Silly Words: SnowClones

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good cliché will use it to death.

Tipped by the NYTimes I learned about SnowClones today, these (a formation from the adage about the many “Eskimo words for snow”). A snowclone is an adaptation of a saying to the point that it becomes a clichéd formula, with ever diminishing returns. “X is the new Y” seems to be the paradigmatic case. (“Orange is the New Black” “Matcha is the new Kombucha” “Facebook is the new Stasi“).

There is both a database and a wikipedia page for Snowclones.

Puts me in the mind of the New Yorker humorist Frank Sullivan, with his celebrated (couldn’t resist) cliche expert Mr. Arbuthnot.

Word Watch: Hunker Down

The East Coast is getting clobbered by a “bomb cyclone” and weather stories (rather than actual weather) are a guilty pleasure of mine. Probably one of the few things I could have managed as a straight news reporter. If clichés  were traded on a linguistic S&P 500, now would be a great time to go long on weather ones, in particularly go out and buy some “hunker down” futures!

A nice instance comes from the end of the Times story on the storm,

Carpodacus mexicanus (House Finch) location: Sierra Nevada, taken by Steve Ryan. I’m sure this guy is saying, “I’ve got the hunker down thing down.”

“The birds that are wintering down there are going to have to hunker down and deal with the conditions,” he said. [He being Geoff LeBaron, the director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.]

This piqued my curiosity about “hunker down” and to learn more I dropped in at the OED to see what background  they offered:


Etymology: Origin obscure: it has the form of an iterative from a stem hunk-. Compare Middle Dutch hucken, huken (Verwijs and Verdam), Middle Low German hûken, Dutch huiken (Franck), Old Norse húka, modern German hocken (Kluge) to sit on the hams or heels, to squat. These words point to an original ablaut series heuk-, hûk, huk- (hok-); from this hunk-er, might perhaps be a nasalized derivative. Old Norse hok-ra to crouch may be a parallel form; Dutch hunkeren to hanker, is not connected.

a. To squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.”

b.transf. To cower or squat in a lowly manner.

c. [draft] fig. With down. To concentrate one’s resources, esp. in unfavourable circumstances; to dig in, buckle down; spec. (frequently in Mil. contexts) to shelter or take cover, lie low. orig. and chiefly U.S.

This leads to the interesting image of a bird, “squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent”

I’m sure this guy is saying, “I’ve got the hunker down thing down.” Carpodacus mexicanus (House Finch) location: Sierra Nevada, taken by Steve Ryan.

Of course it’s the figurative use that OED sniffs at with “draft” that everybody uses (I can’t recall a literal hunker in my reading or conversation). How did a squat cower turn in to settling in and riding out the storm?




In any case, hoping wherever you are you are warm, dry, and hunkered down safely.

Jargon and Job Hunting

For a job hunter, which matters more: A great photo or the hottest key words?

Pictures on Linked In apparently get a lot of attention, but so does getting the right jargon in. This is because your application, your LinkedIn profile, whatever, is getting analyzed first and foremost by algorithms that match your jargon against the employer’s job listing.

downloadBut Bloomberg reports the interesting fact that, like fashion, keeping up with the hot career buzz words (tech jargon) is as hard for employers as it is for prospective candidates. Turns out, if you want to attract talent, you need the right words. A service that analyzes your postings recommends saying good bye to “Big Data” and “Drug-Free Workplace”  and hello to “Real-time data” and “Robust and scalable.”

The article elaborates, “Big data: This is the biggest loser in technology job ads, according to Textio, a big data company that will no longer call itself that. Two years ago, everything was about big data, but Snyder noticed that it had started to drop off five or six months ago. Today, engineering jobs that mention “big data” perform 30 percent worse, on average, than those that do not, she said. “Now it’s so saturated that you’d better talk about AI and not big data.”

From a writerly perspective, none of these terms mean anything, and “robust, scalable” are particular offenders. (Please come build some “brittle, petite software application for our boutique client, srsly!”)  But if jargon will always be with us, I guess it pays to use this season’s fashion, and perhaps to have a really hot picture of your corporate HQ too!



Funny Words: One Sentence, Many Meanings

From Leo Rosten’s 1968 book The Joys of Yiddish, beloved by, among others, Harlan Ellison

Notice that the meaning of the same sentence changes completely,
depending on where the speaker places the emphasis:

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
“After what she did to me?”

