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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Anyone who tells you that HTML should be kept “pure” (presumably by ignoring browser makers, or ignoring authors, or both) is simply misinformed. HTML has never been pure, and all attempts to purify it have been spectacular failures, matched only by the attempts to replace it.

Mark Pilgrim



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 10/14/2018

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Posts - 2527
Comments - 2583
Hits - 2,088,205

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Entries/day - 0.45
Comments/entry - 1.02
Hits/day - 374

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 9:49 PM Pacific


  07:00 PM

I commute to work on crowded mass transit, and when I get there, I work in an open office. So I consider good headphones an essential part of my gear. My employer apparently agrees; they subsidize headphones for us. I’ve appreciated the pair I got: over-ear, noise-reducing, Bluetooth headphones. I use them for hours a day every workday.

But the daily use has taken a toll. A few months ago I noticed that the headphones seemed loose on my head. Close examination revealed that the plastic arch between the earpieces had cracked. Thus began an ever more involved effort to save these lovely headphones.

Bridging the crack

My first thought was to patch over the crack. I found a washer that was about the size of a quarter, and used epoxy to glue the washer across the crack, then taped it over to salvage some semblance of aesthetics. (Ha.) was a little dubious about this, but it actually worked ok.

However, a few weeks later the headphones were loose again. I thought my patch had failed, but no—a second crack had appeared at a different point. It seemed clear that there are stress points in the headphones:

I tried a second patch like the first one, but a third crack developed.

Repair or replace?

After this discouraging development, I spent some hours online looking for a replacement for my headphones. I looked and looked, but two things ultimately stopped me from buying a new pair. One was that omg, headphones that have all the features I want (NR, Bluetooth, over-ear, decent audio) are expensive. And to add to this disheartening discovery, many reviews suggested that many other brands of headphones were probably just as prone to breakage as the ones I already had. So I returned to the idea of trying to engineer a fix for the ones I already had.

Brothers of bands

After the severally patched cracks had failed, I kept thinking that I needed to in effect make a new arch for the headphones. I needed some sort of spring-like band of material that I could attach to the headphones. (Some people might already have thought about an obvious solution, which I arrived at later; bear with me a few moments.) I kept thinking about some sort of plastic, but couldn’t arrive at a material that was both flexible enough and had enough spring. What I eventually did was to cut apart the plastic jar from a well-known brand of popcorn and laminating four layers. This seemed to provide the right amount of spring:

I then taped this ad-hoc spring to the headphones with lots of tape, even further reducing their visual appeal:

(I swear that I catch people on the train looking at my jury-rigged headphones and wondering “What the heck is that?”)

Is there a spring for the head?

This worked pretty well for a couple of months. But inevitably, my plastic spring started losing some of its sproing, so I was back to thinking about a better way to make this fix. It finally occurred to me that there is a device that is pretty much designed for this exact purpose: headbands for hair. I betook myself to the beauty section of the local drugstore and pondered my many choices. I ended up with a set of thin metal bands:

I disassembled and reassembled the headphones, this time adding one of the metal headbands to the arch. (I don’t want them to be too springy, because I wear the headphones for long periods and don’t want to squash my ears.)

And that’s where I am today. I’m hoping that this repair, or if necessary, another one like it, will hold until the electronics fail, or I step on them accidentally, or I have some other reason to buy a new pair. And next time I’ll have a head start on ways to fix the headphones when they start cracking.

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  07:09 AM

This week's new-to-me word is Voldemorting, which I learned about from an article in Wired. As you can guess, it originated in the Harry Potter series, where characters avoided saying the name of He Who Must Not Be Named. (As it turned out, avoiding the name was wise, because simply uttering the name Voldemort had consequences.)

The new use of Voldemorting is also about avoiding names—but in this case, it's so as to not give the name more search "juice" on the internet. In its original use, the idea was to avoid naming trashy celebrities, thereby not helping build their fame (and search result ranking). As the Wired article explains, this has extended into the political realm, where people use euphemisms and work-arounds to avoid naming politicians they disapprove of, and (potentially) to avoid being tracked by people who track mentions of particular names.

