Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jury duty, and other forms of public happiness

Yesterday was kind of a weird day. I had been summoned for jury duty, which meant that I spent the first half of the day in the Santa Cruz court system. I ended up in the first pool of prospective voters, and, not hugely to my surprise, I was excused in the first round of voir dire, where the lawyers for both sides get to pick a certain number of people to eliminate without having to provide reasons. That means that you don't get to know what you said that made you unsuitable but I do know that it was the prosecution's side that voted me off the island.

Sometimes people try to get out of jury duty, but I wasn't aiming for that. I wasn't entirely against getting a break from retail for awhile. Frankly, I'm glad it's over, but I would have put in the time if it had had turned out otherwise. As the judge pointed out to us before things got underway, we weren't there to make things easy on the government, we were there to provide a fellow citizen a jury of his peers. I came home to find Hurricane Sandy in full sway and the topic of most network news. I liked this segment from the Rachel Maddow show, which talked about duties as citizens in a different way. Sometimes what is asked of you is bigger than you, and that's not necessarily a bad thing:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Being on a jury,however briefly, is one of those things that makes you feel like a citizen. I have very conflicting and ambivalent views of the justice system, based on my own experiences. But I was pretty heartened by the way that my fellow citizens showed up to fulfill this duty, despite their busy lives. I think we can all become very cynical about what our fellow Americans are, and what they think and what they know, but I didn't feel that way listening to my fellow potential jurors. The defense lawyer asked people if they were happy when they got their jury summons. No one raised their hands. Nevertheless, despite not being happy, a whole bunch of people turned out on a busy Monday morning to fulfill their civic duty, and as far as I could tell, no one was trying to sabotage their own chances of getting selected. They were thoughtful, and trying to be honest about their reactions to the questions. I had a few issues about the questions, personally, but that's why I'll probably never get selected.

Our former county supervisor, Gary Patton, did an interesting blog post about citizenship and voting today. He quotes the Hannah Arendt Center blog in saying that voting is not the highest form of citzenship.

Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words, "they knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions."

Patton took this idea to heart as a county supervisor and held regular morning at the old Caffe Pergolesi. I wasn't among those attending in that time, but I'm pretty sure there was a fair amount of public happiness floating around amid the espresso steam back then.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cast Your Vote! Get it done!

I was thinking about putting out this post a little later, but the current President of the United States voted today, the first standing President to do so, probably to convince the electorate that it's a perfectly appropriate thing to do. I suppose his opponents will wait to vote till after Election Day, out of sheer spite. (Sorry--I've been reading a lot of Molly Ivins lately. I might be channeling her.)

I too have already voted. In California it's been possible for a week or so now. I have the possibility of jury duty next week and I've been clearing my calendar a bit. It helped that last weekend, my friends and I were assisting their 98 year old father in voting his absentee ballot. If you don't live in my state, you might be shocked at how many propositions we have to sort through on top of everything else, so I was pleased to learn a bit more as we read the various parts of the ballot aloud to him. (He's still sharp, but he doesn't see so well now.)

Although I think my liberal bias is probably pretty obvious, I'm not just talking to liberals when I use this post to enjoin you to get your vote in. I get really tired of people who are so above the process that they don't think they'll bother. Even if for some reason you think it doesn't matter who  the Commander in Chief of the country is, there's plenty else that's going to make a difference in your life on the ballot. I live in a largely liberal town for example, and the City Council tends to ride somewhat left of center. But if you think that means they are all on the same page when it comes to the issues of our community, you could not be more wrong.

Quite apart from who, though, I think we can all get a bit complacent about our right to vote, and to take it for granted. In fact, as I learned on the Lawrence O'Donnell show tonight from his guest Mo Rocca, our right to vote is not explicit in the original Constitution, it is only implied.

I thought I'd list the chronology of suffrage in the U.S.:

White men without property gained the vote in a process that gradually gave them the vote between 1820 and 1850.

