Rotting Ideals


“Every great cause begins as a move­ment, becomes a business, and eventu­ally degenerates into a racket.”
—Eric Hoffer

Being that time of the year, the commercialization of Christmas naturally springs to mind. Just what time of the year is it? Why it’s the Christmas shopping season. I almost feel I should capitalize the phrase, Christmas Shopping Season. It seems like if they mention Christmas in the media at all nowadays they’re talking about holiday sales. This has become so important we now have Black Friday, the day retail businesses finally are in the black due to post-Thanksgiving holiday shop­ping. At least they haven’t gone so far as to call it Good Friday. Maybe Ebenezer Scrooge had it right. Humbug noun, deceptive or false talk or behavior.

Am I stretching a cliché to force fit the quote? Perhaps. Has Christmas really reached racket status? Were he still around, we might have asked Eric Hoffer for his opinion on the subject. Being a long­shoreman, I’m guessing he knew a thing or two about rackets.

Filed 12/19/15

Pointless Fauxcabulary


My theory is people basically have five vocabularies. The biggest one you might call…

Know-cabulary –the words you know when you hear or read them, but don’t neces­sarily use them. You don’t use your entire know-cabulary when you ad lib, speak off the cuff, wing it, extemporate. In other words, talk. For that there’s…

Yo-cabulary –The words one uses in conversation. The ability to speak in coherent sentences seems somewhat amazing. You have an idea you want to convey and you’re able to retrieve words and string them together with the proper syntax on the fly. Some­times you start a sentence with­out knowing how it will end, but you get there. Well, most of the time. On the other hand, five year-olds can do it so maybe it’s not all that amazing.

Show-cabulary –the words you write with. This is bigger than your yo-cabulary because when writing you can pause without an er-r-r, uh-h-h, or um-m-m, while you search for just the right word. Nobody can tell if it took ten seconds or two minutes to write a sentence. Or even that you changed it a month later.

No-cabulary –the words one simply has wrong, and words that don’t really exist. Like thinking enormity means really big, when it actually means a great evil. Or like thinking supposibly mean anything at all. A no-cabulary word is like a two-way malapropism. You use the word incorrectly and glom the wrong meaning when someone else uses it correctly.

D’oh-cabulary –the words one simply can’t pronounce correctly. These words simply refuse to roll off the tongue. You even know you’re saying them wrong yet just can’t seem to get them out without mangling them.

This theory has no name. Mostly because it’s absolutely worthless. I mean, what can you do with it? What can you learn from it? Other than I have too much spare time to write fluff.

Filed 12/15/15

We Got Words for Everything


Ten Words You’ll Likely Never See Let Alone Use

  1. cachinnate – to laugh loudly
  2. coprolalomaniac – someone who compulsively uses foul language
  3. crurophilous – liking legs
  4. glabella – the space on your forehead between your eyebrows
  5. glossolalia – gibberish, espe­cially from speaking in tongues
  6. hesternal – having to do with yesterday
  7. labrose – thick-lipped
  8. nazzard – a lowly or weak person
  9. onygophagist – a fingernail biter
  10. ribazuba – walrus ivory

Are all these words real owrds? I dunno. I could only find three of the ten at You could look them up in other sources. I didn’t bother. After all, as the title line suggests, I’ll likely never see or use them anyway. Listverse thinks they’re real, at any rate.

Which raises the question, what makes a word real or not? How widely or how often must it occur? Must it appear in print? Does the Internet qualify as being in print? Apart from playing Scrabble, does it matter?

Seems it would make a difference if you wanted to be read and understood. Though, that didn’t seem to matter to James Joyce. Have you ever tried to read Finnegan’s Wake? Talk about glossolalia. The book is loaded with neologisms, the literary term for fake words. A word from the book you’re familiar with, quark.

Physicist Murray Gell-Mann named the subatomic particle after a word he found in Finnegan’s Wake. Joyce’s line reads, “…three quarks for Muster Mark,” with “quark” referring to the cry of a seagull.

Filed 12/12/15

The Epitome of Portability


epitome (ĕ pĭt′ ə-mē) noun 1. a person or thing that is a perfect example of a particular quality or type: she looked the epitome of elegance and good taste. 2. a summary of a written work; an abstract.

This is another one of those words where the metaphorical meaning, one, has replaced the original meaning, two. Which might mean it isn’t metaphor­ical any more. Just like the similar-meaning word, quintessential, see way below.

