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.

Read more ...

Blog Search

(Supports AND)

Google Ads


Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

See this post for info on full versus truncated feeds.


Not writing is not a useful way of expressing your ideas. Waiting for perfect is a lousy strategy.

Seth Godin


<February 2020>



Contact Me

Email me

Blog Statistics

First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 2/7/2020

Posts - 2601
Comments - 2631
Hits - 2,218,015

Entries/day - 0.43
Comments/entry - 1.01
Hits/day - 365

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 1:30 AM Pacific

  07:48 AM

I was recently reading one of my Christmas books, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, when I ran across this passage about how commercial bread-baking in the 1920s and 1930s was promoted as a scientific and modern improvement over home-baked bread:

Bakers' smug paternalism might have infuriated the ranks of middle-class women championing food reforms and social improvement—except that they were just as ensorcelled as the bakers.

I had to stop reading and look up ensorcelled. A great word, ensorcell: "to betwitch." From the French ensorceler, which has the same root as sorcerer.

Then shortly thereafter the editor Sarah Bronson used the word in a tweet. How can I run across the same obscure word twice in such a short time? Is it just the frequency illusion?

And obscure it is. Although the word ensorcell has been in English since at least the 1500s, it shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English a mere 27 times—and 13 of those mentions are in a single book. (It shows up only as ensorcelled, past tense, with zero hits for ensorcell or ensorcells, present-tense forms.)

Update: There is a spelling variant with one L, ensorcel, past tense ensorceled, which adds another 13 COCA hits. The dictionaries I was looking at seem to prefer the double L variant, and it doesn't seem to be a British/American difference. Dunno.

The other mentions in the COCA search results suggest to me why I don't run across this work more often, namely, it shows up primarily in fantasy and sci-fi writing. Clearly, if I read more widely in those genres, I would expand my vocabulary with useful terms like ensorcelled.

On the word-origins front, I was thinking about a word that's been much in the news lately: virus. Since starting my casual work with Latin, I've been looking at words through that lens. This one looked promising: vir means "man"! The -us ending is second declension! Does virus have something to do with "human," maybe?

Yeah, no. Well, yeah, it's from Latin, but no, it doesn't have anything to do with vir, "man." Our word virus comes more or less directly from the Latin word vīrus, which meant "poisonous secretion" or "venom."[1]

As is true for some other words (for example, germ), our medical sense of the word is the later and metaphoric sense. The Romans applied the word vīrus to poisons and other substances that had generally unpleasant sensory qualities—"acrid juice," as the OED says. That meaning made it into English, and there are cites from about 1600 to the 20th century in which virus referred to snake or insect venom. ("I note that there is a quite a demand for snake virus," 1899) A weird flex is that vīrus was also used sometimes to refer to semen.

The term has been used in medicine since the 15th century, albeit in the original and general sense of "poison." For example, Edward Jenner referred to "cow-pox virus" in 1798 when he was writing about his work with inoculations.

The modern medical sense developed in the late 1800s to refer to an infectious agent that was so small that it could pass through a filter that blocked bacteria—people understood that there was a thing there that caused disease, but the microscope technology of the time couldn't resolve just what it was. The first visual evidence of viruses had to wait till 1931 and the use of electron microscope.

These days we have computer viruses, which take the "infectious agent" metaphor into the digital realm. And something can go viral if it spreads in the manner of a swiftly-moving disease. And to complete the circle, I suppose, we could say that much of what we encounter this way is acrid-tasting and possibly even poisonous. haha.

[1] Something I'm not yet used to in my modest Latin studies is paying attention to whether vowels are long or short. The Romans didn't mark long vowels (I guess?), but the difference between a short and long vowel can distinguish a pair of words (I guess?).

Like this? Read all the Friday words.



  10:03 AM

My wife was reading something about the early Celts and asked me, "What writing system did they have?" Latin alphabet, maybe? As far as I knew, runes were used by the Germanic people but not by Celts.

