Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fire Coming Out of an English-Speaker’s Mouth

This week: a rare word that deserves more use, if through a metaphorical extension of its actual meaning.
ignivomous (IG-niv-AH-muss) — adjective: breathing fire.
For all I know, clever writers and speakers have long used the word to refer to people with foul tempers or with grandpa breath. And good on them. I just can’t imagine how anyone aside from volcanologists or dragonologists ever had a reason to use ignivomous literally. A Google search turned up two groups that mostly likely don’t use the word literally: a New York-based, art-advocating nonprofit and a Melboune-based death metal quartet. Not helping ignivomous’s chances of becoming any better-known among English-speakers is the fact that the latter Ignivomous choses to display its name in the stylized fashion pictured bleow.

Igni-wha-wha? Perhaps they should take some tips from the other, more aesthetically savvy Ignivomous.

The word — even as an illegible band name — comes from the Latin words for “fire” and “to vomit,” in that order.

Previous words of the week:

Thursday, February 26, 2009


“Anything can be a paperweight.” This was the conclusion I made at the end of a long-ago conversation with friends about the strangeness of paperweights being souvenirs that people would actually pay for. Compared to paperweights, other souvenirs are inherently better. Snow globes, for example. Or postcards. Both serve a function that a “just anything” can’t. I can’t remember if the friends and I reached a unanimous agreement on this or not, but I at least arrived at the belief that paperweights were inherently inferior to other souvenirs because literally anything can be used in place of them. A stapler. A mug. A tape dispenser. A rock. A well-behaved baby. Even a moderately heavy writing implement could successfully prevent a small stack of papers from blowing away. If one was for some reason hung up on the notion of pinning these papers down with a memento from some vacation, there’s enough to pick from on the vacation itself. A seashell. A different kind of mug. A vacation place rock. A well-behaved baby that happened to have been conceived while away. Really, anything can be a paperweight. Why do people have such problems keeping their papers from blowing away? Can’t they just close their windows or, if the problem really is so bad, move to a less drafty house?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dog Market, for Dogs

It’s considerably more difficult to ask “How much is that doggy in the window?” when you have to address the dog itself.

I choose take this as a sign that Asia may be more resourceful at pulling itself out of the worldwide economic slump than other parts of the world.

Source: Dogs Looking Like People, the gloriousness of which was made possible by a link from Stevi.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The H-Bus

Two days after blogiversary festivities and one day after the required post-festivities period of recuperation, I’m back on track, making up for the word of the week I neglected to do this weekend. It’s more than a doozy. A doozleplex? A doozydoozy? A doobleoozy?
honorificabilitudinitatibus (hah-no-rif-i-ka-bil-i-too-dee-nee-ta-bus) — noun: the state of quality of being able to achieve honors.
(And I am only guessing on the pronunciation. Most articles on the word focus more on its strange history than on how to say it, I’m guessing because you probably wouldn’t ever speak this work, even if you wanted to. As for which syllables would be accented, I can only guess.)

Quite a mouthful, especially when honorableness would do the trick, as Word Web points out. This verbal oddity gets mentioned fairly often in word nerd circles, for all the right reasons.

First off, it is considered by some to be the longest word coined by Shakespeare, though dissenters might point out that he simply borrowed it from Medieval Latin. It’s the word honorificabilitudinitas, in the plural ablative form. (The ablative case is used in Latin more or less in specific prepositional constructions. Of all the languages one might learn in a typical American high school, I’m pretty sure Latin is the only one that uses the ablative, at least by that name.)

It’s also the longest word Shakespeare ever used, counting the ones other people made up. Though it’s used in Love’s Labour’s Lost and I have read this play, I have no recollection of it. It’s spoken by Costard in the first scene of the fifth act. “O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. / I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; / for thou art not so long by the head as / honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.” As if I needed to cram more worthless information into this post, I’m going to explain that last reference. A flap-dragon — which is apparently interchangeable with snap-dragon — apparently can be several things, though it seems most likely that Costard means the first one in the below list:
  • A worthless or trivial thing.
  • A Dutchman or a German, though to speak of such people in this way would not endear you to them. (It’s something to keep in mind if you travel back in time to seventeenth-century Europe.)
  • A fiendish sounding game that apparently bored people played on Christmas Eve in which they would attempt to snatch raisins out from a bowl of flaming brandy. (This could have been the game of kings back in the day, but I can’t help thinking that those who played flap-dragon then would be the ones smoking meth today.)
  • The bowl itself.
  • The raisins themselves.
  • Or whatever other fruit you decide to play the game with.
  • The one thing that Costard’s remark isn’t referring to, apparently, is the one thing I knew as a snapdragon prior to writing this post: those flowers that look like a dragon’s head and move when you squeeze them. The name for the genus is antirrhinum. The flower is oddly mentioned nowhere on the page for flap-dragon, despite that the flower is the one children should be encouraged to play with.
Honorificabilitudinitatibus is also the longest English word to alternate consonant-to-vowel from one letter to the next.

