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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So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.

George Lucas


<April 2017>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:33 AM Pacific

  06:58 PM

It's been a long Friday, but it's never too late to think about some words!

For the first term—well, it's a pair—some folks might be surprised to hear this was a term (terms) that I didn't already know. I'm a bit surprised myself, but there you go. Anyway! The term is anarthrous; in grammatical usage, it means a noun used without an article. It's actually common in some languages to not use the equivalent of the or a/an in front of a noun. That's not English, but is apparently true in Greek. My decades of listening to native Russian speakers fail to use articles in English suggested to me that this is true also in Russian, and sure enough.

In Greek, anarthrous actually means "no joint," and it's used in that sense in zoological contexts. (You might recognize the –arthrous part as related to arthropod: jointed-foot critters.) The OED has an amusing definition for anarthrous in this sense: "Jointless; or so fat as to appear so."

The no-article sense came up recently in a tweet about the odd habit in Southern California of using the word the in front the names of freeways: "the 5" or "the 10," meaning respectively Interstate 5 or Interstate 10. People outside SoCal refer to highways anarthrously, i.e., with no article. Whereas the denizens of LA and vicinities use arthrous highway names, which gives us the other word in the pair I promised—arthrous meaning with articles. I mention the highway thing only as an example of (an)arthousness; if you're interested in this peculiarity of LA driving, I'll refer you to a post on Language Hat's blog about it all.

For etymology this week I have something that's nearly topical: the word tulip. An area north of Seattle—the Skagit Valley—is the center of US tulip growing, and tulips are a very big deal up there—people flock to the area in April when the fields are in full bloom to enjoy the colors before the bulbs are harvested:

In fact, we were up there last weekend for a family event. And to look at the tulips, sure, why not.

Whence tulip? It originates in Persian as dulband, where it meant "turban." The notion is that the "expanded flower" (OED) looks like a hat thing. The word was filtered through Turkish, where the initial d became a t. To be clear, we got turban from the same word in Persian, only in that case the l in the middle changed to an r for reasons unknown. Two words in English for the price of one, sweet deal.

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  04:49 PM

I've been on a three-week break, and this is my last Friday of vacation. But on the plus side, the hiatus ends with some words.

I have a handful of new-to-me terms today. Let's start with a term I learned from the news. US VP Mike Pence made some waves recently by declaring that as a married man, he never dines, or is otherwise alone, with a woman who is not his wife. In reading about the statement in the New Yorker, I ran across a name for this convention: the Billy Graham rule. Per the NYer article, in 1948, the evangelist Billy Graham and some colleagues were concerned about the reputation that evangelists had (in a word: sleazy), so they laid out some rules that would, as Wikipedia cites, "avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion." Among such behaviors was the notion that they should not be alone together with non-wife-type women, and this has since come to be known as the Billy Graham rule.

With all this vacation time, I also had a chance to plow through my stack o' magazines. From a December 2016 issue of The Atlantic, I picked up another new-to-me term: stolen valor. This refers to people who pretend to be in the military or to be veterans and/or claim to have earned military honors like medals. They might do this for specific benefits (discounts, etc.), or just to garner the respect that citizens have for those who serve. Not surprisingly, this offends legitimate members or veterans of the military, some of whom make a point of outing the pretenders. (There's a genre of videos in which alleged perps of stolen valor are confronted.) Congress has passed a couple of laws making stolen valor illegal, although one such law was overturned on first amendment grounds in 2012. Even tho the term itself dates only from the 1980s, the concept has been recognized for a long time—George Washington warned about it in the Revolutionary era.

Bonus new word today, courtesy of Haggard Hawks on Twitter: Rückenfigur: "a figure of a person in the foreground of a painting with their back turned to the viewer." German, of course; Rücken means "back," Figur means "figure." A favorite of the painter Caspar David Friederich:

Oh, and look, here's a still from the movie The Duellists by Ridley Scott. Someone studied his German Romantics, didn't he.

