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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The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear.

Richard Dawkins


<July 2016>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 7:20 AM Pacific

  10:49 AM

Hey, it's Friday again. So soon! Fortunately, we have the consolation of words.

Today's new-to-me term is conformist distinction. I got this from a FiveThirtyEight podcast in which Tom Vanderbilt was discussing his new book on taste, You May Also Like. In the podcast, Vanderbilt was discussing "tokens of identity" by which we project ourselves, and the dual desire to fit in but also have a unique style. This, he says, is conformist distinction, apparently a term from psychology. (I don't find hits on this using normal-Google, fwiw.) As he summarizes the term, "We all want to be like each other, more or less, but with a little twist."

Here we all are, showing our distinct style while conforming to hipster fashion

For unexpected etymology this week I have a term that's actually timely: candidate, as in someone running for office. This one came up when I was reading about Roman senatorial elections in Mary Beard's SPQR.

The tl;dr on the word is that it means "clothed in white," referring to the white togs (er, togas) that candidates wore. A little bit of delving, what the heck, tells us that candidate shares a root with candid (something that, arguably, candidates often are not), which means "white" and "shining" or "glistening." In fact, the first definitions in the OED (in historical order) for candid are "white"; "splendid"; "pure"; "impartial"; and "free from malice." It's only after that that we get to "frank." The shared root also appears in the word incendiary, where -cend- comes from a verbal form meaning "to cause to glow, shine." How about that.

I suppose that as an aside, I could note that toga comes from the Latin word for "to cover."

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  11:00 AM

Friday again?! I missed last Friday due to visitors visiting, but we're back today!

For today's new-to-me term, we have Null Island. This term isn't entirely new to me; I learned it when I started work at Tableau, but it came up again recently. Null Island is a jocular name for latitude 0, longitude 0—where the prime meridian meets the equator. This happens to be a point off the west coast of Africa:

The name Null Island alludes to the fact that in many systems, a null (missing data) is interpreted as a zero. In our software, for example, if you're creating a data visualization that involves maps, we use 0 for any missing latitude or longitude information. Thus you might be surprised to find in, say, your sales analysis that you appear to be making sales in the Gulf of Guinea. Whoops. (In our software, you can click a button to remove null values from your analysis.)

There's an article in Popular Mechanics that describes the issue. This article goes on to note that computer systems often have trouble with people whose last name is Null (and there are many such people). Someone has (of course) created a website for The Republic of Null Island. Buy the t-shirt!

For etymology, I got to wondering about cattle rustling. I was listening to a Planet Money podcast ("Cow Noir") and the reporter talked about "cattle theft, or as they call it in Oklahoma, cattle rustling." Uh … they call it that a lot of places besides Oklahoma, reporter person from New York. Anyway, why do "they" call it cattle rustling?

Rustle in the sense of what leaves do is "probably ultimately imitative," says the OED, eschewing the opportunity to use the word onomatopoeia. But how does this relate to stealing cattle? One theory is that it's a special case of "to move with quiet sound," meaning (I guess?) that when you steal cattle, you do it on the QT. Per the OED, this term goes back to the late 1880s. They don't specifically list it as a term of American origin, but I do note that Australians have other words for this, like raiding and duffing.

Definitions of rustling in this sense discuss it in terms of stealing livestock. I find a lot of examples of cattle rustling and some of horse rustling and sheep rustling. Interestingly, the OED lists an example where rustling is used with something decidedly not livestock-ish: "Saguaro cacti are popular with gardeners in the south-western US and have been rustled in large numbers in many areas." For what it's worth, this is an example from the BBC. He said very slightly snottily.

As a bonus etymology and in case you missed it, John McIntyre recently discussed the origin of the expression to have [no] truck with. Spoiler: nothing to do with vehicles.

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  03:04 PM

Always good to start a holiday weekend with a few words. (Holiday offer good in the U.S. and Canada only. Words offer good anywhere, anytime.)

The new-to-me word this week is ratting, a verbed from of RAT, which stands for "remote access Trojan." A RAT is software that's installed on a computer to let someone control it or spy on the user; ratting is the installation of such software. By ratting, a hacker can log your keystrokes (thus capturing passwords), use your camera, monitor your microphone, and engage in other nefarious activities. I got the term from an article in The New York Times that encourages people to cover their cameras when not using them. (I do this.)

I should note that RAT can also stand for "remote access tool," and that there are legitimate reasons for letting someone control your computer. For example, it might be a way for a tech-support engineer to help you resolve a problem. But in the more sinister version of RAT and ratting, the purpose is malicious.

The term RAT is not new; I see references at least as far back as 2002. It's even spawned variants—a particular RAT for Android phones is referred to as an AndroRAT. The verb ratting is somewhat newer, and the NYT article still has it in quotation marks to signal its newness. I find a reference to the verb in Wired from 2013.

Fun fact: ratting is a plot point in the TV series Mr. Robot.

On to unexpected etymology. We recently started watching Indian Summers, a miniseries/melodrama set in 1932 India. In one scene, a character asks the bartender for a club soda, which got me wondering. Was this perhaps an anachronism? And what club did club soda refer to?

The OED reveals that club soda (or Club Soda) started as a brand name of the company Cantrell & Cochrane in Dublin. The brand name goes back to 1877, so that's one question answered—it wasn't an anachronism in the TV program we were watching. The term has of course been genericized to refer to carbonated water generally.

My investigations did take an interesting turn, because another term for club soda is seltzer, at least in certain areas of the U.S. This is actually more interesting—seltzer comes from the town Nieder-Selters in Germany, which was a source of naturally occurring carbonated mineral water. Reading between the lines of the OED, I extrapolate that seltzer was probably Selterserwasser—Selters-water—at some point in its development, seltzer therefore being an adjectival form in German ("of Selters"), like hamburger and wiener. Anyway, seltzer water from Nieder-Selters was peddled as far back as the 1720s for its supposed health benefits. (A strategy still very much with us, hey.) The association between "seltzer" and carbonation and health was strong enough that it was the source of such brands as Bromo-Seltzer (1888) and Alka-Seltzer (1931). Anyway, this is what I learned from a short article on the CulinaryLore.com site.

I never did find out what club they meant when they named it Club Soda. If anyone should happen to know, I'm all ears.

Bonus etymology for Canada Day! The Canadian lexicographer Katherine Barber, a.k.a. Wordlady, examines the origin of poutine, that uniquely Canadian delicacy. (Haha: "Even my devotion to real-world research for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary could not persuade me to sample the Quebecois poutine.")

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  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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