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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When life hands you lemons, ask for a bottle of tequila and salt.

Richard Harter


<February 2020>



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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:20 PM Pacific

  10:12 AM

Everyone knows what distress is: "great pain, anxiety; acute suffering," to quote Dictionary.com's definition. Distress is bad, of course. Just like stress is bad, right? And stress appears to be part of distress, as you can see. (But hold that thought.)

At a work meeting not long ago, I learned about a different kind of -stress: eustress. Eustress is a good kind of stress—"having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being," this time from Merriam-Webster. It is, seemingly paradoxically, a positive stress.

Eustress can occur when something is challenging but not impossible. It results not in pain, anxiety, or suffering, but in a sense of fulfillment. An important distinction between distress and eustress is that it's in the eye, so to speak, of the beholder. Something that makes me curl up in the corner might make you roll up your sleeves and look forward to an interesting day.

The word eustress has apparently been around since 1975 (but it still isn't in every dictionary). Aside from the definition, what interested me was the structure of the word. It looks like someone broke apart dis+stress, and then whacked eu- (Greek for "good") onto the -stress part to create "good"+"stress."

But if you back up a sec and look at distress, it doesn't entirely make sense to break -stress off from that word and treat it as, well, stress. If you do, you're left with a prefix di- ("two") or possibly dis- ("un," or "de" as in disadvantage or disallow). How do di- or dis- work with stress?

It turns out that we didn't build up distress by combining di(s)- and -stress. We inherited distress as a unit from French. The term comes from Latin dis- ("apart") and the stringere ("squeeze"). But even as far back as the Middle Ages, the dis- part lost its sense and as the OED puts it, "became merely intensive." So distress is getting squoze hard. In fact, the word stress might in part be a shortened form of distress.

But no matter. However we cut up distress, the word eustress makes a neat pairing.

Ok, origins for real. In my random reading this week, I stumbled across the origins of the word gossip.

To set the stage, in Old English, the word gossip was godsibb(e). As you can see, the go- part in today's word was god in Old English, and just like it says, it was the word for god. The -sip part (-sibb(e) in Old English) is the same word part that we see in sibling, referring to a relative.

The word evolved in stages. The word godsibb or godsibbe originally meant something like "god parent." From this explicitly familial sense, the word was extended to mean a friend or neighbor. This sense narrowed somewhat to mean a woman. This sense was common in Elizabethan times, and as late as 1855, "my mother's gossip" referred to her female friend.

From this sense of referring to a person, it made a leap and started referring to conversation among those friends, especially talking "about persons or social incidents." And that brings us today, where the "conversation" sense is the primary one.

This sib-/-sip connection surprised and delighted me. (Remember also the word nibling from last year.) It's fun not only when we have a word that goes back straight to Old English, but one that carries around its etymology out in the open, so to speak.

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  07:48 AM

I was recently reading one of my Christmas books, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, when I ran across this passage about how commercial bread-baking in the 1920s and 1930s was promoted as a scientific and modern improvement over home-baked bread:

Bakers' smug paternalism might have infuriated the ranks of middle-class women championing food reforms and social improvement—except that they were just as ensorcelled as the bakers.

I had to stop reading and look up ensorcelled. A great word, ensorcell: "to betwitch." From the French ensorceler, which has the same root as sorcerer.

Then shortly thereafter the editor Sarah Bronson used the word in a tweet. How can I run across the same obscure word twice in such a short time? Is it just the frequency illusion?

And obscure it is. Although the word ensorcell has been in English since at least the 1500s, it shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English a mere 27 times—and 13 of those mentions are in a single book. (It shows up only as ensorcelled, past tense, with zero hits for ensorcell or ensorcells, present-tense forms.)

Update: There is a spelling variant with one L, ensorcel, past tense ensorceled, which adds another 13 COCA hits. The dictionaries I was looking at seem to prefer the double L variant, and it doesn't seem to be a British/American difference. Dunno.

