Thursday, March 25, 2021

racketeering

We were hearing the word 'racketeering' coming up quite a bit, what with the Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis adding an expert on the subject to her criminal investigation of former President Trump's phone calls asking Georgia's Secretary of State Raffensperger  to 'find him more votes.' Although this has faded from the headlines a bit in the wake of other events (for now), I did find myself wondering about the word, especially as it was surprising to hear it come up in a context other than mob crime.  

It turns out that 'racketeer' is one of those unusual words that has quite a specific date of coinage that can actually be traced. The Employer's Association of Greater Chicago, which was formed in 1905 with the purpose of breaking up unions according to Wikipedia, came up with it in 1927 in a statement about organized crime in the Teamsters Union. (The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word was first published in 1928.) In an ironic twist, the president of the association, James Breen, was soon rumored to be linked to the rackets himself and had to resign, although he was never indicted. However, Wikipedia also says that crime organizations blew up his house the next year to scare him into not talking, so I guess he didn't get off scot-free. 

"The Racketeer" 1929-Hedda Hopper , Carole Lombard


I have looked at a few pages now to get a sense of what racketeering is, and the definition that I find most helpful is one that D.A.Willis gave herself, saying that racketeering is "doing overt acts using a legal entity for an illegal purpose." 

In the same Business Insider article, Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey is quoted as saying that racketeering "is not a crime--it's a way of thinking about and prosecuting a variety of crimes."

The etymology of 'racket' in this sense is fairly unclear. Whether it's connected to the word's sense of "loud noise", or to games via the word 'raquet,' or to the word 'rack-rent', which meant extortionate rent back in the 1590s, seems to be anybody's guess. But I liked this idea which came up in on the English Language and Usage group on Slack Exchange:

racket; racketeer. English pickpockets, once the best of the breed, invented the ploy of creating disturbances in the street to distract their victims while they emptied their pockets. This practice was so common that a law was passed in 1697 forbidding the throwing of firecrackers and other devices causing a racket on the city streets. From the common pickpocket ploy the old onomatopoeic English word racket, imitative like crack or bang and meaning a disturbance or loud noise, took on its additional meaning of a scheme, a dodge, illicit criminal activity. Before 1810, when it first appeared in print, the word had acquired this slang meaning in England, though it was later forgotten and the word racket for a criminal activity wasn't used again there until it was reintroduced from America along with the American Prohibition invention from it, racketeer. The only other, improbable, explanation given for the word is that it was originally the name of an ancient, crooked dice game.



That is from  The Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) by Robert Hendrickson.

Many of us have heard of the RICO Act, but we may not know or remember that that's an acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was enacted in 1970. 

So that guy, John Floyd, who Willis brought on board to look into the racketeering aspects of the investigation? Turns out he wrote the book on the subject. Literally.





Wednesday, February 24, 2021

filibuster

I imagine that, reading the subject line of this post, you're expecting some kind of discussion of the filibuster process, which we are all hearing so much about at the moment. And probably I should at least find a good definition of the filibuster as it is currently used. But in fact I was merely attracted by the word itself. It's really a rather jolly sounding word, but I couldn't even make a guess as to where it came from. It doesn't sound exactly Latinate, though if the original was something like "filibustrum'" or "filibustrate" that would make a bit of sense. When I delved into its etymology, though, I found something quite a bit more interesting. 

But first, a brief, basic definition of its current usage. According to the U.S. Senate itself (and they have a pretty cool glossary that anyone can look up at their website), "filibuster" is not a formal term. It simply means any attempt to block or delay a piece of legislation by debating it at length, or putting forth a lot of motions or obstructing its progress in any way one can think up. Wikipedia tells how the filibuster became theoretically possible in 1806 when an earlier rule for ending debate had been abandoned, but it wasn't actually exploited until 1837. So it didn't start out as a deliberately thought out strategy, but  as an accidental consequence of another Senate ruling. 