Moving on to etymology, for some reason it occurred to me recently to wonder where the word eclipse came from or what its cognates might be. Turns out it has a relatively direct origin, and not a lot of etymological brethren. We get the term via the usual channel of < French < Latin < Greek; in Greek, it means "to leave" (leipein) or "to fail to appear." The lipse part has pretty distant relatives in the words loan and relinquish.

Since that wasn't as interesting as I thought it would be, I'll leave you with another, more interesting origin that I also got recently from Haggard Hawks: the word squirrel means "shadow (or shade) tail" in Greek. (If you don't already follow Haggard Hawks on Twitter, you should!)

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  12:49 PM

After a wee hiatus due to job things and conference things, we're back for some more Friday words! Hard today for me to sit at the desk and do this because here in Seattle we have some actual sunshine.

The new term today is rent-seeking. This isn't a completely new word for me—it's sort of the lexical equivalent of that person at your company that you see in the lunchroom sometimes but have never been properly introduced to. Anyway, I was reading some article and ran across it again and thought that maybe I should look it up.

You can almost (?) guess what the word means from its constituent parts. Rent-seeking refers to trying to get unwarranted economic advantage, where "unwarranted" means without giving anything in return to a specific entity or to society as a whole. Some typical examples are an industry lobbying to get import tariffs, to get government subsidies, or to try to use government regulation to stifle competition.

In my pokings-about, I found a piece that asked the same question I had: why rent-seeking? If I understand the article right, rent here refers to extra cost to do business. In this context, a tariff is a cost (rent) to your competitor for doing business in your country. To be clear, rent-seeking is generally considered something that ends up costing consumers and the overall GDP, since it's not productive use of money. There's more in the article if you're curious.

As a bonus new term, I'll note that the Oxford Dictionaries site just introduced me to the term pogonophobia—hatred of beards.

On to etymology. I've probably seen the word subpoena ten thousand (myriad) times, but I only recently wondered where it came from. As an aside, subpoena arrived in stages in English: as a noun (1426), as an adverb—"being issued sub peona" (1466), and as a verb (1640).

We get the word from Latin sub poena, "under penalty," which various sources say were the first words of the writ that coerces an appearance before the court. That seems clear enough, but it struck me that this was perhaps an unusual derivation—namely, a term based on the first word(s) of a text. I tried to come up about other examples of this type of derivation, and assembled this short list:
  • Hail Mary, referring to the Catholic prayer ("say five Hail Marys") and extended further to a last-ditch strategy, as in "a hail-Mary pass" from American football. This term comes from the first two words of the Catholic prayer, Ave Maria in Latin. Along similar lines we have the term Our Father, a.k.a. the Lord's Prayer (Latin: pater noster), used as a noun.

  • The noun ABC ("now we know our ABCs"), a synonym for the alphabet and as a term meaning the basic tenets of.

  • Lorem ipsum, referring to some widely used filler text.

  • Various songs and rhymes, like "London Bridge" and "Ring Around the Rosie," whose titles are the first lines of the rhymes.
It feels like I know of other examples of this phenomenon, but they're just out of reach. And I can't figure out exactly how to search for a thing like this.

There's also the question about whether there's a word for the type of etymology. Future investigation, I guess.

Update #1 (31 Mar 2017) Following some tips I got from lexicographer Ben Zimmer, I looked in the OED for more entries based on "first word(s)" or "opening word(s)" and came up with these additional terms:
  • credo
  • dirge (< Dirige)
  • Internet (OED: "… the collection of networks gradually came to be called the 'Internet', borrowing the first word of 'Internet Protocol'.")
  • Magnificat
  • Stabat Mater
  • Te Deum
As the lexicographer Orin Hargraves points out, the church liturgy has been a rich source of such terms.

Update #2 (31 Mar 2017) And regarding what to call these things. There is apparently no established term. Ben Zimmer suggests "The opening of a Mass is called the Introit, so maybe we could call these introitisms?" And Orin Hargraves suggests a term I really like: prolegonym, which we can gloss as something like "intro-name" (cf prologue).

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  05:28 PM

Oh, boy, oh, boy—daylight saving time this weekend. I think I'm the only person who likes DST. Tho I will admit that it does give us one hour less for words on Sunday.

