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.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Off with your head

I think my favorite class in all of college was Victorian Sense and Nonsense. The sense half of the equation included John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. The nonsense included the poetry of Edward Lear and of course, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
As dry and stuffy as the sense portion of the class was, it provided a great context for understanding the nonsense. Lewis Carroll's critique of Victorian rules and prohibitions gets lost in the whimsy of the story, and that's too bad.
Lewis Carroll's England was one of order and rules. The son of an austere and old-fashioned minister, Carroll's early life would have been one of rules and punishments, moral prohibitions and institutionalized shame. He attended strict schools and wore the tight, confining clothing that characterized his era. He would have visited homes whose decor was often a sort of joyless ornamental excess - at once fussy and formal. He'd have memorized a strict code of manners and niceties - orderly gardens, orderly dances, orderly people, orderly society. Exactly the sort of environment, I imagine, that would have been torture to one of the most creative minds of all time. 
So it's no surprise that his books would serve as either an accidental or intentional critique of that society. A rabbit whose life depends upon good etiquette. The Mad Hatter and March Hare deeply offended that Alice doesn't know the nonsense rules of their tea party. Men in a panic because there are white roses growing where red roses should be.*
The Caterpillar resembles a strict school teacher, demanding rote recitation, cutting the student down when she recites incorrectly, and only barely, and grudgingly, teaching Alice anything at all. I wonder if Disney picked up on that in their animated adaptation - the caterpillar is singing an alphabet song when we meet him.
Alice's meeting with the flowers in the garden makes me think of Victorian ladies in books. They don't speak until they're spoken to, but when they finally do, they talk only of superficial things, observing social niceties as they tear each other down over leaves and petals and stems.
In fact, everywhere Alice goes, she's scolded and shamed for failing to understand and conform to utterly nonsensical rules. Wonderland is more beautiful, more magical than anyone but Carroll could imagine, yet everyone's mean and everyone's petty and everyone's cross and nobody's happy. 
And perhaps that is just as relevant a message to us as to the Victorians. Life is beautiful precious and so, so unbearably brief. It is far too short to run about getting our knickers in a twist over tea parties and table manners, fashion faux pas and Freudian slips. We're in Wonderland, baby - stop and smell the roses and don't worry if they're white or red.
Lewis Carroll
by Lewis Carroll

* Side note: Victorians were big on the language of flowers. Red roses meant love. White roses, innocence, secrecy, or a heart unacquainted with love. Red and white roses together meant unity. I don't know whether Carroll meant anything by this or not.

Monday, September 21, 2015

I wholeheartedly agree with your wholly untenable position

I have been reading a lot of kids' books about the Civil War recently, because that is a perfectly normal thing for a woman my age with no children to do*. And something has been really bugging me.
It's the slaves. That is, it's the word slave. And the word owner. And master, and bought and sold. Fact is, it is impossible for a human being to ever belong to another human being. It is as impossible to buy a person as it is to own one. Words like slave, and master, and owner legitimize slavery. 
So I completely agree with Michael Todd Landis' not-so-succinctly-named article "These Are Words Scholars Should No Longer Use to Describe Slavery and the Civil War". Landis says that when we use the word slave-owners, we legitimize slavery. And he's right. He suggests using the word enslavers instead. The word slave-owners is incorrect, but enslavers sounds absurd and reeks of political correctness gone wild. And yet.
It wouldn't be without precedent though. If you go to college to learn about developmental disabilities nowadays, you won't hear the word retarded getting thrown around. Why? Well, take a second to close your eyes and picture a retarded person. What do they look like? Ugly? Drooling, slack-jawed, contorted face, pigeon-toed? You see a caricature instead of a person. Do a Google Image search on the word retarded and every single result mocks people with developmental disabilities. Search person with a developmental disability and you get results like these: 
Individuals of all shapes and sizes every one different and none highlighting a negative stereotype. I hate awkward circumlocutions as much as the next guy, but words like retarded legitimize and reinforce the idea that people with disabilities are drooling idiot deserving our mockery. So is person with a disability an awkward and silly-sounding phrase? Sure. And yet.

We all know the Gandhi quote about how your thoughts become your words, but actually, I think it works both ways. Our thoughts become our words, but our words frequently control our thoughts without our even knowing it.
So is it absurd to rename plantations to slave labor camps, and the Union army to the United States army? Maybe. But slave labor camp is more accurate, more precise, and less of a euphemism. And maybe if we change how we speak about slavery, we'll change how we see its legacy.

