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.

Read more ...

Blog Search

(Supports AND)

Google Ads


Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

See this post for info on full versus truncated feeds.


German has done for consonants what Hawaiian has done for vowels.

— Leo Kottke


<February 2018>




Email me

Blog Statistics

First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 2/16/2018

Posts - 2482
Comments - 2570
Hits - 2,023,965

Entries/day - 0.46
Comments/entry - 1.04
Hits/day - 378

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:04 AM Pacific

  08:07 AM

I decided to add numbers to the titles of these posts. I might go back and change the older ones when I'm avoiding something that's actually important.

The new-to-me word is a somewhat obscure terms that John McIntyre might select someday for one of his "In a word" columns. The word is pelf, which I ran across in one of those fancy magazines that we have in big stacks around here. Pelf is defined as "money" or "wealth," but has a connotation that the riches were acquired "by reprehensible means," to quote one dictionary. The example sentence I found it in talked about "Trump family pelf."

It's an old word, which might not be surprising. We got it from French in the Middle Ages, and its first sense was "stolen goods" or "booty, spoil." So we can see where the negative connotation came from.

Update On Twitter, Edward Banatt notes that pelf is related to the verb pilfer.

Because I was curious about why I had apparently not seen this word before, I looked in the COCA corpus to see how common it is. Not very: as a noun (as opposed to a proper name), pelf appears 5 times out of 560 million words. And it's been on the decline since the 1800s. Perhaps circumstances will make the term newly popular again, who knows.

Unexpected etymology comes this week from a conversation we had at work the other day. We were talking about ancient Greece for some reason, and colleague Jay said, "People from Attica are 'Attic.' So where do you suppose the word for the storage space comes from?"

Well. This is why you keep bookmarks to dictionaries in your browser. Way much to my surprise, the name for the area under your roof—sometimes also called the garret—is in fact related to the Attics, the people whose capital was Athens.

The link is via architecture. It helps to know that attic was originally the attic story, where story refers to the floor of a building. (See #89 for more on story.) In the Attic style of architecture, the façade might feature a small structural element (an "order") placed above another, much taller element. Like this, thank you Wikipedia:

The name of this small story came to be applied to the space that it enclosed, and then was generalized to mean any space directly under a roof. So we go from classic architecture to the place to shove your Christmas decorations and unused sports equipment. What do you suppose the ancient Greeks called their version of the space for all that extra junk?

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  12:03 AM

We had a jolly talk about the word impactful on Twitter earlier this week. I think some of the people in that discussion are still speaking to me, but maybe not many.

Today's new-to-me term combines seasonal appropriateness (it's winter, hey) with a topic that I'm perennially interested in: traffic. The word is sneckdown, which requires some explanation.

First, a neckdown is one of several words for an area that extends the sidewalk into the street. Other words for this are curb bulge, curb extension, pinchpoints, bump-out, and bulb-outs. Here's a picture:

Neckdowns are traffic calming devices, and they also reduce the distance that pedestrians have to traverse while crossing the street. In case you were wondering (I was), the neck in neckdown comes from the narrowing or "neck" formed by the bulges. According to one dictionary, this was originally a verb: to neck down, i.e., to narrow down.

So what's a sneckdown? This is a blend of snow + neckdown. It turns out that snowfall provides a kind of laboratory for the design of neckdowns. Snowplows tend to pile up snow along the sides of the road, and especially at corners. This results in ephemeral neckdowns—they melt away, obviously—but while they exist, they not only form curb bulges, but they provide visual indicators about where cars actually drive. (A conclusion that traffic planners can draw from sneckdowns is that cars actually need less room in the roadway than they are often granted.) Here's a lovely image of a sneckdown:

I don't remember where I saw this term, but it was probably on social media during a snowstorm in the last few weeks. The word was invented in 2014 as a hashtag by an urban planner who wanted a name for this naturally occurring traffic alteration.

I don't think I'll ever look at snow on the street quite the same way again.

Delightful origins. I was reading an article the other day about Tina Brown, who helmed (ha) a series of magazines around the turn of the century, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. A throwaway comment in the article led me to the etymology of the word magazine itself.

Presumably when we hear "magazine," most of us think of the colorful publications we stare at while standing in line at the grocery store. If we have experience with guns, we might also think about the thing that holds cartridges (bullets[1]) for a pistol or automatic weapon. If we were in the military in an earlier time, we might also think about the room where we kept all our gunpowder.

