Thursday, August 31, 2017


This is a bit of a lazy find, involving no research at all, but I just happened to come across this post from a website called How Stuff Works, which explains how many of our nicknames for names with English origins have gotten a little twisted over time. Like many people, I have been subconsciously curious about why Jack is the nickname for John or Peg is the nickname for Margaret. Well, my questions have been answered, at least in part. If you've ever wondered about Sarah becoming Sally or Charles becoming Chuck, well, head on over HERE.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


The Picnic by George Goodwin Kilburne

Well, I was all set to write another post on Guam, which turns out to be a much bigger subject than I thought, when I fell over this word. I was doing a little Spanish review on Duolingo when I came across a question where you were supposed to translate the English word picnic into Spanish. Turns out the Spanish word for picnic is, uh,  pícnic. Yes, there's an accent mark over the first i, but otherwise, it's the same. Obviously a loan word. Okay, so where does it come from in the first place?

Turns out, I'd fallen into a bit of a stink hole. Not that there's anything wrong with the word "picnic". It's just that it turns out a lot of people find it suspect. 

First things first. It seems to have come from the French word piquenique. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it's first seen in print in English in Chesterfield's "Letters" in 1748. The French sense, which became the English sense had initially nothing to do with eating outdoors, but meant something more like what we would now call a potluck. Oh, I forgot--a fashionable potluck. The origin of piquenique is a bit unclear, but pique may have meant "to pick or peck", while nique may have meant some "worthless thing", and come from the German. In any case, you get the drift. 

But imagine my surprise when my first search led me directly to a  Snopes report. Huh? Well, it turns out that a rumor has spread that "picnic" derives from a connection with American lynchings. World Wide Words delineates a spurious etymology which I can't repeat here, but basically people believed it because there are historical pictures of people taking picnics to lynchings. So, though the etymology is false, the association isn't. 

Just because it's a false etymology doesn't mean that it contains no grain of truth. 

The 1893 public lynching of black teenager Henry Smith in Paris, Texas

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Guam--Part One

Here's pretty much the full extent of what came to mind whenever I heard the word "Guam" until a few nights ago. My mother, at that time still known as Carolyn Stanley Brunton, had been back in her native California for a while, but after having served in the WAVES during World War II and then lived abroad as a member of the Army Special Services in postwar Germany, she got the travel bug again. So she applied to go to one of two places that offered hardship pay--Guam and Tripoli. I think actually she may have decided on Guam when the Tripoli posting came up. In any case, she accepted it, ended up at Wheelus Airbase, met and married my father, and the rest is history.

So much for  my associations to Guam, the not chosen place. But a couple of days ago, when North Korea threatened to launch some missiles into the waters around Guam, I got interested again. First of all, because a lot of Americans still live there. And secondly, because Guam was not where I thought it was. Having been too lazy to ever bother looking it up, my conception of its placement in the world was extremely hazy. But I think I thought it was in the Caribbean somewhere. In any case, I did not think of it as being within striking range of North Korean missiles.

Guam in Oceania
Or here's another way of looking at in context:

The United States in its Region
Wikipedia tells us that Guam is about 30 miles long and between 4 to 12 miles wide, or, if it helps your frame of reference, 3/4ths the size of Singapore. Unlike Singapore, it is very remote from pretty much any place else, other than the still tinier islands that constitute the rest of Micronesia, of which it is a part. A website called Guampedia says that it is roughly the same distance from both Manila and Tokyo at roughly 1500 miles, and a full 3800 miles west of Hawaii. 

One might think that such a small space in the middle of nowhere could expect to be left unmolested through the eons, but there is probably no place on earth that is actually too small to be exploited by bigger places anymore. As the largest of the small islands in the neighborhood, Guam is actually just right, depending on your point of view, especially if your view is a Western one which seeks to have a strategic base in the Asian neighborhood. 

The U.S. actually has a naval base and Coast Guard station in the south and an airforce base in the north, which according to Fox News take up 30 percent of the island. The article also tells us that the American would actually like to increase that number by relocating thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Not sure if this is so true in the present moment with North Korea's current posturing, but in 2014 then deputy defense secretary Bob Work said that Guam has increasingly been a strategic hub for the U.S. military. 

