About

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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One likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?

Elif Batuman



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 10/18/2019

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Posts - 2581
Comments - 2621
Hits - 2,179,440

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Entries/day - 0.43
Comments/entry - 1.02
Hits/day - 366

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 7:12 PM Pacific


  09:24 PM

A while back I picked up the word tankie. In the sense that I learned it, this has a pretty specific meaning that references the politics of the past. But perhaps it has some relevance today.

In 1956, there was an uprising in Hungary against Soviet rule. This initially looked like it was going well. But after a few weeks, the USSR sent in troops and tanks and crushed the rebellion.

In the West, the heavy-handed Soviet response disillusioned many people who had previously been supportive of the idea of communism. But some true believers—especially in Britain—supported the Soviet reaction out of ideological purity. These people were pejoratively referred to as tankies, for their support for the Russian tanks that were unleashed on the protestors.

As I say, the word is old and seems specific to another time. But according to the SJWiki, tankie can have an expanded meaning:

More broadly, the term may refer to any leftist who is perceived to support or defend authoritarian regimes on the basis that they are enemies of the United States. This can include regimes that are not and do not claim to be communist such as those of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Bashir al-Assad in Syria.

Of course, in this expanded definition, the word tank is no longer relevant. (Altho I suppose it might be with respect to the Tiananmen Square massacre.) The central idea is that anyone who's an enemy of the US might be worth supporting, no matter how bad their ideology or human-rights record.

Update (22 Oct 2019): Nancy Friedman notes that she covered tankie (with more detail) as one of her words of the week back in 2018. For more on this term, including its use to describe a dog coat, go read her blog entry.

While we contemplate how tankie might play out in today's world, let's turn to origins. In a discussion about cats today, the word dander came up. Though what actually happened was that the word dandruff came up to mean dander. Which made me wonder whether dandruff was related to dander and/or where the word came from.

So, to start, yes, dander and dandruff seem to be related. If you look up dander in the sense of the stuff that collects on cat fur, they refer you to dandruff. Is it perhaps surprising that dandruff is the older term? It was to me.

We've had it in English since the mid-1500s. And it's interesting to see that people have been looking for cures for at least that long—here's a suggestion recorded in 1601: "The iuice of Garlick..beeing taken in drinke cleanseth the head from dandruffe." The alternate term dander dates from the 1800s.

Disappointingly, the etymology of dandruff is listed as "of unknown origin." Douglas Harper, who is not afraid to go where the OED fears to tread, suggests that the ruff part might be an old dialect term for "scab" and might have also been related to the Old English word for "leper." (He also includes the wonderful information that older English words for dandruff are bran, furfur, and scales.)

You might wonder how the expression get your dander up figures into all this. This is an American expression that seems to be from the 19th century. It might refer to dander in the sense of dandruff/dander. Or it might be related to a now-obsolete sense of dander to mean "ferment," which might come from a Spanish verb redundar ("to overflow").

All in all, not an entirely satisfactory delve into word history. That just happens sometimes, oh well.

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  10:08 AM

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about nootropics, or "smart drugs." Naming consultant Nancy Friedman pointed me to another article that mentions the movie Limitless, about a writer who uses a "mysterious pill" to unlock his super abilities. The article notes that it's "a classic tragedy of hubris to hamartia."

The word hamartia was new to me.[1] I was generally familiar with the concept, I think. Stated simply, hamartia is the idea that a tragedy is the result of a fatal flaw or fatal error committed by the protagonist. This was formulated in Aristotle's Poetics, where he describes a tragedy that consists of a noble person who enjoys good fortune but who is brought down not by "villainy" but by a mistake. (In Greek, hamartanein is "to err.")

