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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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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 11/8/2019

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Posts - 2584
Comments - 2621
Hits - 2,184,228

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Entries/day - 0.43
Comments/entry - 1.01
Hits/day - 365

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 12:25 PM Pacific


  08:52 AM

I was reading this week about Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday, and ran across the term pizza effect. The article I was reading explained that the James Bond movie "Spectre" had a scene that was set during a Day of the Dead parade. That parade was a Hollywood invention for the movie script; there was no tradition of Day of the Dead parades.

Here's the thing, though: according to the article, ever since that movie came out, parades have become a part of Day of the Dead. This was the pizza effect in action: a tradition is exported from a culture and then re-imported in a new way. It's a form of cultural borrowing or cultural influence, with the twist that a culture is borrowing back something that started in its own culture.

The name pizza effect refers to actual pizza. Pizza was an Italian dish (pizza is a Neapolitan word) that was imported to the United States. In the US, the simple pie transformed into something much more elaborate, which was then exported—including back to Italy. (At least, that's a story for the how pizza effect got its name; whether pizza made a round trip in exactly this way is probably not important.)

One often reads about the pizza effect—perhaps surprisingly?—in terms of religion. I suppose the Day of the Dead example is a minor version of that. I also found references to it in a discussion of Hinduism and in a book called The World's Religions. There are examples of the pizza effect with words, sort of. One example is the word guard, which we got from French, but which had borrowed it from the Germanic word ward (weard in Old English). Maybe you could say that the musical British Invasion of the 1960s that brought (originally American) blues music to white American audiences is another version of the pizza effect.

The phrase pizza effect was coined in the 1970s, but we'd have to assume that "re-enculturation" (another term for the pizza effect) has probably been in effect for as long as there have been cultures to borrow from.

On the origins front this week, a word popped up when I was reading about olde-tyme military stuff. Why were certain types of cavalry soldiers called dragoons? (I bet that people who write or edit historical fiction know all about this.)

Dragoons were not just mounted on horses; they also were armed with handguns. These were pretty heavy weapons—as one page puts it, they were smaller versions of a blunderbuss. Here's the fun part: these handguns were called dragons. I find two stories for why the guns got this name. One story is that the hammer on the gun was shaped like a dragon. The more interesting story is that the gun "breathed fire."

The soldiers who carried these "dragons" became (in French) dragoons, and eventually the word applied to any type of horse-mounted, gun-bearing troop. The noun spawned the verb to dragoon [into], "to compel," which originally referred to the actions of French troops who were sent to make trouble for Protestants.

I suppose the same naming process gave us lancers, carbineers, and even archers. But somehow those names don't seem as evocative as soldiers with their fire-breathing weapons.

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  04:06 PM

I don’t feel like technical terms are necessarily fair game for Friday words, but I ran across one this week that seemed like it might (?) be useful in other contexts. To set the stage, I’ll quote a blog post about it:

In the engineering world, we have a habit of creating a lot of things, yet have a very difficult time retiring things, whether those things are projects, hardware, automated test cases, etc. I guess to some degree engineers can be hoarders. […] But this becomes costly and inefficient. So what do you do to clean up the artifacts left running just because everyone is afraid to turn them off or delete them?

The solution—well, a solution—is to use a method called the scream test. To implement a scream test, you take things away and wait to see if someone screams, heh. “Hey, where did that file go?!” might be a result you get in response to a scream test.

I liked a few things about the term scream test. One is that it’s not easy to tell from the expression what it means. Scream is not the object of the test—you’re not testing for loudness, pitch, whatever; compare blood test. It’s not the means by which the test is performed—no one is screaming in order to perform the test; compare stress test. Instead, in a scream test, scream tells you what you’re testing for; compare leak test. (I suppose it doesn’t hurt that it rhymes with screen test, though it would be hard to make a case that that was why they chose that name.)

