Bloody Mess


shambles (shăm′ bəlz) noun. 1. a place of great disorder. 2. a place where animals are brought to be slaughtered. 3. any place of slaughter or carnage.

I don’t imagine folks use definition two or three much these days. The blood­letting seems to have gone out of the word. A battlefield would be a shambles. A slaughterhouse would be a shambles, but I can’t remember anyone calling one that.

What’s a little odd, it looks like a plural form of shamble though it’s singular, a shambles. The word shamble is something else altogether. It means to walk in an awkward, usteady manner, shuffling the feet. Though I’ve never heard anyone use the word shamble.

You probably shouldn’t call some­thing a bloody shambles. That’s redundant. Then again, if a slaughter house was hit by a tornado then the shambles would be a shambles. A bull in a china shop might leave it a shambles. A bull in a shambles… that’s another story.

Filed 12/19/11

Anonymous Eponyms


A Baker’s Dozen Famous People that Aren’t Necessarily People

Average Joe
Doubting Thomas
Free Lance
Gloomy Gus
Lazy Susan
Lookie Lou
Nosey Parker
Peeping Tom
Plumb Bob
Pop Art
Silly Billy
Smart Alec
Sneaky Pete

Likely you’ve heard of all these people who aren’t all people. The last name on the list has a special meaning to pool players. A Sneaky Pete is a custom pool cue that looks like a standard pool cue. You know the look, blond wood on the thin end joined with a pointy zig-zag to a red-brown wood at the fat end. A pool hustler doesn’t want to tip his hand by wielding an expensive cue so he looks like a shark, he wants to play with a standard-looking cue so he looks like Joe Average. Which takes us back to the top of the list.

Filed 12/12/11

If I Were Delusional, How Would I Know?


“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
—Philip K. Dick

“If a thousand men believe a foolish thing, it’s still a foolish thing.”

“There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe them.”
—George Orwell

“The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”
—H.L. Mencken

“Give me a smart idiot over a stupid genius any day.”
—Sam Goldwyn

Filed 9/21/11

“Come Ben. This is… Och… What’s-his-name.”


tartle (tăr′-təl) verb. The act of hesi­tating while intro­ducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name. (Scottish)

Bet you didn’t know there was a word for that. Though maybe outside of Scotland there isn’t. Scot’s say things other English speakers don’t. It’s a Gaelic thing. And even when they use English words they might not sound the same what with that brogue.

To American ears a thick Scottish brogue almost sounds like a foreign language. I once saw a movie about Cockney and working class Scots subtitled in English, even though they were speaking English. As an old bit in National Lampoon had it, “Scottish attempts at speaking English have been a source of amusement for centuries.”

Now then, about the only Scots I know is Auld Lang Sine. Which, if you follow the lyrics, brings us back to where we started. “Should old acquaintance be forgot… tartle.”

Filed 7/19/11

You Can Quote Me Quoting Them


And now, a few quotes without any commentary. Just a little food for thought, as they say.

“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sin­cerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
—C.S. Lewis

“The worst government is often the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.”
—H.L. Mencken

“The sole condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic com­munity is to love equality, or to get men to believe you love it. Thus the science of despotism, which was once so complex, is simplified, and reduced, as it were, to a single principle.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville

“I was born in a free country, but now it is a democracy.”
—Walter Williams

Filed 7/15/11

What’s Up With ‘Up’?


Some words are easy to understand, but hard to explain. Take the word ‘up’ for example. A word about as simple and basic as they come. If asked you might define it as the opposite of down, or hold up a finger pointing toward the sky or ceiling and say, “That way.”

Yet, that’s probably not the most common use of the word. Our speech is peppered with the word where it has no directional meaning. If pressed, it’d be pretty hard to explain its meaning in many cases. It’s like a helper word that doesn’t seem to mean anything at all.

Take the following: save up, add up, divide up, pay up, round up, wake up, shake up, phone up, call up, blow up, ball up, mix up, mess up, screw up, light up, lighten up, wake up, shut up, cramp up, rip up, tear up, listen up.

Why up in any of those cases? Is there a direction involved?

