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Meh declared cromulent
Monday, November 24, 2008   3:09 PM

As you've probably heard, meh is going to be in the Dictionary, which means that it's now officially a real word. Those power-mad lexicographers have screwed us again.

Ben Zimmer has an omnibus post on meh up over at Word Routes, and I don't really have much to add to it. He even caught the miscitation of the 2001 Simpsons episode "Hungry, Hungry Homer" instead of the 1995 episode "Lisa's Wedding."

(Note to Collins Dictionaries: is your friend.)

I did want to point out, however, that Jeffrey Rowland of Overcompensating — no stranger to word rage — has posted a comic about meh. Check it out.

(I especially like how he's wearing a "The" shirt instead of the expected "Teh" shirt — for sale here, explained here. It's prescriptivism with style!)

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DNC beers and legislative acronyms
Wednesday, July 30, 2008   12:42 PM

A post today at Beer (& More) In Food pointed me to an interesting roundup of Democratic National Convention beers, including the well-named Obamanator Maibock ("German tradition has it that any beer named with an '-ator' suffix indicates bock extra strength beer") from Wynkoop.

There's also mention of a Political Ale from Rock Bottom. Lame. Personally, I think that would have been better as PoliticAle, in the manner of our local Surly CynicAle.

(Speaking of, I can't find anything on RNC beers for us Minnesotans. Town Hall will probably do something though. And Flat Earth will continue making Black Helicopter, as always. Oh, beer names.)

(The government's strange approach to beer labels is also worth pondering. There are rumors that this somehow explains why there's no Black Helicopter in bottles.)

Related: apparently the Tomnibus has stalled, which is completely fine with those of us who only liked it because it had the best nickname of any legislation ever. (Alternative candidates welcome.)

I've just discovered, however, that the Tomnibus just happened to contain the MOTHERS Act. Let's look at section 1 of the MOTHERS Act:

This Act may be cited as the 'Mom's Opportunity to Access Health, Education, Research, and Support for Postpartum Depression Act' or the 'MOTHERS Act'.

As several political commentators have already noted, there's no consistent rule you can apply that would give you MOTHERS from that name: the most logical acronym would have been MOAHERSPD.

Over at Reason, Jacob Sullum has a post on poorly contrived legislative acronyms. It concludes with this excellent observation:

Still, at least their staffers made a half-assed attempt at a memorably demagogic name. Not so Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), whose REAL ID Act includes a completely bogus "acronym" that does not stand for anything except his desire to trick people into believing he came up with a ridiculously contrived name that generates an evocative acronym. REAL is a fake.

The NYT doesn't all-caps acronyms longer than four letters, so it managed to sidestep the whole MOTHERS issue... but I see that it went with Real ID in numerous articles, when of course the official name is written REAL ID.

A strange case of eschewing accuracy for the sake of... accuracy.

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I think Surly CynicAle is like the best beer name ever.

Then there's the Protecting Records, Optimizing Treatment, and Easing Communication through Healthcare Technology Act of 2008.... of course known as: the ‘PRO(TECH)T Act of 2008.

The IT geeks will be the death of us all.

posted by Anonymous Julie at July 31, 2008 4:31 PM  

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My favorite prescriptivist is a talking dinosaur
Tuesday, May 13, 2008   3:27 PM

After downloading the Firefox add-on Long Titles 1.3 a few weeks ago, I've been re-reading through the Dinosaur Comics to see all the hilarious alt text I missed. I'm done with that now, but I brought you back a souvenir: five years' worth of language comics.

Loosely categorized! Whoo!

Words we hate comics

It's a disaster!

You heard me!

Men stereotypically leave the toilet seat up!

There are other words than "bitches"! Daaamn!

It is not a generic intensifier!

Words we love comics

For instance: the word "awful" (really bad) and the word "offal" (butchered entrails)!

Sorry, other word classes! I have a NEW girlfriend now!

Prescriptivism comics

So dumb!

Well, yeah!

And guys I wasn't even trying that hard!

FOR EXAMPLE: T-Rex is a pretty sweet dude because he's always so friggin' awesome!

RESOLUTION ONE: eat less chickens!

Man! I'll never have kids at this rate!

Okay! Our first letter comes from Jenn!

Cowboy hat dude got DECIMATED!

Guys! I am not alone in this!

(Pleonasm is the use of redundant, unnecessary words to express an idea!)

Etymology comics

However, this is not the case!

I also left a big tip, so as not to appear NIGGARDLY!



First: snake oil salesmen!

Linguistics-ish comics

This source says: DEFINITELY YES!

It's the coolest!

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"However, this is not the case" seems to imply that "man" is derived from Latin "humanus."

"Maybe ADJECTIVES wouldn't force us to have such conversations!" hehe he

Oh, how I love Dinosaur Comics. And I've realized that I never finished going through all the archives.

Also, I really like this Scrabble comic.

