Word Buzz Wednesday: altricial, epigenetic inheritance, shade balls

twin baby pandas 双子の赤ちゃんパンダ

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, in which we round up our favorite buzzworthy words of the week. The latest: why baby pandas are so ridiculously tiny; you can inherit your ancestors’ stress; some really expensive balls.


“The opposite of altricial is precocial. A chick freshly hatched from the egg is precocial, walking around, eating and peep-peeping up a storm. A human baby, however, emerges on the altricial side of the spectrum.”

Joel Achenbach, “Why giant panda cubs are so incredibly tiny,” The Washington Post, August 25, 2015

Altricial is, as a senior scientist at the National Zoo puts it, “a fancy word that means pretty much helpless.” Hairless, teeny-tiny giant panda bear cubs are “extremely altricial” due to pandas’ very low metabolism and, as a result, the females’ relatively low blood-oxygen level.

Cubs have a better chance at surviving if they can breathe fully oxygenated air — that is, air outside their mothers — as well as obtaining fatty acids through their mothers’ milk, acids that can’t be passed through the placental barrier.

The word altricial ultimately comes from the Latin altor, “nourisher.”

epigenetic inheritance

“The new study, published in Biological Psychiatry, is the first example that shows how epigenetic changes in humans caused by trauma can be inherited.”

Akshat Rathi, “The Holocaust is still traumatizing the children of survivors on a genetic level,” Quartz, August 24, 2015

Epigenetic inheritance refers to “genetic changes caused by environmental factors, such as smoking, diet, or stress.” While most epigenetic changes are erased during fertilization, says Quartz, some manage to slip through although researchers still aren’t sure how this happens.

For more on epigenetic inheritance, check out this great podcast from Stuff You Should Know.


“[Trump] reports, for example, ‘I usually sleep only four hours a night,’ which by itself is usually a pretty reliable indicator of hypomania, and something he boasts about.”

John Gartner, “Donald Trump and Bill Clinton Have the Same Secret Weapon,” New Republic, August 25, 2015

Hypomania is “a mild state of mania, especially as a phase of a manic-depressive cycle,” but, as New Republic says, hypomanic temperament “is not an illness.” While it may manifest “the same traits as mania,” it “does so to a less severe and more functional degree.”


“The first stage is called ‘limerence.’ This is the spine-tingling, heart-twisting, can’t-stop-staring feeling, when it seems as though the world stops whirling and time itself bows down and pauses before the force of your longing.”

Eve Fairbanks, “Love in the Age of Big Data,” Huffington Post, August 19, 2015

The Oxford English Dictionary describes limerence as:

the state of being romantically infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings but not primarily for a sexual relationship.

In other words, puppy love.

The term limerence was an arbitrary coinage by psychology professor Dorothy Tennov.

shade ball

“In an article titled ‘Shade balls are a really stupid way to conserve water,’ LA Weekly reports that the city has actually been using shade balls since 2008, well before the drought began, and they aren’t actually designed to prevent evaporation at all.”

Katie Herzog, “Why shade balls aren’t such a great idea after all,” The Grist, August 19, 2015

Shade balls are black plastic balls that are supposed to work to prevent evaporation. Recently, Los Angeles dumped 96 million of such balls in the L.A. Reservoir to help combat drought. However, the balls weren’t designed to prevent evaporation, says The Grist, but to “block the formation of a carcinogen called bromate.”

This isn’t to say the balls don’t prevent some evaporation — namely, 300 million gallons of water a year, which is worth about $2 million dollars. Unfortunately, the balls cost $34.5 million.

Word Buzz Wednesday: Amabot, invisible app, narco sub

20150225 02 Sad Robot

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, in which we round up our favorite buzzworthy words of the week. The latest: are you a bot; apps unseen; a sketchy sub.


“‘If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.”

Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” The New York Times, August 15, 2015

Amabot, a blend of Amazon and robot, is an Amazon employee who has embraced — or given into — Amazon’s reportedly demanding work style, including long hours, sacrificed vacations, and prioritizing the office over home and family.


“One thing people aren’t happy about, though, is all the weird language required to convey the territory athleisure occupies, straddling the worlds of sport, high fashion, walking out to Starbucks, and maybe even going to work.”

Britt Peterson, “‘Athleisure,’ the awkward word for a comfortable relationship,” Boston Globe, August 16, 2015

Athleisure wear refers to athletic leisure wear, in other words “dressing like you’re going to the gym, only you’re not,” and instead of “an old T-shirt,” you’re wearing expensive “designer yoga pants and a mesh shirt with wicking panels.”

invisible app

Invisible apps are taking off because, in many cases, they are faster than using a native application or mobile website.”

Omar Bohsali, “The Burgeoning Invisible App Market,” TechCrunch, August 16, 2015

The term invisible app was coined by TechCrunch writer Matthew Panzarino to describe a type of app that lives “in the background, anticipating our needs based on sensor and contextual data, and do things for us before we even had to ask.”

narco sub

Narco subs are just one tool in a constantly evolving suite of smuggling tactics, including traditional go-fast boats, bulk shipping containers, drug mules, and planes.”

Brian Anderson, “The Hunt for Narco Subs,” Motherboard, August 17, 2015

Narco subs, says Motherboard, are mainly used by Colombian drug traffickers “to move cocaine through the Pacific maritime smuggling corridor to Mexico, where the drugs are offloaded and funneled north into the US, sometimes en route to Europe.” The narco sub is also known as a self-propelled semi-submersible or SPSS. Narco is short for narcotics as well as slang for a South American drug baron.


“While current chips are excellent at analyzing information in sequential order, the new ‘neuromorphic’ types of chips Modha’s team are working on are better suited to finding patterns in information—like the right side of the brain.”

Mike Murphy, “IBM has built a digital rat brain that could power tomorrow’s smartphones,” Quartz, August 18, 2015

Neuromorphic technology refers to “any very large-scale system of integrated circuits that mimic neuro-biological architectures present in the nervous system.” The combining form neuro- comes from the Greek neuron, “nerve,” and the Greek morphe, “form, shape.”

Word Buzz Wednesday: e-vent, makeup tax, Perseids

meteo (missed focus)

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, in which we round up our favorite buzzworthy words of the week. The latest: don’t hit send; the price of beauty; a meteor shower fit for the gods.


“But if the Google guys are to succeed in their new career as conglomerateurs, they’re probably going to have to get really good at saying no.”

Justin Fox, “Can Larry Page and Sergey Brin Become Warren Buffets?” BloombergView, August 10, 2015

Conglomerateur joins the ranks of other entrepreneur portmanteaus such as momtrepreneur and ganjapreneuer. The word entrepreneur comes from an Old French word meaning “to undertake,” while conglomerate, a corporation made up of different companies, comes from the Latin conglomerāre, “to wind into a ball.”


“We can e-vent from anywhere as long as we have our phone. And it feels safe: We’re behind a screen.”

Elizabeth Bernstein, “Don’t Hit Send: Angry Emails Just Make You Angrier,” The Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2015

No, an e-vent isn’t an electronic event. It means to vent over email. To vent meaning to release one’s (usually negative) feelings is quite old, from the 1600s, says the Oxford English Dictionary.

makeup tax

“The ‘makeup tax’ Brittain mentioned is very real. Women invest time and money into doing their makeup because it impacts their relationships and their paychecks.”

Olga Khazan, “The Makeup Tax,” The Atlantic, August 5, 2015

The makeup tax is the price — in both money and time — that some women pay in cosmetics and other beauty products in order to feel or be accepted in work or social situations.


“Summer meteor showers are absolutely where it’s at, and the Perseids peaks at exactly the right moment of the season, just as summer is winding down, but well before any sort of cold snap has fully hit.”

Ria Misra, “The Best Meteor Shower Is Tonight, and Here’s How to Watch It,” io9, August 12, 2015

The Perseids meteor shower is associated with the wonderfully called comet Swift-Tuttle, and is named for its seeming point of origin, the constellation Perseus.


