Category : words

Let’s put an end to codswallop

I love learning new words. Here’s one that caught my attention:


The definition:nonsense; nonsensical talk or writing

Origin: One theory traces the word back to a man named Codd and his gassy beer. Another traces the word only to c. 1959 when it first appeared in print.

Synonyms: folderol, trash, tripe, trumpery

The story I like best is that it just sounds like its meaning: made-up rubbish.

Daniel Webster, father of the dictionary. from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enamel on copper, Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006.

Daniel Webster was an American politician who represented New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives; served as a Senator from Massachusetts; and was the United States Secretary of State under Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore.

Am I implying that Daniel Webster, or any other politician is guilty of spewing codswallop? You decide.


I love it when one (two?) of my guilty pleasures—crosswords and word games—also turns out to be a learning tool.

This time, the word-of-the-week is actually a phrase: sub rosa, Latin for under the rose. Yes, of course we knew that, but did we know why it was used to designate a secret meeting?

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt) by John Singer Sargent*

OK, I’ll share my new knowledge and you can feel free to click your tongue and say you knew it all along.

According to one source (and checked through a wiki-search), the rose as a symbol of secrecy dates back to Greek mythology (doesn’t everything?).

In Roman times, senators would hang a rose from the ceiling of the room where secret meetings were held. The phrase is still used to indicate secrecy, confidentiality, or, as we say more often lately, “a cone of silence.”

Maybe I’ll try this some time when I’m in a confessional mood with my friends. Who will be the first to ask why there’s a rose hanging from my ceiling?

* More on the beautiful painting, Open Access from The Met, Fifth Avenue: 1882, oil on canvas, bequest of Valerie B. Hadden, 1932.

Good Job, and other annoying phrases

. . . where my dark side is revealed.

“Good Job” is my current least favorite phrase. Take a walk through a suburban mall and count the number of times you hear it—from a mother while she helps with personal care in a restroom; or from a father to a child who allows himself to be buckled into a stroller. One time I was stuck in elevator while a toddler insisted on pushing the button, though he was too short to reach it. Finally the mother lifted the child, he pushed the button, and—yes—”Good job!” the mother said.

In my day (this is a historical blog) “Good job,” if it was heard at all, referred to handing over babysitting money, and the tone was more like “there better be a bigger wad next time.”

An unsurprising corollary to “Good job” is preschool graduation, complete with tiny caps and gowns. What? All that fuss when all the kid did was allow himself to be driven to school?

While I’m on this tack, I might as well get off my chest some other phrases that, for whatever reason, drive me crazy.

No worries. This can mean anything from “I’ll take care of it” to “It’s okay that you ran into me.” It can also mean “You’re welcome,” which is the same number of syllables, so where’s the advantage?

Going forward. Admittedly, the person who uses this the most is a current (7/22/18) spokesperson on TV. She uses it instead of “in the future” (too vague for someone purportedly giving us specifics?) or “I have no idea when”.

The last time I accepted a "young lady" comment.

Young lady. When spoken to me (old, gray, sporting a cane) exclusively by men, young and old. No woman of any age has ever called me “young lady” – we know better. I wish I could think of a good comeback. “May you die young” is probably too harsh. What if I add “so you won’t have to hear this” — still too harsh?

Happy Mother’s Day. Another phrase that seems directed only to women. Personally, I have no reason to celebrate this “holiday” – I didn’t have a mother in the traditional sense of someone who loved me unconditionally, nor have I ever been a mother. I noticed no one wished my husband a Happy Father’s Day, even though he actually is one. Next year, I might respond, “Thanks. All my children are in jail.”

It is what it is. Just say “I heard, you but I have no advice whatsoever, and really don’t feel like hammering this out with you.” Just sayin’.

Assorted Quotes

We’re a puzzle/quote family. My husband (aka The Cable Guy) and I do puzzles together and separately—crosswords, acrostics, jumbles, cryptograms, word games.

Many of the solutions end up as quotes. And some of those quotes end up with a permanent place on our walls.

Here are a few favorites:

There are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another truth. — Niels Bohr

The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer. — Edward R. Morrow

• My only concern was to get home after a hard day’s work. — Rosa Parks

• I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown. — Woody Allen

• Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world. — Hillary Clinton

And one of my all-time favorites (winter person that I am):

Every year, back Spring comes,

with the nasty little birds

yapping their fool heads off.

— Dorothy Parker

In Flanders Fields

Memorial Day Weekend, May 26-28, 2018

MEMORIAL DAY was originally called Decoration Day, after the practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers.

Entrance to Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium, image courtesy of National Archives

Soldiers of the 119th Infantry, 30th Division, entering trenches at Watou, Belgium on July 9, 1918. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

Some history, and a meditation to mark the day, to think about the too many graves.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Boston, the Hub of the Universe

Or so we were taught!

There’s a new movie out, Chappaquiddick. I don’t plan to see it, mostly because I prefer to hang on to whatever I think I know of the Kennedys. Reviews have called it out on historical facts, and also on the accents that are supposed to represent Boston.

So, it’s time to drag out my BostonSpeak piece.

I claimed Boston as my home for the first decades of my life. I was born in a suburb less than 8 miles away, went to college on the Fenway. Yes, THE Fenway—in certain classrooms on campus you could hear the crack of the bat. I also taught at that same college for many years. Is that enough Boston cred for you?

Besides hosting more than 53 institutions of higher learning, including MIT and Harvard, Boston has its own accent. Travel even 20 miles from Boston, and the accent is gone, indistinguishable from that of the network anchor in Grinnell, Iowa.

