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November 10th, 2015
This morning I received the following e-letter from one of the oldest e-friends of Dr. Goodword, Chris Stewart of South Africa. I thought you might enjoy it, too.
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 the Spanish Inquisitors would have gladly traded 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


Laughter in Print

May 10th, 2015

Paul Ogden found this amusing bit of fun about laughter and expressing it in print in the New Yorker: “Hahaha vs. Hehehe“.

The History of English in Maps

April 14th, 2015

Here is an excellent resource on the history of English found by Larry Brady, one of the editors of the Good Word series:

A Computer Story

January 8th, 2015

Larry Brady sent me a picture today, which I pass on to you here. It drove memories to the forefront of my mind. Here they are for all to see.

I once punched these cards in the Psychometric Laboratory at UNC where I did my undergraduate work. I used mispunched cards for class notes, which relieved me of the expense of purchasing 3x5s.

When I found errors in the transcripts I worked from, I corrected them. However, the people who were running the project, not realizing the things I corrected were not only errors but inconsistencies in their own system, required that I stop editing the cards, so I allowed the inconsistencies to pass. They were psychologists after all, not linguists.

That was at a time when the 16k computer required approximately two weeks between jobs for technicians physically to change all the wires, which they did manually. There were no executable software programs in 1956 that could complete that task so easily as they do today.

The Lab received a grant to increase the size of the computer, bringing it up to, I think, 64k. They had to add several rooms to the two-story mansion in which the 16k computer was located to accommodate the upgrade. Remember, back then computers ran on vacuum tubes about the size of my fist, one for each gate (0 or 1).

I came to the office one day to find much consternation. In their grant application they had forgotten to add the air conditioning. As you probably know, vacuum tubes were just fancy light bulbs that produced a lot of heat. The additional air conditioning would take up space equivalent to at least one large new room. I don’t know how they worked that out; I graduated before that problem was resolved.

Intonation and Meaning

December 22nd, 2014

I took phonetics with the late Kenneth Pike at the University of Michigan. Prior to Chomsky, he was the leading linguist in the US because he had the only complete theory of linguistics, which he called “tagmemics”.

I recall in the first session on intonation, he attempted to convince us of the importance of intonation by proving that, when intonation and semantics conflict, we always go with intonation. His example was, “I love you,” which he said with normal intonation to a freshman woman on the front row. Having seen the correct impression on her red face, he then said, “I? Love you?” which we all interpreted with just the opposite meaning. I was convinced.

Loo-Loo’s Back in Town

December 19th, 2014

I just received a third guess about the origin of loo from Chris Stewart, an old e-friend in South Africa. Here is what he proposes:

I am surprised to find that this word first came to print in 1932. I do not know where I came across the following conjecture (or, if you prefer, urban legend), but it was probably my (British) dad.

The Brits & the French have an inextricably entwined history, and the language shows it. The Brits also like to make fun of things, especially the distasteful—and particularly love to parody the airs & graces of the high & mighty.

They thus have a habit of adopting French phrases and (mis)applying them, deliberately or not. In an earlier time (though for all I know, it still happens), when the joys of waterborne sewage were virtually nonexistent, one of the first tasks of the day was to get rid of the “night soil” from the chamberpot under the bed.

One expedient was to simply throw it out of the window. Where land is scarce and thus expensive, it is normal to build up, instead of out. In Europe & England, the result is multi-story dwellings; bedrooms tend not to be on the ground floor. And often in the city there is no front yard; the building is right on the street front.

To spare innocent passers-by the noisome prospects of being showered by night soil disposal, one would call out a warning. One such would be ironic use of the French, Garde de l’eau! “Look out for the water!” The phrase drifted in time from the original high court pronunciation to the common vernacular “gardyloo“.

Once flush toilets became the norm, the loo part persisted by association without the need to retain the warning part.

This all makes sense to me—even if it is a crock of, um, night soil.

Yankee Wounds Still Survive

December 6th, 2014

Mark B. Duwel sent me this bit of Southern culture which I thought you might enjoy. When a southern mother asks her child, “Show me where the Yankees shot you,” the well-educated Southern child will pull up his or her shirt/skirt and show you their…belly button. That is a signal for the parents to begin tickling the child.

A Collop of Land

November 15th, 2014

In response to the Good Word collop, Nicholas Leonard sent me this followup. I thought some of you might enjoy it, too:

Collop in the Irish Language, Gaeilge, is colpa. It was and is still spoken in some regions as a unit of grazing for various farm animals, the grazing habits of a cow being the yardstick for the rest. Of course, the quantity and quality between grazing on poor land and on rich land varied greatly, so a collop could be, in effect, a variable unit according to the quality of the land.

