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.)

Truncated senders

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In my mail interface, there's a column showing the name of the sender of the email, but that column isn't very wide. So the mail application truncates long sender names and appends “...”

This is all pretty standard, and not something worth mentioning except that sometimes the results of the truncation, especially for spam senders that don't have human names, can be amusing.

This morning brought two pieces of spam with amusingly truncated sender names. The senders were shown as:

  • Sell your Ass...
  • Provide Disco...

On expansion, the first was, of course, “Sell your Assets,” and the second “Provide Discount Insurance.” But I liked the abbreviated ones better.

lost on a tightrope

In Taylor Swift's song “Innocent,” I heard a line as “Lost your parents on a tightrope,” and I thought, Huh, I guess this is sort of a Robin trope, orphaned kid of circus performers, that's kind of interesting.

And then I checked the lyrics and found the line is actually “Lost your balance on a tightrope.”

Which makes more sense in context, but it's less Batman-ish.


Brian T posted a cryptic crossword clue recently, and Amy H posted the answer but used rot13 to avoid spoiling it for everyone else who might be trying to figure it out.

I thought that was a clever approach. So when Brian posted another clue and I figured out the answer, I decided to post it in rot13 form.

The answer to the clue was the word robe.

If you rot13 robe, you get ebor. Which is robe backwards. Which makes rot13 not a very effective way to conceal the word.

I mentioned this, and Brian came up with the term triskaidekadrome to describe a word which is the same rot13ed as reversed.

And it occurred to me that, given a text file containing a dictionary's worth of words (like the file that in most UNIX systems lives at /usr/dict/words or /usr/share/dict/words), it would be easy to automatically compile a list of all triskaidekadromes.

So I did.

Here's the resulting list, from Webster's Second International, 1934. However, most of the words here aren't in MW3 Unabridged, and some also aren't in Wikipedia and don't have relevant web-search results, which makes me wonder what they were doing in Webster's Second. But maybe they've just fallen out of use in the past 75+ years.

  • an
  • anan (variant of anon)
  • averin (not in MW3. Wikipedia says it's a protein that's like gluten, but I'm not seeing any reliable sources for that)
  • bo (presumably as in “bo tree,” or maybe “bo staff”?)
  • bobo (the only non-proper-noun use I'm finding is a portmanteau for “bourgeois bohemian,” coined in 2000)
  • er
  • gant (French for glove)
  • gnat
  • grivet (a species of monkey)
  • Hu (has various meanings, all proper nouns, unless you count the Chinese word for butterfly)
  • ly (a letter in the Hungarian alphabet, or a suffix or prefix, or various proper nouns)
  • Na (various proper nouns)
  • nana
  • Rane (various proper nouns)
  • ravine
  • re
  • rebore
  • rive
  • robe
  • serf
  • tang
  • thug
  • veri (a couple of proper nouns)

My favorite from that list is ravine. I rather like grivet, too, but not quite as much, just 'cause I had never heard it before.

In case anyone's interested, here's the Perl code I wrote. Should run on most systems, but you may have to change the path to perl in the first line, and/or the path to the words file in the open line.

use strict;
use warnings;

open(my $WORDFILE, "<", "/usr/share/dict/web2");

while (my $text = <$WORDFILE>)
 chop $text;
 $text = lc $text;
 $text =~ s/[- ]//g;
 my $rot13 = $text;
 $rot13 =~ tr[a-z][n-za-m];
 my $reversed = reverse $text;
 if ($rot13 eq reverse $text)
   print $text . "\n";

The line that removes hyphens and spaces isn't strictly necessary for this particular word file; I included that so I could also search the other word file on my computer, which contains hyphenated terms and phrases containing spaces. Sadly, searching that file turned up no triskaidekadromes.


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?

Violent rhetoric

Every so often, friends of mine express outrage about the violent rhetoric and metaphors used by (for example) politicians.

And I agree that there's a lot of violent rhetoric and metaphors.

But one thing I think a lot of people who talk about such things tend to ignore is that common everyday speech is full of violent metaphors.

I've been noticing this for a long time, but I've become especially aware of it since my father's shooting death in 2005. For example, people talk metaphorically about wanting to kill each other all the time. Hell, I sometimes use that kind of language, and I'm a pacifist.

