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The Bozone Layer

Recipients of Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day email missives know how consistently informative they are. Logophiliacs ought to subscribe to it at Wordsmith.org, for Garg trots out some doozies, and each includes the meaning, etymology, assorted notes and examples of usage. It also features a button to click on to hear each word pronounced properly, even skeuomorph, or “SKYOO-uh-morph.” This is notable because a “skeuomorph” is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary.” Those virtual buttons you “click on” while using the Internet often really do click, just like real, physical buttons.

Skeuomorphs are as old as civilization. Phoenician butter churns made of pottery, for instance, were football-shaped, like prehistoric models made of animal hides. Examples of modern skeuomorphs include hubcaps with fake spokes, the little nonfunctional handles on maple syrup bottles, and veneers. Back in the age of word processing machines, the big button on the keyboards was usually marked “Return,” like a typewriter, instead of “Enter.” It’s a visual skeuomorph, if you will, that, while serving no functional purpose, makes its user more comfortable. A more recent, library-related example is the apparent turning of pages on ebook readers, technology developed for the British Library in the 1990s to show off their Magna Carta and other rare books.

If visual skeuomorphs are evident, how about audible ones? The other day a friend told me about witnessing one. She had to stay home from work, but her husband went on. Some time afterwards she noticed her dozing dog repeatedly leap up and sprint to a window with a view of the road outside. Curious, she noticed an odd, low noise precede each dog race to the window. She eventually figured out that their pet cockatiel was mimicking the sound of her husband’s truck coming down the road, thereby alleviating the boredom of incarceration by pulling the poor mutt’s chain. I admire that parakeet, having in my past a parakeet that mimicked a screen door slamming followed by my mom shouting “Close the door, Greg!” Shouldn’t that be classified as some sort of skeuomorph?

The origins of “skeuomorph” are pretty murky online, with the best the Internet source I could find providing only the date 1889. I finally tracked it down thanks to the library’s redoubtable print Oxford English Dictionary, the mother of all English dictionaries. You can buy one for $995, subscribe online for $50 per year, or simply use your library’s copy for free and read how one H. Colley March stood at the 1889 meeting of the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society and stated “The forms of ornament demonstrably due to structure require a name. If those taken from animals are zoomorphs … it will be convenient to call those derived from structures skeuomorphs.” He demonstrated his point by showing how the thong-work on flint axes were decoratively carried over on Celtic bronze axes.

Still the search is most of the fun, and this one led to http://Phrontistery.info, a website dedicated to wordlists. “Phrontistery” means “a thinking place,” which is a fine definition for a library, too. “Skeuomorph” is found in “The Compendium of Lost Words,” just before “skewbald: bearing patches of white and some other colour,” and “skiagraphy: telling time by sundial,” but only the barest definition is included.

Speaking of words, the aforementioned roommate of long standing recently passed along the latest Mensa Invitational results. This annual contest is sponsored by the Washington Post, who invite readers to take any real word and change it into a new word by adding, subtracting or changing a single letter.

“Reintarnation,” for example, is defined as “coming back to life as a hillbilly,” ‘Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease,” and “coffee: the person upon whom one coughs.” The “Dopeler effect: the tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly,” which led to my personal favorite was “”bozone: the substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.” That’s another reason to visit the thinking place: your library; where the bozone layer’s almost non-existent.

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