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If you’re British and “of a certain age,” your childhood fears are very likely to include Daleks. Although I wasn’t one to hide behind the chair or wrap myself up in a blanket whilst peering through a tiny gap in my fingers, I seem to recall that the arrival of these knobby salt cellars with their robotic voices shrieking “Exterminate, exterminate” would at least have me tingling.



Yet only yesterday, the UK press was abuzz with the news that these once-fearsome monsters of my youth were to be consigned to the robot scrap heap after 48 years. 48 years! I’ll admit that these days the Daleks come across more as  campy shadows of their original selves but like all iconic mythologicals, they provide us with psychological stability and security. “Stability” comes from their being timeless, in the sense that they have been around in the consciousness of millions of people for as long as they can remember, and “security” because evil and dangerous as they are, they never win against the wit and wile of the Doctor – who is, of course, us.

My attention was drawn to topic of Daleks by the good people at the OED and the following tweet:

Daleks: they’ve invaded our dictionaries. http://oxford.ly/kmQ58Z #exterminate
I checked – of course – and found the earliest citation at the online Oxford English Dictionary to be from 1963 and an entry in the Radio Times that simply said, “Dalek voices: Peter Hawkins, David Graham.” This was on the 26th December and the Dalek voices became a feature of British television from that point onwards.

Eight years later, the Radio Times offered the following definition of the Daleks:

Who are the Daleks? Dr. Who’s most dangerous enemies, written into his second adventure in 1963 by Terry Nation, who named them after an encyclopaedia volume covering dal-lek.
That is, indeed, the origin that I’d always thought to be correct. My trust in the accuracy of this is because it allegedly came from Terry Nation directly. Imagine then my surprise when I found that this is in dispute. According to the popular, but not always correct, Wikipedia, Nation stated the encyclopedia origin as being true in 1963. However, John Peel, the English author of the book The Official Doctor Who and the Daleks Book, published in 1988, that Nation had told him the name was simply made up on the spur of the moment and “rolled off the typewriter.”

In an interesting twist, the Serbo-Croatian word dalek means “far or distant,” which would certainly fit the notion of the Daleks as being an alien race from the planet Skaro. Sadly, this derivation is an etymythology and even Tery Nation admitted that he only heard this long after he’d already coined the word Dalek.

Pedants and truth seekers may want to take issue with the definition offered by the OED, which is;

A type of robot appearing in ‘Dr. Who’, a B.B.C. Television science-fiction programme; hence used allusively.

Daleks are, in fact, not robots but actual beings who live inside the metallic shell. A robot is a machine that may look like a human and has artificial intelligence, whereas the Dalek frame is a prosthesis, and wearing a prosthesis doesn’t make someone a robot. If that were true, all of us wearing glasses could be reclassified! The aliens living inside the Dalek are called Kaleds and the reason they use a Dalek shell is because they were hideously mutated after many years of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare.

Sadly, Terry Nation died in Los Angeles in 1997 so the truth about the origin of the Dalek name may remain open for debate for a long, long time. Well, at least for as long as the Daleks are around.

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Ever one for checking the etymological pulse of the world of pop culture, the word planking has caught my eye by exploding onto the media scene as the latest dangerous craze/fad/gene-pool-thinner. The act itself involves laying face down, like a plank or wood, in weird and/or unusual places, and then taking a picture to be shared across the internet. That’s it!

Now, like all stupid and pointless activities, the reason for it being catapulted into the collective consciousness is that someone has died, and nothing excites the media like Death, except Sex, and if you can link the two, you’re pretty much guaranteed a slot on Fox News. Curiously, many of the news reports refer to the dead man, Australian Acton Beale, as a “victim” of planking, which is an interesting metaphor to use considering that his death was caused by his own recklessness and not some wicked, third-party agent. Of course, one of the first steps to demonizing something is to turn it into a living thing by the metaphorical process of objectification. It also confers onto planking the status of an illness or disease, and therefore reinforcing that it’s a “bad thing.” Ah, how quickly our use of language can shape our perceptions of the world!

