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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We are never more culturally primal than at breakfast.

J. Maarten Troost


<April 2019>




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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 4/19/2019

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:59 PM Pacific

  12:44 AM

Suppose you're reading an article about politics, and you run into a paragraph like this (which I just invented):

At a campaign stop this week, the candidate spoke about the "need for morals" in today's society. His platform literature repeatedly touts "moral values," and he has previously called for schools to include "moral education." Nonetheless, there is the candidate's well-documented history of legal troubles. When it comes to morality, he keeps using that word, but we do not think it means what he thinks it means.

The last sentence illustrates this week's new-to-me word, which (for a change) is actually new-new: Easter egg quotation. You might recognize that last sentence as a quote, slightly altered, from the movie The Princess Bride. But here's the thing: the sentence fits neatly and reasonably into the paragraph. If you don't know the lines from that movie, you don't lose any meaning in the paragraph. But if you do recognize the cite, you get a little extra joy.

Another example: at the beginning of the week, one of your colleagues says about a grumpy co-worker, "Uh-oh! It looks like someone's got a case of the Mondays!" Clear enough, probably, even if you've never heard of anything called "the Mondays." But it's a hidden gem for fans of the movie Office Space.

The term Easter egg quotation was coined just recently by the linguist Arnold Zwicky on his blog. (Zwicky has coined a number of terms, including recency illusion and zombie rule.) He was exploring the use of these hidden citations in articles from The Economist, which has a reputation for wordplay. For his examples, Zwicky finds citations from Monty Python and Gertrude Stein hiding right there in Economist articles.

Why Easter egg? A simple answer is that an Easter egg is (to quote my wife) a "hidden prize." That's a general explanation, but the term Easter egg also has a specific meaning in the world of gaming and software. It refers to a surprise that the user can get to by making just the right sequence of gestures—click this box on that screen while holding down the Ctrl key, or type a special word at just the right place, or whatever[1]. Easter eggs started as a way to sneak the contributors' names into a piece of software, but sometimes became quite elaborate, revealing games or other fun stuff.

You could argue that an Easter egg quotation is a multi-media phenomenon. Musical improvisers often cite other works in their solos for the musically savvy to hear. Visual artists incorporate imagery that echoes other works. In fact, I was recently watching the movie Mean Girls (2004), in which Tina Fey plays a high school teacher who moonlights by working in a bar. Here she is on her way to her second job; if you've seen Office Space (1999), you will surely recognize those 37 pieces of flair:

Let's move on to origins. Where does the word asunder come from? Wait, we should probably review what it means: "into separate pieces," as in something like "She ripped the old dress asunder" or the phrase from Mark 10:9 "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

Asunder is an adverb that probably comes from on + sunder (well, on + sundrum). It goes way the heck back, about as far back as we have records of written English. The sunder part shows up in Frisian and Dutch and German in words that mean "special, apart, separate." (In modern German, it shows up as sondern, which is a verb meaning "to separate" and a conjunction that means "but, on the contrary.") In modern English, we still have sundry (as in "a collection of sundry items") and sundries (as in "pick up milk and sundries at the store"). I don't often come across words during these etymological investigations that have such a purely Germanic origin as this one! A nice little bonus.

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[1] I worked at Microsoft during a period when a fair bit of effort was put into creating Easter eggs in the software we shipped. That all came to an end in 2002, when it was declared that having hidden bits in the software tended to undermine the message of trustworthiness. It was fun while it lasted, though.



  07:27 AM

The new-to-me word this week is one that could engender discussion, perhaps not all in a good way. But I'm here to learn about words, so let's see. The word is bougie and the related term boujee. I ran across bougie recently in a Twitter post by Sarah Tauber, a crop scientist, who was mocking show farms:

The word bougie was new to me, but for fun, I asked our kids, age range 20 to 31, if they knew the word. They all did. One definition offered up was "something that is fancy in a stupid way (like $18 avocado toast)." Another definition was "acting in a high class manner, with the implication that they are not high class." So that's how my kids understand the term, which is one demographic.

People seem to agree that bougie derives from bourgeoisie or bourgeois, referring to the people who lived in towns (burgs). These people were not aristocrats, nor did they work the land. Merchant class or professional class: pretty much the people we'd call middle class today.

