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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We are never more culturally primal than at breakfast.

J. Maarten Troost


<July 2017>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 9:21 PM Pacific

  04:49 PM

For the past week we've been living in an uber-pristine house while we stand by to vacate on short notice so potential buyers can tour the place. In addition to the many other reasons we're looking forward to selling, we're ready to relax back into our more accustomed level of slovenliness. And speaking of houses, let's turn to words.

I encountered this week's new-to-me term a little while ago, but it has relevance to us today, since we have a brief but intense interest in the doings of the Seattle real estate market. The term is hedge city, which I found in an article in the New Yorker about how China's ultra-rich are investing overseas. A hedge city is, well, "a hedge against volatility at home," to quote the article—"a giant safety deposit box for China’s elite," as Mother Jones puts it, which goes into detail about the economics of hedge cities. A different article estimates that up to 30% of the office buildings in Vancouver BC are owned by foreign buyers.

Canada has historically been a popular place for Asian buyers to invest, for whatever economic/financial/cultural reasons. A problem, however, has been that this investment in hedge cities has driven prices high—too high for local residents. Vancouver implemented a 15% "foreign buyers tax" in 2016, with uncertain results. (Not surprisingly, the reaction to a hedge-city tax depends on whether you're trying to buy or broker real estate.)

As I say, the notion of a hedge city interests us because as Vancouver tries to work out its issues with housing shortages versus high prices, Seattle emerges as a new hedge city. Will our house ultimately be bought by Chinese investors? Time will tell.

Ok, sorry, that was a bit of an indulgence. Let's move on to unexpected etymology. The other day I was listening to Sting sing about how it's a big enough umbrella, but it's always him getting wet. (Waaaay too much analysis here.) So I thinks to myself, whence "umbrella"?

Let me back up momentarily. When I was studying Spanish, I learned that the word for umbrella is paraguas, which literally means "for/against water(s)." Not only was this delightful in itself, but it made me realize (oho!) that the English word parasol literally means "for/against sun."

So, umbrella. Off we go to the dictionary for what turns out to be another oho! moment. Guess what: the umbr part of umbrella is related to … do you see where this is going? … umbra, meaning "shade." Nothing there about rain. Nevertheless, and somewhat curiously, the senses of umbrella both as a sunshade and as a rain guard have been in English about the same length of time (since the 17th century). The OED's last citation for umbrella as a sunshade is from 1755, but then, its last cite for umbrella as a rain guard is from 1882.

I thought about this for a bit, and realized that we do still retain the sunshade sense of umbrella, albeit in specific contexts. We talk about beach umbrellas with the understanding that those are not about rain. Ditto patio umbrellas. Still, to me, the word umbrella in isolation is going to invoke the "rain guard" sense, I think.

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  09:22 AM

Our house went up for sale yesterday, the culmination of many months' efforts to clean, repair, repaint, restain, remove, straighten, sell, give away, and otherwise address stuff. Our final push to get ready meant that unfortunately I had to pass up last week's Friday words. On the other hand, my pressure-washed driveway is so clean you could serve dinner on it. Assuming you would enjoy dinner on concrete with exposed aggregate.

PS Happy Bastille Day! Have fun storming the castle!

Anyway, we're back. This week's new-to-me term is blue lie, a word I encountered in a blog post on the Scientific American site. We know white lie, a lie that you tell to avoid hurting someone's feelings. ("That was delicious!") A black lie, by some definitions, is one that's told for purely selfish reasons.

But a blue lie? Per the article: "falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen bonds among the members of that group." Or as another article has it, a blue lie is one that is "unambiguously helpful to one group while hurtful to another." The ethics of blue lies seem to be dependent on one's point of view. Telling the bad guys a lie to protect your comrades is technically a blue lie, but one that most people would not condemn. More ambiguously, blue lies seem to be a prominent aspect of contemporary politics. (Or perhaps politics since forever.)

Why blue? One authority on lying said in 1994 that the color blue was attached to this term "purportedly originating from cases where police officers made false statements to protect the police force or to ensure the success of the government’s legal case against an accused." I can't verify this, but it does accord with similar uses of blue, as in blue code/blue shield.

On to word origins. Two shortish ones today. The first is dilapidated, meaning "in a state of disrepair." But! If you parse the word carefully, you encounter lapi, which the Latin-inclined will recognize as a word for "stone," as in lapis lazule. Um … stone? Working backward, we use dilapidated as an adjective, but there is (was) a verb dilapidate, which meant to bring into a state of ruin, or more metaphorically, to waste. Going back to Latin, there was dilapidare, which meant "to scatter as if throwing stones." Thus letting your house fall into a state of disrepair (houses again today!) has all the aimlessness of throwing a handful of stones. I share Benjamin Dreyer's sentiment on this etymology:

Bonus etymology today is for the HTTP verb POST, well known to web developers, as explained by Ryan North in Dinosaur Comics:

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  08:19 AM

It is the height o' the summer here, but despite that (because of it?), I and my wife, in that order, both experienced a train wreck of a cold or flu or something, and life around here pretty much ground to a halt. But things seem to be getting back on track. Including, of course, words!

