Friday, May 15, 2015

I've been gone

Not that anyone can really be away in the internet age, but I have been traveling, mostly eastward as I went to Washington DC for my nephew's graduation, and quite a good time we had there too. I had never been to the city, though I've had ample opportunity over the last four years. It is strange to see buildings you've heard about forever--there's really not a lot you can do with your impressions that hasn't been done before. You feel in a way that you've seen it all already, although, of course, you haven't.

But everything is always new, even when it's old, so although I went to the Lincoln Memorial and saw that old familiar face, and read the Gettysburg Address etched into one wall, and wondered really what to think or feel that hadn't been felt a million times before, I also eavesdropped on two young student types, who I think were probably of Indian heritage-- from India, I mean, or maybe Pakistan--and one asked the other, do you think there will ever be a president again who people will build such a monument to? His friend thought it was possible, but he thought not. He said that people don't idolize presidents in the same way anymore. His friend thought that some situation might be possible, that a lot depended on context. I don't know if Lincoln was so popular while he was still hale and hearty, and I wonder a bit why Kennedy has no monument, if assassination is a key to people remembering you in a favorable light. It was Kennedy, not Lincoln, who seemed to be hovering as a ghostly presence over my journey. Still, it is a marvelous thing to stand at the Lincoln memorial at night and hear the gentle debate of immigrants' children, if not immigrants themselves, wondering aloud about the status of presidents past and present.

That night too, and it was a nighttime trip we made between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, we visited the Vietnam War Memorial. I had declined on the Korean War Memorial as my foot was bothering me, but I thought I'd tick this one off, when I suddenly remembered that I knew someone who would be memorialized here. There are little directory style books that help you figure out where a name might be located, and it actually wasn't much trouble at all to find this one. I had never met this person--he died before I met his sister, but I felt that I did know him a little, because once, a long time ago, she had given me some of his letters to read. I am of the age just a little beyond many of the vets of that war, but in another version of life I  might have known him. His decision to join the army rather than resist was a decision born of conscience, not a desire to go to war. He was one of the few UCSC students to go and die there. I have just learned that while in Vietnam, he wrote frequent letters to the UCSC student paper, City On a Hill. It would be interesting to read these if they are archived somewhere.

We found his name in the wall by flashlight. My sister very helpfully took a picture. George Walter Skakel, I am sorry I never had the chance to meet you.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Maybe it's just because I'm making my way through a book of critical essays on Tristram Shandy, but I've come across this word which I'm not familiar with. Marplot. Still, it doesn't seem a rarefied academic sort of word, and maybe everyone would have known and understood it in an earlier era.

...Well, yes, I have read it before, and in all likelihood, you have too. I say this with some confidence, because you won't just find it in literary critiques, but in Little Women, David Copperfield, and Our Mutual Friend. Here's the Little Women quote:

A restless movement from Laurie suggested that his chair was not easy, or that he did not like the plan, and made the old man add hastily, "I don't mean to be a marplot or a burden."

And here's the one from David Copperfield:

Which you haven't, you Marplot,' observed my aunt, in an indignant whisper.

So what is a marplot? According to the Free Dictionary, it is

A person who spoils a plot or who ruins the success of an undertaking or process.

But where does it come from?. Well, actually, this is quite interesting. It comes from a play called The Busy Bodie, written my one Susannah Centlivre, a woman playwright born sometime around 1669 and dying in December of 1723. She is noted as the most successful woman playwright of the 18th century, and the woman second only to Aphra Behn as a woman playwright of the English stage. If it got to Louisa May Alcott, you know The Busy Bodie must have traveled. And in fact it has traveled all the way to the 21st century, as this blogpost gives witness to. 

You don't have to rely on The Bent Quill Players or for that matter me to give the thing life. You can just head on over to Project Gutenberg and read the text of The Busy Bodie your own self. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


It's so much with us that we don't really notice what a crazy sounding word it is most of the time. For some reason, though, the other night I did. I was watching some television show where they used the word a few times and it began to strike me funny. It's so ubiquitously American that you feel like we have to have made it up, but at the same time, it can't have come down the usual old Anglo-Norman channels. I suspected an Eastern or Mideastern influence, but beyond that, I couldn't be bothered to guess.

However vaguely, this guess proved correct. Shampoo is one of those quintessential American words like dungarees and seersucker that actually come from India. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that it's first print appearance in English was in 1732. It came via Anglo-Indian from the Sanskrit word champu, the imperative of champna, which means to press or knead the muscles. It wasn't until 1860 that it was recorded as meaning "to wash the hair", and the idea of calling the actual product shampoo comes around a little later in 1866.

"Champie" by Vivek Patankar

I was interested to learn in my recent dabbling in French that their term for the product appears to be shampooing, which sounds odd to my ear, as I don't think of French having a lot of words ending in -ing. But the etymology of modern French is definitely a bridge too far for me.

