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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I believe that there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

James Madison



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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 2/23/2017

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Posts - 2418
Comments - 2551
Hits - 1,926,408

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Entries/day - 0.48
Comments/entry - 1.06
Hits/day - 386

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:39 AM Pacific


  11:18 PM

To start this week's words post on a personal note, I turned 60 this last weekend. People were curious if I was sad about this. Not at all, it turns out. I'm not sure exactly why I find this milestone so appealing. One thought is that instead of being an old middle-aged person, I am now the youngest old person I know. And on that note, on the to the words!

The new-to-me word this week is trilemma. As is often the case, this is not at all a new word (17th century). And as also often happens, I've known the concept, just not the word for it. It's an extension of the word dilemma, which refers to a choice between two unpleasant alternatives. Here, di is two, and lemma is a proposition. A trilemma, then, is a choice of three undesirable choices. Epicurus's Trilemma is a classic theological trilemma that goes like this:
  1. If God is unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent.
  2. If God is not willing to prevent evil, he is not good.
  3. If God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil?
However, trilemma is also used to refer to a situation that might have three desirable outcomes, but you only get two. (In this sense, it kinda-sorta inverts the sense of dilemma.) A well-known example of this second sense of trilemma in the software business is the maxim "Fast, good, or cheap: pick two." This is also known as the project-management trilemma.

This investigation actually started when I was reading an article and ran across Rodrick's Trilemma, which states that "a nation may have two of the following three things: national sovereignty, democracy, or deep, global economic integration. It can have any combination of two. But it cannot have all three." If you're interested in how this trilemma might be updated for today's USA, I urge you to read the article.

Turning to unexpected etymology, I have two today on an automotive theme. The first is the word tire, referring to the rubber tube around the wheels. This comes from a word for the iron rim that was attached to the outside of wooden wheels to give them strength. It was later used to refer to a similar feature on locomotive wheels, and then was repurposed to refer to pneumatic rubber tires. But why tire in the first place? Per the OED, a now-obsolete sense of tire was "apparatus, equipment, accoutrement, outfit." We still have a modern cognate … attire. Thus a tire is your car wheel's clothing! Ain't etymology fun.

Did I say your car? Obviously I meant your whip. Friend Seth sent me an article from a site called TheDrive.com in which the article's author makes the curious assertion that "unlike much of what today's youth say, whip actually has depth, meaning, an etymology." In spite of this unpromising start, the author does recount an interesting history that goes back quite a ways. The tl;dr is that people used to turn horse-drawn carts by cracking a whip. The handle of the whip is a whipstock or whipstaff. In the boating world, people used the term whipstaff, or just whip, for a piece of wood that was attached to the tiller. This much is all verifiable via the OED.

Now we get to the parts of the story that I have not been able to verify. When carriages become horseless, steering was done via a tiller-like device. The word whip was borrowed along with the tiller, and became attached to the steering wheel when that was introduced. The latter-day sense of whip supposedly referred originally to Mercedes-Benz, because the Mercedes star, enclosed in a circle, resembles a steering wheel. It's since generalized to refer to any car. It's a good story, and not implausible. If I were a real lexicographer, I'd go digging some more.

Anyway, for some extra unexpected etymology this week (extra and unexpected, not extra-unexpected), try these:
  • James Harbeck on ramification. (Spanish speakers might have an "aha" moment.)
  • John Kelly on suede.
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  11:28 AM

Friday words! Here's an interesting milestone: this will be the last words post I make while I'm still in my 50s.

Note #1! This week's new word features politics and (especially) strong language.

Note #2! The discussion might also be a little too inside-baseball; it's a word about words. Sorry about that.

So. This week's new-to-me word is also actually new: shitgibbon compound. Of late, many people have been discussing the insult shitgibbon. The word rose to prominence during a series of tweets that were posted when then-candidate Trump visited Scotland and make some statements that people disagreed with (example); it then came up again when a US legislator used it in an angry tweet. If you're interested in the rise and spread of this term, the linguist Ben Zimmer traces it in an entry on the Strong Language blog.