Hah. When I was in college "playing Scrabble" was often employed as a euphemism for "having sex."

nenu shudda shaakaahaarini - Telugu for "I am a pure vegetarian" heheh

Thanks for posting this. I forgot how much I like Dinosaur Comics.

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Not to be confused with blogversary
Monday, April 14, 2008   12:57 PM

If you'll allow me to be extremely pedantic for a second: blog is short for weblog, not web log. Famed blogger Jason Kottke agrees; in fact, he's claimed that weblog predates web log.

And hey! This isn't just speculation! The Wayback Machine can actually show us the very first instance of the word blog:

For What It's Worth
I've decided to pronounce the word "weblog" as wee'- blog. Or "blog" for short.

(That was in 1999.)

When I was writing my master's thesis on diary weblogs ("How to be Unemployed for Three Months After Graduation"), I encountered the web log canard countless times. Even Wikipedia gets this wrong — I'd fix that myself, but I've dealt with hardcore Wikipedians before, and correcting the first sentence of the Blog article sounds less like a good deed and more like a nasty dare.

I've been thinking about bloggy etymologies lately because today is the first blogiversary of Notes from the Copy Editor. Reading through the above rant was your present to me. Very thoughtful of you.

Unfortunately, the origin of blogiversary and its variants is still murky, and likely to get murkier as time passes and more old blogs go offline or are buried by new websites.

Some people claim that the blog TalkLeft coined blogiversary, and it probably did popularize it, but I couldn't find any mention of that word there before this June 2003 post. Elsewhere on the web, I managed to find a December 2001 cite for blogiversary and a September 2001 cite for the variant blogaversary. Let me know in the comments if you've found anything earlier.

Anyways, for the curious and lazy, here's my first real post.

Also, thanks to everyone who's read and/or linked to this blog in the past year. It's been nice to have an outlet for my English geekitude.


happy blogiversary!

Looking back (and it's a long way back - blogs were in black-and-white then), I probably should have written blogiversary, not blogaversary - after all, anniversary is spelt with an "i". Maybe bloggerversary would have been better (many of us were using Blogger then as WordPress hadn't been thought of and Moveable Type wasn't really around either).

But in any case, I'm not sure that I was the first to use this word, however it may be spelt. I've searched the archives of a few likely suspects who were blogging around this time (and earlier) but none of the archive searches confess to the use of this term. But there were several British bloggers around at that time who have either moved or deleted their archives and I'm sure one of them used the term earlier than I did.

However, if it was coined by me, then I'm happy to accept what little kudos might be attached to that!

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Also: posh, S.O.S., news, golf, wop
Thursday, March 27, 2008   2:09 PM

So I won a bar bet yesterday after one of my friends claimed that tip was actually an acronym for "To Insure Promptness."

Or something! She wasn't quite sure. But I was sure that tip didn't stand for anything, sure enough to put a 6-pack of Springboard Ale on the line.

Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for tip:

"give a small present of money to," 1610, "to give, hand, pass," originally thieves' cant, perhaps from tip (v.3) "to tap." The meaning "give a gratuity to" is first attested 1706. The noun in this sense is from 1755; the meaning "piece of confidential information" is from 1845; the verb in this sense is from 1883; tipster first recorded 1862.

O, bacronyms! So interesting yet so false. It's not like I'm just too clever to fall for them, either: for about 10 years I thought that phat was an acronym for Pretty Hot And Tempting.

(The best actual acronym is either the ubiquitous snafu or taser, a barely-plausible abbreviation for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle.)

It's always disappointing to find out that a good etymology was just too good to be truth. A good rule is that, at least in English, if it's an old word like tip, it's almost certainly not an acronym. David Wilton's Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends can back me up:

The fact is, however, that very few words actually begin their life as acronyms, and most of these are proper nouns like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and NORAD (North American Air Defense Command). Also, forming words from acronyms is a distinctly twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century phenomenon. There is only one known pre-twentieth-century word with an acronymic origin and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is colinderies or colinda, an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London that year.

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I believe there were some other pre-twentieth-century acronyms, notably OK (assuming that it really does come from oll korrect, as the evidence suggests).


But even though there may be a handful of examples from before 1900, it's a pretty safe bet that if the word predates World War II, it doesn't come from an acronym.

I think that what Wilton is talking about here are acronyms in the narrow sense, i.e. abbreviations pronounced phonetically, as opposed to initialisms like OK.

(I always have to go to Language Log to make sure I'm using those terms correctly... I'm never sure if initialism or abbreviation is the catch-all.)

Not that I'm down on OK. I'm a huge fan of the oll korrect theory, which actually came up during our tip discussion at the bar.

I love the term "bacronym."

I vote for "snafu" as BAE (Best Acronym Ever).

Because of the profanity-avoidance technique it employs.

I heard the "to ensure promptness" etymology on CBC radio recently. arghghg

Hey TootsNYC, "Situation Normal: All *Fouled* Up". What profanity? ;-)

(In the same vein, we used to say the retort to a newbie who hadn't researched before asking, i.e., "RTFM" stood for "Read The (Fine* Manual". :-)

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Rob Dyrdek's etymological quandry
Sunday, February 17, 2008   3:45 PM

So earlier tonight I watched the "Turtle Racing" episode of Rob & Big. Here's a rough version of the notable quote:

Rob: "I found out that a person who studies turtles is a herpetologist... so maybe we go talk to the herpy...."

