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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Righteous indigestion

I have been boycotting Chick-fil-A for a long time. I am deeply offended by their stance on giving me heartburn. While they are ardently pro-indigestion, while I believe in my inherent right to eat foods that don't make me feel like there is a fireball lodged in my throat. 
Also, the way they spell their name is stupid. I am vehemently opposed to horrible spelling.
Super-cool word fact of the day: chicken is the descendant of an onomatopoeia. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells me that the word's root, the West Germanic keuk, is echoic of the noise a chicken makes. Keuk might also be an ancestor of cock. I would not have guessed that chicken and cock were that closely related.
How could Tina Fey betray us like this?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

On things that get stuck in my porch

So the man and I are semi-subterranean in that our apartment is halfway underground. That means that when you step out on the patio, you're actually standing waist deep in a hole in the ground. And it means that nature is forever leaping down into my porch and being unable to get out. Although why they don't think "maybe I shouldn't jump off this cliff" I don't know.
Most likely to fail to look before they leap round these parts are toads. Toad, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from Old English, but nobody knows how it got there. There's no evidence it comes from any of the usual parents like Latin or German, and there aren't any similar words in any other language. It's surprising to me, actually, how rarely I run across a word that seems to have come from nowhere. I mean, every word in every language exists because somebody made it up. So how come so many words seem to have been made up by English-speakers? Other than the fact that English is kind of a young whipper-snapper compared to other languages. Why make up new words for things for which perfectly good words exist already?
Leading me to conclude that toads did not exist until after English was born. Makes perfect sense to me.
Toadstool comes from around the 14th century. Seems toads back then were considered very poisonous, and toadstool typically refers to toxic mushrooms. So a toadstool is poisonous like a toad and shaped like a stool. 
A one-eyed toad whom I rescued from the porch one day,
apparently before I knew how to take pictures in focus. Although
to be fair, toads are notoriously camera shy, particularly
when they've just been through the trauma of having been
scooped out of a porch.
Toads do not give you warts, as you probably knew. I know that toads don't cause warts, was never led to believe that myth was true, far as I know. Yet I still get a little ookie when I have to rescue one from the porch, moreso than when I have to rescue frogs.
If a toad is poisonous, by the way, the poison will be secreted by the warts, which aren't actually warts, according to, but glands. So even though the warts aren't warts and don't give you warts, it's probably still not a good idea to touch them. Or lick them. Don't lick toads, kids.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Jeremy and I spent a lot of time in the car this weekend to spend a little time seeing family in Chicago. The spending a lot of time in the car thing was mostly my fault - we'd driven most way across Ohio when I realized suddenly that I'd left my meds at home and we had to go get them. Most of the time I am deeply grateful for the miracles of modern pharmacology. Sometimes I just wish I wasn't tethered to a pill bottle. Actually, it would be better if I were tethered to a pill bottle - I wouldn't forget to bring it that way.

So not the point. The point is that Jeremy and I had excellent NPR karma all weekend (a complete, but common misuse of the term karma, by the way). Very little static, lost very few shows halfway through, and there were very few repeats. If you're going to spend the better part of a weekend in a car, there are worse ways to do it.
On Fresh Air Weekend, we got to hear an interview with one of Jeremy's heroes, Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin has written or co-written a whole bunch of movies and shows, including The West Wing, Sports Night, A Few Good Men, and the new HBO series The Newsroom
Sorkin has this really distinctive way of writing dialog, satirized here on an episode of 30 Rock on which he guest starred. 

Characters talk quickly, banter cleverly, and walk really fast while they're doing it. In the interview, Sorkin revealed one of the big reasons for that: nothing happens onscreen in most of his stuff. I'd never noticed this, but it's totally true. The West Wing, riveting as it is, is a whole lot of characters walking, pacing, filing, entering rooms, leaving rooms, but rarely actually doing anything remarkable. People don't punch each other or have car chases or have dance numbers (come to think of it, where in the hell was the musical episode of The West Wing?). 
Sorkin joked that the sole action sequence in A Few Good Men is when Tom Cruise gets out of his car to get a copy of Sports Illustrated. And I never noticed because nothing he does has ever begun to bore me (except Studio 60, don't tell Jeremy). 
I think that's really neat, that sleight of hand that writers use to keep you from noticing things that really should be obvious. Like how you were so glamoured by the magic and mystery of Harry Potter that it never occurred to you that pretty much everything that happened in the first four books could have been prevented if the kids had just gone to Dumbledore with some key information as soon as they got it? Like "Hey Dumbledore! I got this Marauder's Map, and Peter Pettigrew keeps showing up on it. I'm 14, and decidedly not qualified to figure out what this means."  
But I digress as usual. Please feast your eyes on the following orgy of Sorkinisms, brought to you by people with a hell of a lot of free time. This brings up an interesting question. Jeremy saw this and it diminished Sorkin a tiny bit in his estimation (like, he totally blew out on of the 10,000 candles on his Sorkin shrine over it). But I think it's kind of gutsy. You write something you like? Why the hell not recycle it?
What do you think? 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Who smells pennies?

