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January 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Twenty-eleven, eh? Unpossible. Uncromulent. I’d prefer not to. And, judging by how January has gone, we might as well fast-forward to 2012 and go right to the rain of burning frogs.

What an an attractive possum might look like.

What an attractive possum might look like.

There’s a sad-looking cat out in the orchard. Do NOT bring it inside.

So naturally I put on my coat and wobble outside, peering in the direction of the apple trees. Even with my lousy eyes, I can see that it’s a very sad-looking cat. Probably because it was born a possum. Is there such a thing as a good-looking possum?

While we’re on the subject of cats and the bringing thereof into said house, I must mention that we are in dire need of subscribers in order to continue to feed the little dears (and ourselves), as well as to pay for this website. The “recession” (call it what you will) has been hard on many people, present company definitely included, and, apart from reducing our already meager income, has apparently made many folks understandably reluctant to spend even the pittance ($15) we ask for the¬†yearly subscription the little kitties depend on for their chow. (Aren’t you glad you don’t have to diagram that sentence?) All of which is but a prelude to asking you to subscribe. For the kitties.

gus and phoebe pitch

We can has sponsors?

But wait, I hear you say, that’s only $15 a year, not enough to feed a single tiny kitten! Isn’t there something more I can do?

Why yes, now there is. Simply click the PayPal button below after choosing the number of kitties you would like to feed, and you’ll be signed up for the Word Detective Cute Kitty Cat Food Fund, which will deduct that amount directly from your PayPal account every month. No stamps to lick, no renewals to remember, and you’ll sleep like a top every night knowing that somewhere an unbearably cute cat is sleeping on a full tummy.

Cute Kitty Cat Food Fund

What else. Speaking of eyesight, I woke up early the other morning and discovered, on my way to the bathroom, that I had apparently gone blind in my left eye. Totally black. Bummer. This was especially distressing because that’s my good eye. The right one has been screwed up to the point of near blindness since birth by severe amblyopia, so I’ve actually never seen the world in three dimensions. (So I watched the 2D version of Avatar last year. I heartily recommend the 0D version.) Anyway, I resolved to worry about it later (which is easy when I’m still basically asleep; it takes me a good hour to become functional in the morning) and went back to bed. When I got up later it was working somewhat but hurt quite a bit, so I guess it’s my optic nerve acting up, as happens every so often in my right eye. I had noticed the night before that I suddenly couldn’t read anything at all with my left eye, which tends to support that theory. As of this writing it is still difficult to read printed matter, not a walk in the park on my best days.

All of which brings me to a couple of suggestions for anyone with less than stellar vision who spends a lot of time trying to read things on a computer. I’ve mentioned both of these things before, but they’re so cool I think it’s worth a rerun. One is an add-on for Firefox called No Squint, which allows you to increase the size of a web page and/or just increase the size of the fonts on a page (my preference). You can even set a default magnification for all pages and per-site settings so that every time you go back to Slashdot, for example, the page will be easily readable.

For reading long articles, however, Readability is, hands down, the most radical improvement to the web I’ve ever seen. Faced with a page of tiny type strewn with ads and “most emailed” boxes, you just click a button on your browser toolbar and the page is transformed into a single column of readable text (you can set the size and style) on a perfectly blank page, just as if you’d typed it yourself.

Continue reading this post » » »

Crack (Excellent)

Spot on.

Dear Word Detective: I see that about five years ago you answered a question about “crack,” but you left out the meaning that’s puzzling me. What about “crack” meaning “excellent,” as in “crack troops” or “a crack shot”? Would this have anything to do with “crackerjack,” also meaning “excellent,” after which the popcorn concoction was named? — Pat.

Hey, you’re right. It’ll be exactly five years ago next month that I wrote a column on “cracked up” (as in “That restaurant wasn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be”). Gee, time just zips by when you’re doing whatever it is I’ve been doing. As Groucho Marx said, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” Incidentally, how come dogs and cats don’t have to eat vegetables or fruit? “Don’t give your dog broccoli, it’s poison to them!” “Cats can’t eat apples, they’ll die!” But pizza, ice cream, cheeseburgers, fettuccine alfredo? No problemo. How conveeeeenient, eh?

Most of us probably associate the word “crack” with a break or fissure, usually unwanted, in something: a crack in a mirror, cracks in the ceiling, the crack in the Earth’s surface from which Rodan emerged, etc. But the original sense of the verb “to crack,” when it appeared as the Old English “cracian,” derived from Germanic roots, was “to make a dry, sharp sound,” and the word itself was almost certainly formed “echoically,” in imitation of just such a sound. We still use this initial sense of “to crack” in such forms as “to crack the whip,” meaning “to make someone work harder or more diligently,” which originally referred to an overseer causing his whip to make a cracking sound as a threat of punishment.

