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Week of March 8, 2020

Up All Knight

Sunday

Pawns are the lowest-ranking chess piece, yet can still be strategically valuable. Hence, to say someone is a “pawn” suggests they have little real power and are being used by others in some larger plan.

Monday

In chess, a king is “checked” or “put in check” when threatened with immediate capture, such that the checked player’s next possible moves become very limited. A person is said to be “put in check” or “checked” when corrected, controlled, or stopped, a term that seems to derive directly from chess.

Tuesday

If the threatened player fails to get out of check, that king is “checkmated,” a term derived from “shah mat,” which translates to “the king died” (Arabic) or “the king is stumped, helpless” (Persian).

Wednesday

Able to travel any distance in any direction, the queen is the chess board’s most powerful piece, and a real-life powerful queen made her so. The chess queen’s predecessor piece was male and able to move only two spaces at a time. When Isabella, the queen who united Spain, was crowned in 1475, that chess piece got a gender change, but could only match the king in moving one space at per turn. Twenty years later, when Isabella had become Europe’s most powerful woman, the queen got upgraded to her current great power, enshrined in the game rules still used today. Symbolically, the king piece remained more important, just like Isabella’s husband King Ferdinand, but far less powerful than the queen.

Thursday

Chess dates back to at least 6th century India, where the board was conceived as a battlefield. However, as the game got bigger in Europe, the original military characters became characters of a royal court. The original Indian pieces, known as counselor, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, transformed into the queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.

Friday

Legendary pioneering blues and rock record company Chess Records was not named for the game, but Jewish Polish immigrant brothers Phil and Leonard Chess.

Saturday

There are more possible chess games than there are electrons in the observable universe. (10123 vs. 1080)

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Week of March 1, 2020

Belt ‘Em Out

Sunday

“Karate” is Japanese for “empty hand,” since this martial art focuses on unarmed combat.

Monday

“Tae Kwon Do” is Korean for “way of the fist and foot.”

Tuesday

“Judo” is Japanese for “the gentle way,” as it stresses maximum efficiency with minimal effort, using an opponent’s force against him, and has a big philosophical component.

Wednesday


“Jiu-jitsu” means “gentle art” in Japanese.

Thursday

The term “kung fu” itself just describes any endeavor requiring time, work, and patience to complete, not necessarily just a martial art.

Friday

“Krav Maga” means “contact combat” in Hebrew.

Saturday

Hapkido translates to “the art of coordinated power” in Korean.

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Week of February 23, 2020

What’s In A Name?

Sunday

“Eke” is an Old English word meaning “also.” Hence, another name you went by was called “an eke-name,” which eventually morphed into “a nickname.”

Monday

Using the name “John Doe” for an anonymous or identity-protected person traces back to an abandoned British legal procedure called an “action of ejectment.” Due to legal complexities, the process often moved faster when fictitious names were used to more quickly determine the rights of the real-life parties, and “John Doe” was frequently the fictitious plaintiff and “Richard Roe” the fictitious defendant. Exact reasons for the use of these names are unclear, but John and Richard were (and still are) common English names, and “doe” and “roe” are both deer-related terms: a doe is a female deer, and roe a Eurasian deer species widespread in England. More recently, “Jane Doe” became the female equivalent of “John Doe,” though the also-anonymous “Roe” made it into the landmark US Supreme Court abortion case of Roe v. Wade before the plaintiff revealed her real name.

Tuesday

“Santa Claus” is derived from “Sinter Klass,” the Dutch nickname of Sint Nikolaas, or Saint Nicholas.

Wednesday

It wasn’t until the year 1066 that the idea of last names really caught on in England, and many last names now common in the US began simply as ways to identify who’s son somebody was (Johnson, Anderson, Robertson, etc.) or what their profession was (Smith, Miller, Baker, Taylor, Potter, Cook, Mason, Cooper, etc.). Notably, many Hispanic surnames also indicate a father’s name (Rodriguez = son of Rodrigo, Hernandez = son of Hernando, etc.).

Thursday

Among Western cultures, the practice of giving a child a middle name was far rarer before the the 1700s, except to indicate a higher status in society (such as in old Rome) or among cultures who included a lot of earlier generation’s family names, like Arabic and Spanish names. Later, Europeans’ options for the occasional middle name were either a saint or ancestor, but by the 1800s, middle name choices were wide open in the US and Europe. By WWI, middle names were common in Western cultures and remain so.

