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 caƱada 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.