However, what interests me today is not shitgibbon as such, but the term shitgibbon compound. The word shitgibbon has a particular construction and rhythm that we find in other insults: scumbucket, twatwaffle, fartnugget, and many more. The linguist Gretchen McCulloch has proposed the name shitgibbon compounds at the end of her deep-dive into how these types of terms can be constructed. Daniel Midgley took up this term and made an awesome chart of the frequency of shitgibbon compounds, which I'll show you just a teaser of because you really want to go see the whole chart and his writeup:


Something I like about the term shitgibbon compound is that the name is based on an exemplar of the genre. The linguist Brianne Hughes did this also when she named cutthroat compounds—words based on verb+noun like pickpocket, tattletale, killjoy, and of course cutthroat itself.

Anyway, now when someone calls you a fuckweasel, you can enjoy knowing that you've been insulted using a shitgibbon compound.

Let's move on to word origins. The surprising etymology this week came from a discussion that started when Facebook Friend Jim Bisso posted this picture of a book he has:


This was initially a remember-when post about the days before calculators, but a lively side discussion emerged about the term stereotyped on the book's title page. I'm sure we all know the meaning of stereotype as "a preconceived notion, especially about a group of people."

But that doesn't make sense for the use of stereotyped on the book's title page. It turns out that stereotype started life in the printing industry in the early 1700s. In those days, back when type was set by hand, it was tedious and expensive to re-set a book if you wanted to do a second printing. So if a savvy printer thought they might need to reprint a book, they'd set the type for a page and then make a mold of the typeset page—a kind of snapshot of the full typeset page. (The mold is known as a flong.) The printer could then cast a new page, complete, from the mold, and print new pages from that. The plate that was cast from the mold was known as a stereotype, from classical roots meaning "solid" + "type."

The metaphoric use of stereotype derived from this quite concrete sense, picking up on the sense of making a copy easily. Fun fact! Another word for stereotype in the printing sense is cliché, from French (obviously?). This comes from a verb clicher, which means to make a stereotype in this way, and apparently is onomatopoeic, from the sound that the mold makes when you lift it off the type.

You can see pictures of all this on the Wikipedia article about stereotype.

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  12:26 AM

Apostrophes. People get 'em wrong all the time. Right? Some people feel that this is because writers just aren't applying the lessons they should have learned in school. (Can we say "lazy"?) For example, here's a comment that appeared recently on a Facebook thread:
Apostrophes aren't actually very hard at all. They are stand-ins for missing letters. If you can extend "they're" to "they are" then it gets an apostrophe. Plurals never get them. This is literally first grade punctuation.
So I went back to first grade to refresh my memory about apostrophe rules. Here's what I learned!
Use an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter, like can't or didn't or ain't.

But don't use an apostrophe when you're just taking out a space! Just letters. Don't write do'n't.

Don't forget won't, which is a contraction for … wo not? Side question: What's ain't a contraction for?

And 'tis.

If you're contracting and, don't forget to use two apostrophes: rock 'n' roll, peaches 'n' cream, Bang 'n' Olufsen.

Use an apostrophe if you're combining a pronoun or noun and a verb, like she'll and there's and who's and Fred's and I'd've and they'll and Mike'll and y'all'd've.

Add apostrophe plus s to the end of a noun to indicate possession: dog's breakfast, pedant's delight. (Question: In dog's, what letter does the apostrophe stand in for? Answer: Shhh.)

Yes, add apostrophe plus s even if the noun ends in s, like the boss's red tie, Texas's Board of Education, and Davy Jones's locker.

And even if the final s is not pronounced, like Descartes's existence and Xerxes's army.

Unless you have a style guide that tells you not to add an apostrophe plus s to singular nouns that end in s, in which case it will be Davy Jones' locker.

Don't add an apostrophe plus s for certain names, like Jesus' and Moses'.

Hmm. We changed our minds, do add an apostrophe plus s for those names.

