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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1) Everything that’s already in the world when you're born is just normal; 2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; 3) Anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

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<January 2021>



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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:02 PM Pacific

  10:16 PM

Every year I get out the trusty Hal Leonard Christmas Carols for Solo Ukulele book and see if I can remember the ones I learned the year before and maybe learn a new one. Then I use my primitive home recording setup to record them, just for fun.

Here are recordings of some of them that I made this year. These are all MP3 files that are about a minute long and all less than 1 MB.

PS I'm not a very good uke player.

Note: For technical reasons that I don't understand, you might have to refresh the page after listening to a track before you can listen to a different track. Sorry :(

Away in a Manger

Jingle Bells

O Tannenbaum

Silent Night

Merry Christmas!



  10:26 PM

Covid and name-spelling

I've always had an issue in trying to tell people what my last name is. As I've written about before, people have a hard time understanding the name Pope. "Hope?" "Polk"? There's just something about that combination of consonants that's always hard to hear, especially over the phone.

Well, Covid certainly hasn't helped. I'm not a particularly clear talker under the best of circumstances. Add to that wearing a mask and talking through a plastic shield, and I feel like I practically have to yell to transact business when I'm at a store. One of the local shops posted the following sign, which might seem vaguely rude, but I think everyone understands the issue.

However, even yelling is often not enough to make my name clear to people across the counter. For some people, it can help to spell their name. But the letters P-O-P-E sound similar to other letters, like B, D, E, and spelling my name can just generate a second round of "did you mean …"? Another option is to say something like P as in Peter, and so on. When I talk on the phone with people who are accustomed to the problems of transcribing names, they'll sometimes do this.

Long ago the military solved this problem by inventing a so-called spelling or phonetic alphabet. You probably know this alphabet, which starts with Alfa (or Alpha), Bravo, Charlie, and finishes with Yankee, Zulu:

The beauty of this particular alphabet is that the names were carefully chosen to be unambiguous. Although the letters B and P sound similar, the words Bravo and Papa don't, so there's not much chance of them being confused, or Delta and Golf, or Mike and November. If you look through this alphabet, you'll see that none of the names sound like any of the other names.

So now when I am masked up and talking through a shield, I've taken to preemptively spelling out my name using this alphabet. I'll go to the pharmacy, and when they ask what name the prescription is under, I'll say "POPE, Papa-Oscar-Papa-Echo!" I sometimes get funny looks after this, but so far, no one has misunderstood what I'm spelling out.[1]

[1] Many people who were in the military know this alphabet, and a guy I used to work with who was ex-military taught me the term Charlie Foxtrot as a way in polite company to refer to a clusterfuck.

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  10:52 AM

Over the weekend I ran a security check on my computer. One of the startling results was the report by my password manager that I had many dozens of "compromised passwords."

After my pulse returned to something resembling normal, I looked a little more closely at the report. What they were not saying, I had to figure out, was that dozens of my accounts had been compromised. They only meant that the password that my password manager is storing for some websites was among the passwords found in someone's data breach.

I looked through the list of affected websites in my password manager and had an Aha! moment: virtually all of them are sites where I use a "throwaway" password. That is, I'm interacting with a site and they insist that I create an account, and I end up using the same password over and over. For example, I've done this for some sites that I intend to visit only once.

This is a bad idea, and I should know better. Reusing passwords is a big security risk.

Think about how this works: you use the same username and your throwaway password for a number of sites. One of the sites is breached, and your password and username fall into the hands of people with mal intent. These people then try your username+password combination on hundreds or thousands of sites. In my case, for example, they could have gotten access to dozens of sites that way.

I like to think that I've reused my throwaway password benignly, only for "unimportant" sites. But I can see in retrospect that even if the sites have no commercial value, someone could impersonate me on those sites and do some sort of mischief.

But I think we can also imagine many people using the same password not just for benign sites, but for important sites. This is one way that people's social media accounts get hacked.

So, in part for my own benefit, let's review some security practices that everyone (me, too) should be following:

Don't use the same password on different sites. As explained earlier.

Use a strong password. A strong password is one that's long and random. It doesn't mean just substituting numbers or punctuation in a word (like S3att!e). A decent approach is to use a passphrase rather than password: not just a string of characters, but a string of words. The longer the phrase, the more "entropy" it was, meaning that it's harder to crack. Many people know the xkcd cartoon that explained this beautifully:

Of course, the site has to allow this. A surprising number of sites still prohibit spaces or have a too-short maximum password length. And the "strong test" that some sites show you as you're creating a password isn't necessarily very good, so don't take their word for it.

