Journey in Northern Light

Just a quick add-on to yesterday’s mention of the summer solstice. Check out this beautiful time-lapse sequence of  The Arctic Light by TSO Photography.  ‘The Arctic Light’ is the name given by the photographer to the time period about 2-4 weeks before the onset of the Midnight Sun.  It’s stunning and so is the music, and it took some heroic measures for the photographer to produce it. Enjoy!

(Note: You may need to turn off the HD option for smoother streaming.)

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Happy Summer Solstice, NoHem!

Today is the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere — a consequence of the geometry of the sphere-with-a-tilted-axis that we call home in our solar system.  Today the sun will reach its highest point in the sky at (solar) noon, marking the longest day of the year for us northerners.  (And just the opposite for those in the southern hemisphere.)

In northern latitudes above the Tropic of Cancer, the sun is always a little to the south of directly overhead, even at high noon.  Not surprisingly, there is a possible connection between the Germanic base form *sunnan (sun) and words in the various Germanic languages that mean south, e.g., Old English suð, Old Norse suðr, Icelandic suthor, Swedish soeder.   Old English suð meant ‘southward, in the direction of the south’,  or perhaps ‘in the region of the sun’.

During the long, dark winters of New England, experiencing serious photon deprivation, I find myself tracking the sun’s movements through the short days.  It seems quite natural to associate south with sun during those frigid months.  🙂

The summer solstice is also referred to as midsummer’s eve — the calendar date for observance of this ancient holiday varies by a few days across cultures, falling somewhere between June 21 and June 24.  Weather-wise, late June does feel as though summer has been underway for a while, i.e., it seems like ‘the middle of summer’.  However, the summer solstice marks the beginning of astronomical summer (which ends on the autumnal equinox).

Whatever name you choose to refer to this time by, if you’re in the north, enjoy the lingering light this evening!

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Reading the Signs

If you examine the wording on cautionary road signs, you’ll realize they aren’t wholly consistent.  Yet as native speakers of English (or with working fluency of English) we usually have no trouble interpreting the intended meaning.  The basic semantic task is to decide whether the words on the sign are descriptive or advisory — or both.

The single word slow is advisory — it’s shorthand for a command to go slowly, whereas the words bump and dip are descriptions of conditions of the road ahead, not verbal commands to perform weird dance steps.  The phrase fog area is descriptive, alerting the driver of a condition, and fog is a noun used as a modifier, it’s not a verb directing the application of, e.g., insecticide to a locale (another possible interpretation).  However, slow children is both advisory and descriptive; it’s not a unit phrase parallel to fog area, but rather a command to proceed at slow speed because there are children in the vicinity. Slow deaf child is another such example, although here, as interpreters of the sign we split the modifiers apart; the first one is a command to the driver whereas the second modifier adds more detail about what type of child is in the vicinity. A different interpretation would assign both modifiers to child and refer to something else, either a physically slow-moving child or perhaps one with limited mental capacities.

Yet another contrastive pair is deer crossing and blind driveway; the first phrase describes a location where a certain species of animal traverses the roadway frequently,  but the second phrase does not refer to a place where unsighted persons drive vehicles — it refers to a low visibility condition that applies to a stretch of private pavement where a car could be entering the main roadway.

Road signs, including cautionary and regulatory signs, need to be brief and unambiguous.  Context obviously plays a big role for narrowing down the possible interpretations of the words chosen on these signs.  Shape and color of signs can establish some context for interpreting linguistic phrases.  No left turn appears on a white rectangular sign whose shape and color convey the meta-meaning of regulating driver behavior, so no left turn is a command. No train horn appears on a yellow diamond which means a warning, so the expression is interpreted as a descriptive alert, not a command.  Nevertheless, even when it’s understood the context is regulatory,  the quirks of language can leak through. So, it’s hopefully assumed that drivers will interpret the sign use two lanes as a shorthand command to get out of a third lane that is going away shortly (due to road work or some other condition), or fan out into two lanes from a narrower single lane, but will not interpret the sign as a command or (invitation!) to straddle the dividing stripe of two lanes with their vehicle. 🙂  (The alternate phrase form two lanes makes the intent clearer.)

