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.


Editors remain expert on grammar and mechanics, but they offer so much more: analysis, evaluation, imagination, and good judgment applied to information design and management.

Carolyn Rude


<October 2018>




Email me

Blog Statistics

First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 10/14/2018

Posts - 2527
Comments - 2583
Hits - 2,088,216

Entries/day - 0.45
Comments/entry - 1.02
Hits/day - 374

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:01 PM Pacific

  07:48 AM

Here we are in August, which reminds me that the name of the month is a capitonym—a word that changes meaning depending on whether it’s capitalized: “The august professor was born in August.”

I have two new-to-me words this week that are related to shapes. The first is scutoid (apparently pronounced SCOO-toid), which is a remarkable thing: a heretofore unknown geometric shape. I mean, you’d think by now we’d pretty much found them all, right? The actual shape is a bit involved to describe, so I’ll lift the definition and more from the article where I learned about this: “prism-like, with six sides one end, five on the other, and a strange triangular face on one of the long edges of the prism.”

Something I found interesting was that scientists modeled geometries to determine which shape would fit together best when arranged both flat and in a curve. Then they went looking for that shape, and they found it! Apparently it’s all over the place in nature. Not only did they predict the shape and then find it, they got to name it. The name is based on the scutellum of a beetle, which is sort of the carapace of the insect.

A second shape name came to me recently via Friend Ralph on Twitter. He pointed me to a blog post that mentioned a lemniscate, which turns out to be a formal name for a figure-8 shape. And by formal, I mean there’s a mathematical description of how to create the shape, as determined by mathematicians starting in the 18th century. The name comes from Latin (of course), meaning in effect “beribboned”; the lemni- part derives ultimately from a word for ribbon, which is a nice visual for the lemniscate shape.

New technical words are maybe not all that interesting, but what struck me was that the blog author had used lemniscate metaphorically. He’d devised an idea that the lobes of a lemniscate represent quasi-opposing camps (in his case, progammers versus IT/ops people), at one point writing how developers “hopped to the other side of the philosophical lemniscate.” Here’s his representation:

I have some darkish thoughts about the use of an obscure term like lemniscate in a blog post, but I guess I should just be happy to have been introduced to this term, as metaphor and otherwise.

It's nice to sit around with friends and discuss things, right? Etymologically, maybe not so much. The word discuss has a more violent origin than you might think: the very original Latin meant "to shake apart" or "break into pieces." However, already in late Latin the word was used in legal contexts, where it referred to examinations and trials, and we got that sense from our friends and conquerors the Normans. It then evolved into the milder sense of "talk over" that we now have. Tho of course at times some "discussions" might indeed hearken back to the original sense.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  10:03 AM

Politics surely is a rich source of new terms, even if most of them are weasely. This week I saw an article about James Allsup, a prominent alt-right personalty. Allsup had been called a white supremacist, and various GOP officials in the state of Washington had officially distanced themselves from him. But in private, a local party chair who supported Allsup said that the candidate had been label-lynched.

There are a number of interesting things about this term. The connotation is that the Allsup had been metaphorically killed via language, moreover with the idea that this had been done extra-legally. Dictionaries I've looked at don't list metaphoric meanings of lynch, but it's not the first time that the word has been used like this; Clarence Thomas used the expression high-tech lynch mob to describe (and, as some say, shut down) uncomfortable questions that came up during his confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court.

The word lynch is a very fraught term in the US. It invokes senses of mob rule, of enduring and extreme prejudice, and of innocent victims. And of course lynching was prevalent for a long time in the US as a largely unpunished crime that was used to exert violent and unjust control over a minority population. Invoking the word lynch is serious business. So it's some kind of verbal jujitsu to use a term like lynch to describe the reaction to someone's white supremacist views. Not to mention that this is paired with label (label-lynching) to describe someone who routinely uses terms like cuckservative, along with an insulting set of terms to describe African-Americans, Jews, and women.

The term seems to be relatively new. An article suggests that it has currency in the alt-right community, and was possibly invented earlier this year. The Spokane newspaper that broke the story of the GOP chair admiring Allsup might be the term's entry into a wider world.

I will say that as a piece of language, the expression label-lynching feels like something that could have been invented by master propagandist Frank Luntz. The alliteration, the bumper-sticker mentality, the implicit outrage: these all feel like attributes that can give a term like this legs.

