September 2006 Archives


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I thought I knew what a nit was (it's one of those things I'm always picking, right?), but it turns out there's another meaning: it's a unit of brightness, equal to 1 candela per square meter. The nit page at helpfully notes that the abbreviation is "nt," and that "A good LCD computer monitor has a brightness of about 250 nits." (That was last revised in mid-2002, so good LCD monitors may well be nittier than that by now.)

I first encountered the word in a CNET story, "Tripping the lights organic."

Btw, the search function at doesn't seem to work very well, so if you're having a hard time finding a unit, try their index. Lots and lots of cool words there.

According to MW3, this use of "nit" derives from Latin "nitere," "to shine."

Meanwhile, it turns out there are other definitions of "nit" as well. In particular, in Australia, to "keep nit" is to keep watch.


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I'm always a little surprised to find that a common English word that I don't associate with Asia derives directly from an East Asian or South Asian root.

I've known for a while, for example, that "honcho" (which always sounded Spanish to me) comes from Japanese "hansho," "squad leader." (First appeared in English in 1955! Much more recent than I'd have expected.)

But it was only recently that I learned that "cushy" comes from a Hindi word meaning "pleasant." And ultimately from Persian, so I guess that's originally more Middle Eastern than South Asian; still, not where I would've expected it to come from.



I mentioned this in a comment in my main journal, but I figure it's worth recording here as well.

The Clancy Brothers recorded an Ewan MacColl song, "Shoals of Herring," on their album The Boys Won't Leave the Girls Alone. There's a line in the song that I always heard as "with a hundred grand of the silver darlings" (meaning a hundred thousand). But the version of the lyrics posted at Cantaria has it as "a hundred cran."

At first I figured that must be a misprint; MW3 doesn't list the word "cran." But I checked OneLook Dictionary Search, and discovered that "cran" is the standard unit of measure for fresh-caught herring, about 45 gallons.

But how many herring is that? Luckily, itymbi foresaw that we might want to know, and gave an answer a couple years ago. It pointed to the cran page at the very useful (and previously unknown to me), which tells us that a cran can vary from 700 to 2500 herring, but averages around 1200.

So actually, a hundred cran is probably significantly more than a hundred grand of herring.

The page also clarifies that it's 45 wine gallons, equal to 37.5 imperial gallons.

Side note: In some sense, this doesn't fit my usual criterion of being a word that I haven't heard before; I've been hearing it since I was a kid. Except I didn't know I'd been hearing it 'til last night, so I figure that's close enough.

snook, brouching, scraling


I usually post words here after I find out what they mean, but I just encountered three words that I can't find relevant definitions for, so I'm gonna post 'em here and see if any of y'all know what they mean.

First, "snook." A snook is a kind of fish, and there are various places named "Snook," and to snook is to make a particular gesture of contempt, or to show contempt for something. But in the Johnny Cash song "Straight A's in Love," the line "I began to be a snook at books" doesn't seem to fit any of those meanings. It's possible it's a typo or a Mondegreen, but all the sites I can find that have lyrics for that song include that line.

The other two are even more mysterious: on a page about Star Trek: Phase II at Memory Alpha, an episode summary mentions the crew "brouching and scraling at each other." Brouching? Scraling? The terms don't seem to appear anywhere else on the web, or in any dictionaries I have access to, including slang dictionaries. Typos? Made-up terms from the episode being described? I have no idea.

Any thoughts?


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Seen in a submission. "Scoria" (derived eventually from Greek "skōr," meaning "excrement") means "slag." Emphasis on first syllable.

Amusingly, MW11 defines "scoria" as "slag," and defines "slag" as "the dross or scoria of a metal." But the "scoria" definition has a little more detail, so it's not an entirely circular pair of definitions.


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As food travels through the digestive system, it spends some time in the stomach, where it's turned into a "semifluid mass" (says MW11) called "chyme." See The Digestive System for more.



Another one from a submission: "pyroclastic" refers to fragmenting due to volcanic action. In the story, I think it was being used as a synonym for "volcanic," but I'm not sure.


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A submission referred to "Ford dooleys," obviously (from context) a kind of vehicle. I spent a while poking around online trying to find out more; encountered the spellings "doolie," "duelly," and finally "dually." It seemed really unlikely that "dually" was a noun, but in fact the Wikipedia entry for pickup truck says that big pickups with doubled rear tires are known as "duallies."

