About

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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Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives. Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it.

Geoffrey K. Pullum



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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/8/2017

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Posts - 2465
Comments - 2568
Hits - 2,005,917

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Comments/entry - 1.04
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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 7:44 AM Pacific


  07:13 AM

With Christmas approaching, I'm building up quite a pile of Amazon boxes under my desk. And a few of them aren't even for me! Everyone else might just be getting the gift of words.

Today's new-to-me term might involve a little cheating, though I'll let you decide.

I just finished the novel Version Control by Dexter Palmer, which is about relationships, time, physics, and the age we live in. One of the strands involves a physicist who's conducting an extended experiment, and who worries that it's leading nowhere. This happens, right? More than us civilians probably think. At one point the character has this to say:
Years later, at a conference in Irvine, I ended up in a hallway conversation between sessions with an astrophysicist who told me a saying that she in turn had heard among the community of science-fiction readers, who call it "Smullin's Principle."

It is: Science fiction is a fantasy in which science always works.
When I went to look this up later, the only reference I could find to this supposed Smullin's Principle was the very book I got it from. Hmm.

When I got to the end of the book, I was glancing through the acknowledgments (why? No idea) and ran across this: "Sylvia Smullin provided a number of helpful comments on an early draft of this manuscript." A quick search reveals that Sylvia Smullin is a physicist, formerly of PARC.

This leads one to speculate a bit. Did Palmer invent this principle about science fiction, or did he actually hear it from his reader Sylvia Smullin? If he invented it, is it a little noveslistic in-joke to name it after Smullin? If he heard it from Smullin, is it her observation, or did she, as the novel suggests, hear it from others? Is this principle known by another name in the sci-fi (or science) community?

Many questions, no answers as yet. Perhaps you-all have some insights for me.

Word origins. I was listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" last weekend, and the "Not My Job" guest, Greta Gerwig, got all three questions right. The announcer declared that she'd gotten a "trifecta."

I knew this term came from horse racing, but that was it. In case you don't know, a trifecta is a bet in which you pick the first-, second-, and third-place finishers in order. The tri- part is obvious enough, but the rest of it was a little opaque. Turns out it's a mashup: tri+(per)fecta. The perfecta part comes from the Spanish term quiniela perfecta. The word quiniela in turn has a suprisingly complicated meaning that I'll just cite from my Harper Collins Spanish dictionary:


To circle back, a perfecta bet is one in which you pick the first- and second-place finishers. Thus trifecta adds to the improbability by asking you to also pick the bronze, as they don't say in horse racing. (I think?) For more about the distinctions with all these bets, try Perfecta Bet.

This surprised me: the term trifecta goes back only in English to the 1970s. And I guess I'll note in passing that the game-show announcer was using trifecta in a slightly broader way than its racing meaning; he just meant that the contestant got three for three, which is actually a hat trick.

With all this talk, I must mention a creaky old joke that I heard more than once while collecting subscription fees during my brief tenure as a newspaper delivery young-person. "Tip? You want a tip, kid? Don't bet on horses."

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  10:52 PM

A little bit of an indulgence today, but perhaps some will find this interesting.

When I was very young—learning-to-read young—we lived with my grandmother, who was German. Thus I started reading in both English and German. As it happens, we had versions of Winnie-the-Pooh in both languages (Pu der Bär in German). While I was going through boxes of old books during the move, I ran across the books again and peeked in them. This reminded me of an oddity that I remember all these years later, namely this: there is a language issue in the opening pages of Winnie-the-Pooh where the German version actually makes more sense than the English version.

I'll try to explain, tho I'll grant that this requires knowledge of at least German 101. Let's start with the English version. Here's a fascimile of the pages (click to embiggen):


Here we learn that the bear is named Winnie, and that this is a girl's name, which is short for Winifred, tho this is not explained in the English edition. (I did not know this as a child, so there was no contradiction to me.) But Christopher Robin explains that a boy bear can have a girl's name by noting that the bear's name is Winnie-ther-Pooh:


I guess? In English this kind of doesn't really make sense. (Then again, it's a children's book innit.)

But look how neatly this works out in German. Here's the same passage in the German edition that I have (again, click to embiggen):


And here's the detail:

If you read German, you can see how well this works. How can a boy bear be named Winnie, a girl's name? Because it's Winnie-der-Pu, not die. Masculine singular nominative, not feminine. For all the trouble it caused me over the years to learn noun genders in German, here's a tiny little payoff.

