Monday, December 29, 2014


Last Monday, which seems a long time ago now, given Christmas and everything attendant on it, I was at the Penny University again, and Paul Lee, who co-leads the discussion there, happened to say in passing that he was fascinated by words that had lost their original coinage. As an example, he mentioned the word "gossip". He said that originally it had come for a word for godparent. Not that I didn't believe him, but I decided to look it up...

Yes, indeed. The word was godsibb in Old  English, and meant something like a sponsor or godparent, -sibb being related to our "sibling", as it expressed kinship or relationship and had to do with happiness, friendship, love and peace. Pretty great, in other words. Time went on, and by the time Middle English took it up (as gossib) mid-fourteenth century, the meaning had expanded to include any familiar acquaintance, especially, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, "women friends invited to attend a birth". Do you see where this is going?

"Baptism Window" in Memphis, Tennessee

By the 1560s, it meant anyone engaged in "familiar or idle talk". Although gossip started as a noun referring to a person, the verb "to gossip" eventually followed it in the 1620s. And by 1811, we have our current understanding of gossip as "trifling talk, groundless rumor".

Yep, that's women for you.

A friend of mine mentioned some while ago that she thought gossip was a social good not a social ill. It's been awhile since I talked with her about it, but I think the sense is that it's a kind of social lubricant, something that binds a community together. I wasn't so sure about it at the time, but put it another way. What is worse than being interested in everybody's business?  

Not being interested in everybody's business.

Gossiping women, apparently surrounded by devils. Little Melton, Norfolk

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Well, you know why the word's come up just now, I suppose. But actually, I think the reason it didn't just get buried in the standard Christmas greeting is that some friends gave me a Christmas card with their very photogenic kids on it and all it said was "Be Merry". Which I liked. But it did get me to wondering about the word itself. Even though it's not spelled the same way, is there some hint of Mary in the meaning?

No. There is not. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English word was myrge, meaning pleasant, agreeable or sweet. It comes from the proto-German *murgijaz, which seems to have something to do with the idea of being short-lasting, apparently in the sense of making the time fly.

In America, the word merry doesn't seem to be much in vogue anymore, with the exception of Christmastime. There is a sense of England lingering in it more than most somehow, perhaps because of being attached to things like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the Merry Wives of Windsor.

However, of course there is a word which has merry in it which is very familiar in the U.S. that doesn't bring up English associations.

Yep, merry-go-round. It turns out that Middle English was very expansive in its use of merry, using it to mean (again according to the Online Etymology Dictionary): "pleasant-sounding" (of animal voices), "fine" (of weather), "handsome" (of dress), "pleasant-tasting" (of herbs). It was also a time when it got joined to a lot of other words, merry-go-round being the main one that stuck. But there are others that are equally engaging: "merry-go-down" for strong ale, "merry-begot" for an illegitimate birth, "merry-go-sorry" for a mixture of joy and sorrow.

I couldn't get the idea out of my head, though, that Shakespeare had used merry a lot to begin a piece of dialogue. Well, I found a concordance and it turned out that he did use merry a lot, just not in that way. In pages of examples, I only found one that supported my sense of it--"Marry, amen." in Twelfth Night. And it's not clear if that's an example of what I was thinking of. So I was about to give up and accept that I was imagining things when I suddenly realized that maybe he hadn't spelled it that way. Checking the same concordance, it turns out that he uses marry in the way I mean frequently. "Marry, that's a bountiful answer that fits all questions." (Twelfth Night). "Marry, hang  you!" (All's Well That Ends Well). This marry means something like "I agree", or "indeed", or "well", and as I suspected, related to Mary. Originally it was a sort of euphemistic oath based on the corruption of her name. So I was right, but I had the wrong merry.

Marry, have a jolly old Christmas, will you?


And if the Nativity's not your thing,  you can still have a nice old merry-go-down anyway.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Of course it would seem to be obvious why I picked this word to look into, given that I've illustrated it with the poster of the movie that has gained notoriety over the past few days. But life is a little weirder than that. And I am a little denser. I was actually beginning to write this post while I had the news on, and then, thinking it was going to maybe turn out to be a little thin, I googled the word "interview" just to see what would come up first. And only then did I realize that the news I had been watching about Sony pulling a movie that North Korea vehemently objected to--to put it mildly--had to do with a movie called "The Interview". Somehow the title hadn't registered till then.

The real reason I became interested in this word is that I was down in L.A. this past weekend, where my sister Julie was one of a few MFA candidates who gave readings from their work at Venice's Electric Lodge theatre. (She rocked it, of course.) While I was down there, I also went and heard a few other readings and presentations given by others at Antioch University, which were also interesting. One woman happened to give a short talk on The Art of the Interview. I like interviews, especially, for some reason, printed versions, like the Paris Review interviews, or the ones they do in Tin House. But I had never really thought about the word until this woman led us to consider it a little more closely. I won't plagiarize her material here, but I think the etymology is fair game.

The Electric Lodge

We all know what an interview is, right? One person asks another person questions. But the word originally comes from the Middle French entrevue, which according to the Online Etymology Dictionary is verbal noun coming out of s'entrevoir--"to see each other, visit each other briefly, have a glimpse of", the components being the French entre--between, and the Old French voir, to see. Intriguing, non? I think the French word recognizes how little is actually knowable of another person better than the English does. And the French had to borrow the word "interview" back when they needed the more brash sense of the English. Originally the English meant simply a face-to-face meeting or formal conference. That was in 1510. Journalists didn't get into the picture until somewhere around 1869, and this is first attested in American print. Somehow, this figures.
Again without going into the details of our lecturer's talk, we were led to think a lot about what is going on in an interview, which is basically a lot about power and control. A cat and mouse game. Who's holding the reins--the asker or the teller? If we submit to an interview, how much do we really want to reveal? And to what end?

