About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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The scientific handicapper will never beat the horses, but he will learn to be alert for subtleties that escape the less trained eye. To weigh and evaluate a vast grid of information, much of it meaningless, and to arrive at sensible, if erroneous, conclusions, is a skill not to be sneezed at.

— Richard Russo



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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 4/20/2018

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 2:34 AM Pacific


  06:29 AM

In case you missed it: Thursday was the 90th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Ben Zimmer reports:
My term for this week is brand new, for a change. It isn’t a very practical one, but I was pretty amused by it: Silurian Hypothesis. Suppose that humans are not the first industrial civilization that arose on earth. If there had been another florescence of civilization, say, 60 million years ago, how would we know? After all, the big cities of the Maya all but disappeared after just a few centuries, and we have only the faintest traces of pre-Biblical habitations in the Middle East. 60 million years ago is geologic time; entire mountain chains have come and gone in that time.

This was the gist of an interesting thought-experiment by a couple of scientists that resulted in the paper “The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?” Since such a civilization could not have been human (we’ve only been around 300,000 years), it would have to be some other species. Thus the Silurian Hypothesis: maybe they were lizard-people. Silurian comes from the TV show “Dr. Who.” In that show, Silurians are (per Wikipedia) “depicted as prehistoric and scientifically advanced sentient humanoids who predate the dawn of man.”


Silurians?

To be clear, the scientists don’t think any of this actually happened. The thought experiment was about our own civilization, how we might be affecting the planet, and what sorts of traces we’re leaving. You can read about this all over the place this week; I first read about it in an article in The Atlantic. Although it seems like a long shot, I hope that Silurian Hypothesis becomes something that shows up in textbooks 20 years from now.

Speaking of traces, how about some word origins. Not long ago I again heard the expression “box his ears,” which made me wonder where box came from. In this sense, box means a blow with the hand; obviously, the word boxing (as in the sport) is essentially the same term.

Rather unsatisfactorily, it seems no one knows for sure. There are somewhat similar words in other Germanic languages: beuk (Dutch), bask (Danish), bochen (Middle High German). The experts at OED apparently don’t find these similarities compelling enough to posit a direct connection. They speculate. Maybe it was onomatopoeia; maybe it was “school slang” based on a Greek word; maybe it’s some play on box, as in container. Wherever it came from, it was established in English by the 1300s. Boxing as a verb goes back at least to the 1500s. That will have to do, alas.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  07:25 AM

Earlier this month I made a long-delayed upgrade to Office 365. My life hasn’t yet been transformed, but I guess I could give it a few more days.

For this week, I have another one of those terms that you didn’t realize you needed, but you can immediately appreciate: the cobra effect. This refers to an attempted solution for a problem where the solution not only doesn’t work, it makes the problem worse. And it comes from an actual effect with actual cobras. Or so goes the story.

Per the article where I learned this term, during British colonial times, the city of Delhi had a problem with too many cobras. (How many is too many? As far as I’m concerned, anything more than zero cobras is too many.) So they offered a bounty for cobra skins. This worked, in that they got a lot of skins and paid a lot of bounties. But it didn’t solve the problem; the locals, responding to principles generally taught in Economics 101, started breeding cobras, because hey, money. The cobra population did not diminish.

But wait, there’s more. When the British realized that their bounty program wasn’t working, they (reasonably) decided to stop paying a bounty. The locals were now stuck with a bunch of cobras that weren’t worth anything. They let them all go. In the end, Delhi had even more cobras than when the whole program began.

The incident gave us a name for the phenomenon, via German: Der Kobra-Effekt was the name of a book written in 2001 by a German economist about this phenomenon of unforeseen consequences, or blowback. There’s some debate about whether the cobra incident actually occurred. Whatever, that’s the name now. There are of course numerous additional examples; there was a similar incident with a rat bounty in Hanoi. And at a larger scale, Prohibition in the US not only didn’t prevent people from drinking alcohol, it led to a vast expansion of organized crime. One might also consider the historical effects of protective tariffs, like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Does one ever suspect that one has unleashed an instance of the cobra effect? Discuss.

