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.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fifty Shades of Retraction

Okay, I'm only going to admit this once. I was wrong; Fifty Shades of Grey is awful. I mean, not for any kind of oppressing women thing, it's just terribly, terribly written. How did I not notice this before, you ask? Well you see, I had been previously unaware that this genre existed. As far as I knew, there were just plain old vanilla smutty romance novels - porn for soccer moms, and then sneakily rapey romance novels - porn for secretly kinky soccer moms. I was not aware that there is a whole genre out there of porn for non-secretly kinky soccer moms, and most books in said genre look like Shakespeare next to old Fifty Shades.
I've read quite a bit of this kinky lady porn of late - in the name of research of course, all for you, my loyal readers. And I noticed some rather interesting common themes... but I get ahead of myself.
As you've probably heard, 50 Shades started its life as Twilight fan fiction, which is maybe the most pathetic thing ever. But Twilight wasn't the only thing to which there were startling similarities - actually, the similarities to Twilight were passing enough that you could easily pretend they weren't there. Other books, however... I read one about an ordinary girl who has never truly been in love before and who falls in love with a possessive kinky Seattle billionaire who has grey eyes and an a conniving evil ex; he buys her expensive clothes and takes her to fancy balls, and then a bunch of sex. Wow, what an incredible knock-off, I thought. Then there's the book set during the Victorian age in which an ordinary, bookish girl with grey eyes meets a kinky, possessive man with a tragic past who has never truly been in love before. And the book with the ordinary woman who meets a grey-eyed kinky millionaire who has never truly been in love before. Oh, and the book about the famous rich dude who has never done anything but hurt and debase women until he meets the ordinary, bookish girl with the power to make him change his ways.
I eventually had to come to the conclusion that EL James couldn't possibly have copied all the kinky soccer mom porn at the same time; especially since all of the stories had a bunch of stuff in common with each other too. And not just the kinky billionaire thing. If what I've been reading tells me anything, a whole lot of women have a whole lot of unoriginal - and bizarrely specific - ideas about their dream men. 
OR, all of these novels are actually set in an alternate universe in which the following are true:

  • With very rare exception, men come in three races: white, native American, and vaguely Hispanic.
    • Among white men, grey is the most common eye color.
    • Should you be lucky enough to encounter the rare, but elusive black man, he will have green eyes, and you won't have relations with him; he might, however, be the best friend of the man with whom you will have relations.
  • There are three types of careers for men:
    • Very rich man who does something vaguely businessy that requires suits.
    • Cop, firefighter, EMT, etc. Note: In this universe, most cops are independently wealthy due to an inheritance or something; in the interest of fairness, firefighters without an inheritance get paid enough money to live like the very rich guy noted above.
    • Agent for a secret spy agency that operates outside the law and just happens to be staffed full of hot, kinky men..
  • All hot men are obsessed with ordinary looking chicks. In fact, in spite of the fact that the smoking rich grey-eyed lovers could have any woman they want, they only want chunky, vaguely unattractive mates. And they say so. A lot.
  • Most women, and a significant portion of men, have prominent scars. 
  • Even though all the good men want to have sex all the time, they adore and respect women, never taking advantage of, or harming them.
    • Unless, of course, these men have Tragic Back-Stories, in which case, they harm and take advantage of women until they meet you, yes you, because you are The One.
  • There exist, all over this great nation, magical sex clubs where beautiful, big-hearted men troll for scar-ridden fat chicks in the hope of meeting The One. 
  • Men love to cook, unless you like to cook, in which case, cooking is the one domestic task they're not good at.
  • All men work out enough to have six pack abs and carry fat chicks around as if they weighed nothing, but they always do the working out when you're not around - the only thing more important than maintaining an unrealistic amount of muscle mass is You, yes You.
I have an ax.
So that's it. I know everything I need to know about kinky soccer moms. I thought, for a bit, that I could totally use this formula to create the next Fifty Shades. Turns out I start blushing and giggling like a school girl right around the time the grey-eyed billionaire unbuttons his shirt.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shut Up and Fix Me a Turkey Pot Pie

Just after the Super Bowl, I read an article from titled "Danica Patrick, Shut Up and Drive." It's all about how Danica Patrick, hugely successful Indy racer, is throwing women under the bus for being in some kind of sexist commercials for 
I'll grant that the commercials are in pretty damn poor taste - I mean, poor enough taste that I'm not embedding or linking to one, which is saying something considering the things I have embedded or linked to. I don't really fall into the camp of feminists who thinks that using sex to sell stuff is harmful to women, but that's not what this post is about.
This post is about the a comment that the article author makes about how especially offensive all this is in light of how sexist the technology industry is already.
Uh, it is? I would think I'd have noticed this rampant sexism, considering I work in the technology industry.
I've been working at the same company quite a while now, and I've never seen anything indicating that there's some kind of anti-woman conspiracy. Nobody calling me doll-face in the halls, no boss demanding I fetch his coffee. I mean, sometimes I feel like people don't take me seriously, but I think that's less because I'm a woman and more because of my Hello Kitty fetish and the fact that I have an uncanny knack for relating every conversation back to comic books. For instance, there have been a certain number of conversations that went something like:

