The Origin of Everyday

The Backstories of Everyday Ideas, Items, & Terms

Daily facts on weekly themes. Enjoy!


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

  • Week of July 19, 2020

    Pissed!

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


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


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


    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.


    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, killed, sinned against the gods, and children who disobeyed or murdered their parents.


    However, the ancients would not have used certain 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.”)


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


  • Week of July 12, 2020

    LETT3RS / NUM8ERS

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


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


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


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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 July 5, 2020

    They Weren’t Quite Born That Way

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


    …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”…


    …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”…


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


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


    …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…


    …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 28, 2020

    The Reel Deal

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


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


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


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


    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.


    “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 21, 2020

    Beasts of Learnin’

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


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


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


    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.


    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.


    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.”


    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 14, 2020

    Shockingly Intelligent

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

  • Week of June 7, 2020

    Can’t Handle It

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


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


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


    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.


    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.


    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.


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

  • Week of May 31, 2020

    Notes from the Underground

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


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


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


    Potatos 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.


    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.


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


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

  • Week of May 24, 2020

    Digital Acronym Week #1


    PDF = Portable Document Format


    GIF = Graphics Interchange Format


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


    HTML = Hypertext Markup Language


    HTTP = Hypertext Transfer Protocol


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


    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 Chicago get picked over rival contenders 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 after first getting 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 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, 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 had 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 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 sound and 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 high waves 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 was 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 earlier 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 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 as 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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