The Origin of Everyday

The Backstories of Everyday Ideas, Items, & Terms

Daily facts on weekly themes. Enjoy!


  • Week of January 15, 2023

    Train Your Mind Well

    Sunday

    Need to “let off (or blow off) some steam”? So did early locomotives when their boilers built up dangerous pressure, hence the safety valve and origin of this term.

    Monday

    Sidetracks are where trains get diverted off the main line for whatever reason, and also the origin of the term for a diversion from a goal among humans.

    Tuesday

    The term “Hell on Wheels” has railroad origins, and referred to the transient, moving towns that traveled with the westbound construction of the US railroad, attracting the business of the young railroad workers with saloons, gambling, and brothels.

  • Week of January 15, 2023

    Loosen Yours and Consume More Facts

    Sunday

    Belts are old. The earliest known belt worn on a person was used in the Bronze Age, which was from about 1200-33oo BC.

    Monday

    In the US, the “Rust Belt” is an area which includes parts of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin, and by some accounts Iowa, Kentucky, and Massachusetts. The abundance of iron ore, coal, and natural waterways for transport once made this region a powerful manufacturing center. However, beginning in the 1950s, foreign competition, increased mechanization that replaced workers, increased labor costs, and other causes led to a decline in the region’s industries and population. The name began when presidential candidate Walter Mondale claimed his opponent Ronald Reagan’s trade policies would turn this area into a “rust bowl” (a reference to the “Dust Bowl” of Great Depression times), but “Rust Belt” ended up sticking instead. The US has many other belts, after all, including the Corn Belt, Sun Belt, and Bible Belt.

    Tuesday

    Though the colors between them and symbolism vary among traditions, each martial art which uses a belt ranking system starts with white and ends with black (although there are degrees of black belt).

    Wednesday

    On a much larger scale, an asteroid belt circles our sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Although comprised of millions of space rocks of various sizes, the mass of all these combined would still be only 3% that of Earth’s moon.

    Thursday

    US federal government activities and politicking in the Washington DC metro area are often described as “Inside the Beltway” because this region is surrounded by interstate highways I-495 and I-95, which form a loop known as “The Capital Beltway.”

    Friday

    While lap-only seat belts were first invented for horse-drawn vehicles, it would be 51 years after the first Ford Model T arrived that the modern 3-point lap/body seat belt appeared in Volvos. By the time inventor Nils Bohlin died in 2002, his concept was estimated to have saved one million lives.

    Saturday

    Normally one method of keeping one’s pants up is sufficient, so taking a “belt and suspenders” approach to anything indicates extreme safety and caution.

  • Week of January 8, 2023

    This Week is the Site’s Blue Period

    Sunday

    The term “blue blood” has some unfortunate racist baggage. It is derived literally from “sangre azul,” a term previously used for the old aristocratic families of Castile whose veins were visible under pale skin because they had not mixed with the Moors, Jews, or other darker-complexion groups of middle-ages Spain.

    Monday

    A steadfastly loyal or dedicated person is “true blue” because the 17th-century fabric dyers of Coventry, England were known for using blue dye which didn’t fade with washing, staying “true” or “fast.” Over time, the saying “True as Coventry blue” was shortened to just “true blue.”

    Tuesday

    “Blue Monday,” which is the third Monday in January, is supposedly the saddest day of the year, since it is in the middle of the dark, cold winter, the holiday fun is over, but the holiday bills are starting to arrive.

    Wednesday

    All blue-eyed people are descended from a single individual who experienced a mutation that caused his or her descendants to have less melanin in their eyes, making them appear lighter. This person lived in Europe between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

    Thursday

    The blue whale is not just the largest creature to live on Earth now, but the largest ever known to have lived on Earth.

    Friday

    The phrase “between the devil and the deep blue sea” derives from translations from other phrases which also indicate choosing between two awful options, including “between damnation and drowning,” “between the devil and the Dead Sea,” “between the sledgehammer and the anvil,” and “a precipice in front, wolves behind.” By some accounts, “the devil” describes a the area “between the deck planking and the topmost plank of the ship’s side,” or a deck’s edge, still a dangerous place.

    Saturday

    99 years ago, the “Feather River Bulletin” of Quincy, California, declared “If we may call professions and office positions white collar jobs, we may call the trades blue collar jobs.” Blue denim, dungarees, and lighter gingham fabric had long been preferred among manual laborers for their durability, not to mention that darker colors didn’t show stains as readily and thus needed less washing.

  • Week of January 1, 2022

    Facts That Are Fit to Be Tied

    Sunday

    The convention of categorizing athletic players as “first string, second string, etc.” goes back to the medieval archer’s practice of carrying backup strings for their bow in case the first string broke.

    Monday

    Purse strings tighten or loosen the opening of a traditional pouch purse, so one who “controls the purse strings” has authority to dictate finances as they see fit.

    Tuesday

    Fabric merchants of old times marked flaws in their material for sale by tying a string to the imperfect spot. Hence to get something without condition is to receive it “no strings attached.”

    Wednesday

    A person who “pulls the strings” controls people or events, often unbeknownst to others. This term originates with marionette puppetry, where characters were controlled by hidden puppeteers holding the strings.

    Thursday

    Stringed instruments go back to at least 2,550BC, the date of the first known lyre found in 1929 in modern day Iraq.

    Friday

    String theory, in a very simplified sense, suggests that the various forces among subatomic particles could interact in a more theoretically cohesive way if the particles were conceptualized as vibrating strings instead of individual points.

    Saturday

    Unsurprisingly, strings are old. Man-made strings found in a cave in southeast France date back 90,000 years.

  • Week of December 25, 2022

    Everydayus Latin, pt. 6

    Sunday

    “Prima facia” means “at first appearance / view.”

    Monday

    “In absentia” means “while absent.”

    Tuesday

    “Que sera, sera” means “whatever will be, will be.”

    Wednesday

    “Post mortem” means “after death.”

    Thursday

    “Rigor mortis” means “the stiffness of death.”

    Friday

    “Sine qua non” means “that without, not,” but can be better understood as “the essential thing.”

    Saturday

    “In vino veritas” means “in wine there is truth.”

  • Week of December 18, 2022

    Going with the Grain

    Sunday

    The original breakfast cereal, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, came from an accidental discovery at a sanitarium. When brothers John Harvey Kellogg and Will Keith Kellogg found some wheat they’d cooked had gone stale, they nonetheless put the wheat through rollers hoping to make dough sheets. When they got flakes instead, they decided to toast them. This cereal was very popular at the Battle Creek, Michigan sanitarium they were managing at the time, and since it was neither spicy nor sweet, it did not risk arousing any “passions” which their Seventh Day Adventist religion attributed to such food. Various grains were experimented with, and eventually their corn cereal was mass produced starting in 1906. The green rooster mascot, still on the box today, is named Cornelius (“Corny”) and came about because a Welsh-speaking friend noted that her language’s word for rooster was “ceiliog,” which sounded like “Kellogg.”

    Monday

    Charles W. Post, previously a patient of the Battle Creek Sanitarium which the Kellogg brothers oversaw, started a competing cereal company, The Postum Cereal Company, Ltd., and produced a rival corn flake cereal called “Post Toasties.” Grape Nuts Cereal (still around today) soon followed, and through aggressive marketing and somewhat dubious health claims regarding his products, this other Battle Creek food company was a major industry player.

    Tuesday

    Tony the Tiger has been around since long before the cereal changed its name from “Sugar Frosted Flakes” as sugar content began to concern more consumers. It was previously revealed that Tony is Italian-American, has a mom Mama Tony, a wife Mrs. Tony, a son Tony Jr., and a young daughter Antoinette.

    Wednesday

    Grape Nuts cereal is made from wheat, barley, yeast, salt, and some added vitamins. The cereal never contained grapes nor nuts at any point in its 125-year history, so that now the product’s own website only has speculation as to why it was named so.

    Thursday

    The first face to appear on a Wheaties box was fictional “all-American boy” Jack Armstrong in 1934, who was replaced later that year by real-life baseball legend Lou Gehrig. Prior to focusing on athletes, The Lone Ranger, pioneer female pilot Elinor Smith, and other non-athletes appeared on Wheaties boxes, though it was not until the 1950s that individuals appeared on the front of the box instead of the back. Notably, Wheaties was also the first product promoted with a musical jingle in its radio commercial.

    Friday

    The first appearance of iconic cereal mascots Snap, Crackle, and Pop was a solo appearance by Snap in 1933. The other brothers soon joined him, all first appearing as elderly gnomes rather than the youthful elves of later makeovers. A brief appearance of a taller, brawnier, fourth elf named Pow (short for “Power”), appeared dressed in spacesuits during the space race of the 1950s, but was soon retired.

    Saturday

    We call it “cereal” after Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture and grain.

  • Week of December 11, 2022

    Facts That Really Have Teeth

    Sunday

    The term “to cut your teeth on ___” derives from the old description of when a baby first “cut his teeth,” or had them emerge through the gums.

    Monday

    Horse teeth grow their whole lives, and a trained eye can age the animal accordingly, hence the reference to older folks being “long in the tooth.”

    Tuesday

    To “lie through your teeth” means to lie unabashedly, often, and by some accounts, even while smiling kindly and showing your teeth.

    Wednesday

    Not everyone develops wisdom teeth, or “third molars,” but those that do often find they crowd other teeth or become impacted and fail to fully emerge or “erupt” into the jaw. One reason for this is that modern humans have smaller jaws than our distant ancestors, so there is less space for these somewhat vestigial teeth than there used to be.

    Thursday

    Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury was famously self-conscious of his prominent front teeth, but refused orthodontic treatment, believing they played a role in his remarkable vocal range and projection. In 2016, European scientists (and admitted fans) studied this question and found that Mercury’s singing voice likely came from not only his outstanding control of his vocal chords, but use of his vestibular folds, membranes found above the vocal chords and not usually used in voice at all.

    Friday

    A snake’s teeth will tell you just how it kills prey. Venomous snakes have long fangs which inject poison into prey, while the more common constrictors have smaller even teeth to latch onto prey while the rest of the muscular snake wraps around it to suffocate it.

    Saturday

    Cavities aren’t new, and neither are fillings. Archaeologists have found human remains from about 6,500 years ago with beeswax fillings and remains from 13,000 years ago with tar fillings.

  • Week of December 4, 2022

    Random Acronym Week (RAW!) #8

    Sunday

    IMAX = Image MAXimum

    Monday

    NORAD = North American Aerospace Defense Command

    Tuesday

    HUD = Housing and Urban Development

    Wednesday

    IRC = International Rescue Committee

    Thursday

    COP = Conference Of the Parties (to treaties, typically international ones like those relating to climate change

    Friday

    COLA = Cost of Living Adjustment

    Saturday

    SAG = Screen Actors Guild

  • Week of November 26, 2022

    A Metal for Medals

    Sunday

    Silver’s chemical symbol on the periodic table is not “Si” (which is silicon), but “Ag” after the Latin “argentum,” meaning “shiny” or “white.”

    Monday

    “Quicksilver” actually describes mercury, which is both silvery in color and the only metal which is liquid at room temperature, making it seem alive, or “quick.”

