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

Mike Gunderloy



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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/8/2017

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Posts - 2465
Comments - 2568
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Comments/entry - 1.04
Hits/day - 380

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 7:44 AM Pacific


  07:13 AM

With Christmas approaching, I'm building up quite a pile of Amazon boxes under my desk. And a few of them aren't even for me! Everyone else might just be getting the gift of words.

Today's new-to-me term might involve a little cheating, though I'll let you decide.

I just finished the novel Version Control by Dexter Palmer, which is about relationships, time, physics, and the age we live in. One of the strands involves a physicist who's conducting an extended experiment, and who worries that it's leading nowhere. This happens, right? More than us civilians probably think. At one point the character has this to say:
Years later, at a conference in Irvine, I ended up in a hallway conversation between sessions with an astrophysicist who told me a saying that she in turn had heard among the community of science-fiction readers, who call it "Smullin's Principle."

It is: Science fiction is a fantasy in which science always works.
When I went to look this up later, the only reference I could find to this supposed Smullin's Principle was the very book I got it from. Hmm.

When I got to the end of the book, I was glancing through the acknowledgments (why? No idea) and ran across this: "Sylvia Smullin provided a number of helpful comments on an early draft of this manuscript." A quick search reveals that Sylvia Smullin is a physicist, formerly of PARC.

This leads one to speculate a bit. Did Palmer invent this principle about science fiction, or did he actually hear it from his reader Sylvia Smullin? If he invented it, is it a little noveslistic in-joke to name it after Smullin? If he heard it from Smullin, is it her observation, or did she, as the novel suggests, hear it from others? Is this principle known by another name in the sci-fi (or science) community?

Many questions, no answers as yet. Perhaps you-all have some insights for me.

Word origins. I was listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" last weekend, and the "Not My Job" guest, Greta Gerwig, got all three questions right. The announcer declared that she'd gotten a "trifecta."

I knew this term came from horse racing, but that was it. In case you don't know, a trifecta is a bet in which you pick the first-, second-, and third-place finishers in order. The tri- part is obvious enough, but the rest of it was a little opaque. Turns out it's a mashup: tri+(per)fecta. The perfecta part comes from the Spanish term quiniela perfecta. The word quiniela in turn has a suprisingly complicated meaning that I'll just cite from my Harper Collins Spanish dictionary:


To circle back, a perfecta bet is one in which you pick the first- and second-place finishers. Thus trifecta adds to the improbability by asking you to also pick the bronze, as they don't say in horse racing. (I think?) For more about the distinctions with all these bets, try Perfecta Bet.

This surprised me: the term trifecta goes back only in English to the 1970s. And I guess I'll note in passing that the game-show announcer was using trifecta in a slightly broader way than its racing meaning; he just meant that the contestant got three for three, which is actually a hat trick.

With all this talk, I must mention a creaky old joke that I heard more than once while collecting subscription fees during my brief tenure as a newspaper delivery young-person. "Tip? You want a tip, kid? Don't bet on horses."

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  10:52 PM

A little bit of an indulgence today, but perhaps some will find this interesting.

When I was very young—learning-to-read young—we lived with my grandmother, who was German. Thus I started reading in both English and German. As it happens, we had versions of Winnie-the-Pooh in both languages (Pu der Bär in German). While I was going through boxes of old books during the move, I ran across the books again and peeked in them. This reminded me of an oddity that I remember all these years later, namely this: there is a language issue in the opening pages of Winnie-the-Pooh where the German version actually makes more sense than the English version.

I'll try to explain, tho I'll grant that this requires knowledge of at least German 101. Let's start with the English version. Here's a fascimile of the pages (click to embiggen):


Here we learn that the bear is named Winnie, and that this is a girl's name, which is short for Winifred, tho this is not explained in the English edition. (I did not know this as a child, so there was no contradiction to me.) But Christopher Robin explains that a boy bear can have a girl's name by noting that the bear's name is Winnie-ther-Pooh:


I guess? In English this kind of doesn't really make sense. (Then again, it's a children's book innit.)

But look how neatly this works out in German. Here's the same passage in the German edition that I have (again, click to embiggen):


And here's the detail:

If you read German, you can see how well this works. How can a boy bear be named Winnie, a girl's name? Because it's Winnie-der-Pu, not die. Masculine singular nominative, not feminine. For all the trouble it caused me over the years to learn noun genders in German, here's a tiny little payoff.

