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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You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.

— Albert Einstein


<July 2019>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:56 PM Pacific

  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."

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  11:53 AM

In the early 1980s, the Osborne Computer Corporation had a little personal computer—an early portable (well, "luggable") computer named the Osborne 1. A couple of years after the computer was released, Osborne announced that it was working on new models. Potential customers, anticipating a newer, better product, held off on buying an Osborne 1. The new models weren't ready, though, and sales of the original Osborne 1 fell off so precipitously that the company ended up going out of business.

At least, that's the story. (There might have been a few additional wrinkles to this, like the release of cheaper competitors.) But whatever the details, this story gave rise to the term Osborne Effect—the phenomenon when customers don't want to commit to a product because they fear that they'll miss out on a better one that will be available Real Soon Now.

We're probably all familiar with the Osborne Effect in our own lives. If you've ever shopped for technology—a computer, a cellphone, a TV—you probably had to consider whether you shouldn't maybe wait for the next model. And there is always a next model; as consumers, we've been well trained to anticipate product cycles. I suppose that if you squint real hard, you could say that the clothes on a clearance rack at Target or Nordstrom are an acknowledgment of the Osborne Effect, namely that people don't want to buy last season's clothes, at least not at full retail price.

The naming consultant and general word person Nancy Friedman introduced me to the Osborne Effect via an article in Clean Technica about how it's playing out in the auto industry. The author suggests that as interest in electric vehicles spikes, sales of cars overall will dip while enough people hold off on buying fossil-fuel cars (forever) and hold off on buying EVs. In the latter case, it's because they're waiting for the EVs that can replace their fossil-fuel vehicles. The problem, as with the story of the Osborne 1, is that the newer, better models just aren't there yet.

Anyway, the next time you're experiencing decision paralysis about whether to get this year's model (of anything), you can pride yourself on the possibility of participating in the Osborne Effect.

Let's move to origins. For today I've got punch, the drink, as in rum punch. It's not obvious why a drink would be named using the same word as we use for whacking someone. Perhaps it's the alcohol? Let's see.

An explanation you'll often find is that punch is related to the Sanskrit word panca, which means "five." The notion is that punch was traditionally made with five ingredients (or "medicaments," as the OED lists it). If this story holds, it means that name of punch-the-drink is related to pentagram and pentagon, quintuples, and via the magic of Germanic sound shifts, five, finger, and fist.

The word punch for smacking someone is apparently unrelated. That word seems to come from the same source as pounce and puncture. It's possible that punch="five" isn't correct, and that punch-the-drink is related, name-wise, to getting punched. But the 5-ingredient explanation is the one you'll find most often.

What if you're punch-drunk? You might think that punch-drunk comes from drinking too much punch. But it seems instead to refer to the daze that a boxer is in if they've been hit too hard too many times. Frankly, if I were punch-drunk, I'd prefer it to be the result of drinking, not getting hit. Hopefully I can just avoid it altogether.

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  11:09 AM

I keep a list of new-to-me terms, and on that list I have a note next to a couple of words that says, "seems obscure but defines an easy concept." Of course, obscure is in the eye of the beholder. Still, I wonder how many people know these terms.

The first is Lusophone. The phone part clearly has something to do with sound (like "microphone" or "saxophone") or language ("Francophone"). But beyond that, I had no idea. It turns out that Lusophone is someone who speaks Portuguese. That's about 280 million people in about 10 countries, so not an obscure or poorly represented set of speakers.

It's not self-evident what luso- means unless you know classical history. In Roman times, the area roughly corresponding to modern-day Portugal was a province named Lusitania. (That's where the ship RMS Lusitania got its name, who knew!) Why they used that name is not known; it might have been a Celtic name adopted by the Romans. Anyway, that gave us a "combining form" luso- for Portuguese things.

The second new-to-me, obscure-but-easy term is Monegasque. Again we can deduce something, namely that it's probably an adjective; we get that much from the -esque ending. So "of or relating to" … what? If you know French, easy: of or relating to Monaco. In English we also have the more straightforward adjective Monacan, but it's always more glamorous—and obscure—to use a French term, n'est-ce pas?

(The name Monaco comes from an ancient Greek name Monoikos, meaning "single house," something to do with either single-family dwellings or "living apart," per the infallible Wikipedia.)

