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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Author: A fool, who, not content with having bored those who have lived with him, insists on tormenting the generations to come.

— Montesquieu



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 9/13/2019

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Posts - 2576
Comments - 2620
Hits - 2,170,557

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Entries/day - 0.43
Comments/entry - 1.02
Hits/day - 366

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:57 AM Pacific


  10:16 AM

Today's new-to-me word pertains to a certain musical genre. As an introduction, have a listen to this theme song from a classic arcade game:

Those old games had lively theme songs—Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, all those. The music and sound effects were clever and even tuneful, which was impressive, considering how primitive the sound-generation (synthesizing) capabilities were of the early consoles. Anyway, soon enough the hardware got better, and the sound effects got better, and today we get movie-quality sound from game consoles.

But. Some people have a fondness for the lo-res sound of those games, and there are people who love challenges. The result is the new-to-me word: chiptune, otherwise known as keygen or 8-bit music. This is, broadly speaking, music that sounds like it was created on those old machines. The ChipTunes=WIN! blog has a good definition:

Chipmusic at its core is electronic music created utilizing the chipsets from vintage video game and computing systems through both hardware & software. Examples of hardware include, but are not limited to, the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Commodore 64, and Amiga. Examples of software include, but are not limited to, LSDJ, Famitracker, Renoise, Deflemask, and Open MPT. Chiptune is essentially an instrument and/or a medium, used to create all styles and genres imaginable.

There's some hair-splitting/discussion about "classic" chiptune (created on real 8-bit hardware) versus emulated chiptune. We can leave that to the practitioners, and I'll assume a broad definition for the term.

Some artists create chiptune music that specifically takes advantage of the sonic character of the 8-bit sound generators. For example, on that same blog, they point to a song named "Strange Comfort" by an artist named Bit Shifter:


(This is on SoundCloud; you might need an account?)

People also reinterpret music from other genres as chiptune music. A dude named Vinheteiro does classical covers using 8-bit sound synthesizers:

What really piqued my interest and inspired this entry was finding a chiptune "tribute" to the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. Behold Kind of Bloop:

I don't think I'll trade in the originals for chiptune versions of "Freddie the Freeloader" and "All Blues," but it sure did show me what people could do with this technology.

For today's fun origins, we turn to baseball, which begins its yearly wrapup. (Alas, the basement-dwelling Mariners will be spectators for all of the playoffs.) Where do we get the word umpire?

I was quite surprised to read that this is another example of misdivision or rebracketing. The word as we got it from French was originally noumpere, but the initial n wandered: a noumpere became an oumpere. (We covered this before with an auger).

The original French provides slightly more of a clue about the origin. The word is a variant on nonper, or "non-peer." This referred to someone who was not an equal—by implication, higher—than others. This makes sense with the notion that an umpire is someone who adjudicates in disputes (an arbitrator), and whose decision is binding. The sports sense of umpire is just a domain-specific version of this role; it's been used as a sports term since the early 1700s.

By the way, if you're interested in the ins-and-outs (get it?) of baseball umpiring, I can recommend the Umpire Bible site that was created by former colleague Nick. I would no more umpire a baseball game than I'd do a self-appendectomy, yet I still find it to be interesting reading.

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  08:17 AM

I think that anyone who watches politics and words can guess what this week's new-to-me word is going to be. But just in case, here's the background.

On September 1, President Trump tweeted that Hurricane Dorian would hit several states, including Alabama. Some people, including the National Weather Service, responded by noting that Alabama was in fact not in danger. Trump defended his assertion, and then—here's where our story really begins—on September 4 he provided an update in which he showed a poster on which the hurricane cone map had apparently been extended with what looked like a marker to cover parts of Alabama:

I don't have any commentary on the map stuff. What interested me was that the situation instantly got a name and a hashtag on Twitter: #Sharpiegate; slightly less interestingly, it was also dubbed #Mapgate. Both names are testaments not only to people's playfulness with language, but are more examples of the enduring power of the -gate suffix. (In case it's not clear, Sharpie is a brand name for a type of marker.)

Let's talk about that for a moment. The -gate suffix came about in the 1970s. It was originally part of a name: the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. In that name, the -gate part was what's sometimes called a cranberry morpheme—a word part (morpheme) that distinguishes the word, but that doesn't otherwise mean anything.