Since we're here anyway, here are a couple of other interesting things about the German edition:
  • Note the sans-serif typeface; the English edition is set in some sort of serif font (it looks a lot like Times New Roman). Perhaps some of my typographically inclined friends have some information on the use of typefaces for German in the 1950s, which is when my edition was printed.

  • The character Eeyore is rendered in German in I-Aah (in German, the letter I is pronounced ee.) If you're British and have a non-rhotic accent—that is, you "drop" your R's—the German rendering is pretty close.

  • The character Piglet is Ferkel in German; Ferk looks like it's related to pork, and -el is a diminutive suffix (Hansel and Gretel).
Ok, thank you for indulging me.

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  09:25 PM

Wow, December already. For those of us who are really insistent on the meaning derived from etymology, this means it's the 10th month, right? Haha.

As sometimes happens, I found this week's new-to-me word because all of a sudden it seemed like it was popping up everywhere. (This is sometimes known as the frequency illusion or the more colorful Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.) The new word is ultracrepidarian, which is an adjective or noun for someone who opines on subjects outside their area of expertise.

I first saw it because the Twitter user Edward Banatt uses the term as part of his profile. Since he presumably wrote his own profile, we have to assume that he's using the term in a self-deprecating or ironic way. But within days of noticing this, I was told that the legal writer and style-guide author Bryan Garner had referred to the linguist John McWhorter as an ultracrepidarian. Garner definitely was using it in a negative way.

To be honest, most people are probably ultracrepidarians. I mean, we all gift the world with our judgments about politics and economics and (ahem) language usage, but realistically, most of us are not experts on these things. Obviously, we aren't usually going to label ourselves as ultracrepidarians (Banatt notwithstanding), but it seems like a useful term to keep handy when someone else seems to be talking through their hat.

So, funny story about the origins of this term. It consists of ultra ("beyond") with crepidam, a classical root referring to shoes or the soles of shoes. Per one dictionary, the term originates with Pliny the Elder's phrase ne supra crepidam sutor judicare ("let the cobbler not judge above the sandal"), i.e., don't blather about things you are not qualified to discuss. The term has been in English since at least 1819, which should have given me plenty of time to have heard it by now.

And that isn't even today's unexpected word origin! From a Facebook post this week I learned the origins of the word janitor. Etymologically speaking, a janitor is a "door guard," from Latin janua, meaning "door" or "entrance." Here's the fun part: janua is related to the name Janus, the two-faced god of doors, gates, and other portals. And! Janus was also associated with change and transitions ("When one door opens …"), which is how we ended up with the name of our first month: January. This was all very satisfying to me.

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  05:51 PM

Here in the US, it's Black Friday, a now-traditional shopping day. We have family and friends who work in retail or at Amazon, and it's a busy, busy day for them. May they get a break sometime today. Also and for those interested, the Oxford Dictionaries blog has a history of the term Black Friday.

A fun new-to-me term today is kitbashing. This is a term from the domain of people who create models of cars or planes or trains or spaceships or whatever. The default way to create models is to get a kit and follow the instructions and come out with something that looks like the picture on the cover. But you can also kitbash it by grabbing bits and bobs out of other model kits (greebles) and decorate up your model to make it cooler. A kind of opposite is scratchbuilding, where you manufacture all the parts yourself.

Here's an example of kitbashing where the modeler used parts from some plastic kits to add exotic touches to a Nerf gun:


Kitbashing is fun for hobbyists, but it's also done by people who create models professionally, as for movies. Someone at work was recently telling a story about the original Star Trek series, which in its day was loooow-budget TV. The story was that if they needed props on set, a props person would go down to the Goodwill or wherever, and they'd then come back with unusual-looking salt or pepper shakers or something like that. You can see how a bit of imaginative kitbashing and a couple of coats of spray paint could transform a thrift-store treasure into, say, an alien ray gun. More famously, kitbashing was a reason that the models looked so good in the movies 2001 : A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.[1]

I like this word for two reasons. One, I made plastic models a lot as a kid, mostly military equipment, and I eventually got to the point where I could paint the models to look pretty good. But I never learned about kitbashing, which seems like it would have been the next level. It would have been fun—I certainly had lots of random bits floating around. Two, it interests me that the term involves bashing where one might expect mashing (as in mash-up). I can't seem to track down where the term came from or how old it is, but it's old enough that there's a book from 1994 about kitbashing train models.

Moving along, today's etymological exploration is actually not a new-to-me origin, but a new-to-my-wife one. The other day she asked where the word sheriff came from. I kind of knew this, but it warranted further exploration.

