Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wine, Stings and the Surprisingly Literary Scales for Each

When describing the sizes of a given thing or the vividness in which a thing might be experienced, you could take the standard soda fountain or T-shirt route and refer to the gradations in an obvious, straightforward manner: small, medium and large. I would prefer that you put more creativity into it, however. That’s more interesting to write about.

Take wine bottles, for example. Did you know that the majority of sizes for wine bottles take their names from Biblical men of note? Sure, there are a few that don’t fit — the 1.5-liter magnum or the 25-liter sovereign — but most have an air of majesty to them. How cool is it that the 6-liter bottle is the methuselah or that the 15-liter is the nebuchadnezzar? Two wine bottles — the 12-liter balthazar and the 18-liter melchior — take their names from the Three Magi, leaving poor Gaspar uninvited to this wine-soaked party, but I’m fine with that, knowing that I could one day purchase a goliath bottle of champagne and have 27 liters of fun. Weirdly, the goliath isn’t the biggest. That honor goes to the 40-liter melchizedek. Go figure. Also? Go to the hospital.

Speaking of things that can kill you, a different sort of cleverness went into entomologist Justin O. Schmidt’s scale for the pain felt from insect stings. The result, the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, is surprisingly fun to read. On one end, you have the sweat bee, whose harmless sting Schmidt describes as “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” On the other end? The tarantula hawk, whose sting is ranked as a 4 on the scale described as “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.” And yet that’s not even the worst sting. Earning a 4+ is the bullet ant, so-called because its sting is said to hurt like a bullet wound for around 24 hours. Schmidt describes it as follows: “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.” I’m torn between two favorites. They’re both ranked as 2 on the scale, and their descriptions are beautifully vivid. The sting of the bald-faced hornet is described as “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door,” while the common yellow jacket gets “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” What’s most surprising about this, I think, is the malicious joy that Justin O. Schmidt seems to take in writing about them. Were he to author a book specifically about various people being stung by various horrible insects, I would totally read it.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Relative Virtues of Alyson Hannigan

(Text and image via Sexpigeon, the fun, mean, mean-fun blog you all should be reading.)


“Only you. Only you can be looked at without embarrassment. The rest of these stories are too sad, too short.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Invisible Letters — Or, Mr. Hamster and the Disappearing “P”

Because I don’t enjoy venting word-related frustrations to people when I can actually see their pained expressions, I took to this blog yesterday to write about the weirdness of writing Zeus’ hotplate instead of Zeus’s hotplate, with the traditional extra “s” that you would add to any other possessive noun. In the comment section — yes, I got a comment on that, thank you — it was stated that English shouldn’t require us to pronounce invisible letters since enough trouble arises from not pronouncing the silent ones. Unfortunately, English already has silent letters, and my go-to example for this rare phenomenon occasionally blows people’s minds.

Okay: How do you pronounce the word hamster? Say it out loud. Shout it, if you need to. Don’t worry, your coworkers and neighbors will not think you’re weird for doing this. (Mine don’t.)

If you pronounced it like it’s spelled, you may have mispronounced it, at least according to one interpretation of the Merriam Webster entry for the word, which says it should be pronounced as if it were spelled hampster. As I understand it, the “p” sound happens because it feels more natural for the mouth to let out some air between the closed position necessary for the “m” sound and the “s” that follows. The result? A “p” that shouldn’t be there and that we can only prevent if we consciously suppress our mouth’s inclination to make it. It should be noted, however, that neither the American Heritage Dictionary nor Wiktionary have the “p” in their pronunciation, but listen to people pronouncing the word if they’re made aware of this phenomenon. You’ll hear it.

You know, the next time everyone is talking about hamsters.

(artist’s interpretation of hamster terrified by alleged ghost letter)

There are a few other silent letters, depending how you look at the matter, including the implied vowels in the first syllables of names like McCoy and McKenzie and the “r” that certain English-speaking regions and Tony Danza pronounce at the end of Mona and Samantha and other words that end in “a.” I’m glad there aren’t more. I think the hamster is too.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grammatical Implications of the Possessions of Lenny Kravitz

I have never liked assimilating the possessive “s,” as some copy styles advice you to do when writing about the things belonging to Jesus or Moses (Jesus’ pinball machine and Moses’ bad attitude as opposed to Jesus’s pinball machine and Moses’s bad attitude). Some even suggest you do so when putting any regular, non-Biblical name ending in “s” in the possessive — Thomas’ menstrual cycle instead of Thomas’s menstrual cycle. It doesn’t make sense to me, because you still pronounce the second “s” even if it gets assimilated. Maybe some people don’t, but I do. And, if you’re writing, I feel like you can take the time to make one more “s” after that little nothing of an apostrophe.

Yesterday, I realized another objection to the assimilated “s.” The name Lenny Kravitz does not end with an “s” as it’s written, but it does as it’s pronounced. If he were Lenny Kravits, we’d pronounce his name exactly the same. By the logic that suggests we write Jesus’ pinball machine, shouldn’t we also write Lenny Kravitz’ unusually located eleventh toe? Of course not. That would be dumb — but really, no less dumb than eliminating the “s” in any other case.

Really, the only time it makes sense not to write out that possessive “s” is when it’s a plural possessive such as in We happened upon the foxes’ brunch. We wouldn’t pronounce it any different if that plural noun weren’t in the possessive case — We happened upon the foxes, brunch.

