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, May 31, 2015

Oh English, you're so silly

  • Phonetically is spelled phonetically, meaning it is not spelled phonetically. 
  • Alliteration contains five syllables, none of which begin with the same sound. 
  • The word diphthong doesn't contain any.
  • Dactylic isn't. 
  • Spondee is a spondee (I think. I'm really bad at meter).


  • It's very hard to say the word tooth when you don't have any.
  • It's hard to say lisp when you have one.
  • The word double-u doesn't contain a w
  • In Latin, they didn't have the letter w. However, the v was pronounced like w, so which letter did they really not have? 
  • A palindrome isn't one.
  • Polysyllabic and monosyllabic have the same number of syllables.  
This cartoon illustration has been created by Greg Williams in cooperation with the Wikimedia Foundation.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Poetic License

By now you probably know that Christopher Columbus was maybe a little more genocide-y than we like to remember him. But I only recently learned how we came to believe that Columbus shat gold (rather than dismember natives who failed to give him gold, which is what actually happened).
Turns out, according to the BackStory podcast, our collective amnesia came on a little more recently than you'd think. A lot of what we believe about Columbus comes from Washington "Yes-That-Washington-Irving" Irving. Seems he set out to translate Columbus' diaries, but realized the task would take more years than he planned to live. Instead, he decided to write a narrative. And it seems that even back in 1828, American were starting to feel a little self-conscious about the whole killing off 90% of the native population thing. So Irving maybe did a little creative pruning. He acknowledged the atrocities, but placed the guilt on the king and Columbus' crooked cronies. 
Columbus wasn't the only beneficiary of a little literary reputation boost. Seems Paul Revere's fame isn't due so much to his heroism as to the fact that his last name rhymes with a lot of things. A bit before the Civil War, Longfellow decided to try his hand at propaganda with his poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Paul Revere did participate in a midnight ride, but he, in the words of a Cracked article, "took a break from starting America by stopping at a pub." That's where the British busted him and he went down without a fight, leaving the other 39 guys (yep, there were 39 other guys) to actually do the job. It was Longfellow's poem that recast Revere as the star of the story.
Other historical figures who don't get the credit / blame that they deserve include:

  • Marie Antoinette probably didn't say let them eat cake. The sentence first appeared in print when Antoinette was just ten, and wasn't attributed to her.
  • Pope Joan was supposedly a woman who posed as a man so that she could become pope. Legend has it that she was only found out when she gave birth on the steps of the Vatican (before that they just thought she was a watermelon thief). She probably never existed. 
  • Betsy Ross most probably didn't create an American flag.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Lillian Virginia Mountweazel was a renowned fountain designer turned photographer, famous for her definitive work on American mailbox photography, a book titled Flags Up! Mountweazel's life was cut tragically short in 1973 when, on assignment for Combustibles magazine, she exploded. 
Lillian Virginia Mountweazel is a copyright trap. She's a made-up person who was included in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia so that, should Mountweazel show up in any other reference book, then the New Columbia would be able to prove plagiarism. 
If the idea of filthy lies in reference books fills you with righteous indignation, don't write that scathing letter to New Columbia just yet. 
Mountweazeling, as I've just decided we're going to call it, is a tradition that goes back a very long way.
The tradition probably begins with maps, which have included false entries, sometimes called paper towns, for centuries. One such town was Agloe, New York, first hidden in Esso road maps by mapmakers Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers in the early '30s. The town, its name an anagram for the initials of the mapmakers, began appearing on other maps in the 1940s. Esso threatened to sue another mapmaker in 1952, only to discover that Agloe had become a real place when they weren't looking - someone had erected the Agloe General Store at the spot, prompting a county administrator to declare Agloe a real town. The general store went out of business some years ago, and the town of Agloe disappeared along with it.
Fred L Worth was tipped off that Trivial Pursuit had borrowed facts from several trivia books he'd written when a clue repeated his false claim that Columbo's first name was Phillip. It turned out that Trivia Pursuit had used Worth's books so liberally that they'd copied over some of his typos. Worth lost the lawsuit he filed against them based on Trivial Pursuit's claim that copying verbatim was just "doing research."