Oddly, these senses are all related. You can see how a room for keeping gunpowder can evolve into the device for holding bullets: a storehouse for munitions. But People magazine? Also a storehouse, but this time for information. The term was applied to a periodical in the 1700s; before that, it was used in book titles to indicate a work that was a collection of information about a subject.

We in English got the term from French, where it appeared in the 1400s; there's an Italian version (magazzino) from the 1300s. A fun fact is that the word originates in Arabic, also as a word for storehouse. (This evolved in Spanish to almacén, "warehouse.") One might ask why we needed to borrow a word for something that surely existed long before the Middle Ages, but on that subject I have no information.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] Yes, I realize that this is imprecise.

[categories]   ,


  11:41 PM

February, finally. We had a bug in one of our internal tools at work that caused February to disappear, but some quick work by one of the writers saved the month just in time! PS Happy Groundhog Day.

Facebook Friend Doug recently posted something that alerted me to an emerging danger on American streets. Should you be worried? Maybe, if you're a petextrian: someone who texts while walking. (pedestrian + texting, right?) This term is older than I would have guessed—the first (only) entry in Urban Dictionary is from 2009, and that's hardly guaranteed to be the oldest attestation. Not that the idea of a pedestrian glued to their smartphone is surprising, or was as soon as texting was available.

For that matter, the idea of pedestrians being oblivious goes waaaay back: jaywalking— someone who "walks jay"—goes back pretty much as far as cars. And who can forget that delightful German children's story about "Hans-guck-in-die-Luft" (often translated as Johnny-look-in-the-air), a boy who walks around staring at the sky. Since this is a German children's story, it of course has a bad ending, for young Hans walks straight into the river and loses his books. (Compared to some of the other children in the story collection, he got off easy.)

Another new-to-me term (but old news to the younger set) came up in a news story recently about a woman who was booted out of college for posting a racist video on her Instagram [account]. It's possible she thought this wouldn't be widely seen because she posted it on her finsta. This refers to a "fake+Instagram+account," a more-private account that's supposed to be just for close friends. One article notes that "The birth of the Finsta can be traced to the time period between the generational hijacking of Facebook and Instagram and the generational adoption of SnapChat." (The birth of young people doing dumb things goes back considerably longer than that.)

As a bonus, the article asserts that the more-public account is a rinstagram, for "real Instagram." According to local sources (i.e., daughters), the term is real insta or rinsta. These same local sources also alerted me to the sinsta, where people post nude/drug photos (or "scandalous photos," as UD has it), a compound of sin+[In]sta[gram]. One of the daughters summarized it this way: "Instas (or rinstas) are for photos, finstas are for double lives, and sinstas are for confessing to murders." But, she added, "sinsta is more or less another word for a finsta. most people don't actually have three bc that's just extra af." There was more amusing discussion of the different use cases and privacy settings, but I'll have to leave that for another time. In the meantime we hope that socio-dialectologists are on the case.

Fun as that was, let's talk word origins. Last weekend I was staring at the toaster oven waiting for the cheese to melt and got to wondering where the word nachos came from. A story that a lot of food writers accept is that it's an eponym. According to the story, in the 1940s, some American women were in the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras and went to a restaurant looking for something to eat. The kitchen was closed, but the maître d' put together a snack from fried tortillas and cheese. The dude was Ignacio Anaya, whose nickname was Nacho, and he (again supposedly) named his snack Nacho's especiales. I'm not sure whether this story holds up to lexicographic scrutiny, but as I say, it's a popular tale, and it's not by any means implausible. Even if it's not true, I did learn that Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio (how did I not already know this?), which is another reason to like the character of Nacho Vargas on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,

[1] |

  09:25 AM

After yesterday's word post that discussed spite mounds, I got a couple of notes from some folks that I thought I should share.

First, Friend Rick shared the photo that had moved him to talk about bygone spite mounds:

He added the comment "I had felt there was some mound (if that makes any sense), though certainly not the likes of which there was in the regrading days!" It's true, it does have that feel.

Second, Friend Leon pointed out another, similar term: nail house, which is a Chinese term for the same thing[1]. There's an article about nail houses with some quite amazing photos. Here's one:

Leon also noted the term spite house, which has a different sense of spite. A spite house is deliberately built or modified in order to spite someone—for example, to block someone's view. There's a related term spite fence, a construction that has the same purpose but is generally cheaper to build.

I will note that Leon is from a land down under, so it's possible that in his ozzy dialect, spite house has a different meaning. I'm sure he'll let us know if so. :-)

[1] A calque, I guess.

