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.

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.