New Word Wednesday: malapropism

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your new word for the week. Apparently I’m on a “word about words” kick lately…


malapropism noun

  • the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect

Example: “dance a flamingo” instead of a “flamenco”, referring to a person as a “suppository of knowledge” instead of a “repository”

Origin: mid 19th century, from the name of the character Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775). Originally from French mal à propos “inappropriate”.


This would be fun to play with: insert some malapropisms into normal speech and see if anyone catches you! I’d do it in this post if I could think of any example at all…


  • H




2+2 = 5

My mom has had a piece of paper hanging up next to her desk for years now, saying:

2+2 = 5*

*For very large values of 2

It never made sense to me until recently, when I actually thought to look it up (shock!). Obviously, 2+2 is 4, not 5: 2 is a constant and can’t have a different value. It’s actually a joke, playing on the ideas of rounding and estimating. Say your calculator is set to show numbers to zero decimal places, so it only displays a whole number. Then if you entered 2.48 the calculator would display it as 2. If you add 2.47 (which would also only show as 2) to that, the actual answer is 4.95, which the calculator will round to and display as 5. So, 2+2=5 for large enough values of 2!

The joke is also a reminder about being aware of these rounding errors in real life. Engineers deal with this a lot, which is why we tend to approximate π as 3.14 (or 3 if we’re being really lazy!). Any number in real life has to be estimated: at some point, the measurement has to be cut off. The danger comes in rounding all your numbers, then doing the calculation, because this can lead to a final answer that is quite far away from the one you should have come up with. Rounding errors compound surprisingly quickly, and it’s something to be aware of.

In school, we usually got around this issue by storing all the values in our calculator (to however many digits it could handle) and only rounding the final answer. This usually ensured we were as close as possible to the right answer. In real life, that’s not always an option, which is when you need to start tracking significant figures. A scale that weighs to 0.1lb can’t be used to estimate to the 0.01 of a pound: it’s only accurate to the first decimal place. So, if you’re adding that weight to the weight from a scale that is accurate to 0.01lb, you still have to keep your final answer to the 0.1lb, because you can’t use more significant figures than your least accurate measurement. This ensures you’re not incorporating rounding errors into the math.

So, a very nerdy joke with a good reminder about the difficulties about existing in the real world!

What’s your favorite nerdy joke? Even better if it comes with a lesson!


  • H

New Word Wednesday: ravel vs unravel

Happy Wednesday! Here are your new words for the week:


ravel verb

  • untangle something

I finally finished raveling this yarn.

  • confuse or complicate (a question or situation)

I don’t want him to help. He’ll only ravel things further.

  • unravel; fray
    (as adjective ravelleda shirt with a raveled hem


unravel verb

  • undo (twisted, knitted, or woven threads)

If you pull that thread, it will unravel the whole sweater.

  • investigate and solve or explain (something complicated or puzzling)

They attempted to unravel the timeline of the evening.

  • become undone
    Part of the hem had unraveled.
    All his work setting up the event quickly unraveled.


Right. Well that couldn’t be much more confusing. Let’s try to unravel this situation!

  1. When you’re talking about an object, you first have to ravel the tangled yarn, then you can knit the sweater, being careful not to unravel the whole thing.

  2. When you’re talking about a complicated situation, raveling will make it worse, while unraveling will solve it.

  3. If you’re talking about a shirt hem or other piece of fabric, the two words pretty much mean the same thing. Either way, it’s frayed.

So how can these two words mean both the same and opposite things? The words came from the Dutch ravelen “to tangle, fray”, rafelen “to unweave”, and from rafel “frayed thread”. The word has roots in weaving and sewing: as threads become unwoven from the final product, they get tangled. So you can unravel a sweater and get a tangled ball of yarn, which you would then have to ravel.

The many languages English has borrowed from can make unraveling word origins a confusing exercise!


Enjoy your new words!






I’ve been working for various large corporations since 2009. Fairly early on, I noticed the tendency for corporate employees to use (often mangled) cliched or downright nonsensical phrases in their meetings. I heard so many that I started collecting them, and called them “corporatisms”. The list has become quite long over the years…here is the current version. I didn’t include acronyms, though…then my list would become a book!

Keep on keepin’ on
Kick the can down the road
Deep dive
Low hanging fruit
The well’s not dry
Kid in a candy store
Rob Peter to pay Paul
On board
Touch base
“there’s been a lot going on and a lot happening”
Action items
It is what it is
“SOP Development SOP” (the Standard Operating Procedure for developing Standard Operating Procedures)
“The big fish on the line”
Do what we say, say what we do
Get the right parties around the table
We have two plans: we have a plan A, and a plan B in this scenario.
Keep pushing
Dead in the water
Turn a blind eye
Feet to the fire
Heads up
Out the door
Breathing room
Winging it
Correct me if I’m wrong
Pieces and parts
This project is a go
Jump on it
Carve out some time
Out the door
Business as usual
Head above water
Let’s discuss this offline
Paint us into a corner
Table it
Shelve it
Sidebar that question
Escalate it
Correct me if I’m wrong
Buy off
“once we consense” (as in consensus), also “we’ve consensed”
Get it off top dead center (ah, car people)
Task force
When we were trying to skin the cat
Water over the dam
The target is still the target
Another feather in the cap (used as “straw that broke the camel’s back”)
Just to compare things apples to apples and side by side
It’s 9 of one, 6 or half dozen of another
No skin off our neck
Stab yourself in the foot
Cross the I, dot the t
“Root cause” used as a verb
The juice isn’t worth the squeeze
They want the fig leaf


Heard any good corporatisms lately?


  • H

The Story of Walkie Scorchie

A few months ago I found out about this story, which once again proves that real life is much stranger than fiction:


The building at 20 Fenchurch Street in London has a unique shape. It is wider at the top than at the bottom, making it look as if it is bursting up and out of the skyline. Because of this, it has been nicknamed the “Walkie Talkie” building.

It has, however, earned a few more unfortunate nicknames, due to the fact that for about two hours a day, the concave surface of the building focuses sunlight onto the ground below, creating spot temperatures of up to 240 F. This is hot enough to fry eggs, crack pavement, and melt the hood ornament on one man’s Jaguar. Residents, with their trademark British humor, have taken to calling the building “Walkie Scorchie” or the Fryscraper.

The mistake can be traced back to the developers running out of money to complete construction during the Great Recession in 2009. The original design included horizontal louvers to cut glare, but these were removed to save money and construction time.

Instead, developers have had to install a permanent sunshade after the fact. Architect Rafael Viñoly admitted that “we made a lot of mistakes” in the construction of the building, and complained that this wouldn’t have been a problem if not for climate change. Apparently when he first arrived in London, the city didn’t have as many sunny days, and the Fryscraper effect was a non-issue.

Interestingly enough, this is a recurring problem for Viñoly. He also designed the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, which has a similar design and creates a hot zone on the pool deck that the management have termed a “solar convergence” but the staff prefer to call the Death Ray – appropriate, since it has singed hair and melted through plastic cups. Gordon Absher, spokesman for the resort company, stated, “A new building’s first season of operation always uncovers glitches”. Temporary solutions such as larger, thicker umbrellas and more foliage will not suffice because the hot spot shifts throughout the day and the year. Absher complained, “This is quite literally an astronomical challenge. We are dealing with a moving target.”


Any stories you know from real life that would never have come up in fiction? A death ray from a building is certainly up there!


– H