The other mentions in the COCA search results suggest to me why I don't run across this work more often, namely, it shows up primarily in fantasy and sci-fi writing. Clearly, if I read more widely in those genres, I would expand my vocabulary with useful terms like ensorcelled.

On the word-origins front, I was thinking about a word that's been much in the news lately: virus. Since starting my casual work with Latin, I've been looking at words through that lens. This one looked promising: vir means "man"! The -us ending is second declension! Does virus have something to do with "human," maybe?

Yeah, no. Well, yeah, it's from Latin, but no, it doesn't have anything to do with vir, "man." Our word virus comes more or less directly from the Latin word vīrus, which meant "poisonous secretion" or "venom."[1]

As is true for some other words (for example, germ), our medical sense of the word is the later and metaphoric sense. The Romans applied the word vīrus to poisons and other substances that had generally unpleasant sensory qualities—"acrid juice," as the OED says. That meaning made it into English, and there are cites from about 1600 to the 20th century in which virus referred to snake or insect venom. ("I note that there is a quite a demand for snake virus," 1899) A weird flex is that vīrus was also used sometimes to refer to semen.

The term has been used in medicine since the 15th century, albeit in the original and general sense of "poison." For example, Edward Jenner referred to "cow-pox virus" in 1798 when he was writing about his work with inoculations.

The modern medical sense developed in the late 1800s to refer to an infectious agent that was so small that it could pass through a filter that blocked bacteria—people understood that there was a thing there that caused disease, but the microscope technology of the time couldn't resolve just what it was. The first visual evidence of viruses had to wait till 1931 and the use of electron microscope.

These days we have computer viruses, which take the "infectious agent" metaphor into the digital realm. And something can go viral if it spreads in the manner of a swiftly-moving disease. And to complete the circle, I suppose, we could say that much of what we encounter this way is acrid-tasting and possibly even poisonous. haha.

[1] Something I'm not yet used to in my modest Latin studies is paying attention to whether vowels are long or short. The Romans didn't mark long vowels (I guess?), but the difference between a short and long vowel can distinguish a pair of words (I guess?).

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  10:03 AM

My wife was reading something about the early Celts and asked me, "What writing system did they have?" Latin alphabet, maybe? As far as I knew, runes were used by the Germanic people but not by Celts.

All of this led to me to discover the word ogham, which is an alphabet in which Old Irish inscriptions were written:

Apparently it's not clear where the alphabet comes from. Some think it might have been adapted from the Latin alphabet, other think it might have come from runes. The early examples that are left are carved in stone and tend to be names. (Isn't that true of most writing systems? They start when someone wants to write "THIS IS MINE".) There's speculation that it might also have been carved into wood, but that would have disappeared by now. The Irish later adapted the Roman alphabet, but apparently there are books from as late as the 1400s that are written using the ogham script.

The most fun thing that I learned from all this is that a person who writes in ogham script or who studies it is an oghamist. Bet that's a great icebreaker at parties. "So, what do you do?" "Well, …"

For origins, I don't normally do names. But Netflix just released a new version of Dracula, and that got me wondering where that name came from. As many people know, Count Dracula is loosely inspired by Vlad III Dracula, a historical ruler from Wallachia (now Romania), where he's a hero.

The Dracula part of the name comes from Romanian. Vlad's father, Vlad II, was also known as Vlad Dracul, which translates as "Vlad the Dragon." In 1431, Vlad the elder was awarded membership in the Order of the Dragon by the king of Hungary, under who he'd served. Vlad the elder eventually became ruler of Wallachia and participated in the complex wars of medieval Eastern Europe, which involved repelling an Ottoman invasion and a bunch of fights with the neighbors.

As Wikipedia says, "Vlad's descendants were known as Drăculești, because they adopted Vlad's sobriquet as their patronymic (Dracula)." Vlad the elder's second son, also Vlad, eventually succeeded to the throne as Vlad III, also known as Vlad Dracula (Vlad [of] Dracul). So there you have the origin of the name.

Many people also have heard that Vlad Dracula was known as "Vlad the Impaler" because he seemed to like using impalement as a form of execution. (Yuck.) I realized that this also comes up in the Dracula story. How can you kill a vampire? By driving a stake through its heart—which is another way of saying that you must impale it. I can't believe this only occurred to me this week.

Not the happiest note to end on, is it. I'll do better next week. In the meantime, why not watch the series on Netflix?

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  07:30 PM

As I explained in part 1 and part 2, Duolingo's pattern- and repetition-based instruction is supposed to teach you a language without grammar instruction. How's that working for me?

I should note that I've had a lot of language instruction—I rassled with two-way prepositions in German and with the subjunctive in Spanish. I can explain phrasal verbs in English. I know what vocative means in "vocative comma."

So I'm probably an outlier in Duolingo's audience. Still, language learning is language learning, and even when you're studying a language the traditional way, you're only going to get better if you practice and practice, which is one of Duolingo's mantras. Could I learn Latin through repetition alone and with no explanations?

Possibly, but I wasn't patient enough to find out. Even at the very beginning, when I was presented with a new pattern, I was both learning it and analyzing it. To repeat an example from earlier:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

From this I abstracted that one plural ending was -i and another was -ae. I might have even concluded that -i is a plural for masculine nouns and -ae for feminine ones. (I guess I also abstracted the idea of noun genders and singular/plural verb conjugations, none of which Duolingo has breathed a word about.) So I'm not just learning the patterns, I'm starting to fill in a chart in my head of noun declensions and verb conjugations.

The first thing that threw me a bit was encountering this contrast:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Estne femina domi? (Is the woman at home?)

My previous language experience had not primed me to expect that when a verb is used as a question, it takes (or can take) an -ne suffix. Because this was novel to me, I stumbled over it repeatedly until—just as Duolingo hopes—I just went with it. (Mostly; I still forget sometimes.)

As I progressed, I kept mental tabs like this on grammatical aspects as they were introduced. For example, from sentences like this[1]:

… I tucked away that the 2nd singular form of verbs (present tense) ends in -s and that in the singular, direct objects (i.e., accusative case) have an -m at the end.

Eventually I got to something that I just could not figure out. Compare these sentences:

ego litteras latinas lego. (I read Latin literature [lit. "Latin letters," how poetic])
ego litteris latinis studeo. (I study Latin literature)

Here's where my need to analyze the grammar worked against me. In both sentences, "Latin letters" is the direct object. But which is the form for the direct object, litteras or litteris? I kept seeing both, it seemed to me, and this made no sense to me.

Maybe I could have just accepted this contrast, the way a Roman toddler would have eventually gotten it through sheer repetition. But after I'd already spent some time deducing that the -as ending was an accusative (direct object) ending, what was I to make of this seemingly arbitrary difference?

On every exercise, when you've submitted your answer, there's a Discuss link at the bottom:

When I was sufficiently flummoxed by this direct-object thing, I clicked the link. Sure enough, I was hardly the only one to have had this question. Someone who knew Latin had explained: the verb studere ("to study") takes a dative object. That's why it's ego litteris latinis studeo.

This is where Duolingo's philosophy and traditional instruction really part ways. The term "dative object" instantly cleared this up for me; I'd encountered this in German and in Old English. I imagine that the folks at Duolingo assume that the term "dative object" would be gibberish for many (most?) of their students, so of course they don't formally provide an explanation. But they've provided the discussion forum as a backdoor, so to speak, where learners can talk to one another and where you can often get the grammatical explanations you won't get directly from Duolingo.

At this point, I decided I wanted to supplement Duolingo. This was a learning experience in itself. The teaching of Latin was the template for language instruction for, what, the last 15 centuries? And boy, a lot of Latin coursework is the epitome of old-skool (haha) language learning. The classic approach, it seems, is that after a quick lesson on how to pronounce the letters, you learn all 6 cases for the first noun declension! Fun times.

After looking around and reading a lot of reviews, I settled on three books:

And I've got a notebook and I even went and got 3x5 cards to make flashcards with. Not to mention that I can find stuff on the internet.

I'll keep doing Duolingo, because I do actually have faith in the principles they're following. Daily practice and repetition are powerful learning tools, and I've learned stuff by adhering to their philosophy. Plus they have some excellent and useful sentences, like Uxor maritum senilem habet ("The wife has an old husband") and Velisne vinum rubrum ("Would you like red wine?").

Overall, though, I'm not sure if the Duolingo/ALM approach can ultimately work all by itself. Maybe for others, but I guess I'm not going to give it a chance to be my sole way to learn Latin.

[1] By coincidence (or was it?) I started seeing sentences involving graves around Halloween last year.

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  09:40 PM

As I said in part 1, when I started with Duolingo, I realized that it used the principles of the audio-lingual method (ALM), which emphasizes patterns and practice over grammar instruction. But how do you teach someone a language starting from nothing? And, as per the ALM/naturalistic philosophy, without explaining anything?

When I started with Duolingo, I didn't know how the app worked. Now I'm sorry that I didn't start capturing screenshots right at the beginning. But I'll try to recapture some of it by showing you roughly how the teaching progresses.

1. Start with pictures

Duolingo started by introducing basic vocabulary with pictures, like this:

As you can see, they make these as easy get as possible. Hey, Latin is fun!

2. Solicit sentences where it's hard to make errors

The next phase is to have you recognize words that you've been introduced to. They do this in a couple of ways. One approach is the classic multiple-choice answer. In my exercises, there have only been 3 choices, and I've found that the 2 incorrect answers are pretty easy to eliminate. They're not trying to trip you up; they're trying to make you successful, so they're asking for just a tiny bit of effort. So far.

(By the time I got around to snapping this screen, I'd gone quite a bit beyond the intro to the words puer ("boy") and urbs ("city"), obviously.)

Another approach that they use is to give you a short sentence and then have you assemble the translation by selecting (clicking) words from of a limited set of choices. In this phase, they again give you choices that make it pretty easy to get the right answer.

They use this approach a lot, and it's one way that they introduce changes in the pattern. Here's a variant form of urbs in a sentence:

In the first example, Corinna built four cities. In the second example, I built the city. What you're supposed to deduce from many repetitions of these types of related sentences is that when "city" is singular and the direct object, it's urbem; when it's plural and the direct object, it's urbes. But as I keep saying (sorry), they never utter terms like direct object, or for that matter, singular or plural. With enough repetition, you start picking up patterns like these.

They also use this "click the word" approach to introduce vocabulary that doesn't lend itself to pictures, like verbs. They give you a sentence where, by process of elimination, you figure out which one is the one you don't know. In this example, it's almost impossible (imo) not to figure out what venis means, given the choices they provide:

Up to now, you're just clicking. This seems weak—as someone on Twitter said, "I dislike clicking things to try to learn a language." A fair point, but there's a method here: you're simply seeing vocabulary, with a minor boost of having to actually pick from a small selection of choices. Now they change it up.

3. Solicit sentences aurally

The next step is that they dictate a sentence to you and you type it out:

This does a couple of things. One is that you encounter the new terms in a different medium, namely through the ear. (If I were studying a modern language, this listening skill would be critical[1].) An important benefit is that you're writing the terms that up to now you've only been reading and occasionally clicking. This is stepping up your language acquisition; you're now actually producing the language, albeit in a highly prompted way.

4. Translate to English free-form

Another form of exercise is where you produce a free-form English translation of what you're reading:

This takes away the training wheels (no hints via the clickable words) and it exercises your ability to understand what the different word forms actually mean. For example, in this example, you have to recognize that sunt means "are" and that Philadelphiae means "in Philadelphia," even though there's no "in" in front of it. (These are things that you would have been introduced to and drilled on before you see this exercise.)

5. Solicit translations into Latin

The most advanced exercise I've encountered so far is when they give you a sentence in English and ask you to translate it into Latin with no clues at all:

This requires everything you've learned: what words to use, how to inflect them, and what order to put them into (lexicon, morphology, syntax). With Latin, that's as much as you'd theoretically ever need to learn, but I guess I'll see down the line.

How to make this work

Although you do these different types and levels of exercises, the information is not presented in this strict sequence. Each lesson mixes up these different approaches in a set of 10 exercises.

The teaching also relies on these principles:

  • You get immediate feedback as to whether you got the exercise correct.
  • If you get an exercise wrong, it's repeated later in the lesson, though not immediately; they seem to follow a practice of intermittent reinforcement. As far as I can tell, you can't finish the lesson until you've gotten them all right.
  • You repeat and repeat and repeat. Even as you make progress, you do the same exercise again and again.
  • The lessons are short, no more than a few minutes. Their idea is that you can spend 5 to 10 minutes a day and make progress as long as you do it every single day.[2]

I'm probably overlooking some aspects of the pedagogy here, but I think that this is the gist of how they've designed the lessons for progressive learning: see, copy, listen, produce. As I say, I'm not sure I'll get to a phase where I have to respond to a question by writing a free-form answer, which would be to create novel sentences that have no direct pattern. (That would be hard to machine-grade, I think?)

I did make progress with this approach. However, as someone's who's studied other languages before, I found the no-explanation approach a little frustrating. More on that in the next installment.

[1] Language mastery consists of four skills, in order of difficulty: reading, listening, writing, speaking. Latin might be different from other Duolingo languages in that they have you read sentences, listen to them, and write them; but so far in my experience, they don't ask you to produce any spoken language. Then again … conversational Latin?

As an aside, they don't explain Latin pronunciation; they just show you words and then say them, and you sort out how the letters correspond to sounds. That's pretty easy in Latin, although I did eventually discover that I was learning "classical Latin" pronunciation as opposed to "ecclesiastical Latin," which sounds more like Italian.

[2] These principles are similar to the ones used by Kumon for teaching math and reading.

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  10:19 PM

A couple of months ago, I started learning Latin by using Duolingo, a language-learning app for your phone or browser. I sort of knew about Duolingo because my kids had been using it, one to work on Spanish and the other to work on Japanese. They'd shared with me some of the amusingly strange sentences that Duolingo produces, like "A cat does not play piano" in Japanese.

When I learned that Duolingo had a course in beta for Latin, I thought I'd give it a shot. I'd somehow managed to never study Latin, a language that's always seemed not only inherently interesting but useful for understanding Spanish and, of course, for grokking English word origins.

We pause briefly here for my favorite scene from the movie "Life of Brian":

As soon as I started Duolingo, I recognized the pedagogic technique they were following. When I was learning German in high school, we knew this as the audio-lingual method[1]. To quote one source, this "foster[s] naturalistic language acquisition in a classroom setting." The idea is that you learn (internalize) patterns of the language. They don't explain any grammar. Instead, the instruction teaches you short snippets that it then changes in very controlled ways so that you can follow along. Here's an example:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Vir domi est. (The man is at home)
Puer domi est. (The boy is at home)
Puella domi est. (The girl is at home)

The hope is that you internalize xxx domi est for "xxx is at home." Once they've drilled you on this for a while, they change the pattern:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

Now they've introduced the concept that xxx domi sunt == "xxx are at home". You spend a fair amount of time drilling these variations until you seem like you've mastered both domi sunt and the various plural forms.

At no point do they stop and say that est and sunt are verbs, and est is used for 3rd person singular, or any of that stuff that you get in traditional language learning. The "naturalistic" approach of ALM is supposed to follow how children learn a language (I guess?), since we all learned our mother tongue without a single grammar lesson.

How can you use this to learn a language from scratch? I'll show you in the next installment.