    Tuesday

    Silver gets the gold medal for being the most malleable and ductile metal, able to be drawn into a wire one atom (yes, atom) wide.

    Wednesday

    Since silver platters were traditionally serving dishes used in formal, wealthy settings, to have things “handed to you on a silver platter,” means to receive something without necessarily deserving or earning it in the first place.

    Thursday

    However, if that thing brought on a silver platter is a severed human head, this is refers to a harsh punishment based on a grisly Biblical story. In it, King Herod grants his stepdaughter Salome her wish of receiving the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. John, Jesus’ cousin, had been speaking ill of the queen and was already imprisoned out of concern that he might spark rebellion.

    Friday

    There’s not much actual silver in the sky, but a “silver lining” refers to the light seen around the edge of dark clouds, and is a metaphor for a positive outcome born of a negative one.

    Saturday

    “Silver Surfer” is both a Marvel Comics character first introduced in 1966 and an amusing term for senior citizens who are proficient “surfing” the Internet.

  • Week of November 20, 2022

    Prey for Them

    Among the many everyday terms originating from the ancient practice of falconry:

    Sunday

    The leash by which a falconer holds onto his bird is called a “jess,” and when the handler’s thumb pins down the jess to hold it secure, the bird is “under his thumb.”

    Monday

    Likewise, the jess can be wrapped around a little finger to secure the bird, the origin of this other term for full control.

    Tuesday

    “Haggard” describes a mature wild-caught hawk, which are also often thin and scruffy when caught at the end of a migration.

    Wednesday

    When a falconing bird is tethered and restrained, it is “bated,” so “waiting with bated breath” refers to holding your breath in anticipation.

    Thursday

    A leather “hat” or hood is sometimes put over the eyes of the bird to calm them. From this we get “hoodwinked,” since wink means to close the eyes quickly, for deceiving or tricking someone.

    Friday

    “Ruser,” from the Old French, describes when a hawk shakes its tail feathers. From this comes “rouse,” which means to awaken yourself or someone else.

    Saturday

    References to a “hawkeye” as having sharp vision are not kidding. Hawks can see five times better than people, spot small prey miles away, have a visual range of 280 degrees (people only have 200 degrees), and can see sharper colors and even ultraviolet light.

  • Week of November 12, 2022

    Through the Hourglass

    Sunday

    Around the world, sand is different colors because that is the color of the rock or other material the sand eroded from. For example, black sand beaches are often made from eroded basalt from lava, and white sand beaches are often pulverized coral.

    Monday

    Ostriches don’t really stick their heads in the sand to hide from danger or problems, but they do put their heads down to dig holes for their eggs and eat plants.

    Tuesday

    By one prominent soil classification system, sand, by definition, must have grains between 0.074 mm and 4.75 mm. Smaller particles are silt, larger grains are gravel.

    Wednesday

    Sand is an essential ingredient in construction, with about 50 billion tons of it used in building yearly. At least seven different types of sand are categorized for various building purposes, including concrete sand, fill sand, and manufactured sand.

    Thursday

    As plentiful as desert sand is, several factors make it undesirable for use in construction.

    Friday

    While there is spotty evidence that the world’s first sand-filled hourglasses were used by the ancient Romans and Greeks, it was more likely developed in Europe by the 8th century AD and certainly in widespread use on the continent six centuries later.

    Saturday

    Think you’ve made some impressive sand castles? The world record largest sand castle was made in Denmark in 2021, measured just under 70 feet tall and was made of 6,400 tons of sand.

  • Week of November 6, 2022

    In Good Company

    Sunday

    “Inc.” means incorporated, and “corp.” means corporation. A corporation is one type of business entity that is legally distinct from those who own it or work there.

    Monday

    “LLC” stands for “limited liability company,” which does not issue stock like a corporation, but is still separate from the people owning / running / working for it.

    Tuesday

    “DBA” stands for “doing business as.”

    Wednesday

    “LP” is a limited partnership…

    Thursday

    …and “LLP” is a limited liability partnership.

    Friday

    “PC” stands for professional corporation, and is a corporation which can be started by members of particular professions.

    Saturday

    “Co-op” is a cooperative, which is individuals, producers, or businesses working together for a common purpose, usually agreeing to certain principles of autonomy and democracy.

  • Week of October 30, 2022

    Continental Break-facts

    Sunday

    Asia’s name comes from ancient Greek, where the term was applied to what is now Anatolia after first just describing the east bank of the Aegean Sea. The term was later applied to lands further and further east, and Anatolia was differentiated by calling it “Asia Minor.”

    Monday

    The Romans called modern-day Tunisia, the part of Africa closest to them, “Africa terra”, or “land of the Afris,” after a tribe from northern Africa, near Carthage. As with Asia, the name applied to a small part of the continent was progressively applied to the whole, sped by middle-ages exploration of Africa.

    Tuesday

    America, both North and South, were most likely named for Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who himself was named for Hungary’s Saint Emeric. Vespucci’s explorations of the coasts of modern-day Venezuela and Brazil led him to propose these unknown lands were actually part of a new continent, which proved to be quite correct.

    Wednesday

    Antarctica, from the Greek “antarktike” means the opposite to the Arctic, with this continent being on the other side of the globe as the Arctic. “Arctic” comes from “Arktos,” or “bear” in Greek, since the bear constellations, Ursa Minor and Major, are seen in the Northern Hemisphere and point to the North Star.

    Thursday

    When English explorer Matthew Flinders first sailed around Australia, the maps printed after his journey called it “Terra Australis” (“Southern Land”), although “Australia,” which the navigator himself preferred, eventually won out as the common name.

    Friday

    Three prominent theories about Europe’s name:

    -That it came from “erebu” an Akkadian word meaning “sunset,” since Europe was west, toward the sunset, from Mesopotamia where the word originated.

    -That is is named for the Greek goddess Europa.

    -That it comes from the Greek words for “wide” and “eye,” or “wide gazing” since Europe’s shoreline would have looked comparatively very wide to Greek mariners.

    Saturday

    Thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean are part of what is called Oceania, a term which often includes Australia and the submerged continent of Zealandia. “Okeanos” was the name of the great water body which ancient Greeks believed surrounded the Earth.

  • Week of October 23, 2022

    Paint it Fact

    Sunday

    Curiously, the first known paint mixture predates any known paintings by thousands of years. Several seashells containing a painting mixture of ochre, charcoal, crushed bone and stone flakes were found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave, and may be up to 100,000 years old. Any paintings made from this stash likely washed or wore away since then.

    Monday

    The oldest known preserved paintings are in limestone caves in Indonesia and date back at least 40,000 years. The better-known European cave art appears to be several thousand years younger.

    Tuesday

    Ancient paint was made with a remarkable variety of pigments to get the various colors needed. The origin of these colors included fruits, flowers, blood, charcoal, insects, sap, plants, roots, and many types of natural minerals.

    Wednesday

    A big revolution in the history of paint was the use of oil-based paint, which could give paintings more vibrant color, luster, and depth, among other advantages. The first known oil painting was from 650 A.D. by Buddhist artists in what is now Afghanistan. Historically popular paining oils were linseed, walnut, poppy seed and safflower.

    Thursday

    The largest known paining in the world, completed in 2020, is over 17,000 square feet in size, and was sold to benefit charities.

    Friday

    In 1949, paint salesman Ed Seymour wanted a way to showcase an aluminum coating for radiators. His wife proposed a spray gun, like the kind used for deodorizers, and the spray paint can was born.

    Saturday

    The Mona Lisa is likely the most famous paining ever, and is considered priceless. It is insured for over $900 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, the most of any painting in history, and French law prevents its sale.

  • Week of October 16, 2022

    How Every Day Originates

    Sunday

    By one count, there are well over 100 different sun gods and goddesses from religions all over the world.

    Monday

    The Earth is actually farthest from the sun in the summer and closest the winter, but the summer sun rays hit at a steeper angle. Hence these summer rays reach us with more focused intensity, as well as longer days to experience the light and heat.

    Tuesday

    The casual observer may think the sun is fixed and unchanging, but periodic energy outbursts in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections can cause huge problems to Earth’s electrical and electronics infrastructure. Events like this make up part of what is known as “space weather.”

    Wednesday

    Thanks to Earth’s axial tilt, several cities in the farther latitudes don’t see the sun go down for about 2.5 months straight, while during the opposite time of year, it doesn’t come up for that long. Travel to the North or South Poles, “polar day” and “polar night” last for six months at a time.

    Thursday

    Humanity has about 5 billion years to find and colonize one or more other livable planets before our own sun consumes all its hydrogen fuel and burns out.

    Friday

    The massive asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago sent so much dust and debris into the atmosphere that the sun was largely blotted out for years. Fewer plants grew, which played a huge role in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

    Saturday

    If Earth was closer to the sun, it would likely be too hot for life to evolve, as on Mercury or Venus, where water boils away. If it were further, it would be to cold and water would freeze, like on the outer planets. For this reason, scientists coined the term “Goldilocks Zone” for the distance from a sun hospitable to liquid water and therefore life.

  • Week of October 9, 2022

    Heady Tales

    Sunday

    A “coin of the realm” means something valued within a given locale, but the term originally meant actual currency issued by the British monarch.

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

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

    Thursday

    The coin toss at the beginning of every NFL game (and overtime, if any) uses a special coin made just for the purpose, with particular coins made just for the Super Bowl.

    Friday

    Shortly after dimes were first minted in the US in 1796, “a dime a dozen” was often used as a sale price for everyday products and indicated a good bargain. By 1930, inflation had rendered a dime far less valuable, and this term was first used with a negative connotation of something so common it is nearly useless.

    Saturday

    Though now applied to many manufactured items, “mint condition” originally referred to a brand new coin fresh from the mint that made it.

  • Week of October 2, 2022

    Facts That Are Your Cup of Tea

    Sunday

    The origin story and Chinese name for tea are related. According to legend, 5,000 years ago Emperor Shen Nung was boiling water when a nearby wild tree leaf blew into it. Intrigued by the scent, he drank, and reported that it warmed every part of his body, as if the tea were investigating his insides. Hence he gave tea the name “ch’a”, which meant to check or investigate.

    Monday

    “Not for all the tea in China,” meaning not for any price, was a term first seen in the early 20th century term which recognized that China produced enormous quantities of tea, a fact still true today with the country leading global production by a large margin.

    Tuesday

    While China, with its billion-plus population, also consumes the most total tea, the biggest average per-person tea drinking nation is easily Turkey, consuming nearly 7 lbs. / person / year, far more than even tea-loving England.

    Wednesday

    A wonderful tea-related term largely unknown to Americans (at least this one), is “More tea, Vicar?” This is used in the UK as a humorous distraction after passing gas or belching.

    Thursday

    “Herbal tea” is not made from tea leaves, but instead fruit, flowers, nuts and/or seeds, so is really a different beverage properly called tisane. Like tea, this drink has ancient origins.

    Friday

    Tea leaf reading, also known as “tasseography.” among other names, was the popular art of reading fortunes from the pattern of loose tea leaves remaining in one’s cup after drinking. The decline of the art began in 1903 with the rise of the teabag, since this contained the leaves that were otherwise left on the bottom for reading.

    Saturday

    Despite coffee’s popularity in the Americas, three cups of tea are consumed for every one cup of coffee worldwide.

  • Week of September 25, 2022

    Sew Interesting

    Sunday

    Pins and needles all start out as long spools of wire which are then cut to size and processed, largely by machine, into the finished product. The process can take several days.

    Monday

    Sewing needles are a very essential, and very old, human invention. A 50,000 year old needle made of bird bone was found in one Siberian cave, likely made by a now-extinct species of humans.

    Tuesday

    Tattoos, and the needles which produce them, also go pretty far back. Iceman Otzi, found under a melting European glacier in 1991, had 61 tattoos on his body and was carbon-14 dated at 5,300 years old.

    Wednesday

    The common pin has the distinction of being the item which Adam Smith uses as an example of the efficiency of division of labor in manufacture.

    Thursday

    “Pins and needles” describes unrelated mental and physical sensations. It describes both nervous anticipation and the feeling of blood returning to a limb which had “fallen asleep.” The term has been in use since at least the 19th century.

    Friday

    The modern safety pin was invented by Walter Hunt as he toyed with some wire, pondering how he might pay off a debt of fifteen dollars to a friend. He sold the patent to that friend after receiving one in 1849.

    Saturday

    A “needler” is both one who makes needles or deals in and also one who annoys and antagonizes.

  • Week of September 18, 2022

    Batty About Factoids

    Sunday

    Bats are the only mammal on Earth which can sustain flight (though others can glide).

    Monday

    With over 1,000 known bat species, bats are the second largest taxonomic order after rodents, comprising about 20% of all classified mammal species globally.

    Tuesday

    Bats find insects prey by echolocation, the emitting of high-pitched sounds and listening to the echoes to spot nearby bugs it bounced off of. With this tactic, some bats can consume about 20 mosquitoes per minute.

    Wednesday

    Bat poop (guano) contains saltpeter, which is used to make gunpowder, and a Confederate kiln at one Texas bat cave churned out 100 lbs / day during the American Civil War.

    Thursday

    Vampire bats are the only mammals which can live on blood alone, which they lick from tiny cuts they make on mostly unfazed livestock. Contrary to the Dracula myth, however, all known species live in Central and South America, far from Transylvania.

    Friday

    Eating the weight of 7 garbage trucks worth of insects might seem like a tall order, but it is done every night by the 15 million bats living in Texas’ Bracken Bat Cave, the world’s largest concentration of the animal.

    Saturday

    The range in size of bats remarkable. The smallest species, Kitti’s Hog-Nosed Bat, have an adult weight of 2 grams and a length of about 1.2 inches, while the largest bat, the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox, might be 11 inches long and weight 3 lbs. This would be comparable to adult humans in one part of the world being about 6 feet tall and 200 lbs, and people elsewhere being 55 feet tall and 1.36 million lbs.

  • Week of September 11, 2022

    Digital Acronym Week (DAM!) #6

    Sunday

    CAD = Computer Aided Drafting / Design

    Monday

    CGI = Computer Generated Imagery

    Tuesday

    TLD = Top Level Domain

    Wednesday

    ISP = Internet Service Provider

    Thursday

    DDoS = Distributed Denial of Service

    Friday

    MMORPG = Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

    Saturday

    PVP = Player vs. Player

  • Week of September 4, 2022

    Focused on Facts

    Sunday

    The first eyeglasses are generally thought to have been created in 1285 and were made of quartz, since glass at that time was too flawed to be good for glasses.

    Monday

    Eyeglasses work by taking on some of the light ray management that the eye would do in a person with perfect vision. If you’re nearsighted, your glasses focus incoming light rays onto the retina of your eye so that faraway objects you see aren’t blurry. If you’re farsighted, eyeglasses spread the light over a wider area of the eye’s retina, bringing nearby objects into focus.

    Tuesday

    Sunglasses in the form of slits cut into walrus ivory have been used to reduce snow glare by Inuit people for 2,000 years.

    Wednesday

    The idea may seem obvious now, but eyeglasses went about 450 years before the development of frames with hooks that go behind the ears.

    Thursday

    In addition to accomplishments in science, writing, politics, diplomacy, and more, Benjamin Franklin was also the inventor of bifocals, which allow wearers to focus on objects both near and far.

    Friday

    Most modern “glasses” lenses are plastic, which tend not to shatter and are hence safer for the wearer.

    Saturday

    About 75% of adults need some form of vision correction.

  • Week of August 28, 2022

    Let’s Sleep On It

    Sunday

    The regular use of pillows goes back about 9,000 years, but the notion that they should be soft only goes back about 2,000. Before that pillows were made of stone, wood, ceramic, metal, and other hard materials. Among the reasons for the rigid pillows was a fear that such softness would steal bodily energy or appear as weakness.

    Monday

    You might not think the purpose of your pillow is to keep your head off the ground so that insects don’t crawl into your ears, nose, or mouth, but this was a reason early pillow adopters used them.

    Tuesday

    Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution, pillow use and evolution was greatly slowed in the Middle Ages. Henry VIII even banned the use of pillows for all but pregnant women.

    Wednesday

    One modern pillow and mattress staple material, memory foam, was actually developed by NASA to keep test pilots better cushioned during flight.

    Thursday

    The oldest discovered burial in all of Africa is that of a young child with its head on a pillow. It was about 80,000 years old, and researchers named him “Mtoto.”

    Friday

    There are well over a dozen types of stuffing options for the modern pillow shopper, including natural and synthetically-sourced material.

    Saturday

    Competitive pillow fighting is a real sport, involving two competitors trading blows with 2 lb. specialized pillows for 90 second rounds.

  • Week of August 21, 2022

    Drawing Factual Conclusions

    Sunday

    Pencils don’t contain lead and never have, but write with graphite, a pure carbon isotope (diamonds being another form of pure carbon). Graphite deposits have been mistaken for lead, however, and pre-pencil writing styluses were made of lead, perhaps explaining the misnomer.

    Monday

    Pencils work because the graphite’s carbon atoms are arranged in sheets, bonded strongly to other atoms to the side of each other, but only weakly to those sheets above and below. Accordingly, they “rub off” easily, such that pencil marks are sheets of carbon atoms.

    Tuesday

    Pencil-ready graphite is so delicate it must be encased in something to be usable, and before hollowed-out wooden tubes, early pencils were graphite wrapped in paper or string.

    Wednesday

    The uses of the pencil informed its naming. Pencil comes from “pencillum” or “fine brush” in Latin, and graphite comes from “graphien” or “to write” in Greek.

    Thursday

    The graphite pencil went about 200 years before it got that pink eraser attached. Before that, bread crumbs did the trick.

    Friday

    Famous natural philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau was also part of the very successful John Thoreau & Company family pencil business, and himself developed many major innovations to pencil quality and manufacture.

    Saturday

    The letters and numbers on pencils, including that testing favorite yellow “No. 2”, indicate the formulation of that pencil’s graphite for blackness, hardness, and ability to sharpen to a fine point.

  • Week of August 14, 2022

    Everydayus Latin, pt. 5

    Sunday

    “Alias” means “otherwise called.”

    Monday

    “Cogito, ergo sum,” famously declared by Descartes, means “I think, therefore I am.”

    Tuesday

    “Antebellum” means “before the war.”

    Wednesday

    “Consensus” means “agreement / accord.”

    Thursday

    “Veto” means “I forbid.”

    Friday

    “Et al” means “and others.”

    Saturday

    “Innuendo” means “giving a nod to.”

  • Week of August 7, 2022

    The Corniest Facts Ever

    Sunday

    Globally, corn is among the most essential crops, with well over a billion tons grown annually. Corn currently supplies over 6% of human calories.

    Monday

    Baseball fans might have heard a routine fly ball hit to an outfielder called a “can of corn.” This refers to the old practice of grocery clerks pulling cans off high shelves with long hooks, then catching the falling item in their apron. This term applies to other simple routine actions as well.

    Tuesday

    The distribution of the US’s largest-acreage crop goes roughly 1/3 to people, beverage, and industrial markets, 1/3 to ethanol production, and 1/3 to livestock.

    Wednesday

    Corn’s ancestor is a plant called teosinte, which was methodically bred with other plants in southwestern Mexico to get modern corn. However, with just 5-10 kernels per ear and a taste like dried potato, you probably wouldn’t recognize this plant as an ancestor of modern corn.

    Thursday

    Corn, squash, and pole beans were often grown together and called the “three sisters” by native American tribes for centuries. These plants they had a remarkably complimentary relationship: Corn stalks supply the support for the beans to wrap around and grow up, the beans convert nitrogen in the air to a form usable to all plants, and squash’s big prickly leaves deter pests, keep the ground moist and provide mulch, for the group.

    Friday

    As a global staple crop, corn grows on every continent on Earth except Antarctica.

    Saturday

    In the US, the overwhelming majority of corn comes from the “Corn Belt”, which produces nearly 40% of the world’s supply and includes parts of the Midwest, Great Plains, and South. Iowa and Illinois tend to lead production annually, with nearly 1/3 of the land in those states dedicated to the crop.

  • Week of July 31, 2022

    The Air That We Breathe

    Sunday

    At about 78%, Nitrogen is easily the largest component of Earth’s atmosphere, colorless and odorless to people. Essential nitrogen-containing compounds, however, come from the food we eat.

    Monday

    Fortunately for most living things, oxygen in the form of O2 is the next most abundant gas in the atmosphere at about 21%. It is also colorless and odorless to us, but quite essential.

    Tuesday

    The next most abundant gas in the atmosphere is Argon at 0.93%. Compared to its gassy friends, Argon is quite aloof as one of the “noble gasses”, doing very little bonding or reacting as it floats around.

    Wednesday

    Among the most variable components of the atmosphere is water vapor, the amount of which in the air can vary widely with temperature and location. Warm air holds more moisture, so water vapor can compose 4-5% of the air in the tropics, but 0.2% in the Arctic.

    Thursday

    Carbon dioxide currently makes up about 0.4% of the atmosphere. This molecule is breathed in by plants and is essential in the carbon cycle, but is also produced by burning fossil fuels, and its heat-trapping nature now makes it a major cause of climate change.

    Friday

    What’s left after these bigger components are minute amounts of the trace gasses, among them helium, neon, methane, hydrogen, ozone, nitrous oxide, and krypton. Some trace gasses actually come from human activity.

    Saturday

    Most atmospheric gasses are at greatest concentrations closer to the ground, which explains why the air seems so “thin” at great altitudes. Helium and hydrogen, being so light, can reach great heights, however.

  • Week of July 24, 2022

    Thick, Shiny, Stylish Factoids

    Sunday

    To “let your hair down” means to be more uninhibited and honest, and traces back to the days when women kept their hair up except in the privacy of their own home or among intimate company.

    Monday

    Regardless of where it is bought, the vast majority of real human hair used in wigs and extensions comes from the East, especially India, China, and Eastern Europe.

    Tuesday

    A “hairpin turn” gets that name for its resemblance to a metal hairpin, so usually involves a very sharp 180 degree (or nearly so) turn.

