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, August 30, 2015

Things that go bump

Horrific as changeling and body-snatcher myths are, they were, in their time, far less scary than just not knowing. I mean, imagine you're a mom in the Philippines in the 1800s - you put a healthy baby to bed, and he never wakes up. You don't know what SIDS is, much less how to prevent it - all you know is that your grinning, perfect baby has been replaced by a body. You don't understand why miscarriage happens. So you come up with a story about a fiend who sucks fetuses out of their mothers and steals babies from their beds. And then you build into the myth some charms and wards so that you don't have to feel totally helpless. 
The changeling myth is actually somewhat kinder. When the fairies stole a child, they generally took good care of it. And how did humans repay this? Set the fairy babies on fire. Gratitude. 
Folklore has always tried to fill the vacuum in humanity's understanding of life and death. 
TB is a horrible disease. It was called consumption because folks had to simply watch the disease consume their loved one over the course of months or even years, until they were too thin to stand and too weak to breathe. Nobody knew what caused it, what caused some to survive longer than others, or how to treat it. To fill the void of understanding, some folks naturally concluded vampires. They do consume people under cover of darkness while everyone's asleep, after all. There used to be these vampire panics where people would start digging up dead people and setting fire to their hearts. When, in 1892, it became clear that Edwin Brown's consumption was going to kill him as it had his mother and two sisters, his neighbors knew just what to do. They dug up his mom and sisters, and based on the decomposition of the bodies, determined that his sister Mercy Brown had been the vampire. So they cut out her heart, burned it, and made Edwin drink a potion laced with the ashes. He died two month later. The kicker - science had known for ten years that a bacillus called  M. tuberculosis caused the disease, but the people in Edwin's Rhode Island town hadn't yet gotten the memo. 

Yeah, old timey people sure were dumb... maybe even slightly dumber than us. I mean, taking shark supplements to treat cancer is way less horrific than drinking the heart of your dead sister to treat consumption, but it's equally pointless. Although Mercy Brown, on account of being dead, actually was now immune to consumption (unlike sharks, which totally do get cancer), so old timey folks do have us there. We don't know exactly why some people get cancers and others don't, so we make up potions of protection. 
We don't know why autism exists, so we invent this bug bear, Big Pharma, that is magically strong enough to silence every scientific institution on the planet, but not strong enough to silence random b-list celebrities. And actually, denying our children vaccines is similar to holding the proverbial changeling over the fire. Except when you don't vaccinate your own kids, you're not just holding your own children over the fire, but every unvaccinated and immuno-compromised child they meet as well. Okay, maybe old timey people don't have the corner market on crazy.
You think you know fear?

(Woah, I just realized something. Old timey people believed that cats could steal babies' breath. And actually, though rare, it is possible for a cat to "snuggle" a newborn to death... effectively stealing its breath.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The monster at the end of this blog

Introducing the Aswang, the most terrifying ghoul in all of folklore and proof that Filipino parents are the most terrifying parents in all of parentlore. 
The least scary image of the Aswang
I could find, because my mom reads
this blog, and is kind of a fraidy-cat.
You're welcome, mom.
While the lore varies as lore is wont to do, the aswang is undead and feeds on children's flesh. By night, she is a wraith, thin enough to hide behind a bamboo pole and with feet that face backward. Some say she makes noises that grow quieter the closer she gets. Unlike a vampire, who at least has the decency to be dead for half the day, she can day walk and appears normal, if a bit shy. Horrified yet? No? When she learns of a pregnant woman, the Aswang will sneak up on her while she sleeps and suck the fetus out through her belly button. She steals babies from their cribs and children from the streets, and in their place she leaves an identical replacement made of banana tree trunks and leaves which gets sick and dies after a few days. And where do Filipino parents come in? It's common to threaten misbehaving children with this waking nightmare. And I thought my parents were mean when they threatened me with coal in my stocking. 
The banana baby is far from the only impostor in mythology. Apparently, the fear that our loved ones have been replaced is universal. 
The changeling appears all over European mythology. In Ireland, looking at a baby or its mother with envy might put the baby in the faeries' sights, and they might come and replace the baby with a síofra - a changeling child. To try and fool the changeling child, you could cook in eggshells or lay eggshells near a fire, which would cause the changeling to reveal its true age. If that didn't work, you could always toss your baby in the fire, because maybe Filipino parents don't have the corner market on horror after all.
In Sweden, you might only have to pretend to murder the bortbytingen if it has replaced your child. You can avoid having your unbaptized baby swapped by placing iron or steel near it. If you fail to do so, however, you might be able to get your little one back by just beating the crap out of the kid or threatening to throw it in a fire. 

