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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 often then kicked this “bucket” during the spasms and thrashing of slaughter.

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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.

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Week of September 5, 2021

Hay, Hay, What Can I Do? READ FACTOIDS.

Sunday

A powerful arcing punch, often a knockout blow, is often called a “haymaker.” This is because when hay was harvested manually with a scythe, the same strong, wide swing was used to cut those grasses and plants which made up hay.

Monday

Hay and straw have long been used for animal bedding and have also stuffed human mattresses, hence the term “hit the hay” for sleeping.

Tuesday

A disorganized and chaotic operation or plan is often said to have “gone haywire.” Real haywire, which is used bind straw and hay bales, was historically also used to make temporary, improvised repairs to equipment. In the American logging industry, a “haywire outfit” was a negative term for a logging company using poor equipment. Furthermore, due to the springy nature of hay wire, it can easily become a tangled mess when not spooled correctly.

Wednesday

A term which centuries ago was a happy cheer like “hooray,” a “heyday” came to mean a happy event, and later, the peak or finest time for a person or ongoing thing.

Thursday

Hay is not straw and straw is not hay. Straw, often empty wheat or barley stalks, is really a by-product of harvested grain. It makes great bedding (see above) and can hold in moisture in soil, and make some nice hats, but is not itself ideal for eating. Hay is harvested live plants, dried and intended for animal consumption, particularly when live grass is not available to munch on. In other words, hay is typically not a by-product of something else; it is harvested to feed animals.

Friday

The term “hayseed,” indicating an unsophisticated country person, originated from a 19th century idiom for a simple county person who “had hayseed in his / her hair.”

Saturday

The modern idiom “make hay” is a shortening of “Make hay while the sun shines” which encouraged taking advantage of opportunities while you can.

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Week of August 29, 2021

Show Us Some Skin

Sunday

Before “in the buff” meant naked, it meant wearing a buff coat. This leather tunic worn by English soldiers through the 17th century was a beige color known as buff. Since this was a similar color to the skin of many English folks, “in the buff” came to mean nude.

Monday

Before it was the name of the skimpy swimsuit, the coral islands known as Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific were the target of several 1946 atomic bomb tests by the US military. Four days later, French swimsuit designer Louis Réard also dubbed his new scant piece of ladies’ swimwear the “bikini,” declaring that it would be just as explosive as those nuclear tests. To distinguish it from a competitor’s slightly more modest design, Réard said only a real bikini could be pulled through a wedding ring. Réard initially had trouble finding women willing to model the swimsuit, and it was forbidden in many places after its introduction.

Tuesday

“Mooning,” as the act of deliberately showing your bare butt, entered the lexicon in the 1960’s when it became popular in American universities, though a bare bottom has been called a “moon” since at least the 18th century. Whatever you call it, the practice has roots much further back. Among the older moons, Byzantines mooned fleeing European foes in 1203 during the Fourth Crusade, Brits mooned Scots on 13th century battlefields, and Native Americans mooned Italian explorers in the 1500s. Across all these times and places, though, the gesture remained an insult and mockery.

Wednesday

Humans are sometimes called “the naked ape” because we’re the only known primates not totally covered in hair. This was also the title of a 1967 book by Desmond Morris.

Thursday

Historically, swimming naked was the norm for so long it never needed a special name. After swimsuits were the norm, though, it did, and the term “skinny dipping” arose in the 1950s. Notably, this practice has been popular with many US presidents.

Friday

Operating since 1929, Sky Farm, located in Liberty City, New Jersey, is the oldest “clothing optional” resort in the United States.

Saturday

The modern Mardi Gras tradition of women flashing in exchange for beads goes back to an uncertain date, but was most likely started in the range between 1969 and 1976, according to historians on the topic.