The Devil You Say


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 🙂



Defining the word sex represents one of the more formidable tasks of our time. Let’s try.

   Sex comes from the Latin secare, “to cut or divide” — our first use of the word designating the two major categories of humanity we have come to know and love as male and female.

According to Greek mythology, we began life as a perfect four-armed and-legged he/she unit. Unfortunately we were so taken with ourselves that we offended the mighty Zeus who proceeded to sever us into two separate entities.

We later used the word not only to divide the sexes, but to describe the primary qualities of being male or female. This unfortunately led to the male being referred to as “the better” and the “sterner” sex; the female as “the fairer,” “the gentler,” “the softer,” and “the devout” sex. Women were also called “the second sex,” further underscoring the division.

To address the problem, we began using sex to help forge a new togetherness, a way of  finally getting our act together.

Today, having sex (20th C.) literally speaks to that unifying process.


Macho Macho Man


Years ago you’d find him slithering about clandestinely as a parlor snake (c.1915) or a lounge lizard (c.1912).

Now he’s out in the open, his status elevated to a philanderer (17thC.), originally a female lover of men, later a lover, and finally a “male flirt.” Others know him as libertine, from the Roman deity  Liber, a god of fertility whose annual celebration featured a giant wooden phallus being carted about the countryside, followed by drunken revelers who later crowned it with a wreath. There’s even been talk of him as a rake (16thC). ”You’d have to rake hell to find another like him.”

An integral part of the Western literary tradition, he identifies with the greatest, including Lothario, Casanova, and Don Juan. This isn’t your average Romeo we’re talking about.

Some think him macho, from the Spanish machismo “exaggerated masculine pride,” and a real cool dude (mid 20thC.), entering the language in 1883 as a term of ridicule for a “dandy “or a swell” — from the German dudenkopf, a “drowsy head.” A condition that often left him dawdling about the bars.

Zsa Zsa Gabor wasn’t impressed, noting that “macho does not prove mucho.”

Discover This: Columbus Day


Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World on October 13, 1492. A Dutch sailor, Pie de Stynie, however, persuaded him to change the log to the 12th for fear the 13th might trouble both the superstitious sailors and potential investors.

Luck still eluded Columbus. The continent(s) ended up bearing not his name but that of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine navigator, whose accounts of discovery so impressed geographer, Martin Waldseemüller that he named them after him.

“Discovery” also brought with it the principle of finders keepers, losers weepers, a variation of an Ancient Roman concept that if you find something, it’s yours. A popular piece of  America’s verbal lore and child’s play since the middle of the 19th century, it no longer has any standing under the law.

Being discovered and laid claim to must have been a surprise to the people living there. You might think possession is nine points of the law (17thC.). But it comes from possidere, “to sit in power,” from posse + sidere, and real power rested with the newcomers. Their arms and numbers made them a potent force from potis, “powerful,” leaving the natives to discover that the only thing possible was “ the power to be.”

Jeeps Whiz!


On August 1, 1941, Parade magazine touted the arrival of ‘the army’s most intriguing new gadget.” Its official name was a “one and a quarter ton four-by-four command reconnaissance car.” We would come to know and love it as the jeep.

Whence came the “jeep?” Some say it’s merely the “G.P.” for “general purpose vehicle,” though it was never referred to as such. Others point to the Popeye cartoon strip by E.C. Segar and a weird little animal of that name possessed of supernatural powers  who ran around squealing “jeep!…jeep!…jeep!

In truth the jeep wasn’t much of a vehicle. Awkward to maneuver, constantly leaking oil, it only rarely was able to run continuously for more than four hours.

Nonetheless, it captured the imagination and the affection of both the military and the public at large. General Eisenhower said we couldn’t have won World War II without it.

Never again would we would think of cars the same way. The jeep begot an entire line of SUVS, UTES, Wranglers, Explorers, Broncos, and Hummers. Nothing any longer stands in our way. Across the mountains. The far side of the mall.  Through the snow drifts. To Little League practice. Waiting the next adventure. The next challenge.

Jeep!… jeep!… jeep! 

Keeping a Breast of Things


We’ve been bosom friends since the end of the 16th century, but it took W.W.II to make us bosom buddies — from  buddy’s common use as a synonym for a “pal” in the armed services.

Every guy needs a buddy, a mid 19th century variation of butty companion — from the booty fellow, an associate with whom you shared your plunder.