Get it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

At least it's not another serial killer?

Last week, Ohio governor John Kasich became the latest Ohioan to give my home state a bad name when he said "If I were King of America, I would abolish all teachers' lounges, where they sit together and worry about 'woe is us.'"
I'm kind of at a loss as to how to respond. I mean, I could tell you that collectively, teachers have literally the most important job in the world, but I don't think I know anyone who doesn't know this to be true. The doctor who saved your life is a doctor because her 5th grade teacher got her hooked on science and her biology teacher recognized her potential and her physics teacher refused to let her give up. The people who keep planes in the air, food on our tables, and nuclear power plants from melting down know how to do this because they had teachers. 
I could tell you that teachers are essential to keeping our streets safe, but you could probably deduce that. Did you know that if a kid isn't reading at grade level when they're 10, they're four times less likely to finish high school? And that high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to end up in prison than folks with college degrees? That means teachers may be the only people standing between a kid and a life of crime. Does Kasich not have access to this information? Maybe his teachers never taught him statistics. Or how to read. No wonder he has a vendetta against them.
He's gotta know that the teachers' lounge doesn't begin to live up to its name. As several teachers have pointed out, lounging is just about the last thing going on in a teachers' lounge. The teachers' lounge, if it exists at all, is where teachers go to scarf down a tuna fish sandwich on their 20 minute (if they're lucky) lunch break. To grade homework and tests. To write letters of recommendation and critique students' college entrance exams. Teachers don't even get to lounge around at home, what with all the grading and Googling to make sure the kids aren't cheating and the migraines and the lesson plans. But you don't have to be a genius to figure out that teachers have way more work to do than could possibly be done in an 8 hour day. You just have to be smarter than John Kasich, apparently. 
Teaching is just about the most thankless job on earth. Teaching is long hours and bratty kids and fights in the hallway and a million billion proficiency tests. Teaching is being exposed to every childhood disease imaginable and having to work sick. Teaching is a lack of bathroom breaks and a wealth of indignant parents. Teaching is hard as hell and doesn't pay nearly enough. 
But you probably already knew that. Why doesn't Kasich know that?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Its, It's, Itz?

Every language has its own little tics, its idiosyncrasies, and I hate it. Or at least, I hate that there's no way to know why the Spanish decided to roll their r sounds, why the Irish practically sing when they talk, who decided that clicking noises got to be words, or what it is with German and Yiddish and the itz sound. 
Spritz comes from Yiddish, which got it from German, probably from the proto-Germanic sprut, meaning sprout
My dad used to swim at the JCC, which is how it is that nobody in my family sweats - why would you sweat when you can shvitz? In fact, I don't understand why the Yiddish word shvitz hasn't jumped all the way into the English language. I think we'd all exercise more. Shvitz isn't related to spritz, even though sweat does sort of sprout. Shvitz is from the German schwitzen, going back to the Proto-Indo-European swoyd, meaning sweat
Lenny Kravitz doesn't look too much like his dad Sy Kravitz (though luckily for all of us, Lenny Kravitz looks even less like his cousin Al Roker - yes, really). 

The name Kravitz, tells me, is from the Slavic kravets, meaning tailor, which is freaking awesome considering that his character in The Hunger Games is a tailor. Dude. If only he'd used his tailoring skills on his leather pants in a concert earlier this month...  
Are you so glad that this was the image I chose to go with?
When César Ritz built the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, he probably never imagined that the name would literally become synonymous with luxury. The name Ritz, according to, is a short form of the name Rizo, itself a nickname for RichardRichard, the Internet informs me, is derived from the Germanic ric, meaning ruler, and hard, meaning hard
Ritz Crackers were not invented by the Ritz hotel chain, nor did they steal their name from the Ritz Hotel chain at all (and if you believe that, I've got a Baby Ruth to sell you). In my house we had Hits crackers, which my Gram insisted were Just As Good™. I am sure the similarity of the names was purely coincidental. Same goes for the packaging. And the cracker itself.
BTW, God help you if my Gram sent you
for Hits crackers and you came home with
Ritz Crackers. Do you think we're made out
of fancy cracker money?

"Puttin' on the ritz" was already a popular expression when Irving Berlin wrote the song that would later become German pop star Taco's greatest hit. 
Can't imagine why every girl in the '80s didn't have this
poster on her wall...

