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, January 29, 2015

Turtle Power

Today at McDonald's I chanced to look at the Happy Meal toys, but totally not because I've been known to occasionally need to get me a Happy Meal.
It bugs me how we now have gender segregated Happy Meal toys. When I was your age, Happy Meals came in a flying saucer, and the toy was the flying saucer. 
And it was epic
But I digress as usual. What I was starting to say was that I noticed that the girl toys were little plush conversation hearts (also known as the lamest thing that has ever happened), while the boys got Ninja Turtles (also known as another thing from my childhood Michael Bay has ruined). 
It was a really strong visual reminder of the messages we send boys and girls about their gender. Girls get soft and cuddly and love and nurturing, and boys get violence and weapons and anthropomorphic reptiles. And while most people would be cool with a girl getting a murder toy, woe to the boy who'd choose the love toy. Even if his folks were okay with his getting one, think of the poor kid's friends. You can't be a man and not love murder, man. That's just unnatural. 

Do you suppose this is part of why men are so much more likely to commit violent crimes? I'm not asking facetiously; that sort of question sounds a bit too much like "the devil made me do it." But still... if we're constantly drilling into our boys' heads that love is feminine, and that there is nothing worse than a feminine man, well, we can't really expect them to be great at being loving. If boys believe you have to love hate to prove their worth, how can we expect them to love love without feeling worthless?
From Crystal Smith at the Achilles Effect blog. 
Most commonly used terms in commercials for toys geared toward girls.

Most commonly used terms in commercials for toys geared toward boys.

Monday, January 26, 2015

No sweat, Boba Fett

When I was a kid, I thought it was really weird that Marvel comics would name a Super Sentinel from the future Nimrod. Nimrod means idiot, after all.
Except it doesn't. Or, at least, it didn't mean idiot for the first few thousand years of its existence. Nimrod, is a Biblical king, great-grandson of  Noah, a great hunter and not really an idiot at all.
So how did that happen? Well, it might have been the work of a bunny.
The first recorded incident of nimrod as an insult shows up in a dictionary of teen slang in the early '80s. And while nobody knows for sure how it happened, it's possible that the culprit is one Bugs Bunny. See, Bugs Bunny occasionally called Elmer Fudd Nimrod ironically; like calling dumb people Einstein. It's possible that kids who grew up on Looney Tunes heard the term, didn't get the reference, and just assumed that nimrod was just a cool insult, and one that was fun to say, at that.
Witness our pointy hats!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Uncanny Valley is pretty close to Silicon Valley, in a way...

Unless you are a very, very lucky person indeed, you've likely been unable to keep your eyes from being assaulted by pictures of Kim Kardashian "breaking the internet" with her ass. Or something. I'm not sure why this allegedly breaks the Internet, nor why she remotely gets to be famous.
So while I've done my level best not to be subjected to these Internet-breaking photos (or the Kardashians in general), I have failed. Repeatedly. Which is a problem because they really, really really, really really freak me the hell out. Like It creepy.
They'll both murder you and gnaw on your bones,
but at least the clown's up front about it.

I mentioned my strange reaction to Jeremy, who replied that Kim Kardashian has reached the Uncanny Valley. 
The Uncanny Valley describes the sense of revulsion we get when the thing we're looking at is appears nearly human but isn't human, not quite. All the plastic surgery, combined with the heavy image processing, and Kim's constant "dead behind the eyes" expression have made her look just a shade shy of human, prompting me to go to my happy place every time her picture finds its way onto my computer screen.
The Uncanny Valley has been a real problem in the field of computer animation.  Remember when The Polar Express came out, and half of everybody who saw it was pretty sure Tom Hanks was luring that child into some cold, snowy demon convention? Reviewer John Anderson summed it up perfectly when he called The Polar Express a zombie train.
Santa has a surprise for you.
I'll give you a hint: it has tentacles. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Are we still dreaming?

There was some hubub last week when the Academy Award nominees were announced, with many folks pointing out that none of the nominees would exactly stand out at a Klan convention, and that although Selma was nominated for Best Picture, the directors and stars of that film were overlooked.
Now, I haven't seen Selma or any of the other movies nominated. Like none. Movies have become like a really expensive mandatory nap lately, and I can nap in my house for free and I don't wake up with Twizzlers in my hair. Usually.
What I'm saying is that Selma might be utter crap and the fact that the slate of nominees looks like the cast of Friends (maybe one of the nominees will make like Ross and bring a vaguely ethnic date?) might be coincidence. So I'm not gonna talk about Selma. But I am going to talk about something weird in movies about stuff like Civil Rights.
If Hollywood movies, especially the highly acclaimed ones, are to be believed, the Civil Rights movement starred a surprisingly white cast. 
Like The Help. Not that I don't love Emma Stone (and wish science would find a way to let me have little ginger babies with her), but isn't it a little weird that a movie called The Help would center around her character? I wonder if she was friends with all the brave, brave white ladies behind the Montgomery bus boycott in The Long Walk Home. It's not that it's not great to have movies about black people and white people working together for equality, but isn't it weird how Hairspray is supposed to be about integration, but 80% of the folks on the DVD cover for the 2007 remake are white? That's a little bit more "integrated" than the 1988 cover, which is 100% white, but still... District 9 managed to paint a powerful allegory for apartheid with an all-white cast. Glory, the story of the Civil War's first all-black company centers around Matthew Broderick's character, while Denzel Washington only ranks a supporting role.
Mississippi Burning was a great example of this phenomenon. There were so many black heroes fighting for equality and voting rights in Mississippi in 1964. But Burning highlights the heroism of the two white FBI agents who solved the murder of three civil rights workers, while the black characters cower and whimper, refusing to offer any help. In what author James E White calls "a cinematic lynching of the truth," the credits list James Chaney, black leader of the group of civil rights workers killed, as "Black Passenger." To be fair, none of the victims were named in the film, though they did have "Black Passenger" trembling in the back seat of a car next to "Passenger" (Andrew Goodman), while "Goatee" (Michael Shwermer) leads the group and reassures his cowering black associate, when it was almost certainly Chaney doing the driving and the leading. 
It's so strange... the people who make and watch these movies obviously believe racism is bad. I seriously doubt that acclaimed director Alan Parker was twirling his mustache when he rewrote history with Mississippi Burning. And I doubt the mostly white Academy were doing so when hey snubbed Selma in most categories. But it's so weird how they, and we, seem to need white heroes to make us care about black people. And I wonder, if we can't relate to the struggle for fundamental rights until it affects people who look like us, how far have we really come? 
I mean, I get it, but maybe if we could get Tom Hanks to say it...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Keep this between us

I recently ran across not one, but two stories about the expression between you and me. Turns out, some people say between you and I, and this is more wrong than the love child of Jar Jar Binks and Elmo. 
According to Grammar Girl, pronouns that come after prepositions in prepositional phrases are objects, not subjects, and as anyone who had my fifth grade English teacher knows, me is an object pronoun. 
BUT, Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast points out that this isn't necessarily true, because of something having to do with Noam Chomsky and Middle English. It was a pretty boring story, but I came up with a cool tip for remembering which is correct.
Don't say between you and I. It's wrong. But don't say between you and me either. Instead use the grammatically unambiguous "tell anyone and I will cut you."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Methinks my mind is blown is a fun website that sends me daily tidbits about writing. Mostly it's mundane stuff that only the wordiest of nerds care much about, but now and then you get a taste of something loftier - this week it was Hamlet.
We all know the quotation from Hamlet - "Methinks the lady doth protest too much." It's an expression people use to mean that someone's suspiciously eager to deny something, and therefore probably lying.
Except the line isn't "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," and that furthermore, the expression doesn't mean what people think at all.
The line comes during the Mousetrap scene - the one in which Hamlet hires some actors to perform a play that essentially calls his uncle a murderer and his mom a whore. During the play, the lady playing the queen gives a speech about how great her husband is, and how she'd never ever get married to anyone else if her husband died - laying it on thick. Hamlet, because his barely passive aggression wasn't obvious enough, asks his mom what she thinks of that, and she replies "The lady protests too much, methinks."
So big deal, not a huge misquote. What's huge is the meanings of the words in the quotation. Methinks doesn't mean I think, it means it seems like. And it turns out the meaning of the word protest has shifted since Shakespeare's day. Back then, it meant to proclaim or to promise. So the queen isn't saying "I think she's lying," she's saying "it seems like she is promising more than what's reasonable."
The shift in meaning of protest, according to, probably comes from the common expression protest one's innocence; the phrase started out meaning "to proclaim you're not guilty" but shifted to mean "to deny your guilt."

Super-cool Hamlet fact: poor Yorick up there isn't a prop - the late Andre Tchaikovsky plays opposite the great David Tennant in this scene - the pianist and composer died in 1982, leaving his head to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the hopes he'd get to play the dead dude one day. The director of the Tennant version of Hamlet says, "You can't hold a real human skull in your hand and not be moved by the realisation that your own skull sits just beneath your skin, that you will be reduced to that state at some stage."
If you haven't seen Tennant's Hamlet, you absolutely should. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"The language of sin was universal, the original Esperanto" ~ Joe Hill