A cautionary sign that seems peculiar to New England (or even to just Massachusetts?) is thickly settled. It’s a command actually, to not drive faster than 30 mph because houses and buildings are closer than 200 feet apart. People new to the area are sometimes puzzled by this sign, as well as the regulatory no salt zone.

The inherent ambiguity of language is further reduced by using broader, more universal symbols, including lines, arrows and numbers and other non-linguistic graphics. Is there universal psychological validity to some of these symbols, or is their acceptance just a consequence of historically widespread dissemination of certain symbol conventions?

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What are you searching for?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the limits of current search technology, of the fact that people don’t want to scan pages of blue links anymore. The new goal, as evidenced by the work of legions of energetic startups, is to bring you what you are looking for and present it to you intuitively, effortlessly.  People who are seeking answers or products and services out in the digital universe will be freed from the tedious artifacts of current search; a user won’t have to think in terms of pages, keywords, links and clicks, but will instead be presented with a highly distilled and personalized set of solutions gleaned through the clever mining of the information-rich world of social media and the wizardry of next-generation algorithms.  It sounds pretty appealing.  Mostly.

If I’m shopping for shoes or an interesting new restaurant, I can well imagine the beyond-search technology would be a big win. I often take a look at the suggested ‘similar items’ that current websites dish up when I’m examining or buying a product there. And the product reviews can be quite useful. Beyond-search technology will provide us this type of thing in spades — just the super relevant stuff — just for us.  Do you enjoy having someone make you your favorite meal and serve it to you? How about if they also cut up the food on the plate and feed it to you?

If I’m really exercising my mind to explore a topic, a new idea, something complicated and not well-defined (to me, or in general), I care about the sources of the information, how reliable they are.  This usually involves formulating multiple sets of keywords to search on, and sifting through the resulting hits leads to other, yet-to-be-formulated sets of concepts to explore. In these cases, what is relevant isn’t known ahead of time and the trail to knowledge can be esoteric, convoluted and take you far out on the long tail of available information. Initiating the cross-referencing myself is vital to this type of process.  I might decide to not buy a dress online if 20 reviewers complain about its quality, but I’ll need to search a lot deeper to decide on questions such as whether I’d participate in the clinical trial of a new drug, or whether a politician is telling the truth, or what the relationship is (if any) between ocean temperature and cloud formation.  I want to follow those blue links (or their proxy) in order to peruse and compare source materials — a summary with a consensus rating in these cases is not sufficient to answer the question.

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Nutty Nomenclature

Have you ever wondered why walnuts have surfaces with ridges and grooves whereas almost all other nuts are smooth? Pecans have rows of ridges, but hazel nuts, cashews, brazil nuts, almonds, macademia nuts and pistachios are all smooth, even though they may vary in size and degree of roundness. I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet, but thinking about it led me to wonder about nut names. Just can’t help that linguistic curiosity!

Nuts are sometimes named for locales or for a person bearing some association with them. The word nut itself is straightforward, derived from Old English hnutu (hard seed) and related to other IE forms, e.g., German nuss, French noix, Latin nux.

For nut names belonging in the locale camp there is the rather self-evident brazil nut which grows on a tree by the same name in the Brazilian rain forest. (The biggest exporter of brazil nuts turns out to be Bolivia, not Brazil.)

The hazelnut was a familiar nut to the Germanic peoples, the Old English name is haeselhnutu. The alternate name for a hazelnut — filbert — comes from association with St. Philbert from the 7th century,  whose feast day was close to the time of year when the hazelnuts were ripe.  Hazel appears to be an ancient tree name with origins in IE *koselos, descendant Germanic *khasalaz, and related to German hasel,  Danish hassel and Dutch hazel.