    Wednesday

    The care of hair (and scalps) is huge business. Despite Covid, this global market was $80.81 billion USD in 2020, and does not include the sale of actual hair products, such as wigs, weaves, and extensions.

    Thursday

    “Bigwig” indicates importance because men of influence and rank used to wear large wigs.

    Friday

    Cats cough up hairballs because they clean themselves by licking their fur, and typically swallow some of that fur which is later vomited up.

    Saturday

    People with naturally blond hair tend to have the most total hairs on their head at about 150,000, redheads have the fewest at about 90,000, and folks with naturally brown or black hair are somewhere in between.

  • Week of July 17, 2022

    Remember Your Reductions

    Sunday

    abs = abdominal muscles

    Monday

    typo = typographical error

    Tuesday

    polio = poliomyelitis

    Wednesday

    fan = fanatic

    Thursday

    con = convict (as in “Ex-con”), confidence (as in “con-man” or “con game.”)

    Friday

    chaps = chapjaros

    Saturday

    recap = recapitulation

  • Week of July 10. 2022

    Facts That are Shells of Their Former Selves

    Sunday

    Seashells are the hard exoskeletons of otherwise soft invertebrate sea creatures.

    Monday

    A “shell game” involves putting an object under something that conceals it, like a cup or shell, then moving that and similar empty cups around, hoping the betting party will lose track of where the object is and thereby lose the game and wager. There is frequently deceit involved, and in the financial sense, this term often refers to asset-hiding schemes.

    Tuesday

    The idiom “to come out of his/her shell” means to become more outgoing social, and is a reference to a shelled animal like a snail or turtle who remains alone in there for protection.

    Wednesday

    A shell company, as the name implies, is typically a legally-created business entity, but one that does not do any sustained business operations or own significant assets long term. These are often created for tax purposes, concealing the identity of stakeholders or assets, fundraising or merger purposes, and sometimes illegal business.

    Thursday

    “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”is both a classic English tongue twister-turned-song and a training tool for those learning English and practicing the “s” sound.

    Friday

    Hermit crabs are among nature’s great shell recyclers. Vulnerable to predators and the baking sun without them, hermit crabs have elaborate methods of moving into new, size-appropriate shells as they grow, with smaller crabs moving into the old shells sometimes simultaneously.

    Saturday

    The shell in “shell shock” is military artillery shells, and the term refers to types of battle fatigue, with physical and mental conditions now more commonly described as PTSD. The term was first coined in World War I to describe the shape of many soldiers returning from battle.

  • Week of July 3, 2022

    Free At Last

    Sunday

    They used to say “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” and it shows in modern Independence Day celebrations, where over 50 counties annually celebrate gaining independence from the UK.

    Monday

    The most popular date to celebrate independence is January 1st. Brunei, Cameroon, Cuba, Czech Republic, Haiti, Samoa, and Sudan all celebrate their independence on this day.

    Tuesday

    However, the most common month for celebrations of independence is August, with 26 countries celebrating in this month.

    Wednesday

    Several nations celebrate several independence days during the year, since they gained autonomy from more than one country in their histories.

    Thursday

    Only two countries in the world do not celebrate a national day or independence day: Denmark and England.

    Friday

    The year 1991 was a big one for first independence days due to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, although countries beyond Eastern Europe marked independence this year too.

    Saturday

    The most recent independence day is South Sudan, which became a country in 2011, and the oldest is Japan, which has a “Foundation Day” when the country united from the defeat of rival clans in 660 BCE.

  • Week of June 26, 2022

    Random Acronym Week (RAW!) #7

    Sunday

    PFD = personal flotation device, or, if you live in Alaska, permanent fund dividend, which residents get yearly from state oil revenues.

    Monday

    GOAT = Greatest of All Time

    Tuesday

    PPE = personal protective equipment

    Wednesday

    RV = recreational vehicle

    Thursday

    LCD = liquid crystal display, or lowest common denominator

    Friday

    RPG = role playing game, or rocket propelled grenade

    Saturday

    MIT = Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Week of June 19, 2022

    Ashes to Ashes…

    Sunday

    Common dust is made up of many different components, including ash, smoke, dirt, sand, salt, pollen, bacteria, bits of textiles and paper, human and animal hair and skin particles, and even meteorite particles.

    Monday

    A surprising amount of dust rains down from space in the form of “micrometeorites,” on the scale of 14-50 tons per day. This is roughly 1-3 garbage trucks worth of space dust daily.

    Tuesday

    The massive Sahara Desert is the largest source of mineral dust in the world, with airborne Saharan dust regularly reaching Europe, the Amazon, Asia, the Caribbean and the Americas.

    Wednesday

    The old myth about household dust being mostly dead skin is not true. Most studies on indoor dust composition show that the largest part of household dust came from sources outside the house.

    Thursday

    You are, however, still a major source of dust. Your endlessly-regenerating skin layer sheds nearly a million dead cells daily.

    Friday

    Dust makes up that gross layer on top of your fan blades…and some of the largest structures in the universe. Nebulae, those clouds of gas and dust which often came from exploding stars and can eventually congeal into new ones, can be millions of light years in diameter.

    Saturday

    Unfortunately, dust can be bad news for those in certain occupations. Pneumococcus, the umbrella term for extensive dust-caused scarring in the lungs, affects people working in mining (“black lung”), drilling, textiles, agriculture, shipworking, sandblasting, and other dust-intensive jobs.

  • Week of June 12, 2022

    Let’s Ride

    Sunday

    The first bicycle had no pedals or chain. The “hobby horse” was propelled by pushing against the street with your shoes, like a skateboard.

    Monday

    To take back or soften what you already said is called “backpedaling.” However, only on a fixed gear bike would you go backward by pedaling so, since the modern freewheel only drives the wheel one direction: forward while pedaling forward.

    Tuesday

    There’s intriguing brain science in the fact that people almost never forget how to ride a bike. The coordination of movements involved becomes a “procedural memory,” which, it turns out, is a more permanent and deeper kind of memory than a factual “declarative memory” (and unfortunately for creators of fun fact websites).

    Wednesday

    The Tour de France is the most watched sporting event in the world, garnering over 3.5 billion viewers.

    Thursday

    Worldwide, the Netherlands has the most impressive bicycling resume. Seven out of every eight people age 15 or older own a bike, and an impressive 30% of all trips made in the country are on a bicycle.

    Friday

    The famous feminist quote “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was itself inspired by an earlier quote about religion.

    Saturday

    A “peloton” is the name for a group of bicyclists riding in a pack to conserve energy.

  • Week of June 5, 2022

    Fine Feathered Facts

    Sunday

    Before it was a common term for accomplishment, a “feather in your cap” was a mark of achievement in several cultures. Among them, native Americans who wore a feather for each enemy slain, medieval knights given plumes for bravery, Hungarians marking a killed enemy Turk, or hunters showing game bird feathers.

    Monday

    Bird feathers are hollow so as to be very light for their strength, allowing (most) birds to fly…

    Tuesday

    …and this hollowness made feathers great writing instruments in the quill / feather pen days, and still among quill pen enthusiasts. That hollow center was a natural reservoir for ink.

    Wednesday

    Tarring and feathering has been a humiliating and painful punishment since at least 1189 when Richard the Lionheart decreed it for thieves caught aboard his ships. Old fashioned tar, however, was made with pine tree sap, and was not the petroleum-based tar of the modern era. When the traditional ingredients were in short supply, syrup and cattails have also been used.

    Thursday

    To “make feathers fly,” as in arguing, is a reference to birds (and especially chickens) losing feathers while fighting with each other. “Make/watch the fur fly” conveys the same meaning.

    Friday

    The term “horsefeathers” was coined just a few years before the famous Marx Brothers’ movie of that name, and means nonsense (and by some accounts refers to horse poop.)

    Saturday

    Just as showy plumage feathers are not used for flight, a bird might have seven different types of feathers on its body, each with a different function.

  • Week of May 29, 2022

    Wolf Down These Facts

    Sunday

    The story of “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf,” that timeless cautionary tale to liars and false alarmists, actually goes back to Classical antiquity.

    Monday

    Fans of werewolves (or maybe Harry Potter) know they are sometimes called “lycanthropes.” This derives from the grizzly Greek mythological Legend of Lycaon, who angered the god Zeus by serving him a meal made with the remains of a human boy. Lycaon was punished when he and his sons were turned into wolves.

    Tuesday

    They’re called “werewolves” because of the obsolete Old English word “wer” meant “man,” so “werewolf” means “man wolf.”

    Wednesday

    Domesticated sheep are famously mild and docile, and wild wolves (who often eat livestock) are less so, so the image of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” whether literally or as a metaphor for deceptive people, appears in both Aesop’s fables and the New Testament.

    Thursday

    The scientist who coined the term “alpha wolf” for the leader (or leading couple) of the pack later abandoned the term. What was called the alpha male and alpha female are the sole breeding pair in the pack, and did not necessarily get the job by fighting or physical dominance, as the name implies.

    Friday

    You might have heard of a defeated or embarrassed person said to “slink off with his tail between his legs.” Tail position communicates a lot in the animal world, especially with wolves, where down-pointing and tucked tail position is used by the lowest-ranking pack members.

    Saturday

    For all the human fear of wolves, fatal wolf attacks are exceedingly rare. In all of North America, for example, there have been only two documented deadly wolf attacks since 1970.

  • Week of May 22, 2022

    Stocking Up

    Sunday

    There are many individual stock markets throughout the world, but by volume and total value, the largest is the NewYork Stock Exchange.

    Monday

    Why are these large animals fighting on Wall Street? A “bull market” is one which is on the rise with stocks increasing in value, while a “bear market” is one of falling stock values, generally a loss of at least 20% below a recent peak. The traditional explanation of invoking these animals relates to how each strikes in battle: a bull thrusts horns upward at an opponent, while a bear swipes its mighty claws downward.

    Tuesday

    The Nasdaq is the world’s second largest stock market after the NYSE, was fully electronic since its creation in 1971, and tends to trade more tech-intensive and growth-focused stocks.

    Wednesday

    Business partners Charles Dow and Edward Jones created the Dow Jones in 1896. It is an index of thirty established and consistently-earning companies, traded on both the NYSE and Nasdaq, which serve as a proxy for the broader economy.

    Thursday

    Another common index is the “S & P 500,” which includes the largest 500 stocks from the NYSE and Nasdaq. S & P is for Standard and Poor’s, a company formed from the 1941 merger of Poor’s Publishing and the Standard Statistic’s Bureau, companies which had been publishing credit ratings, financial data, and market indicators. The McGraw-Hill Company later bought S&P in 1966.

    Friday

    A stock’s shortened “ticker symbol,” such as “MSFT” for Microsoft Corporation, is named for the pre-digital days when stock prices appeared on ticker tape, a practice which began in 1867.

    Saturday

    In a three-year period starting in October 1929, the US stock market lost nearly 90% of its value, leading to the Great Depression.

  • Week of May 15, 2022

    That’s So Metal

    Sunday

    “Top brass,” which now indicates the highest-level leaders in an organization, is based on the metal decorations used by officers in European militaries.

