Saturday, December 28, 2013


No, I'm not going anywhere, more like coming back after a busy end of December. This is actually a post I've been wanting to put up since we saw my aunt over Thanksgiving weekend. Sadly, she is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's, but as a trained pianist, she has always loved music, and so we do try to sing together with her a bit when we, too infrequently, visit. For some reason,  we often seemed to be traveling in the car with my aunt and my mom when we were kids, which is a bit  mystifying now, as we mainly lived in another part of the state from her. But they had a whole repertoire of songs for such occasions, and one of them was "Toodle-oo, So Long, Goodbye." As we were leaving her house, we of course sang this old standard, and afterward my sister asked, I wonder where Toodle-oo came from?

That's been on the back burner for me to look up for awhile now.

According to The Phrase Finder, "toodle" is related to "toddle", apparently a word that originated in Scotland and northern England, though possibly related to "totter". "Toodle" and "tootle" and "toddle" and even "tooraloo" are therefore all kind of clustered together. The first sighting of "toodle-oo" in print was in 1907, and the Online Etymology Dictionary has it as "origin unknown". As The Phrase Finder indicates, it is a Bertie Wooster kind of word, and in fact, Wodehouse used it in a story in 1919.

I had never particularly thought of "toodle-oo" as a British word, as it was tied in my mind to this particular song. And actually, I have never heard anyone sing it but my mom and my aunt, so it occurred to me to wonder a bit more about the song itself. I thought for awhile I'd found the answer in a sorority song, as I think one or possibly both of them had been in some sorority, although it didn't make a lot of sense that they'd both know it, as they didn't go to the same schools. At any rate, the Theta Phi Alpha sorority does include a version in their songbook, but it's not quite the same.

Turns out, though, that there's a fairly likely explanation for why my mom and my aunt knew this song. It was Rudy Vallee's sign-off song for his radio show, although judging by Google entries, he had more than one. He wrote it with Byron Gay in 1931, which would have been just the right time for my mom and aunt to have been listening to it as girls.

Whether or not these are the actual lyrics, this is more or less how we sang and sing it:

I'm awfully glad I met you,
Toodle-oo, so long, good-bye.
I hope we meet again someday,
Toodle-oo, so long, good-bye.
I've enjoyed your company,
And your hospitality--
If it's not amiss,
Don't you think that this,
Is a very good time for a goodnight kiss?
And now that I have met you,
What-do-you-say that you and I
Sing a little song,
A good night song,
Toodle-oo, so long, goodbye.

Somewhat surprisingly, since it was a hit in its day, this is the only recording of the tune I could find. It's a little faster paced than we'd sing it, but I think you can get the idea.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

The long-term unemployed are NOT doomed

Or not any more doomed than the rest of us, anyway. One morning in the recent past, I woke up and saw this headline on Slate: The Long-term Unemployed are Doomed. Although this isn't meant to be a blog advocating a  political position, every once in awhile you're going to have to tolerate my left of center stance. Or don't--it's fine with me.

The article is really about the lack of compassion and advocacy shown by the government and the culture at large. I have no problem with it. But the headline is reprehensible. Imagine being one of the long-term unemployed and reading that headline before you'd had your coffee or whatever it is that gets you through the day. It's fine to say that times are tough for a lot of people looking for a job. It's another thing to suggest hopelessness. I'm unemployed at the moment, or more or less so. I am fortunate that I have a few other things going for me other than the capricious U.S. government. Still, it makes me feel a lot of empathy with those who don't have any nets to catch them. And also a sort of duty to protest this fatalism.

There are actually a couple of options that this headline doesn't take into account. First, it underestimates human resourcefulness. So let me just say to people job searching right now--don't give up! You never know what's going to happen when it comes to the future. Secondly, as a protest against the current callousness of government on this topic, I am posting a little YouTube excerpt, reminding people that when a government and society lets you down, there is always another, more collective remedy....

Friday, December 13, 2013

Why I'm glad I struggled through Vidal's "Creation"

Back in May, my book group chose Gore Vidal's long and not particularly dynamic novel Creation to discuss. Most of the members decided to bail on it fairly early on, and I didn't really blame them. My review of the book is here. But because I was interested in the period it described and because I suddenly had more time on my hands than I usually do, I soldiered on. It turns out that this was fortuitous.

This Thanksgiving I was visiting family down in L.A. and my sister got us all tickets to go to the Getty Villa, a medium sized museum right there on the Pacific Coast Highway, which specializes in antiquities. The night before, we ran into a friend of hers who is a docent there, and she told us to make sure and see the special touring exhibit of the Cyrus Cylinder. Normally  housed in the British Museum, it has been brought to America for the first time.

Although there are various and conflicting claims about what the cylinder's significance was, several different cultures of the time mention Cyrus in their documents and all laud him for his tolerance, as the following short video demonstrates.


We had a great time at the Getty Villa, which apart from the parking is free, and you can always hike in from the road. It was an odd experience for me to see the Cyrus Cylinder. Luckily I had been warned by the above mentioned docent friend that it is small, as it would be, since it was buried in the foundation of a building and not really meant for public display at all. I am not really sure why the Persians took the time to carve it so minutely, but maybe they realized that it would work like a kind of time capsule. Anyway, it was exhibited in a glass cube, so that people could get up close to it from four angles.

I happened to come to it at the same time that an Iranian family, modern day descendants of the culture responsible for this cylinder, and was struck by the fact that even the young children among them seemed enchanted by it. I don't imagine most school-aged kids having quite that same interest. The whole family were taking pictures of each other with it, though I gather they weren't supposed to, but no one was watching. And gradually I realized that it was really an opportune moment to see this cylinder related to tolerance at the very moment in our own history when some kind of progress in diplomacy seemed possible with Iran for the first time in many years.

Then I wandered around a room which dealt with the Achaemenid Empire and was able to connect my reading of Vidal's Creation with Cyrus--the novel is set in the time of Cyrus's descendants about two hundred years later, at the point of the Empire's greatest expansion.

Although the novel is a bit of a slog, I felt very happy to have persisted, because it gave me a relationship with a period (and an empire for that matter) that for many of us in the West is truly a lost epoch. I will admit though, that even the Cyrus Cylinder has not induced me to go find the later restored version of the novel, which contains four more chapters...

