Dorks, dweebs, geeks and nerds

Yesterday a colleague informed us that it was National Be a Dork Day. I pondered that no-one seems to have reclaimed dork in the same way that some people have reclaimed various other terms, including geek and nerd. Then as made my mid-morning cup of coffee I scrolled through Facebook and one friend recounted a minor mishap before concluding “I’m such a dork”. 

Because of the nature of these words, there are no universally agreed definitions of dork, geek and nerd, to which I also need to add dweeb (which is not word I would naturally use).

Merriam-Webster defines them as:

informal: an odd, socially awkward, unstylish person
slang: an unattractive, insignificant, or inept person
1: a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked
2: an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity
computer geek
3: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake
1: a person devoted to intellectual, academic, or technical pursuits or interests
also : a person preoccupied with or devoted to a particular activity or field of interest
2: an unstylish or socially awkward person

It includes a usage note:

Dork, when used to refer to a socially awkward or inept person, is a relatively recent word: our records indicate that it first appeared in writing in the 1960s. Two of its synonyms in this sense are likewise of fairly recent vintage. Nerd (typically used of a studious species of dork) dates from the 1950s; it was coined by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo, although not in the sense that we use today. The usage of nerd is now often used in a neutral fashion to denote enthusiasm or expertise (theater nerd) or proudly as a self-identifying trait (word nerd). Geek became synonymous with nerd in the 1950s and has similarly seen increasing use with positive connotations, showing membership in a specialized group (film geek, beer geek) rather than social awkwardness. In its earliest meanings, geek referred to, among other things, a carnival performer who would bite the head off a live chicken, or other small animal, as part of an act.

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An article on the Sydney Morning Herald website (and presumably in the print edition) states:

Stand-up paddle boarding lives up to the hype
I’ve discovered just how much work it takes for what I mistakenly assumed was a mainly sedentary sport.

Sedentary, as in “requiring or characterised by a sitting position” (from Latin sedēre, sedēns)? Maybe,  because’s second definition is “accustomed to sit or rest a great deal or to take little exercise” (emphasis added). Etymology isn’t destiny.

And cheers to the writer for actually doing it. Because of my (non-)sense of balance I wouldn’t be able to stand up, let alone paddle.

(Note: the writer/subeditor uses stand-up paddle boarding. The Wikipedia article is titled standup paddleboarding.)

vegetarian and non-vegetarian

A local kebab and burger shop is advertising:

Special vegetarian and non-vegetarian menus

The default kebab or burger contains meat. In fact the default main course food, whether at a café, restaurant or home, contains meat, so much so that English doesn’t have a word for food containing meat. A kebab or burger containing meat is hardly “special”, any more than a vegetarian salad is. 

I am also pondering the use of menus in that way. includes the dishes served (at a meal) as its second definition, behind, a list of of the dishes served at a meal, but “vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes” doesn’t quite suit a (mainly takeaway) kebab and burger shop. A dish is not only the container, but the also the food served on/in it. (Also a plate, as in “Bring a plate” to a community gathering and meal.)


A document referred to someone engaging in what would colloquially be called a one-night stand. I had to write a formal summary of the legal issues in the document. So do I write ‘one-night stand’ or … what? What is the formal way to say one-night stand? I started with “one-time extra-marital sexual …” then couldn’t think of the next word – encounter, incident, intercourse? My team leader suggested “short-term extra-marital sexual relationship”, but I had problems with both short-term and relationship. Short-term surely implies something longer than one act of sexual intercourse (minutes to hours). A short-term relationship is surely days or weeks or maybe months. Again, a relationship surely implies more than one act. A one-night stand may be sexual relations, but it isn’t a sexual relationship. But then defines relationship first as “a connection, association, or involvement” (which would include one act of sexual intercourse) and fourth as “a sexual involvement; affair”. An affair, in turn, is “an intense amorous relationship, usually of short duration”. But it would be hard to call a one-night stand an affair. 

Intercourse started as a perfectly ordinary word meaning “communication or dealings between individuals or groups”. I encountered it several times in the writings of members of the First Fleet who arrived in the new colony of New South Wales in January 1788, and actually used it in the title of my term paper and throughout the paper. The British had intercourse with the natives, and also with the sailors on two French ships which arrived in Botany Bay a few days later.