Some very common violent metaphors, just off the top of my head:

  • got them in my sights
  • targeted
  • in the crosshairs
  • I want to kill them
  • our team was slaughtered
  • kill me now
  • shoot me in the face (and variants)
  • stabbed me in the back
  • who do I have to kill to
  • I could murder a steak
  • point-blank
  • that exam was murder
  • slash the budget
  • on the firing line

And then there are all the metaphors about hitting, kicking, hurting, coercion, crushing, smashing, destroying, and causing people to emit sounds of pain. And self-harm, including prying one's own eyes out or shooting oneself in the foot. Not to mention all the violent sexual metaphors, mostly centered on acts that, if really carried out, would be rape.

A couple of the above-listed expressions arguably don't belong on this list, but I'm not going to argue about specific items, 'cause there are lots more where those came from.

I say all this not to condone the violent political rhetoric that others have objected to, but rather to raise awareness of the constant level of violent metaphor that most American English speakers engage in, and are surrounded by, all the time.

I'm certainly not arguing that the above are all expressions of actual interest in causing someone actual harm. Metaphor can make language richer, more colorful, more lively. (If you'll pardon the metaphors.) Metaphor suffuses our language; it would be hard, if not impossible, to say much of substance while entirely avoiding all use of metaphor.

But I do think that our specific choices of which metaphors to use can, sometimes, frame the way that we think about things. So next time you talk metaphorically about killing or murdering or raping or shooting or stabbing or slashing or mangling or punching or kicking or blowing up or stabbing or smashing or destroying or burning down or whatever, pause and think about what you're saying, and about whether that metaphor is the one you want to use.

(I can imagine all sorts of arguments to the effect that the violent rhetoric used by some politicians is different and special and unique and evil and wrong in a way that our ordinary use of violent metaphor isn't. And, sure, I do think that prominent political leaders ought to be even more careful with their words than the rest of us, and that anything that can be interpreted as really urging people to actually kill other people is generally a bad idea. But the question of whether politicians are justified in their metaphors is really not my point in this entry, so I'm hoping that y'all will hold back from arguing with me about that.)

(Wrote this entry a year ago, but wanted to distance it from the specific incidents and arguments at the time; I'm more interested in the general issue than in the specific awfulness that was going on then.)

A slash by any other name

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.

Two-letter abbreviations with slashes

In English, most of our two-letter abbreviations are written as either two letters by themselves, or two letters with one or two periods.

But there are a few that are written with a slash between the two letters.

If anyone knows why that is, I'd be interested to find out more; TSOR hasn't turned anything up.

But mostly I'm writing this 'cause I think it's an interesting phenomenon, and I wanted to put together a partial list.

care of. This is the one I'm most familiar with and see (and use) most often.
lowercase. As used by editors to suggest making a word lowercase. Also u/c for “uppercase,” though I think I see that more rarely.
not applicable. Almost always written in uppercase, unlike a lot of these. Another very common one.
without. I'm particularly intrigued by the two-letter slash abbreviations for single words. Note that w/ is often used for “with,” so I guess w/o for “without” is a natural extension of that.
because. I see this fairly often, but it's always seemed weird to me. Most two-letter abbreviations are short for a two-word phrase; even “without” could be thought of as “with” and “out.” But why would an abbreviation for “because” include the C? I suppose you could break up the word into “be” and “cause.”
week commencing. I had never seen this before British members of the SH staff used it; I was initially sure it must be a typo, perhaps for w/e, which I think I've occasionally seen as short for “week ending.” I'm guessing w/c must be more common in the UK than in the US.

Wikipedia's discussion includes such abbreviations as r/w (“read/write”) and i/o (“input/output”)—both of which I think I usually see in uppercase—but those seem to me to be in a different category, because the phrase they're abbreviating also contains a slash. In the abbreviations I'm talking about in this entry, it's not clear to me why the slash is there.

Wikipedia also lists b/w; I've certainly seen that meaning “black/white,” which goes in the same category as r/w, but Wikipedia says it's also used for “between,” which I don't think I've seen before. Urbandictionary backs that up (and notes that it's used in text messaging); but then again, the first search result for [b/w between] is a forum discussion in which everyone but the original poster says that b/w for “between” would be confusing.

Which of course is a good reminder that there are presumably zillions of abbreviations that are used in some groups and subcultures without being known to society in general; hard to say where to draw the line. So I don't intend my list to be canonical or complete; just a sampling of some common ones I personally have encountered.

Any other particularly common two-letter abbreviations with slashes?

Nothing Like a Dame

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Was just listening to bits of South Pacific, looking for duets (at Jacob's suggestion), and came across this excellent couplet from the song “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”:

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother,

There is one particular thing that is nothin' whatsoever in any way, shape or form like any other.

Who knew that Ogden Nash wrote showtunes?

(I know the lyrics are by Hammerstein. But don't they look like Nash could have written them?)