Sunday, January 29, 2012

Force Majeure

I know, I know--hardly a phrase you are likely to use in conversation on any given day. But it did come up in  a group discussion the other evening, and since I had thought I knew what it meant, and was pretty much totally wrong, it seemed fair game for a blog post.

Let's start with the misconception. If I had been asked to guess what force majeure meant, I would have said that it meant something like 'the upper hand'. In fact, I would have thought it came from the realm of card games, and meant a serious hand, or some sort of decisive superiority of resources, such as in a military victory.

It turns out, though, that force majeure is a legal term and a fairly technical one at that. It refers to an inability to fulfill a contract due to an unpreventable and unforeseeable event, like a hurricane or a flood (though not all hurricanes or floods, because some are predictable or at least foreseeable). "An act of God" is one of the situations it covers, but war and unanticipated failures by third parties also fall within its purview. As you can imagine, there are a lot of legal battles over whether force majeure is really at play in a given circumstance. Wikipedia cites a couple of cases in French law, for example where the reason of force majeure was denied, once for a flood because a flood had occurred in the same area 69 years before, and once for an avalanche that occurred in the same area as one fifty years before. It would be interesting to know if American law has as long a memory on such things.

The reason this all came up at the Penny University the other night, though, had nothing to do with contract law. When I walked in, late as usual, there were a couple of guest speakers up front. These turned out to be Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, who currently have a post in the Digital arts department up at UCSC. I hadn't heard of them before but they are apparently internationally acclaimed eco-artists. The list of projects they've worked on since the seventies is vast and impressive.

One of the projects they worked on recently is called "Force Majeure". Here is how they explain the use of the term in word:

We developed the name “the Force Majeure” to explain the accelerating transaction between aspects of the Global Warming phenomenon and their interaction with the many ecosystems that are under stress or in actual turbulence from over-demand by human activity. This work envisions a counter to the reduction of production and consumption due to market contraction and turbulence that mirrors the shrinking productivity and wellbeing of the world ocean and many, many other overstressed planetary sub-systems.

I have to admit that this is not the easiest text to parse, but they are a lot more down to earth in person. Here is a link to the project on their website at The Harrison Studio , and here is a link to the first section of their keynote speech at UCSC.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Graham Gets Grimm Again

The man on the right is Rick Kleffel, but the man on the left isn't me.*
One of these days I'm going to whip this blog back into shape, but in the meantime, I thought it might be interesting for some of you who've never actually met me to hear me blather on about the Grimm Tales anthology that I have a story in, along with about sixteen other more accomplished crime writers. Not that you have to listen too closely to anything I have to say, but it can be fun to hear a voice behind the printed word.

Rick Kleffel is a local interviewer and reading enthusiast extraordinaire with the occasional spot on NPR, and we've talked a time or two before, so  I wasn't too shy about strong-arming my way onto his show. I really like his interview style, which is to treat every interview as if it was important and to be well prepared for each of them. I often listen to his show on Sunday evenings here, and there's a uniformly high standard to his questions. You can catch many of his shows in the KUSP archives, or at his own website The Agony Column . 

The good think about listening to my interview is that you'll get about 45 minutes of the great Sara Paretsky first.

*(It is Guillermo del Toro).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Polari as she is spoken...

As I'm to gather my thoughts for our Finnegans Wake blog, I thought I'd post this YouTube link that Paul D. Brazill was kind enough to send me. Polari features a bit, just so you'll have some sense that I tried to stick to some sort of theme.

Paul's blog disappeared suddenly in an ominous seeming way yesterday, so I'm very glad to find out that it was only one of those Google glitches. Which are common enough that someone should invent a word for them. Like, say, "googlitches".

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012


I was watching some show or other the other night and someone on it used the word 'dupe'. In context, it somehow seemed to have an added meaning of duplicate or double, and since I'm quite interested in the idea of double lives and doubles in general right now, I found myself wondering where the word 'dupe' came from. Of course we all know that it means cheat or trick or swindle, but I was wondering how it got its start and whether it did in fact have a double sort of nature.


Well, a dupe is, not so surprisingly, just a shortened form of "duplicate". So much for my fascinating connecting theories. But dupe as in "to dupe" or "to be a dupe" has an interesting, separate source. It comes from the Middle French duppe, which was thieves' jargon, and one thought is that it goes back to de huppe, or, in  our language, "of the hoopoe", which was thought to be an incredibly stupid bird. I guess in English a gull, or even a dodo might stand in for this. I don't think I've ever heard a dim bulb described as a hoopoe here, at any rate.

This isn't the first time thieve's jargon has come up around these parts. It surfaced in the word posh, a post which also led to the discovery of another secret language--polari. I mention this mainly because I came across an article in this month's issue of The Believer, which talks about why the polari language is dying and what that means. Here's the link, but it will only give you the beginning of the thing. I leave you to your own devices to read the rest.

Is the hoopoe really all that stupid?

Maybe, maybe not. But they certainly don't lack an inquisitive streak.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Murphy Bed, O Murphy Bed--whereforeart thou?

Sometimes it's better not to buck a trend and just go with the flow. So, after a suggestion from Adrian McKinty, author of the newly released and wonderful The Cold Cold Ground, that someone should find out where Murphy beds came from, I decided a little reluctantly that I'd look into it.

To be honest, I didn't think there would be anything very specific. No one seems to be able to track down with precision who made either the Davenport sofa or the Davenport desk, even though it was pretty clearly someone named, well, Davenport. There are some ideas around, but no thorough documentation.

I recently learned that Murphy is the number one surname in Ireland. The odds of tracking this one down seemed a lot smaller.

Not so.    

The Murphys are alive and well and living in California. Well, some of them, anyway. They even have a website. (Yeah, go ahead on over--you'll get a quick demonstration.) I'm pretty much poaching directly from their story, but it turns out that one William L. Murphy who was born in Columbia, California, a Gold Rush boom town, made his way to San Francisco at around the turn of the last century. Like San Francisco dwellers even now, he found living quarters cramped and pricey, but being an enterprising type he invented a bed you could fold up into the wall, which at that time and for a long time to come was called the Murphy In-a-Dor Bed. Manufacturing began in San Francisco, but moved eventually to New York. (Although one of my sisters lived in a San Francisco studio for awhile and it had a genuine Murphy bed in it, which I have to say, was pretty neat.)

Another interesting thing about the bed was that it was in high demand in the 1920s and 30s, as urban dwellers faced the same dilemmas they do today. But with the onset of World War II, production dropped off because of the rationing of the steel used to build the bed frames. And after the war, the G.I. bill gave vets the possibility of buying their own homes and finding larger spaces.

Over the decades, this trend reversed, and if you live anywhere where housing is at a premium, as I do, you will be thinking that the Murphy bed seems like a pretty sweet deal.

Thank you, William Lawrence Murphy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Davenport-- a tale of two settees. (Or one settee and a desk.)

Looks pretty much like any other college coffee shop, right?
When you do this sort of blog, certain repetitions stand out a bit more than they might in normal life. All the same, by the end of my Christmas weekend, I had heard the word "davenport" more than seemed statistically likely. (Statisticians, scoff as you will ). My nephew had been mentioning the Davenport Coffee Shop at American University, where he's going to school right now in Washington DC.

So I mentioned the little town just up the coast from me, where the Davenport cash store is a popular place to drive up for breakfast.

Then our friend was trying to connect us up to 'her guy' in relation to my mom's estate. I finally said, I  keep hearing about this "guy", but what's his name? His name, of course, was Davenport. Then on the next night, I saw something on Rachel Maddow about the Davenport Skybridge, which crosses the highway in (where else?) Davenport, Iowa, for better viewing of the Mississippi River.

Mr. Davenport, aka "the guy"

But all of this left unanswered a simpler question that slowly began to emerge. What exactly is a davenport? I mean, it's a couch, of course. I can even picture one in my mind. It would belong in a suburban den, and be plaid, with a cloth ruff. So does the word come from a name, a place or just what exactly?

Iowa--who knew?

Time to find out.

I'm not sure we have the answers we need here--maybe we're left with more of a puzzle. A davenport is a sofa, but it's the kind of sofa that means different things to different people. To some people it means a very formal sort of couch, while for others, it means couch that hides a bed within. Although it is not entirely possible to trace this to a source, it does seem very likely that it started as a kind of sofa, made by a company with the family name of Davenport.

But wait! Are we talking about the sofa, or are we in fact talking about an entirely different piece of furniture? Because the facts are indisputable--before there was a davenport sofa, there was a davenport writing desk. Two different pieces of furniture called davenport? What the heck?

Davenport user on the right...
Hmm. Apparently, there were not just one but two different families who decided to trademark their furniture under their own name at different points in time.

Oh, really?

Here's what I think.

"Davenport" actually refers to a secret portal for space aliens. So any time you hear the word "davenport", you need to be cautious and on your guard. Anyone called Davenport is probably "of another realm"--one that has a curious affinity for fine furniture, which despite their incredible need for secrecy, they are unable to resist identifying with themselves. Any place that names itself Davenport is advertising it's special portal powers.

Unconvinced? Take a look at this short video of the Davenport Skybridge and tell me it's not blatantly advertising itself to the cosmos as point of entry:

Am I crazy? Yeah...crazy like a Davenport.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

trifles, a continuation

Well, I think this was sort of inevitable. You don't post a story on a blog about words and ignorance (amongst other things) with a title containing the word "trifle" without in the back of your mind realizing that you will need to address the puzzling nature of the term as well. I do know that a trifle is a) a thing of little or no importance, and b) a rather elaborate British dessert. The question arises--are these two things related?


I think so. "Trifle" the dessert seems to have come from the first meaning of "trifle" as a thing of no importance. Although I haven't entirely satisfied myself why it came to to be called so, I think it is less a matter of ironic understatement than the fact that a trifle is meant to be a frothy light dessert rather than a heavier cake. My guess is that it's the lightness of the concoction that got it it's name. A regular commenter here, who goes by a couple of different noms de plumes including Tales from the Birch Wood, has graciously taken on the task of hunting down the history of the dish at her blog The Widgeting Hour, which leaves me only to dig up the etymology of the original word.

Back in the early thirteenth century, "Trifle" was originally trufle,  "a false or idle tale" and only later in that century took on it's more current day meaning of "a matter of little importance". The English derives from the Old French, where trufle meant "mockery" and was a diminutive of truffe, or "deception".

Oh, lord--I have played right into the punsters' hands here, haven't I? Too late to turn back, I suppose...