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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As for kissing on the first date, you should never date someone whom you would not wish to kiss immediately.

Mr. Blue (Garrison Keillor)



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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 8/16/2019

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Comments - 2614
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Comments/entry - 1.02
Hits/day - 367

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:56 PM Pacific


  08:39 AM

They train relentlessly. They scorn luxury and comfort. They speak little. Everything about them is devoted to one thing: war.

Navy SEALs? Delta Force? Royal Marine Commandos? No. (Well, yes, but that's not who I'm talking about.) I speak of course of the Spartans, denizens of Sparta (aka Laconia), the ancient city-state in Greece that was famous then, and continues to be famous now, for its single-minded devotion to military preparedness. Spartans were willing to sacrifice themselves in the defense of their principles, as we all know from reading about the Battle of Thermopylae.

Their culture has come down to us in the language. Something that's spartan is austere. Someone who's laconic is terse to the point of rudeness.

It's also come down to us in this week's new-to-me-word: laconophilia, which refers to an admiration for all things Spartan. Our own culture has imbibed the Spartan ideal. There are many cities named Sparta in the United States, and who can even count the number of sports teams that are the Spartans.[1] And check out the article Why Spartans Make Better Lovers, where "Spartans" are people who participate in a grueling sports event called the Spartan Race.

What I learned about this word was not just what it meant, but that it's … problematic. In a couple of ways, actually. One is that the mythologization (?) of the Spartans is about as ancient as Sparta itself; ancient Greeks from elsewhere (including Plato) tended to point to the Spartans as an idealized people. This sort of thing continued through the ages—other laconophiles included folks like Machiavelli and Rousseau and Hitler.

The other problem with laconophilia is that it's kind of wrong? Yes, the Spartans were great warriors, but they did actually lose their most famous battle, and their opponent—Xerxes—rampaged through Greece. Yes, they were "free men," as long as you don't count the slaves who held their society together (and often fought alongside the elite warriors). Yes, they were physically impressive, but they ruthlessly culled the infirm. As Myke Cole puts it in The New Republic, "The problem is, the Spartan myth is so full of holes you could use it to drain pasta."

So the word laconophilia can refer neutrally to admiration of a disciplined society. But it's also wrapped up with disturbing notions like eugenics and racism and authoritarianism. Reading about laconophilia has started affecting everything I know, or think I know, about that ancient society.

Let's move to origins. I heard a great one from the Allusionist podcast (around 21:30) about the word halcyon, meaning something calm and peaceful. The word halcyon comes from Greek halkyon, which refers to a kingfisher. There story is supposedly that halcyon came to mean "calm" because of a myth about a bird—a kingfisher—who could calm the seas in December in order to have a quiet time for nesting. This is a story we inherited in English; the fanciful origin itself goes back to the Greeks.

The real story is probably that there was a word alkyon in Greek to refer to a bird, which might have been borrowed from some other language that we have no record of. The Greeks reinterpreted the word as hals+kyon, roughly meaning "sea"+"conceive." This process of reinterpreting a word to make more sense is known as folk etymology. And the process of inventing a fanciful etymology is also known as folk etymology, or as we've seen elsewhere, etymythology. Here we have a particularly good combination of etymology and mythology. But it's stuck with us—not only do we have halcyon, but the genus name for kingfishers is Alcedinidae.

[1] I was surprised to learn that there's school in Los Angeles whose mascot is nickname is the Athenians.

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  08:06 AM

A few weeks ago I learned the word hierophany, which refers to a physical manifestation of the divine—burning bushes and whatnot. In response to that post, someone asked if I knew the word tyromancy. I did not.

The -mancy part refers to divination, which (haha) manifests in words like pyromancy (“divination by fire”), chiromancy (palm reading), and necromancer (“magician; one who divines via communication with the dead”). The tyro part is the Greek word for cheese (also sometimes turo or tiro). So tyromancy is divination by observing the coagulation of cheese. The Encyclopedia.com site makes a comment that I bet speaks for many of us: “Unfortunately, the method does not appear to have been recorded.” An alternative explanation is that tyromancy involved reading the patterns of mold that would form on cheese, or based on which piece of cheese a mouse would eat.