An epitome was originally a condensed, or smaller version of a bigger book. Sort-of a pocket-sized Reader’s Digest version. The word was especially used for atlases. In the 1500s the great cartographer innovator Mercator produced the first world atlas, or rather the first book of maps called an atlas, a term he used first. Atlases were big books with large maps. For travelers they later made handy carry-around versions with fewer, smaller maps and called them epitomes.

The folk etymologist in me looks at the word and sees a prefix epi plus the word tome. Aha, a tome is a book, epi must mean small. So, small book, thus epitome. The folk etymol­ogist in me is easily led astray by assumptions. The true origin begins in the early 16th century via Latin from Greek epitomē, from epitemnein abridge, from epi in addition + temnein to cut.

Why Mercator called his book an atlas seems obvious. It’s a book that held the whole world, just like Atlas did. Pretty good choice of word if you ask me. Better than something pseudo-clever like orb-nibus or port-map-teau, eh?

Filed 11/28/15

Hyperbolic Discounting


Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a little experiment where he offered subjects a choice of rewards: either half a box of chocolates now, or a full box in a week. About three quarters took the half box immediately rather than waiting. In other cases he offered a half box in 6 months, or a full box in six months and one week. All took the full box.

In both cases the difference between a half box and a full box is one week. Yet if the difference is six months off folks can wait, if the difference starts right then and there most can’t wait. The tendency to want an immediate payoff rather than a larger gain later is called hyperbolic discounting. Yeah, economists have a jargon all their own.

While the time difference is the same in both cases, one week, the time frames are not. A week and six months is not much longer than six months. On the other hand, a week is 10,080 times longer than one minute. All the same, immediacy makes all the differ­ence.

Hyperbolic discounting is how credit card companies make money. Folks will pay the purchase price plus interest to buy now rather than wait while they save up the money. Then again, waiting pays a price in time. What’s that worth? Guess it would depend. You can’t afford to pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity unless you plan to live two lifetimes. Though as far as I can tell from TV ads, once-in-a-lifetime offers come along every other day.

Hyperbolic discounting works in the other way, too. Folks would rather forego a little pain now though it means more pain in the future. You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Kicking the can down the road.” This is related to, “Ignore it, it’ll go away.” It usually doesn’t, but “out of sight, out of mind.” There is one way to buy now and never pay later, get someone else to pay later. That’s how Social Security works. Which leads to our final old saw, “Take the money and run.”

Filed 11/27/15

Laughter Is the Best Mnemonic Tonic

back hole masks greek balloon front

Click pic to replay animation

“An optimist is a person who doesn’t give a whoop what happens so long as it doesn’t happen to him.”

That Vaudeville one-liner from the act of Howard & McCane is a lot like an old bit by Mel Brooks along the lines of: Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in an open manhole and die.

There can be truth in comedy, recognizing a common human foible in a joke is partly what makes it funny. The reverse is true as well, there is comedy in truth. Spotting the nonsen­sical in human behavior can also be funny. You know, good old observa­tional humor. Which began... who knows?

The ancient Greek orators probably included jokes to make their points. I’m guessing. I really don’t know what passed for a joke in old Athens. Maybe they had “dumb Spartan” jokes. “How many Spartans does it take to change lamp oil? Two. One to hold the lamp and one to whip the Helot changing the oil.”

The thing about stating a truism with a joke is that funny is memorable. Humor is a mnemonic device, like rhyming is. It’s easier to remember a funny line or a poem than straight, dry prose. Combining the two renders a line you won’t forget. As for instance Ogden Nash’s: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Which was a reply to Dorothy Parker’s, “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Not that the truth in a humorous aphorism is always so profound. Hey, jokes aren’t always funny, either. Then again, if it isn’t funny maybe it isn’t really a joke.

On the other hand, things that used to rhyme don’t rhyme now because word pronunciations change over time. That’s why a lot of Shakespeare seems to only sort-of rhyme. When he wrote it, it did. Which means some of the wordplay and puns in Shakespeare are lost on modern audiences. The Bard of Avon just isn’t as funny as he used to be.

Filed 11/23/15

One Language an Ocean Apart


“America and England are two nations divided by a common lan­guage.”

A quote variously attributed to G.B. Shaw, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill. It also comes as, “…two people divided…” and “…one people separated…” and “…two coun­tries separated…” and more. I can’t find the definitive version or attribu­tion. For now it doesn’t matter.