Since we're here anyway, here are a couple of other interesting things about the German edition:
  • Note the sans-serif typeface; the English edition is set in some sort of serif font (it looks a lot like Times New Roman). Perhaps some of my typographically inclined friends have some information on the use of typefaces for German in the 1950s, which is when my edition was printed.

  • The character Eeyore is rendered in German in I-Aah (in German, the letter I is pronounced ee.) If you're British and have a non-rhotic accent—that is, you "drop" your R's—the German rendering is pretty close.

  • The character Piglet is Ferkel in German; Ferk looks like it's related to pork, and -el is a diminutive suffix (Hansel and Gretel).
Ok, thank you for indulging me.

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  09:25 PM

Wow, December already. For those of us who are really insistent on the meaning derived from etymology, this means it's the 10th month, right? Haha.

As sometimes happens, I found this week's new-to-me word because all of a sudden it seemed like it was popping up everywhere. (This is sometimes known as the frequency illusion or the more colorful Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.) The new word is ultracrepidarian, which is an adjective or noun for someone who opines on subjects outside their area of expertise.

I first saw it because the Twitter user Edward Banatt uses the term as part of his profile. Since he presumably wrote his own profile, we have to assume that he's using the term in a self-deprecating or ironic way. But within days of noticing this, I was told that the legal writer and style-guide author Bryan Garner had referred to the linguist John McWhorter as an ultracrepidarian. Garner definitely was using it in a negative way.

To be honest, most people are probably ultracrepidarians. I mean, we all gift the world with our judgments about politics and economics and (ahem) language usage, but realistically, most of us are not experts on these things. Obviously, we aren't usually going to label ourselves as ultracrepidarians (Banatt notwithstanding), but it seems like a useful term to keep handy when someone else seems to be talking through their hat.

So, funny story about the origins of this term. It consists of ultra ("beyond") with crepidam, a classical root referring to shoes or the soles of shoes. Per one dictionary, the term originates with Pliny the Elder's phrase ne supra crepidam sutor judicare ("let the cobbler not judge above the sandal"), i.e., don't blather about things you are not qualified to discuss. The term has been in English since at least 1819, which should have given me plenty of time to have heard it by now.

And that isn't even today's unexpected word origin! From a Facebook post this week I learned the origins of the word janitor. Etymologically speaking, a janitor is a "door guard," from Latin janua, meaning "door" or "entrance." Here's the fun part: janua is related to the name Janus, the two-faced god of doors, gates, and other portals. And! Janus was also associated with change and transitions ("When one door opens …"), which is how we ended up with the name of our first month: January. This was all very satisfying to me.

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  05:51 PM

Here in the US, it's Black Friday, a now-traditional shopping day. We have family and friends who work in retail or at Amazon, and it's a busy, busy day for them. May they get a break sometime today. Also and for those interested, the Oxford Dictionaries blog has a history of the term Black Friday.

A fun new-to-me term today is kitbashing. This is a term from the domain of people who create models of cars or planes or trains or spaceships or whatever. The default way to create models is to get a kit and follow the instructions and come out with something that looks like the picture on the cover. But you can also kitbash it by grabbing bits and bobs out of other model kits (greebles) and decorate up your model to make it cooler. A kind of opposite is scratchbuilding, where you manufacture all the parts yourself.

Here's an example of kitbashing where the modeler used parts from some plastic kits to add exotic touches to a Nerf gun:


Kitbashing is fun for hobbyists, but it's also done by people who create models professionally, as for movies. Someone at work was recently telling a story about the original Star Trek series, which in its day was loooow-budget TV. The story was that if they needed props on set, a props person would go down to the Goodwill or wherever, and they'd then come back with unusual-looking salt or pepper shakers or something like that. You can see how a bit of imaginative kitbashing and a couple of coats of spray paint could transform a thrift-store treasure into, say, an alien ray gun. More famously, kitbashing was a reason that the models looked so good in the movies 2001 : A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.[1]

I like this word for two reasons. One, I made plastic models a lot as a kid, mostly military equipment, and I eventually got to the point where I could paint the models to look pretty good. But I never learned about kitbashing, which seems like it would have been the next level. It would have been fun—I certainly had lots of random bits floating around. Two, it interests me that the term involves bashing where one might expect mashing (as in mash-up). I can't seem to track down where the term came from or how old it is, but it's old enough that there's a book from 1994 about kitbashing train models.