Still, if you must do it – and the 100,000 members of the newly swollen Facebook page, Official Planking apparently are at least considering it – there are some rules on how to plank safely:

1. You must always lay face down, ensuring your face remains expressionless for the duration of the Plank.
2. Your legs must remain straight, and together with toes pointed.
3. Your arms must be placed by your side, held straight and fingers pointed.
4. You must make it known that you are Planking. Saying “I am Planking” usually get this across. Sternly announcing it will ensure a good result.
5. Your safety should always be considered. Properly thought through Planking procedures should always go to plan. Never put your self at undue risk.
6. Every Plank that is captured must be named.

Notice that planking is crossing word-class boundaries. In the phrase “I am planking” it is taking on verb characteristics, whereas in “…Planking procedures” is is more adjectival, describing the type of “procedures.” But in the shock headlines where planking is used to refer directly to the activity, it is used as a verbal noun, or what we oldies prefer to call a gerund, if only because the word gerund sounds much more fun, cute, and cuddly than the more clinical, academic verbal noun. On the other hand, the rules above also refer to “the duration of the Plank,” so we now have the word “plank” without the -ing being used as a noun too!

What we need to watch for are references to someone who “planked himself to death” or perhaps “he planks regularly,” where the use of the -ed and -s suffixes establish the verbiness of plank meaning “to lie like a plank in an odd place.” Oh wait, the T-shirt is already here…!

Planking previously had to significant meanings. The first is to refer simply to a collection of planks;

Planks collectively; the planks of a structure; plank-work. Also: a layer or surface made of planks, spec. one forming the outer shell or inner lining of a ship’s hull. (OED)

So you might say something like “I fell through the rotten, loose planking through to the deck below. Or you might just decide to fix the deck.

Another use is in the gerundial form as the “action of providing or covering something with planks,” such as in the sentence “When the planking was completed, he had the laborious job of caulking to do.”

In the US, planking is also the name given to a form of cooking that involves nailing fish or meat to a slab of wood:

Planking‥involves nailing the fish to thick oak boards coated with shortening, propping those boards on racks around a bonfire of logs‥, continually basting with the secret sauce‥and waiting for five hours in the middle of the night until the smoke has thoroughly roasted hundreds of pounds of shad. (Washington Post, 10th June, 2004).

Going back to the day when people wore hats other than backward-facing baseball caps, planking described the process of shaping and hardening a hat on a plan;

Planking,‥the felting of hat bodies by rolling them on a plank, and frequently immersing them in acidulated water. (OED)

Finally, an even more obscure meaning is “the action of levelling land by drawing a plank across it,” which sounds rather similar to the process by which folks who create crop circles work but in a much more artistic fashion.

The word plank appears in Middle English as plakys, planak, planc, and a host of others. It came to the language via Anglo-Norman and Old French roots, and can be traced to be a variant of the Old French planche meaning “little wooden bridge.” Going back a little further , classical Latin has the word planca for “board, plank, or slab.” It’s the notion of stiff, wooden, and slab-like that has lead to the word planking taking on its new connotation.

At the time of writing (19th May, 2011) this definition of the words is so new that even the usually current Urban Dictionary has an older meaning;

When one individual proceeds to lie naked, face to face, on top of another person, in a rigid horizontal state.

Of course, I have taken the opportunity to submit my own entry and I’ll post the results of this in the future. Meanwhile, stay sensible and always practice safe planking.

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Some weeks back as one of my tweets as @etyman I called BS on the word game changer and officially declared it a candidate for Cliché of the Year, 2011. I know, I don’t have much clout when it comes to “declaring” things, but then again, I also have nothing to lose if it turns out to be “favorite word of the year.”

