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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Greatness is far too difficult, too abstract, too daunting. Being good-- consistently good-- is the real goal, and that takes hard work and discipline. Being good-- that's something concrete you can roll up your sleeves and accomplish.

Jeff Atwood


<January 2017>




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  11:25 AM

Friday! Meaning it's time again to share some words. For new(-to-me) words today I've got two that I harvested in 2016, but that might have some contemporary relevance, you decide.

The first is outrage porn, which is media (I think we want to stay from the word news) whose purpose is primarily to stir outrage. Entire TV networks seem to be devoted to this, and of course anyone who's got a political opinion can get an endless stream of outrage porn on their Facebook feed. The term is credited to Tim Kreider, writing in 2009 in the New York Times. (FWIW, he doesn't use quotation marks, which are often put around new terms. Just sayin'.) Using the word porn in this compound is clever; as Michael Austin notes, outrage porn "provides all of the sensations of a strong emotion without incurring any of the costs."

Part two of our related terms this week is rage profiteer. This term is slightly more recent—2014, it looks like? (A variant is rage farmer.) As you might guess, this is someone who …
… pretends to care passionately about certain causes but in fact thrives on regression, controversy or bad news because it gives them an excuse step into the limelight.
This definition is courtesy of Ryan Holiday in The Observer, who has written multiple times about these related phenomena.

Just reading about these terms makes me tired. So let's turn to something more fun, namely word history.

The etymological surprise this week came upon me as I was half-watching an episode of the new TV series Emerald City. Dorothy has a pistol, and someone in this strange new land asks her what it is. "It's a gun," she says.

Gun. Gun. I couldn't think of any cognate for gun except obvious derivations, like gunnery and gunpowder. So, where does it come from?

Would you believe that the word gun is related to the female name Gunn? (According to the babynamewizard.com site, Gunn is the 62nd most popular girl's name in Norway.)

The entry in the OED for this is so good it's tempting to just plop the whole thing right here. But to summarize, there seem to be two main elements:
  • The terms gunn-r and hild-r were both old Germanic words for "war."

  • It was not unknown to give female names to "engines of war." In this vein, says the OED, "If Gunnhildr, as is likely, was a name frequently given to ballistæ [catapults] and the like, it would naturally, on the introduction of gunpowder, be given also to cannon."

Perhaps this cannon was nicknamed Gunnhildr

So a nickname for any big [war] machine was applied to also early guns (i.e., cannons), and then came to be applied specifically to any machines that used explosive force to hurl projectiles. I imagine that a medieval engineer might be surprised to hear you refer to a little .22 pistol as a gun. But that's semantic drift for you.

I was delighted to realize that this custom of giving names to big machines is still with us. In World War I, the Germans deployed a huge howitzer that was nicknamed Big Bertha (Dicke Bertha in German). And in a less martial context, here in Seattle we are currently following the progress of a giganto machine (57-foot-diameter) named Bertha that's drilling a new roadway underneath our downtown. From this I conclude that if in medieval times you could name any big war machine "Gunnhildr," I guess today we can name any big machine "Bertha."

Seattle's Bertha, ready to start digging the tunnel.

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  08:48 AM

I missed last week due to being at a linguistics conference, but while I was there I picked up another batch of language-related terms:These are well known to real linguists (I presume), but new to me.

Anyway, those aside, it's time for another Saturday edition of Friday words (oops). Oh, and PS, Happy New Year!

The first new-to-me word this week (leaving aside the list above) is wikidrift, which defines a situation I am all too familiar with. This is the practice of (or game of, if one does it with intent) following links in Wikipedia from article to article. The drift part alludes to the notion of moving further and further away from the original starting point. A supposed outcome of unlimited wikidrift is that one eventually gets to the topic on philosophy.

My second term for this week is white-labeling, which came up at work recently. This is not a new term, and I'm a bit surprised I'd never heard it. (That I know of.) To white-label, is, in effect, to put your brand on something created by someone else. A typical example is a store brand, like Archway for Target, Lucerne for Safeway, and Kenmore for Sears.

