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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One of the best ways to get to know someone is to look at their bookshelf.

Kathy Sierra


<January 2019>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 8:11 AM Pacific

  06:52 AM

Probably you've walked around in a city and wanted to cross a busy street. So probably you've seen one of these things on a pole near the intersection:

Do you have a name for this? I just recently learned that in some circles, at least, these are called beg buttons. As in, pedestrians have to push a button to beg to be allowed to cross the street.

This is presumably not what traffic engineers call these, at least, not when they're writing up planning documents. For those purposes, these devices are referred to as pedestrian call buttons or pedestrian crossing buttons. (Descriptive, but dull.) You tend to see beg buttons in contexts where people are not happy with the way traffic is managed; more specifically, when they think traffic is managed in a way to disfavor pedestrians. (For example, beg button is the term used in the article How traffic signals favour cars and discourage walking.)

Fun fact: at some intersections (not all), the beg button is a placebo. In these cases, the lights at an intersection are on a timed cycle. Pedestrians can push the button, but it doesn't change the timing of the lights. (It might be that the beg button does work for off-hours cycles, like at night.) At the intersection close to my office, when you push the beg button, a stern voice commands "Wait!" I don't know whether that indicates that the signal is or isn't a placebo, but I dare not contradict the Wait Voice.[1]

So that's the new-to-me word this week. For origins, I was wondering about where the word fiddle came from. Some poking reminded me that German has the word Fiedel, which is obviously a cognate, and the dictionary notes several variations like that in other Germanic languages. And fiddle goes back to Old English, which bolsters its Germanic creds.

But this turns out to be another "origin uncertain" word. The most common explanation is that fiddle goes back to a word vitula in late Latin, which also described an instrument. And that term might in turn go back to a word for "joyful celebration." Although Douglas Harper makes a reasonable countersuggestion: "Unless the Medieval Latin word [for the instrument] is from the Germanic ones."

Anyway, the Latin word vitula evolved into viol, which turned in Italian into viola and violin, which we borrowed into English. So we have two words for a stringed instrument, fiddle and violin, and they probably came from the same root. The only question is which term came first.

If you're me, you might also be wondering what the heck the difference is between a fiddle and a violin, anyway. The answer is simple, but contextual: it's the same instrument, you just call it one name or the other depending on what type of music you play on it .

[1] If you like this sort of thing, read To press or not to press: a guide to pedestrian buttons, where Toronto writer Dylan Reid goes into some detail about how signal activation works.

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[3] |

  08:12 AM

Almost back to normal words after all that Word and Name of the Year business the last couple of weeks. In case you don't follow the latest in lexicographic news, the American Dialect Society selected tender-age shelter as their overall Word of the Year. They have a press release (PDF) that lists all of the nominations, with winners in each category. The American Name Society selected Jamal Khashoggi as their Name of the Year. (Pleasingly, Gritty was their Trade Name of the Year.)

Ok, the new-to-me word this week is ICE-ing or ICEing, which I learned via Twitter user @VintageReader. You might think this has something to do with the government agency known as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but no. In this case, ICE stands for "internal combustion engine," though that still doesn’t tell you what ICE-ing is.

An article in Jalopnik, a car-oriented site, has the story: ICE-ing is blocking an EV charging spot by using your non-electric vehicle. As with rolling coal, which is also mentioned in the article, there might be innocuous reasons why someone would practice ICE-ing (using the last available parking spot, say, or just not paying attention). But there are definitely cases when ICE-ing is another way to own the libs. As the author of the article writes, "I generally like people, which may be why I never fail to be surprised when I encounter people being truly unrepentant dickheads for no good reason whatsoever." People he also calls "bro-truck owners," ha.

As noted, this was not an obvious neologism to me. But I ran across something that explained why ICE works here: electric-car owners are being "iced out of" their charging stations. Ah. I was also surprised that the word is not new-new; the Word Spy (Paul McFedries) found a citation from back in 2011. So ICE-ing (the activity) was probably invented about a day after the first EV stations appeared in parking lots, and ICE-ing (the word) itself shortly thereafter.

