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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Writing a book is an adventure: it begins as an amusement, then it becomes a mistress, then a master, and finally a tyrant.

— Winston Churchill



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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/6/2019

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:27 PM Pacific


  09:25 AM

Fun fact for today: this is my 200th Friday words post, not counting some early, pre-every-Friday word posts. Check out the complete list!

And speaking of words. We got email at work recently advertising some sort of information fair (about commuting, if I remember right), and one of the things on the agenda was a tabling event. I’d never heard of this, I think, so I poked around a bit to see what that might mean.

As often happens, this is an established term that just hadn’t crossed my radar. Perhaps you, too, don’t know it: a tabling event is “working at a table to bring attention to an event/cause/organization,” to quote a user on the Yahoo Answers site.

I didn’t spend a lot of time looking, but the earliest references I found go back to at least 2008. Even then, though, the references appear in texts where the writer seems to assume that everyone knows the term. (Just not me, I guess.) Based on that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the term goes back substantially further.

I think that what interested me was that it seemed like a bit of domain jargon that escaped into the world. (This is all speculation, don’t quote me on this.) People who organize events have their own vocabulary, I assume, and maybe when they plan a vendor fair or similar, they talk about booth setup and banner placement and such. It’s easy to see how in this domain, the activity of staffing a table could become tabling. Perhaps it’s like how HR people use the word onboarding[1], which has now become widespread. Or how when you phone your bank, the customer service rep asks for your social, exposing a domain term (short for “social security number”) to the world at large. Or, I suppose, how computer words like booting and firewall have become everyday words.

Moving along. An article in the New Yorker got me onto the origins of the word metaphor. We got the word from French (hence Latin), but it originates in Greek. We see the prefix meta pretty often, right? Like in metaphysics (philosophy), metadata (computers), metamorphic (geology), metabolism (medicine), or heck, just the standalone meta (“that’s so meta”). It’s not that easy to pin down a meaning for meta in this way; you’ll find various definitions for the prefix like “with,” “after,” “beyond, above,” and “among,” and that it refers to a description or abstraction or commentary of the thing it modifies (metadata and just meta). The OED adds this useful note: “principally to express notions of sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change, in the last sense frequently corresponding to classical Latin words in trans- prefix.” Ah, trans-. That can also mean “across,” right?

Hold that thought. What about the -phor part of metaphor? This ultimately comes from a Greek word for “to bear, carry.” The Greeks themselves combined this with the prefix meta- to form a verb metapherein, which meant “to transfer.” So when you put together the constituent parts, you get something like “to carry across.” Which is what metaphors do: they carry meaning across from one word or expression to another one.

I’ve got a bonus word origin today: the word pioneer. Pioneers were originally foot soldiers sent ahead to dig and clear. The pion part sort of indicates this; it’s related to peon and pawn (like in chess), and a bit further away, to ped for “foot” as in pedestrian, etc. It expanded to cover anyone who forayed early into a new territory or field.

I learned this from a great Twitter thread by Dr. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist, whose breakdown starts with etymology but then takes a fierce turn into the politics and history of pioneers. Worth a read if you’re willing to get riled.

[1] I’m fine with this word, btw.

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  03:40 PM

It’s Thanksgiving time in the US, a holiday of feasting and, as a Canadian Friend was pointing out, apparently a time that is not exactly keto-friendly: potatoes, bread, stuffing (more bread), pies, and so on. But it gives me an opportunity to investigate a term I just ran across.

On one of the FB groups I belong to, someone posted this little article, a just-so story/etymythology about a word origin:

As the poster on FB noted, this is not the origin of the word macaroni. (You can read about that on Etymonline; basically, it’s related to macaroon.) But I was interested to see the word farinaceous (“farinaceous tubes”), which I had never heard before.

I really had no idea what it could mean, but the dictionary revealed all. Farinaceous means “made up of or containing starch,” which is certainly true for macaroni. It’s an adjectival form of farina, which is a word for ground “vegetable matter” (like grain) used as a thickener or a cereal. The word farina I did know, sort of, based on a childhood preference for Cream of Wheat over oatmeal.

I don’t know whether we can stretch the meaning of farinaceous as a descriptive term for an entire meal (“American Thanksgiving dinners are startlingly farinaceous”), but I don’t think anyone’s going to stop us if we try.

For origins today, I got to wondering about another seasonally appropriate term: pumpkin. In the US, pumpkin is solidly associated with fall and especially Thanksgiving. The latter made me wonder whether pumpkin is a new-world food like corn and tomatoes and turkey itself. And if so, whether the word pumpkin has origins in an indigenous language.

