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.

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.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hail to the chief

I'm feeling presidential today, for no reason really, so I'm going to lay some president facts down on you:
  • The president who holds the record for longest inaugural address is Harrison at something like 4 hours. 
  • The Gettysburg Address is only 268 words long. I wonder if people were offended by that fact at the time. Like, you know, your kid just got slaughtered, and the president talks for 2 minutes, and then that's it? Of course, he couldn't have said it better had he spoken for four hours. 
  • So Regan used Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA in his campaign, even though the song's not really a song about love of country at all. The speaker went to Vietnam and lost his brother in that war. He feels he was fighting for nothing, and when he comes home he's worse off than ever before, career-wise. It's not a celebration, it's an indictment. Listen to his tone on the chorus sometime; you'll hear rage and grief, but not pride.
  • Ben Stein, he of Bueller... Bueller... Bueller... was a speech writer for Nixon. Also kind of a butt.
  • The town of Delightful, Ohio, is so called because a president, Cleveland, I think, said the place was delightful. That's the story, anyway.
Not my most inspired post; sorry kids.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Here are some expressions that drive me bananas. If you've been around me much you may have heard some of this before.
  • Aim for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll end up among the stars.: Lies. The moon and the stars are really, really, really far apart.  If you shoot for the moon and miss, you end up in the sucking void of space. Plus stars, are you know, giant balls of flaming plasma. Ouch.
  • The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over each time expecting a different result.: Isn't that the definition of hope? I'm also concerned with how often I've heard people in the 12-step community say it; yet they also say keep coming back. Wouldn't that negate the...
  • Chocoholic: Speaking of AA. And holy crap, spell-check is okay with chocoholic. I never noticed until Homer Simpson said "I can't live without rageahol" (or something similar, I can't find the video clip), but the ahol part of words like that doesn't belong. Because ahol is part of alcohol. Now it drives me bananas. Also it's a little trivializing to people with alcoholism. 
  • Don't you mean you feel well?: Lots of people think that it's grammatically incorrect to say "I don't feel good," because it's an adjective and the situation calls for an adverb. Except that it doesn't call for an adverb, for the same reason that "I feel happy" shouldn't be "I feel happily." Good here describes the thing that I feel; an adverb would be needed if I were describing how my sense of feeling was working.
    Mind you, I feel well isn't wrong, but only because well in this context is being used not as an adverb, but as an adjective... well can be a synonym for healthy.
    Also, I'm not a fan of people prancing about correcting grown adults' grammar with the express purpose of tearing them down. It's fair, I'd say, to correct an adult's grammar if you think it'll save them further embarrassment.
  • X is not a word.: Words become words when people say and assign meaning to them. If people didn't make up words and assign meaning to them, language wouldn't exist. You could say that x is not a word that can be found in a dictionary (although with things like, any word can be in some dictionary). You could also say "I don't think that is a good word to use," or "I hate that word," or make a logical argument about whether or not a word should be used or defined the way it is, but, the fact is that nobody, not even the dictionary himself, is an arbiter of what's a word and what's not. That's just how we roll.
  • It's always in the last place you look.: Some stand-up comedian pointed out the inanity of this sentiment, considering that, if you found something it wasn't in the last place you looked, you'd be pretty dumb for continuing to look. Although I think this expression is shortened from "It's always in the last place you'd think to look," and that's actually kind of fair. Sometimes, if I've looked everywhere for my cell phone, I'll stop and think "where's the last place I'd think to look?" And then there's my cell phone in the freezer, where it's been all along. Also, I plugged the ice cube tray into my phone charger. That explains the sparks.

Now that's dedication to the craft

He damn well better have gotten an A.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Child's play

Legos are so called because the dude who invented them was a Dane and  leg godt is Danish for play well. Quite by accident, lego is also the Latin word for I build (sorta). Random Lego fact: each piece is tested to make sure it's the wrong size to get lodged in your kid's throat. 
Ouija is named for the French and German words for yes, and is Parker Brothers' trademarked name. Generic kinds are called talking boards. Anybody else find it really weird that Parker Brothers produces these things? So not a board game. Also, who the frick decided that there are magic boards that dead people can talk to you with? As Kermit the frog once said "somebody thought of that, and someone believed it." Personally, if dead people can magically move a thing on a game board, I'd think they'd be able to just, you know, write you a note.
Lincoln Logs, I just learned, are not named for Abraham Lincoln, but for the inventor's dad.

