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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— Jerry Seinfeld


<August 2017>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:00 PM Pacific

  07:15 AM

We finally moved this week, so we're now in an apartment that—hey, here's a surprise—is furnished generously with boxes in various states of openness. And we're running back and forth and back and forth between the old place and the new one for final transfer/cleaning/craigslisting. So words are delayed this week, but are still on my mind.

For a new-to-me term today, I have one that I can relate to based on our recent experience. The term is Ringelmann Effect, which is one name among several for a counterintuitive but well-attested phenomenon: adding workers to a job has diminishing effectiveness. It's kind of the opposite of "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Ringelmann was a French agricultural engineer who observed the non-linear effectiveness of adding horses or oxen to a team pulling a wagon. (There's a good summary of his work in this IEEE blog entry.) Starting from that, he (and others) generalized this insight. For example, there's a version of this called Brooks's Law, named for the software theorist Fred Brooks, that goes "Adding manpower to a late project makes it later." Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has a version called the two-pizza rule about productivity in meetings: "Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn't feed the entire group."

We saw the effect in action this week. For our move, we hired a team of three movers, but they brought along a fourth guy. Well, it was pretty clear that he didn't add anything like 25% effectiveness to the team. But they seemed like they were pretty busy, so I didn't give them the benefit of my recent learnings about the Ringelmann Effect.

Moving to (haha) unexpected word origins. If you are like me, you might look at the word parchment and kind of suppose that it probably has something to do with parch meaning "dry," maybe because parchment is dried skin? Nope. Although, to be clear, parchment is dried skin.[1] I was reading about the history of printing, and the author mentioned that parchment is actually a toponym—that is, based on a place name. The simple version of the story is that parchment is from Pergamena charta, meaning "paper from Pergamum." Pergamum, as I also just learned, was a Greek kingdom in Asia Minor, and was presumed to be the place where dried skin was first used as a thing to write on. I guess I'm always a little surprised and delighted to find geography hiding in the origins of our words.

Slightly odd fact I also learned: the origins of parch as a verb ("parched") are unknown.

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[1] The slang-y term sheepskin to mean "diploma" derives from the fact that diplomas used to be written on parchment.

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  11:54 AM

By this time next week, I should be living in a new domicile. Moving, it's so … fun. I can imagine some interesting and colorful words being used as part of that experience. We'll see.

Anyway. The first new-to-me word today is deadname, which has some slight relevance to events of this week. A deadname is the birthname assigned to a trans person, a name that that person no longer uses. Somehow this term passed me by during what was probably the most prominent discussion of this concept, namely when Caitlyn Jenner revealed her new identity in 2015.

Deadname is a noun, obviously, but also a verb: to deadname is to refer to someone by their deadname. Both the term itself and the practice of deadnaming are controversial in more ways than I want to be covering here. You can read more about that here and here and here and here.

I can't get a clear read on how old the word is. As noted, deadname sprang to prominence in the mainstream media in 2015, but I assume (?) that it was in use in the trans community before that. Alas, my search-fu fails me here.

Ok, on to a less charged term. During a discussion on FB this week, a Friend used the term ROFLcopter, as in "Roll On the Floor Laughing-copter." ROFL has been around a long time, but I hadn't seen that particular compound before. But again, I'm just behind the curve. Per the Know Your Meme site, ROFLcopter is a superlative ("-est" version) of ROFL that goes back at least to 2004. A theory propounded on the KYM site (with cites) is that the term originated among players of an online game.

Since you're not here just to listen to me whine about how out of touch I am, let me talk about why ROFLcopter appealed to me when I saw it. The -copter part derives from helicopter, of course. Which seems like it's heli- plus -copter, right? Sure: we've got not just the shortened form copter but also terms like gyrocopter and quadricopter, where copter identifies a flying machine with one or more horizontally oriented propellers. Indeed, someone created an ASCII-based graphic for ROFLcopter that illustrates this:

But that's not actually how the word originated. Helicopter was constructed from the Greek roots heliko ("spiral") and pteron ("wing," which we also know from pterodactyl, the winged dinosaurs). Here's the thing: different languages have different rules for how they can construct words from the myriad sounds that humans can produce; the set of rules (well, patterns) that an individual language uses is known as phonotactics. In ancient Greek, it was perfectly fine to use pt- to start a syllable, as in pteron. But phonotactics in English doesn't "allow" this; there are no native/Germanic words in English that have syllables that start with pt-.

