Thursday, April 13, 2023


 When I started this post, I wasn't thinking of a word for "a short and striking phrase used in advertising." I was thinking of those words or sometimes phrases that suddenly burst on the scene and which everyone else seems to already understand and I always start off hopelessly behind on. Words like "snowflake" and "woke" and "cancel culture" and "Karen", to name just a few from the current batch. Or probably the not so current batch, since  know of them.

But having started out thinking these were "slogans," I thought I would pursue the term anyway, and an agreeable journey it has proven to be. Since I visited Scotland recently and delved a bit into my Scottish roots I was pleased to learn that the word derives from Gaelic originally. 

The original term sluagh-ghairm, meaning "battle cry" in both Irish and Scottish Highland clans, is a combination of two Scottish Gaelic words, sluagh, which means  "army", "host" or "slew", and gairm, a cry, which is related to the word 'garrulous', according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. (At first I didn't understand this, because garrulous derives from Latin, but it turns out that they are linked even further back by the Proto-Indo-European root gar--"to call or cry".)

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, David Morier

We may think of images from Braveheart or the like when we think of a Scottish battle cry, but I have stumbled upon a quote from Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht) which reminds me that our tour guide Graham often pointed out the mythological stories of Scotland as being on at least an equal footing with the geographical or historical ones:

"The Celts of the Scottish Highlands have a special word for the host of the dead : sluagh, meaning 'spirit-multitude'. 'The spirits fly about in great clouds like starlings, up and down the face of the world, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions. With their venomous unerring darts they kill cats and dogs, sheep and cattle. They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth. They may be heard and seen on clear, frosty nights, advancing and retreating, retreating and advancing against one another. After a battle their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones.' The word gairm means shout or cry, and sluagh-ghairm was the battle-cry of the dead. This word later became 'slogan'. The expression we use for the battlecries of our modern crowds derives from the Highland hosts of the dead."

Which brings us back to our present day usage. Sluagh-ghairm entered into English as slogorne in the 1510s. Its metaphorical sense of "distinctive word or phrase used by a political or other group" is attested from 1704, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, when it was spelled slughon. They mention a "fully folk-etymologized slughorn" as another variant spelling. (Folk-etymology is when people make mistakes about the origin of a word because it coincidentally sounds like another word that it bears no relation to.)

Slogans were not just war cries, however. They are also used on Scottish family crests, as either the motto or a kind of secondary motto. They might be war cries, but they don't have to be. The Graham family motto, for instance, is "Ne oublie"--do not forget. This is not exactly a war cry--but it's hardly a peace cry either. 

It is this kind of family advertising that seems to be the transition point to our current understanding of "slogan," which means, according to Wikipedia, a motto or memorable phrase in a political, commercial, religious or other context, designed to persuade a targeted audience about something, whether a cause, a conviction or an object. 

Which brings me right back around to the beginning. Because it turns out that those single word I mentioned are slogans. They're just in special subcategory called "catchwords."

The Oxford English dictionary: "a briefly popular or fashionable word or phrase used to encapsulate a particular concept.

"“motivation” is a great catchword."

What I find all slogans have in common (and what drew me to this topic in the first place), whether catchwords or mottos, virtuous or villainous, is that they are designed to make you stop thinking critically and fall into line as a member of the "target audience." It doesn't hurt to eye a slogan with a certain amount of suspicion. What is it not letting you think?

For the surprising origin of one of most famous advertising slogans ever, click here.

No, really. Just do it.

Saturday, October 9, 2021


Photo by Howard Arlander

So what is it, exactly? With Congress in tension over two bills on infrastructure, one being on the traditional kinds of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and Progressives in the House pushing for a more expansive bill that would include things like working to abate climate change and  poverty, and expand things like Medicare and childcare, I'm curious about where the  word came from and what it meant in the beginning. 

Surprisingly, to me anyway, the word actually comes to us from French. It was made of two Latin components, but was never actually used in ancient times. It was coined by the French in 1875 and was first used in English not long after, in 1887. Infra means "under or below" in Latin, and "structure" comes from the Latin structura, which the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us meant, "a fitting together, adjustment; a building, mode of building". Fairly broad, in other words. The French, according to Merriam Webster's site, used it originally to mean what in English we already called "substructure," as in the foundation of a building, road or railroad bed. 

