Tuesday, November 24, 2009


A land where big things are little, like the Mississippi River.
And other things are bigger than you can possibly imagine, such as the tales of Paul Bunyan, about whom it is said that Minnesota's 10,000 lakes are just his footprints filled up with water.

Minnesota is a Lakota word meaning "sky-tinted waters." From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water is a song written in 1909 in Nebraska but the phrase was taken by the St. Paul brewery Hamm's as their slogan and thence became Minnesotan.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mother Goose

Yesterday I went out to buy vegetables and almost got caught up in the nightmare of Mother Goose Parade traffic. So, who was Mother Goose?

Americans claim that Elizabeth Foster Goose, wife to 17th century Bostonian Issac Goose, is the feathered matron. After her husband dies, so the story goes, she moved in with family including publisher Thomas Fleet who allegedly published "Mother Goose's Melodies For Children" in 1719. The problem is a Frenchman published "The Tales of Mother Goose" 20 years previously and there is a reference to Mother Goose 50 years before that.

The French claim that Bertha (or Bertrada), briefly wife of King Robert II (972-1031) or the only wife of Pepin the Short (714-768) and mother of Charlemagne, was Berthe pied d'oie and Mère l'Oye - translation, Goose-footed Bertha and Mother Goose - was the original Mother Goose. The only problem is that the second title, Mère l'Oye, was attached in the 19th century.

My theory is the real Mother Goose is a bloke named Charles Perrault. Perrault was the author of a plethora of folk tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Puss-in-Boots. In 1696 he published a book titled Tales of Mother Goose. From one point of view, this makes the true Mother Goose a guy.

Friday, November 20, 2009


A fun word because, while old, nobody has a clue where it comes from.

Roam (v) - to wander about without purpose. Dates back to at least the 14th century. Many etymologists believes it is comes from the city of Rome, that English pilgrims had to take a circuitous route around France getting to the holy city. There is no actual evidence for this theory, though. There is a similar word in Old English (ramian) which may have come from a Saxon or Dutch word. The experts are puzzled by this little word.
Roam is also something that Buffalo used to do in the old West. Art is by Tate Hamilton.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fun With Babel Fish

Not wanting to think about words this past week. So, today I decided to have fun with Yahoo's Babel Fish. Babel Fish (name from the creature in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) is a handy place to do some simple, if barely literate, translations.
  • Movie - Casablanca - Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. Translate it English to Spanish to French to German back to English and you get - "From all of Geneva it articulated everywhere in all cities in the world, it goes into meinss." Meinss is a word that Babel Fish made up.
  • Movie - Forrest Gump - My Mama always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get." Translate it English to Spanish to French to German back to English and you get - My mam3a always said, " ; The life was as a crate chocolates; They never know, which you' ; the RH too get." to go; ; Mam3a is Babel Fish's strange try a translating Mama. Also, as you can see, punctuation can be very confusing so You're gets translated into You' R E.
  • Politics - Nikita Khrushchev - Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river. Translate from Russian to English (my source) to Spanish to French to German back to English and you get - The politicians are by all parts entsprech. They promise to build a bridge inclusively, where they are not ninguÌ � n river. So much here. First it translates "no river" to ningún río where the accented-u becomes a random character. An accurate translation is "no hay río." Entsprech is German for Correspond, a word that Babel Fish can't seem to translate into English.
The lesson here? Babel Fish has a fun name but is abysmally stupid at translating. Far better is FreeTranslation.com.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


As in, "to be caught napping."

Nap (n) - A short sleep. Believe it or not, this word is one of the old ones in English. Chaucer used it way back in the 14th century. From the Old English word nappen. And I just love this, it is perhaps from an earlier Old Norse word, hnipna, meaning to drool.
I suppose, truly, that the master of the house has kept you so busy in bed all night long that now you need a nap. ~ Geoffrey Chaucer, The Shipman's Tale

Monday, November 9, 2009

Serial Killer

The phrase first appears in print in 1981 discussing the murder sprees of John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. It probably was used informally by police and journalists since the mid-1960's.

Who you choose as the first recorded serial killer in history depends on how you want to define the phrase. Some suggest Caligula, whose love of torture and killing goes beyond the general blood lust common for political figures of that time. But, emperors and kings have always killed people, its in the job description.

A better choice is Gilles de Rais. A French knight during the 15th century he fought alongside Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years War. He also had a penchant for kidnapping, raping, and killing children. Over an eight year period he killed between 80 and 200 children.

Jack the Ripper is generally regarded as the first modern serial killer.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Killing your sibling. Also used for killing your brother-in-arms, your fellow soldier. From the Latin fratricida. Frater (brother) also appears in fraternity and fraternize. Cida (killer) appears in all sorts of words.
  • Suicide - killing self
  • Homicide - killing another person
  • Genocide - killing a cultural group
  • Regicide - killing your king
  • Insecticide - killing bugs
  • Deicide - killing God
  • Vaccicide - killing cows
  • hirudicide - killing leeches
and my favorite...
  • Onmicide - Destroying everything
You can -cide just about anything you want using Latin and English. Art is Cain practicing fratricide on Abel from a 12th century mosaic.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween, etc.

Various Halloween goodies.
  • Halloween - Shortening of All Hallow's Eve, All Saints Day being Nov. 1. Also, as early Christians were wont to do, an absorption of the Celtic harvest festival, Samhain. Hence the jack o'lantern, which has as much to do with Christian saints as black cats. By the by, carving pumpkins is an American adaptation. In Great Britain they carved turnips.
  • Werewolf - From Wer- meaning man in Old English, and wolf meaning, well, wolf.
  • Ghost - From the Old Saxon word gest, meaning spirit.
  • Ghoul - From an Arabic word, ghul. The ghul was a demon that lured people into the desert to eat them.
  • Goblin - Continental European origin. The source is either French (gobelin), German (kobold), or Latin (gobelinus). Or all three.
  • Vampire - Already did them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Spitting Image

You are the spitting image of your father. The whole phrase is "spit and image" and means you are made from and look like someone. This phrase is recorded in a book published in 1901. The use of the phrase "dead spit" to mean "dead ringer" is found in the 19th century.