[general laughter]

Rob: "Why would you call yourself that? What does a turtle have to do with itches on your wee-wee?"

The superficial resemblance between the two words is hard to miss, and — if you'll allow me to play Bradshaw of the Future for a moment — it turns out that herpetology and herpes really are related: they're both offshoots from the Greek herpein, "to creep."

The Online Etymology Dictionary can flesh it out for us:

"study of reptiles," 1824, from Fr. herpétologie, coined from Gk. herpeton "reptile," lit. "creeping thing," from herpein "to creep" (see serpent) + logia "a speaking in a certain manner, study of."
1398, from L. herpes "a spreading skin eruption," from Gk. herpes, the name for the disease shingles, lit. "creeping," from herpein "to creep" (cognate with L. serpere "to creep").

I was a little surprised that I couldn't find any evidence of a rebranding attempt. At the aptly named Buy Zovirax website, a blogger explains my confusion:

I have felt burning for some days. A doctor has addressed me to the herpetologist.

That's right, both senses of herpe- can appear behind the same signifier. The descriptivist in me is inclined to accept this very low-frequency usage of the word herpetologist for someone who specializes herpetic diseases. The copy editor in me might balk, depending on the audience.

Most dictionaries give herpetic as the adjectival form of herpes, and it's in that sense that it has the broadest currency — but here too, we can get mildly unfortunate stuff like this line from the book Columbia National Parks:

The herpetic fauna in Selva de Florencia is one of the most abundant and varied in Columbia and the world.

(Note the the author's exemplary use of the singular fauna. News to me.)

Once again this sentence is perfectly understandable, even if the identical spellings are troubling on a conceptual level. And it turns out that this low-frequency sense of herpetic is just one of the lovely lexicographic innovations we owe to the herpetologists. (The scientists, not the doctors.)

Where to begin? First of all, herpetologists really do study herps, a.k.a. reptiles and amphibians. It turns out that this is a very common term within the field.

(Reactive grammar aside: how many schoolchildren have given the easy, "wrong" answer to "what is herpetology?" Hey kids, you were right after all! Sorry, but we wanted to make sure you were sufficiently baffled by science terms in particular, and the English language in general.)

From herps we get herping, which has its own Wikipedia entry so you know it's Made It Big. It's interesting how herping seems to differ — at least connotatively — from both birding and fishing.

Another word formation line-dance gives us herptile. Huzzah for innovation!

Much less common, but nevertheless amusing, is the inevitable herptacular.

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Phony Etymology Watch: NYT Dining & Wine
Thursday, January 31, 2008   12:18 AM

Something is (or rather isn't) rotten at the New York Times, according to a post at Language Log:

The New York times contains a brief article entitled One Pot describing the Spanish dish known variously as cocido or olla podrida literally "rotten pot" According to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, podrida may have an admiring connotation, similar to the use of "filthy rich" in English. Curiously, instead of the correct podrida, the article gives the name of the dish as olla poderida, which it explains as a derivative of poder "strength", because it gives you strength.

Reader Jim Gordon wondered about this and emailed the author of the article. Her response: she and her consultants and editors were aware of the correct name and etymology but thought that some readers might be put off by the notion of rotten food, so they changed the name a little and made up a fake etymology. It seems clear that they were not trying to deceive anyone with evil intent, but I am still taken aback that a respectable newspaper would make up a fake name and etymology.

I've never understood why certain NYT sections seem to be exempt from basic fact-checking (notoriously: Alessandra Stanley's television reviews), but there should be no article so insignificant that you just get to make up your own facts.

I'm left to wonder: Why is it that etymologies are considered interesting enough to talk about, but not so important that writers care if they're true? See also: National Treasure 2.

[Update: Language Hat has put up a response from the NYT Dining Editor in a post entitled: "Times Not Lying, Just Careless."]


I think it's like the Eskimo snow words myth... the truth doesn't matter, what matters is what the fake story says or implies about human nature. The National Treasure etymology seems to say something profound about how history remembers people, so that's what people want to believe is true.

...but this NYT article is not a case of a folk etymology that is popular because of what it suggests, it's just a deliberate lie for no reason.

And that make all the difference. If they had simply passed along a folk etymology due to sloppy fact-checking, that'd be forgivable. Making stuff up—even for something as inconsequential as this—really bothers me.

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Explication of the Nerds
Friday, January 11, 2008   2:54 PM

So David Anderegg's Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them has been getting some press lately. I haven't read the book, but apparently the author has a wacky definition of nerd that excludes anyone who isn't focused mainly on math and science. Like, say, word nerds.

If that's incorrect... well, I make no apologies when I can't Search Inside!

