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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Disappointment is educational.

Jonah Lehrer


<December 2018>




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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/14/2018

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:59 PM Pacific

  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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  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.

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  01:23 PM

It’s been decades since I worked a retail job, or for that matter, worked at a place that kept regular opening and closing hours. That explains why I did not previously know a word that I learned recently from Friend Luke: to clopen. This refers to the responsibilities of a perhaps unfortunate store manager who must close an establishment one evening and open it the next morning. According to one page I found, clopen is restaurant lingo, but so far I have only their word for it.

For any establishment that’s open long hours, being the person who must clopen can be inconvenient or even arduous. A few years ago, Starbucks stopped scheduling employees to work clopening hours (or as the NYT put it, “banned the dreaded clopen shift”). In their case, it seemed particularly brutal, since clopening at Starbucks might mean closing at 10:00 PM and opening at 4:00 AM, gah. (Said a not-morning person.)

And let’s take a moment to think about the retail employees in the United States who are working today—Black Friday, as it’s called, the busiest shopping day of the year—and especially any of those who had to close late yesterday and open early today. May they earn lots of overtime pay, at least.

And what a great transition to talking about word origins. Black Friday, where did that expression come from? Lexicographer and all-around word person Ben Zimmer wrote up a history some years ago. Quick summary: first attested in 1951 regarding employee absenteeism; then used by cops in Philadelphia in the 1960s to describe the crush of traffic for the shopping day. Further senses developed (or were back-formed) after that, including the accounting-related one of retailers being “in the black” (i.e., profitable) on this high-volume shopping day.

But that’s not actually the surprising-to-me word origin for this week. Not long ago someone (probably on Twitter, and I didn’t record who or when, sorry) talked about the origins of the word aftermath. It doesn’t take a lot of language intuition, I think, to suspect that the -math in aftermath probably doesn’t have anything to do with mathematics. (Then again, “Maybe something to do with counting? I don’t know”—close relative)

Well, it doesn’t. The -math part is an old noun form of the verb to mow. (“The action or work of mowing; that which may be or has been mowed; the portion of the crop that has been mowed.”) And when I say old, I mean old: it’s an old Saxon term that has cognates all over the other West Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Frisian). To my surprise, the OED has a cite with this meaning from as late as 1917 (“You feel as you lie in the math The watching unseen of his eyes”), although I imagine this might have been used in a deliberately archaic sense, dunno. Anyway, once you know this history of the word math, the meaning of aftermath makes lots more sense.

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  07:58 AM

Suppose that your computer gets disconnected from the internet. If you use Chrome as your browser, you might see an error like the following:

There's a little T-Rex on the page, designed in 8-bit, monochrome graphics style. As I found out just today, this little critter is known as the downasaur. Haha, get it? It's a dinosaur that tells you your connection is down.[1] I happened to come across it when reading about a technology that always works, even if you're offline. ("Reliable - Load instantly and never show the downasaur, even in uncertain network conditions.") I was struck that the reference was used without quotes or italics, which suggests that the writer expects a term to be a well known.

The downasaur is one species in a veritable zoo of fail pets, which includes the GitHub Octocat and the Google Broken Robot:

But there's more! The downasaur isn't just a cute graphic—it's a game. If you happen to encounter the downasaur, press the spacebar on the keyboard.[2] The downasaur starts running, and you press the spacebar again to have them jump over obstacles like cactuses:

None of this is new, just new to me. (The game was added in 2014; you can read an interview with the creators on the Chrome blog.) There's apparently no official name for the game. The downasaur reference that I ran across is from 2017, and might have been coined internally at Google and has since leaked out into the world via pages like the one I was reading. I hope to investigate the name a bit more. But in the meantime, I know what to call it when Chrome tells me my connection is down.

And a short new-to-me origins today, although it's a kind of meta one. For some reason I got curious about where we got the word cognate. A cognate is a word that's similar in two (or more) languages, because it comes from a common root. For example, father in English is a cognate of Vater in German; calculate in English is a cognate of calcular in Spanish.

Well, it turns out that the etymology of cognate is sort of right there in the word. It comes from Latin co ("with") and gnatus ("born"). The gnatus part is related to words in English like genesis, generate, natal, nascent, and a bit further afield, genre, gonad, native, and pregnant. A productive root indeed.

