Words for Nerds

Stop and Smell the Bacon

Bacon. It’s one of life’s fatty little joys. Especially when you have fresh tomatoes from your own garden and can combine the two for BLT’s.

That’s what we had for supper the other night. Well, actually, since I discovered at the last minute that we were out of lettuce, we had BT’s. Close enough. It’s the bacon and tomatoes that matter the most, anyway. (I briefly considered substituting spinach, but somehow BST’s just wouldn’t have been the same.)

Anyway, while I was cooking, I had one of those stop-and-smell-the-bacon moments of pondering, and the significant life question that crossed my mind was, “What in the heck is a rasher?”

As in a “rasher of bacon.” It’s one of those descriptions that shows up now and then, particularly for those of us who read British mysteries. But how much bacon is in a rasher?

Inquiring minds wanted to know. So, as soon as they had chomped down their BT and wiped the bacon grease off their fingers, inquiring minds went off to look it up.

Three dictionaries later, inquiring minds were confused. All three sources defined rasher as both A, a thin slice of bacon, and B, a serving of several slices of bacon. Apparently, a “rasher” could consist of several rashers. None of them knew where the term “rasher” came from, either. That was certainly enlightening.

At least most the other odd terms of weights and measures we use have some precision. Take “teaspoon” and “tablespoon,” for example. Any good cookbook will tell you that a tablespoon equals half an ounce and there are three teaspoons in a tablespoon.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why they have the names they do. When I was a kid, it never made sense to me that the spoons we put on the table at mealtimes were “teaspoons,” while the only time we used “tablespoons” for eating was when we had soup. Which is probably why we called them “soup spoons.”

It wasn’t until I got a little older and started reading British mysteries that I figured out some people used the larger spoons for eating and the smaller ones for stirring their tea. Today, while I am no longer confused if I see people actually using a tablespoon to eat something besides soup, I still don’t do so myself. And I don’t care who you are, using a tablespoon for ice cream is just not right.

Maybe it’s because they use large spoons at the table that the Brits measure their weight in “stones.” Or maybe it’s just that, when your money is “pounds,” you don’t want to confuse your net worth and your net weight. The dictionaries were not enlightening on this point. They did, however, inform me that a stone equals 14 pounds.

Now that’s a unit of measure any experienced dieter could get used to. Just consider the difference between, “I gained half a stone,” and, “I gained seven pounds.”

But whether you measure your weight in pounds or stones, I do know one thing. If you don’t want too much of it, don’t get rash with your rashers of bacon.

Categories: Food and Drink, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Odd-Sock Words

Odd Sock Syndrome. We all know about this phenomenon. Two matching socks are worn. Two matching socks are removed. Two matching socks go into the laundry hamper. Two matching socks embark on the laundry process that should see them both washed, dried, folded, and back in the drawer, together. Sole mates, as it were.

But every now and then, only one sock makes it through. The other one is never seen again.

Nobody knows what happens to these odd socks. They simply vanish, possibly into some sort of odd-sock alternative universe. We don’t understand this; we can’t explain it. We simply accept it as a fact of modern life.

What most of us don’t realize is that a similar thing happens with words. Modern English is sprinkled with words that ought to have mates but don’t. Here are just a few of these odd-sock words:

Ruthless. It means cruel, unfeeling, without compassion. Think Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians, or maybe Star Trek’s Borg. Ruthless is a reasonably common word. But its onetime companion, ruth, meaning kind and compassionate, has long since disappeared. (Maybe we don’t want to think too hard about what that may say about humanity.)

Uncouth. It means awkward, ill-mannered, or unsophisticated. Even though it certainly doesn’t apply to any of us personally, we can all think of a couple of people it fits. But we don’t use its obvious opposite. We don’t say, “Her new boyfriend is so much more couth than the last guy she brought home.”

