The Origin of Everyday

The Backstories of Everyday Ideas, Items, & Terms

3-Packs of Themed Facts Posted Daily. Enjoy!

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    Origin of Everyday will be staying at home for a while. Back with more fun facts soon. Stay safe!

  • April 8, 2020

    Careful, These Are Gateway Factoids

    Since horseraces start when a gate is opened for all the horses simultaneously, the term “right out of the gate” is used for something that happens right at a commencement.

    The popular notion of the “pearly gates” to heaven actually comes from the Book of Revelation, which describes 12 gates made of pearl (one pearl per gate) leading to New Jerusalem.

    Since floodgates are typically solid barriers which hold back would-be floodwaters, to “open the floodgates” means to allow many previously-impossible things to happen.

  • April 7, 2020

    The Eyes Have It

    The term “apple of my eye” has roots back to the King James Bible, but the modern sense of a highly favored person or object, goes back to the 9th century…still not too shabby in terms of long lineages. It was previously believed that the pupil of the eye was a solid object, and the term apple – another familiar sphere – came to describe it. Mind you, in these days effective eye care was in a primitive-to-nonexistent state, so eyesight was highly valued. Hence, the term lent itself to other things which were similarly precious.

    The term “private eye” to describe private investigators has two plausible origins. The famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, which began in Chicago in the 1850s and was the original in the business in the US, used in their logo the image of a staring eye and the words “We Never Sleep.” However, the equally likely origin is simply the letter “I” in “private investigator.”

    The adult eye color of a human baby is not always knowable at birth, as there are many genes and pigments still at work. In some babies, particularly lighter-skinned ones, it may take up to 3 years for the iris color to fully establish.

  • April 6, 2020

    Digital Acronym Monday (DAM!) #3

    URL = Universal Resource Locator

    RAM = Random Access Memory

    CC (on email) = Carbon Copy, and its secretive cousin BCC, Blind Carbon Copy.

  • April 5, 2020

    Don’t Box Me In

    Since it is against the rules of boxing to hit an opponent below the waist, both the terms “low blow” and “below the belt,” indicating unfair conduct come from this sport.

    Since a bell marks the end of a boxing round but can also stop a knockout count, the term “saved by the bell” came to mean being rescued from a bad situation.

    A boxer’s trainer can throw a towel into the ring to stop the fight if it is too dangerous for the boxer to continue, so “throw in the towel” means quitting or surrendering in an endeavor.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • March 30, 2020

    You Are (in some species, the color of) What You Eat

    Newborn flamingos have grey feathers, but get pink by eating brine shrimp. These shrimp are full of carotenoids, which they get from the tiny algae they eat, and the flamingos break down carotenoids in their liver and deposit the compounds as orange and pink pigment throughout the bird’s body.

    Salmon flesh also gets that salmon color from the tiny algae-eating crustaceans in their diet.

    Those fishy carotenoids don’t just make things orangy-pink, though. The strikingly blue and large feet of the blue-footed booby also comes from these compounds in the bird’s seafood diet.

  • March 29, 2020

    Getting Soft on Us

    Soft drinks contain no alcohol, and so were first called soft to differentiate them from hard liquor.

    Often people are said to “soft pedal” inconvenient information or positions they’ve taken before. This is actually a reference to the soft pedal on a piano, which quiets tones when pressed.

    The game of softball was born of an Ivy League alumni rivalry. One day in November 1887, some Yale and Harvard alumni at Chicago’s Farragut Boat Club finally got word that Yale had won their football game against Harvard, causing one exited Yale alum to throw an old boxing glove at a Harvard alum, who attempted to hit it back with a stick. This led reporter George Hancock to lace up the glove like a ball, draw out the diamond’s lines with chalk, and prompt the first softball game. Over the next few decades, the rules and governing bodies were established, as was the name “softball,” since the game had, until 1926, been variously known as Indoor Ball, Kitten Ball, Playground Ball, Diamond Ball, Pumpkin Ball, Recreation Ball, Twilight Ball, Army Ball, Lightning Ball, Mushball, Big Ball, and Night Ball.

  • March 28, 2020

    Quite the Sporty Hat

    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.

    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 one of 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.

    When the 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.”

  • March 27, 2020

    Alice in the Real World

    “Down the Rabbit-Hole” is the first chapter in Lewis Carroll’s famous classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” wherein Alice enters the surreal world via that white rodent’s entrance. Since then the term has grown in use as a metaphor for getting into something either bizarre or time-consuming and attention-intensive (like many internet travels are).

    During a race with the Red Queen, the queen tells Alice that in Wonderland, “…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that! ” Among other fields, this idea has made its way into evolutionary biology with the “Red Queen hypothesis.” If a predator species in a predator-prey relationship, for example, does not evolve to be fast or stealthy enough to catch its prey, it might starve and eventually go extinct, while the prey species must evolve to run faster or otherwise escape the predator or it may go extinct. The result is a continuing evolutionary “race” for both species.

    The character in Wonderland commonly referred to as the Mad Hatter was not just a product of the author’s imagination. Exposure to mercury via the potent chemical mercury nitrate, widely used in making felt hats in Carroll’s time, often gave real-life hatmakers serious health problems, including tremors, hallucinations, psychosis and emotional disturbances. As a result, the term “mad as a hatter” was common, and “erethism,” or mercury poisoning which affects the entire central nervous system, is also called “mad hatter disease” or “mad hatter syndrome.”

  • March 26, 2020

    Keep Your Pants On

    With far less instrumentation, early pilots had to rely on their own senses a lot more to fly. Their rear end had some of the most direct contact with the plane, from which they could feel engine vibration, angle, and other input. This is why flying intuitively with little or no input from instruments and radios came to be known as “flying by the seat of your pants.”

    The association with the person who “wears the pants in the family” (or trousers of you’re British) being the family decision-maker it is simply based on the fact that only men historically wore pants and also traditionally had that role.

    That garment likely covering your legs is named for a creepy old man common in European theater a few centuries back. Crafty, greedy “Pantalone,” whose schemes often failed and led to his humiliation, was a stock character in plays from the 16th-18th centuries. Early on, he typically wore breeches and red stockings, but in later years wore long trousers. When similarly-styled trousers caught on outside the theater, they were called “Pantaloons” in England, which eventually got shortened to just “pants, ” which is part of “underpants” and “panties.”

  • March 25, 2020

    This Mortal Coil

    It was fitting that Dorothy lived in Kansas; At over 1,200 annually, the US experiences about four times more tornadoes than all other nations combined, and the Great Plains states are America’s “Tornado Alley.” Two huge geographic features make for this: The Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf, Earth’s warmest water body at its latitude, supplies warm, moist air that flows north at low altitudes. When this meets cold, dry, high air blowing off the Rocky Mountains, the conditions are particularly ripe for twisters.

    “Death spiral” often refers to a causation loop which makes the situation continuously worse. For example, a small town loses population, so it receives less tax money to fund basic services, so raises taxes to make up the loss, causing more residents to move out to avoid the higher taxes, etc. However, “death spiral” (AKA “graveyard spiral”) was first an aviation term which began when early pilots experienced extreme sensory disorientation from flying through clouds, dense fog, or darkness with no view of the horizon for reference. Pilots often reacted to this with an instinctive slow turn, but disjointed visual and equilibrium cues led them to misjudge actual angle and elevation, causing pilots to bank further and descend more, initiating a “death spiral” which was often ended in a crash. On-board instruments were developed to give pilots a better sense of their true positions and orientation relative to the horizon when personal perceptions could not be relied on.

    The often-raucous party game Twister began with a flash of inspiration from an ad executive hired to do something much different: create a promotional display for a shoe polish company (this same executive, Reyn Guyer, later invented the Nerf ball). He brought in some game developers, and after passing on the name “King’s Footsie,” and finding “Pretzel” unavailable, settled on “Twister” before selling Milton-Bradley the rights to it. Twister did not initially sell well, since company execs had reservations about the sexually suggestive nature of the game, and Sears refused to sell it in their catalog for the same reason. However, in May of 1966, Johnny Carson and the beautiful Eva Gabor played the game on The Tonight Show to great hilarity, and the game became an immediate success.

  • March 24, 2020

    Random Namesake Tuesday (RANT!), pt. II

    Fragments flying outward from an explosion are called “shrapnel” after Henry Shrapnel, the British army officer and inventor. Shrapnel developed an artillery shell packed with smaller lead or metal fragments intended to travel a distance into enemy lines before exploding in midair and spraying the fragments at enemy troops.

    The diesel engine is named for Rudolf Diesel, the German mechanical engineer and inventor who developed the more efficient combustion engine to compete with the steam engines of the day. His engine’s basic principles are still used in diesel engines to this day.

    Tupperware is named for Earl Tupper, who, in the 1940s, convinced his bosses at DuPont to sell him the company’s unused polyethylene slag. He converted that into a durable and flexible material for food storage and later developed the resealable lid. The product was not a great success until Tupper worked with saleswoman Brownie Wise, who had the products sold at home parties, usually by women who could move up through company ranks with exceptional sales.

