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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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 8/10/2018

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Posts - 2515
Comments - 2581
Hits - 2,071,631

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Entries/day - 0.46
Comments/entry - 1.03
Hits/day - 375

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 8:35 PM Pacific


  07:48 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  10:24 PM

I’ve been trying to like Lime bikes

Some little while ago—a year? 9 months?—a rainbow of brightly colored bicycles sprouted in Seattle. All of a sudden dockless bike sharing had arrived. There were three vendors and three colors: Ofo (yellow), Spin (orange), and Lime (green, duh):


Dockless was a new thing. Seattle had had a flirtation with docked bikes (company name Pronto!), but that didn’t work out. Part of the reason, surely, was that docked bikes could be picked up and dropped off only at certain points in Seattle, and those were concentrated downtown. Dockless bikes, on the other hand, can be practically anywhere. There’s no stand or station. Using an app on your phone, you locate a bike close to you (they’re all GPS tracked). When you find a bike, you unlock it with the app, hop on, and ride wherever you want. When you’re done, you get off, lock the bike, and walk away.

A key point is that it’s literally wherever. People take these bikes onto the light rail and presumably leave them in far-flung neighborhoods. The companies hope that you will leave the bike well parked in a convenient location, but they can't enforce this, so bikes show up all over the place.

Another appeal of the dockless bikes is that they're cheap to rent: you can ride for one dollar. (More on that in a moment.) This makes dockless bikes great for a kind of impulse ride—you want go for a ride, or you need to get someplace, and hey, here’s one of those bike right there. One dollar and 30 seconds later you’re riding.

Initial experience

I have a two-part commute. Normally I ride the train (light rail) from our apartment to downtown Seattle. From there I take a bus to Fremont, the neighborhood where our office is. At some point, however, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to get off the train downtown; the train goes to the University of Washington, which is about 2-1/2 miles from our office. I can then take a bus from the U for my second leg. Or, as it occurred to me, I could ride a bike.

So I gave it a try. I installed the app, and after getting off the train at the U, I used the app to locate a bike. I found one, unlocked it, somewhat awkwardly got on, and pedaled away.

Well. My very first lesson is that these bikes are extremely … sturdy. 42 pounds, oof. As I also quickly learned, they have 8 gears, but they’re geared pretty low. (You shift by twisting the handle—easy!) Even on level ground, and even in the highest gear, you are working to move that bike. This is particularly evident if you’re riding on a bike trail, because people on sleeker bikes are constantly whizzing past you.

This is understandable, of course. Both parts, I mean. For the sturdy part, if you’re designing a bike to withstand both the elements and people’s inevitably casual use, you favor something that can take some knocks. And for the gearing part, you need low gears so that people can just get the danged thing moving. Plus you’re accommodating a wide range of riders (weight, strength, skill), and you want a pretty low common denominator.[1]

Safety not first

The spontaneous nature of grabbing a dockless bike does have a downside—namely, that you’re unlikely to have thought to bring a helmet. Seattle ordinance requires a helmet, but the bike-share companies don’t provide. This is an interesting dilemma for me. I could carry a helmet around, but I use these bikes comparatively rarely, so that would mostly be dragging around the helmet for no reason. My approach for the time being is that when I do use a dockless bike, I don’t ride on city streets at all; I ride only on bike paths that are separate from the road.

The jalopy bike

The first ride was a learning experience. The second was as well, but in a different way—the gears slipped if I pedaled too hard, making for an unpleasant and even more laborious ride. And this I suppose underscores a different problem of these bikes, which is that people don’t treat them well. They’re rentals, after all, so people ride them hard, and let them fall, or worse:

I tried a few more times, but had one more incident of a slippy gear and a couple of bikes where the seat was loose or there was some other problem. My experience overall seems to have been typical—the Seattle Times did a test and concluded that only about 64% of Lime bikes were ridable. So between the crapshoot of a getting a bike that had problems and the more general prospect of having to work so hard to bike 3 miles, I didn't really embrace the whole idea, and I sort of forgot about Lime.

