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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Officially Correct English, like the Tooth Fairy and Civic Virtue, is a product of grade school mythology and rarely leads to satisfying answers or useful decisions. The truth about language is always far more interesting -- and far more complex -- than what Miss Fidditch told you.

John Lawler


<January 2018>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 4:01 AM Pacific

  09:46 PM

Suppose you're on vacation and you're driving to a place named Lisbon Falls. You see this sign, so you turn right.

After you turn, you drive for a long time, but you don't see Lisbon Falls, and you start to doubt that you're on the right road. How helpful would it be to see a sign that said "Lisbon Falls—keep going "?

Obviously, we need signposts to tell us where to turn. But sometimes we need signposts to reassure us that we're going the right way. Since I work in documentation, I'm going to talk about this applies when you're writing instructions.

The first and least controversial example is to show the results of the user's action, like this:

This type of signpost reassures the reader that they've run the command correctly, or made the right gestures in the page, or whatever.

A second type of signpost is one that makes sure the reader is properly oriented at the beginning of a procedure. This comes up a lot in the complex tutorials I work with, which might have many separate procedures. What I tell my writers is that at the beginning of each procedure, they should make sure that the user is clear about where they are. Here's an example:

I sometimes get pushback from an author about this if the user isn't changing contexts between procedures. "They should just keep entering commands where they left off!" the author might say. I get this; it can feel like we're sort of stating the obvious. But remember my example at the beginning—sometimes it's helpful just to know that you're on the right road, even if you haven't gotten any indication that you're not.

The final example is one that I see rarely in technical documentation, which is too bad. This type of signposting warns the user of something out of the ordinary: an unexpected result, a long delay, a tricky procedure, or a non-intuitive process. Here's a sort-of example:

During the editing process, I asked the author "Is that period on the end of the cp command correct?" Yes, was the answer, "unfortunately." This might have been an opportunity to actually say to the reader "Hey, that period at the end? That's part of the syntax." But we didn't do that, perhaps because the author felt that the audience for this piece would not have that question. But you can probably think of other examples where a little authorial aside to point out something weird would have been helpful for the reader.

One of my favorite examples of this was an article about installing tools for Python. It included the following refreshingly honest instruction:
See all that stuff flying by? Forget about it.
(I wrote about this a few years ago.)

Talk about reassuring!

Update On Twitter, Leon (@secretgeek) points out another example of signposting that I didn't call out. In the first example earlier, the instruction starts with "Wait 3 to 4 minutes"—this notifies the user that a delay here is to be expected.

All of these examples—indeed, signposting in general—is a matter of putting yourself in the user's shoes. At what point(s) in the user's journey is it helpful to reassure them that they're still driving in the right direction? As an editor—hence, a user advocate—I'll suggest that it's more often than you think.

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  06:06 AM

If these first two weeks are any indication, 2018 is shaping up as a lexicographically interesting year, right?

Ok, two new-to-me words today from the world of relationships. Let's start with dating. You won't have trouble finding lists of "the lingo of [online] dating," as one page puts it. In these lists you'll find words like ghosting (previously noted here), breadcrumbing, and cuffing season.

One term that's specific to online dating is catfishing, which means to have a false identity to entice someone for various reasons, generally unethical ones. The word catfish spawned one of the terms I'm interested in today: kittenfishing, which some people liken to "catfishing lite." (cat/kitten, probably you noticed this.) In kittenfishing, you don't present a made-up persona. But you do enhance your profile—misrepresenting yourself descriptively or visually, which some people refer to as "lying"—in order to lure someone into dating you. Note the distinction between the words in terms of motive: catfishing often has a quasi-criminal intent; kittenfishing just aims at getting a date. According to an article on the hingeirl.com site, people who work at that site invented the name: "… a practice so common in the world of modern dating that we at Hinge had to give it a name."

Ah, the world of online dating, eh? One article says "38 percent of men and 24 percent of women say they’ve been kittenfished." I should note that I learned the word kittenfishing from Friend Julie, who wrote a whole book about online dating.

Update It occurs to me that a famous historical example of kittenfishing was the betrothal of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves. Henry's story, anyway, was that he had been misled about her beauty … i.e., he'd been kittenfished. He married her, but reluctantly.

I learned a second relationship term just yesterday: micro-cheating. In micro-cheating, you don't cheat on your partner in the generally understood way. But you do have an emotional attachment to someone else and engage in actions that further your external relationship—actions that you hide from your partner, like having a social media relationship with someone on the QT. (Someone suggested that this could also be called "emotional cheating" or an "emotional affair.")