  • March 23, 2020

    You’ve Been Warned

    Carbon monoxide and other toxic gasses are among the many occupational dangers to coal miners, and the practice of bringing canaries into coal mines persisted from 1911 to 1986. If the bird suddenly got sick or died, it suggested to the miners that a deadly gas was present, and they should get out, hence the metaphor “canary in the coal mine” as an early indicator. Animals that serve an environmental warning role to humans are sometimes called “sentinel species.”

    The old saying “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning” is a very old one, and variants appear in Shakespeare and the Bible. Since this red color is attributable to water vapor or dust splitting sun rays into their color spectrums when they pass sideways through the most atmosphere, color hints at the atmosphere’s contents at these times, which play a big role in weather. However, the saying is most accurate in the middle latitudes when weather systems move from west to east.

    Talking about a “shot across the bow” is similar to saying “a warning shot,” or a warning gesture to show that you’re serious, even about using force. In the nautical sense, this means deliberately firing in front of another vessel, sometimes forcing that ship to change course or stop. This gesture has also been used to signal to an unknown ship to fly its flag, but in the modern time these efforts at identification also include attempts at radio contact.

  • March 22, 2020

    Running the Show

    The term “run of the mill,” which now means unremarkable and ordinary originally described the mass-produced products of a weaving mill which had not yet been graded for quality and sorted for pricing. The term also applied to manufactured factory goods, and “run of the mine” had a similar meaning for mined products.

    Something that has gone out of control is often said to have “run amok (or ‘amuck’).” The word first showed up in English in a 1516 book about the inhabitants of Malaysia and Java to describe people within that population called the “Amuco” who were prone to murderous sprees, attacking everyone they encountered. About 2.5 centuries later, Captain James Cook wrote something similar about these individuals: “To run amock is to get drunk with opium… to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage…indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack.” By some accounts, possession by evil spirits caused the Amock’s behavior more than opium, but in any case, modern people or plans that “run amok” usually do so more peacefully.

    The official distance of a modern-day marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards, a number rooted in both ancient legend and the whims of 20th century royalty. In 490 BC, the Persians invaded Greece, but when the Greeks won an important battle, legend says that a messenger named Pheidippides was tasked with running the 25 miles from the city of Marathon to Athens to deliver the news. Supposedly, he did so successfully, then dropped dead. To honor that dutiful messenger, the marathon’s distance was set at 40 km., or about 25 miles, for the first few modern Olympic games. However, when the 1908 Olympics were held in London, the Queen requested that the the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle and finish at the royal box in the Olympic stadium. Apparently, this was because she wanted royal toddlers to watch the start from their nursery. This tweak was standardized in 1921, and marathons have been that distance ever since. Historians have some doubts about the ancient Greek “origin story,” though modern marathon runners remain no less impressive.

  • March 21, 2020

    Factoids Never Sleep, Either

    Everyone knows that Batman fights the baddies of Gotham City, but Gotham is both a real English town and an old nickname for New York City. Gotham just means “goat’s town” and in an old folk tale called “The Wise Men of Gotham,” the citizens of Gotham hear that the king will travel through their town, a visit which they fear will disrupt their quiet village life. Since madness was believed infectious at the time, they carry out “crazy” stunts and shenanigans until news of the town spreads to the king and he bypasses it. Apparently, author Washington Irving referenced this tale in 1807 when writing about New York City, gently poking fun at its residents, and the name stuck. Indeed, one modern NYC magazine is even called “The Gothamist.”

    Modern New York City was previously the capital of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, so was called “New Amsterdam” before it was surrendered to the English in 1664. Nonetheless, plenty of pre-English reminders remain. “Manhattan” was the name of the Native American tribe from whom the Dutch bought / fought for the island, and Peter Stuyvesant, its last Dutch governor, has his name on a modern New York City neighborhood, housing complex, street and high school.

    Like many large cities, New York annexed the towns around it as it grew, and until 1898, its most populous borough of Brooklyn was it’s own city. If this was still the case, Brooklyn, with over 2.5 million people, would be the fourth most populous city in the US after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

  • March 20, 2020

    The Other Side of Town

    For centuries cities have had more and less affluent sections, but the growth of industry and railroads often made that dividing line clearer, giving birth to the idiom about “the wrong side of the tracks.” This phenomenon was put nicely by author Thorne Smith in 1929: “In most commuting towns…there are always two sides of which tracks serve as a demarcation. There is the right side and the wrong side. Translated into terms of modern American idealism, this means the rich side and the side that hopes to be rich.”

    During Seattle’s railroad construction boom of the mid-1800, logs were rolled to construction sites down roads made of logs, which helped keep them out of the plentiful local mud. These wooded roads were called “skid roads,” and the original skid road is Yesler Way in Seattle. However, since railroad work was seasonal and often done by transient workers, the neighborhoods around the “skid roads” were often impoverished and became known as “skid rows” and a line dividing wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.

    Modern troubled city neighborhoods are sometimes called “ghettos,” but this term first specifically described segregated Jewish sections. Centuries before WWII, many European cities placed their Jewish populations in particular neighborhoods and subjected them to restrictions not endured by other citizens. The first may have been in Venice in 1516, where Jews lived on a small island in a part of the city known locally as “New Ghetto.” This practice of forced Jewish segregation had largely ended by the late 1800’s, but was revived by the Nazis with ghastly results.

  • March 19, 2020

    Going Out on A Limb

    A person can be “disarmed” without amputation because “arms” in this context is short for “armaments,” or the weapons of warfare.

    The association of “bootleg” meaning homemade, smuggled, or somehow unauthorized was boosted by the booming illegal alcohol trade of the Prohibition era, but the term actually started in the previous century to describe smuggling flasks inside the legs of high boots in states which already banned booze.

    To undercut or sabotage yourself is sometimes called “shooting yourself in the foot,” after the common WWI practice of soldiers doing so to avoid being sent into battle on account of their “accidental” injury.

  • March 18, 2020

    True Tails

    Plan to cure that hangover with a few more of what got you there? “Hair of the dog” shortens “hair of the dog that bit you,” since early medical theory held that a bite wound (including the rabies it may have caused) could be treated by rubbing into it some hair of the biting animal.

    You’re “barking up the wrong tree” if you are misdirected in your efforts. This comes from the habit of hunting dogs to stand at the base of whatever tree the hunted animal escaped up and bark to indicate its location. When the dogs are mistaken about which tree the prey is in, they are literally “barking up the wrong tree.”

    The idea that a dog year is equal to 7 human years seems to derive from the idea that dogs live about 10 years and humans live about 70. Happily, human life expectancy in the developed world is now a good bit older than 70, and dogs do not all “age” at the same rate, with smaller dogs typically living much longer than very large ones.

  • March 17, 2020

    Bottoms Up

    Raise your glass for a toast, which is named for…toast. Long ago, spiced and charred bread was put in the shared drink before speeches of praise or congratulations were said, and the bread made the often-bitter wine more palatable. The celebrated person might then eat the wine-soaked bread, and was then called “the toast of the town.”

    Wine and beer are very old drinks, indeed. The earliest confirmed alcoholic drink of any kind was brewed about 9,000 years ago in China, and solid evidence of beer production goes back 5,000 years in Mesopotamia. There is evidence of wine production as far back as 7,400 years ago found in jars in modern-day Iran.

    Referring to people as “dregs,” such as in the “dregs of society,” is a pejorative term that likens them to the useless solid residue which settles to the bottom of many drinks, like coffee and wine. However, the ancient Greeks made great use of these “useless” solids with a lively and challenging drinking game called “kottabos” in which wine dregs were launched at a bronze or clay targets.

  • March 16, 2020

    Show Us Some Skin

    Before “in the buff” meant naked, it meant wearing a buff coat. This leather tunic worn by English soldiers through the 17th century was a beige color known as buff. Since this was a similar color to the skin of many English folks, “in the buff” came to mean nude.

    Before it was the name of the skimpy swimsuit, the coral islands known as Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific were the target of several 1946 atomic bomb tests by the US military. Four days later, French swimsuit designer Louis Réard also dubbed his new scant piece of ladies’ swimwear the “bikini,” declaring that it would be just as explosive as those nuclear tests. To distinguish it from a competitor’s slightly more modest design, Réard said only a real bikini could be pulled through a wedding ring. Réard initially had trouble finding women willing to model the swimsuit, and it was forbidden in many places after its introduction.

    “Mooning,” as the act of deliberately showing your bare butt, entered the lexicon in the 1960’s when it became popular in American universities, though a bare bottom had been called a “moon” by at least the 18th century. Whatever you call it, the practice has roots much further back. Among the older moons, Byzantines mooned fleeing European foes in 1203 during the Fourth Crusade, Brits mooned Scots on 13th century battlefields, and Native Americans mooned Italian explorers in the 1500s. Across all these times and places, though, the gesture remained an insult and mockery.