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[1] We could have a discussion, I suppose, about the -a- in the middle of downasaur and why it isn't an -o-.

[2] If you don't want to disconnect your computer just to try this, enter chrome://dino in the Chrome address box.



  07:41 AM

You are undoubtedly familiar with the expression "to blow [or toot] one's own horn." Suppose that you wanted to create a noun that captured the meaning of that expression: "to talk about one's own accomplishments." There's boasting, of course, but that has a more negative connotation than we want, perhaps, as is true for bragging and crowing.

The lexicographer Peter Gilliver might have solved this issue for us. In 2016, he published a book about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (a.k.a. the OED, much cited here in Friday words). As he describes in a forum thread, he spontaneously invented the word autotrombation as an email subject line. He likes the word well enough that he's continued using it:

What's charming about the word is how it reduces "blow one's own horn" down to a single word. Auto captures "one's own," and trombation is a made-up verb based on the root that gave us trumpet and trombone (i.e., a root meaning "horn").

However, there is one problem, namely that trombate, the nominal but invented source for trombation, is a vulgar word in Italian. (Definitely don't search for this word while you're at work.) That issue aside, though, it's a word that deserves more widespread use.

On to origins. This week I attended a funeral and unexpectedly found myself acting as a pallbearer. Later on I got to wondering about the word. Bearer, sure, that's "one who bears." But what does pall mean?

It's an interesting case of transference. Pall is cloth, or a piece of cloth. It comes from a Latin word pallium, which meant a cover or cloak. In the church, the Latin word took on a more specialized meaning; for example, in the Catholic church, archbishops wear (wore?) a pallium.

In English, the word pall meant both a fine robe and a cloth spread over the altar or used in some other ceremonial way. One of those ways was a cloth laid over a coffin. Thus a pall-bearer was originally someone who held the edge of a cloth in a funeral procession. Here's a great example from 1834 that shows this meaning: "In addition to the six persons who supported the bier..there walked, on either side of it, the three others who were selected for the office of pall-bearers."

From the cloth, we transferred the meaning to the coffin itself. These days, a pallbearer is someone who carries or escorts the coffin. There might or might not be any cloth involved, despite the origins of the term.

In case you're curious, the word pall in an expression like "a pall of gloom descended" or "it cast a pall" is the same word. Covering something with a cloth is a good metaphor for a dark mood coming over people.

As an aside, the funeral was not at all gloomy.

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  07:51 AM

I don't even remember what I was reading, but not long ago I ran across the term ninja rocks. This sounds kind of cool, doesn't it? These "rocks" are in fact pieces of broken porcelain that are useful for the commission of certain crimes.

Here's the deal. Take a handy automotive spark plug. This has a lot of metal bits that are partially encased in an extremely hard shell of porcelain:

Grab your hammer and break up the porcelain. (Note to the thrifty: do this with a used sparkplug.) Then take these broken pieces and throw them at a car window. Remarkably, doing this can easily shatter the window, as this video shows:[1]

I didn't research this extensively—breaking into cars is not high on my list of priorities at the moment—but this works because of the way auto glass is designed. Namely, in order not to leave large, jagged pieces of glass if it does get broken, auto glass is built to shatter. If you can hit it hard enough with a small enough point, it will do just that. Enter ninja rocks.

I am amused that many descriptions of ninja rocks, including the Wikipedia page, feel the need to point out that ninja rocks "have no traditional association with the ninja." I duly include that disclaimer here.

The other day a colleague took a bite out of a cookie and made a face that was not one of extreme satisfaction. Someone asked him about that, and he responded, "Tastes like marzipan." Considering how widespread marzipan is, I'm surprised at how many people don't love it. But the incident did afford me an opportunity to look into where we got the word.

The first thing I learned is that for several centuries, English used the word marchpane, which seems like it's probably a folk etymology (as we saw with penthouse)—a change in the sound of a borrowed word to make it more native-like. But we re-borrowed it in the 19th century and this time the exotic foreign spelling stuck. We might have gotten it from German, but that language and a bunch of others seem to have gotten marzipan from Italian.

The trail is murky before that, but it's generally thought to lead back to Arabic, with various theories. It might have come from Martaban, the name of a city that was renowned for a type of pottery; the name of the city was attached to the jars and then in turn attached to contents in those jars. Another theory is that it referred to a type of coin, which in turn might have come from a word in Arabic that means "to remain seated" (possibly referring to an image on the coin). The OED calls this last theory "tenuous."

