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Week of May 9, 2021

Food for Thought

Sunday

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 often-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.”

Monday

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.

Tuesday

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.

Wednesday

A plausible origin of the term “spilling the beans” for revealing a secret goes back to ancient Greece. When voting on a matter, anonymous votes were cast by placing one of two raw beans in an opaque jar: white for yes, black for no. A clumsy voter who knocked over the jar would spill the beans, revealing the vote prematurely.

Thursday

Remember grabbing that hot cucumber and burning your hand? Probably not. Cucumbers are mostly water on the inside, which absorbs heat slowly and really does keep them cooler than their surroundings, sometimes by up to 20 degrees Celcius. Most melons and gourds share this watery coolness too, but we happen to say “cool as a cucumber” and not “cool as a cantaloupe.”

Friday

The most prominent theory about why a “baker’s dozen” is 13 instead of 12 involves bakers avoiding punishment. For centuries, English laws severely punished bakers who cheated customers by selling them undersized or too few loaves. Bakers came to err on the side of caution by selling 13 loaves as a dozen.

Saturday

Besides a sauce made with meat drippings, “gravy” has also long meant something easy. The term “gravy train” when first used by railroad workers in the 1920s to refer to a good-paying yet relatively low-effort train run.

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Week of May 2, 2021

That’s An Acronym? (Part II)

Sunday

Humvee = High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle

Monday

IKEA = Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd, which is the founder’s name, the farm he grew up on, and the town where the farm was located.

Tuesday

Canola = Canada Oil, Low Acid. This is the oil produced by the rapeseed, but Canola was chosen as a more marketable label name, and to indicate that a problematic acid present in wild varieties had been bred out of Canola oil.

Wednesday

Gulag = Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey, which is Russian for “Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps.”

Thursday

BASE jumping = the things you can jump off of, namely Buildings, Antennas, Spans (such as bridges) and Earth (like cliffs).

Friday

A “bit” in the computer data sense = “binary digit,” which in this case means 0 or 1.

Saturday

Pakistan is an acronym for the Indian regions it was made from: Punjab, Afghan, Kashmir, (I added for pronunciation), Sind, and BaluchisTAN.

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Week of April 25, 2021

Calling You Out

Sunday

A face unhidden by mask or beard has been called a “bareface” since the 16th century, and about two centuries later, this term was applied to “open, unconcealed” lies. Then about 75 years ago this morphed into “bald-faced lie,” and the late 20th century spawned the variant “bold-faced lie.”

Monday

“Bullshit” first appeared in a 1915 dictionary, but the term “bull” for deceptive, false, or fraudulent talk had been around since Middle English. In other words, “bull” is not a shortening, but the original form of the term.

Tuesday

Bologna is a northern Italian city where the spiced sausage made of mixed meats by the same name was born. However, “baloney,” in the current meaning and spelling started to be used in the US in the 1920s, though there are also references from that era of the word referring to boxers and wrestlers.

Wednesday

Before “balderdash” was a senseless jumble of words, it was an jumbled combination of alcoholic beverages, such as milk and wine or buttermilk and beer, etc.

Thursday

Centuries before “bollocks” became the uniquely British equivalent of “bullshit,” the word meant “testicles.”

Friday

“Phony” seems to originate from an old scam where a man would unexpectedly “find” a “gold” ring on the street, act surprised, and “generously” sell it to a passerby at a great low price. In fact, the ring was brass and placed there by the con artist himself. “Fainne” is the Irish word for ring, which became “fawney” in English, as in “fawney man” or scam artist, then it morphed into “phony.”

Saturday

The word “hoax” is a contraction of “hocus” which itself comes from “hocus pocus,” often heard during some kind of magic show or reference to illusion or deception.

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Week of April 18, 2020

Don’t Gain the World But Lose your Sole

Sunday

“Waiting for the other shoe to drop” means anticipating a seemingly inevitable event. In early New York City tenements, the bedrooms of the units were stacked vertically in the building, above and below each other. You could often hear your neighbor upstairs drop a shoe on the floor after taking it off, when you knew the second shoe was coming soon.

Monday

The original “Goody Two-Shoes” was named Margery Meanwell and was the hero of the 1765 children’s book “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.” After misfortune leaves her father dead and young Margery destitute, she wears only one shoe until a generous man buys her a second, and Margery is overjoyed. She grows up to be a schoolteacher, marries a rich widower, and helps the poor with her new wealth. Notably, the term “Goody two-shoes” appeared in a poem written about 70 years earlier, and “Goody” at that time was short for “Goodwife,” the polite way to address poor married women. The way we use the term “Goody two-shoes” today, however, is more likely based on the later 19th century phrase “goody goody” which had the more negative connotations of obnoxious superficial do-goodery.

Tuesday

Though physically impossible no matter what your strength, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is a popular idiom for personal initiative. The first reference to a bootstrap lift came when inventor Nimrod Murphree announced that he had “discovered perpetual motion” to a Nashville newspaper. Another paper mocked his claim, writing: “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland River, or a barnyard fence, by the straps of his boots.” Also on this theme of impossible-lifts-from-a-low-place, one story about fictional German yarn-spinner Baron Munchausen has him lifting himself (and his horse) out of a swamp by pulling upwards on his own hair. Later, it seems that author James Joyce was one of the first to use the bootstrap reference in the modern sense in 1922, and the impossible-yet-familiar footwear act has been referenced ever since.

Wednesday

The idiom “the shoe is on the other foot” actually began as “the boot is on the other leg,” but had the same idea. The shoe/boot is uncomfortable on the wrong foot/leg, meaning the positions between two people or circumstances were reversed.

Thursday

Leggings worn by sailors and marines during the Spanish-American War came to be known as boots, a term which also referred to recruits into those armed forces. Hence, the place where they were trained was called “boot camp.”

Friday

“Gums” used to be a term for rubber-soled shoes, so a plainclothes detective, who often wore this type of quiet, stealthy shoe, became known as a “gumshoe.”

Saturday

To “die with your boots on” means dying while being vigorous and engaged in activity (including fighting) to the very end.

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Week of April 11, 2021

It’s All Greek to Me, pt. III

Sunday

Referring to a person as “promethean,” often a pioneering thinker or inventor, invokes the Greek titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind as a gift. In some versions of the myth, he gave mankind all arts and sciences also.

Monday

An “Oedipus complex” refers to having an unnatural affection for one’s mother, because in the tragic myth of Oedipus the King, the protagonist unknowingly marries his own mother.

Tuesday

Your phobia, or innate fear, is named for Phobos, god of fear. Phobos kept scary company with his war god father, often portrayed with his brother Deimos (god of Terror) sister Enyo (war goddess) and Eris (goddess of discord).

Wednesday

Your shoes might be named for the Greek winged goddess of victory, whose name was Nike.

Thursday

Overburdened people complaining that they must carry the weight of the world on their shoulders are invoking Atlas. He was the titan condemned to do just that for warring with the gods. This is also why that book of maps is called an atlas.

Friday

Are you hpynotized by your hypnotist and feeling sleepy? Your state is named for Hypnos, the god of sleep. His parents were gods of night and darkness and his twin brother the god of death, so this guy was for real. At least twice he even put Zeus to sleep…

Saturday

…and if Zeus dreamed, he might have had Morpheus, son of Hypnos and god of dreams, to thank. Morpheus formed and shaped the dreams, which is why “morph” is a term for shape or form. This god is also the namesake for morphine, a sedative, as well as Laurence Fishburne’s badass character in The Matrix films.