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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Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.

— George Carlin


<May 2018>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 12:33 PM Pacific

  02:08 PM

This week’s words are coming to you from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada, where I’m attending the Editors Canada conference. This means, of course, that any measurements in this post will be in metric.

Today’s new-to-me word isn’t actually new to me. But the last time I gave the term any thought was decades ago in school, back when I was studying Anglo-Saxon poetry. The word is kenning, which describes a literary device found in old Saxon and Norse poetry. Basically speaking, a kenning is a metaphoric pair: examples from Beowulf include “whale-road” for “sea” and “sky-candle” for “the sun.” The device lived on and appears also for example in poems by Ezra Pound (“Bitter breast-cares have I abided”) and Robert Frost (“the early petal-fall is past”).

Ok. Kenning was revived for me recently by a Twitter thread started by user @favomancer wondering whether the fashion for terms like danger noodle is a kenning revival. Here are some examples of these latter-day kennings:

There are many of these. There is a kind of grammar to them, which is not for me to attempt to describe here, but I will note that individual words like danger, floof, bear, chicken, and boop appear regularly.

The linguist Lauren Gawne points out that English likes to use compounding for new terms, and maybe words like laptop and web browser are other modern kennings. For our purposes today, it probably isn’t that important which new words constitute kennings. Me, I’m just delighted to get this word back into my word-hoard.

Etymological explorations today involve the word preen. I’m pretty sure that about 90% of my definition for to preen involved the verb meaning “to primp” or “to act proud” (“He preened himself before the mirror”). But I ran across an article the other day that sent me to the dictionary: Someone finally solved the question of why Donald Duck doesn’t wear pants. Long story short, preening also defines the action of a bird “combing” its feathers. Birds do this to waterproof their feathers by coating them in preen oil, which they produce in glands on their rumps. (Hence Donald Duck’s lack of trousers.)

It would be a neat explanation if the word for primping in front of the mirror was just a metaphoric extension of what birds do. But the trail is a bit confused; there seems to be some overlap with the verb to prune (as with plants). The bird behavior “influenced” the development of to preen. (It turns out that people have confused similar-sounded words forever, basically.) There’s a succinct list of the possibilities in the Douglas Harper’s online etymological dictionary. But I’ll never really look at Donald Duck the same again.

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  09:37 AM

I know how this happens, I do. A tech writer is given a task to "document the product," and it turns out there isn't much to say. But telling the bosses that nope, it's ok, we don't actually need to say anything about this might be perceived as, dunno, not being cooperative. Maybe even suggesting that the writer's job isn't that important.

Anyway, today we have a couple of examples of what might result if the writer (and common sense) does not prevail. First up, we have these, um, helpful instructions that came with a compass that I own:

There must be a universe in which people buy compasses who don't already know what N, E, S, and W mean. I don't believe we live in that universe.

But even that is reasonable compared to the following, which Twitter user Alex Warren posted today:

More dubious guidance: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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  09:54 AM

We're at a stage in Seattle where it seems criminal not to take advantage of the year's first really nice weather. Of course, in a week, everyone will be complaining about how hot it is.

I have a couple of new-to-me terms today that are sort of related. They're also kind of wonkish, but we must take the wonkish along with the, um, fun? Anyway, the terms are privacy of the commons and collateral freedom.

Privacy of the commons is, to quote the FiveThirtyEight article where I learned the term, "when one person’s voluntary disclosure of personal information exposes the personal information of others who had no say in the matter." Their particular example concerns the recently apprehended Golden State killer, who was found not because of a match to his own DNA, but because of a match to the DNA of one of his relatives. A more mundane (tho not less scary) example they give is a young child whose life can be closely tracked via the parents' purchases at the grocery store, at the pharmacy, etc. Obviously, the child has no say-so in any of this tracking.

As the article notes, the term is a play on tragedy of the commons, where something held communally is exploited individually, with a net loss to the community. (Privatized profit, socialized cost.) It's not clear to me whether the FiveThirtyEight folks invented the term; they do say "call it 'privacy of the commons'," and other references I find allude to this article. So perhaps we have ground zero for a new term.

The term collateral freedom describes the situation where an attempt to censor someone would affect so many people that it's impractical. As a not-great example, if you didn't want your kids to watch some particular program on Netflix, you might not want to block the entirety of Netflix. A more realistic albeit technical example is when someone runs content through Amazon or Google cloud services in such a way that it looks like the content is originating in those domains—a government censor probably doesn't want to censor amazon.com or google.com. (This is, or was, a technique known as domain fronting that was recently in the news.)

