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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Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.

— Confucius


<June 2017>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 11:35 AM Pacific

  09:45 AM

The days do fly by. We had summer solstice this week, meaning that the days are shrinking again <sob>. But this has no effect, it seems, on thinking about words.

Today's new-to-me word came up in passing in someone's Facebook post: odonym. I'm interested in –nym words in general, but I had never run across odonym before; indeed, the term does not appear much in easily accessible dictionaries. Anyway, odonym refers to street names, basically. Per one source, the odo part comes from Greek hodos, meaning "road," and –nym is, well, nym (synonym, antonym, pseudonym, homonym, eponym, etc.): "name."

One might think that the study of street names would have limited scope, but there are actually lots of interesting things to think about in odonymy, like:
  • What the differences might be between streets, roads, avenues, boulevards, circles, courts, ways, lanes, etc.

  • The origins of street names. Broadway was, you know, a broad way (Breede weg in the original Dutch). Wall Street might have referred to an actual wall. Fleet Street in London was close to the River Fleet, long since disappeared. (For details, consult your local odonymist.)

  • Metaphors based on odonymy: Broadway (for theater), Madison Avenue (for advertising), Wall Street (for the financial industry), skid road (for a derelict area, named after a one-time street in Seattle where logs were "skidded" down to a mill). Nancy Friedman explored one particular metaphor in What Does "Main Street" Mean?

  • Naming conventions: numbers (Fifth Avenue), themes (trees are popular: Oak Street, Elm Street, Birch Street), and so on. Some cities have street names that are in alphabetic order, as in Denver: Albion-Ash-Bellaire-Birch-Clermont-Cherry-Dexter-Dahlia, etc.

Anyway, think about the word odonym the next time the disembodied voice of your GPS directions completely mangles a street name.

For surprising word origins, today I have sabotage, which of course refers to deliberately wrecking something. The sabot part refers to a kind of wooden shoe; today we'd probably refer to it as a clog. This is probably related to zapato in Spanish and similar words in other Romance languages. (Also to the name Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer.)

How did a wooden shoe come to be associated with malicious mischief? Unclear, it turns out. The story sometimes told that workers would throw their shoes into machines to wreck them seems not to be the origin of sabotage, although maybe they did do that thing. One theory is that wooden shoes are noisy, and that this noise came to be associated with doing something badly. How exactly the sense changed from unintentional to intentional bungling isn't 100% clear, although it might have come via music (wooden shoes = noisy = playing badly = wrecking something, but don't take that one to the bank).

Somewhat interesting fact: the word sabotage is relatively new in English; it dates only from the early 1900s. We borrowed it intact from French.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  08:37 AM

I'm a little sad that today is not the 17th, because tomorrow will be 17-6-17 in the non-US way of writing dates. Still, because it is Friday, we do have words!

For today's new-to-me word we turn to a narrow—though as you'll see, not unfamiliar—form of found art. Klecksography is the art of making figures out of inkblots. This was a thing in Victorian times, which I learned about when I happened to see an article about it in Atlas Obscura. Specifically, klecksography involves dropping ink on a page, then folding the page to produce a mirror image. In the gamified version of this, you add a poem.

Turning a goof into art is credited to the German poet Justinus Kerner, who used klecksography to illustrate poems he'd written. (If only I could turn my spills into art, ha.) This origin also explains the name: Kleck is the German word for "blot, (ink) stain, spot, blotch, blur."

If klecksography sounds (looks) familiar, it's because it was adapted as the Rorsarch test used in psychology.

As an aside, in reading about klecksography, I also learned the word apophenia, which means to find patterns in random things. (I already knew the word pareidolia—for an explanation of the distinction, see this blog post.)

For unexpected word origins, today I have curfew. As is often the case, I'd never given this common word much thought. But I was reading a book about the history of artificial light, and the author noted in passing that curfew—the time after which everyone is supposed to be inside[1]—came from the French coverfeu, in turn from coverir ("cover") and feu ("fire"). The author, Jane Brox, explains:
Cooking fires, often the only interior light many could afford, were ordered extinguished soon after the evening meal, since among the innumerable night fears in the huddled wooden-and-thatch world of the Middle Ages was that of conflagration.
All in all, it's not making me nostalgic for living in a pre-electricity world or anything.