A lot of thinking has gone into how hamartia manifests. Sometimes the hero makes the error unwittingly, like Oedipus unknowingly killing his father. Sometimes circumstances force the character into the mistake that results in tragedy. After the Greeks, hamartia came to include the idea of a moral failing or inherent flaw, like Othello's jealousy. There's a sense that the tragedy plays out as a kind of fate beyond a person's control—the will of the gods. Or as described by Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers"—a phrase that appears in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, suggesting the inevitability of the outcome. Hamartia is often paired with hubris (as in the article)—that is, with excessive pride—that can in itself be the fatal flaw. ("Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall," Proverbs 16:18)

I suppose for the next little while, I'll be obsessing about hamartia as I watch drama on TV. How did hamartia factor into Game of Thrones? Is it a force in HBO's Succession? That one we'll have to wait to see. And, ahem, not to mention keeping tabs on current events.

(Now that I think about it, I was looking into the origins of tragedy not long ago. I hope this is not some sort of foreshadowing.)

Origins. I'm reading a book about cats, which starts with a natural history of Felis catus. As I learned, the wildcat from which our housecats descend had (has) what are called Mackerel tabby markings. And where does the word tabby come from, anyway? John Bradshaw, the author, gives us the story.

This is another one of those words that's wandered quite a bit. (See also marzipan in FW #145.) We got the word tabis from French, where it was used for a type of silk that was originally striped. Starting in the 1600s, the word tabby was used in English to refer to silk taffeta, a sense that survived till at least the late 1800s.

The word was applied to cats starting in the 1700s to describe the striped markings of a tabby cat, and from there a cat that had such markings. ("The civet..varies in its colour, being sometimes streaked, as in our kind of cats called Tabbies.")

Winding further back, French got its word tabis from Arabic attabi, which came from the area (Attabiyah) in the city of Baghdad where the silk was first made. The neighborhood in Baghdad was named for a certain prince Attab.

To reiterate: A prince gives his name to a neighborhood, which becomes a name for the silk made there, which becomes a generic name for (striped) silk, which becomes a word for the striped coat of a cat. Words really do make some amazing journeys sometimes.

[1] And here's me, a humanities major. Sad.

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  07:59 AM

Today's new-to-me word—and I must remind you that these Friday words are about words that are new to me—was one of those things where you hear (read) a word and then it's everywhere. The term is sapiosexual, which is defined as being sexually attracted to someone because of their mind. As an article in Seventeen magazine puts it, "smart is sexy." (One of my excuses for not previously knowing the word is that I don't spend time on dating sites, and thank goodness.)

This is definitely not a new-new term; apparently on dating apps you can specify it as one of your attributes. The Merriam-Webster folks don't list the term in their dictionary, but they have it on their watchlist.

The sapio part is a Latin term for "wisdom" or "taste." We see it words like savvy and savant (Spanish: saber, French: savoir-faire). It shows up in the binomial name for our species (Homo sapiens). It lurks in a word like insipid ("lacking taste; bland").

Someone named Torin/Darren WhoEver claims to have invented the word in 1998, according to a Livejournal post from 2002. That’s possible, but it's also not impossible that the term was invented more than once. We have a number of words that include -sexual (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and several more), so it's been established as a combining form for a while. Anyway, whoever invented the term, adding sapio- was definitely a clever twist.

The word sapiosexual has a straightforward definition, but using it to describe oneself can engender certain … opinions. The second definition in Urban Dictionary describes sapiosexual as "Something you put on your dating profile if you want to be pretentious." And as the Twitter user The Maine Millennial noted wryly …

Every guy's a sapiosexual until he meets a woman who is smarter than he is

So, profile-writer beware. Even if it's true that you love others for their minds, it might be wise not to actually say that.

A quick word history today, inspired by something I found while we were culling books:

Title page of a Rand McNally atlas from 1937

This was an atlas given to my father when he was a boy. It turns out that various parts of the world were organized quite differently in 1937.

It made me wonder why we use the word atlas for a book of maps. Well, it's an eponym: it refers to Atlas, the Titan in Greek mythology who was condemned to hold up the sky (the "celestial sphere").

How it got to be the term for a book of maps: the geographer Mercator wrote a book that was published in 1595 with the title "Atlas or Cosmographic Meditations on The Fabric of the World and The Figure of the Fabrick’d." (In Latin, of course.) This book discussed the history of the world, but Mercator, being a cartographer, also included many maps. The frontispiece has a color plate showing Atlas contemplating the world.