Monday, March 26, 2012

So This Is What the German Empire’s 1889 Coat of Arms Looked Like

Ahem.

via wikipedia

“Overall, we love it. It’s that perfect intersection of German and majestic that we as an empire are striving for, without getting into all that frou-frou Neuschwanstein shit that can look, you know, a little too much and a little too faggy. The tent having one of those pointed helmets that we wear so often? That’s a super touch. It screams “German,” but in a way that’s less terrified than how our neighboring countries scream that word when they see us coming. All that said, we did have some issues, and we’re hoping you’re open to discussion about them. First, why don’t you know how to draw birds? I can see, like, I don’t know, maybe eight different birds in the overall design, and all of them looked like they’ve pressed flat like flowers in a heavy book. That big one? In the middle? That’s holding a picture of itself? What the hell? That tongue sticking out makes it look like he was surprised to be caught in the book. What message does this send about our German birds? That they’re all flightless and prone to posing awkwardly? It just seems really off-message and crappy, if I can say that. (I said that.) Second, and this is the big one, what’s up with those two dudes? To your credit, you clearly know what semi-nude men look like, to the point that we would advise you to practice drawing birds more. (You’re clearly very good at showing male musculature. No need to practice that.) But after discussing this as a group, we feel like maybe you were going for some neoclassical, Greek-meets-Aryan boy nymph thing, but then from the neck up you made them, like, cavemen? Or maybe some kind of dirty hippie rockers who have, like, shit in their birds? That is not hot, that is not on-message and that’s just not Germany. We don’t want everyone thinking that Germans can’t afford clothes and razors, and we certainly don’t want them to think that we shave our bodies at the expense of our faces. (I know I don’t. Maybe you do. That’s you. That’s not us.) In the end, know that we agree that your design has a great foundation. Just learn how to draw some freaking birds and garbage bin those butterfaces with the grass underwear, for God’s sake. We’re not telling you what to do, but we will say this: Everyone loves an oompah band. Just saying.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Wisdom of Perverts

Hi. If you think the advice you’re about to tell me could be best expressed in the form of some fossilized chunk of words that would have sounded clichéd two generations ago, please stop. I won’t hear it.

What’s that? You say “It’s always in the last place you look”? “God never closes a door without opening a window”? “You catch more flies with honey”? I say “Think about what you’re wanting to say and find a new way to say it, you unoriginal suck.” Indeed, homespun (but threadbare) advice will never comfort me as much as something that tells me you actually thought enough to formulate a sentence that applies specifically to me and my current situation in life.

I’m not sure why I resent these kinds of clichés so much, and I can’t even promise that I haven’t ever slipped and myself said one or two, but they just seem lazy to me. This quiet rage has prompted my word of the week.
perverb (PURV-urb) — noun: a known saying that has been modified in a way that makes it surprising, confounding or otherwise humorous.
The word is exactly what you’d guess: a portmanteau of perverse and proverb. It was purportedly coined by writer and literary agent Maxine Groffsky in 2007, even if the concept behind the name is older. Though the go-to source on perverbs seems to be World Wide Words, the Wikipedia entry offers a more comprehensive overview of how people might use perverb:
  • Two proverbs spliced together (“A rolling stone gets the worm,” “A fool and his money is a friend indeed”)
  • A “garden path” proverb wherein homonyms throw off the meaning of expressed thought (“Time flies like the wind, but fruit flies like a banana”)
  • A pun on a proverb (“Slaughter is the best medicine”)
  • And a proverb with a nonsensical ending (“All that glitters is not dull,” and my personal favorite, “Find a penny, pick it up, and all day you’ll have a penny”)
This seems like the best possible antidote for clichés: Frankensteining them into something new and, in the case of the “find a penny” one, something that underscores how the original saying is ultimately stupid and meaningless. And yeah, there’s a significant overlap with a word of the week from back in February, paraprosdokian, which means “a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, often in a humorous manner.” In fact, both the second and fourth sets of perverb examples seem to also be paraprosdokians. I’m fine with that. As long as people are making fun of inane chatter, I’m absolutely fine with that.

(Hat tip for this one? Dina. Thanks, Dina!)

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Camera Angles and the Way We Dream

I dream like a movie. I’m guessing you do too — with intro scenes and changes in angles in which the “camera” moves from a first-person perspective to a broader one that lets the dreamer see himself or herself at a distance, interacting with other characters. As far as my own experience, I can sum it up more or less with this: I’m me. Then I’m not. Or at least there’s a second me and I’m floating there — as a camera? as an impartial ghost who just materialized in time for the night’s entertainment? — and none of these “cuts” seem strange to me at the time.

I suppose it’s possible that I’m actually just waking up from a dream, asking “What the hell was that?” and then stitching a series of unrelated images and emotional impressions into my best attempt at a story, because the human brain wants a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. But regardless of whether the “camera angle” vocabulary figures into in at the subconscious or the conscious level, it’s there, and I feel like every conversation I’ve had in which someone told me about a dream has sounded like a recap of a movie by someone who had never seen a movie before and therefore doesn’t know how to articulate a scene change of a shift in perspective. (“I was on a boat, and it looked like the Titanic but all the doors had carpet on them, and then all of a sudden I was watching myself run down this hallway and I could see these guys chasing behind me.”)