Despite this fact, it does not use the letter “e,” the most common vowel. The next-longest word to omit this letter is the equally phenomenal floccinaucinihilipilification — “the act of habit of describing or regarding something as useless,” which just happens to be what most people do to honorificabilitudinitatibus.

Wikipedia points out that by virtue of being used only once in Shakespeare’s collective works, honorificabilitudinitatibus is also a hapax legomenon, a fun title to give to words that only appear once in the written record of a language or a single text. For example, until the posting of this entry, floccinaucinihilipilification was a hapax legomenon on Back of the Cereal box. But it ain’t no more.

James Joyce also used honorificabilitudinitatibus, as World Wide Words points out, but no one apparently cares about this as much as Shakespeare’s use of it. I’m guessing Joyce used it more than once, thus preventing it from being a hapax legomenon but possibly also indicating that Joyce was the better writer since he found more than one apt occasion to use it.

Finally, and perhaps most spectacularly, the word is notable because Baconophiles — that is, those who love Francis Bacon — take its presence in Love’s Labor’s Lost as evidence that Bacon himself wrote the play and all of the other Shakespeare plays as well. Apparently this is a thing that people like to think. The word happens to be an anagram for the Latin phrase hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, meaning “these plays, F. Bacon's offspring, are preserved for the world.” This website takes it a bit further and gets into numerological theories that tie the word with creepy Rosicrucian stuff. More germane to the discussion of the play’s authorship, the appearance of honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labor’s Lost is followed by another strange line. Armado’s page Moth asks, “…what is a / B, spelt backward, with the horn on his head?” The conspiracy theorists allege that Moth’s question is a coded reference to Bacon — “Bacorn,” with the first two letters being those “spelt backward” and the corn meaning “horn” in the sense of unicorns and tricorn hats. Very strange, but suitably so, given the subject at hand.

Previous words of the week:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Half-Man, Half-Dog, All Wrong

Ren & Stimpy creator John K keeps a blog on which he discusses various matters relating to cartooning. From reading it somewhat regularly, I’ve learned that there’s a great deal about animation that John K doesn’t care for, and he usually has a well-thought-out argument for why the given thing shouldn’t be the way it is. Last month, he took on a subject that I’ve quietly pondered since I was a kid: Disney’s dogmen.

You know what I’m talking about if you watched Ducktales — and no, I never expected to be writing about Ducktales with such frequency in 2009. The show featured a few dogmen prominently: Duckworth, Scrooge McDuck’s stuffy buttler, and the Beagle Boys, the group of criminals who are constantly trying to steal from Scrooge. They’re clearly not ducks, as most of the Ducktales characters are, but they’re not fully dogs — at least not in the style of Goofy or Pluto, those two canines who populate Donald Duck’s universe and, thus, could presumably have reason to meet Duckworth and the Beagle Boys.

left: beagles boys. right: duckworth. left and right: horrifying dog men.

left: goofy. right: pluto. left and right: cartoony dogs that nonetheless look like dogs.

As John K points out, the dogmen are pretty damn horrifying. Grotesque in the traditional sense, they have human faces with dog noses placed on the vaguest hint of a snout. And sometime not even that. Some have strange, floppy, fleshy ears. Others have more human-shaped ears. Either should rightly creep you out.

I have always wondered why these creatures exist, except maybe to suggest some species-based social hierarchy in which white-feathered waterfowl dominate the dogmen. John K puts forth a good theory:
Can anyone explain why this existed? The only thing I can come up with is that conservative cartoonists felt a bit guilty about drawing regular funny animals that walked and talked (because that makes no sense) — but their jobs demanded it. Donald, Mickey, Bugs and all the animated cartoon stars were very cartoony and easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief, but maybe not so easy for the more conservative of the comic artists — so when they got to create their own incidental characters from scratch, they naturally drew more "realistic" and sensible humans in clothing — but then — so as not to alert Walt to it - at the last second, they would paste a dog nose or pig snout onto the human to trick their bosses into thinking that these were also funny animals that matched the style of the popular star characters.

It’s probably more likely that it was unconscious conservative auto-pilot drawing, never realizing how much more bizarre half-way cartoon characters are.

The reason I suspect conservatism as the culprit is that if it wasn’t, there would be many funny variations on the idea.

How about a realistic dog that stands on his hind legs but has a human nose?

Or a man with Crab eyes? A filter-feeding flesh colored shark that walks on realistic human legs with no pants, but a tuxedo jacket and a duck beak on top of his head?

How about an eel in a Burka? I mean, this could go on and on. It has limitless potential for fun.
Something worth thinking about, at least if you’re still plagued by memories of Ducktales.

The original post generated quite a discussion, with commenters weighing in on this and that below. One of the thats merits a mention here, I felt. The concept of dogmen wasn’t just limited to Disney franchises, and the proof is Betty Boop’s first ever appearance, in the Talkartoon short “Dizzy Dishes.” Boop pops up at a singer in a restaurant club populated by anthropomorphic animals. She looks more or less the same as to what she looks like today, save for those creepy, fleshy, floppy dog ears. Wikipedia claims she was initially designed to be an anthropomorphic dog.

