Slipups in Your Life

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Butter’s slippery quality explains why those with butterfingers (17thC.) drop things and how we butter someone up (18thC.), lavishing excessive praise on them. But whence came the butterfly? Theories range from the alleged color of its excrement, the first Dutch name for it being boterschiste. Folklore has stories of a mischievous witch doing her thing, stealing milk and butter in the form of a winged insect. Its real origins, however, may be less exotic — one of the most common species of the insect being the yellow flier.

The butterfly effect was first advanced in a paper presented to The American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1979 — “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil, Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” It became the cornerstone of chaos theory; the unpredictable nature of the universe; how small acts lead to large.

     “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” you ask. It’s one who goes to great length to accomplish something trifling. First used by Alexander Pope in 1735, it most recently appeared in 1967 as a headline when Mick Jagger was jailed on minor drug charges. As with most nonsense posing as news, it “didn’t have wings” and simply “slipped through our fingers.”

Fish Your Wish

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Fish Your Wish 1.

If you smell something fishy about today’s post, you’re probably right. Our topic, after all, is the herring, once a favorite dish, especially among the lower classes. On certain fast days, it was common for all strata of society to abstain from their staple food: monks, gave up their favorite fish, the general populace, meat, and beggars, their herring. Anything which did not conveniently fit into those three categories was thus determined to be “unsuited to any class of people,” i.e., “neither one thing nor another.” In Medieval England, people began referring to things as “being neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red herring”; later chucking the herring and reducing it to just neither fish nor fowl. Now how exactly would you categorize this post?

Fish Your Wish 2.

The herring’s mad adventure continues. During the 19thC, its oscillating nature turned it into a “non-descript object” or a “wishy- washy person.” But some earlier had found some utility in it. Fox hunters once used to drag a dead cat or fox across a trail to train their hounds to follow a scent. To further sharpen their dog’s discrimination, as part of their training, they often employed smoked herring to destroy or markedly affect the original scent. Add to this the fact that people especially enjoyed having their herring smoked which resulted in a reddish hue. Put it all together and voila, what you have is a red herring (c.1884) something that throws you off the track or draws attention away from the real issue, e.g. my inability to find a graceful way to exit from this topic.

Making a Name for Yourself

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Try to do some good in this world, and what does it get you? There once was a dedicated public servant trying to curb profligate government spending. But his proposals were unpopular, especially those forcing a reduction in the allowances of government pensioners. You won’t find many pictures of the man. But Etiènne de Silhouette, Controller-General of France in 1759, lives on, his stinginess embodied in the form of the stark black outline that bears his name.

Thirty years later, during the French Revolution, an eminent Paris physician and member of the National Assembly, championed a more “merciful” beheading device. Partially in response, Doctor Antoine Louis invented a machine with a heavy blade that dropped between two parallel uprights. The public briefly dubbed it “La Louisette” in honor of its inventor. But a popular song celebrated the first Doctor instead, and Joseph Ignace Guillotin found the instrument referred to as the guillotine. His heirs worked strenuously to disassociate the family name from the instrument. But when they petitioned the French government to change the name of the device, their request was denied. They were instead given permission to change the family name — the meanest cut of all.

Introduce Some Magic Into Your Life

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Everyone’s looking to introduce some magic into their life. It starts with a little abracadabra, from the initials of the Hebrew words Ab, “fath (father); Ben (son), and Ruach Acadosch (Holy Spirit).

The phrase was once believed to have magical powers to ward off adversity and alleviate illness.

All you had to do was write the phrase on a small piece of parchment and hang it by a linen thread about your neck. If you wrote it in inverted triangular form, the full phrase at the top, it diminished one letter, a line at a time, until only the last “a” remained at the vertex–the idea being that the disease would disappear as gradually as the inscription—finally dwindling to nothing.

Many mocked the practice, considering it so much hocus-pocus. Once a conjurer’s incantation, it could be the actual name of a premier conjurer or juggler; a corruption of the Latin, “Hoc est corpus meum”, meaning “This is my body,” a parody of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist;” the first words uttered by the priest at the consecration of the mass; a mock Latin incantation; or a combination of all the above.

Some critics consider these theories to be a total hoax,, dismissing them all as so much hokum (1908)—a blend of hocus-pocus and bunkum. Being “pretentious,” “artificial,” and “corny,” as well, leaving it all just pretty hokey (1927).