So my question, then, is this: Do I use all this camera angle vocab to discuss my dreams because I’ve simply watched enough movies and TV that my brain can’t imagine a visual story being told any other way? Or is this just the way the human brain wants to process dreaming, and we’ve structured cinema to mirror the perspective shifts and angle changes that dreamers have been experiencing forever? Would someone who had never watched a movie or a TV show be familiar with the “camerawork” even if he wasn’t familiar with cameras?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sex Mechanics From Planet Xanadu

A blog I’ve recently started following, TYWKIWDBI (“Things You Wouldn’t Know If We Didn’t Blog Intermittently” ) put up a post on “Tall Paul,” a 1959 Annette Funicello song that was the first rock and roll single by a solo female singer to make it on the top ten charts. It’s… bizarre. It hardly seems to qualify at rock and roll, by the standards of today or even the standards of pop culture just a few years after the song was released. The blogger makes a valid point about this strangeness: “It’s axiomatic that tastes in music and art change with time, but sometimes the degree of change within the span of one lifetime is so extreme that the mind reels.” I was rolling that thought around in my head when I watched the following video.


It’s the Dutch band Mistral, performing its 1978 song “Neon City” on German TV. Having thought about it quite a bit, I honestly can’t decide if this is a “Tall Paul” or not. Does it, in fact, demonstrate how far music has come from what at least what a few Europeans thought would sound hot so many years ago? Or is it even stranger yet because it’s not all that far off from what certain pop genres are doing today, if not in terms of sound then at least presentation? Would I bat an eye at all if someone like Jessie J or Ke$ha wore these exact outfits on stage, maybe to dress up a more modern but equally vapid, equally terrible song? No. I might wince, but I would nothing about my facial reaction would indicate that this was strange.

I suppose I should also note that Mistral’s first single — “Nectar,” whose album art alone is worth a few seconds of consideration — has aged much better and in fact sounds quite a bit like early Goldfrapp.


Either way, I suppose the mind reels.

Now That’s What Europe Called Music, previously:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Definitive Proof That Zooey Deschanel Is a Time Traveler

Okay, guys, I know I’ve given my little rant before about how I think that Zooey Deschanel is evil and using her superhuman charm powers to hypnotize the entire world. I’ve also brought up the fact that I think she’s a clone and that her various doppelgangers have infiltrated Hollywood with varying levels of success. Tonight, I give you the most striking evidence yet that she is an entity to be feared: She’s been hatching her plan for at least 80 years.

Please watch, if you will, this clip of a 1930s-era Zooey (and two clones) performing the song “Heebie Jeebies,” looking and singing more or less exactly as Zooey does today.


Chilling. Incontrovertible. Melodic. Catchy. Thick-haired. Other adjectives.

You think about this. You think long and hard about what Zooey Deschanel is capable of.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Adventures of Creap and Blendy

It’s easy humor to look at another culture and laugh simply because they call things different names from what you call them. On the scale of humor sophistication, it falls somewhere between chuckling at a person who falls down and putting a blanket on the neighborhood’s dumbest dog and watching him roll and fumble in a futile effort to escape this cozy prison. All the same, I still think it’s funny that the Japanese grocery store near my house sells coffee products called Creap and Blendy. Note: That’s two different products.



I’m pretty sure they’re considered to be appropriately named in Japan. But then again, I’m also pretty sure some wonderful parallel dimension exists in which Creap and Blendy are not coffee products but police partners who solve crimes on the mean streets of the big city.

Also, I want to start using the word blendy more. “Hey, Drew. How’s your day?” “Oh, I don’t know. Blendy.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hole in the Ocean Floor

Of everything I’ve posted here this year, these are the ten most-read, according to Google Analytics, in order:
  1. Snow White and the Five Clones
  2. Super Mario, King of Japan
  3. Grant Wood and the American Erotic
  4. With “It” Being a Very David Lynchy Sense of Hollywood Tragedy
  5. The Cat Breed Whose Name Must Be Whispered
  6. With “It” Being an Appealingly Possum-Like Expression Conveying a History of Being Socially Downtrodden
  7. Hunger, Games
  8. Encyclopedia Drew and the Mysterious Table of Mystery
  9. This, I Guess, Is a Post About Angelina Jolie
  10. The First Name in Sideburns
But here, in order, is the same most-read-of-2012 list, according to a different stat counter:
  1. Snow White and the Five Clones
  2. Super Mario, King of Japan
  3. Grant Wood and the American Erotic
  4. With “It” Being a Very David Lynchy Sense of Hollywood Tragedy
  5. Encyclopedia Drew and the Mysterious Table of Mystery
  6. This, I Guess, Is a Post About Angelina Jolie
  7. A List of Lesser Lisbeth Salanders
  8. The Beeper King and His Imposter
  9. A Field Guide to Street Children
  10. Something Sweet, Something Pungent
How do we account for the differences in these rankings? Is Google Analytics just better? According to the systems, they should be measuring the data in the same way, unless I'm just completely misunderstanding the situation.