She shows up at about the 2:20 mark. I have provided a still below for the lazy and impatient.

I’d like to think this explains Betty Boop’s bizarre head shape, but I’m not sure it does.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Tonight marked the first rerun of the 30 Rock episode “Retreat to Move Forward.” Aside from being a thoroughly funny episode, it is also notably the one whose plot involves the Wikipedia profile for Janis Joplin being edited to include such misinformation as that her legs bent the wrong way, she speedwalked everywhere, she ate cats, she feared toilets, and that she had a signature cocktail made from cherry juice, buttermilk, and tequila, all in an effort to make Jane Krakowski’s character appear stupid.

The last first time the episode aired, Joplin’s actual Wikipedia page had to be locked to protect it from vandalism inspired the show. Tonight, the Wikipedia nerds are on high alert since they realized that the episode was airing again. This in itself strikes me a damn hilarious, but one particular discussion on the article’s take page took the cake.


Oh, coprophobia, when will you stop being relevant?

Alternate title for this post: “Robot Penis.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Milk of Life

There exists an oil used in various Middle Eastern and North African dishes. The name of this ingredient is smen. I find this hilarious. Please discuss.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Mosquito Beyond Explanation

You’d think that a word with an unknown etymology would leave me with little to write about. But you’d be wrong.
gallinipper (GAL-eh-nip-per) — noun: an insect capable of inflicting a painful bite, usually a large mosquito or a crane fly.
Officially, that small chunk of syntax above seems that all that anyone has to say about the word, other than that it is chiefly used in the American South and Midwest and that its first recorded use was in 1709. Curiously, the crane fly as defined by Wikipedia doesn’t seem to bite, so only the “large insect” aspect of the creature would seem to render the definition accurate. Also, the insect is known as “daddy long-legs” in Canada, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, whereas that name here in the U.S. usually refers to a spider. (I’d forgotten it, but I mentioned the crane fly previously on this blog, when I was pondering the plural form of the word daddy long-legs. A few years later, I still don’t know what the plural might be, though I’m happy to see that I’m not the only one wondering.) Thus, gallinipper and daddy long-legs both seem to be catch-all words that rarely seem to mean much. As far as where it comes from, I can only say that it would seem to follow a certain pattern common to that very specific kind of Americanisms along the lines of thingamajigger and other such old timey-sounding metasyntactic words.

A 1985 dictionary of regional English — brought to you and me alike through the magic of Google Books — gives us some added dimension to the confusion, offering no less than twelve variants on the word, including galnipper, galknipper, gallinapper, gallon dipper, gannipper, ganninipper, gollynipper, gullynapper, gurnipper, gabber napper, galliwopper, and my personal favorite, granny nipper. Even this entry, however, notes that “some of these insects do not bite.”

Words that gallinipper beat out for this week’s spot include a few notables — among them griffonage (meaning “careless handwriting” seemingly in the way people today use chicken scratch), gumma (“a syphilitic tumor,” which hearkens back to the last “G” word-of-the-week, grandgore), and gunsel, which formerly meant “a man’s young homosexual companion” but thanks to a line in The Maltese Falcon can now mean “gunman” or “hoodlum.”

Previous words of the week:

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Winnie Cooper Theorem of Unrequited Love

Things I learned from an Onion A.V. Club interview with Mayim Bialik, former star of Blossom: Danica McKellar, the actress who played the object of Kevin Arnold’s affection on The Wonder Years, went on to study mathematics at UCLA, co-authored a paper as an undergraduate and now has a theorem named after her. I find this remarkable.

I find it less remarkable but nonetheless a little neat that role of the far less likable Wonder Years character Becky Slater was played by Danica McKellar’s sister, Crystal McKellar, who is now a lawyer but does not have theorems named after her.

Those Olden Days of Video Game Sexism

Way back when, the people who make the Final Fantasy games and other epically popular RPG series teamed up with Nintendo and made Super Mario RPG. Included in the roster of playable characters was one female character — Peach, who performed the traditional “girl” role of feeble magic caster who can restore her teammates’ health. She did have one attack, however, called “Psych Bomb,” in which she’d blast enemies with what the game referred to as “psychic energy.”

Today I was looking at the website The Mushroom Kingdom — a handy compendium of all things Mario that’s been around for quite a while — and noticed that they had posted a list of differences between the game’s English and Japanese versions. Among them is the fact that the Psych Bomb is known in Japan as the Hisuterikku Bomu, or “Hysteric Bomb,” which strikes me a just a little hilarious.

The words hysterical and hysteria, of course, shares a root with the word hysterectomy and ultimately come from the Greek word hystera, meaning “womb.” Hippocrates himself is credited with coining the term hysteria to describe what he imagined was a disorder that resulted from from wombs becoming too dry and light from a lack of sexual intercourse and consequently traveled north, “compressing the hearts, lungs and diaphragm,” as Wikipedia explains it. The definition has since become divorced from its etymology and now just refers general over-the-top mental oogies in men or women. Some might take offense to it, but most people use it quite innocently. What’s funny about Super Mario RPG’s use of the term is that it appears to very consciously reference the word’s antiquated meaning. When that Hysteric Bomb goes off, I think we’re honestly supposed to think Peach’s womb energies have overcome their good sense and resulted in a violent pyrotechnic outburst.