Berlin's song was first written in 1927, but the Taco version released in 1983 made Berlin, then 95, the oldest man ever to make the Billboard top 100. Then I fell down a click-hole in which I discovered that Taco's 1983 video for the song included a deeply alarming amount of black face, which was later censored out with judicious use of cheesy 80s blur effects and still photographs of Gary Cooper's face. 
This WTF moment brought to you by Germans. Congrats, Germany, you made it weird.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Our flag was still there

The travel writer Rick Steves was asked once what qualities were "uniquely American." Steves replied that maybe the only thing that's uniquely American is the fact that we all believe we're unique.
But a recent layover in the Atlanta airport made me wonder. I think we are unique in something else. I think we are unique in our fear. We have a special brand of fear and it kind of scares the crap out of me. 
We're the most well-armed nation on earth - 8 guns for every 10 of us. And we're right to be afraid because our murder rate's more than 10 times Japan's, almost 5 times that of the UK, yet we stockpile arsenals in our our panic rooms because we're terrified of the government coming for our guns like it did in those dystopian hellholes and we're having none of it. We need our guns to protect our neighborhoods for brown people with skittles and loud music and toy guns. 
We pay cops to be calm when the rest of us our terrified, to have control when the rest of us lose it. Yet a judge found a Cleveland cop not guilty of murder when he unloaded 15 rounds into 2 unarmed suspects, kept shooting even after they were dead. Why wasn't he guilty? Because he was afraid. He was afraid of the two corpses in the front seat and that's just fine.
We have some of the best doctors and hospitals on earth, but we've made doctors afraid to treat us because we'll sue their lab coats off. We've got the tools to keep our kids safe but we choose not to because we're terrified that eradicating deadly diseases is all a conspiracy to make our kids sick.
At the airport, I smelled the sweat of a family from a country whose fear of germs doesn't require punishing ablutions that probably only make us sicker. They're not terrified of being outcast because they smell like human beings are supposed to smell.
I saw walls of bottled water because we're afraid of the water that comes out of our taps. With rare exceptions, our water is some of the cleanest on the planet - cholera and parasites and dysentery are as foreign to us as the bubonic plague. Clean water is so cheap and plentiful that we're farming the desert and yet we pay $3 for water from some other tap.
At a magazine stand I saw a wall of white faces and perfect bodies because we're terrified of diversity. Too many black faces on our magazine covers make racists fear they're being eclipsed and the magazine editors are afraid of the money they'll lose racist dollars. 
The bookstores are full of books about ISIL, Boko Haram, the brown menace du jour is coming for us.   

You know, everybody throws a fit about the fact that a few of us want to take under God out of the pledge... maybe we should focus less on under God and more on indivisible and with justice for all. Because we make our kids intone that lie every morning, and I don't even know what justice for all even looks like. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Who's a good boy?

Well here we are in the dog days of summer, which seems as good an excuse as any to talk about what the dog days of summer are, and how that odd expression came to be. Dog days are the hottest days of the summer, which are typically in July or August. The expression comes from the ancient Greek belief that the constellation Sirius, which first appears in the early morning skies at the end of July, brought the hot weather with it.  
If you say you're seeing a man about a dog, chances are you're leaving the company you're in for a reason you don't want to give your real reason for doing so. This comes from dog racing, but how it came to be grandpa's favorite euphemism for peeing is anybody's guess. Try asking your grandfather.
Doggerel refers to the crap I spent the majority of my teen years scribbling in my journal - terrible poetry. The online etymology dictionary's best guess is that the word originally referred to something that was only fit for a dog. Which is ironic because dogs hate my poetry. 
The term underdog probably comes from dog fighting, referring to the dog that is literally or figuratively on the bottom. Which makes me like the word underdog a hell of a lot less.

Back in high school, I took comparative anatomy as part of a careful plan to avoid having to take physics my senior year. Because if there was one subject I excelled at back in the day, it was avoiding learning things. But I digress as usual. The first critter in the dissection pan in that class was the dogfish shark. One day, I will tell you the tale of what a gutted shark smells like after you've been digging around in it for six weeks, but for now I'll just tell you that I'm proud to say I only puked once. Now the dogfish shark didn't look much like a dog, but it turns out it got its name because it hunts in packs.
By the by, the next critter we gutted was a thing called a mudpuppy. It's the missing link of the salamander family - though it is an amphibian, it lives underwater its whole life - it has lungs, but they don't really do much - the mudpuppy continues to use its gills as its primary oxygen source. They get their name because they're said to bark or yip like a puppy when you pull them out of the water, but I was unable to find a YouTube video confirming this, so it is clearly untrue. 
Ever wonder why we call our feet dogs? To my delight I've just learned that this is cockney rhyming slang - in that feet rhymes with dogs' meat


