gasoline /ˈgæsəˌlin/

In one of those splendid examples of being divided by a common language, my recent post on petroleum (or petrol, as those wacky Brits like to call it) cries out for a similar investigation into the word gasoline. As far as out motor cars go, they are both the same but etymologically speaking, the are clearly continents apart.

Unlike petroleum, which can be traced back to Greek, gasoline is a relatively new word, dating back to the 19th century, where it starts out life as gasolene or gasoleine – or even gazoline. The OED defines it as follows:

Originally: a light fuel oil made by the fractional distillation of petroleum, used for heating and lighting. Subsequently: a similar petroleum distillate used as motor fuel.

The first recorded mention of the word can be seen in the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle from 1863;

Best and cheapest burning oils for winter… Refined colza, gasolene, petrolene. (12th September)

One interesting possibility for the origin of the word is that it may be an eponym – a word derived from someone’s name. The suggestion is that back in the 1860’s, a London merchant called John Cassell sold lighting fluid for lamps under the trade name Cazelene. Meanwhile, a competitor on Dublin had a similar product called Gazelene, possibly to avoid any legal challenges from Cassell, who had a patent out on Cazelene. And how do we know there was a patent? And ad in the London Times said so;

The Patent Cazeline Oil possesses all the requisites which have so long been desired as a means of powerful artificial light (Times, 27th November, 1862)

Considering that a patent application needs to be around before you start talking about it – let alone printing it – it’s likely that it was around a few years before the 1863 citation of gasolene, and may therefore be an early example of the phenomenon of “genericization” – where a trade name becomes a common word, usually to the dismay of the mark holder!

As we know, the use of gas took off in the US in contrast to the UK’s use of petrol. A quick look at the Corpus of Historical American shows the growth of its use in the phrase “gas station” from 1920 onwards. And both words demonstrate the process of back-clipping – the shortening of a longer word by dropping the end part. So now people talk about gas and petrol, not gasoline and petroleum.

Frequency of use of gas station from 1900 to 2000

Gas station 1920-2000

Still, the word gasoline itself is a great example of how you can build a word from pieces and parts – or for those who are more academically inclined, how to derive a word morphologically. Clearly there are three parts; gas, –ol, and –ine. So let’s go through each one.

Gas was coined in 1648 (or thereabouts) by the Flemish chemist, J.B. Van Helmont (1577–1644) to describe something that was “a far more subtile or fine thing than a vapour, mist, or distilled Oylinesses.” He modeled it on the Greek word chaos (χάος) and he explicitly said that

A few years later, the more global definition was;

A substance in a state in which it expands freely to fill the whole of a container, having no fixed shape (unlike a solid) and no fixed volume (unlike a liquid); spec. (distinguished from a vapour) such a substance above a critical temperature such that it cannot be liquefied by the application of pressure alone; any substance which normally exists in such a state.

This is pretty much what we currently understand as the meaning of gas.

The next part, –ol, is a suffix used in chemistry to form the names of hydrocarbons – such as that which we refine as fuel for cars. It comes from the Latin oleum meaning “oil,” which in turn appears to be a variation on the Greek elaion (ἔλαιον) or “olive oil.”

The final piece is the suffix –line that was used in the 19th century to create the names of chemical derivatives i.e. chemicals that were created as a result of extracting them using some sort of process – as in the distillation of fuel.

Still, whether you call it petrol or gasoline, it still burns a hole in your pocket!

petroleum /pəˈtroʊliəm/

One of the reasons for the dearth of posts lately is that I took a trip back to the UK to visit friends and family. In short, I went on vacation. My wife and I stayed with my parents who happen to live “off the grid” – which means they have no Internet access, and as a result of this, I was also disconnected from the wired world. Now although this may seem a little unusual these days, it is precisely how a vacation was supposed to work just a mere 25 years ago, before we all voluntarily allowed ourselves to be electronically manacled by our bosses and friends using a mobile phone. When George Orwell wrote 1984 and predicted the hell of a world where Big Brother would be constantly watching us, he failed to realize that this wouldn’t come about by the cruel jack-boot of a dictatorship but a voluntary submission to private corporations whose technology not only lets us be tracked but for which we pay a handsome premium! It’s as if we not only invited Big Brother to live in our houses but paid him for doing it.

There is now technology available that can be worn and which records your everyday life. The Autographer, slated for a November 2012 release, is a wearable camera that automatically takes up to 2,000 pictures a day, and with a 136 degree lens, it’s able to take in a fair amount of the wearer’s immediate environment – including you if you happen to be around.

And the Memoto, expected to ship in February 2013,  is another wearable camera that snaps an image every 30 seconds and uses GPS to tag where the photos are taken.

So imagine a world where we all have one of these to record our lives, and by extension, the lives of everyone we meet. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy or a neo-Luddite, but I find that vision somewhat scary. We pretty much end up living in an electronic goldfish bowl where everything we ever do and say becomes embedded in some unaccountable cloud-based “world memory” that never gets erased. And even if you opt-out and say, “I refuse to wear one,” how do you stop your interactions with all the folks who are using them?

If you do 35 mph at 3:00 am on an empty street where the limit is 25 mph, is a crime committed if no-one sees you? Well, in the goldfish world, yes! If your camera is on, you are the seeds of your own destruction, especially if your “crime” is backed up by your GPS data, and supported by the street cameras that seem to be popping up all over the world.

So we are slowly giving up our privacy, slice by salami slice, of our own free will because we want “cool technology” and “instant, constant communication,” until one day we realize that our lives are little more than live action reality TV shows streaming over the Internet to anyone who cares to watch – and judge.