In my mind, Peach’s Hysteric Bomb foreshadows the Nintendo DS game Super Princess Peach, in which Peach went on her first solo adventure with only a parasol and her rapidly fluctuating emotions to defend herself. Seriously — burning fire when she’s angry, gushing water when she’s sad, and gradual floating into the air when she’s happy. The game has yet to receive a sequel.

Peach has been more emotionally centered ever since, but her habitual cake-baking continues.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Jupiter Jazz

Look beyond here and find a more interesting there — online, I mean.
And finally, from the always phenomenal PCL LinkDump, is an early version of the Muppets singing “Mah Nà Mah Nà.” A reworking, featuring the Birdo-like Snowths, would become the first-ever sketch aired on The Muppet Show.

This above sketch features “Little Anything” back-up singers and a prototype version of the character Bip Bippadotta, whose name sounds a lot like the lyrics song before the “mah nà mah nà.” But it’s the “mah nà mah nà” part that Bip sings. The finalized version of the character appears in the more familiar version of “Mah Nà Mah Nà” with the Birdo-like Snowths singing back-up.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Fabiform Uglies

In trying to find a word to offer up this week, I mentioned to Spencer that I was on “F.” Ultimately, I chose not to use his suggestion, fatty fatty two-by-four for several reasons, including that it isn’t really a word. It has its place in the English language, I’ll admit, but that place is not on this blog.

And so then I threw something together about beans. Enjoy!
fabiform (FAB-i-form) — adjective: bean-shaped.
I seized upon this word mostly because it reminded me of an article I saw in a women’s magazine in which the various forms of the female body were symbolized with fruit: a pear, an apple, a banana for the skinny girl, a strawberry for some body type I can’t remember. There might have been a coconut in there. The diagram made me think of other produce shapes that would be particularly tragic for a young lady’s body to resemble. (The rutabaga and the durian spring to mind.) Realistically, the three or four times this word gets used in a given year are probably more likely to be in description of kidneys than human bodies. Peter Bowler makes the association in his entry on the word in The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words with the following example sentence: “And I’d like you to meet Brett and Wanda, and their children Jamie and Cass — round here we call them the Fabiform Four.”

Fabiform is an odd word in that I understand what it means despite the fact that no singular “Ur” bean shape exists. Lima, garbanzo, soy, jumping — all different shapes. This word fabiform should mean about as much as “He look-a like a man,” and yet I feel most people would accurately interpret it as meaning rounded, curved, small overall and perhaps with one side having slightly more of a paunch than the other.

The word is tragically underused, it appears. A Google search suggests that I might have actually meant fabriform and then just tosses out a bunch of pages associated with a Wikipedia user named Fabiform. (Mr. Fabiform has this to say about himself: “What can be deduced from my username? 1. I have a copy of the complete OED. 2. I am bean-shaped.”) There’s a hit at the online Merriam-Webster, but it tragically only takes you to this page.

Well-documented or not, the word comes from the Latin faba, meaning either “bean” or “broad bean,” depending on the dictionary. (Funny how the addition of the word broad makes the definition more specific in this case.) Remember when I said that we lack an “Ur” bean? The broad bean just might be the one to win that title. It is green — kind of a beany green, really — and it has an irregular, lumpy yet rounded shape. In a word: fabiform.

The broad bean is known by various names, I’m guessing because people hate the bean itself and the name needs to be changed every century to trick new people into eating it. Hannibal Lector, appropriately, was the first I ever heard to refer to these fabiform uglies as fava beans, and this name clearly resulted from the “B”-to-“V” spelling switch that happens so often in translation. (Yes, by the way, the literal translation of fava bean is “bean bean.”) Other terms include field bean, bell bean, tic bean, or horse bean, the last because some people are wise enough to realize that humans shouldn’t eat these and would be better off feeding them to grazing, hoofed things. (Note: My theory about the multiple names may be incorrect. The delicious and altogether beloved garbanzo bean in actually known by even more names, at least according to Wikipedia. Among them: Indian pea, Ceci bean, Bengal gram, unprocessed hummus bean, chana, kadale kaalu, sanaga pappu, shimbra, Kadala. Another note: I made one of those up.)

Previous words of the week:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Post-Christmas Cactus

The Christmas Cactus was decidedly non-festive well through Epiphany. A recent move to a sunnier spot, however, has renewed its flair for holidays in general, if not specifically the holidays.

christmas cactus 1

christmas cactus 2

Based on the time of year and the color scheme, I wonder if I can call it a Valentine’s Cactus? Wikipedia claims the name is not yet taken, though Thanksgiving Cactus and Easter Cactus apparently are.

Stone Honey

Huh. Odette Yustman — most familiar to me as the least of the three actresses in Cloverfield but perhaps more accurately now that chick from that awful-looking movie The Unborn — played one of the kids in Kindergarten Cop. I find this noteworthy for some reason.