Senator Huey Long, famous filibusterer


The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that "filibuster" is derived from a word first written down in English in the 1580s. A flibutor was a pirate, particularly the kind of pirate that was raiding the Spanish colonies of the West Indies at the time. These weren't people from just one country--there were Dutch, English, French and maybe other nationalities preying on these islands. It's thought that the original word was the Dutch vrijbueter, which  became filibustero in Spanish and fribustier and later flibustier in French. It also came into the English language by another path as "freebooter," which is one of those weird connections that I love. 

A Buccaneer of the Caribbean by Howard Pyle


The British adopted the term flibutor in 1684, but American English didn't really find a use for the term until later, when it was used to refer to lawless military adventurers from the U.S. aiming to overthrow Central American governments. The event in which William Walker, who tried to overthrow both Mexican Sonora and Nicaragua and briefly became president of the latter is actually called the Filibuster War (or, alternatively, the Walker Affair). 

William Walker, filibuster and brief president of Nicaragua

 I feel fine about swiping the following directly from the Online Etymology Dictionary, since they swiped it from Harper's before me:

FILIBUSTERING is a term lately imported from the Spanish, yet destined, it would seem, to occupy an important place in our vocabulary. In its etymological import it is nearly synonymous with piracy. It is commonly employed, however, to denote an idea peculiar to the modern progress, and which may be defined as the right and practice of private war, or the claim of individuals to engage in foreign hostilities aside from, and even in opposition to the government with which they are in political membership. [Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1853]

Interestingly, the term "filibuster" was originally used to describe the person who was taking the action and only later became the name of the action itself. William Walker was described as a filibuster, for example. It came into the Senate that way too (1865). It was the person who was "pirating" the debate that was the filibuster, not the maneuver itself. That usage didn't come until 1893.

And of course no post on the term could be complete without posting the most famous filibuster of all, even if that filibuster never really took place.


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

linden

My ears perk up a bit when a somewhat familiar word pops up in different contexts over the course of a few days. "Linden" came up in a crossword puzzle--not uncommon--and then I noticed it coming up several time in the book I'm currently reading, The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Not really a surprise there either, as its a book pretty much devoted to trees. But then it came up in a Swedish folk song at a concert I was at the other night and I finally became curious enough to learn exactly what a linden is.

Bruce Martin, Morton Arboretum, Chicago
Let's start with a description from The Overstory:

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It's the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety--a tree that cannot be mistaken for any other, for alone in all the catalog of a hundred thousand earthly species, its flowers and tiny hard fruit hang down from surfboard bracts whose sole perverse purpose seems to be to state its own singularity.

It's quite possible that you are living near a linden tree and don't even know it. This is partly because, as Powers expresses many times in his book, humans in general don't pay enough attention to the trees they live alongside of. I certainly don't, though maybe by the time I finish his long novel, I'll be a little better at it. But another reason is that 'linden' isn't the only name we know these trees under. In England, apparently, they are frequently referred to as lime trees, even though they aren't the trees that grow the citrus fruit we call limes. (Don't even get me started on what the name of the tree that grows limes is.) In America, they may also be called basswood. Or you might hear one described by the genus name, Tilia.

There are about thirty species in the Tilia family, but Wikipedia tells us that the leaves of all of them are heart shaped and tend to be irregular.



What really got me going in Powers' description though, were those 'surfboard bracts'. I couldn't quite visualize them. Turns out that the 'surfboard' is really another kind of leaf.

                              by Virens
The linden tree turns out to be too big a subject for one blog post, so I'm going to take it up again in a subsequent one. But I thought I'd leave you for now with that Swedish folk song I heard-- 'Maj Vare Valkommen' or 'May Be Welcome'.



The lyrics in English are HERE, but you can actually hear them mention the linden tree in the first verse. Although one of the translations I found referred to it as a lime...

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Cautionary Tale

Given all the news about released funding for the Wall, I thought I'd put up a very short story I wrote a couple of months ago. Regular broadcasting to resume shortly.