Although Mercator's book was not the first collection of maps, and although he didn't intend it to be just a collection of maps, his title became a generic term for such a collection. Moral: be careful with your book titles, kids, lest they become generic terms.

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  11:07 AM

I of course work with many nerds. I was in a meeting at work the other day when someone explained that they had been working on a task but had not been able to finish. Instead, they'd gotten sidetracked with creating a script to do the work. "Sorry, I'm easily nerd-sniped," they concluded.

I got the sense immediately, I thought—that is, they'd gotten caught up in an interesting task. But I didn't think I'd ever heard it expressed as nerd-sniped before. So I had a look. The term seems to have originated in an xkcd cartoon[1]:


(I had to rearrange the panels so they'd fit here, sorry.)

Randall Munroe, the xkcd author, presents nerd sniping as a competitive sport that picks on certain types of victims. But it also works as a general term of sending someone (perhaps oneself) down an interesting path that disrupts whatever one is supposed to be working on.

Michael Graham, a.k.a. Engineer Dog, wrote a blog entry in which he teased out some threads from Munroe's original cartoon. For example, he theorizes about why certain people might be more susceptible to being nerd-sniped:

While it sounds like a joke, nerd sniping is kind of a serious problem for some folks. Engineers in particular are highly susceptible because of our natural curiosity and fondness for creative problem solving. It’s not difficult to find something that will draw our attention away from the current task at hand and replace it with a new problem to figure out.

He also notes a difference between being nerd-sniped and just wasting time:

If you’re looking at Facebook when you should be working then at least you understand that you’re not going to accomplish anything. A snipe, on the other hand, is disguised as productive activity. When you come across a new and interesting project that you simply must work on immediately, you do so at the cost of anything else you could be doing with your limited resources. While it still feels like you are making progress on your to-do list, in reality you are no better off than when you started.

This is what happened to my colleague. They got entranced by an interesting problem and welp, there went the rest of the day: nerd-sniped.

Ok, on to origins. This week my wife looked up from her reading and asked, "What's a gibbous moon again?" Uh … I had to look it up also. It's a phase of the moon between half and full. There's a waxing gibbous moon and a waning gibbous moon. (One reason we're not as familiar with gibbous as we might be is that at our house, a gibbous moon is referred to as a "potato moon.")

Whence the word gibbous? The word gibbus was Latin for "hump." This led in later Latin to a word gibbosus, which was a term for "humpbacked." According to a "Did you know?" note on the Merriam-Webster site (short answer: I did not), gibbous was a general term for the rounded features of plants or animals. For example, there's a cite in the OED from 1577: "The forme of the lyuer is gibbous or bunchy on the backside." As late as 1879, someone was described as having "a gibbous chest."

In astronomy, the term gibbous was used to describe the moon as far back as the late 1600s. There are more cites about the gibbous moon, but the term can also apply to other discs that show phases. ("Many moons and planets full, Crescent, or gibbous-faced.")

Now that I know this, it feels like it would be a service to the language to reintroduce gibbous in its more general sense. For example, I could describe my own belly as gibbous. Hmm. Maybe I'll have to think about this some more.

[1] Strange then that I don't remember having heard the term before; xkcd is practically required reading in tech fields.

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  09:31 AM

I got this week's new-to-me word from an article about the Washington Redskins, the American professional football team whose mascot has for years been embroiled in controversy. The article claims that the team has used pretendians to suggest that the mascot does not bother Native Americans. Pretendians, as the article explains, are people who claim to have Native American heritage, but who don't. (The article says that if you survey real Native Americans, you get a quite a different picture about whether the mascot is offensive.)

The pretendian phenomenon is interesting sociologically. As one blog post explains, some people seem drawn to the idea of having native ancestry, based on weak or no evidence, and become enamored of its manifestations; they'll often appropriate those manifestations, or their interpretations of them. And some people go further and exploit their supposed connection, such as checking boxes for ethnic origin.