An alternate theory is that the original phrase is "spirit and image" and means you are alike body and soul. Then there is the theory that the phrase started as "splitting image" meaning you are as identical as a plank of wood splint in two. These theories are certainly more sourced in distaste for expectorate references than actual usages.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Vaccination - Exposure to a microbe to stimulate the body's immune system as a defense against disease. From the Latin word, vacca, or cow. The first vaccinations were against small pox and used the non-fatal cowpox virus (pictured) to immunize people.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Devil May Care

Devil-may-care - Meaning recklessly free of spirit.

I've always thought this phrase, as in "He has a devil-may-care attitude" meant something along the lines of - "The devil may worry about what I'm doing, but I sure as hell don't." In other words, I'm so reckless even the devil is concerned. But, I figured if I ever investigated it I'd find some mundane, boring origin.

I was wrong. The phrase is literally a shortening of "The devil may care, but I do not."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The eighth level of Hell.

Malebolge - Roughly translates from the Italian as evil pockets. Malebolge is reserved for deceivers, liars, panderers, and thieves. Health insurance executives fall in the eighth pocket of the eighth level. Here the souls of Deceivers who gave false or corrupted advice to others for personal benefit are punished by eternal fire.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The City of Seattle is named after Chief Seathl (also spelled Si'ahl) of the Suquamish and Duwamish people. In agreeing to deed land to the United States in the 1850's Chief Seathl gave a speech in his native language that has been rendered in English variously. Here are excerpts from a version I like.
If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and also your brothers. Therefore you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother....

There is no quiet place in the white man's cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in the spring or to hear the rustle of insect's wings. But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand. The clatter seems only to insult the ears.
And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around the pond at night? But I am a red man and do not understand....

One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – our God is the same God. You may think now that you own him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot.
He is the God of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to reap contempt on its creator. ~ Chief Seathl to representatives of President Polk
Other versions of the speech. Of course, there are white historians who, to this day, claim that Chief Seathl was an ignorant savage who could never have said anything remotely intelligent.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


A word created by Southerners during the Civil War (1863) as part of their fear campaign against the abolition of slavery. A joining of the Latin miscere, mix, and genus, race. It means a marriage, or sexual union, of peoples of different races. Laws banning interracial marriage have a long history in the United States, dating back to colonial times.

The first state to repeal its ban on interracial marriage was Pennsylvania in 1780. (The scream you hear is Rick Santorum who would surely have claimed it would lead to men marrying goats.) When Barack Obama was born in 1961, there were 22 states that would have considered his parents marriage a felony. Sixteen states - the eleven Confederate states plus Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky - saw their anti-miscegenation laws overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1967.
Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State. ~ Chief Justice Earl Warren, Loving v. Virginia, 1967
Southern states were slow to repeal their unconstitutional statues, the last was Alabama in the year 2000.

The anti-miscegenation laws were sometimes strangely complex. Several enforced the one-drop rule where a single drop of "Negro" blood defined a person as black. A person 99% white could not marry someone 100% white. In 1957, New Orleans created a "race list" of "historically Negro surnames" to double check all marriage licenses against lest a mixed marriage might slip by. For two decades an average of nearly 300 marriages a year were denied using this list. Source.

This latent fear of race mixing is one of the reasons Southern Republicans are so insanely hateful of President Obama. He is the product of the demonic union of an Negroid man and a Caucasian woman. To Southerners this was ingrained as a visceral fear and something to be prevented at any cost. Lynching was the frequent result of even the suspicion of miscegenation.

All this is caused by the Louisiana justice of the peace who has publicly, and proudly, stated he will not perform miscegenation weddings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


As in the Spawn of Satan (or Limbaugh).

Spawn - As a verb dates to the 15th century and comes from the Latin word expandere, to spread out, through the French to English. It referred to the spreading out of fish roe. It was first used as a noun in the same century but did not refer to offspring until 1590.
Googling "spawn of satan" produces this photo of camel spiders from the Iraq War.

Monday, October 12, 2009


As in "Government surveillance is everywhere nowadays."

Surveillance (n) - To supervise, to watch over. Directly from the French word surveiller (Sur- meaning over, -veiller meaning to watch). Literally, to watch over. Apparently, the word was coined in France during the Reign of Terror when people were watching each other for subtle signs of aristocratic sympathies.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: Well, what does that mean Biggs, 'hinky'?
Marshal Biggs: I don't know. Strange.
Marshal Henry: Weird.
Gerard: Well, why don't you say strange or weird? I mean hinky, that has no meaning.
Biggs: Well, we say hinky.
Gerard: I don't want you guys using words around me that have no meaning. I'm taking the stairs and walking.
Biggs: [sotto voice] How about 'bullshit?' How about 'bullshit', Sam?
~ The Fugitive (1993)
Hinky - A state of being vaguely suspicious.

I love words like this that drive etymologists crazy. Some say it comes from an Old Scottish word, hink, meaning hesitation. Others trace it to the word hank, meaning a coil of rope. Still others trace the word to hincty, black slang from the Roaring Twenties (via hanky) meaning snobbish. Then there are those who swear it comes from the German word hinken, meaning to limp.

