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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There is no one, no matter how wise he is, who has not in his youth said things or done things that are so unpleasant to recall in later life that he would expunge them entirely from his memory if that were possible.

— Marcel Proust


<May 2017>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 4:07 AM Pacific

  02:57 PM

I was being whiny to my wife about the endless non-appearance of spring here in Seattle, and then I saw some pictures of Denver and Cheyenne blanketed in snow. Maybe better I should stick with just words rather than weather-whingery.

The new-to-me word this week has some lovely linguistic properties. The word is buycott. Obviously, this derives from boycott (to refuse to interact with a company because you object to its policies), which we'll talk about in a moment.

In the context I heard buycott (an episode of the "Hidden Brain" podcast), it was used to mean deliberately buying something from a company that you want to support, for social or political reasons. For example, some people went of their way to buy sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A to show support for the company's explicit opposition to same-sex marriage. This is the sense defined in Wikidictionary.

Interestingly, the Collins dictionary online has a related but different meaning. In their definition, a buycott means "a type of protest aimed at a company or country with dubious ethical standards in which consumers buy the products of another company or country." Either way, of course, the idea of a buycott is that it's a political statement manifested economically, or to put that more clearly, to vote with your wallet. (There's an app.)

The term seems to be relatively new. It's mostly not listed in dictionaries, excepting the previous two links, not even in Urban Dictionary (!). The earliest reference I could find was from 2010 (in a French paper, odd), where it's in quotes—always a clue that maybe the term is new.

Anyway, the more interesting thing to me is how the term was formed. Boycott is an eponym—it memorializes (ahem) a land agent who tussled with tenant farmers in Ireland in the 1880s. So there are no constituent parts to the word boycott per se; it's just a name. The jump from boycott (avoid) to buycott (embrace) was clever wordplay. And it promotes the –cott part of the original name into a particle—what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix ("liberated pre/post/infix")—that can be reused generically to mean something like "economic political activity." This isn't the only example—there's also girlcott, which actually has various different meanings. Whether the –cott libfix can be extended to be used with prefixes that don't play on boy remains to be seen.

For unexpected etymology today we have adobe. Everyone in the US knows that this is from Spanish, right? Well, yes. But it actually has a deeper history than that. The Spanish got it from Arabic al-tuba. Arabic speakers actually got it from the Coptic word tob. (In case you don't know, Coptic is the pre-Arabic language spoken in Egypt.) Coptic inherited the word from earlier stages of the language; in ancient Egyptian, the word was something represented today as Dbt. The picture over there shows the hieroglyph for this word. People have been making bricks from mud forever, of course. What's cool to me is that we've been able to use effectively the same word for millennia. (Credit for alerting me to this etymology goes to an article in the New Yorker.)

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  01:34 PM

I was seduced this week by a couple of bright, dry days into sanding the deck in preparation for refinishing it. Ha. It's pouring down (again). Perhaps I'll try again next month. But that does give us time for some words!

The new-to-me word this week is haptic. It's an adjective that pertains to the sense of touch and perception of motion, and has had this meaning since the 1860s. The word took on a slightly more specialist sense with the invention of touch interfaces for computers. This included things like "force feedback" game controllers. However, haptic feedback was not just for entertainment. A downside of fly-by-wire systems—that is, systems controlled digitally rather than directly—is that they don't provide the direct feedback that mechanical systems do. Thus many digital systems added haptic feedback to simulate what an operator might feel via a more direct control mechanism.

Today, of course, anyone with a cellphone knows all about haptic interfaces.

Ok, let's turn to word origins. Today's term is one that everyone knows: karaoke. That's Japanese, obviously (?), but it has a fun multi-language origin that I only recently learned. Just to review, karaoke is a kind of entertainment in which people sing along to recorded accompaniment that is missing a vocal track. Which is why the origin is interesting. In Japanese, kara means "empty." The oke part is the fun part—it's a shortening of okesutora, a term that, if you sound it out, might suggest its meaning and origin—it's a Japanese rendering of the word orchestra. Thus karaoke is "empty orchestra." Or more like "empty orch."

Bonus etymology today comes via Edward Banatt on Twitter, from whom I learned about the origins of orrery. An orrery is a mechanical contraption that models the motions of the planets in the solar system:

This much I actually knew. (Aren't I special.) What I learned from Edward is that orrery is an eponym—it's named for Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery[1], for whom an orrery (tho not the first one) was built around 1700. Thus continuing a tradition in which an invention is named for someone who had nothing to do with creating it (see also: praline). Thus the privileges of patronage, I suppose.