  • March 15, 2020

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. III

    Healthy self-esteem is great, but extremely self-absorbed and image-obsessed people are often called “narcissistic.” This term comes from Narcissus, a hunter in Greek mythology who was so attractive that women, men, and nymphs often fell in love with him on sight. Cocky Narcissus remained unmoved by these advances but finally fell madly in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to leave his beautiful image, he died of starvation and thirst (or suicide, in some accounts), leaving only the narcissus flower in his place, which also bears his name to this day.

    Among those who pursued Narcissus was Echo, a comely mountain nymph who was cursed by Hera to only repeat the last words which were said by another. Needless to say, her conversation with Narcissus did not impress him. Despairing after his rebuff, Echo wastes away until only her voice remained; the voice which we hear when our voice “echoes.”

    By some accounts, it was Nemesis, goddess of divine revenge and retribution, who led haughty Narcissus to that reflecting pond which he could not leave. Nemesis’ specialty was keeping human arrogance in check, and we still invoke her name to describe an archrival.

  • March 14, 2020

    Hay, Hay, What Can I Do? Read Factoids.

    A powerful arcing punch, often a knockout blow, is often called a “haymaker.” This is because when hay was harvested manually with a scythe, the same strong, wide swing was used to cut those grasses and plants which made up hay.

    Hay and straw have long been used for animal bedding and have also stuffed human mattresses, hence the term “hit the hay” for sleeping.

    A disorganized and chaotic operation or plan is often said to have “gone haywire.” Real haywire, which is used bind straw and hay bales, was historically also used to make temporary, improvised repairs to equipment. In the American logging industry, a “haywire outfit” was a negative term for a logging company using poor equipment. Furthermore, due to the springy nature of hay wire, it can easily become a tangled mess when not spooled correctly.

  • March 13, 2020

    Calling You Out

    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.”

    “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.

    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.

  • March 12, 2020

    Don’t Gain the World But Lose your Sole

    “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.

    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.

    Though physically impossible no matter what your strength, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is a popular idiom for personal initiative and self-reliance. 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 in use ever since.

  • March 11, 2020

    Random Abbreviation Wednesday (RAW!), pt. III

    EPCOT = Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Founder Walt Disney imagined this not as a theme park, but an actual working city of people planning a better future.

    REI = Recreational Equipment, Inc.

    IBM = International Business Machine

  • March 10, 2020

    Author-itative Adjectives, pt. II

    To attain and keep power by scheme, craft, and deceit is often called “Machiavellian” after the whatever-it-takes principles laid out by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 1513 book “The Prince.”

    “Darwinian” refers to the natural selection concepts attributed to naturalist Charles Darwin, which can be summarized as “survival of the fittest,” or, more broadly, as the long-term selection for the traits of those organisms best suited to their environment.

    The adjective “Hobbesian,” is named for philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who saw humans as naturally inclined to compete and battle for their own advantage rather than cooperate, though cooperation may be better for all. In a “Hobbesian trap,” each of two equal rivals (which could be individuals, groups, or nations) knows the other might destroy them, so each is inclined to acquire greater armament, thereby increasing distrust further, or attack the other first in a preemptive strike to save themselves. Arms races and cold wars can be examples of this.

  • March 9, 2020

    You’re Fired

    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.

    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 a 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.

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

  • March 8, 2020

    Thinly Veiled Histories

    The tradition of wearing a wedding veil goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, when the veil’s purpose was to confuse and discourage evil spirits that might otherwise ruin the festivities. Though their exact color is debated (red? yellow?), early veils were supposed to make the bride look like a candle flame. Also ancient is the practice of having similarly-dressed bridesmaids, to further confuse evil spirits, and bring luck to the newlyweds. Veils have also symbolized reverence to God and were used in Victorian times to indicate the bride’s status by their fabric quality, weight and length. The lifting of the facial veil (which also can hide the face from evil spirits) has also indicated – in more patriarchal times – transfer of the bride’s ownership from father to husband, and in the case of arranged weddings, made sure the deed got done before the groom might show any disappointment at first seeing his bride’s face.

    Though the tradition of a wedding ring goes back to ancient Egypt, the wearing it on the left hand’s fourth finger also began in ancient Greece and Rome. This finger was believed to contain the “vena amoris” or “vein of love,” a vein which ran straight to the heart. Turns out that it doesn’t, but the convention firmly remains.

    The term “honeymoon” has roots both literal and cynical. Starting in the fifth century, a newlywed couple was given mead to drink during their first month (moon) of marriage. Mead is a honey-based alcoholic beverage reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Fast-forward eleven centuries, and “hony moone” appears in Old English, with “honey” representing the extreme tenderness and affection of newlyweds, but “moon” indicating the short-lived time before the exceeding affections begin to wane.

  • March 7, 2020

    Everydayus Latin

    “Ad lib” means to improvise and perform spontaneously. The term is a shortening of “ad libitum,” or “according to pleasure.”

    “Quid pro quo” means “something for something,” as in an exchange.

    “Semper fi” is a shortening of “semper fidelis” or “always faithful,” and is the US Marine Corps’ motto.

  • March 6, 2020

    Hot Brown Factoids

    Coffee’s nickname of “java” comes from that Indonesian island, where most coffee was grown when the drink became popular in the 17th century (though coffee seems to have originated in what is now Ethiopia).

    About 12% of coffee consumed worldwide is decaffeinated, and the various processes to remove the caffeine all involve soaking coffee beans in very hot water, then using either a solvent to dissolve the caffeine within the beans or carbon to absorb it. Caffeine adds to the natural flavor of the drink, however, so decaffeinated coffee tends to be milder tasting.

    The owners of Starbucks first considered the names “Cargo House” and “Pequod,” which was Captain Ahab’s ship from the novel Moby Dick, but their brand consultant encouraged strong-sounding “st-” words. He also took out a 17th century map of the Pacific Northwest and noted a mining town called “Starbos,” which reminded him of the Pequod’s young first mate, Starbuck.

  • March 5, 2020


    Many everyday expressions derive from cruel practices of centuries past. Among them:

    To “beat the devil out of” (and it’s apparent derivative “beat the hell out of”) comes from old Christian notions that naughty children were possessed with evil/satanic spirits which had to be driven out by beatings.

    SOURCE: Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined, New York, Penguin, 2011. (page 432)

    “Holding his feet to the fire” wasn’t just psychological pressure in the old days, but a much more unpleasant real practice.

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

    Likewise, people “racked with pain” long ago felt so because they were tied to a torture rack designed for just this purpose.

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

  • March 4, 2020

    Spotted Records

    Though it has origins in 6th century China, toilet paper in the US had its first start in 1857 by New Yorker Joseph Gayetty, who marketed it as a medicinal product which could help hemorrhoid sufferers and was proud enough of his product to put his name on each individual sheet. Scott Paper Company founding brothers Clarence and E. Irvin Scott put the paper on a roll in 1890, but in an era sensitive about body functions, they were much less public about their company’s creation. Nonetheless, the spread of indoor plumbing helped the success of toilet paper, in part because it did not clog the pipes as readily as catalog pages, corncobs, moss (yep, you read all that right), and other items previously used for wiping.

    In 1879, a Philadelphia schoolteacher handed out sheets of a soft type of writing paper to her students who were sick with colds, encouraging them to use the sheets once and throw them out rather than using less-sanitary cloth towels in the school bathrooms. 18 years later, a newspaper article about this teacher was remembered by Arthur Scott, president of the Scott Paper Company (and son of founder E. Irvin Scott) when he found himself with an entire train car worth of toilet paper that had been accidentally pressed too thick to use for the usual purpose. Rather then discarding it, Scott had it cut into towel-sized sheets and the first of several products that eventually led to the first paper towel for kitchen use in 1931.

    The early precursor to modern diapers was swaddling a baby with cloth strips, though in middle-ages Europe, these swaddling strips were typically only changed after several days. The cloth diaper became popular in 1800s Europe, and got a boost by the safety pin in the 1880s. Washing diapers at home was tedious and time consuming, so diaper washing services arose during WWII, though it was also in the 1940s that the first disposable diapers were created, both in Sweden and the US. Only paper towels absorbed liquids in these early models, and about 20 years later the cellulose core greatly increased absorption and made for less frequent changing.

  • March 3, 2020

    Bullet Points

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • March 2, 2020

    Digital Acronym Monday (DAM!) pt. II

    HTML = Hypertext Markup Language

    HTTP = Hypertext Transfer Protocol

    LTE (like, 5G LTE) = Long-Term Evolution

  • March 1, 2020

    Character-istically Descriptive

    Calling someone “Pollyanna” or being “Pollyannish” refers to the title character of this 1913 Eleanor Hodgman Porter book. Though orphaned and sent to live with her icy aunt, perpetually optimistic 11-year old Pollyanna strives to see the good in everything. In modern usage, however, this term can also imply a naïve optimism.

    In Mary Shelly’s classic novel, brilliant young scientist Victor Frankenstein gives life to a humanoid being made of body parts from graveyards, morgues, and slaughterhouses. This clever but vengeful creature of superhuman size, speed, and strength eventually wreaks havoc on the life of his creator and many others. Hence, saying something is a “Frankenstein” or “Frankensteinian” suggests a creation which escapes the control of its creator and brings their ruin, or the maker of such a creation.