Ok, enough with the new-to-me obscurish stuff. I recently ran across a history of the expression in the buff to mean sans clothing or, you know, sky-clad. The expression in the buff comes from the word buffalo, like the animal. Leather made from bison was called buff(e) leather, or just buff for short. In the 17th century, coats that were made from this leather were called buff coats. The type of leather is light-colored, and because of the resemblance, in buff(e) was used to describe people who were naked. (There used to be a similar expression in stag, probably along the same lines. Both expressions are recorded in 1602.) Somewhere along the line, a the was dropped into the expression.

I think this origin particularly delighted me because when I was studying Spanish, I ran across the expression en cueros, which literally means "in leathers." I puzzled about that until someone clued me in that it's a way to say "naked." Just like in [the] buff!

Many other buff words come from buffalo. Buff to mean "to polish" comes from using this type of leather to polish things. Buff as in "has a sculpted body" comes from the sense that something buffed looks polished. Buff as in "fan of" ("she's a real film buff") comes from the buff-colored uniforms worn by firefighters in New York City in the 19th century; people who were enthusiastic followers of the firefighters came to be known as buffs. (Or anyway, that's one theory.)

At this point I should again put in a plug for the book Etymologicon, which has page after page of stuff like this. Including, in his entry about buffalo, an explanation of "the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language that uses only one word:" Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. You can read more about that famous sentence in Wikipedia.

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  08:31 AM

I was reading an article the other day about the Green Man in English folklore. (The thesis of the article is that a lot of the mythology around the Green Man was invented pretty recently.) That article mentioned Sheela na Gigs, which are stone carvings of women in unusual poses. And that in turn led me to the new-to-me word this week: hunky punks.

Most people probably know about gargoyles, which are stone carvings on the side of a church. Gargoyles have a practical purpose: they channel rainwater away from the building. A typical gargoyle contains a pipe that shunts the water out through the gargoyle's mouth.

Fanciful stone carvings that decorate a church are therefore not gargoyles. The general term for these is grotesques. But in the west counties of England, particularly in Somerset, grotesques are known as hunky punks. Everyone gives essentially the same explanation: hunky is related to haunches, and punk is a variant on punch, which is something short and fat.

Now you have a term you can use for the decorative faces on faux-gothic buildings in your town. Like these walruses on the side of the Arctic Club building in Seattle:

For origins today, I have two words pertaining to equine locomotion. The first is canter, which is a loping sort of run. An accepted origin for canter is that it's short for Canterbury gallop or Canterbury pace, a sense that goes back to the 1600s. Why Canterbury? Because that's where pilgrims in England went, and to canter was "supposed originally to designate the pace of the mounted pilgrims."

That's not the only theory, though it's the one endorsed by the mighty OED. In his book The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771), Richard Berenger, "Gentleman of the Horse to His Majesty," proposes (page 71) that canter derives from Cantberius, a Roman word for packhorses. These were always geldings, which were calmer horses, and this led to canter being an easy sort of gallop. You can read for yourself:

On to origins, part 2. A canter is a gentle gallop. Whence gallop? I love this one. It's probably from wala hlaupan, which looks weird, but is just some olde type Germanic. The wala part is basically "well." The hlaupan is "to run," which we still have in English as to lope and is a cousin of to leap. (In German, it's laufen.) So gallop is to run well.

But wait, where'd that g- come from? It's not sure (like, there's no textual proof), but it might be another example of a familiar sound change. There are a number of words that originated as Germanic terms but that in Old French substituted g for w: ward/guard, warranty/guarantee. In fact, an obsolete word for gallop is wallop. ("Cam there kyng charlemagn, as fast as his horse myghte walop" from 1490.) But the careful lexicographer would want more evidence than is currently available.

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  09:27 AM

I got called for jury duty recently. I didn’t get picked for a jury (not sorry), but we all went through voir dire. The nature of the defense attorney’s questions to the potential jurors suggested clearly (I thought, anyway) what the shape of his defense was going to be—basically, impeach the results of breathalyzer tests.

That experience, along with the recent death of the actor Peter Mayhew, reminded me of a term I learned recently: the Chewbacca defense. The term originated in the TV program South Park, in an episode that satirized the O. J. Simpson trial. In the episode, the defense attorney asks the jury why Chewbacca would want to live with the Ewoks. Which has nothing to do with the trial, and whose only purpose is to confuse the jury.

The Chewbacca defense is a variant on the Gish Gallop (visited upon earlier) and the generic “baffle ‘em with bullshit” approach to argumentation. But the real question is “does it work?” It seems so. According to an anonymous poster in Quora:

The Chewbacca Defense relies on several truisms about trials; (1) juries are often intimidated, confused or bewildered about anything that goes on in a courtroom; (2) most people think they know way more about the law and legal concepts then they really do; and (3) anything can sound convincing if said in an authoritative, confident and persuasive manner.

