Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Harriet

Some years ago, columnist and author Regina Brett spoke to one of my English classes at Ursuline about being a columnist and author. When asked what made her decide to become a writer, she gave an answer that took my by surprise... she said she decided when she was 10 and read Harriet the Spy. This took me by surprise because I decided to write when I was 10 and read Harriet the Spy. In the new version of Mr. Deeds, Winona Ryder's character, Babe, credits Harriet the Spy with her decision to become a reporter, and a quick Internet search tells me that the three of us are far from the only ones.
So what is it about Harriet? Harriet is an upper class girl living in 1960s New York City with no parents to speak of - flaky strangers who barely know her name, and a nanny who, though wise and deeply supportive, is about as maternal as a rock. Left alone every day after school, she wanders through the city spying on folks - through skylights, from dumbwaiters, in back alleys, and writing down her observations. She writes down her observations about friends and family too, and none of it is particularly nice. She writes things like "I bet that lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and just feels terrible," and "My mother is always saying Pinky Whitehead's whole problem is his mother... Does his mother hate him? If I had him, I'd hate him."
The thing is, I had nothing really in common with Harriet. We weren't rich, my parents weren't flaky absentee parents, I didn't really write, and I didn't spy. So what was it?
I guess it starts with the things Harriet writes. Harriet writes the things that everybody thinks but nobody admits they think. Well she writes the things I think and don't admit I think anyway. And she doesn't fit in - not because of anything external or because of a conscious choice but because she just isn't like others and can't seem to force herself to be. She's driven by loneliness, by a desire to be something and someone else, to break out of what's expected, not because she wants to, but because she's meant to.
Harriet dresses like a boy in a time when that isn't done. She crawls around like a spy while her classmates take dance classes and talk about boys. She wants a career when women in her time and place were supposed to want to be wives and mothers and go to parties.
I think that's why Harriet has appealed to so many folks. We all think things we're not supposed to think and hate being hemmed in by arbitrary rule and expectations, and we're all meant to do things that everybody thinks we shouldn't do.

So how about you, readers? What book inspired you to be who you are?

Glasses, hoodie, notebook, bad posture, sneakers... yeah, this could entirely be a line drawing of me.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Pontificate: To carry on in a pompous or dogmatic fashion. Derived from pontiff, or popePontiff comes from French, for high priest, from Latin pontifex, a "supreme college of priests." Probably, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, from pons, for bridge and facere, for make. Bridge maker. 
Pons also gives us pontoon, a word for a flat-bottomed boat which shows up in French in 1676. A hundred years later, the term pontoon bridge shows up - this is a bridge, usually temporary, that floats on the surface of the water. So even though pontoon bridge is derived from pontoon boat, pontoon is derived from pons, the word for bridge. Did your head just totally explode?
Our word bridge comes from the old English brycge, meaning bridge, which seems to come from a word from one of English's ancient ancestors, bhru, meaning log, or beam
Halfway down this rabbit hole, it occurred to me to wonder if Brigid, my name, was etymologically related to bridge. It's not. But that would be cool. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling

Last year, Garrison Keillor delivered a grumpy and borderline bigoted editorial about how Christmas belongs to the Christians and everybody else, specifically the Unitarians and the Jews, should "buzz off." Jews, in particular, should stop writing "dreck" (like White Christmas, I guess). I'm not 100% sure he wasn't being ironic, but I'm about 99.9%. And while I could rant on this all day, I have just a reflection instead.
What Keillor says struck me as odd because really, the Christians were just about the last ones to come to the holiday party, and about 99% (all right, I pulled that number out of nowhere, but I bet it's close) of the stuff we typically associate with Christmas comes from other faiths. While you could see this as an example of Christianity hijacking other faiths, I actually think it's kind of nice, the way cultures have melded around this time of year.
I heard a sermon once that whether we believe in Christmas or Hanukkah or Solstice or Festivus or just a day off work, what we all know in our hearts is that this time of year is sacred. Maybe it's intrinsically sacred, or maybe it's because we all decided it was, or maybe it's sacred because of the loved ones with whom we share it. And one thing we all seem to have in common is light. Christians celebrate Christ bringing light to the world. Folks who celebrate Solstice celebrate the fact that the days are from here on out will be longer - that the world will become bright again. Hanukkah is the festival of light. I'm certainly pro-light, whatever else.
Speaking of which, as somebody mentioned in the comments a while back, the only thing we know about the date of Christ's birth, really, is that it probably didn't happen on December 25th. The Bible doesn't make any mention. However, since the Bible says that shepherds were watching over their flocks by night, and since shepherds at the time only kept their watch at night was in the spring, it's not looking good for December. Now some Biblical scholars have said that the reason we celebrate on the 25th is that if you assume that god created light four days after the vernal equinox (and really, why would you think anything else?), then obviously, Christ was conceived on March 25th, meaning he'd have been born 9 months later on December 25th. But that seems a bit of a reach to me.
Most people figure that Christians started celebrating the birth of their lord in late December because they felt left out, what with all the other feasts and festivals at the time. Early Christians might even have been trying to compete with the cult of Mithra, who celebrated the birth of their infant god of light, in a cave or a stable, on the same day.
So I mentioned how few of the things we do at Christmas were originated by the Christians. For example, Santa Claus and all his other incarnations are probably descended from the god Odin in Germanic mythology, who flew through the sky at Christmas time delivering presents to people who have been good and punishments to people who have been bad. Odin was often depicted as an old dude with a long white beard. There's also a nice lady called The Grandmother in Italy who went around sticking presents inexplicably in people's socks. Martin Luther, in an effort to oust St. Nick, came up with Christkind. Christkind, said to represent the baby Jesus, skips the middle men and delivers presents himself. It's from Christkind that we get Kris Kringle. Incidentally, in most of Europe, Santa lives not at the North Pole but in the mountains of Korvatunturi in Lapland, Finland. North pole's better.
So Christmas trees originally belonged to the Druids, what with their tree worshiping. They also introduced us to garland and holly. Other pagans contributed the yule log, mistletoe, and many of the foods we associate with Christmas, like gingerbread men (probably descended from a Saturnalia tradition of eating people-shaped biscuits for no apparent reason). Gift-giving also happened at Saturnalia.
So there you have it - our lovely ecumenical coming together of customs to create one lovely megaholiday that doesn't belong at all to one group or another.

