Monday, September 15, 2014

Your Fingerprint Word?

There's an interesting post by Matthew J. X. Malady up on Slate right now about "fingerprint words"--words that others identify as "your" words. For Malady it is "iteration"--and yes, he knows it's not necessarily something to be proud of. What was interesting to me in the article, because of my ongoing interest in word drift, is how one's signature word tends to spread around one's group, and how we feel about that when it happens. To copy people's usage is a compliment, but to feel copied too much can feel like theft apparently.

I, perhaps not surprisingly to readers of this blog, am a bit resistant to new usage spreading around me. I noticed a long time ago that in my former workplace, I would not switch to the more casual and usually shorter form of a person's name that I had originally learned as a longer one till it had become quite common usage--Jen for Jennifer, for instance, or Mike for Michael. If they were just introduced to me as Jen or Mike in the first place, then of course I went with that. But I didn't move from more formality to less formality very quickly. And as for true nicknames, which one of my colleagues was quite gifted at coining, I don't think I ever adopted them at all.

In the same way, when everyone suddenly started using the word "referenced", as in "I referenced that", I very deliberately did not do the same. In a workplace, there's quite a high rate of "infection" of that kind. And I do sometimes catch the bug of something, but I usually notice after the word has popped out of my mouth and I feel embarrassed. It's a little bit like being taken over by something that is not your own thought process. One that springs to mind is that there was someone in my sphere that used to say "Excellent" a lot. Or maybe not a lot, but the things he was referring to did not always deserve that response. Still, it's slipped out of my mouth a few times since then.

As for my fingerprint words? Well, actually--no, those are my fingerprint words. "Well" and "actually". I use them too much and unnecessarily. I don't believe I have any really fancy-schmancy ones, or really idiosyncratic ones. But perhaps some readers here can tell me if I'm wrong. Or maybe they'd like to identify their own.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


For some reason or another, I was thinking about looking into this word awhile ago. Way leads on to way,  however, and I somehow got off that particular quest. Today, though, I happened to notice Rob Kitchen's short review of Christopher Steiner's Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World over at The View From the Blue House and thought to myself, okay, just give it up. You (meaning me) don't really know what algorithms are. I mean, the word is familiar enough from high school math, but that was a long time ago, folks. I suppose it's possible that they were defined for us back in that hazy past, but I think it's more likely that we just had to do them. Use them. Whatever.

Today, though, I vow to go further.


An algorithm is not, as I suspected, an extremely complicated higher math formula, but just the name for an overall type of mathematical or computational procedure. It's a step by step guide for solving a particular problem. Even a recipe can be considered an algorithm if it outlines certain steps and procedures and the order in which you do them. Here is  a webpage example of how you would turn a standard recipe into a "pseudocode". (And yes, do go there, because it will teach you how to make an easy pizza brownie, even if you don't want to learn algorithms.)

So why the fancy word? Well, it all goes back to one Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer, living between 780 and 850 AD, whose work when later translated introduced both Hindu/Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra into European mathematics. The treatise on numbers came into Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum, which just means "al-Khwarizmi on the numbers of the Indians", Algoritmi being the Latinization of his name.

a page of al-Khwarizmi's algebra

Algoritmi in Medieval Latin became algorismus (the normally nonjudgmental Online Etymology Dictionary calls this "a mangled transliteration"), and led to the Old French algorisme, which meant the Arabic numeral system. French turned this into algorithme, under the mistaken idea (again the OED) that it had something to do with the Greek word for number, arithmos. Middle English had algorism from Old French, but it too simply meant decimal number system. It wasn't until the 19th century that our current English word took on its current English meaning.

And though I didn't write this up today intentionally, as I certainly wouldn't have thought 'algorithm' derived from a Persian place name (al-Kharizmi just means "from Khwarezm", an oasis in Central Asia), it is perhaps a good day to remember that not everything that has come to us out of the Middle East has meant trouble for the West, and some of it has actually brought us great good.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

High falutin'

I used the term high falutin' the other day, and of course that led me to think about where it comes from. I think of high falutin' as being fancy, perhaps overly so, or giving oneself airs that one shouldn't. But what, I wondered, is falutin'?


It turns out that this is one of those slang terms that sprang up somehow without anyone really bothering to record it. It was first recorded in usage in 1839. People do like to guess about it, though. Witness Merriam-Webster online:

"perhaps from 2high + alteration of fluting, present participle of flute"

Or perhaps not.

If you head over to Word Detective, you will find the author acknowledging that no one knows but that there are two possible sources, either possibly true. He (or she) mentions the flute possibility but then says that others suggest high flying or high flown. It's worth continuing on into the comments thread there, as it illustrates with some humor that where meanings aren't known, they will be invented. You will find there the mention of the fluting on Mississippi steamboats, the way pretentious flautists hold up their arms, fluting on blouses, armor and much, much more.

"Zbroja 1514" by Unknown - Own work User:Mathiasrex Maciej Szczepańczyk

But after scrolling through such comments, we need a bit of etymologist Anatoly Liberman to bring us back to earth. Hence I direct you to his article "Low-Key Thoughts on Highfalutin'". It's worth reading for the way he untangles things and reasons them out. He holds back his "one feeble idea" till the end and I won't ruin it for him. But I'll give you a hint.

Think Yiddish.

Monday, September 1, 2014


No, that wasn't drunk typing. Apparently I'm just really into the acronyms these days. Here's what it stands for:

General opinion, Specific opinion, Size, Shape, Age, Color, Provenance, Material. (As a learning device, it's not exactly the best with three Esses in a row, is it?)

OK--now go read this Slate article by Katy Waldman to find out what it's all about...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ISIS and ISIL--or, to QSIS and Beyond

Admittedly it is hard to find the lighter side of the rise of the grim jihadist group casting a dark spectre over Iraq right now, but if anything is funny, it's hearing a bunch of news reporters asking about ISIS and having the president answer their questions using the word ISIL. He never says, "Uh, it's actually ISIL" but I can't help hearing his refusal to use their term as a bit patronizing, intentionally or not. Then the other day, I heard some other White House official answer questions about ISUS by saying something like "It's important to understand that I.S.I.L. is...", which came across as seeming even more pedantic.

On the level of just sound and hearing, I suppose it isn't that much different than hearing reporters ask about "ee-ROCK" and having the president talking about "eye-RACK", but in terms of comprehension at least we knew they were all talking about the same place. The dissonance in this more recent term has the effect of making me feel like I've missed a beat, or that maybe the press has. And of course we probably have. But still, after bringing it up at a discussion last night, I realized I should probably try and track this down.

At first this seemed easy enough. There are plenty of articles out there already on this confusing topic. But woe to those who wade into this tricky thicket lightly. It turns out that it's a matter of translation, but also a matter of politics.

The name of the group in Arabic is Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. This, according to the Associated Press, which switched over to the ISIL version, means the The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. What is al-Sham, you ask? Well, according to the AP, it is the region comprising southern Turkey and extending down through Syria to Egypt  and also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.This is the area which the group wants to restore to being a caliphate, or Islamic state. It is also the area which in the West has broadly (and loosely) been termed the Levant. To Western eyes, the term just meant the Mediterranean lands east of Italy (so says Wikipedia), and, using the French word for 'rise', means  basically the lands of the rising sun.

from the website Make Hummus, Not War

So, ISIL--the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. As opposed to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

BUT--Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post  quotes a Syrian analyst named Hassan Hassan saying that there is a difference between al-Sham and Bilad al-Sham. Al-sham, he says, is basically Syria and more specifically is used to refer to Damascus, while Bilad al-Sham is greater Syria or the lands we historically have thought of as the Levant. He also points out that if we are going to use an older, out of date name like the Levant, we should use a corresponding older name for Iraq, which would be Mesopotamia.

As you can see, there are variant spellings.
 (The map was apparently uploaded to Wikicommons from the website of someone named Paulo Porsia

When you use modern "Iraq", use the modern term "Greater Syria" — in that case, it's the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (still ISIS).

I would have thought that would be ISIGS, but maybe that's just me.

The Washington Post goes on to say it would be more accurate to just use the Arabic world's shorthand for the group, namely DAIISH. They go on to say usually that it's fairly typical for English to create acronyms that preserve the original language to some degree.

But here the plot thickens still further. Unbeknownst to me, and apparently ignored by any news media I follow, on June 29th ISIS declared that they didn't want to be called the Islamic State of anything, but simply the Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamiya), because they had established a new caliphate that didn't respect the old borders. This in turn called up a response from  Dar el-Ifta, which is a leading educational institute that weighs in on matters important to the practice of the Islamic faith, begged the media not to use that name in reference to the group as they did not think a radical fringe of Islam should be allowed to present itself as the face of Islam as a whole. Their solution? Why not QSIS?

On the other hand, why QSIS? Well, the group formerly known as ISIS was even more formerly known as a faction of al Qaeda in Iraq. But tensions mounted between al Qaeda and this splinter group and they parted ways this spring. So QSIS stands for "al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq"

I have one little problem with this idea, though, and that is how to pronounce it. Q-sis? Ki-sis? Kwi-sis?

Come to think of it, maybe just Crisis would sum up all its many latent possibilities.

Footnote: Dammit. Slate just wrote up this same question. I haven't read it through, but it's probably more authoritative than this account. Get it all here.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Blue with Green Should Never Be Seen

Sometimes--actually quite frequently--I wonder where I've been all these years. One way this came up was last weekend when, gathering with my family, we were talking about what each person's favorite color was. I don't know exactly how this led to my sister telling us about a conversation she had had with my father that I don't remember ever having heard before.

Back in the distant days of high school, she and I belonged to a club called the Juniorettes, which was a teen club sponsored by the Junior Women's club. In it's slightly eccentric blend of informality and convention, we each had a little badge made out of felt, which was a smaller piece of blue on larger piece of green. Maybe it had a little pin in the middle--I don't have one handy to look at.

I don't actually remember when we ever wore these badges. Maybe at every meeting? Maybe only on special occasions. In any case, they must have come out of the box at some point, because my sister tells me that my father was noticing her pin one day and said, "Blue with green should never be seen."

This did not seem to strike anyone else in the family with surprise. Someone knew that the whole saying was "Blue with green should never be seen, except with something in between." My niece, who takes art classes, went on to explain that the colors are too close together on the color wheel.

There are several funny things about this. First of all, although my father was interested in many things, I find it a little hard to imagine him weighing in on this convention. So I must conclude that this is one of those adages that he picked up at an impressionable age, like the one about not wearing white after Labor Day, which even I remember my Illinois relatives quoting with some authority (it's not really observed in my strata of California society, unless it's just me not observing it--not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.)

The second thing is, how does everyone else know this adage, and after all these years, this is the first I've heard of it? It's one thing when you come across some piece of advice that comes from somewhere else, but apparently everyone in my family had heard this news but me. 

Sometimes we can be skeptical of some piece of collective wisdom. It's very rare in my experience, though, to have been sheltered somehow from such knowledge and find out that you have been going along thinking exactly the opposite. Because I think green and blue together are BEAUTIFUL.

And so, apparently, does God. Or whoever does the interior design for this simulation we're currently caught up in.

(The painting at the top is by Nelson Ferreira, from his Penumbra series. And speaking of penumbras, if you would like to see some spectacular blue tulips--in a backdrop of green--just go to Kathleen Kirk's blog post HERE and scroll on down...)

Friday, August 8, 2014

glean II

I just put a book review up over at Escape Into Life, and about halfway through, I realized that the book under discussion is a book about gleaning. The French illustrator Barroux came across a box amid a pile of things that some movers were hauling out to throw away. In the box was a journal and a French war medal. The result of that chance find was the graphic novel (On Les Aura!), which became Line of Fire in English.

I just thought this was all a great bit of propaganda for gleaning. Read all about it HERE. It's kind of funny that all the gleaning I've been coming across lately has been happening in France.