Since heliko + pter is odd per English phonotactics, we native speakers have "reanalyzed" this word into heli- and -copter. Do you see what we did there? We carved up the word differently so that it more closely conforms to English phonotactical constraints—specifically, so that the p and t are split across syllables. And then we ran with copter. And thus ROFLcopter, and thus my interest in that term.

Update In a FB comment, Jonathon Owen points out that Greek pteron is related to the English word feather. (Many words that start with p in other languages start with f in Germanic languages e.g. pater > father).

For surprising etymology today, a short one that came up just this morning on Twitter. Adolescent and adult derive from the same Latin verb, adolere, which means "to (make) grow." Adolescent is from the present participle ("growing up"); adult is from the past participle ("grown up"). An interesting footnote is that the "grow" part of adolescent and adult is in the -ol-/-ul- part, a proto-root that went in all sorts of directions, including altitude, old, haughty, oboe (!), and world. Once again Douglas Harper has details.

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  04:49 PM

For the past week we've been living in an uber-pristine house while we stand by to vacate on short notice so potential buyers can tour the place. In addition to the many other reasons we're looking forward to selling, we're ready to relax back into our more accustomed level of slovenliness. And speaking of houses, let's turn to words.

I encountered this week's new-to-me term a little while ago, but it has relevance to us today, since we have a brief but intense interest in the doings of the Seattle real estate market. The term is hedge city, which I found in an article in the New Yorker about how China's ultra-rich are investing overseas. A hedge city is, well, "a hedge against volatility at home," to quote the article—"a giant safety deposit box for China’s elite," as Mother Jones puts it, which goes into detail about the economics of hedge cities. A different article estimates that up to 30% of the office buildings in Vancouver BC are owned by foreign buyers.

Canada has historically been a popular place for Asian buyers to invest, for whatever economic/financial/cultural reasons. A problem, however, has been that this investment in hedge cities has driven prices high—too high for local residents. Vancouver implemented a 15% "foreign buyers tax" in 2016, with uncertain results. (Not surprisingly, the reaction to a hedge-city tax depends on whether you're trying to buy or broker real estate.)

As I say, the notion of a hedge city interests us because as Vancouver tries to work out its issues with housing shortages versus high prices, Seattle emerges as a new hedge city. Will our house ultimately be bought by Chinese investors? Time will tell.

Ok, sorry, that was a bit of an indulgence. Let's move on to unexpected etymology. The other day I was listening to Sting sing about how it's a big enough umbrella, but it's always him getting wet. (Waaaay too much analysis here.) So I thinks to myself, whence "umbrella"?

Let me back up momentarily. When I was studying Spanish, I learned that the word for umbrella is paraguas, which literally means "for/against water(s)." Not only was this delightful in itself, but it made me realize (oho!) that the English word parasol literally means "for/against sun."

So, umbrella. Off we go to the dictionary for what turns out to be another oho! moment. Guess what: the umbr part of umbrella is related to … do you see where this is going? … umbra, meaning "shade." Nothing there about rain. Nevertheless, and somewhat curiously, the senses of umbrella both as a sunshade and as a rain guard have been in English about the same length of time (since the 17th century). The OED's last citation for umbrella as a sunshade is from 1755, but then, its last cite for umbrella as a rain guard is from 1882.

I thought about this for a bit, and realized that we do still retain the sunshade sense of umbrella, albeit in specific contexts. We talk about beach umbrellas with the understanding that those are not about rain. Ditto patio umbrellas. Still, to me, the word umbrella in isolation is going to invoke the "rain guard" sense, I think.

