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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If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.

Isaac Asimov


<June 2017>




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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 6/16/2017

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:41 PM Pacific

  08:37 AM

I'm a little sad that today is not the 17th, because tomorrow will be 17-6-17 in the non-US way of writing dates. Still, because it is Friday, we do have words!

For today's new-to-me word we turn to a narrow—though as you'll see, not unfamiliar—form of found art. Klecksography is the art of making figures out of inkblots. This was a thing in Victorian times, which I learned about when I happened to see an article about it in Atlas Obscura. Specifically, klecksography involves dropping ink on a page, then folding the page to produce a mirror image. In the gamified version of this, you add a poem.

Turning a goof into art is credited to the German poet Justinus Kerner, who used klecksography to illustrate poems he'd written. (If only I could turn my spills into art, ha.) This origin also explains the name: Kleck is the German word for "blot, (ink) stain, spot, blotch, blur."

If klecksography sounds (looks) familiar, it's because it was adapted as the Rorsarch test used in psychology.

As an aside, in reading about klecksography, I also learned the word apophenia, which means to find patterns in random things. (I already knew the word pareidolia—for an explanation of the distinction, see this blog post.)

For unexpected word origins, today I have curfew. As is often the case, I'd never given this common word much thought. But I was reading a book about the history of artificial light, and the author noted in passing that curfew—the time after which everyone is supposed to be inside[1]—came from the French coverfeu, in turn from coverir ("cover") and feu ("fire"). The author, Jane Brox, explains:
Cooking fires, often the only interior light many could afford, were ordered extinguished soon after the evening meal, since among the innumerable night fears in the huddled wooden-and-thatch world of the Middle Ages was that of conflagration.
All in all, it's not making me nostalgic for living in a pre-electricity world or anything.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] When I was a kid, our familial curfew was "Be home when the streetlights come on."

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  04:14 PM

On Facebook today, one of the editors I know, Amy J. Schneider, posted about a habit that some writers have, namely adding a kind of reflexive "successfully" to their sentences. Here's an example, which I'm sure we've all seen variations of:

You haven't just logged off. You successfully logged off. (Thankfully, you didn't unsuccessfully log off.)

I see this all the time, and it bugs me pretty much every time. Just for yucks, I did a search for "successfully" in the documentation set I’m currently working on. I found 1473 instances; here are just a few:
  • Snapshot created successfully.
  • Successfully logged into database.
  • After you have successfully created the file, …
  • Click the Check button to verity that the service can successfully connect to your job.
  • To confirm that the volume was successfully taken offline, …
  • After the device is successfully updated, it restarts.
  • Make sure the test has successfully passed before you proceed.
… and on and on and on.

I ask you: is the word successfully really necessary in any of these instances? I posit that it is not. Moreover, and since I apparently am dispositionally incapable of not doing this, I ask myself "Wait, is there an unsuccessful way for this to happen?"

I reckon I could do a global search-and-destroyreplace on "successfully" in our documentation set without worrying that I would be changing the meaning of anything. (I'm not actually going to do this, just to be clear.) In fact, I'd be shaving nearly 20,000 characters out of the docs. Which is to say—of course—that I'd be shaving those characters successfully.

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  12:23 PM

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has an essay on NPR today in which he tells of his rediscovery of the joys of using exclamation points. As he notes …
Yet writers and editors only pride themselves on expunging the marks, never on sticking them in. When it comes to exclamation points, the only virtue we recognize is self-restraint
This is true. In my work (software documentation), we maintain a tone that is, while not entirely academic, pretty neutral. Just the facts. And facts rarely require exclamation marks.

A story I've told many times: Years (decades) ago when I was learning the craft, I drafted something in which I'd included an exclamation point. My then-manager circled it and added this note: "Nix. Too exciting." I've added very few exclamation marks since then.

Technical docs have been on a path toward more friendliness, it's true. And these days especially, docs might initially be created by people who do not spend their days in the tech-writing trenches. The result is that some of these drafts can have a distinctly marketing feel to them, which of course includes exclamation points. Which I always take out.