Info from, Etymology Online, and From Hue & Cry to Humble Pie.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fun with fallacies: Recency

In college, one of my English classes discussed the book Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. The professor, Sister Mary Dennis, asked for our initial reactions to the book, the tale of a lesbian coming of age in the 40s and 50s. One woman raised her hand and declared "this was the nastiest book I have ever read." Many in the class nodded their heads in agreement.
"Well then," Sister Mary Dennis replied, "you're obviously not very well-read."
This incident 15 years ago is the first example in a long list of reasons I think Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of The Coddling of the American Mind in this month's Atlantic, are falling victim to the fallacy of recency. 
This is actually the first of two posts about the article; I'm going to focus on their arguments about "political correctness" here and talk about their thoughts on trigger warnings in a later post. 
Lukianoff and Haidt are the latest in a long line of white men to chime in on the tyranny of political correctness on college campus and they're not 100% wrong. Liberal arts colleges seem to be big nests of intellectual crazy, but I argue that this taking offense at every little thing is not new. 
In my freshman poetry class, at a different college, we read a beautiful poem I wish I could remember about a woman kicked out of college for being a lesbian. A classmate objected to portraying lesbians in a positive light.
In the same class a student objected to Wilfred Owen's heartbreaking poem Dulce et Decorum Est, which contained a graphic description of a WWI gas attack. The student objected because his daddy had been a soldier and something something un-American - and this was even before 9-11.
My sophomore year, in my dorm, a group of drunken white guys shouted the n-word out a dorm room window at a black woman walking past. She went in to complain to the black hall director, and the hall director went to the dorm room of the men, who were one drinking infraction away from being kicked off campus. The guys were drunk and belligerent, things got heated, another student joined the fracas... and when the dust settled, the hall director, who was black, was fired. The white guys, who maintained that they weren't shouting the n-word AT anyone, they just happened to shout the word near the window when a black person was walking by, weren't disciplined. Not even for the drinking infraction. Other students from my dorm circulated a petition to have the other student who joined the fracas disciplined and banned from the dorm. The petition specifically mentioned that the student was Hispanic. 

Okay, so far I've proved that I went to two different colleges that were full of idiots. Probably says more about my taste in colleges, right? Well...
In 1903, John Spencer Bassett offended white students and parents at Duke University by claiming that Booker T. Washington was, "save General Lee," the greatest man born in the South in the past 100 years. Local papers and politicians got in on the campaign to fire Basset, who did ultimately keep his job.
In 1963, Howard Zinn was fired from Spelman for offensive comments he made in support of the black civil rights movement. 
In 1972, Howard Bruce Franklin was fired and blacklisted from Stanford for offending officials with words and actions opposing the war in Vietnam.
In her book And They Were Wonderful Teachers, Karen Graves writes of Florida's long history of trying to force gay and lesbian teachers and professors from working with children - their offensive lifestyles, their alleged recruitment efforts, and their "militancy" (i.e., assertion that it's not right to fire gay teachers and professors). 
History is full of professors persecuted for offending Christian students with their blasphemous notions about evolution; professors offending students with their Marxist views; professors supporting civil rights, professors opposing military interventions. 
Maybe it's because colleges are full of people who get paid to pontificate all day. Maybe it's because nobody likes being compelled to think. But it's not new, kids. It's as old as academia.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Pressing Advantages

Once again, I'm here to preach to the choir about privilege. The thing that I hate admitting that I have, the thing that mountains of white people swear they don't have. 
Now, if you haven't read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, you should. She's far more eloquent than I on this subject. But she does kind of conflate white privilege with class privilege, which causes some hangups among white folk. Papa Bear O'Reilly has pointed out that Asians on average make more money than whites, on average; yet nobody talks about Asian privilege. And lots of white folks in terrible financial situations argue that they can't possibly be privileged, because look how little they have.
And these folks wouldn't be entirely wrong if privilege were just about money. There are plenty of black people who make a hell of a lot more money than me. Like Barack Obama. What does that guy even do all day?
But here are some advantages that white folks may not know they have, that have nothing to do with money.

Privilege is not about money. Privilege is not about class. It's about... okay, maybe this is a really lame analogy: When we first moved into our apartment, there was a massive hive of bees living in the wall between our two bedrooms - but we didn't know it until they chewed their way through the walls and into our home. 
Seeing a million bees in my den was traumatic, but we couldn't get rid of the bees until we knew they were there. I don't think white people can ever truly be allies in the fight for justice until we can see the myriad injustices swarming around in the wall between "us" and "them."