  • ProgrammerWell, the customers are tired of the current user interface, but we don't want to just jump in with something flashy and new at the risk of giving them something the like even less.
  • Me: Like when Marvel replaced Dazzler the disco super-hero with Jubilee, who was pretty much the same character only an Asian teenager with even lamer powers and was more annoying than Jar Jar Binks?
  • Programmer: That's nice, doll-face. Why don't you freshen up my coffee?
Kidding aside, I'm well aware that the experience of one woman in one office is in no way a reflection of the industry as a whole. My experiences in this industry do give me cause to believe, however, that sexism in my industry is pretty rare, maybe rarer than in most other industries. The thing is, the fundamental building block of technology is logic. You don't create a computer program by intuition or personal prejudices; you create it by plugging variables into equations. It seems to me, furthermore, that most programmers apply the same thinking to everything they do, including hiring and interacting with coworkers. 
Gender discrimination isn't logical; on top of which, the process of hiring someone or evaluating them once they're already an employee is not particularly subjective. Somebody reads the resumes, decides which candidates best fit our requirements, and chooses the best qualified for interviews. From there, it's bubble tests and simulations; objective demonstrations of abilities. Nobody's going to say, "Well, this person scored higher than everybody else on all the tests, but she's a woman and we certainly don't want her getting her cooties all over us, so out she goes.
It's easy to see why someone might think that the industry's sexist, based on the ratio of men to women at tech firms. I mean, I have never seen any evidence in my 7 years at my company that the woman who hires the programmers has some anti-woman agenda, yet there's still never a line for the ladies' room, if you know what I mean. That there are so few women working in the field probably has a lot to do with the fact that only about 10% of people earning computer science degrees use the ladies' room.
So is it the colleges that are sexist? I suppose there might be some sexism in computer science programs (although I've never known a geek to complain about being in the same room with a woman who isn't his mom), but that can't account for such a huge disparity. 
So where does this imbalance come from? No idea. Maybe parents or kindergarten teachers or guidance counselors or TV or McDonald's Happy Meals. But where it doesn't come from is some kind of widespread institutionalized sexism. 
In fact, I've seen very little evidence, in the 9,000 industries in which I've dabbled, of widespread institutionalized sexism. And while I'm sure it exists somewhere, while I'm sure there are more than a few bosses out there calling their female employees "doll-face" and still more who subtly discriminate against said dolls, I just don't think it's as rampant or intentional as so many feminists want to believe.
The wage gap, the glass ceiling? Those are due at least in part to the fact that many women choose to put family before career, and there is nothing wrong with that. I appreciate the hell out of feminist fore-mothers who helped secure for me the right to choose to work and be independent and all of that, but I also know that there's nothing on earth wrong with a woman choosing to be barefoot and pregnant if that's what makes her happy, you know?
I'm in no way saying that gender discrimination doesn't exist (although I am saying that the discrimination cuts both ways a lot more significantly than a lot of feminists seem to think). I still think perfect equality is a ways off; and I do know that women are treated horribly in certain subsets of American culture and even more horribly in other countries. But I really think we've got to let go of the victim mentality that makes us think that the fact that there are more boy programmers than girl programmers, for instance, means that the technology industry hates women. I think we're wasting time tilting and windmills when the real giants are elsewhere.

Also, does anybody else think telling Danica Patrick to shut up and drive is a little, I don't know, sexist? Not in any way I can lay my finger on, it's just, I don't know, slightly more offensive than hot chicks doing inappropriate things.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Vocabulary Is (Etymologically) Unrelated

By Request:

I like curry, to understate drastically. Which is why I was surprised to learn that there's no such thing. Not in India anyway. 
Picture is Unrelated
 Curry is the English version of the Tamil word kari, which just means sauce. The English went to India and amid all their oppressing and such, they discovered a new favorite national dish. Or a new national favorite sauce anyway. Not surprising considering the fact that up until then, the national dish was meat and root vegetables boiled until gray.
Now, the curry powder in your mom's spice cabinet is only the best approximation white guys could come up with. Sort of like how UB40 was the best approximation of Bob Marley that white people could come up with. The thing that gives curry its unique flavor is actually a mix of spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, cloves, cardamom, and ginger.
Picture is Unrelated
(That's Bea Arthur wrestling with some velociraptors,
if you weren't aware.)

