Thursday, May 16, 2019


Sometimes you've heard a word in various contexts for a long time and, in the moment, you think you essentially understand it. It comes up  in another context, and once again, you think you've got it. The only problem is that the word seems to have very different, even opposite kinds of meanings in the two examples. If you're like me, you tend to just sort of scratch your head and then forget about it until it comes up somewhere else. But just this once, let's not forget about it and see what happens.

When Roger Stone was recently at the top of the news cycle, I heard him described several times as a gadfly. I assumed this to mean something like a self-aggrandizing person who always manages to insert himself into the conversation in an annoying way. I get the image of a fly buzzing around one's face.

But even with the most rudimentary look into the term, I discovered that there is a more famous gadfly--Socrates. And his role as a gadfly is viewed in a positive light. So what gives?

First, we have to go back to the original meaning of gadfly, in its non-metaphoric sense. It turns out that a gadfly is not a specific fly, it is a general category of fly. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary says that it is a fly that bites livestock, especially a horsefly, botfly or warble fly. Some bite to implant their larvae, others, like the female horsefly, do it to extract blood.

Horse Botfly, Wikipedia

However, when you dig into the etymology of the word, as you can do at the Online Etymology Dictionary, an interesting thing emerges. It seems that the "gad" of gadfly probably comes from the 13th century noun meaning a goad or a sharp-pointed stick used to drive oxen.

But it also appears to have become entangled with (the Etymology Dictionary's phrase, which I love) the verb '"gad," which, although it too goes back in a convoluted way to the pointed stick idea, has come to mean "to rove about." Hence the word "gadabout," meaning a person who wanders around restlessly or aimlessly, especially in the social sphere. It can also mean a traveler, a pleasure seeker. And my sense is that Roger Stone can be described as much by this meaning of 'gad' as he can be of the former.

Socrates at the Louvre

Now, Socrates is another matter. Here is the context in which Socrates described himself as a gadfly, according to Plato in his The Apology of Socrates in the Jowett translation.

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

However, not everyone believes that 'gadfly' is the correct interpretation of the Greek here. In a paper by Laura Marshall called "Not a Gadfly: When a Crucial Reading Goes Wrong," she makes the case that Jowett's translation isn't the right one in this instance. She thinks that in this instance, the word μύωψ is more correctly translated as "spur."

When Xenophon uses the word μύωψ, it is in the context of training a sluggish horse to jump; this fits better with the pedagogical goals Socrates’ sees for the god in the Apology: the god is using Socrates to teach the Athenians, not merely to annoy them.

Let's wrap up our excursion into the world of gadflies by a little quote from a novel I discovered in the course of looking into all this, The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller, which is described as a New England prep school novel that is one part The Dead Poets' Society, one part Heathers. (I'd read it.) Here's the quote:

“Do you know what it took for Socrates’ enemies to make him stop pursuing the truth?”


Hemlock, or Conium Maculatum

Friday, March 2, 2018

Why ax?

I've often thought about why some people say "ax" instead of "ask", and I think I even began to research it for this blog at one point, but a friend just posted this to Facebook, and it goes so much further than I would have that I'm just going to post it.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


No, it's not a word you're going to run across much nowadays, but if you happen to be working your way through Gibbon's  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, you may be surprised at how much it comes up. I have a good enough grasp of the sense of it (in context) to know it means something like property or grounds or land, but I thought I should probably get a little clearer idea of it, because I suspect it's not the last time I'm going to run across it while reading this multivolume work.

Castletown House and demesne, County Kildare, Ireland

If you look up a word's definition on Google, you can also find a chart on its historical and current usage, and demesne's drop has been pretty steep over the years. (Gibbon published his work from 1776 to 1789, so the chart doesn't even quite cover his period.)  But the word does show up in other older works, so it's good to have a handle on it.

"Demesne", which is pronounced di-MAYN or di-MEEN, comes to English by the very standard route of Anglo-French (demesne or demeine) from Old French demaine, meaning 'land held for a lord's own use', which eventually leads us back to the Latin dominicus, "belonging to a lord or master", which stems from dominus "master", and domus, "house." I liked this uncharacteristically humorous explanation from the Online Etymology Dictionary, which explains that Anglo-French legal scribes changed the spelling under the influence of the Old French word mesnie, meaning household, "and their fondness for inserting -s- before -n-."

