Snowplow Parents

August 28, 2012

Parents who remove every obstacle out of their child’s way.  This term was brought to my attention by this New Yorker article that is certainly worth reading.  Should we be asking more from our kids?



August 27, 2012

I came across this word reading Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power. Volume four in his ridiculously thorough but amazing biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.  He refers to a speech Johnson gave as a stemwinder.

The phrase originates from the name for a keyless watch, an invention from around 1875.  Because these watches were so superior to their key-dependent brethren, any thing or person that was first-rate or energetic could be called a stemwinder.  Sometime in the 1940s in political lingo, the phrase became particularly associated with rousing speeches and speech makers.  A person or a speech could be a real stemwinder.

Butter and Egg Man

August 24, 2012

1920s slang for a small town salesmen who makes a show of spending his money on trips to the big cities.  Some places imply that it carried a connotation of a person spending above his ability, but the Louis Armstrong song and the play the George Kaufman play seem to suggest that they are wealthy enough to afford kept women and finance Broadway shows.  The common theme is that they have money but lack sophistication.

Finding the exact origin of the word was difficult, but I ultimately found a New Yorker article from 31 October, 1925, that pinpoints it. Mary “Texas” Guinan was a saloon keeper  and famous personality in New York during prohibition used the term to refer to Samuel Balcom.  Balcom supplied her restaurants, and others, with dairy products, and spent freely in the establishments.  “He’s our Butter-and-Egg Man,” she would say of him.

In my searches, I came across this quote attributed to Ogden Nash.  I think I’ll end with it: “Because in America a rich butter-and-egg man is only a rich butter-and-egg man or at most an honorary LL.D of some hungry university, but in England why before he knows it he is Sir Benjamin Buttery, Bart.”

A Modest Proposal: Flammable and Inflammable

August 22, 2012

I won’t retread well-argued ground about two seemingly contradictory words that actually mean the same thing.  In fact, the OED lists the definition of flammable simply as “=inflammable.”

Linguistics argues that if two words are pure synonyms, then one of them will cease to exist.  The fact that so many synonyms exist is because their are semantic differences in the meaning, one’s that do not necessarily show up in the definition but are there in what the use of the word implies.  For example, a chat and a conversation may fundamentally mean the same thing, but you would be less likely to say “I had a chat with my attorney the other day…”

In this case, though, I can see no semantic difference between the two terms either.  In fact, according to the OED, flammable had almost disappeared from modern usage as linguistics would have predicted, but the phrase was brought back to remove confusion on safety notices.  See Simpsons clip above…

I have a proposal then.  For purposes of setting things on fire, let us only use the word flammable.  It is clear, to the point, and no one will put open flames on their mattresses because “hey, it said inflammable so I’m safe right?”

Inflammable should still be used, but not for fire.  Rather, it should be used for its secondary definition: Easily roused to excitement.  After all, the word really comes from inflame, which carries far more meanings than just “able to burn.”

In conclusion, the bed is flammable, a personality is inflammable, and quick-to-anger person doused in karosene is both.


August 21, 2012

Early in the history of this blog, my entries were all inspired by some impressive work of literature or political analysis I was reading.  Now that I’ve had my second child, all my words seem to come from television shows.

I watched BBC America’s Copper this weekend, and for a fleeting moment thought that copper, the slang term for a police officer,  would be a great word to look into.  Quickly, I dispelled the idea.  Obviously it was a reference to the metal appearance of…Come to think of it, what? No one would have thought the badges were made from copper.

A brief online search showed that other people thought it was a reference to the copper buttons on their uniforms.  Another idea discussed by was that copper comes from cop, which was an acronym for “constable on patrol.”  Problem is that the term dates back to the 1840s, and the use of acronyms to form slang words is a far more modern convention.

The OED is not entirely confident but posits that the origin comes from the verb cop, meaning to seize or take hold (from the French caper).  Police arrested people, hence they were coppers or cops.

The term was a derogatory one from the start, and the link to the metal was not all together unfounded.  The Manchester Courier reported that people would harass officers by holding out copper coins whenever they walked by.

I also learned that copper was also a verb meaning to turn police informant, as in “Johnny coppered on his mates when he realized that he would be caught.”


August 20, 2012

I started watching the British show Misfits on DVD last week.  One of the characters is referred to, much to her anger, as a chav, and I had never heard the word before.  Within minutes of searching on the internet, I came up with a general idea, but finding an exact definition has proven to be much harder:

The phrase seems to come from the Romani word “chavi” for child, and the Collins English Dictionary defines it as “a young working class person who dresses in casual sports clothing.”  The broader image though is much more pejorative.  It seems used to suggest an uncultured working-class teenager with no sense of class or style.  The track-suit seems to be a key feature, as well as overly gaudy gold jewelry.

It seems very similar to American use of “guido,” minus the Italian-American heritage.  Think “Jersey Shore.”   However, a search of chav on Flickr suggests that many include any seemingly “tacky” people fitting the category.

The parody archetype chav (or chavette as is sometimes used for girls) is Vicky Pollard from the show Little Britain.  More chavish behavior that fits the stereotype (including filthy language — be warned) can be found on YouTube.

Reduplicative Paramnesia

August 17, 2012

It seems appropriate the reduplicative would be repeated in the following day’s word, but it also shows how my train of thought takes me from one word to another.

Reduplicative Paramnesia is a medical disorder in which a person believes that they have been moved from a room or location to an exact copy in another location.  Scientists believe it is caused by brain injuries, so it is not surprising that it most often occurs regarding hospital rooms.

The term was coined by a neurologist Harold Pick in 1903 who had an Alzheimer’s who claimed she had been moved from her hospital room in the city to an exact replica, also manned by the same staff, in the suburbs.  The first known case seems to have been traced back to 1788, to a woman who also had Cotard’s Delusion (I’ll save that one for a future day).

Injured soldiers are other common victims, often insisting that they have been moved to an identical hospital room in their hometown.

One source also included in the definition the delusion that the same event has happened to twice.  It mentioned a case of a woman who suffered a brain injury during a mugging, and believed that the same person had stolen her purse twice in identical situations.  The source separates this from Temporal Reduplication, which is the belief that an event that happened to you happened once before.  In Reduplicative Paramnesia is the belief that the event happened again after the actual incident.

What is supposedly so striking about all of these cases is that the victim is perfectly lucid in every other matter.

The word paramnesia refers to any distortion of memory in which the sufferer confuses reality from fantasy.

As you can imagine, this definition led me down into a rabbit hole of fascinating medical conditions.  Future cases will certainly be populating this blog in the next couple of weeks.

Source: Most came from a very well cited article on Wikipedia.