Archive for the ‘Charles Layton’ Category

The Milky Way. Photo from the Internet


Re-post from 2012.  Charles Layton was a member of the Blogfinger staff when he wrote this marvelous piece. Charles now lives in Philadelphia.  He is a professional editor from the Philadelphia Inquirer, now retired.


By Charles Layton

A few years ago we lived for three weeks in Nicaragua, in a house at the edge of a small, very remote fishing village called Casares. It was a spectacular place. Instead of shooshing and murmuring, as they mostly do in Ocean Grove, the waves on that shore towered and crashed and sucked and splattered and spat. They were never subdued.

From our porch, looking out on the Pacific Ocean, we watched pelicans dive bombing for fish. Each afternoon huge flocks – a hundred or more at a time – would fly right past us, headed for their nesting grounds.

But even better was the sky at night. After all the meager lights in that little town went dark, the sky became a light show of blazing stars and star clusters, plunging meteors, wandering planets. Sometimes, very late, when the call of nature roused me from bed, I would walk out on the patio alone and stare and stare at the universe, and especially at the Milky Way, wheeling above me. Stars by the thousands, unbelievably distinct and clear.

In Ocean Grove, on most nights, you can actually count the number of visible stars. Often it’s no more than a dozen. Sometimes it’s none. Living under a permanent scrim of light pollution, we forget how many stars are out there. Many of us have never actually seen the night sky in its true state – as I saw it on the coast of Nicaragua, and as our ancestors knew it.

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear jokes about the Mayan calendar coming to an end, and how that will be the destruction of the earth and all mankind. No need to do your Christmas shopping or pay your taxes now, our doom is written in the stars, har har. What idiots, those Mayans.

But really, the Mayans and all ancient peoples lived their lives in constant communion with the teeming, moving lights in the natural sky. The ancient peoples had no idea what those lights were. They noted that the lights moved in strange ways. Sometimes one could be seen to streak and fall out of the sky. Sometimes a comet would appear, ominously hovering. (What did that portent? Something important, right?) The night sky was those people’s television, fraught with drama and bad news.

The constellation Orion. The three middle stars are his belt

Religions arose to explain all those moving lights. Stories were told. People saw pictures in the sky – a lion, a crab, a hunter named Orion holding a bow in one hand and a club in the other. Because the planets moved independently of the rest of the turning firmament, the ancients associated those special lights with gods – Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.

But because the sky was so brilliant, prominent, ever-present and mysterious, ancient people studied it methodically. They built observatories and took and recorded measurements. They found that the heavenly bodies displayed repeating patterns which, when plotted, yielded information useful to hunters, farmers, nomads and sailors. Astrologers tried to discern when “the stars were right” for planting or marrying or doing business or giving birth.

The Bible says the “wise men” (men who understood signs in the sky) were guided to Bethlehem by a star. If such a beckoning star rose in the sky now, I doubt we’d even see it — unless JCP&L suffered a major blackout.

Hurricane Sandy taught us the value of electricity, and I’m happy to have the power back on; I would never want to do without it. Still, it’s not a trivial thing, our loss of that ancient awareness of the richness of the sky.



BILLIE HOLIDAY  (this song added on 4/23/21):


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A churchyard in France—the last rose of summer. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Paul Goldfinger ©


By Charles Layton, formerly Editor @Blogfinger:

Good morning, class. Today we’ll study the poetic tradition known as carpe diem, which means “seize the day.”  It’s a phrase from the Roman poet Horace, who felt that life is short and unpredictable so let’s bring and make love and party on.

The poet Robert Herrick was in this tradition when he wrote his poem “To the Virgins, to Make much of Time.”  Its most famous line is Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. But it’s not about gardening.

Here is an American popular song in the carpe diem tradition. It’s been recorded by Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Wynton Marsalis. Johnny Harman sang it on the soundtrack to the movie The Bridges of Madison County. I especially like the concluding lines:

For all we know this may only be a dream.
We come and go like the ripples in a stream.
So love me tonight tomorrow was made for some,
Tomorrow may never come for all we know.

Susannah McCorkle:


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By Charles Layton

Happy new year, word wonks.

I’m thinking that our linguistic new year’s resolution should be about clichés. I hate clichés like sin. So in 2013 I resolve to avoid them like the plague. Avoiding clichés is going to be Job One. It’s going to be a game changer. A no-brainer. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Seriously, was this past year more cliché-packed than most? Especially in politics? It seemed so.

What if, in the coming year, our politicos and their enablers and hirelings and flacks made a real effort not to talk about (to pick one example) “kicking the can down the road.” That used to be an extremely apt image – much better than the older expression, “punt.” But after you’ve heard it three or four times a day it loses its magic.

Many clichés got to be clichés because they were magical — originally. When I first heard someone talk about “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” I was in wonderment at the pure genius of that. Now, through repetition, the image has lost impact. So it goes. (I’m always reminded of the man who read Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time and complained that it was full of clichés.)

