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.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A tale blogged by an idiot

I knew we didn't know much about William Shakespeare's life, but before reading Bill Bryson's Shakespeare, I didn't realize just how miraculous it is that we know much of anything at all. 
The things we know for sure about the Bard are few and mundane. We know when he was baptized (though not when he was born). We know that he married Anne Hathaway, although it's possible her name was actually Agnes. We know that his theatre was called The Globe, but we have no drawings or illustrations of the inside, and we only glimpse the outside in drawings that may or may not have been made by people who had ever seen the place in person.
We don't even have much of an idea of what the man himself looked like. The engraving from his first folio was created after his death by an artist who had never met him and was probably working from a now-lost painting.
We have two portraits that probably were painted during Shakespeare's life, but only might be him - the clothing and facial hair would have been quite common among men of Shakespeare's station. And don't hold out for a forensic reconstruction - although we do know where the old guy's bones lie, archaeologists recently scanned his grave and discovered his head is kind of missing, probably the work of 18th century grave robbers. Or somebody looking to do a epic rendition of Hamlet. 
At yet, according to scholars, we know more about William Shakespeare than almost any other non-royal of the era. Amateur and scholar alike have searched through mountains of barely legible public records to find a handful of signatures (all in the same hand, but each spelled a different way), some passing mentions in legal disputes, birth and baptism and death records of a few of his family members. 
Yet these glimpses of the man's public life offer us no insight into the man he was. We don't know if his marriage was happy; if he was a loving father or a faithful son. We don't know if he was as witty in person as he was on paper. We don't know whether he believed in God, was kind to animals, or respected his conquests in the morning. And yet, we have his plays. And maybe it is unreasonable to ask for more than that.   

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What does the fox say?

Do you know the origin of the expression sour grapes? It was hot and Fox was hungry. Hanging from a vine high overhead was a cluster of the juiciest of grapes Fox had ever seen glistening in the afternoon sun. Fox stood on his hind legs and grasped for the grapes, but they were out of reach. Fox jumped, but the grapes again eluded him. Finally Fox trotted away then took a running leap, but fell just short. Fox gave up with his nose in the air, griping, "I'm sure they were sour anyway."
Today, those who do not reach the grapes they want might declare them the fruits of political correctness instead.
Folks who -definitely- aren't racist are super livid about the Treasury's decision to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. It's just that they're sick of the culture of political correctness that drives these decisions. They don't realize that what they're really saying is that no woman, no African American in the 240 year history of our nation has ever done anything to be worthy to appear on money. 
When you claim that political correctness is the only way for a black woman to earn her way onto the $20 bill, you must also be saying that no woman, no person of color, has ever contributed enough to our nation to be recognized in this way.

By the way, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, forcing tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands along the Trail of Tears, on which ten thousand Native Americans died from exposure, disease, and hunger. Jackson owned over a hundred slaves and straight up murdered a dude for talking smack about Jackson's wife. Really, this guy is more worthy of being on money than Harriet Tubman? Really? 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Pluck Yew

Mr. Rogers cracking up as he leads
some kids in Where Is Thumbkin
Many years ago, I was shoveling my folks' driveway after a big juicy snowstorm. As I stood near the end of the driveway, a car came careening down the street far too fast, considering, and nearly hit me. Enraged, I flipped him the bird, a gesture that would have had more impact had I not been wearing mittens.
The one-finger salute, a favorite among punk rockers and driving enthusiasts, is an obscene gesture meant to represent... penetrating someone with a teeny tiny weenie or something. According to Snopes and Mental Floss, no one is exactly sure where the gesture was born, but it's way older than I would have thought. According to Mental Floss, the gesture was a favorite of Caligula, who liked to make his enemies kiss his middle finger, but considering Caligula's proclivities, having to kiss dude's middle finger was getting off easy. 
If you're ever in Turkey, it would be best not to play I've Got Your Nose with the locals - the gesture, known as the fig, is only "mildly obscene," according to Wikipedia, and generally means bugger off. Fig in this sense appears to be etymologically unrelated to the sex act known as figging, which I'm neither going to describe nor present the etymology of. Oh, I know the etymology, but, you know, my mom's reading this. Hi Mom.
In American sign language, this gesture isn't rude at all - it's the letter T. Twist your fist and it means toilet. Dante wants you to know that it is not acceptable to give God a fig. When a dude did so in The Inferno, he got strangled and gagged by some snakes. Been there done that, I tell ya. In ancient Greece, the gesture was used to ward off the evil eye.
And speaking of the evil eye, let's talk about throwing the horns, a gesture once synonymous with heavy metal and now, well...