I probably should add that the Cyrus Cylinder has traveled on, I think back to its home in the British Museum.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hour of Code

It's computer science education week, everyone. There's a national push to teach a lot of students how to write code. I can write a little HTML, but that's about it. It actually seems really fun, and you're never to old to learn, so why not jump in? Admittedly, it's a pretty busy season to add something new to the list, but if you want to procrastinate the various holiday tasks, why not do it by writing a little code? I know I will be.

Here's the very short intro video:

And here's the web page if you just want to get started...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


I've fallen a little behind with this blog due to traveling over Thanksgiving, but on the plus side, a couple of things came up which provide fuel for some new posts. I'll see what I manage to get to, but the first one was when my sister wondered aloud where the word facetious came from. And it did seem curious. You'd have to guess that it relates to "facet" in some way, but it is hard to make the link between facet, which must have to do with an aspect or surface of something, and an adjective that means something along the lines of 'said in jest'. Isn't it?


Hmm. No relation. They come to us through the same languages, but have different roots. Facetious goes back to the French word facétieux with roughly the same meaning, and stems from facétie, a joke. The Latin facetia was a jest or witticism and came from facetus, which could mean witty, but also meant elegant, fine or courteous.

Facet, on the other hand, comes from the French facette, a diminutive for face. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the usage in diamond cutting is in fact the original usage.

I was a bit surprised, though, that to be facetious seems to have taken on a more negative meaning than I really associate with it. Many people seem to think it means to jest in a heavy-handed or ill-timed way. I actually found a long discussion of the difference between being facetious and being sarcastic here. Suffice to say that commenters had many and conflicting thoughts on this. I would say that facetious has become a bit, well, multifaceted in its interpretation.

Relating facetious to facet still doesn't seem all that far-fetched a guess to me. At least, it seems more likely than a question I saw in the midst of my research, which asked if facetious is related to feces. Although my initial reaction was "how did you come up with that?" there may be something in this. It turns out that there is a rare book from 1470 called The Facetiae, which is a collection of jokes, many of which are scatological. They were assembled by one Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. A scholar and a humanist, he doesn't look like a facetious type--at least if his portrait on Wikipedia is anything to go by...


Friday, November 22, 2013

braggadocio--a personal instance

It's not hard to know what this one means, although I was surprised to learn that it can mean either a braggart or his (or her) empty and pretentious bragging.  Or just strutting around in a swaggering, cocky manner.

I assumed in had come from Italian, too, but no--it's from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and is actually the name of a character who, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is the "personification of vainglory". Spenser coined it with the exotic non-Anglo-Saxon ending (actually it was Braggadochio, like Pinocchio)  because Italian was much in vogue in the 1590s, another interesting fact I didn't know, though I suppose Shakespeare should have clued me in on that one.

Actually the word came to mind because I'm going to brag a bit here about something I've already bragged of already--the epitome of braggadocio,  I'd say. I found out that the story I wrote for the One Teen Story workshop was picked as one of several they've published in its entirety on their website. If you'd like to read the whole of  "Inconstant Moon" (it's not too long), you'll find it HERE. The paragraph formatting didn't completely survive its transition from my documents to their website, but hopefully it won't be too confusing. And if you like that kind of thing there were two more picks, one which is called "Ziggy Starbucks", by Anne Paris and another which will be up in a few days. You can find links to all three on the OTS blog.
No, I am  not a teenager, although I sometimes act like one. But luckily this wasn't a hinderance.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Mike Ryan and  Charles Pasternak in Henry V
Over the last few months, starting with the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Henry V in the festival glen, I have been having quite a run of seeing what some call "the Henriad". Not only did Santa Cruz's production complete a cycle of all three of the Henry plays with this performance being the third year Prince Hal returned to the stage (and with the same actor playing the lead in all three, which was terrific), I then got to see PBS do the cycle (which included Richard II) this fall under what I think was the very apt overarching title, The Hollow Crown.

It's an odd thing to say, but I actually had a bit harder time following the filmed version than the live version, when I would have thought it might be the opposite. I don't know if it's the same for everyone, but I think it has something to do with the way a live performance forces you to struggle along, whereas television, though you may have more chance to hear the lines crisply, let's you, well, check in and out whenever you  like.

So I decided to pick up my copy of Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber and read her comments on all of the plays. I've had the book for some years, and I find it a highly readable account of each play so it's a fun thing to do after a performance. (Also, I wanted to know why Henry decided to kill the French prisoners at Agincourt--she didn't tell me, but the short answer is, because the real Henry did.)

Anyway, it was while reading the  notes on Henry V that I came across the famous prologue in which the speaker questions the ability of  a mere theater to represent the battlefield.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

As I've mentioned here before quite recently, I can be a bit slow on the uptake. That's probably why, although I have heard the modern word 'cockpit' used thousands of times, it never really occurred to me to think about why it was called that. And really, it wasn't till seeing the word written out in the play that I thought 'hmm, cockpit--there's got to be some kind of connection'. Now obviously, the cockpit in the play is referring to the Elizabethan era activity of cock fighting, and not to space on a fighter jet where the pilot sits. So what's the connecting link?


Well. The answer is fairly consistent, though there are a few variations. Yes, it does apparently go back to that whole cockfighting arena. The first slippage across the line to a new meaning seems to have been when it became the designation of the rear area of the lowest deck, or orlop, of a fighting ship. This area was often used as an operating theatre in times of crisis because it was the most stable and the least disturbed by the ship's movement. But as World Wide Words points out, surgery tended to make  the space feel cramped, noisy and bloody. I'm sure a few sailors had seen a cockfight or two in their day, and so the association was made.

But there does seem to be another factor in all this, which is that the cockpit was also the station of the coxswain. The coxswain is the person in charge of the ship's boat. Also he's that guy who in races yells "Row, row, row". (For what a coxswain in a race actually does, click here.)  A ship's boat is also called a cock, and the swain is its servant. But it is not named after fighting roosters, it comes from the Old French coque, which is something more like a canoe. So, as you can see, the waters are muddied slightly, if not bloodied.

And muddied a bit more by an alternate variant I read at by the idea that it was the area which housed the midshipmen, who likely were strutting around in a roosterish way. (I do want to note for the record that Blogger just tried to change roosterish to 'Roosterfish' Roosterfish? To be explored later...

