The language of gossip

Duck Gossip

When we heard about Ear Hustle, we thought it was a great idea for a podcast, but also a great term for gossip. That got us wondering about all the different ways we talk about idle talk, whether in different parts of the U.S., England, and other English-speaking countries. Take a listen at the language of gossip.

The etymology of a gossip

The word gossip didn’t always refer to a rumormonger. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated around 1014 to mean a godmother or godfather, and came from the Old English godsibb, which had the same meaning.

By the late 14th century, the word also meant a familiar acquaintance, friend, or chum, and in 1600 referred to “a woman’s female friends invited to be present at a birth.” From Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Sometime lurke I in a gossippes bole, In very likenesse of a rosted crabbe.”

Around the same time or slightly earlier, gossip gained the familiar meaning of someone “of light and trifling character” who “delights in idle talk” while the term came to refer to idle talk itself around 1811.

Regional nicknames for blabbermouths

Another gossipy old word is long tongue. This 16th-century term can refer to talkativeness itself, says the OED, or a talkative someone who’s prone to “revealing secrets.” The earliest citation in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is from 1899 with scattered usage throughout the United States, including Virginia, central Pennsylvania, Utah, Indiana, New York, Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

In Utah you might also hear blathergab while blab-fest, “a gathering of people for talking or gossip,” might be blabbed in Connecticut and Indiana, and blabber-fest in New Jersey. In California, Mississippi, and Ohio, someone who goes poking into other people’s business might be called a nosy Rosy while a meeting of gossipers would be Nosy Rosies.

In Irish English a nosy parker might be called a pant. Short for pantomime, says the OED, it also refers to a prank or caper, in addition to talk or rumors, or the gossiper himself. Caribbean English has macomere, which has a similar etymology as gossip. Coming from French — ma commere translates as “my child’s godmother” — it first referred to the godmother of one’s child or the mother of one’s godchild, and later came to be “a term of affectionate respect for any female friend.” It also has the derogatory meaning of an old woman or gossip as well as an effeminate man.

How we talk about idle talk

Dirt. Buzz. Chatter. Those are all ways you might refer to gossip. But if you’re in California, Georgia, Nebraska, or Texas, you might say hash or pig hash, according to DARE.

Street yarn is an early American English expression for gossip or idle talk. DARE says it’s usually used in the phrase spin street yarn, meaning to gossip, while a street-yarn spinner is someone who gossips. DARE’s earliest citation is from 1782 in the Papers of Robert Morris: “It would be out of my Power to neglect my Business having nothing to divert me from it unless to spin Street Yarn.” The term has recorded usage in Ohio, parts of New York, Kentucky, Connecticut, parts of Vermont, and New England in general.

The Scots are not to be left out of the scuttlebutt conversation (scuttlebutt, by the way, originally referred to the drinking fountain on a ship, around which sailors would gather to chew the rumor-filled fat). The Scots clish-clash is imitative in origin as is clish-ma-claver. In Jamaican English, labrish works as a noun, verb, or adjective. The word might come from blab, says the OED, or the echoic laba, to chatter, or laba-laba, talkative.

In Trinidad and Tabago and hear some old talk? You’re hearing it through the grapevine. The OED says it might be short for “old people talk.” Meanwhile over in South African, hearsay or to engage in hearsay might be referred to as skinder. The word might come from Afrikaans skinder, which has the same meaning, says the OED. That might come from the Dutch schender, “person who corrupts, injures, or damages another person or thing.”

Can we talk?

There are many ways to describe actually engaging in gossip. You might carry a bone, says DARE, at least in Chicago and parts of Indiana and Massachusetts. This might be related with the sayings bone of contention, the subject of a dispute (coming from the idea of two dogs fighting over a bone) and have a bone to pick, meaning to have a complaint or grievance with someone.

In Virginia you might drink one’s milk from a saucer, with the idea of being “catty.” In the South Midland states, you might pack news or tales. In the Ozarks and parts of Tennessee, you could tat, while in the South and South Midland states you might tote.

How do you talk about gossip?

Mutts, Mongrels, and Curs: 12 Regional Slang Terms

Aisha

We don’t think we’ve met a doggo we didn’t like, but there’s something about mutts and mongrels that tugs extra hard at our heartstrings. We’re not talking designer dog blends but those curs of more mixed or indeterminate breeds.

The names are as varied as the tykes themselves, and often change depending on where you live. The Dictionary of Regional American English (DARE) has captured much of these through their 1,800 field recordings (now freely available online) from across the United States. On this National Dog Day, we bring you 12 of those regional slang terms for mutts, mongrels, and curs.

