Friday, December 28, 2012

Killer BOB — Just the Guy I’m Never Looking For

I’m spending this second-to-last workday of 2012 at home, doing my job but also making the most of the fact that the series run of Twin Peak is now available on Hulu. It’s not because I’m obsessed, stupid. Obsessed people are crazy, and I’m Drew. Hi. Not crazy.

If you asked most fans when BOB, the horrifying sex demon big bad of Twin Peaks, first makes his appearance, they’d probably say in the second episode, when Mrs. Palmer has the vision of him crouching behind Laura’s bed all evilly and sex demon-like. He actually appears before, and I’d never realized until I re-watched the pilot today. The episode ends with Mrs. Palmer having a different vision — of someone in the forest uncovering the buried half of Laura’s locket — and immediately after, she sits upright and screams. (Not unusual: Laura’s mom often sits upright and then screams.) But in the mirror to the right of Mrs. Palmer’s head, you can see BOB lurking.


My eyes bugged out just a bit when I noticed this — not Grace Zabriskie-level eye-bugging, because that takes years of training, but in the ballpark.

I wanted to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, so I double checked online: Yes, in is in fact Frank Silva, the man who played BOB, though his appearance was accidental. From Wikipedia:
When Lynch shot the scene of Sarah Palmer’s frightening vision at the end of the pilot, Silvas reflection was accidentally caught in the footage. When Sarah Palmer sees her vision of a hand uncovering Lauras heart necklace from the ground, Silva can be seen in the mirror behind her head. Lynch was made aware of this accident, but decided to keep Silva in the scene.
Wikipedia does not cite the source of this information. However, accidental or not, this being BOB’s first appearance on the show makes for a fitting bookend well within the spirit of Twin Peaks, for so many reasons but most of all because the last time we see him is also in a mirror.

And it’s also a nice metaphor for BOB’s presence in the Palmer household: always there, always watching, even if Mrs. Palmer refuses to notice. Hell, he’s even appearing in a frame of sorts, in the same shot at the framed photo of Laura, with Mrs. Palmer situated in the middle.

This, to a superfan like me, is a minor mindhole-blower along the lines of realizing that Nibbler’s shadow appears in the Futurama pilot, long before Nibble was a character on the show, long before the overarching plot provided a reason for Nibbler to meddle with time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to think about what the interstitial shots of changing traffic lights could symbolize.

Twin Peaks, previously:

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Things That Actually Happened

(I’m not saying this isn’t a round-up of notable events of 2012. I’m saying that if it is, it’s not a very good round-up or my 2012 was rather lackluster.)

That time my dad ordered “menudo soup” at the Mexican restaurant where we’ve eaten since I was a little kid, only to declare that “this noodle soup isn’t good,” and then he went on to say that the waitress had said “noodle soup” and not “menudo soup” and also who knows what menudo is, anyway, because no one has ever heard of it ever?

That time I was wearing my bathrobe while holding the smaller of my parent’s two dogs and it dove beneath one flap of the robe and then “swam” around my mid-section, above where the robe was cinched, and then popped his head out the other side, and I felt weird and violated about it, and I wondered if pregnant ladies maybe have dreams about this kind of stuff happening.

That time I was in line at the grocery store in my hometown and the two Latina girls ahead of me where arguing about whether Brandy Norwood is Snoop Dogg’s first cousin — she is, by the way, and for some reason people tend not to know that — and so I stepped in and agreed with the Latina wearing the hat, “No, she’s actually right. They are first cousins,” and they both glared at me without speaking, and then I thought about whether my Caucasian heritage meant that I shouldn’t know about the interrelatedness of black musical sensations.

That time Django Unchained hit theaters and the person I wanted to see it with more than anyone else was my Southern lit professor from college, because she would tie everything back to William Faulkner, I’m sure.

That time I helped my grandmother play solitaire, and yes I realize that the card name is by nature a one-person effort, but she needs the help, honestly, and I’d literally never seen anyone so delighted to have unlock all four of the suits.

The time I found out there’s a song called “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” and it’s sung by a girl named Gayla Peavey, who for some reason didn’t become a household name but who did, in the end, kind of get a hippopotamus.

The time in 1987 when I hand-selected this coffee mug as a worthy representation of my love for my father, and now drinking out of it magically transports you back to a time when rainbow bears didn’t mean gay, and also I don’t hate the design in spite of its datedness.

That time they made the movie Congo and they were all, “We need to make this as Jurassic Park-y as possible so it will make a boatload of money, so we’re taking a Michael Crichton book about adventures in a lush, green place populated by intelligent and dangerous animals, and now we need someone really Laura Dern-y to play an intrepid lead scientist lady,” and then they saw that Laura Linney has the same first name as Laura Dern and that they kind of look alike if you squint, and they gave her the role for those reasons and now this lady from Congo is the one who reminds you that you’re watching Downton Abbey, even though you probably know.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Best Line Ever in a Christmas Carol

By a long shot, it’s the line from “Little Drummer Boy,” The ox and lamb kept time. You can even drop the pah-rum-pum-pum-pum and it’s still pretty awesome, just because farm animals joining in on rhythm sections gets right to the heart of Christmas magic. Its greatness even overshadows the fact that given that the boy was playing a drum, the additional rhythm by the ox and lamb was completely unnecessary and perhaps even obtrusive. But do you think they just kept time with their hooves? Or do you think maybe they also had percussion instruments? I looked it up, but I guess the New Testament is staying pretty neutral on this one.

