Wednesday Words: Cones (of Uncertainty), Graffiti for Kids 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).

Disaster speak: “cone of uncertainty”

The anticipation of Hurricane Irene involved days of news coverage. And that news coverage included many maps and people flailing their arms in front of them, otherwise known as a “weather update.” On those maps was a “cone of uncertainty”—a Beluga-esque blob diving out from the current location of the hurricane—which indicated where the tropical terror might go next.

Good company: There are many fabled, and less threatening, cones. There is Cone of Silence, an inept device used on spy comedy Get Smart to protect secret conversations. In Up, animated dogs use a Cone of Shame for public humiliation (the same medical device real-life dogs wear to prevent licking and scratching while wounds heal). And, of course, Cones of Ice Cream, ideally eaten by Coneheads on Coney Island.

(MORE: How Do Forecasters Predict the Cone of Uncertainty?)

Weirdest back-to-school campaign: giving away “graffiti starter kits”

In Los Angeles, so-called “graffiti starter kits”—supplies given away by an art store that sells a book “next level” graffiti techniques—recently made some faces red. Local government folks said the kits encourage another generation to contribute to an “urban plight,” while others said they aid artistic expression. Though it could have be worse (e.g. arson starter kits, Hot-Wiring for Dummies, etc.), the store caved and pulled the promotion.

The roots: The word graffiti is a plural form of graffito—an Italian word that in turn comes from graffio, meaning a scratch. A graffito, according to the OED, is “a drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface; a scribbling on an ancient wall, as those at Pompeii and Rome.” So next time you’re being arrested for vandalism, make sure you explain that your spray-paint creations are really just an homage to an age-old Italian tradition.

Savage slang: to murk someone

In a story about cyber-bullying, a mother told an Alabama news station that someone sent her daughter a message on a social-networking site in which they threatened to “murk” her, meaning murder her. (The term can also suggest severe injury.) Though murk could be just a shortened version of “murder,” the slang term oddly reflects the word’s traditional meaning. A “murkful” person is one full of darkness.

Where murkers go: A writer at the Gonzales Inquirer in Texas got punny in a headline about a local prison: “Prisoners chillin’ at county jail with new A/C contract.” (Word.) At the beginning, the writer also does a run-down of slang terms for prison; beyond the obvious joint and slammer were the hoosegow, the clink and the cooler. (You can just imagine what he did with that last one.)

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.