Ok, enough of that unpleasantness. Let's move to origins. A tweet this week by the folks at Dictionary.com clued me in to an unexpected etymology for the word penthouse. It was not originally a house and it wasn't, um, pent.

The word as we got it from French was apentiz, which referred to an attached building or lean-to. This is related to appendix in the sense of "attached." But two things happened. One was that the initial and unstressed a- dropped off, a process known as aphaeresis or aphesis (compare around > 'round and excuse > 'scuse). That left us with a word like pentyz (various spellings).

Then a process called folk etymology took hold. The word pente meant "slope," and people heard "pent-is" referring to a building with a sloped roof, and they thought that the -is part must actually be -house (hey, a building, right?). So the word actually turned into penthouse. It wasn’t till the 20th century that penthouse was applied to a (small) apartment or structure on the top a tall building. And from there the normal rules of real estate converted location, location, location to luxury.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  08:10 AM

Last week there was a technical conference about cloud technology that a lot of our colleagues went to. As they do, people live-tweeted about what they were seeing. At one point, our boss tweeted an observation about the term on-premises:

This was a wee bit of a joke. Those of us who work in cloud technologies talk about on-premises resources, which refers to stuff that isn’t in the cloud, i.e., that's on the customer's site. And we’ve been adamant that it’s is on-premises, with an s at the end, not on-premise. The word premise refers to a proposition or basis ("The premise of the TV show is that …"), which is quite a different meaning than premises, which refers to the space occupied by a business ("No drinking is allowed on the premises").

But in our editing we change on-premise to on-premises all the time. Which is to say, s-less on-premise to mean on-premises is widespread. This means that people don't really think about what the component pieces of on-premise(s) really mean; they're using on-premise as a single term. In language talk, the expression has been lexicalized with idiomatization: the expression has been taken into the lexicon as a unit. (Compare could care less, as in "I could care less.")

In the same spirit that Jim posted the tweet, I suggested that on-premise would be the beg the question of 10 years from now. By which I meant that on-premise would be so widespread that people didn't even realize that this was technically a mistake.

Of course, we could solve the problem at a blow by just going straight to on-prem ("Migrating from on-prem to the cloud"). I think of this as the alum solution—who can keep track of alumnus/alumna/alumni/alumnae? No one, that's who, so let's just go with "They're all alums of the University of English Spoken On-Premise." :)

Update There's an interesting discussion in a comment on Adam Fowler's blog about why s-less on-premise makes sense morphologically in English.

And another update! Katherine Barber, a Canadian lexicographer, addressed the premise/premises question some year ago. Her conclusion:

In fact, if you do a Google search on "licensed premise" you find the term in many legal documents, from all over the English-speaking world. If this usage bothers you, my advice is: hie you to a licensed premise, drink up, and accept the inevitable.


[1] |

  07:38 AM

Up here in the northern hemisphere, we're in the midst of the so-called dog days, which does not stand for "drained of gumption," no matter what you might read on the internet.

Everyone knows the word schadenfreude, right? Taking satisfaction in someone's misfortune. German, of course: Schaden ("damage, injury, disadvantage") and Freude ("joy"). This week I came across two (!) additional new-to-me words that describe our feels about others.

The first is another borrowing from our linguistic cousins: gluckschmerz (or Glückschmerz, if you want to get all German-y about it). This is kind of the opposite of schadenfreude—gluckschmerz describes the pain you feel at someone else's good fortune—Glück ("luck, fortune, happiness") and Schmerz ("pain"). Your annoying neighbor got a promotion? Gluckschmerz. Some rando won the raffle that you were holding a ticket for? Gluckschmerz. Sure, we have the word envy, but there's something a little more precise about the word gluckschmerz, says me.

On a rather less solipsistic note, Friend Ashley introduced me this week to the word compersion, which refers to the joy you feel at someone else's joy, specifically that of a "loved one." This word derives from the Latin word for godfather (compater), which suggests a kind of familial connection between the people involved. That said, it's a word that has currency in the polyamory community, where it specifically refers to joy at someone else's, um, romantic joy. This seems like a great word, but one might want to be very clear about context before rolling it out in company.

I recently made my way through the book The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, which is subtitled How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. He noted something I hadn't thought about: the origin of the word precision. The trail is a bit muddy, but the word seems to derive from Latin "to cut off"—pre ("before") and caedere ("cut"). (The latter stem gives us other terms like incise, scissors, and homicide.) Maybe it's just me, but the semantic leap from "cut off" to "exact" wasn't super obvious. Etymologies can be like that sometimes.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,

[4] |

  08:32 AM

Our summer is taking a break—it's 57 degrees (14 Celsius) as I write, and it's well into the morning. Sad.

