Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sufferin' succotash!

Okay, I genuinely don't know what succotash is. But that's really just an excuse to put up the following video.

Let's say you're Michelle Obama. (You wish.) Politics aside, you really just want kids to get healthy school lunches. But the food industry powers that be are stacked against you!  What to do? You know kids deserve better. So what superpower do you call in?

(Hint. It is not your husband.)

We'll get to succotash later.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mario Vittone on Signs of Drowning

I put up a link to this piece that Slate republished last year, but apparently not here. They've put it up as a public service now that many people will be heading to various kinds of swimming holes over the summer. Let's take it viral, people.

Without further ado:

Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning by Mario Vittone

All other confessions of ignorance can wait. Happy Memorial Day, and safe swimming!

The Swimming Hole, by Thomas Eakins--1884-5

 Okay, those boys probably aren't drowning, but they're bound to get a few clicks, when they show up in the footer from time to time. Anything to save a life. Anything...

Monday, May 19, 2014


No, this is not a word I think I know but don't really, which is the standard fare here. This is a word I know I never knew before. It was coined by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book, The Act of Creation, which I am surely going to grab a copy of. But the reason I know about it is the Slate article by James Harbeck that I just read, which is all about how "Advertisers Trick Your Brain by Turning Adjectives Into Nouns".

The definition of bisociation is "a mental process in which an idea or object is operating independently in two different fields or planes meeting at a point", or as Harbeck puts it:

"In a nutshell, you have two things operating according to two different scripts, and, at the point where they meet, you jump from one to the other."

Puns are cited in all the definitions I was able to come across as a prime and easily understood example of the phenomenon. The more recent development of mashups would be another bisociation result.

In a nice little piece by Maria Popova at Brainpickings explaining Koestler's idea on this, it comes across that most of our normal thinking is associative, but creative thinking is bisociative. It makes a not ordinary leap.

I will also direct you to a post I put up on our Finnegans Wake blog yesterday. Normally, I do not inflict the Wake on people who haven't volunteered of their own free will, but the post isn't so much about the Wake as about Henri Bergson's thoughts about Creation, creation, creators. So give it a go if you're interested. If creativity is bisociative, Joyce was quadrasociative at the very least...

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Yes, I already knew a fortnight was two weeks. And anyone who actually thinks this through and realizes that two weeks is fourteen days will be much closer to solving the mystery of why it's called this than I was. So to them, it will make perfect sense that it's a seventeenth century contraction of the Middle English fourteniht, which in turn goes back to Old English feowertyne niht, which at least looks like it would have a lovely kind of lilt to it. I got all this from the Online Etymology Dictionary, and (here's one of the many reasons I love this source) it goes on to say:

"literally "fourteen nights," preserving the ancient Germanic custom of reckoning by nights, mentioned by Tacitus in "Germania" xi."

It's the thought to mention Tacitus that I love. Although as the Online Etymology Dictionary itself is really more of a compilation than a commentary, I am not sure exactly who thought Tacitus was worth a mention here, or, for that matter, when.

Someone's idea of the historian

But fortnight is not really an American word unless you're one of those perversely recalcitrant peoples like the Amish or the Canadians. So it's no surprise really that my first exposure to the word came through some old-fashioned literature. Memory wants to have it as Jane Austen, but I think it was coming across something more random and obscure than that. Or maybe it was "Little Women". An American work--I know, I know. But it's not an American word now.

Rightly or wrongly, though, my memory has it that I was reading a story of some kind where some young ladies had been invited to spend some time where the regiment was quartered. A fortnight, in fact. So probably indelibly, I will always associate a fortnight with time spent at forts.  

(The photo is not from a Jane Austen movie, by the way. It is a still I happened to come across from a British show called The Supersizers Go Regency.) You could say that it is an homage...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Not New Furlong

That heading is just a little joke I'm having with myself, because it sounds a bit like my book review blog, Not New For Long, but I assume that most people reading this won't make that association. Oh, well. Sometimes we write to please ourselves.

"Eight furlongs" was the clue in a crossword puzzle I got caught up in this week, and it wasn't hard in the context to figure out what that was. Unless you already know precisely what a furlong is, you probably have at least a hazy sense that it's some sort of unit of distance. But it's an odd word, isn't it? It's related to a unit of distance we use quite commonly, at least here in the U.S., but unlike that other unit, it is rarely if ever that you hear someone say, "Oh, that's about a furlong from here." And if someone did say it, I would have a very hard time getting much useful information out of that sentence.


Well, I take it back. If you have even a casual interest in horseracing, you probably know a bit more about furlongs than I do. You will know, for instance, that the Kentucky Derby is a ten furlong race, and you may even know that the race at Epsom Downs is one mile, four furlongs and ten yards long, or so says Wikipedia.

The Epsom Derby by  GĂ©ricault, 1821

We have not far to go if we want the ancient definition of the furlong. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that it comes from the Old English word furlang, which is simply furh (furrow) plus lang (long). A furlang was a long furrow and though that seems a bit random, apparently it was commonly understood as the length of a ten acre field. But an acre was a bit imprecise in those days too, so the furlong was standardized in the ninth century by being synced up with the Roman mile. One eighth of one, in fact, or about 220 yards. It is perhaps due to these being two different systems that the furlong hasn't ever synced up as well as all that, and different countries have different ways of measuring them. When they use them, that is,which is seldom.

There is one country that uses miles and furlongs and it isn't some small set in their ways island off the coast of England either. It's Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Repudiating their western colonial past in so many ways, they apparently have no problem holding on to our ancient mileage system. Here's a picture of a Yangon (Rangoon) tollbooth posted by DiverDave on the Wiki commons. You can just about make out the furlongs on the right if you blow it up a bit.

It turns out that I'm not the only one who finds the rather arbitrary nature of the furlong somewhat humorous. This webpage will tell you all about Furlongs per Fortnight, which is kind of a code phrase for finding parameters expressed in unfamiliar terms. Like say, Burmese. The example the writer uses that I found easy to grasp is that eggs are bought by the dozen but priced by the pound.

Furlongs per fortnight is expressed as f/f. Wikipedia mentions a related term, f/f/f, with the middle f being for firkin, which is the quarter of a beer or ale barrel, though not to be confused with the dimensions of a wine firkin.It is used to denote mass. Sort of.

But I think we had better not get me started on either firkins or fortnights just yet...

Ten furlong marker at the Newmarket Race

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bubble vocabulary at Slate

This blog all unbeknownst to me was basically born to give you a link to this Slate piece on what Seth Stevenson calls bubble vocabulary. Basically, my work here is done.

Take the quiz, by the way. I was surprised to see that I had written a blog post about at least one of these words and maybe even more. I was even more surprised to see that I remembered enough about that word to get the question right.