Anyway, I’m for a bipartisan agreement that we stop referring to roads with cans in them. And that we forego the use of the word “spin” in its political sense; it’s making people dizzy. Also, no more references to a “fiscal cliff.” And no more accusing people of “politics as usual.” That trite little phrase that has come to mean both anything and nothing. In fact, accusing someone of politics as usual has itself become politics as usual.

I’d also ask Christian conservatives to stop accusing secular liberals of waging a “war on Christmas” – a phrase as seasonally predictable as an Andy Williams song — and that liberals, in return, stop calling out conservatives over “the war on women.” Discarding the “war on” shorthand might allow both groups to frame their complaints more precisely.

The “war on” motif began in the 60s, to my recollection, when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. It sounded pretty cool back then – until the war on poverty got displaced by a real war in Vietnam. But in the 70s Nixon tried to have a war on cancer. And then came the war on drugs, which has had a longer run than Cats. Bush launched a war on terror. More recently, according to the New York newspapers, Mayor Bloomberg has had both a “war on guns” and a “war on soda.” In between, we’ve had various “culture wars” along with wars on crime, inflation, obesity, germs – everything except a war on wars. I read a headline the other day that said: “Putin Declares War on Orphans.” Thus does a once-vigorous metaphor become shriveled and exhausted, and thus do its users betray their linguistic laziness. “War on” has become a headline writer’s cute little joke.

Sports produces even more clichés than government and politics. It’s amazing how long baseball announcers have been yelling, “It’s outta here!”

But basic sports terms have a way of transmogrifying into political clichés. Horse race terms predominate during election campaigns, when candidates try to “break out of the pack” and become “front runners.” Sometimes they run “neck and neck” or even have a “photo finish.”

Just to shock us out of our cataleptic boredom, I would challenge the commentators to take up another sport. How about cricket? Wouldn’t it be great if they started announcing that Obama had served up a zooter to Congress, or that the New Jersey Democrats had denounced Christie for bowling grubbers and beamers. I’d buy tickets to that.

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Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland

Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland

By Charles Layton

Recently, in passing, I mentioned the word malarkey, which Joe Biden had used in a debate. Last week I ran across the word again, this time in a political op-ed piece — further evidence that this sprightly little expression has lately, like a sperm, wiggled its way into our national intercourse.

My father, who had Scotch-Irish roots, used to say malarkey quite often, and also another, similar word, blarney, which he pronounced with three syllables: buh-LAR-nee. Blarney and Malarkey both mean the same thing: misleading talk or nonsense. Baloney, if you will.

The rock musician Mark Knopfler partnered the two terms in the lyric of his 2009 song “Cleaning My Gun” —

Blarney and Malarkey, they’re a devious firm / They’ll take you to the cleaners or let you burn …

The word blarney comes from Blarney Castle and its famous “blarney stone.” This stone, set in the castle’s wall, is said to invest a person who kisses it with the “gift of gab.”

According to one account, the present meaning of blarney dates from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who was attempting to wrest control of Irish lands from their feudalist owners, one of whom was Cormac MacCarthy, the lord of Blarney Castle. In an effort to negotiate away as little as possible to the crown, he used elaborate evasions and stalling tactics. One day, in frustration, Elizabeth is said to have screamed, “This is all blarney! What he says he never means.”

The source of malarkey is more obscure. It seems not to be of Irish origin at all, although it sounds like it, and it probably does derive somehow from the Irish-American surname Malarkey.

Cartoonist and word-slinger Tad Dorgan

Cartoonist and word-slinger Tad Dorgan

 According to the website World Wide Words, malarkey was first used in print in 1922 by the American cartoonist Tad Dorgan, who also either created or helped popularize other colorful slang expressions such as “hard-boiled,” “dumbbell,” “kibitzer,” “cat’s pajamas” and “drugstore cowboy.” His obituary credits him with coining the Roaring Twenties exclamation “Twenty-three, Skiddoo!” We really should write a column about him sometime.

Malarkey was first listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1929.

Various theories of origin have been advanced – that it might derive from Madame Misharty, supposedly the name of a British fortune teller, or that it might have a connection to the Greek malakia, meaning “softness,” but both those theories are flimsy.

So we’re left with the presumption that the word did arise in connection with the surname Malarkey. Maybe someone with that name once had a reputation for being full of it. Or (my own suggestion) maybe Tad Dorgan just made it up, as he did so many other slang expressions.

Many English words do derive from personal names. “Quisling,” which means a traitor, comes from the name of Major Vidkun Quisling, who collaborated with the Nazis in Norway. “Bowdlerize,” meaning to censor a work of literature, comes from Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 excised those parts of Shakespeare which, in his wisdom, he deemed unfit to be read by women and children.

General Joe Hooker, a fighter and a lover.

General Joe Hooker, a fighter and a lover.