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[1] When I was a kid, our familial curfew was "Be home when the streetlights come on."

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  08:24 AM

As I've noted before, in my work I encounter new-to-me technical vocabulary all the time, and I don't generally note it here. But now and then I'll run across something that's kind of delightful. Yesterday I ran across the term embarrassingly parallel, which is, contrary to what one might think, an actual technical term.

But work aside, let's look at a couple of, you know, normal new-to-me words today. The first is stan, both a noun and a verb, which I got from the Oxford Dictionary blog. (I will note that my heretofore unfamiliarity with this term is yet more evidence that I am increasingly out of touch with popular culture.) Stan is a term for someone who is a big fan of a band, musician, or other cultural figure. It can also function as a verb; people say that they stan an artist:

The blog credits the word to Eminem, and suggests that it could combine stalker and fan, capturing a tinge of obsessiveness. But the examples I find (e.g. on Twitter) don't have the negative vibe of stalking, and instead suggest just, you know, great admiration.

Another new word for me is chapeaugraphy, which refers to a pretty danged narrow niche of performance/clowning art: doing clever and entertaining things with a hat. (Technically, with a piece of round felt with a hole in it.) This is best explained via video:

(A minute or so of this should suffice to explain.[1])

I think what interests me about this is primarily the tradition of it. As with other aspects of clowning, chapeaugraphy emerges from the mists of previous centuries, and it always pleases me to think of people standing around at a marketplace in Paris or London in, say, Shakespeare's time, being entertained by many of the same antics that are still crowd-pleasers today. And hey, there's a special word for it.

And just a quick note today about surprising etymology: where does the name Australia come from? (Latin majors are not eligible for this contest.) Once again we turn to the compass for our answer. In the era before today's perfect knowledge of geography (haha), there was a theory of a continent on the southern half of the globe that was provisionally named terra australis incognita, Latin for "unknown southern land." As people reached the various landmasses in the southern hemisphere, the name was used for those; in the early 1800s, the name Australia was suggested for and became used for what we now know as that country.

Slightly weird note: it's often considered mock-worthy if people confuse Australia with Austria. There's not a direct etymological relationship; Australia is from australis ("south"), whereas Austria is from a Germanic word for "east," still evident even in English once someone points that out. But, but. It's possible that the Latin auster does ultimately derive from a word for east; related words might be orient and aurora. Douglas Harper has the deets.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] Virtually all of the videos I find of chapeaugraphy have terrible music, weird.

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  10:39 AM

What could possibly be more fun than the apparently endless task of refinishing our deck? Oh, yeah … words.

Today's new-to-me word came up in an editor's group on Facebook. Someone had heard (only) a word and was trying to determine exactly what it was. Naturally, one of the editors immediately sussed it out: vade mecum.[1]

In a narrow sense, a vade mecum (also vade-mecum and vademecum) is a book that you carry around with you, perhaps in a pocket, so that you can refer to it conveniently. (The phrase vade mecum means "go with me" in Latin.) In a more metaphorical sense, it means a book that you might refer to often—a handbook or guidebook, as the OED puts it, even if you don't carry it around with you. In a different metaphoric direction, a vade mecum might be anything (not just a book) that you always have with you. Examples that M-W gives of this second sense are "gold, medications, and memorized gems of wisdom."

These days, the ultimate vade mecum would have to be a smartphone, wouldn't we agree?

In the annals of unexpected etymology, today we have sneeze. Sneeze begins with sn, which seems right—we have a bunch of words that are nose-related that start with sn, like snore, snorkel, sniff, snuff, snout, and snot. (This affinity between the sn sound and nose-y stuff is an example of sound symbolism or phonesthemics.)

