Saturday, November 26, 2011


In between finding time to write blog posts, I thought some among you might enjoy another distraction from the natural world. This one's more watery...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wild Turkey

Yeah, I know some people are wishing I was going to be talking about the bourbon. In a slight departure here, mainly because I don't have time right now to do a proper post, I thought I'd pass along a really enchanting show form Nature that I happened upon on PBS last night, that by happy chance is also being made available for free on line.

It's the story of a natural scientist who decided to hatch and 'mother' a brood of wild turkeys. You really could not have a more delightful and down to earth guy than Joe Hutto, who tells his own story in the film. Some people might sound a little crazy in taking this on, but by acknowledging that he may have 'gone native' a bit, he pulls us into his undertaking pretty deeply ourselves.

Without further ado, then,  My Life as a Turkey .

( I hope people outside the U.S. can watch this. Really not sure of its range.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bonus Army

Well, it's not exactly Cucumber Time right now, so I'm a bit (more than a bit) behind in everything. But I thought in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street I'd do a little piece on a moment of American history that I've never heard of before, and which has become sharply relevant just now.

The Bonus Army was a group of World War I vets and their friends and families who marched on Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 to demand early payment of a bonus promised them for their service. It was not due to be paid them till 1945, but since many of them had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression, they were asking that this bonus be paid early. Washington, even liberal Washington, seemed not too keen on the idea.

Rachel Maddow did a very nice piece on this moment in our American past, showing the parallels to what was taking place in the Oakland version of  Occupy Wall Street.

(I've edited this to put in the audio version, because the embedded segment hasn't led to the right video clip here)

I probably would have just watched without doing much more with it except that I came across a New Yorker archive article that they've made available without subscription about E.B. White's reaction to the Bonus Army (He was sympathetic with their plight, but not so impressed with the action itself.)

Then this week,  I found that the Library of America blog was posting some reporting by John Dos Passos on the movement.

I like the way this current occupation is reflecting back echoes of American movements past. Mario Salvo and the Free Speech movement has also figured in the picture lately.  I think sometimes we don't see the importance of such moments for our common history--our human common history, not just America's--until some aspect of those moments is mirrored in our own.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

komkommertijd--cucumber, part 2

No, I am not about to start confessing my ignorance of foreign words--or maybe I should just confess straight out that I am ignorant of them. The number of them of which I'm not ignorant, is, statistically speaking, too small to count.

But in a recent post on the humble or not so humble cucumber, the multilingual Peter Rozovsky managed to fit in a Dutch cucumber joke. I was very surprised, then to find yet another reference to the Dutch komkommer, since I read pretty much exclusively in English. I happened to be reading a very interesting article in The Paris Review by Lydia Davis on the art of translation in general and her task of translating Madame Bovary in particular. I can't link to the article, but I'm happy to report that I think most of it was done as a series of blog posts here . (You'd start at the bottom with the oldest entry.)

Anyway, I can't quite remember the context since the book she is discussing is written in French but in talking about the difficulties of translation, she mentions komkommertijd, which in Dutch literally means 'cucumber time'. To just translate it as 'cucumber time', though, would not reveal its meaning. Davis says that it is the time in August when everyone is away and not much work gets done. It is also the time when Dutch farmers harvest cucumbers. The Dutch would understand the references to both in the word, while most of us wouldn't have a clue of either. How would you get that across?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Just a word I heard recently, which got me thinking about it. I know, or think I know, what skulking is, of course. I think of it as sort of lingering around in the shadows in a less than candid or forthright way. I'm not sure if it always has an extra nefarious motive, but I think usually it does.

It's a great word. Where did it come from? I'm going to guess it's an old Anglo-Saxon one.

 Well, it's Middle English out of Scandinavian. It's got relatives in Norway (skulka, to lurk), Sweden (skolka, which seems to focus on doing a bunk, cutting a class, playing truant) and Denmark (skulke, meaning shirk). I don't have a lot more to reveal about the meaning or history of the word, but I did find one cool thing that I did not know.

If you have three or more foxes together, you have a skulk of them.

A skulk of foxes, yes, but not exactly skulking.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Adolphe Cassandre, 1935

I'm a little short on time at the moment, so I thought I'd try for a short post for a change. I ran across this word in an interesting way. I jumped in at the last minute to write something for Patty Abbott's flash fiction challenge, in which she offered to make a donation of five dollars to the work of Union Settlement for every flash fiction piece written about a painting by the artist Reginald Marsh. I liked the idea, and I liked the paintings. Peter Rozovsky did a very nice piece here, and so, though it was a bit of a slapdash affair, I did do the challenge at the last moment. You can read my story if you want, but frankly, I got more interested in the story of the S.S. Normandie than that of the human characters. I got a bit of that into my tale, but one interesting detail I omitted was that the Normandie was seized by the U.S. while it was in the New York harbor after France fell to the Germans under the right of angary, and planned to refit it as a warship, the U.S.S. Lafayette.

