Posts for Category Word of the Day

Colds, collops, and meldrops: Bill’s Head snivels

Bill catches a cold and discusses some cold-related words
Oct 032011
Photo by Jen Waller

Though I don’t read a lot of detective fiction, I seem to be drawn to Scandinavian and Icelandic detective fiction, and I’ve been working my way through the Swedish Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell.* Last week I started the seventh book in that series, One Step Behind, and within the first two paragraphs read this passage:

…the dampness had nonetheless seeped through his clothing. He felt a sudden flash of anger. He didn’t want to catch a cold. Not now, not in the middle of summer.

Come on: it’s the 21st century (well, it was still the late 20th when the book was written, but still). Don’t we all know that viruses cause colds, not damp weather? In typical Bill fashion I was getting all annoyed at Henning Mankell for propagating an old wives’ tale–I even highlighted the passage and added a cranky annotation (yay, Kindle!)–but then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he as the author knows better even if his character does not.
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Word of the day: billhead, plus a roundup of other -head words

Bill's Head explains the billhead, dunks itself in a bucket of water to calculate the volume of a billshead, and looks at some other words with -head at their tails, like futtock-head and firelihead.
Jul 132010

Recently Google sent me a few searchers who wanted to know how to “design my own billhead” or were interested in the “design of bill head.” With narcissistic delusions of my own grandeur still lingering in my head from my encounter with the paparazzi, I was flattered that someone should want their very own Bill’s Head (note, however, that Bill’s Head is the product of evolution, not of design).

It turns out, though, that a billhead is something altogether different:

Bill's Head
A Bill’s Head
A billhead
A billhead

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Jun 252010

Note first that it’s “Word of the Day,” not “a word every day.” There are plenty of other sites that will deliver a possibly interesting, randomly-selected vocabulary word to you every day.

I post to Word of the Day irregularly, whenever I come across an interesting word, or interesting information about a familiar word.


If you already subscribe to the Bill’s Head feed, the Word of the Day posts are included in that. If you’d like to get only the Word of the Day posts without all the rest of the Bill’s Head output, you can subscribe to the Word of the Day by RSS Feed IconRSS or E-mail Subscription Icone-mail.

Eke! How is a nickname like a newt?

A nickname shouldn't be a nick-name but it is like a newt. Learn how.
Jun 242010

The other day I was on a Web page that accepted comments and I noticed that, in the form where you register to be a commenter, it asked you to select a “nick-name.” The hyphenation of back-up was defensible, but nickname is the long-established correct form and there just shouldn’t be a hyphen. Unfortunately I lost track of which Web site this was so I can’t send you there to see for yourself, or go back myself to see if maybe it was a site run by people who do not speak English natively.

But that encounter with nickname reminded me of this entry I wrote on nickname for the old Word Site back in 1997, explaining where nicknames came from.

A nickname was originally an ekename, from the Old and Middle English eke, meaning “additional.” By a process called metanalysis, the n from the an became “misplaced,” resulting by the early 15th century in forms such as neke name and nycke name. The modern, single-word form nickname appears for the first time in print in the early 1700s. Metanalysis—common in the development of the English language—also turned an ewte into a newt and, working in the other direction,  a nauger into an auger.

Eke, once a venerable and indispensable part of the language, was eventually replaced by words such as additional (which did not appear until the seventeenth century) and also. It survives in expressions such as “eke out a living,” where it refers to supplementing or augmenting something or to making something last longer.

May 252010
A clyster-pipe in action

When you were a kid, you probably called people “retards” when they did something stupid or awkward or were otherwise in need of being insulted. In my neighborhood (in Phoenix), we called them “gompers” instead. If you’re a member of the Texas school board, you may be cheering the fact that we insulted people by branding them as labor organizers, but in fact the only thing we knew about Samuel Gompers was that there was a school for people with developmental disabilities named after him, and if I remember correctly, it was right next to my elementary school. So we were calling people “retards” as well, in our own localized slang.* (I don’t know if the expression was widely used all over Phoenix, or just common in my neighborhood. I was somehow surprised that the Urban Dictionary has an entry for this usage of the word.)

These days, many of us realize that we shouldn’t call people “retards,” because this usage is offensive to people who actually are retarded (in the clinical sense of the word) and to those who care about them. Of course, we’re not supposed to call retarded people retarded, either, because of the negative connotations the word has taken on through its non-clinical use. Eventually the word will lose its original literal, clinical meaning, and we’ll go back to happily using it as an insult, just as we do with “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” which all were once clinical terms. In the meantime, though, no one can use “retard” in any context at all (you probably shouldn’t even apply fire retardant, to be safe).

This illustrates one of the biggest challenges of life in our present Age of Enlightenment: how do you insult someone without accidentally offending the wrong people?

