Wednesday, March 30, 2011

begs the question

I was with my sisters this weekend and one of them said that something 'begged the question'. I thought she was using the expression wrong and she thought I was. So does it mean, something that begs for a further question, or does it mean something that manages to avoid the question entirely? I don't think I really need to go into who thought what in this case, as I'm perfectly willing to expose my own ignorance, but not so big on pointing a finger at others, should that prove to be the case--at least on the internet. (Okay, okay--there have probably been exceptions.) Let's just shoot ahead and find a meaning for the term.


Well, safe to say that we were both wrong to one degree or another. In any case, there is no winner. To beg the question, as I'm sure any logic student reading along here will already know, is actually a specific form of logical fallacy in which an argument is assumed to be true without reference to anything outside itself.

Here are some examples from the Nizkor Project, which apparently is attempting to educate us on logic in order to help us not be bamboozled by Holocaust deniers:

Bill: "God must exist."
Jill: "How do you know."
Bill: "Because the Bible says so."
Jill: "Why should I believe the Bible?"
Bill: "Because the Bible was written by God."

"If such actions were not illegal, then they would not be prohibited by the law."

"The belief in God is universal. After all, everyone believes in God."

Interviewer: "Your resume looks impressive but I need another reference."
Bill: "Jill can give me a good reference."
Interviewer: "Good. But how do I know that Jill is trustworthy?"
Bill: "Certainly. I can vouch for her."

I think some of us may recognize this logical fallacy more easily under the heading 'circular reasoning'.

Basically, 'to beg the question' has nothing to do with questions. It is a (some would say clumsy) translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, which in post-classical Latin turns out to be a rough translation of Aristotle's first description of this logical fallacy, 'assuming the conclusion'. For a fascinating discussion of all the language transformations involved, go here. The comments are mostly quite informed, so there's a lot of material here. Both 'beg' and 'question' have very ambivalent roots, which is what has led us to all get so mixed up about this.

The question remains--what are we to do? The wrong meaning has slipped into the vernacular. Do we just accept and go on? Not according to Beg the They have even incited the mobs to take up their pickets and march on Washington at one point.

Apparently many failed to notice that this impassioned plea took place on April Fool's Day.

But despite kidding around, their advocacy is not all tongue in cheek. To wit:

"While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous "modern" usage. This is why we fight.".

Apparently, you can even get a T-shirt in support of the cause, so don't let me keep you...

Friday, March 25, 2011


Well, I think I know what this one means, and if I'm right, I've had a couple of occasions to feel like one lately. I think that in our modern parlance, its something akin to a gofer. It is the loyal, trustworthy, relied upon and yet taken for granted servant who attends to things so that we don't have to. Mothers, I think, are often dogsbodies, because the phrase implies something beyond mere servitude and refers a bit to our fleshly bodily life. There is something of our physical being, at least in the sense of our physical presence implied. I think the sentence, "We need a few warm bodies," implies something of the same thing, though maybe without the 'fidelity' that dogsbody represents.

But maybe I have it completely wrong. Let's see.


Oh, man--not the British Royal Navy again! But yes, a dogsbody is a junior officer in this military force, and by extension a person who does the grunt work. Apparently, peas and eggs boiled in a bag together were a staple of the early 19th century British navy. It wasn't exactly caviar, and, as is the way with the offensive, soon enough becomes a descriptive noun for someone you intend to disparage. 'Sack of shit', for instance. No one seems to know how the unloved staple got the name dogsbody, though some think it was the shape of the bag. In any case, as pejoratives do, it managed to outgrow its naval usage and become a general term for, yes,  a gofer, in Britspeak around the 1930s.

As witness:

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I was reading along in the ever provocative Detectives Beyond Borders awhile ago. My main reason for doing so was to hold fast to my position that though Brodsky may be a genius and I definitely am not, he was still wrong in his use of the word "literally" in one instance of his otherwise unblemished record. I was probably taking his whole meaning too literally, but who cares? The point is that the comment thread degenerated  elided into a discussion of Dogfish Head beer, and the always informative Elizabeth taught us that the Dogfish Head in question was actually a cape, that dogfish are a type of shark, and that said shark belongs in the family Squalidae. (You knew I was going to get back on topic eventually, I hope.)

