A Number of Things


Election results tend to create the illusion that justice and right have triumphed and that we the voters finally got a certain politician’s number, significant information — precise or useful knowledge — especially of his weaknesses which led to his downfall.

Alas, in all probability, it’s the politicians who have done a number on us, an old theatrical expression (c.1908) for “acting with surprising or devastating effect.” Done on the stage, it left the audience pleasantly surprised. At the polls, it left the electorate fooled and taken advantage of by sleazy political ads, paid for by even sleazier PACs.

And what number, you ask is appropriate? Six will do nicely. What these successful pols have often done is deep six the evidence of their wrongdoing, destroying or hiding any embarrassing or incriminating material—a form of political cover-up, deriving from an old nautical expression for burial at sea, regulations requiring that the water at the burial site be at least six fathoms or 36 feet.

Six feet under also has long been the requirement of most states for depth of a land grave, traditionally the same length as the coffin, making the term synonymous with death.

We don’t always need hard evidence however to bury bad politicians at the polls. Our sixth sense (19thC.) enables us know them for what they are. It’s intuitive as opposed to the physical senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Unfortunately, when it comes to politics, the alternatives are often the same. Since the early 19th century, it’s been. six of one, half dozen of the other. Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke…Name your poison.

Today’s Word: Polygon

New York Times Crossword, Word Origins (04/29/2015):

What’s the angle in today’s crossword?  It’s the Greek gonia, “angle.” Just find the right Greek word for the number of sides; Latinize it; add an –a– if necessary and tack on the gon. Voilà! You now have your pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon etc. It’s also at the base of your triangle and inherent in your diagonal (dia, ‘through’), the line passing through from angle to angle.

If you loved this crossword, which I did not, you might consider getting down on your knees and thanking the constructor. The Indo-European root for the Greek gonia and English ‘knee’ is genu, ‘angle.’ In the Germanic languages, the g(e)n became kn as in the German knie, ‘knee,’ knien ‘kneel’ and English knee, the joint forming an angle in the middle part of the leg and ‘kneel,’ ‘to rest on bended knees.’ In Lat Latin, genu was combined with the verb flectere, ‘to bend,’ producing genuflecter, ‘to bend the knee’ or ‘kneel in worship;’ hence ‘genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!’—as those old enough to remember Tom Lehrer might have encouraged us.

Thanks to Edward Pinkerton for the research on this.

Today’s Word: Roid as in “roid rage”

The “roid” is primarily an anabolic steroid whose use can lead to increased irritability and aggression and easily punned into a variation of “road rage.” “Roid rage” is also the name of a popular video game. The “roid” by itself also names a magic elixir in the game “World of Warfare” and a graffiti and street artist.

The suffix “oid” derives from the Latin oides and the Greek eides, meaning “like” or “resembling.” Steroids are “like” the sterols produced in the adrenal cortex. Stewroids are the steroids which Stewie from Family Guy begins taking after he is beaten up by a baby girl, and Chris begins dating one of the most popular girls in the school.

Other examples of oid usage include asteroid (like a star), spheroid (like a sphere) and android (like a man), from the Greek andro, “human.” An android is an automaton mimicking a man as in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” a science fiction novel by Philip Dick and the basis of the 1982 film Blade Runner. Android is also an operating system from Google, making “roid rage” the dissatisfaction expressed with its performance by those who favor an Apple or Windows device.

Hemorrhoids (late 14thC.) sound like they should be part of the same family, but they are not. Its roots are the Greek haimorrhoides. It’s a compound word from haima, “blood” and rhoos, “stream,” from rhein, “to flow,” referring to inflamed or swollen blood vessels in the anal canal. Calling someone a “hemorrhoid” ranks him below an A-hole which at least has some function, whereas a hemorrhoid just gets in the way of your life and causes pain for no reason. Given the difficulty in spelling “hemorrhoid,” however, it might be best to simply refer to such folks as “roids.”