Botanically, yes: pumpkins seem to have originated in the Americas as part of the larger squash family. (As with apples, the distinct varieties of squashes are the result of hybridization and careful husbandry; they are not necessarily naturally occurring.)

But lexicographically, pumpkin is a French word, at least as concerns us in English; we borrowed the name pompon or pompion from them. It seems to have been related to other words for vine-grown edibles (in Spanish, cucumbers are pepinos). The term goes back through Latin to Greek pepon, a word for a melon.[1]

There are a couple of curious things about the word pumpkin. One is that -kin ending, which was sometimes used earlier in English as a diminutive (napkin or firkin, see also the -chen in German in words like Liebchen). For pumpkin, tho, it seems that the -kin ending probably doesn’t represent some sort of “wee pompion.” The -kin on pumpkin might have come about by analogy with existing words that had -kin on the end.

Which raises the second curiosity about pumpkin: why do so many people pronounce it as punkin? This is an American thing, attested for a couple of hundred years. (And scorned among those who have “more correct” pronunciation—example, example.) The explanation is probably phonological: it’s awkward to go from sounds like P and M, which are formed at the front of the mouth, to a K, which is formed at the back of the mouth. So people assimilate sounds to make pronunciation smoother. In this case, the people shift the M to a velar N—the same N that’s in the middle of singing and bringing. Result: punkin.

Oh, and pumpkin is also used as a term of endearment. Which I suppose isn’t any weirder than the French using the word cabbage in a similar way.

[1] Botanically, all of these vine-borne comestibles—not just melons, but also pumpkin, squash, cucumber, etc.—are fruits. We use the term winter squash for squashes that are fully grown, like pumpkins, when the rind is tough and the seeds are mature. We eat so-called summer squashes (cucumbers, zucchini) when the rind is soft and the seeds are still immature.

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  07:16 AM

In the US, we're in the middle of the (American) football season, which is a sport I follow casually. This means I get to watch a lot of TV commercials, one of which introduced me to a term from sports culture: homegating.

Homegating is a somewhat odd twist on the more established term tailgating. It's worth a moment to review this interesting set of words. In the beginning, people would get together before a game to socialize. Some people did this in the parking lot of the stadium. They'd bring drinks and food, perhaps even grills to cook on. People would do this literally out of the backs of their cars; if you have a station wagon or pickup truck, you can do this from the tailgate of your vehicle. (Although as a Wikipedia article generously notes, "Many people participate even if their vehicles do not have tailgates.") This is a tailgate party, a term invented in the 1950s, these days also called tailgating.

Suppose that instead of going to the game in person (expensive! cold!), you just want to watch the game at home on TV. You invite friends over. You might have thought you were just having a pre-game party, but now a term develops that sort of echoes what others are doing over at the stadium. Instead of tailgating, you're homegating. As near as I can tell, the word was invented somewhere around 2010 in the NFL marketing organization, possibly (again, as I read it) as a way to expand the appeal of football to women.

Overall, it's another example of how words in English are fluid and flexible. Starting in the 1800s, wagons have swing-down tailgates at the rear to make it easy to load cargo. When pickup trucks are invented, the term transfers easily to the new style of vehicle. When people start partying out of their vehicles, it becomes the metonymic tailgate party. Given our propensity in English to verb things, this is simplified to tailgating. Now a novel development: we break -gating off from tailgating to become a suffix that means "to pre-party," then attach it to home, and homegating becomes a party at home. Awesome. I'm only half kidding when I say that we should keep an eye out for words like workgating, a pre-function party at work.

Food prep also got me onto this week's unexpected origins. I was watching a video in Spanish the other day for how to make sopa de fideos, a tomato soup with noodles. At one point the cook puts the tomato mixture through a sieve; she uses the word colar, and shortly after that she refers to the sieve as the colador.

Colador … hmm … is that by any chance related to our word colander? Why, yes it is! As with the Spanish words, colander goes back to a Latin verb meaning "to strain" (in the kitchen sense, I mean), and might go back to an earlier word referring to fishing nets.

English of course has that extra -n- in the middle. No one knows why we added that, but it goes back a long ways; English spellings of colander show the N for as far back as we have cites. It could be an example of epenthesis, where an extra sound is added into a word to make it easier to pronounce (ath-e-lete, thimb-le, hamp-ster), which could make it an excrescent N. :) But let me repeat that no one knows for sure.

