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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The era of blogging, and now Twitter, has turned linguistics into a real-time sport.

Rex Hammock


<September 2017>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 8:30 AM Pacific

  11:00 AM

Equinox was a couple of days ago, meaning that up here in the northern hemisphere, today is shorter than yesterday, and tomorrow will be shorter yet. Best not to think about that, tho, and to think instead about words.

I ran across today’s new-to-me word on a social media feed and thought that it had to be something from The Onion. But no. The word is scrotox/scrotoxing, which refers to a botox treatment for that man’s special area that begins with scro. As with botox treatments elsewhere, this is done for, you know, aesthetic reasons. You can read more here, and if you're curious, you can see some before-n-after pictures (NSFW, right?).

I guess I'm old enough to remember when botoxing became a thing, and how very odd it seemed that people were deliberately being injected with a substance that was related to botulism. And then to do the same for a man's special area, whoo.

But I digress. Scrotox is of course a portmanteau: scrotum + botox. As has come up a few times here before, this is what various of us variously call a telescoping or recursive or second-order blend; botox is itself a portmanteau of botulin and toxin. (Gah. See preceding paragraph.)

The meaning of scrotox is pretty clear from the word itself, which per some researchers is a characteristic of a good blended word. If we want to go there, we can speculate how to create words to describe botox treatments for other body areas, and how effective those would be without the advantage of rhyme.

The unexpected etymology today came via my wife, who was reading a book that mentioned the origins of the word story to mean the floor of a building. ("A seven-story building," or in Britain, "a seven-storey building.") It turns out that the architectural sense is directly related to the sense of story as a narrative, who knew. Both senses derive from Latin historia, which of course gives us history.

In olden times, the outsides of buildings, especially churches, might be decorated in ways that suggested a narrative: sculptures, painted or stained windows, or paintings on the walls. This sense of a narrative story then became associated with the layer of the building where these stories were, and more generally, with building layers in general. A kind of self-conscious version of external narrative wall painting can be found in the German-speaking highlands of Europe, if you like that sort of thing:

This photo of Old Town Lucerne is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The overlap of story as a building floor and as a narrative gives extra resonance to the term second-story man as a term for a burglar. I think, anyway.

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  10:26 PM

Some weeks ago I joined Google as a technical editor. During orientation my first week, I learned a lot about configuring my computer and about my healthcare options, which is to say that it was a lot like joining any new company. Something that was not specifically on the agenda that week, but that was of keen interest to me, was an introduction to a whole lot of new vocabulary.

Companies tend to develop their own lexicons. In my years at Microsoft, I become fluent in Microspeak (blue badge, a-dash, S+, little-r me). A stint at Amazon taught me another batch of terms, including 6-pagers, dogs not barking, bar raisers, frupidity, and undifferentiated heavy lifting. Right from my start at Google I started writing down terms, and I'm still going. Here I'll list some terms I like.

We should probably start with the company name itself, a story that some people don't know. Google is (it has been reported) a misspelling of the word googol, a term in math for 10 to the 100th power.

The company uses Google as a combining word with gusto. Company headquarters are in Mountain View, California at a campus that's known as the Googleplex. Employees are Googlers; new employees are Nooglers. Ex-employees are Xooglers. Older employees are Grayglers or Greyglers. Google is a dog-friendly company, and four-legged friends on campus are Dooglers. Embodying aspects of the company culture means that you're Googley.

My Noogler beanie

As with many (most? all?) companies, acronyms and initialisms are everywhere. There are cafeterias in many of the buildings, and smaller areas in each building where you can grab drinks. These are MKs, or "mini kitchens." My email address—what I learned elsewhere to call my email alias—is now my LDAP. That one amused me, for two reasons. One is that it's a technical term (LDAP name) that sort of escaped into general usage. And two is that hardly anyone can tell you want LDAP actually stands for.

The weekly all-hands is referred to as TGIF. You might think that means that the meetings are held on Fridays. And apparently they once were, but not anymore; even so, the name stuck. Slightly amusing: internally, the name Mountain View is abbreviated as MTV, which threw me more times than you'd think when I first encountered it. And an initialism that I hear all the time now is LGTM: Looks Good To Me, which can conveniently function as a verb ("Can you LGTM this for me?")

