The Origin of Everyday

The Backstories of Everyday Ideas, Items, & Terms

Daily facts on weekly themes. Enjoy!


  • Week of July 25, 2021

    Tough Towns, Tough People

    Sunday

    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.”

    Monday

    “Thug” is originally a Hindi word meaning a cheat or thief. Beginning in 14th-century India, Thugs were organized groups of highwaymen who robbed and killed travelers after first gaining their trust as fellow travelers.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    “Hoodlum,” as a term for up-to-no-good criminal-minded men, first appeared in San Fransisco magazines from 1871 and spread quickly from there. Any relation to a particular language is disputed, although early “hoodlums” seemed inclined to terrorize recent Chinese immigrants.

    Thursday

    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.

    Friday

    “Ruffian” means a violent brute or criminal, but the original Italian meaning was closer to that of a pimp or panderer. Similarly, “bully” began with a less violent – and even affectionate – connotation.

  • Week of July 18, 2021

    Getting Soft on Us

    Sunday

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

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Computer software, the electronically-stored instructions for the machine’s operating system or applications, was first given that name in the 1960s to differentiate it from hardware, or the physical components of the computer, like screens, disk drives, and keyboards.

    Thursday

    Teddy Roosevelt, the first time he wrote the now-famous line “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” attributed it to an African proverb, but no record of this term being used before Teddy has been found.

    Friday

    “Soft power” is a modern political term for the influence that a nation develops not through traditional wealth and military might, but rather diplomacy, communication, cultural values, and goodwill.

    Saturday

    Similarly, a “soft sell” is an approach to promoting or selling something with subtle and gentle persuasion rather than aggressive sales techniques.

  • Week of July 11, 2021

    You’ve Been Warned

    Sunday

    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 that a deadly gas was present, and the miners 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.”


    Monday

    The old saying “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning” has variations 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.


    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    “Beware the Ides of March,” the emperor is famously warned in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar.” In the Roman calendar, the Ides was the 15th of each month, the day in March of 44BC that Ceasar was assasinated.

    Thursday

    Not surprisingly, air raid sirens became widely used when air raids themselves started happening. In the early days of aerial attacks during WWI, London was unexpectedly attacked by German zeppelins, and the sirens became a more effective way to warn people than church bells or “take cover” signs displayed in public.

    Friday

    Animals which are especially sensitive to environmental changes often portend natural dangers in advance. Sharks head to deeper waters before a hurricane, birds keep down before a storm, worms flee rising groundwater, and some domestic animals’ behavior has accurately predicted earthquakes, at least when they are housed near one another.

    Saturday

    The sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine, killing nearly 1,200 civilians, was a major WWI tragedy, but it shouldn’t have been an utter surprise. The German embassy had run ads in the New York Times and other papers for weeks before the event warning that they would torpedo British-flagged ships.

  • Week of July 4, 2021

    Random Acronym Week (RAW) #4

    Sunday

    IQ = Intelligence quotient

    Monday

    SCOTUS = Supreme Court of The United States

    Tuesday

    GMO = Genetically Modified Organism

    Wednesday

    HIPPA = Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (of 1996)

    Thursday

    UNESCO = United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

    Friday

    FOIA = Freedom of Information Act

    Saturday

    YOLO = You Only Live Once

  • Week of June 27, 2021

    BETRAYED!

    Sunday

    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 convinces two separate parties that that he will help them cheat the other. When the scheme plays out, both of the other 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.


    Monday

    The term “sold down the river” has ugly roots in American slavery. When the 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 often-brutal treatment frequently proved fatal. Hence, getting someone “sold down the river” meant a betrayal so complete it might lead to death.


    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    The word “turncoat” is born from the ancient practice of wearing a badge of your allegiance on your coat that could be hidden if you turned your coat inside out.

    Thursday

    Treason is the only crime defined in the US constitution.

    Friday

    To “drop a dime” on someone comes from the practice of making a pay phone call to the police to inform on them. These were also practical, since short, unexpected pay phone calls couldn’t be traced in these early telephone days.

    Saturday

    Since the late 1800’s, the word “snitch” meant nose, and since nosy people are involved in others’ business, this soon came to also mean an informer.

  • Week of June 20, 2021

    All Dressed Up

    Sunday

    Tuxedos are named for Tuxedo Park, a New York resort where the outfit was introduced to high-society attendees. However, the tailor of Edward VII, Prince of Wales, originated of the design.

    Monday

    The uniform of Croatian mercenaries hired by King Louis XIV in the 1630s is credited for inspiring the necktie, which was adopted by the French before it eventually spread around the world and remains a businesswear standard to this day. In fact, “cravate,” the French word for necktie, derives from the French word for Croation.

    Tuesday

    High heels began as a practical men’s fashion, helping 10th century Persian soldiers stand steadily in stirrups while launching arrows and spears from horseback. Centuries later, high heels became a status symbol among European men, and Louis XIV (involved in this fashion also!) adored his opulent high heels. It wasn’t until the 19th century that high heels were exclusively associated with women.

    Wednesday

    Earrings are among the oldest known pieces of personal adornment / body piercing known to humans. Signifying different things in different times and cultures through the centuries (wealth, status, profession, fashion, etc.) earrings have been worn by men and women for thousands of years. The body of “Otzi the Iceman,” a preserved Copper Age man from over 5,000 years ago, had pierced ears.

    Thursday

    Lipstick is another adornment which has been around a long time, going back about 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Like earrings, however, the significance of lipstick has varied widely by region and time period.

    Friday

    The modern sport jacket, now worn by men and women alike, started with the Duke of Norfolk in the 1860s. This “Norfolk Jacket” was indeed worn for sport shooting, with pockets for ammunition and a design to accommodate mobility while hunting.

    Saturday

    Seersucker suits, narrowly striped and made from thin cotton, are popular in the American south and other warm locales. The name is actually an adaptation of “shir shakar” or “milk and sugar” in Hindustani. The alternating smooth and bumpy stripes of the suit are named for the smooth appearance of milk and bumpy texture of sugar.

  • Week of June 13, 2021

    The Eyes Have It

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    Another popular eye idiom, “see eye to eye,” also has King James Bible roots, where Isaiah 52:8 reads “…for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.”

    Tuesday

    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.”

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    The idea of an “evil eye” that brings misfortune and undoing to the victim, often after they enjoy praise or success, goes back at least 5,000 years and is still prevalent in many cultures. Many eye images worn on clothes and jewelry are mean to repel this curse.

    Friday

    The eye is relaxed when viewing an object about 20 feet away, and doesn’t have to bend the light rays to focus on it. This is the reason why “20/20 vision” indicates a normal ability to see at a distance, because you can see at 20 feet something you should be able to see at 20 feet away.

    Saturday

    A “black eye” is really just a bruising of the area around the eye. The color comes from blood under the skin, like other bruises.

  • Week of June 6, 2021

    Clean Up Your Act

    Sunday

    The fanciful story behind soap’s name is that it came from fictional Mount Sapo in Rome. Here, the oils and ashes from sacrificed animals washed down the mountain in the rain, where locals noticed clothes got cleaner when washed in that part of the river. While it is true that wood ash and oils from plants or animals are the traditional main ingredients of soap, the origin of the word soap is more likely from “sapo” or “saipa,” meaning tallow or fat.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    The soap molecule gives it cleaning power. One end of the long molecule bonds with water, the other with oils and fats. The result is that soap can pry into the fatty outer membrane of germs, rupturing them, and also encapsulate dirt, oil, and germs so that they can be washed away in water.

    Friday

    Soap scum only forms in hard water, since calcium and magnesium, both components of hard water, are necessary to from this precipitate.

    Saturday

    Though they have similar uses, detergent is often synthetically created, and true soaps are of naturally-occurring ingredients. There are chemical differences between them too.

  • Week of May 30, 2021

    Everydayus Latin, pt. 2

    Sunday

    “Alma mater” means “nourishing mother,” but usually indicates the school one graduated from.

    Monday

    “Cum laude” means “with praise” and indicates someone who earned grades among the best in their class.

    Tuesday

    “De facto” means “from the fact” and indicates the true reality of a situation, whether formalized or not. For example, “Since she was experienced and assertive, Sasha became the de facto team captain.”