[categories]   ,


  11:55 PM

You know what would be nice? Some sunshine.

I have a geo-topo-graphical term today that came up during a Facebook discussion with Friend Rick: spite mound. Based on what I can find, this might be quite specific to Seattle, and references some of the city's curious history.

Seattle was built on a set of hills overlooking Elliott Bay in Puget Sound. Hills can be inconvenient, though, so in the late 1800s, the city decided to "regrade" one of the hills by using water power to sluice it down into the bay. The story goes that some residents stubbornly refused to give up their homes. So the workmen sluiced around the houses, leaving them stranded on "spite mounds." Here's a picture:

(The history where I got this photo says that in fact people did not refuse to move; some just didn't get around to moving their houses before the job began. But the term stuck.)

The reason Rick brought this term up at all was in reference to what he called "modern-day spite mounds": so-called holdout properties where owners refuse to sell, so new development happens around them. Here's an example:

The analogy isn't perfect (no hill, hey), but I liked Rick's invocation of some Seattle history for these property owners who stick to their hills while development sluices on around them.

Not long ago I got to wondering about the expression a bum steer, as in "That tip about horses was a bum steer." Did this refer to an ox? And why do we call boy-cows steers anyway?

Well, the answers aren't terribly exciting, but at least I got things sorted. First cows. The word steer has been used for a castrated bull for as far back as we have records in English; the Saxons had the word stéor. This is perhaps not surprising, since animal husbandry was a topic of keen interest back when people spoke Anglo-Saxon. There is a theory that steer goes back to a source word that also produced taurus (bull) in Latin. But the OED calls this "doubtful," in their arched-eyebrow way.

As it happens, a bum steer doesn’t actually have to do with inadequate cows. In this expression, steer is a nounified version of the verb steer. If you got a bum steer, someone done steered you wrong. (I asked my wife, and this was self-evident to her.) But while I was looking up steer-the-verb anyway, I learned that this was also a word used by the Old Englishers. It originally meant to guide a) a vessel and specifically b) using a rudder or oar. (Thus it shares a sense, sort of, with whip to refer to a vehicle.) Only later (okay, still in medieval times) did it come to generically mean pointing your generic ride in a specific direction.

I did also find out that bum steer is an Americanism, first recorded in 1899, and that there is such a thing as a non-bum type of steer, i.e., steer used to just mean a piece of advice. News to me.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  12:13 AM

We were off work for the MLK holiday on Monday. It threw me off all week about what day it was, in a most pleasant way.

I have a couple of new-to-me terms today that relate to recent politics. The president got a physical exam this week, and among the reported results were his height and weight. The report set off speculation in some quarters that these numbers had been finessed, and that the weight report was purportedly at odds with photographic evidence of the president's physique.

Trump was (is?) a prominent birther, i.e., someone who maintains that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. So I was quite amused to read that there's a name for people who are skeptical of the president's reported weight: girthers. This term was obviously invented just this week, so it's not just new to me, it's actually new-new. Related terms are girther movement and girtherism. This is funny, right? But let's see whether anyone remembers this word in a month.

There was also that incident last week in which the president allegedly referred to "shithole countries." This was reported second-hand, which led to a confusion of assertions and reactions: Trump didn't say it; he said something different; anyway, it's true.

I recently learned that there's a name for this sort of sequence of explanations: kettle logic. The name derives from an example that Freud used in one of his books, about a man who borrows a kettle and returns it damaged. When confronted with the kettle, he claims that …
  • He returned it undamaged
  • It was damaged when he borrowed it
  • He never borrowed it
I don't know how widely the term kettle logic has been used to describe political doublespeak over time. It's certainly gotten a workout recently—when I went looking for examples of kettle logic, I found people using it to describe tweets about a proposed recount after the 2016 election; the Michael Flynn situation; and meetings with Russia. Trying to make sense of these types of conflicting stories can be a challenge, but at least we have a good name for them to lighten our spirits.

The other day I was watching the old version of The Thomas Crown Affair, and a scene came on where Steve McQueen is playing polo. I spent a few minutes trying to puzzle out where the word polo might have come from. Italian, maybe? Spanish? No. The word polo originated in a Tibetan language, where it meant "ball." The game and word spread across south Asia and was adopted by the British during their sovereignty in India.