“For the time being, once confusing and now terrifyingly-clarified Quooklyn is probably a better bet.”

Emma Whitford, “Report: Queens Rent More Obscene Than Brooklyn,” Gothamist, August 13, 2015

Quooklyn is a neighborhood on the Queens-Brooklyn border in New York City. The term was apparently coined by a food critic in The New York Times and actually refers to the neighborhood of Ridgewood.

8 Great Walter Scott Words


Great Scott, it’s Sir Walter’s Scott’s birthday! Born in 1771, the Scottish poet and novelist is the author of such classics as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and The Lady of the Lake. He also introduced into English words from German, Norse, and of course Scots that we still use today. Here are eight of our favorites.


“The support of the two Berserkir would be of the greatest advantage to him.”

Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, 1814

Scott introduced both berserker and berserk into the English language. Berserkers were ancient Norse warriors known for their “savagery and reckless frenzy in battle” (perhaps due in part to the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms). They would also wear bear or wolf pelts in battle, hence their name, which translates from Old Norse as “bear shirt.”


“On this singular gorget was engraved, in Saxon characters, an inscription of the following purport:—’Gurth, the son of Beowulph, is the born thrall of Cedric of Rotherwood.’”

Ivanhoe, 1820

Cedric the Entertainer can thank the Scottish poet for his name. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Cedric was a mistake for the Old English Cerdic. The name Cedric peaked in popularity in the 1960s, says the Baby Name Wizard.

cold shoulder

“Ye may mind that the Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther.”

The Antiquary, 1816

The next time someone gives you an icy reception, warm up by imagining Scott uttering his invented idiom in Highland brogue. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that while cold shoulder began in a literal sense, it was also often used “with a punning reference” to a “cold shoulder of mutton,” which was considered a “poor man’s dish” and perhaps something served to “an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure.”


“The witches of Auldearne, according to this penitent, were so numerous, that they were told off into squads, or covines, as they were termed, to each of which were appointed two officers.”

Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, 1884

While coven meaning a gathering of witches was first used in the 1660s, it was Scott’s use that popularized the word. Coven might be a variation of covent, a Middle English word for “convent,” a community of nuns.


“We omit here various execrations with which these honest gentlemen garnished their discourse, retaining only such of their expletives as are least offensive.”

Guy Mannering, 1815

The word expletive has been around since the early 17th century, but Scott was the first to use it to mean a profane, vulgar, or obscene oath. The word comes from the Late Latin explētīvus, “serving to fill out,” which reflects an earlier sense, a word or phrase that has no meaning but is only added to “fill out a sentence or a metrical line.”


“I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them.”

Ivanhoe, 1820

Who’d have thought contractors and consultants had something in common with medieval mercenary knights? When Scott first used freelance, he was referring to such adventurers who offered their services in return for payment, with the idea that their lances were free to the highest bidder.

By the 1850s, says the OED, freelance also referred to “a politician or controversialist with no fixed affiliation to a particular party or viewpoint,” and by 1899, someone who works as a freelancer.


“Why performed in such a solitude, and by what class of choristers, were questions which the terrified imagination of the adept, stirred with all the German superstitions of nixies, oak-kings, wer-wolves, hobgoblins, black spirits and white, blue spirits and grey, durst not even attempt to solve.”

The Antiquary, 1816

A nixie is a kind of water elf or fairy. The word comes from the Old High German nihhussa, “water sprite.” Nixie also refers to, in American English, a piece of mail that’s undeliverable due to an incorrect or illegible address. This sense comes from nix meaning none or nothing.


“I advise no man to attempt opening this sporran till he has my secret.”

Rob Roy, 1817

A sporran is a fur or leather pouch worn at the front of the kilt as part of the “the traditional dress of men of the Scottish Highlands.” The word ultimately comes from the Middle Irish sparán, which might come from the Late Latin bursa, “bag.”

Word Buzz Wednesday: fromagicide, merkeln, toxic gumbo

Cutting The Cheese

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, in which we round up our favorite buzzworthy words of the week. The latest: camembert killers; an indecisive eponym; and a deadly stew.


“In one incident that Russian news source RT calls ‘fromagicide,’ some 9 tons of European cheeses were steamrolled and bulldozed before being buried at a landfill.”

Bill Chappell, “We Will Bury You: Russia Bulldozes Tons Of European Cheese, Other Banned Food,” NPR, August 6, 2015

Last year in response to economic sanctions from the U.S. and some European countries, Russia banned the import of Western agricultural products, including cheese, tons of which the country recently destroyed, leading to the term fromagicide, the death of cheese.

Fromage, French for cheese, ultimately comes from the Latin forma, “shape, form, mold,” while the -cide suffix means “killer.”

Goldilocks zone

“The habitable zone, sometimes referred to as the ‘Goldilocks Zone,’ is the region around a star that has just the right conditions to find liquid water on a planet’s surface.”

Amy Thompson, “A super-Earth found in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star,” Ars Technica, July 23, 2015

It’s not enough that Goldilocks breaks into the bears’ house, she has to have all things just right, whether porridge temperature, chair size, or bed comfiness.


“Compilers of the German dictionary Langenscheidt say that ‘merkeln’ is likely to be named the most popular youth word of the year in its national poll.”

Sean O’Grady, “Angela Merkel has inspired a new German word – so which British politicians could lend themselves to our lexicon?” The Independent, August 6, 2015

To merkel, or merkeln in German, means to be “indecisive or not to have an opinion at all.” This neologism comes from Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, who has been criticized for “her procrastination over issues such as Greece and nuclear power.”

(H/t Barry Popkik)


“While the island continues to be drenched by heavy rains, the worst of the winds have passed and Soudelor is now churning across the sea toward mainland China.”

Faith Karimi, Laura Smith-Spark and Steve Almasy, “Typhoon Soudelor drenches Taiwan, churns on toward China,” CNN, August 8, 2015

Soudelor comes from a Pohnpeian word meaning “legendary chief or ruler,” where sau means “entitled to” and deleur is an obsolete name for Pohnpei, an island of Micronesia.

toxic gumbo

“Entire neighborhoods were deserted or submerged, and the water had turned black, a noxious mix of dirt, sewage, and gasoline the media dubbed ‘toxic gumbo.’”

David Grimm, “How Hurricane Katrina Turned Pets Into People,” BuzzFeed, July 31, 2015

Toxic gumbo is an ironic play on gumbo, the signature okra-thickened stew of Louisiana and nearby states.

The word gumbo, which is West African in origin, first referred to the okra plants themselves. It’s also come to mean a French patois spoken by “some Black people and Creoles in Louisiana and the French West Indies,” as well as “a fine silty soil, common in the southern and western United States, that forms an unusually sticky mud when wet.”

As for the term toxic gumbo, that has actually been in use since well before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. The earliest citation we could find was from a 1991 article in People magazine:

In 1989 these companies discharged 124.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals, including the carcinogens vinyl chloride and benzene, as well as ammonia and mercury, which affect the nervous system, and chloroform, toluene and carbon tetrachloride, which can deform fetuses. “We call it toxic gumbo,” says Ramona Stevens, another local activist.

Word Buzz Wednesday: Beckham effect, blue moon, lala company

Blue Moon over New York City

Welcome to Word Buzz Wednesday, in which we round up our favorite buzzworthy words of the week. The latest: retire like Beckham; the snarky origins of blue moon; and a company off in lala land.

Beckham effect

“But the Beckham effect, which significantly boosted both attendance and sponsorship revenue within MLS, hadn’t gone unnoticed by club owners.”

Gavin Cleaver, “The Aging Stars of Major League Soccer,” The Atlantic, July 29, 2015

The Beckham effect refers to the effect “aging” soccer star David Beckham had on Major League Soccer when he joined an MLS team. Not only did popularity and revenue increase, but more top players who had aged out of English and European leagues came across the pond to play.

