Monday, June 26, 2017
A dashboard is called a dashboard because that was the term for the front of a buggy that keeps mud from the horse’s hooves from splattering you. It’s still called “film school” because “movie college” sounds stupid. My grandpa called the refrigerator an icebox and my tricycle a velocipede. It’s like we repurpose old words because we’re afraid of running out of noises to make for all the new stuff. But if you visit any tavern at closing time, you’ll hear plenty of words just begging for a definition. Fnarf and blararararh are out there, waiting to be given meaning.
Monday, June 19, 2017
In 1856, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death. He broke his cane to pieces on Sumner’s head. Sumner, a radical abolitionist, had recently made an anti-slavery speech that Brooks found offensive. Sumner suffered head injuries that plagued him the rest of his life; Brooks was fined $300 and received dozens of replacement canes from supporters. Sumner came back and kept talking. He said, “Say, sir, in your madness, that you own the sun, the stars, the moon; but do not say that you own a man.”
Monday, June 12, 2017
In movies, gunshots often cause something called a “flesh wound,” which is no big deal although it really smarts. This can’t be right. Neither is the next step, which is finding a very drunk doctor and making him drink a pot of piping hot coffee so he can dig out the bullet. Having experienced the effects of alcohol and caffeine, I can report that they do not in combination qualify one to perform shade tree surgery. Could the movies be wrong? Will we not in our blasted and arid post-apocalyptic future be somehow motivated to wear goggles and fingerless gloves?
Monday, June 5, 2017
“Plumbum” sounds like slightly naughty term of affection. It’s not, though; it’s Latin for the element lead. Pliny the Elder named some flowers Plumbago, maybe because the white dust on the leaves reminded him of white lead, a terrific but poisonous pigment. Plumbago is also an archaic word for graphite, which looked like lead ore to the folks who mined it in Seathwaite, England. They first used it to mark sheep, an early pre-subway form of graffiti. But there’s never been any lead in pencils. There’s plenty in water pipes, though, so the folks who fix them are called plumbers.