All of this led to me to discover the word ogham, which is an alphabet in which Old Irish inscriptions were written:

Apparently it's not clear where the alphabet comes from. Some think it might have been adapted from the Latin alphabet, other think it might have come from runes. The early examples that are left are carved in stone and tend to be names. (Isn't that true of most writing systems? They start when someone wants to write "THIS IS MINE".) There's speculation that it might also have been carved into wood, but that would have disappeared by now. The Irish later adapted the Roman alphabet, but apparently there are books from as late as the 1400s that are written using the ogham script.

The most fun thing that I learned from all this is that a person who writes in ogham script or who studies it is an oghamist. Bet that's a great icebreaker at parties. "So, what do you do?" "Well, …"

For origins, I don't normally do names. But Netflix just released a new version of Dracula, and that got me wondering where that name came from. As many people know, Count Dracula is loosely inspired by Vlad III Dracula, a historical ruler from Wallachia (now Romania), where he's a hero.

The Dracula part of the name comes from Romanian. Vlad's father, Vlad II, was also known as Vlad Dracul, which translates as "Vlad the Dragon." In 1431, Vlad the elder was awarded membership in the Order of the Dragon by the king of Hungary, under who he'd served. Vlad the elder eventually became ruler of Wallachia and participated in the complex wars of medieval Eastern Europe, which involved repelling an Ottoman invasion and a bunch of fights with the neighbors.

As Wikipedia says, "Vlad's descendants were known as Drăculești, because they adopted Vlad's sobriquet as their patronymic (Dracula)." Vlad the elder's second son, also Vlad, eventually succeeded to the throne as Vlad III, also known as Vlad Dracula (Vlad [of] Dracul). So there you have the origin of the name.

Many people also have heard that Vlad Dracula was known as "Vlad the Impaler" because he seemed to like using impalement as a form of execution. (Yuck.) I realized that this also comes up in the Dracula story. How can you kill a vampire? By driving a stake through its heart—which is another way of saying that you must impale it. I can't believe this only occurred to me this week.

Not the happiest note to end on, is it. I'll do better next week. In the meantime, why not watch the series on Netflix?

Like this? Read all the Friday words.



  11:43 AM

There is a class of person who looks to a foreign culture and sees something there that they like. A person might be a fan of all things French, which makes them a Francophile. A person who's enamored of British things is said to be an Anglophile. There is such a thing as an Americanophile.

These terms are more or less neutral. A more judgmental term for someone who obsesses about another culture is a wannabe. As Urban Dictionary tells us, a British wannabe is "A person who makes numerous attempts to seem British." (Take a quiz to see if you're a British wannabe.) A wannabe is less neutral than a -phile, in the sense of someone who might be trying maybe a little too hard to identify with the other culture.

Ok. The other day I ran across a term that's of this flavor, but not of this pattern: weeaboo. This is a definitely negative way to refer to a person who's obsessed with Japanese culture, and especially if they go beyond appreciation to thinking of Japanese culture as better than all others. As the anime expert Justin Sevakis explains, "Being into Japanese stuff by itself isn't the problem, it's the special hell that results when the Japanese fixation combines with obnoxiousness, immaturity and ignorance that makes a weeaboo." (He has plenty more on this topic in his post.)

As I say, weeaboo doesn't follow pattern of other culture-fan words. According to the Know Your Meme site, weeaboo originated as a sort of nonsense word in the absurdist ("offbeat") Perry Bible Fellowship comic. From there, it was adapted as a term to get around filters on 4chan that looked for derogatory terms (like wapanese).

Anyway, when I ran across weeaboo, it was in a context that had nothing to do with Japanese culture. I was reading a blog post about the Spartans, and the author said that the Greek poet Tyrtaeus, who was not a native Spartan, was a weeaboo for all things Spartan. (Which we explored earlier under the more predictable term of laconophilia.) This is the only instance I've found in which weeaboo was not specifically about Japan, but you can see how a word that's not attached to Japan (unlike Japanophile) could be applied to other cultures as well.

For origins today, a quick one. You probably know the word cultivar, referring to a strain of plants. I just found out that the word cultivar is a portmanteau, a combination of cultivated and variety. (Seems obvious once you know that.)

What I did not know, having only modest horticultural knowledge, is that there's a difference between a variety and a cultivar. A variety is just what it sounds like—a variant, and especially one that can reproduce its characteristics naturally. In contrast, cultivars don't produce seeds that are "true to type." Instead, they generally have to be propagated through cuttings or grafting or some other human-involved means.