The term collateral freedom seems to be used mostly in this relatively narrow technical way, but the concept is familiar: in order to allow broad freedom, we have to tolerate some things we perhaps would rather not. Or that's my read on the idea, anyway.

Last week we explored the word druthers, a strangely plural term. (I guess I'm assuming that the -s is a plural marker, which might not be correct.) Today we have another word with a mysterious final -s: cahoots, like, "They were in cahoots." (Collusion, bwa-ha-ha.) This is an American word, specifically from the south and west, that starts showing up in the first half of the 19th century.

Several surprises for me. First, a non-s-ending version is attested ("Hese in cohoot with me"), but that was in the word's earlier days. Second, although I think of "in cahoots with" as having sinister overtones, early attestations seem to be more neutral, just meaning "in partnership with." Third, there was a verbal version at one point ("They all agree to cahoot with their claims"), which surely is obsolete?

Anyway, there are two proposed origins. One is that cahoots derives from cahute, a French word that seems to combine cabin and hut. The word cahute shows up in English as far back as the 1500s, hmm. The OED says that as an alternative origin, "American dictionaries" (unspecified) trace the word to the French word cohorte.

The French origin seems unsurprising, if we allow that the American south and west had more latter-day French influence than other parts of English. I like the picture of some confederates being under a cabin-hut roof together. The cohort explanation is slightly less colorful, even if it is just as sensible. But whatever the origins, we again don't know how the word picked up that terminal -s, dang it.

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  12:26 AM

Sumer is icumen in, as they (used to) say. (Video)

I work in software with a lot of really smart people. What they are most smart about, of course, is software, or more generally, engineering-type stuff. A possible side effect of being very smart about engineering is that a person can believe that they are equally smart about many other things and/or that the type of thinking they bring to their vocation applies to other and different areas of endeavor. This type of thinking has a name, which I only recently learned: engineer's disease.

I do know that this phenomenon is not limited to software or engineers. For example, many people have opinions about climate science, but not all of those people have advanced degrees in climate science. I know from personal experience that medical professionals often feel they have expertise to render opinions on non-medical issues. Anyway, I don't know of a more general term than engineer's disease, but there probably could or should be one.

I should note that the sense I discuss here is only one definition of engineer's disease. A MetaFilter thread lists several more, including someone who does something strictly by the (engineering) book, and assuming that others share one's expertise, also known as the curse of knowledge.

Your homework this week is to keep a lookout for examples of engineer's disease.

For surprising-to-me word origins this week, I've got the charming word druthers, as in "If I had my druthers." If you think about this word, you, like me, might wonder two things: what the heck are druthers, and why don't you ever have just a single druther?

It turns out that druther, singular, is a variant of "would rather"—"He would rather not" becomes "He druther not." This usage shows up in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer books, so recorded about 1875, but likely older in various dialects.

A note on the Merriam-Webster site suggests that this is an example of metanalysis, also known as rebracketing, where a string of sounds is reparsed: I'd rather becomes I druther. Another historical example of rebracketing in English is an apron, which in Medieval English was a napron.

The noun version ("my druthers") shows up not much later (1895). The entry in the OED has druther as a singular noun, but they list druthers as a variant, and their single citation also uses the plural version. An ngram search shows a very low incidence of singular druther, although it's not zero.

[Click to embiggen]

I can't find an explanation for how a verb phrase ("I'd rather") came to be a noun ("my druthers"), and a plural one at that. Nor can I offhand think of similar examples, though I would love to hear about them if someone else knows of some.

I did learn from the OED that the noun ruther(s) is a variant of druther(s). I don't recall hearing that, but that's likely because I haven't spent time in the American South, where these terms seem to have been most prevalent.

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  09:06 AM

For those few souls who do not follow internet fun, let me point out that today is Star Wars Day. That also means that tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that's popular in the US in spite of its comparatively obscure origins in Mexico. Not that I'm complaining.

Today's new-to-me word is one that proved useful very recently. Last week a bunch of us were at an editors' conference in Chicago. As people trickled home, they reported feeling con crash (from conference crash). This handy word describes the "post-adrenaline blues" that you experience after enjoying a much-anticipated, high-energy event. The article where I learned about this (via Twitter user @jamesfraleigh) describes it this way:
You waited for your favorite con all year. You followed it on Twitter and Facebook. You had three screens ready to rapidly refresh and get your tickets as soon as they went on sale. Four months later, you had a blast all weekend. Friends! Panels! Celebrities! Cosplay! eSports! Food! Parties!

