Sunday, January 24, 2010

Flying by the seat of your pants is cheaper

In the 1930’s, pilots flew with few instruments, relying primarily on their own judgment. The phrase “flying by the seat of your pants” was coined during this time, and used in a news article about the Douglas Corrigan’s 1938 flight from the U.S. to Ireland. The same article referenced the phrase “flying by the seat of his trousers,” which implies a British origin.

Although the origins of this phrase correspond from source to source, different meanings are given. Here’s a sampling:

Decide a course of action as you go along, using your own initiative and perceptions rather than a pre-determined plan or mechanical aids.”

Act according to one’s own desires or beliefs without regard for standards for social behavior, logical sensibility, or the approval of others.”

“To do something difficult without the necessary experience or ability.”

There’s also a fun variation on the phrase. “Panster” is a word used by one blogger to describe the way she writes her novels: “I am a panster – as in I don’t outline, I don’t have much of a clue what’s going to happen, and I write by the seat of my pants.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Don't tip the CANOE

A new acronym has popped up, at least in the Web world. CANOE, standing for Conspiracy to Attribute Nautical Origins to Everything, appeared to me while I was searching the etymology and origins of “cat got your tongue”. Whereas at least two of the word origin posts I have posted were nautical-related, maybe there is a conspiracy.

It showed up on both and Creepy CANOE…

Why the cat wants your tongue

Because cats are carnivores. But seriously, now, where did the phrase “cat got your tongue” come from? There are many theories, but no real answers.

It might be a phrase that was used by parents questioning their children when they refused to speak. In some cases, the child was shy; in other cases he was refusing to answer to avoid punishment for something.

The “cat” part of the phrase may be referring to the way cats drag in (look what the cat drug in!) small rodents and animals. The human tongue is roughly the same size as some of these lovely little tidbits.

Another theory is that it refers to a cat o’ nine tails. If the captain of a ship told something to one of the shipmates in secrecy, he would be threatened with a good whipping if he spoke about it. Hence, the other shipmates would ask him, “has the cat got your tongue?”

One source reports that the phrase originates from the Middle East, where a liar’s tongue would be cut out and fed to the king’s cats. Or better yet, that it came from the Middle Ages when a witch’s cat would “control” your tongue so you could not speak and bear witness against her witchcraft.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What's the deal with plurals?

So I was looking for a youtube video of this joke I heard once about plurals in the Engligh language - I remember something specifically about moosen, meese, and boxen. Instead, I give you two videos I found, the first being a documentary type and totally serious, the other for pure fun.

Scrumptious: Good enough to scrump?

This is another one with a “standard” definition and “slang” definition. When I searched for origins it came up as “unknown,” which doesn’t do me any good. So, here are the two definitions at least.
1. Splendid, delectable (as in food)
2. Something that is good enough
to eat or indulge in

(could be a thing or a person)

Interesting note: also includes a word that means the opposite of “scrumptious,” but I’m not sure if it will catch on. “Scrumptless” leftovers, anyone?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A George Foreman by any other name...

One of the fallacies of semantics states that you can gain power over something by naming it. This is especially “true” when it comes to naming pets and children. With everything else, we must use the conventional labeling for things (unless we want to be seen as crazy). But for our pets and children, we choose what to call them.

Some unfortunate souls are stuck with a moniker that they just can’t shake. My husband, for example, has the same name as his father. After his parents’ divorce and years of estrangement from his father, it is the last name he wants to have. But what about all those poor “celebrity” children?

I was hoping it was just a rumor, but the fact is that George Foreman named all five of his sons George, and one of his daughters Georgette. You might find that many George’s in a family tree, but usually not all in the same household. Of course, they all have nicknames, but that’s beside the point.

Parents should wield the power to name wisely.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tool teaches you how to make cookies

The band Tool released a song in 1996 entitled Die Eier Von Satan (The Balls of Satan) in which the German lyrics are a recipe for hash cookies. Because the song is German and includes a man shouting to a cheering crowd, we immediately associate it with Hitler and the Nazis. Of course, Americans associate almost anything German with Hitler and the Nazis.