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[1] No relation (AFAIK) to Robert Boyle of Boyle's Law.

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  08:34 AM

Happy Friday, people of the words. Seattle keeps ratcheting up the volume on a record-breaking winter of rain; yesterday we had actual thunderstorms and lightning and stuff. Drenched we might be, but <insert joke about the steady drip of words>.

Also, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

I learned today's new term recently from Facebook Friend Ben: curb squatting. In the usage I saw, this refers to efforts by homeowners to keep parking spaces in front of their houses—that is, parking spaces on a public street—clear. Some owners have taken to creating their own No Parking signs that look a lot like the city's:

This is a thing in some of Seattle's neighborhoods where parking is tight and where, apparently, people feel like they have a right to the space in front of their house. The city, for its part, has been clear that this kind of curb squatting is not legal.

There is a kind of related phenomenon whereby people put out plastic chairs days in advance to stake a claim to a spot—again, on public street—along a parade route. (The most extreme version I've read about was when someone put out chairs in January that claimed spots for a Fourth of July parade.) However, I have not yet heard that referred to as curb squatting. Hint, hint.

Word originations, then. I was reading a book about the history of numbers and the author noted that the words calculate and calculus derive from a Latin word for stone or pebble. This made sense from a counting point of view; it's easy to imagine people using small stones as tokens for reckoning.

This also then explains the use of the term calculus in medicine, where it refers to stone-like mineral deposits, like kidney stones or gallstones. Calculus is also another word for tartar in the dental sense: the "incrustation" of hard material on the teeth. The original Latin term calx turns out also to be the source of the words calcium and chalk, along with less common words like calciform.

I'll take Words Based on the Latin Term for Stone, Alex.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  03:01 PM

In the realm of home improvement, few things irritate me as much as people who paint over light switches and door hinges. One or more previous owners of our house engaged in this practice. Grrr. (<— see? I'm irritated) Since we're now doing some painting of our own, it seemed like it was time to deal with this.

I went looking online for non-toxic ways to remove paint from hinges. A technique that several people recommend seems promising: you throw the hinges, water to cover, and a little soap into an old crockpot and soak overnight. Alternatively, you can use an old pot on a low burner. That sounded fine, but our steady de-accummulation of stuff means we don't have old pots (let alone old crockpots) stashed in the garage.

So I improvised. I put the hinges in some empty cans with some dishsoap, and then poured boiling water over them and let them stand till cool, maybe 10 or 15 minutes.

It seems to have the desired effect, namely to soften the old paint:

I scraped a lot of this paint off with just my fingernails. You could use something else, but remember that brass is quite soft. A wooden scraper of some sort would be ideal.

For stubborn paint, I repeated the process, and when I got impatient with repeated soakings, I used a brush. You need something pretty stiff (not an old toothbrush), but again, not too hard (no steel brush). This brush worked great for me:

The end result came out pretty clean:

For extra thoroughness I got out some Brasso and polished the hinges, just because.

Disclaimer: I was doing this for what was clearly latex paint. (I could scrape the paint off in satisfying rubbery sheets.) I don't know if it would work also for oil paint. Maybe? I will note that very old paint can have lead in it, so take appropriate safety measures.



  07:01 PM

I've spent some quality time editing tech materials these last few weeks, which involve terms like event bus, Inversion of Control, and the Retry pattern. Such terms all make sense for the intended audience, but we like to concentrate here on words that are interesting to, you know, civilians. So let's have a look.

Today's new-to-me word actually came from a post on one of the editorial Facebook groups I follow. Jake Poinier a.k.a Dr. Freelance asked whether, without looking it up, we knew what the word zemblanity means. Not me, dang. So of course a body wants to find out.

Well, fun. The easy way to define it is to say that it's the opposite of serendipity, in a very precise way. Where serendipity refers to an a) accidental b) good outcome, zemblanity refers to a b) bad outcome that is a) not accidental—an "unpleasant unsurprise." Sad! Somewhat to my surprise, Urban Dictionary has a couple of good examples, like this one:
He knew that something was wrong, but still he decided to ask. The answer to his question confirming his thoughts. She was dead. It was pure zemblanity.
UD also provides a definition that suggests more clearly the inversion of serendipity: "The inevitable discovery of what we would rather not know."

