Wednesday, April 29, 2015


It's so much with us that we don't really notice what a crazy sounding word it is most of the time. For some reason, though, the other night I did. I was watching some television show where they used the word a few times and it began to strike me funny. It's so ubiquitously American that you feel like we have to have made it up, but at the same time, it can't have come down the usual old Anglo-Norman channels. I suspected an Eastern or Mideastern influence, but beyond that, I couldn't be bothered to guess.

However vaguely, this guess proved correct. Shampoo is one of those quintessential American words like dungarees and seersucker that actually come from India. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that it's first print appearance in English was in 1732. It came via Anglo-Indian from the Sanskrit word champu, the imperative of champna, which means to press or knead the muscles. It wasn't until 1860 that it was recorded as meaning "to wash the hair", and the idea of calling the actual product shampoo comes around a little later in 1866.

"Champie" by Vivek Patankar

I was interested to learn in my recent dabbling in French that their term for the product appears to be shampooing, which sounds odd to my ear, as I don't think of French having a lot of words ending in -ing. But the etymology of modern French is definitely a bridge too far for me.

It wasn't until around 1954 that the word took a further step and began to be applied to shampooing carpets and so forth. Where or when the branding idea of Shampooches or variants thereof  for dog washing businesses began, I don't know. Possibly to avoid copyright infringement, Santa Cruz, where I happen to live has its own further variant: Shampoo-chez. According to their ad, this is not pronounced as the French would.

I found an interesting article on the history of shampoo at a website called What's quite surprising to me is that, as pervasive as shampoo has become to American culture, it really has only existed in its current sense for about a century. Hair, its cleanliness and condition, was a big problem for people before that. Shampoo as we know it was a result of scientific experimentation. Breck was one of the biggest brand names when I was a kid, but there was a real John Breck, who according to this article, brought out one of the first ph-balanced shampoos in 1930. The marketing of the brand fell to the next generation.

This article also gives insight into a further link in how a word for a hair product came originally from a word for massage. Apparently, the idea of shampooing for health became something of a fad, but this meant the whole body process in London bathhouses, but eventually came to be narrowed down to just the hair.

Every fad has its counter-fad, though, and currently we are witnesses to something of a backlash--the No Shampoo Movement, or, as seems in some ways inevitable, the "No 'poo movement". I learned about this from a timeline of the history of shampoo, which I was going  to embed here but instead will just give you the link to as I can't make it fit. Basically, people are resisting the synthetic products that Breck and others so painstakingly came up with. But most people don't stop cleaning their hair altogether. They just wash it less frequently or use dry shampoo or rinses like apple cider vinegar instead.

This page from, though in that annoying click through format that is so familiar to us now, does actually have some good points to be aware of before you jump on that particular bandwagon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

tweet tweet

Although I really have nothing against Twitter as an idea or an entity, I can't help but feel it a bit unfortunate that when news sources are conveying information from the the authorities they are reduced to saying "The Baltimore Police tweet..." Call me old school, or just old, but it does seem to lack a certain gravitas.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Bart Everson- From the Coca Cola filmstrip, "Black Treasures." (1969)

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear the word "transparency" used in a business setting, I think that someone's trying to hide something. Maybe not consciously and maybe not even in the present moment, but sooner or later, there is going to be some backsliding going on. Transparency comes from the Medieval Latin transparere, meaning "to show light through". I have a feeling that when companies start using this word, it's when the windows haven't been cleaned for some time and they are trying to restore some sense of credibility.

As I did a little research trying to find out when this word came into vogue, I found a couple of nice links. One is from and is a piece about "The 7 Iconic, Transparent, Empowering Business Buzzwords That Need to Die". It was written by Tim Phillips, who has a book out called Talk Normal: Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle, which I'd be quite interested to read.

Here's what Phillips has to say about the word.

Six times as popular in the business press as it was in 2002; about one in 40 press releases claim it. It’s taking over "honesty" and "integrity," maybe because you can claim transparency without any suggestion you’re doing something that improves anyone’s life. Note: The glass industry uses "transparency" in marketing less than the average, but the audit industry uses it ten times as often. Draw your own conclusions.

That was written in 2011. Perhaps you think it's gone into decline since then, but in an  amusing list from on the top fifty business buzz words, it was hanging in there at number 4 as recently as 2013.

I also came across a section of a book of writings by Kate Jennings called Trouble: Evolution of a Radical/ Selected Writings 1970-2010:

  Business jargon is an easy target for language scolds and the usage police, but if corporations are serious about letting in the sunlight as a result of Enron and other business scandals they would do well to consider overhauling the official language of the executive suite and the conference room. 

Note I said "letting in the sunlight" not "creating transparency". Actually, I like the word "transparency". It describes a worthwhile, achievable state. Corporations everywhere have adopted it as their watchword du jour, even while they resist regulation that would actually bring about transparency. It's meaning has been debased, co-opted. It has become part of the smoke that businesses blow up our collective arses.

George Orwell described this process in his perennially pertinent essay "Politics and the English language". "When there is a gap between one's real and declared aims," he wrote, "one turns instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A light, quick detour

I couldn't resist pointing out CollageMama's Hearty Breakfast Blog post of yesterday, where the similar yet oh so different words "lightning" and "lightening" are discussed and distinguished. Check it all out HERE.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Death and Taxes

Confessions of Ignorance has hit a bit of a doldrums this month and the responsibility lies quite literally with death and taxes. My aunt's death, and my taxes. I'll get back into stride soon, but I thought I could at least explore this famous phrase. Many if not most people know the quote:

"in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes".

Fewer probably know that it was written by Benjamin Franklin in a letter to one Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. Here is the whole sentence, which I believe is slightly less well known:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

And I bet fewer people still know that Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame actually beat him to the punch. In 1726, he wrote:

Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.

This was from The Political History of the Devil. I think it lacks the punch of Franklin's aphorism but Franklin had some extra time to think about it.

All of this can easily be found in Wikipedia, but you hadn't thought to look there, had you?

Here's another little thing about taxes that I found at Wonkblog about the skyrocketing complexity of the federal tax code. Read it and weep.

Sunday, April 5, 2015


My method of organizing my life largely consists of writing things down on random scraps of paper and then finding them later and not being able to decipher the increasingly wretched scrawl that is my handwriting. Such was the case a couple of minutes ago, when I was getting ready to toss a long list of things and noticed that on the list there was a couplet of sorts:

Just a man
A just man

Song lyrics? A judgment on someone? A story idea? And then I remembered that I wrote it down after noticing one of those nightmares of English that I'm sure impedes progress for non-native learners. Two short phrases with all the same words meaning completely different things.

In case any such are reading here, "just a man" means only a man, while "a just man" is a fair one, or one living by ideas of justice.

How did this discrepancy come about?

When "just" came into the English language towards the end of the fourteenth century, it meant, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "righteous in the eyes of God; upright, equitable, impartial; justifiable, reasonable," which is more or less what one sense of it is today. It went back through the usual Old French (juste) to the Latin ius which had more of an emphasis on legal right and law. The Old Latin was ious, and the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that was perhaps literally "sacred formula", and that it was a word found only in Latin but not in general Italic and originated with religious cults concerning themselves with purity.

The second sense, comes out of the first. Originally, the adverb "just" meant "exactly, precisely, punctually," and I think that meaning still has remnants in our language, although I can't think of examples at the moment. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives Kipling credit for the term "just so", the Just-So Stories coming out in 1902. But Kipling meant "exactly so", not "only so". So how did that change come to pass?

A discussion on the website English Language and Usage gives us some idea of this, I think.

How did the adverb evolve from meaning exactly to merely?
It's not so much an evolution into as an
accession of a new meaning. As Peter Shor pointed out in his Comment above, this is a logical extension. OED 1's first citation for its sense 5, "no more than; only, merely; barely", is right on the cusp:
1665 R. Hooke Microgr. vii. 38 Distilled water, that is so cold that it just begins to freeze.
It's a very small step from "exactly to this point, and no further" to "no further than" or "no more than".
1739 Chesterf. Lett. (1774) xxxvi. 125 He can just be said to live, and that is all.
They then go on to discuss a similar dynamic at play with the word "merely", which originally meant "wholly", the meaning it had for Shakespeare. I am fascinated by these "logical tendencies" when it comes to the drift of words.