All of this thinking was precipitated during my UK trip following my attempt to fill up my rental car with petrol – as those funny Brits like to refer to gas. I say “attempt” because when I tried to pay using my US debit card, the petrol station’s technology turned it down. I had to whip out a credit card to assuage the demands of BP’s point-of-sale system. I was also aware of the fact that not only was my location now “known” to the bank, but the cameras inside and outside of the petrol station were recording my every move. I guess it’s only paranoia when they’re not out to get you!

Petrol is a shortened form of the word petroleum, defined in the sense of fuel for cars as;

A light fuel oil made by distilling petroleum and used in internal-combustion engines, esp. in motor vehicles.

It’s first recorded use as such tool place in 1895 in a book by D. Salmons entitled Horseless Carriage where he says, “Benzine of a certain density, known in France under the name of essence de pétrol, …is the material employed to run the engines.”

Prior to this, petroleum was the word used to refer more generally to;

A viscous liquid, consisting chiefly of a mixture of hydrocarbons and varying in colour from black or dark brown to light yellow, that is formed by the decomposition of organic matter buried in sediments, is present in some rock formations (sometimes seeping out on to the ground), and is extracted and refined to produce fuels (esp. petrol, paraffin, and diesel) and other substances; mineral oil.

It appears in Old English as petraoleum and derives from the post-classical Latin, petroleum, which means “mineral oil,” i.e. oil from rocks. The Old English actually does a good job of revealing the more detailed etymology, with the first element, petra, being the classical Latin for “rock,” and the second part, oleum, being the word for “oil.” Hence the notion of oil from rocks. We can trace petra even further back to the Ancient Greek πέτρa that also means “rock.”

Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks differentiated between πέτρa as the generic material and πέτρος, which refers to “a stone for throwing.” The Greeks even had the word πετροβόλος  for “the act of throwing stones.” Now, back in 1973, linguist J. Peter Maher wrote a paper with the fabulous title of “Neglected Reflexes of Proto-Indo-European *pet– “fly”: Greek petros “stone” / petra “cliff”; with notes on the role of syntax (IC structure) in polysemy and semantic change, and the situational motivation of syntax.” [1] What he suggests is that the same Indo-European root word, *pet-,  that gave rise to the throwable stone was also the source of the word feather, from where the sense of a stone flying through the air comes from.

Who would have thought! And if anyone comes across a pub called The Stone and Feather, please let me know. Alternatively, if you want to open a new pub called The Stone and Feather, I’d be happy to come along and provide a linguistic opening.

[1] The Oxford English Dictionary cites this as 1977 in Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 3, where the article does indeed appear, but  it was actually written in 1973 and appeared in the journal Lingua e Stile, 8, 3, 403-417. A minor point but I just wanted to point it out in the interest of accuracy and provenance.

aleatory /’æliəˌtɔrɪ/

Sometimes, you see a word and think you can guess its meaning based on similar looking or sounding others. Aleatory was one of those for me. Perhaps it says more about my lifestyle than my etymological skills that I thought it was something to do with drinking beer. And who wouldn’t? Why, it starts with ale, and that’s as good a way to start a word as any other. The suffix, –atory, is an adjective-forming element that often means “relating to or characterized by.” Thus, aleatory means “related to the drinking of ale, or beer.”

But it doesn’t. It’s a classic lesson of how you can create a wonderful and verisimilous etymology, which still turns out to be wrong. Pseudoetymologies (sometimes called “folk etymologies” [1]) can sound very convincing, erroneous as they may ultimately turn out to be. For example, the word isle sounds as if it is simply a shortened form of the word island. However, it actually comes from the Latin word insula, meaning “island,” whereas island comes from the Old English iegland, which also means “island.” So similar as they may seem, they have different roots. [2]

So what of aleatory? If it has nothing to do with ale, what does it mean? According to the OED, it’s an adjective used to refer to things that are;

Dependent on uncertain events or occurrences; haphazard, random.

It’s to do with chance and comes from the Latin word aleatorius, which means “connected to gamblers or games of chance. An aleator is a dice player or gambler in general, and the word alea means “dice.” The suffix is the same as my false definition and so the word is “pertaining to the use of dice” i.e. gambling and betting.

It first turns up in 1693 in The third book of the works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, translated by Thomas Urquhart and Peter Anthony Motteux, in the sentence, “So continually fortunate in that Aleatory way of deciding Law Debates.” This referred to the way the judge being written about would determine the outcome of cases – by throwing a die.

In the 1960’s, it became more specifically used to refer to works of art or music that were “created, composed, or performed according to chance. In modern times, the composer John Cage (1912-1992) wrote and performed “Music of Changes” in 1951, which used the I Ching to determine elements of the composition. Such aleatory music was taken up by other musicians such as Pierre Boulez (born 1925) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007).

The word is more likely to occur in the legal profession when used to refer to an aleatory contract. This is defined as;

A mutual agreement between two parties in which the performance of the contractual obligations of one or both parties depends upon a fortuitous event.

The most common example is probably an insurance contract. Here, you insure yourself or your property against damage due to a rare or unlikely event – such as a a meteorite hitting your car. An “Act of God” is an aleatory phenomenon. The insurance company doesn’t have to do anything unless the chance event takes place.

And if you’re feeling in the mood for reading an aleatory novel, get hold of The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. Published in 1971, it’s the story of how a jaded psychiatrist takes to determining his life by throwing dice. Kindle readers will have to track down the actual physical book as it’s not available in that format but Nook owners can get it right now.

[1] In linguistics, the phrase folk etymology has a very specific meaning that differs from the popular usage. It is used to describe how a word changes over time due to the influence of more familiar words or phrases. The word crayfish originally came from the French crevis, but the latter part sounded so much like “fish” that it became “crayfish.”