Then came the scandals of the Nixon presidency. These began with a bungled burglary at the DNC headquarters, which happened to be in the Watergate office complex. Soon the name of the hotel became a metonym for the entirety of the high crimes and misdemeanors, becoming Watergate-the-scandal, which ultimately brought down the administration.[1]

From that point, the -gate suffix went from being a cranberry morpheme that had no inherent meaning to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix (for "liberated affix," more or less). This is a morpheme that's broken off from its source, has developed its own meaning, and can be combined in new ways. (There are many libfixes. Others you undoubtedly know are constituent parts of cheeseburger, frankenfood, and mansplain.)

When the libfix -gate broke off from Watergate, it carried along the sense of "scandal" and boy, has it ever been useful. There's a Wikipedia page of -gate scandals, including Deflategate (NFL), Dieselgate (VW), Emailgate (HRC), Gamergate, and Troopergate (3 different scandals). Satisfyingly, Sharpiegate has already been added.

Fun. Ok, just a quick delightful origin today. Tragedies are sad, of course. Etymologically speaking, though, it's not clear why they should be. The Greek roots of tragedy are tragus and oid, which respectively mean "he-goat" and "song, ode."

There are theories about this, but no certainty. One theory is that at contests, a winning playwright won a goat. Or that thespians wore costumes made of goatskins. The word might have been modeled on rhapsody ("stitched-song").

Update: On Twitter, Florent Moncomble notes that "there is also a hypothesis that the genre may have its origins in the song accompanying the sacrifice of male goats during the festival of Dionysus."

It's also possible that tragus doesn't refer to goats at all. We just don't know, but since we don't, I'm totally down with tragedies being goat-songs.

[1] For an excellent history of the whole Watergate affair, check out season 1 of the Slow Burn podcast.

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  06:07 PM

I saw today's new-to-me word in an article about communities and websites that feature a certain demographic. Here's the cite:

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of figures popular in the “redpill” community also hawk nootropic supplements.

I was struck by nootropic not only because I didn't know what it meant, but because there seemed to be nothing in the word that gave me the slightest clue. Even with the context of the sentence, I could only guess what nootropic might mean.

Anyway, the short definition is "mind-enhancing," and a slang term for nootropical substances is "smart drugs." There's a more formal definition; in fact, when the word was minted in 1964, it had a pretty elaborate definition, as I learned from a writeup on the Dictionary.com site. A nootropic substance is one that:

  • Enhances memory.
  • Enhances brain function when it's physically stressed (e.g. low oxygen).
  • Protects the brain from chemical and physical "assaults."
  • Increases the functioning of the brain's "control mechanisms."
  • Is non-toxic and has few side effects.

There's a pretty chart on the SmartDrugSmarts.com site that goes into a bit of detail about these 5 characteristics.

Of course, my first reaction when reading all this was "Oh, yeah, coffee." Caffeine definitely fits into the looser, "mind-enhancing" definition of nootropic substances, but I think (?) it doesn't meet the more stringent definitions. But don’t worry, our operators are standing by to take your order for true, pharmaceutical-quality smart drugs, accept no substitutes, hurry, limited-time offer, at this price they won't last.

As for the opaqueness of the term, I guess it's because it's all Greek. The word noos is Greek for "mind." When I looked into it, I found that this root is also in paranoia, but that didn't initially occur to me. The -tropic part was adapted from psychotropic, which refers to mind-altering drugs. In psychotropic, the -tropic part means "to affect " but it ultimately comes from a Greek word meaning "to turn." We see this also in heliotrope (a plant that follows the sun) and trope, a figure (turning) of speech. So nootropic is that which affects the mind. I'm still voting for coffee, fwiw.

For fun origins (or today, even more fun origins), I've got ventriloquist. I was listening to an episode of the Stuff You Should Know podcast that was about ventriloquists, and boy, there was a lot of stuff that I guess I should know.

Early in the podcast (around 6:30) they talk about how the ancients knew about ventriloquism, but not in the form that we so frequently see today: a person who appears to be talking to a dummy sitting on their knee. Per the podcast, ventriloquism in the old days was more tied in with religion and shamanism—people who could talk to spirits. Those spirits might be in the trees or—here's the origin part—in their stomach. Ventri (or ventro) refers to the abdomen: ventral. And loquism is from "to speak," which is in loquacious, eloquent, and soliloquy. So, ventriloquism is "belly-talking." If I get in touch with my inner eight-year-old, I might think that "belly-talking" is another word for belching. Shows what I know.

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  09:10 AM

Every once in a while the universe gives you a nudge. Back in March I collected a new-to-me word, and then this week my wife sent me the same one: abecedarian.

This is a great word that I’m surprised I never learned before. It has multiple definitions, all useful. It can mean “of or relating to the alphabet,” which makes perfect sense once you realize that abecedarian consists of the Latin names A-B-C-D plus the suffix -arian (“of”). It’s often used to refer to something that’s arranged in alphabetical order. I found two good examples on Twitter. One was an abecedarian list of insults, as posted by the qikipedia Twitter account:

Another abecedarian example that someone mentioned was Edward Gorey’s mischievously macabre book The Gashleycrumb Tinies, which describes, in alphabetic rhyming couplets, how 26 children met their untimely deaths. For example, “F is for FANNY, sucked dry by a leech”:

The word abecedarian can also refer to someone who’s new to something—a novice, like someone learning their ABCs. And by extension, it can be used to mean something that’s elementary or rudimentary. (See if you can work that in the next time you’re called upon to critique someone’s work.)

A final reason that the word abecedarian seemed timely to me is that it is, I believe, one more instance of a prolegonym (“intro-name”): a word formed from the beginnings of an expression. We’ve seen some before.

Ok, word origins. I’ve been reading (and so should you[1]) Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet, which is about how language is used on the internet. In the chapter on texting, she happens to mention that the word text is related to the word textile. Those words are in turn related to texture. All these senses pertain to weaving—"that which is woven, web, texture.” (Nice cite from Quintilian: textus is the “tissue of a literary work.”)

As if that weren’t cool enough, the tex- stem is related to the tech- stem in words like technology via a common root that originally meant “craft.” So sending messages on your phone is not only textured technological text, but it’s in some distant etymological way like architecture and tectonic.

[1] Yeah, grammatically dodgy. Whatevs.

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  08:39 AM

They train relentlessly. They scorn luxury and comfort. They speak little. Everything about them is devoted to one thing: war.

Navy SEALs? Delta Force? Royal Marine Commandos? No. (Well, yes, but that's not who I'm talking about.) I speak of course of the Spartans, denizens of Sparta (aka Laconia), the ancient city-state in Greece that was famous then, and continues to be famous now, for its single-minded devotion to military preparedness. Spartans were willing to sacrifice themselves in the defense of their principles, as we all know from reading about the Battle of Thermopylae.

Their culture has come down to us in the language. Something that's spartan is austere. Someone who's laconic is terse to the point of rudeness.

It's also come down to us in this week's new-to-me-word: laconophilia, which refers to an admiration for all things Spartan. Our own culture has imbibed the Spartan ideal. There are many cities named Sparta in the United States, and who can even count the number of sports teams that are the Spartans.[1] And check out the article Why Spartans Make Better Lovers, where "Spartans" are people who participate in a grueling sports event called the Spartan Race.

What I learned about this word was not just what it meant, but that it's … problematic. In a couple of ways, actually. One is that the mythologization (?) of the Spartans is about as ancient as Sparta itself; ancient Greeks from elsewhere (including Plato) tended to point to the Spartans as an idealized people. This sort of thing continued through the ages—other laconophiles included folks like Machiavelli and Rousseau and Hitler.

The other problem with laconophilia is that it's kind of wrong? Yes, the Spartans were great warriors, but they did actually lose their most famous battle, and their opponent—Xerxes—rampaged through Greece. Yes, they were "free men," as long as you don't count the slaves who held their society together (and often fought alongside the elite warriors). Yes, they were physically impressive, but they ruthlessly culled the infirm. As Myke Cole puts it in The New Republic, "The problem is, the Spartan myth is so full of holes you could use it to drain pasta."

So the word laconophilia can refer neutrally to admiration of a disciplined society. But it's also wrapped up with disturbing notions like eugenics and racism and authoritarianism. Reading about laconophilia has started affecting everything I know, or think I know, about that ancient society.

Let's move to origins. I heard a great one from the Allusionist podcast (around 21:30) about the word halcyon, meaning something calm and peaceful. The word halcyon comes from Greek halkyon, which refers to a kingfisher. There story is supposedly that halcyon came to mean "calm" because of a myth about a bird—a kingfisher—who could calm the seas in December in order to have a quiet time for nesting. This is a story we inherited in English; the fanciful origin itself goes back to the Greeks.

