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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Earn a reputation over time through excellent work. This is much more powerful in commanding attention than intellectual prowess.

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Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 6/24/2016

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Posts - 2387
Comments - 2537
Hits - 1,856,258

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Entries/day - 0.50
Comments/entry - 1.06
Hits/day - 391

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 1:10 PM Pacific


  02:30 PM

Whoa, Friday again! And what a Friday to wake up to. (Linguistic angle: a trending hashtag on Twitter today is #regrexit.) But anyway, on to the words!

This week I'm inspired by a conversation at work about baseball, which yielded two new-to-me terms. The first is Mendoza Line. Mario Mendoza was a baseball player who played for various major-league teams in the 1970s and 1980s. One year when he played with the Seattle Mariners, he finished the season with a .198 average, well below the league average of .270 that year. In Mariner lore, it became a joke that someone who was hitting poorly might fall below the "Mendoza Line"—i.e., below .200. This term spread in baseball, especially via the ESPN show "SportsCenter."

The cool thing is that it's gone beyond baseball to refer generally to a threshold for mediocrity. For example, an article about movie revenues used it this way:
A sub-$2,000 per theater average means that it likely cost more for the studio to make and ship the physical print of the movie than their share of the box office. It is the Mendoza Line of box office numbers and regardless of the reviews, there's nearly no way to describe the film in positive terms.
There's more detail in the Wikipedia article, should you be curious.

In the same conversation I learned another term: Eephus pitch (or Ephus pitch). This is a "blooper pitch"—very slow (60 mph or slower) and with a high arc. Used judiciously, it can fool MLB batters, who are expecting much faster pitches. It's odd to watch; here's a video (0:27) of a 57-mph Eephus (and a confused batter):



And what about that name? It goes back to 1941, from a game in which the pitcher Rip Sewell threw a blooper. Here's the story:
After the game, Pirates manager Frankie Frisch demanded to know what, exactly, his pitcher had thrown to Wakefield. Maurice Van Robays, an outfielder with the club, replied that Sewell had thrown an eephus. When asked to elaborate, Van Robays said, "'Eephus ain't nothing, and that's a nothing pitch."
There's speculation that eephus is related to the Hebrew word efes, which means "nothing." I have no authority on this beyond the article where I read all this.

Onward to unexpected etymology. Today I have the word praline, the confection. I had no idea that this was an eponym, named after the Maréchal du Plessis-Praslin (a field marshal, I guess), whose cook is said to have invented this particular delight. (In the way of earlier eras, the actual inventor, a mere worker, remains anonymous.) We borrowed the word into English from French, and have cites that go back to the early 1700s. Anyway, there's your etymology; I'll leave for another discussion the question of how to pronounce the word.

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  09:07 AM

For new-to-me words this week I have a couple of acronyms/initialisms. The first is SLAPP: "strategic lawsuit against public participation." This is the practice of filing a lawsuit as a weapon, or as one definition puts it, "a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition." A colleague introduced me to this term a few weeks ago, and as happens (frequency illusion), I've seen it multiple times since then. Not a new term at all (legislatures have passed anti-SLAPP statutes), but a useful addition to the vocabulary for anyone who follows the sausage-making of local policy, gah.

Oh, I should mention that SLAPP feels like a backronym—an initialism whose constituent terms were selected in order to make a word. Someday I'll look into that.

Another relatively new-to-me (tho not new) initialism is HiPPO: "highest paid person's opinion." I heard this in a Planet Money podcast about A/B testing, in which they contrasted the value of empirical testing with the traditional decision-making process that's based on the gut feel of the most senior person in the process, i.e., on HiPPO. Not that I've ever been in a room, or reviewed a set of edits, where HiPPO was the basis for a decision. Nope, not me.

Surprising etymology this week takes us back to the Greeks and their admirable scholarly traditions. I was reading something by Diane Ackerman in which she used the word symposium, and just mentioned that this involved drinking. Hello, what? Yup, totally true: sym for "with," posium derived from a word meaning "drinking." A symposium is, in short, a drinking party.

