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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Encounters with readers are bracing. They remind us that nobody cares how hard we work, what obstacles we face, how good our intentions are. They don't see that, and they don't want to. They see the product. When the product is defective in some way, they conclude that we are dim-witted, lazy, incompetent or all three.

John McIntyre



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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/2/2016

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Posts - 2407
Comments - 2546
Hits - 1,903,197

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Entries/day - 0.49
Comments/entry - 1.06
Hits/day - 388

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:34 PM Pacific


  04:19 PM

Friday words! Here we are in December, which etymology tells us is the tenth month. Ahem.

Today's new-to-me word skirts a politically hot topic, but let's stick here with words. The term is Trumpgrets, a portmanteau of Trump+regret(s). The context, which got a splash of attention this week, was a Tumblr blog that posts tweets from people who seem to report regrets about voting for Trump.

The word Trumpgret follows the idea, if not the pattern, of Regrexit, a term coined for people in the UK who seemed to regret voting for Brexit. Note that Regrexit is a double portmanteau—regret+Brexit; Brexit in turn is a mashup of British+exit [from the EU].

I personally find the word Trumpgrets a little awkward. The pattern is morphologically valid, but perhaps it’s the p followed immediately by the g that makes it ever so slightly difficult to pronounce. Whatever.

Anyway, Brexit and then Regrexit seemed to have kicked off a spate of blending, including Brexhausted, Brexodous, and Bremain, as rounded up on the Language Log. It would not surprise me to find people experimenting with more Trump-based blends, though of course with Trump we don't have the -ex- part to play with.

Ok, etymology. In some comment thread I was reading somewhere, someone threw in a note about quicksand. What's quick about quicksand?

Well, it ain't because it's fast, as it turns out. The quick- part is used in the archaic sense of "alive," as in "the quick and the dead" (Biblical; 2 Timothy 4), and quicksilver for the element mercury (which is alive-seeming). So quicksand is really "living sand," in a manner of speaking. Although I suppose if you get mired in it, it's probably not that important to you how exactly the name came about. (As a non-language aside, the movie device of someone getting slurped down into a pool of quicksand—a popular trope in movies when I was a kid—isn't true. More here.)

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  04:20 PM

Black Friday! Be sure to take advantage of our door-busting specials on words!

The first new-to-me-word today is pretty politically wonkish: the Thucydides Trap. Thucydides was a Greek military commander who wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Athens against Sparta in the 5th century B.C. Inspired by the nature of this conflict, the political scientist Graham Allison coined the phrase Thucydides Trap in 2012 to describe the inevitable (?) conflict that will occur between a rising state (historically, Athens) and an established power (Sparta). I was reading a couple of articles about China this week (example), and Thucydides Trap appeared in both of them. You will undoubtedly be able to deduce which modern states correspond to Thucydides's players.

For a second new-to-me word, and on a tack more appropriate for a cooking-focused holiday, I recently learned the word autolysis or autolyze. This refers to a biochemical process in which tissue breaks down—autolysis literally means "self"+"breakdown." I ran across it while perusing some holiday recipes, and discovered that it's a term and technique that shows up a lot in instructions for making different types of bread. In that context, an autolyze period is one in which you let a dough rest to allow it to break down some of the starch.

For etymology, another foodish term: butter. A variant of this word shows up in all the Germanic languages, and in French (beurre), but curiously, not in Spanish (mantequía). Nonetheless, it does seem to have to come to us from the Latins, who in turn got it from Greek. As Kory Stamper, a Merriam-Webster lexicographer notes, the origin is proposed to be bous ("cow") + tyros ("cheese"). The OED adds an interesting coda, that the word "is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin." Those barbarians and their delicious fatty spreads!

If the bu- part is for "cow," it's related to bovine. It's also then related to the excellent word boustrophedon, a word for writing alternatingly left to right and then right to left—i.e., the way an ox (bous) plows the field. Which the Greeks sometimes did. And maybe barbarians as well.