But don't use an apostrophe for certain names, like Harrods and Barclays and Publishers Weekly. (Question: How do you know which names these are? Answer: Yes.)

Don't use an apostrophe for the possessive form of pronouns! Like hers and its and theirs. Use whose for possessive, not who's.

Except in Dr. Who's 50-year history.

Oh, and except for one, like the evil one's cunning plan.

For the possessive of plurals, add s and then the apostrophe, like dogs' breakfasts or The Smiths' or both Jameses' cars.

Unless the plural doesn't end in s. In that case, mark the plural possessive using apostrophe plus s, just like the singular, as in people's choice and women's march.

And use apostrophe plus s for the possessive of plurals of compounds, like my sons-in-law's cars and the states' attorneys general's responsibilities.

Add an apostrophe when you're talking about time spans ("quasi possessives"), like 6 months' experience.

But not if they're time spans but not quasi possessive: 4 months pregnant.

Don't add any apostrophe at all if the noun is acting as an adjective: A Coen Brothers Production.

This includes terms like teachers union or farmers market.

Carpenters union or carpenters' union? Toss-up.

Don't get these confused: it's Ladies' Room but Women's Room.

It's Mother's Day. Or maybe Mothers' Day? But definitely Veterans Day. See previous.

If the word seems plural-y but is used in a singular sort of way, just add an apostrophe to the s, not apostrophe plus s, like economics' failure and the species' characteristics and the United States' role.

But don't add an apostrophe to the United States Constitution.

Add an apostrophe, but not an s, in for…sake expressions: for goodness' sake.

Unless the word doesn't end in an s sound, in which case do add an apostrophe plus s: for expediency's sake.

Plurals never get apostrophes. It's oranges, not orange's.

Wait, do use an apostrophe for the plural of single letters, like p's and q's and dotting the i's.

And use an apostrophe to indicate decades, like the 1980's. Or don't: 1980s.

And if you do write 1980's, don't add an apostrophe if you're contracting the name of the decades, like the '80s.

Use an apostrophe if you're writing the plural for a term that includes periods, like two M.D.'s on staff.

Or if it would be confusing to leave them out, like do's and don'ts. Or do's and don't's? Or dos and don’ts?
Well, shoot. I just can't imagine why people don't get apostrophes right. The rules, as you can see, are perfectly clear.


With credit, and in some cases apologies, to the following:

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  07:06 PM

Of all the things that happened this week, waking up to 8 inches of snow on Monday was about the least expected. What with this being Seattle in February and all. On the other hand, what is expected is words on Friday.

The new-to-me term this week is another law: Brandolini's Law, to be exact, which says that "the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it." Alberto Brandolini made this proclamation, labeling it "bullshit asymmetry," in a tweet about 4 years ago:


I don't remember exactly where I got this from, but there's a great blog post by Guillaume Nicoulaud (I think! attribution is hard to come by on that blog!) that first labeled the aphorism and credited it to Brandolini, who's an Italian software developer.

The blog post takes a few pains to note analogues, like "a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on," variously attributed to Twain or Lincoln or Einstein or Gandhi, like everything else on the internet. (Actually, the post attributes it to Spurgeon. Or Swift.) Commenters on the blog also note similar observations, like the Gish Gallop (a.k.a. "proof by verbosity") and "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit." None of these seems to quite capture essence of what Brandolini is getting at, though.

Me, I reckon this all might be an excuse for me to buy the book On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt.

On to etymology. The other day I was reading something about WWII and ran across the term bayonet. I've known this word since I was a wee war-books-reading boy, but I had never wondered where the name came from. The -et ending sounds French, of course, and indeed it is. (A note I found said that in early borrowings from French we used the -et ending, but later started using the -ette ending.)

There seem to be two theories of the origin of bayonet. One is that it refers to the Bayonne region in France, where bayonets were invented or initially deployed or particularly popular. (I made up that last one.) "I shall tickle the Huns with my little knife of Bayonne!" said no one that I know of. (Except they didn't say it in French.)