    Wednesday

    “Et cetera,” unsurprisingly, means “and the other things.”

    Thursday

    “Carpe diem” is usually translated as “seize the day,” but likely is closer to “pluck the day,” as if to make time to gather ripe fruits or flowers and enjoy an opportune moment to do something in nature.

    Friday

    “Emeritus” means “one who has served their term” and usually applies to retirees who keep their old title as an honorary gesture, such as “Pope Emeritus.”

    Saturday

    “Caveat emptor” means “let the buyer beware,” and indicates that the buyer is taking the risk for a purchase, usually an item with no express warranty.

  • Week of May 23, 2021

    True Tails

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    You’re “barking up the wrong tree” if you are misdirected in your efforts. This comes from the habit of hunting dogs standing 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.”

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    To “wag the dog” means that a smaller part of a thing controls the larger part or the whole. It can also refer to a deliberate political distraction. The term derives from the saying “A dog is smarter than its tail, but if the tail were smarter, then the tail would wag the dog.”

    Thursday

    The saying “to walk away with your tail between your legs” to describe someone defeated, guilty, or embarrassed is indeed similar to natural dog behavior. Dogs can also indicate sadness or fear with this.

    Friday

    Although not entirely accurate, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is one of the English language’s oldest sayings, and traces back to a 16th-century book advising shepherds to train their dogs young.

    Saturday

    With the practice linked to Australians, Siberians, and native Alaskans, a “three dog night” is one so cold that you would bring three dogs into the bed with you to keep warm.

  • Week of May 16, 2021

    Be A Good Sport

    The notable backgrounds of several US and Canadian pro sport team names:

    Sunday

    Boeing was headquartered in Seattle until 2001, and one airplane planned for assembly at that facility called the “Supersonic Transport” inspired the name of the Seattle Supersonics, even though the Concorde-like airplane was never actually developed.

    Monday

    The Indian Packing Company, former employer of Green Bay Packers founder Earl Lambeau, sponsored the new team and let them use the company field. Later, Acme Packers bought out Indian Packers and their name appeared on the jerseys, but after Acme went under, “Packers” remained.

    Tuesday

    Also on the meat theme, when the Bulls were established in 1966, Chicago had been a meatpacking center since Union Stockyards was built there a century before. But when then-team owner Richard Klein proposed the names “Matadors” and “Torreadors” to his family, his youngest son declared “Dad, that’s a bunch of bull.”

    Wednesday

    The Philadelphia Eagles were named in 1933 after the eagle logo of the National Recovery Act, part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation during the Great Depression.

    Thursday

    Although the NHL’s Flames play in Calgary now, the team began in Atlanta, and that name was chosen because Union soldiers burned that city and much of Georgia during the US Civil War.

    Friday

    The panther is the Florida state animal, yet it is critically endangered there. The Florida Panthers were named to bring attention to this big cat’s plight.

    Saturday

    Do you know which US city experiences a record number of lightning strikes each year? Why, it’s Tampa, Florida, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

  • Week of May 9, 2021

    Food for Thought

    Sunday

    Though he didn’t start the idea of putting filling between two slices of bread, John Mantagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, got the name to stick. Supposedly, in 1762, the often-gambling earl wanted something to eat without having to leave the card table, and likely got the idea through similarly-stacked morsels he’d seen on Mediterranean travels. Once he started eating these regularly, they took off in popularity, with people ordering “the same as Sandwich” which got shortened to “sandwich.”

    Monday

    Grapevine stems are naturally twisted and convoluted, quite the opposite of straight and direct telegraph wires. The connection is that to describe something which was “heard through the grapevine” actually descends of the older term “The Grape Vine Telegraph Line.” This reference, which came about soon after telegraph technology grew, referred to information transmitted through the often-meandering and indirect person-to-person channels as opposed to straight-from-the-source communications. Nonetheless, these “grapevine” channels via African-Americans proved useful to Union leaders during the American Civil War in obtaining clandestine military information, and likely in many other military efforts since.

    Tuesday

    The richer part of milk, the cream, rises to the top of the liquid and is the more valuable part to farmers. The French term for this is the “la creme de la creme” or “the cream of the cream,” so the English term “cream of the crop” is likely an alliteration of this.

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of May 2, 2021

    That’s An Acronym? (Part II)

    Sunday

    Humvee = High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of April 25, 2021

    Calling You Out

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of April 18, 2020

    Don’t Gain the World But Lose your Sole

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of April 11, 2021

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. III

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of April 4, 2021

    Classically Named

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Despite mistaken religious zealots declaring that it stands for “Antichrist//Devil’s Children” and others asserting a reference to bisexuality, the inspiration for AC/DC’s name is an everyday electrical term. The Alternating Current / Direct Current label means that a particular device can run on either type of electrical current. The founding Young brothers saw this on a vacuum cleaner and listed it under cool band names, thinking it reflective of the band’s high energy.

    Thursday

    ZZ Top founder Billy Gibbons once stayed in an apartment which had a lobby pasted with upcoming concert flyers. He noticed many of the bands and artists had two initials, such as O.V. Wright, D.C. Bender, B.B. King, and Z.Z. Hill. He liked the “ZZ” combo and considered ZZ King, but deduced that since a king was on top, he would go with ZZ Top.

    Friday

    Lynyrd Skynyrd founding members took their name from Leonard Skinner, their Jacksonville, Florida high school PE teacher who was famously intolerant of long hair on his students.

    Saturday

    The Doors took their name from a book title, which itself came from a poem. The title of Aldous Huxley’s book “The Doors of Perception” was taken from a William Blake poem containing the line “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man is it is: Infinite.”

  • Week of March 28, 2021

    Hot Brown Factoids

    Sunday

    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).

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    In the US, women drink slightly less coffee than men, but spend more overall on those coffee drinks.

    Thursday

    Coffee “beans” are actually coffee plant seeds.

    Friday

    Instant coffee is brewed coffee which is then freeze-dried or spray-dried, so that re-hydrating brings it back to drinkable form.

    Saturday

    You might have seen some coffee labeled “shade grown.” This means the coffee trees are grown in the traditional practice among larger trees of different species, as opposed to a “full sun” monoculture of only coffee trees. There are ecological benefits to shade-grown coffee, and since coffee is often grown in the tropics, the reduction of deforestation to replace the forest with all coffee trees is a big one.

  • Week of March 21, 2021

    Going Out On a Limb

    Sunday

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

    Monday

    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 had already banned booze.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    You’ve heard of “the long arm of the law,” but in the US, many states formalize this in “long arm statutes.” These laws give state courts jurisdiction over out-of-state businesses through some connection with the long-armed state, such as selling products or employing people there.

    Thursday

    Easy, undisputed victory is called “hands down” because horse jockeys who felt sure to win would lower or even drop their reins and relax as they crossed the finish line, according to 19th century racing journalists who coined the term.

    Friday

    Don’t get caught “flat-footed,” or unprepared. In action stance parlance, this is the opposite of being “on your toes,” or ready, at least in the baseball world where it got the unready connotation. A century before, however, it was a firm and resolute person who stood “flat-footed.”

    Saturday

    You’ve “got a leg up” on the competition if you have some advantage or extra assistance on your side. Another horse-based idiom, this referred to the help a rider would get from an assistant in mounting a horse.

  • Week of March 14 , 2021

    Bullet Points

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of March 7, 2021

    You’re Fired

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 28, 2021

    Twinkle, Twinkle

    Sunday

    Stars twinkle when viewed from Earth, but not when viewed from space. The twinkle is caused by our atmosphere’s effects on starlight, which comes from very far away. Planets, viewed from earth, don’t twinkle, because they are much, much closer. For this reason, however, closer stars twinkle a little less.

    Monday

    “Shooting stars” or “falling stars” are not stars at all, but meteors and meteorites which burn bright as they enter the earth’s atmosphere and experience friction with the air. These typically consist of mostly space rock and dust, and meteorites make it to the surface while meteors burn up entirely in the atmosphere.

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 21, 2021

    Seven-Barreled Facts

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 14, 2021

    This One’s On Your Head

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 7, 2021

    Sensible Pseudonyms

    Sunday

    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 (he was born Shawn Carter).

