Monthly Archives: February 2009

envatment /ɛn’vætmənt/

There is a philosphical thought experiment known as the “brain-in-a-vat.” It’s a fun thing to bring up at a party, especially if you’ve imbibed a few fermented beverages. What you have to do is imagine that you have had a terrible accident where all that the doctors could salvage was your brain. In an effort to provide you with some quality of life, the wire up your brain to a computer and float it in a big bucket of fluid.

The computer is designed to run a virtual world that is just like the one in which you live. It can send electrical impulses to your brain in just the same way your sense organs would. The computer is so fast and the virtual world so realistic that to all intents and purposes, you feel exactly as you did before the accident. And to make it even more realistic, you have lost all memory of the accident and so have no idea your brain is no longer attached to your body.

Now comes the fun question: how do you know you are not already a brain in a vat?

Those of you who have seen the movie The Matrix or Vanilla Sky will have a sense of deja vu. Both these involve people who “wake up” to find their world is not the “real world” but a computer-generated virtual life.

This little thought experiment is now so well known that a word has appeared to described the process of being a brain-in-a-vat; envatment.

Envatted brain

Envatted brain

The word is so new that you are unlikely to find it in a dictionary but it is used by philosophers and science writers alike. What spurred me on to writing about it in the first place was its use by Paul Davies in his book The Goldilocks Enigma, first published in hardback in 2006 as The Cosmic Jackpot. It also appeared in a 1992 paper by the philospher Hilary Putnam entitled “Brains in a Vat.” I also found reference to it as the basic noun envatment, as the adjective envatted, and the verb envat in a 2009 in-press paper by Diego Cosmelli and Evan Thompson with the title Embodiment and Envatment: Reflections on the Bodily Basis of Consciousness.

The word clearly derives from the word vat /væt/, which is a variation on the Old English word, fat /fæt/. It corresponds to the Middle Low German and Dutch vat. Its earliest use seems to be in Beowulf, where it refers to a vessel capable of holding fluids. This is the most commom meaning still.

What’s also of interest is how the word envatment is constructed. The word is built using what is know as affixation, a process whereby pieces are added to an existing word to create a new one.

One affixation process is prefixation. Here, something is added to the beginning of a word. And one example of prefixing is to add the opener, en-, to change a noun to a verb. Thus, if you want to make a word to mean “put inside a vat,” then envat is the option.

Then, a second piece of affixing is applied to change the verb into a noun – suffixation using the -ment ending. This gives you envatment.

Notice how cleverly the word goes from noun to verb then back to noun – but in the process becomes a different noun! The original noun refers to an item – a thing; the second derived noun refers to a process – an operation. Two different types of noun but from the same root.

And when someone talks about an “envatted brain,” the word has magically shifted again to become an adjective. Yes, the -ed makes it look like a verb (and it could still be used as such) but the -ed form of many verbs can be used as an adjective. For example;

He polished the car versus The polished car

He smashed the plate versus The smashed plate

Affixation is an important process in the English language; it allows for the rapid creation of new words in very short periods of time. Anyone who has googled or spends a lot of time googling already knows this.

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etymon /ˈɛtɪmən/

Being “The Word Guy” comes from a desire to understand origins. The words we use  didn’t just magically appear from nowhere but are the result of thousands of years of evolution. In the same way that people want to know where their families came from, etymologists want to know where words come from. By digging further and further back in time, we can work out the ulitmate source of a word. This is the word’s etymon.

Babel - the start of it all?

Babel - the start of it all?

So what’s the etymon of etymon? The Greek έτυμον means “true,” and this in turn lead to the Latin, etymon. We therefore use the word to refer to the “true” meaning of a word as it relates to its origin. It’s a synonym for the more common word, etymology, whose root is the same, but is typically used to refer to the process of finding a word’s origin.

You can use the adjective form of the word, etymonic, but only if  you want to be seen as pretentious, snobbish, and conceited.

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bacronym /’bækrənɪm/

A bacronym (or its minor variant, backronym) is a phrase or sentence created from a word. It is, in effect, a type of “reverse acronym.” What typically happens is that the creator of the bacronym starts with a word and then makes a phrase to fit.

