What’s Your Beef?


There’s always something in the news to beef about. Beefs have served as complaints, protests, or objections ever since 1899, from the noisy sounds made by cattle, sure to catch one’s attention. It was only natural that they would then evolve into “arguments” or “altercations.”

There are lots of beefs now in the developed countries about the dangers of eating meat. Protesters beef up their arguments (19thC.), strengthening or backing them “up” with hard science; beef long having been synonymous with heft, strength, and power.

Are their beefs legitimate? Ranchers fatten their cattle to increase their body weight and enhance their value prior to slaughter. It was not always done legally. Some had them drink large quantities of water laced with salt, artificially inflating their avoirdupois and their value—thus making their beefs illegitimate.

Is there any substance to the anti-meat argument? A Wendy’s commercial in (1984), mocked the competition. It showed three elderly women eyeing a small hamburger on a huge bun. “It certainly is a big bun,” asserted one. “It’s a very big, fluffy bun,” the second woman agreed. But the third asked, “Where’s the beef?”

Walter Mondale picked it up in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination against Gary Hart, arguing substance vs. glitz. When you consider the menu of complaints—fast food fare; wrecking havoc with the environment destroying our gastro-intestinal tract, offering sub-par worker’s wages; wretched working conditions, and Mad Cow, to boot—it could be that the vegans might actually have some legitimate beefs.

Bad Cow


Did she or didn’t she? She, being Mrs. O’Leary’s cow; the dastardly deed being kicking over the lantern in her barn on Dekoven St. thus setting off the Great Chicago Fire of October, 1871. Theories range far and wide as to how it started.

Beside speculation centering on our bovine friend, there’s been talk of a meteorite, theorists pointing to the fact that on same day the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin was consumed by flames, claiming more than 1,000 fatalities.

That a single cow should bear the blame seems so much booshwah — from the French bois de la vache, “cow’s wood,” or “dried dung.” It’s more likely a case of bull — from the French boule, “fraud,” or a shortened and sanitized version of bull****.

The reporter who broke the story attributing blame to the cow, later came clean, claiming he made the whole thing up — after colleagues, who initially would not be cowed, finally confessed to having made up the entire story

Are you too cowed by all these revelations? This is, however, one cow, that cannot be laid at Bossie’s hooves. It derives instead from an Old Norwegian word meaning “to oppress.” So let’s just call it moot from the Old Saxon motian, “to meet,” requiring assembling more experts for yet further deliberation. You can also call Oliver Stone or just go directly to http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/oleary for the straight poop.

That’s Criminal


Crime in the streets is one of the more morbid fixations of our culture. So, as a public service, we offer a quick look at disorganized crime. Let’s begin with the Latin mobile vulgus, “the fickle crowd,” the mobile referring to its constant moving and shifting character. Shortened to mobile and then to mob (c.1755), it became a “criminal gang” in 1791.

Its earliest members included the thugees, an ancient network of religious clans from the Hindustani, thag, “a cheat.” Thugees, however, were more than roving bands of cheating gypsies. They were thieves and murderers who treated their criminal activity as a religious ritual. The apex of the thugee occurred during the early 19th century when more than 6,000 of them roamed the Indian countryside.

The roving thug became a hoodlum around 1870, most probably from the German –Swiss hudlump, “a wretch or miserable fellow.” Some argue, however, that he really originated in San Francisco. They trace his West coast roots back to a gang of thugs terrorizing the Barbary Coast whose leader was a man named “Muldoon.” A San Francisco newspaper reporter who was covering the story, reluctant to name its leader, for fear of retribution, referred to the members of the mob instead as “noodlums,” apparently spelling “muldoons” somewhat backwards. And then just for the “h” of it, a typesetter mistook the “n” for an “h,” creating our first hoodlums. It’s a story that’s, at the very least—criminal.

Let’s not forget the hooligan, yet another street tough. His roots can probably be found in

1890’s England. Some think it a mispronunciation of “Hooley’s gang,” a notable band of street toughs. Complicating matters further, there was also a song about a rowdy Irish family of the same name, popular about the time the word first appeared in print.

If you don’t fancy those explanations, one linguist proposed the Hooligans as simply “a spirited Irish family of that name whose proceedings enlivened the drab monotony of Southwark towards the end of the century.”