The term was coined by the writer William Boyd in 1998, apparently inspired by a passage in Pale Fire by Nabokov.

But wait, there's more. Both serendipity and zemblanity are toponymic: they derive from the names of places. Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka. Horace Walpole coined serendipity in the 18th century based on a fairytale about the "Three Princes of Serendip," who "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." (That's the OED quoting Walpole himself, I believe.) Zembla ultimately refers to a set of islands in the Arctic owned by Russia. Nabokov and then Boyd turned this into metaphor; here's Boyd:
Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla.
... and from there, Boyd derived zemblanity. Your homework this week is to think of situations that would qualify as, um, zemblanitous.

And speaking of arctic! I was reading an article in the New Yorker about 19th-century fascination with polar exploration, when Kathryn Shulz, the author, mentioned in passing the derivation of the word arctic. Not so self-evident, is it? Me, I'd never thought about it.

Good story, though. In ancient times, a few Greeks left their warm and sunny homeland and ventured to the north, so they had an idea of the existence of these far-away lands. One of their names for these distant lands was Arktikus, meaning "of the bear." Polar bears? No. Astronomers that they were, the Greeks were referring to the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, which points to the North Star. (And which itself is in Ursa Minor.) "Go toward the bear, young man," no one in Greece apparently ever recommended. Because c'mon, it's cold up there.

Antarctica, of course, is anti-arctic. Opposite the bear, so to speak.

Today's bonus etymology is from a Merriam-Webster blog entry, where I learned an etymology that seems obvious in retrospect: companion, meaning someone you break bread (pan) with (con).

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  06:58 PM

It's been a long Friday, but it's never too late to think about some words!

For the first term—well, it's a pair—some folks might be surprised to hear this was a term (terms) that I didn't already know. I'm a bit surprised myself, but there you go. Anyway! The term is anarthrous; in grammatical usage, it means a noun used without an article. It's actually common in some languages to not use the equivalent of the or a/an in front of a noun. That's not English, but is apparently true in Greek. My decades of listening to native Russian speakers fail to use articles in English suggested to me that this is true also in Russian, and sure enough.

In Greek, anarthrous actually means "no joint," and it's used in that sense in zoological contexts. (You might recognize the –arthrous part as related to arthropod: jointed-foot critters.) The OED has an amusing definition for anarthrous in this sense: "Jointless; or so fat as to appear so."

The no-article sense came up recently in a tweet about the odd habit in Southern California of using the word the in front the names of freeways: "the 5" or "the 10," meaning respectively Interstate 5 or Interstate 10. People outside SoCal refer to highways anarthrously, i.e., with no article. Whereas the denizens of LA and vicinities use arthrous highway names, which gives us the other word in the pair I promised—arthrous meaning with articles. I mention the highway thing only as an example of (an)arthousness; if you're interested in this peculiarity of LA driving, I'll refer you to a post on Language Hat's blog about it all.

For etymology this week I have something that's nearly topical: the word tulip. An area north of Seattle—the Skagit Valley—is the center of US tulip growing, and tulips are a very big deal up there—people flock to the area in April when the fields are in full bloom to enjoy the colors before the bulbs are harvested:

In fact, we were up there last weekend for a family event. And to look at the tulips, sure, why not.

Whence tulip? It originates in Persian as dulband, where it meant "turban." The notion is that the "expanded flower" (OED) looks like a hat thing. The word was filtered through Turkish, where the initial d became a t. To be clear, we got turban from the same word in Persian, only in that case the l in the middle changed to an r for reasons unknown. Two words in English for the price of one, sweet deal.

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  02:35 PM

Another quick post about Word, primarily for my own benefit (when I forget this later).

Word has several options for how you can paste text:

They are (in order):
  • Keep Source Formatting. This option keeps the original formatting (both character and paragraph formatting), but converts it to direct formatting.

  • Merge Formatting. This option copies basic character formatting (bold, italics, underline) as direct formatting, but does not copy any paragraph formatting.

  • Use Destination Styles. This option copies the text and applies styles that are in the target document. (This option appears only if there matching styles in the target doc.)