And more than one exclamation point? Good lord. From the editor Andy Hollandbeck I learned the word bangorrhea, which is the use of excessive!!! exclamation points. The developer Rory Blyth once summed up this editorial attitude: "The use of more than one exclamation point side-by-side, in any context (except comics), is a sign of mental insanity, a marketing degree from the University of Phoenix Online, or both."

Still. Nunberg points out that exclamation points have discursive purpose in informal writing, "chiefly to signal friendliness." If I examine my emailing habits, I have to admit that I do use them like that. To me there's a pretty obvious difference between signing off an email with




… for example.

And I've also noticed that I use an exclamation-mark-based way to indicate a kind of written eyebrow-raised-in-surprise. Like this:

They said they'd be here at 8:00 am (!)

Apparently over 50 people (!) have accepted the invitation

I'm not sure where I picked up this tic or how widespread it is. But I'm not sure how'd I'd replace it if for some reason I could no longer use it.

Nunberg concludes that he's going all-in on exclamation points again. It's a good thing, I guess, to get a kind of permission to unleash a little positive emotion in one's writing. But it will take me a long time, I think, before I'll be comfortable with documentation that describes how to use the many! great! features of our products.

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  08:24 AM

As I've noted before, in my work I encounter new-to-me technical vocabulary all the time, and I don't generally note it here. But now and then I'll run across something that's kind of delightful. Yesterday I ran across the term embarrassingly parallel, which is, contrary to what one might think, an actual technical term.

But work aside, let's look at a couple of, you know, normal new-to-me words today. The first is stan, both a noun and a verb, which I got from the Oxford Dictionary blog. (I will note that my heretofore unfamiliarity with this term is yet more evidence that I am increasingly out of touch with popular culture.) Stan is a term for someone who is a big fan of a band, musician, or other cultural figure. It can also function as a verb; people say that they stan an artist:

The blog credits the word to Eminem, and suggests that it could combine stalker and fan, capturing a tinge of obsessiveness. But the examples I find (e.g. on Twitter) don't have the negative vibe of stalking, and instead suggest just, you know, great admiration.

Another new word for me is chapeaugraphy, which refers to a pretty danged narrow niche of performance/clowning art: doing clever and entertaining things with a hat. (Technically, with a piece of round felt with a hole in it.) This is best explained via video:

(A minute or so of this should suffice to explain.[1])

I think what interests me about this is primarily the tradition of it. As with other aspects of clowning, chapeaugraphy emerges from the mists of previous centuries, and it always pleases me to think of people standing around at a marketplace in Paris or London in, say, Shakespeare's time, being entertained by many of the same antics that are still crowd-pleasers today. And hey, there's a special word for it.

And just a quick note today about surprising etymology: where does the name Australia come from? (Latin majors are not eligible for this contest.) Once again we turn to the compass for our answer. In the era before today's perfect knowledge of geography (haha), there was a theory of a continent on the southern half of the globe that was provisionally named terra australis incognita, Latin for "unknown southern land." As people reached the various landmasses in the southern hemisphere, the name was used for those; in the early 1800s, the name Australia was suggested for and became used for what we now know as that country.

Slightly weird note: it's often considered mock-worthy if people confuse Australia with Austria. There's not a direct etymological relationship; Australia is from australis ("south"), whereas Austria is from a Germanic word for "east," still evident even in English once someone points that out. But, but. It's possible that the Latin auster does ultimately derive from a word for east; related words might be orient and aurora. Douglas Harper has the deets.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] Virtually all of the videos I find of chapeaugraphy have terrible music, weird.

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  10:39 AM

What could possibly be more fun than the apparently endless task of refinishing our deck? Oh, yeah … words.