What I find fascinating about this term is how it ties into our collective unconscious about the power of language. Probably since language was invented, people have felt that certain language was special: using certain words (abracadabra) or names (YHWH) had powerful, perhaps mystical effect. We still have societal customs around performative language ("I now pronounce you man and wife," "You're out!"), and even in these latter days, there are words that are so powerful that they're simply taboo: we may not utter them for fear of consequences.[1]

Voldemorting extends this sense that certain words have special powers, but with a new and technological twist. Using certain words (on the internet, anyway) has actual, trackable effect. And as with taboos of the past, we can fend off certain undesirable outcomes by avoiding those words. You don't want to accidently summon any demons, right?

Origins. You might know that when I wear my editor hat, there are cetain words that I'm constantly trying to remove from technical documents. Among them are consider ("Consider increasing the memory size") and desire ("Specify the desired operating system"). I found out just recently not only where these words come from, but that they have a common root.

From the lexicographer Serenity Carr, I learned recently that desire is de ("removed, away") and sire is really sider, a Latin word for a star or heavenly body. (Compare sidereal.) The connection between "long for" and heavenly bodies isn't entirely clear ("the sense-history is unknown"—OED), but being away from a star makes you long for things. I guess.

And we can now see the connection to consider, whose origins I learned just this week. Consider is of course con ("with") and sider ("star" again). To consider is to "examine closely"; as the OED says, the relation to stars "might thus be originally a term of astrology or augury." But they're not sure.

Notwithstanding these interesting origins, I'm still going to try to spike every instance of desire and consider that I encounter in the docs I edit. Fair warning.

[1] The list of taboo words of course changes over time. Words that we can freely speak today were taboo in previous times; words that our forefathers used routinely are now taboo.

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  07:35 AM

I have some new terms today, but I also need to do a little housecleaning, so to speak. I have a couple of new-to-me terms in my queue that got a good airing in other forums recently. So why not just let those folks do the talking? Here you go:

himpathy. In the New York Times, Kate Manne discusses this word in terms of the back and forth during Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation battle to be seated on the US Supreme Court. She defines himpathy as "the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior." I like wordplay, but I’m always leery that new words based on rhymes (for example) might not have staying power. But who knows! Seems like a useful term.

HODL. This is a misspelling of "hold" that originated in the world of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. (As in, hold, don't sell.) Nancy Friedman has a great write-up in which the original "HODL" misspelling is only the beginning.

Ok, I can cross those off my list!

I have to confess that the two new-to-me terms that I have today grabbed me because I liked the way they sounded when I learned them via a tweet. The terms are the jingle fallacy and the related jangle fallacy. The jingle fallacy is when multiple concepts are considered the same (or lumped together) because they have the same name. An early example was the term college students: people think of college students as constituting a more or less homogeneous population, but any such population will include part-timers, people who end up dropping out, a student who's there only for a year, plus of course full-time students. Another commonly cited example is the word anxiety, which is often used to also cover the separate condition of fear.

The jangle fallacy is sort of the inverse: when people think that concepts are different because they have different names. Here are some examples that also show why the jangle fallacy is problematic:

A particular attribute may be labeled a “skill” by an economist, a “personality trait” by a psychologist, a certain kind of “learning” by an educationalist, or a “character” dimensions by a moral philosopher. Each may have the same concept in mind, but miss each other’s work or meaning because of the confusion of terms.

[source]

Both terms seem to be largely confined to psychology and cognitive studies, at least for now. I was a little surprised to read that jingle fallacy goes back to 1902. In the original discussion, H.A. Aikins uses jingle in the sense of something catchy. His alternative term was the reflex fallacy because the fallacy was the result of reflexive thinking:

On to origins! If you want to win, you need a strategy. You know, a plan. And who makes those sorts of plans? Leaders! High-up type leaders, like maybe generals. Indeed, as Friend Ben noted to me not long ago, the word strategy comes from a Greek word for a general. (Tho as the OED says, in English this is "Partly a borrowing from Latin. Partly a borrowing from Greek.") The constituent parts in Greek are stratos ("army") + agein ("to lead"). As a bonus, I learned that stratocracy means "government by the army." I can't say that that would be, haha, a good strategy.