See also ‘Wild’ effect.

blue moon

“It may be cold comfort to those disappointed at today’s white ‘blue moon,’ but there is such a thing as a blue-hued moon. It just requires volcanoes to spew ash into the sky.”

Matt Gibbons, “Today is a blue moon: What does that really mean, anyway?” Quartz, July 31, 2005

A blue moon is a second full moon in a month, which normally only has one. Two full moons in a month occurs only once every three years, says Quartz, hence, the phrase “once in a blue moon.”

But if this relatively rare moon isn’t actually blue, what’s up with the name? It all stems from a 16th century snarky remark from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who basically said that his peers were so intellectually stunted that they “would have you believe the moon is blue.” By the early 19th century, the meaning had shifted to mean an infrequent occurrence.


“On Thursday, the White House said it would review a public petition to extradite the American dentist after more than 100,000 signed it.”

Zimbabwe ‘seeks lion Cecil’s killer’ Walter Palmer from US,” BBC, July 31, 2015

To extradite someone means to give them up to “the legal jurisdiction of another government or country,” often for a crime. The word is a back-formation of extradition, which comes from the Latin ex-, “out of,” and traditio, “a handing over.”

lala company

“In India, I learned about the concept of a ‘Lala Company’ — an enterprise where the owner of business rep refuses to take advice or suggestions that don’t automatically square with his own ideas.”

Jeff Lewonczyk, “I went to India, and all you got were these lousy cartoons,” Quartz, August 1, 2015

Lala company seems to be a uniquely Indian term which refers to a company run by one person who makes all the decisions; doesn’t have “much of office norms and rules”; nor proper facilities for its employees.

This blogger jokingly distinguishes a lala company from a “professional company,” and is surprised at the number of companies with lala in their name, although he understands that they “do not know [the word’s] derogatory implication in the Indian context.”

However, we couldn’t find what exactly lala means. Lewonczyk’s depiction shows a CEO type intoning, “La la la! I can’t hear you” with his fingers in his ears, which is funny but a western interpretation. Dictionary.com says Lala is a form of address in India, similar to “Mr.” — one can imagine employees constantly acquiescing to the big Mr., the CEO — while a poster on this forum says that in Sanskrit lala means “cajoling.” A lala company might be one in which the head honcho needs to be constantly cajoled.


“These bits of tissue, called organoids because they mimic some of the structure and function of real organs.”

Cassandra Willyard, “Biotech Interest in Mini Organs Booms,” Scientific American, July 29, 2015

The word organoid means resembling an organ and not, as the headline would imply, a mini organ, although the distinction is blurry. The suffix -oid means “like that of.” Hence, an android is only like a man, and a factoid is only like a fact when, in fact, it’s not.

(H/t Edward Banatt)

Herman Melville: A Whale of a Lexicon


American writer Herman Melville was born on this day in 1819. His experience as a sailor on a merchant ship and on an 18-month whaling voyage provided fodder for his most famous novels, including Typee, Omoo, and of course Moby Dick.

Such seafaring accounts put into print nautical slang and lingo perhaps only previously heard among sailors, but the one-time teacher and customs agent has also given us a few surprising gems we still use today.

ballyhoo of blazes

“Be off wid ye thin, darlints, and steer clear of the likes of this ballyhoo of blazes as long as ye live.”

Omoo: Adventures in the South Seas, 1847

While not currently in use, ballyhoo of blazes definitely should be. While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) omits a definition, we’re guessing it means a “slovenly ship,” or ballyhoo, from the blazes of hell.

The word ballyhoo may be a variant of ballahoo, which is Caribbean in origin and refers to a fast-sailing schooner. However, ballyhoo meaning sensational publicity or a noisy uproar seems to be unrelated, and might instead come from the Irish English word for “hell,” ballyhooly, which itself could come from Ballyhooly, a village in County Cork, which according to the OED, was “formerly notorious for faction fighting,” although this might be a back-rationalization.


“Therefore you must not, in every case at least, take the higgledy-piggledy whale statements, however authentic, in these extracts, for veritable gospel cetology.”