What struck me about the term was the use of the micro- prefix. We've seen this elsewhere recently, as in microaggression. This made me wonder whether the micro- prefix is seeing greater velocity these days; maybe?

As an aside, I'll note that the words kittenfishing and micro-cheating are relatively new (within the last year or so). I think we can agree, tho, that the concepts they represent are probably about as old as dating itself.

Word origins! I was recently reading the book The Mark Inside, about a man who was conned in the early 20th century and who sets about getting revenge. In the introduction, Amy Reading, the author, presented a surprisingly specific origin for the term confidence man, whence con man, whence to con [someone]. I'll let her tell you the story:
Confidence artistry began one day in May 1849 when a well-dressed young man named Samuel Williams—or was it Samuel Thomas? or William Thompson?—walked up to a stranger on the streets of lower Manhattan and engaged him in a few minutes of intimate small talk. The stranger felt that he knew but couldn't place this friendly fellow; certainly he seemed like an old friend who was delighted to see him. Williams (as we'll call him) then asked the stranger, in a disarmingly direct manner, whether or not he had confidence in him. When the man answered yes, the only possible answer in polite conversation, Williams said jovially, "Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow?" In high humor, his mark handed over his gold watch. And Williams sauntered off into the city, laughing and promising over his shoulder that he'd return the watch the next day. In the span of just a few days in May, he swindled John Deraismes out of a watch valued at $114, John Sturges out of a watch worth $80, and Hugh C. McDonald out of a watch valued at $100.
I was slightly skeptical, but the OED bears this out: their first entry for confidence trick is 1849, in a newspaper story about this exact incident. Who knew.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  08:28 AM

There are many reasons to use styles in Word, as I've noted before. One feature I find handy is using styles that have different spell-check options for different types of text. I'll explain a couple of examples: one where I set a non-default spell-check option (Spanish), and another where I disable spell check for code snippets.

Note: If you'd rather see this on video, see the links below.

Spell check for non-default languages

Suppose you're writing a document that has quotations in different languages. If you run spell check over the document, it'll barf when it gets to your citations in Spanish or French or Latin or whatever.[1]

The hard way to solve this problem is to select the text of each citation, one by one, and then to set the proofing language (Review tab > Language > Set Proofing Language).

The easier way to do it is to define a style and set the language for that style. Then you can just apply the style to your citations.

Suppose I'm writing about One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez:

I run spell check, and uh-oh: if it's going to stop on every word of Spanish, it's going to be a long night proofing this doc:

Instead, I'll create a style just for my quotations in Spanish. In this case, I'll create a paragraph style, although I can set language options for character styles also, which is useful for cites in running text.

Here's the Create New Style dialog. The new style is named Quotation in Spanish. It's a paragraph style, based on Normal, and I've set an indent.

Then in the Format options (bottom left), I choose Language:

For the language, I choose Colombian Spanish:

Now I can apply this style to any citations in the document that are in Spanish. When spell check gets to the citations, it switches to checking spelling in Spanish. (Which is handy, since I'm a bad typist in multiple languages.)

If the document contains text in several languages, you create a different style for each non-default language that you're using and apply them as needed.

Disabling spell check for selected text

I don't actually encounter a lot of Spanish citations in my work, but I do encounter a lot of snippets of program code and HTML. I also encounter filenames and URLs that are oddly spelled per English conventions. As with non-English text, this can throw spell check off. So I create a style for code and for HTML blocks and for filenames and for URLs. In those styles, I disable spell check altogether.

Skipping ahead, here's an example of what some sample text looks like when these styles have been applied:

There are 3 styles at work here. The green monospace marks a character style named Code. The blue italics mark a character style named Filename. And the indented block with gray background marks text that's styled using a paragraph style named Pre (a nod to the HTML element name for code blocks).

In addition to the various formatting settings that I defined for these styles (italics, blue, green, monospace, indented, etc.), in each case I chose the Language setting. Then in the Language dialog, I chose Do not check spelling or grammar:

When spell check runs, it skips over any text that has been styled using a style with this setting.

I should note that for code and HTML snippets, it can instead make sense to add the various keywords to your dictionary. (I do this for filenames that I encounter often.) However, defining a style that simply turns off spell check has been very handy for me in the code- and HTML-heavy documents that I work on.


I made a couple of videos about this also and put them on YouTube:
[1] I do realize that Word can be set to auto-detect languages, and that this works pretty well. But the method I describe here also covers scenarios where auto-detect doesn't work well. (Klingon? Dothraki? Etc.)

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  07:39 AM

I'm at a linguistics conference, one where today (Friday) we'll be voting on the Word of the Year, as chosen by the American Dialect Society and anyone who wants to show up and raise a hand. You're sure to read about the results over the next few days.

And speaking of words. Something that crossed my radar this week is the term groyper. This is another term that's emerged from the alt-right subculture. The groyper (A groyper? Just "Groyper"? Mr. Groyper? Protocol unclear) is a sort of mascot, like the blobbish Pepe the Frog, but with the particular pose of having his chin on his hands, like this:

The Twitter user Respectable Lawyer, from whom I got all this, refers to the groyper image as "a fatter, more racist Pepe for the true paranoid weirdos."

People in this subculture appear on Twitter with names like Groyper Washington, Irish Groyper, and Otto von Groyper, with their groyper avatar suitably decorated to match the name. By extension, then, people who use a groyper avatar are themselves known as groypers.

The name groyper appears to have originally been a user name on 4chan, at least according to the Know Your Meme site. It seems to be unclear what the name signified then, and how the name got transferred to the image. Perhaps by next year's Word of the Year discussions we'll know more.

Well, wasn't that pleasant. On to origins. I was kind of half-watching a documentary the other day in which Mary Beard was telling us about the Roman emperor Caligula. (Spoiler alert: a lot of the most terrible stories about Caligula might have been fabrications for political or personal reasons. But we don't really know.) Anyway, at one point she talked about a bridge that Caligula supposedly wanted to build between the Palatine and the Capitoline hills. The Palatine Hill, did we know, being the origin of the word palace? Why, no, Ms. Beard, we definitely did not know that. But we sure do now.

To be clear, Palatine is the name of one of the seven hills of Rome (Mons Palatinus). Romans built an imperial residence there, and the word genericized over the centuries from "emperor's residence" to be used for the official residences of lower sorts of people. From there it moved into the Romance languages. We got it in English via the Normans, where it appears by the year 1300. Even then it was also used to refer to any "large and splendid" (er, palatial) residence. Even so, I think that we do still preserve an echo of the "official residence" sense.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  08:29 AM

Final Friday Words for this year. I can't wait to see what new terms are lurking out there in 2018.

Just the other day I ran across a seasonally relevant term: porch pirate, which is a name for people who steal packages off your porch. In this era of everything-delivered, it would seem to be both a crime with growth potential and of course a keen problem for the victims.

The term seems to be reasonably new. Most of the cites I found are not just from 2017, but from late in 2017. This latter, however, might just mean that writing articles about porch pirates is a new holiday-season tradition, dunno. The earliest that I can find the term is 2015.

I first ran across the term in a Washington Post article on December 19 about a dude in Tacoma, WA, who invented a booby trap: an empty box with a (blank) explosive device in it. (The videos of startled would-be porch pirates are kind of funny.) When I went looking for earlier uses of the term, I found something called The Original Porch Pirate Bag, a lockable bag that has been sold on Amazon since October 2016.

The aggro of losing a package aside, porch pirate is a good term. There's that nice alliteration, and it harkens to a use of pirate that reminds us that pirates were not jolly, Captain Sparrow-type fellows. Look for another wave of articles about these thieves in, oh, around 11 months.

The most delightful word origin I've heard recently came from Facebook Friend Scott, about canary, the bird. (A species of finch, I also learn, tho that should have been pretty obvious.) A slightly more formal name for the canary in a cage is canary bird. This provides a clue about the name's origins: canary birds are birds from the Canary Islands, which are off the west coast of Africa (but part of Spain). The delightful part is that the name of the archipelago comes from Latin Canariae Insulae or "islands of dogs." Because there were many dogs. See also: canine.

As an aside, the word canary has a number of other meanings, some also associated with the islands or the bird: a type of sugar; a type of wine (compare the origins of port and sherry); a type of dance; the name of a color; a (female) singer; a prisoner ("jailbird"), perhaps due to the color of their togs; and someone who tattles ("sings"). A rich term.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  07:49 AM

I feel like I need to make a rare[1] mid-week update to a Friday Words post, because Comments.

First, thug, which came up last Friday. Not one but two people pointed me at the word Thugee, the name for a group or gang or organization of criminals in India hundreds of years ago who murdered people. (There's a BBC article about this origin.) This is in fact the first (hence oldest) entry for thug in the OED.

This raises (begs? haha) a point I've kind of danced around in discussing word origins. The Indian gang (the Thugees) probably got their name from a Hindi word for cheat or swindler. But it's a fair question to ask whether we're interested in a word's original-original source or in the path by which the word got into English: ultimate versus proximate origins. Our use of thug in English came from the gangs, and not directly from the Hindi word. Another and similar example is the word assassin. The proximate origin is a gang of murderous thugs (ahem); the ultimate origin is an Arabic word that also gave us hashish. (Details)

Anyway, in the future I guess I'll be a little more explicit about these differences to the extent that they apply.