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  08:09 AM

Let's go back to language words this week. I have two new-to-me words that are actually new—so new that a toothpick stuck in the middle doesn’t yet come out clean.

The word kerning, as you might know, refers to adjusting the horizontal space between letters. Here are examples of text that is tightly kerned and loosely kerned:

There are times when badly done kerning results in, um, suboptimal text. If you search the web for kerning fail, you'll get many amusing results, like this one:

Last week, the author and puzzlemaker David Astle proposed the word keming for "any word misread due to improper kerning." See what he did there? So clever.

Update: A number of people have noted that keming was coined in 2008 by the photographer David Friedman.

Moving on. A couple of weeks ago, an xckd cartoon explored compound words that could be reversed, so to speak:

The gang of linguists that hangs out at the Language Log had some fun with this, trying to come up with as many of them as they could in a short time. There really are tons of them, as the commenters showed, especially when you allow non-closed compounds: shotgun/gunshot, cathouse/housecat, offhand/handoff, racehorse/horse race, etc.

The English professor David-Antoine Williams took a systematic approach and scoured the dictionary (the OED) for pairs like this; he came up with 2,568 pairs (!). He wrote a blog entry about them, and among the points he ponders is what we should call them. One candidate is chi compounds, based on the Greek letter chi (Χ). (Compare the chi in the name of the literary device chiasmus.) Another proposal is bidirectional compound terms. Descriptive but maybe a little dull? The name that Williams settles on is the simplest: boathouse words, after boathouse/houseboat. I vote for this term. It's easy to remember, and there's precedent for using a name like this. For example, when Brianne Hughes was exploring compounds that consisted of a verb+noun (spitfire, pickpocket), she named them cutthroat compounds after a good exemplar of the genre.[1]

So much discussion of new words that we're almost out of time for origins! A quick one today: where does the word zombie come from? The received story is that it's from a Bantu language in West Africa; there are comparable words nzambi ("god") and zumbi ("fetish"). Douglas Harper repeats this theory, but also suggests that it might come from the Spanish word sombra ("shade") to mean "ghost." No one else says this, so it would be interesting to learn what Harper's source is and learn more about that. Fun zombie fact: in the film Night of the Living Dead, they never speak the word zombie; the script [PDF] refers once to zombie, but mostly refers to the undead as ghouls. Wikipedia: "How the creatures in contemporary zombie films came to be called 'zombies' is not fully clear. "

1 Not to mention shitgibbon compounds.

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  10:00 PM

This is my maternal grandfather, known as Opa because he was German:

I don't know a lot about this portrait, other than it was done in 1956. I guess it's done in conté, a type of artist's crayon. I suspect that the portrait was done as a birthday gift by family or by colleagues.

Ever since I was quite young, people have told me that I look a lot like my Opa. For example, when I was 14, we visited one of my grandfather's friends, and the friend couldn't stop laughing at the resemblance. To my 14-year-old mind, looking like an old guy seemed literally impossible. I imagine that it's hard for people to see their resemblance to someone else; I have never really seen it. Still, my mother shared this belief, and a few years later, she took a photo of me next to the portrait so she could show distant relatives this supposed resemblance:

Ok. About a year ago, I watched a video by the artist Eric Chapman, a time-lapse of him doing a portrait:

While I watched the video, it occurred to me that this was something like my Opa's portrait. And this led to what might have been the most vain thing I've ever done: I contacted Eric and asked about having a portrait done that was complementary to my Opa's. Sure, no problem, he said, after he'd seen a photo of the original.

I got my daughter to take a series of photos, which I sent off to Eric. I had to make some decisions—size? show all the hair or not?—but those having been made, after a couple of weeks Eric was all done:

When I got the portrait, I had it framed, and now Opa and I occupy a wall together:

I had a funny moment when I finally saw the pieces side by side—I realized that I'm actually a year older in my portrait than he was in his. But no matter how old I get, I'll always think of him as the old guy.

