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, September 30, 2012


... is the best word in the English language, according to cartoonist (and fellow self-effacingly titled blog writer) Tedd McCagg's Questionable Skills blog. McCagg, in disturbingly meticulous fashion, created a series of tournament-style brackets, one for each letter of the alphabet and then some, to definitively determine that the best word in the English language is one that everybody knows but few people know the meaning of - diphthong. It's the word for two vowels next to each other making one sound - like boink (an early contender for the title of best word itself), by the way.

Personally, I think that McCagg overlooked an important contender when he failed to include eponymous in the E bracket. However, McCagg is far more accomplished than I and therefore much more qualified to judge these things.

Eponyms, as it turns out, are the subject of tonight's post. An eponym (a word which my spell-checker eschews despite allowing eponymous) is a thing that gets its name from the person or critter or place most closely associated with it. For example, the sandwich is named for John Montagu, who was the earl of a place called Sandwich. 
Some cool eponyms, courtesy of Vivian Cook's All in a Word as well as

  • volt: named for Alessandro Volta, who invented the battery
  • saxophone: named for Adolphe Sax, who invented it.
  • gerrymandering: a portmanteau of Gerry, for Elbridge Gerry, and salamander. Gerry was a Massachusetts governor accused of remapping voting districts to further his own ends, one of which looked like a salamander. Kinda.
  • Mae West: a type of life jacket that makes it look like you've got big boobs, like actress Mae West's.
  • bowdlerize: this word, meaning to sanitize, gets its name from Thomas Bowdler, who, in 1918 decided to censor Shakespeare to make it appropriate for the kiddies by doing things like changing out, out damned spot to out, out crimson spot. This term, I suspect, will soon be supplanted by the word Disneyfied

Monday, September 24, 2012

Requests and Dedications

Last week, Sus' mom asked Sus to ask me what the expression "To have one's work cut out" means. Sus pointed out that it would take roughly ten seconds to find the answer on Google, but   Sus' mom knew that my answer would be way cooler and more entertaining that any old Google search. Sus' mom, I shall not let you down. Or I might. No way to tell yet.
My first thought was that it probably came from cobblers or tailors, and that it meant that all the material's been cut, it's ready, it's hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles, and there's no going back now. 
I'm probably right, according to Okay, well not a terribly entertaining answer. 

There. Now I've finished the work Sus' mom cut out for me.

Bad Movie Monday - Birdemic

This is the first installment in a series I'm calling Bad Movie Monday. Once a week, I'll describe and review a truly God-freaking-awful movie.
This does not make me a hipster. One needs to be hip to be a hipster. 
This week's feature: Birdemic. You should absolutely not watch this movie. Unless, I suppose, you have too much will to live and would like to drive the will down a bit. I didn't even watch the movie, so I suppose this is cheating. Too bad. My blog, my rules.
In Birdemic, a flock of vultures and eagles attacks a small town for absolutely no apparent reason. For some reason, these birds have the ability to get into homes, cars, and to make keys not work, as seen below. 
I am assured that this 58-second clip contains everything you need to know about this film. And most things you need to know to stay alive at that: when attacked by vicious killer .gifs, the most potent weapon to use while failing to get into your car is coat hangers. 

Fun fact: Birds hate my dear husband. When he was a small child, some barn swallows were angry that he was standing in his own garage and so they brutally dive-bombed him. When he was a bit older, he made the mistake of having a doughnut in proximity to a flock of seagulls. He still has nightmares. No, I'm not kidding, he still actually has nightmares. Those first two flocks must have marked him somehow, because everywhere we go, birds are out for him. We've had a turkey buzzard dive-bomb the car on the highway (he swerved at the last minute, so he's not dead). Perfectly calm and content flocks of pigeons will suddenly develop a need to fly directly toward us. Even the flamingos at the zoo eye him suspiciously, muttering "soon."
Jeremy has given me permission to inform you that on the frequent occasions on which we're swarmed by suddenly angry sparrows, he hides behind me. This may seem cowardly, but in truth, it's fair. It's not me they're after, after all.
PS, there's a sequel. Birdemic II, the Resurrection. I don't want to live on this planet anymore. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Things that breed contempt