Today we're all about classical roots. For starters, I have a couple of new-to-me words today that are related to digits. Not math, tho. Term number 1: I was reading about raptors the other day and ran across the word hallux. From the article I was reading, I learned that on, say, an eagle, this is the "toe" that points backward:

Then I looked up hallux, and discovered that the first definition is actually "big toe," like the ones on your feet. This sense is used in medicine: hallux valgus is yer two-dollar word for a bunion. Kind of interestingly, hallux was introduced into medical talk only in the 1830s, and isn't even real Latin; it seems to be based on a word allex, which seems to have been used to mean "thumb." Bonus related word: hallucal, meaning "of or relating to the big toe." Look for opportunities to slip that one into conversation.

My other digit-related term today is dactyloscopy. If you know your Greek roots, this one might be clear—it's a fancy term (again!) for the science of reading fingerprints. (dactyl="finger", scope/scopy="examine") I wonder whether they ever use that on the TV show CSI.

For origins today, I saw something on Twitter this week that really surprised me. Allison DeJordy, who works at Merriam-Webster, had a tweet about the word placenta. The word placenta is a medical name, of course. We have many medical terms that come from classical roots, as we know; why, we just discussed a few of them a moment ago. So it's not surprising that we have a Latin term for this particular organ.

What did surprise me, tho, was that placenta is not just the Latin word for "afterbirth," the way that dactyl is the Greek word for "finger." In Latin, placenta referred to a kind of flat cake made from grain and cheese. In medieval times, when anatomists were naming parts of the body, the word placenta was added to the medical lexicon apparently because the organ resembles the flat cake in question. Does this seem as surprising to you as it did to me?

As an aside, and in case you're curious, someone found a recipe in Cato for making the cake that the Romans called placenta. But I'm not sure I'm that interested in making it.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  08:09 AM

It's Friday the 13th! But it's Friday! I'm conflicted.

Friend Nancy alerted me this week to an interesting term: search void, also known as data void. This describes a peculiar weakness, you might call it, of how web search results are ranked.

It might help to know that search rankings (or page rank, as Google calls it[1]), works by counting how many pages link to a specific page. The more pages link to a specific page, and the more "authoritative" those pages are, the higher a page appears in the search results. "Authoritative" here is defined as a page that itself ranks high. If a well-known, high-traffic blogger links to one of your blog posts, your post will get a big rankings boost.[2] A similar example occurs on Twitter: if someone with tons of followers retweets one of your tweets, many people will see and possibly retweet your original.

The idea is a kind of digital crowdsourcing—the internet at large decides which pages are the best, and those rise to the top of the search results. A flaw can result, however, if a lot of content is produced and cross-linked about a topic, but that information is one-sided or niche. An article in Wired that describes this uses the example of vitamin K shots for newborns. A passionate anti-shot community has produced a lot of content warning of the dangers of these shots. There is not (or was not) a corresponding community of passionate pro-shotters, so there was a period during which if you searched for info about vitamin K for newborns, there was a data void: the top-ranked search results represented a kind of skewed data sampling. This information showed up at the top of the search listings, and people presumably assumed it was the "best" information, even though it doesn't represent a majority view about the subject.

As our information sources become more siloed, we're all going to become more subject to search/data voids. I suppose the first defense is to know that there's a word for the phenomenon.

For origins, a fun one that I learned from Jonathon Owen. In English, we got the word lettuce from Old French, and there are cognates like lechuga in Spanish. (Hold that thought.) It gets more interesting when we go further back. In Latin, the name was lactuca. The lac- part means "milk", because wilder members of the lettuce family have milky juice. That lac particle is what you see in lactate and lactose, and whose relatives are caffè latte and café au lait. (In Spanish, milk is leche, which hey look, is right there in lechuga.) The lac particle also shows up in the word galaxy/galactic, which comes from a Greek word for the Milky Way. Got milk? Yes you do.

[1] Page rank is a satisfactory lexical intersection of the term web page and the name Larry Page, one of Google's founders.

[2] This statement is only mostly true.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  09:24 AM

Happy belated birthdays, Canada and America!

Not long ago, Friend Heather posted something on Twitter that introduced me to the term asterism. I don’t consider myself unliterate in the basic vocabulary of science, so I was surprised I’d never learned this word before.

