The word is triskaidekaphobia. Its literal meaning is ‘superstition about the number thirteen’, but it’s also used to refer to the specific fear of Friday the 13th. There is also the word paraskavedekatriaphobia, proposed by some as a more specific option, although this word is not yet in our dictionaries.
The truth is that there is no noun in general use that refers equally to a cow or a bull.
Zoologists use two terms. The first is ‘ox’, which is often restricted to animals of the genus Bos (i.e. the wild cattle – gaur, banteng, yak, aurochs, and kouprey – as well as domestic cattle). In popular use, though, the word ‘ox’ often refers to a castrated male animal, so that isn’t a perfect solution. The second zoological term is ‘bovine’, which is used as a noun to refer to any animal of the wider group that comprises cattle, buffaloes, and bison. But this would be a strange choice in most general contexts.
Is there a name for the dot above the letters i and j?
The dot is just called superscript dot. It was added to the letter i in the Middle Ages to distinguish the letter (in manuscripts) from adjacent vertical strokes in such letters as u, m, and n. J is a variant form of i which emerged at this time and subsequently became a separate letter.
Does the ‘¢’ in the US cent sign stand for ‘cent’?
Yes, it does. It dates back to the early 19th century. Writing a letter with the line through it is a common way of indicating that it is a currency symbol, and not just an ordinary letter of the alphabet.
What is the name of the # symbol?
It has several names. The most common is probably hash. In North American English, it’s sometimes called the pound sign and used as a symbol for pounds weight: this can be confusing for British people for whom a pound sign is £. It’s also known as the number sign in North American English, in contexts such as go to question #2. In a musical context, the symbol is known as a sharp. The picturesque name octothorpe has also been introduced: it’s said to have been invented by an employee of Bell Laboratories in the 1960s, in honour of the American athlete Jim Thorpe (with the octo- part deriving from the symbol’s eight points). In the large form in which it appears on telephones it’s sometimes called a square.
Recently, the hash sign has acquired a new role. On social networking sites such as Twitter, it’s attached to keywords or phrases so as to identify messages on a particular topic (e.g. #volcano; #Iceland). These keywords or phrases are known as hashtags.
What is the origin of the ‘@’ sign?
This sign originated as a scribe’s quick way of writing the Latin word ad, especially in lists of prices of commodities. It’s usually just known as ‘the at sign’ or ‘the at symbol’: although it has acquired various nicknames in other languages none of these has so far caught on in English.
What is the origin of the dollar sign ($)?
Many suggestions have been made about the origin of the dollar symbol $, one of the commonest being that it derives from the figure 8, representing the Spanish ‘piece of eight’. However, it actually comes from a handwritten ‘ps’, an abbreviation for ‘peso’ in old Spanish-American books. The $ symbol first occurs in the 1770s, in manuscript documents of English-Americans who had business dealings with Spanish-Americans, and it starts to appear in print after 1800.
The word ‘dollar’ itself derives from the Flemish or Low German word daler (in German taler or thaler), short for Joachimstaler, referring to a coin from the silver mines of Joachimstal, in Bohemia (now Jáchymov in the Czech Republic). The term was later applied to a coin used in the Spanish-American colonies and also in the British North American colonies at the time of the American War of Independence. It was adopted as the name of the US currency unit in the late 18th century.
What is the origin of the pound sign (£)?
This sign is simply a capital letter L, written in an old-fashioned handwriting style and with one or two crossbars to show that it is being used as a symbol or abbreviation. The L stands for the Latin word libra, the name of a Roman unit of weight, which also gave rise to the abbreviation lb for a pound as a measure of weight, and to the French word livre. The symbol for the Japanese yen was probably invented by analogy with the pound and dollar symbols, as it is a capital Y with one or two bars across it.
Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to say a whole word. That’s why the good British public have taken abbreviations to their hearts so willingly. Many people talk about ‘quotes’ instead of ‘quotations’, ‘info’ rather than ‘information’, ‘R-Patz’ in place of ‘Robert Pattinson’. . . yes? Anyone?
And then there is the acronym, an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word. (By contrast, an initialism – likeOED for Oxford English Dictionary – remains pronounced as separate letters.) The acronym creates one handy little word, saving the time needed to say them all individually, and giving you more time to do the important things in life like reading books and eating cake.
Occasionally an acronym disguises itself so successfully that we forget it isan acronym. Here are five examples of words that you might not have known hid other words within them. . .
Often used derogatively, ‘quango’ refers to an administrative body connected to the government, but outside the civil service. Which, considering it sounds like it ought to be a tropical fruit drink, might come as a bit of a disappointment. Maybe they should just call a spade a spade – or, in this case, call a quango a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization.
The earliest record of ‘scuba’ in the OED is from 1952, where it appeared as SCUBA – a snappy way of referring to self-contained underwater breathingapparatus. The upper-case letters have more popularly become lower-case, as the word becomes more familiar with water-lovers around the world.
If you were a child in the 90s, chances are that you played with Pogs. It seems oddly quaint that we were content, in that 20th-century world, to flip little disks of cardboard about, often without any very definite understanding of the rules and no intention of adhering to them. But did you know that ‘Pog’ is an acronym? It derives from ‘passion fruit, orange, guava’, the trademark for a Hawaiian juice drink, the lids of which provided the first disks.