The second theory is that bayonet is a diminutive of bayon, referring to an arrow or crossbow shaft. This also seems plausible, and is supported, kind of, by words in Spanish and Italian that might also refer to a dagger or sheath.

Either way, this etymological investigation led me to want to have a look at some bayonets. Which was interesting, but made me a bit queasy.



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  07:43 AM

Friday words for the beginning of February. Or "Febuary", if you, like me, are a fan and practitioner of liquid dissimilation.

Today's new-to-me term is vertical farming, which I learned from an article in the New Yorker recently. This almost seems like a self-evident term until you ponder what exactly it might mean. Terracing? Growing things on a wall? Growing some verticals? (Huh?)

According to the article, the term has a precise definition:
It refers to a method of growing crops, usually without soil or natural light, in beds stacked vertically inside a controlled-environment building.
As it says, the plants aren't in soil; instead, the roots are sprayed with a nutritious and delicious liquid via fertigation (fertilize+irrigation), another term I learned from reading about all this.

Per the NYer article, the term vertical farming was invented (at least, in this sense) by Dickson Despommier, Ph.D, who wrote a book in 2011 called The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.

People who are involved in vertical farming are super-excited about it and talk fervently about the potential of this technique to revolutionize agriculture. I guess we'll know that vertical farming is a success when someone invents a retronym like "horizontal farming" or "land farming" for what we otherwise today know as just "farming."

On to etymology! Not long ago someone alerted me to the origin of the word diabetes. People in earlier eras recognized the disease; apparently there are records going back to ancient Egypt referring to it. They didn't know anything about the etiology of the disease, but they recognized it for one of its symptoms: copious urination.

Thus the name diabetes, which comes from a Latin word meaning "siphon"; the Latins in turn got it from Greek verb meaning "to pass through." The great Greek physician Galen referred to diabetes as diarrhea urinosa, or diarrhea of the urine. (There's an interesting article (PDF) in the Hormones journal about the first descriptions in medical literature of diabetes.)

Oh, in English, we started using the word diabetes in the 1400s. Here's a cite from 1475:
Diabites is an vnmesurable pissing of vrin þat comeþ of grete drienes of þe reynes [kidneys].
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  08:49 AM

Friday words! Our last installment for an eventful January 2017.

The new-to-me term this week is economic moat. This refers to a competitive advantage that is not easy for others to overcome. A textbook example of an economic moat is a patent your company owns—not only do you have a competitive advantage, but your competitors cannot use your process or widget. But it can also be something like a brand with a high recognition factor—for example, it doesn’t matter how delicious your soft drink is if you're trying to compete with Coca-Cola.

The term is attributed to the investor Warren Buffet. The financial press loves this quote, omg: "In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable moats." But finding the actual source is surprisingly difficult. The best I could do was this, from the 1986 Chairman's Letter, where Buffett says the following:
The difference between GEICO’s costs and those of its competitors is a kind of moat that protects a valuable and much-sought-after business castle.
As an aside, I'll note that Buffett is justly famous for the approachability of his writing about financial matters, and the Letters are surprisingly good reading.

So. Got a little off track there, sorry. On to etymology. This week's word came up in a discussion online about which term is preferred, couch or sofa. During the discussion, someone mentioned that sofa was a borrowing from Arabic. And sure enough! The origin is listed as the Arabic word soffah.

The first cites in English (1625) use the word sofa to refer to a raised platform that's got carpets and cushions on it.

The original sofa?

By 1717, the French were using the word to refer to a couch-ier thing, which is what we do today.

As for the question of couch versus sofa, people agreed that couch was the more common term. After all, you never hear about someone who's a sofa-potato.

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  11:25 AM

Friday! Meaning it's time again to share some words. For new(-to-me) words today I've got two that I harvested in 2016, but that might have some contemporary relevance, you decide.

The first is outrage porn, which is media (I think we want to stay from the word news) whose purpose is primarily to stir outrage. Entire TV networks seem to be devoted to this, and of course anyone who's got a political opinion can get an endless stream of outrage porn on their Facebook feed. The term is credited to Tim Kreider, writing in 2009 in the New York Times. (FWIW, he doesn't use quotation marks, which are often put around new terms. Just sayin'.) Using the word porn in this compound is clever; as Michael Austin notes, outrage porn "provides all of the sensations of a strong emotion without incurring any of the costs."