Moving along, today's etymological exploration is actually not a new-to-me origin, but a new-to-my-wife one. The other day she asked where the word sheriff came from. I kind of knew this, but it warranted further exploration.

A sheriff is a shire+reeve, a term that goes all the way back to Anglo-Saxon (scírgeréfa). Basically speaking, a shire is another word for a county in England. Think of names like Gloucestershire, Hampshire, and Herefordshire. A reeve is an "administrative agent," i.e., an executive. In medieval England, a reeve was an agent of the king from whom of course all authority derived—the Sheriff of Notthingham in Robin Hood, for example. In the US, the term is used more specifically to mean the executive enforcement[2] officer for a county. As Noah Webster has it, "The sherif, by himself or his deputies, executes civil and criminal process throughout the county, has charge of the jail and prisoners, attends courts and keeps the peace." Cue about one thousand Westerns, right?

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[1] In Michael Chabon's book Moonglow, there's a character who does a lot of kitbashing.

[2] Correction via friend Dennis.

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  09:30 PM

I find it harder and harder these days to ride as a passenger when other people drive. Some of that is just part of getting old. But it's not just that; as I've noted before, learning to ride a motorcycle has helped make me a better driver.

One tactic I've worked on is how much space I leave between me and the driver in front of me. To my mind, most people follow too close. You really don't want to do that. Here's why.

Note: If you want the tl;dr, skip to So what do I do?

Speed and distance

Let's start by examining what sort of distance you're covering when you drive, because it might be more than you think. At 10 mph, in 1 second you cover about 15 feet. At 70 mph, in that same 1 second you cover 103 feet. Here's a graphic that illustrates this ratio.



An accepted measure of a car length is 10 feet. This means that if you're going 60 mph, in 1 second you will travel 9 car lengths. Even small differences in speed result in significant differences in how far you travel—the difference between driving at 60 and at 70 is that in 1 second at 70 you will travel an additional 15 feet (88 vs 103). More than one car length.


Braking distance

Let's imagine that for some reason you have to slam on the brakes. Alas, physics tells us that you cannot stop on the proverbial dime. The faster you're going, the longer it takes to get to zero mph.

There's no standard chart for stopping distance for cars. Cars weigh different amounts and they have different brakes; for example, newer cars have anti-lock brakes a.k.a. ABS. (Jeremy Clarkson of the TV show "Top Gear" also makes the case [video] that cars that are engineered to go fast are also engineered to stop quickly.) External factors also come into play, such as the road surface (wet? gravelly?) and the tires on the car. Also whether you're going uphill or downhill.

Anyway, it's complex. The best that people can offer is a minimum braking distance based on a formula that takes into account the initial speed, the car's mass (weight), and the friction coefficient of brakes and road. I'll spare you that here, but I'll suggest some ballpark numbers, as shown in the chart. (You'll see a variety of numbers for this measure if you look around; these are actually on the low end.)



Notice that braking distance at 60 is 180 feet—18 car lengths. That's about 1 city block. Going 70, which of course is only 10 mph faster, the braking distance goes up to almost 250 feet, or an additional 7 car lengths.[1]


Reaction ("thinking") distance

Braking distance is measured from the time the brakes are engaged. But everyone will remind you that there's a delay between the time you see that you have to brake and when you finally get your foot onto the pedal. Remember from the earlier bit that if you delay one second before you hit the brakes, your car might already have traveled many car lengths before you even start slowing down.

The combination of reaction distance and braking distance is referred to as the total stopping distance. Since I'm all about the pretty charts today, here's one from the UK that shows the total stopping distance as "thinking distance" plus braking distance (click to embiggen):



It's the total stopping distance that matters when you're driving behind someone: how far will you keep going before you can stop if something happens ahead of you? Or stated another way, is there enough room between you and the car ahead so that if they slammed on their brakes, you could avoid slamming into them?

As with braking distance, there's no standard measurement for reaction distance. Some people have faster reflexes than others. But even lightning-quick reflexes result in some delay between stimulus and reaction.