You may or may not be surprised to know that a Google image search for “ox and lamb kept time” yields a few worthwhile results, but the following was the standout:


Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas in November (or — Strange Stories of Yuletide Unusual!)

I search for the stranger side to Christmas in the shadow that an unlit tree casts on the wall.

It’s not hard to find, this less jolly aspect to the season, but you’re so often too busy with the chores of Christmas to realize how odd this season can be. Take this grinning, bearded old man who suddenly shows up in your home, wreathed in tree branches like some kind of forest god, reminding you about this season’s wildly un-Christian past. Take the songs that you’ve heard so many times that you don’t process the creep. Lyrics such as “Do you hear what I hear?” and “A voice as big as the sea,” out of the context of a carol, verge on damn near threatening, to say nothing about that grim later verse of “We Three Kings” — “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.” And otherwise, the relentless cheerfulness approaches the level you’d expect from a gingerbread house witch trying desperately to convince the remaining forest children that yes, despite all appearances, you should come in.

All that said, I do love Christmas; I just love all aspects of it — the . Maybe I’m always searching for the seamier side of the yuletide because my own Christmases have been so wholesome. Well, except for my mother’s Santa Claus punch bowl.

When she makes the foamy candy cane punch, the red and white make pink, and the scene gets ghastly — ghastly and minty.

But I was thinking about this attraction I have and whether I’d actually ever experienced anything other than perfectly mainstream, normal Christmases. And I basically haven’t, save for one incident — more weird than scary — that actually happened in November.

Hear me out.

In the wake of the Tea Fire, one of the more charmingly named wildfires to require a mass evacuation in my old home of Santa Barbara, I had packed up my car from a friend’s house and began to drive home. Given how long I’d been up and given how draining it was to work in a newsroom during that type of emergency, I actually probably shouldn’t have been driving. However, the road home was short — oddly so, given how we’d been evacuated to save us from a raging, tea-smoked death — and I just wanted to sit among the walls I felt most comfortable. I’d set the radio to some AM station in order to hear news updates. Wanting to avoid any and all news that night, however, I fumbled around for anything that sounded like music. Now keep in mind this was the last day of the fire — Monday, November 17, days before Thanksgiving yet — but somehow I happened a station that was playing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” That was a good enough soundtrack. To this day, I have no idea why that song on November 17, but that’s not even the most unusual part: It began to rain ash on my car. I had to turn on my wipers, the windshield was so white with ashes from what the fire had burned. As I pulled into my parking spot, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” faded out and into some non-Christmas-related oldie. I don’t remember what. But just for a second, I, a resident of Southern California, experienced a white Christmas — in the wake of a major emergency, in November, only for a few seconds and the snow smelled like barbecue, sure, but I’ll take what I can get.

I suppose I could have been listening to the one radio station that slips the occasional Christmas carol into the mix, just to be fun, just to liven things up, but I feel like it’s more likely that the deejay simply played the wrong song — or at least the right song a few weeks prematurely. But in bed that night, finally, I wondered if anyone besides me had experience that coincidence. Maybe one other, I’ll guess.

And that’s the strangest Christmas story I have.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Alternatives to Being a Hobbit

I’d always just assumed that J.R.R. Tolkien invented the word hobbit. And while he apparently did, his story about how he came to use it allows for the possibility that he maybe didn’t. As he recalled in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955, “On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.” And if that’s the true story, isn’t it wild that what amounts to a nonsense sentence grew into a book that spun off into The Lord of the Rings and was therefore responsible for the movies, worldwide awareness of New Zealand and endless debates about the dramatic strengths and failings of Liv Tyler?

In the same way that embiggen appeared in print 112 years before The Simpsons popularized it, there’s exactly one instance of hobbit appearing in print before The Hobbit was published in 1937. Excerpted on Etymonline, the passage is folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham’s extremely long 1895 list of British supernatural creatures (and thereabouts). And it’s one of those chunks of text that overwhelms language-lovers like me with dueling reactions of “So quaint!” and “So British!” and “What the hell?”

My curiosity got the better of me, and I did some poking around Denham’s list, broken up onto separate lines with links and notes explaining what weird folklore Denham is talking about. In some cases, I had no idea, and in others the term doesn’t need any explanation, but I threw in some history if it seemed interesting. Like in the very first one, for example. But here’s the thing: I could not find anything about the term hobbit, and its presence on this pre-Tolkienverse list makes for a neat little linguistic mystery. (I go on a bit about it at the very end of the post. Hit the jump and scroll to the bottom if you’re interested.)