Congratulations, Julie, and to all your Santa Ana cohort.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Yeah, I got a little sumpin' sumpin' for you. I started thinking about this word after reading Delores Hitchens Sleep with Strangers and then watching the Netflix streaming Welsh program Hinterland. Sumps turn out to be interesting places for mystery and crime stories. The sump in Delores Hitchens is an oil sump on Signal Hill in the middle of Long Beach, California. The sump in the episode of Hinterland that mentioned it was a watery one. Both had some secrets to reveal.

Obviously sumps are some kind of pits. But where does the word come from and what else can we learn about them?


Well, first of all a sump can be a lot of other things than the ones I've mentioned. If you are looking up sump images, most of them will be metal or plastic as these days, we may first associate a sump with cars. In this case it's the oil reservoir in the internal combustion engine of a car. Sumps come in handy in mines, where water is accumulated at the bottom of a mine shaft. It can be a pond of water reserved for salt works. It can be just a pool or pond of dirty water. In fact, although I hadn't connected it before, we also have the sump pump, which removes unwanted water from basements. A sump, as far as I can tell, is a repository of unwanted or semi-unwanted things.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that sump first came on the scene in the mid fifteenth century to mean a swamp or morass. It comes from the middle Dutch somp or the Middle Low German sump and goes back to the hypothesized ProtoIndoeuropean for "spongy". Our present meaning of "a pit to collect water" is from the 1650s. And that sump pump, first mentioned in 1884, was originally used in mines, not family basements.

The great slightly creepy photo is by Alfred T. Palmer. It was taken in 1927 and is entitled "OIL SUMP AT DRILLING RIG, SIGNAL HILL, LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA". You can view a few more of his evocative images HERE.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Washington Post's fun quiz on Pantone's color of the year.

Name this color:

Why is this important? Well, you want to be fashion forward, don't you? And how are you going to do that if you don't know the color that Pantone has decided will be 2015's color of the year?

Pantone Inc. is a corporation out of New Jersey which has a famous color standardization system called the Pantone Matching System. Apparently, every year they try to figure out what the next 'color of the year' will be. Wonkblog at the Washington Post has a quiz up to see if you can figure out past colors of the year based on how much they lived up to the hype. Online quizzes are the most fun if they ridicule mercilessly for being  wrong, and this is a very good quiz. I can testify to that.

Oh, you will have to hit the link to the quiz to find out the name of the color for 2015. The only hint I can give you is that it has a "full-bodiness like the cooking wine" without being overpowering.

Or, I imagine, inebriating.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


For some reason, this word came up on an episode of New Tricks, the British mystery series about old codgers solving old cases. I associate the word with the upper American Midwest, so this was somewhat surprising. I also associate it with the children's book Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandberg, which I either never read or was so unimpressed with that it has left no record upon my consciousness. It's quite possible that I would like it a lot more now, as the nostalgia factor of its content would mean more. Maybe.

I know that most people who happen upon this blog will already know what a rutabaga is, but it isn't something that seems to have made its way into the California cuisine that I grew up with with any frequency. Or at all, really.

I do know it is some kind of root vegetable, but how people use it is pretty much a mystery to me. Time to find out more.


Well, as pretty much every website I looked at seems to agree, the rutabaga is a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. Some  say that this cross was done intentionally by a Swiss botanist named Gaspard (Caspar) Bauhin, while others think he was merely the one to describe it. Wikipedia doesn't connect him to the rutabaga, but it does say that his principal contribution to science was in his description of genera and species.

I also learned in passing of the mysterious sounding "triangle of U". It turns out that this is simply a theory about how three ancient plants from the brassica (cabbage) family evolved and combined to make some common modern vegetable and seed plants. It was named after the guy who thought of it, a Korean-Japanese botanist named Woo Jang-choon, whose name translated into Japanese through its characters became U Nagaharu. Here's a picture of the triangle:

But essentially it's all about the relation and ancestry of things like turnips, cabbage, mustard and yes, rutabaga.

Rutabaga, it turns out, is a lot like a turnip, except its flesh is yellow,  not white, and it isn't quite as moist.It is popular in the northern climes of the U.S., but in fact a lot of it is grown in California. Its name comes from a Swedish dialect, rot meaning root and bagge meaning bag. However, as with much else about this plant, there are other versions. Wikipedia, for instance, tells us that the etymology from Swedish actually means 'ram's root', possibly because it is used commonly as livestock feed. It goes by a lot of names, but we'll just stick to the English language versions. Americans and Canadians may be familiar with rutabaga, but many English speaking people just call them swedes. The Scots have their own name for them, calling them neeps or tumshies, and the southeastern part of the region calls them bagies. They even use them in their traditional Burns Supper, in celebration of the life of the poet Robert Burns, where they play their part in the menu of haggis, tatties and neeps.

Popular in the cuisine of several cultures, rutabaga under any name is apparently not held in high esteem in France or Germany, and is thought of as more or less fodder for animals. Several sources say that this is because it was the only food available to people enduring great privation during the First and Second World Wars and bears unpleasant associations for many. However those wars are a long time ago now, and maybe it's time for this very versatile root to make a comeback.

The illustration that begins this piece is from the original frontispiece to the 1922 first edition of Rootabaga Tales. The artists are Maud and Miska Petersham. Project Gutenberg has a copy of the book free to peruse online. I think that whether or not you like Sandberg's tales is largely a matter of taste, or so I gather from the mixed reviews of the book on GoodReads, but in any case, you should take a moment to skim it for the wonderful illustrations.

Here's a link to info about the rutabaga drawing which comes from France in 1883. The humble root bag was not so despised back then, I think.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


 After being away last week, I went to the Penny University discussion group Monday evening and was happy to see that there was a young man visiting and sharing his understanding of biodynamic gardening.  I'm not a gardener, although I have on occasion planted a small plot of vegetables. But I have a long history with the subject that Joe was speaking of, as during my college days, I knew several people actively involved with the farm and garden project at UCSC, which was the direct result of the appearance of Alan Chadwick there, an eccentric genius from England who not only taught students the virtues of biodynamic gardening, but also inducted them into a rather wider and deeper and  more esoteric world than that which most young Californians were experiencing. And I say that even though this was the seventies, when the Summer of Love was not a distant memory, at least not quite yet.

