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.

Read more ...

Blog Search

(Supports AND)

Google Ads


Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

See this post for info on full versus truncated feeds.


You cannot think when you're ecstatic.

Garrett Lisi


<May 2016>




Email me

Blog Statistics

First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 4/29/2016

Posts - 2377
Comments - 2531
Hits - 1,839,892

Entries/day - 0.51
Comments/entry - 1.06
Hits/day - 392

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:01 AM Pacific

  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.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  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.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  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.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  11:11 PM

This post is about the grammar of pronoun case. Sorry about that.

Part 1. People often get the case of pronouns "wrong" in compound objects, of which the best-known example is between you and I. (To be overly explanatory here, it should be between you and me, because the pronouns are the objects of the preposition between.) This error is often explained as hypercorrection—people have been made so sensitive to potential misuses of me ("Me and him went to the movies") that they overcorrect and use I when me is actually correct.

Maybe. Peter Harvey has an interesting blog post in which he notes that entre tú y yo (same pronoun compounding, same case usage) is correct in Spanish. He also observes that between you and I appears in The Merchant of Venice, and not many people accuse Shakespeare of hypercorrection:

… since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I (Act III, Scene 2)

Point is that the case of compound object pronouns has been wacky for a long time. An important note, however, is that even while this pronoun usage deviates from "correct" (i.e., standard) English, it follows predictable rules—for example, it's a feature of compound objects; although people might say "with he and I," they don't tend to say "with I."

Part 2. Pick your preferred pronoun in this sentence:

I am taller than [her/she]

There are two camps here, conjunctionists and prepositionists. (Thanks to Grammar Girl for this excellent terminology.) Conjunctionists vote that than is a conjunction introducing a clause that has an elided verb:

I am taller than she [is]

Prepositionists argue that than is a preposition, and the objects of prepositions are in objective case, therefore her (and him, me, us, etc.) is correct. There are other words that exhibit this duality, like since (since they arrived, since yesterday) and but (but they were late, everything but the kitchen sink).

The point here is that whether you want to use she or her, there's an analysis that supports your choice.

Part 3. I was watching a movie version of As You Like It the other day (thus we return to Shakespeare), and I ran across some truly weird usages. Here were two that I found in just the first few minutes:

I hope I shall see
an end of him; for my soul, yet I know not why,
hates nothing more than he. (Act I, Scene 1)


You know my father hath no child but I (Act I, Scene 2)

Are than and but prepositions here? If so, he should be him and I should be me.

Are they conjunctions? If so, we need to posit some sort of verb to make he and I the subjects of clauses. But I can’t think of a way to spin these into clauses. I'm assuming "than he [does]" doesn't work—he is definitely intended to be the object of hate. Same problem for "but I."

So I'm a bit mystified as to how to analyze this usage. If nothing else, tho, it does indicate that the traditional case grammar that we once had in Old English had definitely gone topsy-turvy by Early Modern English. And that, like today, it's all about word order.



  10:18 AM

It's Friday, therefore words!

For the new-to-me word this week, a term (some related terms) I learned only yesterday from Lynne Murphy, whose blog Separated by a Common Language keeps an eye on trans-Atlantic English. The first term is lig, which refers to events that feature free food and entertainment. (Per one definition I found, "esp in the entertainment industry and the media," ha.) Whence this term? "Origin uncertain." (My money is on Scandinavian languages, but that's totally a guess.)

To lig is the verb for attending such functions precisely in order to get that free stuff. And ligger, naturally, is a term for someone who ligs. As far as I can tell, these are all British terms; I've certainly never heard them in the US, and COCA, which tracks American English, has zero relevant hits.

Anyway, this all amused me because I'm in the software industry, which also has a streak of the extravagant, what with huge launch parties and famously gourmet cafeterias at Google. Here's a scene from the movie Up in the Air where Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is ligging a software party in the hotel where they're staying.

On to etymology. Why are corny jokes corny? Corn is an ancient word meaning "seed" (see also: kernel). In the sense of a corny joke (or corny anything), corny is glossed as "worn out and tiresome or overly sentimental." (Corny jokes are not to be confused with dad jokes, thank you.) The relationship of the seed to the sentimental is apparently an indirect reference to the notion that people involved with the seed—country folk, "corn-fed" people—are more prone to enjoying jokes and other cultural paraphernalia of the corny variety. It's an American term, early to mid 20th century. Next time you hear a corny joke, blame the bumpkins I guess.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  07:38 PM

I was editing something at work today and ran across the phrase lightening fast, with bonus e. This got my attention—I've seen this spelling plenty, but it was an unusual context. So I got to thinking about this spelling and why using lightening for lightning isn't all that unreasonable.

First, it's not uncommon. Using the phrase bolt of lightening as a way to search for the term, I found 10 instances in the COCA corpus versus 206 instances of bolt of lightning. Let's call that a 4–5% hit rate. Thunder and lightning gets 156 hits; thunder and lightening gets 5, which is a somewhat lower incidence of around 3%. But it ain't zero. Point is, people do use the lightening spelling; not a lot, but it's out there in printed materials.