Then again, it could just come from a child's rhyming game, hinky-pinky.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Not that the seasons call for them yet, just in honor of an episode of the Discovery Channel's "Raging Planet" that left my father remembering winters in the Iron Range of Minnesota, not in a good way.

Blizzard (n) - A violent snowstorm. Etymologists don't want to pin this word down because it didn't emerge from Shakespeare, the King's English, some foreign tongue, or an United States writer. Blizz, like buzz, started as rural English slang, rube-speak. It meant a quick strike, like a punch. The -ard suffix means hardy or excessive, as in drunkard. Put together it means an excessively hard strike. Being rube-speak, no educated writer of the mid-second millennium would dream of demeaning himself by using the word in print. So the word just hung around the hinterland as sort of linguistic orphan.

The first appearance of the word in print to describe a massive snowstorm was an 1870 newspaper article describing an Iowa blizzard. But, the word was certainly known and used in that context long before.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


The chemical that most commonly abuses my body.

Histamine - From hist-, because it is composed of Histidine amino acid residues, and -amine, because it is of the Amine chemical group similar to ammonia.

Histamine is created by the body as an antibody immune response to a protein-based invasion, be that a harmful parasitic protozoa in the gut or harmless ragweed pollen in the sinuses. Histamine (H1 receptor) dilates blood vessels to facilitate access for white blood cells which also causes swelling and itching, mucus release pins the invaders down, and the smooth muscles such as those that line the bronchi contract so the invader can't get into the lungs.

For that poor little protozoa in the gut histamine means a quick death. If the trigger is pollen the body kind of panics in the biological equivalent of using a cannon to kill a flea. The antibodies are screaming that there is a major invasion of those pollen things in the respiratory system. Histamine floods the area causing a runny nose and itchy eyes while an asthmatic finds it nearly impossible to breath. Meanwhile the white blood cells wander around wondering what all the hubbub is about.

This is the time to take an anti-histamine.

In the brain histamine has a non-immune system task by stimulating wakefulness as part of the brain's danger response system. In other words, histamine wakes you up when you have to run like hell.

This is why taking an anti-histamine makes you want to sleep away the day.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


The name Canada predates any permanent European settlement. First used to describe the territory by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535. It is from an Iroquois word, kanata, meaning village.

Unconnected, in Latin canada means canal while in Spanish cañada means glen.

The picture is of Dawson, Yukon.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


I was looking up the word horizontal in my dictionary, not that I don't know the word generally but because I want to know if it was specifically the perfect word I was looking for. Among the definitions is this:
Horizontal (noun) - Something that is oriented horizontally.
A reminder that, as often as I use them, dictionaries are still frequently full of crap.
Crap (noun) - Something that is crappy.
By the by, horizontal turns out to be a lightening bug word.


As in, I just got back from my annual jury duty. As in, that's five hours of my life I'll never get back. As in, on a scale of zero to ten where ten is the most interesting moment of my life and zero is death, jury duty would be a negative number. Surely being dead is less boring than sitting around, captive, in a jury lounge. At least in Gitmo they torture you to break up the monotony.

Jury - From the Latin jurare, meaning to swear an oath.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Since there have been several recently. Photo is of Pago Pago in American Samoa.
Earth - An Old English word meaning ground or soil. At least a thousand years old, the word has either Germanic or Norse roots.

Quake - Also Old English, so old it apparently has no known source outside of England. Original meaning to tremble.

Earthquake - Dates back to 1288, spelled eorthequakynge, and meant then exactly what it means today.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Casus Belli

Entered the English language as a phrase in 1849. Latin, literally "the case for war." Also a European rock band.

Monday, September 28, 2009


As in "going rogue."

Rogue (n) - A vagrant; an idle, sturdy beggar; a vagabond; a tramp. A deliberately dishonest person; a knave; a cheat. From 16th Century thieves slang for a vagabond who begs by pretending to be a scholar. In horticulture, a worthless plant occurring among seedlings of some choice variety.
Which leads me to remember that old Dorothy Parker story. In a parlor game, Miss Parker was asked to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence. Her reply was, "You can lead a horticulture (whore to culture) but you can't make her think.
Which is my way of saying that Sarah Palin choose an absolutely perfect, totally appropriate title for her book.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

College and University

What is the difference between these words?

A college may be part of a university but a university can never be part of a college.

College - A society of scholars incorporated for study or instruction. From the Latin collegium, meaning community. Entered the English language in the 14th century to describe the subdivisions of the universities at Oxford and Cambridge.

University - The definition is essentially the same as for college. From the Latin phrase
universitas magistrorum et scholarium, meaning "the whole community of masters and scholars." Of course, universe derives from the same root.

In the "chicken and egg" aspect, university came first and college followed.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Cat, on the other hand, is unique because it is nearly universal.
  • Cattus - Latin, wildcat
  • Kattuz - Proto-Germanic (prior to Latin influences)
  • Kadis - Nubian
  • Qitt - Arabic
Cat, in English, is a very old word dating to 700 AD.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Did you hear about the dyslexic atheist who insisted that there is no Dog.

Dog - These origins are lost in the mists of time. It is known that the word comes from the Old English word docga, but where did that come from? It is not Germanic (hund) or Latinate (canis) or Gaelic (madra). Other European languages like French (dogue) and Danish (dogge) are clearly connected but etymologists believe these words derived from the English word rather than a common root.

Equally mysterious is the Spanish word for dog (perro) which also has no apparent origin. Both dog and perro probably come from local dialects that disappeared thousands of years ago.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Perhaps my favorite linguistic quirks are heteronyms, words that are spells the same but have different pronunciations and different meanings. Words like bow and bow or lead and lead (Okay, that doesn't work too well in print). What can be more confusing for someone trying to learn the language than dealing with words like this?