And as if that isn't enough knowledge for one day, there are rules for how cultivars are named. This Iowa State University Extension site has the details:

The first letter of a cultivar is capitalized and the term is never italicized. Cultivars are also surrounded by single quotation marks (never double quotation marks) or preceded by the abbreviation "cv.". For an example of a cultivar of redbud, consider Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' (or Cercis canadensis cv. Forest Pansy) which has attractive dark purple spring foliage and pinkish-purple flowers.

I'm not sure exactly why, but the insistence on single quotation marks around the cultivar name struck me as unusual. But to each field its own conventions.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.



  07:04 AM

Just yesterday I learned a new term from the editor and linguist Johnathon Owen. On Twitter, he said he'd run across the term wet signature. As other people noted, there are related terms wet ink, wet stamps, and wet documents.

Why this interest in wet things? How can a document be wet? And isn't all ink wet?

This last question leads us to an understanding of the term. Wet ink is contrasted with digital ink or e-ink. A wet stamp is one that uses a stamp pad and (wet) ink. A wet document is one printed out on paper and signed with a wet signature, which is to say, with a pen and not with a digital signature.

These are terms used in the world of contracts and document-signing and document-approving, where they're well established. Should you be curious, you can find information about all forms of signing on a page from the Upcounsel site[1].

Aside from the strange picture that terms like wet ink and wet document conjure up, they're interesting because they're retronyms—terms that are used to distinguish an older version of a thing from a newer version of it. The classic example is acoustic guitar; until electric guitars were invented, all guitars were acoustic, so you didn't need the term acoustic guitar. Other examples are brick-and-mortar store, snail mail, and analog clock. I'm sure you can think of more. So once such a thing existed as a digital signature, we inevitably were going to need a retronym for the old-fashioned kind. Interesting that it turned out to be wet.

On to origins. Suppose you were going to move house this weekend and you lined up some friends to help carry stuff. But they call and say that they can't come after all. Uh-oh, they've left you in a lurch.

To lurch is to stumble around, so how does that relate to being left abandoned? This is an example where two words—lurch and lurch—look the same but might come from different roots. The origin of the verb to lurch isn't certain, but it might be related to lurk. Or it might be related to an old sailing term lee-larches that described a ship heaving to its side in rolling waves.

In the expression leave in a lurch, lurch is a noun of an apparently different origin. One theory is that comes from lorche or lourche, the name of a game (everyone says it was something like backgammon). Here, lurch referred to a state in which one player was hopelessly behind. (In cribbage, a lurch is a term similar to skunk.) Another possibility is that lurch is a variant on lash; there are examples from the late 1500s that sound like this ("My Nell hath stolen thy fynest stuff, & left thee in the lash"). This second theory has evidence but no real explanation.

Because neither sense of lurch goes back to a definitive origin, it's possible that they go back to a common ancestor. But the trail goes cold before the 1500s, so we're left … yes, in a lurch.

[1] I was amused by this definition of a signature: "a signature involves each party drawing amateur art next to his name as an indication of authenticity."

Like this? Read all the Friday words.


[2] |

  02:31 PM

Happy New Year! If you follow words, you've undoubtedly seen a selection of "words of the year" from various sources: Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, Oxford, and Collins, among others. Today (Jan 3) this culminates with the American Dialect Society picking not only its word of the year for 2019, but its word of the decade for the 2010s. If you happen to be in New Orleans, by all means, show up at the ADS conference and vote—it's open to anyone who happens to be in the room. Otherwise, the voting is live-tweeted, or you can check out the results on their website.

Ok, words. Where to start in 2020? Well, over the holidays I watched the full season of Netflix's The Politician, a black comedy about a high school election. (Black, yes; comedy, sporadic.) At the end of the season I encountered a word new to me: thrupple (or throuple, though it was spelled with upp in the subtitles).

This is a portmanteau of three + couple; it describes a three-way relationship. One page goes into some detail about what a thupple/throuple is and isn't. For example, it's an actual relationship, not just an encounter or a triangle.

