Monday, July 30, 2012

Aurochs, Twice in One Weekend

Last week, it was the dodo. This week, it’s the aurochs. What’s an aurochs, you ask? (I’m so glad you asked, by the way.)

via wikipedia
The ancestor to domesticated cattle, the aurochs sounds like the dinosaur of grazing hoofed things. Measuring as tell as six feet at the shoulder and weighing as much as 1,500 pounds, according to Wikipedia, these animals possessed some major muscle, which made their purportedly fierce tempers all the more dangerous. Yet we domesticated them, we turned them into common cows (presumably using the same unnatural selection process that turned wolves into teacup poodles), and then, in 1627, the last aurochs died in Jaktorow Forest in Poland.

All of this was news to me as of Saturday, when I read about the aurochs for the first time. For the life of me, I can’t remember why or how I learned about these animals, but I did. Then, just on Sunday, Spencer emailed me a link to a Cabinet article on the extinction of the aurochs and the efforts of some German, World War II-era zoologists, the Brothers Heck, to revive the species. It’s fascinating, and I strongly suggest you give it a read.

Two takeaways:

First, the Hecks believed that domestication ruined animals by inducing neoteny (the retention of juvenile traits in adults), and the Cabinet article evidences this believe with some rather primitive sketches of animals in their natural forms and then their suckier, mushier, tamer forms. It kind of looks like an adult drew some animals and then a child who couldn’t follow directions attempted to re-create the drawings.

via cabinet
Yes, humans too. Remember, this was World War II-era Germany. And no, I don’t know what’s going on with that fish or why domestication apparently turned it into a giant single-celled organism. Science is weird!

And secondly, the mouflon. The article mentions this animal, and because its name sounds like something delicious, I looked it up. It’s a sheep subspecies, and it’s quite regal.

via wikipedia
Is it wrong if I imagine that mouflon : aurochs : majestic forest wolf :: overfed 4-H sheep : constantly farting Holstein : bug-eyed Chihuahua that shakes when it’s not in the protective enclosure of its owner’s purse?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Only Regret Is Dying of Cheese Poisoning

Because if you’re in your final moments, your bowels pulsing with some bacterial fiesta, this makes for a fun word to scream.
tyrotoxism (TAI-roh-TOCKS-izm) — noun: poisoning by cheese or some other dairy product.
This is a handy word to know, given that we make cheese by doing something that we generally go out of our way to avoid: letting food spoil. Of course, we don’t just slide a pan of milk under the radiator and then have at it six months later. (Well, I dont do that anymore.) No, it’s a very particular process of letting it go bad in a certain way. And in the end, we’ve got a little miracle — a chunk of tasty, isabelline food matter that we stick on a toothpick and eat at parties without considering the logistics of it all.

The second part of tyrotoxism should make sense, but are you curious where we get that tyro from? It’s not apparently related to a previous word of the week, tyro. Instead, it comes from the Greek tyros, meaning cheese. Tyros actually figures into another major food name: butter. According to Etymonline, butter comes from the Greek boutyron, which may just be the word for butter plus bous, “cow.” So if that etymology is correct — we’re not sure it is — butter is just cow cheese. And that is neat.

rotten swiss cheese
(modified from a photo by flickr user zooboing)
Now, if you’ll allow it, I have thoughts about cheese and language that are unrelated to food poisoning.

Etymonline’s entry for cheese covers the non-food-related uses of the word and speculates that cheese’s use as a photo prompt word could have playtime associations that actually predate photography. A quote: “To make cheeses was a schoolgirls’ amusement (1835) of wheeling rapidly so one’s petticoats blew out in a circle then dropping down so they came to rest inflated and resembling a wheel of cheese.” And that’s just adorable. Secondly, our expression the big cheese comes has different etymology that the food word, which comes Old English and traces back to the Proto-Indo European root kwat-, “to ferment.” The big cheese, however, comes from the Urdu chiz, “thing,” which Britons picked up during their colonial period in that part of the world.

Doing nothing to change my perception that Moonraker is the worst James Bond movie and overall just a bad film, there’s a British insult word moonraker that refers to people from Wiltshire who were so stupid that they saw the moon’s reflection in a pond, thought it was cheese and tried to rake it out of the water. And that is also adorable, but for different reasons.