And one more. In a recent post I mused about why the Spanish word palomera ("popcorn maker") is feminine. Friend Jared pointed out that these type of agent-constructions follow the gender of the thing they're derived from. I had been led astray; a butter dish is a mantequera (from mantequilla, "butter"), feminine. I had read somewhere that it was mantequero, masculine, and that threw me. But this is false. So now it makes sense and all is again right with the world, Spanish-morphologically speaking. :-)

[1] So rare that this is the first time.

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  12:21 PM

Christmas is always an interesting time for the professional editor, what with so many instructions to be read. I've run across (so far) a couple of fun little language issues.

I.  An elegant gift I got this year is a Citizen "Eco-Drive" watch. The distinctive feature of these watches is that their battery is charged by exposure to light. Naturally, the manual goes into some detail about how charging works. I was interested to see this odd construction (click to embiggen):

(If you can't read it, it says "If watch is continued to be used without charging")

I had to think for a moment about why this seems off. I concluded that the writer was trying to use "continue to" in the passive, presumably out of some sort of all-too-common Fear of Passive. But passive doesn't work that way; you need a transitive verb, and "continue to" doesn't take an object. And hey, you don't even need passive—this could just read "If watch continues to be used …". (Note that "is used" is already in the passive.)

The instruction are in 8 languages, and I don't even know whether English is the primary. Anyway, a Christmas tip of the hat to the fellow documentarians at Citizen Watch Inc. and what I'm sure is a hectic writing and editing process.[1]

II.  I like popcorn and have been using our wok (!) to make it on the stovetop, which my wife finds odd. (I do use a lid on the wok.) So she got me a microwave popcorn maker; this lets you make your own popcorn in the microwave as opposed to using the yucky prepackaged microwave popcorn.

As I sometimes do, I looked over the instructions in other languages, and I made a delightful discovery in Spanish. The Spanish word for popcorn is palomitas, which translates as "little doves." Such a great image, and I already knew that. What I did learn was that a popcorn maker is a palomera:

I would never have guessed this, but it made sense as soon as I saw it. In Spanish, the ero/era ending "forms occupations and other nouns of agent from nouns," to borrow the Wikitionary description. So, a vaquero is a cowboy, aka an occupation involving vacas (cows). A zapatero is a shoemaker, a pescadero is a fish monger, a panadero is a baker, a rapero is a rapper. It can also be used for non-people things—a mantequero is a butter dish (also a butter maker), fregadero is a sink (fregar="to wash, scrub")[2], caldero is a pot (caldo="broth").

So it isn't surprising to see palomitas (thing) become palomera (thing for making the thing). However, it remains a mystery to me why this noun is feminine (-era). Perhaps someone more knowledgeable about Spanish morphology can fill me in.

Update Friend Jared filled me in.

I'll probably have more opportunity to read instructions in the next day or two. Let's see what other treasures I find.

[1] In case you're interested, here are the equivalents in a few more languages:

[2] fregar has other meanings in Spanish that need not concern us here.



  06:37 AM

Solstice today. Here in Seattle, it did feel remarkably twilight-y by 4:00pm.

A new-to-me word came up this week after the Seattle football team, the Seahawks, was slaughtered by the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday. During the post-game commentary, one of the sports analysts said the Seahawks had been boat-raced. I heard this and immediately cranked up ye olde search engine. Turns out that to be boat-raced (or boatraced) is to get behind in a contest and never catch up. The definition in Urban Dictionary also adds that the being boat-raced means not just getting behind early, but being beaten badly.

The UD definition also pinpoints the origin as being from the annual Boat Race, an annual event held between Oxford and Cambridge. In rowing, the boat that gets out ahead has an advantage because they do not have to row against their opponent's (or opponents') wake.

As far as I can tell, the term is still confined to sports; I saw it used in articles about football and hockey. It's not hard to find examples, meaning it's not a particularly exotic term. Still, I was somewhat mollified to see that I was not the only person who wondered what it meant.

Ok, two quickish notes about unexpected etymology today. The Merriam-Webster blog has a great little story about the origin of the word ukulele, the 4-stringed instrument. Per their story, ukulele is (no surprise) a Hawaiian word. It might mean "gift" (maybe a little surprising) or it might mean "jumping flea" (quite surprising). They have more details, which I encourage you to go read.

The second etymology is for the word thug. Take a second and try to guess where this term might have originated. Well, it turns out that it comes from the Hindi word thag, which referred to a cheat or swindler. (Did you guess that the origin was India? I sure wouldn't have.) We've had it in English since the early 1800s. To add to the unexpectedness, I learned this while watching an episode of The Indian Detective, a kind of silly Netflix series about an Indian-Canadian policeman who goes to India and gets on the trail of a crime syndicate. You just never know where you'll encounter an etymological nugget.

Update Some more thoughts on the proximate (as opposed to ultimate) origin of thug.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  08:38 AM

Via the @AngrySeattle Twitter feed today[1], I discovered the 2017 Traffic Report (PDF) by the City of Seattle. The report is full of many data (most of which I have not studied), but I did home in on a chart that showed "Contributing Circumstances for all 2016 Collisions":

The chart has oddities. One is that the circumstances apparently come off incident reports or something, so they're not, like, taxonomically rigorous. ("Driver not distracted"? "None"? wth) Another is that the chart is arranged in alphabetic order by circumstance, which is, I believe, the least useful possible way to have arranged it. So I copied to an Excel sheet that lets me play with the data a bit, and that you can download if for some reason you want to.

If you read my recent and lengthy screed about maintaining a safe following distance while driving (Mind the gap), you can probably guess what I was most interested in in this chart. Here are the top 7 circumstances and the total number of collisions they caused:
  1. None: 9196
  2. Inattention: 2386
  3. Other: 2163
  4. Did not Grant Right of Way to Vehicle: 1570
  5. Unknown Driver Distraction: 1265
  6. Driver Not Distracted: 910
  7. Following Too Closely: 597
As I say, the categories are odd. If we focus on those circumstances that actually make sense, we can see that "Following Too Closely" accounts for 597 collisions. If we combine "Inattention"(2386), another circumstance I discussed in my screed, and what the heck …

"Driver Interacting with passengers, Animals, or Objects Inside Vehicle" (23),
"Driver Operating Other Electronic Devices" (10),
"Driver Operating Handheld Telecommunications Device" (6), and
"Driver Adjusting Audio or Entertainment System" (4),

… the total comes to 3026 collisions.

As I noted then, we tend to take driving for granted, and sometimes treat our cars like a living room. But you have to pay attention or collisions can result.

[1] They are true to that name.

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  12:15 AM

Here's something fun: this is my 100th Friday Words blog entry. Who knew there were so many words that I didn’t know? Haha.

Today’s new-to-me term is spoon banditry. I learned this recently from editor and Facebook friend Dan Layman-Kennedy during a discussion of what he termed "attention-demanding troll tactics." Spoon bandits are what Abi Sutherland refers to as "people who demand my energy without my consent"; spoon banditry is the practice of this unpleasant style of interaction.

The spoon in spoon bandits seems to come from the "spoon theory," a kind of parable in which a person’s energy is represented as spoons. (The origin story is set in a diner, where spoons served as a convenient analogy.) A person starts the day with a certain number of spoons, but each demand or obstacle takes a spoon away.

You can see how spoon banditry describes a certain kind of internet troll—someone who exhausts you with continual arguing, or even just with their relentlessness in prolonging some online debate.

One version of spoon banditry is sealioning, which Nancy Friedman discussed as one of her weekly words, and which she defines as "[i]n social media, pestering a target with unsolicited questions delivered with a false air of civility." (The term sealioning comes from a Wondermark cartoon in which a sealion exhibits this type of trolling behavior.) However, Dan notes that there are other types of spoon banditry as well; another example is moving the goalposts.

Anyway, next time someone just will not quit with something on the internet, you’ve got a name for it. Also, don’t be afraid to mute or block. Just sayin’.

Update: Nancy points out that she also wrote about spoonies.

For unexpected word origins today, I got to wondering about a seasonally appropriate word: eggnog. The etymological surprise about that term, however, is that no one is 100% sure where it came from.

The word nog is a dialectical term from England (specifically from Norfolk in East Anglia) referring to a type of strong ale. The OED’s first entry for eggnog is only from 1825, whereas nog goes back to the 1600s. So it’s not known when people first assembled the two terms into one.

Egg-based cocktails are not so popular now, but used to be much more common. The Alcohol Professor site has a history of egg-based alcoholic drinks that includes this info:
Peasants during the Dark Ages … would mix [eggs] with milk, alcohol and other spices to make a posset. Possets were initially used either as medicine or to keep warm at night. [...] The alcohol itself was more a "what is available" question as opposed to a specific requirement. Sherry, also known as sack, was most common, as was beer, wine, and madeira.
These concoctions became less popular, but eggnog survived. And although traditional eggnog is indeed spiked, it can also now refer to a drink that has no alcohol in it at all. I imagine that those Dark Ages peasants would wonder what the point is of that kind of eggnog.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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