I don't know if we can consider this acronymic, but even the G in Google gets pressed into service. When I was in Mountain View, I noticed a lot of people using GBikes to get around. (Which seemed smart, given the big campus, clement weather, and flat terrain.) Similarly, in some places folks can commute on a GBus.

Here's a term that I haven't sorted out yet, nor has anyone I've asked. For messaging one another at work, we use Google Hangouts, as you'd expect. Just today I was talking to a colleague and explaining that someone had ... Hangouted me? ... a message. We had to ponder that one for a bit.

It's a lot of fun, this cavalcade of new words. I do still occasionally have to take someone aside and ask them to explain some term or acronym. Or in one case, my boss had to take me aside and explain that I was using a term wrong. But c'mon ... such things are to be expected from Nooglers, right?


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  11:03 PM

This week we're coming to you from the the desk that I've finally managed to install and configure in my home officenook. I trust you'll appreciate the beneficial effect that this has had on this week's words. Speaking of which.

By now, everyone has probably heard the term mansplain. According to a couple of dictionaries, to mansplain is to explain something in a "condescending or patronizing" manner. Obviously (altho if it's not obvious, there's also this piece on the Merriam-Webster site), the term invokes the idea of a man explaining something to a woman. Some people specify that mansplaining specifically involves the man explaining to the woman something she already knows. And as noted by various folks (example), there's been some semantic broadening, such that people sometimes use mansplaining to mean anytime a man explains something, sometimes not even specifically to a woman. (Someone has coined the term critique drift for this type of semantic broadening.)

As I say, you already know all this. I bring it all up again because not long ago I ran across an interestingly related term: ladysplain. Here's where I saw it:

We could have an interesting discussion about what the author, Cynthia Lee, means here by ladysplain. My interpretation was something along the lines of "give you a woman's perspective on."

This is not the only use of this term. In an essay on The Monthly, Annabel Crabb defines ladysplaining quite differently: "apologising for something she did actually know." That is, Crabb is inverting the definitions of man- and ladysplaining. In her definition, where mansplaining is about confidently proclaiming, perhaps without expertise, ladysplaining is about reluctance to speak in spite of competence.

I admit that I like the parallelism of Crabbe's definition. But I find Lee's use of the term to be more, what, empowering. Every usage of mansplaining is intended to be negative. Crabbe's use of ladysplaining has negative connotations—someone presumably doesn't aspire to ladysplain in the way she defines the term. Lee's usage, on the other hand, is neutral-to-positive.

For all I know, people are throwing out the term with other definitions as well. Whether the term will persist, and if it does, what definition finally jells, remains to be seen.

Word origins. Someone at work brought up the term akimbo. Bit of a strange word innit. If you're "arms akimbo," you're standing with your hands on your hips with your elbows sticking out. (There has to be an emoji of this, right?) If you're wracking your brain to remember whether you've heard akimbo in any context except "arms akimbo," let me *splain you that "arms akimbo" is far and away the most common collocation involving akimbo, at least per the COCA corpus:

Still, as you can see in the graph, and as explicitly noted in M-W, a person might also sit with legs akimbo.

Ok, fine, where did this odd term come from? An interesting theory is that it's related to a term in Old Icelandic (í keng boginn) that means "bent like a bow." However, although it's possible to squint and see a relationship, the words aren't used in Old Icelandic in a way that corresponds to the English term. Another theory is that the kim part of akimbo is related to an old French word cane, meaning "pitcher," and that standing arms akimbo means you look like a pitcher with a handle. (Well, with two handles.) Indeed, there's an expression in French—faire le pot a deux anses—meaning "to make the pot with two handles" that's used to refer to someone standing arms akimbo. Alas, there's isn't written evidence to clearly link -kim- to cane. A third theory is that akimbo comes from keen+bow in Middle English, meaning "sharp angle." But the Middle Englishers used keen to mean sharp-as-in-cutting, not sharp-as-in-angle. In short, we don't know. So keep those theories coming!

