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February 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Yeah, well, OK, it’s March. What, you miss February? Let’s review: around here we had ice, snow, ice, ice, high winds, snow, ice, slush, mud, more mud and frozen mud, and then we finished up with a “rare late-winter” tornado that took out a farm a mile away from us. And I’m not even counting when the power went out because some enterprising miscreants broke into the substation and stole a bunch of copper wiring. This whole place is starting to look a bit post-apocalyptic at the edges; the latest thing is to break into businesses while they’re closed on the weekend and steal all the plumbing and heating fixtures.

By the way, can someone please explain why we have Ohio Air National Guard Black Hawk helicopters flying low over the house several times every day now? When we first moved in we had the four o’clock Huey every afternoon, a homey old Vietnam-era bird (with that thud-thud-thud sound you could hear ten miles away) which just sort of floated slowly by in the distance. Now these things come in a treetop level and make the whole house shake. Last week we had one sort of hovering at low altitude over our north field for no apparent reason. If they know what they’re doing, fine, but I’m getting a very disquieting student-driver vibe from this behavior.

So AOL bought the Huffington Post. This is hilarious. A zombie falls in love with a fluff farm. The schmuck who runs AOL just got through admitting that 60% of their profits come from people who pay $25/mo. for AOL dialup accounts they don’t need because they have broadband access and AOL is free on the web. Heckuva business model, dude. What’s next, Medicare fraud?

As far as I know I still have a free AOL “press” account they gave me back in 1994 when I was writing a book about the internet. It still worked a couple of years ago, and I have no doubt that, had I been paying for it, they’d still be charging me.

I’m sure that Ms. Huffington is as happy at being crowned Queen of AOL as a shape-shifting reptilian overlord can be. And I’m sure that we can look forward to many more features hewn of the same fearless journalistic stock as her now-legendary “What Time Does the Superbowl Start?.” (That article has since been re-written to seem less whorish, but it originally began:”Are you wondering, “what time does the Superbowl start?” It’s a common search query, as is “what time is the super bowl 2011,” “superbowl time” and “superbowl kickoff time 2011,” according to Google Trends the evening before the Super Bowl. It’s easily answered too. Super Bowl 2011 will take place on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.” As one commenter noted, “Most pathetic SEO spam ever.”)

Unfortunately for Arianna 2.5, less than a week after the grand announcement of the sale, Google released a crowd-sourcing plug-in for its Chrome browser that lets the common folk blackball “scraper” sites like HuffPo, and a bit later re-jiggered their search algorithms to devalue “content farms” and thinly-disguised search-engine whores (and plagiarism factories) like … HuffPo. It would appear that Google, which has profited enormously from promoting garbage search results for years, has recognized that the worm has turned and that they had better clean up their act. That is not good news for HuffPo, Demand Media, and their idiotic how-to-boil-water ilk.

Um, what else? We had a Kindle for about a week but sent it back. The screen is gray. Did you know the screen is gray? If you have anything wrong with your eyes, it’s damn near impossible to read the thing. And there are no page numbers. And you have to jump through hoops to find the table of contents of books. Kathy (it was hers) hated it and, after playing with it for 30 seconds, I concurred. Creepy little gizmo. But your mileage may vary. I played with a iPad in an Apple Store for a few minutes a few weeks ago, and it’s much easier to read on one of those, but they’re heavy and expensive.

Onward to movie reviews! I recently saw Green Zone on cable and actually liked it a lot. The more you know about the run-up to the Iraq war, the more sense it makes, though the character played by Amy Ryan is a very mild take on its apparent inspiration, Judith Miller. Matt Damon is very good, and I think I may have finally overcome my tendency to confuse him with Brad Pitt.

Continue reading this post » » »

Mexican standoff


Dear Word Detective: I have been trying for some years to determine the origin, and original meaning, of the term, “Mexican standoff.” At one time, one could not find this anywhere (or anywhere that I found); but now, there are some “authorities” that provide a definition, but no origin. As far as I can see, those definitions define what is usually called a “standoff”; there is no is no information as to what would render a standoff “Mexican.” My belief is that the term “Mexican standoff” refers to a particular kind of standoff, christened for some incident (in the Mexican-American War, perhaps?). I have a vague recollection of being told by someone (not an authority) that a “Mexican” standoff is one in which either advance or retreat would be fatal for either side, whereas in a normal standoff, one or both sides may have the possibility of non-fatal retreat. I have no solid references for this, however. If you can solve this one, I will be tremendously thankful and impressed. — Mikael.

Hey, me too, because the question itself is giving me an anxiety attack. I have a lifelong aversion to personal confrontations, so I rarely end up in any sort of standoff. In fact, I routinely agree to all sorts of things just to avoid conflict, which is how I’ve managed to wind up simultaneously belonging to the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Young Socialists League, the NRA and PETA. I’ve definitely got to stop answering the door.

Your question about “Mexican standoff,” a phrase which first appeared in print around 1891, is actually two questions: first, how does a Mexican standoff differ from a “regular” standoff? Secondly, what makes that kind of standoff “Mexican”?