[1] When I got to college and was studying German, one of our professors who specialized in pedagogy was from Germany and had a strong German accent. Ever since those days I only hear this as "ze odd-yo ling-val messod."

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[2] |

  11:43 AM

There is a class of person who looks to a foreign culture and sees something there that they like. A person might be a fan of all things French, which makes them a Francophile. A person who's enamored of British things is said to be an Anglophile. There is such a thing as an Americanophile.

These terms are more or less neutral. A more judgmental term for someone who obsesses about another culture is a wannabe. As Urban Dictionary tells us, a British wannabe is "A person who makes numerous attempts to seem British." (Take a quiz to see if you're a British wannabe.) A wannabe is less neutral than a -phile, in the sense of someone who might be trying maybe a little too hard to identify with the other culture.

Ok. The other day I ran across a term that's of this flavor, but not of this pattern: weeaboo. This is a definitely negative way to refer to a person who's obsessed with Japanese culture, and especially if they go beyond appreciation to thinking of Japanese culture as better than all others. As the anime expert Justin Sevakis explains, "Being into Japanese stuff by itself isn't the problem, it's the special hell that results when the Japanese fixation combines with obnoxiousness, immaturity and ignorance that makes a weeaboo." (He has plenty more on this topic in his post.)

As I say, weeaboo doesn't follow pattern of other culture-fan words. According to the Know Your Meme site, weeaboo originated as a sort of nonsense word in the absurdist ("offbeat") Perry Bible Fellowship comic. From there, it was adapted as a term to get around filters on 4chan that looked for derogatory terms (like wapanese).

Anyway, when I ran across weeaboo, it was in a context that had nothing to do with Japanese culture. I was reading a blog post about the Spartans, and the author said that the Greek poet Tyrtaeus, who was not a native Spartan, was a weeaboo for all things Spartan. (Which we explored earlier under the more predictable term of laconophilia.) This is the only instance I've found in which weeaboo was not specifically about Japan, but you can see how a word that's not attached to Japan (unlike Japanophile) could be applied to other cultures as well.

For origins today, a quick one. You probably know the word cultivar, referring to a strain of plants. I just found out that the word cultivar is a portmanteau, a combination of cultivated and variety. (Seems obvious once you know that.)

What I did not know, having only modest horticultural knowledge, is that there's a difference between a variety and a cultivar. A variety is just what it sounds like—a variant, and especially one that can reproduce its characteristics naturally. In contrast, cultivars don't produce seeds that are "true to type." Instead, they generally have to be propagated through cuttings or grafting or some other human-involved means.

And as if that isn't enough knowledge for one day, there are rules for how cultivars are named. This Iowa State University Extension site has the details:

The first letter of a cultivar is capitalized and the term is never italicized. Cultivars are also surrounded by single quotation marks (never double quotation marks) or preceded by the abbreviation "cv.". For an example of a cultivar of redbud, consider Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' (or Cercis canadensis cv. Forest Pansy) which has attractive dark purple spring foliage and pinkish-purple flowers.

I'm not sure exactly why, but the insistence on single quotation marks around the cultivar name struck me as unusual. But to each field its own conventions.

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  07:04 AM

Just yesterday I learned a new term from the editor and linguist Johnathon Owen. On Twitter, he said he'd run across the term wet signature. As other people noted, there are related terms wet ink, wet stamps, and wet documents.

Why this interest in wet things? How can a document be wet? And isn't all ink wet?

This last question leads us to an understanding of the term. Wet ink is contrasted with digital ink or e-ink. A wet stamp is one that uses a stamp pad and (wet) ink. A wet document is one printed out on paper and signed with a wet signature, which is to say, with a pen and not with a digital signature.

These are terms used in the world of contracts and document-signing and document-approving, where they're well established. Should you be curious, you can find information about all forms of signing on a page from the Upcounsel site[1].