Since we have a richness of words for similar tools in the kitchen, we have the luxury of being able to assign fine meanings to them. You can use a strainer or a sieve for the tomatoes when you're making soup. (Do people make a distinction between strainer and sieve? I don't.) While Spanish remains true to colador as a strainer, we've assigned the name colander to something more specific, namely an item that's more like a bowl with holes in it.

Now that I look at all these words, I should find out where to strain and to sieve come from. But I'll save those for another day.

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  07:01 AM

I read a sad article last week about an old man who had been abandoned by his family because he'd become too difficult to care for. Apparently this happens regularly, although this case was notable because the family had flown him to England to abandon him there.

Anyway, in talking about the elderly gent, the article mentioned that older people are sometimes sent to the hospital with unspecific problems; one word for these is acopia, which one article glosses as the "inability to cope with the activities of daily living." Once you know the definition, the derivation is obvious: a- (meaning "without", as in amoral) and cope[ia]. That said, it's not a word you'll find in a general dictionary.

The term acopia is used in medical circles, and as it turns out, primarily in reference to older people. My wife, who's in healthcare and has done work in geriatrics, says it describes a state "between depression and dementia." And adds, "It's a description, not a diagnosis." Indeed, the article where I found the definition notes that although acopia might be written on a chart, it's "unhelpful," at least with respect to treatment.

Still, it seems like an interesting word to me. At the risk of misusing a term that already is considered dubious, it feels like it could be expanded to include the general condition of "can't even." Or maybe not.

Origins. My wife asked me today about maelstrom. I knew that it referred to "turbulence or confusion," but a trip to the dictionary revealed two surprising things. The first is that maelstrom (or Maelstrom, capped) is an actual place! It refers to a famous (infamous) and large whirlpool off the coast of Norway, "which was formerly supposed to suck in and destroy all vessels within a wide radius." (OED)

Discovering this initially led me to think that the word maelstrom was therefore a toponym—a word derived from a place-name. But no. The word maelstrom didn't come to us from, say, Norwegian. In fact, it comes from a Dutch word for "whirlpool." In older Dutch, strom was "stream." The surprising part is that mael does not mean, as someone (me) might think, "bad, evil." It actually refers to grinding (malen in German), alluding to the action of going round and round. The mael part is also related to meal (as in cornmeal), and more distantly, to mill. All referring to the actions of, or products of, or tools for going round and round. And if you add strom, you've got a stream going round and round, so there's your whirlpool.

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  08:52 AM

I was reading this week about Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday, and ran across the term pizza effect. The article I was reading explained that the James Bond movie "Spectre" had a scene that was set during a Day of the Dead parade. That parade was a Hollywood invention for the movie script; there was no tradition of Day of the Dead parades.

Here's the thing, though: according to the article, ever since that movie came out, parades have become a part of Day of the Dead. This was the pizza effect in action: a tradition is exported from a culture and then re-imported in a new way. It's a form of cultural borrowing or cultural influence, with the twist that a culture is borrowing back something that started in its own culture.

The name pizza effect refers to actual pizza. Pizza was an Italian dish (pizza is a Neapolitan word) that was imported to the United States. In the US, the simple pie transformed into something much more elaborate, which was then exported—including back to Italy. (At least, that's a story for the how pizza effect got its name; whether pizza made a round trip in exactly this way is probably not important.)

One often reads about the pizza effect—perhaps surprisingly?—in terms of religion. I suppose the Day of the Dead example is a minor version of that. I also found references to it in a discussion of Hinduism and in a book called The World's Religions. There are examples of the pizza effect with words, sort of. One example is the word guard, which we got from French, but which had borrowed it from the Germanic word ward (weard in Old English). Maybe you could say that the musical British Invasion of the 1960s that brought (originally American) blues music to white American audiences is another version of the pizza effect.

The phrase pizza effect was coined in the 1970s, but we'd have to assume that "re-enculturation" (another term for the pizza effect) has probably been in effect for as long as there have been cultures to borrow from.

On the origins front this week, a word popped up when I was reading about olde-tyme military stuff. Why were certain types of cavalry soldiers called dragoons? (I bet that people who write or edit historical fiction know all about this.)

Dragoons were not just mounted on horses; they also were armed with handguns. These were pretty heavy weapons—as one page puts it, they were smaller versions of a blunderbuss. Here's the fun part: these handguns were called dragons. I find two stories for why the guns got this name. One story is that the hammer on the gun was shaped like a dragon. The more interesting story is that the gun "breathed fire."