My own kids seem to be ok with all this. In fact, my son mentioned that maybe he'd have a portrait done as well. People tell me that he resembles me, hmm.

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  07:16 AM

In reviewing my list of new-to-me terms, I find a lot of them to be kind of depressing. So let's concentrate on a couple of boat-related terms.

The first is canoe politics, which I found in a New Yorker article about Governor Jerry Brown of California. Here's a cite that describes the term:

Brown has said that he follows “the canoe theory” of politics: “You paddle a little on the left and a little on the right, and you paddle a straight course.”

In other words, canoe politics is a form a governance by compromise. Ok, maybe I'm a little depressed even by this.

Solution: more boats. The second new-to-me term is kayak problem. This comes from Steve Krug's excellent book Don't Make Me Think, which is about web usability—i.e., how to create user-friendly computer interfaces. Krug notes that with some designs, at least some users will have a problem. As an example, if you're designing a menu system, do you put Preferences under File or under Tools? Some users will first guess File, others will first guess Tools. He calls this a kayak problem because if you roll over in a kayak, the kayak quickly rights itself. Similarly, if the user can quickly recover and find the right path, it is a problem, but not a serious one. So there you have it: a kayak problem is one that's easy to recover from.[1]

Surprising origins! Someone at work recently got the poster-sized version of that beautiful language tree:

The poster shows the common trunk and branching for Indo-European languages (Hindi, Persian, Greek, Latin, Germanic, Russian, Celtic, and many more) and of the Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian, and others). While we were admiring the poster, someone asked, "Where's Arabic?" Ah, it was explained, that's a Semitic language, hence not represented here. During the subsequent discussion, someone asked "Where does the name Semitic actually come from?"

Good question. The Semitic languages are in a family of tongues spoken originally around the Middle East: Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia), Tigrinya (also in Ethiopia), and others. Historically, Assyrian, Aramaic (spoken during the time of Jesus), and Phoenician were also Semitic languages. (Fun fact: The Carthaginian general Hannibal, the almost-defeater of Rome, spoke a Phoenician dialect, hence the Punic Wars.) But again: why do we call them Semitic languages?

The relationship between Arabic, Hebrew, and some other languages has been recognized for a long time. In 1781, August Ludwig Schlözer, a German historian, assigned the name Semitic to a certain set of these related languages. Influenced by the Old Testament, Schlözer thought that the people who spoke these languages were descendants of Shem, the oldest son of Noah, as described in Genesis 10 and 11. (Ham and Japheth and their descendants were thought to have been the origins of other language families.) Schlözer was somewhat right in that he got Hebrew and Arabic into the same family. But he really wanted to (incorrectly) add unrelated languages to the family because he viewed their speakers as other descendants of Shem. In spite of this confusion of ethnology and philology[2], his name stuck for the language family. It's not the only time that some mistaken notions about names were immortalized for posterity.

[1] BTW, if you're a kayaker and you want to tell me that it is in fact not easy to right oneself in a kayak, a) I'll believe you and b) you should take that up with Steve Krug. :)

[2] Which continues in some quarters (example).

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  06:41 AM

I have a slew of new-to-me terms that pertain to language all of a sudden, so I'll dole out a few of them today. This week's words concern pronunciation.

Everyone has a set of words that they used to mispronounce because they learned the words by reading them. Epitome. Albeit. Quay. Victuals. Hyperbole. Ennui. Viscount. Hegemony. Behemoth. And many more, and I'm sure you have your own list.

The folks at the Talk the Talk podcast have a name for words like this: only-read-it-ism. This I learned from one of their tweets, where they were responding to someone who was grumpy, and rightly so, that he had been mocked for pronouncing lingerie as it's spelled, and not in that peculiar way that we Americans do (lawn-zhuh-REY). In their tweet they added the word calliope, which when pronounced kalley-ope is yet another only-read-it-ism.