Lead - As a noun, lead is an elemental metal (symbol Pb). The origin is the German word Lot, meaning plumb weight. As a verb, lead (pronounced LEED) means to be in front and comes from a Saxon word, lithan, meaning to travel.

Bow - The verb, to bend at the waist, is from the Germanic bugon, meaning to bend. That is also the origin for the noun meaning of an archery bow. However, the bow of a ship has its origin in the Dutch word boech, meaning shoulder.

Minute - A personal favorite. Both meanings, one-sixtieth of an hour (stress on the first syllable) and a tiny bit (stress on the second syllable), come from the Latin word minutus, meaning small.


I've been quiet for a month and I've already done vacation so let's look at another word for taking time off.

Sabbatical (a/n) - A leave of absence generally taken every seven years. Literally, "suitable for the Sabbath," the term refers back to Mosaic Law where land was to be kept fallow every seventh year. For university professors a sabbatical was as period intended for extensive research but is now mostly an excuse for a really long vacation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


As in, "It's was over 100 degrees F yesterday and it will breech the century mark today and tomorrow as well."

Century (n) - One hundred of something, be it years, degrees, soldiers. From the Latin, of course, centum, meaning 100. The rank of Centurion commanded a centuria of men in a Roman legion. Both words come from centum. That a centuria was only 80 men, not 100, is just proof of how hard it is to count using Roman numerals.

Monday, August 24, 2009


From finding this disturbing as well as fascinating recipe for human flesh.

Cannibal (n) - Something that eats its own kind, think Hannibal Lecter. From the Carib Indian's name for themselves, Galibi ("brave people"), as modified by Christopher Columbus himself. Convince that he has found China he was certain that the Galibi were actually referring to the Khan, Columbus recorded the "gal" sound as a "can" sound.

Of course, all this reminds me of that great Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man." Which, in turn, points out the strange habit of human filmwriters (and, while we are at it rightwing conspiricy theorists) to believe that the tastiest dish in the Universe is humanity.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


A lovely place before it became a war zone for the drug cartels.

At one time, in the 19th century, the town of Tijuana straddled the US-Mexico border. It was a tiny hamlet of less than 300 along the Tijuana River. It attracted tourists due to its hot springs (Agua Caliente).

Prohibition saw Tijuana boom. A casino joined the horse race track and hot springs spa as Americanos streamed across the border to get drunk, a tradition we continue to this day. Mobsters got rich smuggling liquor into the US, just as now mobsters get rich smuggling cocaine. Less than 70,000 people lived in Tijuana in 1950, today the population exceeds 3 million and Tijuana is more than twice the size of neighboring San Diego.

Tijuana - Most likely not, as many believe, from Tia Juana (Aunt Jane), although the Spanish land grant rancho was named Rancho Tia Juana. More likely the origin is a Kumeyaay Indian word, Tiwan, meaning close to the sea. There are many other possible origins including Teguana, meaning inhospitable place. Whatever, the place name Tijuana was recorded on maps as early as 1719.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


In honor of the Discovery Channel series Raging Planet.
Hurricane (n) - A violent tropical cyclonic storm located in the Atlantic Ocean or the eastern Pacific. From the Spanish word huracan which, in turn, is derived from the Taino (Arawak dialect) words Hura (wind) and Can (central), or Center of the Wind.

Typhoon (n) - The same cyclonic storm located in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. From Greek mythology, Typhon was the last child of Gaia, a massive monster with a hundred serpent heads that touched the stars who warred with the Greek Gods and nearly destroyed the world. A storm demon and the father, the mother is Echidna, of many of the classic Greek monsters like the Hydra and the Sphinx. Also, in Cantonese, tai fung translates to big wind and reinforces this word for Asian storms.

Cyclone (n) - First appeared in English in 1848, it was a word coined by a British East India Company official to describe an Indian Ocean typhoon. From the Greek kyklon, meaning whirling around.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Another of my favorite britishisms (yes, there is such a word).

Blimey (interj) - The best definition is either Wow! or Shit! The full phrase is Cor Blimey and is a contraction of the phrase God blind me as in "may God blind me if I'm lying."

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Lemon (n) - A fruit. From the Persian word for the fruit, limun. Originated in South and Southeast Asia. First brought to Europe during the era of the Roman Empire.

(n) - A worthless thing, like a car. Dates to 1909 in American slang. Possibly from an older pool hall hustle, the "lemon game."

Lemon Game (hustle) - A hustler gets a mark into a pool game, playing for credit. The hustler loses a significant amount of money, say $100. When it comes time to pay up, the hustler refuses to pay unless the mark displays $100 to show he could have paid off if he had lost. When the mark gets the money he is robbed.

Lemon Tree (folk song written by Will Holt in the 1960's)
When I was just a lad of ten, my father said to me,
Come here and learn a lesson from the lovely lemon tree.

Don't put your faith in love, my boy, my father said to me,

I fear you'll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Meaning the British swear word. There are several theories as to the origin. Here are some options, take your pick.
  • God's Blood - A common oath was to swear upon the body or blood of Christ - "God's body" or "God's blood," and this evolved from that.
  • Menstruation - A reference to menstrual flow. Lot's of curses refer to bodily functions.
  • Aristocrats - Aristocratic heritage is called "blood." Some sources think it comes from "bloody drunk" meaning as drunk as a rowdy young aristocrat.
  • Blood - Other sources say that "bloody drunk" means "fired up and ready for a fight."
  • Virgin Mary - Many sources claim that the phrase "by Our Lady" became "By'r Lady" (found in Shakespeare) and devolved further to just "bloody." Eric Partridge calls this "phonetically implausible."
  • Mary Tudor - The Catholic queen who preceded Elizabeth I and was know for burning Protestants was known as Bloody Mary.