I'm not even going to pretend I'm not adorable.
I love being a ginger. I love my red hair - chemically enhanced though it sometimes is. I freaking love my freckles. I mean, really, red heads have it all. Well, aside from souls. I'll get to that in a minute.
Quite a while ago, one of my friends wondered aloud why the word ginger is used to describe red heads. The friend pointed out that ginger is brown on the outside and yellow on the inside. Neither of which, the astute observer will notice, is red.
So according to the Oxford English Dictionary (okay, according to someone at this blog, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, to which I don't have access), ginger was first used as a derogatory term to describe red-haired people in England in the 16th century.
My first thought was that it referred to gingerbread, which is sort of reddish in color. A lot of other folks seem to think the same, though it's kind of a reach. There are many things far redder than gingerbread. You'd think they'd more likely call us tomatoes or foxes or light districts.
Others say that the thing we call ginger today isn't the same as the thing they called ginger back when the term was born. According to, ginger used to be used to mean mango ginger, a spice in the tumeric family, which is red and renders a reddish orange dye. I have no idea whether this is a reliable source, but the explanation is so random and boring I'm not sure why anyone would make it up. 
As for the idea that gingers have no souls, I had assumed that the idea came from an episode of South Park titled Ginger Kids, in which Cartman delivers an impassioned speech about the evils of my kind, stating that gingers "are disgusting, inhuman, unable to survive in sunlight, and have no souls; all because of a condition called "Gingervitis." While it's certainly true that the South Park episode resurrected the myth in popular culture, it turns out that the idea goes back a much longer way.
Red hair has been considered bad across most cultures, according to the article Judas' Red Hair and the Jews found on the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. That article points out that Judas was supposed to have red hair. There's evidence that the Greeks and Romans considered redheads undesirable. The god Thor was supposed to have had red hair, and Christians sort of merged Thor with Satan at some point (oddly, our image Santa Claus is partially influenced by the god Odin, Thor's dad). In mythology, vampires and witches were said to have red hair, and red hair is said to be associated with sexual prowess (to which I can attest). 
The Jewish Heritage article gives a simpler opinion. That red hair has traditionally been considered bad because it is rare, and people fear what is different - the same reason left-handedness was once considered evil.

Update: the fabulous Jenna posted in the comments that there is such a thing as a ginger flower which is, in fact, bright red. Mystery solved?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Jeremy's pet peeves

You've read a lot over the past few years about my language-related pet peeves, but my husband has some too. And because I cannot think of a damn thing to write about today, I'm writing about him.

Redundant abbreviations:
ATM Machine (Automatic Teller Machine Machine)
PIN Number (Personal Identification Number Number)

Small talk:
"If I can't think of anything but the weather to talk to you about, that's a sign you're not somebody I want to talk to." 

His wife's pet peeves:
I went through a phase during which dangling prepositions drove me bananas and I complained about them a lot. Jeremy once told me "Now you've made me hate dangling prepositions, and I see them everywhere - for which I hate you." He's a clever one, that Jeremy. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Should I be laughing?

I don't know much about the comedian Daniel Tosh, other than he's kind of like Joel McHale only not funny. I also know that he recently got in some trouble over some rape humor at one of his stand up shows. All the details are in dispute, with an anonymous supposed audience member saying one thing through a friend's blog, Tosh saying another, and other audience members saying something different. 
What's needling me isn't what he said or didn't say and whether he should have said it. What's needling me is the damn double standard. The Internet and airwaves are on fire over his alleged comments, with celebrities, bloggers, Tweeters, and news outlets all weighing in. The Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and even The Onion have run stories on it. 
And yet when Horrible Bosses included a joke about prison rape in its commercials, there's barely a ripple. Scenes in which men are actually shown being raped in movies like The Wedding Crashers and 40 Days 40 Nights are considered comedy. 
Am I missing something? I'm not on (much of) a tirade here, I'm legitimately curious. 
One thing I am sure of: Daniel Tosh's rape jokes weren't funny. Why? Because Daniel Tosh is never funny. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I should be in the kitchen

Some years ago, I visited a bookstore and found a book on their shelves about "the female brain." The cover art is a tangled telephone cord in the shape of a brain. 
The author, Luanne Brizendine, cites her own research, along with "thousands of studies," when she states that women speak three times as much as men - about 20,000 words to men's 7,000. Her book, apparently, extrapolates from this all the ways women are special and delicate and complicated and in need of hormone therapy and drugs. But, she says, it's okay, because women are way better communicators.
I mean, that's apparently what she says. I didn't read the thing; I didn't feel like murdering anyone that day.