If you consider them all nothing more than a bunch of goons, they are courtesy of cartoonist E.C. Segar ’who created Popeye the Sailorman as well as the lumpy looking, stupid, hulk whom Segar called “Alice the Goon, appearing in “Popeye, the Thimble Theater,” around 1935-38. The term originally described someone who was tough as well as rough. It then moved on to describe any hired thugs, eventually becoming synonymous with any stupid person.

Given this gang of convolutions and meanderings, one has to consider the value of leading a straight life.

No Kidding


It’s difficult to know what’s genuine today. During the sixties, rural sit-coms were the rage on TV. They were all pale substitutes, however, compared to the program that inspired the trend — The Real McCoys. It set the hallmark for the genre with Walter Brennan as the wheezin’, porch-rockin’, ‘gol-darnin’, meddlin’, ole Grandpa.

Finding the genuine article in any field has never been easy. During the early 20th century, there were several boxers using the name “Kid McCoy,” as well as many a barroom imposter. There was, however, only one authentic welterweight champion of that name. Prohibition added to the confusion. During its heyday, fanciers of hard liquor favored the product of a rum-runner named Bill McCoy whose hootch was considered genuine and uncut. Who was real and who wasn’t could not be easily determined.

It is now very PC to attribute the term to one, Elijah McCoy. Elijah McCoy was an African American inventor who invented an automatic lubricator for oiling steam engines of locomotives and ships. This allowed trains to run faster, as well as lessening the need to stop for maintenance. He also invented the oil dripping cup. Because others tried to duplicate his invention which didn’t work as well, customers soon began asking for “the real McCoy“, meaning “the real thing.” McCoy deserves many a tribute, but attributing the saying to him has no basis in fact.

The real real McCoy was probably none of the above. It more likely referred to the excellent whiskey manufactured by a certain A.M. MacKay of Glasgow at the turn of the century, a theory supported by the actual usage of a slang word “McCoy “ which referred to “good whiskey.” About 1908, the word “real “was added as a prefix, possibly because of the popularity of the aforementioned boxer and bootlegger.

The TV show, alas, was neither genuine nor of high quality, but all things considered, the real McCoy continues to stand for authenticity and excellence—in a world that is short on both.

Skin Deep


All those kids piercing their various and sundry body parts and adorning their skin with tattoos. What is the world coming to? Wasn’t there a simpler and saner time? In France of the 1840s, it was the rage to transfer a design or picture from specially treated paper to glassware and porcelain. The fad didn’t stop with inanimate objects however. It soon moved on, becoming chic for ladies to use the technology to fake beauty spots on their cheeks and add even more elaborate designs on other parts of their body. There was even a word for it. The French combined calquer, “to press” with de, “off” to make for our decals, those things pressed off, and by adding manie “a craze,” produced decalcomanie, to describe the practice.

Flash forward to the United States of the 1920s where once again the transfer of decals to the human skin became the rage among the young. The de in decalcomania was dropped, resulting in calcomania which was first mispronounced as cockamania and later, cockomamie. When the nuttiness of the whole thing finally hit home, cockamamie came to describe a crazy or ridiculous person about 1936 and in 1941 expanded to include anything that was patently worthless or absurd, condemning us to repeat cockamamie stories and cockamamie schemes such as the above. Go figure.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid ( Part 1)


There’s nothing like a good panic to galvanize our politicians. Between Ebola and Isis, they’re having a field day. Everyone knows how politicians play on our fears, but for its origins we really have to go back much further – to Ancient Greece and the greatest trouble maker of all the pagan deities — Pan.

Not just your generic prankster, Pan was the guy who struck terror into the hearts of all, from wood nymphs to human beings. Soon people began attributing to him any sudden contagious fright, naming it panicos, making him the source of all our panic. If he were eligible, he’d no doubt be a member of Congress today.

Making political capital out of panic is easy. When people are fearful, they tend to hit or push the panic button, acting in unnecessary haste, which, in turn, often results in very bad decisions. During W.W.II, pilots’ aircraft bombers had a button which alerted the crew when the plane was hit and another that triggered ejection. Oft times, however, the damage was not as severe as imagined, but the pilot overreacted, pushing the button prematurely, causing the crew to bail out unnecessarily.