Use a password manager. One reason people reuse passwords is so they can remember them. Use strong passwords, as noted, and then let a password manager do the remembering. You just have to remember one password, namely the one for the password manager. (Use a strong password for that, please.)

If a site offers it, use two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication (2FA) is where you have to provide both a username+password and a one-time password (OTP) that they send you in email or text message. 2FA isn't perfect, but it's better than username+password alone.

Among 2FA options, a good one is a hardware key, like those offered by Yubico. For this, you have a little thing that looks like a USB dongle; as part of your login, you have to touch the key. Hardware keys aren't supported on many sites yet, but you can use them on some important ones, including Gmail. (Full disclosure: we use hardware keys at work.)

Use security questions wisely. In 2008, Sarah Palin was famously hacked by someone who got answers to her security questions by studying her biographical data. The answers to your security questions are probably not that hard to find either—for example, how fast do you think someone can discover your mother's maiden name or your high school mascot? (Many social-media questions and polls seem designed to solicit information that can be used to answer security questions.)

If a site insists that you have to set up security questions, you can create answers that are meaningful to you but that aren't easily guessable. As the simplest possible approach, just lie. Just remember what your lies are. :) A more sophisticated approach is to devise an algorithm for yourself that you always use. For example, maybe you take the first letters of the question and use those as an answer. If the question is "What is your mother's maiden name?," your answer could be WIYMMN. (Don't use this particular algorithm, please.) Or you do something with numbers or whatever. The idea is just to have something that you can reproduce many months hence but that isn't guessable.

Get rid of accounts you're not using. Did you set up an account on Pinterest or Coursera or the Los Angeles Times but you never use it? Delete the account. No password worries then for that account.

And finally, lock down your main email account as tightly as possible. When there are changes to your accounts, like a password change, you often have to confirm them via email. But if your email account has already been compromised, the game is up.

I guess I'll also note that I don't let websites store my credit card number. The only company I really trust is Amazon, in part because during my time there, I was impressed with the level of paranoia that they have about security issues, haha. But if J. Random Website offers to store my credit card info, no thanks.

If you want more details on all of this, I highly recommend a whitepaper written by a couple of the solutions architects at work: Modern password security for users (PDF). They have great ideas about strong passwords, about how to handle security questions, etc.



  12:19 PM

In an effort to improve my sleep regimen, I was recently prescribed a CPAP machine. This device helps with obstructive sleep apnea, where your throat closes during sleep. The CPAP machine basically pushes air into your nose and/or mouth to keep things open.

The concept is relatively simple, but it involves technology. You wear a mask; the mask is connected via a hose to the device itself, which blows air and has sensors to adjust the pressure and temperature. There's a water reservoir so the machine can humidify the air it's blowing at you. There are air filters that need to be changed periodically. The mask, hose, and water reservoirs need to be washed regularly.

So how does the manufacturer (Philips) make and distribute a machine that's a this complex but is intended for a wide variety of people? I count four ways, and am wondering about a fifth.

First, before you can take home your CPAP machine, you get a 20-minute training session slash demo. The trainer walks you how to assemble and use the machine, and they give you the schedule and some tips for cleaning.

I read once that people retain 10% of what they hear during a presentation. The exact number (10%) isn't that important; the idea is just that people don't retain everything you tell them.[1] And I think about all the people who use a CPAP machine. Is a 20-minute demo going to be enough to train this wide range of people? My guess is no.

So second, the machine comes with a manual—two, in fact, a quickstart and a detailed manual. These reiterate a lot of what you learn in the presentation, so you have at least the possibility of hearing it all twice. The quickstart has a lot of pictures. (The manual, a few line drawings.) For me, it was an interesting case of reading documentation for something that I felt I kind of already knew but that I needed some refreshing on.

A third way that Philips tries to help their users is through design. For example, when things connect, they go together in only one way. There's only one way to plug in the machine. The hose goes into the machine only one way. The filters and water reservoir go into the machine only one way; you can't close it if they're not right. The nosepiece in the mask has clear markings right on it for how to put it together. These are all versions of self-documenting features: you literally do not need to read the manual to understand how to put together the components.