Medieval Manor--mustard color for demesne

"Demesne's" meaning has grown to be pretty broad. It still retains the sense of being an estate or part of an estate that is occupied and held by and worked for the exclusive use of its owner. It can simply be the land adjoining a manor house. But it can also mean the dominion or territory of a sovereign or state, or it can just mean a district or region.

Now, the funny thing is that the Online Etymology Dictionary ends up by telling us that "essentially", it's the same word as "domain." That's because after "demesne" made its way into England around 1300, the term came in again through Scotland, from Middle French domaine, though tracing back to the same Latin roots.

This got me to wondering what the French was for "domain name". Could it be nom de demesne? Unfortunately, though reasonably, it is simply 'nom de domaine'. At least they got back their beloved final -e-.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Guam-Part 2

I've been thinking about Guam again, not just because I had already planned to write more about it, but because of Puerto Rico. And I've been thinking about Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Irma. What Puerto Rico has in common with Guam, apart from being an island, is that both are unincorporated territories of the United States.

The Mariana Islands in a regional context

In my previous post, I visualized Guam as being a very small island out in the middle of nowhere. But this isn't really the right way to think about it. It's actually the southernmost island in a string of islands. Geographically, if not politically, it belongs  with the Northern Mariana Islands. They are all part of a submerged mountain range. According to Wikipedia, the northern ten islands are volcanic and are currently uninhabited, while the southern five are made of coralline limestone and are inhabited. But though once united culturally, history has divided Guam from the others.

Guam and the other Mariana Islands

In my last post, I had gotten to the point in history when Spain had colonized the islands, used Guam as a refueling site and reduced the native people to a fraction of their former size both through warfare and the inadvertent introduction of disease. But how did Guam end up becoming a U.S. unincorporated territory?

In an excellent article from the Smithsonian Magazine called "A Brief, 500-Year History of Guam", which  happened to come online on the same day that I was starting to look into Guam for my first post about it, Doug Herman describes the strange way in which Guam became separated politically from the other islands. The Spanish-American War was in full swing, but isolated Guam had no idea about that. As Herman tells it:

The Spanish troops and officials stationed in Guam were at first glad to have visitors when the USS Charleston arrived. They didn’t know that war had been declared between the two nations, and mistook their cannon fire for a salute. A peaceful transfer of power ensued.

U.S.S. Charleston in Manila Bay, 1898

But the Americans missed a trick in the 1898 Treaty of Paris because while solidifying their possession of Guam, they failed to ask for the other islands in Micronesia that Spain held in its portfolio. One account I read says that they just weren't all that aware of them, but a probably more accurate report  has it that America didn't want to appear too greedy, and knew that the German Kaiser was looking for prestige.So Spain sold the rest of their holdings to the Germans, including all the other Mariana Islands. Germany apparently ruled in a fairly relaxed fashion. But enter World War I. The Japanese were allied against the Germans in that war and captured all of Germany's colonial territory, continuing to rule the region for thirty years thereafter.

Apra Harbor at the U.S. Naval Base

Guam, however, underwent a different fate. In a poignant bit of Doug Herman's article, he tells us that after the U.S arrived, the leading families of the native Chamorro got together and set up a legislature, expecting to be forming a representative government like the rest of the U.S. But this was not what the American powers were thinking. Instead, they placed the island under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the U.S. Navy and basically treated the island as a military base. In his words, "Guam was run like a well-ordered battleship under what was essentially martial law." 

Apparently, the holding of territory involved the U.S. in some odd mental gymnastics. Again, from Herman:

In a series of Supreme Court rulings known as the Insular Cases of 1901, it was decided that new territories might never be incorporated into the union and were to receive only unspecified ‘‘fundamental’’ Constitutional protections. They were to be governed without the consent of the governed in a system that lacked the checks and balances that underlie the principle of limited government.

This would seem to be bad enough, but perhaps the real tragedy for Guam was that it ended up on the wrong side of the war, at least from its people's perspective. They suffered a different fate with the Japanese than their northern neighbors. From Herman:

While the bombing of Pearl Harbor still lives on in infamy in American memory, the bombing of Guam—four hours later—is virtually forgotten. In a brief but locally well-remembered air and sea attack, Japanese troops seized control of the small American colony and began an occupation that lasted three years. More than 13,000 American subjects suffered injury, forced labor, forced march or internment. A local priest, Father Jesus Baza Dueñas, was tortured and assassinated. At least 1,123 died. To America, they are forgotten.