The real story is probably that there was a word alkyon in Greek to refer to a bird, which might have been borrowed from some other language that we have no record of. The Greeks reinterpreted the word as hals+kyon, roughly meaning "sea"+"conceive." This process of reinterpreting a word of foreign origin to make it more sensible is known as folk etymology. And the process of inventing a fanciful etymology is also known as folk etymology, or as we've seen elsewhere, etymythology. Here we have a particularly good combination of etymology and mythology. But it's stuck with us—not only do we have halcyon, but the genus name for kingfishers is Alcedinidae.

[1] I was surprised to learn that there's school in Los Angeles whose mascot is nickname is the Athenians.

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  08:06 AM

A few weeks ago I learned the word hierophany, which refers to a physical manifestation of the divine—burning bushes and whatnot. In response to that post, someone asked if I knew the word tyromancy. I did not.

The -mancy part refers to divination, which (haha) manifests in words like pyromancy (“divination by fire”), chiromancy (palm reading), and necromancer (“magician; one who divines via communication with the dead”). The tyro part is the Greek word for cheese (also sometimes turo or tiro). So tyromancy is divination by observing the coagulation of cheese. The Encyclopedia.com site makes a comment that I bet speaks for many of us: “Unfortunately, the method does not appear to have been recorded.” An alternative explanation is that tyromancy involved reading the patterns of mold that would form on cheese, or based on which piece of cheese a mouse would eat.

Fun fact: There are many words, a lot of them medical, that also involve tyro/turo and cheese. Example: tyrotoxicon, referring to a type of food poisoning from bad cheese.

For origins this week, I want to revisit an unusual source of words: expressions in another language. To refresh your memory, a while back I investigated the origins of subpoena, which is said to be from Latin “under penalty,” the first words on a writ ordering appearance before the court.

I got curious whether we had other words like that, and found a Hail Mary, our ABCs, credo, dirge, and some others. The lexicographer Orin Hargraves suggested that we call these prolegonyms, for “intro-name.”

Since then I’ve run across a couple more terms that are also based on expressions:

  • hocus pocus. This one is dicey, but someone in the late 1600s asserted that hocus pocus was derived from (or was a corruption of) the phrase Hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”) from the Latin mass. The OED is a bit skeptical about this one, since there’s only one source, who was speculating, and moreover sounds like he had a Protestant ax to grind about transubstantiation. But no one has a better theory, so you’ll see this etymology pretty frequently.

  • pony up, meaning “to pay.” This might possibly be from legem pone, the title of a section (section He) of Psalm 119 (118 in the Latin Vulgate Bible) that begins legem pone mihi (“Put before me …”). The roundabout explanation is that this psalm was a designated prayer for March 25, which was a day on which debts were paid. The word pony definitely became slang for money, but whether it comes from this source isn’t entirely 100% sure.

  • culprit. Conjectured to be a shortened form of cul[pable] (“guilty”) and prist (“ready”). As a bonus, this one might be based on a misinterpretation. Here’s the OED’s explanation:

    It is supposed that when the prisoner had pleaded ‘Not guilty’, the Clerk of the Crown replied with ‘Culpable: prest d'averrer nostre bille,’ i.e. ‘Guilty: [and I am] ready to aver our indictment’; that this reply was noted on the roll in the form cul. prist, etc.; and that, at a later time, after the disuse of Law French, this formula was mistaken for an appellation addressed to the accused.

There has to be a pretty small number of words in English that can be traced back to a written expression in another language. I’m pleased that I’m still finding a few now and then.

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  06:58 AM

English is, I believe, comparatively spare in the area of kinship terms. We’re good to one degree of relation (brother, sister, mom, dad) and sometimes to a second degree (uncle, aunt, niece, nephew). But we’re stuck with the somewhat clunky -in-law for describing civil relations, and our great-great-great- convention for marking generations. Not to mention the whole N-times-removed thing for cousins, which, if my experience is typical, often has to be explained, not to mention counting on fingers.

So I was surprised to learn a new kinship term. The children of your aunts and uncles are your cousins. Your own collection of brothers and sisters are your siblings. But what do you call the collection of children of your brothers and sisters? They’re your nieces and nephews, sure. How about if we call them your niblings?

The word nibling was suggested as far back as 1951. It doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction outside the realm of “specialist literature,” as Wikipedia refers to it. (You won’t find it in most dictionaries.) The term was modeled on sibling, because that’s also a gender-neutral term for describing a relation. Sibling is sib-, an old Germanic word for “kin,” and the -ling suffix as either “concerned with” or as a diminutive. The nib- of nibling doesn’t really mean anything beyond evoking sibling with a n(iece/ephew) vibe. (I can’t resist noting that both niece and nephew came from the same root as nepotism, which comes from the Latin nepos, meaning “nephew, grandson.”)