I ran across today's new-to-me-word while reading on old piece by Sarah Vowell. She talks about her days in high-school marching band, which included wearing a shako. From context, I derived that she was referring to the hat, but it did send me to investigate this term.

Sure enough, a shako is a particular kind of hat, one that's conical and that has some sort of plume. Here's an example:

These days, shakos are part of uber-ceremonial military dress—honor guards, parade dress, and whatnot—and of the uniforms of marching bands, which follow military fashion. (They are, let's remember, marching bands.) Historically, shakos were part of military field dress, back in the way-before-camo days. Fun fact: per Wikipedia, shakos were developed as an improvement over earlier military hats. ("Looks great, András, but don't you think we should add a plume?")

There is of course the question of how to say this word. We get the word from Hungarian via French, so who knows, right? "Shack-oh"? "Shake-oh"? Per reputable dictionaries, both pronunciations seem to be ok.

Shako is another example where I'm surprised I didn't know this word. I've read a lot of military history in my day, although perhaps I didn't pay as close attention to the descriptions of uniforms as I might have. But I was also in high-school marching band (a nerd badge I share with Sarah Vowell), so I actually wore one of these things for three years. Although we had a couple of unflattering nicknames for these things, we didn't use the word shako.

Bonus new term this week, courtesy of an article in last week's New Yorker about marriage in China: mistress-dispeller, someone you hire to chase away your husband's mistress. (Or equivalent.)

On to word origins. Where do you buy your food—grocery store, right? And where does the term groceries come from? I hadn't thought about it till the editor and linguist Jonathon Owen wrote about grocer not long ago.

The origin is implied the word itself, actually: a grocer is someone who buys things by the gross, or more generically, in big lots. (The notion of gross as a dozen dozen, i.e. 144, is another offshoot of gross as a large quantity.) Although this origin could theoretically have applied to mongers of many things, even in medieval times a grocer was someone who dealt primarily in foodstuffs, which could include spices: "The company of Grocers, said to have been incorporated in 1344, consisted of wholesale dealers in spices and foreign produce" (OED). Groceries derived from grocer as the thing that grocers sold (sell).

Point to ponder: Although you buy groceries in the plural ("bet you can't buy just one!"), the grocery store itself is all about the singular.

A quick bonus etymology, another one from Mashed Radish: a scone is schoon brood, Dutch for "beautiful (or bright) bread." Must agree.

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  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. Sabot 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.

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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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  12:23 PM

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has an essay on NPR today in which he tells of his rediscovery of the joys of using exclamation points. As he notes …
Yet writers and editors only pride themselves on expunging the marks, never on sticking them in. When it comes to exclamation points, the only virtue we recognize is self-restraint
This is true. In my work (software documentation), we maintain a tone that is, while not entirely academic, pretty neutral. Just the facts. And facts rarely require exclamation marks.

A story I've told many times: Years (decades) ago when I was learning the craft, I drafted something in which I'd included an exclamation point. My then-manager circled it and added this note: "Nix. Too exciting." I've added very few exclamation marks since then.

Technical docs have been on a path toward more friendliness, it's true. And these days especially, docs might initially be created by people who do not spend their days in the tech-writing trenches. The result is that some of these drafts can have a distinctly marketing feel to them, which of course includes exclamation points. Which I always take out.

And more than one exclamation point? Good lord. From the editor Andy Hollandbeck I learned the word bangorrhea, which is the use of excessive!!! exclamation points. The developer Rory Blyth once summed up this editorial attitude: "The use of more than one exclamation point side-by-side, in any context (except comics), is a sign of mental insanity, a marketing degree from the University of Phoenix Online, or both."

Still. Nunberg points out that exclamation points have discursive purpose in informal writing, "chiefly to signal friendliness." If I examine my emailing habits, I have to admit that I do use them like that. To me there's a pretty obvious difference between signing off an email with




… for example.

And I've also noticed that I use an exclamation-mark-based way to indicate a kind of written eyebrow-raised-in-surprise. Like this:

They said they'd be here at 8:00 am (!)

Apparently over 50 people (!) have accepted the invitation

I'm not sure where I picked up this tic or how widespread it is. But I'm not sure how'd I'd replace it if for some reason I could no longer use it.

Nunberg concludes that he's going all-in on exclamation points again. It's a good thing, I guess, to get a kind of permission to unleash a little positive emotion in one's writing. But it will take me a long time, I think, before I'll be comfortable with documentation that describes how to use the many! great! features of our products.

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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.

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[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."

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[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.

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[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.)

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