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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.

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Week of February 2, 2020

Enough Alredy

Sunday

Since the color red has been associated with communism since the 20th century, the expression “Better dead than red” connotes a firm rejection of communism, while “Better red than dead” showed more compromise, especially among Cold War-era opponents of nuclear weapons.

Monday

The first reference to a “red hand,” which you have when caught “red handed,” comes from a Scottish law from 1432. Unsurprisingly, the red was blood, which came from murder or poaching.

Tuesday

Did you ever “paint the town red” on some wild night? The likely origin of this one is fairly literal. Notorious drinker and hellraiser Marquis of Waterford led his drunken buddies through the town of Melton Mowbray in England one night in 1837, and after breaking windows and flowerpots, the raucous crew procured some red paint and redecorated several doors, a tollgate, and a swan statue. Once sobered up, they had to compensate the damaged town.

Wednesday

Long before Hollywood or modern politics, the tradition of famous or important people walking down a red carpet in formal events goes back to ancient Greece. One reason for the associations between the color red and prestige is that red dye was particularly difficult to make and therefore expensive.

Thursday

Businesses operating at a loss are said to be “in the red.” This term goes back to the bookkeeping and accounting practice, first cited in 1907, of using red ink to denote financial loss. Conversely, financially solvent businesses are “in the black” for this color ink.

Friday

Bureaucratic fuss is implied by the term “red tape” because in the 16th century, Spanish king Charles V’s began the practice of tying rolls of important administrative documents with red tape, rather than another color, to indicate that they were more urgent and to be reviewed by higher-level officials.

Saturday

The term “red herring” denotes a deliberately misleading clue or diversion. This was first used in literature in 1807 by journalist William Cobbett when he described using this pungent cooked fish (which turns from silver to red-brown with cooking) as a boy to distract hounds chasing the scent of a hare. The story was used as a metaphor for the press of the day, which had been distracted from covering essential domestic matters by false news of Napoleon’s defeat.

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Week of January 26, 2020

That’s An Acronym? (pt. I)

Sunday

LASER = Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

Monday

TASER = Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle. This was the title of a 1911 young adult adventure novel starring Tom Swift, childhood hero of Jack Cover, the NASA researcher and inventor who completed the first taser in 1974.

Tuesday

RADAR = RAdio Detection And Ranging

Wednesday

SCUBA = Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

Thursday

ZIP Code = Zone Improvement Plan

Friday

CAPTCHA = Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (also see: Alan Turing’s test for evaluating machine intelligence).

Saturday

CARE Package® = Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe

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Week of January 19, 2020

Let’s Get Crazy

Sunday

For centuries, doctors associated insanity and other medical afflictions with lunar cycles, hence the terms “lunatic” and “lunacy” to describe an affected person.

Monday

Since most nuts, like the human head, are hard with valuable contents, people have used “nut” as slang for “head” since at least the mid-1800s. The term “off his nut” described someone who seemed separated from his head and senses, and this was later shortened to just “nuts.”

Tuesday

An unpredictable and dangerous person is sometimes called a “loose cannon.” Early cannons of the wooden ship days were not yet secured in fixed spots, but were wheel-mounted and could be rolled to different gunports on the ship. When one of these extremely heavy guns broke loose on deck during bad weather or battle, the “loose cannon” was a clear danger to nearby crewmen, often causing gruesome and fatal injuries.

Wednesday

The word “demented” comes the Latin “dementare” or “out of one’s mind.”

Thursday

If you’ve ever described someone as “going berserk,” you were invoking the name of ancient Norse warriors known for fighting with wild fervor and other acts of brutality. Berserker translates to “bearskin,” as animal skins were often part of the warriors’ attire, which is thought to contribute to the European werewolf legends.

Friday

Many ancient civilizations considered insanity to be caused by possession by evil spirits or demons, as did many religions. For example, Jesus casts devils and demons out of the afflicted in several Bible passages.

Saturday

Cuckoo birds are likely considered “crazy,” because of their repetitive, incessant calls and habit of placing their own eggs in the nests of other birds. By some accounts, male cuckoos are crazy for tolerating their partner’s infidelity and outsourcing of childrearing, and the polyandrous female is crazy because she “fools around.”

Palmatier, Robert Allen, Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors, Greenwood Press, 1995 (page 105)