Recently in the New-to-me words Category

sectional (and yak-shaving)

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Ah, yak-shaving.

I was curious about the use of the word “sectional” in Civil War-era documents; that's not a usage I had encountered before. So here's how looking up a word goes in the modern world, at least for me:

First I Googled [sectional], and got info about sofas. Then I Googled [sectional Civil War] and got pages that used the term but didn't define it or talk about usage.

So I went to to look it up. But that site has once again forgotten that I always check the “Remember me” checkbox, so it wants me to log in again. (If I weren't a subscriber, I would've gone to their free dictionary page and gotten the info I wanted immediately.)

So I sent them a tech-support note asking how to get the site to remember me, but first I had to make sure cookies were enabled, which required digging into Chrome settings and then Googling [_utma].

And when I was done with all that, I still had to sign in to the dictionary. But I didn't remember my password, so I went to 1Password. Except the 1Password extension in Chrome had disappeared. So I went to find it in the extensions store. Turns out it was installed, just disabled. So I tried enabling it, but that didn't work. So I looked at my extensions page and clicked Reload, and that worked. So I tried to use the newly re-enabled extension to fill in my username and password. And it gave me an error message saying it couldn't verify the authenticity of my browser and thus couldn't fill in my info.

Here's how the old style of looking up a word works: pick up a physical paper dictionary, find the word, read the definition. Of course, that would require getting out of bed.

PS: It turns out that the relevant definition of “sectional” is “local or regional rather than general in character.” I eventually found it by looking at the free version of the MW website instead of the signed-in version.

PPS: If you haven't encountered the term “yak-shaving” before, wiktionary has a pair of definitions. Though I feel like there's also a third variation in which the connotation is that you should have avoided the whole recursion chain by doing something different at the start.

My favorite example of yak-shaving is a 30-second video clip that I gather is from Malcolm in the Middle.


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Jackie pointed out (I'm paraphrasing) that we're now seeing bromance storylines with female characters. I did a quick Google for [female bromance], and found the following suggested terms:

  • womance (pronounced to rhyme with “romance”)
  • sismance
  • romansis
  • sistaffection

I don't like any of those terms, so I'm hoping that y'all can come up with something better. Any thoughts?

(Then again, I initially hated the term "bromance," but it's grown on me. (See also Jude Law on bromance.) So maybe I'll like these terms more when I'm more used to them.)


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Everyone knows about homophones. But I only just learned about homophenes: different words that look the same to a lip-reader.

See also A Lip Reader Deciphers The Umpire-Manager Arguments Of 2012.

Semi-finished casting products

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In addition to being amused by the phrase “semi-finished casting products,“ I like (and hadn't encountered before) a couple of the specific names of such products:

“a length of metal [like a filled-in tube] that has a round or square cross-section” that's less than 36 square inches in area.
A billet with a cross-section bigger than 36 square inches.


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A couple weeks ago, I came across the phrase assortative mating in an article about autism:

Judith Warner explores a provocative theory about why rates of autism, particularly the mild form known as Asperger's, are on the rise: because people who have certain “autistic” traits are increasingly meeting and marrying each other and having offspring who are more likely to be on the spectrum.

The theory of “assortative mating” was first put forth by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher[. . . .]

I hadn't seen the word “assortative” before, but it didn't occur to me to post about it here until a week or so later, when I came across it again in various articles about research on social networks in mythology:

The three myths were shown to be similar to real-life networks as they had similar degree distributions, were assortative and vulnerable to targeted attack. Assortativity is the tendency of a character of a certain degree to interact with a character of similar popularity; being vulnerable to targeted attack means that if you remove one of the most popular characters, it leads to a breakdown of the whole network—neither of these appears to happen in fiction.

Wikipedia has more general info on assortative mixing in the network-theory context, also known as assortativity, or (when referring specifically to social networks) as homophily.

According to MW11, the word “assortative” in the mating context (“being nonrandom mating based on like or unlike characteristics”) dates back to 1897; they don't list the network-theory meaning per se, but I can see how the one could have derived from the other.

(Btw, thanks to Google Web History search for letting me find the first article quickly and easily when I went looking for it after encountering the term a second time.)


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LPT, I recently learned, stands for Life Pro Tip: a tip about how to do something in real life (as opposed to on a computer). My understanding is that, as with other pro tips (a.k.a. protips), LPTs are often sarcastic, or refer to obvious things as if they were surprising or difficult.


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In May, I saw the following line in an article about bicycling, socializing, and social networks in Dublin:

“We just want to show how cycling is a social thing to do and that you don't need to be online to have the craic,” said Elst.