I also was thinking about how scream test applies in everyday life. We just moved to a smaller apartment, and we’re putting many things into a separate storage unit that we’re renting. We’re performing a kind of scream test: put stuff out of reach and then see after some period—month? year?—whether we ever missed it, i.e. whether we “scream” about not having it. If we don’t, it probably means we can “permanently delete” the artifact.

Anyway, there are probably other examples of where scream test applies outside of the context where the idea was born. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Origins. I was reading Don’t Believe a Word, a new book about language by David Shariatmadari. Just in passing, he mentioned the origin of the word parliament. This is a legislative body, of course. Why would it be called that?

Well, one thing that members of a parliament do a lot is talk. And therein lies the origin: the parlia- part of the word refers to talking or discourse. A parliament is a group of people who parley. One might say that they often engage in palaver. In Spanish, the same root evolved into palabra, the word for “word.” Another, more distant relative is parable.

A seemingly odd instance of the word parliament is as a name for a grouping of owls; compare a murder of crows. A parliament of owls is one of those madey-uppy terms of venery; it’s not a native English term that you’ll find in most dictionaries, the way you find words like herd or flock. Even so, I wondered why someone would have decided that an assemblage of owls should be a parliament. Because owls, like, talk so much? The best explanation I can find is that owls are associated with wisdom (Athena, all that), and that a group of them is … wise? … in the way that a deliberative body is? As if, haha.

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  11:06 PM

I don’t edit fiction, let alone write it, so there’s a bunch of vocabulary associated with fiction that’s new to me. Not long ago I ran across the word ficlet. This is a piece of short—very short—fiction. You’ll see different thoughts about just how long “short” is, but a common idea is that a ficlet is about 1000 words long. As one Twitter exchange put it, it’s microfiction.

Once you know that, you can see that it’s constructed from a shortened form of fiction (see also: fanfic) plus the suffix -let, which is a diminutive: booklet, platelet, leaflet, piglet. (One site disparages the term ficlet, but admits that "ficlet’s only saving grace is that it's at least better than ‘ficcie’.”)

The term ficlet seems to be mostly associated with the world of fanfic. One page says that the length is “able to fit in the space of one message board,” which is where the 1000-word length seems to come from.

While I was looking into ficlet, I ran across the related word drabble. If a ficlet is a piece of fiction that’s 1000 words long, a drabble is more constrained yet: it’s 100 words or less. A double drabble is 200 words or less; a pentadrabble is 500 words; a half-drabble is 50 words. Alternatively, there’s a school of thought that a drabble must be exactly 100 words (not counting the title), which would certainly make for an interesting writing challenge. (I think that if you want to stir things up in the fanfic community, post your opinions about the word count in a ficlet and a drabble.)

According to a glossary I found, the word drabble comes from a Monty Python bit in which “the first person to write a novel wins,” The term was adapted for a contest by the Birmingham University SF Society (in the UK), which apparently decided that 100 words was more manageable than a whole novel.

These terms, along with variations (flashfic, short-short, vignette, snippet, one-shot, Imagine), kind of make me wonder how I’d do at these highly constrained writing exercises. I don’t wonder so much that I’m actually likely to try to find out, tho.

For surprising origins today, an interesting parallel between languages. Someone had a Twitter thread about terms that are formed the same way in different languages. A commenter noted that English forgive is the same as Spanish perdonar (for=per, give=donar, as in donate). This blew my mind.

Naturally, I had to look up where the word pardon came from. Sure enough: we got pardon via French from a medieval Latin term perdonare. The original sense was theological; in Chaucer, the Pardoner sold papal indulgences.

There is some speculation that forgive and pardon are calques, or loan-translations, meaning that a word is translated into another language piece by piece. One source says that Latin might have calqued pardon from Germanic; Douglas Harper suggests that Germanic might have calqued forgive from Latin. Either way, now that it’s been pointed out to me, the relationship between the words is obvious.

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  09:24 PM

A while back I picked up the word tankie. In the sense that I learned it, this has a pretty specific meaning that references the politics of the past. But perhaps it has some relevance today.