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  01:51 PM

Friday words! I observe belatedly that I've passed the one-year mark on this little exercise. And apparently there are still words out there that are new to me.

The new-to-me word today is a problem that might be the secret shame of many: precrastination. (Which, no surprise, spell-check wants to change to procrastination.) Precrastination is defined as "the tendency to complete, or at least begin, tasks as soon as possible, even at the expense of extra physical effort," per an article in The Atlantic that discusses this tendency. More succinctly, it refers to a tendency to get something over with as soon as possible. One example of precrastination that resonates with me is just parking in the first available slot, even if it means a longer walk to the store.

The word seems to have been invented in 2014, possibly for a paper in Psychological Science that studied the behavior. I saw it only this week in an ad for motorcycle gear that urged me to avoid last-minute shopping. (To my mind, they're not using pre-crastinate in its intended sense, but hey … ads.) It occurs to me that if I'm seeing a word for the first time in an advertisement, I am definitely behind the curve on that one.

For etymology, I have a follow-up to last week's word, bacteria, where I wondered if we had other words in English that shared the Greek root bakter, meaning "stick." Kind of we do! Per the folks at Merriam-Webster, baguette, the French bread characterized as a long and thin loaf, was named for its stick-like appearance. As they say, baguette ultimately comes from Latin baculum, meaning "rod." Just like bacteria.



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  05:17 PM

I just spent about a week in Austin, TX. I was hoping for some fun dialectical exposure, but it seems that most of the people I interacted with weren't actually from Texas. Still, there are always new words, aren't there.

The first word today is something I ran across while investigating last week's words. It struck me because we have a set of conference rooms at work where people, even people who've worked in the building a while, frequently can't figure out whether to push or pull them.

Turns out that there is (of course) a name for this: these are Norman doors. This is a door where "the design tells you to do the opposite of what you're actually supposed to do." A second definition is "a door that gives the wrong signal and needs a sign to correct it."

In this expression, Norman refers not to, like, William the Conqueror, but to Donald Norman, whose book The Design of Everyday Things is a kind of popular bible for understanding, well, the design of everyday things. There’s a blog entry on the Nielsen site by Norman himself that discusses this very issue of poor door design. Here's a video done by some folks at Vox that illustrates the problem and gets some commentary from Norman himself:



According to an entry for Norman doors by Paul McFedries on his outstanding WordSpy.com site, the first cite is from Don Norman himself in 2004, tho he credits others with using the term: "to my dismay (and secret pride), really poorly designed doors are often called 'Norman doors.'"

I don't know how generally we can apply the Norman attribute. Not two hours ago I was in a bathroom where I found what might be termed a Norman faucet—not only did it require a sign, but the instructions were molded right into the faucet, as if they already knew at the factory that they had a Norman problem:


For etymology today, a short one. Try this: without looking it up, what do you supposed the origin is for the word bacteria? Ok, the smartass in the room will say "Simple, it's from bacterium." Yes. Which comes from … where?

It's logical enough, if not necessarily intuitive. The word was coined around 1838 from Greek, a diminutive of baktēría, which means "a staff." Or to put it in the common parlance, the Greek word means "little stick." Which makes sense if you see a picture of, say, E. coli, which are, as they say, rod shaped:


As it turns out, not all bacteria are rod shaped, so they were a bit premature in assigning a name. But that's what we use now.

I have been unable, even after several minutes of searching, to find other words in English that use the bakter root. Probably I'm just not looking in the right places.

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  09:45 AM

Happy Friday, words peeps. After last week's catch-up opus, I'm going to keep this one short (for me), even tho my collection keeps growing.

The first new-to-me term is yet another new entry in my growing collection of laws, effects, and principles: the cheerleader effect. Just from the name, it might not be easy to guess what this describes. According to the article where I learned about it, the cheerleader effect explains that "individual faces appear more attractive when presented in a group than when presented alone." IOW, you'll look better in a group photo. Is the theory.