*When she's doing research for a kids' book she's trying to write.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Foolish Word Games

Doctor Who anagrams to Torchwood.
Any Harry Potter fan knows that Tom Marvolo Riddle is an anagram for I am Lord Voldemort. But fun Potter fact: when the books were translated, translators had to come up with a different anagram that made sense in the language they were using. In the French translation, Tom Riddle is named Tom Elvis Jedusor,  an anagram for Je suis Voldemort. In German, the two names make one sentence - Tom Vorlost Riddle ist Lord Voldemort
Harry Potter fans may not know that Ron Weasley anagrams to Lose Wand Early, though it seems unlikely that was intentional. 
Vladimir Nabokov anagrams to Vivian Darkbloom, a character in Lolita
You know how you never noticed until right now that the lyric Mr. Mojo Risin' in The Doors' L.A. Woman doesn't make any damn sense? Well, Mr. Mojo Risin' is an anagram for Jim Morrison. Which means he was essentially just singing his own name over and over. And they say Kanye is a narcissist.  
Axl Rose is an anagram for oral sex, because Guns N Roses is classy like that.
One website claims that Will.I.Am is an anagram for William, which it totally clearly isn't. An anagram for William... or .WillI.Am., yes. William, no.

Info from,,

Gravediggers' biscuits

Great Britain is a very small country with an incredible number of regional dialects and slang vocabularies. Recently I learned of one I'd never heard before.
Polari is a sort of slang once widely used in England by sailors, theater folk, and gay people. Polari is a cant, another term I've only just learned, which is a slang language meant to exclude outsiders. 
The word comes from the Italian word parlare, which means to talk. It is fitting that the word has its origins in Italy, because Italian is one of Polari's many ancestors. Polari is heavily influenced by the language of Italian sailors and showmen who went to England to work. Sailors often worked in the theatre, as handling curtains and riggings and such is very similar to handling sails and riggings and such. Gay folk have always been a big part of the theatrical community, so it is understandable that Polari would be common among them. Other languages that contribute to Polari include the other romance languages, Romany, Yiddish, Cockney, and Shelta, the language of Irish tinkers. 
Here's an example of Polari in action:

It is funny that the two men are discussing A Clockwork Orange because, while Alex and his droogs don't speak Polari, they do speak their own criminal cant throughout the book.
Although the video is fairly incomprehensible (there's a translation here), some of the slang terms used in and out the gay community come from Polari. 

  • Butch: A gay woman who isn't considered feminine.
  • Bitch: A gay man who is considered feminine.  
  • Drag: Originally used to just refer to clothing, came to refer specifically to cross-dressing over time.
  • Fruit: A gay person - this term didn't take on its pejorative meaning until later.
  • Queen: A flamboyantly gay man.
  •  Camp: Deliberately over-the-top theatricality, possibly from the French camper, which means to pose
Other words, like hoofer (dancer) and filly (young person), have found their way into English proper.
Sadly, the following words have fallen out of popularity: ajax (next to), batt (shoe), lacoddy (body), and yews (eyes).

Info from, this Slate article, and,

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


We've discussed the dastardly CANOE initiative before (here and here) - the Conspiracy to Ascribe Naval Origins to Everything. But our boat fetish is certainly understandable given how much of what we say does come from the sea.
When we leave for somewhere, we set sail, and if we get drunk on the way, we're three sheets to the wind. You might drink grog, supposedly named for Admiral Edward "Old Grog" Vernon, who ordered his sailors' rum be watered down. The Royal Navy of England put lime juice in their sailors' grog, hence the term Limey. Although the navy gave sailors lime juice because it was thought to make stale, gross water more palatable, limes also warded off scurvy, a disease caused by too little vitamin C. This is common among sailors who didn't have access to fresh fruit, and if sailors didn't invent the term, it sure sounds like they did.
Men in romance novels always have fathomless grey eyes, and if you don't accept their proposals you'll take the wind from their sails, leaving them high and dry
If you get a new job, you must first learn the ropes. You might have to pass a test to prove you're ship shape, and if you pass it, you'll probably do so with flying colors
When you proceed cautiously, you're keeping a weather eye (watching for bad weather), lest you get carried away on stormy seas.
Mocha is named for a famous coffee port, and java is an island from which some coffee comes. If you put a shot of espresso in your coffee, it's sometimes called a depth charge (and always called delicious).
If somebody likes the cut of your jib, you've made a good impression on them.
When things get bad, you're up a creek without a paddle, and when you're out of options, you're dead in the water. If so, your demise might be in the offing, so you might need to send out an SOS (which doesn't stand for save our ship, or anything else for that matter - it's just a pattern that's easy to remember and easy to understand on Morse code) and when all hope is lost, you're sunk. It was a long shot anyway.

