Thursday, April 23, 2015


Bart Everson- From the Coca Cola filmstrip, "Black Treasures." (1969)

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear the word "transparency" used in a business setting, I think that someone's trying to hide something. Maybe not consciously and maybe not even in the present moment, but sooner or later, there is going to be some backsliding going on. Transparency comes from the Medieval Latin transparere, meaning "to show light through". I have a feeling that when companies start using this word, it's when the windows haven't been cleaned for some time and they are trying to restore some sense of credibility.

As I did a little research trying to find out when this word came into vogue, I found a couple of nice links. One is from and is a piece about "The 7 Iconic, Transparent, Empowering Business Buzzwords That Need to Die". It was written by Tim Phillips, who has a book out called Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, which I'd be quite interested to read.

Here's what Phillips has to say about the word.

Six times as popular in the business press as it was in 2002; about one in 40 press releases claim it. It’s taking over "honesty" and "integrity," maybe because you can claim transparency without any suggestion you’re doing something that improves anyone’s life. Note: The glass industry uses "transparency" in marketing less than the average, but the audit industry uses it ten times as often. Draw your own conclusions.

That was written in 2011. Perhaps you think it's gone into decline since then, but in an  amusing list from on the top fifty business buzz words, it was hanging in there at number 4 as recently as 2013.

I also came across a section of a book of writings by Kate Jennings called Trouble: Evolution of a Radical/ Selected Writings 1970-2010:

  Business jargon is an easy target for language scolds and the usage police, but if corporations are serious about letting in the sunlight as a result of Enron and other business scandals they would do well to consider overhauling the official language of the executive suite and the conference room. 

Note I said "letting in the sunlight" not "creating transparency". Actually, I like the word "transparency". It describes a worthwhile, achievable state. Corporations everywhere have adopted it as their watchword du jour, even while they resist regulation that would actually bring about transparency. It's meaning has been debased, co-opted. It has become part of the smoke that businesses blow up our collective arses.

George Orwell described this process in his perennially pertinent essay "Politics and the English language". "When there is a gap between one's real and declared aims," he wrote, "one turns instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A light, quick detour

I couldn't resist pointing out CollageMama's Hearty Breakfast Blog post of yesterday, where the similar yet oh so different words "lightning" and "lightening" are discussed and distinguished. Check it all out HERE.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Death and Taxes

Confessions of Ignorance has hit a bit of a doldrums this month and the responsibility lies quite literally with death and taxes. My aunt's death, and my taxes. I'll get back into stride soon, but I thought I could at least explore this famous phrase. Many if not most people know the quote:

"in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes".

Fewer probably know that it was written by Benjamin Franklin in a letter to one Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. Here is the whole sentence, which I believe is slightly less well known:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

And I bet fewer people still know that Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame actually beat him to the punch. In 1726, he wrote:

Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.

This was from The Political History of the Devil. I think it lacks the punch of Franklin's aphorism but Franklin had some extra time to think about it.

All of this can easily be found in Wikipedia, but you hadn't thought to look there, had you?

Here's another little thing about taxes that I found at Wonkblog about the skyrocketing complexity of the federal tax code. Read it and weep.

Sunday, April 5, 2015


My method of organizing my life largely consists of writing things down on random scraps of paper and then finding them later and not being able to decipher the increasingly wretched scrawl that is my handwriting. Such was the case a couple of minutes ago, when I was getting ready to toss a long list of things and noticed that on the list there was a couplet of sorts:

Just a man
A just man

Song lyrics? A judgment on someone? A story idea? And then I remembered that I wrote it down after noticing one of those nightmares of English that I'm sure impedes progress for non-native learners. Two short phrases with all the same words meaning completely different things.

In case any such are reading here, "just a man" means only a man, while "a just man" is a fair one, or one living by ideas of justice.

How did this discrepancy come about?

When "just" came into the English language towards the end of the fourteenth century, it meant, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "righteous in the eyes of God; upright, equitable, impartial; justifiable, reasonable," which is more or less what one sense of it is today. It went back through the usual Old French (juste) to the Latin ius which had more of an emphasis on legal right and law. The Old Latin was ious, and the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that was perhaps literally "sacred formula", and that it was a word found only in Latin but not in general Italic and originated with religious cults concerning themselves with purity.

