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29 April 2017
Morning Sedition

Sixteen Tons… of Lies

Company Store in Mining Town

Company Store in Mining Town

Just about everyone knows the song "Sixteen Tons." It's about an angry coal miner railing about how no matter how hard he works he can't get ahead. (You can listen to it here.) The most famous part is:

I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

"Sixteen Tons" by George Davis

The phrase "company store" comes from the practice of mining companies of setting up towns that were owned lock, stock, and barrel by the mining company. Workers were paid in "scrip" basically monopoly money created by the mining company and spendable only at the company-owned stores, which could charge whatever they wanted. This allowed the mine owner to pay the workers with one hand and take it back with the other, an effective tool in controlling profits, and thus, prices:

Miners resented the company store for three reasons: prices were much higher than those charged by independent retail stores, their grocery and supply bills were checked off their earnings even before they received their pay, and trading was compulsory. It hurt the miner's pride to know that he was being robbed in the "pluck-me,'' his term for the company store. Responsibility for budgeting family income was shifted from the housewife, where it was in normal households, to the company store manager. Moreover, the debts which a miner piled up in the store bound him as securely to his employer as miners were bound to feudal barons in medieval Scotland....

Many coal corporations issued their own money, which for all purposes took the place of United States currency. This phony money, called scrip, took various forms such as pasteboards, coupon books, paper bills called shinplasters, brass checks, and metal discs with holes through them like Turkish piasters.... In states where the law barred the issuance of scrip, coal companies distributed wage advances or store orders, but the miners regarded them as just another form of scrip.... Chronic layoffs, part-time work, and low wages made the ground fertile for scrip as its purpose was to tide over the miner from one payday to another.

When an operator was unable to expand his mining capacity or the volume of his sales, he would increase the number of his miners. This would so cut each man's working time and earnings that it left no surplus to spend outside the camp. Because of monopoly, there was no limit to the height to which a company store could hike its prices. John McBride, president of the United Mine Workers of America (1892-1894), related how an Ohio coal operator of his acquaintance worked two mines for thirteen months and made a profit of only $287. During the same period his store, which without the mines would have been worth nothing, earned him a net profit of $22,000.

An unscrupulous store-keeping coal operator who sought to undersell the market could do so simply by cutting the price of coal below cost and making up his operating losses out of company-store receipts. It was a competitive device often resorted to, especially in the South, where non-union operators thereby were enabled to take business away from Northern operators.

"Coal Dust on the Fiddle," by George Korson 1965, pp. 72-73

Merle Travis

Merle Travis

So much for the song's meaning, which most people sort of know. Fewer know, however, that the song was allegedly (yeah, you've spotted the direction of this entry) written by Merle Travis, a record company employee, in August of 1946:

In August, 1946, Cliffie Stone, then an assistant producer and talent scout for Capitol Records, called Merle Travis (a Capitol hitmaker at that time) about recording a 78 rpm album (four discs in a binder) of folk songs. Capitol, seeing the success of a Burl Ives album, wanted their own folk music album. Merle told Cliffie he figured, "Ives has sung every folk song." Stone suggested Travis write some new songs that sounded folky, and to do so quickly; the first four-song session was scheduled for the next day. Travis recalled the traditional Nine Pound Hammer and wrote three songs that night about life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky's coal mines, where his father worked. One was Dark As A Dungeon, the other, Sixteen Tons.

The song's chorus came from a letter Merle received from his brother lamenting the death of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, killed while covering combat in the Pacific in 1945. John Travis wrote, "It's like working in the coal mines. You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." Merle also recalled a remark his father would make to neighbors when asked how he was doing: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store. " This referred to coal-company owned stores where miners bought food and supplies with money advanced by the company, called "scrip"."

"Sixteen Tons - The Story Behind The Legend" on ErnieFord.com

Travis apparently ran into trouble with the FBI because any song promoting workers rights must be promoting communism. And so the good boys working for Jane Edgar Hoover told radio stations to not play the song; that's a difficult thing to do with a hit, and many ignored the directive. Here are Travis' lyrics:

Some people say a man is made out of mud
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bones...
A mind that's weak and a back that's strong

(Repeat Chorus)

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store (Repeat Chorus)

(Repeat Chorus)

I was born one mornin' and the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal and
the straw boss said, "well bless my soul!"
.....you loaded...

(Repeat Chorus)

I was born one mornin' it was drizzlin' rain
fightin' and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in a cane-brake by an old mama lion
can't no high-toned woman make me walk no line

(Repeat Chorus)

If you see me comin', better step aside
A lot of men didn't, a lot of men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don't get you, then the left one will

(Repeat Chorus)

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

— "Sixteen Tons" by Merle Travis

I put together some notes explaining the lyrics:

  • A "straw boss," according to Wentworth & Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang, is "the boss attended to the grain going into the thresher; the second-man watched after the straw coming out and hence had little to do."
  • The term "script" or "scrip" refers to a piece of paper printed by employer and used to pay its workers in lieu of money. The script is, naturally, only good at the company's stores, allowing it to charge whatever it wants.
  • The term "cane-brake" is derived from the term "brake," for bracken swamps, that surrounded cane fields. (This is why the crotalus horridus atricaudatus rattlesnake is often called a "cane breaks;" it lives in these lowland swamps.)
  • The term "number nine coal" was a little trickier to track down. "For some time, miners had followed the custom of naming the main pay zones of minerals, and numbering the splits, as in "Pocahontas Number Nine Coal" or "the Great Gossan Lead" for example. This method seemed to allow more flexibility, so it worked its way into use by the scientific community, and is now known as the Geological Time Scale." (Friends of Roan Mountain Newsletter, Volume 5, No. 1, Winter 2001) All sorts of coal gradations exist.

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Once allegedly written by Travis, it became popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford as a B side. What's interesting is that nobody remembers the A side, and "Sixteen Tons" became the best-selling single in the country. The famous finger snapping at the beginning was a happy accident:

It had a good solid beat to begin with. In addition, I snapped my fingers all through it. Sometimes I set my own tempo during rehearsal by doing that. The orchestra leader asks me, "What tempo do you want, Ernie?'' I say, "About like this,'' and I begin to snap my third finger and thumb together. After I was through rehearsing that song, Lee Gillette, who was in charge of the recording session for Capitol Records, screamed through the telephone from the control room, "Tell Ernie to leave that finger snapping in when you do the final waxing.''

Interview with Tennessee Ernie Ford by Pete Martin, Saturday Evening Post, 28 September 1957

George Davis

George Davis

There's one tiny problem here. Travis didn't write the song. He stole it from George Davis, a man known all over Kentucky for singing songs about mining, who wrote it circa 1930. The real lyrics are:

I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

(Chorus)

I was born one morning, was a drizzling rain
A fussing and fighting ain't my middle name.
Well they raised me in a corner by a Mammy hound
I'm as mean as a dog but I'm as gentle as a lamb.

(Chorus)

Well I got up one morning, the sun didn't shine,
I picked up my shovel and I went to the mine,
I loaded sixteen ton of that number four coal
The face boss said, ''Well bless my soul!"

(Chorus)

I loaded sixteen tons, I tried to get ahead,
Got deeper and deeper in debt instead.
Well they got what I made, and they wanted some more,
And now I owe my soul at the company store.

(Chorus)

Well I went to the office to draw some script
The man, he told me -- was a wreck in the dip.
To clear the tracks would be a week or more
But your credit's still good at our company store.

(Chorus)

If you see me coming, step aside.
A lot of men didn't and a lot of men died
I got a fist of iron, I got a fist of steel,
The left one don't get you then the right one will.

— George Davis, circa 1930

Here's the real story behind the song:

When I first met him [George Davis] at the Hazard radio station in 1959, he was very hesitant about doing any recording because of his previous bad experience with the records business. He claims to have composed "Sixteen Tons" during the 1930s, and feels that Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford capitalized on his song through changing the chords somewhat. George's original version is on this record....

According to George Davis, this song was first called "Nine-to-Ten-Tons,'' and he wrote it in reference to "this particular mine (which) had what is known as a Clean-up System. This was before the days of the UMW. In a clean-up system you either cleaned up your place every day, or brought your tools out (quit ? ). An old expression the operator used then was, 'We've got a barefooted man waiting for your job.' Here's the catch -- each place would make nine or 10 tons, but where you loaded this coal was very low; most of them had water in them -- as much as three or four inches -- and they had no pumps. On top of this you might have a cut of draw rock from 8 to 12 inches thick, 14 feet wide, and up to 9 feet long. All the coal, rock, and anything like wrecks, tore up track. All that was 'dead work' and it always had to be cleaned up, even if it took you 18 or 19 hours to do it.

John Cohen, liner notes for "When Kentucky Had No Mining Men," 1967

This is the key point: the mining company, like many large corporations today, forced workers to work off the timeclock for no pay. Americans, in some sense, still work for the company store, except now it's made from plastic and charges workers 18%, compounded daily.

The Five-Finger Discount

Winona Ryder In Court After Being Found Guilty of Shoplifting

Winona Ryder In Court After Being Found Guilty of Shoplifting

I'm sorry for what I did. My director directed me to shoplift for a role which I was preparing.

"Security guard says Ryder admitted stealing to prepare for movie role," CourtTV.com

Shoplifting — also known as racking, boosting, jacking, gaffling, ganking, by the bland retail trade terms of "shrink" or "Organized Retail Theft", and by Winona Ryder as "research" — is an old word, dating to 1673. It was, naturally enough, formed from by combining "shop", for retail establishment, with "lifting", meaning to steal. ("Lifting" as a slang term for theft dates to 1595; amazing it took over a hundred years to join the two concepts.) The 1673 form only described the noun version, however; to "shoplift" as a verb was not in use until 1698.