No, however, she is not the little girl who says her father’s head is too big to wear hats.

Ut — a Boot, a Hobnailed Boot

In reading about various bits of music history in order to write the previous post, I stumbled onto something that I couldn’t fit but felt I should make note of anyway. The hexachord is was invented by the 11th-century music theorist Guido of Arezzo, who is honored in the alternate name for the concept, the Guidonian hexachord.

First of all, the fact that the adjective Guidonian exists is awesome. It should be used more often, possibly in the following manner: “I like your gold medallion. It’s quite Guidonian.” Or “If I slick my hair back, do I look Guidonian enough?”

Second, good ol’ Guido is also credited as having invented another concept known variously as the solfège, the solfeggio, or the solfa. It’s more commonly known by its components: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti. All three terms for this are derived from two of the syllables, so — which previously was sol — and fa. There’s also a term solmization, which refers to the practice of giving each note in a musical scale a corresponding syllable and which itself comes from to syllables in the solfège, so and mi. The Wikipedia page on solmization notes that various cultures have their own string of nonsense syllables. Various Vedic texts refer to the seven notes sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni, while Byzantine music based its syllables off the first seven letters of the Greek alphabet to form pa- vu-ga-di-ke-zo-ni. Japan has i-chi-yo-ra-ya-a-we, which comes from the poem Iroha, which also notably uses each character in the hiragana syllabary exactly once.

A good Christian, of course, Guido got his syllables from the initial syllables of every half-line in the first stanza of a hymn to St. John the Baptist, “Ut queant laxis.” That stanza reads as follows:
Ut queant laxis
resonare fibris,
Mira gestorum
famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
labii reatum,
Sancte Ioannes.
But clearly, do-re-mi has been modified a bit from the original hymn. Ut gave way to do, presumably because the latter allows for a more open sound and possibly inspired by Dominus, meaning “Lord.” As I mentioned above, sol gave way to so, I’d guess for the same reason. And the final line, originally si, became ti, possibly to give each syllable a different initial letter. The text, by the way, translates to English as “So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.”

So now the question you should rightly be asking is this: Can Drew relate this to video games?

Of course I can.

My first use for the solfège happened to be in a video game. In 1990, during the days of the original NES, Nintendo released a game called StarTropics, noted for its Legend of Zelda-style gameplay and unique in that it was never released in Japan. Players must solve various puzzles in order to progress, and one of them involves a parrot that offers the rather cryptic instructions, “Do me so far, do me?”

image courtesy of

Rather profane, no? Especially when spoken in combination with the command “Hide Peter hide.”

As clever video game players discovered — and dumb ones found out by calling the Nintendo help line — the parrot is giving the order that the keys of an organ must be played in order to extinguish some flames blocking access to the next area of the game.

While the legacy of Guido of Arezzo lives on, it bears mentioning that Nintendo never made another StarTropics game beyond the lifespan of the NES, likely as a result of that inappropriately sexual parrot.

The Shape of Music

During my last year at UCSB, I wrote a post on the histories of certain punctuation marks during a time I reserve specifically for this kind of procrastination: finals week. I titled this “The Etymology Round-Up,” though I realize now that the post didn’t concern etymology in the traditional sense so much as why certain symbols have come to represent the things they do — essentially punctuation etymology, if that existed, which it might. This particular post ended up spawning two sequels — neither of which had any more to do with punctuation than the original did — and I’ve ever since been happy to read about those stray squiggles and lines that appear in print but don’t qualify as letters.

I think I’ve stumbled onto some symbols that deserve a bit of attention, even if they’re not punctuation in the traditional sense — they’re musical symbols. Like periods and commas and the like, however, the clefs and accidentals still direct how a “text” should be read and owe more of a debt to the standard alphabet than I would have guessed.

[ Three Sisters, Only One Being Pleasant ]
First the accidentals, which someone once described to me as three sisters — the flat one, the sharp one and the natural beauty. (You know, like every set of three sisters.) For whatever reason, that notion stuck, even if it may have biased be against the poor, flat sister and the unpleasant sharp sister. (Come to think of it, they all have one strike against them on account of each being accidents. Mother and Father must learn to plan better.) For the musically illiterate, the accidental symbols look like this:

left to right: flat, sharp and natural

These dealybobs essentially focus as sheet music white out. They change a note’s pitch from what is described in the most recent key signature of a piece of music. A sharp signifies that a note should be a half-tone higher than it would otherwise, a flat a half-tone lower. A natural cancels out a sharp or flat appearing in the key signature — instead of beside a note as is pictured above — that would otherwise indicate that each instance of a certain note throughout a piece of music should be played either sharp of flat. In short, it makes the note do what it was supposed to do in the first place. (Because I’m a terrible musician, I never progressed far enough to see any double sharps or double flats, which apparently exist, even though they would only appear to tell the performer to hit the note exactly one notch above the one that appears on sheet music. Why such a thing would ever be needed unless someone needed to correct hand-written sheet music, I can’t imagine, since it would otherwise be just as easy to just write in a different note. Are there double naturals? I sure hope so. I want to call them “supernaturals.”) Oddly, all three symbols evolved from the lower-case letter “b” — the sharp and the natural symbols from a “square ‘b’” and the flat from a “round ‘b.’”