Speaking of cars and websites, the name of the Jalopnik website seems to be based on the word jalopy, which refers to a dilapidated car. Where did jalopy come from? Most dictionaries stick with "origin unknown." The word appeared in the 1920s, reflecting a period when cars had become widespread enough that some people were driving beaters, although the OED says that the word could also refer to a battered "aeroplane." Douglas Harper makes a somewhat daring conjecture that it's from the name of the city Jalapa in Mexico, "where many U.S. used cars supposedly were sent." If that's true, it means jalopy is related to the word jalapeño, as in the pepper. An unlikely pair.

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  12:14 AM

You'll remember that last week I offered a list of potential words of the year (WOTY) that I'd been scribbling down throughout the year. This week I have another special edition, this time for Name of the Year. Inspired by the WOTY selected each year by the American Dialect Society (ADS), the American Name Society (ANS) chooses some names that have had particular significance that year.

The ANS selections are a bit more specialized—the candidates, after all, have to have some sort of onomastic angle—but they're just as much fun. As with the WOTY votes, anyone can just show up, nominate, and vote. And I've done that the last several years.

Both societies are having their Of The Year votes today (January 4, 2019). I thought I'd try to sneak my names list in just in time before they officially vote.[1] As with the words of the year, I am following the ANS's categories as best I can with the names I have.

Personal Name

Christine Blasey Ford. In September, Professor Ford appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about her claim that she had been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when both of them were teenagers. Her appearance galvanized an already rancorous nomination process; her testimony, the reaction to it, and the subsequent confirmation of Kavanaugh became a drama played out at the highest level of government about the #MeToo movement.

Stormy Daniels. The professional name of an adult-film actress who claimed in March to have taken hush money to cover up an affair with Donald Trump. A legal tangle ensued concerning whether this constituted a violation of campaign financing laws; what seemed like something of a sideshow has rippled outward to bring down various people associated with the president. The name Stormy Daniels could fade away in 2019 and beyond, or she could became the Christine Keeler of this administration.

Fictional Name

Gritty. As sports characters go, Gritty is not particularly good-looking; as many people have noted, he seems like a giant, crazed muppet. But Gritty unexpectedly become popular far beyond his primary job as the new symbol for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, moving from mascot to meme to political avatar (and counterweight to Pepe the Frog). An article on Vox explains the emergence, spread, and popularity of this unlikely character.

Place Name

Parkland (High School). After an endless series of school shootings, none of which resulted in any willingness in the US to change our gun culture, the February 2018 tragedy at Parkland seems like it might have finally become an inflection point. Media-savvy Parkland students became articulate voices for sensible steps to try to avert future acts like the one that they survived; if any of the students run for office, their association with Parkland will be a defining part of their political bio.

Trade name

Tide pods. In earlier generations, kids stuffed themselves into phone booths or swallowed goldfish; for a brief period ending in 2018, the equivalent stunt was for kids to swallow detergent packages. As with earlier fads, most kids didn't do this, but the few who did got tremendous attention, which became both an easy metonym for "dumb things that kids do for attention, 2018 edition" and a commentary on how social media drives this type of behavior vastly more effectively than before.

Fortnite. The most popular video game ever, Fortnite has enraptured the tween generation, both as players and as spectators. Twenty and thirty and forty years from now, people will be talking about what they probably will still think was the best game they ever played.

Miscellaneous name

Amazon Go (store). In January, Amazon opened a cashierless grocery store to the public. Customers who have the Go app can walk into the store, pick out their items, and just leave. Sensors in the store track their choices and automatically debit the user's account. The name is clever enough (you can just "go"), but more significantly, it heralds, or might, a new era in retail sales, as innovative as self-serve supermarkets were when they arrived. It's not impossible to imagine the brand name becoming genericized, and people talking about whether an establishment is a "go store."

#MPRaccoon (also #MPRRaccoon). (My personal favorite name of 2018.) For 2 days in June, it seemed like half the world was fretting about a raccoon in St. Paul who'd gotten trapped on the side of a 23-story building. People anxiously followed the critter's progress as it climbed the building and stopped to nap, and there was widespread relief when the raccoon got to the roof and was safely trapped. Not unexpectedly, people read a lot into this animal-interest story:

[1] You can follow the ADS votes in near real time via their Twitter feed. I don't know if the ANS will use their Twitter feed to also keep us up the minute on nominations and voting.