Photo by Niilo Isotalo

But the word took on new meaning and vitality after World War II, as NATO came into existence and started building airfields, railroads and military bases in response to the Cold War. The word migrated from French to English as these military groups worked together.  An interesting Merriam Webster article on this word talks about how war can lead to a parallel invasion of new words as well, as happened during the 11th century Norman Conquest of Britain, which brought many Latinate words from French into the English vocabulary.

So the word "infrastructure" entered the English language with many military associations which were not part of the original French coinage. But as is the way with language, it began to be applied to other spheres. The Merriam Webster article says that  "infrastructure" quickly had an added definition "the system of public works of a country, state or region." Which is not so much a departure from military usage as a sidestep to a larger governmental one. 

Avenue de l'Opera by Camille Pissarro

(Haussmann's renovation of Paris in the mid 1800s may not have been termed infrastructure by the French at the time, but it was definitely a public works project.)

But "public works" is itself a vast and sometimes abstract concept, and now includes things that are not large physical building projects like bridge building and road making, but communication systems and electrical systems. And also the human beings who will be needed to organize and run all these things. Yes, you could say that there is a bit of mission creep going on with this word, but you could just as easily say that the definition of the word expanded as people came to understand the many facets of life to which it was applicable. 

So it's no coincidence that the bigger bill that Biden and many of the House Democrats are pushing has come to include caregivers and teachers and healthcare. It turns out that it takes an awful lot to keep a human system running. 

 Hush Naidoo Jade  Photography

Thursday, March 25, 2021


We were hearing the word 'racketeering' coming up quite a bit, what with the Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis adding an expert on the subject to her criminal investigation of former President Trump's phone calls asking Georgia's Secretary of State Raffensperger  to 'find him more votes.' Although this has faded from the headlines a bit in the wake of other events (for now), I did find myself wondering about the word, especially as it was surprising to hear it come up in a context other than mob crime.  

It turns out that 'racketeer' is one of those unusual words that has quite a specific date of coinage that can actually be traced. The Employer's Association of Greater Chicago, which was formed in 1905 with the purpose of breaking up unions according to Wikipedia, came up with it in 1927 in a statement about organized crime in the Teamsters Union. (The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word was first published in 1928.) In an ironic twist, the president of the association, James Breen, was soon rumored to be linked to the rackets himself and had to resign, although he was never indicted. However, Wikipedia also says that crime organizations blew up his house the next year to scare him into not talking, so I guess he didn't get off scot-free. 

"The Racketeer" 1929-Hedda Hopper , Carole Lombard

I have looked at a few pages now to get a sense of what racketeering is, and the definition that I find most helpful is one that D.A.Willis gave herself, saying that racketeering is "doing overt acts using a legal entity for an illegal purpose." 

In the same Business Insider article, Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey is quoted as saying that racketeering "is not a crime--it's a way of thinking about and prosecuting a variety of crimes."

The etymology of 'racket' in this sense is fairly unclear. Whether it's connected to the word's sense of "loud noise", or to games via the word 'raquet,' or to the word 'rack-rent', which meant extortionate rent back in the 1590s, seems to be anybody's guess. But I liked this idea which came up in on the English Language and Usage group on Slack Exchange:

racket; racketeer. English pickpockets, once the best of the breed, invented the ploy of creating disturbances in the street to distract their victims while they emptied their pockets. This practice was so common that a law was passed in 1697 forbidding the throwing of firecrackers and other devices causing a racket on the city streets. From the common pickpocket ploy the old onomatopoeic English word racket, imitative like crack or bang and meaning a disturbance or loud noise, took on its additional meaning of a scheme, a dodge, illicit criminal activity. Before 1810, when it first appeared in print, the word had acquired this slang meaning in England, though it was later forgotten and the word racket for a criminal activity wasn't used again there until it was reintroduced from America along with the American Prohibition invention from it, racketeer. The only other, improbable, explanation given for the word is that it was originally the name of an ancient, crooked dice game.

That is from  The Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) by Robert Hendrickson.

Many of us have heard of the RICO Act, but we may not know or remember that that's an acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was enacted in 1970. 

So that guy, John Floyd, who Willis brought on board to look into the racketeering aspects of the investigation? Turns out he wrote the book on the subject. Literally.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


I imagine that, reading the subject line of this post, you're expecting some kind of discussion of the filibuster process, which we are all hearing so much about at the moment. And probably I should at least find a good definition of the filibuster as it is currently used. But in fact I was merely attracted by the word itself. It's really a rather jolly sounding word, but I couldn't even make a guess as to where it came from. It doesn't sound exactly Latinate, though if the original was something like "filibustrum'" or "filibustrate" that would make a bit of sense. When I delved into its etymology, though, I found something quite a bit more interesting. 