Someone probably should tell this
guy what anchors do for a living.
On the other hand, when things are going well, it's smooth sailing. 
The US Navy says that gossip is scuttlebutt because scuttlebutt once referred to the barrel from which seamen took their water, making it like today's water cooler.
Modern Americans don't spend too much time on boats, but we use the lingo of the sea without realizing it all the time. It isn't surprising though - our language was born and raised on a little bitty island that came to have a massive navy. 
Funny what growing up on the shores of Lake Erie will do to your sense of perspective... when I was a kid, I thought anyone with an above-ground pool was totally loaded, but people with boats, not so much. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

All that we see or seem

The Stanley Hotel near Boulder, Colorado is haunted. Or so everyone says. The young writer who stayed there one night in 1974 wasn't terribly impressed with the stories - he was used to scary stories. But a haunted hotel gets quite a bit spookier when you're its only guests. The writer says: "They were just getting ready to close for the season, and we found ourselves the only guests in the place - with all those long, empty corridors... I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming." The writer woke in a cold sweat, smoked a cigarette, and then set to work writing The Shining, about a family alone in an old Colorado hotel for the winter, being chased through the halls by every sort of ghost and demon. Stephen King published the novel in 1977 and Stanley Kubrick made it into a movie in 1980. The room King stayed in that night was, of course, 217.
It's certainly not hard to believe that writer H.P. Lovecraft was a man haunted by vivid nightmares his entire life. He wrote of these nightmares in letters to friends - in one of which he says
As I was drawn into the abyss I emitted a resounding shriek, and the picture ceased. I was in great pain - forehead pounding and ears ringing - but I had only one automatic impulse - to write.
His work does have a very dreamlike feel to it - unspeakable words, impossible shapes, the "sensation of the presence of the hideous unknown," as he put it. 
When Paul McCartney woke up with a hauntingly beautiful tune in his head, he was desperate to know where it had come from. It was such a lovely melody, and he thought. "I couldn't have written it because I dreamt it." He played the tune to just about everyone he knew to ask if they recognized it before finally accepting that in fact, the tune was original. 
Paul didn't know what lyrics to put to the music, so he hastily threw in the placeholder title Scrambled Eggs. Today we know the song as Yesterday

A Dream Within a Dream
Edgar Allan Poe

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone? 
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?
A set for a nightmare-fueled existentialist play...
Actually, inside the LaSalle Theater, Cleveland, Ohio.
My "This Place Matters" photo is the outside of the same theater.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

I thought love won

Kentucky clerk Kim Davis is going to jail because she violated a federal court order to do her job - the part of her job that involves issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. All day I've been reading what an ugly troll she is. How fat. How horrible her hair is. How she should kill herself.
So, uh, when did our side become the schoolyard bullies?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The language we upspeak

One thing women in radio are often accused of, according to professional sycophant Terry Gross, is upspeak - raising the pitch of their voice at the end of a sentence, as if asking a question. 
Indeed, women do seem more likely to be guilty of this vocal tic than men - and there are lots of theories as to why. Perhaps it is a subconscious hedging - we know that authoritative speech is considered too aggressive for women, so we make statements sound like questions. Or maybe we use upspeak because we're fishing for confirmation that our audience is still listening. Or maybe we're just perpetually practicing to be on Jeopardy - phrasing our answers in the form of a question. 
I have another theory. A graduating elevated pitch indicates an expectation. We end questions on high notes to indicate we expect a reply - and we often end rhetorical questions on a low note.
Pay attention to your pitch the next time you read out loud to a child - you'll notice that your voice wants to go up at the end of each page except the last, and does so more sharply at the exciting parts. I noticed myself doing this recently while reading to an antsy one-year-old - the more apparent it became that he was losing interest, the higher the pitch of my voice became. I think that's why so many kids use upspeak. They perceive that adults raise the pitch of their voice when they want to keep audience attention, so they model the same when they want someone to pay attention.
This same sort of "something is coming" tone is used in TV scores. Swelling violins to tell us a climax is coming. Progressively higher-pitched noises during scary horror movie scenes.

.The TV show Lost frequently had a discordant glissando right before a commercial break to manipulate us into staying tuned. You can hear the same glissando on strings in the end credits.

I'm curious whether this is the case in other languages. What say you, polyglots? Do questions go higher pitched in your language?