Trying to track down the origin of this term is a little frustrating, because many sources say that it was coined "by Barney Stinson, a character on the TV show How I Met Your Mother," going back to an episode from 2008 of that show. But TV characters don't invent things, and I have not yet found something that indicates where the show's writers might have gotten the term. I mean, maybe they invented it, but if so, it would be good to get that credited.

Anyway, using the term cheerleader for the effect here is an interesting choice, in that it seems to allude to looking at (and judging the attractiveness of) groups of women specifically. For example, one source I found says that other names for this effect are the Bridesmaid Paradox and Sorority Girl Syndrome. Is there a variant of this name that is gender neutral? Operators are standing by.

Etymology. I attended a talk this week by Daniel Menaker, who has a new book titled The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense. This is a collection of eggcorns, basically, with fun illustrations by Roz Chast. One of the examples he discussed was jaywalking. Some people write this as "J-walking," possibly with the idea that a jaywalker is proceeding along a path described by the letter J.

Well, no. But where does the jay- part come from? In his talk, Menaker said it referred to the bird (like a bluejay). This is backed up by at least one dictionary, but the connection is not explained. Douglas Harper agrees, and adds a provisional connection: "perhaps with notion of boldness and impudence."

The OED suggests an alternative derivation; in their entry, they link the jay of jaywalking to an old definition meaning "a stupid or silly person." In that sense, jay goes back to the 1500s.

Turns out some lexicographic big guns have tackled this. In one of his Wall Street Journal columns (paywall), Ben Zimmer traces jaywalking (based on research by Paul McFedries). Michael Quinion also has a column about this word.

So: jay as "stupid or silly" probably derives from the noisy chattering of that bird. (There's the missing connection.) In the early days of the automobile, people who drove erratically were jay drivers: they drove in a stupid or silly way. This notion of driving jay was then applied to pedestrians. The first cites seem to come from Kansas, 1904 for jay driver and 1906 for jay walker.

Based on what I see every day whilst out on the roads, I think we should revive the term jay driving. What do you think?

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  12:38 PM

Boy, it's been some kinda weeks—we're gearing up for the annual conference at work, plus my wife and I cleared and vacated the house for five days so the floors could be redone. The words keep coming, tho, even if they have to be squeezed in late. Hence a larger edition than normal today.

The first new-to-me term this time is patriot correctness, which I heard on an episode of This American Life, where Ira Glass defined it as …
… like political correctness, but the right-wing version of that. Like if you say that there is no flood of immigrants coming across the border, well, that is just out of bounds. That's not something you say. You are not patriotically correct.
The earliest reference to patriot correctness that I found was from 2011, in a piece where the author (Tim Wise) says "[something] that we might label 'patriot correctness.'" I would not be surprised if there are earlier cites. When I searched for this term, I found that it's also known as conservative correctness, which Michael Fauntroy says he coined in 2004.

Both terms are angry ones. They're intended to be negative, a reaction by left-leaning people to having the term political correctness thrown in their face, and kind of by implication, a term to indicate that others in the political spectrum have a version of "correctness" as well.

Since we're on a kind of socio-political tack today, I also have a term that might actually be a brand-new coinage: cistrionics. This appeared on the Twitter feed of Foz Meadows:

(In case you can't read the image, it says: "I'm officially coining a new word for when cis people get freaked out about trans issues: cistrionics.")

This is a blend. The cis part is short for cisgender, defined as "noting or relating to a person whose gender identity corresponds with that person's biological sex assigned at birth." The second part, trionics, is from histrionics, meaning exaggerated speech or action for effect. As a word, the blend works for me because of the close overlap between cis- and the original his-. I'll leave to others the question of the term's usefulnesss.

And today only, a third term, also a blend: retrobituary. This is a term that's used for a regular feature on the Mental Floss site that's like an obituary—it recounts the interesting life of someone—but it's about someone who's long dead, hence "retro." The word has been around for a while; I found a piece from 2005 on the YesButNoButYes site, where they have Retro-bituaries (as they spell it) for TV characters. On this site, the term is used more specifically about TV actors whose death the folks at YesButNoButYes (specifically, "aquaman") missed.

Anyway, here are some examples from the Mental Floss site:On to surprising etymology. For some reason my wife and I ended up talking recently about bazookas, the portable rocket launchers. That's a word that has to have an interesting history, right? It sounds so … not normal English.

There's a kind of two-part story here, it seems. The weapon is named for a musical instrument invented and played by the comedian Bob Burns, who was active in the 1930s and 1940s. In a video from the 40s, Bob Burns confirms this, and hey, plays the original bazooka, which is like a trombone:



I believe that this is not the first time that G.I. slang was based on popular culture of the time. (Note to self: go find some examples, ya lazy bum.)

So this is as much as some sources say. The second part of the story is where Burns got the name for his instrument. The OED (which doesn't mention Burns or his instrument) says that bazooka is derived from bazoo, American regional slang for "mouth," as in this great example from 1932: "His mother was always blowing off her bazoo about him being her blue-eyed baby." They note that bazoo might be related to the Dutch word bazuin, meaning "trumpet," and suggest a relationship to the word kazoo. So my instinct that this is not-normal English seems kind of correct, I guess.

A bonus etymology this week is for algorithm, which gets an excellent treatment by Mark Liberman on the Language Log. Go read it.

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  11:55 PM

Friday words! We had a hiatus last week due to work, so much of it. But we're back, with extra wordy word fun.

The first new-to-me word is a word that's common enough, but that I saw used in a new way. Here's the cite where I found it, which appeared in an article in Wired about Google's new Noto font:
Something funny happens when your computer or phone can’t display a font: A blank rectangular box pops up in place of the missing glyph. This little box is called .notdef, or “not defined,” in coder lingo, but everyone else just calls it tofu.
Perhaps you've seen this. Here's an example in a jokey context:

One of the design goals for the new font is that it has glyphs for so many characters that when designers use the font, users should never see the little tofu box, no matter what language the text is in.

The scope of the "everyone else" who uses tofu in this sense is perhaps generously imagined here, but it's not untrue that people in the Unicode community use it. There aren't a huge number of references, but there's an Adobe blog entry (I think it is) from May, 2016, and another blog entry on the Keyman site that both use tofu with this meaning. And then there is the fact that Google itself says that the name "Noto" conveys the idea of "no more tofu."

Why "tofu"? Apparently the white block that represents the notdef character reminded people of a cube of tofu.

The second new-to-me term this week is isarithmic. This is somewhat obscure because it's a technical term; it came up at work because I work with map nerds. Isarithmic refers to a kind of map where lines (isolines) mark areas with common values. A good example is a contour map (isolines mark equal elevation), as well as this kind of weather map, where the isolines show barometric pressure:


As an aside, the isolines on this map are isobars, since they show equal pressure, which is measured in bars (centimeter-gram-seconds). It turns out that there's a whole vocabulary of isolines—isobars (pressure), isodose (radiation), isogloss (words or other linguistic features), and isohyet (rain) These and many others are listed in an article on the ever-useful About.com site.

Surprising etymology today is the word tennis, which the writer and editor James Harbeck used as an example of words that shift meanings. Most directly, tennis (probably) comes from tenez, a form in French of "take" or "get." (Compare the Spanish verb tener.) The theory is that it's something the server might have called out before putting the ball into play.

As Harbeck describes, tennis entered English in the 1400s to refer to game that sounds like a version of handball, played indoors. Then they added racquets. Then the game went dark for a while, and a somewhat different game was invented in the 1800s that was played outdoors (with racquets). So tennis has been around quite a while, but has described at least three different games. The version played indoors with racquets is now called real tennis, where real is a variant on royal. This version was played by Henry VIII, as shown here on that era's version of Instagram:



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  08:32 AM

Today we have our final Friday words for September 2016. As if that were significant.

The first new-to-me word this week is Droste effect, which refers to a kind of visual recursion. A picture here is worth a couple dozen words:


Note that the woman in the picture is holding a tray that has package that shows a woman holding a tray that has a package that …

You probably noticed that the image here has "Droste" splashed across it. Droste was (is?) the name of a chocolate powder product from Holland. So it's an example of a specific instance of the phenomenon becoming the name of the phenomenon. (Is there a name for that?)