Update John Lawler reminds me that he's got a diagram/writeup (one of several) that shows affinities for the sn- sound: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/sn.pdf (PDF, obviously)

So imagine my surprise to learn from the Oxford dictionary blog that sneeze wasn't originally sneeze at all: the original word in Old English was fnese, with an f! There were a few words in the olde days that began with fn. (Maybe this is actually expected as analogous with e.g. Greek words that begin with pn, like pneumonia). But fn- words faded away in English, and by about the year 1500, fn must have sounded weird. As indeed it does today; as far as I can tell, we have no words in modern English that begin with fn. Though there still are some in Icelandic.

Anyway, the short story is that the fn- in fnese was misread or misprinted as sn- at a point when fn- had become unfamiliar in English. The fact that sn- made sense probably helped (the OED refers to its "phonetic appropriateness"—see earlier point about sound symbolism).

And I refuse to close with a lame joke about "nothing to sneeze at."

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] The might be the oldest new-to-me word that I've encountered so far—500 years old (in English), and I learned it only this week.

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  06:48 AM

In the US, we're coming up on a three-day weekend. For us, that mostly means that much more time for home improvement, oh boy. And for words!

Today's new-to-me word is not new, but it's pretty obscure: iatromisia. This refers to an intense dislike of doctors or doctoring i.e. medicine. It's a rare enough term that I found definitions for it only in medically inclined dictionaries.[1]

Since this is a medical term, of course it uses classical roots. The iatro bit is Greek for "healer," and by extension, medicine. A slightly less obscure instance is in the word iatrogenic, which means "doctor-caused," as in, you got sick because of treatment. The misia part is also Greek, a word meaning "hate," which we know from terms like misogyny and misophonia.

There's something vaguely amusing to me about a medical condition that involves dislike of medicine. ("Doctor, what is it?" "Well, you appear to suffer from iatromisia.") It also makes me wonder whether there are, or should be, similar terms for other professions. Redactomisia? Dislike of editors or editing. Hmm.

For surprising/delightful etymology today, I have two. First, I watch a lot of British crime drama, and it eventually occurred to me to wonder where the word constable comes from. There isn't an obvious origin if you just look at the word … or is there? The facile answer here is that constable is a count of the stable. Which sounds a little funny, no? But it's a little more, what, elegant than that. The word derives from Latin comes stabuli, a "count or officer of the stable." As with knight, the concept described by constable climbed the social ladder until it came to refer to the chief officer of a (royal) household or court. The term had developed the sense of being a police(-like) officer by the 14th century, although it also kept its elevated sense for a long time (e.g. Lord High Constable in England).[2] Douglas Harper has a few more in-between details if you're interested.

Fun fact: marshal shows a similar development; it, too, started life as a term for a groom-like person and moved up the ranks (e.g. field marshal).

The second etymology is a one that I saw on Twitter this week. The word peach comes ultimately from Latin Persicum malum, "Persian apple." I guess it tickles me how apples have worked as a kind of Ur-fruit. Here are a few more words that directly or obliquely refer to apples, which includes the Latin stem mal, the Greek stem mel, and the word for apple (pomme/pomo) in some Romance languages:
  • marmalade (via Portuguese from Latin malomellum, "sweet apple")
  • melon (Greek for "apple")
  • pineapple (because it looks like a pinecone)
  • pomegranate ("apple of Granada")
  • pomme de terre (French, "earth apple" for potato)
  • pomodoro (Italian, "golden apple" for tomato)
Update Merriam-Webster has a Word History column on the history of pineapple and on the use of apple generically.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] I can't remember where I got this—Twitter, probably, and if so, apologies to whoever I should be crediting. Speaking of Twitter, there's some fair wordplay with the word iatromisia.

[2] I suppose I should note that the word cop does not derive from "constable of police" or "constable on patrol" or any other acronym.

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  02:57 PM

I was being whiny to my wife about the endless non-appearance of spring here in Seattle, and then I saw some pictures of Denver and Cheyenne blanketed in snow. Maybe better I should stick with just words rather than weather-whingery.

The new-to-me word this week has some lovely linguistic properties. The word is buycott. Obviously, this derives from boycott (to refuse to interact with a company because you object to its policies), which we'll talk about in a moment.

