I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

Read more ...

Blog Search

(Supports AND)

Google Ads


Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

See this post for info on full versus truncated feeds.


I know plenty of copy editors that are fully aware of their role as editors of one text at a time and who don't claim to be guardians of language. They are not peevologists. They don't feel attacked by mistakes and they don't hope to change all language into one register. They respect decorum and they trust that most users do so as well as they do.

The peevologists are looking to change something that will not change. They seek a power that is not theirs and they express frustration based on a sense of entitlement that is not only arrogant but irrational. They hope to change the rotation of the earth and live with constant frustration, throwing stones at every sunrise and sunset.

Michael Covarrubias (wishydig)


<December 2015>




Email me

Blog Statistics

First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 11/30/2015

Posts - 2344
Comments - 2522
Hits - 1,793,286

Entries/day - 0.52
Comments/entry - 1.08
Hits/day - 395

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 1:29 PM Pacific

  08:35 AM

Over at The Web of Language, the Distinguished Usage Panel has selected their Word of the Year for 2015: singular they. (The Distinguished Usage Panel consists of just Dennis Baron, the site's author. But no matter.) In the nominating write-up, the article explains why singular they is not illogical or ungrammatical, and it recounts the surprisingly long history of singular they and the occasional efforts to invent a different, gender-free pronoun. (All such efforts to date have failed.)

Singular they has been in the news in the last couple of years for various reasons. Editors are effectively acknowledging that singular they, which has always been in the vernacular, is suitable for use in standard English as well. Here's John McIntyre telling people outright to use singular they, and who in turn cites the usage maven Bryan Garner: 'They' as a singular.

Linguists have been telling anyone who will listen that singular they is just fine, linguistically speaking. For example, the linguist Anne Curzan notes that the objection to singular they is somewhat circular: style guides tell us not to use singular they because it's informal, so we can't use it in formal English because style guides say it's informal.

Singular they has also been in the news lately because of an acknowledgment that traditional gender-marked pronouns—he, she, him, her, his, hers—are not suitable for all scenarios. In the absence of a non-gender-marked pronoun, standard English traditionally recommended the use of the masculine: Everyone should bring his lunch. Many people no longer are comfortable with the use of masculine as a hypernym for all things human. Workarounds like Everyone should bring his or her own lunch or ... his/her own lunch (see also: s/he) are considered awkward, which is particularly obvious when you see it dozens of times in a longer document. Sometimes people alternate masculine and feminine pronouns in a document, but that likewise seems both artificial and at times even confusing.

Finally, of course, the ongoing discussion in latter years of gender identity has revealed a new facet to the discussion of gendered anything, including pronouns. The upshot is that it's simply much easier to avoid gender when it's not relevant, as it very often is not with pronouns.

So the solution is to embrace singular they, as Dennis Baron does by celebrating it as the word of the year.

Recently, the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg made the great suggestion that everyone on Facebook should change their (<-ha) pronoun to they. Facebook has allowed people to choose their gender for some time, but most people probably just went with their initial selection when they signed up for FB. If everyone changed their pronoun to "they" it would, as Nunberg says, stick a finger in the eye of pedants who think the construct is wrong or illogical. He suggests the hashtag #ChooseThey. Is this not awesome?

So whether your cause is gender identity or linguistics, why not #ChooseThey? Here's how:
  1. In Facebook, go to your About page.

  2. Expand Contact and Basic Info.

  3. Hold your mouse over Gender; FB displays an Edit link.

  4. In the Gender list, select Custom. In the Gender box, enter your preferred gender, and then in the What pronoun do you prefer? list, choose the option that includes "they".

    Here's what my settings look like:

  5. Click Save Changes, and enjoy a pronominally epicene FB experience.



  02:48 PM

If it's Friday, it's time for another new(-to-me) word and an unexpected etymology.

New word: a Vera. This refers to a spouse/partner who handles all the quotidian aspects of an artist's life so that the artist can concentrate on their art; a "silent partner." It derives from Vera Nabokov, the wife of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, who exemplified this type of role, in the most comprehensive way imaginable: "She was his first reader, his agent, his typist, his archivist, his translator, his dresser, his money manager, his mouthpiece, his muse, his teaching assistant, his driver, his bodyguard (she carried a pistol in her handbag), the mother of his child, and, after he died, the implacable guardian of his legacy."