The term apparently came from the music business, and specifically from the business of vinyl records. Demo or promo versions of new records were created before the artwork for the album was finished, and the record would be sent out to radio stations with only a blank white label. Thus the idea of a "blank" product that a seller could add their own information to.

For etymology today I've got myriad, meaning "a lot," as in There are myriad ways to say "a lot." Sure, I knew what the term means, but I didn't realize it had such a precise etymology: it's a Greek word meaning "ten thousand." Apparently the Greeks had a number system with a specific word for ten thousand.

The word has been used for centuries in English both to mean ten thousand of a thing and as term for "a countless number of specified things," as the OED has it. Still, if you run into one of those annoying people who insist that decimate can only mean "reduce by one-tenth," see if you can get then to admit that the only proper use for myriad is when they mean "ten thousand."

And speaking of numbers, read James Harbeck's writeup on using myriad, couple, and other numbers in The Week.

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  01:41 PM

Friday words! On Saturday! Another leap Friday, I guess. I should note also that I deliberately skipped last week, because it was Christmas and all the new-to-me words were just so bleak that I seemed like a downer. But things are looking up today.

Speaking of which, the new-to-me word today is supertentorial. This is a medical term, but that's not the most interesting part. So, first, the tentorium cerebelli is a bit of dura mater[1]—tissue—that separates the lower and higher parts of the brain. That is, it separates the cerebellum from the cerebrum. Supertentorial, where super is "above," means something that's occurring above this divider, like a tumor.

Already we've learned something new! But wait, there's more. I was listening to a podcast on The Allusionist, where Helen Zaltzman was talking to Dr. Isaac Siemens about, among other things, doctor jargon. Along the way, he talked about jargon that medical people use to hide what they're saying from civilians. One of those was this word supertentorial, which doctors will sometimes use to mean that it's all in the patient's head. ("The condition appears to be supertentorial.") My wife, who's also in the medical field, totally confirmed this. Of course, this strategy backfires if the patient happens to be a native speaker of Latin.

For etymology, I actually have a (belated) holiday term of sorts. At the specific request of one my kids, for Christmas dinner every year I make flan for dessert. Flan is a kind of custard, which in the Spanish style has a dripping caramel crown:

But whence flan? The name we're using is Spanish, but English also has the word flawn; this is an example of a word that's been borrowed into English more than once. The flawn version refers to a kind of flat filled pastry (basically, a tart). This sense appears in a lot of Western European languages all the way back to Latin, and seems to originate in a Germanic word meaning a flat cake. The connection to the term as used in Spanish is (I guess?) that custard seems to be one of the fillings for a flawn, and possibly that flans are flat. I don't have a source for etymology of Spanish words, so I wouldn't take this explanation to the bank. But it's what I can put together from the usual sources.

In any event, what I can tell you is that the secret to a good flan is to use extra egg yolks.

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[1] Not, I also learned, dura matter, which would be a folk etymology, I suppose.

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  06:08 AM

Things you might not know: December 16 is Beethoven's birthday. Things you probably do know: today is Friday, so it must be another day for words!

The new-to-me term this week is scrollytelling. This describes a way of presenting information on a webpage that lets users scroll around, dynamically revealing parts of the story. A good example is a page in the New York Times about climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park:

Update 19 Dec 2016 I found an even better example of scrollytelling, a viz that shows maritime traffic around San Francisco Bay:

The term scrollytelling is yet another portmanteau (a theme lately, it seems), which of course blends scrolling with storytelling. I got this term by reading a document at work, but once I went delving, I found that it's so well known that there's even a company named Scrollytelling that offers "a full-service storytelling agency and worldwide storytelling platform." Ok, then.

Bonus term: steppers. This is a different take on storytelling, where you, well, step through the story in discrete parts. A somewhat cranky blog post provides a compare-and-contrast between scrollytelling and steppers.

