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, September 29, 2011

If we could talk to the animals

Animals, as far as we know, don't have language. The jury is out for some people on whales... scientists have recorded whale sounds, studied them, and can't seem to figure out what the heck they're for. They make a wide variety of sounds, and some of them seem to be mating, some for echolocation but some, nobody's sure. Maybe they just like the sounds of their own voices. 
But I don't want to talk about whales. I want to talk about something closer to home - in my home, as a matter of fact. Cats. And dogs too. There are a couple of things I find intriguing about house pets when it comes to language. One is what they can say, the other is what they can understand.
So one lazy Saturday, Jeremy is chilling in bed, cuddling with Loki. Loki hops out of the bed and starts out of the room and Jeremy says "Loki, come back here, I wasn't done cuddling yet." And Loki got back in bed and commenced cuddling. I can't imagine Loki actually understood that whole sentence, or even anything other than his own name, but it was eerie and hilarious. We've never gotten him to do it again.
My cats know their own names. They will also occasionally respond to any of the many nicknames we've given them. Loki knows that sometimes he is called Walrus, and Puck knows that he is sometimes called Weasel. Loki has been known to come running to Tons o' Fun, proving I should never, ever have children. But I digress, as usual.
The average trained dog, according to How Stuff Works, can understand about 160 words. Let that sink in a minute. Folks with kids - at about what point did your kid understand 160 words? Chances are that for months and months, your kid was dumber than a dog. No offense. Jeremy says that the average dog has a bigger vocabulary than most of the football players at his high school. And two of the hundred or so words were de-fense
 One dog, called Rico, knows about 200 words. Crazier yet, Rico can use process of elimination to find an object. If you stick a bunch of items Rico knows the word for, plus a kumquat, for which Rico doesn't know the word, and then you tell Rico to get the kumquat, he comes back with the kumquat, because he knows what all the other things are, and none of them are kumquats. I mean, I don't know Rico personally, so it's possible Rico would just eat the kumquat, but you get the idea.
My in-laws' dog doesn't just know words like treat and squirrel. He knows light (he has a thing with lights. You can hand the dog a flashlight and he will amuse himself for ages just staring at the pool of light it makes). He knows "Grandma." He gets all excited when he gets to visit Grandma, because my grandma-in-law is awesome, and everybody should be excited when they get to visit her. Also, she usually has a ham bone for him. She's that kind of grandma. 
Once, I went to visit my best friend, who lived in Columbus at the time. I called her when I left Akron to tell her I was on my way and Jean announced to the dog, "Brigid's coming!" Jean didn't expect the dog to understand - the poor girl sat in the window wagging her tail for two hours. Jean tried seeing if "But she won't be here for two more hours" mean't anything to the dog. It did not. This is because, while dogs can learn the words for persons, places, and things, they can't learn abstract concepts like time and particle physics. Then again, I can't learn abstract concepts like time and particle physics. Seriously, ask me what time it will be in a half an hour. No clue. I have to count on my hands. 
But I find it weird that people say that animals can't talk. Cats can say they're scared, say they're going to cut someone, can say they're hungry, mad, annoyed, horny, bored, and can scold their children. My friends' dog makes this "sadsack" noise that sounds exactly like the noise I make in the same situations. Loki makes these creepily human moaning noises when he's enjoying petting, which may be a bad idea on his part, because I usually get creeped out and stop doing whatever it is that's making him make the noise. Okay, that's a lie, I just do it with a creeped out expression on my face.
In case you haven't seen enough pictures of my cats:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Not Smooberry