And much more importantly, some people pay closer attention to traffic than others. People text while they drive, they yack with their passengers, they watch their GPS, they fool with their radio, they search the passenger footwell for their dropped phone, they watch TV while driving. There have been accidents where the driver behind never hit the brakes at all. In our little car bubble, we sometimes forget that we're piloting 1 ton or more of iron at 88 feet per second, something that's not scary only because we're used to doing it.


And it's your fault

The law generally puts the responsibility on you to leave enough distance. If you rear-end someone, it will almost be always considered your fault. There are a few circumstances when you can make a case that the driver in front contributed to the accident, but the default assumption will be that you were not driving in a safe manner. Not to mention, I suppose, that if you have an accident, you will have had an accident, with all the hassle that that entails.


Think of the traffic

Even if you have superhuman reflexes and a physics-defying vehicle that can stop on a dime, leaving a gap between you and the car in front can have benefits for overall traffic flow. By leaving a gap, you can actually minimize the accelerate-then-brake cycle that characterizes most heavy traffic.

Imagine that you’re behind someone and they tap their brakes to slow down by 5 mph. If you’re close, then you, too, have to tap your brakes to slow down. Even this small slowdown, and even if both of you immediately speed up again, creates a kind of wave that moves backward through traffic. In fact, this is sometimes the source of “phantom” slowdowns on the freeway, where everyone slows down for no apparent reason.

However, if you’re far enough behind someone, when they tap their brakes, you might not need to tap yours at all, or you can slow down enough just by easing off the accelerator. And if you don’t have to, the person behind you doesn’t either, and so on backwards through traffic. Result: possible traffic jam averted.

The engineer William Beatty refers to this as "eating" traffic waves. He explains:
By driving at the average speed of traffic, my car had been "eating" the traffic waves. Everyone ahead of me was caught in the stop/go cycle, while everyone behind me was forced to go at a nice smooth 35MPH or so. My single tiny car had erased miles and miles of stop-and-go traffic. Just one single "lubricant atom" had a profound effect on the turbulent particle flow within miles of "tube."
Obviously, there are limitations to this; if traffic is completely stopped, it’s just completely stopped. But if you can help reduce traffic jams by leaving a little extra space between you and the next person, isn’t that a worthy goal?


So what do I do?

When I got my license many decades ago, the rule was to leave 1 car length ahead of you for every 10 mph. If you're going 60 mph, 6 car lengths. As you can see from the various distances listed above, that's probably not enough. And that's even assuming that you can estimate car lengths correctly, which I think a lot of (most?) people cannot. (Little-known fact: the dashed white lines between lanes on the freeway are 10 feet long.)

When I got my motorcycle license, I learned a far more useful guideline: the three-second rule (PDF). The idea is that when the car ahead of you passes some landmark (a streetlight, a sign, anything static), you count "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three." If you reach the landmark before you finish counting, you're following too close.

The rule is useful because it's independent of speed—the faster you're going, the longer the distance is that you go in 3 seconds, so it (kind of) works out. Naturally, this is just a rule of thumb, which has to take into account all the factors that go into how quickly you can stop. But it has the advantage that if you routinely practice counting off your 3 seconds as you drive on the highway, it means you're paying attention, and that's a very big factor in how safely you're driving.


Event horizon

As if it isn't hard enough just to pay attention to the car in front of, you really should be aware of what's going on in front of them. The same motorcycle manual that recommends the three-second rule suggests that you try to see what's happening 12 seconds ahead of you. This is sound advice, because the driver in front of you might not be paying close attention. If you see that the driver ahead will have to slow down even before they're aware of it, you can adjust your own driving accordingly. (This is captured in the concept of assured clear distance ahead, which you can read about in a particularly poorly written Wikipedia article.)

By the way, all of this applies also to cars behind you, and to your side. Driving safely is hard work.

If you can't see ahead of the car in front of you, it's best to leave even more room than you normally would. I actually have this problem a lot. The motorcycle isn’t very tall, of course. And my normal car is a MINI, which sits pretty low to the ground. In both cases, if I'm behind an SUV or pickup or anything larger than that, I have no clue what's going on up front.


Parting notes

People have pointed out that if you leave gaps ahead of you, other drivers will swoop in. That's true. If you have completely mastered the zen of good following practice, you just let them, and you slow down to again open up a suitable gap ahead of you. I will acknowledge that this is a state of driving enlightenment that most of us can only aspire to. Still, it has helped me to think holistically about safety and about traffic, and if I’m in just the right frame of mind (like, not late to an appointment), I can do a decent impression of someone who actually has mastered all this. And of course, if I'm on the motorcycle, I am ever mindful that even a small miscalculation in how closely I follow can have grave consequences.