Now I don't know if it this type of shark that is in this ominously named family, or if all sharks are, but you've got to admit it's a pretty pejorative classification. Unless it isn't. When I think 'squalid', I think miserable, poverty stricken, in close oppressive quarters, unclean, but I don't think sharks really live this kind of life.

So what is 'squalid'? Does it really just mean dark, or murky? We will now descend to the depths and attempt to find out...


...'Squalid's contemporary meaning is indeed "dirty and wretched" and implies 'from poverty or lack of care'. No huge surprise there, then. But I believe the link to the dogfish is the result of an earlier, more fundamental connection. Because in addition, 'squalid' also means 'rough'. Although according to the Online Etymological Dictionary the earliest origin is unknown, the basic idea is that something is 'coated with filth', or in other words, rough with it. Similarly, the family Squalidae, which includes 'dogfish, sleeper sharks and relatives' are characterized by spiny dorsal fins. I think this is probably the basis of their 'roughness'.

(I'm editing this to add that it is probably not the spiny dorsal fin, so much as the sandpapery texture of the dogfish skin in general that leads to the characterization of roughness. Dogfish 'denticles' may be viewed here.)

Okay, folks. I wanted to put in a dogfish video, and so came upon this one. It is definitely not for vegans, maybe even not for me, so be forewarned.

In fact, I think I'd better give you the title of the video: "Dogfish refuse to be cooked and eaten". Just so you can see where this is going...

Dogfish Refuse To Be Cooked And Eaten - Watch more Funny Videos

Thursday, March 17, 2011

parlous, part...Just kidding. Happy St. Patrick's Day

Well, it's been a strange up and down day for me, but my sister sent this You Tube of a Flash Mob which I think might be a good way to end the parlous trend...

My sister does this kind of dancing herself, and besides, I'm a sucker for these flash mob things.
I know it's all over for anyone not in California, so I hope St. Patrick treated you well!

Monday, March 14, 2011

parlous, part 3

I've shared the story of our own little corner of the world, but obviously it pales in comparison with what has happened in Japan. Rather than stumble around in my typical fashion, I thought I'd do some real public service by posting a bit of the Rachel Maddow show and her clear, lucid segment about nuclear power and it's containment--or lack thereof. Here's the first:

To relate this back to our own experience here in Santa Cruz for just a moment, it became very clear that accurate information is crucial when contemplating disaster. Our survival modes kick in. In this county, while many people went down to watch the tsunami, others fled to the hills. Many of those who chose the hill option were Hispanic. Was this because they were more cowardly or more naive than their white counterparts? No. One reason was that many of them lived in the lowlands that were actually being evacuated. The other part of it was that on Spanish radio, reports of 30 foot waves were being broadcast, as opposed to the 6 foot waves on English speaking channels. With that in mind, here's another clip:


Many people here first learned of the Japanese earthquake by one of two means. First, there was a late night tsunami warning that came over the television--my sister got one up at her home in San Rafael--and there was the 'reverse 911' call, which several of my friends got, notifying them of a voluntary tsunami evacuation. As much of this kind of thing may well be cut soon, I thought, I'd also put up this little clip from The Ed Show:

My own public service announcement is now over. Good luck, everyone.

Friday, March 11, 2011

parlous, part 2

It's been a bit of a freaky day here. In what I think is an unprecedented way, I got a call from my floor manager at shortly after six in the morning, saying that there had been a massive quake in Hawaii and that Santa Cruz was on tsunami alert. Of course, it later proved to actually be Japan, which I'm sure everyone knows about by now.

Currently, I live up the hill toward the university, but it was not so long ago that I lived down near the Boardwalk and Beach Flats, which, as you can tell by the name, is an area that would be particularly prey to a big tsunami.

Although when I watched the news before I left for work, it already seemed pretty clear that the bookstore would not be directly affected, it is on the flood plain, and there was a short period of time when I envisioned walking down the hill at the hour when the tsunami was expected to arrive, and seeing the whole lowlands inundated. It's funny, because this brought back another parlous time, that of the 1989 earthquake, and one of my own distinct memories of that period was that we had been wrangling over where to put a rack of postcards for days, and when the earthquake hit, I remember seeing the stupid postcard rack toppled over. And I could not help but see our recent hopes and tensions and disagreements over the fate of the bookstore after the demise of Borders in something like the same light--how insignicant they all were in the face of a force of nature like an earthquake, or a massive wave.