In 1956, there was an uprising in Hungary against Soviet rule. This initially looked like it was going well. But after a few weeks, the USSR sent in troops and tanks and crushed the rebellion.

In the West, the heavy-handed Soviet response disillusioned many people who had previously been supportive of the idea of communism. But some true believers—especially in Britain—supported the Soviet reaction out of ideological purity. These people were pejoratively referred to as tankies, for their support for the Russian tanks that were unleashed on the protestors.

As I say, the word is old and seems specific to another time. But according to the SJWiki, tankie can have an expanded meaning:

More broadly, the term may refer to any leftist who is perceived to support or defend authoritarian regimes on the basis that they are enemies of the United States. This can include regimes that are not and do not claim to be communist such as those of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Bashir al-Assad in Syria.

Of course, in this expanded definition, the word tank is no longer relevant. (Altho I suppose it might be with respect to the Tiananmen Square massacre.) The central idea is that anyone who's an enemy of the US might be worth supporting, no matter how bad their ideology or human-rights record.

Update (22 Oct 2019): Nancy Friedman notes that she covered tankie (with more detail) as one of her words of the week back in 2018. For more on this term, including its use to describe a dog coat, go read her blog entry.

While we contemplate how tankie might play out in today's world, let's turn to origins. In a discussion about cats today, the word dander came up. Though what actually happened was that the word dandruff came up to mean dander. Which made me wonder whether dandruff was related to dander and/or where the word came from.

So, to start, yes, dander and dandruff seem to be related. If you look up dander in the sense of the stuff that collects on cat fur, they refer you to dandruff. Is it perhaps surprising that dandruff is the older term? It was to me.

We've had it in English since the mid-1500s. And it's interesting to see that people have been looking for cures for at least that long—here's a suggestion recorded in 1601: "The iuice of Garlick..beeing taken in drinke cleanseth the head from dandruffe." The alternate term dander dates from the 1800s.

Disappointingly, the etymology of dandruff is listed as "of unknown origin." Douglas Harper, who is not afraid to go where the OED fears to tread, suggests that the ruff part might be an old dialect term for "scab" and might have also been related to the Old English word for "leper." (He also includes the wonderful information that older English words for dandruff are bran, furfur, and scales.)

You might wonder how the expression get your dander up figures into all this. This is an American expression that seems to be from the 19th century. It might refer to dander in the sense of dandruff/dander. Or it might be related to a now-obsolete sense of dander to mean "ferment," which might come from a Spanish verb redundar ("to overflow").

All in all, not an entirely satisfactory delve into word history. That just happens sometimes, oh well.

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  10:08 AM

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about nootropics, or "smart drugs." Naming consultant Nancy Friedman pointed me to another article that mentions the movie Limitless, about a writer who uses a "mysterious pill" to unlock his super abilities. The article notes that it's "a classic tragedy of hubris to hamartia."

The word hamartia was new to me.[1] I was generally familiar with the concept, I think. Stated simply, hamartia is the idea that a tragedy is the result of a fatal flaw or fatal error committed by the protagonist. This was formulated in Aristotle's Poetics, where he describes a tragedy that consists of a noble person who enjoys good fortune but who is brought down not by "villainy" but by a mistake. (In Greek, hamartanein is "to err.")

A lot of thinking has gone into how hamartia manifests. Sometimes the hero makes the error unwittingly, like Oedipus unknowingly killing his father. Sometimes circumstances force the character into the mistake that results in tragedy. After the Greeks, hamartia came to include the idea of a moral failing or inherent flaw, like Othello's jealousy. There's a sense that the tragedy plays out as a kind of fate beyond a person's control—the will of the gods. Or as described by Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers"—a phrase that appears in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, suggesting the inevitability of the outcome. Hamartia is often paired with hubris (as in the article)—that is, with excessive pride—that can in itself be the fatal flaw. ("Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall," Proverbs 16:18)

I suppose for the next little while, I'll be obsessing about hamartia as I watch drama on TV. How did hamartia factor into Game of Thrones? Is it a force in HBO's Succession? That one we'll have to wait to see. And, ahem, not to mention keeping tabs on current events.

