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February 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, there you go.  No sooner had I recovered from the craven clam murder attempt detailed in last month’s missive than I was laid low by the Flu from Hell, and I’m still not over it.  Bleh.  No, I’m not sure what kind it was.  We don’t cotton to doctors out here in the boonies.  If one of our kin takes sick, we just carry ’em out into the woods, tie ’em to a big rock, and hope the coyotes don’t get ’em afore spring.

Anyway, I know it’s March now, but I’m still calling this the February edition because, barring some further catastrophe, I intend to put up another batch later this month.  This batch does not, however, have any of the usual odd illustrations in it, so you’ll have to get out your Crayolas and draw your own on your monitors.

Onward.  This is a real long shot, but here goes.  If anyone out there has a laptop computer of semi-recent vintage (more recent than 2005 or so) that you’re not using (but which does work, and has a CD-R or DVD drive), please consider popping it in a box and sending it to P.O. Box 1, Millersport, OH 43046.  The one I’ve been trying to use was made in — I kid you not — 1998, and it just doesn’t cut it (if it ever did, which I doubt).  The operating system is irrelevant, since I’d probably just replace it with Linux.  If somebody has an aging IBM Thinkpad, that would be awesome (cause I love that little pointer thingy), but anything functional would be appreciated.  Even that little netbook you got carried away and bought but don’t really like….  Or someone with pots of money could buy me something like this.

There’s actually a good reason for this request, having to do with my mobility (or lack thereof).  I spend a lot of time climbing up and down stairs during the day, and past a certain point it becomes very painful, so it would be nice to be able to do some work downstairs.  It would also be helpful to have when the lights go out and we have to pile in the car and drive 20 miles to the Caribou Coffee place with wifi so we can send our columns to the newspapers.

Speaking of which, the inability of the local electric co-op to keep the power on in anything more than a stiff breeze made last month’s snow-a-thon a real nailbiter around here.  The lights actually went out four or five times one night for a minute or two at a time, which usually means they’re about to conk out for good, but they miraculously stayed on.  If the power goes out, we lose lights, heat, water and most of the stove, and, since this house, dating to the 1860s, is insulated with horse hair, it quickly becomes very cold in here.

When we first moved out here, the power company came by at least once every summer to trim limbs and check the lines.  Mirabile dictu, power outages were very rare.  That kind of maintenance stopped around 2004, and now it’s not unusual to have outages ranging from two hours to two days several times per year.  People with the means to do so are installing whole-house generating systems, and I realized last month that something like that would change the way I look at snow.  Growing up in Connecticut, we had far more snow than Ohio gets, plus some pretty serious storms coming off the Atlantic.  But we never lost power, except for once when the entire Northeast went dark in the mid-60s.  So storms were kinda neat.  But out here, we spend all night waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Not fun.

We did end up losing half of a very large tree last month right outside my office window.  It split right down the trunk during one storm, with a huge limb missing my office window by inches and nearly smashing the air-conditioning unit outside the kitchen window.  I happened to be sitting on the couch in front of my office window when it broke off.   Interesting.  Then again, that tree has had a grudge against me for years.  It was the one struck by lightning a few years back, which traveled down the trunk, became ball lightning when it hit the ground, and then floated about ten feet across the yard and zapped me.  About six months later I began to exhibit the first really serious symptoms of MS.  Coinkydink?  I doubt it.

Speaking of rural drama, I ventured outside (always a bad idea) one morning a few weeks ago when the wind was blowing razor-edged snow at about 30 mph and the wind chill was down around 2 degrees. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small cat making its way across the snow toward the house, which is very unusual because most feral cats around here take off as as soon as you step out of the door.  This one, however, seemed oblivious to my presence and headed over to the leeward side of the house near a vent into the crawlspace under the front porch.  There it huddled against whatever small warmth was coming from the house.

I’ve become used to seeing feral cats on our land over the years, and I’ve developed the ability to resist the impulse to invite them inside for a cup of joe and a better life.  We have more cats than we need already (though I really can’t think of one I’d be willing to give up).  But this cat was clearly starving and in distress, so I went inside and brought it out some cat food (shoot me now), of which it ate a bit, still showing no fear of me.  Then it put its head down and seemed to pass out.  I poked it gently with my boot and it didn’t react.  At all.  It sure looked like it was dying.

Continue reading this post » » »


And they can’t dance worth beans.

Dear Word Detective:  I did it the other day, and boy, did it hurt!  What is the derivation of to “bark your shins”? — Elspeth.

That’s a darn good question, which raises another question, which is why it took me a rather long time to get around to answering your question.  Well, I’ve been busy raising a couple of dogs, with all the running around to soccer practice, dance classes and orthodontist’s appointments that entails.  But now that Brownie and Pokie are in college, I can finally read some of my back email, and here we are.  Just kidding.  They’re really just chewing up the carpet and barking at trees.  So I guess the orthodontist was a real waste.