Can I be first to officially declare “game changer” as “Cliché of the Year?” Apparently now anything new is a “game changer.” Bah, humbug! (April 5th, 11:40 am EST)

The word seems to have reached that critical mass needed to catapult it from “descriptive” to “mildly annoying” and then “for the love of God, Montresor!” I’m not suggesting capital punishment for users of the phrase – well, not yet anyway – but forcing users to eat a bar of soap might be one option.

A quick ghit count shows 3,240,000 results for the exact phrase “game changer,” which is depressingly about 900 times more than “Etyman” but less than “Charlie Sheen,” who comes in with a staggering 58,900,000 mentions, eclipsing such do-nothings as Mother Teresa (4,980,000) and Martin Luther King (23,500,000). Celebrity, it seems, has nothing to do with actions.

The Corpus of Historical American English has an entry for game changer that appears in the Chicago Tribune of 1995. In an article that covered the development of oil industries in Cuba, we find;

In the Obama administration, Cuba’s oil development is likely to be seen as an issue for the future. Says a senior State Department official, ” If it’s a game changer it’s not going to be a game changer for a while.

In one of his On Language pieces for the New York Times, William Safire refers to a Washington Post article baseball reference:

Singleton hit his game-changer… fair by eight yards.

In the same piece, Safire says that Ben Zimmer had tracked it back to 1930 and a discussion about changing the game of bridge: “Seldom are the game-changers idle.”

What is clear is that although it’s use may not be further back than the 1930’s, it’s certainly hit its stride over the past two years. The excellent  Corpus of Contemporary American English shows the following number of examples:

2003 – 3 examples
2004 – 0 examples
2005 – 0 examples
2006 – 1 examples
2007 – 7 example
2008 – 26 examples
2009 – 16 examples
2010 – 13 examples
2011 – 7 examples

From 2008 onwards we can see a significant increase in the use of game changer in comments about politics, electric cars, lasers, Iran, vaccines, and even stuffing on corn bread! OK, I know you’re curious so here’s the corn bread piece taken from the CBS Early Show on November 26th, 2009:

HARRY-SMITH: I’ve nibbling on this stuffing all morning and I have to say I never had it with the corn bread before and that is a game changer.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Really, really —
RUSS-MITCHELL: Really. I got to try that.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Yeah. And — and I tell you, once you — once you put a little bit of the broth on it, you get this really great consistency. Okay?

When stuffing on corn bread is a game changer, I think you need look no further for evidence that a cliché is at hand!

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It seems that becoming a Saint in the Roman Catholic church ain’t quite the chore it used to be. A number of recent articles concerning the road to sainthood for Pope John Paul II describe him as being on the “fast track.”

This is a phrase that appears in print in 1977 as a verb and is defined by the OED as;

To put on a fast development track; spec. (a) to advance or promote (a person) rapidly (esp. in Educ. contexts) (cf. accelerate v.); (b) to accelerate the development of (a product or project, esp. a construction scheme)

It’s since jumped the divide and become a noun to mean;

A route, course, or method that provides for more rapid results than usual (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Considering that John Paul only died in 2005, this does indeed seem quick. Normally, one tends to think of it taking many years before someone who, say, cured a leper in the Middle Ages, became a saint in the 19th century.

Now what, you may ask, does a dead person have to have done to become a saint? After all, the extremely popular and incredibly hard-working Mother Teresa died in 1997 and is still not a saint – although she in on the road, albeit not a fast one.

So here are the rules of the game. First, you have to be dead. And dead for at least 5 years. Unless there’s some little-known example out there of which I am unaware, having shuffled off the mortal coil is pretty much a prerequisite.

Second, you have to be formally proposed as being worthy of sainthood and a bishop is appointed to investigate your case. If everything is kosher, the Pope will declare a nihil obstat, a wonderful Latin phrase that means “nothing obstructs.” The Roman Catholic church still loves Latin and so any opportunity to toss out a bon mot is always met with some excitement. Oh, and the candidate now gets a snazzy new title; Servant of God.