Speaking of which, what new-to-you words do we have today, Mike? Well, we have a pair that's kind of related.[1] The first term is benevolent deception. As the words suggest, this refers to a deception—lying—under what might be considered justifiable circumstances. Benevolent deception is a topic of interest in medical ethics. As Marc Agronin noted in The Atlantic:
Every clinician has encountered situations in which being too bluntly honest about a diagnosis can actually be harmful to the patient, and so we employ what is euphemistically referred to as "benevolent deception."
I actually found this term in an article about software, where it was used to refer to user interface (UI) design that deceives the user, but in a good way. Examples:
Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn't have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user's experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it's visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn't been dropped).
A specific kind of benevolent deception brings us to the second new-to-me term today: the labor illusion, which I got from the same article. It turns out that if the user thinks a task should be hard, but the computer does it easily, the user can experience a kind of disappointment. In such situations, UI designers might add an "artificial wait" using widgets like (fake) progress bars or "Working on it!" messages. According to the Harvard researchers who invented the term labor illusion in 2011, "operational transparency increases perceived value." By golly, if I paid $29 for Turbo Tax to do my taxes, I want it to look like it has to break a virtual sweat to do them. Goes the theory.

On to origins. Not long ago someone said that they were going "stir-crazy," so of course I got to wondering where that had come from. The term stir-crazy refers to becoming deranged from being confined. The crazy part is pretty clear, but what does stir refer to? Well, it seems that stir is a slang term for prison. The OED records it from a London source in the 1850s in the expression in stir to mean "in prison." Most sources list its origin as obscure, sticking with "slang" or "argot" or "cant," but Douglas Harper takes a stab at it: it might originally have come from a Romany (a.k.a. "Gypsy") word stardo meaning "imprisoned," then evolved into start (an attested word from the 1700s for prison) and then into stir.

As an aside, I got curious about words in English that derive from Romany. Wikipedia has an article that lists about 20, including drag (car), lollipop, nark/narc, pal, and shiv, and togs. It's Wikipedia, so, … you know.

For more word origin fun this week, see James Harbeck's piece 15 Words We Stole from Arabic.

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[1] "A pair ... that is related." There's something off there.

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  11:52 PM

It's March, but there's still talk of snow in Seattle. One of yer weirder winters in these parts. Fortunately, we have the consolation of words.

I have a couple of new-to-me words today. The first I got via Facebook Friend Brendan, who asked "Why do I never know about a 'craze' until it's over?" Well, he's ahead of me, because I didn't hear about it till he posted about it. The craze? Something called sologamy: marrying yourself. The idea is to have a ceremony that's essentially a wedding, but there's no partner. (It also has no legal implications.) As far as I can tell, sologamy does not preclude a more traditional wedding at a later time. Sologamy seems to be related to the quirkyalone movement, another new term, which is about embracing being single.

Whatever the sociology behind it—and there's a lot of commentary—it's a well-constructed word. Compare monogamy, bigamy, and polygamy, where gamy is a combining form, as they call it, meaning "union."[1]

I can't pin down how old the word is. The concept seems to be around 20 years old, or perhaps older, and was earlier also referred to as self-marriage. The earliest reference to sologamy I can find is from 2014, but the author isn't claiming he made up the term. Interestingly, I found a tweet from 2011 that references sologamist:

But that isn't telling us how old the word sologamy is. If I learn more, I'll update.

I have another new-to-me term, which came about in an odd way. My wife was typing away on her computer, stopped, and asked me "How do you spell sequela?" Spell it? I'd never even heard it. (The preceding conversation was of course out loud, not typed.) Turns out that a sequela is a medical disorder that is the result of a previous disorder; as M-W puts it, a sequela is an aftereffect. An example in Wikipedia is that kidney disease can be the sequela of diabetes. Or the more obvious one that neck pain might be the sequela of whiplash.