    A “Faustian bargain” aka a “devil’s bargain,” usually involves trading one’s soul or something else essential in exchange for a less-valuable worldly gain such as riches, fame, knowledge, or power. “Doctor Faustus” was a 1604 tragic play by Christopher Marlowe in which a folkloric doctor makes such a deal with Satan’s agent, with the story later retold in a play by Goethe.

  • February 29, 2020

    These Are the Days (and Months) of Our Lives

    Namesakes of Our Days: Sunday and Monday are named for the sun and moon, and the next four are for Norse gods: Tuesday is from Tiu/Tiw, god of war. Wednesday is for Woden, aka Odin, supreme deity and Tiu’s father. Thursday is for Thor, god of thunder, Friday is for the goddess Frigga, who was also Odin’s wife, and Saturday is for Saturn, Roman god of feasting and fun (fittingly).

    Namesakes of our Months:

    January: Janus, Roman god of beginnings (fitting for the first month), but endings too.
    February: From “Februa / Februalia,” a Roman purification and atonement festival held on February 15th.
    March: Mars, god of war, because in old Rome March was the first month when the weather was nice enough to start a war (!), and it was harvest time. In 46 BC, however, January was declared the first month of the year.
    April: Either from Latin “Aprillis” indicating “second,” since April was the second month in the pre-46 B.C. Roman calendar, or “aperire,” Latin for “to open”, like flower buds.
    May: Maia, Greek earth goddess, who was busy in this blooming month.
    June: Juno, Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth.
    July: Since July was the birth month of Julius Ceasar, it was named in his honor after his assassination.
    August: Augustus, Ceasar’s nephew and first emperor of Rome.
    September: Septem, Latin for “seven”, since September was the seventh month in the pre-46 B.C. Roman calendar which started in March.
    October: Octo, Latin for eight. See September.
    November: Novem, Latin for nine. See September and October.
    December: Decem, Latin for ten. See September, October, and November.

    We say a year is 365 days, but that’s rounding down a bit. More exactly, the Earth orbits the sun once every 365.242189 days. That extra quarter-ish day has to go somewhere, so every 4 years, we have a “Leap Year” and give February a 29th day to make up the surplus. However, 0.242189 is slightly less than a quarter day, and this must be corrected over the centuries, too. The fix: leap years do not occur in years evenly divisible by 100 but not 400. The last time this happened was the year 1900, and it will happen again in 2100. Pope Gregory installed this fix in 1582, so now we call our calendar the “Gregorian Calendar.”

  • February 28, 2020

    The Neighs Have It

    “Champing at the bit,” often mispronounced as “chomping” (champing means to grind or chew) refers to a racehorse impatiently chewing the metal bit in his mouth as he eagerly waits to start his race.

    A trained eye can gauge the age of a horse by its teeth, so the saying “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” reminds those who receive gifts not to over-scrutinize them and seem ungrateful.

    In politics and other fields, a “dark horse” candidate is comparatively unknown and obscure. The term began in 17th century horse racing and applied to little-known and hard-to-put-odds-on horses which were entered into races.

  • February 27, 2020

    The Material World

    Glass is basically melted sand. Modern commercial glass recipes have some other things thrown in, including recycled glass, but it starts with sand, which is mostly silicon dioxide.

    Steel is basically iron with a hint of carbon. To get the properties which give steel its advantages over iron, though, the carbon must be added in just the right amount and conditions.

    Concrete is basically a mixture of rocks, cement, air, and water. Cement, in turn, is a mixture of lime, silica, alumina, and gypsum, almost all from natural sources like limestone, chalk, coral and shell deposits.

  • February 26, 2020

    Stately Individuals

    The state of Louisiana is named for King Louis XIV of France, since French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle first claimed the Louisiana Territory.

    The state of Virginia is named for “The Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I of England, who gave explorer Sir Walter Raleigh permission to colonize it in 1584.

    The state of Georgia is named for King George II of England, since the US was not yet a country when this future state was named by Europeans in 1733.

  • February 25, 2020

    Random Namesake Tuesday (RANT) pt. I

    Ambrose Burnside was many notable things: A Rhode Island senator, a firearms manufacturer, a Civil War general, and a facial hair trailblazer. His style of wearing a clean-shaven chin and neck with bold, bushy whiskers down each cheek joined by a mustache became first known as “Burnside whiskers.” Later it was flipped and called “sideburns,” and we still use the term today for cheek whiskers, with or without mustache.

    Dr. Franz Mesmer came up with the idea that he could cure people through their “animal magnetism,” which involved touching his patients with magnetized objects while looking into their eyes, the goal being to restore their internal “harmonious fluid flow.” This unique treatment was popular, though not exactly rooted in sound medical science (Benjamin Franklin, among others, was asked to investigate his methods). Nonetheless, many years after his death people started to use the term “mesmerize” as a synonym for hypnotize.

    You’ve probably never looked at a cow and thought “What a maverick!”, but you could accurately do so. The term came from the unbranded cows of 19th century Texan Samuel Maverick. Maverick claimed he didn’t want to hurt the animals by branding them, but some neighbors suspected this was just a trick to let him claim any unbranded cow he encountered as one of his. While this term can still describe an unbranded animal, we usually see it now applied to independent or unpredictable humans.

  • February 24, 2020

    Triple-Barreled Facts

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • February 23, 2020

    Single and Lovin’ It

    Some symbolism and translations from the familiar American $1 bill:

    The Latin: Above the pyramid, it says “Annuit Coeptis,” or “Providence has favored our undertakings.” Charles Thomson, who was very involved in the original money designs in 1782, explained that this phrase “alludes to the many signal interpositions of providence in favor of the American cause.” Below the pyramid it says “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” or “A new order for the ages.” Thomson said this referred to the new form of government which had just been created, and signified “the beginning of the new American Era.” The eagle holds a banner in its beak reading “E Pluribus Unum,” or “Out of many, one.”

    The Symbols: The unfinished pyramid represents “strength and duration” and the eye in the radiating triangle above the pyramid is a Masonic symbol for the all-seeing eye, representing The Great Architect of the Universe. The eagle holds both symbols of war and peace: arrows in his left talon and an a olive branch in his right. This is important in symbology, where the right is considered dominant. Short-lived earlier eagle designs on silver coins showing arrows in the right talon were used by some in Europe as evidence that the young US was militarily belligerent. The circles containing the pyramid and eagle together make up both sides of “The Great Seal of the United States.” Notably, Benjamin Franklin considered the eagle to be a bird of “bad moral character” and strongly favored the “more respectable” turkey on the seal instead, while he and Thomas Jefferson both preferred an image of an Egyptian pharaoh chasing the Israelites through the parted Red Sea accompanied by the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” but these designs didn’t make the final cut.

    The Numbers: Many numbers on the bill are logistical, such as serial number, year of printing, numbers representing the location of printing, plate serial number, and the like, though this information is also useful to identify counterfeits. Beyond that, look for a lot of thirteens. In the chevron in the middle of the seal of the Department of The Treasury, there are 13 stars in honor of the thirteen original colonies. There are also 13 stars above the eagle’s head representing “a new constellation taking place in the universe,” 13 arrows in the eagle’s left talon, 13 stripes on the eagle’s sheild, and 13 rows of blocks in the pyramid. The number 1776, the year when the US was founded, also appears in Roman numerals on the pyramid’s bottom row.

  • February 22, 2020


    What people now call getting “double-crossed” was previously just called getting “crossed,” that is, deceived by another. The term “double cross” appeared in 1834 to describe when an individual simultaneously deceives two different parties after convincing each that he is their ally in cheating the other. When the scheme plays out, two different parties find themselves betrayed, so there has been a “double cross.” However, when most modern people use the term, they don’t mean this complicated three-party plot, just a straightforward one-person-cheating-another scenario.

    The term “sold down the river” has ugly roots in American slavery. During the years of the 1800s when slavery was legal, the city of Louisville, Kentucky housed one of the nation’s largest slave markets. From there, many purchased slaves were sent further south along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to cotton plantations, where they often endured brutal labor and mistreatment which frequently proved fatal. Hence, getting someone “sold down the river” came to mean a betrayal so complete it might lead to death.

    The names of some historical betrayers have become synonymous with “traitor.” Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans, Brutus helped assassinate his friend and emperor Julius Caesar, and Benedict Arnold sold out his native United States to the British.

  • February 21, 2020

    Toy Stories

    “Lego” is short for “leg godt” or “play well” in Danish, though it was later happily realized that Lego also means “I put together” in Latin. When started by a master carpenter in the 1930s, the Danish company mostly made wooden products, but after getting into plastic building toys, it patented in 1958 the familiar stud-and-tube coupling system behind all Legos ever since. The company is still run by the founder’s descendants, and kids worldwide spend about 5 billion annual hours playing with Legos.

