Thursday, November 11, 2010


Quagmire (n) - Swampy ground or being stuck in a situation that is nearly impossible to extract yourself from. As in, the United States like the Soviet Union before it is stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan.

Quag is a Middle English word meaning bog or marshy spot. Mire is from an old Norse word, myrr, meaning a bog or swamp. Together, they can be loosely defined as meaning swampy swamp.
Desert quagmires are very possible.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
~ Pete Seeger

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I was perusing the Urban Dictionary today and found an underground eruption of faux outrage over its supposed meaning and origin.

Cracker (n) - Southern white trash. A redneck. Especially from Georgia or Florida.

White Southerners insist the word is racist, the equal of the word nigger. That is silly. For 65 years, the minor league baseball team in Atlanta was nicknames the Crackers (see logo). The Negro League baseball team was called the Atlanta Black Crackers.

The Origin of Cracker
What is certainly not true is the common claim of revisionist Southerners that it comes as a derogatory word for overseers who "cracked the whip" at their slaves. This interpretation assumes the word was coined by black slaves and somehow was adopted by white Southerners. That just did not happen in the segregated societies of the Old South in the 19th century.

The word meaning "poor white trash" has been traced as far back as 1766 in a letter written by the Earl of Dartmouth.
I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode. ~ source
And from an article written by W. J. Cash in 1935.
In dancing and fiddling when his ministers will let him, in fantastic religion, in hard drinking and hard fighting and hard loving, but above all in violence--above all, in violence toward the Negro. And perforce, too, the ennui, the bitterness, the viciousness, bred in him by the always-narrowing conditions of his life, pour over to the elaboration of this pattern, to making him at his worst a dangerous neurotic, a hair-trigger killer, a man-burner, a pig quite capable of incest--in brief, everything that William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell have made him out to be, and perhaps something more. ~ Genesis of the Southern Cracker

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cock and Bull

A cock is a male chicken and a bull is a male cow. (art is available from the Greenwich Workshop) How did that come to mean an absurdly false story?

The most common explanation is the phrase comes from a pair of coaching inns in Stony Stratford where travelers were known for telling tall tales.

That is likely a cock and bull story made up for tourists. More likely it comes from folk tales with talking animals (think Alice in Wonderland). I mean, really, would you believe anything told you by a cow or chicken?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yellow Peril

Yellow Peril originated in the late 19th century as a fear that Oriental immigration would overwhelm Western Civilization.

This fear was reinforced by the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) where Chinese youths rose against European and American colonial presence and attacked Western embassies and Christian missionaries.

Strangely, this is echoed in current fears that Muslim immigrants to Europe and the United States will supplant Christianity.

Friday, October 1, 2010


From the Greek drapetes (runaway) and mania (frenzy). 

A recognized disease of the 19th century. Its symptoms were lethargy, sullenness, and a general dissatisfaction with life as a black slave on Southern plantations. In its acute phase, the slave would runaway to freedom in the North. Today it would be called Harriet Tubman Disease.

The disorder was first described in medical journals by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851. His prescribed cure was liberal application of the whip.

Another disease identified by Dr. Cartwright was Dysaethesia Aethiopica (meaning: altered sensitivity in the negroid). This was a disease commonly known to slave owners as Rascality. Dr. Cartwright declared that this disease resulted in lazy slaves with insensitive skin and back lesions. Again, his approved treatment was to stimulate the slave with frequent and vigorous whippings.
An unfortunate victim of Dysaethesia Aethiopica.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Afghanistanism (n) - The act of diverting attention from meaningful local issues to something far distant and utterly meaningless. 
 An old, derisive newsroom term. It was first used in the 19th century to describe the habit of timid newspaper editorialists who, not wanting to address anything important like unemployment, health care, or corrupt politicians, would rail in their editorials about affairs in Afghanistan.

There is no modern usage as everybody now agrees that whatever happens in Afghanistan is far more important to America than unemployment, health care, or corrupt politicians in the United States.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


As in, "My sister-in-law, Debbie, is a wonderful person."

-ful - Old English, meaning full.
wonder - Also Old English meaning the object of astonishment. The word can be traced back further to proto-Germanic word wundran.

The original Old English word that means exactly the same as today was wunderfull. This is a word that dates back, unchanged, to the pre-dawn of the English Language.