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Week of March 14 , 2021

Bullet Points

Sunday

The term “sniper” to describe professional sharpshooters originates in colonial India. British soldiers stationed there found it very challenging to hunt the snipe, a well-camouflaged wading bird which flies in unpredictable patterns. Hence the term “sniper” came to indicate shooters skilled in the marksmanship and camouflaging needed for a successful snipe hunt.

Monday

Shotguns typically spray pellets rather than firing a single bullet, so taking a “shotgun approach” alludes to a broad-based “see what hits” strategy instead of a focused one.

Tuesday

No reputable casino will let you play “Russian roulette,” a term that denotes taking a chance with a deadly risk. This terrifying “game” involves putting a single bullet into the cylinder of a revolver, which is then spun (like a roulette wheel) to lose track of the bullet before pointing the gun at one’s own head or another’s. If the cylinder holds six bullets, there is a 1/6 chance of firing the bullet when the trigger is pulled.

Wednesday

Acting prematurely has been called “jumping the gun” since the 18th Century in reference to racers taking off before the starting gun was fired.

Thursday

Were you actually armed when you last hopped in the passenger seat to “ride shotgun”? This term came from the protective passenger, indeed armed with a shotgun, who sat next to the driver in horse-driven wagons of the old American west to ward of would-be attacks. Notably, however, this term for the practice came about shortly after the stagecoach era, helped by Hollywood.

Friday

A person energized for any challenge, especially a confrontation, is sometimes described as “loaded for bear.” This refers to the powerful weapons and ammunition you’d need for such a large, possibly deadly animal.

Saturday

Someone speaking or working in a cavalier or impulsive way is said to be “shooting from the hip.” This is because firing a holstered gun near your hip may help you fire faster than aiming with the sights, but at the expense of accuracy.

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Week of March 7, 2021

You’re Fired

Sunday

People used to find big bargains at a “fire sale,” a term first applied to discounted fire-damaged goods. You may still find these, but the term now more often applies to financially troubled sellers trying to raise money quickly with very low prices.

Monday

When apprenticeships in trades were more common, a new and unskilled apprentice might be asked to hold a candle for light while his master worked his craft. Only a very useless apprentice “can’t hold a candle to” his master’s work and perform even this menial task, and the term also indicates the great disparity between the abilities of the two. A 16th-century writer who was among the first to use the term wrote that he was not worthy to hold a candle to Aristotle.

Tuesday

Working on a project late into the night? You likely have electric lights on, but in centuries past an oil lamp would have lit your work. This is the origin of the term “burning the midnight oil.”

Wednesday

You can’t return to where you were if you’ve “burnt all your bridges” behind you (or burnt all your boats). However, this idiom derives from a practice of the ancient Roman armies, so that the invading Romans knew that no retreat was available; victory or death were the only options.

Thursday

One of several modern sayings derived from real torture methods of centuries past, “holding his feet to the fire” wasn’t just psychological pressure in the old days, but a much more unpleasant actual practice.

SOURCE: Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined, New York, Penguin, 2011. (page i6)

Friday

“Bonfire of the Vanities” was a good book-turned-movie, named after a lesser-known historic practice. Starting in 1497, Dominican friar Girolama Savonarola wanted the citizens of Florence to prepare for the end of the world, which he expected in the year 1500. This was done by burning items which he felt distracted them from religious obligations, including scientific tools, “objectionable” artwork, musical instruments, classical literature, cosmetics, dresses, and more. These giant fires were later dubbed “Bonfires of the Vanities.” The less uptight Florentines grew tired of the friar, as did the pope he often criticized, and he was hanged with his body burned on the same spot as his bonfires occurred.

Saturday

Your attention is too divided to concentrate on any one task if you “have too many irons in the fire.” This old idiom derived from blacksmithing, where having too many irons in the fire means no one can be given proper attention. This also causes the fire to cool, such that none of these irons will heat properly.

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Week of February 28, 2021

Twinkle, Twinkle

Sunday

Stars twinkle when viewed from Earth, but not when viewed from space. The twinkle is caused by our atmosphere’s effects 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.

