Sunday, May 29, 2011


The following is a commercial I've been seeing a lot lately. It's not a great commercial, but it got me thinking...

Fifty billion network devices by the year 2020. Seven devices for every person on earth, which really means that you and I will probably have at least twenty. And I'm not even close to being an early adapter.

Device is one of those words, old and reliable, that seems to have been gaining a bigger market share lately. I may be wrong, but I think its newer sense has really only passed into the common parlance over the last year or two. Before that, we heard more about the individual devices that people owned--Ipods and Ipads, Tablets, cell phones, ereaders, etc. To tell the truth, I am not sure of all the electronic paraphenalia that is meant to be included under the header of networking devices, but I do know that, according to the commercials, it's all getting a little out of hand.

What is a device? I mean, in its original sense? It's funny, because I have some vague association to the word that leads me to believe it has some occult meaning other than its more prosaic one. I would have just blamed that on to my ramshackle associative mind, but I came across a newish book of Philip Reeves called Fever Crumb and after a beginning where Fever and Dr. Crumb are manufacturing some paper boys, a "Master of Devices" is mentioned. Something tells me we are not in Silicon Valley anymore, Dorothy.

Device: A contrivance or an invention serving a particular purpose, especially a machine used to perform one or more relatively simple tasks.

That's what the Free Dictionary has to say about it. Relatively simple tasks? Perhaps. But these days the relatively simple tasks that our devices do are done at a speed beyond human comprehension, and enable them to accomplish things that we could not do in several lifetimes.

I often hazard a guess at the etymology of a word, only to discover my effort is completely without merit. This time, I was relatively sure that device and divide would be another false leap.

Guess what? Wrong again.

Device is a late 13th century word, and comes from the Old French devis.

Here's how the Online Etmology dictionary defines devis:"division, separation, disposition, wish, desire; coat of arms, emblem; last will." Ultimately the French can be traced back to the Latin. Divisare is the Vulgar Latin frequentive for dividare. (Vulgar Latin is the speech of the common person back in the day, and frequentive, though formidable sounding, really just means a the form of a verb that expresses repetitive action. It often becomes an independent but related word, as apparently it has in this case.)

So, a heraldic devise, a term which any of us who have ever had an idle look at the family coat of arms presumably has something to do with the way it divides the coat of arms. And anyone who has dealt with a will also knows that it is largely about divisions.I assume that the disposition, wish and desire aspects stem from this part of the word's history.

But speaking of desires, whenever I hear the word devices, I automatically think of the phrase 'devices and desires'. This is because of the P. D. James novel of the same name, but James, who is very well read and British to boot didn't just make this  up out of whole cloth. She lifted it from somewhere, and that somewhere turns out to be The Book of Common Prayer.

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
                                      1928 Book of Common Prayer, The Order for Daily Morning Prayer

The devices James was thinking of, though, were not not social networking ones, but presumably nuclear ones. Her novel is set at a nuclear  power plant on the British coast. It's been a long time since I read it, so I'm hazy on whether the peril was illegal uranium or just the danger of the plant itself, but I do know that 'apps' did not figure in.

"Devices and Desires" has been lifted for more than just the James title. A little book searching reveals under the same name a book about contraception, a science fiction novel, a study of  gender and American nursing, and unsurprisingly, a couple of books of poetry. It's a  tribute, not just to the prayerbook, but to the wide range of usage this original word for a simple gadget that would just perform its mindless task has come to cover.
Reddish Design Studio

And now to the more sinister, or at least supernatural aspect of device. Because once you start plugging in supernatural and device into the old Google Search engine, you of course come up with golem. What is a golem? Well, it's basically the Frankenstein monster of Jewish lore (although the Jewish model precedes the Mary Shelley versiion by a few hundred years)--an anthropomorphic being created wholly from inanimate matter, and made to fulfill some desire of mankind. The golems inevitably crack up and cause ruin and have to be destroyed.

So you think golems and our latter day devices really have nothing to do with each other? Well, what about  this, then?