Today's new-to-me word came up in an editor's group on Facebook. Someone had heard (only) a word and was trying to determine exactly what it was. Naturally, one of the editors immediately sussed it out: vade mecum.[1]

In a narrow sense, a vade mecum (also vade-mecum and vademecum) is a book that you carry around with you, perhaps in a pocket, so that you can refer to it conveniently. (The phrase vade mecum means "go with me" in Latin.) In a more metaphorical sense, it means a book that you might refer to often—a handbook or guidebook, as the OED puts it, even if you don't carry it around with you. In a different metaphoric direction, a vade mecum might be anything (not just a book) that you always have with you. Examples that M-W gives of this second sense are "gold, medications, and memorized gems of wisdom."

These days, the ultimate vade mecum would have to be a smartphone, wouldn't we agree?

In the annals of unexpected etymology, today we have sneeze. Sneeze begins with sn, which seems right—we have a bunch of words that are nose-related that start with sn, like snore, snorkel, sniff, snuff, snout, and snot. (This affinity between the sn sound and nose-y stuff is an example of sound symbolism or phonesthemics.)

Update John Lawler reminds me that he's got a diagram/writeup (one of several) that shows affinities for the sn- sound: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/sn.pdf (PDF, obviously)

So imagine my surprise to learn from the Oxford dictionary blog that sneeze wasn't originally sneeze at all: the original word in Old English was fnese, with an f! There were a few words in the olde days that began with fn. (Maybe this is actually expected as analogous with e.g. Greek words that begin with pn, like pneumonia). But fn- words faded away in English, and by about the year 1500, fn must have sounded weird. As indeed it does today; as far as I can tell, we have no words in modern English that begin with fn. Though there still are some in Icelandic.

Anyway, the short story is that the fn- in fnese was misread or misprinted as sn- at a point when fn- had become unfamiliar in English. The fact that sn- made sense probably helped (the OED refers to its "phonetic appropriateness"—see earlier point about sound symbolism).

And I refuse to close with a lame joke about "nothing to sneeze at."

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] The might be the oldest new-to-me word that I've encountered so far—500 years old (in English), and I learned it only this week.

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  06:48 AM

In the US, we're coming up on a three-day weekend. For us, that mostly means that much more time for home improvement, oh boy. And for words!

Today's new-to-me word is not new, but it's pretty obscure: iatromisia. This refers to an intense dislike of doctors or doctoring i.e. medicine. It's a rare enough term that I found definitions for it only in medically inclined dictionaries.[1]

Since this is a medical term, of course it uses classical roots. The iatro bit is Greek for "healer," and by extension, medicine. A slightly less obscure instance is in the word iatrogenic, which means "doctor-caused," as in, you got sick because of treatment. The misia part is also Greek, a word meaning "hate," which we know from terms like misogyny and misophonia.

There's something vaguely amusing to me about a medical condition that involves dislike of medicine. ("Doctor, what is it?" "Well, you appear to suffer from iatromisia.") It also makes me wonder whether there are, or should be, similar terms for other professions. Redactomisia? Dislike of editors or editing. Hmm.

For surprising/delightful etymology today, I have two. First, I watch a lot of British crime drama, and it eventually occurred to me to wonder where the word constable comes from. There isn't an obvious origin if you just look at the word … or is there? The facile answer here is that constable is a count of the stable. Which sounds a little funny, no? But it's a little more, what, elegant than that. The word derives from Latin comes stabuli, a "count or officer of the stable." As with knight, the concept described by constable climbed the social ladder until it came to refer to the chief officer of a (royal) household or court. The term had developed the sense of being a police(-like) officer by the 14th century, although it also kept its elevated sense for a long time (e.g. Lord High Constable in England).[2] Douglas Harper has a few more in-between details if you're interested.

Fun fact: marshal shows a similar development; it, too, started life as a term for a groom-like person and moved up the ranks (e.g. field marshal).

The second etymology is a one that I saw on Twitter this week. The word peach comes ultimately from Latin Persicum malum, "Persian apple." I guess it tickles me how apples have worked as a kind of Ur-fruit. Here are a few more words that directly or obliquely refer to apples, which includes the Latin stem mal, the Greek stem mel, and the word for apple (pomme/pomo) in some Romance languages:
  • marmalade (via Portuguese from Latin malomellum, "sweet apple")
  • melon (Greek for "apple")
  • pineapple (because it looks like a pinecone)
  • pomegranate ("apple of Granada")
  • pomme de terre (French, "earth apple" for potato)
  • pomodoro (Italian, "golden apple" for tomato)
Update Merriam-Webster has a Word History column on the history of pineapple and on the use of apple generically.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] I can't remember where I got this—Twitter, probably, and if so, apologies to whoever I should be crediting. Speaking of Twitter, there's some fair wordplay with the word iatromisia.