The bosom’s  the perfect place to carry your friendships, because of its proximity to the heart and its innocuous nature. In the middle of the 19th century, breasts fell out of favor and “nice” people stopped referring to them. When invited out for turkey dinner, and you wanted some white meat, you always asked for the turkey bosom, never the breast.

Over time, the breast came to be perceived as increasingly impolite to the point of being considered savage, and the bosom, as refined and gentle.

Though bosoms had a brief wild fling as bazooms (mid 20th C.), they ultimately reverted to their conservative character and traditional spelling.

At a time when acceptable words are hard to come by, the bosom’s there for you. Here’s to the bosom and all its friends.

Catch a Ride


Securing a taxi in a major metropolitan area is never easy. Once done, hang on for dear life.

Starting life as a taximetercabriolet, its capricious nature derived from the cabriole, a two wheeled carriage, which in turn got its name from its bouncing and leaping motion — from the Latin caper, capr-, “goat.“

What left you emotionally and financially spent was the taxing nature of the trip — from the Latin taxare, “to charge.”

For added “measure,” they included the meter. Any wonder we reduced it to a taxi or a plain old cab?

On August 13, 1907, the first taximeter motor cab took to the streets of New York City. Most New York cabs were once Checker cabs, sporting a bright yellow exterior with a distinctive black-and white checker pattern. Sitting high off the road, they featured incredible leg room, spacious jump seats and extra-wide doors.

Checkers stopped manufacturing in 1982, leaving only two such taxis in New York operating by special dispensation from the city.

An American institution, the Checker cab. Hail to thee!

Finger This


Who knows when the fickle finger of fate may beckon you to stardom? So began the popular segment of Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In” (1968-73) — offering that award to the winner of a mock talent contest.

Fingering also has its negative side. Who of us hasn’t  suffered the ignominy of being f****d by the fickle finger of fate (1940s) — a favorite expression of the Canadian Armed forces for an unpredictable and particularly injurious event?

It was Shakespeare who first pointed the finger at another in Othello —  “To make me the fixed figure for the time of Scorne to point his slow, and moving finger at.” Though blame has been at our fingertips only since the second half of the19th century.

Helping further asseess blame, were fingerprints, first put into use by law enforcement agencies on October 10, 1904, assisting us in fingering the guilty party.

None of this is to be confused with giving the finger to someone, the meaning of which is universal — though from 1890-1920, it meant  simply “to disappoint or snub someone.”

A popular expression of discontent on our nation’s highways, the gesture goes back to Ancient Rome where charioteers passed each other while offering the digitus impudicus. 

Now Ear This


Our era may feature the most sophisticated technology for listening in on other people’s conversations. It’s nothing, however, compared to the times when the walls literally had ears.

In Ancient Syracuse, the tyrant Dionysius, carved a large, ear-shaped underground cave out of solid rock, enabling him to eavesdrop on the conversations of prisoners.

In yet another historical period, the royal family installed ear-shaped whispering galleries at  Hastings Castle. While Catherine de Medici had the walls of the Louvre constructed with tubes called auriculaires, enabling her to hear the conversation in any room, no matter where she was.

What can you do about all this bugging? Shakespeare would have you “Seal your lips and give no word but — mum. (Henry VI, Part II) — the only sound you can make with your lips sealed.

There’s also the option of doing things sub rosa, Latin for “under the rose.” Roses were once sculpted or painted on the ceilings of banquet halls, as a reminder to revelers to watch their words.

Given how totally unforgettable most conversations are, perhaps John Heywood  (1546) said it best with “in one ear an.”

Yum Yum, Desserts


Two of the more prominent personalities to have graced our criminal justice system were O.J. Simpson, football star and celebrity extraordinaire, and Louise Woodward, the notorious au pair.

In each instance, prosecutors thought the case a piece of cake. Defense lawyers dreamt of a pie-in the-sky vindication. Though the verdicts are finally in, the question remains. Did the two receive their just deserts?

Hey, we’re not just talking chocolate mousse here. We set the table once with the French servir. After having completed our meal, we cleared it with desservir, giving us our desserts, which first  referred to the fruits and nuts placed on the table after all else had been removed.

Whether you merited them or not is irrelevant. Your just deserts derive instead from an entirely different source — from the Old French deservir, “to serve well”—  making you truly deserving.

Another matter altogether is the French désert, déserter, from the Latin, déserer, desert-, “to abandon.”

If you think our criminal justice system is a vast wasteland of sorts, i.e. a desert — it’s sure to leave you with good reason for feeling deserted.