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  07:49 AM

I will not be attending the American Dialect Society's 2019 conference, which takes place next week in New York. This means I'll miss the highlight of the conference, which is the annual selection of the ADS Word of the Year. The nominating and voting meetings are raucous events that are hugely entertaining, even if you otherwise don't care one single fig for the rest of the ADS conference. (It's true; ask my wife.)

So this week for Friday words, instead of the normal, I'm going to list the words that I personally have been tracking for 2018.[1] Since anyone can nominate a word of the year, I also offer these as nominations in case anyone wants to present them at the live session.

To reiterate the pretty generous ADS criteria for nominations for WOTY:

  • doesn't have to be brand-new
  • needs to have shown a rise in popularity in 2018
  • can be a multiword phrase or compound

I'll mostly use the categories that ADS uses for their nominations, except that I have no particular hashtag to offer, and emoji? Not me. I have not actually picked winners here, for any category or overall. Feel free to vote for your favorite(s)!

Content warning: The list contains offensive terms and terms with possible political bias.

Political word of the year

There have been a lot of interesting words from politics this year. Here are the ones I found that I thought bubbled to the top of the 2018 heap.

chain migration
The process by which a legal resident of the US can sponsor the immigration of close family members. This is a Frank Luntz-worthy coinage that distills a complex issue into a sound bite to stir emotion.

shithole country
A term allegedly used by Trump to describe countries from which the US should not be accepting immigrants.

perjury trap
A question asked under oath whose purpose is to catch a witness in a lie.

crisis actor
An actor who portrays a victim of a crime or disaster. Used by conspiracy theorists to claim that certain disasters (such as school shootings) were staged.

deep state
According to right-leaning people, a cabal of bureaucrats working to undermine the current administration.

bottomless Pinocchios
A rating for political lies that have been repeated 20 or more times (multiple instances of 3- or 4-Pinocchio statements).

blue wave
The anticipated (and fulfilled) lopsided electoral victory of Democratic candidates during the 2018 midterm election.

Digital word of the year

I actually have 2 lists here. One is for digital terms likely to be used in ordinary conxtexts. The second is for terms that I see a lot at work—that is, emergent in the field of cloud computing.

Denying someone an outlet, whether on social media or in public forums, for espousing their views.

To aggregate a thread of Twitter posts into a single long-form page, using the Thread Reader App.

touchless technology
The use of gestures alone to control devices.

smart speaker
A wireless device that accepts voice commands and plays responses.

And here's my list of more "inside baseball" digital terms for 2018:

machine learning
A form of computing in which the computer system “learns” to perform tasks (such as identifying faces or predicting behavior) based not on prewritten algorithms, but instead based on analyzing a very large number of examples and deducing patterns.

An approach to software development that integrates development (programming) and IT operations in order to streamline delivery of features.

edge computing
A computer design in which the processing for the system is decentralized by distributing some of it to the “edge,” such as to IoT devices.

A form of cloud computing in which the mechanics of allocating compute resources (etc.) is left to the cloud provider, leaving the developer free to just write application code.

Slang/informal word of the year

My categorization starts to break down a bit here; the assignment of categories is a bit arbitrary.

To harass someone by calling in a false report of a crime at the victim’s address in the hopes of having emergency services respond (for example, a SWAT team).

Someone who is “involuntarily celibate”; generally associated with a subculture of men who hold (sometimes extremely) misogynistic views.

Most useful

Ineffective (“effect-less”). An old term that got a boost from Samantha Bee’s characterization of Ivanka Trump as a “feckless cunt.” (NB: the word “cunt” has a substantially milder connotation in the UK, especially Scotland, than it does in the US. For details, see the Strong Language blog.)

The cohort of people born between the Generation X and Millennial generations (late 1970s through early 1980s).