Both Yanks and Brits find some of the words used by the other odd. Like bathroom and loo, cell phone and mobile, trunk and boot. Mostly we find the differences amusing or inter­esting and not much more. Until it comes to sports, or in Britain, sport. Some folks actually get annoyed when the terms differ.

When talking about soccer, mention the field, the game, or the stadium to a Brit and be prepared for a bemused snicker or a sneer. They’re the pitch, the match, and the grounds. Don’t dare mention uniform, cleats, or goal­keeper, either. It’s kit, boots and keeper. Plus, those boots have studs, not cleats. Maybe it’s better for an American to say nothing. Or should that be, say nil?

Of course, those are minor offenses. To really send a Briton over the edge an American need merely mention the abomination, soccer. “It’s football, you ignorant Yank. We invented the bloody game, get it right.” Let’s examine the situation while properly using football in place of soccer: The problem with Americans calling football football is football is called football, and to stop calling football football and start calling football football would only confuse fans of football and football alike.

You do the math, there isn’t any good way around calling soccer soccer in the US. Then again, they don’t do math in England, they do maths.

Filed 11/14/15

When Significant Isn’t Significant


significant (sĭg-nĭf′ ĭ-kənt) adj. 1. Having or expressing a meaning; meaningful. 2. Having or expressing a covert meaning; suggestive. 3. Impor­tant; notable; valuable.

The word significant came from the Renaissance preoccupation with alle­gory. Objects and events had symbolic meanings beyond the objects or events themselves. They were a sign, they were significant. That’s definition one, meaningful, full of meaning.

Renaissance thinkers took their allegories seriously. They thought there was a real connection between something and its symbolic meaning. Since we don’t think like that these days it’s hard to fully grasp. Maybe it’s sort-of like a two-way voodoo doll. The doll effects the person symbolized, and vice versa. Sounds like something maybe Rod Serling could have explained.

Beyond the derivation, this word and its meanings probably aren’t exactly news to you. What you might not know is what significant means to a scientist. Surprisingly, it is none of the above. Scientists use the word to express a level of confidence. If they are at least 95% sure a result was not due to chance, it’s a significant result.

For example: In a dietary trial researches lowered salt intake by 80% and had a 2% reduction in blood pressure. (Real study) Would anyone think a 2% reduction in blood pressure is important, notable, or valuable? Would that have an important, notable, or valuable impact on your health? However, to the researchers it was a significant result because they are pretty darn sure it wasn’t a fluke.

Keep that in mind when Doctor Scientist, PhD introduces you to his significant other. It might only mean he’s 95% sure they didn’t marry by accident.

Filed 10/30/15

Quotes and Sayings With Caveats


“Question authority.” –Unless you agree, then cite authority.

“You can do anything you set your mind to.” –Just don’t get your heart set on it.

“It takes one to know one.” –Is the person saying that an idiot? I wouldn’t know.

“You can’t legislate morality.” –Like those ridiculous laws against theft and murder.

“There’s no time like the present.”
–Like Gerald Ford said, “Things are more like they are now than they have ever been.”

“It takes a village.” –Village, massive government bureaucracy, same thing.

“Executing a murderer won’t bring the victim back to life.” –Has anyone ever claimed it would?

“Cheaters never prosper.” –Just ask Wall Street.

“Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”
–Because it’s hard to screw things up so monumentally on your own.

“Just because.” –That explains every­thing.

Filed 10/23/15

L.H.O.O.Q. Deux


Quick. What’s the opposite of an iconoclast? In the current usage it’s a conformist or conservative.

iconoclast (ī-kon ə-klăst′) n. 1. One who attacks or seeks to destroy tradi­tional or popular ideas or institutions. 2. A destroyer of sacred images.

Definition two is a clue to the origin. Sacred image, icon. The rest of the word comes from the Greek, klastĕs, breaker. From the Byzantine Empire, iconoclast pertains to the doctrinal disputes between Donatists, Monotheletes and other Christian sects. While iconoclast has stayed with us, its Byzantine opposite is no longer used. In fact, it’s not in my dictionary. This would be one who venerated icons, an iconodule.

So, an iconoclast was something of a vandal. However, the Vandals came from Germany, outside of Byzantium. Yet there wasn’t a Germany in the fourth and fifth centuries. Then again, a vandal destroys anything, not just icons. Perhaps we shouldn’t use the word vandal. Isn’t that a slur? Though I suppose there are no Vandals around today to take offense.