When I asked the kids about bougie, there was some confusion. Did I mean boujee? This is a related term, but pretty clearly from the same root. Boujee seems to have originated in the African American community, and likewise refers to trappings of an affluent lifestyle. But boujee doesn't seem to have the negative connotations that bougie does; for example, people seek to look boujee (video: How to look bad and boujee on a budget). Per a Dictionary.com article, boujee pertains to achieving material success but remaining down to earth. I found the subtlety of the distinction between the terms very interesting.

I should note that when you research this term, you will inevitably run across the song Bad and Boujee by Migos, which might have had some influence in spreading the term to a wide audience.

Let us move on to fun origins. I can't believe it's never occurred to me to ask—especially considering how many documents I've formatted in my career—but I only recently looked up the etymology of indent. I bet as soon as I said that you can see it already: dent is "teeth," right? As in dentist. Yes, it is.

The verb came early ("Take hede thy mower mowe clene & holde downe the hyder hand of his sythe that he do nat endent the grasse," from a Middle Ages manual on husbandry.) The original sense is "to make tooth-like incision(s) in the edge of." Note that this definition applies to the shape of the cuts, not how they're made (by biting).

In the document sense, indent to mean "set back" goes back to the 17th century. A nice additional cite, courtesy of the OED: "You must indent your Line four Spaces at least." (Here we insert a joke about the ongoing debate in programming about whether to indent using spaces or tabs.)

Couple of additional thoughts. In terms of formatting documents, the verb indent spawned the verb to outdent; if indenting means setting a line back from the margin, outdenting means moving it toward the margin. You might not find the word outdent in your favorite dictionary, but it's a well-understood term in discussions about formatting.

And finally, the dent of indent is not directly related to the dent of "There's a dent in my car." To dent as in "to make a depression in" is related to dint ("by dint of"), which is a term that was kindly lent to us from Old Norse and that refers to "a stroke or blow." If you know your English history, you'll know that the Old Norsemen dealt out quite a few strokes or blows in their day. I guess that made an impression, haha.

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[1] |

  07:32 AM

Today's new-to-me word (well, term) is one that occasionally pops up and that I have to look up each time. So I thought I'd try to nail it down for myself, and possibly for you.

The term is the IKEA effect, which does indeed have something to do with the Swedish home-goods store. It does not describe the effect of overindulgence in their delicious meatballs, nor does it refer to a home that's kitted out with a bunch of furniture that's very nearly well designed.

No, IKEA effect involves the way their furniture comes packaged—namely, in pieces—and the fact that you have to assemble it yourself. Even though this effort is pretty minimal, at least when compared to actually building furniture yourself, the small effort makes us more attached to the furniture than we would be if we just ordered it up from Amazon or something.

We're probably all familiar with how we like something that we ourselves crafted—a ceramic mug, a painting, a knitted sweater, a loaf of bread—even if in absolute terms the thing might not have high market value. (Experiment: as you Kondoize your belongings, try to determine whether something you created yourself "sparks joy" more than something you bought whole or got as a gift.) The surprising aspect of the IKEA effect is, as noted, that it doesn't take much to go from pure consumer to "co-creator of value," as it says on the Wikipedia.

The IKEA effect is a perhaps a subset of the idea of effort justification, which describes how we put value on something that exhibits labor; the more labor appears to go into something, the more we value it. Something that clearly seems to have taken extraordinary effort will accrue value by that measure alone.

And speaking of extraordinary effort and value, let's turn our attention to ceilings. For this week's origins, I have a proper noun for a change. I'm sure you know about the Sistine Chapel, a chapel in Vatican City whose ceiling was painted by Michelangelo. Have you ever wondered why it’s called the Sistine Chapel? I hadn’t until recently.

The answer is straightforward, if not necessarily obvious. In Italian, the word sistine is an adjectival form (“of or relating to”) the the pope name Sixtus. And sure enough, the Sistine Chapel was named for Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned a restoration in the late 1400s. (A surprising detour here is that Sixtus does not mean “sixth”—that would be Sextus—but is an old Roman name.) A sort of fun fact is that it wasn’t Sixtus IV who hired Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling. That work was done several popes and about 30 years later under Julius II. Alas, not only did Julius II not get naming rights to the chapel's ceiling, he isn't responsible for the Julian calendar, either. Clearly he needed a better PR department.

