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March 25, 2016  |  Friday words, 2016-03-25  |  4585 hit(s)

Friday again! I've spent most of the week cabin-bound (so to speak) due to a cold, so the week's been a bit of a blur. But Friday words are always a highlight innit.

The new-to-me term this week is Scunthorpe problem, and I must say, this term has delighted me so much that I've been grabbing everyone I know (including my beleaguered wife) and telling them all about it. This refers to the problem that occurs when names, email addresses, URLs, and other web properties are blocked because automated software scanning has detected an offensive term embedded in the name. The phenomenon is named after the town of Scunthorpe in England. In the 1990s, AOL blocked people in Scunthorpe from creating accounts, because AOL's filtering software detected what it thought was profanity in the names. (I'll leave it to you to sort out what word the filtering software found.)

The Scunthorpe problem has manifested itself in a variety of ways. People with names like Cockburn and Libshitz were initially refused email addresses by their providers. A mushroom enthusiast was unable to register the domain shitakemushrooms.com. An online community devoted to Doctor Who supposedly blocked the word TARDIS because it contained the string tard.

Another manifestation of the problem is when the filtering software substitutes a less offensive term for the one it thinks it's found. Some filters just substitute stars for the offensive string, so that the word class becomes cl***, and manuscript becomes m****cript. Other filters try to swap out the offensive string for something else. For example, the string tit is sometimes replaced with breast, resulting in words like breastle and Consbreastution. The string butt is (or was) so commonly swapped for ass that this is sometimes known as the clbuttic mistake.

Fun, right? And so we move to unexpected etymology.

This week I got to wondering about the word van, as in the vehicle. Altho I admit that once I'd looked it up, this one turned out not to be very mysterious. First, it derives from caravan, so kind of duh, you know? According to one etymology, this shortened word goes back to the early 1800s, so it's been around a respectable amount of time. It's become a productive morpheme, leading to such terms as minivan.

As an aside on the minivan thing, among the first minivans (which these days aren't very mini, golly) was the Dodge Caravan. I always reckoned that the naming folks at Chrysler wanted to subtly emphasize that this new minivan thing was not your grandfather's van, i.e., some sort of service vehicle. So they used a name that told you right there that it was car-a-van: half car, half van.

Anyway, caravan. This can refer to a collection of travelers as well as the wagons that constitute such a collection. Obviously, the latter-day vehicular meaning derives from this second sense. And how did this get into English? We got it from Italian, which got it from Persian, where it was almost the same word with the same meaning. Fun fact: the Brits seem to use caravan to mean what we Americans refer to as camper, and have the word caravanning for what we might refer to as car-camping.

Since this week's etymology isn't perhaps as fascinating as some previous entries, I'll offer the bonus of some actually interesting origins that I've seen recently:
  • Easter. John McIntyre writes about how we use a word of pagan origin to refer to a high holiday in the Christian church.

  • catarrh. Arnold Zwicky writes a blog entry about this odd-looking term, but one that's timely, since I (and many others) have been suffering from this condition all week.

  • javelina. Another post on Zwicky's blog in which he discusses how the peccary does not relate to the spear.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.