All I can say is those ancient Germans really got around. Goths, Visigoths, Gauls, Angles and Saxons, Vandals. Guess they’ve all gone native by now. Still, I wonder how much of Europe is genetically German.

I admit I’ve fallen back to my old mystery headline habit. This time, all is explained at the link below.

Meaning of L.H.O.O.Q.

Filed 10/21/15

Communicating With Letters, But Not Mail

acronym4 acronym2

While they didn’t begin with the advent of the computer, groups of letters in place of words grow like e-weeds in the digital age. HTML, WYSIWYG, PDF, RAM, and so on. Emailing, blogging and texting have added more. OMG, BFF, LOL, and so forth. One question, are they all acronyms or not?

acronym (ăk′ rə-nĭm) noun. A word formed from the initials of a word group, or from parts of a word group.

Example one: scuba, Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Example two: radar, RAdio Detection And Ranging.

Now then, NASA would be an acronym because we say it like a word, nahsah. On the other hand, we don’t pronounce HTML as hitmal or anything like a word. Is it an acro­nym? Then again, NASA is always in all caps, unlike a normal word. Is it really an acronym or just initials? But if it were just initials wouldn’t it be N.A.S.A.? And what is M*A*S*H what with those asterisks?

At this point the reader might be thinking, “Stop nitpicking. They’re all acronyms. Let it go, already.” To which I say, “Thanks. That’ll make writing the rest of this entry easier.”

Anyway, so many new acronyms keep being coined it’s hard to keep up with them all. Especially if you get to them late in the game where everyone is using them without the explanation you missed. Though with search engines it’s pretty easy to catch up. But it does mean printed dictionaries are out of date the moment they’re published.

There is one acronym people nowadays use I don’t like: POTUS. For one thing, it’s formed with initials that shouldn’t be in an acronym. For instance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is not the NAFTAOCP, it’s the NAACP. Why? Because it doesn’t contain letters for prepositions, conjunctions, or articles. Basically, if you don’t capitalize it in a headline don’t use it in an acronym.

So the acronym for President of the United States should be PUS. I like that even less. No matter what you think of a particular President, calling them PUS just isn’t very nice in public discourse. Not that public discourse these days is all that nice, but you have to draw a line somewhere. If you want to be nice, that is.

To return to the opening, it is appropriate the first electronic general-purpose computer was ENIAC, an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator. Though it does break the rule against conjunc­tions. What can I say? I guess there are no hard and fast rules after all.

Filed 8/7/15

More Language Oddities


Oddities in the English language are something of a hobbyhorse of mine. It’s a language where exceptions are the rule and rules are more like suggestions.

For instance, the plural of ox is oxen, the plural of ax is axes, and axes is the plural of axis. The plural of hex is hexes, the plural of vortex is vor­tices. I’ll lay even odds you can’t make out a pattern. And isn’t ‘even odds’ self-contradictory?

The plural of mouse is mice, the plural of louse is lice, the plural of house is houses. Hm-m-m-m. The plural of bass is bass and the plural of bass is basses. You figure it out.

Now then, a person providing bail is the bailor, a person bailed out is the bailee. Though if no bail is posted and the prisoner busts out, the person escaping is the escapee. Who’s the escaper? The escapee is the escaper. Sure, why not?

Then we have the word cleave which has two completely opposite meanings. As a transitive verb it means to split or separate. As an intransitive verb it means to adhere, cling, or stick to. And if you were to un-cleave something did you pull it back apart or put it back together?

And this is the language of Shakespeare. So irregular the Bard of Avon signed his own name six different ways.

Playing Fast and Loose with Shakespeare’s Name

What a language. At least English doesn’t have those pointless genders for every noun. I mean, why would a chair be male or female? How? It has no persona or genitalia. Folks invent or adopt new things all the time, how do they sex them?

Filed 7/12/15

Festoonery So Bad It’s Awful


emblemish (əm blĕm′-ĭsh) verb. To embellish with symbols, logos, slogans or decorations making something plain, or even nice, look cheesy instead.

Half the T-shirts, baseball caps, and sweats in America have been emblem­ished in some way. Some folks just can’t get tacky enough and so enhance their emblemishments so they sparkle or even light up. The hardcore aren’t satisfied with merely emblemishing their clothes, hence tattoos and piercing.