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  09:22 AM

Our house went up for sale yesterday, the culmination of many months' efforts to clean, repair, repaint, restain, remove, straighten, sell, give away, and otherwise address stuff. Our final push to get ready meant that unfortunately I had to pass up last week's Friday words. On the other hand, my pressure-washed driveway is so clean you could serve dinner on it. Assuming you would enjoy dinner on concrete with exposed aggregate.

PS Happy Bastille Day! Have fun storming the castle!

Anyway, we're back. This week's new-to-me term is blue lie, a word I encountered in a blog post on the Scientific American site. We know white lie, a lie that you tell to avoid hurting someone's feelings. ("That was delicious!") A black lie, by some definitions, is one that's told for purely selfish reasons.

But a blue lie? Per the article: "falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen bonds among the members of that group." Or as another article has it, a blue lie is one that is "unambiguously helpful to one group while hurtful to another." The ethics of blue lies seem to be dependent on one's point of view. Telling the bad guys a lie to protect your comrades is technically a blue lie, but one that most people would not condemn. More ambiguously, blue lies seem to be a prominent aspect of contemporary politics. (Or perhaps politics since forever.)

Why blue? One authority on lying said in 1994 that the color blue was attached to this term "purportedly originating from cases where police officers made false statements to protect the police force or to ensure the success of the government’s legal case against an accused." I can't verify this, but it does accord with similar uses of blue, as in blue code/blue shield.

On to word origins. Two shortish ones today. The first is dilapidated, meaning "in a state of disrepair." But! If you parse the word carefully, you encounter lapi, which the Latin-inclined will recognize as a word for "stone," as in lapis lazule. Um … stone? Working backward, we use dilapidated as an adjective, but there is (was) a verb dilapidate, which meant to bring into a state of ruin, or more metaphorically, to waste. Going back to Latin, there was dilapidare, which meant "to scatter as if throwing stones." Thus letting your house fall into a state of disrepair (houses again today!) has all the aimlessness of throwing a handful of stones. I share Benjamin Dreyer's sentiment on this etymology:

Bonus etymology today is for the HTTP verb POST, well known to web developers, as explained by Ryan North in Dinosaur Comics:

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  08:19 AM

It is the height o' the summer here, but despite that (because of it?), I and my wife, in that order, both experienced a train wreck of a cold or flu or something, and life around here pretty much ground to a halt. But things seem to be getting back on track. Including, of course, words!

I ran across today's new-to-me-word while reading on old piece by Sarah Vowell. She talks about her days in high-school marching band, which included wearing a shako. From context, I derived that she was referring to the hat, but it did send me to investigate this term.

Sure enough, a shako is a particular kind of hat, one that's conical and that has some sort of plume. Here's an example:

These days, shakos are part of uber-ceremonial military dress—honor guards, parade dress, and whatnot—and of the uniforms of marching bands, which follow military fashion. (They are, let's remember, marching bands.) Historically, shakos were part of military field dress, back in the way-before-camo days. Fun fact: per Wikipedia, shakos were developed as an improvement over earlier military hats. ("Looks great, András, but don't you think we should add a plume?")

There is of course the question of how to say this word. We get the word from Hungarian via French, so who knows, right? "Shack-oh"? "Shake-oh"? Per reputable dictionaries, both pronunciations seem to be ok.

Shako is another example where I'm surprised I didn't know this word. I've read a lot of military history in my day, although perhaps I didn't pay as close attention to the descriptions of uniforms as I might have. But I was also in high-school marching band (a nerd badge I share with Sarah Vowell), so I actually wore one of these things for three years. Although we had a couple of unflattering nicknames for these things, we didn't use the word shako.

Bonus new term this week, courtesy of an article in last week's New Yorker about marriage in China: mistress-dispeller, someone you hire to chase away your husband's mistress. (Or equivalent.)

On to word origins. Where do you buy your food—grocery store, right? And where does the term groceries come from? I hadn't thought about it till the editor and linguist Jonathon Owen wrote about grocer not long ago.