Reckless. We all know the meaning of this one. But its wiser and sorely needed opposite, reck, just isn’t around any more. Considering the consequences of reckless behavior (Loosely defined as “Hold my beer and watch this!”), one might think the wrong word became the odd sock here.

Unkempt. It means pretty much what it sounds like: untidy or disorderly. Like the typical kids’ bedroom, maybe. Or my desk. I really wish I could keep my desk more kempt, but by now I’ve accepted the reality that it’s just not going to happen.

Disheveled. This means untidy, too, but more in the sense of messed up or wrinkled. The way your hair looks when you first get up in the morning? That’s disheveled. Sorry, though. You can wash it, blow-dry it, mousse it, and style it to perfection, and nobody is ever going to say, “Oh, your hair is so heveled today.” This poor odd sock never had a mate to begin with.

Just to save the nerds among you the trouble of looking it up, some of the lost mates to these odd-sock words are still in the dictionary. I found ruth, reck, couth, and kempt. The first two are centuries old and have long since faded away. The last two are more recent back-formations from uncouth and unkempt. They were probably launched by a few optimistic word nerds trying to bring a little balance into the universe, but they never caught on.

But there’s no need to feel discombobulated about all this. Just imagine a place, somewhere in another dimension, where all the lost socks and all the lost odd-sock words live happily together. They are beings of great couth, filled with reck and ruth, living in surroundings that are always kempt and heveled.

When I think of it this way, I feel much more calm and serene. It gives me a reassuring sense of combobulation.

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The Pitiful Fate of the Passenger Pigeon

And to think we all believed they were extinct.

Passenger pigeons, that is. Millions of them once lived all over North America, but thanks to people hunting them, eating them, and destroying their forest homes like the greedy top-of-the-food-chain predators we sometimes are, the last of them disappeared around a hundred years ago.

At least that's what we were taught in elementary school.

But now, the truth about what really happened to the passenger pigeon has been revealed. It was one of those happy accidents, a serendipitous sighting that casts new light on the unhappy fate of these innocent birds. The truth has been hidden since the days, a century ago, when the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers made it possible for human beings to take to the skies.

My partner, passing through New York on his way home from an overseas trip, spotted a pigeon near his boarding gate at JFK International Airport. It seemed to be waiting for a flight just like everybody else, so he immediately identified it as a passenger pigeon.

It wasn't carrying anything, though, which is what really solves the mystery of its disappearance. The passenger pigeon didn't really go extinct. Like so many other unwary travelers, it's just been hanging around the airport waiting for its luggage.

Categories: Just For Fun, Words for Nerds | 1 Comment

Merely Minor Minions

Gurus have disciples. Sorcerers have apprentices. Sheriffs have deputies. Priests have acolytes. Attorneys have associates. Queens have ladies in waiting. Magicians have pretty young assistants. Heroes have sidekicks.
And bad guys have henchmen, flunkies, hatchet men, leg men, bag men, underlings, enforcers, and minions.

No wonder defeating the forces of evil is such a challenge, even in the movies.

This whole line of thought began a few weeks ago with the Sunday crossword puzzle. A clue of "subordinates" for seven down led us to an answer of "minions." Not the correct answer, as it turned out, which was "juniors." I found that unfortunate, since "minions" was a much more interesting word.

That same afternoon, we watched a family member onstage, playing an evil henchman. He was good enough at it to make me a tad bit uncomfortable, given that he is the father of the little person who, when he or she shows up later this year, will be my thirteenth grandchild.

So I distracted myself with important philosophical questions. Specifically, who is a more important bad guy, a henchman or a minion? This required research.

The "hench" in "henchman," I discovered, comes from an archaic term for "stallion." Therefore, a henchman was originally a horseman. A "minion," on the other hand, is described as a lackey, a toady, or an obsequious underling. Besides, a henchman can have minions, but a minion just has lesser minions.
A horseman or a toady? The hierarchy seems pretty clear.

