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July 2009 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Today’s fast fact: Nearly 77% of all paper towels bought in the US last year were used to clean up cat vomit.  At least 77% of the ones bought around here were.  Speaking of cat vomit, I’ve noticed that the Garage Cat Boys (Boots, Marley and Yo-Yo) all start making a weird howling sound about ten seconds before they puke.  It’s really quite handy, as it gives you time to lift the afflicted creature gently off your desk and toss it out the window into the hall.  Kiki and her crew (Gus, Phoebe and Harry), on the other hand, are more than willing to puke in your lap with no warning.

Onward.  If the real Steve Jobs were this funny, I might buy a Mac, but he’s not, so I won’t.  Speaking of the real Steve Jobs, disgraced stock tout Henry Blodget (as Fake Steve Jobs calls him) has apparently developed a major obsession with the (real) Jobs, especially his former hair. Check it out. (Yes, that’s not his byline, but he runs the site.) The Life And Awesomeness Of Steve Jobs? Weird.  I wonder how much Apple stock Henry holds.

Elsewhere in the cyberverse, some of us don’t care for Google and its plans to sell your soul to the highest bidder, but it seems to be Amazon that is getting most of the flak at the moment.  Apparently some malcontents (who doubtless bear watching in any case) bought hinky books for their Kindles and were subsequently shocked to discover that Amazon had the power to wirelessly vaporize said books in the dead of night.  The fact that the books in question were Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 does win our annual This Is All A Dream, Right? award, but for the benefit of the slow learners out there still scratching their heads over how such a thing could happen, it’s worth pointing out that those weirdos had not actually bought those books in the sense that one buys a slice of pizza (or real book).  They had bought a license to view the books, a license that came with legal restrictions dictating what device they could read them on (Kindle, duh), whether they could transfer them to another device (nope), and whether they could sell them when they were finished reading them (nope again).  The fact that those restrictions did not specifically say that Amazon could, at a publisher’s behest, zap “your” Kindle with its death ray may make for an interesting court case. But the same sort of you-don’t-really-own-this “license” applies to nearly all proprietary software for Windows or Mac computers. Of course, Amazon has since promised to never, never, ever vaporize any Kindle owner’s books ever again.  Right.

Continue reading this post » » »


Don’t look at me.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word “lie”? — Cristy Clark.

That’s a good question, but you really ought to give us a “backstory,” some details about why you’re asking it.  You could say, for instance, “I was watching TV the other night and discovered that my favorite politician had been lying to us about taking bribes from the Indonesian pencil cartel, and I was so upset about the little schoolchildren being stuck with substandard pencils that I had to go lie on the bed.  Are these two kinds of “lie” related, and where does ‘lie’ come from, anyhow?”  See how that makes the question more vivid?  By the way, you can get bonus points for including cats in your tale, so if you don’t have a cat, just say the word and I’ll send you a few.

As you can probably infer from the little fable I concocted, there’s a bit of ambiguity in your question, because there are actually two kinds of “lie” in the English language.  There’s the “lie” meaning “untruth or falsehood,” which can be either a noun or a verb, but there’s also the verb “to lie,” meaning “to recline, to position oneself horizontally.”  The two “lies” are, fortunately, entirely separate English words, with completely different origins and histories.  I say “fortunately” because I just finished a column explaining (I hope) how the one word “present” can mean both “the time that is happening right now” and “a nice gift on Christmas morning” (as well as a bunch of other things).  It’s much easier when the two words look alike but have no tangled historical relationship to decode.

Both kinds of “lie” are, however, very old words that were handed down to us from Old English.  The “lie” meaning, as a noun, “the deliberate misrepresentation of facts in order to deceive” comes from an ancient Germanic root meaning “to tell a lie,” as does the verb “to lie,” which first appeared in Old English as “leogan.”  The key to “lying” is, of course, intent.  A “lie” is a blatant attempt to deceive the listener;  if I tell you that it’s snowing outside and it actually stopped an hour ago, I am probably not “lying.”  A “lie” usually must be deliberate and of some consequence.  “Your hair looks fabulous” may be a little “fib” (or “white lie”), but it doesn’t attain the level of malevolent dishonesty of an outright “lie.”