As sometimes happens, I was familiar with the concept without knowing that there was a word for it. I remember being fascinated by this idea when I was a young lad, because I had some … thing … that had this type of recursive image on a package logo. Whatever—I learned this word from an article on medium.com that addressed itself to some linguistic ideas that have recently been in the news, including linguistic recursion.

As an aside, at work we use a lot of video conferencing, and it's easy for people to get into a video version of the Droste effect—for example, when someone shares their screen which shows the meeting, which shows someone sharing their screen, which …

And on to surprising etymology. Recently I was looking into how words that are acceptable can become tainted (a process referred to as pejoration). In my wanderings I encountered idiot. Today, of course, this is an insulting term, but it was once a clinical—hence, respectable—term for someone with a particular level of cognitive impairment. That was interesting enough, but where'd they even get this word?

My investigations revealed that, first of all, the sense of "stupid person" is waaaay old—1300s (at least) in English, and represented in many other European languages, including Latin. (Which raises the question of how this term could have achieved some sort of clinical respectability.) But I also learned that there's a secondary meaning for idiot that means something like "layman" or "private individual." These senses are actually related, it seems. In ancient Greek, the root word meant someone who was "a person without professional knowledge," also an "ill-informed person." Perhaps someone whose opinions on complex subjects you might not seek out. (As indeed is still true today.)

The idio- part is shared with terms like idiosyncratic and idiolect, and means "self" or "personal" or "distinct. In other words, "unique to the self," which has semantic overlap with the idea of "private." Anyway, this was all more involved than I would have thought. That's why we have these little investigations innit.

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  10:30 AM

Every Friday, more or less, I add a post here that talks about a new word and an etymology. The new word is only warranted to be new to me; it's pretty rare that the word is new-new, and in fact it might be quite old. For the etymology, I focus on word origins that are surprising (to me) or delightful (to me).

As a quick reference for you and for me, here's a list of everything I've posted.

Date Word(s) Unexpected etymology
2 Dec 2016Trumpgretsquicksand
25 Nov 2016Thucydides Trap, autolysisbutter
18 Nov 2016precrastinatebaguette
11 Nov 2016Norman doorbacteria
4 Nov 2016cheerleader effectjaywalking
29 Oct 2016patriot correctness, cistrionics, retrobituarybazooka
14 Oct 2016tofu (typographic), isarithmictennis
30 Sep 2016Droste effectidiot
23 Sep 2016striminal, hebdomadaldebunk
16 Sep 2016retroediting, hyperlexia, fuckeulogytriumph
9 Sep 2016calligram, MAMILbooze, grape
2 Sep 2016gongoozlerterrycloth
26 Aug 2016sickboatingcode
19 Aug 2016wind throbgeyser, cemetery
12 Aug 2016drunkorexia, Liebig's lawlemonade
5 Aug 2016faxlore/xeroxlore, depavebumper [crop]
22 Jul 2016conformist distinctioncandidate, toga
15 Jul 2016Null Island[cattle] rustling
1 Jul 2016RAT (remote access Trojan), rattingclub soda
24 Jun 2016Mendoza Line, Ephus pitchpraline
17 Jun 2016SLAPP, HiPPOsymposium
10 Jun 2016mathwashingdative
27 May 2016bus factorkibosh
20 May 2016gene-whiz science, web brutalism[steel] mill
13 May 2016semantic satiationchickpea, ceci bean, garbanzo
6 May 2016monotasking[pass the] bar/bar [association]
29 Apr 2016polypharmacy[game of] craps
22 Apr 2016whatabouterysimmer
15 Apr 2016sexpositionconk (v), noggin
8 Apr 2016lig, ligging, liggercorny [joke]
1 Apr 2016confirmshamingtraffic
25 Mar 2016Scunthorpe problemvan
18 Mar 2016bangorrheainnocent, disappoint
11 Mar 2016like-farming, Witzelsuchtadrenaline
4 Mar 2016catio, qubitlavender
26 Feb 2016virtue signalingbangs
19 Feb 2016misophonia, legislative historyham [radio]
12 Feb 2016boggle thresholdsilver
5 Feb 2016Overton windowFebruary
28 Jan 2016nocebo effectmagnet
22 Jan 2016bandwagon fan, transcreationmarmalade
15 Jan 2016Dobler-Dahmer Theoryhead (bathroom), poop deck
8 Jan 2016Mary Suecult
1 Jan 2016she shedsoccer
25 Dec 2015 carol, mistletoe
18 Dec 2015machete orderpretzel
11 Dec 2015zarfcynic
4 Dec 2015frextingboysenberry
27 Nov 2015Veraturkey
20 Nov 2015Grayglerthing
13 Nov 2015schoolypoodle, basset hound, dachshund
5 Nov 2015north starenthrall
29 Oct 2015cuberhood[military] tank

