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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It appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.

Tom McArthur


<October 2016>




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  11:55 PM

Friday words! We had a hiatus last week due to work, so much of it. But we're back, with extra wordy word fun.

The first new-to-me word is a word that's common enough, but that I saw used in a new way. Here's the cite where I found it, which appeared in an article in Wired about Google's new Noto font:
Something funny happens when your computer or phone can’t display a font: A blank rectangular box pops up in place of the missing glyph. This little box is called .notdef, or “not defined,” in coder lingo, but everyone else just calls it tofu.
Perhaps you've seen this. Here's an example in a jokey context:

One of the design goals for the new font is that it has glyphs for so many characters that when designers use the font, users should never see the little tofu box, no matter what language the text is in.

The scope of the "everyone else" who uses tofu in this sense is perhaps generously imagined here, but it's not untrue that people in the Unicode community use it. There aren't a huge number of references, but there's an Adobe blog entry (I think it is) from May, 2016, and another blog entry on the Keyman site that both use tofu with this meaning. And then there is the fact that Google itself says that the name "Noto" conveys the idea of "no more tofu."

Why "tofu"? Apparently the white block that represents the notdef character reminded people of a cube of tofu.

The second new-to-me term this week is isarithmic. This is somewhat obscure because it's a technical term; it came up at work because I work with map nerds. Isarithmic refers to a kind of map where lines (isolines) mark areas with common values. A good example is a contour map (isolines mark equal elevation), as well as this kind of weather map, where the isolines show barometric pressure:

As an aside, the isolines on this map are isobars, since they show equal pressure, which is measured in bars (centimeter-gram-seconds). It turns out that there's a whole vocabulary of isolines—isobars (pressure), isodose (radiation), isogloss (words or other linguistic features), and isohyet (rain) These and many others are listed in an article on the ever-useful About.com site.

Surprising etymology today is the word tennis, which the writer and editor James Harbeck used as an example of words that shift meanings. Most directly, tennis (probably) comes from tenez, a form in French of "take" or "get." (Compare the Spanish verb tener.) The theory is that it's something the server might have called out before putting the ball into play.

As Harbeck describes, tennis entered English in the 1400s to refer to game that sounds like a version of handball, played indoors. Then they added racquets. Then the game went dark for a while, and a somewhat different game was invented in the 1800s that was played outdoors (with racquets). So tennis has been around quite a while, but has described at least three different games. The version played indoors with racquets is now called real tennis, where real is a variant on royal. This version was played by Henry VIII, as shown here on that era's version of Instagram:

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  08:32 AM

Today we have our final Friday words for September 2016. As if that were significant.

The first new-to-me word this week is Droste effect, which refers to a kind of visual recursion. A picture here is worth a couple dozen words:

Note that the woman in the picture is holding a tray that has package that shows a woman holding a tray that has a package that …

You probably noticed that the image here has "Droste" splashed across it. Droste was (is?) the name of a chocolate powder product from Holland. So it's an example of a specific instance of the phenomenon becoming the name of the phenomenon. (Is there a name for that?)

As sometimes happens, I was familiar with the concept without knowing that there was a word for it. I remember being fascinated by this idea when I was a young lad, because I had some … thing … that had this type of recursive image on a package logo. Whatever—I learned this word from an article on medium.com that addressed itself to some linguistic ideas that have recently been in the news, including linguistic recursion.

As an aside, at work we use a lot of video conferencing, and it's easy for people to get into a video version of the Droste effect—for example, when someone shares their screen which shows the meeting, which shows someone sharing their screen, which …

And on to surprising etymology. Recently I was looking into how words that are acceptable can become tainted (a process referred to as pejoration). In my wanderings I encountered idiot. Today, of course, this is an insulting term, but it was once a clinical—hence, respectable—term for someone with a particular level of cognitive impairment. That was interesting enough, but where'd they even get this word?

