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Week of July 25, 2021

Tough Towns, Tough People

Sunday

For centuries cities have had more and less affluent sections, but the growth of industry and railroads often made that dividing line clearer, giving birth to the idiom about “the wrong side of the tracks.” This phenomenon was put nicely by author Thorne Smith in 1929: “In most commuting towns…there are always two sides of which tracks serve as a demarcation. There is the right side and the wrong side. Translated into terms of modern American idealism, this means the rich side and the side that hopes to be rich.”

Monday

“Thug” is originally a Hindi word meaning a cheat or thief. Beginning in 14th-century India, Thugs were organized groups of highwaymen who robbed and killed travelers after first gaining their trust as fellow travelers.

Tuesday

During Seattle’s railroad construction boom of the mid-1800, logs were rolled to construction sites down roads made of logs, which helped keep them out of the plentiful local mud. These wooded roads were called “skid roads,” and the original skid road is Yesler Way in Seattle. However, since railroad work was seasonal and often done by transient workers, the neighborhoods around the “skid roads” were often impoverished and became known as “skid rows” and a line dividing wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.

Wednesday

“Hoodlum,” as a term for up-to-no-good criminal-minded men, first appeared in San Fransisco magazines from 1871 and spread quickly from there. Any relation to a particular language is disputed, although early “hoodlums” seemed inclined to terrorize recent Chinese immigrants.

Thursday

Modern troubled city neighborhoods are sometimes called “ghettos,” but this term first specifically described segregated Jewish sections. Centuries before WWII, many European cities placed their Jewish populations in particular neighborhoods and subjected them to restrictions not endured by other citizens. The first may have been in Venice in 1516, where Jews lived on a small island in a part of the city known locally as “New Ghetto.” This practice of forced Jewish segregation had largely ended by the late 1800’s, but was revived by the Nazis with ghastly results.

Friday

“Ruffian” means a violent brute or criminal, but the original Italian meaning was closer to that of a pimp or panderer. Similarly, “bully” began with a less violent – and even affectionate – connotation.

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Week of July 18, 2021

Getting Soft on Us

Sunday

Soft drinks contain no alcohol, and so were first called soft to differentiate them from hard liquor.

Monday

Often people are said to “soft pedal” inconvenient information or positions they’ve taken before. This is actually a reference to the soft pedal on a piano, which quiets tones when pressed.

Tuesday

The game of softball was born of an Ivy League alumni rivalry. One day in November 1887, some Yale and Harvard alumni at Chicago’s Farragut Boat Club finally got word that Yale had won their football game against Harvard, causing one exited Yale alum to throw an old boxing glove at a Harvard alum, who attempted to hit it back with a stick. This led reporter George Hancock to lace up the glove like a ball, draw out the diamond’s lines with chalk, and prompt the first softball game. Over the next few decades, the rules and governing bodies were established, as was the name “softball,” since the game had, until 1926, been variously known as Indoor Ball, Kitten Ball, Playground Ball, Diamond Ball, Pumpkin Ball, Recreation Ball, Twilight Ball, Army Ball, Lightning Ball, Mushball, Big Ball, and Night Ball.

Wednesday

Computer software, the electronically-stored instructions for the machine’s operating system or applications, was first given that name in the 1960s to differentiate it from hardware, or the physical components of the computer, like screens, disk drives, and keyboards.

Thursday

Teddy Roosevelt, the first time he wrote the now-famous line “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” attributed it to an African proverb, but no record of this term being used before Teddy has been found.

Friday

“Soft power” is a modern political term for the influence that a nation develops not through traditional wealth and military might, but rather diplomacy, communication, cultural values, and goodwill.

Saturday

Similarly, a “soft sell” is an approach to promoting or selling something with subtle and gentle persuasion rather than aggressive sales techniques.

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Week of July 11, 2021

You’ve Been Warned

Sunday

Carbon monoxide and other toxic gasses are among the many occupational dangers to coal miners, and the practice of bringing canaries into coal mines persisted from 1911 to 1986. If the bird suddenly got sick or died, it suggested that a deadly gas was present, and the miners should get out, hence the metaphor “canary in the coal mine” as an early indicator. Animals that serve an environmental warning role to humans are sometimes called “sentinel species.”


Monday

The old saying “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning” has variations in Shakespeare and the Bible. Since this red color is attributable to water vapor or dust splitting sun rays into their color spectrums when they pass sideways through the most atmosphere, color hints at the atmosphere’s contents at these times, which play a big role in weather. However, the saying is most accurate in the middle latitudes when weather systems move from west to east.


Tuesday

Talking about a “shot across the bow” is similar to saying “a warning shot,” or a warning gesture to show that you’re serious, even about using force. In the nautical sense, this means deliberately firing in front of another vessel, sometimes forcing that ship to change course or stop. This gesture has also been used to signal to an unknown ship to fly its flag, but in the modern time these efforts at identification also include attempts at radio contact.

Wednesday

“Beware the Ides of March,” the emperor is famously warned in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar.” In the Roman calendar, the Ides was the 15th of each month, the day in March of 44BC that Ceasar was assasinated.

Thursday

Not surprisingly, air raid sirens became widely used when air raids themselves started happening. In the early days of aerial attacks during WWI, London was unexpectedly attacked by German zeppelins, and the sirens became a more effective way to warn people than church bells or “take cover” signs displayed in public.

Friday

Animals which are especially sensitive to environmental changes often portend natural dangers in advance. Sharks head to deeper waters before a hurricane, birds keep down before a storm, worms flee rising groundwater, and some domestic animals’ behavior has accurately predicted earthquakes, at least when they are housed near one another.

Saturday

The sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine, killing nearly 1,200 civilians, was a major WWI tragedy, but it shouldn’t have been an utter surprise. The German embassy had run ads in the New York Times and other papers for weeks before the event warning that they would torpedo British-flagged ships.

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Week of July 4, 2021

Random Acronym Week (RAW) #4

Sunday

IQ = Intelligence quotient

Monday

SCOTUS = Supreme Court of The United States

Tuesday

GMO = Genetically Modified Organism

Wednesday

HIPPA = Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (of 1996)

Thursday

UNESCO = United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

Friday

FOIA = Freedom of Information Act

Saturday

YOLO = You Only Live Once

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Week of June 27, 2021

BETRAYED!

Sunday

What people now call getting “double-crossed” was previously just called getting “crossed,” that is, deceived by another. The term “double cross” appeared in 1834 to describe when an individual convinces two separate parties that that he will help them cheat the other. When the scheme plays out, both of the other parties find themselves betrayed, so there has been a “double cross.” However, when most modern people use the term, they don’t mean this complicated three-party plot, just a straightforward one-person-cheating-another scenario.


Monday

The term “sold down the river” has ugly roots in American slavery. When the slavery was legal, the city of Louisville, Kentucky housed one of the nation’s largest slave markets. From there, many purchased slaves were sent further south along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to cotton plantations, where often-brutal treatment frequently proved fatal. Hence, getting someone “sold down the river” meant a betrayal so complete it might lead to death.


Tuesday

The names of some historical betrayers have become synonymous with “traitor.” Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans, Brutus helped assassinate his friend and emperor Julius Caesar, and Benedict Arnold sold out his native United States to the British.

Wednesday

The word “turncoat” is born from the ancient practice of wearing a badge of your allegiance on your coat that could be hidden if you turned your coat inside out.

Thursday

Treason is the only crime defined in the US constitution.

Friday

To “drop a dime” on someone comes from the practice of making a pay phone call to the police to inform on them. These were also practical, since short, unexpected pay phone calls couldn’t be traced in these early telephone days.

Saturday

Since the late 1800’s, the word “snitch” meant nose, and since nosy people are involved in others’ business, this soon came to also mean an informer.