[2] I suppose I should note that the word cop does not derive from "constable of police" or "constable on patrol" or any other acronym.

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  02:57 PM

I was being whiny to my wife about the endless non-appearance of spring here in Seattle, and then I saw some pictures of Denver and Cheyenne blanketed in snow. Maybe better I should stick with just words rather than weather-whingery.

The new-to-me word this week has some lovely linguistic properties. The word is buycott. Obviously, this derives from boycott (to refuse to interact with a company because you object to its policies), which we'll talk about in a moment.

In the context I heard buycott (an episode of the "Hidden Brain" podcast), it was used to mean deliberately buying something from a company that you want to support, for social or political reasons. For example, some people went of their way to buy sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A to show support for the company's explicit opposition to same-sex marriage. This is the sense defined in Wikidictionary.

Interestingly, the Collins dictionary online has a related but different meaning. In their definition, a buycott means "a type of protest aimed at a company or country with dubious ethical standards in which consumers buy the products of another company or country." Either way, of course, the idea of a buycott is that it's a political statement manifested economically, or to put that more clearly, to vote with your wallet. (There's an app.)

The term seems to be relatively new. It's mostly not listed in dictionaries, excepting the previous two links, not even in Urban Dictionary (!). The earliest reference I could find was from 2010 (in a French paper, odd), where it's in quotes—always a clue that maybe the term is new.

Anyway, the more interesting thing to me is how the term was formed. Boycott is an eponym—it memorializes (ahem) a land agent who tussled with tenant farmers in Ireland in the 1880s. So there are no constituent parts to the word boycott per se; it's just a name. The jump from boycott (avoid) to buycott (embrace) was clever wordplay. And it promotes the –cott part of the original name into a particle—what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix ("liberated pre/post/infix")—that can be reused generically to mean something like "economic political activity." This isn't the only example—there's also girlcott, which actually has various different meanings. Whether the –cott libfix can be extended to be used with prefixes that don't play on boy remains to be seen.

For unexpected etymology today we have adobe. Everyone in the US knows that this is from Spanish, right? Well, yes. But it actually has a deeper history than that. The Spanish got it from Arabic al-tuba. Arabic speakers actually got it from the Coptic word tob. (In case you don't know, Coptic is the pre-Arabic language spoken in Egypt.) Coptic inherited the word from earlier stages of the language; in ancient Egyptian, the word was something represented today as Dbt. The picture over there shows the hieroglyph for this word. People have been making bricks from mud forever, of course. What's cool to me is that we've been able to use effectively the same word for millennia. (Credit for alerting me to this etymology goes to an article in the New Yorker.)

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  01:34 PM

I was seduced this week by a couple of bright, dry days into sanding the deck in preparation for refinishing it. Ha. It's pouring down (again). Perhaps I'll try again next month. But that does give us time for some words!

The new-to-me word this week is haptic. It's an adjective that pertains to the sense of touch and perception of motion, and has had this meaning since the 1860s. The word took on a slightly more specialist sense with the invention of touch interfaces for computers. This included things like "force feedback" game controllers. However, haptic feedback was not just for entertainment. A downside of fly-by-wire systems—that is, systems controlled digitally rather than directly—is that they don't provide the direct feedback that mechanical systems do. Thus many digital systems added haptic feedback to simulate what an operator might feel via a more direct control mechanism.

Today, of course, anyone with a cellphone knows all about haptic interfaces.