(Now that I think about it, I was looking into the origins of tragedy not long ago. I hope this is not some sort of foreshadowing.)

Origins. I'm reading a book about cats, which starts with a natural history of Felis catus. As I learned, the wildcat from which our housecats descend had (has) what are called Mackerel tabby markings. And where does the word tabby come from, anyway? John Bradshaw, the author, gives us the story.

This is another one of those words that's wandered quite a bit. (See also marzipan in FW #145.) We got the word tabis from French, where it was used for a type of silk that was originally striped. Starting in the 1600s, the word tabby was used in English to refer to silk taffeta, a sense that survived till at least the late 1800s.

The word was applied to cats starting in the 1700s to describe the striped markings of a tabby cat, and from there a cat that had such markings. ("The civet..varies in its colour, being sometimes streaked, as in our kind of cats called Tabbies.")

Winding further back, French got its word tabis from Arabic attabi, which came from the area (Attabiyah) in the city of Baghdad where the silk was first made. The neighborhood in Baghdad was named for a certain prince Attab.

To reiterate: A prince gives his name to a neighborhood, which becomes a name for the silk made there, which becomes a generic name for (striped) silk, which becomes a word for the striped coat of a cat. Words really do make some amazing journeys sometimes.

[1] And here's me, a humanities major. Sad.

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  07:59 AM

Today's new-to-me word—and I must remind you that these Friday words are about words that are new to me—was one of those things where you hear (read) a word and then it's everywhere. The term is sapiosexual, which is defined as being sexually attracted to someone because of their mind. As an article in Seventeen magazine puts it, "smart is sexy." (One of my excuses for not previously knowing the word is that I don't spend time on dating sites, and thank goodness.)

This is definitely not a new-new term; apparently on dating apps you can specify it as one of your attributes. The Merriam-Webster folks don't list the term in their dictionary, but they have it on their watchlist.

The sapio part is a Latin term for "wisdom" or "taste." We see it words like savvy and savant (Spanish: saber, French: savoir-faire). It shows up in the binomial name for our species (Homo sapiens). It lurks in a word like insipid ("lacking taste; bland").

Someone named Torin/Darren WhoEver claims to have invented the word in 1998, according to a Livejournal post from 2002. That’s possible, but it's also not impossible that the term was invented more than once. We have a number of words that include -sexual (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and several more), so it's been established as a combining form for a while. Anyway, whoever invented the term, adding sapio- was definitely a clever twist.

The word sapiosexual has a straightforward definition, but using it to describe oneself can engender certain … opinions. The second definition in Urban Dictionary describes sapiosexual as "Something you put on your dating profile if you want to be pretentious." And as the Twitter user The Maine Millennial noted wryly …

Every guy's a sapiosexual until he meets a woman who is smarter than he is

So, profile-writer beware. Even if it's true that you love others for their minds, it might be wise not to actually say that.

A quick word history today, inspired by something I found while we were culling books:

Title page of a Rand McNally atlas from 1937

This was an atlas given to my father when he was a boy. It turns out that various parts of the world were organized quite differently in 1937.

It made me wonder why we use the word atlas for a book of maps. Well, it's an eponym: it refers to Atlas, the Titan in Greek mythology who was condemned to hold up the sky (the "celestial sphere").

How it got to be the term for a book of maps: the geographer Mercator wrote a book that was published in 1595 with the title "Atlas or Cosmographic Meditations on The Fabric of the World and The Figure of the Fabrick’d." (In Latin, of course.) This book discussed the history of the world, but Mercator, being a cartographer, also included many maps. The frontispiece has a color plate showing Atlas contemplating the world.

Although Mercator's book was not the first collection of maps, and although he didn't intend it to be just a collection of maps, his title became a generic term for such a collection. Moral: be careful with your book titles, kids, lest they become generic terms.

