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


<July 2018>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:41 PM Pacific

  08:09 AM

It's Friday the 13th! But it's Friday! I'm conflicted.

Friend Nancy alerted me this week to an interesting term: search void, also known as data void. This describes a peculiar weakness, you might call it, of how web search results are ranked.

It might help to know that search rankings (or page rank, as Google calls it[1]), works by counting how many pages link to a specific page. The more pages link to a specific page, and the more "authoritative" those pages are, the higher a page appears in the search results. "Authoritative" here is defined as a page that itself ranks high. If a well-known, high-traffic blogger links to one of your blog posts, your post will get a big rankings boost.[2] A similar example occurs on Twitter: if someone with tons of followers retweets one of your tweets, many people will see and possibly retweet your original.

The idea is a kind of digital crowdsourcing—the internet at large decides which pages are the best, and those rise to the top of the search results. A flaw can result, however, if a lot of content is produced and cross-linked about a topic, but that information is one-sided or niche. An article in Wired that describes this uses the example of vitamin K shots for newborns. A passionate anti-shot community has produced a lot of content warning of the dangers of these shots. There is not (or was not) a corresponding community of passionate pro-shotters, so there was a period during which if you searched for info about vitamin K for newborns, there was a data void: the top-ranked search results represented a kind of skewed data sampling. This information showed up at the top of the search listings, and people presumably assumed it was the "best" information, even though it doesn't represent a majority view about the subject.

As our information sources become more siloed, we're all going to become more subject to search/data voids. I suppose the first defense is to know that there's a word for the phenomenon.

For origins, a fun one that I learned from Jonathon Owen. In English, we got the word lettuce from Old French, and there are cognates like lechuga in Spanish. (Hold that thought.) It gets more interesting when we go further back. In Latin, the name was lactuca. The lac- part means "milk", because wilder members of the lettuce family have milky juice. That lac particle is what you see in lactate and lactose, and whose relatives are caffè latte and café au lait. (In Spanish, milk is leche, which hey look, is right there in lechuga.) The lac particle also shows up in the word galaxy/galactic, which comes from a Greek word for the Milky Way. Got milk? Yes you do.

[1] Page rank is a satisfactory lexical intersection of the term web page and the name Larry Page, one of Google's founders.

[2] This statement is only mostly true.

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  09:24 AM

Happy belated birthdays, Canada and America!

Not long ago, Friend Heather posted something on Twitter that introduced me to the term asterism. I don’t consider myself unliterate in the basic vocabulary of science, so I was surprised I’d never learned this word before.

An asterism is a recognizable arrangement of stars in the sky, like the Big Dipper. Wait, you might be saying, isn’t that a constellation? Yes. Sort of. In vernacular, non-astronomic usage, a constellation is indeed any old recognizable pattern of stars that has a name (con: with, together; stella: star).[1]

Anyway, for purposes of formal astronomy, the list of constellations that had been identified over the millennia and around the world turned out not to be consistent or rigorous enough. So in 1922, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) sorted it all out and created a map that covered the whole sky, dividing it up into 88 official constellations.

The official map of constellations includes all the arrangements of stars that you see and that you can probably identify. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true: not all the patterns you know are a constellation, and might not even be within a single constellation. For example, the Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major, but that constellation includes many other stars. Similarly, the Pleiades is just a “star cluster,” not technically a constellation. Or, as I now know, an asterism.

Origins. I've been watching a lot of baseball lately, because the Seattle Mariners have been doing pretty well. I therefore have heard the terms sacrifice fly and sacrifice bunt with some regularity. Which led me to wonder what the origins are of the term sacrifice.

A sacrifice is something you give up in exchange (hopefully) for something else of value. In baseball, you give up the batter, who's likely to get out, in exchange for advancing runners already on base. Originally, the sacrifice was less metaphorical: a sacrifice meant offering something (bread or a goat or a lamb or an ox) in a ritualistic way as "propitiation or homage" (OED). We've been using this word in English since the 1200s, when we got it from our then-new overlords, the Norman French.

