Mary Anne noted in passing recently that it was muggy in Chicago, and I realized that though I've known the word all my life, I didn't know where it came from.

Turns out (according to MW11) that it's from the dialect word mug, meaning “drizzle.” So I guess muggy originally meant drizzly rather than humid.

While I'm here, I like the phrasing of MW11's definition of muggy: “being warm, damp, and close.” There are relationships that could be described that way.

And it puts me in mind of other three-word sets, like “fast, cheap, and out of control,” but maybe that's a topic for another day.


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.”


Back in March, I watched an episode of the original Mission: Impossible TV series, which led me to look the show up on Wikipedia.

I was amused by the paragraph about vaguely Eastern-European-esque place names and words used in the series:

Although a Cold War subtext is present throughout the series, the actual Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is rarely mentioned over the course of the series. [. . .] However, in the early years, [. . .] many of the targets appear to be leaders of fictional Slavic countries. Major named enemy countries include the “European People's Republic” and the “Eastern European Republic.” Additionally, real languages spoken in Eastern Europe are used. In the Season One episode “The Carriers,” one of the villains reads a book whose title is the (incorrect) Russian Na Voina (About War); police vehicles are often labelled as such with words such as “polii├žia” and “poIiia”; and a gas line or tank would be labelled “Gaz,” which is a Romanian translation. This “language,” referred to by the production team as “Gellerese” [after series creator/producer Bruce Geller], was invented specifically to be readable by non-speakers of Slavic languages. Their generous use of it was actually intended as a source of comic relief.

laser sharp

A few months ago, I encountered a news article that referred to “laser-sharp focus.” I was amused by what I thought was a recombinant idiom, but then when I Googled the phrase, I was surprised to discover that it's in very widespread use, including in plenty of established publications.

The original phrase, “razor-sharp focus,” makes more literal sense (though I know that's an odd thing to say about a metaphor): razors are literally sharp. But then again, when we say that focus is “sharp,” we don't actually mean sharp like a razor.

So I went to the OED for a history of “sharp.” Originally (going back to Old English), it had to do with having a good edge or point for cutting or piercing. Not too much later, it developed a metaphorical meaning: “Acute or penetrating in intellect or perception.” And then a while later it started to mean having acute vision or hearing. And then: “Keen-witted and alert in practical matters, businesslike.”

So by 1697 (the earliest cite listed for that last meaning, though I wouldn't be surprised if it had been used that way earlier), “sharp” has metaphorical connections to both vision and business. So I can imagine that could easily lead to the idea of someone's eyes having a sharp focus, literally and/or metaphorically.

Meanwhile, it also began to refer to an image or object having clearly delineated edges, and by 1883 there's a reference to a photographic image being sharp. So that's an image with a sharp focus.

And then somewhere along the way those uses of “sharp” relating to vision and/or images got combined with the metaphorical comparison to a razor (Thackeray referred to “Epigrams that were as sharp as razors” in Vanity Fair in 1848, though presumably that's not the first use of that phrase). Seems like a natural combination, a way of saying that the focus is not just sharp but very sharp—but still, it's a bit of a mixed metaphor.

And then along came lasers.

And lasers are sharply focused light.

Well, okay, lasers are actually coherent light. But it's easy to think of them—not in a scientific sense, just looking at them from a lay perspective—as being a very sharply focused beam of light.

Also, lasers can be used to cut, and an edge produced by a cutting laser seems (at least in the popular imagination) like it ought to be even sharper than the edge of a razor.

So it makes perfect sense to start with the idea of a “razor-sharp focus” and then update it to the modern world and an idea of even greater sharpness, to creat “laser-sharp focus.”

And it actually makes the metaphor more coherent (if you'll pardon the pun).

So although I initially thought the phrase was a little goofy, taking an already somewhat over-the-top metaphor and magnifying it, I'm now really pleased with it. It takes a longstanding phrase that consisted of two somewhat incompatible metaphors, and it intensifies (heh) the metaphor while also making it more consistent.

(Originally wrote this in February 2012, but didn't post it 'til now.)


Recently happened across the Kryptonian Language Project: “an ongoing effort to flesh out a full working language for the home planet of one of the most popular fictional characters in history, Superman.”