Most likely to succeed

birthday fundraising
The act of “donating” a birthday by asking well-wishers to support a charitable cause.

shadow banning
To restrict the visibility of a user’s social media posts without the user being aware of it, thus limiting the user’s reach without actually banning them.

Most creative

A person who is skeptical of the weight that was reported on the president’s medical report released in January. Based on the term birther for those who were skeptical about Obama’s birthplace.

“Confidently lecturing someone about a complicated issue on the basis of having watched one Ted talk about it.” (@JamieJBartlett on Twitter)

Euphemism of the year

executive time
Officially, unscheduled time on the president’s calendar, but widely thought to refer to the time the president spends watching TV or tweeting.

tender age shelter
The cages in which children are kept after being separated from their parents at the US border.

Individual 1
The unnamed owner of a company that the lawyer Michael Cohen worked for for 10 years, according to a court filing for the charges against Cohen.

WTF word of the year

emotional support peacock
Narrowly, a bird that a United Airlines passenger attempted to bring onto a flight as a therapy animal. More broadly, the point at which emotional support [creature] jumped the shark. (Ana Navarro in a tweet: “I think I need an emotional support peacock.”)

A viral sound test that asked listeners whether they heard “yanny” or “laurel.” (Jason Kehe of Wired used the term generically to describe the low audio quality of modern TV: “yanny/laurel times a million.”)

This is so sad Alexa play [artist/song]
A meme that represents ironic sadness, based originally on an innocuous tweet that someone posted when the cat ate their dinner.

bone saw
A normally unremarkable medical instrument that became a strange and unavoidable part of the narrative about the murder of the the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The full list

The lists above are culled from a fuller list of terms I was tracking. For completeness, I'll go ahead and list those here with minimal explanation, less the ones I've already listed.

[1] Other people have written about their personal WOTY nominations (for example, Nancy Friedman), but I've made it a point not to read those before I posted mine. I'm sure as soon as I see others' lists, I'll smack my forehead and exclaim "How could I have forgotten about that?!"

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[categories]   ,


  06:59 AM

By now, you've probably almost had your fill of the wall-to-wall seasonal customs. You've long since lost the LDB challenge and/or Whamaggedon. Your teeth are starting to go on edge when you hear "Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!" And you've probably seen enough ads and newspaper headlines that play on seasonal clichés: 'Twas the night before; naughty or nice; Christmas came early; deck the halls; Old Saint Nick.

Of these last, the one that seems to particularly invoke the ire of editors is 'tis the season. John McIntyre, who's been a copy editor for decades, offers a seasonal PSA to writers who might be thinking of slipping 'tis the season into an article. His suggestion for when it might be appropriate to use this phrase is pretty straightforward—never, never, never, never, never:

McIntyre has dispensed this advice a number of times, and he's found a ready audience among other editors, who've picked up the flag. Nancy Friedman has collected examples that show just how widespread 'tis the season is in seasonal ad copy.

Which, finally, brings me to the new-to-me word(s) for this week: 'tisses, 'tissing, and 'tisser. These refer, respectively, to examples of 'tis; the act of using 'tis; and one who uses 'tis. Thus in one of her posts, she cites someone saying "What I really want is to put those tisses out of business," which is a nice near-rhyme. In that same post, Nancy refers to "some news-media 'tissing" and "The 'tisses of Xmas Past." In a recent post, she referred to the company T&C as "a 'tisser." As you can deduce, 'tissing is not an admired activity, and being branded a 'tisser is not a compliment.

What struck me about these words, I think, is that they show a couple of interesting principles. The first is that 'tis is a now-unusual construction, at least in standard American English. Today, we'd say it's time to go to bed, not 'tis time to go to bed. In the word 'tis, the t is what's called a proclitic: it's a shortened version of a word (it)—not a full word, but not a prefix—that can be attached to the front of a verb. The t proclitic used to be common in English ('twas, 'twere, 'tain't), but today in American English these words are used primarily to sound olde-timey. (I think British English still uses 'tisn't and possibly other words that include the t proclitic.)