In the context I heard buycott (an episode of the "Hidden Brain" podcast), it was used to mean deliberately buying something from a company that you want to support, for social or political reasons. For example, some people went of their way to buy sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A to show support for the company's explicit opposition to same-sex marriage. This is the sense defined in Wikidictionary.

Interestingly, the Collins dictionary online has a related but different meaning. In their definition, a buycott means "a type of protest aimed at a company or country with dubious ethical standards in which consumers buy the products of another company or country." Either way, of course, the idea of a buycott is that it's a political statement manifested economically, or to put that more clearly, to vote with your wallet. (There's an app.)

The term seems to be relatively new. It's mostly not listed in dictionaries, excepting the previous two links, not even in Urban Dictionary (!). The earliest reference I could find was from 2010 (in a French paper, odd), where it's in quotes—always a clue that maybe the term is new.

Anyway, the more interesting thing to me is how the term was formed. Boycott is an eponym—it memorializes (ahem) a land agent who tussled with tenant farmers in Ireland in the 1880s. So there are no constituent parts to the word boycott per se; it's just a name. The jump from boycott (avoid) to buycott (embrace) was clever wordplay. And it promotes the –cott part of the original name into a particle—what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix ("liberated pre/post/infix")—that can be reused generically to mean something like "economic political activity." This isn't the only example—there's also girlcott, which actually has various different meanings. Whether the –cott libfix can be extended to be used with prefixes that don't play on boy remains to be seen.

For unexpected etymology today we have adobe. Everyone in the US knows that this is from Spanish, right? Well, yes. But it actually has a deeper history than that. The Spanish got it from Arabic al-tuba. Arabic speakers actually got it from the Coptic word tob. (In case you don't know, Coptic is the pre-Arabic language spoken in Egypt.) Coptic inherited the word from earlier stages of the language; in ancient Egyptian, the word was something represented today as Dbt. The picture over there shows the hieroglyph for this word. People have been making bricks from mud forever, of course. What's cool to me is that we've been able to use effectively the same word for millennia. (Credit for alerting me to this etymology goes to an article in the New Yorker.)

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  01:34 PM

I was seduced this week by a couple of bright, dry days into sanding the deck in preparation for refinishing it. Ha. It's pouring down (again). Perhaps I'll try again next month. But that does give us time for some words!

The new-to-me word this week is haptic. It's an adjective that pertains to the sense of touch and perception of motion, and has had this meaning since the 1860s. The word took on a slightly more specialist sense with the invention of touch interfaces for computers. This included things like "force feedback" game controllers. However, haptic feedback was not just for entertainment. A downside of fly-by-wire systems—that is, systems controlled digitally rather than directly—is that they don't provide the direct feedback that mechanical systems do. Thus many digital systems added haptic feedback to simulate what an operator might feel via a more direct control mechanism.

Today, of course, anyone with a cellphone knows all about haptic interfaces.

Ok, let's turn to word origins. Today's term is one that everyone knows: karaoke. That's Japanese, obviously (?), but it has a fun multi-language origin that I only recently learned. Just to review, karaoke is a kind of entertainment in which people sing along to recorded accompaniment that is missing a vocal track. Which is why the origin is interesting. In Japanese, kara means "empty." The oke part is the fun part—it's a shortening of okesutora, a term that, if you sound it out, might suggest its meaning and origin—it's a Japanese rendering of the word orchestra. Thus karaoke is "empty orchestra." Or more like "empty orch."

Bonus etymology today comes via Edward Banatt on Twitter, from whom I learned about the origins of orrery. An orrery is a mechanical contraption that models the motions of the planets in the solar system:

This much I actually knew. (Aren't I special.) What I learned from Edward is that orrery is an eponym—it's named for Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery[1], for whom an orrery (tho not the first one) was built around 1700. Thus continuing a tradition in which an invention is named for someone who had nothing to do with creating it (see also: praline). Thus the privileges of patronage, I suppose.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] No relation (AFAIK) to Robert Boyle of Boyle's Law.

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  08:34 AM

Happy Friday, people of the words. Seattle keeps ratcheting up the volume on a record-breaking winter of rain; yesterday we had actual thunderstorms and lightning and stuff. Drenched we might be, but <insert joke about the steady drip of words>.