Second, it's not an error that spell checkers can find. Lightening is a perfectly cromulent word in its meaning of "to make or get lighter," as in lightening one's load. It's possible that a grammar checker will find the error; for example, if you write "bolt of lightening," Microsoft Word's grammar checker flags it. But in most contexts, grammar checking is not available.

Finally, it can make sense from a phonological perspective. Unless one's pronunciation is particularly precise, it's not hard to hear or make a vowel between the t and n in lightening. This is a phenomenon known as epenthesis, which is common in many dialects (mason-a-ry, ath-e-lete). And lest those of us with perfect pronunciation should feel too smug, epenthesis is the historical source of some now-standard pronunciations (famously, thunder in English got itself an epethentic d—compare Donner in German).

As with many misspellings, people don't like it. But it's an understandable one, at least. And all that said, I did fix it in the document I was editing. :-)

[categories]   ,


  03:03 PM

Short piece this week, because I'm at ACES 2016, a festival of copyedit-wonkery in Portland OR. Example, here's a joke that got a big laugh from the audience: "How do you hide $20 from a reporter? Put it in their style guide."

The new-to-me word this week is the term confirmshaming, a term that I didn't realize I needed until the second I learned it from Facebook Friend Clay. This refers to how websites try to sell you something, and the link or button to decline their offer is phrased in a way to suggest that you're a loser. An example makes this clear:

Ever seen this? There's a Tumblr blog that collects these things; the number of confirmshaming entries collected there is either funny or depressing, gah. One commenter on a Metafilter piece sums up the weirdness of confirmshaming: "Insulting your potential future customers seems like a can't lose marketing technique to me."

The surprising etymology this week was inspired by a book I'm reading: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. He notes that the word traffic did not originally have the negative connotations that it can have today. We got the word in Renaissance times from French; the tra- part is probably related to trans in the sense of "across." The term originally referred to the transportation of goods in both a noun sense ("a traffic in gems") and verb sense ("trafficked in gems"). What I cannot find is how recent the sense is of "bad traffic," as in "There's traffic today." I'll keep looking.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  11:35 AM

Friday again! I've spent most of the week cabin-bound (so to speak) due to a cold, so the week's been a bit of a blur. But Friday words are always a highlight innit.

The new-to-me term this week is Scunthorpe problem, and I must say, this term has delighted me so much that I've been grabbing everyone I know (including my beleaguered wife) and telling them all about it. This refers to the problem that occurs when names, email addresses, URLs, and other web properties are blocked because automated software scanning has detected an offensive term embedded in the name. The phenomenon is named after the town of Scunthorpe in England. In the 1990s, AOL blocked people in Scunthorpe from creating accounts, because AOL's filtering software detected what it thought was profanity in the names. (I'll leave it to you to sort out what word the filtering software found.)

The Scunthorpe problem has manifested itself in a variety of ways. People with names like Cockburn and Libshitz were initially refused email addresses by their providers. A mushroom enthusiast was unable to register the domain shitakemushrooms.com. An online community devoted to Doctor Who supposedly blocked the word TARDIS because it contained the string tard.

Another manifestation of the problem is when the filtering software substitutes a less offensive term for the one it thinks it's found. Some filters just substitute stars for the offensive string, so that the word class becomes cl***, and manuscript becomes m****cript. Other filters try to swap out the offensive string for something else. For example, the string tit is sometimes replaced with breast, resulting in words like breastle and Consbreastution. The string butt is (or was) so commonly swapped for ass that this is sometimes known as the clbuttic mistake.

Fun, right? And so we move to unexpected etymology.

This week I got to wondering about the word van, as in the vehicle. Altho I admit that once I'd looked it up, this one turned out not to be very mysterious. First, it derives from caravan, so kind of duh, you know? According to one etymology, this shortened word goes back to the early 1800s, so it's been around a respectable amount of time. It's become a productive morpheme, leading to such terms as minivan.

As an aside on the minivan thing, among the first minivans (which these days aren't very mini, golly) was the Dodge Caravan. I always reckoned that the naming folks at Chrysler wanted to subtly emphasize that this new minivan thing was not your grandfather's van, i.e., some sort of service vehicle. So they used a name that told you right there that it was car-a-van: half car, half van.

Anyway, caravan. This can refer to a collection of travelers as well as the wagons that constitute such a collection. Obviously, the latter-day vehicular meaning derives from this second sense. And how did this get into English? We got it from Italian, which got it from Persian, where it was almost the same word with the same meaning. Fun fact: the Brits seem to use caravan to mean what we Americans refer to as camper, and have the word caravanning for what we might refer to as car-camping.

Since this week's etymology isn't perhaps as fascinating as some previous entries, I'll offer the bonus of some actually interesting origins that I've seen recently:
  • Easter. John McIntyre writes about how we use a word of pagan origin to refer to a high holiday in the Christian church.

