22 May 2017

Mind Your P's and Q's




Has anyone ever advised you to "mind your p's and q's"?  If you were in England, they meant to be on your best behavior, and if in America they meant to pay close attention. They probably did not mean to watch out how you set your type for a printing press, but that is the origin of that phrase.


We actually get a good number of words and phrases borrowed from the print shop. The book Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History  is an entertaining history of printed books, authors and printers that gives us many examples.

One example is "minding your p's and q's" which is a phrase that comes from the printing process in the days past when physical movable type was used in a printing press.

I actually had the opportunity in my youth to set some type for printing. Setting type means placing each individual metal letter or symbol in a tray backward, so that when the inked type is pressed into paper, the mirror image reads the right way forward.

This was the job of compositors who had to be very careful setting up lines and pages of type - especially when it came to letters that look like mirror images of each other.

In older type cases (such as the one seen above and below), each letter was kept in its own section to be picked out by the compositor. The letters "b" and "d" could be confusing, but the lowercase p’s and q’s were right next to each other. "Mind your p’s and q’s” quite literally meant to be careful with those letters.

In that type case. all the capital letters are on the top or in a second upper case. The ones in the lower part of the case are what we began to call lowercase letters.

Upper and lower cases of type

08 May 2017

Cannabis by any other name


It is called pot, weed, Mary Jane, reefer, sticky-icky and is known by other names. This psychotropic plant's scientific name is cannabis, and for a long time that was its only name.

In the early 1900s, the more common term marijuana (or marihuana) became common in the United States. That term is usually listed as having a Mexican origin. I also found that it may have a Chinese origin and that ma ren and ma hua refer to different parts of the plant. I found an
etymology that is Arabic and it arrived in Mexico via Moorish Spain.

By any name, the cannabis plant's origin is Asia, and we know that humans have been cultivating the plant for at least 6,000 years. Stems were used for fibers and the fruits eaten.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest usages of cannabis meaning the plant "common hemp, Cannabis sativa" in 1548 and meaning parts of the plant "smoked, chewed, or drunk for their intoxicating or hallucinogenic properties" in 1848. The OED traces the etymology to the New Latin botanical term cannabis – proposed in 1728 and standardized in Carl Linnaeus's (1753) Species Plantarum – from an earlier Latin cannabis, coming from Greek kánnabis.

Hemp is called ganja from Sanskrit. Some scholars suggest that the ancient drug soma, mentioned in the Vedas, was cannabis, although this theory is disputed.

That Chinese connection comes from the pen-ts’ao ching, the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia. The book was a compilation of Chinese oral traditions that are 5000 years old. The text cites the plant being used for many conditions including constipation and malaria. It also notes that it has hallucinogenic qualities.

In India, cannabis was considered one of five sacred plants. It is mentioned in Judaism’s Talmud. Cannabis pollen and oil has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs of pharaohs, such as Ramses II. Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Scythians used the plant in funereal rites in 450 B.C. A study published in the South African Journal of Science showed that "pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon contain traces of cannabis.

Illustration from the Vienna Dioscurides, 512 AD
 Arabic words at left appear to be qinnab bustani or "garden hemp"
As for the many other names given to the plant when consumed, marijuana became associated with the personal name María Juana ('Mary Jane') and is probably a folk etymology.

As a slang term "pot" came into use in America in the late 1930s. It is a shortening of the Spanish potiguaya or potaguaya that came from potación de guaya, a wine or brandy in which marijuana buds have been steeped. It literally means “the drink of grief.”

The term "reefer" for a marijuana cigarette also seems to have come from a 1930s Americanized mispronunciation of the Mexican Spanish grifa.

24 April 2017

Emoticon and emoji

Emoji and emoticons are not the same thing.

An emoticon is a typographic display of a facial representation, used to convey emotion in a text only medium. They preceded the emoji in an earlier time of email, text messages on older mobile phones, websites and social networks when an image wasn't available.   The happy face  :-) and winking face ;-) are still used and some websites and apps will automatically convert these text characters to an emoji.



"Emoticon" is a portmanteau for emotion + icon and like the emojis that would follow, they were meant to convey pictorially a facial expression and give some indication of the tone or temper of a sender's message.

The origin probably predates the Internet but in its modern form seems to date back to 1982. Computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested to the Carnegie Mellon University message board that :-) and :-( could be used to distinguish jokes from serious statements online. The word "emoticon" came into being shortly after that.

These combinations of punctuation marks, numbers, symbols and letters, did communicate some feelings or mood, but with newer devices and apps the more stylized emoji emerged.

Have we made progress in being able to graphically express a heart, crying face, beer mug, or pile of excrement? Debateable.

You may not know that while Western emoticons are usually written at a right angle to the direction of the text, in Japan a kind of "Japanese emoticon" called kaomojis was popular.



"Emoji" comes from Japanese "picture" (e) + "character" (moji). These images require no tilt of the head to be seen properly and don't rely on text characters.

Originating on Japanese mobile phones, they were created in the late 1990s by NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese communications firm, but are used worldwide, popularized by their inclusion in Apple's iPhone software. Android and other mobile operating systems quickly followed.

The resemblance of emoji to the English words emotion and emoticon is purely coincidental.

Unlike emoticons, emoji are actual pictures, but while emoticons were invented to portray emotion in environments where nothing but basic text is available, emoji are actually extensions to the character set used by most operating systems today, Unicode.

Emoji work as long as the software explicitly supports them – otherwise a placeholder icon, or even just a blank space will display.

Different services and apps have their own interpretations of what an emoji looks like. The “dancer” emoji for Twitter and Apple is a female flamenco dancer, but for Google, it was once a disco guy.
What's a💃to do?