Heinz dog

Heinz dog is used throughout the U.S., says DARE. In addition to a dog of mixed or indeterminate breed, it’s a joking or uncomplimentary word for a dog in general. The term has a kennel of variants, including Heinz, Heinz 57, Heinz fifty-seven dog, fifty-seven varieties dog, Heinz mixture, Heinz terrier, and Heinzee hound.

The name comes from the Heinz Company’s advertising of its ketchup, which “somewhat mysteriously brags about the company’s ‘57 Varieties,’” says FastCo Design. However, there have never been 57 varieties of Heinz products. Company founder Henry J. Heinz was inspired by an ad for a company that made “21 varieties” of shoes, and came up with 57 by using his favorite number, five, and his wife’s, seven.

poi dog

Hailing from the Aloha State, this mongrel moniker once referred to a native Hawaiian breed that’s now extinct. It’s also a slur for someone of native Hawaiian ancestry. The DARE interviewees offer a few different theories for the origin. One is that the native breed was either “fattened on poi and served at feasts,” or served at said feasts along with poi. Another is that “poi is a mixture just like a mongrel is.”

sofkee dog

Got a mutt in Florida or Oklahoma? You’ve got a sofkee dog. Also sofkey, sofki, and sophky. The word sofkee comes from Muskogee (Creek) Nation safki and refers to a soup or gruel whose main ingredient is boiled corn, also known in some parts as hominy. Hominy comes from the Virginia Algonquian uskatahomen.

soup hound

All a soup hound’s fit to do is eat, says an Alabama resident. Might also be heard in parts of California, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Washington. The nickname might have to do with the idea of soup being mixed and having a variety of ingredients.

potlicker

This saying for a hound, usually of mixed breed, or any nondescript dog, is from the Gulf States, which includes Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and eastern Texas. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it’s also a Caribbean term, and in North America once referred to a contemptible person. Someone who’s pot-licking is an obsequious brown noser.

kyoodle

Have a mixed pooch in Louisiana and you have a kyoodle, also spelled cayoodle, kiyutle, and kiyoodle. The OED says this expression means to make a loud noise, or to bark or yap, and is imitative in origin.

But which came first, kyoodle the dog or kyoodle the woof? The former it seems. The OED’s earliest citation is from John Steinbeck’s 1935 novel, Tortilla Flat: “The dogs..sought out a rabbit and went kyoodling after it.” DARE’s is from the 1906 My Old Bailiwick by Owen Kildare: “So you was going to have me arrested for finishing that kyoodle o’ your’n?”

outlaw

If you’re an outlaw in southeast Alabama or south-central Louisiana, you’re a fugitive or a farrago or a fido. Another animal definition includes a horse that is unmanageable, chiefly uttered in the West.

curbstone-setter

While English and Irish setters were “originally trained to indicate the presence of game by crouching in a set position,” the only setting this cur in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio might do is on the edge of the road.

In addition to stones that make up a curb, curbstone also refers to someone untrained or unsophisticated, and by extension could refer to a mangy mutt. This sense might come from curbstone broker, which, according to the OED, means a broker who’s not a member of the stock exchange but who “transacts business in the streets.”

feist

A small potpourri pup might be called a feist in the South and South Midland states. The term has many variations, including fais(t), faus(t), fife, and fist(e), and is a shortening of fisting-hound or foisting-hound, which ultimately comes from fist meaning to break wind. By extension, says DARE, it can also refer to  “a person or animal that is irascible, touchy, or bad-tempered.”

hound dog

“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” sang Elvis. So it might not be surprising that this mongrel expression is popular in the Lower Mississippi Valley, which includes parts of Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as Texas and the South Atlantic states.

hush puppy

In addition to deep-fried cornmeal and the brand name of a soft, lightweight shoe, a hush puppy might refer to a mongrel hunting dog in Alabama.

soon(er) dog

A sooner or sooner man is a lazy, good-for-nothing person, says DARE, ironically playing on sooner meaning the opposite, a quick or clever person. By extension is the South and South Midland sooner dog, as describes an east Tennessee resident: “I’ve got a sooner dog. He’d sooner lay in the house as out in the yard.”

Another meaning of sooner is someone “who settled homestead land in the western United States before it was officially made available, in order to have first choice of location,” and perhaps by extension, a resident of Oklahoma.

10 Ultra-Violent Slang Terms from ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Clockwork Stem

In his iconic novel A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess creates a dystopian world in which youths down milk doused with narcotics before committing random acts of ultra-violence.