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  11:07 AM

I of course work with many nerds. I was in a meeting at work the other day when someone explained that they had been working on a task but had not been able to finish. Instead, they'd gotten sidetracked with creating a script to do the work. "Sorry, I'm easily nerd-sniped," they concluded.

I got the sense immediately, I thought—that is, they'd gotten caught up in an interesting task. But I didn't think I'd ever heard it expressed as nerd-sniped before. So I had a look. The term seems to have originated in an xkcd cartoon[1]:


(I had to rearrange the panels so they'd fit here, sorry.)

Randall Munroe, the xkcd author, presents nerd sniping as a competitive sport that picks on certain types of victims. But it also works as a general term of sending someone (perhaps oneself) down an interesting path that disrupts whatever one is supposed to be working on.

Michael Graham, a.k.a. Engineer Dog, wrote a blog entry in which he teased out some threads from Munroe's original cartoon. For example, he theorizes about why certain people might be more susceptible to being nerd-sniped:

While it sounds like a joke, nerd sniping is kind of a serious problem for some folks. Engineers in particular are highly susceptible because of our natural curiosity and fondness for creative problem solving. It’s not difficult to find something that will draw our attention away from the current task at hand and replace it with a new problem to figure out.

He also notes a difference between being nerd-sniped and just wasting time:

If you’re looking at Facebook when you should be working then at least you understand that you’re not going to accomplish anything. A snipe, on the other hand, is disguised as productive activity. When you come across a new and interesting project that you simply must work on immediately, you do so at the cost of anything else you could be doing with your limited resources. While it still feels like you are making progress on your to-do list, in reality you are no better off than when you started.

This is what happened to my colleague. They got entranced by an interesting problem and welp, there went the rest of the day: nerd-sniped.

Ok, on to origins. This week my wife looked up from her reading and asked, "What's a gibbous moon again?" Uh … I had to look it up also. It's a phase of the moon between half and full. There's a waxing gibbous moon and a waning gibbous moon. (One reason we're not as familiar with gibbous as we might be is that at our house, a gibbous moon is referred to as a "potato moon.")

Whence the word gibbous? The word gibbus was Latin for "hump." This led in later Latin to a word gibbosus, which was a term for "humpbacked." According to a "Did you know?" note on the Merriam-Webster site (short answer: I did not), gibbous was a general term for the rounded features of plants or animals. For example, there's a cite in the OED from 1577: "The forme of the lyuer is gibbous or bunchy on the backside." As late as 1879, someone was described as having "a gibbous chest."

In astronomy, the term gibbous was used to describe the moon as far back as the late 1600s. There are more cites about the gibbous moon, but the term can also apply to other discs that show phases. ("Many moons and planets full, Crescent, or gibbous-faced.")

Now that I know this, it feels like it would be a service to the language to reintroduce gibbous in its more general sense. For example, I could describe my own belly as gibbous. Hmm. Maybe I'll have to think about this some more.

[1] Strange then that I don't remember having heard the term before; xkcd is practically required reading in tech fields.

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  09:31 AM

I got this week's new-to-me word from an article about the Washington Redskins, the American professional football team whose mascot has for years been embroiled in controversy. The article claims that the team has used pretendians to suggest that the mascot does not bother Native Americans. Pretendians, as the article explains, are people who claim to have Native American heritage, but who don't. (The article says that if you survey real Native Americans, you get a quite a different picture about whether the mascot is offensive.)

The pretendian phenomenon is interesting sociologically. As one blog post explains, some people seem drawn to the idea of having native ancestry, based on weak or no evidence, and become enamored of its manifestations; they'll often appropriate those manifestations, or their interpretations of them. And some people go further and exploit their supposed connection, such as checking boxes for ethnic origin.

Anyway, back on topic. The word pretendian is also interesting in a couple of wordish ways. It seems to be a portmanteau of pretend + Indian. The -ian part also works because -an/-ian is a general suffix for, among other things, people associated with a thing. Thus Chicagoan and Republican and dietician and guardian. (And, ahem, Indian as a demonym.) This second thing—the -ian suffix—means that pretendian could theoretically mean anyone pretending to be any particular thing. But as far as I can tell, the word is used only for people making some sort of claim on Native American ethnicity.