Angary? What was that when it was at home? Google wasn't particularly helpful, as it kept trying to turn my search into a search for Angry Birds. (Sometimes I feel the whole world is trying to turn my eyes in the direction of Angry Birds, even though I know that once I succumb to their stratagems, all is over.) But angary has nothing to do with Angry Birds, unless they turn out to be belligerents in a conflict. Angary is the right of a belligerent (though this is usually a government or something big like that) to seize the property of a neutral party or nation that happens to be on the belligerent's territory, to use it for the purpose of war, or to prevent its use by the enemy, including the property of the  citizens or subjects of the neutral state. Part of the deal is that the belligerent has to return the property and compensate the neutral party fairly for this when the war is over.

Hmm. Call me skeptical. I'm not sure that that worked out very well in the case of the Normandie...

Friday, November 4, 2011


I know this should have been Posh Spice. Couldn't face it.

The last post brought up some reflections about the word 'posh'. This one isn't so much about what the word means, since we all probably have an idea of that, but more where it comes from. In England and the greater British Isles it definitely seems to have an echo of class consciousness in it. In America, I think it's more known than used, at least in a serious way. So what did it originally mean? I'm sure it's obvious, but somehow I can't quite put my finger on it.


"Origin uncertain". The popular imagination has it that it refers to the expression 'port outward, starboard home,' which referred to the preferred ship reservations for the tony class on the passage to (and from). It first came into print in Punch in 1918 in the following sentence: "Oh yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there."  (I have to throw that in, because it reminds me that for some reason, my dad and I believe his brother-in-law, my uncle used to address my grandmother, their in common mother-in-law as Mater, and I realize that I really have no idea why. They weren't British or posh.)

Apparently, there is no evidence to support this theory. Another, supposedly better conjecture is  that  the word posh originally meant 'dandy' round about 1890, and this in turn came from thieves' slang for money. Then the claim is that this hails back to the Romany or Gypsy language, with 'pash' meaning half, and pashera, 'half penny'. Slang seems more likely in this case, as there always seems to be a faintly derogatory whiff to the word, do what you will.

It seems this word and its derivations is one of those things people do often ask about, at least so they think here. I was glad to find this very appropriate quote from Anatoly Liberman:
"Another post suggested that I temper my enthusiasm, because people are allegedly interested not in etymology, but in "words and slang; they ask about posh or the whole nine yards. They'd see no point in asking for etymologies of water, wind, wool, winter, well, [and] wine," unless those "could be illustrated with lantern slides of Life in Roman times." I've been taught never to assume anything and not to generalize in a hurry. This advice I'll pass on to anyone who will take it. Queries reflect the sophistication of the questioners. The more people know, the less trivial their questions become. If they realized how interesting the etymology of water, wind, wool, and the rest is, they would have asked about it."

No post about the word posh would be complete without a nod to the fabulous 'Posh Nosh'. If you've never heard of it, here is the first episode. It's not long.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

a right donnybrook

Posh, indeed.

Okay, I have probably never used that phrase in my life. However, I have read it enough for it to seem familiar. Familiar--not necessarily precise. I have a feeling I've thought of a donnybrook as more of a rout or a disaster, when I'm getting the impression it means more of a free for all, or in American imagery, a brawl in a Wild West saloon.

I also think I've thought that Donnybrook must be the sight of some battle, kind of like Waterloo, which has also become metaphoric. For some reason, my mind always had it as from the times of chivalry, and if pressed, I'd say that the image is more along the lines of knights on their chargers battling by a not impossibly large stream. Maybe on a tapestry.

So I was somewhat surprised to learn, once again on a  recently resumed discussion over at Peter Rozovsky's place ,that Donnybrook is actually one of the posher areas of Dublin. Is this just a coincidence? Or has there been a significant transformation from rowdier days of yore?

I've been to Dublin, by the way. Suffice to say I was not staying in one of more exclusive districts...

Well, we have the answer in one word: gentrification. Donnybrook was not always so. In fact it was the site of a famous fair which had been licenced to the corporation of Dublin in 1204, and that lasted a fortnight at it's height. Sadly, over the centuries, it became notorious for drunken brawls. No doubt it was the ancestors of the present gentry who wanted this unsavory festival shut down, but it wasn't easy. The license holders had absolute right and weren't caving to public pressure. It wasn't until 1855 that John and Peter Madden were persuaded to sell it at the behest of  the Lord Mayor of Dublin to powers that were then willing to shut it down.

We will end with not one but two musical references. First a jig:

And of course, we cannot fail to include a drinking song: