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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I swear to God, the longer I live here, the tinier the world gets, but as long as it keeps buying me beers, it's okay by me.

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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 5/19/2017

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 3:37 AM Pacific


  12:14 PM

Friday again, thus word time, right?

The new-to-me word this week is whataboutery, which I picked up from an article in The Guardian that discussed some analysis they'd done on comments readers leave. (Boy, some people, ya know?) Based on some Research Lite™, I've found cites from 2005, but it could be older than that.

Whataboutery refers to a style of argument—some refer to it as a logical fallacy—in which someone, when confronted with a proposition, says "Yeah, but what about … ?" as a way of diverting focus from the original proposition.

French person: Boy, the American diet seems pretty unhealthy.
American person: Yeah, but what about all that drinking the French do?
French person: ??

I'll go out on a limb here and say that some significant percentage of references to the Crusades in the last 15 years have been whataboutery in arguments about the supposedly violent nature inherent in certain religions. For example.

For etymological fun today, we have the word simmer, as in the cooking technique. I got interested in this because I was reading Harold McGee's book The Curious Cook, where I ran across this proposition:
As far back as the time of Brillat-Savarin, the French have had a saying that a barely bubbling stewpot "smiles."

As it happens, there's a smile lurking in the background of the English word simmer as well. But it's not an especially encouraging one. The original form of the word was simper, which then as now meant an affected, conceited expression. So Thomas Nashe in 1594: "I simpered with my countenance lyke a porredge pot on the fire when it first begins to seeth." This etymology suggests an altogether different home truth: a simmering pot, like a smiling face, can conceal something rather unappealing.
If you look up simmer in the OED, it does redirect you to simper. However, in that entry, the proposed etymology for the cooking sense of simper/simmer is listed as "probably imitative." They have a separate entry for to simper in the sense that McGee cites (to smirk), and they suggest that a connection between these two senses of to simper "appears unlikely." McGee is no slouch in his research, so either he got his etymology elsewhere, or he's extrapolating a connection between simmer and smile that might not be justified, or I'm reading the OED incorrectly. (It would hardly be the first time.)

Side note: I keep forgetting to note that the lexicographer Katherine Barber has a good explanation of the origins of skate, which was a word I had on my list to investigate. Check it out on her blog.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

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