Apparently it’s a tactic favored not only in DUI cases like the one I missed being on but in trials that involve DNA. The anonymous poster notes the Chewbacca defense is useful for a lawyer …

… where scientific and/or forensic evidence is so overwhelmingly against one side that he or she or it has no choice but to try to dazzle the jury into thinking that the issues regarding this evidence are so complex and beyond their ken that they cannot fairly resolve them in in this proceeding and must therefore disregard the evidence as untrustworthy or insufficient.

Although I’m not sad to have missed being on the jury, I am curious whether this type of Chewbacca defense was what the defense lawyer ultimately attempted.

Ok, let's move on to origins. Based on a recommendation by the lexicographer Serenity Carr, I'm browsing through the book Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, a.k.a. the Inky Fool. Boy, if you like word histories, this is a book for you. On every page I find another delightful etymology.

So, Botox. This is a brand name for a drug that's used to temporarily paralyze muscles, an effect that can be used as treatment for several conditions, famously wrinkly-ness. The brand name comes from botulinum toxin; as that term implies, it's a toxin produced by the botulinum bacteria. This is a bad toxin; if you eat food contaminated by this bacteria, you can get botulism, a food poisoning that can kill you quite dead.

So far, so good. (Or so bad, I suppose, if you got it.) Botulism as a condition was identified in the 1820s by the German doctor Justinus Kerner, who studied the paralytic effects on a variety of animals and on himself(!). In an era before germ theory, he correctly identified the malady as a food-borne one. The vector seemed to him to be bad sausages, so he named the disease Botulismus for the Latin word for sausage: botulus. Technically, in English the word botulism is a borrowing from German.

Kerner was in tune with the scientific thinking of the times, which is why he turned to Latin to name the disease he'd discovered. It's a little sad that he didn't turn to his native language. Just think how close we came to talking about cases of wurstism, eh?

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  08:48 AM

Today's new-to-me word is really only new in English, because I sort of knew about a German version. Which requires some slight explanation, of course.

I was listening this week to an episode of the Track Changes podcast in which they interviewed Erin McKean—Lexicographer, Founder of Wordnik, Mother of Swagger, First of her Name, etc. Toward the end [32:09], they asked her "What's the best word?" After noting that "every day there's a new best word," McKean offers improworsement.

The concept is probably familiar: you try to improve something, but you just make it worse. Or as Shakespeare put it, "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." This has often been me and home improvement. Hopefully it's not me and editing, gah.

As I was suggesting, there's a German word for this: Verschlimmbesserung. I wasn't sure if this was maybe a jocular invention in German as well, but I got out my trusty Cassell's and was pleased to find that it lists a verb verschlimmbessern ("to make worse instead of better"):

You can see from the next entry that verschlimmern means "to worsen, aggravate." This parses as ver- (a verbal prefix) + schlimm ("bad") + ern, an ending that makes it all a verb. Then you combine that with bessern ("to improve," related to "better") and you end up with verschlimmbessern, "to worsen-improve." And then finally you can whack -ung onto the end (Verschlimmbesserung), and you get a noun form of the verb.

Whew. I take you through all this not because I think you want to learn German morphology, but because it sort of explains improworsement. It's possible that we could think of improworsement as a portmanteau of improvement + worse. But it might also be a kind of calque or loan translation—a term that's ported from one language to another piece by piece. Thus from Verschlimmbesserung we get improworsement:

impro from bessern
from schlimm
from ung

Maybe. I suggest this because the first reference I can find for improworsement is from a comment in 2009 on the excellent Sentence First blog of the Irish editor Stan Carey. The commenter, Sean Jeating, uses improworsement in quotation marks and notes the German equivalent. Perhaps Jeating invented the term right then and there. Wouldn't that be cool?

Anyway, I encourage you to adopt improworsement into your active vocabulary. Not, of course, that I hope that you experience it frequently.

Let us have a quick entry also for delightful origins. I'm reading Mary Norris's Greek to Me, her love letter to Greek language and culture. There are several word-origin stories in the book; one that I liked was for the word rhapsodize.

This comes from the Greek words rháptein meaning "to stitch" and oid, meaning "ode." A rhapsodos, or rhapsodist, was someone who recited poems in ancient Greece, or as Norris notes, was "a stitcher of songs." Even today, she says, the word ráftis in Greek means tailor. And from this we get all of those rhapso words, like rhapsody (a song thusly stitched) and as we occasionally do around here, to wax rhapsodic.