Chadwick's antecedent was Rudolf Steiner, who, I learned last night only gave one lecture on his biodynamic vision, though there are many books which elucidate other parts of his philosphy. Steiner himself harkened back to Goethe. One thing I liked about the evening was seeing Paul Lee, who has held the banner for so much of this stuff despite many travails, finding a young student who himself is teaching still younger students in the lore of this path. Although my head was spinning after so many people chiming in on all this last night, and though I am the kind of person who zaps a quick lunch in the microwave, that doesn't mean that the significance of such moments are lost on me.

One of the points that was being made last night was about how the care of the soil and the living organisms residing in it contributes to the well-being of people who eat this food and basically live this life cycle. The idea of farming in this view is a closed system, where the animals that are nurtured by the soil contribute to it through their waste, so an endless fertile loop is in place. Somehow, nematodes came up.

Do you know about nematodes? I'd heard the word, I suppose. But it's quite strange that I know so little about what this website terms "the most numerous multicellular animals on earth". Also according to the same website, nematode is a combination of the Greek words "nematos" or thread and "eidos", or form. They also tell us that "tube-within-a-tube" is a convenient way to think about their body structure. This is reminding me that our guest told us that sometimes the only way to distinguish between nematodes is by the structure of their mouths.

The discussion immediately turned to destructive nematodes, as some of them are parasitic. But in this case our speaker was talking about beneficial nematodes, which aid in breaking things down and benefiting the soil.

I probably did not need to know about the nematode that commonly resides in the placenta of the sperm whale. Placentonema gigantissimum: eight feet long and as thick as a garden hose. They get inside us too. In fact, they get everywhere. But luckily for us, most nematodes are microscopic.

Friday, November 21, 2014

(Un)Civil Asset Forfeiture

You know my rule here, right? One instance of ignorance maybe rises to the surface of my attention, but when a couple of sightings or citings come along in a row, I usually feel compelled to pursue the matter. That's the case here. Thanks to Slate, I saw this informative and entertaining piece by comedian John Oliver a few weeks ago.

Now I knew and didn't know this. I had heard that the powers that be have seized a tremendous number of assets in the drug bust game, but until I watched this segment, I had no idea that the police could seize assets simply on the assumption of criminal activity, and actual conviction isn't a requirement. For some reason, they can simply keep some of the money and property they seize.

Sounds pretty bad, right? But a week or so ago, I learned of another kind of assets seizure that in some ways seems even worse. This is the way that law enforcement habitually treats the property of the homeless, which is sometimes taken away when left even briefly unattended and often not given back. As of August of this year, the destruction of that property is illegal in California without giving the homeless person a  fair chance to reclaim it. As an activist lawyer came to our weekly discussion group on his way to a homeless teach-in, it became clear that the law is not always adhered to yet.

Some people might think that the small amount of belongings that a homeless person manages to carry around with them through their day is not very worthwhile, but in my view, taking away every worldly possession someone has is a lot worse than seizing, say, a yacht.

According to SF Gate, here's what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had to say about it:

"The government may not take property like a thief in the night; rather, it must announce its intentions and give the property owner a chance to argue against the taking."

Here's an article from McClatchyDC on how the homeless people in Sacramento filed claims for the return of their property. It was a tactic described to us by our activist/lawyer visitor, although he did tell us that people don't usually get their property back but some form of compensation, as seems to be the case in the Sacramento scenario. And while we're at it, here is his blog, called Living My Story, which is a lot about what's going on in Baldwin Park, California. He goes by the moniker PC there.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Somehow I seem to have gotten on to a theme of gadgets. I was watching something on the local PBS station and as is customary when a show ends a bit before the hour mark, there was a short clip. This time it was one from a series called the History Quiz, where people are given strange objects from the past and try to figure out what they were used for. Here's what they were asked to look at in this episode.

So a densiometer measures the shade coverage by the leaves of trees above. It's not to be confused with a densitometer, which Google continually wants to steer me to and which has a variety of meanings, but which seems to mainly have to do with optical density, or how much light passes through or is absorbed by  an object. Yeah, let's not go too far down that road right now.

As the little clip shows, the densiometer, by measuring shade, can tell various things about an ecosystem, including its health. The one in the clip is pretty fancy. But guess what, kids? You can make your own with stuff you have at home. It won't look like this:

 But it still looks pretty fun.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Maps of Word Origins

While a little busy to write a longer post at the moment, I just randomly stumbled on this article. It's from Trove, picked up by T.J. DeGroat, in an article by Michael B. Kelley and originally from a Reddit user called sp07. (Never mind where words come from, where do blog posts come from?)

Anyway, there are several maps showing the spread of  several common words, mostly food and drink.
Here's one on something near and dear to my heart:

 You can find more of these interesting maps and a little analysis HERE

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Do you already know what this is? Because I didn't. I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show the other night when it came up. She mentioned the word somewhat casually, as though we would have at least a basic understanding of its meaning, but frankly, it wasn't familiar. Luckily, she then explained it in more detail. Here's the segment.

Of course anyone who has watched any kind of dramatization of surgery knows about sterilized medical instruments, but I guess I'd never thought that much about how they get sterilized.

Basically, the autoclave is a kind of pressure cooker. Remember those? Apparently the microwave oven kind of wiped out their daily use, but my mom had one, and I remember being a little scared of it. According to a very helpful site called Explain that Stuff! the idea behind the autoclave and the pressure cooker is that the higher pressure inside forces the water to boil at a higher temperature, and for medical purposes, the resulting hotter steam kills microbes more effectively. (For kitchen purposes, things just cook faster.)