    Plah-Doh was born from the decline of coal furnaces. In the late 19th and early 20th century, coal heated most American homes. Come spring, however, these homes had a layer of unsightly soot on interior walls, and homeowners used flour-based puddies to roll against the walls and pull the soot off. Then, when furnaces increasingly burned oil or gas after WWII and water-washable vinyl wallpaper appeared, a Cincinnati family business that manufactured the soot-cleaning puddies fell into trouble. A sister-in-law who ran a children’s nursery read an article about molding inexpensive Christmas tree ornaments out of wallpaper cleaner, and she found that her nursery kids loved sculpting with the family’s poorly-selling product. The puddy was reformulated for this purpose, named “Play-Doh” (which beat out the original “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound”) and sold in one-gallon containers all over town. It exploded in popularity after being featured on “Captain Kangaroo,” and soon became a staple children’s product worldwide.

    The original inspiration for Barbie was a stiletto pump-wearing busty blonde plastic doll version of a popular German comic strip character Lilli, an uninhibited “saucy high-end call girl.” During a 1956 visit to Switzerland, these popular dolls struck the fancy of 15-year old Barbara Handler, whose parents happened to be the founders of Mattel toys. She and her mom took some dolls home, and three years later Mattel introduced a less-risque American version named after daughter Barbara (the doll’s full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin). The doll has proven extremely successful; over one billion Barbies have sold worldwide. If Barbie were a real woman, however, her unique proportions might cause some issues you don’t see in her commercials. Researchers report that she would have to walk on all fours because those tiny ankles couldn’t support her weight, her thin neck wouldn’t hold that big head up, and that narrow waist only leaves space for half of a liver and a few inches of intestine.

  • February 20, 2020

    Classically Named

    While John Lennon certainly had a role in choosing the Beatles’ band name, the record is rather inconsistent about other aspects of this choice. In early 1960, the band, then known as the “Quarry Men,” were playing a lot of Buddy Holly’s Crickets songs, and the alternative insect name idea took shape. During that year, the band played as the Silver Beetles, Silver Beats, the Silver Beatles, and finally, in August 1960, just the Beatles. Band members fielded the name origin question many times, and were sometimes facetious or evasive in answering. However, John answered it this way for the 1968 Beatles authorized biography: “I was sitting at home one day just thinking about what good name the Crickets would be for an English group. The idea of beetles came into my head. I decided to spell it BEATles to make it look like beat music, just as a joke.” Beatle historian Bill Harry credits early band member Stuart Sutcliffe with the insect name, but John with the ultimate “ea” spelling. However, John twice described a wholly different inspiration: “Well, I had a vision when I was twelve. And I saw a man on a flaming pie, and he said, ‘You are the Beatles with an A.’ And so we are.” While this seems playful, Paul McCartney said in one interview that Yoko Ono believed that John had such a vision and hence deserved full credit for the name. George Harrison and others close to the band have suggested that the 1953 Marlon Brando film “The Wild One” inspired the name, since “The Beetles” was a motorcycle gang in the movie. However, band historian Bill Harry refutes this, pointing out this movie was banned in England until long after the Beatles were named, so the band members could have at most heard about the movie, but not actually seen it yet.

    The Rolling Stones were named for the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone.” When early band member Brian Jones was called by Jazz News magazine and asked the name of his band, he looked down at Muddy’s album on the floor and saw that song title.

    After some musicians which included two future Led Zeppelin members played a great session together, they pondered forming a band and discussed possible names. Among them was The Who drummer Keith Moon, who said: “We can call it Led Zeppelin, because it can only go down, like a lead balloon.” Keith did not join the later band, but Jimmy Page loved his idea.

  • February 19, 2020

    Be Courteous

    Rough day in court because the judge threw the book at you? “The book” in this idiom refers to the full list of applicable laws, that is, the all the laws you broke and penalties you’re facing.

    Have a great reason why you’re innocent, like being far from the crime scene at the time in question? That’s your alibi, which is Latin for “elsewhere.”

    Aspiring attorneys take the bar exam, hope to join the local bar, then get disbarred if they’re too naughty. All this bar business goes back to Middle Ages England, where a physical barrier in the courtroom (often an actual bar) separated attorneys authorized to argue cases before a judge from spectators and others. Hence, the English “barrister” was one who had been “called to the bar” and had this courtroom role. To this day, many courts still keep some separation (think of that little gate) between spectators and the seating places for the judge, jurors, attorneys, witnesses, and courtroom personnel.

  • February 18, 2020

    Historical Highs

    7-Up first arrived in 1929 with the less-catchy name of “Bib Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda.” A mouthful, but note the third word; the drink contained the mood enhancer lithium until it was federally banned from beer and soft drinks in 1948. Coincidentally, the drink appeared just weeks before the The Great Depression began in the US, when most people needed all the mood lightener they could get.

    Heroin was developed by drug giant Bayer in 1895 as a painkiller and cough suppressant, promoted as safer than morphine, and was even recommended for children. The name derives from “heroisch,” German for “heroic,” but the company quit selling the syrup 15 years later when its addictive properties had become obvious.

    From 1886 until 1903, Coca-Cola did indeed contain real cocaine, and the “Cola” part is from the kola nut, the extract of which supplied caffeine in the first recipe. The original drink was produced as a type of faux wine in response to a short-lived 1886 alcohol ban in Atlanta, where the company is still headquartered.

  • February 17, 2020

    Sensible Pseudonyms

    Rapper Jay-Z had the childhood nickname “Jazzy,” and also grew up near the J/Z subway station in New York, so adopted that musical name (born Shawn Carter).

    Electronic musician Moby’s late father gave him that nickname because he’s the great, great, grandnephew of Herman Melville, author of the classic novel Moby Dick (born Richard Melville Hall).

    Rapper Eminem is just using his initials; he was born Marshall Mathers III.

  • February 16, 2020

    All That Glitters

    Something that sets a standard for quality or reliability in a given field is often called the “gold standard.” For a big part of money’s history until the 20th century, currency was exchangeable for a set amount of gold fixed by the issuing government. For example, in 1834, the US government set the exchange rate of an ounce of gold at $20.67, where it remained for 99 years. So the expression “gold standard” came to convey a universal standard of measure. Money is no longer backed by precious metals, but is “fiat money,” backed by the government that issued it.

    The Golden Rule, simply stated as “Treat others as you would like them to treat you,” is a strikingly universal concept. It has been around in some variety since at least the 6th century BC, and researchers report that the rule is “found in some form in almost every ethical religion,” and is “a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely.”

    SOURCE: Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined, New York, Penguin, 2011. (pg. 182)

    Bling aside, pure gold is a remarkable substance. It is so dense that one ton can be packed into a cubic foot. It is the most malleable and ductile metal; gold has been pressed into a sheet two atoms thick (yes, atoms) and stretched into a one-atom wire without breaking. It conducts electricity and heat well. Plus, gold is rather immortal; it does not tarnish nor decompose in air, water, or even most strong acids and bases. This is why ocean treasure divers, tomb raiders, and other gold hunters can usually expect to find gold in good condition, regardless of its age.

  • February 15, 2020

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. II

    The word “hysterical” is derived from the Greek word for uterus, and in modern English usually means uncontrollable laughing or crying. Beginning with Hippocrates (who, ironically in this case, is credited with making medicine more evidence-based), ancient Greeks believed that a “wandering and disconnected” uterus was the cause of excessive female emotion, as well as most female emotional and physical ailments. Strange and elaborate remedies were devised to lure the roaming uterus back into place.

    Simple, minimalist living is called “spartan” after ancient Sparta, whose inhabitants traditionally eschewed luxury and comfort. A courageous and disciplined person is called “spartan” after these famed qualities of ancient Spartan soldiers.

    The “Stoics” in ancient Greece sought to be free from “passion” by pursuing logic, focus, and reflection, though the word is now more used for an unemotional and/or patiently enduring person.

  • February 14, 2020

    …We Salute You

    The custom of men good-manneredly removing their hats began in Medieval churches as a gesture of respect to God. Then men began removing hats indoors, and also while passing or speaking to women or someone especially honorable. Women, on the other hand, were historically welcome to wear their hats full time almost anywhere indoors or out, and especially in church, since removing it would expose hair and flesh and may spark unwholesome thoughts in nearby men. Quite conversely, Orthodox Jewish men show humility to God by keeping their head covered, and single women in synagogues are discouraged from wearing hats at all.

    Armor-wearing knights used to lift the visors of their helmets to show their face to their kings and queens in friendliness and respect. The usually-favored right hand was used to prove it didn’t hold a weapon, which also showed submission to their monarch. Many years later in the mid-1700s, soldiers who previously removed their hats or helmets while passing officers were ordered “only to clap up their hands to their hats and bow as they pass [their officers].” This was both safer, since no helmets were removed on a battlefield, and since removing part of the uniform – even a hat or helmet – was increasingly viewed as disrespectful. Hence, the right hand-to-forehead salute caught on, and, with some regional variation, is still the norm (though is now more proper if the saluter is hatless, and palms-down in the navy to hide palms made dirty by typical ship work).