I found this term interesting for a few reasons. One was that it's new enough that it hasn't made it into mainstream dictionaries, though of course it's in crowd-sourced dictionaries (e.g. Urban Dictionary). I thought we also had the term ménage à trois for this, although it's possible that the French-based term is used for a wider array of senses than throuple (for example, just for encounters). Plus the French term is harder to pronounce, ha.

It also was interesting in that we seem to have an expanding vocabulary for non-traditional relationships; another term I learned recently is polycule. As people feel free to discuss their relationship arrangements, they find that they need to have terms for them. And English is happy to accommodate their needs.

On to origins. I've been fooling around with Latin recently (about time, dang) so I've taken a more specific interest in words that come from Latin besides just that they, you know, come from Latin. One of these is the word placebo, which refers to a substance that has no pharmacological effect but is given to patients—for instance, as part of a drug trial.

In classical Latin, placebo means "I shall be pleasing" from the verb placere ("to please"). In medicine, placebo arose in the 18th century to mean a medicine given to a patient to please them as opposed to treat them. (Of course, the joke's on the medical community, sort of; the placebo effect describes a benefit that the patient reports even when given only a placebo.)

Once you know the origin of placebo, it's easy to see that it's a direct relative of to please, which we got via Norman French plaisier. Other terms with this root are plead, pleasure, placate, placid, and supplicant.

I should also note that a long time ago, one of my then new-to-me words was nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect—people reporting negative outcomes from what they think is bad for them. Thus not only did we take "I shall be pleasing" from Latin, but we mangled that one up to produce something like "I will be unpleasing." Very pleasing.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.


[1] |

  07:43 PM

The vocabulary of American and British English differs a little bit—I mean, we all understand terms like clockwork orange and dark materials and deathly hallows. But there are words that mean different things on either side of the Atlantic, like biscuit and pants and flannel. And there are words that are generally found on only one side or the other of the Atlantic, like skint and dosh, or cooties and dumpster.

In this last category, I (an American) don't often run into words from Britain that are new to me. Generally speaking, even if I don't use British words, I know what they mean. But recently I ran across a term that I had never heard before: to gurn.

My American friends, take a moment to study this sentence, which is from the BBC article where I found the word:

So now you have made your entrance – hopefully without gurning like a maniac – experts agree that the next key to likability is to make your interaction about the other person.

Truly I had no idea what it might mean to gurn like a maniac, although it was clear that it was something to be avoided.

Merriam-Webster, an American dictionary, has no entry for gurn. My default spell checker setting in Word—English (United States)—underlines it. But I found other entries that identified this as a British term, and it seems that it's a term that's well understood in the UK. Hence, we can suppose, why the BBC can use gurn in an article and assume everyone knows what it means.

Anyway, to gurn means "to grimace; to make a distorted or grotesque face." (It might be a related to grin.) From Wikipedia, I learned that there's such a thing as a gurning contest, and even a World Gurning Championship. Apparently the ability to bring your lower lip over your nose is a competitive advantage?

There are still apparently plenty of well-known British words (well known in Britain, anyway) that I have yet to learn. Now I wonder if there are other competitive sports that I should be investigating.

For origins, I have to start by noting that I've been using Duolingo to work on Latin. I'm in a section that's about school, and according to Duolingo, the word lection is translated as "chapter." The Latin word lection is obviously related to legit ("to read"), which we see in lecture, lectern, lexicon, and legible.

I assumed there was probably more subtlety to this translation than the lesson provides, but it did make me wonder where the word chapter actually comes from. Well, it too comes from Latin (filtered through French), namely from the word capitulum, meaning "little head." (See also capital/capitol, decapitate, and capo).

The word capitulum was used in late Latin to refer to a section of a book, just as we might use it today. Many people have probably heard the expression chapter and verse, which refers to chapters (i.e., sections) and verses within books of the Bible. Per the OED, this can be "A short ‘lesson’ or passage of Scripture read in certain services of the Latin Church." What's not clear to me is how "little head" comes to mean "section," unless perhaps it refers to a title or other "little head(ing)" that divides the sections of a book.

The word chapter is also used to mean a subdivision of an organization, as in the Seattle chapter of the International Society for the Promotion of Etymological Research (ISPER). This is a metonymic sense that derives from the more literal one. People might read chapters at a meeting (or service), so the gathering by extension came to be known as a chapter.