Anyway, back on topic. The word pretendian is also interesting in a couple of wordish ways. It seems to be a portmanteau of pretend + Indian. The -ian part also works because -an/-ian is a general suffix for, among other things, people associated with a thing. Thus Chicagoan and Republican and dietician and guardian. (And, ahem, Indian as a demonym.) This second thing—the -ian suffix—means that pretendian could theoretically mean anyone pretending to be any particular thing. But as far as I can tell, the word is used only for people making some sort of claim on Native American ethnicity.

For origins today, I have a medical term with a surprisingly fanciful origin: syphilis. We get all our medical terms from Latin, right? Yes, but. The word comes from "Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus," a poem written in Latin in the 1500s by the Italian doctor Girolamo Fracastoro. The title translates as "Syphilis, or the French Disease." (The Italians thought that syphilis had been introduced to their country by French troops.)

Syphilus (in the original spelling), the protagonist of the poem, was a shepherd who suffered from the malady. In the poem, Syphilus watches flocks for King Alcithous, but the god Sirius …

… threw the fire of his rays on these fields. A torrid heat burned the earth; the forests had no shade, the breeze was no longer cool. Syphilus saw his animals dying.

Syphilus is upset by this and tells Sirius that King Alcithous's power "is greater than thine and that of all the other gods." He also gets others to turn away from Sirius. Sirius doesn't like that:

In his anger, he charges his rays with pestilential poisons and virulent miasms, which simultaneously infect the air, the earth and the waters. At once upon this criminal earth there arises an unknown plague. Syphilus is the first attacked by it, on account of having been the first to profane the sacred altars. A hideous leprosy covers his body; fearful pains torture his limbs and banish sleep from his eyes. Then, this terrible disease—known since then among us by the name of Syphilis—does not take long to spread in our entire nation, not even sparing our King himself.[1]

So there you have it: syphilis the disease is named for a shepherd who pissed off a deity. Normally our medical eponyms are based on the name of the person who first described a disease. Syphilis, on the other hand, is a rare case of a disease named not only for a victim, but of a fictional victim to boot. There's some trivia you can roll out at your next dinner party.

[1] I got the prose translation of the original Latin from a 1911 book digitized on the Internet Archive site. There doesn't seem to be an individual credit, tho.

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  10:16 AM

Today's new-to-me word pertains to a certain musical genre. As an introduction, have a listen to this theme song from a classic arcade game:

Those old games had lively theme songs—Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, all those. The music and sound effects were clever and even tuneful, which was impressive, considering how primitive the sound-generating (synthesizing) capabilities were of the early consoles. Anyway, soon enough the hardware got better, and the sound effects got better, and today we get movie-quality sound from game consoles.

But. Some people have a fondness for the lo-res sound of those games, and there are people who love challenges. The result is the new-to-me word: chiptune, otherwise known as keygen or 8-bit music. This is, broadly speaking, music that sounds like it was created on those old machines. The ChipTunes=WIN! blog has a good definition:

Chipmusic at its core is electronic music created utilizing the chipsets from vintage video game and computing systems through both hardware & software. Examples of hardware include, but are not limited to, the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Commodore 64, and Amiga. Examples of software include, but are not limited to, LSDJ, Famitracker, Renoise, Deflemask, and Open MPT. Chiptune is essentially an instrument and/or a medium, used to create all styles and genres imaginable.

There's some discussion/hair-splitting about "classic" chiptune (created on real 8-bit hardware) versus emulated chiptune. We can leave that to the practitioners, and I'll assume a broad definition for the term.

Some artists create chiptune music that specifically takes advantage of the sonic character of the 8-bit sound generators. For example, on that same blog, they point to a song named "Strange Comfort" by an artist named Bit Shifter:


(This is on SoundCloud; you might need an account?)

People also reinterpret music from other genres as chiptune music. A dude named Vinheteiro does classical covers using 8-bit sound synthesizers:

What really piqued my interest and inspired this entry was finding a chiptune "tribute" to the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. Behold Kind of Bloop:

I don't think I'll trade in the originals for chiptune versions of "Freddie the Freeloader" and "All Blues," but it sure did show me what people could do with this technology.

