May 2009 Archives


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I occasionally see people use "virii" as the plural of "virus," but there's no good reason (that I know of) to do so.

See Wikipedia's entry on the plural of virus for details. Excerpts:

The plural of virus is viruses. In reference to a computer virus, the plural is often believed to be virii or, less commonly, viri, but both forms are neologistic folk etymology and no major dictionary recognizes them as alternative forms.


Virus comes to English from Latin. The Latin word vīrus [...] means "poison; venom", denoting the venom of a snake. [...] Since vīrus in antiquity denoted something uncountable, it was a mass noun. Mass nouns—such as air, rice, and helpfulness in English—pluralize only under special circumstances, hence the non-existence of plural forms [of vīrus] in the texts.

Gell-Mann quotes


Just came across two quotes attributed to physicist Murray Gell-Mann:

  • If I have seen farther than others, it is because I am surrounded by dwarves.
  • [On the Feynman Problem-Solving Algorithm]
    1. Write down the problem.
    2. Think very hard.
    3. Write down the answer.

(In case you're unfamiliar with the original of that first bit, the line is a parody of a line from Newton.)


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An "energumen" turns out to be a person possessed by an evil spirit, or someone who acts like they're possessed, or a fanatic.

I'm now surprised that I haven't seen this term used in fandom.

But in fact where I came across it was an L.A. Times article about Pelosi and torture, in which the article's author wrote: "I oppose the sort of witch hunt Pelosi and her energumens clearly crave."

(I ask that commenters not comment on the politics of that statement; I'm quoting it only to give an example of word use. The opinions of people quoted in this blog are not necessarily shared by the blogger.)


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According to a variety of sources, the word "TASER" was coined as an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle." Apparently the Taser's inventor was a fan of the Tom Swift books, and named it after Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. (Wikipedia says that the inventor made up the "A" middle initial.)

I find that hard to believe, but several independent sources mention it, and I can't find any that contradict it.

Mama, momma, mom, etc

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I was recently discussing various words for "mother," and it occurred to me that words/spellings like mama, momma, mom, ma, and mamma have different connotations to me.

MW11 lists them all as synonyms or spelling variants, and sometimes I don't especially notice any difference between them. But if I'm paying close attention, I expect them to be used by different kinds of people. (Especially in prose fiction; in speech, I can't tell the difference between the "mama" variants.)

I think the connotations are more obvious with other variations; for example, not many adults use "mommy" except when talking to small kids; terms from other languages ("amma," "mère," "maman," "madre," etc), when used in English prose, also have particular connotations; "mammy" has very specific connotations in the US; "mum" and "mummy" and "mam" and "mater" are mostly British; etc.

But I think even for the quasi-synonymous group of American English terms I listed in the first paragraph above, the connotations vary by person, at least to some degree; for example, I've seen a story's narrator indicate that "mom" is a word used only by fairly young people, which doesn't match my experience.

So I'm curious: what different connotations, if any, do these words (and others like them) have for you? Are the connotations mostly about age, about class, about geographical region, about culture? Or is there no particular pattern?

Mother's Day or Mothers' Day?

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Every year around this time, a question of the utmost importance occurs to me.

I refer, of course, to the question of whether this holiday honors mothers or a mother—that is, whether the apostrophe should go before or after the S.

Fortunately, since the advent of Wikipedia, it's easy to answer that question definitively. The Wikipedia article on the topic quotes a Vancouver Sun article from 2008. The article is about Anna Jarvis, who trademarked the term "Mother's Day" in 1912; it notes:

She was specific about the location of the apostrophe; it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.

Of course, one could go against Jarvis's wishes—it's not like we pay much attention to her other intentions for the day:

"I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit," Jarvis complained, dismissing greeting cards as "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write."

But other sources also suggest the singular apostrophe placement. For example, from Wikipedia again:

[The singular apostrophe has also been] used by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in the law making official the holiday in the U.S., by the U.S. Congress on bills, and by other U.S. presidents on their declarations.

And MW11 supports that punctuation as well. So I'll go along with it.

(Yes, I could have just checked the dictionary in the first place. But this route was more interesting. I had no idea the term was trademarked, for example.)


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Headline from a news story:

Gay rights activist makes Clinton stop

What did the activist make Clinton stop doing, and was it President Clinton or Secretary Clinton?

Answer: Neither: the story is from the Clinton Herald, a newspaper from Clinton, Iowa, and "stop" in that headline is a noun, not a verb.

I was amused.

Context disambiguates!

Tweets and twits

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There's been some confusion in mainstream news venues lately about Twitter-related terminology. I imagine that most of y'all who read this blog know more about Twitter than I do, but still figured it couldn't hurt to try to clear up some confusion.

One point of confusion in the press lately is about what to call one who twitters. The answer is "twitterer," but some news sources have been calling such a person a "twitter."

Which ties in with the question of what to call a single Twitter posting, and what to call the act of posting such an item.

Twitter's official term has always been "tweet." For example, see their help page—it uses the plural noun "tweets" and the verb "tweeting."

There are a few people who dislike the word "tweet" and have tried to change it to "twit" or something else—for example, a blog entry from a year ago advocated "twit."

Which seems weird to me—perhaps she's just twitting us? The noun "twit" and the verb "twit" already have meanings that give a very different connotation to their use in connection to Twitter. To me, the noun and verb "tweet" sound playful and insubstantial—they suggest that the postings on Twitter are fun and small. Using "twit" for that would suggest to me that the postings there are obnoxious and/or taunting.

Anyway, that entry links to someone else's entry where he says he refuses to use the word "tweet." But then at the bottom of his entry, the automated blogging system has provided a link that allows readers to "Tweet This Post."

So despite some people's unhappiness with "tweet," I don't think it's going away anytime soon.

House rules, part 4

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I've previously posted various fortune-cookie fortunes that I find entertaining when you add ". . . in bed" to the end:

While cleaning my room this past week, I came across a bunch more than I've collected in recent years. (For two-sentence fortunes, usually insert "in bed" at the end of the first sentence.)

  • Care and attention to the key relationships in your life will pay off.
  • Concentration leads to success.
  • Contentment is just around the corner for you.
  • Do something unusual tomorrow.
  • Don't be so critical and overly concerned about details.
  • Flowers would brighten the day of your close friend tomorrow.
  • A friend or partner will be giving you needed information. Listen!
  • Friends long absent are coming back to you.
  • If a true sense of value is to be yours it must come through service.
  • Investigate new possibilities with friends. Now is the time!
  • It's kind of fun to do the impossible.
  • Learn to listen, not hear.
  • No obstacles will stand in the way of your success this month.
  • Now is the time to call loved ones at a distance. Share your news.
  • The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next.
  • Simplicity of character is the natural result of profound thought.
  • Time is what keeps things from happening all at once.
  • Try something new and different. You will like the results.
  • The world is always ready to receive talent with open arms.
  • You are thorough and very organized.
  • You will be happily surprised by a long time friend.
  • You will be selected for a promotion because of your accomplishments.
  • You will be showered with good luck before your next birthday. (A separate fortunate was less specific about time: it just said "You will be showered with good luck.")
  • You will enjoy razor-sharp spiritual vision today.
  • You will stumble into the happiness of your life.
  • Your hard work is about to pay off.

And my favorite from this batch:

Put the data you have uncovered to beneficial use.

(I've now collected all the fortunes from all the abovelinked pages, as well as these new ones, in a new page: Fortunes collection.)


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Occasionally, critics and reviewers can be entertainingly vicious. I generally don't approve of that sort of thing, but sometimes I can't help being amused.

Case in point: the first line of yesterday's MTV review of the new movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past:

In a time of tight money and ridiculous ticket prices, "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" offers a tempting opportunity to save yourself 10 bucks.

The rest of the review isn't nearly that negative, though.

Makers of computer software and hardware have to give each new version of a given product a new label or name, to distinguish it from other versions.

There are a variety of different approaches to version naming; a given company rarely continues a given naming scheme for more than about three or four versions. I think marketing people get antsy if you don't change the naming scheme every few years to make the product seem even newer and fancier than before.

For example, just look at Windows version numbers. A very rough outline: 1, 2, 3, NT, 95, 98, 2000, Me, XP, Vista, 7.

Or, less extreme, Dreamweaver version numbers: (roughly) 1, 2, 3, 4, MX, MX 2004, 8, CS3, CS4.

Mac OS stuck with consecutively numbered versions for a long time, but then came "System 7" (still numbered, but not quite as simple), and then Mac OS 8, 9, and "X." (The official pronunciation is "Mac Oh Ess Ten.") That OS hasn't yet gone through a period of being named by year.

After the named-by-year period there's generally a period of names that have nothing to do with version numbers--which is arguably what Apple's already done with the big-cats theme, but they still use version numbers as part of the name. And they've also missed the usual period of being named by a cryptic but cool-sounding two letters that suggest something but don't technically stand for anything (NT, XP, MX, SE, LC, cx, ci, etc), though the "X" in "Mac OS X" serves somewhat the same purpose.

Interestingly, Apple's gone through almost all those phases with hardware names; I wonder if that's part of why they've mostly avoided those phases with OS names.

I wrote most of the above on a mailing list about a year ago, during a discussion of future code names for OS X, before the name "Snow Leopard" had been revealed. Various suggestions from various sources included Cougar, Ocelot, Lynx, Bobcat, Lion, Mountain Lion, and Liger. (Also Cheetah and Puma, but those were internal code names for versions 10.0 and 10.1.)

I jokingly suggested Serval because they're super-cute, but that and Ocelot and Liger seemed to me too obscure.

And Cougar, Bobcat, and Mountain Lion all seem like a step down from big fancy cats like Leopard.

I can't resist noting one more suggestion: someone in the Unofficial Apple Weblog poll suggested Lolcat as the next OS X version name.

Anyway, speaking of animals and version names, none of that is what I meant to write today. The main point of this entry was meant to be this item from today's swine flu news update:

The World Health Organization says it will stop using the term "swine flu" to avoid confusion over the danger posed by pigs. It will instead refer to the virus by its scientific name, "H1N1 influenza A."

I understand the goal here--apparently lots of people are avoiding eating pork to avoid getting swine flu, and I'm sure the world's pork producers are unhappy about it. But I don't think the WHO is thinking clearly about that particular aspect of the problem. I'm pretty sure that few news organizations or people on the street will refer to this as "H1N1 influenza A," not when they've got a perfectly good, catchy, short, and seemingly easily understandable alternative in "swine flu."

So I propose that the WHO take a page from the computer industry or the hurricane namers, and start giving version numbers/names to major disease outbreaks.

For example, the current flu could be designated "Influenza 2009 A." Or "Flu Pandemic 2.0" (1.0, of course, having been the Spanish flu, a.k.a. "Influenza 1918 A.") Or "WorldFlu XS." Or it could have a catchy code name, like "Flu Wildfire"--part of a natural disasters theme (so the next one might be "Flu Hurricane" or "Flu Earthquake").

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