Now, I have been to a few academic and professional conferences, and have attended some symposiums. Little did I know that the folks at the lectern were not, in fact, the actual symposium; that came afterward, at the open bar. Ha.

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  01:08 PM

Friday words again! I had a little hiatus last week due to some heads-down on a hackathon project for work, followed by an outing to view Whit Stillman's new Austen movie, "Love and Friendship." If you like Austen, you should see that. And then download the source book, Lady Susan, from the Project Gutenberg site (free! get the Kindle version!) and read it—it's short and fun.

Today's new-to-me word is mathwashing. This term struck me first for the construction—it's built on the pattern of greenwashing, which in turn comes from whitewashing. In this pattern, -wash means "conceal flaws."

The term also interested me because we're in an era that's nominally "data driven." For example, Amazon is a company that famously uses data for decision making. (Full disclosure: the company where I work, Tableau, is in the data visualization business.) But the technologist Fred Berenson suggests in a piece about "data worship" that just because there are numbers involved doesn't necessarily mean something is objective. Here's his explanation of mathwashing:
I coined mathwashing in an attempt to describe the tendency by technologists (and reporters!) to use the objective connotations of math terms to describe products and features that are probably more subjective than their users might think. This habit goes way back to the early days of computers when they were first entering businesses in the ’60s and ’70s: everyone hoped the answers they supplied were more true than what humans could come up with, but they eventually realized computers were only as good as their programmers.
Many of us grew up at a time when adding the word computer to something (computer-generated, computer-dispatched) was a way to add a sheen of technological savvy and forward-thinkingness to it. And there are many examples, not that I can think of one, where white lab coats or technical jargon are used to imply scientific-ness. Thus also math.

For unexpected etymology today there's the word dative, as in dative case. I was first exposed to dative case in 10th grade, meaning I've known of it for more than 40 years. But it never once occurred to me to wonder why it was called that. Turns out it's quite satisfactory.

A little background. In inflected languages like Latin and German and Greek, nouns and/or articles and pronouns have different forms depending on what their role is in a sentence—subject, direct object, indirect object, etc. We do this in English a little—for example, we use I/she/he/we/they for subjects and me/her/him/us/them for objects.

In traditional grammar, they talk about cases to mark function. The form of a noun or pronoun that's the subject is referred to as being in the nominative case; direct objects are in the accusative case; indirect objects are in the dative case. (To be clear, we don't distinguish accusative and dative in English.) Countless students of German have been obliged to memorize tables like the following, which tells you how to inflect the word the in German for every gender and case:


(German is a wonderful language, but trying to learn it like this is pretty awful.)

So? As I say, I never thunk on where this might have come from. But I was reading a blog post by Taylor Jones (@languagejones on Twitter), where there was a little throwaway comment: "fun fact: dative comes from the Latin word meaning 'give'." And it's true! M-W says "from datus, past participle of dare to give."

The reason this is pleasing to me is that dative case is for indirect objects, which are canonically the recipients of something: they are given things. Here are some examples where dative would be used:
I gave the bone to the dog.
The waiter served the guests dessert.
She helped me change the tire.
All these cases (get it?) show someone being given some thing or benefitting from some action, and therefore would be in the dative case. So neat.

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  10:56 AM

Friday. Friday before a (US) holiday weekend. The only thing better than that is that it's Friday Words day.

This week one of my friends introduced me to bus factor. I've understood the concept, but didn't know we had a word. Bus factor is used in business (especially software, I guess) as a measure of how well information is dispersed on a team. To put it another way, it's a measure of how much it would impact a project if a given person on the team were to be hit by a bus. (impact the project, get it? You're welcome.) If the bus factor is high, the impact is yuge; low bus factor, low impact.

The term has been around for a while, since at least the 90s. It's also been expressed as a truck factor and with the somewhat less violent lottery factor. As in, if the individual were to win the lottery and decide not to continue working on your project.

Note to self: strive to achieve a non-zero bus factor.

For etymology today, the word kibosh, which is used overwhelmingly in the expression put the kibosh on. This came up in conversation this week—specifically, in an instant-messaging conversation, so the first question was how to spell it. That having been established, it was wondered whence came this word.