Update (20 Sep 2019) Someone found this video that recounts the history of sound capabilities on personal computers from classic 8-bit to CD quality:

For today's fun origins, we turn to baseball, which begins its yearly wrapup. (Alas, the basement-dwelling Mariners will be spectators for all of the playoffs.) Where do we get the word umpire?

I was quite surprised to read that this is another example of misdivision or rebracketing. The word as we got it from French was originally noumpere, but the initial n wandered: a noumpere became an oumpere. (We covered this before with an auger).

The original French provides slightly more of a clue about the origin. The word is a variant on nonper, or "non-peer." This referred to someone who was not an equal—by implication, higher—than others. This makes sense with the notion that an umpire is someone who adjudicates in disputes (an arbitrator), and whose decision is binding. The sports sense of umpire is just a domain-specific version of this role; it's been used as a sports term since the early 1700s.

By the way, if you're interested in the ins-and-outs (get it?) of baseball umpiring, I can recommend the Umpire Bible site that was created by former colleague Nick. I would no more umpire a baseball game than I'd do a self-appendectomy, yet I still find it to be interesting reading.

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  08:17 AM

I think that anyone who watches politics and words can guess what this week's new-to-me word is going to be. But just in case, here's the background.

On September 1, President Trump tweeted that Hurricane Dorian would hit several states, including Alabama. Some people, including the National Weather Service, responded by noting that Alabama was in fact not in danger. Trump defended his assertion, and then—here's where our story really begins—on September 4 he provided an update in which he showed a poster on which the hurricane cone map had apparently been extended with what looked like a marker to cover parts of Alabama:

I don't have any commentary on the map stuff. What interested me was that the situation instantly got a name and a hashtag on Twitter: #Sharpiegate; slightly less interestingly, it was also dubbed #Mapgate. Both names are testaments not only to people's playfulness with language, but are more examples of the enduring power of the -gate suffix. (In case it's not clear, Sharpie is a brand name for a type of marker.)

Let's talk about that for a moment. The -gate suffix came about in the 1970s. It was originally part of a name: the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. In that name, the -gate part was what's sometimes called a cranberry morpheme—a word part (morpheme) that distinguishes the word, but that doesn't otherwise mean anything.

Then came the scandals of the Nixon presidency. These began with a bungled burglary at the DNC headquarters, which happened to be in the Watergate office complex. Soon the name of the hotel became a metonym for the entirety of the high crimes and misdemeanors, becoming Watergate-the-scandal, which ultimately brought down the administration.[1]

From that point, the -gate suffix went from being a cranberry morpheme that had no inherent meaning to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix (for "liberated affix," more or less). This is a morpheme that's broken off from its source, has developed its own meaning, and can be combined in new ways. (There are many libfixes. Others you undoubtedly know are constituent parts of cheeseburger, frankenfood, and mansplain.)

When the libfix -gate broke off from Watergate, it carried along the sense of "scandal" and boy, has it ever been useful. There's a Wikipedia page of -gate scandals, including Deflategate (NFL), Dieselgate (VW), Emailgate (HRC), Gamergate, and Troopergate (3 different scandals). Satisfyingly, Sharpiegate has already been added.

Update (22 Sep 2019): Fans of the HBO show Succession might have caught a -gate reference during an early conversation in Season 2, Episode 7 ("Return") , which aired tonight:

Fun. Ok, just a quick delightful origin today. Tragedies are sad, of course. Etymologically speaking, though, it's not clear why they should be. The Greek roots of tragedy are tragus and oid, which respectively mean "he-goat" and "song, ode."

There are theories about this, but no certainty. One theory is that at contests, a winning playwright won a goat. Or that thespians wore costumes made of goatskins. The word might have been modeled on rhapsody ("stitched-song").

Update: On Twitter, Florent Moncomble notes that "there is also a hypothesis that the genre may have its origins in the song accompanying the sacrifice of male goats during the festival of Dionysus."