A sheriff is a shire+reeve, a term that goes all the way back to Anglo-Saxon (scírgeréfa). Basically speaking, a shire is another word for a county in England. Think of names like Gloucestershire, Hampshire, and Herefordshire. A reeve is an "administrative agent," i.e., an executive. In medieval England, a reeve was an agent of the king from whom of course all authority derived—the Sheriff of Notthingham in Robin Hood, for example. In the US, the term is used more specifically to mean the executive enforcement[2] officer for a county. As Noah Webster has it, "The sherif, by himself or his deputies, executes civil and criminal process throughout the county, has charge of the jail and prisoners, attends courts and keeps the peace." Cue about one thousand Westerns, right?

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[1] In Michael Chabon's book Moonglow, there's a character who does a lot of kitbashing.

[2] Correction via friend Dennis.

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  06:51 AM

I just realized that I missed the second anniversary for Friday Words; I made the first post under that name on October 29, 2015. Somebody asked me the other day whether it's hard to find terms. Perhaps surprisingly, not very. Once you start listening for new(-to-you) terms or start to wonder about etymologies, it's more a matter of keeping up.

Speaking of new-to-me-terms. Facebook Friend Doug introduced me this week to the, uh, colorful term Cletus safari. Aside from the cleverness of the construction, I was interested in how the term manages to be a kind of double insult.

A Cletus safari is the kind of news article in which the writer makes an expedition from some enclave of sophistication—New York City, let's say—to go talk to the exotic folk out in the hinterlands to get their take on an issue of interest. Those of us who read the failing mainstream media have undoubtedly seen a hundred articles like this in the last year, in which still-surprised journalists go talk to voters in counties that voted for Trump to try to suss out what is going on with these people.

Cletus is a not-flattering term for a rural denizen—one definition in Urban Dictionary has it as "Also can be synonymous with hillbilly." (That's one of the more neutral entries for the term in that dictionary.) The word is actually a traditional boy's name, but by a kind of onomastic metonymy can be used to refer to people who might use such a (currently unfashionable) name, i.e., them rednecks. Compare Billy Bob or Bubba. I suspect that this stereotype was strongly reinforced by (or perhaps introduced by) the character of Cletus Del Roy Spuckler in The Simpsons.

So Cletus is not a nice word. But to my mind, Cletus safari is also a disparaging term, namely toward the journalists who write these sorts of pieces. As a writer in Deadspin put it:
The world demonstrably does not need another Cletus safari into the heart of Trump’s America, but The Politico has one for you anyway.
The term is pretty new. The earliest reference I can find is in a tweet by Tommy Craggs back in February, tho it's not clear whether Craggs invented the term:


I think that we can agree that Craggs is not using Cletus safari here in admiration. Anyway, think about this the next time you read another analysis in which a journalist is out talking to the general populace.

As if that weren't unexpected enough, let's talk about unexpected etymologies. This week I was reading about World War II again and ran across a concise little history of the word Molotov cocktail. This is an improvised weapon consisting of a glass bottle filled with gasoline or kerosene, with a rag as a fuse. You light the rag on fire and throw your bomb at a convenient tank or something.

The term is obviously an eponym, but I had never read the whole story. It comes specifically from the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939. At the beginning of the war, the Russians had wanted to negotiate an extension of their borders into Finnish territory, an offer the Finns declined. The Red Army invaded Finland, and despite overwhelming numerical superiority, was initially driven back by a combination of weather, inhospitable geography, and brilliant tactics by the Finns that included unconventional ways to combat Soviet armor. Like improvised bombs. (Come warmer weather, the Finns were obliged to sue for peace.)

Molotov was the Russian foreign minister who was doing all this negotiating, and was responsible for the propaganda that tried to sell the Finns on the Russians' offer. As the story is told, while the Russians were dropping bombs on Finland, Molotov was on the radio telling the Finns that Russians were in fact making food deliveries. The incendiary device was then derisively named by the Finns for Molotov, a "cocktail" to accompany this "food" the Russians were delivering.

The Finns didn't actually invent the device—apparently that credit goes to an underequipped but clever soldier from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. But the Finns' sardonic name has become our standard term for the device.

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  11:39 PM

Between the semi-annual change for daylight saving time and Twitter's rollout of the 280-character limit, it's been a week of much grousing. As a respite, let's think instead about words.

A couple of new-to-me terms this week. The first is, for a change, very recent. I saw it in this headline:


I'm not finding any other references to this, so it's possible that the headline writer invented the term. The article itself doesn't use the term as such; instead, the headline seems to point to this closing paragraph of the article:
Moore will be the highest-profile politician to face accounts of sexual molestation on the campaign trail since the Weinstein revelations. Breitbart, the conservative website operated by erstwhile Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, worked with Moore’s campaign to publish a story denying the accusations and characterizing the story as a smear. On the other hand, several Republican senators, including majority leader Mitch McConnell said that if the allegations are true, Moore should end his campaign. What will they do if he does not?
So what does the Weinstein test mean here? I can see it two ways. One possible take is that it refers to how a person's tribe reacts when unsavory revelations come to light. Does the tribe close ranks and protect the accused, or does it condemn and cast them out? Alternatively, it can refer not to a test of how (in this case) the GOP will react, but how the GOP will be tested in the face of these accusations. Please send your votes, along with a crisp dollar bill, to me here at Friday Words. Haha. Or if that doesn’t work for you, maybe just leave a comment.

Anyway, this is quite possibly a one-off term, never to be seen again: a nonce word. Given the cadence of these scandals, tho, who knows.

Update My wife points out that Weinstein has become a productive qualifier for talking about (at least) this flavor of scandal. Another example is the Weinstein effect ("the wider reckoning sparked by women coming forward with sexual-assault allegations against the mega-producer Harvey Weinstein"), a term that has a better foothold at the moment than Weinstein test.

As a second term, I have another one that’s scandal related. From FB Friend Sam I picked up the word volkswagened, which refers to rigging something so that it performs in a specific way when being tested, and a different way under more normal circumstances. This of course comes from the Volkswagen emissions scandal (a.k.a. dieselgate), when the company was caught with software in their diesel cars that could detect when the engine was being emissions-tested and adjust the engine for cleaner exhaust.

Friend Sam is in the software biz and encountered volkswagened at work. There's an Urban Dictionary entry that captures a generic definition: "The act of deliberately hiding bugs and issues from testers to get a product approved." Interestingly, I also found the term used in a slightly broader way just to refer to a bi-modal motor, in this case for electric bikes—a limited mode for flat roads, a "turbo mode" for hills. This usage strikes me as not quite correct, because it doesn't include the sense of subterfuge that defined the Volkswagen scandal. (In fact, this last usage just describes a governor, in the engineering sense.) But who am I to tell people how to use the term?

For word origins today, why do we say that something is "blown to smithereens"? First, of course, what the heck are smithereens? "Small pieces," okay. And whence this interesting term? Irish, apparently, from the word smidirín, meaning "fragment." There is or was apparently a variant English word that was just smithers. The OED has an example from 1847: "One brother is a rascal—another a spend-thrift..—the family all gone to smithers." Their most recent example is from 1865.

Something fun (even more fun than the word smithers) is that the -een ending is a diminutive. The such-as example that everyone gives is the name Colleen, which is from Irish caile (girl) plus the diminutive (-ín). Similar diminutives in English are something like Mike > Mikey. Ahem.

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  08:35 PM

It got cold quite suddenly today, although it's true that Seattle has a different range of "cold" and "hot" than other parts of the world. Which is to say, we're weenies about both hot and cold. Be informed, therefore, that wordery will be coming to you from warm, inside locations until further notice.

Today's new-to-me word is one that Michael Quinion calls "a word of singular shyness," meaning you're not going to be finding it often. The term is chrestomathy, which refers to an anthology or collection of readings. The word has the connotation that the collection is for pedagogic purposes, especially for learning a language. Thus on Amazon you'll find A Coptic Grammar: With Chrestomathy and Glossary. But the term can also just mean any collection of readings, so you'll also find WEREWOLF! A Chrestomathy of Lycanthropy. (The author of this latter clearly likes the word chrestomathy, because he also has a chrestomathy of voodoo.)

However, I got hold of the word in a roundabout way from a friend who's been reading H. L. Mencken, the American journalist from early 20th century. In poking around for Mencken writings, I ran across A Mencken Chrestomathy, a collection that the author himself assembled in 1949 out of his own writings (a "self-anthology," someone called it).

As Quinion kind of suggests, it's not the sort of word that is going to come in handy in everyday use. Indeed, use it and you'll run the danger of cacozelia.

And so we move to word origins. This week, roundabout cousin Bronwyn posted a video on my Facebook feed that amusingly discussed "5 Innocent Words With Dirty Origins." One of the terms they cover is mastodon, the elephant-like critter, now extinct, that once roamed the earth. Now, you might look at that word and decide that -don probably has to do with teeth—elephant-like critters do, after all, tend to feature tusks. So maybe something like … "really big teeth"?

Nah, it's better than that. The -don part does indeed refer to teeth. (Whew) But masto is actually a Greek root meaning "breast." Yes, that kind of breast, whence also mastectomy. In the early 1800s, George Cuvier, the "father of paleontology," assigned the name based on the fact that the animal's molars had nipple-like projections on the top of its molars. (Which distinguished it from other extinct elephant-like critters like mammoths.) If we want to get all crude (but assonant) about it, mastodons are therefore boob-tooths.

I confess that I had some skepticism about the video and the etymologies it purports. But they seem to check out, so you should check it out. If you like that sort of thing.

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  11:33 PM

This time next week, it'll be November. Good golly. Time sure flies when you're collecting words.

The first word today is from the world of entomology (not to be confused with etymology): frass. This is another term I got from reading Mary Roach's book Grunt. (See the recent discussion of toilet palsy.) Frass is, to quote Roach, insect poop. Slightly more formally than that, it's used to describe the stuff that insect larvae (caterpillars) excrete, and also to describe the fine crumbs of wood left behind by wood-boring bugs.

What appealed to me is that frass derives from the German word fressen. Somewhat curiously, German has two words for "to eat." Essen is what people do, as in Delicatessen. And fressen is what animals do, or when applied to humans, to eat in an animal-like way. Since bugs are animals, fressen applies to them, and frass is what becomes of what they et.

According to authoritative sources like Wikipedia, frass has many ecological benefits. Just like manure in general, I suppose. On the other hand, seeing little piles of wood dust near expensive parts of your house, can be, you know, a cause of concern. At least now you'll know how to describe it when you put in that urgent call to the exterminator.

One more today. Recently I was reading about the country singer Toby Keith and ran across a term for "rap-influenced country music": hick-hop. This genre has been around for about 15 years. I'm not sure about the term itself, but I find it (with new-term-y quotes) in 2014. I don't follow country music, so this was new to me. If it's new to you also, here's an example from the artist Colt Ford:



I think the word hick-hop is clever, if potentially snotty. (Depends on how the artists see it, I guess.) There are always limits to spawning words based on wordplay, but the assonance with hip-hop works in this case. For me, anyway.

Not long ago the question came up about where the word shot came from in the sense of drinking ("a dram of spirits," as the OED says). The theory is that it comes from an old word for "payment," which we still see in scot-free, i.e., without penalty. Given the antiquity of this origin, the earliest cites for shot as a quantity of drink are surprisingly recent—the OED has it at 1928 in the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Where the word doesn't come from is the idea that people in the Old West paid for drinks with bullets, as Michael Quinion explains.

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  10:26 PM

Now that it's getting darker earlier, I'll have less time in the evenings to not do the outdoor exercise that I wasn't doing anyway. I guess I'll concentrate on words instead.

Recently I picked up a couple of phobia-type terms:
  • koumpounophobia: fear (and/or loathing) of buttons. Apparently this is a thing. Per the blog post where I found the word, Steve Jobs suffered this phobia, which accounted in part for his particular sartorial style.

  • trypophobia: aversion to patterns of small holes. (The Wikipedia page refers to this as a "proposed" definition; I have a thought about that later.) Examples of triggers, which I won't show, include honeycombs, soap bubbles, "aerated chocolate," and lotus pods. According to an article in The Atlantic, 16% of people experience this, and the article discusses why this phobia might be useful. I ran across the word recently in a piece about an artist who creates sculptures that, um, play with this visual stimulus. If you think you don't react to trypophobic stimuli, you might have a peek, but be prepared; the stuff is kind of grotesque.
Trypophobia isn't a formally recognized affliction, and that gets to an issue with the names for all these various phobias. Speaking from a purely lexicographic point of view, finding a "new term" that names a phobia is about as hard as finding shells on a beach. The -phobia morpheme is so productive that you could put practically anything in front of it and declare a new word. Especially if you use one of them fancy classical languages. I happen to find these two examples interesting (well, strange), but I won't make a habit of listing phobias as new-to-me words.

Let's turn to technology. Of late I've seen the term copypasta (alternatively copy-pasta) kind of a lot.[1] This isn't a new term—it was spotted at least as far back as 2006. Copypasta refers to stuff to be copy-and-pasted, specifically with the sense of something that is copied repeatedly. I ran across it in a pretty neutral setting; I saw an email at work in which someone discussed "a template that gives people copy-pasta for codeblocks, notes, etc." In this spirit, someone created an app named Copypasta that lets you copy text between your phone and your computer.