Apparently the idea of cramped quarters carried over more than the idea of blood and quarrel did. The Online Etymology dictionary delineates the progression:

1580s: pit for fighting cocks
1706: midshipmen's quarters below deck
1914: pilot's area on plane
1930: the driver's area of a racing car

As you might imagine the word cockpit elicited a video from Hot For Words. It's been too long, Marina Orlova. Well, not really, but there are lots of ways of learning things in this world...


Thursday, November 7, 2013


As I've mentioned before here, I sometimes have an odd way of getting around to posting about things. Often something will come to my attention, but will disappear from thought again, only to re-emerge in some other way within the next few days or so. Sometimes they just peter out, or must--I usually don't remember.

image from
The other night, I was watching some late night television--the kind where they often have ads advertising sensational new inventions that if you hurry up and act now, you can get two of for the price of one. I am often very intrigued by these things, wondering how their reality holds up to their advertising, though for better or worse, I would never actually bother to pick up the phone. This night, they were showing a fabulous wallet that folded up to about 1/5th the width of a regular wallet and still could contain the same amount of stuff. They even demonstrated this, along with ringing endorsements of chiropractors and surgeons. How? I wondered. How can it possibly do this? It was like a magic trick that you'd never get tired of watching. And then the announcer gave it away. "Thanks to the wonder of Tyvek," he said. "Tyvek!?!" I exclaimed. Yes, really, I did exclaim. And I knew I had to do this post.

You see, in the spring, I was talking about my then housing woes to a friend. At the time, my house had some big issues with dampness, and I was complaining about how I couldn't even put my bookcase against the walls, as the books would mildew. Had, in fact.

"Why don't you get some Tyvek to put between your bookcases and the wall to absorb moisture?" he asked.

"What is Tyvek?" I asked. Although I knew  that he would probably be surprised at my ignorance, I wasn't particularly embarrassed. After all, he is a resourceful jack of all trades and I, well, I am definitely not. He explained that it was a kind of insulation boarding that kept moisture from seeping in. Well, it sounded like a good idea, and I remembered the name, and thought  might try it, but in the end the moisture issues were resolved in a different, more comprehensive way.

At that point, I wasn't too embarrassed about Tyvek. After all, there are a good many things that people who are of the DYI ilk know that us lesser mortals don't. Show me a box of tools and I could probably pick out the hammer. I could probably differentiate a wrench from a screwdriver. But don't expect too much more from me than that. Seriously--don't.

So I wasn't bothered a lot about my ignorance in this case, until one day, some time later, when I was walking down a street and I came across a  building that looked a lot like this:

And I am pretty sure that this wasn't the first Tyvek® (we'll put in their trademark at this point in the story, now that I know that it is a brand from Dupont) wrapped house I'd seen in my days on this earth. In fact, I've probably seen a thousand of them. It's one thing not to know the names of things when you see them. It's a bit of a different category when their name is printed right on them.

Tyvek®, it turns out, is used in a lot of things. Besides wallets, it shows up in USPS priority mail envelopes, in one time painters coveralls, wristbands for when you want to buy a drink at some outdoor festival where they have to monitor the alcohol intake (easy to put on, a little hard to take off, in my experience, but perhaps I overimbibe.) And a ton of other stuff. In 1955, a Dupont researcher named Jim White noticed some polyethylene fluff coming out of a pipe and of course Dupont then began figuring what they could do with this stuff. Apart from the water resistant properties it has for such things as house wrapping, the main thing to know is that it results in a non-woven material, created by heat and compression instead.

Tyvek®contains a little parable about life for me. Or at least, a parable about my life. Since Tyvek® and I have been around for something like the same amount of time, it's safe to say that I have been walking around not noticing Tyvek® for pretty much my whole life. As a metaphor, that can stand in for a lot of unnoticed things. I now kind of assume that as I lie on my death bed, I will open my eyes briefly and say, "Oh! I never noticed that."


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Going on a bit about the mountain lions now

Because mountain lions have been a bit on my mind lately, I caught this news while getting ready to watch Season 3 of Borgen on L.A.'s KCET just now. Apparently a young male mountain lion failed to cross Highway 101 and make it to the Santa Monica Mountains last month. I know you must think I have some kind of Google news alert for mountain lion deaths going on, but I swear it is just a coincidence. I was actually born in Santa Monica, and my sister still lives down there, so I continue to feel an affinity for the region. This article is perhaps slightly better in explaining why, beyond the individual death, this is a loss for genetic diversity in the region. Check out the KCET report here.

And now back to Borgen. If you liked West Wing, I assume you'll like it even better when it's set in Denmark. I know I do.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sad news on the mountain lion front

Some readers here may remember my May 16th post about the mountain lion captured in a Santa Cruz aqueduct. Sadly, he was killed by a car while crossing our infamous Highway 17 early Thursday  morning. After his May capture, "39M", as researchers rather unimaginatively dubbed him, was tagged, thereby allowing scientists to track his movements. He is not the first big cat to lose out to the battle with vehicles on 17, and he probably won't be the last. But at least the Land Trust of Santa Cruz county and others are looking into making an underground tunnel at one of the most  frequent crossing points. The whole story can be found in the Santa Cruz Sentinel article HERE.

Goodbye, 39M. Our fates seemed slightly commingled on the day of your venture downtown. Selfishly, perhaps, I must hope that they don't continue to be.

(This is not the actual mountain lion, but one graciously supplied by one bslmmrs at Flickr Creative Commons. Still, a good stand in, I'd think.)

Saturday, October 26, 2013


With at the center of national focus right now, it is almost impossible to watch, read or listen to the news without the word "glitch" coming up. So it seemed like a good one to turn my attention to here. It's such a satisfying word to say for such an unsatisfying experience, isn't it?

Unfortunately, it's not so satisfying to track down its etymology, as all sources I've read refuse to speculate beyond the "origin unknown" category. However, they all seem to have the same guess about it, namely that it slipped into American English through  the Yiddish glitsh, "a slip" and hence back to the German verb glitchen,  "to slip". Or it could have come straight from the German. All the same, that doesn't seem so unknown to me.

