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April 4, 2020

Food for Thought

Though he didn’t start the idea of putting filling between two slices of bread, John Mantagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, got the name to stick. Supposedly, in 1762, the frequently-gambling earl wanted something to eat without having to leave the card table, and likely got the idea through similarly-stacked morsels he’d seen on Mediterranean travels. Once he started eating these regularly, they took off in popularity, with people ordering “the same as Sandwich” which got shortened to “sandwich.”


Grapevine stems are naturally twisted and convoluted, quite the opposite of straight and direct telegraph wires. The connection is that to describe something which was “heard through the grapevine” actually descends of the older term “The Grape Vine Telegraph Line.” This reference, which came about soon after telegraph technology grew, referred to information transmitted through the often-meandering and indirect person-to-person channels as opposed to straight-from-the-source communications. Nonetheless, these “grapevine” channels via African-Americans proved useful to Union leaders during the American Civil War in obtaining clandestine military information, and likely in many other military efforts since.


The richer part of milk, the cream, rises to the top of the liquid and is the more valuable part to farmers. The French term for this is the “la creme de la creme” or “the cream of the cream,” so the English term “cream of the crop” is likely an alliteration of this.

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April 3, 2020

Street Knowledge

Modern Wall Street is on a site where, in 1652, Manhattan’s Dutch settlers built a cannon-fortified wooden wall 9 feet tall and 2,324 feet long to defend against the British. The earthen parts of the wall were pre-existing fortifications against slaves and Native Americans. Sadly, slaves were also sold on Wall Street for about 100 years of its history as a trading center.


Broadway, the Manhattan street famous for theater productions and the city’s oldest thoroughfare, was named that by the British after they encountered this unusually wide road. The Dutch had done the widening and called it “Gentleman’s Way,” but hadn’t done the original building; both European nations were building on Wickquasgeck Road, originally cut by Native Americans.


In the early 1700’s, New Orleans’ famous Bourbon Street was named not for the liquor (which didn’t exist yet) but for the then-ruling French royal family. The liquor was named after this family, though there is debate over whether this name came by way of Bourbon Street or Bourbon County (also named for those royals) in Kentucky.

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April 2, 2020

Clean Up Your Act

Soap operas are called that because soap manufacturers were among the first companies to sponsor the female-targeted serial radio shows which played during the daytime in the 1930’s, and this term eventually got extended to television shows.


By coincidence, the term “squeaky clean” came into use in about the same decades as soap operas, and was intended to describe things so clean they squeak when rubbed. The term later got a boost by Ajax cleaning product advertisements in the 1970’s, though the term now also applies to people without blemished histories or past practices.


Keeping your nose clean doesn’t just mean wiping it thoroughly, but avoiding corruption and shadiness in general. This term seems to be an American variant of the British term to “keep your hands clean,” which arose in the 19th century, and with the same general meaning.

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April 1, 2020

Random Acronym Wednesday (RAW!) pt. IV, no kidding

“SOS” is the international distress call, originally for ships, but does not stand for “save our souls / ship.” In fact, the letters don’t stand for any words, but the Morse code (3 dots, 3 dashes, 3 dots) to transmit the signal can be tapped out quickly and without pauses.


FBI = Federal Bureau of Investigation, though the letters also make up the Bureau’s motto of “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.”


AM / PM = Ante Meridiem (Latin: before midday) and Post Meridiem (after midday).

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March 31, 2020

Twinkle, Twinkle

Stars twinkle when viewed from Earth, but not when viewed from space. The twinkle is caused by the effects Earth’s atmosphere has on starlight, which comes from very far away. Planets, viewed from earth, don’t twinkle, because they are much, much closer. For this reason, however, closer stars twinkle a little less.


“Shooting stars” or “falling stars” are not stars at all, but meteors and meteorites which burn bright as they enter the earth’s atmosphere and experience friction with the air. These are typically mostly space rock and dust, and meteorites make it to the surface while meteors burn up entirely in the atmosphere.


Our sun is big, bright, and warm in the summer sky, but is still about 93 million miles away. That means even at the mind-boggling speed of light, if takes sunlight 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach Earth.