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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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March 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Hey, it’s still March.

So Big Love is over. It actually improved a bit in its final season. But, like most HBO productions, it suffered from weak writing and had an infuriating tendency to wander off into absurd subplots. And, like so many HBO shows, it killed off its most interesting characters early on, in this case Harry Dean Stanton, who was drop-dead perfect as polygamist patriarch Roman Grant. I think it’s interesting that the only two characters who came close to Stanton in depth (and acting ability) were Chloe Sevigny and Matt Ross playing, respectively, his daughter Nikki and psychopathic son Alby. I’d watch a spinoff set in the Juniper Creek compound if they’d bring Roman Grant back.

Awesomely evil.

Elsewhere in the news, giving the evildoers of the world a run for their money in the Machiavellian Scheming department, the clever gnomes at Facebook recently unleashed a “feature” whereby unaffiliated websites (such as this one) can replace their native commenting system with “Facebook comments.” Because, you know, everyone who really counts is already on FB and those who aren’t can quick like a bunny run off to join if they have a sudden urge to post a comment at, say, TechCrunch.

Predictably, the malcontents and anti-social elements who resist every step on the path to our great and glorious future under the wise leadership of Chairman Zuck have sprung forth, sabotaging our collective morale with defeatist whining, wailing about “privacy” and other quaint un-Web 2.0 relics.

There actually are advantages for websites adopting the Facebook commenting system. People are more well-behaved, at least in theory, because their comments are tied to their Facebook accounts and they are, therefore, unlikely to say anything in comments that would offend their mothers. The comments also bounce back to Facebook and may show up on the commenters’ friends’ stalkers’ pages, giving the host page a PR boost.

But when Facebook talks about “convenience,” they mean convenience of advertisers and identity brokers, who stand to reap bushels of demographic intel from this scheme. Bottom line, I don’t think requiring your readers to join Facebook and have their privacy compromised by multi-dimensional tracking goblins just in order to leave a five-word comment is either reasonable or desirable.

Besides, it’s not as though our comments here at TWD are overrun by trolls. I read all comments before they appear, which sometimes takes me a few days, depending on the weather, but that hardly strikes me as an onerous task. The only comments I haven’t approved so far are pathetic comment spam (of which we get quite a bit) and the few that have employed abusive language toward other commenters. You’re free to call me an idiot, but not your fellow readers. Anyway, please do comment!

Incidentally, you don’t have to be registered on this site to leave a comment. The form asks for your name and email address, but that’s hard-wired and I haven’t figured out how to change it. In the meantime, feel free to make up a nice name and email address. I’d actually advise against entering your actual email address.

And please do send in questions! Lotsa lotsa questions. It makes my job easier if I have lots of questions.

Onward. Recently, Frank Rich, in his last column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine before leaving for New York magazine, recounted a simile that William Safire used to explain what it felt like to write a regular newspaper column:

“Safire … was fond of likening column writing to standing under a windmill: No sooner did you feel relief that you had ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down.”

After writing the newspaper column behind this website three times a week without a break since 1994, I can say that I’ve never seen a better metaphor for the relentless tyranny of a regular deadline. Producing a column essentially every two days means that I am frequently writing paragraphs in my head when I’m walking the dogs, and the relief I feel when I finish a column is like getting home from work at midnight and realizing that you have to be back there at 6 am.

Don’t worry, I’m not working up to announcing that I’m stopping. I can’t imagine not doing this. And writing this stuff used to be a lot more strenuous; when I first took over the column completely after my father died in 1994 (we had been collaborating for a few years at that point), I was suddenly faced with writing six columns per week, a schedule that had been set when my father was writing it for the old Bell Syndicate in the 1950s.  That quota had always struck me as a bit nuts when we were sharing the work, but I definitely wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own. So I bit the bullet and told the papers that carried the column that I’d be halving the product. It turned out that nobody was running all six columns anyway, so they really didn’t care.

My relief didn’t last long. Somehow I drifted into writing another, completely separate, weekly column for the New York Daily News, and then yet a third weekly feature for the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger. I was also working four days per week for a large Manhattan law firm. Hey, I drank a lot of coffee. We lived on the Upper West Side at the time, where the byzantine alternate-side parking rules meant that you had to spend at least an hour a couple of times every week sitting in your double-parked car while they swept the streets (if, that is, you wanted a parking space south of the Bronx for the next three days). So I’d grab a gallon of coffee and a legal pad and go sit in the car writing my columns longhand while garbage trucks and taxicabs crawled by inches away. It was actually weirdly restful.

Continue reading this post » » »

Holy moley!

Unrelated to Sham Wow.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m a student at St John’s College (the Great Books one, not the basketball one), and while reading the Odyssey a friend and I ran across a mention of a plant called “moly” which is sacred and harvested only by the gods. It occurred to us that that the phrase “Holy Moly” might be derived therefrom. As a regular reader of your column, I have some familiarity with the process of hunting up etymologies. Fortunately, we were in the library.  Our first stop was the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which was sadly lacking in information on the subject. We tried the Dictionary of Regional English and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. All we uncovered was a reference to a comic book character, our idea about the plant prefixed by a “perhaps with reference to,” and a theory that the phrase might be a shortened and reduplicated form of “Holy Moses.” Any ideas for the Johnnies? — Elizabeth Lightwood.

I dunno. Are you sure you want to ask someone who took about 90 seconds to realize what you meant by “Johnnies”? Time for more coffee. Talk among yourselves. OK, I’m back with the coffee, and I just discovered that I already had nearly a full cup sitting right here on my desk. Maybe I should just go back to bed.