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    Public Enemy’s Chuck D is shortening his real name, Carlton Douglas Riddenhour.

    Thursday

    The Beastie Boys’ stage names are related to their birth names: Mike D was born Michael Diamond, Ad-Rock is Adam (Horowitz) and MCA is short for MC Adam (Yauch).

    Friday

    Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie, was indeed a large man. Born Christopher Wallace, his autopsy reported that he was 6’2″ and 395 lbs. when he died at age 24.

    Saturday

    Run-DMC was named for Joseph Simmons’ earlier DJ name, DJ Run, and the D and Mc of member Darryl McDaniels. The other member was Jam Master Jay, born Jason Mizzel.

  • Week of January 31, 2021

    Of Gods and Telescopes

    The namesakes of the planets in our solar system are:

    Sunday

    Fast-moving Mercury is named for the speedy Roman messenger god.

    Monday

    Venus is named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

    Tuesday

    Earth, the only planet not named for a Greek or Roman deity, gets its name from Germanic words for “ground.”

    Wednesday

    Red Mars is named for the Roman god of war.

    Thursday

    Jupiter, our largest planet, is named for the king of the Roman gods.

    Friday

    Saturn is named for the Roman god of agriculture, and Uranus is named for the Greek god of the sky.

    Saturday

    Bright blue Neptune was named for the Roman sea god. Condolences to Pluto, demoted from planet status in 2006, but still named for the Roman god of the underworld.

  • Week of January 24, 2021

    Factoids Never Sleep, Either

    Sunday

    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.”

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    Like many large cities, New York annexed the towns around it as it grew, and until 1898, its most populous borough of Brooklyn was a separate 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.

    Wednesday

    New York is named after the English city of York, but indirectly. New York was named for James Stuart, the Duke of York, but he, of course, got his title from the town in England.

    Thursday

    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.

    Friday

    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.

    Saturday

    NYC’s nickname of “The Big Apple” has the unlikely origin of horse stable workers in New Orleans, who were likely referring to the big prizes “apples” that went to racing winners in New York. In 1920, a visiting New York reporter covering horse racing heard the term used for his city in about and started using it in his own columns. After disappearing for a while, the moniker was revived to promote tourism to New York in the 1970s and has stuck since.

  • Week of January 17, 2021

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

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Nudibranchs, a type of sea slug, move slowly and spend a lot of time on top of what they’re eating, often sponges, algae, coral, and bright anemones, so incorporating the color of their prey into the nudibranchs’ bodies helps camouflage them while eating.

    Thursday

    Cedar waxwings are songbirds whose tail tips are naturally yellow, but the red berries of the Morrow’s honeysuckle, which the birds find delicious, turns their tails orange.

    Friday

    The striking neck “cape” of the frill-necked lizard picks up colors from the food the reptile eats, which generally includes insects, smaller reptiles and mammals.

    Saturday

    The brilliant yellow of the mature male American goldfinch is also obtained from pigments in his seedy, plant-y diet.

  • Week of January 10, 2021

    Random Acronym Week (RAW!) #3

    Sunday

    AWOL = absent without leave

    Monday

    NASA = National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Tuesday

    SWAT = Special Weapons and Tactics

    Wednesday

    PATRIOT Act (the US federal statute) = Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism

    Thursday

    ESPN = Entertainment and Sports Programming Network

    Friday

    STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics

    Saturday

    NSFW = Not Safe For Work, usually a warning about internet content inappropriate for the workplace.

  • Week of January 3, 2021

    Don’t Quit, It’s Legit

    Sunday

    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.”

    Monday

    “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.

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    There many possible origins of the term “The Real McCoy,” to indicate an authentic. It could have first referred to the automatic train engine oiling system patented by inventor Elijah McCoy in 1872, as opposed to an inferior knock-off device. It could be a mispronunciation of the advertising slogan “A drappie (drop) o’ the Real MacKay” used in 1856 by the G. MacKay and Co., Ltd. whiskey distillery. It could come from 1930s radio host George Brainwood McCoy, who would sign off by saying “This is Sergeant George (The Real) McCoy folding his microphone and silently stealing away.” A dispute over the rightful leader of the Scots Clan McCoy could also be the origin, and there are even more possibilities.

    Thursday

    Someone who is “dyed in the wool” is considered thoroughly subscribed to an opinion or belief. This term originates from the practice of dying wool when it is raw and before it is spun, meaning the color runs throughout the fiber and not just near the surface, and therefore lasts longer.

    Friday

    If a person or transaction is “on the level,” this indicates honesty and fairness. This appears to be a Freemasonry-inspired term, since level surfaces and buildings are more solid and sound, a level is a mason’s tool, and, like with a “level playing field,” equality for all parties is implied.

    Saturday

    “Honest to goodness,” the description of something simple and genuine, is a variation of “honest to God,” the last word’s swap being a safety against blasphemy.

  • Week of December 27, 2020

    Historical Highs

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    While they eschewed cocaine, opium, and morphine, Nazi soldiers fueled many of their battles with pills of a methamphetamine-based drug known as Pervitin, developed in 1937 by German chemist Fritz Hauschild. Also known as “pilot’s salt” and “tank chocolate,” Hitler himself was given frequent injections of this early crystal meth, though Allies’ tests with the drug were stopped when the side effects were judged too severe.

    Thursday

    Before federal statutory bans and enforcement of the 20th Century, medical and recreational opium use was common in the US. It was used to treat wounded soldiers in the Revolutionary War and Civil War in the form of powders and solutions, and Asian immigrants brought with them the practice of smoking it. A very common medicine of the time was laudanum, which was opium dissolved in alcohol. Unfortunately, this wide-scale use led to an opioid epidemic which predated the current one by well over a century.

    Friday

    Cocaine used to be common to numb the mouth for otherwise-painful dental procedures, and was sold as droplets and chewables. Modern dentists use novocaine (novo = new, and the last part of cocaine), but this chemically different anesthetic does the job without the addiction risk of the original. Also note that several other modern anesthetics use the -caine ending, such as lidocaine (aka xylocaine) and benzocaine.

    Saturday

    While now more known for psychoactive effects, marijuana was historically grown for the production of paper, rope, sails, canvas, and clothing from the hemp fiber. The Mayflower sailed over with hemp in its sails and caulk, British colonies were ordered to grow it, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised it and encouraged others to. In fact, the US government accepted tax payments in hemp, and Virginia farmers were legally required to raise it. There was more government-encouraged hemp growing during WWII’s “Hemp for Victory” program, but the plant was largely discouraged and prohibited in the US until more recent legalization efforts. While all the same plant, the sticking point is often THC content, since this is the chemical that gets you high. Legally, hemp must by bred to have less than 0.3% or less of this by dry weight to avoid the more stringent regulations applied to hemp which can produce the psychoactive effects.

  • Week of December 20, 2020

    The Material World

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Plastics typically come from oil. Oil is packed with carbon, the basic building block of the polymers in plastic and the great varieties of plastic types which can be synthesized. However, because plastics don’t react chemically with most substances, they also do not decompose or decay easily, causing environmental problems.

    Thursday

    Asphalt is combination of a little “asphalt cement,” a viscous petroleum tar-like substance which binds together the aggregate, or gravel and sand of various sizes. This slurry is then usually flattened smooth, as for roads.

    Friday

    Traditionally, bricks are wet clay from the ground heated and dried in a hot kiln. Modern bricks can have different ingredients depending on their purpose, and may contain sand, lime, concrete, aluminum oxide, and fly ash (a coal burning by-product).

    Saturday

    Plaster is typically made from lime or gypsum with sand and water and has been used in building and sculpting since antiquity.

  • Week of December 13, 2020

    Bottoms Up

    Sunday

    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.”

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    The practice of labeling hard alcohol content by “proof” arose from a crude Middle Ages test for taxation. Higher-alcohol drinks were taxed more in England, so a drink’s potency was tested by soaking a gunpowder pellet with the booze to see if it was strong enough to then ignite. If it proved to be so by burning, it was called a “proof spirit” and taxed more. Fortunately, alcohol content measurements are more standardized and accurate nowadays, but the name remains.