It's a bit silly to quibble over the meaning of terms that come to us as reclaimed insults — that is to say, via people who really don't care whether they call you a geek or a nerd or a dork — but this definition goes against what I've (almost certainly naively) understood as a commonly-held distinction between nerds and geeks.

That would be something like what you get at the end of the Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.

A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.

A Dork is someone who has difficulty with common social expectations/interactions.

I consider myself mainly a geek (that is, an English geek), but I score high in all three categories. Of the three terms, only dork seems negative to me anymore. Geeky is, of course, the new cool.

(Related: In his neo-fantasist gamer novel Lucky Wander Boy, D.B. Weiss offers an eloquent albeit chauvinist definition of geek: "A geek is a person, male or female, with an abiding, obsessive, self-effacing, even self-destroying love for something besides status." He's also very critical of faux-geek chic, a.k.a. dorkface.)

There are different schools of thought on this — for example, some people think that a nerd is just a dorky geek — but Dr. Anderegg's purported definition struck me as especially unusual.

Also: since this is a book about nerds, a few of the reviewers decide to repeat the claim that Dr. Seuss coined the word nerd in 1950.

Here's the Washington Post:

(It should be noted that another literary icon actually coined the word nerd, which first appeared in 1950 in the completely irrelevant, and typically fantastic, context of Dr. Seuss's "If I Ran the Zoo": "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, a NERKLE, a NERD, and a SEERSUCKER, too.")

And here's the Economist:

How very unfortunate that Dr Seuss, whose verbal pyrotechnics have given so much pleasure to so many children, should also have given them, however innocently, the ghastly label "nerd".

It's certainly the first published occurrence of the term discovered so far, but some people, including Our Bold Hero, think that the connection between the two nerds is mere happenstance, and that Seuss' word was another whimsical one-off that went nowhere.

The website The Origin of the Nerd has the low-down on this etymological controversy, but right now the earliest citation for nerd outside of Dr. Seuss is from 1951. I doubt that I'm the only would-be antedater for whom this word has become something of a white whale.

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Relieved to say I scored "pure nerd."

What's up with "dork"? -- it's the only one of the three that doesn't emphasize some kind of intellectual ability. Makes them sound . . . unfortunate.

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Phony Etymology Watch:
National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Tuesday, December 25, 2007   8:29 PM

So at one point in the new National Treasure movie, a character points out that even if Nicholas Cage's great-great-grandfather was a co-conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, "in a hundred years no one will remember anyone but Booth."

(Personally, I think that's an understatement, if anything. Most Americans probably already think that Booth acted alone.)

Here's (roughly) the exchange that follows:

Nicholas Cage: That's not true. Do you know where the expression "his name is mud" comes from?

Comic relief: Um, does anyone but you?

Nicholas Cage: It comes from Dr. Samuel Mudd, the guy who treated Booth's broken leg. History remembers him with that phrase.

So that's the etymology that millions of moviegoers will remember.

As you'd expect, it's not true. Here's the straight dope from The Straight Dope:

As for "his name is mud," there's an old story that the expression derives from Dr. Samuel Mudd, who unwisely took pity on Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mudd treated the broken ankle Booth suffered in his leap to the stage of Ford's Theater; for his trouble, he was sentenced to life in a federal prison. But Mudd isn't being commemmorated in "his name is mud." The phrase first appeared in print in 1820, 45 years before Lincoln's assassination. It probably originates in another obscure bit of English slang — "mud" was an eighteenth century equivalent of our "dope" or "dolt" and was used through the nineteenth century by union workers as a rough equivalent of "scab."

If that casual deployment of a phony etymology was enough to annoy me, I can only imagine how a historian would feel watching this flick.


As soon as I heard Nicholas Cage utter this statement, I figured it was inaccurate. A cursory Internet search would have told someone on the movie set it wasn't true, and the line wasn't at all integral to the story. I always wonder why someone decides to go ahead with something like this. (We did like the flick, though, for what it was: an action movie with a little history thrown in, and something we could watch as a family.)

It's a comment by a character. Good characters should be like people – fallible.

So I don't have a problem with Nicholas Cage's character giving a false etymology; it's what real people do.

Well, I'd have little-to-no problem with this if he weren't presented as a student of American history, or if they did something to deflate his authority a bit. In the world of the movie, he hasn't made a mistake.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007   10:57 AM

I can't speak to the accuracy of the skater slang in Skate, but the word gnarly proved to be even more interesting than I suspected.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word gnarled initially appeared only in Shakespeare ("Merciful heaven! / Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt / Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak / Than the soft myrtle"), likely as a variant spelling of the earlier knarled.

Which is not quite obsolete nowadays. Editors could conceivably find themselves replacing an intentional use of the original spelling with what was once a non-standard spelling variant. Following common usage here is the obvious choice — too many people would think knarled was an error, not that language is a democracy oh-no — but if you care about "correctness" you should feel a bit conflicted. Along similar lines, I used to wonder what I would do if someone wrote curry Fauvel instead of curry favor.

