Axe to Grind

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When we have an ax to grind (1810), there’s a hidden motive or personal grievance behind our actions. Though often attributed to Ben Franklin, the phrase originated in a story by Charles Miner. In it a stranger dupes a gullible boy into turning a grindstone for him through flattery. The lad worked hard until the school bell rang at which point the man, instead of thanking the boy, scolded him for being late.

The ax I would grind is the sexism in the language. The battle-ax was once part of the standard equipment of a soldier of the 11th century, a fearful weapon fastened to the wrist by a chain. Firearms made it obsolete, but it continued to intimidate. Initially it described any irritable person. Soon, however, it was used solely for women. The old battle-ax was quarrelsome, unattractive, and domineering; the subject of male comedians (early 20thC.) whose stock in trade was ridiculing middle-aged wives.

Men love to talk about women; more so than women do about men. The battle-ax is long gone, but men continue to speak of women as a cut above or a cut below, a cut being a “higher degree or stage.”  Perhaps it’s time to finally give such behavior the ax.

Police

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Reports are that New York City has scored a major victory over street crime. Thanks to the Latin vincere, vici, victi, “to conquer,” it has also created victims and led its mayor to think he is invincible. American jurisprudence is based on the presumption of innocence. For a criminal to be convicted he has to be caught dead to rights (Mid 19thC.), his guilt established beyond a shadow of a doubt. Dead has an air of finality about it, making things absolute and irreversible. The rights in the phrase are nothing more than past slang for  “at once.” In New York City, what’s dead are the rights of Black males and in too many instances, the men themselves.

A finding of guilt should be a lead-pipe cinch, not just successful but certain. The cinch is a belt-like strap used to secure the saddle on a horse. When properly tightened, it keeps the saddle from slipping out from under the rider. The lead pipe underscores the certainty from when plumbing was best done with lead pipes as opposed to those of cast-iron. What’s material here is the conviction from convincere (con, “with), “to overcome with arguments,” the beli

Bones

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It seems that anything you say will offend somebody — sticking like a bone in their craw. All the more reason then for my making no bones about it (15thC.), “speaking frankly and without hesitation”.

Very little tickles people’s funny bone (19thC.) nowadays. It’s a nickname for the arm bone between the shoulder and the elbow, formally called the humerus. The ulnar nerve passes directly over that area, a good whack there resulting in a weird tingling sensation that’s peculiar or “funny.” That together with a pun on humerus, made for our funny bone which became our sense of humor.”

You don’t have to whack folks on it to get a laugh, just rib them a bit. Anything goes as long as it’s not done with malice. Ribbing is nothing more than good natured teasing, from either tickling a person around their ribs, causing them to break into laughter or poking them there while telling a joke. In time, our funny bone should return intact. I intuit it, or feel it in my bones (17thC.), the same way persons with arthritis have an uncanny ability to predict the onset of rain due to their special sensitivity to a drop in barometric pressure. And that is the bare bones for today.

Venus

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Venus, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Your roots are in the Norse vanir, “charming” or “graceful.” Originally you were the goddess of growth and the beauty of orderly nature. There was no native Roman Goddess of love and human passion, a role played by Aphrodite in the Greek pantheon. According to legend, Aeneas, celebrated as father of the Roman people, was her son. Hoping to legitimize their hold on power, Julius Caesar’s clan, selected Venus as Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart, arguing their descent from her.

Venus, veneris was Latin for “to desire.”  This led to venari, “to hunt,” providing us with venison. Alas, venery, the “hunt” became a sexual pursuit and the gratification of sexual desire. It also made for things having to do with lovemaking such as  venereal diseases. You would, however, regain respect. Venerare was to address to a god a request for favor or forgiveness, making those worthy of such reverence, venerable. Venus of Milo was found on island of Melos in 1820, taken by French ambassador to Turkey and eventually presented to Louis XVIII to the Louvre — an object of veneration to generations of tourists.

The Litter Box

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Being socially correct, we request the location of the facilities, the lavatory, or lav, from the Latin lavatorium, literally a “place for washing. “ Younger Americans favor the can (c.1900) or the head; possibly an editorial on how they relate to authority or from the original location of the ship’s facilities in the bulkhead. Middle aged folk ask for the washroom (c.1878), the powder-room (c.1920s) or the rest-room. Some still call for the toilet (c.1820s) from the French toilette, diminutive of toile, the cloth once covering the table on which sat one’s preparations.

