January 2006 Archives


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According to MW3, "rimu" is "a tall New Zealand timber tree." It's a Maori word.

I probably won't post too many plant names in this blog; as when playing Fictionary, I get a little bored with definitions that basically just say "a plant from [place]." But I'll probably post a few now and then.

This word and the previous one appeared in stories submitted to SH, which is interesting because it's pretty rare for a submission to contain a word I don't know. (No need to take that as a challenge.)



To "saponify," sez MW11, is "to convert (as fat) into soap."

Not exactly a word that one is likely to need in everyday use.


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[...] he had wedged himself in the coign of a double-stemmed meshwood trunk[...]

--On, by Adam Roberts, p. 225 of the 2002 Gollancz paperback edition

This one looks even more familiar than the last one; and even if I didn't know what it meant before, I could get a decent idea from context. So I almost didn't list it, but then I saw that MW3 lists it as a variant spelling for "quoin," which I didn't think I'd ever seen, and which means "angle" or "corner." It can also refer to a wedge, a keystone (or a "voussoir" (!)), or a lozenge (in the sense of a cut gem facet). Or the bricks (or other pieces) that make up the exterior corner where two walls meet; and actually, the illustration for that looks familiar, so maybe I've seen "quoin" before after all.

So that's interesting, but even more interesting is that MW3 lists two different entries for "coign"; the other says that it's derived from "coin," which turns out to be an archaic term for "corner" or "cornerstone" (from Middle French coin meaning "wedge," "stamp," or "corner"). And "quoin" derives from "coin."

Also showing up when I searched in MW3 for these words were phrases like "canting quoin" (also "canting coin"): "a triangular block for steadying stowed casks in a ship." And "coign of vantage": "a position advantageous for action or observation."

And in fact if you look up "coign" in MW11 (abridged), the only entry that comes up is "coign of vantage." So I guess the spelling "coign" is at least somewhat obscure after all.



Carved like a gargoyle visage in the side of the wall, massive, marmoreal, except that a great rumbling low breath escaped from between its lips[....]

--On, by Adam Roberts, p. 225 of the 2002 Gollancz paperback edition

MW11 says "marmoreal" means (paraphrasing) "like a marble statue."

It's possible I've seen this word before; it looks vaguely familiar. But I certainly had no idea what it meant, even from context. If I'd had to guess, I'd have guessed it meant "marmot-like." :)


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[...] he was scarred, the skin twisted and pulled as if in fright. Or caught in a powerful wind; although [...] there was a dead, waxy gleam to the white skin that made it look wrong, frozen in its peculiar tourbillons.

--On, by Adam Roberts, p. 116 of the 2002 Gollancz paperback edition

A tourbillon (or tourbillion) is a whirlwind or vortex; it's related to "turbine."

According to MW11, "tourbillion" is pronounced American-style, /tUr 'bIl j@n/, while "tourbillon" is pronounced French-style, /tur bi jo~/. (Yes, I'm trying yet again to make you learn ASCII IPA, though it turns out these days there are multiple ASCII IPA systems, and Unicode is a lot better supported so I could just use real IPA characters.)


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Somehow it never occurred to me before (unless I've forgotten) to wonder about the etymology of the word "mile."

In Adam Roberts's novel On, there's a moment when a character learns the meaning of a foreign word, "mile," as something like "thousands of arm-lengths." (Don't have the book handy for exact quote.)

Which immediately (because of the interesting linguistic context in which that passage appeared) led me to wonder if "mile" was derived from "thousand" in the real world. And, sure enough, it's from Latin milia passuum, meaning "thousands of paces." Nifty.


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[...] and remember the heady days when numeeja was all the rage.

--Boo.com dusts down website for June relaunch, The Register, 24 January 2006

Never heard the term before. Another borrowing from some South Asian language? thought I. No; turns out it's a cute respelling of "new media."

Also: nu meeja hor.


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A "shufti" is apparently a look at something, or a look around, as in "let's have a quick shufti at the specs" (from the Register, which uses the term regularly).

Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words site gives the etymology of "shufti"; it comes from the Arabic, and apparently entered wide English use among the RAF in the 1920s.

cingulate gyrus

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...we found increased activation in brain regions [including...] posterior cingulate gyrus activation in post-therapy response to forgivability judgments. [...] Empathic and forgivability judgments activate specific regions of the human brain[....]

--First study to watch brain patterns when forgiving

Or to put it another way, the cingulate gyrus (a ridge in the brain that partly wraps around the corpus callosum) appears to be involved in making decisions about judging whether a person or action can be forgiven.

I was vaguely aware that "cingulate" was a word before, and I'm generally not posting here about words I've seen for a long time but didn't know the meaning of 'til now. And I'm certainly not going to post an entry for every anatomy term that I haven't seen before--even the brief Wikipedia entry for cingulate gyrus contains a dozen such words (including "fornicate gyrus," which isn't what it sounds like). But I thought it was interesting that there's a particular region of the brain associated with forgiveness.

I also thought it was interesting that various nonscientific articles refer to the region simply as the "cingulate," leaving out "gyrus." I can't tell whether that's accurate terminology or not; there are other parts of the brain whose names also include "cingulate," which is an adjective meaning (sez MW3) "having a girdle especially of transverse bands or markings."