Now recently, I was hanging out with some friends, and one of them wondered where the expression curry favor comes from, and whether it's related to curry, the spice mixture.
On the bright side, I got nearly to the
bottom of the page of search results
before I found unholy fan art.
Being known, as I am, for spouting off knowledge at every opportunity, I had to think fast. "Well obviously," I said, "this is a reference to Christopher Columbus. As we know, back in Christopher Columbus' time, the spices of India were highly valued - and highly rare. Once several monarchs had denied Christopher Columbus' request for funding to sail around the world, he took a different approach with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. See, Queen Isabella was well-known for her fondness for throwing lavish dinner parties and prided herself on the exotic foods she served. Columbus used this to his advantage; promising the queen her weight in spices when he returned from the Indies. Intrigued, Isabella convinced her husband to fund the trip, and thus 'curry favor,' meaning to gain advantage by appealing to an individual's specific tastes."*
Turns out the curry in curry favor is etymological unrelated to the spice. The real etymology is kinda boring. Something to do with horses. So boring that I'm just copying the text from the Online Etymology Dictionary rather than trying to unearth some kind of joke material from some paraphrased version.
early 16c., altered by folk etymology from curry favel (c.1400) from Old French correier fauvel "to be false, hypocritical," literally "to curry the chestnut horse," which in medieval French allegories was a symbol of cunning and deceit. See curry (v.). Old French fauvel is from a Germanic source and ultimately related to fallow (adj.); the sense here is entangled with that of similar-sounding Old French favele "lying, deception," from Latin fabella, diminutive of fabula.
I added the funny pictures because this post
isn't very interesting.

* Okay, I said nothing of the sort. I don't think nearly so fast. What I really said was "mmmm want. curry."
But that's a pretty good story, right? I mean, that could totally be a real false etymology. Hey, if you all wanted to send that lie viral...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

One for the Funny Papers

In the past week, I've learned three surprising things about the funny papers, specifically how they influenced life outside of the funny papers.

Sadie Hawkins
We never had Sadie Hawkins Day dances at my high school, mostly because I went to a girls' school. I mean, you could sit around waiting for one of the boys at school, but you'd be waiting a while. Also, is that actually a thing that happens anyplace besides sit-coms? Because it seems awfully silly for the school to sanction who asks whom to a dance. But what would I know about dances? I went to my prom stag and in overalls.
They were adorable. And no, they are not why my boyfriend wouldn't go with me. Okay, yes they were. But, I ended up taking a way hotter date to the prom than if he had gone with me. But at least my date didn't discover he'd left his wallet at home halfway through dinner (like he actually did for his Homecoming dance).
Anyway, Sadie Hawkins, according to the Li'l Abner comic strip, was "the homliest gal in all them hills." Her father Hekzebia didn't want his daughter to be a spinster, so he hosted an event in which Sadie chased after all of the town's bachelors. If she caught one, he was legally required to marry her. The official Li'l Abner website tells me that the dance is about female empowerment. And here I thought we had to burn our bras.

*#@!$ Off, You Stinking &#$%@
My mom recently suggested that I try to be a lit more circumspect with the swearing on my blog. She was not pleased to know that I thought I was being circumspect. Okay, so I've got a bit of a mouth on me, but seriously, there are far worse things a preacher's kid could grow up and do.

If, however, I wanted to swear without offending my mom, I might try using something like $&#*. According to, this fanciful euphemism first appeared in Rudolph Dirks' The Katzenjammer Kids. Equally fanciful names for the string of characters include obscenicon (coined by blogger Benjamin Zimmer) and grawlix coined by Mort Walker. How is grawlix not a Pokemon?
I tend to agree with Mark Nichol of Daily Writing Tips with regard to swearing. He says:
Ultimately, the question any purveyor of prose must answer is, where do you draw the line? Certain four-letter words are either acceptable or anathema. But what about minor league profanity: hell, damn, and the like? If you prohibit these words in your publication, what about heck, darn, and gosh, which are all merely disguised forms of literally profane profanity? What about effing or bleep? Everyone knows what each means or could mean. Why permit euphemisms or evasive explications? Don’t you risk offending readers or site visitors who resent such coy conjurings intended to wink-and-nudge them about what you might otherwise have explicitly stated?
But then Mark Nichol doesn't have my mom for a mom, and I kind of owe her some consideration all I put her through during my high school and college years.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