Let us now turn to unexpected word origins. The other day someone said something was a "conundrum," and it occurred to me for the first time to wonder whence we get this excellent word. Amateur etymologist that I am, I of course immediately thought that, well, con is Latin for "with" and undrum must be … something interesting. In Latin.

The OED has an unexpectedly unexpected etymology: "Origin lost." Their best guess is that it's "an Oxford term, possibly originating in some university joke or a parody of some Latin term of the schools." So it's a madey-uppy word, a 16th-century instance of teen slang. The OED also revealed that the term has had a variety of definitions, of which the one I use—"something puzzling"—is but one. Others include a riddle in which the answer is a pun (no examples given, sad); a pun; a "whim, crotchet, conceit."

It must be rare to find an etymology like this for a word this old. Sure, people make up funny words all the time, but I bet not many of them survive for 400 years.

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[1] Well, I was just recently obliged to argue against set someone straight about their mistaken notion that you're "not supposed to" combine Latin (solo) and Greek (gamy) roots.

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  11:18 PM

To start this week's words post on a personal note, I turned 60 this last weekend. People were curious if I was sad about this. Not at all, it turns out. I'm not sure exactly why I find this milestone so appealing. One thought is that instead of being an old middle-aged person, I am now the youngest old person I know. And on that note, on the to the words!

The new-to-me word this week is trilemma. As is often the case, this is not at all a new word (17th century). And as also often happens, I've known the concept, just not the word for it. It's an extension of the word dilemma, which refers to a choice between two unpleasant alternatives. Here, di is two, and lemma is a proposition. A trilemma, then, is a choice of three undesirable choices. Epicurus's Trilemma is a classic theological trilemma that goes like this:
  1. If God is unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent.
  2. If God is not willing to prevent evil, he is not good.
  3. If God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil?
However, trilemma is also used to refer to a situation that might have three desirable outcomes, but you only get two. (In this sense, it kinda-sorta inverts the sense of dilemma.) A well-known example of this second sense of trilemma in the software business is the maxim "Fast, good, or cheap: pick two." This is also known as the project-management trilemma.

This investigation actually started when I was reading an article and ran across Rodrick's Trilemma, which states that "a nation may have two of the following three things: national sovereignty, democracy, or deep, global economic integration. It can have any combination of two. But it cannot have all three." If you're interested in how this trilemma might be updated for today's USA, I urge you to read the article.

Turning to unexpected etymology, I have two today on an automotive theme. The first is the word tire, referring to the rubber tube around the wheels. This comes from a word for the iron rim that was attached to the outside of wooden wheels to give them strength. It was later used to refer to a similar feature on locomotive wheels, and then was repurposed to refer to pneumatic rubber tires. But why tire in the first place? Per the OED, a now-obsolete sense of tire was "apparatus, equipment, accoutrement, outfit." We still have a modern cognate … attire. Thus a tire is your car wheel's clothing! Ain't etymology fun.

Did I say your car? Obviously I meant your whip. Friend Seth sent me an article from a site called TheDrive.com in which the article's author makes the curious assertion that "unlike much of what today's youth say, whip actually has depth, meaning, an etymology." In spite of this unpromising start, the author does recount an interesting history that goes back quite a ways. The tl;dr is that people used to turn horse-drawn carts by cracking a whip. The handle of the whip is a whipstock or whipstaff. In the boating world, people used the term whipstaff, or just whip, for a piece of wood that was attached to the tiller. (More details) This much is all verifiable via the OED.

Now we get to the parts of the story that I have not been able to verify. When carriages become horseless, steering was done via a tiller-like device. The word whip was borrowed along with the tiller, and then became attached to the steering wheel when that innovation was introduced. The latter-day sense of whip supposedly referred originally to Mercedes-Benz, because the Mercedes star, enclosed in a circle, resembles a steering wheel. It's since generalized to refer to any car. It's a good story, and not implausible. If I were a real lexicographer, I'd go digging some more.

Anyway, for some extra unexpected etymology this week (extra and unexpected, not extra-unexpected), try these:
  • James Harbeck on ramification. (Spanish speakers might have an "aha" moment.)
  • John Kelly on suede.
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  11:28 AM

Friday words! Here's an interesting milestone: this will be the last words post I make while I'm still in my 50s.