The phrase which is repeated within the song is "Und kine Eier,” meaning “and no eggs.” If you take it one step further, though, you can see the “eggs” as Jews, and Hitler’s recipe for society would include no Jews. But I think that might be taking it a little too far.

Either way, I think this song sounds cool, even if the lyrics are just a recipe. At least it’s better than the Fast Food Song.

Obsessing Over Foreign Lyrics

Americans absolutely obsess over songs in foreign languages. Maybe it’s because we don’t understand just how dumb the lyrics really are. A few years ago, this annoying song called the Fast Food Song by the Fast Food Rockers) hit dance floors and impregnated our brains with nonsense. In German, it did sound kind of cool, and even had a few words we could understand. In English, it sucks. Period.

You might remember the refrain: McDonald’s McDonald’s Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut! Repeated over and over to brain-numbing infinity. And there were these awesome dance moves to the song, too. Reminds me of the YMCA and Macarena, but (dare I say it?) even more pathetic.

I would like to say that the lyrics are making fun of Americans and our overweight nation of fast-food eaters, but that isn’t the case. The song is really only about being hungry and eating fast food, maybe with a sexual subtext.

Another depressing note, it seems that witty lyrics are far from a prerequisite for top hits, either. Check out this poll of songs with the worst lyrics to kill some more brain cells. Its okay, you don’t really need those cells anyway.

Can you borrow me a brain?

The grammar police are here to arrest you. Your offense? Using “borrow,” “lend” and “loan” interchangeably. describes this as a “common misconception in some areas of the United States,” but I believe it to be a more widespread phenomenon. You have been sentenced to community service – ensuring that you and those around you understand the proper usage of these words.

“Borrow” means to take something from someone with their permission, with intent to return it. “Lend” means to give something to someone who will return it. In America, the word “loan” is used as a synonym for lend but not in the figurative sense.

Example: The yellow walls lend the kitchen warmth.
NOT The yellow walls loan the kitchen warmth.

If you are still struggling with this, try substituting “take” for “borrow” and “give” for “lend” or “loan.” You will soon learn the error of your ways.

Example: Give me a pen. OR Loan me a pen. OR Lend me a pen.
NOT Take me a pen. OR Borrow me a pen.

Class dismissed. To test your skills, try taking this quiz.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Recalling the McNeil Recall of '82

Because of the moldy odor of certain pills, McNeil has recalled a slew of products. These include certain lot numbers of Tylenol, Tylenol Arthritis, Motrin, Rolaids and some children’s products. They contain a chemical called tribromoanisole (TBA), which is created through the breakdown of a compound used to treat the wood pallets these products are shipped on.

In 1982, another recall occurred, but this one was much more deadly. Before tamper-evident seals were introduced, a covert cyanide creep slipped some potent pills into bottles of pain reliever. Do you recall this recall? It was before I was born, but I can imagine the terror that Tylenol must have caused.

Despite what some may say, this is not now the case. Although you can get sick from TBA, it is no more severe than nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea. And we almost expect to get those this time of year…just not from our medicines.

Although recalls seem to be plaguing us en masse lately, ranging from spinach to weight loss pills, the word “recall” has been around since 1582. Meaning “to bring back by calling upon” it was used primarily as a verb. Its more modern noun version is not so modern either – it was introduced in 1611.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jury Rig and Jerry Built announce the birth of their son, Jerry Rig

Jerry Rig was born in 1959. His father, Jury Rig and his mother, Jerry Built came together in a rather unusual way.

Jury Rig, born in 1788, spawned from the sea. His name might be a shortened version of Injury Rig . He quickly builds temporary sails from available supplies when the main sail on a ship takes damage. He also constructs a variety of ingenious things.

Jerry Built, born in 1909, is a very slight woman, unsubstantial and cheap. She does not necessarily build quickly, as her lover and son, but she builds very sloppily.

Unlike his father Jury, Jerry is crude and improvises at the last minute. He builds more permanent structures than his father, but is less qualified at his work. Jerry gets many of his negative qualities from his mother.