He’s also created a language. Nadsat-talk, or just Nadsat, is a mix of Russian, German, French, and Cockney influences, as well as almost every linguistic trick in the book, including blends (chumble, possibly “chatter” and “mumble”), reduplication (baddiwad for “bad”), nounification (warbles for “songs”), shortenings (guff, “to laugh,” from guffaw), and pure invention (cables for “blood vessels” and flatblock for “home”).

On what would have been his 99th birthday, we take a look 10 words invented by Burgess in A Clockwork Orange.

clockwork orange

“So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?’”

In addition to being the title of a book within the book, a clockwork orange refers to someone who has been made to work “like clockwork,” that is, mechanically and without free will.

As for the title’s origin, Burgess himself has a couple of explanations. In The New Yorker, he writes that he first heard the expression “as queer as a clockwork orange” before World War II in a pub in London, and that it’s “an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature.” The phrase also juxtaposes “a thing living, growing, sweet, juicy, to a cold dead artifact.”

In Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce, Burgess notes that when he “wrote a novel called A Clockwork Orange, no European reader saw that the Malay word for ‘man’ — orang — was contained in the title.” The Malay orang is also contained within orangutan, which translates as “man of the wilderness.”

droog

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim.”

Droog, a young hooligan or gang member, is the one Burgess neologism that has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, at least so far. The word comes from the Russian drug, meaning “friend.” It may be no coincidence that drug is also a homograph of the English drug since pharmaceuticals play a large part in the novel.

nadsat

“‘Oh I shall go home. Back to my pee and em.’
‘Your — ?’ He didn’t get nadsat-talk at all, so I said:
‘To my parents in the dear old flatblock.'”

Nadsat is another Russian-influenced invented slang term. Meaning “teenage,” the word comes from the Russian suffix for “teen,” nadtsat.

eggiweg

“I read this with care, my brothers, slurping away at the old chai, cup after tass after chasha, crunching my lomticks of black toast dipped in jammiwan and eggiweg.”

Reduplication is another device Burgess uses in Nadsat-speak. The childish singsong of words such as eggiweg, jammiwam, and punchipunching are a chilling apposition against the depraved ultra-violence of Alex and his droogs.

moloko plus

“I took the large moloko plus to one of the little cubies that were all around this mesto, there being like curtains to shut them off from the main mesto, and there I sat down in the plushy chair and sipped and sipped.”

A moloko plus is milk spiked with drugs. Moloko is a direct translation from Russian for “milk.” (Mesto, by the way, is Russian for “place.”) Like eggiweg and jammiwam, moloko plus sets up the childish (milk) against the depraved (hard drugs).

Moloko plus is also called knify moloko — “There we were, a-waiting and peeting away at the the old knify moloko, and you had not turned up” — or “milk with knives in it,” which is made to “sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one.”

What does all of this mean? Knives refer to amphetamines, according to the introduction of the book, but perhaps also plays on the term spiked, containing drugs or alcohol. Peet comes from pit, the Russian word for “drink,” while being sharp may be an allusion to being hyper-aware and sped up, an effect of amphetamines. Dirty twenty-to-one might refer to gang violence involving sexual assault.

Other fictional drug names in the novel include synthemesc, vellocet, and drencrom. Synthemesc might come from “synthetic mescaline” while vellocet might play on the name of a motorcycle company, evoking speed and velocity. Drencrom might be an alteration of adrenochrome, a drug that causes “thought disorder, derealization, and euphoria.”

hound-and-horny

“Dim put on a hound-and-horny look of evil, saying: ‘I don’t like you should do what you done then.’”

Hound-and-horny seems to be a kind of invented rhyming slang term that means “corny.” Other such terms include, for “money,” pretty polly (“If you need pretty polly, you take it”) and cutter, which might come from bread and butter, meaning livelihood. Luscious glory meaning “hair” (“my luscious glory was a wet tangled cally mess”) might come from crowning glory.

vaysay

“I wanted to be sick, so I got out of bed all trembly so as to go off down the corridor to the old vaysay. But behold, brothers, the door was locked.”

Vaysay is Nadsat slang for the restroom, coming from the French pronunciation of the British English W.C., or water closet. Other French-derived slang terms include sinny, which comes from cinéma or ciné, and tass from tasse, “cup.”

shilarny

“Why this sudden shilarny for being the big bloated capitalist?”

Shilarny, meaning “concern,” seems to be a purely invented with perhaps an Irish influence. Another invented word with an unclear origin is sharp, slang for “woman.”

barry place

“Next it’s going to be the barry place and all my work ruined.”

The barry place, or prison, refers to the bars of a cell. Another slang term for jail is stripey hole, again for the image of prison bars.

Staja

“This is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning, my brothers and only friends, in Staja (State Jail, that is) Number 84F.”

Staja is another term for jail, a blend of “State Jail,” but also reminiscent of Stalag, a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Stalag is a shortening of Stammlager, which comes from Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager, which translates roughly as “main POW camp.”

Other German-derived words include shlaga, a club or a bat, which comes from Schlager, to hit, and tashtook (“He’d taken a big snotty tashtook from his pocket”), which comes from Taschentuch, “handkerchief.”

Heathers, Much? Our 7 Favorite Slang Terms from ‘Heathers’

heathers01

We can hardly believe it but Heathers is turning 25 this year. We thought we’d celebrate with some slushies, croquet, and TNT, but that seemed like a lot of trouble so we’re rounding up our seven favorite slang terms from the movie instead.

EXPLETIVE ALERT: if you’re familiar with Heathers, you’re familiar with its, um, colorful expletives, two of which will be discussed at some length below.

damage

Veronica: “What is your damage, Heather?”

The writer of the film, Daniel Waters, says he stole the phrase, “What’s your damage?” — another way of saying, “What’s your problem?” — from “one of [his] little camper girls” for whom he was a camp counselor, presumably in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

What’s the damage?, meaning “how much will it cost?”, comes from the mid-18th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary. We couldn’t find a year of origin for What’s your problem? meaning “why are you upset?” However, according to the OED, that’s not my problem is from the late 1940s and that’s your (his, etc.) problem is from around 1951.

fuck me gently with a chainsaw

Veronica: “Why can’t we talk to other kinds of people?”
Heather Chandler: “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Theresa?”

Fuck me in this context is “an expression of surprise, contempt, outrage, disgust, boredom, frustration, or of dismay at undesired events happening to oneself.” The OED says the phrase has been around since at least the late 1920s, evinced in the following from The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning: “‘Well, you can fuck me!’ exclaimed the astonished Martlow.”

Waters says that one of his college friends “used to say ‘F— me gently with a crowbar,” and that “apparently ‘f— me gently’ was at one time a common expression in England.” According to Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour Of American English From Plymouth Rock To Silicon Valley, as cited by this blogger, fuck me gently, meaning “don’t take advantage of me too much, don’t cheat me too blatantly,” gained popularity among the British troops during World War I.

megabitch

Veronica: “Why are you such a megabitch?”
Heather Duke: “Because I can be.”

Megabitch, which we were thrilled to find is in the online OED, refers to, figuratively, a really big bitch. The combining form mega- comes from the Greek megas, “great, large, vast, big, high, tall; mighty, important.” While mega often means large or great, in scientific terms it refers to “one million.” A megacorpse or megadeath (not to be confused with Megadeth) is one million deaths, a unit used in nuclear warfare.

Megabitch seems to have originated around 1985, says the OED, a few years before Heathers, in Adweek: “The Joan Collins/Alexis Carrington device here is inspired. She gets to play off the megabitch appeal of Alexis while adding a slapstick, comic twist.”

While mega is mainly used as an intensifier, in the mid-1980s it gained its own meaning of great or excellent: “The new Duran Duran album is so mega.”

pillowcase

Heather Chandler: “Goddamn, Heather, you were with me in study hall when I thought of it.”
Heather Duke: “I forgot.”
Heather Chandler: “Such a pillowcase.”

We’re assuming pillowcase refers to someone empty- or soft-headed, like a pillow or pillowcase. The term may play off basket case, someone in “a completely hopeless or useless condition.” Basket case has a gruesome origin: during World War I, it referred to a soldier who had had lost all of his limbs and had to be carried around in a basket.

Swatch dog

Veronica: “Betty Finn was a true friend and I sold her out for a bunch of Swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads.”

Swatch dog is a play on watchdog (and Diet Coke head on cokehead). A Swatch dog is presumably someone who’s a slave to the latest fashions, such as Swatch watches at the time.

Swatch, which we had always thought was a blend of Swiss and watch, is actually a shortening of Second Watch, with the idea of “watches as casual, fun, and relatively disposable accessories” (although we remember Swatch watches as being terrifically expensive).

very

Heather Chandler: “Come on, it’ll be very. The note’ll give her shower nozzle masturbation material for weeks.”

We assume very here means impressive, good, or just all around awesome, and like mega, is an intensifier that gained its own meaning.

We don’t know if the phrase has anything to do with this Keri “is so very” lotion commercial, but the term very certainly makes us think of it.

X much

Heather Duke [to Veronica]: “Jealous much?”