Next up there’s: clean up, follow up, dress up, open up, drink up, eat up, saddle up, settle up, back up, start up, dry up, wash up, button up, bundle up, cook up, crack up, shape up, fix up, fill up, take up, loosen up, use up.

All these things seem to go up not down. Though not always. A relation­ship can break down so you break up. Unless you make up, but you can’t make down. Then you can get beat down or beat up. About the same thing and neither is very pleasant.

Thing is, up has more meanings than you probably ever imagined. In my dictionary there are seventeen definitions as an adverb, sixteen as an adjective, four as a preposition, two as a noun, and two as a verb. If we go further we find three more definitions as a prefix as in upbeat, updraft, uphill and so on.

You don’t have to take my word for it, you can look it up. I didn’t make it up. I’m on the up and up.

Filed 6/3/11

Idiomatic or Idiotic?


Ten Questionable Phrases

1. not unlike
Not unlike means like. The “not un-” cancels itself out, so why add it? In fact, something identical is not unlike.

2. maybe yes, maybe no
Maybe already means it may be yes or no. Maybe covers both by itself.

3. open and shut case
How can a case be both open and shut? Is it ajar? It makes no sense. Case closed.

4. awfully good
Awful is bad. So what is something that’s badly good?

5. found missing
It’s missing yet found. Huh?

6. head over heels
Isn’t that just standing? Aren’t we usually head over heels?

7. help yourself
Can you assist yourself? If you do it yourself you’re not getting help.

8. self-service
If you have to do it yourself that’s not self-service, it’s non service. So, help yourself to some self-service.

9. alone with you
If you’re with someone you’re not alone, are you?

10. two-handed solitaire
If there’s two people can it be solitaire? That’s like being alone with someone.

Filed 5/12/11

In Case of Gauls, Sound Money


Many a word has a backstory, a deri­vation with a tale attached. Many words come from other languages, like Greek or Latin. The word money fits both criteria.

A couple millennia ago the Romans built a lavish temple to honor their patroness Juno, wife of Jupiter. Located inside Capitolium, the citadel atop a hill, the temple doubled as the mint where coins were struck. In the garden around the temple lived the sacred geese of Juno.

One year the Gauls besieged Rome whose inhabitants took refuge in the Capitolium. The raiders tried to sneak up an unguarded steep approach, but the geese’s honking sounded the alarm and the citadel was saved.

The Romans gave thanks to their patroness Juno and thereafter called her Juno Moneta, Juno the Warner. Because the coins of Rome were minted in the temple of Juno Moneta, people called them money.

I guess that might make money a warning. Though it’s lack of money that’s alarming. Anyway, that’s where the word money comes from.

Filed 5/4/11

Farther and Further


What’s the difference between farther and further? Are they interchange­able?

The distinction is fairly simple. When talking about a physical dis­tance use farther. When talking about a non-physical or metaphorical amount or degree use further.

For instance, Arizona is farther west than Arkansas. On the other hand, Arizona is further in debt than Arkansas.

However, the opposite of both farther and further is closer. Arizona is closer to California in distance and closer to bankruptcy than Arkansas.

Since the word closer can be both physical and metaphorical we can use it to form a…

syllepsis (sĭl lĕp′ sĭs) noun. The use of a word with the same syntactic rela­tion to two adjacent words, in a literal sense with one and a metaphorical sense with the other.

Arizona is closer to California and bankruptcy than Arkansas.

Furthermore, closer is a heteronym. That’s two words spelled the same with different meanings and pronunciations. Closer (KLO ser) meaning nearer. Closer (KLO zer) meaning something that shuts a door or lid, or a relief pitcher in baseball.

Filed 4/5/11

History is Written by the Winners


“The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

—Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

To own up, that’s one of the things I like about reading detective stories and murder mysteries. The good guys win and the bad guys get caught. Well, usually. Anyway, I like it when wrong­doing is punished. And with fiction the author is in control of the outcome so that’s usually the case.

That’s not true with history where the author has no control. What happened happened. Sometimes the good guys win and sometimes they lose. Except there is one thing about that — who decided who were the good guys and who were bad guys?