For the most part, driving is uneventful. Even if we speed, even if we speed and follow too closely, mostly things don't happen. But it's this very uneventfulness that can make us complacent and lead us to stop paying close enough attention to an activity that can wreak mayhem in the "unlikely event of" a crash.[2]


[1] I'm not sure how clear this is, but the "safety" of a large vehicle like an SUV has to do with how well it survives a crash, not in how well it can avoid one by, for example, stopping quickly.

[2] There's a movement to stop using the word "accident" and instead use the word "crash" in order to emphasize that almost all crashes are caused by drivers. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation puts it this way: "Using the word accident tends to make people think safety is a matter of luck, and it isn't."


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  06:51 AM

I just realized that I missed the second anniversary for Friday Words; I made the first post under that name on October 29, 2015. Somebody asked me the other day whether it's hard to find terms. Perhaps surprisingly, not very. Once you start listening for new(-to-you) terms or start to wonder about etymologies, it's more a matter of keeping up.

Speaking of new-to-me-terms. Facebook Friend Doug introduced me this week to the, uh, colorful term Cletus safari. Aside from the cleverness of the construction, I was interested in how the term manages to be a kind of double insult.

A Cletus safari is the kind of news article in which the writer makes an expedition from some enclave of sophistication—New York City, let's say—to go talk to the exotic folk out in the hinterlands to get their take on an issue of interest. Those of us who read the failing mainstream media have undoubtedly seen a hundred articles like this in the last year, in which still-surprised journalists go talk to voters in counties that voted for Trump to try to suss out what is going on with these people.

Cletus is a not-flattering term for a rural denizen—one definition in Urban Dictionary has it as "Also can be synonymous with hillbilly." (That's one of the more neutral entries for the term in that dictionary.) The word is actually a traditional boy's name, but by a kind of onomastic metonymy can be used to refer to people who might use such a (currently unfashionable) name, i.e., them rednecks. Compare Billy Bob or Bubba. I suspect that this stereotype was strongly reinforced by (or perhaps introduced by) the character of Cletus Del Roy Spuckler in The Simpsons.

So Cletus is not a nice word. But to my mind, Cletus safari is also a disparaging term, namely toward the journalists who write these sorts of pieces. As a writer in Deadspin put it:
The world demonstrably does not need another Cletus safari into the heart of Trump’s America, but The Politico has one for you anyway.
The term is pretty new. The earliest reference I can find is in a tweet by Tommy Craggs back in February, tho it's not clear whether Craggs invented the term:


I think that we can agree that Craggs is not using Cletus safari here in admiration. Anyway, think about this the next time you read another analysis in which a journalist is out talking to the general populace.

As if that weren't unexpected enough, let's talk about unexpected etymologies. This week I was reading about World War II again and ran across a concise little history of the word Molotov cocktail. This is an improvised weapon consisting of a glass bottle filled with gasoline or kerosene, with a rag as a fuse. You light the rag on fire and throw your bomb at a convenient tank or something.

The term is obviously an eponym, but I had never read the whole story. It comes specifically from the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939. At the beginning of the war, the Russians had wanted to negotiate an extension of their borders into Finnish territory, an offer the Finns declined. The Red Army invaded Finland, and despite overwhelming numerical superiority, was initially driven back by a combination of weather, inhospitable geography, and brilliant tactics by the Finns that included unconventional ways to combat Soviet armor. Like improvised bombs. (Come warmer weather, the Finns were obliged to sue for peace.)

Molotov was the Russian foreign minister who was doing all this negotiating, and was responsible for the propaganda that tried to sell the Finns on the Russians' offer. As the story is told, while the Russians were dropping bombs on Finland, Molotov was on the radio telling the Finns that Russians were in fact making food deliveries. The incendiary device was then derisively named by the Finns for Molotov, a "cocktail" to accompany this "food" the Russians were delivering.

The Finns didn't actually invent the device—apparently that credit goes to an underequipped but clever soldier from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. But the Finns' sardonic name has become our standard term for the device.

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  11:39 PM

Between the semi-annual change for daylight saving time and Twitter's rollout of the 280-character limit, it's been a week of much grousing. As a respite, let's think instead about words.

