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.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae

When I was young, Vatican II was a household subject. I don't remember ever not knowing what Vatican II was, and I don't remember ever asking. I came from a very old, very Catholic family.

People always talked about the Latin Mass. I didn't know what it was for a long time, I only knew it was outlawed, and I knew it was for good reason. 

Then, my church put on a Latin Mass. I remember the buzz and the crackle; the classical radio station came and brought their giant microphones and my parents telling me Latin Mass was OK this once. It was for special. A Big Deal. And boy was I excited. And then the service began, and then began the most abject boredom I'd ever experienced. What was the point of having a special Latin Mass if they were going to have the whole thing in another language? This was a big deal? This was forbidden?

The Catholic church didn't conduct Latin services because they believed Latin was the language of the enlightened. They didn't do it to be exclusive or intellectual. The word "catholic," with a lower-case "c," means "embracing all." The church wanted to have all masses said in Latin so that anyone could go to any church anywhere in the world and understand the language - so that everyone could be included.

Of course, that didn't go quite the direction it was supposed to go, and instead of everybody understanding, nobody did. And it only took the church a few centuries to figure it out and give up the ghost. Which is really quite quick, for Catholicism. 

Interesting note: Universalism is a faith that believes all souls are saved; everyone has a chance to reconcile with God. Universalism is new and open and ever-changing. Catholicism is staid and sturdy, rich with tradition. The faiths are as vastly different as country mouse and city mouse, yet the lowercase words "universal" and "catholic" are synonyms. Cool, huh?

We're all mad here

I hate it when people accuse my favorite writers of having been drug users - as if people who are creative and intelligent enough to come up with something so thrillingly original must be using performance enhancing drugs. As Stephen King has said, "The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time... Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers -- common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words." He goes on to say that writers who claim that they need to be high to write are just making excuses for their behavior.

However, would the Late Beatles have existed if not for drugs? The pre-drug Beatles wanted to hold your hand. The post-drug Beatles changed the definition of rock and roll. Paul McCartney has said that drug use was so very much more innocent then. He says today's drugs are a different breed, they destroy lives and kill people. But would The White Album have been The White Album if not for the green? Would the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s have been as revolutionary? 

On a completely tangential note, the more I hear Revolution 9, the more sense it makes to me. That worries me. It kind of makes me think that the subject of the song is wandering through a train station that is also his life, his history and his future and a voice constantly pestering him to move on. Or it could just be that The Beatles said "Hey, let's make 9 minutes of incomprehensible garbage and see if people are suckers enough to listen to it and think it means something." I suspect some modern artists and poets of doing the same.

Heath Ledger supposedly got hooked on drugs while taking stimulants to enhance his creepy jittery performance as The Joker. I loved the man and the performance, but do people who take performance-enhancing drugs deserve Oscars for it? Maybe you do need drugs to understand some characters. Maybe that's why I didn't cut it as a theatre major. That and, you know, the painfully embarrassing over-acting.

And I don't know about you, but I can barely write when I'm very sleepy. Drunk Brigid writes things like "There are some things you  can only undersand when youre durnk. ill tell you later." Stoned, I don't think I could hold a pen.