Interestingly enough, the concept of shop as the verb form of engaging in the act of purchasing — shop 'till ya drop — wasn't in use until 1764. (Some say 1820.) The related term "five-finger discount" dates to 1966. (Five-finger as a component of a slang term for anything involving the hand is common; witness the innumerable list of terms for masturbation.) Anyway, whatever you or Winona call it, retail theft is a serious problem in the United States:

Organized retail theft (ORT) is a growing problem throughout the United States, affecting a wide-range of retail establishments, including supermarkets, chain drug stores, independent pharmacies, mass merchandisers, convenience stores, and discount operations. It has become the most pressing security problem confronting retailers. ORT losses are estimated to run as high as $15 billion annually in the supermarket industry alone – and $34 billion across all retail. ORT crime is separate and distinct from petty shoplifting in that it involves professional theft rings that move quickly from community to community and across state lines to steal large amounts of merchandise that is then repackaged and sold back into the marketplace. Petty shoplifting, as defined, is limited to items stolen for personal use or consumption. Listed below are links to resources that will provide you with the information you need to help prevent ORT.

Food Marketing Institute - Retail Operations - Loss Prevention

So what are the most popular items? Oxycontin? Nope, that's locked up so only pharmacists can steal it by shorting prescriptions. Ok, it's gotta be Robitussin DM? Nope, it seems teenagers actually pay for that. All right, then it surely must be rolling papers. Naaah. They keep those behind the counter. So, what is it? Advil. Fifty count, not a hundred. Yeah, go figure. Here's the list of rather surprising list of the most popular items for shoplifting, starting with most stolen:

Advil tablet 50 count
Advil tablet 100 count
Aleve caplet 100 count
EPT Pregnancy Test single
Gillette Sensor 10 count
Kodak 200 24 exp
Similac w/iron powder - case
Similac w/iron powder - single can
Preparation H 12 count
Primatene tablet 24 count
Sudafed caplet 24 count
Tylenol caplet 100 count
Advil caplet 100 count
Aleve caplet 50 count
Correcountol tablet 60 count
Excedrin tablet 100 count
Gillette Sensor/Excel 10 count
Gillette Sensor 15 count
Monistat 3oz tube
Preparation H Ointment 1 oz
Similac w/iron concentrate 13 oz
Tavist-D decongestant tablet 16 count
Trojan ENZ 12 count
Tylenol gelcap 50 count
Tylenol gelcap 100 count
Tylenol tablet 100 count
Vagistat 1 tube
Advil caplet 50 count
Advil gelcap 50 count
Advil gelcap 24 count
Advil tablet 50 count
Aleve tablet 50 count
Anacin tablet 100 count
Centrum tablet 60 count
DayQuil liquicaps 20 count
Dimetap tablet 12 count
Duracell AA 4 pk
Ecotrin tablet 100 count
Ecotrin tablet 60 count
Energizer AA 4 pk
Excedrin tablet 50 count
Femstat 3 app
Gillette Atra 10 count
Gyne-Lotrimin 3 app
Monistat 7oz tube
Motrin caplet 50 count
Motrin tablet 24 count
Oil of Olay 4 oz
Preparation H Ointment 2 oz
Schick Tracer FX 10 count
Gillette Sensor/Women 10 count
Sudafed tablet 24 count
Visine drops 1 oz

"Most Frequently Shoplifted Items in Rank Order" from the Food Marketing Institute

I can sort of understand why Sudafed is a popular choice, since it is used in the production of cold-process methamphetamine (pseudophedrine is a readily-available precursor) and your average meth-head isn't known for his judgment, especially when it comes to getting a much-needed fix. (And stores are on the lookout for large-volume purchases.) But Advil and Tylenol? What's up with that? I would think that a shoplifting conviction is a far bigger headache than whatever the thief could possibly be suffering from. And if it's a repeat offense for a male offender, well, he'll surely need that Preparation H for his trip to the Big House.

Shoplifting is a topic that is practically relevant to many and it should therefore not become an exclusive craft confined to a small shoplifting elite. On the contrary, shoplifting is an art that deserves the widest possible dissemination. For your convenience we have printed below a step by step guide to shoplifting. Good luck.

"The Art of Shoplifting," NoName, September 1995, Page 10

Leather Lanyard or Marble Madness?

Cover of Boondoggle Book

If we can "boondoggle" ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come.

— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Speech, 18 January 1936, to the New Jersey State Emergency Council

The word "boondoggle" refers to any fraudulent or dishonest undertaking, usually associated with wasting huge amounts of money on an enterprise of dubious value, typically as a result of political patronage. (This is the third political term we've dissected, the first being filibuster and the second red tape.) But where did it come from? It turns out the etymology of boondoggle is still unknown, it apparantly having become common circa 1935 to describe the money spent by Roosevelt's New Deal alphabet programs (CCC, FDIC, FERA, NRA, SEC, TVA, WPA, etc.) The quote above is Roosevelt's response to his critics. But first, a short skip to the origins.

The term "boondoggle" existed with the boyscouts long before it was used to describe Roosevelt's programs, supposedly being coined in 1927 by Robert H. Link, a scoutmaster, to describe the braided leather lanyards made by boyscouts to fritter away time at the campfire, and then worn as decoration. Link died in 1957, so nobody can ask him where he picked up the term. (Neither can anyone ask him if he used those amazingly strong braided cords for nefarious purposes.) Evidence, however, suggests the term may have been in use before Link; so much for "Scout's Honor." (Then again, how much "scouts honor" is there in persecuting gays, lesbians, and atheists or in raping young scouts? I mean, this is about the same amount of honor as one would find in the Roman Catholic Church...)

Now, the word came to prominence on 4 April 1935 when The New York Times ran a story about how jobless workers were being paid by the government to make lanyards from leather, rope, and canvas:

Boondoggle burst into the world with something of a bang, becoming an attack term immediately after its first recorded appearance in print. This occurred on April 4, 1935, in an account in The New York Times of an investigation into public-relief expenditures. Testifying the previous day before a committee of the Board of Aldermen (predecessors of today’s gender-neutral City Council), a Robert Marshall of Brooklyn said that he had been paid to teach “boon doggles.” Asked what he meant by this, he explained that “boon doggles is simply a term applied back in pioneer days to what we call gadgets today… . They may be making belts in leather, or maybe belts by weaving ropes, or it might be belts by working with canvas, maybe a tent or a sleeping bag.”

Mr. Marshall’s testimony, together with that of other witnesses who told of teaching tap dancing, manipulating shadow puppets, and building “A Temple of Time” (a watch and clock collection) for New York University, inspired the story’s headline, which began: $3,187,000 RELIEF IS SPENT TO TEACH JOBLESS TO PLAY, with the subhead, “BOON DOGGLES” made.

The word was off and running. In the next presidential election, in 1936, boondoggle was employed widely as both a noun and a verb by Republican critics of New Deal relief agencies. Boondoggling became a general term for what the GOP perceived as governmental wastefulness, and the responsible administrators were boondogglers. Nor could President Roosevelt pass this one up. He turned the word back upon the Republicans, describing international loans made under the GOP as foreign boondoggling.

"Why Do We Say That? 'Boondoggle'" Hugh Rawson, American Heritage

The big question, however, is where Link got the word or the idea for it. Another potential etymology is from Scottish, where boondoggle refers to winning a marble without any effort or receiving it as an outright gift. This has some plausibility, since "doggle" or "dogle" is the slang term for a marble, and it could easily have been combined with "boon" meaning gift or favor. The only problem is that the OED doesn't have any evidence the word was compounded in this fashion.

Some claim the word is drived to the Tagalog (Phillipine) word "bundok" for mountain, which was picked up by US soldiers during World War II and morphed into "boondocks" meaning any remote or wild area isolated from civilization. (Like, say, New Jersey.) The sense is allegedly that money was spent in remote areas according to the whims of the Roosevelt administration. The problem is that boondocks didn't show up in common parlance until about eight years after boondoggle. So this etymology shouldn't be given any credence.

The ultimate answer is that nobody really knows where the word originated. The only way Congress would fund a study of this boondoggle is if a congresscritter had an institute for etymology in his district. And, given the boondoggles Congress has funded, this one isn't so farfetched.

"133t5p33k" or "!337$p34k"

Leet Keyboard

Microsoft has disocvered Leetspeak and the risk it poses to children:

Key points for interpreting leetspeek

• Numbers are often used as letters. The term "leet" could be written as "1337," with "1" replacing the letter L, "3" posing as a backwards letter E, and "7" resembling the letter T. Others include "8" replacing the letter B, "9" used as a G, "0" (zero) in lieu of O, and so on.

• Non-alphabet characters can be used to replace the letters they resemble. For example, "5" or even "$" can replace the letter S. Applying this style, the word "leetspeek" can be written as "133t5p33k" or even "!337$p34k," with "4" replacing the letter A.

• Letters can be substituted for other letters that may sound alike. Using "Z" for a final letter S, and "X" for words ending in the letters C or K is common. For example, leetspeekers might refer to their computer "5x1llz" (skills).

• Rules of grammar are rarely obeyed. Some leetspeekers will capitalize every letter except for vowels (LiKe THiS) and otherwise reject conventional English style and grammar, or drop vowels from words (such as converting very to "vry").

• Mistakes are often left uncorrected. Common typing misspellings (typos) such as "teh" instead of the are left uncorrected or sometimes adopted to replace the correct spelling.

