Troubled Waters: Drug Testing

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Find yourself pacing anxiously about, a small paper cup grasped tightly in your hand?  Welcome to the wonderful world of drug testing.

Not to fret. It does have socially redeeming value — to sort out the rotten eggs in our midst. If you have difficulty imagining the trouble one rotten egg can get into, witness the history of a simple word and how it ended up.

In Ancient Greece, an egg that didn’t hatch was called an ourion oon, “one thought to be impregnated by the wind.”  Translated into Latin, however, it got confused with an ovium urinae, “an egg of urine or putrid liquid.”

Translated into Middle English, it became an adel eye, a “rotten egg” — adel(a) being the word at the time for “urine” — making it into an adel egg.  It wasn’t long before the addle-egg  stood for anything that  was “good for nothing” or “spoiled.”

People like it so well, they started using it figuratively, as did Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, “Thy head has been beaten as addle as an egg.” From this, we got our addle-pate or addle-head, literally, a “urine head.” Shortened, it created the perfect descriptor for our currently addled drug testing policy —“confused and muddled.”

Not to fear. This too shall pass.

Capital Gains

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America’s love affair with the death penalty centers around the electric chair — a story that’s as much about capitalism as about capital punishment.

Its deployment came at a time when electricity stood on the verge of becoming the universal source of power. The two titans battling for control of the industry were Thomas Edison, representing direct current (DC) and George Westinghouse, promoting alternating current (AC). Edison’s strategy was to convince the world that Westinghouse’s AC current was unsafe.

After having electrocuted scores of cats, dogs, and horses by AC, Edison convinced the state of New York to switch its instrument of capital punishment  from hanging to the electric chair, powered by a Westinghouse AC generator. Its first occupant was one William Kemler on August 6, 1891.

The finality of it all derives from the Latin caput, “head.” That’s how people tallied corpses during the bubonic plague — by the head — making for the German kaputt, “done or fallen to pieces” and our first capital sentence (1483) in the form of a beheading.

Capitalism deals with the accumulation of money, the principal “heading” up  its activity. What made the electric chair kaput.

Coming Direct to You: The Yankees

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 The Yanks are coming/The Yanks are coming/The drums rum-tumming everywhere — according to Over There, America’s favorite World War I song, penned by our very own Yankee Doodle Dandy, George M. Cohan.

Yankee derives from the Dutch Jan Kee, “Little John,” which  the English used to signify “John Cheese,” a disparaging European nickname for the cheese-making, cheese-loving Hollanders. But by 1663, Dutch settlers in the New World had turned it around, using it as a derisive reference for their English counterparts.

And Yankee Doodle? During the French and Indian War, a British officer, Dr. Richard Schuckburg, inspired by the shabby state of the American recruits, wrote a set of satirical lyrics to the tune of an old martial air. During the Revolution, the British fife and drum corps played it regularly to further annoy the colonists.

After the battle of Lexington in 1775, a Harvard student and minuteman rewrote the lyrics, as we know them today, making it into a marching tune, the first number struck up by the American band at the surrender at Yorktown. The 18th century dandy was an affected and superficial person. Today, however, when things are fine and dandy, they are “excellent” or “first class,” as with George M. Cohan himself.

That Certain Something in the Air: Smelling a Rat

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Catch a certain something in the air? Smell a rat? What better way to sniff out a problem than by likening your olfactory capabilities to the cat’s incredible sense of smell?

Some of us already have the ability. Marcellus easily sensed something questionable when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared to him — leading him to remark how “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (I, iv). A phrase we now use for “a suspected problem which cannot be pinpointed.”

“What’s the stink really all about?” you ask. Well, that could be nothing more than the odor of sanctity. For us it’s considered the epitome of hypocrisy. During the Middle Ages, however, it connoted the ultimate in respectability — in keeping with the popular belief that dead bodies of saintly persons exuded a sweet smell consistent with their holy nature. Conversely, bodies of evil people smelled or stunk to high heaven, emitting an odor of iniquity.

 If all this leaves your nose out of joint—not to fear. It’s been doing so since 1581, a grimace actually somewhat displacing the nose. The nose knows. How obvious is it? “As a nose on a man’s face, or a weathercock on a steeple” (Two Gentlemen from Verona).