This is a picture of what my cat would probably look like if you were high. I haven't tested this out, so fair warning.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Have you ever noticed that Ohioans pronounce "Akron" and "Canton" with a short "i" sound instead of an "o"? What's more interesting to me is that most people outside of Ohio do pronounce the "o," particularly noticeable if you call 411. 
In the movie "Needful Things," the evil Leland Gaunt claims to have come from Akron, Ohio, but pronounces the "o" sound. I wonder if that's supposed to be a clue that the character is not who he says he is, or if it's just that no one making the movie knew that it's pronounced "Akrin."
I've further noticed that people from Canton often drop the "n" and "t" out of the middle of the word and say something that sounds more like "Ca-in." I've noticed I've started calling it "Ca-in" as well. Similarly, it seems about half the people I talk to say "Cuyoga" instead of "Cuyahoga."
Some folks around these parts also drop the middle consonants out of "technically," so it sounds like "teh-nicly." I wonder if that's a regionalism, or if it's just something people naturally do because they're too hurried to pronounce all the sounds in the sentence.
Around here, if something is dirty, we say it "needs washed," rather than "needs to be washed" or "needs washing." I had no idea that was considered grammatically incorrect until recently.
Here in Ohio, we call the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street a "tree lawn," and I didn't know until college that that's not what everybody else calls it. Apparently, people in most regions call it "the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb," but in some regions it's called a "parking strip" or "tree belt," among other things. None of those terms are particularly accurate, come to think on it. I mean, sometimes that bit of lawn has a tree in it, but most don't. And you're certainly not supposed to park on a tree lawn. I would know. When I first got my license, I was so bad a parallel parker that I parked on a street with half the car on a tree lawn, and I got a ticket for parking in a "landscaped area." My parallel parking skills have not improved, by the way.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hair splitting

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. Isn't that the definition of hope? Perseverance? Seems to me every baby who tries to walk and falls down would be insane to try again, by that definition.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fun with Fundamentals - Exemplum Primum

Everybody knows that a huge number of our English words come from Latin, some surprisingly intact, considering how far they have come. What a lot of people don't know, or at least what I didn't know until I took History of the English Language in college, is that almost none of the Latin words that have found their way to us come directly from Latin.
The English language is comprised almost entirely of the languages of people who have conquered the British isles. We don't know much of anything about the folks who lived on the island of Britain before everybody started conquering it, only that it was a loose confederation of primitive folk with primitive vocabulary, who apparently liked very much being invaded.
The Romans started showing up around the late BCs and hung around until the early ADs. The Romans are the ones who name the island "Britain," we don't know what folks called it before the Romans showed up, but I expect that it was something like "Dreary Rainy Rock that Wants Conquering." And really, one must wonder what the Romans were thinking, striking out from the warm sunny Mediterranean with its roads and plumbing and winding up in such a tiny, cold place. Maybe that's why the Romans left after a couple hundred years (I hear it has something to do with the fall of Rome, too). What's a bit surprising is that when they left, they took the Latin language with them. Only a tiny handful of words stuck around. The only one I can think of off the top of my head, aside from Britain, obviously, is castra, the Latin word for "camp," which survives in place names that end in "caster" or "chester," (e.g., Manchester).
Most of the Latin that's part of English now doesn't show up until (say it with me, class) 1066 AD when the Normans decided to eschew croissants for scones and took over. The Normans are far too busy running the country and watching snobby art films to learn a new language, so French becomes the official language of Important People, like royals and priests and stuff, but the peasants still speak Old English (which oddly enough, they didn't call Old English at the time). Over time, the peasants, probably trying to sound hoity toity to impress their friends, start picking up the language of the upper classes.  Now since French is exceptionally close to Latin, the Latin language sneaks in the back door of English over the next several hundred years. And that's how it happened.
The neatest part about all this is how many words came from Latin to French to English totally intact. Back in ancient Rome, just like here, a culinary genius might fill her villa with the intoxicating aroma of citrus and asparagus, and serve it to a senator with a big ego, but great acumen as a legislator. That's kinda awesome.

Also, I got like, straight Ds in Latin class, so take this entry with a grain of salt. I added a bunch of new sources to the bibliography, which is the first post in this blog.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Civility

Do you remember when people debated politics without name-calling and screaming hyperbole? Yeah, me neither. Perhaps Pepperidge Farm remembers. But seriously. What set me off is this Facebook group:


Remember when this stuff wasn't OK? When it was un-American? Remember when we respected the office, if not the man? (Remember when the Dixie Chicks were crucified just for saying they were ashamed of the president?)

So what I'm trying to nail down is, what changed the dialog? What changed our words from "I think this is awful" to "EVERYONE WHO DISAGREES WITH ME IS A FACIST BABY-KILLING EVIL IDIOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!!!!11!!!"

I think the assault on civility came from two fronts. The 24-hour news cycle brought down the walls and the Internet burned the countryside. 

You see, most days, there's not quite enough news to fill out every hour of every day. Some people watched it all day, and they didn't want to see the same thing over and over, so they brought in pundits. Suddenly, the suits once relegated to Sunday mornings were left to run amok all over the ever-multiplying news channels, until you couldn't tell where news ended and punditry began. Over time, the pundits became anchors and shrieking harpies became pundits.

And then, the Internet comes along. Now anyone with a keyboard could reach an international audience in a mouse click. And they did. And here's the thing. You know how, as soon as you get behind the wheel, every other driver instantly becomes a moron, and you shout things out your window you'd never shout to anyone's face? I think it's because you can't see their face. They're cars, not people. You don't have to be polite to machines, and you forget there are humans inside of them. That's sort of how the Internet works. You don't see people when you're online, you see words on a page. And if you don't agree with those words, you can tear the speaker down in a manner you'd never use in person.

I'm just saying I miss civility. I'm saying I'd love to hear a Republican say "I think this health care bill is disastrous for the country, and here's why." I'd love to hear a democrat say "Let me explain why I think this legislation is a good thing." Instead we've become a nation of chimps and apes, futility flinging poo into the void. 

Is civility dead?

Look for another post later defining the vocabulary of the debate. And perhaps one about the exclamation punctuation proliferation. 

Pic from the Cleveland Zoo. Eagle is sad.

Book like me?

Our local Border's has a special section for African American literature. Dude, our bookstore is segregated.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Acceptable by virtue of ubiquity

One of the things I love about the English language is the way it grows and changes, sometimes in unexpected ways. The following is a list of words and expressions that have been used incorrectly so much that most people don't know they're technically incorrect.

Hopefully: Dude, I say this all the time and always in the wrong way. Hopefully is an adverb, meant to modify a verb, as in "We prayed hopefully." It's technically incorrect, then, to say "Hopefully we'll have enough gas in the tank to get us to church." In that, the word "hopefully" isn't modifying the verb "have"; the correct way to phrase this sentence is "I hope we'll have enough gas."

Alright and alot: Should be "all right" and "a lot," but I've had English teachers who didn't know that. Most spell-checkers don't even flag "alright" as a misspelling anymore.

Macchiatto: A macchiatto is an espresso with a dollop of milk or foam. However, Starbucks sells a drink called a macchiatto which is, in fact, a caramel latte. When I worked at Caribou coffee, folks were constantly complaining that we made our macchiattos incorrectly.

Speaking of espresso: The word is spelled and pronounced "espresso," from the Italian for "quick." There is technically no such thing as "expresso." I must rant a bit about the fact that I ordered an espresso, and the waitress "corrected" my pronunciation. I'm a live and let live kind of girl, but don't force your mispronunciations on me, yo.

Ninjas: Technically, the plural of "ninja" is "ninja." Also, since ninjas were typically assassins, spies, and such, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were not, in fact, ninjas.

Daylight Savings: It's actually Daylight Saving time.

TV's: The plural of TV is TVs, without an apostrophe. This is true of any other initialism as well.

Speaking of initialisms: "Acronym" has come to mean any abbreviations formed from the first letters of the words in the phrase, e.g., "AIDS" and "ATM" Actually, it's technically only an acronym if the letters combine to form a word e.g., "AIDS," "Scuba," "DOS." If it doesn't spell a word, e.g., "ATM," "CPR," "AA," it's an initialism.