I didn't want to talk about the presidential election. You know who I'm voting for, you know who you're voting for, and there's nothing gonna change that. 
But then Mitt Romney said this:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
At first I was filled with righteous indignation. Okay, still am. He's talking about a hell of a lot of people that I love, after all. Only he's not, and that's the problem. Mark Twain said that familiarity breeds contempt, but I think the exact opposite is true. If the only experience you have with the poor is the aggressive panhandlers outside your office building, or the lunatic OWS people that the media chose to spotlight, it's perfectly natural for your brain to paint all people with the same brush. You can argue in the comments about whether a presidential candidate has a responsibility to actually get to know half the people he hopes to lead, but that's not what this post is about.
This post is about Joe. Not his real name. He's not Reagan's welfare queen, he's a real man, a man I knew, one of the most remarkable men I've known. 
We don't know much about Joe before he moved into the group home where I worked, because he couldn't tell us. Somebody found his social, and from that learned his work history. He was a a blue collar guy - factories and warehouses. Worked all his life until something happened in his brain. A stroke, a head injury, some trauma, we don't know what because he couldn't tell us. It took away his ability to speak intelligibly. It's called Wernicke's Aphasia, and it's characterized by an inability to produce meaningful language. The afflicted can make strings of words, but those words don't make any logical sense. He might be trying to say "I'm hungry," but what comes out is "Chickens like marigolds." 
After whatever happened that took away his speech, he lost his job. It's hard to keep a job when you can't answer your boss' yes or no questions. It's near impossible to get a job when you can't even call the company to schedule an interview.
So he ended up on the streets. Someone in a shelter heard his nonsensical ramblings and assumed he had schizophrenia, so he ended up in the mental health system and at my group home. 
He wanted to work. He needed to work. He did his chores in the morning before the rest of clients woke up. After that, he did other people's chores. Sometimes, when I was vacuuming, he'd just walk up and take the sweeper out of my hands. He'd brook no argument. He was up doing my chores after the other clients went to sleep and he asked nothing, nothing in return. I was getting paid to do all that stuff (don't worry, I found other stuff to do to earn my paycheck). He didn't get a nickel. 
One day I saw in his chart that it was his birthday, so I baked him a cake - which I probably had time to do because he was doing all my other work. I didn't quite know how to bake a cake back then, so it kind of looked like a pan full of dirt. Then I frosted it, so it looked like a pan full of  dirt covered in frosting. Then I tried to write his name on it, but it looked more like Təf. I brought it into the dining room. "We're not allowed to have birthdays," he said. 
It hadn't occurred to me that homeless people don't get candles and cake and presents on their birthdays. You don't want to know what I'd do if I didn't get cake on by birthday. There would be pyrotechnics. Not the fun kind.
 "You made me a cake," he said. We sang him Happy Birthday. "You made me a cake," he said. "I can't eat that cake. You made me a cake." 
I put a slice (okay, gooey pile) on a plate and gave it to him. "I can't eat this. You made me a cake." It was about five minutes before I caught on. "Yes," I said, "I made you into a cake, and you're delicious."
He sat down and ate his cake. 
He came up to me and informed me that I'd made him cake for a week. Maybe he was grateful to me. Maybe he was just grateful he could string together a sentence that actually made sense. Maybe he was trying to tell me he thought he had cancer and that's all that came out.
(Another client probably did have cancer, judging by the fact that he kept coughing up things that looked like pieces of lung. His case manager didn't return our calls. She had four dozen clients, and cancer wasn't high on her priority list.)
From the minimal speech therapy stuff I picked up working with kids with disabilities, Joe and I made some progress getting him talking sense. He told me his teeth hurt like hell and he needed a dentist (His case worker didn't return our calls. We ended up taking him to the ER when his fever got so high from his infection, the whole room reeked of it. [I can smell fevers. Worst super power ever]). He's never going to pay that ER bill, the deadbeat. 
 We didn't get terribly far with the speaking. I was busy having a mental breakdown the semester I majored in speech therapy. But someone who majored in speech therapy for more than five minutes could have gotten him talking, at least well enough to tell someone he thought he had cancer. Or ask a hiring manager for a job, if only by explaining he couldn't talk right but could operate a forklift just fine.
If the Akron mental health system had job placement resources like the County Board of Developmental Disabilities has, Joe wouldn't even have needed to talk to a boss. You don't need to talk to mop the floors at McDonald's overnight, and I promise he'd have been delighted to do it. I'm a proud member of the 53%, and I wouldn't do that job for nothing. 
Working at the group home, I met a few deadbeats, people who treated scamming the government like a full time job. I'm not happy that a big old chunk of my every paycheck goes to them. But for ever deadbeat I met, there were half a dozen people like Joe, people who need money a hell of a lot more than I do.
Maybe you think it's okay to tax the rich to help the poor and maybe you don't. Maybe you think we have a moral imperative as the richest nation on earth to not let guys like Joe wander the streets cold and hungry and maybe you don't. But you need to know that Joe doesn't just believe he's a victim. He didn't believe he was entitled to anything, even a jacked up birthday cake. You need to know that while a fraction of the 47% are everything Romney claims them to be, a whole bunch more of them are guys like Joe. And they deserve respect and they deserve better than be publicly trashed when they're not there to defend themselves. Even if the only thing they can say in their defense is that chickens like marigolds. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