Which leads us back to that cookie, whose flavor my colleague likewise seemed to consider pretty tenuous. I'd probably agree on this last point.

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[1] I picked this video in part because of the evil laugh at the end.



  06:08 AM

Suppose you have 2 researchers interested in Cat Studies. Researcher A performs an experiment using 12 cats that shows a remarkable correlation between how much TV cats are exposed to and how much they meow. Researcher B performs a similar experiment using 60 cats, but he finds no correlation.

Which of these experiments will get written up in Cat Studies Journal? It’s not hard to guess that it’s Researcher A who will publish an article and then go on to do interviews for TV Guide and NPR.

Researcher B didn’t even bother to submit an article to the journal, because he knew it wouldn’t get published. Who wants to read about experiments whose conclusion is “Nothing to see here?” Instead, Researcher B takes his video tapes and R programs and shoves them in a drawer.

Which brings me to today’s new-to-me word: the file drawer problem, also known as publication bias. I first learned this term from an old Planet Money podcast about why so many experiments can’t be replicated. The term file drawer problem was first used in 1979 in a paper whose abstract begins this way:

For any given research area, one cannot tell how many studies have been conducted but never reported. The extreme view of the "file drawer problem" is that journals are filled with the 5% of the studies that show Type I errors, while the file drawers are filled with the 95% of the studies that show nonsignificant results.

The file drawer problem has important implications for how research is reported. As noted, the communication in the field is biased toward research that has positive results. Moreover, these positive results might be have come about through defective methodology, or maybe just as a statistical fluke. (The PsychFileDrawer site lets researchers share the results of attempting to replicate published studies—for example, there's a page that collects studies about the efficacy of "brain training" games.) Anyway, the next time you hear in the popular media about some study that shows an intriguing correlation between, dunno, playing Monopoly and success in the stock market, remember that there might be other studies in file drawers that fail to replicate that study.

Ok. What do you suppose bachelors have to do with vaccines? Cows. Well, maybe; it's not certain where the word bachelor came from, which entered English from French in medieval times. A possible origin is that in Latin there was a word baccalarius that referred to someone who worked on a baccalaria, a dairy farm; hence, a baccalarius could have been a cowhand. Bacca is a variant on vacca, a Latin word for cow (vaca in Spanish, vache in French). We also got vaccine and vaccination from this root, because when Edward Jenner did the groundbreaking work with smallpox vaccinations, he deliberately infected people with cowpox, a related but much milder disease.

In English, bachelor initially referred to a knight who was too poor or too young to have his own banner. It also referred to a junior member of a guild. By Chaucer's time, a bachelor was someone who earned the lowest (pre-master) degree at a university, or even a man who hadn't yet married—both of these senses appear in The Canterbury Tales (1386). While we contemplate the bachelor-cow connection, we can think about how to capitalize and punctuate a bachelor's degree. Fortunately, Grammar Girl is on the case.

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  08:33 PM

The new-to-me word this week is a pretty new one altogether: mispronouner. This is a word invented in a blog post by the linguist Dennis Baron, who was making a logical extension of the verb to mispronoun. To mispronoun is to use the wrong pronoun for someone; this might be by mistake or might be as a way to harass someone. (Compare to deadname.) Thus someone who performs this act of using the wrong pronoun is a mispronouner.

I suppose that this is pronounced mis-PRO-noun-er, but I like to think that we might also pronounce it mis-pro-NOUN-er. Being linguists, we’ll have to wait and see which way the language goes.

BTW, Professor Baron has written lots about our attempts in English to come up with an epicene pronoun, and I recommend reading his blog for more information on this and many other language topics.

For today’s etymology, I investigated the word slide, in the sense of a photographic slide. For those who might not have personal experience with slides, photographic slides are pieces of 35mm film that are packaged in a square cardboard or plastic frame:

In slides, the image is “positive”: it shows the actual colors captured by the camera, as opposed to the opposite, or “negative,” image that’s captured in regular film. Photographing with negative film is a two-stage process. When you take a photo, light falls onto the film, which is clear stock that’s coated with a light-sensitive substance. The more light falls on the film, the darker the image gets on the negative. After you’ve processed the film, you make a print by shining light through the negative onto paper stock that’s also been coated with light-sensitive stuff. The darker the image on the negative, the less light gets to the print, so what was light in the original scene is light in the final print.