• Non-alphanumeric characters may be combined to form letters. For example, using slashes to create "//" can substitute for the letter M, and two pipes combined with a hyphen to form "|-|" is often used in place of the letter H. Thus, the word ham could be written as "|-|4//."

• The suffix "0rz" is often appended to words for emphasis or to make them plural. For example, "h4xx0rz," "sk1llz0rz," and "pwnz0rz," are plural or emphasized versions (or both) of hacks, skills, and owns.

"A Parent's Primer to Computer Slang: Understand how your kids communicate online to help protect them" by Microsoft Corporation

And here's a set of kewl words that Microsoft says you should be on the lookout for:

Leet words of concern or indicating possible illegal activity:

• "warez" or "w4r3z": Illegally copied software available for download.

• "h4x": Read as "hacks," or what a malicious computer hacker does.

• "pr0n": An anagram of "porn," possibly indicating the use of pornography.

• "sploitz" (short for exploits): Vulnerabilities in computer software used by hackers.

• "pwn": A typo-deliberate version of own, a slang term often used to express superiority over others that can be used maliciously, depending on the situation. This could also be spelled "0//n3d" or "pwn3d," among other variations. Online video game bullies or "griefers" often use this term.

"A Parent's Primer to Computer Slang: Understand how your kids communicate online to help protect them" by Microsoft Corporation

Remember, kids, if someone offers you some "pron" just say, "Thanks, Dude!". Or, more properly, "10x d00d!"

Leet Cereal

Do You Take Milk & Sugar With Your Clothing?

Seersucker Jacket

He walked into the ocean [wearing a seersucker suit], took it off and let it dry and wore it to a party that night. It made Haspel suits famous.

— Laurie Lipsey Aronson quoted in "Haspel Suits Have Been Popular with Presidents and in Hollywood" by Karen Martin, 2 The Advocate, 4 April 2005

The name "seersucker" comes to us from the Hindi sirsaker, derived from the Persian shiroshakar or shroshakar, meaning "milk and sugar". The word shakar, meaning sugar, comes from the Sanskrit arkar, while the shr is Persian for milk. The term is a figurative one, referring to the different textures — smooth and rough,— just as how smooth milk and rough sugar have different texture. (Don't blame me; I don't name these things.)

Weaver from Vasquez, Mexico

Seersucker Weaver from Vasquez, Mexico

A lightweight weave, either plain or crepe, the puckers arise from tightening and slackening some threads during weaving. The loom is a twin-beam with two warps (vertical); one with loose threads the other with tight. It took skill for the weaver to create a uniform appearance; nowadays, the work is done by soulless weaving machines:

When the ground weave of the fabric is all plain weave, two warp beams are necessary. The bottom beam used for the plain cloth is usually made from single yarns and woven with regular tension from the warp. The top beam which is used for the seersucker stripe, can be made from either single or ply yarns. When made from single yarns the threads are doubled in the harnesses and crowded in the reed. When made from plied yarns they are not usually doubled, unless fine yarns are used. As the plain weave is used for both ground fabric and seersucker stripe, four harness shafts can be used. It is advisable to operate the seersucker on separate harness shafts and not on the same shafts as the ground threads. The number of shafts used will depend on the construction of the fabric. If the heddles or the harness eyes are crowded on the shafts, more shafts should be used. The reeding of the fabric for the plain ground is usually two single threads per dent and for the seersucker stripe is usually two double threads in a dent.

There are several methods by which the seersucker effect can be produced. The first method is done by having the top seersucker warp beam weaving comparatively slack. In this method the regulation of the weight on the beam is made according to the effect to be produced in the fabric. This slack weaving of the warp, together with the crowding of the threads in the reed, creates the crimp of the cloth.

In the second method the warp beam for the seersucker stripe is woven tight, as in regular warp regulation. The seersucker yarn passes around an easer rod. As the lay comes to the fell of the cloth, the easer rod is pulled forward, slackening the yarn. This slackening on every pick affords a good crimp. Adjusting the collar as to give more or less movement to the easer rod can regulate the motion.

In the third method a cam is used on the crankshaft to operate the easer rod, thereby slackening the yarn on each pick. The cam must be set to ease the yarn when the reed is close to the fell of the cloth. The tension on the beam for the seersucker stripe should be set so that the pull of the yarn will be away from the weight of the spring.

Another kind of seersucker is often called “serpentine” crêpe, which is done by a chemical treatment. In this method certain parts of the fabric are treated with caustic soda which causes the fabric to shrink in those areas and gives a puckered effect.

Technical Methods of weaving a Seersucker

The crinkly-textured fabric had been used in India for centuries, but it only attained worldwide notice when the British Raj began to wear silk nightshirts and pajamas made from it. The first recorded English use of the phrase is in 1722, as "Sea Sucker".

Seersucker Colors

Seersucker Fabric Color Variations

Seersucker suits became popular in the south during the jazz era (mid-1920s) because the fabric was cool and humidity would take the creases out of any suit. (The argument that the wrinkles gave the wearer some appeal because, after all, if you rich you had the right to look like you'd slept in your clothes, doesn't hold water. Rich southern men were all about style and looking good.) The north was less receptive because the fashion there was elegant, and razor-sharp, creases, not comfort.

The fabric really took off when clothier Joseph Haspel popularized the wash-and-wear suit:

In 1907, New Orleanian Joseph Haspel seized on the cotton and set out to create a suit whose primary selling point would be wash-and-wearability.

"My great-grandfather was known for starting the wash-and-wear suit," said Laurie Aaronson, president and co-owner of the Haspel clothing company. "In one of his ad campaigns there is a picture of him wearing a seersucker suit and he walks into the Atlantic Ocean. Then he wrings it out, hangs it up and when he puts it back on he goes straight to a cocktail party that night."

The lightweight nature of the material and lack of creases also appealed to him because of the weather in which he found himself. Suit creases fall in New Orleans' humidity.

It is said that the low cost and rumpled state of the often-pinstriped garment made the cognoscenti initially look down on it. But soon after World War I, presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as well as movie stars Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, were seen wearing not just seersucker, but Haspel seersucker.

"Gregory Peck wore a Haspel seersucker suit in 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' " Aaronson recounts.

"Stripes Are Solid" by Karen Sommer Shalett, Times Picayune, 23 July 2004

Haspel was an ambitious, and clever, man, and his PR ploy with swim-and-wear suits worked wonders for his company's reputation. I don't know if this was paid placement — and it wouldn't surprise me, given how Hollywood popularized diamonds — but seersucker started showing up in movies like A Lion in the Streets (James Cagney), The Seven Year Itch (Tom Ewell) and To Kill a Mockingbird (Gregory Peck). I remember the seersucker suit from the movie, because it looked so rumpled. Haspel remains a big men's clothing company.

CAD Software Configuration for Weaving Seersucker

MonarchCAD Textile Software for Weaving Seersucker

Today's seersucker is available in all sorts of colors and materials, including the ever-versatile polyester, harvested by hand from the finest sacred polyester lambs in the Andes. (I myself am too profane to allow polyester to touch my skin, and restrict myself to 100% natural fabrics that breathe. But what do I know?) The weaving, however, is virtually always done by machine.

The Red Badge of Bureaucracy

Red Tape

Our English red tape is too magnificently red ever to be employed in the tying up of such trifles...

"Frauds on the Fairies" by Charles Dickens, 1 October 1853

Red Tape. Some say it is the greatest gift of the Constitution's framers since its inefficiency prevents tyranny, or at least slows it down. But what is the origin of "red tape?" The earliest use is in Britain in 1736, referring to the ribbon used to tie official documents into bundles. (The ribbon was not sticky.)

There was something about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded red tape, that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure would here be brought to light. Unbending the rigid folds of the parchment cover, I found it to be a commission, under the hand and seal of Governor Shirley, in favor of one Jonathan Pue, as Surveyor of his Majesty’s Customs for the port of Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

The Scarlet Letter, The Custom-House, Introduction, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850.

Safflower

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)

The color of the ribbon was derived from the natural red dye present in the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius):

Non-wood forest products for rural income and sustainable forestry - MAJOR COLOURANTS AND DYESTUFFS 6

"Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) is an annual herb which is well adapted to semi-arid conditions in the tropics and sub-tropics. It is a thistle-like plant with a deep taproot, growing up to 120 cm high, with a branched stem and a flower head at the end of each branch.

The florets contain three major pigments, all of which are present as chalcone glucosides: the water-insoluble scarlet-red carthamin and the water-soluble "safflor yellow" A and B. The latter pigments are deliberately removed by water washing in the traditional primary processing of the florets in order to provide the desired, red raw material for dyeing/colourant usage.

Safflower was formerly employed, as its synonym "dyer's saffron" implies, as an inexpensive substitute for saffron in textile dyeing. The term "red tape" originates from the use of safflower to impart a pink-red colour to the tape employed to bind legal documents. The colour tone can be varied according to the mordant used through pink, red, rose, crimson to scarlet."

"Safflower: Summary of Basic Information," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In any event, doing any sort of official business involving records required much tying and untying to locate desired documents. Hence being tied up in red tape or going through red tape. Charles Dickens is reported to have popularized it as indicative of governmental inefficiency:

I have tamed that savage stenographic mystery. I make a respectable income by it. I am in high repute for my accomplishment in all pertaining to the art, and am joined with eleven others in reporting the debates in Parliament for a Morning Newspaper. Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words. Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape. I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it, and shall never be converted.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Chapter 18, 1917

Prior to Dickens, however, was Thomas Carlyle's efforts in popularizing the term as one of opprobrium. (Dickens dedicated Hard Times to Carlyle as a way of recognizing latter's ceaseless waging of war on the cruelty of government bureaucracy.) Carlyle pulled no punches when it came to red tape:

Is it such a blessedness to have clerks forever pestering you with bundles of papers in red tape?