Psychologist, linguist, and recipient of an unfair number of IQ points at birth, Stephen Pinker, wrote this great book I'm very slowly reading right now called The Language Instinct. The book reveals that the one unique instinct that humans have is the instinct to use language. Language isn't a skill, it isn't an invention, it's not a discovery that humans found and passed down to their children like the wheel or fire. Language is the one thing that every human being is hard-wired to learn, and if a language doesn't already exist, children will make one. 
And it is children, mostly. Kids start learning language from the instant they're born, and start using it the moment they're physically capable. Have you ever noticed that the words for mother in most languages is really similar? From the English mama to the Arabic ahm to the Punjabi mai, the sound made by the letter m features prominently in most languages' word for mother. This isn't an accident. Ma, along with da and ba are among the first sounds a muchkin can make (oddly, babies make the g and k sounds during the "babbling" phase of vocal development, before they have any real control of their vocal tract, but they lose the ability to make those sounds when they're a few months old, and don't get it back until many months after that). Of course, you could say that while babies might make the sounds, it is the adults who assign meaning to them, and that's true to some degree. But even without adults around to communicate word meaning, kids do a pretty amazing job of word creation on their own.
One case that Pinker uses to support his point is that of Nicaraguan sign language. Before the Sandinista government took over there in 1979, the country had no schools for the deaf - so no universal sign language existed. Deaf folks communicated with their hearing friends and family with their own attempts at sign language, but it wasn't until deaf kids got together that a fully functioning sign-language was born.
And anatomically correct
And born more quickly than you can imagine. While schools tried with no success to teach them how to speak and read lips, the kids were creating their own sign language, a language younger than me but a rich one, one with its own unique grammar, vocabulary, and idioms; one in which speakers can discuss concepts as abstract as surrealism and philosophy. A language developed entirely by children in grade school who had never known any other language.
Totally mind-blowing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Soli deo gloria

One of the things I love about my church (which I would be at right now except it turns out my jammies are really comfy and it's cold outside) is that it isn't a church. It's a storefront, an unremarkable flat-roofed building that used to be a used car dealership. It is a no-frills space with just enough space to enable us to meet and do the work our faith calls us to. 
Ruins of a 13th century
cathedral - Chester
I've always been bothered by big fancy churches with marble and gold, stained glass and statuary. Doesn't the Bible say to sell everything you have and give it to the poor? Isn't Christianity based on the concepts of faith, hope, and charity? I'd think Jesus would prefer that His followers spend their money on the least of his brothers before they spent it on a big fancy palace.
Westminster Abby
That always seemed like a no-brainer to me, but lately, maybe since I got interested in photography, I've wondered. And visiting the million-year-old churches in England, standing on the graves of England's luminaries at Westminster Abby, well, I knew I was standing in the presence of some of the greatest works of art on the planet. 
The late Christ the King
Church - my home parish

Doesn't art justify its own existence? The poor were dying because of work in dangerous and filthy conditions when Rodin created The Thinker. Should the Directorate of Fine Arts have been using their funds to save lives rather than buy bronze
So... I don't actually know
which Canton church this came from
for the 180 figures in The Gates of Hell, the sculptural group of which The Thinker was a part? I don't know the answer to that question, honestly... everything we spend money on is money that could theoretically be used to save a life. How many human lives could have been saved for the money spent on The Gates of Hell. One? Ten? None? How many human lives is The Thinker worth, and is it fair to think that way?

St. Mary's
San Francisco
When a religious person helps the poor because of their faith, they are serving the glory of God. But if a religious person paints a picture because of their faith? Or makes a sculpture? Or builds a church? I feel like if a religious artist makes art, that gives glory to their God too, doesn't it? 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

All God's critters

Back before I got an office job and started going to bed before most toddlers, I had a job where I worked late nights and generally went to bed after most toddlers get up. Driving home from work, I often caught a radio program called Coast to Coast AM. See what happened, is that, after all the sane people of the world went to sleep, a special breed of nutters crawled out from their tinfoil bomb shelters to listen to and discuss the world we all know to exist just outside the corners of our eyes. UFOs, chupacabras, bigfoot, and black helicopters all populate this universe and the thing is, late enough at night, even mostly sane night workers can start to entertain the possibility that the five foot tall black lady at the gas station just might have been Elvis in a very convincing disguise. 
Of course, the funny thing about non-existent creatures is that sometimes, they do exist. Or sort of, anyway.
Take the chupacabra. See, while there isn't a lethery, spiny-coated creature that feeds on the blood of livestock out in the Southwest, it turns out that there are quite a few coyotes out West with mange so severe that their skin looks like leather, their baldness making their back bones stick out sort of like spines, and coyotes are well known for feeding on livestock. talks about the Greek mythological creature called the scylla, a beast that lived in shallow waters, had heads on long sinuous necks, and jagged teeth to tear apart ships... kind of exactly like a coral reef. And the colossal squid might not be able to swallow a ship, but that aside, it's similarity to the kraken is more than passing.
Are dragons so far off from dinosaurs? Some flew, some probably spit venom (which, while not fire, does probably burn like a son-of-a-bitch). And how else do you
explain the fact that 100% of dinosaur fossils have been discovered in caves full of gold? It's probable that folks in the olden days found the bones of dinosaurs and wales and decided to call them dragons, so is it really fair to say dragons are myths? Or is it more accurate to say that folks who believed in dragons just got a few of the details wrong?

If this angler fish is real, I'm not ruling out anything.