    Thursday

    Bourbon is named for the street, not vice versa. Early New Orleans whiskey sellers, well aware of the town’s large French population, put the stuff in oak barrels so the taste would remind residents more of congac, aka “French brandy.” “That whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street” eventually became called “bourbon whiskey.” Bourbon Street itself was named for the French royal family in power when the city planner plotted and named the streets in 1721. But despite the European origins of its name, authentic bourbon must, by definition, be made in the US.

    Friday

    Another spirit native to North America is tequila, though the drink predates bourbon by centuries. However, authentic tequila must come from Mexico, since the Mexican government declared the drink its intellectual property in 1974.

    Saturday

    The name “brandy” comes from “brandewijn,” meaning “burnt wine” in Dutch. A 16th century wine-shipping Dutchman realized he could save a lot of cargo space by removing water from the wine before shipping and adding it back at his destination. The fruit wine concentrate he delivered became known as bradewijn.

  • Week of December 6, 2020

    The Neighs Have It

    Sunday

    “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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Who is this horse named Charley and why is your cramp named for him? At one time, “Charley” was a name for lamed racehorses. Many of these animals, however, got a second career dragging the dirt smooth at baseball games. According to one common origin story, players whose muscles cramped during play were compared to the limping equines, that is, the “Charley horses” and, by some accounts, it was one Charley in particular working for the Chicago White Sox.

    Thursday

    Royalty, noblemen, and knights historically rode on tall horses, looking down on common people both figuratively and literally. Hence, telling someone to get of their high horse reminds them to stop acting superior.

    Friday

    Needless to say, beating (or flogging) a dead horse won’t get you more effort from the animal. However, there seem to be some surprisingly nautical connections for this idiom, too. British sailors were historically paid in advance, but often spent the money quickly, sometimes before their ship even left port. They got no more pay until the already-blown advance was worked off, or until “the dead horse was flogged.”

    Saturday

    Horse traders were famously shrewd in their dealings, so the term “horse trading” for exchange and negotiation in politics came about in the early 19th century.

  • Week of November 29, 2020

    Thinly Veiled Histories

    Sunday

    The wedding veil’s tradition 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. 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.

    Monday

    Proud modern brides might shudder at the historical significance of being walked down the aisle by their father. This tradition also hearkens back to when a bride was considered her father’s “property” until given to another man, sometimes also in payment of a debt, in exchange for other property, or to satisfy the dowry or bride price.

    Tuesday

    Opposed to kidnapping women into forced marriages? You should be, but the “best man” tradition originated to protect the groom against families coming for their abducted women. Although the disturbing practice of “marriage by capture” has gone on for centuries, it was among 16th Century Germanic Goths that this groomsman did the kidnapping, then stood by the groom, armed and ready, to fight off the bride’s relatives or keep her from running away. Fierce and capable, he was chosen as the “best man” for the job of abducting and defending. So if your wedding day drama only involves hurt feelings and not split skulls, consider yourself lucky. In centuries past, weapons were often stored in church floors for real wedding day family feuds.

    Wednesday

    Remember reminding your bridesmaids to confuse demons and bandits? Probably not, but that was part of their original purpose. These identically-dressed women were to confound would-be evil spirits, and also serve as decoys against any would-be thieves of the bride’s dowry. In some cases (and rather awesomely), the bridesmaids were also to protect against angry ex-boyfriends of the bride. Notably, the first mention of bridesmaids was from a Biblical three-way marriage between Jacob and sisters Rachel and Leah, where each woman brought a servant (bride’s maid) to their wedding.

    Thursday

    Plan to marry in the popular wedding month of June? This tradition started in part because people used to take their annual bath (yes, annual bath) in May.

    Friday

    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.

    Saturday

    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 these excessive affections begin to wane.

  • Week of November 22, 2020

    Neato Namesakes

    Sunday

    Enjoying those tasty nachos? You can thank the quick thinking of Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya Garcia. He was maitre’ d’ at a restaurant on the Mexican side of the Texas border in 1943 when a group of hungry American military wives came in from a nearby Air Force base. With no chefs to be found, Nacho improvised a snack by melting cheese on some tostados, popped a jalepeno on top, and served it to the delight of the ladies. Hence “Nacho’s especiales,” later shortened to just “nachos,” were born to huge success.

    Monday

    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 sporting 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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    You’ve probably never looked at a cow and thought “What a maverick!” But you could have. 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.

    Thursday

    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 opposing troops.

    Friday

    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.

    Saturday

    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.

  • Week of November 15, 2020

    All That Glitters

    Sunday

    Something that sets a standard for quality or reliability in its field is often called the “gold standard.” For a much of money’s history before the 20th century, currency was exchangeable for a fixed amount of gold set 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. Hence, “gold standard” came to convey a universal standard of measure. Money is no longer backed by precious metals, but is “fiat money,” only backed by the government that issued it.

    Monday

    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)

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    The gold stored at Kentucky’s Fort Knox is a modern symbol of hyper-secure massive wealth, but there is one far larger store in the world. It is five stories below ground in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where over a half million gold bars representing about 25% of the world’s known gold wealth are painstakingly guarded deep in the rock of southern Manhattan.

    Thursday

    An extremely valuable parson is sometimes said to be “worth their weight in gold.” However, in the metals world, at least two metals are typically more valuable than gold: rhodium and palladium.

    Friday

    In the US, the most famous “gold rush” began when when the shiny metal was discovered in 1848 in California’s Sacramento Valley. Over the next few years, approximately 300,000 people came from all around the world came to extract over 750,000 lbs. of gold from the land. The rush populated and developed the area, and it is why the San Fransisco NFL team is called the “49ers” (after the rush of 1849).

    Saturday

    “Golden handcuffs” or “velvet handcuffs” describe the good pay, vacation, retirement, or other benefits that may keep you at a job you might otherwise leave. If you’re a lucky executive, however, you may get a “golden parachute,” or a generous severance package when you’re let go from your company.

  • Week of November 8, 2020

    Bone Up On Facts

    Sunday

    “Make no bones about it,” meaning to speak frankly or accept a thing without objection, is an idiom which 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.

    Monday

    “Got a bone to pick” with somebody? You probably have an issue to discuss or believe that they’ve wronged you. This idiom goes back to about the 16th Century and refers to a dog gnawing on, or picking clean, all meat from a bone.

    Tuesday

    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.”

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    Despite their size, babies have about 94 more bones than their parents. This is because as babies grow, many of these little bones fuse together, such that they go from about 300 bones at birth to 206 as an adult.

    Friday

    Your “funny bone” isn’t a bone at all, but a nerve which runs from your neck to hand. It’s called the ulnar nerve, and in the elbow it particularly unshielded, surrounded only by fat and skin. This makes it vulnerable to impact and the pain, numbness and tingling your hand feels.

    Saturday

    Your tailbone, aka your coccyx, is one of a handful of vestigial structures on the human body, this one from when our prehistoric ancestors had tails.

  • Week of November 1, 2020

    Random Abbreviation Week (RAW!) pt. 2

    Sunday

    “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.


    Monday

    FBI = Federal Bureau of Investigation, though the letters also make up the Bureau’s motto of “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.”

    Tuesday

    AM / PM = Ante Meridiem (Latin: before midday) and Post Meridiem (after midday).

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    REI = Recreational Equipment, Inc.

    Friday

    IBM = International Business Machine

    Saturday

    GOP = Grand Old Party, used in the US to refer to the Republican party since the 1870s.

  • Week of October 25, 2020

    Be Courteous

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.”

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    When the tradition of judges wearing robes jumped the Atlantic from England to the US, early American judges opted for black robes instead of the colorful ones their British counterparts were wearing, and also ditched the tradition of wearing white powdered wigs. As US Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor has noted, however, the wearing of simple black robes continues only through tradition, as there are no formal rules or laws governing the justices’ apparel. Judges and justices down the centuries have kept with the tradition, with some hints of flair, and most recently the legendary US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the collar she wore over her robe to signal her opinion in certain cases.

    Thursday

    Another piece of American judicial tradition far predates the country itself, as every day of arguments of the US Supreme Court begins with the court marshal calling out “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are now admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” Pronounced “oy-yay,” this term goes back to 13th century old French “oiez” and translates to “hear ye / hear this / listen up.” Modern Spanish speakers make the same sound and meaning when they say “oye.”