You’ll notice that I cleverly managed to slip the verb “to bark” into that paragraph, although I’m not sure how you’d write about dogs and not mention “barking.”  It’s what they do.  In fact, I once floated a proposal (which was quickly shot down) to change Brownie’s name to “Doorbell” (a duty she performs admirably) and Pokie’s to “Barkie” (because she will bark at changes in the barometric pressure).

The sort of “bark” that dogs (and certain other animals, such as foxes) make, what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to utter a sharp explosive cry,” is, as you might expect, a very old word, derived from the Old English word “beorcan.”  Many etymologists believe that the origin of “bark” lies in an ancient modification of the verb “to break,” conveying the sense of a sharp, sudden sound evocative of something being violently broken.  We also use “bark” in a figurative sense to mean “to speak forcefully and harshly,” as a drill sergeant might “bark” orders.

The question, of course, is whether the “bark” of a dog is in any way connected to the “bark” of your question, i.e., “to scrape or rub off the skin, especially from the shins; to abrade one’s skin.”  The answer is no.  While it is theoretically possible to “bark” your shins on an unusually coarse-haired dog, and the dog may “bark” at you when you do, the two “barks” are unrelated.  The injure-your-shin verb “to bark” comes from the “bark” one finds on trees (more specifically, as the American Heritage Dictionary says, “the tough outer covering of the woody stems and roots of trees, shrubs, and other woody plants”).  “Bark” in this “tree skin” sense was derived from the Old Norse “borkr,” and first appeared in English around 1300.

As anyone who has ever actually hugged a tree (don’t ask) knows, the bark of the average  tree is remarkably abrasive, and even brushing against a tree with your bare skin can be extremely painful.  But “barking” in the “scrape” sense didn’t come from people running into trees.  “Barking” has also meant “removing the bark from a tree” (an easy way to kill an unwanted tree) since the 16th century, and “bark” has been used as slang for “the human skin” since the 18th century (“With the ‘bark’ all off his shins from a blow with a hockey stick,” 1876).  So it is the person’s “bark” — the skin — that is being abraded and removed, much as the bark of a tree might be stripped.

Whistle, clean as a

The opposite of house-itosis?

Dear Word Detective:  While enjoying a cup of tea with several of my poet friends, someone described her kitchen as being “clean as a whistle,” at which point one of the women (she’s a Brit), wondered where the expression came from.  Someone suggested that it meant all impurities were blown out.  I volunteered to find out what it meant by going to my word detective guru (you).  Any ideas? — Bea.

Gee, it must be nice to live where folks actually wonder aloud about word origins.  Don’t get me wrong; living in the country definitely has its advantages.  It’s quiet, except for the nearly constant gunfire and frequent meth lab explosions.  The air is clean, if you don’t count the toxic clouds emitted by the paper mill a few miles upwind of us.  Best of all, you get to meet all sorts of wildlife, only a few of which want to kill you.  But I must admit that the conversational arts are not exactly at high tide around here.  I’m beginning to suspect that these groundhogs don’t even speak English.

Still, most of these critters are very clean; clean, one might say, as a whistle, especially the groundhogs, which are also known as “whistle pigs” for their ability to carry a tune.  Human beings, however, are generally better whistlers, and “whistling,” producing a clear, pure musical sound by blowing through one’s pursed lips, is probably humankind’s oldest musical skill.  The word “whistle” is, not surprisingly, very old, and was formed in imitation of the sound of whistling itself.  “Whistle” as a noun, of course, can refer both to the act or sound of whistling and a mechanical apparatus for generating a whistling sound.

As a nearly universal human skill, “whistling” has produced a dizzying number of idioms, from “to wet one’s whistle” (to take a drink of alcohol, likening the mouth or throat to a whistle) to “dog whistle politics” (comparing a narrowly-focused coded political message to a high-pitched whistle used to call dogs) to “go whistle” (meaning “get lost”).

“Clean as a whistle” first appeared in print in the early 18th century, meaning “completely, absolutely, leaving no trace” (“A first rate shot; …head taken off as clean as a whistle,” 1849).  The sense of “pure, unsullied, spotless” that your friend used came a bit later, as did such variations as “sharp as a whistle” and “slick as a whistle.”

It’s probable, however, that the original phrase was actually “clear as a whistle,” referring to the ability of a whistle to be heard in a noisy environment, and that the initial meaning was “definitely” or “unambiguously” (“I heard you clear as a whistle, Boss”).  The mutation to “clean as a whistle” (using “clean” in the sense of “sharp and definite” found in “clean cut”) with the meaning “completely, absolutely” was a short jump from that “definite” meaning.  “Clean” was then reinterpreted in popular usage to mean “spotless,” and “clean as a whistle” came to be used to mean “perfectly clean.”

An interesting parallel to “clean as a whistle” may be found in the phrase “clean as a hound’s tooth,” which has been used to mean “spotless” since about 1900.  Hounds are not known for their oral hygiene, of course, so it’s likely that this “clean” originally meant “sharp,” just as in “clean as a whistle.”