My investigations revealed that, first of all, the sense of "stupid person" is waaaay old—1300s (at least) in English, and represented in many other European languages, including Latin. (Which raises the question of how this term could have achieved some sort of clinical respectability.) But I also learned that there's a secondary meaning for idiot that means something like "layman" or "private individual." These senses are actually related, it seems. In ancient Greek, the root word meant someone who was "a person without professional knowledge," also an "ill-informed person." Perhaps someone whose opinions on complex subjects you might not seek out. (As indeed is still true today.)

The idio- part is shared with terms like idiosyncratic and idiolect, and means "self" or "personal" or "distinct. In other words, "unique to the self," which has semantic overlap with the idea of "private." Anyway, this was all more involved than I would have thought. That's why we have these little investigations innit.

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  10:30 AM

Every Friday, more or less, I add a post here that talks about a new word and an etymology. The new word is only warranted to be new to me; it's pretty rare that the word is new-new, and in fact it might be quite old. For the etymology, I focus on word origins that are surprising (to me) or delightful (to me).

As a quick reference for you and for me, here's a list of everything I've posted.

Date Word(s) Unexpected etymology
14 Oct 2016tofu (typographic), isarithmictennis
30 Sep 2016Droste effectidiot
23 Sep 2016striminal, hebdomadaldebunk
16 Sep 2016retroediting, hyperlexia, fuckeulogytriumph
9 Sep 2016calligram, MAMILbooze, grape
2 Sep 2016gongoozlerterrycloth
26 Aug 2016sickboatingcode
19 Aug 2016wind throbgeyser, cemetery
12 Aug 2016drunkorexia, Liebig's lawlemonade
5 Aug 2016faxlore/xeroxlore, depavebumper [crop]
22 Jul 2016conformist distinctioncandidate, toga
15 Jul 2016Null Island[cattle] rustling
1 Jul 2016RAT (remote access Trojan), rattingclub soda
24 Jun 2016Mendoza Line, Ephus pitchpraline
17 Jun 2016SLAPP, HiPPOsymposium
10 Jun 2016mathwashingdative
27 May 2016bus factorkibosh
20 May 2016gene-whiz science, web brutalism[steel] mill
13 May 2016semantic satiationchickpea, ceci bean, garbanzo
6 May 2016monotasking[pass the] bar/bar [association]
29 Apr 2016polypharmacy[game of] craps
22 Apr 2016whatabouterysimmer
15 Apr 2016sexpositionconk (v), noggin
8 Apr 2016lig, ligging, liggercorny [joke]
1 Apr 2016confirmshamingtraffic
25 Mar 2016Scunthorpe problemvan
18 Mar 2016bangorrheainnocent, disappoint
11 Mar 2016like-farming, Witzelsuchtadrenaline
4 Mar 2016catio, qubitlavender
26 Feb 2016virtue signalingbangs
19 Feb 2016misophonia, legislative historyham [radio]
12 Feb 2016boggle thresholdsilver
5 Feb 2016Overton windowFebruary
28 Jan 2016nocebo effectmagnet
22 Jan 2016bandwagon fan, transcreationmarmalade
15 Jan 2016Dobler-Dahmer Theoryhead (bathroom), poop deck
8 Jan 2016Mary Suecult
1 Jan 2016she shedsoccer
25 Dec 2015 carol, mistletoe
18 Dec 2015machete orderpretzel
11 Dec 2015zarfcynic
4 Dec 2015frextingboysenberry
27 Nov 2015Veraturkey
20 Nov 2015Grayglerthing
13 Nov 2015schoolypoodle, basset hound, dachshund
5 Nov 2015north starenthrall
29 Oct 2015cuberhood[military] tank

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  12:58 PM

Boy, Fridays seem to be coming at me with ever-greater velocity. Is it that summer is gone? Oh, well—it just means opportunities come around seemingly faster for contemplating words.

The new-to-me word this week is striminal, a mashup of streaming and criminal. This term is attributed to Gabriella Mirabelli, who runs Anatomy Media, a marketing agency. Mirabelli was quoted in an article that reported that 61% of people aged 18 to 24 get streaming content from unauthorized sources—i.e., that they're not paying for it—and 63% of them use ad blockers. Mirabelli doesn't like this behavior.