An asterism is a recognizable arrangement of stars in the sky, like the Big Dipper. Wait, you might be saying, isn’t that a constellation? Yes. Sort of. In vernacular, non-astronomic usage, a constellation is indeed any old recognizable pattern of stars that has a name (con: with, together; stella: star).[1]

Anyway, for purposes of formal astronomy, the list of constellations that had been identified over the millennia and around the world turned out not to be consistent or rigorous enough. So in 1922, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) sorted it all out and created a map that covered the whole sky, dividing it up into 88 official constellations.

The official map of constellations includes all the arrangements of stars that you see and that you can probably identify. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true: not all the patterns you know are a constellation, and might not even be within a single constellation. For example, the Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major, but that constellation includes many other stars. Similarly, the Pleiades is just a “star cluster,” not technically a constellation. Or, as I now know, an asterism.

Origins. I've been watching a lot of baseball lately, because the Seattle Mariners have been doing pretty well. I therefore have heard the terms sacrifice fly and sacrifice bunt with some regularity. Which led me to wonder what the origins are of the term sacrifice.

A sacrifice is something you give up in exchange (hopefully) for something else of value. In baseball, you give up the batter, who's likely to get out, in exchange for advancing runners already on base. Originally, the sacrifice was less metaphorical: a sacrifice meant offering something (bread or a goat or a lamb or an ox) in a ritualistic way as "propitiation or homage" (OED). We've been using this word in English since the 1200s, when we got it from our then-new overlords, the Norman French.

Which gets us to the origins. The sacri- part is related to sacred; a sacrifice was originally a religious ritual. And the -fice part is Latin for "to make, do" (Spanish hacer) a term that has many relatives, like facile, factory, affect, gratify, and seriously, dozens more. So sacrifice is, like, doing the holy.

[1] I love this explanation in Wikipedia: “typically representing animals, mythological people or gods, mythological creatures, or manufactured devices.” “Manufactured devices,” isn’t that great? So, like, a plow. Which in turn leads to amusing speculation about what figures and “manufactured devices” we’d find in the sky these days. Maybe like this?

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  09:55 AM

Here it is June in the northern hemisphere, and already I'm sad that the days are starting to get shorter. Perhaps if I got outside more I wouldn’t have this problem.

I got a great new word this week by watching one of John McIntyre's periodic videos. This week he talked about thinnernyms, which constitute a special set of words that tend to show up in headlines, because the words are short. You've seen them: to vie, to vow, to quell, a pact, to dub, ire, a probe, to slate, to mull, to ink, to rue.

The UK writer and editor Andy Bodle cataloged a bunch of thinnernyms, which he lists as a "thinnernymicon" in an article in The Guardian from 2014.[1] (Brilliant headline for the article: "Sub ire as hacks slash word length.") In that same article, Bodle reports that he was "inordinately pleased" with himself for coining the word thinnernym, but was told that others had done so before him. (I can't antedate the word, tho.) As McIntyre notes, thinnernyms are useful when a writer needs a headline in a constrained space like a narrow newspaper column, and that perhaps the move to web-based news removes this constraint. It would be a bit of a shame if the art of wielding thinnernyms were lost.

Origins. One thing we talk a lot about in corporate America these days is bias (well, more specifically anti-bias training and unconscious bias.) Where does the word bias come from, I occasionally wonder.

Our corporate usage of the term is metaphoric, meaning having preconceived notions about something—that is, leaning to one side. But there are also more concrete definitions in math, electronics, and sewing and cooking ("cut on the bias "). In these cases, the word more specifically means oblique or diagonal.

Some of the earliest uses in English refer to sports: in the game of bowls, a ball could be weighted on one side, causing it to roll not-straight, so that the ball was said to "have bias." But there are also cites that show bias meaning just "diagonal." The OED has a note telling us that they can't decide which sense appeared first.

But everyone seems to agree that we got the word from French, and that it has cognates in other languages like Old Catalan. That means it probably came into French from Latin (bigassius), and Latin got it from a Greek word epikarsios, meaning "on the oblique." Is a theory. (The initial ep- lost its e and p became b, because phonology.) Douglas Harper relates the karsios root to an old proposed root *sker that is the source of many words, including scar, sheer, screw, shard, and shore, all having to do with obliques and diagonals in one form or another.

