Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Cookie Crumbles

When I was a child, the sweetest words you could hear were, “Would you like a cookie?” Who wouldn’t want a chocolate chip cookie or a peanut butter cookie or an oatmeal-raisin cookie? Now, people get paranoid about cookies, considering them intrusive violations of computer privacy.

Cookie, the pastry, was the diminutive form of the Dutch koek, cake. Because cookies were usually sweet, the word was applied as a slang term to women. The March 6, 1920, issue of Collier's Magazine had this line: “That girl friend of yours is a cookie--hey, what?”

And because cookies could get stale and hard, the word was also applied in a hard-boiled sense: he’s a real tough cookie; don’t mess with him. On a more positive note, you might run into someone who was a real smart cookie.

The computer cookie is a packet of information that is passed between computers and stored on the local computer of a person using the World Wide Web. When he or she signs on again to the site that sent the cookie, there is instant recognition and validation of the user, and his previous preferences are recalled.

The name cookie derives from UNIX objects called magic cookies. This term was borrowed by Louis Montulli in 1994 when he was working on the concept of a virtual shopping cart for a commercial customer of Netscape.

You can purchase programs to remove cookies from your computer, but it you are moderately adept, you can make the cookie crumble by your own efforts. Try any of the following.

About Cookies

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Monday, January 29, 2007

This Little Piggy

The word part -porc- comes from the Latin word porcus, a hog or pig. It’s easy to see that our word pork descends from that word. But there are some offbeat words and a few surprises in words that use this letter combination.

Here are some words that are fairly obvious.

• Porculation is the feeding and fattening of pigs; no surprise there, although I’ve never encountered the term before.
• Porknell is an obsolete term for a fat or greedy person.
• Porkopolis is a nickname for a city prominent in the pork-packing industry. (Remember Carl Sandburg’s poem Chicago?)
• Porcine is the adjective used to describe a pig, on the model of canine or feline.

Now for some surprises--well, for some of us.
• Porpoise was formed from the Latin words for pig and fish; it was called a hog-fish in an 8th century glossary.
• Porcupine comes from two Latin words signifying “a spiny pig.”
• A porcelet is a woodlouse. The fact that it comes from “little pig” has a speculative--but fascinating--origin. The French used the term porcelet Saint-Antoine (St. Anthony’s piglet) to denote a woodlouse, and it seems to be because of the unrealistically small size of the pig depicted in many paintings of the saint. St. Anthony was originally a swineherd, so he has been designated as the patron saint of pigs.
• Porcelain comes from a word meaning mollusk, probably because people saw a resemblance to the color of a pig in the translucent surface of the shell.

SIDEBAR: pig breeds

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Rein Rain's Reign

I was musing last night, while waiting for my dog Rosie to do her thing, about the nexus between sound and spelling. In particular, I was thinking of the many ways that a single sound may be rendered in print. The stimulus was a letter to the editor in my local newspaper that complained about the President expecting “free reign” in his Iraq plans.

Rosie was on a leash; I don’t give her free rein after dark, the correct way to spell the word in that context. That reminded me that the same sound shows up in rein, rain, reign, and rayne. The thought doesn’t really go anywhere--except that English has too many sound symbols for its own good--but it’s a chance for some play.

Rain came from the Old English word regn, which also meant a wet meteorological event. Rain is a familiar event in many parts of the world, so it plays a part in many idioms:
• to know enough to come in out of the rain
• raining cats and dogs
• come rain or come shine
• to take a rain check
• when it rains, it pours
• to rain on someone’s parade
• to save money for a rainy day

Rein came to us directly from the Old French rene, indirectly from the Latin retinere, to retain. Horses were once a common item, and that led to idioms that spoke of equine control or freedom:
• give someone the reins
• keep a tight rein on someone
• hold the reins
• free rein to do something
• giving rein to your emotions

Reign goes back to the Latin regnum, kingly government. The common guy and gal didn’t participate in royal rule, so there are only a couple of common idioms:
reign of terror
• to reign supreme

Rayne is a name, not an ordinary word, but it shows up in a few places. For instance,
Rayne, Louisiana, touts itself as the Frog Capital of the World. And a company that deals in potable water is named Rayne Water Conditioning. I don’t know if that was an attempt to be cute or simply the name of the owner. But I’m sure that the Rayne Drop Inn is a pun in progress.