The origin is implied the word itself, actually: a grocer is someone who buys things by the gross, or more generically, in big lots. (The notion of gross as a dozen dozen, i.e. 144, is another offshoot of gross as a large quantity.) Although this origin could theoretically have applied to mongers of many things, even in medieval times a grocer was someone who dealt primarily in foodstuffs, which could include spices: "The company of Grocers, said to have been incorporated in 1344, consisted of wholesale dealers in spices and foreign produce" (OED). Groceries derived from grocer as the thing that grocers sold (sell).

Point to ponder: Although you buy groceries in the plural ("bet you can't buy just one!"), the grocery store itself is all about the singular.

A quick bonus etymology, another one from Mashed Radish: a scone is schoon brood, Dutch for "beautiful (or bright) bread." Must agree.

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  09:45 AM

The days do fly by. We had summer solstice this week, meaning that the days are shrinking again. <sob> But this has no effect, it seems, on thinking about words.

Today's new-to-me word came up in passing in someone's Facebook post: odonym. I'm interested in –nym words in general, but I had never run across odonym before; indeed, the term does not appear much in easily accessible dictionaries. Anyway, odonym refers to street names, basically. Per one source, the odo part comes from Greek hodos, meaning "road," and –nym is, well, nym (synonym, antonym, pseudonym, homonym, eponym, etc.): "name."

One might think that the study of street names would have limited scope, but there are actually lots of interesting things to think about in odonymy, like:
  • What the differences might be between streets, roads, avenues, boulevards, circles, courts, ways, lanes, etc.

  • The origins of street names. Broadway was, you know, a broad way (Breede weg in the original Dutch). Wall Street might have referred to an actual wall. Fleet Street in London was close to the River Fleet, long since disappeared. (For details, consult your local odonymist.)

  • Metaphors based on odonymy: Broadway (for theater), Madison Avenue (for advertising), Wall Street (for the financial industry), skid road (for a derelict area, named after a one-time street in Seattle where logs were "skidded" down to a mill). Nancy Friedman explored one particular metaphor in What Does "Main Street" Mean?

  • Naming conventions: numbers (Fifth Avenue), themes (trees are popular: Oak Street, Elm Street, Birch Street), and so on. Some cities have street names that are in alphabetic order, as in Denver: Albion-Ash-Bellaire-Birch-Clermont-Cherry-Dexter-Dahlia, etc.

Anyway, think about the word odonym the next time the disembodied voice of your GPS directions completely mangles a street name.

For surprising word origins, today I have sabotage, which of course refers to deliberately wrecking something. The sabot part refers to a kind of wooden shoe; today we'd probably refer to it as a clog. Sabot is probably related to zapato in Spanish and similar words in other Romance languages. (Also to the name Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer.)

How did a wooden shoe come to be associated with malicious mischief? Unclear, it turns out. The story sometimes told that workers would throw their shoes into machines to wreck them seems not to be the origin of sabotage, although maybe they did do that thing. One theory is that wooden shoes are noisy, and that this noise came to be associated with doing something badly. How exactly the sense changed from unintentional to intentional bungling isn't 100% clear, although it might have come via music (wooden shoes = noisy = playing badly = wrecking something, but don't take that one to the bank).

Somewhat interesting fact: the word sabotage is relatively new in English; it dates only from the early 1900s. We borrowed it intact from French.

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  08:37 AM

I'm a little sad that today is not the 17th, because tomorrow will be 17-6-17 in the non-US way of writing dates. Still, because it is Friday, we do have words!

For today's new-to-me word we turn to a narrow—though as you'll see, not unfamiliar—form of found art. Klecksography is the art of making figures out of inkblots. This was a thing in Victorian times, which I learned about when I happened to see an article about it in Atlas Obscura. Specifically, klecksography involves dropping ink on a page, then folding the page to produce a mirror image. In the gamified version of this, you add a poem.

Turning a goof into art is credited to the German poet Justinus Kerner, who used klecksography to illustrate poems he'd written. (If only I could turn my spills into art, ha.) This origin also explains the name: Kleck is the German word for "blot, (ink) stain, spot, blotch, blur."

If klecksography sounds (looks) familiar, it's because it was adapted as the Rorsarch test used in psychology.

As an aside, in reading about klecksography, I also learned the word apophenia, which means to find patterns in random things. (I already knew the word pareidolia—for an explanation of the distinction, see this blog post.)