My etymological investigations today involve three types of butts, and was once again inspired by conversation at work with Colleague Jay. We started with scuttlebutt, in the sense of gossip. Where could such a strange word have come from? And Colleague Jay wondered whether it had any relationship to Boston butt, a cut of pork. (If you’re counting, that’s two types of butts; bear with me.)

To answer Jay’s question, no: the butt in scuttlebutt is not the butt in Boston butt. The meat butt is the same as the “butts-in-seats” butt, which is to say, buttocks. In meatpacking, that applies to cuts made from those regions. Fun citation out of the OED from a 15th-century cookbook: “Tak Buttes of pork and smyt them to peces.” This sense of butt goes back to an old Germanic word that basically means the thick end of a thing. The word manifests in other languages, for example, as the word for a stump.

Anyway, this is not the butt of scuttlebutt. That particular butt refers to a container—a large barrel (120 gallons, or 2 hogsheads). In the days of sail, ships had scuttlebutts of water, where scuttle or scuttled meant that the butt had a hole cut in it. (When you want to scuttle a ship, you put a hole below its waterline.) The “barrel” sense of butt came into English from (where else?) French, and goes back to a Latin word buttis. Hey, guess what, that makes it a cousin of the word bottle.

The word scuttlebutt came to mean gossip because sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt and talk. As Douglas Harper observes, this makes scuttlebutt an old version of water-cooler talk.

So there you have three versions of butt: meat from the thick end; a large barrel; and, as a bonus, scuttlebutt as gossip. And those are just the ones we’re interested in today; the OED lists 14 definitions for butt as a noun, and 3 as a verb. You gotta love these rich words.

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  12:16 PM

We’re having an extended-family (as opposed to extended family) outing to Long Beach, WA. Where at this time of the year you wear your raincoat to go down to the outdoor pool.

I’m sure you know the term vanity plate to mean a personalized auto license plate where you create your own combination of numbers and letters. (At least, you can do this in some or all US states; I’m not sure if the idea is common in other countries.) Some fun: Daniel Nussbaum rewrote the Oedipus story using only vanity plates from the state of California: Oedipus the King (of the Road).

I recently learned that vanity plate is also a term for a credit that identifies the production company for a TV show or movie. For TV shows, vanity plates typically follow the credits; for movies, they’re often at the beginning. Some are static (hence vanity plate or vanity card), but a lot are animated. Surely one of the most recognizable vanity plates is the MGM lion:



But you might recognize many others as well (all videos): the Disney castle animation, the Dreamworks fishing kid, the Paramount flying stars, as but three examples. I like the vanity plate for Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company:



As noted in the TV Tropes article where I learned this, contemporary media often involve multiple production companies. This can lead to long sequences of vanity plates, which people can find irritating. Now that I know more about vanity plates, tho, I will probably be more interested in those efforts rather than annoyed at the delay in starting the movie.[1]

For word origins this week it’s back to the kitchen. From a recent tweet by freelance linguist Gretchen McCulloch I learned that biscuit originally meant “twice cooked.” The original is theorized to have been biscoctum panem, meaning “twice-baked bread” in medieval Latin, referring to the type of hard bread that was fed to seaman on voyages. (I guess this is aka hardtack.) The same word shows up in Italian as biscotto and in Spanish as bizcocho, both of course referring to baked goods; the Italian version, at least, seems still to reflect the “twice” aspect of the name.

Update I realized belatedly that the bread called Zwieback likewise means "twice-baked" in German and possibly other languages.

It might be slightly surprising that the “twice” meaning is not in bi- but in bis-. The cuit part comes ultimately from the Latin word coquere, meaning “to cook.” And that bis- goes back via a d > b transformation I don’t know about to duis.