It's also possible that tragus doesn't refer to goats at all. We just don't know, but since we don't, I'm totally down with tragedies being goat-songs.

[1] For an excellent history of the whole Watergate affair, check out season 1 of the Slow Burn podcast.

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  06:07 PM

I saw today's new-to-me word in an article about communities and websites that feature a certain demographic. Here's the cite:

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of figures popular in the “redpill” community also hawk nootropic supplements.

I was struck by nootropic not only because I didn't know what it meant, but because there seemed to be nothing in the word that gave me the slightest clue. Even with the context of the sentence, I could only guess what nootropic might mean.

Anyway, the short definition is "mind-enhancing," and a slang term for nootropical substances is "smart drugs." There's a more formal definition; in fact, when the word was minted in 1964, it had a pretty elaborate definition, as I learned from a writeup on the Dictionary.com site. A nootropic substance is one that:

  • Enhances memory.
  • Enhances brain function when it's physically stressed (e.g. low oxygen).
  • Protects the brain from chemical and physical "assaults."
  • Increases the functioning of the brain's "control mechanisms."
  • Is non-toxic and has few side effects.

There's a pretty chart on the SmartDrugSmarts.com site that goes into a bit of detail about these 5 characteristics.

Of course, my first reaction when reading all this was "Oh, yeah, coffee." Caffeine definitely fits into the looser, "mind-enhancing" definition of nootropic substances, but I think (?) it doesn't meet the more stringent definitions. But don’t worry, our operators are standing by to take your order for true, pharmaceutical-quality smart drugs, accept no substitutes, hurry, limited-time offer, at this price they won't last.

As for the opaqueness of the term, I guess it's because it's all Greek. The word noos is Greek for "mind." When I looked into it, I found that this root is also in paranoia, but that didn't initially occur to me. The -tropic part was adapted from psychotropic, which refers to mind-altering drugs. In psychotropic, the -tropic part means "to affect " but it ultimately comes from a Greek word meaning "to turn." We see this also in heliotrope (a plant that follows the sun) and trope, a figure (turning) of speech. So nootropic is that which affects the mind. I'm still voting for coffee, fwiw.

For fun origins (or today, even more fun origins), I've got ventriloquist. I was listening to an episode of the Stuff You Should Know podcast that was about ventriloquists, and boy, there was a lot of stuff that I guess I should know.

Early in the podcast (around 6:30) they talk about how the ancients knew about ventriloquism, but not in the form that we so frequently see today: a person who appears to be talking to a dummy sitting on their knee. Per the podcast, ventriloquism in the old days was more tied in with religion and shamanism—people who could talk to spirits. Those spirits might be in the trees or—here's the origin part—in their stomach. Ventri (or ventro) refers to the abdomen: ventral. And loquism is from "to speak," which is in loquacious, eloquent, and soliloquy. So, ventriloquism is "belly-talking." If I get in touch with my inner eight-year-old, I might think that "belly-talking" is another word for belching. Shows what I know.

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  09:10 AM

Every once in a while the universe gives you a nudge. Back in March I collected a new-to-me word, and then this week my wife sent me the same one: abecedarian.

This is a great word that I’m surprised I never learned before. It has multiple definitions, all useful. It can mean “of or relating to the alphabet,” which makes perfect sense once you realize that abecedarian consists of the Latin names A-B-C-D plus the suffix -arian (“of”). It’s often used to refer to something that’s arranged in alphabetical order. I found two good examples on Twitter. One was an abecedarian list of insults, as posted by the qikipedia Twitter account:

Another abecedarian example that someone mentioned was Edward Gorey’s mischievously macabre book The Gashleycrumb Tinies, which describes, in alphabetic rhyming couplets, how 26 children met their untimely deaths. For example, “F is for FANNY, sucked dry by a leech”:

The word abecedarian can also refer to someone who’s new to something—a novice, like someone learning their ABCs. And by extension, it can be used to mean something that’s elementary or rudimentary. (See if you can work that in the next time you’re called upon to critique someone’s work.)