It may not be the cleverest name, I suppose, but I'm just glad to have a term for it. Because, as noted, it's a phenomenon that everyone recognizes. (In fact, it's tempting to propose the word kalleyope as name for the phenomenon, the way misle has become a term for misreading misled.)

By the way, if you like language, you will enjoy the Talk the Talk podcast, which is from Australia but has an international cast.

An only-read-it-ism becomes evident only when someone actually attempts to say the word out loud. Those of us who've had the embarrassing experience of producing an only-read-it-ism might develop a sudden hesitancy to use in conversation a word we are comfortable reading (or writing) on the page. Right?

The editor Elizabeth d'Anjou calls this pronunciation anxiety. Her example—and a good one it is—is desultory. Are you prepared to say this word out loud with confidence? Yeah, me neither. I don't know if Elizabeth invented the term, but as with only-read-it-ism, I'm just glad we have it.

On to word origins. Not long ago we were at the Discovery Garden up north of us and I was reading labels for various trees. One of them was a crabapple tree, and someone asked me what crab- meant in crabapple. I opened my mouth to explain, but nothing came out.

And it's not actually that clear. What it looks like is that there was a word scrab (scrabbe) for the fruit, which probably came from Norse and still exists in Scotland, and which might have lost its initial s-. On the other hand, the word crabbed has been used to describe disagreeable people since the 1400s, with a similar meaning in German. This sense might come from the animal crab, which walks crookedly and has a reputation for being, well, crabby. This might have evolved to then refer to churlish people, to crooked or gnarly wood, and to other unpleasant things. The crabapple is sour, and the OED includes this marvelous explanation: "A fruit externally promising, but so crabbed and ill-conditioned in quality, might very naturally be so called." A crabby apple.

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  09:38 PM

A little-known fact is that I have a number of videos on YouTube about using Microsoft Word. ("Little-known" as evidenced by the analytics, haha.) It seems that I should probably let more people know about them! So here's a blog post that catalogs the videos I have so far.

Using styles

Why use styles?

An overview of why styles are awesome and wonderful and why you should use them.

Types of styles

About the different types of styles (paragraph, character, linked, table, and list styles), and how and when you use them.

Ways to apply styles

Reviews the several different ways that you can apply styles in Microsoft Word—the Quick Styles gallery, the Styles pane, the Apply Styles dialog box (Windows only), and keyboard shortcuts. I also offer tips for choosing the right style to apply.

Using styles to set spell-check options

How to use styles to set the language (English, Spanish, German, etc.) for different parts of a document.

Using styles to disable spellcheck

How to use styles to turn off spell checking altogether for some text in a document, with some discussion about when that's useful.

Creating inherited styles ("style based on")

All about using the "style based on" feature, which I refer to as inherited styles. This lets you define one style, and then easily create and change similar styles that are based on that basic style.

Using styles for lists, Part 1: auto-lists

Discusses how Word applies a style to list items when you use the toolbar buttons to create bulleted and numbered lists, and what you can and cannot change about that style.

Using styles for lists, Part 2: styling lists using paragraph styles

Discusses how you can use paragraph styles that have bullets or numbers to style different levels of lists.

Using styles for lists, Part 3: creating list styles

Shows you how to use a list style (aka a multi-level list style) to have complete and utter control over how to style lists.

Other Word features

Creating a keyboard shortcut to paste plain text

Although this is specifically about how to create a keyboard shortcut for pasting plain text, it's really a tutorial on how to create a keyboard shortcut for any Word command.

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  09:30 PM

My friend John used to tell me that the right way to eat was “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” The idea is that you eat less at the end of the day than at the beginning, and that this helps keep your weight under control.

Although the saying has been around for a long time (I guess?), I recently learned a term for this: chrononutrition. More specifically, chrononutrition is the “interaction between circadian rhythms and nutrition,” as one article puts it. Eating at specific times, or only within specific times, is referred to as time-restricted eating, or TRE. Another term is intermittent fasting, or IF.