As another example, there are very few controls on the machine. For basic use, you need to press only a single button to turn the machine on and the same button again to turn it off. There's a second button if you want to adjust the "ramp"—that is, to set the air pressure to increase gradually when you start up the machine.[2]

And there is a fourth way in which Philips can help people. The machine phones home to report a bunch of statistics about the user's sleep. (That part of the machine required no setup at all, which was great.) This feature has several purposes (some of them a little uncomfortable to contemplate), but at least if the distributor is getting odd reports or no reports from the patient, they know something went wrong. Perhaps they contact you if that's the case.

I imagine that with these efforts on Philips's part, most people can manage to put on their mask and get the machine running. But how well Philips does attempt to help users with ongoing maintenance? It's easy to forget to fill the reservoir. Similarly, the training emphasized that you should wash the hose every week. Is everyone really going to do that? I mean, we're all supposed to floss every day, but how many people really do that?

So I wonder. Does the machine stop and display a message if the water reservoir is empty? Does it tell you when it's time to change an air filter? Does it (somehow) figure out that it's time to wash the hose? I don't know, and I'm reluctant to get into a situation where the machine has to tell me these things. But given the many ways in which the machine, once running, can go wrong, I hope that the manufacturer has taken steps to try to keep it going.

All in all, giving out a complex piece of technology to people and expecting them to all use it right is a hard problem. It's clear that the folks at Philips have thought a lot about this and come up with different ways to try to handle it. Still, I am curious how many people fail when trying to use the machine—they never figure out how to use it, they use it wrong, or they don't maintain it and the machine itself fails. As someone with a professional interest in communicating complex concepts, I find this to be an interesting challenge.

[1] Someone on my team at work has a variant on this idea: you need to hear something 7 times before you learn it. ^

[2] There is also a dial that you can use to make a bunch of other settings, and the dial is multi-modal: turn left for one mode, turn right for another mode, and push for a third mode. Arg. I hate multi-modal controls. But at least this one is optional after you've done the initial setup. ^

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[1] |

  12:16 PM

Over the weekend, I bought a recliner at Costco, which my wife laughingly suggested was my admission that I'm an Old Guy. But before I could, you know, recline, I needed to assemble the chair and figure out how to work it. In our modern era, reclining chairs are electronic, which means there are 5 different controls, which in turn means that there is an instruction manual.

The manual has instructions for how to perform the one required assembly step, although tbh I had figured out how to do that without the instructions. There are also pictures of how to plug in the two (!) electronic connections, though again, these were self-evident and had also been designed so they could be plugged in only one way.

The useful part of the instructions was the diagram that showed what the buttons on the control panel do. Ironically, this illustration is very small for, you know, Old Guys. This is it to scale as best I can render it (2 inches wide):

A curious part of the manual is that whoever created the manual decided that they needed to cast the instructions as a set of numbered procedures. Here's step 2, which is one of the more forced applications of a numbered procedure step that I've seen.

Where is step 1, you ask? I'm saving the best part for last. Step 1 concerns a feature of the recliner that I had not previously thought needed instructing:

("While seated in the recliner, enjoy the rock feature which allows you to gently rock backward and forward.")

There's a lot of fun stuff to unpack here:

  • It's step 1.
  • Don't do this while standing next to the recliner.
  • Imperative "enjoy."
  • "The rock feature."
  • Which "allows" you to rock.
  • Gently.
  • Backward and forward, as if there might be other ways to rock in a recliner.

Moments after I read this out loud to my wife it seemed clear that "enjoy the rock feature" has a good chance of entering our familect, as it's called: we now have a stock answer to the question of "What are you doing right now?" "I'm enjoying the rock feature."

But to end on a serious note: numbered procedures ("how-to" documentation) are useful if the reader needs to follow a sequence of steps to achieve a task. Rocking a chair is not a task that requires numbered steps. Understanding what the controls on a control panel do needs reference documentation, not how-to documentation. There are many challenges in technical writing, and one of them is choosing the appropriate style of documentation for what the reader needs.

More dubious guidance: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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  08:15 PM

I spend a lot of time on social media—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There's value here; for example, I "know" many people only through these media, and I much appreciate what I've learned from them. For example, I know hardly any linguists IRL, but I follow many on Twitter, and it's great.

But even I can tell that I overdo it. It's a time suck, and it's an easy way to procrastinate when I need to be doing, you know, work. ("While this documentation is building, I'll just check Twitter quick-like.")