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Excuse me while I kiss this guy

I learned recently that there's a word for the phenomenon of thinking that "revved up like a deuce" in Blinded by the Light is "wrapped up like a douche." It's called a mondegreen, according to The New Yorker, a term coined by Sylvia Wright, in reference to the poem The Bonnie Earle of O'Moray, which contains the line "And layd him on the green," which Wright had once heard as And Lady Mondegreen
Related to the mondegreen is the eggcorn: a phrase that is a substitution of one word or phrase for a similar sounding word or phrase - like when people think that Alzheimer's disease is really called old-timer's disease. Or that to a T is really to the teeth. The term eggcorn is an eggcorn for acorn, according to NPR
Then, of course, there are malapropisms, which are instances in which a speaker mistakenly uses a word in place of another, similar sounding word. The name comes from mal a prop, according to Wikipedia, a french term for inappropriate, but came into wide use because of a character called Mrs. Malaprop in the 1775 play The Rivals. She said things like "Illiterate him quite from your memory." My all-time favorite malapropism comes from good old Dan Quail, who once said "Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child." And they say Democrats promote sexual deviancy.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream uses an oronym - a type of word play in which the speaker uses two phrases that sound exactly alike but mean different things. These expressions are prime fodder for dad jokes - like the story about the hungry man who went to the beach to eat the sand, which is there (sandwiches there).
Spoonerisms are expressions in which the beginning sounds of two words are swapped - bass akwards, nucking futs. The term spoonerism came about in the early 20th century, after an Oxford lecturer called William Archibald Spooner, who was prone making them accidentally. Spooner was in no way amused by this. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Socially redeeming value

While writing a recent post, I had occasion to view some of the music videos the kids are watching these days and I have to admit, I'm still trying to bleach my eyeballs. 
Now I'll admit that feminists don't have a great track record when it comes to sexuality. Our feminist foremothers often condemned women for expressing their sexuality, claiming the fact that they were allowing themselves to be "objectified" was bad for women. Women who enjoyed sex were embracing their own subjugation, with some feminists going so far as to claim that any heterosexual sex constituted violence toward women. 
Those were the bad old days, and those attitudes are as outdated as a lady mullet. 
In recent years, feminists have largely shed that ideology, and rightfully so. Some feminists used to say that women who dressed sexy were encouraging men to be pigs, but now we recognize that as victim blaming and slut shaming. Women's clothing aren't responsible for men's behavior, men are. They are our bodies, after all, and dressing as we wish is empowering.

But... music videos for Nicki Minaj's Anaconda and Rihanna's Bitch Better Have My Money, are simply not empowering. They're not. I've read tons of editorials insisting that the women are exercising their "free agency" as women, demonstrating "ownership" of their bodies. I've read editorials crying racism at feminists who express dislike for the videos and I just don't buy it.
Let's start with Anaconda. It is essentially five minutes of Minaj's ass in various positions, sometimes rubbing against the asses of other women. 
The girl-on-girl thing is the first issue here. In the past several decades, lesbian sexuality has become a fetish for straight men, who have come to the conclusion that lesbian sexuality exists for their consumption. It's a huge problem for a lot of lesbians who would rather not be invited to perform every time they choose to hold hands with a partner in public. Yes, men are responsible for their own behavior. But Minaj choosing to grease herself up and rub her ass all over another woman for the benefit of a male audience does reinforce the notion that lesbian sexuality is all about men. It wasn't okay when Katy Perry did it in I Kissed a Girl, it isn't okay when Minaj does it.  
This video screams "I am my body; I am nothing but my body." It begs people to buy her records and watch her videos because of her body and not because she's an extremely talented musician, which she is. She's got a gorgeous body and she has the absolute right to show off just as much of it as she wants; but in this video, she is reducing herself to just a body and that's not feminism.
And then there's Bitch Better Have My Money. In this video, Rihanna kidnaps a woman, beats her bloody, sexually tortures her - with rape very strongly implied - and then appears to murder her. Rebecca Carroll at The Guardian says "what really has white feminists upset is that in the video Rihanna, a black woman, puts her own needs before a white woman’s needs." Sorry lady, but a woman's need to not be raped pretty much always trumps another person's need to rape her regardless of the skin color in the equation. This isn't empowerment, it's a god damn snuff film. And looking past that, it portrays an apparently innocent woman being raped and tortured because her husband owes Rihanna's character; it reinforces that notion that women are responsible for men's behavior. This isn't the playful kink of her earlier S&M video; it's not even the compartmentalized fantasy of a porn flick. This video is nothing more or less than a glorification of rape culture and that is. not. feminism. It's decidedly the opposite. 

...damn, why does that song have to be so catchy?