The word's short term history since its adaption is more straightforward. It was used in the world of electronics to mean a brief or sudden surge in voltage in an electronic circuit. The U.S. Space Program then expanded its meaning and John Glenn is credited with the first written use in English in 1962 in his book Into Orbit where he said that they had adopted the term to describe some of their own problems in the program.

Given the human capacity for error, it's only surprising that it wasn't adopted a lot earlier. For example, when I previewed before posting, the title of this post appeared as "glitchn". Now how did that happen?


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The 1969 Moon Landing, or One Small Step

I know some may leap to the conclusion that this is going to be a post about whether the moon landing was faked or not. But in reality, I'm just using my "social media platform" here to brag a little. I recently participated in the One Teen Story Boot Camp, which One Story Magazine hosted. It was fun, in that they gave you about ten different elements that had to be in your story, and the moon landing was one of them. This week they posted some of their favorite uses of this detail, and mine is one of them.

I'm sure the question has come to a few minds of whether I had to fake being a teenager to participate. Luckily, no, as if I tell you I'm old enough to remember the moon landing, you will know that would have been a pretty big whopper.

Without further ado, then the One Teen Story blog post.

And yes, as one of my fellow entrants points out, wherefore art thou Apollo? 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sing Sing

This is literally one I've wondered about since I was about five years old. (Yes, it sometimes takes me time to get around to solving things.) I know this because Sing Sing was mentioned in a Shirley Temple movie, which we used to watch when we were over visiting at my grandmother's on weekends. (I just looked this up--it was probably Baby Take a Bow.) When I was a kid, I thought this meant that the character in question had been imprisoned in China. Sing Sing just didn't sound like an American prison to me. But it is. In New York. That much I have somehow gleaned over the decades. But why it is called Sing Sing has remained a mystery to me. Until now.


Apparently, it all starts with an American Indian tribe who were called the Sint Sink, which meant "stone upon stone". I say apparently, because that's what many of the sources say, even though there is no other reference to these people, and, really, what kind of tribe calls itself Stone Upon Stone? I thought people usually called themselves something like "The People" when referring to themselves. Without really knowing, it seems more likely that it was always the name of a place, as this site has it, and was named by the Matinecock Indians of Long Island, who do still exist and in fact have their own Facebook page. But it did have to do with stones, anyway. After the area was taken over by Dutch settlers, the name seems to have been spelled various ways: Cinque Singte, Sink Sink, Cinquesingte, Sinck Sinck, Sin Sinct, Sint Sinck and Sin-Sing. But "Sing Sing" is what triumphed in the end.

There is one variant account that, rather ingeniously suggests that the name may actually have come from the name Tsing Tsing, a celebrated governor of a Chinese city, and was brought here by a Dutch trader, who decided to name a random place on the east coast of America in his honor for reasons only he can know. To tell the truth, I don't think it's at all likely, even if it does support my childhood hearing of the name.

Sing Sing, 1855

Anyway, Sing Sing was built in the 1820s. By most accounts, the place had become notorious enough that the Village of Sing Sing where it was established changed its name to Ossining in 1901 to distance itself a little, although one account more charitably has it that it was in order to distinguish between goods made in the town and goods made in the prison. In any case, the supposed etymology of Ossining, according to this more contemporary account is that "ossin" means stone in Chippewa and "ossinnee" or "ossineen" is the plural.

Taking the route of stone upon stone is rapidly leading me to heights I am not qualified to scale. 

But searching around has made me remember why I wanted to look into Sing Sing  right now in the first place. After recently reading Falconer,  learned that Cheever had gotten a lot of his material from teaching writing classes at Sing Sing. Why Sing Sing, I might have asked, if I had thought about it. But that unasked question has been answered. Cheever lived and ultimately died in Ossining.

In a perfect world, I would now link you to my review of Falconer, but that can't happen, because I haven't written it yet. Instead, I'll send you to the blog post Carol Muske-Dukes wrote on Cheever's return to Sing Sing after the book was published.

Or maybe you'd like a link to an article on the other most famous (if fictional) residents of Ossining instead...


Friday, October 18, 2013

The Gephardt Rule

Dick Gephardt
There are things I know I'm ignorant about right off (pretty much everything), and things I don't even know I'm ignorant of (pretty much everything else). At the risk of falling into a bottomless well, I thought I'd bring you a little clip from Rachel Maddow the other night, which explained how, once upon a time, the debt ceiling crisis was fixed. Although some say this wouldn't work now, what's most interesting to me is how so completely a simple solution has left the common discussion. 1979 isn't that long ago, people.


Here's a good article about the context of the Gephardt rule and an explanation of the more recently proposed McConnell Rule, which sets things up in a slightly different way, but also steps around the madness we have recently been involved. We may have cause to remember these all too soon.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Against Higher Education

Got your attention, didn't I?

Normally, I'd never suggest such a thing. But thanks to this link from Collagemama's Hearty Breakfast Blog, I learned that people with an advanced degree are twice as likely to think it's okay to drive without getting their kids fastened in than people with a mere high school education.

Here's the chart from Safe Kids Worldwide.

I don't have an advanced degree so I don't know what process of gradual self-deception happens to make the highly educated feel superior to the physical realities of the world, but I'm pretty sure that it has something to do with hubris.

Forget the superiority of high school grads. When I was about four or five years old, this ad was playing all the time. Just play it every night for a couple of weeks and I bet it will become indelible. Your kids may never thank you, but I do.

I'm editing this to incentivize you by telling you that this is a cool, Mad Men era commercial...

Sunday, October 13, 2013


I know that often the words I come up with here are taken from my own life, so let me assure you from the start that I am not blackmailing anyone, nor am I being blackmailed. Not that I'd be revealing that here if I was. No, I heard President Obama use the term in a speech he made on our current budgetary crisis woes. It's been a few weeks since the speech now, but at the time I think  I noticed one of those little pauses or hesitancies characteristic of his speaking style, and I wondered, is it because he hesitates to use such an inflammatory term, or is it that, as a black man, he hesitates to use a word in  which, as is so often the case, black is meant as a pejorative? And then, because I am unlikely to know the answer to these questions, I went on to wonder, what is blackmail precisely? What's the original meaning? Was it mail like our mail, or was it mail like armor? I can't help but envision some black knight, popping around with some very bad news...


According to Snopes:

"The "mail" in "blackmail" has nothing to do with missives delivered by the postal service (nor does it have anything to do, as claimed in one outlandish theory, with freelance knights gone brigand whose chain mail turned to black in concert with their dark deeds)."