There has been much written about X much. The OED describes the phrase as “with a preceding adjective, infinitive verb, or noun phrase, forming an elliptical comment or question.”

In other words, “Jealous much?” means “You’re really jealous, aren’t you?” Earlier in the film Heather McNamara says to Veronica, “Drool much?” meaning, “You’re drooling a lot over that guy, aren’t you?”

X much was also often used in the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which came out after Heathers:

Excuse much!
Smell of booze, much.
Morbid much?

Kevin Sullivan at Language and Humor found a citation that predates Heathers by over 10 years, from Saturday Night Live:

TODD (points at Lisa’s chest and mock laughs to a pretend audience): Underdeveloped much?

Want even more Heathers? Check out these stories in The Atlantic and Flavorwire, as well as this very entertaining oral history in, appropriately, Entertainment Weekly.

Celebrating Ada Lovelace: Our Favorite Hacker Slang

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which honors 19th century English mathematician and writer, Ada Lovelace.

While Lovelace is “chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage‘s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine,” she is also credited with developing the “first algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer,” and thus is often considered the world’s first computer programmer.

To celebrate this pioneer hacker, we’ve rounded up 10 of our favorite hacking terms.

bikeshedding

“Development moved slowly because endless bikeshedding impaired efforts to reconcile technical differences between the disparate Nokia and Intel software components.”

Ryan Paul, “Intel Denies Giving up on MeeGo, But That Doesn’t Mean Much,” Ars Technica, September 9, 2011

Bikeshedding refers to the “futile investment of time and energy in marginal technical issues,” and “implies technical disputes over minor, marginal issues conducted while more serious ones are being overlooked.”

The term originated in Berkeley Software Distribution culture and is an example of Parkinson’s law of triviality, a 1957 argument from British historian C. Northcote Parkinson which says that “organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” The term bikeshedding comes from the idea of “people arguing over what color to paint the bicycle shed while the house is not finished.”

gunslinger

black hat

“But by the end, I felt Bruce Sterling the fiction writer’s presence was too strong in painting a problematic, one-dimensional and static picture of the role of hacker culture in the WikiLeaks saga; the gist is that once a black hat hacker, always a black hat hacker.”

Gabriella Coleman, “Hacker Culture: A Response to Bruce Sterling on WikiLeaks,” The Atlantic, December 23, 2010

A black hat is “a malicious hacker who commits illegal acts.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the phrase’s earliest usage as 1990: “The idea of the ‘pick one from three’ is so the black hats can’t tell which challenge you’re responding to, and thus can’t build a table from observation.”

Black hat hacker comes from an earlier meaning of black hat, “a villain or bad guy in a story, especially in a Western,” which the OED says is from the late 1950s: “Once it was easy to tell the heroes from the villains in the television Westerns: The white hats were the good guys and the black hats were the bad guys.”

By that token, a white hat is “a well-meaning hacker who hacks for a good cause or to aid a company, organization, or government without causing harm.”

dogfooding

“Google, like just about every technology company, employs a bevy of eager and captive testers–employees–when getting ready to roll out a new product. However, there are clear limits to what ‘dogfooding’ (as the process is known) can predict about how the general public will receive a product.”

Tom Krazit, “How Google Tested Google Instant,” CNET, October 18, 2010

Dogfooding, or eating your own dog food, is when a company uses “its own product to demonstrate the quality and capabilities of the product.”

The origin has a couple of possibilities: 1980s Alpo dog food commercials in which spokesman Lorne Greene claimed that he fed Alpo to his own dogs, and the story of the president of Kal Kan Pet Food supposedly eating a can of his dog food at shareholders’ meeting.

doxing

“Translated from Anonymous-speak, ‘dox’ are documents, and ‘doxing’ is the practice of revealing someone’s real-life details, usually for the purposes of harassment.”

Andy Greenberg, “Anonymous and Ex-Anonymous Hackers Wage a War of Identification,” Forbes, March 22, 2011

Doxing, or sometimes doxxing, refers to publishing “an individual’s personal information on the Internet,” often “outing” the person from a pseudonymous persona. Dox comes from documents since personal documents, such as credit card statements, are often used to obtain the target’s real identity.

In her post on doxing back in February, Nancy Friedman wrote that according to Know Your Meme, the term has been in use since the early to mid-2000s. A recent, and controversial, example of doxing was the unmasking of Violentacraz, a notorious Reddit troll.

hacker

“A convicted computer ‘hacker‘ who is apparently under FBI investigation claims that he has gained access to a Defense Department computer network about 100 times, once learning of military plans to monitor earthquakes in communist countries.”

‘Hacker’ Says He Entered Pentagon’s Computer,” The Milwaukee Journal, November 26, 1984

The computer sense of hacker originated in the mid-1970s, says the OED, with the meanings of “a person with an enthusiasm for programming or using computers as an end in itself” and “a person who uses his skill with computers to try to gain unauthorized access to computer files or networks.”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the usage may have evolved from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where by the late 1960s a hack had the general sense of a “creative prank.” This sense of hack may somehow be related to the “writing for hire” meaning of the word, or else the physical act of chopping or cutting.

The term hacktivist, a blend of hack and activist, originated in the mid-1990s, says the OED.

heisenbug

“The term ‘Heisenbug’ may as well have been invented for multithreaded programming.”

John Siracusa, “Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: the Ars Technica review,” Ars Technica, August 31, 2009

A heisenbug is “a software bug which fails to manifest itself during debugging.” The word is a play on Werner Heisenberg, a German theoretical physicist who devised the uncertainty principle, which states “that any attempt to measure the position of a subatomic particle will disrupt its movement, making it harder to predict.” Heisenbug seems to have originated in the mid-1980s.

Heisenberg is also the pseudonym of chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, Walter White, in the television show, Breaking Bad. The behavior of Walter White, aka Heisenberg, could be likened to both the subatomic particle in the uncertainty principle and the elusive heisenbug.

Ants marching

marching ants

“Even the now-ubiquitous moving dotted line that indicates a selection — called ‘marching ants’ by MacPaint developer Bill Atkinson after a suggestion by Rod Perkins of Apple’s Lisa team — originated in MacPaint.”

Rik Myslewski, “1984’s MacPaint Source Code Hits Web,” The Register, July 21, 2010

Marching ants refer to “an animated dotted line indicating which portion of an image is currently selected.” The idea is credited to Bill Atkinson, the creator of MacPaint, while Rod Perkins of the Apple Lisa team is the one who said the effect reminded him of “marching ants.”

munge

“The state of BI dashboards today is that you start with your data in text form, and then you munge it and mash it until you’ve gotten your answer, and then you go and launch some chart wizard that asks you what template you want.”

Eric Lai, “New Free Online Tool Makes Creating Infographics from Data Easier,” Digital Arts, February 12, 2010

Munge, also mung, refers to transforming “data in an undefined or unexplained manner”; adding a spamblock; or corrupting “a record about an individual by erroneously merging in information about another individual.”

One theory of this word’s origin is that it was “coined in 1958 in the Tech Model Railroad Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” with the backronym “Mash Until No Good” created in 1960.

However, the word munge has been in use since 1600, according to the OED, when it meant to wipe someone’s nose or to cheat someone. In 1770, it came to mean “to eat greedily and noisily; to much; to chew,” which could easily be extended to the idea data being chewed up. In 1790, munge gained the meaning of “to mutter, grumble; to mope.”

The Smurfs

smurf attack

“The second type, known as a smurf attack, again involves the use of compromised machines, but it also employs a large third-party network of computers to ‘amplify’ the data used in the attack and greatly increases the effectiveness of the assault. It is believed that Stanford’s network of computers may have been used in this way in the attack on Yahoo.”

Matt Richtel and Sara Robinson, “Web Attacks Might Have Many Sources,” The New York Times, February 11, 2000

A smurf attack, according to Technopedia, is “a type of denial of service attack in which a system is flooded with spoofed ping messages.” The attack “creates high computer network traffic on the victim’s network, which often renders it unresponsive.”

The term seems to come from the online gaming world, in which smurfing refers to an experienced player creating “a new account for the purposes of being matched against inexperienced players for easy wins.” Smurfing, which could be considered a type of hustling, seems to have originated in the mid-1990s in the game Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, in which “certain well-known players,” using names such as PapaSmurf and Smurfette, pretended to play badly only to eventually beat the other players.

A variation of the smurf attack is the fraggle attack, named for its sourcecode, Fraggle.c. The name may come from Fraggle Rock, a Jim Henson show from the mid-1980s, or the word frag, which means “to wound or kill (a fellow soldier) by throwing a grenade or similar explosive at the victim,” and “a successful kill in a deathmatch game.” Frag is short for fragmentation grenade.

The word smurf, in case you were wondering, comes from De Smurfen, the Dutch translation of the Belgian Les Schtroumpfs, a word invented by Smurfs creator Peyo when he couldn’t remember the word for salt.