But first, a brief, basic definition of its current usage. According to the U.S. Senate itself (and they have a pretty cool glossary that anyone can look up at their website), "filibuster" is not a formal term. It simply means any attempt to block or delay a piece of legislation by debating it at length, or putting forth a lot of motions or obstructing its progress in any way one can think up. Wikipedia tells how the filibuster became theoretically possible in 1806 when an earlier rule for ending debate had been abandoned, but it wasn't actually exploited until 1837. So it didn't start out as a deliberately thought out strategy, but  as an accidental consequence of another Senate ruling. 

Senator Huey Long, famous filibusterer

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that "filibuster" is derived from a word first written down in English in the 1580s. A flibutor was a pirate, particularly the kind of pirate that was raiding the Spanish colonies of the West Indies at the time. These weren't people from just one country--there were Dutch, English, French and maybe other nationalities preying on these islands. It's thought that the original word was the Dutch vrijbueter, which  became filibustero in Spanish and fribustier and later flibustier in French. It also came into the English language by another path as "freebooter," which is one of those weird connections that I love. 

A Buccaneer of the Caribbean by Howard Pyle

The British adopted the term flibutor in 1684, but American English didn't really find a use for the term until later, when it was used to refer to lawless military adventurers from the U.S. aiming to overthrow Central American governments. The event in which William Walker, who tried to overthrow both Mexican Sonora and Nicaragua and briefly became president of the latter is actually called the Filibuster War (or, alternatively, the Walker Affair). 

William Walker, filibuster and brief president of Nicaragua

 I feel fine about swiping the following directly from the Online Etymology Dictionary, since they swiped it from Harper's before me:

FILIBUSTERING is a term lately imported from the Spanish, yet destined, it would seem, to occupy an important place in our vocabulary. In its etymological import it is nearly synonymous with piracy. It is commonly employed, however, to denote an idea peculiar to the modern progress, and which may be defined as the right and practice of private war, or the claim of individuals to engage in foreign hostilities aside from, and even in opposition to the government with which they are in political membership. [Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1853]

Interestingly, the term "filibuster" was originally used to describe the person who was taking the action and only later became the name of the action itself. William Walker was described as a filibuster, for example. It came into the Senate that way too (1865). It was the person who was "pirating" the debate that was the filibuster, not the maneuver itself. That usage didn't come until 1893.

And of course no post on the term could be complete without posting the most famous filibuster of all, even if that filibuster never really took place.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


My ears perk up a bit when a somewhat familiar word pops up in different contexts over the course of a few days. "Linden" came up in a crossword puzzle--not uncommon--and then I noticed it coming up several time in the book I'm currently reading, The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Not really a surprise there either, as its a book pretty much devoted to trees. But then it came up in a Swedish folk song at a concert I was at the other night and I finally became curious enough to learn exactly what a linden is.

Bruce Martin, Morton Arboretum, Chicago
Let's start with a description from The Overstory:

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It's the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety--a tree that cannot be mistaken for any other, for alone in all the catalog of a hundred thousand earthly species, its flowers and tiny hard fruit hang down from surfboard bracts whose sole perverse purpose seems to be to state its own singularity.

It's quite possible that you are living near a linden tree and don't even know it. This is partly because, as Powers expresses many times in his book, humans in general don't pay enough attention to the trees they live alongside of. I certainly don't, though maybe by the time I finish his long novel, I'll be a little better at it. But another reason is that 'linden' isn't the only name we know these trees under. In England, apparently, they are frequently referred to as lime trees, even though they aren't the trees that grow the citrus fruit we call limes. (Don't even get me started on what the name of the tree that grows limes is.) In America, they may also be called basswood. Or you might hear one described by the genus name, Tilia.

There are about thirty species in the Tilia family, but Wikipedia tells us that the leaves of all of them are heart shaped and tend to be irregular.

What really got me going in Powers' description though, were those 'surfboard bracts'. I couldn't quite visualize them. Turns out that the 'surfboard' is really another kind of leaf.

                              by Virens
The linden tree turns out to be too big a subject for one blog post, so I'm going to take it up again in a subsequent one. But I thought I'd leave you for now with that Swedish folk song I heard-- 'Maj Vare Valkommen' or 'May Be Welcome'.

