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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I am not impressed by the Ivy League establishments. Of course they graduate the best -- it's all they'll take, leaving to others the problem of educating the country. They will give you an education the way the banks will give you money -- provided you can prove to their satisfaction that you don't need it.

— Peter DeVries



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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 2/15/2019

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Comments - 2596
Hits - 2,120,740

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:43 PM Pacific


  12:02 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  11:26 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  07:16 AM

Today's new-to-me word is so new that it doesn't actually exist yet. (Can't get newer than that, right?) Which of course requires some explanation.

This coming Sunday is the annual American football championship known as the Super Bowl. The National Football League (NFL) is notoriously …. careful … about protecting its trademarks. (If you listen to their fine print, the NFL claims copyright not just to their logos and broadcasts, but even to descriptions of the game.) Anyway, they jealously guard the name "Super Bowl." In 2014, in a possibly comedic effort to avoid the ire of the NFL, the comedian Stephen Colbert got around their policing by referring not to the Super Bowl, but to the Superb Owl. nyuck-nyuck. But the term stuck, and people have taken it up with glee.

All fine. The real story here is that this week on the Language Log, a linguistics blog, there was a post in which someone asked this interesting question:

Do you happen to know if there's a name for this phenomenon of splitting a word in a different-than-intended way to change its meaning?

Apparently there isn't, and this isn't the first time the question has come up—the Oxford Dictionary blog posted about it in April of 2018, but they had no term either.

Commenters on the LL blog step up with some additional examples: cow-orker; mans laughter; wee knights; now here. There are some notorious examples of URLs that are subject to this phenomenon, including penisland.net (Pen Island Pens) and expertsexchange.com (Experts Exchange). The mathematician and Scrabble aficionado John Chew has a page with over 16,000 words that have "compound ambiguity," i.e., can be broken up in different ways (like broad-sword and broads-word).

In response to the actual question, commenters proposed various names:

  • charade. This is a term used in puzzles where the answer is made up of multiple clues.
  • schizoepia. As the proposer of this term says, it's "vaguely modelled along the lines of 'onomatopoeia' from schizo- 'split' and epos 'word' and the suffix -ia."
  • superb owl. One person suggested the term superb owl itself as the name for the phenomenon. This follows the pattern of eggcorn, shitgibbon compound, cutthroat compound, and boathouse words, where an example of the phenomenon is used as the name for it.

I root for superb owl as the term of art here. But like I said, the word is so new we haven't even decided what it's going to be yet.

For this week's word origin, I have the word overture: where does that come from? An overture is the opening part (of music or of a transaction). You might think that it's over + ture. But no; it's overt+ure. (There's my weak attempt at relating this back to the superb owl business.) It might still not be obvious how overt gets us "beginning." Well, overt is the past form of the old French word ouvrir, "to open." (So I guess it means "opened.") This also explains why something that's overt is not hidden; it's open(ed).

We have a surprising cognate in English: the word aperture, which is basically the same word (including being based on the past form), except it's from Latin instead of French. And with an overture and an aperture, we close this week's words, haha.

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  07:53 AM

I run across a lot of new-to-me technical terms at work, but they're usually too technical to be generally interesting. However, I recently ran across the term gray sheep, which I thought others might find as amusing as I do.

There is some background, but bear with me. When you go to Netflix or Amazon, they have many suggestions about what you should watch or buy next. One way to create recommendation systems, as they're called, is to use collaborative filtering. Suppose you've watched the movies Clueless, Dirty Harry, and Frozen. Another user who also watched those movies then watches The Matrix. Collaborative filtering leads the system to suggest The Matrix to you, too. (Needless to say, the system is a bit more complex than this.)

Basically, collaborative filtering systems assume that people who have shown similar tastes in the past will show similar tastes in the future. But then there are the gray sheep. You loved Clueless, Dirty Harry, and Frozen, but you hate The Matrix. One of the articles (downloadable .gz file) on collaborative filtering describes gray sheep as users who are problematic "because their opinions do not consistently agree or disagree with any group of people."