The British middle class prefers the loo from lieu, “the place” or the French l’eau, “water,” making for the warning cry “Guardez l’eau, “ Mind the water!”— supposedly called out in the days before modern plumbing, when emptying chamber pots from upper-story buildings. Others suggest it is a misreading of room number 100, supposedly a common European toilet designation.The water closet dates from 1755 when it moved into the house from outside, then shortened to the W.C. (C.19). All this comes courtesy of Sir Thomas Crapper, developer of the modern toilet bowl, as per his biography, Flushed with Pride.

Word Origin Comics: Trying Times

For those still procrastinating on their New Year’s resolutions:

“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.”
― Pablo Picasso

“Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.”

― Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

“Do precedes done.
No precedes none.”

― Khang Kijarro Nguyen

“We are the essence of what we DO! The part we each play in the cosmos. Doing good deeds for others is leaving our signature on the world.”

― Angie Karan

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Boycott

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Southern Baptists threatening to stop patronizing Disney because of its policy towards Gays. So what else is new?

Back in the 19th century, Irish peasants mounted an organized campaign against the hated agent of an absentee British landlord to protest his exploitive policies. They refused to work for him,  intimidated his servants, destroyed his crops, drove away his stock, and threatened his life.

In the course of being interviewed by an American journalist, the  parish priest, thought “ostracism” an insufficient word to describe the approach, suggesting instead the name of the hated agent himself. The man who thus became identified forever with such a policy was Charles Cunningham Boycott.

Some consider a boycott of Disney to be nothing less than Mickey Mouse — “small,” “petty,” “inferior,” “trivial,” and “childish,” stemming from the mid 30s when the Ingersoll watch company marketed a watch with Mickey  on the face. It never kept the time properly and was always breaking down.

As to the boycott, it’s probably less Mickey Mouse than just plain goofy.

Word Origin Comics: Is Life a Bummer or Are You Simply a Bum?

Is the bum about to make a comeback? Hey, a bum by any other name would still smell— or wouldn’t he?

“I am a worthy cause,” said Jack. “No. You are a bum,” said the man.”

― Janet Schulman, Jack the Bum and the Halloween Handout

“Stenchgator, the Great Unwiped Bum… was listed in the Bumper Book of Bums as the stinkiest bum in the world. Most bums only registered one or two points on the Rectum scale, but Stenchgator came in at a nose-bruising 9.8 points.”

— Andy Griffiths

When I was growing up, my mother would always say, ‘It will go on your permanent record.’ There was no ‘permanent record.’ If there were a ‘permanent record,’ I’d never be able to be a lawyer. I was such a bum in elementary school and high school… There is a permanent record today, and it’s called the Internet.

— Alan Dershowitz

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That Sucks!

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When it comes to politicians espousing their causes, words fail. So here’s a few: Humbug! (1825), meaning “stuff and nonsense,” with roots in the 18th century as a hoax or fraud  Hogwash! (1440), a common term for kitchen refuse, slop fed to swine. Balderdash!, a meaningless jumble of words from adulterated wine made by combining the leftovers from several cups. And for their just deserts, Applesauce! (1929), “nonsense, flattery and sweet talk” — from the common practice in boarding houses, serving an abundance of applesauce to cover up the tastelessness or paucity of the main dish. Beneath the superficial sweetness there being only mush.

It’s so much  cock and bull  (1700), as implausible as old fables in which cocks and bulls are represented as talking with each other. And  tommy-rot! (1884) —  foolish utterances from Tommy, “simpleton or  fool.” plus rot, “worthless matter.” And at the very bottom, poppycock! (1865), from the Dutch pappeka, “soft dung,” , originating with the Latin pappa, “soft food,” and cacare, “to defecate.” Thus accounting for all the pap we’re asked to swallow and all the other EXPLETIVES DELETED! 

Word Origin Comics: Surrounded by Sycophants? Isn’t It Time You Learned Who They Are?

“Should a writer have a social purpose? Any honest writer is bound to become a critic of the society he lives in, and sometimes, like Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut or Leo Tolstoy or Francois Rabelais, a very harsh critic indeed. The others are sycophants, courtiers, servitors, entertainers. Shakespeare was a sycophant; however, he was and is also a very good poet, and so we continue to read him.”

—- Edward Abbey

“Sycophants learn from dogs.”

—- Toba Beta
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“In his essay, Agastya had said that his real ambition was to be a domesticated male stray dog because they lived the best life. They were assured of food, and because they were stray they didn’t have to guard a house or beg or shake paws or fetch trifles or be clean or anything similarly meaningless to earn their food. They were servile and sycophantic when hungry; once fed, and before sleep, they wagged their tails perfunctorily whenever their host passes, as an investment for future meals. A stray dog was free, he slept a lot, barked unexpectedly and only when he wanted to, and got a lot of sex.”

—- Upamanyu Chatterjee

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