Most of this comes from a, but also Wikipedia and my brain.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It won't be long before we'll all be there with snow.

Just in case you're as sick of hearing about Christmas songs as I, I thought tonight I'd write about something else I'm a little sick of just now: snow.
It is, I learned just now, a myth that Eskimos have 500 words for snow, according to Word Myths by David Wilton. For one thing, Eskimo is a blanket term that people who aren't from arctic regions have made up to describe the many different groups of people who live in the arctic. So there is no Eskimo language, first of all, there are just a bunch of languages that people whom we consider Eskimos speak. Also, there aren't 500 words for snow. Somebody back at the turn of the last century reported that Eskimos have like, 4 words for snow, and then somebody else said 7, and then inflation happened and now it's all Eskimos talk about. People in arctic regions do have a bunch of words for the different types of snow - sleet, slush, hard pack, etc. But then so do we. 
Now I've heard, and maybe Wilton will go on to prove me wrong as I continue to read, that ancient Greeks had no word for religion, because religion just was. Just so much a part of life you didn't need a word for it. You'd think, then, that arctic peoples would, in fact, have no word for snow.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Secular Songs

  • White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish. He also wrote Easter Parade.
  • Mel Torme and Robert Wells wrote The Christmas Song on a sizzling hot day in July as they attempted to keep themselves cool by thinking winter thoughts. Mel Torme was also born Jewish.
  • I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas was penned by Satan himself, and he forces radio station managers to play this abomination every year or risk eternal damnation.
  • Every year, PNC Bank issues a Christmas Price Index in which they calculate the value of all of the items listed in The 12 Days of Christmas. This year, it's $23,439, up 9.2% from last year. The TARP Price Index tells us that PNC bank recieved 7.6 billion smackers as a gift from the American taxpayer in 2008.
  • Christmas songs that don't mention Christmas: Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland, Baby it's Cold Outside, Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bell Rock. Apparently this is part of the war on Christmas and not, you know, evidence that people like other things about winter other than Christmas.
  • The Feast of Stephen referred to in Good King Wenceslas is actually December 26th. Another attack in the war on Christmas?
  • The Christmas Shoes is, in fact, the most cloying manipulative song ever written, Christmas or otherwise. Seriously? 
  • O, Christmas Tree is okay I guess, but it can't hold a candle to Mr. Rogers' moving tribute to trees, Tree Tree Tree. The lyrics are as follows:
    Tree tree tree
    Tree tree tree
    Tree tree tree
    Tree tree tree
    Not my hero's finest hour.
  • Other Christmas songs composed by Jews: We Need a Little Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Silver Bells (famously recorded by Kenny G, also Jewish), 
Sources include this, Wikipedia, PNC Bank's Web site, the great filing cabinet that is my mind.
Seriously, the empty apartment upstairs' smoke alarm has been going off since 9 last night. It woke me up at five. I'm considering stabbing myself in the ears.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Silent Night

One Christmas Eve in Oberndorf, Austria, the pastor of a small church discovered that the church organ was broken, the bellows eaten by mice. With no time to fix it, the plucky pastor composed a song to be played on the guitar, and that night performed Silent Night for the first time. The song was promptly forgotten and would have been lost to history had not an organ repairman found the manuscript lying around and brought it to the masses.
Or that's the story I always heard. Sadly, according to this guy and every other source I consulted, the story of the first Silent Night is somewhat more mundane. One Christmas Eve, Fr. Joseph Mohr, associate pastor at the aforementioned small church in Oberndorf, Austria, brought a poem he'd written to the home of Franz Gruber, the church's choir director. He asked Gruber to add a melody to the song that could be played on the guitar. The composers continued to perform the song, so it was not forgotten at all, but it's true that an organ repairman found the manuscript and disseminated it far and wide. I spelled disseminated right on the first try.
Still, it's pretty impressive they slapped the thing together on New Year's Eve.
Now, if you've ever set foot inside a church in the month of December, you know the story of Christmas in the trenches, but I love it, so you get to hear it again.
It's Christmas Eve, 1914, and the English, French and Germans are all huddled in their trenches, frozen, terrified, and miserable. Suddenly out of the silence came the voice of one of the German soldiers singing:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

The French joined in, singing:
Nuit bénit, nuit de silence!
Tout est calme en brilliance
Autour de la vièrge et son fil,
Nouveau-né, tendre est il.
Dors en paix de cieux;
Dors en paix de cieux.

