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Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The Migration of “out of pocket”

May 3rd, 2018

George Kovac down in Miami, Florida, wrote today about an interesting shift in meaning that I thought any word nerd would be interested in. He writes:

“As you remind us often, language is not logic, and words take on slightly unpredictable nuance or even meaning as they work their way through culture and history. An example I observed happening in my lifetime is the phrase ‘out of pocket’. It originally meant money spent on purchases from third parties. For example, if you break something and pay someone to fix it, you are out of pocket for the cost of the repair. But if you fix it yourself, you are not out of pocket—you have spent your own time and resources.”

“Some time in my adult life the phrase ‘out of pocket’ also came to mean ‘unavailable’ as in ‘I can’t schedule a meeting that week because I will be out of pocket at a conference.’ That usage I find jarring and lacking in any metaphorical grounding. Unless you imagine we inhabit pockets, but that’s just dumb. In that case a more apt metaphor would be “I will be out of burrow.” But that is just a cranky observation on my part, because language moves on its own without fixed or consistent rules, and that is as it should be. Words trope.”

My reply to him was as follows:

“We mostly have pockets with devoted uses. I always keep my wallet in my left rear pocket, my change in my left front, my keys in my right front, and my handkerchief in my right rear pocket. I can understand the connection between pocket and “proper place for”. So, if I’m out of pocket without the my, I am clearly speaking metaphorically of ‘out of my proper place’.”

“On the other hand, ‘out of the pocket’ is common enough football jargon referring to a quarterback, who should remain (as long as possible) ‘in the (quarterback) pocket’, i.e. his proper place, where he should be. Maybe the connection passes through football jargon.”

I Love Living in the Central Susquehanna Valley

January 4th, 2018

A front-page story in the Sunbury Daily Item one day last year was headlined “Three Men Cited in Opossum Abuse Case”. The story that followed reported that the three were fined over $1000. I love living in a region where this kind of story makes front-page news.

Hilarious Note on ‘Hilarious’

September 9th, 2017

George Kovac wrote in response to our Good Word hilarious. “Bob, and of course, ‘there was Pope Hilarius, who reigned from 461 to 468.’ You cannot make up material this good.” He went on to write:

“I was disappointed the current Pope chose ‘Francis’ instead of reaching back to revive this name, so that when someone says this new pope is kind, I could add, ‘Yes, and he is Hilarius 2.'”

Uncommonly clever, as I have come to expect from the lawyer from Miami. I hope his family and home survived Irma in good condition.

Dr. Goodword on CNN

May 4th, 2017

At last I get a word in edgewise on commercial TV:

Spamming Report

April 2nd, 2017

We have just exceeded the 2 million (2,037,752) pieces of spam filtered from this blog.

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.