I'm not surprised that it has nothing to do with letters, but I am a little surprised that the "mail" of blackmail is not even related to our current word for postal service. The correspondence kind of mail actually comes from the Old French word male, which was a kind of bag or bundle. The "mail" of  blackmail comes from the Middle English male, meaning rent or tribute. (I know they look alike, but they go back to different sources.) The "mail" of armor has yet another source in the Old French maille, "link of mail, mesh of net".

There were something like black knights involved in all this, though, because it turns out the term blackmail has a very specific source. It comes from the time when English settlers along the border of Scotland paid tribute to the Scottish clans to in Snopes words, "exempt themselves and their property from pillage". The word came into the language in this way around about 1530, though the Online Etymology Dictionary has it a little later, in the 1550s. It didn't take on our present sense of a bribe exchanged for the promise of secrecy until about 1774. Again, OED places this somewhat later in 1826.

All the sources I checked do indeed have black as meaning something dark or underhanded or even evil. It's interesting, though, that there appears to be a distinction between blackmail and silver mail, with silver mail, or "white rent" being payment in money, while blackmail was paid in goods or services. And perhaps the most interesting thing to me was the one alternative derivation of the word proposed by Charles McKay in his Dictionary of Lowland Scots. He thought the black of blackmail came from blathaich, which was pronounced bla-ich and meant "to protect". In other words, protection money.

I'm not an etymologist, but I wouldn't rule that idea altogether out. It makes sense to me that the Scottish chieftain would have a euphemistic term for their racket, just as the Mafia did, and also that the farmer tribute payers would hear the "black" in blackmail rather sooner than later...

Border Reivers Raid at Gilnockie Tower, G. Cattermole

Thursday, October 10, 2013

nick of time

I've had occasion to use this phrase several times recently. Mostly meaning "starting something at the last possible moment". Like, say, yoga, where I mean starting at the last possible moment in which, when I get down on the floor, I can still probably get up again unassisted. I've heard myself use the expression so much lately that I've wondered what exactly I was saying. What is the "nick" in the nick of time?  A nick like a scar? A nick like a niche? A nick having something to do with the devil?

It turns out that "in the nick of time" is one of those curious cases of word drift. Originally, round about 1580, the meaning of "the nick" was "at the precise moment", not the last moment. That's because it was related to an older form of time telling, where a basic record of time passing was tracked by a notch on a tally stick. ("Precise moment" presumably means something more like a day than a nanosecond here.) The original nick was a nyke, and meant notch, groove or slot. Apparently "in the nick" was the whole expression, but "of time" had to be added, so that a confusion about whether this meant in prison, in  the nude, or in a valley between two hills, depending on whether you were listening to  an English, Australian or Scottish speaker, or so says World Wide Words.

Call me hungry, but I liked an earlier way of saying one had arrived just in time. According to The Phrase Finder , you would say that the person had arrived at "pudding time". I'm as game to arrive in time for dessert as the next person, but in fact, this pudding was a savory dish served at the beginning of the meal. In an example of food drift, pudding began to be served at the end of the meal in the 16th century, and was sweet. But if you've ever traveled in Ireland, you'll know that the full Irish breakfast keeps the savory tradition in the form of both black and white pudding.

You can start to see why pudding time might need to be narrowed down a little. But it's still delightful.

This geare comth euen in puddyng time rightly.
                      (John Heywood, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the   Englishe tongue, 1546)
 The picture is shamelessly lifted from a blog called 450 Meals. I hope they won't begrudge this County Kerry breakfast they have already had the good fortune to eat...

Oh, and the opening photo is from one Peter Craine who took it near West Kirby, Wirral, Great Britain, and very kindly made it available on Creative Commons.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

"Intelligent Life"--Nick Courtwright at Escape Into Life

I don't want to just fall back on links to other people's work to get by on this blog--or actually what I mean is that I want to do a little bit to disguise the fact that that's all I really do here--so I wanted to write at least one post before I did another link to an Escape Into Life poet. The fact is, though, that Nick Courtwright's "Intelligent Life" seems very apropos here. It's the second one in the selection, but I enjoyed all the poems, and there are some nice haunting photos by Kenichi Hoshine accompanying them as well...   

Friday, October 4, 2013

Shelter in Place

As the disturbing news about the attempted security breach and ultimate shooting in the nation's capital was unfolding yesterday, about the only solid piece of information that was out there was that a "Shelter in Place" directive had been issued. I've heard the term recently, but it's not one that I remember from the not so distant past. Now that the incident has been resolved, although in a tragic way, it seems permissible to detach a bit and ask about this, to my mind, slightly odd term.

To me the phrase has a hint of the officious, and creeps a bit into jargon, when simpler terms like "Take shelter" or just "Stay where you are" might do. A hint of the old "Duck and Cover" creeps in.

So I've unearthed a few interesting things about it. First of all, it hasn't crept over from the military world, as I very much suspected, but from the realm of chemical hazards. These include potential civilian hazards, like refinery accidents, nuclear reactor accidents, and biohazards.

What's odd to me about this is that sheltering in place against a chemical attack would actually be a quite different procedure than lying low to avoid gunshot. The aim of what I take to be the original shelter in place warning was to get people to close off access to all outside air. You tape up the doors and windows, close vents, make everything as airtight as possible. Against a violent intruder--which could be a human, or, as was the case in Morro Bay last spring, a black bear--you would probably just lock the doors and windows and hope for the best. Right?

So when people are told to Shelter in Place, how do they know which path they're meant to take?

This guy is entirely too sanguine. Although he does seem to have covered all options.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013 Espanol

Although most native Spanish speakers in the U.S. speak English a whole lot better than I speak Spanish, I know that there still might be a gap in understanding for some when it comes to complex issues like healthcare. So I thought I'd give the name of the Spanish version of the healthcare website. It's called Even if Spanish isn't your first language, maybe you know someone who this would be easier for.

Admittedly, I read that first as Ciudad de Salud, which would mean City of Health, which I actually thought sounded pretty cool. But maybe it's just as well that I wasn't asked to do the translation.

Yeah, even the cartoon is translated! Thanks, Kaiser!


