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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Fortunately not

A Facebook friend posted some stunning photos of herself and friends hiking in Jirisan National Park. Facebook’s auto-translation of the post included the rather worrying “Cancer is not an option to postpone”. Reading the Korean original and some research allayed my concerns, fortunately. The Korean original is 사성암은 미룰 수 없어요. I know that 암 is used in the names of usually smaller Buddhist monastic establishments, usually translated as hermitage, by far the most famous being 석굴암, Seokguram. But 암 by itself doesn’t mean hermitage any more than 사 by itself means temple

So how did the translator get to cancer? The Korean word for cancer is 암, which I previously didn’t know because it’s not included in Korean for beginners or travellers books. The translator encountered a word it didn’t recognise and instead of simply transliterating it (which it did with several other proper nouns in the post), it guessed that the 암 on the end was the relevant part of the word.

Online translators don’t do much better. Google and Bing offer Sandstone cannot/can’t be postponed and Papago (which I have found to be the more accurate overall) the meaningless I can’t delay tetragonal cancer. But sandstone is 사암; 사성암, if it means anything at all, is four star cancer, compare 삼성, three stars. Even though it was the worst translation overall, Papago at least attempted to translate the whole of 사성암. [PS the next day: I commented on my friend’s post and she replied that 사성암 is ‘four saints hermitage’.]

The bigger issues here are how translators deal with proper nouns, and how they recognise that they are proper nouns. Do they transliterate them (eg 경복궁 as Gyeongbokgung) or (attempt to) translate them (eg as Brilliant Fortune Palace or Greatly Blessed by Heaven Palace, just the first two meanings I found)? I suspect that the more famous a place is, the more it is transliterated rather than translated. (There is a map of world countries giving the literal meaning of their name. I am typing this in Southern Land.)

A related issue is the use of common nouns as names. Two Korean-Australian friends named their first daughter 사랑, so once a year I see photos of “Love’s birthday party”. A Korean friend and his wife named their son 우주, so one post included the startling “I put the universe in the car”. 

sun/Sun/son/Son of righteousness

My wife and I spent two nights away at a beach holiday town. This morning (Easter Day) we attended a dawn service in a park overlooking the beach. During the service, the sun rose, but the effect was diluted slightly by some small clouds on the eastern horizon. I couldn’t take any photos because I was meant to be concentrating on the service.

Probably inevitably, I got thinking about the coincidence of sun and son in English, especially in close conjunction with rising or risen. (See also sun/Sun/son/Son of righteousness.) These two words are similar in the major Germanic languages, but English seems to be the only one in which the two words are homophones: compare German Sonne and Sohn, Dutch zon and zoon, Danish sol and søn, Norwegian sol and sønn and Swedish Sol and son (Google Translate). Further, the two words have been similar for as long as written sources are available and have been reconstructed in proto-Indo-European as *séh₂wl̥ ~ *sh₂wéns and *suHnús. Are they related even further back? Intriguingly, relates son to a verb meaning “to give birth”, probably in a passive form of “having been given birth”. Unfortunately, it does not include an ultimate meaning for sun, but the relationship with “to give birth” is obvious. The answer may be in some specialised source of PIE etymology. I’ll have to leave it there, though.  

Compare Latin sol and filius, which is related to a verb meaning to suck, and the two words in any other language you know, in my case Korean 태양 (tae-yang) and 아들 (a-deul). 

Note also the Christian Church in England’s use of the Germanic pagan word Ēostre. (See my post from last year and the year before.)


A few days ago, a colleague said something (I forget exactly what) which sparked a memory of encountering a word which I had never encountered before and have never encountered or had occasion to use since. I can remember the circumstances in moderate detail and there is some supporting evidence, but just why I can remember it is a complete mystery. (I often ponder the mechanism and nature of random memories, with no firm conclusions. I think that my memory for what I remember if good, but on the other hand I forget an awful lot along the way). The word is sessile

At the end of my first year of high school (I’d just turned 13) I was awarded the citizenship prize for our year (possibly jointly with one other student – another random memory which surfaced as I was typing this). The class teacher asked what book I wanted and I said the current edition of the Guinness Book of Records (which I still have, which is most of the reason I am certain this memory happened). Sometime over the summer holidays I was staying with our grandparents. While reading the book, I encountered the record for pushing a hospital bed, a “usually sessile object”, and asked my grandmother what it meant. I can’t remember if we checked a dictionary (if so whether it was in a dictionary the size my grandparents were likely to have had (I can’t remember that they had a dictionary)) or reasoned it out between us. Clearly, the context shows that this object is not usually pushed, but is capable of it (eg a hospital bed compared with a domestic bed). 

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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.)

Abeyance > obeyance

A legal officer wrote that a certain issue was “in obeyance” for certain reasons. Obeyance exists – it simply means obedience – but is very, very rare, even in comparison to abeyance, which means “at bay -ance” and is merely very rare. This is not a finger typo – o and a are too far away – but it’s improbable that anyone would pull obeyance from the back of their mind (I can’t recall ever hearing/seeing it, and had to check that it actually exists). I think the legal officer was momentarily distracted by the much more common word obey, even though the context had nothing to do with obedience

Non-compulsory suggestion: if you want to use obeyance, use obedience instead. If you want to use in abeyance and are not in the field of property law (in which case abeyance has an established technical meaning), use in suspension, suspended or on hold instead. 

PS Even though obeyance is in multiple dictionaries, it’s not immediately easy to find real examples. I found this page, the authoritativeness of which I’m not sure of.

“You may now kiss the priest”

All of the languages I know anything about, and probably all languages ever, have words that mean two or more completely different things, with greater or lesser chance of confusion depending on whether two meanings are likely to be used in the same context.

The Korean word 신부 (shin-bu) means priest and bride, which are very likely to be used in the same context. A Korean Anglican priest friend of mine sometimes posts information about seminars on his Facebook book page, and Facebook’s autotranslator usually renders the keynote speaker as eg Hong Gil-dong Bride rather than Hong Gil-dong Priest. (“You may now kiss the 신부” wasn’t in our wedding service; in fact it’s not officially in any church wedding service I know anything about.)

I have just stumbled across (I have forgotten exactly how) the 2004 Korean movie 신부수업 (shin-bu su-oeb), which is either ‘the priest’s lesson’ or ‘the bride’s lesson’ (or possibly deliberately both). Probably to avoid spoiling the ambiguity, the movie is titled Love, so divine in English (with a nod to the hymn When I survey the wondrous cross). Youtube has the complete movie, which is not subtitled in English, which I’m probably going to get sucked into watching anyway, in the name of linguistic research. (Trailer half-way down this page.)

At the beginning there is neither a priest nor a bride; he is a Roman Catholic seminarian and she is a soon-to-be-single woman. At the end, there can only be one of a priest or a bride; either he stays true to his priestly vocation or they get married (or at least coupled). (If it was the Anglican Church of Korea, which also uses the title 신부, there’d be no problem.)

 (Both meanings of 신부 are derived from Chinese, but have different Chinese characters: 神父 for priest and 新婦 for bride.)

(There is another movie 어린 신부, which is either about a young priest or a young bride. A brief search clearly answers that one.)

(PS I showed my wife the movie poster and title in Korean, and asked which she thought of first when she heard or read 신부. She pointed at the woman, but then said “The man’s clothes look like 신부님”, so maybe ‘priest’ is always/often used with the honorific. At several points in the movie so far, the young man has addressed the older priest as 신부님.)

(PPS Now that I’ve watched the whole movie, I’m not totally sure about how it ended. Whichever way, it was very understated. I might have to ask my wife to watch at least the last few scenes. But I’m sure that the 신부 of the title is the young man/seminarian/future priest.)

(PPPS The bigger question is how native speakers and second language learners of any language resolve ambiguities, including homonyms.)

a veterate liar

A user on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange asked if inveterate is always pejorative. We most often talk/write about an inveterate liar, and not an inveterate philanthropist. Other users provided examples of inveterate readers, writers and travellers, and of inveterate habits, which might be positive or negative. Clearly, inveterate is not always pejorative.

I wondered about the origin of this word, which is not immediately clear. It turns out the root is Latin vetus, old, the same root as veteran. So why don’t we have veterate liars; people who only occasionally tell lies? The in– of inveterate doesn’t mean not; it means in, into. Inveterate liars are those who tell lies into old age, for example, [insert name of disfavoured politician here].

Interestingly, several dictionaries online record veterate as “Of long standing; inveterate”, which means that veterate and inveterate mean the same thing (compare flammable and inflammable).

graph and tele

For reasons I won’t explain, I was thinking about the word(s) photograph and photo. English speakers (and I suspect speakers of most languages) often shorten words like these. Investigating using Google Ngrams, I found that, not surprisingly, photograph was used more commonly for most of the word’s history, and that photo overtook it in 1984 (specifying usage as a noun). My preliminary theory is that photograph declined with the rise of digital photo instead of digital photograph, but Ngrams shows that those two phrases are too late and comparatively too little used to have much of an effect overall. 

Similar is/are telephone and phone, for which the latter became more common (as a noun) as recently as 1998. This is plausibly connected to the rise of cell phone and mobile phone instead of cell telephone and mobile telephone, which basically no-one ever used or uses, but phone had been rising in usage since the 1960s. 

Compare the verbs photograph and *photo and telephone and phone (which switched in 1995). Not surprisingly, Ngrams does not record photo as a verb, but surprisingly also does not record photograph, either. At first I thought I’d mis-spelled it, but no, that’s the result. Also not surprisingly, take a photo increased steadily from about 1980 and sharply from about 2000.

Some languages shorten words even more. In Korean, 디지털 카메라 (di-ji-teol ka-me-ra) become 디카 (di-ka) and if 셀프 카메라 봉 (sel-peu ka-me-ra bong) ever existed, it quickly because 셀카봉 (sel-ka-bong, selfie stick).

Linguistically, this is called clipping. Different parts of different words are omitted or kept. Photograph could not become graph, because that had an existing meaning. Once telephone at least sometimes became phone, television could become telly (or tv), but not vision.

Ceiling wax

One song I remember from my childhood is Puff, the magic dragon, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. For some time I wondered what

ceiling wax

is. I don’t know how I found out that it is, in fact

sealing wax.

I obviously knew about ceilings before I knew about sealings.

Ceiling is a strange word. It ends with -ing, but it’s not related to a verb; we don’t usually ceil ceilings like we build buildings. (Someone has flippantly suggested that we should call them builts.) In fact we do, or buildingers do, whether they call it that or not. records the verb ceil, meaning

1. to overlay (the ceiling of a building or room) with wood, plaster, etc.
2. to provide with a ceiling 

dating from 1400–50, from late Middle English celen to cover, to panel, followed by a rather vague < ? 

Seal is ultimately from Latin signum and is related to sign. The animal seal is from Old English with cognates in Old Norse and Old High German. There is a story that one holder of the British government office of Lord Privy Seal objected to being addressed as such because he wasn’t a lord, a privy or a seal.  

While I was researching for this post, I found a blog called of ceiling wax, which is about “reading YA, graphic novels and the spaces in between”. Its not-immediately-named author quotes Lewis Carroll’s The walrus and the carpenter (text, Wikipedia), which I’m not as familiar with and didn’t think of. She/he also originally mistook this for ceiling wax.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” 

Some of Carroll’s poems are direct parodies of the poems Alice Liddell would have been familiar with, but this seems to be totally original. 

PS 3 Oct: information about the poems Carroll parodied.