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Week of April 12, 2020

Name of Thrones

Sunday

When nature calls, you use “The John” because England’s earliest flush lavatory was developed by Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, although he called his creation “Ajax.”

Monday

Centuries later, British manufacturer Thomas Crapper developed the ballcock, a flushing mechanism still used today. His name appeared on these widely-used flush toilets in Europe, which became known as “crappers.”

Tuesday

Brits also call the toilet “the loo.” Before flush toilets, many Europeans did their thing in chamber pots, then threw the contents onto the street below, a practice which now might get you arrested. Before throwing, the courtesy was to yell out “Guardez l’eau!” (“Look out for the water!”), which eventually got shortened to just “loo” to mean toilet.

Wednesday

“Lavare” means to “to wash” in Latin, and this is the source of the word “latrine.” English speakers have been using this term for about 350 years.

Thursday

“Toilette,” the French word from which we get “toilet,” means dressing room, and itself comes from the word “toile,” or cloth. In the 1600’s, the toilet was the process of doing your hair, clothes, makeup, etc. By 19th century America, this term referred to the room where this process occurred, and more particularly, the useful device in it.

Friday

“Potty” derives from “chamber pot,” a portable toilet people used in times past for doing their business at night.

Saturday

The room where you can find a toilet and a sink is called a “restroom” or “bathroom” more often in the US than in Britain.

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Week of April 5, 2020

Random Abbreviation Week (RAW!) #1

Sunday

CVS = Consumer Value Stores

Monday

TED (as in TED conferences and talks) = Technology, Entertainment, and Design

Tuesday

YMCA = Young Men’s Christian Association

Wednesday

OK = “oll korrect,” a humorous misspelling of “all correct.” OK first showed up in 1839 in the Boston Morning Post in a satirical article about a group called the “Anti Bell-Ringing Society.” At the time, there was a strange literary fashion of abbreviating misspellings of common sayings, such as “K.G.” as “know go” for “no go” or “O.W.” as “oll wright” for “all right.” However, the year after the article was published, OK got a boost by the presidential election of Martin Van Buren. By chance, his nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” and his supporters kept the letters around by forming OK Clubs. Soon after the letters also proved a short, handy way to confirm reception of telegraph messages, and OK/okay is now one of English’s most common expressions, usable as a noun, verb, or adjective.

Thursday

DNA = deoxyribonucleic acid (pronounced “dee-OX-ee-RY-bo-noo-CLAY-ick acid”)

Friday

TNT = trinitrotoluene (pronounced “try-nitro-TAAL-yoo-ween”)

Saturday

SAT = Scholastic Assessment Test

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Week of March 29, 2020

It’s All Greek to Me, pt. I

Sunday

Chaos, according to Greek mythology, was the primordial void at the beginning of all existence. It was in a state of “complete disorder and confusion” until the first deities were born from the Cosmic Egg that formed in Chaos’s belly.

Monday

Enormous things (including that ship) are called “titanic” after the Titans, the “immortal giants of incredible strength,” also called “The Elder Gods” because they ruled before the Olympian gods in Greek mythology.

Tuesday

Speaking of ships, among those titans was Oceanus, the god who ruled the giant waterway believed to encircle the earth known to the Greeks.

Wednesday

The word “hysterical” is derived from the Greek word for uterus, and in modern English usually means uncontrollable laughing or crying. Beginning with Hippocrates (who, ironically in this case, is credited with making medicine more evidence-based), ancient Greeks believed that a “wandering and disconnected” uterus was the cause of excessive female emotion, as well as most female emotional and physical ailments. Strange and elaborate remedies were devised to lure the roaming uterus back into place.

Thursday

Simple, minimalist living is called “spartan” after ancient Sparta, whose inhabitants traditionally eschewed luxury and comfort. A courageous and disciplined person is called “spartan” after these famed qualities of ancient Spartan soldiers.

Friday

The “Stoics” in ancient Greece sought to be free from “passion” by pursuing logic, focus, and reflection, though the word is now more used for an unemotional and/or patiently enduring person.

Saturday

Things related to sexuality and physical passion are called “erotic” after the Greek god Eros, who could make both mortals and gods fall in love. Eros was the precursor to the Roman Cupid, and some sources indicate Eros had an understandably less popular brother Anteros, the God of spurned and unrequited love.