Thomas Caryle, "The Hero As King", On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Chapter 18, Section III

From all corners of the wide British Dominion there rises one complaint against the ineffectuality of what are nicknamed our "red-tape" establishments, our Government Offices, Colonial Office, Foreign Office and the others, in Downing Street and the neighborhood. To me individually these branches of human business are little known; but every British citizen and reflective passer-by has occasion to wonder much, and inquire earnestly, concerning them. To all men it is evident that the social interests of one hundred and fifty Millions of us depend on the mysterious industry there carried on; and likewise that the dissatisfaction with it is great, universal, and continually increasing in intensity,--in fact, mounting, we might say, to the pitch of settled despair.

Every colony, every agent for a matter colonial, has his tragic tale to tell you of his sad experiences in the Colonial Office; what blind obstructions, fatal indolences, pedantries, stupidities, on the right and on the left, he had to do battle with; what a world-wide jungle of red-tape, inhabited by doleful creatures, deaf or nearly so to human reason or entreaty, he had entered on; and how he paused in amazement, almost in despair; passionately appealed now to this doleful creature, now to that, and to the dead red-tape jungle, and to the living Universe itself, and to the Voices and to the Silences;--and, on the whole, found that it was an adventure, in sorrowful fact, equal to the fabulous ones by old knights-errant against dragons and wizards in enchanted wildernesses and waste howling solitudes; not achievable except by nearly superhuman exercise of all the four cardinal virtues, and unexpected favor of the special blessing of Heaven. His adventure achieved or found unachievable, he has returned with experiences new to him in the affairs of men. What this Colonial Office, inhabiting the head of Downing Street, really was, and had to do, or try doing, in God's practical Earth, he could not by any means precisely get to know; believes that it does not itself in the least precisely know. Believes that nobody knows;--that it is a mystery, a kind of Heathen myth; and stranger than any piece of the old mythological Pantheon; for it practically presides over the destinies of many millions of living men.

Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850

And now we the poor grandchildren find that it will not stick together on these terms any longer; that our sad, dangerous and sore task is to discover some government for this big world which has been conquered to us; that the red-tape Offices in Downing Street are near the end of their rope; that if we can get nothing better, in the way of government, it is all over with our world and us. How the Downing-Street Offices originated, and what the meaning of them was or is, let Dryasdust, when in some lucid moment the whim takes him, instruct us. Enough for us to know and see clearly, with urgent practical inference derived from such insight, That they were not made for us or for our objects at all; that the devouring Irish Giant is here, and that he cannot be fed with red-tape, and will eat us if we cannot feed him.

Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850

Decades before Carlyle used it in a derogatory fashion, it was used descriptively by Sir Walter Scott:

The Bailie, whom this reference regarded, and who had all this while shifted from one foot to another with great impatience, ‘like a hen,’ as he afterwards said, ‘upon a het girdle’; and chuckling, he might have added, like the said hen in all the glory of laying an egg, now pushed forward. ‘That I can, that I can, your honour,’ drawing from his pocket a budget of papers, and untying the red tape with a hand trembling with eagerness. ‘Here is the disposition and assignation by Malcolm Bradwardine of Inch-Grabbit, regularly signed and tested in terms of the statute, whereby, for a certain sum of sterling money presently contented and paid to him, he has disponed, alienated, and conveyed the whole estate and barony of Bradwardine, Tully–Veolan, and others, with the fortalice and manor-place — ’

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, Chapter 17, (1814)
Red tape isn't a uniquely British or American problem, however. Other countries, like Singapore and Canada have undertaken efforts to make government more accessible to citizens:

The Ontario government consulted with hundreds of businesses, institutions and individuals to identify ways to improve the business environment. It found that people wanted government to be more responsive to consumers and businesses and to provide more effective and efficient customer service.

The government created the Red Tape Secretariat to help eliminate existing red tape and prevent unnecessary rules and regulations from being created in the future.

The Secretariat reviews proposed Cabinet policies and regulatory measures that affect business and institutions, and intervenes on behalf of business, institutions and members of the public seeking assistance with provincial red tape problems.

The Whitney Block The Secretariat reviews and reports on ministries’ annual red tape reduction plans. It also coordinates legislation that reduces barriers to business, investment and job creation."

Red Tape Commission, Ontario Government, Canada

While Singapore may not cane bureaucrats who impede the public's access, this would certainly be a good first step.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Red Tape Commission, Ontario Government, Canada
  2. Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, Chapter 17, (1814)
  3. Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850
  4. Thomas Caryle, "The Hero As King", On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Chapter 18, Section III
  5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Chapter 18, 1917
  6. "Safflower: Summary of Basic Information," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  7. The Scarlet Letter, The Custom-House, Introduction, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850.

Drunker than Cooter Brown

Cooter or Turtle

Cooter (Not Drunk)

People who grew up in the south often use a variety of expressions to describe intoxication or drug-induced befuddlement. One of them is "Drunk(High) as Cooter Brown" or "Drunk(High) as Cooty Brown":

Drunk as Cooter Brown; drunker than Cooter Brown -- Very drunk indeed. Who the proverbial Cooter Brown is no one seems to know, but this may have originally been a black expression from the Carolinas. 'In Texas we'd call him drunker than Cooter Brown.'

Whistlin' Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions by Robert Hendrickson

DRUNK AS COOTER BROWN - adj. phrase. Also "drunk as Cooter, ~ Cooty Brown. Chiefly South. Very intoxicated. "This is a Black expression very familiar to the informant, who is from New Jersey. She says it is current and, so far as she knows, it 'came up with the Blacks from the Carolinas.' She thinks it probably derives from some proverbial drunkard."

Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume 1 by Frederic G. Cassidy

A peculiar expression, indeed. Wherever could it have originated? One confabulated explanation has it that during the Civil War, a man named Cooter Brown had family on both sides. Not wanted to fight for either North or South he stayed drunk for the entire war. This is, of course, ludicrous as he would have been drafted by the first side to find him and thrown in the brig for a few days to sober up.

A more likely derivation is from "cooter," the slang term for a turtle. Another spelling is "coota." The derivation seems to be the West African words "kuta," "nkuda," or "kuts," all meaning a turtle. (I wrote up a similar influence of West African language on southern slang in my entry on the origins of the phrase shotgun shack.)

Now, what does it mean to be as drunk as a turtle? Slow, lumbering, unable to perform any complicated task. It may not make a lot of sense, but it's the best explanation I've seen.

The Þ in My Eye

Photograph of a Thorn

Language, sooner or later, proves to be a thorn in the flesh of all who govern, whether at the national or local level.

David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 1987, page 164

Hardly a day goes by without hearing or seeing that bastardized word "ye" used as an olde tyme spelling for "the." So what's ye olde problemo here? Quite simply, there is no such word as "ye" in the English language and never has been. None. Nil. Nada. Zip. It's all the fault of printers. (Every time I get a job printed I say that printers belong in Dante's seventh circle, with liars, thieves, and betrayers. But that's part of my day job and I don't want to talk about it now.)

The word "ye" comes about, in a tangled way, from the Anglo-Saxon runic characters þ (thorn) and ð (eth) characters. Old English is replete with them. (You're not going to make me write this as Olde English, are you? No? Good.) Both of these chararacters represented the "th" sound, as in "the". Thus, writing "þe" meant "the". The "e" was sometimes raised up slightly from the thorn. (Ð had largely faded away by the time of Old English.) Ok, so far so good. Now comes along that evil printing press. (Trivia tidbit: it is believed that the first thing Johannes Gutenberg printed was not the bible, but pornography. But that's another story entirely.)

Of the four Old English letters, only thorn [...] continued to be much used throughout the Middle English period, eventually being replaced by "th". However, scribal practice altered during that time, and the symbol took on a new shape [...], becoming so like a "y" that some writers actually added a dot above the symbol to help distinguish it. [...] The writing of "þe" 'the' as "ye" continued in some manuscript styles until the 19th century, by which time people had long forgotten the original letter shape and the 'th' sound it once represented. They saw the letter as a "y" [...].

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

The problem is that the printing press was invented in Germany, land of schlag and sauerbrauten. Why is this a problem? Because the German character set, filled with peculiar characters — like umlauts, eszets and scharfes (oh my!) — lacks the Anglo-Saxon runic characters in Old English. So this meant that the typesetter had no way to print the þ and ð characters. This wasn't a problem for the Germans, but it was a problem for the English when the printing press was imported from Europe by William Caxton, the first printer in England.

The obvious solution would have been to cut special type. After all, until the advent of computers type designers made a living doing this, and type foundries sold all manner of fonts and special symbols. But this is a long time ago before there were many font options. Well, that idiot Caxton likely decided that the þ looked a lot like a letter "y" and he'd just make a simple substitution until there was a real þ character. Yeah, you see where this is going.

So words like "þe" became "ye". Over time, "ye" became "the". And the rest, as they say, is bad grammar.

One more thing. The letter þ is called "thurs" in Icelandic; the meaning is "ogre", or "monster". That about sums it up, as far as I'm concerned.

Just sign me, Ye Annoyed Blogger. (Or, more properly, Þe Annoyed Blogger.)

Avast Matey, No Vote Today!

Pirate Flag

With all this longwinded talk of busting the filibuster, the question arises: where did this word originate?