As to the first question, opinions evidently vary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “standoff” (they prefer “stand-off,” which seems a bit stand-offish) as “Any uneasy stalemate or deadlock; an impasse,” but also as “A draw or tie, as in a game…,” a definition that Oxford notes comes from an 1895 dictionary. A “Mexican standoff” seems to be a subset of the more general “standoff.” The OED defines “Mexican standoff” as “A deadlock, stalemate, impasse; a roughly equal (and frequently unsatisfactory) outcome to a conflict in which there is no clear winner or loser,” and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines the term as “A situation in which nobody clearly has the advantage or emerges a clear winner.”

The key difference between a “Mexican standoff” and a garden variety “standoff” seems to be the equal strength of the two parties and thus the lack of a clear result. A regular standoff may be a temporary roadblock or impasse, in negotiations, for example, that eventually ends in either a surrender or an agreement, albeit grudgingly. A “Mexican standoff,” however, is a complete stalemate, and both sides lose by being forced to walk away without a victory.

Several sources I have found suggest that the “Mexican” modifier in the phrase refers to a supposed proclivity of 19th century Mexican “bandits” for running away from a fair fight. But the first example of “Mexican standoff” found so far in print used the phrase to describe a baseball game ending in a tie, and subsequent uses employ the term as a simple synonym of “stalemate” with nary an actual Mexican in sight. The “Mexican” in “Mexican standoff” is thus¬† almost certainly just another entry in the long and shameful roster of US slang terms employing “Mexican” as a slur meaning “fraudulent, inferior, or marked by poverty, poor sanitation, lack of sophistication or ignorance.” Such formations as “Mexican bankroll” (one large denomination bill wrapped around a roll of smaller bills), “Mexican athlete” (a phony braggart) and “Mexican breakfast” (a cigarette and a glass of water) all reflect the same derogatory national rivalry. A “Mexican standoff,” in this light, is called “Mexican” because it is pointless, inconclusive and unproductive, not because it has any actual connection to Mexico.


On wheels.

Dear Word Detective:¬† I recently was trying to find the origin of the term “dolly,” as in a cart with wheels. I found your website by accident. I cannot put together a “doll” and the “dolly” as in your old, old posting. I have a gentleman’s bet with the owner of a bakery on the origin and I would really appreciate it if you could take another stab at the origin and/or maybe explain differently how a “doll” and a cart with wheels could be connected in the 16th century. — Karita.

OK, I’ll give it another shot. Perhaps with a wooden bullet, like the one Jason used on Franklin, the psycho vampire on True Blood. As Russell Edgington (the vampire king of Mississippi and my absolute fave) said in a slightly different context, who knew? By the way, the column of mine you stumbled across was from 1998, which makes it fairly old, but not really “old, old.” That makes it sound like you found it on the wall of a cave in southern France.

Before we begin, however, a word of caution is in order. It is often very difficult, and frequently simply impossible, to definitively trace the “why” behind figurative uses of words. There isn’t always a straight line of logic to be discovered, because the English language as we see it today is the product of a committee with millions of members over the course of many centuries. With no one in charge, to boot. The best guesses we can make are thus often maddeningly vague, and “dolly” is one such case.

As I said, ahem, way back when, the whole story starts with the word “doll,” which arose in the mid-16th century as a shortened “pet” or familiar form of “Dorothy.” The substitution of “l” for the “r” in Dorothy was not, at the time, as weird as it seems today. The same pattern gave us “Hal” from “Harold,” “Sally” from “Sarah,” and several other common names.

“Doll” and “Dolly,” in addition to being “pet” names for women, soon came to be applied as generic terms to pet animals, toy “dolls,” and lower-class women, including servants and prostitutes. “Dolly” was also used as a name for various small mechanical devices, often because the contraption was thought to resemble a child’s doll in some way. Thus a wooden device used in the 18th century to agitate clothes in a washtub was called a “dolly” because the user gripped it by two “arms” and twisted it, making the gizmo’s two “legs” churn the water in the tub.

“Dolly” wasn’t used to mean a small wheeled platform until around 1910 (not the 16th century), and by then the term “dolly” had largely lost the original “looks kinda like a person” sense. It is possible, of course, that someone saw a resemblance between a primitive wheeled “dolly” and human arms and legs, but doubtful. It’s more likely that “dolly” was used because of such carts’ small size when compared to larger trucks, wagons and similar conveyances.

It’s also possible that “dolly” in the wheeled sense harks back to “dolly” as a generic term for a lower-class woman or girl, especially a servant. Thus a “dolly” would be so-called because it “helps” or “serves” in the task of moving heavy objects.

If that “servant” connection is true, it would make “dolly” in this sense a cousin of the “lazy susan,” the revolving tray sometimes placed on dining tables to hold condiments or side dishes. This device had been called a “dumb-waiter” in Britain since the 18th century, but when it was introduced to the US in the late 19th century it became known as a “lazy susan,” almost certainly because “Susan” was considered a common name for female servants.