News & Features » Miscellany

Words, new and old

Rosie Right

Reader Roy Scherer has forwarded to us an e-mail he received from a list called JokesnStuff in which some words for the new century are listed. Here are a few:

Sitcoms (single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage) — What Yuppies turn into when they have children and one of them stops working to stay home with the kids.

Swiped Out — An ATM or credit card that has been rendered useless because the magnetic strip is worn away from extensive use.

Alpha Geek — The most knowledgeable, technically proficient person in an office or work group.

It's good to see some imagination used in our language even though the terms above were intended largely as jokes. Another Web piece, "The Age of Eloquence" by P.M. Carpenter on discusses the language and bemoans the lack of grace in our political discourse. To illustrate, he writes:

"Yet even in incivility did eighteenth-century wags have us beat. One yearns for the surgical ridicule of a James Otis who could belittle foes and their arguments as 'the flutter of a coxcom, the pedantry of a quack, and the nonsense of a pettifogger.' Today, though admittedly counterbalanced by a wonderful economy of words, we read instead of a Dan Burton labeling his archenemy, the preside, 'a scumbag.' Oooh. What rapier-like wit."

The difficulty dictionary editors have in tracing down the origin of words and phrases was the subject of an interesting piece in the April 22 New York Times, "If There's a Bug in the Etymology, You May Never Get it Out." Laurence Zuckerman tells us that Joe Treka was the third person to win $1 million on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and, according to Zuckerman, Treka was asked "What insect shorted out an early supercomputer and inspired the term computer bug?" Treka responded a moth. Unfortunately the question was based on a fallacy that the term computer bug dates from 1947 when supercomputers were introduced. Actually, the Oxford English Dictionary has an 1889 reference to Thomas Edison remarking that he had found a bug in his phonograph. Still, over and over in folklore, the term computer bug is described as having first been used in 1947. Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, curator of mathematics at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, summed up the problem with trying to correct the folklore about the term: "It is really impossible to stamp out a false derivation until people stop using the word."

Add a comment