Cutthroat compounds and other rare words

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3 min readMay 17, 2024


📖 The English word “edition” comes from the French word édition, which evolved from Latin edere: “to give out or bring forth”
Issue #78: Alice Munro’s writing tips and the importance of showing up
Harris Sockel

Language evolves because reality evolves. One example: As early as the 1640s, the word “computer” referred to a person who calculates. Three hundred years later, when we built machines that could calculate for us, its meaning shifted to refer to those instead.

Jack Shepherd runs an etymology-focused publication called Cellar Door, which some believe is the most beautiful phrase in English (possibly because it’s high in liquid consonants like l and r that feel flow-y in our mouths).

A few of the linguistic nuances he’s covered previously:

  • 30 popular email signoffs, decoded in honest language (“Cheers,” = “I like you but I don’t respect you.” Accurate.)
  • 19 archaic punctuation marks worth reviving, including the dotted antisigma (Ͽ) used in Ancient Rome to indicate that an author was repeating themselves. I would love to start seeing that in some of Medium’s internal Notion docs.
  • The history of swearing. Extremely revealing fact: The first known user of the F-word in writing was a monk complaining about his boss in 1528.

Recently, Shepherd turned his attention to the important matter of “ass” intensifiers in English.

Examples: whupass, kissass. These are cutthroat compounds, a rare type of noun containing a verb followed by a noun that is its object. In English, we often do this in reverse, placing the verb after the noun (e.g. backstabber or timewaster instead of stabback or wastetime).

Then, there’s badass, boring-ass, big-ass, and a whole-ass list of “ass” intensifiers which are not cutthroat compounds (“bad” is not a verb). Instead, they’re adjectives that use metonymy (naming a part to stand in for a whole) and they may have originated in 1940s U.S. military slang. (So many intensifiers began as military slang!) In each of these words, “ass” is an emphatic stand-in, or metonym, for an entire person or entity.

🖊️ From the archive: Alice Munro’s writing tips

Alice Munro, the Canadian author who started writing short stories as practice for a novel until they became her career (there’s a lesson here about settling into what you’re good at instead of what you aspire to be) died at 92 on Monday. In 2013, she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, writer Anne Helen Petersen said: “Each time I finish a Munro story […] my blood feels denser; time slows down.”

Most avid fiction readers I know have a soft spot for Munro’s precise, hyper-observant vignettes of seemingly mundane people and things. Here’s a Munro quote I love (found in this archival Medium post featuring Munro-inspired writing tips), about her so-called “ordinary” characters and stories:

I don’t know who the ‘ordinary people’ are… because everyone is extraordinary to themselves. In fact, I read one review that said, ‘These people don’t have any extraordinary experiences. They’re civil servants, farmers, accountants, nurses.’ Well, nurses have about the most dramatic life I can think of! […] I never consider these people ordinary.

Your daily dose of practical wisdom: about showing up

If you want to accomplish something great, focus on the only thing you can control: showing up. “Anything else is a distraction,” advises writer Joan Westenberg.

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Edited by Scott Lamb.

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