For unexpected word origins, today I have curfew. As is often the case, I'd never given this common word much thought. But I was reading a book about the history of artificial light, and the author noted in passing that curfew—the time after which everyone is supposed to be inside[1]—came from the French coverfeu, in turn from coverir ("cover") and feu ("fire"). The author, Jane Brox, explains:
Cooking fires, often the only interior light many could afford, were ordered extinguished soon after the evening meal, since among the innumerable night fears in the huddled wooden-and-thatch world of the Middle Ages was that of conflagration.
All in all, it's not making me nostalgic for living in a pre-electricity world or anything.

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[1] When I was a kid, our familial curfew was "Be home when the streetlights come on."

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  08:24 AM

As I've noted before, in my work I encounter new-to-me technical vocabulary all the time, and I don't generally note it here. But now and then I'll run across something that's kind of delightful. Yesterday I ran across the term embarrassingly parallel, which is, contrary to what one might think, an actual technical term.

But work aside, let's look at a couple of, you know, normal new-to-me words today. The first is stan, both a noun and a verb, which I got from the Oxford Dictionary blog. (I will note that my heretofore unfamiliarity with this term is yet more evidence that I am increasingly out of touch with popular culture.) Stan is a term for someone who is a big fan of a band, musician, or other cultural figure. It can also function as a verb; people say that they stan an artist:

The blog credits the word to Eminem, and suggests that it could combine stalker and fan, capturing a tinge of obsessiveness. But the examples I find (e.g. on Twitter) don't have the negative vibe of stalking, and instead suggest just, you know, great admiration.

Another new word for me is chapeaugraphy, which refers to a pretty danged narrow niche of performance/clowning art: doing clever and entertaining things with a hat. (Technically, with a piece of round felt with a hole in it.) This is best explained via video:

(A minute or so of this should suffice to explain.[1])

I think what interests me about this is primarily the tradition of it. As with other aspects of clowning, chapeaugraphy emerges from the mists of previous centuries, and it always pleases me to think of people standing around at a marketplace in Paris or London in, say, Shakespeare's time, being entertained by many of the same antics that are still crowd-pleasers today. And hey, there's a special word for it.

And just a quick note today about surprising etymology: where does the name Australia come from? (Latin majors are not eligible for this contest.) Once again we turn to the compass for our answer. In the era before today's perfect knowledge of geography (haha), there was a theory of a continent on the southern half of the globe that was provisionally named terra australis incognita, Latin for "unknown southern land." As people reached the various landmasses in the southern hemisphere, the name was used for those; in the early 1800s, the name Australia was suggested for and became used for what we now know as that country.

Slightly weird note: it's often considered mock-worthy if people confuse Australia with Austria. There's not a direct etymological relationship; Australia is from australis ("south"), whereas Austria is from a Germanic word for "east," still evident even in English once someone points that out. But, but. It's possible that the Latin auster does ultimately derive from a word for east; related words might be orient and aurora. Douglas Harper has the deets.

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[1] Virtually all of the videos I find of chapeaugraphy have terrible music, weird.

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  10:39 AM

What could possibly be more fun than the apparently endless task of refinishing our deck? Oh, yeah … words.

Today's new-to-me word came up in an editor's group on Facebook. Someone had heard (only) a word and was trying to determine exactly what it was. Naturally, one of the editors immediately sussed it out: vade mecum.[1]

In a narrow sense, a vade mecum (also vade-mecum and vademecum) is a book that you carry around with you, perhaps in a pocket, so that you can refer to it conveniently. (The phrase vade mecum means "go with me" in Latin.) In a more metaphorical sense, it means a book that you might refer to often—a handbook or guidebook, as the OED puts it, even if you don't carry it around with you. In a different metaphoric direction, a vade mecum might be anything (not just a book) that you always have with you. Examples that M-W gives of this second sense are "gold, medications, and memorized gems of wisdom."

These days, the ultimate vade mecum would have to be a smartphone, wouldn't we agree?