[2] A folk etymology can ruin a political career. On January 15th, 1999, David Howerd, an aide to the then Mayor of Washington, Anthony Williams, made a reference to the budget as being “niggardly,” which means “mean” or “stingy.” However, a less etymologically orientated staffer (identified as one Marshall Brown) complained that he was offended by what he took as a “racial slur.” Howerd tendered his resignation a week later. The assumption was that niggardly and nigger were related i.e. the same root, which is, in fact, totally wrong. Niggardly has its roots in Old Icelandic hnøggr whereas nigger can be traced back to Latin niger meaning “black.” Just because words sound the same doesn’t mean they mean the same or come from the same root.

Regular readers will have noticed I’m in a slump. This is because other things have been getting in the way of blogging, and those things include drinking, reading, and crosswords. The drinking thing is something of a pain because I’ve always wanted to believe that writers need to drink to release their inner muse, and that a few shots will result in screeds of witty, pithy, and wildly popular text. Well, that may have worked for Hemingway but I’ve discovered that a few beers will make me so tired that signing my name at the bottom of the bar tab is as pithy as my scribbling gets. There’s little chance of my hammering out the Great American Novel if I continue my almost nightly rounds of toping.

Reading is also a perilous pursuit for anyone who wants to write. That’s simply because it’s a damn sight easier to enjoy other people’s stuff than pen your own. There’s a double tragedy here as well; while you’re reading, you can’t be writing, and if the writing is good, you end up feeling miserable because you realize you’re never going to be that skilled. If you also factor in that when you read a lot, you discover your brilliant ideas for articles, short stories, and novels have already been done. Fifteen years ago I toyed with the idea of writing a novel about Sigmund Freud as a detective. Then Jeb Rubenfeld wrote The Interpretation of Murder in 2006. Bang goes that idea.

The other distraction, crosswords, is an illness I’ve suffered for since I was sixteen and discovered The Guardian cryptic crossword. Since then, I’ve moved to the cryptics in The Independent, The Times, and The Daily Telegraph – which also seems to have paralleled my slow shift from socialism to libertarianism, a not unusual progression with folks as they age. [1]

Since moving to the US, I found that cryptic crosswords are a peculiarly British phenomenon, with most American preferring what I’d call a “regular” or “quick” crossword, which is basically a vocabulary test. If the answer is zebra, an American clue would be something along the lines of “Striped horse,” whereas a British cryptic clue would be “Frenchman talks about underwear in the zoo.” [2]

Of course, it’s not enough for crossword lovers simply to be called “crossword lovers.” No, they want an actual word that sounds impressive, and can even be an answer to the clue “Lucrative cribs for crossword puzzler!” [3]

Enter the word cruciverbalist, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as;

A person who compiles or solves crossword puzzles; a crossword enthusiast.

It is a very recent word, and by “recent” I mean “in my lifetime” or “later than 1960.” In the 1971 summer edition of Crossword magazine, we see the comment;

A succinct word to describe people who regularly attempt to solve crossword puzzles. A number of subscribers, including Jonathan Crowther, one of our crossword contributors, proposed “cruciverbalist,” while several others suggested “cruciverbian.”

There’s a reference to Auberon Waugh, the British writer, using the word “crux-verbalist” in 1939, but this is in Alexander Waugh’s 2004 book, Father’s and Sons, an autobiography of his family, so it could be a confabulation based on a mishearing or misreading of something Auberon did just before the Second World War.

A quick search of the Corpus of Historical American shows no record of cruciverbalist. Even the Corpus of Contemporary American only has one example, and that’s from a 2011 novel by Parnell Hall called The Kenken Killings: A Puzzle Lady Mystery. And the British National Corpus fares no better, also scoring a spectacular zero. So clearly it’s somewhat of a niche word, probably only used by cruciverbalists to refer to other cruciverbalists.

Not surprisingly, its origin is Latin. The cruci– element is the combining form of the word crux meaning “cross,” and a verbalist is someone “who deals in, or directs his attention to, words only, apart from reality or meaning.”  (OED)

Ultimately, it is derived from crossword, another not-so-old word that is recorded in the early 20th century as “cross-word” and later as “crossword.” The actual crossword puzzle began appearing in the UK toward the end of the 19th century, and the first ever published crossword in a newspaper is credited to Liverpudlian Arthur Wynne, who emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to work at the Pittsburgh Press in 1891, and then moved to New York to work on the New York World newspaper. There he created the “word-cross” puzzle, which became the “cross-word” after a type-setting mistake, and ultimately ended up as the “crossword.” [4]

So if you’ve never taken on cryptic crosswords before, I’ll leave you with three clues to ponder on.

(a) Discovered calf in grass (8)

(b) Cheese stored in Baroque fortress (9)

(c) Power plant lacks a spiritual leader (6)

Try them out then check out the answers in the Notes at 5.

[1] For my affliction, I buy two cryptic crossword books once a year when I take a trip to the UK. I also have the Guardian Crosswords app for Android, which gives me five cryptics and six “quicks” every week. It’s a monthly subscription but it costs less than a large beer and has less of an effect on my liver.

[2] For my non-cryptic friends, the clue breaks down as follows: “talks about” suggests you need to take into account the sound of the target word; “Frenchman” suggests there’s an accent to the sounds; “underwear” points you to an item of clothing; and “in the zoo” refers directly to the solution. So, the “underwear” is the bra, or as a Frenchman might say, “zee bra,” which is a close homophone for zebra. It’s this sort of thinking that makes cryptic crosswords much more entertaining than simple “here’s a definition, so what’s the word?” puzzles.

[3] Cruciverbalist is an anagram of “lucrative cribs.” Anagrams are another staple in the types of clues that cryptic crosswords use.

[4] Wynne also spent some time as a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and orchestra is a famous anagram for “cart horse.”

