Nark – where words come from


Reading “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” for my detective fiction class today, I came across this sentence, warning why most murderers will eventually give themselves away:

…your everyday criminal is seldom clearheaded and dislikes being lonely.  He needs, if not the support of confederates, at least somebody to talk to; his vanity needs the satisfaction of perceiving at first hand the effect of his work.  For this he will frequent bars and coffee shops and other public places.  Then, sooner or later, in a glow of comradeship, he will utter the one word too much; and the nark, who is everywhere, has an easy job.

Wait, what?  I thought ‘narc’ was a term for a drug-cop or rat who gave out his friends with regard to drug crimes.  Now I find that word in a story from 1929, and spelled differently.  A quick search of the Internet reveals this:

1859, “to act as a police informer” (v.); 1860, “police informer” (n.), probably from Romany nak “nose,” from Hindi nak, from Sanskrit nakra, which probably is related to Sanskrit nasa “nose” (see nose (n.)). Sense and spelling tending to merge with etymologically unrelated narc (q.v.). (Online Etymology Dictionary)

How weird that two homonyms would merge as word forms, or that we’d assume the later word was the origin of the word.   Readers, do you know of any other words that have similarly odd etymologies?

PS – I recommend that you do not google the image results for “police informant” as I did when I was preparing this post.  It’s a shockingly small number of rows before you encounter horrible crime images. Fair warning.

The Connecticut Problem


In the age of the Internet, the obligation not to write something stupid rises dramatically. I’ve decided to call this the Connecticut Problem.

(I started writing this post because I thought Lawrence Block had gotten the question of Kipling’s anti-Semitism wrong, but the issue may not be as simply resolved as I’d originally hoped.  When Lawrence Block was doing research forThe Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (review scheduled to appear on 4 Sept) in 1979, he probably researched Kipling by going to the library and perusing a couple biographies.  As a result, he had no ability to cross reference and use the meta-resources that are so commonly available today.  It turns out this was a bad example because the various sources discussing Kipling and anti-Semitism seem to disagree somewhat, as it isn’t about something easily looked up. )

Second try.  In Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen’s character says “I’ve always wanted to learn how to spell Connecticut.”  Not only is this funny as the highest aspiration of a “small time crook,” but it stands in for a bigger kind of laziness to me — the desire to know something combined with the lack of motivation to look it up.  While this made some sense before 1995, today it’s downright ridiculous to have a conundrum like this.  For example, when Jenny and I were watching the Columbo episode “Murder in Malibu,” we noticed that the victim’s sister seemed a lot like Patricia Richardson from Home Improvement.  There’s no excuse for letting this sort of thing bother you for more than a minute, because of the Internet.  (In case you were wondering, the sister is played by Brenda Vaccaro, who did a couple episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and one each of Ally McBeal and Friends, but never Home Improvement. (To add to the confusion, I thought Jenny said Patricia Heaton, the mom from Everybody Loves Raymond.)  It’s a fair cop, as Vaccaro and Richardson look similar, to my eyes.

Brenda Vaccaro Patricia Richardson

All this just goes to say that I’m introducing a new phrase, the Connecticut Problem, to describe something someone wants to know, doesn’t know, or should know that they could have resolved in fewer than two minutes’ web searching.  Expect to see this phrase again.



Congratulation, classified network master

I love Babelfish, the translation service that allows you to email in foreign languages. I had to use Google language detector to figure out that this was Dutch (I thought it might be German), but after that it was easy peasy Dutchy. Check out this exchange (in both languages, for your convenience):

Original inquiry
Beste webmaster,
Ik werk voor en ben voor een aantal van onze klanten op zoek naar interessante websites. Ik kwam tegen tijdens mijn zoektocht op het internet en wilde weten of u interesse hebt in het uitwisselen van gratis links? Dit houdt in dat in ruil voor een link op uw website, ik een link terugplaats op een van onze sites. De websites die ik wil promoten zijn hoofdzakelijk informatie sites over uiteenlopende casino spellen, backgammon en de online handel in valuta (forex).