It was an eery day. It was beautiful out, but that did not alleviate anything. I started to walk downhill to work, and passed a house where the family was coming out to go to school, or so I thought. I'd probably said "Hi," to its residents a few times over the last year or so, but today the little boy immediately asked me if I had heard about the earthquake in Japan. I said I had, and rather stupidly, I told him that I had heard about the tsunami warning from my boss, but that it sounded like it would be okay. He said, "We're not going to school today, we're going to work with my mom." His younger sister said, "She works in the mountains." "Well, that sounds like a really good idea," I said. "We have to leave our dog here and hope she'll be all right," the boy said. "And my fish," the sister said. I said, "I think they'll probably be okay," as matter of factly as I could. And of course I knew they would be (particularly the fish) but it seemed a very poignant thing to think about these kids who didn't and couldn't know that and were having to leave them behind.

I went to work, and it was sort of normal there. By this point, the idea that the tsunami would come that far inland--really, the problem was that it would come up the river and flood the banks--was pretty unlikely, so there was no real fear for ourselves. But one of my friends and coworkers had had to leave her twin daughters off at daycare, which was just outside the area that had been 'voluntarily evacuated', and for some reason, this morning of all mornings was the one that they had chosen to stand at the window and wave goodbye.

The downtown was dead. It probably would have been slow in any case, but there was a still feeling that was different than other mornings. Everyone had either fled to higher ground or had gone right down to the water to watch, and we heard that the traffic was terrible from the delivery people.

Everyone was getting calls from out of state relatives warning and wondering. We had all been woken up at five or six by someone,  it seemed. It seemed faintly ridiculous until we reminded ourselves that they had only heard the words 'tsunami' and 'Santa Cruz', and it wasn't at all laughable to them. I had my own bittersweet feeling about all this, realizing that my mom would have been one of those people who would call, and there was a feeling of relief that she was beyond those kinds of needless worries and also a personal sadness that she would not be calling ever again.

The only real destruction that seemed to have hit Santa Cruz was the harbor (as pictured above), and though this was bad enough, it was only property, not life. One of they guys was champing at the bit to go out surfing. Another came in later that day. He had lived closer to the water than anyone, and after a late night of gaming, woke up to see that everyone had left  his Beach Flats apartment  complex. His was the only car left sitting in the parking lot. He had to call the police to find out what was going on. His main concern was that he had left the area with nothing and wasn't sure if he would be able to get back in.

When I was working the register later in the day, a young woman, a total stranger said to me, "What a weird day." We agreed that you could feel it in the air. An energy. A vibe.

Of course, when I got home, our day was rendered insignificant by the tragedy Japan faces, and by their nuclear dangers. But I thought I would post about our own small parlous moments, such as they are. All day, I've had this kind of image of the Pacific being just a small pool, or lake, or bathtub, calm and still except when a big rock is thrown in on the other side, and the ripple laps up on our shores in no time at all.   

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I'm not entirely sure, but I believe that it was in this very interesting article on the present state of publishing that I once again came across the phrase 'parlous times'. It comes up every now and again, and it illustrates one of the ways I and I suppose other people deal with unknown words or concepts they run across in a book or article. Maybe it's different for Kindle readers, who apparently have some kind of dictionary function, but I kind of doubt it. I think it's more typical that we simply make our best guess. Sure, it's lazy, but it also shows something about our deductive capacities.

Anyway, for better or worse, I always read 'parlous' as 'perilous'. I know it's a stretch, and I suppose it will turn out to be hugely wrong, but it does more or less work as far as I can tell. Still, it seems unlikely that the two words are the same words, just differently spelled. So what can 'parlous' be? If it doesn't have to do with peril, the closest I can come up with is the French parler, which means 'to speak, talk'. Doesn't seem quite right...

Quelle chance! It is perilous. It's simply the way those 14th century Middle English types contracted the word 'perillous', borrowed from the Old French perillous. 