The weirdly named, inexplicably punctuated and deathly boring-sounding website English-Word Information offers a variety of words that, like tyrotoxism, use some form of the Greek root tryo, and holy hell, let me tell you that it’s not pleasant territory to cross into. Basically, if something seems cheese-like but is not actual cheese, the situation has taken a turn for the worst. Among the cheesy horrors on this list are tryemesis (“the vomiting of milk curds by an infant”), tyroid (a fun word that can mean either “necrotic” or just “cheeselike”), tyroma (a tumor that contains cheese-like material) and tyrophagus (a certain species of mites that live in flour or cheese and “cause grocer’s itch,” which no no no I just cannot even).

And finally, an alternate take on how one should pronounce tyrotoxism:



Previous words of the week after the jump.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

“Sorry, Sarah — I Can Control Time Now”

That’s an actual line spoken in a movie that I now regret watching.

What’s the movie, you ask? Oh, it’s The Black Cat, also known as De Profundis, also known as Il gatto nero, also known as Demons 6, also known as Dead Eyes, also known as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat, even though it couldn’t have less to do with the actual Poe short story. If you, upon learning that this film has so many different titles, suspect that it might suck mightily, you’d be right: It’s not a good film. I’ve watched it anyway. And while I have a bit to say about it — among other things, “Holy shit, what the fuck was that?” — I’m going to do a favor for everyone and just show you the best the movie has to offer in stills. Occasionally, this film stumbles into a pleasing composition, and that’s all mostly a result of ripping off Dario Argento, so at the very least you can’t say it’s not colorful to look at.

Trust me, it’s a lot better than actually watching the movie, even passively, and you’ll follow the plot about as closely as I did.












Continued awesomeness after the jump.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tonight’s Nightmare, Guest-Starring the Spirit of the St. Louis Blues

Let’s say you hadn’t heard of Alvino Rey until now. It’s okay. I hadn’t either until tonight, but I now know enough to offer a criminally superficial overview of his legacy. Rey pioneered the electric guitar on and off-stage, showcasing his trademark guitar solos whenever he performed but also tinkering with the technology behind the music, even collaborating with names such as Fender and Gibson. Those working in that industry today recognize his importance. Said a Gibson historian interviewed for a Smithsonian article on Rey, “For millions of radio listeners, the first time they heard the sound of an electric guitar, it was played by Alvino.” Now, lest you think his influence might stop with swing nuts and guitar wonks, know that he was also the grandfather of Win and William Butler of The Arcade Fire, meaning that there’s a through-line connecting his midcentury heyday to the weird, artful music being played today.

I don’t doubt people who know more about music could offer an educated opinion about Rey and explain why he’s not as well-known today as Les Paul. I only ended up reading the little I did about Rey because I stumbled upon the following video, which features Rey performing “St. Louis Blues” alongside Stringy, a nightmarish guitar puppet whose face is stretched into a permasmile but who mournfully intones, “I am the spirit of the St. Louis blues. I am so blue. All the day long I am blue.” Also, it’s a creepy robot voice. I kind of think you should just watch it.


Terrifying, yes?

Granted, I’d be hopelessly blue too if I looked like the result of Charlie McCarthy getting drunk and knocking up a ukulele, but the important takeaway here is that not even a misbegotten freak like Stringy can resist the sound of Alvino Rey’s orchestra, which prompts him to twitch his arms and wiggle his feet like he’s suffering a moderate electric shock. Which he may have been.

No, wait — the takeaway here is how standards for creepiness have apparently shifted since this clip was recorded in 1944. No, wait — the takeaway here should be the novelty in Stringy’s voice being supplied by Rey’s wife, the singer Luise King via technology that Rey himself inventedNo! The takeaway is Win Butler marrying his own collaborator, fellow Arcade Fire member Regine Chassagne, opening up the possibility for them to revive Stringy at Coachella next year.

Yep, that’s it. Come on, Win and Regine. You can make this happen.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

An HTMLish Question

A quick one, web-savvy readers: As of last week, I reorganized my big word-of-the-week list. Instead of bullet points like you see here, with the inexplicable line breaks that sometimes even occurred mid-word, I now have the words arranged into three columns. This solves the line break problem and it’s not a single column that you’d sprain your scrollwheel finger trying to get to the bottom of, but I don’t love the look of it.

Does anyone have any suggestions for tidy ways of managing lone lists of links? Thanks in advance if you do.