Walnut is interestingly in the locale camp: the Old English word is walhnutu (foreign nut), a combination of wealh (foreign) + hnutu (nut). Walnuts came from more southern regions of Europe and were viewed in contrast to the local hazelnuts. Wealh/Wahl literally referred to people of the Celtic region, but the word eventually expanded in reference to include Romans — non-Germanic foreigners.  In later times (18th century?) a variety of walnut was referred to as a butternut, presumably because of the lighter coloring of the nut.

The macademia nut is named for John Macadam, the colleague of Ferdinand von Mueller, the botanist who first described the genus of this plant. (Gosh, wouldn’t you love your botanist friend to name his/her newly-classified nut after you?  Personally I’d be thrilled.) But, in the English-speaking world, the nut also sides with locale when going by the names Queensland nut or Bush nut.

Moving on to pecans, the word pecan originally comes from Algonquian languages and means ‘nut’; French borrowed it as pacane and English took it from the French. It turns out pecan trees are a type of hickory, but not all hickories are pecans, and there are hickory nuts which have much harder shells than do pecans, but are said to be quite tasty nuts.  Taking into account the names  hickory nut and pine nut, it appears nut is now highly productive as a combination form.  Chestnut is another example of a place name, chestun, being combined with nut; O.E. chestun derived from O.F. chastaine and Latin castanea which derived from earlier Greek kastanéā which meant either ‘nut from Castanea’ (Pontus, Asia Minor) or ‘nut from Castana’ (Thessaly, Greece).

The origins of almond can be traced to the Greek word amygdalos (almond tree); the origins of the Greek word may be Semitic.  The l in almond was introduced in French, (reasons vary as to why this was so) and English took the word from French before the French ditched the l to form modern-day amande. English re-borrowed Latin amygdala in more recent times: this term has acquired an anatomical meaning — twin almond-shaped gray masses deep within each hemisphere of the brain that are associated with the ability to smell.

Cashew is taken from Portuguese acajú (18th century) which in turn the Portuguese took from the Brazilian-based Tupi indigenous people who named the tree acajuba in their own language.

And what of peanuts? They’re legumes, not really nuts at all.  They are related to pigeon peas to the extent that both are legumes. This may bear on the name; before the early 19th century, peanuts were referred to as groundnuts or ground peas, presumably because the peanuts actually mature under the ground. Perhaps the prevalence of nut as a combining form by the 19th century made it natural to coin the word peanut? I am a little curious as to why groundnut didn’t prevail though, having already been established. Probably an interesting story lurking there that involves pigeon peas. 🙂

And, I’m still curious as to why walnuts are so gnarly compared with all the others!

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Vamp 17: A Sudden Request

It’s Saturday night and Zaira feels conflicted. She has successfully refrained from calling Sandor on his new Android cell phone, even though she’s been brooding over numerous scenarios of how he might be caught off guard, how he unknowingly (or knowingly) might be putting them at risk. At risk? She reproaches herself for hypocrisy. She’s the one who may have put them at risk with her recent escapade on a North Shore beach. And it’s the very thing she’s contemplating doing again this evening. The memory of the sweet rush from a fresh draw had been dancing around in her mind for hours. Should she just get in the car and drive to Maine? New York would be a better choice. There would be a lot of anonymity in a large metropolitan center. She selects a Mahler symphony on her sound system and paces back and forth across her spacious living room, dressed in fitted black pants and sweater, her red hair flowing loose. She’ll need to put caps on her teeth, some red lipstick, perfume and a good piece of jewelry. And high-heeled boots. Her cell phone rings. It’s Sandor.

“How are you doing?” she asks him, a bit too cheerfully.

“I’m at work, writing code.”

“Is the apartment comfortable for you?” she continues, shamelessly probing now for information.

“It was fine. I’m calling you because your phone at work has been ringing this afternoon and then this evening. Four times I think. The message light is blinking.”

A little shiver runs up Zaira’s spine. “Is anyone else working there tonight?”