And so we bring the—ready?—2020 chapter of Friday words to a close. I wonder what new words and etymological surprises I'll find in 2020!

Like this? Read all the Friday words.


[1] |

  11:17 AM

Last week I was working on a NYT crossword, and one of the clues was “At full speed,” 5 letters. Even once I’d gotten far enough to have A M A _ N filled in, I still didn’t know what the word might be. It turned out to be amain, which as far as I remembered I’d never encountered. (And this was just the Tuesday puzzle, where one doesn’t expect to encounter obscure words.)

I turned to the dictionary (several, in fact). In addition to meaning “at full speed,” amain means “with all one’s might; with full force; suddenly; exceedingly.” For the first sense, Merriam-Webster offers the example “the soul strives amain to live and work” from Emerson. And for the sense of “exceedingly,” they offer “they whom I favour thrive in wealth amain” from Milton. The OED has “Down came the storm, and smote amain the vessel” from Longfellow.

When you find a word whose cites are Emerson and Milton and Longfellow, you might guess that it’s not a word that’s in common use today. M-W says that two of the senses (“at full speed” and “exceedingly”) are archaic. It doesn’t attach that label to the sense of “with all one’s might,” but Dictionary.com labels all senses archaic. The most recent (dictionary) cite I can find for amain is Longfellow in 1851, a person also given to using smote, so draw your own conclusions.

In addition to it being an archaic word, its relatives in English are not necessarily obvious. But they exist: the main part comes from an Old English word mægen, which means “power, force.” Although you might not guess it, that word has the same ultimate root as might, machine, and magic. The a- part of amain was tacked on eventually, probably by analogy with terms like afoot.

It might be useful to revive amain, not only to have a compact way to say “at full force,” but so that more puzzle authors can use the term with the confidence that they’re not expecting you to know an archaic word.

Ok, we all know that Fiddlesticks! is an interjection for dismissing what someone has said. This week I was reading about what’s called old-time music, a style of music that’s a precursor of bluegrass. This learned me something interesting about fiddlesticks.

The interjection fiddlesticks was originally just fiddlestick (singular) or fiddlestick’s end. There’s a similar usage to not care a fiddlestick or not care a fiddlestick’s end, an older form of something like not give a damn. In these usages, a fiddlestick (or its end) is something worthless.

But what is a fiddlestick? Simple: it’s a violin bow—the stick that you use to play the fiddle. Once you know that, it’s obvious; I wonder whether violinists today use fiddlestick to refer to their bow.

It turns out, though, that there’s a second literal meaning for fiddlesticks, which is the one I learned while reading about old-time music. When a fiddler is playing, a second person might beat rhythms on the violin strings using, yes, fiddlesticks. A Wikipedia article suggests that this combination of playing melody and rhythm on the same instrument might have been inspired by African instruments, which would explain why it’s found in American music but not Celtic or British music.

Here’s a video that shows someone playing this particular kind of fiddlesticks:

It’s not certain how a violin bow came to mean something trifling. People have theorized that it's “perhaps simply because the word sounds intrinsically silly.” What we know for sure is that a metaphoric sense of fiddlestick was established by the 1600s. Although now that I think about it, maybe fiddlesticks in the interjection sense is starting to become archaic also?

Like this? Read all the Friday words.



  09:25 AM

Fun fact for today: this is my 200th Friday words post, not counting some early, pre-every-Friday word posts. Check out the complete list!

And speaking of words. We got email at work recently advertising some sort of information fair (about commuting, if I remember right), and one of the things on the agenda was a tabling event. I’d never heard of this, I think, so I poked around a bit to see what that might mean.

As often happens, this is an established term that just hadn’t crossed my radar. Perhaps you, too, don’t know it: a tabling event is “working at a table to bring attention to an event/cause/organization,” to quote a user on the Yahoo Answers site.

I didn’t spend a lot of time looking, but the earliest references I found go back to at least 2008. Even then, though, the references appear in texts where the writer seems to assume that everyone knows the term. (Just not me, I guess.) Based on that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the term goes back substantially further.