Why the First Second Is the Longest

Contrary to what this blog might make you think, I actually don’t communicate every thought I have. A lot of what happens between my ears stays there, mostly out of fear that if I ask the “Does anyone else ever notice this?” questions, the response I’ll get will be, “No, that’s only you because your brain is broken.”

However, I’ll occasionally learn that these between-my-ears things happen to everyone. It’s validating. Until I was about six or seven, I assumed I was the only one who could close his eyes and see pulsating blobs of light that eventually transformed into recognizable shapes. Then a friend mentioned them. Me, my little mind blown: “You see them too?” Or that sensation of tripping that you get immediately before you fall asleep? I’d never discussed it with anyone until I learned in a high school psychology class that the hypnic jerk happens to everyone. (Great band name, BTW: The Hypnic Jerks.) And on this very blog, I got to write about my realizations that phonesthemes and logophobia were actual things and not just weird ideas that only I entertained.

Last week, I learned about another one, thanks to a link from Dina. It’s my word of the week.
chronostasis (KRO-no-stay-sis) — noun: the “stopped-clock illusion,” or the perception that the first visual impression following a quick eye movement appears to be extended in time.
Have you ever darted your eyes at a clock and thought the second hand was taking an especially long time to click over to the next position? But after that it began clicking forward in even intervals as it’s supposed to? You’re not alone. That’s chronostasis — literally “standing time.” And while Wikipedia points out that it occurs every time we perform a saccade — another five-dollar word, it means “quick eye movement” and comes from the French word meaning “jerk” — it’s just easier to observe chronostasis when we’re looking at a timepiece or something else that makes regular, uniform changes.

Chronostasis need not even be visual, according to the 2002 Oxford study “Auditory chronostasis: Hanging on the telephone,” which had subjects estimate the elapsed time between tones heard on headphones. According to Wikipedia (and, I’ll bet, that study as well, were I able to read more than the abstract), auditory chronostasis occurs when you dial a phone number, raise the handset to your ear and and perceive the time between rings.

So what gives? According to a 2001 study, it’s a side-effect of our brains’ desire for continuity in spite of those quick eye movements. The neuroscience blog The MacGuffin explains more:
When our eyes move, the image reflected on to the retina is also in motion. This creates motion blur… . A blurred image being utterly incomprehensible (and of no use) to us sighted humans, our brains have a mechanism to circumvent the blur and create a comprehensible image. This phenomenon is known as saccadic masking. During saccadic masking, the blur is suppressed, along with visual processing, and the gap in visual processing that should be experienced as your eyes move from on side to another. The brain then replaces the blur with an image of the very next thing that your eyes fixate on.
And also this:
If the brain is replacing a past image with a current image, does that mean what Im seeing is not really in the present but the past? Yes, in fact, human awareness or what we experience as the present is actually the very recent past; more specifically our consciousness lags 80 milliseconds behind actual events. This is how saccadic masking and chronostasis are possible; before we become aware, our brain has to make sense of stimuli first, which takes just about 80 milliseconds.
And this, friends, is the most interesting thing I’ve learned in weeks, even if it does nothing to clear up the ambiguity of a certain expression about stopped clocks.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Speaking Ill of the Extinct

Looking back at the history of the names humans used to refer to the dodo, you can appreciate that we didn’t care all that much for this bird during our brief period of interaction with it.

dodo display at the oxford museum of natural history, via bazzadarambler  

So there’s dodo, which Etymonline claims comes from the Portuguese doudo, “fool, simpleton.” I’m unsure whether they called it this as a result of the way it looked — remarkably like one of my gradeschool teachers, I’d like to point out — or how it lacked any natural fear of humans and would just trot right up to whatever sailor arrived onshore. It’s probably a little bit of both.