Speaking of e.g.,: The initialisms e.g. and i.e. are not interchangeable. "E.g." comes from the Latin exempli gratia and means "for an example." "I.e." comes from the Latin id est and means "that is."
So e.g. would be used in a sentence like: He has many kinds of hats, e.g., baseball hats, porkpie hats, top hats.
I.e. would be used in a sentence like: He likes to wear stuff on his head, i.e., he likes hats.
Also, including "e.g." at the beginning of a sentence and etc at the end of a sentence is redundant. You've already said that the list consists of examples, denoting that these examples are several of many.

Is this entry as boring and stuffy as it looks?

Monday, April 19, 2010

And the word was God

Kurt Vonnegut talked in his speeches about the fact that Karl Marx called religion "the opiate of the masses." Vonnegut explained that when Marx wrote those words, opiates were the only options that a lot of people had to deal with illness. Some people abused opiates, but opiates also allowed some people to function despite debilitating pain. So, Vonnegut contends, Marx wasn't saying that religion was a bad thing, he was saying that religion is like medicine for people who are oppressed and suffering. Religion did not cure the problem of oppression, but it helped oppressed people cope with their suffering.

Think of all the damage done, all the rights crushed, over a mistranslation. Not that the communist regimes that oppress religious folks are otherwise the fuzzy, permissive sort.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Psycho Dog Man"

I was vaguely aware that the HLN network was an appalling waste of space before, but something I saw this weekend blew me away.
I'm posting the link to their story entitled "Psycho Dog Man" here, but all you need to know is that HLN for some reason finds it newsworthy that a man in Australia barked like a dog at a reporter. A clip of "Psycho Dog Man" has been circulating the Internet lately, and HLN's story claimed to be covering the phenomenon. The story plays the clip of the man barking about a half dozen times, interviews "Psycho Dog Man," and has the reporter, I'm not kidding, interviewing dogs on their reaction to the story. Once again, no, I'm not kidding.
Now what bothers me more than the fact that this is in no way a news story is the callous use of the word "psycho." Using the word "psycho" in the headline of a news story is totally inappropriate, insensitive, and unprofessional. Would they run a story with the headline "Retard Wins Special Olympics"? How about "Local Lard-Ass Wins Pie Eating Contest"? Why on earth, then, would anyone at the news organization allow that term to be used? I'm not prudish about slang terms or "bad" words, but words like "psycho" are insulting and hurtful, as cruel as any racial or sexual slur. Also, in this case, the word isn't even accurate. But to explain that fact, we first have to define the word "psycho."
"Psycho" can refer either to someone who is psychotic, or it can refer to a "psychopath."
A person who is psychotic is someone who is suffering from an illness that causes them to hallucinate and have delusions. People with psychosis can be violent, but usually are not. They are folks, the same as everyone else but for a few misplaced synapses in the brain, who are suffering deeply from symptoms that are far beyond their control. Just as it would be beyond cruel to mock a person with cancer for having cancer, calling a person with psychosis a "psycho" is morally equivalent to pissing on a drowning man.
A "psychopath" is a person who lacks empathy and a conscience; to quote the movie Natural Born Killers, they "know the difference between right and wrong, they just don't give a damn." The problem here is that when we only use half the word, we cause confusion as to the definition, and people can come to be under the impression that people with psychosis are violent and evil folks with no conscience.
"Psycho Dog Man," as it turns out, is a just some guy who was attacked by a dog and was describing the dog attack, complete with a description of the dog's bark. This man is neither psychotic, nor psychopathic. So in addition to the story being crude, cruel, and unprofessional, it's also completely incorrect.

*grumble, grumble*

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A few thoughts on China before I leave for Florida

According to some word origins calendar, the word "chopsticks" derives from the phrase "chop chop," which, in turn, comes from a Cantonese expression meaning "hurry hurry." The calendar claimed that chopsticks were so named because sailors saw how quickly Chinese immigrants ate with them. I've read elsewhere that this isn't the case; that's the trouble with word histories, especially in trivia-tidbit form. Theories are passed off as fact, and all we have to go back to is the Oxford English Dictionary, which can only tell us where the word first appears in print. And words don't tend to appear in print until long after they've started coming out of people's mouths.