“Are you alone?”

“Yes, no one is here, Zaira.”

“Please call me Sam whenever you are at work.”

“Sorry, I forgot.”

“Okay, I’m driving in. I’ll see you in about an hour.”


She hears his tone. “I’ll leave you to your code, Sandor. I won’t intrude. But, I really should check my messages.”

“Don’t you have them forwarded to your cell phone?” he asks incredulously.

“No. I keep my identities separate.”

She makes a quick course correction; no red lipstick and no jewelry. She pulls her hair into a pony tail and dons her tooth caps. Sneakers and a light parka replace the planned stilettos and fox jacket.


Zaira parks her red Carrera on a narrow side street in front of old 19th-century brickwork buildings that were once metal-working shops and now house small, bioinformatics companies. The car is several blocks away from BubbleTrendz; the night air has a bite to it and it invigorates her as she walks past a lone student, and past a cluster of laughing friends on their way to somewhere, texting their plans to other members of their social tribe. She quells a sudden predatory urge as she passes another lone male.  Absolutely not here.

The lights are off when Zaira enters BubbleTrendz; only two exit lights are glowing.    Because of her superb vampiric night vision, she doesn’t reflexively turn on more lights, but simply walks to her desk in the dark. She sees the blinking red message light of her phone and picks up the receiver. There are five short messages — all from Dean. The first one came in around ten this morning and the last one was less than an hour ago. Why would he call her at nine o’clock on a Saturday night with a question about office supplies? It’s surreal. She decides to hang around for a while, fairly certain he’ll call again. And, as she’s here, she may as well go by Sandor’s office.

Sandor’s office is dark except for the glow from the flat screen monitor. He is leaning forward in his chair, shoulders hunched, motionless, except for his long, thin fingers which are striking keys on the keyboard in sudden bursts of intensity. Zaira-cum-Sam watches him, fascinated that he finds computer programming so fascinating. She knows he is aware of her presence; they’d picked up each other’s scents the moment she had opened the front door of BubbleTrendz. She waits for him to acknowledge her, which he does presently.

“So you drove in. There was another call just after I talked to you-”

“Yes. They’re all from Dean. He called this evening about printer cartridges.” With concern in her voice she adds, “That’s just between you and me. Don’t mention this to Evan, okay?”

Sandor shrugs and turns back to writing code. “I can’t believe you drove all this way just to check messages. Are you going to stay at the apartment?”

“No, I’m going to wait a little and see whether Dean calls again. Then, I’m going out.” Catching his eye she says softly, “Don’t ask.”


Sam arrives late to the office Monday morning. She’s still a bit dazed and exhausted from her impulse long stride over the weekend. Not especially strenuous as such jaunts go, but she was out of conditioning for them, for the rarified metabolic state they required. Fresh blood had been invigorating, but if there was a net gain, she doesn’t feel it yet.

Disappointed, she sees that the message light is not blinking on her phone. She hears male voices near the front door, one of them is vaguely familiar. Maybe Dean is back today, bringing the new partners with him?

“Sam, please make fresh coffee and order some pastry and fruit from Lila’s.” Sam turns to face Mary, who is clearly peeved that Sam showed up twenty minutes late today.

“So Dean’s back?”

Mary doesn’t reply to this, but turns and walks toward the conference room where she welcomes three men who are standing there. Sam watches Mary usher them into the room. Dean is not among them.

Sam realizes she has seen one of them before — the guy who ate the rare roast beef sandwich in that same room only weeks earlier. But she knows he is not the leader of the group. The taller blonde guy might be Joel Anderson, his alpha human scent is unmistakable. She grabs her jacket, about to dash out to pick up breakfast goodies at the local high-end bakery known as Lila’s, when her phone rings. She starts at the sound and pounces on the receiver.



“Dean! Will you be coming in today?”

The pause is strange, ominous.