While I trust Etymonline, it’s worth pointing out for the purposes of this conversation that less accepted theories trace the word back to other sources. Wikipedia has collected them, and they’re almost consistently unflattering. For example, Errol Fuller’s 2002 book Dodo — From Extinction to Icon provides two alternate etymologies: the Dutch words dodoor, “sluggard,” and Dodaars, “fat-ass” or “knot-ass.” Before dodo stuck as a name — and boy did it, seeing as how it’s still a term for a hopelessly stupid person, more than 300 years after the actual dodo ceased to exist — there was walghvogel. An explanation, via Wikipedia’s excerpt of Dutch admiral Wybrand van Warwijck’s journal from his 1597 voyage to Mauritius:
[F]inding in this place great quantity of foules twice as bigge as swans, which they call Walghstocks or Wallowbirdes being very good meat. But finding an abundance of pigeons & popinnayes [parrots], they disdained any more to eat those great foules calling them Wallowbirds, that is to say lothsome or fulsome birdes.
Yes, “wallowbirds.” Not exactly a testament to the dodo’s appeal. Others? Wikipedia also notes dronte, meaning “swollen,” and kermisgans, “in reference to the birds fattened for the Kermesse festival,” according to Cheke and Hulme’s 2008 book Lost Land of the Dodo. The poor dodo even gets dinged on the level of its scientific name: After the bird’s extinction, Carl Lineaus named it Didus ineptus, literally “inept dodo.” The current scientific name is Raphus cucullatus, which I’m happy to report is not a ding against the bird’s mental faculties or physical appearance.

Poor dodo. We should have maybe been a little nicer to you while we had the chance, and also then maybe we shouldn’t have introduced all those invasive species that made you die. But in defense of all the name-calling: take another look at that photo of the dodo exhibit. You have to admit: If that face is at all representative of what it looked like in life, it didn’t appear to be having a great time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

That Time Agatha Christie Was a Deplorable Hack (Or — The Authoress Suck’d)

It’s tough to take a dig at Agatha Christie, seeing how her name is synonymous with an entire genre of literature even today, 36 years after she went the way of so many of Miss Marple’s casual acquaintances. On top of that, her wraith gets to brag on about being the most financially successful novelist of all time, and on top of that she gets to taunt the likes of Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel with the fact that she’s actually quite a good writer: Say what you will about the denouement of Murder on the Orient Express, but Christie reveals it ingeniously.

However, I do have a major criticism of her work, and fans be forewarned, it makes Agatha Christie sound like a cheap, opportunistic, exploitative monster that would have made Harvey Levin proud.

note the mr. burns-like hand posture
Understand that in order to continue with this, I need to spoil the ending of Christie’s novel The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. Trust me that this is okay, as Mirror doesn’t rank among Christie’s best mysteries. In the novel, insipid partygoer Heather Badcock winds up dead after consuming a poisoned cocktail that was seemingly intended for the fete’s guest of honor, the feisty, tormented film actress Marina Gregg. And while most attendees conclude that the most famous person at the party had to be the target, omnipresent spinster Miss Marple deduces that this was not the case. In fact, Heather, who died immediately after relating a story about getting Marina’s autograph even though she had rubella and was under quarantine, was the actual, intended victim after all. After hearing Heather’s story, Marina poisoned her because exposure to rubella caused Marina’s child to be born severely handicapped. Before Marina can be arrested, she fatally overdoses.

elizabeth taylor as marina, shower cap as formal hat
This, I suppose, might be a particularly surprising whodunit were it not for the fact that I watch a lot of TCM and have a thorough command of old Hollywood. Years before I watched The Mirror Crack’d — and yes, I watched the film version with Elizabeth Taylor as Marina in lieu of reading the novel — I watched a TCM screening of Laura, the 1944 film noir that starred Gene Tierney and which inspired David Lynch to create Twin Peaks. (Laura, by the way, also stars Clifton Webb, the original Mr. Belvedere.) For many reasons, Tierney’s story is a sad one, especially because it ends with her dying of emphysema after a lifetime of smoking, which she took up after being told by studio execs that she needed to lower her voice. But perhaps Tierney’s greatest tragedy lies in her thwarted attempts at enjoying a happy motherhood.

(Yes, you can see where this is going.)

Though Tierney eventually raised one healthy daughter, she suffered a major hardship with her first child, who was born deaf and severely mentally disabled. In her 1979 autobiography Self-Portrait, Tierney confirmed a longstanding rumor that for years had been repeated in Hollywood circles: that her daughter’s condition resulted from Tierney being exposed to rubella while she was pregnant. In fact, Tierney eventually learned exactly who exposed her when a fan approached her and gushed about being so enamored with Tierney’s celebrity that she once snuck out of quarantine to meet her at Hollywood Canteen, precisely during the time Tierney was with child. Wikipedia explains Tierney’s reaction to this story in a manner I can’t top: “Tierney related that after the woman had recounted her story, she just stared at her silently, then turned and walked away. She wrote, ‘After that I didn't care whether ever again I was anyone's favorite actress.’”

gene tierney
Please, stop and consider that statement — “I didn’t care whether ever again I was anyone’s favorite actress” — with everything you know and suspect about Hollywood actresses. That is just a little heartbreaking.

