Tag: words

Improving My Information Security, Or “Noncoterminous Planch Dotal Steeple”

I’ve often thought that it is fairly ridiculous that, in order to be able to confirm my identity, some web sites require you to answer a set of three question. You know the kind: First car you drove? Name of your 2nd grade teacher’s wife? Middle name of the doctor who delivered your grandmother’s best friend? It seems to me that by providing this information, I am giving away personal information when I should be protecting it. I used to just have three words I’d use, one for each question, the same three for all sites, but that doesn’t seem particularly secure either.

So a while back, I wrote a little command line alias I call random-word. As might be expected, typing random-word on the command line give me a random word. For example:

As it turns out, “lambency” is a good word because I am not familiar with it1. I know a lot of words so if I don’t know this one, I imagine it is pretty hard to guess.

The source for random-word is the Unix dictionary, which is convenient because it makes the actual command behind the alias very simple. Plus, there are over 235,000 words, so I am not likely to run out.

Well, today, one of the services I used moved to a new site, and I had to verify my account there. Part of the process involved supplying a new password and answering three intimate questions about myself. I decided to put my new script to good use. For each of the 3 questions I was asked, I ran random-word and the first one that came up I used to answer the first question. I repeated this for each of the 3 questions. It makes for some amusing response. Here is a made up example (courtesy of “random-words”):

  1. The model of your first car? pell
  2. Your mother’s maiden name? oxamate
  3. The town in which you attended high school? bejuggled

Yes, that’s right. My mom’s maiden name was Oxamte. I went to high school in the little-known town of Bejuggled, and I drove there in my Pell.

I record the question and the random word in LastPass, where I also keep my passwords. In this way, I befuddle any would-be hacker of my account and/or personal information snooper in said service. This worked perfectly. It’s funny because it never really occurred to me to provide completely meaningless answers to these questions. But it makes a lot of sense.

I know a lot of people are not command line users like I am, but those of you on Macs or Linux who want a peak at my random-word command, here it is:

cat /usr/share/dict/words | shuf -n 1

In English, that says: display the content of the Unix dictionary, but filter it through a shuffle program and return the first random line that you find.

I turned this into an alias in my .zshrc file like this:

alias random-word='cat /usr/share/dict/words | shuf -n 1'

Now, all I need to do is type random-word to instantly get a random word (saphenous). It’s fun and it makes me feel less lame when filling out those “security” questions.

I feel like I could put this little script to even better use. I’m thinking of using it for my next post, which I plan to title: “Noncoterminous Planch Dotal Steeple”, which sounds a little like the title of a Ph.D dissertation in higher mathematics.

  1. I just looked it up: “playing lightly over a surface; flickering.”

Eight-six my addeled brain

Sometime in the fall of 1985 (when I was a young lad of 13), there was a series of commercials for a car dealer that ran in the Los Angeles area the tag-line of which was "Eighty-six the eighty-fives!"  When I first saw the commercials, I didn’t get it.  But after a few times, I realized they were trying to get rid of their 1985 models so that they could get in the 1986 models.  "Eighty-six the eighty-fives" was a clever, punnish way of expressing this.  From that, I learned that to "eighty-six" something was to get rid of it, and assumed the phrase was coined more or less in that commercial because 1986 was right around the corner.

Fast-forward nearly twenty-four years to the other day while I was at the gym doing my cardio workout.  I was watching an episode of The Greatest American Hero on my iPhone while I worked out, an episode from Season 1 which aired sometime in late 1981 or early 1982.  I’m enjoying the episode when all of the sudden, Bill Maxwell shrieks, "Eight-six those files, kid!" or something to that effect.  Everything came to a screeching halt.  Did he say "eighty-six those files?"  How could he possibly have used that phrase if it wasn’t even invented yet?  After all, the episode aired in 1981 and who knows when it was written.  Was there some kind of Life On Mars-like time warp going on here?

This morning, I did some checking.  Apparently, the first recorded use of the phrase "eighty-six" in this context was sometime in 1935!  (The phrase’s origin is usually related to death or the Prohibition.  (Think "deep six".)

And here I was for the last quarter century thinking it was merely a clever advertising slogan made up around 1986 in order to sell more cars!

Words a random library patron didn’t know

I checked out Adrift: Seventy-six days lost at sea by Steven Callahan today and started reading it this evening.   I noticed something very interesting almost right away.  There were lots of penciled in checkboxes next to various lines in the text, and on the lines that were checked, a word or two was underlined in pencil.  In looking at these words, I guessed they were words that one of the previous library patrons who checked out the book didn’t know.   Here’s the list of words:

  • don (as in "don a raincoat")
  • shoal
  • trawlers
  • rogue
  • trends
  • nuances
  • vivid
  • evolved
  • cohesive
  • astrophysicist
  • intuitive extrapolation
  • enthralled
  • exorbitant
  • communion
  • convoluted
  • exhilarating
  • helm
  • crevice
  • quay
  • pandemonium
  • autumn equinox
  • lunatics
  • capstan
  • prone
  • rancorous
  • abated
  • aft

After that, it appears they gave up.  Now, at first I thought maybe it was a child, but I’m not sure that’s the case since there were many fairly complex words that were not underlined (e.g. "perspective", "conclusions", "hydrodynamics").

For some reason, I found this all very interesting.


So today, we did an “analogies” test. Carmen is studying to take the Miller Analogies test and Ben and I were teasing her a bit yesterday about how she came up with some of her answers. So she challenged us to answer 40 questions and see who did best. This grew into about 5 of us, where the losers all have to buy the winner a drink at a happy hour in September. I did not come in last, thankfully. I scored 27/40 and that includes the three that I skipped. For those interested, the questions (along with my answers) can be found behind the cut.

