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, June 28, 2015


Everybody knows that when your ears burn, it means that someone' talking about you behind your back. Or your head's on fire. Or that mid-life crisis piercing you got is infected and you should probably get that looked at. But how do we know that burning ears means gossip? Because the ancient Romans told us so. Pliny and Plautus to be specific. They explained it down to the individual ear - since the left is evil and the right good, a burning left ear means people are saying bad things, and a burning right ear means good.
If your palm itches, you're coming into money. Or that's what they say... I call shenanigans. If it were true, I'd be loaded, on account of I've had eczema all my life. This goes back to at least Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), but it's clear from the context that the belief was already well-established. 
A sudden, unexplained chill is said to be the result of a goose walking over your grave. Meaning that wherever your final resting place is, there's a goose on it. Swift (Jonathan, not Taylor) said "there's somebody walking over my grave" in the 1700s. This doesn't seem to be related to goosebumps, which got their name from the fact that they make your skin resemble a plucked goose. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lift every voice

And so the Confederate flags are coming down across the nation and stores are refusing to sell them. But oddly enough, I don't want to see them banned. Or rather, I don't want the government to have to ban them.
I want to see the sane majority of this nation peacefully but publicly call out those who wave the flag until flying it is the public shame it should be. I want us to turn our backs on every politician who is in favor of, or neutral to the flag, so that embracing a racist symbol is the political suicide it should be. I want us to boycott people who sell the flag right out of business. I want us to scream about justice so loud that nobody can hear the racists over the din. I want us to call out racism wherever we see it until racists are shamed into keeping their mouths shut and into no longer poisoning other people with their hatred.
There are more of us than them. It is time to stop being polite, stop being afraid, and stop being quiet. Dr. King tells us that "the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people." We must not be silent. We must not be complacent. Some of us made the mistake of thinking the battle over civil rights was done once, but the racists never stopped fighting. 
Yeats wrote these words a long time ago, but we've allowed the prophecy to come true:
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
We've got to change that. We've got to change the nation and change history.  We can do this. We must do this. We have good on our side. We have love on our side. 
Lift every voice and sing 
Till earth and heaven ring 
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; 
let our rejoicing rise, 
high as the listening skies, 
let it resound loud as the rolling sea
sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of a new day begun, 
let us march on till victory is won.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Others' bodies

If you're not listening to Nate DiMeo's The Memory Palace, I'd highly recommend it. You can listen to it online by going to the website or downloading it on iTunes.
In one episode entitled Other Bodies, he spoke of Jean Froman, a singer whose career began in the early 20th century. Feel free to play this as a musical backdrop to the rest of the post. 

Froman was a gorgeous woman with a voice to match, but this post isn't about that. It's about the excruciating pain she suffered for the rest of her life after a deadly plane crash. 
DiMeo reflects on pain, and people who live with it. He says that this is the way pain works, when it exists in other people's bodies: "When a running back jukes left, we don't know... the pain, we just see the four yard gain... We don't know our neighbor's lupus. Or seem to be able to remember our [loved ones'] pain, even though it's with them all the time, and that it's all they'd really want to talk about if anyone wanted to hear. The best we can do is try to imagine, and remember."
Artist Frida Kahlo had polio as a child. She recovered, but as a teen she was in a bus accident that broke her spinal column and dozens of bones. A handrail pierced her abdomen and exited her body through her vagina. The accident left her in terrible pain and without the ability to carry a baby to term. She had dozens of surgeries, including the amputation of a leg later in her life. Some art historians have speculated that Kahlo may have been playing her pain up, insisting on surgeries she didn't actually need, all to control her husband, artist Diego Rivera. That is the way with other people's pain as well sometimes - especially for women. When we don't want to feel empathy for someone, or when we don't want to have to even imagine what they're going through, sometimes we decide that the pain must not really be there. That it's all in the sufferer's mind. That if we survived polio and 35 surgeries and 3 miscarriages and a body full of shattered bones, we'd just suck it up and not burden other people with it. 
Victor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who spent three years in concentration camps during the Holocaust. There he suffered pain and torture worse that the worst pain a person could possibly imagine. Later he would write Man's Search for Meaning, a book read by tens of millions of people the world over. In it, he writes of a forced march in the freezing cold that caused him the following realization:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets... that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
Because sometimes, just sometimes, this is how pain in other people's bodies works. It gives them insight and the wisdom that allows them to be a light in the darkness for tens of millions of people in pain, long after their own body is gone.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Call a thing what it is