Friday, August 7, 2009

E-Ticket Ride

One of those idioms, like "dialing" a telephone, that has lingered long after the source has disappeared.

Decades ago each individual ride at Disneyland had a separate admission. In 1957, for example, the Dumbo Flying Elephant ride cost 25 cents. Disney sold ticket books that allowed people to save money. The tickets were labeled A through E. The very best rides, like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, were on that valuable E-ticket.
To this day, E-ticket means an exciting or sensational adventure. Even people who never held a precious E-ticket in their tiny hands and don't know the Disney connection use the phrase.

For people nostalgic for Southern California amusement parks, the blog Vintage Disneyland Tickets is a pleasant romp.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


As in "Republicans Riot at Tampa Town Hall Meeting."

Riot (n/v) - From an Old French word. In the 13th century it meant "debauchery." By the end of the 14th century the word had evolved to mean "public disturbance." Glenn Beck and his ilk will try to spin it, but the attack on democracy in Tampa this evening meets the dictionary definition of a riot.
Riot - A wild or turbulent disturbance created by a large number of people. ~ The Free Dictionary

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


One of my favorite British words that is almost never used in America. Americans, you see, will never use a word with panache when there is a perfectly dull and ordinary phrase like "two weeks" available.

Fortnight (n) - Two weeks. A shortening of the Old English phrase feowertyne niht, fourteen nights. There is also the never used Sennight meaning seven nights, one week, which is how long I've been away.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Yacht (n) - A fancy, BFB (big fucking boat) for the idle rich. Appropriately, the word is a shortening of the German word jachtschip which a half-dozen centuries ago meant "fast pirate vessel."
The yacht Pelorus (above), owned by a Russian billionaire, has an anti-missile defense system.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Soiled Dove

There may be more words in the English language for prostitute than there are for sex. There's courtesan (from Italian for "woman of the court"), daughter of joy (from the French fille de joie), harlot (from French for tramp), hooker (not from the army of women who followed Civil War general Joe Hooker's troops, but from the habit of whores to grab at men on the street), loose woman, painted woman, scarlet woman, streetwalker, strumpet (either from the Latin for dishonor or the Dutch for stalker), tart (from a term of endearment, sweetheart), whore (the original Old English word for the profession), working woman (which explains why to this day men hit on secretaries and nurses just trying to get their jobs done) and many others.

My favorite all time is the Old West term Soiled Dove. It's sort of a sweet term that brings up the image of an innocent bird befouled by others. While Hollywood makes the Western whore an image of beauty, like Megan Fox over to the right, most Western prostitutes were successful for their availability, not their looks.
For example, Alice Abbot of El Paso (left).

For most, the job was a horrible existence that led to an early death. In San Francisco the service charge was 25 cents for a Mexican woman and $1 for an American, more for redheads.
A woman what hustles
Never keeps nuthin
For all her hustlin.
Somebody always gets
What she goes on the street for. ~
Harrison Street Court

All night she offers passers-by what they will
Of her beauty wasted, body faded,
claims gone,
And no takers.
~ Trafficker

Let us be honest; the lady was not a
harlot until she married a corporation
Lawyer who picked her from a Ziegfeld chorus.
~ Soiled Dove (all by Carl Sandburg)
Additional links: The whorehouses of Austin, Texas
a man who has made a career writing about Western Soiled Doves

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hoi Polloi

I try to get into a little hoi polloi from time to time. ~ Quentin Tarantino
One can be a successful Hollywood director, a person who uses words for his living, and still screw the pooch on his phraseology.

Hoi Polloi (n) - The People. A direct import from a common Greek phrase, The Many. First appeared in print in English in the mid-19th century, probably in a work by James Fenimore Cooper. Also a Three Stooges short from 1935, Tarantino should like that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


The consensus of the people I know who have lived her for decades is that Southern California is getting hotter year by year.

Scorcher (n) - An extremely hot day. First appears in English in 1874. From the verb to scorch, meaning to burn on the surface. The origin is not certain. Some say it comes from the Old Norse word skorpna meaning to shrivel up. Others content the source word is the Latin word excorticare, meaning to flay.

Note: If you ever want to see pictures of lots of naked women, try Googling "scorching hot summer."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Line In the Sand

The origin of idioms is always problematic. To draw a line is the sand, meaning this far and no farther, probably comes from a story out of the Roman Empire.

A Syrian king was intent on waging war against Egypt, then a Roman protectorate. A Roman envoy, Gaius Popillius Laenas, confronted the king and told him to withdraw or face war with Rome. When the king hesitated, Laenas drew a line around the king and told him to order a retreat before stepping out of the circle. The king withdrew.

There is another story that line in the sand refers to William Travis at the Alamo drawing a line with his sword and asked those willing to stay and defend the Alamo to step across. However, that is unlikely as Travis's act does not fit the definition of the idiom.
A line in the sand is also an important part of the rules to the Over The Line tournament being played in San Diego this weekend.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


In honor of the latest Harry Potter film (the Dementors) as well as Republican Catherine Crabill, who is simply demented (pictured, I think).

Demented (a) - insane. The adjectival form of the obsolete verb to dement meaning to drive mad. Still earlier, from the Latin dementare, (de+ment = away from mind). One no longer says, "Listening to Sarah Palin speak dements me." Although it is certainly true.

Art by

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I've done Vacation. I also did Dog Days over at A Little Reality. Summer is from an Old English word sumor meaning summer.


Art is Summertime by Mary Cassatt.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

City, Town, Village

One of the many things that bothers me is they keep calling Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin was once mayor, a city. Wasilla is so tiny in Southern California it wouldn't even qualify as a neighborhood. So, as my muse, Marina Orlova, would say, Word of the Day must investigate.