I think that what interested me was that it seemed like a bit of domain jargon that escaped into the world. (This is all speculation, don’t quote me on this.) People who organize events have their own vocabulary, I assume, and maybe when they plan a vendor fair or similar, they talk about booth setup and banner placement and such. It’s easy to see how in this domain, the activity of staffing a table could become tabling. Perhaps it’s like how HR people use the word onboarding[1], which has now become widespread. Or how when you phone your bank, the customer service rep asks for your social, exposing a domain term (short for “social security number”) to the world at large. Or, I suppose, how computer words like booting and firewall have become everyday words.

Moving along. An article in the New Yorker got me onto the origins of the word metaphor. We got the word from French (hence Latin), but it originates in Greek. We see the prefix meta pretty often, right? Like in metaphysics (philosophy), metadata (computers), metamorphic (geology), metabolism (medicine), or heck, just the standalone meta (“that’s so meta”). It’s not that easy to pin down a meaning for meta in this way; you’ll find various definitions for the prefix like “with,” “after,” “beyond, above,” and “among,” and that it refers to a description or abstraction or commentary of the thing it modifies (metadata and just meta). The OED adds this useful note: “principally to express notions of sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change, in the last sense frequently corresponding to classical Latin words in trans- prefix.” Ah, trans-. That can also mean “across,” right?

Hold that thought. What about the -phor part of metaphor? This ultimately comes from a Greek word for “to bear, carry.” The Greeks themselves combined this with the prefix meta- to form a verb metapherein, which meant “to transfer.” So when you put together the constituent parts, you get something like “to carry across.” Which is what metaphors do: they carry meaning across from one word or expression to another one.

I’ve got a bonus word origin today: the word pioneer. Pioneers were originally foot soldiers sent ahead to dig and clear. The pion part sort of indicates this; it’s related to peon and pawn (like in chess), and a bit further away, to ped for “foot” as in pedestrian, etc. It expanded to cover anyone who forayed early into a new territory or field.

I learned this from a great Twitter thread by Dr. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist, whose breakdown starts with etymology but then takes a fierce turn into the politics and history of pioneers. Worth a read if you’re willing to get riled.

[1] I’m fine with this word, btw.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.



  03:40 PM

It’s Thanksgiving time in the US, a holiday of feasting and, as a Canadian Friend was pointing out, apparently a time that is not exactly keto-friendly: potatoes, bread, stuffing (more bread), pies, and so on. But it gives me an opportunity to investigate a term I just ran across.

On one of the FB groups I belong to, someone posted this little article, a just-so story/etymythology about a word origin:

As the poster on FB noted, this is not the origin of the word macaroni. (You can read about that on Etymonline; basically, it’s related to macaroon.) But I was interested to see the word farinaceous (“farinaceous tubes”), which I had never heard before.

I really had no idea what it could mean, but the dictionary revealed all. Farinaceous means “made up of or containing starch,” which is certainly true for macaroni. It’s an adjectival form of farina, which is a word for ground “vegetable matter” (like grain) used as a thickener or a cereal. The word farina I did know, sort of, based on a childhood preference for Cream of Wheat over oatmeal.

I don’t know whether we can stretch the meaning of farinaceous as a descriptive term for an entire meal (“American Thanksgiving dinners are startlingly farinaceous”), but I don’t think anyone’s going to stop us if we try.

For origins today, I got to wondering about another seasonally appropriate term: pumpkin. In the US, pumpkin is solidly associated with fall and especially Thanksgiving. The latter made me wonder whether pumpkin is a new-world food like corn and tomatoes and turkey itself. And if so, whether the word pumpkin has origins in an indigenous language.

Botanically, yes: pumpkins seem to have originated in the Americas as part of the larger squash family. (As with apples, the distinct varieties of squashes are the result of hybridization and careful husbandry; they are not necessarily naturally occurring.)

But lexicographically, pumpkin is a French word, at least as concerns us in English; we borrowed the name pompon or pompion from them. It seems to have been related to other words for vine-grown edibles (in Spanish, cucumbers are pepinos). The term goes back through Latin to Greek pepon, a word for a melon.[1]

There are a couple of curious things about the word pumpkin. One is that -kin ending, which was sometimes used earlier in English as a diminutive (napkin or firkin, see also the -chen in German in words like Liebchen). For pumpkin, tho, it seems that the -kin ending probably doesn’t represent some sort of “wee pompion.” The -kin on pumpkin might have come about by analogy with existing words that had -kin on the end.