In English, the definition of biscuit has shifted. In British English, a biscuit is what we in the US call a cookie or cracker. This retains a sense of small and flat. In the US, on the other hand, a biscuit is a kind of soft bread, more like a scone, often using soda as a leaven. I have no information on how this evolution took place, other than that the US sense of biscuit was already established in the 1800s.

Something else unexpected was the spelling. The word was often written as bisket, which reflects its pronunciation. So why the biscuit part? The OED calls this “a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling.” Not that they have an opinion about this or anything.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] I watched all 3 seasons of the TV show Fargo and was amused that the vanity plate at the end featured an audio clip of Billy Bob Thornton, the star of the first season, saying “Oh, now I get it.” I assumed it was an outtake, but who knows.

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  12:05 AM

Today is the last day of March. I sure hope that we've met our Q1 2018 goals here at Friday Words.

This week's new-to-me word came up when I was reading Fire and Fury, the gossipy book by Michael Wolff about the Trump White House. Let me give you the sentence and then we'll talk about the word:
What's more, in one-on-one meetings, CEOs were reporting good vibes from Trump's effusive and artful flattery—and the sudden relief of not having to deal with what some knew to be relentless Clinton-team hondling (what can you do for us today and can we use your plan?).
The book was famously rushed to print, and there were reports of some sloppy editing, so I initially read hondling as handling. That didn't entirely make sense, but I'd never heard the word hondling before, so it was the best I could come up with.[1]

But I eventually looked it up, and whaddya know. To hondle means to bargain or negotiate. It's yet another word in the lexical trove that we've gotten from Yiddish. (In this case, and as is true of many Yiddish words, it goes back to medieval German. The word Handel means "trade, traffic, commerce, business" in modern German.) I will note, tho, that hondle is a pretty rare word in English; it's missing in my normal go-to dictionaries (it is in the OED) and as far as I can tell, it doesn't appear even once in the COCA corpus. Perhaps Wolff will help popularize it.

Let's move to word origins. One of my co-workers showed up today in shorts and a t-shirt; he'd just finished playing badminton. Badminton. Where do you suppose that word came from? Is there such a thing as goodminton? Haha.

I had a hunch about that -ton ending, which was pretty much borne out. Sure enough, there's a place named Badminton in the UK. It shares that -ton ending with a lot of other places in the UK, like Northhampton, Boston, and Paddington.

But why is the game named for the place? Some version of the game has been played for millennia; one name for it in English was battledore and shuttlecock, where battledore is a word for a racquet. A bunch of sources say that the British brought the modern version back from India in the mid-1800s. The specific innovation that led to the modern version of the game seems to have been the idea of playing on two sides of a string or net. Anyway, by 1863, this version of the game was referred to as badminton. The book Lawn Tennis, Badminton, Croquet, Troco, Racquets, Fives, Nurr & Spell, Bowling, Hurling, Etc., Etc. from 1883 has this to say, which features the unusual strategy in which the author asks the reader to confirm an etymological assertion:
People generally agree that the game is named for the estate, but it's not 110% sure why. (First played there? Maybe.) It will do for now.

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[1] Boy, spell-check hates the word hondle; it keeps trying to change it to handle.

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  08:01 AM

I guess we're technically in spring up here in the northern hemisphere. I suspect that people in various parts of the country other than Seattle are not so sure of that. But we did pass equinox, so at least daylight is on our side.

I have a couple of new-to-me words this week that pertain to current-type events. The first is data sleaze, a term invented by Kaiser Fung, a statistician who works in the advertising business. He defines the expression this way: "data about [a company's] own customers that are obtained secretly by businesses, and then sold to the highest bidders, also in secret transactions." He adds: " The production of data sleaze is frequently justified by giving services away for 'free.'"

A few people use the term, but they still reference Fung's blog posts about it—it hasn't broken free from where it was first defined. Or to put it another way, Fung hasn't quite made data sleaze happen. Still, given recent events and some promotion by Fung himself, it might get a little traction.