More insidiously, too much social media starts making me cranky. And when I get cranky, I do unfortunate things, like respond in pissy ways to innocent posts by other, nicer people. Or, gah, I give in to the temptation to respond to morons and their idiotic political opinions, a no-win situation if ever there was one.

So I decided recently to implement what I'm calling Asocial Sundays. Between midnight on Saturday night and midnight on Sunday night, I don't visit any social media sites, period.

This is a new experiment, but I can see some benefits already. Not having the option of social media redirects my attention to more productive things. If I'm sitting at my desk and finish some task—paying bills, say—I don't just mindlessly switch to FB or Twitter to see what's up. Instead, I might actually get up from my desk and wander into the rest of the apartment.

It also has been a way to unplug from a source of stress. We all know that it is distinctly not conducive to good sleep to doomscroll Twitter before bed. Politics and COVID are inescapable on social media, and both are not only inherently stressful, they're sources of endless arguments, outrage, scolding, shaming, uninformed opinions, and on and on. It's nice to take a break from that.

I'm far from ready to withdraw altogether from social media, the way some of my friends have. (A social media detox or social media fast, as it's sometimes called.) I've occasionally considered unplugging permanently from Facebook because their ad models are scary and because Zuckerberg is an incorrigible weasel. But as I say, I still get a lot from my social interactions.

If the experiment goes well, I might at least expand my lights-out policy for social media. I suspect that the more I do it, the easier it will be to use social media in a healthier way.

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  10:42 AM

One of the effects of this year's protests is that it has brought about heightened consciousness about language and how it affects or reflects certain thinking. For example, there have been discussions in the editorial community about capitalizing the word Black "in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense."

In the world of IT, we've been discussing the implications of certain terms for a while. The Microsoft style guide has suggested for a over a decade that writers avoid the terms whitelist and blacklist in order to avoid a connotation that white==good and black==bad. (I wrote about this a while back.)

Our own style guide has a section on inclusive language, and it suggests finding alternatives to a range of language that, when you look at it consciously, can have negative connotations or the possibility of offense. In addition to disrecommending the word blacklist, we tell our authors to use alternatives to terms like crippled system, dummy variables, sanity checks, native features, and first-class citizen.

A short digression about cloud technology. (For tl;dr, you can skip to the discussion of terminology.) We work in the world of cloud computing, which has its own concepts and vocabulary. The cloud, as the jokey definition goes, is just using someone else's computer. More specifically, it means using someone else's one or ten or hundreds of computers, because a fundamental benefit of the cloud is that you can adjust computing power as needed. For example, if you have a retail business, your website might need medium power normally, low power during a summer slump, and heavy-duty computing power to handle your yearly sale. The point is that your need for computing resources goes up and down, and rather than having to build out your own data center to accommodate the maximum possible demand (and whose high capacity might mostly just sit idle), you build your system in the cloud and spin up computers (servers) when demand is high, and take them down when they're no longer needed.

In this environment, computers are commodities. Any single computer is just a faceless worker in your overall computing infrastructure. Compare that to the computer sitting on your desk; you've probably personalized how it runs, installed many updates, and otherwise fussed over it. If one of the faceless computers in the cloud crashes, it's not a big deal; another one spins up and carries on the work. On the other hand, if your personal computer crashes, it's usually a disaster.

Ok, back to terminology. To conceptualize the difference between the faceless fleet of computers in the cloud and your personal computer, technologists devised the metaphor "cattle, not pets."[1] If a computer is a quasi-anonymous something that can be replaced any time, it's "cattle"; if it's an indispensable part of your work, it's a "pet."

Some authors love this metaphor, because, undeniably, it has explanatory power. More than once it's appeared in a document I'm editing, and if I question it, I'll be pointed to how widespread the expression is in IT/cloud texts. And we try to use the vocabulary of our audience.

However. One of my colleagues recently pointed out what might be obvious to a lot of people: the expression "cattle, not pets" is … problematic. One of our principles is "avoid unnecessarily violent language," and once you think about it, you realize that there's implicit violence in the metaphor as pertains to the fate of the "cattle." Moreover, there are cultures in which no cow is just "cattle," and for whom the idea of animals being killed is abhorrent. Therefore, we've updated our guidance to "avoid the use of figurative language that relates to the slaughter of animals."