The other interesting thing about 'tisses and 'tissing is that they're examples of anthimeria: using a word as another part of speech. Take 'tis, pretend it's a verb, and you've got 'tissing. Pretend it's a noun and you can get 'tisses and 'tisser ("one who 'tisses").

English is a pretty amazing tool, even if people sometimes use it in clichéd ways.

And now a quick origins story. I’m currently enjoying Carl Zimmer's highly readable (if dauntingly long) book She Has Her Mother's Laugh. Early on he discusses how people groped for terms to describe what they were discovering about heredity. One term he included was germ, which gave me a kind of "d'oh" moment. Germs are microbeasts that make us sick, right? Why that word, tho?

Well, there's an older meaning of germ also: "bud" or "sprout" or "seed," which we still see in wheat germ and the metaphoric germ of an idea. Medicinally, germ was originally used to talk about the cause of a disease ("the germe of the small-pox"); when microbes were discovered, the name was attached to them.

The word germ goes back to Latin, and before that, to a root that means "beget." Related words (some distantly) are genetics, genitals, kin, nation, and genuine. And as we saw a few weeks ago, cognate. That gen root sure has a lot of offspring, haha.

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  07:30 AM

The new word I've learned recently that's been the most fun (or the funnest word, as some might say) has been dwarsligger. I got this from the lexicographer Jane Solomon, who linked to an article (or a narticle? see later) about them.

Dwarsliggers are small books that are bound like flipbooks—at the top rather than at the side, so to speak:

This format was invented by the Dutch printer Jongbloed, thus accounting for the definitely not-English flavor of the word, which means "crossways-lying" (dwar has to be related to athwart). The company has a patent on the format, which is supposed to make it easier to read, especially one-handed. What's interesting for us non-Dutch folks is that American publishers are now releasing dwarsligger-format books, starting with popular titles like the YA series by John Green. This Christmas therefore might present us with two gifts: dwarsligger editions of books we like, and the word dwarsligger itself.

On to origins. The other day I was reading something where the writer meant augur ("to foretell") but had used auger ("device for boring holes"). I thought I should double-check, which sent me to the dictionary, where I learned some interesting history behind both words.

First augur. This goes back to Latin, no surprise; an auger (note spelling, ha) in Rome was a priest-type person who read natural signs looking for omens. There are two theories about where this came from. One is that augur is related to avis ("bird"), since one of the natural signs being read was the behavior of birds. This seems not to hold up, in the sense that a word related to avis would have developed a different form than augur. A second theory is that augur is related to a word for "increase," which would make it a relative of augment and author (!). The thinking here is that these priest-type people were all about crop yields and increasing them.

Now auger, the tool. This was originally nauger, with an n on the front, an old Germanic word. But due to phonological confusion, the n wandered, so a nauger became an auger. This process is called misdivision or rebracketing. You'd think it would have been the type of mistake that was easily corrected ("Did you just say an auger? Dude, it's a nauger!"), but this happened back before we had easily consultable dictionaries, or dictionaries at all. And an auger was hardly the only example: rebracketing is also how we got an apron from napron, an adder from nadder, newt from an ewte, and others, and before it even got into English, orange from a Persian word narang.

It's almost sort of tempting to try an experiment in rebracketing. Start saying something like "I had a napple for a snack today" and see if people notice. And let us know what you find out.

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  10:50 PM

There was a flutter of discussion recently on social media (again) about who and whom. Mary Norris, an editor formerly of the The New Yorker, argues "So does civilization depend on the vulnerable 'whom'? Yes." John McIntyre, long-time editor at the Baltimore Sun, instead argues Just use "who"—in other words, forget about whom.

A not uncommon pro-whom position is that it's important to maintain the distinction for the sake of clarity. Is that true? I've been thinking about something I read recently about case marking in English, which is what the whole who/whom thing is theoretically about. We case-mark some words in English—that is, we change their form to indicate whether they are the subject or object in a sentence:

  • She called him and then sent them a text.

She is the subject; him and them are objects. We use specific forms of the pronouns here to indicate who's doing what. Just for fun, let's create a Very Incorrect Sentence:

  • *Her called he and then sent they a text.