For real origins today I have the word torpedo. I’ve known this word since I was a kid as the name of a weapon, a kind of self-propelled underwater bomb. So I was surprised whenever it was in my life that I learned that it was also the name of a fish. The fish—which was first—got that name because it was capable of an electrical discharge that could make someone stiff or numb: that is, it could put a person in a torpor. An obscure sense of torpedo is “one who has a benumbing influence.” (See if you can reintroduce that sense after the next particularly benumbing presentation that you attend.)

The milito-explosive sense of torpedo originally referred to what today we’d call a naval mine—a device designed to explode underwater to sink ships. The first appearance seems to be from 1776. An inventor named David Bushnell created a submarine that he named the Turtle (because it looked like a turtle) and tried to use it to attach an explosive device—a torpedo—to a British ship. (He failed.) It looks like torpedo-the-mine was named that because the idea was that it would render a boat torpid. (I’m having a surprisingly hard time finding a clear connection between the fish and the mine, for what it’s worth.) Anyway, the sense of an underwater explosive device transferred smoothly to the self-propelled device when that was finally invented in mid-1800s.

Since then, we’ve gotten the verbal sense of torpedo—both literal (“the U-boat torpedoed the cargo ship”) and metaphoric (“the majority leader torpedoed the legislation”). And depending on where you live, you might also know torpedo as the name of a sandwich. Not that we want to get into the multifarious naming conventions for sandwiches today.

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  06:52 AM

Recent politico-social scandals (not worth mentioning which one, since there's a new one every week) brought another new-to-me term: the missing-stair problem. The term, apparently coined in 2012, describes an unpleasant (or worse) situation, but it's a vivid metaphor.

How many times have we heard about some scandal, and we discover that people who were close to the perpetrator clearly knew that something was going on? (Every time? Seems like it.) The question always arises about how people could have seen the bad behavior, whatever it was, and not have done something about it. This is the missing-stair problem: people recognize that something is wrong, but they (figuratively) step around the issue, as they might do if a stair were broken at their house.

We often see the missing-stair problem in the context of illegal or immoral behavior. But it can apply in other situations. Another example is how a team will accommodate and work around and possibly even excuse the incompetence of a co-worker who's not pulling their weight.

The point is that people get so used to this incorrect state of affairs that they no longer recognize it as a problem. In contrast, people who aren't accustomed to the situation come in and immediately see that something's wrong—just the way that they would see that a missing stair is something to fix, not to step around.

For fun origins this week, I note that it's election time here in Seattle, with a slate of candidates for city council and other local government jobs. Which means we get to pore over the voter guide and divine who the best candidate might be for Port Commissioner, and duly mark our ballot. Why do we call it a ballot?

Oddly, the etymology is right there in the word: ballot is related to the word ball. Once upon a time—which is to say, in medieval Venice—votes were taken by having voters put small, colored balls into a container. The votes were tallied by opening the container and counting the little balls. Not only is ball right there in the word, so is the "small" part: in French, it's ballotte, a diminutive.

The word ballot has relatives in English. A bale is bundle (ball) of merchandise, all tied up. A balloon is another type of ball-like item, which harkens back to the original-original root, which was "blow, swell." That sense of the root also gave us the word phallus. (You do the math.)

A more obvious relative is the term blackball, meaning to vote against, or more generally, to shun. This is directly related to the Venetian system of voting using little balls. Only for blackballing, the voting took place in England, the issue was membership in a club, and the "no" vote against a potential member was a black ball. ("Two balles a white and a blacke to be putt by euery of the counsaill in two seuerall pottes,..the sute to take place if th[eyr] shalbe putt mo white thenne blacke balles.") The literal meaning of a black ball, present in English in the 1500s, evolved into the metaphoric sense of "exclude, shun" by the 1800s.

On our ballot, we use a #2 pencil to fill in little circles. In a weird sense, we're also blacking little balls. Only in our case, of course, a black mark is a vote of confidence.

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  09:40 AM

When I was in college, I enjoyed the aspects of research that involved hunting down sources.[1] In my day, that was all stuff on paper, so I ended up checking out books from the library and photocopying articles.

These days I do these sorts of things virtually. When I work on something, I end up with Word files or Google Docs that have dozens of links to promising-sounding articles. Or maybe I have PDF files of actual articles, tucked away in folder.