In this context, black sheep are people whose tastes can't be predicted at all. (They're a failure condition for recommendation systems.) I like how they borrowed the idea of a black sheep as an outlier, and then modified it as gray sheep for users who are kinda-sorta the same as other people, but not quite. It feels like a term that could have wider application than in this narrow realm of predictive systems. In some senses, we're all gray sheep, eh? (One maybe doesn't want to think too hard about the idea that per this terminology, all users are sheep.)

For surprising origins, today we have anthrax. (I forget where I found this. Twitter, probably.) Today anthrax is the name of a disease, but in its earliest use in English it referred to "carbuncle, pustule"—in other words, to the outward signs of a disease. Latin had the word anthrax in this second sense also; they got it from Greek.

Here's the interesting part: in Greek, the word was used for carbuncles also, but that meaning apparently was a simile; anthrax in Greek referred to a dark precious stone and to charcoal. As the OED says, the ancient Greek anthrax "denoted burning charcoal, hence the use of the word for things red in colour (e.g. precious stone, carbuncle) as well as for things black in colour (e.g. coal)." Do you see coal there? One type of coals is anthracite, same root. So a disease of animal husbandry is improbably connected to burning coals. You never know how words will wander.

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  06:52 AM

Probably you've walked around in a city and wanted to cross a busy street. So probably you've seen one of these things on a pole near the intersection:

Do you have a name for this? I just recently learned that in some circles, at least, these are called beg buttons. As in, pedestrians have to push a button to beg to be allowed to cross the street.

This is presumably not what traffic engineers call these, at least, not when they're writing up planning documents. For those purposes, these devices are referred to as pedestrian call buttons or pedestrian crossing buttons. (Descriptive, but dull.) You tend to see beg buttons in contexts where people are not happy with the way traffic is managed; more specifically, when they think traffic is managed in a way to disfavor pedestrians. (For example, beg button is the term used in the article How traffic signals favour cars and discourage walking.)

Fun fact: at some intersections (not all), the beg button is a placebo. In these cases, the lights at an intersection are on a timed cycle. Pedestrians can push the button, but it doesn't change the timing of the lights. (It might be that the beg button does work for off-hours cycles, like at night.) At the intersection close to my office, when you push the beg button, a stern voice commands "Wait!" I don't know whether that indicates that the signal is or isn't a placebo, but I dare not contradict the Wait Voice.[1]

So that's the new-to-me word this week. For origins, I was wondering about where the word fiddle came from. Some poking reminded me that German has the word Fiedel, which is obviously a cognate, and the dictionary notes several variations like that in other Germanic languages. And fiddle goes back to Old English, which bolsters its Germanic creds.

But this turns out to be another "origin uncertain" word. The most common explanation is that fiddle goes back to a word vitula in late Latin, which also described an instrument. And that term might in turn go back to a word for "joyful celebration." Although Douglas Harper makes a reasonable countersuggestion: "Unless the Medieval Latin word [for the instrument] is from the Germanic ones."

Anyway, the Latin word vitula evolved into viol, which turned in Italian into viola and violin, which we borrowed into English. So we have two words for a stringed instrument, fiddle and violin, and they probably came from the same root. The only question is which term came first.

If you're me, you might also be wondering what the heck the difference is between a fiddle and a violin, anyway. The answer is simple, but contextual: it's the same instrument, you just call it one name or the other depending on what type of music you play on it .

[1] If you like this sort of thing, read To press or not to press: a guide to pedestrian buttons, where Toronto writer Dylan Reid goes into some detail about how signal activation works.

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  08:12 AM

Almost back to normal words after all that Word and Name of the Year business the last couple of weeks. In case you don't follow the latest in lexicographic news, the American Dialect Society selected tender-age shelter as their overall Word of the Year. They have a press release (PDF) that lists all of the nominations, with winners in each category. The American Name Society selected Jamal Khashoggi as their Name of the Year. (Pleasingly, Gritty was their Trade Name of the Year.)

Ok, the new-to-me word this week is ICE-ing or ICEing, which I learned via Twitter user @VintageReader. You might think this has something to do with the government agency known as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but no. In this case, ICE stands for "internal combustion engine," though that still doesn’t tell you what ICE-ing is.