Fun fact: There are many words, a lot of them medical, that also involve tyro/turo and cheese. Example: tyrotoxicon, referring to a type of food poisoning from bad cheese.

For origins this week, I want to revisit an unusual source of words: expressions in another language. To refresh your memory, a while back I investigated the origins of subpoena, which is said to be from Latin “under penalty,” the first words on a writ ordering appearance before the court.

I got curious whether we had other words like that, and found a Hail Mary, our ABCs, credo, dirge, and some others. The lexicographer Orin Hargraves suggested that we call these prolegonyms, for “intro-name.”

Since then I’ve run across a couple more terms that are also based on expressions:

  • hocus pocus. This one is dicey, but someone in the late 1600s asserted that hocus pocus was derived from (or was a corruption of) the phrase Hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”) from the Latin mass. The OED is a bit skeptical about this one, since there’s only one source, who was speculating, and moreover sounds like he had a Protestant ax to grind about transubstantiation. But no one has a better theory, so you’ll see this etymology pretty frequently.

  • pony up, meaning “to pay.” This might possibly be from legem pone, the title of a section (section He) of Psalm 119 (118 in the Latin Vulgate Bible) that begins legem pone mihi (“Put before me …”). The roundabout explanation is that this psalm was a designated prayer for March 25, which was a day on which debts were paid. The word pony definitely became slang for money, but whether it comes from this source isn’t entirely 100% sure.

  • culprit. Conjectured to be a shortened form of cul[pable] (“guilty”) and prist (“ready”). As a bonus, this one might be based on a misinterpretation. Here’s the OED’s explanation:

    It is supposed that when the prisoner had pleaded ‘Not guilty’, the Clerk of the Crown replied with ‘Culpable: prest d'averrer nostre bille,’ i.e. ‘Guilty: [and I am] ready to aver our indictment’; that this reply was noted on the roll in the form cul. prist, etc.; and that, at a later time, after the disuse of Law French, this formula was mistaken for an appellation addressed to the accused.

There has to be a pretty small number of words in English that can be traced back to a written expression in another language. I’m pleased that I’m still finding a few now and then.

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  06:58 AM

English is, I believe, comparatively spare in the area of kinship terms. We’re good to one degree of relation (brother, sister, mom, dad) and sometimes to a second degree (uncle, aunt, niece, nephew). But we’re stuck with the somewhat clunky -in-law for describing civil relations, and our great-great-great- convention for marking generations. Not to mention the whole N-times-removed thing for cousins, which, if my experience is typical, often has to be explained, not to mention counting on fingers.

So I was surprised to learn a new kinship term. The children of your aunts and uncles are your cousins. Your own collection of brothers and sisters are your siblings. But what do you call the collection of children of your brothers and sisters? They’re your nieces and nephews, sure. How about if we call them your niblings?

The word nibling was suggested as far back as 1951. It doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction outside the realm of “specialist literature,” as Wikipedia refers to it. (You won’t find it in most dictionaries.) The term was modeled on sibling, because that’s also a gender-neutral term for describing a relation. Sibling is sib-, an old Germanic word for “kin,” and the -ling suffix as either “concerned with” or as a diminutive. The nib- of nibling doesn’t really mean anything beyond evoking sibling with a n(iece/ephew) vibe. (I can’t resist noting that both niece and nephew came from the same root as nepotism, which comes from the Latin nepos, meaning “nephew, grandson.”)

For real origins today I have the word torpedo. I’ve known this word since I was a kid as the name of a weapon, a kind of self-propelled underwater bomb. So I was surprised whenever it was in my life that I learned that it was also the name of a fish. The fish—which was first—got that name because it was capable of an electrical discharge that could make someone stiff or numb: that is, it could put a person in a torpor. An obscure sense of torpedo is “one who has a benumbing influence.” (See if you can reintroduce that sense after the next particularly benumbing presentation that you attend.)

The milito-explosive sense of torpedo originally referred to what today we’d call a naval mine—a device designed to explode underwater to sink ships. The first appearance seems to be from 1776. An inventor named David Bushnell created a submarine that he named the Turtle (because it looked like a turtle) and tried to use it to attach an explosive device—a torpedo—to a British ship. (He failed.) It looks like torpedo-the-mine was named that because the idea was that it would render a boat torpid. (I’m having a surprisingly hard time finding a clear connection between the fish and the mine, for what it’s worth.) Anyway, the sense of an underwater explosive device transferred smoothly to the self-propelled device when that was finally invented in mid-1800s.

Since then, we’ve gotten the verbal sense of torpedo—both literal (“the U-boat torpedoed the cargo ship”) and metaphoric (“the majority leader torpedoed the legislation”). And depending on where you live, you might also know torpedo as the name of a sandwich. Not that we want to get into the multifarious naming conventions for sandwiches today.

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  06:52 AM

Recent politico-social scandals (not worth mentioning which one, since there's a new one every week) brought another new-to-me term: the missing-stair problem. The term, apparently coined in 2012, describes an unpleasant (or worse) situation, but it's a vivid metaphor.

How many times have we heard about some scandal, and we discover that people who were close to the perpetrator clearly knew that something was going on? (Every time? Seems like it.) The question always arises about how people could have seen the bad behavior, whatever it was, and not have done something about it. This is the missing-stair problem: people recognize that something is wrong, but they (figuratively) step around the issue, as they might do if a stair were broken at their house.

We often see the missing-stair problem in the context of illegal or immoral behavior. But it can apply in other situations. Another example is how a team will accommodate and work around and possibly even excuse the incompetence of a co-worker who's not pulling their weight.

The point is that people get so used to this incorrect state of affairs that they no longer recognize it as a problem. In contrast, people who aren't accustomed to the situation come in and immediately see that something's wrong—just the way that they would see that a missing stair is something to fix, not to step around.

For fun origins this week, I note that it's election time here in Seattle, with a slate of candidates for city council and other local government jobs. Which means we get to pore over the voter guide and divine who the best candidate might be for Port Commissioner, and duly mark our ballot. Why do we call it a ballot?

Oddly, the etymology is right there in the word: ballot is related to the word ball. Once upon a time—which is to say, in medieval Venice—votes were taken by having voters put small, colored balls into a container. The votes were tallied by opening the container and counting the little balls. Not only is ball right there in the word, so is the "small" part: in French, it's ballotte, a diminutive.

The word ballot has relatives in English. A bale is bundle (ball) of merchandise, all tied up. A balloon is another type of ball-like item, which harkens back to the original-original root, which was "blow, swell." That sense of the root also gave us the word phallus. (You do the math.)

A more obvious relative is the term blackball, meaning to vote against, or more generally, to shun. This is directly related to the Venetian system of voting using little balls. Only for blackballing, the voting took place in England, the issue was membership in a club, and the "no" vote against a potential member was a black ball. ("Two balles a white and a blacke to be putt by euery of the counsaill in two seuerall pottes,..the sute to take place if th[eyr] shalbe putt mo white thenne blacke balles.") The literal meaning of a black ball, present in English in the 1500s, evolved into the metaphoric sense of "exclude, shun" by the 1800s.

On our ballot, we use a #2 pencil to fill in little circles. In a weird sense, we're also blacking little balls. Only in our case, of course, a black mark is a vote of confidence.

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  09:40 AM

When I was in college, I enjoyed the aspects of research that involved hunting down sources.[1] In my day, that was all stuff on paper, so I ended up checking out books from the library and photocopying articles.

These days I do these sorts of things virtually. When I work on something, I end up with Word files or Google Docs that have dozens of links to promising-sounding articles. Or maybe I have PDF files of actual articles, tucked away in folder.

But there's a difference between collecting up all these sources and actually, you know, reading them. Having a stack of books on the desk, or a manila folder with several inches' worth of photocopies, or lists of links, or folders of PDFs, is not actually the same as knowing what's in all of those sources.

The education researcher Pat Thomson calls this PDF alibi syndrome, which she defines as …

The habit of downloading and saving PDFs in the vain hope that one day I will get around to reading them. It’s not a technical problem at all, or one of lack of time, but rather that I’ve been seduced by the lure of information.

She derives some comfort that the novelist Umberto Eco—no slouch, he—knew all about this issue. As Thomson notes, in his essay "How to write a thesis," Eco says "There are many things I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it." Photocopies, books, PDF files—collecting is fun, but that's just an alibi for doing the work.

I learned this excellent term on Twitter via the editor Iva Cheung, who has actually managed not just to find useful sources, but has used them to write her thesis, in spite of this moment of PDF alibi syndrome:

In response to this plaintive cry, Laura Patsko pointed Iva and the rest of us to Thomson's post about PDF alibi syndrome.

This week’s unexpected origin is for a word I see pretty much every day: detergent. If you look at the word (and if you’re me), you might think that there’s deter and there’s gent. So maybe detergent is some sort of (a)gent that deters … something?

Nope. The first surprise, a mild one, is that detergent seems to have started its life in English around 1600 as an adjective. But soon enough it was a noun in the same sense that we use it today.

We got it from French, no surprise, but its ultimate origin is of course Latin. In Latin, it was a compound of de, meaning “off, away,” and tegēre, meaning “wipe.” Note carefully: in Latin, it was a verb. And here’s the unexpected part of the origin: we actually have (or had) a verb form of this in English as well—to deterge, meaning the same as in Latin: “to wipe away.” There’s a medical sense of deterge for cleaning wounds specifically. I asked my wife about that, since she’s in healthcare, but it’s not a term she knows, in spite of having cleaned many wounds in her career.

Clearly, detergent is more versatile than I’d thought. And I think it’s time that we brought back to deterge as a verb, don’t you think?

[1] "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book." (Samuel Johnson)

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  01:37 PM

For reasons I cannot recollect, I find myself reading a book about ufology, the study of UFOs. The author is a professor of religion, and she's interested in ufology as a type of religious thinking. It's from this that I learned the word hierophany.

Hierophany is from Greek (hier(o) for "sacred" + phany for "show") and refers to physical manifestations of the holy or the sacred. The author says that the story of the burning bush that spoke to Moses (Exodus 3) is a classic example of a hierophany. There are other familiar ones; Marian apparitions like those in Lourdes or in Mexico (as Our Lady of Guadalupe) are also hierophanies.

As an article in Encyclopedia.com says about the definition of hierophany, "The term involves no further specification. Herein lies its advantage: It refers to any manifestation of the sacred in whatever object throughout history." Thus D. W. Pasulka, the author of the book I'm reading, focuses her experience in religious studies on the phenomena of UFOs. She discusses hierophanies using the neutral term "contact events." You can see how the many stories around UFO sightings, visitations, and crash debris, and the belief community that has arisen around these, begin to sound familiar to someone who views extraordinary phenomena through a lens of religious studies.

I haven't finished the book, so I don't know yet where she lands on the question of whether UFOs are a real thing. But for purposes of hierophany, it doesn't matter. On this question, she quotes the famed ufologist Jacques Vallée: "the formation of mass belief in [UFOs] does not depend on its objective reality."

On to origins. Today I wanted to unpack the word sombrero, which is the generic Spanish word for "hat." The easy origin story for that word is "It's from Spanish," basta. But when we were in Mexico recently (probably when we were trying on hats), I had this D'oh moment when I realized that a sombrero is a hat that gives you sombra—that is, shade. It's literally a "shade-r." I do love these little moments when some "foreign" word falls into place like that.