“No. Sam.  I’m sorry if I seem odd, crazy, but somehow I believe I can trust you. You’re the only one.”

“Printer cartridges?”

“I couldn’t tell you in a recorded message.” Sam hears his short intake of breath before he tells her in a quiet voice, “I have to be careful — I’m on the run now. I need money, it’s why I’m calling you. I want you to get cash with your BubbleTrendz credit card, it should be good for at least a thousand dollars.”

“How much do you actually need?” she asks him softly, scanning the hall with her eyes.

“I don’t know. I have to go now.”

“Where shall I send the money?”

“I’ll call you later.” Through the phone connection she hears new alarm in his voice. “Are there visitors today?”

“Three men, a tall blonde guy and-”

“Joel Anderson. Sam, do not trust him.”

“Why is he here?”

Dean’s wary tone now has an edge of bitterness.

“Because he believes I’m dead.”


— To be continued —

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Vamp 16: A Phone Call

Dean!? With her heart pounding, Sam quickly locates the story online and reads more.

Passers-by were horrified at the sudden fall of a man onto the street from a midtown Manhattan residential building. Police have taped off the block while the investigation is underway. A woman who lives in the neighborhood and was returning from lunch was an eye witness. “I just happened to look up and my god I see a man coming down, his blue shirt and then … he, he hit the ground. It was terrible.”

Officials are not yet making a public announcement as to the man’s identity. One spokesman, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that it appears to be a suicide, although they have not ruled out the possibility of foul play. Investigators are waiting for  results from the coroner’s office.

Wasn’t Dean at some midtown office?  Sam’s uneasiness grows as she contemplates the lack of communication with Dean, his non-appearance at BubbleTrendz today. Feeling quite unsettled  she goes looking for Gil and finds him at the coffee station. He knows more.

“They’ve just identified that guy. It’s Perry Hinds!”

“The guy who founded NetPlow?”

“Yeah, that one.” Gil gives her a sad look.

“He had the world on a string. Why would he do that, assuming it was suici-”

“The guy was a known bi-polar.”

Sam and Gil turn to see Evan standing there, fetching himself a red bottle of some power drink from the refrigerator.

“Did you know him?” Sam asks Evan with a touch of hostility in her voice.

He shrugs dismissively. “I’ve worked with Joel on a lot of projects. Joel bought in to Hinds latest venture, Xxalo. I spent some time around the guy. It was common knowledge.” Evan takes a big swallow from his red bottle and looks at Sam. “I didn’t take him for such a drama queen, though, doing that jumper thing in broad daylight in downtown Manhattan.” Evan heads briskly down the hall, having lost interest in further conversation.

Gil glowers after him. “It’s not clear Perry Hinds did jump. He might have been pushed.”  He adds more assertively, a shade louder. “Evan possesses more arrogance than curiosity. Bad trait in a hacker.”


There is still no word from Dean by close of day Friday. Sam, preoccupied with this observation, is collecting her things to leave. She glances up to see Sandor standing at her desk.

“I’m planning to work late tonight,” he tells her. “Could I have the key to the Somerville apartment for the weekend?”

Sam is unprepared for this sudden request. “Oh. I thought we’d go back to the ocean house for the weekend, for some relaxation after your first big week?”

“I don’t mind if you want to go. I’m going to stay in town, though.”

His choice of words doesn’t give her many options without just flatly denying him the key to the apartment. He’ll probably be fine in Somerville. Why is she so concerned?

Rina approaches them. “All kinds of stories in the news today,” she reports, smiling at  Sandor, but including Sam in the conversation. “Some guy is claiming he was bitten by a vampire, a beautiful woman!” Rina smiles broadly, relaying more of the story in her warm Russian accent. “”Two little puncture wounds on his neck. Could be anything, except,” her face is alight with curiosity now, “It’s an unknown DNA from the sample what they took. Maybe related with people, but not a known monkey.”  Rita sees the sudden change of expression on Sam’s face and validates it. “Weird, isn’t it?” she reflects more seriously.  “Sometimes reporters don’t get the story right, though. Especially science.” Rita gives Sandor an anticipatory smile that is clearly laced with flirtation. “Do you think there could be another hominid we don’t know about?”