And if all that wasn't bad enough, history had an extra terrible twist in store for them. Because according to Wikipedia, the Japanese brought down Chamorro people from the Northern Marianas to act as translators and in other capacities. And not under duress, because these people thought of themselves as on Japan's side. So, to this day there is bad feeling between these two groups of people, because the Guamians Chamorros felt they should have been treated with more compassion by the Northern Mariana Chamorros.

Herman cites a Chamorro scholar named Keith Camacho who points out that:

 in military narratives of World War II’s Pacific theater, Pacific Islanders play no central role. Instead, military historians tend to envision the Pacific Islands as “a tabula rasa on which to inscribe their histories of heroism and victimization,” forming “a body of discourse in which only Japanese and Americans constitute the agents of change and continuity in the region, erasing the agency and voice of indigenous peoples.”

Battle of Guam, 1944

As I began learning about Guam's northern sister islands, I thought, okay, the Germans don't rule the Marianas anymore, and the Japanese don't rule the Marianas anymore, so who governs them now?Naively, I thought that they had probably been granted their independence after the war.

But no. We, the United States, govern the Northern Marianas. But even though they are part of one island chain, they are governed as a separate entity than Guam. Guam is an unincorporated territory, while the Northern Marianas are a commonwealth, which makes their position more like Puerto Rico's, though I haven't been able to pin down exactly what the precise difference in governance is. 

Which brings me back to my initial associations here. As we watched Hurricane Irma roaring across the Caribbean, people didn't seem to be talking about the fact that as it lurched toward Puerto Rico, it was actually heading toward a part of the United States. We didn't have to wait till it hit the Florida Keys to be worried about American citizens. Yet in a poll taken as recently as earlier this year, 41 percent of people did not believe that Puerto Ricans were U.S. Citizens and another 15 percent weren't sure. This despite the fact that anyone born in Puerto Rico is automatically an American citizen, which has been true since 1940. If people don't know that Puerto Ricans are citizens, I am pretty sure that very few of them know that the Guamians are. And never mind about the Northern Mariana Islands.

But since I began thinking about this Hurricane Irma has come and gone, and I now feel that the U.S. Virgin Islands might be even more parallel to Guam. The U.S. Virgin Islands are also part of an island chain colonized by different European countries (the U.S. territory was originally colonized by Denmark and the U.S. bought them in 1916). Though underreported elsewhere, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell have pointed out on their respective MSNBC shows that the American islands of St. John and St. Thomas have been severely damaged by the storm. As Rachel emphasized, the residents are American citizens, and it is the responsibility of this country to help them. 

The Virgin Islands
A U.S. territory is not just ours when it's convenient to us to remember it.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


This is a bit of a lazy find, involving no research at all, but I just happened to come across this post from a website called How Stuff Works, which explains how many of our nicknames for names with English origins have gotten a little twisted over time. Like many people, I have been subconsciously curious about why Jack is the nickname for John or Peg is the nickname for Margaret. Well, my questions have been answered, at least in part. If you've ever wondered about Sarah becoming Sally or Charles becoming Chuck, well, head on over HERE.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


The Picnic by George Goodwin Kilburne

Well, I was all set to write another post on Guam, which turns out to be a much bigger subject than I thought, when I fell over this word. I was doing a little Spanish review on Duolingo when I came across a question where you were supposed to translate the English word picnic into Spanish. Turns out the Spanish word for picnic is, uh,  pícnic. Yes, there's an accent mark over the first i, but otherwise, it's the same. Obviously a loan word. Okay, so where does it come from in the first place?

Turns out, I'd fallen into a bit of a stink hole. Not that there's anything wrong with the word "picnic". It's just that it turns out a lot of people find it suspect. 

First things first. It seems to have come from the French word piquenique. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it's first seen in print in English in Chesterfield's "Letters" in 1748. The French sense, which became the English sense had initially nothing to do with eating outdoors, but meant something more like what we would now call a potluck. Oh, I forgot--a fashionable potluck. The origin of piquenique is a bit unclear, but pique may have meant "to pick or peck", while nique may have meant some "worthless thing", and come from the German. In any case, you get the drift. 