La Barrera
Mexico did end up paying for the wall. Looking back, it was inevitable. After only twenty years, the wall that the U.S. had finally managed to cobble together through a variety of governmental and not so governmental schemes had already begun to fall apart. Mexico had hoped to defray expenses by rehabilitating this structure, or at least salvaging some of its parts, but most of the wall had been put together with a truly inferior grade of concrete. The Mexican work force that demolished it enjoyed filming each other punching through the wall with their bare fists and laughing as they did it. Some cost cutting officials then looked into at least using the supporting structures within, but water had gotten in at many locations. The wood had rotted, the iron rusted. There was little they could do but just haul it all away.
For a brief period, Mexico considered returning to the whole open border concept again. There were people who still felt some compassion for U.S. citizens, reasoning that you couldn’t tar them all with the same brush. But there were a lot more who thought you could. Should. Kids in cages, after all. No one was going to forget that, much less forgive it.
The new wall, la barrera, the one Mexico had paid for, was gorgeous. Some parts were marble, and many famous Mexican muralists had contributed art to the less costly surfaces. It was popular for honeymooners to spend a few days traveling along its southern face, posing for photos with the various artworks. As part of the original design, viewing platforms (later enclosed in bulletproof plastic) had been installed at certain scenic lookout points. Gazing off into that once great country to the north—now known ironically as ‘Los Estados Who Need Us’—could be exhilarating. But at first, so many people were afraid to climb up to these ramparts, having heard such terrifying stories of los gringos by now, that the government launched a campaign to assure its citizens that it was quite safe to take a look from these secure positions. Gradually, people grew less fearful. Some even had the thrilling if petrifying experience of spotting wild bands of los gabachos scavenging in the desert. Everyone agreed that with a good camera you could catch some amazing shots of these brutes, even from such a distance.
For a time after the wall went up, U.S. citizens could sneak down across the border quite easily. Many of them still had good clothes that spoke of former affluence and, with the help of forged passports, could usually pass for Canadians. But as time went by, it became easier to pick them out. Their clothes were no longer new or in fashion, and los ilegales were thinner than other people. Their teeth, too, got steadily worse. For a while, some Mexican communities would turn a blind eye, because they had made a tidy profit on giving these people medical care in the past. The Americans’ own doctors, at least the more successful ones, had largely managed to flee to better climes, even if people had been able to afford them. To Mexico, it became obvious that the future now lay south of it, with younger and growing markets in newly affluent Centroamérica and even further south. Gradually, Mexican doctors stopped accepting American patients altogether. It just wasn’t worth the hassle or the risk of penalties and public censure if they were caught.
And in fact, they might have forgotten about the U.S. entirely in time, turning their backs on it and looking resolutely south, if it hadn’t been for Canada. The Canadians and Mexicans had become good friends, bonding in the way people often do when they share a disagreeable neighbor and have to work together to figure out what to do about it. Los Canadienses had eventually built their own border wall against the U.S. Even they admitted that it was more serviceable than aesthetically pleasing, but then, they’d had a lot more of it to build than Mexico had.
Canadians and Mexicans loved to visit each other’s lands, but what to do about the big no-fly zone in between? During the U.S. coup, insurrection and the following chaos, people had been justifiably afraid to fly over that great intervening landmass. They’d had to travel around it, which was time-consuming and irksome. Cruise lines had attempted to seize the opportunity to connect the two democracies, but it came as a nasty surprise how quickly the disbanded Coast Guard had turned to piracy—marauding their own former coastlines, to be sure, but happy enough to take a foreign tourist vessel as booty if one was foolish enough to cruise into these now ungoverned waters.
After a time, braver souls in single engine planes would risk a flyover. Occasionally there were shots fired from below, but not powerful enough to hit a plane at any great altitude. And soon enough, even the yahoos on the ground must have realized that they might need to save their ammunition for something a little more practical, like food. For by now the great agricultural holdings had withered away, due to lack of migrant labor for the harvest.
Cautiously, the major Mexican and Canadian airlines began to fly over the country again. At first people were genuinely curious, peering down and trying to see signs of its vaunted former greatness—but often failing to see any evidence of human life at all. Although now there was a wide variety of birds in vast flocks that the pilots had to be careful to maneuver around. And everyone agreed that the buffaloes were making a comeback. But after a time, even the children grew bored with peering out to look when there was actually so little to observe, and people pulled down the shades on the small plane windows, returning to their in-flight approved games and films, or otherwise passed the time until they reached their more exciting destinations.
                                                                    --Seana Graham

Monday, June 10, 2019

saltpeter

"Saltpeter" is a word  I mainly run across in crossword puzzles and, occasionally, older novels. It's hard for me to think of it as anything but some special kind of salt, but I associate it also with military expeditions. Maybe an explosive. In the puzzle I was doing this morning, its meaning was revealed to be "niter." Not too useful, since I don't know what niter is either. It's high time I found the answer to this mystery.