Color negative, slide, black-and-white negative

Slides—i.e., positives—start the same, with clear stock coated with light-sensitive emulsion. They also get darker the more light falls on the film. But in a bit of photographic sorcery, the image is reversed directly on the film during processing. Ergo, when the slide has been processed, it has a positive image on it. Back when movies were made on actual film, this was the process that they used to create movie film.

This, finally, brings us back to the actual word slide. Slides are intended to be projected onto a screen. Slides actually pre-date photography. The original slides were painted onto glass, and then often covered with another piece of glass. They were projected using the charmingly named magic lantern:

As you can see from the photo, the lantern had a slot in it into which you could … ready? … slide the piece of glass. (“His history..passes before us like a series of slides in a magic lantern.” [1858, via the OED].) Slides sometimes had a series of images on them, so you could go from image to image. (If you remember the View-Master, that’s basically the same idea, except that the View-Master slides were round, with something like 7 stereoscopic images on them.)

Aside: the slide used in microscopy captures the idea of an image—or, well, something—sandwiched between two pieces of glass.

Magic lanterns evolved into slide projectors, and the original glass slides evolved into the cardboard squares. (A brilliant scene in the TV series Mad Men (s1:e13) shows the ad exec Don Draper pitching the Carousel slide projector, which many of us olds know very well.)

Back to the present. The word slide also evolved into the all-too-familiar format of PowerPoint. Altho we left behind the last vestiges of photography in this new meaning of slide (unless you include a kitty picture in your slides, as I always try to do), we have hung on to the original sense of “sliding” from one image to the next. But the idea of being in a darkened room subjected to someone yacking about whatever’s projected on the screen—well, that seems to go back quite a ways.

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  07:09 AM

This week's new-to-me word is Voldemorting, which I learned about from an article in Wired. As you can guess, it originated in the Harry Potter series, where characters avoided saying the name of He Who Must Not Be Named. (As it turned out, avoiding the name was wise, because simply uttering the name Voldemort had consequences.)

The new use of Voldemorting is also about avoiding names—but in this case, it's so as to not give the name more search "juice" on the internet. In its original use, the idea was to avoid naming trashy celebrities, thereby not helping build their fame (and search result ranking). As the Wired article explains, this has extended into the political realm, where people use euphemisms and work-arounds to avoid naming politicians they disapprove of, and (potentially) to avoid being tracked by people who track mentions of particular names.

What I find fascinating about this term is how it ties into our collective unconscious about the power of language. Probably since language was invented, people have felt that certain language was special: using certain words (abracadabra) or names (YHWH) had powerful, perhaps mystical effect. We still have societal customs around performative language ("I now pronounce you man and wife," "You're out!"), and even in these latter days, there are words that are so powerful that they're simply taboo: we may not utter them for fear of consequences.[1]

Voldemorting extends this sense that certain words have special powers, but with a new and technological twist. Using certain words (on the internet, anyway) has actual, trackable effect. And as with taboos of the past, we can fend off certain undesirable outcomes by avoiding those words. You don't want to accidently summon any demons, right?

Origins. You might know that when I wear my editor hat, there are cetain words that I'm constantly trying to remove from technical documents. Among them are consider ("Consider increasing the memory size") and desire ("Specify the desired operating system"). I found out just recently not only where these words come from, but that they have a common root.

From the lexicographer Serenity Carr, I learned recently that desire is de ("removed, away") and sire is really sider, a Latin word for a star or heavenly body. (Compare sidereal.) The connection between "long for" and heavenly bodies isn't entirely clear ("the sense-history is unknown"—OED), but being away from a star makes you long for things. I guess.

And we can now see the connection to consider, whose origins I learned just this week. Consider is of course con ("with") and sider ("star" again). To consider is to "examine closely"; as the OED says, the relation to stars "might thus be originally a term of astrology or augury." But they're not sure.

Notwithstanding these interesting origins, I'm still going to try to spike every instance of desire and consider that I encounter in the docs I edit. Fair warning.

[1] The list of taboo words of course changes over time. Words that we can freely speak today were taboo in previous times; words that our forefathers used routinely are now taboo.

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[2] |