(Obviously: remove the reference to an obscure poem from 1310. I'm here to represent the readers, after all.)

Both gnarled and knarled meant something like "knotty or misshapen."

So Shakespeare's gnarled goes unnoticed until the 19th century, when the poets of the day bring it back into currency. It's around that same time that people start using the backformation gnarl, meaning either "a protruding knot on a tree" or "to contort, twist."

A decade or so later they then make a new adjective, gnarly, out of that word. So gnarly goes back way back to 1829.

In the 1970s, surfers started using gnarly to describe dangerous waves (presumably they were quite twisty?), and by the 1980s it had been adopted into teen slang as a word for both "excellent" and "disgusting."

It's the "excellent" sense that seems to have won out. Although my guess is that, with the possible exception of some speakers on the West Coast, gnarly is used by most people today with at least a twist of irony.

(Bonus videogame tie-in: in Super Mario World, each level in the secret Special Zone took its name from surfer slang. In order: Gnarly, Tubular, Way Cool, Awesome, Groovy, Mondo, Outrageous, and Funky. It felt like I spent weeks trying to beat Tubular.)

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Ah, yes... the... "hubba"...
Tuesday, October 16, 2007   3:22 PM

Frustrated by my own inability to perform a "nollie 360 flip to grind" and then "ride the hubba," I went web-crawling to the IGN Skate guide, which had this to say:

Paul Rodriguez's infamous challenge has a lot of players scratching their heads, but we suspect the problem has to do more with linguistics than anything else. If words like "hubba" are not in your lexicon, fear not. If anything, you should be proud, because it's just a silly name for the short, concrete wall that lines the stairs in this challenge.

I'd guessed at that meaning, but — as with my skater brother's impenetrable observation that I couldn't "nollie" a.k.a. "nose-ollie" if I was riding "switch" — some translation certainly helped matters.

The word hubba doesn't show up on this basic skateboard terminology list, but according to the kids at the Skateboard Dictonary [sic] forum, it has an interesting derivation.

What follows is the honest-to-Internet truth:

Reno_Rotary- A hubba is a ledge going down some stairs. I think they're names for the same thing, I don't think there's a definite difference between the two.

I think the name or nik-name hubba came from a famous spot in San Fransisco, the [Hubba Hideout]. Its just a ledge thats hidden back a little. Hubba was originally a slang term for crack [in that sense, from the exclamation hubba-hubba, it's been dated to 1988], or crackhead, and [Hubba Hideout] was originally an area where people used crack in public without being seen. Eventually hubba came to be slang for ledge. Who knows for sure though.

(One reply notes that the Hubba Hideout "was a major place for drugs and stuff, and the cops started to kick people out and arrest people so they skate stopped [!] it." That sucks... but isn't the verb skate stop awesome?)

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check out videos and photos of the original hubba hideout skate spot in san francisco ... HERE.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous at October 27, 2007 4:45 PM  

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Meat market lexicography
Saturday, October 13, 2007   2:38 PM

Apropos of Greenpeace's endorsement of kangaroo meat, a writer at my favorite libertarian blog introduces me to australus, the culinary (a.k.a. "meat") word for kangaroo. Awesome.

It surprises me that even while the list of English collective nouns for animals has expanded to include many, many dubious group names, our lexicon of meat words has hardly changed at all, not since the 11th century Norman occupation of England.

(Speaking of the Battle of Hastings, at what point in history did it become easier to become famous for what you did than for how you died? That he supposedly got shot in the eye is prettymuch the only thing I know about King Harold II. See also: the Catholic saints.)

During the Normans' extended visit, a number of high class Old French words (e.g. buef, Old French for cow) shimmied into our vocabulary, creating a lexical distinction between what was raised and what was eaten. Nearly a thousand years later, here's our active animal-meat lexicon:

calf: veal
cow: beef
deer, antelope, moose, caribou: venison
domesticated fowl: poultry
swine: pork
sheep: mutton
snail: escargot
squid: calamari

And occasionally:

kangaroo: astralus
shrimp: scampi

Besides astralus, only three of the terms on this list are recent additions. Escargot was (re)imported from French in the late 19th century, and while I don't have OED access, my guess is that the Italian calamari and scampi came along a bit later. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates scampi back to 1930.

In my experience calamari is almost always used instead of squid, while scampi only pops up in certain recipe names. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention long pork, a culinary name for human flesh; it was supposedly coined by the cannibals of either Samoa or Fiji.

(The Wikipedia article on culinary names is fairly flabby, but it did point me towards two handy culinary euphemisms: Rocky mountain oysters for buffalo, boar, or bull testicles, and sweetbread for the thymus gland or pancreas of a young animal. And there's tripe, of course. Foie gras is used to describe duck and goose livers, but only when they've been artificially fattened by gavage.)

Perhaps this is because they weren't necessarily raised by anyone, but it strikes me as odd that English has no culinary names for squirrel and rabbit. We've been eating squirrel for a long time — my copy of The Joy of Cooking still has a squirrel recipe — but apparently the Anglo-Norman esquirel merely supplanted the Old English acweorna.

