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Week of October 10, 2021

Go Ask Alice

Sunday

“Down the Rabbit-Hole” is the first chapter in Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” wherein Alice enters the surreal world via that bunny’s entrance. Since then, the term has become a metaphor for getting into something either bizarre or time-consuming and attention-intensive (like many internet travels are).

Monday

During a race with the Red Queen, the queen tells Alice that in Wonderland, “…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Notably, this idea has made its way into evolutionary biology with the “Red Queen Hypothesis.” If a predator species in a predator-prey relationship, for example, does not evolve to be fast or stealthy enough to catch its prey, it might starve and eventually go extinct, while the prey species must evolve to run faster or otherwise escape the predator or it may go extinct. The result is a continuing evolutionary “race” for both species.

Tuesday

The character in Wonderland commonly referred to as the Mad Hatter was not just a product of the author’s imagination. Exposure to mercury via the potent chemical mercury nitrate, widely used in making felt hats in Carroll’s time, often gave real-life hatmakers serious health problems, including tremors, hallucinations, psychosis and emotional disturbances. As a result, the term “mad as a hatter” was common, and “erethism,” or mercury poisoning which affects the entire central nervous system, is also called “mad hatter disease” or “mad hatter syndrome.”

Wednesday

There was a real-life Alice for whom the main character was named. Alice Liddell was the daughter of Oxford University’s then vice-chancellor. She was ten years old when she first heard Lewis Caroll tell the story on a boat ride and implored him to write it down.

Thursday

Just as her “Eat me / Drink Me” experiences caused Alice to change size in both extremes, a particular migraine-related neurological syndrome later dubbed “Alice In Wonderland Syndrome” causes sufferers to experience different perceptions in the size of objects, and how large or small they feel in relation to them. Many have speculated that Lewis Carroll himself suffered from this, which inspired these size-perception themes throughout the book.

Friday

Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he had a stutter, so he named the story’s Dodo bird for him, since he sometimes stuttered his last name as “Do-do-dodgson.”

Saturday

The book was published as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but previous working titles had been “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” “Alice’s Hour in Elf Land,” “Alice Among the Faires,” and “Alice Among the Goblins.”

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Week of October 3, 2021

Random Acronym Week (RAW!) #5

Sunday

OSHA = Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Monday

PPM = Parts Per Million

Tuesday

OMG = Oh My God

Wednesday

POV = Point of View

Thursday

AI = Artificial Intelligence

Friday

P.S. = Post Script

Saturday

OPEC = Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries

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Week of September 26, 2021

Departing

Sunday

Though the origin of the term is debated, “Davy Jones’ locker” is an idiom for the seabed, where deceased sailors find their graves.

Monday

To “kick to bucket” is often explained as a suicidal person kicking out the bucket they stand on so they can hang by a noose. However, this term more likely came from animal slaughter. A “bucket” in this context was a word for a pulley or beam that animals were pulled up by, often by their hind legs. The doomed creatures then frequently kicked this “bucket” during the spasms and thrashing of slaughter.

Tuesday

The term “bite the dust” has been around in some variation since the the Illiad. That poem uses the term to describe Roman soldiers dying in battle, the King James Version of the Bible has a reference to lick[ing] the dust, and was used again a old Western book from 1748 (and by Western movies later), and of course the very catchy Queen song.

Wednesday

The slang “to croak” for dying comes from the gurgling or “death rattle” sound sometimes made by the dying.

Thursday

“Six feet under” is an idiom for dead, but bodies can legally be buried quite a bit shallower. In many US states, only 18 inches of dirt need to cover a coffin, which makes for a hole about four feet deep. The 6-foot order began as a London mayor’s reaction to the plague hitting the city in 1665, but no reason was given for that depth. However, the risk of several unpleasant contingencies are reduced by deeper graves, including the body being reached by animals, grave robbers, or accidentally plowed up by a farmer.

Friday

The reference to “shuffl[ing] off this mortal coil” is from Hamlet, in which Shakespeare means the tribulations and turmoil of this life, as “coil” meant at the time.

Saturday

Although there are earlier variants about daisies, “pushing up daisies” as a euphemism for dead and buried seems to have started in the British military in WWI. One amusing similar French idiom translates to “eating dandelions by the roots.”

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Week of September 19, 2021

Toy Stories

Sunday

“Lego” is short for “leg godt” or “play well” in Danish, though it was later happily realized that Lego also means “I put together” in Latin. When started by a master carpenter in the 1930s, the Danish company mostly made wooden products, but after getting into plastic building toys, it patented in 1958 the familiar stud-and-tube coupling system behind all Legos ever since. The company is still run by the founder’s descendants, and kids worldwide spend about 5 billion annual hours playing with Legos.