An article in Jalopnik, a car-oriented site, has the story: ICE-ing is blocking an EV charging spot by using your non-electric vehicle. As with rolling coal, which is also mentioned in the article, there might be innocuous reasons why someone would practice ICE-ing (using the last available parking spot, say, or just not paying attention). But there are definitely cases when ICE-ing is another way to own the libs. As the author of the article writes, "I generally like people, which may be why I never fail to be surprised when I encounter people being truly unrepentant dickheads for no good reason whatsoever." People he also calls "bro-truck owners," ha.

As noted, this was not an obvious neologism to me. But I ran across something that explained why ICE works here: electric-car owners are being "iced out of" their charging stations. Ah. I was also surprised that the word is not new-new; the Word Spy (Paul McFedries) found a citation from back in 2011. So ICE-ing (the activity) was probably invented about a day after the first EV stations appeared in parking lots, and ICE-ing (the word) itself shortly thereafter.

Speaking of cars and websites, the name of the Jalopnik website seems to be based on the word jalopy, which refers to a dilapidated car. Where did jalopy come from? Most dictionaries stick with "origin unknown." The word appeared in the 1920s, reflecting a period when cars had become widespread enough that some people were driving beaters, although the OED says that the word could also refer to a battered "aeroplane." Douglas Harper makes a somewhat daring conjecture that it's from the name of the city Jalapa in Mexico, "where many U.S. used cars supposedly were sent." If that's true, it means jalopy is related to the word jalapeño, as in the pepper. An unlikely pair.

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  12:14 AM

You'll remember that last week I offered a list of potential words of the year (WOTY) that I'd been scribbling down throughout the year. This week I have another special edition, this time for Name of the Year. Inspired by the WOTY selected each year by the American Dialect Society (ADS), the American Name Society (ANS) chooses some names that have had particular significance that year.

The ANS selections are a bit more specialized—the candidates, after all, have to have some sort of onomastic angle—but they're just as much fun. As with the WOTY votes, anyone can just show up, nominate, and vote. And I've done that the last several years.

Both societies are having their Of The Year votes today (January 4, 2019). I thought I'd try to sneak my names list in just in time before they officially vote.[1] As with the words of the year, I am following the ANS's categories as best I can with the names I have.

Personal Name

Christine Blasey Ford. In September, Professor Ford appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about her claim that she had been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when both of them were teenagers. Her appearance galvanized an already rancorous nomination process; her testimony, the reaction to it, and the subsequent confirmation of Kavanaugh became a drama played out at the highest level of government about the #MeToo movement.

Stormy Daniels. The professional name of an adult-film actress who claimed in March to have taken hush money to cover up an affair with Donald Trump. A legal tangle ensued concerning whether this constituted a violation of campaign financing laws; what seemed like something of a sideshow has rippled outward to bring down various people associated with the president. The name Stormy Daniels could fade away in 2019 and beyond, or she could became the Christine Keeler of this administration.

Fictional Name

Gritty. As sports characters go, Gritty is not particularly good-looking; as many people have noted, he seems like a giant, crazed muppet. But Gritty unexpectedly become popular far beyond his primary job as the new symbol for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, moving from mascot to meme to political avatar (and counterweight to Pepe the Frog). An article on Vox explains the emergence, spread, and popularity of this unlikely character.

Place Name

Parkland (High School). After an endless series of school shootings, none of which resulted in any willingness in the US to change our gun culture, the February 2018 tragedy at Parkland seems like it might have finally become an inflection point. Media-savvy Parkland students became articulate voices for sensible steps to try to avert future acts like the one that they survived; if any of the students run for office, their association with Parkland will be a defining part of their political bio.

Trade name

Tide pods. In earlier generations, kids stuffed themselves into phone booths or swallowed goldfish; for a brief period ending in 2018, the equivalent stunt was for kids to swallow detergent packages. As with earlier fads, most kids didn't do this, but the few who did got tremendous attention, which became both an easy metonym for "dumb things that kids do for attention, 2018 edition" and a commentary on how social media drives this type of behavior vastly more effectively than before.

