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.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Hello all. I'm home, and the trip was wonderful. Jean and I ate and drank our way through the bay area, bought more yarn than anyone has any business owning, and I totally kind of almost knitted a hat.
For the dwindling numbers of us who remotely care about the thing, Academy Awards are happening tonight. I've actually seen like, three of the nominated films this year, so I might actually give a watch. If only to see the "I didn't realize that guy was dead" slide show.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927. Author Bill Bryson suggests that the wordy nature of the name is due to the fact that Hollywood has always shied away from the term movie, which he says took on a negative connotation in the early days of film because the moral elite considered movies trashy. 
We're not sure exactly where the term Oscar came from. The statue was designed by Cedric Gibbons, MGM art director, and first awarded in 1929. Bryson thinks that the statue was named by the librarian for the academy, Margaret Herrick, who thought the statue looked like her uncle Oscar. From this, we must conclude that Uncle Oscar liked to stand naked on top of a film can, covering up his good china with a sword. Wikipedia says the statue could also have been so named after King Oscar II of Sweden. Granted, I've not seen him naked or holding a sword, but I can't quite see the resemblance. 
If you watch really old movies, you'll notice they've often got no credits - nobody thought to start giving actors names until the second decade of last century. It was then that people realized that audiences had favorite actors and could be lured in by them.  

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hello, ya'll. The Word Nerd is vacationing in sunny (actually not so sunny) California and will return to her pontificating Sunday or so.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


One of my favorite things about the Internet is the power it has to give handy common language. For example, jumping the shark. Most every TV show hits a point where it all just starts to fall apart. The point at which the thing goes from being a good show to being totally past its prime. The term was made famous by John Hein, founder of the now defunct, in reference to an episode of Happy Days, in which the Fonz, clad in his signature leather jacket, leaps, on water skis, over a shark in a daring display of manliness.
Often the shark-jumping moment is some last ditch effort to salvage a sinking ship - like  little cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch, brought in because apparently Cindy wasn't cute enough. Or Scrappy Doo. 
Or sometimes it's that an actor left a show on bad terms, and they have to do something to explain their absence (or not, in the case of the older brother in the first season of Happy Days). Like half the cast of Three's Company.
A few shows have run with this. The X-Files had an episode in their final season called Jump the Shark, although I think we can all agree that The X-Files jumped long before that episode aired. The Simpsons featured an episode in which Homer actually recreates the Happy Days shark jumping scene, and one of the final episodes of Pushing Daisies features an underwater circus act involving a performer jumping over a shark.
Ted McGinley, the suave sailor pictured below (check out that awesome Ken doll hair), has been called The Patron Saint of Shark Jumping because of how often he appears in shows that are in the process of jumping. Like Happy Days. It seems Happy Days did a lot of jumping. According to Wikipedia, McGinley made a reference to this on Married...with Children, in which he once refers to Al as Fonzie

Other ways a show can jump, according to the aforementioned defunct, include the following (whether the examples given are jump-worthy is up to you to decideO:

  • Same Character Different Actor: The famous Darren switcheroo on Bewitched, and Second Becky on Rosanne. Second Becky, played by Sarah Chalke of Scrubs after the original Becky left the show. Oddly, the original Becky, Lecy Goranson, came back to the show after a while, and instead of getting rid of Second Becky, they alternated the two actresses. Who look absolutely nothing alike.
  • They Did It: Two characters whose sexual tension drives the plot along finally hook up. Like Pam and Jim on The Office. Tony and Angela on Who's the Boss. Then again, there's The X-Files, in which the unresolved sexual tension goes so long unresolved you stop caring whether it ever happens.
  • New Baby: Rachel gives birth on Friends, for instance. Or Fran on The Nanny. Did she give birth, or did I dream that? It was on really late at night, back before the days of cable, and I used to fall asleep to it. That or stupid Matlock.
  • The Wedding: Lisa and what'shisface the evil dude on News Radio. Rhoda and Joe on Rhoda.
  • Radical change: Rosanne wins the lottery. Sacred Heart Hospital on Scrubs inexplicably transforms into a med school. Laverne and Shirley move to LA, bringing the entire supporting cast with them. refers to situations like this as a reboot, which I love.
  •  It Was All a Dream: Absurd on Dallas. Brilliant on Newhart
How about you? What's your favorite shark-jumping moment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