First, the list, in strange, jumbled order that Denham wrote it:

ghosts (According to Etymonline, we get it from the Old English gast, which could mean “soul, spirit, life, breath, good or bad spirit, angel, demon” but which took on the current meaning, “soul of a dead person,” when it became the word chosen to translate the Latin word spiritus in Christian writing.)

boggles (the critter of the British supernatural world, basically, a word that’s closely related to a ton of others on this list, thanks to the Middle English bugge, “something frightening)

bloody-bones (According to Wikipedia, a boogeyman used to “awe children, and keep them in subjections” and that “lived in a dark cupboard, usually under the stairs. If you were heroic enough to peep through a crack you would get a glimpse of the dreadful, crouching creature, with blood running down his face, seated waiting on a pile of raw bones that had belonged to children who told lies or said bad words.”)

spirits (worth pointing out the connection to the Latin spirare, “breath,” and all the words we get from that, and the very obvious connection to breathing and not being dead yet)

demons (from the Greek daimon“deity, divine power; lesser god; guiding spirit, tutelary deity”)

ignis fatui (literally “foolish fire,” but referring to the burning methane more often called will-o’-the-wisp, a natural phenomenon that appears many times on this list, with many different names)

The rest of the long, long list after the jump.

brownies (not the mini-Girl Scouts, but about as dependable around the house; a diminutive of the Scottish “wee brown man”)

bugbears (another monster made up to terrify naughty children, it will also go by the name bugboo)

black dogs (a demonic ghost dog along the lines of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and another creature that Denham lists again and again)

specters (literally “a vision”)

shellycoats (river monster whose coat is literally made of shells)

scarecrows, witches, wizards

barguests (more often barghest, and either one particular demonic ghost dog or an elf, so pick your fancy)

Robin-Goodfellows (Puck, essentially, but the name is a euphemism people would use when talking about the Devil so he wouldn’t show up. “Speak of the Devil,” and all that.)

hags (the old women who aren’t your sainted grandmother)

night-bats (as opposed to the other kinds???)

scrags (a very skinny person, apparently)

breaknecks (not completely sure on this one, but given this British adjective meaning “dangerous or reckless,” I’d guess it’s either the person of that or someone who breaks your neck, I’d guess)

fantasms (old spelling of phantasm, a ghost)

hobgoblins (Or as the hurried would call them, goblins, but the take away here is that that word part hob-, according to Etymonline, is a nickname for Rob in that old-timey, British nickname system that also calls Richard Hick or Rodger Hodge, and it’s short for the aforementioned Robin Goodfellow. According to Wikipedia, a hob is just a household spirit.)

hobhoulards (a hobgoblin that howls, basically, but that second part might be related to owlet)

boggy-boes (I’m assuming that it’s the same gang as the bugbears and the bugboos)

dobbies (a “thin and shaggy” household spirit that does cute little favors for servants and children, and yes, it’s what inspired the Harry Potter Dobby)

hob-thrusts (according to the Monstropedia, it’s a brownie which carries an iron pot in which he stirs a dish made from children’s thumb bones)

fetches (“apparition, specter, a double,” possibly coming from a different etymology than the more familiar fetch although we’re not sure, and giving rise to the term fetch candle, “a corpse candle supposed to pass between the home and the grave of the beholder,” etc., etc., Gretchen Weiners)

kelpies (a supernatural water horse — but not a seahorse — that could also look like a pretty lady)

warlocks (the boy of witch, as Cordelia Chase once put it, the word comes from the Old English wærloga, “traitor,” and went from untrustworthy humans to “giants and canniabls” to those in league with the Devil)

mock-beggars (there’s no shortage of places named Mockbeggar, but the origin of those names seem equally obscure, so I’m inclined to assume it’s someone who looks like a harmless panhandler then murders you; that said, beggar may in some cases be an alteration of the French boggard/boggart)

mum-pokers (tempted to say this is an old-timey way of saying motherfucker, but it’s actually a nursery room goblin that stalks its prey silently)

Jemmy-burties (according to this book, it’s another name for ignis fatuus, or the will-o’-the-wisp; the second part may just be a diminutive of burt, Middle English for “bright)

urchins (poor children, as dangerous as ghosts and fairies)

satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs (see, Denham got to the Greek section, though I sometimes forget that Triton from the Disney Little Mermaid is named after a Greek mythological character)

calcars (unsure on this one, though its Latin for “spur” and can mean refer in English to a small oven or furnace)

nymphs (like poor children, loose women are also dangerous; the word actually once meant “wife, young bride” in Greek, but it became more salacious and mythological over time)

imps (went from the agricultural (“young shoot, graft”) to the household (“child”) to the otherworldly as a result of what Etymonline terms “pejorative phrases like imp of Satan)

incubuses (but curiously not hand-in-hand with succubuses, despite their interlocking natures and etymologies)

spoorns (still confused, but might have some connection to calcar, as spoorn is German for “spur,” and both words appear side-by-side more than once in the 1921 fantasy novel Figures of Earth)

men-in-the-oak (Google is just no help on this one, but couldn’t it be the Green Men?)

