Wednesday Words: Foreshocks, Words Without Letters and More

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David McGlynn

Welcome to NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of our vocabulary — including useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).

Earthquake expression: foreshock

After an earthquake hit the East Coast yesterday, there was some speculation that the 5.9-magnitude shake was a “foreshock,” a lesser shock preceding the principal shock of an earthquake, also called the “mainshock.” This word could be useful in other situations too, like describing the experience of finding yourself unexpectedly on a golf course—or that moment when you found out Thomas Jefferson might have been stepping out with Sally Hemings.

Geek out: If you’re looking for more earthquake terminology to impress your coolest friends, the United States Geological Survey has just the glossary for you. A “blind thrust fault,” for example, might sound like an illegal fencing move, but it actually refers to a vertical shift of rock above a fault line that doesn’t rupture all the way to the surface. (You were warned it was geeky.)

Neologism of the week: cornography

Satirical newsman Stephen Colbert formed a so-called super PAC, a committee that can spend unlimited amounts in elections. In one of his first political ads, he explores the usage of “cornography,” those slow, romantic, soft-focus shots of America’s most American grain. The sentiment is perhaps best explained with a line from the ad itself: “We’re gettin’ all up in those niblets. Oh yeeeaaahhhhh.”

Campaign cant: Rep. Michele Bachmann recently described herself as an “hombre-ette,” to explain how she’s the “one little fighter” that voters should send to D.C. The term simultaneously suggests that she’s tough enough for the job—something female candidates have a harder time proving—and capitalizes on the sexy excitement of her being the only female fighting for the GOP nomination (thus far). It’s a clever move, even if it does conjure images of sequined ponchos.

(MORE: Super PAC Satire: FEC Approves Stephen Colbert’s Committee)

Profession of the week: show jock

In a Los Angeles Times article about livestock contests, the author explores the role of “show jocks,” a slang term for “cattle fitters”—the “beauticians to the bovine set [who] are charged with gussying up their clients to their championship best.” The typical show-jock kit includes items like industrial-strength hair dryers and rose-scented hair oil. Note to Spanx: Cornering this market could be your next big moooooooooove.

Beak speak: In an article on Jimmy Buffett fans and their charity work in Cinncinati, the author explains that the name for such fans—”parrot heads”—came from a 1985 concert when a band member used the term to describe fans decked out in tropical attire. Younger fans of the tropical soft rock icon are sometimes called “parakeets.” And soldiers have used Buffett-inspired slang as gallows humor, calling war zones “Mortar-itaville” (a play on the famed song “Margaritaville”).

Swearing symbols: grawlixes

Those strings of symbols used to represent naughty words (e.g. @&#*!) are called grawlixes, a term popularized by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker. (Others called them “obscenicons.”) Writer Stan Carey gives a shout out to grawlixes in a recent post on words without letters. Other terms include 86, a verb meaning “to refuse to serve a customer,” as well as ♥, which was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Soon literacy may be obsolete altogether.

Other skimping: Letters are getting sidestepped here while quality is getting sidestepped elsewhere. Con-flation is a term being used to describe “inexpensive tweaks [used] to con shoppers into believing they’re actually getting more for their money.” The prime example being dastardly clothes manufacturers who use fake pockets. This slang term might be confusing since conflation already has other meanings (which may be conflated with this one).

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Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.