Seriously, though--seven devices for every human being on earth? I would have thought that the trend was for each person to have only one--but that one would of course have to do everything.

Almost forgot to add a blog favorite. Let's give this one to Peter Rozovsky, of Detectives Beyond Borders renown. Although if you checked  it just at this particular moment, you come across a piece about Elmore Leonard, in general, Peter specializes in writing about crime fiction beyond our American shores. Maybe you think you don't like crime fiction, or even that you don't like foreign fiction--heaven forfend. Follow along on his blog for awhile, and I'm pretty sure you will realize that you thought wrong.  

Monday, May 23, 2011


I'm watching Rachel Maddow at the moment, and they just played back an old ad from the Johnson-Barry Goldwater presidential election. Someone had mentioned 'that old canard'. Realized of course that I have no idea what a canard is. I think of it as meaning that old saw or in this context, that old trick or even strategy. But what is it really? For some unknown reason, canard makes me think of ducks.

Maybe I'm mixing it up with mallards.


Okay--right about the duck, wrong about the phrase. I should have known the word's origin anyway. We used to sell pate de canard at the cheese shop I worked in many years ago, and I have enjoyed it many a time since. Sure, I usually refer to it as duck pate, but still.

An old canard is not an old saw, though. It's a false or unfounded story, a groundless rumor or belief. It comes from the French canard, which means hoax. Many seem to think it comes from the phrase vendre un canard √† moiti√©--to half sell a duck, which means to cheat. The story behind this phrase is lost in history. 

I found an interesting alternate version in a book called The Gaelic etymology of the languages of western Europe by Charles Mackay.

The natural history of the newspaper canard could more satisfactorily dealt with if authentic were forthcoming as to the origin of the term. It is to be feared, however, that the accepted story of the first canard--the typical canard to which all canards of a later period to be worthy of the name should present at least a general resemblance--must itself be regarded as a canard. The first canard, so runs the legend, was the tale of twenty ducks, all characterized by a ducklike greediness; while one of the number exhibited, under peculiar circumstances, a voracity akin to that which our own journals, in the dull season of the year, are still in the habit of attributing to the pike. To test not only the appetite and capacity of ducks, but also their disposition to eat one another, the first of the band of twenty was slain, and his remains distributed among  his companions, who hastened to gobble him up, feathers and all. A second duck, one of the nineteen who had just swallowed their fellow-creature--was now killed and like the previous victime, cut up into small pieces for the benefit of the survivors. Duck number two having been thus disposed of , a third was treated in a similar fashion. A like fate awaited duck number four: until, one after another, nineteen ducks had been sacrificed on the altar of science, and for the advantage, in respect to immediate gratification, of duck the twentieth. This strange story was quoted from one French journal to another and was generally disbelieved, so that the 'voracity of the duck,' and ultimately the word 'duck,'  got to be looked upon as the appropriate title of absurd newspaper journalism of every kind. The pointless fable of the twenty ducks (unless, indeed, the last all-devouring survivor was meant to prefigure such credulous newspaper readers as might be able to gulp down the preposterous fiction), after dying out in France, was revived in America, where the pretended derivation of the word canard, in the sense of newspaper hoax, from the duck story as above related, is sanctioned by the authority of Webster.--
Pall Mall Gazette, March 2, 1876.

There is also a French plane called a canard, because the French thought it looked like a duck when it flew, but I think I'll leave you to look that one up for yourselves...

*Being me, I forgot my intention of my last blog, which was to highlight some other blog before I go. Fortunately, I have a great suggestion for today, namely Nathaneal Green's  500 Words on Words . His blogs are always interesting and meticulous reflections on language and many things language related. Just by chance, he has a new post up where he's asking YOU for reading suggestions. So go give him some. You'll get points, and maybe even an AWARD. I just got a great one. Okay, there's no money involved but you'll still be happy that you did.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


(I think I had better mention straight off that this post comes as the result of a mistake. Simpatico online friend Kathleen Kirk mentioned on her blog that she would pass on a Versatile Blogger Award to me and some other bloggers she reads. The title of her blog post was 'Versatile Slattern', and somehow I ended up taking that to be the title of the award as well. I don't know--it made sense to me at the time...)