hell-wains (a guess: given how wain means “wagon,” which isn’t a creature, necessarily, but still wouldn’t be out of place in the company of all these other weirdos)

fire-drakes (a fire-breathing dragon)

kit-a-can-sticks (will-o’-the-wisp once again, and apparently it can also be kit of the candlestick, kitty candlestick and kitty with the wisp,)

Tom-tumblers (apparently Tom Thumb, but a less pleasant one that the one popularized by the story about the tiny boy, which itself dates back to at least 1621)

melch-dicks (I’d guess anything from a sexually transmitted disease to some mangling of the Biblical name Melchizedek, but it’s actually Melsh Dick and, a “sylvan spirit” and “the protector of hazelnuts.” And what does melsh mean? “Moist.” Yep, dude’s name is “Moist Dick.”)

larrs (Wikipedia says it’s the the lares, the Roman household deities)

kitty-witches (tragically human witches and not little cats who are also witches, though that’s still totally a thing)

hobby-lanthorns (lantern-carrying goblin)

Dick-a-Tuesdays (a goblin, though we’re not sure why a Tuesday goblin, especially because “all goblins and ‘bugs’ were created, imperfectly, on Friday”)

elf-fires (once again, will-o’-the-wisp)

Gyl-burnt-tales (and again, will-o’-the-wisp, though this one is alleged to be a corruption of jinn with a burnt tail)

knockers (mine-goblins, but also ha ha ha knockerselves)

rawheads (“specter” or “scarechild”)

Meg-with-the-wads (will-o-the-wisp)

old-shocks (a nickname for the Devil in the style of Old Scratch)

ouphs (“a fairy or a sprite”)

pad-foot (another name for those black dogs and hellhounds)

pixies (of debated origin, but notable for being responsible for one of my favorite obscure words, pixilated, which is different than pixelated)

pictrees (a ghost)

giants, dwarfs (together again!)

Tom-pokers (The Devil)

tutgots (no clue)

snapdragons (probably less so the flower and more so the mock villain this amazing parlor game in which children snatched raisins from flaming brandy, which, by the way, sounds awesome)

sprets (surely it’s sprite, no?)

spunks (unsure on this one, though it makes sense in the way that we use spunk to mean “spirit, and also you’ll be gratified to know that we’ve been using it to mean “semen” since at least 1888)


thurses (a giant, a specter or a giant specter, and no, I’m not kidding)

spurns (which appear to just be an alternate form of spoorn)

tantarrabobs (a name for the Devil, according to Etymonline, and possibly the word that gave us the word tantrabobus/tantrabogus, a Vermont word for “any odd-looking object,” which in turn might have given us the word bogus)

swaithes (perhaps some relation to swath, but I couldn’t guess why)

tints (in the context of shade, I’m guessing)

tod-lowries (“The Yarthkins and Tiddy Muns and Tod Lowries are queer, primeval, dangerous spirits, breathing pesiltelence and having to be constantly placated,” according to this book, though I’ll point out that the Australian footballer Todd Lowry makes researching this one fairly difficult)

Jack-in-the-Wads (the will-o’-the-wisp, yet again, and quite possibly the sibling to Meg-with-the-wads, because why not?)

mormos (a “spirit who bit bad children” and a creature from Greek mythology, says Wikipedia)

changelings (a concept many people my age learned about from The Labyrinth, the word for a baby stolen and replaced by spirits was previously oaf, oddly enough)

redcaps (a goblin said to inhabit castles and murder travelers in order to dye their little hats with the blood, according to Wikipedia)

yeth-hounds (“heath hounds,” and those same devil dogs previously mentioned — “a headless dog, said to be the spirit of an unbaptised child, which rambles through the woods at night making wailing noises”)

colt-pixies (an evil spirit that leads horses astray, possibly into bogs, like what happened poor Artax)

Tom-thumbs (like the tom-tumblers, a more evil version of the Tom Thumb we know and love and celebrate every day)

black-bugs (not insects but otherworldly unfriendlies, in the sense of bugbear and bugboo, though the etymology is apparently the same)

boggarts (according to Wikipedia, either a household spirit that places its clammy hands on the faces of sleeping people or a genius loci inhabiting marshes, holes, bridges or sharp curves in the road)

scar-bugs (a harder-to-Google phrase than you might expect)

shag-foals (according to this site, “a shaggy-haired donkey with fiery eyes from the tales of Lincolnshire, England. It would appear on the sides of lonely roads only at night. When travellers passed nearby it would frighten and chase them. Other than causing terror, it has never killed or hurt its victims.”)

hodge-pochers (a nickname for Rodger plus an alternate form of poker, it looks like, and apparently unrelated to the word hodgepodge)

hob-thrushes (a.k.a. the previously mentioned hob-thrust, who is a horror)

bugs (again, not insects)

bull-beggars (either “goblin” or “bugbear” or “something used or suggested to produce terror, as in children or persons of weak mind”)

bygorns (a long shot: bygorn = bi-corn = “two horns”?)