[5] Cryptic clue solutions:
(a) revealed: the direct clue is “discovered” but you put veal (the calf) inside reed (the grass) to get revealed.
(b) Roquefort: the word is hidden in “…baroque fortress.”
(c) rector: the direct clue is “spiritual leader” and the “power plant” is a reactor, and if it “lacks a” you are left with rector.

nebula /’nɛbjulə/

Back when I was a kid and home science didn’t include computers or the internet, and required much simpler technology – such as books – I was fascinated by astronomy. In my early teens, the tools of my trade consisted of a cheap telescope, a stand made by my dad out of some old piping he found at the factory where he worked, and The Observer’s Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore. In fact, I still have the book, which is dated 1967 and still hasn’t fallen apart.

Moore, now Sir Patrick, is something of an English icon in the world of amateur astronomy and television. He presents a show called The Sky at Night, and has done so since April 24th, 1957, which makes it older than I am. On the March 16th, 2011, Moore presented the 700th episode, which was attended by Queen guitarist Brian May [1] and popular TV physicist Brain Cox, who was inspired to take up astronomy after reading The Observer’s Book of Astronomy. It makes you wonder just how influential that one little book has been on amateur astronomers in the UK.

For many years I would spend evenings in the back yard of our two-up, two-down terraced house, pointing my telescope over the wall and turning on my flashlight [2] now and again to check my little book. And one of the things I wanted to see was the famous Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion [3]. Sadly my telescope had all the magnification power of a pair of spectacles so I could never see the nebula as it was portrayed in Moore’s book.

As I became more interested in psychology and then linguistics, I never realized how much the language of astronomy would actually help, with its many words derived from Latin and Greek. And the stories of the constellations undoubtedly contributed to my fascination with the Classics and mythology in general.
In the world of astronomy, the word nebula means;

…an indistinct cloud-like, luminous object seen in the night sky, such as a cluster of distant stars, a galaxy, or a cloud of gas or dust. Now (usually): spec. a mass of gas or dust within a galaxy, typically visible either as a luminous patch or as a dark silhouette against a brighter background.

It comes from the Latin nebula meaning fog, mist, or cloud, which is how the nebula first appeared in early telescopes. This notion of cloudiness is why it was also used in the 5th century CE as a medical term to describe the look of infected urine i.e. cloudy. In the 17th century, it was also used in ophthalmology to describe any thin-film that coated the eye.

At the same time, it began to be used to describe sunspots, or the hazy ring that surrounded a sunspot. But by the beginning of the 18th century, the word was more likely to be applied in general to indistinct, cloudy celestial objects that we not stars or planets. The Horsehead nebula was identified in 1888 and became famous because of its distinctive shape that mimics a horse’s head.

The Greek word for “cloud” or “mist” is nepheli (νεϕέλη) and in mythology, Nephele was a cloud that Zeus shaped into an image of his wife, Hera, with the intent of tricking King Ixion into seducing her. Sadly for Ixion, he was weak and  attempted to rape her, for which he was punished by having to spend eternity in Hades strapped to a burning wheel. It’s never a good idea to piss off a Greek god, especially Zeus.

In another story, Nephele is the mother of Phrixus and Helle, who were about to be sacrificed when Nephele sent a golden ram to carry them to safety. Ultimately, Phrixus married the daughter of King Aeetes and sacrificed the ram in honor of their nuptials. The King then took this Golden Fleece and hung it on a tree where it was found by Jason and his Argonauts.

It is hypothesized that there is an Indo-European ancestor to the word as we see variations of it in Old High German nebul meaning “mist” and Icelandic njol meaning “night.” It’s worth noting that the word nebule was also used in the 15th century to mean “cloud” or “mist.”

People with asthma and other respiratory illnesses may be familiar with device called a nebulizer, which is used to spray a fine mist of drugs in suspension directly into the lungs. The word nebulizer comes, as you might guess, from nebula.

I no longer spend time as an amateur astronomer. Occasionally I’ll sit out in my back garden and look up at the stars for a few minutes but the old passion has gone. It’s disappeared – just like a cloud in the wind.

[1] Queen fans are well aware that Brian May was part way through a doctoral program in astrophysics before deciding to give it up due to the rising demands of his life as the lead guitarist for the band. After some 35 years of creating a back-catalog of albums that is impressive by anyone’s standards, he completed his Ph.D. and became Dr. May in May 2008.

[2] Although I use the word flashlight now, that’s because I’m bilingual and speak both British and American English fluently. As a kid, I called it a torch, with torch and flashlight being something of a shibboleth that labels you as English or American. When they were invented, they were originally called electric torches to distinguish them from flaming brands but over the years, the electric piece was dropped leaving just torch.

[3] For my younger daughter’s 13th birthday, I bought her a star in the constellation of Orion from the International Star Registry. The star now bears her name and can be found in Orion at right ascension 6h 1m 40s and declination 15 degrees and 57 minutes. Those of you with clever telescopes can check this out. She asked if it really was her star, and I told her that she could go and pick it up any time she liked.

For those of you wanting to buy someone a little something special, it’s well worth going to the International Star Registry and buying a little piece of the cosmos. “But darling, now every time I look at the stars, they remind me of you…”

On my Twitter feed and companion site, Tweetionary, I’ve been running a “happy pairs” fortnight, where each day there’s been two etymologies for a pair of words, such as “nook and cranny,” “fast and furious,” “cloak and dagger,” and “rock and roll.” After I announced I was doing this, one of my Twitter friends (@GLHancock) commented, ” Hope you do ‘jot & tittle’ or ‘tiddle.’

Well, this was a new one to me, and yet another example of how I seem to know less and less as I get older. The only wisdom that appears to have come with age for me is that I am pretty certain that I know very little, and every day I find something new that reminds me of the truth of such a position.