Monday, September 30, 2013

For uninsured Americans, signups for coverage in the health insurance marketplaces begin tomorrow and coverage begins in January. I have a few questions about that for myself, and like apparently many people, I still remain ignorant of some of the answers. So I thought I'd share the federal website where you can get started finding out about what's happening in your state, as well as the answers to other questions.

Yeah, well, it's in the title.

Slate has a good article about all the questions you were too embarrassed to ask. They include the following cartoon. Because whatever you feel about the Affordable Care Act, nobody doesn't like watching a good cartoon.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Article 314

Because every once in awhile, I like to stress that I don't hold the monopoly on ignorance. In fact, anyone can play...

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What is performance?

This is a little different than the usual confessions going on here, but I can't seem to get this one out of my mind. The thing I don't understand has something to do with advertising. Actually, I do understand it, though I don't understand why I understand.

If you are in that non-tech savvy lot that still watches television containing commercials, which may be a party of one for all I know, meaning me, you will probably come across a familiar voice doing the voice overs for some high end brands from time to time . One of these is Mercedes-Benz and the other is American Airlines. The voice is so distinctive that if you have watched the celebrated TV show he's on, you can hardly miss that the voiceover is being done by Jon Hamm, more familiarly known as Don Draper of Mad Men. 

Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with Hamm signing on for this kind of gig while he's at the peak of his career. May as well cash in while he can. The part I don't understand is, why does the voice of a character known specifically for selling people things by making them associate them with inner fantasies and needs that the product won't ultimately fulfill seem like a good choice? My take is that it is a very good choice--I just don't totally understand why.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New sentence construction--Slate weighs in on Double Is

I know, it's a bit of a cheat to just link over to someone else's article, but I found this piece by Alyssa Pelish on Slate fascinating. Apparently, Obama has been getting some flack for his sentence construction as he frequently uses the Double Is.

An example of Obama's usage from the article:

What has to happen is is that the money has to come from somewhere.

But it turns out that it is a construction that George W. Bush used often as well. And that linguists have been tracking this usage for thirty years. Still working on the theories, though.

Check it out.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"False Entomologies" by Susan Blackwell Ramsey

I've mentioned recently on my book review blog, Not New For Long, that I've taken a role over at a website called Escape Into Life, writing book reviews and perhaps a few other things to do with books--we'll see. Anyway, because of that, Escape Into Life is now in my blog roll here and so I noticed this latest post on the EIL blog a couple of days ago, featuring the poems of Susan Blackwell Ramsay. And I really can't resist pointing you to the third poem down, "False Entomologies", because it is so apropos to the stuff I write about here.

I also really like the Kelly Reemsten paintings that accompany the poems. So check it out.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I've been watching Borgen lately, Denmark's own equivalent of The West Wing. It's in Danish of course, with subtitles, and I don't recognize much in terms of language, but I do know when characters are saying hello and goodbye. Hello is "hej" which sounds like "hi" and "goodbye" is "hej hej", which sounds like "hi hi". I always find this amusing because to my American ear it sounds like someone is giving an enthusiastic greeting to someone who is just walking out the door. Childish, I know.

But it did get me to wonder where our American "hi" comes from. It isn't British usage, or wasn't the last time I had occasion to check. Many years ago, on my first trip to England, I was trying to master the British public phone and the pips and the coins and kept hanging up on the person I was trying to call. I would get out "Hi--" and then the line would go dead. I was feeling terrible about it, she was the wife of one of my favorite professors, so there was that added anxiety, but when I finally got her, and apologized, she said, "Oh, I knew it had to be you." I asked how and she said that it was because I kept saying "hi." It narrowed the field to an American and we were vaguely expected.

So maybe this made it's way to us somehow from Denmark, skipping England altogether?


Well, there is a Middle English "hy, hey" which "hi" probably comes from, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But this is not exactly the meaning of hi today. Like "Hey!" today, "hi!" was a call to pay attention to something--"Look out!". "Hi" as a greeting is American usage. It's interesting that though no one seems to be able to tell us how "Hi" found its way to the Great Plains, they can tell us that the "first recorded reference is to speech of a Kansas Indian" in 1862.

Way to be both precise and maddeningly obscure, Online Etymology Dictionary.

The title of this picture on Wikipedia is: "Indians who broke out of their reservation in Indian territory & made a raid across Kan in 1879 & killed settlers near Great Bend & other places. , by Leonard & Martin"

No "Hi"s exchanged there, I'm thinking.

There's a long thread on the drifting meaning of the word "hey" here, which seems to have followed a similar trend from calling attention to greeting, although it keeps that first sense of exclamation better than "hi" did. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

boots on the ground

This was something I noticed about the First Gulf War, way back when. Everybody started using the same little catch phrases. Although of course this kind of imitative speech is unavoidable, because how else do we learn to say anything anyway, I find it particularly irritating when accompanied by the drumbeats of war. If there's any time when human beings need to think for themselves and not just parrot what other people are saying it seems to me its during wartime or the  days leading up to war.

In the First Gulf War, the phrase that drove me crazy was "hunkered down", which was the way Iraqi troops seemed to be perpetually described. No one else seemed to be bothered by this one, but to me this squatting opposition made the Iraqis sound cowardly and slightly less than human.

In the second Gulf War the phrase that always bugged me was "embedded". As in "embedded journalist". Although its a point of pride for many reporters to be able to say they were embedded with the military in some frontline situation, I never can get the idea of "in bed with", with all its overtones of collusion, out of my mind in relation to journalism whenever the phrase comes up.

With the looming possibility of air strikes on Syria, you can hardly avoid hearing the words "boots on the ground" in any media discussion of it these days. "Boots on the ground" is a phrase that was already in play, but it seems to be particularly accented right now, or rather "No boots on the ground" is. But it hasn't always been part of the common parlance. I thought I would try and find out when it first started being, well, deployed.


Wikipedia gives us the sense that the phrase extends further back in time than the written expressions of it. It tells us that the phrase "boots on the ground" goes at least as far back as the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960 (and yes, I should know what this is, and you should too) when it was used by the British officer Robert Grainger Ker Thompson, who was one of the chief strategists on counter-insurgency. He later went on to advise Nixon in a similar way, so it's no surprise that the term began to crop up in relation to Vietnam a well.