A somewhat less innocuous sense involves copypasta that people craft specifically to be spread via social networks as a kind of manual spam. (There's a subreddit; usual caveats apply.) The Know Your Meme site has a good writeup.

Update: See Jerry's comment for more thoughts about copypasta.

To my mind, copypasta fills a semantic hole, and it's useful for the neutral sense that I saw at work. But I doubt that we in the software world will be using it in documentation anytime soon.

And one final term today, even tho this is long already! Last year I learned the word confirmshaming, which is a practice where to decline an offer on a web page, you have to click an insulting or condescending button. For example, you click a button that says "No, thanks, I don't want to be fit" for an exercise product. I just learned another term for this: manipulink.

Let's pivot, as they say, to unexpected origins. You've probably heard this old joke: "I just bought a thesaurus and when I got it home, all the pages were blank. I have no words to describe how angry I am." We know what a thesaurus is, but do you know where the word came from? I sure didn't. But I learned from the slightly insufferable Simon Winchester that Peter Mark Roget both invented the idea of a book of synonyms and decided on the name for it. The term thesaurus is more or less directly from Greek, and means "treasury." However, there are older instances of thesaurus in English (back to 1565 at least) in the wider sense of a "storehouse of knowledge," as for example an encyclopedia. These days, I think it's pretty safe to say that if you hear thesaurus, it's Roget's meaning that is intended.

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[1] It's possible that copypasta is a part of the Google lexical culture, which might explain why I seem to be running into it a lot lately. Dunno.

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  10:44 PM

We were on vacation the last two Fridays, which resulted in a not-entirely-expected break for Friday Words. But we're back, and since we have a wee backlog, an extra word.

The first new-to-me word is a word that you know, at least in some meanings: snipe. But unless you've had some exposure to the US Navy, you might not know that this is a slang term in that branch for a seaman who's a member of the engineering crew, as distinct from one who works on the deck crew. Snipes have traditionally had dirty and dangerous jobs involving all things mechanical. This was originally the boilers and machinery for steam ships, but now also involves the nuclear powerplant on (some) ships, as well as firefighting, electrical work, and … well, whatever keeps the ship running. You can read a little more here and here.

The word doesn't show up with this definition in standard dictionaries, but it's clearly well established as Navy slang. Why snipe? One page of perhaps dubious etymological credibility says the term originated from the name of a certain John Snipe who ran a crew that became known as Snipe's men. I guess that's not impossible.

As a second term today, I have another one that I ran across in a military context. I've been reading Mary Roach's book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. At one point she's talking about soldiers who are riding in personnel carriers and have to keep their legs up off the floor in case an IED explodes below the vehicle. Keeping one's legs up like this can, as she says, "make the butt go numb." One of her informants refers to this as toilet palsy, "like when you're reading on the toilet too long."

I lol'd, as the kids (used to) say. I immediately stopped reading and looked that one up, because really? Yeah, pretty much. There's a recognized condition, formally called sciatic neuropathy (because it involves the sciatic nerve). Because it can happen to people who sit for long periods on the throne, whether from GI-tract illness or from falling asleep, even in the literature it's referred to as toilet seat neuropathy or Saturday night palsy, the latter a nod to all this as the result of too much partying. Amusing except, of course, to those suffering from it as either a temporary or (ack) permanent condition.

Let us turn to word origins. Only this week I learned from FB Friend Heather the unexpected origins of the word moxie, meaning "courage" or "fortitude." Had you asked me last week, I would have guessed that we got the word from Yiddish. Not at all. Moxie was originally a soft drink that was advertised as a way to build nerve. The product actually goes all the way back to 1884, which makes it about a year older than Coca-Cola. You can still buy it today, or anyway, something that's sold under that name.

The original brand name spun off the word moxie as a common noun, which seems to live contentedly side by side with the trademark. The generic word was in use at least as early as 1930, when Damon Runyon of Guys and Dolls fame used it in an article: "Personally, I always figure Louie a petty-larceny kind of guy, with no more moxie than a canary bird."

The name used for the soft drink might actually have come from an earlier term. The OED suggests as much but defers to other reference works for the details. Douglas Harper takes a bash and suggests that it's possible that it came from a Native American word meaning "dark water." Which also describes Coca-Cola, hmm. Ah, the mysteries of patent medicines.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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