But, first, here's the definition:

Filibuster: A time-delaying tactic associated with the Senate and used by a minority in an effort to prevent a vote on a bill or amendment that probably would pass if voted on directly. The most common method is to take advantage of the Senate's rules permitting unlimited debate, but other forms of parliamentary maneuvering may be used. The stricter rules used by the House make filibusters more difficult, but delaying tactics are employed occasionally through various procedural devices allowed by House rules.

Guide to the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989

It turns out that filibuster is derived from the Spanish "flibuster" or "flibustero," which are, in turn, corrupted version of "freebooter," meaning "pirate":

A lawless military adventurer, especially one in quest of plunder; a freebooter; — originally applied to buccaneers infesting the Spanish American coasts, but introduced into common English to designate the followers of Lopez in his expedition to Cuba in 1851, and those of Walker in his expedition to Nicaragua, in 1855.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

But the question still remains, where did the word freebooter come from? Well, we have to Dutch to blame for that. The Dutch word for "pirate" is "vrijbuiter," derived from "vrij" meaning free and "buiter" meaning plunderer. (The word "booty" also comes from buiter, or plunder; think about that in terms of a "booty call" or the slang term for a woman's generous hindquarters.) The French adopted the term as "flibustier" or "fribustier", while the English used "flee-booter" or "freebooter."

The question remains, however, why do we use this word to describe a leglislative delaying tactic? Well, that's because back in the 1800s, John Randolph, a senator from Virginia, prevent votes on items related to reconstruction in the South by making incredibly longwinded, and irrelevant, speeches. Randolph so annoyed his fellow senators that they even came to blows over not being able to vote. So, in 1872, Vice President Schuyler Colfax — you'll recall that the vice president's sole responsibility of any importance is presiding over the senate, since someone has to keep the rabble in line — ruled that a senator could not be restrained in making speeches about an issue being debated. The opponents of this practice decried it as being akin to piracy, or filibustering.

And there you have it.

"The Master is Dead."

Nosferatu Coming up the Stairs

...and it was in 1443 that the first Nosferatu was born. That name rings like the cry of a bird of prey. Never speak it aloud... Men do not always recognize the dangers that beasts can sense at certain times.

Script for Nosferatu

Nosferatu. The name itself is enough to induce an excrement hemorrhage in anyone who watched this movie on PBS during their childhood. (Yeah, it scared me, too.) I mean, those fingernails! (He, clearly, isn't a metrosexual getting regular manicures.) Brrrrr! And Nosferatu did the Kojak look long before it was trendy. Overall, it's one fine piece of cinema. Retrocrush named it the 18th scariest movie of all time.

From the diary of Johann Cavallius, able historican of his native city of Bremen: Nosferatu! That name alone can chill the blood! Nosferatu! Was it he who brought the plaque to Bremen in 1838? I have long sought the causes of that terrible epidemic, and found at its origin and its climax the innocent figures of Jonathon Harker and his young wife Nina.

Script for Nosferatu

The full title is "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens." As you've no doubt surmised, Nosferatu was directed by a German. In this case, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, one of the big three filmakers in the Weimar republic, between the World Wars. Here is some background on the film and its name, director, and story:

Contrary to popular opinion, the word "nosferatu" does not mean "vampire," "undead", or anything else like that. The term originally came from the old Slavonic word "*nosufur-atu", which itself was derived from the Greek "nosophoros". "Nosophoros", in the original Greek, stands for "plague carrier". This derviation makes sense when one considers that amongst western European nations, vampires were regarded as the carriers of many diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases, TB, etc.

Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the most important filmmakers of the cinema's first thirty-five years. He is often grouped with Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst as the "big three" directors of Weimar Germany. He finished his career in Hollywood and died at a young age in an automobile accident. Three of his films routinely appear on "The Greatest Films" lists of critics and film groups. He is one of the few filmmakers to whom the label "poet" can inarguably be applied. And yet there seems to be little written about him, little that gives his work and career the notice it deserves.

Sloppy Films writeup on Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

Nosferatu is the story of Dracula, of a vampire moving from his secluded castle to real estate he has purchased in the city of Bremen, where he will find a constant source of victims. Although the vampire is a creature of the night, Murnau has made his film in daylight. He has left the studio and the set to make his vampire story in mountains and in the sun-drenched streets of a fantasy city. Murnau's vampire stands with curling fingernails under a clear sky on the deck of a boat, whose rigging curls like Orlock's nails.

Sloppy Films writeup on Nosferatu

Nosferatu Onboard Ship

The film stars the aptly named Max Shreck as the vampire. Schreck, in case you weren't aware of it, is the German word meaning "fear". (How cool is that?) Shreck was a Stanislovsky method actor, which meant that he immersed himself fully in the character. (And you thought this was a recent invention by Harvey Keitel?) He was so effective that some on the set of Nosferatue believed that Shreck might actually be a vampire. (This conceit was later used in "Shadow of the Vampire", a 2000 release starring John Malkovich as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Shreck, a vampire pretending to be an actor.)

What's interesting is how the world almost lost the chance to see Nosferatu at all:

Unfortunately for Prana, this film [being an unlicensed version of Dracula] was too thinly veiled, and Florence Stoker, widow of the late Bram Stoker proceeded to join the British Incorporated Society of Authors, whose lawyers then took up the case for her. Stoker was seeking restitution since Prana neither asked permission to adapt Dracula, nor paid her any money for it. However, Stoker and the BISA were not the only people persuing Prana-Films: Prana was a financial sinking ship and was being hunted down by creditors as well. Just as the BISA sued Prana, it went into receivership and all materials and debts were taken over by the Deutsch-Amerikansch Film Union. The BISA then persued the Film Union and demanded that all copies of Nosferatu be handed over to Florence Stoker for destruction. In July 1925, the issue was settled and all known copies of Nosferatu were handed over to Stoker, and destroyed.

Or so Stoker thought. In October of that year, the Film Society in England asked her to endorse a classic film festival, and first on the list was the infamous Nosferatu. Stoker was furious and demanded that the Society give her their copy so that she could destroy it as well. The Film Society refused and the legalities followed. By 1928, Universal Pictures owned the copyright for Dracula, and therefore, all adaptations of it, including Nosferatu. Initially, Universal allowed the Film Society to keep the print, but after pressure from Florence Stoker, they aquired the print and it joined its kin in 1929. Then came a sudden spurt of American copies of the film, under the name Nosferatu the Vampire, but Universal had them all destroyed in 1930. It finally seemed as though this pesky film had met its end.

This was not the case though. Following Florence Stoker's death in 1937, various copies of the film cropped up. Nosferatu truely regained its popularity in 1960 due to the program Silents Please, which showed a condensed version of the film under the title Dracula. This version was re-released on video by Entertainment Films as Terror of Dracula. In 1972, Blackhawk Films released the uncut original to the collector's market as Nosferatu the Vampire, and the condensed version to the general as Dracula.

Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu

You can download it and watch it free at Archive.org. A restored version is commercially available on DVD:

"Nosferatu - Special Edition" from Image Entertainment features a stunning restored picture, a Dolby Digital 5.0 score by Silent Orchestra and a Tim Howard organ score.

Nosferatu — Special Edition

Nosferatu Being Destroyed by Sunlight

Oh, and the title line? It's from the movies's end.

Only a woman can break his frightful spell—a woman pure in heart—who will offer her blood freely to Nosferatu and will keep the vampire by her side until after the cock has crowed.

Script for Nosferatu

Sources and Further Reading

  1. IMDB entry for "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens"
  2. IMDB entry for "Shadow of the Vampire"
  3. Freely Downloadable Copy of Nosferatu at Archive.org
  4. Script for Nosferatu
  5. Nosferatu — Special Edition DVD
  6. Retrocrush writeup as 18th scariest movie of all time
  7. Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu
  8. Sloppy Films writeup on Nosferatu

The Jacket You Wear to the Big Dance

Traditional Navy Blazer

Traditional Navy Blazer

When I opened my mail this morning I found a question from a friend: "do you know what the difference between a blazer and a sportcoat is?" Hardly a surprising question given my renown both as a clotheshorse and as a collector of trivia, fashion and otherwise. I replied, "Yes, I do. The question I think you wanted to ask is, 'what is the difference between a blazer and a sportcoat?'" Here's the difference.

A blazer generally refers to a single-breasted sportcoat (typically) in a solid color, usually bright — blue, red, yellow, green — but not always; there are blazers in blue, black, pastel, wine, etc. These days, a blazer is always solid, but the originals often had stripes. Some blazers have a crest on the pocket for a school logo or, for a while, a trendy fashion designer's logo. Naval officers, current and former, often wear their ship's crest. (Each ship of the line had a different crest.) While the origin is often claimed to be from "blaze" meaning bright, allegedly derived from the Cambridge crew team's bright red jackets, this explanation is quite wrong.

Blue-Striped School Blazer

Blue-Striped School Blazer
(Original In Picture Frame)

The name comes from a visit by Queen Victoria to the shop of the line HMS Blazer in 1837. At the time, sailors were a rather scruffy lot, as there were no uniforms or dress codes, and the Blazer's captain wanted to make a good impression. (It was, after all, the queen.) So he had short jackets made for his crew using a blue serge with brass buttons with the naval insignia.

Crest for HMS Blazer

Crest for HMS Blazer

The queen was so impressed with the sailors sartorial splendor that the jacket spread to other ships and then to the general public. This is why we still talk about "navy blue" blazers, and why for many years the slang term for a sailor was a "blue jacket." (The navy also invented bell-bottom trousers because they could be rolled up for sojourns among the rigging.)

