Once more unto the b-r-e-a-c-h

Today I got to once again match my orthographic wits against 30 other people in the Adult Spelling Bee in Long Beach, CA. Here are the first seven words I was given to spell:

  1. extradite
  2. notch
  3. rescind
  4. meticulous
  5. gossamer
  6. tranquil
  7. succinct

At this point, we were almost 1.5 hours in. The organizers did a headcount, found that we had 16 people left, and decided that they needed to take it up a notch to whittle more down. So we jumped into a much harder word list, and people started dropping like flies.

The spellers before me were given “quiescence,” “absinthe,” “chicanery,” “babushka,” and “colcannon.” I would have been okay with any of those (I think).

I was given “locofoco.” My reaction: ?!?!?!! The audience: ?!?!?!

I asked for a definition and got: “a member of a radical group of New York Democrats organized in 1835 in opposition to the regular party organization.” You recognized that, right?

I asked for the language of origin and got “probably Latin.”

So I went ahead and guessed. And got it right (!).

The next round, I was giving “atrabilious.” The definition was something about being inclined to anger (as I recall), although now when I look it up, I get “given to or marked by melancholy.” At any rate, I spelled it as “atribilious” and with that, my 2013 bee ended. Done in by a schwa!

In the end, I tied for 6th place. My track record at this bee has been: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place, so linear regression predicted 5th. I guess I slightly underperformed. :)

I enjoyed sitting through the rest of the competition, which got very fierce and crazy indeed near the end. Final words included (starred words are ones I would have missed):

  • *chiropteran
  • flivver
  • empyrean
  • *misoneism
  • *callipygian
  • nescience
  • pinyin
  • pyrrhic
  • nonpareil
  • cyrillic
  • hafnium
  • *auscultation
  • lamia
  • demarche
  • *weisenheimer
  • legerdemain
  • *videlicet
  • seriatim
  • *imprimis
  • etesian
  • pneuma
  • flocculate
  • syncretic
  • interrobang
  • primogeniture
  • espiegle
  • mimesis
  • interdict
  • *crwth ?!?!
  • *gregarine
  • gnomic
  • obloquy
  • *argillaceous
  • farrago
  • *dengue
  • *moitie
  • *polysyndeton
  • *kluge
  • denouement
  • maquette
  • panegyric
  • festinate
  • tourbillion

And finally, Jim Sherry from Alabama spelled the winning word, “quincunx.” It was a great victory! And especially since he’d come from so far away, and had been saying before the Bee that Delta lost his luggage, so it had been a rough trip so far. Now he’s the champ! :)

What’s the “case” in upper and lower case?

If I thought about it at all, I assumed that upper case and lower case were just two different cases (options) for big, or small, letters. You might therefore assume that these terms have been with us since the invention of writing, or at least writing in two sizes.

Not so!

These terms came into being with the invention of moveable type and the printing press (1450 A.D.). Typesetters would pick letters from a large case organized by letter. And — you guessed it — capital letters were in the “upper case” and the rest were in the “lower case.” The terms referred to their physical location, which quickly became convention, because then a typesetter from one press could quickly adapt to another press. Yet now the terms are so generic that they are used even in handwriting instruction. The printing press’s influence echoes down the ages!

Notice the upper-case letters had slots of equal size, while the lower-case letters (more often used) had slots proportional to their frequency of use (in English). This is what you’d need when setting a single line of type.


There were already existing terms for the two cases. Capital letters were referred to as “majuscules” and small letters were “minuscules.” But such was printing’s influence that the jargon of the trade has spread out to general use. Also, scripts that have two sizes, like this, are referred to as “bicameral” scripts (just like bicameral government!).

I learned about this in “The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800” by Febvre and Martin, which I am reading for a library school course on the history of books and libraries. This book contains other interesting tidbits, like the fact that once the printing press got going, it was very productive; skilled teams could produce a sheet every 20 seconds. Further, there’s a sordid and fascinating story behind Gutenberg and his associates Fust and Schoeffer, who took over his printing press just as he was finalizing the process, because Gutenberg defaulted on a loan; as a result, none of the books printed with his press bear his name as the publisher, although the history books have given his name full credit.

Nowadays even fonts displayed digitally continue the use of “upper” and “lower” case to distinguish these two components of the English script. The very term “font” is also an echo of early printing press technology developments, as it comes from “fondue” which means something that has been melted; early fonts were cast in metal at a type foundry. Can we imagine “tweet” or “text” or “facebook” persisting in our vocabulary for a similar span of more than 500 years?

Researcher or scholar?

In the preface to a book I am reading on medieval book curses (“Anathema!” by Marc Drogin), the author notes, “I am a researcher and not a scholar.”

That comment brought me up short, because if asked, I’d have been hard-pressed to come up with a distinction. A scholar studies things; so does a researcher. Given my personal research activities and inclinations, I’d probably distinguish them in that a researcher (in computer science, say) also strives to come up with new solutions to problems. “Scholar,” a term we don’t use nearly as much, might bring to mind a more static image of someone who’s accumulated a lot of historical knowledge and expertise. But these boundaries seem blurry.

And that isn’t at all the distinction Drogin meant! It turns out that to him, a scholar is an expert on a particular subject, studying it directly (using primary sources, perhaps?). A researcher comes along afterwards and studies the scholars’ output, collecting and analyzing it (secondary sources?). My world did a 90-degree turn and suddenly brought into focus what “research” must be for the humanities (and others?). What do those folks think when I say I am a “researcher”? Are we even speaking the same language?

This also solves a niggling question that’s been in the back of my mind since spending more time in the library world. When librarians talk about doing “research,” they almost always mean “hunting down a piece of information in existing sources” like databases, dictionaries, texts, etc. In my world, that’s not research; that’s information retrieval. So I frequently misunderstand the term when it comes up in my reading. This encounter in “Anathema!” may provide another experience to help me properly interpret the term in the world of library and information science.

P.S. I am still a researcher.

Why we yawn

Bored? Sleepy? Lack of oxygen? Who knows?

The Library of Congress posted an interesting analysis of this question in Everyday Mysteries: Why do we yawn? They conclude that it may serve a social function and/or a physiological one, which leaves the door pretty wide open.

The article claims that “generally speaking, we cannot yawn on command.” I find that I can yawn whenever I choose to, which is handy on airplanes. Do others find that they lack conscious control over yawning? (Stifling a yawn, however, is really difficult!)

Apparently 42-55% of non-autistic adults find yawning contagious. I’m surprised that the percentage isn’t higher. Do you find that the picture of the man yawning above makes you want to yawn? Try doing a google image search on “yawn” and see if you can escape the power!

As a bonus, I learned two nifty new words while reading this article:

  • pandiculation: yawning and stretching the body on waking up or getting sleepy
  • oscitation: yawning (“the involuntary opening of the mouth with respiration, breathing first inward, then outward”)

Sound in motion

It never occurred to me to wonder where Motorola got its name. Recently, I heard this fascinating tidbit and followed up — it appears to be true!

From Motorola’s own timeline:

In 1930 Galvin Manufacturing Corporation introduced the Motorola radio, one of the first commercially successful car radios. Company founder Paul V. Galvin created the brand name Motorola for the car radio — linking “motor” (for motorcar) with “ola” (which implied sound). Thus the Motorola brand meant sound in motion.

Today, Motorola’s cell (mobile) phones give a whole new meaning to “sound in motion.”

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