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May 232010

It’s a rainy day here at Bill’s Head World Headquarters, where I’ve been working this morning on re-posting some old material. (If you’re reading this by RSS, you might want to peruse the Language and Word of the Day categories for these golden oldies, since they’re back-dated and therefore won’t appear in your feed.)

I posted the gruft entry, and the continuing rain theme made me think of “petrichor”, defined by the OED as “a pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.” It’s also the word for the mixture of organic compounds that collects on the ground and is believed to produce the smell.

I think I remember reading a really nice article about petrichor long ago, but I can’t find it now. The Word Detective has a brief discussion of petrichor here. Have I mentioned recently that you should be reading The Word Detective?

Want to know more about the sciencey details? You might care to read this “Genesis of petrichor” paper by I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas:

Several possible mechanisms have been considered in connection with the origin of this odour. These include the synthesis of odorous compounds on the clay or rock surface by spontaneous catalysis of atmospheric gases, the sorption of organic compounds from the atmosphere, catalytic transformation of sorbed compounds and microbial activity. Evidence is presented which suggests the atmosphere contains, as general contaminants, lipids, terpenes, carotenoids and other volatile decomposition products from animal and vegetable matter. The sorption of these compounds, or their oxygenated derivatives, by rocks and clays is controlled by the properties of the sorbent and the partial water vapour pressure of the atmosphere, low relative humidities favouring maximum uptake. Oxidation and transformation of sorbates take place on the rock surface and are accelerated by warm to hot climatic conditions. The odorous and volatile products of these processes are subsequently displaced from the pores of the rock by moisture when the relative humidity of the atmosphere approaches saturation.The possibility of a relationship between petrichor and petroleum formation is discussed.

Or you could search around to find more information for free.

Aug 272006

Last time I had dinner with my parents my mother was talking about the “scody” houses we stayed in during some of our family beach trips when I was young. The next day I was telling a friend I had known as soon as the conversation turned to the beach houses that they would be described as “scody,” because that’s the word Mom uses for grubby, grimy things. The friend had never heard the word before, and I realized I had never heard it used outside my family.

A check of the major dictionaries turned up absolutely nothing, but Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary (to which anyone can submit entries) had this definition for scody:

Disgusting, filthy, squalid, dilapidated or (of people) sleazy. Generally, extremely unappealing.
My friend lives in a really scody old house.

So Mom isn’t quite the only one using the word (despite the coincidence of the house example, I can assure you that my mother is not submitting words to the Open Dictionary).

When I started searching Google for other people using the word, I was surprised to find that most of the examples I came upon were from people in New Zealand, most of whom are also far younger than my mother.

From a discussion on socks to wear when raving, at an urban culture site in New Zealand:

woah ok. lets all rip into me for liking socks. and actually i do wear good shoes, ive tried my etnies and they were ok but i tend to go for my low cut chuks. i have also tried plasters on the “prone area” and every time i do that the “prone area” becomes somewhere new, i figure tho soon my feet will be so scody and calloused that theyll b unblistereable….oh the joys of feet. and i dont think thick socks woukld make u more prone to toe jams, athletes foot or any other fungal/bacterial infection as just socks would b more breathable than shoes and socks.

From a site cluing parents in on their kids’ lingo:

me and my homies(aka mates) like to use the word snazzy witch means cool.we also like to use the word scody witch means ehhhhhhhhh or gross .Unco means not cool.HIHO is a mix between hi and hello.when we talk about cute boys we call them hunks, tuds, muffins, babes.when we have a crush we call them our lover lover boys.—Sarah—Age: 11—From NEW ZEALAND

From a discussion at a New Zealand gaming site discussing whether it’s true that eight in 10 teenagers are bisexual:

a greater proportion of girls are clean and non-scody than guys, as this is the norm for our society. Makes it easier for girls to be attracted to girls, and guys not to guys

Now, my mother did live in several countries when she was young (England, Denmark, Panama) but never even visited New Zealand until a year ago, decades after she had added scody to her vocabulary. When I related all of this to her, she was as surprised as I to learn how uncommon the word is, and speculated that she and her siblings may have picked it up while they were living in England as children.

Other spellings also appeared in a few places: skody, scodie.

The word is reminiscent of grody, which appeared in the 1960s but is most strongly associated with the 1980s Valley Girl phrase “Grody to the max.” Grody was originally grotty, appearing in British slang as a shortened form of grotesque. From a discussion at the Scarleteen site (use the Google cache version if the original link doesn’t work):

what makes him “scody” anyway? what’s “scody”? i am too old to know what such things mean. it is like “grody”? that’s a word we used when i was in junior high.

Scrody also turns up, defined at the Urban Dictionary as “like grody, but sounds better.” Based on my unscientific sampling of Google results, scrody appears to be more common in the U.S. than scody is. Presumably scrody and scody are related, but I haven’t found any evidence for a link, or for the origins of scrody.