  • Keep Text Only. This option copies the text as plain text, with no formatting.
I need the last one (paste plain text) more often than any of the others, so I want it on a keyboard shortcut. You can do this by recording a macro of yourself using the Keep Text Only option. But I realized there's an even easier way—just assign a keyboard shortcut to the built-in PasteTextOnly command.

I keep forgetting that most anything Word can do has a command. If a gesture requires just one command, you can assign a keyboard shortcut directly to it. Maybe writing this out will help me remember.

Update I added a video!

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  04:49 PM

I've been on a three-week break, and this is my last Friday of vacation. But on the plus side, the hiatus ends with some words.

I have a handful of new-to-me terms today. Let's start with a term I learned from the news. US VP Mike Pence made some waves recently by declaring that as a married man, he never dines, or is otherwise alone, with a woman who is not his wife. In reading about the statement in the New Yorker, I ran across a name for this convention: the Billy Graham rule. Per the NYer article, in 1948, the evangelist Billy Graham and some colleagues were concerned about the reputation that evangelists had (in a word: sleazy), so they laid out some rules that would, as Wikipedia cites, "avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion." Among such behaviors was the notion that they should not be alone together with non-wife-type women, and this has since come to be known as the Billy Graham rule.

With all this vacation time, I also had a chance to plow through my stack o' magazines. From a December 2016 issue of The Atlantic, I picked up another new-to-me term: stolen valor. This refers to people who pretend to be in the military or to be veterans and/or claim to have earned military honors like medals. They might do this for specific benefits (discounts, etc.), or just to garner the respect that citizens have for those who serve. Not surprisingly, this offends legitimate members or veterans of the military, some of whom make a point of outing the pretenders. (There's a genre of videos in which alleged perps of stolen valor are confronted.) Congress has passed a couple of laws making stolen valor illegal, although one such law was overturned on first amendment grounds in 2012. Even tho the term itself dates only from the 1980s, the concept has been recognized for a long time—George Washington warned about it in the Revolutionary era.

Bonus new word today, courtesy of Haggard Hawks on Twitter: Rückenfigur: "a figure of a person in the foreground of a painting with their back turned to the viewer." German, of course; Rücken means "back," Figur means "figure." A favorite of the painter Caspar David Friederich:

Oh, and look, here's a still from the movie The Duellists by Ridley Scott. Someone studied his German Romantics, didn't he.

Moving on to etymology, for some reason it occurred to me recently to wonder where the word eclipse came from or what its cognates might be. Turns out it has a relatively direct origin, and not a lot of etymological brethren. We get the term via the usual channel of < French < Latin < Greek; in Greek, it means "to leave" (leipein) or "to fail to appear." The lipse part has pretty distant relatives in the words loan and relinquish.

Since that wasn't as interesting as I thought it would be, I'll leave you with another, more interesting origin that I also got recently from Haggard Hawks: the word squirrel means "shadow (or shade) tail" in Greek. (If you don't already follow Haggard Hawks on Twitter, you should!)

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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  12:49 PM

After a wee hiatus due to job things and conference things, we're back for some more Friday words! Hard today for me to sit at the desk and do this because here in Seattle we have some actual sunshine.

The new term today is rent-seeking. This isn't a completely new word for me—it's sort of the lexical equivalent of that person at your company that you see in the lunchroom sometimes but have never been properly introduced to. Anyway, I was reading some article and ran across it again and thought that maybe I should look it up.

You can almost (?) guess what the word means from its constituent parts. Rent-seeking refers to trying to get unwarranted economic advantage, where "unwarranted" means without giving anything in return to a specific entity or to society as a whole. Some typical examples are an industry lobbying to get import tariffs, to get government subsidies, or to try to use government regulation to stifle competition.

In my pokings-about, I found a piece that asked the same question I had: why rent-seeking? If I understand the article right, rent here refers to extra cost to do business. In this context, a tariff is a cost (rent) to your competitor for doing business in your country. To be clear, rent-seeking is generally considered something that ends up costing consumers and the overall GDP, since it's not productive use of money. There's more in the article if you're curious.

As a bonus new term, I'll note that the Oxford Dictionaries site just introduced me to the term pogonophobia—hatred of beards.

On to etymology. I've probably seen the word subpoena ten thousand (myriad) times, but I only recently wondered where it came from. As an aside, subpoena arrived in stages in English: as a noun (1426), as an adverb—"being issued sub peona" (1466), and as a verb (1640).