Blue, by the way, comes from indigo dyes, the first natural dye that was reasonably color fast. Indigo was really the only option for stable dyes until Perkin, while searching for a means to synthesize quinine, synthesized mauve from coal tar and ended up a very, very, very wealthy man.

1970's Polyester Blazer

1970's Polyester Blazer

I'll spare you the gory details about pocket styles, lapel widths, fabrics, double versus single breasted, etc.

Red-Striped Blazer

Red-Striped Lounge Blazer

A sportcoat is any jacket that isn't part of a suit or formal wear. A morning coat or frock coat, for example, is not a suit component, but it is most certainly not a sportcoat. I don't know if a Nehru jacket would be called a sportcoat; I would call it a total fashion disaster.

I'm sure this was more than you wanted to know.

So, the short answer to the question is: All blazers are sportcoats, but not all sportcoats are blazers.

You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.

— Al McGuire, coach of Marquette, 1977 NCAA Basketball Champs, in response to reporter's inquiry if he would be wearing his lucky blazer. This is how the NCAA Tournament received the name the "Big Dance."

When Three Isn’t A Crowd

Photograph of Three Sisters Volcanoes

Three Sisters Volcanoes in Oregon, by Lyn Topinka, United States Geological Survey

Bad things, as the saying goes, come in threes. So do the fates.

In Greek mythology, the fates are called "Moerae" or "Moirai." (The word moerae means to apportion or divide.) There were three, described using metaphors drawn from weaving. The poet Hesiod is likely the source of their names:

These are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and they give mortals their share of good and evil.

— Hesiod, Theogony, 905-6

Each of the three has a separate role. Clotho, who spins the threads of human life, Lachesis, who measured its span, and Atropos, who cut it with a shears. (Atropos is the eldest, a wizened creature who, of all the fates, is most feared. Her name, meaning inexorable or inevitable, is the source of the name for the drug "atropine," a belladonna derivative that relaxes, or paralyzes, muscles by interfering with nerve conduction.)

Meanwhile he'll not suffer harm or trouble, not before he sets foot on his own land. After that he'll undergo all those things Destiny and the dreaded spinning Fates spun in the thread for him when he was born, when his mother gave him birth.

— Alcinous, The Odyssey, Homer, Book 7, line 240

The fates predate the gods of Olympus, and their relationship is much like the United States Constitution's balance (separation) of powers. She who cuts cannot measure. She who measures cannot alter the thread (events) of life. She who creates the life cannot determine its length. And so it goes.

Behind the power of the gods and beyond all the efforts of men, the three Fates sat at their spinning. No one could tell whence these sisters were, but by some strange necessity they spun the web of human life and made destinies without knowing why. It was not for Clotho to decree whether the thread of a life should be stout or fragile, nor for Lachesis to choose the fashion of the web; and Atropos herself must sometimes have wept to cut a life short with her shears, and let it fall unfinished. But they were like spinners for some Power that said of life, as of a garment, Thus it must be. That Power neither gods nor men could withstand.

Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew by Josephine Preston Peabody, 1897

The Romans called the fates Parcae or Fatae; there were Nona, Decuma, and Morta: Nona, like Clotho, spins; Decuma, like Lachesis, measures; and Morta, like Atropos, cuts.

The Norse had the three Norns who wove human life: Urth or Wyrd, for the past or fate; Verthandi, for the present or necessity (of dying); and Skuld, for the future or being. When the end of the world arrives, Skuld will lay death upon the universe itself; in the meantime, they weave a tapestry of such unimaginable complexity that it will never be finished. The Norns live in a cave at the base of Yggdrasil, the world tree — situated in the Nornenberg (Nuremberg) mountains — where they try to stop its decay by pouring mud and water from the Well of Fate over its branches. (It is interesting, if not ironic, that the trials of Nazi war criminals were held at Nuremberg.)

The three weird sisters of destiny in Shakespeare’s Macbeth has the three weird sisters of destiny; these are the Scottish equivalents of the Moerae, the Parcae, and the Norns. (Weird is derived from "wryd," the Anglo-Saxon word for fate.)

First Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Second Witch: Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd.
Third Witch: Harpier cries:—tis time! 'tis time!
First Witch: Round about the caldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
All: Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

MacBeth, by William Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 1

David Brin wrote a science-fiction novella, "The Loom of Thessaly" (published in The River of Time, 1981, but available online), about the fates. I quite liked it, but YMMV.

"A gang of villains profoundly skilled
in Pneumatic Chemistry."

Sign for "Air Loom Tomato"

I shot this last summer at the Union Square Greenmarket. (You Say Tomato, I say Tomahto... but Dan Quayle Says "Air Loom Tomato." Or, more accurately, "Air Loom Tomatoe.")

Bedlam means "mad confusion." Dating to 1667, the word is eponymous, being the vernacular's corruption of "Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem", a lunatic asylum in London. (St. Mary's is one of the oldest, having been founded in 1247 as a priory, used to a hospital circa 1330, and then converted into a lunatic asylum — the original British term — in 1402. The state assumed control over it in 1547. The original, and archaic, bastardization was "Bedlem", which later morphed into "Bedlam".) This wasn't a nice place to be sent to, especially if you were being victimized by the Air Loom Gang:

His patient's name was James Tilly Matthews, and his view of the world had by this point become one of the strangest ever recorded in the annals of psychiatry. Haslam's account is still acknowledged as the first example in history of the now-familiar notion of mind control by an 'influencing machine'. For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through fillings, mysterious implants or TV sets, or via hi-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero.

Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with diabolical rays. They were using a machine called an 'Air Loom', of which Matthews was able to draw immaculate technical diagrams, and which combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged air currents, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances, including 'spermatic-animal-seminal rays', 'effluvia of dogs' and 'putrid human breath', and its discharges of magnetic fluid were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews' brain. There were many of these mind-control settings, all classified by vivid names: 'fluid locking', 'stone making', 'thigh talking', 'lobster-cracking', 'bomb-bursting', and the dreaded 'brain-saying', whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet into his head. As a result of the Air Loom, Matthews was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003

And in the plus ca change category:

On the basis of this testimony [that he was not mad, that his symptoms were those of a man wrongfully confined, and that he posed no threat to others], Matthews' family brought a writ of Habeas Corpus against Bedlam, forcing the governors to state their precise legal reasons for holding him. They produced a stack of affidavits from other doctors contradicting Clutterbuck and Birkbeck's testimony, but the case eventually turned on a letter from Lord Liverpool, who insisted that Matthews was a dangerous lunatic who should be confined in perpetuity. So the writ failed, but on grounds which suggested that Matthews' alleged lunacy was irrelevant: he was effectively, though apparently unconstitutionally, being confined as a state prisoner.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003
TitleThe Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness
AuthorMike Jay
ISBN1568582978
PublisherFour Walls Eight Windows

Cover for "Air Loom Gang"

In some apartment near London Wall, there is a gang of villains profoundly skilled in Pneumatic Chemistry.

— John Haslam, Illustrations of Madness, 1810, Page 1

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "The Air Loom Gang" talk by Mike Jay, Isle of Wight Fortean Society, 29 July 2004
  2. "The Air Loom Gang" Mike Jay, Four Walls Eight Windows (publisher)
  3. "Genius Of Bedlam" by Paul Collins, review in Village Voice, 5 April 2004

Yo Momma Cooks Like a Whore

"Puttanesca" by Jared Gutekunst

"Puttanesca" by Jared Gutekunst, 2003, Oil on Canvas, 24"x36"

Cookery simulates the disguise of medicine, and pretends to know what food is the best for the body; and if the physician and the cook had to enter into a competition in which children were the judges, or men who had no more sense than children, as to which of them best understands the goodness or badness of food, the physician would be starved to death. A flattery I deem this to be and of an ignoble sort...

— Socrates, "Gorgias" by Plato

Pasta puttananesca is a staple of Italian cooking. It is one of those dishes that is so hard to screw up that even a mediocre restaurant can do a passable job. The name "puttananesca" is is derived from the Italian "puttana", literally "whore". (I suspect it is a dish the more prudish eschew entirely or order only by pointing, lest their lips be sullied with the word.) The dish is simple: tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, capers, basil, oregano, and a little olive oil. Some like black olives, cut in half, but I'm not normally a fan of vegetables so indebile they must be first soaked in lye. Others add pignolis — pine nuts — which I find to be a distraction, although I do adore them in spicy Chinese cuisine. But this has nothing to do with the name.

Various stories purport to relate how the dish was named, and each has varying degrees of credibility. One has it that the dish could be quickly prepared by sex workers in between clients. Another is that it's spicy nature inflamed the passions like a lady of sin. Yet another is that the wafting ordor was used to lure in clients, as an appetizer to what was to come. The last one, of a more practical nature, is that the working girls in the state-owned brothels could only do their shopping once a week — to avoid offending the "respectable" women in the marketplace — and needed ingredients that would keep. So which should we believe? Maybe none of them.

Personally, I don't hold with the feeding clients beforehand. As every woman knows, after eating a huge plate of carbs, men fall asleep. Some even snore. But even without the nap and the snoring, there certainly ain't gonna be no carnal activities until that blood sugar spike wears off. (The argument that nobody wants a lover with garlic breath doesn't hold water, because if both parties eat it nobody can smell the wonderous perfume of the allium.) As far as shopping once a week, it makes no sense as one cannot live on sauce and carbs, and Italians always eat a great deal of fresh vegetables. But why ruin a good explanation, especially when it can be delivered with so much poetry:

Legend has it Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, or whore-ish pasta originated from the state run brothels in 1950’s Italy. Unlike most respectable Italian ladies who went out everyday for fresh groceries, these women went out once a week to do their errands. Consequently their larders were stocked with basic ingredients that kept well. Like braids of garlic, cans of salty anchovies olives, boxes of pasta and long-lasting parsley.