    In East Asian countries, bowing is more common as a greeting, a goodbye, conveying an apology or thanks, and an indication of respect. It also plays a role in martial arts, tea ceremonies, and religious ceremonies, and bowing has it’s own etiquette involving depth and length of bow and proper response to another’s bow. Zen Buddhists begin the day with 108 bows, and sometimes many more bows may be in order. Notably, the term “kowtow” comes from the forehead-to-the-ground bow used to show the highest reverence in the older Imperial Chinese tradition. In the US, bowing was common in the republic’s early days but slowly disappeared and was very rare by WWII. Thomas Jefferson may have sped bowing’s American decline; this president reportedly preferred handshakes.

  • February 13, 2020

    For Those About to Rock…

    You might like a drink on the rocks if your relationship is on the rocks. In the first idiom, rocks just mean ice. The latter originally refers to a ship in dire trouble because it has run into rocks which are breaking it apart, a particular danger when most ships were made of wood.

    Something essential is often called a “cornerstone” because the stone in the corner of a building, where two walls begin from, was traditionally a first and foundational part of the structure. Since they are often laid in a ceremony to mark the start of construction, cornerstones frequently have dates or other inscriptions on them, and some are hollow and filled with items like a time capsule.

    The first person to think that they just passed a major milestone was likely traveling the Appian Way near Rome about 2,300 years ago. This remarkable road – still usable today – was the first to use stones as inscribed distance markers. Modern travelers may navigate with GPS rather than stones, but the term “milestone” remains for markers on this road that is life.

  • February 12, 2020

    Random Acronym Wednesday (RAW!), pt. II

    DNA = deoxyribonucleic acid
    (pronounced “dee-OX-ee-RY-bo-noo-CLAY-ick acid”)

    TNT = trinitrotoluene
    (pronounced “try-nitro-TAAL-yoo-ween”)

    OK = “oll korrect,” a humorous misspelling of “all correct.” OK first showed up in 1839 in the Boston Morning Post in a satirical article about a group called the “Anti Bell-Ringing Society.” At the time, there was a strange literary fashion to abbreviate misspellings of common sayings, such as “K.G.” as “know go” for “no go” or “O.W.” as “oll wright” for “all right.” However, the year after the article was published, OK got a boost by the presidential election of Martin Van Buren. His nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” and his supporters formed “OK Clubs.” Soon after the letters also proved a short, handy way to confirm reception of telegraph messages, and OK/okay is now one of English’s most common expressions, usable as a noun, verb, or adjective.

  • February 11, 2020

    Don’t Quit, It’s Legit

    If an authentic thing is said to pass an “acid test,” it is because real gold also had to pass one in the gold rush days. Gold’s non-reactivity to nitric acid distinguished it from lookalike iron pyrite, aka “fool’s gold.”

    “The proof is in the pudding” derives from “the proof of the pudding,” which shortened “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” This expression just meant you have to try food to learn whether its good. When the term began, however, “pudding” was a dish made of animal intestines stuffed with meat and other foods.

    “Bona fide” also conveys that something is authentic, and is Latin for “in good faith.”

  • February 10, 2020


    A short-tempered person is said to “fly off the handle” when they get upset. This pioneer-era term alludes to an ill-fitting metal axe head coming loose from it’s wooden handle while in use and going airborne, an obvious danger to those nearby.

    Ballistics is the study of the natural flight paths of unpowered objects; the arcs of everything from stones to bullets and cannonballs. In the military sense, any self-propelled guided missile “goes ballistic” when it is no longer under control and propulsion, and so assumes a natural free-falling trajectory. However, long-range nuclear missiles such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are designed to fall naturally toward their targets in the final part of their flight, and it was during the American development of these weapons during the Cold War when “go ballistic” grew as a figurative expression.

    Though bulls cannot actually see the color, the term “see red” to describe intense anger may have origins in bullfighting and the bullfighter’s red cape used to incite the bulls to charge. However, the color red has long been associated with high emotion, so the term’s origin may also be unrelated to bullfighting. Interestingly, some research indicates that angrier and more hostile people actually do see the color red more often.

  • February 9, 2020

    Bone Up On Facts

    The idiom “Make no bones about it,” as in, to speak frankly or accept a thing without objection, has origins in eating, with references back to the 15th century. Finding a bone in your soup or other food obviously slows the process of eating it, and without this hindrance you can eat it without problems.

    If you did find a bone in your soup, however, you could throw this bone or some other table scrap to a begging dog to temporarily appease it. This is the origin of “throw (him/her) a bone.”

    Despite common slang, the human male’s erection involves no bones, but is a purely hydraulic process driven by blood flow. Many other male mammals, however, achieve erections with a bone called a “baculum,” including gorillas, chimps, bears, wolves, and dogs.

  • February 8, 2020

    Gaming the System

    The long-running video game classic “Tetris” involves stacking various shapes, each made up of four squares. Hence, the title combines the words “tetra” (Greek for four) and “tennis,” the game developer’s favorite sport.

    Mario, that globally-known mustachioed hero of the Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers video games was originally just known as “Jumpman.” While developers at Nintendo’s suburban Seattle US headquarters were brainstorming better names, landlord Mario Segale angrily interrupted to berate the company’s president for being late on rent. When he left, employees immediately named the character “Super Mario.”

    The runaway arcade hit Pac-Man was called “Puck Man” when released first in Japan, but was retitled before the 1980 US release to prevent the defacing of machines into a less family-friendly title.

  • February 7, 2020

    Spinning the Facts

    Whatever the format, the lingo and attributes of modern music are rooted in vinyl record days:

    When an artist releases an “LP,” this is short for “Long Play,” which was a full-length album on a 12-inch vinyl record played at 33 RPM (rounds per minute), while the “single” was released on a 7-inch record that played at 45 RPM, also known as “a 45.” Between the single and the LP in length is the “EP” for “Extended Play,” which typically has 3-6 songs on it.

    The 45 RPM record could hold roughly 3 minutes of music per side, and having a 45 record was essential to get an artist’s songs played on the radio and build their fanbase. Accordingly, the 3-minute song became the standard. Despite the near-limitless song length now offered by digital media storage, the vast majority of songs released are still under 5 minutes long.

    The “B side” or “flip side” of a 45 RPM record often had a secondary or less radio-ready song on it, though many B-sides songs still became successful on their own right.

  • February 6, 2020

    Author-itative Adjectives, pt. I

    “Orwellian” usually means some aspect of a totalitarian government and/or dystopian future, as described in George Orwell’s classic novel “1984.”

    “Kafkaesque” usually describes baffling, overcomplicated, and irrational bureaucracies, or some other utterly illogical nightmare scenario, as endured by many characters in Franz Kafka’s writings.

    “Dickensian” usually (but not always) suggests poor and squalid working and living conditions, as those described in 19th century England in Charles Dickens’ works.

  • February 5, 2020


    WD-40 stands for “Water Displacement, 40th formula,” since the the creators’ 40th experimental recipe fulfilled its intended purpose of preventing corrosion on the Atlas rocket.

    The globally-ubiquitous AK-47 rifle is named for it’s Russian designer Mikhail Kalashnikov (AK = “Avtomat Kalashnikova” or “Automatic device by Kalashnikov”) and 1947, the year of its first manufacture.

    In the US, a non-profit company is called a “501(c)(3)”, and a tax-advantaged type of retirement account is called a “401(k)” because those are the sections where they’re described in the US Tax Code.

  • February 4, 2020

    The Post About Nothing

    That squarish, handled container used to carry gasoline and other liquids is called a “jerry can” because it was first designed in Germany, and “Jerry” was WWI British slang for German.

    “Gerrymandering,” the practice of creating political districts which benefit one party, combines the last name of former Massachusetts Governor (and founding father and fifth Vice President) Elbridge Gerry and the word salamander. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill creating an irregular Boston-area district that advantaged his own party, and which also had a shape that reminded observers of a dragon or mythical salamander. Shortly after, the term “gerrymander” was born, and this political practice has been debated and litigated ever since.

    To “jerry-rig” means to build or repair something in an improvised, makeshift fashion. The term seems to be a variation of “jury-rig,” derived from the sailing term “jury-mast,” meaning “a temporary mast to replace one that has broken off.”

  • February 3, 2020

    They Weren’t Quite Born That Way

    David Bowie grew up, in his words, as “plain old David Jones, a middle-class boy from London’s suburbs,” but as a musician he didn’t want to be confused with Davy Jones, frontman of The Monkees. “Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you,” said his manager, and David adopted his new surname from American Jim Bowie, real-life creator of the Bowie knife, who was rebelliously portrayed in the 1960 film “The Alamo.”

    In 1981, David Bowie recorded the song “Under Pressure” with Queen, musicians also familiar with name changes. Their dynamic lead singer was born Farrokh Bulsara, and also went by Fred Bulsara until about 1970 when he legally changed his name to Freddie Mercury and the band’s name from “Smile” to “Queen.”

    In 1984, Queen released a song called “Radio Ga-Ga.” Two years later Stefani Germanotta was born, who was later inspired by the song to adopt the stage name “Lady Gaga.”