My Baby Takes the Morning Train (Because He Drives It)

Maybe you’re familiar with the 1980 Sheena Easton hit, “(My Baby Takes the) Morning Train.” I mean, also maybe you’re not. It could be that you only shop at grocery stores that insist on appropriating 90s hits, and you’ve therefore only selected cantaloupes to the soundtrack of Fastball and Third Eye Blind. It happens. But if you do know “Morning Train,” you may be surprised to hear that that title, even minus the parenthetical section, isn’t actually the song’s original name. It’s actually “9 to 5.” Easton’s promoters only switched the title to “Morning Train” to avoid confusion and competition with the Dolly Parton song.

But wait — that’s not the only surprising thing about this song.

So, have you ever seen the video for “Morning Train”? (I’m guessing that you haven’t, because why would you have? What, do you not have anything better to do?) If you had to imagine how a literal interpretation of the lyrics might play out, what might you expect? Perhaps you’d picture Easton happily working at home — maybe singing while vacuuming — while her husband commutes via train into the city for his high-paying job? Or something thereabouts?

Here, just watch the video:


Around the one-minute mark, Sheena in all her sashed, jumpsuited glory, hops into the train’s engine to meet the baby mentioned in the lyrics. He’s the engineer — like, not the mathy kind but the guy operating the gears and cranks that make train go. You have to wonder: Of all the possible interpretations of “My baby takes the morning train,” whose bright idea was it that the baby would do so because that was his job? What unimaginative person seized control of this music video production and said, “Hey, wait if he was a dirty, coal-shoveling engineer? And what if the video had periodic cuts to burning coal, as if to suggest the fiery hell in which these working class characters live? Oh, and also Sheena is rocking a sashed jumpsuit the whole time?”

Indeed.

Of course, what they should have done was to take it even more literal and feature an infant who dresses up in a business suit and toddles into to a commuter train. Surprise! It’s actually about Sheena’s six-month-old, who has a job for some strange reason.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Word That Falls From the Sky

Finally, we had a weekend where we couldn’t make small talk about how unseasonable the weather seemed. None of winter having hightailed it early, none of the heavy-by-California-standards coat hanging unused in the closet and absolutely none of that “I guess this is why we live in Los Angeles” blather. (An appropriate response: “How interesting that you have exactly one criterion on which you picked you home!”) Yeah, Los Angeles was rained upon this weekend — even snowed upon in those mythical higher-up places where beach parking isn’t a thing — and I loved it. Damp socks and the occasional spokesmodel washed into the gutter make for small annoyances in the wake of a much-needed rain.


In celebration of the occasion — The Day It Rained That One Time, surely a holiday to be celebrated by Angelenos of the future — I’m picking a rain-related word of the week.
hyetal (HAI-eh-tul) — adjective: of or relating to rain or rainy regions.
So why this particular rain-related word? Its etymology doesn’t trace back to anywhere particularly interesting, unless you’re just nuts over huetos, the Greek word for “rain.” It sound especially clinical for a term that describes a phenomenon that tends to illicit specific emotional interactions in people. And it’s not even necessary, since we already have pluvial, a fancy word for “rain-related” that flows off the tongue like raindrops in a spring storm. (Hyetal, however, erupts from the back of the throat in the manner of explosive phlegm.) No, I picked hyetal simply because I had never heard it before last week. And it just somehow seems significant to have learned a new word for the kind of basic, familiar thing that a person might learn about in the first week of learning a new language.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Your Mother Sews Socks That Smell! (Three Questions About The Exorcist)

Wondering why a rainy St. Patrick’s Day evening prompted me think about The Exorcist, I nearly wrote “Lord only knows.” Then I realized how that statement, in the context of this movie, might imply more than it meant. But that’s where my mind ended up tonight.

I probably think about this movie more than most people. To me, it’s not just a horror flick; it’s also one of the most pro-religious, pro-God movies I’ve ever seen, and if that statement seems surprising, you should give the movie another go with an eye toward its endgame and not all the blasphemy. However, it’s not just a film about God’s eventual triumph over evil. It has bits and pieces that don’t quite add up, and I’m posting them here, hoping of getting a response from some of the film-savvy regulars on this blog but more realistically imagining that other weirdos considering these matters will Google their way here and at least tell me that I’m not the only one wondering.

Burke Dennings. He’s the director friend of Chris MacNeil’s who gets tossed down the steps leading up to the apartment. He’s the first casualty of little Regan’s “troubles.” Before he dies, he’s depicted as an outgoing kook — the kind who makes parties fun but who maybe isn’t the type a woman would trust with her kid. Chris McNeil does anyway, and Dennings winds up dead as a result of his one-on-one time. Is there some kind of implied impropriety in his interactions with Regan? Specifically one that may have gotten him killed? Or am I just mapping Roman Polanski-ness onto the character? And yes, I’m aware that The Exorcist preceded Polanski’s sexual assault arrest by several years.

Sharon Spencer. In a similar sense, what motivates Chris’s assistant, the woman played by Kitty Winn? She sticks by Chris through all manner of badness. I mean, most people would consider a Satan infestation grounds for quitting. What’s her devotion all about?

Father Dyer. Now this is the weird one — the one that seems a lot less under-the-radar than the other two. Am I the only one who reads this guy as a gay character? No, no I’m not. But isn’t it strange that a film that ultimately delivers such a conservative meaning would prominently feature a Jesuit priest who speaks the line, “My idea of heaven is a solid white nightclub with me as a headliner for all eternity, and they love me”? I’m not sure that coding the character as gay is progressive or just bizarre, but it’s especially notable that this gay-seeming character was played by the Reverend William O’Malley, an actual Jesuit priest who also served as William Friedkin’s technical advisor on the set of The Exorcist. That said, according to a few online sources, he’s also famous for directing drama productions at the various schools he’s taught at. Which, well…

Am I overreaching? Maybe. But a movie that makes a character do that with a crucifix isn’t exactly daring viewers to reject sexual readings of the film.

