Monthly Archives: January 2010

apophenia /æpɒˈfinijə/

Way back on October 15th, 1996, Ryan Finney, the store manager of the Bongo Java house in Nashville Tennessee, made a startling breakfast time discovery. As he picked up his morning cinnamon bun, he noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the saintly and self-sacrificing Mother Teresa. By Christmas, the pastry had become an international phenomenon and the newly branded “Nun Bun™.”



Assuming you, dear reader, do not believe for one moment that this is some supernatural event, prompted by the hand of the divinity of your choice, what you are seeing is the phenomenon of apophenia – the perception of patterns, meanings, or connections where none exists. It’s like looking at a Rorschach ink blot and telling the analyst what you see.

"Tell Me What You See"

The word itself is relatively new although the phenomenon itself is as old as mankind. It’s first use is credited to the psychiatrist Klaus Conrad back in 1958 in his catchy-titled Die beginnende Schizophrenie: Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns, which translates to the equally scintillating The origins of schizophrenia: A Gestalt analysis of paranoia. The word was coined from the Greek “apo” (ἀπό) meaning “away from” or “apart,” and the word “phren” (φρήν) meaning “mind” or “cognitive faculties” – literally “away from the mind.”

In his recent book, A Dictionary of Hallucinations (2009), the clinical psychiatrist Jan Dirk Blom suggests that the word is actually a misspelling of apophrenia, with the “r” having been lost in translation. However, if the word derives from “apo” and another Greek word, “phainein” (from the root φαίνω) meaning “to make appear,” then apophenia is correct after all. Phonetically, the latter is simpler so the “error” may be explained by a hearer’s desire to make life simpler.

What’s unusual is that this word should appear to be so recent when the actual phenomenon is so old. In his Natural History of Religion (1757) , philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote the following:

There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good will to everything that hurts or pleases us. David Hume

The human tendency to see the world through a glass darkly is demonstrated by a behavior known as the Confirmation Bias. When someone is convinced that they have seen the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich, it’s more likely to be the result of an in-built cognitive bias to interpret the world in such as way as to see evidence for the Hand of God in everything. Why the good Lord would seek to communicate with His faithful by way of a cheese toasty is not a question the faithful would ask – He just does and the image in the bread simply confirms for them that God does indeed work in mysterious ways. Almost as mysterious as how the breakfast snack ended up selling for $28,000 on eBay!

Virgin Mary Toasty

In the world of statistical analysis, apophenia is known as a Type I error. This is often called the “false positive” and happens when data is interpreted as confirming a hypothesis when in fact it does not. It’s effectively when you see a pattern where there isn’t one.

So if you see a face on Mars…

Face on Mars

… a giant pig in the clouds…

Pig in the clouds

… or the Number 23 over and over again during a day, the chances are that you are having an apophenic experience and need to remember that to clean your cognitive glasses in a little reality solution.


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hieroglyph /haɪərəʊˈglɪf/

Eight hundred kilometers  south of the Mediterranean and situated on the east bank of the river Nile was the birthplace of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, which appears to have been inhabited from at least 3200 BC. Today, the place is called Luxor after the Luxor Temple that was built there, founded in 1400 BC. In contrast, the Hotel Luxor in Las Vegas was opened in 1993 after 12 years of construction.

Las Vegas Luxor

Unlike its ancient counterpart, the Vegas Luxor has gaming tables, comedian Carrot Top, magician Criss Angel, a $10 per day “resort fee” for two bottles of water and a newspaper, and a $5 charge if you want to take your money out of your account. Both have wall adorned with hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs are ancient Egyptian symbols that began life as pictures used to represent things but became associated with sounds instead. For example, the hieroglyph of an owl represents the sound /m/ and not “owl.”