It wasn't until around 1954 that the word took a further step and began to be applied to shampooing carpets and so forth. Where or when the branding idea of Shampooches or variants thereof  for dog washing businesses began, I don't know. Possibly to avoid copyright infringement, Santa Cruz, where I happen to live has its own further variant: Shampoo-chez. According to their ad, this is not pronounced as the French would.

I found an interesting article on the history of shampoo at a website called What's quite surprising to me is that, as pervasive as shampoo has become to American culture, it really has only existed in its current sense for about a century. Hair, its cleanliness and condition, was a big problem for people before that. Shampoo as we know it was a result of scientific experimentation. Breck was one of the biggest brand names when I was a kid, but there was a real John Breck, who according to this article, brought out one of the first ph-balanced shampoos in 1930. The marketing of the brand fell to the next generation.

This article also gives insight into a further link in how a word for a hair product came originally from a word for massage. Apparently, the idea of shampooing for health became something of a fad, but this meant the whole body process in London bathhouses, but eventually came to be narrowed down to just the hair.

Every fad has its counter-fad, though, and currently we are witnesses to something of a backlash--the No Shampoo Movement, or, as seems in some ways inevitable, the "No 'poo movement". I learned about this from a timeline of the history of shampoo, which I was going  to embed here but instead will just give you the link to as I can't make it fit. Basically, people are resisting the synthetic products that Breck and others so painstakingly came up with. But most people don't stop cleaning their hair altogether. They just wash it less frequently or use dry shampoo or rinses like apple cider vinegar instead.

This page from, though in that annoying click through format that is so familiar to us now, does actually have some good points to be aware of before you jump on that particular bandwagon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

tweet tweet

Although I really have nothing against Twitter as an idea or an entity, I can't help but feel it a bit unfortunate that when news sources are conveying information from the the authorities they are reduced to saying "The Baltimore Police tweet..." Call me old school, or just old, but it does seem to lack a certain gravitas.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Bart Everson- From the Coca Cola filmstrip, "Black Treasures." (1969)

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear the word "transparency" used in a business setting, I think that someone's trying to hide something. Maybe not consciously and maybe not even in the present moment, but sooner or later, there is going to be some backsliding going on. Transparency comes from the Medieval Latin transparere, meaning "to show light through". I have a feeling that when companies start using this word, it's when the windows haven't been cleaned for some time and they are trying to restore some sense of credibility.

As I did a little research trying to find out when this word came into vogue, I found a couple of nice links. One is from and is a piece about "The 7 Iconic, Transparent, Empowering Business Buzzwords That Need to Die". It was written by Tim Phillips, who has a book out called Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, which I'd be quite interested to read.

Here's what Phillips has to say about the word.

Six times as popular in the business press as it was in 2002; about one in 40 press releases claim it. It’s taking over "honesty" and "integrity," maybe because you can claim transparency without any suggestion you’re doing something that improves anyone’s life. Note: The glass industry uses "transparency" in marketing less than the average, but the audit industry uses it ten times as often. Draw your own conclusions.

That was written in 2011. Perhaps you think it's gone into decline since then, but in an  amusing list from on the top fifty business buzz words, it was hanging in there at number 4 as recently as 2013.

I also came across a section of a book of writings by Kate Jennings called Trouble: Evolution of a Radical/ Selected Writings 1970-2010:

  Business jargon is an easy target for language scolds and the usage police, but if corporations are serious about letting in the sunlight as a result of Enron and other business scandals they would do well to consider overhauling the official language of the executive suite and the conference room. 

Note I said "letting in the sunlight" not "creating transparency". Actually, I like the word "transparency". It describes a worthwhile, achievable state. Corporations everywhere have adopted it as their watchword du jour, even while they resist regulation that would actually bring about transparency. It's meaning has been debased, co-opted. It has become part of the smoke that businesses blow up our collective arses.

George Orwell described this process in his perennially pertinent essay "Politics and the English language". "When there is a gap between one's real and declared aims," he wrote, "one turns instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A light, quick detour

I couldn't resist pointing out CollageMama's Hearty Breakfast Blog post of yesterday, where the similar yet oh so different words "lightning" and "lightening" are discussed and distinguished. Check it all out HERE.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Death and Taxes

Confessions of Ignorance has hit a bit of a doldrums this month and the responsibility lies quite literally with death and taxes. My aunt's death, and my taxes. I'll get back into stride soon, but I thought I could at least explore this famous phrase. Many if not most people know the quote:

"in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes".

Fewer probably know that it was written by Benjamin Franklin in a letter to one Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. Here is the whole sentence, which I believe is slightly less well known:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

And I bet fewer people still know that Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame actually beat him to the punch. In 1726, he wrote:

Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.

This was from The Political History of the Devil. I think it lacks the punch of Franklin's aphorism but Franklin had some extra time to think about it.

All of this can easily be found in Wikipedia, but you hadn't thought to look there, had you?

Here's another little thing about taxes that I found at Wonkblog about the skyrocketing complexity of the federal tax code. Read it and weep.