It's interesting to realize that a phrase that was initially used to argue that there was no winning a war without boots on the ground has come to be part of a phrase reassuring the public of quite the opposite.

There turns out to be other complications around the phrase. For one thing,  William Safire tells us that the slang for a new Marine inductee is a boot and so that the boot of the phrase refers to a soldier not footwear. This may not seem like such a big deal, but as Grammarphobia points out, if you use a phrase like "20,000 boots on the ground" you may mean 20,000 troops, or you could mean 10,000. Right?

In any case, the newspapers are already ahead of me on my particular topic here, once again. But at least Eric Zorn's article which is apparently from September 4th, just a few days ago, validates my empirical impression.

"Stories in the Tribune using the expression "boots on the ground" to refer to military men and women in a combat theater from the mid 1980s (when the digital record begins) until Sept. 24, 2001 -- Zero.
...from Sept. 25, 2001 to Jan 1, 2010 --- about 60
...from Jan 1, 2010  through today -- about 55
New York Times, similar search --      3, 144, 161".

It would be interesting to know how many of these stories were about arguments for and how many were about arguments against. And when and if the preponderence shifted.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Open Letter to Chancellor Blumenthal on the ending of Shakespeare Santa Cruz

Dear Chancellor Blumenthal:

I’m writing today to express my sadness about the decision by the University of California to no longer support Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Unlike many, I am not casting blame on Dean Yager for his decision. Given a constrained humanities budget, it is not surprising to me that he would choose classes and students and all the expenses these entail over a summer festival. My own feeling is that this should never have been his private version of Sophie’s Choice to begin with.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz is a jewel in the crown of the UC system. It should never have been the responsibility of a small, not currently “sexy”, department to decide. The arts are the responsibility of all. Somewhere in the very well endowed  UCal system, which we as Californians all do our part in supporting through our taxes, surely there is some money we can use for the benefit, not just of the humanities, but for humanity.

I happened to attend a performance of Henry V during its last week up in the glen. There was an actor’s chat afterwards, and though of course the demise of the company was discussed a bit, what really struck me was when Fred Arsenault, who not only played Henry, but had played the young Harry in previous years, was asked how he felt about the experience. He said, I feel very, very lucky. It is a rare thing to be able to play Harry through his transformation into Henry V. When asked how he played it, he said that he just worked very hard. The thing to remember, he said, is that Shakespeare is smarter than we are. He is ahead of us, and we are trying to catch up.

Perhaps the UC system believes that training an actor like Arsenault, or any of the many of fine actors who have passed through the Festival Glen over the years, is a very small thing in the grand scheme of things. I do not. I am amazed at the glorious good fortune UCSC and Santa Cruz have had through the years to have teachers of the quality of Audrey Stanley and Michael Warren connected to living theatre in this way.

By coincidence, I am currently starting a free course through EdX by the renowned Harvard scholar Gregory Nagy. (The only reason I’m interested in it, by the way, is because of my studies with wonderful UCSC professors like John Lynch and Gary Miles and the above mentioned Stanley and Warren in the distant past.) I was struck by something Nagy said about studying the ancient Greeks:  [Socrates is saying] “…cry if the word dies on us.  But if the word lives, by being constantly re-engaged with, then the vitality of these things that mean more than anything to humans, or should, can go on. And it’s inter-generational. It’s intercultural. And best of all, it’s potentially eternal.”

On these grounds, I respectfully ask that the university system rethink its decision.


Seana Graham

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

stop and frisk

If you live in the U.S., you'll know that the term 'stop and frisk' has been much in the news of late, especially in regard to New York City's policing practices. It's become a conventional enough phrase at this point, so it took me a long time to think about the word "frisk" embedded in it. Frisk as in frisky? Or just what, exactly?

Frisk makes it way into written English in 1510, with the meaning of "to dance or frolic". Middle English had it as "lively", stemming from Middle French frisque, which meant lively or brisk, and in Old French had meant fresh or new, lively or animated. Great. But none of this seems much related to the experience of being stopped by the police and being patted down for weapons or contraband, does it? The Online Etymology Dictionary that frisk in the sense of a patdown is recorded from 1781. It doesn't, however, show us how language made the leap between the two meanings.

Luckily The Word Detective is a bit more informative. (You have to scroll down a bit, but you'll find it.) Frisk, meaning to move briskly, gradually came to include such things as brisk movements of the hands. (Brisk and frisk are apparently unrelated, by the way, much to my surprise.) In fact, because brisk movements of the hand were part of the pickpocket's repertoire of skills, the word was 18th century slang for "a thief". (Also "frisker".)

The interesting part about this is that "frisk" changed sides. From meaning "to dip into someone's pockets to steal something", it switched over to mean to search a person for illicit goods. This is not the only time this has happened. Turns out "cop" has followed a similar trajectory.

Now that I've gotten this far, I see that the Wall Street Journal has beaten me to the punch and written of much the same topic just three days ago. I will say that  the writer delved down and found the name of the 1789 book in which "frisk" in this sense first appears in print. But for the answer to that, you are going to have to go HERE.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

edX, fall season

The last day of August seems like a great time to put up a little post about edX, the website that let's you take free courses from some of the U.S.'s most prestigious universities. A couple of classes start as early as tomorrow, and they are rolling out a bunch of them in September. I took a great class last spring on understanding world poverty. People were studying together from all over the world, and it was just a generally inspiring experience. I think for almost all these classes you can do them as an audit or for a certificate, and some of them even affiliate so that you can earn actual college credit. If you have the time to put into it, I recommend going for the certificate, because it involves and commits you in a different way. Basically, I didn't know half of what I thought I knew until I started taking the tests. Yikes. But it was fun.

Here's the website. If you hit the view all the courses button, the third one down on the page it takes you to is a demo video that shows you how to get best use out of the courses, and that's one you can look at right now.

See you there. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Selfie: a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

Selfie, in context, is fairly self-explanatory. I hadn't really heard the term until the news brought it to me in the context of Anthony Weiner's problems, and the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover. After that, I started hearing it everywhere. At least in the media. I don't think I've yet heard a friend use it aloud. And personally, I like this slightly more cynical version from Urban Dictionary:

A strange phenomenon in which the photographer is also the subject of the photograph, in a subversive twist on the traditional understanding of the photograph. Usually conducted because the subject cannot locate a suitable photographer to take the photo, like a friend. 