Part two of our related terms this week is rage profiteer. This term is slightly more recent—2014, it looks like? (A variant is rage farmer.) As you might guess, this is someone who …
… pretends to care passionately about certain causes but in fact thrives on regression, controversy or bad news because it gives them an excuse step into the limelight.
This definition is courtesy of Ryan Holiday in The Observer, who has written multiple times about these related phenomena.

Just reading about these terms makes me tired. So let's turn to something more fun, namely word history.

The etymological surprise this week came upon me as I was half-watching an episode of the new TV series Emerald City. Dorothy has a pistol, and someone in this strange new land asks her what it is. "It's a gun," she says.

Gun. Gun. I couldn't think of any cognate for gun except obvious derivations, like gunnery and gunpowder. So, where does it come from?

Would you believe that the word gun is related to the female name Gunn? (According to the babynamewizard.com site, Gunn is the 62nd most popular girl's name in Norway.)

The entry in the OED for this is so good it's tempting to just plop the whole thing right here. But to summarize, there seem to be two main elements:
  • The terms gunn-r and hild-r were both old Germanic words for "war."

  • It was not unknown to give female names to "engines of war." In this vein, says the OED, "If Gunnhildr, as is likely, was a name frequently given to ballistæ [catapults] and the like, it would naturally, on the introduction of gunpowder, be given also to cannon."



Perhaps this cannon was nicknamed Gunnhildr

So a nickname for any big [war] machine was applied to also early guns (i.e., cannons), and then came to be applied specifically to any machines that used explosive force to hurl projectiles. I imagine that a medieval engineer might be surprised to hear you refer to a little .22 pistol as a gun. But that's semantic drift for you.

I was delighted to realize that this custom of giving names to big machines is still with us. In World War I, the Germans deployed a huge howitzer that was nicknamed Big Bertha (Dicke Bertha in German). And in a less martial context, here in Seattle we are currently following the progress of a giganto machine (57-foot-diameter) named Bertha that's drilling a new roadway underneath our downtown. From this I conclude that if in medieval times you could name any big war machine "Gunnhildr," I guess today we can name any big machine "Bertha."



Seattle's Bertha, ready to start digging the tunnel.

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  08:48 AM

I missed last week due to being at a linguistics conference, but while I was there I picked up another batch of language-related terms:These are well known to real linguists (I presume), but new to me.

Anyway, those aside, it's time for another Saturday edition of Friday words (oops). Oh, and PS, Happy New Year!

The first new-to-me word this week (leaving aside the list above) is wikidrift, which defines a situation I am all too familiar with. This is the practice of (or game of, if one does it with intent) following links in Wikipedia from article to article. The drift part alludes to the notion of moving further and further away from the original starting point. A supposed outcome of unlimited wikidrift is that one eventually gets to the topic on philosophy.

My second term for this week is white-labeling, which came up at work recently. This is not a new term, and I'm a bit surprised I'd never heard it. (That I know of.) To white-label, is, in effect, to put your brand on something created by someone else. A typical example is a store brand, like Archway for Target, Lucerne for Safeway, and Kenmore for Sears.

The term apparently came from the music business, and specifically from the business of vinyl records. Demo or promo versions of new records were created before the artwork for the album was finished, and the record would be sent out to radio stations with only a blank white label. Thus the idea of a "blank" product that a seller could add their own information to.

For etymology today I've got myriad, meaning "a lot," as in There are myriad ways to say "a lot." Sure, I knew what the term means, but I didn't realize it had such a precise etymology: it's a Greek word meaning "ten thousand." Apparently the Greeks had a number system with a specific word for ten thousand.

The word has been used for centuries in English both to mean ten thousand of a thing and as term for "a countless number of specified things," as the OED has it. Still, if you run into one of those annoying people who insist that decimate can only mean "reduce by one-tenth," see if you can get then to admit that the only proper use for myriad is when they mean "ten thousand."