We don't have the word sombra in English, but we have some of its relatives, which mostly show up without the initial s. The Latin stem is umbra, which we have in English, along with penumbra. Someone who's somber is in a dark mood. We also have the word umbrage, as in "take umbrage," which seems remarkably similar to the contemporary expression "throwing shade."

In a highly satisfying parallelism, we also have the word umbrella. Although my personal sense of umbrella is that it's a protection against rain, it's more generally a portable canopy that can protect against rain, sure, but that etymologically speaking provides … shade. So like its cousin the sombrero, an umbrella is a "shade-r."

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  11:53 AM

In the early 1980s, the Osborne Computer Corporation had a little personal computer—an early portable (well, "luggable") computer named the Osborne 1. A couple of years after the computer was released, Osborne announced that it was working on new models. Potential customers, anticipating a newer, better product, held off on buying an Osborne 1. The new models weren't ready, though, and sales of the original Osborne 1 fell off so precipitously that the company ended up going out of business.

At least, that's the story. (There might have been a few additional wrinkles to this, like the release of cheaper competitors.) But whatever the details, this story gave rise to the term Osborne Effect—the phenomenon when customers don't want to commit to a product because they fear that they'll miss out on a better one that will be available Real Soon Now.

We're probably all familiar with the Osborne Effect in our own lives. If you've ever shopped for technology—a computer, a cellphone, a TV—you probably had to consider whether you shouldn't maybe wait for the next model. And there is always a next model; as consumers, we've been well trained to anticipate product cycles. I suppose that if you squint real hard, you could say that the clothes on a clearance rack at Target or Nordstrom are an acknowledgment of the Osborne Effect, namely that people don't want to buy last season's clothes, at least not at full retail price.

The naming consultant and general word person Nancy Friedman introduced me to the Osborne Effect via an article in Clean Technica about how it's playing out in the auto industry. The author suggests that as interest in electric vehicles spikes, sales of cars overall will dip while enough people hold off on buying fossil-fuel cars (forever) and hold off on buying EVs. In the latter case, it's because they're waiting for the EVs that can replace their fossil-fuel vehicles. The problem, as with the story of the Osborne 1, is that the newer, better models just aren't there yet.

Anyway, the next time you're experiencing decision paralysis about whether to get this year's model (of anything), you can pride yourself on the possibility of participating in the Osborne Effect.

Let's move to origins. For today I've got punch, the drink, as in rum punch. It's not obvious why a drink would be named using the same word as we use for whacking someone. Perhaps it's the alcohol? Let's see.

An explanation you'll often find is that punch is related to the Sanskrit word panca, which means "five." The notion is that punch was traditionally made with five ingredients (or "medicaments," as the OED lists it). If this story holds, it means that name of punch-the-drink is related to pentagram and pentagon, quintuples, and via the magic of Germanic sound shifts, five, finger, and fist.

The word punch for smacking someone is apparently unrelated. That word seems to come from the same source as pounce and puncture. It's possible that punch="five" isn't correct, and that punch-the-drink is related, name-wise, to getting punched. But the 5-ingredient explanation is the one you'll find most often.

What if you're punch-drunk? You might think that punch-drunk comes from drinking too much punch. But it seems instead to refer to the daze that a boxer is in if they've been hit too hard too many times. Frankly, if I were punch-drunk, I'd prefer it to be the result of drinking, not getting hit. Hopefully I can just avoid it altogether.

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  11:09 AM

I keep a list of new-to-me terms, and on that list I have a note next to a couple of words that says, "seems obscure but defines an easy concept." Of course, obscure is in the eye of the beholder. Still, I wonder how many people know these terms.