According to Wikipedia:

“Craic,” [. . .] or “crack,” is a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation, particularly prominent in Ireland. It is often used with the definite article—“the craic.“ The word has an unusual history; the English crack was borrowed into Irish as craic in the mid-20th century and the Irish spelling was then reborrowed into English.

It appears to be pronounced just like “crack.”

The rest of the Wikipedia article is worth reading too; it gives the history of the word, and touches on the controversy over the spelling craic, which has been criticized as “fake Irish” and “pseudo-Gaelic.”


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Desenrascanço is a Portuguese word more or less meaning “disentanglement,” used to refer to improvising solutions, or, as one web page puts it, “an ability to solve a problem without having the knowledge or the adequate tools to do so, by use of imaginative resources or by applying knowledge to new situations [...] resulting in a [...] good-enough solution.”

I gather that “hack” or “kludge” might be quasi-synonyms, except that I most commonly hear those used with negative connotations, whereas desenrascanço apparently has positive connotations.

A friend of mine once lived in an apartment where a lot of things didn't quite work; the people who lived there tended to put together a lot of “makeshift systems” (their phrase, iIrc) to get things working right. If I'm understanding right, that was very much in the spirit of desenrascanço.

Another web page described desenrascanço in terms of MacGyver, but the TV example that sprang more readily to my mind was Alias. Without ever making a big deal of it, one of Sydney Bristow's great strengths was making use of whatever was available to get herself out of bad situations.

Yet another web page suggests that “This is the word you use when you realized you dropped your keys down a storm drain and pull out an umbrella, a flashlight and a roll of tape and by the magic of desenrascanço, retrieve your keys.”

vagina et alia

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The brouhaha over a Michigan state Representative being banned from speaking on the House floor after saying the word “vagina” has led to, among other outcomes, a spate of articles suggesting euphemisms for “vagina.”

For example, Naomi McAuliffe writes, in the Guardian:

Apparently, when discussing a medical procedure, it's not really appropriate to use medical words. Well not about lady bits anyway. It makes me wonder what euphemisms would be acceptable. “Will the representative get his hand out of the otter's pocket?” “Can the honourable gentleman refrain from trespassing in the lady cave?”

Otter's pocket! Apparently this is from the phrase “wetter than an otter's pocket,” which some people use to refer to weather (18-sec video), while others use it to refer to female (human) arousal.

Later in the same article, McAuliffe uses the terms “lady garden,” “fanny-fou-fah,” “fun tunnel,” and “growler.” All may well be in common use, but I don't think I'd heard any of them before. (I had heard “fanny,” but not “fanny-fou-fah” per se.)

Meanwhile, Sarah Ditum, writing in the New Statesman, mentions “tuppence,” her young daughter's made-up word “nooni,” “foof,” and “fandando.” (Along with several negative slang terms.)

Noreen Malone, probably joking, mentions “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” (Along with a few other more common ones I've seen before.)

And Sarah Mirk suggests “squiggly bits.”

(Found all of those linked from a Detroit Free Press blog post.)


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Not long ago, I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in a printed copy, on paper—the relevance of which I'll explain later), and was struck by this bit:

He'd always said it of Mr. Leamas, always would, he was a gent. Not public school, mind, nothing arsy-tansy but a real gent.

So I got curious and looked up “arsy-tansy,” only to discover that it's a hapax legomenon: in the entirety of the web as indexed by Google, the only occurrence of that term is in the Google Books search result from that book.

(After I post this entry, of course, that will no longer be true.)

I thought maybe it was a misspelling of a more common word, so I tried searching again without the quotation marks. The only other relevant result was this:

“We used to think Bennington girls were artsy-tansy dykes,” counters the former captain of the debating team.

Except that that's an OCR error; the original text (from Jay McInerney's story “Philomena”) says “artsy-fartsy.” So that's no help.

There's another occurrence of “artsy-tansy” in an unrelated Google Books result, but that too is an OCR error for “artsy-fartsy.” (Looking at the shapes of the words “tansy” and “fartsy,” you can see how a computer might misread one for the other.)

I thought for a moment that “arsy-tansy” in the Le Carré book might also be an OCR error, but recall that the copy I was reading was printed on paper.

Still, it's possible that the book was OCRed at some point before the edition I have, which is the first Pocket Books trade paperback edition, from 2001.

So, if any of you have an older edition of the book, could you take a look? The sentence in question is near the beginning of chapter 11, in the midst of the very long second paragraph of that chapter.

And coming at it from the other side: have any of you encountered the word “arsy-tansy” in other contexts?

A slash by any other name

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about abbreviations containing slashes; researching that reminded me to mention that there are a couple of different names for slashes, and a couple of different punctuation marks that look like slashes.