  • February 2, 2020

    The Reel Deal

    Though they now appear before a movie, they’re called “trailers” because they originally appeared after the film. The first trailer wasn’t even for a movie, but promoted a live musical called “The Pleasure Seekers.”

    Originally, a “blockbuster” was a WWII British bomb powerful enough to destroy a city block. Soon after, the term was first adopted to describe a film which grossed revenues of at least $2 million in the US and Canada.

    Blockbuster movies often perform well at the “box office.” While the box office is the part of a modern theater which sells tickets to anyone, the term comes from Elizabethan times, when wealthier theater patrons bought tickets to private balcony sections known as “boxes.” Box ticket sales were a good indicator of a play’s financial success, and were sold separately at an office near the theater entrance.

  • February 1, 2020

    Beasts of Learnin’

    We say that someone showing insincere grief or remorse sheds “crocodile tears.” This term traces back to a questionable report from a 14th century book asserting that crocodiles cry after eating their prey, including humans. Shakespeare and many others bought into the idea of these weeping reptiles. Crocodiles eat in the water, making the observation of extra eye moisture difficult to this day, however, tearing while eating has been observed in some close reptile relatives of crocodiles, such as caimans and alligators.

    In the annual ritual of Yom Kippur, ancient Israelite priests symbolically transferred the sins of their people onto the head of a goat. The animal was then driven into the wilderness or killed, hence the term “scapegoat” for an innocent who bears the blame of others.

    There are many versions of the old fable – including one from Aesop – in which a lion and other animals enjoy a successful hunt together only to see the lion take “the lion’s share” of the kill. In all variants, the lion claims most or all of the meal, and in one version even kills a hunting companion, too. The usual lesson of these tales is to be cautious when partnering with those more powerful.

  • January 31, 2020

    It’s…A Medical Breakthrough…?

    Returning from a two-week vacation in 1928, London bacteriologist Alexander Fleming looked at some cultured bacteria on petri dishes in his lab. Curious why no bacteria had grown near some chance mold contamination, he wondered if the “mold juice” somehow inhibited bacteria growth. That mold proved to be a rare strain of Penicillium, the secretions of which Fleming soon found killed a wide range of harmful bacteria and became isolated as penicillin.

    Sidenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra, was originally intended to reduce blood pressure. It did not, but Pfizer researchers discovered that 80% of the male test subjects experienced the effect which the drug eventually became famous (and phenomenally profitable) for.

    In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen was doing some experiments involving a glass vacuum tube with electrodes inside it when he noticed that the tube caused a glow on a screen nine feet away, even when shielded by heavy black cardboard. These new kind of rays were found to also pass through living tissue, and he soon took the world’s first human X-ray of his wife’s left hand, her bones and wedding ring clear on the photographic plate. Roentgen never patented his discovery, wishing to share it freely with the world.

  • January 30, 2020

    Shockingly Intelligent

    In many technical arenas, standard units are named for pioneers in that field. In electricity:

    The volt, the unit for electric potential, is named for Italian physicist Alessandro Volta.

    The watt, the unit for mechanical and electrical power, is named for Scottish engineer James Watt.

    The amp or ampere, the unit for electric current, is named for French physicist André-Marie Ampère.

  • January 29, 2020

    Can’t Handle It

    A successful effort is said to “pan out” because gold prospectors have long used a pan and water to wash out sand, dirt, and rocks when looking for gold ore, which sinks to the bottom of the pan and remains if the washing is done carefully.

    The word “panic” comes from Pan, that horned and goat-legged Greek god. When not playing his Pan flute to nymphs in the forest, he commanded such a booming voice that his shout even terrified the giants during their mythical battle with the gods, causing them to “panic.”

    Old flintlock muskets had small pans which held individual charges of gunpowder. A “flash in the pan” occurred when the gunpowder was ignited, but for whatever reason, no bullet was fired.

  • January 28, 2020

    Notes from the Underground

    Because of a potato-killing fungus, there are vastly more citizens of Irish descent in Britain and the US. The potato was a major staple in 19th century Ireland, so when crops were hit with a blight for seven years starting in 1845, up to a million Irish perished in the famine, while another million emigrated elsewhere, particularly North America and Britain.

    The beloved Tater Tot began as an innovative way sell french fry scraps. Ore-Ida company founding brothers F. Nephi and Golden Griggs sought to do something more profitable with the irregular potato pieces left over by the fry cutter than feed them to their own cows. After some smashing, blanching, shaping, spicing, and cooking, the Tater Tot was born and quickly became a staple of the frozen food boom of the 1950s.

    The potato’s nickname of “spud” comes from a narrow spade designed to dig the potato and other rooted plants out of the ground.

  • January 27, 2020

    Digital Acronym Monday (DAM!) #1

    Here is what 3 of the many ubiquitous computer file extension abbreviations stand for:

    PDF = Portable Document Format

    GIF = Graphics Interchange Format

    JPEG = Joint Photographic Experts Group, the group who created the JPEG standard in 1992.

  • January 26, 2020

    For Crying Out Loud

    The tradition of invoking the name of Apache chief Geronimo during big leaps began in 1940, when US Army Private Aubrey Eberhardt was part of an early parachute test jump. He vowed to call out the name as he leapt to prove he wasn’t scared, and people still yell “Geronimo” during big jumps to this day.

    “Banzai” just means “ten thousand years” in Japanese and is a longtime general-use cheer wishing a long life. However, “Tenno Heika Banzai,” or roughly “long live the emperor,” was a battle cry that became associated with all-or-nothing “Banzai charges” of Japanese troops against US forces and the final cry of attacking kamikaze pilots in WWII.

    Joyous whoops of “yee-haw” or “woo-hoo-wee” are likely rough replications of the “Rebel Yell,” the high-pitched battle cry of Confederate troops during the American Civil War.

  • January 25, 2020

    My Kind of Town

    Chicago is not called “The Windy City” because the local air moves especially fast. The wind came from the alleged boasting of its “windy” citizens, particularly in their efforts to get the city chosen to host the 1893 World’s Fair. These promotions, along with strong last-minute financial backing, helped Chicago get picked over rival contenders New York, St. Louis, and Washington, DC, and the fair was a great success.

    The Chicago Bears were named in honor of the Chicago Cubs, who let the fledgling pro football team play at Wrigley Field starting in the 1920s. The Bears’ colors are based on the blue and orange of the University of Illinois, alma mater of team founder, first owner, player, and longtime coach “Papa Bear” George Stanley Halas, whose initials “GSH” adorn the left arm of the Bears’ uniforms to this day.

    The innovative design of the Sears / Willis Tower, consisting of frames welded into nine vertical tubes staggered to stop at different heights, was inspired by the pattern of cigarettes pushed unevenly out of a pack.

  • January 24, 2020

    Bow and Wave

    The navigation center where ships are operated from is called the “wheelhouse,” also known as the “pilothouse” or “bridge” on larger vessels. Hence, to say someone is “in your wheelhouse” means that they are in a place you control or feel comfortable in.

    A very drunk person is often described as “three sheets to the wind.” Another great nautical idiom, the “sheets” here refer to the ropes which held the corners of a sail in place. Any ship with three untied corners of a square sail flapping in the wind had serious control and navigation issues, just as a big drunk might.

    Boat speed is measured in knots, which means nautical miles per hour. This is similar to miles per hour in land speed, but not exactly; one knot = about 1.151 mph or 1.852 kph.

  • January 23, 2020

    Fuel for Thought

    The beginnings of what we call “fossil fuels,” because the original ingredients are ancient organisms:

    Coal is the remains of plants that lived near swamps in humid regions millions of years ago.

    Oil is the remains of ancient algae, plankton, and bacteria which got buried under rock.

    The same ingredients and conditions that create oil also create natural gas, also known as methane or CH4. Oil and gas are often found together when drilling.

  • January 22, 2020

    Oui, Oui

    The period including the 15th and 16th centuries AD, which saw major advances in art, science, navigation, commerce, and literature, is called “The Renaissance” because this word means “rebirth” in French. Other periods experiencing a flourishing or renewal are often said to be part of a renaissance.

    RSVP stands for “Repondez s’il vous plait,” or “please respond” in French.

    French fries first appeared in 1840s Paris as “pomme frites” (“fried potatoes”), quickly became popular and spread to the US as “French fried potatoes,” and by the 1930s people were just calling them “french fries.” Despite these origins, they are now called “American fries” in many parts of the world.

  • January 21, 2020

    The Starts of Marts

    The “K” in K-Mart is for the last name of founder Sebastian Spering Kresge. The first store was called the S.S. Kresge Company when opened in 1899.

    Walmart stores are named for founder Sam Walton, who opened the first Walmart in 1962. He died in 1992, but the Walton family since has become the world’s wealthiest.

    7-Eleven, formerly known as “Tote’m Store” adopted the name in 1946 to reflect its new hours of business (7am – 11pm) when very few stores had such long hours. Now the stores are open around the clock everywhere allowed by law.

