Saturday, August 31, 2013

edX, fall season

The last day of August seems like a great time to put up a little post about edX, the website that let's you take free courses from some of the U.S.'s most prestigious universities. A couple of classes start as early as tomorrow, and they are rolling out a bunch of them in September. I took a great class last spring on understanding world poverty. People were studying together from all over the world, and it was just a generally inspiring experience. I think for almost all these classes you can do them as an audit or for a certificate, and some of them even affiliate so that you can earn actual college credit. If you have the time to put into it, I recommend going for the certificate, because it involves and commits you in a different way. Basically, I didn't know half of what I thought I knew until I started taking the tests. Yikes. But it was fun.

Here's the website. If you hit the view all the courses button, the third one down on the page it takes you to is a demo video that shows you how to get best use out of the courses, and that's one you can look at right now.

See you there. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Selfie: a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

Selfie, in context, is fairly self-explanatory. I hadn't really heard the term until the news brought it to me in the context of Anthony Weiner's problems, and the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover. After that, I started hearing it everywhere. At least in the media. I don't think I've yet heard a friend use it aloud. And personally, I like this slightly more cynical version from Urban Dictionary:

A strange phenomenon in which the photographer is also the subject of the photograph, in a subversive twist on the traditional understanding of the photograph. Usually conducted because the subject cannot locate a suitable photographer to take the photo, like a friend. 

But none of this is why I posted about this. I was interested in the uproar around the misapprehension that it had been included in the Oxford English Dictionary mentioned in a Slate article today. As the article writer, Forrest Wickman, points out, it made big stir across the internet, and many people thought it heralded the death of English as we know it.

I doubt Stephen Fry did.

In any case, claims of its death were a little premature. Oxford Dictionaries Online are not the same thing as the venerable OED. Both do come out of the Oxford University Press, but they serve different purposes. The ODO is around to catch up the current lingo. I guess you could say it is a gateway dictionary. The OED is the dictionary of historical record. I'm not sure how they decide what words make it, though that might be worth a post. At any rate, "selfie" isn't there yet.

I was going to post this last night, but it's funny--"selfie" just didn't seem to go very well with the fiftieth anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech. In fact, the two categories may belong to different universes entirely.


Monday, August 26, 2013


I was watching the British court room case series Silk on TV last night, and somebody used the word "gumption". It stood out to me for some reason. It doesn't strike me as a word the Brits use so often, but then, it seems like an old-fashioned word over here as well. It's one of those words that we more or less know what it means when we hear it. But what does it mean, exactly? It's hard to think of an exact synonym. I'd characterize it as something like "determination and resourcefulness".

But let's get to it.

The lists three somewhat contradictory meanings:

1. Boldness of enterprise; initiative or aggressiveness.
2. Guts; spunk.
3. Common sense.
I wouldn't have thought common sense had a lot to do with it, but then I also wouldn't it had much to do with aggressiveness either. Boldness and initiative do strike a chord with me, though.
The reason is that "gumption" turns out to be a victim of that curious phenomenon, word drift. Over at Word Detective, a man writes in to say that when he was growing up in Yorkshire in the forties, gumption was commonly used to mean "common sense" or "street smarts" (two fairly distinct things I'd have thought, but never mind), but living in Canada as he does now, it seems to mean something more like courage or nerve. The Word Detective explains the process of association that gradually changed the meaning of the word.

Gumption first entered the vernacular through Scotland. It shows up in print first in Scottish in 1719. Beginnings are obscure, but it looks like another case of that Old Norse by way of Scottish path, as there is an Old Norse word gaumr, meaning attention or heed, that etymologists seem to find a likely connection.

By 1812, gumption had also gained the meaning of initiative. As the Word Detective notes, initiative and common sense often come together in a person who is striving to get ahead, and the 19th century was a good time to live if you had these qualities. Apparently, the quality of initiative or boldness is a more important one to have, as that is the one that stuck, although it does survive in its common sense form in parts of England. (Probably places that hold  on to dialect longer, like Yorkshire).

There are a few other possible meanings for gumption, actually. As usual, the Urban Dictionary has some interesting ones. Personally, I liked Number 4:

The kinda shit that one needs to run across america like Forrest Gump did

I'll leave it to you to scroll on down over there for the predictably saltier ones.

 Thanks to Adam Barnett who put this comic up on his blog Comics Make No Sense and commented, "That's right, ya punks! Show Some gumption!"