I'm generally ok with people taking a stab at a new word, but I don’t love striminal. It fails the test of being "semantically transparent," which is one of the criteria proposed by an article in The Guardian about what makes a good portmanteau. To my mind, if you hear "striminal," you can guess that it's some sort of criminal, but it seems unlikely that you could work your way back to "streaming." Would stream-inal work? Maybe, but that word ain't no beauty queen either.

Bonus new-to-me word: A couple of weeks ago, one of John McIntyre's "In a Word" columns introduced me to the word hebdomadal, which is a pretty fancy way to way "weekly." This uses the stem heptá, which means "seven" in Greek and is related to Latin septem, as in September, and, well, seven in English.

This week's unexpected etymology is for the word debunk, which has a surprisingly (to me) specific origin, and which sent me on a bit of an etymological wander that I'll share with you. I ran across it while reading an article in Harper's (paywall) that starts off with a longish disquisition on this term.

To begin: according to the article, debunk was coined by the writer W. E. Woodward in 1923 in his novel Bunk, where the main character apparently "takes the bunk" out of things. Bunk is in turn short for bunkum, meaning "nonsense." The origin of bunkum, in turn, is also surprisingly specific. I'll just cite the OED here, which has the story, with bits I've interspersed for clarity:
The use of the word [bunkum] originated near the close of the debate on the ‘Missouri Question’ in the 16th congress [1819-1821], when the member from this district [F. Walker] rose to speak, while the house was impatiently calling for the ‘Question’. Several members gathered round him, begging him to desist; he persevered, however, for a while, declaring that the people of his district expected it, and that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe.
So: A congressional speech around 1820 on behalf of Bumcombe, North Carolina begets bunkum, which begets bunk. Then in 1921, Woodward coins debunk.

A final turn on this story is that a later project of Woodward's was a biography of George Washington, which apparently was not in keeping with other Founding Father hagiographies, and was written up as "debunking" Washington. (Not Woodward's intent at all.) When he later went on to write about Thomas Paine, he was likewise said to have "debunked" Paine, again a mischaracterization of the intent. Woodward got exasperated at seeing everything he wrote about being labeled as "debunking." The Harper's article says it this way:
He tried to disassociate himself from the word he had created. […] In his memoirs, which also appeared more than two decades after his novel, he was still bemoaning his unhappy invention: “If I had it to do over again I would hesitate a long time before creating the word ‘debunk,’ and would make an effort to find another way to express the idea."
I guess there's a lesson in there somewhere.

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  07:14 PM

Here we are on Mexican Independence Day. Sadly, although there are words a-plenty today, none of them relate to this important date being celebrated by friends and family. Still, let's proceed ...

Oh, by the way: Strong language this week.

I got the first term for this week from Virginia Hefferman's book Magic and Loss, an extended essay about the cultural impact of the internet. I'll just use a cite from the book to showcase the word and define it:
What we did at Yahoo! News, which the staff called "retroediting," would make the New Yorker staff blanch: we'd post something as soon as the sloppiest draft was ready and edit it after it was available to readers.
There are a couple of things I like about the word retroediting. One is that it describes a process that's very familiar to me, as anyone might guess from reading my blog entries or Facebook posts, ack. I've also worked in shops where this approach to editing has been flirted with. He said (im)passively. I also like the word because if someone had asked me to come up with a name for this editing protocol, I would have gotten stuck on post- or after-, and would probably never have stumbled on retro-. This prefix means "backwards," which to me is not an obvious way to describe this after-the-fact process. But I like it. As an aside, I also kind of like the image of the editors at a place like The New Yorker getting the vapors about this protocol.

The book also taught me another term: hyperlexia, which Hefferman uses to refer to our obsession with reading in the age of overwhelming text. Nancy Friedman examines this word in an entry on her blog, which I encourage you to read.