This sets up a tension we sometimes have when we tell writers to avoid terminology that's still common in a field. We might ask authors to avoid whitelist or cattle-not-pets, and they'll point out that these are well-understood expressions and that using some alternative form potentially confuses readers. ("Allowlist? Did you mean whitelist? Why not just say so?") And people might search for these terms and they'll have no joy if they don't appear in our documentation. Plus it can give off the vibe that we don't know our own field.

But change begins at home. Sure, these problematic terms are part of the industry lingo. And we can't just ignore them out of existence. What we often do, then, is to include the expression parenthetically on first mention of the preferred term. So we might suggest something like "Create an allowlist (whitelist)" or "servers as commodities (sometimes referred to as 'cattle, not pets')" to tie the old term in the reader's mind to a new, better one.

We hope that the collective work of consciousness-raising by many editors and writers over a period of time will gradually alter the perception of problematic terms. The work is never truly done, of course, but it has to start somewhere.

PS I should note that not everyone supports the idea of this type of language change; there's plenty of pushback in the IT world against changing to "so-called inclusive language." These things are not easy.

[1] Devised to explain scaling by Bill Baker, adapted for the cloud by Randy Bias.

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  07:02 PM

Imagine that there's a big family reunion and you're charged with making dinner arrangements. You book a room at that Italian place you always go to. It's not your favorite by a long shot, but it's the one that everyone likes. After dinner, though, you're talking to some of your cousins, and you find out that actually hardly anyone likes that place. But you've all been going there because people thought everyone else really liked it.

This is a situation described by a term I learned this week: pluralistic ignorance. This is the idea that you think many others in the group hold different beliefs than you do. As one article puts it, it's the difference between actual norms in the group (what people really think) and perceived norms (what we believe others in the group think). Or to put it more succinctly, "When group members conform to what they think others want, they may end up doing what nobody wants." (The Wikipedia article on pluralistic ignorance cites the story of the Emperor's New Clothes as an example.)

Pluralistic ignorance can have unimportant consequences, like where the family goes for dinner. But it's often negative: in a group, it can prevent people from speaking up—for example, to ask a question, because they wrongly imagine that everyone else already knows the answer. It can lead people to believe that they're "different" and lead to things like impostor syndrome.

I think (I don't remember now) that I ran across this term while reading about the recent protests. The protests unmasked some pluralistic ignorance; when the protests turned out so big, many people discovered a heretofore unsuspected number of their friends and neighbors who thought like they do. Even support for an unpopular political candidate is subject to pluralistic ignorance; arguably, it helps explain the difference between the predictions and the outcome of the 2016 US election.

Surely one result of the internet is that it can help overcome pluralistic ignorance—you might think your views represent a small minority, but you can learn that there are others who think like you do. Maybe not in your family, or classroom, or workplace, or neighborhood, but Out There, at least.

For origins, a word whose history I learned from Edward Banatt on Twitter: reluctant. There are almost no words in English that are related, which is why it's not obvious what it means. Some spelunking in the OED learns me that there was a verb, now obsolete, to reluct, which meant "to fight against." This begins to reveal the story.

The re- prefix is "against." And the -luct part is part of Latin reluctari, meaning "to struggle against, resist." Like, I'm reluctant about (i.e., struggle against) getting out of bed in the morning.

As I say, there aren't English cognates readily at hand. But there are some in other Latin-derived languages. For example, the luct stem shows up in Spanish as luchar, "to fight." Are you a fan of the Mexican sport-theater known as lucha libre? Well, those fighters are—heh, heh—very reluctant. Get it?

Like this? Read all the Friday words.


[2] |

  08:25 AM

We've been without a microwave oven for about 9 months now.

This is not because we have some sort of philosophical objection to microwaves; the reason is much more practical. Before we remodeled the condo, there was a built-in microwave above the stove, which doubled as the no-vent/recirculating range hood. We knew that we didn't want this 1980s-era microwave, and we replaced it with a dedicated range hood:

Our initial idea was that we would get a countertop microwave. But once we'd moved in and sorted out the kitchen, there wasn't really an obvious place to put a microwave, because there's just limited counter space, alas.

So we've been doing without. This means we've had to explore substitutes for how we used to use the microwave. Like, how do you reheat leftovers without a microwave?

We use our oven or toaster oven. The room we might have given over to a microwave is taken up by a small toaster oven. That appliance is more useful than a microwave, I think, because it can heat and toast and broil. I make toast all the time, and we have no toaster-toaster, so this is a daily-use device for me.