The other kind of “lie,” meaning “to recline horizontally,” exists primarily as a verb in modern English (although a noun form of “lie” in a related sense is used in golf and other sports to describe the position of the ball — how it “lies” — in relation to the course or playing field).  This verb “to lie” also comes from a very old Germanic root, in this case meaning “to lie down.”

One slightly sticky aspect of this “lie” comes from confusion with the separate transitive verb “to lay,” meaning “to put or set down” (“Lay down your gun and raise your hands”).  This confusion comes in part because the past tense of “to lie” is also “to lay.”  The best way to keep the two verbs straight is to remember that “to lay” is a transitive verb, one that must act on an object (“Lay an egg”), while “to lie” is intransitive and requires no object (“Go lie on the couch and I’ll get some aspirin”).

Shaggy dog story

So I bit him.

Dear Word Detective:  I don’t know if you get lots of emails with jokes of varying quality, some dubious and some hilarious, but I just got to the bottom of one (with the usual “scroll down,” “keep scrolling,” etc.) to find that it was a classic “shaggy dog” story.  Then, of course, I wondered what a shaggy dog has got to do with a joke with a strange ending.  Don’t know how many dogs you have in your menagerie of cats, but perhaps they could help.– David, Ripon, North Yorkshire.

I take it that you haven’t met many dogs.  We have two, and the only thing they’ve ever done to “help” around here is to bark furiously when rabbits are massing to attack the house.  If it weren’t for Doorbell and Barkie, I’d have been nibbled to death long ago.

I actually don’t get many joke-laden emails anymore, probably because the same people who send them also used to send me ridiculous urban legends.  I would politely point out that said tales weren’t true, and I was rewarded by being deleted from their mailing lists.  It’s a shame, because I really miss seeing all those rainbows and animated unicorns.

A “shaggy dog story” is a kind of joke that might best be called an anti-joke.  It typically involves a long, excruciatingly detailed build-up leading, eventually, to a punchline that is only “funny” as a practical joke where the listener has been tricked into paying close attention to a long, pointless, unfunny story.  The term “shaggy dog story” itself dates at least to the 1930s, as Esquire magazine printed an article about them in 1937.

There seems to be general agreement that “shaggy dog story” as a category of humor takes its name from an actual joke involving a shaggy dog, but opinions vary on what the joke itself might have been.  My parents, William and Mary Morris, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, traced the term to a story about an international competition to find the shaggiest dog in the world.  Much pointless narration later, the winning dog is presented to the haughty fellow underwriting the quest, who declares, “I don’t think he’s so shaggy.”  End of joke.

Another proposed original “shaggy dog” joke involves a man placing a very detailed “lost dog” advertisement for a shaggy dog, and answering his door a few days later to find a boy with a dog on a leash, who says, “You advertised a lost dog?  Medium size?”  “Yes,” says the man. “Light brown?”  “Yes.” “Slight limp?”  “Yes.”  “Answers to Rex?” “Yes.”  “Shaggy coat?”  The man peers at the dog and says, “Not that shaggy.”

“Shaggy dog story” has also found wide use in the figurative sense of something that may be full of sound and fury but in the end signifies nothing.  The soap opera twist of explaining an exceedingly improbable plot line with “it was only a dream” is a classic “shaggy dog” gambit.  And the films of M. Night Shyamalan (The Village, The Happening, et al.), which often rely on a sort of “deus ex cornball” final twist, are so routinely labeled “shaggy dog stories” by critics (“The whole enterprise is a shaggy dog story,” Roger Ebert, 2004) that a lesser (or lower-paid) director would have thrown in the towel long ago.