State and federal citizenship upheld for all people or naturalized into the U.S. by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

The Fifteenth Amendment then logically upholds the right to vote for non-white men in 1870.
Freedmen of South Carolina, 1868

It isn't until 1913 and the 17th amendment that U.S. Senators are elected by the people, rather than their state legislatures. (Looking at you, electoral college.)

Yeah, we've gotten this far without it occuring to the powers that be that women should be included in the vote. So, not till 1920 do we get the 19th amendment.

Native Americans had to wait another four years--1924. And sometimes a lot longer.

Princess Watawoso, casting the first vote on Indian Island, 1955

Not until 1961 were the residents of the District of Columbia allowed to vote in the presidential elections. Now we're talking about within my lifetime.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests as an obstruction to voting, which had been a means of disenfranchising the votes of the poor and particularly poor blacks.

Discriminating against the poor in another way was eliminated by the 24th amendment, which prohibited the poll tax.

The 26th amendment, in the Vietnam era, reasoned that if you were old enough to go to war, you were old enough to vote. Minimum voting age went from 21 to 18 in 1971.

Residents of Washington DC were restored their rights to vote for their own local government in 1973. Still at loggerheads with the feds over other issues, though. Congress retains the power to overthrow these laws should it see fit.

Finally, although, probably not really finally, we have the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which guarantees voting rights to military and other citizens residing overseas at the time of elections. (* I originally wrote this as the Uninformed and Overseas Citizens, more proof that they are just like everybody else.)

As you can see, the trend so far is towards greater and greater suffrage. We've still got some issues around Washington DC, Puerto Rico and other places with complicated histories. You can also see that just because it becomes obvious that some group should be able to vote, the next group seeking to be treated like full citizens don't just get a free pass. It's always a fight.

Neither of my grandmothers were born with the right to vote, though both of them were among the most politically interested women I know--on opposite ends of the political spectrum, too. They both were eager to argue politics with anyone and they passed that on to their kids. Arguing politics was actually how my parents got to know each other.

A few years ago, I did a little walking tour of London. Though it was intermittently wet, we didn't mind, as we had a very engaging tour guide who knew her stuff. Eventually, she took us to the Emmeline Pankhurst statue, which was put up in honor of her militant struggle for women's suffrage in England. Our guide said that knowing Pankhurst's fight made her angry at voter apathy. She found it hard to understand why women would take their vote for granted, knowing the history.
So let me take it a step further. If any of your ancestors were women, or renters, or black, or Native American, or poor, or in the overseas military, I think you kind of owe them the time it takes to vote, don't you? Because you know there is someone with views very different from your own who will be very happy if you don't.


Sunday, October 21, 2012


It's been a busy week, and I'm not really up for research today, so I thought I'd share an odd little moment I had. It was this past Wednesday, October 17th, and I was at work, holding down the fort at the information desk. A young guy with long braided hair comes up to the desk--he looked a bit like an African prince, dressed down. He said to me, do you know what day it is? And the funny thing, is I knew exactly what he was asking me, so I said yes, I do. He said, my uncle was Shawn McCormick. And again I knew exactly who he meant. It's my birthday, he said. And my uncle died on this day. And I told him that I knew about Shawn McCormick. Shawn McCormick was one of two people who died on the other side of a wall from me, when that brick wall collapsed on them as they worked at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. He and Robin Ortiz were both very young people on October 17th, 1989, the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

I always do remember the date, not so much because of the trauma, but because there is a cluster of dates that come together in the middle of the month--my dad's birthday on the 16th, and my friends' son being born that same date, the day before the earthquake. So, like Shawn's nephew, there is a heavy plus and minus feeling to this time of year. I remembered the date that morning, but though several of us old hands still work at the bookstore, I didn't really think of bringing it up at work. It's not one of those round number anniveraries, and twenty-three years out, there really isn't so much to say. But I was very happy that this young man, who was two at the time his uncle died, had thought to come up to a random stranger who was connected with the bookstore. We shared a moment. We shook hands. He told me his name, but I don't remember it, though I wouldn't have posted it here anyway.