All sources agree: origin unknown. The word appeared in written sources in the 1830s (as "kye-bosh" in Dickens), recording the speech of lower-class Londoners. On the World Wide Words site, Michael Quinion has, as usual, a thorough exploration of possible sources for the word. Among proposed origins are Yiddish, Hebrew, Gaelic, Turkish, and Arabic. It might have originally referred to a short whip or possibly a tool used by clogmakers to smooth leather. But no one will commit to a definitive etymology as yet.

Bonus etymological mystery: the Dictionary.com blog recently addressed itself to the question of where bee comes from in spelling bee.

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  09:31 AM

It's Friday … word day! In order to clear some of the ever-growing backlog of new-to-me words, I might try doing two words on every Third Friday. Let's see how that goes.

New-to-me word #1 this week is gene-whiz science, a term coined by the writer John Horgan. He uses this term to label the popular idea that individual genes are responsible for all sorts of individual behaviors—that there's a "gene for that." In the Scientific American blog he says:
Over the past several decades, geneticists have announced the discovery of "genes for" virtually every trait or disorder. We’ve had the God gene, gay gene, alcoholism gene, warrior gene, liberal gene, intelligence gene, schizophrenia gene, and on and on.

None of these linkages of single genes to complex traits or disorders has been confirmed. None! But gene-whiz claims keep coming.
I would be surprised if such a self-consciously clever word actually got traction, but I did like it nonetheless.

New-to-me word #2 this week is web brutalism. This refers to a design aesthetic for web pages that's deliberately anti-design conscious. To quote Pascal Deville, who apparently coined this phrase: "In its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today's webdesign."

I got this term from an article in the Washington Post, which observes that Brutalism is a term from architecture, where it derives from the French word for "raw"—i.e., unrefined. And that's what such websites look like.

Here's a screencap of Hacker News, one of the sites listed in the WaPo article as examples of this approach. Aside from the use of Verdana and the use of a left margin, no concessions are made here to aesthetics or readability.


Other examples cited in the article are Drudge Report and Bloomberg. I'll observe that it can be difficult (for me, at least) to determine whether a site that's sorta ugly reflects a deliberate attempt to subvert aesthetic fashion or is just, you know … ugly.

Etymology this week pertains to the word mill. I was reading about steel mills, and I wondered how steel is "milled"—my image of a steel mill is a lot of molten metal. One definition for mill is "a factory for certain kinds of manufacture, as paper, steel, or textiles." That sense seems to have grown out of the earlier meaning of mill to mean "grind," probably (?) sharing a sense of "turning" or "rotating"; materials are shaped by machines that turn. (This means my mental image of a steel mill needs updating—sure, they forge steel at a mill, but they also roll it.)

Mill is an old word in English; it's attested from the 800s. We seem to have gotten it from Latin mola, which has the same meaning. Interestingly, mill and mola share a root with the word meal, meaning the edible part of a grain—that is, the part of the grain that's milled. Distant linguistic relatives include malt (as in malted barley) and melt. So hey, the image of molten steel isn't entirely wrong for a steel mill.

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  11:23 AM

Friday, which today is the 13th, and since it's words day, I suppose I should mention triskaidekaphobia. There, I mentioned it.

Today's new-to-me word is another one I picked up from Edward Bannat (@ArmaVirumque) on Twitter: semantic satiation. This refers to the phenomenon, which I'm sure you're familiar with, where you repeat a word out loud so many times that it stops making sense. Your brain, it gets tired, I guess. Not only is it inherently satisfying to know that there's a word for this thing, but learning the word allowed me to catch a reference in Dinosaur Comics that would otherwise have passed me by:


Pro tip: never pass up an opportunity to include Dinosaur Comics in anything you're writing.

Etymological musings this week are about the legume variously known as the chickpea, ceci bean, and garbanzo bean. Why so many names? Are they related?

