December 2009 Archives

Three pirate lasses

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It occurred to me recently to wonder about the derivation of the word "cutlass."

Turns out it's from Middle French "coutel," meaning knife, which ultimately derives from Latin "culter," meaning knife or plowshare. (! Had no idea that one word meant both things.)

And the "lass" part appears to be a Middle French augmentative suffix. So I gather that the Middle French "coutelas" basically meant "big knife."

Which made me wonder about another piratical term: "windlass." Which turns out to derive from Norse "vindāss," in which the "āss" part means "pole." So it's a winding-pole.

Kind of neat that the two lasses are etymologically distinct from each other as well as from the word "lass."

As well as, of course, from that third pirate-related lass, the spyglass.

in the wind

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Just happened across a remarkably poetic phrase that I've never heard used this way before.

I was reading an article about a woman who stabbed an attacker; the woman fled the scene, and near the end of the article it notes:

The woman was still in the wind Thursday night, police said.

At first I thought that must be a typo of some sort. But a quick search finds some other occurrences, such as this headline from an unrelated article: "Shooting victim shows up at hospital, perp still in the wind."

Urbandictionary suggests that the term can mean various things, including "unable to be found" and "on the run."

The derivation seems obvious, but I do wonder (a) where and when the phrase was first used this way, and (b) why I've never encountered it before.

New iPhone word game

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Some day I'll review various iPhone word games that I like; in particular, Jumbline (also available in a free lite version) was my favorite until now.

And it's still pretty cool. But what I'm posting about today is a new one: Befuddled. (On sale right now for 99¢, to celebrate the release of their Spanish-language version, Aturdiras.)

You find words in a grid, Boggle-style. But the grid is large (8x8), and when you find a word, the letters are removed from the grid, and the letters above them drop down a row, and new letters are added at the top. (Also, there's no timer; you can take as long as you want.)

And there are a bunch of elaborations—for example, the letter tiles are made of various materials, and a word must be made up only of one material. And you get "coins" that let you buy various special actions, like a bomb to remove tiles.

It all may turn out to be too complicated for my tastes in the end. But what I'm really liking about it right now is that you can strategically pick words that cause other tiles to fall into the right places to make some great words.

For example, I just arranged things to allow me to spell CASUISTRY, for 4,984 points, and I am mighty pleased with myself as a result.


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Saw this sign on a streetcorner outside a store recently:

Used babies, $500 and up

The store was, of course, a piano store.

Another recombinant idiom

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From TechCrunch, December 3, 2009: "Don't shoot the gift horse that feeds you."

island of misfit toys

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I don't think I had ever heard of the Island of Misfit Toys before a couple of months ago, when it figured prominently in an anti-iPhone Verizon commercial.

Which would normally be more a matter of my lack of pop-culture knowledge than something relevant to words or language. Except that the phrase seems to be suddenly becoming a popular metaphor.

I saw it in two different news stories during one week a couple weeks ago. I didn't record the first, but the second is a New York Times article, "The Fall and Rise of Media," which says (about job loss in traditional media) "That carnage has left behind an island of misfit toys."

It's possible this has always been used as a metaphor, ever since the Rudolph TV special was broadcast in 1964, and I just didn't notice it until I had a referent to pin it to. But I see that a direct-to-video movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys, was released in 2001, and has been aired annually on ABC since December of 2006, so I'm speculating that that's led to increased awareness of the Island. I don't have time to track the phrase further, but I suspect use of the metaphor has gone way up in the past three years.

Language changes

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I'm reading a science fiction story published in 1958: "Eastward Ho!", by William Tenn. It posited a post-Collapse future in which white people live in low-tech poverty, while American Indians are redeveloping high tech.

And I just came across this line of narration:

All the same, the Indians were so queer, and so awesome.

And it's true that there are some awesome queer Indians. But somehow I don't think Tenn meant quite the same thing that I mean by those words.

Rum, hobbitses, and the Kirk

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A few weeks back, N introduced me to the catchy video remix "Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain; why is he climbing a mountain?"

It does a neat job of turning spoken intonation into quasi-melody (and adding music and video). As I wrote in an old column on intonation:

I'm fascinated by spoken-word recordings in which intonation almost provides a melody. There's a Scott Johnson recording which includes clips of someone saying, "Remember that guy, J-John somebody? He was a—he was sort of a jerk" over and over. It's not really a melody, but when repeated it begins almost to sound like one. Peter Berryman suggests elaborating on this notion by recording conversations and basing melodies on them. Jim Moskowitz adds that minimalist composer Steve Reich has used spoken-word techniques like this, most famously in a piece called "Different Trains," which uses recordings of people talking about 1940s US passenger trains and Nazi concentration-camp trains.

Turns out that Kirk is not the only subject of such remixes. Suddenly everyone seems to be talking about "They're taking the hobbits to Isengard!" and "Why is the rum gone?"

Who knew spoken words could provide such catchy melodies?

Title of entry, of course, refers to the three great traditions of the British Navy.


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Y'all may have seen the Powerthirst video. (If you haven't, then the following probably won't make any sense.)

Well, now there's Powerlatin!!!



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Recently was reading some discussion or other of creationism and came across the word "baramin."

Creationists use the word to refer to the "created kinds" of animals referred to in a couple places in the Bible.

Wikipedia says:

The word "baramin", which is a compound of the Hebrew words for created and kind, is unintelligible in Hebrew.

Why God gave us the serial comma

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As reported by Womzilla, via Supergee on the cranky_editors LiveJournal community:

Several groups trying to re-ignite New England's faith are theologically conservative, such as the Southern Baptists [and others]. They say a reason for the region's hollowed-out faith is a pervasive theology that departs from traditional Biblical interpretation on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality.

—from an AP article, "Evangelists target spiritually cold New England," as published at Yahoo! News

More on gender-neutral pronouns

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I've written about gender-neutral pronouns before. Here's an article from a couple months ago about the origin of gender-neutral "he" along with a discussion of singular "they."

Oklahoma demons

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Noticed this line a couple months ago in the lyrics to "People Will Say We're in Love" (from Oklahoma):

Your eyes mustn't glow like mine

Has anyone done a horror filk version of the whole musical?

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This page is an archive of entries from December 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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