Fortnite. The most popular video game ever, Fortnite has enraptured the tween generation, both as players and as spectators. Twenty and thirty and forty years from now, people will be talking about what they probably will still think was the best game they ever played.

Miscellaneous name

Amazon Go (store). In January, Amazon opened a cashierless grocery store to the public. Customers who have the Go app can walk into the store, pick out their items, and just leave. Sensors in the store track their choices and automatically debit the user's account. The name is clever enough (you can just "go"), but more significantly, it heralds, or might, a new era in retail sales, as innovative as self-serve supermarkets were when they arrived. It's not impossible to imagine the brand name becoming genericized, and people talking about whether an establishment is a "go store."

#MPRaccoon (also #MPRRaccoon). (My personal favorite name of 2018.) For 2 days in June, it seemed like half the world was fretting about a raccoon in St. Paul who'd gotten trapped on the side of a 23-story building. People anxiously followed the critter's progress as it climbed the building and stopped to nap, and there was widespread relief when the raccoon got to the roof and was safely trapped. Not unexpectedly, people read a lot into this animal-interest story:

[1] You can follow the ADS votes in near real time via their Twitter feed. I don't know if the ANS will use their Twitter feed to also keep us up the minute on nominations and voting.

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  07:49 AM

I will not be attending the American Dialect Society's 2019 conference, which takes place next week in New York. This means I'll miss the highlight of the conference, which is the annual selection of the ADS Word of the Year. The nominating and voting meetings are raucous events that are hugely entertaining, even if you otherwise don't care one single fig for the rest of the ADS conference. (It's true; ask my wife.)

So this week for Friday words, instead of the normal, I'm going to list the words that I personally have been tracking for 2018.[1] Since anyone can nominate a word of the year, I also offer these as nominations in case anyone wants to present them at the live session.

To reiterate the pretty generous ADS criteria for nominations for WOTY:

  • doesn't have to be brand-new
  • needs to have shown a rise in popularity in 2018
  • can be a multiword phrase or compound

I'll mostly use the categories that ADS uses for their nominations, except that I have no particular hashtag to offer, and emoji? Not me. I have not actually picked winners here, for any category or overall. Feel free to vote for your favorite(s)!

Content warning: The list contains offensive terms and terms with possible political bias.

Political word of the year

There have been a lot of interesting words from politics this year. Here are the ones I found that I thought bubbled to the top of the 2018 heap.

chain migration
The process by which a legal resident of the US can sponsor the immigration of close family members. This is a Frank Luntz-worthy coinage that distills a complex issue into a sound bite to stir emotion.

shithole country
A term allegedly used by Trump to describe countries from which the US should not be accepting immigrants.

perjury trap
A question asked under oath whose purpose is to catch a witness in a lie.

crisis actor
An actor who portrays a victim of a crime or disaster. Used by conspiracy theorists to claim that certain disasters (such as school shootings) were staged.

deep state
According to right-leaning people, a cabal of bureaucrats working to undermine the current administration.

bottomless Pinocchios
A rating for political lies that have been repeated 20 or more times (multiple instances of 3- or 4-Pinocchio statements).

blue wave
The anticipated (and fulfilled) lopsided electoral victory of Democratic candidates during the 2018 midterm election.

Digital word of the year

I actually have 2 lists here. One is for digital terms likely to be used in ordinary conxtexts. The second is for terms that I see a lot at work—that is, emergent in the field of cloud computing.

deplatforming
Denying someone an outlet, whether on social media or in public forums, for espousing their views.

unroll
To aggregate a thread of Twitter posts into a single long-form page, using the Thread Reader App.

touchless technology
The use of gestures alone to control devices.

smart speaker
A wireless device that accepts voice commands and plays responses.

And here's my list of more "inside baseball" digital terms for 2018:

machine learning
A form of computing in which the computer system “learns” to perform tasks (such as identifying faces or predicting behavior) based not on prewritten algorithms, but instead based on analyzing a very large number of examples and deducing patterns.

DevOps
An approach to software development that integrates development (programming) and IT operations in order to streamline delivery of features.

edge computing
A computer design in which the processing for the system is decentralized by distributing some of it to the “edge,” such as to IoT devices.

serverless
A form of cloud computing in which the mechanics of allocating compute resources (etc.) is left to the cloud provider, leaving the developer free to just write application code.