And a second term today. (Third, I guess.) I was put in mind of this one, which is relatively new to me, by the recent passing of Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who's often credited with stopping the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1979. While many people subscribe to a "speak no ill of the dead" philosophy, the passing of certain highly polarizing figures—in my lifetime, that includes Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden—can really test this protocol. In, um, certain circles I saw a number of fuckeulogies for Schlafly, a term coined by John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman in 2011 for their podcast The Bugle. A fuckeulogy is a kind of anti-eulogy: a piece that remembers the things that people didn't like about you. It is ... not nice. But the term itself is clever, I'll give it that.

In unexpected etymology today, we have the word triumph, whose origin I was alerted to by a casual comment in a Facebook post. (You never know where you'll learn about words, eh?) We use triumph today as both a noun meaning "victory" and verb ("to be victorious, to win"). I did learn a while back that in Roman times, a triumph was a kind of victory parade in which a general was granted the right by the senate to make a ceremonial entrance into Rome to show off the spoils and the captives and such. (Well dramatized in the HBO series Rome, if you can tolerate all the sex and violence in that show.) But! This isn't originally a Latin term; those etymologists seem to agree that it derives from a Greek word, thríambos, which is a "hymn to Dionysus/Bacchus." The sense of celebration is still there in the Roman use of triumph, and I guess we still have a faint echo of it, in that to triumph is a stronger (more celebratory?) sense of "to win."

Well, maybe triumph does related to Mexican Independence Day after all.

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  01:43 PM

Here in Seattle, we made an extremely sudden transition from summer to fall (or autumn, for you Old World English speakers). But changes in the climate do not affect our interest in words!

The first new-to-me word for today is calligram, which refers to a piece of text in which the writing or typesetting creates an image that echoes the meaning of the word(s). The word is a mashup of calligraphy with -gram as we also see in telegram and diagram. I got this from an article that provided a gallery of 40+ calligrams by the designer Ji Lee. Here's an example so you get the idea, but you should check out the link to see the many excellent examples.

The word calligram is not new; it goes back at least to the 1930s. And as an art form, calligrams have been around a long time. For example, Islamic calligraphers have been doing beautiful calligrams for centuries using Arabic script to form pictures, as in this example:

On to more grounded things. I got the next new-to-me term from an interview with Seleta Reynolds, who's the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. She was talking about bicycles and "vehicular cycling"—the idea that bicycles should be integrated with, and treated as, traffic alongside cars. In her discussion, she noted that this has ended up being embraced primarily by MAMILs (pronounced "mammals"): middle aged men in lycra.

Ha, ha. The received story is that MAMIL is actually a demographic slice identified by a marketing firm in the UK in 2010. The definition seems to incorporate not just biking per se, but the clothing based on what professional racers wear, and the expensive bike, and (I guess) some whiff of classic middle age crisis. (It's hardly news that men can be fetishistic about gear, whether it's bicycles, cameras, guitars, or anything else.) Fun article: Oh the shame of being married to a MAMIL.

For etymology today we've got booze. Not a lot of related terms in English, eh? Besides the verb to booze, of course. We apparently borrowed this from our good friends and drinking buddies the Dutch, who have a verb busen or buizen, which means "to drink to excess." Hey, how many words in English do we have for drinking, anyway? That must say something about our worldview, right?! ;-)

As a bonus etymology, we've got grape. As Katherine Barber recently explained on her Wordlady blog, this word is effectively a mistake. When English borrowed grape-related terminology from the French, we confused the French word for grape (raisin) with a hook that was used to harvest grapes (grappe). Although as Barber points out, this gave us the unexpected advantage that we got for free a word that we could use to apply to dried grapes. So it all worked out in the end.

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  06:56 AM

When shopping for school supplies this week, don't forget to pick up a set of Friday words!

The new-to-me word this week is gongoozler, which through some mechanism I no longer recall I got from Joss Fong on Twitter. In its most general sense, this term refers to a spectator who stares at an activity. It also has a related sense of someone who "enjoys watching activity on the canals of the United Kingdom," this second definition from the infallible Wikipedia. (Whose article on this term includes the subheading "Aspects of gongoozling.") Compare trainspotting.