A second term arrived via Nancy Friedman (@fritinancy on Twitter), who alerted me to the word testilying (testifying+lying), which refers to the police giving false testimony. Per an article from 1994 in the New York Times, this term was invented as police slang. A spate of recent articles has put the term into the news in the last week.

I always wonder whether a term that's based on wordplay will stick. But this one has been around for at least 25 years. I also think it fills a niche as a verb. We have something like perjure oneself to specifically mean lying under oath, but that feels legal-ish and is in any event sort of clunky. In contrast, testilying captures both the lying part and the "under oath" part. Granted, testilying doesn't capture that the perpetrator is a police officer, which is a part of the definition: in Wikipedia, testilying redirects to the page titled Police perjury.

Ick. Let's talk word origins instead. I sometimes listen to a radio program called The Score, and I eventually got around to wondering why we call movie music the score. Well, in the beginning was score to mean a cut or mark or scratch. (In this sense, it's related to shear.) From there it developed the sense of a drawn line, which we still have in underscore, and in the verb sense of scoring a piece of paper or other soft material.

A musical score is a written-out version of all the parts in a piece, with all the individual parts noted on separate lines:

(Individual musicians have only their parts; the conductor has the score.) The theory is that this notation was the "score" because of the practice of "connecting the related staves by 'scores' or lines continuing the bars." (OED) So basically, a score is a score because of lines (scores) on the music. And finally, from "complete musical notation of a piece" the word score came to mean the collection of music for a movie or other entertainment. From scratch to soundtrack, cool.

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  07:55 AM

We're coming up on tax season here in the US, which as usual for me consists of digging around for forms and statements and random documentation. Selling our house last year just made it even more of an adventure. And speaking of adventures, let's talk about words.

I ran across the word cakeism the other day, which made me chuckle. Cakeism derives from the somewhat opaque idiom about how "you can't have your cake and eat it too," which is generally glossed as meaning that you can't have two incompatible things, or more generally, you can't have everything you want.

Most of the sources where I found this word use it when discussing Britain and Brexit. In that context, cakeism describes the idea that Britain can leave the EU but still get the benefits that it's theoretically leaving behind. Depending on who you ask, this is either Britain's actual negotiating strategy or folly. When it's used in this way, the word is of course pretty new. It was submitted as a new-word suggestion to the Collins Dictionary people in February; that's also when Urban Dictionary got an entry.

As an aside, the article where I saw cakeism talks about the origins of the idiom in English and helpfully provides equivalent idioms in other languages, most of which seem to make more sense. For example, according to them, in French you say "to want the butter and the money from the butter."

For unexpected word origins, we're back to the kitchen. I was reading about soups the other day and somehow got to the Wikipedia page about minestrone, a primarily vegetable soup. In the history section, it says "The ancient Romans recognized the health benefits of a simple or 'frugal' diet," and then continues "from the Latin fruges, the common name given to cereals, vegetables and legumes."

This part is true. But the frux stem also meant "profit" or "utility" or "value," so there was a figurative sense to the word, which we still have today ("fruit of one's labors"). While the word frugal does literally mean "relating to fruit," our sense of frugal derives from the figurative sense: to get good value or utility out of a thing. At least, that's my take on the issue.

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  09:15 AM

This weekend we'll start Daylight Saving Time here in the US, which will, I predict, be accompanied by the usual editorial finger-wagging that it's Saving, singular. Won't that be enjoyable.

The other day I ran across a sports term that was new to me. (Admittedly, my grasp of the vocabulary of the domain of sportsing is modest.) The term is tanking, which means to deliberately lose games, but with strategic intent. In the business of (American?) sports, the losingest team in a league gets first choice in the next year's draft picks. So once your team is out of the running for any sort of championship, it makes perverse sense to go in the other direction and try to be the champion at losing. The article I got this word from calls it the "race to the bottom." Just to be clear, this is not an endorsed approach in professional sports: Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, was fined $600,000 for essentially telling a player to lose.

