Nuclear Option

A term in the news quite a lot lately is nuclear option. The current usage isn’t the literal meaning of the words, some political or military strategy involving weapons of mass destruction. Rather, the nuclear option in the news is metaphorical. It refers to the US Senate changing the rules regarding filibuster to allow more of President Bush’s judicial nominees to be confirmed and take the bench.

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Taxing Terms

In the United States, today is the day when tax returns and payments are due to the Internal Revenue Service. It is "tax day." The verb to tax appears in English usage as early as ca.1290. The word comes from the Old French taxe, which is after the Latin taxare. The noun tax appears in English sometime before 1327.

Internal revenue is the term used in the United States for taxes collected domestically, as opposed to custom duties levied on imports. The term dates to 1862, when the first Commissioner of Internal Revenue was appointed to collect income taxes to fund the U.S. Civil War. This first U.S. income tax was a wartime measure and was repealed in 1872. The income tax was re-imposed in 1894, but was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court the following year. It wasn’t until the passage of the 16th amendment in 1913 that explicitly permitted an income tax was the tax permanently instituted. In the United Kingdom, the corresponding term is inland revenue, a term that dates to 1849.

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A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check

Frustrated with your spell checker? That it can’t tell you when to use "there" or "their" (and forget about "they’re")? Does the grammar checker on your word processor miss bad grammar while flagging perfectly good sentences as improper?

If so, you’re not alone. Check out http://faculty.washington.edu/sandeep/check/ and find at least one other who commiserates with you.

Dot Com

While conducting research for biztechdictionary.com I got to thinking about the domain name and the term dot com. The etymology isn’t very mysterious, but exactly when did the term and its various meanings arise.

The term dot com is used in the pronunciation of internet domain names and it is also used to refer to internet-based companies. But who decided that commercial internet addresses should end in .com and when did people start referring to companies as dot coms? And going further back, why and when did people start referring the "." mark as "dot"?

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In Passing: Eleanor Gould

Eleanor Gould is a name that is probably not familiar to most of you, but over the course of her fifty-four year career as “grammarian” for The New Yorker, Gould had a quiet, but profound impact on the world of letters. Miss Gould passed away last month at the age of eighty seven. You can read her magazine’s tribute to her here.

Words On The Web: Baby Names

Have you ever wondered which names were most popular in years past? What’s the most popular name today?

Well Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, has created a Java tool that searches the Social Security Administration database of names for answers to questions just like this. Of course, since the data comes from the Social Security Administration the information is relevant only to the United States, but even non-Americans will have fun playing with this website.

Check it out at http://babynamewizard.com/namevoyager/ Even if you are not going to name a baby any time soon, you’ll want to take a gander at this site. It’s really neat.

Casting

“MP3 players, like Apple’s iPod, in many pockets, audio production software cheap or free, and weblogging an established part of the internet; all the ingredients are there for a new boom in amateur radio. But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?”

—Ben Hammersley, “Audible Revolution,” The Guardian, 13 February 2004

Podcasting? What the heck is podcasting? It is the streaming of an MP3 or other audio file format to portable players, like Apple’s iPod, either for play immediately or timeshifted for later listening. The quote from the Guardian is the earliest usage that I have found and Hammersley may well have coined it.

The term is a portmanteau of the trade name iPod and broadcasting. Broadcasting itself was once a cutting edge technical term. The verb, to broadcast, dates to 1921, at least in its technical sense. (There is an older sense, dating to 1813, meaning to scatter seed by hand.) It originally referred to the new medium of radio. The noun form, broadcasting, dates to 1922.

Broadcast is, obviously, derived from the roots broad + cast. Both have Germanic roots. Of the two, broad is older, from the Old English brád, meaning extended in width, wide. The term is found in Old English literature from before 1000. Cast’s appearance in English dates to around 1230, in the form casten and is from the Old Norse kasta. Both the Middle English word and its Norse root mean to throw. So, to broadcast means to spread widely.

Cast is used in a wide number of situations where one throws something. One casts dice when playing craps. You cast a ballot at the polls. One is cast ashore by a wave or one casts bait into the water when fishing. You cast a look, a reflection, a shadow, or a light.

As a root, cast has been a rather productive one in the media business. It gave rise to newscast in 1928, first as a verb meaning to broadcast news content. The noun came a few years later. Telecasting makes its appearance in 1937, distinguishing the new medium of television from radio broadcasts. There is also radiocast, which one would think would be a retronym, but no, it dates to 1931. Also from the 1930s is narrowcast, a transmission intended for a select audience. The next decade brought us simulcasting, which is the simultaneous broadcast of a program on both radio and television. The verb to simulcast dates to 1948.

Cast made the jump to digital content in 1981 with multicast, a transmission over a computer network to a group of users. 1995 brought us webcast, a multicast made over the worldwide web.

All these precursors brought us to podcasting in early 2004.

But none of these should be confused with forecasting. That word is also from cast, but from a different sense of the word. Instead of meaning to throw or spread, this sense of cast means to calculate or reckon and dates to before 1300. So to forecast (1388) is to calculate the future. Forecast has not been as productive as its media cousin. It has only given rise to the seldom used nowcasting (1976), meaning the telling of current conditions, used primarily with weather information.

2004 ADS Word of the Year

If you can stand one more article on words of the year, here is one more.

At its annual meeting on 7 January, held this year in Oakland, California, the American Dialect Society nominated and voted on its choice for the 2004 Word of the Year. In the meeting chaired by Wayne Glowka of Georgia State College and State University, chair of the ADS New Words Committee, and Allan Metcalf of MacMurray College, ADS Executive Secretary, the society decided which word was most notable or prominent in 2004.

Each year since 1990, in proceedings that are described by Metcalf as “serious, but not solemn,” the society chooses a “vocabulary item” (it need not be a word; phrases, affixes, and the like are eligible) that best represents the past year.

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Jargons and Argots and Cants, Oh My!

The world of linguistics is replete with any number of synonyms for the word language. Some of these mean exactly the same thing; others carry shades of semantic difference or have multiple senses. All this serves to create a rather confusing situation for the layman who happens to wander into the middle of a conversation about language.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect? What about pidgins and creoles? How does a jargon differ from a cant? In this article we’ll try to decipher these terms and indicate how and when they should be used to maximize clarity and reduce misunderstanding.

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Word of the Month: Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court convened for the first time on 1 February 1790 in New York City, the capital of the United States at the time. On 24 February 1803, the court delivered what is perhaps its most important decision, Marbury v. Madison. This February the court is back in the news with speculation about the retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is suffering from thyroid cancer. Because of this, our word of the month for February is: supreme court, n., a judicial body holding the highest authority, 1773, first used in an act of parliament granting George III authority to establish such a court in Bengal; the highest judicial body in the United States or in one of the United States, 1788.

The Supreme Court, established by Article III of the Constitution is, as the name implies, the highest court in the land and the heads the judiciary, which is the third branch of the federal government after Congress and the Presidency. The court consists of nine justices, appointed for life. (Until 1807 there were six justices. Three more were added over the years, the last in 1869.)

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