Also, if somebody showed you a page of English text written a thousand years ago, it would look like gibberish. Even our alphabets are somewhat different. If you were from China and I showed you a page of Chinese text from a thousand years ago, you'd be able to read it without much problem. Written Chinese just hasn't changed much. I would guess it has to do with the fact that our written language is directly related to how we pronounce words, and theirs isn't. That and it's a lot easier for foreign influences to change a language when the language is trapped on a tiny island.

Also, ever wonder how or if people in China text each other, what with a 5,000 character alphabet? Apparently, you type the first three roman letters of the phonetic pronunciation of a character, then select the character from a list of characters that start out being pronounced that way.

Edit: A friend commented with a correction - since most people in China learn simplified characters these days, the task of reading an ancient text would be possible, but by no means effortless. I stand corrected.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

He of the glowing red eyes

If you were to meet a French person and fall in love, and if you spoke only English and she only French, the language you'd speak to each other would be a pidgin. Should you have children, the language that your children would speak would be a creole. So Cajun and Creole aren't the same thing, except they've come to mean the same thing. The word "creole" will always make me think of gumbo and Gambit.

And while we're on the subject of vocabulary and the Ragin' Cajun... Gambit of the X-Men had the power of "kinetic energy." Which made sense when I was 12, as most things do. However, kinetic energy is the energy that objects have while they're in motion. Anyone who can throw a ball (or a playing card) has the power of kinetic energy. When Gambit threw stuff, it exploded. So it was more that he had the power of making things explode. Particularly because, we learned, he didn't actually need to throw things to make them explode. He could just touch them.

Now there was a Marvel comic book character whose power was to throw stuff. She was called Diamondback. So she could be accurately described as having the power of kinetic energy. It's a little weird that someone would create a character named after a snake and have her power involve throwing things, but then again, this does come from the company that thought it was a good idea to name a superhero team "The Howling Commandos."

Friday, April 9, 2010


So I'm reading a book called Who Stole Feminism, by Christina Hoff-Sommers. Sommers, herself a feminist, coins the term "gender feminists" to refer to the man-hating, Birkenstock wearing, militant feminazi school of feminism. I should start by saying that I honestly had no idea such people existed.

My mom was the sort of 70s feminist who imbued my sister and I with the radical notion that girls could be anything they wanted to be. And at the Catholic school I grew up in; one in which parents threatened to take their kids out of school if girls were made altar servers, one in which boys were allowed to play sports at recess but girls were not allowed to run, skip, or touch each other; my mom's ideology was a bit radical.

But apparently, some feminists really do think that all men are rapists and so on. Sommers quotes a feminist musicologist who contends that Beethoven's 9th symbolically glorifies rape; she also quotes feminist author Marylin French, who states that "the vast majority of men" rape, kill, hurt, or demean women.

The book has me thinking a lot about the word "feminism." I don't know a single feminist - and I know a lot of feminists - who thinks that all men are horrible, violent monsters. I don't know a single feminist who thinks that women are superior to men, and I have never known a feminist to accuse a man of rape or abuse unjustly. Just the same, the word is one that evokes visceral emotions, and a lot of bitterness and resentment from some. Should we just relinquish the term because it's been hijacked - because some feminists and some anti-feminists have twisted and distorted what people think of when they think of feminism? Is the word, at this point, doing more harm than good to the cause of equal rights for men and women?

Actually, I think we need to take the word back. The more we sane, man-loving, equality hungry women use the word - and the more comfortable we are using the word, the more the word belongs to us. Feminists and everybody else who wants equal rights for men and women still have work to do, work that's more important than quibbling about vocabulary.