I found this term in the article that I just cited, a review in The New Yorker of a book of letters from Vlad to Vera. (She destroyed her own correspondence to him.) The article in turn points to a piece in The Atlantic about the writer Lorrie Moore, a writer who observes that between having a full-time teaching job and being a single mother, it can be hard to get a lot of writing done. Moore says the following, in which she comes close to coining the generic term Vera:
There are some men I know who are teaching and writing who are single fathers. But not many. Most of them have these great, devoted wives, some version of Vera Nabokov. Writers all need Vera.
A discussion of the appropriateness of such a role is, let's say, beyond the scope of our current discussion.

Turning to etymology, the word today is of course turkey. The surprising aspect here is that the turkey is very much a New World bird, one of the many flora and fauna that were new to the colonizing Europeans. It is satisfying, tho not really necessary, to quote Ben Franklin's assessment of the native turkey from a passage in which he compares it to the eagle:
For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, tho' a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Incidentally, if you doubt that turkeys can be aggressive, you should listen to the episode of This American Life (episode 452, "Poultry Slam") in which a particularly pugilistic turkey terrorizes Martha's Vinyard.

So why turkey? What does a thoroughly New World bird have to do with the then Ottoman Empire? There were certainly plenty of native words that could have been adopted for the bird, as was done for the raccoon and opposum, to name but two. (In Mexico, one of the words for turkey is guajolote, a name that pretty clearly comes from a Native American language.) The short answer is that it was a case of mistaken identity. Well, or mistaken origin. In the 1500s, the words turkey-cock and turkey-hen (i.e., from Turkey) were names used interchangeably with Guinea-cock and Guinea-hen (i.e. from Guinea) for a bird that Europeans had been familiar with for millennia. Basically speaking, when Europeans encountered the turkey from the Americas, they thought it was another version of a turkey-/Guinea-fowl, so they transferred a familiar name to a bird that they thought looked familiar.

So, confusion. Batman is on the case, although his explanation lacks some depth:

We know better now, but it seems doubtful that we'll be changing the name anytime soon. But you never know.

Update It looks like Gretchen McCulloch has a piece on Slate about the origins of the word turkey. Go read hers; as with all her pieces, it's informative and fun. And it's more in depth to boot.

[categories]   ,


  03:19 PM

Another Friday, another pair of words: one new (to me), one with an unexpected etymology.

Today's new word is Graygler (alternative: Greygler), which is a portmanteau of gray(-haired) and Googler. Definition: a Google employee who is "old," definition of old not clearly defined. ("Over 40" is one proposal I've seen, gah.) The term isn't particularly new; Forbes used it (in quotation marks) in 2012. Google explicitly uses this term on its Diversity page, under a picture of someone who is, yup, gray-haired.

I think that I first ran across this term in an article about how, um, old people shouldn't work so hard. It piqued my interest first because I am, of course, in that demographic. I also have an ongoing interest in what people who work someplace call themselves (an endonym? Maybe). I believe this is the first time I've found an example of a subgenre of employees.

On to unexpected etymology. Today's is plain old thing. Probably most people would agree that the primary definition is "an entity of any kind," to quote the OED, with many, many variations:
Try turning that thing on the side of the box.
It's a Southern thing.
She and he have a thing going.
It's just one of those things.
I couldn't see a thing.
... etc.
What's unexpected here is that in the way-back history of English, a thing referred to a meeting, council, or assembly. This sense of thing in English is pretty much gone, but there are cognates in other Germanic languages: in German, a Ding is an assembly; in Swedish, the related term is ting.

The Grammarphobia blog has a great writeup of all this, which is where it came to my attention:

The thing about thing

[categories]   , ,


  12:03 PM

Sure, I'll go for three weeks in a row. It's a streak! This Friday we have, as in weeks previous, a word new to me and a surprising (again, to me) eymology. (Plural today: etymologies.)

