In-Vest ‘n Us


Though they rail constantly about earmarks, Congressmen continue to line up at the trough, a.k.a. the federal treasury, tapping it for pet projects that endear them to their constituents. These fall into the category of pork barrel, or just plain pork.

    During the 19th century, farmers traditionally stored their salted pork away in a barrel, making it a special source of sustenance to which they could turn when fresh food was not available.  It was also treated as a symbol of foresight. Equating the fatness of pork, the stashing of it away, and its availability during thin times, helped contribute to the political largesse, we called pork barrel projects (mid 1850s) which belied the original intent of a prudent management of resources.

Lawmakers gaining monetarily from their office. So what else is new? We first began to graft  in 1475 by inserting a shoot from one plant into another.

By 1865, we were also inserting money  into pockets in exchange for future favors. No wonder that we soon spoke about our lawmakers lining their pockets.

Folk etymology, as always provides a good story as to the origins of the phrase, though it really speaks for itself.  But why pass up a good story?

It begins with the tailor of noted fashion plate Beau Brummel (1778-1840).  Hoping to curry Brummel’s favor, the tailor sent him an especially ornate coat, which he embellished by lining its pockets with money. Reportedly Brummel thanked the tailor, noting his admiration for both the coat and its lining. Whether this sewed up Brummel’s future business is unknown.

Not to despair. As every good lawyer knows, every suit has a silver lining.

A Mad, Mad, World


It’s crazy out there, and getting crazier. Ever wonder how things became so absurd? To the Ancient Romans, surdus meant “deaf,” “silent,” or “dull.”  Adding ab, “away from”, aggravated things further, creating absurdus, which left things “senseless” or “out of tune.”  Making  things even crazier was  their  translation of Euclid’s Geometry. Looking for the right Latin word for Euclid’s alogos, from the Greek a, “away from” and logos, “reason”–”that which is removed from reason”—they selected surdus. Over time, this also made surdus “irrational,” the ab again emphasizing that aspect.

Like the Romans, we also play things by ear, making them offbeat (c.1938). Conventional music accents the downbeat, leaving the upbeat unaccented. During the ‘20s and ‘30s, however, Black jazz musicians broke from the norm with their syncopated rhythm, stressing the traditionally unaccented beats.

This offbeat music was considered so unconventional that offbeat expanded its reach, becoming synonymous with all things nonconformist— even odd or weird, which is as absurd as you can get.

Still wondering what to do?

Now hear this!

The only solution to all that absurdity is to turn a deaf ear to it, knowingly refuse to acknowledge something you know to be real.

But wait. There are also other options. During the naval battle of Copenhagen of 1801, Admiral Horatio Nelson willfully disobeyed a signal from Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, the Commander of the British fleet to withdraw. Nelson was so convinced he could win if he persisted, that he literally ‘turned a blind eye’ to it. In his own words, [Putting the glass to his blind eye] “You know… I have only one eye – and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.”

Better yet, double down on all the craziness. The first recorded use of the phrase in the manner in which we use it can be found in More letters from Martha Wilmot: impressions of Vienna, 1819-1829 (first recorded in 1823 and later reprinted in 1935) with a little something extra added to it: “turn a blind eye and a deaf ear every now and then, and we get on marvelously well.”

The Line Forms to the Rear


The great playwright, Noel Coward, often reminded actors, “just know your lines, and don’t bump into the furniture,”

That also holds for you. How well do you know your lines?  At work, you are likely to have been fed or given a line about your company and its mission, something akin to when an actor on stage employs, “a rehearsed statement meant to impress or influence someone, often a potential romantic partner.”

Your superiors have taken great efforts to impress on you those important deadlines which have to be met (c.1920), a time beyond which it’s no longer possible to act.  Deadlines, in fact, can be fatal. In Civil War prison camps there was an actual line which no prisoner was permitted to cross.  If he dared do so, he would be shot dead. That’s what happens when you get out of line (late 18thC.), “behaving improperly.”

A few internal critics dare to speak out, by laying it on the line, speaking frankly and firmly about its downside, calling for some limits by drawing the line (c.1793).

Most, however, take the line of least resistance (17thC.), “the easy way out.”

The only way out of this column is to get to the main point as succinctly as possible, from an accounting term referring to the earning figures that appear at the end of a statement. And that’s the bottom line (1984).

Counting Down


It’s never too early to post this reminder for next XMAS:

Still haven’t done your holiday shopping? The time is ripe as first noted by Shakespeare ( I Henry IV, 1:3). It’s the eleventh hour, the last possible moment to get things done. You may not be as fortunate as the laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16) who though they did not begin work until the eleventh hour of the day, received the same wages as those who had worked all day.

As you go down to the wire (1900), approaching the tape stretched across the finish line, you expect to make a last minute spurt allowing you to get everything done, finishing just under the wire (first half of 20thC.) like a horse straining forward to just make it across the finish line.

You’ll probably do so just in the nick of time (c.1687). Nick is an obsolete word for a critical moment, possibly deriving from the notches people once cut into a stick to record credits or debits.

Paying one’s debts, as indicated by the nicks, was critical—failure to do so possibly leading to loss of one’s home or even imprisonment. Given people’s propensity to wait to the last moment to pay their bills, they did so in the nick of time; which In this case happens to be —Saint Nick.

Hay There


Looking to make some hay? It’s easy. Just cut some grass, clover, or alfalfa and spread it out to dry. What really speeds things up is the sun. Making hay while the sun shines (c.1546) means making the most of things, taking full advantage of a situation before it passes.

You do however have to consider the aftermath. Math in this instance is Old English for “a mowing” or a “crop gathered by mowing.” We simply took the first part of the Old English verb, mawan, “to mow” and  added the suffix -th.; just as  we had with “grow,” creating grow-th, “a growing,”

This made an aftermath into an “after-a-mowing” or “second mowing,” the crop of grass that grew up and was cut after the first had been harvested. We liked the word so well we adapted it as an appropriate figure of speech for after-effects or consequences in general.

What the hey? (c.1932), you say. That ain’t hay! (first half of 20thC.)—“a great deal of anything, mostly money.” There’s lots of hay around, and it’s not worth much, except to the cows. Comparing anything else to it makes the other item seem even more valuable.

As to the aforementioned “hey”? It’s simply a euphemism for “hell.”… Hey, why not?