Still, ever one for learning new things, armed with the OED and Internet I was able to find all I needed to know about jots and tittles. But first, what does the phrase “jot and tittle” mean?

The general meaning is something along the lines of “the smallest part,” “a miniscule amount,” or “the tiniest detail.” The earliest reference is from the Gospel of Matthew and reads;

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  (Matthew 5:17-18)

The OED cites the Wycliffe Bible where we find;

Til heuen and erthe passe, oon i [gloss that is leste lettre], or titil shal nat passe fro the lawe, til alle thingis be don.

The phrase seems to vary between “jot or tittle” and “jot and tittle.” [1] The quote above definitely references the or version, and a quick Google search shows that the and version scores a Ghit[2] of 88,400, whereas the or version comes out with a respectable 252,000. I also measured the Bhit score [3] to find “jot or tittle” scoring 276,000 hits against “jot and tittle” with 303,000. Seems like Google and Microsoft disagree! In all honesty, choosing the and or the or is unlikely to make any difference to the meaning, so it would be a particularly rabid and pedantic etymologist who would want to prescribe either of these as “correct.”

I then checked the 450 million words of the Corpus of Contemporary American, or COCA. Here I discovered that the and version scored 9 while the or version only got 4. So according to the COCA, “jot and tittle” is twice as popular as “jot or tittle.” It seems that COCA and Google disagree!

Alas, the British National Corpus was equally as unhelpful. I suppose one could argue that “jot or tittle” scoring 2 against “jot and tittle’s” zero suggests the former is more common, but these are hardly decisive numbers. It’s probably safe to say that you can pretty much choose whichever you prefer and claim to be correct. But putting aside the discussion about which is the more frequent version, what on earth are jots and tittles anyway?

A jot is “a very small amount” and if you “care not a jot,” you mean you care very little. It first makes an appearance in English in the 15th century and can be traced back to the Greek word iota(iώτα0, which as well as being the name of the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet also means “a small amount.” It is the smallest letter in that alphabet, hence its name. It was first written in English as either iot or iote but the “i” became a “j” because of its similarity, and the iota became a jot.

For those who like obscure and archaic word meanings, at one time, the word joy meant “a person of small intelligence, or of low condition.” The word appears in Langland’s Piers Plowman in 1362 but didn’t really catch on as a long-term connotation. Clearly the metaphorical origin of the association was smallness.

The word tittle has a much more interesting history. It looks very similar to title and that’s no accident. The Latin titulus was used to describe an inscription placed above or below something, such as a placard in a theater. Then, in the 14th century, it began to be used more specifically to refer to a small stroke in writing, such as the dot over an i. The Latin for such a stroke was apex, which meant “point or stroke” but when John Wycliffe created the Wycliffe Bible [4], he translated apex as tittle, obviously influenced by the fact that tittle was already being used to describe something “placed above.”

Eventually this took on the extended meaning of a small or miniscule amount, and modern biblical translations opt for dropping the jot and tittle to replace them with “letters and pens”:

New International Version (1984): I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

New American Standard Version (1995): For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

The good old King James version resists the temptation to deviate from the immutable word of God and stands fast with jots and tittles:

King James 2000 Version: For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

However, the American King James version strays from righteousness:

American King James Version: For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

So there you have it: just over 1000 words to describe something that means “small and miniscule.” Perhaps the next post should be on oxymoron!

[1] Tittle also appears as tiddle but this is a phonetic variation rather than different etymologies. For the /t/ to become a d/ is almost obligatory in US speech, where the phenomenon of the “intevocalic ‘d'” is well known. Pronouncing your “t’s” in the middle of a word is pretty much a shibboleth for spotting Brits in the US.

[2] Ghit is short for “Google hit” and it’s the number of search hits you get when using the Google search engine.

[3] If a Ghit is a Google hit, there’s no prize for guessing that a Bhit is a Bing hit. A “bong hit” is just one vowel modification away from “Bing” but has a different meaning!

[4] John Wycliffe is unlikely to have written the Wycliffe Bible all by himself. Biblical scholars believe that the bible was the work of a small group of people, with Wycliffe being the translator of just the New Testament.

So what do the following tweets have in common?

Just seen the TV ad for the unauthorised book on me. Yikes! (@SimonCowell)

Being a celebrity has afforded me many opportunities but has also boxed me in creatively (@kanyewest)

The desk is almost clear. Work on memoir, film all but done. Maybe I can allow myself the weekend off before beginning work on my TV series? (@SalmanRushdie)

Well, they are all examples of humblebrags, and a humblebrag is defined by the sporadically accurate but always entertaining Urban Dictionary as;

When you, usually consciously, try to get away with bragging about yourself by couching it in a phony show of humility.

The rise of Twitter has ushered in a golden age of humblebragging, and not only for celebrities. Here are a few examples from ordinary folks, just like you and me;

I gave a speech at TEDx and now it’s on the internet. If you’d like to be uninspired for fifteen minutes, click here:

Great. The same week I lose my fake tooth down a sink, I get asked to be a photoshoot model. I’ll be serving gap-toothed realness.

I hate when people tell me, ‘You’re too pretty for tattoos’ …shut up …it’s art.

As you have probably worked out, the art of the humblebrag is to combining shameless self promotion along with fake humility. In all of the examples above, you’ll see the two basic components; the brag and the self-deprecation. For example, the underlying structure of the statement from Simon Cowell is;

The Deprecate [1]: Yikes, I am the victim of an unauthorized biography.
The Brag: I am so famous people want to write whole books about me.

In the Kanye West example:

The Deprecate: I am stifled by my celebrity status.
The Brag: Hey, I’m a celebrity!