The second sense, comes out of the first. Originally, the adverb "just" meant "exactly, precisely, punctually," and I think that meaning still has remnants in our language, although I can't think of examples at the moment. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives Kipling credit for the term "just so", the Just-So Stories coming out in 1902. But Kipling meant "exactly so", not "only so". So how did that change come to pass?

A discussion on the website English Language and Usage gives us some idea of this, I think.

How did the adverb evolve from meaning exactly to merely?
It's not so much an evolution into as an
accession of a new meaning. As Peter Shor pointed out in his Comment above, this is a logical extension. OED 1's first citation for its sense 5, "no more than; only, merely; barely", is right on the cusp:
1665 R. Hooke Microgr. vii. 38 Distilled water, that is so cold that it just begins to freeze.
It's a very small step from "exactly to this point, and no further" to "no further than" or "no more than".
1739 Chesterf. Lett. (1774) xxxvi. 125 He can just be said to live, and that is all.
They then go on to discuss a similar dynamic at play with the word "merely", which originally meant "wholly", the meaning it had for Shakespeare. I am fascinated by these "logical tendencies" when it comes to the drift of words.

Monday, March 30, 2015

hashtag--or, Beware the octothorp, my son

photo by Charles Hutchins
One of the lighter moments of the Anita Hill talk I attended last month was when the presenter, a revered professor on the campus, told people they could join in on some online conversation at "number sign".... A gentle wave of amusement went through the crowd at the realization that she was actually referring to a Twitter address. And to tell the truth even I, techno last adapter that I am, was a little surprised that she hadn't come across the term "hashtag" in her academic exposure to social media. (She had reached Anita Hill by the simple expedient of an email, after all.) But she had the good graces to laugh along with everyone else at not being up to speed, and so the moment passed more or less without incident.

But it got me to wondering about the term "hashtag", how long it has been with us, and what uses it had in previous times. I thought it would be a short post.

"Hashtag" can be traced all the way back to its ancient sources in, uh, 2007. Apparently, it's pretty well documented that Chris Messina (the open source advocate, not the actor on The Mindy Project)  wondered if the pound or number symbol on the keyboard wouldn't do as well as any as a means of gathering comments into groups, and gradually or maybe not so gradually this became a convention, despite some resistance by people who didn't know an easy fix when they saw one. 

Of course,there's a bit of conflation going on here, as the symbol is really just a hash mark (which Wikipedia tells me is the common term in the British Isles and also that "hash" is a corruption of "hatch", as in crosshatching), the tag being the part that follows the symbol. But, as Paul McCartney said, let it be.

photo by Quinn Dombrowski

As I'm sure has crossed your mind by now, the symbol predates the term by a long shot, and has a lot more meanings than even occurred to me as I started out here. It is the number sign, the pound sign, on a slant, the sharp sign in music, and is used in such far flung fields as mining, chess and scrabble. I liked Wikipedia's example of how it is used in linguistic syntax, where it denotes a sentence that is "semantically ill-formed, though grammatically well-formed. For instance, "#The toothbrush is pregnant" is a grammatical sentence, but the meaning is odd."

Apparently, the actual symbol has its roots in Rome, and in the term libra pondo, which translates into English as 'a pound in weight'. According to an article in Mental Floss, we take the name for the weight from the pondo, but the abbreviation (lb.) from the libra, which as all good astrologists know means "scales" or "balance".

So far, so good. But how does lb. become #, you ask? According to a short piece in the New Yorker by Keith Houston, we can put it down to "the rushed pens of scribes". He tells us that in standard abbreviations, a bar was often cast through the letters, I suppose in a way similar to our putting a period at the end of them, to indicate that they are abbreviations. Interestingly, this bar is called tittle or tilde. typesetters had a standard piece of type with the bar in it, but harried scribes were a little sloppier about it, and the symbol became more abstract. As he tells us about the images below, the left is none other than Isaac Newton's version of the barred lb., while the right is how it appeared in print.

