The Devil You Say (more)

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Life has a way of narrowing down your options. When they’re reduced to two equally undesirable and dangerous alternatives, you’re said to be between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Though the situation reeks of evil, it actually has little to do with Satan or his environs. Its origins instead can be found at sea. In the days of the clipper ship, sailors were often ordered to do repair work on the seam in the hull which was on or below the water line. Its location made work there extremely difficult and hazardous; sailors who were ordered to do so, often referring to it as a “devil of a task.” After having been said enough times, “devil” came to name the seam itself, leaving the tars (who got their name from the substance with which they worked) between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Not knowing what dangers lay ahead, there could be all hell to pay—serious repercussions arising from the job. Closer examination shows it to be nothing more than that devilish seam again. The original phrase was “the devil to pay and hot pitch,” pitch being the sticky tar used for water-proofing and caulking with which they were “paying” or waterproofing the area.

The job was pure hell. So when this lengthy phrase became all-purpose, we pared it down to all hell to pay.

What in tarnation are we talking about?” you might ask. It’s only a mild expletive for “damn,” “hell,” or the “devil”—probably a variation of “darnation” (“darn” being a euphemism for “damn”)—though a case might also be made linking it to the cursing of the aforementioned tars. Having a devilish time with your own bad choices? Sticky as they may be, things are never quite as bad as they seam 🙂

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Playboy Stops Going Nude … the Naked Truth

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Those of us who grew up believing that every woman had a staple in her navel are shocked by the decision of “Playboy” to drop the nude female form from its pages–staple and all. And why, we ask, is it just nude portrayals? What about those which are “naked?”

“Naked” is a good English word that’s been around for quite a while. One of the earliest references to it can be found in Beowulf as nacod (c. 725). But somehow we prefer being “nude,” a relative newcomer that’s been with us only since 1873, derived from the Latin nudus and, ironically, a close cousin of “naked.”

It seems that “naked” has always given moralists cause to shiver. In the Bible, when one saw another’s “nakedness,” it meant to see their privy parts, as in Genesis 9:22, “And Ham saw the nakedness of his father.” Stark as it is, “naked’s” definitely not for the squeamish.

An ancient Greek fable recounts how the goddesses Truth and Falsehood went for a swim. When they emerged from the water, Falsehood took Truth’s garments, leaving Truth “you know what.” But rather than don Falsehood’s trappings, Truth went “naked,” and we know how dangerous the “naked truth” can be.

Naked or bare, the truth is never “nude.” But statues, like the Playboy centerfold, are always “nude,” as are beaches where you leave your clothes and constraints behind. All are considered quite harmless. Bodies that are fixed in position seldom if ever interact, making for little risk in being “nude.”

Robert Graves underscored the difference in his 1957 poem “The Naked and the Nude”: “For me, the naked and the nude stand as wide apart / As love from lies, or truth from art.”

If you still can’t distinguish between “naked” and “nude,” try standing stark nude sometime. If you believe that the Playboy change had anything to do with concern about exploitation of the female body, you really know nothing about naked aggression.

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HIC!

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Drunk as a skunk (1900s)?  A Mouse (1300s-1500s)? A boiled owl (late 1800s-1900s)?  A rat (mid 1500s)?

You know you’ve been into one cup too many when the Latin bria, “cup” has left you inebriated. That same cup, however, could just as well have sobered you up. All you had  to do was remain so, “apart from” it.

Though too many cups can put you out of your skull, a more accurate designation would  be “in your skull,” there being a time when skulls and shells served as drinking cups, the Old Norse skal being the source of the popular toast.  

    Skoal became current among English speakers in 1589 when Scotland’s James VI’s marriage to a Danish princess provided the rationale for much drinking and toasting.

Skal is also the source of our scales, originally a pan or bowl hanging from each end of a beam, horizontally suspended at its center.