And in the Salman Rushdie tweet:

The Deprecate: I’ve been so busy and need a rest.
The Brag: I’m so busy because I’m so clever and have TV shows and memoirs.

The Brag/Deprecate structure can, I suggest, be applied to any humblebrag. The deprecate also functions to try and give the impression that the braggart is “just a regular person” but is clearly just a smokescreen to allow for the brag.

And even the Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Solokowski is not above the occasional humblebrag, as evidence in this recent tweet:

I’m very humbled by the wonderful piece in @slate‘s @browbeatslate blog by @abbyohlheiser: http://slate.me/LOpxCp Thank you!! Welcome all

And the underlying structure?

The Deprecate: How humble I feel.
The Brag: Look, the folks at Slate are writing about me!

It’s possible that some folks unconsciously fall into humblebragging, but in the Twitter environment, one of the major points of the entire system is to allow people to talk about themselves and share their lives with a world that they think cares. Twitter is, by and large, an example par excellence of the “Me Generation,” [2] and is up there with Facebook, its more wordy companion.

Facebook takes humblebragging to extremes. It’s an opportunity to people to post to the world how special they are, how great their lives are, how talented/beautiful/important they are, and indulge in an orgy of mutual appreciation. It’s tailor-made for parent humblebraggers, whose postings are always thinly veiled brags about how smart their kids are.  The subtext for “My 18-month-old won’t stop talking and it is driving me crazy!” is;

The Deprecate: I’m stressed, just like normal parents.
The Brag: Look how smart my kid is! Talking at 18-months. Must be a genius. [3]

A colleague of mine will go for months without posting to Facebook – until she takes a trip abroad and starts the rounds of “OMG, so tired after landing in Sydney” or “Almost fell asleep in the Sydney Opera house because of the jet lag.” Once back home, we never hear “Just got back from Wal-Mart with a new can opener” or “Took the trash out and it was raining.” Nope, it’s only the glamorous world that we hear about.

And that, of course, is what humblebragging is ultimately about; it’s a way of creating the image we want to be, as opposed to displaying the image of what we actually are.  We post the edited highlights of our lives and polish them up just a little because we don’t want to appear – heaven forbid! – boring.

Tweets and Facebook posts therefore take on an air of excitement and drama, which is the purpose behind editing. The film director, Alfred Hitchcock, once famously said;

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

Hence the rise of the humblebrag. We become dramatic; we become interesting; but we also want to be simultaneously special and ordinary. Kanye West may want to sound like “just like an everyday person” but he doesn’t actually want to be one! When celebrity Tila Tequila tweeted;

I hate my lambo! Police is ALWAYS pulling me over just cuz its a lambo so they always think I’m speeding but I’m not!! Then they let me go!

..you know she’s trying to sounds “just like one of us who gets pulled over” but she also wants you to know she (a) has a Lamborghini and (b) gets let off because she’s a celebrity.

The humblebrag is essentially a form of paralipsis, which is a rhetorical device used by a speaker to bring attention to something by professing to be ignoring it. If a politician says, “Irrespective of my honorable friend having once been charged with tax evasion, I believe there are many reasons for not voting for his being Head of the Treasury,” that’s paralipsis.

Although humblebrag has not yet made it into any of the standard dictionaries, it did make it into the American Dialect Society 2011 Word-of-the-Year list, an although it lost out as WOTY to occupy, it did place first in the “Most Useful” category. It therefore may simply be a matter of time before it becomes a dictionary word.

Clearly it’s a portmanteau word made from humble and brag. The OED defines humble as;

Having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-exaltation; lowly: the opposite of proud.

It appeared in Middle English as umble, humbul, humbyll, and oumbbylle, originating from the Latin humilem, meaning lowly, small, or insignificant. This, in turn, came from humus meaning earth or ground.

Back in the 16th century, brag meant, “A loud noise, the bray of a trumpet,” and it is that sense of a braying trumpet that lead to the modern meaning of arrogant or boastful language. There’s still uncertainty about the word’s origins but one suggestion is that it derives from the Old Norse brak, which is a “creaking noise.” Another is that it is from Old Norse bragr meaning “the best, the foremost, the boast or toast.”

Whatever the origin may be, I’m betting that humblebrag will slide into the dictionaries within 5 years – unless we all suddenly decide that self-promotion is a bad thing. And my guess is that the world will end before true humility makes a comeback.

Postscript 6/11/12
Remiss of me not to mention the excellent @humblebrag Twitter stream run by Harris Wittels. It’s well worth following for the splendid examples of painfully obvious false humility, or just catch up now and again at http://twitter.com/humblebrag

[1] I’m using the term deprecate to refer to the element of the sentence (or narrative) structure that is used to convey a sense of “ordinariness.” The word itself derives from the Latin deprecare meaning “to pray away” or “to ward off.”

[2] Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York, NY: Free Press.

See also Twenge, J.M. (2009) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York, NY: Free Press.

[3] Sadly, the bitter truth is that although everyone believes their children are above average, statistically that cannot be the case. The odds are that your kiddo is average and no amount of humblebragging will change that. I am, in fact, so confident of my claim that I predict that YOU who is reading this NOW will be convinced I am wrong and that your child is the exception, and although you might grasp the statistical truth, you are psychologically unable to accept that your offspring is anywhere other than at the top end of the bell curve.

Once upon a time there were three billy goats, who were to go up to the hillside to make themselves fat, and the name of all three was “Gruff.”

On the way up was a bridge over a cascading stream they had to cross; and under the bridge lived a great ugly troll , with eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker.

So begins The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a classic Norwegian tale of gluttony and violence [1], which is, after all, par for the course as far as fairy tales go. And the best fairy tales pull no punches when it comes to being profane, scary, politically incorrect, and generally unwholesome for little girls and boys.

