November 14, 2009


One of the basic ways to measure atmospheric pressure is a bourdon, a coiled tube, always closed at one end. It can be open to changes in pressure at one end, so it will uncoil as that pressure rises*. This might remind you of the party favors with coiled paper tubes that make a buzzy whistly noise and roll out and in. Well enough; the bourdon is also a stopped pipe in an organ, known for its buzzy tone, or the lowest drone on a bagpipe.

I assumed that the pressure gauge was named after the musical uses, which are clearly older -- the gauge was patented in 1849... by Eugene Bourdon. (There's a town Bourdon in France.) One of the translations Google gives for 'buzz' in English is 'bourdonner' in French.

Which came first? It seems unlikely that a name would have moved from a scientific instrument to the bagpipe in a hundred years, but a rare coincidence that someone named Bourdon found another use for the stopped pipe. Perhaps he was familiar with the musical behavior because of the coincidence of his name; perhaps the town Bourdon has been finding all the uses there are for stopped pipes for centuries; there are French cold-air bagpipes of quite respectable antiquity.

*Or closed at both ends and reacting to surrounding pressure.

So wrote clew.

March 31, 2009


Abnormal inability to fix the attention; what we now call ADD, I assume. The OED has an 1889 use in English, and an 1887 one in--German?. They give the etymology in Greek, but I don't think that implies that it was an actual Greek word.

So wrote clew.

December 12, 2007


Divination by choosing randomly from a collection; as from a deck of cards, the dictionary says; as from a MP3 collection on "shuffle", it does not yet say.

So wrote clew.

November 25, 2007


To moisten by sprinkling; still so used in breweries.

In microbiology, maybe the opposite? "Zafiriou et al. (1989) has demonstrated that in a very low density cell suspension, highly sparged to remove gaseous products..."

The suspension is being sprinkled, not to moisten something else but to maximize gaseous diffusion? I can see that you might use exactly the same equipment as the brewers, but the point of the operation is rather different. And there are online references to bubble-sparged photobioreactors, which seem farther yet from the original dewy sense.

"sperge" is Latin for sprinkle, leading to "asperges" and "aspergillum" for brushes (?!) used to sprinkle holy water in the Roman Catholic church; and from there, to the look-alike fungal species Aspergillum and probably to the family name of the doctor who described Asperger's syndrome. I can't come up with a good back-formation to name the syndrome for sprinkling, or brushes, or even fungi.

So wrote clew.

March 30, 2007


Never mind when English-speaking rhetoricians started claiming that "in Chinese, 'crisis' is 'danger+opportunity'"; Language Log has cites. (I would like to know how native Chinese speakers use the word, instead of being reminded that etymology doesn't control meaning.)

When did English-speaking rhetoricians forget that 'crisis' in English originally meant both hope and fear? It was a medical term; I think Maturin uses it in Patrick O'Brian's novels, and I would expect it in, oh, Tom Brown's Schooldays and some Little Women and the diptheria and scarlet fever scenes of Victorian literature generally. The crisis is the moment at which the patient's fate is decided. Depending on the disease, or the narrative, the whole household is muffled, or everyone is rushing in and out of the sickroom with linens and water. Either way, 'crisis' means that there is a chance of a good outcome if we do something about the problem, which is, I would suppose, the idea that the users of spurious Chinese are trying to get across.

From the citations in the OED, the gloomier use of 'crisis' as a metaphor for the disease itself and not its turning-point dates back to the mid-nineteenth century--and is specifically political and economic in use. Perhaps politics is especially prone to making a word pejorative by using it as a euphemism.

So wrote clew.

April 11, 2005


Originally one of three ancient schools of medicine (neither the Dogmatics nor the Methodists). From, oh, the sixteenth to somewhere in the eighteenth c., meant about what it does now (an experimentalist; one whose beliefs about the physical world are based on observation). After that it picked up a derogatory tone because Physicians were theoreticians, not "rude empirics". And in the eighteenth and ninteenth c. it was used as a boast and an accusation with all the scruple one expects of advertising and faction.

I looked it up because I was surprised by "rude empiric" in one of the Patrick O'Brien naval novels. I suppose surgeons and apothecaries were allowed to be empirics.

O'Brien is not cited by the OED for 'empiric', but he is a source for 'obnubilate'.

April 02, 2005


'Dwine'! That's the onomatopoetic archaic 'dwindle'. 'Dwindle' can sound kind of fun, but 'dwine', I think not.

March 31, 2005


Etymologically, from words for "doubt" or "error" or "deadly nightshade". ('I thought they were huckleberries', dwaled Tom.) Or, black, in a floriferous system of heraldic tinctures; or, a sleeping potion or opiate; all according to

Oops; I thought it was an archaic form of 'dwindle'.

I wonder if the heraldic tinctures-by-plants was for doing heraldry out in bedding-plants. Belladonna isn't perfectly black, but it might have been one of the blackest-leaved plants available a hundred years ago. When did the foliage-fanciers start searching for dark materials?

January 22, 2005


A word that imitates the sound it names is onomatopoetic. Is there one translation of this into ASL, or two? Onomatopoetic doesn't seem to come from any root specifically meaning sound, so I can imagine it logically being translated for any mimetic word; but if one were trying to explain the origin of either a word or a sign one might want two distinct words. For that matter, my cursory Googling suggests that Korean has mimetic words but maybe not onomatopoetic words. ??.

T'other year I heard Terry Pratchett speaking, and he read a bit of (I assume) Going Postal, which has a lot of semaphores in it. His speech was being interpreted in sign, and the sign for 'semaphore' is delightful, not so much for its direct mimicry as for the flowing transitions between it and the surrounding signs. Pratchett noticed that the audience was staring behind him, and Pratchett stepped sideways and gestured the interpreter up and read more about semaphores, to admire. He may have thrown some other unlikely words in, just to see if they were good fits.

I still remember it not principally for the 'semaphore' joke but for Pratchett's good humor and happiness at sharing a stage. He seemed like a complete mensch.

August 21, 2004


I thought it was funny that every English-speaking small kid apparently knows that earwigs will crawl into your ear and nest in your brain. (How about other languages?) I was astonished to find that the name is from the Old English for "ear-wriggle", and that the OED quotes Sax. Leechd., from ca. 1000 AD (as far as HTML entities will take us):

Wiþ earwicgan, genim þæt micle greate windel streaw twyecge...ceop on þæt eare he bið of sona.

which sounds to me like advice from the ancients on what we should do about earwig attacks. I wish I knew what it meant. The OED does also offer a later translation of Pliny, which says that if you spit into an earwig-infested ear, the earwig will come forth 'anon'; and The English Physitian suggests dropping in hemp-juice.

I did find a very helpful page on Old English on the Web. Note that making usable fonts would have been much harder if not for the similarity to living Icelandic. Old English fonts make the quote look even better, although I don't know if I've ruined the spelling: Old English earwig advice

My six-year-old self would have been cheered by so potent a charm against the pest.

June 10, 2004


either an experiment, or a state of risk. A usefully obnoxious word, as it could probably put two people out of four into a state of dither, annoyance or puzzlement, just because it sounds as though it must be obscene.

I found it in Tristram Shandy, of course, great winking shaggy-dog tale that that is, and in an anecdote that really is risqué.

April 15, 2004

Ustandic Kanhaplohumults

This is not an essay on Ustandic Kanhaplohumults.

It is a tyro's comment on the naming system in US soil taxonomy. It's little-endian; the final syllable "ult" is the strongest determinator: all the other parts are defined with respect to the parts to their right. A big-endian system, 'Ulthumhaplokan andust', seems more convenient to me, and more in keeping with the nomenclature for species. I wonder why we have the little-endian one. It's only loosely the case that soils are most likely to occur near their taxonomic relatives.

In practice there even seems to be a weak middle-endian use, tacking "loamy, mesic" on after the taxonomic description.

Funny how non-English my reversed version sounds to me. Not that the original is really trying to be English. It's picking roots from several languages, including maybe Japanese and Latin-ish English, and fitting them into a sort of pidgin loosely based on scientific Latin. On the third hand, making it an obvious pidgin saves us from worrying about treating terms as though we were writing in Latin.

And now I should get back to actually contemplating Ustandic Kanhaplohumults, and weathering and water reactions in general. For the curious and precise, see an introduction to the soil orders. I am finding it difficult to write an accurate summary of what this soil would be, because the taxonomy is written in a chain of if-elses, so what defines the Kanhaplohumults is first not having the conditions that define the three Great Groups of Humults that are defined earlier, and second having the weak kandic horizon from which they get the "Kanhaplo". Computer code to navigate the Keys to Soil Taxonomy would be very easy to read; English prose doing the same is lengthy and confusing.

The tests on which the code does or does not jump include the degree of weathering of the soil; what kind of chemical activity its clay supports, and how that clay has washed through it; an implication (or requirement? I'm still a beginner!) that there's additional, volcanic parent material; and the seasonal pattern of rainfall. Other soils might have even more diagnostic criteria.

March 17, 2004


Culch (or cultch) is stuff that isn't actually trash, but is waiting to be reused. It usually lives behind the barn. The word comes from the bed of crushed shells and rock that oysters breed on. It's what a bricoleur wants to have around, or sometimes what a compulsive hoarder thinks they're keeping.

My mnemonic false derivation is "cultural mulch". There are different mulches, some fast, some slow, some not as useful as they seem. The town dump can set aside a section for culch. A middling city can support several exchanges. A native NYNYer once described that City's culch system to me as one involving neither planning nor storage. No-one has room; storage is expensive; quite useful stuff goes out to the sidewalk daily, so that those who need stuff don't hoard it in advance. Instead, they go out for circuitous contemplative walks and trust that the city will provide. After all, you only need something good enough to be adapted.

That's probably a tropical system, no matter NY's physical climate. Cold hardwood forests don't cycle matter nearly as quickly; instead they can store carbon a long long time. (My mother inherited her father's culch pile, as well as her mother's store of probably-reusable buttons and cloth and pots. I don't think the domestic culch was called culch, though.) The classic New England culch pile rewards long planning by reducing dependency on the market. To investigate; does Braudel mention culch, when distinguishing between the three layers of economic activity?

I think it isn't culch when it changes ownership, either; the rag-and-bone man in Waste Not Want Not, and the trashpickers in Land of Desire or Gaffer Hexham in Our Mutual Friend, are pursuing a commercial trade.

I wonder what the words for it are in other languages.

February 28, 2004


Sodium or potassium bicarbonate. Baking soda, or sometimes what puts the fizz in soda pop.

I've run across references to 'health ruined by salaratus', though alas I've lost my original quote - Yonge, maybe, writing of persons so unfortunate as to be forced to live in US boardinghouses? Or, for instance, in Godey's Lady's' Book and Magazine, "Saleratus Destroys the Teeth". More seriously, Ellen G. White (1860s and later) warned against it, recommending fruit and varied whole grains in the diet instead.

So; really dangerous? It would be an easy sell as a nervous superstition; it was a new invention, with a bright halo of Progress and a trailing umbra of Risk. It was the easy way to make bread, the poor household's way, the way used by an unfeminine woman who did something other than tend the proofing yeast or beat biscuits with a mallet. Very suspicious. And of course it might have been badly manufactured, or promoted for reckless uses.

The use of soda ash for bread is said to be a New World invention, indeed a pre-Columbian one. And, as far as bread goes, the most famous use currently is probably Irish soda bread. Well set to fret nineteenth-century nerves, that combination of Native American and Hibernian history.

January 09, 2004


Divination by misprints.

I just made that up, but someone has to. There are three hundred years of etymological wrong to rewrite.

Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds lists many forms of divination. I was particularly fond of "tyromancy", divination by cheese, because it reminded me of the strange history of The Cheese and the Worms and also because I like cheese, Gromit. Therefore I plopped it in, with some other amusing divinations, when writing my summary-review. I didn't want to retype all of this, so I was cutting extended quotes from the Project Gutenberg copy, but PG had a different spelling, "typomancy", not a headword in the OED ("tyromancy" is). So I sent a note remarking that there was a tiny error to be fixed.

Project Gutenberg is not just tidy enough to fix single-letter typos, but very careful doing so: here's the letter I got back:

From: Jim Tinsley
This is an interesting case.
It is true that the OED gives "tyromancy", but not "typomancy", and the derivation is clear. However, googling shows many sites using the word "typomancy" as a variant spelling of "tyromancy"
(cf. and among many others)
so I was not willing to say that the existing text is definitely a transcription error. Was it possible that a transcription error in this PG text has, as it were, poisoned these web pages? Yes. (Which, by the way, I find a very chilling thought. Very.) But I didn't know that for sure. I looked up the original transcriber from our clearance records, but didn't recognize the name as a regular, and there was no e-mail address. I was about to dismiss this as inconclusive, when I noticed in the clearance that this was made from a 1980 reprint, so I thought of Amazon's new system. And, looking it up, right there on the page image of page 305 in Amazon, was "Tyromancy". But that is a 1995 reprint of all volumes together, and, when you have worked in this field for a while, you learn that editors of paper editions take liberties we wouldn't even dream of. At this point, anything is possible -- that typomancy was in the original and the 1980 reprint but changed in the 1995 -- that tyromancy was in all paper editions, but wrongly transcribed for PG -- that typomancy was an actual typo in the 1980 edition.
On balance, though, I found the Amazon page image convincing, and the change cannot be wrong in the sense of damaging the content, since even in the most lenient definition, typomancy is a variant spelling of tyromancy, so I'm making the change.

But then where did "typomancy" come from? It's odd because "tyromancy" is a really obvious derivation from the Greek for cheese. It would be sad if a OCR scanning error had propagated it, but the online uses don't all seem to be conscious of the PG edition, although they might possibly all descend from Mackay. Lacking old printings of Mackay to check, I went back to the OED to see where he got it, and finally read the smallest print in the etymology and the first attribution:

Tyromancy Obs. Also tiro-. [ad. F. tyromantie (Rabelais), f. Gr. τιρος cheese; see -Mancy.] Divination by means of cheese.
1652 Gaule Magastrom. xix. 166 Tyromancy [mispr. Typomancy], [divining] by the coagulation of cheese. ...

It wasn't a computer's OCR at fault. Someone transliterating from Greek saw the ρ ('rho', sounds like 'r') and wrote the 'p' that it looks like.

How do I know that's what happened? By typomancy, of course; divination by misprints.

October 16, 2003



The art or process of coating the inside of glass vessels with engravings or paintings, so as to give them the appearance of painted ware.

Either they're leaving something out of the definition, or that's impressively useless fancywork; it would be easier to paint the outside of a vase than to engrave the inside. Possibly they mean gluing prints of engravings to the inner side of the glass, to use the new Victorian mass of cheap illustration and avoid the need for a kiln.

Why, just so; "reverse decoupage". In a hundred years or so, Lisa Frank stickers.

October 13, 2003

Boots and Saddles

"Butta la sella!" translated in a concert program as "Saddle the horses!"; but later "Tutti a cavallo!" is "To horse, one and all!" I am curious:

  • what's the most literal translation?
  • is that where the bugle call "Boots and Saddles" got its name?

After a bit of web searching:

Google's translation gives "the saddleback throws". Throw the saddle? "Butta" is "it throws", throw the saddles onto the horses? throw yourselves into the saddles? I've wondered about "boots" since I was a kid: shouldn't you already have your boots on?

The entire phrase "butta la sella" only appears on Google in the context of this particular (suggestively martial) madrigal; "Boots and Saddles" apparently doesn't ever mean, "put your boots on and saddle the horses", but "mount your horses", and may have been particularly a U.S. term.

Not debunked, but unlikely. Still, I wish I had a recording of that song; the melody was suggestive.

September 02, 2003

mast & masticate

Is "mast" in "beech mast" related to the same syllable in "masticate"?

Not that I can find, but there's a funny missing link. The first is an old word of steady meaning in middle and old English, Dutch, High German, back to an OAryan root for 'to be fat, to flow', cf. Sanskrit for 'fat'. The second is from Spanish and French words which may come from the Greek word for jaw. But between those, in the OED, are a couple of mast* headwords having to do with the breast, as "mastalgia", from the Greek word for breast.

I can leap from 'fat & flowing' to 'breast' easily. I don't know enough Greek to guess if their 'breast' and 'jaw' actually are related. The first is rendered μαστος, the second μασταξ, if I'm reading the tiny characters correctly. (There should be a mark like an acute accent over the ο in the first word, but I don't see how to represent that in HTML entities.)

Or, from Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;  

And when the pigs come eat their fill
I guess it's all mast for the grill.

August 18, 2003


Meaning: declaratory (obs.); nominal(obs.); spoken instead of written, as a will (legal). That's from the 1913 Webster. Funny chiasmus in the changing meanings of this word; it's gotten more solid about being immaterial.

From Latin translated as "nominal". Did that mean to them what it does to us? My little Junior Classic Latin Dictionary has nuncupo, to call, to name; to proclaim, to appoint. Hunh. If naming someone appoints them to office, and and having office is regarded as a real thing, then it doesn't mean (as it often does to us) being something only in name. I have recently been vexed by nominal dimensions in lumber, because I am trying to repair something built with wood of the actual dimensions we now only name things by. Nothing like a black dusty half-inch physical gap to remind one that names can outlast their meanings.

Judging, inexpertly, from the uses cited in the OED, "nuncupatory" has gone down in the world as the spoken word has. In 1609, writing probably about the ancient world, an imperial throne was bestowed nuncupatively;
in 1651 "Lands cannot be given by a nuncupative will"; soldiers and sailors can make them, though. "Soi-disant" implies that no-one else would say so; "nuncupative" is a little more polite?

Or I'm leaning too much on this because I have been wallowing through the seas of the Elder Edda, which has lengthy catalogues just explained to me as "mnemonic ... primitive belief that knowledge of the proper name for a thing gives the knower the ability to evoke the object, or its power." But in Germanic, look you, and it lasted longer where the Latin-speaking clergy came late. That's an odd one for Harry Potter consistency arguments.

July 07, 2003


Three-dimensional objects such as models, sculptures, and puzzles.

(From School District of Philadelphia: School Library Handbook.)

June 15, 2003


This would seem to be either an invention of Connie Willis', or a typo, or (my bet) a typo she adopted when she found herself in need of something like a Snark.

It doesn't appear in the OED, and Google finds it only in another reference to To Say Nothing of the Dog. I bet it was 'figural'.

May 20, 2003


Steep ridges of sand and gravel; usually left by streams that ran under glaciers.

Surprisingly useful.

May 13, 2003


I took this down with a note that it seemed to be an English legal term about debt. Google does not immediately succor me; 'unavowable' isn't in its dictionary.

I did find flights of Swinburnian swooning delight in despair on the topic - no, probably topos - taproot? Tipoff - of "unavowable communities"; as in a discussion of which heads itself with

"..the community of those who do not have a community." --Georges Bataille

"There is hope--but not for us." --Kafka

The Unavowable Community is a node of these discussions; much suggests that it is impenetrable French literary philosophy, except this comprehensible summary:
The Unavowable Community is an inquiry into the nature and possibility of community, asking whether there can be a community of individuals that is truly "communal." The problem, for Blanchot, is that the very terms of an ideal community make an "avowal" of membership in it a violation of the terms themselves.
As I understand this, if we really belonged, we couldn't choose to; and if we can't choose we can't vow. Religions attack this head-on, by confirmation, for instance; most families fail to (one hopes not to need to); in practice, I think states avoid the issue too: there's no alley-oop-in-free for treason committed by someone under the legal age of consent, is there?

