or similar, they talk about booth setup and banner placement and such. It’s easy to see how in this domain, the activity of staffing a table could become tabling. Perhaps it’s like how HR people use the word onboarding[1], which has now become widespread. Or how when you phone your bank, the customer service rep asks for your social, exposing a domain term (short for “social security number”) to the world at large. Or, I suppose, how computer words like booting and firewall have become everyday words.

Moving along. An article in the New Yorker got me onto the origins of the word metaphor. We got the word from French (hence Latin), but it originates in Greek. We see the prefix meta pretty often, right? Like in metaphysics (philosophy), metadata (computers), metamorphic (geology), metabolism (medicine), or heck, just the standalone meta (“that’s so meta”). It’s not that easy to pin down a meaning for meta in this way; you’ll find various definitions for the prefix like “with,” “after,” “beyond, above,” and “among,” and that it refers to a description or abstraction or commentary of the thing it modifies (metadata and just meta). The OED adds this useful note: “principally to express notions of sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change, in the last sense frequently corresponding to classical Latin words in trans- prefix.” Ah, trans-. That can also mean “across,” right?

Hold that thought. What about the -phor part of metaphor? This ultimately comes from a Greek word for “to bear, carry.” The Greeks themselves combined this with the prefix meta- to form a verb metapherein, which meant “to transfer.” So when you put together the constituent parts, you get something like “to carry across.” Which is what metaphors do: they carry meaning across from one word or expression to another one.

I’ve got a bonus word origin today: the word pioneer. Pioneers were originally foot soldiers sent ahead to dig and clear. The pion part sort of indicates this; it’s related to peon and pawn (like in chess), and a bit further away, to ped for “foot” as in pedestrian, etc. It expanded to cover anyone who forayed early into a new territory or field.

I learned this from a great Twitter thread by Dr. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist, whose breakdown starts with etymology but then takes a fierce turn into the politics and history of pioneers. Worth a read if you’re willing to get riled.

[1] I’m fine with this word, btw.

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