Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Next weekend the MCAS Miramar Air Show will, rain or shine, fill the skies in my part of our city. The spectacle will feature aerial excitement from beginning to end, including daily Blue Angels performances. This year’s theme is A Salute to Vietnam Veterans.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two Wrights did make an airplane, and that invention has inspired the English language to fly up, up and away. Straighten up and fly right by the seat of the pants (“to fly by instinct rather than instruments”), even if you take a lot of flak. Flak, which seems to echo the sound of anti-aircraft shells, is adopted from the German acronym FLeiger AbwehrKanonen.

The increasingly popular phrase “pushing the envelope” does not mean “working at a post office.” The expression came into general use following the publication of Tom Wolfe’s mega-selling book about the space program, “The Right Stuff” (1979): “One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’. . . . [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight testing.” Wolfe didn’t originate the term, although it’s appropriate that he used it in a technical and engineering context, as it was first used in the field of mathematics.

The envelope here is the mathematical envelope, the locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves. That envelope describes the upper and lower limits of the various factors that it is safe to fly at, such as speed, engine power, maneuverability, wind velocity and altitude. By pushing the envelope, that is, challenging those limits, test pilots are able to determine just how far it was safe to go. The expression has now expanded beyond mathematics aeronautics to mean “to seek innovation, to stretch established limits.”

By the way, the preferred U.S. pronunciation of envelope is EN-vuh-lope. AHN-vuh-lope is a shining example of “French fried English,” in the category of fwah-YAY for foyer (which should rhyme with lawyer), AHM-ij or oh-AHZH for homage (the h should be sounded) and NEESH for niche (which should rhyme with itch).

Helicopters don’t fly; they beat the air into submission. As humorist Dave Barry, my fellow Haverford College alumnus, has written, “The truth is that helicopters are nothing at all like cars. Scientists still have no idea what holds helicopters up. Whatever it is, it could stop at any moment.”

These mishmashes of whirling parts that can take flight often lighten their load by shedding their first four letters to become copters or their last six letters to become helos. Then they take flight in a sky of metaphor — chopper, whirlybird, eggbeater, stick buddy and dragonfly. A recent metaphoric extension is the compound helicopter parents, which refers to moms and dads who constantly hover above their children’s lives and activities.

The phrase balls to the wall, meaning “an all-out effort,” is another aviation metaphor. On airplanes, the handles controlling the throttle and the fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips. Pushing those grips forward, close to the front wall of the cockpit, increases the amount of fuel going to the engines and results in the highest possible speed. As some clever wag once wrote, “If you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger. If you pull the stick back, they get smaller. Unless you keep pulling the stick back. Then they get bigger again.

Please note that fly by night, as in “a fly-by-night business,” is not an aviation metaphor. Here fly simply means “run away, flee” under cover of darkness. On the other wing, fly by wire is a fairly new term in aviation. Nowadays, the cockpit controls on large aircraft aren’t balled throttles but electronic devices that talk to electric motors in the wings and tail via digital circuitry, telling them how far to move and in what direction. Hence, fly by wire.

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Having fun with words boosts the brain. People who regularly play word games, such as crossword puzzles, have sharper brains that function equivalent to brains 10 years younger, say experts at the UK’s University of Exeter Medical School and King’s College London. In an online trial, participants reported how often they played word games, and researchers assessed their brain function. The results showed that the more often study participants worked word puzzles, the better they performed on tasks that measured attention, reasoning and memory.