Now let’s jump back to the suddenly trite and silly world that Agatha Christie created in The Mirror Crackd From Side to Side. Here is how Christie describes Marina’s reaction to the revelation made by that idiot, Heather Badcock:
Very interesting,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I’ve had descriptions, you know, of what this look was on her face. A frozen look. Yes, that describes it quite well. A look of doom. I’m not really so sure about that. It’s more of a kind of paralysis of feeling that apprehension of doom. Don’t you think so? I wouldn’t say it was actually fear, would you, although fear of course might take you that way.’
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side was published in 1962. Tierney’s daughter was born in 1943. The most high-profile movie version — The Mirror Crack’d, with the role of Marina going to Elizabeth Taylor, an actress who found more success and less tragedy than did Gene Tierney — came out in 1980. It would have been next to impossible for Tierney not to know about this fictionalized version of her most personal torment, to say nothing of the indignity of being reimagined as a murderer. There’s never been any mention of Christie asking permission to use Tierney’s story in a book.

The takeaway: Agatha Christie is just unforgivably tacky.

Now Thats Interesting!, previously:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Nine Animals That Got Screwed When Scientific Names Were Handed Out (And Six That Didn’t)

Oddly, binomial nomenclature permits animals to have the same genus and species name but not plants. Don’t believe me? Look at every plant name ever. The ones that approach duplication fall just short: Ziziphus zizyphus, for example. Better known as the common jujube — and shouldn’t that be its own blog post? the differentiation between the jujubes that grows in the ground and the jujubes you buy at the movie theater concession stand? — its name is spelled differently at the genus and species levels for no reason other than to avoid tautonym status. Animals and animal-namers, however, don’t have to worry about repetition, and as a result, certain species sound horribly unimaginative. Others don’t. Yes, I have listed the ones that stood out to me.
Ones that sound boring and unimaginative:

Bison bison
Chinchilla chinchilla
Iguana iguana
Gorilla gorilla
Hyaena hyaena
Mops mops
Rattus rattus
Indicator indicator
Gecko gecko
And, conversely, those who sound unusually cool for having their exotic-seeming biological name repeated twice:

Vulpes vulpes
Lynx lynx
Bubo bubo
Cygnus cygnus 
Bombina bombina 
Mephitis mephitis

Of interest, if you have gotten this far: Some Hybrid Animal Math.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

“You Really Have to See it on the Big Screen”

(Upon being told that I could not possibly enjoy summer blockbusters at home as much as I would in an actual movie theater.)


— Oh, do I?

— Totally. It just wouldn’t be the same on, like, a TV.

— I mean, my TV is actually kind of big.

— Yeah, but on a screen that’s twenty times bigger. It’s just… more.

— More bigger?

— Yeah. You can see the special effects better.

— See, I don’t actually care that much about special effects. As long as it doesn’t look like first season Buffy, I’m good. I’m actually there to see story first, acting second, camerawork maybe third… and then special effects way after those.

— But it’s a comic book movie. You have to rank the special effects higher.

— But I don’t because it’s a comic book movie. It’s expected to be effects-laden. Besides, I actually read comic books, where the special effects are pretty terrible — just two-dimensional drawings on a page. And they don’t bother me any.

— It’s a completely different experience. It’s like comparing… a concert and an interview with the band you read in a magazine.

— Wouldn’t seeing special effects on a TV actually make them better, on account of the fact that something like pixel distortion would be a lot harder to see if the pixels weren’t all the size of child’s head?

— You’re not getting it. When the special effects are on such a grand scale, you can’t help but to feel like the movie is actually real.

— “Actually real.” I’m supposed to think that Mark Ruffalo has turned green, grown super muscular, split all his clothes except for his pants and is now bounding across the city skyline?

— Yes.

— That will never happen. As much as I love movies, I’m always keenly aware that they — and superhero movies in particular — are not real.

— Well, there’s also the sound. It’s… really loud.

— Nope! Done! I just won!

How I Am Doing Today, All This Considered

(See immediately below.)