Othmer Library of Chemical History, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Now you'd think that with all these names and meanings floating around, we wouldn't need another term, wouldn't you? But apparently the scientists at the Bell Laboratories disagreed. According to, when they modified the telephone keypad in the early sixties, they felt that they needed to give it a more official name, and so came up with "octothorp". "Octo" has to do with the eight ends of the figure, the 'thorpe', well, there are, shall we say, rumors. Interestingly, Blogger doesn't recognize the word octothorp and suggests I use "proctor" instead. It's true that my typing might mangle the spelling of the word, but that's a bridge too far even for me.

And knowing now how these things take off, please don't start calling this: # the proctor sign.

I'm begging you.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jiminy Cricket!

Cricket at Marylebone Field, 1790s -wikimedia
I can't resist writing about this, as it is so odd. Last night I had a dream which I'll spare you the details of, except for one. There was a disembodied voice that was ranting on because it was outraged that people did not seem to know that the word for cricket, the game, and cricket, the insect were not related! Now as far as I know, I have never thought consciously about this question, nor do I have a big fascination with either crickets or cricket, although I like crickets, love Jiminy Cricket, and thought the book Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, which has a little to do with playing cricket in New York, was pretty good, although maybe not quite the great shakes it was made out to be at the time.

Nor do I spend all my waking hours, let alone my sleeping ones, trying to think up new ideas for this blog, as I have more than enough ignorance to keep going for quite some time, believe me. Still, I woke up wondering, just how reliable is this dream voice? I'm well aware that dreams tend to speak metaphorically rather than literally, but what was the point of ranting on about this if it wasn't true? So I decided I would find out.


They are two different words. For some reason, I thought maybe the word for cricket the game came from India, although as far as I know, the sport is thoroughly British. But no. Both words are European. And actually both words may come from an Old French word, namely criquet.

Hang on, you say, doesn't that mean they do share a common origin? Apparently not. There are two Old French meanings of criquet. One comes from criquer and means to creak, rattle or crackle, and has according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, an "echoic" origin. This is the criquet that gave English the name for the insect in about the 14th century.

Wellington College, circa 1900-wikipedia

The name for the game is a little more in doubt but this Old French criquet means goal post or stick, and may go back to the  Middle Dutch/ or Middle Flemish word  cricke, and be related to the root word for crutch.

I'm still not sure just why the dream world felt it was important to call this all to my attention, but it does give me a chance to write down a quote from Antonio Machado, which  I found a couple of days ago as the epigraph at the beginning of Stuart Dybek's story collection, The Coast of Chicago:

De todo la memoria, solo vale
el don preclare de evocar los suenos.

Out of the whole of memory, there's one thing
worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Think outside the box

The cereal box, that is. Oddly enough, the humble cereal box has come to my attention several times in the last few days and none of them really having anything to do with cereal.
The first instance was in the midst of a novel I am reading called Beginner's Greek by James Collins. The novel has very little to do with cereal or boxes, but there is a recurring mention of a half-crazed senior executive at the investment firm the protagonist works at, who has a crazy scheme to monetize all those cereal box tops that people save to get points or prizes or donate philanthropically. As I'm not an investment banker or anything close, I don't know yet if the scheme will turn out to be crazy genius or just crazy crazy, but I expect I'll find out.

Next, cereal boxes appeared on Collagemama's Hearty Breakfast Blog. You may be thinking that cereal would pretty naturally come into play on a breakfast blog, but actually Nancy is talking about cubicles and cereal boxes as forts. She links on to a cool looking blog called Seize the Absurd, which has many illustrations of said cereal box forts and which you should definitely check out for your own defensive strategies.

There is also this short excerpt from Family Guy which may illustrate some of the shortcomings of this idea:

I maybe didn't think too much about all this until last night when I read Bookwitch's latest blog, which was called Through the Cereal Box. Guess what it's about?

Watching eclipses with a cereal box. Here's a short video that shows you how. For next time.

So there we have it. The cereal box as currency, military defense and scientific instrument. I'd like to say that I've added to the stream of creative uses, but all I've done is develop a  worrying new penchant for eating cereal straight out of the box.

photo by Dan Taylor at Flicr