Information for this post came from The Allusionist, Mental Floss, The New Yorker, and Omnictionary.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Boys don't cry

DThis Idea Must Die is a compilation of essays by great scientists and science communicators about scientific ideas that they believe are blocking scientific progress. Seems string theory is on its way out, which is good, because I never understood it to begin with. Another idea that scientists would like to eliminate: essentialism.  
Essentialism, as neuroscientist Lisa Barrett puts it, "is the belief that familiar categories - dogs and cats, space and time, emotions and thought - each have an underlying essence that makes the what they are."
Essentialism leads us to believe that there's some fundamental difference between races when science tells us that we're all a complicated mix of races descended from a couple hundred thousand folks in Africa 70,000 years back - not enough time to evolve differences that are any more than skin deep. 
I think essentialism is at the heart of why people try to force all these crazy and arbitrary rules about gender down the throats of children. People dress baby girls up in a dizzying array of pink and purple and sparkles, paint their boys' rooms with blue and sportsballs. We have this notion that pink is essentially feminine, yet a hundred years ago it was the opposite - pink was a "strong" color suitable for boys, and blue was dainty and delicate like girls.
We flip out over a dude wearing panties, but in Victorian times, any kind of bifurcated undergarment was scandalously masculine. In centuries past, it was men who wore the panties, makeup, lace, high heels. Now a man in high heels is an abomination, putting an infant boy in lace will confuse him for life. Though it didn't seem to harm the pretty princess pictured below - on account of the fact that she grew up to be FDR - back in the day, this was a perfectly acceptable outfit for a boy.

I think it's essentialism that drives trans teens to suicide. Essentialism makes us pay more attention when black people riot than when white people do - it is black people, essentialism informs us, who are more violent, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lost in translation: vowel edition

I've bee pronouncing Björk wrong. Turns out. Apparently that umlaut makes the o into an e, so it's pronounced b-y-erk (bjɜrk). 
I may be saying her name wrong,
but she is using swans wrong, and that's the real crime.
Another word I pronounced incorrectly for an embarrassingly long time is Phở. Pho, otherwise known (in my house) as soup of the gods, is a Vietnamese soup, and it's supposed to be pronounced like phah
I recently heard that oolong tea is pronounced wulong, but I'm not sold on that one. As some posters point out on this site, it's not really pronounced exactly like oolong or wulong, it's Chinese, so no matter how you pronounce it, you're probably pronouncing it wrong (also, apparently there are oolong discussion forums with boards devoted entirely to the pronunciation thereof).
Tolkien. Seems the second syllable is stressed and pronounced like a long e. I know this, but intentionally pronounce it with the short i sound because it doesn't feel right in my mouth and it makes people look at me like I'm some sort of geek poser who doesn't even know how to pronounce the name of the guy who wrote our Bible. 
Seuss. I just found this out on Mental Floss. Seems a friend of the good doctor made up a rhyme to demonstrate the correct pronunciation: 
"You’re wrong as the deuce/And you shouldn’t rejoice/

If you’re calling him Seuss/He pronounces it Soice"
Also, while it's okay to pronounce fungi with a long i at the end, in Latin, the word would be pronounced with a long e sound - fungee. Why? Well because ae makes the long i sound, silly. Also, I have no idea how we know how any Latin words are actually pronounced, what with all its original speakers being dead. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Smear campaign

Drop everything. The word literally is a metaphor. In the book I Is an Other by James Geary, we learn that actually, half or more of the words we use started life as metaphors.
See, literally comes from litera, Latin for letter. As in too the letter. The word litera, in turn, comes from the Latin linire, which means to smear. This comes all the way from when writers began to "smear" ink on parchment instead of carving them into wood or stone. 
Linera, by the way, is related to liniment, which you smear on your body. 
The salesman assured me that this was
"probably still good."
Sir, I have chewed the gum out of a 30-year-old
pack of trading cards, and you could not pay me
to open this bottle.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