Dangerous, anyway you look at it. 

( Oh, yeah, the picture is by James Gillray, a British cartoonist, whose satires of British and French society were published between 1792 and 1910.)

And now,  Team Parlous:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wheelus Air Base, Tripoli

For those looking for a more direct way to contact Wheelus friends and acquaintances, there is a Facebook page for Wheelus that might be useful.

This post is dedicated to the Libyan people.

Sometimes, to be perfectly honest, I wonder how I've ended up working in an indie bookstore for a fairly large chunk of my life. It's not glamorous, adds increasingly little to my prestige, and certainly not a lot to my pocketbook. Yet, as someone reminded me recently, it is honorable work, and you're around books and people who like books, which isn't such a bad life.

It's funny that last Saturday, I was just saying to a coworker, it really only takes one interesting exchange a day to make it worthwhile. I had already had one such, and then this happened.

I was working at the information desk, and saw this guy standing nearby. He looked like he was maybe waiting for someone and yet his expression was kind of strange. Abstracted, or, I thought, maybe he was just a weird guy. I tend to keep a discreet eye on the more fringey, but he noticed this and snapped out of it, and smiled a bit and said, "How ya doing?" I said  I was fine, and he stood there for a moment, and then said, "I see you got this display on Egypt and all. Yeah, I was born at Wheelus Air Base in Libya." And then I got it--he wasn't fringey at all, he was just moved.

I said, "Actually, my parents met at Wheelus."

Of course, we bonded then. He had been born in about 1958, which was a few years after my parents were there, and his had left when he was only about three, so he had no real memory of the place, but it had obviously lived on in family lore, as it had in mine. My parents were both working there, while his mother was an air force wife, so the situation was somewhat different. Still, I think there was some larger similarity. They both knew Arabs but mainly as employees--in this man's case, they were household workers, while in my mom and dad's they were more employees of the base. I don't have the sense that there were many what you might call "peer relationships", however.

I was struck by how much more he knew about the base than I did. He had kept up, I suppose, partly because it was part of his family's life, while for me, it was more the precondition of our family. For instance, he knew about the tranfer last summer of the remains of 72 Americans to a U.S. cemetery, mostly stillborn and premature infants, who had been buried in the Italian El Hammangi Cemetery in Tri that was currently being 'downsized' in the process of being renovated. At the time of their deaths, back in the fifties and sixties, service personnel did not receive compensation to have their next of kin shipped back to the U.S. for burial, and so they had been left behind. This doesn't make them chintzy--I know my own parents married over there so that my mother, who had broken her contract early with Special Services, could fly home early as a military wife. Getting back was expensive.

He had also run into a bit of a shock a couple of years back when the company he worked for was bought by another and he was required to come up with a social security number, which he had never had to get. He had needed a birth certificate, and though he was born on that base, he was told that he had been born in an "unrecognized country", and besides all the records there had been destroyed. He was a man without a country indeed.

What's perhaps even more interesting to me, though, are the winds of fortune that have swept over this particular place in the last century. As a matter of fact, it was exactly 100 years ago that the Italians invaded North Africa, seizing on the opportunity of a power vacuum of the declining Ottoman Empire to weld two North African provinces into the state that we currently think of as Libya. In 1923 the Italian Air Force built the Mellaha Air Base where Wheelus was later. When Germany and Italy joined destinies in World War II, it was used for various types of recon by the Luftwaffe in the North African Campaign, until it was captured by the famed Desert Rats of the British Eighth Army in January, 1943. It was then the turn of the U.S. Army Air Force to use it for bombing runs over Italy and southern Germany.

When the war ended, the American military stayed on. The base was renamed Wheelus Army Air Field in 1945 after a  pilot named Lt. Richard Wheelus, who had died in an accident in Iran. (Yes, I'd like to tell you more about what made his death significant, but as is the case with internet research sometimes, everyone repeats the same scant facts.)   The Army Airforce was inactivated in 1947 and the base was reactivated as Wheelus Air Base and became the home of the  Military Air Transport Service or MATS, which is the group under which my dad ended up there.  MATS sounds to me a bit like the Merchant Marine is for the Navy, in that it provided supplies, refueling and logistics for other military aircraft. It was also a training base, and a strategic position to have should the Cold War with the Soviets ever turn Hot.

When an army coup had deposed the UN backed King Idris, who had been backed because of his support of the Allies, and Colonel Muammar Ghaddifi took his place at the helm, an already growing Libyan dissatisfaction with a foreign military presence quickly led to Ghaddafi's insisting on U.S. departure. It is somewhat incredible to me looking back to  realize that the coup was in September of 1969 and the flag was lowered on a base that had at one point been home to 4600 people on June 11th, 1970, just seven or eight months later.

It's a fair enough point to not want a U.S. base in your country, I think, especially when it's not even wartime. But apparently Ghaddafi did not want to be without all foreign military presence, because he then invited the Soviets to use the base, renamed Okba ibn Nafi Airport after a famous early Arab general, which basically became a place where the Soviets trained the Libyan air force to fly their MiGs. (Do you ever wonder how we all survived the Cold War? I do.)

You would think that might be the end of it, but fate had yet another twist or two. After the Berlin discotheque bombing of 1986, for which Ghaddafi claimed responsibility, and a few other provocative acts of violence, the U.S. decided to try and take him out with Operation El Dorado Canyon. Forewarned by the Italians, Ghaddafi and his family managed to escape, though they claimed that an adopted daughter had been killed. What the U.S. did manage to bomb though, was Okba ibn Nafi airport. According to Wikipedia, there were 6 aircraft sent, with 5 arriving to deliver 61 hits. Ironically, it seems that eighteen of the aircraft were 48 TFW F-111F "Aardvark" fighter-bombers, precisely the planes that the air force had been practicing with for years at Wheelus.

Not that I think the U.S. action was right in this case, but maybe things would have ended better for all if Ghaddafi had just let the U.S. base be.

Today, the site which has had so many previous incarnations is currently the Mitaga International Airport. I'm sure it's a lovely place and personally I'm more an airport than an airbase kind of gal. But in researching this post, I came upon a post from a site called Bahrain DC, where the video below, from one Tarek Alwan, was posted. It currently has 168 comments from former Wheelus folks, almost all of whom, despite the appalling heat, dust storms and, as my mother remembered it, flies, seem to have had  some pretty good memories of the place.

(I'm editing this post in January of 2016 because both a commenter and I have noticed in recent days that the Bahrain DC website seems to be down. I hope it's a temporary thing, but if anyone reading here notices that it's working again, or has some alternative sites for Wheelus people to visit, it would be much appreciated if you'd leave a comment or email me. I would update it on this main post.)

And editing again in July of 2016 to include a link to a PDF of a pamphlet from the era "So You're Coming to Tripoli", which was graciously supplied by a commenter here, Cathy Speegle. As it happens, I have the same little booklet, but lack the technology to make a PDF of it, so this is greatly appreciated

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


I'm watching The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell,  where for the second night in a row, Wisconsin Senator  Glenn Grothman is calling the Wisconsin protesters 'slobs'. Whatever the merits of his political positions, calling the constituents of the state a pejorative isn't exactly covering him with glory.

The more the word is bandied around, though, the more I found myself wondering about it. What does it really mean? Of course it means slovenly, sloppy and schlumpish. It's the opposite of clean and tidy. Whether it also means what you are at 7 AM after sleeping on the cold hard floor of the Wisconsin State Capitol as Senator Grothman has just stated is a question I will leave to others to decide. But where did the word come from?


My guess would have been that 'slob' was in some way a transmutation of 'Slav', which was pejorative enough, once upon a time, according to Rebecca West in the opening of her brilliant book about traveling in Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. In fact, it has nothing to do with that part of the world. It comes from the Irish slab, or 'mud'. Yep, still denigrating, but of an entirely different group of people. Slab shows up in Irish text in about 1780 and the theory is that it came first from England, which used the term for 'a muddy place' at around 1600. And i's roots may go back to  some Scandinavian beginning, as Iceland has the word slabb, for sludge.

It didn't get applied to people, though, until the mid 1800s. We can assume, I think, that the circumstances were somewhat Grothmanesque.