Friday

All living species, once discovered by science, are given a scientific or Latin name in addition to their common name. You are a modern human, AKA homo sapien sapiens. The scientific name of a newly discovered or named species is often chosen in honor of someone and is then Latin-ized. Among the many famous people with species named for them (and often insects and spiders) are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mick Jagger, David Attenborough, Lada Gaga, Matt Groening, Liv Tyler, Johnny Cash, Steven Colbert, Harrison Ford, and quite a few political leaders and Greek philosophers.

Saturday

In China, one term for “commoners” translates to “the old 100 surnames.” While there are now over 4,000 family names in China, the top 100 cover an amazing 85% of the population. The ten most common names are Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Wu, and Zhou.

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Week of February 16, 2020

Go With The Flow

Sunday

Since at least the 17th century, people have been saying that a dubious idea or explanation “doesn’t hold water.” The allusion is to a useless container which can’t carry liquid, the same idea conveyed when calling a story “full of holes.”

Monday

Newborn babies are typically wet with amniotic fluid, so “wet behind the ears” means someone new and inexperienced. Curiously, the term “dry behind the years,” for an experienced person, seems to have been first used around the same time, but has not survived into common parlance.

Tuesday

A momentous life happening is sometimes called a “watershed moment.” This is a geological reference, since a watershed can be a ridge or mountain chain (like the Great Divide) that defines the direction which water flows down either side of it.

Wednesday

“Water under the bridge” has flowed past and cannot be recovered, so this term applies to past conflicts that may as well be forgiven, akin to “letting bygones be bygones.” This phrase is several centuries old, and seems based on the earlier expression “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since…”, suggesting much time has passed since the earlier event. A less common variant is “water over the dam.”

Thursday

The term “rain check,” for postponing something to a later date, began at American baseball games in the 1880’s. Since baseball games can be “rained out,” or cancelled due to rain, a rain check was a voucher to attend a future game in place of the rained-out match.

Friday

Think you can smell rain coming, especially after several dry days? That harbinger scent is a chemical called petrichor. This compound is a combination of oils from plants but also geosmin, an alcohol produced by actinobacteria in the soil. These bacteria pick up the pace of their decomposition work when the air gets more humid before rain and produce more geosmin, which humans can detect in petrichor and associate with rain.

Saturday

What causes wet dog smell? Dogs, like many mammals, carry around lots of bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms on their fur and skin. When a dog gets wet, some waste of these little tagalongs evaporates and humans detect it.

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Week of February 9, 2020

Tipping the Scales

Sunday

Fans of “The Godfather” know that the fate of a certain beefy family associate is to “sleep with the fishes.” The term indicates disposing of a murder victim in water, but similar terms go back much further than the 1970s. One identical reference goes back to 1836, and another all the way back to The Illiad, via a translation to “Make your bed with the fishes now…”

Monday

The term “small fry” to describe a trifling or inconsequential person or thing does not derive from fried potatoes, but more likely newly-hatched fish, also called “fries.”

Tuesday

The term “jumped the shark” is used to describe a television show which has peaked in quality and is now in decline. This began with a Season Five special episode of “Happy Days” in which a waterskiing Fonzie accepts the challenge of a beach rival to jump off a ski jump over a caged shark. This was considered a resort to gimmickry over stronger writing (though the show aired for five more highly-rated seasons, and Henry Winkler got to show off his formidable real-life wasterskiing skills).

Wednesday

Fish are indeed slimy, and for very practical reasons. Fish slime reduces drag while swimming, wards off parasites and pathogens, and even soothes open fish wounds. The slime also facilitates gas and water exchange across the skin, balances electrolytes, offers sunscreen, and in some cases gives the fish advantages over prey and against predators.

Thursday

To make someone wholly believe something “hook, line, and sinker” refers to a fish which has taken the bait completely by swallowing this much fishing gear and is now very unlikely to escape.

Friday

People describing a problem drinker as someone who “drinks like a fish” should clarify that they mean saltwater fish. Freshwater fish don’t do this because it would overdilute their blood and body fluids. Saltwater fish, however, drink a lot to balance fresh water lost from their bodies to their salty surroundings, and their kidneys remove the salt while their gills pump the salt back into the water around them.

Saturday

Ever wonder what happens to the fish when lakes freeze in the winter? They hang out at the liquid bottom. Ice is less dense than water, so it floats, and water bodies freeze from the top down. The water below gets denser with depth, and with more density comes slightly higher temperatures. As a result, water deeper than 1 meter won’t freeze, and lucky for the fish, this deep water is usually quite oxygen-rich. Their metabolism and breathing slow, and their body chemistry accommodates this cold, slow environment.