One imagines these are supposed to be fashion statements. While they’re rarely very fashionable, they are statements. They mostly say, “Look at me. I have no taste or sense.”

Filed 7/8/15

Time Travelling Twin and Other Modern Science Silliness


The time travelling twin paradox. Heard of it? It’s the whole Relativity Theory business where a twin travel­ling in a spaceship at the speed of light leaves and returns to the Earth and is then younger than his Earth­bound twin because time is supposed to slow down as you near the speed of light.

Yet according to Relativity there are no absolute reference frames and it is equally valid to say the Earth travelled away and returned to the spaceship at the speed of light. In which case the Earthbound twin will be younger. So either twin is younger than the other depending on which twin was referenced as moving.

Here’s another problem, speed is distance over time. Slowing time would increase speed. Say you travel a light-year, which at the speed of light slows time to, say, half a year. In which case you cover a light-year in six months meaning you’re travelling twice the speed of light, which slows time down so you go even faster, which slows time… where does it end? Do you suspect the time travelling twin paradox is just plain silly?

Modern physics is rife with silly things. Like a zero point singularity of infinite mass, temperature, and density. A point is a mathematical entity of zero height, zero width, and zero length. 0x0x0=0, in other words nothing and no space at all. Temper­ature is a measure of motion. How do you get infinite temperature when there is no space in which anything can move let alone exist?

As far as I can figure physicists simply assign a symbol or Greek letter to things which have no real physical meaning and stick them into formulas. Presto, the impossible becomes a mathematical fact. They call astro­physics the Queen of the Sciences. Tarted up with nonsense math and undetectable hypotheticals it’s now the Drag Queen of the Sciences.

“Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.”  –Nikola Tesla

“Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little.”  –Bertrand Russell

“Science is the belief in the ignor­ance of the experts.”  –Richard Feynman

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”  –Douglas Adams

Filed 6/14/15

You Can Hear a Lot by Listening


“They tell me his music is better than it sounds.”
–Mark Twain on Richard Wagner

While Twain’s bon mot sounds like a criticism of Wagner, perhaps it’s a comment on his fans, too. Seems to me the job of the modern art and music critic is to explain why something moronic and ugly is smart and beauti­ful in words that seem vague and esoteric but are in fact meaningless.

Then there’s the old “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” gag. This is supposed to mean it’s all subjective. Yet I wonder if you could give a different interpretation. More like seeing is believing, or if it looks good it IS good.

Of course, there’s always a bit of snob appeal to the arts. You know, sneering at the great unwashed who say, "I may not know what art is, but I know what I like." While much has been written about the irony of Pop Art, I wonder if they’re missing the forest for the trees. As Andy Warhol said…

“Pop Art is about liking things.”

Filed 5/29/15

When Hroses Wore Shews


Many, many years ago folks in England didn’t know about the birds and the bees. Only because the word bird used to be brid. Bee was bee, but wasp used to be waps. And a horse was a hros. Over time the sounds within the words got switched around. It’s a process called metathesis. How exactly does it happen? Don’t aks me. See, in some quarters it’s happening today with ask, aks.

Back in the day folks talked the talk and walked the walk differently. If you went back in a time machine and listened, you’d hear them pronounce the L in folk, talk and walk. Dropping a sound out of a word is velarisation. Anyway, you’ve got to figure they spelled the words with those now unsaid letters for a reason.

To show these things can be undone, Americans have returned the L sound to psalm and balm. If you listen to some folks talk they’re returning the T sound to often. Though nobody has started to say the T in listen or glisten. Yet.

Oh yes, the Y in ye was pronounced as the TH sound. That Y represents an old rune, thorn. Ye wasn’t said as yee, or thee, it was simply the.

Filed 5/5/15

Is It “Toward” or ‘Towards’?


Here’s another question, should you move toward the light, or towards the light? While both mean the same thing and are OK in casual use, for writing in America use toward, no S; in Britain, towards. I don’t know how they move in other English speaking countries. Though wherever you might be, if you’re not ready to meet your maker, move away from the light.

The same rule of whether or not to tack an S on the end applies to other directions: forward, backward, upward, and downward. For any British readers that’s forwards, backwards, upwards, and downwards. The same goes for afterward or afterwards. This hasn’t always been the case. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer used toward. Americans mostly used towards up until 1900.