It might surprise you to learn that anyone born in Guam is automatically a U.S. citizen. That's why the news these days refers to 160,000 U.S. citizens being in harm's way in the North Korea crisis. However, as has been rather ignominiously the American pattern, some citizens are more equal than others. The Guamanians don't get to vote for the president of the United States, even though he or she is their president, and they send one representative to Congress, who isn't allowed to vote. Their only real participation in American government is to participate in the Republican and Democratic primaries. 

Guam has had to deal with outsiders running their lives for a long time. A recent discovery of settlement has led archaeologists to conclude that the people who settled the Mariana Islands, of which Guam is the lowermost island, may have been the earliest long-distance ocean crossers in history, having made the journey 3500 years ago. Magellan, the first recorded Westerner to make it to that part of the world, didn't get there till 1521, and even then, he didn't stay long. It wasn't until 1565 that Spain realized the importance of Guam as a pit stop for their Manila galleons as they plied the Pacific trade route between Manila and Acapulco. And it was another hundred years before they actually colonized it. (Like I said, it's a remote place). 

The story of that colonization, unique though it is in its elements, has a very familiar ring to it. The native peoples resisted and were nearly wiped out in the process, not just by superior military force but by that well-known plague, smallpox. At the end of a 26-year war, only 5000 Chamorros (as they had been named by the Spanish) remained, a tenth of their former population. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017


With my latest version of Internet Explorer, I get a gorgeous photo of somewhere on earth every time I log in. The latest one shows a myriad of stars against the night sky and a little factoid in the center of the frame, claiming that only 6.7 percent of women graduate with STEM degrees, STEM referring to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. This leads to a website advocating that girls and young women stay in STEM classes, which you can look at HERE.

The reason I mention it, though, is that I happen to get a newsletter from a website called Brain Pickings, a creation of a human juggernaut by the name of Maria Popova. Lately she has done a couple of great articles related to total solar eclipse, which our planet is due for on August 21st, and which many people in North America will be able to experience in full this time around. (But you have to be in the Path of Totality to have the whole experience.) She has a fascinating article up about a nineteenth century astronomer named Maria Mitchell and her account of the 1879 total solar eclipse. In passing, Popova mentions that:

Mitchell’s choice [of the gender neutral "we"] inclines her reader to the assumption, standard in her era and still lamentably common in ours, that “scientist” defaults to maleness (even though the word itself had been coined for woman thirty-five years earlier).

I thought, Really? But did not more than wonder at it in the moment as I went on to finish the absorbing article. Later, though, I decided to look up the etymology in a separate source, namely the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1834, a hybrid coined from Latin scientia (see science) by the Rev. William Whewell (1794-1866), English polymath, by analogy with artist, in the same paragraph in which he coined physicist (q.v.)

Mary Somerville, by Thomas Phillips, 1834

Which would be interesting enough, seeing that apparently such an important and general word can be pinpointed to  a specific time and person. But what the etymology omits is that the word was coined by Whewell in his description of a woman, one Mary Somerville, whom Popova discusses in a separate article. Somerville was an interdisciplinary researcher, who we may feel a more current connection with because she was the tutor of Ada Lovelace and introduced her to Charles Babbage, with whom Lovelace would go on to collaborate with to invent the world's first computer. According to a quote in the article from Renée Bergland, the author of a biography on the aforementioned Maria Mitchell:

[Whewell] called Somerville a scientist, in part because “man of science” seemed inappropriate for a woman, but more significantly because Somerville’s work was interdisciplinary. She was no mere astronomer, physicist, or chemist, but a visionary thinker who articulated the connections among the various branches of inquiry. 

Popova adds:

Whewell called Somerville “a person of real science,” as opposed to the mere popularizers of science whom he held in mild disdain. In suggesting the term “scientist,” he emphasized its similarity to how the word “artist” is formed. Indeed, he had recognized in Somerville that singular creative genius of drawing connections between the seemingly disconnected, which is itself an artistic achievement. 

Popova's linked articles on women of science suggest quite a different history than the one many of us think we know. Even a reputable etymology source omits the woman for whom the word scientist was coined, and Popova's articles detail many other omissions in the history of women's scientific achievements. Maybe there would not be such a low percentage of women finishing STEM degrees if there was a broader cultural understanding that, when it comes to science, women have actually been there all along. 

Annular Solar Eclipse January 4, 2011