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  04:27 AM

I’m at an editors conference (editors’ conference) this week, so the new-to-me word this week is sort of thematically appropriate. The term is rogeting, which refers to a way to plagiarize a document: you swap all the substantive words out for synonyms. The idea is that your rogeted paper says the same thing as the original, but in a different way. The real idea is to fool plagiarism checkers, which work primarily by looking for exact matches of text in a document.

Students have always appreciated the, um, benefits of plagiarism. But apparently there is some way to profit (don’t ask me how) by republishing academic papers. However, since exact copies of the papers are relatively easy to find, the plagiarizer rogets the text of a paper authored by someone else. If they do this using a software tool, the result can be particularly clumsy; it was from a discussion of one such example where I learned about the term.

The verb to roget of course comes from Peter Mark Roget, the inventor of the thesaurus. The noun Roget is a synonym for a thesaurus, at least in countries where the name Roget is not trademarked (like the UK, apparently). It’s a nice leap to verbize to roget, especially since the alternatives—to synonymize, to thesaurusize—are sort of awkward.

I tie this to the Editor Fest because I occasionally find myself hunting suspected instances of, um, borrowing in documents that I edit. This usually turns out to be either legit (the author copied text from elsewhere in the company) or a misunderstanding about what an author is allowed to copy (authors sometimes think that copying someone else’s text is exactly the right thing to do). I don’t run a plagiarism checker, but even if I did, if a determined author rogeted their text, the software might miss the copy.

Let’s turn to fun origins. Since we’re on the topic of editing, where does edit/editing/editor come from, anyway? The not-surprising part is that it comes from Latin, without (as far as I can tell) any stops in Romance languages along the way.

The more surprising part is that to edit originally meant “to publish.” The roots are ex (“out”) and dare (“to give,” related to Spanish dar). From that verb the term editor evolved, but keeping the sense of one who publishes. We still see this in titles like editor-in-chief as the person who’s overall in charge of publishing a newspaper, magazine, etc.

But the sense of “one who publishes” grew to encompass the tasks associated with preparing something for publishing. Different people took on different aspects of this preparation; the conference I’m at is specifically for copy editors, which is to say, editors who prepare the actual copy (text).

Anyway, the job title of editor generated a new sense of to edit via the magic of back-formation, and we got the verb to edit in the sense of preparing text. This sense was extended to other media, so that someone can edit film or video or photos.

With that, it’s time to edit this post, in all senses.

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[2] |

  06:55 AM

The recent college-admissions scandal in the US was certainly shocking (or not), but it did have the benefit of introducing me to a couple of terms. Most people probably know about helicopter parents—parents who are constantly hovering over their children. Two terms that the scandal taught me were lawnmower parents and snowplow parents.

Both expressions refer to parents who clear the path for their children, or as one description has it "parents who rush ahead to intervene, saving the child from any potential inconvenience, problem or discomfort." The same article suggests alternative terms bulldozer parents and—heh—curling parents, from the sport played on ice.

These terms are relatively new—snowplow parent goes back to about 2008, lawnmower parent maybe to 2016. We can safely assume, I think, that the phenomenon being described is not new, nor of course is the criticism of how other people do their parenting.

For fun origins today it's spa. At work we have spa water, which is water infused with fruit or vegetables or herbs (or all three).[1]

This seems like a relatively ordinary thing, but there's a surprisingly large, um, literature on spa water of this sort, including hardback books with recipes. Exploring the origins of the term spa water took me on a little journey, which I'll share with you.

Spa water at our work is inspired by water that's provided at spas. What is a spa? Well, that's in the eye of the beholder. It's a place you can get beauty treatments; I guess I envision luxury retreats where you wear a fluffy robe and soak in the waters. But in the narrow definition—a spa is about beauty treatment—a modest nail salon can call itself a spa, or perhaps if they offer a few extra amenities, not forgetting the spa water. (As Jimmy McGill's landlady reminds us in Better Call Saul, cucumber water is for customers, not for shady lawyers renting out her back room.)[2]

The water is the salient part of a spa here. Before spa water was infused water, it was mineral water bottled and sold for its health-giving properties. There are many places whose water is reputed to have these properties, but there is one original spa water: the water from springs at the town of Spa, Belgium. They've been selling their labeled Spa water since the 17th century. (Apparently in Dutch, the brand Spa has been genericized to refer to any mineral water.)

One thing that's not clear is how the town of Spa got its name. It's possible that it's from an old Walloon word for "spring" or "fountain," which would certainly make sense.