[1] I wondered about the -icon ending that Bodle used. In England, a pantechnicon is apparently used to mean a warehouse for furniture (also, a big truck for moving furniture). I can't otherwise suss out how the -icon ending might represent a collection of things.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  07:16 PM

I had an interesting close call with Friday Words last week. I was considering jobbymoon as a new-to-me term, a proposed term that’s supposed to refer to a break that you take before starting a new job. (Compare babymoon.) But John Kelly clued us in to the mocking that the term had gotten in certain parts of the British Isles, places where the word job has a, um, vernacular meaning that led to some jolly giggling. So, whew, dodged that bullet.

But there are plenty more new-to-me terms where that came from! For example, just this week I learned the word snaccident (sometimes snackcident). Let’s say that you buy a box of Ritz crackers, and somehow end up eating an entire sleeve of them, or gah, the whole box. Not your fault! It was a snaccident.

Obviously, the word is a portmanteau of snack + accident. The first Urban Dictionary entry I can find is from 2007. Nothing in the mainstream dictionaries. Nothing in the COCA corpus, slightly surprisingly. But it’s obviously out there; there are various t-shirt options, and some great memes. I got it from Twitter, where it made the rounds this week.

Ok, we all know what a litmus test is, right? A common definition is that it’s a kind of binary test. For example, a politician’s attitude about something—gun control, abortion, immigration, environmentalism, etc.—can be a litmus test for some people.

That’s the metaphoric meaning. In chemistry a litmus test tells you whether something is acidic or alkaline (that is, it tells you something about the pH value). You dip a piece of paper—litmus paper—that’s been coated with a special dye into (say) a glass of some solution that you’re testing. If blue litmus paper comes out pink, the solution is acidic; if the red litmus paper comes out blue, the solution is alkaline.

As I say, we all know this! But what I got interested in is what where the term litmus actually comes from. Perhaps it was invented by someone named Litmus? (Or, like, Litm, whose name was then Latinized?) No. The -mus part is related to moss; the dyes used in litmus paper were originally extracted from various lichens. The lit- part might be from an old Germanic word that meant "color" or "dye." But it might also be related to lac-, as in shellac and lacquer; those both refer to a resin obtained from the lac bug and used as a dye and finish. Depending on how speculative you want to get, it might also be related to lox, as in salmon, due to the color of that fish. I wouldn’t take any of the lac- part of this to the bank, tho.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  08:42 AM

For those keeping track, we’re coming up on the longest [northern hemisphere] or shortest [southern hemisphere] weekend days this year. Adjust your plans accordingly?

As an experiment, I had my wife vote on which new-to-me term she liked best among my candidates, and she voted for (ready?) the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Which might not sound to you inherently like a winner, but let’s see what you think.

Suppose you are an expert in some field, and you read an article in the news that’s about something in your field. Chances are you’ll at least raise a skeptical eyebrow while you’re reading; you might even end up dismissing the article entirely as ill-informed and a poor representation of something you know very well. (This apparently happens a lot.)

You then turn the page and read an article on some other, different topic, one outside your area of expertise. Although you might have had serious questions about the credibility of the first article, you have no such doubts about the second article.

This is the Gell-Mann amnesia effect: you forgot to bring the same skepticism to the second article that you had about the first. The term was invented by the author Michael Crichton ( Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, etc.); he described the effect in a talk that he gave in 2002.

Crichton was talking about our credulity about the media in general, to the point where he dismisses it entirely. I think that many people would say that there are (other people’s) media outlets that they are willing to dismiss completely (Fox/CNN), but it would be a challenge to bring that level of skepticism to all media, all the time. So I’ll leave the larger implications of the Gell-Mann amnesia effect to you-all to think about.

You’re probably asking why Crichton called this the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Murray Gell-Mann was an American physicist; physics of course is a field that’s notoriously difficult to explain in layperson’s terms. Crichton explains:

I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.

On to fun word origins. Where did the word eavesdropping come from? Eavesdropping means that you’re furtively listening in on someone’s conversation. Eaves are the part of the roof that stick out past the building. The eavesdrop or eavesdrip is the actual dripping of water off the roof and also the area on the ground that gets wet. Fun fact: eavesdrip goes back virtually as far as we have written records in English; there’s a cite from the year 868. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the early things that people wrote down concerned legal stuff, like rules and regulations about property boundaries.

By the 1400s, someone who stood under the eaves to listen at the window was an eavesdropper. And by the 1600s, we had the verb to eavesdrop, which even early on had a metaphoric meaning, i.e., you didn’t actually go stand under the eavesdrop in order to be eavesdropping.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,