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Ask Chuck Norris! He was there.

Dear Word Detective: A few years ago, I began hearing a “new” word, new to me, anyway. It was everywhere! That word is “conflate.” Am I wrong in thinking it was made up to fill a need? Seems like a mash-up of “confuse” and “inflate,” although I don’t know how “inflate” could apply. “Confuse” I get, as I interpret “conflate” to mean to mistakenly compare one item with another. Has this younger generation made up another word? Or has “conflate” merely gained popularity, especially in discussions of a scientific nature? — Bunny Reynolds.

Dagnabbit, are those whippersnappers fiddling with our language again? I swan, I can’t abide any more foolishness from those hooligans. Twerking and tweeting and selfing all day. Take away their electronic telephones, I say.

Onward. This is an interesting question. On the one hand, I too have noticed an increased use of “conflate” recently, at least in mass media. I don’t remember hearing it at all when I was growing up, and, according to the Google Ngram viewer (which tracks occurrences of words in books that happen to be in the Google Books database) from 1800 to the present, usage of “conflate” in printed books piddled along at nearly zero until it started to rise in the 1960s and then shot up between 1980 and 2000. So you’re correct that the relative popularity of “conflate” is recent.

But, as the preceding paragraph implies, the word itself is not new. In fact, “conflate” first appeared in English way back in the mid-16th century. “Conflate” comes from the Latin “conflare” (“con,” together, plus “flare,” to blow), and originally meant “to fuse or blow together, to combine, to put together from several sources.” By the late 19th century, “conflate” had narrowed a bit and was primarily used to mean (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “To combine or fuse two variant readings of a text into a composite reading; to form a composite reading or text by such fusion.” Today “conflate” is commonly used more broadly to mean “to confuse two things by combining them or equating them” (e.g., “Buzzfeed has been criticized for conflating real news and the antics of the Kardashians.”). “Conflation” is the particular kind of “confusion” that comes when disparate items or events are combined into one, resulting in “confusing” what actually happened or was said, which brings us, of course, to Brian Williams, aka The Great Conflator.

In early 2015, NBC News anchor Williams was embroiled in a media fracas when he recounted his story of being in a helicopter that was struck by a rocket propelled grenade over Iraq in 2003, a misfortune that had actually befallen a chopper flying an hour ahead of his. Long story short (and it is a complex situation), Williams eventually said that he had “conflated” two separate incidents and apparently “misremembered” what had happened. Given that most people believed he had simply lied, that excuse didn’t fly (he was suspended for six months and then banished to MSNBC). More importantly for this discussion, his high-profile use of “conflate” sent the word rocketing to the top of the list of words being looked up in the online dictionary. So the good news is that more people now know what “conflate” means. The bad news may be that they’re going to use it to explain their fibs.

Amok, Amuck.

Land of the Free, Home of the Murderous Frenzy.

Dear Word Detective: This morning, I told my wife that the maneuvers of several of my fellow drivers was a case of stupidity run amok. Then I thought to myself, “What in the world is ‘amok’ and why can you only ‘run amok’?” Can you shed any light on this odd word? — Fernando.

I know what you mean about driving these days. I remember reading, more than 20 years ago, a complaint by a German visiting the US about American drivers’ “poor lane discipline,” apparently referring to our collective inability to distinguish between driving to Grandma’s house and a car chase in one of the “Bourne” movies. And that was before car dashboards turned into entertainment appliances. I drive as safely as I can, but that seems to inspire fits of road rage among other drivers, so now I mostly stay home.

“Amok,” which today is often spelled “amuck,” comes from the Malay word “amoq,” meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” In English, the word “amok” dates back to the 16th century and the first contacts between Europeans and the Malay inhabitants. One 1773 account explains the word: “To run a muck in the original sense of the word, is to get intoxicated with opium, and then rush into the street with a drawn weapon, and kill whoever comes in the way, till the party is himself either killed or taken prisoner.” (The “drawn weapon” was usually a nasty big knife called a “kris.”) One might well suspect that such accounts of the phenomenon by Europeans might have been somewhat exaggerated and culturally biased; in any case, the word entered English with the same general meaning of “murderous frenzy.” The forms “amok” and “amuck” are considered equally correct in English today, though “a muck” was apparently preferred by the poets Dryden and Byron. Go figure.

Probably because incidents of doped-up loonies waving whatever the plural of “kris” is were rare in England, a figurative sense of “amok” meaning “heedlessly, headlong, recklessly” appeared in the late 17th century, almost always in the construction “running amuck” (“I … might have run ‘amok’ against society; but I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ against me.” Thoreau, Walden, 1854). For whatever reason, “amok” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Very rarely [used] with any other verb than run.”

Although the idiom “run amok” has its roots in a violent rampage, in today’s usage it usually means little more than “breaking rules” or “wildly exceeding one’s authority” (“Forbes has its own tales of interns run amuck. There was the Forbes 400 intern who took it upon herself to arrange a meeting with the then-fugitive financier Marc Rich … in Geneva, Switzerland.” Forbes 6/30/15). Disgruntled airline passengers seem to “run amuck” fairly frequently in the news, presumably waving sharpened air-sickness bags, but the taming of of “run amuck” into a tepid metaphor is best illustrated by one newsletter I found complaining that apathy among voters has “run amuck.”

By the way, I highly recommend a fascinating article written by etymologist Michael Quinion on his World Wide Words website ( on the surprising range of words English has borrowed from the Malay language, including “compound,” “bamboo” and “gingham.”

Can, Canister

My god, it’s full of worms!

Dear Word Detective: I need to know why cans, such as tin cans, came to be called “cans.” My friends think it was out of necessity; they used to be called “canisters” and it was just shortened because people were too lazy. I don’t think this is the case, however, because the word “canister” has been around since around 1500, originating from even older words as far back as the Greek word “kanna” at least. So that tin cans would be the object dubbed with the name “can” for the reason of laziness hundreds of years after the origin of “canister” doesn’t seem right to me, plus nobody in modern day lets slip the phrase “those canisters of food”; instead they might be referred to as “containers” and we don’t call cans “conts.” The objects that are generally referred to as “canisters,” from what I’ve experienced, are things bearing a resemblance to a thermos or an insulated containment vessel, like those used to hold liquid nitrogen or uranium. — Jacob.

Canisters of uranium, eh? Next you’ll be asking about the origin of “centrifuge,” and we’ll both be revising our plans for the next 30 years. Interestingly, speaking of humorless men with badges, I hear the word “canister” and automatically think “tear gas,” a flashback to my somewhat erratic college career.

Before we delve into the connection, if any, between “can” and “cannister,” I should explain that there is absolutely no connection between the noun “can” (as in “can of soup”) and the English verb “can” meaning “to be able to” (as in “I believe I can fly”). That verb comes from the same Germanic root that gave us “to know,” and in English evolved into meaning “to know how to do something,” i.e., to be able to do it. The old “to know” sense of “can” also gave us “canny” and “cunning,” both meaning “having or exhibiting knowledge.”

“Can” (which dates back to Old English) and “canister” (which didn’t show up until at least the 16th century) are two separate words; “can” is not, and never has been, a short form of “canister.” The two words do, however, share a common origin. “Can” is connected to the Late Latin “canna,” meaning a cup or vessel, and in English it was first used to mean either a drinking cup or a vessel to store liquid. “Cannister” comes from the Latin “canistrum,” meaning “basket,” and in English a “canister” was originally a small box or basket. Both Latin words, however, developed from the Greek “kanna” meaning “reed” (also the source of our “cane”). In the case of “canister,” the connection is obvious since baskets were often made of reeds. The connection of “can” to “reed” is a bit more opaque, but may have to do with the hollowness of large reeds.

In practical use, of course, there’s a great overlap between “can” and “canister,” at least in part because in English the “closed container” sense that developed for “can” also influenced the development of “canister.” About all you can say as even a vague rule is that a “can” is likely to be made of metal, while a “canister” can easily be made of cardboard, plastic, etc., as well as of metal.