Which gets us to the origins. The sacri- part is related to sacred; a sacrifice was originally a religious ritual. And the -fice part is Latin for "to make, do" (Spanish hacer) a term that has many relatives, like facile, factory, affect, gratify, and seriously, dozens more. So sacrifice is, like, doing the holy.

[1] I love this explanation in Wikipedia: “typically representing animals, mythological people or gods, mythological creatures, or manufactured devices.” “Manufactured devices,” isn’t that great? So, like, a plow. Which in turn leads to amusing speculation about what figures and “manufactured devices” we’d find in the sky these days. Maybe like this?

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  09:55 AM

Here it is June in the northern hemisphere, and already I'm sad that the days are starting to get shorter. Perhaps if I got outside more I wouldn’t have this problem.

I got a great new word this week by watching one of John McIntyre's periodic videos. This week he talked about thinnernyms, which constitute a special set of words that tend to show up in headlines, because the words are short. You've seen them: to vie, to vow, to quell, a pact, to dub, ire, a probe, to slate, to mull, to ink, to rue.

The UK writer and editor Andy Bodle cataloged a bunch of thinnernyms, which he lists as a "thinnernymicon" in an article in The Guardian from 2014.[1] (Brilliant headline for the article: "Sub ire as hacks slash word length.") In that same article, Bodle reports that he was "inordinately pleased" with himself for coining the word thinnernym, but was told that others had done so before him. (I can't antedate the word, tho.) As McIntyre notes, thinnernyms are useful when a writer needs a headline in a constrained space like a narrow newspaper column, and that perhaps the move to web-based news removes this constraint. It would be a bit of a shame if the art of wielding thinnernyms were lost.

Origins. One thing we talk a lot about in corporate America these days is bias (well, more specifically anti-bias training and unconscious bias.) Where does the word bias come from, I occasionally wonder.

Our corporate usage of the term is metaphoric, meaning having preconceived notions about something—that is, leaning to one side. But there are also more concrete definitions in math, electronics, and sewing and cooking ("cut on the bias "). In these cases, the word more specifically means oblique or diagonal.

Some of the earliest uses in English refer to sports: in the game of bowls, a ball could be weighted on one side, causing it to roll not-straight, so that the ball was said to "have bias." But there are also cites that show bias meaning just "diagonal." The OED has a note telling us that they can't decide which sense appeared first.

But everyone seems to agree that we got the word from French, and that it has cognates in other languages like Old Catalan. That means it probably came into French from Latin (bigassius), and Latin got it from a Greek word epikarsios, meaning "on the oblique." Is a theory. (The initial ep- lost its e and p became b, because phonology.) Douglas Harper relates the karsios root to an old proposed root *sker that is the source of many words, including scar, sheer, screw, shard, and shore, all having to do with obliques and diagonals in one form or another.

[1] I wondered about the -icon ending that Bodle used. In England, a pantechnicon is apparently used to mean a warehouse for furniture (also, a big truck for moving furniture). I can't otherwise suss out how the -icon ending might represent a collection of things.

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  07:16 PM

I had an interesting close call with Friday Words last week. I was considering jobbymoon as a new-to-me term, a proposed term that’s supposed to refer to a break that you take before starting a new job. (Compare babymoon.) But John Kelly clued us in to the mocking that the term had gotten in certain parts of the British Isles, places where the word job has a, um, vernacular meaning that led to some jolly giggling. So, whew, dodged that bullet.

But there are plenty more new-to-me terms where that came from! For example, just this week I learned the word snaccident (sometimes snackcident). Let’s say that you buy a box of Ritz crackers, and somehow end up eating an entire sleeve of them, or gah, the whole box. Not your fault! It was a snaccident.

Obviously, the word is a portmanteau of snack + accident. The first Urban Dictionary entry I can find is from 2007. Nothing in the mainstream dictionaries. Nothing in the COCA corpus, slightly surprisingly. But it’s obviously out there; there are various t-shirt options, and some great memes. I got it from Twitter, where it made the rounds this week.