Now it's the day after the con, and you're sitting alone at home. You feel confused and distressed. You expected to feel tired. After all, it was a busy weekend. What you didn't expect was the feeling of emptiness and sadness that you currently feel. You should feel happy, but you don't.
I'm not aware of a term like this for other, similar contexts (like Christmas). Even if such a term exists, maybe it's worth having a term that's specific to the experience of conventions, dunno.

Bonus related word, same article: con crud, the cold you pick up by mingling with hundreds of people at these things.

I've known the word rubric for a long time in an educational context: a guide that explains how an assignment or class is going to be scored. You know, things like "10% of your grade is based on class participation." In fact, I think that's basically the only meaning for rubric that I knew.

The word came up in the other day at work (I can't even remember how), and I wondered about its seemingly non-obvious origin. It was a bit surprising! First, rubric has several meanings, of which the education-related one I'm familiar with isn't even the most prominent. (In the M-W entry, the meaning I know is the fourth one.)

To sort of unspool the sense of rubric to mean "criteria," it also means an "established mode of conduct; a protocol." You can see how the "how to grade" sense is related. In an earlier sense yet, rubric referred to liturgical directions: how to conduct a service. And before that, it referred to a "a title, heading, direction, or the like, in a manuscript, book, statute" which—and here, finally, we get to the ultimate source—"written or printed in red." Red. As in ruby. I sure didn't see that one coming.

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  11:49 PM

This week’s Friday’s Words is coming to you live from Chicago, where I’m attending ACES 2018, the annual conference of the Society for Editing. What do you get when you put 700 editors in a hotel together? A lot of very interesting sessions.

Anyway, this will be a short one. (Finally, you say, ha.) The new-to-me word is nontroversy (non+controversy). The general definition is a “supposed” controversy, i.e., something that’s made out to be a controversy but isn’t actually. I ran across it in a Facebook comment about the word decimate. Some small number of people insist that decimate means to reduce by one-tenth, etc., etc., when in fact the established meaning in English for a long time (like, centuries) is “destroy a great proportion of.” In other words, there’s no controversy about what the word means.

In addition to this general sense, there’s a narrower sense of nontroversy that involves a more overt agenda. As a definition in Urban Dictionary has it, a nontroversy is “created for political gain.” The Snopes.com site has a whole category of nontroversy entries that debunk various theories (a lovely example: “Liberals want to rename Cracker Barrel to Caucasian Barrel”).

Anyway, it seems like a word that can be wielded to good effect.

My etymological insight today is almost too embarrassing to recount, since I think it will have been obvious to people who speak a particular language. Prisoners can be paroled; where did that word come from? Well, parole is the French word for “word” or “speech.” “Word”? Halfway there. A prisoner, (or in wartime, a POW) might be released from custody on their parole d'honneur, or word of honor, not to, you know, do something bad. Already by the 1600s we were using just the word parole (no honneur) in this familiar sense. Related terms: parley, parable.

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  06:29 AM

In case you missed it: Thursday was the 90th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Ben Zimmer reports:

My term for this week is brand new, for a change. It isn’t a very practical one, but I was pretty amused by it: Silurian Hypothesis. Suppose that humans are not the first industrial civilization that arose on earth. If there had been another florescence of civilization, say, 60 million years ago, how would we know? After all, the big cities of the Maya all but disappeared after just a few centuries, and we have only the faintest traces of pre-Biblical habitations in the Middle East. 60 million years ago is geologic time; entire mountain chains have come and gone in that time.

This was the gist of an interesting thought-experiment by a couple of scientists that resulted in the paper “The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?” Since such a civilization could not have been human (we’ve only been around 300,000 years), it would have to be some other species. Thus the Silurian Hypothesis: maybe they were lizard-people. Silurian comes from the TV show “Dr. Who.” In that show, Silurians are (per Wikipedia) “depicted as prehistoric and scientifically advanced sentient humanoids who predate the dawn of man.”


To be clear, the scientists don’t think any of this actually happened. The thought experiment was about our own civilization, how we might be affecting the planet, and what sorts of traces we’re leaving. You can read about this all over the place this week; I first read about it in an article in The Atlantic. Although it seems like a long shot, I hope that Silurian Hypothesis becomes something that shows up in textbooks 20 years from now.

Speaking of traces, how about some word origins. Not long ago I again heard the expression “box his ears,” which made me wonder where box came from. In this sense, box means a blow with the hand; obviously, the word boxing (as in the sport) is essentially the same term.