The soldiers who carried these "dragons" became (in French) dragoons, and eventually the word applied to any type of horse-mounted, gun-bearing troop. The noun spawned the verb to dragoon [into], "to compel," which originally referred to the actions of French troops who were sent to make trouble for Protestants.

I suppose the same naming process gave us lancers, carbineers, and even archers. But somehow those names don't seem as evocative as soldiers with their fire-breathing weapons.

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  04:06 PM

I don’t feel like technical terms are necessarily fair game for Friday words, but I ran across one this week that seemed like it might (?) be useful in other contexts. To set the stage, I’ll quote a blog post about it:

In the engineering world, we have a habit of creating a lot of things, yet have a very difficult time retiring things, whether those things are projects, hardware, automated test cases, etc. I guess to some degree engineers can be hoarders. […] But this becomes costly and inefficient. So what do you do to clean up the artifacts left running just because everyone is afraid to turn them off or delete them?

The solution—well, a solution—is to use a method called the scream test. To implement a scream test, you take things away and wait to see if someone screams, heh. “Hey, where did that file go?!” might be a result you get in response to a scream test.

I liked a few things about the term scream test. One is that it’s not easy to tell from the expression what it means. Scream is not the object of the test—you’re not testing for loudness, pitch, whatever; compare blood test. It’s not the means by which the test is performed—no one is screaming in order to perform the test; compare stress test. Instead, in a scream test, scream tells you what you’re testing for; compare leak test. (I suppose it doesn’t hurt that it rhymes with screen test, though it would be hard to make a case that that was why they chose that name.)

I also was thinking about how scream test applies in everyday life. We just moved to a smaller apartment, and we’re putting many things into a separate storage unit that we’re renting. We’re performing a kind of scream test: put stuff out of reach and then see after some period—month? year?—whether we ever missed it, i.e. whether we “scream” about not having it. If we don’t, it probably means we can “permanently delete” the artifact.

Anyway, there are probably other examples of where scream test applies outside of the context where the idea was born. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Origins. I was reading Don’t Believe a Word, a new book about language by David Shariatmadari. Just in passing, he mentioned the origin of the word parliament. This is a legislative body, of course. Why would it be called that?

Well, one thing that members of a parliament do a lot is talk. And therein lies the origin: the parlia- part of the word refers to talking or discourse. A parliament is a group of people who parley. One might say that they often engage in palaver. In Spanish, the same root evolved into palabra, the word for “word.” Another, more distant relative is parable.

A seemingly odd instance of the word parliament is as a name for a grouping of owls; compare a murder of crows. A parliament of owls is one of those madey-uppy terms of venery; it’s not a native English term that you’ll find in most dictionaries, the way you find words like herd or flock. Even so, I wondered why someone would have decided that an assemblage of owls should be a parliament. Because owls, like, talk so much? The best explanation I can find is that owls are associated with wisdom (Athena, all that), and that a group of them is … wise? … in the way that a deliberative body is? As if, haha.

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  11:06 PM

I don’t edit fiction, let alone write it, so there’s a bunch of vocabulary associated with fiction that’s new to me. Not long ago I ran across the word ficlet. This is a piece of short—very short—fiction. You’ll see different thoughts about just how long “short” is, but a common idea is that a ficlet is about 1000 words long. As one Twitter exchange put it, it’s microfiction.

Once you know that, you can see that it’s constructed from a shortened form of fiction (see also: fanfic) plus the suffix -let, which is a diminutive: booklet, platelet, leaflet, piglet. (One site disparages the term ficlet, but admits that "ficlet’s only saving grace is that it's at least better than ‘ficcie’.”)

The term ficlet seems to be mostly associated with the world of fanfic. One page says that the length is “able to fit in the space of one message board,” which is where the 1000-word length seems to come from.

While I was looking into ficlet, I ran across the related word drabble. If a ficlet is a piece of fiction that’s 1000 words long, a drabble is more constrained yet: it’s 100 words or less. A double drabble is 200 words or less; a pentadrabble is 500 words; a half-drabble is 50 words. Alternatively, there’s a school of thought that a drabble must be exactly 100 words (not counting the title), which would certainly make for an interesting writing challenge. (I think that if you want to stir things up in the fanfic community, post your opinions about the word count in a ficlet and a drabble.)

According to a glossary I found, the word drabble comes from a Monty Python bit in which “the first person to write a novel wins,” The term was adapted for a contest by the Birmingham University SF Society (in the UK), which apparently decided that 100 words was more manageable than a whole novel.