For origins today, I have a medical term with a surprisingly fanciful origin: syphilis. We get all our medical terms from Latin, right? Yes, but. The word comes from "Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus," a poem written in Latin in the 1500s by the Italian doctor Girolamo Fracastoro. The title translates as "Syphilis, or the French Disease." (The Italians thought that syphilis had been introduced to their country by French troops.)

Syphilus (in the original spelling), the protagonist of the poem, was a shepherd who suffered from the malady. In the poem, Syphilus watches flocks for King Alcithous, but the god Sirius …

… threw the fire of his rays on these fields. A torrid heat burned the earth; the forests had no shade, the breeze was no longer cool. Syphilus saw his animals dying.

Syphilus is upset by this and tells Sirius that King Alcithous's power "is greater than thine and that of all the other gods." He also gets others to turn away from Sirius. Sirius doesn't like that:

In his anger, he charges his rays with pestilential poisons and virulent miasms, which simultaneously infect the air, the earth and the waters. At once upon this criminal earth there arises an unknown plague. Syphilus is the first attacked by it, on account of having been the first to profane the sacred altars. A hideous leprosy covers his body; fearful pains torture his limbs and banish sleep from his eyes. Then, this terrible disease—known since then among us by the name of Syphilis—does not take long to spread in our entire nation, not even sparing our King himself.[1]

So there you have it: syphilis the disease is named for a shepherd who pissed off a deity. Normally our medical eponyms are based on the name of the person who first described a disease. Syphilis, on the other hand, is a rare case of a disease named not only for a victim, but of a fictional victim to boot. There's some trivia you can roll out at your next dinner party.

[1] I got the prose translation of the original Latin from a 1911 book digitized on the Internet Archive site. There doesn't seem to be an individual credit, tho.

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  10:16 AM

Today's new-to-me word pertains to a certain musical genre. As an introduction, have a listen to this theme song from a classic arcade game:

Those old games had lively theme songs—Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, all those. The music and sound effects were clever and even tuneful, which was impressive, considering how primitive the sound-generating (synthesizing) capabilities were of the early consoles. Anyway, soon enough the hardware got better, and the sound effects got better, and today we get movie-quality sound from game consoles.

But. Some people have a fondness for the lo-res sound of those games, and there are people who love challenges. The result is the new-to-me word: chiptune, otherwise known as keygen or 8-bit music. This is, broadly speaking, music that sounds like it was created on those old machines. The ChipTunes=WIN! blog has a good definition:

Chipmusic at its core is electronic music created utilizing the chipsets from vintage video game and computing systems through both hardware & software. Examples of hardware include, but are not limited to, the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Commodore 64, and Amiga. Examples of software include, but are not limited to, LSDJ, Famitracker, Renoise, Deflemask, and Open MPT. Chiptune is essentially an instrument and/or a medium, used to create all styles and genres imaginable.

There's some discussion/hair-splitting about "classic" chiptune (created on real 8-bit hardware) versus emulated chiptune. We can leave that to the practitioners, and I'll assume a broad definition for the term.

Some artists create chiptune music that specifically takes advantage of the sonic character of the 8-bit sound generators. For example, on that same blog, they point to a song named "Strange Comfort" by an artist named Bit Shifter:


(This is on SoundCloud; you might need an account?)

People also reinterpret music from other genres as chiptune music. A dude named Vinheteiro does classical covers using 8-bit sound synthesizers:

What really piqued my interest and inspired this entry was finding a chiptune "tribute" to the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. Behold Kind of Bloop:

I don't think I'll trade in the originals for chiptune versions of "Freddie the Freeloader" and "All Blues," but it sure did show me what people could do with this technology.

Update (20 Sep 2019) Someone found this video that recounts the history of sound capabilities on personal computers from classic 8-bit to CD quality:

For today's fun origins, we turn to baseball, which begins its yearly wrapup. (Alas, the basement-dwelling Mariners will be spectators for all of the playoffs.) Where do we get the word umpire?