Or so one might think.

The tendency for well-meaning modern writers to “reinterpret” such stories so that they don’t harm the fragile psyche of the child misses the point; that the fragile psyche actually needs to be damaged. Or at least shaken around a little.

In his classic book, The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim does an amazing job of explaining why such tales are important to the psychological development of children, and how their often dark and upsetting subject matter is actually a way for kids to learn to deal with the harsh realities of life.

And this desire to “protect our children” is why many of the current version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff end up with the troll who lives under the bridge being pushed into a river – a significant difference from the original fate of the hapless bridge-dweller. Here’s how the third of the goats disposes of the troll;

And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade, and after that he went up to the hillside.

There’s little chance of “swimming to safety” or “just getting a wee bit wet” here. The goat clearly has an agenda, and the almost ritualistic killing would look a little distressing in a kid’s picture book.  It’s also unclear what the troll had actually done to deserve such a brutal slaying. Sure, he’d threatened to eat the goats but they were, after all, trespassing on his bridge.

In Scandinavian mythology, a troll is an ugly and malevolent creature, larger than humans but with a taste for their flesh. They live in caves (and apparently also under bridges) and only come out at night, otherwise they turn to stone in sunlight.

The word comes from the Old Norse troll meaning a giant or a demon, but there is also the Old Norse word trolldomr meaning witchcraft. The Swedish trolla means “to charm or bewitch,” so the link between troll and some supernatural element is clear. [2]

And it’s this sense of the word troll that forms the basis of the modern term,  patent troll. In the legal world, a patent troll is a person or company that buys patents for the sole purpose of using them strategically in order to sue others who infringe – or appear to infringe – the patent. The trick for a patent troll is to look for cheap patents (usually from a company going bankrupt) and keep them until there’s an opportunity to use them. If an innocent third-party invents something new that appears to be covered by the patent, the troll will “jump up” and surprise them with a huge claim, usually in the millions.

There is a twist to this use of the word that depends on another meaning of the word troll that comes from the fishing world. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this originates from the Old French troller, which means;

To move or walk about or to and fro; to ramble, saunter, stroll, ‘roll’; spec. (slang) of a homosexual: to walk the streets, or ‘cruise’, in search of a sexual encounter.

Now no-one is suggesting that the slang notion applies to patent trolls – although I’m sure folks who have been sued by them may well be inclined to favor it – but the “moving about” and “rambling” lent itself to describing the activity of pulling a single line behind a boat to try to catch fish. This choice of word may also have been influenced by the similar-sounding word trawl, which means to fish using a net with the intent of pulling it through the water to trap sea creatures.

The word trawl derives from the Middle Dutch traghelen, meaning “to drag,” which may, in turn, come from the Latin tragula, a dragnet. Thus, although troll and trawl may both be fishing words and have similar functions, the words come from different roots.

The idea of “trolling for fish” was extended to include “trolling for ideas or information.” And this, in turn, lead to the modern notion of an internet troll, which the OED defines as;

A person who posts deliberately erroneous or antagonistic messages to a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response.

The person is either seen as (a) behaving like a troll, waiting to “jump up” and pick a fight, or (b) trolling for responses. However, just to make things even more confusing, if you are surfing the net to accumulate lots of pieces of data, you are “trawling the net,” not “trolling”; the two things are different. Here’s how the OED defines this newer meaning of trawling;

To engage in an exhaustive or extensive (sometimes indiscriminate) search for something.

So let me summarize the various definition we’ve encountered:

1. troll (mythology): a Scandinavian ogre who eats people.

2. troll (law): an attorney who uses patents to sue people.

3. troll (slang): a homosexual who cruises the streets to have sex with people.

4. troll (internet): a person who posts outrageous comments to bait people.

5. troll (fishing): to drag a single line behind a boat to catch fish.

6. trawl (fishing): to drag a net through water to catch anything.

7. trawl (informatics): to hunt for information.

Who would have thought such confusion could come from simply cross a rickety, rackety bridge.

[1] English translation at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0122e.html#gruff: Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, De tre bukkene Bruse som skulle gå til seters og gjøre seg fete, Norske Folkeeventyr, translated by George Webbe Dasent in Popular Tales from the Norse, 2nd edition (London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.), no. 37, pp. 275-276. Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman

[2] During the 60’s, the “Troll Doll” became a popular toy in the US and the UK. Short, naked, and with huge spiky hair, the trolls were a cure version of their androphagous ancestors.

I’ve mentioned before in my piece on Trannies and Puffs that I’m a long-time devotee of satellite radio. A natural consequence of this is that I am constantly stumbling across classic tracks from way back – and by “way back” I’m now talking anything in the 20th century. Only a few days ago, I was skipping though the channels and stopped when I heard George Thorogood and the Destroyers playing their 1985 classic I Drink Alone, an encomium to alcoholism and probably on the “banned” list of the AA[1] movement.

Thorogood, by the way, is a prolific performer, with over 15 albums out with the Destroyers, 5 live albums, and 6 compilation. Born in 1950, the first album, simple called George Thorogood and the Destroyers, was released in 1977. He started off as a baseball player in the minor leagues but switched to music in 1970, forming the Destroyers in 1973.

Social drinking has been around probably as long as prostitution, and both of them have proved equally hard to legislate against. Drinking alone, however, is one of the hallmarks of severe alcoholism when it happens to excess. I mention the “to excess” part because I am not averse of an evening to sip an alcoholic beverage when the rest of the family are either out or abed, but I don’t think this would classify me as alcoholic. [2]

The word dipsomania is defined by the OED as;

A morbid and insatiable craving for alcohol, often of a paroxysmal character. Also applied to persistent drunkenness, and formerly to the delirium produced by excessive drinking.