Note: The proper spellings of these phrases are jerry-rig, jury-rig, and jerry-built. I used capitalized versions to create the semblance of names.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Words on Demand

I have recieved a request! One of my friends wants to know about the origins of the phrases "jury rig" and "jerry rig." I will write about this tonight after work.

Does anyone else have any requests?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Adam and Eve like to Scrump

Two possible meanings of the word “scrump:”
1. Screwing and humping
2. Stealing apples

I first heard this word from a coworker who said she wanted to get a tattoo on her hip that said “scrump me.” She then explained the first possible definition. Then I read it in a book referring to Adam and Eve and their “scrumping” escapade. The book (The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins) then explains the word to mean stealing apples. My brain nearly exploded.

Turns out that “scrump” is one of those weird British words. According to MSN Encarta, it means stealing fruit, particularly apples, from an orchard. But, the ever-reliable provided the definition my coworker mentioned.

The only explanation I can come up with is that Adam and Eve, after scrumping, realized they were naked and decided to scrump. It’s a very versatile word.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

There are atheists in foxholes!

And that is a fact. Yet, the myth persists that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” This statement implies that during times of extreme fear or stress, particularly in wartime, all people (without exception) will believe in or hope for a higher power.

The origin of this phrase isn’t clear cut, but there are many possibilities. Some sources credit Lieutenant-Colonel William J. Clear or Lieutenant-Colonel William Casey. Most often, though, the journalist Ernie Pyle is cited. In 1942, the line was used in the film “Wake Island.” The phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” was used at least as early as World War I.

Logically, any statement using absolute terms (such as “always” or “never” or in this case “no”) can easily be proved false. If you find even one atheist in a foxhole, the statement is false. A funny thing about this statement is that it doesn’t even specify a when or where, so if there are any atheists in any foxholes at any time in any place, the statement is false. In other words, there are atheists in foxholes.

To use a more statistical method, however, I can note that the religious conviction of current US military personnel tends to be less than that of the general population. And we can’t deny that there are a definite percentage of atheists within the general population itself. In fact, the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers has adopted the catchphrase “Atheists in Foxholes” to point out that the original statement is far from a statistical fact.

Why, then, does it persist as a cliché phrase used by religious and even media representatives? Perhaps it is because many theists believe atheists are in denial. That they actually do believe in a higher power but refuse to acknowledge the deity. From an atheists’ point of view, that logic doesn’t make sense because how can you deny something that doesn’t exist in the first place?

Quick joke (from Digital Bits Skeptic) to lighten things up a little:
While in your foxhole, did you ever have a moment when you decided that God exists?
a) Yes.
b) No.
c) I was too busy trying not to get decapitated to think about it.

In many institutions, as well as the military, the religious questionnaire only allows atheist respondents to declare their religious affiliation as “other” or “no religious preference.” More recently, other options have been made available, including “atheist” and “agnostic,” but in many cases the choices remain limited.

So there might even be more atheists in foxholes than we know about.

Related Links
Science Blogs
Digital Bits Skeptic
Free Thought Forum
Believer's Journey

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cotton swabs, tissues and shortening - Part III

As promised, I looked into the origins of Crisco also. Lately, I’ve become completely obsessed with eponyms (can’t you tell by the last four posts?) but I pledge to post about something entirely different soon. But I did want to know about Crisco…

The name Crisco is actually a sort of acronym for what it contains, which is CRYStallized Cottonseed Oil. Other names that the substance went by include Krispo, and Cryst. The latter was abandoned because of connotations related to Jesus Christ (you can’t really spread Him on your food, now can you?)

Crisco is unique from other forms of cooking fats (such as butter, oil, or lard) because it is oil that has been reformulated through a process called hydrogenation to create a shortening that remains solid at room temperature. The original purpose of Crisco shortening was to be used for candle making as a cheap substitute for more expensive animal fats.

With the advent of readily-available electricity, the candle business wasn’t making the profits Proctor & Gamble had intended, and Crisco needed a new customer. Because of the fat content of the product, and its resemblance to lard, they decided to market it as an ingredient used in cooking. Offering free cookbooks with recipes using Crisco sped the change along.

Now owned by Smuckers, Crisco is widely used in recipes and is still hailed as the first shortening product made entirely of vegetable oil. But, like many products on the market, it has also been found useful in other situations, as well. For example, it can be used for seasoning cast iron cookware and as a moisturizer for afro-textured hair. Crisco has also been used by historical battle re-enactors, who lubricate musket balls to reduce the effects of black powder residue.

Related Links
Mother Linda's

Monday, January 4, 2010

An Incomplete List of Eponyms

An eponym is proper noun that is used to refer to generic items. My recent blogs about Q-tips and Kleenex are prime examples of this.

In my opinion, the fact that we use a brand name as a generic term says a lot about the brand. It means it is ubiquitous, it is everywhere, it has clogged our brains to the point that we can’t even think about what the generic term is anymore!

For some companies, though, this is upsetting because it becomes more and more difficult to defend their trademark of the brand name. An interesting article on this can be found at the Vitamin IMC blog (which is written by students in the integrated marketing communications program at Northwestern).

Below are several examples of brand names and their generic counterparts. You can also test your knowledge of several eponyms by taking a brief quiz at

The Semi-Official List of Eponyms
• Chapstick (lip balm)
• Xerox (copy machine)
• Band-Aid (adhesive bandage)
• Fridge or Fridgedaire
• Hoover (vacuum)
• Levis (jeans)
• Rollerblades
• Escalator (power-driven stair system)
• Coke (cola)
• Tampax (tampon)
• Kotex (tampon)
• Trojan (condom)
• Binki (pacifier)
• Post-its (self-stick removable reminder note)
• Jell-o (gelatin)
• Visine (eye drops)
• Frisbee (toy flying saucer)
• Google (to perform a web-based search)
• Kool-Aid (instant lemonade, soft drink mix)
• Scotch tape (cellophane adhesive tape)
• Popsicle (colored ice candy on a stick)
• White-out (typographical correction fluid)
• Styrofoam (extruded polystyrene foam)
• Velcro (hook and loop fastener)
• Thermos (thermal insulated flask)
• Hi-lighter (pen-style highlighting marker)
• Listerine (antiseptic mouth wash)
• Saran wrap (plastic food storage wrap)
• Jeep (compact sport-utility station wagon)
• Vicks (nasal decongestant cream)
• Webster’s (pocket or desk reference dictionary)
• Alka-Seltzer (effervescent antacid)
• Spam (smoked pork and ham loaf)
• Bisquick (instant pancake mix)
• Cheerios (toasted oats)
• Rice Crispies (toasted rice cereal)
• Twizzlers (strawberry-flavored licorice)
• Lycra (nylon spandex)
• Cool-whip (whipped cream topping)
• Pepsi (soda pop)
• Tylenol (acetaminophen tablets)
• Halls (cough drops)
• Lego (plastic building blocks)
• Rolodex (rotary card file)
• Vaseline (petroleum jelly)
• Muzak (elevator music)
• Pop Tart (toaster pastry)
• Walkman (handheld radio cassette player)
• Aspirin
• Yo-yo
• Zipper
• AstroTurf (fake grass)
• Breathalyzer (device to test level of drunkenness)
• Brillo Pads (cleaning pads)
• Hula-Hoop
• Jacuzzi (whirlpool hot tub)
• Jockey Shorts (underpants)
• Magic Marker (semi-permanent marker)
• Ping-Pong (table tennis)
• Play-doh (modeling clay)
• Slim Jim (packaged beef stick)
• Super Glue (adhesive glue)

Related Links
Vitamin IMC blog
Database of American Proprietary Eponyms
The Straight Dope

Cotton swabs, tissues and shortening - Part II

Kleenex is synonymous with tissues, to the point that if someone asks me for tissue, my first response is to ask if they want tissue paper. In my vocabulary, the word “tissues,” as in “facial tissues,” simply does not exist.