Chapter 2: Electronics to the Rescue

Somewhere along the line, Lime (only, afaik) introduced ebikes, which have an electronic assist to your pedaling. This makes sense in Seattle, which has a lot of hills. (It makes sense everywhere, but there are certain popular routes in Seattle that just don’t seem feasible with the normal Lime tank-bikes.) This re-piqued my interest in using a Lime bike for a leg of my commute, so I gave it a shot.

Oh. My. God. As soon as you step on a pedal the bike practically lunges off. It isn’t effortless, but the assist does a lot to overcome the inertia of the heavy bike, so it’s a very welcome improvement.

But there are some issues. One is that ebikes are extremely popular, so it can be a challenge, unlike the all-manual bikes, to find one nearby. A complicating factor is that the ebikes lose their charge, and Lime won’t unlock a bike that has less than 20% charge. Another issue, at least theoretically, is that local rules say you're not allowed to ride an ebike on a sidewalk or bike path, which means that you're legally only allowed to ride them on city street. Yeah, that's not going to happen. (As with the helmet laws, it remains to be seen whether the city will try to enforce this rule.)

And then I learned about the cost. As I noted, you can ride a manual bike for a dollar. The price for ebikes is one dollar plus 15 cents per minute from the moment you unlock. It had never occurred to me that the price would be different until I got notification from Lime that one my rides had cost me $3.40. Only then did I go back and check their pricing page, which does not even mention ebikes; I had to poke around to get the details on ebike pricing. This rather more substantial cost has given me pause. I mean, it's not like taking an Uber or anything, but I do have to ask myself just how much value I put on being able to pedal myself, albeit with electronic assist, to or from the train. At the moment, I'm riding a dockless bike maybe, dunno, every other week? Still cheaper than an unused gym membership, I suppose.

It's the future

Dockless bikes appear to be doing well in Seattle. There are currently about 10,000 bikes in Seattle, and for the months of May and June (which were clement), they were ridden an average of 7,000 times a day. The city of Bellevue, our cross-lake suburban sister city, is beginning its own experiment with dockless bikes. Just recently, Seattle expanded the charter for dockless bike companies, and we could have up to 20,000 of the bikes circulating through the city. (That's 4 companies times 5,000 bikes each, assuming the companies want to pay the fees that Seattle is asking.)

In the meantime, Lime is experimenting with new form factors. They have manual bikes and ebikes now; they're adding electric scooters, which we'll be seeing soon in Seattle:

Given my lack of balance, this does not seem like a vehicle I should be piloting. But who knows—maybe the lure of an inexpensive way to try one out will get me careering down the Burke-Gilman trail on a scooter. I'll let you know.

[1] I would be amused, tho not surprised, to see some sort of derby or race in which riders all use Lime bikes.

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  10:03 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  08:10 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  07:38 AM

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

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

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

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

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

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  08:32 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  10:00 PM

There are a variety of editorial truisms: long sentences are hard to read; lists should be parallel; consistency is good. This wisdom is taught, and it's reinforced by personal experience; editors are themselves readers, after all, and they monitor their own reactions when reading.

However, there isn't always hard data that editors can point to to support what experience and insight tells them is true. But sometimes there is, and just this week I ran across something that underscores the editorial push toward consistency, and I was pretty excited about it.

I'm in a linguistics class right now, and one of our lectures was by the linguist Gareth Carrol, who uses eye-tracking studies to understand how people read. He started his lecture by noting that people do not read smoothly across the page, line by line. They stop on words (fixations); they jump (saccades); they back up (regressions). By studying what's happening with these movements, linguists can determine where people are having trouble with a text, and importantly, where they're not.


Heat map from eye-tracking study (source).

In our lecture, he discussed binomials, which are pairs of words linked by and: fish and chips, bread and butter, salt and pepper. An interesting thing about binomials is that they have a conventional order: people say I'm sick and tired of it; they don't say I'm tired and sick of it.