And the English chimed in:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

It was a silent night - the noise of artillery and shelling stopped, and the men came out of the trenches to celebrate the holiday together.
And then after Christmas they all went back to killing each other.
Here's my favorite recording of the hymn.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Last week in choir rehearsal, we noticed that the lyrics to the hymn It Came Upon a Midnight Clear aren't quite so Jesus-y as most Christmas songs; and in fact they're kind of weird and depressing. See below.
Now Unitarians do have an annoying habit of changing the lyrics of songs to be more Unitarian, but that didn't seem to be the case here. In fact, I learned upon looking into it, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear is an honest-to-god Unitarian hymn written by a real live Unitarian, Edmund Hamilton. I mean, he's not alive anymore, because he wrote it in 1849, but he was a real live Unitarian minister when he wrote it.
This hymn is interesting among hymns in general and Christmas hymns in specific because it's not particularly warm or fuzzy when you actually pay attention. They're a call to action and a reflection of a grim and frightening reality, rather than describing some idyllic peaceful time in the future or in the past.
I wonder if the song serves to reflect the quandary in which many Unitarians found themselves in the America of the 1850s. Unitarians were vocally opposed to war, but they were also very opposed to slavery. As tensions between the North and South rose and anti-slavery activists were taking more and more direct action, it must have been hard for anybody who loved peace and hated slavery to know what actions and words to choose. 
I like the message of this song. I like that it reminds us not just of Christs' birth, but his message.
I'll be profiling a few more Christmas hymns over the next couple of weeks. Or that's the plan anyway. Any requests?

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What I've Learned

Esquire has this feature where they take famous people and interview them to ask them what they've learned. They present the thing in a bulleted list and title it What I've Learned. Here's an example.
No I'm neither famous nor particularly wise, and this has nothing to do with the central premise of my blog, but I'm also vain and don't care. I'm going to tell you what I've learned, Esquire style.

  • It doesn't matter whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. It matters that I have the good fortune of having enough to drink.
  • Saying you have no regrets is an insult to everyone you've ever hurt. I've hurt a lot of people and I hope I never stop regretting that.
  • When you say that democrats or Unitarians or liberals or feminists are communists, fascists, stupid, man-haters or assholes, you're calling me and the people I love communist, fascist, stupid, man-hating assholes. Whether you intend to or not. If I said the same about Republicans or conservatives or fundamentalists, I'd be deeply insulting many people whom I deeply love. I hate name-calling. It's a sign you can't think of anything valid to say.
  • Cats are therapy, comedy, space-heaters, heating pads, and unconditional love all rolled into one. I don't care if that makes me a crazy cat lady.
  • Thirty years ago last week, Sr. Dorothy Kazel and three other women, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Jean Donovan were raped and murdered by members of El Salvador's military. Their crime was having the audacity to give aid and comfort to oppressed people and to tell them that they had rights. Sr. Dorothy taught at my high school before going to El Salvador, and I saw her picture at the top of the stairs every morning. I think of Sr. Dorothy Kazel every day of my life and hope to hell I will live up to her legacy. 
  • The other day I thought of my friend Ebony who died several years ago and looked at the clock. It was 3 p.m. This was the longest I have gone without thinking of Ebony since she died, and I still feel a little bad about it. I worry I'm a better friend to her in death than I was in life.
  • The lack of a filter between my brain and my mouth has made my life infinitely more interesting. 
  • I'm a cynic who has way too much compassion for her own good. I'm the kind of person who resents the dude who tells you some absurd lie about how his mom died and his car broke and his child just exploded, but then gives him money anyway, just in case. I mean, it would be a total dick move if his baby did just explode and I didn't bother to help him.
  • When I ask you how you're doing, I actually do care how you're doing. 
  • My mom is the prettiest lady I know.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

It seems like everything that can be said about the "War on Christmas" is being said by folks a lot more clever and witty than I, so I'll go about this in a not so witty way. 
Part way through the clip, Stewart points out that you just have to look around to see that Christmas is the dominant cultural event - it's everywhere. It's not in any danger.
But that made me think; maybe that, the ever more iridescent and over-the-top displays of Christmas spirit are the problem. I mean, what could be less Christ-like than a crowd at Wal-Mart stampeding someone to death to get the best price on toner and Tickle Me Elmo? 
Anyone who has ever worked in retail or food service knows that Christmas shopping turns even normally nice customers into cruel, vicious assholes who treat others worse than I'd like to treat the freaking mouse that's making merry under my fridge as we speak. What could be less Christ-like than that?
I mean, if I were Christ, I'd be a lot less worried about who is and is not kissing my ass on my birthday than I would be about the kids who will starve to death on my birthday. I'd be more worried about the women who will be raped on my birthday, the acts of torture that will occur, the alarming up-tick of incidents of domestic violence around my birthday. 
I'd probably be more worried about the hundreds of thousands dying in wars all over my beloved planet than an imagined war in which not a single person has been hurt or died. And I'd be worried, more than anything, about how many people could get my message of love, peace, and tolerance so horrifically screwed up. On my birthday no less.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Have a PC holiday

Stay tuned for my own thoughts on the war on Christmas. 