But none of this brings me much closer to explaining where scody came from, or why my mother is one of the few Americans who uses the word. So, readers (especially adults outside of New Zealand), help me out here: have you run into the word before? Has anyone seen an explanation of its origin?

Aug 262006

A friend of mine was recently venting some workplace frustration to a coworker, who advised her not to get “flustrated.” When she told me this story, we both assumed, since the coworker in question had a history of mispronunciations and malapropisms, that she was simply inadvertently conflating “flustered” and “flustrated.” As I thought more about it, though, I was struck by the fact that flustrated perfectly captured the situation—my friend was getting flustered as a result of her frustration. If flustrated wasn’t a real word it needed to be.

I turned first to the OED and found that flustrate (”vulgar or jocular” in usage) is quite old, with flustrated appearing in print in 1712. The OED lists the derivation as FLUSTER + ATE and lists the alternate spelling flusterate. Merriam-Webster game the same etymology, while Random House Webster’s suggested a combination of fluster and
frustrate. The Random House Mavens contend that the word is just an elaborate form of fluster but admit that some recent examples do suggest a blend or a confusion with frustrate.

A Google search turns up over 12,000 hits, most from people complaining about other people using the word, and/or opining (incorrectly) that it is a “made up” word. One newspaper article in particular caught my eye. Writing in The Morning Sun,* Sue Metzger says that

Sometimes two similar words are mistakenly combined into a single word that exceeds the boundaries of meaning. “Flustrated” is a non-word created from “flustered” and “frustrated.” Flustered means “confused, nervous, excited”; frustrated means “disappointed, defeated, obstructed.”

It may be possible to entertain all those feelings simultaneously, but creating a technically correct adverb/verb—“frustratingly flustered”—is as awkward as “flustrated” is wrong. Maybe we should just say “confused and disappointed.”

Metzger’s logic escapes me here: if it’s possible to “entertain all those feelings simultaneously,” then flustrated doesn’t exceed the boundaries of meaning, and if the word captures the feeling, how is it “wrong”? “Confused and disappointed” isn’t the state we’re going for here—to be flustrated is to be “agitated by disappointment or dissatisfaction.”

I stand by my original impression: as an elaboration of flustered, flustrated is silly and dull. But as a combination of flustered and frustrated, it’s superb. So be careful to use it only in just the right situation.


While researching this entry I came upon Spamradio, which manages to make something poetic out of that
flustrating spam that fills your inbox.

It took me a fair amount of looking to figure out what community The Morning Sun serves. I finally found it, though, in small
print on the main page: “Covering Mount Pleasant and Alma County’s, Michigan.” Oh, the irony.
Aug 222006

One or two of you have commented that the “word of the day” missed a few days. Please note that it’s “word of the day,” not “new word every day.”

Now, onward:

The interjection doh! (often spelt d’oh) will perhaps forever be associated with cartoon character Homer Simpson, who made it a part of American culture. Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, explained the origin of the word in a 1998 interview in Daily Variety:

The D’oh came from character actor James Finlayson’s “Do-o-o-o” in Laurel & Hardy pictures. You can tell it was intended as a euphemism for “Damn.” I just speeded it up.

Dan Castellaneta may have invented the word independently, but in fact it had been around—and used the same way—for at least 40 years, appearing in print as early as 1945. The OED‘s definition is amusing:

Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish. Also (usu. mildly derogatory): implying that another person has said or done something foolish.

The similar duh dates from around the same time: a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon has the line

Duh… Well, he can’t outsmart me, ’cause I’m a moron.

Aug 162006

Buttload is used to express a vague but large quantity; it is often assumed to be a meaningless word (stemming from butt in the sense of buttocks) of the sort we’re so fond of coining based on vulgar words (cf. shitload, or the myriad words and phrases based on em>fuck). A buttload is, as it turns out, a more or less quantifiable measure, in no way related to the buttocks or their capacity.

The butt referred to here is a heavy, two-wheeled cart, drawn by oxen or horses (for example, a dung-butt is a cart used to haul manure). A butt-load is the quantity that your average butt can hold. In the earliest written description of a butt-load (1796), this is said to be “about six seams.” A seam is “a pack-horse load,” the exact quantity originally depending on both the locale and the item being measured. A seam of glass, for example, was 120 pounds; a seam of apples was 9 pecks. Later, a seam was more or less standardized at 3 hundredweight of hay or manure, or 2 hundredweight of straw. So a buttload of manure would be roughly 2,016 pounds (a hundredweight is about 112 pounds; 3 hundredweight makes a seam; 6 seams is a buttload).

Butt, by the way, is not a shortened form of buttock. Rather, as near as anyone can tell, buttock is formed from em>butt by addition of the suffix -ock, which is used to form diminutives. This is the same -ock found in words such as hillock (a small hill), tussock (originally a tuft of hair), haddock, and bullock (originally a young bull, later a castrated bull; bullock comes from the Old English bulluc—the -uc suffix is a variant form of -ock).