Also, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

I learned today's new term recently from Facebook Friend Ben: curb squatting. In the usage I saw, this refers to efforts by homeowners to keep parking spaces in front of their houses—that is, parking spaces on a public street—clear. Some owners have taken to creating their own No Parking signs that look a lot like the city's:

This is a thing in some of Seattle's neighborhoods where parking is tight and where, apparently, people feel like they have a right to the space in front of their house. The city, for its part, has been clear that this kind of curb squatting is not legal.

There is a kind of related phenomenon whereby people put out plastic chairs days in advance to stake a claim to a spot—again, on public street—along a parade route. (The most extreme version I've read about was when someone put out chairs in January that claimed spots for a Fourth of July parade.) However, I have not yet heard that referred to as curb squatting. Hint, hint.

Word originations, then. I was reading a book about the history of numbers and the author noted that the words calculate and calculus derive from a Latin word for stone or pebble. This made sense from a counting point of view; it's easy to imagine people using small stones as tokens for reckoning.

This also then explains the use of the term calculus in medicine, where it refers to stone-like mineral deposits, like kidney stones or gallstones. Calculus is also another word for tartar in the dental sense: the "incrustation" of hard material on the teeth. The original Latin term calx turns out also to be the source of the words calcium and chalk, along with less common words like calciform.

I'll take Words Based on the Latin Term for Stone, Alex.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  07:01 PM

I've spent some quality time editing tech materials these last few weeks, which involve terms like event bus, Inversion of Control, and the Retry pattern. Such terms all make sense for the intended audience, but we like to concentrate here on words that are interesting to, you know, civilians. So let's have a look.

Today's new-to-me word actually came from a post on one of the editorial Facebook groups I follow. Jake Poinier a.k.a Dr. Freelance asked whether, without looking it up, we knew what the word zemblanity means. Not me, dang. So of course a body wants to find out.

Well, fun. The easy way to define it is to say that it's the opposite of serendipity, in a very precise way. Where serendipity refers to an a) accidental b) good outcome, zemblanity refers to a b) bad outcome that is a) not accidental—an "unpleasant unsurprise." Sad! Somewhat to my surprise, Urban Dictionary has a couple of good examples, like this one:
He knew that something was wrong, but still he decided to ask. The answer to his question confirming his thoughts. She was dead. It was pure zemblanity.
UD also provides a definition that suggests more clearly the inversion of serendipity: "The inevitable discovery of what we would rather not know."

The term was coined by the writer William Boyd in 1998, apparently inspired by a passage in Pale Fire by Nabokov.

But wait, there's more. Both serendipity and zemblanity are toponymic: they derive from the names of places. Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka. Horace Walpole coined serendipity in the 18th century based on a fairytale about the "Three Princes of Serendip," who "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." (That's the OED quoting Walpole himself, I believe.) Zembla ultimately refers to a set of islands in the Arctic owned by Russia. Nabokov and then Boyd turned this into metaphor; here's Boyd:
Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla.
... and from there, Boyd derived zemblanity. Your homework this week is to think of situations that would qualify as, um, zemblanitous.

And speaking of arctic! I was reading an article in the New Yorker about 19th-century fascination with polar exploration, when Kathryn Shulz, the author, mentioned in passing the derivation of the word arctic. Not so self-evident, is it? Me, I'd never thought about it.

Good story, though. In ancient times, a few Greeks left their warm and sunny homeland and ventured to the north, so they had an idea of the existence of these far-away lands. One of their names for these distant lands was Arktikus, meaning "of the bear." Polar bears? No. Astronomers that they were, the Greeks were referring to the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, which points to the North Star. (And which itself is in Ursa Minor.) "Go toward the bear, young man," no one in Greece apparently ever recommended. Because c'mon, it's cold up there.

Antarctica, of course, is anti-arctic. Opposite the bear, so to speak.

Today's bonus etymology is from a Merriam-Webster blog entry, where I learned an etymology that seems obvious in retrospect: companion, meaning someone you break bread (pan) with (con).

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  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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