In the annals of unexpected etymology, today we have sneeze. Sneeze begins with sn, which seems right—we have a bunch of words that are nose-related that start with sn, like snore, snorkel, sniff, snuff, snout, and snot. (This affinity between the sn sound and nose-y stuff is an example of sound symbolism or phonesthemics.)

Update John Lawler reminds me that he's got a diagram/writeup (one of several) that shows affinities for the sn- sound: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/sn.pdf (PDF, obviously)

So imagine my surprise to learn from the Oxford dictionary blog that sneeze wasn't originally sneeze at all: the original word in Old English was fnese, with an f! There were a few words in the olde days that began with fn. (Maybe this is actually expected as analogous with e.g. Greek words that begin with pn, like pneumonia). But fn- words faded away in English, and by about the year 1500, fn must have sounded weird. As indeed it does today; as far as I can tell, we have no words in modern English that begin with fn. Though there still are some in Icelandic.

Anyway, the short story is that the fn- in fnese was misread or misprinted as sn- at a point when fn- had become unfamiliar in English. The fact that sn- made sense probably helped (the OED refers to its "phonetic appropriateness"—see earlier point about sound symbolism).

And I refuse to close with a lame joke about "nothing to sneeze at."

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[1] The might be the oldest new-to-me word that I've encountered so far—500 years old (in English), and I learned it only this week.

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  06:48 AM

In the US, we're coming up on a three-day weekend. For us, that mostly means that much more time for home improvement, oh boy. And for words!

Today's new-to-me word is not new, but it's pretty obscure: iatromisia. This refers to an intense dislike of doctors or doctoring i.e. medicine. It's a rare enough term that I found definitions for it only in medically inclined dictionaries.[1]

Since this is a medical term, of course it uses classical roots. The iatro bit is Greek for "healer," and by extension, medicine. A slightly less obscure instance is in the word iatrogenic, which means "doctor-caused," as in, you got sick because of treatment. The misia part is also Greek, a word meaning "hate," which we know from terms like misogyny and misophonia.

There's something vaguely amusing to me about a medical condition that involves dislike of medicine. ("Doctor, what is it?" "Well, you appear to suffer from iatromisia.") It also makes me wonder whether there are, or should be, similar terms for other professions. Redactomisia? Dislike of editors or editing. Hmm.

For surprising/delightful etymology today, I have two. First, I watch a lot of British crime drama, and it eventually occurred to me to wonder where the word constable comes from. There isn't an obvious origin if you just look at the word … or is there? The facile answer here is that constable is a count of the stable. Which sounds a little funny, no? But it's a little more, what, elegant than that. The word derives from Latin comes stabuli, a "count or officer of the stable." As with knight, the concept described by constable climbed the social ladder until it came to refer to the chief officer of a (royal) household or court. The term had developed the sense of being a police(-like) officer by the 14th century, although it also kept its elevated sense for a long time (e.g. Lord High Constable in England).[2] Douglas Harper has a few more in-between details if you're interested.

Fun fact: marshal shows a similar development; it, too, started life as a term for a groom-like person and moved up the ranks (e.g. field marshal).

The second etymology is a one that I saw on Twitter this week. The word peach comes ultimately from Latin Persicum malum, "Persian apple." I guess it tickles me how apples have worked as a kind of Ur-fruit. Here are a few more words that directly or obliquely refer to apples, which includes the Latin stem mal, the Greek stem mel, and the word for apple (pomme/pomo) in some Romance languages:
  • marmalade (via Portuguese from Latin malomellum, "sweet apple")
  • melon (Greek for "apple")
  • pineapple (because it looks like a pinecone)
  • pomegranate ("apple of Granada")
  • pomme de terre (French, "earth apple" for potato)
  • pomodoro (Italian, "golden apple" for tomato)
Update Merriam-Webster has a Word History column on the history of pineapple and on the use of apple generically.

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[1] I can't remember where I got this—Twitter, probably, and if so, apologies to whoever I should be crediting. Speaking of Twitter, there's some fair wordplay with the word iatromisia.

[2] I suppose I should note that the word cop does not derive from "constable of police" or "constable on patrol" or any other acronym.

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