City - From the Latin civitas, meaning community of citizens. The Latin word for city was urbs. In England a city has the specific definition of a town large enough to contain a bishopric see.

Town - Smaller than a city. From the Old English tun, meaning a walled village. The English definition is a community large enough to support a permanent market but too small to require a bishop.

Village - From the Latin word
villaticum, meaning large farmstead. The word villa has the same root. The English define a village as large enough to have its own church but too small to support a market.

Hamlet - A little ham (the Old French word for village), a little village. The English define a hamlet as a collection of homes large enough to have its own identity but too small even to have a church.

American English does not have such clear demarcations as the mother tongue. We do agree that a city is larger than a town which is larger than a village which is larger than a hamlet.

To me, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Anchorage are cities. Juneau is on the small side but a city nonetheless because of it importance, holding the state government is kind of like having a bishop. Wasilla, at under 10,000 population, is just not significant enough to qualify as a city. Sorry guys, Wasilla is only a town.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Inspired by that notorious Pennsylvania swim club.

Segregation (n) - From the Latin segregare composed of se- (apart) and grege (herd or flock). Segregation is to place apart from the flock. In use for forced religious separation from the 16th century. Became a euphemism for Jim Crow Laws in the 1940's.

Jim Crow (n) - A
derogatory term for an ubiquitous black man, like John Doe. From a black-face minstrel character and song that first appeared in print in 1828. Used to describe segregation laws from 1842.

An example:
In 1956, the Huntsville, Ala., City Council passed a resolution that made it unlawful for white and blacks to play cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, pool, billiards, softball, basketball, baseball, football, golf, or track together. Also applied to swimming pools and beaches.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


There has been a cyber attack on federal websites.

Cybernetics - Cyber and its derivatives, cyberspace and cyborg, come from this word which is only 60 years old. Coined by Nobel Prize mathematician Norbert Wiener to describe a field of mathematical science he developed. Cybernetics is the study of the structure of regulatory communication in interdependent systems. Those systems can be electronic, social, biological, and neurological. In essence, it is the study of the mathematical process by which complex structures navigate via communication. (Trying to define this word is way beyond my paygrade.) The science of cybernetics is used, for example, to develop systems for a human nervous systems to communication a modern artificial limb.

Cybernetics was rooted in a Greek word, kubernetes, meaning steersman. Cybernetics has become the word used to describe Artificial Intelligence (i.e. robot brains) and the word Cyber has become synonymous with Internet.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


As in "Sarah Palin wants to profit from being a celebrity."

Celebrity (n) - A person of renown. From the Latin celibritatem, meaning fame. Eight hundred years ago, in English, celebrity meant a solemn celebration. By the 17th century the word had evolved into one of its current meaning, the condition of being famous. The useage of being a famous person dates to the 19th century.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint's infinite multitude of methods. A political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly. Liberty. The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Friday, July 3, 2009

Moulin Rouge

Because I watched the movie again last night. Moulin Rouge is, of course, French. It translates as Red Windmill and is the name of a Paris nightclub with a red windmill on its roof (surprise!). It is also proof that any name in a foreign language can sound exotic.
The Moulin Rouge was built 120 years ago. In the beginning it was little more than a bordello with dancing but as time passed the dancing became more popular than the sex. Toulouse-Lautrec famously did paintings and poster art of the Moulin Rouge and its environs in its heyday.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Fairy (n) - Tiny flying woodland humanoids of European folklore and about as far away from head drilling as I can get. The word in Old French, faerie, moved to English unchanged except for later simplified spelling. There is no relation to the word fair.

The origin of fairies depends upon which wizard you ask. The Gaelic believe that fairies are spirits of the dead. Alchemists and astrologers thought they were elementals, spirits of the air. Some describe them as fallen angels, others as demons. Celtic tradition says fairies are a separate race of people driven into hiding by the advent of man.

J. M. Berrie of Peter Pan fame said that
"…when the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies."
In 1917, two English girls from Cottingley claimed to have photographed fairies in their garden. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw the photos a year later and immediately declared they proved the existence of fairies. The photos were fakes, although Doyle never figured that out. But the girls, while finally admitting the fakes in 1983, claimed to the end that they really did see fairies and that the photo shown here is, in fact, genuine. (More from the Museum of Hoaxes)

It's not hard to find people who continue to believe that fairies are real.

The art at the top is Midsummer Eve (1908) by Edward Hughes.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


My mother used to say, "I need that like I need a hole in the head."
Trepan (v) - Surgery to drill a hole in your head. From the Greek trypan, to auger a hole.

Dating back to prehistory people have been drilling holes in heads. And, boy, was it common among cavemen. In one burial site in France dated to 6500 BCE, one-third of the 120 skulls showed trepanation surgery.

While there are a handful of legitimate medical reasons there are a whole lot of crackpots doing it. The ancient reason, to allow evil spirits to escape, is echoed by the claim that trepanation cures depression and allows spiritual enlightenment. There are even a few people who claim to have used electric drills to bore holes in their own heads.

It's body piercing gone berserk. Something less creepy next time, I promise.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Honduras, like Chicago means "stinky place," has one of those place names that doesn't bear up well to scrutiny.

The name comes from a line in Christopher Columbus' log, "Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras!" The literal translation is, "Thank God we've escaped these treacherous depths." A freer translation would be, "Fuck! We're finally out of that hell hole."

Monday, June 29, 2009


Sabotage (n/v) - The destruction of property to hinder operations. From the French word sabot (shoe) with the Latin suffix -age (the act of). So, literally, sabotage means the act of shoes. There are many stories as to the origin of the word.
  • That it dates to a 1910 French railway strike where the workers destroyed the wooden ties, called shoes or sabots. This is certainly not true as the word in English predates that strike by 35 years and the word had been in the French language even longer.
  • Another is that it dates to the Industrial Revolution when newly out of work hand weavers would throw their wooden shoes into the mechanical looms, thus breaking them. Alternatively, wooden shoed serfs deliberately stomped fields to punish landowners. The former is a commonly accepted origin, and the one I prefer, but many etymologists dismiss it because....
  • In French the word sabotage had an early meaning of bungling or botching something. Etymologists theorize that the original use of the word in French was to describe uneducated country bumpkins who were hired to work in early industrial workshops. They would clatter in wearing their wooden clogs (as opposed to the leather shoes city dwellers wore) and make a total hash of the job. The act of shoes meant the ignorant destruction caused by rubes who just happen to wear wooden shoes.
  • Or, the least interesting possible origin, that sabotage began merely meaning the ugly noise that wooden shoes make. It evolved to mean badly played music and evolved further to anything that was botched up. Its final evolution was to mean deliberately botching up something.
The picture is from a CIA sabotage manual distributed in Nicaragua in the 1980's.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Michael Jackson's family wants a second one.

Autopsy (n/v) - meaning cutting up a corpse to discover the cause of death. From the Greek autopsia, autos- (self) and -opsis (sight), meaning "self sight." While the word originally meant "to eye witness" it quickly (17th century) acquired the meaning of studied dissection.

Necropsy (n) - A more accurate word. Composed with the Greek necro (corpse). Only dates to the 19th century in English and more commonly used for an animal autopsy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Mark Sanford, married governor of South Carolina, went on a week long bachelor's retreat to Argentina last week.

Argentina comes from the Latin word argentum, meaning silver. The land was first called Tierra Argentina (Land of Silver). The chemical symbol for silver is Ag (argentum). The country is named after the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver in Spanish).

Plata is Medieval Latin for a flat piece of metal. In Spanish plato now means plate while plata means silver.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Ever consider the word playwright and what that bloody -wright means? While a playwright writes plays -wright does not mean write.

Wright (n) - is an Old English word meaning worker. The root word is the Saxon verb wyrcan, meaning to work. So, playwright means play worker. Not so romantic.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


The acts of Iranian butcher Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
  • قتل العمد ~ Arabic
  • ادمکشی ~ Farsi
  • murha ~ Finnish
  • meurtre ~ French
  • Vergewaltigung ~ German
  • हत्या ~ Hindi
  • pembunuhan ~ Indonesian
  • тяжкое убийство ~ Russian
  • homicidio ~ Spanish
  • cinayet ~ Turkish
  • tội giết người ~ Vietnamese

Friday, June 19, 2009


Conservatives on the United States Supreme Court believe innocence is no reason to overturn a properly reached conviction. Better to execute innocent men than to burden the courts with the procedural effort of freeing the guiltless.

Innocent (a) - Free from guilt. Another word that came to English from Latin through Old French. From in- (not) and nocentem (to harm). In other words, someone not to be harmed.

To Do Nothing

Not that I am doing nothing. Here are a few words that carry the meaning with different emphases.

Abeyant (a) - Temporarily do nothing through a deliberate suspension. Generally a legal term for delaying an action.
Indolent (a) - Being a lazy do-nothing, lacking the will to do something.
Quiescent (a) - To do nothing by being in a state of rest or sleep.

When you want to do nothing yet cannot, there is...

Zugzwang (n) - German for "compulsion to move." In chess it is used to describe a situation where doing nothing is better than doing anything. Since, in chess, declaring pass is not an option, Zugzwang is a bad place to be.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


As in "the Iranians are revolting."

Revolt (v) - From the Latin revolvere, re- (back) and volvere (to roll), to roll back. Also the root word for revolve and volvere is where the word vulva comes from. Revolt dates in English to the 16th century. Revolt, meaning disgusting, dates to 1806. How a word meaning rebellion came to mean disgusting is not certain but Mel Brooks probably is right in pegging it with the French Revolution.
Harvey Korman as Count de Monet: It is said that the people are revolting.
Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI: That’s right, they stink on ice!
~ History of the World: Part One

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Okay, I missed Flag Day by a couple of of days.

Flag (n/v) - The noun (cloth ensign) comes from the verb (to flap loosely), or the other way around. Authorities disagree which came first, the rag or the flap.

Authorities also disagree on the source word. It is possibly Old Norse (Norwegian has its word flagg), possibly Germanic (the Dutch word vlag is obviously related), possibly English through and through. My best guess is the word is Norwegian in origin, spread by Viking raiders.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


The name of the third largest city in the United States comes from an Ojibwa word (the exact word varies by the source) that means either stripped skunk, the skunk place, or skunk cabbage. Many Chicagoans prefer to believe the source word meant onion patch.

But Chicago was built on swampy land and it is possible the word that became Chicago in English originally meant Smelly Place. Certainly, the Chicago Stockyard of the last century earned that moniker.
The people of Chicago, a city of over three million souls, live under an encircling and overpowering smell. At breakfast, at luncheon, at dinner: while working and, playing; awake and asleep; Chicago's millions inhale penetrating smells from the mountains of dung and offal in its great stockyards. The greater the smells the stockyards make, the greater their contributions to Chicago. ~ Ralph Borsodi, This Ugly Civilization, 1929

Chicago Stockyards, 1947

Friday, June 12, 2009


As an American slang word Cracker means poor white Southern trash. It dates to the 18th century and comes from the verb to crack. Crack as a loud noise led to using crack to describe a loud braggart.