What's this empire coming to? Now they want us to stop greeting people with, `Io, Saturnalia.' `We have all these different cultures in Rome,' they tell us. `We shouldn't offend anyone,' they tell us. `We should be inclusive. We've got the barbarians from the north with their tree decorations and their fire rituals, and the weirdos from Gaul cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle, and the Mithraists, the Zoroastrians, the Isis cults and, of course, those characters that hang out in the catacombs.' `Hail, winter,' we're supposed to say. I ask you, what next? We lose the feast? We stop the solstice parties? No more honoring Ops, goddess of abundance?

I was buying some candles and greenery down by the Forum the other day and there's old Macrobius with some Visigoth chick, and she goes, `Good yule.' So I go, `Hey, in this country, we say, "Io, Saturnalia." Maybe you should go back from where you came from.' Then Macrobius goes, `She can't; she's a slave.' Whatever. At this time of year, the Visigoths sacrifice a pig and burn a special log which they then dance around instead of acting like normal people and going to the temple of Saturn.

I swear, I was at this party over at Septima Commodia's house the other day--she always has a Saturnalia party--anyway, she decorated the place with prickly green leaves. `It's holly,' she said, `the latest fashion from Britannia. They all do it over in Londinium.'

It gets worse. She had this statue of some goddess from Ultima Thule or somewhere--name of Frigga--sitting right there on the dining room mensa. I mean, this is darn near blasphemous. I'd be scared of what the lorries(ph) and penatties(ph) would do if I put that thing in my house. But Septima Commidia just said, `Oh, get over it. We're cosmopolitan around here.'

Cosmopolitan; that's what they call it. Well, by Jupiter, I live in Latium, I'm a Roman and this empire was founded on the principle that the gods, our gods, must be honored at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. None of this foreign heretical nonsense or these strange customs from Germania or Hibernia or Palestine. I say, `Io, Saturnalia,' and if you don't like it, you can leave.

Diane Roberts, first aired on NPR

Saturday, December 4, 2010

From back in the day

I wrote this a long time ago, back when I wrote things that were raw and meant things. I was looking for something else, but I thought this was an interesting of a snapshot of a life that used to be mine. I wrote this after the head shop before the group home. The group home they weren't animals and I wasn't safely behind anything. It wasn't a joke anymore, and it's not a joke now. But this is where I was then.
Be warned, here there be f-bombs.

Working at that headshop, it was lot like being at the zoo. They come in, and they do their crazy junkie act, and we watched casually from the other side of the glass. Awww, look what the crackhead is doing now. It was a joke, when they'd come in and ask "do you got any Pry-rex?" It's not a joke. It's a fucking tragedy.
I started working there because it was a life I knew nothing about. I mean, I've known a thousand and one potheads, and a handfull of coke heads, and some dealers, and nothing about that life was attractive to me. Heads, junkies, addicts, they used to make me so sad. And then they were just funny.
Not that we didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Not that we didn't care. But how do you react when there's a methhead bouncing all over your store, just certain if she uses the right codeword, we'll open up the world of unbreakable glass pipes that she knows we have, hiding somewhere. And meanwhile she gets more and more jumpy and you're more and more terrified, and you just want her to be a joke. Look what the meth head will try to get high.
We had a lady one day, she'd just done a ten year sentence for crack. The first thing she does is come to the head shop. She starts out calm, but we keep telling her no, we don't carry that. And she gets more and more terrified with the realization that she won't score (or, more likely, she will, but she'll burn her lips off trying to smoke a rock out of a car antenna). Look at the crackhead. Maybe she'll do some tricks.
It's a fucking tragedy.
And in the name of experiencing life, I watched them like monkies in cages. Look at the cokehead dance.
Please do not cross the yellow safety line.
Do not stare directly into the eyes of the animals.
I thought it would be kids buying bongs. I thought it would be old hippies buying papers. And it was, most of the time. But I stayed for the crackheads. It was all material.
I thought I was experiencing life. I was watching death from safely behind the glass.  

Monday, November 29, 2010

Gender Neutral

I used to have this professor in college who hated man-centric language so much that he thought the book Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl should be renamed. I was about to write how completely bananas his opinion was, but then I just looked it up and the book was originally trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, which Babel Fish tells me translates to something like Say nevertheless to the life: A psychologist experiences the concentration camp. Later, it was called From Death-Camp to Existentialism, so sayeth Wikipedia.
So it's not like changing the title to not be gender specific would be to change the words in Frankl's mouth, but it would still be bananas. We can't go back and make history gender-neutral.
I'm all about trying to make the language more gender neutral now, more for the sake of correctness than political correctness. But I found this crazy book called Talking About People by Rosalie Maggio that made renaming Man's Search for Meaning seem totally sane.
Some vocabulary Maggio suggests we eliminate:
Bad guy
kaiser roll (this isn't fundamentally bad, per se, we should just be careful with the fact that so many things are named after male characters... or something)
man hole
master and any words derived from master
say uncle
aide (apparently only used for women, though I've never experienced that to be the case)
Fill 'er up
Yammer (also apparently only applies to women).
In addition, it is condescending to refer to women getting dolled up, but in the case of men, it's not usually patronizing. What?
The author also says that it's offensive to call people who are pro-choice pro-abortion, but it's probably more accurate to say that people who are pro-life are actually anti-abortion. Holy bias, Batman! 
Girl Friday would be better phrased Woman Friday. It says nothing of the racism inherent in the term - the fact that Man Friday refers to Robinson Crusoe's brown-skinned man-servant.
I'm still processing this. We live in strange times.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What's on my table

I'm multi-tasking today, writing a blog post while digesting. While it's true that given the amount I eat in general, it's fair to say I'm always digesting, I'm working extra hard at digesting today because, of course, it's Thanksgiving. So I thought I'd tell you a little story about the foods on my Thanksgiving table, and how they came to be called what they are.

