Five hundred and twenty-two years ago today, January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus insulted merfolk everywhere by observing that the mermaids he saw off the coast of the Dominican Republic were "not half as beautiful as they are painted" [History.com; see also "Oh no he did not"]. If he had looked more closely, perhaps Columbus would have noticed that these mermaids were missing more than just half their beauty.
What do Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Don Quixote all have in common? Each has been described in print as possessing "an aquiline nose." Many readers might translate the word aquiline into something akin to "beak-like," but the word is more specific than that. Aquiline means "of, like, or pertaining to an eagle."
Our Christmas tree is always a blue spruce that we keep in a box in the basement when we’re not using it. Pine allergies keep us from the ritual of driving to a farm or nearby tree lot to find the perfect tree. This has kept me from receiving a proper education on the differences between pine, spruce and fir.
In my mind, they are all pine trees because they have pine needles. Spruce, fir, and pine are all of the Pinaceae family. But pines are of the pinus genus; the genus for fir is abies; and for spruce it’s picea.
I have already confessed to loving ridiculous new words. But, like every other editor I know, my word sensibilities can’t always keep pace with the changing language. Emerging new usage often makes me squint. Overwhelm as a noun? Onboard as a transitive verb? I’m just not ready to onboard people to my methods of managing the overwhelm.*
It’s a bit late for this election season, but canvass is the act of seeking votes and canvas is a strong cloth, as used in sails or for a canvas bag. The double s version derives from the single s, in a roundabout way.
This month marks 50 years since President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, establishing a “National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes” (Public Law 88-577 [PDF]).
The 6.0 earthquake that hit the Napa Valley and destroyed some barrels of wine had a predictable aftereffect: the trotting out of the uncommon word temblor. Temblor is the favorite second-reference word among journalists for earthquake, and it seems to have little utility elsewhere.
I tweeted this bit of advice on the word, which is sometimes rendered incorrectly as tremblor (both tremble and temblor trace their roots to the Latin tremulus).
In the era of Facebook and Twitter we’re reposting all the time, so it’s no surprise a fellow editor would see someone refer to a clever repost instead of a clever riposte.
The word repost is a natural formation that goes back hundreds of years: To repost is simply to post again. Post, as in mail, referred originally to travel by relay of horses. But you could probably ask someone in the 17th century to repost a sign that fell down and you’d be understood.
I recently and unexpectedly acquired a Butterfly, a 12-foot sailing dinghy, and immediately signed up for lessons at a nearby sailing club. I’ve always had an interest, but now I need to learn my sheet from my stay and my bow from my aft.