The palest tint of blush crosses Sandor’s cheeks and he gives Rita a somewhat desperate smile but says nothing.

After Rina returns to her office, Sandor directs a penetrating gaze at his cousin. In a quiet tone he remarks “I thought you didn’t hunt prey where you worked.”

Sam is shocked by his direct accusation. What’s the point in denying it. Angrily she gazes into his eyes. “Exactly where do you think the substance in the bottles you drink comes from? Yes! I went on a hunting expedition and the recipient of my, well, attentions, is perfectly healthy. I’m certain of it.”

Sandor looks down. Sam is dismayed, disconcerted by his expression. He looks tragic.  “You have to come to terms with this!” she tells him in an emphatic whisper, her eyes scanning the hallway for their coworkers. Her hard look softens. “Come with me this weekend. Sandor, we’re related to each other. We need to get to know each other a little.”

“I’m staying here. I can hang out in cafes. I can sleep in my office.”

Sam shakes her head in defeat, rummages in her bag and presses the key to the Somerville apartment into Sandor’s hand.  “Please drink something? I trust you.”


Zaira leans her head back in the foamy tub, a classic Red Mimosa within hand’s reach. She has the French doors to the balcony opened wide and their full-length ivory chiffon curtains are billowing in the sharp breeze that’s coming in off the ocean. Steam rises from the spa-like heat of the jacuzzi and Zaira’s red hair, piled high on her head, is damp from it. She is annoyed with herself for continuing to brood and fixate on Sandor, not allowing herself to slip into her cherished personal sanctuary. She’d read the two stories in the news about the incident with the sailor. Clearly she’d been careless, clearly she should have driven a hundred miles away to seek prey. Is this why she’s angry tonight?

Her cell phone jingles the tone for Anatol, her investment partner.

“Zaira? I know it’s late to be calling, but I also happen to know that you are a night owl.”

His pleasant, ironic voice is like comfort food. She laughs. “I’m in the jacuzzi with a red mimosa.”

“A red one? With pomegranate?”

She smiles, her incisors uncapped. “Something like that.”

“Of course you know already about this high publicity suicide today? The Hinds guy?”

“Do you think it was a suicide, Anatol?”

There is a pause on the connection. “I’m not certain.”

“He has — he had — a connection with Joel Anderson’s group. The guy who scooped us with Dean.”

“I know. Perry Hinds also fired one of his employees.”

“Why does that matter?”

“The Xxalo employee is being indicted on charges of hacking into the computer systems of the stock exchange.” After a pause he adds, “That’s not so easily done.”

“Something to do with the flash crash?”

“Possibly. Probably is my guess.”

Zaira lets out a long sigh. “Dean Divers attended a meeting yesterday in New York with Joel Anderson. I have reason to believe he was going to sell a controlling share of BubbleTrendz to the Anderson group. I also understand through my sources that Dean has not returned to Boston today as expected.”

“Ever had direct dealings with Joel Anderson?” Anatol asks her.

“Not to date. I have a feeling I wouldn’t like him much.”

“Nor I, although I have to admire the fact that he’s grown a two billion dollar investment fund from scratch. He’s a damn smart guy I imagine.”

Saira smiles cynically. “He outsmarted us on the BubbleTrendz deal.”

“I lost over a million dollars in five minutes during that flash crash. Fortunately I recouped it, but you can believe I will be tracking this ex-Xxalo employee story.”

“I’ll see what I can learn through back channels here,” Zaira tells him as she watches the wings of an owl flash by the balcony. A fellow hunter.

“Thank you, Zaira. And please enjoy your champagne with the pomegranate. I must try one sometime.”

She cannot resist smiling into her cellphone. “You shall.”

