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January 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Note:  Due to the unfortunate lapse between our November and January issues (not to mention a disastrous cash-flow problem here at TWD World Headquarters), the Holiday Two-Subs-for-Just-Barely-More-than-One Special Deal described here has been extended until February 1, 2009 (or until we get around to taking down the Christmas tree, March at the latest).  So if you’re looking for just the thing to combat those post-holiday blues, we’ve got your ticket, with a spare for a friend.  As always, your support keeps this website up and running.  We now return you to our somewhat irregular programming:


Holy moly, all right, already.  Never a dull moment.

You’re probably wondering what happened to the December issue. Me too. I’ve been away:

Twas just days before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for one spouse, who was crouched on all fours at the porcelain throne, wishing he’d chosen dinner at home….

So a couple of weeks ago Hometown Buffet, an all-you-can-eat place here in Central Ohio, sent me a coupon good for one free meal on account of my birthday.

(Although I do not “age” as you humans do, I celebrate my arrival on your planet as my “birthday” out of solidarity with your plight.  It also makes things way easier at the DMV.)

We chose the Friday before Christmas as the happy date, because Friday is Fish Night at HTB (as they call themselves), and Mrs. WD is fond of broiled salmon. The food at HTB is not, as you can imagine, exactly the reincarnation of Lutece, but if you exercise caution, much of it ain’t bad and the salmon is always fresh. Besides, this was all gonna be half-price.

I actually hate fish, and on such occasions usually go with the broiled chicken, mashed potatoes and pizza that represent my personal food pyramid. The vegetarian marinara sauce there is also actually quite good, and they don’t overcook the pasta. It really isn’t a dump, in other words.

So we march in and chow down, and on my second trip to the trough I notice that they have a big tray of fried clams, the only kind of seafood I actually like.  So I eat a small pile.  A big small pile.  With tartar sauce that, admittedly, reminds me a bit of spackle.  Then, after a few pieces of carrot cake (quite good), we toddle home.  End of Act One.

Continue reading this post » » »

Break a leg

Putting the “duck” in “deductibile.”

Dear Word Detective: This one has been bothering me for years, but I keep forgetting to write and ask you. Why do actors say “break a leg” to each other right before they go on stage? What’s wrong with “good luck”? Is it true that this “break a leg” tradition dates back to when John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln? — Cindy S.

How odd. Yours is the second question about “break a leg” I’ve received this week. What makes that odd is that, seven or eight years ago, I used to get this question at least once a month, but there’s been not a peep from the “break a leg” brigade since then. I guess these things travel in waves. Maybe certain questions are like comets orbiting the sun. Anyway, I just hope I don’t wake up tomorrow to find my email program clogged with another tsunami of impassioned pleas to reveal “the third word that ends in ‘gry’.” (Let me save us both the trouble. There isn’t one. It’s all a very old, and very lame, joke.)

bills09Onward. “Break a leg” is, of course, a saying traditionally employed by actors to wish each other success before going on stage. To call “break a leg” a funny way to wish someone good luck is an understatement. We don’t shout “Hit a tree!” as our friends drive away, or “Have fun with the iceberg!” when they embark on a cruise. For an actor, especially one in a stage role, breaking a leg would be a major disaster.

The story about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln is certainly the most popular legend purporting to explain “break a leg.” It’s true that Booth was a famous actor in 1865, and it’s also true that after shooting President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater, Booth leaped from the President’s box to the stage below, breaking his leg. But there are two enormous problems with tracing “break a leg” to this event. First is the fact that “break a leg” is not found in print before 1957, and the phrase almost certainly wasn’t used before the early 20th century. Secondly, the events at Ford’s Theater that night would strike most sane people as the polar opposite of good luck for all concerned.

There are other theories of varying plausibility about the phrase, but the most likely explanation tackles the “wish someone ill as a way to wish them well” puzzle of “break a leg” head on. Popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing someone good luck. Doing so, say the sages, will tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. So the trick is to outwit the demons (who are apparently not very bright) by wishing your friend bad fortune.

As for the specific form of “break a leg,” we seem to have imported it from Europe. In the German theater, actors use the equivalent phrase “Hals- und Bienbruch,” to wish their colleagues “a broken neck and a broken leg.” The German phrase seems to have begun life among aviators, possibly during World War I, and gradually spread to the German theater and from there to the British and American stages.


On the house.

Dear Word Detective: I am an ex-pat from St. Louis, MO. I still try to check in on local happenings by reading the Post-Dispatch online. Today, on their Blog, someone said, “Are there still restaurants in town where the managers are boniface?” Boniface? I had never heard that term before. Sure enough, “boniface” means the keeper of an inn, hotel, nightclub, or eating establishment. Where in the world did this term come from? — Margherita Wohletz.

Hey, me too. We left New York City for rural Ohio more than ten years ago, but I still read the New York papers online (mostly the Daily News, since the New York Times is pretty clueless as to how most people in New York actually live). And sometimes when I’m doing the dishes late at night I like to tune in to WCBS News Radio in New York. (I suspect they can get the WCBS signal on Mars.) It makes me homesick to listen, at least until they get to the traffic report. New York is the only city I can imagine having traffic jams at 1:30 am, but they do, usually on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. I do not miss the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

boniface09“Boniface,” which today is used as a generic name for an innkeeper or proprietor of a restaurant, tavern, etc., is an eponym, a term drawn from a proper name. English is full of eponyms. The humble “sandwich,” for instance, is so called because it is said to have been invented in 1762 by John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich. (Sandwich almost certainly did not, in fact, “invent” eating meat between slices of bread, but his status as a member of the aristocracy popularized the concoction.) Similarly, when we call someone a “maverick,” we’re invoking the name of Samuel Maverick, a 19th century Texas rancher famous for not branding his wandering cattle, which made his name an eponym for a nonconformist who doesn’t “stick with the herd.”

Maverick and Sandwich were both real people, but eponyms are also frequently formed from the names of characters in fiction, and often become more famous than their literary sources. Most people, for instance, know that a “Svengali” is an evil, manipulative figure who exerts a powerful hold over another person, but not many know that the term comes from a character in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel “Trilby.”

“Boniface” is a literary eponym whose source is even more obscure today than “Trilby.” It comes from “The Beaux’ Stratagem,” a comedic play written by the Irish dramatist George Farquhar and first produced in London in 1707. The play centers on two young men who set out to enrich themselves by misleading young heiresses, but one of the two actually falls in love with his target and hijinks, as they say, ensue. I haven’t read the play, but evidently an innkeeper (and his daughter) play a prominent role, and the innkeeper’s name is, you guessed it, “Boniface.” Apparently the jovial innkeeper Boniface (pronounced “BAHN-ih-fass”) made such an impression on audiences that the term became an eponym for the operator of an inn, tavern or similar establishment.

In asking whether there were still restaurants in St. Louis where “the managers are boniface,” I think what the writer was seeking was places where the manager is always around, greeting guests and acting as a real host, as opposed to the hands-off, “autopilot” atmosphere of chain restaurants. It’s definitely worth the trouble to seek out such places. Those chain restaurants always seem like nothing but enormous vending machines.