Though actual scientific research hasn't shown that to be the case, it has been the common wisdom for ages and across cultures. Recently, according to the NPR story that triggered this blog, a scientist named Mathias Mehl did a study in which he gave recording devices to a large sample of people. The recording device turned on for 30 seconds at a time, a few times an hour. His research found that men and women say pretty much the exact same number of words each day, at around 17,000.

Haha! Vindicated, I thought. Dr. Brizendine's just a dumb bitch after all, and she is the one who should be in the kitchen. But that didn't seem fair. Brizendine sited "thousands of studies," whereas Mehl is just one scientist. So I started digging.
Turns out that when anybody besides Dr. Brizendine aggregates the data, there's not a significant difference in the number of words men and women say. But what of the "thousands of studies"? Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania went looking for her thousands of studies and found that they do exist, they just don't happen to support her claims. Some of the studies she cites contradict her claims, while others are simply unrelated to what she's talking about. 
But why would Brizendine make all that up? She says she's a feminist, after all, and she says that these brain differences don't make women bad, just different. As it turns out, Brizendine founded and is the director of The Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic, where she makes a lot of money treating women based on her poorly supported theories.
Why does any of this matter? What does it matter if women do talk more than men? What if it's the case that men and women are just biologically geared toward different things?
I'm okay with that, actually. I'm okay with the fact that girl monkeys like dollies and boy monkeys like trucks, just not the idea that this fact should somehow determine my role in society, how people treat me, and whether I need a special clinic for people with crazy hormones. 

The thing is that we're all individuals, and the fact that I'm an individual with an innie instead of an outie doesn't make me special or delicate or in need of therapy or anything of the sort. It means I've got an innie instead of an outie. It means I'm clever enough to keep my delicate bits inside so that dogs and small children cannot double me over in pain by walking into me. 
I totally meant for this post to talk all about Mehl's research, and I'll likely do a post soon doing just that. But I wanted to be fair and make sure I had my facts straight. NPR did once convince me that "saved by the bell" was a reference to tying a string to a bell before burying someone so that if, perchance, they were buried alive, they could ring the bell and be saved by it.
Oh, NPR, you so silly.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Dark Moon Digest #8

Issue 8 of Dark Moon Digest is out, kids. If you like horror at all, or just enjoy a good story, you should really check this publication out. The stories run from funny to ghastly to surprisingly poignant, and the art is great. For reals, consider picking up a copy. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Redundant redundancies

I'm both a geek, and a girl, which means the chances of my caring about sports were pretty slim. I mean, I am from Cleveland, so I can be a hateful rabid dog when called upon, but my heart's never really in it. 
There's one exception. Ninja Warrior. You see, like many geeks, I firmly believe that everything Japanese is awesome, and that includes sports. 
also, Hello Freaking Kitty

Ninja Warrior is an event in which Japanese mutants compete to determine who best defies the laws of gravity by completing a quite obviously impossible obstacle course. The first stage alone regularly takes down Olympic athletes, and not just the biathaletes and power walkers.
It's probably the radiation

But I'm not here to talk about those crazy physics-flauting freaks of nature. I'm here to talk about Mount Midoriyama, the home of this magical competition.
And how Mount Midoriyama is redundant redundant. Yama is is the Japanese word for mountain. So when the announcers call it Mount Midoriyama, they're calling it Mount Midori Mountain. 
The same is true of the more famous Fujiyama - Mount Fujiyama means Mount Fuji Mountain. Similarly, jima is a Japanese word for island, so it's redundant to say Iwo Jima Island
Also, Mount Midori Mountain isn't a freaking mountain. It's not even a tall hill. The Warriors are actually competing for total victory on the back lot of a studio named Mount Midoriyama near the heart of Tokyo. Is nothing sacred?
Next you'll tell me Sir Mix-a-Lot isn't a real knight

Thursday, July 5, 2012

And per se and

I just found out maybe the coolest punctuation fact ever.
The ampersand (&) used to be the 27th letter of the alphabet, all the way up until the mid 1800s. I'm going to pause and let that sink in. 

The ampersand is a logogram formed from the cursive forms of the letters that make up the Latin word for and - et. This is more obvious in some fonts than others. In fonts like Trebuchet, the ampersand looks much more like the word et - &.

The name ampersand is a contraction of the words and per se and, the phrase schoolchildren used when reciting the alphabet... W, X, Y, Z, and per se and. The per se, Latin for in itself, was used to indicate that the and was an item in a list, rather than a conjunction used to indicate something else was coming.

The ampersand's use, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, goes back an old Roman system of shorthand signs called ligatures - we've seen evidence of it used as far back as the 1st century C.E.
The ampersand: far more than just the prettiest punctuation mark. It used to be a letter, dude. This would be like our great grandchildren finding out there used to be a 9th planet called Pluto.

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