The verb to tank is well established as a term for failing. ("The movie tanked at the box office.") The narrower sense of deliberately losing has made it into a few dictionaries—for example, it's in Merriam-Webster. The first Urban Dictionary entry for tanking in this sense is from 2008, though it might well be older than that; the history of sports certainly has its share of thrown games.

Origins. In his weekly WSJ column, Lexicographer and General Words Person Ben Zimmer wrote about riders in the sense of amendments to a contract. Along the way he included the surprising (to me) history of the word schedule.

This all starts with the Latin word sceda, which referred to a strip of papyrus. The word spread out into other languages with this meaning of "strip of paper"; English got it in medieval times from French, where it was cedule. (Zettel in modern German, cool.) Back in the days when documents were written on parchment, a schedule came to mean a strip of parchment or paper amended to the document that included "explanatory or supplementary matter" (OED). We're talking the 1400s here.

Schedules (with this "amendment" sense) were added to legal documents, like Acts of Parliament, to contain details ("often in tabular form"—OED again) that were not in the original document. The word then generalized to mean a document that laid out information in a tabular or otherwise organized way, or even a blank form that was laid out that way. From there it was a not a huge leap, I guess, to refer to the tabular documents that listed timetables for trains. And from there, finally, to any reference to planned times. Is this history not great?

As an aside, there is the issue of pronunciation. Our British brethren say "shed-yule", whilst we North Americans favor "ske-jule". The OED has a surprisingly long disquisition on this question. In the 18th century, the British said "sed-yule", as one might expect from the French original. By the 19th century, they were saying "shed-yule". Some word-type people favored "sked-yule" in keeping with the ultimate root of the word, but that never caught on in the UK. Somehow—and this is not explained—Americans did adopt this hard "sk" pronunciation, which matches words like school and scheme and some others that came from Latin sc- words. One hesitates to note that American pronunciation is therefore more historically correct, but one might do that anyway, haha.

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  10:08 AM

I've been up to my earballs in work this week. I still enjoy the occasional crunch mode; for one thing, I'm always extremely sure about what I should be working on. But it does mean that other interesting work—like, oh, say, Friday words—gets relegated to the few gaps in the schedule.

For new-to-me words this week, I have the term smishing, which I learned on Twitter from John Espirian. Smishing is like phishing—trying to get you to reveal personal info or to download malware—but using text messages. Like, you get a text message saying "We will charge you $10 unless you cancel the order. Go to [badwebsite.com]." Panic! Tap! Pwned.

The origin of the word might not be obvious unless you know that the texting facility of your phone is more formally known as SMS, for Short Message Service.[1] So smishing is actually SMS + phishing and was originally spelled "SMiShing." An article says that the term was invented by researchers at McAfee Avert Labs.

(As an aside, the ph in phishing ultimately comes from phone phreaking, an early form of computer hacking in which people would break into telephone networks for fun or to get free long distance calls[2].)

It looks like the word was invented in 2012. When John posted on Twitter about it, he was talking about a notification that he got from his bank about smishing. I know I'm behind the curve on new terminology when I'm learning it from a bank, dang.

An unexpected etymology came my way this week when I was reading the book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I think it was Stan Carey, editor and contributor to the Strong Language blog (NSFW, right?), who posted about it. Quiz yourself: where does the word sewer come from?

The word's history in English isn't particularly remarkable—in medieval English we had the word suer, which we got more or less directly from the French seuwire. When we got it, it referred to any type of channel that was created to drain water, like a pond or a marsh or whatever. (Cite from 1482: "Makyng of Sewers for avoidyng of lake waters.")

The unexpected part was how the word got into French. Here's Rose George, the author of the aforementioned book: "Somehow, in a way obvious only to etymologists, seuwire in turn derived from the Latin ex [out of] and aqua [water]." I'm not convinced it's particularly obvious to etymologists, either. But anyway, there you go: sewer is "Out, damned water!"