The autoclave has been with us for a long time--since 1879 as an actual object, invented by Louis Pasteur's colleague, Charles Chamberland, but as a concept for a lot longer. That's why I found it funny that I didn't know the word. Of course I had to look up the etymology, because I thought it was an odd name. I knew that "auto" had to do with self and "clave" probably had a relation to keys, But self-key didn't really get me very far. It's clever, though. It really means more like 'self locking' and the idea here is that the steam pressure causes it to seal itself at a certain point.

The Maddow show brought up the autoclave in relation to ebola, of course, and made note of a more recent use of them. Though in most places they are used to sterilize instruments, in a few specialized sites dedicated to caring for patients with infectious disease, they just go ahead and autoclave everything. Bedding, clothing, uniforms--I'm not exactly sure what they don't autoclave.

Presumably not the people. But you never know.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 17th, 1989

It's the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. For some reason I haven't been much moved to commemorate it this 'big year' even though I have been more in tune with the memory other years.
But it is an important day in Santa Cruz history, so I thought I'd repost something I wrote for another blog I do on memory a few years ago. Five, actually. As for today, I'm just happy and yet still a little pensive about what it means to be among the living...

(In memory of Shawn McCormick and Robin Ortiz)

Every once in awhile, this blog is not about the lapse of memory, but memory, straight up. Today marked the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which some people may remember because of the World Series being played at that moment, and others may remember for images of people crushed and trapped on the collapsed Bay Bridge. However, the epicenter happened right here in Santa Cruz County, in the Forest of Nicene Marks, at a spot I have actually hiked to, though even that was a long time ago now.

Most people probably won't remember this earthquake at all, or maybe only vaguely, which perhaps ties in to my usual theme more than I thought. But this earthquake destroyed our downtown, forcing businesses into tents for a couple of years, and was one of those decisive moments in a community's history that marks all who were present forever. I don't mean that everyone was traumatized. I mean that our town changed forever from the kind of town that it had been only the day before. Many people lost property or suffered property damage. Many people left, changed their focus or direction. Some people, luckily only a few, lost their lives that day. However two of those people, very young people just starting their adult lives, died just on the other side of a wall from me. The wall fell the other way. They were in a little attic office, going over the days receipts of the coffee roasting enterprise that they were working in, and the top of the wall collapsed on them and buried them. The report later was that mercifully they had died instantly. But for days, many people stood around that pile of rubble, pleading with authorities to work faster, hoping against hope.

Today I walked down to the observances of the day. I wasn't really sure why I was going, though I had actually skipped going to my high school reunion for that very reason. As I walked down, I was struck by the incredible, almost too incredible vibrancy of the town. It was the last weekend of Open Studios and everywhere were signs advertising where some artist who had opened his or her home to the public could be found. A banner at the high school welcomed bands from around the state to the annual high school band review, which must have happened this morning. I walked past the Civic auditorium, where some sort of conference of jiu jitsu was in progress, and outdoor booths and music were spreading its followers out on to the street. The Pacific Rim Film Festival was in full tilt. And all of these things were bringing people out of their homes and over the mountains to our town, and none of it had anything to do with remembrance of the day at all.

Except it did. It was the sign of the phoenix's rise from the ashes, the town continuing in a new way with its old quirky energy, and no one could be blamed if they didn't make their way to the post office and the town clock to remember what was really only a moment in time. And I myself didn't go to hear the speeches, which was just as well, because some of them couldn't be heard anyway, from the back of the crowd. And there was a crowd, an old timer crowd, you might even say a home town crowd, although for all my years' involvement with the place, it's never really felt like my hometown. It probably never could.

As the speeches ended, the clock tolled the number of the dead from that day in our county. A couple of silver balloons floated into the air. I saw a few people I knew, but no one felt like talking. I walked over afterwards to the chainlink fence that to this day surrounds the site of the store that I worked in and the coffee house that the dead worked in. My eyes teared up. I didn't care about the store, though many still lament it. The store rose again in another location, after all, as did the town. Bigger and better you could even say, unless you didn't quite feel that way about it. And a hole in the ground is just a hole in the ground.

But the dead stay dead. Robin Ortiz and Shawn McCormack have not been part of the rebirth. I was glad to see the signs on the fence, with sweet sentimental comments like "We still miss you, Shawn." "I haven't forgotten you, Robyn." People brought bouquets of flowers to stick in the fence. Silver balloons were tied to the fence and floated above it.

Twenty years is a long time to be gone. A whole lifetime for some. My friends' son was born in a hospital right here in town the day before. Twenty years is an awful lot of living. I can't help but think of all the last twenty years has given me, all I did and failed to do--all I was granted time to do and fail to do.

Earlier this week, in a coincidental recapitulation, a tree fell in my yard. It was exciting, dramatic, but it fell the other way--harmless. The other one, its twin, which was leaning over my house did not fall. The thing to realize, if we can, is that this is not extraordinary luck on my part. We are all, for the moment, living on the right side of that brick wall. We are all, for the moment, living in the shadow of the tree that did not fall. And the only thing to ask, really, is what are we going to do with the time that remains?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

OxyContin, Part 2

It's funny what happens when you put stuff out there in the world. Since writing that last exploratory post about Oxycontin, a lot has happened. To begin with, the very next day I happened to read the following in an early chapter of Gone Girl:

"...A lot of housewives, more than you'd guess, they pass the day that way. The days, they get long when you're by yourself. And if the drinking turns to drugs--and I'm not talking heroin but even prescription painkillers--well, there are some pretty awful characters selling around here right now."...

..."Had a housewife, nice lady, got her tooth knocked out over some Oxycontin."

Next, I learned from Adrian McKinty that there is a Steve Earle song called "OxyContin Blues".

Now as apt an interesting as these two sightings both were, they don't fall into the category where things feel somewhat uncanny. Coincidence in the first place and connection in the second pretty much cover it.