I saw this poem on a poster I really liked; it's adapted from the poem "For Every Woman" by Nancy R Smith

For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.
For every boy who is burdened with the constant expectation of knowing everything, there is a girl tired of people not trusting her intelligence.
For every girl who is tired of being called over-sensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep.
For every boy for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity, there is a girl who is called unfeminine when she competes.
For every girl who throws out her E-Z-Bake oven, there is a boy who wishes to find one.
For every boy struggling not to let advertising dictate his desires, there is a girl facing the ad industry’s attacks on her self esteem.
For every girl who takes a step toward her liberation, there is a boy who finds the way to freedom a little easier.
Please enjoy this arty photo of a statue from my folks' old church.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


In his book "On Writing Well," William Zinsser talks about eliminating clutter in writing. He says writing should be free of clunky constructions, superfluous adverbs, and unnecessary adjectives. That notion has probably had a greater effect on my writing than anything since "Harriet the Spy." As a tech writer, I think it's my responsibility to make the instructions I write as close to haiku as I can. The fewer the words, the easier to read, the clearer the meaning. That's vital in tech writing, and I'm pretty proud of my tiny word counts at work.
I'm not sure this obsessive word-pruning is so great outside of work. Everything I write seems so skeletal these days; even my blog is like a bonsai tree. When I submitted my essay for This I Believe, my editor said she couldn't remember the last time she'd had to tell anyone that their essay was too short. It was a little weird trying to cram verbiage into an essay that only needed to be 500 words long - it gave me strange high school flashbacks. I felt like I should try using a bigger font and cheating the margins.
This is coming up again as I write this blog; everything I post feels so skimpy. I guess I need to go about finding a way to put clothes back on my writing. Without reverting to cluttered writing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Finding Neverland

When James Barrie was six, his older brother David died. David was his mother's favorite of all her children, and she went mad with grief, and wouldn't have anything to do with James, except on the occasions that she thought James was David. Her only comfort, she always said, was that David had died a young boy; he never had time to know the sadness and corruption in the world - he would never have to grow up.
James himself never grew up, actually. Probably because of the trauma, he developed stress dwarfism, and only grew to be about 5 feet tall (although there are conflicting reports - some say he was much smaller).
Barrie never said that Peter and the Lost Boys were, in fact, dead, and maybe he didn't really mean it that way. Peter, the story said, was in his baby carriage, heard the grown-ups making plans for him when he grew up, and he wanted none of it, so he ran off to Neverland. The Lost Boys were children who had gone missing and ended up in Neverland.
Imagine the milquetoast movie "Finding Neverland" if it had told the real story. Imagine if, instead of a moping post-Gilbert Grape Johnny Depp, it had starred Emanuel Lewis or Vern Troyer. That would be preposterous, of course. People with disabilities do not play romantic leads. People with disabilities are either comically lovable or heart-wrenchingly tear-jerkingly Courageous. They certainly don't have clandestine affairs or successful careers. Who'd believe that?
One thing you can say; Peter Pan is probably the most beautiful work of art ever to come out of survivors' guilt. Although Stephen King's "The Body" is up there as well. More on that later, perhaps.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Siren song

In ancient Greek, the word from which our word "siren" is descended initially referred to an eel or a salamander-like critter, which may have been derived from an earlier word for "rope."
The Sirens of myth, then, were originally eel-like characters who sang enchantingly, luring men from their ships. Over time myths evolved, as myths do, and the sirens were no longer eels, but bird-like things - I always pictured them as something like voluptuous flamingos. Only evil.
Some years in the future, a dude named Jack Robinson invented a musical instrument that used a pneumatic tube to make its hauntingly beautiful sound, a sound that he reckoned was as sweet as the siren's song. The technology he used to make that instrument was used to create warning sirens and the like, and that is how an eel became a wail.

At least that's what I remember from the five page paper I had to write on the subject in college. I can only assume I used a really big font.

I took the pic at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I have no idea where he was keeping the back half of his body or how he planned to get out.


And now...

Siren Song

by Margaret Atwood

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.