It's a Conspiracy

I've always said that if it turns out that NutraSweet makes you grow extra arms and give birth to mutant babies, I'd have no business getting all indignant about it - it's not as if I thought the deeply irrational amounts of the stuff was good for me.
Folks frequently give me friendly unsolicited advice as to my little habit - claims that vary from “that stuff makes you fatter” to “that stuff'll kill you.” I thought the former was probably true, the latter silly, but I never thought much about the stuff in between. The fitness people who extolled its virtues in the 80s are now avoiding it like they once avoided red meat (which I think is allowed now/again). I'd even heard college educated fitness professionals proclaim this. Someone at the gym told me it was better to drink a six pack of regular pop than one can of diet. Exaggeration, I insisted. And anyway, you've got to die sometime, as the smokers say.
Then I read an article on the extreme dangers of aspartame and the research changed my opinion entirely. 
Perhaps, though, not in the way the article's author intended.
The conspiracy to keep the public from the knowledge that aspartame kills, according to William Campbell Douglass II, goes all the way to the FDA. Aspartame, a deadly neurotoxin, has been positively linked to fibromyalgia, MS, lupus, ADD, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue, depression, and naturally, cancer. On top of that, “these toxins are MAKING US FAT!” It was the shouty capitals that convinced me... that this was bull. Well, and the fact that Douglass was calling aspartame an agent of genocide and treason. Well actually, it started with the word “conspiracy.”
Conspiracies (for which the Old English word is the far more awesome facengecwis), I've learned lately, are far more easily imagined than done. 
A while back, one of my friends told me she'd seen a documentary about Big Pharma's conspiracy to hide the fact that vitamins and minerals are far more effective at treating diseases than whatever poison the pharmaceutical companies are cooking up. In fact, she told me, there had been a huge, groundbreaking breakthrough in cancer research, in which scientists discovered that a certain formulation of vitamin C could cure cancer. Soon as Big Pharma learned of it, they used their influence to shut the study down, and refused to fund any researcher who studied it.
At first, I was inclined to believe this was the truth, or at least partially true. I've known a lot of people who have been seriously harmed by drugs they were assured were safe. The tricks the pharmaceutical industry pulls to convince doctors and consumers that their products are safe and necessary are - well, they're fodder for a whole other post. The industry has shown no compunction with causing people's deaths in the name of profit, so the idea of their blocking research that could save lives didn't seem all that absurd.  
Until a realization dawned. My best friend was a scientist at Stanford. She studied cancer. I am pretty sure that if vitamin C cured cancer, she'd have mentioned it to me. So I went to the science.
It didn't take me long to learn that the vitamin C study, conducted by Linus Pauling, had serious flaws. I found the study and read it. I could tell the research methods were crap, and I'm an English major. Turns out that the study was reviewed and reviewed again by scientists all over the world who simply couldn't reproduce the results when using appropriate scientific rigor. Science hasn't even giving up researching the cancer/vitamin C connection, because there does seem to be one. That research just isn't anywhere near having any kind of practical application. 
I wondered if, however, a controversy such as the one alleged could happen, so I called up my much smarter friend to ask. 
She said that it would be impossible for a conspiracy of that magnitude to hold up. Every cancer researcher, not just in the US, but on the planet would have to be into it. There are all kinds of entities that fund cancer research, including the government and and the vitamin industry. Even if the government were in on the plot, "big vita," if you will, has more than ample resources to fund research that would prove one of their products capable of actually doing something useful. Also, the competition between scientific institutions is vicious, and the incentive to win is far greater than the incentive to keep quiet. If there's any chance that the Cleveland Clinic will be able to proclaim they've cured cancer, they're not going to care if the solution is a drug, a vitamin, or a poop transplant.
So what in the holy hell does this have to do with aspartame? Well, this is another case in which a conspiracy is just logistically impossible, and to verify that, all I had to do was go to the science.
Turns out that even if the FDA were in on this controversy, they'd have had to get the Government Accountability Office that investigated the matter on board too. Then they'd have had to get the Centers for Disease control to string along. Oh, and the World Health Organization, the Mayo Clinic (and just about every other research hospital), and researchers at each of the 90 countries where the substance is legal.  
While science continues to research, it turns out that there's absolutely no evidence directly connecting aspartame with any disease. There's no evidence connecting any of the ingredients in aspartame to any disease. Not cancer, not fibromyalgia, not even indigestion. On top of which, the claims about aspartame making you fatter are really overstated. There might be a link. Might be. The drug is extraordinarily dangerous to people allergic to phenylalanine, in much the same way that peanut butter is highly dangerous to people allergic to peanuts.
But it turns out a Google search on the initial article's author, William Campbell Douglass, would probably have sufficed. The author of the article is a hardcore whackadoodle whose research proving the health benefits of tobacco speaks for itself. Apparently, we should be eating it. Eating. it.