First, chickpea. This was originally chich-pea, ultimately from cicer, the Latin word for this plant. This orgin is reflected in the botanical name Cicer arietinum and bonus! is where the Roman name Cicero comes from. (From Wikipedia: "[...] it is more likely that Cicero's ancestors prospered through the cultivation and sale of chickpeas. Romans often chose down-to-earth personal surnames: the famous family names of Fabius, Lentulus, and Piso come from the Latin names of beans, lentils, and peas.")

As another aside, the evolution of chich to chick here seems like it might be an example of folk etymology—the transformation of a word from word-parts that are obscure or foreign into more familiar ones.

You will not be surprised to hear that ceci [bean] comes from the same root, via a different route, namely Italian instead of French. (See what I did there? )

Garbanzo comes to us from Spanish and is not related to cicer. One theory in the OED is it comes from Basque garau "seed" + antzu "dry." That would be, I think, a pretty rare case of Basque showing up in English, yes?

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  10:59 AM

Poll: the reason we love Fridays: a) weekend is near! b) time for more words. Haha.

For a new-to-me word this week I have monotasking, a kind of obvious but still useful variant on/backformation from multitasking. This was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times, whose provocative title was "Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?)." (As it happened, I was eating lunch when I encountered the article, so … no.) The author of the NYT piece didn't invent the term; it's in the dictionary and listed as being from the 1990s. Certainly the idea of focusing on just one task at a time is not new. I'm sure it was known to the ancients, but it's also been explored in latter days in terms of work productivity and the flow experience. Still, it's probably useful to have a term for this that we can use in lifestyle advice articles.

This week's etymological investigation was inspired by something I read in William Renquists's little book on the history of the Supreme Court. Here he's discussing his first visit to the court as a brand-new clerk:
The courtroom itself was divided by the traditional "bar"—this one of ornate brass—separating the part of the room reserved for lawyers admitted to the practice before the Court from that to which the general public was admitted.
When I read this I thought, no, really? Is that the origin of being "admitted to the bar" and "passing the bar exam" and such? The OED basically says yes:
A barrier or partition separating the seats of the benchers or readers from the rest of the hall, to which students, after they had attained a certain standing, were ‘called’ from the body of the hall, for the purpose of taking a principal part in the mootings or exercises of the house.
This literal sense was expanded to mean the court itself (trial at bar == "in open court") and to refer to associations of lawyers, as in "bar association." This sense of bar apparently also gave us the British term barrister.


See that brass bar? That's the one.

It's odd to me how I've seen this word hundreds or thousands of times and never wondered where it came from. Or that it might have such a literal origin.

Bonus etymology! Yesterday Ben Yagoda explored the surprising history of the word gobbledygook and uncovers an origin that I can almost guarantee will surprise you and possibly nonplus you.

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  09:08 AM

Freya's day again, yay. Let us as usual begin the end of the week with some wordy stuff.

This week's new-to-me term is polypharmacy, which came to me via Edward Banatt on Twitter. Polypharmacy refers to taking four or five or more (anyway, "a lot of") drugs concurrently. This can happen with older people who are following different drug regimens for different problems. For example, per an article in The New York Times, 39% of the over-65 demographic are—what, engaged in? subject to?—polypharmacy. This can lead to issues, of course, such as drug interactions. But we do at least have a word for it, so that's one problem solved.

Etymology. I recently started watching the HBO TV series Deadwood, set in the Dakota Territory. In season 1, a new gambling emporium opens that features the game craps, which is new to many of the miners who live in the town ("camp"). TV drama aside, how weird is the name "craps"?

There are a couple of theories about the origin of the name. A dice-throwing game that preceded craps was called "hazard," and in that game, the low throw (snake eyes) was referred to as crabs. (In craps, shooting a 2—that is, two 1's—is a loser.) The OED speculates that crabs in this sense might be related to the crab in crab apple. It's unclear why this term would have been used in the game for a low throw.

Another theory, one that isn't endorsed by the OED, is that craps comes from the French word crapaud, meaning "toad." Supposedly this was because people playing dice are often crouched over. It does seem to be true, FWIW, that the game was popular in New Orleans first.