No excuse

I heard a story on All Things Considered today that made me rage today.
NPR's Guy Raz was speaking with Rami Khouri of Harvard's Belfer center about the violence and killings in the Middle East over the trailer for an American anti-Islamist film. Khouri proclaimed that in America and Europe, there are laws against Antisemitism and Holocaust denial, as they should. Because apparently they aren't teaching the first amendment at Harvard these days. Guy Raz quickly pointed out that no, the US does not have any such laws, to which Khouri replied that there were laws preventing free speech if it incites people to violence.
That's what got me. Of course the movie was horribly offensive. But offending people does not, should not, incite violence. Unless the douchebag filmmakers included dialog along the lines of "hey Muslims, go out and murder some people," Khouri's argument is absurd. 
Of course, just because you can make a film doesn't mean you should make a film, but there is no excuse, no justification for the murder of people who had absolutely nothing at all to do with a film made by one anti-Islamist whackadoodle. I don't care how important your prophet is, how offensive a film is, how deeply important and sacred your religion is to you, you don't kill people. This is as black and white as it gets. 
The genocide in the Sudan is a hell of a lot more appalling than a 13 minute film trailer, but that doesn't give me or anybody else the right to go around killing random Sudanese people and setting their homes on fire. There is no justification, no excuse for me to go murdering people from Sudan, nor does the genocide make my actions even understandable. You don't kill innocent people. This as black and white as it gets.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Whimsical songs about ghastly death