We get the word from Latin sub poena, "under penalty," which various sources say were the first words of the writ that coerces an appearance before the court. That seems clear enough, but it struck me that this was perhaps an unusual derivation—namely, a term based on the first word(s) of a text. I tried to come up about other examples of this type of derivation, and assembled this short list:
  • Hail Mary, referring to the Catholic prayer ("say five Hail Marys") and extended further to a last-ditch strategy, as in "a hail-Mary pass" from American football. This term comes from the first two words of the Catholic prayer, Ave Maria in Latin. Along similar lines we have the term Our Father, a.k.a. the Lord's Prayer (Latin: pater noster), used as a noun.

  • The noun ABC ("now we know our ABCs"), a synonym for the alphabet and as a term meaning the basic tenets of.

  • Lorem ipsum, referring to some widely used filler text.

  • Various songs and rhymes, like "London Bridge" and "Ring Around the Rosie," whose titles are the first lines of the rhymes.
It feels like I know of other examples of this phenomenon, but they're just out of reach. And I can't figure out exactly how to search for a thing like this.

There's also the question about whether there's a word for the type of etymology. Future investigation, I guess.

Update #1 (31 Mar 2017) Following some tips I got from lexicographer Ben Zimmer, I looked in the OED for more entries based on "first word(s)" or "opening word(s)" and came up with these additional terms:
  • credo
  • dirge (< Dirige)
  • Internet (OED: "… the collection of networks gradually came to be called the 'Internet', borrowing the first word of 'Internet Protocol'.")
  • Magnificat
  • Stabat Mater
  • Te Deum
As the lexicographer Orin Hargraves points out, the church liturgy has been a rich source of such terms.

Update #2 (31 Mar 2017) And regarding what to call these things. There is apparently no established term. Ben Zimmer suggests "The opening of a Mass is called the Introit, so maybe we could call these introitisms?" And Orin Hargraves suggests a term I really like: prolegonym, which we can gloss as something like "intro-name" (cf prologue).

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  05:28 PM

Oh, boy, oh, boy—daylight saving time this weekend. I think I'm the only person who likes DST. Tho I will admit that it does give us one hour less for words on Sunday.

Speaking of which, what new-to-you words do we have today, Mike? Well, we have a pair that's kind of related.[1] The first term is benevolent deception. As the words suggest, this refers to a deception—lying—under what might be considered justifiable circumstances. Benevolent deception is a topic of interest in medical ethics. As Marc Agronin noted in The Atlantic:
Every clinician has encountered situations in which being too bluntly honest about a diagnosis can actually be harmful to the patient, and so we employ what is euphemistically referred to as "benevolent deception."
I actually found this term in an article about software, where it was used to refer to user interface (UI) design that deceives the user, but in a good way. Examples:
Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn't have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user's experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it's visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn't been dropped).
A specific kind of benevolent deception brings us to the second new-to-me term today: the labor illusion, which I got from the same article. It turns out that if the user thinks a task should be hard, but the computer does it easily, the user can experience a kind of disappointment. In such situations, UI designers might add an "artificial wait" using widgets like (fake) progress bars or "Working on it!" messages. According to the Harvard researchers who invented the term labor illusion in 2011, "operational transparency increases perceived value." By golly, if I paid $29 for Turbo Tax to do my taxes, I want it to look like it has to break a virtual sweat to do them. Goes the theory.

On to origins. Not long ago someone said that they were going "stir-crazy," so of course I got to wondering where that had come from. The term stir-crazy refers to becoming deranged from being confined. The crazy part is pretty clear, but what does stir refer to? Well, it seems that stir is a slang term for prison. The OED records it from a London source in the 1850s in the expression in stir to mean "in prison." Most sources list its origin as obscure, sticking with "slang" or "argot" or "cant," but Douglas Harper takes a stab at it: it might originally have come from a Romany (a.k.a. "Gypsy") word stardo meaning "imprisoned," then evolved into start (an attested word from the 1700s for prison) and then into stir.

As an aside, I got curious about words in English that derive from Romany. Wikipedia has an article that lists about 20, including drag (car), lollipop, nark/narc, pal, and shiv, and togs. It's Wikipedia, so, … you know.

For more word origin fun this week, see James Harbeck's piece 15 Words We Stole from Arabic.

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[1] "A pair ... that is related." There's something off there.

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