    Monday

    The Bronze Age, which lasted from about 3300-1200BC in the Fertile Crescent, was called that because earlier stone tools were replaced with bronze in many Middle Eastern civilizations. Copper had long been in use by that time, but the addition of tin to make the stronger alloy bronze brought these civilizations out of the “Stone Age” and was followed by the “Iron Age.”

    Tuesday

    In the classic film “The Wizard of Oz,” the Tin Man is first encountered when immobile with rust, and is thereafter afraid of watery things. However, tin does not rust. Only iron, or metals containing iron, rust.

    Wednesday

    Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the post-WWII divide between more open democracies in western Europe and the more closed-off Soviet-controlled states.

    Thursday

    “Tin Pan Alley” refers to types dance music, ballads, and vaudeville songs that began in the late 19th century and were named for the “tin pan” sound of pianos as the musicians promoted the songs for the concentration of music publishers originally found on 28th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

    Friday

    Only one metal – mercury – also bears the name of a planet and a Roman god. Unfortunately for we mortals, that planet is uninhabitable and that metal is toxic.

    Saturday

    An accident with real metal played a major role in the birth of heavy metal music. At age 17, future Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi was working as an industrial welder. Assigned to an unfamiliar guillotine-type machine one day, he lost the tips of two fingers in an accident and nearly gave up playing guitar. However, he created his own prosthetics and changed his playing style to accommodate them. This became the deeper, darker sound associated with this pioneering band and the heavy metal genre as a whole.

  • Week of May 8, 2022

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. V

    Sunday

    “Dinosaur” is derived from the Greek words for “thunder lizard.”

    Monday

    The name of the water-loving hippopotamus comes from the Greek words for “river horse.”

    Tuesday

    And “rhinoceros”, fittingly, is Greek for “nose horn.”

    Wednesday

    “Helium” comes from the Greek “helios” or “sun,” which is full of helium, and is the name of the sun god.

    Thursday

    “Acrobat” derives from the Greek works for “edge” and “to walk / tread.”

    Friday

    The three Charities (or Graces) in Greek mythology originated the word “charity.”

    Saturday

    “Cemetery” derives from the Greek word for “sleeping place.”

  • Week of May 1, 2022

    Piping Hot Factoids

    Sunday

    Plans unlikely to be realized are called “pipe dreams” in a reference to the dreams experienced by opium users, since this drug was often smoked with a pipe.

    Monday

    Saying “pipe down” to encourage quiet seems to trace back to an officer ordering that a pipe whistle be blown on old sailing ships to either have the crew go to sleep or go below deck after a disturbance.

    Tuesday

    In an apparent reference to multi-piped musical instruments such as bagpipes and organ, a person with a “set of pipes” has a strong speaking or singing voice.

    Wednesday

    Despite being traditionally associated with Scotland, the bagpipes were likely introduced to Scotland by the Romans, with roots in ancient Egypt before that.

    Thursday

    “Pied” in Old English meant multicolored, so in the legend of The Pied Piper, the musician was wearing an outfit of many colors.

    Friday

    The term “pay the piper,” meaning to finally face consequences, is related to this same legend. When the townspeople of Hamelin reneged on their promise to pay the piper who lured the rats out of their town, he took an awful revenge by luring their children away.

    Saturday

    Water pipes made of lead, as they had been for decades, are now known to be a serious health hazard. In the US, lead pipes are restricted by federal law and hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside to replace old lead pipes.

  • Week of April 24, 2022

    Chip Chip Hooray

    Sunday

    At one time, there was a custom in the US and Canada in which someone seeking a fight would place a chip of wood on his shoulder and whoever knocked it off was agreeing to fight him. Hence the saying that an aggressive or antisocial person “has a chip on his shoulder.”

    Monday

    Among deep-fried potato products, what Americans call “chips” the British call “crisps,” and what the Brits call “chips” Americans call “fries.”

    Tuesday

    In the traditional set of blue, red, and white poker chips, blue are the highest value and the namesake for “blue chip” stocks, the well-known, well-established, and fiscally sound companies on the stock market.

    Wednesday

    Poker is the origin of several chip-related terms. To “chip in,” or help with a collective effort, comes from the ante in poker where all player contribute to the winnable pot. Likewise, “when the chips are down,” referring to a crucial moment when fortunes and personal circumstances can change quickly (and often already have changed for the worse in common usage), is a poker reference to when the hands are revealed to determine who won.

    Thursday

    Before most common-usage poker chips were plastic, they were clay, or later, a clay composite which added strength. Chips of clay composite or ceramic remain common in casinos. Further back in time, individual gambling houses might have used their own chips of bone, ivory, shellac, paper, or some other material before the chip designs and values were more standardized.

    Friday

    Describing “a chip off the old block,” for children who are similar to the parent, is a notably old term, with an apparent origin in the 15th century.

    Saturday

    That adventurous cartoon chipmunk duo is called Chip & Dale and the famous muscular male dance revue is Chippendale’s, but the original Chippendale (and apparent namesake) was London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, who designed intricate furniture that became popular in England and colonial America.

  • Week of April 17, 2022

    Digital Acronym Week #5

    Sunday

    FLOPS = Floating-Point Operation Per Second

    Monday

    QLED = Quantum Light-Emitting Diode

    Tuesday

    WLAN = Wireless Local Area Network

    Wednesday

    FIOS = Fiber Optic Service

    Thursday

    COBOL = Common Business Oriented Language

    Friday

    FORTRAN = Formula Translator

    Saturday

    GIS = Georgraphic Information System

  • Week of April 10, 2022

    Wheely Informative

    Sunday

    Regardless of engine size, all cylinders must be firing for a car to work efficiently and at full capacity. Accordingly, people said to be “not firing on all cylinders” are not thinking or performing at an expected capability.

    Monday

    Since a dime is the smallest American coin, to “stop on a dime” means to be able to stop so quickly you land on this tiny area, and can be applied to cars or other fast-stopping things.

    Tuesday

    To “burn rubber” means to accelerate so that your tires smoke and leave marks on the pavement. This idiom came into use in the mid-20th century and was a product of the automotive age, since it is hard to imagine an animal-pulled vehicle accelerating this quickly!

    Wednesday

    The term “four on the floor” refers to a vehicle with a four speed manual transmission near the driver’s seat, but also the very steady 4/4 beat popular in disco and later dance music.

    Thursday

    Unreliable cars are called “lemons” because that term was applied to any product of poor quality in the turn of the 20th century, but by the 1960s, with the help of a Volkswagen ad, the term was mostly reserved for sub-par vehicles. States now have “lemon laws” on the books requiring certain standards in used car warranties.

    Friday

    Putting the “pedal to the metal” is another mid-century car term for accelerating to the maximum. This term started in the 1950s when many cars had metal floorboards under the accelerator pedal.

    Saturday

    Until 1988, vehicle titles were printed on pink paper in California, which gave rise to the term “pink slips” for vehicle titles. “Racing for pink slips” is a familiar movie term indicating that the loser must sign over his or her car to the winner.

  • Week of April 3, 2022

    Sporty Starts

    Sunday

    The sport of baseball derived from cricket and the children’s game rounders, and references to a game played with sticks, balls, and bases go back to at least the 18th century. However, most of the basic rules of the modern game were established in 1845 in New York City by Alexander J. Cartwright. Among other things, he established that runners must be tagged out rather than the previous (and dangerous) method of hitting them with the ball.

    Monday

    Basketball began at Springfield College in Massachusetts over the winter of 1891-92. James Naismith, a teacher who had come to study under physical education pioneer Luther Halsey Gulick, wanted to honor a directive from his mentor to create a new game “that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.” The two square boxes Naismith asked the school janitor for were not to be found, but two peach baskets were, the original two nets.

    Tuesday

    Although football was derived from rugby and influenced by soccer, “father of American football” Walter Camp developed the rules to differentiate it from both sports, from his first conception of the game at Yale University in the 1880s and while personally developing the rule book until his death in 1925.

    Wednesday

    Bandy, hurling, and shinty, the games which are the most direct ancestors of modern ice hockey, were played in England, Ireland and Scotland since the 1400’s, though other “stick and ball” games were played among indigenous Americans, ancient Greeks, and Egyptians long before that. Bandy was likely played on ice without skates in the 1600s, then later with skates by the 1700s, and balls were later replaced by “cork-bungs” or barrel plugs, the precursor to the modern puck.

    Thursday

    “Jeu de paume,” a French game played since the 11th century, was the ancestor of modern tennis, which got the name from “tenez!” or “here it comes,” said to an opponent upon serving. Through the centuries, however, bare hands were replaced by a racquet, a rubber ball became the norm, the unique scoring system was standardized, and the courts went from grass to “hard” courts of concrete or acrylic.

    Friday

    Like many modern sports, golf also has roots in ancient games played all over the world, but the closest relative of modern golf came from 15th century eastern Scotland with players hitting pebbles with clubs. At one point, the game was banned for fear players would neglect their military training against the frequently-invading British. When the ban was lifted and royalty later adopted the game, its popularity blossomed, and by the 20th century standardized rules and governing bodies had been established worldwide.

    Saturday

    Bowling goes back over 7,000 years, with evidence of similar games going back to ancient Egypt and Polynesia. In the case of the latter, the standard lane length was 60 feet…the same as today. When played centuries ago in Germany, the game also had religious significance, and variations spread across Europe. Notably, this game, like golf (see above) had to be temporarily banned for distracting archers from their shooting practice, this time in England. English, Dutch, and German settlers helped bring the game to the U.S., where a tenth pin was added.

  • Week of March 27, 2022

    Random Acronym Week (RAW!) #6

    Sunday

    NATO = North Atlantic Treaty Organization

    Monday

    FAQ = Frequently Asked Questions

    Tuesday

    FOMO = Fear of Missing Out

    Wednesday

    BYOB = Bring Your Own Bottle/Booze/Beer

    Thursday

    UNICEF = United Nations Children’s Fund, originally United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. (Consider donating below!)

    Friday

    OCD = Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

    Saturday

    HIV/AIDS = Human Immunodeficiency Virus / Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome

  • Week of March 20, 2022

    Howl At These Factoids

    Sunday

    Things which occur rarely are said to happen “once in a blue moon.” A blue moon is the second full moon in one calendar month, and it need not actually appear blue. It happens about every 2.5 years.

    Monday

    A “blood moon” often refers to the way the moon appears during a lunar eclipse, when it passes through Earth’s shadow. The light which illuminates the moon has filtered through our planet’s atmosphere, resulting in a red or brownish-looking moon.

    Tuesday

    When the moon is both full and closest in its orbit to the Earth, the result is often called a “supermoon,” which is a bit larger and brighter than other full moons.

    Wednesday

    The full, bright moon which occurs nearest the first day of autumn is sometimes called a “harvest moon” because it previously allowed farmers to harvest large fall crops into the night.

    Thursday

    Even though the Earth is much larger and more likely to be hit by meteors, many burn up in our atmosphere or otherwise have their craters erased by erosion, tectonics, or volcano action. The moon has no atmosphere, weather, active volcanoes or tectonics, so its surface is full of impact craters new and old.

    Friday

    It takes the moon about 29.5 days to go around the Earth once, and it takes about 365 days for the Earth to go around the sun. Since 29.5 x 12 = 354, our calendar months are longer than lunar months so as to fit 12 months more equally into a year.