There's some evidence that the Romans knew about the water from Spa. But the Romans didn't just drink exotic waters, they were enthusiastic bathers. And that's the other definition of spa: a place you take the waters. (I was delighted to learn that this is known as balneotherapy, and it apparently can have some benefit.) This sense of spa is generic; for example, there's Leamington Spa in England, which was renamed from Leamington Priors in 1838 to match the name of the Belgian town. And from there we get back to our more modern sense of a spa, a place where you take treatments for, you know, health and beauty.

The bathing sense of spa has another offshoot—it's used as a synonym for a hot tub. In my wanderings, I ran across spa water as water that's in hot tubs. At least there's not much danger that you'd confuse your fruit-infused drink with the stuff bubbling in your hot tub. At least, I hope not.

[1] The most creative and least popular combination I've ever seen at work was tomato-basil water, gah.

[2] After reading rather a lot of pages about the hydration and detoxifying and revivifying benefits of spa water, I was sort of relieved to see that someone has invented a cocktail called Spa Water.

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  06:38 AM

Today’s word is not just a word, it’s a kind of PSA. The term is Dutch reach. It might be known to many people already, but I just saw it on Twitter.

Dutch reach is a way to open your car door (from inside) by using the far hand to reach over and grab the handle. So if you’re on the (American) driver’s side, you reach over with your right hand to open the door. Obviously this is not intuitive; people normally open a car door using the hand that’s closest to that door.

The point is to more or less force you to look behind you. You do this to see if there are any bicyclists coming up behind you, and to help you avoid opening the door into their path, known to bicyclists as being doored, which can really injure a bicyclist going at speed. You can read more at a site devoted to teaching this technique.

I think I found this term interesting because the adjective Dutch in English was, historically speaking, sometimes used in “opprobrious or derisive” ways, to quote the OED. Dutch treat, Dutch uncle, Dutch courage, Dutch auction (see comment by Eric!): these are not terms of admiration. For example, a Dutch treat is when you pay your own way, meaning it’s no treat at all. This is a linguistic legacy of the great British-Dutch rivalry of the 1600s. (Remember that New York was originally New Amsterdam.)

But Dutch reach is a term that, if not necessarily admiring, is at least neutral. It’s a nod to Holland’s famously bicycle-friendly culture and, in this case, a Dutch that’s worth adopting.

Origins. The other day I was reading about the history of type and the author mentioned that some early typefaces were designed to emulate handwriting, or cursive writing. Interestingly, cursive has basically only one meaning: flowing handwriting, or type intended to look like it.

Take a moment to consider what the word cursive means and where we got it. Ready? We seem to have gotten it from the Latin word cursivus, meaning “flowing.” So far, so obvious. The fun part is that the Latin word is in turn based on the past form of the word meaning “to run” (correr in Spanish). So cursive handwriting is writing that runs, which I suppose is apt when compared to block printing (or carving in stone).

As with so many words with classical roots, cursive has many cousins. A short list includes courier, corridor, carriage, curriculum, excursion, and intercourse. That’s a whole lot of running.

Bonus origin. Yesterday was Pi Day (3.14 in the American convention of month then day). Ever wonder why we use the term pi for the ratio of circumference to diameter? The Welsh mathematician William Jones apparently introduced the word in the early 1700s as short for "periphery," and it and the pi symbol (π) were popularized by Euler.

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  07:23 AM

I have some friends on Facebook who follow the paleo diet, and it's not unusual for them to post a picture of, say, a slab of steak with a salad or something. A paleo diet, as most people probably know, is supposed to be a diet aligned with what our paleolithic ancestors might have eaten—things you could hunt or gather. Fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts: yes. Meat: yes. Delicious buttery croissants: no, because those are the product of post-paleolithic farming. (Also, no legumes, grains, or sugar.)

I have other friends who are vegan and who also post FB pictures. Their diet involves no animal products at all. Meat, eggs, dairy: no. Fruits and vegetables, including potatoes and beans: yes.

As I recently learned, there is a thing called a Pegan diet, or paleo-vegan. If you're me, your initial reaction might be to wonder what the heck is left if you toss out what each of these separate diets tosses out. Well, as an article notes:

If you're wondering how you could both be vegan and eat grass-fed steak, the answer is simply this: you can't.

Oh. So what is is, exactly? Sounds like a low-carb diet, no-dairy, with an eye toward healthily sourced foods. Why do we need a new name for that? A nutritionist says:

If giving a trendy name to something healthy brings it to the attention of the consumer, I can't argue with that.