You’ve certainly hit all the logical sources in your quest for the source of “holy moly,” and I’m sure you know that you’re lucky to have a library that carries all those reference sources. I’m actually rather shocked that the OED doesn’t even mention “holy moly.” I even looked under the alternate spelling “moley,” and came up with a British slang term meaning “A potato in which razor blades are embedded, used as a weapon.” I’m almost sorry I looked. One other reference source that is helpful in such cases, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, does have an entry for “holy moley,” but doesn’t add much to what you found elsewhere.

The comic book character you found a reference to is Captain Marvel, the superhero subject of an enormously popular strip written by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck beginning in 1940.  “Holy moley!” (note the spelling) was Captain Marvel’s characteristic exclamation of surprise, and the strip popularized the saying among American youth, along with “Shazam!”, the magic word that mild-mannered radio reporter Billy Batson uttered to transform himself into Captain Marvel. (Yes, the publishers of Superman sued Parker and Beck for copyright infringement in 1953 and won. Captain Marvel returned to print, however, in 1972.

It is remotely possible that the “moly” plant played a role in the authors’ use of “Holy Moley” as Captain Marvel’s catch phrase. “Shazam,” Billy’s magic phrase, was actually the name of the sorcerer who gave him his powers to fight evil, and Shazam himself explained that his name was an acronym made from the names of ancient luminaries (S for the wisdom of Solomon, H for the strength of Hercules, A for the stamina of Atlas, Z for the power of Zeus, A for the courage of Achilles, and M for the speed of Mercury). So someone connected to the strip certainly had an eye for mythology.

But there is solid evidence that “holy moly” was already widely in use in the late 1920s as a jocular euphemism for “Holy Moses,” an oath that, at that time, might well have been offensive to some people. The writers of Captain Marvel simply picked it up and ran with it.

Interestingly, the spelling “moley,” which appeared in the very first issue of the Captain Marvel comic book, may have been influenced by the name of Professor Raymond Charles Moley, quite well-known in the 1930s as an important ally of President Franklin Roosevelt and organizer of his “Brain Trust” of advisors. Moley became even more famous after he turned against the New Deal and became a conservative Republican, and apparently there were political jingles and rhymes at the time coupling the name “Moley” with “holy.” Almost all modern uses I have found of the phrase, however, spell it “holy moly.”


Good thing fish don’t have ears.

Dear Word Detective: Doing a crossword puzzle, I ran into the word “billingsgate” as the answer for the clue “abusive language.” Never having heard this use of “-gate” (as in “public scandal”) among Watergate, Billygate, etc., I looked it up at Sure enough, there it was with origin: “Gate and fish market, London, England. First usage 1652.” I was under the impression that Watergate (as a scandal) got its name from Watergate hotel and the other “-gate” words followed the pattern. How does “billingsgate” relate to these other usages?  Was there some really wild fish-fight at this London market? — Gary.

Fish fight! Fish fight! Speaking of fish fights, I’m a fan of the Animal Planet network show “Whale Wars,” in which members of the Sea Shepherd conservation organization try to stop whalers from whaling on the whales. I mentioned the show to someone a few weeks ago, and it became apparent that they had never watched it at least in part because they assumed it was a sort of cetacean “Fight Club,” with whales fighting each other, or something. I suppose such a thing is possible. After all, Moby Dick is just the story of a whale nursing a grudge.

I had to look up “Billygate” to be certain I remembered what it was, and while I vaguely knew President Jimmy Carter’s brother had been accused of influence-peddling, I didn’t recall  that he had actually been paid pots of money by Libya. He should have stuck with Billy Beer. “Billygate” took place in 1978, which wasn’t that long after the Watergate scandal (named after a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the hotel in 1972) had led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, so the name made sense to most people. (“Watergate” is a venerable English term for something, such as a floodgate, that either controls the flow of a stream or river or controls access to it, and the hotel was so named because it overlooks the Potomac River.)

But in the decades since, “gate” has blossomed into quasi-journalistic shorthand for “possible scandal” or “someone says something’s fishy here” or “my dog barks at the TV when that guy’s name is mentioned.” So now we get “Troopergate,” “Travelgate,” “Memogate,” “Gatecrashergate,” “Poodlegate,” ad nauseam, and a new “gate” every week. (Originally I thought I had made up Poodlegate, but it turns out to exist, and involves Al Gore’s thighs. Eww.) William Safire, who was working in the Nixon White House when Watergate erupted, subsequently took great joy in coining “gate” terms in his newspaper columns, and in 1988 he noted that his favorite creation, referring to a minor accounting dustup, was “doublebillingsgate.”

None of this, however, has anything to do with “billingsgate” meaning “abusive language.” “Billingsgate” is the name of one of the gates that originally controlled access to the city of London (“Billing” being the proper name of the builder of the gate). The Billingsgate area lies on the North bank of the River Thames, and Billingsgate was originally a “watergate,” affording access from London to the river for cargo and passengers. The most notable feature of Billingsgate, however, was the fish market established there in the 17th century, known for its chaotic atmosphere and the loud and raucous cries and shouts of its fishmongers. Apparently the shouting went well beyond the norm for a sales pitch, and Billingsgate became famous for the vituperative profanity that filled the air on a typical day, giving us “billingsgate” as a colorful term for foul and abusive language.

Lest you be picturing this sort of swearing contest as a purely male pursuit, it’s worth noting that many of the fish merchants in markets such as Billingsgate were women known as “fishwives” (“wife” being used here in the then-common generic sense of “woman,” especially one of the lower classes). Their ability to match the men in volume and profanity lives on in the phrase “to swear like a fishwife.”