Practice Analogies Test

Proper pronunciation; or how my teachers got it all wrong

Working my way through Greek history, I am rapidly coming to discover that I’ve gotten just about all of the pronunciations of Greek names and places wrong, and am now experiencing retroactive humiliation. I blame this in part on me, of course, but I also blame it on my teachers.

It seems to me that while I was taught to use the pronunciation guide in dictionaries, the use of it was never encouraged. I don’t ever recall mispronouncing a word and then having one of my teachers say “Why don’t you look that up in the dictionary?” Not once. Ever. And the thought never occurred to me on my own. Of course, after I had a bachelor’s degree and was done with formal schooling, I began to read pronunciations carefully from the dictionary every time I looked up a word. But the pattern for a whole brace of words was already set.

For instance, it wasn’t until well after I graduated college, and was reading The Three Musketeers that it suddenly occurred to me, through what I can only describe as divine insight, that D’Artagnan was not pronounced “Deh-art’-ag-non”. (Admittedly, I never took French and never put two and two together.)

But in reading the book of Greek history that I am now going through, Isaac Asimov, as was his practice, put pronunciations next to all of the Greek names and places and I am beginning to discover that just about everything I thought I was pronouncing correctly, I was pronouncing wrong. In this case, I blame my teachers for I distinctly recall them pronouncing the names this way and I was merely repeating what they were saying. Oh, you want a for instance?

I always pronounced Phoenicians as “fo-nee’-shuns”. Turns out, that’s wrong; it’s proper pronunciation is “fee-nish’-ee-unz”. I never in my life heard a teacher say it that way, but there it is in the dictionary. I suspect that teachers, unfamiliar with Greek pronunciations made it up as best they could. How should they know that in Greek, “ae” is pronounced -ee? So that I have been mispronouncing Achaeans all my life. And how about “argives”, which I have always heard teachers say as “ar’-guyves” and yet is actually pronounced “ahr’-jivez”. I could go and and on with examples.

The problem is that I have these terms burned in my brain this way. Hearing myself saying “Phoenicians” properly sounds absolutely ridiculous to me. It just doesn’t sound right and so I tend to stick with my incorrect way of pronouncing the syllables. I wonder if this is how dramatic changes are introduced into languages.

Or if it is just another way that we Americans look silly to the rest of the world. I don’t know. It’s all Greek to me.

Can I buy a vowel?

Great theme for this week’s A.Word.A.Day mailing list. The theme was:

Words having vowels aeiou once and only once, and in order.

The words were:

  • annelidous – of or relating to worms
  • facetious – Jocular or humorous, often inappropriately
  • anemious – Growing in windy conditions
  • caesious – Bluish or grayish green
  • abstemious – Sparing, especially in matters of eating and drinking

Much to my chagrin, I know only two of the words (“facetious” and “abstemious”). And as strausmouse will point out, I would likely misspell all five of them.


I get a lot of junk snail mail in the office, mostly from Gartner, which seems to me to be about the most environmentally unfriendly technology analysis firm out there. (I also don’t believe half of what they report.) But a measurable percentages comes from SANS, which apparently stands for System Administration, Networking, and Security Institute. This is a mouthful.

Today I wondered if the person who came up with the acronym for an organization that deals with networking and security, realized that in Latin, “sans” means “without”, or “lacking”. The irony amuses me, I suppose.

Words that seem risque

This weeks theme in Anu Garg’s (wordsmith.org) A.Word.A.Day mailing list is words that seem risque. Today’s word was “vomitorium” and for some reason, the word reminded me of strausmouse. It sounds risque, but would you believe that a vomitorium is actually:

A passageway to the rows of seats in a theater.

It comes from the Latin word vomitorium, from vomere (to discharge). Vomitoria in ancient amphitheater helped the audience reach their seats quickly, and also leave the theater with equal speed (hence the name).

When I first saw the word, I suspected the definition was something like:

(1) A room in which strausmouse had done too much drinking; (2) a piece of female undergarments into which strausmouse had thrown up.

I’m glad to see it means something else.

Stupid memory tricks

I have found that as I get older, my memory gets worse, or my brain plays more and more stupid memory tricks on me. Lately, I have found it more difficult to remember a word that I want to use, although I know it’s meaning perfectly and even have an idea of what letter it begins with.

In my previous post, I wrote the following sentence: “…we found ourselves at 2 bars.” When writing that sentence, I wanted to add a few words indicating these were bars which we regularly attended. I knew there was a word for this, I even knew the word began with a “p”, but for the life of me I could not drudge up the word from the murky swamp of my brain.

Until about 15 minutes later when, still brooding over it, the word, “patronize” popped out of the mire. (“…we found ourselves a 2 bars which we regularly patronize.”)

It got me thinking: how is it we can know there a word for something, even know the first letter of the word, and yet have an incredibly difficult time prying the actual word from our memory? I knew there was a word that described “giving a store, restaurant, bar, etc. regular business”, but I couldn’t think of what that word was. The word had to be there somewhere in my brain, but my aging synapses made it difficult to locate and extract. Why is this, I wonder? Is it simply some kind of stupid memory trick the brain plays on you as you get older? It is psychological? Or is it physiologic? Has my brain actually started to degrade with age?

I hope it’s not the latter. My body might degrade, but I want my brain to stay how it is.

“Next generation”

“Next generation” is a phrase that annoys me. I am reading the documentation to some new software (yes, I actually read the documentation) that I want to use and in the first sentence the software is described as “an innovative, next generation application…”

What exactly does “next generation” mean? I’d like to see “this generation” and “next generation” applications side-by-side in order to see the differences better.