Slang/informal word of the year

My categorization starts to break down a bit here; the assignment of categories is a bit arbitrary.

swatting
To harass someone by calling in a false report of a crime at the victim’s address in the hopes of having emergency services respond (for example, a SWAT team).

incel
Someone who is “involuntarily celibate”; generally associated with a subculture of men who hold (sometimes extremely) misogynistic views.

Most useful

feckless
Ineffective (“effect-less”). An old term that got a boost from Samantha Bee’s characterization of Ivanka Trump as a “feckless cunt.” (NB: the word “cunt” has a substantially milder connotation in the UK, especially Scotland, than it does in the US. For details, see the Strong Language blog.)

Xennials
The cohort of people born between the Generation X and Millennial generations (late 1970s through early 1980s).

Most likely to succeed

birthday fundraising
The act of “donating” a birthday by asking well-wishers to support a charitable cause.

shadow banning
To restrict the visibility of a user’s social media posts without the user being aware of it, thus limiting the user’s reach without actually banning them.

Most creative

girther
A person who is skeptical of the weight that was reported on the president’s medical report released in January. Based on the term birther for those who were skeptical about Obama’s birthplace.

TEDsplaining
“Confidently lecturing someone about a complicated issue on the basis of having watched one Ted talk about it.” (@JamieJBartlett on Twitter)

Euphemism of the year

executive time
Officially, unscheduled time on the president’s calendar, but widely thought to refer to the time the president spends watching TV or tweeting.

tender age shelter
The cages in which children are kept after being separated from their parents at the US border.

Individual 1
The unnamed owner of a company that the lawyer Michael Cohen worked for for 10 years, according to a court filing for the charges against Cohen.

WTF word of the year

emotional support peacock
Narrowly, a bird that a United Airlines passenger attempted to bring onto a flight as a therapy animal. More broadly, the point at which emotional support [creature] jumped the shark. (Ana Navarro in a tweet: “I think I need an emotional support peacock.”)

yanny/laurel
A viral sound test that asked listeners whether they heard “yanny” or “laurel.” (Jason Kehe of Wired used the term generically to describe the low audio quality of modern TV: “yanny/laurel times a million.”)

This is so sad Alexa play [artist/song]
A meme that represents ironic sadness, based originally on an innocuous tweet that someone posted when the cat ate their dinner.

bone saw
A normally unremarkable medical instrument that became a strange and unavoidable part of the narrative about the murder of the the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The full list

The lists above are culled from a fuller list of terms I was tracking. For completeness, I'll go ahead and list those here with minimal explanation, less the ones I've already listed.

[1] Other people have written about their personal WOTY nominations (for example, Nancy Friedman), but I've made it a point not to read those before I posted mine. I'm sure as soon as I see others' lists, I'll smack my forehead and exclaim "How could I have forgotten about that?!"

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  06:59 AM

By now, you've probably almost had your fill of the wall-to-wall seasonal customs. You've long since lost the LDB challenge and/or Whamaggedon. Your teeth are starting to go on edge when you hear "Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!" And you've probably seen enough ads and newspaper headlines that play on seasonal clichés: 'Twas the night before; naughty or nice; Christmas came early; deck the halls; Old Saint Nick.

Of these last, the one that seems to particularly invoke the ire of editors is 'tis the season. John McIntyre, who's been a copy editor for decades, offers a seasonal PSA to writers who might be thinking of slipping 'tis the season into an article. His suggestion for when it might be appropriate to use this phrase is pretty straightforward—never, never, never, never, never:

McIntyre has dispensed this advice a number of times, and he's found a ready audience among other editors, who've picked up the flag. Nancy Friedman has collected examples that show just how widespread 'tis the season is in seasonal ad copy.

Which, finally, brings me to the new-to-me word(s) for this week: 'tisses, 'tissing, and 'tisser. These refer, respectively, to examples of 'tis; the act of using 'tis; and one who uses 'tis. Thus in one of her posts, she cites someone saying "What I really want is to put those tisses out of business," which is a nice near-rhyme. In that same post, Nancy refers to "some news-media 'tissing" and "The 'tisses of Xmas Past." In a recent post, she referred to the company T&C as "a 'tisser." As you can deduce, 'tissing is not an admired activity, and being branded a 'tisser is not a compliment.

