Many tempting ideas present themselves to us daily. What makes them so enticing is the burning desire they create from titionis, “firebrand,” from intitiare, “to set on fire.”  They titillate  us from   titillare, “to tickle.” When we finally make an attempt at them, we do so from the Latin ad,  “to” or “towards” and temptare,” “to try,”  “feel out,” or “test.”

A classic case from Greek mythology of one  tempting fate is the story of  the King of Lydia. Befriended by the Gods, he betrayed them, stealing their nectar and ambrosia and testing their divinity, serving them the flesh of his own son. For his deeds he was doomed to stand forever thirsty and hungry in a pool of water up to his chin. Whenever he bent to drink, the water would recede. His efforts to reach toward fruit hanging from a bough directly above, caused the wind to carry the branch away from him. His name was Tantalus, and his name would forever be linked to “provoking desire and creating expectations without fulfillment.” That’s what makes things out of our reach so tantalizing. You and I are clearly above it all, being as one with Oscar Wilde who could “…resist everything except for temptation



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.

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During the 1990s, New York City reported that it had scored a major victory over street crime, thanks to the Latin vincere, vici, victi, “to conquer.” it also led its mayor to think he was invincible, though his policies  created many victims in their wake.

For a criminal to be convicted he must be caught dead to rights (Mid 19thC.), his guilt established beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Dead” has a certain 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 was “dead” then were the rights of Black males and in too many instances, the men themselves.

American jurisprudence is based on the presumption of innocence. Finding someone guilty of a crime 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 a time when plumbing was best done with lead pipes as opposed to those of cast-iron. Conviction of a crime should also be in alignment with its original meaning, from convincere (con, “with”+ vincere, “ to conquer). Convincing someone such as a jury literally means “to overcome with arguments,” logic and cold facts deciding the outcome… If only that were so.

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Axe to Grind


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.



In September of 1949, the show, “Martin Kane, Private Eye,” made its debut on TV — featuring a smooth talking, wisecracking operator who worked closely with the police out of Happy McMann’s tobacco shop. Hardly a man of vision, this  private eye (1942)  was just the “i” in p.i, an abbreviated version of the private investigator.

Earlier he had been an eavesdropper, “one who listened secretly to conversations” (1450), from no other place than the space on the ground on which rainwater dropped from the eaves.

As to his snooping (1832), that  came from the Dutch snoepen, “to eat in secret” or “grab some sweets on the sly.”

But it took the Latin tegere, “to cover” + de, “off,” to help him  detegere, “to uncover” things — which is, after all,  what detecting is all about. It also made him a detective  (1836)—the first fictional one being Auguste Dupin, created by the pen of Edgar Allan Poe.

Condensed, he became the Dick (1900), later, a gumshoe, from the rubber-soled shoes he reputedly wore to assure noiseless movement.

Whodunit?” you ask. It’s a word first coined in 1930 in an article in the American News of Books. Here it’s William Gargan and Lloyd Nolan, the first two Martin Kanes.

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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.

The Litter Box


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.



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.

That Sucks!


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! 



It’s always fun following a word’s progression through the language. Take the Latin sequi, secut-, from which many things follow — sequels, things sequential, and those consecutive, from com, “together,” and sequi, “follow”. This not only created real consequences, things following (with them); but also made them consequential.

Sequi, “to attend” or “follow” mutated into the Old French suitte, “attendance” or “act of following.” As a sout, it was  “attendance at court,” making for the syutor (1290), a frequent visitor there, later a suter, an “adherent” or “follower” and the suitor (1586) who courts or follows after a woman. From the livery or uniform worn there came a set of clothes worn together, our first suits (1400). Making them suitable (1577) “agreeable” or “convenient,” was their appropriateness to the occasion. Other things suitable included a suit of cards and a grouping of rooms following in close proximity, the  suite. Following things legally into the courts made for both legal suits and the right to sue via the Old French suer from the same sequere. The lack of any real follow-up ends with a logical fallacy, a non sequitur, “It does not follow.”