Turkey: Thanksgiving is a magical day for me in that it's the one day a year when I actively like Turkey. I promise you, by Saturday that bag-o'-bird sitting in my fridge is going to have ceased being food entirely. Especially because my husband will likely have eaten it all. But  I digress as usual. So turkey is named after the country Turkey. Quite by accident... they actually come from the Americas, but were brought back to Spain by Cortes. How the English came to believe that turkeys came from Turkey is unknown, but they sure were surprised to find them in North America.
Incidentally, the French, Germans, and others all thought the critters came from India.
Incidentally, wild turkeys of the sort that the pilgrims would have nommed on look and taste almost nothing like their domesticated kin.
Incidentally, President Bartlett wishes to inform you that the president does NOT actually have the power to pardon a turkey.

Potatoes: In my family, we often call them praties, from the plural for the Irish word for potato, prata. I think it's so neat to have a family in which wisps of a dying language still surface. At any rate, spuds also come from the new world and the word potato comes to us by way of the Spanish word patata, which comes from the Caribbean word batata, for sweet potato. How sweet potatoes and potatoes came to share a name is a mystery to me... they look alike on the outside by nature of their both being roots but seriously? Potatoes are about as much like sweet potatoes as they are like turnips.
Incidentally, Bill Bryson tells us that the word spud is related to the word spade, because that's what one digs spuds out of the ground with. 

Pork: Sure, not everybody associates piggies with turkey day, but Grandma B had a lovely ham today that makes me want to tell you that the word pork comes from Latin by way of French. Before the Norman conquest, "meat" words and "animal" words were the same, so that the Old English word picg referred both to the food and the lovable barnyard friend. Do you suppose it's somehow a reflection of our society that we rename our animals once they become food? 
Pumpkin: From pompions, from an old French word for melon. Much like potatoes and sweet potatoes, the similarities between melons and pumpkins are scant.
Corn: Two kinds of corn on the table this year - Grandma made the traditional creamed corn, then this crazy creamed corn made from corn that she and Grandpa had dried and then rehydrated.  Yes, I ate Thanksgiving at the Little House on the Prairie. To English settlers, the word corn referred to any kind of grain; in fact, in England, corn still refers to any kind of grain. Over there, the yellow stuff is called maize, from the Spanish maize, which comes from a West Indian Taino word, mahiz. In England, that noxious sweet stuff is called high-fructose maize syrup. 
On a tangential note, they're trying to rename high fructose corn syrup to corn sugar, which certainly does sound less unholy. Also, have you noticed that some things that contain sugar claim to contain evaporated cane juice crystals? Tricky, tricky.
Stuffing/Dressing: I learned today that the mixture of wet bread and spices is only called stuffing if it has been shoved up a dead bird's ass. If it has not been in anybody's ass, it's called dressing. 

Info for this post from 
Made In America by Bill Bryson
Online Etymology Dictionary

Monday, November 22, 2010

Got awfully far off track this morning, as one will do when one posts before dawn... what I meant to come back to was that once, I was having an argument about people in poverty, and my opponent argued that if people didn't want to be poor, they should have went to college.
I did not, in fact, inform my opponent that he should have went to English class, but I'm a little sorry I didn't.
When I was a kid, whenever I'd use me as a subject pronoun (e.g., Me and Erin went to the mall) Dad would say "And did you do that before or after you went to English class?" 
In English class back in the day, we learned about logical fallacies. To wit:

Ad hominem:
An attack on the speaker rather than an attack on the argument. For example:
Opponent: Vaccines cause autism
Me: I have 500 scholarly articles that demonstrate otherwise.
Opponent: You wouldn't understand, you're not a parent.

Ad ignorantiam
Argument claiming we know too little about something to say it isn't true.
Opponent: Of course it's possible vaccines cause autism. There's too much we don't know about autism to say otherwise.
Me: Of course children with autism can fly. We don't know enough about autism to say otherwise.
Argument from authority
Claiming that because someone who is smart believes something, so it must be so.
Opponent: Legions of parents know in their hearts vaccines cause autism.
Me: Legions of cranks all know in their hearts they've been abducted and probed by aliens.

Confusing association with causation/ post hoc ergo propter hoc:
Claiming that because one thing is associated with another, one thing causes the other.
Opponent: My kid was perfectly normal until he got vaccinated when he was two.
Me: Your kid also wasn't potty-trained until after he got vaccinated when he was two. Autism symptoms begin to show around the age of two, right around the time when kids get a big round of vaccines. This is also true in kids who don't get vaccinated.