There's a wealth of information on the site, from notes on pre-Crisis vs post-Crisis Kandorian to discussions of the alphabet and grammar, to an English/Kryptonian dictionary. Oh, yes, and you can download a Kryptonian font.

South Asia

Before I met Mary Anne, I had never heard the term “South Asia.” And I keep running into white Americans who either aren't familiar with the term or misinterpret it, so I thought it was worth posting about.

Like most of the other white Americans who get confused by the term, I had heard the term ”Southeast Asia” many times, usually in reference to Vietnam and/or Cambodia. But the only other term for an Asian region that I was familiar with was just “Asia,” which I had usually heard used to refer to China and Japan, though sometimes also some other countries in the region. I didn't think of India as being part of Asia-the-region at all, although I knew it was part of Asia-the-continent. (And I had heard the term “Asia Minor,” but (a) thought of that as kind of old-fashioned, and (b) thought it meant India, whereas I now see that it refers to a part of Turkey.)

When I first heard Mary Anne refer to “South Asia,” I was really confused. I thought she was referring to Southeast Asia, and I had never heard India or Sri Lanka grouped into Southeast Asia.

But I was just wrong about what she meant; South Asia is a different region from Southeast Asia. Here's Wikipedia on South Asia:

Different sources vary in their statements of which nations are part of the region. For example, according to the United Nations geographical region classification, Southern Asia comprises the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. However, the United Nations notes that the "assignment of countries or areas to specific groupings is for statistical convenience and does not imply any assumption regarding political or other affiliation of countries or territories." By some definitions, some of those nations are not part of the region, and by some definitions, Burma and Tibet are also included in the region. . . .

(I'm cheating here; Wikipedia says that partly because I just edited it to say that. But I believe it to be accurate; the changes I made were to bring the article into agreement with the cited sources. See the Wikipedia article for links, and see the article's Talk page for extensive argument about whether various of those countries should be included in the definition.)

In the US, the common use of the term “South Asia” appears to generally include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and sometimes Afghanistan and/or the Maldives. But as noted in Wikipedia, there's a fair bit of variation among definitions. And definitions elsewhere may vary even further. Definitions of regions often carry a great deal of political and cultural weight; it's not my intent in this entry to provide a definitive definition of the term, because I don't believe there is one.

Instead, my goal in this entry is to make clear, to people like me who weren't aware of it, that “South Asia” means something different from “Southeast Asia.”

(By the way, note that the UN uses the term “Southern Asia,” but I never hear people call the region that; I always hear “South Asia” from people in the US whose ancestors come from that region.)

The other related term that white Americans sometimes get tripped up on is “East Asia.” That term, too, has multiple definitions, but generally includes China and Japan, among others, and does not generally include Vietnam or Cambodia or any of the South Asian nations.

(Originally wrote this in February 2012, but didn't post it 'til now.)

Resource for English questions

Jim recently pointed me to the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site. For those unfamiliar with Stack Exchange, it's a collection of websites on various topics that are designed for asking and answering questions.

Stack Exchange can take some getting used to. It's not a general discussion forum; the specific goal is for people to ask “practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face” and receive answers to those questions. In the case of the ELU site, though, there's a bit of a fine line between the sorts of questions that are okay to ask (about, for example, word choice, usage, grammar, etymology, and dialect differences) and the sorts that aren't (such as simple basic questions about definitions, pronunciations, and synonyms that can be easily answered by a dictionary, a thesaurus, or a web search). For more info, see the FAQ.

In practice, in my brief time on the site so far, there appear to be a great many questions by non-native English speakers of the form “Is this phrase grammatical?” My vague understanding is that such questions are fine and within the intended scope of the site, though I'm still a little unclear on what the boundaries are. Anyway, there are also a bunch of other kinds of questions.

I'm still getting used to the site, and I'm not sure whether I'll spend much time there. But so far I'm intrigued.

Recombinant metaphors: smoking duck

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A Reuters article about the Higgs boson provides a lovely mixed metaphor from Oliver Buchmueller, one of the CERN researchers:

If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can't say that definitely yet. It is very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs. But we now have to open it up and look inside before we can say that it is indeed the Higgs.


I've known the word boson for years, but I don't think I knew until recently that it's named after Indian physicist Satyendranath Bose (also written “Satyendra Nath Bose”), as in “Bose-Einstein condensate.”