But there's a difference between collecting up all these sources and actually, you know, reading them. Having a stack of books on the desk, or a manila folder with several inches' worth of photocopies, or lists of links, or folders of PDFs, is not actually the same as knowing what's in all of those sources.

The education researcher Pat Thomson calls this PDF alibi syndrome, which she defines as …

The habit of downloading and saving PDFs in the vain hope that one day I will get around to reading them. It’s not a technical problem at all, or one of lack of time, but rather that I’ve been seduced by the lure of information.

She derives some comfort that the novelist Umberto Eco—no slouch, he—knew all about this issue. As Thomson notes, in his essay "How to write a thesis," Eco says "There are many things I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it." Photocopies, books, PDF files—collecting is fun, but that's just an alibi for doing the work.

I learned this excellent term on Twitter via the editor Iva Cheung, who has actually managed not just to find useful sources, but has used them to write her thesis, in spite of this moment of PDF alibi syndrome:

In response to this plaintive cry, Laura Patsko pointed Iva and the rest of us to Thomson's post about PDF alibi syndrome.

This week’s unexpected origin is for a word I see pretty much every day: detergent. If you look at the word (and if you’re me), you might think that there’s deter and there’s gent. So maybe detergent is some sort of (a)gent that deters … something?

Nope. The first surprise, a mild one, is that detergent seems to have started its life in English around 1600 as an adjective. But soon enough it was a noun in the same sense that we use it today.

We got it from French, no surprise, but its ultimate origin is of course Latin. In Latin, it was a compound of de, meaning “off, away,” and tegēre, meaning “wipe.” Note carefully: in Latin, it was a verb. And here’s the unexpected part of the origin: we actually have (or had) a verb form of this in English as well—to deterge, meaning the same as in Latin: “to wipe away.” There’s a medical sense of deterge for cleaning wounds specifically. I asked my wife about that, since she’s in healthcare, but it’s not a term she knows, in spite of having cleaned many wounds in her career.

Clearly, detergent is more versatile than I’d thought. And I think it’s time that we brought back to deterge as a verb, don’t you think?

[1] "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book." (Samuel Johnson)

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  01:37 PM

For reasons I cannot recollect, I find myself reading a book about ufology, the study of UFOs. The author is a professor of religion, and she's interested in ufology as a type of religious thinking. It's from this that I learned the word hierophany.

Hierophany is from Greek (hier(o) for "sacred" + phany for "show") and refers to physical manifestations of the holy or the sacred. The author says that the story of the burning bush that spoke to Moses (Exodus 3) is a classic example of a hierophany. There are other familiar ones; Marian apparitions like those in Lourdes or in Mexico (as Our Lady of Guadalupe) are also hierophanies.

As an article in Encyclopedia.com says about the definition of hierophany, "The term involves no further specification. Herein lies its advantage: It refers to any manifestation of the sacred in whatever object throughout history." Thus D. W. Pasulka, the author of the book I'm reading, focuses her experience in religious studies on the phenomena of UFOs. She discusses hierophanies using the neutral term "contact events." You can see how the many stories around UFO sightings, visitations, and crash debris, and the belief community that has arisen around these, begin to sound familiar to someone who views extraordinary phenomena through a lens of religious studies.

I haven't finished the book, so I don't know yet where she lands on the question of whether UFOs are a real thing. But for purposes of hierophany, it doesn't matter. On this question, she quotes the famed ufologist Jacques Vallée: "the formation of mass belief in [UFOs] does not depend on its objective reality."

On to origins. Today I wanted to unpack the word sombrero, which is the generic Spanish word for "hat." The easy origin story for that word is "It's from Spanish," basta. But when we were in Mexico recently (probably when we were trying on hats), I had this D'oh moment when I realized that a sombrero is a hat that gives you sombra—that is, shade. It's literally a "shade-r." I do love these little moments when some "foreign" word falls into place like that.

We don't have the word sombra in English, but we have some of its relatives, which mostly show up without the initial s. The Latin stem is umbra, which we have in English, along with penumbra. Someone who's somber is in a dark mood. We also have the word umbrage, as in "take umbrage," which seems remarkably similar to the contemporary expression "throwing shade."

In a highly satisfying parallelism, we also have the word umbrella. Although my personal sense of umbrella is that it's a protection against rain, it's more generally a portable canopy that can protect against rain, sure, but that etymologically speaking provides … shade. So like its cousin the sombrero, an umbrella is a "shade-r."

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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