Step three is for a church official called a Postulator to gather enough evidence to establish that the saint-in-waiting has lived a life of “heroic virtues.” This doesn’t necessarily exclude the Servant of God from having been a whoring drunkard who ate children, but of course, that sort of behavior is going to demand some seriously heroic virtue to make up for it.

Step four is when it gets really exciting: There has to be a miracle. Just being nice and good and helpful isn’t enough. World peace, a cure for cancer, and free beer for everyone are not going to make it unless there is something miraculous about it. But if you can pull off just one demonstrable miracle, you’re almost there. Being a one-trick-pony gets you the new title of “Blessed.” This is what is referred to as beatification. Now it’s time to step up to the plate and pull at least one more rabbit out of the hat to get to…

Canonization! If you can convince the Pope that you are multi-miraculous, you can now join the rank of Saints and go marching in.

Let’s take a look at those two words; beatification and canonization. The former originally meant;

The action of rendering, or condition of being rendered, supremely happy or blessed.

The Old French béatification came, unsurprisingly, from the Latin beatificare – to make happy or blessed. It was in the 17th century that it took on the specific meaning for the Roman Catholic church as;

An act of the Pope, by which he declares that a deceased member of the Church is in the enjoyment of heavenly bliss, and grants to certain persons the privilege of paying a particular form of worship or reverence to him.

The word canonization obviously comes from the verb canonize, which is defined as;

To place in the canon or calendar of the saints, according to the rules and with the ceremonies observed by the Church.

This comes from the Latin canonizare, to canonize, and then from the word canon meaning “A rule, law, or decree of the Church; esp. a rule laid down by an ecclesiastical Council.” We can go back to the Greek κανών for the really old origin.

At this point, you may be wondering what Pope John Paul’s first miracle was? Well, allegedly he cured one Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre of Parkinson’s disease. Here’s what Washington’s Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl had to say about the investigation:

“One of the reasons the miracle process is such a demanding and rigorous one is you actually have to have scientific proof. In the case of the miracle that was just approved you have to have a board of doctors and scientists saying there is no explanation for what happened. There is no physical, scientific, medical explanation for what happened. And the church then declares this an intervention of God.”

This is the typical religious pseudo argument that lack of an explanation means it must be a miracle from a god. Or gods. Or even pixies, fairies, invisible rabbits called Harvey, or the magical teapot orbiting the earth just out of sight of the telescopes. Whenever something can’t be currently explained, God wins by default. God himself/herself/itself doesn’t actually have to be proved because he/she/it lives in the gaps.

Perhaps the church should take a look at another Latin phrase: argumentum ad ignorantiam.This is a rhetorical device also known as the “Argument from Ignorance,” which basically says that something is true because it has NOT been proven false. In this case, the miracle cannot be disproved by current scientific explanations, therefore it must be true. Which, of course, is totally wrong.

The truth is there probably IS some potential physical, scientific, medical explanation for what happened – it’s just that there isn’t enough evidence to create and test a hypothesis. And that’s very different from saying “it’s inexplicable therefore must be a miracle.”

Still, this will not deter the church from hastening Pope JPII’s sainthood. Other “miracles” are apparently being examined at the moment, though no details are available as to what they are. However, considering that the Vatican has just announced that beatification will take place on May 1st, 2011, canonization can’t be too far away.

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The recent shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona, has sparked off debate on the nature of political rhetoric and to what extent it may or may not have influenced the shooter, Jared Loughner. More specifically, discussions have centered on the current perceived trend for popular politicians to use metaphors such as “targeting the opposition,” “taking back the country,” “locking and loading,” and even “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Although the latter was originally attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the issue under fire is whether this type of language can actually encourage people to take violent action.

It’s worth taking a look at the words rhetoric and metaphor just to clear up any confusion between them. The OED defines rhetoric as;

The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end; the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers.