I think we agree that in this sentence, the case marking for the pronouns is all wrong.

But let's look at a similar example:

  • Mary called John and then sent the editors a text.

Same sentence, only this time we use nouns instead of pronouns. Which is the interesting point: in all of English, we use case marking to distinguish subject and object for a mere seven words: I (me), he (him), she (her), we (us), they (them), who (whom), and whoever (whomever).

Notice what's missing in this list of case-marked words:

  • Other pronouns (you, it, the indefinite one). Unlike he, she, we, et al., these pronouns don't have distinct forms for subject and object.
  • Possessive pronouns (my, your, his, hers, its, our, their, mine, yours, ours, theirs, whose). Same: one form to mark them all.
  • Relative pronouns (that, which). Ditto.
  • Reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, themselves, oneself)
  • Determiners (a, an, the, this, that, these, each, every, any, all, some, no)
  • Cardinal and ordinal numbers (zero, one, two, second, twelfth)
  • Adjectives
  • Nouns

Why is this significant? Well, English used to mark all of these types of words for subject and object, back when English was still Old English/Anglo-Saxon. And languages like German and Russian still do mark them (well, nouns less so) even yet today. But we've lost subject and object marking on all of these types of words, all except that short list of seven, and we seem to be able to understand sentences just fine.

Here are a few example in which words of these types are acting in different roles. I've marked all of the terms that are acting as subject or object.

  • The owner herself gave it a thorough cleaning with the new vacuum cleaner that she just bought herself.
  • After Mary called you, she texted you the address. Did you get it?
  • My new phone beats my old phone by a mile.

Again, except the couple of words from the short list of seven marked words, nothing is explicitly marked. To pick out a few instances, in the first sentence, herself refers once to the subject and another time functions as an indirect object. In the second sentence, you plays the part of (in order) direct object, indirect object, and subject. In the third sentence, my works for both the subject and the direct object.

Is there any ambiguity about what function any of these words play in the sentence? No. We don't need to mark any of these words as subjects or objects because we can tell from just the word order. Consider these sentences:

  • My new teacher called you.
  • You called my new teacher.

Identical forms of the words, but the order of the words tells us who the subject and object is. That's true for all of the example sentences. In fact, you could even go back to the Very Incorrect Sentence and argue that in spite of the pronouns being all wrong, it's still pretty clear who did what, because we can make a very good case (haha) based on just the word order.

What we're experiencing in English is that who and whoever are moving off the already short list of case-marked words. In conversational English, and as McIntyre suggests, we get by without whom. It's hard to argue that this is affecting our ability to understand the role that who plays in a sentence. Have a look at these sentences:

  • Who did she call just now?
  • Who did you give it to?
  • Who does the insurance cover?
  • Tell me about the person who you met today.
  • I have three brothers, one of who is a doctor.
  • We don't know who we will hire.
  • Who's fooling who?

All of these sentences use who where it "should" be whom. But it's not possible for a native speaker to misunderstand the intent behind each.

If you want, you can maintain that whom has a place in English grammar, and we should use it correctly in formal writing. If you do, though, be clear about why losing whom is an issue. Maybe civilization hinges on the use of whom, as Mary Norris posits. But it's not because we're going to be confused if it follows the path of so many English words before it.


[3] |

  06:09 AM

Does it ever seem to you that the text on packages is overly friendly? Like this:

Lots of other people have also noticed, and the journalist Rebecca Nicholson even came up with a name for it: wackaging. The type of casual copy that we now see so often originated (or so goes the story) with a British smoothie company in 1999. As the company's copywriter recounts, "None of us were copywriters back then, we didn't have an agency to write stuff for us, and we had this space on our labels that we had to fill with something."

It started a trend, obviously, not that everyone loves it. As one definition has it, wackaging features copy that has a "cutesy and overly familiar tone" and is "infantilised." These are not admiring terms. But as always, we can be happy that we have a name for it.

Update  On Twitter, Tony Thorne reminds me that he wrote about wackaging a couple of years ago. (And from his post I just learned the word hypercasual.)