A Cracker is traditionally a pasty white, fat-assed, Southern Baptist, who longs for the return of segregation. They hate the government. They hate blacks, especially blacks who are more educated than they are which is just about everyone. They hate book learning except where it comes to reading the Bible, even then they hate all that peace and love shit Jesus taught. They love the "eye for an eye" and smiting parts though.

Huckleberry Finn's Pap was a Cracker. So is Wiley Drake.
Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio -- a mulatter, most as white as a white man....They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home....but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me -- I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger -- why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way....They call that a govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger... ~ 'Pap' Finn, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 6, by Mark Twain

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Why is it governor but gubernatorial?

Both words come from the same Latin root, gubernare meaning to direct or rule. Gubernatorial is an 18th century American word formed directly from the Latin. Governor dates to the 14th century in English and is an import from the French word, gouverneur.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Newt Gingrich, knowing as he does that Republicans have become the American Hezbollah (the Party of God), recently announced, "We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism."

Pagan (n) - A non-Christian. An idolatrous worshiper of false gods. From the Latin paganus meaning rustic villager. Literally, pagan is the Latin word for hick and came to its meaning because villagers came to Christianity later than sophisticated city dwellers. It's use to mean devil worshiper is the simplistic extension that anything that is not Christian must be of the devil.

Infidel (n) - A non-Muslim. The common translation of the Arabic word kafir, meaning disbeliever. From the Latin infidelis meaning unfaithful.

Gentile (n) - A non-Jew. The common translation of the Hebrew
ha goyim, meaning non-Jewish nations. Also Yiddish goy. From the Latin gentilis meaning countrymen, it was the early Christian church translation of the Greek word ethnikos (the nations) which had been the common translation of ha goyim.

Christians and Muslims believe their religions are so distasteful that if their adherents are exposed to any of the fun religions, like Wicca, they will convert en mass. Hence, Christians have been known to burn pagans and Muslims to behead infidels. Jews view gentiles as "everybody else" and are far more peacefully tolerate.

Monday, June 8, 2009


V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the summer sun. ~ Connie Francis
Sometimes you just need to take a few days off and let the world struggle on without you.

Vacation (n) - a period of intermission; rest; leisure. From the Latin vacationem, meaning free of duty. That, in turn, was from the Latin word vacare meaning empty which also leads to the words vacuum and vain.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


An Incubus
Nightmare (n) - A bad dream. Night is an Old English word. Mare is also Old English word for an evil spirit. Combined, the words described the incubi and succubi. Respectively male and female demons that have sexual intercourse with sleeping people, feeding off the sleeper's soul.

Incubus and Succubus (n) - Both from Latin. Incubus means one who lies on top of a sleeper. Succubus means one who lies underneath a sleeper. These demons are staples of World of Warcraft, second-rate horror movies, and fundamentalist Christian sects trying to scare believers away from sex.
A Succubus

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor

Names also have meanings.

Sonia - Comes from the Greek name Sophia meaning wisdom.

Sotomayor - Parsed, soto means thicket and mayor means great or greater. So at its simplest Sotomayor means "the Great Thicket." It is an old family name from the Andalucia region of Spain. There are two stories how the name came to be.

The simpler is that many centuries ago a noble family took its surname from where it settled, the Valley of the Thickets; in colloquial Latin of the region: Sotomayor.

The more complicated story, described here, is that the tutor to the son of a Galician king in the time of the Goths threw a spear into a thicket not knowing that the king's son was playing there. The king understood it was an accident and forgave the tutor. The tutor, in turn, took the name of Sotomayor to honor to slain boy.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Perchance to dream.

Sleep (n) - Something insomniacs seldom experience. An Old English word dating back to the dawn on the language.

Insomnia (n) - The inability to sleep. From the Latin in- (not) and somnus (sleep). Entered the English Language in the early 17th century.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - An experimental rock group and the first Google hit when searching the word sleepytime. Suck on that Sleepytime Herbal Tea.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, although Republican word parsers are trying to claim that Benjamin Cardozo was the first "hispanic" justice.

Hispanic (a) - Of or pertaining to Spain or the Spanish language. From the Latin Hispania, the Iberian Peninsula. Since the 19th century the word hispanic describes a person whose heritage is of any of the Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries of the Western Hemisphere commonly known as Latin America.

Sotomayor was born in New York City to parents who had immigrated from Puerto Rico.

Cardozo was also born in New York City. His ancestors immigrated from England in the 18th century and lived in New York during the Revolutionary War. Prior to that he had ancestors who traveled to Holland in the 16th century from Portugal to escape the Spanish Inquisition as they were Sephardi Jews.

The Republican parsers are claiming that since Cardozo's family lived in Hispania centuries ago then he was Hispanic. Benjamin Cardozo was a brilliant man, logical, and a skilled wordsmith. He would never have engaged in such sloppy reasoning and, himself, never claimed to be Hispanic.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


According to Republicans the very worst trait a Supreme Court justice can have.

Empathy (n) - Understanding and engaging the emotions and feelings of another. Being sensitive to another's feelings. Entered the English Language at the turn of the 20th century. From the German word Einfühlung coined in 1858 by a German philosopher. Constructed from the Greek en- and pathos meaning in feeling.

Antonyms: unfeeling, insensitivity, obtuseness, callousness.

Empathy is one of the four essential leadership traits.

Monday, May 25, 2009


No, not the duck sound. I've been thinking about some of the doctors I've known. There was the anesthesiologist who was so bored by her job she would take business phone calls while in the operating theater. Then there was an orthopedic surgeon who got to be head of his department, not through skill but by being a royal SOB. He maintained an excellent record by blaming the patients for all of his screw-ups. They were just hypochondriacs.

Quack (n) - Medical charlatan. Dates from the 17th century from the Dutch word, kwaksalver, meaning seller of salves.