Note #1! This week's new word features politics and (especially) strong language.

Note #2! The discussion might also be a little too inside-baseball; it's a word about words. Sorry about that.

So. This week's new-to-me word is also actually new: shitgibbon compound. Of late, many people have been discussing the insult shitgibbon. The word rose to prominence during a series of tweets that were posted when then-candidate Trump visited Scotland and made some statements that people disagreed with (example); it then came up again when a US legislator used it in an angry tweet. If you're interested in the rise and spread of this term, the linguist Ben Zimmer traces it in an entry on the Strong Language blog.

However, what interests me today is not shitgibbon as such, but the term shitgibbon compound. The word shitgibbon has a particular construction and rhythm that we find in other insults: scumbucket, twatwaffle, fartnugget, and many more. The linguist Gretchen McCulloch proposed the name shitgibbon compounds at the end of her deep-dive into how these types of terms can be constructed. Daniel Midgley took up this term and made an awesome chart of the frequency of shitgibbon compounds, which I'll show you just a teaser of because you really want to go see the whole chart and his writeup:

Something I like about the term shitgibbon compound is that the name is based on an exemplar of the genre. The linguist Brianne Hughes did this also when she named cutthroat compounds—words based on verb+noun like pickpocket, tattletale, killjoy, and of course cutthroat itself.

Anyway, now when someone calls you a fuckweasel, you can enjoy knowing that you've been insulted using a shitgibbon compound.

Let's move on to word origins. The surprising etymology this week came from a discussion that started when Facebook Friend Jim Bisso posted this picture of a book he has:

This was initially a remember-when post about the days before calculators, but a lively side discussion emerged about the term stereotyped on the book's title page. I'm sure we all know the meaning of stereotype as "a preconceived notion, especially about a group of people."

But that doesn't make sense for the use of stereotyped on the book's title page. It turns out that stereotype started life in the printing industry in the early 1700s. In those days, back when type was set by hand, it was tedious and expensive to re-set a book if you wanted to do a second printing. So if a savvy printer thought they might need to reprint a book, they'd set the type for a page and then make a mold of the typeset page—a kind of snapshot of the full typeset page. (The mold is known as a flong.) The printer could then cast a new page, complete, from the mold, and print new pages from that. The plate that was cast from the mold was known as a stereotype, from classical roots meaning "solid" + "type."

The metaphoric use of stereotype derived from this quite concrete sense, picking up on the sense of making a copy easily. Fun fact! Another word for stereotype in the printing sense is cliché, from French (obviously?). This comes from a verb clicher, which means to make a stereotype in this way, and apparently is onomatopoeic, from the sound that the mold makes when you lift it off the type.

You can see pictures of all this on the Wikipedia article about stereotype.

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  07:06 PM

Of all the things that happened this week, waking up to 8 inches of snow on Monday was about the least expected. What with this being Seattle in February and all. On the other hand, what is expected is words on Friday.

The new-to-me term this week is another law: Brandolini's Law, to be exact, which says that "the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it." Alberto Brandolini made this proclamation, labeling it "bullshit asymmetry," in a tweet about 4 years ago:

I don't remember exactly where I got this from, but there's a great blog post by Guillaume Nicoulaud (I think! attribution is hard to come by on that blog!) that first labeled the aphorism and credited it to Brandolini, who's an Italian software developer.

The blog post takes a few pains to note analogues, like "a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on," variously attributed to Twain or Lincoln or Einstein or Gandhi, like everything else on the internet. (Actually, the post attributes it to Spurgeon. Or Swift.) Commenters on the blog also note similar observations, like the Gish Gallop (a.k.a. "proof by verbosity") and "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit." None of these seems to quite capture essence of what Brandolini is getting at, though.

Me, I reckon this all might be an excuse for me to buy the book On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt.

On to etymology. The other day I was reading something about WWII and ran across the term bayonet. I've known this word since I was a wee war-books-reading boy, but I had never wondered where the name came from. The -et ending sounds French, of course, and indeed it is. (A note I found said that in early borrowings from French we used the -et ending, but later started using the -ette ending.)