But on Monday I went to my usual Penny U discussion group, which is admittedly a kind of a grab bag free-for-all where people's thoughts on everything from ebola to remote viewing can surface. (Both of which did that day.) But even so, it was more than a bit odd that after a lull and truly out of nowhere, one of our leaders said, "So what's this about Oxycodone and prescription drug addiction?" At first I thought, well, it's not so strange, he probably saw the same show that I did. But no. What he really wanted to do was talk about his own experience on Oxycodone. He'd been given a few tablets for a surgical procedure last summer which he hadn't needed, and, experiencing a back spasm later, took one. Then Timothy Leary appeared to him and promised to take him on the drug trip of all drug trips, which he made good his word on. (He had known Leary back in the day, and done LSD with him in the Harvard experiments, so this wasn't coming entirely out of left field.) It also cured the back spasm.

It was funny sitting there and listening to everyone share information about the drug. I never heard anyone talk about the toll it's taken on the Salt Lake City community, which was what the program I had watched centered on. One woman explained that it had ravaged the small rural communities of Vermont and New Hampshire. So that's three relatively dissimilar regions that have gone through a  very similar experience: the Northeast, Utah, and Coal Country. Timothy Leary or no, this drug does seem to be a scourge.

One thing I did ascertain, though, as I sat there listening to people asking "Is it Oxycontin or Oxycodone? What's the difference?" or explaining how the drug interacts with the body's receptors.

None of them read my blog.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


When it comes to drugs, I'm not exactly what you would call in the know. Even so, I was little surprised when I started watching Justified recently that a lot of the drama (and a lot of the crime) centered around the smuggling of something called Oxy, or what I thought was called Oxycotton. As may be obvious from reading this blog over time, it can take me awhile to get curious enough to find out more, and for the purposes of the show, it was enough to know that it was a profitable illicit substance that was finding its way into Harlan County, Kentucky.

Flash forward to a couple of nights ago when I happened to tune into a TV show on CNN in which Lisa Ling explores the drug culture of Salt Lake City. It's called "Unholy Addiction". I was pretty surprised to learn that non-smoking, non-drinking Mormon country has such a prescription drug problem, ironically in part because in such an idealistic society, addiction issues tend to remain in the shadows. Anyway, there was our old friend OxyContin again, one of the chief culprits. Although there is the usual pathway of kids taking their parents pills there is also the fact that OxyContin is incredibly and swiftly addictive and people who'd  never believe they could become junkies suddenly find themselves with a habit.

This morning I read a piece by Charles Ingraham at Wonkblog  which reports that despite the fact that heroin looms large in our consciousness thanks to high profile deaths like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and that its usage is said to be on the upswing, it's actually used by a very tiny percentage of people, a number so small statistically that its hard to track it reliably in traditional ways.

Just in case you were weighing up what your recreational drug of choice should be, Wonkblog goes on to say that in 2011, 4012 people overdosed in the U.S. on heroin, but 17, 241 people OD'd on prescription drugs, which is roughly the number of people who died by firearm homicide.

I was struck by the unintentional side effect that an idealistic society which values clean living had on drug use in Utah. But I was also struck by another possible unintended consequence. Ingraham goes on to say that as the Feds crack down on prescription drug abuse, they may actually be driving people to start into heroin, which is cheaper. This was also a point driven home on Ling's show.

So what is Oxycontin exactly? Well, it's a brand name, for one thing. The actual drug is oxycodone, with OxyContin being a time released version, "Contin" standing in for "continuous". Ironically, when people become addicted to these pills, they often chew, snort or ingest the drug as a means of overriding that time release mechanism.

According to How Stuff Works, oxycodone is an agonist opoid. The agonist bit means that it binds to a receptor in the body and causes a physiological response. Wikipedia tells us that oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opoid derived from a minor constituent of opium called Thebaine (and if you see Thebes in that word, you see correctly). It is similar to morphine and codeine, but instead has stimulatory effects rather than depressant effects. What separates oxycodone from say, aspirin, is that aspirin has a threshold to its effectiveness, while agonist opoids have no such threshold, so the more you take the better you feel.


Unfortunately, frequent use habituates the user to the effect and as with so much else in life, more and more must be taken for the desired effect. Hence, addiction. In a word, don't go there, people.

Etymologically oxy is just short for hydroxyl, and codone comes from codeine. Codeine goes back to the Greek kodeia or "poppy head".

Obviously, a lot of people in tremendous pain have derived great benefit from the invention--and intervention--of oxycodone, which the Germans managed to do in 1916. For those of us more fortunate, though, there was a lesson embedded in The Wizard of Oz which many of us would have done well to have heeded.

"Poppies... Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep. Sleeeeep."
In case you've forgotten, the Wicked Witch of the West wasn't wishing Dorothy well.

Friday, October 3, 2014


No, this isn't a word that either you or I should necessarily have at the tip of our tongue. But it is one small piece of information I do retain from a visit my sister and our old friends paid to the Filoli Gardens last weekend. I had long heard of these gardens, which are located on what Northern Californians refer to as the Peninsula, meaning that they lie about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

Although I'd never been there before, Filoli Gardens is a familiar type of place to me, reminding me somewhat of the Huntington Gardens down in Southern California, or the Getty Villa, which I visited just last fall. It doesn't have quite the same interest in either art or literary collections that the former do, but it does have an interesting house to walk around in, and some very beautiful and extensive gardens.

There was one odd thing for a world class garden, though, as one of the docents was referring to it a she spoke to some other visitors nearby. She said that interns come from all over the world to study there, and I don't find that surprising. But what was very strange to me in a place with such a mission is the scarcity of signage. Now don't get me wrong, the docents were very helpful and knowledgable about the plant specimens we were looking at, and they were out in force. But it wasn't like you could just carry the docent along with you wherever you happened to be, and so we saw many plants we wondered about for the moment we were looking at them without ever really finding out what they were.

Of course, there's something to be said for looking without classifying something. Me personally, I like to look at gardens, but have much less interest in doing the hard work of planting and caring for things. But you have to think that a high percentage of people who had come out of their way to visit a garden had some interest in doing some gardening of their own, and it seemed oddly, well, retro, in this age of information that you couldn't make note of names for future reference. In other respects, propagation does seem to be part of the Filoli mission--they have a nice website, for example-- and I'd think giving people access to this kind of more immediate access to knowledge would rate a little higher with them than it does.

