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February 09, 2018  |  Friday words #107, 2018-02-09  |  4815 hit(s)

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.

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