Ok, let's turn to word origins. Today's term is one that everyone knows: karaoke. That's Japanese, obviously (?), but it has a fun multi-language origin that I only recently learned. Just to review, karaoke is a kind of entertainment in which people sing along to recorded accompaniment that is missing a vocal track. Which is why the origin is interesting. In Japanese, kara means "empty." The oke part is the fun part—it's a shortening of okesutora, a term that, if you sound it out, might suggest its meaning and origin—it's a Japanese rendering of the word orchestra. Thus karaoke is "empty orchestra." Or more like "empty orch."

Bonus etymology today comes via Edward Banatt on Twitter, from whom I learned about the origins of orrery. An orrery is a mechanical contraption that models the motions of the planets in the solar system:

This much I actually knew. (Aren't I special.) What I learned from Edward is that orrery is an eponym—it's named for Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery[1], for whom an orrery (tho not the first one) was built around 1700. Thus continuing a tradition in which an invention is named for someone who had nothing to do with creating it (see also: praline). Thus the privileges of patronage, I suppose.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] No relation (AFAIK) to Robert Boyle of Boyle's Law.

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  08:34 AM

Happy Friday, people of the words. Seattle keeps ratcheting up the volume on a record-breaking winter of rain; yesterday we had actual thunderstorms and lightning and stuff. Drenched we might be, but <insert joke about the steady drip of words>.

Also, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

I learned today's new term recently from Facebook Friend Ben: curb squatting. In the usage I saw, this refers to efforts by homeowners to keep parking spaces in front of their houses—that is, parking spaces on a public street—clear. Some owners have taken to creating their own No Parking signs that look a lot like the city's:

This is a thing in some of Seattle's neighborhoods where parking is tight and where, apparently, people feel like they have a right to the space in front of their house. The city, for its part, has been clear that this kind of curb squatting is not legal.

There is a kind of related phenomenon whereby people put out plastic chairs days in advance to stake a claim to a spot—again, on public street—along a parade route. (The most extreme version I've read about was when someone put out chairs in January that claimed spots for a Fourth of July parade.) However, I have not yet heard that referred to as curb squatting. Hint, hint.

Word originations, then. I was reading a book about the history of numbers and the author noted that the words calculate and calculus derive from a Latin word for stone or pebble. This made sense from a counting point of view; it's easy to imagine people using small stones as tokens for reckoning.

This also then explains the use of the term calculus in medicine, where it refers to stone-like mineral deposits, like kidney stones or gallstones. Calculus is also another word for tartar in the dental sense: the "incrustation" of hard material on the teeth. The original Latin term calx turns out also to be the source of the words calcium and chalk, along with less common words like calciform.

I'll take Words Based on the Latin Term for Stone, Alex.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  03:01 PM

In the realm of home improvement, few things irritate me as much as people who paint over light switches and door hinges. One or more previous owners of our house engaged in this practice. Grrr. (<— see? I'm irritated) Since we're now doing some painting of our own, it seemed like it was time to deal with this.

I went looking online for non-toxic ways to remove paint from hinges. A technique that several people recommend seems promising: you throw the hinges, water to cover, and a little soap into an old crockpot and soak overnight. Alternatively, you can use an old pot on a low burner. That sounded fine, but our steady de-accummulation of stuff means we don't have old pots (let alone old crockpots) stashed in the garage.

So I improvised. I put the hinges in some empty cans with some dishsoap, and then poured boiling water over them and let them stand till cool, maybe 10 or 15 minutes.

It seems to have the desired effect, namely to soften the old paint:

I scraped a lot of this paint off with just my fingernails. You could use something else, but remember that brass is quite soft. A wooden scraper of some sort would be ideal.

For stubborn paint, I repeated the process, and when I got impatient with repeated soakings, I used a brush. You need something pretty stiff (not an old toothbrush), but again, not too hard (no steel brush). This brush worked great for me:

The end result came out pretty clean:

For extra thoroughness I got out some Brasso and polished the hinges, just because.

Disclaimer: I was doing this for what was clearly latex paint. (I could scrape the paint off in satisfying rubbery sheets.) I don't know if it would work also for oil paint. Maybe? I will note that very old paint can have lead in it, so take appropriate safety measures.