I'm beginning to wonder whether the lack of success I'm having with my diet is that "French-fries-based diet" isn't a good enough name.

Let us turn to unexpected and/or delightful word origins. I don't remember why, but I got interested recently in where the word cotton comes from. The history of the plant itself doesn't directly tell us. Various forms of cotton plants were domesticated in all different parts of the world, some as long ago as 4000 years ago. (The strain we mostly use today was native to Central America, who knew.)

But the word cotton does tell us a tiny bit about how the plant and its product spread. Cotton was grown in India but was unknown in Europe in ancient times. (There's a great story about how when Europeans were introduced to cotton as a product, they thought of it as wool that grew on trees, hence the German word Baumwolle, "tree wool.") Cotton worked its way westward, and Europe eventually got it via the Moorish influence in Spain. Which, finally, explains our word: cotton comes from the Arabic word qutn, which was their word for the plant. In English, we got it from French (of course), which had transformed Arabic qutn to coton.

Another interesting wrinkle is that the Arabic word al-qoton, where al is the definite article ("the"), became algodón, the Spanish word for cotton. Man, that al- prefix shows up all over the place: alcohol, algebra, alchemy, alfalfa, alkaline, algorithm, alcove, albatross. Anyway, our thanks to Arabic speakers for both the fabric and the word.

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[4] |

  07:24 PM

I missed last week due to being on vacation in Mexico, yay! I gave some thought to writing about the amazing number of words in Mexican Spanish that originate in indigenous terms—mostly Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs a.k.a. the Mexica. But vacation got the better of me, so any writing I do about, say, mole de guajalote with aguacate and huitlacoche will just have to be for another time.

For today's new-to-me word I want to offer the term prepone. This isn't actually new-new to me, but it came up again recently in a work conversation. This is a handy word that addresses the following situation:

Colleague: I need to move Friday's meeting forward an hour.
You: Do you mean "forward" as in earlier or "forward" as in later?

The word prepone is unambiguous here, because it's the opposite of postpone:

Colleague: I need to prepone Friday's meeting an hour.
You: Cool.

The word prepone became popular in South Asian English sometime in the 1970s or thereabouts. People have noticed the term—the Christian Science Monitor wrote about it more than once, and the lexicographer Ben Zimmer mentioned it in a column about terms from South Asian English. It's such a self-evidently useful term that it's really surprising that it hasn't gotten more traction in other Englishes. I certainly will do my best to promote it, and I encourage you to use it as well.

For origins, I got interested in the term cider. A Grammar Girl column noted that apple cider is a redundancy, because cider is made from apples. That seems to be true; if you go to a saloon and ask for cider, you'll almost certainly get a drink made with apples. (Hold that thought.)

The word has a slightly curious history. In Latin translations of the Old Testament, the word sicera and a similar word in Greek were used for a Hebrew word (shekar) that meant "intoxicating drink." So the most original sense of the term just meant what today we'd refer to as the hard stuff. By medieval times, the word had narrowed to mean the fermented juice of apples or pears. It then came to mean the juice pressed from apples, whether that had been fermented or not. We're therefore obliged to add a qualifier to the word cider if there's ambiguity: sweet cider or hard cider.

In the world of craft brewing, you can find pear cider, which technically means that not all cider is from apples, and that apple cider isn't necessarily a redundancy. But if you want a cider made from pears, you'll probably want to be explicit with the barkeep. What you can't do is use the word cider to mean any old strong drink, as you might be etymologically justified in doing, ha.

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[3] |

  12:02 PM

What do Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, and Chupacabra have in common? Biologically not so much, since two are mammal-like and one is presumed to be reptilian. But terminologically, they’re all cryptids, or species (“species”) studied in the field (“field”) of cryptozoology. I might have known the word cryptid before, but whatever, I heard it, like, three times in the last couple of weeks, which made it seem new-ish to me.

Cryptids are not mythical/mythological creatures, like unicorns or the sphinx. A defining characteristic of cryptids is that they might exist. Some people believe they exist. There’s some evidence—anecdotal or urban-legend-ish—that they exist. There are periodic reports of sightings or of traces like footprints, or blurry photos, or mutilated goats.

The name cryptid is appropriate for these critters: crypt(o) means “hidden,” and that certainly describes the shadowy nature of these creatures’ existence. Despite the long list of cryptids and their long history in human lore, the word itself seems to have originated only in the 1990s. We might not be advancing in our understanding of the lives of cryptids, but we are lexicographically on top of the phenomenon.

For origins for real, today we have the word cheapskate. I follow the blog of Arnold Zwicky, a prolific linguist, and a little while ago he explored this word. What’s the skate part? It has nothing to do with ice-type skating, nor is it related to the fishy family of animals known as skates.

It seems that the word skate is slang for “fellow” (“a good skate”), not that I’ve ever heard this. It’s also apparently a slang term for a decrepit horse. The OED has cites running from 1894 to 1978 for this sense of skate; the last cite makes it seem like it might be a term used among those who bet on horses, but that’s speculation.

Somewhere the term skate got the connotation of not just “fellow” but “contemptible fellow,” which might be an example of pejoration, dunno. And that sense then became attached to the word cheap and we got a contemptible fellow who moreover is unpleasantly thrifty.

Zwicky makes an interesting observation about how cheapskate is pronounced. In this compound, cheap is an adjective. Normally, though, when you use cheap in this way, you put the stress on the noun (adjective-NOUN)—a cheap DATE, even a cheap PERSON. But in cheapskate, the stress is on cheap. Zwicky observes this but doesn’t explain it, although I bet there’s something phonologically interesting there.

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  11:26 AM

The president delivered his 2019 State of the Union address this week, but beforehand, he had lunch with some reporters. At the lunch, he reportedly made the curious remark "When I say something that you might think is a gaffe, it’s on purpose; it’s not a gaffe."

Trump presumably had in mind the standard definition of gaffe to mean "blunder, social mistake." But the remark struck me because it came from a politician, and I only recently learned the term Kinsley gaffe. This is named for the journalist Michael Kinsley, who once said "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say." Does Trump say the truth in the guise of making a mistake?

Not all political gaffes are Kinsley gaffes; sometimes politicians just say or do dumb things. (Wait, did I say sometimes?) A true Kinsley gaffe has to reveal what people suspect but that a savvy politician should not admit. Some examples:

  • In 2011, the Republican Senate Majority Leader in Wisconsin, Scott Fitzgerald, said in an interview that he was pushing to restrict collective bargaining by public employees—that is, unions—in order to defund the base for Democrats.
  • During the 2012 election, a Mitt Romney spokesperson reassured voters that Romney's hard-conservative positions in the primaries were not worrisome, because "like an Etch a Sketch," the positions would be reset for the general election.
  • In a 2015 interview, Kevin McCarthy, who at the time was the GOP House Majority Leader, admitted that the congressional hearings on the 2012 Benghazi attack were motivated by a desire to hurt Hillary Clinton's chances for election.
  • Last Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that a proposed Election Day Holiday was a "power grab" by the Democrats, effectively admitting that allowing more people to vote would be to the Republicans' disadvantage.

Although Kinsley was focused on politicians, you could argue that non-politicians are subject to Kinsley gaffes as well. In 1999, Scott McNealy, who was then CEO of Sun Microsystems, said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." In 2010, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said " We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."

The more I think about this, the more examples I want to find. Let me know if you have other candidate Kinsley gaffes.

Ok, origins. What's the scape part of a scapegoat? The quick answer is that it's related to escape—although we imported the word with an initial e- from French in medieval times, for several centuries an e-less version (scape) was common.

So it's an escape-goat. I didn't initially get this. A scapegoat is the one who's the designated recipient of blame. Today's that's metaphoric, but in Biblical times it was more literal—it was a goat, and it was ritually assigned to bear the sins of the community. How is that goat then an "escape" goat? Well, it turns out that in the ritual of sin-letting, there are two goats involved, as described in Leviticus 16:

7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.

9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD'S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.


21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:

22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

So one goat is sacrificed, but the goat onto which the iniquities of the tribe are laid is sent out into the wilderness—he escapes. (The fact that I didn't know this story suggest that my Bible literacy could be improved.)

There is a footnote in all this about the word (e)scapegoat. The word was brought into English by Tyndale in his early English translation of the Bible from Hebrew. But the Hebrew word that he translated—azazel—might either mean "escaped, departed" or it might be the name of a demon. It's therefore possible that the scape part of scapegoat is all based on a misunderstanding. Douglas Harper has details, should you be curious.

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