Monday

“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 typically consist of mostly space rock and dust, and meteorites make it to the surface while meteors burn up entirely in the atmosphere.

Tuesday

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

Wednesday

What’s the closest star to Earth? The sun, or course, but the next is Proxima Centauri, which is really a three-star system. Still, “close” is relative. Voyager I, already traveling at a brain-bending 38,000 mph, would take over 73,000 years to get there.

Thursday

Stars are popular. They appear on the flags of 59 different countries, featuring stars with anywhere from 4 points (Aruba) to 24 points (Marshall Islands).

Friday

Stars aren’t even remotely similar in size or temperature. Among observed stars, the largest are up to 60,000,000 times larger that the smallest, and surface temperature can range by over 65,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Saturday

You know that Moby song “We Are All Made of Stars”? It’s true. The carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and all other elements in your body came from the end-of-life explosions of stars long ago, which ejected these heavier elements into space for the raw material of younger stars, planets, people, and about everything else we see.

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Week of February 21, 2021

Seven-Barreled Facts

Sunday

If someone has “got you over a barrel,” it implies they’re in control and you’re not. People rescued from near-drownings used to be draped a barrel while the water was cleared from their lungs. However, in the more sinister situations which likely inspired the term, people were put over barrels and tied in this position to receive beatings.

Monday

Since booze often used to be shipped in barrels, “barrel fever” can be sickness from excessive drinking, a hangover, or in the longer term, the physical debilitation which often comes with chronic drinking.

Tuesday

The shipping of booze in barrels gave the early oil industry the idea for shipping their liquid in this standardized unit. A standard oil barrel was made 42 gallons, 2 gallons more than a whiskey barrel to cover spillage and evaporation in transport. Though most modern oil never sees the inside of a barrel, this standardized unit remains worldwide

Wednesday

Food was also traditionally stored in barrels, so when you were running out and had to take the leftovers and remains on the very bottom, you were “scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

Thursday

Perhaps you’ve recklessly gone barrelling down the highway in your car, but this term likely comes from the wooden vehicle. Back when barrels were common in households and farms, thrill-seeking youngsters would climb in and roll down hills. You cannot steer nor stop the average barrel from inside, so this pastime was rather dangerous.

Friday

The surname “Cooper” originally meant a person in the business of making and fixing barrels, buckets, and casks. It is now a common first name.

Saturday

The long tube of a gun or cannon which ammunition travels through is called a “barrel” because these tubes were either designed from or had an appearance like actual barrels in early weapons.

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Week of February 14, 2021

This One’s On Your Head

Sunday

When one player scores three goals in a single hockey game, it is called a “hat trick.” However, this term actually originated in a 1858 cricket match in England, when bowler H.H. Stephenson hit all 3 wooden stakes behind the batter 3 times in a row, that is, he bowled three consecutive wickets. Money was collected to recognize his impressive feat and used to buy him a hat.

Monday

But can’t you hang a hat just about anywhere? Yes, which is why the saying “home is where you hang your hat” refers to wherever you happen to live as opposed to a place you may have a sentimental connection to.

Tuesday

Boxing wasn’t always two predetermined fighters facing off in a square ring. It used to be an actual circular ring with spectators all around who could themselves become the fighters. Someone would “throw their hat in the ring” to announce their interest, and the referee would look for a second hat, if needed, to recognize a challenger.

Wednesday

Once all competitors were ready, races and fights had to start on a clear, fast signal. Before starting guns, this was often an official dropping a hat or swiftly swinging one downward. Hence, something done or decided quickly is said to be done “at the drop of a hat.”

Thursday

Tipping your hat to someone, which may include merely touching it or removing it is a sign of nonverbal acknowledgment or respect. It is most often done by men and is likely related to military saluting (see this website’s post of 10/18/2020). However, where there was a difference of status between the tippers, one may only need to touch his hat while another had to remove it, similar to the depth of a bow in bowing cultures.

Friday

This status-indicating hat etiquette described above also explains why a humble person might appear “hat in hand,” acknowledging their subordinate position.

Saturday

Though the first magician or “conjurer” to pull a rabbit out of a hat could have been either Louis Conte or John Henry Anderson, this classic magic trick has been around since the early 19th century.