Apple triumphs over Microsoft! Time to celebrate—it’s the joy of victory, the agony of defeat. The Greek agein, “to lead” gave us agon — an “assembly,” into which people were led to witness the public games.
Once comfortably seated, you watched the Agonia, “the contest or struggle for the prize” and your favorite agonistes, “contender” — creating our first antagonists, those you rooted anti, “against” and the protagonists, those you rooted pro, “for.”
Eventually, agonia came to describe not the struggle but the mental and physical anguish experienced in its course. Agony then extended to “any activity fraught with difficulty or pain;” later, “anguish” and “intolerable pain,” before arriving at its current definition —“any extreme suffering of body or mind.”
For sheer agony you went to Rome for gladiatorial contests — extremely violent events held in amphitheaters, the floor of which were covered with sand to lend stable footing and absorb the blood of the combatants. Over time, the sand and the fighting area became linked — making harena, Latin for “sand,” into the arena — the field of play or the actual building or stadium where sporting events are held. No accident that the corporate arena is now the area of greatest bloodletting.
Time then to get down to the nitty-gritty (1963), “the heart of the matter,” “the essential facts.” What’s more important: the nits or the grits?
Nits are simply the eggs or larvae of insects such as lice. Being almost microscopic, they are extremely difficult to spot. Getting down to them means attending to the smallest details.
Grit initially described the fineness, coarseness, etc texture of stone. Those considered clear grit were considered “of good hard quality.” It wasn’t easy sifting through it all, searching for the best grit.
John Wayne’s true grit enabled him to grit it out, “to endure even the most difficult situation.” To be the grit was to have genuine spirit or pluck; to be the ‘right sort’, the genuine ‘article’—but only to a point.
To be a successful nitpicker, you have to be obsessive about the smallest of details and the most petty of matters. Whatever impels you to be so meticulous? It’s the Latin metus, “fear” + the diminutive ul+ osus, “full of,” leaving you “full of little fears.”
Could it be that you are fear-driven? Worse yet is when you become overly fastidious from the Latin fastidiosus, “disdainful” or “squeamish” from fastus, “contempt’+ taedium, “aversion,” your actions becoming tedious to others, “wearisome to the point of being disgusting.” Like the nit (1902-03), which once described “an inconsequential or obnoxious person,” you too are now worthy of being picked on.
In the 60s, when we “lost it,” we “went ape.” Nowadays, we have a cow. Where would we be without them? In Anglo Saxon times, feoh, “cattle” and “money” were one and the same, contributing to the fees we now receive. The milch cow (1601) gave folks a “source of regularly accruing profit,” or “a person from whom money was easily drawn,” helping pave the way for today’s ever-dependable cash cow.
No one relied on cows more than the Romans who used pecu, “cattle,” as their standard of wealth and barter, creating pecunia, “money,” which left us pecuniary — whether we were into cattle futures or not.
Doing well financially made us pecunious, not so well, impecunious. Fancy this somewhat peculiar? Peculiar originally spoke of “cattle which belonged solely to one person,” then just “private” or “special,” then “strange.”
What’s peculiar in our day and age are sacred cows — persons, ideas, or objects, so sacrosanct as to be exempt from criticism. In India they roam the countryside. Here you’ll find them in the fields of politics, education, medicine, and law, milking their specialty for all it’s worth. Not to despair. As Abbie Hoffman once reminded us, “Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
In America, children go to bed each night rhyming “Bang, bang, you’re dead, thirty bullets in your head.” They later grow up with bang-up expectations, always giving things their best shot, knowing that if they work hard, their ideas will go over with a bang. They are thus assured of becoming a bang-up success and the best he culture has to offer, i.e. a top gun. People have been preoccupied with guns since 1330. The soldiers at Windsor Castle named their favorite and most prominent weapon, a huge catapult which hurtled large stones and balls of fire —“Dame” or “Lady Gunhilda” from the Icelandic gunnr, meaning “war” and hildr, a “battle.” With the advent of the cannon, she was shortened initially to a gunne and then to gun, thus naming the world’s first firearms. Our first great guns were large firearms like cannons, as opposed to smaller ones such as muskets or rifles, a distinction which held up to the end of the 19th century. One of the largest was Big Bertha, from W.W.I, named for the portly wife of the German munitions manufacturer, Krupp — though evidence reveals his firm bore no responsibility for the giant howitzer. They also named a person of note or consequence. The man we used to call a great gun was really something. Today we know him better as the real big shot. He looks to go over with a bang; though he’s more likely to just pop off.