These terms, along with variations (flashfic, short-short, vignette, snippet, one-shot, Imagine), kind of make me wonder how I’d do at these highly constrained writing exercises. I don’t wonder so much that I’m actually likely to try to find out, tho.

For surprising origins today, an interesting parallel between languages. Someone had a Twitter thread about terms that are formed the same way in different languages. A commenter noted that English forgive is the same as Spanish perdonar (for=per, give=donar, as in donate). This blew my mind.

Naturally, I had to look up where the word pardon came from. Sure enough: we got pardon via French from a medieval Latin term perdonare. The original sense was theological; in Chaucer, the Pardoner sold papal indulgences.

There is some speculation that forgive and pardon are calques, or loan-translations, meaning that a word is translated into another language piece by piece. One source says that Latin might have calqued pardon from Germanic; Douglas Harper suggests that Germanic might have calqued forgive from Latin. Either way, now that it’s been pointed out to me, the relationship between the words is obvious.

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  09:24 PM

A while back I picked up the word tankie. In the sense that I learned it, this has a pretty specific meaning that references the politics of the past. But perhaps it has some relevance today.

In 1956, there was an uprising in Hungary against Soviet rule. This initially looked like it was going well. But after a few weeks, the USSR sent in troops and tanks and crushed the rebellion.

In the West, the heavy-handed Soviet response disillusioned many people who had previously been supportive of the idea of communism. But some true believers—especially in Britain—supported the Soviet reaction out of ideological purity. These people were pejoratively referred to as tankies, for their support for the Russian tanks that were unleashed on the protestors.

As I say, the word is old and seems specific to another time. But according to the SJWiki, tankie can have an expanded meaning:

More broadly, the term may refer to any leftist who is perceived to support or defend authoritarian regimes on the basis that they are enemies of the United States. This can include regimes that are not and do not claim to be communist such as those of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Bashir al-Assad in Syria.

Of course, in this expanded definition, the word tank is no longer relevant. (Altho I suppose it might be with respect to the Tiananmen Square massacre.) The central idea is that anyone who's an enemy of the US might be worth supporting, no matter how bad their ideology or human-rights record.

Update (22 Oct 2019): Nancy Friedman notes that she covered tankie (with more detail) as one of her words of the week back in 2018. For more on this term, including its use to describe a dog coat, go read her blog entry.

While we contemplate how tankie might play out in today's world, let's turn to origins. In a discussion about cats today, the word dander came up. Though what actually happened was that the word dandruff came up to mean dander. Which made me wonder whether dandruff was related to dander and/or where the word came from.

So, to start, yes, dander and dandruff seem to be related. If you look up dander in the sense of the stuff that collects on cat fur, they refer you to dandruff. Is it perhaps surprising that dandruff is the older term? It was to me.

We've had it in English since the mid-1500s. And it's interesting to see that people have been looking for cures for at least that long—here's a suggestion recorded in 1601: "The iuice of Garlick..beeing taken in drinke cleanseth the head from dandruffe." The alternate term dander dates from the 1800s.

Disappointingly, the etymology of dandruff is listed as "of unknown origin." Douglas Harper, who is not afraid to go where the OED fears to tread, suggests that the ruff part might be an old dialect term for "scab" and might have also been related to the Old English word for "leper." (He also includes the wonderful information that older English words for dandruff are bran, furfur, and scales.)

You might wonder how the expression get your dander up figures into all this. This is an American expression that seems to be from the 19th century. It might refer to dander in the sense of dandruff/dander. Or it might be related to a now-obsolete sense of dander to mean "ferment," which might come from a Spanish verb redundar ("to overflow").

All in all, not an entirely satisfactory delve into word history. That just happens sometimes, oh well.

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  10:08 AM

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about nootropics, or "smart drugs." Naming consultant Nancy Friedman pointed me to another article that mentions the movie Limitless, about a writer who uses a "mysterious pill" to unlock his super abilities. The article notes that it's "a classic tragedy of hubris to hamartia."

The word hamartia was new to me.[1] I was generally familiar with the concept, I think. Stated simply, hamartia is the idea that a tragedy is the result of a fatal flaw or fatal error committed by the protagonist. This was formulated in Aristotle's Poetics, where he describes a tragedy that consists of a noble person who enjoys good fortune but who is brought down not by "villainy" but by a mistake. (In Greek, hamartanein is "to err.")