The modern sense of sewer specifically for wastewater arises in the 1600s. And very shortly thereafter we already find it being used metaphorically as "dumping ground."

Incidentally, read the book. It will change your thinking about things you probably try hard not to think about.

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[1] "Short" meant 160 characters; this length limitation is where the original 140-character limit came from in Twitter.

[2] Ha, remember when we used to worry about long-distance charges?

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  10:01 AM

We had a work outing today that included the Living Computers Museum + Lab. Each of us found a corner of the museum where they had our first computer, representing, as it happens, several decades of computer history.

The other day someone on Twitter said something to the effect that we need a word for that fleeting moment when you notice a typo just as you send an email. It turns out that we do have a word sort of like that, one that was new to me: an ohnosecond. Clearly the concept is familiar enough to people that someone invented that word back in 1993.

An ohonsecond isn't specifically about sending email; it refers to any similar moment when you hit the wrong key, or when you realize you've just lost a bunch of work. But it certainly works for the email-sending scenario.

I have two words for unexpected origins today, but they're thematically related. The first is the word hex, as in to put a hex on someone. This is from the German word Hexe, meaning "witch."[1] This should not have been surprising to me, but it was. I was further surprised to learn that this is primarily an American term that entered English via Pennsylvania Dutch, which is actually German ("Deutsch"). As the various sources point out, hex is related to the term hag, which has an obsolete definition of "an evil spirit in female form."

The second fun origin is the verb to spell. The sense of sounding out letters is a form of announcing; there was a verb spellian in Old English meaning "to talk, announce." The noun version spell meant "talk" or "discourse." Related term: gospel, originally godspell, the Anglo-Saxon rendering of the original Greek euangélion "good news." The noun spell later took on a sense of an incantation with magical properties. Thus a spelling bee does have a kind of relationship to a magic spell. And which brings us back to hex, as promised.

Anyway, please enjoy this video of "witches" dancing:



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[1] I got this from a Twitter post, I think, tho I forget whose it was. (Sorry)

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  08:07 AM

I decided to add numbers to the titles of these posts. I might go back and change the older ones when I'm avoiding something that's actually important.

The new-to-me word is a somewhat obscure terms that John McIntyre might select someday for one of his "In a word" columns. The word is pelf, which I ran across in one of those fancy magazines that we have in big stacks around here. Pelf is defined as "money" or "wealth," but has a connotation that the riches were acquired "by reprehensible means," to quote one dictionary. The example sentence I found it in talked about "Trump family pelf."

It's an old word, which might not be surprising. We got it from French in the Middle Ages, and its first sense was "stolen goods" or "booty, spoil." So we can see where the negative connotation came from.

Update On Twitter, Edward Banatt notes that pelf is related to the verb pilfer.

Because I was curious about why I had apparently not seen this word before, I looked in the COCA corpus to see how common it is. Not very: as a noun (as opposed to a proper name), pelf appears 5 times out of 560 million words. And it's been on the decline since the 1800s. Perhaps circumstances will make the term newly popular again, who knows.

Unexpected etymology comes this week from a conversation we had at work the other day. We were talking about ancient Greece for some reason, and colleague Jay said, "People from Attica are 'Attic.' So where do you suppose the word for the storage space comes from?"

Well. This is why you keep bookmarks to dictionaries in your browser. Way much to my surprise, the name for the area under your roof—sometimes also called the garret—is in fact related to the Attics, the people whose capital was Athens.

The link is via architecture. It helps to know that attic was originally the attic story, where story refers to the floor of a building. (See #89 for more on story.) In the Attic style of architecture, the façade might feature a small structural element (an "order") placed above another, much taller element. Like this, thank you Wikipedia:



The name of this small story came to be applied to the space that it enclosed, and then was generalized to mean any space directly under a roof. So we go from classic architecture to the place to shove your Christmas decorations and unused sports equipment. What do you suppose the ancient Greeks called their version of the space for all that extra junk?

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