There was one plant my friends had noticed and expressed interest in earlier, and so while I was standing around I happened to ask one of the docents later. She told me the plant was called cleome, sometimes known more commonly as spider plant. It doesn't look like the kind of spider plant that I grew up with, so I prefer to remember Cleome. I mentioned our earlier inability to discover what other plants were earlier. She said "Very few plants have signage here." She had that kind of look on her face that people get when explaining that this is the way it's been and this is the way it's going to stay. "That's why we're here," she said.

I suppose a more persistent person would have said, "Yes, but why?" Instead I just took away the name "Cleome".

And wrote a blog post about it.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Sindhi Ghazal by Habib Sajid
Believe it or not, I was planning on writing about this word at some point. Admittedly, it has been on the back burner for awhile now, and so might not ever have happened. The occasion for my own interest was a conversation I had a few months back with local poet Len Anderson who publishes Hummingbird Press and helps head up the local poetry scene at Poetry Santa Cruz.

Anyway, it turned out that he has achieved some recognition working in the poetic form of the ghazal. I sort of understood what the form was from his description, but decided to go home and look it up, which I did, but that was about as far as I got with it.

Enter another local figure, Gary Patton, formerly a County Supervisor and now an environmental lawyer. His blog Two Worlds, which treats of the two worlds we simultaneously live in, that of nature and that which we human beings construct, can be found in the side panel here. So what should happen the other evening but that he turns out a blog post not only talking about the ghazal but containing a rather wonderful ghazal by Ken Weisner. Well, perhaps wonderful is the wrong word for a poem that with every other line returns us to Dick Cheney, but you get my drift.

I am going to give you a link to Patton's post HERE and to Ariadne's Web which has Len Anderson's description as well as a ghazal he wrote himself. If you can't be bothered to click on the links (why?) then I'll just say that the form of a ghazal is a series of couplets, the second line of which always ends with the same thing.  I.e., Dick Cheney. There's a bit more to it than that, but that's enough to be getting on with, I think.

In Arabic, the language the form originated in, ghazal  means "talking to women". According to a book called Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazal by K.C. Kanda, the ghazal's central concern is love even though it covers a wide range of human experience. You might say that Ken Weisner is stretching that range a tad when it comes to Cheney, but maybe that's just me. The other etymology Kanda finds for the word: "The painful wail of a wounded deer."

Hmm. I think I'd probably better just leave it at that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


No, not that kind. I'm talking about fawn as in fawning, being obsequious, or as Peter Rozovsky said in the comment field here recently, being a lickspittle--a great word for which I praise whoever first came up with it. But that is not our quest today.

Fawning is also a good word, but when you try and reach back in time for the sense of it, well, it's difficult to come up with the connection. Fawns may have some negative traits...oh, who am I kidding--fawns have no negative traits, none whatsoever, unless it's that they grow up to become deers that eat a lot of your favorite plants. Remember The Yearling? No, try not to. It's sad.

Anyway, fawns may be timid or shy, but they aren't exactly known for kissing up to people. So where does this word come from?


It turns out that there are two kinds of fawns. The little furry hoofed kind, which comes from the Old French faon or feon, meaning "young animal". It goes all the way back to the Latin fetus which I probably don't have to translate for you. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that originally fawn meant any young animal, and was "Still used of the young of any animal in King James I's private translation of the Psalms." but mostly just referred to young deer from around the fifteenth century.

The other kind of fawn, as in fawning, has nothing to do with all that. It goes back to fægnian, which is an Old English word meaning "to be glad, to rejoice, exult." It's connected to that old-fashioned sounding word fain, as Gonzago uses it in The Tempest, when he says, "I would fain die a dry death.", fain here meaning gladly. None of this sounds much like fawning, though, does it? Well, the Online Etymology dictionary tells us that in Middle English, fawn was used to refer to expressions of delight, such as a dog's tail wagging. Somehow this perfectly lovely thing that dogs do changes from a good thing in the early 13th century to a bad thing in the early fourteenth, when it starts to take on its present meaning of groveling or acting slavishly. In other words it amounts to a smear job on dogs. And actually, fawns. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

roiling toilets--another public service announcement from Confessions of Ignorance

Take a look at this short video (not mine, by the way). Has this ever been in the realm of your experience?

Me neither--until it suddenly started happening in the spring. Suddenly, a word frowned upon in writing by some, was quite appropriate here, because it would just happen out of the blue. No other water was running in the old abode, and in fact sometimes it happened in the middle of the night. My landlady suggested Liquid Plumber so I tried that and it seemed to stop for awhile, so I forgot about it.

In the last couple of weeks, though, it started up again and got steadily worse. Toilet decloggers were no longer effective in stopping the rub-a-dub action, and in fact flushing wasn't happening so much as slow draining. I finally managed to describe the situation accurately to the internet and I found the answer. If you've dealt with plumbing you probably know that it has nothing to do with clogged drainage pipes, gaslines from the street, or anything else others suggested to me during the time of crisis.

It has to do with air vents.

Turns out your plumbing needs some way to vent not just water, but gases. And unfortunately since these are exposed to your external surroundings, sometimes they got blocked. Ice or snow in regions less temperate than mine, but very often the answer seems to be pine needles.

My landlady did get the handyman to come out because I certainly had no clue where the air vent was. Usually they are on the roof, but mine was running up the side of the wall under the eave. There is a pine tree above, but it seemed like the cap just got clogged with spider webs and other things. He took the cap off and put a makeshift screen over it instead, and presto, chango!-- all is well.

I'm going to include this simple and informative video on how to flush it out if your vent is on the roof. Partly, yes, as a public service, but also because, as seems to be the way with internet how-to videos, you will find an amusing and unexpected side story going on if you watch it through.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Your Fingerprint Word?

There's an interesting post by Matthew J. X. Malady up on Slate right now about "fingerprint words"--words that others identify as "your" words. For Malady it is "iteration"--and yes, he knows it's not necessarily something to be proud of. What was interesting to me in the article, because of my ongoing interest in word drift, is how one's signature word tends to spread around one's group, and how we feel about that when it happens. To copy people's usage is a compliment, but to feel copied too much can feel like theft apparently.

I, perhaps not surprisingly to readers of this blog, am a bit resistant to new usage spreading around me. I noticed a long time ago that in my former workplace, I would not switch to the more casual and usually shorter form of a person's name that I had originally learned as a longer one till it had become quite common usage--Jen for Jennifer, for instance, or Mike for Michael. If they were just introduced to me as Jen or Mike in the first place, then of course I went with that. But I didn't move from more formality to less formality very quickly. And as for true nicknames, which one of my colleagues was quite gifted at coining, I don't think I ever adopted them at all.

In the same way, when everyone suddenly started using the word "referenced", as in "I referenced that", I very deliberately did not do the same. In a workplace, there's quite a high rate of "infection" of that kind. And I do sometimes catch the bug of something, but I usually notice after the word has popped out of my mouth and I feel embarrassed. It's a little bit like being taken over by something that is not your own thought process. One that springs to mind is that there was someone in my sphere that used to say "Excellent" a lot. Or maybe not a lot, but the things he was referring to did not always deserve that response. Still, it's slipped out of my mouth a few times since then.

As for my fingerprint words? Well, actually--no, those are my fingerprint words. "Well" and "actually". I use them too much and unnecessarily. I don't believe I have any really fancy-schmancy ones, or really idiosyncratic ones. But perhaps some readers here can tell me if I'm wrong. Or maybe they'd like to identify their own.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


For some reason or another, I was thinking about looking into this word awhile ago. Way leads on to way,  however, and I somehow got off that particular quest. Today, though, I happened to notice Rob Kitchen's short review of Christopher Steiner's Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World over at The View From the Blue House and thought to myself, okay, just give it up. You (meaning me) don't really know what algorithms are. I mean, the word is familiar enough from high school math, but that was a long time ago, folks. I suppose it's possible that they were defined for us back in that hazy past, but I think it's more likely that we just had to do them. Use them. Whatever.

Today, though, I vow to go further.


An algorithm is not, as I suspected, an extremely complicated higher math formula, but just the name for an overall type of mathematical or computational procedure. It's a step by step guide for solving a particular problem. Even a recipe can be considered an algorithm if it outlines certain steps and procedures and the order in which you do them. Here is  a webpage example of how you would turn a standard recipe into a "pseudocode". (And yes, do go there, because it will teach you how to make an easy pizza brownie, even if you don't want to learn algorithms.)

So why the fancy word? Well, it all goes back to one Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer, living between 780 and 850 AD, whose work when later translated introduced both Hindu/Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra into European mathematics. The treatise on numbers came into Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum, which just means "al-Khwarizmi on the numbers of the Indians", Algoritmi being the Latinization of his name.

a page of al-Khwarizmi's algebra

Algoritmi in Medieval Latin became algorismus (the normally nonjudgmental Online Etymology Dictionary calls this "a mangled transliteration"), and led to the Old French algorisme, which meant the Arabic numeral system. French turned this into algorithme, under the mistaken idea (again the OED) that it had something to do with the Greek word for number, arithmos. Middle English had algorism from Old French, but it too simply meant decimal number system. It wasn't until the 19th century that our current English word took on its current English meaning.

And though I didn't write this up today intentionally, as I certainly wouldn't have thought 'algorithm' derived from a Persian place name (al-Kharizmi just means "from Khwarezm", an oasis in Central Asia), it is perhaps a good day to remember that not everything that has come to us out of the Middle East has meant trouble for the West, and some of it has actually brought us great good.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

High falutin'

I used the term high falutin' the other day, and of course that led me to think about where it comes from. I think of high falutin' as being fancy, perhaps overly so, or giving oneself airs that one shouldn't. But what, I wondered, is falutin'?


It turns out that this is one of those slang terms that sprang up somehow without anyone really bothering to record it. It was first recorded in usage in 1839. People do like to guess about it, though. Witness Merriam-Webster online:

"perhaps from 2high + alteration of fluting, present participle of flute"

Or perhaps not.

If you head over to Word Detective, you will find the author acknowledging that no one knows but that there are two possible sources, either possibly true. He (or she) mentions the flute possibility but then says that others suggest high flying or high flown. It's worth continuing on into the comments thread there, as it illustrates with some humor that where meanings aren't known, they will be invented. You will find there the mention of the fluting on Mississippi steamboats, the way pretentious flautists hold up their arms, fluting on blouses, armor and much, much more.

"Zbroja 1514" by Unknown - Own work User:Mathiasrex Maciej Szczepańczyk

But after scrolling through such comments, we need a bit of etymologist Anatoly Liberman to bring us back to earth. Hence I direct you to his article "Low-Key Thoughts on Highfalutin'". It's worth reading for the way he untangles things and reasons them out. He holds back his "one feeble idea" till the end and I won't ruin it for him. But I'll give you a hint.

Think Yiddish.

Monday, September 1, 2014


No, that wasn't drunk typing. Apparently I'm just really into the acronyms these days. Here's what it stands for:

General opinion, Specific opinion, Size, Shape, Age, Color, Provenance, Material. (As a learning device, it's not exactly the best with three Esses in a row, is it?)

OK--now go read this Slate article by Katy Waldman to find out what it's all about...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ISIS and ISIL--or, to QSIS and Beyond

Admittedly it is hard to find the lighter side of the rise of the grim jihadist group casting a dark spectre over Iraq right now, but if anything is funny, it's hearing a bunch of news reporters asking about ISIS and having the president answer their questions using the word ISIL. He never says, "Uh, it's actually ISIL" but I can't help hearing his refusal to use their term as a bit patronizing, intentionally or not. Then the other day, I heard some other White House official answer questions about ISUS by saying something like "It's important to understand that I.S.I.L. is...", which came across as seeming even more pedantic.

On the level of just sound and hearing, I suppose it isn't that much different than hearing reporters ask about "ee-ROCK" and having the president talking about "eye-RACK", but in terms of comprehension at least we knew they were all talking about the same place. The dissonance in this more recent term has the effect of making me feel like I've missed a beat, or that maybe the press has. And of course we probably have. But still, after bringing it up at a discussion last night, I realized I should probably try and track this down.

At first this seemed easy enough. There are plenty of articles out there already on this confusing topic. But woe to those who wade into this tricky thicket lightly. It turns out that it's a matter of translation, but also a matter of politics.

The name of the group in Arabic is Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. This, according to the Associated Press, which switched over to the ISIL version, means the The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. What is al-Sham, you ask? Well, according to the AP, it is the region comprising southern Turkey and extending down through Syria to Egypt  and also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.This is the area which the group wants to restore to being a caliphate, or Islamic state. It is also the area which in the West has broadly (and loosely) been termed the Levant. To Western eyes, the term just meant the Mediterranean lands east of Italy (so says Wikipedia), and, using the French word for 'rise', means  basically the lands of the rising sun.

from the website Make Hummus, Not War

So, ISIL--the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. As opposed to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

BUT--Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post  quotes a Syrian analyst named Hassan Hassan saying that there is a difference between al-Sham and Bilad al-Sham. Al-sham, he says, is basically Syria and more specifically is used to refer to Damascus, while Bilad al-Sham is greater Syria or the lands we historically have thought of as the Levant. He also points out that if we are going to use an older, out of date name like the Levant, we should use a corresponding older name for Iraq, which would be Mesopotamia.

As you can see, there are variant spellings.
 (The map was apparently uploaded to Wikicommons from the website of someone named Paulo Porsia

When you use modern "Iraq", use the modern term "Greater Syria" — in that case, it's the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (still ISIS).

I would have thought that would be ISIGS, but maybe that's just me.

The Washington Post goes on to say it would be more accurate to just use the Arabic world's shorthand for the group, namely DAIISH. They go on to say usually that it's fairly typical for English to create acronyms that preserve the original language to some degree.

But here the plot thickens still further. Unbeknownst to me, and apparently ignored by any news media I follow, on June 29th ISIS declared that they didn't want to be called the Islamic State of anything, but simply the Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamiya), because they had established a new caliphate that didn't respect the old borders. This in turn called up a response from  Dar el-Ifta, which is a leading educational institute that weighs in on matters important to the practice of the Islamic faith, begged the media not to use that name in reference to the group as they did not think a radical fringe of Islam should be allowed to present itself as the face of Islam as a whole. Their solution? Why not QSIS?

On the other hand, why QSIS? Well, the group formerly known as ISIS was even more formerly known as a faction of al Qaeda in Iraq. But tensions mounted between al Qaeda and this splinter group and they parted ways this spring. So QSIS stands for "al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq"

I have one little problem with this idea, though, and that is how to pronounce it. Q-sis? Ki-sis? Kwi-sis?

Come to think of it, maybe just Crisis would sum up all its many latent possibilities.

Footnote: Dammit. Slate just wrote up this same question. I haven't read it through, but it's probably more authoritative than this account. Get it all here.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Blue with Green Should Never Be Seen

Sometimes--actually quite frequently--I wonder where I've been all these years. One way this came up was last weekend when, gathering with my family, we were talking about what each person's favorite color was. I don't know exactly how this led to my sister telling us about a conversation she had had with my father that I don't remember ever having heard before.

Back in the distant days of high school, she and I belonged to a club called the Juniorettes, which was a teen club sponsored by the Junior Women's club. In it's slightly eccentric blend of informality and convention, we each had a little badge made out of felt, which was a smaller piece of blue on larger piece of green. Maybe it had a little pin in the middle--I don't have one handy to look at.

I don't actually remember when we ever wore these badges. Maybe at every meeting? Maybe only on special occasions. In any case, they must have come out of the box at some point, because my sister tells me that my father was noticing her pin one day and said, "Blue with green should never be seen."

This did not seem to strike anyone else in the family with surprise. Someone knew that the whole saying was "Blue with green should never be seen, except with something in between." My niece, who takes art classes, went on to explain that the colors are too close together on the color wheel.

There are several funny things about this. First of all, although my father was interested in many things, I find it a little hard to imagine him weighing in on this convention. So I must conclude that this is one of those adages that he picked up at an impressionable age, like the one about not wearing white after Labor Day, which even I remember my Illinois relatives quoting with some authority (it's not really observed in my strata of California society, unless it's just me not observing it--not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.)

The second thing is, how does everyone else know this adage, and after all these years, this is the first I've heard of it? It's one thing when you come across some piece of advice that comes from somewhere else, but apparently everyone in my family had heard this news but me. 

Sometimes we can be skeptical of some piece of collective wisdom. It's very rare in my experience, though, to have been sheltered somehow from such knowledge and find out that you have been going along thinking exactly the opposite. Because I think green and blue together are BEAUTIFUL.

And so, apparently, does God. Or whoever does the interior design for this simulation we're currently caught up in.

(The painting at the top is by Nelson Ferreira, from his Penumbra series. And speaking of penumbras, if you would like to see some spectacular blue tulips--in a backdrop of green--just go to Kathleen Kirk's blog post HERE and scroll on down...)

Friday, August 8, 2014

glean II

I just put a book review up over at Escape Into Life, and about halfway through, I realized that the book under discussion is a book about gleaning. The French illustrator Barroux came across a box amid a pile of things that some movers were hauling out to throw away. In the box was a journal and a French war medal. The result of that chance find was the graphic novel (On Les Aura!), which became Line of Fire in English.

I just thought this was all a great bit of propaganda for gleaning. Read all about it HERE. It's kind of funny that all the gleaning I've been coming across lately has been happening in France.