Rather unsatisfactorily, it seems no one knows for sure. There are somewhat similar words in other Germanic languages: beuk (Dutch), bask (Danish), bochen (Middle High German). The experts at OED apparently don’t find these similarities compelling enough to posit a direct connection. They speculate. Maybe it was onomatopoeia; maybe it was “school slang” based on a Greek word; maybe it’s some play on box, as in container. Wherever it came from, it was established in English by the 1300s. Boxing as a verb goes back at least to the 1500s. That will have to do, alas.

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  07:25 AM

Earlier this month I made a long-delayed upgrade to Office 365. My life hasn’t yet been transformed, but I guess I could give it a few more days.

For this week, I have another one of those terms that you didn’t realize you needed, but you can immediately appreciate: the cobra effect. This refers to an attempted solution for a problem where the solution not only doesn’t work, it makes the problem worse. And it comes from an actual effect with actual cobras. Or so goes the story.

Per the article where I learned this term, during British colonial times, the city of Delhi had a problem with too many cobras. (How many is too many? As far as I’m concerned, anything more than zero cobras is too many.) So they offered a bounty for cobra skins. This worked, in that they got a lot of skins and paid a lot of bounties. But it didn’t solve the problem; the locals, responding to principles generally taught in Economics 101, started breeding cobras, because hey, money. The cobra population did not diminish.

But wait, there’s more. When the British realized that their bounty program wasn’t working, they (reasonably) decided to stop paying a bounty. The locals were now stuck with a bunch of cobras that weren’t worth anything. They let them all go. In the end, Delhi had even more cobras than when the whole program began.

The incident gave us a name for the phenomenon, via German: Der Kobra-Effekt was the name of a book written in 2001 by a German economist about this phenomenon of unforeseen consequences, or blowback. There’s some debate about whether the cobra incident actually occurred. Whatever, that’s the name now. There are of course numerous additional examples; there was a similar incident with a rat bounty in Hanoi. And at a larger scale, Prohibition in the US not only didn’t prevent people from drinking alcohol, it led to a vast expansion of organized crime. One might also consider the historical effects of protective tariffs, like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Does one ever suspect that one has unleashed an instance of the cobra effect? Discuss.

My etymological investigations today involve three types of butts, and was once again inspired by conversation at work with Colleague Jay. We started with scuttlebutt, in the sense of gossip. Where could such a strange word have come from? And Colleague Jay wondered whether it had any relationship to Boston butt, a cut of pork. (If you’re counting, that’s two types of butts; bear with me.)

To answer Jay’s question, no: the butt in scuttlebutt is not the butt in Boston butt. The meat butt is the same as the “butts-in-seats” butt, which is to say, buttocks. In meatpacking, that applies to cuts made from those regions. Fun citation out of the OED from a 15th-century cookbook: “Tak Buttes of pork and smyt them to peces.” This sense of butt goes back to an old Germanic word that basically means the thick end of a thing. The word manifests in other languages, for example, as the word for a stump.

Anyway, this is not the butt of scuttlebutt. That particular butt refers to a container—a large barrel (120 gallons, or 2 hogsheads). In the days of sail, ships had scuttlebutts of water, where scuttle or scuttled meant that the butt had a hole cut in it. (When you want to scuttle a ship, you put a hole below its waterline.) The “barrel” sense of butt came into English from (where else?) French, and goes back to a Latin word buttis. Hey, guess what, that makes it a cousin of the word bottle.

The word scuttlebutt came to mean gossip because sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt and talk. As Douglas Harper observes, this makes scuttlebutt an old version of water-cooler talk.

So there you have three versions of butt: meat from the thick end; a large barrel; and, as a bonus, scuttlebutt as gossip. And those are just the ones we’re interested in today; the OED lists 14 definitions for butt as a noun, and 3 as a verb. You gotta love these rich words.

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  10:51 PM

My grandson turned 2 today (April 12). We spent a long weekend with the family last week, so I got an opportunity to listen to his language development. I don’t know very much about stages of language development—as in, at what age a child typically grasps certain language structures—so I don’t where he fits into all this. But it’s astounding to me to see how quickly humans develop language facility, including some constructs that can be hard to explain to adults.

It’s pretty clear to me that he’s building up his vocabulary in chunks. The best example was probably please may i, which he’s quickly learned is a key to getting something he wants. But it also seems to me that he’s internalized certain structures and can create new sentences from those structures. Which of course is the coolest thing that we humans can do.