The name has spawned some other words in English. To throw a losing number is to crap out, which we can use now in something like "My car crapped out on me." Throwing dice is sometimes referred to as "shooting" them. Thus "shooting craps" gave us the noun crapshoot to mean "a gamble," as in "Trying to find a good mechanic is a crapshoot."

Historically, the name has been used in the singular—shoot craps or shoot crap (crapshoot again). First cites for the name are in the 1840s, which makes it realistic that the game might have been new to people in 1876, which is when Deadwood is set.

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  12:14 PM

Friday again, thus word time, right?

The new-to-me word this week is whataboutery, which I picked up from an article in The Guardian that discussed some analysis they'd done on comments readers leave. (Boy, some people, ya know?) Based on some Research Lite™, I've found cites from 2005, but it could be older than that.

Whataboutery refers to a style of argument—some refer to it as a logical fallacy—in which someone, when confronted with a proposition, says "Yeah, but what about … ?" as a way of diverting focus from the original proposition.

French person: Boy, the American diet seems pretty unhealthy.
American person: Yeah, but what about all that drinking the French do?
French person: ??

I'll go out on a limb here and say that some significant percentage of references to the Crusades in the last 15 years have been whataboutery in arguments about the supposedly violent nature inherent in certain religions. For example.

For etymological fun today, we have the word simmer, as in the cooking technique. I got interested in this because I was reading Harold McGee's book The Curious Cook, where I ran across this proposition:
As far back as the time of Brillat-Savarin, the French have had a saying that a barely bubbling stewpot "smiles."

As it happens, there's a smile lurking in the background of the English word simmer as well. But it's not an especially encouraging one. The original form of the word was simper, which then as now meant an affected, conceited expression. So Thomas Nashe in 1594: "I simpered with my countenance lyke a porredge pot on the fire when it first begins to seeth." This etymology suggests an altogether different home truth: a simmering pot, like a smiling face, can conceal something rather unappealing.
If you look up simmer in the OED, it does redirect you to simper. However, in that entry, the proposed etymology for the cooking sense of simper/simmer is listed as "probably imitative." They have a separate entry for to simper in the sense that McGee cites (to smirk), and they suggest that a connection between these two senses of to simper "appears unlikely." McGee is no slouch in his research, so either he got his etymology elsewhere, or he's extrapolating a connection between simmer and smile that might not be justified, or I'm reading the OED incorrectly. (It would hardly be the first time.)

Side note: I keep forgetting to note that the lexicographer Katherine Barber has a good explanation of the origins of skate, which was a word I had on my list to investigate. Check it out on her blog.

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  03:46 PM

Friday again! It seems like it was only a week ago that we had the last one.

The new-to-me word this week is sexposition, a portmanteau of sex and exposition. I found it in the Clive James piece about Game of Thrones in the current New Yorker, but the term has been around since at least 2011. It's defined as "keeping viewers hooked by combining complex plot exposition with explicit sexual goings-on." GoT is (in)famous for sexposition, of course, but it's also been used in Deadwood, The Sopranos, and Homeland.


It interests me that the justification for sexposition is that it keeps viewers' interest during the talky bits, since it could be argued, I think, that it distracts viewers from the talky bits. Dunno, YMMV.

For unexpected etymology, today's story is about the dangers of assuming. In conversation the other day, the expression "conked on the noggin" came up, which moved me to ponder where we get conked from. I know that conker is a word used in the UK for "horse chestnut," and that there is a game called "conkers" involving ... something to do with hitting things with conkers. Conclusion: conked on the noggin must derive from being hit with a conker.

Not so fast, there, cowboy. The OED has a somewhat different idea. They gloss to conk as "to punch on the nose," deriving from a noun conk, meaning "nose," the etymology of which is "possibly a fig. application of conch, French conque shell." So "conk on the noggin" is related to "shell."

What about conker, the horse chestnut slash game? Possibly from conquer and referring to a game in which people ("boys") try to break one another's shells or chestnuts. So related, but as a cousin, not a parent.

Oh, and noggin? A small cup or mug, or a small measure (e.g. gill), also slang for the head. "Origin unknown." The figurative use for "head" goes back at least as far as 1769.

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