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  06:58 AM

When I think of words that might be new to me, I imagine nouns or verbs. Or at least words that are relatively new, like maybe ones that have appeared in the last 50 years. (I have list of Friday words; judge for yourself.) So I was surprised this week to encounter a very old adjective: the word quondam.

This came up in a tweet by the BBC writer Pádraig Belton, in which he talks about the "quondam British Sector" in Berlin:

Seriously, how could I be today years old and never have heard of this word? A trip to the dictionary reveals that it means "former, one-time." Merriam-Webster has a nice note about the word (Looking for an unusual and creative way to say "former"?) in which they list even more obscure synonyms (whilom, ci-devant, or preterit) before suggesting the old-sounding but still-used erstwhile.

Because quondam gave me a mild case of lexical insecurity, I searched the Corpus of Web-Based English, which incorporates (get it?) texts from 20 English-speaking locales. This assuaged my doubts slightly—in a collection of 1.9 billion words, quondam appears only 49 times. Slightly to my surprise, it shows up the most in US-based texts, though that might be the result of how the corpus was built, dunno.

(Click to embiggen)

Moreover, an Google ngram search shows us that quondam has been in decline right from the earliest books in that corpus:

(Click to embiggen)

Anyway, I'm happy to have learned a pretty old and rare word. Now I'll have to think about whether I should use it myself and thereby do my little part to help rescue it from complete obscurity.

Word origins! I live in Seattle and ride the light rail as part of my commute. Not only does the line terminate at the University of Washington, one of the stops downtown is the unrelated University Street. (I pity the tourists who are trying to sort this out.) Staring at the map while commuting finally got me thinking about where we got the word university. I mean … universe, right? Must be related, but how?

The uni- part means "one," of course; we see it in unique and union and unite, and more distantly in one and only. The -verse part means "to turn," which we see in words like versus and verse and invert. So university and universe are grammatically different takes on the idea of "turn(ed) into one" (see also: "E pluribus unum"). In the academic sense, a university is a community of scholars.

This surprised me: in English, university is the older term, having appeared in the 1200s in Anglo-Norman, and which makes it about as old as the oldest university. The Romans had a term universum to mean the sum of things, but we apparently didn't take up the word universe in English till the late 1500s. As near as I can tell, the word universe doesn't appear in the King James Bible (1611); I guess (?) they used the word creation for the same concept.

An aside: the word varsity is just a shortened form of university. All the sources I looked at suggested that the -ar- in varsity (instead of -er-) is the result of the same process that gave us varmint from vermin and parson from person. That thar is an interesting fact indeed.

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  09:51 AM

People everywhere tend to believe that their language is the finest of all the languages. This natural inclination can sometimes extend to a belief that their language must therefore be the mother of all languages.

If you also have a theological bent, this belief can take on religious overtones. What language did Adam and Eve speak in the Garden of Eden? This was a question of interest to scholars in the Middle Ages. And a 16th-century Dutch doctor named Johannes Goropius Becanus (born Jan Gerartsen van Gorp) reckoned he'd figured it out: they spoke Brabantic. By amazing coincidence, Brabantic—a dialect of Dutch—happened to be the good doctor's native tongue.

Gerartsen spent considerable effort on his theory, which included supposedly Brabantic origins for the names Adam and Eve. The theory did not find a lot of backers. In fact, it was so poorly received that it spawned this week's new-to-me word: goropism, based on the doctor's Latinized name. (The term goropism was supposedly coined by Leibnitz himself, who had unkind words for the doctor's work.)

Goropism actually describes two ideas. One is the notion that some language known today must have been the Ur-language. (Pro tip: no.) Goropism can also mean a madey-uppy word origin, which derives from Gerarsten's strained efforts to make names in Genesis seem to derive from Dutch.

One does encounter the first sense of goropism occasionally among particularly chauvinistic speakers of a language.[1] As for the second sense, you'll find plenty of examples of that. Has anyone ever told you that crap came from the name of the dude who invented the flush toilet, Thomas Crapper? Or that the word posh comes from "port outward, starboard home"?[2] Those are fabricated word origins, or to honor our boy today, goropisms. False etymologies. Another name for these, as coined by the linguist Lawrence Horn, is etymythologies.