Rhetoric can be traced back to classical Latin rhētoricē and refers to the art of oratory and public speaking. Further back, the Greek word is ῥητορική, which in turn can be traced to a “rhetor,” one who teaches rhetoric, with the ultimate derivation coming from Attic Greek ἐρῶ) meaning “I shall say.”

On the other hand, metaphor is one of those “figures of speech” that the definition mentions, and turning back to the OED we find the definition as follows:

A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.

Like rhetoric, the word can be traced back via the Latin metaphora to the Greek μεταϕορά that comes from the prefix “meta-” meaning “change or transformation” followed by ϕορά, a form of the verb ϕέρειν, which means “to bear or carry.” So the word literally means something along the lines of “carrying a change.”

So when a politicians and pundits talk about “having their opponents in their crosshairs” or “taking out the opposition,” they are not literally pointing a sniper rifle or shooting someone – they are using a metaphor. And it is the current prevalence – actual or perceived – of this type of hunting metaphor that is being debated.

In the realm of sexual conquests, metaphors involving sports are more prominent. “Getting to first base,” “I’d hit that,” or “I scored last night” are clearly embedded in the sporting arena, and the underlying notion here is that sex is a game on some level or another.

In business, metaphors abound as each management guru seeks to find his or her own unique spin, typically with the aim of selling books, training programs, and raking in obscene amounts of money for personal presentations to the gullible business community.

Recent articles have questioned whether or not the Internet has killed the art of rhetoric. One such article in The Economist’s Johnson blog suggested that sloganeering has trumped rhetoric as the regular mode of discourse in the political arena. My own response was to doubt that the general level of intellectual discourse has ever been as high as it has been imagined to be.

“The Internet hasn’t so much killed rhetoric as amplify the lack of rhetoric that has always been a part of common discourse. And by “common discourse” I mean the level of argument that goes on in an average pub along with a couple of drinks.

“Rhetoric as an art or a skill has, I suggest, never been something the masses have either used or learned, but been restricted to the chattering classes. Simply sit at a bar for 10 minutes and listen to the discussions going on around you and it becomes apparent that the “strength” of an argument seems to depend on factors such as volume (he who shouts loudest is right); personal experience (“My dad smoked until he was 105 so how can it be dangerous?”); TV truthiness (“It was on the Jon Stewart show so it has to be real”); and Internet validity (“All the proof to show that Bush and the Jews caused 911 is open for all to see on the net. Just google it!”)

“Any assumed decline in the standard of rhetoric is predicated on the notion that there was previously a high standard from which to fall. I’m suggesting that the bar was pretty low in the first place. The problem of the Internet is that it (a) acts as a repository for so-called “facts” that are not facts, which in turn form the basis for arguments, and (b) provides a level playing field for all commentators regardless of how valid, accurate, well-researched, or even logical their comments are. A post by an expert such as John McWhorter is as easy to find on the net as one by Joe the Plumber, whose knowledge on a particular subject may be based on a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, fueled by a passion to be heard.

“And there are far more Joe the Plumbers posting to blogs than John McWhorters.”

The Internet itself cannot be “good” or “bad.” What can be “good” and “bad” is content, and there is no magically algorithm that trawls the web checking whether facts are right or wrong. And pre-Internet, being the local one-man conspiracy theorist resulted in a lonely life and possible ridicule, but post-Internet, there is now “safety in numbers” and the one lunatic can now become a feted sage amongst the thousands of no-longer isolated crackpots and weirdos that use the web as a magnifying glass to make their own “truths” seem that much larger.

To paraphrase; when one loony thinks the world will end, he’s mentally ill; when thousands create a website, it’s a tenable hypothesis!

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Two years ago at the time of my 50th birthday, I created a blog with the full title of The Word Guy: Adventures in Etymology. At the time, I was unsure how long I could keep it going and what it would lead to – if anything.

