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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A new week always seems such a hopeful thing before reality sets in.

Mike Gunderloy


<May 2016>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 4:44 PM Pacific

  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, a term for a concept I've understood well for a long time, but for which I did not 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 metaphor 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), recorded in the speech of lower-class Londoners. On the World Wide Words site, Michael Quinion has, as usual, a thorough exploration of possible sources for the word. Among proposed origins are Yiddish/Hebrew, Gaelic, Turkish, and Arabic. It might have originally referred to a short whip or possibly a tool used by clogmakers to smooth leather. But no one will commit to a definitive etymology as yet.

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

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  09:31 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  11:23 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  10:59 AM

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

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

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

See that brass bar? That's the one.

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

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

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  09:08 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  12:14 PM

Friday again, thus word time, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  03:46 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  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.


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  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.

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  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. :-)

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