I believe the connection here is that canal-watchers do a lot of staring. Indeed, the OED says that both gawn and gooze are dialectical terms in the UK for "staring vacantly." Satisfyingly, one of the examples in the OED (from 1986) refers to someone gongoozling at a giant outdoor screen, TV being a sort of obvious candidate for the use of this term. For what it's worth, the earliest recorded use seems to be from 1904.

One of the cites in the OED is this: "Pronounced slowly and with the proper emphasis, ‘gongoozler’ merits a very high place in the vocabulary of opprobrium." Again, one might compare how trainspotting is used. Even then, though, I speculate that someone whose activity is being gongoozled, and who is opprobriuming the gongoozler, might prefer that to the more active spectating implied by kibitzing.

Incidentally, I'd love to hear more about this word from anyone who has it in their active vocabulary.

Etymological musings today originate in a session of kitchen cleanup this week, which led me to wonder about the word terrycloth. Who is Terry and why are towels named for them? Haha, just kidding. The exact origin of the terry part is a bit murky. It seems to refer to loops, the teeny loops being the salient feature of the cloth. It might come from tiré, French for "to draw" or "to pull," which references the way in which the loops are created during weaving. A second theory is that it comes from the Old French noun terret, which refers to the ring (loop) on a saddle. Either way, I can easily imagine myself in my dotage demanding that an uncomprehending grandchild bring me a "loop cloth, and hurry!"

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  10:28 PM

It's Friday again (kind of barely), meaning it's time for another batch o' words. I must note that I have been enjoying these later days of summer—not just because of the weather (that too, of course), but because we're seeing the last days before school buses and student-bearing minivans again clog the streets. However: words!

The first new-to-me word this week is sickboating. This term refers to an attempt among certain politicians or partisan media commentators to suggest that Hillary Clinton is ill in some way—epilepsy, dementia, something. I got this term from an article in Esquire. Almost all of the references I can find point back to this article, although the article itself uses the term without quotation marks. The whole story started only a few weeks ago, so perhaps this really is a brand-new term.

Politics aside, the term is linguistically interesting in a couple of ways. It alludes to swiftboating, a term invented during the 2004 American presidential-election season to refer to the smear campaign mounted against John Kerry, who had served in the US Navy on a so-called Swift Boat, a fact he touted as part of his campaign. During the election season, Kerry was attacked via an orchestrated effort (supposedly by other Swift Boat veterans) that sought to discredit Kerry's service. This type of political smearing quickly became known as swiftboating.

In sickboating, we see boating breaking further away from its original sense of the actual boat and taking on more clearly the semantics of "smear campaign." This is reminiscent of the way that gate become unmoored from Watergate (the name of a hotel) to become a generic suffix meaning "scandal." With boating serving as a particle for "smear campaign," we're now free to add words to the front of it to suggest the nature of that campaign. In this case, it's Clinton's supposed illness, hence sick. It would be not surprising at all to see other compounds along these lines.

Full disclosure: There might already be such compounds. I was mostly interested in sickboating this week as a term new to me.

For etymological fun this week I have the word code. Recently I was reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. He writes about DNA as a code, and at one point he says "The word code comes from caudex—the pith of the tree that was used to scratch out early manuscripts." So a code—something encoded—derives from a word for tree pith?

The sequence of code < codex < caudex is solid. What's not entirely clear is Mukherjee's reference to pith and "scratching out" manuscripts. Caudex does refer to a tree trunk (per the OED). In my reading, pith is the soft part of a plant's core, whereas it sounds like early books were wooden tablets covered with wax upon which people scratched writing. So I'm a bit mystified by the pith part, but am otherwise happy to learn that code refers to a tree trunk. Whodathunk.

Maya codex

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  12:56 PM

Friday words! Only today they happen to be on a Saturday. That's how it goes sometimes.

For this week's new-to-me word, I have wind throb, which I learned just a few days ago from an article (paywall) in the Wall Street Journal. This refers to the "wub-wub-wub" noise that happens when you open only one window while driving fast in a car. The more technical name for this phenomenon is Helmholtz resonance, but good luck getting far with that term at your next dinner party.

Fun fact: per the article (and a slew of others that appeared this week), wind throb is more of a problem with latter-day cars because they are designed to be aerodynamically tight. Certainly I've noticed that it's more of a problem with my 2015 Maserati than with my 1973 Dodge Dart. (Yeah, right.)

For surprising etymology this week I have two! The first is the word geyser, referring to a hot spring that sends up a plume of water. Give a moment of thought to the word, and you'll observe, I believe, that its meaning doesn't seem to be obvious, nor does it have cognates. That's because geyser has an unusual source (haha): it comes to English from modern(-ish) Icelandic (!), not exactly a historically rich source for English vocabulary. Geysir is the name of a particular geyser in Iceland; the name derives from an Icelandic word meaning "to gush." Our general term in English comes from the name of this specific geyser in Iceland. John Kelly has a great writeup of all this on Mashed Radish, a site well worth exploring for more fun with everyday etymology.

The other surprising etymology this week is for the word cemetery. On Twitter I follow Haggard Hawks Words, where they post unusual and obscure words. They recently created a words quiz, from which I learned that cemetery comes from the Greek word koimetarion, which means "a sleeping place." R.I.P. indeed.

Here are a couple of bonus etymologies this week, both inspired by political goings-on:
  • Katherine Barber discussed the word nostalgia.

  • Nancy Friedman addressed a term much in the news recently: sarcasm.
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  05:44 PM

As we know, F is for Friday, and also for, um, filology. Wait, no, that's philology. Whatever, let's look at some new-to-Mike words.

The first new-to-me word is drunkorexia, which refers to "behaviors such as skipping meals or exercising heavily to offset calories from a heavy night of drinking, or to pump up alcohol's buzz," according to the page on the NBC website where I saw this. I looked for other sources, and many of them also have this dual definition, where avoiding eating is done either to offset the calories in alcohol or to enhance the effects of drinking. Anyway, I find cites going back at least to 2010. Apparently I'm not in college anymore, or I probably would have known this term.

A second new-to-me term this week is Liebig's Law. This is actually quite old, and I knew of the concept, which is also sometimes referred to as the law of the minimum. But I didn't know there was a name for this. (Of course there is, duh.) Liebig's Law states that the expansion of a system is capped by the availability of the scarcest critical ingredient. For example, on a broad scale, life on earth cannot expand indefinitely; at some point when you chemically build living systems, you'll run out of a critical ingredient. (If I remember right, that's phosphorous, but don't quote me on that.)

The same principle applies in more trivial contexts as well. If you need to make cookies for your kid's potluck at school, the number of cookies you can make is limited by the ingredient you run out of first, whether that's flour, sugar, chocolate chips, or whatever. (Assuming the store's closed, of course.)

Ok, etymology. I got to wondering recently about the -ade in lemonade. This is a productive suffix we can use for "drink made from": limeade, orangeade, pineappleade, pom-ade (from pomegranate). But why can we do this—where did -ade come from?

We seem to have gotten lemonade as a unit from French, where the suffix has long been used to indicate "action or product of an action" to cite Douglas Harper. As such, lemonade shares this suffix with some pretty interesting words: grenade, crusade, and comrade, to name three. (This comes from Latin, which is why you'll find words with similar constructions in Spanish and Italian.)

Ah! But observe that after borrowing lemonade into English, we naturalized the -ade suffix and use it in our own and much narrower way. You can't create arbitrary words meaning "product of" in English by just whacking -ade onto the end of another word. But if you've got some fruit around, you can make yourself a refreshing beverage, both to drink and to say.

Homework: be ready to discuss whether -ade is a so-called cranberry morpheme.

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