A couple of new-to-me terms this week. The first is, for a change, very recent. I saw it in this headline:


I'm not finding any other references to this, so it's possible that the headline writer invented the term. The article itself doesn't use the term as such; instead, the headline seems to point to this closing paragraph of the article:
Moore will be the highest-profile politician to face accounts of sexual molestation on the campaign trail since the Weinstein revelations. Breitbart, the conservative website operated by erstwhile Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, worked with Moore’s campaign to publish a story denying the accusations and characterizing the story as a smear. On the other hand, several Republican senators, including majority leader Mitch McConnell said that if the allegations are true, Moore should end his campaign. What will they do if he does not?
So what does the Weinstein test mean here? I can see it two ways. One possible take is that it refers to how a person's tribe reacts when unsavory revelations come to light. Does the tribe close ranks and protect the accused, or does it condemn and cast them out? Alternatively, it can refer not to a test of how (in this case) the GOP will react, but how the GOP will be tested in the face of these accusations. Please send your votes, along with a crisp dollar bill, to me here at Friday Words. Haha. Or if that doesn’t work for you, maybe just leave a comment.

Anyway, this is quite possibly a one-off term, never to be seen again: a nonce word. Given the cadence of these scandals, tho, who knows.

Update My wife points out that Weinstein has become a productive qualifier for talking about (at least) this flavor of scandal. Another example is the Weinstein effect ("the wider reckoning sparked by women coming forward with sexual-assault allegations against the mega-producer Harvey Weinstein"), a term that has a better foothold at the moment than Weinstein test.

As a second term, I have another one that’s scandal related. From FB Friend Sam I picked up the word volkswagened, which refers to rigging something so that it performs in a specific way when being tested, and a different way under more normal circumstances. This of course comes from the Volkswagen emissions scandal (a.k.a. dieselgate), when the company was caught with software in their diesel cars that could detect when the engine was being emissions-tested and adjust the engine for cleaner exhaust.

Friend Sam is in the software biz and encountered volkswagened at work. There's an Urban Dictionary entry that captures a generic definition: "The act of deliberately hiding bugs and issues from testers to get a product approved." Interestingly, I also found the term used in a slightly broader way just to refer to a bi-modal motor, in this case for electric bikes—a limited mode for flat roads, a "turbo mode" for hills. This usage strikes me as not quite correct, because it doesn't include the sense of subterfuge that defined the Volkswagen scandal. (In fact, this last usage just describes a governor, in the engineering sense.) But who am I to tell people how to use the term?

For word origins today, why do we say that something is "blown to smithereens"? First, of course, what the heck are smithereens? "Small pieces," okay. And whence this interesting term? Irish, apparently, from the word smidirín, meaning "fragment." There is or was apparently a variant English word that was just smithers. The OED has an example from 1847: "One brother is a rascal—another a spend-thrift..—the family all gone to smithers." Their most recent example is from 1865.

Something fun (even more fun than the word smithers) is that the -een ending is a diminutive. The such-as example that everyone gives is the name Colleen, which is from Irish caile (girl) plus the diminutive (-ín). Similar diminutives in English are something like Mike > Mikey. Ahem.

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  08:35 PM

It got cold quite suddenly today, although it's true that Seattle has a different range of "cold" and "hot" than other parts of the world. Which is to say, we're weenies about both hot and cold. Be informed, therefore, that wordery will be coming to you from warm, inside locations until further notice.

Today's new-to-me word is one that Michael Quinion calls "a word of singular shyness," meaning you're not going to be finding it often. The term is chrestomathy, which refers to an anthology or collection of readings. The word has the connotation that the collection is for pedagogic purposes, especially for learning a language. Thus on Amazon you'll find A Coptic Grammar: With Chrestomathy and Glossary. But the term can also just mean any collection of readings, so you'll also find WEREWOLF! A Chrestomathy of Lycanthropy. (The author of this latter clearly likes the word chrestomathy, because he also has a chrestomathy of voodoo.)

However, I got hold of the word in a roundabout way from a friend who's been reading H. L. Mencken, the American journalist from early 20th century. In poking around for Mencken writings, I ran across A Mencken Chrestomathy, a collection that the author himself assembled in 1949 out of his own writings (a "self-anthology," someone called it).