When people first began writing out music notation, only the note B could be sharpened or flattened. (I have not determined what the motivation might have been behind this rule, as it seems unfair and mean to the other notes. I would gladly appreciate answers from music scholars or educated guesses from the general public.) As I understand it, music at this point in time was explained on a six-note, or hexatonic, scale, and altering B changed the rest of the notes accordingly. B was natural in the “hard hexachord,” hexachorum durum — G-A-B-C-D-E — and flat in the “soft hexachord,” hexachorum mol — F-G-A-B flat-C-D. It makes sense, then, that the soft hexachord would become associated with the rounded “b” we now use to indicate flat versions of any note. (Wikipedia points out that in French, the flat symbol is called the bémol, from the Medieval French bé mol, or “soft B.”)

How we arrived at the sharp and natural symbols is less clear to me, though both evolved from a square “b.” It had never occurred to me until I wrote this post that the sharp and natural sign are essentially the same with a few lines extended just a bit further in the former. Try it. Draw a natural symbol and lengthen the lines. Play tic-tac-toe on it for all I care.

The hard hexachord contains B natural, while the “natural hexachord,” hexachordum naturale, doesn’t contain B at all. Wikipedia points out that the French call the natural sign bécarre — from bé carre, literally “squared B.”) The French call the sharp sign the dièse — which translates into English as “sharp note” and possibly nothing else or possibly “hash,” depending on how much we want to trust Google translation. The fact that the sharp symbol would currently look almost exactly like the “# symbol” — that is, the hash, the pound sign, the number sign, the octothorpe, the criss-cross or whatever else you want to call this identity-challenged thing — would appear to be a coincidence, given that it comes from the square “b,” but I feel like the passage of time and the prevalence of both symbols probably helped their forms converge so much. Then again, I’ve never heard anything conclusive about how the number sign came to be, so perhaps it the two were actually one in the same way back.
[ Neither Fancy Chins Nor Big, Red Dogs ]
The other symbols I’m talking about today are the treble and bass clefs, which appear prior to the notes in standard sheet music and indicate pitch — or, if you’re a beginning piano student, whether you’ll be playing with your left or right hand. The treble and bass clefs look like this:

Back in elementary school, we had a music class that included singing and basic music theory. The latter, for musically inept children, is more or less limited to drawing the treble clef, which I found exceptionally difficult. For a long time, mine looked like an ampersand and a cursive “S” had an extra chromosome baby that was not long for this world. Even I could draw the bass clef well enough, however.

Again, likely because I never progressed much with music, I never heard these the treble and bass clefs called by their alternate names, the G-clef and the F-clef, respectively. The former takes its name from the fact that the G above Middle C is marked by the line on which its inner curlicue ends, the latter from the fact that the line bracketed its two dots is the F below Middle C. (Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, there’s a third clef, C-clef, whose exact center marks Middle C, but I don’t find it all that interesting so I’ll ignore it for the moment.) The clefs not only demarcate a note, however; they also represent a stylized version of the letter corresponding with that note — the treble being a fancified “G” and the bass being an abstracted, flipped-around “F.”

This website on music history offers a handy illustration of how the “G” and “F” evolved into the symbols we have now.

Thus, in the beginning the symbols were literal — “This is G” and “This is F” — but time — plus, I’d wager, the hurried penmanship of composers and the artistic flair of people in this profession — have made them take on a life and form of their own.

Incidentally, the word clef is the same one that appears in the phrase roman à clef. It’s French for “key.” Just as a roman à clef makes a lot more sense when you know what the author is actually writing about, knowing what notes the dots on the lines are supposed to be makes the song a hell of a lot easier to sing.
Previous etymology of not-words and other punctuation-related stuff:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Alcohol, Consequences, and Tiny Toons

Pop culture occasionally gets rather weird, as we the internet-savvy should already know. When it happened to have become weird during my childhood, however, I occasionally have trouble telling which of the following scenarios is accurate.

One: Said thing happened and really was weird.

Two: Said thing happened but time has warped my memory of it. Said thing may or may not have been weird.

Three: Said thing happened, but I didn’t understand it at the time because I didn’t understand much of anything as a kid. I mapped the actual event onto something I did understand. Said thing may or may not have been weird.

Four: Said thing happened, but in a dream, but I failed to make that distinction. Said thing was too weird to have ever occurred in real life.

Last week, I recalled something that hadn’t crossed my mind in nearly twenty years: an episode of Tiny Toons in which the show’s three main male characters share beer and then die in a drunk driving-caused vehicular accident. (Yes, the Cereal Box is apparently themed with Warner Bros.-produced cartoons today.) Doesn’t seem likely that such an episode could exist, does it? Unless it happened to be the last episode of Tiny Toons. Being at work and not being able to research the matter, I simply posted the following up as a Facebook status: Drew wonders if anyone else remembers an episode of Tiny Toons where they drive drunk and all die. Because I swear it happened. I received responses, including one from frequent Back of the Cereal Box commenter Jenn that affirmed that the episode did, in fact, exist, more or less how I remembered it.