Anyway, here’s a sampling of what I was hearing, with a few jottings about why I found these particular utterances interesting. A couple of notes:
  • I’ve deliberately not capped or punctuated these in order to avoid making these look more developed than they are.
  • Opa is me (grandpa), and Oma is my wife (grandma).

i have it in my hand
Complete subject-verb-object sentence
Prepositional phrase (in my hand) used adverbially
Pronoun (it)

i want to go see my daddy
Modal verb (want) with infinitive (to go)
Possessive pronoun

this is a big pistachio
Demonstrative pronoun (this)
Understanding of antecedents (this == pistachio)
Attributive adjective

this is oma’s
Demonstrative pronoun (this)
Possessive with implied antecedent (namely, whatever this refers to)

i'm going to eat some banana
Progressive form for implied future (am going to)
Adjectival some with banana as a mass noun

opa take off your glasses
mommy sit down
i put on my shoes
Vocative (opa, mommy)
Phrasal verbs: take off (transitive), put on (transitive), sit down (intransitive)

there’s a tiny dog in the car
Expletive construction (there is)
Attribute adjective (tiny)
Adverbial prepositional phrase (in the car)

i don't want to wear my hat
i don't have a beard right now
Negation with modal (don’t want), with main verb (don’t have)
Temporal state (right now). This one seemed oddly prescient.

i want to go see uncle pete and aunt gretchen
Modal verb with infinitive
Compound object

please get out the balls and dump them
Compound imperative (with temporal order)[1]

please may i have some milk
mommy can I please have another pistachio please
Count versus mass nouns (compare banana earlier)
(He uses please may i as a stock phrase)

[1] We kept an ear out for a sentence with two independent clauses linked with and, but didn't hear one. He might be able to produce such a thing, but we don't know one way or the other.

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  12:16 PM

We’re having an extended-family (as opposed to extended, family) outing to Long Beach, WA. Where at this time of the year you wear your raincoat to go down to the outdoor pool.

I’m sure you know the term vanity plate to mean a personalized auto license plate where you create your own combination of numbers and letters. (At least, you can do this in some or all US states; I’m not sure if the idea is common in other countries.) Some fun: Daniel Nussbaum rewrote the Oedipus story using only vanity plates from the state of California: Oedipus the King (of the Road).

I recently learned that vanity plate is also a term for a credit that identifies the production company for a TV show or movie. For TV shows, vanity plates typically follow the credits; for movies, they’re often at the beginning. Some are static (hence vanity plate or vanity card), but a lot are animated. Surely one of the most recognizable vanity plates is the MGM lion:

But you might recognize many others as well (all videos): the Disney castle animation, the Dreamworks fishing kid, the Paramount flying stars, as but three examples. I like the vanity plate for Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company:

As noted in the TV Tropes article where I learned this, contemporary media often involve multiple production companies. This can lead to long sequences of vanity plates, which people can find irritating. Now that I know more about vanity plates, tho, I will probably be more interested in those efforts rather than annoyed at the delay in starting the movie.[1]

For word origins this week it’s back to the kitchen. From a recent tweet by freelance linguist Gretchen McCulloch I learned that biscuit originally meant “twice cooked.” The original is theorized to have been biscoctum panem, meaning “twice-baked bread” in medieval Latin, referring to the type of hard bread that was fed to seaman on voyages. (I guess this is aka hardtack.) The same word shows up in Italian as biscotto and in Spanish as bizcocho, both of course referring to baked goods; the Italian version, at least, seems still to reflect the “twice” aspect of the name.

Update I realized belatedly that the bread called Zwieback likewise means "twice-baked" in German and possibly other languages.

It might be slightly surprising that the “twice” meaning is not in bi- but in bis-. The cuit part comes ultimately from the Latin word coquere, meaning “to cook.” And that bis- goes back via a d > b transformation I don’t know about to duis.

In English, the definition of biscuit has shifted. In British English, a biscuit is what we in the US call a cookie or cracker. This retains a sense of small and flat. In the US, on the other hand, a biscuit is a kind of soft bread, more like a scone, often using soda as a leaven. I have no information on how this evolution took place, other than that the US sense of biscuit was already established in the 1800s.

Something else unexpected was the spelling. The word was often written as bisket, which reflects its pronunciation. So why the biscuit part? The OED calls this “a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling.” Not that they have an opinion about this or anything.

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[1] I watched all 3 seasons of the TV show Fargo and was amused that the vanity plate at the end featured an audio clip of Billy Bob Thornton, the star of the first season, saying “Oh, now I get it.” I assumed it was an outtake, but who knows.

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