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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nerds putting words in your mouth

From Jules Vern's moon landing in From Earth to the Moon to the water beds that Robert Heinlein predicted in Beyond This Horizon, sci-fi writers have predicted the future in some eerily accurate ways. So when our tech caught up with their imaginations, many sci fi authors had conveniently already come up with the words for our devices. Here are a few, from Vivian Cook's In a Word as well as Whizzpast and my brain:

  • Blast off: Doc Smith (1937)
  • Cyberspace: William Gibson (1982)
  • Robot:  Karel Čapek (1920) - it's interesting to note that this comes from a Czech term for slave and was once pronounced more like robit
  • Terraform: Jack Williamson (1942)
  • Atomic Bomb: HG Wells (1914)
  • Android: Ephraim Chambers (freaking 1728)
  • Spaceship: Pall Mall Gazette (from an 1880 review of Percy Greg's novel Across the Zodiac)
  • Virus (as in a computer virus): Gregory Benford 1970
Kinetic sculpture somewhere in western Ohio.
I'm not sure where - I was really lost.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


A friend posted a link to this brilliant blog post (warning: so many swears) titled I am grateful, now f**k off. In it, the author talks about how, every time she talks or posts about some of the less joyful parts of parenthood, someone inevitably responds that she should be grateful for this magical and wondrous miracle, even if that little miracle is a shrieking ball of poop and drool. As she puts it:
Be grateful! Be grateful! One day they won’t be shitting on you! And you’ll be like “omg, I long for the days when I was covered in sour milk and diarrhoea!” So – be grateful! You might be so exhausted that you’re crying on the toilet but these are the best days of your life SO BE GRATEFUL 

So it isn't enough to spend months elbow-deep in the little miracle's bodily fluids; you have to like doing it. And I think that kind of talk does moms a great disservice. Parenting is terrifying, and I've see women who were clearly born to be mothers upside down and inside out with the certainty that they are the worst moms ever.
From what new moms have told me, the first several months of munkin's life are an endurance trial, forcing parents to deal with wave after wave of bodily fluids punctuated by lots of screaming and no sleep. And while the reward is, I'm told, well worth the cost (I have my doubts), the best parents in the world couldn't be expected to whistle and grin the whole time.
So I find it weird that people who have kids are the ones dispensing the obnoxious advice. Or maybe it's not so weird. Maybe it's evolution. See, hearing my friends' and family's horror stories about the screaming little succubi is all the birth control I'll probably ever need. So maybe parents have to forget about all the hellish bits, or no one would ever have a second child. 

Labor Pains, Akiko Yosana

I am sick today, 
sick in my body, 
eyes wide open, silent, 
I lie on the bed of childbirth. 

Why do I, so used to the nearness of death, 
to pain and blood and screaming, 
now uncontrollably tremble with dread? 

A nice young doctor tried to comfort me, 
and talked about the joy of giving birth. 
Since I know better than he about this matter, 
what good purpose can his prattle serve? 

Knowledge is not reality. 
Experience belongs to the past. 
Let those who lack immediacy be silent. 
Let observers be content to observe. 

I am all alone, 
totally, utterly, entirely on my own, 
gnawing my lips, holding my body rigid, 
waiting on inexorable fate. 

There is only one truth. 
I shall give birth to a child, 
truth driving outward from my inwardness. 
Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it. 

With the first labor pains, 
suddenly the sun goes pale. 
The indifferent world goes strangely calm. 
I am alone. 
It is alone I am. 

In the end it all comes down to this: nobody should be telling anyone how to feel. Emotions aren't decisions, they're forces of nature. So telling someone to be happy when they're operating on about an hour of sleep and the baby is shrieking like they're in a Rage Against the Machine cover band, it's kind of a dick move. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Oh, euphemism

Elizabeth Little, author of Biting the Wax Tadpole* tells me that the phrase the adjective used to be a euphemism for bloody, which used to be a very bad word. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that early in the 20th century, people used the Shavian adjective in place of bloody, because George Bernard Shaw shocked theatergoers' sensibilities when Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion used the phrase not bloody likely.
We just won't tell them about Equus.
Bloody has been considered a profanity, more or less, since the late 17th century (though the degree of naughtiness waxed and waned over the centuries). 
What no one seems to know is why bloody was bad. Little mentions several of the prevailing theories - that it referred to the blood of Christ, that it meant by Our Lady, or that it refers to menstruation, although none of these seems particularly compelling.
Today, it seems to me that the term is slightly offensive in England (maybe on par with crap?) But here in the US it seems to have joined the ranks of heck and darn
There are actually a couple words in England that aren't considered that bad over here, either because we lack class, or because we've forgotten what the words mean. I always find it weird when old, proper people use the term bugger, because it totally refers to butt sex. The TV Buffy the Vampire Slayer exploited American ignorance to rude English words - Spike would probably not get away with his catchphrase of  oh bullocks if the censors were aware it meant oh balls. Spike even give the English equivalent of the middle finger in the show's opening credits.
Two fingers and a derp face.
*Title is a reference to Coca-Cola's attempt to find a suitable way to write Coca Cola in Mandarin. They wanted something that sounded phonetically similar to Coca Cola, so they looked for a phrase that would be pronounced something similar to ko-ka-ko-la. Unfortunately, there were about 200 phrases that could be pronounced that way, some of them really weird - like for instance, 蝌蚪啃蜡 would be pronounced similar to ko-ka-ko-la, but actually means bite the wax tadpole

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fun with fallacies: correlation vs. causation

You may recall last month when a story made the rounds, revealing that singles who used emoji had more sex. This led, naturally, to a 100% spike in old creepers propositioning girls via rebus. 

Of course, the study didn't really find that people who use emojis have more sex - because in reality, younger people are more likely to use emojis, and younger people have more sex.
This fallacy is funny when it applies to emoji, but it is somewhat more serious when it's being used to make people terrified of their food.
We've all seen the dire warnings on Facebook about all the ways our food is killing us. Sometimes, the stories are true, or have a kernel of truth. For instance, there's a story that periodically makes the rounds on Facebook about baby carrots being marinated in chlorine to preserve them and make them more aesthetically pleasing. It's actually true that produce is sometimes cleaned with chlorine, but it isn't soaked in it, and it's to kill germs, not preserve it. Now, it is worth asking whether chlorine's the best thing to clean our food with. However, stories like this always seem to veer off into wild and catastrophic claims about the toxic effects of "chemicals" on our produce. Rates of autism and ADD and Alzheimer's and obesity and cancer have skyrocketed since we started using pesticides (or genetic engineering, etc.), they claim, and it's all because of the food we eat.
There's nothing irresponsible about eating organic, or protesting pesticide use, or questioning the safety of GMOs. What is irresponsible is making wild and unsubstantiated claims. 
See, a great many families simply can't afford to shop at World Market each week. And as Slate's Melinda Wenner Moyer points out:
...if the research literature is clear about anything regarding fruits and vegetables, it’s that eating more of them—conventional or organic—does good things for the body. One review concluded that the quartile of Americans who eat the most fruits and vegetables, organic or not, are about half as likely to develop cancer compared to the quartile who eat the least.
So perpetuating the idea that veggies can kill, especially to people who can't afford organic, could be more hazardous to their health than even the most pesticide-riddled apple could be. 
Meanwhile, we actually know the real causes for rising rates of dread diseases, and some aren't even bad. For one thing, people are living longer - Aunt Ethyl got Alzheimer's at 90 because she didn't drop dead of a heart attack at 60 like her mom did. And autism diagnoses have gone up because we've drastically, drastically changed the diagnostic criteria for autism - so perhaps the biggest reason for rising cases of autism is the rising number of autism diagnoses. 
Americans' sedentary, vehicle-dependent lifestyle puts us at greater risk for just about every disease there is, so it is way more helpful to encourage our loved ones to get more exercise than to be afraid of carrots. We know for a fact that junk food, especially stuff that's full of fat and sugar, can cause huge health problems, so it's way better to post warnings about those things on Facebook than posting dire but unsubstantiated warnings about the foods people should be eating. We know for a fact that unhealthy lifestyles cause diseases, so it is a good idea to make sure and address those things before blaming factors that correlate with diseases but aren't shown to cause them. 
And for the love of God, people, Snopes that shit before you repost it. 
Some other food myths that deserve to be dispelled (according to Snopes): 

  • There's never been a single documented case of a Chinese restaurant serving dog or cat, so jokes about household pets in your General Tso's aren't just racist, they're also ignorant. Also, unoriginal dude, and that's maybe the biggest crime of all. 
  • Monsanto-grown cucumbers don't cause genital baldness. Though eating these tainted cucumbers would be way cheaper and less painful than waxing. 
  • The gold flakes in Goldschlager don't cut up your insides to get the alcohol into your bloodstream afterwards. Jeremy will have to find another excuse for his antics that one New Year's Eve.
  • Neither chocolate nor bananas are going extinct. Chocolate covered bananas for everybody!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Plains, trains, and men of war

As I write this, it's cold enough here in Ohio to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Now, I was all excited to tell you that this is not a dirty expression, because I read in Albert Jack's Red Herrings and White Elephants that the expression had something to do with orphans, man-o-war ships, and brass cannonballs. It turns out I was lured into the CANOE  - the Conspiracy to Attribute Naval Origins to Everything
In reality, this expression is likely related to brass monkey, a tourist souvenir popular in China and Japan in the 19th and 20th century. And sometimes, apparently, these monkeys sometimes had testicles and then sometimes they froze off? Actually, itt used to be the tail, ears, or whiskers of brass monkeys that figuratively froze off, but people like saying balls, so there you have it.
3 Wise Monkeys, Shrine of Toshogu in Nikkō, Japan
Hear speak see no evil Toshogu".
Licensed under 
CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
I'm sad about the orphan thing, because that taints Red Herrings and White Elephants, which I expected to be more accurate, since I got it in England, and assumed it was accurate because England.
But here are a couple of ball-related expressions that actually don't have anything to do with testes, primate or otherwise.
 The expression balls out, meaning extreme, doesn't refer to the balls you're thinking of, although running around with one's balls out is a rather extreme behavior. This one is likely related to steam trains. In the early days of their existence, steam engines used a thing called a centrifugal governor to control the engine's speed, according to the Online Slang Dictionary. This governor used weighted balls which, when the engine was running at full speed, would rise. That makes you wonder why the expression isn't balls up; maybe orphans thought it up.
One final expression about balls that sounds dirty but isn't is balls to the wall. This came about in aviation, when levers had balls at the end of them, and pushing the balls toward the firewall of the aircraft made the plane go faster.
So there you have it. One expression that claims not to be dirty that really is, and two that sound dirty but aren't. Kind of reminds me of shouting "out, out damn spot" so that you could get away with saying damn. Or mispronouncing Phuket Thailand

This picture makes me so sad... it was about 5 degrees and I really had
to pee, so 100% of the shots are hasty and taken from exactly the wrong angle.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Famous Last Words

Whenever I see a car with a Florida or California plate this time of year, I say a little prayer for the soul of the dearly departed. I mean, these people must be in town for a funeral - that's the only reason anyone would want to come to Ohio in the winter. Other places are colder, but I've never been in a place as depressing and dismal as Ohio in February.
So all this thinking about death and depression reminded me of the apparent man of the month, Mel Blanc, whose gravestone famously reads "That's All Folks."
Here are some great grave stone sayings from famous people who liked getting the last laugh:

  • Rodney Dangerfield: There Goes the Neighborhood
  • Merv Griffin: I Will Not Be Back After This Message
  • Jack Lemmon
Jack Lemmon 
  • Leslie Neilsen: Let 'er rip
  • Don Adams: Would you believe... (sadly, a website stating "Immortality: Missed it by that much" appears to be lying).
  • Dee Dee Ramone: OK, I gotta go now. (Also, none of the Ramones were actually named Ramone, which seems kind of obvious now that I think about it...)
  • Billy Wilder: I'm a writer, but nobody's perfect.
  • Rick James: If only I had some hilarious catch phrase involving my name and a profanity.

Not such a great headstone:
  • Micah C. Green: I see dumb people. Green, who died in 2001, might have overestimated the staying power of M Night Shamalan.
And what do I want on my headstone? Probably: "Look out behind you!"

(Info from,,

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Not just for cows

The general wisdom is that tip stands for To insure promptness. The general wisdom is especially unwise in this case, considering insure is what insurance companies do - the word that means to make certain of is ensure. The actual etymology is much more mundane - it's probably descended, in a roundabout way, from the Low German tippen, meaning to tap, according to
To me, tipping adequately is an ethical obligation, and the hosts of the podcast Awesome Etiquette podcast have perfectly articulated my case. Co-host Daniel Post Senning points out that when one eats at a restaurant, there is a tacit contract between the server and the patron - an understanding that the patron will pay the server for their services. So stiffing someone, failing to leave a tip, is a violation of that contract. Using stiff to mean fail to tip first shows up in print in 1939 - possibly related to stiff meaning jerk or  bad person, but I can't figure out exactly how stiff came to mean jerk. It came to refer to a dead person in 1859, for obvious reasons, but dead people aren't really known for being jerks, what with being dead. Though dead people are known for being lousy tippers, just ask any mortuary assistant.

By the way, when people tell me that they can't afford to tip, I lose pretty much all respect for them. It's like shoplifting a necklace and claiming it's okay because you couldn't afford it. If you can't afford to pay for something you don't need, then you can't have it, that's life. Your server certainly can't afford to do their job on their salary alone. 

By the by, the Awesome Etiquette people say that if you have terrible service, the most polite way to handle it is to leave a minimum 15% tip, but then complain to management. 

The folks at offer this handy Infographic on tipping:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Remembering Nimoy

Her pretty little head

I read a thought provoking article on the Daily Dot about socially tolerated unwanted touching, such as the sort Joe Biden has been photographed doing of late:

The article refers to it as an act of public sexual harassment. I don't disagree. This sort of touching isn't appropriate when a man does it to a woman or when a woman does it to a man.
But the Daily Dot article then goes on to talk about John Travolta's Oscar night antics. First, it talks about the bizarre on-stage moment when he gropes Idena Menzel's face pretty much apropos of nothing.

Okay, so that was weird as hell. Both Menzel and Travolta claim the moment was scripted, although scripted by whom, exactly? The director of the Hello music video trying to relive their former glory, perhaps? 

Oh, I get it... Travolta was just learning her face so he could do this...

...which you must admit is a way better likeness than this...
In the artist's defense, she was blind.
And also didn't grope Ritche's face for nearly as long
as Travolta groped Menzel's

But I digress more than usual. The Daily Dot article went on to talk about Travolta's earlier creepy uncle move with Scarlett Johansson on the red carpet.

Sure, looks, bad. But then the Daily Dot article goes on to completely dismiss Johansson's response, in which she says: 
There is nothing strange, creepy or inappropriate about John Travolta. The image that is circulating is an unfortunate still-frame from a live-action encounter that was very sweet and totally welcome.
That still photo does not reflect what preceded and followed if you see the moment live. Yet another way we are misguided, misinformed and sensationalized by the 24-hour news cycle. I haven't seen John in some years and it is always a pleasure to be greeted by him.
The Daily Dot article claims she's just being a good sport, which ironically, considering the subject matter, is a pretty sexist thing to do. In tossing aside Johansson's explanation, author Nico Lang is squashing Johasson's free agency, deciding for her that her words count for nothing, that a grown and very intelligent woman isn't capable of knowing whether a touch was or wasn't consensual. Johansson is saying yes when she means no, and it is up to men like Nico Lang to decide for her what she really means.