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!