Which raises the second curiosity about pumpkin: why do so many people pronounce it as punkin? This is an American thing, attested for a couple of hundred years. (And scorned among those who have “more correct” pronunciation—example, example.) The explanation is probably phonological: it’s awkward to go from sounds like P and M, which are formed at the front of the mouth, to a K, which is formed at the back of the mouth. So people assimilate sounds to make pronunciation smoother. In this case, the people shift the M to a velar N—the same N that’s in the middle of singing and bringing. Result: punkin.

Oh, and pumpkin is also used as a term of endearment. Which I suppose isn’t any weirder than the French using the word cabbage in a similar way.

[1] Botanically, all of these vine-borne comestibles—not just melons, but also pumpkin, squash, cucumber, etc.—are fruits. We use the term winter squash for squashes that are fully grown, like pumpkins, when the rind is tough and the seeds are mature. We eat so-called summer squashes (cucumbers, zucchini) when the rind is soft and the seeds are still immature.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.



  07:16 AM

In the US, we're in the middle of the (American) football season, which is a sport I follow casually. This means I get to watch a lot of TV commercials, one of which introduced me to a term from sports culture: homegating.

Homegating is a somewhat odd twist on the more established term tailgating. It's worth a moment to review this interesting set of words. In the beginning, people would get together before a game to socialize. Some people did this in the parking lot of the stadium. They'd bring drinks and food, perhaps even grills to cook on. People would do this literally out of the backs of their cars; if you have a station wagon or pickup truck, you can do this from the tailgate of your vehicle. (Although as a Wikipedia article generously notes, "Many people participate even if their vehicles do not have tailgates.") This is a tailgate party, a term invented in the 1950s, these days also called tailgating.

Suppose that instead of going to the game in person (expensive! cold!), you just want to watch the game at home on TV. You invite friends over. You might have thought you were just having a pre-game party, but now a term develops that sort of echoes what others are doing over at the stadium. Instead of tailgating, you're homegating. As near as I can tell, the word was invented somewhere around 2010 in the NFL marketing organization, possibly (again, as I read it) as a way to expand the appeal of football to women.

Overall, it's another example of how words in English are fluid and flexible. Starting in the 1800s, wagons have swing-down tailgates at the rear to make it easy to load cargo. When pickup trucks are invented, the term transfers easily to the new style of vehicle. When people start partying out of their vehicles, it becomes the metonymic tailgate party. Given our propensity in English to verb things, this is simplified to tailgating. Now a novel development: we break -gating off from tailgating to become a suffix that means "to pre-party," then attach it to home, and homegating becomes a party at home. Awesome. I'm only half kidding when I say that we should keep an eye out for words like workgating, a pre-function party at work.

Food prep also got me onto this week's unexpected origins. I was watching a video in Spanish the other day for how to make sopa de fideos, a tomato soup with noodles. At one point the cook puts the tomato mixture through a sieve; she uses the word colar, and shortly after that she refers to the sieve as the colador.

Colador … hmm … is that by any chance related to our word colander? Why, yes it is! As with the Spanish words, colander goes back to a Latin verb meaning "to strain" (in the kitchen sense, I mean), and might go back to an earlier word referring to fishing nets.

English of course has that extra -n- in the middle. No one knows why we added that, but it goes back a long ways; English spellings of colander show the N for as far back as we have cites. It could be an example of epenthesis, where an extra sound is added into a word to make it easier to pronounce (ath-e-lete, thimb-le, hamp-ster), which could make it an excrescent N. :) But let me repeat that no one knows for sure.

Since we have a richness of words for similar tools in the kitchen, we have the luxury of being able to assign fine meanings to them. You can use a strainer or a sieve for the tomatoes when you're making soup. (Do people make a distinction between strainer and sieve? I don't.) While Spanish remains true to colador as a strainer, we've assigned the name colander to something more specific, namely an item that's more like a bowl with holes in it.

Now that I look at all these words, I should find out where to strain and to sieve come from. But I'll save those for another day.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.