Unexpected etymology today came from Twitter, where someone noted the mistake "collard shirts" (instead of "collared").[1] This seemed like a minor error to me, because I thought that collard, in reference to the greens, was probably just a variant on collared—maybe the plant had some sort of collar? Something.

Not even! Collard is a "phonetic corruption" (OED) of colewort, a word constructed out of ancient roots (haha). We see the cole part of colewort in coleslaw and cauliflower, not to mention in kale and kohlrabi; further afield, it shows up as chou in French. (Fun fact: kale was basically the form of cole used in northern England and Scotland.) Wort is another ancient term, meaning plant or root, which also shows up in other names, like ragwort and mugwort. So collard greens are a kind of cabbage, but one that "does not heart," or form up into a head. I tell ya, the cabbage family is just full of surprises.

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[1] Hey, it passes spellcheck.

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  09:00 AM

I seem to have picked up the cold that's been slaying the ranks at work, bah. But the words must go on! Albeit with reduced energy.

The new-to-me word today is quite delightful. I'll do this a little backward, which will make sense in a moment. First, what is this thing—that is, what's the name of the collection of spikes found on the tail of a stegosaurus?

Apparently this particular, um, feature of stegosauruses has not been formally labeled. However, in some circles, at least, this collection is called a thagomizer.

Fun-sounding name, eh? That shouldn't be surprising, as it turns out, because the term was invented by the cartoonist Gary Larson in this very panel:

Thagomizer doesn't appear in the usual dictionaries, but it's in Urban Dictionary and in Wikipedia. Baby steps on the way to full lexical respectability.

As an aside, I got all this from an article in Mental Floss about Gary Larson. This is merely one of eleven "twisted" facts! Go read about the others!

For etymology today, we have infant. This one was interesting to me because the word uses a prefix that's quite common (namely, in-), but I'd never grokked that. Anyway, infant is in- as a negation (compare incorrect or incomplete) plus fant, which derives from the Latin verb fari meaning "to speak." It's true that infants can't speak, although as any new parent can attest, they're certainly capable of using noises to communicate, ha.

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  04:19 PM

Friday words! Here we are in December, which etymology tells us is the tenth month. Ahem.

Today's new-to-me word skirts a politically hot topic, but let's stick here with words. The term is Trumpgrets, a portmanteau of Trump+regret(s). The context, which got a splash of attention this week, was a Tumblr blog that posts tweets from people who seem to report regrets about voting for Trump.

The word Trumpgret follows the idea, if not the pattern, of Regrexit, a term coined for people in the UK who seemed to regret voting for Brexit. Note that Regrexit is a double portmanteau—regret+Brexit; Brexit in turn is a mashup of British+exit [from the EU].

I personally find the word Trumpgrets a little awkward. The pattern is morphologically valid, but perhaps it’s the p followed immediately by the g that makes it ever so slightly difficult to pronounce. Whatever.

Anyway, Brexit and then Regrexit seemed to have kicked off a spate of blending, including Brexhausted, Brexodous, and Bremain, as rounded up on the Language Log. It would not surprise me to find people experimenting with more Trump-based blends, though of course with Trump we don't have the -ex- part to play with.

Update, 3 Dec: Once I started keeping an eye out, I found more examples of Trump-based blends. So far, I've got Trumpcast (Trump+[pod]cast) and Trumplomacy (Trump+diplomacy).

Ok, etymology. In some comment thread I was reading somewhere, someone threw in a note about quicksand. What's quick about quicksand?

Well, it ain't because it's fast. The quick- part is used in the archaic sense of "alive," as in "the quick and the dead" (Biblical; 2 Timothy 4), and quicksilver for the element mercury (which is alive-seeming). So quicksand is really "living sand," in a manner of speaking. Although I suppose if you get mired in it, it's probably not that important to you how exactly the name came about. (As a non-language aside, the movie device of someone getting slurped down into a pool of quicksand—a popular trope in movies when I was a kid—isn't true. More here.)