It was first defined by Alfred Swaine Taylor in the 1844 Manual of Medical Jurisprudence as;

…drunkenness. This state, which is called in law frenzy, or ‘dementia affectata’, is regarded as a temporary form of insanity.

The word is Greek in origin. The first part, dipso-, is the combining form of the word dipsa (δίψα) meaning thirst. The second piece, mania, is from the Greek μανία  meaning madness. And mania is also the base of the Greek word maenesthai (μαίνεσθαι ) meaning to rage or to be in a frenzy. In Greek mythology, the Maenads are a group of frenzied followers of Bacchus who gang up on Orpheus, tearing him apart and leaving his head and lyre to float down a river. This is possibly a warning to stay away from groups of drunken women.

In Greek mythology, dipsas (δίψας) is the name of a snake that would cause anyone it bit to have a raging, extreme thirst. Dipsas is also a character found in Ovid’s Amores (Love Poems) who is a drunken brothel keeper:

There’s a certain madame – if your interests run in this direction,
read on – I’ll tell you about Dipsas,
an old bawd who lives up to her name – she’s yet to be sober enough
to see Memnon’s mother [3] and her rosy steeds.
But she does know her magic and all the secret spells of Circe;
she can make strong rivers run backwards.
She’s an expert when it comes to herbs and the tools of sorcery;
she distills a rare poison from a mare in heat.

Dipsomania is different from polydipsia, which is used to describe a state of excessive thirst but not specific to alcohol. The poly- element is from the Greek poli (πολυ) meaning, in this case, much or “a lot of.”

As a final diversion, you might want to check out another George Thorogood song, One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, a cover of the original by Amos Milburn from 1953, and also covered in 1966 by John Lee Hooker.

[1] For my UK readers, I need to point out that the acronym “AA” in the US stands for “Alcoholics Anonymous” and not “Automobile Association.” When I first moved to the US and mentioned my wanting to join the local “AA,” the looks I got were enough to tell me that something was very wrong. The US equivalent of the UK’s AA is “AAA” or “triple-A” as it is referred to. The UK’s AA was formed in 1905 (apparently to help motorists avoid speed traps!) whereas the US’ AAA was started earlier in 1902.

[2] Once more, for my European readers, having an alcoholic drink at any time under the age of 21 will class you as alcoholic if you’re living in the US. The drinking habits that I, and all my fellow students at university, took part in as 18-year-olds would be seen as alcoholism in the US. The entire UK student population would be fined and marched off for formal counseling to “correct” their “illness.”  So if you’re under 21 and thinking of flying to California or Florida  for a wild summer holiday, remember that you can be arrested for even holding an empty can of beer.

[3] In his day, Ovid would assume that everyone would know who “Memnon’s mother” would be, but since most people experience classical mythology via movies such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, I’ll reveal that she’s Hemera, goddess of the day, also known as Eos. Thus, in the poem, Ovid is saying that Dipsas is such a drunk that she’s never up in the morning early enough to see the day!

Being one of those people who felt sad when the six-year run of the TV series Lost came to end back in May of 2010, finding shows that provided the same level of mystery has been part of my viewing habits. I don’t think of myself as much of a television watcher but there are a number of offerings with which I’m happy to spend some time. A way of measuring how interested I am in a show is to take a look at those I’ve recorded on my digital video recorder. Two currently appear their regularly; House and Alcatraz.

I’ve watched House since the beginning, having been an admirer of Hugh Laurie since his early days of working with Stephen Fry on the A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie shows. The fact that both of us (a) are English, (b) live in the US, and (c) ride Triumph motorcycles might add to some sense of identification, but ultimately the character of Dr. Gregory House appeals strongly to my own cynical, atheist, existential viewpoint of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

As for Alcatraz, what first caught my attention was that it comes from the Bad Robot Productions stables; a company owned by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost. The writers also include Elizabeth Sarnoff, who was a contributor to many Lost episodes. Add to that the general plot that 63 prisoners who disappeared in 1963 were “coming back” to modern-day San Francisco and you’ve got a recipe for keeping my attention.

The island itself is first documented as being named La Isla de los Alcatraces back in 1775, when the Spanish naval officer, Juan Manuel de Ayala y Aranza sailed the San Carlos into San Francisco Bay. The Spanish word alacatraz means pelican, a large-beaked bird that can be found in large numbers on and around the island.

Alcatraz in turn appears to be a modified version of the Portuguese word, alcatruz, which was used to name the bucket of a water wheel. The use of this to refer to the pelican is based on the idea that the beak of the bird is similar to a bucket or large water sack. The word can be tracked even further back to the Arabic al-qādūs meaning “the bucket.” One further step back shows us that qādūs  is related to the Greek κάδος  meaning “a jar.”

The OED suggests that there was a story that the pelican would scoop up water in its beak and fly back to its young in the desert to give them water. Wonderful as the tale might be, the beak of the pelican actually acts as a water strainer, not a carrier, so that when it scoops up water and fish, the water drains out to leave just the food. But of course, etymology is not about biology and a good story can lead to a real word.

There is an alternative to the bucket theory that is equally plausible. The Arabic for pelican was l-câdous or al-ġaţţās, which means “the diver.” There’s little phonetic change needed to change the Arabic al-ġaţţās to alcatruz. This is also the same route for tracing the origin of the word albatross, but in this case, the word alcatrus is modified by the switch of the alca element to alba, meaning “white.” Again, the sound change from alcatruz to albatruz is minimal.

This misnaming or renaming of birds (or animals) is not uncommon. The European robin is a very different bird from the American robin yet both have the same name. The common bodily feature between them is the red breast, but ornithologically speaking, they are very different. When early European settlers arrived in North America, they simply use the names they already had to new animals that appeared similar.