I just learned the term chrononutrition, as noted, and as far as I can tell, it only started showing up in the popular press relatively recently (2017, 2018). A more scholarly article from 2016 refers to chrononutrition as an “emerging discipline.” That said, there are articles that go back at least as far as 2007. The most intriguing aspect of looking at this word is that that a lot of the literature about it is in French—for example, there’s an article on chrononutrition in the French version of Wikipedia, but not in the English version. And I found a single reference to a book titled Chrononutrition: les aspects fondamentaux des relations de la chronobiologie et de la nutrition that’s from 1994.

So that’s both a new word and some life advice. Bonus!

The other day I was reading about how car horns work (because who doesn’t want to know that, right?), and one of the articles mentioned the word klaxon. I always thought of this as an olde-tyme word for an electric horn. (Another friend of mine joked about how “honk the horn” probably used to be “activate the klaxon.”) A note in the Wikipedia article about horns makes the interesting claim that “Klaxon horns produce an easily identifiable sound, often transcribed onomatopoeiacally in English as ‘ahoooga.’”

Anyway, the interesting thing I learned about klaxon was that it used to be a trademark, apparently till 1992. It referred to a then still relatively novel electric horn manufactured by the Lovell-McConnell Manufacturing Company in the early 1900s. The excellent article “Signalling Methods Definitely Cared For” in The Automobile magazine from January 13, 1910 explains that klaxon is from a Greek word meaning “shriek”:

If you have a few moments, it’s interesting to read what they had to say in 1910 about the many benefits of using a signaling device on your automobile (“the motorist should be thoughtful of others, and not only possess a good signalling device, but use it very freely as well”). Perhaps you can read it while you’re having your late-night snack.

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  12:50 AM

If things go according to plan (mostly around weather), I'll be doing some motorcycling over the long weekend. Which reminds me about a word I learned not long ago: farkle.

In the sense I recently learned, farkle refers to accessories that you add to customize your two-wheeled ride. We riders of course like to convince ourselves that these farkles are practical additions to the bike: removable windshield, GPS units, heated seats, and so on. But as one page puts it, the usefulness of a farkle is in the eye of the beholder. A commonly held view is that farkle is a combination of function and sparkle, which kind of implies that the utility of a farkle might not be its sole purpose.

Too much farkle? (source)

Farkle is a fun word because it's versatile. It can be a noun—either a count noun (article: 10 Affordable Farkles Under $40) or a mass noun (catalog: Motorcycle Farkle & Gadgets). It can also work as a verb: farkling your bike, a motorcycle that's been farkled up.

While I was looking into farkle, I discovered that it's also been used in the world of computers as a synonym for "break" or "mess up." As the Jargon File has it, farkled means hosed. I haven't heard this in the field (that I know of), but you can find traces in support forums and the like. For example, one user described how a particular approach to a problem "involves only changes to core code, [and] doesn't farkle with user content directories." I might try to, you know, socialize this use of the term a bit, see if I can get people interested in it again.

For origins, we turn to the kitchen (and beyond). Not long ago, the inimitable Haggard Hawks tweeted that "In 18th century slang, a WAFFLE-FROLIC was a sumptuous meal." That was great, of course, but it made we wonder where we got the word waffle from.

The OED says it's an American term, borrowed from Dutch. (We also got cookie from Dutch.) Beyond this direct origin, waffle is related to an old Germanic word that means "honeycomb"; for example, the German word for honeycomb is Wabe. The sense of crossed-over things—the distinctive feature of a waffle—appears also in distantly related words like weave and web. Culinarily, a reasonably close relative of the waffle is wafer.

We also have the verb to waffle, meaning to blather on, and by extension, to dither. Surprise, that word is etymologically unrelated to the breakfast waffle. Instead, to waffle comes from an old verb waff that means to yelp or bark (compare woof). The -le part of to waffle marks it as a so-called frequentative, which is a form of the verb that suggests repeated action. Other frequentative pairs like waff/waffle are drip/dribble, daze/dazzle, and spark/sparkle. Which rhymes with farkle, which is where we started, and which seems like a good place to quit for now.

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