    Saturday

    The visible phases of the moon go from right to left in the Northern Hemisphere, but left to right in the Southern Hemisphere.

  • Week of March 13, 2022

    Everyone Wants A Bigger Piece

    Sunday

    Apple pie is less American than you might think. A recipe appears in a British cookbook from 1390, and later was brought to the US by colonists from Europe. The apple tree isn’t even native to North America, but Asia.

    Monday

    Pi is the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet, but might be better known as the abbreviation for 3.14… This number, shown as a fraction as 22/7, is the ratio of circumference to diameter in a perfect circle.

    Tuesday

    The term “pie in the sky” which came to mean an idealistic but unlikely goal, was coined by labor activist Joe Hill in “The Preacher and The Slave,” a parody of the hymn “Sweet Bye and Bye.” The lyrics “work and pray, live on hay/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die” were intended to criticize religious leaders who sang of rewards in the afterlife but did little to improve workers’ lives in this one.

    Wednesday

    A pie to the face has been a slapstick staple for over a century, and it started with silent movies. Comedian Ben Turpin got the first known on-screen face pie in 1909’s “Mister Flip.”

    Thursday

    To “eat humble pie” indicates that you must admit your error. However, the origin of this term seems to come indirectly from “umble pie,” which was a pie filled with animal organs and entrails, especially those of deer.

    Friday

    Pies are old. There is evidence that ancient Egyptians made the first pies about 6,000 years ago. These original pies were made with barley, oats, rye, or wheat and filled with honey.

    Saturday

    The term “easy as pie” began in Australia in the 1920’s, and the term seems to be influenced by “pai,” the Maori word for “good.”

  • Week of March 6, 2022

    These Factoids are Shoe-Ins

    Sunday

    Brothers Adolph and Rudolph Dassler ran a successful shoe factory in Germany for 24 years before feuding and going their separate ways. Adidas became the brand named for ADolph DASsler, and Rudolph first named his shoes “Ruda” (RUdolph DAssler) but soon changed the name to “Puma”. The brothers are long dead, but their companies still compete to this day.

    Monday

    Speaking of brothers in the shoe business, Vans shoes are named for company co-founders Paul and Jim Van Doren.

    Tuesday

    The shoe Reebok is named after an African antelope, though spelled rhebok in the animal name.

    Wednesday

    Nike is the Greek winged goddess of victory. Notably, neither this name nor the iconic “swoosh” logo initially appealed to founder Phil Knight.

    Thursday

    Converse shoes were named after founder Marquis Mills Converse. The company has been a Nike subsidiary since 2003.

    Friday

    ASICS is an acronym from Latin, “Anima Sana In Corpore Sano” or “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.”

    Saturday

    Chickens inspired the name “New Balance,” which founder William J. Riley watched in his yard and believed exhibited perfect balance as a result of their three-clawed foot. The three support points on the early shoe’s insole derived from this chicken foot revelation.

  • Week of February 27, 2022

    Any Way You Slice It

    Sunday

    A “breadbasket” region is one with particularly fertile soil and growing conditions for staple grain.

    Monday

    The term “bread and butter” has been used for centuries to describe someone’s dependable income and livelihood, but before that, the term described the necessities of life.

    Tuesday

    Bread is old. There is evidence of breadmaking going back to the neolithic period, about 10,000 years ago.

    Wednesday

    Bread is also popular. It is estimated that 60% of the world’s population eats bread every day, and at least two countries (Bulgaria and Turkey) eat an average of over 200 lbs./person annually.

    Thursday

    The fairytale of Hansel and Gretel mentioned the first trail of breadcrumbs used to find your way back where you came, though this is now a modern internet term.

    Friday

    To “break bread” with one or more people typically means not simply eating but sharing some fellowship through your shared meal. Notably, in biblical times when this phrase started, the much-harder bread would have been divided by breaking more than tearing, as with modern softer bread.

    Saturday

    As old as bread is, the first mention of any baker selling it pre-sliced is not until 1928. By the 1930’s however, automatic bread slicing machines became common in industry. Since then, “the greatest thing since sliced bread” has been somewhat of a”spoof marketing slogan,” as one author put it.

  • Week of February 20, 2022

    You Crack Me Up

    Sunday

    “Crackpot” derives from the term “cracked” for faulty and “pot” as short for brain, head, or skull. Notably, there is a town in England called “Crackpot,” but it was named from Norse words and is not related to the current meaning.

    Monday

    Crack cocaine, which is powder cocaine processed into a smokeable crystal form, has that name from the crackling sound heard during the heating and smoking of the stuff.

    Tuesday

    A disappointing thing is “not all its cracked up to be” because in an older meaning, the word “crack” means banter, news, or gossip. In other words, it’s not all it’s talked up to be.

    Wednesday

    One of history’s most famous fractures, on the Liberty Bell, is largely deliberate. When a small crack appeared in the bell, metalworkers employed “stop drilling” in 1846 and intentionally widened it to prevent further cracking and preserve the bell’s original tone. When yet another crack appeared, the bell was permanently retired from ringing.

    Thursday

    The term “cracker” was first applied in 1801 to a batch of long-lasting biscuits popular amongst seamen that was accidentally burnt, causing baker Josiah Bent to hear their characteristic cracking noises and apply the name.

    Friday

    “The Nutcracker” is a holiday staple ballet that many dance companies draw reliable income from, but it was originally unsuccessful in 1892. Tchaikovsky’s music from the ballet had better success on its own, however, and even he found the ballet’s first performance dull.

    Saturday

    Before the name was attached to the popcorn and peanut snack, the term “cracker jack” referred to things of high quality.

  • Week of February 13, 2022

    Everydayus Latin, pt. 4

    Sunday

    “Ad nauseum” means “to the point of nausea” and is usually applied to something over-repeated.

    Monday

    “Terra firma” means “solid ground,” often referring to something certain.

    Tuesday

    “Pro forma” means “for form,” or for appearance’s sake, but is also a modern accounting term.

    Wednesday

    “Ad hominem” is short for “argumentum ad hominem” and indicates a personal attack on an individual, instead of debating the merits of their idea or argument.

    Thursday

    “Alter ego,” unsurprisingly, means “the other I.”

    Friday

    “Anno domini,” often abbreviated as “A.D.” and written after dates since the year 0 on the modern Christian calendar, means “the year of the lord.”

    Saturday

    “Cirriculum vitae,” often shortened to “C.V.” means “the course of one’s life,” thought it usually describes a resume or professional qualifications.

  • Week of February 6, 2022

    How Sweet It Is

    Sunday

    Sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beet juice, and from there is processed into its many varieties.

    Monday

    Brown sugar is brown from molasses, either left in or added to white sugar in varying amounts. White sugar is separated from molasses in processing.

    Tuesday

    Fifth century Indians learned to crystalize sugarcane juice and called that sugar “khanda,” the Sanskrit word from which we get “candy.”

    Wednesday

    Over one-third of the added sugar in the American diet comes from soda, energy, and sports drinks, while only 5-7% comes from candy.

    Thursday

    Chemically speaking, sugars end in “-ose,” like sucrose, fructose, glucose, etc., or -saccharide, such as monosaccharide or disaccharide.

    Friday

    Americans now consume a mind-boggling 11 million metric tons of sugar annually, more than any other nation by far.

    Saturday

    Sugar was not so sweet for its historical workers. Unfortunately, slavery and forced labor played a big role in early sugar production, and African slaves and sugar were part of the infamous “triangle trade” between Africa, the Caribbean, and New England.

  • Week of January 30, 2022

    Flash Bang

    Sunday

    Lightning occurs because during a storm, static electricity is created between water droplets in warm air meeting ice crystals in cold air. Updrafts carry positively-charged particles upwards to the top of clouds while downdrafts carry negatively charged particles downward. Eventually, there must be a release of this building static imbalance, and lightning accomplishes this by striking between clouds or between clouds and the ground.

    Monday

    Thunder occurs because lightning is so hot, heating the air around it to about 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit – five times hotter than the sun. This intense heat causes a rapid air pressure increase, which radiates outward from the lightning strike and causes the audio effect we know as thunder.

    Tuesday

    Although both are produced by the same event, lightning is seen before thunder is heard because light travels much faster than sound, about 300,000,000 meters/sec vs. 343 meters/sec.

    Wednesday

    A recent volcano eruption in the South Pacific led to over 400,000 recorded nearby lightning strikes, since lots of static electricity builds up among the ash and particles sent airborne after such eruptions.

    Thursday

    The term “steal my thunder” has a unique origin story. In 1704, British playwright John Dennis developed a new method to crate a thunder sound for his play. The play was unsuccessful and cut short, but the theater re-used the thunder technique for a run of Macbeth. The bitter playwright exclaimed something to the effect of “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”

    Friday

    Amazingly, about 90% of lightning strike victims survive, but survivors often suffer from lingering disabilities as a result of the massive shock’s effect on the brain and body.

    Saturday

    You might not see lightning everyday, but it’s happening somewhere. Worldwide, the frequency of lightning strikes is about 44 per second, or 1.4 billion strikes per year.

  • Week if January 23, 2022

    Suck it Up

    Sunday

    “The straw that broke the camel’s back” is a metaphor for the final annoyance, demand, or slight that someone is willing to calmly tolerate. Camels often carry loads, and this term derives from an old fable about a shortsighted camel owner who had so overburdened his animal that he found out even one more straw was too much. “The last straw” and “the final straw” derive from this also.

    Monday

    Just as a scarecrow is an insubstantial being fabricated from straw, a “straw man” argument is created to be easily attacked, and a “straw man” in a transaction is a token or stand-in person or entity put in place for other’s purposes.

    Tuesday

    The practice of “drawing straws” is when straws are chosen from the hand of someone who conceals their lengths in his or her fist. The person who chooses the shortest straw typically must do an unpleasant task.

    Wednesday

    A “straw poll” is an informal poll to quickly gauge positions on a topic. The origin of this seems to come from looking at straw to determine which way the wind is blowing.

    Thursday

    The term “grasping at straws” for a hopeless final effort comes from an old proverb that a “drowning man will catch at straws,” or the thin reeds growing at the side of a river, in a futile attempt to save himself.

    Friday

    Drinking straws are a very old idea. Several meter-long metal tubes in a Russian museum are now believed to be beer drinking straws about 5,000 years old.

    Saturday

    Since clay and straw are traditional ingredients of bricks, the term “to make bricks without straw” refers to doing the impossible or without the necessary resources. There is also a Biblical story where Pharoah makes the Israelites gather their own straw for his brickmaking, rather that supply it to them, and without reducing their daily quota.

  • Week of January 16, 2022

    Those Letters After Your Name

    Sunday

    PhD = Doctor of Philosophy

    Monday

    JD = Juris Doctor (law degree)

    Tuesday

    MD = Doctor of Medicine, from Latin Medicinae Doctor

    Wednesday

    MBA = Masters of Business Administration

    Thursday

    DDS = Doctor of Dental Surgery

    Friday

    LCSW = Licensed Clinical Social Worker

    Saturday

    RN = Registered Nurse

  • Week of January 9, 2022

    Weightier Matters

    Sunday

    Since lead is a very heavy metal, the term “get the lead out,” originally ended with “…of your shoes” or “…of your pants” and means that you should speed up whatever you’re doing. And of course, “Get the Led Out” is a favorite title of classic rock radio stations for the time they play some Led Zeppelin songs.