One more bit before I’m done: There’s a surprising connection between The Exorcist and Groucho Marx.

The Math Behind Berenice Bejo

Something that I’ve been rolling around ever since I saw The Artist:


Sofia Vergara + Cheryl Hines = Berenice Bejo. Think about it. It really holds up.

One more: Does it seem weird to anyone else that the film has a used-up, outgoing female figure played by Penelope Ann Miller in her first notable role since… what? Carlito’s Way? And yet the film’s attractive, promising new female character is named Peppy Miller? No? Anyone?

Friday, March 16, 2012

He Is Risen, Yet They Are Dead

Surely, you have seen this commercial for Cadbury’s eggs.


I saw it today. It occurred to me that I’ve been seeing it for about the last twenty years. Easter spirit though these animals might have, they’re all long dead.

In closing: a question. Was there not a giant turtle in this commercial? I remember there being a turtle.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dude, Check Out My Bulging Bracket

March Madness: the one time of year when the copyeditor isn’t the only one who thinks brackets are interesting. Last year, this was how I participated in all the talk about checking out each other’s brackets.


This year? I’ve found something better.

Ahem.

Do you know where the word bracket comes from? (Yeah, I know. This is as close as I can get to caring about college sports.)

The way March Madness diehards use bracket comes from the fact that round robin-type tournament maps look like the typographical symbols [ and ]. And those got their name from the fact that they look like the two-sided supports used in carpentry. And those brackets got their name from the architectural brackets that, back in the day, weren’t just lines at right angles. They had, um, bulges. See?


In back, it’s just the simple right-angle support, but the flourish is covering it. In the sixteenth century, people noticed the flourishes and thought they looked like another kind of bulge: the bragget, or as it’s known today, the codpiece. The resemblance between bracket and bragget most likely isn’t a coincidence. Like the bracket, the bragget is another type of necessary support, just specifically for the peen. And because it’s the peen, codpieces were also decorated with flourishes — you know, to enlarge what nature gave you and show everyone who’s boss. See?


This fancy gentleman probably wasn’t packing a weapon of quite so high a caliber as what his packaging would indicate. Thank the magic of the codpiece. Even more appropriate to this discussion of manly, dangling showiness? The word braggart, “an excessively boastful person,” comes from the Middle French brauguer, “to flaunt, brag,” which might come from the same word that gave English bragget: brague, “knee pants.”

So the next time you hear your coworker marvel at the fearsomeness of his brackets or inviting others to check out his brackets, I hope you think of what I think of: peens.

(Sources: Etymonline, The Inky Fool, The Lavender Linguist.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Five Words With Surprising Etymologies

Happy Tuesday. Yes, you have time for this.

lieutenant: Discovered only because I heard someone pronounce it on Downton Abbey as “leff-tenant” and wanted to find out what the hell was going on. On the etymological level, the word means exactly what it sounds like: “someone who occupies the space of someone else, or stands ‘in lieu of’ someone else.” It was a fancy term for “placeholder” at one point, but even with its current meaning retains the connotation of someone who can substitute for a higher authority. By the way, the whole “leff-tenant”/“loo-tenant” business goes back centuries, but people who generally know these things are unsure exactly why the disparity exists.

swan song: Meaning either the final melodious call of a dying swan or, more often, a person or thing’s farewell act or pronouncement, the term is a direct translation of the German Schwanengesang. But why should any language, German or English, have the metaphorical meaning of swan song? Allegedly because the Ancient Greeks believed that the Mute Swan remained silent its entire life until the moment before its death, at which point it sang a beautiful song. It’s not true, of course, but it makes for a nice story.

"the singing swan," by renier van persijn, via

cinema: This one only occurred to me after watching The Artist, when I thought about how quaint the term talkie seems now even though I find nothing strange about the very similar (and inherently older) term movie. But even the formal name for the art of moving pictures is essentially the same: As coined by the Lumiere brothers, cinema is just a shorted version of cinematography, which literally means “moving writing.” Cinema comes from the same Greek root as kinetic, so they really are still “movies,” etymologically speaking.

paraphernalia: It originally meant “a woman’s property beside her dowry,” with para- being the Greek root meaning “beside,” pherne being “dowry.” It’s noteworthy that it degraded to become a polite word for “stuff” and a legal term for the items you use in order to make, consume and sell drugs.

And because Downton started this list, dowager: It comes from the Middle French douagere, “a widow with a dowry.” So it might as well be dowry-er.

Etymology, previously:

Monday, March 12, 2012

I Want You to Grow in My Hand

Do you love Alison Moyet?

Because I really do. I think she’s an underrated 80s singer, and until recently I believed that no subsequent artist really came close to capturing the weird little bit that she did so well. But then I realized that Adele, especially the Adele of two years ago, looks like Alison Moyet to the point that if one robbed a bank and you had to describe her to a police department sketch artist, you’d have a hard time explaining that it was one and not the other. And no, that’s not just because they’re both heavyset British women singing critically acclaimed pop songs. It also has to do with face shape and chin severity, as well as a bigger-than-typical overall presence as a singer in the non-literal sense.