Bill Casselman, author of Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, whom you may remember as the man who inspired this inane post, wants you to know that there is a word that rhymes with orange. And he's mad as hell "hebetudinous nincompoops" who would say otherwise. Okay, the "hebetudinous nincompoops" are the ones who claim there's no rhyme for purple. The people who claim there is no rhyme for orange are merely "letterless yahoos" and "Internet dullards." 
And just to break in for a moment, I'm on the seventh page, including the introduction, and he's used "letterless" as an insult twice. If his vocabulary is so giant, you'd think he'd be able to come up with a greater variety of insults. Now who's the hebetudinous nincompoop? I wouldn't know. I have no idea what hebetudinous means. Or didn't until I just looked it up. It means dumb.
Because the cool kids will respect you more if you insult them using a big word. Trust me, I would know, I did it all the time. Round about fifth grade, I would have killed for a word like hebetudinous to verbally vivisect the viperous, vile villains who tormented me (looks like Casselan's not the only one with a thesaurus). 
I don't think this is a periwinkle flower. But what do I know?
Anyway, I know you're waiting with painful presentiment to learn the age old mystery. The word that rhymes with orange is sporange. Of course, sporange! A sporange is another name for sporangium, which is a botanical term for a pod that holds spores. Also, turple, which means to fall down an die, rhymes with purple. Silver has my favorite rhyme: dicky dilver. Which is a nickname for the periwinkle flower. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Speaking of the devil, REM is breaking up. And I'm actually pretty broken up about it. I failed to mention last post that they're one of my favorite bands. Their work is real and raw and wholeheartedly original. They crackle.
I wish I had the words to describe what they are musically, but they won't come. I can only describe, then, what they are to me.
Back when I was in 7th grade, the local pop station, Power 108, started playing the same song over, and over, and over. For twenty four straight hours.

For what it's worth, I know every word of this song. Which is more than Michael Stipe can say... note the cheat sheet in this clip and the fact that he still gets some lyrics reversed.

And crap. I just wrote a really beautiful thing about Everybody Hurts and Blogspot ate it. Bad Blogspot. Bad.

Monday, September 19, 2011

On Punditry

I'm not sure if I feel like crap because I've been playing video games all night or if I've been playing video games all night because I feel like crap. And not speaking of celebrity pundits, I've been thinking tonight about celebrity pundits.
Someone I know of once walked out of an REM concert, complaining he'd paid to go to a concert, not the democratic national convention. That's a pretty fair point. I've never been to a rock show that I can remember at which my political opinions varied so much from the political opinions expressed by the artists; I lean in the same direction as most of the music industry - the entertainment industry. I'd be pretty annoyed if all my idols used their fame to tear at my ideology. 
And that got me to wondering. What qualifies celebrities to try and impose their opinions on their fans - on anyone who will listen? Celebrities like Pam Anderson, whose only discernible talent lives inside her bra, spends half her life stumping on behalf of PETA. PETA dumps tons of cash into opposing medical testing on animals. Ipso facto, Pam Anderson's boobs, whether you agree with them or not, are affecting policy and legislation on legislation could save your life or my life one day. Should, perhaps, questions of biomedical ethics be left up to people whose assets are inside their heads, people qualified to understand and logically consider all of the factors involved? 
Or Jenny McCarthy, whose accomplishments include Playmate of the Year and posing naked on a toilet in a national ad campaign. Ever since her son was diagnosed with autism, she has been traveling around the world shrieking about how vaccines are to blame. Despite their being absolutely positively no credible scientific evidence that this is the case. Because people who pose naked on toilets are more qualified to make these determinations than, say, Nobel prize winning scientists. The thing is that without vaccines, people die. Kids who don't get vaccines die. Kids who are too young to get vaccines die from diseases they catch from kids who didn't get vaccinated because a playmate told their parents to ignore science. Are there factors that parents have the right to weigh before they vaccinate? Sure. Should one of those factors be a celebrity pundit? No. 
Now this is kind of tricky, because my Bruce is one of the loudest celebrity pundits of them all. But great artists throughout history have used their art, and the celebrity that came with it, to push their agendas. Is Jon Stewart's satire all that different from Jonathan Swift's? Was Mark Twain unqualified to argue against slavery? 
I'm not sure. I'll let you know when I figure it out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Boffo Lenny! Socko Lenny!

Why in the heck was I thinking about the word boffo today? I know that I was thinking about the word because I wrote it on my hand. I tend to do that, write words on my hand when I want to remember to look them up and blog about them. It makes for interesting conversations, along with far less interesting conversations that begin "Why did you write that on your hand? Why not a piece of paper?" The answer, of course, is that chances are that by the time I found the paper, I'd have forgotten what it was I wanted to write down. And even if I hadn't, I'd then have to remember that I'd written something down, where I'd written it down, and so forth. But I digress more than usual.
So boffo means very successful, as in "Transformers movie inexplicably boffo at box office..." According to the good folks at the Online Etymology Dictionary, this word is "probably echoic of hit." Then I had to look up echoic, which means onomatopoetic. Who in their right mind would use a word like echoic when they could be saying onomatopoeic? Sociopaths, I'd imagine. So boffo, like similar words socko and slammo are examples of what folks sometimes call Variety Speak, or terms either coined by or made famous by Variety, the show business trade paper. 
According to this NPR story, the Oxford English Dictionary attributes twenty words to Variety, words like, according to Variety editor Tim Gray, strip tease, soap opera, and payola. They also coined biopic and d.j., according to Variety's "slanguage" dictionary over here. Which I highly recommend you visit, especially if you have several minutes of time you weren't planning to use for anything.
But Hollywood's penchant for introducing new words to our vocabulary doesn't begin with Variety, according to Bill Bryson's Made in America. Our language is full of words coined by the motion picture industry, words like flashback, documentary, and movie star. Seriously, flashback? What did they call flashbacks before they were called flashbacks? My sources won't say. I suppose flashback is quite a modern-sounding word when you think about it, so it might have occurred to me before now that it hasn't been used since the birth of flashbacks, but it hadn't occurred to me, so there.
The neatest etymology I've got for you today comes not from film, but from the stage. Ever wondered why someone who over-acts is called a ham? Ham is short for hamfatter, a reference to the fact that certain performers were so unsuccessful that they had to use ham fat, rather than cold cream, to remove their makeup. That according to Bill Bryson, although some have other suspicions. Because seriously, that just sounds made up.

Sorry for all the YouTube videos lately. I just got a new computer and haven't gotten around to organizing my photo files in their new home. You'll have to settle for the Animaniacs instead.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

May love prevail

It's the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 (in case you hadn't been reminded, constantly, for the last month). Everywhere, all over town, are giant reminders that we "never forget."
What does that mean, "never forget"? Was there any danger of that? Most everyone I know has a flashbulb memory of the day, from where they heard it to what part of the event they watched as it happened, even down to what they wore the day of the attack. Flashbulb memory is a term coined in 1977 to refer to the memory of a moment or event that is so significant that all factors have crystallized in the mind, as a vivid snapshot in time. A flashbulb memory is usually highly specific, generally consisting of where a person was when they learned of the event (often including a vivid mental picture of the location), where they heard it from , what they were doing at the time of the event, and maybe what they'd been doing before, and what they'd do after. So for example, my dad remembers that he was walking through the house with a roll of toilet paper on his way to the bathroom when he saw on that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, that he'd set the roll on the mantle when he stopped to watch the TV, and that the roll had stayed on the mantle all day long. I remember that I was sitting in the next to last seat of the middle row of my first grade classroom, and that it was lunchtime when they announced on the PA that Challenger had exploded. 
Flashbulb memories, oddly, aren't known for necessarily being completely accurate. Many people, for instance, recall watching Challenger explode in the sky, even in areas where the explosion would not have been visible. It's possible that I didn't actually watch the towers fall live as it happened, that I only saw it afterward and that my mind has built in the memory of seeing it live because I saw the footage so many times after the fact.
But back to the phrase "never forget." Maybe it means to never forget the people who died, or to never forget the police and firefighters who rushed to their deaths in an effort to save the people in the towers. 

I hope that's what I never forget, the America I remember in the few days following the attacks. The America in which strangers hugged and held hands and left candles on their doorsteps in memory of the victims and called their loved ones just to say that they loved them. Maybe that flashbulb memory is a little hazy itself... there was a lot of hate and a lot of blame and a lot, a lot of racism. But what I remember is driving down East 185th street at night and seeing candles flickering in the doorway to every other store. Candles on doorsteps to homes below flags flying in memory, rather than chest thumping.
But whenever I see "never forget," something in me feels something more menacing. Feels that the signs mean something more like "never forgive," or "never trust those people," or "never stop hating." That's probably just me and my paranoia. Or maybe it's the America I remember in the weeks following 9-11. I remember a lady urging me toward temperance. Saying that sure, she wanted to throw a brick through the window of the 7-11, but that would make her no better than them (it would also make her pretty damned oblivious, since the owners of that 7-11 were quite obviously Indian. The radical condemnation of everybody who looked even a little brown. The rumors and lies about Arabs practicing their next attack in suburban movie theaters, or from 7-11 stores. That Arab-Americans had been suspiciously missing from work in and around the Towers the day of the attack. That we should never forget the Muslim threat.

Then, that probably is my paranoia. Maybe I'm stereotyping Americans just the way ignorant people stereotyped Arabs. Maybe it's because the ignorant people are the loudest, just like the most evil and crazy Muslims are the ones that ignorant people choose to see. Or maybe it's just because my fair city isn't exactly known for peace and tolerance. Because I've seen a lot of hate and racism around here a lot more overt.
But I hope what Americans never forget is that we never, ever forget to rise up. Rise up against hate, rise up in defense of the innocent, rise up for love. Rise up and call the people we love. Rise up and speak for the fallen. Rise up above petty differences and love as radically as those terrorists hated.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Your epidermis is showing

Proving that nuns, too, can have a sense of humor, Sr. Cheryl walked into class on the day we were to discuss the war of 1812 and announced she'd be teaching "the impressment of seamen and the non-intercourse act. A history teacher's worst nightmare."
Once, I was working at the head shop and playing with a slap bracelet (which I'm delighted to see are coming back), and a customer walks in and asks me "what, are you some kind of pseudo-masticist?" 
These, according to an article by DG Kehl, are examples of quasi maledictions: words that sound dirty but aren't.  According to the article, titled Quasi Malediction: The Case of Linguistic Malentendu, an aspiring senator once tricked voters by claiming that his opponent "is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert... Worst of all, it is an established fact that [my opponent] before his marriage habitually practiced celibacy." 
I would never practice celibacy, I'll tell you that much, kids.
I had never heard the word malediction before, by the way, and so naturally I had to find the etymology. It comes from the Latin mal, meaning bad, and dicere, meaning to say. To use maledictions, literally speaking, is to speak badly. Much like the guy who called me a pseudo-masticist. Quasi, by the by, comes from the Latin quasi, meaning as if. A quasar, on an only mostly unrelated note, is a celestial body that is like a star, but not a star. A quasi-star - the word is a portmanteau of quasi-stellar. And we all know how I love me some portmanteaus. 
A maltentendu, for those curious, is a misunderstanding. French, it would seem. The article I talk about here comes from a collection of articles from Verbatim, the Language Quarterly. All of these articles and essays use fancy big words unabashedly; I'm not proud to say that my usage skyrockets whenever I open this book. I know big words. I like big words. This book's big words could thoroughly trounce my big words on the playground and send them home crying for their mommies. Then again, I could technical-document those snooty intellectuals right under the table.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Word nerd is busy

It's ironic that on Labor Day, the day founded to honor American workers, the only people who have to work are true laborers. Nurses and ER docs, restaurant workers, air traffic controllers, gas station attendants; they're all busy getting dirty and saving lives. At least they get paid time and a half - some of them.
The holiday, which became a federal one in 1894, was first proposed by members of several labor unions. There's a whole history, something about worker strikes and Toronto and communists, but you can go ahead and look it up on your own because I got bored and it's late and I was supposed to be in bed already, but I had to update my blog because I didn't want you to think I was dead so here are some vacay pics and one incredibly long sentence instead.
Get a load of that chicken!

Damn me and my never having the camera
on the right setting when something is moving quickly.

This sunset has nothing, nothing, over a typical sunset
over Lake Erie back in Cleveland.
A perfect sunset in paradise is easy.  But watching the sun
dissolve into the cracked mosaic of a frozen lake
in a February so cold that you forgot what short
sleeves are for... now that's an accomplishment.

Nom nom nom. These guys appear instantly upon sunset.
How do they get out there so fast?
By the way, what did the snail say to the turtle?
"Slow down, you maniac!"
As it turns out, I like birds