Facts gathered from Wikipedia,, and the great filing cabinet in my brain.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabet Juice is sort of a dictionary of words that tickle Roy Blount Jr., most of which tickle me too. Sadly I couldn't finish it because it fell behind the toilet, and, you know, once a book gets back there, it can never stop being the book that fell behind the toilet, if you know what I mean. But I digress... two sentences in, which has to be a new record.
Anyway, I'm reading the book, before the Incident, and there's a bunch of entries for random words from And I'm all "I want to do that," but it just felt like cheating. So here's me cheating.
A portmanteau is one word made out of two or more words smooshed together. Lewis Carrol invented a bunch of them, a couple of which, like chortle, made it into the language proper. Other common portmanteaus include gerrymander, cyborg, and smog
Pop culture these days has raised the portmanteau from obscurity and I dig it. So here's a couple of my faves:
Ginormous: Giant and enormous. This one was recently added to Webster's, much to the chagrin of word purists who are somehow not aware that new words aren't a threat to the foundations of our civilization. I use this a lot.
Blog: What this is.
Pornado: A porn tornado, or the thing that happens when you click what seems like a perfectly legitimate link, and suddenly your screen explodes into a whirlwind of pornographic popups. Less common since the advent of popup blocker.
Nonversation: Totally meaningless and unproductive conversation.
Rickroll: This. Related things include Trololoroll, Duckroll (which predates rickrolling, actually), and my new favorite, multiroll.
Bromance: A close, affectionate relationship between two straight dudes. 

And there you have it. A bunch of crap I took from and regurgitated to you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

O for a muse of fire

Once upon a time in another life, I half-owned a freelance writing and editing company, and while the many ways in which I bollocksed that up could regale you for hours I've got a more specific mission in mind.
See when we started the thing, I had my heart set on the name Calliope for the business. Calliope was the Greek muse of epic poetry, and I think it's an awesomely pretty name. Although I soon found out that most of our customers had no earthly idea how to pronounce it. We got a lot of "Cal ee ope."
I was just thinking the other day how funny it is that so many businesses still have names with origins in Greek and Roman mythology.
  • There's Ajax, the brand of scouring powder, so named because (I would assume) Ajax was a badass in the Trojan War. 
  • Delphi was, according to legend, the place where the oracles hung out. Delphi also used to be the name of an ISP, because, I assume, the Internets can predict the future.
  • There's the BACCHUS Network, the campus anti-drinking organization ironically named after the god of wine and revelry (runner up for the most ironically named campus group: Campus Crusade for Christ. Really? Really?).
  • Nike was the goddess of victory - the Nike swoop is supposed to represent the goddess's wing.
  • Of course, there are Trojan condoms. Interesting note for your personal safety - despite Trojans having been wicked strong in battle, Consumer Reports put out a study some years back finding that Trojan was not the strongest of the major condemn brands. That honor goes to Durex, which isn't named after something from myth at all. I guess it's a little weird to name a prophylactic after a city whose claim to fame is allowing invading armies to sneak in and destroy their civilization...
So there's that, and a million more. Wonder why it's that particular mythology that sticks around? You don't see to many businesses named from Celtic mythology; although you do find two characters from Celtic mythology in my house - Puck and Brigid. Jeremy's the odd man out in my house, I guess, not being named after anything from myth. Maybe we could rename him. Is there a god of epic grumpiness?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Happy greeting card day!