Stranger still, Old French gave us coney (and rabbit for young coney) to describe an animal similar to the one we called hare, and both names were able to exist side-by-side without either becoming a meat word — centuries later, early American colonists had a similar choice (rabbit vs. hare) and basically stopped using hare altogether.

(Somewhat related: Welsh rabbit, the world's tastiest ethnic slur. And rabbit fur is sometimes called by the euphemism lapin.)

More understandable is the lack of a culinary name for dog meat, which the Koreans call gaegogi.

(Not related: another fun meat-related word is jerky, an alteration — misspelling? — of charqui, itself apparently an English word borrowed from American Spanish.)

As any Good Eats fan knows, the word corn underwent a semantic narrowing. It used to refer to a number of kernels or seeds, or even just a bunch of coarse salt granules. So we call it corned beef in reference to the salt packed around the brisket.

The word meat is itself interesting for much the same reason: it once meant simply "food."

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Hello folks,

FYI the dish is not called "Welsh rabbit" but "Welsh rarebit". Also, rabbit and hare are two distinct species (i.e. the rabbit is not a domesticated hare), the former being "Oryctolagus Cuniculus", the latter "Lepus" (Europaeus, Articus, Americanus, etc...).

Also, as synonym of "rabbit" in English, now out of use, is "coney" - compare with "conejo" (Spanish), "coniglio" (Italian), "coleho" (Portuguese).

posted by Anonymous Anonymous at April 16, 2008 7:37 AM  

Thanks for the tip about coney — I hadn't realized that was the probable origin of Coney Island. I'm still surprised that the Old English hare and Old French coney/rabbit didn't follow the standard meat/animal differentiation, but I've updated the entry to be less confusing, i.e. less wrong.

As the entry I linked to points out, and most modern sources will corroborate, Welsh rarebit (attested from 1785) is most likely a corruption of Welsh rabbit (1725). The former has gained currency today as the less offensive term.

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Whence wop?
Wednesday, September 12, 2007   2:40 PM

After quite a bit of searching, I can find neither a definitive spelling for wop or WOP or whop, nor a clue as to its etymology.

I'm not talking about wop, a vulgar term for Italians that (despite the insistence of ignorant folk etymologists who claim it stands for "WithOut Papers") probably comes from either the Italian guappo or the Spanish guapo, both of which mean something like "dandy."

I'm not sure if they say this outside the Midwest, but around here wop is a drink made by soaking fruit in hard liquor overnight. Here's a recipe.

(Though the slur wop may be the source of red wop, a term for cheap wine, I don't think there's any relation to the Midwestern wop.)

For the record, wop wap is the most common spelling.

And I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be WOP. As the WithOut Papers folk etymology shows, acronym etymologies are usually suspect (and again, when editing, all etymologies should be suspect). So while I have no evidence to counter instances of WOP, like the one you see in this Ripon College drugs and alcohol policy, it's just not a likely etymology.

And what would WOP even stand for there? Feel free to phrase your guesses as statements of fact: let a thousand backronyms bloom!

The popular etymology has it that wop comes from whopatooli, via clipping. My coworker of donkey fame says it comes from whopatoo, but I'm starting to suspect that she's done all her drinking on another planet.

For the not-a-word crowd, there's a definition of whopatooli at Is that good enough?

\whop-a-two-lee\ Noun: 1. A punch-like alcoholic beverage whose ingredients include beer, rum, vodka, Kool Aid, 7-Up, ginger ale, and chunks of fruit. 2. A collection of loosely related items. See also: Gallimaufry, Hodgepodge.

Unfortunately, I can't find an origin for whopatooli or any proof of this wop origin theory beyond Internet assertions.

The trail prettymuch stops cold there, although my older coworkers have confirmed that both terms have been in use for at least 25-30 years. Neither word appears in this sense in any of the dictionaries I looked at, though I'm holding out hope for Cassell's Dictionary of Slang.

An alternative theory might tie the notoriously alcohol-filled wop to whop, an old verb meaning "to strike with a heavy blow."

The fact that the origin of this regional, but nonetheless fairly common term is so opaque makes me really appreciate the lexigraphical footwork that must have been required to trace a term like 420, with which wop probably shares the same underground, teen-to-twentysomething roots.

[Update: 9/13]

According to Joan Hall at the Dictionary of American Regional English:

Wish I could help on the etymology, but we're as much at a loss as you are. Our earliest citations (from early 1980s) are for "wapatuli" and similar variants; I suspect that the "wap," "whop," and "wop" variants are clippings from the longer forms. The term (in many forms) seems to have spread widely, but I agree with you that it does seem to have been Upper Midwest in origin.

At the very least, this points me to a bunch of new spellings, and it does help verify the clipping etymology — but with only the Internet as a corpus, I don't expect to succeed where the pros have failed. Anyone with some insight on the origin of wapatuli is encouraged to comment.