Ask yourself, was Alexander the Great a brave, conquering hero or a reckless, subjugating villain. How about Napoleon, or Ghengis Khan? Didn’t all try to conquer the world by force of arms? Is your feeling about each different? I imagine Mongolians view Ghengis Khan a lot differently than Russians do. I guess it all depends on which side you were on.

They say history is written by the winners. Face it, winners don’t like to admit they might be history’s bad guys. Which raises the question, how much of history is just the facts and how much is partisan spin.

“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

—Winston Churchill

Filed 3/16/11

The False Opposites of the Political Spectrum


The way people use the terms now-a-days you’d get the idea that liberal and conservative are total opposites. But when you look them up in the diction­ary it just ain’t so.

liberal: Having views or policies favoring the freedom of individuals to act or express themselves as of their own choosing.

conservative: Tending to favor the preservation of the existing order and to regard proposals for change with distrust.

Liberal is about individual rights and liberty, no mention of the desire for change. Conservative is an attitude supporting the establishment and resisting change, nothing there about individual freedom. To say the opposite of liberal is conser­vative is like saying the opposite of free is same.

Say you want to keep the first amendment guarantee of free speech. This would be both conservative (against change) and liberal (pro free speech). There is no contradiction whatever.

Liberal’s true opposite would say the individual’s actions or expressions are restricted or controlled. In other words…

authoritarian: Characterized by or favoring absolute obedience to authority, as against individual freedom.

Conservative’s opposite prefers sweeping changes to the existing order. In other words…

radical: Favoring or effecting revolu­tionary changes.

This is not to say there is no divide between people who call themselves liberal and people who call themselves conservative. It’s just the conservative and liberal labels they use are muddled up and don’t mean what they really mean. When conservatives call for change they aren’t being conservative. When liberals want to ban, run, or regulate something they aren’t being liberal.

Forget what people call themselves, the proof is in the pudding. Radicals want different pudding, conservatives want the pudding as is. Liberals let you choose your pudding, authori­tarians tell you what pudding you must and must not have whether you like it or not. That’s the bottom line, both pudding-wise and otherwise.

Filed 3/11/11

When Revolutions Were Circular


revolution (rĕv′-ə lōō shən) noun. 1. a. Orbital motion about a point. b. A single complete cycle of such orbital motion. 2. A sudden political over­throw brought about from within.

While it may not be obvious, the second meaning is derived from the first. Though we tend to think a revolution overthrows the old order and establishes something new or radically different it was first used to mean almost the oposite. That is, a revolution was a restoration of a previous regime or order, a return to the past. That’s what happens when something makes one revolution, it comes full circle and winds up where it began.

Revolution as a political term was first used describing the installment of William of Orange, husband of Mary Stuart, on the throne of England in 1688. This was called the Glorious Revolution where England returned to a Protestant Monarchy replacing the Catholic James II.

Filed 2/16/11

Why You Can’t Convince Some People of Anything


“When the facts change, I change my mind.”

—John Maynard Keynes

If you believe in rationality you might subscribe to that idea. But do folks really act that way? Do people change their opinions when new information comes to light disproving or contradicting what they previously believed? Not as much as you might think. Besides confirmation bias there’s a little thing called backfire. Which is explained in this snippet from a Boston Globe article by Joe Keohane:

… Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs…

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threat­en­ing to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenom­enon —known as “backfire”— is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

I guess another saying, or joke, is more likely to be true, and why there’s just no point in arguing with some people…

“Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up.”

Filed 1/24/11

Czech Mate


robot (rō′ bŏt) noun. 1. An externally manlike mechanical device capable of performing human tasks or behaving in a human manner. 2. A person who works mechanically without original thought. 3. Any machine or device that works automatically or by remote control. [Czech, from robota, compul­sory labor, drudgery.]

Not exactly an obscure word, but one with an interesting derivation. After all, how many english words come from Czech? Did Czechs invent the robot or what? Well, they came up with the word robot.

Our common use of the word comes from a 1920 play RUR by Czech play­wright Karel Capek. RUR meaning Rossom’s Universal Robots (in Czech, Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti). Robot simply meaning laborer, or maybe something closer to servant. Sometimes words don’t have exact translations from one language to another. In the play the laborers alluded to in the title were machines, what we now call robots.

Filed 1/4/11

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