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August 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was un-fun. So, when we left our intrepid heroes last time out, they were just about to experience a weather phenomenon known as a derecho, which is apparently Spanish for Didn’t there use to be a big tree over there? and involves 80 mph straight-line winds arriving with very little warning. Unlike tornadoes, which usually can be seen gathering on the horizon out here and generally move a bit slower (allowing time for NWS tornado alerts, getting Dorothy down in the root cellar, etc.), these derecho things are more like a shotgun blast or some awful cosmic chainsaw ripping through the landscape. The entire storm at our house (which involved no — zero, nada —  actual rain) lasted 90 seconds, tops. But the blast of the wind bent major trees almost to the ground and filled the air with a mixture of dirt and vegetation that made it look like we were underwater. Very impressive.

Our appreciation of this stirring demonstration of  the Majesty of Nature was interrupted early on in that 90 seconds, however, by an explosion on the north side of the house accompanied by a very dramatic shower of sparks coming from up near the roof. A power pole on our property (we have four carrying the line back to the house) had snapped in two, breaking another pole up the line and slicing a 30 ft. pine tree (a former live xmas tree, in fact) in half vertically. More importantly, the force of the pole falling had ripped the power feeder cable out of the side of our house (thus the sparks) and draped it across our yard and driveway, and, in what I think was a particularly nice touch, suspended it a few inches above our ancient (and only) car. Power to our house was broken about nine different ways. No power out here means no water, by the way, since we depend on an electric well pump.

Long story short, everyone else on our road had power again within 24 hours. Because of the damage to the poles and lines on our land, we got our power back eight days later, during which time daytime temps were over 100 F. What made this more than extremely uncomfortable in my case is that people with ms can get hyperthermia — heat stroke — at fairly low temps, so we spent as much time as possible in supermarkets and coffee shops with a/c, all of which involved a 35-mile round trip from what was left of home. Giant Eagle, we discovered, has a “cafe” that closes at 7 pm, but they leave the wi-fi on 24/7 and don’t care if you sit there in the dark all night. (Not that we had the money for a week in a motel, but the few near us were booked solid the whole time, and were charging extortionate “emergency prices” to boot.) Driving down our road at night for a week and seeing every other house lit up with the a/c running and the Blue Glow of Happy Potatohood flickering in the windows was, I must say, a bit disheartening.

Eventually the power came back on and we began the grim task of cleaning up. My favorite part was emptying the freezer full of food out in the garage. The power line had fallen in such a way that it blocked access to the garage door, and the result, after a week in high heat, was the stuff of nightmares.

But within a few days it was mostly a bad memory. And then it happened again. Seriously. About a week after the power came back, another derecho with 80 mph winds hit us. Miraculously, it didn’t take out the power, but it did knock down a huge old tree which is still lying across our front yard.

While we’re on the subject of help, thanks to all the folks who have contributed to our continuing existence by subscribing to TWD-by-Email, and special thanks to those two wonderful people (you know who you are) who have sent us Holy-Cow-Level contributions in the past month or so. It’s no fun having electric power if you can’t afford to turn on the lights, and we really appreciate your generosity.

Continue reading this post » » »

Behalf / Behalves

Thanks for your help. Now go stand over there.

Dear Word Detective:  I just got an email where someone referred to “on our behalves.” Is this correct? I’d always thought it would be “on our behalf,” even if it’s on behalf of multiple people. — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Oh boy. What you’ve asked seems like a simple yes-or-no sort of question, but it isn’t. The story of “behalf” begins with our common English word “half,” which first appeared in Old English, from common Germanic roots, as “half” or “healf.” Today we often use “half” to mean “one of two equal parts of something,” but the oldest meaning of the word in English is “side,” as in the right or left side of a person. In the ninth century this sense of “half” was expanded to mean “one of the two opposing parties to a conflict,” much as we use “side” today. Thus to say that you were “on the half of” someone meant that you were on their side and supported their cause, and phrases such as “on the half of,” “in the half of,” etc., became common English idioms in this figurative sense. “On (or in) the half of” could also mean “acting in place of or as agent or representative of” another person.

This use of “half” to mean “side” eventually died out, but not before the rise of “behalf” in the 14th century. “Behalf” (which had first appeared as “behealfe” in Old English) was simply a combination of “half” in the “side” sense with the prefix “be” meaning “by,” giving us the meaning of “by one’s side, for one’s benefit.” Although the Old English “behealfe” acted as an adverb and a preposition, our modern “behalf” is purely and simply a noun, a thing. And there’s the rub.

As a noun, “behalf” needs a preposition (“on,” “for” or “in one’s behalf”) in order to make sense. There is a school of thought that regards “on behalf of” as meaning “for the benefit of,” and “in behalf of” as connoting representation of another person (“Bob negotiated in behalf of Sam, who was in the hospital.”), but this distinction is not commonly observed. “On behalf of” is the standard form for all uses in Britain, but “on” and “in” are used interchangeably in the US.