As Quinion kind of suggests, it's not the sort of word that is going to come in handy in everyday use. Indeed, use it and you'll run the danger of cacozelia.

And so we move to word origins. This week, roundabout cousin Bronwyn posted a video on my Facebook feed that amusingly discussed "5 Innocent Words With Dirty Origins." One of the terms they cover is mastodon, the elephant-like critter, now extinct, that once roamed the earth. Now, you might look at that word and decide that -don probably has to do with teeth—elephant-like critters do, after all, tend to feature tusks. So maybe something like … "really big teeth"?

Nah, it's better than that. The -don part does indeed refer to teeth. (Whew) But masto is actually a Greek root meaning "breast." Yes, that kind of breast, whence also mastectomy. In the early 1800s, George Cuvier, the "father of paleontology," assigned the name based on the fact that the animal's molars had nipple-like projections on the top of its molars. (Which distinguished it from other extinct elephant-like critters like mammoths.) If we want to get all crude (but assonant) about it, mastodons are therefore boob-tooths.

I confess that I had some skepticism about the video and the etymologies it purports. But they seem to check out, so you should check it out. If you like that sort of thing.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  02:36 PM

Here's a keen thing I learned about from a Vox article: a Chrome extension named Library Extension that adds library information when you're viewing books on Amazon or Goodreads. The extension tells you whether the book you're interested in is available in one or more library systems.

Let's say you're interested in the book The ABC of How We Learn, so you look it up on Amazon. In the bar at the top of the page, the library extension icon lights up to tell you that you're on an enabled site:


On the actual page where you're viewing book information, the extension displays library information:


If you want to get the book from the library, you click the Borrow button. This sends you to the library site with the book preloaded.

To configure the extension—for example, to tell it which libraries you want to look in—you click the icon in the toolbar, then click Options:


In the options dialog, you find the library you're interested in, then click the add (+) button:


I just started using this, so I don't know whether I'll end up liking it. It seems a bit intrusive to actually inject information into the page, instead of optionally displaying that information in a dialog or something. I also don't know how robust it is. Does the extension rely on Amazon APIs? Does it scrape information from the page? (A strategy known to be fragile.) How reliable will it be in terms of interacting with library sites?

But I like the concept just fine, since it reflects something I do a lot anyway—namely, look up books, then see if I can get them at the library. I'm curious whether others use this extension, or something like it, and what they think.

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  11:33 PM

This time next week, it'll be November. Good golly. Time sure flies when you're collecting words.

The first word today is from the world of entomology (not to be confused with etymology): frass. This is another term I got from reading Mary Roach's book Grunt. (See the recent discussion of toilet palsy.) Frass is, to quote Roach, insect poop. Slightly more formally than that, it's used to describe the stuff that insect larvae (caterpillars) excrete, and also to describe the fine crumbs of wood left behind by wood-boring bugs.

What appealed to me is that frass derives from the German word fressen. Somewhat curiously, German has two words for "to eat." Essen is what people do, as in Delicatessen. And fressen is what animals do, or when applied to humans, to eat in an animal-like way. Since bugs are animals, fressen applies to them, and frass is what becomes of what they et.

According to authoritative sources like Wikipedia, frass has many ecological benefits. Just like manure in general, I suppose. On the other hand, seeing little piles of wood dust near expensive parts of your house, can be, you know, a cause of concern. At least now you'll know how to describe it when you put in that urgent call to the exterminator.

One more today. Recently I was reading about the country singer Toby Keith and ran across a term for "rap-influenced country music": hick-hop. This genre has been around for about 15 years. I'm not sure about the term itself, but I find it (with new-term-y quotes) in 2014. I don't follow country music, so this was new to me. If it's new to you also, here's an example from the artist Colt Ford:



I think the word hick-hop is clever, if potentially snotty. (Depends on how the artists see it, I guess.) There are always limits to spawning words based on wordplay, but the assonance with hip-hop works in this case. For me, anyway.

Not long ago the question came up about where the word shot came from in the sense of drinking ("a dram of spirits," as the OED says). The theory is that it comes from an old word for "payment," which we still see in scot-free, i.e., without penalty. Given the antiquity of this origin, the earliest cites for shot as a quantity of drink are surprisingly recent—the OED has it at 1928 in the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Where the word doesn't come from is the idea that people in the Old West paid for drinks with bullets, as Michael Quinion explains.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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