Some time ago I was a party, and we somehow got to using the older sense of intercourse as often as we could, saying how much we enjoyed intercourse with each other and how we should do it more often. We reduced one member of the group to fits of giggles every time we used it.

The justice of scales

A few days ago, I mentioned that hadn’t seen the bathroom scales since before we moved house in early October. My wife replied that “it is in the kitchen cupboard”.

For me, scales are ‘uncountable plural’; that is, they always take are, were, these, those etc. Google Ngrams shows that the scale is/was is more common than the scales are/were. But this is complicated by the fact that there are three kinds of scales: snake/fish, weighing and music/map. Snake/fish and music/map scales are countable and therefore can be singular or plural, and’s entry for weighing scales is “scale2 noun 1. Often scales”.

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rugged v ragged

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a setting of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My country’. On the first few times through, I stumbled on one word, which I then realised was “ragged mountain ranges”, not “rugged mountain ranges” as I vaguely remembered. When I got home, I looked online. Wikipedia has an image of Mackellar’s original notebook, which clearly has ragged. Many sources, printed and digital, have rugged, though. Two rehearsals ago, our accompanist said she’d always thought it was rugged, and at the rehearsal this week, one singer brought a book of Australian poems for school children, which has rugged. The accompanist said there is a recording of Mackellar reciting it, which I found (one of the available videos). She clearly says ragged. Very noticeable is her Sottish-tinged accent* (her grandparents had come to Australia almost 50 years before she was born). Continue reading

“a devout lactose-intolerant”

Today I edited an article which described someone as “a devout lactose-intolerant”. The first question is whether we can or should describe anyone as “a lactose-intolerant”, in the the same way as we might “a diabetic”, which has comfortably made the leap from adjective to noun. Can we? Obviously. Should we? Most style guides prefer the ‘person-first’ style: a person who is lactose-intolerant, or a person who has/with (a) lactose intolerance.

The second question is whether we can describe a person who is lactose-intolerant as “devout”. Devout is more often used to describe beliefs or behaviours. I can imagine someone being a devout vegetarian or vegan, or devoutly following a lactose-free diet, but being lactose-intolerant is not a belief or behaviour.

This person’s company’s website describes him as “a lactose intolerant guy”, and there is no recorded use of “a devout lactose-intolerant” or anything like it on the internet (but there will be in a few minutes, right here).

I asked my journalist colleague who wrote the article what he meant, and he said he didn’t know; he took that directly from the material the person (or someone at his company) had sent him. We discussed various options, then I decided to keep those words, but in quotation marks. [Update: in the end, that whole story was scrapped for reasons of space.]

And until I checked the definition, I had no conscious knowledge that devout is related to devoted.

What’s in a sound?

Several days ago, Niall O’Donnell, who blogs at English-Language Thoughts, posted a very long story about playing a computer game “in which you travel across a pseudo-medieval fantasy land battling various undead creatures”. He usually played alone, but it’s possible to “summon” another player (who has made themself available to be summoned) to assist if required.

(Moderate strong language warning)  Continue reading

peroquial and ineaningfrrl

I have written several blog posts with the tag ‘lost in autosubtitling’, most recently three days ago, so you may think I have a dim view of technological approaches to language. But sometimes technology gets it right, even when humans have made the mistake in the first place.

Yesterday morning I read a Facebook post in which someone complained about the “peroquialism” in a certain book sometimes considered an Australian classic. My first thought was that it was related to colloquialism – that is, “characteristic of or appropriate to ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing”, but the lack of a first l made that unlikely. (All the speech-related words have loqu– or loc-, from Latin loquī to speak.) When I searched for it, a well-known search engine suggested “Did you mean: parochialism” – that is “excessive narrowness of interests or view” Continue reading


I’m back to choir rehearsals, courtesy of my new, daytime job. My local choir was practicing ‘Steppin’ out with my baby‘ (video) by Irving Berlin (not the choir’s usual repertoire). For a moment, I thought the words were ‘There’ll be smooth sailin’ ’cause I’m trimmin’ my nails’ (well, the bit just before that is ‘I’m all dressed up tonight’ and the bit just after is ‘In my top hat and my white tie and my tails’. What else does one do before a night out?). Then I looked again and saw that it’s actually ‘I’m trimmin’ my sails’. 

The relevant definition is:


3. to adjust (the sails or yards) with reference to the direction of the wind and the course of the ship.