Observe, please, Moyet’s incredible 1984 song, “Love Resurrection”:


And yes, I picked the smuttiest-sounding lyric from the song for the post title.

Moyet is notable for being the singer of Yaz’s 1982 superhit, “Situation”, which everyone has heard but which few people know is called “Situation” and even fewer people know is sung by a woman. Her distinctive laugh, which is featured in echo-y form in “Situation,” has been sampled again and again in the years since “Situation” was released.

One more point of discussion, and it’s especially nerd-directed: Is it weird that whenever I listen to “Love Resurrection,” I think of “Real Folk Blues,” the over-the-end-credits theme from Cowboy Bop? Because I can’t hear one without the other, though I should say I am entirely able to listen to Adele without thinking of Cowboy Bebop.

I mean, until now, anyway.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Nobody Knows You and Nobody Gives a Damn

And that’s the best possible scenario, I realized, as I my car crested one highway and I caught sight of another and another, each bump in the road studded with radiating boxes-on-wheels, each one driven my somebody I’d quite likely never know.

I’ve said before that I never expected to end up in Los Angeles, much less to end up here and like it. More than a few people who know me expressed their doubt that I’d last long. A year and a half later, I’m still here, and I’m happier to be here, a short drive from friends but effectively alone. No, I’m not a sociopath. I’m not experiencing some late-onset emo phase where I get off on my own sadness. And I’m not fishing for event invites from readers living in the greater Los Angeles area. I’m being mature, clear-headed and honest about the way I work.

As I type this, it’s the longest I’ve ever gone in life without traveling, and no, I don’t count the few days I took to see the Grand Canyon as legitimate travel. I haven’t left the country in six years, and that knowledge weighs heavily on me, not because I need to relax on some foreign beach and look at the ocean from a different angle, but instead because travel affords me an opportunity I previously could never experience at home: solitude. Wherever I’d gone and whomever I’d ridden alongside, I took a moment to head out on my own in a strange place. Even for just a day or an afternoon or an hour, I got to stand somewhere where the birds sing a different song and, in that spot, I could feel the exhilaration that comes with having no one know where you are.

Maybe that’s not a sensation everyone finds comforting, but I do.

Have you ever read the novels of Louise Erdrich? Like William Faulkner, Erdrich is one of those authors who revisits the same families (but different generations) and the same places (at different points in time). One recurring location in her works is the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota. The town shares its name with a figure from Greek mythology: Argus the many-eyed monster, who is watching even when he sleeps. The reference is especially clever because Erdrich is hinting at her tendency to feature multiple narrators — more than one I, in the sense of first-person pronouns — while also telling the reader that her small fictional town is an all-seeing, always-watching entity. In the sense of Argus having inescapable eyes, Erdrich’s town works like every small town with an unnecessarily sharp focus on its residents’ personal lives. That’s how I felt in the town I grew up in and that’s eventually how I came to think about the city I lived in after college. This I did not find comforting.

So while the constraints of time and money have prevented me from traveling, I guess I’ve arrived at a compromise by living and working in Los Angeles. This asphalted-over mess of a city has so many neighborhoods, so much to do and so much sheer space that I can now see which way the wind blows and just go in that direction. Without fail, I can find a spot where I can stand and feel that exhilaration of knowing that nobody who knows me knows where I am, nobody where I am knows me and I can do what I want without worrying about surprising or disappointing or confusing someone who thinks that have a good handle on who I am. I’m not completely untethered here in Los Angeles, but the leash is long enough that I can wander.


I suppose it will be interesting to learn whether this is a phase or this is just the kind of man that I am.

Things about L.A., previously:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Fate Worse Than Premarital Sex

My words of the week is covered in bugs, and it’s beyond me how the Christian right hasn’t already capitalized on the connection between this one and its more familiar soundalike.
formication (for-ma-KAY-shun) — noun: an abnormal sensation resembling that made by insects creeping in or on the skin.
Yep, that feeling you get when you find a single ant on your skin and then feel the movement of a thousand phantom ants in your every crevice? Or, you know, the post-drug binge crawlies? There’s a word for that, and it’s formication. I strongly encourage the “sex can wait” crowd to make an association between fornication and the sensation of having your skin torn apart by angry, invisible ants, because teens of the world probably don’t currently worry enough about getting killed by insects. (I blame Tumblr.) Formication comes from the Latin word for ant, formica, which is also where we get the formic in formic acid, which is something naturally found in ants. See? Fun little circle of exchange there. (And remember, if you will, a word-of-the-week post I did in 2008 about pismire, which basically means “piss ant.” Guess what body fluid formic acid smells like?)

Now, if you like old stuff as much as I do, you’re probably familiar with the formica countertops that every Pam, Beth and Sherry wanted installed in her kitchen during the 1960s. Such as these?


Were the designs supposed to look like ants arranged across the kitchen surfaces? No. The connection is only coincidental: formica, referring to the synthetic material, is actually a brand name invented in 1922, when the Cincinnati-based Formica Insulation Company began producing produce the substance as a substitute for mica, a naturally occurring mineral used to insulate electrical material. So it’s literally “for mica,” minus a space.