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Week of March 22, 2020

You’re Bugging Me

Sunday

Calling an excellent thing “the bee’s knees” was one of many youthful terms for impressive things that began during the American Roaring Twenties. Many of them were animal related, such as “the cat’s pygamas,” “the cat’s meow,” and “the snake’s hips.” An earlier 18th century use of the term indicated something that doesn’t actually exist. However, if you don’t mind calling the joints between bee leg segments “knees,” then bees’ knees exist in great quantity. A honeybee has six legs, each with many joined segments.

Monday

You may not want a “nitpicker” around to criticize your minor faults, but you might if you had lice. The word literally means one who picks off nits, the tiny eggs of lice, fleas, and other insects.

Tuesday

The black widow spider gets its name because the much-larger female of the species sometimes eats her partner after mating.

Wednesday

The word “mantis” comes from the Greek word for prophet, because many ancient religions thought the bugs had supernatural powers. Praying mantises, in addition to their pious appearance, can camouflage remarkably well, are amazingly agile, can prey on bats, birds, and reptiles, and move their head 180 degrees. Females often decapitate and devour their lovers (who don’t need their heads to finish up), and in at least two cases, also ate birds during copulation. Seeing a mantis is either good or bad fortune, depending on the culture. Some Christians believe seeing this prayerful insect in your house means angels are watching over you, but seeing one in Japan may warn of your death.

Thursday

Think there’s a lot of insects around? There are. By one estimate, there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (ten quintillion) total individuals, and that’s just insects, excluding spiders, mites, and other arthropods. Fewer than one million species have been described by scientists, and that’s out of an estimated 2-30 million total species total. Throw spiders and all other “bugs” in the pot, and we’re talking about up to 80% of the species on this planet being insects and arthropods.

Friday

Butterfly wings are far larger than needed just to fly, and their erratic-looking flight is partially a tactic to keep predators from predicting their flight path. The insects generate extra turbulence with their wingbeats as they tip, rotate, and shift their center of gravity around. However, species which are more poisonous to predators don’t need all this trickery and fly straighter than their tastier relatives.

Saturday

Despite being around for about 300 million years, dragonflies put most modern flying critters to shame. They can travel up to 34 mph, can fly forward, backward, sideways, upside down, hover, turn almost immediately, nab prey in mid-flight, and at least one species can cross oceans (yes, oceans) of 11,000 miles for the record of longest-migrating insect.

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Week of March 15, 2020

‘Tis the Seasoning

Sunday

Before refrigeration, salt was so valuable as a food preservative that Roman soldiers were often paid with it or received allowance for it, and the word “salary” derives from “salarium,” the Latin word for salt allowance.

Monday

Hence, to be good at your job and worthy of your pay is to be “worth your salt.”

Tuesday

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his audience “the salt of the earth.” By one interpretation, disciples were being called to preserve the earth from moral decay. By another reading, the listeners were being recognized for their value, like salt has. However, the salt found in Israel was rich in magnesium and hence very useful for stoking fires in ovens, so another interpretation is that the disciples were being told that they were essential in this sense. By another understanding, the term distinguished salt mined from the ground from that evaporated from the Dead Sea, which was more prone to contamination. There are many more interpretations. In modern usage, however, the term tends to mean honest, modest, and hardworking people.

Wednesday

The ocean is salty because of runoff water from land, seafloor vents and underwater volcanoes. Since rainwater is slightly acidic, it slowly dissolves rocks on land, the salty ions from which eventually flow into the ocean. Meanwhile, ocean water seeps into the crust below it and is heated by the Earth’s mantle, dissolving minerals from the crust which are added to seawater. A similar process occurs via the injection of salty ions from underwater volcanoes. And while there are different types of salt in nature, 85-90% of the dissolved ions in seawater are sodium and chloride, same as common table salt, which often comes from evaporated seawater.

Thursday

To remind someone of an unpleasant fact is to “rub it in,” which itself is short for “rubbing salt in the wound.” Not surprisingly, doing this makes a wound more painful.

Friday

The superstition of curing bad luck by throwing salt over the left shoulder is itelf related to another salty superstition. In “The Last Supper,” da Vinci painted Judas Iscariot as having knocked the salt over with his elbow. Accordingly, spilled salt came to be associated with treachery and an invitation for the devil to corrupt the spiller. The cure was for the spiller was to throw salt over the left shoulder and blind the devil supposedly waiting there.

Saturday

Four enormous hollowed-out underground salt caverns along the US Gulf Coast are filled with oil barrels. These create the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, with a total capacity of 714 million barrels. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973-4, which cut off the country’s main source and led to shortages, the idea for the strategic stockpile came about.