I'm kind of not a holiday person in general. They're generally overstimulating, and there's always the pressure to feel a certain way... joyful on Christmas, romantic on Valentine's day, genocidal on Columbus day, hung over on New Year's day, you know. Pressure. And some holidays, like Sweetest Day, are just silly. I always saw this one as just another excuse for ladies to be mad at their lovers for not buying them more jewelry. 
This year, since sweetest is a word, and I have a blog about words, I thought it might be fun to look Sweetest Day up. Well color me surprised. This site and a couple of others tell me that Sweetest Day, formerly known as The Sweetest Day of the Year was, in fact, dreamed up by advertisers - though it was originally advertisers of chocolate, rather than jewelry or greeting cards. However, the sentiment was really nice. It was supposed to be a day when you buy a bunch of candy and give it to old people and orphans and stuff. A cynical ploy to sell candy, sure, but a cynical ploy to sell candy to people who deserve candy more than your stupid old girlfriend. Probably don't want to get orphans Jane Seymour's Open Hearts Collection necklaces though. Orphans think they look like snakes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yippee Ki Yay Mother...

This post took me on a long strange trip. You see, I stumbled across this fantastic Scots expression, gontrum niddles, which is a cry of joy. You think it's awesome to read? Say it out loud. I'll wait. I'd like to say I'll start using it, but it's always hard to work crazy exclamations in so that they seem organic. Plus I've been saying holy bananas lately, and I really like that one too.
Anyway, my new favorite expression got me thinking about exclamations in general, happy ones in specific. This post isn't about that. I got a bit sidetracked. See, I looked up the word yippee in the Online Etymology Dictionary, which informed me that it's an expression of joy from the 1920s, and that's all it gave me. I don't trust words that spring fully formed into the language. Nor, I was pretty sure, was yippee that young a word. I mean, didn't cowboys say it?
Okay, so I start Googling (there's another word you should say out loud right now). I find this oddly serious Slate article about yippee ki yay mother fucker, the catch phrase from Die Hard. Bruce Willis says the line after the bad guy accuses him of just being an American who watched too many cowboy movies as a child. The franchise goes on to overuse the catch phrase about a million more times, which is too bad really, because it was really, really funny exactly once. But I digress as usual.
All right, so more evidence that cowboys used the word/expression. I keep digging. Yippee ki yay shows up in the country song Ghost Riders in the Sky, which Stan Jones wrote in 1958. I learned, by the way, that this song is a retelling of the Wild Hunt, one of those stories present in the ancient mythologies of a whole bunch of different cultures, like the great flood.
Yippee Ki Yay also shows up in the song, I'm an Old Cowhand, written in 1936 and made famous by Bing Crosby. I'm not gonna lie, it's pretty bad. But with lyrics like "I'm a cowboy who never saw a cow/ never roped a steer because I don't know how/and I sho' ain't fixin' to start in now," it could describe most of today's country singers.
Yippee shows up in The Old Chisholm Trail, a folk song that goes back to somewhere in the 1800s, repeated throughout as a sort of refrain: Come a ti yi yippee, come a ti yi yea. And that, kids, is where I gave up the trail because I got Googled out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Let me slip out of these wet things and into a dry martini

Things that get more interesting with context: Groucho Marx famously said that he'd never belong to any club that would have him as a member. Seems he tried to join a country club, was denied because he was a Jew, and then was re-invited when they learned he wasn't just any Jew, but the famous Groucho Marx. He sent a letter in reply, telling them he'd never belong to a club that would have him as a member.