Suck it, ants.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Office Desk Mystery

Two clues. I’ve not yet determined what the crime was, who the victim was, if there was a crime, if there was a victim, if I could have been the criminal or the victim, if suspicious deskmate was an accomplice, and (I repeat) if there was a crime.


But I’m pretty sure there totally was a crime.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Adventures of Slut the Pig

How has there not yet been a children’s book written about Slut the Pig?


As illustrated in 1805 by John Landseer, father of the better known painter and sculptor Edwin Henry Landseer, Slut the Pig was a sort of real-life forerunner to Babe. Only instead of herding other animals, Slut helped her master kill other animals. And instead of winning a prize, she was slaughtered. Per the caption on the Flickr account that posted this image:
William Barker Daniel’s Rural Sports tells us that she was called Slut “in consequence of soiling herself in a Bog.” She lived wild but her “owner” taught her to act like a pointer dog and she accompanied him on his hunting expeditions and would point and retrieve as well as a dog. Slut was slaughtered when she was ten years old, which Daniel said was “animal murder.”
Slut’s story is recounted in William Barker Daniel’s Rural Sports, Vol. Three.

The word slut, by the way, has never really meant implied outright filthiness so much as slovenliness, more metaphorical then literal. These, I feel, are distinctions children should be learning through literature.

“Now That’s Interesting,” previously:

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Shards of Suspense

I admit I don’t know exactly what the show Breakout Kings is about, but I’d like to think it’s about contestants in some sort of acne competition. I have to wonder if the only one who keeps seeing the posters all over the city and thinking of Rebecca Gayheart’s bug-eyed overacting in the finale of a certain low-rated 90s slasher film.


I guess splintering glass makes for a convenient shorthand for the message “This is an exciting thing where a group of people are in danger!” I’m actually surprised we don’t see that design more often.

Also? Underwhelming though Urban Legend might be, isn’t that cast kind of crazy snapshot of the 90s? A post-Cybill Alicia Witt, Joshua Jackson presumably sporting his Cruel Intentions dye job, Tara Reid before she barfed all over her career, a pre-Lex Luthor Michael Rosenbaum, ol’ Crazy Eyes and a post-My So-Called Life Jared Leto. All that plus Loretta Devine as a rent-a-cop and Natalie Woods daughter as the girl who gets her head chopped off while she’s driving a car.

Now that’s what some people called movies, I guess.

With “It” Being the Blackest of Hearts

As DC universe superheroes and their associates go, Jean Loring never figured too largely into the the overarching plot. Jean was the Lois Lane to the Atom, a B-level Justice League member who, using a comic book interpretation of science — that is, magic, more or less — harnessed the power of white dwarf star to shrink down to teeny-tiny proportions. Jean, one of those lady lawyers, happily Lois Laned from her introduction in 1961 up until the 2004 series Identity Crisis, during which she attempted a reunion with the estranged Atom through a most unconventional means. In short, Jean had the bright idea to endanger the loved one of another superhero in an effort to drive all the masks and capes back to their Gotham City manors and Metropolis apartments and the distressed civilians who await them there. In long (and in horrific detail), Jean borrowed the Atom’s superpower, shrunk down and entered the brain of Sue Dibny — herself the Lois Lane to another DC universe B-lister, Elongated Man. Once inside Sue’s squishy gray mass, Jean triggered a stroke. When Sue died, Jean panicked and took a flamethrower to Sue’s body. Ultimately, her wrongdoing came to light, and Jean was carted away to Arkham Asylum, where she resided among the many brain-fried, criminally insane freaks who constitute Batman’s gallery of rogues… until she became possessed by the all-powerful supernatural entity Eclipso.

Oh, and it turned out that at the time of her murder, Sue Dibny was pregnant.

All that said, I feel it’s worth pointing out that this poor woman — this damsel-turned embodiment of evil — looks like a certain someone.


Also, it’s worth noting that if she thought she’d stand to benefit from doing so, Kris Jenner would totally take a flamethrower to a corpse.

Who Wore It Better?, previously:

Monday, March 05, 2012

Rhythm-Based School Invasions of 1980s Europe

Awkward. Improbable. Dated. Carbon-dated. These are terms that a thinking individual could put toward the music video for “Happy Song,” the 1984 “hit” by the West German eurodisco-reggae group Boney M. I, for one, can’t take my eyes off it, what with its earnest efforts to sell something that no one wants, needs or even know existed until they watched this video. And I think I can do it the most justice with a summary of what I believe to be its plot. And here goes:
A demonic force travels through an elementary school, lingering for a moment on an apparent portrait of Adolf Hitler (it’s at the 0:26 mark) and inspiring the children to rebel against their teachers. The demonic force assumes the form of two black men who dance into the classroom and, with promises of afterschool dancing and ice cream parties, steal the children, Pied Piper-style. At the same time, a separate presence — some sort of cackling blond devil infant to whom the camera occasionally cuts away — seems to have possessed the one female student, causing her to speak in a baby voice. It’s unclear whether these presences are working together or against each other, but regardless the children end up taking a bus to an ice cream party that’s inexplicably attended by the very teachers they fled. The teachers remove their academic robes and begin dancing. The female student continues to talk in a baby voice.
Yeah, I feel pretty comfortable with that. Honestly, that may be the second-best summary I’ve ever provided, the first being this one. Please, now, watch the video for yourself:


Now, with all that in mind, think about this: Its lack of any reggae sounds makes “Happy Song” an outlier in the Boney M discography, and that’s probably because “Happy Song” is a cover — and, believe it or not, an improvement — of a song released in 1983 by the Italian group Baby’s Gang, which also had this song “Challenger.” I’m posting it below twice, because YouTube has two difference versions — a full version in black and white and then a colorized version that cuts away to what looks like Power Point effects of text scrolling across the screen in ways that are never impressive. It’s… weird.


But I make a point of writing about all this because the “Challenger” video is remarkably similar to the “Happy Song” one: Singing, dancing people manage to steal an entire school’s worth of youths. It even features a woman speaking in an inexplicable baby voice. Isn’t that kind of weird, as far as a narrative for related music videos to have: School invasions in which the children all get kidnapped by singing, dancing people and also there’s a woman who talks in a baby’s voice? Is that baby-talking girl the titular Baby who owns the gang? Was this an 80s trend that I just didn’t know about until now? Was I lucky to be spared this by having been educated in the U.S.? And finally, what do you think they did with kids once they took them away? Do you think they went all Pied Piper on them?

And finally, there’s the question that I’m most reluctant to ask: How embarrassed should I feel if I’m kind of into these songs, their flaming lameness notwithstanding? Is it the expert synthesizer at work? Yeah, it’s that. It must be that.

Drew overthinks bad music:

Sunday, March 04, 2012

As Infinitesimal as a Barn

I’d guess that most who read this blog don’t often encounter barns, unless maybe it’s Dress Barn, in which case you deserve better than that because no one deserves Dress Barn. Furthermore, who thought that anyone would want to buy clothes from a barn? Are humans so removed agricultural life that they don’t realize that cows and other unflatteringly large stock animals live in barns? Is Dress Barn, like, the lady version of a big-and-tall shop? Is the decor barn-themed? Is there hay on the floor? Do salesgirls pass out salt licks and cud?

I’m stopping. This is not a post about Dress Barn, but it is about the word barn in an unusual context — a context that just happens to be my word of the week.
barn (bärn) — noun: 1. a large farm building used for storing farm products and sheltering livestock. 2. a large shed for the housing of vehicles, such as railroad cars. 3. a unit of area equal to 10-24 square centimeters, used to measure cross sections in nuclear physics.
Guess which of these American Heritage Dictionary definitions I think is the most interesting?

Yes, barn has a scientific use: describing an extremely small amount of surface area. In fact, 10-24 square centimeters is roughly the area of the cross section of a uranium nucleus. How did this scientific barn come to be, and why is it grouped with the “farmhouse” definitions as opposed to being listed as a separate barn, since it couldn’t possibly share an etymology with regular definition of the word?

The terms are, in fact, related, and in a lighthearted way I wouldn’t associate with men who split atoms. According to the physics journal Symmetry, the name arose in 1942, when Purdue University physicists Marshall Halloway and Charles Baker took a moment away from the Manhattan Project to eat dinner and bat around potential names for the cross section measuring 10-24 square centimeters. On the subatomic level, this expanse is actually quite large, or “as big as a barn,” so barn and whimsy won out as the term and the mood, respectively. The name stuck, and today this common word barn — which, by the way, comes from a the Old English bereærn, literally “barley house” — gets paired with all the metric system prefixes denoting various sizes, from megabarn (10-18 square centimeters) down to the far more interesting micromeasurements of attobarn (10-46 square centimeters), zeptobarn (10-49 square centimeters) and yoctobarn (10-52 square centimeters). But here’s the especially quaint footnote to all this atypically folksy barn business: Though rarely used, a special term exists for the yoctobarn measurement. It’s shed, and no, I’m not kidding. And in case you’re ever describing an area of 10-34 square centimeters and you don’t feel like using the standard terminology, microbarn, you can always go with the synonym outhouse. No, really.

vintage barn (weiser, idaho), via
Yay, barns!

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dogs That Don’t Like Reggae (They Love It)

Hello. Have you met the Komondor? It’s a Hungarian dog that looks like a mop.


You may remember the Komondor from such pop culture appearances as the cover of Beck’s album Odelay and that’s it. In fact, this Komondor seems to be leaping over a hurdle the exact manner of they Odelay dog. Maybe that’s all they do? Leap over hurdles? So as to maximize dreadlock movement?

Anyway, now that’s you’ve seen one Komondor, have a look at two of them.


You know what’s especially cool about the Komondor when it appears in multiples? If you’re among the people who either want to respect the dog’s rich Hungarian ancestry or who have a tendency toward pedantic displays of technical correctness (the best kind of correctness), then the plural for Komondor is Komondorok and not something as stupid and common as Komondors.

See, now you’ve seen a Komondor and Komondorok all in one day. Oh, and a lot of natural dreadlocks.

By the way, the breed name has no connection with the word commander, no matter how much authority this dog’s hairstyle might command. It means “dog of the Cumans,” who were a Turkic nomadic people who tragically never capitalized on their inherent brand synergy with cumin.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Ten Alternate Endings

I can make it across in time. 

You go ahead. 

I just need to catch my breath. 

Is someone in here? 

It’s not loaded. 

This is probably safe to eat. 

You turned the power off, right? 

No, he wants to be friends! He won’t bite. 

Did you just hear that? 

We’ll be fine.