Eye tracking studies have determined that people can read binomials quickly. It's like the brain sees a familiar binomial and says "Oh, I get this" and can flit to the next bit of text. In an experiment, Carrol and his researchers wrote some stories that included invented binomials—pairs like wire and pipes and leaves and grass. These are perfectly normal pairs of words, but not binomials that have a conventional order.

So what did they learn? A couple of things:

  • People took longer to process these unfamiliar (invented) binomials than to process familiar ones. But …
  • If people saw the same invented binomial four or five times in a story, they acclimated to it and were able to process it faster.

To my mind, this translates easily to the editorial guideline of consistency.

Of course, I'm in the world of tech writing. We already know in our world that readers don't really want to read-read; they want information, and the faster, the better. If you want to reduce friction for the reader (that is, reduce fixations), be conventional. Use words consistently and construct text consistently. By doing this, science says that you're reducing the effort that the reader has to make to process the text, and the sooner they can back to doing whatever it is that they were reading about.

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  08:09 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] This statement is only mostly true.

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  11:33 PM

The other day I was taking an introductory training class for some technology at work. There was a slide that outlined the technology, and one of the bullet points had an asterisk next to it. At the bottom of the page was this footnote:

Most strong statements like this are only mostly true. Don’t worry about it.

I had to stop for a while to ponder the pedagogical implications of this footnote.

There's an inherent problem in trying to describe something complicated to a newbie: how do you start? If someone knows absolutely nothing about, say, playing bridge, or verbs in Spanish, or physics, or grammar, you have to give them a large-picture, broad-stroke overview of this thing they're about to dive into.

This is hard. One reason is that people who are familiar with some domain frequently have difficulty coming up with sufficiently high-level overviews that make sense to a beginner. I've had a couple of people attempt to explain the game of bridge to me, but they could not come up with a simple, comprehensible explanation of the bidding process.[1]

A closely related reason is that experts often cannot let go of details. For example, in your first week of Spanish class, the teacher tells you that the verb hablar means "to speak," and that to say "I speak" you cut off -ar and add -o: hablo. And that this is the pattern for any verb that ends in -ar. So to say "I take," you use the verb tomar and turn it into tomo.

Easy! Powerful! Also, of course, only mostly true: there are irregular verbs and reflexive verbs and other fun. But throwing those additional details at you in the first week of Spanish 101 is counterproductive. There will be time to sort out the exceptions later, once you understand some basics.

I took physics in high school, and when you start, you're learning a lot about f=ma. I have memories of homework problems involving blocks being pulled or pushed, and the problems always said something like "… ignoring the effects of air resistance." A beginning physics student has enough to think about when calculating the effect of gravitational acceleration without trying to factor in air resistance and all the other real-life variables that come into play. In fact, there's a well-known joke in the physics community about a "spherical cow" that represents the ultimate in simplifying a model.

One more example. In the linguistics community, it's widely discussed that even if kids are taught grammar, it's not taught very well. People who are experts in grammar will sometimes complain (example) that the explanations we give students are hopelessly simplistic. "A noun is the name for a person, place, or thing," goes a typical definition. This doesn't adequately cover gerunds ("Smoking is bad for you") or concepts ("Orange is the new black") or many other ways in which we noun things.

But this gets back to the point. If you're faced with a classroom of 8-year-olds, how do you tell them what a noun is? Using terms like "lexical category" and "defined by its role in the sentence" is not going to work. You have to start somewhere.[2][3]

And that means ignoring messy details. As one of the commenters on the linked grammar post describes it, "It's quite normal for us to use 'lies to children' in education." Or, to get back to where we started, you sometimes have to make strong statements that are only mostly true.

[1] There are people can do this; it just wasn't the people I was playing with.

[2] By coincidence, I ran across a video that tries to explain what nouns and verbs are. We can have a think about whether this is a description that would be suitable for first-time grammar leaners.

[3] And another! Jed Hartman (of Hartman's Law of Prescriptive Retaliation) also has an entry Coming Down with Noun Syndrome about the challenges of identifying parts of speech. ("[A]s usual, the truth is a little more complicated than we were taught. Oops.")

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  09:24 AM

Happy belated birthdays, Canada and America!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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