So, if you're ever engaged in a battle against the forces of evil, and you have a choice in the matter, take out the henchman first.

Don't worry about the minions. You can deal with them in just a miniouet.

Categories: Words for Nerds | 1 Comment

Delighted to Deliver

An editor walked into a bar . . .

Well, actually, it was a restaurant. I was waiting for my order and had nothing to do but let my mind wander. This can be dangerous, as it sometimes goes down unexpected paths. What led it astray this time was a sign near the door: "We're Delighted to Serve You."

"Delighted." Why is that word a synonym for being happy? To "de-light" really ought to mean "make dark." As in, "We were delighted when the electricity went off."

This, of course, started me pondering about what some other words might mean if we took them more literally.

Repairing: When two couples divorce and then marry each other's former spouses.

Recitation: Getting your second or third speeding ticket.

Deliver: When you're preparing the Thanksgiving turkey and you throw out the organ meats.

Deserved: What the butler did when he quit his job.

Devoted: What you did when you marked your ballot but then forgot to put it into the box to be counted.

Repeal: To ring the church bell a second time.

Design: What several local businesses had to do after the city passed an ordinance that limited billboards.

Detesting algebra. When the teacher says, "Okay, class, this year we aren't going to have any quizzes, and there will be no final exam."

Detailed: What the cat became when it got too curious about the lawn mower.

Retail: What the veterinarian tried to do to the cat. Unfortunately, the operation wasn't successful.

That's as far as my mind wandered before the waitress brought my meal, which was just as I had ordered it. A good thing, too. Otherwise, she might have had to reserve it.

Categories: Words for Nerds | 5 Comments

Gardening Like Amelia Bedelia

The furry little foxtails were waving in the wind, the fescue was flourishing, and the brome was nearly knee-high. Even in this hot, dry summer, some of the grass in the front yard has been thriving. This might have made me proud, except for the embarrassing little detail that the grass in question was in the garden instead of the lawn.

Finally, I decided to take drastic measures. For the first time all summer, I weeded the garden. Sitting on the cool, damp ground was actually a pleasant way to spend an evening. While my hands were busy yanking clumps of grass (not to mention dandelions, creeping Jenny, and the occasional thistle) out of the soil, my mind was free to wander.

It occurred to me first that I wasn't really "weeding" the garden so much as "grassing" it. Then, of course, I realized what I was doing was actually "ungrassing" or "degrassing."

That little digression opened the door for my inner word nerd, who wanted to know why we call it "weeding" when it's really "unweeding." After all, when we plant, water, or fertilize the garden, we're putting in, not taking out. Therefore, a nitpicky sort of person—an editor, say, with too much time to think—might point out that "weeding," strictly speaking, would be adding thistles rather than removing them.

No wonder my favorite character from children's literature is Amelia Bedelia, featured in a series of books begun by Peggy Parish and continued by Herman Parish. She's a housekeeper whose literal mind causes all sorts of difficulties. Just following directions, she dutifully does things like dust the furniture by sprinkling it with dusting powder, make a sponge cake with real sponges, and dress a chicken for dinner by putting it into an elegant little suit. And yes, she weeds the garden by planting dandelions. Her employers learn to be very clear in their instructions.

Taking her as my inspiration, I'll be prepared the next time anyone comments on my messy garden. "Yes," I'll say, "It's certainly nicely weeded, isn't it?"

Amelia Bedelia would be proud.

Categories: Words for Nerds | 3 Comments

Just Give Me a Sign

The family of blondes had planned their vacation for months and were very excited about going to Disney World. After two long days of driving, they were almost at their destination. Then, just ahead, they saw a big sign: "Disney World Left."

Disappointed to the point of tears, they turned around and drove home.

The wonderful complexity of the English language can make using the right word challenging enough when you have whole sentences and paragraphs to work with. When you only have enough room for a handful of words, on a sign or in a headline, it can be even harder to say precisely what you intend.