I learned a bunch of this from a highly entertaining and very informative blog post by Brian Powers, who also tweets as Languages Around the Globe. A recommended follow.

Speaking of word origins—real ones this time—today I have fifth column. I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s novel Transcription, and ran across this:

… in which one of the characters says, "I presume you are familiar with the ins and outs of the fifth column."

I knew more or less what fifth column was, but I didn't know where the term came from. The generally accepted origin is in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. The story goes that as Nationalist forces converged on Madrid in four columns, the general Emilio Mola Vidal talked about a "fifth column" (tho in Spanish: quinta columna) that was undermining the Republican government from within the city. The expression got into English when it was used in 1936 by a New York Times reporter who was writing about the war.

There's some dispute about whether Mola Vidal actually ever talked about a quinta columna, or whether it was in fact used by a Communist leader about the Nationalist sympathizers. As if that didn't muddy things up enough, apparently the term might have been used as early as 1906 by an Austrian official about Serbian nationalists. For our purposes—that is, how we got the word in English—we can safely assume that it came from somewhere in the Spanish Civil War, and probably via the New York Times article.

As an aside, it's interesting to me that fifth in fifth column really has no significance in itself; it was just based on the number of military forces in play at the time. Now I'm wondering how many other numerically based terms we have (like fourth estate) that are the result of just … counting up.

[1] For example, I have personally tangled with some folks who maintained that Sanskrit was not just an ancient language, but the original language, and certainly the source of all European languages.

[2] The lexicographer Kory Stamper has this thought: "Acronymic etymologies are, by and large, total horseshit."

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  07:56 AM

I saw a headline the other day about a "market melt up." That made me scroll back to see what the heck they were talking about, because that was new to me.

Sure enough: there's such a thing in finance as a melt up, which an article in Bloomberg defines as "a sharp and unexpected gain driven by a stampede of investors who don’t want to miss out rather than [by] any fundamental improvements." When the market rises due to a kind of financial FOMO.

There are some interesting aspects to the term melt up. It seems safe to assume that it's based on the term meltdown, in which things are, broadly speaking, going to hell. The metaphor of meltdown at least has the image correct; when something melts, gravity tends to cause the liquid to flow downward. Many things can melt down: the Arctic; nuclear fuel cores; people under stress. (I can't offhand think of a use for meltdown when it's considered a positive, but let me know if I've overlooked one.)

So a melt up is sort of the opposite of a meltdown, right? Yes and no. The up part is an opposite; prices are going up. But if a meltdown is definitely a bad thing, a melt up is not necessarily a good thing. (It's temporarily positive, but the expectation is that prices are going up for the wrong reasons. As the Investopedia article says, "Melt ups often precede melt downs.") Most of all, the melt metaphor, while tying the idea to that of a meltdown, sort of doesn't make sense in melt up.

Finally, I wondered what the difference is, financially speaking, between a melt up and a bubble. Bloomberg makes the distinction that a melt up might end up being justified by market fundamentals, whereas a bubble by definition is when prices are no longer realistic. As I understand it.

This would all just be just lexical fun if the potential consequences of market melt ups were not so dire. So let's hope that we will not, in fact, be hearing this term much in the future.

On to origins. Last weekend, the grandboy surprised (and amused) us by telling us that there was "just a titch" of water left in his glass. It's apparent that he got this expression from his mother, who is a Pacific Northwest native, with some linguistic influence from family in Texas. And of course I immediately wondered where titch had come from.

If you look up titch in the dictionary, you find that there's a word titchy in British English, which means "very small, tiny." Perhaps surprisingly, the word titchy is an eponym; there was an actor whose stage name was Little Tich, who was small. Some people trace titch meaning "small quantity" back to this origin. Nancy Friedman has a writeup of this explanation on her blog (via the site World Wide Words), which notes that titch is British and Australian slang.

I also had a peek in the Dictionary of American Regional English (aka DARE), but it doesn't seem to have an entry for titch. When I poked around on various online forums, people from places like Iowa and central Canada likewise wondered about the term. (A Canadian fashion blogger has a blog named Just a Titch.)

You might wonder how some British slang based on an 19th-century actor managed to make its way to the western US and Canada and become established in the vernacular there. And the answer is … probably it didn't. Per the OED, titch is a variation of touch ("just a touch" to mean "just a small quantity"). Well, darn; if the OED is to be believed, British titchy is unrelated to "just a titch."

Of course, none of this decreases our enjoyment of hearing the kid pick up idiomatic expressions, which also of course will keep me reaching for the dictionary.

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