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  12:58 PM

Boy, Fridays seem to be coming at me with ever-greater velocity. Is it that summer is gone? Oh, well—it just means opportunities come around seemingly faster for contemplating words.

The new-to-me word this week is striminal, a mashup of streaming and criminal. This term is attributed to Gabriella Mirabelli, who runs Anatomy Media, a marketing agency. Mirabelli was quoted in an article that reported that 61% of people aged 18 to 24 get streaming content from unauthorized sources—i.e., that they're not paying for it—and 63% of them use ad blockers. Mirabelli doesn't like this behavior.

I'm generally ok with people taking a stab at a new word, but I don’t love striminal. It fails the test of being "semantically transparent," which is one of the criteria proposed by an article in The Guardian about what makes a good portmanteau. To my mind, if you hear "striminal," you can guess that it's some sort of criminal, but it seems unlikely that you could work your way back to "streaming." Would stream-inal work? Maybe, but that word ain't no beauty queen either.

Bonus new-to-me word: A couple of weeks ago, one of John McIntyre's "In a Word" columns introduced me to the word hebdomadal, which is a pretty fancy way to way "weekly." This uses the stem heptá, which means "seven" in Greek and is related to Latin septem, as in September, and, well, seven in English.

This week's unexpected etymology is for the word debunk, which has a surprisingly (to me) specific origin, and which sent me on a bit of an etymological wander that I'll share with you. I ran across it while reading an article in Harper's (paywall) that starts off with a longish disquisition on this term.

To begin: according to the article, debunk was coined by the writer W. E. Woodward in 1923 in his novel Bunk, where the main character apparently "takes the bunk" out of things. Bunk is in turn short for bunkum, meaning "nonsense." The origin of bunkum, in turn, is also surprisingly specific. I'll just cite the OED here, which has the story, with bits I've interspersed for clarity:
The use of the word [bunkum] originated near the close of the debate on the ‘Missouri Question’ in the 16th congress [1819-1821], when the member from this district [F. Walker] rose to speak, while the house was impatiently calling for the ‘Question’. Several members gathered round him, begging him to desist; he persevered, however, for a while, declaring that the people of his district expected it, and that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe.
So: A congressional speech around 1820 on behalf of Bumcombe, North Carolina begets bunkum, which begets bunk. Then in 1921, Woodward coins debunk.

A final turn on this story is that a later project of Woodward's was a biography of George Washington, which apparently was not in keeping with other Founding Father hagiographies, and was written up as "debunking" Washington. (Not Woodward's intent at all.) When he later went on to write about Thomas Paine, he was likewise said to have "debunked" Paine, again a mischaracterization of the intent. Woodward got exasperated at seeing everything he wrote about being labeled as "debunking." The Harper's article says it this way:
He tried to disassociate himself from the word he had created. […] In his memoirs, which also appeared more than two decades after his novel, he was still bemoaning his unhappy invention: “If I had it to do over again I would hesitate a long time before creating the word ‘debunk,’ and would make an effort to find another way to express the idea."
I guess there's a lesson in there somewhere.

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