Do not blame evil on mental illness. It's a fun fantasy to believe that we can stop murderers from becoming murderers with Prozac and group hugs, but the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of mass murderers have NO diagnosable mental illness, and people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators
Racism is not a mental illness. Evil is not a mental illness. Hate is not a mental illness. "The mentally ill" did not commit this crime, nor do we deserve to be marginalized and slandered in the press for it. 
This mental illness smokescreen is yet another ploy - lets us point our fingers at "those people," rather than examine the racism, hatred, and hypocrisy in our own hearts. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Conjectures of a guilty bystander

When it comes to the deaths of black Americans at the hands of cops, I've felt pretty helpless. On the Media did a good story about the best ways to film police interactions. Journalist Carlos Miller gave the following tips:

  • Shoot in landscape mode - it films a larger area. 
  • Learn to edit videos - shorter is more impactful and people are more likely to watch. 
  • Be as quiet as possible so that the audio of the scene is caught.
  • Use an app (such as CopWatch) that uploads video as soon as you take it so if something happens to your phone, the video is preserved.
Miller's website, Photography Is Not a Crime, actually has a section for videos of police doing the right thing. He points out that while nobody likes being filmed at work, cops doing their jobs as they should don't need to worry.
Miller states that you do have the first-amendment right to film police interactions as long as you're not getting in their way. That doesn't mean they won't try to stop you, he points out. But a 14-year-old white kid in McKinney had the guts to do it.

Mother Emanuel Hope Fund 
c/o City of Charleston 
Post Office Box 304 
Charleston, SC 29402 

“Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.” ~Thomas Merton

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Don't you get weary

The Confederate battle flag continues to fly at full staff over the South Carolina statehouse, even as politicians stand beneath it condemning the murders Emanuel AME Church. Folks defend the flag with words like "tradition," but it is worth noting that the flag over the statehouse is not the flag of the Confederate States of America. It's the battle flag of the Confederate army - it was a flag designed to send the message "we are prepared to kill for our right to harm black people."
No one's saying the flag is to blame, but it's a pretty perfect emblem of the disease that seems to have settled over the country - the one that causes people to insist that racism is dead, while proof of our racism flaps proudly overhead. 
A Post-Racial America

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

New and Improved!

In celebration of Miriam-Webster's finally adding photobomb to the dictionary, here are a few of my favorites, labeled by genre.

The "soon..."

The doggy style

Celebrity photobomb

Reaction photobomb

Costume photobomb
The when you see it... (give it a minute)

Seal bomb

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fun with fallacies: PCU

Jerry Seinfeld isn't the only comedian complaining about college students and their insistence on what they call "political correctness." Chris Rock and Larry the Cable Guy don't play colleges anymore either, although they seem to think it's a much more recent phenomenon than it is:  

And yeah, sure. College kids are way too easily offended. Which I think may be a sign that colleges are doing their jobs. 
So, there's this NOFX song, Franco Un-American that contains these lyrics:
I never looked around, never second-guessedThen I read some Howard Zinn now I'm always depressedAnd now I can't sleep from years of apathyAll because I read a little Noam Chomsky

NOFX is making fun, obviously, but I think we've all kind of been there. After I read A People's History of the United States I was livid and horrified and a better person for it.
Thing is, college campuses are full of people who just read Howard Zinn. And Betty Friedan and bell hooks. They're coming out into the light and their eyes are burning. That little rape joke might sneak past feminists in the real world, but you're gonna have a hard time if even a handful of your audience members just looked at some crime scene photos in their sex crimes class. And maybe the dig about homosexuality isn't actually that bad, but it's going to seem that way to anyone who just read a detailed description of the consequences for being gay in Uganda. College students are hyper-sensitive because everything's fresh and raw and kind of terrifying. If the college is doing its job anyway.
Jerry Seinfeld said that young people today are oversensitive because they don't know what real racism is (tell that to the kids in Texas, Jerry). He says they don't know what sexism is. I disagree. I think they're oversensitive because they just found out exactly what real sexism is.
So maybe gazillionare Seinfeld is right to be upset that he's not relevant to college kids. But I like what John Hodgman has to say about political correctness: “I will say that the ‘PC’ critiques, even at their most infuriating to me, almost always make me think and yes check my privilege…I am glad to give these issues thought. It enlarges me.”

Britta - or as she's known in our house
"College Brigid"

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Take my aging comedian, please!