Note: I may not have fully considered all things.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

How You’re Complimenting Large-Eyed, Long-Necked Beauties

The science wonks of the English-speaking world have no shortage of animal words thanks to the “ines” — feline, canine, bovine as well as weird ones like pavonine for peacocks, dasypine for armadillos and even asinine for donkeys. But the “ines” all tend toward a high-minded, labcoast-and-beakers sort of conversation. Do you have anything in a regular sort of suffix?

Yes. Yes we do, and it’s the word of the week.
struthious (STROO-thee-us) — adjective: of or relating to ostriches or similar birds.
Tweeted out not too long ago by the OED, struthius might seem like the kind of word you non-ostrich ranch-owning readers might have little reason to use. And that night be true, but you never know when you might need to recap an episode of Top Chef.

Allow me to demonstrate:




Yes, Carla Hall — the best thing to come out of any reality show ever — has a struthious way about her. And that’s not an insult, exactly. Hall used to model back in the day, and even then exhibited a struthious beauty:


However, I’m happy to have her as we have her today: cooking and looking animatedly struthious.


Indeed.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Liz Lemon Meets Dracula

At last, my hours spent writing 30 Rock fan fiction have paid off! Alan Moore noticed!


What you see is a panel from the newest League of Extraordinary Gentleman comic, Century: 2009. And yes, rather than allude to esoteric novels from turn-of-the-century Britain, Moore gives shoutouts to works that exist in more contemporary fictional universes — occasionally like Driveshaft from Lost or Who Dat Ninja? from 30 Rock, but more often BBC shows that I’ve never heard of and might as well be esoteric novels from turn-of-the-century Britain. Still, that is Mina Murray walking in front of a representation of the same fictional universe that gave us Jackie Jormp-Jomp, and I like that.

As for the comic itself, it’s better than I expected but not great. It all gets wrapped up in an extended Harry Potter riff that I wasn’t into. That said, 2009 features enough of Moore’s famously layered references to win me over. Case in point: In this universe, Emma Peel from The Avengers is Emma Night, who by 2009 has risen to the head of MI6. Yes, she’s the new M, in the style of Judi Dench in the latter-era Bond films, and on top of that, her name is Emma. Emma is M. And on top of that, as pointed out in the Annotated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, artist Kevin O’Neill thoughtfully placed a framed photo of a man who looks a great deal like George Lazenby on Emma Night’s desk, presumably a reference to the fact that the actress who played Emma Peel, Diana Rigg, also played the love interest in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which Lazenby played Bond.

And basically every panel works like that. Sure, you need the online version of Cliffs Notes to understand what you’re looking at, but if it just had references to American sitcoms, you might think this comic book about British literary superheroes seemed slightly silly.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another Five Words With Surprising Etymologies

Because how else do you follow up “Five Words With Surprising Etymologies” and “Five More Words With Surprising Etymologies”?


diamond: Everyone knows that the two most important qualities of diamonds are that they’re expensive and that they’re hard. It’s that second quality that should ring a bell when you learn that the word goes back to the Latin adamentem, which meant “the hardest metal” — hence Wolverine’s skeleton being fortified with adamantium — but was also used figuratively in the way we use adamant today. The Latin word comes from the Greek adamas, “unbreakable, unflexible,” but literally “unconquerable.”

spruce: It’s a tree, but I feel like I hear it used more often as the verb paired with the adverb up and meaning “to make spiffy.” What’s the connection? In the fifteenth-century, spruce goods were fashionable, and the word has retained this positive meaning ever since. But these old-timey spruce goods weren’t made of wood. Instead, the term spruce is an alteration of Pruce, the French equivalent of Prussia, and the goods came to England via German mechants.

sideburns, etymologically
why it’s not vespuccia
pajamas and pyjamas
partridge: We get the word from the Old French name for the bird, pertis, and that ultimately goes back to the Greek perdesthai, which means “to break wind,” probably because of how much noise the bird makes. So yes, that first syllable’s similarity to fart is not coincidental.