And the geek shall inherit the earth

Neil Gaiman is sort of like a literary rock star these days, with bestselling books on the shelves, successful films based on his work, and a fancy pants HBO series based on his book American Gods coming not-soon-enough to a TV near you. 
Most recently, he's published a book of short stories that I've just started reading titled Trigger Warning. The title, and his reasons for choosing it, are pretty fascinating.
In the book's introduction Gaiman says he first encountered the term trigger warning online, where it is often used on message boards, in blog posts, etc., when the subject under discussion might trigger flashbacks or panic attacks in people suffering from, say, PTSD. Of late, Gaiman says, he's heard arguments that literature, or even college classes, should come with trigger warnings. He says he's kind of drawn to the idea. "Of course," he says, "you want to let people who might be distressed know that this might distress them." However, he concludes that while the idea's tempting, books for adults should be read with no warning other than "enter at your own risk."
I like that Gaiman has made his argument without sneering or trivializing. Some argue that the whole concept of trigger warnings is, as the most popular definition on puts it,  "to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive... causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit." 
I have mixed feelings on the idea of the trigger warning. To me, trying to avoid every thing that could possibly set you off is a bit like painting a target on your own back; as Richard McNally, psych professor writing for the Pacific Standard puts it, "avoidance reinforces PTSD." 
I think that in the end, my opinion on trigger warnings is that the burden should be on the person trying to avoid the triggers, rather than the person providing the content that might be triggering. There's a whole Internet full of trigger warnings if you want them - there's even a website called Does the Dog Die? for people who can't deal with dead puppies, even if they're only pretend-dead (I find this particular aversion sort of absurd, but considering I generally run out of the room in tears upon encountering someone in a mascot suit, I really don't have the right to judge). 
My experience is that the only person you can or should trust with your mental and emotional well-being is you. No matter how carefully you craft your environment, there's always the risk of mascots lurking around the corner.
The Cleveland Zoo

Sunday, May 3, 2015

One is the loneliest number

A few fun facts about books with numerical names:

The title of Fahrenheit 451 was not, as some have said, the temperature at which paper burns. Paper burns when it is on fire; it doesn't really care what the temperature is. In fact, Bradbury chose the name because that temperature is the one at which paper will catch fire without being exposed to a flame. Which, actually, is also wrong - though the auto-ignition point of paper varies widely based on the paper, 451 is probably at least 30 degrees too cold. All of which is kind of moot, since the firemen in the book had flamethrowers, meaning the paper didn't have to auto-ignite, meaning that the paper burned when it was on fire, and it didn't really care what the temperature was.
According to Wikipedia, about fifteen years after its publication, the book's publisher began phasing out the original version of the book, replacing it with expurgated versions that, at various times, censored the words hell, damn, abortion, navel, and drunk. I have to assume someone at that publishing house is a huge fan of irony.

Slaughterhouse 5 isn't the fourth sequel in an '80s horror movie franchise, but the name of the actual Dresden slaughterhouse where Kurt Vonnegut was held as a POW during the Allies' firebombing of that city. How awful it must have been, to have suffered God knows what at the hands of the Nazis, all the while being bombarded by his own country. No wonder Vonnegut was so damned cynical. 
Slaughterhouse 5 tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes "unstuck in time" while a POW in Dresden. Through a series of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sidewayses that put the creators of Lost to shame, we see the story of a man lost and wandering, living a life at times surreal and at times utterly mundane. But again and again he revisits Dresden, quite against his will. Funny that a crazy sci-fi/fantasy mish-mosh of disjointed scenes can so beautifully illustrate the effects of war on the people who live through it.

From one war to a much earlier one: I saw a production of Shakespeare's Richard III once. I'm sure there were a plot and characters and sets and stuff, but literally all I remember is how painfully awful the actor who played Richard was at pretending to be a deformed hunchback. It was George Clooney as Batman bad. It was like sitting through Les Mis, but with Russel Crowe playing all the roles.
The real Richard III, historians are almost certain, was found a couple years ago under a car park in Leicester. The ruler met his end at the battle of Bosworth, when an enemy soldier apparently liberated his brain from his skull. The kingly remains were reinterred in March. This prompted a BBC radio commentator to suggest that they make a yearly celebration of his exhumation and reburial - every February, they should dig his body up again, and if he sees his shadow - six more weeks of the winter of our discontent. Sounds like a plan. 

Also, Aimee Mann was the lead singer of 'Til Tuesday. And when I was a kid I thought the lyrics were "In a church/deep in downtown/this is scary." 
The fact that she got rid of that hair is tragic. Tragic.

If you were trying to figure out where the hell that came from, Aimee Mann covered One is the Loneliest Number on the Magnolia soundtrack. And if you're still reading, you might like to know that I just fell down a YouTube black hole for like 20 minutes watching Community outtakes. Which, if you're really interested, came about because I was considering also posting a clip from Community that features an Aimee Mann song, but decided it was too offensive without context. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

ain’t we never gonna see the light

I wrote the following exactly ten years ago yesterday, when I was still working at the group home.
One of the clients had been telling me how the saddest thing he ever saw was John John saluting the flag on JFK's coffin. And I'm sure I've heard a million people say that, but it stuck with me, because it was one of the few lucid things I'd ever heard this client say. I mentioned what I'd said to my third shift coworker and he said "It was the saddest thing I ever seen too." He told me, "Brigid, you don't know what it was like back then. They was killing people on TV. I was in music class playing the drums, and the music teacher ran out the room, then ran back in and shouted that Kennedy had been shot, and we all went home from school early. And we was walking home, and they was all saying that he can't be dead. 'He's Kennedy, man, he'll be okay.' But then we saw the older kids crying and we knew he was dead."
"The next day," he said, "they were transferring Oswald and it was on TV. And then all a sudden Jack Ruby came outta nowhere and he said 'bang!' and Oswald keeled over. Right on TV when everyone was watching.
"It was a love affair with Kennedy, man. When the Russians had their missiles in Cuba, for a few weeks there we were all sure it was gonna be bombs and it was gonna be the end. But then Kennedy said he'd take you all down with him and he saved us all.
"Then they shot Bobby on TV. It was like, at least we still had Bobby, and then they shot him down too."
"But first, there was Dr. King. Brigid, Akron was on fire, and it was nothing compared to Baltimore or Philly or Watts or Detroit, but Akron was on fire. At West High School, it was about 70-30 black to white, and we all got called into homeroom. And the teachers said 'the following students can go home early.' And then they read off the names of all the white kids and sent them home early and Brigid, I don't blame them. We was on fire." 
It all seemed so far away. It seemed like we had come so far. But last week I watched on TV as a white South Carolina cop shot a fleeing black suspect in the back - watched a man die from my sofa. 
I heard a black man who had just been shot say "Oh my god, I'm losing my breath," and heard a cop respond "Fuck your breath" as he lay dying, a cop kneeling on his head.
Last week, I watched the trial of the cop who shot Rekia Boyd, a woman who was guilty only of standing too near a man whom the cop thought was holding a gun (he wasn't). I watched that officer get acquitted of involuntary manslaughter because the judge said he should have been charged with first degree murder. The officer was found not guilty because he was too guilty, and he cannot be retried. 
I watched cops try to claim that Freddie Gray severed his own spine, suicide by spite.
And I've watched people, some of whom I used to respect, write off these crushing injustices, these inexcusable deaths because unrelated third parties are rioting. Saying it's okay that these black people died because those black people over there are doing the wrong thing. 
Thing is, you can only hold that pot over a fire for so long before it boils over. They're killing people on TV. And we're changing the channel. 

Title is a line from Nikki Giovanni's The Great Pax Whitie.