“Crack” expanded fairly quickly, as a verb, to mean “to break something,” usually producing a “crack” sound in the process. The noun form of “crack” followed the same pattern, meaning both the sudden, sharp sound (particularly with reference to rifle or cannon fire) and the presumably resulting break in something. Both the noun and the verb also quickly acquired a wide variety of figurative uses, such as “crack of dawn” and “to take a crack at something” (which originally referred to a shot with a rifle).

One of the most prolific branches of the figurative uses of “crack” was that using “crack” as slang to mean “loud talk, boasting or bragging” or “a sharp or cutting remark,” a sense still found in “wisecrack.” The “boast” sense also gave us “cracking up,” meaning “to strongly recommend or promote,” now usually found in the lament that something is “not what it’s cracked up to be.”

The use of “crack” as an adjective meaning “first-rate, excellent” in such phrases as “crack shot” and “crack regiment” also derives from this “boast or brag” sense. A “crack regiment,” for instance, is a unit whose proficiency has been rightly “cracked up,” the subject of public admiration and justifiable boasting by its members.

“Crackerjack,” which today we know (at least in the US) as a confection made of candied popcorn and peanuts, was, back in the late 19th century, both a noun meaning “a remarkable person” and an adjective meaning “excellent, of the highest quality” (“Say, by the way, look out — he’s a crackerjack boxer,” 1910). The root of “crackerjack” is simply that “crack” meaning “excellent” again, coupled with the suffix “jack” (which really doesn’t mean anything but does provide a nice echo of “cracker”).


Just beat it.

Dear Word Detective: Growing up in Detroit, we of modest means drove clunkers, sometimes referred to as “ghetto cruisers.” I hear the younger generation call them “hoop-dee’s.” I’m guessing this came from the fact that the creme de la creme of ghetto cruisers was the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which got shortened to Coupe de. Then the “C” sound was dropped to make “hoop-dee.” My niece and her friends were not impressed with my logic and now I’m referred to as Uncle B.S. Just how full of it am I? — Alan Smithee.

Gosharootie! Alan Smithee, the famous film director? I’ve seen all your movies! Well, most of some of them, anyway. In a few cases I had to leave when people started throwing things at the screen. But hold on a moment. According to Wikipedia, “Alan Smithee” is the standard pseudonym used by directors who wish, for whatever reason, to disown their films and not have their real names appear in the credits. That explains the projectiles. So I guess I should just assume that this is a real question and that you’re hiding from your niece. Plus maybe you’re famous, right?

It may be because I wasn’t allowed to cross the street alone until I was 17, but I had never heard of “hoop-dees” before I read your question. Fortunately, other people have, and the term is actually listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED spells the word “hooptie,” although it also recognizes “hooptie,” “hoopty,” “whooptie,” and “whoopty.” I’ll stick with “hooptie.” As for a definition, the OED explains “hooptie” as being “A car; specifically an old or dilapidated one,” and their earliest print citation for the term is from 1968, in a glossary of then-current slang, which would indicate that the term had been in use for at least a few years before then. So “hooptie” is essentially synonymous, according to the OED, with such other slang terms for aged and/or infirm automobiles as “beater,” “jalopy,” “crate” and “clunker.”

It seems, however, that “hooptie” may also be applied to a car which, while it may be past its prime, is still an object of devotion and pride. The OED’s assertion that “hooptie” first appeared as slang in the African-American community would fit with popularization of the term in a number of rap and hip-hop songs, most notably the 1990 “My Hooptie” by Sir Mix-a-Lot (“My hooptie rollin’, tailpipe draggin’ / Heat don’t work an’ my girl keeps naggin’ / Six-nine Buick, deuce keeps rollin’ / One hubcap ’cause three got stolen / Bumper shook loose, chrome keeps scrapin’ / Mis-matched tires, and my white walls flakin’ …).

The origin of the term “hooptie” is, unfortunately, considered a complete mystery. The Dictionary of Regional American English cites an apparent ancestor, “hoopy,” as being heard, especially in Texas, in the mid-1960s, but that doesn’t help much. Interestingly, several references I have come across suggest, as you did, a possible origin in the Cadillac Coupe De Ville, and the more I ponder that possibility the more sense it makes. A “hooptie” is clearly by nature a large American-made car (like the 1969 Buick in “My Hooptie”), most likely a status vehicle when new, and still retaining some of its original cachet. That certainly sounds like a Coupe de Ville to me, and the phonetic resemblance between “Coupe de” and “hooptie” is intriguing, to say the least. So while I certainly can’t swear your theory is correct, and we may never know the origin of “hooptie” for certain, your niece should chill until she has a better theory.