Historically, “behalf” has also had a plural form, either “behalves” (modeled on the plural of “half”) or, more commonly, “behalfs.” When multiple parties are involved, I think the question is whether their interests (i.e., “behalfs”) are the same or separate. Ordinarily, you’d say “The attorney appealed to the bank on behalf of Tom and Mary, the homeowners.” But if Tom and Mary were divorcing and had separate lawyers, their lawyers might appeal to the bank “on their clients’ behalfs,” because their interests would be separate. Personally, I’d draw the line at “behalves,” simply because “on one’s behalf” is such a fixed phrase in English that “behalves” looks weird. And obviously, if you have a single entity, such as an athletic team, that is composed of multiple individuals, there’s no need to say “on the team’s behalfs” (or even “on the players’ behalfs,” unless they’re suing each other).


For the memories.

Dear Word Detective: The word “tank” is mentioned so very much in your column, I was surprised to find no origin for it. There are so many uses: a tank-top, an army tank, a gas tank, a tankard, I am sure there are more that I am neglecting. Are all of these tanks related to each other? What is the connection between a tank-top that you wear and your gas tank? — Diana T.

Hey, you’re right. After I read your question, I went and searched my website for instances of the word “tank” in my columns and there are scads. Interestingly, none of them (as far as I could tell, given my short attention span for my own work) referred to the military vehicle type of “tank,” which is odd. When I was a kid I was mildly obsessed with tanks, and my dream was to have my very own M4 Sherman tank, which may have been one reason I got to know the school guidance counselor so well. But when the Zombie Apocalypse hits, you’re all going to realize I was prescient, not nuts. Have fun in your little tin Corollas.

(Hey, I guess it’s never too late. This one is only $325,000.)

“Tank” as a noun has all the senses you mention and several more (“think tank” among them), except that there is no apparent connection between “tank” and “tankard,” meaning a large mug or cup. “Tankard” comes from the Dutch “tanckaert,” from “kantard,” which in turn came from the Latin “cantharus” (a kind of deep cup used in Ancient Greece). “Kantard” became “tanckaert” (and then “tankard”) probably through a weird, but not unprecedented, transposition of letters.

“Tank” is also a bit weird in that it seems to have both Indian and Portuguese roots. In India, the Gujarati “tankh” (possibly from the Sanskrit “tadaga”) means an underground reservoir of water, but the Portuguese “tanque” means “pond” (ultimately from the Latin “stagnum,” pond). Whether the Portuguese influenced the Indian word or vice-versa, “tank” first appeared in English in the 17th century meaning “a cistern or storage place for water.”

Most of the ways we use “tank” today are, at least tangentially, connected to that original meaning of “a container to hold liquid or similar substances.” “Tanks” in that original sense can range from the gas “tank” on your car to the huge “tanks” of natural gas or fuel oil you sometimes see near cities. Scuba divers depend on “tanks” of air, and pet fish depend on their “tanks” of water.

It’s when we use “tank” in figurative senses that the word starts to wander away from that literal “container for liquid” meaning. “Tank tops” are called that because they resemble “tank suits,” close-fitting women’s bathing suits commonly worn in the 1920s in “swimming tanks,” what today we call “swimming pools.” The term “think tank,” today meaning “an organization of purported experts who come up with fancy ways of explaining what everyone already knows,” was originally, in the late 1800s, simply slang for “the human brain,” also known as “the think box.”

The military “tank,” a tracked armored vehicle carrying a heavy gun, got its name in 1916, during the First World War. The term “tank” was adopted as a code word for the vehicles while they were being developed in secret by the British Army, but the name stuck after their public debut on the Western Front, probably because early tanks resembled large metal oil tanks.

When we say that something has “tanked,” meaning “failed miserably,” we’re using a phrase which is several steps removed from any real “tank.” This slang “to tank” started out in the boxing ring, where a crooked fighter who agreed to intentionally lose a match was said to have “taken a dive” (in this case, literally falling to the canvas floor of the ring). Taking off from the “dive” usage, and with “swimming tanks” in mind, people began speaking of fighters “going into the tank” when throwing a fight, or “being in the tank,” i.e., having been bribed to lose.

Sometime in the 1970s, as these “tank” phrases began to be adopted by the general public, they lost their “did it on purpose” meanings and “to tank” came to mean simply “to fail utterly,” with no implication of corruption. But there must have been a few old boxing fans left in the early 1990s, because “to be in the tank for” then reappeared in political jargon, with its original meaning of “in the pay of” or “secretly in favor of or committed to” (“NBC is clearly in the tank for Clinton”).