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The Winston Churchill of coinages
Friday, May 25, 2007   3:42 PM

Dr. Seuss has a bunch of nonce coinages out there that never went anywhere (nerd is the most famous) and indeed that was, as they say, the point.

I find it very frustrating that he gets credit for coining their homonyms, identically-spelled words which have entirely different meanings and origins.

The following words were not coined by Dr. Seuss:

No. Seuss coined blogg, but it was some sort of creature. Blog comes from weblog via the phrase "We blog" via some phonetic engineering and good old-fashioned clipping. There are countless articles and posts about this.

The first published appearance of this term may have been in the Dr. Seuss book Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, below a drawing of a Crunk-car, but it's there as part of an ideophone, a word that uses sound symbolism to convey a sensory impression.

Though even this is probably giving Seuss too much credit. I'd wager that if you searched through old comics pre-dating this book, you'd find crunk used as an onomatopoeia for the kind of sound he had in mind.

Its modern homonym crunk, on the other hand, seems to have been coined sometime in the early-to-mid nineties, probably either as a blend word combining "crazy" and "drunk" or from the substitution of "c" for "d" in drunk. There's a claim, an Internet claim, floating around that crunk appeared on the Conan O'Brien show in the mid-nineties, though from what I understand no definition was given. This may also have been a third homonym, once again nonce.

No, this is just crazy, lazy BBC factcheckers to the contrary. I don't have an OED handy, but geek is a circus term that goes at least back to the 1800s. You're confusing it with nerd. And that's a whole other issue.

As my dictionary notes, "the word nerd, undefined but illustrated, first appeared in 1950 in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo: "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" (The nerd is a small humanoid creature looking comically angry, like a thin, cross Chester A. Arthur.)"

However, as noted by the website The Origin of the Nerd, nerd was already appearing as a slang term in Newsweek by 1951 and it seems highly unlikely that it could jump from a funny-looking animal in a kids' book to something like square in less than a year. The actual origins of the word are unclear, though I'm partial to the (admittedly difficult to prove) joke etymology theory.

Of which more at the aforementioned website.

If you believe the corporation's founders, this is a blend of zillions (!) and pillow. While I find this etymology profoundly awkward and lame, the mere existence of the 1974 childrens' book There's a Wocket in My Pocket! (where the zillow is a creature on a pillow) doesn't prove a connection. I could see my mind getting changed on this one with new evidence, but as Dr. Seuss knew, blend words are easy to make.


Shouldn't it be "Web log" and not "We blog"?

Two things: As Jason Kottke, one of the great blogfathers, notes in this post, bloggers have always preferred the traditional weblog over web log. The latter term is, etymologically, an evolutionary dead end.

As for your point about we blog: you're right. After some more research, I've become convinced that the spelling weblog is the direct source of blog.

As Peter Merholz, who coined the term, explains in this post, in 1999 he wrote in his sidebar that he'd decided to shift the break in the word so that it was pronounced "wee'-blog" and not "weblog."

He then wrote "or 'blog' for short."

We don't know how the transitional word/phrase between the original pronounciation of weblog and the newly-coined noun blog was spelled, but I interpreted "wee-blog" as we blog, as most English speakers would.

However, Merholz didn't say that he was changing the spelling, so rather than posit a nonce phrase we'll take him at his word.

So. The word blog was formed from weblog — in its "wee-blog" variation, which had the strategically-placed break between syllables — via clipping. This makes much more sense with the "for short."

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& then there was &
Thursday, May 17, 2007   1:28 PM

During some punctuation-related geekery yesterday — started when one of my coworkers accurately observed that semicolons are awesome — someone buttonholed me to talk about the origin of the ampersand.

By sheer coincidence, I'd looked up ampersand last week after wondering if there were any limits to the use of the ampersand in informal written English. Short of trying to begin a sentence with it, which you just can't do, the ugliest usage I could come up with was sticking it between an Oxford comma and the final item in a list. Personally I wouldn't use it outside of signage or a name.

Apparently, in old school books & was appended at the end of the alphabet. The symbol didn't have a proper name (?), but it stood for and, so it was called per se and. That is: the symbol which in and of itself stands for and. Eventually the words ran together and corrupted.

The Wikipedia article on the ampersand is fairly informative, as per usual, and Adobe has an interesting intro written from a more design-oriented perspective. Speaking of typography, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) has a nice little quote from Punch:

Any odd shape folks understand
To mean my Protean amperzand.

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Lies, damned lies, and etymologies
Tuesday, April 24, 2007   2:30 AM

The sorely-missed Tongue-Tied said it eloquently:

Among other valuable neurotic traits (like a sense of irritation, which helps you spot errors), copy editors have to cultivate a certain level of paranoia. It's productive to be irrationally suspicious of every sentence.

Many copy editors, testy and otherwise, seem to have come to much the same conclusion. I certainly remember a growing sense of satisfaction when I realized that my paranoia could actually be an asset.

Besides unfamiliar words (see: "On mispelling"), there are three things which I've attempted to cultivate a strong suspicion toward: names, idioms, and etymologies.