    Friday

    The terms “attorney” and “lawyer” are often used interchangeably in the US, but they are technically different. A lawyer has a law degree, but is not necessarily licensed to practice law in court. An attorney has a law degree, has passed the bar exam and is licensed to practice in at least one jurisdiction. Hence, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys.

    Saturday

    Dramatic courtroom gavel-banging is now more a product of Hollywood than reality, as most modern judges rarely, if ever, use them. However, courtroom gavels are a curiously American invention. The most likely lineage for this tradition is from the symbolism-heavy Freemasons’ use of this stoneworking tool in ceremonies. From there it likely came in the US Senate, where a handle-less ivory model is still banged a lot, and from there to American courtrooms. You won’t find these (and never could) in the courtrooms of England or any other countries which inherited English law.

  • Week of October 18, 2020

    …We Salute You

    Sunday

    The good-mannered custom of men 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.

    Monday

    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).

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    The “curtsy,” or rough female equivalent of the bow, is shortened from “courtesy,” and wasn’t always just for women. Though less common now, it still might be seen to acknowledge those of higher rank, Royal Family members, or for a ballerina to salute her teacher or the musician.

    Thursday

    The “Bellamy Salute” that American children were taught to give the flag since 1890 would shock modern viewers as disturbingly similar to the Nazi salute. For this reason, it was replaced in 1942 by the current “right hand over the heart” salute, which Americans are also encouraged to do when the Star Spangled Banner plays.

    Friday

    The great honor of a 21-gun salute was born of a combination of symbolism and storage space. The practice of saluting with cannons is nearly as old as cannons themselves, and early ships began using salutes of seven guns, likely because that number had astrological and Biblical significance. However, batteries on land could store more gunpowder than ships and hence fire more, so a multiplier of 3 was chosen, likely also because the number had mystical significance in many ancient civilizations. In the US, the 21 gun salute has been the presidential salute since 1842, the internationally-recognized salute since 1875, and the national salute since 1890.

    Saturday

    Star Trek’s famous Vulcan split-finger “live long and prosper” salute made famous by Spock came from one of Leonard Nimoy’s vivid childhood memories. The shape is approximately that of the Hebrew letter shin, first letter of many important words, including “Shekhinah” which is both a name for the feminine aspect of God and a prayer to bless the congregation. As a boy, the curious Nimoy opened his eyes during a Boston synagogue service when he wasn’t supposed to (as this deity is said to shine with brilliant light) and saw many people making this shape, though with two hands together. Nimoy later proposed that the single-handed shape should be used as a salutation and greeting among Vulcans in the first episode (“Amok Time”) when we meet others of his race besides him.

  • Week of October 11, 2020

    For Those About to Rock…

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    That popular language-learning app is named Rosetta Stone for a reason. Found by Napoleon’s forces in 1799 near Rosetta, Egypt, the Rosetta Stone became the key to deciphering the ancient and disused language of hieroglyphics, since the stone contained identical passages in Greek, Egyptian demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

    Thursday

    We all know that “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” and hence the name of that famous band and magazine. Curiously, however, moss is a metaphor for stability, relationships, and wealth in this old proverb, and since slow-growing mosses and lichens rarely thrive on moving surfaces, by the early 17th Century, a “rolling stone” referred to an unstable and unproductive wanderer.

    Friday

    References to “rocking and rolling” had been around since the 17th Century to describe the motion of a boat on the ocean, with “rocking” being the forward and back motion and “rolling” the side to side motion, and were often a reference to sex as well. As to music, however, a comic song called “Rock and Roll Me” was performed in 1886 in Australia, and various songs referring to either rocking, rolling, or both appeared in the following years, until The Boswell Sisters recorded a hit song just called “Rock and Roll” in 1934. The term continued to appear in music, and in the early 1950s, Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed started to apply the name “rock and roll” to the music he was playing, and the name stuck.

    Saturday

    The Rock of Gibraltar, longtime symbol of strength and stability, is not only modern logo of the Prudential Insurance Company, but also was one of the markers, according to ancient legend, of the limits of the known world (or at least of navigation).

  • Week of October 4, 2020

    Digital Acronym Week #2

    Sunday

    HTML = Hypertext Markup Language

    Monday

    HTTP = Hypertext Transfer Protocol

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    URL = Universal Resource Locator

    Thursday

    RAM = Random Access Memory

    Friday

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

    Saturday

    USB = Universal Serial Bus

  • Week of September 27, 2020

    Gaming the System

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.”

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    If you’ve ever noticed that Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog were both side-scroller games involving high-flying characters collecting floating gold circles (coins vs. rings) seeking to defeat an ultimate bad guy (Bowser vs. Dr. Robotnik), it is because Sonic was created by Sega to compete with Nintendo’s very successful Mario. In Sonic’s unexpected original backstory, he is named Sonny and comes from a poor hedgehog family that subsists on bugs, slugs, and food scraps from a nearby burger joint in Hardly, Nebraska. The design of Dr. Robotnik is based upon President Teddy Roosevelt wearing pajamas.

    Thursday

    The original conception of the 1978 classic shooter Space Invaders had the alien ships replaced by humanoid beings, but this idea was nixed so as not to suggest that shooting at people was morally acceptable.

    Friday

    The name “Atari” is taken from a position in the ancient strategy game Go in which one player’s piece is in imminent danger, similar to a king being in check in chess. Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell was a big Go enthusiast.

    Saturday

    The big ape in Donkey Kong may remind you of King Kong, but the trademark infringement fight has already been lost. Universal City Studios went after Nintendo in 1982, but Nintendo’s lawyer noted that the movie studio itself had already proved in earlier litigation that King Kong’s story and characters were in the public domain. Accordingly, the court ruled that Universal had no right to the character, had filed the case in bad faith, and were now themselves liable for damages. Years later, the Mario Brothers character Kirby was named for that prevailing lawyer, John Kirby.

  • Week of September 20, 2020

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. II

    Sunday

    Healthy self-esteem is great, but extremely self-absorbed 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.

    Monday

    Among those who pursued Narcissus was Echo, a comely mountain nymph who had been 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. This is the voice you hear when your voice “echoes.”

    Tuesday

    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 arch rival.

    Wednesday

    A strong person’s weakness is called their “Achilles’ heel” because, according to myth, infant Achilles was held by the heel when his mother dipped him into the River Styx to give him immortality. Thus, his heel stayed dry and was his vulnerable point, and ultimately the site of his mortal wound.

    Thursday

    “Epicureans” pursue pleasures of the senses, especially with food and drink, since it was Epicurus’ philosophy which focused on pleasure and tranquility as life’s purpose.

    Friday

    An enormous task might be called “Herculean” because half-human Hercules had to complete twelve superhuman tasks to achieve immortality, often aided by his great strength or helpful gods.

    Saturday

    “Pandora’s box” is metaphor for creating or unleashing big problems. According to myth, Pandora was the first mortal woman created by the gods and was given many gifts by them, including a beautiful box (or jar in some versions) containing the world’s yet-unknown miseries and woe. The instructions never to open it were forgotten, and the depressing contents flew out.

  • Week of September 13, 2020

    Author-itative Adjectives, pt. I

    Sunday

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

    Monday

    “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.

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    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.”

    Thursday

    “Darwinian” refers to the natural selection concepts of naturalist Charles Darwin, often 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.

    Friday

    “Hobbesian,” is named for philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who viewed humans as naturally inclined to compete and battle for their own advantage rather than cooperate, though cooperation may be more productive. A “Hobbesian trap” describes a situation where each of two 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.

    Saturday

    “Homeric” is synonymous with “epic and heroic” since the ancient poet Homer’s poetry was this in nature.

  • Week of September 6, 2020

    These Are the Days of Our Lives

    Sunday

    …is named after the sun.

    Monday

    …is named for the moon, and the next four are for Norse gods:

    Tuesday

    …is for 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).

    Sources for all day names:

  • Week of August 30, 2020

    Spinning the Facts

    Sunday

    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).

    Monday

    The “single” was released on a 7-inch record that played at 45 RPM, also known as “a 45.”

    Tuesday

    Between the single and the LP in length is the “EP” for “Extended Play,” which typically has 3-6 songs on it.

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    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.