In a recent interview, Seinfeld complained that he doesn't play colleges because they're all too PC. And I'm not sure he's completely wrong. And then he repeated the joke that he said people were needlessly offended by.
Seems he observed that kids these days are always on their smart phones scrolling through their friends like a gay french king.
Is it maybe possible that they're offended by how incredibly lame that joke is? "How about these phones these days? All these kids with the texting and the downloading! And gays! Do they even know how to wrist?" 
I'm just saying that when you're delivering humor as cutting edge and original as the opening act at a Poconos Indian Casino, then you don't get to be surprised when the only people listening are people with no sense of humor. To meet dated humor with dated humor, what's the deal with your being a whiny twat?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fun with fallacies: false consensus effect

On a recent episode of This American Life, famous person John Hodgman stated that he has spent the last several years posing a simple question to people he meets: flight or invisibility? If you could choose between the two, which would you pick? If you picked invisibility, you can disappear at will, though you can't turn other stuff invisible. If you pick flight, you can fly.
Hodgman invited several folks to share their choice on the air. One of these guests gave the following great example of the false consensus effect:
First of all, I think that a lot of people are going to tell you that they would choose flight, and I think they're lying to you. I think they're saying that because they're trying to sound all mythic and heroic...
 But I think actually... they all want to be invisible so that they can shoplift, get into movies for free, go to exotic places on airplanes without paying for airline tickets, and watch celebrities have sex.
The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that leads people to assume that the majority of people share your beliefs and those who don't are defective. This lady figures that because she has no better use for a superpower than petty theft, everyone, given the chance, would use their power to avoid spending $10 on a movie.
The false consensus effect is what makes your uncle George to keep sending you OMG OBAMA IS MUSLIM ANTICRIST AND WANTS TO ENSLAVE WHITE PEOPLE!!!1!! emails.
The false consensus effect is why that guy in the bar that you just met thinks it's okay to tell you that alarmingly racist joke.

Side-note: This one time I'm in line at McDonald's and the guy behind me starts bitching to me about how slow they are and how it's because they have too many women working. Uh... did you really think I'd be with you on this, buddy? 

Another perfect illustration of the false consensus effect: on another episode of This American Life, they ran an interview in which the interviewee was chomping on mother freaking potato chips the entire interview. I literally threw my headphones and was livid. I immediately started composing an enraged letter about what horrible monsters these people were. I was projecting my own visceral hatred of chewing noises and concluding that anyone who would think it was okay to broadcast chewing must be a horrible person.
But seriously, who freaking doesn't tell the interview subject to put down the damn chips for five minutes? Savages.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Litmus, I've just learned, is a mixture of lichen dyes (in related news, there are lichen dyes), that have been used to test acidity since the 14th century. You may remember using this to test your spit in chemistry class. 

Metaphorically speaking, this can refer to a single question whose answer allows the asker to draw a broad conclusion. According to The Grammarist, people began using this term in a metaphorical around the 1950s. The example that the Grammarist represents my new words to live by:
For instance, if experience shows that you get along with people who like cats and that you clash with those who don’t, then you might perform a litmus test on people you meet by asking whether they like cats. Those who say no are not qualified to be your friends—no analysis or additional questions necessary.
Each year, computer scientists get together to perform a specific kind of litmus test - the Turing test. The late Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a computer could think. The super-simple version - one person and one computer would hold an on-screen conversation. If, after five minutes, the observer can't tell which is the human and which is the computer, the machine can be said to be "thinking." Some scientists now propose to use this litmus test to determine whether we've achieved true artificial intelligence. So far, no dice, which is just as well, considering I've just come from seeing Avengers, Age of Ultron and would prefer not to be murdered by a sentient robot, thank you.
Another type of litmus test is the Bechdel test. In this test, proposed in the Alison Bechdel cartoon shown below, a movie must have two female characters who have a conversation with each other about something other than men:
"Dykes to Watch Out For (Bechdel test origin)" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
This test doesn't actually make a great gauge of whether any one movie is sexist - Interstellar fails, while 50 Shades passes. But it is shocking to see just how few movies actually do pass this test - only 3 of the 2014 Oscar nominees managed it. Only 4 of the last 14 Pixar films pass. This despite the fact that a 2013 study found that movies that pass the test do better at the box office. So while the Bechdel test might not be a great litmus test for determining whether an individual move's worth watching, it is a decent litmus test for determining the value that Hollywood places on relationships between women. 

And you thought litmus tests were just for spit.