A lot of thinking has gone into how hamartia manifests. Sometimes the hero makes the error unwittingly, like Oedipus unknowingly killing his father. Sometimes circumstances force the character into the mistake that results in tragedy. After the Greeks, hamartia came to include the idea of a moral failing or inherent flaw, like Othello's jealousy. There's a sense that the tragedy plays out as a kind of fate beyond a person's control—the will of the gods. Or as described by Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers"—a phrase that appears in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, suggesting the inevitability of the outcome. Hamartia is often paired with hubris (as in the article)—that is, with excessive pride—that can in itself be the fatal flaw. ("Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall," Proverbs 16:18)

I suppose for the next little while, I'll be obsessing about hamartia as I watch drama on TV. How did hamartia factor into Game of Thrones? Is it a force in HBO's Succession? That one we'll have to wait to see. And, ahem, not to mention keeping tabs on current events.

(Now that I think about it, I was looking into the origins of tragedy not long ago. I hope this is not some sort of foreshadowing.)

Origins. I'm reading a book about cats, which starts with a natural history of Felis catus. As I learned, the wildcat from which our housecats descend had (has) what are called Mackerel tabby markings. And where does the word tabby come from, anyway? John Bradshaw, the author, gives us the story.

This is another one of those words that's wandered quite a bit. (See also marzipan in FW #145.) We got the word tabis from French, where it was used for a type of silk that was originally striped. Starting in the 1600s, the word tabby was used in English to refer to silk taffeta, a sense that survived till at least the late 1800s.

The word was applied to cats starting in the 1700s to describe the striped markings of a tabby cat, and from there a cat that had such markings. ("The civet..varies in its colour, being sometimes streaked, as in our kind of cats called Tabbies.")

Winding further back, French got its word tabis from Arabic attabi, which came from the area (Attabiyah) in the city of Baghdad where the silk was first made. The neighborhood in Baghdad was named for a certain prince Attab.

To reiterate: A prince gives his name to a neighborhood, which becomes a name for the silk made there, which becomes a generic name for (striped) silk, which becomes a word for the striped coat of a cat. Words really do make some amazing journeys sometimes.

[1] And here's me, a humanities major. Sad.

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  07:59 AM

Today's new-to-me word—and I must remind you that these Friday words are about words that are new to me—was one of those things where you hear (read) a word and then it's everywhere. The term is sapiosexual, which is defined as being sexually attracted to someone because of their mind. As an article in Seventeen magazine puts it, "smart is sexy." (One of my excuses for not previously knowing the word is that I don't spend time on dating sites, and thank goodness.)

This is definitely not a new-new term; apparently on dating apps you can specify it as one of your attributes. The Merriam-Webster folks don't list the term in their dictionary, but they have it on their watchlist.

The sapio part is a Latin term for "wisdom" or "taste." We see it words like savvy and savant (Spanish: saber, French: savoir-faire). It shows up in the binomial name for our species (Homo sapiens). It lurks in a word like insipid ("lacking taste; bland").

Someone named Torin/Darren WhoEver claims to have invented the word in 1998, according to a Livejournal post from 2002. That’s possible, but it's also not impossible that the term was invented more than once. We have a number of words that include -sexual (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and several more), so it's been established as a combining form for a while. Anyway, whoever invented the term, adding sapio- was definitely a clever twist.

The word sapiosexual has a straightforward definition, but using it to describe oneself can engender certain … opinions. The second definition in Urban Dictionary describes sapiosexual as "Something you put on your dating profile if you want to be pretentious." And as the Twitter user The Maine Millennial noted wryly …

Every guy's a sapiosexual until he meets a woman who is smarter than he is

So, profile-writer beware. Even if it's true that you love others for their minds, it might be wise not to actually say that.

A quick word history today, inspired by something I found while we were culling books:

Title page of a Rand McNally atlas from 1937

This was an atlas given to my father when he was a boy. It turns out that various parts of the world were organized quite differently in 1937.

It made me wonder why we use the word atlas for a book of maps. Well, it's an eponym: it refers to Atlas, the Titan in Greek mythology who was condemned to hold up the sky (the "celestial sphere").

How it got to be the term for a book of maps: the geographer Mercator wrote a book that was published in 1595 with the title "Atlas or Cosmographic Meditations on The Fabric of the World and The Figure of the Fabrick’d." (In Latin, of course.) This book discussed the history of the world, but Mercator, being a cartographer, also included many maps. The frontispiece has a color plate showing Atlas contemplating the world.

Although Mercator's book was not the first collection of maps, and although he didn't intend it to be just a collection of maps, his title became a generic term for such a collection. Moral: be careful with your book titles, kids, lest they become generic terms.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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