While I'm here, I may as well mention that that Wikipedia article also says:

This type of vehicle is known in Australia and New Zealand as a ute or utility (from "utility vehicle"), in South Africa as a bakkie (pronounced "bucky"), and in Israel as a tender.

Not clear to me from that article whether "this type of vehicle" refers to pickup trucks in general, or specifically to the kind that have no sides or gate on the flatbed back.


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Turns out "nabe" is short for "neighborhood" (in the sense, I think, of the community that lives near you); apparently originally used in the phrase "the nabes" to refer to the local theatre.

...the webcam that's trained on Mathew Street, a nabe in Liverpool that houses the famous Cavern Club...

--"Robbery averted via Beatles fan webcam in Liverpool," Engadget, 28 August 2006


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It turns out that the word "canvas" derives ultimately from the Latin word "cannabis"; which, of course, means "hemp."

Not only that, but apparently the word "hemp" itself may be distantly related to the Greek "kannabis," which was the source of the Latin "cannabis."

(All this according to MW3; I first encountered the connection between "canvas" and "cannabis" in a New York Times article on attempts to legalize industrial hemp production.)

novice and eiderdown


At WorldCon, I ran into a couple of reading pronunciations I hadn't heard before.

A reading pronunciation happens when you learn a word by reading it rather than hearing it pronounced, and you guess how it's pronounced, and you guess wrong. I know reading pronunciations are common among sf readers (and presumably among people who were heavy readers in childhood in general), but I hadn't heard any lately, so these two stood out.

I don't know if I have any of my own left, but I've certainly had plenty in my time. A particularly embarrassing one for me was that I always pronounced "valise" as /'v&l Is/ (see ASCII IPA for pronunciation key); I said the word while reading a story aloud at some point in college, and everyone in the room thought I'd said "phallus." They eventually explained to me that it's actually pronounced /v@ 'lis/, rhyming with "police." (That one's also funny 'cause I know I had previously heard and liked the English version of the Jacques Brel song "Timid Frieda," which includes the line "There she goes with her valises held so tightly in her hands." But somehow even hearing that hadn't changed the pronunciation in my head.)

Anyway, at WorldCon I heard one person pronounce "novice" as /'noU vIs/ (first syllable like the word "no") instead of the standard /'nA vIs/ (first syllable like the word "nah"). I think when I first encountered that word I may've pronounced it like the phrase "no vice." Later in the weekend, I heard another person pronounce "eiderdown" as /'i dR dAUn/ (first syllable rhyming with "bee") rather than the standard /'aI dR dAUn/ (first syllable rhyming with "buy").

I don't remember who said these; if it was any of you, sorry for posting this publicly rather than taking you aside and telling you in private. I don't mean to embarrass anyone; just thought these were interesting.

Regarding "eider" and "eiderdown," perhaps it's worth mentioning a rule for German pronunciation that my parents taught me when I was a kid: in German, the "ei" spelling is pronounced like "eye," while the "ie" spelling is prounced like "ee." Or to put it another way, to pronounce "ie" or "ei" in German words, you look at the second letter rather than the first. I don't know enough German to know whether that's always true or only mostly, but it's certainly a good rule of thumb. Useful in reverse, too, for figuring out whether i comes before e or after in a German word that you know how to pronounce.



I don't want to turn this blog entirely into words I encountered in Privilege of the Sword, but I do want to note that a "fichu" is a particular kind of scarf.


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"Hartshorn" is a (perhaps old-fashioned) term for a particular kind of smelling salts (using ammonia); MW11 says it's because harts' horns were once the main source for ammonia.

Another one from Privilege of the Sword.

The term seems rather evocative to me; it sounds like it should be the name of a lonely castle on a moor somewhere. (Especially because I keep wanting to mispronounce it as "heart-shorn.")

(I'm obliquely reminded that it took me a while, as a kid, to parse the title of the Peter Dickinson novel Heartsease; I think I kept wanting it to have something to do with seas instead of ease.)


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"Chypre" (from French, meaning "Cyprus") is a kind of perfume. I encountered it in Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword.

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