I didn't know either Shawn or Robin, but I do always think of them when I mark this day. The wall could so easily have fallen the other way.

a view of the buildings from the back, post-quake 

Monday, October 15, 2012

do si do

This is just a fun one. One of my friends at work asked me how to spell 'do si do' for a press release, and I had no idea, so I looked it up. Answer: there are various spellings. Why? This was a bit surprising.  I'm sure most people reading here will associate the term with Western squaredancing. If you're like me, you kind of assume one of the callers just made it up on the spot at some point. It just sounds kind of right, doesn't it?

Well, as almost always with words, there is a little bit more to it than that. And we'll get to that. But first:


Wanted to make it simple for you... A do si do is a square dance figure in which two partners approach each other back to back before returning to their original spots. Now if I had to guess, I'd have thought that that "dos" sound would have had something to do with two, if it wasn't just a nonsense word. But it doesn't. The phrase 'do si do' comes from the French dos-à-dos, or "back to back". This relates it to a couple of surprising phrases. First of all, that dos connects it to "dossier", which actually relates to the whole idea of "back" in several hypothetical ways. It's a bundle of papers, sure, but the term is related to the idea of having a label on the back or being shaped like a hump on the back. Tellingly, I think, the Old French dossiere was a back strap on a horse's harness.

And  what of 'vis-à-vis', which we now tend to think of as 'in regard to, or in relation to' ? Well, it's simply this term's opposite--namely, 'face to face'.

Although I don't think it's a squaredance term.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

One small, underreported (nonpolitical) and heartening consequence of the vice-presidential debates

I don't tend to check the stats on this blog too often. I find it kind of cramps my style to think about that stuff too much. But every once in awhile I'll end up on the design page and take a look, and yesterday was one of those days. I was a bit surprised to see a huge spike in hits, but it didn't take long to figure out why. No, people were not mad to learn what I would have to say about obstetric fistulas, which was my last post here. What they wanted to know about was malarkey.

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of information was to be had, so I'm sure they skipped on through. The heartening part, though, is that there were a fair number of knowledge seekers out there on debate night who were curious enough to try and find out a little bit more about what that word Joe Biden used meant.

Since I didn't hold up my end very well, I thought I'd repost this bit from Anatoly Liberman, which ended up in the comments field rather than the main post. He's always worth reading, and as he'd say, I think, some people's guesses are more intelligent than others...

Malarkey “nonsense.” Several conjectures about it are on record, some of which are not worthy of mention. Eric Partridge derived malarkey from Modern Greek malakia, defined as “masturbation” and “tricky.” In my opinion, his guess holds out no promise. Other people traced the word to an Irish family name. Irish names have fared badly in English etymology: hooligan, hoodlum, and larrikin (Australian slang for hoodlum) have been given Irish lineage, but no one will be convinced until it can be shown who the first infamous Hooligan, Hoodlum, and “little Larry” were. Peter Tamony, an unrivaled expert in the history of Californian slang and San Francisco street life, traced malarkey to a certain Mullarkey (of San Francisco), the son of Joe Mallorca, a Portuguese. “This son assumed the name Jerry Mullarkey under the delusion he was of Irish descent.” He left his mark as oyster shucker (opener) and great boaster. Malarkey became the pseudonym of Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (TAD), a celebrated cartoonist and sports writer, and indeed a man of Irish descent. According to Tamony, this is how the word malarkey “talk, bunkum, and baloney” came into being (Western Folklore 33, 1974, 158-162).

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I suppose a word of caution is needed here, as this contains some pretty difficult and graphic material. Not for kids, I'd think. Although, sadly, it's pretty much about kids.

Last week was pretty heavy in the TV watching department when it came to thinking about women's rights and issues around the world. Not only did I end up watching Half the Sky, which is a four hour documentary about tackling women's issues around the globe, but somehow ended up keeping the television on and thus seeing  a Nova segment called A Walk to Beautiful, which was about a clinic in Ethiopia  where they treat the apparently enormous problem of obstetric fistulas in the country.