Monday, October 11, 2010


When I was a kid, I had these neighbors who had defected from the Ukraine. They were the sweetest couple. She spoke almost no English but would sometimes go to her porch when we were playing outside and toss us little toys. Her husband made wood carvings of birds, spent most of every day in the garden, and fed every critter who wandered near his house (including the skunks, sadly). He died a month after she did, in his garden.
Tony used to say that his life had a bad part and a good part, and the good part was America. He was the most patriotic man I think I've ever known - the kind, loving kind of patriot who truly believes that America had the power to be the greatest force for good on earth.
Tony and his wife didn't own a TV. When Watergate broke, they threw away the TV. I always saw that as a gesture of unconditional love, rather than one of sticking one's head in the ground; I still see the choice as sweet and touching, although it's probably not a great strategy for most Americans. They were old, though, and if they wanted to believe the best of their nation by sticking their heads in the ground, power to 'em.
So you've probably figured out that where I'm going with this is to the man we honor today, one Christopher Columbus. And by now we've all heard that conquering the New World and stealing the blah blah blah we're bad. Okay, sure, the Europeans who came to America did awful things, but can we really blame Columbus himself? Okay, so Columbus writes this lovely description in his log* of the folks that they found in the new world - their generosity, their physical beauty, and their peacefulness. Aww. And the way his log abruptly changes after that is almost comic book super-villain worthy: 
They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features... They do not bear arms and do not know them... they have no iron... They would make fine servants... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and do whatever we want.
How weird is that? History, and Columbus himself, tell us that Columbus cheerfully rounded up and enslaved the people they found, not to do regular old manual labor, but to carry them around as if they were horses, or to run relays while carrying their masters in hammocks. One first-hand account says that these first settlers brought by Columbus would slice Indians apart to test their blades, or behead their children because, you know, it was fun. 
Nobody knows quite how many natives greeted Columbus and his men, but we're talking somewhere between one and eight million. After Columbus and his men had been around for about 14 years, there were as few as 60,000 natives left on the island. Considering they didn't have tanks or machine guns or gas chambers, they made the Nazis look like pansies.
It's so weird that we still have a day honoring the man, so weird that people will get so worked up over keeping this day, when he, personally, was a gleeful participant in one of the most effective genocides in history. It kind of makes me want to throw out all the history books and go carve some birds.

As quoted in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I don't think there's been a day of my adult life that hasn't featured the Beatles. Can you remember the last time you went a whole day without singing or hearing a Beatles tune? Who says there's no life after death?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

And on and on and on and on...

A friend and I were discussing Yogi Berra yesterday, particularly his Yogi-isms. We were never clear on whether his cleverly dumb expressions were intentional. I wonder if it started out with his saying a couple of dumb things and he just ran with it.
Wikipedia tells me that a bunch of his famous quotations were tautology, which is unnecessary repetition of meaning. Berra once said, for instance, "I knew the record would stand until it was broken." Tautology, as it turns out, is one of my pet peeves, even though I just learned the word. 

  • "It's currently five o'clock." Well, that'd be great if I wanted to know what time it was right now. I wanted to know what time it is three hours ago. Even worse, "at the present time." Boo.
  • On ATMs. "Remove the bills from the bill dispenser." And I thought there were going to be gum balls in the bill dispenser :(
  • "Wandering aimlessly": does anyone ever wander purposefully?
  • "Continue on": Only six will continue on in the hopes of becoming America's Next Top Model. Just once, I'd like to see one of them continue off.
  • "Rambling on and on." Tee hee.
  • I know a guy who hates lists that start with "For example," and end with "etc." Using "for example" already tells the reader that the following are only a couple of many possibilities, so "etc." is implied.
  • "A personal friend": I have so many impersonal ones.
  • That one English dude on America's Got Talent always says "The reason I buzzed you is, is that your act was..." It's bad enough he doesn't just say "I buzzed you because..." he's got to say is twice. If you don't watch this show (and you absolutely shouldn't, if you were thinking otherwise), you have no idea what I'm talking about. BUT, I should get points for telling you that you have no idea what I'm talking about when you already know that you have no idea what I'm talking about, because that is also an example of tautology. I rule.
  • And then of course, there are the things that make my dear husband's blood boil: ATM machine, PIN number, UPC code...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bully 2

Oh, and I forgot to mention yesterday that bully, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, seems to have entered the language as a term of endearment. As often is the case, the Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't do a great job of connecting the dots.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bully for you

