Nerd-sightedness and other new words

May 27, 2018

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

agnogenesis

The deliberate production of information or ideas that create ignorance or unwarranted doubt.

cry-it-outer

A person who practices or advocates letting babies cry themselves to sleep.

dog-directed speech

A manner of talking to dogs characterized by a high pitch, slow cadence, frequent repetition, and whimsical tone.

ghost hotel

A residence that is used mostly or exclusively as short-term rental accommodation, particularly when offered through an online booking service such as Airbnb.

insomnia identity

The erroneous belief that one has trouble sleeping, which leads to physical and psychological problems similar to those experienced by true insomniacs.

kittenfishing

Embellishing or exaggerating one’s online dating profile.

manel

A panel or similar public discussion group that consists only of men.

nerd-sightedness

The inability to see beyond a technology’s interesting technical aspects, particularly to miss its ethical implications; to see the world from the perspective of a nerd.

nutpicking

Claiming that the craziest or most outrageous member of a group is a typical representative of that group.

 

 

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Witty book titles

April 15, 2018

Don’t judge a book by its cover – judge it by its title instead. There are some really clever book titles out there. They often involve puns or allusions to other books. Here are some of my favourites:

The Origins of the Specious, Patricia T. O’Conner33 Revolutions  Per Minute, Dorian LynskeyHere’s Looking at Euclid, Alex BellosMoby-Duck, Donovan HohnYoung Winstone, Ray WinstoneThe Missionary Position, Christopher HitchensA Very British Coop: Pigeon Racing From Blackpool To Sun City, Mark CollingsKill Two Birds & Get Stoned, Kinky FriedmanGone with the Windsors, Laurie GrahamPies and Prejudice: In Search of the North, Stuart MaconieSleeping Dogs Don’t Lay: Practical Advice For The Grammatically Challenged, Richard Lederer


12 of my favourite eponyms

February 25, 2018

In my post about naming diseases I referred to the use of eponyms. In previous articles I have looked at bowdlerise, morphine and Luddite. This week I wanted to look at a dozen of my favourites:

  1. Candido Jacuzzi invented the whirlpool bath for his son who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.
  2. The dinner jacket for semiformal evening dress takes its name from the Tuxedo Park Country Club, New York.
  3. The Greek god Pan, who could cause sudden, contagious fear in people and animals through the power of his voice, gives us the word panic.
  4. Jean Nicot (1530-1600), the French ambassador to Portugal, who promoted smoking by sending tobacco seeds and leaves to France in the mid 16th century gives us nicotine, the colourless, oily, water-soluble, highly toxic, liquid alkaloid.
  5. Decibel is a strange one. It was coined by telephone engineers. It was first called “bel” after Alexander Graham Bell. The deci comes from the Latin word for ten.
  6. Frenchman Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), Controller-General of Finances under Louis XV, loved to tax his fellow citizens. The dark image outlined against a lighter background is said to refer the victims of his taxes were reduced to mere shadows of themselves.
  7. Sam Maverick (1803-1870), a Texas politician and rancher who refused to brand his cattle, gives us the word for a non-conformist.
  8. Zanni from the Commedia dell’arte is a clown who wears a mask with a long, downward curving beak in the Italian. This gives the word zany.
  9. Jumbo, a 62 ton African elephant exhibited at London Zoo in the 19th century, give us the word for extremely large.
  10. Mr. Boffin, a character from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, gives us the word for an egghead.
  11. Syphilis, the infectious venereal disease, is from a 16th century poem by Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553), which tells the tale of the shepherd Syphilus, said to be the first sufferer of the disease.
  12. A photographer in the film La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo gives us the name for the camera-wielding celebrity hunters.

How illnesses are named?

February 11, 2018

Doctor to patient: The bad news is you have disease unknown to medical science – the good news is I’m going to name it after me.

_______

Where do the names of diseases, illnesses, conditions and syndromes come from? The history of the way we give names to diseases is colourful and controversial. It is a story of confusion, national rivalries, stigma and controversial scientists. The names we give to diseases reflect our current medical knowledge, but they are also a product of our societies. This is a fascinating historical journey.

Many of the names of illnesses have traditionally been eponymous. Medical eponyms are terms used in medicine that are named after people, and less frequently places or things. Although there are eponyms from patients such as Lou Gehrig disease (ALS), it is far more typical to take the name of the discovering doctor or scientist – Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease, Tourette syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and Hodgkin’s lymphoma are well-known examples. One thing I did not know was that Salmonellosis is an eponym too. The epidemiologist Theobald Smith, who isolated the bacteria in 1885, named the bacteria salmonella in honour of his boss, Daniel Elmer Salmon, a veterinary pathologist in charge of a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry research program during the late 19th century.

Sometimes the name taken can be controversial. Reiter’s syndrome is “a medical condition typically affecting young men, characterized by arthritis, conjunctivitis, and urethritis, and caused by an unknown pathogen, possibly a Chlamydia.” The problem is that Hans Reiter was an infamous Nazi war criminal who carried out terrible experiments on inmates at Buchenwald. He had discovered the syndrome in 1916 when he treated a soldier during the First World War. Now it is often referred to as reactive arthritis.

I do think that it rather bizarre to have a condition disease or a deadly microbe named in your honour. I suppose it is a way of achieving immortality, but I wouldn’t think that it would make your future in-laws feel particularly well-disposed towards you. There has been a move away from such eponyms. There are a number of reasons for this. These names provide no information to medical professionals. And imagine having to memorise all these surnames. The condition Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome, which involves congenital anomalies in or absence of the uterus and vagina, must be a nightmare to remember. This is why is also known as Müllerian agenesis or RKHS syndrome. What’s more science has become a much more collaborative enterprise, where it has become increasingly difficult to name just one person. I love the human stories behind eponyms, but I can see they may belong to another era.

What do Lyme Disease, Guinea Worm, German Measles, Ebola, and Lassa Fever have in common? They belong to another branch of eponymous name, ones which refer to the place where the disease allegedly originated. I use the word allegedly for good reason; many times the name does not reflect the medical reality. The classic case of this is the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. There was nothing particularly Spanish about this catastrophic epidemic, which left more than fifty million people dead. Why did Spain get the blame for this? As Spain was neutral in WWI, the Spanish government did not censor newspapers, as happened in the countries which were fighting. They did not want to lower morale. The Spanish press did print information about some deaths in Madrid, which were thus believed to have been the first cases. In fact, there had already been an outbreak in the USA, but it was hushed up.

This human tendency to blame whatever country they hate the most other areas for an illness is best shown in this map I found online. The disease in question is syphilis. Click on ther image:

AIDS provides another example of our tendency to lay the blame on unpopular social groups. It was originally known as GRID (gay related immune deficiency). I also saw 4H disease (haemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users, and Haitians. The names can also be misleading. In the case of swine flu it was humans who infected pigs, not pigs infecting humans. Nevertheless, a 2009 pandemic in Egypt led the Egyptian government to order a comprehensive hog slaughter. The pigs belonged to the much set-upon Coptic Christians. There was no scientific justification for the cull.

All this has led to the WHO introducing guidelines.  You can find them online:

The best practices state that a disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea) and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, and salmonella).

 Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

The reality is that it is really hard to find the right name. Let’s take Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I have almost no idea about the work of Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob. They did seem to have interesting lives. Creutzfeldt, who was 54 years old when WWII broke out, was not a Nazi supporter. Indeed, he saved a number of people from certain death in concentration camps, and also managed to rescue almost all of his patients from being euthanized under the Nazi Aktion T4 program. Be that as it may, the name is not very informative. However, transmissible spongiform encephalitis means little to me. However, there are worse examples. If you look at the longest words in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, they all seem to be medical in nature, but this is my intuition.

hepaticocholangiogastrostomy – 28 letters

spectrophotofluorometrically – 28 letters

pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism – 30 letters

These mash-ups of Latin and Greek roots are just incomprehensible to me.

The longest word in any of the major English language dictionaries is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a word that refers to a lung disease contracted from the inhalation of very fine silica particles, specifically from a volcano; medically, it is the same as silicosis. The word seems to have been deliberately coined to be the longest word in English. What some people will do to get attention! In the end when it comes to epidemics, you also need a word that is catchy, that alerts the public to the dangers. To do all of this does strike me as extremely complicated. It is very difficult to control language. we may well need to develop a dual system – one for the public and another for professionals.

_____

If you are interested in this topic, there are a couple of interesting podcasts:

Allusionist 45: Eponyms II – Name That Disease.

BBC Word of Mouth: Naming Diseases


Great writers breaking grammatical rules

January 21, 2018

As I Have posted before I am a sceptic about many of the grammatical rules that we learned at school. Here are some famous writers breaking them:

Starting a sentence with a conjunction

He had never seen a home, so there was nothing for him to say about it. And he was not old enough to talk and say nothing at the same time.” (Light in August, William Faulkner)

Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance—these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. (Four Essays on Liberty, Isaiah Berlin)

Double negatives

“I cannot go no further.” (As You Like It, Shakespeare)

“I never was nor never will be.”  (Richard III, Shakespeare)

Ending a sentence or independent clause with a preposition

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest, Shakespeare)

Using ‘they’ and ‘their’ with a singular antecedent

If everybody minded their own business… (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll)

Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. (Oscar Wilde)

Comma Splices

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” from A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Double superlative

This was the most unkindest cut of all. (Julius Caesar, Shakespeare)

Splitting infinitives

“It seemed that he had caught [the fish] himself, years ago, when he was quite a lad; not by any art or skill, but by that unaccountable luck that appears to always wait upon a boy when he plays the wag from school.” (Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome)

“Milton was too busy to much miss his wife.” (Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, Samuel Johnson)


The words they are a changin’: why it’s OK to use literally to mean figuatively

November 19, 2017

We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability; shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay. Samuel Johnson

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives. We must take a deep breath and, like the people initially so put off by Darwinism, embrace reality, this time linguistic. Among the many benefits of doing so: wonder replaces disgust, curiosity replaces condemnation, and overall, you have a lot more fun. John McWhorter from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally).