Word: schooliness, adjectival form schooly. This comes from Clay Burell, who writes about being a teacher. Burell doesn't precisely define the term—in fact, he invites others to propose definitions—but suggests that it means something like "of and for school, but with no other intrinsic value." It's a kind of insititutional opposite of what we'd really want school to teach—critical thinking, imagination, creativity. For example, he experimented with having his students blog, but blogging became schooly: "just another way to turn in homework." This extends to extracurriuclar activities that students undertake primarily to pad out their college admissions. Burell acknowledges that schooliness echoes Colbert's term truthiness.

Ok, etymologies. These are only half-surprising, so today we get two. Both pertain to the names of dog breeds. I heard these from Helen Zaltzman on The Allusionist, her entertaining and educational podcast.

The first is poodle. This comes from the German word Pudel (pronounced just like "poodle"), which comes from the same root that gives us puddle. Because poodles are water dogs, hey! I don't know why, but I find this inordinately amusing. Perhaps because my early reading experiences involved text like this:
When beetles
fight these battles
in a bottle
with their paddles
and the bottle's
on a poodle
and the poodle's
eating noodles

... they call this
a muddle puddle
tweetle poodle
beetle noodle
bottle paddle battle.
(From Fox in Sox, thank you Dr. Seuss.)

And the second breed is basset hound. Short story here is that basset is related to base (also bass), because basset hounds are low to the ground. Funny.

As an aside[1], the other famously low-slung dog is a dachshund, which has a more scenario-oriented name: Dachs is the German word for badger, which is what those dogs were bred to hunt. Hence their demeanor, which tends toward the confrontational. Please, for the love of all things language, do not pronounce this as "dash-hound." It's "ducks-hoond," ok? Thank you.

[1] I'm not counting this as a surprising etymology, because it isn't surprising to me. :-)



  07:12 PM

Last week I had some fun with a new term and an unexpected etymology, so let's do that again.

The new (to me) term this week is north star, which seems to emerging as corporate-speak in at least some places. Raymond Chen notes that it's become fashionable at Microsoft in usages like this, from an email sent to all hands:
With Microsoft's mission as our north star—to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more [...]
Shakespeare was all over the notion of "the star to every wandering bark" in Sonnet 116:
              Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
But Chen discovers that the notion of a north star occasionally slips from being a guide to actually being the destination, as in this example:
We have to decide where we want to go as a north star.
A bit strange. Chen apparently has needled speakers who use north star in a less precise way. I'm sure he makes many friends that way, not. :-)

The unexpected etmylogy today is for enthralled. The other day I was reading about Viking social structure—you know, the way you do—and discovered that the lowest of three social classes in Viking society consisted of Thralls, who were slaves. (The other classes were the Karls [free peasants] and Jarls [aristocracy].)

Thralls, hmm. Did this perhaps have anything to do with enthralled? A trip to the OED yields this:
en- prefix + thrall n.
The noun thrall may here be taken in either of its two senses, 'slave' and 'slavery.'
If you're enthralled by something, you are captive to it, to put it succinctly. Nice, eh?



  11:06 PM

A new-ish term and an old one with a surprise.

First, the new one: cuberhood, meaning a collection of cubicles. I heard this during a class the other day, and it was clear from the reaction of others that it was a) new and b) delightful to most of us, given especially that that describes our work environment. Someone who goes by "averageyogini" provides this definition:
For those of you who don’t speak Millennial, the Cuberhood (or Cube Farm, if you prefer that terminology), is the section of cubicles where a particular team or business unit sits in an office building. It’s the Cube Neighborhood, if you will [...]
Not surprisingly, Urban Dictionary has an entry, and someone named Lauren Smith has a fundraising appeal in which she asks you to "Donate $10 and ask your friends, neighbors, family, and cuberhood to donate too!" You can find more examples via web search.

Anyway, a fun term that I suspect will earn some prominence in my work conversations in the next little while.

The second term is tank, as in the military vehicle/mobile cannon. Not a new term at all—it's been around since 1915. But think for a moment: why is a tank called a "tank"? I had never contemplated this question, and was surprised and delighted (a theme today, I guess) to learn its history this evening. Basically, while the tank was under development in Great Britain during World War I, they wanted a cover name for these "landships" or "land cruisers." Per the OED, a memo went round ordering that ...
The provision of these machines [sc. Land Cruisers] shall be entrusted to a small Executive Supply Committee, which, for secrecy, shall be called the 'Tank Supply Committee'.
In other words, as a cover story, they pretended that they were manufacturing water tanks. Somehow, this name managed to stick to the armament even after it was put into service. You can read more in (where else) Wikipedia.