We probably all know what a laser is – what would a James Bond film be without one? – but did you know that the word, currently first identified in 1960, is an acronym of ‘light amplification by stimulated emission ofradiation’? You can see why they went with the acronym, can’t you? By the time James Bond had finished asking for one of them to be passed, all opportunities for cutting into the bank vault would be scuppered.
Perhaps the most surprising acronym on the list, given the widespread use of the term for parcels sent to anyone from soldiers at war to students at university, the ‘care’ in care package originally stood for the Cooperative forAmerican Remittances to Europe, which sent out aid in the aftermath of World War Two.
And one that isn’t. . .
Then there’s the backronym. Somebody retrospectively creates an appropriate acronym for an existing word, and it can be so convincing that people mistakenly believe the word was originally an acronym. A good example is ‘posh’. You might have heard that posh is an acronym for ‘port out,starboard home’, in reference to the more comfortable accommodation on a ship sailing from England to India – but the evidence to support this suggestion has yet to be discovered.
You might have anticipated that sim (often heard in sim card, and also spelledSIM or Sim) was an acronym, but perhaps you didn’t know quite what it was. The letters stand for subscriber identity module, or subscriber identificationmodule: in other words, a microprocessor in a mobile phone holding details of the user’s network registration etc. So now you know.
You’ve probably heard of gulag (also spelled Gulag and GULAG) – a term used both for the department of Soviet secret police responsible for labour camps from the 1930s until the 1950s, and for those camps themselves. What you might not realize, unless you’re a fluent Russian speaker, is thatgulag is an acronym of Glavnoe upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovȳkh lagereĭ – which translates as ‘Chief Administration for Corrective Labour Camps’.
Let’s turn to something more cheerful, shall we? The etymology of puffinwhen referring to the bird (auks of the genus Fratercula, if you will) is uncertain, although it certainly isn’t an acronym. Where the acronym comes into play is with the British puffin crossing – a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights which use sensors to detect whether or not pedestrians are waiting. The acronym in question is pedestrian user friendly intelligent (crossing) – respelled after the bird’s name for punning potential…
…and by analogy with the earlier pelican crossing, also British. This variety of pedestrian crossing has traffic lights operated by pedestrians, and is a respelling of the acronym pedestrian light controlled (crossing). Other crossings represent a veritable menagerie of animals – the zebra crossingbecause it is striped black and white and the Pegasus crossing because horse riders can cross there (with reference to the mythical winged horse). The suggestion that the toucan crossing (which a cyclist may use withoutdismounting) is a pun on ‘two can cross’, sadly, seems likely to be a laterrationalization.
We’ll finish with a borderline case. Alphabet isn’t strictly an acronym, but it is close to an initialism, where the word is pronounced as separate letters, rather than as one word – such as OED for Oxford English Dictionary. In this instance, the initialism comes via Hellenistic Greek ἀλϕάβητος, from the first two letters of the ancient Greek alphabet ἄλϕα (alpha) and βῆτα (beta). That is to say, the word alphabet is formed in much the same way that we might refer to the English alphabet as the ABC.
The reason for this is that first early on had a role as an adverb, and the use of firstly, though established by the 17c, was felt to be an unnecessary affectation. Today this rule is considered outdated, and a variety of sequences are sometimes used:
First…, secondly…, thirdly…
Firstly…, secondly…, thirdly…
Firstly…, second…, third…
The first two of these examples are both usually considered acceptable, but the third should normally be avoided.
a drunkship of cobblers
a hastiness of cooks
a stalk of foresters
an observance of hermits
a bevy of ladies
a faith of merchants
a superfluity of nuns
a malapertness (= impertinence) of pedlars
a pity of prisoners
a glozing (= fawning) of taverners
a chattering or clattering of choughs
a rag or rake of colts
a covert of coots
a herd of cranes
a litter of cubs
a trip of dotterel
a flight or dole or piteousness of doves
a raft or bunch or paddling of ducks on water
a safe of ducks on land
a herd or parade of elephants
a busyness of ferrets
a shoal or run of fish
a cast of hawks
a siege of herons
an exaltation or a bevy of larks
a leap or lepe of leopards
a sord or suit of mallard
a stud of mares
a barren of mules
a watch of nightingales
a yoke of oxen
a muster of peacocks
a muster or parcel or rookery of penguins
a kit of pigeons flying together
a stand or wing or congregation of plovers
a rush or flight of pochards
a pod or school or herd or turmoil of porpoises
a bevy or drift of quail
a string of racehorses
an unkindness of ravens
a crash of rhinoceros
a bevy of roes
a parliament or building of rooks
a hill of ruffs
a dopping of sheldrake
a wisp or walk of snipe
a host of sparrows
a murmuration of starlings
a flight of swallows
a drift or herd or sounder of swine
a bunch or knob or raft of waterfowl
a school or pod or herd or gam of whales
a destruction of wild cats
a bunch or trip or plump or knob (less than 30) of wildfowl
a drift of wild pigs
a pack or rout of wolves
In British English, a billion used to be equivalent to a million million (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000), while in American English it has always equated to a thousand million (i.e. 1,000,000,000). British English has now adopted the American figure, though, so that a billion equals a thousand million in both varieties of English.
The same sort of change has taken place with the meaning of trillion. In British English, a trillion used to mean a million million million (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000,000,000). Nowadays, it’s generally held to be equivalent to a million million (1,000,000,000,000), as it is in American English.