Most bacronyms are created as jokes, but sometimes they are made so as to be memorable and marketable. If you’ve heard that the word ADIDAS means “All day I dream about sport,” then you’ve heard a bacronym. The word ADIDAS actually comes from the name of the founder, Adi Dassler.

America's Roast Beef - Yes, Sir!

America's Roast Beef - Yes, Sir!

The world of management consultancy is riddled with bacronyms, partly because folks want to appear smart by inventing clever mnemonics and then trademark them.  This is lampooned by Mike Myers in his under-rated movie, The Love Guru. For example, at one stage he says, ” I am his holyness, the Guru Pitka. My goal is to say , Gee, You are You… TM!”

And as he is giving a lecture, he says, “The Bible is ‘basic instructions before leaving earth.’ TM. Put that shit on a T-shirt.”

It’s an example of a portmanteau word, which is where you take two words and squeeze them together. It comes, obviously, from “back” and “acronym.” It isn’t, as some web pages suggest, an example of a back-formation. That’s a different thin altogether but some people assume that because both words start with the word “back” that there is a relationship.

It’s fun to create your own bacronyms for commons words. For example, “Windows(R)” can be “Will Install Needless Data On Whole System” or “Won’t Install; Never Does Operations We Submit.”

Leave your favorite bacronyms as comments.

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acronym /ˈækrənɪm/

Most people are familiar with the word acronym as a word made from the initial letters of a phrase. For example, “radar” came from “radio detection and ranging” and “scuba” is an acronym of “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”

RADAR

RADAR

Some folks also distinguish an acronym from an initialism, which is a word that is simply the prounciation of the letters. Thus, “FAQ” is not pronounced “fack” (/fæk/) but “eff-ay-queue” (/ɛfɑɪˈkju/). Similarly, “FBI” is not pronounced “fuhbih” but “eff-bee-eye” (/ɛfbiˈɑɪ/).

The first part of the word, the “acro-” comes from the Greek ακρο- meaning “a tip, point, extremity, peak, summit.” The second part, the “-onym” from the Greek ὂνομα, meaning “name.” An acronym is therefore a name from the tips of a phrase.

It’s a relatively new word that was first coined in the US in 1943.

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hash busting /’hæʃbʊstɪŋ/

Next time you receive a piece of spam from someone offering you drugs, sex, enhancement, or Nigerian dollars, take a look at the bottom to see if you have any hash buster text. This is a collection of random words that can range from the purely random to the curiously poetic. For example, take the following snippet from one I received just a few weeks back:

“Certainty idealistic attain procedural mount unscripted bodies friend threat then falsified claret timebrand certainty wraiths occurs species waste youthful demandeth massacre silences predicts readers integrated gather hung traffic millennia foolishly strives dogmatism noosphere rail goal equalized”

With a little help by some judicious punctuation, we can extract wonderful phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a poety competition. “Mount unscripted bodies,” “Threat, then falsified claret,” “Silences predicts readers,” and “”Millenia foolishly strives.”

These words are generated by spamming software to confuse spam-detecting software. There’s a war going on between programs and we humans don’t even need to take part – we can just sit back and watch it happen!

The term hash buster comes from the way in which some spam detectors work. One form of detection os to use what are called hash filters – a way of counting letters and words and compatring them with previously received spam. By adding lots of strange words, the spammer hope to fool hash filters into saying “aha, you are NOT like the other 10 spam messages so you must be legitimate!” So the garbage words serve to “bust the hash filter.”

It’s fascinating to me that the words spam and hash both have food connotations and both are used to indicate e-mail excess! Spam comes from an old comedy sketch in the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is NOT, as folk etymology has it, an acronym for “stupid, pointless, annoying messages” or any other such derivation.

Hash comes from the Old French, hacher, and as a verb it means to cut up into pieces (c.f. hatchet) and so as a noun it refers to something cut p into small bits – like a corned beef hash. The notion of cutting up or slashing is where the notion of calling the symbol “#” the hash mark. The lines are intersecting lines. In a hash filter, programmers use the actual hash sign as a character in coding to represent a wild character.

Hash character

Hash character

You can also take about a service hash, military markings to indicate years of service. Again, the common theme is the use of lines.

Service hash

Service hash

And hash is also slang for hashish, which has a completely different derivation. This word comes from the Arabic hashish, which means dry herb or the dry leaves of the hemp plant.

Hashish

Hashish

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