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The Origin of ‘Con Artist’

April 19th, 2016

My old South African e-friend Chris Stewart sent me the following e-mail this morning.

On the way in this morning, I was listening to a BBC program on sociology and the subject of “con men” (confidence tricksters) came up. To my surprise it was asserted that in this context, “con” was not a contraction of “confidence trickster”, but derived from the nautical term [meaning “steer (a ship)”].

Having grown up on the sea, this sense of “to steer” resonates well, but my attempt to verify this has been for naught. I am guessing that the average English-speaking person of today would know the term only from the likes of Startrek (Captain Kirk: “You have the con, Mr. Spock.”) Perhaps you can elucidate?

My response:

I lost confidence in the BBC news when it offered two appearances of my former partner at yourDictionary.com to discuss his precise (to the minute) prediction of when the English vocabulary would have its millionth word.

The Dallas Morning Star reporter who did the same story telephoned me and I told him that the prediction was completely fraudulent, so they published my comment with two or three others who shared the same opinion, along with the story.

My former partner was a clever marketer and he knew that people thought you could count the number of words in a language despite the evidence against this presumption. He even put up an article next to my article at yourDictionary.com claiming that I was wrong, you can count the number of words in a language at any given moment, which he conveniently provided. His article was linked to ten times more pages than mine.

Whomever you heard on the BBC is dead wrong. Con is an Americanism and all dictionaries, US and UK, trace it back to “confidence game”. That includes the OED, which I trust much farther than BBC when it comes to the English language.

Tsundoku: A Perfect Sniglet

March 1st, 2016

Here is a new word, tsundoku, that has crept into Wikipedia (only), but no dictionaries. It occurs over 100,000 times over the World Wide Web, including Spanish, Croatian, Thai and many other websites throughout the world.

“Tsundoku” (n.) is the constant act of buying books, but never reading them. Specifically, it is letting books pile up in one’s room so much that the owner never gets a chance to read all of them. This is done by the owners of the books, not by the booksellers. The origin of “Tsundoku” is a Japanese slang (積ん読) “tsun-doku”. 「積ん読」 came from 「積んでおく」 “tsunde-oku” (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 “dokusho” (reading books). 「積んどく」 “tsundoku” is a euphonic change of 「積んでおく」.

English borrows precious few Japanese words, especially words easily confused with tsunami. However, here is a word that we need but occurs in no dictionary–just the definition of a sniglet. So, I thought I would toss it out for a ‘sniglet’ contest.

Since I am currently divesting myself of most of my library, I can offer as a prize some of my best books. For sure the “Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms” and the “New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused & Mispronounced Words”. Substitutions will be possible.

Asterisms and Constellations

February 19th, 2016

Chris Steward of South Africa sent a comment on our Good Word constellation that I thought we all might benefit from:

I did not know that strew was related, though it makes poetic sense.

There are precisely 88 internationally-recognised modern constellations identified by the IAU, who have sole mandate for such naming.

There is another word, ‘asterism’, which denotes an “informal” constellation, i.e. a group of stars in some recognizable pattern named for convenience in discussion. There are a host of asterisms, as well as archaic constellations from various cultures (which I suppose are now asterisms, too, since their fall from grace).

An obvious asterism would be Orion’s belt, otherwise known as die drie konings “the three kings”. Also prominent and well known worldwide are the Pleides, known informally as “the Seven Sisters” (Subaru in Japanese) even though the cluster contains many more than seven stars. In the southern hemisphere, we have the constellation Crux (the famous Southern Cross), and the asterism of the False Cross (which neophytes typically confuse with Crux). These two can easily be distinguished by the fact that the asterism of “the Pointers” helps to highlight the true cross, whereas the false cross has no such neighbour. Another would be the Teapot, which is a subset of Sagittarius.

Some asterisms are too small or too faint to the naked eye for them to be commonly known, but are readily identified with optical assistance and many are well known in, um, the constellation of astronomical observers. The Coathanger is a prime example. There is even a beautiful triangle-within-a-triangle known as the “Stargate” (after the TV series).

December 12th, 2015

Is Santa Clause an NSA Spy?
(Sung to the tune of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town)

You better watch out,
You better not cry,
Better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He’s making a list and
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out
who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows when you are really sick
Or faking a tummy ache!

He’s making a list
Whatever you say;
Sharing that list
With the NSA.
Santa Clause is coming to town!

(You can replace “Santa Clause” with “Donald Trump” if you think the Mr. Trump has supernatural powers.)