Owl for "m"

A hieroglyph is defined by the OED as a;

…figure of some object, as a tree, animal, etc., standing for a word (or, afterwards, in some cases, a syllable or sound), and forming an element of a species of writing found on ancient Egyptian monuments and records; thence extended to such figures similarly used in the writing of other races. (OED, Vol. ??, p.???)

This move from picture to sound was inevitable because a completely pictorial writing system is pretty much untenable. Imagine having to create a picture for every word in, say, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And how would you write these pictograms down? The inevitable direction for a writing system is to have a small number of elements (letters) that stand for sounds.

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικος, which in turn is composed of the elements ἱερός = sacred and γλυφῄ = carving. This became hieroglyphicus in late Latin, and was then realized as hiéroglyphique in French. Finally, by the magic of back-formation, the French word became hieroglyph.

It’s interesting to note that hieroglyph is a noun and refers to a symbol whereas hieroglyphic is both an adjective and a noun, which leads to hieroglyph and hieroglyphic being used interchangeably to refer to the actual symbols.

As a noun, hieroglyphic appears in 1596 in Henoch Clapham’s A briefe of the Bibles historie drawne into English poesy where he says “Commending onely vnto them Hierogliphiks, or holy preaching signes.”

Two years later in 1598, the use of hieroglyph as a noun is found in John Florio’s A worlde of wordes, or most copious and exact dictionarie in Italian and English where he offers the definition “Geroglifico, a gieroglife, mysticall or enigmaticall letters or cyfers vsed among the Egyptians.”

Because hieroglyphs have an enigmatic, mysterious quality to them, the word began to be used figuratively to refer to something with hidden meaning or that was generally symbolic:

Hieroglyphick Marks (in Palmestry), those winding Lines and Wrinkles in the Hand, by which the Professours of that vain Science pretend to foretell strange Things. (Phillips, 1706)

By 1734, the word was to describe any sort of writing that was difficult to decipher. In The lives of F. North, Sir D. North, and J. North Roger North wrote, “Petitions signed with numberless hands and frightful hieroglyphics.”

An expert in hieroglyphs is called a hieroglyphist, (not a *hieroglyphicist. The latter only scores 800 ghits whereas the former yields over 5,500 hits. And someone who writes hieroglyphically is called a hieroglypher.

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shilling /ˈʃɪlɪŋ/

There are two TV ads currently running (December 2009) to which I have different reactions. Both involve famous actors promoting products but although I like one of them, I hate the other. So let’s get the bad one out the way first.

Luke Wilson tries hard to convince me that the AT&T network is better than Verizon’s. This all came about after Verizon launched a very witty ad taking a swipe at poor 3G availability via AT&T. Basically, using a parody of the Apple iPhone’s “There’s an app for that,” they came up with “There’s a map for that” and show folks with phones and a map hovering above their heads, which in turn uses color coding to illustrate the weak coverage areas for 3G.

Luke Wilson sells AT&T

AT&T had a hissy fit at this and began showing Wilson tossing postcards across a huge floor map of the US to show where AT&T had phone coverage. After covering the map with cards, the implication was that AT&T coverage was fine, thank you very much. But here AT&T were being a little disingenuous because the Verizon criticism was about 3G coverage, NOT general phone coverage. AT&T ignored this aspect, hoping, no doubt, folks would interpret that the two were the same. They are not.

In fact, AT&T tried to sue Verizon for the ad but failed precisely because of this – that the claim was specifically about 3G and not general coverage. Not only that, AT&T is now also the target of a class action suit over alleged “throttling back” of download speeds – the very thing Wilson shills for in the ads! Another slice of Umble pie, anyone?

All this leaves Luke Wilson with, to my mind, a sizable amount of egg splattered over his smug face. And no, this is not an ad hominem attack on Mr. Wilson, just a comment on how he actually does appear pretty smug in the commercials.