So there's a good lexical start to your Friday. :-)



  03:40 PM

Here it is, October nearly gone already, so it's time for another selection of new-to-me words. I've considered completely flushing my buffer, which currently has about two dozen entries. But that might reduce the opportunity to savor the smaller list that I offer you below. :-)

kindergarchy. A good definition comes from Pamela Drucker in her article "Curling Parents and Little Emperors" in Harper's: "[A]n anxious, labor-intensive, child-centric style of parenting—sometimes called hyperparenting or the kindergarchy—that has taken hold in the past twenty years." In an article in The Weekly Standard titled simply "The Kindergarchy," Joseph Epstein refers to it as being "under rule by children." You can tell by the definitions, the sources, and the references to this as a recent change (Epstein gives the figure as "for the past 30 years at least") that this is a hand-wringing term, one that critiques the way Other People raise their children. In these circles, at least, one wouldn't want to proudly proclaim oneself as being in a kindergarchy. PS I also like Drucker's term hyperparenting.

monopsony. A market in which there is only one buyer—contrast monopoly, in which there is only one seller. I ran across monopsony in an article about Amazon, but the author did not provide any details about ways in which that company represents a monopsony.

uncanny valley. Our negative reaction to things that are close to being human, but are not quite right. This comes up in robotics, for example, when very nearly human-like robots end up being kind of creepy. The "valley" part pertains to a graph of our reaction to things—if something is clearly not human, we don't have a negative reaction, and if something is fully human, we likewise react neutrally or positively. But when something is almost human, there's a big dip in its likability score. You can read more in Wikipedia, in the article "10 Creepy Examples of the Uncanny Valley," and (Update!) on Nancy Friedman's blog.

Pinterest perfect. I got this term from one of my cousins, who explains that it means "an object must be photographically perfect in order to catch attention and generate interest. Therefore, projects will be altered so that they photograph at the best possible angle/color/texture even if that means changing what the normal completed project (or item) looks like." The term seems to have been extended to mean any arrangement that reflects tremendous effort on details and an attempt at perfection:Whether the term is considered negative or positive seems to depend on how you feel about this level of effort. For example:

pareidolia Finding patterns in random data, such as the man in the moon, shapes in the clouds, and so on. This came up in an article about things that people think they see in photographs from Mars, like faces, coffins, and a squirrel (!). If you want to take a crack at pronouncing this word, have a look at the entry in Dictionary.com.

And finally, ...

foamer A disparaging term for someone who gets so excited at something that they (figuratively or otherwise) foam at the mouth about it. I saw this term in a Facebook comment about an article on the singer Rod Stewart, who's a big model railway enthusiast. (FB comment: "Young Turks is a foamer? I barely believe it...") Per the dubiously reliable Urban Dictionary, the term was originally applied to railway enthusiasts, but now applies to anyone with an unseemly (in the speaker's mind) enthusiasm for anything.

Update Nancy Friedman goes into a little more depth about foamer in an old "Word of the Week" entry on her blog. Spoiler alert: "foamer" might not derive from "foaming at the mouth."

Previous entries:

A new list of new terms
Another batch of new terms
More word discoveries
Random terms I've learned lately



  11:11 PM

Just a brief note that I ran across something that seemed odd to me. This is a headline on Mashable:

EPA investigation into VW thickens: Another emissions control software found

Lest we think this is an anomaly, they repeat the construction in the body of the text. Screenshot:


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched an investigation into another emissions-control software Volkswagen planned to use in EA 189 2.0-liter diesel engines for its 2016 models. Those are the same engines it rigged to cheat emissions testing, a scandal that has affected 11 million cars worldwide.

The oddity, of course, is the use of another in front of software. Software is a mass noun—a noun that doesn't come in countable bits, and therefore doesn't take a plural ending (*softwares) or indefinite articles (*a software). But there you go: the article treats software as a count noun by using another ... software.

This can be a point of confusion for non-native speakers, as a couple of threads on the StackExchange site suggest (example). But the author of this article, a certain Nick Jaynes, is presumably a native speaker.