Origins of the Alphabet

December 11th, 2015

Paul Ogden, one of the Good Word editors, sent me this link to an article in the Times of Israel about a new piece of evidence in the early development of the alphabet.

Spaghettification

December 11th, 2015
Here is a note from Christ Stewart that I received last month which I simply pass on here for those who are interested in such things.
I thought I would raise a little levity and bring in a term commonly used by those interested in the mysterious behavior of our universe. It may be suitable for an April 1 Good Word, except that it is no joke (which would mean those who thought it was, would be fooled).
If one approaches a black hole, then due to the inverse square law of gravity, one reaches a zone where the gravity gradient is so extreme that solid objects will be torn apart. Were an astronaut to fall into a black hole feet first, the gravitational force at his feet would become much larger than at his head. The net effect of the complex forces (which are dragging not just matter, but space and time from our universe into the black hole) is akin to squeezing out the contents of a toothpaste tube. The result would be for the astronaut to be stretched long and thin like a rubber band, a rather unfavourable irreversible situation from which there is no return.
This process is known as spaghettification, and one who undergoes it is said to have been spaghettified. Doubtless modern Spanish Inquisitors would gladly trade in their racks for a spaghettifier.
I could not find many on-line dictionaries with the word, but there are some. Quite a good explanation can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghettification
–Chris Stewart

Is the Medium Still the Message?

December 9th, 2015
One of the Good Word editors, Luciano de Oliveira, caught this sentence in the New York Times:
“The particular ‘narrative’ of political journalists tended to emphasize the process dynamics — who’s up, who’s down — in addition to what the media itself are doing.”
Apparently the writer, Mark Leibovich, couldn’t make up as to whether to treat media as a singular mass noun or a plural noun. Most Americans treat media as a singular mass noun these days, though it is actually the plural of medium.
Oh, how I miss the old NYT.

Another ‘Lexical Gracenote’

December 9th, 2015
This morning, when the Good Word was nomophobia, I received a two-part e-mail from my stalwart e-friend, Chris Stewart, of South Africa. I’ve conjoined the two e-mails:
“Surely nomophobia would logically be a fear of numbers?  The reason why I leapt to the conclusion that nomo– should refer to numbers, is that a nomogram is a specific kind of graph whose sole purpose is to derive a numerical value in one unit of measure from two other kinds of numbers. The most commonly found example here is a little nomogram in vehicle logbooks to derive a fuel consumption value.”
“According to Merriam-Webster a nomogram is ‘a graphic representation that consists of several lines marked off to scale and arranged in such a way that by using a straightedge to connect known values on two lines an unknown value can be read at the point of intersection with another line’.”

“I see that nomo from the Greek means ‘law or custom’, which makes sense in the mathematical context too. However, there are other colloquial uses, e.g. the Urban Dictionary, which could alter the whole sense of nomophobia. Tricky! On the other hand, the Wikipedia article is interesting.”

————————————————————
My reply refers to a 2007 entry in this blog, Lady Finger, Lady Birds, and Woolly Bears
Yes, nomogram should mean “fear of numbers” or “fear of names”. However, when it comes to language, what should be is often quite distant from what is, e.g. earwig, lady finger, woolly bear. Actually, homophobia should mean “fear of people” and “fear of sameness”, so why shouldn’t nomophobia mean “fear of being without a cellphone”. People created language; people can determine what the words of their language mean. They have regular means at their disposal, but also irregular ones.
In my 2007 blog I call such phenomena “lexical grace notes”, things we don’t expect but that make language more interesting.

Obama & Putin Talking Turkey

November 25th, 2015

The Best Congress Money Can Buy

November 14th, 2015

One of the Good Word editors, Paul Ogden, came across a collection of quotable quips on the subject of politics which I thought we all might enjoy.

The problem with political jokes is they get elected.
Henry Cate, VII

We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.
Aesop

If we got one-tenth of what was promised to us in these election speeches,  there wouldn’t be any inducement to go to heaven.
Will Rogers

Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.
Nikita Khrushchev

When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become Prime Minister or Premier; I’m beginning to believe it.
Clarence Darrow

Why pay money to have your family tree traced; go into politics and  your opponents will do it for you.
Author unknown

Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel.
John Quinton

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign  funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.
Oscar Ameringer

I offer my opponents a bargain: if they will stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about them.
Adlai Stevenson, campaign speech, 1952

A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.
Tex Guinan

I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.
Charles de Gaulle

Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.
Doug Larson