We hebben veel sites in beheer met pagerank en backlinks waar ik uw link op kan plaatsen, dus mocht u meer willen weten, dan stuur ik u graag wat meer informatie op. Kunt u me laten weten of u interesse hebt? Mocht het niet zo zijn, dan hoeft u niet te reageren, u zult in ieder geval geen andere emails met verzoeken ontvangen op dit adres.

Met vriendelijke groet,

Kim Luijten

Dear web master,
I work for and am for a number of our customers in search of interesting Internet sites. I encountered during my search on the Internet and know savage or you have interest in exchanging for free left? This implies that in exchange of a link on your Internet site, I put back a link on of our sites. The Internet sites I want which promote to be mainly information sites on divergent casino spell, backgammon and the online trade in currency (forex).

We have many sites in management with pagerank and backlinks where I can place your link on, thus you could more want know, then I gladly send you what further information. Can you let me know or you have interest? It would not probably be this way, then you do not have react, you will receive in any case no other e-mails with requests on this address.

Kind regards,

Kim Luijten

My reply:
Dank u voor uw onderzoek, maar neemt niet aan verbindingsuitwisselingen deel.Beste wensen,
De meester van het Web van cl.
Thank you for your inquiry, but does not participate in link exchanges.

Best wishes,
Webmaster of CL

Oddly, in putting the Dutch version of my email back into the Translator, I got this:

Thanks you for your research, but do not take part in connection exchanges. Congratulations, The master of the web of cl.

So then I tried running it through the translator a couple more times.  Take the quote above, put it in German and then translate it back to get this:

Owing to you do not participate for your research, but to the connection from deceiving. Congratulations, the master of the network of Cl.

And then French and back:

Because of you do not take part for your research, but with connection to mislead. Congratulations, the Master of the network of Cl.

And Traditional Chinese and back:

Because with do not direct by mistake for you connection research, but is the participation. Congratulation, classified network master.


I was explaining to a friend the acronym “FTW” (for the win) and realized that it isn’t properly an acronym because it isn’t a word, like FUBAR or SCUBA (“self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” — thank you Family Ties).  So I called it a netonym.  And I thought I had just coined a neologism.  I googled it and found that the term is already widely used:

Netonym (NET-oh-nim), n:

1. Pseudonym used online.  Example: “That Brendan Riley sure is an aeriodite asshole, calling himself digital sextant.  Get over it!”

Okay, I thought.  That isn’t my definition!  Then, I found that I’d been scooped by nearly two years.  Here’s my definition:

2. Acronym developed from an online meme or saying that doesn’t easily translate to a pronounceable word.  Example: “ROFL! U killed teh guy so hard.  Headshto FTW.”

Oh well.  By making a post about it, I’m going to get hits anyhow.  Welcome Googlers!

Oft used phrases

Reading Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, in which she details how the Puritan vision of a “city on a hill” has been co-opted and misshapen by politicians and the American public, I can’t help but reflect on oft-used phrases that are so ubiquitous that people who know them are often not familiar with their provenance.  Here are a few that I can think of off the top of my head:

  • The cheese stands alone.  From the end of “The Farmer in the Dell,” I feel like this phrase shows up in a variety of places, but I can’t explain why.  It has a certain I-don’t-know-what about it, n’est-ce pas?
    Example: I wonder if I Am the Cheese refers to the isolation the cheese must feel.
  • The centre does not hold.  From the Yeats poem, this creepy phrase works really well as a harbinger of doom.
    Example: the TV version of The Stand involves a general reciting this poem before he blows his head off.
    Related: “things fall apart” and “slouching toward Bethlehem”
  • To thine own self be true.  I hope everyone knows this is Polonius, but I bet there are folks who don’t.
  • and hell followed with him.  The bit about Death on a pale horse shows up all over the place.  It’s a haunting image that bespeaks a frightening end for us all.
    Example: Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.”