During the Satanic panic, it was thought to represent devil horns, or the number 666... somehow. However, to the metal singer who popularized the gesture, Ronnie James Dio, it meant no such thing. He picked up the gesture from his Italian grandma who used it to ward off the evil eye. (Special thanks to Tony for bringing this to my attention).
The evil eye, by the way, is when someone curses you by looking at you funny. According to Wikipedia, a ton of cultures all over the world believe or believed in the evil eye. Different cultures have different names for it, but my favorite is the Hawaiian maka pilau, which translates loosely to stink eye

But let's wander back to the old devil horn gesture. This, too, has lots of different meanings. It wards off the evil eye, of course. It can mean bullshit, I guess because bulls have finger horns? Another creature with finger horns: a guy who's been cheated on, of course. In old timey Europe and current timey Italy, the gesture is used to indicate a guy's wife has been unfaithful. Wikipedia says that it's a reference to the mating habits of stags. The term cuckold, by the way, comes from the child-rearing habits of cuckoo birds (or lack thereof). Many types of cuckoo birds will sneak into other species of bird's nests and lay their own eggs. The other bird comes back to her nest and doesn't notice a thing... until the cuckoo hatches and systematically murders all the other birdies because seriously, nature? Seriously? So a cuckold is a dude whose wife has someone else's bun in the oven, so to speak. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


As long as we're talking about folks we never see, we might as well talk about folks we never hear. Well, whose voices we never hear, anyway. And what better place than a blog about words for tales of characters who don’t say any? 
So, silent characters go way back to the mimes of ancient Greece, though silent characters have always played a large role in traditional Japanese theater. Silent characters were often featured in the Commedia dell’arte of the 16th through 18th century, in which acting troupes rolled around the countryside, putting on shows in town squares – heavy on the action, light on the dialogue. 
In the early days of Hollywood, Buster Keaton carried out this proud tradition, albeit by necessity. Buster Keaton plays the bungling oaf so well that it’s easy not to notice the way that each stumble and bungle is performed with perfect precision. Watch enough of his films and you’ll notice that the world around him seems to conspire to keep him safe – that he defies death poker faced because he simply knows that the universe will look after him. His childhood may have had a lot to do with that. According to, Keaton nearly suffocated to death when he was only a few months old – his parents, Vaudevillian performers, had left him back stage at a show and he’d gotten locked in a costume trunk. A few years later, according to a story that may well be too perfect to be true, a cyclone sucked him out of the open window he was sitting near and deposited him, perfectly unharmed, in the yard of a neighbor several feet away. 

In real life, sorta, there's the mononymous Teller, half of the duo Penn & Teller. He started performing in silence, according to Wikipedia, because it made for less heckling early in his career. The no talking thing eventually became his thing, and now he rarely speaks in public (though there are those who would suggest that Teller just hasn't let him get a word in for the past 40 years).
Which is kind of too bad. The guy’s a freaking genius – literally. He’s one of the world’s foremost authorities on Harry Houdini, and he’s even appeared in documentaries about the guy, albeit with his features obscured like he’s in the witness protection program. Teller’s also a fellow at the Cato institute and has been co-author on a study in Nature Reviews: Neuroscience.
 They say everybody hates a mime, but that’s not really true. What’s Snoopy if not a mime? Or Harpo Marx (who – fun fact - didn’t actually learn how to play the harp until pretty late in his career). There’s Mr. Bean, Daryl, Daryl, the Stig, and so on. Maybe it's the makeup. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Conspicuously absent

My husband, as you may know, is not such a fan of social interaction. Or leaving the house. Or really anything involving other human beings. So it's no wonder that some folks accuse him of being a figment of my imagination.
My husband's an example of an unseen character, and such characters abound on stage and screen.
There's Godot, of course, the never-seen subject of the play Waiting for Godot. I managed to major in theater and then later in English without reading, or being assigned to read this play, so I'm taking that as a sign. I did, however, see Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman, though, which my gut tells me is probably just as good.

One real-life Godot is street artist and subtlety eschewer Banksy.
Girl seized by an ATM, attributed to Banksy,
Rosebery Avenue, London. Photo: Bengt Oberger

Banksy has, at various times, claimed that he remains anonymous because graffiti is illegal, because "the art world is the biggest joke going," and has said of his work that he can't believe the morons who would pay money for-- hang on a sec - George Lucas, is that you?
Lucas hates this, but is sure the fans will love it.
Returning to the land of make-believe, television's littered with women who aren't there. On Cheers, Norm's wife Vera was the subject of many jokes, but was never seen. Niles' wife Maris on Frasier was perpetually just out of frame. Colombo's wife rounds out the Missing Spouses Club. In one episode, Columbo's wife couldn't attend a social event because she was under the weather. In another, she was caring for her skateboarding mother. The closest we ever come to meeting her is a 1991 episode in which "she was here a minute ago." 
In cartoons, adults are often conspicuously absent, like the parents in most of the Charlie Brown cartoons. The humans in the Tom and Jerry cartoons are only shown from behind, I'm assuming because their psychotic pets ripped their faces off in an effort to murder one another. But perhaps most disturbing of all is Nanny from The Muppet Babies. We only see Nanny from her stripe-stocking-clad knees down, and only in a few episodes. And you have to wonder, how did she come to be in charge of all those Muppets? Surely she didn't give birth to them all, leading one to wonder where in the hell she got them. And why would she adopt a litter of puppet people only to leave them all unattended for hours at a time in a giant nursery that inexplicably had only two cribs? And why weren't we allowed to see her face, exactly? The eighties were troubling times.
If you think this is terribly done
you should see what it
looked like when I tried
to shop his head onto her body.