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August 2009 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Sorry I’m bit late this month. I got caught up in the Woodstock 40th Anniversary celebration hoopla and lost track of time. Yes, I actually was at Woodstock, although I can’t claim to have heard most of the music. My primary memory is of spending 45 minutes, on several occasions, stepping over people while trying to make my way to the Porta-Potties, then another hour trying to find my way back to where I had been sitting with my sister and her friend. After 24 hours of this, we bailed out of the main bowl and spent the rest of our time at the Hog Farm encampment over the hill, where there was a smaller secondary stage and things were much less stressful. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate crowds?

Anyway, I did have my trusty Nikon F with me, and took some snaps, of which this is my favorite, because it really captures the experience of being there.  Click the image for a larger version:


A Sunday Afternoon in the Park on the Iffy Brown Acid

What I didn’t know until after the whole thing was over and we were home was that my cousin John was actually the Operations Manager at Woodstock (he shows up at several points in the movie). I don’t know how much good that knowledge would have done us at the time, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Onward.  I don’t know whether its because of the recession (ha), the depression that afflicts many of us because of the recession, or just some sort of cosmic doldrums due to sunspots, but the number and quality of questions I receive has dropped precipitously this summer.  So if there’s a word origin or weird phrase you’ve always wondered about, please send it in, with as much ancillary detail as possible (e.g., where you encountered it, other explanations you’ve heard, etc.).  I really do depend on y’all for grist for this little mill, so dust off those brain cells and get cracking, mmmkay?

Similarly, we are always, as we say, dependent on the kindness of strangers, so please consider subscribing.  Great thanks, of course, to all those who have contributed this past month.  It’s scary how much difference $15 can make.

Lastly, could somebody please update KNewsticker for the new version of KDE or rewrite it for Gnome so I can run it in the current version of Ubuntu?  Thanks.  If this doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry about it, but you don’t know what you’re missing.  KNewsticker is an awesome Linux news ticker application (free, of course) that scrolls RSS feeds of your choosing in a long, narrow window, just like the “news zipper” in Times Square.  If you see an interesting story, clicking on it opens it in your browser.  There’s a similar BBC ticker for Windows, but it only shows BBC stories (and I don’t do Windows).  I have KNewsticker set up to show headlines from Reuters, the NYT, Slashdot, the AP, Agence France-Presse, the Register and the Wall St. Journal.  I love this app.  It just sits at the top of my screen and I always know what’s going on without clicking around the web.  But it really needs to be updated so I can update my system.

And now, on with the show……


All thumbs and more.

Dear Word Detective:  Having spent a moment here and there twiddling my thumbs, I recently became curious about “twiddle’s” origins.  Your archive appears to have left this important issue unaddressed.  The etymology dictionary says “twiddle” is of unknown origin and means “to trifle.”  I have never trifled my thumbs!  Not even once.  From where “twiddle” and how did it get applied to thumbs? — Barry Longyear.

Hmm.  Not once, eh?  Sure about that?  I must inform you that we have surveillance camera footage of you trifling your thumbs at a traffic light in Saskatoon in August of last year, you know.  You seemed to be having quite a good time, trifling up a storm.  Never been to Saskatoon, you say?  Yeah, right.  Nobody’s ever been to Saskatoon.  It’s in Saskatchewan.  In Canada.  Like Baltimore with polar bears, I hear.  Well, you’ll be visiting there shortly, Mister Thumb-trifler.

It is true that the Online Etymology Dictionary ( lists “twiddle” as “origin unknown,” but we don’t throw in the towel so quickly around here.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the verb “to twiddle” back to around 1540, when it first appeared meaning “to be busy about trifles,” the noun “trifle” here meaning “something of little consequence.”  By 1676, “twiddle” had reached its modern meaning of, to quote the OED again, “To cause to rotate lightly or delicately; to turn (anything) about, especially with the fingers; to twirl; to play with idly or absently; also, to adjust or bring into some place or condition by twirling or handling lightly.”  You really have to admire folks who can put that much energy into defining a word like “twiddle,” don’t you?

By 1846, the OED says, we had arrived at the phrase “to twiddle one’s thumbs,” meaning to rotate them around each other (usually with the other fingers of one’s hands interlaced) or, in a figurative sense, to idly waste time.

As to the roots of “twiddle,” the OED suggests that it is onomatopoeic or “echoic” in formation.  We usually think of onomatopoeia as meaning that the word sounds like the thing it denotes, like the words “bang” and “whoosh.”  But onomatopoeia can also suggest the look or action of the thing and even invoke other words.  The OED suggests that “twiddle” might have been intended to combine the idea of “twirl” and “twist” with “that of trifling action,” as in “fiddle” or “piddle.”

Incidentally, the verb “to trifle” in this sense means “to play with,” but it originally, in the 15th century, meant “to cheat or deceive,” specifically by telling a false story, which, I understand, they frown on in Saskatoon.

Stalking Horse

Prevaricating pony.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the political term “stalking horse” come from?  What does it mean?  I have heard of a person stalking someone, but a horse? — Joy.

I guess you haven’t met many horses, have you?  They say that an elephant never forgets, but horses give them a run for the money in the seething resentment sweepstakes.  Probably the best example of the ability of a horse to hold a grudge was TV’s Mister Ed, who, after his show was canceled in 1966, was repeatedly arrested for vandalizing CBS executives’ cars in the studio parking lot.  Ironically, Ed later went on to a very successful second career in securities trading, and today, having changed his name to Sumner Redstone, he actually owns CBS.

None of that is true, by the way, which I wouldn’t take the trouble to explain had I not recently encountered high-school graduates who believe we fought against Great Britain in World War II.

Given how important horses have been to the advancement of human civilization, it’s not surprising that English has a wide range of equine idioms.  We speak of a relatively unknown participant in an election contest being the “dark horse” candidate because in racing parlance a horse is “dark” if nothing is known about its racing history.  A pompous, self-righteous person is said to be on a “high horse,” a reference to the days when nobility would usually only encounter the common folk from atop their riding horses.  To “put the cart before the horse” means to do things in the reverse of their logical order, and “to look a gift horse in the mouth” refers to the old practice of judging a horse’s age by inspecting its teeth.

A “stalking horse” in current usage is a decoy or pretext, something put forward to disguise the true intent or purpose of an action.  In an election, a “stalking horse” is a candidate who enters the race in order to distract or divide the opposition and ease the way for the “real” candidate (“In fact, some suspect that the former governor is kind of a stalking horse for Bernhard,” WWLTV, 01/13/09).  In corporate takeovers, firms sometimes use “stalking horses,” dummy corporations, to buy up stock in their target without tipping off the company’s management to the threat.

Since horses have been notably absent from public office since the days of Caligula (and rarely, Mister Ed notwithstanding, take over companies), these are figurative uses of the term “stalking horse.”  But the original literal sense, in the early 16th century, did involve real horses.  “Stalking horses” were trained to allow a hunter to dismount and then use the horse as a blind to conceal his presence as he “stalked” the game (which apparently did not notice that it was being approached by a six-legged horse).  The term was expanded fairly quickly to cover any sort of portable blind (often with horses or other animals painted on it), and by the end of the 16th century had acquired its modern figurative meaning of “underhanded pretext.”