Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Ignorant are YOU?

I thought I'd do a little table turning here today (and also make things a bit easy on myself, as I'm home with a cold) by posting the link to this quiz from a recent Newsweek. These are 25 questions that might be asked of an immigrant to the U.S. who is seeking citizenship. Apparently the way it works is that you are randomly given ten of these questions and have to get six of them right. The test was given to a wide swathe of Americans and 38% failed. Go ahead and take the test if you're so inclined, then meet back here. (Updated to say that the link to the first question is HERE)

(For anybody is not so inclined, you might just take a look at this issue of the magazine on line anyway. I actually swiped it from the laundromat because it has an article by Paul Theroux on Japan's recent tragedy, another by Simon Winchester  on the lost city of Atlantis, and even a piece by Stephen King on what he considers to be some must see TV.)


All done? Great. Let me start out by confessing that though I would have passed the 25 question quiz, on the shorter and official version, it depends a lot on what the ten random questions were. Odds are good, but still. And a lot might have ridden on the fact that I temporarily blanked out on the name of our current vice president. I could see him but that was it. I'm sure it would have come to me, but that's a lot to have riding on a memory glitch.

Now I'm not going to argue that Americans aren't pretty ignorant. Every time you watch one of the late night shows ask random people on the street if they know who the current Speaker of the House is, or even easier questions, you realize that a lot of people aren't exactly keeping up with current events. But I didn't entirely buy the larger premise of the piece, which was to bemoan our educational system and then propose remedies.

First of all, this kind of quiz is the kind of thing that is a bit like the DMV quiz. Sure, you know it all somewhere, or knew it once, but before you go in for the quiz, you get a little booklet, swat it up, and hone your memory. I know we have a lot of high school dropouts in this country, but most people who did complete all four years did have to take Civics, or at least in California they do. So you did learn at some point about the three branches of government, the two houses of Congress, the Bill of Rights and amendments at some point. Didn't you? I'm not saying it's particularly deep knowledge, but it does at least give you a structure to start from.

Secondly, the citizenship quiz makes a funny contrast with the proposed remedies in this follow up article , which among other things, advocates teaching the broader implications and questions that our history brings up. Surely the way you ace the citizenship quiz is by a lot of rote learning and ignoring the bigger issues altogether.

Maybe because I got it wrong, I question whether it is really important to know how many members there are in the House of Representatives, except when you're a strategist for a major political party. And I wonder if knowing how many amendments there are (yeah, wrong again) is as important as knowing what was at stake in a few crucial ones, like those that abolished slavery, and gave voting rights to a wider and wider portion of the population.

Excuses, excuses. What else did I get wrong? I blew it on Presidential succession (wrong house, though of course I had known it and will know it again), and I messed up on the supreme law of the land (Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Did I mention I have a cold?). But the one I would have contested if it was all that stood in the way of me and the swearing-in ceremony? I said that one of the powers of the federal government was taxation.

Yeah, it's been recently on my mind.     

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Having just recently read the excellent Eightball Boogie by Declan Burke, and with an eye to getting to James Lee Burke's The Lost Get-back Boogie soon, since a friend was kind enought to lend it to me recently, it occurred to me to wonder a bit about 'boogie'. I think I assume that 'to boogie on down' somewhere is more or less to hustle on down, and maybe implies a certain degree of rhythm and style. I also assume a boogie is a kind of dance or a type of music, somewhat (though not very much) like a polka or a waltz would be. I also assume it has African-American roots, probably Southern, and maybe even African ones. But what really is a boogie when it's at home, and where did it come from?


Bitten off a bit more than I can chew here, I'm thinking. First off, are we talking about the word 'boogie', or the music 'boogie'? I mean, it all comes together in the end, but from rather divergent sources. The online etymological dictionary is uncharacteristically a little too concise this time around. It says that the verb 'to boogie' comes out of late sixties rock music based on blues chords, which relates to an earlier blues style also called boogie, circa 1941, which goes back to the boogie-woogie style music of around 1928, which hales back to the boogie, or rent-party. Whew. That's a lot of undifferentiated boogieing! And surely boogie is not a translation of rent-party, but a slangy reference to one?

According to Jeremy Siepmann in The Piano, boogie-woogie was specifically an urban style, different from its cousin, barrelhouse, by being quicker--eight beats to a bar versus barrelhouse's four. Like barrelhouse, boogie-woogie was piano music, with a heavily accentuated bass line, which at first imitated banjo and guitar styles of early blues singers, but grew to mimick the sound of the steam railways, so many of which were built by black labor.