Back to the original possible legal term: does define 'avowable', in a straightforward way, as something that can be openly acknowledged. 'Avow' is etymologically related to 'advocate', vocation, call to the bar: there's a reference to Donne, who uses the term of doctors in Meditation IX:

They consult, so there is nothing rashly, inconsiderately done; and then they prescribe, they write, so there is nothing covertly, disguisedly, unavowedly done.
But where is the reference to debts? Better hint in the 1913 Webster, because it cites Blackstone:

2. (Law) To acknowledge and justify, as an act done. See Avowry. Blackstone

Avowry finally has something clearly to do with debt, and specifically with taking goods under Distress:
4. (Law) (a) The act of distraining; the taking of a personal chattel out of the possession of a wrongdoer, by way of pledge for redress of an injury, or for the performance of a duty, as for nonpayment of rent or taxes, or for injury done by cattle, etc. (b) The thing taken by distraining; that which is seized to procure satisfaction.
So perhaps an unavowable debt was one the creditor couldn't prove, if asked why he was making off with the furniture. I can't remember where I ran across the word, but it seems about right for (say) loans made to a minor, against a possible inheritance, with nothing written down. I found it in some Victorian novel, probably. I know I haven't been reading Donne's prose.

Neither the OED (1st ed.) nor Black's Law Dictionary (Abridged 7th Ed.) are much more specific about 'avowable' although the latter does subdivide 'distress', for instance to

distress damage feasant. The right to seize animals or inanimate chattels that are damaging or encumbering land and to keep them as security until the owner pays compensation.

May 09, 2003


A cowshed.

May 08, 2003


the belief that art is its own end.

(What would be the word for believing that only art is its own justification?)

May 06, 2003


What puzzled me was the link between excelsior, the stuffing or packing material referred to in Victorian and Progressive era novels, and excelsior in

THE shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device--

(also found in Victorian and Progressive era novels). Turns out the packing material is still available, used in upholsterery and old-fashioned teddy bears. This excelsior is fine wood shavings, especially from Germany. It was originally a trademarked brand name. (One of Edith Wharton's crasser characters is named Ondine or Undine; someone asks her if her parents named her after a mermaid or Rhinemaiden, but no, she assumes they were thinking of a kind of hair pomade.)

Excelsior, the Romantic cry from the Longfellow poem, means "more than excelling"; straightforward derivation.

Romanticism annoys me, but as a early induction to literature it seems very useful. I can quote Longfellow's poetry though I don't particularly like it; my grandfather can, though he learned it eighty years ago; and a student I used to tutor, who was painfully learning English in her early adulthood - she came from Somalia - was surprised and pleased that she could follow Longfellow's rhythm and meaning more easily than she could follow looser modern authors. (I was enormously curious what her teachers thought of a paper on Longfellow, but never found out.)

So wrote clew.


Not inherent; supplemental.

(Tantalizing etymology, from the inchoative of scire, to know. What a promising name for a grammatical condition.)

So wrote clew.

May 01, 2003



Google turns up a Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary definition, from 1913, that partly describes this as "An abstraction of money". Half the people with whom I have ruminated on 'abstraction' as a possible opposite term for 'reification' read this blog; at some point we can now mutually enjoy a really dweeby joke.

So wrote clew.


"larvae enclosed in a membrane in addition to the eggshell"; definition from the Texas Ag Extension guide to Poultry Pest Management, which is impressive in its own right.

Or, from McGraw-Hill, an "incompletely developed larva that hatches from the egg of a chigger mite".

Are those the same thing?

So wrote clew.