    Friday

    Some of the earliest sound recordings were made on wax cylinders (though calling them metal soaps is more chemically accurate), hence the reason records are occasionally called “wax.”

    Saturday

    Since about the 1940s, records have been made from the polymer polyvinyl chloride, hence the nickname “vinyl.”

  • Week of August 23, 2020

    Everydayus Latin, pt. 1

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    “Vice versa” translates to “in a turned position,” but in modern English means interchanged or a switched position.

    Thursday

    “Per se” means “in itself” or “intrinsically” in English.

    Friday

    “Pro bono” shortens “pro bono publico” which means “for the public good” and usually refers to professional services (especially legal) offered for free.

    Saturday

    “E.g.” might appear before an example, since it stands for “exempli gratia” or “for the sake of example.”

  • Week of August 16, 2020

    Don’t Box Me In

    Sunday

    It violates the rules of boxing to hit an opponent below the waist, so both the terms “low blow” and “below the belt,” indicating unfair conduct, come from this sport.

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    “Down and out” means a knocked-out boxer, or a destitute or defeated-feeling person, as opposed to being “down but not out,” when you’ve taken hits but may still recover.

    Thursday

    “On the ropes” initially referred to a boxer who has been forced back against the ropes by an opponent with his or her movement restricted, and was likely in trouble.

    Friday

    Each boxer has a designated corner where they recover between rounds with their trainer and any other support team members. Hence the origin of “to have someone in your corner.”

    Saturday

    Boxing gloves offer some cushion for both puncher and punched, but when “the gloves are off,” it’s raw, bare-knuckle brawling.

  • Week of August 9, 2020

    Single and Lovin’ It

    Some symbolism and translations from the familiar American $1 bill. Sources for all info at bottom.

    Sunday

    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.”

    Monday

    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.”

    Tuesday

    The eagle holds a banner in its beak reading “E Pluribus Unum,” or “Out of many, one.”

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    The eagle holds both symbols of war and peace: arrows in his left talon and an an 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.

    Friday

    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.

    Saturday

    The number 1776, the year when the US was founded, also appears in Roman numerals on the pyramid’s bottom row.

  • Week of August 2, 2020

    Stately Individuals

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Maryland was named for Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, the English king who granted the charter to form the Maryland colony.

    Thursday

    King Charles I also granted the charter for the colony of what is now the Carolinas, and they are named after the Latinized version of his name, Carolus.

    Friday

    Pennsylvania, or “Penn’s Woodlands” is named for William Penn, who granted the land to King Charles II to repay a debt owed by his admiral father.

    Saturday

    Washington is named for…yep, George Washington, and is the only state named for an American president.

  • Week of July 26, 2020

    What We’re In

    Sunday

    “Covid-19” stands for “COronaVIrus Disease 2019”

    Monday

    Coronaviruses are a class of viruses which have crown-like spikes on their surfaces. “Corona” means crown in Latin and Spanish.

    Tuesday

    Despite the damage they do to humans and other living things, viruses themselves are not technically alive, since they need host cells to survive and reproduce.

    Wednesday

    The word “quarantine” derives from “quaranta giorini” or “forty days” in Italian. Starting in the 1500s, ships arriving in Venice from ports affected by the bubonic plague had to anchor 40 days and wait before landing, extending the initial 30 day waiting requirement enforced in the city of Ragusa, and this law spread as a protection measure for European coastal cities.

    Thursday

    “Vaccine” derives from “vaccina,” a name for cowpox virus (vacca = cow in Latin). In a realization that effectively started modern vaccine science, British physician Edward Jenner observed that local milkmaids who’d had cowpox before never got the more pernicious smallpox which frequently ravaged 18th Century English towns. He used a preparation of cowpox virus to immunize people against the closely-related smallpox, though modern virologists suspect it may have actually been horsepox providing the immunity.

    Friday

    Transmission studies of the closely-related SARS CoV-1 virus produced the familiar 6 feet / 2 meter social distancing figure, which was officially made part of CDC guidelines during the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

    Saturday

    Washing / sanitizing your hands reduces their potential as spreaders of viruses and other germs by physically removing or destroying these agents before they can hitch a longer ride on your hands and do more damage.

  • Week of July 19, 2020

    Shockingly Intelligent

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

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    The ohm, the unit for electric resistance (and impedance), is named for German physicist Georg Simon Ohm.

    Thursday

    The hertz, the unit for frequency (of one cycle per second), is named for German physicist Heinrich Hertz.

    Friday

    The siemens, the unit for electrical conductance, is named for either German engineer / inventor William Siemens, or his brother Werner von Siemens.

    Saturday

    The coloumb, the unit for electric charge, is named for French military engineer Charles-Augustin de Coulomb.

  • Week of July 12, 2020

    Pissed!

    Sunday

    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 its wooden handle while in use and going airborne, an obvious danger to those nearby.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Describing someone as “livid” also invokes a color. This dark bluish or greyish color more recently came to indicate the hue of an extremely angry individual.

    Thursday

    In Greek mythology, unpunished wrongdoers made the Furies feel, well, furious. This trio of bat-winged, snake-haired goddesses dealt in vengeance, punishment and justice, and had a particular disdain for those who lied, murdered, sinned against the gods, and children who disobeyed or killed their parents.

    Friday

    However, the ancients would not have understood some modern and technical idioms for intense anger. To “blow a fuse” is to burn out an electrical fuse by overloading it with current beyond its capacity. (The Rolling Stones famously sang about blowing a 50-amp fuse in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”)

    Saturday

    Similarly, to “blow a gasket,” which acts as a seal between metal parts in an engine’s combustion chamber, would result in a steam or liquid release in early engines, and still means very expensive repairs in modern cars.


  • Week of July 5, 2020

    LETT3RS / NUM8ERS

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    G20 or “The Group of Twenty” is a forum of the world’s major economic nations, and also the European Union, together representing 85% of the world’s economic output.

    Thursday

    V8 is both the Campbell’s drink made with 8 vegetables and also the name of a very common combustion engine with 8 cylinders arranged in a V shape.

    Friday

    Men of drafting age during WWII and Vietnam wondered if their local draft board might label them “1-A” (available and fit for military service) or “4-F” (unfit for military service) or any classification between. These labels were part of a statutory classification system for would-be soldiers that eventually went up to 5-A.

    Saturday

    License plates use letters and numbers, and a given state, province, or country will likely never run out of random combinations for their license plates. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, and ten single numbers (0-9). Hence, for a plate with just 6 character spaces available, the possible combinations for that plate are 36 x 36 x 36 x 36 x 36 x 36, or 2,176,782,336. With “only” 15 million cars registered in America’s most populous state, California, there are plenty of plates to go around, even if the spaces, number and letter positions were more restricted.

  • Week of June 28, 2020

    They Weren’t Quite Born That Way

    Sunday

    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”….

    Monday

    …and 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”…

    Tuesday

    …and 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”…

    Wednesday

    …and Lady Gaga happens to be the godmother to a son of Elton John, the veteran rocker who was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight…

    Thursday

    …and who once got a letter about the great influence of his music from Bono of U2, whose real name is Paul Hewitt…

    Friday

    …and human rights-loving U2 toured for an Amnesty International fundraiser in 1986, sharing the bill with The Police and their singer Sting, real name Gordon Sumner…

    Saturday

    …who, in his own support of the human rights group, promoted a fundraising album of covers of Bob Dylan’s songs, who himself was born Robert Allen Zimmerman.

  • Week of June 21, 2020

    The Reel Deal

    Sunday

    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.”

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    We associate the term “silver screen” with the film world because original movie screens were coated with a reflective metallic paint, since this was better to view the projected images on.

    Thursday

    Though popcorn was popular at carnivals since the mid-1800s, the first movie theaters wanted to replicate the experience of live theaters, so didn’t promote snacks like popcorn. However, two big events in US history played a role in the popularization of popcorn in movie theaters. During the Great Depression, the very profitable snack kept many movie theaters in business, since it was both cheap for the cash-strapped movie goers to buy and even cheaper for the theaters to acquire. During WWII, more sugary foods were sent to the soldiers, and traditional growing regions like the Philippines were cut off from the US market, so popcorn didn’t have to compete much with sweeter snacks, further maintaining its theater dominance.