A final reason that the word abecedarian seemed timely to me is that it is, I believe, one more instance of a prolegonym (“intro-name”): a word formed from the beginnings of an expression. We’ve seen some before.

Ok, word origins. I’ve been reading (and so should you[1]) Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet, which is about how language is used on the internet. In the chapter on texting, she happens to mention that the word text is related to the word textile. Those words are in turn related to texture. All these senses pertain to weaving—"that which is woven, web, texture.” (Nice cite from Quintilian: textus is the “tissue of a literary work.”)

As if that weren’t cool enough, the tex- stem is related to the tech- stem in words like technology via a common root that originally meant “craft.” So sending messages on your phone is not only textured technological text, but it’s in some distant etymological way like architecture and tectonic.

[1] Yeah, grammatically dodgy. Whatevs.

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  08:39 AM

They train relentlessly. They scorn luxury and comfort. They speak little. Everything about them is devoted to one thing: war.

Navy SEALs? Delta Force? Royal Marine Commandos? No. (Well, yes, but that's not who I'm talking about.) I speak of course of the Spartans, denizens of Sparta (aka Laconia), the ancient city-state in Greece that was famous then, and continues to be famous now, for its single-minded devotion to military preparedness. Spartans were willing to sacrifice themselves in the defense of their principles, as we all know from reading about the Battle of Thermopylae.

Their culture has come down to us in the language. Something that's spartan is austere. Someone who's laconic is terse to the point of rudeness.

It's also come down to us in this week's new-to-me-word: laconophilia, which refers to an admiration for all things Spartan. Our own culture has imbibed the Spartan ideal. There are many cities named Sparta in the United States, and who can even count the number of sports teams that are the Spartans.[1] And check out the article Why Spartans Make Better Lovers, where "Spartans" are people who participate in a grueling sports event called the Spartan Race.

What I learned about this word was not just what it meant, but that it's … problematic. In a couple of ways, actually. One is that the mythologization (?) of the Spartans is about as ancient as Sparta itself; ancient Greeks from elsewhere (including Plato) tended to point to the Spartans as an idealized people. This sort of thing continued through the ages—other laconophiles included folks like Machiavelli and Rousseau and Hitler.

The other problem with laconophilia is that it's kind of wrong? Yes, the Spartans were great warriors, but they did actually lose their most famous battle, and their opponent—Xerxes—rampaged through Greece. Yes, they were "free men," as long as you don't count the slaves who held their society together (and often fought alongside the elite warriors). Yes, they were physically impressive, but they ruthlessly culled the infirm. As Myke Cole puts it in The New Republic, "The problem is, the Spartan myth is so full of holes you could use it to drain pasta."

So the word laconophilia can refer neutrally to admiration of a disciplined society. But it's also wrapped up with disturbing notions like eugenics and racism and authoritarianism. Reading about laconophilia has started affecting everything I know, or think I know, about that ancient society.

Let's move to origins. I heard a great one from the Allusionist podcast (around 21:30) about the word halcyon, meaning something calm and peaceful. The word halcyon comes from Greek halkyon, which refers to a kingfisher. There story is supposedly that halcyon came to mean "calm" because of a myth about a bird—a kingfisher—who could calm the seas in December in order to have a quiet time for nesting. This is a story we inherited in English; the fanciful origin itself goes back to the Greeks.

The real story is probably that there was a word alkyon in Greek to refer to a bird, which might have been borrowed from some other language that we have no record of. The Greeks reinterpreted the word as hals+kyon, roughly meaning "sea"+"conceive." This process of reinterpreting a word of foreign origin to make it more sensible is known as folk etymology. And the process of inventing a fanciful etymology is also known as folk etymology, or as we've seen elsewhere, etymythology. Here we have a particularly good combination of etymology and mythology. But it's stuck with us—not only do we have halcyon, but the genus name for kingfishers is Alcedinidae.

[1] I was surprised to learn that there's school in Los Angeles whose mascot is nickname is the Athenians.

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