So weigh your actions carefully, especially when it comes to drinking and driving. Those skals also are the scales of justice, one of its principal attributes being that you can never outweigh even a little right with any quantity of wrong.

Trash this One

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Every so often we do a worthless column. This one happens to be pure junk. It begins with the Latin juncus, “rush or reed,” which made its way via the Portuguese explorers to the Orient. This named the small boats of Asia as junks, their sails fashioned from woven stems of grass-like plants.

The junk in your attic also has ties to the sea. Until the mid 18th century, junk was the worn-out ship’s cable; then pieces of old cable used for patch work; and finally, any old and worthless items.

During the 15th century, junket was a dish of sweetened and spiced curds and cream typically served in a rush basket often on a mat made of rushes. In the 16th century, the term spread to any such confection, then to a feast comprised of such dainty dishes.

After they had been served so many times at picnics, junkets, came to name them. By the 19th century, people were asking others for the favor of their company at a junket to their farm; soon thereafter defining the trip itself. Today it’s “a trip taken by a public official at public expense”. Described by the politician as “a fact finding expedition,” it’s seen by the taxpayers as so much junk,  yet one more excuse for a picnic.

Bang-Up Remarks

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Like the NRA’s stance on gun control, certain thing are sure as shooting (mid 19thC.), meaning they are certain and without a doubt—a phrase that had its origins in the wild-wild west.. Cowboys always needed to be sure before they went for their gun. There were, however, those who shot from the hip (20thC.), drawing their weapon quickly from the holster, shooting it off, without first raising it and taking careful aim. Today it describes those who speak or act recklessly.

Such safety concerns extended to the muzzle-loading cannon on old sailing ships. Mounted on a wheeled carriage which between battles was securely lashed to the deck, the cannon could easily be dislodged during a storm or during enemy fire, rolling about, causing serious damage to the ship and the crew.

Today’s loose cannons (c.1946) are thought to pose a serious and unpredictable danger because they too cannot be controlled. Presidents have especially taken umbrage to them.

Richard Nixon noted how “the loose cannon has gone off,” alluding to former team player, Jeb Magruder talking to the U.S. Attorney.

Andrew Young was also considered “Something of a loose cannon” on the deck of the Carter administration as ambassador to the U.N., an African-American who seemed quick to find “racism all about him.”

President Obama’s loose cannon in residence is Vice President, Joe Biden.

Speaking a somewhat inconvenient truth, Biden noted that the biggest problem the United States faced in dealing with Syria and the rise of the Islamic State was America’s allies in the region—a statement that proved incredibly embarrassing to the administration— later eliciting a forced public apology from him. .

Right on target!  Seemingly, even the loose cannon can occasionally take dead aim.

Well Blow Me Over

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Whistle blowers are always in the news. When you blow the whistle on someone (c.1930s), you “expose corruption or wrong doing.”  Blowing on a whistle has long been used to end an activity, beginning with the factory signaling the end of the workday.  In the case of the whistle blower he is hoping to call the public’s attention to particular wrongdoings in the hope that his exposure of the facts and the force of his evidence someone will the practice to cease.

Alas, rather than address the issues exposed by the whistle-blower, the culprits he has singled out often sully his reputation instead. For a whistle to produce a clear, strong tone, it has to be free of debris and excess moisture. Hence the demands that the blower’s efforts be “completely and thoroughly done,” and he be  “morally above reproach,” Which is why they insist that he be clean as a whistle (18thC.)

So let’s drink to the whistle blowers and if you’d like to join me, you too might can  wet your whistle (14thC.), “drink a small quantity of hard liquor, “the whistle long having been synonymous with the mouth or throat. A little moisture, after all, always helps improve the quality of the whistle.

And the lesson of whistle-blowing? When you whistle for something (18thC.), you ask for it but with few if any expectations of success.

If you want anything, just whistle, is but a variation of the lines in the film, To Have or to Have Not (1945). where Bacall says to Bogart: “ You don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”