And, I will admit to being a brand-name buyer when it comes to these “tissues” as well. Puffs just don’t do the trick and generics don’t either. So where did the name Kleenex come from? It makes your face “clean” but is there more to it than that?

Apparently not. Of all the sites I visited, only one offered an etymology (origin) of the word “Kleenex.” The word itself is an
arbitrary alteration of ‘clean’ and the brand-name suffix ‘-ex.’”
. Kleenex is also a trademark that has been used by Kimberly-Clark since June 12, 1924

But all is not lost. I did find some interesting factoids along the way. The origin of Kleenex facial tissues, if not the word “Kleenex” is interesting enough on its own. The U.S. manufacturer Kimberly-Clark invented creped wadding called Cellucotton, which was used in the filters of gas masks in World War I. After the war, the wadding was redesigned and remarketed as Kleenex.

Kleenex facial tissues were also originally marketed for the removal of cold cream or makeup remover. By the 1930’s, however, it became widely used as a sort of disposable handkerchief and the company’s advertising changed. Their campaign advised: “Don’t Keep a Cold in Your Pocket.”

Coming soon...Crisco!

Related Links
Marketing Magazine
Online Etymology Dictionary

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cotton swabs, tissue and shortening - Part I

There are many products called only by their brand name, even if we’re buying generic. This includes Q-tips, Kleenex, and Crisco, among others. Is it the ubiquitous nature of the brand and its advertising or something yet more sinister at work here?


The name “Q-tips” came from the inventor of cotton swabs, Leo Gerstenzang. Few people know, however, that the original name of the product was Baby Gays. In 1926, Gerstenzang changed the name to Q-Tips Baby Gays to make it more marketable.

Eventually, the “Baby Gays” portion of the name was dropped to promote the idea that cotton swabs are for the whole family, not just babies. Maybe it’s a good thing they dropped that part of the name, too. Just imagine if we called all cotton swabs “Baby Gays!”

But what does the “Q” stand for? According to many sources, the Q in “Q-tips” stands for quality. The company later took advantage of this (for a very limited time) with the marketing of a kit of baby-care products called “Q-things.” These included “Q-Talc,” “Q-Soap,” “Q-Oil,” “Q-Cream,” and “Q-tips.”

A 1953 lawsuit filed by the Q-tips company against Johnson & Johnson argued that J&J’s use of the term “Johnson’s Cotton Tips” violated the Q-tips trademark. Although no money was awarded to Q-tips for this suit, it was deemed that Q-tip is a trademarked term and cannot be used in any shape or form in the name or packaging of a product developed by another company.

The report from this case states that
“there is no doubt that “Q-tips” is a proper trademark unless it [serves] as either a generic name for the goods or a designation descriptive of them.”
Although the general public uses “Q-tips” as a generic term for cotton swabs, the term itself is unique enough to maintain its “trademark” status.

Next time, I will go more into tissues and shortening. For the sake of shortness, of course, I end here.

Related Links
Pitara Kids Network

Friday, January 1, 2010

What is Middlesex?

To me, Middlesex is the title of a book written by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I wanted to know where the word itself came from. In the book, Middlesex is the name of a Detroit suburb where the family of the main character (Cal Stephanides) lives.

It is also used in reference to Cal’s sexuality and gender. Born as a genetic male who appeared female, Cal is raised as Callie. When Cal/Callie reaches puberty, however, it becomes clear that she isn’t like other girls her age and decides to live as a male. The term “Middlesex” in this book is best used to describe someone who lives “betwixt and between”.

After doing a little research, I found that Middlesex was also the name of a historic county of England. Southern England was divided into four Saxon tribes: Wessex (West Saxons), Sussex (South Saxons), Essex (East Saxons) and Middlesex (the central Saxons). Of course, the British had no intention of implying the “sex” suffix of the word as anything sexual.

Eugenides play on the word is entertaining and works well for his book. I wonder if there are others who have used the word “Middlesex” in this way and whether or not this was before or after Eugenides’ use. I wasn’t able to find much, but if you have any input, feel free to post it here.

Related Links