Anyway, the other reason I thought it was worth mentioning here is that every time I see "cingulate" I think "Cingular." I wonder if the people who came up with that brand name were familiar with the term "cingulate," and if not, what led them to put a C at the beginning.


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Dashpots are mechanical piston/cylinder devices used to control velocity, dampen vibration, or absorb end of stroke shock. Generically, they are devices that dissipate energy as heat by forcing a fluid through through an orifice.

--Airpot FAQ

unitary executive

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I ran across the phrase "unitary executive" in a transcript of a speech by Senator Edward Kennedy. Wikipedia says that the unitary executive theory "contends that [...] all of the executive power of the United States [is vested] in the person of the President."

There are many interesting consequences of this theory that this blog entry is too small (and narrowly focused) to contain. If I were William Safire, I would write a lengthy and erudite column discussing the history of the term and its political connotations in current use, but I am not.


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In chess, zugzwang (German for "compulsion to move" [...]) occurs when one player is put at a disadvantage because he or she has to make a move--the player would like to pass and make no move, but the fact that the player must make one means being forced into a weaker position.

--Wikipedia entry on Zugzwang as of 17 January 2006

I may've encountered this term before; not sure. But it's a good word.


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Flemish artists used mixed tempura and oil painting during the 1400s[....]

--Oil paint entry in Wikipedia, until 16 January 2006

I corrected this in the entry, of course, but I was amused enough by it to preserve it here for posterity. I picture old Flemish artists frying up some vegetables and prawns and then dipping them in paint and using them as brushes.

(The Wikipedia article on "tempura" suggests that it's possible the word indirectly derives from "tempera." No idea how plausible that is. But it does remind me of one of my favorite pun phrases: O tempura! O morays!)

By the way, the Wikipedia articles about paint could benefit greatly from editing and expansion by someone who knows something about art (unlike me). If you're interested, follow that link to the "oil paint" entry, edit as needed, then follow links from that page to other pages and edit those too.

For example, the entry on paint is full of clumsy sentences; the tempera entry contains oddly phrased assertions like "True tempera paintings are quite permanent" (as opposed to the false tempera paintings that are only somewhat permanent?); the entry on gouache is listed as a "stub," meaning it's brief and incomplete (for example, there's no explanation of what "poster paint" is or why it's called that); the entries on decal and decalcomania could use some cleanup; and so on and so on.


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I've known the term "dum-dum," referring to a particular kind of ammunition, for years, but it was only just now that I found out where the word comes from: the Wikipedia entry for dum-dum says it originally referred to ammunition "produced in the early 1890s at the Dum-dum arsenal near Calcutta in British India."

Wikipedia isn't always accurate, but I'm inclined to believe that, because it corroborates my guess about the etymology; what led me to that guess was a reference to "a factory in Dum-Dum" that made bullets, in Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth.

lost the plot


Which reminds me that it was only a few weeks ago when I first encountered the phrase "lost the plot," which I gather is quite common British slang. To "lose the plot" apparently means something like "lose the thread" or "lose perspective" or "stop making sense" or "get things in a mess" or (in the American idiomatic sense) "lose it." As in "Tories continue to lose the plot" or "[this was] before [the band] began to lose the plot" or "if you lose your temper ... you are certain to lose the plot." (Taken from assorted snippets of web pages that turned up in a Google search.)

Quasi-definitions thanks to Andrew Watt's 2002 post on xml-dev.

flat chat

Apparently, "flat chat" is Australian slang for "flat-out busy," as in "I've been flat chat at work[....] I've had absolutely no time to blog[....]" (from an entry in ModBlog - About Milly)

judicial and judicious


"Judge Alito has been a judicious judge and my confidence he will be a judicial justice is based on my personal knowledge of the man and my belief his judicial temperament is rooted in his personal character," said Yale law professor Anthony Kronman, who said he was a Democrat.

--"Alito Hearing Over, Vote Set for Next Week," by Liza Porteus, Fox News, Friday, January 13, 2006

I can't tell whether that's a typo, a joke, a misquote, or something else. I'm guessing that Kronman meant to say Alito would be a judicious justice; "judicial justice" is something of a tautology. On the other hand, I can imagine that Kronman said the line as quoted, intending some less-common meaning of "judicial." Such as: "arising from a judgment of God." (MW11, def. 4). Or, more seriously, I can imagine he might have meant something like "suited to the job of judging"--though perhaps "magisterial" would be a better fit in that case.


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[...] there was no way Apple could win the motherload of customers [...]

--Peter Burrows, "Should Apple Open Up?", Business Week, January 11, 2006

I've seen this a couple other times lately in other places. It's "mother lode." It has nothing to do with loads.

Update: I contacted Business Week, and they quickly corrected the spelling, so this item is no longer on their site.


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"[...] Not some mullah, some sepoy, wearing out my chappals in hard service.[...]"

--White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, 2000; p. 74 of the 2000 Vintage International trade paperback edition

Glossary of Terms from Hindu and Other South Asian Languages says a chappal is "a kind of sandal commonly worn in India."


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That famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, showing a man standing in a circle with his arms out? I never knew it had a name. It's called the Vitruvian Man, based on a description of the male human body by Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect.

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