Meanwhile, William Shatner continues to rule the shilling roost with his ads for Priceline, where he successfully commands the screen and takes himself none-to-seriously in his over-the-top performances. Shatner, unlike Wilson, comes across as more “smirk” than “smug” and as such doesn’t offend me in the least. At worst, I remain ambivalent to Priceline as a product but actually feel some hostility toward AT&T. I leave the psychology of that to the analysts because this is an etymological column, not a psychiatric.

William Shatner promotes Priceline

Shatner for Priceline

Using famous people to promote products is not new nor unusual. It’s also unlikely that buyers really believe Wilson uses AT&T because he feels it is the better network, nor that Shatner books his hotels on Priceline. I also don’t give a shit whether Jamie Lee Curtis actually gets bowel movements after eating Activia yogurt. What advertisers really want is to make their brand name memorable through association with a popular personality.

The use of the word shill to describe a person who promotes a product for financial gain rather than for its intrinsic value originates in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. In Jackson and Hellyer’s 1914 A vocabulary of criminal slang, with some examples of common usages, the word shill is defined as “to act in the capacity of a hired criminal.” Note it is used as a verb but it also is a noun.

A decoy or accomplice, esp. one posing as an enthusiastic or successful customer to encourage other buyers, gamblers, etc. (OED, Vol. XV, p.263.)

By 1928, the word had less criminal connotations as noted in the journal American Speech, volume 3; “Shill, to boost for the auctioneer.”

By second half of the century, the idea that famous people could be described as shills appears in, for example, Montreal’s Weekend Magazine (11th Jan. 1975): “Canadian advertisers are confined mainly to hockey players when they’re looking for an athlete to shill for them.”

The actual origin on the word is noted as being obscure. The OED suggests it may be a shortening of the slang word shillaber, which makes an appearance in 1913, just a year before the Jackson and Hellyer definition, but because the origin of shillaber is also obscure, it’s still unsatisfying.

I’m up for speculating on this as being a back-formation from the other meaning of the word shilling:

A former English money of account, from the Norman Conquest of the value of 12d. or 1/20th of a pound sterling. Abbreviated s., formerly also sh., shil.; otherwise denoted by the sign /- after the numeral. No longer in official use after the introduction of decimal coinage in 1971, but still occas. used to denote five new pence. (OED, Vol. XV, p.263.)

The origin of this word is the Old English scilling, which has other variations among Teutonic languages (e.g. Old Frisian and Old Norse skilling) and is thought by some etymologists to come from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kel, which includes among its meanings “ring” or “resound” and “divide”or “cut.” The latter leads to the interpretation of a shilling being derived from pieces of silver or gold.

English shilling coin

English shilling coin

Incidentally, the US slang word ringer,which appeared around 1890, refers to;

A horse or other competitor fraudulently substituted for another in a race or other sporting activity; one who engages in a fraud of this kind.

Anyway, my thinking on shill as a person who accepts money for promoting a product could derive from the phrase “take the King’s/Queen’s shilling,” or as the OED puts it;

To take the shilling, the King’s or Queen’s shilling: to enlist as a soldier by accepting a shilling from a recruiting officer (a practice now disused). (Op. cit.)

This is first mentioned in Thomas Hearne’s Remarks and collections 1705–12 (ed. C. E. Doble, O.H.S. 1885–89) where he writes, “He did take a shilling, but not with any intent of listing.” Men would “take the shilling” reluctantly, simply as a means of getting cash and not as an expression of undying allegiance to the monarch!

It’s not too much of a stretch to see a back-formation of the word shilling to create the new meaning of a shill, and from there it’s only an inflection away from the verb to shill and shilling as the action. The phrase was certainly around at the beginning of the 20th century, as evidenced by a report in the Scotsman newspaper in March 1901 that said, “A contingent of Volunteer Engineers was sworn in for service in South Africa. Each man was presented… with the King’s shilling.”

And should anyone out there we looking for turning the Word Guy into a syndicated column, I’m happy to shill for whatever product you want to promote. The Word Guy – brought to you by Shamwow!

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