                                                                    image by Walkerma


"Saltpeter" (sometimes spelled saltpetre) and "niter" are just other names for potassium nitrate (KNO3.). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word saltpeter goes back through French to the Latin sal petrae, "salt of the rock," apparently because it looks like salt when it is encrusted on stone.

                              by Bobamnertiopsis


I was surprised to learn how many different ways we use this substance. According to Wikipedia, it's used in fireworks and rocket propellant, but it's also used in processed meats, extending shelf life and giving the meat a pink color. It's used to remove tree stumps. I'm not quite sure why it speeds decay when poured into a stump, but prolongs shelf life when processing meat, but that's what they tell me.



Turner Army Airfield Mess Hall, 1943
As I looked up the word, I came across many articles questioning whether saltpeter was put into army grub in order to dampen sexual desire in the new recruits. There is a fascinating article in Snopes that debunks this myth, while at the same time explaining why it is unlikely to die. Apparently it is quite common for soldiers attending boot camp to experience a dampening effect on their sexual desires. Rather than attribute it to some of the more logical reasons, like exhaustion and fear, the rumor that makes the rounds is that their meals have been doctored with saltpeter.

This need to believe that an outside force is deliberately working to keep things down fuels the saltpeter myth. Such a construct works to reassure the woodless recruit that there’s nothing wrong with him — it’s all the sneaky doings of those in charge. The myth is every bit as empowering as it is reassuring; it says “We are such rampantly virile men that those in command fear us and what we might do if left unchecked.” It thus works to build pride in the unit by helping to establish an internalized reputation for being such wild men that the group as a whole has to be drugged into docility if its commanders are to have any hope of keeping it under control.

So, although Snopes has fact checked this, as have others, such an ultimately comforting belief is not likely to succumb to the truth any time soon. 

Still another important use for saltpeter was in the manufacture of gunpowder, which was formed by mixing saltpeter with charcoal and sulfur. Much to my surprise, it turns out that gunpowder plays a key role in the history of Santa Cruz, California, the town I live in. According to Wikipedia, the West began to experience shortages of gunpowder after the Civil War led to the disruption of supply lines. So in 1861, California Powder Works was incorporated and became the first American explosive powder company west of the Mississippi. 


The powder works was about three miles up the San Lorenzo river from the city of Santa Cruz itself. But the mailing address on the poster here is a location not at all far from me here on the west side. Apparently they imported crude potassium nitrate from Chile and manufactured gunpowder from it here. (This gets a little confusing, as there is also something specifically called Chilean saltpeter, which is actually nitratine, or sodium nitrate. So I am not entirely sure which form of nitrate they were using, but it's still some form of saltpeter.) 

This company was here in the Santa Cruz area for fifty years, was a major employer and provided company housing and even a school for a time. But I'd never heard of it. Nor had I heard of the disaster at the Powder Works on April 26, 1898, when the town was rocked by a series of explosions that killed 13 men at the site and injured many more. (Although this was after the Powder Works had stopped making gunpowder from saltpeter and moved on to the smokeless powder common today.) 

California Powder Works eventually became a subsidiary of Dupont, which after the completion of the Panama Canal, ended operations in Santa Cruz and consolidated their business in New Jersey. There is not much evidence left of the old Powder Works, as the mills were dismantled and the mansions of the superintendents were razed in the thirties. But the California Powder Works covered bridge still stands, luckily maintained by the Masons, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2015. Maybe some day, I'll even manage to get up to Paradise Park to see it. (Although I think I might still have to ask the Masons for permission.) 


California Powder Works Bridge

Thursday, May 16, 2019

gadfly

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.


                                                                               Wikimedia
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.”



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.