Courtesy of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Those are just a few. But to those, I would add something new for the age of the Internet:
Grammar Nazism
The tearing apart of someone's argument because they use bad grammar while making them. I've been so guilty of this one.
Opponent: Your wrong.
Me: It's you're wrong. If you don't know the difference between your and you're, then clearly your argument has no merit.
Of course, that's not actually a fallacy, because it's totally true, right?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

You're a riot. I just incited you.

So the book I was going to rant about:

The other day I went to the library at lunch because I'm still the nerdy kid who spends her lunch break at the library. I wanted to find a nice word-related book to talk about, but all they had in the dewy decimal neighborhood was a book about starting a book club and this book called ProFessors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. As you might expect, it focuses only on the most dangerous liberal professors, Bob Jones professors and the like are apparently perfectly harmless.
The author brings a bunch of academics up on charges ranging from actual dangerousness (rapists and the like) to liberal extremists to a bunch of folks he declares Marxists (usually with no substantiation), to professors who don't like Columbus day and professors who don't support the war in Iraq.
The book was surprisingly reassuring in a way. It was written in the days just following the start of the Iraq war, at a time when opposing the war was actually considered dangerous by a lot of folks.
The book, though, despite being really, really silly, actually got me thinking. Is it possible for a professor who imparts his or her opinion, however wrong his or her opinion may be, to be dangerous? If I oppose a war, can it possibly pose a real danger? The dictionary says that dangerous means something like capable of inflicting serious bodily injury, and several of the profs in the book actually did meet that definition. Most don't. There's an earlier definition for the word that means difficult or arrogant, and really, that applies to most college professors. But I digress as usual.
Anyway, the author is right in one thing: academia is overflowing with extreme liberals. Anybody who has been to college has likely had a Marxist or two (unless they went to Bob Jones). Liberals are over-represented, and that's not a good thing: it's unfair to conservative students who are expected to conform to their profs' world views to get good grades, and it's not good in that students are getting a one-sided view of the world
But dangerous? I suppose a Marxist prof who happens to be really, really charismatic, like Jim Jones charismatic, probably poses somewhat of a threat. I doubt, however, most profs profiled in the book are Jim Jones-ish. I was thinking about all the teachers I have had though... if you count my having repeated Kindergarten and my two years at Ursuline, I went through 15 years of Catholic schools, and all those years of Catholic educators couldn't keep me from leaving Catholicism. My anti-feminist gender law professor certainly didn't make me an anti-feminist - if anything, she challenged me to get better at arguing my side. All my years of peace-nick educators failed to make me oppose gun rights, and despite all of my English profs' best efforts, I do not look at every poem ever written as a metaphor for sex.
Further, my mom opposed the war in Iraq; anyone who has ever met my mom will promise you there is nothing dangerous about my mom. Unless you consider her relentless quest to make you chicken soup when you're sick dangerous. 
The book did a good job of capitalizing on the culture of fear at the time, and it had to be pretty freaking easy to write considering how easy it is to find liberal professors, and how even easier it is to make claims without backing any of them up with evidence. So kudos to him. But dangerous? Yeah, no.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

So there

So I was reading this exceptionally idiotic book at the library at lunch today that you can rest assured I'll be ranting about in a future post.
The author introduced a term I'd never heard before, though, sneer quotes. That's when you dismiss a concept by placing it in quotes. The author gives for an example, folks dismissing the war on terror by calling it "the war on terror." Until very recently, a major paper (I think the Washington Post?) referred to gay marriage as homosexual "marriage." Holy bitchy.
Anyway, that got me to thinking about ways a news organization can sneak in bias. Although, these days, news organizations don't so much seem to bother with hiding their bias :(.
This inspired me to coin my own term, the snide [sic]. That's when you try to make the person you're quoting look dumb by reprinting a mistake, and then pointing said mistake out. That's a great way of calling the person you're quoting an idiot without calling her an idiot. Very underhanded.
Then, there's taking things out of context. It's not just the big Shirley Sherrod things. It's the little things news organizations pick out. For instance, dude, Sarah Palin was speaking ironically when she said she didn't know what the vice president did. Of course she knows what the VP does. She was not, however, speaking entirely ironically about seeing Russia from her house.
Also, Dan Quayle misspelled potato, sure. But there were mitigating circumstances. Plus, I'm a pretty good writer, and I spell definitely wrong every single time I write it.
Also, Al Gore didn't claim to invent the Internet. He didn't even say "I invented the Internet." 
On TV, there's also the extreme close-up. Think of the Barbara Walters interview with Monica Lewinsky back in the day, for example. The whole interview, they shot Lewinsky way up in her face and from below. Like they really needed to make her less attractive.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gone but not forgotten

Quintessential: Refers to the fifth element, the quintessence, that holds everything together. It was once believed that everything was a combination of earth, air, fire, and water, and held together by quintessence.
Good humor: Refers to the notion that there are four humors in the body that are responsible for his health and stuff.
   full of bile: Supposedly, if you're angry all the time, you've got too much bile.
   phlegmatic: If you're sluggish, you've got too much phlegm.
Blue blood: In Spain, a blue blood used to be somebody with no Moorish or Jewish ancestry. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a reference to the fact that you can see veins through the skin of pale people. Maybe not so much disproved as secretly racist.
He's compensating: You might say this about a guy with a fancy car or a giant gun... it comes from Freud's notion that people with big cars or other displays of manliness were compensating for small manly bits. Which, we now know, is pretty much crap. But we've been over that before.
Hair of the dog: According to The Phrase Finder, back in the day, folks believed if you got bitten by a rabid dog, you could put that dog's hair on the wound and not get rabies. I don't know if this works any better than the metaphorical hair of the dog, but it certainly can't work any less.
Lunatic: From the belief that the moon made people crazy.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Behave yourself

The sign on the door to my shrink's office reads Phoenix Rising Behavioral Health. First of all Phoenix Rising. Seriously? But secondly, Behavioral Health.
When I was first looking for a psychiatrist, I couldn't find any on my old insurance provider's Web site. I had to go to a special behavioral health site for all my crazy doc needs. Statements came from United Behavioral Health. Bills came for my behavioral health services. And still, even though I'm pretty much asymptomatic, thanks to the wonders of modern pharmacology, I still fill prescriptions for my behavioral meds. 
Mental illness is not a behavior. Chemical imbalances and misfiring synapses aren't behaviors. Hearing voices is not a behavior, stress-related illnesses are not behaviors, experiencing a fight-or-flight response for no reason whatsoever is not a behavior. Calling it behavioral health makes people with mental illness sound like petulant children. Like people running around tearing off their clothes and screaming at trees and robbing banks. Not that my people and I haven't been known to scream at trees (or squirrels, or walls, or nothing at all). But those behaviors are symptoms of things that are anything but.
Folks who insist on using the word might point out that according to the psychological school of behaviorism, a behavior is anything a person thinks, feels, and does is a behavior. Well first of all, behaviorism hasn't been the prevailing school of psychology for a great many years, certainly since long before Phoenix Rising Behavioral Health opened its doors. Plus, misfiring synapses, chemical imbalances, and stress-related illnesses are also not thoughts, feelings, or actions.  
You know what a behavior is? My freaking shrink playing with his damn smart phone through our whole appointment.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Yeah, but did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?

I've been thinking about etiquette lately. I remember being young and thinking that etiquette was about the dumbest thing on earth. We invent these rules, which are mostly entirely arbitrary, and then go bananas when people don't follow or know about them. What if I decided that from now on, everybody I met had to greet me by jumping on one foot while hopping around in a circle and became livid with people who didn't? Is that really all that different from being offended when someone doesn't know which fork to use? Why the hell do there need to be multiple forks anyway? And wouldn't it make so much more sense if we tucked our napkins into our shirts rather than on our laps?
Come to thinking of it, I still think etiquette is pretty dumb. Most of it anyway.
Saturday at the library, I thought I'd learn a bit more about etiquette from Do's and Taboos from Around the World, edited by Roger Axtell. Well strike one, plurals don't get apostrophes; it should be Dos. Then again, dos looks wrong and has a different meaning. But I digress as usual.
So the book talks about conversation topics that are and are not acceptable around the world. As you'd expect, in most countries, you wouldn't want to talk about personal finance or contentious issues and such. But here are some of the odd ones:
  • In Germany and Italy, you're not supposed to talk about American football. Why, exactly, do you suppose? Is it a sore spot? Did American football beat them up on the playground? It may just be that Germans and Italians don't know a lot about American Football, but wouldn't that be true of a lot of countries? Or are they just mad that we call football soccer and soccer football?
  • In Israel, it's rude to talk about the aid that the US sends to Israel. How often do you suppose that comes up in casual conversation? Like you're just making casual conversation: "Isn't the weather nice? Do you like soccer? How do you feel about the fact that my country keeps coughing up the Benjamens for yours?"
  • In Spain, you're not supposed to knock bullfighting. That's kind of a random thing to bring up in conversation, but sure. Whatever.
  • In Switzerland, you're not supposed to talk about weight or diets. I'm not sure what, if anything, this has to do with the fact that the Swiss have one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Maybe it's like pointing out "Hey, I'm fat!"
  • In Kenya, it's a big no-no to talk about the Mau Mau period. Assuming you've heard of the Mau Mau period, which I certainly hadn't.
  • In Zambia, you're not supposed to talk about Zambian inefficiency. 
  • In the Middle East, it's unwise to talk about your pet dogs.
  • In Japan, it's not polite to bring up WWII. "Hey, remember when your country sneak-attacked our country for no good reason, and then we dropped bombs that would destroy the land and kill innocent civilians for years to come? It's a good thing we can look back on it now and laugh."
  • In Singapore, you shouldn't make jokes about the food you're being served.
  • In Brazil, it's not okay to make ethnic jokes. Really? Brazil is the only country on earth in which you shouldn't make ethnic jokes? Also, Argentina is not an acceptable topic of conversation.
  • In Mexico, you shouldn't talk about the Mexican American war. Dude, that was kind of a long time ago. Bygones? And I thought the Irish held grudges.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know. He's got his own blog.*

Yesterday, a relative stranger had occasion to tell me that Bruce Springsteen sucks. The stranger is, I am proud/ashamed to say, still alive.
But it got me thinking about the word sucks. The stranger's word choice was poor in this case, because he knew nothing at all about Springsteen. Thought, in fact, that Bruce Springsteen sang I'm Proud to be an American *shudders*. The stranger's willingness to jump in with the opinion that someone about whom he knows less than nothing made him, not just to Bruce nuts, sound really, really ignorant. 
Which made me think about the fact that I accuse things of sucking all the time. I ran across this Slate article making the case for the word sucks. The author of the article, however, seems to be speaking only to arguments that the word is vulgar and grammatically iffy. Neither the author nor I is even sure that the word has vulgar origins. While no one seems sure of the exact etymology, there's the expression sucks to that was used way back in the day; for example, in Lord of the Flies, Ralph often says of Piggy's asthma, sucks to your ass-mar. Sucks and suck up could certainly be references to oral sex, but sucks to doesn't seem like it would be.
Anyway, my problem with sucks isn't its vulgarity or whatever, its just that the word, well, it kind of sucks. It doesn't mean anything, really. It, like good, bad, and special is a throwaway word; a lazy word one uses when one's too lazy to make a rational argument that includes facts. My stranger used the word sucks because he didn't know enough to say that Bruce's lyrics can be pedantic and maudlin, when you can understand a word of them. The stranger would still be an idiot because Bruce Springsteen is God, and therefore incapable of pedantry. But he would have seemed at least a bit less ignorant.
So that got me thinking that I probably use the word sucks in ignorance as well. If I know enough about something to make a well-reasoned critique, why would I need such a pointless word? Now, sometimes, of course, sucks is the only word that'll do the job. Getting hit on the head with a metal pipe sucks, no need to make a well-reasoned argument for that one. I mean, I guess it sucks unless you're Mama Cass.
But I'm thinking, actually, that the word sucks really never needs to be pointed at humans. It's ignorant and rude as well as... well, people shouldn't turn into garbage with one word. Maybe.
Except for the stranger who talked bad about my Bruce. That dude sucks.

*Nick Hornby/Ben Folds (Guess which album I bought recently.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Just like witches at black masses

Lately I've been learning a lot about Wicca, a much maligned and misrepresented faith, and the way Wiccans celebrate this time of year.
I'd always been led to believe that "witches" held satanic rituals and sacrificed kittens on October 31st. However, Wiccans do not, as a whole, believe in Satan, and most Wiccans I know have the good sense not to worship things that they don't think are there. Also, according to my sociology texts and Snopes, there is little evidence to suggest that cat sacrifices are a thing. The reason shelters don't give out black cats in October is the same that pet stores don't sell ducks and bunnies at Easter - because people will buy them as holiday decoration and then ditch them.
Anyway, I thought I'd tell you a thing or two about some of the things I've been learning from my Wiccan friends.
So first of all, Wiccans celebrate Samhain on October 31st, not Halloween, which is largely a secular holiday. Although Samhain is pronounced "Saween" (or close to it), the words Samhain and Halloween are not etymologically related. Samhain probably evolved from a word of Celtic origin, a word meaning summer's end. Why it's not pronounced anything like Samhain I'm not sure. Probably for the same reason that Greenwich is not pronounced Greenwich.
Samhain was a harvest festival, nothing sinister there. It was believed that, since so many plants and animals die at this time of year, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead became thin, what with all the traffic, and so people used the day to celebrate and sort of commune with the dead. This is nowhere near as creepy as our communing with our dead loved ones by pumping them full of formaldehyde and covering them with makeup so that they don't look dead.
The trappings of Samhain are also nowhere near as creepy as the trappings of Halloween. While there are often lots of skulls and bones around, they're not there to scare people or freak people out, but just as a memento mori, if you will. Lots of cultures do this. It's interesting that mainstream American culture sees bones as bad and scary while so many other cultures see them as a natural part of life.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Itty bitty living space.

If you weren't aware, the full name for our smallest state is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. That's not the name that appears on maps or anything like that, and according to a Washington Post article, many folks in Rhode Island may not even know the full name of the state.
Well, this election day, voters in Rhode Island will decide whether to drop Providence Plantations from the name. People in favor of the name change say that the word Plantation is so linked to slavery that it doesn't matter that Plantation originally just meant settlement. Like the Swastika, they say, even though the word used to be innocent, it's newer connotation makes the word toxic.
Of course, Rhode Island is part of the North, where slavery was made illegal early on. However, the state was heavily involved in the Triangle Trade, in which Northern folks made serious bank trafficking enslaved people. The word Plantation has nothing to do with that history, it was part of the name in the original charter, and just meant something like blessed settlement or maybe god-given settlement.
Anyway, I'm not sure how I feel about this. I know where I usually come down on issues like this - I'm not a fan of the fact that I root for the Cleveland Indians, for example. But given the word Plantation, dictionarily speaking, has nothing on earth to do with slavery, and the full name of the state has nothing to do with slavery, changing the name seems excessive and reactionary. Then again, I don't live there, so I don't really need an opinion anyway. Just an interesting story.
This story made me wonder something I've never bothered to wonder before. Why the heck is it called Rhode Island? It's not an island, and I don't even know what Rhode means. It turns out that Rhode Island, according to my many sources, is called Rhode Island because it's kinda shaped like the island of Rhodes. That is a really uncreative name for a state. Especially since Rhode Island, and apparently its namesake, are just kind of shaped like trapezoids. Maybe they should change that part of the name too.