Everyone recognizes the accent; not everyone can imitate it. Even after many years in California, I can go back to it whenever I choose. Or, whenever I talk to my relatives and friends who still live there, says my husband.

“Hi, they-ah,” they say.

“Howahya?” I ask.

Even though I now speak like Californians, careful with my r’s, I’m very protective of Boston-speak.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when actors/actresses who are not natives try to take on the accent. It doesn’t work. Nothing can spoil a movie for me like a pretend Boston accent, which makes the actor sound like he’s rolling a hot potato around in his mouth. An old but good example is Rob Morrow in “Quiz Show.” In an attempt to sound out the broad a’s, his lips never met. Similarly, in “The Verdict,” set in Boston, no one got it right. Thank you, Paul Newman, for not trying. In newer movies, actors and their directors know enough not to try. They leave it to natives like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

JFK himself is often ridiculed for his accent. People laugh at his “Cuba(r) and Laos.” But Kennedy, and every other Bostonian, would pronounce Cuba as Cuba, unless the word is followed by another word that begins with a vowel. Thus:

“I went to Laos and Cuba,” but “I went to Cuba(r) and Laos.”

Similarly, a Bostonian would say “I obey the law,” but “I’m studying the law(r) of gravity.”

This is a common practice in many languages, where the letter used for the elision is actually written, as in Italian with e and ed, the words for and, depending on the first letter of the next word.

Back in the days of landlines, I called the San Jose Airport, seeking information (pre-Internet) about the layout of the airport before I drove there for a flight.

“Can you tell me where to park my car?” I asked.  [“Pahk my cah.”]

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said. “We have no flights to Pakaka.”

At that moment I decided to learn to speak like a TV anchorwoman. Now, I do. Well, most of the time.

Hand me my lappet, please

It’s one of those weeks when I have to search for something to celebrate. April Fool has passed, and it’s 2 weeks till we can honor Paul Revere.

April 3 was Alec Baldwin’s birthday, but he’s getting enough attention lately. (Congratulations on that Emmy, Alec!) April 5, 1908 is Bette Davis’s birthday, but who remembers her?

It’s also National Caramel Day and National Dandelion Day. Ho hum.

Never mind those. Instead, I thought I’d learn a new word. I started with my favorite research spot: the public domain collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here it is, image and all: a lappet.

French, early 19th century

Dictionary definition:

Lappet: a small flap or fold, in particular.
  • a fold or hanging piece of flesh in some animals.
    noun: lappet; plural noun: lappets
  • a loose or overlapping part of a garment.

Clearly I’m going for the garment app.

Can you use lappet in a sentence? (Yes, this is 5th grade.)

Dog Days of Summer

A post repurposed from LadyKillers, BUT more appropriate here since the Dog Days period ends today August 11.

Apparently this phrase dates back to the ancient Greeks (doesn’t everything?) and has to do with a constellation that looks like a dog (Canis Major) chasing one that looks like a rabbit (Lepus).

The star Sirius (14th c.), the brightest in the constellation, is at the dog’s nose. The meaning of the phrase has morphed into a characterization of the period of Sirius’s rising, from July 3 to August 11, a period marked by lethargy, inactivity, or indolence.

Never mind that in (roughly) 13,000 years, the dog star Sirius will be rising with the sun in mid-winter.

Some imagination those ancients had. It took an entire semester-long course in college for me just to match the names, the gods, and the myths.

What interests me is how, and how come, so many of the names have survived. For example, the multi-channel radio in my car is by Sirius. It seems incongruous that I’m listening to Willie’s Roadhouse on a service with a name that dates back at least 7 centuries and means scorching.


The Nova laser, one generation after Shiva, from the Latin, meaning new.

One of the world’s most powerful lasers of the 20th century was named Shiva, the name of a Hindu god, the Destroyer. Apt, I suppose, since Shiva the laser decimated any target it was aimed at.

But wouldn’t you think there’d be a more modern hi-tech name, indicative of the high-level technology that brought Shiva into existence?

Maybe this is why LASER is one of my favorite words, the acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. There are no gods associated with it; no wars, no constellations, no etymology traceable to the ancients. While not the first acronym, the word itself has no other origin.

So, maybe the Dog Days of Summer can be called Dodaysum, and in 1000 years or so, someone will think she was a 21st century goddess who lay around all day.

And now, speaking of new words: I think I’ll make my Blexit.    <groan> Come on, admit it if you get this!


Continuing the spirit of back to school, I was eager to learn a new word. Here’s one.

Acersecomic (noun): a person whose hair has never been cut. For example, my 3-year-old grandniece is an acersecomic. I can hardly wait to teach her how to write it.

Act of rejection of acersecomic-ness

Granted, the word hasn’t appeared since some time in the 17th century, but I’d hate to see a good word go to waste.

If you care about its etymology: The word is from the Latin acersecomes, a long-haired youth, a word borrowed from an earlier Greek word made up of keirein, to cut short; kome, the hair of the head; and the prefix a-, meaning not.

What’s your odd word of the day?

Para what?

It’s the age of para.

Paramedics, paralegals, paraprofessionals, parapsychology, and everyone’s current favorite paranormal.

Formerly used to indicate side by side, its newer meaning is closer to an ancillary status, or almost, as in paralegal.

Another meaning of para is “guarding against,” as in a parasol, which guards against the sun, and a parachute, which guards against free fall.

My latest run-in with para is with the word paraprosdokian.

Def.: A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reinterpret the first part. It’s frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. For this reason, it’s extremely popular among comedians and satirists.

Some examples:

• War does not determine who is right, only who is left.

• Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

• A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. What’s a work station?

• Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

• Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

And my favorite:

• To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

Do you have any paras to add?