Seems that the world has, just this minute, decided "Oh wait, bullying is a problem." I'm glad they've come to this realization, but have no idea what took them so long. Why did it take so many teens killing themselves before the world took notice?
How many times have you heard someone say kids can be so cruel? Is this just a fact of life? Are children universally evil toward each other, or is it the product, somehow, of society? Is it something to just resign oneself to? And how do we expect kids, who are young and a bit fragile, to just hold up under it?
Like I was thinking today about what the world - or my workplace in particular - would be like if people behaved the way kids at my elementary school did. My coworkers would be forever calling me a dyke, and I'd have some random person I barely know run over and shove me to the ground at lunch three or four times a week. The guy in the next cubicle over would spend his days devising new ways to hurt me over the things about which I'm most sensitive, and every now and then, someone would bust me in the face with a backpack and the HR lady would respond by demanding to know what I'd done to make that person hit me. (Okay, the backpack thing only happened once, but I'm still a little pissed. I'm Irish. It's how we roll.) How would I get anything done? I mean, I didn't take as much abuse working at that group home as I did in elementary school, and I suspect most people can say the same. And it wasn't just stuff that happened to me; I'm still ashamed of myself for it, but I can think of quite a few times when I behaved no better to some other kid.
In fact, I know quite a few people who would consider themselves very, very lucky to have gotten through elementary school with only one backpack to the face. Kids at my school got concussions from running from the bullies chasing them, were severely injured having their chairs pushed out from under them, and were verbally abused in ways that would mean a big fat lawsuit in the grownup world.
So what is it that turns cute little munchkins into vicious demons as soon as adults turn their backs, and is it inevitable? Is it just the case that fragile and vulnerable kids are gonna be tortured into suicide now and then? Or is there a way to turn the little demons? 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Don't be a tool

I recently came across a how-to document that contained the instruction use a Phillips head (x-shaped) screwdriver. The parenthetical bit seemed absurd to me - if a Brigid knows that a Philips head screwdriver is the one that's shaped like an x. Although, really, the screwdriver isn't x-shaped, it's the screw. But I digress as usual.
Anyway, it got me wondering how a Philips head screwdriver came to be so called, especially when I learned that Philips is meant to be capitalized. A little digging taught me that it's called the Philips head because a dude named Philips - Henry Philips, as a matter of fact - invented it. The generic name is cross-head, although Philips doesn't seemed to be trademarked.
The Allen wrench isn't named after the guy who invented it though, but after one of the companies that produced them, the Allen Manufacturing Company. The generic name is hex key, and Wikipedia says that it seems to have been invented by multiple folks at the same time. It occurred to wonder whether any consumer has ever actually purchased an Allen wrench, considering they come free with anything that requires even the least assembly. And some things that don't. On a related note, are you aware that consumers can purchase Sweet n' Low? I was under the impression that the only way to obtain Sweet n Low was to steal it from a restaurant. Why anyone would ever want anything to do with Sweet n Low remains a mystery.
A ratchet gets its name from a word meaning bobbin or spindle. Funny since ratchet sounds quite a bit like an onomatopoeia. The sound of a ratchet ratcheting is one of my favorite sounds. Up there with the sound of ball bearings.
I always thought a the name Swiss Army knife was a joking reference to the fact that the Swiss, by virtue of being neutral, has an army that does more fixing than stabbing. Turns out the knife is a trademarked name, and gets the name because the knife was first made for the Swiss army. But, you know, my origin is better.

Friday, October 1, 2010

For starters

Sorry I've been neglecting the blog lately. I've got a lot of irons in the fire, not the least of which is teaching a writing class at church, and between that and everything else, I'm often all writed out by the time I get near the compy. 
Speaking of church, a coworker charged me some time ago with getting online and explaining what the heck Unitarian Universalism is, because the Internets do a poor job of explaining. You can say that again. 
This is partially due, of course, to the fact that there's really no convenient definition for Unitarian Universalism. A lot of people, including a lot of UUs, consider it a religion where everybody just believes whatever they want to; or church for people who aren't religious but still want to go to church. And while there's a kernel of truth there, it's a pretty dinky kernel.
I should make the little disclaimer here that I don't speak for all UUs, or for Unitarian Universalism as a whole; I'm just saying how I see it.
It's true that in Unitarian Universalism, there's no official religious creed. That doesn't mean we don't believe anything. I think that the thing most UUs believe when it comes to faith is that faith is a journey. We believe that everybody has the right to find their own path, and we come together on Sundays in fellowship to share what we've learned along our way, and if we're doing our jobs, help ourselves and each other become better people.
There are more facts and figures, quotes and sermons, but I'll close with words from a big poster hanging on our church wall:
Love is the spirit of this congregation
and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace; to seek the truth in love; and to help one another.