getty images / istock
getty images / istock

14 Old-Fashioned Words for Writers

getty images / istock
getty images / istock

In our age of bloggers, spammers, texters, and tweeters, there are types of writing earlier eras couldn’t have imagined. But there are also many old, out-of-use words for very specific types of writers (and also terrible writers). At the risk of being a puffer, here are some obscure things to call a quill-driver.

1. PUFFER

This word started out in the 1600s as a word for a bloviator who tended to blow empty smoke about something. Eventually, the word gravitated toward another type of malarkey-spewer: the advertising writer. In this 1998 Chicago Tribune article, the term is clearly not aspirational: “Were we journalists then and we're just puffers of stories now to get numbers?”

2. TOOTLER

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a tootler as a “a writer of ‘tootle’, verbiage, or twaddle.” Tootling took a trip down Horsefeathers Avenue because early meanings referred to birdsong or the notes of a wind instrument, both of which can be pretty but rarely present a logical argument.

3. SARCAST

This noun, in print since the 1600s, would not be useful at all today, since it refers to a sarcastic writer. Sarcasm is harder to find on the Internet than kittens.

4. QUILL-DRIVER

This vivid term has been around since at least 1700, and it can refer to a clerk or secretary, but it’s also a dismissive term for a writer. Quill-driver is as straight-up a synonym you’ll ever find for pencil-pusher. This 1900 example from Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim shows how little respect the term carried: “He wouldn't be terrified with a pack of lies by a cocky half-bred little quill-driver.”

5. CATASTROPHIST

A catastrophist has often referred to a specific type of pessimist—someone who thinks life is constantly falling into debacle and disaster, with apocalypse right around the corner. But the word gained an even more specific meaning thanks to the 1930s Polish Żagary movement: writers who were part of this movement were called catastrophists.

6. BLOTTER

A blotter—like the similar term paper-stainer—is a writer who is not doing much more than literally leaving a mark.

7. SMEAR MERCHANT

Along the lines of blotting, there’s the ignoble profession of smear journalism. Sometimes such writers have been known as smear merchants or smear-mongers. They use smear tactics in smear sheets, where they do smear jobs

8. BOOKWOMAN

This term—which could name a literary superhero and member of the Avengers—has had two meanings. A bookwoman (or a bookman) is someone who loves to read, but a bookwoman can also be a female writer. Many similar sexist terms used to be common, such as authoress (a broader term than murdermongress, a word Ogden Nash used to describe Agatha Christie) and sob sister (an advice columnist for the lovelorn, which was Lois Lane’s first job in the original Superman comics).

9. WRITRIX

Another milestone in sexism was the rare word writrix, which can be found in an astounding 1772 sentence written by José Francisco de Isla and recorded by the OED: “Why should it not be said, she was not a common woman, but a geniusess, and an elegant writrix?” Yikes.

10. COUPLETEER

This is one of many terms that simply alter the name of the type of writing. A coupleteer writes couplets, much as an epigrammatarian writes epigrams, a legendarian writes legends, and a manuscriptor writes manuscripts.

11. DEATH-HUNTER

This sounds like the name of an action or horror movie, but it’s just a type of scribbler: specifically, an obituary writer. Death-hunter has also referred to fun professions such as undertaker and corpse-robber.

12. SNOBOGRAPHER

The OED eloquently defines this word as “A writer on, a describer of, snobs.” 

13. MINIATURIST

This word could plausibly describe a maker of model ships, nanobots, or Ant-Man, but it actually describes a writer of short pieces of music or fiction. This term is still used occasionally. It turns up in a New York Times article from 1989: “Ms. Tolstaya is a miniaturist whose stories lack the political and moral resonance of the most formidable antirealists.”

14. SQUIBBLER

This very rare term—only found in 1671 (and possibly a misspelling of squibber)—is a scribbler who quibbles. Given the endless stream of pretentious think pieces, snotty comments, and mean tweets in the world today, this word could use a revival. So could anonymuncle—a word for an annoying anonymous writer. You can find even more words for ink-jerkers here.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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