February 8, 2014

Stellenbosch, South Africa, a beautiful town to visit, but a terrible place to be assigned.

Transitive verb: To assign someone incompetent to a position of little responsibility

I don’t like lifting words from Anu Garg’s wonderful A.Word.A.Day but this was simply too good.  Stellenbosch is was a city in South Africa where British officers  with little experience or talent were sent during the Second Boer War.



January 18, 2014

Adj: Not likely to cause dissent or offense.

Found in J.K. Rowling’s the Cuckoo’s Calling.  Coming from a scientific name for a painkiller, the phrase is used for something so milquetoast that it is unlikely to upset any applecarts.


Dead-cat Bounce

December 10, 2013

Dead-cat Bounce

NBA Writer Matt Moore used this phrase to describe the Brooklyn Nets victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, but the phrase comes from the world of finance.  It is used to describe a small temporary jump in a stock in the middle of a disastrous decline.  The naive will see this as recovery and unwisely buy.

There does not seem to be any consensus as to whence the phrase originates, but the idea is that even a dead cat will bounce if you drop it from high enough.  It first seems to have been used in print in a 1985 Financial Times article by Chris Sherwell.


November 10, 2013

Bulldozer, 20th-century style

My daughter asked me about this word today — asking if it was named after a bully that sleeps a lot.  I had to say I didn’t have an answer for her, so I had to go to the books.

Turns out, the word comes from late-19th century, long before the construction vehicle.  It originally was “bull-dose”  and meant to whip and beat in order to get to do something.  The earliest sentences made references to people who had bulldosed their slaves before the war or bulldosed their workers.  My first thought was that it came of the dose of a beating necessary to get a bull to comply, but Word Wild Words found a great line from the Gettysburg Compiler in 1877:

“In very obstinate cases the brethren were in the habit of administering a “bull’s dose” of several hundred lashes on the bare back.”

The reference here seems to suggest a dose of a bullwhip.  There you have it.


September 16, 2013

a pilcrow

A pilcrow is the typographical character used in editing to represent a paragraph.

Aside from the fact that I never knew the name for it, I’ve always had a dickens of a time remembering which way it goes.  The reverse pilcrow seems to make more sense because it looks like a P (you know, for paragraph).

The symbol itself, however, originates from a cent symbol — the c meaning capitulum (as in “little head”, or head of a paragraph).



March 22, 2013

The distinctive X-shape of a sawbuck

An early-twentieth century term for a ten dollar bill.  It comes up in noir novels as I found it in both David Fears’s Dark Blonde and Megan Abbott’s Queenpin.  The name comes from the X-shape formed by the crossed wood on a sawhorse, X being the roman numeral for ten.


Queen City

March 2, 2013

The Queen City at night

Came across a passage referring to Cincinnati as the Queen City and wondered the origins of it.  After a little bit of research, I discovered there are hundreds of queen cities throughout the world.  The title seems to be given to any city which is second best at something.  Buffalo, for example, is the Queen City of the Great Lakes for being the second largest city on the lakes, next to Chicago.  The town is also the Queen City of New York, as the second largest city, next to New York.

Cincinnati’s use of the title is less clear, but it is clear that it is not because it was second fiddle.  The name goes back at least until 1819, well before the founding of Chicago – the city that will eclipse it in the midwest.  In Cincinnati’s case, queen must be a reference to its beauty, not any status as a runner-up.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the name in his poem “Catawba Wine” which reads:

“And this Song of the Vine,
This greeting of mine,
The winds and the birds shall deliver,
To the Queen of the West,
In her garlands dressed,
On the banks of the Beautiful River.”