So I'm reading Altered English by Jeffery Kacirk, on loan from the my awesome friends the Wedges. This book deals with words that have made a huge leap in meaning over time. They give, as an example, the word villain. It comes from the Latin word they teach you on the first day of high school Latin: villa, meaning farmhouse. A villain was someone who worked on said villa, so villain used to mean a serf or a peasant. People of such low class were considered undesirable by the upper class - the people with the power to shape the language. As is the nature of the oppressor, the upper class justified their oppression of the lower by casting them as lazy, untrustworthy, likely to turn on you at any moment. 
That's kind of interesting in light of the fact that most recent villains in pop culture today are filthy rich. No surprise that they're increasingly more-so in light of our economy and the fact that it was the filthy rich bankers and tycoons who brought about the crash. It may be coincidence that the first Wall Street movie came out right around the time of the great stock market crash of 1987, but it's certainly no coincidence that the second movie began development in 2007 just as it became apparent that the world economy was on the verge of catastrophe.
I once heard a story on NPR about how much you can learn about what Americans have feared and hated most throughout history by the villains of Professional Wrestling. As this article in The Weekly Standard points out, most of the baddies at the birth of pro-wrestling just after WWII were German and Japanese.
As American attention turned away from the past and toward the cold war, the bad guys were Russians. Nikolai Volkoff, whose shtick involved singing the Russian national anthem before each match, terrorized the good guys of the WWF in the 1970s and 80s, but reinvented himself as a good guy after the fall of communism. 
In the 80s, when American anxiety over Iran was high, Volkoff teamed with The Iron Sheik, who, during the Gulf War would be reborn as the Iraqi Colonel Mustafa.  
The WWF tried to make a villain of the pro-apartheid Colonel DeBeers in the 1980s, but apparently Americans didn't hate apartheid (which, by the way, I spelled right on the first try) quite enough, as DeBeers never really caught on. 
Nowadays, ethnic origin-based villainy has become taboo. Instead, there are guys like Chris Harvard in the first decade of the century, reviled for his ivy league snobbery. 
Today the villains, as you'd expect, wear expensive suits.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Good Ship Lollipop

For Jeremy and my first anniversary, we went with some friends to The Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant, in case you couldn't guess. Now, The Melting Pot is pretty darn expensive, and we wanted to save up our appetites. So you know that show Unwrapped on the Food Network, where they show you how they make all kinds of wonderful delicious foods? There was a marathon, and that was the only thing on TV that day.

In addition to ensuring that I'd eat so much at Melting Pot that we got significantly worse mileage on our ride home, it taught me some interesting facts, supplemented here by Bill Bryson's Made in America

It's not Reecies Pieces, it's Reece. As in a dude's name. Harry Reese, in fact. He was a farmer, then worked for Milton Hershey, and liked Hershey's chocolate so much, that he started his own candy company, mixing Hershey chocolate with other ingredients. Like nom nom peanut butter cups. Reece's company was purchased by Hershey some years after Reese's death and is now a Hershey subsidiary. Reece's Pieces weren't created until long after the founder's death.

Contrary to what you may have heard, Reece's Pieces were not invented for use in the film ET. The candies were actually invented in the late 1970s and had been on shelves for a couple of years when ET came out. It is true, however, that sales of the treat skyrocketed once the movie came out, making it one of the most successful instances of product placement in history. It is also true that the tie-in was originally offered to M&Ms, but Mars candy turned it down.

I believe I read in Stephen King's memoir On Writing that when King was struck and nearly killed by a van in 1999, the driver was on his way to buy "some of those Marses bars," prompting King to quip that he'd been run over by a character from one of his novels. The book is all the way over there on the other side of the room, and I'm not getting up to go verify. This is the Internet. Accuracy is an anachronism.

Also, Hershey candy was appropriately named for Milton Hershey, mentioned earlier. The original Hershey bar cost a nickel, and stayed that way until 1970. It just kept shrinking to keep pace with inflation.

Before Baby Ruth became a Nestle product, the Curliss Candy Company created it; originally it was called Kandy Kake. Curliss changed the name around 1920, right when Babe Ruth was getting crazy famous. The company insisted, however, that the candy bar was named for Grover Cleveland's daughter, Baby Ruth. Who had been dead for sixteen years at the time. Because that's not creepy, naming candy after a dead baby or anything. They probably came up with the Baby Ruth story so they wouldn't have to pay Ruth royalties. But seriously? "No, no, Mr. Ruth, it's not named after you, it's named after a dead baby. See? It all makes perfect sense."

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I don't remember ever consciously thinking about it, but I was only reading comic books a minute before I knew that Cyclops' optic blasts go ZARKT, Wolverine's claws go SKNITT when they come out, or my personal favorite, Nightcrawler goes BAMF when he teleports.
Man, if I went bamf when I teleported, I'd teleport all day. Of course, teleportation in his case smells like brimstone, so my house would kinda smell.
So not the point.
The point is you don't think much about onomatopoeia until you think about it. But it's not just bam and pow and comic books. I love susurus, the muttering or whispering sound made by a crowd of people.
And this from Shakespeare's Henry V makes my brain do a little happy dance:
The Dauphin of France has sent King Henry V a gag gift - a box of tennis balls, meant to ridicule him by pointing out that he's young. Henry responds thusly:
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.
See how he uses mock over and over to imitate the sound of a tennis ball? Delicious.
But as it turns out, the Japanese have us beat in this, as with so many other things. In Japan, bells go jan jan. Heavy rain goes za za, medium rain goes potsu potsu, and drizzle goes shito shito. Dude, read that noise out loud. It's a dance party in your mouth.
Now what's cool about Japanese, I just learned from the essay From Za-za to san-san: The Climate of Japanese Onomatopoeia by David Galef, is that the onomatopoeia isn't constrained to just sound effects. When something rolls, it goes goro-goro, from the sound that a barrel makes when it rolls. A smile goes niko-niko, and if you can say niko-niko without smiling, then you're a better man than I. Stars, it seems, go pika-pika.
Which leads me to my favorite word fact of the day. The name Pikachu is a portmanteau of pika-pika, the word for sparkle, and chu, the sound a mouse makes.

Really? Now I'm expected to go to sleep without looking up the etymologies of the other Pokemon names?