Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for December, 2007

Dongles and Dongulation

Monday, December 31st, 2007

About a week ago, our Good Word was dongle. I received a response from a master of (at least) two languages who knows more about the history of dongles than I, Pierre Laberge, so I thought I would share it with everyone here it is:

“Well, that was a dongulational discussion of the word dongle!

Of course, dingling your dongle would be obscene….

And naturally, you would want to dongle safely, although I do not know if you would use a condom, or some anti-whatever program.

Dongles todayThe first “dongle”, was a single chip, called the BPI chip, which was installed by plugging this 8 legged little creature into the game port (a female chip mount) of an Apple ][+ computer. With the chip, this early accounting program would work when you stuck the 5.25 inch PROGRAM floppy disk into the “A” drive, and the DATA disk into the “B” drive. Without it, the software would not work. The chip contained machine language software that did sorting and other intensive CPU work. Remember that these early computers ran at about 3 MHz. Certain routines would take forever to run in BASIC or some other human interface language.

I think you have now been sufficiently dongulated into the history of creative and useful dongling. Besides I have exhausted my imagination on the topic.

I have also abused the English Language to the point where many would like to dongle me at the end of a short rope, over a long drop….

You may feel free to post this, delete it, or make a paper airplane out of the email (printing required, first…).

Sincerely, Pierre M. Laberge”

I am still trying to convince Pierre that he should join the Alpha Agora and share these flashes of brilliance with others of the same inclination.

Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

I am growing weary of saying “Happy Holidays!” to everyone.  I’m from the Christian culture and the holidays for me and my family are Christmas and New Years.  My Jewish friends celebrate Hannukah and New Year’s and I greet them with ‘Happy Hannukah’.  I don’t expect them to abandon their traditions out of fear of the PC police and I am to old and ornery to carry on ignoring mine.

So Merry Christmas to my gentile readers. I hope my Jewish readers had a happy Hannukah and my Muslim readers had a blessed Ramadan. We usually mark those holidays with a relevant Good Word. Next year I hope to find out more about Hindu holidays, so that we can remind ourselves of them, as well.

I have a couple of ideas which I hope to get down in writing during the holidays but tomorrow my wife and I sail off into cloudy skies toward Colorado to be with our sons and their families for the holidays. For that reason, postings may become sparse again.

If you can think of any issues I should address, please feel free to drop me a line via our contact page or my private box in the Alpha Agora.

Embedtime Stories

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Nighty night!One of the most dismaying concepts to arise from the US occupation of Iraq is the concept of “embedding” the press in the military. The concept involves flipping a metaphorical bird to the First Amendment for the sake of maintaining absolute control over the media. (Before you write: I don’t consider violations of the First Amendment a political issue; the First Amendment to the Constitution is supposed to be a settled issue.)

Today we hear so little about embedding, though, and questions do arise. For example, do you get free embedding and embedclothes with this job? What do the embedsteads look like? Are they militarily spartan or regal to lull the press into thinking it is respected.

Where do the embedtime stories coming out of Iraq originate? Are they read to reporters when they are tucked in every night or are reporters left on their own to organize boilerplate news releases into something more entertaining?

The first victim of war, of course, has always been the truth. I now forget who said that but we should all credit whomever put this fundamental truth into memorable words.

During the Vietnam War journalists were able to regain a hold on truth, a heroic effort that contributed in a major way to bringing that attempted occupation to an end. However, following that war, all the genuine journalists at CBS, ABC, and NBC and many of the newspapers were sacked and replaced by sweet, gentle, sleepy-eyed faces reading us embeddy-by stories from the front.

As a result we are stuck with news reporting in nightclothes from a press sound asleep in its embed.

Online Dictionaries

Monday, December 10th, 2007

I have an idea clattering around in the back of my head to write a series of reviews of online dictionaries. I think the time has come for this because the number of online dictionary sites has mushroomed since I mounted my first one back in 1996, when it was one of three (the others were and Merriam-Webster). I don’t have the time for this undertaking just yet, so I thought I would do a short forewarning here (of the dictionaries and my planned series).

Other than the Oxford English Dictionary (paid-subscription) site, the Merriam-Webster site and alphaDictionary, none of the new dictionary websites are run by lexicographers or linguists. The near sale of for $10 million shows how lucrative these sites can be. (alphaDictionary’s finances are quite misleading.) As more and more businesses invade this territory, the quality of the dictionaries placed on line become more and more a secondary concern. The term “dictionary” is one of the most searched words at the search engines, a marketing bonanza for anyone with a list of words and synonyms.

When first went on line, it offered access only to professionally compiled dictionaries: the American Heritage and the M-W medical dictionaries. However, it received a lot of competition from the One-Look Dictionary (a clever invention of Bob Ware, who sold it a few years back to a Colorado businessman). One-Look indexes almost a thousand online dictionaries so that a visitor may search them all at once. It includes M-W, American Heritage, and more than 900 others.

Perhaps for this reason began adding public domain dictionaries to its index. Today you can search Princeton University’s WordNet dictionary and the 1913 Merriam-Webster dictionary there. The problem with WordNet is its lack any capitalization, so someone has to edit it to make it serviceable. The problem with the 1913 Webster’s is that the majority of its definitions and much of the spelling are outdated, also requiring heavy editing.

Even though makes millions, it undertook neither of those tasks or, if it did, the results have not been published. The results are rampant errors throughout their returns. I was reminded when some time ago I received this as a return for a search of the exact meaning of the word charbon:

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary – Cite This Source – Share This

Malignant \Ma*lig”nant\, a. [L. malignans, -antis, p. pr. of malignare, malignari, to do or make maliciously. See Malign, and cf. Benignant.] 1. Disposed to do harm, inflict suffering, or cause distress; actuated by extreme malevolence or enmity; virulently inimical; bent on evil; malicious.

So we are not just talking about the thousands of more subtle mistakes such as:

WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This
new york
WordNet – Cite This Source – Share This

which should never appear in any dictionary, even surrounded by correctly spelled entries, as these are. The errors are grievous and often do not appear on pages with conflicting correct entries.

But enough of this teaser for today. I actually intended this note more as a warning than as a teaser: all the glitters is not gold. Stick with American Heritage at Yahoo since the one at Bartleby’s gums up your browser with adware, cookies, popups, and popunders, with Merriam-Webster’s. If you have an extra $250 per year for an excellent dictionary, give the Oxford English Dictionary a try. It contains words we haven’t used for centuries but keeps up admirably with new terminology.

Returning Borrowed Words

Saturday, December 8th, 2007

It has always struck me as rather odd that when English copies a word from another language, it is called borrowing. Borrowing? Isn’t it more like stealing? Do we ever give any of them back? Generally, we keep them and convert them into words we are more comfortable with, as we turned Malay ketchap “fish sauce” into catsup or ketchup, Indonesian amok into amuck, and French quelque chose “something” into kickshaw.

The funny thing is, we do return some of the words we borrow, though seldom within a reasonable time. Casino, for example, is the diminutive of Italian casa “house” and was used by the Italians to refer to a vacation cottage and later to a dance club. We borrowed it, gave it the current meaning, then lent that word back to Italian as casinò with the new meaning. (Aren’t we generous?)

More often, however, other languages return words to us that they have borrowed. Old French borrowed brown from Old English, rendering it brun. A person with brown hair was soon dubbed a brunet (or brunette if they were a girl). English, of course, then borrowed these words back from French later one.

Crawfish began its life as krabbiz “crab” in one of English’s ancient Germanic ancestors. It was borrowed by Old French as crevis “crayfish”. French returned this word as crevisse which English promptly converted to a more palatable crayfish. Now, since crayfish are ”fish’ that crawl, it ultimately became crawfish in some regions. (Changing a borrowed word into something more recognizable is known as ‘folk etymology’.)

French borrowed ward from us but didn’t have a W sound, so they used th closest sound they had: GU [gw]. French then returned that word to us as guard.

So, I guess, borrowing is the right expression for this process, so long as we keep in mind that words borrowed are seldom returned and never returned in the same condition as they were borrowed in.