Aside from the strange picture that terms like wet ink and wet document conjure up, they're interesting because they're retronyms—terms that are used to distinguish an older version of a thing from a newer version of it. The classic example is acoustic guitar; until electric guitars were invented, all guitars were acoustic, so you didn't need the term acoustic guitar. Other examples are brick-and-mortar store, snail mail, and analog clock. I'm sure you can think of more. So once such a thing existed as a digital signature, we inevitably were going to need a retronym for the old-fashioned kind. Interesting that it turned out to be wet.

On to origins. Suppose you were going to move house this weekend and you lined up some friends to help carry stuff. But they call and say that they can't come after all. Uh-oh, they've left you in a lurch.

To lurch is to stumble around, so how does that relate to being left abandoned? This is an example where two words—lurch and lurch—look the same but might come from different roots. The origin of the verb to lurch isn't certain, but it might be related to lurk. Or it might be related to an old sailing term lee-larches that described a ship heaving to its side in rolling waves.

In the expression leave in a lurch, lurch is a noun of an apparently different origin. One theory is that comes from lorche or lourche, the name of a game (everyone says it was something like backgammon). Here, lurch referred to a state in which one player was hopelessly behind. (In cribbage, a lurch is a term similar to skunk.) Another possibility is that lurch is a variant on lash; there are examples from the late 1500s that sound like this ("My Nell hath stolen thy fynest stuff, & left thee in the lash"). This second theory has evidence but no real explanation.

Because neither sense of lurch goes back to a definitive origin, it's possible that they go back to a common ancestor. But the trail goes cold before the 1500s, so we're left … yes, in a lurch.

[1] I was amused by this definition of a signature: "a signature involves each party drawing amateur art next to his name as an indication of authenticity."

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[2] |

  07:09 AM

My life has been blessedly free of the need for pharmacological intervention, but I recently went for a checkup and left with a fistful of prescriptions. Because this routine drug-taking was sort of new to me, I actually read the inserts that came with the several prescriptions because, well, perhaps there was something I needed to know.

The text was hard for me to read, but that was only because it was in such small print—8 points, perhaps less. And there was quite a lot of it. But this technological limitation at aside, I was surprised at how readable the words themselves proved to be. Perhaps—and this is my observation—by design?

Some details. There are about 1230 words in all, which is about two and a half pages. The text is printed in blobs, aka “walls of text.” The only formatting is ALL CAPS and ALL CAPS IN BOLD. The text is not laid out with an eye to scannability. You can get an idea from the following, with a US quarter coin (about 1 inch/24 mm) for scale.

But as I read the text, I noticed that it seems written for clarity. Here’s an example:

Use this drug as ordered by your doctor. Read all information given to you. Follow all instructions closely. Take this drug at the same time of day. Take with or without food. Keep taking this drug as you have been told by your doctor or other health care provider, even if you feel well.

I noticed these things:

  • Sentences are short.
  • Words are (for the most part) simple and direct.
  • Instructions are clear and are written as imperatives.
  • The text anticipates possible reader questions (“… even if you feel well”).

The headings for the text—the ALL CAPS bits—either lead the reader toward instructions or function as a kind of FAQ:

Ingredient name (includes a pronunciation guide!)
Common uses
Before using this medicine
        What do I need to tell my doctor before I take this drug?
        Tell your doctor if …
        Tell your doctor if …
        Tell your doctor if …
How to use this medicine
        How is this drug best taken?
        How do I store and/or throw out this drug?
        What do I do if I miss a dose?
Possible side effects
        What are some side effects that I need to call my doctor about right away?
        What are some other side effects of this drug?
Additional information

It’s not perfect (I’d certainly edit this a bit), but I think a lot of work went into deciding what information to put into this text, how to organize it, and how to phrase it. The result, I think, ends up being pretty readable.

So-called readability scores aren’t considered particularly precise, but I ran the text through Word’s readability checker and got these results:

The averages in the middle are the ones that seem significant to me:

  • An average of 13 words per sentence is great. A study from 2008 suggested that comprehension dips below 90% when sentence are longer than 14 words. (And many sentences in the text are shorter than that.)
  • The average of less than 5 characters per word is also good. This is supposed to index the proportion of monosyllabic—hence “simpler”—words.