The following extract illustrates the vital importance of the collop in old Ireland as explained by the Tailor Buckley to Eric Cross (from The Tailor and Ansty, by Eric Cross, Mercier Press reprint 1972: Chapter 5, page 31):

“Well, collops was the old style of reckoning for land, before the people got too bloodyfull smart and educated, and let the Government or anyone else do their thinking for them. A collop was the old count for the carrying power of land. The grazing of one cow or two yearling heifers or six sheep or twelve goats or six geese and a gander was one collop. The grazing of a horse was three collops.”

“I tell you, that was a better style of reckoning than your acres and your yards. It told you the value of a farm. Not the size of it. An acre might be an acre of rock, but you know where you are with a collop. There is a man over there on the other side of the valley has four thousand acres of land and barely enough real land to graze four cows in the whole lot. But you would think he had a grand farm when you talk of acres. The devil be from me! But the people in the old day had sense.”

Colpa was also a term for the calf of the leg as well as for the handle of a flail or cudgel—two essential implements in olden times.

Games and Sports

November 11th, 2014

Today I received an e-mail from an old e-friend in South Africa, Chris Stewart. The Good Word restive brought returned a memory from his childhood…but wait, let him explain it.”

“I trust all is well with you? Here we have been having blazingly hot clear summer days, interspersed with days of lightning storms and sporadic torrential rainfall.”

“Today’s good word touched a nerve. As a child, I spent a term at home in quarantine due to having contracted hepatitis. It was frustrating and boring, so I read everything I could find in the house, including an entire set of encyclopedia cover to cover.”

“Then, there was a singular book called (if I remember correctly) The Encyclopedia of Games, Sports and Pastimes. This very comprehensive and wide ranging volume, which has sadly been lost to the family, took some effort to define terms.”

“A distinction which has stuck in my mind ever since, is that sports (which can indeed be engaged in purely for fun and entertainment) have a component tied to survival whereas, by contrast, games are merely for fun, even if they do teach you something.”

“I don’t recall the exact distinction between games and pastimes; perhaps it has to do with rules or the absence thereof. So, hunting, fishing, archery, swimming, wrestling and so forth are clearly Sports, whereas Rugby, tennis, soccer and the like are games. While I would consider the purpose of the card game solitaire to be a pastime, it must surely be a game.”

“So what is it that galls me? Seeing games (such as football, usually involving a ball) being referred to as sports.”

My response:

An interesting distinction you make between games and sports. I have never heard the distinction before, so it must belong to your idiolect alone.

However, having said that, there is a distinction that I have always thought the Olympic Committed should make between those sports that have inherent scores and those that must be judged, like ice-skating. I have often noticed that scores in figure-skating always reveal the native lands of the judges: they always score skaters from their country higher than other judges. If a skater is so unfortunate as to have no judge from his or her country, they do not have that prejudice built into their score.

I think sports that have no inherent scoring, should be excluded from the Olympics in order to exclude this sort of prejudice in scoring. Maybe we could fit this characteristic in your distinction. Sports would then include activities with no inherent scoring, while games would include those that do. Hunting, fishing, solitaire, wrestling would therefore quality as sports, while basketball, football, and baseball would qualify as games. Not far from the distinction you make.

We would have to have a third word for those activities that have winners without scoring. These would include racing, such as swimming, track, biking, all revolving around timing, times. We might include them with games that could be included in the Olympics without ruffling my feathers.

Attending to the Business of ‘Attendee’

October 6th, 2014

Aubrey Waddy recently wrote:

“Your use of the word attendee in today’s discussion of pied prompts me to ask whether you’ll do a piece on this somewhat ugly word, and discuss its tail.”

“Surely the way the suffix is employed in attendee is wrong, and strictly speaking: the form should be attender. The sad thing about this is that people [speakers of English] no longer know their -ers from their -ees, and these days -ee is appended incorrectly to all sorts of words.”

In fact, the rule that is ignored it this: –er is added to transitive verbs to mark the subject of the action; -ee is added to transitive verbs to indicate the object of the verb’s action (employer – employee). -Ee is added to intransitive verbs to indicate the subject of the intransitive verb. Whether this was a historical rule, which no longer holds, or a confusion of the syntactic and semantic levels, I don’t know. But there are traces of this rule in the derivation of “personal” nouns.

Escapee, standee, enlistee are some of the verbs that follow this rule: you can’t escape anything (though things can escape you); someone escapes from prison. The sense of enlistee is “someone who enlists in the army”, not enlists the army.

Attendee can be explained as one of these historically. Originally, it could be used intransitively with the preposition to: attend to, which was reduced to tend to. We still use this intransitive sense when we say, “attend to business”.

There was always confusion as to whether attend was a transitive or intransitive verb. Intransitivity won out in the grab for a personal noun ending; transitivity seems to be winning in the struggle to control the verb itself.