As Siepmann has it, boogie-woogie "is rife with extra-musical associations, most of them connected with sex". (Some rent parties they must have been, eh?) Boogie-woogie quite often meant "gettin' it on", with an unfortunate but related meaning of "secondary siphilis". Siepmann says that it was one record, Pinetop Smith's Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie of 1928 that sealed the deal on the name musically. Here's a later but I think faithful version:

Champion Jack Dupree - Pinetop's Boogie Woogie by Delta_Mike

Okay--if this elementary approach to boogie-woogie is a little too elementary for you, you might want to check out this extensive research, which will probably be more your cup of tea. Meanwhile, here we have a few other questions to try and sort out. Because where did boogie come from before it was a Southern urban music style?

There are a couple of different points of view on this. First of all, the musical slant leads back to this word deriving from Black West African English bogi, to dance, which might be related to Hausa buga, to beat drums. Makes sense, right?

But what about this interpretation from Cecil Adams at the Straight Dope? He thinks that the word comes by an extremely long road from the Latin Bulgarus, which meant a person of Bulgaria.  He says that the Old French word boulgre referred to a sect of 11th Century Bulgarian heretics, and the word passed into English as bougre, or heretic. This devolved into 'bugger', meaning what we've come to think it means but also more generally, any doer of "despicable acts". 'Bogy' or 'bogie' became another name for the devil, and then other little impish spirits as well. Hence, bogeyman. The thought is that bogey then became yet one more disparaging term for black people, and was later reappropriated by them. Much like that N-word epithet. Fine. Maybe that's it.

But then again, there is this persistent thread of meaning in the idea of moving. As in the French bougir, to move. As in boogie board, and really as in the title of the two books that got this whole topic started. Possibly this idea is discredited, possibly not. James Lee Burke, who writes in and of Louisiana has certainly come across the boogie-woogie connotations of his title. But he is just as likely to have come across some form of the French word in the Cajun French dialect that he and his character, Dave Robicheaux both know and occasionally speak.

Is it possible that the boogie we have today is a kind of amalgamation of all these things?

It would certainly be nice to think so.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Chicamacomico Races, Outer Banks
Hooray! Taxes are done and so I can get back to business here. A couple of days ago, fellow blogger and poet Kathleen Kirk asked if I did guest requests, and unless it's about, say, particle physics, the answer is yes. She had often wondered where the word 'skedaddle' came from and only come up with a few pieces of information about it, namely that it started to appear during the Civil War and that its origin was unknown. I said I would look into it, with the usual disclaimers. It's not like I have hidden sources of information, after all.

I think we all know pretty much what skedaddle means--at least those of us who are speakers of American English. "To run away or flee" is the general sense of it, but there's a light note in it--I don't think you'd probably hear anyone say "He coldbloodedly murdered his entire family and then skedaddled."

Anyway, the authorities are sticking to the "origin unknown" idea, but there is a bit more to it than that, which is what I'd like to get into here. The Online Etymology Dictionary actually quotes this blog's hero, Anatoly Liberman, in support of this unknown quality, but a closer examination of his book Word Origins and How We Know Them shows that he speculates in an interesting way about the word.

He starts by telling us of a German linguist named Heinrich Schröder who wrote an article about what he called Streckenformen. Sounds very forbidding in a German sort of way, but in fact it just means something like stretched forms, or words that have extensions within them. His idea was that sometimes people add an extra syllable in the middle of a word either to emphasize it, or to make its meaning funnier. The German language has more of these 'extenders' than English does, but slang like 'flibberdegibbet' and 'gobbledygook' with their connecting and unnecessary  'de' syllables in the middle are possible examples of what is, after all, only a theory.

Interestingly, skedaddle cropped up before its 1861 usage. It was in the dialect of Northern England and meant 'to spill', especially milk, but also, perhaps by extension, potatoes, apples and other things that could fall from a cart. Liberman makes an interesting observation when he says that skedaddle is a 'so-called' Americanism, "because American words alien to the British Standard often turn out to be regionalisms brought to the new world from England."  Liberman thinks our skedaddle is most likely related to the English dialect 'scaddle' which means "to scare or frighten: to run off in fright". Sounds plausible, if inconclusive.

As Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words tells it, skedaddle was one of those words that spread like wildfire--for its day and given its media options, it "went viral". It appeared in the New York Tribune on August 10, 1861 in the sentence "“No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skiddaddled’, (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).” As Quinion says, all the early references of this term referred to the war in a similar way. But it quickly morphed in civilian usage to  a more broad sense of 'leaving in a hurry'. It rapidly crossed the Atlantic, appearing in London newspapers by 1862, and  even found its way into Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset, which appeared in 1867. 

You can check out the sentence over at Mr. Quinion's place, but let's just say that by the time Lily gets her hands on it, skedaddle has nothing whatsoever to do with the Civil War.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


 So a harbinger is a kind of portent, right? It's come up a few times recently, mostly in watching the news about the Washington budget crisis, and of course I get it in context. But what is a harbinger when it's at home? And from whence does it derive?

Well, we got a lot going on here. A harbinger is one who foreshadows what is to come. A forerunner. If you contemplate that synonym, you may get a clue as to where 'harbinger' comes from. To be honest, I thought it might turn out to be some kind of bird. But no, a harbinger comes from the 15th century English herbengar, who was someone sent ahead by the military or a monarch to procure lodgings in advance. It's a twist on Middle English herberger, a provider of shelter or inn keeper. It goes back through the French to Old High German and the original compound is heri-- 'army' and berger--'shelter'. In this, it's related the the French auberge, or inn, also with German roots, which explains why it's never sounded very French to me. As time went on, the lodging procurer by imaginative extension became a kind of herald.

'Harbinger' is also related to 'harbor', with its roots of here-- 'army' and beorg--'refuge or shelter'. It seems obvious once you break it down, but hardly so from present day usage.

An interesting little oddity attaches to harbinger. Between herberger and harbinger, you'll notice that somewhere along the way, an -n- was acquired--an intrusive -n- as the online etymological dictionary would have it, and it even directs you to the word 'messenger'. Here you will find that the original word in English was messager. On this point, the dictionary gets quite uncharacteristically grumpy: "With parasitic -n- inserted by c.1300 for no apparent reason except that people liked to say it that way (cf. passenger, harbinger, scavenger)."

Sounds a bit like me when I've failed to plumb the depths of the mystery here.

A plant called 'Harbinger of Spring' 

All right, so harbingers of spring are all well and good, but as  a fair portion of the commenters here are crime fiction readers and writers, this post would not be complete without a harbinger of death. CBS doesn't let you imbed video, but you will find this odd story HERE.

Friday, April 8, 2011

After my recent 'beg the question' post, I can't resist postingthis link to an article by Ben Yagoda about how long we should cling to a word or term's original meaning in the face of a  more popular misuse. I post it not only because the same kind of question has come up here--though not been begged--but because Yagoda mentions the 'begs the question' question himself.

So where are you on the prescriptivist/anything goes spectrum?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Something brought this one to mind recently, I don't remember what, and then I saw it again in a blogpost condemning many things, including 'ersatz art' and thought, well, it's time to do it. I always think of 'ersatz' meaning fake or phony, but I realize as I contemplate it that it also has connotations (to me anyway) of empty, hollow, puffery. I'm guessing it's a direct steal from some other language, but that '-atz' ending isn't giving the clue I should probably be getting from it. Is it Yiddish? German? Russian? Made up?

We'll see.

Well, this is pretty good. Ersatz, in its original German, simply means replacement or substitute. And it is always a noun or part of a compound noun in its native language. It became an adjective in its crossover to English out of a simple misunderstanding. In what is once again turning out to be a military post, we have World War II Allied Forces POWs to thank for bringing it home.

There appear to be a couple of different points of contact. First, on the Eastern Front, the Germans fed prisoners what they called 'substitute bread' or ersatzbrot, which was made with inferior flour and 'extended' by various means, including adding sawdust. Secondly downed British airmen were frequently given ersatzkaffee, which had no real coffee in it, but was more of a grain drink. Because of these associations, ersatz became linked in English speaking minds with 'inferior' and what was actually a double noun in German was assumed to be an adjective and a noun in English, so that the 'ersatz' could be broken off and used as an adjective on its own.

SMS Yorck in the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal
For Germans, though, ersatz does not automatically have a pejorative cast to it. As proof of this, German used ersatz in the course of its early 20th century ship production. They would take the name of a former ocean going vessel and give the replacement ship the same name while it was in construction, not christening it with a new name until the vessel was complete. So the replacement ship for the sunken armored ship Yorck, which apparently blundered into Germany's own defensive minefields, was the Ersatz Yorck, and it and other replacement ships Ersatz Gneisenau and Ersatz Scharnhorst together comprised the Ersatz Yorck Line. Only Ersatz Yorck was ever even started and none were ever completed. Beginning a shipbuilding project with the name of a sunken battleship ever in the back of your mind-- especially a battleship that was accidentally sunk by your own side and which the captain was courtmartialed over--wouldn't have seemed the best way to go about this to me. But then, no one has asked me, have they?

A line drawing of the Ersatz Yorck

Sunday, April 3, 2011


This post does not beg any questions, but simply is a question. Do people that read this blog with any regularity wish I had a followers' gadget on here? I don't mind putting one on if it helps anyone else, but since it's not really the way I keep up with the blogs I like, I haven't felt the necessity. I've added a subscriber button recently, because some of my friends and family are not on Blogger but like a reminder now and then. So I'm reconsidering the follower gadget too. Let me know if you have any opinion whatsoever about this. If I hear nothing, I'll just leave this as it is.

Also, if you wish I would follow your blog instead of just reading it, let me know, either here or by my readily available email, and I will add you. It doesn't mean I'll read you any more that way, but  I'm game.

Up to a point.