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January 2015

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Welcome to January, land of enchantment, and by “enchantment,” I mean, of course, frozen mud.

So, did everyone have a nice Getstuffmas? Santa brought us a broken furnace. It didn’t actually break all at once, but started to die a few days earlier, just not coming on until it was way colder in here than the setting on the thermostat. Then it wouldn’t stay on quite long enough to get back up to “warm.” It took us a while to catch on that our own furnace was gaslighting us. Lather, rinse, repeat, and pretty soon it was 12/25 and freaking freezing in here. I hate holidays. Oddly enough, the guy who came to repair it was insanely good at his job and had it humming away in about 20 minutes. At $10 and change per minute. Oh well.

It dawned on me a few days ago that this year, 2015, marks the twentieth anniversary of this website, a fact that I find simultaneously impressive and deeply disorienting. There aren’t a whole lot of twenty-year old websites still around, and the web was a very different place in 1995; I actually had to go buy a couple of books on Unix and HTML to figure out how to get the site up and running. I wrote the first version of the site in Notepad.

A few months later I wrote one of the first general purpose mass-audience internet books, called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet (Random House), which was excerpted in the Washington Post and was a huge success, except it made me next to no money for some reason. Probably because my idiot publisher refused to believe it was selling as fast as it was and never printed enough copies, so it was constantly out of stock in bookstores. A couple of years later (1998), I revised the whole book from scratch for next to no money because I was naive and had a lousy agent. It’s still available on Amazon, but please don’t buy it, because it’s about twenty years out of date.

That book did fulfill one of every author’s primo fantasies for me: I got to hang out in a busy bookstore a few days before Christmas (Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side of NYC, in this case) and see dozens of people snatch up and buy multiple copies of my book. It was very cool, but also actually kinda creepy. Hard to explain.

Speaking of books about the internet, I recently read Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, which is very good. It’s much more than just another screed bemoaning the deleterious effects of the net; in many respects it’s not about the net at all, but the modern drive to seek solutions to things which may not, in fact, actually be problems at all. It’s a fascinating and very well-written book. Here is a somewhat long but very interesting interview with Morozov.

Elsewhere in the news, we sat down and watched Life Itself, the bio-pic about Roger Ebert, which I anticipated liking, because I liked Roger Ebert (although he liked a lot of absolute junk). Anyway, the more time passes after seeing the film, the more it strikes me as deeply unsatisfactory, a weirdly lumpy and half-baked effort in desperate need of a competent editor.

On the other hand, I was fully prepared to dislike Finding Vivian Maier because the thought of someone unearthing an artist’s work after the artist’s death and apparently profiting from it is inherently repulsive. But the film is absolutely fascinating, very well done, and shows a real commitment on the part of John Maloof, who bought several boxes of her negatives at an auction a few years ago, to both popularize her work and investigate her life story. I’ve always been a fan of street photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, etc., and Vivian Maier‘s work is at least at their level. She was a genuine genius with an extraordinary eye. She was also a deeply strange and troubled person, a paranoid hoarder with a definite “dark side.” Anyway, it’s a great film. Unfortunately Vivian Maier’s work may soon be withdrawn from public view due to a legal wrangle, which would be very sad.

I just noticed that Netflix is now pushing The Interview at me. I’m gonna pass and stick to P.G. Wodehouse. Meanwhile, please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to life here at Churchmouse Abbey, for we are as skint as our namesake.

And now, on with the show…

Skeleton key

Warning: Key will not work if holder is being pursued by zombies.

Dear Word Detective: The term “skeleton key” has always been a puzzle to me. Some sources suggest the shape of the skeleton key is suggestive of the shape of a skeleton. I find this unpersuasive. Do you have a better explanation for this term? By the way, is the surname Skelton related in any way to “skeleton”? — Jim Brown.

Yeah, right. Two can play that game. By the way, I have my nomination for the most vexing phrase in the English language: “By the way.” It serves the same purpose as Columbo’s “Just one more thing.” You think you’re off the hook, but then, as in the Godfather, they pull you back in. So last things first: the surname Skelton (probably best known in the US through the comedian Red Skelton) has no connection to “skeleton.” According to the most credible explanation I’ve found, “Skelton” was originally the name of villages in northern England, probably drawn from the Old English “scylf,” meaning an elevated area of land (related to “shelf”), plus “tun,” a settlement. The village name eventually became a “locational” surname for people from the area.

“Skeleton key” will probably be unfamiliar to anyone under about 40, but when I was a kid it was a term spoken with near-reverence. A skeleton key, at least in the mythology of 10-year old boys, was a key that could unlock any door (and thus often featured in low-budget horror and mystery films). There was some truth to the tale, because many houses (including the one I grew up in) had lever tumbler locks on the doors that were operated with “bitted” keys. Such “old-fashioned” keys consisted of a long stem with a sort of metal “flag” at the end into which were cut slots, leaving “bits,” or tines, in a pattern that matched the pattern of tumblers in the lock. If the bits didn’t match the tumblers, the key didn’t work. A “skeleton key,” however, usually had very wide spaces and very narrow bits, so with a little wiggling, a lock could often be opened with a generic “skeleton” key. Though “skeleton keys” in this “bitted key” sense are long obsolete, the term is still used for “passkeys” for more advanced locks, and even the administrative electronic card keys used in hotels, etc.

“Skeleton” as a noun means, of course, the bony framework or structure of an animal’s body, and comes from the Greek “skeleton soma,” meaning “dried-up body” (“skeleton” being from “skellein,” to dry up”). Since the 17th century, “skeleton” has also been used to mean the basic, unadorned framework of something (“The bare bones, the very Skeleton of a Monarchie.” 1647), as well as a remnant of something, such as an army unit, too small to be effective (“Having on board part of the skeleton of the 16th regiment of foot, … consisting of 10 officers, and 62 rank and file.” 1812).

“Skeleton key” employs that “basic framework” sense of the term, and is notable in that it’s one of only a few times when something being a “skeleton” is advantageous. It’s the very simplicity of the skeleton key with its sparse “bits” that, with luck and a bit of jiggling, unlocks the door to the haunted house.

Up and at ’em

I’ll be Bach.

Dear Word Detective: So, I have long heard the phrase “Up and Adam” which never made sense to me. I was looking into it recently because I was re-watching a Simpsons episode where a Schwarzenegger-like actor kept saying “Up and at them” because he couldn’t get the line right. However, this phrase makes a great deal more sense to me then the former. Googling it reveals it is likely “Up and at ’em.” I was curious if this is the correct phrase and would like to hear about how it came about and how often and how it is incorrectly stated. — Devin.

Good question, and thanks for the term “Schwarzenegger-like.” It has a mordant chuckle baked into it. Speaking of baking, I happened to be sitting in a restaurant in the German Village area of Columbus, Ohio last summer devouring an enormous chocolate cream-puff, when who should amble past our table but Ahnold himself, complete with his retinue of bodyguards. In that one ten-second close-up I learned two new things: (a) he’s much shorter than I had thought, and (b) he’s bright orange. Like a little Teutonic traffic cone.

Thanks to all the people on the internet with nothing better to do, I can now report that the episode of the Simpsons you were watching was from 1995, called “Radioactive Man,” and centers on the making of a film of the (fictional) popular comic book of that title in Springfield. The eponymous superhero in the film is played by Ranier Wolfcastle, a parody of Schwarzenegger who appears in several Simpsons episodes. Apparently, Radioactive Man’s catchphrase is “Up and Atom!”, which makes Simpsonesque sense, but Ranier Wolfcastle, with his obsessive enunciation, insists on saying “Up and at them!” The joke seems to be aimed at people who insist that “up and at ’em” is sub-standard English.

To begin at the beginning, the original phrase is definitely “Up and at ’em.” (“‘Em” is a shortening of “them” dating back to the 14th century). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers two citations for “up and at ’em,” the earlier being from 1909 (“It was always the up-and-at-’em aspect of things that appealed to him.”). There is some debate (see linguist Arnold Zwicky’s blog at over whether “Up and Adam” is a conscious joke by people familiar with the phrase or a genuine “eggcorn,” a substitution of a word or phrase based on a misunderstanding (see The Eggcorns Database at for an explanation and examples). The verdict seems to be that most people who write or say “Up and Adam” are joking and know it, but some people have made apparently sincere attempts to connect the phrase to Adam (Garden of Eden, snake, etc.) being told to get busy by God.

Two posters in the forum at the Eggcorn Database mentioned above remember being awakened by their mothers in the morning with the exhortation “Up and Adam!”, and I think I do too. I definitely remember another mock-Biblical reference from my childhood, this one at the close of day. Much of what I supposedly learned in Sunday School is a dim memory, to put it mildly. But the story in the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the young men consigned to die in a fiery furnace by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (and rescued by an angel) has stuck with me. And it has stuck with me entirely because at bedtime my mother transformed their names into “Shadrach, Meshach, and To Bed We Go!”