Classifying Human Knowledge, Part I

I’ve spent the last week organizing my library, a task that, surprisingly, has turned out to be quite interesting. In an effort to find a classification scheme that works for me, I’ve been looking at an learning about the various systems in use in libraries around the world.

The most famous is perhaps the Dewey Decimal System. Invented by Melvil Dewey in 1876, it is the most widely used library classification in the United States, used primarily by public and primary school libraries. The DDS divides all human knowledge into ten major divisions, each of these have ten possible subdivisions, these each have ten more, and so on. Hence the decimal.

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Words On The Web:

A persistent vexation of mine is not being able to find the book I want. I know it’s on the shelf somewhere, but I just can’t find it. I’ve often spent ten minutes or more tracking down a book. My personal library is large (over 500 books), but it is by no means huge. Another issue is that I occasionally find myself buying multiple copies of a book–I forget what books I already own. I’ve often thought that I can’t be the only one with this problem and that there must be an easy way of organizing my books that someone else has pioneered.

Well, this week I discovered It is a sublime website. Cataloguing a library of some size is never easy, but makes it nearly so. So what is LibraryThing?

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Revisiting the Planets, Redux

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted Thursday on a definition of the word planet. The proposed definition we reported on last week was rejected and the IAU defined a planet as a celestial body that

  • is in orbit around the Sun,
  • has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and
  • has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

According to the IAU, this leaves our solar system with eight planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. By this definition, Pluto is not a planet because it has not cleared its neighborhood.

The IAU also rejected use of the proposed term pluton, for the class of objects similar to Pluto. That term is also commonly used by geologists for an igneous mass that forms when molten rock cools underground and it was thought that there could be confusion between the geological and astronomical senses–although that doesn’t seem very likely. Context would rule out any chance of confusion in most cases. After all, there isn’t any confusion of the geological and anatomical uses of vein.

More problematic for pluton is that in French and Italian this is the name for the former-planet Pluto. This could cause much confusion between the class and the specific body in those languages.

Instead of pluton, the IAU decided on another linguistically problematic term, dwarf planet, which is defined as a celestial body that:

  • is in orbit around the Sun,
  • has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,
  • has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and
  • is not a satellite.

Benjamin Zimmer over at Language Log has a good discussion as to why this is a questionable form in English. In English compound nouns, the more general term is usually the second noun. Catfish are fish, not felines and mountain lions are cats, not masses of rock. Although there are exceptions, like sea lion. Although a dwarf star, arguably the most similar term to dwarf planet, is most definitely a star.

But perhaps the most cogent commentary on the subject is by Ruben Bolling who penned this cartoon. The third example is the best.


Usually spelled keister (there are many alternate spellings), the original meaning of this American slang word is a satchel or suitcase. A later, and now more common sense, is that of a person’s rump or buttocks.

Dating in English to 1882, the term is from the German Kiste meaning box or case—the slang sense of rump also exists in the German. From George Wilbur Peck’s Peck’s Sunshine of that year:

The boy took the knight’s keister and went to the elevator.

A year earlier than this quote, Alfred Trumble’s The Man Traps of New York uses the word as a nickname, probably a reference to a man known for carrying a case:

Prominent among the small army of confidence operators in this city are “Grand Central Pete,"..."Boston Charlie,"..."Keister Bob,” “The Kid,” “Hungry Joe.”

Presumably, the sense of the buttocks developed because a traveling case was something you could sit upon. The earliest known citation is from an American Speech article on convict’s slang from 1931:

keister, n. A satchel; also what one sits on.

(Sources: Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Planets & Plutons: An Update

Back in November of last year, I wrote about the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and how planets were named. The IAU is currently meeting and has proposed a definition of planet. (It has not had a formal definition of the term to date.) The organization will vote on the proposal on Thursday. In addition to getting into the lexicographical game by coming up with a definition, the IAU is also proposing a new term, pluton, for Pluto-like objects that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.

The new definition was prompted by the continuing debate over whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet and by the discovery of 2003 UB313, unofficially nicknamed Xena after the warrior princess of television fame, an object much further and much larger than Pluto. But the IAU had some surprises when it announced its proposed definition this week.

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Katy, bar the door

The expression Katy, bar the door means to watch out or serves as a warning of impending disaster. It dates to at least 1902 when it appears in Hugh McHugh’s (George V. Hobart’s) It’s Up to You:

It was “Katie, bar the door” with her.

But who was Katy (or Katie) and why was she locking the door?

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The name for this antipodean quadruped dates back to the discovery of Australia by Captain James Cook in 1770. Kangaroo is a borrowing from the Guugu Yimidhirr name for the animal, gangurru. From his journal of 4 August from that year:

The animals which I have before mentioned, called by the Natives Kangooroo or Kanguru.

And Sir Joseph Banks, Cook’s shipboard naturalist, recorded in his journal on 26 August:

The largest was called by the natives kangooroo.

Within a few decades of Cook’s voyage however, others began claiming that the word did not appear in any Aboriginal language. Watkin Tench, a marine accompanying the first shipment of convicts to Australia, wrote in his 1793 Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson:

The large, or grey kanguroo, to which the natives give the name of Pat-ag-a-ran. Note, Kanguroo was a name unknown to them for any animal, until we introduced it.

This probably resulted from confusion about the many different Aboriginal languages in Australia; kangaroo is not the native name in most. It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that Guugu Yimidhirr was identified as the source. As a result, many older references dispute the claim of an Aboriginal source.

There is a story that kangaroo actually meant “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand you” in an Aboriginal tongue and was given as a response when Cook and his men asked, in English, the creature’s name. This is completely fanciful.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Macquarie Dictionary)

joneses, keeping up with the

Keeping Up With The Joneses, by Arthur MomandThe expression keeping up with the Joneses got its start in 1913 as the title of a comic strip by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand. The strip detailed the lives of the McGinis family, who were envious of their neighbors, the Joneses. By the mid-1920s, the phrase was in common use. From American Speech, February 1926:

Today most of us live in automobilia where the automocracy is everlastingly trying to "keep up with the Joneses."

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

keep one’s nose clean

Keep your nose clean is an Americanism dating to 1887. From the New Orleans Lantern, 13 October of that year:

There’s worse fellows than you looking for it, and if you only keep your nose clean, we’ll let you have it.

It is almost certainly a metaphorical reference to a child maintaining proper hygiene in polite company, in particular children with runny noses. One is expected by be on good behavior and presentable just as a child is among adults.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

jump the shark

When a television show jumps the shark it has reached a tipping point and will steadily decline ever after. Jumping the shark is the defining moment when you know your favorite TV show will never be the same again.

The phrase is a reference to the 1970s television show Happy Days. On 20 September 1977, the show aired an episode where the character Fonzie jumps a shark tank on water skis. A two-part cliffhanger episode, many fans of the show consider this episode to be the moment when they realized the show had become shameless in its self-promotion.

The phrase jump the shark, however, appears some two decades later. On 24 December 1997 the website went up on the net. It listed TV shows and the episodes where they jumped the shark. The site gives credit for the phrase to a Sean J. Connelly, who allegedly coined it in 1985. Connelly was the college roommate of site’s creator, Jon Hein.

From the New York Times, 12 December 1999:

Jon Hein, 32, of Woodbury calls that instant a television show peaks “jumping the shark.” “In my opinion, there is a definitive moment in every show when that happens, when it goes downhill,” Mr. Hein said. After that the program will never be the same again.

And from 20 May 2002:

Billy’s blond hair was the series’ “jump the shark moment,” an increasingly common phrase that signals the point at which a series begins its descent.

(Source:; Proquest Historical Newspapers)

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