caddies (not the supernatural aspects of golf, unfortunately)

bomen (just a contraction for bogeyman, Wikipedia says)

brags (“a creature from the folklore of Northumberland and Durham that usually takes the form of a horse or donkey; it is fond of tricking unwary wayfarers into riding on its back before throwing the rider into a pool of water or bush before running off laughing”)

wraiths (a familiar word whose etymology is uncertain)

waffs (“a wraith whose appearance portends death,” and a word that seems like it might be related to the verb waffle though not the noun waffle)

flay-boggarts (the members of the bog family that skin their victims, I’m assuming)

fiends (presumably not being assigned to the elements of earth, water, air and fire, necessarily)

gallytrots (the ghost dog, once again)

imps (again)

gytrashes (a different sort of ghost canine)

patches (current uses of the word patch have made this word pointless to research)

hob-and-lanthorns (not significantly different from hobby-lanthorns)

gringes (unsure, but I’m guessing the similarity to Grinch is coincidental)

boguests (a Yorkshire-specific demon dog; can also be rendered as barghest, bargtjest and several other ways; theories about etymology include the German Berg-geist (“mountain spirit”), Bär-geist (“bear-spirit”), and Bier-Geist, “spirit of the funeral bier.”))

bonelesses (an amorphous, Smoke Monster-y boogeything, described in a 1916 account excerpted here as follows: “a shapeless summat as slides behind and alongside in the dark night. Many’s have died of fright through his following on. They can’t never tell about him except he’s a big shadow and shapeless”)

Peg-powlers (according to Wikipedia, “a hag from English folklore with green skin, long hair and sharp teeth who is said to inhabit the River Tees. She grabs the ankles of those who wander too close to the water's edge, especially naughty children, and pulls them under the water and drowns them”)

pucks (yeah, that Puck, but also Robin Goodfellow, since that’s a name people used for him when they didn’t want to speak his actual name and summon him; incidentally, the name is related to pooka, the rabbit spirit from the movie Harvey)

fays (“fairy,” and it’s actually related to that word, as well as to fate)

kidnappers (supernatural and otherwise)

gallybeggars (a corpse-looking spirit that carries its own head and spooks travelers)

hudskins (seems like I’m only finding hits for this very passage, so I’m guessing that it’s something awful that takes your skin and wears it like a hood)

nickers (probably not underwear but the Scandinavian nykr, a supernatural river horse that’s related, supernatural-wise and word-wise, to the nixie)

madcaps (cap is “head,” and it’s meant to mean “crazy person”)


robinets (no clue, because it’s just a robin, but weirdly it’s also French for “a small sheep”)

friars’ lanthorns (yet another will-o’-the-wisp)

silkies (usually selkie, they’re seals that turn into ladies to traipse about on land)

cauld-lads (the ghost of a murdered boy that inhabits Hylton Castle and cries, “I’m cauld!” … see, because he’s cold and that’s how he says it)

death-hearses (perhaps not actually the vehicle used to transport dead bodies, since the word originally meant “flat framework for candles, hung over a coffin”)

goblins (And after all that, we come to goblin, which doesn’t need to be explained, I suppose, but it’s worth noting that we’re not sure where the word actually comes from, though it may be related to cobalt)

hob-headlesses (a ghoul residing near the River Kent who would glue people in place so they couldn’t run away)

bugaboos (the more familiar way of writing out boggy-boes)

kows or cowes (presumably the Hedley Kow, an evil spirit that can change its shape at will but prefers the form of a cow, which seems unambitious)

nickies, nacks, necks (the lady in the water, presuming this is just an alternate take on nixie)

waiths (“ownerless property, stray animal,” and apparently related to waif)

miffies (All I’ve got is “a class of spirits.”)

buckies (again, nothing aside from “whelk” or “snail shell”)

ghouls (notably from the Arabic ghul, “an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses”)

sylphs (coined by Paracelsus when he wanted to invent an air elemental, it’s supposed that it could be a combo of silva, “forest,” and nymph)

guests (probably from the time when the word meant “enemy” or “stranger” as opposed to “person you’re happy to have come over,” and despite what you might guess from this list, Etymonline doesn’t seem to say that there’s an etymological connection between guest and ghost)

swarths (I’m guessing it’s some connection with swarthy and schwarz, both of which mean “black”)

freiths, freits (My only guesses are a variation on fright or the Anglo-Norman freit, “cold”)

gy-carlins, Gyre-carling (both the queen of the fairies in Scottish folklore, with the first part either being either a cognate with the Norse geri, “greedy” or gýgr, “ogress,” and the second part being a Scots or Northern English word meaning “old woman.” )

pigmies (historically, a member of race of dwarves , as described by Homer and Herotodus, and the term is related to pugnacious, for measurement reasons)

chittifaces (one who has a thin, pinched faced; used as a term of contempt)

nixies (the same as the aforementioned nickies, nacks and necks)

Jinny-burnt-tails (a variation on gyl-burnt-tale , which itself is a variation on jinn with a burnt tail)

dudmen (a ragman or scarecrow)

hell-hounds (it’s, um, a hellhound)

dopple-gangers (those famous double-goers)

boggleboes (another variation on bugaboo)

bogies (a mysterious spirit, a hobgoblin)

redmen (unknown, but hopefully not something racist)

portunes (“the wizened and wrinled portune was a typical brownie-type fairy, delighted to help with farm work provided no payment was offered”)

grants (no clue, but maybe… giants? in the sense of grand meaning “big”?)