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a full-on encounter with some willful ingredients. Garlic, capers, black olives, anchovies and parsley make a brash sauce that works by intensity but doesn’t know when to quit. Its scent sashays around well after the meal is over and the dishes are put away. It doesn’t catch on to the polite clues that dinner is over and the day is done. Turn off the kitchen lights and you’ll smell capers, close the curtains - there’s parsley in the folds. Open the closet door and anchovies in olive oil spill out.

Puttanesca loiters. It’s the morning breath of stale garlic and oily olives. It’s last night’s mini dress in high heels greeting you while you’re still in your pajamas having a cuppa-joe. Fresh newsprint, toast and eggs don’t stand a chance. It needs a swift kick in the ass but the only thing you can do to escape and clear out is open the windows and rinse with Listerine. It’ll eventually go. And when it’s gone - you’ll want it back. It’s that good. Regardless of its virtue or vice - Puttanesca is quick and dirty, unforgettable and persistent.

"Spaghetti alla Puttanesca", by Ali Berlow, A Cook's Notebook, WCAI broadcast, 5 March 5 2003

It's an easy dish to make. (Yes, you could just buy pre-made puttanesca in a jar, but it is so easy to make, and so much tastier when made so that the capers and basil haven't been cooked into oblivion, that there's no reason not to make it yourself.) Now I suppose should regale you with tales of cooking down whole tomatoes from those huge tins of the imported Italian whole variety, slaving over a hot stove like some widowed Italian grandmother in black, but I won't. I'm a busy lad so I don't cook my sauce from scratch. Shocking, yes, but true. Instead, I start with a good marinara base — usually either Rao's or Patsy's — and add anchovies, capers, fresh basil and fresh oregano. (What, you don't have basil and oregano plants on your windowsill? And you didn't have the forsight during the summer to wash, dry, and wrap individual portions of basil and oregano in plastic wrap so you could pop them into your freezer until needed? That's sooooo sad! What kind of chef are you?) Some add sun-dried tomatoes — chopped fine so they disperse evenly, giving an extra tomatoey burst of flavor — or fire-roasted pappers.

Cook the anchovies in, so that they disintegrate completely, then, when you're close to being done, add the basil and oregano, and add the capers a few minutes before you serve the dish, so that they get cooked but don't get mushy or lose their flavor. Smaller capers are tastier, but cost a little more. (Takes more of them to make a pound. Don't save your pennies here, though. The cost differential is a dollar or so per bottle, and you'll get a few meals from each jar.) If you have fresh basil leaves, garnish each plate with a few of those. Put it over a pasta with lots of nooks and crannies to hold the sauce, like rotelli or fusilli. But you can also use tortellini, ravioli, or just about any other pasta. (Even the lowly linguini.)

Mmmmm. Now I've gone and made myself hungry. Except I don't eat pasta much anymore. (Pastry, pie, and muffins are a much tastier way to get one's carbs.) But the sauce is also excellent over fish.

Pasta Puttanesca

Regardless of its virtue or vice - Puttanesca is quick and dirty, unforgettable and persistent.

"Spaghetti alla Puttanesca", by Ali Berlow, A Cook's Notebook, WCAI broadcast, 5 March 2003

"Why a Duck?"

Rubber Canard

I was talking with someone and when I described something as being a "canard" I received a puzzled look. The word, as those of us subjected to years of French lessons know, is French for "duck". (The edible, quacking variety not the imperative.) Canard has two common meanings. The first is a knowingly misleading fabrication or confabulation. The second is from aeronautics, where it refers to placing a horizontal control or trim surfaces in front of the main lifting surface, like a wing. In airplanes, a canard is commonly used to stabilize a small craft because it prevents stalls -- disrupted airflow over the wings -- by providing lift. So we're all clear on why it means a deliberate fabrication? No? I didn't think it would be.

Aircraft Canard

The origins of the polite alternative to the vernacular "lie" are interesting. (At least they are to an etymological freak like me.)

Canard.

A hoax. Cornelissen, to try the gullibility of the public, reported in the papers that he had twenty ducks, one of which he cut up and threw to the nineteen, who devoured it greedily. He then cut up another, then a third, and so on till nineteen were cut up; and as the nineteenth was gobbled up by the surviving duck, it followed that this one duck actually ate nineteen ducks — a wonderful proof of duck voracity. This tale had the run of all the papers, and gave a new word to the language. (French, cane, a duck.) (Quetelet.)

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1898.

While this sounds like a good way to spread prions, it isn't telling the whole story. Cornelissen supposedly raised ducks in Provence, France around 1850. (Although he had a name that could pass for French, he was actually a Swede. This doesn't figure in the story, though.) He sold his ducks as the most delicious and tender to be found in all of Europe. (And you thought advertising puffery was a recent problem?) Cornelissen priced his ducks accordingly, at about five times that for the "ordinary" variety. In order to justify his huge premium, he was claiming that because each duck had eaten twenty other ducks his price was a bargain.

But, again, this may not be the whole story, since there is, to borrow a phrase from patents, prior art. There is an old Middle French phrase dating to 1584, "bailler un canard à moitié" (also as "vendre des canards a moitie") which means to half-sell a duck. It is also seen as "bailler le lièvre à l'oreille", or to give a hare (wild rabbit) by the ear. These expressions, in the vernacular of the time, meant to deceive someone since half-selling something is to not sell it at all. (Don't blame me if it sounds stupid; I don't make up these phrases.) But, this is still a peculiar expression. So where did it come from?

Cover of "Make Way For Ducklings" by Robert McCloskey

There is an old German word "ente", or "duck", which was used to mean "lie". It dates back to the time of Luther, far older than Cornelissen. The speculation among etymologists about the linkage between ducks and falsehoods is that ducks have erratic and unreliable reproduction, and thus "lie" about whether or not there will be ducklings.

I think that's the most sensible explanation I've heard. And that's no canard, either.

(Oh, and the title line? It's from a very unfunny sketch by the Marx Brothers — I never found them at all amusing — in "A Night At The Opera". But I thought it fit the subject rather well.)

Malt Does More Than Milton Can…

Zymurgy Magazine

Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

— A.E. Houseman, "A Shropshire Lad"

My comment on Marmite being the first legitimate zymurgy posting resulted in a few queries about the zymurgy category and why I have one. (But none about why I have an "aardvark" category. Go figure.) Anyway, here's what the OED has to say:

zymurgy (noun) Chem Biochem the branch of applied chemistry dealing with the use of fermentation in brewing etc. Etymology: Greek zume leaven, on the pattern of metallurgy.

Oxford English Dictionary

And, no, in case you were wondering, I don't do homebrewing and never liked beer. (I just like showing off.) I've seen the Houseman quote butchered on t-shirts on St. Marks that say, "Beer does more than Milton can, To justify God's ways to man." You'll find them between the "Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck" and "Do I Look Like A Fucking People Person?" shirts.

Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet…

While I used to see it a lot more, many Websites are still riddled with "Lorem Ipsum" placeholder text. (Just do a search on Google.) Some use it until the real content can be added, while others use it as a bit of copyright-free text to demonstrate differences between fonts, point sizes, justification rules, etc. So where did this bit of fake Latin come from?

Years ago I came across the origin and largely forgot about it except to the extent it crops up in conversation. (I clearly hang out with too many writers and artists.) Anyway, it came up in conversation and so I decided to write it up.

Lorem Ipsum, in brief, is derived from "Finibus Bonorum et Malorum" (The Extremes of Good and Evil) by Cicero, an ethics book written in 45 BC. The literal translation is, "There is no one who loves pain itself, searches for it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain." Typesetters have been using this as dummy text since the 1500s. Much of the modern popularity seems to stem from Aldus which included a Lorem Ipsum generator in PageMaker. The best source is Lipsum.com which has an excellent explanation and even includes a generator to spew out placeholder text so you too can have a Website that is clearly still in the throes of design.

What is Lorem Ipsum?

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

Why do we use it

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout. The point of using Lorem Ipsum is that it has a more-or-less normal distribution of letters, as opposed to using 'Content here, content here', making it look like readable English. Many desktop publishing packages and web page editors now use Lorem Ipsum as their default model text, and a search for 'lorem ipsum' will uncover many web sites still in their infancy. Various versions have evolved over the years, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose (injected humour and the like).

Lipsum.com

So there you have it.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Straight Dope Column (less informative)
  2. Google Search for "Lorem Ipsum"
  3. Lipsum.com, includes generator
  4. Lorem-ipsum.info
  5. Text Generator

Druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy…

Seal of the President of the United States of America

I'm not endorsing drug use, especially since I don't partake myself, but I truly don't care what people do in private as long as I don't have to watch it, pay for it, listen to it, or deal with the consequences of it. As far as I'm concerned, as long as the item sold was exactly as advertised and the purchaser was over the age of consent, drug use, illegal or otherwise, is purely a medical problem and never a legal one. Legalize it and tax the crap out of it to fund rehab, and stop burning taxpayer dollars on locking up people for longer sentences than rape and murder.

Having been a stodgy, grumpy old man and said that, I found the Drug Enforcement Agency's drug tips to be remarkably educational and deeply amusing. All their materials are, like the parts allegedly purchased by Iraq, "dual use".