Two years on, the blog is still running and I have added the Tweetionary, which is based on my daily tweets of word etymologies.

So it’s time for a regroup and, more significantly, a re-branding. Those of you in the business world will recognize that such a move is usually a result of one of two event; either because your product sucked and needs a make-over or (b) someone has slapped a trademark suit on you for infringing on their mark.

Surprisingly, in this case, it’s neither.

I have known for some time that I am not the only “Word Guy” on the block, and that there is another one in West Hartford, Connecticut, who is a teacher and writer, and has a column in words and language. His name is Rob Kyff and we have never corresponded, although I’m pretty sure he knows about this Word Guy if only because when you do a Google search for “The Word Guy,” I come out on top.

Now, Rob has been “The Word Guy” for longer than I but my using the name has never bothered him and he doesn’t appear to have registered “The Word Guy” as a trademark. Nevertheless, I do feel a twinge of guilt about using “The Word Guy” as a mark when he had it first.

So as I am planning the next few years of activity, one of the things on my list is to register a trademark to allow for some expansion of what I do and to protect against potential issues in the future. Much as I would like to hold “The Word Guy,” it wouldn’t stand up because Rob clearly has the common law mark simply through having used the phrase earlier than I did. Although I started using “The Word Guy” without knowing about Rob, now that I am looking toward branding, I don’t want to cause any trouble by using it. On that basis, I am happy to cede the “Word Guy” to Rob and move forward with some other trademark.

Enter the Etyman.

The word is a coinage and so better as a brand name because it isn’t a common word. Clearly it plays on the word etymon, and if I’d been Scottish, I would have been tempted to go with “The Ety Mon” as mon is Scottish dialect for man. However, “The Ety Man” seems fine to me, and the simpler Etyman works. It also makes for a much shorter Twitter(TM) name of @etyman – and in the world of tweeting, characters matter!

The Grand Design

1. Seeing as there is no pending lawsuit, there’s no need for a “cease and desist” at the current Word Guy site so the transition will take a few months. All new post will appear here at The Etyman Blog and the old ones will stay at thewordguy.wordpress.com indefinitely.

2. My Twitter feed will change from twitter.com/thewordguy to twitter.com/etyman, a process that will take some time as it means people will have to actively switch. For about three months I will run them in parallel but the aim will be to phase out @thewordguy as soon as possible.

3. The logo will probably change. My current little owl is cute and royalty free but I’d like to create a more personalized identity with an new graphic. Again, there is no time scale other than “soon.”

4. The content of The Etyman Blog will start to include posts of a more generic linguistic, some of which may be much shorter than the current weekly post and more “observation” and “opinion” than the simple definitions and examples I currently provide.

So that’s about it for 2010. Bear with me through the changes and add this new site to your favorites.

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Have you ever found yourself “contemplating your naval?” That’s when you focus inwardly on something to the exclusion of everything else – usually something trivial. If so, you’ve been indulging in omphaloskepsis.

It comes from two Greek words: ὸμφαλός – meaning a naval, boss, or hub; and σκέψις – meaning examination or doubt.

It is a relatively new word in that it doesn’t appear in the 1986 Oxford English Dictionary but does pop up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, where it is credited with first appearing in 1925.

A similar-meaning word is omphalopsychic; or omphalopsychite – not someone who can communicate mentally with dead belly buttons but a member of an ancient group of 14th century Greek monks called the Hesychasts. They lived quietly on Mount Athos and would go into a trance whilst meditating on their navels.

The word omphalos was used by the Ancient Greeks to refer to a stone at the Temple of Delphi high up on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. For them, this was the Center of the World.

If you count the number of knots on a baby’s umbilical cord to predict how many siblings he or she will have in the future, you are practicing omphalomancy – the -mancy ending comes from the Greek μαντεία, meaning divination.

Try slipping this word into your next conversation and see how it goes.

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