Ok, we all know what a litmus test is, right? A common definition is that it’s a kind of binary test. For example, a politician’s attitude about something—gun control, abortion, immigration, environmentalism, etc.—can be a litmus test for some people.

That’s the metaphoric meaning. In chemistry a litmus test tells you whether something is acidic or alkaline (that is, it tells you something about the pH value). You dip a piece of paper—litmus paper—that’s been coated with a special dye into (say) a glass of some solution that you’re testing. If blue litmus paper comes out pink, the solution is acidic; if the red litmus paper comes out blue, the solution is alkaline.

As I say, we all know this! But what I got interested in is what where the term litmus actually comes from. Perhaps it was invented by someone named Litmus? (Or, like, Litm, whose name was then Latinized?) No. The -mus part is related to moss; the dyes used in litmus paper were originally extracted from various lichens. The lit- part might be from an old Germanic word that meant "color" or "dye." But it might also be related to lac-, as in shellac and lacquer; those both refer to a resin obtained from the lac bug and used as a dye and finish. Depending on how speculative you want to get, it might also be related to lox, as in salmon, due to the color of that fish. I wouldn’t take any of the lac- part of this to the bank, tho.

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  08:42 AM

For those keeping track, we’re coming up on the longest [northern hemisphere] or shortest [southern hemisphere] weekend days this year. Adjust your plans accordingly?

As an experiment, I had my wife vote on which new-to-me term she liked best among my candidates, and she voted for (ready?) the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Which might not sound to you inherently like a winner, but let’s see what you think.

Suppose you are an expert in some field, and you read an article in the news that’s about something in your field. Chances are you’ll at least raise a skeptical eyebrow while you’re reading; you might even end up dismissing the article entirely as ill-informed and a poor representation of something you know very well. (This apparently happens a lot.)

You then turn the page and read an article on some other, different topic, one outside your area of expertise. Although you might have had serious questions about the credibility of the first article, you have no such doubts about the second article.

This is the Gell-Mann amnesia effect: you forgot to bring the same skepticism to the second article that you had about the first. The term was invented by the author Michael Crichton ( Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, etc.); he described the effect in a talk that he gave in 2002.

Crichton was talking about our credulity about the media in general, to the point where he dismisses it entirely. I think that many people would say that there are (other people’s) media outlets that they are willing to dismiss completely (Fox/CNN), but it would be a challenge to bring that level of skepticism to all media, all the time. So I’ll leave the larger implications of the Gell-Mann amnesia effect to you-all to think about.

You’re probably asking why Crichton called this the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Murray Gell-Mann was an American physicist; physics of course is a field that’s notoriously difficult to explain in layperson’s terms. Crichton explains:

I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.

On to fun word origins. Where did the word eavesdropping come from? Eavesdropping means that you’re furtively listening in on someone’s conversation. Eaves are the part of the roof that stick out past the building. The eavesdrop or eavesdrip is the actual dripping of water off the roof and also the area on the ground that gets wet. Fun fact: eavesdrip goes back virtually as far as we have written records in English; there’s a cite from the year 868. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the early things that people wrote down concerned legal stuff, like rules and regulations about property boundaries.

By the 1400s, someone who stood under the eaves to listen at the window was an eavesdropper. And by the 1600s, we had the verb to eavesdrop, which even early on had a metaphoric meaning, i.e., you didn’t actually go stand under the eavesdrop in order to be eavesdropping.

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  12:17 AM

If I told you that this week I learned terms like clew, close-hauled, and no-go zone, I bet quite a few of my friends could guess what I've been up to.

Those terms aside, a new-to-me word this week came from my son, who has a friend who works here in Seattle at … well, at a place frequented by tourists. That person was grumping in social media about the exasperating behaviors of tourons: a blend of tourist and moron.