“Roid” joins hemorrhoids in the person of N.Y. Yankee, Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) whose use of steroids and sub A-hole personality should earn him the name “A-roid.” Roid rage is what fans should feel towards major league baseball which looked the other way at drug use by its players and made millions in the process.

New York Times Crossword, Word Origins (04/25/2015)

Today’s Word: Sesame

Sesame seeds (thought to have originated in India or Africa and eternally on a roll in the NY Times crossword) are one of our oldest condiments, dating as far back as 3,000 BC. “Open sesame” is a magical phrase used in the Arabian Nights story “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” to open a secret door to a hidden cave. Some think the phrase simply reflects the distinguishing feature of the sesame seed pod, which bursts open when it reaches maturity. Others say that it derives from the Arabic simsim, meaning “gate,” the full phrase being iftah ya-simsim, “Open gate!.”

Ali Baba’s own brother did not understand this, and when he couldn’t remember simsim, guessed other foods instead: “Open barley, ” “Open wheat,” and “Open chick-pea.” If you know the phrase as “Open Sez Me”, you’re old enough to know better, taken in by “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves” (spoken here at 14:39).

New York Times Crossword, Word Origins (04/24/2015)

That’s Edutainment


Ain’t English great?  It’s right up there with the most creative and flexible of tongues. One factor that distinguishes it from other languages is the scope it offers for creativity through the use of imaginative literary devices.

Charles Dickens gave his characters names which corresponded perfectly with their disposition. Mr. Boythorn in Bleakhouse, for example, is a compound of “boyhood,” referring to his goodness of heart and “thorn,” pointing to his loud and harsh nature.

Lewis Carroll elaborated on the practice and also named it. In Chapter six of “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There,” Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the meaning of the words, “slithy” and “mimsy” in the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky.” “Slithy,” he tells her is “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable.”

He further noted “You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”  Packed up indeed!  The portmanteau was, after all, nothing but a “suitcase,” opening up into two parts.

Portmanteau words, in turn, opened a flurry of activity. James Joyce made extensive use of them in his novel “Finnegans Wake.” The practice then entered the public arena when in England of the 1930s – the word bumf gained a certain notoriety.  Nothing complicated about it. Its primary composition was bum fodder, “toilet paper,” whose meaning then quickly expanded to describe official government documents and their worth.

Portmanteau words are the mother’s milk of contemporary culture and social media. Where would we be without beefalo, animatrix, jazzercise, mockumentaries, sitcoms, metrosexuals, and sexperts?

Perhaps you’d like to join me for some brunch, preferably some frankenfood and a frappuccino to discuss things further.

Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as “exemplary” and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.

Today’s Word: Jalopy

The word “jalopy” first appeared in print around 1925 as “a cheap, old, or broken down auto.” Its many variations included jalupie, jaloppy, and jalopi. John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle, referred to how “You drive the gillopy.”Some think the word derived from Jalapa, a Mexican town to which many old broken down vehicles were sent for scrap, the same town from which we got our jalapeno peppers.  Life Magazine, in 1937, theorized that the word was the first three syllables of the Italian word for “dilapidated,” delapitado.  No one knows for sure. The theories as to its origin are interesting. Feel free, however, to write them off as just so much ‘junk” etymology.

New York Times Crossword, Word Origins (04/22/2015)

Today’s Word: Eloi

The Eloi are one of two post-human races encountered by the Time Traveller in H.G. Welles “The Time Machine” (1895) in the year AD 802,701.  The other is the Morlocks who unfortunately do not begin or end with a vowel, making them less of a crossword staple than the Eloi. The Eloi are pretty, dumb, wear clothes, eat fruit and do not work. The Morlocks do all the opposite. The Eloi might have their roots in the Bible, from Elohim, Hebrew for “God.” Jesus’ cried out, “Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani?”: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

New York Times Crossword (04/22/2015), Word Origins.