    Monday

    In some cases, however, getting the lead out is a public health issue. Until the 1970s, both gasoline and residential paint sold in the US contained lead, and both products were known to cause serious health problems to those exposed to them, including children.

    Tuesday

    Lead has long been a standard material in bullets, since it is heavy and can deliver a lot of damage to targets. However, lead bullets can also give off a powdery residue when fired and fragment easily upon impact, leading to some health concerns among indoor firing ranges, wildlife advocates, and game meat enthusiasts.

    Wednesday

    A habitually speedy or aggressive driver is called a “leadfoot” because their foot is so heavy on the accelerator.

    Thursday

    While you wouldn’t want lead in your body, you’d want it around your body when dealing with radiation. From lead aprons near X-ray machines to lead walls in fallout shelters, this heavy metal is well known to block radiation.

    Friday

    The band Led Zeppelin was referencing the dense metal, but removed the “a” so nobody would confuse it with “lead” as in leader. (For the rest of the band name story, see the week of 4/4/2021.)

    Saturday

    Lead’s chemical symbol is “Pb” instead of “Ld” or the like because its Latin name is plumbum.

  • Week of January 2, 2021

    Do Treble Yourself

    Among the many common terms with musical roots:

    Sunday

    To be “low key” means to be restrained or mellow, a term which seems to have musical origins, since lower musical keys have lower and more muted tones. Charles Dickens was among the first to use this term.

    Monday

    Conversely, “keyed up” means anxious, usually in anticipation. To “key up” an instrument is to tune it to a certain key.

    Tuesday

    To “play it by ear” is to improvise in a given situation, as opposed to following known rules. This began as a reference to people who can play music without referring to printed material, or without formal training.

    Wednesday

    “To pull out all the stops,” or to give something all your attention and effort, is originally referred to the workings of a pipe organ. Each pipe has a stop which can prevent pressurized air from going into that chamber, and coordinating these stops changes the sound of the music as desired. However, when all the stops are pulled out, the instrument plays at full volume and capacity.

    Thursday

    The expression “swan song” for a comes from a long-debunked myth that swans live silent lives until just before dying, when they a sing a singularly beautiful, melancholy song. Though even many ancient Romans knew better, this idea was used by Chaucer and Shakespeare, and the phrase remains common to describe a final performance.

    Friday

    “Toot (or blow) your own horn,” a term indicating praise of one’s self, has roots back to the practice of announcing the arrival of an important person with trumpets.

    Saturday

    To “march to the beat of a different drummer” is to have different principles and attitudes than those around you, and derives from Walden by Henry David Thoreau, where he writes “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

  • Week of December 26, 2021

    Be A Good Sport, pt. II

    Sunday

    Likely the only NFL team named for gothic poetry, the Baltimore Ravens get their name from former resident Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

    Monday

    The creation of the New Orleans Saints’ franchise was approved on All Saints’ Day, and “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a song long associated with the city’s jazz heritage. It also helped that the name was also a favorite in a local newspaper’s “name the team” contest.

    Tuesday

    The digging of a skyscraper foundation in 1970s Nashville unearthed a saber-toothed tiger’s leg bone and fang, a very rare find. Decades later, this unique discovery inspired the naming of the city’s NHL hockey team, the Predators.

    Wednesday

    Hurricanes Fran and Bertha, having hit North Carolina in 1996, inspired the naming of the NHL’s newly-moved Carolina Hurricanes before the team’s first 1997 game in their new location.

    Thursday

    The first Catholic Spanish mission in California was in San Diego, so their MLB team is the Padres, which means “priest” or “father” in Spanish.

    Friday

    “Trolley dodgers” was an early 20th-century nickname for the New York pedestrians who dodged streetcars as they walked the city. Also the name of this New York baseball team, the “Dodgers” stayed with them when they moved to LA in 1957.

    Saturday

    There are pace horses that race, and there are pace cars in auto racing, and Indiana has a rich history of both kinds, hence the NBA team being named the Pacers.

  • Week of December 19, 2021

    Digital Acronym Week #4

    Sunday

    WPA = Wifi Protected Access

    Monday

    ASCII = American Standard Code for Information Interchange

    Tuesday

    HDMI = High Definition Multimedia Interface

    Wednesday

    SEO = Search Engine Optimization

    Thursday

    TIFF = Tag Image File Format

    Friday

    DSL = Digital Subscriber Line

    Saturday

    SMS = Short Message Service

  • Week of December 12, 2021

    Yes, More Cats on the Internet

    Sunday

    There is more than one possible origin of the term “cat got your tongue,” but none are pleasant. A likely origin involves troublesome English Royal Navy sailors being whipped into silence and submission by the infamous “cat o’ nine tails.” Another comes from the idea that medieval cats, allegedly doing the work of witches, would steal their victims’ tongues to prevent them from warning others, and another comes from the ancient Egyptian practice of cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats.

    Monday

    Although cats aren’t known for mimicry, the term “copycat” first appeared in a handful of books by female authors in late 19th century Maine, then, in the 1960s, began to appear in the crime context to describe criminals replicating the acts of others.

    Tuesday

    The legend says that Atum-Ra, ancient Egyptian sun god, sometimes took the shape of a cat, and is said to have himself produced eight gods, a possible origin of the idea that cats have nine lives. The number nine also has significance in ancient Chinese culture, as well as in the Bible, and Shakespeare mentions nine-lived felines in Romeo and Juliet. In other cultures, cats are still said to be many-lived, but the number varies, such as six or seven lives.

    Wednesday

    Do cats say “meow” in every language? Not exactly. A sampling of how other languages interpret that cat sound:

    meong (Indonesian, Sudanese, Javanese) mijav (Slovene), niaou (Greek), nyav (Ukrainian) yaong (Korean), meo (Vietnamese)

    Thursday

    Think your cat only has meows for you? You might be right. After kittenhood, cats don’t meow to other animals, including other cats, but communicate with them in other ways. Thus, that classic cat sound is largely saved for humans.

    Friday

    Though often relaxed when not stealthy hunters, cats nonetheless scatter and hide quickly when faced with unfamiliar situations or even voices, the origin of the taunt “fraidie cat,” which first appeared in 1897, and “scardy cat” which appeared about 9 years later.

    Saturday

    Cats’ amazing ability to land on their feet from almost any fall is called a “righting reflex.” Other animals have it, but cats’ combination of a particularly flexible spine and no functional collarbone make their righting reflex particularly effective.

  • Week of December 5, 2021

    The Post About Nothing

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    Long before the names were attached to classic cartoon characters, “Tom and Jerry” was a spiced and foamy cognac and rum drink, which itself was likely named after characters in an 1823 book by Pierce Egan.

    Thursday

    “Jerry” can be short for an impressive number of names, including Jeremiah, Jerome, Jeremy, Gerald or (-eld), Jared, George, Jermaine, Jerrod, or Geraldine.

    Friday

    In the original “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, the mouse was unnamed or was named “Jinx,” according to co-creator William Hanna (the cat was “Jasper”). Only after a naming contest did they get to be “Tom and Jerry.”

    Saturday

    One original Jerry (or close enough) got some large alcohol vessels named for him. Jeroboam was a biblical king of northern Israel, and the namesake of a Jeroboam, which is a bottle that can hold the volume of 4 regular wine bottles.

  • Week of November 28, 2021

    (Happy 100th week of facts!)

    Nationally Known

    Among the nations named for individuals:

    Sunday

    Bolivia was named for Simon Bolivar, who helped many South American countries gain independence from Spanish rule in the 1800s.

    Monday

    The Philippines were named for King Phillip II of Spain after being claimed for Spain by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.

    Tuesday

    The United States of America (and the North and South American Continents) were named for Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. America is a latinized version of his first name.

    Wednesday

    Colombia is named after Christopher Columbus.

    Thursday

    El Salvador, or “the savior” was named for Jesus by Spaniards in the 1500s.

    Friday

    Swaziland is named for the great king Mswazi II, for whom his proud countrymen called themselves Swazis, or people of Mswazi.

    Saturday

    Israel is the named Jacob got after wrestling with an angel in the Bible, and is the nation’s namesake.

  • Week of November 21, 2021

    Keep Your Pants On


    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    Saying “denim jeans” invokes the names of two cities which are part of the garment’s origin story. The strong fabric originally made in de Nimes, France, was called “Serge de Nimes,” but Genoa, Italy, also played a role in the development of the garment, and has used the term “bleu de Genes” (blue material from Genoa) for the fabric which has clad their fisherman for five centuries now.

    Thursday

    The first known usage of the term “fancy pants” was not to describe a fancy or pretentious person, but just actual fancy pants. The term first appeared in a Bangor, Maine newspaper advertisement in the 1840s for pants made of Cassimere, or wollen twill fabric. About 90 years later, the term began to have its current connotation.

    Friday

    Women wearing pants in public was not a widely accepted fashion until the late-mid 20th century. From “bloomers” to “harem pants,” many designers introduced the two-legged garment for women before that, but it didn’t really catch on until the 1960s and ’70s.

    Saturday

    The innovation which made jeans so successful after their patenting in 1873 was reinforcing metal rivets placed at the stress points such as the corners of pockets. Jacob Davis, a tailor and later business partner of Levi Strauss, had this idea when tasked with creating a highly durable pair of pants for a local laborer. The jeans were a hit with Western miners and other laborers during the California Gold Rush, who needed durable clothing for their work.

  • Week of November 14, 2021

    Show Some Heart

    Sunday

    Many ancient cultures ascribed the heart essential functions beyond just blood pumping. The ancient Egyptians’ word for heart also meant mind, understanding, or intelligence, and the physical heart was weighed for virtue in the afterlife. They believed the brain, by contrast, only functioned to produce mucous. Ancient Chinese also believed the mind and intellect lived in the heart, and ancient Greeks and Romans connected the heart to the strongest emotions, including love. These histories give some clue as to why we still associate the heart with such sentiments in our language.

    Monday

    Medieval knights wore colored ribbons on their sleeves to indicate which lady they fancied and fought for, a practice referenced by Shakespeare when he coined the phrase “to wear your heart on your sleeve.”

    Tuesday

    Although the word “attack” suggests an unwelcome onslaught, heart attacks are caused by a deficiency of blood to the heart muscle itself. In a given year, the rate of heart attacks typically peaks on Christmas Eve.

    Wednesday

    The term “from the bottom of my heart” has been used in English since the 16th century, but first came from Virgil’s Aeneid, and appears related to the Greek notion that the most honest and sincere emotions were in the bottom of the heart.

    Thursday

    The term “eat your heart out” is quite old, having rough equivalents in Yiddish (“Es dir cys s’harts”), Latin (“cor ne edito”), and even appearing often in Homer’s Iliad. However, the older uses are less like the modern “envy me” and more about worrying oneself greatly.