While I was thinking about this term, Friend Jerry posted a link to this excellent drawing by the Seattle-based artist Joshua Boulet:

Seattle residents will recognize this as Kerry Park, an obligatory stop for tourists because it provides such an amazing view of the city and Mount Rainier. But as the drawing suggests, there can be, um, crowds. Maybe even tourons. (If you aren't from Seattle, you might get the same idea from a sketch that Boulet has on his website of the Colosseum in Rome.)

What surprised my son and me (a little) about the word touron was that it goes back at least to the 1990s. I found a reference in Backpacker magazine from 1996. In the article, they capitalized the word but didn't otherwise explain it, suggesting that they thought their readers would already know it. So it might be older yet. Although it's a blend, it's not necessarily an obvious one unless you're already primed to grok its constituent parts, I guess.

Update Paul McFedries traces the word to 1987.

I believe we all recognize the phenomenon of tourists acting in boorish or oblivious ways, and now we also know what to call them. (Not us, of course; we might sometimes be tourists, but we're never tourons.)

Ok, origins. Colleague Peter and I were Hangouting one another the day, and he had this story for me:

I was listening to the radio on the way in this AM, and the DJ mentioned that so and so had struck out for the "umpth" time. You could tell she meant to say "nth" but got caught between umpteenth and nth. So it got me wondering about the origin of umpteen.

Him and me both! So, umpteen is defined as a large and indefinite number. (Sample cite in the OED: "I've got umpteen things for him to sign.") It's a blend of umpty + teen, where teen is the same suffix as in thirteen, fourteen, etc. There are also those adjective forms ("the umptieth time," "the umpteenth time").

The word umpty started off as a "fanciful verbal representation" (OED) of a Morse code dash. More specifically, iddy-umpty was a way of saying "dot-dash"; for example, saying that someone was practicing [the] iddy-umpty meant that they were practicing Morse code.[1] In military slang, umpty came to mean an unknown quantity ("umpty-seven," "umpty-eleven"). I haven't found anything on how umpty went from representing a dash to representing an unknown quantity, but we can speculate that dashes have been used to indicate an omission or an unknown part of something? Maybe. It sure wouldn’t have hurt that umpty is kind of a funny word and combines well (like umpteen). But I'll be clear that about half of what I just said is speculative.

People do still say umpteen and umptieth, obviously, even tho the terms are over a hundred years old (first cite is 1905). But an NGram search shows that umpteen is losing ground to our other favorite indefinite hyperbolic numeral—namely, zillion. The same search shows that umpteen is still staying ahead of gajillion. For now.

[1] Fun fact: in 2007, the FCC in the US dropped the requirement that you had to pass a Morse code test in order to get an amateur radio license.

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  09:16 AM

Boy, the month of May seemed like it lasted about 2 weeks. Hopefully June will stick around a little longer.

The new-to-me word today pertains to a quasi-current event, namely the commemorative coin that was issued for the on-again, off-again summit meeting between the US and North Korea. I'm sure you've seen this:

In reading about this, I learned the term challenge coin. This seems to be well known to a) people who are in or around the military and b) possibly everyone else. But it was new to me. A rough version of the story is that challenge coins—medals, really—commemorate specific organizations or events and are issued to people who belong to the organization or participated in the event.

The "challenge" part has a variety of apocryphal-sounding origins. One story is that a person could be challenged to show their membership in a group, which could be answered by producing the coin.[1] Another story involves (what else?) drinking, where the person could be challenged to produce the requisite coin and would have to pay if they couldn’t produce one.

Although nominally a military thing, civilian organizations also issue challenge coins, which is how we get to the challenge coin commemorating the summit meeting. And you can now not just buy challenge coins (thus seemingly diluting its theoretical symbolic value), but heck, create your own. If all this was new to you as it was to me, you can read more about it in a Mental Floss article.

For surprising word history, today I have yet another military term: shrapnel. Shrapnel refers to the bits and pieces of an exploding munition, or more generally, of an exploding anything. But it actually originally referred to a type of military shell that was explicitly designed to break into pieces in this lethal way.