Miscellaneous notes on this episode, titled
“One Beer”:

I find it infuriating that Buster is aware of the fact that he is participating in a public service announcement.

The message as far as the creators conceived it: Children shouldn’t experiment with alcohol.

The message as far as the viewers would have probably understood it: A single beer will turn you into a 1940s-style hobo who makes inappropriate remarks at women — or, at least, female rabbits, loons and skunks — and then make you steal a cop car and drive it off a cliff, crashing into a cemetery. By extension, my parents will probably kill me en route home from the next barbecue my family attends.

Briefly, the skeletons of all three are visible moments before they die.

Though the three do, in fact, die and ascend into heaven in little angel costumes, they reveal at the end of the episode that the short was only a performance. They take off the angel costumes and walk off the show’s “set.” While this explains how Tiny Toons could have died and not horrified young children watching the show, it cheapens the message of this particular PSA, in my mind.

Whereas Ducktales looked better than I would have expected, Tiny Toons looks way worse.

“One Beer” includes a burping musical number that seems to be part of a grand tradition in Warner Bros. cartoons of combining music and body functions. On Facebook, Delyar said she didn’t remember the Tiny Toons episode I described, but she did remember a Looney Tunes short in which a drunken note screws up a performance of “Blue Danube.” Apparently not reading her comment closely enough, I assumed she meant this short from Animaniacs, in which Wacko Warner, as “The Great Wakkorotti,” burps his way through “Blue Danube.”

Nope. Sanam pointed out instead the Chuck Jones short “High Note,” in which one of the actual notes from “Blue Danube” becomes drunk by hanging out in the sheet music to “Little Brown Jug” and ruins the performance. It’s well done. If you bother to watch any of the three clips in this post, watch this one.

As always, the most important thing here is that I did not dream it.

When the Acme Is No Longer the Highest Point

Oh, the Acme Corporation. How much delight it has given the world, whether through sheer creativity of its products — portable holes! — or the bloody havoc that these wares wreaked upon one Wile E. Coyote.

acme retrospective compiled by and courtesy of

I grew up on Looney Tunes, but it wasn’t until high school that I found out that the word acme actually means something outside of the universe that Bugs Bunny inhabits: “the highest point or stage” or “one that represents perfection of the thing expressed,” according to Webster. (Full disclosure: I learned about it from a video game had no reason to tread into Looney Tunes territory and that offered one bit of text that was otherwise incomprehensible — “The acme is rising.”) Since finding out that it was an actual word, I always thought it was strange that all those Chuck Jones battles between the coyote and the roadrunner had prompted me to mentally assign acme to the role of being a synonym for generic — that is, assuredly not the best of its type. After all, those products never seemed to work out in Wile E. Coyote’s favor, and I can only credit so much to his bad luck. In fact, though I’m struggling to recall a specific instance, I could swear that I’ve heard other people use acme to mean “generic” when referring to things purchased and be perfectly understood by whomever they were talking to. (Am I crazy? Is this unheard of? If someone told you “The store was out of the nice toilet paper, so I just brought the Acme-brand stuff,” would you understand what he or she was saying?)

Let’s say I’m right and people do, in fact, think of acme as meaning essentially the opposite of what the dictionary says its definition should be. Could it be possible that Wile E. and the countless malfunctioning Acme Corporation-produced props have played a role in the word turning from a positive into a negative?

I would have said yes, but upon reading the Wikipedia page for the Acme Corporation, I think the answer depends more on the age of the person being asked.

According to Wikipedia, when telephone directories such as the Yellow Pages began to become popular, businesses would take names that put them at the top of the alphabetical listings in order to get themselves more attention, hence establishments like AAA Pest Control — whose services are a low B-grade, tops — or Aaronson Bros. Pizza — whose proprietors aren’t brothers and have the last names Zwykowski and Zednanreh, respectively. The word acme became especially popular as a business name because its spelling put it toward the beginning of the alphabet and its meaning implied a high-quality product or service. If this trend was well-known enough to merit parody in a cartoon, then it seems reasonable that it might have been a thing that the cartoon-abstaining chunk of the populace would have been familiar with it too, which, by extension, could mean that people in general had revised or at least added onto acme’s definition long before Wile E. ever rocket-skated into a cliff face.

