Tag Archives: James Joyce

Adventures with ‘grok’

17 May

I was checking out a recommendation for Josh Kaufmann’s Personal MBA book by looking at his website – but got a bit distracted as the word ‘grok’ quite literally leapt off the page at me.

The quote runs this:  “I’ve run across few people who conceptually ‘grok’ how to get things done better than Josh Kaufman.”   The quote comes from the productivity guru David Allen, whose work I really like, so I decided that anything David Allen knows is worth me knowing and looked it up.

I imagined it was slang, so started with the Urban Dictionary.  There is a host of definitions, with the earliest dated from 2002, but the most common sense seemed to be of ‘understanding’:

Literally meaning ‘to drink’ but taken to mean ‘understanding.’ Often used by programmers and other assorted geeks.

It took me a long time to grok Perl, but now I can read it without going blind!

 Still curious, I decided to see if the word had escaped the realm of programmers and assorted geeks and made its way into the rest of society.  So I turned to OneLook, a website that searches multiple dictionaries simultaneously.  That also produced lots of results, and the definition from Encarta developed the Urban Dictionary further:  grok is more than understanding, it’s to understand something completely by intuition.

The Encarta definition also explained the strangeness of the word ‘grok’ – it’s described as an ‘invention’ by Robert Heinlein, the author of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ in the 1960s  – but I’d probably describe it as a coinage or neologism.  Or to put it another way, Heinlein simply made the word up.

And ‘grok’ seems to be in that very unique class of neologism in that it’s a word that’s genuinely new.  Most new words derive from other words – perhaps by adding a prefix or suffix, crunching two words together (anecdotage, the age where you tell stories about the good old days = anecdote + dotage), or by borrowing from another language.

Of the many different ways you can invent a new word (see more on the rule of word formation here), words that are invented from scratch and that really ensure in the language are comparatively rare.  One famous example is googol (the number represented by 1 followed by a hundred noughts), which eventually gave birth to the name of the search engine, Google.  Another is quark, a nonsense word borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that was adopted to refer to an elementary particle.

Grok also falls into another interesting category – words that derive from science fiction.  I’ve never been particularly interested in sci-fi, but on reading this blog post from the Oxford University Press about words that have come into English from science fiction, perhaps I should re-evaluate.

The blog post lists nine words that are now taken as ‘science fact’ in the sense that they’ve just become the standard word we all use.  And the list is quite extraordinary – robotics, genetic engineering, zero gravity, deep space, ion drive, pressure suit, virus (computer programme), worm (computer programme), and gas giant.

I’m not sure ‘grok’ will ever reach the same level of currency as ‘robotics’ or ‘computer virus’ – but I wonder if the author ever thought that his his little four-letter coinage would still be in use forty years on.


On Carrie Bradshaw and “Eyes akimbo!”

2 Dec
b/w photograph of arms akimbo, cleaned up by Micze

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently been consigned to my bed with illness, with nothing for company but aSex and the City boxset.

In one episode, Carrie walks into a bar, flanked by her friends, and instructs them to look out for an ex-boyfriend with the command ‘Eyes akimbo!

In that instance, I was filled with love for the word ‘akimbo’.  You don’t hear it very often, and when you do, to my mind, we associate it with arms and legs.

And it’s such a strange word!  I can’t think of a word like it in English, other than the playful ‘Crimbo’ for Christmas and the rather ruder ‘bimbo’ and ‘himbo’.   It almost sounds African in origin.

I did also wonder if it bears any relation to ‘askew’, which means ‘crooked’ or ‘off kilter’.

So, on looking it up, ‘akimbo’ is much, much older than you might first think.  The OED records its usage as early as 1400.  And the definition isn’t what I was expecting.  I had thought it meant ‘all over the place’, but actually it means to stand with one’s legs apart, with one’s hands on one’s hips, with the elbows out at right angles.

The word actually started life as ‘kenebowe’ (“The hoost … set his hond in kenebowe” Tale of Beryn c. 1400), and other variations of the word include kenbow (c. 1611), kemboll (c. 1629), kenbol (c. 1600), and kimbow (c. 1678).  The earliest instance of the word being used in conjunction with ‘a’ is in 1629 (‘a kemboll’), common by the late 17th century where you see Hobbes’ Art of Rhetoric – “Setting his arms a-kenbold.’