There seem to be two theories of the origin of bayonet. One is that it refers to the Bayonne region in France, where bayonets were invented or initially deployed or particularly popular. (I made up that last one.) "I shall tickle the Huns with my little knife of Bayonne!" said no one that I know of. (Except they didn't say it in French.)

The second theory is that bayonet is a diminutive of bayon, referring to an arrow or crossbow shaft. This also seems plausible, and is supported, kind of, by words in Spanish and Italian that might also refer to a dagger or sheath.

Either way, this etymological investigation led me to want to have a look at some bayonets. Which was interesting, but made me a bit queasy.

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  07:43 AM

Friday words for the beginning of February. Or "Febuary", if you, like me, are a fan and practitioner of liquid dissimilation.

Today's new-to-me term is vertical farming, which I learned from an article in the New Yorker recently. This almost seems like a self-evident term until you ponder what exactly it might mean. Terracing? Growing things on a wall? Growing some verticals? (Huh?)

According to the article, the term has a precise definition:
It refers to a method of growing crops, usually without soil or natural light, in beds stacked vertically inside a controlled-environment building.
As it says, the plants aren't in soil; instead, the roots are sprayed with a nutritious and delicious liquid via fertigation (fertilize+irrigation), another term I learned from reading about all this.

Per the NYer article, the term vertical farming was invented (at least, in this sense) by Dickson Despommier, Ph.D, who wrote a book in 2011 called The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.

People who are involved in vertical farming are super-excited about it and talk fervently about the potential of this technique to revolutionize agriculture. I guess we'll know that vertical farming is a success when someone invents a retronym like "horizontal farming" or "land farming" for what we otherwise today know as just "farming."

On to etymology! Not long ago someone alerted me to the origin of the word diabetes. People in earlier eras recognized the disease; apparently there are records going back to ancient Egypt referring to it. They didn't know anything about the etiology of the disease, but they recognized it for one of its symptoms: copious urination.

Thus the name diabetes, which comes from a Latin word meaning "siphon"; the Latins in turn got it from Greek verb meaning "to pass through." The great Greek physician Galen referred to diabetes as diarrhea urinosa, or diarrhea of the urine. (There's an interesting article (PDF) in the Hormones journal about the first descriptions in medical literature of diabetes.)

Oh, in English, we started using the word diabetes in the 1400s. Here's a cite from 1475:
Diabites is an vnmesurable pissing of vrin þat comeþ of grete drienes of þe reynes [kidneys].
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  08:49 AM

Friday words! Our last installment for an eventful January 2017.

The new-to-me term this week is economic moat. This refers to a competitive advantage that is not easy for others to overcome. A textbook example of an economic moat is a patent your company owns—not only do you have a competitive advantage, but your competitors cannot use your process or widget. But it can also be something like a brand with a high recognition factor—for example, it doesn’t matter how delicious your soft drink is if you're trying to compete with Coca-Cola.

The term is attributed to the investor Warren Buffet. The financial press loves this quote, omg: "In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable moats." But finding the actual source is surprisingly difficult. The best I could do was this, from the 1986 Chairman's Letter, where Buffett says the following:
The difference between GEICO’s costs and those of its competitors is a kind of moat that protects a valuable and much-sought-after business castle.
As an aside, I'll note that Buffett is justly famous for the approachability of his writing about financial matters, and the Letters are surprisingly good reading.

So. Got a little off track there, sorry. On to etymology. This week's word came up in a discussion online about which term is preferred, couch or sofa. During the discussion, someone mentioned that sofa was a borrowing from Arabic. And sure enough! The origin is listed as the Arabic word soffah.

The first cites in English (1625) use the word sofa to refer to a raised platform that's got carpets and cushions on it.

The original sofa?

By 1717, the French were using the word to refer to a couch-ier thing, which is what we do today.

As for the question of couch versus sofa, people agreed that couch was the more common term. After all, you never hear about someone who's a sofa-potato.

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