I’d be interested to hear what other phrases you, dear reader, would add to this list.


  • The Zero Effect. An excellent detective film starring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. A man hires a famous detective to find his missing keys.
  • The Doppler effect. The pileup of sound waves that makes a fast moving object’s sound change in pitch when it zooms by. To whit, race cars don’t go Neeeeeeeee when they pass us, they go Neeeeeee-owwwwwww.
  • The Cupertino effect. The name for the process by which spell check replaces a correct spelling (or very common misspelling) with an obscure word, and the person running the spell check doesn’t notice. Cupertino is a city in California that used to replace the word cooperation (as opposed to the accepted co-operation).
  • The Trigger Effect. I haven’t seen this film, but its premise (what if the power went out and didn’t come back on) terrifies me. The film’s title comes from the theory that the more dependent we are on technology, the more vulnerable we are to collapse.
  • The Butterfly Effect. Refers to the idea that a tiny change early on can have huge ramifications later. Also, a kickass Simpsons halloween episode. Also, an Aston Kutcher movie.

Here are some more that should be part of popular parlance:

  • The Teacher Effect. The silence that settles over a classroom when a teacher arrives to begin setting up materials for class. Can often persist for several minutes, regardless of how much time remains before class begins.
  • The Obscure Word Effect. The moment of pause a reader makes when they encounter a word they haven’t seen before or whose meaning eludes them. 95 percent of the time, the pause is followed by a shrug. Occasionally, someone will consult a dictionary.
  • The Elevator Effect. The self-conscious silence assumed by a pair of people in an elevator when a stranger or group of strangers enters the car. The boorish rarely experience this effect.
  • The Urinal Effect. A function by which the likelihood for conversation in the men’s room is proportional to the familiarity of the micturitors.
  • The Bleeding Edge Effect.  The experience of being so fast to try out new services that you’re able to get your preferred username.  For example, my username on both and bookmooch is briley.  Ha ha!

It bugs me to no end…

That Simon and Garfunkel say

…I wish I was Homeward bound.

instead of

…I wish I were Homeward bound.

I know was has a better sound in the phrase, but it bugs me.

On language and other thoughts while parenting

  • Avery says “my” instead of “I” or “I’m.”  This puzzling linguistic development became clear once I figured out its boundaries.  Here’s how I figure it emerged:
    1) We would say something about a posessive: “Have you found your shoes?”
    2) She would say “Avery found your shoes.”
    3) We would correct her, “You mean to say “I found my shoes.”
    4) She learned that and now says “Avery found my shoes.”
    5) But sometimes we use the same 2nd person word as a contraction for you are, to whit: “You’re going to the pool today.”
    6) She makes the same first person substitution and says things like “My go to the pool today.”
  • We’re still waiting on Finn’s first word.  He does not make the same “eep eep” sound that Avery made when she was eating, though.
  • Avery has already given Finn his first nickname.  At home and at her daycare center (which we call “the corner”) she has been calling him “Dolphin.”  If he’s as interested in swimming as she is, it will be fitting.  I can already see it on the back of swim team jackets: FINN “DOLPHIN” RILEY, or DOLFINN.

The other side of the coin

For every good experience on Google Image Labeler, there are at least two bad ones. Here’s my most recent:

I got an image that showed three principle members of the Start Trek crew. Here are the labels I typed in the 40 seconds before my teammate passed, then the five more I obstinantly typed to try and get the “idiot match” before I passed in disgust:

  • Star Trek
  • Star
  • Trek
  • Captain Kirk
  • Kirk
  • Spock
  • Mr Spock
  • Mister Spock
  • Leonard Nimoy
  • Nimoy
  • William Shatner
  • Shatner
  • Television
  • phasers
  • costumes

Your partner wants to pass

  • men
  • guys
  • group
  • space
  • alien

Then I passed, grumblingly. We didn’t get a match on the next picture either. Here’s the results page:

Results of my annoying partner

You see that! starwars, one word. ship. I don’t see a fscking ship. And I hate the color matches. Those are worse than men or group, because no one searches images by fscking color.