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  04:20 PM

Black Friday! Be sure to take advantage of our door-busting specials on words!

The first new-to-me-word today is pretty politically wonkish: the Thucydides Trap. Thucydides was a Greek military commander who wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Athens against Sparta in the 5th century B.C. Inspired by the nature of this conflict, the political scientist Graham Allison coined the phrase Thucydides Trap in 2012 to describe the inevitable (?) conflict that will occur between a rising state (historically, Athens) and an established power (Sparta). I was reading a couple of articles about China this week (example), and Thucydides Trap appeared in both of them. You will undoubtedly be able to deduce which modern states correspond to Thucydides's players.

For a second new-to-me word, and on a tack more appropriate for a cooking-focused holiday, I recently learned the word autolysis or autolyze. This refers to a biochemical process in which tissue breaks down—autolysis literally means "self"+"breakdown." I ran across it while perusing some holiday recipes, and discovered that it's a term and technique that shows up a lot in instructions for making different types of bread. In that context, an autolyze period is one in which you let a dough rest to allow it to break down some of the starch.

For etymology, another foodish term: butter. A variant of this word shows up in all the Germanic languages, and in French (beurre), but curiously, not in Spanish (mantequía). Nonetheless, it does seem to have to come to us from the Latins, who in turn got it from Greek. As Kory Stamper, a Merriam-Webster lexicographer, notes, the origin is proposed to be bous ("cow") + tyros ("cheese"). The OED adds an interesting coda, that the word "is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin." Those barbarians and their delicious fatty spreads!

If the bu- part is for "cow," it's related to bovine. It's also then related to the excellent word boustrophedon, a word for writing alternatingly left to right and then right to left—i.e., the way an ox (bous) plows the field. Which the Greeks sometimes did. And maybe barbarians as well.

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  01:51 PM

Friday words! I observe belatedly that I've passed the one-year mark on this little exercise. And apparently there are still words out there that are new to me.

The new-to-me word today is a problem that might be the secret shame of many: precrastination. (Which, no surprise, spell-check wants to change to procrastination.) Precrastination is defined as "the tendency to complete, or at least begin, tasks as soon as possible, even at the expense of extra physical effort," per an article in The Atlantic that discusses this tendency. More succinctly, it refers to a tendency to get something over with as soon as possible. One example of precrastination that resonates with me is just parking in the first available slot, even if it means a longer walk to the store.

The word seems to have been invented in 2014, possibly for a paper in Psychological Science that studied the behavior. I saw it only this week in an ad for motorcycle gear that urged me to avoid last-minute shopping. (To my mind, they're not using pre-crastinate in its intended sense, but hey … ads.) It occurs to me that if I'm seeing a word for the first time in an advertisement, I am definitely behind the curve on that one.

For etymology, I have a follow-up to last week's word, bacteria, where I wondered if we had other words in English that shared the Greek root bakter, meaning "stick." Kind of we do! Per the folks at Merriam-Webster, baguette, the French bread characterized as a long and thin loaf, was named for its stick-like appearance. As they say, baguette ultimately comes from Latin baculum, meaning "rod." Just like bacteria.

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  05:17 PM

I just spent about a week in Austin, TX. I was hoping for some fun dialectical exposure, but it seems that most of the people I interacted with weren't actually from Texas. Still, there are always new words, aren't there.

The first word today is something I ran across while investigating last week's words. It struck me because we have a set of conference rooms at work where people, even people who've worked in the building a while, frequently can't figure out whether to push or pull them.

Turns out that there is (of course) a name for this: these are Norman doors. This is a door where "the design tells you to do the opposite of what you're actually supposed to do." A second definition is "a door that gives the wrong signal and needs a sign to correct it."