The more benign part of shrapnel is its etymology. Had you made me guess, I might have mused that it was somehow another military term we got from German (like flak and strafe). But it's not; it's an eponym: the Shrapnel shell was invented by a certain Major Henry Shrapnel (British) in the early 1790s.

I wonder if it would be useful to have a term besides eponym to describe things that are named for people, but are also unpleasant: shrapnel, quisling, boycott, Draconian. Hmm.

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[1] The notion of a permanent and transferable token serving as an authentication mechanism would not impress computer security experts, but we'll let that slide.

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  02:08 PM

This week’s words are coming to you from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada, where I’m attending the Editors Canada conference. This means, of course, that any measurements in this post will be in metric.

Today’s new-to-me word isn’t actually new to me. But the last time I gave the term any thought was decades ago in school, back when I was studying Anglo-Saxon poetry. The word is kenning, which describes a literary device found in old Saxon and Norse poetry. Basically speaking, a kenning is a metaphoric pair: examples from Beowulf include “whale-road” for “sea” and “sky-candle” for “the sun.” The device lived on and appears also for example in poems by Ezra Pound (“Bitter breast-cares have I abided”) and Robert Frost (“the early petal-fall is past”).

Ok. Kenning was revived for me recently by a Twitter thread started by user @favomancer wondering whether the fashion for terms like danger noodle is a kenning revival. Here are some examples of these latter-day kennings:

There are many of these. There is a kind of grammar to them, which is not for me to attempt to describe here, but I will note that individual words like danger, floof, bear, chicken, and boop appear regularly.

The linguist Lauren Gawne points out that English likes to use compounding for new terms, and maybe words like laptop and web browser are other modern kennings. For our purposes today, it probably isn’t that important which new words constitute kennings. Me, I’m just delighted to get this word back into my word-hoard.

Etymological explorations today involve the word preen. I’m pretty sure that about 90% of my definition for to preen involved the verb meaning “to primp” or “to act proud” (“He preened himself before the mirror”). But I ran across an article the other day that sent me to the dictionary: Someone finally solved the question of why Donald Duck doesn’t wear pants. Long story short, preening also defines the action of a bird “combing” its feathers. Birds do this to waterproof their feathers by coating them in preen oil, which they produce in glands on their rumps. (Hence Donald Duck’s lack of trousers.)

It would be a neat explanation if the word for primping in front of the mirror was just a metaphoric extension of what birds do. But the trail is a bit confused; there seems to be some overlap with the verb to prune (as with plants). The bird behavior “influenced” the development of to preen. (It turns out that people have confused similar-sounded words forever, basically.) There’s a succinct list of the possibilities in the Douglas Harper’s online etymological dictionary. But I’ll never really look at Donald Duck the same again.

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  09:54 AM

We're at a stage in Seattle where it seems criminal not to take advantage of the year's first really nice weather. Of course, in a week, everyone will be complaining about how hot it is.

I have a couple of new-to-me terms today that are sort of related. They're also kind of wonkish, but we must take the wonkish along with the, um, fun? Anyway, the terms are privacy of the commons and collateral freedom.

Privacy of the commons is, to quote the FiveThirtyEight article where I learned the term, "when one person’s voluntary disclosure of personal information exposes the personal information of others who had no say in the matter." Their particular example concerns the recently apprehended Golden State killer, who was found not because of a match to his own DNA, but because of a match to the DNA of one of his relatives. A more mundane (tho not less scary) example they give is a young child whose life can be closely tracked via the parents' purchases at the grocery store, at the pharmacy, etc. Obviously, the child has no say-so in any of this tracking.

As the article notes, the term is a play on tragedy of the commons, where something held communally is exploited individually, with a net loss to the community. (Privatized profit, socialized cost.) It's not clear to me whether the FiveThirtyEight folks invented the term; they do say "call it 'privacy of the commons'," and other references I find allude to this article. So perhaps we have ground zero for a new term.

The term collateral freedom describes the situation where an attempt to censor someone would affect so many people that it's impractical. As a not-great example, if you didn't want your kids to watch some particular program on Netflix, you might not want to block the entirety of Netflix. A more realistic albeit technical example is when someone runs content through Amazon or Google cloud services in such a way that it looks like the content is originating in those domains—a government censor probably doesn't want to censor amazon.com or google.com. (This is, or was, a technique known as domain fronting that was recently in the news.)

The term collateral freedom seems to be used mostly in this relatively narrow technical way, but the concept is familiar: in order to allow broad freedom, we have to tolerate some things we perhaps would rather not. Or that's my read on the idea, anyway.

Last week we explored the word druthers, a strangely plural term. (I guess I'm assuming that the -s is a plural marker, which might not be correct.) Today we have another word with a mysterious final -s: cahoots, like, "They were in cahoots." (Collusion, bwa-ha-ha.) This is an American word, specifically from the south and west, that starts showing up in the first half of the 19th century.

Several surprises for me. First, a non-s-ending version is attested ("Hese in cohoot with me"), but that was in the word's earlier days. Second, although I think of "in cahoots with" as having sinister overtones, early attestations seem to be more neutral, just meaning "in partnership with." Third, there was a verbal version at one point ("They all agree to cahoot with their claims"), which surely is obsolete?

Anyway, there are two proposed origins. One is that cahoots derives from cahute, a French word that seems to combine cabin and hut. The word cahute shows up in English as far back as the 1500s, hmm. The OED says that as an alternative origin, "American dictionaries" (unspecified) trace the word to the French word cohorte.

The French origin seems unsurprising, if we allow that the American south and west had more latter-day French influence than other parts of English. I like the picture of some confederates being under a cabin-hut roof together. The cohort explanation is slightly less colorful, even if it is just as sensible. But whatever the origins, we again don't know how the word picked up that terminal -s, dang it.

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  12:26 AM

Sumer is icumen in, as they (used to) say. (Video)

I work in software with a lot of really smart people. What they are most smart about, of course, is software, or more generally, engineering-type stuff. A possible side effect of being very smart about engineering is that a person can believe that they are equally smart about many other things and/or that the type of thinking they bring to their vocation applies to other and different areas of endeavor. This type of thinking has a name, which I only recently learned: engineer's disease.

I do know that this phenomenon is not limited to software or engineers. For example, many people have opinions about climate science, but not all of those people have advanced degrees in climate science. I know from personal experience that medical professionals often feel they have expertise to render opinions on non-medical issues. Anyway, I don't know of a more general term than engineer's disease, but there probably could or should be one.

I should note that the sense I discuss here is only one definition of engineer's disease. A MetaFilter thread lists several more, including someone who does something strictly by the (engineering) book, and assuming that others share one's expertise, also known as the curse of knowledge.

Your homework this week is to keep a lookout for examples of engineer's disease.

For surprising-to-me word origins this week, I've got the charming word druthers, as in "If I had my druthers." If you think about this word, you, like me, might wonder two things: what the heck are druthers, and why don't you ever have just a single druther?

It turns out that druther, singular, is a variant of "would rather"—"He would rather not" becomes "He druther not." This usage shows up in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer books, so recorded about 1875, but likely older in various dialects.

A note on the Merriam-Webster site suggests that this is an example of metanalysis, also known as rebracketing, where a string of sounds is reparsed: I'd rather becomes I druther. Another historical example of rebracketing in English is an apron, which in Medieval English was a napron.

The noun version ("my druthers") shows up not much later (1895). The entry in the OED has druther as a singular noun, but they list druthers as a variant, and their single citation also uses the plural version. An ngram search shows a very low incidence of singular druther, although it's not zero.

[Click to embiggen]

I can't find an explanation for how a verb phrase ("I'd rather") came to be a noun ("my druthers"), and a plural one at that. Nor can I offhand think of similar examples, though I would love to hear about them if someone else knows of some.

I did learn from the OED that the noun ruther(s) is a variant of druther(s). I don't recall hearing that, but that's likely because I haven't spent time in the American South, where these terms seem to have been most prevalent.

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