California: In short, we’re not exactly sure where it comes from, but explorers called the westernmost part of the New World this name as a result of Las sergas de Esplandián, a Spanish adventure novel that featured a island populated by amazons. The island was called California and its ruler was Queen Calafia. While some guess that both California and Calafia come from the Arabic word khalifah — which means “Muslim leader” and which gives English the word caliph — we don’t know where the author got the idea for the name. Similarly, the Song of Roland mentions an area called Califerne — “And in Affrike, and those in Califerne” — that could be the genesis of California, but even then the association between the state’s name and Islam remains, given that Califerne is probably supposed to refer to an area ruled by a caliph.

comptroller: Until I looked it up, I actually had no clue what comptroller meant. I assumed it resulted from the forced mashing-together of controller and computer. Nope. A comptroller is just a specialized type of controller, essentially, with the dictionary definition being “the chief accountant of a company, organization or government.” And it’s supposed to be pronounced exactly like controller, through the “p” is seldom silent. Etymonline explains that comptroller is just a variant of controller that was influenced by the unrelated French word compte, “account,” and that lingered in English for the last 500 years. Wikipedia conjectures that comptroller results from a blend between compte and the Middle English countreroller, “someone who checks the copy of a scroll,” that became associated with the checkers of financial records. And Webster just states that it’s an alteration of countreroller. I don’t know which, if any, is the most correct, but I’m sure that I shouldn’t be pronouncing the word phonetically if I want to sound smart.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Another Japanese Triumph

It’s no secret that the Japanese are winning the worldwide race to supply everyone with a means to satisfy peculiar desires we didn’t know we had. But I had no idea that Japan was winning by so much that it has developed such specific emoticons:


This, of course, is “Truman Capote terrorized by an ether-induced hallucination.” Or maybe “boiled egg scared of being eaten.” Could be both, really, and though I hadn’t thought of peppering my online conversations with such an emoticon, I can now think of nothing but.

Japan, we’re in your debt once again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How I Prefer to Remember King City

Now, this will mean little to anyone who hasn’t had to pull off the northbound 101 after San Ardo and roll through the supersized truck stop known as King City. But had you done so on a late spring day and had you been hurrying to beat some rain whose clouds were glowing furiously red over the sunset, you might have noticed how, for the first time ever, King City looked better than its typical lonely, windblown and for the first time looked beautiful.

Then imagine my surprise when I saw my memory of King City realized in pixels.


It’s not a dead-on reproduction, of course, and I know that any Dorothea Lange-esque dot on the map could look the same, meteorological circumstances permitting. But if you knew King City, but if anyone else had been in the car that day, you’d get it.

(Image via King of Fighters 96, via here.)

Monday, July 09, 2012

Encyclopedia Drew and the Dubious Diorama

When I visited the Natural History Museum, I escaped the fate that befell poor Sally Draper and did not, thankfully, begin my period immediately after viewing the animal dioramas.


Yes, in true Don Draper fashion, Mad Men fibbed and passed off Los Angeles Natural History Museum as its New York counterpart. This is not news, and this post isn’t about Sally’s diorama-prompted womanhood. No, I’m actually more concerned with the oryxes.


The Arabian oxyx, according to the Natural History Museum’s website, is notable for a horse-like gait and the fact that it, when moving in profile, appears to only have a single horn and therefore may have been responsible for belief in unicorns. But even that’s not enough to warrant this post. No, here’s what did. Not the oryx family but way in the back corner…


Do you see it?


Okay, you have to see it now — a cat whose shitty expression is masked by the cat-colored grass around it. The diorama placards made no mention of Grassy Grumplepuss, leaving me to consider several possible explanations:
  • The diorama curator placed the cat, but a higher-up exercised an anti-cat agenda and saw to it that the cat was not mentioned at all.
  • The diorama curator’s cat died while he was making this particular exhibit, and so he taxidermied the cat and slipped it into the background as a way of letting future generations appreciate the severity of his cat’s scowl.
  • It’s actually a live cat that snuck into the museum, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler-style, and it’s posing as if it were taxidermied so as to avoid detection.
  • It’s the mouse-deterring version of a scarecrow, and the museum would rather not publicize its rodent problem.
  • The museum placed the cat in the exhibit, unannounced, and they’re giving out prizes to whoever spots it first. (Me! I did! Give me the gift certificate.)
  • Ghost cat.
  • Something something illuminati symbolism.
  • Oryxes naturally have guardian angels that take the form of cats, but the museum — being a scientific institution — is reluctant to endorse such spiritualist notions, and so the resourceful museum-goer is left to research on his own and come to his own conclusion.
  • “Oh, shit. We have this extra cat. Will anyone care if I just stick it in the oryx diorama? I need to take lunch, like, now.”
Your input is valued and appreciated.

Previous Encyclopedia Drew mysteries: