Terminology Rock: The Modus Version.

Disclaimer: I wrote this post ages ago and forgot to click the big orange Posty button at the bottom. Hence all my excitement at Ngram, which was at that time shiny and buzzworthy.

Oh, would that Google Ngram Viewer had been released when we started this blog. I know I can't make any real claims to linguistic skill or knowledge, so it sure is nice to have a computer do all the work for me. Check it out: I just found a hit for the phrase "safe as houses" as early as 1840, while my hasty manual search almost conclusively slated it in 1859.
They drop this phrase a few times in the book, and it made me wonder:
"...first recorded in 1859, has endured in both meanings to the present day. Partridge quotes Hotten's A Slang Dictionary as an explanation of its origin, saying that the meaning may have arisen 'when the railway bubbles began to burst and speculation again favoured houses.'"

Auto-catalytic tree, on the other hand, gets zero mentions anywhere. Guess they haven't transcribed TDE yet, huh?
Still, fun with language persists: "Catalyst," via chemist Berzelius in 1836, is an object that, without being altered, causes a reaction outside itself. Funnily enough, before 1660, "catalysis" meant ruin and destruction. Thus the phrase "auto-catalytic tree," most assumedly speaking of an object with multiple distinct parts that affect each other in turn, could once have been taken to mean an object that ruins itself, something self-destructive.

I stumbled over the term Catastrophist when it was first mentioned in the third iteration: for some reason I immediately related it to Michael Moorcock's warring forces in the Blood trilogy, Chaos versus the Singuarity. Originated in 1869, it does not in fact refer to a schizophrenic, subjective, all-encompassing view of the universe but to theories of historical events that involve destruction or creation on a massive and violent scale, like the Big Bang or the comet that killed the dinosaurs.


  1. “Auto-catalytic tree” is an invented victorian term for a chain reaction. “Auto-catalytic” because by occurring it creates circumstances suitable for it to occur again (as, for example, an atom fissioning produces the neutrons necessary to cause another fission in a nearby nucleus). “Tree” because, if you graph a chain reaction, you find that a single event at the root causes N similar events, and each of these N causes N further events itself… a classical case of a divergent chain reaction or pandemic contagion.

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