hobbits (of course, I haven’t got a clue what this was supposed to mean when the text was written, and it’s hard to search for the term separately from the Tolkienverse, especially at this precise moment in pop culture)

hobgoblins (yes, this one is actually repeated from the earlier mention, letter for letter)

brown-men (this also seems a little racist, but Wikipedia says it’s a reference to the Simonside Dwarves)

cowies (the Hedley Kow, again)

dunnies (if not the Hazelrigg Dunnie, which took the form of a cow to irritate farmers and terrify children, then something more or less like it)

wirrikows (more often worricow or wurrycow, it’s “a bugbear, a hobgoblin”)

alholdes (according to this book, it’s the Germanic goddess Holda, associated with spinning, childbirth, witches, hunting, winter and all sorts of fairytale tropes)

mannikins (apparently used to mean “a short person,” it’s also used to refer to those “little men” jointed models that artists use)

follets (seeing how feufollet is the French word for “will-o’-the-wisp,” I’m guessing it’s that… yet again)

korreds (red-eyed creatures who live in megalithic dolmen tombs and guard treasure)

lubberkins (a.k.a. the Lubber fiend, a Puck-like character who performs chores in exchange for saucers of milk)

cluricauns (also cluricane and clutharachán, it’s Irish spirit similar to a leprechaun who wears red instead of green and who “is dressed like a weekend gentleman with silver buckles on his shoes, gold lace on his cap, and blue silk stockings below his breeches”)

kobolds (a Germanic dwarf that occupies the linguistic space between goblin and cobalt; Wikipedia notes that “Kobolds who live in human homes wear the clothing of peasants; those who live in mines are hunched and ugly; and kobolds who live on ships smoke pipes and wear sailor clothing,” and I think that’s a very handy way to differentiate your kobolds)

leprechauns (purveyors of cereal marshmallows and Irish stereotypes; the word literally means “a very small body,” from lu, “little,” and corpan, the diminutive of corp, “body”)

mares (it’s literally nightmares personified, with the second syllable of nightmare coming from the Old English word for an incubus or succubus)

korreds (again)

puckles (Puck, puca or pooka, once again)

korigans (a Breton spirit that can either be dwarves that dance around fountains (but cannot name off all the days of the week) or sexy sirens who lure men to a watery death, so you’ve got options)

sylvans (guessing it’s just sylphs again)

succubuses (and, at long last, the girl incubuses; people realize that succubus and incubus come from the Latin for “to lie beneath” and “to lie upon,” respectively, yes?)

blackmen (for a third time, hopefully not something racist)


banshees (caterwauling ghost lady; notably, the literal meaning of the original Irish, bean sidhe, is “female of the elves,” and that bean is related to the word queen)

lian-hanshees (more often leanan sidhe, “fairy lover,” is a creature who indulges in ill-fated relationships with humans and who may or may not be a vampire)

clabbernappers (given how clabber is a cheese-like food, I’m guessing the clabbernappers are mean spirits that attempt to foil human’s delicious clabber feasts in the way that butterflies were disguised witches who stole dairy products)

Gabriel-hounds (yet another demon dog)

mawkins (variously a simpleton, a hare, a kitchenmaid, a slattern, a cat, a mop or a scarecrow)

doubles (doppelgangers, again)

corpse lights or candles (like a cross between a will-o’-the-wisp and a fetch candle, it’s a light thought to float from a dying person’s house to the cemetery… and then back again, for some reason)

scrats (Wiktionary states, without any explanation, that it can be a hermaphrodite, but I’m guessing it’s Old Scratch once again)

mahounds (the prophet Mohammed, surprisingly)

trows (a troll-like thing living in the Shetlands and Orkneys, fond of music and prone to kidnapping musicians for in-house performances)

gnomes (important to note that they once supposedly dwelled deep within the earth and not in front yard gardens)

sprites (from the Latin spiritus, which makes your video games seem a lot more spiritual, now that you think about it)

fates (those weird sisters, but in a generic sense)

fiends (again)

sibyls (classy, classical prophetesses who really wouldn’t keep company with demons and goblins, you’d think)

nicknevins (another name for the Gyre-carling)

whitewomen (more often witte wieven, “white women” but “wise women” in Low Saxon, they are “the spirits of wise women or priestesses, and haunt the forest, lakes, swamps, hills and megaliths”)

fairies (Notably, it only took on the meaning of “diminutive winged beings so-called in children's stories” in the seventeenth century, and as it’s pointed out on Etymonline, Tolkien himself notes this transition rather poignantly: “I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of ‘rationalization,’ which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood.”)

thrummy-caps (a “queer-looking old man,” with thrummy basically meaning “frayed”)

cutties (more often Cutty Soames, they’re mine goblins who would cut soames, or ropes)

nisses (the Swedish tomtenisse, it’s basically a little psycho who held hostage the occupants of Scandinavian farms)

and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description (the countless others he forgot to include, but let’s be honest — most of them were probably different words for the will-o’-the-wisp)

A note: Initially, I just found the Denham Tracts list as it appeared on Etymonline, and I began looking up the stranger entries in Google Books to see what I could turn up whenever I had a little spare time. Only much later, when I started searching for the hard-to-find entries did I realize that the passage had its own section on Wikipedia, with links explaining the entries. However, Wikipedia doesn’t explain all the entries, and I’m not sure I agree with all of Wikipedia’s connections: shag-foal links to “Black dog,” for example. So I just continued.