Monday

Plah-Doh was born from the decline of coal furnaces. In the late 19th and early 20th century, coal heated most American homes. Come spring, however, these homes had a layer of unsightly soot on inside walls, and homeowners used flour-based puddies to roll against the walls and pull the soot off. Then, when furnaces increasingly burned oil or gas after WWII and water-washable vinyl wallpaper appeared, a Cincinnati family business that manufactured the soot-cleaning puddies fell into trouble. A sister-in-law who ran a children’s nursery read an article about molding inexpensive Christmas tree ornaments out of wallpaper cleaner, and she found that her nursery kids loved sculpting with the family’s poorly-selling product. The puddy was reformulated for this purpose, named “Play-Doh” (which beat out the original “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound”) and sold in one-gallon containers all over town. It exploded in popularity after being featured on “Captain Kangaroo,” and soon became a staple children’s product worldwide.

Tuesday

The original inspiration for Barbie was a stiletto pump-wearing busty blonde plastic doll version of a popular German comic strip character Lilli, an uninhibited “saucy high-end call girl.” During a 1956 visit to Switzerland, these popular dolls struck the fancy of 15-year old Barbara Handler, whose parents happened to be the founders of Mattel toys. She and her mom took some dolls home, and three years later Mattel introduced a less-risque American version named after daughter Barbara (the doll’s full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin). The doll has proven phenomenally successful; over one billion Barbies have sold worldwide. If Barbie were a real woman, however, her unique proportions might cause some issues that you never see in the advertisements. Researchers report that Barbie would have to walk on all fours because those tiny ankles couldn’t support her weight, her thin neck would not hold that big head up, and that narrow waist only leaves space for half of a liver and a few inches of intestine.

Wednesday

G.I. Joe the was the first toy to call itself an “action figure” so that boys wouldn’t be discouraged from buying a self-proclaimed doll. Arriving in the 1964, the name was inspired by the 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe” with Robert Mitchum. “G.I.” for Government Issue or General Issue was already a term for military-issued items used by soldiers, and was later applied to the soldiers themselves. “Joe” was long a slang term for ordinary battlefield soldiers. The size and material of G.I. Joe dolls changed a lot over the years, and their popularity waned during the Vietnam war, but the action figures remain one of the toy world’s most successful.

Thursday

Matchbox cars were far from the first model car, but when they were created in 1952, their unique size was inspired by a rule at the school which one of the company partner’s daughter attended that no toys brought from home may be bigger than a matchbox. As it turned out, this size created big success and the plan was later replicated by Hot Wheels and others.

Friday

Silly Putty was invented by accident by an engineer researching substitutes for synthetic rubber during WWII. Although it had no obvious military use at the time, the silicone oil / boric acid combination proved a party hit for years until it was encountered by a hobby shop owner and marketing consultant, and became one of the fastest-selling toys of the 20th Century. (See Friday of Week of 8/15/21 post regarding another classic toy born from military research.)

Saturday

In the mid-1950s, a young French electrician made some marks on a decal from a factory light switch plate which he was installing. When he peeled the translucent decal off, he realized the marks were visible on the other side, giving him the idea for a toy which took advantage of metal powder’s clingy electrostatic properties. This was the birth of the Etch-A-Sketch, which works by using the knob-controlled stylus to scrape away a thin layer of aluminum powder, and “draw” in this fashion.

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Week of September 12, 2021

It’s All Greek to Me, pt. IV

Sunday

Thespis, a 6th century BC Greek poet, was said to be the first to ever get onstage as an actor, hence the term “thespian” is given to dramatic stage actors in his honor.

Monday

One ancient school of Greek medicine taught that body fluids, or humors, were the cause of moods, so the word “melancholy” consists of the words for “black bile,” which supposedly caused this gloomy mood.

Tuesday

The word “democracy” comes from the Greek words “demos” meaning “the people” and “kratos” or “rule.” That is, “rule by the people.”

Wednesday

The word “music” derives from the Greek word for “art of the muses.” In Greek mythology, muses were the nine goddesses who inspired science, literature, and the arts.

Thursday

Ancient Greeks also thought that the stars orbited around the earth. The five planets observable to the Greeks were believed to be stars but had less predictable motions than other stars, so “planet” derives from the Greek “planetes” or “wanderer.”

Friday

Chronos, Greek god of time, is who we have to thank for words like chronology, chronic, chronicle, and other terms about time.

Saturday

The word “sarcasm” traces back to the early Greek “sarkazien” which literally meant “to tear the flesh,”as if with the mocking remark.