One of the advantages of a microwave is that it's fast. But heating things in our little toaster oven doesn't take that much longer. It's a little oven, so it heats up pretty fast. It also has a convection setting (which I think just means it has a fan that blows the hot air around). All in all, what might have taken, say, 2 minutes in the microwave takes maybe 8 or 10 minutes in the little oven.

We heat things on the stovetop. Anything that's got liquid—soup, stew, whatever—we can throw in a pot and heat on the stovetop.

There are definitely dishes that would be easier to reheat in a microwave. Leftover pasta, for example. What I've been doing is putting these into a pan on the stovetop with a glug of water and a lid. It's not perfect, since it inevitably steams whatever you're reheating, but it's tolerable.

We (mostly I) heat things in a frying pan. Some dishes can be fried or refried. Heat a splash of oil in a frying pan and toss in your leftovers. If I fried up hash yesterday and have leftovers (unlikely), I can reheat it by giving it a short version of the same treatment again. And if we've got something like leftover rice, I can steam it again, or I can make fried rice.

I never much liked defrosting things in the microwave anyway. These days, if I have to defrost a hunk of hamburger, for example, I'll put it in the Dutch oven on very low heat on the stovetop.

And then there's popcorn. I love me my popcorn, but I never used prepackaged microwave popcorn anyway. I did have a series of microwave poppers, but they have an unfortunate tendency to break. So I went to the discount store and got a cheap 6-quart pan that is my dedicated popcorn popper. I heat it on the stove and do that classic thing where you shake the pan as the popcorn pops merrily.

I don't miss the microwave as much as I thought I would. It's been interesting to, in effect, return to our pre-microwave days. I didn't grow up with a microwave (back when they were known as "radar ranges," ha), and it wasn't ingrained in me to rely on it. We might still get one someday, but I think that the longer we make do without it, the less likely it is that we'll want to house one more bulky appliance in our limited kitchen space.

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  08:54 PM

I picked up a fun word from Twitter recently: infit. The meaning is clear once you understand the context, which is … contemporary.

When you dress for an occasion, you put on what? An outfit. Let's take a look at that word for a moment. An outfit is what you wear when you are equipped for something; the -fit part pertains to being fitted. The out- part does not in this case have a sense of "external" (outland, outbreak) or "exceed" (outdo, outlive). Instead, it seems to mean something like "completion": an outfit is a complete set of clothes or equipment.

But folks have come up with this nominal opposite to outfit, namely infit. What's an infit? It's what you wear indoors, and specifically, what you wear while hanging around inside under quarantine:

The clever part to me is in reanalyzing the out- part of outfit to mean "outdoors" so that the in- part of infit can mean "indoors." I'm easily amused that way, I guess.

I should acknowledge that infit is also used with other meanings:

  • There's an InFit app where the -fit part refers to "fitness," so a lot of the #infit hashtags on Twitter show people doing active-y things. There's a related #InFitness hashtag (often #InFitness&InLife)
  • According to a dubious entry in the dubious Urban Dictionary, infit is an outfit that's "in," meaning "stylish." We'd need more than that contributor's word for it though.
  • On Twitter, infit is also a surprisingly common typo for unfit.

On to origins. Who among us has not been obliged to write an essay, yea, verily, perhaps even the famed five-paragraph essay? But where does the word essay come from?

Yet another etymological surprise: essay is related to the word assay, which means "to examine or analyze." I don't think I'd use assay in a generic sense of examining a thing; I think of it as something done to or with, dunno, gold ore or something. And there is definitely a metallurgical sense of assay.

The verbs essay and assay were originally variations of the same idea, both referring to "test." Or if I read the OED right, to essay was a variant on to assay, which was based on French essayer; essay is actually the older form.

The word essay for the written form was apparently first used by the French writer Montaigne, who wrote a bunch of them. With his essays, Montaigne was indeed testing ("trialling") ideas. As per the article in Wikipedia, his essays …

did not aim to educate or prove. Rather, his essays were exploratory journeys in which he works through logical steps to bring skepticism to what is being discussed.

Apparently Francis Bacon brought both the idea and the word into English in his 1597 book Essayes. There is no particularly formal definition other than that it's usually in prose. If for some reason you have a teacher who insists that you write an essay that follows a rigid format, you can quote Samuel Johnson at them, who described an essay as "an irregular undigested piece." That should quiet them down.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.