Purveyors of panic like to say that they are merely “holding those in power to account;” when all hell breaks loose however, they are nowhere to be seen and the last to be held responsible for their actions.

What they end up producing can best be described as orchestrated pandemonium — from Milton’s Paradise Lost, naming the high capital of Satan, from the Greek, pan, “all,” and daimon, “spirit.” They could care less. For them, the only devil is in the details of implementing their strategy of fear-based pandering.

(To be continued)

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid ( part 2)


Pander, as a noun, originally described an arranger of sexual liaisons (c.1520s), one who supplied another with “the means of gratifying lust” (late 14th C.), and was used by both Chaucer and Boccaccio. Those who pander to our fears today, are simply using a verb, as did Shakespeare, “indulging another to minister to base passions” (c.1600).

When all is said and done, there is only one way to maintain our sanity amidst all this craziness. We can begin by seeing the larger picture —in which case, we need to first pan in, as if to simply “follow with a camera,” (c.1913); the more expansive view, finally evolving from a shortening of panoramic (c.1878), from the Greek, pan, “all,” and horama, “view” (from horan), “see.”

Better yet, we can turn our attention to matters of real substance, panning to something of relevance, that kind of panning, meaning “to swing from one object to another in a scene” first having been employed around 1931.

Not to fear those procurers and pimps of fear. Prospectors once panned for gold, scooping small amounts of sand and gravel from streams and riverbeds. Things panned out when the gold settled to the bottom, and sand and gravel washed away. You may pan their whole strategy as unethical, but that kind of severe criticism didn’t begin until 1911, from “having been under the pan.” No thanks to the wood sprite or to our politicians, most things ultimately do pan out (c.1868) successfully.

Will Swallow Anything


Mid-term elections—a time when hopes take flight— from reason and logic—leaving many of us on the outside looking in.

Politics, you see, may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely “for the birds.” Rumor has it the bald eagle is on the verge of extinction. Heading the list of replacements—the sea gull, the only bird to have a statue erected in his honor. Sited in Salt Lake City, it’s a tribute from the Mormons for having deterred a major invasion of grasshoppers that threatened their crops.

What saved them was the gull‘s ability to swallow just about anything. It took the Latin gula, “throat,” however to help us gull someone, to cheat or deceive them, and to make us gullible. Any wonder the politicians favor him as our national bird?

Don’t discount the swallow however. October marks the traditional date for his departure for the winter from the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, CA, not to return until March 19.

According to Scandinavian tradition, these birds hovered over the cross of Christ crying “Svala! Svala!” (Console! Console!), making the svalow, “the bird of consolation.” One swallow does not a summer make means all your troubles aren’t over because one difficulty is surmounted. If you look at what our representatives in Congress would have us swallow, consolations are in order for all of us.

Bombs Away


“Hey man, this is some cool blog post. right?” “Yeah, it’s da bomb“.

“No way!” you think. “Da bomb is so yesterday.” During the mid to late 90s, it was a somewhat cool way of calling someone or something “awesome,” but ever since Nine Eleven, it has fallen on bad times. No one, but no one, wants in any way to be associated with bombs.

Bombing, however, has made a major comeback of late. Bomb ISIS? You bet, and – as Senator McCain once suggested in his own inimitable sing-song fashion— “Bomb, bomb, Iran.” Oh, If only we could bomb Ebola.

But, alas, we also bomb on exams, dates, and at other critical moments in our lives, often culminating in a severe drunk. When so bombed, we’re out of our mind with often devastating results.

The bombshell (1919) originally described matters unpleasant and painful. Today it delivers shattering or surprising news, such as one more beheading, or another NFL linebacker, thrashing his kid. Touted for its ability to destroy an entire city block, the blockbuster does equal damage in the guise of a major box-office success, a revelation from the White House, or cable commentators run wild. Nothing good ever seems to come from either the blockbuster or the bombshell.

Maybe we should simply not applaud violence. Now, that’s a novel idea.

In Ancient Rome, the audience responded to a poor performance by driving actors off the stage with applause ( ex, “off” or “out” + plaudere, “to applaud”), creating our first explosions.

Perhaps we might consider driving the violent actors off the stage of history, not by applauding their efforts (ad, “towards”), but by reserving our plaudits for steps taken instead towards peace. We might then be celebrating the only plausible option—one truly worthy of applause.