And for origins, another word history I learned recently from the Twitterverse. The editor MedEditor shared recently that he'd learned the origins of taser, the electronic weapon used to incapacitate someone. This word is actually a trademark, so to be correct, you should write it as Taser.

The story goes back to a series of books written for boys that featured the main character Tom Swift. Tom is in the vein of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, except that instead of solving mysteries, he has adventures. (Like Tintin, it occurs to me.) The plots of the books revolve around his technical bent—he tinkers with and later invents many gadgets that play a role in his adventures.

The Taser weapon was invented in the 1970s by a scientist named Jack Cover who was looking for a non-lethal weapon. Having been a fan of the Tom Swift books, he named his weapon Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, or TASER for short. This alluded to a specific book—Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle—published in 1911 and featuring a rifle invented by Tom that shot electricity instead of bullets. One thing that Cover seems to have done is to posit a formal name for Tom Swift (Thomas A. Swift) that might not be supported in the source materials, so to speak.

There are many interesting things about this whole Taser business. One is cultural—the original book has what we would now consider a pretty racist storyline about white men saving the poor natives. But there's also linguistic fun to be had. If you use a Taser on someone, you have … tased them? That's an excellent example of a back-formation: creating a word by chopping off part of an existing word and then using it in a new way. (Compare to burgle.) We might also speculate that taser could have been partly inspired by the word laser, which also began life as an acronym ("lightwave amplification [by] stimulated emission [of] radiation").

And since we're talking about Tom Swift, it would be sad not to take the opportunity to mention Tom Swifties, which are language jokes based on a stylistic quirk of the book series. In the presumably stringently imposed style of the books, Tom often says things with adverbial emphasis: "Come on!" cried Tom impulsively. A pun-type joke developed out of this in which the adverb is the joke:

"We have no oranges," Tom said fruitlessly.
"I forget what I was supposed to buy," Tom said listlessly.

If you like this sort of thing—and really, who wouldn't?—you can find a good selection of Tom Swifties on the ThoughtCo site.

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[2] |

  06:52 AM

The shopping season is in full swing, which means some of us might end up being victims of the Diderot effect. Let’s see if this sounds familiar. Suppose you remodel your kitchen; you’re not going to want to hang your ratty old pots on the new rack, so you go out and buy a whole new set of cookware. Or if you get a new suit, you might feel compelled to get some new shoes to go with it. Did you just get a new cellphone? It would not be surprising if you also decided to get a fancy new case, and a new set of headphones, and a new charger, even if your old one would work fine. One expense leads to another.

This kind of upgrade treadmill, so to speak, is named for the French philosopher Diderot, author of (among other things) the great Encyclopédie. Diderot was impecunious most of his career, but later in life came into some money. As he described in an essay, he bought himself a new dressing gown, but then became unsatisfied with his other stuff. So he bought a new chair and new desk to match the opulence of his new gown, and then upgraded his possessions in other ways until he’d spent way too much money.

The term Diderot effect was invented in 1988 by an anthropologist named Grant McCracken. The concept described by the name isn’t just about wanting to buy new stuff. More fundamentally, it describes how we create our identity through our things, and we want our things to have a kind of cohesiveness (i.e., we want them to complement one another). This is why, for example, we don’t hang our old pots in our expensive new kitchen; those things don’t complement one another. The phenomenon of Diderot effect also observes that we might pursue this until we fall into a spiral of destructive behavior—as Diderot himself did—by, in effect, trying to keep up with the image we have of ourselves.

Which reminds me, I’ve been thinking about getting a nice new case for my ukulele …

On to origins. Not long ago I learned a surprising etymology from Tom Freeman on Twitter. If you had to guess about where the word penguin comes from, what would you speculate? I mean, obviously it’s a borrowing from Old Antarctican, right? Or would be if there were such a language, or if people lived in Antarctica to speak it.

But no, it’s actually from … ready? Welsh. At least, that’s a popular theory. The purported origin is pen, meaning “head,” and gwyn, meaning “white.” (The word pen as “head” also appears in place names like Penzance; we see the gwyn part in names like Gwenyth and Gwendolyn.) But you might wonder why a bird found pretty much only in Antarctica would have been named by the Welsh. Also, do penguins even have white heads?