Friday, August 23, 2013

What is the "th" in "the" called?

That was the clue in a crossword I was doing recently. (If you do crosswords while flying on Southwest Airlines and it's still August, 2013 when you read this, I am hear by serving you with a SPOILER ALERT). Let's put a picture here so that you have a chance to avoid this if so inclined.

(No longer the Southwest uniform, if it ever was.)

 To be honest, I had to maneuver my way around with all the other clues. Originally, I came up with something like "girrapa". However, eventually I learned that the correct answer was "digraph". Correct, but no wiser, I had to look this up.

A digraph is (most often) when a written alphabet has to use two letters to get across one sound, because it hasn't created a single letter for it. Mostly, this would be two letters that separately convey different sounds, like "t" and "h" do when not "th" or "c" and "h" do when not starting off words like "chair" or finishing off words like "beach".

There are plenty of other types of digraphs, though, and we don't even have to leave English to find them. The rh in "rhetoric" or, to be less high-falutin', "rhino" still just sounds like "r". Usually, these don't come about through mere whimsy, though. They represent traces of older ways of speaking, different dialects, or even attempts to write down other languages. Typically, digraphs become conventions of writing. Someone hits on a way to do it, and it becomes standardized.

There's a lot more that could be said about digraphs--as I type this, I can see almost nothing but, actually. Let's just concentrate on the "th" sound for a moment, though, since that's what brought us here. The Online Etymology Dictionary has some fascinating stuff about it. It tells us that the "th" sound is found mainly in words stemming from Old English, Old Norse and Greek: It was"unpronounceable by Normans and many other Europeans". The Romans couldn't do it either, which is why many of our "th" words come across as Italian and Spanish "t" words: teoria for "theory," teatro  for "theater").

Like a most famous theatre group in my neck of the woods, Teatro Campesino:

Germanic languages represented the "th" sound in two ways, neither one of them digraphs. One was "ð", which I'm familiar from Icelandic mystery writer Arnaldur Indriðason ( hear how an Icelandic person pronounces his name here), and the other is "þ", or thorn, which was originally a rune.  

Old English, unlike Old Norse did not standardize which symbol meant a hard "th" and which a soft one. The "ð" was lost from English first, though, when the digraph "th" returned to England with French scribes circa 1250. They apparently had the "th" as a carry over from the Greek letter θ or theta, but pronounced it "t", circa 1250. The "thorn" was harder to get rid of, and clung, thornlike, in words like þat, þe, þat, þe, þis,is, or that, the, this. Their, or should I say, þeir death knell was sounded when the age of printing began, and type, which had to be imported from Europe, had no letter font for þ.

People were reluctant to part with their thorny old friend, and for awhile they, especially those in Scotland, substituted the "y" because it looked somewhat like a þ. I was quite surprised to learn that "ye" was always pronounced "the", or so says Online Etymology, and when have they ever steered us wrong?

Actually, they did steer us a bit wrong, because there is a different path for the pronoun ye, as in "My lord, I pray ye, put off your doublet" and the article form, as in Ye Olde Shoppe. The first is from Sir Thomas More, an apocryphal text from William Shakespeare, the second, modern day claptrap. I guess they both might be claptrap, but the first is at least from the right era and used correctly.   


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Play the gerrymander game

Remember my post on gerrymandering? Yeah, me either. Nevertheless, Slate has a fun gerrymandering puzzle which may be instructive in a more hands on way. Give it a shot.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

This is, like, a filler post!

Not killer post--filler post. It's definitely an easier one for me to write up than most, because all I'm going to do is send you to Slate's website to read a short article by Katy Waldman called In Defense of Like.

I can remember my dad getting irritated over the use of the word "like" in this way. And perhaps it does sound a bit vacuous to some. But anything can be a verbal tick, after all. Yesterday, I was listening to a very well-informed and entertaining speaker, but at a certain point I became aware that everything he said was punctuated with a filler, "yeah", "yes", "right", or "that's right". Once I noticed this, I couldn't stop noticing. It's a very kindly sort of tic, but he could have lost about half of them and still not come across as disagreeable.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