But my guess about Italian or Spanish wasn't completely wild. Polo is also (entirely separately) the name of a particular style of flamenco song. Although as I recall, there were no scenes in the movie where Steve McQueen performed such a song.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  06:06 AM

If these first two weeks are any indication, 2018 is shaping up as a lexicographically interesting year, right?

Ok, two new-to-me words today from the world of relationships. Let's start with dating. You won't have trouble finding lists of "the lingo of [online] dating," as one page puts it. In these lists you'll find words like ghosting (previously noted here), breadcrumbing, and cuffing season.

One term that's specific to online dating is catfishing, which means to have a false identity to entice someone for various reasons, generally unethical ones. The word catfish spawned one of the terms I'm interested in today: kittenfishing, which some people liken to "catfishing lite." (cat/kitten, probably you noticed this.) In kittenfishing, you don't present a made-up persona. But you do enhance your profile—misrepresenting yourself descriptively or visually, which some people refer to as "lying"—in order to lure someone into dating you. Note the distinction between the words in terms of motive: catfishing often has a quasi-criminal intent; kittenfishing just aims at getting a date. According to an article on the hingeirl.com site, people who work at that site invented the name: "… a practice so common in the world of modern dating that we at Hinge had to give it a name."

Ah, the world of online dating, eh? One article says "38 percent of men and 24 percent of women say they’ve been kittenfished." I should note that I learned the word kittenfishing from Friend Julie, who wrote a whole book about online dating.

Update It occurs to me that a famous historical example of kittenfishing was the betrothal of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves. Henry's story, anyway, was that he had been misled about her beauty … i.e., he'd been kittenfished. He married her, but reluctantly.

I learned a second relationship term just yesterday: micro-cheating. In micro-cheating, you don't cheat on your partner in the generally understood way. But you do have an emotional attachment to someone else and engage in actions that further your external relationship—actions that you hide from your partner, like having a social media relationship with someone on the QT. (Someone suggested that this could also be called "emotional cheating" or an "emotional affair.")

What struck me about the term was the use of the micro- prefix. We've seen this elsewhere recently, as in microaggression. This made me wonder whether the micro- prefix is seeing greater velocity these days; maybe?

As an aside, I'll note that the words kittenfishing and micro-cheating are relatively new (within the last year or so). I think we can agree, tho, that the concepts they represent are probably about as old as dating itself.

Word origins! I was recently reading the book The Mark Inside, about a man who was conned in the early 20th century and who sets about getting revenge. In the introduction, Amy Reading, the author, presented a surprisingly specific origin for the term confidence man, whence con man, whence to con [someone]. I'll let her tell you the story:
Confidence artistry began one day in May 1849 when a well-dressed young man named Samuel Williams—or was it Samuel Thomas? or William Thompson?—walked up to a stranger on the streets of lower Manhattan and engaged him in a few minutes of intimate small talk. The stranger felt that he knew but couldn't place this friendly fellow; certainly he seemed like an old friend who was delighted to see him. Williams (as we'll call him) then asked the stranger, in a disarmingly direct manner, whether or not he had confidence in him. When the man answered yes, the only possible answer in polite conversation, Williams said jovially, "Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow?" In high humor, his mark handed over his gold watch. And Williams sauntered off into the city, laughing and promising over his shoulder that he'd return the watch the next day. In the span of just a few days in May, he swindled John Deraismes out of a watch valued at $114, John Sturges out of a watch worth $80, and Hugh C. McDonald out of a watch valued at $100.
I was slightly skeptical, but the OED bears this out: their first entry for confidence trick is 1849, in a newspaper story about this exact incident. Who knew.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  07:39 AM

I'm at a linguistics conference, one where today (Friday) we'll be voting on the Word of the Year, as chosen by the American Dialect Society and anyone who wants to show up and raise a hand. You're sure to read about the results over the next few days.

And speaking of words. Something that crossed my radar this week is the term groyper. This is another term that's emerged from the alt-right subculture. The groyper (A groyper? Just "Groyper"? Mr. Groyper? Protocol unclear) is a sort of mascot, like the blobbish Pepe the Frog, but with the particular pose of having his chin on his hands, like this:

The Twitter user Respectable Lawyer, from whom I got all this, refers to the groyper image as "a fatter, more racist Pepe for the true paranoid weirdos."

People in this subculture appear on Twitter with names like Groyper Washington, Irish Groyper, and Otto von Groyper, with their groyper avatar suitably decorated to match the name. By extension, then, people who use a groyper avatar are themselves known as groypers.