The “reading ease” score of 78 is good (out of 100), and of course the “grade level” score of 5.4 is likewise is supposed to tell you that this text is intended to have the same readability as a text aimed at 10-year-olds. (All of this, let us remember, supposedly.)[1]

But the numbers are only an imperfect way of capturing what I think is going on here, namely that the text has been designed to be comprehensible to as many readers as possible. The whole setup of providing instructions for drugs works against the pharmacist and other interested parties. The medium is bad (a printed insert in a prescription bag). A lot of people don't want to read this type of text. Some of the patients might not be strong readers. So the people who created this text tried to distill the information to the essentials and to present them as clearly as possible.

By the way, it doesn’t escape me that this text was almost certainly not written-written; it was probably assembled. I’m sure there’s a database of “drug insert text,” and a computer pulls out individual sentences to create text that’s relevant for a specific drug, and then prints it along with the labels for the pill bottles and the other stuff that’s stuck into the bag. Nonetheless, the result mostly works; not in layout, but in terms of the text itself. I give this a good grade and salute the many people who probably spent a long time putting this whole system together.

[1] By way of comparison, this post clocks in at 2.8 sentences per paragraph, 15.3 words per sentence, and 4.3 characters per word.

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  02:31 PM

Happy New Year! If you follow words, you've undoubtedly seen a selection of "words of the year" from various sources: Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, Oxford, and Collins, among others. Today (Jan 3) this culminates with the American Dialect Society picking not only its word of the year for 2019, but its word of the decade for the 2010s. If you happen to be in New Orleans, by all means, show up at the ADS conference and vote—it's open to anyone who happens to be in the room. Otherwise, the voting is live-tweeted, or you can check out the results on their website.

Ok, words. Where to start in 2020? Well, over the holidays I watched the full season of Netflix's The Politician, a black comedy about a high school election. (Black, yes; comedy, sporadic.) At the end of the season I encountered a word new to me: thrupple (or throuple, though it was spelled with upp in the subtitles).

This is a portmanteau of three + couple; it describes a three-way relationship. One page goes into some detail about what a thupple/throuple is and isn't. For example, it's an actual relationship, not just an encounter or a triangle.

I found this term interesting for a few reasons. One was that it's new enough that it hasn't made it into mainstream dictionaries, though of course it's in crowd-sourced dictionaries (e.g. Urban Dictionary). I thought we also had the term ménage à trois for this, although it's possible that the French-based term is used for a wider array of senses than throuple (for example, just for encounters). Plus the French term is harder to pronounce, ha.

It also was interesting in that we seem to have an expanding vocabulary for non-traditional relationships; another term I learned recently is polycule. As people feel free to discuss their relationship arrangements, they find that they need to have terms for them. And English is happy to accommodate their needs.

On to origins. I've been fooling around with Latin recently (about time, dang) so I've taken a more specific interest in words that come from Latin besides just that they, you know, come from Latin. One of these is the word placebo, which refers to a substance that has no pharmacological effect but is given to patients—for instance, as part of a drug trial.

In classical Latin, placebo means "I shall be pleasing" from the verb placere ("to please"). In medicine, placebo arose in the 18th century to mean a medicine given to a patient to please them as opposed to treat them. (Of course, the joke's on the medical community, sort of; the placebo effect describes a benefit that the patient reports even when given only a placebo.)

Once you know the origin of placebo, it's easy to see that it's a direct relative of to please, which we got via Norman French plaisier. Other terms with this root are plead, pleasure, placate, placid, and supplicant.

I should also note that a long time ago, one of my then new-to-me words was nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect—people reporting negative outcomes from what they think is bad for them. Thus not only did we take "I shall be pleasing" from Latin, but we mangled that one up to produce something like "I will be unpleasing." Very pleasing.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.


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