When I was in high school, there was a sign near our mailbox that read "Slow School Bus Stop." We were never sure exactly what it meant. Was it a bus stop for a slow school, a stop for a slow school bus, or a slow stop for a school bus? At least that sign wasn't as bad as the ones that announce so unkindly: "Slow Children Playing."

A couple of recent headlines in our local paper point up the difficulty of communicating clearly in small spaces. One read, "Chicken Rules Needed." As someone who used to have to gather eggs from cranky hens who didn't want to give them up, I wholeheartedly agree.

One with a little more drama was "Lions plant trees with fourth-graders." It would seem to me that shovels might be more efficient, but hey, they're lions. If I start challenging their tree-planting strategies, the next headline might read, "Lions plant nitpicking editor."

When you try translating from other languages, of course, the chances for error are greatly increased. When my partner was in Mongolia a few years ago, he ate at a restaurant that offered him a menu in English. One of the featured items was "Roasted Chicken Spit." Considering the difficulty of collecting enough for a meal, the price wasn't as high as one might expect.

Last week, though, in a residential neighborhood in Spearfish, we saw an example of abbreviated communication that was refreshingly direct. At the top of the post was a sign reading "Dead End." Below it was a second sign with an arrow pointing to the left and one word: "Cemetery."

It may not have been tactful, but at least it was clear.

Categories: Words for Nerds | 3 Comments

Marooned, Cast Away, Stranded, and Forsaken

Here's a potentially serious drawback to Kindles and Nooks and other e-book readers that some of us didn't think about before we bought ours:

Suppose you were on a vacation cruise, well supplied with books that didn't take up much space in your luggage because they were all on your e-reader. Then the ship sank and left you stranded on a deserted island. Before long, you'd have no more battery—and no more books. About the only use for the device would be to reflect the sun's rays onto some dry tinder in hopes of starting a fire.

Which brings us to today's important question. If you were ever marooned in the middle of the ocean, and you could have only one book, what would you like it to be?

When this question came up in a group recently, one person creatively opted for her own journal. Another voted for the Bible. A third practical soul suggested the Boy Scout Handbook.

The Bible wouldn't be a bad choice, actually, regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof, simply because of its length. It would have enough complex drama, history, and thought-provoking content to keep an inquiring mind occupied for a long time. Just finding all the contradictions would take weeks. The Book of Revelation alone ought to be good for at least a couple of months.

Though the Boy Scout Handbook might be more useful. So might 1001 Quick and Easy Campfire Recipes for Fish. Or better yet, Boat Building for Dummies.

My choice, though, would probably be a big, fat, unabridged dictionary. Instead of just one story, it would potentially hold an endless supply of them. I could browse for fascinating new words, make up word games, and even learn a few handy phrases in other languages to be prepared for possible rescue by a ship whose crew didn't speak English. I could even find rhyming words to write sad songs about being lost and lonely.

When it wasn't being used linguistically, the book could also serve as a chair, a table, or a shelf. And if I did manage to build an escape raft, it would be heavy enough to serve as an anchor.

Of course, after a few years as a castaway, even if I were rescued I'd probably have long since lost my sanity. But at least I'd be talking to myself with one heck of an impressive vocabulary.

Categories: Just For Fun, Words for Nerds | 3 Comments

Ole and Lena and Paddy Went Into a Bar . . .

Okay, it's nitpicking and grammar nerdish of me, but I can't help it. It isn't "St. Patty's Day," people. If you must be informal, it's "St. Paddy's Day."

Since March 17 falls on a Saturday this year, I suspect the consumption of green beer may hit record levels. Which around here isn't necessarily a bad thing. We've had such a dry winter that we can use all the moisture we can get.

Despite all the celebrations in honor of his day, about the only things most of us know about St. Patrick are that his birthday was on March 17 and that he is crediting with driving all the snakes out of Ireland.