When I were a lad, and dinosaurs roamed the earth, we were subjected to drug education. Over and over. It started in sixth grade when we were yelled at — by a rather large, angry man who coached sports — that if anyone offered us some "schoolboy" that we had to tell him immediately. And when Mr. Arnold said immediately, well, it was immediately.

The only problem with his admonition was that heroin probably hadn't been called "schoolboy" since he was in high school. And maybe not even then. I did remember the story, however, because having an authority figure, not matter how pathetic it seems now, screaming about it for an hour does tend to make an impression.

Now if you don't want to be some hipster doofus and get your terminology wrong — for example, it's not "doobers" anymore, it's now "trees" — you need to get your vernacular down and get with the program, dude. Or just step off. So check out the handy guide the Whitehouse has prepared so you can order what you want without sounding like the five-oh.

The Street Terms database contains over 2,300 street terms that refer to specific drug types or drug activity. The database is used by police officers, parents, treatment providers and others who require a better understanding of drug culture.

White House Drug Policy Guide to Street Drugs

You can also download a printable version (PDF) of "Street Terms". The printable version isn't pocketsized, though, so those who need information while mobile will have to find another option.

Yeah, I know. Our tax dollars at work. (Why can't my tax dollars fix mass transit?)

California is druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy
Druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy
Druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy

Down by law, right from the core
Down by law, right from the core
Down-down by-by law-law, right-right from-from the-the core-core

California is druggy, druggy, druggy, druggy...

"Kalifornia", You've Come A Long Way, Baby, Fatboy Slim

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

Shotgun Shack of blues musician John Adam "Sleepy John" Estes

Shotgun shack owned by blues musician John Adam "Sleepy John" Estes

I was listening to "Once In A Lifetime" by the Talking Heads and was again struck by the line, "And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack." Now, I knew what a "shotgun shack" was, but the origins of the phrase intrigued me. And after yesterday's entry on William S. Burroughs creating art with a shotgun, well, it seemed somehow appropriate. First, an explanation of the shack itself:

The shotgun house, a folk architectural form is, prototypically, long and narrow with a gable-ended entrance, one-room wide, and two or three rooms deep. Some say the shotgun house is so named because one can fire a shotgun through the front door with all the shot exiting through the back door without ever having touched a wall.

From Mobile to Huntsville, there are literally thousands of shotgun houses scattered throughout Alabama. It is found in both rural and urban areas of Alabama, often in African-American communities and neighborhoods.

"Folk House Has African Roots" by Henry Willett, Alabama Arts, December 1994

Now, this is about the cheapest housing one could build which is why the Heads used it as the metaphor for poverty. (In New York this design is called railroad apartments.) The rural south is riddled with such homes; Elvis Presley was born in one. (The picture below is of the Presley ancestral home refurbished and transported to nicer location.)

Shotgun shack that musician Elvis Presley was born in

Shotgun shack that musician Elvis Presley was born in

Not all shotgun shacks were made from wood. Some were made from brick or scavenged materials; whatevever the poor owner could beg, borrow, buy, or steal.

Southeast shotgun house made from brick

Southeast shotgun house made from brick

The name makes no sense from a ballistics standpoint: shotgun blasts spread during travel unlike rifle rounds. (Excepting the sabot round, of course. The name of this shell derives from the French "sabot" meaning shoe. A solid shell instead of shot, it packs a serious whallop; this explains why it is commonly used by SWAT teams to blow the hinges off doors.) Now, one could put a choke on the shotgun to keep the spread tight — as one would do when hunting birds — but it still doesn't make any sense. Aside from the Menendez brothers and Steven Segal, who fires shotguns in homes? A rifle would be the more logical firearm to reference if one wanted to talk about straight lines. So why a shotgun?

As with a fair bit of etymology, the origin of "shotgun shack" is likely the corruption of a foreign word:

Most fascinating of all, the name of the house type, "shotgun," may be a corruption of "togun," the African Yoruba word for "house."

"Folk House Has African Roots" by Henry Willett, Alabama Arts, December 1994

So there you have it.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, 'Well... How did I get here?'

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime", Remain in Light, 1980

Idiots, Imbeciles, and Morons (Oh my!)

We live in a world populated by idiots, morons, and imbeciles. So much so that it seems a wonder the world doesn't grind to a halt. From time to time the question comes up about which is worse; an idiot, a moron, or an imbecile. We certainly use them often enough that correct usage matters. Very little remains of my years of study of French — beyond a deep appreciation for the art of kissing and the role of butter in brown sauces — but I do remember the insults "Espece d'idiot!" and "Imbecile!". Since proper usage matters, here's the inside scoop.

Photograph of George W. Bush

Idiot

idiot — A person of profound mental retardation having a mental age below three years and generally being unable to learn connected speech or guard against common dangers.

American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Photograph of Howard "I Have a Scream" Dean

Imbecile

imbecile — A person of moderate to severe mental retardation having a mental age of from three to seven years and generally being capable of some degree of communication and performance of simple tasks under supervision.

American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Photograph of John Kerry

Moron

moron — A person of mild mental retardation having a mental age of from 7 to 12 years and generally having communication and social skills enabling some degree of academic or vocational education.

American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Imbecile comes from Old French meaning weak or feeble, which is derived from the Latin "imbcillus" meaning staff or rod. (Perhaps because of using a cane or staff due to physical weakness.) Moron is dervied from Greek "mron" meaning stupid or foolish. Idiot is derived from the Old French "idiote" which comes from the Latin "idita", which, in turn, comes from the Greek "idits" meaning private person. (Idios versus koinos for those of you who remember your Greek.)

So there you have it: idiot (mental age < 3 years), imbecile (3 years < mental age < 7 years), and moron (7 years < mental age < 12 years). The relative positions can be remembered using alphabetical order. These terms must never, of course, be applied to developmentally disabled people, with one exception: the current President of the United States of America. Oh yeah, and that moron who picked the wrong running mate and lost the election.

Anomie and Anarchy
Living Together in Dysfunctionality

The word anomie comes from the Greek anamos, meaning "without law". It means a lack of social or ethical standards in an individual or group. This is what people mean when they talk about "anarchy". Think downtown Iraq or anything inside the Washington Beltway and you'll get the general idea. The key element of anomie is that it is an unraveling of the social contract and the rules of society, and not in a way that promotes freedom or individuality. Rather, it is the endless rise of entropy, the enemy of civilization.

Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, introduced the concept of anomie in his book The Division of Labour in Society, published in 1893. He used anomie to describe a condition of deregulation that was occurring in society. This meant that rules on how people ought to behave with each other were breaking down and thus people did not know what to expect from one another. Anomie, simply defined, is a state where norms (expectations on behaviours) are confused, unclear or not present. It is normlessness, Durkheim felt, that led to deviant behaviour. In 1897, Durkheim used the term again in his study on Suicide, referring to a morally deregulated condition. Durkheim was preoccupied with the effects of social change. He best illustrated his concept of anomie not in a discussion of crime but of suicide.

Durkheim's Anomie

The word anarchy comes from the Greek anarkhia, meaning "without rulers". The vernacular uses it to mean lawlessness or a state of chaos, such as accompanies rioting or looting; the true meaning, however is quite different: a lack of rulers, not a lack of rules. (Measuring devices still exist under anarchy, so do not despair.) So comments like, "Anarchy - it's not the law, it's just a good idea." are structurally incorrect, no matter how clever they may be. The famous case of Sacco and Vanzetti springs to mind whenever anyone mentions anarchists. (Well, that and the WTO meeting in Seattle.) The specifics of the case aren't particularly relevant for the definition here, but some of the words of Sacco and Vanzetti serve to illustrate the distinction between anarchy and anomie:

Oh friend, the anarchism is as beauty as a woman for me, perhaps even more, since it include all the rest and me and her. Calm, serene, honest, natural, vivid, muddy and celestial at once, austere, heroic, fearless, fatal, generous and implacable-all these and more it is.

Nicola Sacco, Italian Anarchism in America: An Historical Background to the Sacco-Vanzetti Case by Paul Avrich

I am and will be until the last instant (unless I should discover that I am in error) an anarchist communist, because I believe that communism is the most humane form of social contract, because I know that only with liberty can man rise, become noble, and complete.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian Anarchism in America: An Historical Background to the Sacco-Vanzetti Case by Paul Avrich

Oh, and as long as we're on words that start with "a" and concern lawlessness, here's another good one: amok. This one comes to us from the Malysian, where it means a brooding despair punctuated by frenzied, uncontrolled violence. Sort of like what happens when England loses a soccer match to, oh, say, Pakistan.

The cbs [culture-bound syndrome] of "amok" has been known for many centuries in the Malaysian culture (Knecht, 1999). The syndrome has been defined as an episode of dissociation (Suryani & Jensen, 1993) and is often characterized by "a sudden rampage, usually including homicide, ending in exhaustion and amnesia" (Hatta, 1996). Typically seen as a Malaysian cbs, "amok" has been further documented in India, New Guinea, North America and Britain (Kon, 1994). Hawaii has been seen as the melting pot of the pacific with many cultures merging and yet remaining distinct. The legal defense of "amok" was utilized for a Filipino-American that had killed five people and injured three others. Orlando Ganal Sr. (Honolulu Advertiser, 1991) was enraged by his wife’s reported relationship with another man, shot and killed his wife’s parents and wounded his own wife and son. Ganal continued to firebomb the home of the other man’s brother, Michael Touchette, killing Michael, Michael’s two children and badly burning his wife, Wendy Touchette. Ganal was seen as a mild mannered man, until the stress grew and he finally "ran amok."

International Society for the Study of Dissociation

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