The ‘a’ then becomes hyphenated to the front of the word for about two hundred years (“John was forced to sit with his Arms a-kimbo.” c. 1712), before James Joyce drops the hyphen in the early 20th century (“Folded akimbo against her waist” Ulysses, 1922).

I believe this is an example of … wait for the fancy linguistic term … metananalysis, which just means that the boundaries of a word change over time (an adder was once a nadder; an apron once a napron and so forth.)

But quite where the word comes from is another mystery.  The OED sounds positively foxed on the topic: “Derivation unknown”.  Of the theories put forward, that the word relates to Icelandic words for ‘crooked’ or a Middle English word for ‘crooked stick’, the OED says “None of these satisfies the condition.”

Wikipedia does speculate on a possible African origin of the word – ‘bakimba’ – which is word used by the Kongo people of west Africa that means exactly the stance described above.  But this does come with the delightful Wikipedia footnote of ‘Dubious – Discuss’.

So akimbo – a useful, delightful word with an entirely mysterious origin!

Can you ‘nick’ it? Yes, you can!

15 Nov

The 'Do Not Nick' bin

Our council provides us with these giant bins for our waste, each large enough for a person to hide inside them.  And we don’t just get one; we get three – a black for general rubbish, green for recycling and brown from garden waste.  They’re pretty ugly and given the design of many of the houses, there’s often nowhere to keep them other than the front garden.

These bins are pretty hard to miss, so when out walking Mr Dog, I glanced into someone’s front garden and noticed one of these bins with the ‘DO NOT NICK’ painted in giant letters on it.  I did wonder if a prospective thief might be put off by such an instruction?  If you’re planning to steal something, do you stop because someone has left written instructions not to?

It got me thinking – just why do we use the word ‘nick’ for steal?  Was there a legendary thief called Nick?   I know the most famous ‘Nick’ of all, St Nicholas, is perhaps guilty of breaking and entering, but he’s definitely a giver, not a taker.

And what relation does it have to ‘nick’ (steal) have to ‘nick’ (cut) as in to nick the skin?  Or ‘nick’ (condition) as in ‘to be in good nick’?  Or ‘nick’ in the sense of ‘in the nick of time’?

So, using my free online access to the OED, I’ve looked ‘nick’ up.  There are far more uses of this word, both as a noun and verb, than I had ever imagined, but interestingly, its origins are obscure.

The earliest recorded usage of ‘nick’ as a verb appears to be in conjunction with the sense of ‘to make an indent or groove’, which the OED dates the earliest citation as around 1440.   It seems to have been particularly used with counting – someone would nick notches into a stick to count a flock, for instance.

This then develops into a more general sense of ‘cut into or through’ or ‘snip off’ at the end of the 16th century and appears in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623) in this meaning: “ The itch of his Affection should not then Haue nickt his Captain-ship at such a point”. But it doesn’t appear in the sense of cutting into skin until the 20th century where James Joyce’s Ulysses is the first citation of using ‘nick’ in this way.

The OED then classifies a second sense of ‘nick’ as related to precision.  Perhaps this originates from the precision of counting (nicking the notches) and it’s from this sense that we get phrases like ‘in the nick of time’.  ‘Nick’ was also used to mean ‘just caught’ (we nicked the bus before it left) and also to hit or catch at just the right moment.

The final sense of ‘nick’ as a verb given by the OED relates to stealing.  Interestingly, the first usages of the word in this sense related specifically to cheating or swindling, which dates back to the late 16th century.  The sense of ‘nicking’ as meaning ‘pilfering’ only came in in the early 19th century.

And the use of ‘nick’ to mean to catch someone (he was nicked by the police) is first found in the mid-17th century, around 50 years after it was recorded in association with criminal activity.  ‘Nick’ meaning the police station originated in Australia in the late 19th century.

And finally, ‘nick’ as in ‘condition’ doesn’t appear in writing until the late 19th century.  I wonder if it’s related to ‘nick’, the small cut in an animal’s ear to indicate ownership?

This very short summary is ignoring the wealth of other meanings for ‘nick’ including genitals, dice playing, cross-breeding, biochemical reactions and a precise moment in time.   Do you think the chap with the ‘DO NOT NICK’ bin realised he tapped into a linguistic goldmine?