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
“What, you’re giving me a lesson in ethics?”

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
I wouldn’t go even if she were giving out free passes!

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
I’m having enough trouble deciding whether it’s worth one.

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–She
should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty.

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–Did
she buy tickets to our daughter’s recital?

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–You
mean, they call what she does a “concert”?

Nice companion piece to Twain’s priceless “The Awful German Language”

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand. Such has been, and continues to be, my experience. Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me. For instance, my book inquires after a certain bird — (it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort of consequence to anybody): “Where is the bird?” Now the answer to this question — according to the book — is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well, I begin to cipher out the German for that answer. I begin at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea. I say to myself, “Regen (rain) is masculine — or maybe it is feminine — or possibly neuter — it is too much trouble to look now. Therefore, it is either der (the) Regen, or die (the) Regen, or das (the) Regen, according to which gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well — then the rain is der Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of being mentioned, without enlargement or discussion — Nominative case; but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground, it is then definitely located, it is doing something — that is, resting (which is one of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it dem Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is doing something actively, — it is falling — to interfere with the bird, likely — and this indicates movement, which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case and changing dem Regen into den Regen.” Having completed the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up confidently and state in German that the bird is staying in the blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) den Regen.” Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a sentence, it always throws that subject into the Genitive case, regardless of consequences — and that therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith shop “wegen des Regens.””


In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness. I consider this capitalizing of nouns a good idea, because by reason of it you are almost always able to tell a noun the minute you see it. You fall into error occasionally, because you mistake the name of a person for the name of a thing, and waste a good deal of time trying to dig a meaning out of it. German names almost always do mean something, and this helps to deceive the student. I translated a passage one day, which said that “the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest” (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

“Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen.: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera.”

Now I’m off with my Turnip to the Opera.

Masculinities: Gay Lingo, Voices, and Personas

Spurred by a trailer for a new film, “Do I Sound Gay” found some interesting explorations of gay identity on the web. Three bits of video on different facets: Whosoundsgay


Next the fascinating world of Polari, a British gay mid-century slang, here captured in a short film.

Finally, a doc I saw a few years back called “The Butch Factor” –not about language per se, but about gay men and their relationship to masculinity, something that was once such a complicated topic (at least to my generation, or at least to me), but seems, in a welcome development, to be less fraught for many.

Minor Grumbles: “Architects” all about us…

“The 25 best jobs for today!” trumpets some click bait in my social media feeds and email newsletters. Falling for the siren song of the listicle, I found a lot of the expected tech jobs, but also came face to face with just how far the tech world has colonized the once distinctive term “architect.” There are “software architects” (#1 on one list). Networks need “architects” too, and then there is the “security architect,” concerning neither moats nor drawbridges and crenellations, presumably. And my favorite, the “solutions architect.” “Solution” is an approach to some business computing need. It always seemed slightly euphemistic, and a little over eager, “Hi, I’m the cloud-provisioned email services and I’ll be your solution today” it coos with a bright smile. I’m betting it was coined about the time of the advent of that scary yellow smiley.

“Solution” did ‘solve’ a terminology problem at least: what do you call software, hardware, maintenance, training etc. “Package” might have worked, but was too tangible. “Approach” was too vague. In any case “IT solutions” however much an oxymoron have escaped into the wild, kind of like starlings, and now is here to stay. “Software Architect” seems more of problem. I get that networks have an architecture, at least in the metaphorical sense. They do require design and structure, and they are intended to fulfill a ‘program’ in at least a couple of ways. You lay out and design an architecture, and that tells you how to build the infrastructure for the network. But does having architecture really instantiate an architect.?

Maybe it’s Miesonly used figuratively. “Kitchener: Architect of Victory” comes up on Google Scholar with a quick search, and that’s meant as a sort of an upmarket synonym for “planner.” I admit “planner of Victory” would be a pretty feeble squib. The figurative use seems most plausible with some kind of tangible effort, usually of historical significance. Perhaps the first person who makes a completely digital brain deserves the term cogno-neuro-science architect, but figuring out where the routers go or which firewall to buy?

If the ‘architects’ of the virtual are here to stay, and they probably are, then it does raise the question what to call architects of the real? “Architecture architect”? “Building architect”? “IRL architect”? “Architect of atoms (not bits).” “Architect: The Original™–accept no substitute? Now I’m off to be breakfast architect.

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