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  09:17 PM

Four-day workweeks are great, but boy, Fridays do come upon one suddenly. Not that I'm complaining. And there's no shortage of words. So.

Today's new-to-me word is stylometry, which I ran across in an article about Satoshi Nakamoto, the exceptionally mysterious creator of Bitcoin. Stylometry is the study of individual style in text or music or art, often involving statistical analysis. It can be used to study individual creators or to contrast multiple ones. It tends to become newsworthy when it's used to unmask an anonymous or pseudonymous creator; an example that many people might remember was when stylometric analysis was used to determine that the author "Robert Galbraith" was actually J. K. Rowling.

The word is older than I would have guessed. The OED's first entry is for 1945. The Ngram Viewer appears to record instances as early as 1898, although those might refer to a slightly different thing. (It would be astounding if I were able to find an example that antedates the OED.)

As a bonus today, here's a technical term that I recently learned: slugify. This refers to turning a set of words into a string that's suitable for use in a URL. For example, slugification turns "Friday words Sep 8, 2017" into "friday-words-sep-8-2017". The process converts words to lowercase and removes punctuation and uses special characters (often hyphens) as word delimiters. The "slug" part of slugify comes from slug, a term used by web designers, and which comes from journalism: slugs are (short) names that identify articles that are in production. I find some speculative talk that this usage emerged from typesetting (a slug of metal). This seems interesting (and not incorrect); if I had more time, I'd investigate more.

I was riding on the bus the other day and passed a place that advertised Yacht Sales. I wasn't tempted to buy a yacht, but it did make wonder where the word had come from. I started with two fuzzy ideas. One was that the Germans have the word Jacht, which means the same thing. (In German, the letter J is pronounced like a Y.) I also know that we've picked up nautical vocabulary from the Dutch (skipper, boom). Was yacht therefore a Dutch word?

Yes! So I can't count this as entirely unexpected etymology. But there was an unexpected twist. We did indeed import the Dutch word jaghtschip. The schip part is pretty clear, but what's jaght? Well, that derives from the Dutch word jagen, which means "to hunt": a yacht-ship was a hunting ship. (Obviously, its meaning has evolved in English.) This means that yacht is related to the name Jägermeister, the booze, which is a German name meaning "master of the hunt," i.e. "hunt-master." Please feel free to enjoy Jager-bombs on your yacht, with my compliments.

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  08:04 AM

Happy September, y’all. In the US, of course, it’s Labor Day weekend, which is the symbolic end of summer. It’s been an eventful one for us, that’s for sure. And of course there are words.

The new-to-me term today is old, and I would be surprised if it’s new to a specific subset of my friends.[1] The word is psychomachia, alternative rendering psychomachy, a term with a literary history. It refers to a “conflict of the soul” (Greek, as you’d guess—psyche: “spirit/mind/soul”; makhe, “battle”). As I encountered the word, it was used to refer to a battle between good and evil within an individual, and especially for an artistic representation of this conflict:

Or to use the example that Facebook Friend Jan posted, and which she later mused might be taken as a representation of psychomachia:

The word was used as the title of an allegorical poem written in the 5th century about a rumble between virtues (with virtue-osic names like Hope and Chasity) and vices (Avarice, Lust, and other names that have not, as yet, been used for the children of celebrities). And when I say "rumble," I ain't kidding—the poem literally describes a set of gladiator-style engagements:
His method of presentation is a series of single combats, recalling the style of epic poems like the Aeneid and the Iliad. Thus Faith begins the fray by doing combat with Idolatry. Chastity then fights Lust, and Patience vies with Anger. Pride rides onto the field on a high horse to rally her comrades, and tries to trample down Humility and her supporter, Hope. But Pride falls […]"
While we contemplate to what extent Game of Thrones is an allegorical poem about the conflict between good and evil, let me turn to word origins. During an insomniac spell recently I got to wondering where the word burglar had come from. (Midnight musing are unpredictable, eh?) It’s a bit unexpected, actually. An early English word for burglar was burgh-breche, where breche is related to break and burgh is a fortified place. (All those -burg cities in Germany, for example, and -borough towns in England, and more distantly, the word bourgeois for residents of burgs.) Even so, we probably got burglar as a legal term via Latin; it entered English as burgator. An interesting path right there: a Germanic root adopted into Latin, borrowed as a legal term back into English.

