Ship Ahoy!


You launched your new boat, “got it moving,” from the French lancier, “to pierce,” your newly built vessel piercing the water for the first time. Breaking a bottle of champagne across its bow is but a variation of an ancient custom of pouring wine on the vessel and the waters as an offering to the sea gods to appease them for the rude piercing of their domain.

One thing leads to another.  Before you know it, you and your fellow sailors are three sheets in the wind (19thC.), unsteady on your feet from having overindulged.  Many think the sheets are the sails; hence three sheets to the wind. In reality, they’re the lines that control the sail, permitting it to properly capture the wind. If the sheet goes slack in the wind, the sail flaps about and the boat is tossed around much like a staggering drunk. Sailors were initially said to have a sheet to the wind, “be slightly tipsy;” three, left them totally out of control.

It thus should come as no surprise that the first happy hour (c.1920) occurred aboard a U.S. Navy ship, providing “a brief period of relaxation for the crew.”

But who needs a boat as an excuse to drink? Happy Hour’s now a time in the late afternoon or early evening when a bar lowers the price of free drinks (c.1959).

As to the yachting fraternity, it continues the tradition, continuing to imbibe freely at all hours.

Metal Defectors


Forget about heavy metal. It’s so yesterday—the column that is.  Elder folks, such as me, favor instead a kinder, gentler music from another era, like those from Tin Pan Alley (c.1908), which once named the popular music industry of the time.

It was, in fact, an actual location around Times Square where publishers of sheet music once concentrated.  Many of the musicians who congregated in the area often sat in small cubicles with an upright on which they pounded out their latest opus. On any given summer day, with windows open, a passer-bye could hear dozens of composers from the several publishers pounding simultaneously on their cheap pianos. The din caught the ear of the writer, Maurice Rosenfeld who chanced by and then likened the cacophony to the sound of striking on tin pans. Voilà —Tin Pan Alley.

Critics of our musical tastes accuse us old fogeys of having a tin ear, unable to distinguish differences in musical sounds  or insensitive to them—in short tone deaf  or insensitive to differences in other kinds of sounds.

Why tin? Why not? It’s a base metal of relatively little value (see also Tin God and Tin pot dictators) as well as the fact that ear trumpets (ye olde hearing aids) were often constructed of said metal.

With Ipods blaring away everywhere—whatever happened to the sound of silence? Time to put the pedal to the metal and beat a hasty retreat.

Steel Yourself!


Musically today, many teenagers are into heavy metal, a genre that originated amidst working class youths in the U.S. and U.K. The term first appeared in the late 1960s in reference to the group Steppenwolf and their use of the phrase “heavy metal thunder” from the song “Born to be wild.”

The music is deserving of its designation, not only for its heavily amplified and extremely jarring sound but for weighing so heavily on its listeners. If you too feel under siege while tuned in to it, it’s perfectly understandable. The music attacks the ears like the heavy weaponry of the military, especially its tanks. Be cautious in its presence. In science, heavy metals are quite dense and like the music, can also be toxic to living organisms.

It’s no accident that Metallica (1981) is American. Research reveals a distinct correlation between the number of heavy metal bands and a country’s wealth and standard of living. The greater the number of heavy metal bands in a given area, the greater the “economic output per capita; level of creativity and entrepreneurship; share of adults that hold college degrees; as well as overall levels of human development, well-being, and satisfaction with life.”

That’s heavy, man heavy. Early on (c.1828), heavy referred to a tragic or serious role played on stage; then (c.1842), to also describing persons of substantial wealth and power; then on to dangerous (c. 1851), and or shocking or emotionally disturbing in the 1930s.  Along the way, it’s described everything from that which is remarkable in both a positive or negative way to a heightened sense of urgency, to sexual activity run amok.

Currently, it characterizes anything unbelievable or out of the ordinary; that which is good or excellent; or too serious or intense. It’s also an all-purpose euphemism. Most people today are not considered fat; they are just heavy. If you take that too personally, just turn on some Anthrax or Mega Death, and lighten up.

Flip Over This One


Do we ever love our pancakes (13thC.)? You bet we do. We’re pretty firm about it as well. Consider it a topic we’d never waffle over. To do so would mean we’d be vacillating on the subject and trying to please everyone, from waff, “to wave” and waffle, “to flutter.”

It is not to be confused with the Dutch wafel, “wafer.”Familiar to the Mayflower Pilgrims from their stay in Holland, it’s a delicacy that crossed the Atlantic with them, later to be popularized in New Amsterdam by the Dutch. Americans together with their love of Indian cakes or johnnycakes (17thC.), a corruption of “Shawnee” or “journey cakes,” travelers often carrying them on long trips.

Add to the list some slapjacks (c.1796}, those simply slapped into shape; and flapjacks (c.1830s), flapped or turned over in the pan, which were also called flap cakes, battercakes (c.1830s), and then throw in a few griddle cakes (c.1840) just for fun.

Hotcakes originally referred to corn cakes, but over time came to also include griddlecakes or pancakes. Popular at church events, freshly made cakes came straight from the griddle and sold quickly because people wanted to get ‘em while they’re hot. When things sell (also go) like hot cakes, they are in great demand and are disposed of immediately.

It’s ok to be enthusiastic about them but don’t lose your self-control, or you’ll liable to end up flipping out (both 19thC.).