The first is Lusophone. The phone part clearly has something to do with sound (like "microphone" or "saxophone") or language ("Francophone"). But beyond that, I had no idea. It turns out that Lusophone is someone who speaks Portuguese. That's about 280 million people in about 10 countries, so not an obscure or poorly represented set of speakers.

It's not self-evident what luso- means unless you know classical history. In Roman times, the area roughly corresponding to modern-day Portugal was a province named Lusitania. (That's where the ship RMS Lusitania got its name, who knew!) Why they used that name is not known; it might have been a Celtic name adopted by the Romans. Anyway, that gave us a "combining form" luso- for Portuguese things.

The second new-to-me, obscure-but-easy term is Monegasque. Again we can deduce something, namely that it's probably an adjective; we get that much from the -esque ending. So "of or relating to" … what? If you know French, easy: of or relating to Monaco. In English we also have the more straightforward adjective Monacan, but it's always more glamorous—and obscure—to use a French term, n'est-ce pas?

(The name Monaco comes from an ancient Greek name Monoikos, meaning "single house," something to do with either single-family dwellings or "living apart," per the infallible Wikipedia.)

Ok, enough with the new-to-me obscurish stuff. I recently ran across a history of the expression in the buff to mean sans clothing or, you know, sky-clad. The expression in the buff comes from the word buffalo, like the animal. Leather made from bison was called buff(e) leather, or just buff for short. In the 17th century, coats that were made from this leather were called buff coats. The type of leather is light-colored, and because of the resemblance, in buff(e) was used to describe people who were naked. (There used to be a similar expression in stag, probably along the same lines. Both expressions are recorded in 1602.) Somewhere along the line, a the was dropped into the expression.

I think this origin particularly delighted me because when I was studying Spanish, I ran across the expression en cueros, which literally means "in leathers." I puzzled about that until someone clued me in that it's a way to say "naked." Just like in [the] buff!

Many other buff words come from buffalo. Buff to mean "to polish" comes from using this type of leather to polish things. Buff as in "has a sculpted body" comes from the sense that something buffed looks polished. Buff as in "fan of" ("she's a real film buff") comes from the buff-colored uniforms worn by firefighters in New York City in the 19th century; people who were enthusiastic followers of the firefighters came to be known as buffs. (Or anyway, that's one theory.)

At this point I should again put in a plug for the book Etymologicon, which has page after page of stuff like this. Including, in his entry about buffalo, an explanation of "the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language that uses only one word:" Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. You can read more about that famous sentence in Wikipedia.

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  08:31 AM

I was reading an article the other day about the Green Man in English folklore. (The thesis of the article is that a lot of the mythology around the Green Man was invented pretty recently.) That article mentioned Sheela na Gigs, which are stone carvings of women in unusual poses. And that in turn led me to the new-to-me word this week: hunky punks.

Most people probably know about gargoyles, which are stone carvings on the side of a church. Gargoyles have a practical purpose: they channel rainwater away from the building. A typical gargoyle contains a pipe that shunts the water out through the gargoyle's mouth.

Fanciful stone carvings that decorate a church are therefore not gargoyles. The general term for these is grotesques. But in the west counties of England, particularly in Somerset, grotesques are known as hunky punks. Everyone gives essentially the same explanation: hunky is related to haunches, and punk is a variant on punch, which is something short and fat.

Now you have a term you can use for the decorative faces on faux-gothic buildings in your town. Like these walruses on the side of the Arctic Club building in Seattle:

For origins today, I have two words pertaining to equine locomotion. The first is canter, which is a loping sort of run. An accepted origin for canter is that it's short for Canterbury gallop or Canterbury pace, a sense that goes back to the 1600s. Why Canterbury? Because that's where pilgrims in England went, and to canter was "supposed originally to designate the pace of the mounted pilgrims."