Fair enough, but what about that L in the middle, I hear you asking. The term burglator showed up more or less concurrently with burgator. One theory is that the L is “from influence of” the Latin word latro in Latin, which means “thief.” (Related: larceny; Spanish: ladrón; see also the Rossini opera La gazza ladra, aka “The Thieving Magpie.”) The OED repeats this theory, but states that the theory “is contrary to the evidence.” Conclusion: we don’t really know.

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[1] Don't tell anyone, but I really like working with humanities majors.

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  01:52 PM

Order is slowly emerging after the move. ("Chaos is a ladder"—Bran on GoT) Instead of writing about words these last couple of days, I've been working (gasp!) and assembling a desk in my new home officenook. I assure you my tardiness this week is not for lack of interest or for lack of words, oh, no.

In the annals of new to me this week, we have a word I learned from Facebook Friend Deb: amathia. This is a pretty rare word; you won't find it in many dictionaries. It's a Greek term that shows up in The Republic, where Socrates uses it to refer to ignorance. Some people gloss it as a "willful ignorance"—a refusal to understand something, which distinguishes it from ignorance based on, say, lack of experience or exposure. Another gloss is "intelligent stupidity" or "disknowledge." This view is discussed in some detail in the essay "One crucial word," which was written in 2016 but has been getting attention recently.

There's a very long Reddit thread (more than 2000 comments) about this term, which includes some discussion about how this word is used in modern Greek. Not everyone agrees that Socrates uses amathia in a specific way. (For details, you can try this page from the essay "Plato's politics of ignorance.") In general, I think it's an interesting idea to have a word for the idea of willful ignorance, and I guess I'm rooting for amathia.

And now for unexpected origins. At work this week, one of the writers turned to an editor and said, "I'm going to sic so-and-so on you." Which sent me to the dictionary to try to figure out where sic had come from in this particular sense. I believe most of us would associate "Sic 'em!" with inciting a dog to attack, altho the writer's usage tells us that it's not entirely limited to a fossil usages.

The OED doesn't have a separate entry for sic as a verb, but other sources tell us that this verb comes from to seek. And indeed, the OED lists an obsolete sense of to seek that means "to pursue with hostile intention, to go to attack." Their last cite for to seek in this sense is from Shakespeare. We've lost to seek in this sense, but apparently a dialectical variation—to sic—survived.

There are a couple of interesting wrinkles. One is that although the command form is definitely sic, it's a little murkier what other moods and tenses are. One dictionary lists siccing and sicking as the progressive forms. In that vein, how would you personally form (and spell) the past tense?

The other wrinkle, which is minor, is that we can use to sic without a heavy overtone of "hostile intent." Either that, or I misunderstood what the writer was saying, haha.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  09:11 PM

Not long ago I posted something about saving your hearing via the diligent use of earplugs if you are around loud things. (In my case, a motorcycle.) I didn't note then that my problem with being able to hear clearly is not new. I've had trouble for a long time hearing conversation in loud restaurants or understanding dialog in movies.

In fact, I had my hearing tested a while ago. Paradoxically, the results said that my hearing is great in some sort of Platonic sense, as in, when tested in ideal conditions in a lab. But Dr. Ears admitted that there was nothing to be done about my filtering problem—being able to pick out from background noise the sounds I actually wanted to hear.

Hearing aids are an option, I suppose. But good hearing aids are shockingly expensive, and often are not covered by insurance. And it's not at all clear to me that they solve this specific problem of attenuating the background noise specifically.

Well, in the creepy way of modern internet advertising, which can apparently read your mind, I recently started seeing ads for something pretty new: "conversation-enhancing headphones." For example, Bose has a product that they call Hearphones. Doppler Labs (which is suing Bose over all this) has a product they call Here Active Listening headphones. (Here, hear, get it?)

If I understand correctly, the devices combine noise cancellation with directional microphones with a kind of equalizer app (on your phone) to do pretty much what I need, namely tune and/or filter noise versus signal. And all at a price that is significantly less than hearing aids (Bose: $600, Doppler: $300). It's true, of course, that you're wearing headphones versus the invisibility of hearing aids. Then again, wearing headphones is pretty normal in a lot of contexts.

I'm pretty excited by all this. In fact, I'd probably go ahead and get a pair of these, but I've been around technology long enough to know that it's not usually a good idea to get version 1 of anything. By the time v3 of these things is available, they should be pretty great, right?

Let me add a linguistic note here as well. The name that Bose has come up with—hearphones—strikes me as so perfect for this device that it feels like it could easily become the genericized term for this class of thing. Any bets?

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  01:44 PM

I had an influx of new-to-me terms this week, to the point that I'm having trouble picking just one. Or two. As people say, a good problem to have.

I'll start with a term that is new-ish in absolute terms: Milkshake Duck. If you're hip to the meme ecosystem (meme-o-system?), you'll know this term. In fact, you'll know it if you read the New York Times, which covered it this week.

Milkshake Duck describes someone (or something, I suppose) who becomes an overnight darling on the internet, but then almost immediately is discovered to have something disreputable about them. One reason that the new term has gotten attention is that it seems to fill a need: we all recognize the idea. That said, the same couple of examples come up in all the discussion about the new term: red-sweater guy from the 2016 presidential debates (turns out he said some icky things on reddit) and some dude associated with GamerGate.

Why, you ask, Milkshake Duck? This to me is actually the interesting part. The whole thing started off as a joke on Twitter in 2016 by the user "Pixilated Boat," with this tweet:

In the last year, this joke about the fickle nature of internet fame has spawned a term for that phenomenon. Of course, this is the internet and who knows how fleeting this term might be. Even so, the Oxford Dictionary people are keeping an eye on it.

The second new-to-me term pertains to my work (software), and it needs a little background. This also can pertain to things like latter-day product names (e.g. GoFundMe), and I'm hoping for readers' sake it's relevant elsewhere.

In programming, people have to name things. However, names often can’t have spaces in them, so conventions exist for how to combine names that consist of multiple words.

One way is to capitalize each word in the name, a convention known as Pascal casing, which I think (but cannot ascertain) arose as a convention established with the Pascal language:


Another convention is to use caps for all the words except the first word, a convention known as camel casing (because there are humps in the middle):


Yet another convention is to use an underscore character (_) to separate the words. Only this week I learned that this is referred to as snake casing:


As an amusing variant, I also learned that if one or more words in the name are in uppercase, this is known as screaming snake case, which Twitter user Greg Woods suggests might be the best name of all. I’d have to agree.

Ok, done with new-to-me terms. For surprising origins today, I have the word bead, the little things used in jewelry and such. The noun bead turns out to be related to the verb to bid and the German word bitte ("please"), both with the general sense of "to ask." The connection has to do with prayer: the starting point was the Old English verb biddan. This sense "transferred," as the OED says, to the artifacts on the rosary that people used to keep track of their prayers ("telling beads").

I got onto this interesting story via Stan Carey’s Sentence First blog, which I highly recommend for fascinating and sensible writing about language.

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[Credit for screaming snake image: ICreateWolf13 on Deviant Art]

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  04:16 PM

I just started a new job at a company that you’ve heard of, and one of the delights is being introduced to fun bits of corporate vernacular. I’ll have to post about that soon. In the meantime, tho, there are some Friday words to take care of.

The new-to-me terms today are pretty geeky, so I won't hold it against you if you don't fold them into your everyday vocabulary. (The way you do all the other Friday words, haha.)

The first term came up in a discussion about a slightly odd news story: the car manufacturer Mazda has pioneered a way to make more-efficient gasoline engines. Great news, right? We'll use less gas that way.