At any rate, only a queen in a coronation procession could say, “Don’t reign on my parade;” only someone who had been given stock in the water conditioning company would have free Rayne; and only Diana Ross could sit through a storm and rain supreme.

SIDEBAR: listen to some sweet stylings from Rayne Storm

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Balancing the Budget

The prudent householder keeps a budget, a systematic plan for spending that will not exceed income. The word budget comes from the French bouge, a bag, usually made of leather. A bougette was a small bag or wallet.

Thick leather sacks of various sizes were used by workmen to carry nails and tools. Sharp points or edges would have penetrated other materials, so it was a matter of safe transport.

The name was soon applied to a small purse or wallet used to store money. As long as there was something left in the little leather purse, you were within budget.

Wyclif’s Bible contained the base word bouge in Psalm 32:7, though in an image that seems a bit strained to contemporary ears: “And he gaderith togidere the watris of the see as in a bowge; and settith depe watris in tresours.” [And he gathers together the waters of the sea as in a leather pouch.]

No one seems sure where the word wallet came from. Speculations include wattle (wrappings, as a bandage), to wall (to go on a pilgrimage), and wielwan, to wrap. The word purse tracks back to the Greek bursa, a leather hide.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007


developed from the Latin word fetus. At first, it referred to any young animal, including unicorns and seals. Eventually, it was applied exclusively to the offspring of a deer. These days, when someone describes material as fawn-colored, the same basic shade of light brown pops into everyone’s mind. And the swelling at the end of an axe helve, designed to give a better grip, is called a fawn foot because of its shape.

The verb to fawn probably comes from a different source entirely, an obsolete word meaning to rejoice. The word was applied to the behavior of dogs when they greet their master. There is usually frantic cavorting, whining, and vigorous wags of the tail. Later, it was applied to humans, but by then it had taken on a pejorative cast. The implication was that the fawning person was servile, abject, cringing, desperate for favor.

Totally unconnected is the strange word fawney, a finger ring. In 18th century England, a popular con game was known as the fawney-rig. The perpetrator would pretend to find a ring (doctored to look like gold, but actually brass), and sell it to some gullible person at a price ridiculously low for gold, but enormously inflated for brass.

SIDEBAR: Read about the white-tailed deer

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Thursday, January 18, 2007


Q. I’m a big fan of Patrick O’Brian. He sometimes uses a term that I’m not familiar with: slab-sided. What can you tell me about that adjective?
Bob/Glen Arbor

Though there isn’t unanimity about where the word came from, we all know that a slab is a flat, thick, and broad piece of material, like the slabs of marble used on the face of a public monument. There is agreement that slab-sided involves having long, flat sides, and when applied colloquially to a person, it means that he or she is tall, slim, and lanky.

But the description isn’t confined to humans. It also applies to a wide range of objects: sailing ships, guns, chickens, dogs, fish, horses, cars, flat irons, and so on, as the following real-life examples will show.

Example 1: “The descendants of the Cape Ann Dory are still raced as the Town Class. Due to their 'V'-shaped hulls, dories have a tendency to heel sharply at first, especially those which were more slab-sided than rounded.”

Example 2: Scottish deerhound standards: “Chest deep rather than broad but not too narrow or slab-sided. Good girth of chest is indicative of great lung power. The loin well arched and drooping to the tail.”

Example 3: “Prof Clauss said that his team's research would help naval architects in their efforts to construct ships and oil platforms that were capable of withstanding such freak wave forces. In many cases it is as simple as building a bridge on a ship that is not slab-sided but rounded, so it can cope with being hit by a monster wave.”

Example 4: “Herring: species of slab-sided, northern fish belonging to the family Clupeidae (order Clupeiformes).”

Example 5: "1919 Rowenta iron, German y: Second Rowenta iron, first Rowenta travelling iron. Flat, slab-sided sole-plate (no cowl), nickel-plated. Removable, sculptured varnished wooden hoop handle. Individual marble flex connectors. Packaged in leather case."

Example 6: “The current CTS and STS are sharp edged but not slab sided, as they have sharp lines running through the side bodywork. What I actually meant by slab-sided was the fact that the side is essentially a rectangular box in shape. I feel like it could use more curvaceous lines, like a shoulder line that fell as it reaches the rear wheel, and then kicks up again. It would make the car look more interesting, I guess, and less 1990s-Eldorado-rectangular in shape.”

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Fathom is a word that served a useful purpose at one time. It started out in Old English as a word to describe a person standing with two arms outstretched. The Dutch formalized it as a measurement of six feet, roughly the distance from fingertips to fingertips when your arms are stretched as wide as they can reach. (Ask any fisherman.)

For centuries, the fathom was the unit of measurement used by sailing ships to take soundings--in other words, to determine the depth of the water under the vessel to prevent grounding. Shakespeare used the word in that maritime sense in the Tempest: “Full fadom fiue thy Father lies.” [I. ii. 396] The spelling varied through the years, ranging from faethom to vadome to fadome to fawdome and so on.

The idea of measuring the depth of the water was later extended to intellectually delving into, seeing through, and thoroughly understanding someone or something. Fannie Burney used the word in this sense in her Diary: “His character I am at this moment unable to fathom.” It also showed up in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette: “I saw something in that lad's eye I never quite fathomed.” It’s still a useful verb, even showing up in sporting news headlines: “Dolphins' playoff drought hard to fathom: Dolphins face 5th year in a row with no postseason.” [South Florida Sun-Sentinal]

SIDEBAR: Fathom Archive

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Quaint Ain't

Q. 1 Has there ever been a time when the contraction of "am" and "not" has been used? I don't think I have ever heard it used, and when you say it, it sure sounds funny. But is it grammatically incorrect?

Q. 2 How about the use of the phrase "at all". Where did that come from? Here’s an example: "Does anyone listen to your show at all?”
Jim/Petoskey, MI

A. The only listeners that I’m certain of, Jim, are the ones that call or email questions, so you’ve just added one name to the list.

There have been various contractions for “am not,” but they are still considered colloquial at best, illiterate at worst. I prefer the first school of thought. One such contraction was an’t. It shows up in William Congreve’s play Love for Love [Act 3, Scene 7]: “I can hear you farther off, I an't deaf.”

Then there is the dreaded ain’t, which, among other meanings, can signify “am not.” The Columbia Guide to Standard American English speculates that ain’t might have developed from the form amn’t, which would be much more difficult to say--hence, its mutation into ain’t. But amn’t is still used in some Scottish and Irish dialects.

The problem with ain’t is its flexibility. It is used as a contraction for am not, are not, is not, have not and has not. It would be great if its meaning applied only to the first person singular (I am), but it is found in all three persons and in singular and plural situations. H.L. Mencken’s hopes have been dashed: “Ain't is already tolerably respectable in the first person...” [1919, The American Language, p. 146] Instead, we are now told to use the absolutely illogical wording “aren’t I?” in questions--illogical because are is used for the 2nd person singular in addition to all persons plural in the present indicative active of the verb to be.

As for the phrase at all, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it means in every way, in any way, altogether. Miles Coverdale used it in his 1535 translation of the Bible. “Sayenge: peace, peace, when there is no peace at all.” [Jeremiah vi. 14] It also worked its way into the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible: “If thy father at all misse me.” [1 Samuel xx. 6]

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tanks a Lot

Q. I heard the phrase “in the tank” used in a news report the other day. From the context, I could tell that it meant something like beholden to. Can you trace its origin?
Ann/Mancelona, MI

A. In India, tankh or tanki (depending on the dialect) meant a pool, lake, or artificial reservoir. Ultimately, in English, it came to mean a swimming pool, which accounts for tank suit and tank top.

In the sense that Ann reported (beholden to), the phrase comes from the sport of boxing, though in a roundabout way. “To go in the tank” is to deliberately lose a fight. That image was suggested by the phrase “to take a dive.” There is secret collusion in the arrangement--between managers, fighters, perhaps even the referee--so there is a definite pejorative slant. It also accounts for the “in league with” aspect, which also appears in the idiom to be in bed with someone.

In a famous 60 Minutes interview with Dan Rather, President Clinton said, "The mainstream press was in the tank to Starr until the Starr report came out...." In other words, in order to get a story, the press kowtowed to the special prosecutor.

Here’s another example from a Brooklyn blog: “Is the Daily News in the tank when it comes to the Atlantic Yards Project? The Daily News, owned by real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman, deserves scrutiny when it comes to the proposed $4 billion Atlantic Yards project, the largest ever in Brooklyn, to build a basketball arena plus at least 16 high-rise buildings. Let's acknowledge that the newspaper has the right to run numerous masthead editorials cheerleading for the Atlantic Yards project. Still, the rate of such editorials far outpaced any other daily.”

In financial jargon, “in the tank” means a poor market performance by a stock, a fund, a particular sector, etc. It’s used to show that things are plummeting in value; they’re going south, to use another idiom. The tank reference is to a toilet tank; it’s synonymous with “in the toilet” or “down the drain.” From the Los Angeles Business Journal: "The largest revenue generator ($384 million in 2005) is Cort Furniture Rental Services, which Wesco acquired in 2000--though the purchase got off to a bad start. In what Charles Munger admits was a case of unforeseen bad timing, Colt went in the tank within months of that purchase. The dot-corn bust and the economic fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hit the commercial furniture rental business hard as companies downsized."

In sports jargon, it means that no energy is left, a reference to an empty gas tank in a car. From the Corvallis Gazette-Times: “A lot of guys didn’t have a lot left in the tank after the UCLA game (on Thursday). Leading up to UCLA there was tremendous energy in practice. A lot of guys left so much on the court they were not able to recover.”

In police jargon, “in the tank” means in a common jail cell, as a drunk tank. The SF Bay Area Independent Media Center, May 18, 2004, reported this: “The City of Fresno is setting up an outdoor drunk tank which is perhaps the only one of its kind in this country. The outdoor drunk tank will be operated by The Rescue Mission, under an overpass on G street in downtown Fresno. Temperatures get up to 110 degrees in the summer and down to 28 degrees in the winter. The director of the Rescue Mission, Larry Arce says that he believes the people brought into the drunk tank his organization will run are in need of spiritual guidance to resolve their problems.”

SIDEBAR: Listen to some cuts from Drunk Tank, a punk band in Den Haag, Netherlands.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ordinal Numbers Revisited

Q. My apologies for bothering you, but I came across your blog 'All in Order' dated 20 Dec 06, as I've been trying to ascertain at least 2nd and 3rd order equivalents for both the noun 'primacy' and the adjective 'primal'.

In terms of 'primal' I uncovered 'tertial', but this only seems to relate to a bird's feathers; and 'tertian', but whilst this has several definitions, none of them signify 'being third in order'. I also came across 'secundal', but again this only seems to relate to musical chords involving the interval of 2.

I'm somewhat stumped, especially in terms of 'primacy', for which I haven't been able to find any 2nd, 3rd order, etc. equivalents at all. Any help appreciated.
Luke (London, UK)


A. No problem at all, Luke; thanks for writing. Many elements intersect here: science, Latin, English, etc. Given my scientific illiteracy, I probably can’t give a definitive answer. But that's never stopped me from trying.

Before tackling primacy and primal, let me review two other sets. The ordinal numbers are the numbers that show sequence or rank; they give the order in which items are arrayed.

There are two such ordinal lists that I deal with on a regular basis: the set beginning with first, and the set beginning with primary. I’m not in touch with the subset names (help, readers!), but as I see it, the first set shows spatial or chronological order, and the second set shows order of precedence or effect:



*spelling confirmed in the online Oxford English Dictionary

So the second day of an experiment (chronological order) or the second mouse injected with a serum is a much different ordering than a secondary effect that results while experimenting (e.g., dehydration). Hence, the existence of two lists of ordinal numbers to represent two different focuses (foci to the traditional).

Note: first and primary in the lists above can be synonyms, but exact synonymity ends when you get to number 2 and beyond.

Now, back to primacy and primal. The ordinal numbers--the ones that show sequence or ranking--are adjectives. So you put your finger on the problem with the word primacy, Luke, when you identified it as a noun. The noun to follow primacy would be something like subordination or inferiority or dependence. There won’t be a cascading list of adjectives as with first or primary.

Primal is more complicated. Its strongest or most common meanings are original/primitive or something in the range of fundamental/deep-seated. In a less-used meaning, it becomes a synonym for primary. So I would suggest that we would normally slide from primal to secondary and then continue down that already-established list.

Musicology from centuries back brings up yet another list, but they are nouns (clusters of intervals), not adjectives, and they are only of historical interest. They include secundal, quartal (also spelled, on some sites, as quatral), quintal, sextal, septal, and octal, but a chord composed of thirds is called tertian instead of tertial. (When we check out tertial, we run across the third row of bird feathers, as you discovered.) So we don’t have a third column for ordinal adjectives here.

In computer science, there does seem to be another stream of adjectives: unary, binary, and ternary. These are the three operators, operator defined as a symbol or sign used in javascript to identify a specific operation.

Finally, there is also a (mostly obsolete) series that ran this way:

unal (1893) Single; that is one only; based on unity.
binal (1806) Twin, double, twofold.
trinal (1907) Composed or consisting of three parts; threefold.
ternal (1680) Consisting of three; threefold, triple.
quaternal (1813) cross-referenced to quaternary.
quintal (not listed in OED)
sextal (1971) Pertaining to a system of numerical notation with 6 as base.
septal (not listed as a numerical term in OED)
octal (1991) Relating to or designating a system of numerical notation that employs 8 rather than 10 as base.
nonal (not listed in OED)
noval (not listed in OED)
decimal (2007) Relating to tenth parts, or to the number ten; proceeding by tens.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Lists: Words of the Year

It's January, so tie on your napkins and prepare for the usual linguistic smorgasbord. Since New Year's Day is a fairly dead news time, a dozen or more organizations and publishers release their Words of the Year List around this time to garner attention.

Some are much better than others since the choices are made by experts, not by a fickle public, and some factor in frequency/volume to prevent opinionated curmudgeons from tipping the list. At any rate, they provide an interesting diversion and invite us to contemplate the limits of our language.

Here are a few Words of the Year Lists for 2006:

American Dialect Society
I tend to favor this list above all the others because it is based on a closed vote by professional wordsmiths. Even Homer nods, but I respect their linguistic opinion more than that of enthusiastic amateurs.

Oxford University Press Word of the Year
Words chosen by the editors at the New Oxford American Dictionary.
Three categories are listed:
* The top voted-on words for 2006 (196,848 total votes)
* The top 10 looked-up words on for 2006
* The top 10 looked-up new words on for 2006 (words only found in
Webster's New Millennium™ Dictionary of English)

Merriam-Webster Online
Users of the online dictionary vote.

Separated by a Common Language
Nominations submitted by readers of this blog, which attempts to document British/American vocabulary swaps.

Lexiteria Top Ten Words of 2006
Nominations to the online dictionary are checked against frequency of use on major search engines.

Lake Superior State University 2007 List of Banished Words
Nominations are solicited through the media, but the results often seem unfiltered; some older terms find their way to the “new” list each year.

Global Language Monitor Annual List 2006
Words and phrases culled from around the English-speaking world.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

His’ Apostrophe’s Are A Mes’s

Q. It's that time of year again. I go bonkers when I read "New Years sale" or "Happy New Years'." How did this start and why?
Ted on Old Mission Peninsula, MI.

A. Confusion about the proper use of apostrophes started about the time they were invented in the 16th century. Part of the difficulty came from the dichotomy between spoken language and written language. The apostrophe is seen only in the written form, but certain complications carry over from speech.

Let me preface this answer by saying that some of the information that I present here is found in a succinct, well-written paper originally co-authored by Christina Cavella and Robert Knodle for a graduate class at Washington University in 2003.

Traditionally, the apostrophe signified an omission or elision, particularly when the letter -e- began to drop out in the common Old English genitive singular spelling -es (the groomes horse). Later, many writers mistakenly took the -‘s to be a contraction of the word his (the groom his horse).

As time went on, writers began to use an apostrophe to signify vocal omission (‘gainst his foes), elision (‘phone for telephone), to prevent confusion (cross your t’s and dot your i’s), and so forth.

Today, the tendency is to drop the apostrophe where once it would have been required. We see this especially in company and organization names. A relatively new distinction has arisen: if the organization is for the benefit of, but not actually owned by a particular group, don’t use an apostrophe. Thus, we have Department of Veterans Affairs, Citizens Insurance, Consumers Energy, and Farmers Market, none of them owned by the group in question. But we’d have a veteran’s benefit check, citizens’ groups, and the farmer’s daughter.

It is instructive to note that grammar experts disagree. We find these rules for the possessive in Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage:
• to form a singular possessive, add -s to most singular nouns--even those ending in -s, -ss, and -x
• for most plural possessives, use the ordinary plural form and add an apostrophe to the final -s

The 14th Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style disagrees with Garner’s addition of -‘s to singular nouns ending in -s, -ss, and -x, citing tradition and euphony for constructions such as for righteousness’ sake and for conscience’ sake.

Merriam Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says to use the -‘s with proper nouns (Dickens’s novels, the Jones’s house), but allows that the apostrophe by itself shows up in biblical and classical names (Jesus’ time, Odysseus’ journey).

Cavella and Knodle conclude that the apostrophe will eventually disappear, and they may well be correct.

SIDEBAR: England’s Apostrophe Protection Society

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

My Right Hand Man Has Two Left Feet

If you ever had any doubt about prejudice against lefthanders, study some words that relate to handedness, at least etymologically.

adroit: “possessing address or readiness of resource, either bodily or mental; having ready skill, dexterous, active, clever.” It comes from a French word meaning right.
• The word dexterous, used in the definition above, comes from a Latin word meaning the right hand, and it is defined as “deft or nimble of hand, neat-handed; hence skilful in the use of the limbs and in bodily movements generally.”
Right-hand man: “a person of usefulness or importance; an efficient or indispensable helper or aid.”

On the other hand, we have

Sinister, which comes from the Latin for left hand: “dishonest, unfair; not straightforward, underhand; dark.”
Gauche: “wanting in tact or in ease and grace of manner, awkward, clumsy.” Guess what the original French word meant. That’s right (or should I say that’s correct?)--left hand.
• A left-handed compliment is actually an insult or lack of endorsement.
• To have two left feet is to be incredibly clumsy.
Obscene means “offensively or grossly indecent, lewd.” It is probably connected with the Latin scaevus, on the left. That Latin word also led to the now-obsolete word scaevity, meaning awkward, perverse, and unlucky.
• In fact, the word left itself comes from a Frisian word meaning weak and worthless, practically paralyzed.

The Bible reflects judgment about handedness in passage after passage. Throughout the Old Testament, anointings were done with the right hand, God’s help was dispensed with His right hand, and a guest of honor was always placed on the host’s right side. In the New Testament, we are told that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. And in Matthew 25:31-46, we witness a handy case of discrimination:

“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ . . . . Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels’ . . .”
[Play the free arcade game Sheep Go To Heaven]

The only source at hand more cruel than that is the 19th century criminologist Cesare Lombroso: "The percentage of left-handedness is much higher in the abnormal class of people, eg: mental defectives, the insane, incorrigibles, criminals, etc."

Fight discrimination: get out there and buy a left-handed hammer, screwdriver, or paint brush.

SIDEBAR 1: The Sinister Hand (interview)

SIDEBAR 2: Handedness and Cerebral Dominance (article)

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Roasting Chestnuts

The Cat’s Paw by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1802 - 1873

Q. Where did the phrase “to pull chestnuts from the fire” come from?
Brian/Paradise, MI

Q. Why is an old story called a chestnut?
Alice/Suttons Bay, MI

See, my working theory is that all of us overdosed these last few weeks on syrupy versions of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. How else to account for an outbreak of chestnut questions?

Let’s start with the origins of the word chestnut. It was a combination of the Old French name for a particular tree, chesteine (from the Greek kastanea), plus the English word nut. It was named after a place, either Kastanaia, a city of Pontus, or Castana in Thessaly.

"To pull chestnuts from the fire" means to do someone’s dirty work for him. The source (mentioned by Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) is the fable of The Monkey and the Cat’s Paws. In this story, a monkey convinces a naive cat to pull chestnuts from a hot fire. As the cat scoops the chestnuts from the fire one by one, burning his paw in the process, the monkey eagerly gobbles them up, leaving none for the cat.

Chestnut--a story told so often that it has become predictable, boring, and trite--is given the origin unknown label by the Oxford English Dictionary. However, both Brewer and Linda and Roger Flavell’s The Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins refer to Boston actor William Warren as the instigator of this term.

Warren had played the part of Pablo in William Dillon’s play, The Broken Sword. One of the characters in the play has the annoying habit of retelling the same old stories and jokes. Pablo interrupts him on one occasion as he begins the story of a cork tree with these words: “A chestnut. I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times, and I'm sure it was a chestnut.”

Warren was at a dinner party one evening when a fellow guest launched into a tedious story, and the actor whispered in a stage voice, “A chestnut. I have heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.” The guests roared with laughter, and the story spread.

SIDEBAR: How to roast chestnuts

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