    Friday

    Your actual beating heart looks much more like an upside-down pear than that shape seen everywhere on Valentine’s Day. One intriguing theory is that the bi-lobed shape came to be associated with love because that was the shape of the seed of the psilphium, a now-extinct plant prized by the Romans as a medical panacea and contraceptive. Alternatively, the shape may have started with the ancient writings of Galen and Aristotle describing the heart as having “three chambers with a small dent in the middle.” Scholars have also argued the origin comes from the shape of ivy or water-lily leaves, human breasts, buttocks, and other body parts.

    Saturday

    The heartbeat sound is actually the sound of the heart valves opening and closing as blood enters and exits.

  • Week of November 7, 2021

    Everydayus Latin, pt. 3

    Sunday

    Per se means “in itself.”

    Monday

    Status quo means “existing state” to describe affairs as they are now.

    Tuesday

    Semi means “half.”

    Wednesday

    Ad hoc means “for this” or, in English use, “as needed / necessary.”

    Thursday

    Mea culpa means “through my fault” often used as an admission of guilt in the legal (and religious) senses.

    Friday

    Verbatim means “word for word” or exactly as written.

    Saturday

    Persona non grata means “an unwelcome person” and is now usually used in the diplomatic or political realms.

  • Week of October 31, 2021

    Character-istically Descriptive

    Sunday

    In Mary Shelly’s classic novel Frankenstein, brilliant young scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a humanoid being of superhuman size, strength, and speed out of body parts from graveyards and slaughterhouses. However, the intelligent but angry and vengeful creature wreaks havoc on the life of his creator and his family, so calling something a “Frankenstein” implies that it has grown beyond the control of its creator, or is assembled from parts of many disparate sources.

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    To be “quixotic” means to foolishly pursue grand or romantic ideals, and comes from the the namesake of Miguel Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, who reads books on romance and chivalry until he himself ventures out to idealistically revive chivalry in his own native Spain, along with his more practical squire Sancho Panza.

    Thursday

    Gargantua is a giant king in the 16th century book The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by French author Francois Rabelais. It is from his name we get the term “gargantuan” for enormous things.

    Friday

    The race of people known as the Lilliputians encountered by the protagonist in Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift only stand about six inches tall. Accordingly, something “lilliputian” is small and trivial.

    Saturday

    In 1924, T.H. Webster developed a comic strip called “The Timid Soul,” including one character named Caspar Milquetoast. The term “milquetoast” was born after this mild-mannered “man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.”

  • Week of October 24, 2021

    Careful, These Are Gateway Factoids

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    Ever since the 1970s, scandals of all types are often given names ending in “-gate.” This traces back to Watergate, the major political scandal in which burglars were caught in June of 1972 in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C., tapping phones and stealing documents. The intruders were ultimately traced back to President Nixon, and despite his attempts to cover it up, the scandal ultimately led to his resignation in 1974, before he could be impeached.

    Thursday

    According to Dante’s “Inferno,” the gates of hell bear the famous inscription “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.” On this mortal coil, however, the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan also bears the nickname “The Gates of Hell” since this huge open pit has been burning in the desert since a Soviet drilling rig accident over 50 years ago.

    Friday

    The term “barbarians at the gate” has been used in many contexts to describe a nearby hostile force, but it originally came from the Goth’s sack of Rome in 410 AD.

    Saturday

    “Crashing” a party or even means to show up uninvited, but it is a shortening of “gate crashing,” which means the same thing.

  • Week of October 17, 2021

    Running the Show

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    When people say “give me the run-down” on a certain topic, they’re using (yet another) term with roots in horse racing, which originally meant a “list of entries in a horse race and the odds,” and has been around since the 1930s.

    Thursday

    You defeat someone decisively if you “run circles around” them. This term originated as “run rings around” and has roots in England in the practice of “hare coursing,” or hunting hares with hounds. When pursued, hares often run circles around the hounds in trying to escape, and hence can evade the dogs if the technique works.

    Friday

    “Run for the hills” is often used for fleeing generally, but in fact is a reference to fleeing natural disasters like floods and tidal waves by escaping to higher ground.

    Saturday

    A “bank run” or “run on the bank” is not particularly athletic, but likely stressful. This occurs when a large group of panicked customers believe their bank is about to fail, so they withdraw money while they still can. This phenomena was more common before the FDIC. “It’s A Wonderful Life” included a famous bank run scene, where an exasperated George Bailey had to reason with the panicked crowd.

  • Week of October 10, 2021

    Go Ask Alice

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

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

    Wednesday

    There was a real-life Alice for whom the main character was named. Alice Liddell was the daughter of Oxford University’s then vice-chancellor. She was ten years old when she first heard Lewis Caroll tell the story on a boat ride and implored him to write it down.

    Thursday

    Just as her “Eat me / Drink Me” experiences caused Alice to change size in both extremes, a particular migraine-related neurological syndrome later dubbed “Alice In Wonderland Syndrome” causes sufferers to experience different perceptions in the size of objects, and how large or small they feel in relation to them. Many have speculated that Lewis Carroll himself suffered from this, which inspired these size-perception themes throughout the book.

    Friday

    Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he had a stutter, so he named the story’s Dodo bird for him, since he sometimes stuttered his last name as “Do-do-dodgson.”

    Saturday

    The book was published as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but previous working titles had been “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” “Alice’s Hour in Elf Land,” “Alice Among the Faires,” and “Alice Among the Goblins.”

  • Week of October 3, 2021

    Random Acronym Week (RAW!) #5

    Sunday

    OSHA = Occupational Safety and Health Administration

    Monday

    PPM = Parts Per Million

    Tuesday

    OMG = Oh My God

    Wednesday

    POV = Point of View

    Thursday

    AI = Artificial Intelligence

    Friday

    P.S. = Post Script

    Saturday

    OPEC = Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries

  • Week of September 26, 2021

    Departing

    Sunday

    Though the origin of the term is debated, “Davy Jones’ locker” is an idiom for the seabed, where deceased sailors find their graves.

    Monday

    To “kick the bucket” is often explained as a suicidal person kicking out the bucket they stand on so they can hang by a noose. However, this term more likely derived from animal slaughter. A “bucket” in this context was a word for a pulley or beam that animals were pulled up by, often by their hind legs. The doomed creatures then frequently kicked this “bucket” during the spasms and thrashing of slaughter.

    Tuesday

    The term “bite the dust” has been around in some variation since the the Illiad. That poem uses the term to describe Roman soldiers dying in battle, the King James Version of the Bible has a reference to lick[ing] the dust, and was used again a old Western book from 1748 (and by Western movies later), and of course that earworm Queen song.

    Wednesday

    The slang “to croak” for dying comes from the gurgling or “death rattle” sound sometimes made by the dying.

    Thursday

    “Six feet under” is an idiom for dead, but bodies can legally be buried quite a bit shallower. In many US states, only 18 inches of dirt need to cover a coffin, which makes for a hole about four feet deep. The 6-foot order began as a London mayor’s reaction to the plague hitting the city in 1665, but no reason was given for that depth. However, the risk of several unpleasant contingencies are reduced by deeper graves, including the body being reached by animals, grave robbers, or accidentally plowed up by a farmer.

    Friday

    The reference to “shuffl[ing] off this mortal coil” is from Hamlet, in which Shakespeare means the tribulations and turmoil of this life, as “coil” meant at the time.

    Saturday

    Although there are earlier variants about daisies, “pushing up daisies” as a euphemism for dead and buried seems to have started in the British military in WWI. A similar French idiom translates to “eating dandelions by the roots,” as one under the ground would do.

  • Week of September 19, 2021

    Toy Stories

    Sunday

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

    Monday

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

    Tuesday

    The original inspiration for Barbie was a stiletto pump-wearing busty blonde plastic doll version of a popular German comic strip character Lilli, an uninhibited “saucy high-end call girl.” During a 1956 visit to Switzerland, these popular dolls struck the fancy of 15-year old Barbara Handler, whose parents happened to be the founders of Mattel toys. She and her mom took some dolls home, and three years later Mattel introduced a less-risque American version named after daughter Barbara (the doll’s full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin). The doll has proven phenomenally successful; over one billion Barbies have sold worldwide. If Barbie were a real woman, however, her unique proportions might cause some issues that you never see in the advertisements. Researchers report that Barbie would have to walk on all fours because those tiny ankles couldn’t support her weight, her thin neck would not hold that big head up, and that narrow waist only leaves space for half of a liver and a few inches of intestine.

    Wednesday

    G.I. Joe the was the first toy to call itself an “action figure” so that boys wouldn’t be discouraged from buying a self-proclaimed doll. Arriving in the 1964, the name was inspired by the 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe” with Robert Mitchum. “G.I.” for Government Issue or General Issue was already a term for military-issued items used by soldiers, and was later applied to the soldiers themselves. “Joe” was long a slang term for ordinary battlefield soldiers. The size and material of G.I. Joe dolls changed a lot over the years, and their popularity waned during the Vietnam war, but the action figures remain one of the toy world’s most successful.

    Thursday

    Matchbox cars were far from the first model car, but when they were created in 1952, their unique size was inspired by a rule at the school which one of the company partner’s daughter attended that no toys brought from home may be bigger than a matchbox. As it turned out, this size created big success and the plan was later replicated by Hot Wheels and others.

    Friday

    Silly Putty was invented by accident by an engineer researching substitutes for synthetic rubber during WWII. Although it had no obvious military use at the time, the silicone oil / boric acid combination proved a party hit for years until it was encountered by a hobby shop owner and marketing consultant, and became one of the fastest-selling toys of the 20th Century. (See Friday of Week of 8/15/21 post regarding another classic toy born from military research.)

    Saturday

    In the mid-1950s, a young French electrician made some marks on a decal from a factory light switch plate which he was installing. When he peeled the translucent decal off, he realized the marks were visible on the other side, giving him the idea for a toy which took advantage of metal powder’s clingy electrostatic properties. This was the birth of the Etch-A-Sketch, which works by using the knob-controlled stylus to scrape away a thin layer of aluminum powder, and “draw” in this fashion.

  • Week of September 12, 2021

    It’s All Greek to Me, pt. IV

    Sunday

    Thespis, a 6th century BC Greek poet, was said to be the first to ever get onstage as an actor, hence the term “thespian” is given to dramatic stage actors in his honor.

    Monday

    One ancient school of Greek medicine taught that body fluids, or humors, were the cause of moods, so the word “melancholy” consists of the words for “black bile,” which supposedly caused this gloomy mood.

    Tuesday

    The word “democracy” comes from the Greek words “demos” meaning “the people” and “kratos” or “rule.” That is, “rule by the people.”

    Wednesday

    The word “music” derives from the Greek word for “art of the muses.” In Greek mythology, muses were the nine goddesses who inspired science, literature, and the arts.

    Thursday

    Ancient Greeks also thought that the stars orbited around the earth. The five planets observable to the Greeks were believed to be stars but had less predictable motions than other stars, so “planet” derives from the Greek “planetes” or “wanderer.”

    Friday

    Chronos, Greek god of time, is who we have to thank for words like chronology, chronic, chronicle, and other terms about time.

    Saturday

    The word “sarcasm” traces back to the early Greek “sarkazien” which literally meant “to tear the flesh,”as if with the mocking remark.

  • Week of September 5, 2021

    Hay, Hay, What Can I Do? READ FACTOIDS.