The lyrics in English are HERE, but you can actually hear them mention the linden tree in the first verse. Although one of the translations I found referred to it as a lime...

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Cautionary Tale

Given all the news about released funding for the Wall, I thought I'd put up a very short story I wrote a couple of months ago. Regular broadcasting to resume shortly.

La Barrera
Mexico did end up paying for the wall. Looking back, it was inevitable. After only twenty years, the wall that the U.S. had finally managed to cobble together through a variety of governmental and not so governmental schemes had already begun to fall apart. Mexico had hoped to defray expenses by rehabilitating this structure, or at least salvaging some of its parts, but most of the wall had been put together with a truly inferior grade of concrete. The Mexican work force that demolished it enjoyed filming each other punching through the wall with their bare fists and laughing as they did it. Some cost cutting officials then looked into at least using the supporting structures within, but water had gotten in at many locations. The wood had rotted, the iron rusted. There was little they could do but just haul it all away.
For a brief period, Mexico considered returning to the whole open border concept again. There were people who still felt some compassion for U.S. citizens, reasoning that you couldn’t tar them all with the same brush. But there were a lot more who thought you could. Should. Kids in cages, after all. No one was going to forget that, much less forgive it.
The new wall, la barrera, the one Mexico had paid for, was gorgeous. Some parts were marble, and many famous Mexican muralists had contributed art to the less costly surfaces. It was popular for honeymooners to spend a few days traveling along its southern face, posing for photos with the various artworks. As part of the original design, viewing platforms (later enclosed in bulletproof plastic) had been installed at certain scenic lookout points. Gazing off into that once great country to the north—now known ironically as ‘Los Estados Who Need Us’—could be exhilarating. But at first, so many people were afraid to climb up to these ramparts, having heard such terrifying stories of los gringos by now, that the government launched a campaign to assure its citizens that it was quite safe to take a look from these secure positions. Gradually, people grew less fearful. Some even had the thrilling if petrifying experience of spotting wild bands of los gabachos scavenging in the desert. Everyone agreed that with a good camera you could catch some amazing shots of these brutes, even from such a distance.
For a time after the wall went up, U.S. citizens could sneak down across the border quite easily. Many of them still had good clothes that spoke of former affluence and, with the help of forged passports, could usually pass for Canadians. But as time went by, it became easier to pick them out. Their clothes were no longer new or in fashion, and los ilegales were thinner than other people. Their teeth, too, got steadily worse. For a while, some Mexican communities would turn a blind eye, because they had made a tidy profit on giving these people medical care in the past. The Americans’ own doctors, at least the more successful ones, had largely managed to flee to better climes, even if people had been able to afford them. To Mexico, it became obvious that the future now lay south of it, with younger and growing markets in newly affluent Centroamérica and even further south. Gradually, Mexican doctors stopped accepting American patients altogether. It just wasn’t worth the hassle or the risk of penalties and public censure if they were caught.
And in fact, they might have forgotten about the U.S. entirely in time, turning their backs on it and looking resolutely south, if it hadn’t been for Canada. The Canadians and Mexicans had become good friends, bonding in the way people often do when they share a disagreeable neighbor and have to work together to figure out what to do about it. Los Canadienses had eventually built their own border wall against the U.S. Even they admitted that it was more serviceable than aesthetically pleasing, but then, they’d had a lot more of it to build than Mexico had.
Canadians and Mexicans loved to visit each other’s lands, but what to do about the big no-fly zone in between? During the U.S. coup, insurrection and the following chaos, people had been justifiably afraid to fly over that great intervening landmass. They’d had to travel around it, which was time-consuming and irksome. Cruise lines had attempted to seize the opportunity to connect the two democracies, but it came as a nasty surprise how quickly the disbanded Coast Guard had turned to piracy—marauding their own former coastlines, to be sure, but happy enough to take a foreign tourist vessel as booty if one was foolish enough to cruise into these now ungoverned waters.
After a time, braver souls in single engine planes would risk a flyover. Occasionally there were shots fired from below, but not powerful enough to hit a plane at any great altitude. And soon enough, even the yahoos on the ground must have realized that they might need to save their ammunition for something a little more practical, like food. For by now the great agricultural holdings had withered away, due to lack of migrant labor for the harvest.
Cautiously, the major Mexican and Canadian airlines began to fly over the country again. At first people were genuinely curious, peering down and trying to see signs of its vaunted former greatness—but often failing to see any evidence of human life at all. Although now there was a wide variety of birds in vast flocks that the pilots had to be careful to maneuver around. And everyone agreed that the buffaloes were making a comeback. But after a time, even the children grew bored with peering out to look when there was actually so little to observe, and people pulled down the shades on the small plane windows, returning to their in-flight approved games and films, or otherwise passed the time until they reached their more exciting destinations.
                                                                    --Seana Graham