The first is easy to check, or at least was back when that was a big part of my job: all I had to do was search the campus directory or website. Idioms were harder, not so much because I couldn't find the recommended version as because replacing idioms like "chomping at the bit" and "hone in" with their less familiar counterparts often precipitated a minor philosophical crisis.

Then there were the etymologies.

I think we can all agree that if a piece of writing is making an etymological claim, the etymology should be correct. Other considerations — like whether the information is pertinent or whether it's appropriate to make an argument from etymology — can come later, because the dictionary is right there.

During some downtime, I once spent half an hour fixing a "nobody knows" etymology the writer had provided for the name of one of the school's less popular clubs, so that it instead specified the proper Elvish.

(I don't know a word of Elvish — my geek energy is directed elsewhere — but it always reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien's comment on the beauty of "cellar door," which also appears in a spectacularly dumbed-down form in the movie Donnie Darko.)

The interesting, plausible-sounding etymologies are always worth checking. I think I caught one or two back in the day, phony acronyms from what I remember, and at the campus bar I once got in a somewhat protracted argument over the origins of "call a spade a spade." Not the most ridiculously academic argument I've had there.

Anyways, what brought this all back to me was an article on "L'Enfant's Washington" by Francis Fukuyama, who's standing in today as our Donnie Don't. Emphasis added:

The area now known as Federal Triangle was then built in the 1930s in a separate project over what had been Washington's red light district. (The word "hooker" comes from the fact that Union General Joseph Hooker, who lost to Lee at Chancellorsville, liked to frequent brothels in this neighborhood.) Today, it is home to the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service. Where racily clad prostitutes used to congregate, dark-suited commuters now queue at slug lines for rides back to the Virginia suburbs.

This fascinating word origin story is easily debunked, and yet it slipped through because Fukuyama (and presumably a copy editor and one or two other readers) didn't bother to check it. Never trust a pretty etymology.

It's all about the paranoia. And if you're paranoid enough, it can be just as satisfying to find out that an etymology is really true: I listened to an old John Ciardi "On Words" podcast today and was surprised to learn that margarita apparently comes from a Spanish name that can also mean "daisy."

Since the inventor of the margarita is still disputed and I have no OED access, I can only give Ciardi the benefit of the doubt, but his theory was that the salt around the rim represented the white petals of the flower.

This is the kind of thing I love discovering about English. I'd like to think that when I'm checking an etymology it's win-win: either I catch a factual error, or I discover something new about the language.

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"< Spanish Margarita, a female forename < post-classical Latin Margarita (see MARGARET n.).

The reason for the application of the name in either sense is unclear, and does not appear to follow any such use in Spanish. The uses recorded at sense 1 could perhaps reflect brand names. The cocktail name is variously attributed, with suggested origins in Mexico, California, or elsewhere in North America, and is commonly assigned to the 1930s or 1940s."

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Your apheresis is zine
Sunday, April 15, 2007   7:19 PM

How do you pronounce zine? I usually say "zayn," as in brine, but dictionaries — and people who know more about the phenomenon than I do — seem to prefer "zeen." A friend who was correcting me used zine scene as an example: in his opinion, if that phrase doesn't rhyme for you, you're pronouncing it wrong.

Wikipedia commenters — a useful barometer for the enthusiast group on many subjects — are somewhat unsure. However, if we use the relaxed WTF standard for interpreting correctness, I'd say that "zeen" is probably the version less likely to stop a conversation in its tracks. And that's what matters.

Also, the "zeen" pronounciation is what gave us the awesome word zinester.

I was too late for the zine scene, but it seems to me that this is one of those words that gained most of its currency from being read, which makes anything approaching a natural consensus on its pronunciation difficult.

There's also apparently some confusion about the word's etymology. This is clearly a case of clipping, but from fanzine or magazine?

I love this kind of clipping, also known as apheresis, and if you can throw in an apostrophe that only sweetens the deal. I've been on the lookout for it since I read the American Heritage entry for za:

When young people today speak casually of ordering a za, "pizza," they are unwittingly producing an expression that is quite interesting to language historians. Za derives from the full form pizza by a process known as clipping. Two types of clipping are common in English: dropping the unstressed syllables or syllables not receiving the primary word stress, as in fridge from refrigerator; and dropping all syllables after the first syllable, as in ab, dis, porn, and vibe, whether or not the first syllable was originally stressed. In the case of za, the syllable that was dropped was originally stressed and was the first syllable, which is unusual. Rents for "parents," is another recent example of the same kind of clipping. Interestingly, we don't need to stay in the realm of contemporary youth slang to see the results of this unusual process. The words phone, bus, and wig (from telephone, omnibus, periwig) belong to Standard English but had their start as slangy or catchy neologisms formed by clipping stressed syllables, just like za. Who knows whether in fifty years za and rents will be as widely accepted as phone and wig are now?

My money is on rents, which I hear all the time, but who says 'za anymore?

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