    Friday

    “Jaws” was the film that, in 1975, created the model for the summer blockbuster, setting the stage for its release with well-timed promotion, merchandising, and release of the soundtrack and source novel. Before Jaws, film audiences typically went to movies in the winter, and the summer was a box office “dead zone.”

  • Week of June 14, 2020

    Beasts of Learnin’

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Someone living or eating “high on the hog” is flaunting wealth or status because the most expensive cuts of pork are said to come from the animals’ back and upper legs. By contrast, poorer folk are more likely to buy the belly, feet, and other parts of the animal.

    Thursday

    Since cows are known to take their sweet time in doing nearly everything, anything that will continue “until the cows come home” is likely to take a while.

    Friday

    The origin of the term “to let the cat out of the bag” to reveal a secret is a more debated idiom, with at least two more popular origin theories: In one, the term refers to an old livestock swindle where a jostling bag said to contain one or more piglets for sale was revealed to contain a feline instead, and the other involves the unsheathing of the brutal “cat ‘o nine tails” whip for maritime punishment in the bygone days of the British Royal Navy, with the sailor exposing the sins of his shipmate being the one to “let the cat out of the bag.”

    Saturday

    Once established, the social hierarchy of a chicken flock remains fixed, and the more dominant birds keep lower rankers aware of their place with painful pecks. This is the origin of the term “pecking order.”

  • Week of June 7, 2020

    Can’t Handle It

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.”

    Tuesday

    The “Pan” in Peter Pan’s name is a reference to this goaty god.

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    Pan also means “whole,” “all inclusive,” or “involving all members” in Greek, so it is a prefix that means all possible members of a group, such as in the words panacea (cure for all ills) pandemic (relating to everyone), pandemonium (all demons, or the uproar if they were all loosed), Pantheon (temple honoring all the gods), and Pan-American, for all people in the Americas, like the Pan-American athletic games.

    Friday

    Pan means bread in Spanish, so your local “panederia” is a bread shop or bakery, and “pane” is bread in Italian, so “Panera” means “bread time” in Italian, or breadbasket / breadbox in Spanish. “Panis” means bread in Latin, so many Latin-based languages have this prefix.

    Saturday

    That room is called a “pantry” because bread was originally stored in there.

  • Week of May 31, 2020

    Notes from the Underground

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    Potatoes are tubers, a thickened plant structure that grows underground between the plant’s stem and roots, where they absorb and store energy and often help the plant survive the winter.

    Thursday

    French fries are quite possibly of Belgian origin, but American soldiers in WWI called them French fries after learning of them from from French-speaking Belgians.

    Friday

    A potato was the first vegetable ever grown in space, with the eventual goal of feeding astronauts and future planetary colonists.

    Saturday

    Every day, over one billion people eat at least one potato.

  • Week of May 24, 2020

    Digital Acronym Week #1

    Sunday

    PDF = Portable Document Format

    Monday

    GIF = Graphics Interchange Format

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    HTML = Hypertext Markup Language

    Thursday

    HTTP = Hypertext Transfer Protocol

    Friday

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

    Saturday

    URL = Uniform Resource Locator

  • Week of May 17, 2020

    My Kind of Town

    Sunday

    Chicago is not called “The Windy City” because its 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 get Chicago chosen over rival candidates New York, St. Louis, and Washington, DC, and the fair was a great success.

    Monday

    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, the 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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Heard stories of political deals made in “smoke-filled rooms”? The room which birthed the term was a suite in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. There, in 1920, Senator Warren G. Harding was chosen as the Republican presidential nominee out of many closely-matched candidates at a deadlocked convention. He was the “compromise” candidate chosen after ten ballots though he got only 7% of initial votes.

    Thursday

    The 3-letter airport code of O’Hare Airport is “ORD” because it was first known as Orchard Field.

    Friday

    Of all of the world’s rivers, only the Chicago River runs backwards. Prior to 1900, it drained into Lake Michigan, but the flow was reversed through a massive engineering project to carry all that urban sewage and slaughterhouse waste away from the city rather than into its natural source of drinking water.

    Saturday

    The city’s name first appeared in print over 330 years ago as “Chigagou,” a native word typically translated as “wild onion,” “onion field,” “wild garlic,” or “wild leek,” as to describe a leek species found in Chicago River watershed.

  • Week of May 10, 2020

    Bow and Wave

    Sunday

    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 which you control or feel comfortable in.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Oceangoing sailing ships operated with complicated systems of ropes and rigging, so to “show someone the ropes” originally meant to orient them with the ship’s workings.

    Thursday

    When someone “shows their true colors,” a dark side is often revealed. This term started when ships (particularly 17th century Spanish ships) carried many countries’ flags with them to mislead their enemies at sea. “True colors” were those of the ship’s actual national flag, often only shown when the deceived nearby ship was attacked.

    Friday

    Someone in the doldrums may feel dispirited and unmotivated. The original doldrums are a band of calm and low-wind areas north of the equator in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans where sailing ships often got stuck or substantially slowed without winds to push them.

    Saturday

    “By and large” means “generally” or “on the whole” because it refers to the full range of ways ships could sail relative to the wind. “By” referred to sailing into the wind or perpendicular to its direction, and “large” meant enjoying the stronger push of the wind from behind.

  • Week of May 3, 2020

    Fuel for Thought

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Ethanol, which you often see mentioned as part of the fuel blend at gas station pumps, is fermented from the starch and sugar found in common crops like corn, wheat, barley, potatoes, sugar cane, and sorghum. Notably, the Ford Model T ran on a gasoline / ethanol blend, but the grain fuel took a hit when temporarily banned in 1919 in the US as part of prohibition, since it was considered an alcoholic beverage.

    Thursday

    The most common types of fuels for nuclear power plants are Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239. Natural uranium is mined, and after much refining and enriching, the metal is processed into fingertip-sized pellets which each contain the energy equivalent of a ton of coal or 149 gallons of oil. Plutonium, which fuels over a third of most power plants’ output, is actually a by-product of the initial Uranium reaction.

    Friday

    Geothermal energy is clean and renewable, but this heat from underground the must be fairly hot to produce electricity. For this reason, areas near tectonic plate boundaries can produce more geothermal energy. El Salvador, Iceland, New Zealand, Kenya and the Philippines, all countries with major tectonic plate boundaries under or near them, are among the big geothermal power producers. Incidentally, the Earth’s heat itself is from leftover from our planet’s formation, still cooling off 4.5 billion years after it was first formed.

    Saturday

    Those slick, huge, modern wind turbines are made of high-tech materials, but using windmills to harness windpower for food production goes back nearly 2000 years, and they were used for electrical generation as far back as 1888.

  • Week of April 26, 2020

    Give Peace A Chance

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    “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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    A ploughshare is part of a harvesting plow, and the word often appears in reference to the scriptural passage that the nations “…shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” from the books of Isaiah and Micah. This inspiration to turn weapons into peaceful tools gave the name to the bronze statute at the United Nations garden entitled “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares” as well as similarly-named peace-promoting movements and foundations.

    Thursday

    The dove as a symbol of peace has long roots in many cultures. It includes the symbolism of love and renewal of life in ancient Greece, the end of war (when the dove carried a sword) in ancient Japan and later on Japanese stamps commemorating peace, and for divine forgiveness in Christian cultures, since a dove returned to Noah carrying an olive branch in the flood story. Doves were released as a symbol of peace starting in the 1920 Olympics’ opening ceremony and for many years thereafter. Pablo Picasso’s dove in his lithograph “La Colombe” also helped make the bird a standard peace symbol when the World Peace Congress chose it as their emblem in 1949.

    Friday

    Olive branches surround the world on the United Nations flag, are held in one eagle talon to represent peace on the US $1 bill, and are described in the saying “to extend an olive branch” as an offering of peace or truce. In one Greek myth, the goddess Athena planted an olive tree at Attica to promote peace and prosperity, and other well-meaning goddesses were often pictured with olive branches, including Pax, the peace goddess herself. The defeated in a war held one to plead for peace, akin to a modern white flag. There is symbolism from the biblical flood, and the much later use of the image by proponents of a peaceful American independence from Great Britain. The tree’s own biology may play a role too, since olive trees grow too slowly to be cultivated during wartime, only peaceful times.