Yaks!

yak shaving

“Leopard makes it super easy to create your own widgets but, thanks to the efforts of thousands of Mac users, there are tons of widgets available for free download on just about any topic and use you can think of. Well, maybe not yak shaving. At least not yet.”

Lisa Hoover, “Mac 101: Whip Your Widgets into Shape,” Tuaw, November 1, 2007

Yak shaving refers to tedious tasks that must be done before productive work can begin, and may also refer to useless activity one engages in to avoid real work.

This term seems to have originated around the year 2000 at MIT by way of “Yak Shaving Day,” an early-1990s segment from the animated series, Ren & Stimpy.

Not enough computer lingo for you? Check out this extensive list of computer terms and their etymologies, this io9 piece on the “bizarre” evolution of the word cyber, and of course the Hacker’s Dictionary. For more on Ada Lovelace, check out The Mary Sue and Mental Floss.

[Photo: “Ada Lovelace, 1840,” Public Domain]
[Photo: “gunslinger,” CC BY 2.0 by striatic]
[Photo: “Ants marching,” CC BY 2.0 by L Church]
[Photo: “The Smurfs,” CC BY 2.0 by magoexperto]
[Photo: “Yaks!” CC BY 2.0 by Brian]

Taxi Words: A Brief History

[Photo: stock.xchng]

Taxi, cab, black cab, yellow cab, gypsy cab, hack – how many different words are there for that vehicle for hire? We decided to find out.

On this day in 1897, London became the first city to host licensed taxicabs. But vehicles for hire were around long before that.

The word hackney, referring to “a coach or other carriage kept for hire,” came about around 1664, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but originally referred to a place “now well within London, it once was pastoral and horses apparently were kept there.” Eventually, the word came to refer to “a horse kept for riding or driving,” as opposed to a war horse, and then “a horse kept for hire.”

From the “ordinary horse” sense came other meanings: “a person accustomed to drudgery” (1546), and “a prostitute” (1579). It’s also where we get hack, “a drudge; one who is overworked; especially, a literary drudge; a person hired to write according to direction or demand.”

The word cab is newer than hackney, originating around 1826 as a shortened form of cabriolet, “a covered one-horse carriage with two wheels.” Cabriolet comes from the Italian capriolare, “jump in the air,” so-named for the vehicle’s “light, leaping motion.”

A black-and-tan was “a cab of the coupé type, introduced in New York in 1883,” and named for its colors. An 1885 New York Times article reported that “‘black and tan’ cab No. 257 was going slowly down Broadway when a snort of steam from an elevated train at Thirty-third-street startled the horse and sent him on a gallop down that street.”

Livery cab is chiefly a U.S. expression, says the OED, attested to 1896. However, the word livery is much older, originating in the 14th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, as “an allowance of food or other provisions statedly given out; a ration, as to a family, to servants, to horses, etc.,” and coming from the Old French livrer, “to dispense, deliver, hand over.” Livery car came later, in 1906, at the time that motorized taxicabs were introduced in New York.

London Black Cab

London Black Cab, by stevelyon

[Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by stevelyon]

Black cab, how the taxicab is commonly referred to in British English, is first attested to 1914, says the OED, but didn’t seem to gain popularity until the 1970s. Gypsy cab, “a taxicab that is licensed only to respond to calls but often cruises the streets for passengers,” attests to 1964.

The word taxi, short for taxicab, came up around 1907. Taxicabs were first known as taximeter cabs, where taximeter was “a commercial name of an instrument for automatically recording and mechanically computing the tax or charge to be made for the use of a hired vehicle in accordance with a determined tariff for such charges.” Taximeter comes from the Middle Latin taxa, “tax, charge,” and the Greek metron, “measure.”

In the early half of the 20th century, taxi was a colloquial term for “a (small) passenger aeroplane,” says the OED, which gave us the verb sense of taxi, “to move slowly on the ground or on the surface of the water before takeoff or after landing.”

Taxi is also U.S. slang for “a prison sentence of between five and fifteen years,” says the OED, perhaps from the analogy between a short taxi ride and relatively short prison term. Taxi dancer, “a woman employed, as by a dance hall or nightclub, to dance with the patrons for a fee,” is recorded from 1930 and comes from “the fact that the dancers are hired, like taxis, for a short period of time.”

Taxi squad is an American football term meaning either “a group of professional players who are under contract to and practice with a team but are ineligible to play in official games,” or “the four extra players on the roster of a professional team who are prepared to join the team on short notice, as to substitute for injured players.” The term is from 1966, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, possibly “from a former Cleveland Browns owner who gave his reserves jobs with his taxicab company to keep them paid and available,” or else from the idea of “short-term hire or shuttling back and forth from the main team.”