Another note: Denham’s list is very strange, and I’m not talking about the subject matter. First, it’s based off an older text: Reginald Scot’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft. (Go here and control-F “urchens” to see the original text.) Denham added a lot, but many of his additions are redundant. He had nine entries for will-o’-the-wisp, certain words show up twice, other words reappear slightly misspelled, and he didn’t bother to sort it thoroughly, though there are attempts at grouping — a bunch of Greek mythology creatures lumped together, but not all of the Greek mythology creatures, for example. I’m not complaining, just commenting on how strange it is to have an academic resource that so plainly preserves the author’s disorganization, especially considering that the text was edited in the 1890s.

It’s especially puzzling to me that Denham would have made the list but not explained the creatures he was listing. Had he done so, we might know today whether some form of a hobbit existed before Tolkien dreamed up his big-footed characters, or at least how people used the term before Tolkien made it his own. Until we know, we just have this massively popular cultural entity based around the word hobbit, and a curious footnote predating it all but offering no answers.

And once again: night-bats? Really.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Sad, Shitty Fact of Living in Des Moines

Really, you present yourself with your own difficulties by living in a city whose name actively thwarts pronunciation by anyone speaking English as a second language. But that’s only a small part of the problem, linguistically speaking, for Des Moines may mean “shitface.”

According to an etymological theory sponsored by, the name of this Iowa metropolis may derive from the Miami-Illinois word mooyiinkweena, which is fun to say even before you learn that it translates as “shitface” — frommooy, “excrement,” and iinkwee, “face.” According to Etymonline, the name was given to the inhabitants of the region by the Peoria Indians, in a grand Native American tradition of making fun of your hated neighbors. (Etymonline, by the way, points out that Peoria itself has become a dirty word in American pop culture, however.)

There’s another theory that the city name comes from the French des moines — “from the monks” or “of the monks” — but what is the fun in that?

Friday, December 14, 2012

TV Party Tonight!

Forty-three takes and this was the best of the bunch.

I can't decide if it's funnier to imagine the cool kids dressing up especially to be photographed by the L.A. Times or if this constituted casual wear in 1949.

(Via the L.A. Times, via UCLA, via a magical time machine.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How I Met John Cheever

Toward the end of college, I posted on this blog a reminiscence about Eudora Welty, whom Prof. Waid made me read often and whom I had previously only known about from The Simpsons — from that one crossover episode with The Critic, in fact, in which she’s revealed to be a champion belcher. Eudora Welty was still alive at the time. She could have seen the episode, I suppose, or at least had one of her nurses could have related to her the gist of it.

At the moment, I’m reading John Cheever, who entered my life similarly: an episode of Seinfeld, “The Cheever Letters,” which people today probably remember as the one with the line “the panties your mother laid out for you.” It’s also the episode where George has to tell Susan’s parents that Kramer burned down their cabin, but the matter worsens considerably when the sole surviving item from the Ross family getaway turns out to be a cache of love notes that John Cheever wrote over the course of an affair with Susan’s father. (Sample line, from Mr. Cheever to Mr. Ross: “I fear my orgasm has left me a cripple.”) Cheever was not alive at the time the episode aired, and knowing what I know about his life now, it’s strange that his predilection for dudes would be my only takeaway, since Cheever kept quiet about it during his life. As for Seinfeld, it’s also strange that the matter never arose later, when George drove Susan to lesbianism, but only temporarily, proving that bisexuality runs in the Ross family. The Rosses recur throughout the series, and their marriage seems none the worse for the Cheever revelation, but perhaps their union is built the unshakable foundation of hating George Constanza.

But back to literary matters.

Now I know more, and I can respect Cheever as a writer and not just as the butt of a joke on Seinfeld. Of the short stories I’ve read so far, my favorite is “Metamorphoses,” a series of four short(er) stories that riff on Greek mythology — or at least seem to. The fourth one, featuring a man who quits smoking and then loses his mind, doesn’t seem to work in conjunction with any myth I know. Anyone got a thought about what mythological character Mr. Bradish is supposed to be?