Apparently a synonym for “slash”; don't think I've ever seen this usage, but a couple of sources (including my dictionary) refer to it.
Same as “diagonal” in that I don't think I've seen it used before, but MW3 says it's a synonym for “slash.”
scratch comma
I'm certain I've never seen this term before. MW3 defines it as “a diagonal formerly used as a comma,” which is rather, um, oblique. An older dictionary gives a clearer description: “a diagonal stroke used by some early printers in place of the comma.”
I've never encountered this word before, but I love it. MW3 says this term can be used as a synonym for “slash,” but can also specifically mean “a diagonal or upright stroke used to separate one marginal proof correction from another in the same line.” I shall endeavor to use this word as often as possible from now on.
The Jargon File says that this is a rare term for a slash. I don't know the context for that; haven't seen it. The same page also notes that in the extremely silly computer language INTERCAL, a slash is called a “slat.”
slant line
Apparently specifically used in phonetics to refer to the slashes before and after a phonemic transcription. Apparently “slant” is also used as a synonym for “slash” in some contexts (according to MW3), but I don't think I've seen that. And one web page says the slash is “often called the 'slant bar' by computer users,” but I don't think I've seen that either.
Presumably so named for its resemblance to a cut, “made by or as if by slashing” (as my dictionary puts it). The etymology of the verb “slash” is unknown; OED says perhaps related to “OF. esclachier to break.”
Originally an ancient Roman coin. According to Wikipedia, in the UK, pounds, shillings, and pence were abbreviated using names of Roman coins: libra (abbreviated £), solidus (abbreviated s), and denarius (abbreviated d). The s used for shillings became elongated and evolved into a slashlike mark. The term “solidus” now refers specifically (at least in mathematics) to a less-vertical slashlike character that's used between numerator and denominator in a fraction, although it's quite common to just use a slash for this purpose. Unicode distinguishes between a “solidus” (/) (which in that context is an exact synonym for “slash”), a “fraction slash” (⁄) (which is called a solidus in math), and a “division slash” (∕), which in some typefaces may be even less vertical than the fraction slash. (See also Writing Fractions in HTML.)
I gather this is used in the UK when speaking a string of letters and/or numbers that includes a slash, as in “27 B stroke 6”—although I gather that “stroke” in this context is also used to refer to a hyphen.
From Latin virgula, meaning small stripe. Originally specifically referred to a small stroke that was an early form of comma in medieval manuscripts. In modern typography, this is the standard name for what's more casually known as a slash; in most modern contexts, this term is a synonym for “slash.”
Computer slang for a slash, according to Computer Hope's jargon pages.

I suppose it's also worth noting that a huge number of people are confused about the term “backslash,” no thanks to Microsoft. In MS-DOS and its successor operating systems, the backslash (\), a mirror-reversed slash, is used to separate components of a path in the filesystem—that is, to separate names of parent and child directories, and to separate a filename from the name of the directory that contains it. However, in almost all other computer contexts—and especially in URLs—the character used for that separation is a forward slash, also known simply as a slash. (Before Microsoft popularized the backslash, there was no need to say “forward” slash.)

But because many people's first exposure to computers has been a Microsoft operating system, a lot of people don't understand that the backslash is unique to MS. So I hear a lot of people try to say URLs aloud by saying things like “h t t p colon backslash backslash. . . .” And sometimes they try to type URLs that way too.

Suffice it to say: unless you're talking about the location of a file on a Windows disk, don't use backslashes.

One other note, unrelated to backslashes: If I wanted to make a comprehensive list of the ways that “/” is pronounced, I suppose I would have to include things like “over” and “out of” (in fractions and test scores, as in ”257/512” or “76/100”) and “per” and “an” (in phrases like “65 miles/hour”). But I'm focusing in this entry on names for the punctuation mark (and related marks). I'm not sure that the distinction I'm making here is as solid as it sounds, but it'll do.

time gun

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Sadly, a time gun isn't what I, as a science fiction fan, initially thought it was.

However, it is nonetheless kinda cool. A time gun is apparently a cannon or other piece of artillery that's fired every day at a specific time, to allow people nearby (including passing ships) to set their clocks accurately. An early form of network time server, I suppose.

A time ball is a related concept, using a visual instead of an auditory signal. The Times Square Ball is a variant.

One problem with using sound as a time signal is that sound is relatively slow. The niftiest thing I found when I looked up “time gun” is an 1861 Edinburgh time gun map, showing “the time taken for the sound of the one o'clock gun to travel from Edinburgh Castle to different parts of Edinburgh and Leith” (as the website puts it).

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