Interesting New Words

Every day I learn at least two new words. On some days I learn more. A lot of those words are interesting, but I probably won’t use them very often, if at all. However, they at least tell me something about English and provide some food for thought on how to use words in the text that I write to convey specific meanings. I’ve written about this topic before in Not Mere Words and again in Power Words. However, it’s a theme that needs to be repeated because people often find it hard to convey their thoughts due to a lack of words in their vocabulary. The result is often garbled, with the hearer not really understanding what the speaker wants to say.

I learned two new words this week that I could potentially use at some time. The first is metathesis, which is a mispronunciation due to the transposition of letters or syllables in a word. The most common metathesis for me is saying Calvary instead of cavalry. The transposition of the letter l is the problem in this case. It turns out that some words in our language are actually created because of metathesis. For example, the word mullion (a vertical divider, such as a piece of wood in a window) comes from the metathesis of the word munial. It doesn’t surprise me that there is a word to describe an error that most people make, but until now I didn’t know what it is. The funniest word that I’ve learned is formed from metathesis is girn, which is a kind of grimace or snarl. Of course, the source term is grin.

The second word is biovermiculation, which refers to lines drawn on a surface by a microbial community. I read about this word in a National Geographic article entitled The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth. I found the implications of the article amazing, but the addition of a new word to my vocabulary is a bit more practical. Without the proper word to describe this phenomena, it would be difficult for me to understand that biovermiculation on another planet could possibly point to life on that planet—at least, sometime in the past. Knowing the proper words gives you the power to convey specific meanings and provides you with an advantage over someone whose vocabulary is less comprehensive (and therefore, less precise).

I build my word power through a number of sources. Of course, National Geographic and Smithsonian both provide me with new words that appear with surprising regularity in my writing. However, for those two daily words, I look to A.Word.A.Day and Word of the Day. In addition, I build my word power through all sorts of technical sources, including other books. There are many places where you can find interesting new words to use when writing or simply speaking to someone else. What new word have you learned today? Tell me about your positive (and G rated) word learning experience at


Celebrating the 4th of July

The 4th of July is an important holiday for Americans because it celebrates the declaration of freedom that started our country in 1776. Of course, there were a lot of events that led up to the declaration and we need to keep them in mind. The people involved were actually in danger of losing their lives had they been caught. In all actuality, many people were caught embracing freedom and died because of it. The freedom we enjoy today was won with a lot of blood over the years—the sacrifice of patriots who wanted something better for their families and those who would follow them.

Choosing a specific day for such celebrations is always interesting. The day we should celebrate is July 2nd because that’s when the Continental Congress actually voted for independence. Hand writing the Declaration of Independence took a while and so the document is dated July 4th, but the act took place on the 2nd. If you want to be a stickler for details (the act isn’t finished until the paperwork is done), we should celebrate until August 2nd because it took that long to get the document signed. In short, that we have a specific day to celebrate is amazing.

Our recollection of many events surrounding July 4th are actually quite wrong. National Geographic presented a list of nine myths some time ago and the article is well worth reading again. For example, Paul Revere most definitely didn’t ride alone, even though the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow makes it seem that way. There are also no secret messages hidden in the Declaration of Independence, despite what the makers of National Treasure would have you believe.

No matter how you choose to spend the day, be sure to take a little time to consider the cost of your freedom. Your freedom wasn’t free—many patriots paid the ultimate price for it. Not being engaged in protecting our freedoms using whatever skills we possess means giving up the very thing these people died to give us. If nothing else, take a little time out to watch a few short 4th of July videos and discuss them with your family and friends. The barbecue and fireworks will wait the few minutes needed to consider just what our freedom means.

Personally, I’ll be taking some time today to express my own sense of freedom by working in the flower garden for a while and checking on my herbs. Our fireworks won’t happen until tomorrow night (I plan to be on hand because our fireworks are always amazing for such a small town). Let me know your thoughts on the 4th of July and the freedom our country enjoys at


Exoskeletons Become Reality

It wasn’t very long ago (see Robotics in Your Future) that I wrote about the role of robotics in accessibility, especially with regard to the exoskeleton. At that time, universities and several vendors were experimenting with exoskeletons and showing how they could help people walk. The software solutions I provide in Accessibility for Everybody are still part of the answer, but more and more it appears that technology will provide more direct answers, which is the point of this post. Imagine my surprised when I opened the September 2011 National Geographic and found an article about eLEGS in it. You can get the flavor of the article in video form on the National Geographic site. Let’s just say that I’m incredibly excited about this turn of events. Imagine, people who had no hope of walking ever again are now doing it!

We’ve moved from experimental to actually distributing this technology—the clinical trials for this device have already begun. The exoskeleton does have limits for now. You need to be under 6 foot 4 inches tall and weigh less than 220 pounds. The candidate must also have good upper body strength. Even so, it’s a great start. As the technology evolves, you can expect to see people doing a lot more walking. Of course, no one who has special needs is running a marathon in this gear yet. However, I can’t even begin to imagine the emotion these people feel when they get up and walk for the first time. The application of this technology is wide ranging. Over 6 million people currently have some form of paralysis that this technology can help.

eLEGS is gesture-based. The way a person moves their arms and upper body determines how the device reacts. Training is required. The person still needs to know how to balance their body and must expend the effort to communicate effectively with the device. I imagine the requirements for using this device will decrease as time goes on. The gestures will become less complex and the strength requirements less arduous.

So, what’s next? Another technology I’ve been watching for a while now is the electronic eye. As far as I know, this device hasn’t entered clinical trials as of yet, but the scientists are working on it. (It has been tested in Germany and could be entering trials in the UK.) The concept is simple. A camera in a special set of glasses transmits visual information to a chip implanted in the person’s eyeball. The chip transmits the required signals to the person’s brain through the optical nerve.  However, the implementation must be terribly hard because our understanding of precisely how all of this works is still flawed.

Even so, look for people who couldn’t walk to walk again soon and those who couldn’t see to see again sometime in the future. There will eventually be technologies to help people hear completely as well. (I haven’t heard of any technology that restores the senses of smell, taste, or touch to those who lack it.) This is an exciting time to live. An aging population will have an increasing number of special needs. Rather than make the end of life a drudge, these devices promise to keep people active. Where do you think science will go next? Let me know at