Monday, June 10, 2019


"Saltpeter" is a word  I mainly run across in crossword puzzles and, occasionally, older novels. It's hard for me to think of it as anything but some special kind of salt, but I associate it also with military expeditions. Maybe an explosive. In the puzzle I was doing this morning, its meaning was revealed to be "niter." Not too useful, since I don't know what niter is either. It's high time I found the answer to this mystery.

                                                                    image by Walkerma

"Saltpeter" (sometimes spelled saltpetre) and "niter" are just other names for potassium nitrate (KNO3.). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word saltpeter goes back through French to the Latin sal petrae, "salt of the rock," apparently because it looks like salt when it is encrusted on stone.

                              by Bobamnertiopsis

I was surprised to learn how many different ways we use this substance. According to Wikipedia, it's used in fireworks and rocket propellant, but it's also used in processed meats, extending shelf life and giving the meat a pink color. It's used to remove tree stumps. I'm not quite sure why it speeds decay when poured into a stump, but prolongs shelf life when processing meat, but that's what they tell me.

Turner Army Airfield Mess Hall, 1943
As I looked up the word, I came across many articles questioning whether saltpeter was put into army grub in order to dampen sexual desire in the new recruits. There is a fascinating article in Snopes that debunks this myth, while at the same time explaining why it is unlikely to die. Apparently it is quite common for soldiers attending boot camp to experience a dampening effect on their sexual desires. Rather than attribute it to some of the more logical reasons, like exhaustion and fear, the rumor that makes the rounds is that their meals have been doctored with saltpeter.

This need to believe that an outside force is deliberately working to keep things down fuels the saltpeter myth. Such a construct works to reassure the woodless recruit that there’s nothing wrong with him — it’s all the sneaky doings of those in charge. The myth is every bit as empowering as it is reassuring; it says “We are such rampantly virile men that those in command fear us and what we might do if left unchecked.” It thus works to build pride in the unit by helping to establish an internalized reputation for being such wild men that the group as a whole has to be drugged into docility if its commanders are to have any hope of keeping it under control.

So, although Snopes has fact checked this, as have others, such an ultimately comforting belief is not likely to succumb to the truth any time soon. 

Still another important use for saltpeter was in the manufacture of gunpowder, which was formed by mixing saltpeter with charcoal and sulfur. Much to my surprise, it turns out that gunpowder plays a key role in the history of Santa Cruz, California, the town I live in. According to Wikipedia, the West began to experience shortages of gunpowder after the Civil War led to the disruption of supply lines. So in 1861, California Powder Works was incorporated and became the first American explosive powder company west of the Mississippi. 

The powder works was about three miles up the San Lorenzo river from the city of Santa Cruz itself. But the mailing address on the poster here is a location not at all far from me here on the west side. Apparently they imported crude potassium nitrate from Chile and manufactured gunpowder from it here. (This gets a little confusing, as there is also something specifically called Chilean saltpeter, which is actually nitratine, or sodium nitrate. So I am not entirely sure which form of nitrate they were using, but it's still some form of saltpeter.) 

This company was here in the Santa Cruz area for fifty years, was a major employer and provided company housing and even a school for a time. But I'd never heard of it. Nor had I heard of the disaster at the Powder Works on April 26, 1898, when the town was rocked by a series of explosions that killed 13 men at the site and injured many more. (Although this was after the Powder Works had stopped making gunpowder from saltpeter and moved on to the smokeless powder common today.) 

California Powder Works eventually became a subsidiary of Dupont, which after the completion of the Panama Canal, ended operations in Santa Cruz and consolidated their business in New Jersey. There is not much evidence left of the old Powder Works, as the mills were dismantled and the mansions of the superintendents were razed in the thirties. But the California Powder Works covered bridge still stands, luckily maintained by the Masons, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2015. Maybe some day, I'll even manage to get up to Paradise Park to see it. (Although I think I might still have to ask the Masons for permission.) 

California Powder Works Bridge