Though after a few months of image labeler running, Google may be able to add a color palette feature to its advanced search. Now you can search for Heath Ledger with a sexy hot lady wearing a blue dress.

Other terms Image Labeler regularly matches on but will never be useful to people searching the web:

  • sexy, hot, lady: images where woman is already off-limits, and the woman isn’t overly elderly or a child will almost always match on these words. Image labeler generates a self-correcting crowd, so that, as Rolfe says, you will just lose if you try to fight trends like these words. The same goes for…
  • boobs, tits: Keep in mind, that second word is one I never use, except during my regularly and lengthy pontifications about dairy farms. But it’s a guaranteed winner in Image Labeler, and when you’re going on 30 seconds on the same word, and the person in the image is a woman (especially if there is even a hint of her decolletage or a tight shirt), this will match. The irony is that as these words match more and more images that have little or no erotic value, they will have less and less value as search terms. So perhaps the folks who are inclined to make boobs a useless search term should embrace this method of diluting the word of its erotic qualities. (“After all, half the world has them.” “Or more. Meatloaf has quite a nice pair,” as Anna and William in Notting Hill say.)
  • I’d say this goes for 60-70% of the matches that I get in the image. They aren’t words that help describe the image, but rather than describe something in it. No one searching for grass wants to find a motorcycle with a small patch of lawn in the background, but this is what regularly happens when the usual words to describe motorcycles are off limits.

Okay, back to work.

Edit: And then, right after I finished and decided to play one more round to clear the air, I got an awesome partner.  We earned 1300 points and, better yet, check this out:

match on boba fett

A couple rounds before bed

I often play a couple rounds of Image Labeler before bed.  Today, I got paired up with a couple real crackerjacks who think the way I do and type quickly.  Check out this score:

1700 in Image Labeler

Sentence of the week

See if you can pick it out.

Context: P.Z. Myers grouses about some claims made in an article profiling “Intelligent” Design.  The boldfaced sentence is the claim being made by the article.

IDists are correct to say love is not an illusion. Scientists say this. Frankly, this is the most dumb-ass argument in a whole slop-bucket of dumbassery; that cherished, complex phenomena like love have a material basis does not in any way imply that they are not “real”. (Pharyngula)

Did you catch that?  Frankly, this is the most dumb-ass argument in a whole slop-bucket of dumbassery. Beautiful.


Belushi in Animal House

It occurred to me that my experience with Bruce Springsteen is a ubiquitous one. Not for the Boss, per se, but as a way of ingesting popular culture. A couple more examples:

  • A student wearing a “COLLEGE” shirt admitted to me that he bought it because he thought it was cool, only later learning about its cultural referent.
  • I first learned the melodies for any number of popular songs via Weird Al. I still think “Spam in the place where you live.”

Catch phrases are obviously the most viral bits of popular culture. They haunt us long after their sources have been lost. Where’s the beef? I’ve fallen and I can’t get up? Who let the dogs out? Okay, that last one is still around, but I bet that phrase will outlast the song.  The Canticle for Leibowitz explores this brilliantly, suggesting a post-apocalypse far-future in which a monastic sect pays holy homage to Leibowitz, whose “handwritten notes on crumbling memo pads bearing cryptic texts like ‘pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels–bring home for Emma‘ “(wp) are all that’s left.

The popular habits of intertextuality and reference also play a key role in continuing this trend. The Simpsons itself provides a wealth of jokes in every episode that refer to popular culture, common or not. Anyone teaching a film history class inevitably finds students discovering the source for jokes they’d not understood fully before.

Thus, I propose a neologism for both the process by which this happens and the definition that results.

popfinition – noun

  1. The process by which a bit of popular culture becomes familiar to people unfamiliar with the source for that object.
  2. The meaning or significance of a concept defined as above.
  3. The description of the flavor of a soda.