In this expression, Norman refers not to, like, William the Conqueror, but to Donald Norman, whose book The Design of Everyday Things is a kind of popular bible for understanding, well, the design of everyday things. There’s a blog entry on the Nielsen site by Norman himself that discusses this very issue of poor door design. Here's a video done by some folks at Vox that illustrates the problem and gets some commentary from Norman himself:

According to an entry for Norman doors by Paul McFedries on his outstanding WordSpy.com site, the first cite is from Don Norman himself in 2004, tho he credits others with using the term: "to my dismay (and secret pride), really poorly designed doors are often called 'Norman doors.'"

I don't know how generally we can apply the Norman attribute. Not two hours ago I was in a bathroom where I found what might be termed a Norman faucet—not only did it require a sign, but the instructions were molded right into the faucet, as if they already knew at the factory that they had a Norman problem:

For etymology today, a short one. Try this: without looking it up, what do you supposed the origin is for the word bacteria? Ok, the smartass in the room will say "Simple, it's from bacterium." Yes. Which comes from … where?

It's logical enough, if not necessarily intuitive. The word was coined around 1838 from Greek, a diminutive of baktēría, which means "a staff." Or to put it in the common parlance, the Greek word means "little stick." Which makes sense if you see a picture of, say, E. coli, which are, as they say, rod shaped:

As it turns out, not all bacteria are rod shaped, so they were a bit premature in assigning a name. But that's what we use now.

I have been unable, even after several minutes of searching, to find other words in English that use the bakter root. Probably I'm just not looking in the right places.

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  09:45 AM

Happy Friday, words peeps. After last week's catch-up opus, I'm going to keep this one short (for me), even tho my collection keeps growing.

The first new-to-me term is yet another new entry in my growing collection of laws, effects, and principles: the cheerleader effect. Just from the name, it might not be easy to guess what this describes. According to the article where I learned about it, the cheerleader effect explains that "individual faces appear more attractive when presented in a group than when presented alone." IOW, you'll look better in a group photo. Is the theory.

Trying to track down the origin of this term is a little frustrating, because many sources say that it was coined "by Barney Stinson, a character on the TV show How I Met Your Mother," going back to an episode from 2008 of that show. But TV characters don't invent things, and I have not yet found something that indicates where the show's writers might have gotten the term. I mean, maybe they invented it, but if so, it would be good to get that credited.

Anyway, using the term cheerleader for the effect here is an interesting choice, in that it seems to allude to looking at (and judging the attractiveness of) groups of women specifically. For example, one source I found says that other names for this effect are the Bridesmaid Paradox and Sorority Girl Syndrome. Is there a variant of this name that is gender neutral? Operators are standing by.

Etymology. I attended a talk this week by Daniel Menaker, who has a new book titled The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense. This is a collection of eggcorns, basically, with fun illustrations by Roz Chast. One of the examples he discussed was jaywalking. Some people write this as "J-walking," possibly with the idea that a jaywalker is proceeding along a path described by the letter J.

Well, no. But where does the jay- part come from? In his talk, Menaker said it referred to the bird (like a bluejay). This is backed up by at least one dictionary, but the connection is not explained. Douglas Harper agrees, and adds a provisional connection: "perhaps with notion of boldness and impudence."

The OED suggests an alternative derivation; in their entry, they link the jay of jaywalking to an old definition meaning "a stupid or silly person." In that sense, jay goes back to the 1500s.

Turns out some lexicographic big guns have tackled this. In one of his Wall Street Journal columns (paywall), Ben Zimmer traces jaywalking (based on research by Paul McFedries). Michael Quinion also has a column about this word.

So: jay as "stupid or silly" probably derives from the noisy chattering of that bird. (There's the missing connection.) In the early days of the automobile, people who drove erratically were jay drivers: they drove in a stupid or silly way. This notion of driving jay was then applied to pedestrians. The first cites seem to come from Kansas, 1904 for jay driver and 1906 for jay walker.

Based on what I see every day whilst out on the roads, I think we should revive the term jay driving. What do you think?

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