I was quite surprised to read that this is another example of misdivision or rebracketing. The word as we got it from French was originally noumpere, but the initial n wandered: a noumpere became an oumpere. (We covered this before with an auger).

The original French provides slightly more of a clue about the origin. The word is a variant on nonper, or "non-peer." This referred to someone who was not an equal—by implication, higher—than others. This makes sense with the notion that an umpire is someone who adjudicates in disputes (an arbitrator), and whose decision is binding. The sports sense of umpire is just a domain-specific version of this role; it's been used as a sports term since the early 1700s.

By the way, if you're interested in the ins-and-outs (get it?) of baseball umpiring, I can recommend the Umpire Bible site that was created by former colleague Nick. I would no more umpire a baseball game than I'd do a self-appendectomy, yet I still find it to be interesting reading.

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  08:17 AM

I think that anyone who watches politics and words can guess what this week's new-to-me word is going to be. But just in case, here's the background.

On September 1, President Trump tweeted that Hurricane Dorian would hit several states, including Alabama. Some people, including the National Weather Service, responded by noting that Alabama was in fact not in danger. Trump defended his assertion, and then—here's where our story really begins—on September 4 he provided an update in which he showed a poster on which the hurricane cone map had apparently been extended with what looked like a marker to cover parts of Alabama:

I don't have any commentary on the map stuff. What interested me was that the situation instantly got a name and a hashtag on Twitter: #Sharpiegate; slightly less interestingly, it was also dubbed #Mapgate. Both names are testaments not only to people's playfulness with language, but are more examples of the enduring power of the -gate suffix. (In case it's not clear, Sharpie is a brand name for a type of marker.)

Let's talk about that for a moment. The -gate suffix came about in the 1970s. It was originally part of a name: the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. In that name, the -gate part was what's sometimes called a cranberry morpheme—a word part (morpheme) that distinguishes the word, but that doesn't otherwise mean anything.

Then came the scandals of the Nixon presidency. These began with a bungled burglary at the DNC headquarters, which happened to be in the Watergate office complex. Soon the name of the hotel became a metonym for the entirety of the high crimes and misdemeanors, becoming Watergate-the-scandal, which ultimately brought down the administration.[1]

From that point, the -gate suffix went from being a cranberry morpheme that had no inherent meaning to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix (for "liberated affix," more or less). This is a morpheme that's broken off from its source, has developed its own meaning, and can be combined in new ways. (There are many libfixes. Others you undoubtedly know are constituent parts of cheeseburger, frankenfood, and mansplain.)

When the libfix -gate broke off from Watergate, it carried along the sense of "scandal" and boy, has it ever been useful. There's a Wikipedia page of -gate scandals, including Deflategate (NFL), Dieselgate (VW), Emailgate (HRC), Gamergate, and Troopergate (3 different scandals). Satisfyingly, Sharpiegate has already been added.

Update (22 Sep 2019): Fans of the HBO show Succession might have caught a -gate reference during an early conversation in Season 2, Episode 7 ("Return") , which aired tonight:

Fun. Ok, just a quick delightful origin today. Tragedies are sad, of course. Etymologically speaking, though, it's not clear why they should be. The Greek roots of tragedy are tragus and oid, which respectively mean "he-goat" and "song, ode."

There are theories about this, but no certainty. One theory is that at contests, a winning playwright won a goat. Or that thespians wore costumes made of goatskins. The word might have been modeled on rhapsody ("stitched-song").

Update: On Twitter, Florent Moncomble notes that "there is also a hypothesis that the genre may have its origins in the song accompanying the sacrifice of male goats during the festival of Dionysus."

It's also possible that tragus doesn't refer to goats at all. We just don't know, but since we don't, I'm totally down with tragedies being goat-songs.

[1] For an excellent history of the whole Watergate affair, check out season 1 of the Slow Burn podcast.

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