    Saturday

    The familiar circular peace symbol, made famous during the 1960s, was actually designed specifically to promote British nuclear disarmament. Artist and engineer Gerald Holtom designed the symbol for use in a 1958 march outside the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in London, and the symbol combines the flag semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D” for “nuclear disarmament.”

  • Week of April 19, 2020

    Corporate Shortcuts

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    “Capcom” condenses “Capsule Computers.”

    Thursday

    “3M” is easier to say than “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.”

    Friday

    “Sprint,” for curious reasons, derives from “Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Communications.”

    Saturday

    That duck never mentioned “Aflac” is short for “American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus.”

  • Week of April 12, 2020

    Name of Thrones

    Sunday

    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.”

    Monday

    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.”

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    “Lavare” means to “to wash” in Latin, and this is the source of the word “latrine.” English speakers have been using this term for about 350 years.

    Thursday

    “Toilette,” the French word from which we get “toilet,” means dressing room, and itself comes from the word “toile,” or cloth. In the 1600’s, the toilet was the process of doing your hair, clothes, makeup, etc. By 19th century America, this term referred to the room where this process occurred, and more particularly, the useful device in it.

    Friday

    “Potty” derives from “chamber pot,” a portable toilet people used in times past for doing their business at night.

    Saturday

    The room where you can find a toilet and a sink is called a “restroom” or “bathroom” more often in the US than in Britain.

  • Week of April 5, 2020

    Random Abbreviation Week (RAW!) #1

    Sunday

    CVS = Consumer Value Stores

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

    YMCA = Young Men’s Christian Association

    Wednesday

    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 of abbreviating 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. By chance, his nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” and his supporters kept the letters around by forming 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.

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

    SAT = Scholastic Assessment Test

  • Week of March 29, 2020

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. I

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    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.

    Thursday

    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.

    Friday

    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.

    Saturday

    Things related to sexuality and physical passion are called “erotic” after the Greek god Eros, who could make both mortals and gods fall in love. Eros was the precursor to the Roman Cupid, and some sources indicate Eros had an understandably less popular brother Anteros, the God of spurned and unrequited love.

  • Week of March 22, 2020

    You’re Bugging Me

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    The word “mantis” comes from the Greek word for prophet, because many ancient religions thought the bugs had supernatural powers. Praying mantises, in addition to their pious appearance, can camouflage remarkably well, are amazingly agile, can prey on bats, birds, and reptiles, and move their head 180 degrees. Females often decapitate and devour their lovers (who don’t need their heads to finish up), and in at least two cases, also ate birds during copulation. Seeing a mantis is either good or bad fortune, depending on the culture. Some Christians believe seeing this prayerful insect in your house means angels are watching over you, but seeing one in Japan may warn of your death.

    Thursday

    Think there’s a lot of insects around? There are. By one estimate, there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (ten quintillion) total individuals, and that’s just insects, excluding spiders, mites, and other arthropods. Fewer than one million species have been described by scientists, and that’s out of an estimated 2-30 million total species total. Throw spiders and all other “bugs” in the pot, and we’re talking about up to 80% of the species on this planet being insects and arthropods.

    Friday

    Butterfly wings are far larger than needed just to fly, and their erratic-looking flight is partially a tactic to keep predators from predicting their flight path. The insects generate extra turbulence with their wingbeats as they tip, rotate, and shift their center of gravity around. However, species which are more poisonous to predators don’t need all this trickery and fly straighter than their tastier relatives.

    Saturday

    Despite being around for about 300 million years, dragonflies put most modern flying critters to shame. They can travel up to 34 mph, can fly forward, backward, sideways, upside down, hover, turn almost immediately, nab prey in mid-flight, and at least one species can cross oceans (yes, oceans) of 11,000 miles for the record of longest-migrating insect.

  • Week of March 15, 2020

    ‘Tis the Seasoning

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    The ocean is salty because of runoff water from land, seafloor vents and underwater volcanoes. Since rainwater is slightly acidic, it slowly dissolves rocks on land, the salty ions from which eventually flow into the ocean. Meanwhile, ocean water seeps into the crust below it and is heated by the Earth’s mantle, dissolving minerals from the crust which are added to seawater. A similar process occurs via the injection of salty ions from underwater volcanoes. And while there are different types of salt in nature, 85-90% of the dissolved ions in seawater are sodium and chloride, same as common table salt, which often comes from evaporated seawater.

    Thursday

    To remind someone of an unpleasant fact is to “rub it in,” which itself is short for “rubbing salt in the wound.” Not surprisingly, doing this makes a wound more painful.

    Friday

    The superstition of curing bad luck by throwing salt over the left shoulder is itelf related to another salty superstition. In “The Last Supper,” da Vinci painted Judas Iscariot as having knocked the salt over with his elbow. Accordingly, spilled salt came to be associated with treachery and an invitation for the devil to corrupt the spiller. The cure was for the spiller was to throw salt over the left shoulder and blind the devil supposedly waiting there.

    Saturday

    Four enormous hollowed-out underground salt caverns along the US Gulf Coast are filled with oil barrels. These create the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, with a total capacity of 714 million barrels. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973-4, which cut off the country’s main source and led to shortages, the idea for the strategic stockpile came about.

  • Week of March 8, 2020

    Up All Knight

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of March 1, 2020

    Belt ‘Em Out

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday


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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 23, 2020

    What’s In A Name?

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 16, 2020

    Go With The Flow

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 9, 2020

    Tipping the Scales

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of February 2, 2020

    Enough Alredy

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

  • Week of January 26, 2020

    That’s An Acronym? (pt. I)

    Sunday

    LASER = Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

    RADAR = RAdio Detection And Ranging

    Wednesday

    SCUBA = Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

    Thursday

    ZIP Code = Zone Improvement Plan

    Friday

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

    Saturday

    CARE Package® = Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe

  • Week of January 19, 2020

    Let’s Get Crazy

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

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

    Friday

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

    Saturday

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

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

  • Week of January 12, 2020

    Tech Origins

    Sunday

    “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.

    Monday

    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, all while sporting 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.

    Tueday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Apple co-founder Steve Jobs came up with the name after returning from an Oregon apple orchard. He thought the name sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating” and was also on one of his “fruitarian” diets at the time. An added advantage: the “A” word would be closer to the front of the phone book.

    Thursday

    Twitter founders originally considered the names “Status,” “FriendStalker,” “Vibrate,” and “Dodgeball,” but a dictionary search encountered the word “twitter” and a definition of “a short burst of inconsequential information; chirps from birds,” which sounded spot-on. It was initially called “twttr” in the mold of flickr, but reverted back to Twitter later.

    Friday

    Originally called “The facebook,” Facebook’s name came from the the list of student and staff directory and profiles which freshmen at founder Mark Zuckerberg’s then-school Harvard were given.

    Saturday

    Craigslist is named for founder Craig Newmark, who started the site in 1995 as a hobby after emailing some dozen friends about interesting San Fransisco happenings. As more people asked to be added to the listserve and asked for info on other things, including tech jobs, he created the site.

  • Week of January 4, 2020 (first full week in January)

    The Basics

    Sunday

    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.

    Monday

    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.

    Tuesday

    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.

    Wednesday

    Water is not blue because it reflects the sky, but appears blue for a similar reason that that sky does. The water absorbs long-wavelength yellow, orange and red colors and reflects short-wavelength colors, mostly blue. Since blue is the color reflected back to our eyes, we see the water as blue.

    Thursday

    This same reason our sky appears blue also explains the sun’s appearance from Earth. Our sun is white when seen from space, but our atmosphere scatters the sun’s shorter-wavelength blue / indigo / violet-range colors such that longer-wavelength red / orange / and yellow colors within sunlight reach us more easily, and the sun usually appears as one of these colors.

    Friday

    Incoming light refracts within water droplets while they’re in the air to separate the colors which compose white light, all of which move at slightly different speeds. With the droplets acting like a prism and a color separater, we can then see those individual colors as a rainbow. In addition to familiar rainbows, there are also “moonbows” and “fogbows.”

    Saturday

    Hair follicles produce less color as they age, and the result is that your hair eventually appears white with no color to change it…unless you add some from a bottle. However, genetics and disease also play a role in hair color.

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