  • January 20, 2020

    Give Peace A Chance

    While using a handshake as an everyday greeting may go back several centuries to the Quakers, evidence of the practice to seal an alliance dates back nearly three millennia to a sculpture of Assyrian and Babylonian kings. Homer mentions handshakes in both “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey” to indicate trust and pledges, and illustrations of shaking hands also appear on artifacts from ancient Rome.

    “Hippie” derives from the word “hip,” which likely first indicated something current and fashionable during the 1930s and 40s jive music scene. “Hip” was later applied the the Beat poets and thinkers, and soon after “hippie” was used frequently by San Fransisco journalists to describe members of the city’s 1960s counterculture before the word was adopted broadly.

    The term “bury the hatchet” has a very literal origin. In this Iroquois ritual, warring tribesmen would meet and mark the end of hostilities by ceremonially burying a hatchet or other battle weapon in the ground. Non-Iroquois tribes later practiced this ceremony as well.

  • January 19, 2020

    Perfectly Centsible

    In the US, “two bits” means 25¢, though the US Mint has never produced a 12.5 cent coin. However, Brits have long called a low-value coin a “bit,” and in the US the term was applied to some early Mexican and Spanish coins in circulation which were valued at 1/8 peso, or about 12.5¢ at the time.

    “A penny saved is a penny earned” is one of many wise maxims often credited to Benjamin Franklin, though he never actually said it. He came close with “A penny saved is a penny got,” and “a penny saved is two pence clear,” but these frugal notions were not original to Franklin; similar wisdom had been printed over a century before.

    In physical size, a dime is the smallest circulating American coin. Hence, people say that a very quick-maneuvering vehicle can “turn on a dime,” as can a person who changes their own position on a subject quickly. The same idea is invoked by the expression “stop on a dime.”

  • January 18, 2020

    Corporate Shortcuts

    The name “Nabisco” condenses the company’s earlier name of “National Biscuit Company.”

    “Exxon” is derived from the earlier brand name “Esso,” the phonetic for “S.O.” for founding company Standard Oil.

    “Geico” is an acronym for “Government Employees Insurance Company,” since the company initially just targeted military and federal employees as customers.

  • January 17, 2020

    Name of Thrones

    When nature calls, you use “The John” because England’s earliest flush lavatory was developed by Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, although he called his creation “Ajax.”

    Centuries later, British manufacturer Thomas Crapper developed the ballcock, a flushing mechanism still used today. His name appeared on these widely-used flush toilets in Europe, which became known as “crappers.”

    Brits also call the toilet “the loo.” Before flush toilets, many Europeans did their thing in chamber pots, then threw the contents onto the street below, a practice which now might get you arrested. Before throwing, the courtesy was to yell out “Guardez l’eau!” (“Look out for the water!”), which eventually got shortened to just “loo” to mean toilet.

  • January 16, 2020

    Carnal Knowledge

    Hamburgers rarely contain ham because they are named for the German city of Hamburg, which had a historical reputation for producing quality beef.

    Similarly, a frankfurter is named for the German city of Frankfurt.

    The Salisbury Steak was named not for a city, but for 19th century physician James H. Salisbury. He promoted eating a lot of what he called “muscle pulp of beef,” especially for sick US Civil War soldiers, and suggested cooking it may be just as healthy as eating it raw, a common mid-1800s medical prescription for digestive problems. Notably, he was much less a supporter of fruits and vegetables. When his book was published in 1888, the mincemeat rage was one of the first American diet fads.

  • January 15, 2020

    Random Abbreviation Wednesday (RAW!) #1

    CVS = Consumer Value Stores

    TED (as in TED conferences and talks) = Technology, Entertainment, and Design

    YMCA = Young Men’s Christian Association

  • January 14, 2020

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. I

    Chaos, according to Greek mythology, was the primordial void at the beginning of all existence. It was in a state of “complete disorder and confusion” until the first deities were born from the Cosmic Egg that formed in Chaos’s belly.

    Enormous things (including that ship) are called “titanic” after the Titans, the “immortal giants of incredible strength,” also called “The Elder Gods” because they ruled before the Olympian gods in Greek mythology.

    Speaking of ships, among those titans was Oceanus, the god who ruled the giant waterway believed to encircle the earth known to the Greeks.

  • January 13, 2020

    You’re Bugging Me

    Calling an excellent thing “the bee’s knees” was one of many youthful terms for impressive things that began during the American Roaring Twenties. Many of them were animal related, such as “the cat’s pygamas,” “the cat’s meow,” and “the snake’s hips.” An earlier 18th century use of the term indicated something that doesn’t actually exist. However, if you don’t mind calling the joints between bee leg segments “knees,” then bees’ knees exist in great quantity. A honeybee has six legs, each with many joined segments.

    You may not want a “nitpicker” around to criticize your minor faults, but you might if you had lice. The word literally means one who picks off nits, the tiny eggs of lice, fleas, and other insects.

    The black widow spider gets its name because the much-larger female of the species sometimes eats her partner after mating.

  • January 12, 2020

    In with the New

    New York, both the city and state, are named for the Duke of York, whose title comes from the old city in the north of England.

    The state of New Jersey is named for the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, since one of New Jersey’s early leaders had also been governor of that island.

    The state of New Hampshire is named for the English county of Hampshire, boyhood turf of early state founder Captain John Mason.

  • January 11, 2020

    ‘Tis the Seasoning

    Before refrigeration, salt was so valuable as a food preservative that Roman soldiers were often paid with it or received allowance for it, and the word “salary” derives from “salarium,” the Latin word for salt allowance.

    Hence, to be good at your job and worthy of your pay is to be “worth your salt.”

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his audience “the salt of the earth.” By one interpretation, disciples were being called to preserve the earth from moral decay. By another reading, the listeners were being recognized for their value, like salt has. However, the salt found in Israel was rich in magnesium and hence very useful for stoking fires in ovens, so another interpretation is that the disciples were being told that they were essential in this sense. By another understanding, the term distinguished salt mined from the ground from that evaporated from the Dead Sea, which was more prone to contamination. There are many more interpretations. In modern usage, however, the term tends to mean honest, modest, and hardworking people.

  • January 10, 2020

    Up All Knight

    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.

    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.

    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).

  • January 9, 2020

    Belt ‘Em Out

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

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

    “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.

  • January 8, 2020

    What’s In A Name?

    “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.”

    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 later revealed her real name.

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

  • January 7, 2020

    Go With The Flow

    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.”

    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.

    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.

  • January 6, 2020

    Tipping the Scales

    The term “red herring” denotes a deliberately misleading clue or diversion. This was first used 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.

    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.”

    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).

  • January 5, 2020

    Enough Alredy

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • January 4, 2020

    That’s An Acronym?

    LASER = Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

    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.

    RADAR = RAdio Detection And Ranging

  • January 3, 2020

    Let’s Get Crazy

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

    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.”

    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 high waves or battle, the “loose cannon” was a clear danger to nearby crewmen.

  • January 2, 2020

    Old In the New Tech

    “Google” is a misspelling of the number called “googol,” which is a 1 followed by one hundred zeros. The search engine was named for this huge number to indicate it’s intention to search through immense amounts of information, which it certainly does.

    Your Bluetooth devices are named for a 10th Century viking king who needed a dentist. Harald Gormsson was a Scandinavian ruler who united Denmark and Norway, but who also sported a prominent dead, dark blue-grey tooth that earned him the nickname “Bluetooth.” Early Bluetooth engineers, seeking to “unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link” used the name in honor of this uniter king, but it was only meant to be temporary. When the other proposed names for the technology were found to be trademarked or weren’t trademark searched at all, only “Bluetooth” was left for the upcoming launch. What’s more, the Bluetooth logo is the old king’s initials as written in ancient Danish runes.

    The term “yahoo” was first coined by Johnathan Swift in his 1726 book “Gulliver’s Travels.” The yahoos were a primitive humanoid race, “brute[s] in human form,” who also happened to be ruled by a race of super-intelligent horses. The modern search engine’s name is an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” but Yahoo creators also chose the name because they liked it’s uncouth connotation from Swift’s book.

  • January 1, 2020

    The Basics

    The sky is blue because of basic physics. The sun shines all the colors of visible light on the Earth, but the color we see as blue is made of the shortest, smallest wavelengths. For this reason, it scatters the most when hitting air molecules in our atmosphere, making the sky appear as blue due to the greatest scattering of blue’s short wavelengths.

    Your blood is red because of iron and oxygen. Within your red blood cells is hemoglobin, a protein made of an iron-based compound called heme. Heme binds with the oxygen you breathe, and the oxygen-iron bond reflects light to appear red. Elsewhere in the animal world, blood can be yellow, green, blue, or purple, and in the “Star Trek” universe, Mr. Spock’s is green, because Vulcan blood is copper-based rather than iron-based.

    Grass is green because of chlorophyll. Grass, plants, trees, algae, and even some bacteria have the impressive ability to make their own food out of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. The pigment that does this work is chlorophyll, which reflects green light and so appears green to us.

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