What struck me about these words, I think, is that they show a couple of interesting principles. The first is that 'tis is a now-unusual construction, at least in standard American English. Today, we'd say it's time to go to bed, not 'tis time to go to bed. In the word 'tis, the t is what's called a proclitic: it's a shortened version of a word (it)—not a full word, but not a prefix—that can be attached to the front of a verb. The t proclitic used to be common in English ('twas, 'twere, 'tain't), but today in American English these words are used primarily to sound olde-timey. (I think British English still uses 'tisn't and possibly other words that include the t proclitic.)

The other interesting thing about 'tisses and 'tissing is that they're examples of anthimeria: using a word as another part of speech. Take 'tis, pretend it's a verb, and you've got 'tissing. Pretend it's a noun and you can get 'tisses and 'tisser ("one who 'tisses").

English is a pretty amazing tool, even if people sometimes use it in clichéd ways.

And now a quick origins story. I’m currently enjoying Carl Zimmer's highly readable (if dauntingly long) book She Has Her Mother's Laugh. Early on he discusses how people groped for terms to describe what they were discovering about heredity. One term he included was germ, which gave me a kind of "d'oh" moment. Germs are microbeasts that make us sick, right? Why that word, tho?

Well, there's an older meaning of germ also: "bud" or "sprout" or "seed," which we still see in wheat germ and the metaphoric germ of an idea. Medicinally, germ was originally used to talk about the cause of a disease ("the germe of the small-pox"); when microbes were discovered, the name was attached to them.

The word germ goes back to Latin, and before that, to a root that means "beget." Related words (some distantly) are genetics, genitals, kin, nation, and genuine. And as we saw a few weeks ago, cognate. That gen root sure has a lot of offspring, haha.

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  07:30 AM

The new word I've learned recently that's been the most fun (or the funnest word, as some might say) has been dwarsligger. I got this from the lexicographer Jane Solomon, who linked to an article (or a narticle? see later) about them.

Dwarsliggers are small books that are bound like flipbooks—at the top rather than at the side, so to speak:

This format was invented by the Dutch printer Jongbloed, thus accounting for the definitely not-English flavor of the word, which means "crossways-lying" (dwar has to be related to athwart). The company has a patent on the format, which is supposed to make it easier to read, especially one-handed. What's interesting for us non-Dutch folks is that American publishers are now releasing dwarsligger-format books, starting with popular titles like the YA series by John Green. This Christmas therefore might present us with two gifts: dwarsligger editions of books we like, and the word dwarsligger itself.

On to origins. The other day I was reading something where the writer meant augur ("to foretell") but had used auger ("device for boring holes"). I thought I should double-check, which sent me to the dictionary, where I learned some interesting history behind both words.

First augur. This goes back to Latin, no surprise; an auger (note spelling, ha) in Rome was a priest-type person who read natural signs looking for omens. There are two theories about where this came from. One is that augur is related to avis ("bird"), since one of the natural signs being read was the behavior of birds. This seems not to hold up, in the sense that a word related to avis would have developed a different form than augur. A second theory is that augur is related to a word for "increase," which would make it a relative of augment and author (!). The thinking here is that these priest-type people were all about crop yields and increasing them.

Now auger, the tool. This was originally nauger, with an n on the front, an old Germanic word. But due to phonological confusion, the n wandered, so a nauger became an auger. This process is called misdivision or rebracketing. You'd think it would have been the type of mistake that was easily corrected ("Did you just say an auger? Dude, it's a nauger!"), but this happened back before we had easily consultable dictionaries, or dictionaries at all. And an auger was hardly the only example: rebracketing is also how we got an apron from napron, an adder from nadder, newt from an ewte, and others, and before it even got into English, orange from a Persian word narang.

It's almost sort of tempting to try an experiment in rebracketing. Start saying something like "I had a napple for a snack today" and see if people notice. And let us know what you find out.

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