Moby Dick, 1851

Cetology is that branch of zoology which studies cetaceous animals such as whales, porpoises, and dolphins. The word cetology comes from the Latin cetus, “any large sea creature,” which comes from the Greek ketos, “a whale, a sea monster.”


“It was in the midst of this repose, that Archy, one of the cordon, whose post was near the after-hatches, whispered to his neighbor, a Cholo, the words above.”

Moby Dick, 1851

That’s right, Herman Melville was the first, on record at least, to use Cholo in English. However, he doesn’t use it with the sense of a derogatory term for someone perceived to be a lower-class Mexican, or a Mexican or Latino gang member, but to refer to “an Indian or mixed-race person of Latin America.” This sense of cholo might come from the Nahuatl xolotl, “dog, mutt.”


“But be easy, be easy, this here harpooneer I have been tellin’ you of has just arrived from the south seas, where he bought up a lot of ‘balmed New Zealand heads (great curios, you know), and he’s sold all on ‘em but one.”

Moby Dick, 1851

A curio is an unusual or odd piece of art or bric-a-brac, and is short for “curiosity.” Bric-a-brac are “small, usually ornamental objects valued for their antiquity, rarity, originality, or sentimental associations.” The word comes from the French bric-à-brac, “expressive of confusion.”


“It is a witchery of social czarship which there is no withstanding.”

Moby Dick, 1851

The word czar is, of course, Russian in origin, but ultimately  comes from the Latin Caesar, “Emperor.” The title czar was first adopted by the Russian emperor Ivan IV in 1547.

The figurative meaning of “person with dictatorial powers” is from 1866, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and initially referred to President Andrew Johnson.


“All the garish night-life of a vast thoroughfare, crowded and wedged by day, and even now, at this late hour, brilliant with occasional illuminations.”

Pierre; or The Ambiguities, 1852

Disco-lovers everywhere can thank the 19th-century author for this modern-sounding word referring to social activities and entertainment that take place at night.


“After listening to these plum-puddingers till nearly eleven o’clock, I went up stairs to go to bed.”

Moby Dick, 1851

Plum-puddinger refers to either a whaling ship that goes out on short voyages or a crew member on such a ship. While Melville’s is the earliest recorded use of this term, we assume it was common in nautical vernacular before then.

The plum-puddinger is so called because “because the crew has fresh provisions and an abundant supply of plum-pudding,” a staple apparently for 19th-century shipmen.


“It is called slobgollion; an appellation original with the whalemen, and even so is the nature of the substance.”

Moby Dick, 1851

Slobgollion is whaling slang for a substance found in sperm whale oil, says the OED. In Moby Dick, Melville describes such a substance as “an ineffably oozy, stringy affair,” which is obtained “after a prolonged squeezing, and subsequent decanting.”

While the origin of slobgollion is unknown, earlier meanings of slob include mud or slime, while the second part of the word could be influenced by gullion, a mean and worthless wretch, or gollin, a kind of fish.

A variation is slumgullion, which in addition to fish offal refers to a cheap and watery drink — first used by Mark Twain in Roughing It — as well as a kind of thin stew.


“Ye wouldn’t have been to sea here, leadin’ this dog’s life, if you hadn’t been snivelized…Snivelization has been the ruin on ye.”

Redburn, 1849

Snivelization is another Melville creation we should begin using immediately. The OED defines the term as “civilization considered derisively as a cause of anxiety or plaintiveness” — in other words, you’re a sniveling whiner because you’re too civilized. The word snivel originally meant to run at the nose.


“When all were pleasantly seated beneath the canopy…Media proposed that, for the benefit of the company, some one present, in a pithy, whiffy sentence or two, should sum up the character of the Tapparians.”

Mardi: And a Voyage Thither, 1864

Whiffy meaning “having a bad smell” comes from whiff, which could refer to a slight gust of wind, a passing odor, or an intake of breath. In baseball, whiff means to strike out, and in sports in general, to swing and miss.