In the Restaurant!

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
by Bill Bryson

I seem to be on a Bryson binge lately, somehow finding myself reading two of his books at the same time.  We have three more on the shelf downstairs, but it will be a while before I read another.  This book was quite delightful: full of little details that you hope you will remember far into your future life.

Consider the words that Shakespeare alone gave us, barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pedant, and some 1,685 others. (76)

I thought this was a particularly funny turn of phrase:

…we don’t know where the dollar sign ($) comes from.  “The most plausible account,” according to Mario Pei, “is that it represents the first and last letters of the Spanish pesos, written one over the other.” It is an attractive theory but for the one obvious deficiency that the dollar sign doesn’t look anything like a p superimposed on an s.  (163)

Apparently the phrase/abbreviation/word O.K. is actually proto-l33t speak:

According to Allen Walker Read of Columbia University, who spent years tracking down the derivation of O.K., a fashion developed among the young wits of Boston and New York in 1838 of writing abbreviations based on intentional illiteracies.  They thought it highly comical to write O.W. for “oll wright,” O. K. for “oll korrect,” K. Y. for “know yuse,” and so on.  O.K. first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post.  Had that been it, the expression no doubt would have died an early death, but coincidentally in 1840 Martin Van Buren, known as Old Kinderhook from his hometown in upstate New York, was running for reelection as president, and an organization founded to help his campaign was given the name of the Democratic O.K. Club.  O.K. became a rallying cry throughout the campaign and with great haste established itself as a word throughout the country.  This may have been small comfort to Van Buren, who lost the election to William Henry Harrison, who had the no-less snappy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” (165-166)

On place names:

However, what America does possess in abundance is a legacy of colorful names.  A mere sampling: Chocolate Bayou, Dime Box, Ding Dong, and Lick Skillet, Texas; … Dead Bastard Peak, Crazy Woman Creek, and the unsurpassable Maggie’s Nipples, Wyoming. (208)

On swearing:

Some cultures don’t swear at all.  The Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words.  The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2:00 A.M., rather oddly adopted the word ravintolassa.  It means “in the restaurant.” (214)

On the other hand, words that seem entirely harmless now were once capable of exciting considerable passion.  In sixteenth-century England, zooterkins was a pretty lively word.  In nineteenth-century England puppy and cad were highly risque. (217)

My favorite of the wordgames he mentions:

  • Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era? (palindrome, 229)
  • Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas (palindrome, 229)
  • The Morse Code = Here come dots (anagram and awesome potential t-shirt slogan, 230)

Overall, the book is quite enjoyable for those of us who enjoy words, in English.


for Deb and Travis

The joy of marriage stems from love requited.

Popular wisdom about love focuses on Eros—lonely love, the pursuit of love: love unrequited.

Aristotle posits love as a search for the other half of our soul, our soul mate. Medieval poets imagine love as a kind of pain, a longing we feel for someone that sends us quivering to the window to drop tokens and pine achingly.

The Romantics imagine love welling up from inside, part of our nature. For them, love warms like the sun and rages like thunderstorms. Modern storytellers usually imagine love as destiny. It crackles when couples meet and grows despite contrived mix-ups or cultural boundaries.

These stories don’t tell us much about marriage. Star-crossed lovers rarely wed, or live long when they do. ‘Happily Ever After’ comes just before ‘The End.’ But weddings move beyond Eros to Anteros – requited love. Not just love pursued, but love found.

Anteros unifies twin souls, each warming the other against the cold. It enriches longing with the weight of familiarity and the strength of time; it hones our appreciation for love’s climates, sunny and stormy alike; it feels like destiny.

Stories concerned with chasing love end when they get to the altar. The linear nature of Eros precludes a story beyond marriage. In life, however, we celebrate marriage as a union in Anteros, because for requited love, a wedding is just the beginning.