— to be continued —

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Word Jumbles #10


Solutions posted tomorrow on Answers

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The word bootstrap is pretty common nowadays and shows up mostly as a verb. It is used frequently in the context of Internet and technology enterprises and refers to the process of getting things done, built, or advanced without much in the way of initial resources to accomplish the task.

They bootstrapped their startup into a multi-million-dollar company without any capital from outside investors.

Prior to the usage illustrated above, the word more narrowly designated starting up a computer system from a minimal set of operating instructions which would then activate more and more of the computer’s full capabilities.  The Online Etymological Dictionary cites usage from 1953 that refers to a fixed set of instructions for loading a computer’s operating system, so bootstrap in this context is still a noun, metaphorically extending the utility of a physical riding boot’s loops. (The wearer tugs on the loops as an aid to pull the boots on.) By 1975 bootstrap has expanded its role to include verb — the act of starting up a computer. The more familiar shortened form of this verb is boot and it has acquired an optional accompanying particle, boot up, and a prefix, reboot.  (Normally we don’t speak of booting down a computer — we just shut it off. But, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was Dave unbooting or booting down Hal by selectively pulling out some of Hal’s banks of higher reasoning modules? He couldn’t shut down Hal altogether and have a functioning spaceship. Perhaps unique situations and contexts require unique words? :-))

So how did this robust modern usage of bootstrap evolve from a rather obscure noun which referred to the loops attached to riding boots? A quick look at bootstrap in Google’s Books Ngram Viewer shows almost no occurrences of this form until around 1940, after which point it shows a continual rise into the 21st century.

Here’s an idea to muse: Robert Heinlein published a short story in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction called By His Bootstraps. The story explores some of the paradoxes and implications of time travel: the main character does the seemingly impossible (lift himself up by his own bootstraps) by interacting with other versions of himself through time travel. It’s an abstract, metaphoric sense of bootstrap, perhaps even recursive in the story’s context.

Given that computer geeks are a group who tend to read a lot of science fiction, could it be that the word bootstrap gained its contemporary currency from this story by Robert Heinlein? Who decided that bootstrap was the right word for a set of computer instructions? It’s also interesting to note that the impossibility of the physical act described in the phrase lift yourself by your own bootstraps (you can only jump off the ground, you cannot hoist your feet off the ground while simultaneously standing) has become modified to mean do something on your own without external help. In this case there is a literal phrase that expresses an impossible event changing its meaning into a metaphorical phrase that expresses an act of personal industry and self-sufficiency.


Posted in etymology, language change, Meaning Change | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments


The word gate is a good old English word, the form being geat in Old English (plural geatu) and whose meaning was ‘an opening or entrance’.  A watergate (from the 15th century) is a channel for water; the first element of the compound, water, is also a native English word.

Its use as a suffix is fairly recent, dating to the infamous Watergate incident of the Nixon administration. The shorthand referent for this major political scandal became the name of the hotel itself — the location of the crime’s execution. Pulling the compound apart, the second term (-gate) has become a highly productive ending, now carrying the meaning of ‘scandal’.  Amazing little cognitive move, isn’t it?  Wikipedia lists dozens of coined terms for scandals that now use this term, including a few cases of fictional scandals from sitcom episodes.

Here are just a few among the more famous recent scandals:

  • Spygate
  • Climategate
  • Irangate
  • Tigergate
  • Tasergate/Troopergate
  • Angelgate

Note how the semantics of ‘political scandal’ has generalized to ‘personal scandal’ (Tigergate) and ‘financial scandal’ (Angelgate). The form’s usage is robust enough to include variants for a single incident (Tasergate/Troopergate).  It will be interesting to see whether the suffix’s course through English becomes even broader in time to encompass more general incidents that don’t convey the notion of ‘scandal’.  Will the suffix  -gate expand to include affairs and events that don’t convey a pejorative sense, perhaps including some with a positive meaning?

Posted in Word Formation, Word Usage | Tagged , , | 3 Comments