The only thing I can think of is that the text originally used a different word—maybe bug (tho it's no bug!) or hack or something else that actually is countable. And that during the edit process (we like to assume that articles actually are edited), the word was changed from this posited count noun to software, with resulting grammatical confusion.

As an aside, I plugged the sentence into Microsoft Word 2010 to see if the grammar checker would catch this. Nope. Word flags a software and another software as grammatically incorrect. (It flags softwares as a spelling error.) But Word doesn't detect that another emissions software is faulty.



  08:17 PM

Another month, another crop of new terms. To restate the premise, these terms are warranted only to be new to me. I note after listing these that there's a preponderance of terms that start with p, hmm.

detour and frolic A concept in law pertaining to an employee who, while on the job, engages in actions that aren't related to the job to a lesser (detour) or greater (frolic) degree. The example in Wikipedia is of a truck driver who takes a non-direct route in order to run a personal errand (detour) versus ditching the truck for a few hours to go to a ballgame (frolic). The legal interest in these terms has to do with whether the employer has liability for the employee's actions during the detour or frolic. More reading: What does Frolic and Detour Legally Mean? Although really, my interest in the term is not so much in its legal meaning as in what a fun term, don't you think?

p-hacking Trying different ways to interpret data until one of those ways results in a statistically significant result. This practice is part of a wider discussion recently about problems with the current system of how scientific results are published. I'm not statistician (or hey, scientist), so you should read Nate Silver's excellent description here: Science Isn't Broken. Incidentally, Silver references another great term in his article: HARKing (hypothesizing after results are known).

handegg A non-American slang term for American football, either the game or the ball. Here's an example:

Well, yeah.

principle of least astonishment (POLA) A principle that recommends the design that most conforms to the experience of the audience. "When two elements of an interface conflict, or are ambiguous, the behavior should be that which will least surprise the user." (Wikipedia) I ran across this in an article by Eric Lippert about programming, where POLA is (or should be) a well-respected principle.

psychophysics The study of how we perceive physical stimuli. I encountered the term in the book Stuff Matters, a pop-science tour through material science. The author mentioned the importance of crispiness in our perception of certain foods as an example of psychophysics, but the term covers our reactions to sounds, colors, etc.

poe A noun referring to a person who writes a parody (e.g., of religious belief) but is taken seriously. I've also seen the term being used to refer to the parody itself. This is a back-formation from Poe's Law, which states that "Without a clear indication of the author's intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism."



  08:45 PM

I just ran across this sentence in an article in The Atlantic:

Constant surveillance is common; schedules are erratic; escalating performance quotas exact faster work. But these trends, often thought to be confined to front-line workers, have creeped up corporate hierarchies, affecting managers and executives.

I would have written crept here. Merriam-Webster, for one, agrees. So does an ngram search:

(Click to embiggen)

Similary, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) lists 4 hits for creeped up versus 350 for crept up.

But then I got to wondering about that. The past tense change from creep to crept is a bit of a hybrid: a change to the stem vowel (sign of a possible irregular verb), but a definitive -t on the end (sign of a regular verb). Where did this come from?

Per the OED, to creep did start life as an irregular ("strong") verb, with a change in the stem vowel and -en as the participle ending:

The Germanic conjugation was, present kreupan, past tense kraup, plural krupun, past participle krupan; whence Old English present créopan (3rd singular críepþ), past tense créap, plural crupon, past participle cropen.

Somewhere along the line, the participle dropped the -en ending and took on a regular ending (-ed or -t)—that is, it became "weak." Here's the OED again:

But already before 1400, weak forms creep-ed and crep-t, began to take the place of all these, the second of which has since 16th cent. gradually attained to be the standard form

So it's not completely weird for the writer at The Atlantic to write creeped; you can go a long ways in English by sticking -ed on most any verb to form the past tense. In this case, the verb started moving from irregular/strong toward regular/weak 600 years ago. (It's not the only verb to have done that; to help is another example of a verb that became regular over time.) In the case of to creep, during this change, the verb got stuck on a slightly irregular past that seems to be the more dominant form of the past tense.

Steven Pinker talks about how verbs (etc.) can be formed in two ways: as words and as rules. The former you have to memorize; the latter you can deduce algorithmically. For to creep, a rule might work, but probably, you're stuck with a word.


[2] |