And speaking of numbers, read James Harbeck's writeup on using myriad, couple, and other numbers in The Week.

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  01:41 PM

Friday words! On Saturday! Another leap Friday, I guess. I should note also that I deliberately skipped last week, because it was Christmas and all the new-to-me words were just so bleak that I seemed like a downer. But things are looking up today.

Speaking of which, the new-to-me word today is supertentorial. This is a medical term, but that's not the most interesting part. So, first, the tentorium cerebelli is a bit of dura mater[1]—tissue—that separates the lower and higher parts of the brain. That is, it separates the cerebellum from the cerebrum. Supertentorial, where super is "above," means something that's occurring above this divider, like a tumor.

Already we've learned something new! But wait, there's more. I was listening to a podcast on The Allusionist, where Helen Zaltzman was talking to Dr. Isaac Siemens about, among other things, doctor jargon. Along the way, he talked about jargon that medical people use to hide what they're saying from civilians. One of those was this word supertentorial, which doctors will sometimes use to mean that it's all in the patient's head. ("The condition appears to be supertentorial.") My wife, who's also in the medical field, totally confirmed this. Of course, this strategy backfires if the patient happens to be a native speaker of Latin.

For etymology, I actually have a (belated) holiday term of sorts. At the specific request of one my kids, for Christmas dinner every year I make flan for dessert. Flan is a kind of custard, which in the Spanish style has a dripping caramel crown:


But whence flan? The name we're using is Spanish, but English also has the word flawn; this is an example of a word that's been borrowed into English more than once. The flawn version refers to a kind of flat filled pastry (basically, a tart). This sense appears in a lot of Western European languages all the way back to Latin, and seems to originate in a Germanic word meaning a flat cake. The connection to the term as used in Spanish is (I guess?) that custard seems to be one of the fillings for a flawn, and possibly that flans are flat. I don't have a source for etymology of Spanish words, so I wouldn't take this explanation to the bank. But it's what I can put together from the usual sources.

In any event, what I can tell you is that the secret to a good flan is to use extra egg yolks.

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[1] Not, I also learned, dura matter, which would be a folk etymology, I suppose.

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  06:08 AM

Things you might not know: December 16 is Beethoven's birthday. Things you probably do know: today is Friday, so it must be another day for words!

The new-to-me term this week is scrollytelling. This describes a way of presenting information on a webpage that lets users scroll around, dynamically revealing parts of the story. A good example is a page in the New York Times about climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park:



Update 19 Dec 2016 I found an even better example of scrollytelling, a viz that shows maritime traffic around San Francisco Bay:


The term scrollytelling is yet another portmanteau (a theme lately, it seems), which of course blends scrolling with storytelling. I got this term by reading a document at work, but once I went delving, I found that it's so well known that there's even a company named Scrollytelling that offers "a full-service storytelling agency and worldwide storytelling platform." Ok, then.

Bonus term: steppers. This is a different take on storytelling, where you, well, step through the story in discrete parts. A somewhat cranky blog post provides a compare-and-contrast between scrollytelling and steppers.

Unexpected etymology today came from Twitter, where someone noted the mistake "collard shirts" (instead of "collared").[1] This seemed like a minor error to me, because I thought that collard, in reference to the greens, was probably just a variant on collared—maybe the plant had some sort of collar? Something.

Not even! Collard is a "phonetic corruption" (OED) of colewort, a word constructed out of ancient roots (haha). We see the cole part of colewort in coleslaw and cauliflower, not to mention in kale and kohlrabi; further afield, it shows up as chou in French. (Fun fact: kale was basically the form of cole used in northern England and Scotland.) Wort is another ancient term, meaning plant or root, which also shows up in other names, like ragwort and mugwort. So collard greens are a kind of cabbage, but one that "does not heart," or form up into a head. I tell ya, the cabbage family is just full of surprises.

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[1] Hey, it passes spellcheck.

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