But imagine my surprise when my first search led me directly to a  Snopes report. Huh? Well, it turns out that a rumor has spread that "picnic" derives from a connection with American lynchings. World Wide Words delineates a spurious etymology which I can't repeat here, but basically people believed it because there are historical pictures of people taking picnics to lynchings. So, though the etymology is false, the association isn't. 

Just because it's a false etymology doesn't mean that it contains no grain of truth. 

The 1893 public lynching of black teenager Henry Smith in Paris, Texas

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Guam--Part One

Here's pretty much the full extent of what came to mind whenever I heard the word "Guam" until a few nights ago. My mother, at that time still known as Carolyn Stanley Brunton, had been back in her native California for a while, but after having served in the WAVES during World War II and then lived abroad as a member of the Army Special Services in postwar Germany, she got the travel bug again. So she applied to go to one of two places that offered hardship pay--Guam and Tripoli. I think actually she may have decided on Guam when the Tripoli posting came up. In any case, she accepted it, ended up at Wheelus Airbase, met and married my father, and the rest is history.

So much for  my associations to Guam, the not chosen place. But a couple of days ago, when North Korea threatened to launch some missiles into the waters around Guam, I got interested again. First of all, because a lot of Americans still live there. And secondly, because Guam was not where I thought it was. Having been too lazy to ever bother looking it up, my conception of its placement in the world was extremely hazy. But I think I thought it was in the Caribbean somewhere. In any case, I did not think of it as being within striking range of North Korean missiles.

Guam in Oceania
Or here's another way of looking at in context:

The United States in its Region
Wikipedia tells us that Guam is about 30 miles long and between 4 to 12 miles wide, or, if it helps your frame of reference, 3/4ths the size of Singapore. Unlike Singapore, it is very remote from pretty much any place else, other than the still tinier islands that constitute the rest of Micronesia, of which it is a part. A website called Guampedia says that it is roughly the same distance from both Manila and Tokyo at roughly 1500 miles, and a full 3800 miles west of Hawaii. 

One might think that such a small space in the middle of nowhere could expect to be left unmolested through the eons, but there is probably no place on earth that is actually too small to be exploited by bigger places anymore. As the largest of the small islands in the neighborhood, Guam is actually just right, depending on your point of view, especially if your view is a Western one which seeks to have a strategic base in the Asian neighborhood. 

The U.S. actually has a naval base and Coast Guard station in the south and an airforce base in the north, which according to Fox News take up 30 percent of the island. The article also tells us that the American would actually like to increase that number by relocating thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Not sure if this is so true in the present moment with North Korea's current posturing, but in 2014 then deputy defense secretary Bob Work said that Guam has increasingly been a strategic hub for the U.S. military. 

It might surprise you to learn that anyone born in Guam is automatically a U.S. citizen. That's why the news these days refers to 160,000 U.S. citizens being in harm's way in the North Korea crisis. However, as has been rather ignominiously the American pattern, some citizens are more equal than others. The Guamanians don't get to vote for the president of the United States, even though he or she is their president, and they send one representative to Congress, who isn't allowed to vote. Their only real participation in American government is to participate in the Republican and Democratic primaries. 

Guam has had to deal with outsiders running their lives for a long time. A recent discovery of settlement has led archaeologists to conclude that the people who settled the Mariana Islands, of which Guam is the lowermost island, may have been the earliest long-distance ocean crossers in history, having made the journey 3500 years ago. Magellan, the first recorded Westerner to make it to that part of the world, didn't get there till 1521, and even then, he didn't stay long. It wasn't until 1565 that Spain realized the importance of Guam as a pit stop for their Manila galleons as they plied the Pacific trade route between Manila and Acapulco. And it was another hundred years before they actually colonized it. (Like I said, it's a remote place). 

The story of that colonization, unique though it is in its elements, has a very familiar ring to it. The native peoples resisted and were nearly wiped out in the process, not just by superior military force but by that well-known plague, smallpox. At the end of a 26-year war, only 5000 Chamorros (as they had been named by the Spanish) remained, a tenth of their former population.