But one must be careful in making these name associations without good evidence. I have read more than once that the word “hooker,” meaning a prostitute, came from the shady morals of the Civil War general Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Although this has been widely reported as fact, I’ve just learned that it’s all wrong. A letter unearthed by a historian and dated c. 1845 – well before the time of Fighting Joe – says this: “If he comes by way of Norfolk he will find any number of pretty Hookers in the Brick row not far from French’s hotel. Take my advice and touch nothing in the shape of a prostitute when you come through Raleigh, for in honest truth the clap is there of luxuriant growth.”

So the claim that the word hooker was derived from the name of the Civil War general turns out to be a bunch of malarkey.

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A portrait of the author

By Charles Layton

Here is my problem: I don’t want anything for Christmas.

I don’t need clothes, I’m retired. My daily uniform is jeans and flannel shirts. My closet and attic are bursting with stuff I never wear. I put on a suit and tie about once a year – twice if it’s a really bad year.

Do I need gloves? Not really. I have two pairs.

A new parka? – got one last year, and it’s great.

How about a watch? Don’t wear one anymore. Like I said, I’m retired.

People used to give me music CDs and books at Christmas, but now I download all that to iTunes and Kindle. There’s nothing to wrap and put under a tree, unless it would be an Amazon gift certificate, which is embarrassingly unfestive.

I have all the electronics I can use. Desktop computer — check. Laptop — check. iPhone — got a new one. iPod – got one. Digital recorder — got one, seldom use it. Camera equipment – I use my wife’s. Don’t need more.

I don’t have an iPad or any other kind of tablet device, but that’s because I can’t figure out what I’d use one for, or why I’d want to carry it around.

What about some tools? I have all the tools I need. Anyway, I really don’t know how to fix anything.

You would think that having all the possessions one wants in life would be a good thing, wouldn’t you? And for most of the year it is. I am happy, I am blessed, my cup runneth over.

But come December, thanks to the commercially oppressive nature of the season, having all my earthly needs already fulfilled is awkward. Not wanting more makes me seem standoffish, alienated, uncooperative. I remember that my father used to feel something similar. “Christmas ought to be just for children,” he would say. I now think I know what he was getting at.

I stroll the malls, checking out the stores, and there’s just nothing there that appeals. If they were selling extra closet space, I would ask people to give me that.

I understand that people like to give gifts, that the impulse is natural and good, and I hate to be a Grinch, although I do recall that in the Dr. Seuss story the spirit of Christmas survived and flourished after the Grinch stole all the presents.

Here’s what I’m thinking. What if, this year, I just ask all my loved ones, instead of giving me something, to make a donation to the local food pantry or to Hurricane Sandy relief.

Would that be so awful? It’s what would really make me the happiest.

But OK, if anyone still insists on giving me something, I guess I could use some socks.

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By Charles Layton

The Blogfinger Grammarian makes no apology for being totally out of it.

He does not apologize for the fact that his fashion consciousness is about the same as it was in high school. Nor for the fact that, of all the performers at the Bamboozle music festival, the only one he’d heard of was Bon Jovi. Nor for the fact that he doesn’t know who the Kardashians are, has never once watched American Idol, and has never heard Lady Gaga sing.

He no longer follows any sports teams except the Lakewood Blueclaws, having decided that performance-enhancing drugs, money, television, childishly egotistical acting-out and pedophilia have made big-time sports unworthy of serious attention.

When the Blogfinger Grammarian passes the magazine racks at the Wegmans checkout counter, he doesn’t recognize any of the celebrities on the covers (except for Brad and Jen, whom he does kind of hope may one day get back together, although he knows they never will).

Being ignorant of so many cultural references, the Blogfinger Grammarian no longer gets half the jokes on Saturday Night Live, and so he doesn’t watch it any more. (He wishes Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd would come back, although he knows that would be a disaster.)

However, one thing that I (let’s drop the third-person affectation) do know something about is the English language, since I made my living off of it. At least I thought I knew the English language; I thought I knew words.

But now I’ve just read that the Oxford American Dictionary has announced its annual “word of the year,” and it is a word I’d never heard of. The dictionary claims that its word of the year is chosen for being “a word that has attracted interest and that embodies in some way the ethos of the year.” Well if that’s true, I must have wandered right out of the ethos and right into the anti-ethos.

Because the word of the year is – ta-daaah! – GIF.

But not GIF as a noun – that’s supposedly old-hat. What’s new and exciting, according to Oxford American, is that people are now using GIF as a verb. To GIF means to perform the act of creating a GIF. Or posting a GIF online, or something.

This is a travesty. In the first place, show of hands, how many of you know what the heck a GIF is, or what the verb “to GIF” means? If you were asked to GIF, what would you do? (It’s pronounced with a soft “g,” by the way, as in “giant.”)

I looked it up. Turns out the letters stand for Graphics Interchange Format. And a GIF is a series of images put together via computer in a short, loop-repeating sequence.

Here’s a link. Check out a few GIFs and then hit the back arrow and come on back.

Back now?

OK. Although GIFs are empty calories, they can be kind of fun. They’re all over the Internet. People share them in emails.

Still, if I’d had a vote I certainly would not have supported GIF as word of the year. Just because some Internet geeks with too much time on their hands started using it as a verb? Please.

Some of the other choices Oxford American considered but turned down seem way more appealing to me. They turned down “Super PAC,” which has the advantage that you hear and read that word constantly. It really is part of the ethos of the year 2012. So is “superstorm,” but the judges passed on that one as well.

 “Malarkey” was even a contender, because Joe Biden used it in the debate with Paul Ryan. It has been reported that moments after Biden said “That’s a bunch of malarkey” people on the Internet went wild appreciating the word, discussing its meaning, its derivation, variations on its spelling. Malarkey reportedly was mentioned on Twitter 30,000 times in one minute.

It’s a good word. A great word. Maybe not deserving to be anyone’s word of the year, but it beats the heck out of GIF.

Can I please get an amen on that?

MUSIC by Ella Fitzgerald:

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By Charles Layton

My grandson plays on a hockey team called the Glaciers.

I love my grandson, and I love his team (Go, Glaciers!), but why would you name a hockey team after a natural feature that symbolizes extreme slowness? Would you name a team the Snails? The Sloths? The Drying Paint? I liked the name of his previous team. It was called the Blazers.

Here in Ocean Grove we have what strikes me as another example of an ill-advised name: The Albatross Hotel. Now an albatross is a large seabird which was feared as a bad omen by sailors of old. You didn’t dare kill one; it could bring down disaster upon your entire ship and crew, as happened in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Someone plagued with bad luck was said to have “an albatross around his neck.”

One of the worst names I ever encountered was in Ecuador. Mary and I once took a flight from the national capital, Quito, to the little Amazon jungle town of Coca, and the airline we flew on was called Icaro. That name, Icaro, is the Spanish rendering of Icarus, a young man in ancient mythology whose father built him a set of wings made from feathers stuck together with wax. When Icarus took to the sky, he ignored his father’s warning and flew too close to the sun. The sun’s heat melted the wax, the wings disintegrated, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.

So if you owned an airline, would you name it after Icarus? I wouldn’t.

Icaro Airlines. Note the feathered wing design on the tail.

People on the American frontier had a tendency to give odd and laughable names to small towns. Tightwad, Missouri. Bug Tussle, Oklahoma. Spunky Puddle, Ohio. Possumneck, Mississippi. Hell, Michigan.

One wonders what life is like in Hell, Michigan. Is the road to Hell paved with good intentions? Are the people there Hellions? Does Hell ever freeze over? (I bet it does.) Do the residents of Hell get sick and tired of hearing the same old wisecracks? (I bet they do.)

How do town founders decide on such names? Alcohol might play a part. One thing is for sure, if Bug Tussle had ever had dreams of blossoming into a major metropolis, hosting the Olympic Games or becoming the capital of the state of Oklahoma, those dreams went right out the window as soon as it acquired its name.

Some people acquire or give themselves nicknames that are funny. The actors Slim Pickens and Rip Torn come to mind. I don’t think those pun names hurt either of their careers.

Ima Hogg, circa 1900

The amazing thing, though, is that, cruel as it seems, people actually do give their children joke names. Texas had a governor in the late 19th century named James Stephen “Big Jim” Hogg, who named his daughter Ima Hogg. Ima was still around when I was young. In fact, her name was a joke among children all across Texas. We were told that Governor Hogg had had two daughters, Ima Hogg and Ura Hogg. Only recently did I discover that Ura Hogg was fictitious.

But Ima Hogg was for real. She was a pillar of Texas society and quite wealthy after oil was discovered on her property. She became a philanthropist and a noted art collector who donated hundreds of works (Picasso, Klee, Matisse) to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. She also established and managed the Houston Symphony Orchestra. She worked for equality for women, for the advancement of African-Americans and much, much more. She was hell on wheels, and you have to wonder whether living with that name helped drive her to such heights of achievement.

Ima Hogg died in 1975, much beloved and respected as “The First Lady of Texas.”

So, as Shakespeare said, what’s in a name?

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St. Isidore — patron saint of the Internet?

By Charles Layton

This week, in a restaurant, I happened to glance at a man and woman sitting at a nearby table. The man had his hands in his lap, his head bowed and eyes lowered, and I just assumed that he was saying grace. But then, when I was able to see his hands, I noticed his thumbs were moving. He wasn’t praying, he was text messaging.

Actually, he could have been praying. Many people use their Internet gadgetry for religious purposes. They attend live-streamed church or synagogue services. They log onto prayeronline.org, where one can submit a prayer request to the website’s “prayer team.” Or they teleport themselves to any number of little cyber-chapels where one can do one’s own praying in peace and quiet. These sites are the natural descendants of Dial-A-Prayer, which dates from the 1950s, when telephones actually had dials. (Today, of course, we have Dial-A-Prayer.com.)

Some years ago there was a movement in the Catholic Church proposing Saint Isidore of Seville to be the patron saint of the Internet. There was even a prayer people could recite as they went online. It asked that, through the intercession of Saint Isidore, God should “direct our hands and eyes only to that which is pleasing to Thee and let us treat with charity and patience all those souls whom we encounter.” (If only.)

It’s hard to think of any aspect of our lives that hasn’t immigrated onto the Internet. Religion, yes. Education, yes. Commerce and shopping, definitely yes. Filing income tax returns, yes. Work, yes; millions of people telecommute from home, and millions more, even if they’re in an office, conduct business online. This includes those many millions worldwide who send emails telling me I’ve won the Spanish National Lottery.

Our children and grandchildren are showing us how social life will be in the near future; it will be centered online, with messages and photos and videos flashing at ever-increasing speed throughout the neighborhood, the school, the city, the world. Have you not noticed that, unless forbidden to do so, children will text message at the dinner table? Or while sitting beside you in a car? Or late into the night, lying in the dark in their little beds, their intent little faces dimly illuminated by the phone screen?

Courtship and sex online? – Let’s not even go there.

Politics and diplomacy? Just recently we’ve seen an interesting example in the movie “Innocence of Muslims,” which seems to have originated in California and led to riots and murder in North Africa. It’s not unthinkable that our next war will not only be covered on YouTube, as wars are now; it will be started by YouTube.

In the early ‘90s Ross Perot, as a presidential candidate, promoted the idea of electronic democracy, or E-democracy as it is now called. He argued that direct democracy, the kind the Athenians had, was preferable to indirect (representative) democracy, and that, thanks to computers, this would now be practical. We could hold town meetings via computer, we could vote via computer – and not just vote to elect our public officials; we could all, as E-citizens, vote to decide specific policy.

For instance, should we bomb Iran? That’s a question too important for a relatively small group of government officials to decide. Let’s have a national E-poll of all the citizens.

But if we ever do go that far, I might have to take refuge at Dial-A-Prayer.com.

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The Grammarian befriending a pachyderm. Photo by Mary Walton

By Charles Layton

Today’s word is “ramify,” meaning to divide into branches, from the Latin ramus (branch). That’s what it says on one of my favorite websites, wordsmith.org.

This website is run by Anu Garg, a writer and computer consultant who lives beside a lake somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Each day he features a different word, for which he provides its definition and some interesting commentary.

Also, he throws in a daily random quote, which he calls “A thought for today.” This morning’s thought, for instance, was from James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

This little website claims nearly a million linguaphile (i.e., word nerd) subscribers in at least 200 countries. It’s been up and running since 1994. It’s been written up in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Mr. Garg has become an established authority. People write in with questions, such as the following:

From Mary at worldbank.org:

I  was wondering if you might be able to help me. I have recently started to date a special man. The problem is that I am uncomfortable calling him my “boyfriend” because he isn’t a boy (and I’ve always hated that word anyway; it’s sophomoric). I looked up “boyfriend” in Microsoft Word’s thesaurus but the alternatives are equally unacceptable. Please, please, please, is there a word out there that indicates a close, romantic relationship without being too sappy (or too explicit)? If you can suggest one, I would be forever grateful!

Here is Garg’s answer:

Dear Mary,

I suggest “priya” (pronounced PRI-ya). This unisex word comes from Sanskrit, isn’t sappy, and conveys that unique sense of affection which forms the essense of a relationship.

You can see the level this guy is operating on.

I usually just read the word of the day and then move on, but this morning, having time to kill, I started following some of the comment strings in this website’s extensively rich archives.

I stumbled on a great conversation about the difference between a rug and a carpet. It began with this, from a reader: I tend to think of a carpet as covering more space than a rug. But the dictionaries give them as synonyms.

Then Fiberbabe posted this response: Yeah, I think of carpet as having that wall-to-wall quality, whereas a rug just covers a portion of the floor … throw rug, area rug, mug rug 🙂 … no one I know would ever say “throw carpet.”

But then Jheem filed this dissenting opinion: If a carpet goes from wall to wall, why would anybody talk about wall-to-wall carpeting? Or an area rug? Also, there used to be talk about a flying carpet, not a flying rug. You get called onto the carpet, but have the rug pulled out from under yourself. Carpet is from Latin/Italian and rug is from Scandinavian.

See how educational? Here are a few other things Wordsmith.org taught me today:

  • The expression “ring true” comes from the old practice of judging a coin to be genuine or fake by the sound it gives when tapped. That practice became obsolete when coins stopped being made of precious metals, but the idiom lives on.
  • All elephants are pachyderms, but not all pachyderms are elephants; the rhinoceros and hippopotamus have also been classified as such. The word means thick-skinned, and you may apply it as well to a thick-skinned, insensitive, stolid person. (Which seems unfair to something as fundamentally inoffensive as an elephant.)
  • The disease we call cancer comes from the Greek word for “crab” because the ancient physician Galen thought the spreading lesions of a malignant tumor looked like crab’s claws.
  • The word apocalypse, meaning revelation, comes from the Greek word meaning to uncover. But — surprise! — so does the word eucalyptus. It literally means “well-covered.” (Wondering whether the word calypso might also be related, I looked it up elsewhere online. Alas, no connection whatsoever.)

I also ran across a quotation in which one of O. Henry’s characters misunderstands the term solar plexus. “‘His arm,’ said Chad, ‘is harder’n a diamond. He interduced me to what he called a shore-perpluxus punch and ’twas like being kicked twice by a mustang.”

And, finally, let’s conclude with this down-to-earth observation on language by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I would never use a long word where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who ‘ligate’ arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well.”

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By Charles Layton

I’ll tell you when I knew the jig was up. It was two years ago, when Hanna Rosin wrote that article in The Atlantic entitled “The End of Men.”

The article said that in 2010 women had become the majority of the American workforce for the first time in history. Most managers were now women. And three women were getting a college degree for every two men who got one, suggesting that, although women overall still earn less than men, that is apt to change. The average wife already contributes 42 percent of her family’s income — a bigger chunk than ever before.

Hanna Rosin’s article heralded an unprecedented role reversal in American life, and now she has expanded that article into a book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women. She attributes the rise of women in large part to the new service economy, which demands not physical strength but subtler traits many women possess in abundance — “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus.”

The role reversal lags in the political sphere, due mainly to the endurance of incumbency. If you look down the road, though, you can guess who is going to run things once today’s male legislators get old and conk out. There are already 17 women in the U.S. Senate and 73 in the House of Representatives. Women are also a growing presence in state legislatures.

Last February Forbes asked the question: “Where in our society are women taking over?” And the answer they gave was: “Pretty much everywhere.” Girls get more A’s in school. Boys get more D’s and F’s. Half of all medical and law degrees are being earned by women. And here, for me, was the most telling statistic of all from the Forbes article: Three out of four American couples who use sex-selection services at fertility clinics are hoping to have a girl rather than a boy.

I should have seen this coming back in high school. The boys were the golden athletes and the girls were the worshipful cheerleaders, but that was superficial. The girls were the dominant sex; they actually ran the school. Boys bragged and slouched arrogantly about, but they could no more have organized a senior prom than they could fly. So now, while those bouncy cheerleaders construct the 21st century matriarchy, more and more of us macho heroes are unemployed, depressed and dependent on “breadwinner wives” for support and sustenance.

Guys, there’s not much demand for us. Look around right here in town. Look who runs the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association and the Historical Society of Ocean Grove and the Beautification Project and the HPC and Ocean Grove United. It’s women. Just like in my high school.

And Hanna Rosin’s landmark book is not like so many earlier feminist works. It is not a cry of protest but a declaration of victory.

Maybe all this helps explain why men seem more angry about life these days. When was the last time a frustrated, enraged woman entered a theater or a classroom and sprayed the place with bullets? Women don’t do that. Neither do they waste whole afternoons doping their brains with beer and TV football. They’re upstairs studying for law school exams. Preparing to take over.

Here’s Ray Charles with a musical tribute to Hanna Rosin:

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By Charles Layton

The Harvard cheating scandal was in the paper again this morning. Every time I read about this it reminds me of my own career as an academic cheater.

Like the cheating at Harvard, mine was complicated. But here’s the difference: my cheating turned out to be one of the high points of my life as a student. Let me explain.

I wasn’t much of a student in high school. My early school years had been too easy. I had pretty much gotten by on glibness. So when I reached high school I had no idea how to study. And by then, I was at a point where I could no longer finesse my way through a test. It was study or flunk.

This became apparent in Miss Barkley’s American history class, where, at the end of the first semester, we faced a massive final exam, which would determine the greater part of our grade. And because I had (as usual) goofed off in class, I wasn’t at all prepared.

So I decided to cheat. And not in a small way. I was going to cheat on a colossal scale. I enlisted my friend Bobby, another goof-off, in the enterprise. We got excited about it. We were going to be the best cotton-pickin’ cheaters that school had ever produced.

We spent the better part of the weekend preparing elaborate “cheat sheets,” which we intended to smuggle into class on Monday morning and consult secretly during the exam.

We poured our most devoted energies into preparing those cheat sheets, which were to be miniaturized so we could hide them up our sleeves. We condensed the semester’s material into a shorthand outline, which we then painstakingly copied out in tiny lettering on long, inch-wide strips of paper – just enough info to answer a “what was” type of question.

“Whiskey Rebellion, 1791, grain farmers, tax.”

“Louisiana Purchase, 1803, Jefferson.”

“1st bank of the U.S, chartered 1791, Alex. Hamilton, Secy of Treas”

We wrote on both sides of these paper strips, and then we Scotch taped all the strips together to make one long strip, maybe four feet long. Then we rolled these long strips into double rolls, so that, with a deft flick of thumb and forefinger, we could scroll them this way or that way to retrieve the facts we needed for a given question.

Having accomplished this, we practiced looking up those various facts. Bobby would say to me, “XYZ Affair,” and I would scroll the strips until I found the notes on that.

“War of 1812,” I’d say, and Bobby would scroll to that spot on his sheet.

By Monday morning we had it down. We were pumped. We were confident that we could find any fact, quickly, and inconspicuously enough so as not to get busted. We were really going to put one over on the hawk-eyed Miss Barkley. Oh boy.

The bell rang. In we went to class. The tests were passed around.


I answered the first question just fine, without resorting to my cheat sheet. Then I answered the second question – again without consulting the cheat sheet. I remembered the pertinent facts just from having copied them down so carefully.

And so it went. I ended up going through that entire test without a single peek at my beautiful cheat sheet, which remained coiled like a sleeping worm just up my sleeve.

As I handed in my test paper and walked out the classroom door, it struck me that while I had thought I was preparing a clever way to beat the system, what I had really been doing was studying. Yeah. So that’s what studying was.

I had distilled the relevant information from the textbook, I had sorted and organized it, written it down, reviewed it… Totally by accident, I had discovered how to cram for a test. By hook or by crook, you might say.

I felt like a total idiot of course. Because instead of being the devilish, romantic outlaw I had set out to be, I’d turned myself into a studious nerd.

I used that stumbled-upon method of study, though, for the rest of my days. Omitting, of course, the part where you compress the information into a small paper roll and hide it on your person. That part – the unethical part — was the one step in the process that turned out to be a waste of time.

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By Charles Layton, Blogfinger staff.  Re-posted from 2012.  Still relevant.

I eastwooded today. It was totes cray FOMO. But, really, YOLO, right?

Oh, I forgot, I’m writing for Blogfinger. Gotta switch to the king’s English here.

Today we’re going to travel into the turbulent world of in-crowd slang. Please stow your baggage securely in the overhead compartment and make sure your tray is in the upright position.

For our purposes, an “in-crowd” is any group of people that wishes to distinguish itself from the likes of you. To do this, an in-crowd will develop its own language. If you’ve ever been in the armed services, you know what I’m talking about. The sergeants used to tell us recruits there were three ways to do a thing: the right way, the wrong way and the Army way. And God knows the Army has its own way of speaking. Ten hut!

African Americans developed a way of speaking that was intended to be private from whites. This dates from slavery. It obviously served a needed purpose. And the black community has been a fertile source of language engineering ever since.

Jazz musicians have always had a special way of speaking. Back in the day, one of my favorite jazz-musician/hipster turns of phrase was the playful attachment of the suffix “ville” to almost any word. Instead of being weird, something would be weirdsville. Instead of being cool, it would be coolsville.

In my wandering youth – in the very early 60s — I once found myself riding on a train with a young musician who was just full of jazzy slang. He was almost a caricature of the type; he actually said “Daddy-oh.” When our train passed through the village of Hicksville, on Long Island, he asked me, “Hey, man, where are we?”

I said, “We’re in Hicksville.”

He said, “I know, man, but what’s the name of the place.”


Criminals and gangsters have always constituted the quintessential in-crowd. In the 1930s, the movies acquainted the general public with such colorful gangster lingo as “stool pigeon” (or “stoolie”), referring to someone who was a “snitch” or a “rat” – someone who “squealed” or “sang” to the cops and therefore needed to be “rubbed out.” I seem to remember Edward G. Robinson uttering the wonderful phrase, “My rod will speak,” meaning he was going to shoot some people.

Drug users have given us a ton of slang terms, such as “horse” for heroin and “pot” and “grass” for marijuana. You know those terms. But do you know what an “Alice B. Toklas” is? It’s a marijuana brownie, named for the woman who was the partner of the writer Gertrude Stein. (It may not be a coincidence that a puff of marijuana is sometimes called a “toke.”)

And then, of course, we have teenagers and pre-teenagers who use slang to create a separate place for themselves in the world, a distinct culture, a wall between themselves and adults. That’s why a teenager says “It’s totes cray” instead of  “It’s totally crazy.”

A simple and common way to alter language is to cut off the ends off words. It’s why “radical” became “rad” some years ago, and why “reverend” got shortened to “rev.” Molly Ivins, the late columnist, used to call the Texas legislature “the Lege.” Now it’s the common term down there. In Washington these days, people call the Oval Office simply “the Oval.” It’s kind of fun to do this. The military raised word shortening to an art. Psychological operations became “psy ops.” Signals intelligence became “sigint.”

Connie Eble, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been collecting college slang since 1972 and writing about it. College is a Petri dish for new slang. In the past, it has given us such expressions as “cut class,” “cram” and “rocks for jocks.” A “turkey dump” is when a college student returns home at Thanksgiving to dump his or her hometown sweetheart. “Dormcest” is hooking up with someone who lives in your dorm.

Eble’s list now includes two popular new terms that are acronyms: FOMO, which means “fear of missing out,” and YOLO, which means “you only live once.” These terms seem to have drifted downward into high school, junior high school and even lower. A kid who isn’t on Facebook can develop FOMO. Such a kid might say, “I’m having a FOMO attack,” converting the word into an adjective.

YOLO is even more interesting. It became popular this year after the rapper Drake included it in a song. “YOLO, and we ‘bout it every day, every day, every day.”

YOLO is what you say when a friend suggests parking in an illegal spot. People also speak of a boozy night on the town as YOLO-ing – “I went YOLO-ing last night.”

It’s not just a word, it’s a philosophy. This past spring a streaker – wearing nothing but a pair of sneakers – sprinted across the field at a Boston Red Sox game with YOLO written across his chest.

An example of eastwooding

By the way, we witnessed the birth of a brand new word just last week: “eastwooding,” named for the actor Clint Eastwood. To “eastwood” is to have a conversation with a chair, or to post a picture of yourself on the Internet in conversation with a chair. This has been happening on both left-wing and right-wing websites in recent days. It’s an activity all of America can enjoy, regardless of party affiliation.

Keep this thing out of your sister’s bedroom.

I think my favorite new slang word – phrase, actually – is “honey badger.” The honey badger is an animal native to Africa and Asia. It is known for its fearlessness and tenacity. According to Internet legend, honey badgers steal food from bigger animals, such as leopards; they attack and eat cobras, and they break into bee hives and eat the larvae even while getting stung thousands of times. Urban Dictionary states that “when they kill something they crack open their victim’s skull with their teeth and eat their brain and digest their thoughts.” It is even claimed that a honey badger will climb into bed with your sister and impregnate her while she sleeps.

Anyway, a guy named Randall made a YouTube video about the honey badger. It was crude, it was hilarious, and it went super-viral. Randall then, in 2011, published a book called Honey Badger Don’t Care. And now, voila!, “honey badger” has entered our language, and probably other languages, with several different meanings. A person might say, “I hate that girl; she’s such a honey badger.” The term also has a rather specific sexual definition, which Blogfinger propriety forbids me to reveal. But, actually, its meaning seems to be migrating in several directions, and if it should survive long-term, it’s unclear what it will finally come to mean.

Such is the nature of language. It is adaptive, supple, inventive and thoroughly unpredictable. In other words, it’s totes cray.

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By Charles Layton

It’s another slow news day here at Blogfinger. Here’s the hottest piece of information I’ve got; it’s something I picked up from Ocean Grove’s own Sherry Sotnikoff:

Today (Monday) is official “wiggle your toes day.”

Yep, Sherry is one of those people who keeps up with bizarre holidays, of which there are more than you could possibly imagine.

Several websites track these things. You have your standard federal holidays, of course, which are predictable and boring. Then you have the so-called “Hallmark holidays” — Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Boss’s Day, Secretary’s Day and all that. Another major category is food holidays, usually promoted by some powerful culinary interest group (you know, like the National Spaghetti Growers Association).

But the best ones – the ones Sherry and I like – are the off-the-beaten-path ones. There’s Sea Serpent Day, Bad Poetry Day, Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day, Kiss-And-Make-Up Day, Blame Someone Else Day and Presidential Joke Day.

Coming up soon – on August 8 – we’ll all be celebrating Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day. (I hope Smuggler’s Cove has cards for this.)

Where do these things come from?, you ask. Well, according to one source I consulted, this Sneak Some Zucchini observance was begun by a Pennsylvania couple, Tom and Ruth Roy. The idea is that around this time of year home gardeners throughout our great land come to the realization that – once again, dammit! – they have planted way more zucchini than they can possibly use. Zucchini are like those terrible pods in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers; they proliferate beyond human control and threaten to take over the planet. (They’re like okra in that respect.)

So what these desperate gardeners are forced to do is give away their excess zucchini. But since most people don’t want their excess zucchini, they have to give it away surreptitiously.

So, OK, what about Wiggle Your Toes Day?

This one is a total mystery. A high school student in Hiawatha, Kansas has compiled a whole bunch of these special days on a website, but she doesn’t seem to know the origin of this one, and neither do any of the other sources I’ve checked. If you have the answer, give me a shout.

Meanwhile, as we contemplate toes, let’s listen to this funny and very sexy song by Diana Krall.

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