Another difference that makes no effective difference between American and British English is quote marks. Americans use double quote marks for a quotation or dialog where the British use single quote marks. For a quote within a quote Americans use single quote marks and the British use double quote marks. From a logical point of view the British use makes sense. After all, a quote within a quote is a double quote, thus it gets double quote marks.

This different quote mark usage makes me wonder, are air quotes in Britain done with one finger per hand?

Filed 3/25/15

Bad Grammar On Display All Over America


There’s an example of bad grammer you often run across that nobody seems to notice very much, if at all. Okay, maybe English teachers, writers, librarians and such notice, but they’re a buch of fusspots about grammar. Now that I’m mentioning it, I guess I’m a fusspot, too. Anyway, this common grammatical error is the sign at the market reading, “Express Checkout – Ten Items or Less.”

The basic rule: if you can count it in numbers use fewer; if it’s an uncount­able quantity use less. The small bushel has fewer apples in it. Check. The small cup has less water in it. Check.

Using fewer in the wrong spot is obvious. You certainly wouldn’t say, “The small cup has fewer water in it.” That’s just wrong. Yet using less the wrong way doesn’t instantly send up a red flag, “The small bushel has less apples in it.” Wrong, but not obviously so as many people say things like that.

Then again, sometimes the rule doesn’t work. How about, “Used CDs – $5.00 or Less”? Here we have numbers of dollars, yet “Used CDs – $5.00 or Fewer” sounds flat out stupid. There must be some rule that explains it, but I don’t know what it is.

On the other hand, for a larger amount we use more in both cases. The small bushel has more apples in it. The small cup has more water in it. Check and check.

Back to the sign. Because items can be counted, up to ten as the sign suggests, it should read, “Express Checkout – Ten Items or Fewer.” Still, we’re used to the sign with less and not fewer so it doesn’t bother us. Besides, products all over the store play fast and loose with grammar and spelling, so I suppose by the time you get to the checkout you’re numbed to dubious language usage. E-Z Open Krispy Kreme Donutz Lite, anyone?

Filed 2/23/15

Rain, Reign, Rein


Just like straitlaced, giving free rein is another of those idioms of speech when spelled wrongly can mislead to its origin. You sometimes run across it spelled free reign instead of free rein. Though never free rain, except by semi-literates.

Free reign, with a G, sugests a person given some­thing akin to royal power. As in to reign supreme, to do anything they choose. This pretty much seems to fit the bill of what free rein means, but it isn’t where the phrase comes from.

Free rein comes from the time when our primary means of transportation was the horse, controlled with reins, no G. When riding on some treach­erous ground, winding path, or steep terrain, a rider would relax the reins, give free rein, trusting the horse to find its way safely. Sort-of like in Jingle Bells, “The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh.”

Now some folks are all gung-ho for cars that steer themselves without driver input. You know, like a horse. Which makes one wonder, which is smarter, a computer chip or a horse? Well, how often does a horse’s brain short out? Does a computer chip have an instinct for self-preservation? Which would you trust more?

At any rate, had mobile devices existed back in the day, I’m sure texting while riding a horse wouldn’t have been so dangerous to all and sundry. Or drunk riding either. I mean, if the horse wanted to go home you could pass out in the saddle and arrive safely. Provided you didn’t fall off.

Filed 2/5/15

Trivial Pursuit of Nitpicking


No doubt you know what nitpicking means. But what does it mean? Or rather, what’s a nit and why are you choosing it?

A nit is a louse egg. The plural of louse is lice. Just like mouse and mice. Calling someone a louse is like calling them a worm or a rat, likening some­one to some low, nasty creature. Yet we seem to be straying from the point.

A louse egg, a nit, is a pretty tiny. Tiny, small, minor, trivial, unimpor­tant, same thing. The picking part is not choosing, but is like picking at a scab. And who hasn’t been scolded by their mom to “Stop picking at it”? Such picking is a tiny action at a small spot that doesn’t do much but irritate the wound. When you put it together you can readily see why nitpicking means irritatingly harping on trivial matters.

While nitpicking is an English word, Russian has an equivalent: flea-chasing. Though with Russian words, whatever that might be. Still, you can see pretty easily how they equate. Whether the two have a common origin I couldn’t say.

Knowing what a nit is lets us imagine the origin of another word, nitwit. Having the wit, or intelligence, of a louse egg. Or someone with a teeny-tiny brain, like a peabrain. Now then, take the N-I off the front of nitwit and what do you get? Twit.

Filed 2/3/15

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