Both of these are wrong. Most of us have probably suspected the truth about the snakes, which is that, Ireland being an island and all, there were never any snakes there in the first place.

But since March 17 is St. Patrick's Day, it's logical to assume, as I did until I looked it up just now, that this was his birthday. Nope. It's actually the anniversary of his death. The day seems to be accepted by scholars, though there's some confusion about the year, which was somewhere in the late fifth or early sixth century.

He was a real person, though, a missionary and an archbishop. As a Christian, he was committed to eradicating Druidism and other beliefs that he would have considered the worship of false gods. No doubt he wouldn't appreciate his name being plastered all over the place accompanied by pictures of leprechauns. What he would think of all the green beer, of course, is another question.

I think it's great to celebrate the Irish on St. Patrick's Day, even for people who are as Norwegian and as Lutheran as Ole and Lena. There's nothing wrong with wearing green and sporting buttons that say things like, "Kiss me, I'm Irish." Maybe it even does a little to make up for the days when the more common sentiment would have been "No Irish need apply."

But the man was an archbishop, for goodness sake. (At least one can hope it was for the sake of goodness.) In his lifetime, he would have been called "Father Patrick," or maybe "Your Grace." I doubt that his parishioners ever slapped him on the back and called him "Paddy."

And even if they had, they—or at least the few of them who were literate—surely wouldn't have spelled it "Patty."

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Categories: Words for Nerds | 1 Comment

Mispronouncing History

El Dorado. The city of gold. Like so many other explorers, we came close but just missed it.

The name actually translates as "the golden one." According to early Spanish writings, it came from a ritual among a South American Indian tribe where a chief covered in gold dust made offerings of gold objects to the gods.

This got the wealth-seeking Spanish conquistadores all excited, of course, and eventually "el dorado" came to be associated with any lost or rumored place of fabulous wealth. The Spanish never quite found it in South America, which didn't stop Coronado from trekking across a good portion of the American Southwest after it. He made it to central Kansas without finding any cities of gold.

Too bad he didn't have a chance to stop at his local AAA office and pick up a map, because there it was, plain as day. El Dorado, right there on Highways 54 and 77. Even with the map, though, we didn't quite reach it. We just saw the sign as we breezed past at 65 miles an hour, traveling in luxury Coronado could scarcely have imagined.

Of course, Coronado did have the disadvantage of being consistently misled by local people who kept telling him the city of gold was just a little farther down the road. They were smart enough to encourage the demanding and militant Spaniards to move along and become somebody else's problem.

In a way, the locals are still misleading travelers. Not with any inhospitable intent, I'm sure. But we might have had trouble finding El Dorado had we relied on the waitress in Wichita who mentioned it. According to her, it was "El Do-RAY-do."

This regional pronunciation shouldn't really have come as a surprise. The previous day we had breakfasted in Beatrice, Nebraska, which everyone in the state knows is "Be-AH-trice" rather than the conventional "BEE-a-tris" or the pretentious Italianate "Bey-a-TRAY-chay."

Later in our trip we encountered Chickasha, Oklahoma, which an unaware northern traveler might assume to be pronounced "Chick-a-shaw," had she not been informed by someone more familiar with the region that it was "Chick-a-shay." Come to think of it, given the spelling, that makes more sense anyway.

We also spent a day in Lamesa, Texas, presumably named for the "mesa" or flat tableland on which it's located. Nevertheless, it's pronounced "La-mee-sa" with fine disregard for the original Spanish that would have it "La-may-sa."

In the end, the joke was on Coronado, who trekked across this country without ever knowing that it was indeed full of gold. It was just black gold rather than yellow, the kind that's now being taken out of the ground by hundreds of pump jacks.

It is interesting to speculate on how history may have been different had the Spanish made it far enough north to discover gold in the Black Hills. If they had, the capitol of South Dakota might be pronounced "Cor-a-nay-do" instead of "Peer."

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