  • catarrh. Arnold Zwicky writes a blog entry about this odd-looking term, but one that's timely, since I (and many others) have been suffering from this condition all week.

  • javelina. Another post on Zwicky's blog in which he discusses how the peccary does not relate to the spear.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  01:59 PM

For today's selection of Friday words, I'm flipping the convention: one new(-to-me) word, but two words with unexpected(-to-me) etymologies.

The new word today is bangorrhea, which refers to the practice of using excessive!!!! exclamation points. I got this via an editor friend on Facebook, who in turn got it from an article by Andy Hollandbeck. The word bangorrhea is of course a portmanteau, marrying bang with the "combining form" -rrhea, meaning "flow" or "discharge." The word has some interesting company: logorrhea, for "an excessive locquacity," and to up the ick factor for today's word, diarrhea and gonorrhea.

Ahem. As Hollandbeck notes, bang has been used to refer to exclamation points for at least half a century. I've seen it a lot at my work (software)—a good example is a bang mail. The origin is presumably because in some programs, email messages are marked for high importance using an icon that has an exclamation point.

Here's a vaguely related anecdote about the use of exclamation points. In my days as a tech writer whelp, my lead was reviewing something I'd written. She removed an exclamation point (just one) that I'd added to a sentence, with this penciled-in comment: "Nix. Too exciting." And given the era of tech writing we were in, probably rightly so. But there's a coda. Just recently, in my capacity as senior writer, I was reviewing a draft by a more junior writer. Almost reflexively, I proposed removing the exclamation points that he'd used in various sentences. He rejected those changes, and given the era of tech writing we're in now, probably rightly so.

Etymology. This week I was pondering two words that I thought might be so-called unpaired words—terms that seem like they should have opposites, but don't[1]. (Think ruthless or disgruntled.) The first term was innocent. I know that the in- prefix is, or can be, a negation particle, as in incoherent or intolerant[2]. Ok, fine, but if so, what is the non-negative, or opposite, version of innocent? It turns out that the -nocent part is from a Latin stem that means "to harm," which we see also in noxious. So innocent is something that's the opposite of harmful, so to speak. To my mind, noxious is sufficiently distant from -nocent that I am willing to count innocent as an unpaired word.

The second such term I pondered this week is disappoint. Same question: if dis- is a negation particle, what are we negating, exactly? This one turned out to be more logical. If you troll through the several definitions for appoint, one of them is "to provide what is necessary," like appointing a house with furnishings. (That's definition #4 on Dictionary.com, anyway.) So to disappoint originates as something along the lines of failing to provide the needful, as they say in some dialects. There's something I bet we all have experience with.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] Speaking of unpaired words, I'm not familiar with a better play on them than Jack Winter's brilliant "How I Met My Wife," which for now is available here in an unauthorized edition. Sample: "After a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings."

[2] In the original Latin, the in- prefix was a variation on il- and im-. The words illegal, impossible, and incoherent all use the same prefix, but it was phonologically adjusted, so to speak, to match the letter that follows.

[categories]   ,


  07:35 AM

Friday words! Two new ones (to me), one fun etymology.

The first new word today is like-farming, which a Facebook friend just alerted me to. Like-farming is a scam in which an ill-intentioned user posts a story on Facebook with the idea of getting a lot of Likes and shares. (Think puppies or product giveaways or sob-story appeals.) The idea is that the many Likes help the story get wide circulation. When the post has garnered some critical mass of Likes, the scammer changes the story. Any new users who are attracted to the story end up seeing product promotion or something worse, like links to a malicious site. You can read more about this in a recent article in USA Today. It's new to me, but the term has been around since at least 2012.

My second new term today is a German word, but I guess it's used in English: Witzelsucht. (Capped in German for sure, inconsistently in English.) I learned about this because someone on Facebook linked to an article whose title pretty much defines the term: "The curse of the people who can't stop making puns." It's a recognized medical condition associated with brain damage in which the, um, sufferer is compelled to make puns and jokes "in socially inappropriate situations," to quote Wikipedia. The word translates from German as "joking" (witzeln=to make witticisms) and "desire" or "addiction" (sucht=seeking). So next time someone you know cannot stop making jokes, check their frontal lobe for lesions.

For surprising etymology this week we have adrenaline, the hormone, as in "Reading about etymology gives me an adrenaline rush." (Haha) Adrenaline is thusly named because it is produced by the adrenal glands, fair enough. But where did the name of the gland come from? Well, the adrenal glands are on top of the kidneys. Ad means "at" or "about", renal means "of or pertaining to the kidneys". Apparently the adrenal glands were named via a process something like this:

Anatomist 1: And these things are the kidneys.
Anatomist 2: What about these glands stuck on them?
Anatomist 1: Not sure about those. How about we just call them the "on-the-kidneys glands"?
Anatomist 2: It will sound better in Latin, you realize.
Anatomist 1: Good point. "Adrenal glands" it shall be.

(Note: Any resemblance between this dialog and real word origins would be … astonishing.)

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,