I have recently finished reading John McWhorter’s 2016 book on how the meanings of words evolve: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally). It is a book that looks at the way the meanings of words have changed and are changing right now. His central thesis is that we should be a lot more relaxed about what is going on. The book is full of revealing insights and you find yourself stopping every two or three pages, wowed by McWhorter’s latest gem. The linguist loves to analogise. He invokes fade-out endings in pop music, pre-ripped blue jeans, tool sheds, fads in baby names, junk DNA, living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen and the Victorian party game of creating a tableau vivant to get his ideas across.

The use of literally is one thing that is guaranteed to get any self-respecting pedant’s blood boiling. Thee word originally was another variation on indicating truth, more specifically exactness, as in “by the letter”. But words are not pressed flowers and it was inevitably going to morph into other meanings. As McWhorter points out, literally in its original meaning of by the letter no longer makes sense except as a metaphor. We were literally the only ones there; we were literally on the brink of a depression. There are no letters involved. Literally began to get more personal. It has become a way of venting, of attesting to the vividness of our personal sentiments when we are describing an experience we have had. I was literally dying of thirst. This is an area of language called pragmatics, the study of meaning in the interactional context, looking beyond literal meanings of words. Literally has become a discourse marker, a way to flag sincerity.

OK, so the meaning of words drift, but what irritates people is that this current use of literally is the direct opposite of what it should mean. But this is not unusual in the English language. There is an interesting category of words and phrases called contronyms, terms that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. Literally is one of them. The website Daily Writing Tips has an excellent list of 75 such terms. Here is a selection of other contronyms:

Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defence of one

Bolt: To secure, or to flee

Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement

Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse

Cleave: To adhere, or to separate

Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment

Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them

Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable

Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough

First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe in reference to a burn

Fix: To repair, or to castrate

Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat

Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement

Hold up: To support, or to impede

Left: Remained, or departed

Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent

Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm

Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights

Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office

Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect

Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee

Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal

Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part

Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely

Rent: To purchase use of something, or to sell use

Sanction: To approve, or to boycott

Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty

Scan: To peruse, or to glance

Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them

Trip: A journey, or a stumble

Variety: A particular type, or many types

Wind up: To end, or to start up

Do such words create mass chaos? No, we are generally able to pick up the meaning from context. If you say you are bound for London, I don’t think that you are trussed up. When they say on CSI that they are going to dust for fingerprints, I don’t think Grissom is going to bring out the duster. If I read that the Bank of England is responsible for oversight of the financial system I don’t think they job is to fail to oversee the banks. Well, actually in that case…

I agree with McWhorter that is actually quite cool that a word can literally mean both itself and its opposite. This is what makes studying a language so much fun.

One part of the book that I found fascinating was when he explained the process of grammaticalization. This is a process of semantic change by which nouns and verbs which represent objects and actions become grammatical markers such as affixes, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. In the latter category he provides us with plenty of examples. The modal verb can comes from the Old English cunnan, which meant know, an etymology which is reflected in such words as canny and cunning. What’s more, the past tense of cunnan was a word pronounced “coothe,” from which the couth in uncouth comes. The uncouth person lacks know-how, that is the knowledge of how to behave in polite society. Another typical modal ought’ originally meant ‘owed’. He also looks at affixes. The suffix ‘-ly’ is a contraction of ‘like’, a word which originally meant body. In the case of a word such as slowly, the original form would have been slow-like. And the past tense ending ed, it comes from the proto-Germanic did, as in walk-did.

There is much more in this book. He defends irregardless, stating that it is human nature to try to make sure that words are strong enough to do the job required. For instance, whelm used to mean what “overwhelm” means now. He also talks about


Text neck and other new words

October 15, 2017

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

beach-spreading

Taking up more than one’s fair share of space on a crowded beach.

entropy tourism

Travel that features places of decay, neglect, or abandonment.

fatberg

A massive, hardened agglomeration of fatty substances, particularly one found in a sewer and caused by homeowners and businesses pouring fats down drains.

fearonomics

The negative impact of fear and anxiety on economic activity; the use of fear to sell products and services.

gloatrage

Triumphant satisfaction that a person’s behaviour is as bad as expected, combined with outrage at that behaviour

granny nanny

A grandmother who cares for her grandchildren while their parents are working.

neighbor spoofing

Using a false caller ID to make a scam phone call appear to originate in the callee’s local area.

racecation

A trip that combines participating in a race, such as a marathon or triathlon, and a vacation.

situationship

A relationship between two people that is more than a friendship, but less than a romance.

text neck

Neck and upper back pain caused by an excessive and prolonged forward head tilt, such as when texting or performing other mobile device tasks.

wokeness

The state of being aware of and sensitive to social justice issues.