The idea is that the Welsh term originally applied to a different bird, the great auk, and has happens, when people encountered actual penguins, they named them after something familiar. (This also happened with turkey.)

And while you’re contemplating words that we got from Welsh, consider corgi, the dog, which comes from Welsh words meaning “dwarf dog.” At least that derivation is pretty clear.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.



  10:20 PM

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I got another chance to eavesdrop at leisure on grandboy J’s language development. (I did part 1 in April when he turned 2.)

The tl;dr is that he’s progressing quickly, as one would expect from a kid who’s 2-1/2 years old. He talks up a storm, and he’s reached a point where you interact naturally with him using language—that is, you talk to him assuming that he’ll understand you, and virtually everything he says makes sense. Of course, he makes errors, but they're interesting because they seem to tell us something about language development.


J has trouble with unvoiced th (/θ/), which he often pronounces as an /f/ (“wif,” “I’m firsty”). I thought I detected that he can produce soft th sounds (/ð/), as in the and this. This would not entirely make sense, and it's possible that for /ð/ he's producing /v/ sounds and I just wasn't hearing it.

He also has issues with /r/, which he sometimes pronounces as /w/ (“weally” for really). I didn’t pay close enough attention to determine whether he always does this.

J has trouble with some other clusters as well. The one that struck me was “code” for cold. There must be something systematic about that one, because I’ve heard some adults do something similar, like “woof” for wolf.


Those are Triceratopses.
Generalization of -s/-es as plural.

Guys, look!
Imperative; second-person plural vocative (guys).

Opa, knock down!
Used to mean both “I am knocking you down!” and “Knock me down!”

Can you take[ ]apart it?
Not yet recognizing take apart as a phrasal verb, or just a mistake in moving the particle to the end.

I don't know what happened.
Do-negation (don’t), subordinate clause.

Can I have it back?
Yes/no question inversion, have back as phrasal verb

George wants to go on a walk by himself.
Auxiliary (wants) with infinitive (to go) that’s part of an idiom (go on a walk); adverbial prepositional phrase with reflexive (by himself).

[Adult]: Do you want some almond croissant?
[J]: I want so much.
[Adult]: How many cashews do you want?
[J]: I want so many.
Distinguishing mass and count nouns (so much/so many == “a lot”)

I ate it all gone.
all gone == all up, presumably a generalization of something like It's all gone.

I want to go see who is that.
Auxiliary (wants) with infinitive (to go see), subordinate clause. J used wh-question syntax for the subordinate clause where who is the predicate nominative—interesting error.

[Adult]: He’s going to eat you!
[J]: I don’t want to be eaten!
Passive transformation in a clause with an auxiliary verb. This one impressed me.

She did a good job giving my hair a cut.
Possibly a generalization of indirect object (give [indirect-object] a [direct-object], e.g. give me a toy). But correct use of a gerund phrase (giving) following "good job [of]."

Irregular verbs

I bit it
The dragon flew away
I ate it

Correct use of ablaut in irregular verbs. But …

I drawed it
I breaked it

Generalized -t/-d applied to irregular verbs. And …

We camed over here
Blend—ablaut and dental.


J is still learning the semantic space for different words. We mostly noticed this because he seems insistent on using (and having others use) specific terms.

[J]: This is my digger.
[Adult]: Is that a backhoe?
[J]: No, it’s a digger.

But the next day …

[J]: This is my digger.
[Adult]: Oh, that’s a front loader.
[J]: This is my front loader!

J is going to another room.
[Adult]: Bye-bye!
[J]: I'm not leaving!
Bye-bye is reserved for going home or an otherwise more permanent parting.

[Adult]: Can you help me undo the Velcro on your shoes?
[J]: Those are straps!

Polite speech

J wields a number of phrases and sentences that seem to derive from adults’ corrections for tone and politeness. He's in preschool, which is probably the source for some of these.

Can I borrow that real quick?
i.e. Can I have that?

No, thanks! No, thanks!
Asking someone to stop tickling him

How's your day going so far?

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