The name groyper appears to have originally been a user name on 4chan, at least according to the Know Your Meme site. It seems to be unclear what the name signified then, and how the name got transferred to the image. Perhaps by next year's Word of the Year discussions we'll know more.

Well, wasn't that pleasant. On to origins. I was kind of half-watching a documentary the other day in which Mary Beard was telling us about the Roman emperor Caligula. (Spoiler alert: a lot of the most terrible stories about Caligula might have been fabrications for political or personal reasons. But we don't really know.) Anyway, at one point she talked about a bridge that Caligula supposedly wanted to build between the Palatine and the Capitoline hills. The Palatine Hill, did we know, being the origin of the word palace? Why, no, Ms. Beard, we definitely did not know that. But we sure do now.

To be clear, Palatine is the name of one of the seven hills of Rome (Mons Palatinus). Romans built an imperial residence there, and the word genericized over the centuries from "emperor's residence" to be used for the official residences of lower sorts of people. From there it moved into the Romance languages. We got it in English via the Normans, where it appears by the year 1300. Even then it was also used to refer to any "large and splendid" (er, palatial) residence. Even so, I think that we do still preserve an echo of the "official residence" sense.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,

[2] |

  08:29 AM

Final Friday Words for this year. I can't wait to see what new terms are lurking out there in 2018.

Just the other day I ran across a seasonally relevant term: porch pirate, which is a name for people who steal packages off your porch. In this era of everything-delivered, it would seem to be both a crime with growth potential and of course a keen problem for the victims.

The term seems to be reasonably new. Most of the cites I found are not just from 2017, but from late in 2017. This latter, however, might just mean that writing articles about porch pirates is a new holiday-season tradition, dunno. The earliest that I can find the term is 2015.

I first ran across the term in a Washington Post article on December 19 about a dude in Tacoma, WA, who invented a booby trap: an empty box with a (blank) explosive device in it. (The videos of startled would-be porch pirates are kind of funny.) When I went looking for earlier uses of the term, I found something called The Original Porch Pirate Bag, a lockable bag that has been sold on Amazon since October 2016.

The aggro of losing a package aside, porch pirate is a good term. There's that nice alliteration, and it harkens to a use of pirate that reminds us that pirates were not jolly, Captain Sparrow-type fellows. Look for another wave of articles about these thieves in, oh, around 11 months.

The most delightful word origin I've heard recently came from Facebook Friend Scott, about canary, the bird. (A species of finch, I also learn, tho that should have been pretty obvious.) A slightly more formal name for the canary in a cage is canary bird. This provides a clue about the name's origins: canary birds are birds from the Canary Islands, which are off the west coast of Africa (but part of Spain). The delightful part is that the name of the archipelago comes from Latin Canariae Insulae or "islands of dogs." Because there were many dogs. See also: canine.

As an aside, the word canary has a number of other meanings, some also associated with the islands or the bird: a type of sugar; a type of wine (compare the origins of port and sherry); a type of dance; the name of a color; a (female) singer; a prisoner ("jailbird"), perhaps due to the color of their togs; and someone who tattles ("sings"). A rich term.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[categories]   ,


  07:49 AM

I feel like I need to make a rare[1] mid-week update to a Friday Words post, because Comments.

First, thug, which came up last Friday. Not one but two people pointed me at the word Thugee, the name for a group or gang or organization of criminals in India hundreds of years ago who murdered people. (There's a BBC article about this origin.) This is in fact the first (hence oldest) entry for thug in the OED.

This raises (begs? haha) a point I've kind of danced around in discussing word origins. The Indian gang (the Thugees) probably got their name from a Hindi word for cheat or swindler. But it's a fair question to ask whether we're interested in a word's original-original source or in the path by which the word got into English: ultimate versus proximate origins. Our use of thug in English came from the gangs, and not directly from the Hindi word. Another and similar example is the word assassin. The proximate origin is a gang of murderous thugs (ahem); the ultimate origin is an Arabic word that also gave us hashish. (Details)

Anyway, in the future I guess I'll be a little more explicit about these differences to the extent that they apply.

And one more. In a recent post I mused about why the Spanish word palomera ("popcorn maker") is feminine. Friend Jared pointed out that these type of agent-constructions follow the gender of the thing they're derived from. I had been led astray; a butter dish is a mantequera (from mantequilla, "butter"), feminine. I had read somewhere that it was mantequero, masculine, and that threw me. But this is false. So now it makes sense and all is again right with the world, Spanish-morphologically speaking. :-)

[1] So rare that this is the first time.

[categories]   ,