During discussion, FB Friend Jim observed that increased fuel efficiency can have a rebound effect that is known as Jevons Paradox (no apostrophe). Jevons was an English dude who observed that if the price of coal went down, people would just use more of it. More generally, increased efficiency in using a scarce resource leads not to the resource lasting longer, say, but to greater consumption of that resource. Writing in a fascinating New Yorker article ("The Efficiency Dilemma"), David Owen uses several examples; the one I liked pertained to air conditioning. When Owen was a kid, AC was rare and pretty energy-expensive. Manufacturers made AC more efficient, but it's led to an explosion in the use of AC, leading to much more energy overall being devoted to cooling down air.

[By Joost Swarte for the New Yorker]

I did warn you that this was a geeky week.

As a bonus (still geeky), here's a fun technical term I learned just a few hours ago: cryptographic deletion. There can be times when physically deleting a digital file is impractical, such as when there are many copies of the file scattered around. But if the file was encrypted, you can "delete" it—that is, make it inaccessible—by permanently deleting the key that was used to encrypt the file in the first place. Although cryptographic deletion can be practical for home users, it's really something more for, say, cloud providers.

Ok, let's talk unexpected etymology. This week I have the word counter, as in (e.g.) the place at the deli where you order your sandwich. A few days ago I happened to be at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and saw this great little explanation:

In case this isn’t entirely legible, it says this:
Up through the 1700s, the tabletop abacus or counting board was widespread in Europe. Shopkeepers traditionally faced their customers across the device as they added up purchases.

This “counting board” evolved into the English word “counter” to describe the working surface in a store, and later any working surface—like kitchen counters.
Since one does not necessarily want to take the word of a museum exhibit on etymological matters, I double-checked when I got home. But they were right. In fact, not only was the museum's explanation correct, but it was a clearer and more thorough story than what I might otherwise have extrapolated from other sources. I am sorry that I doubted the research and writing skillz of the anonymous exhibit-placard writer.

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  07:15 AM

We finally moved this week, so we're now in an apartment that—hey, here's a surprise—is furnished generously with boxes in various states of openness. And we're running back and forth and back and forth between the old place and the new one for final transfer/cleaning/craigslisting. So words are delayed this week, but are still on my mind.

For a new-to-me term today, I have one that I can relate to based on our recent experience. The term is Ringelmann Effect, which is one name among several for a counterintuitive but well-attested phenomenon: adding workers to a job has diminishing effectiveness. It's kind of the opposite of "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Ringelmann was a French agricultural engineer who observed the non-linear effectiveness of adding horses or oxen to a team pulling a wagon. (There's a good summary of his work in this IEEE blog entry.) Starting from that, he (and others) generalized this insight. For example, there's a version of this called Brooks's Law, named for the software theorist Fred Brooks, that goes "Adding manpower to a late project makes it later." Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has a version called the two-pizza rule about productivity in meetings: "Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn't feed the entire group."

We saw the effect in action this week. For our move, we hired a team of three movers, but they brought along a fourth guy. Well, it was pretty clear that he didn't add anything like 25% effectiveness to the team. But they seemed like they were pretty busy, so I didn't give them the benefit of my recent learnings about the Ringelmann Effect.

Moving to (haha) unexpected word origins. If you are like me, you might look at the word parchment and kind of suppose that it probably has something to do with parch meaning "dry," maybe because parchment is dried skin? Nope. Although, to be clear, parchment is dried skin.[1] I was reading about the history of printing, and the author mentioned that parchment is actually a toponym—that is, based on a place name. The simple version of the story is that parchment is from Pergamena charta, meaning "paper from Pergamum." Pergamum, as I also just learned, was a Greek kingdom in Asia Minor, and was presumed to be the place where dried skin was first used as a thing to write on. I guess I'm always a little surprised and delighted to find geography hiding in the origins of our words.

Slightly odd fact I also learned: the origins of parch as a verb ("parched") are unknown.

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[1] The slang-y term sheepskin to mean "diploma" derives from the fact that diplomas used to be written on parchment.

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