That's not the only theory, though it's the one endorsed by the mighty OED. In his book The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771), Richard Berenger, "Gentleman of the Horse to His Majesty," proposes (page 71) that canter derives from Cantberius, a Roman word for packhorses. These were always geldings, which were calmer horses, and this led to canter being an easy sort of gallop. You can read for yourself:

On to origins, part 2. A canter is a gentle gallop. Whence gallop? I love this one. It's probably from wala hlaupan, which looks weird, but is just some olde type Germanic. The wala part is basically "well." The hlaupan is "to run," which we still have in English as to lope and is a cousin of to leap. (In German, it's laufen.) So gallop is to run well.

But wait, where'd that g- come from? It's not sure (like, there's no textual proof), but it might be another example of a familiar sound change. There are a number of words that originated as Germanic terms but that in Old French substituted g for w: ward/guard, warranty/guarantee. In fact, an obsolete word for gallop is wallop. ("Cam there kyng charlemagn, as fast as his horse myghte walop" from 1490.) But the careful lexicographer would want more evidence than is currently available.

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  09:27 AM

I got called for jury duty recently. I didn’t get picked for a jury (not sorry), but we all went through voir dire. The nature of the defense attorney’s questions to the potential jurors suggested clearly (I thought, anyway) what the shape of his defense was going to be—basically, impeach the results of breathalyzer tests.

That experience, along with the recent death of the actor Peter Mayhew, reminded me of a term I learned recently: the Chewbacca defense. The term originated in the TV program South Park, in an episode that satirized the O. J. Simpson trial. In the episode, the defense attorney asks the jury why Chewbacca would want to live with the Ewoks. Which has nothing to do with the trial, and whose only purpose is to confuse the jury.

The Chewbacca defense is a variant on the Gish Gallop (visited upon earlier) and the generic “baffle ‘em with bullshit” approach to argumentation. But the real question is “does it work?” It seems so. According to an anonymous poster in Quora:

The Chewbacca Defense relies on several truisms about trials; (1) juries are often intimidated, confused or bewildered about anything that goes on in a courtroom; (2) most people think they know way more about the law and legal concepts then they really do; and (3) anything can sound convincing if said in an authoritative, confident and persuasive manner.

Apparently it’s a tactic favored not only in DUI cases like the one I missed being on but in trials that involve DNA. The anonymous poster notes the Chewbacca defense is useful for a lawyer …

… where scientific and/or forensic evidence is so overwhelmingly against one side that he or she or it has no choice but to try to dazzle the jury into thinking that the issues regarding this evidence are so complex and beyond their ken that they cannot fairly resolve them in in this proceeding and must therefore disregard the evidence as untrustworthy or insufficient.

Although I’m not sad to have missed being on the jury, I am curious whether this type of Chewbacca defense was what the defense lawyer ultimately attempted.

Ok, let's move on to origins. Based on a recommendation by the lexicographer Serenity Carr, I'm browsing through the book Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, a.k.a. the Inky Fool. Boy, if you like word histories, this is a book for you. On every page I find another delightful etymology.

So, Botox. This is a brand name for a drug that's used to temporarily paralyze muscles, an effect that can be used as treatment for several conditions, famously wrinkly-ness. The brand name comes from botulinum toxin; as that term implies, it's a toxin produced by the botulinum bacteria. This is a bad toxin; if you eat food contaminated by this bacteria, you can get botulism, a food poisoning that can kill you quite dead.

So far, so good. (Or so bad, I suppose, if you got it.) Botulism as a condition was identified in the 1820s by the German doctor Justinus Kerner, who studied the paralytic effects on a variety of animals and on himself(!). In an era before germ theory, he correctly identified the malady as a food-borne one. The vector seemed to him to be bad sausages, so he named the disease Botulismus for the Latin word for sausage: botulus. Technically, in English the word botulism is a borrowing from German.

Kerner was in tune with the scientific thinking of the times, which is why he turned to Latin to name the disease he'd discovered. It's a little sad that he didn't turn to his native language. Just think how close we came to talking about cases of wurstism, eh?

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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