I wouldn't say this was a guest request, more a guest prompt. I notice over on Kathleen Kirk's blog that she has just awarded me a Versatile Slattern award along with a lot of other probably more versatile and probably a lot less slatternly bloggers. You're supposed to post seven facts about yourself and pass the award on to a bunch of other bloggers, but I'm a bit tired of the current facts about myself and I don't have a huge list of bloggers who appreciate the chain letter effect, so I think the way I'm going to approach this is to highlight some blog I frequent with each of these entries for awhile. Check in at the end for a sample.

First things first, though. Before I (provisionally, and without attending to all the rules) accept this award, I think I'd better figure out what a slattern is. Basically, I think of it as a slovenly person, and okay, pretty much always a woman. Slattern, slut, slovenly, sloppy--they all seem to go together in one package in my mind. At one end, unkempt and disorderly, at the other, well, at best a bit of a tramp and at worst... no, I'm not going there. I mean, maybe a slattern will turn out to be some kind of a queen!


Yeah, yeah--the Urban Dictionary has all of that worse end of the spectrum and then some. Tart, floozy, trollop, strumpet--these are just a few of the more polite words that are interchangeable with slattern. Also included are Britney Spears, Ann Coulter and Paris Hilton. Also apparently interchangeable is 'woman'.

And then, yes, on the other end, a 'deliberately offensive term meant to insult a woman's hygiene and grooming.'

The untidy meaning apparently came first. It is at least related to the word 'slatter'--to spill or splash awkwardly, to waste.
Of course, I had to see what Anatoly Liberman had to say about the whole thing. As usual, this is where we get into the larger and to me more interesting 'slant'. For 'slattern' turns up in his book Word Origins: and how we know them in his chapter on sound symbolism as he describes the group of words that resonate with each other simply because they start with that 'sl-' sound. As he has it, 'glide' and 'slide' are related words, but in the last, the idea of smoothness gives way to the idea of slipperiness. Sleek and slick, sled, slither, slobber--the list goes on and on. He talks a bit about the word 'sleazy'--apparently it did not come to mean sordid until around 1941. Liberman goes on,

"The adjective sleazy must have acquired its present-day meaning to conform to its sound shape. A word cannot exist in slums, surrounded by slatterns and sluts, and preserve its' purity amidst all this slime."   

All right. But this still leaves the question of why I thought a Versatile Slattern Award sounded like a compliment and not an insult. Well, it's all about linguistic reclamation, folks. You can read about taking back the pejorative on Hoydens About Town. It's a bit more rhetoric than even I want to wade deeply into, but to justify it a bit, let's end this portion of the show with one more thought from Mr. Liberman, this time in his article for OUP, A Flourish of Strumpets:

The author of an old dissertation (a Swiss researcher named Margrit Keller) examined British dialectal dictionaries and found about 600 words and phrases meaning “girl” and “woman.” Most of them are derogatory and harp on a few familiar notes: slovenly, lazy, garrulous, flighty, ugly, and too accessible for men’s pleasures. One or two are interesting to a linguist.  


Today's blog mention must of course go to Kathleen Kirk of Wait! I have a blog?! .After a year of daily writing on what other people were reading, she has loosened up her criteria but not her posting. Pretty much every day, Kathleen is on to something new. She's a poet, an actress, and I am getting the impression that she is currently doing something with musicals. Possibly involving the Civil War. And definitely involving the word 'skedaddle'.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


No, it's not what you think. I have not started wondering obsessively about weapons of war. As a matter of fact, the only reason this word came up was that it is was on the label of a type of Sierra Nevada beer I was drinking the other day. The only place I've ever seen these, though they must be common enough, is at the Mexican grocery that's on my way home. It's taken me a couple of years to wonder why it was called 'Torpedo'. And then, only as an afterthought, I wondered how torpedoes--those more familiar weapons of mass destruction--came by their name. It's not an English word--well, now I suppose it is. So what was it originally--Spanish?

What I'm guessing is that torpedoes must be named after some kind of fish, or shark--something deadly that moves swiftly underwater. Either that, or it's some kind of acronym. What's your bet?


Okay, maybe it's not fair to say this now, but I did wonder a bit about the similarity to the word 'torpid', meaning sluggish or slow. But that hardly seemed likely, so I figured it was a false etymology. The word 'torpedo' does come from a fish, of the genus torpedo, naturally, which is composed of electric rays, some of which are more commonly known as 'crampfish' or 'numbfish'. (More commonly known to some, I'll just add.) The connection to the word torpor is in the effect they have on their victims, in that they numb or cause torpor with the electrical charge they give off.

As Wikipedia has it, "With their thick, flabby bodies, torpedo rays are poor swimmers. Their disk-shaped bodies allow them to remain suspended roam with minimal swimming effort." Not exactly our idea of a torpedo now, is it? But the first torpedoes may have looked a lot more like their namesakes than the present day ones. They were basically floating mines, and it's interesting to see the evolution of them. Sadly, people tend to be quite ingenious about this kind of thing.

The progression seems to have been figuring out ways to secretly attach mines to enemy vessels, to developing floating mines that lay hidden underwater, with the unfortunate consequence of being hazardous to both sides, to 'spar' torpedoes, where the explosive device was basically set out on a long stick in front of a vessel and would detonate upon impact with another vessel, to finally figuring out ways to have these explosives self-propel themselves through the water toward a designated target. It was trickier than you might think to get these machines to stay under the water and to keep their aim true.

Here's a couple of things I didn't know. The first coinage of the word 'torpedo' for weaponry is attributed to Robert Fulton, he of steamboat fame. While in France, he developed what is thought of as the first practical submarine, the Nautilus. The Nautilus was designed to drag a 'carcass', ie, a mine. The ship pulled up alongside its target and drove a spiked eye into the enemy's wood hull. The submarine then sped off releasing the mine on a line that paid out through this eye, and only when the end of the rope had been reached did the mine explode on contact, while the Nautilus was safely away. It was demonstrated successfully on several occasions, but failed to capture European interest.

Which is why we remember him for the steamboat, I guess.

You know that famous line about torpedoes? "_____ the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Well, I always thought it was "Man the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" But that was wrong. It came at a moment in the Civil War when the  ironclad leadship, the U.S.S. Tecumsah, had just been sunk by tethered floating mines, then called torpedoes,  at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the whole fleet paused, afraid of going forward into these parlous waters. This is when David Farragut, who was watching the sinking while lashed to the rigging of his own ship, rallied the troops by ordering, "Damn the the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Which led to a major victory.

There is probably a lot more about torpedoes that I don't know. But I'm sure the real question here is, what about the beer? I have to admit that, because of where I found it, I assumed it was a label marketed to the Hispanic community here. But I'm wrong. According to their website, Sierra Nevada is "a big American IPA; bold, assertive, and full of flavor highlighting the complex citrus, pine, and herbal character of whole-cone American hops." I don't know why it's called Torpedo. Maybe because it packs a wallop? Or it's 'mind-numbingly' good?

Nor do I know why this little Mexican market is the only outlet I've ever noticed in town. Safe to say, though, that it must make someone very, very hoppy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mother's Day

Julia Ward Howe
Working in retail as I do, I've been selling cards, books and assorted bric-a-brac nonstop for the last couple of days, so it would be a bit hard for me to miss that Mother's Day is tomorrow, and could hardly fail to note that it is the first one since my mom's death last fall. My mom hated Mother's Day, though, so it was always a bit of a quandary what best to do about it anyway. For one of her early Mother's Days, my dad got her some kind of gift, which annoyed her in the extreme. 'Why did you get me that?' she asked him. 'I'm not your mother!' In later days, he'd buy her a robe or whatever and foist it off as coming from us. Obviously, it was always a bit of a puzzlement how best to deal with the day, though I must say she was never ungracious to any of her kids when it came down to it.

She was a devoted daughter and hardly a resentful mother, so it may be hard to understand her stance from outside. Basically, she resented the commercialization of the day, and the obligatory gift giving required. She always believed that people should do things for others because they wanted to, not out of guilt. I think she may have been a bit naive about certain aspects of human nature in this regard, but I think all in all I still prefer her leniency to its opposite.

A few years ago, though, I learned a few other facts about Mother's Day which are not at all what we think of when the day rolls around now. I think these are the kinds of things she would like to know now, and not wholly disapprove, so in her memory, I refreshed and added to my knowledge of this, and will set it down here.

First of all, Mother's Day is not just a transfer of the English Mothering Day or any of the other celebrations of motherhood that have come down to us from ancient times. English-speaking America originally abolished Mothering Day, not out of any animus toward mothers, but because all holidays, secular and otherwise, came up for review and were abolished or amended in the new, Puritan influenced culture. It wasn't till after the Civil War that Julia Ward Howe, who, though she had written the words for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, had been devastated by the carnage and loss of life that had taken place in the war, attempted to make Mother's Day a day about pacificism. Here's her Mother's Day proclamation of 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

"We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.

As men have of ten forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.
 Okay, this original Mother's Day didn't fly. But it did set a precedent. It was left to Anna Reeves Jarvis to adapt the idea and start a Mother's Friendship Day in West Virginia, the broader aim of which was the reconciliation of family and friends who had found themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War. It was her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, who later set about trying to get an official Mother's Day off and running in support of peace and in memory of her mother.

Anna M. Jarvis
The younger Ms. Jarvis then actually quit her job in order to devote herself more completely to the idea of this holiday, and after being taken up by the states, it became an official holiday under Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Not the greatest timing if you want it to be all about peace, but still. Good work, Ms. Jarvis. 
However, things are rarely that simple and certainly not this time. White carnations became the symbol of the holiday, and thus gave the American floral industry a vested interest in keeping the thing going. Not even 10 years after the official National holiday came into existence, the younger Ms. Jarvis was suing to stop a mother's day event, and by the 1930s had actually gotten herself arrested for disturbing the peace at an American War Mothers group.   
As a website called has it:
In opposition to the flower industry’s exploitation of the holiday, Jarvis wrote, “What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?” Despite her efforts, flower sales on Mother's Day continued to grow. Florist's Review wrote, “Miss Jarvis was completely squelched.”

So you see, my mother's feelings about the whole thing come from a long and noble line of ambivalence. but I can't resist finishing with the above article's last ironic twist:

Anna Jarvis died in 1948, blind, poor and childless. Jarvis would never know that it was, ironically, The Florist's Exchange that had anonymously paid for her care. 

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

I know--I know...

(Editing this to add a link to Kathleen Kirk's post on the same theme.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Because I've been out sick a few days, and because I have a thousand other more worthwhile things to do with my slowly returning energy, I've decided instead to tinker around with the blog. Normally, I don't use this blog for self-promotion and I'll assure you up front that this post won't result in any further financial gain for me. But I thought it  might be fun to give a little history on how I came to indulge in the rather trivial pursuit started here, with the idea of putting a little widget in the sidebar after I do.

A few years ago, 2005 to be precise, I must have had it in the back of my head to try some freelance writing. I don't know exactly what I had in mind, but one evening a little ad leapt out of the back page of our local free paper. Now normally the kind of thing you'd find here were ads for enlargements of the usual organs, and ways that you, yes, you could get into the movies and so on. So I didn't normally pay much attention to it, but for some reason a tiny ad saying something along the lines of 'Get paid to write trivia.' and then an email for Blue Bike Press.

Now this intrigued me. I thought how hard could that be? I'd been to a few pub quizzes, and thought I'd be up to the job of thinking up questions, if not of answering them. I think I was actually headed to a trivia night that night, as it happened.

Anyway, in typical style, I dilly dallied about it, until I noticed that the next week the ad was gone. I found the old issue of the paper and decided to respond anyway. Nothing much happened, but then a few weeks later, I got an email from Faye Boer asking me to let her know a convenient time to call. Eventually I spoke to this very kind and lovely  person, and learned that it wasn't trivia quiz questions she was after. She wanted a co-author a trivia book. Blue Bike Books had already done a successful series on each of the Canadian provinces, and had decided to branch out south of the border. They already had a Canadian writer, Lisa Wojna, who was doing some of the more standard parts of each of these U.S. books, but as she lived in Canada, she was needing American cohorts who knew the states in question. Although this was a much bigger gig than I had originally had in mind, it didn't take me long to say that I was interested.

Although I had originally responded to the inquiry for a Northern California writer, I did mention in the interview that I had been born in the southern part of the state and had had connections there all my life. In the end, this was the part of the state they hired me to write about.

The way it worked was that they sent me a list of categories and some of the things they expected to be covered within those categories as well as the categories that Lisa was covering. I had to get in a bio, a photo and I'm sure some other stuff that I no longer remember. The photo was not going to be published in the book, but was to be used as the source of a caricature. Of this, more later.

In some ways, the book had a rocky beginning. A close friend died between my making the commitment and starting to fulfill it, and another friend tragically lost a young husband before the process was completed. It was an odd atmosphere for a book with the subtitle 'Weird, Wacky and Wild'. Add to that that my first attempt to get a handle on the material had to do with California's early history, which, to put it quite simply, was largely tragic. I sent it in to Faye Boer, and although she said it was good work, her after comment was, "You do know that this book is supposed to be humorous, don't you?" So much of that earlier material was scrapped.

Researching a trivia book, like researching anything, is a strange journey. Many things pop up that you wouldn't expect, and many of them are moving, especially when you are dealing with the landscape of your own childhood. I don't think much of that shows up in the book--if it did, I failed to complete the basic assignment.

As I'm posting this partly as information for others pursuing this kind of work, I think I should mention one major glitch that came up at the last minute. Blue Bike Press had sent me the list which I, sometimes agonizingly, was at pains to fulfill. One of my friends at work said in passing, Seana, if you need some sports trivia, I'm your guy. I said blithely, no, they didn't ask me for any of that. But when the manuscript went to the substance editor, she said, "You haven't included any sports trivia!" As it turned out, they had accidentally omitted it from the list. But that didn't let me off the hook, of course. What would a trivia book be without sports trivia? I felt embarrassed not to have realized that for myself. But instead I went through a mad dash through Southern California sports, and even though I am far from a sports fanatic, I found much that was interesting there as well. Of course.

When the whole project was completed, I felt a certain degree of satisfaction with it. Left to my own devices, I would probably have written a somewhat different book, but then, left to my own devices, I would certainly never have written anything at all. Writing something under deadline is a lot like being back in school, I discovered, and I didn't actually enjoy that part that much. It's maybe why I haven't gone on to do other assignments as I once thought I would. But digging deep into obscure pockets of knowledge proved to be somewhat addictive. One thing that I learned about trivia is that it is rarely, well, trivial. The word trivia comes from a Roman word meaning the place where three roads cross. It's what comes up at the crossroads, which is usually thought of as the vulgar, the commonplace. Almost by definition, though, it's what engages our human interest. It's what, when we meet strangers on the way, we find too interesting not to talk about, to gossip over, to linger on. It is also possibly fractal, a sliver of the whole. But that's another discussion.

How did that photo of me turn out when it became a caricature? Well, you'd have to buy the book to find out. But if you want to see me rendered as some sort of Alpine mountain climber, well, it might be worth the price of the ticket...You can order it direct from Lone Pine Press, through Bookshop Santa Cruz, or, uh, any of the usual suspects, should you so wish.