This is just a funny one that I had never considered before. I happened to be watching an old episode of New Tricks last night, where the stalwart if aging team finds itself investigating a Wiccan coven. Along the way, someone brings up the word "warlock". Just a male witch, right? I mean, we've all watched Bewitched at some point or another, so we know this one. But in New Tricks, warlock actually means "oathbreaker". Really, I thought. That seems odd, and not exactly what I'd call neutral. So I thought I'd dig a little deeper.
Remember Uncle Arthur?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "warlock" comes from the Old English wærloga, which is a combination of  the word for faith or compact, wær, and a noun related to the word leogan, to lie. Thus, traitor, liar, enemy. In other words, an oathbreaker. It was from early on related to the devil, and meant one in league with the devil from about 1300.
Interestingly, though, there is an alternate theory as to how the word popped up in our other sense of "male witch", which did not appear in print until 1560 and came from Scotland. This version says that it may come from the Old Norse varð-lokkur, which means "spirit-caller".  The Oxford English Dictionary says this is inadmissible, but who's to say they always get it right?  Here's an article that takes a dissenting view. You should just read it if you're interested, as it has a lot of detail, but basically the author wonders if there might just be something  in the old  spirit-caller theory. He (we'll assume for now that "Tony the Hermit" is a he) questions the Anglo Saxon origin of the word. 
"Moreover, if it is Anglo-Saxon, why do we find it nowhere in England but everywhere in Scotland, where the Anglo-Saxons and their language did not penetrate? That is a major problem, and one I decided to track down."
I rather like his argument that the migratory path of the Scandinavian peoples carried them (and their language) to Scotland, and that a line like "But the docksy auld laird of the Warlock glen" (which he doesn't mention comes from a poem called "It Was On a Morn" by Joanna Baillie) makes more sense if it refers to a place of enchantment--where the spirits are called--rather than a place where sorcerers gather for maleficent ends. Of course, witchcraft and pagan lore have mainly been treated with deep animosity in Christianizing Western culture. Sir Walter Scott's passage from Redgauntlet  (1824):
"I will delate you for a warlock to the privy council!" said Sir John. "I will send you to your master, the devil, with the help of a tar-barrel and a torch!"
certainly isn't giving those spirit calling glens much benefit of the doubt.
This video talking about the meaning of the word warlock is surprisingly close to the line taken in the above mentioned New Tricks episode, which if you're wanting to hunt it down is called "Wicca Work". Both take the line that a warlock is not a male witch but one who betrays the coven. BlazeLeeDragon is a little more understanding than some might be about how words drift, though.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Drones Arrive at Steamer Lane--the video

I'm headed out for a few days tomorrow and though I'm not headed into the wilderness or anything, I doubt I'll be doing a blog post till I get back.

If you are diligent or bored enough to scroll down through the various blogs I write, you might notice one I put up called  Drone Off, which is just a round up of various drone news I hear. Basically, I'm agin' 'em. I think their deployment is morally corrosive to our government and ultimately to our society as a whole. But every once in awhile you come across some positive aspect of them.

Such is the case with this video which I learned about through our local paper, The Santa Cruz Sentinel. It's a very beautiful short film, somewhat dreamlike, taken from  a "quad copter" at one of most famous surf spots in Santa Cruz, Steamer Lane. More about the film and the film maker, Eric Cheng can be found here.

I'll be back with the usual barrage of ignorance soon.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Who put the "p" in comptroller?

I was watching Stephen Colbert interview Eliot Spitzer, who is running for the position of Comptroller of NYC, a few nights ago.(The broadcast was earlier but I almost never see the comedy shows on the night they are aired.) Colbert asked what a comptroller actually is, and though he of course turned the talk to Spitzer's scandal, Spitzer managed to get in a few words about the importance of the Comptroller's job.  I've embedded the interview below so you can hear it in his own words. 

Basically, though, the Comptroller of New York City is its chief financial officer. He or she advises the Mayor and City Council, as well as the citizenry on the fiscal health of the city. In practice, this means a lot of auditing and oversight. According to a Hunter College professor emeritus in political science, Kenneth Sherrill  the Comptroller acts as a form of check and balance on the mayor and council. As Spitzer points out in the interview, another very important function of the Comptroller is to oversee the city's big pension funds, worth about one hundred and forty billion dollars. It's through the use of this powerful tool that the Comptroller has some role and responsibility in overseeing Wall Street's tendency toward shenanigans as well. Of course, someone should really be overseeing the comptroller, as its a position ripe for corruption.

But all that is not why I fastened on this word. I was really just interested in why comptroller has a p in it. Wikipedia seemed to have a sensible answer: that it is a blend of the French compte, or count, and the Middle English countreroller, someone who checked a copy of a scroll, thus creating a useful word for someone who specifically checks financial sources.

However, other sources are having none of this. They, including the Online Etymology Dictionary, attribute the 'mp' rather than 'n' to all kinds of vices: "bad spelling due to influence of unrelated compte" (which in French sounded almost identical), "folk etymology", always bad in the minds of etymologists, though charming in the mind of someone like me, and so on. Personally, I think it's rather ingenious and wouldn't be surprised if that bit of word play was deliberate.

But if you want to get all New York 1896 on me, here's what the New York Times had to say back then:

We propose an amendment to the Revised Statutes of the United States, of the State of New-York, and of every State in the Union where the need of it exists. It is to this effect, namely:
That the official title Controller, in all laws, public records and documents, be spelled Controller, that being historically and etymologically the true and right spelling; and that the false and offensive form "Comptroller", born of ignorance and darkness, be discarded. (The full article is here.)

Eliot, Eliot--are you sure you want to plunge again into these murky New York waters?

(By the way, the image at the top of the post is by Paulo Barcellos, Jr., which he terms "Bladerunner style". He very generously puts his stuff up on Creative Commons, but you can catch more of his work HERE.


Thursday, August 1, 2013


I know--this word just isn't something that comes up so much in everyday conversation. Because our everyday conversations are more like "Hi, how ya doing?" "Fine, how about you?". "Have a good day, then." "Thanks, you too."

Nevertheless, my friend asked me yesterday what phatic meant, and in the tried and true method of this blog, I did what I always do. I took a wild guess. "Having to do with prophecy?" I wagered.

Luckily I didn't bet any money.

"Phatic" turns out to refer to a form of speech, a form which I have cleverly already illustrated above. Phatic speech is speech that is used primarily in a social sense rather than to convey information. We all know what phatic speech is, but what we usually call it is "small talk". As is often the case, the Urban Dictionary perhaps says it best:

Small Talk: Useless and unnecessary conversation attempted to fill the silence in an awkward situation. Commonly backfires into feelings of loneliness and social discomfort. Usually is initiated by comments regarding the current weather, weather pattern of the past/future few days or major weather disturbances in the recent past.    

Since, until recently, I spent a fair amount of time working a cash register, I have apparently engaged in a lot of phatic speech, though all unwittingly.

Unlike many words, "phatic" came into the lingo at a particular time and via a particular person, Bronislaw Malinowski. If you're like me, you may have some vague recognition of Malinowski as an anthropologist, and even the fact that his work centered on the Trobriand Islanders may ring some very muffled bell. Malinowski  coined it from the Greek phatos, meaning spoken or that may be spoken.

Here's a relevant passage from his "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages". (I say "a" relevant passage because I did not read the whole essay. There may be others more pertinent.):

[Phatic communication] is a flow of language, purpose-less expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious [there is] always the same emphasis of affirmation and consent. Are words in Phatic Communion used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not! They fulfill a social function, and that is their principal aim, but they are neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener. Once again we may say that language does not function here as a means of transmission of thought.

Malinowski himself understood that phatic conversation was far from the exclusive domain of "primitive languages", though like any good Western anthropologist, he probably didn't perceive the phatic in his own culture as easily saw it in others. Just a hunch.

I actually filched the quote entire from a very good post on a blog called Hearsay and Backtalk that I happened upon in my travels. The initial observation there is that many, many of the posts on Facebook and the like are actually forms of phatic communication. And the writer, who doesn't identify him or herself, wonders if social media hasn't proliferated phatic expression, and even spread its influence to other spheres. The 'like' button would seem to be crucial to this phenomenon.

As I read on through this thoughtful piece, which I do recommend, a couple of things came up. First, phatic speech isn't so empty of information as all that. Sometimes we really do want to know something about the weather, for instance. And a phatic question can quickly become non phatic. "How are you doing?" "Terrible--my wife just died." I actually just overheard a variant of this last just a couple of days ago and will attest how quickly the conversation becomes non-phatic, even to someone who is only just inadvertently listening in.

The other thing is that as the above mentioned blog post points out, even small talk has its place. The blog leads to a further link to a little piece by Danica Radovanović on phatic posts, which she takes from her own doctoral research. At heart, and I think "heart" is a relevant word here, phatic communication acknowledges that others exist and maintains connection with them. Not such a bad thing, all in all.

Oh, yeah--