Hindu Priest - India (LOC)

Hindu Priest – India (LOC)

[Photo: No known copyright restrictions by Library of Congress]

Rickshaw, a sort of human-powered taxi, dates to 1887 and is an alteration of jinrikisha, which comes from the Japanese jin, “a man,” plus riki, “power,” plus sha, “carriage.” The word was popularized by Rudyard Kipling.

A pedicab is similar, except the passenger is drawn by rider on a tricycle. An autorickshaw, as its name implies, is a rickshaw with a motor. The tuk-tuk is a motorized rickshaw of Thailand, India, and other countries. The word is Thai in origin and named for the sound of the motor. The boda-boda in East Africa is “a bicycle or motorcycle used as a taxi.”

For even more on the history of the taxicab, check out this timeline from PBS, this photo series of New York City taxis, and this roundup of taxi related links from around the web.

The Language of the Telegraph

en-first-telegraph-painting

On this day in 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first public message over his invention, the telegraph. The message, “What hath God wrought?” was dispatched, says the Library of Congress, “over an experimental line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore,” and “had been suggested to Morse by Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of a friend.” Some proclaim today Morse Code Day, while others prefer April 27, Morse’s birthday. Either seems like a good time to celebrate telegraph language.

The word telegraph came about before the invention of the electric telegraph. In 1794, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, the telegraph was a “semaphore apparatus” invented in France, which translated literally as “that which writes at a distance.” In 1797, the word was applied for the first time to an “experimental electric telegraph.”

Wireless telegraphy, also known as spark-telegraphy, is “telegraphy by radio rather than by long-distance transmission lines.” The marconigraph was a wireless telegraph developed by Guglielmo Marconi, one of the earliest developers of long-distance radio, while to aerograph means “to communicate by means of wireless telegraph.” The marconi system uses Hertzian waves “in transmission and a coherer. . .as the receiving instrument.” A marconist practices marconism, “the art of wireless telegraphy according to the Marconi system.”

Morse code, a type of symbol-printing, was invented in part by Morse and expanded by Alfred Vail, a machinist and inventor. It uses dots and dashes to communicate, the dot, “the short sound or signal,” and the dash, “the long sound or signal.” The spoken representations of the dot and the dash are, respectively, dit and dah since they “more closely resemble the timing of the sounds.”

A prosign, or procedural signal, is “any of a set of special sequences in Morse code used as control characters and punctuation.” An example of a prosign is SOS, “an international distress signal, especially by ships and aircraft.” SOS, by the way, isn’t short for “save our ships” or “save our souls.” The letters were “chosen arbitrarily as being easy to transmit and difficult to mistake.” An alternative suggestion was C.Q.D., which may mean “come quickly, distress.” SOS “is the telegraphic distress signal only,” with the spoken equivalent being mayday.

Like all languages, Morse code has its own slang. Rag-chewing refers to a conversation that’s longer than usual, “generally a conversation extending about 30 minutes,” and comes from the idiom chew the rag. Achy digits? You might have morse finger, a “contraction of the finger following a traumatic inflammation of the joints excited by overuse in pressing the keys of the Morse telegraph.”

Umpty, an indefinite number, was “originally Morse code slang for ‘dash,’ influenced by association with numerals such as twenty, thirty, etc.” Thirty indicates “the last sheet, word, or line of copy or of a despatch,” while in the 20th century “jargon of journalism, it came to be a traditional sign-off signal and slang word for ‘the end.’” Seventy-three means “best regards” while eighty-eight means “hugs and kisses.” (The origins of these is unknown, as far as we can tell.) Check out even more telegraph and radio slang.

Then there are the non-telegraph words the telegraph gave us. For instance, while today we know a troubleshooter as “a worker whose job is to locate and eliminate sources of trouble, as in mechanical operations,” as well as “a mediator skilled in settling disputes especially of a diplomatic, political, or industrial nature,” it was originally “one who works on telegraph or telephone lines.”

Most of us have heard a rumor through the grapevine, but you may not know that grapevine is actually short for grapevine telegraph. World Wide Words says the phrase originated in the U.S. “sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s,” providing “a wry comparison between the twisted stems of the grapevine and the straight lines of the then new electric telegraph marching across America.”

Unlike the electric telegraph, “the grapevine telegraph was by individual to individual, often garbling the facts or reporting untruths (so reflecting the gnarled and contorted stems of the grapevine), but likewise capable of transmitting vital messages quickly over distances.” It was during the Civil War that the phrase gained widespread popularity.

Those are the dits and dahs from us. Till next time, 73 and 88!