The third story spends one long paragraph describing Nerissa, the daughter of a glamorous, high society woman who has inherited none of her mother’s graces, and I can’t remember a passage that more beautifully details someone so unattractive. Cheever’s words introduce the character with equal amounts of disdain and affection, and I like it so much that I’m now sharing it with you. And you should read it.
Enter Nerissa then, into her mother’s drawing room. She is a thin and wasted spinster of thirty. Her hair is gray. Her slip shows. Her shoes are caked with mud. She is plainly one of those children who, without bitterness or rancor, seem burdened with the graceless facts of life. It is their destiny to point out that the elegance and chic of the world their mothers have mastered is not, as it might appear to be, the end of bewilderment and pain. They are a truly pure and innocent breed, and it would never cross their minds or their hearts to upset or contravene the plans, the dreams, the worldly triumphs that their elders hold out for them. It seems indeed to be the hand of God that leads them to take a pratfall during the tableaux at the debutante cotillion. Stepping from a gondola to the water stairs of some palace in Venice where they are expected for dinner, they will lose their balance and fall into the Grand Canal. They spill food and wine, they knock over vases, they step into dog manure, they shake hands with butlers, they have coughing fits during the chamber music, their taste for disreputable friends is unerring, and yet they are like the Franciscans in their goodness and simplicity. Thus, enter Nerissa. In the process of being introduced, she savages an end table with her hipbone, tracks mud onto the rug, and drops a lighted cigarette into a chair. By the time the fire is extinguished, she seems to have satisfactorily ruffled the still waters of her mother’s creation. But this is not perversity; it is not even awkwardness. It is her nearly sacred call to restate the pathos and clumsiness of mankind.
I transcribed it myself. I actually couldn’t find this text anywhere online, aside from the not-especially-copy-and-pastable scan of the original article, as it ran in The New Yorker on March 2, 1963.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Things I Did Not Purchase While in New Zealand

(A round-up.)

Bovil, because I presumed it tasted about as good as it sounds.

Ham-and-tongue-flavored spread, because not only would ham and non-animal-specified tongue make for a nasty flavor combination but also this isn’t even ham and tongue. This is just the flavor of ham and tongue. So what is the spread, exactly? That’s a great fucking question.

New Zealand’s weirdly personalized Coke, which encouraged me to drink with a bunch of people I don’t know. The biggest strike, however? No “Share a Coke with Drew.” Sure, there’s “Share a Coke with Meena” — Meena! — but not Drew.

“Come on, kids — don’t you want to eat Santa’s legs?”

No joke here. I just don’t understand the tagline. Is “See how it runs” supposed to underscore that the salt pours smoothly out of the container? Is that Cerebos table salt’s greatest virtue — pourability? And is the kid pouring salt on a frog?

“Come on, kids — suck on something gay!”

If I were an inanimate human-shaped object and not a real human, I’d look less self-satisfied.

Having visited New Zealand since childhood, I’m heartened to see that it’s developed a real national culture to rival that of the other colonies.

I suppose the existence of a New Zealand pig-hunting magazine called More-Pork is weird enough, but it gets even weirder when you consider that there’s a native New Zealand owl called the morepork. So it’s a pig-hunting magazine whose name is a pun on a native animal that is not a pig. Just baffling, really.

What I hope happened is that this dog belongs to the owner of the company, and this is the best picture they could get, because the owner has not realized that his beloved canine is a criminally insane monster who only wants to sink his teeth into soft child-meat. Because if that’s not the case, then it’s just unknowable how anyone would have okayed this photo for the box design.

I pray he does not haunt your dreams as he does mine.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Soft, Green Light, Drawing Pictures on the Ground That Change With the Blowing Wind

Something I am nearly embarrassed to own up to: The post title is a haiku. One of those moods, I guess — like the ones that made me post about other words for beautiful phenomena that you might not expect have a name, such as psithurism or petrichor.

In some ways, I haven’t changed much since I became an adult, or maybe I still haven’t become an adult, but I have this habit of wandering off from the group, camera in hand, hoping to score a snapshot of a tree or a rock or that one squirrel — the one who looked at me! — that no one else would have considered remarkable. As a kid, I would get lost. As an adult, I still get lost. For better or worse, I often manage to wander off somewhere private and special, and I find something that no one else has. While in New Zealand last week, I spent a good fifteen minutes on my own, trying to capture the interplay between the sun and the leaves on this particular tree. This was the most successful photo, which isn’t to say that it’s a successful photo, exactly, but nonetheless it’s what I got:

Damn leaves, fidgeting about all nervously, but then again the movement made it beautiful. I guess a still photo just can’t reproduce the elusive sparkle of the sun shining through here and there, for a moment at a time. Anyway, I was curious to find out if anyone, anywhere had a word for this. Someone did.
komorebi (koh-moh-reh-bee) — noun: sunlight shining through trees.
You Japanese-fluent out there might have a better definition, but I went with the straightforward one from this site, which also points out that komorebi is not unique in Japanese: The language has other words that refer to specific natural phenomena, such as samidare, “early summer rain,” or nagokaze, “gentle spring breeze.” And those are neat. As for komorebi, other sites suggest “the scene produced by interplay of sunlight and trees” or “the light that filters through the trees,” but I think you get the idea.

I can’t offer any more. Someone else could take a stab at the etymology, I suppose. I can only send you in the direction of this link, which should probably improve your day.

Previous words of the week after the jump.