Jeremy and both want to use the iPad, but neither of us wants to be the one to take the iPad from the other, so we just had a minor tussle in which the iPad was shoved back and forth between us. He has the iPad, so it seems I won... or lost. Good grief. You expect this sort of thing from newlyweds, but we're approaching six years of this nonsense. Can a relationship be too functional?
Last time we met, I rained on the parades of museum tour guides the world over with my chilling expose on the false origins of the phrase sleep tight. This week, it seems I'll have to do something similar to black plague enthusiasts. Probably.
Yes, there are black plague enthusiasts. I am one. Really, it's a miracle I have any friends at all. I mean who, upon being accosted by a graphic description of the blackening of the skin caused by the necrosis that is part of the last phase of the disease things "I should like to be friends with this person"? My friends, that's who. Because they're awesome.
To feed my creepy obsession with the black death, I read a lot of books on the subject, most of which at some point told me that the children's song Ring Around the Rosie was an allegory for the black death of the 14th century. The ring of roses was said to refer to the red rash that was often a first sign of the disease. The posies of the second line referred to the fact that people carried flowers to ward off death or to mask its stench (dude... you know how using floral air freshener to mask the smell of poop usually just makes your bathroom smell like floral poop Imagine the smell of floral death... ugh). The ashes of the third line are said to refer to the dust to which the victims turn, and we all fall down refers to keeling over dead. There are variations on the meanings - the posies refer to the flowers buried with the dead, ashes is meant to mimic the sound of sneezing, etc.
None of which really holds up to logical scrutiny. The red rash, as it turns out, isn't so much a symptom of the plague as a symptom of the fleas that gave one the plague... and considering the filth in which the folks of the 14th century lived, I imagine just about everyone experienced rings of rosies pretty much all the time. Further, the rosies don't really form the shape of a ring, they mostly form the shape of a bunch of flea bites. 
And the non-ring of non-roses was most certainly not the most obvious symptoms of the plague. That honor would belong to the bubos - really gross bloody, pussy lumps found in the groin and armpits of the stricken. So logically, you'd think the song would begin with Ring a bunch of big-ass disgusting puss balls. Although I admit it doesn't have the same ring.
Further, the song doesn't show up in print until the 19th century. Sure, it was probably around for some time before it was recorded, but the idea that kids had been celebrating the plague in song for five hundred years before anyone thought to write the thing down is a stretch. Even if the song actually referred to the last great outbreak in the sixteen hundreds, that's still a pretty long gestation period.
The final nail in the Black Plague coffin, however, comes from, which tells me that the whole plague interpretation doesn't show up anywhere in print until the middle of the 20th century. That makes it speculative etymology, a field about as credible as cryptozoology
Plus, why in the holy hell would children be skipping around in circles singing about one of the most horrible things that happened in human history? Wouldn't that be a lot like children in WWII Germany playing dancing games to lyrics about the holocaust?
Snopes sums up their article on the subject with a quote from John Lennon that I find particularly apt...
We've learned over the years that if we wanted we could write anything that just felt good or sounded good and it didn't necessarily have to have any particular meaning to us. As odd as it seemed to us, reviewers would take it upon themselves to interject their own meanings on our lyrics. Sometimes we sit and read other people's interpretations of our lyrics and think, 'Hey, that's pretty good.' If we liked it, we would keep our mouths shut and just accept the credit as if it was what we meant all along.
Wait. Does that mean "I am the Walrus" doesn't mean that Paul is dead?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bed bugs

So here I am, enjoying Girls' Weekend with my in-laws in lovely Geneva. There are few requirements for girls' weekend, though there is generally always fondue, shopping, a trip to an old house and/or museum, and getting lost. 
Today, after shopping but before getting lost and eating fondue, we visited an old house - Hubbard House, an underground railroad museum in Ashtabula. It was one of those small-town museums in which local history buffs have taken a house of some historical significance, crammed it full of as much period paraphernalia as they could find, and hired docents to tell vague stories and spew false etymologies. 
The false etymology - or alleged false etymology - in question was the origin for the expression sleep tight. According to the folks at the museum, the expression sleep tight stems from a time when bed frames held up mattresses using a web of ropes which had to be tightened regularly to prevent sag. This makes sense on its face - mattresses were held up with ropes, and those ropes did need to be tightened - there were special wooden fork things made just for that job.
But I smelled shenanigans. For one thing, I have a hard time imagining people warmly reminding each other to engage in mundane daily tasks as a way of bidding someone goodnight. Wouldn't it be sort of like saying "Good night, go change into pjs and put some sheets on yourself." But people say stranger things, so I did some homework. was one of the many sources that reinforced my skepticism. It says that the phrase didn't appear in print until the mid- to late-19th century, and became most popular in the mid to late 20th century, long after the whole rope bed thing went out the window. There's also the inconvenient fact that, according to all the sources, there's just no evidence to support the idea. It's an interesting hypothesis, but there's no linguistic evidence - no references to a literal origin in literature or non-fiction. 
Further, there's evidence to the contrary. According to The Word Detective, the word tight was commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries to mean soundly or thoroughly. Occam's razor - the disappointingly dull etymology is probably the right one. Okay, that's not the precise definition of Occam's razor...
 Word Detective Evan Morris agrees with my opinion of docents, by the way. He says "frankly, I have heard so many utterly absurd word and phrase origins attributed to tour guides that I have been forced to conclude that they constitute one of today's major "vectors" or carriers of unfounded etymological "urban legends." I know it must be difficult to maintain an interesting line of patter all day long, but there's still no excuse for inventing little linguistic fables out of thin air. Caveat viator -- let the tourist beware."