My point is this: Regardless of whether acme means anything other than exactly what the dictionaries say it should, I’d wager that a lot of people recognize the “flipside” definition, whether as a result of a bad Yellow Pages experience with an Acme business whose service or products was decidedly not top-notch or as a result of Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

Of interest, given the subject at hand: the Acme Product Catalogue.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Brazen Bull Benefiting from Bowdlerization

From Wikipedia, on the subject of the Brazen Bull, a certain instrument of torture, but made more accessible by me with the addition of God-blessed ellipses and bracketed insertions:
An execution device designed in ancient Greece. Perillos of Athens, a brass-founder, proposed… the invention of a new means for executing criminals; accordingly, he cast a bull, made entirely of brass, hollow, with a door in the side. The condemned were shut in the bull and a fire was set under it, heating the metal until it became “yellow hot” and causing the person inside to roast to death. [Furthermore] the bull [was] designed in such a way that its smoke rose in spicy clouds of incense [and so that] tubes and stops [converted] the prisoner's screams [into] sounds like the bellowing of an infuriated bull.
An illustration, if even my truncated explanation of the monstrosity wasn’t enough:

Read the above link if you like, but believe me that I provided the best bits here. Thank the ellipses and brackets.

Awful things, elsewhere:

Man-Watermelon, Redux

I honestly did not foresee myself being able to follow up the previous entry with another post about some ungodly mishmash of man and melon, but allow me to show you an even closer approximation of a real-life Homo citrullus.

[From Bits & Pieces, via Boing Boing]

But I Do Not Want to Become a Watermelon

Technically speaking, it would be misleading to say that the subject of this post gave me nightmares, in the plural. But it did result in one vivid childhood nightmare — and that’s singular. It’s just difficult to say “This gave me a nightmare” and give the thing discussed the amount of power that ones gives to another thing that generated multiple nightmares and would have even probably ruined you as a person if you weren’t so strong, deep down, inside, somehow.

When I was about seven or so, I received the gift of the Nintendo game Bubble Bobble. I’ve previously walked Back of the Cereal Box readers through obscure bits of video game lore, but I’m convinced that the Bubble Bobble franchise is one with which many people would be at least tangentially familiar. Aside from the main line of games, there’s a slew of spin-offs that appeared in arcades. Anyone casually walking through a family-style pizza parlor in the last fifteen years could have had reason to notice various games with such resort-evocative titles as Rainbow Islands and Parasol Stars. Beyond these, there’s the game known variously as Puzzle Bobble or Bust-a-Move, which saddles Bubble Bobble’s emblematic dragon characters with the task of operating a bubble-shooting machine that they must use to ricochet away the clutter presented on the screen above them.

Allow this image to illustrate:

image courtesy of

It should look especially familiar to anyone who ate their pizza in view of the arcade but also to anyone who spent the early part of this decade addicted to Snood. Minor modifications aside, Snood is a total homage to Puzzle Bobble, and that’s putting it nicely.

Long story short, Bubble Bobble has been around a while and, consequently, has taken on many forms. Maybe you’re nodding your head in agreement, maybe not, but at least we have established that it is a video game that spawned subsequent games and have therefore put this all in a bit of context for the video game illiterate.

In Bubble Bobble, the player controls the aforementioned dragons, who, it must be said, specialize much more in cuteness than the snot-singeing badassness for which dragons have become famous. These dragonitos fight their way through the game, one static screen at a time, fending off marginally less cute enemies by spitting bubbles at them and consequently encasing them inside. A sphere of soap film keeps the enemies quiet enough until the dragon tags the bubble, killing the enemy inside. Now, one way that Bubble Bobble is a lot like other video games of its era is that its enemies, once killed, transform into items. It’s common video game phenonmenon: You kill someone bad and they turn into something good, like a coin or more ammunition or a life-restoring heart or whatever. In Bubble Bobble the universal currency happens to be food — both produce and prepared pastries.


Simple enough: from enemies to food.

Then there was that nightmare, which had everything to do with a single piece of promotion art that the game’s developer and publisher, Taito, decided to release in the United States.

Perhaps the title of this post will give you a hint at what so disturbed me. It appeared in advertisements, it appeared on the game’s box, it even appeared on the game cartridge itself: some artist’s conception of what a dead Bubble Bobble baddie would look like midway through his transformation into food, specifically watermelon. This is pretty awful, when you really think about it — the equivalent of a centaur with his horse bits replaced by a watermelon slice that presumably would be unable to contain any vital organs. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the fully transformed bit of food would be presumably gobbled down by the one who caused the change to begin with. Even with the wacky video game logic of enemies’ corpses somehow turning into valuable goods all aside, you have to admit, this is a grotesque, horrifying little situation that the promo art suggests.

This image of a half-man, half-watermelon slice hybrid screaming in fatal agony did once make an appearance during my dreams shortly after I noted how awful the image was. But unlike the cartoony illustration above, my subconscious brain decided to dissever the idea from any bouncy Bubble Bobble memory and instead approximate what the metamorphosis would look like in real life, with an actual person stuck partway through the change that made his lower half a watermelon slice. I can remember it quite clearly, and believe me when I tell you that this man was none too happy about his lower body having transformed into a picnic snack.

To this day, anytime Bubble Bobble crosses my mind, the immediately following thought is that unfortunate son of a bitch Watermelon Man. Consequently, I’m less than enthusiastic about the aforementioned generative nature of the original game. On some level, I dread it. And, by extension, Snood. And possibly watermelon.

Sometimes I think my video games figure too heavily into my life.