To cut to the chase a bit, many rural women in Ethiopia suffer devastating shame and ostracism because of a complication of giving birth which leaves them unable to hold their urine and in some cases their feces. The reasons have to do with heavy lifting and malnutrition in early childhood, early marriage and lack of prenatal care, to name but a few. The immediate cause however, is a fistula.

I have heard the word fistula before, but never really knew what it was. Due to the similar sound in English, I could never escape thinking of it as a little fist, but that idea didn't really serve me very well.

So, unless you've already gone on over to watch the documentary, which I highly recommend, shall we explore what a fistula is?

Oh, well--I can always do it on my own.


A fistula is a permanent abnormal passage between two hollow or tubular organs in the body, or between an organ and the body's surface. An obstetric fistula makes a passage between either the vagina and the bladder or the vagina and the rectum, or, in some really horrific cases, both.

Fistula doesn't have anything to do with the word fist, however, which probably goes back to an early root having to do with five.  In Latin, fistula means a pipe, reed, or even a flute. Tellingly, it also means ulcer, from which I suppose our present meaning derives. What lies beneath or behind that, no one seems to know.

Watch A Walk to Beautiful. These young women need all the empathy they can get.

Sunday, October 7, 2012



What particularly interested me out of the above segment was the following quote:

MADDOW: Today, President Obama sent to the Federal Register this notice. Look, "Consistent with section 202D of the National Emergencies Act, I`m continuing for one year the national emergency previously declared on September 14th, 2001. Because the terrorist threat continues, the national emergency declared on September 14th, 2001 and the powers and authorities adopted to deal with that emergency must continue in effect beyond September 14th, 2012. Therefore, I`m continuing in effect for an additional year the national emergency that was declared in 2001 with respect to the terrorist threat." What does the word "emergency" even mean anymore if we establish one for a year in advance? And what we`re calling an emergency now is starting its 12th straight year? It will be a good day in America and a good day in the English language when the word emergency is allowed to get its meaning back.

All right, that's an interesting question, but even more interesting is where did the word emergency come from in the first place? I have a friend who is very interested in what is currently termed 'emergent theology', which is about a theology that being born in response to what we think we know about the world, physics, etc. now. So, does emergency have any relation to this sense of emerging? I feel it must, but can't quite pin it down. Not all emerging is an emergency, after all...


Emergency does come out of emerge--in a way, it's "emerge's" own emergency. The definition of an emergency is "an unforeseen occurrence requiring immediate attention". Emerge, which means to rise out or up (rather than to merge, which is to dip, sink, plunge--think "immersion", or "submersible" sink) is from the 1560s, while emergency doesn't appear in written form till 1620. It all stems from the usual middle French, which in turn stems from the usual Latin. 

I spent a fairly fruitless time trying to get how emergency came to have its more specific meaning of "crisis", but didn't really get anywhere, and actually came upon a couple of blogs that had trodden these paths before. You can check them out HERE and HERE if you want to try and find something I missed. They're interesting, even if there is a lot of invective against Judge Judy in the comment threads on one.

I suppose in a way, an unforeseen occurrence always has some potential for crisis about it. And of course, as I can never remember enough, the drift of words changes their meanings quite often.

As apparently now one can be called by presidential order...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

OED Appeals

Just found this in my blog roll. The OED has opened up a dedicated space on their website where they're asking the public to  help research the history of words.

As a friend told me once, and as the website confirms, this has always been the method of the OED.

The OED has been a collaboration between lexicographers and the public since its earliest days, from the appeal issued by the Philological Society in 1859, to the television programme “Balderdash & Piffle,” broadcast in 2005 and 2007. OED Appeals continues this tradition by using the reach of the web and social media to connect lexicographers with those who may hold hidden clues to word history without even realizing it.

For the word enthusiast, this sounds like great news. Readers here might think this would be right up my alley, but actually I'm not really a researcher of this ilk. I'm mostly concerned to dig into my own murkiness and misconceptions. But I know there are people out there who will have a field day with this kind of crowd sourcing idea. If that's you, what are you waiting for? Have at it!

*10/7/12 Amending this to say that I just took a look over there and realized I had something to contribute on the word "cootie". Take a look--you might remember something too.