But none of this is why I posted about this. I was interested in the uproar around the misapprehension that it had been included in the Oxford English Dictionary mentioned in a Slate article today. As the article writer, Forrest Wickman, points out, it made big stir across the internet, and many people thought it heralded the death of English as we know it.

I doubt Stephen Fry did.

In any case, claims of its death were a little premature. Oxford Dictionaries Online are not the same thing as the venerable OED. Both do come out of the Oxford University Press, but they serve different purposes. The ODO is around to catch up the current lingo. I guess you could say it is a gateway dictionary. The OED is the dictionary of historical record. I'm not sure how they decide what words make it, though that might be worth a post. At any rate, "selfie" isn't there yet.

I was going to post this last night, but it's funny--"selfie" just didn't seem to go very well with the fiftieth anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech. In fact, the two categories may belong to different universes entirely.


Monday, August 26, 2013


I was watching the British court room case series Silk on TV last night, and somebody used the word "gumption". It stood out to me for some reason. It doesn't strike me as a word the Brits use so often, but then, it seems like an old-fashioned word over here as well. It's one of those words that we more or less know what it means when we hear it. But what does it mean, exactly? It's hard to think of an exact synonym. I'd characterize it as something like "determination and resourcefulness".

But let's get to it.

The lists three somewhat contradictory meanings:

1. Boldness of enterprise; initiative or aggressiveness.
2. Guts; spunk.
3. Common sense.
I wouldn't have thought common sense had a lot to do with it, but then I also wouldn't it had much to do with aggressiveness either. Boldness and initiative do strike a chord with me, though.
The reason is that "gumption" turns out to be a victim of that curious phenomenon, word drift. Over at Word Detective, a man writes in to say that when he was growing up in Yorkshire in the forties, gumption was commonly used to mean "common sense" or "street smarts" (two fairly distinct things I'd have thought, but never mind), but living in Canada as he does now, it seems to mean something more like courage or nerve. The Word Detective explains the process of association that gradually changed the meaning of the word.

Gumption first entered the vernacular through Scotland. It shows up in print first in Scottish in 1719. Beginnings are obscure, but it looks like another case of that Old Norse by way of Scottish path, as there is an Old Norse word gaumr, meaning attention or heed, that etymologists seem to find a likely connection.

By 1812, gumption had also gained the meaning of initiative. As the Word Detective notes, initiative and common sense often come together in a person who is striving to get ahead, and the 19th century was a good time to live if you had these qualities. Apparently, the quality of initiative or boldness is a more important one to have, as that is the one that stuck, although it does survive in its common sense form in parts of England. (Probably places that hold  on to dialect longer, like Yorkshire).

There are a few other possible meanings for gumption, actually. As usual, the Urban Dictionary has some interesting ones. Personally, I liked Number 4:

The kinda shit that one needs to run across america like Forrest Gump did

I'll leave it to you to scroll on down over there for the predictably saltier ones.

 Thanks to Adam Barnett who put this comic up on his blog Comics Make No Sense and commented, "That's right, ya punks! Show Some gumption!"

Friday, August 23, 2013

What is the "th" in "the" called?

That was the clue in a crossword I was doing recently. (If you do crosswords while flying on Southwest Airlines and it's still August, 2013 when you read this, I am hear by serving you with a SPOILER ALERT). Let's put a picture here so that you have a chance to avoid this if so inclined.

(No longer the Southwest uniform, if it ever was.)

 To be honest, I had to maneuver my way around with all the other clues. Originally, I came up with something like "girrapa". However, eventually I learned that the correct answer was "digraph". Correct, but no wiser, I had to look this up.

A digraph is (most often) when a written alphabet has to use two letters to get across one sound, because it hasn't created a single letter for it. Mostly, this would be two letters that separately convey different sounds, like "t" and "h" do when not "th" or "c" and "h" do when not starting off words like "chair" or finishing off words like "beach".

There are plenty of other types of digraphs, though, and we don't even have to leave English to find them. The rh in "rhetoric" or, to be less high-falutin', "rhino" still just sounds like "r". Usually, these don't come about through mere whimsy, though. They represent traces of older ways of speaking, different dialects, or even attempts to write down other languages. Typically, digraphs become conventions of writing. Someone hits on a way to do it, and it becomes standardized.

There's a lot more that could be said about digraphs--as I type this, I can see almost nothing but, actually. Let's just concentrate on the "th" sound for a moment, though, since that's what brought us here. The Online Etymology Dictionary has some fascinating stuff about it. It tells us that the "th" sound is found mainly in words stemming from Old English, Old Norse and Greek: It was"unpronounceable by Normans and many other Europeans". The Romans couldn't do it either, which is why many of our "th" words come across as Italian and Spanish "t" words: teoria for "theory," teatro  for "theater").

Like a most famous theatre group in my neck of the woods, Teatro Campesino:

Germanic languages represented the "th" sound in two ways, neither one of them digraphs. One was "ð", which I'm familiar from Icelandic mystery writer Arnaldur Indriðason ( hear how an Icelandic person pronounces his name here), and the other is "þ", or thorn, which was originally a rune.  

Old English, unlike Old Norse did not standardize which symbol meant a hard "th" and which a soft one. The "ð" was lost from English first, though, when the digraph "th" returned to England with French scribes circa 1250. They apparently had the "th" as a carry over from the Greek letter θ or theta, but pronounced it "t", circa 1250. The "thorn" was harder to get rid of, and clung, thornlike, in words like þat, þe, þat, þe, þis,is, or that, the, this. Their, or should I say, þeir death knell was sounded when the age of printing began, and type, which had to be imported from Europe, had no letter font for þ.

People were reluctant to part with their thorny old friend, and for awhile they, especially those in Scotland, substituted the "y" because it looked somewhat like a þ. I was quite surprised to learn that "ye" was always pronounced "the", or so says Online Etymology, and when have they ever steered us wrong?

Actually, they did steer us a bit wrong, because there is a different path for the pronoun ye, as in "My lord, I pray ye, put off your doublet" and the article form, as in Ye Olde Shoppe. The first is from Sir Thomas More, an apocryphal text from William Shakespeare, the second, modern day claptrap. I guess they both might be claptrap, but the first is at least from the right era and used correctly.