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March 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Spring is here, spring is here, life is skittles and life is beer, I think the loveliest time of the year is the spring, I do, don’t you? Of course you do.

So sayeth the Bard (Tom Lehrer), but it’s been a whole lot like January around here lately, which is to say gray, cold and bleak. Of course, this is Ohio. I’m sure it’s nicer where you are. Unless you’re also in Ohio, in which case, can you fetch me some cat food from the store? That incessant yowling on top of the cold gray bleakness is getting to me.

You know what’s funny? It’s 27 degrees out there, has been for a week, we just got three inches of snow, and the grass is growing. Big green clumps of grass. Take a hike, suckers. This year I’m gonna spray the lawn with Agent Orange and tell everybody Global Pattern Baldness is to blame.

Onward. Gosharootie, lookie there! It’s March, which means that it’s National Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month. I have recently been informed that March was picked to be MS month because they both begin with “M.” Apparently I shoulda/woulda figured this out on my own were it not for my creeping enfeebleation, which [pausing for breath] I am told I may choose to blame on my very own MS but which is more likely actually due to my addiction to chocolate doughnuts and pizza. Whatever. Anyway, you should all donate to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society because they do real work and fund real research (as opposed to simply “raising awareness”). The official MS color, by the way, is orange, which is kinda yucky and reminiscent of traffic cones, but far enough from pink that they probably won’t get sued.

So, anyway, here’s the March issue. Have fun, send me some questions, dagnabbit, and if the mood strikes you, please consider subscribing. Every month around this time I nervously check my PayPal balance to see if our hosting charges will squeak through on the first of the month, and at the moment that is far from certain. Operators are standing by. Act now!

And now, on with the show…

Rules of the road

And many people apparently think that “Yield” means “Floor It!”

Dear Word Detective:  I really need the answer to this question. In all of the information I see they refer to the COLREGS (Collision Regulations) as “The rules of the road” Well, last I checked, there are no roads on the water. I have been told the phrase goes back to ancient times about a strait in the Mediterranean sea. Can you help me? — Matt Komara.

Hey, cool. I looked up COLREGS (all caps, natch) and discovered it is the accepted abbreviation (sort of) for the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 1972. This was apparently a good idea, because, according to Wikipedia, “Prior to the development of a single set of international rules and practices, there existed separate practices and various conventions and informal procedures in different parts of the world, as advanced by various maritime nations. As a result there were inconsistencies and even contradictions that gave rise to unintended collisions.” Yeah, right, “unintended.” Nice oil tanker ya got there. Be a shame if something unintentionally collided with it, know what I mean?

I remember reading many years ago about the L’Arbre du Ténéré (Tree of Tenere) in the Sahara. It was just a humble acacia tree, but for many, many years it was the only tree standing in several hundred square miles of vacant desert in North Africa. Unfortunately (and improbably), it was knocked down and killed by a drunken truck driver in 1973. So I guess even something as big and mostly vacant as the ocean really does need traffic rules.

I’m curious about the story you were told tracing the use of “rules of the road” in regard to maritime regulations to “a strait in the Mediterranean.” It’s true that confined waterways such as harbor entrances or the Straits of Gibraltar (to which they were probably referring) make proper navigation etiquette especially important. But the phrase “rules of the road” does not have a maritime origin, so that story, whatever it is, is irrelevant. “Rules of the road” originally referred to actual roads and highways on land.

Interestingly, “rules of the road” was originally singular: “the rule of the road.” The phrase first appeared in print in the late 18th century, and thus dealt with horse-drawn carriages, mounted riders, etc., not automobiles and trucks. The original “Rule of the Road” governed on which side two vehicles (or riders) traveling in opposite directions should pass each other, i.e., on which side of the road you should drive. It also dictated in which situations a vehicle had the right of way and when it should give way. These rules and many others were codified in the Highway Code in Britain in 1930, and today every country in the world has equivalent laws. Of course, opinions have varied from Day One as to the need for such rules (“There are seasons when the rule of the road ought to be almost incontrollable. I think in the dark the rule ought to be abided by, but when in the light, I think you have a right to judge [etc.],” 1798), and I happen to know people who maintain that stop signs, for instance, don’t mean you have to literally “stop.” More of a “serving suggestion,” I guess.

“Rules of the road” had been put to use in a nautical sense by the late 1800s (“A variety of useless discussions … one on the rule of the road at sea,” Punch, 1873), and as soon as airplanes began to proliferate, “rules of the road” for aviators were established as well. By this time, the appealing alliteration of the phrase had worked its magic on the public, and “rules of the road” came into wide metaphorical use meaning “a set of unspoken rules or practices” or “how things are done” in a given field or social group, whether codified in print or not (“If you want to maximize your savings with coupons, it’s important to know the rules of the road at the supermarkets and drugstores you frequent,” News & Observer, 2012).


A very special message from Bob Bummer.

Dear Word Detective:  I can easily guess the reason why the word “killjoy” was created to describe anyone who was spoiling the fun, but I am curious who actually started and popularized it. It sounds like a word that would have been made up directly by an English speaker, but does it come from another language as well? — Karyn.

Thanks for a fun question. Incidentally, did you know that much of the beef, pork and turkey sold in the US contains traces of an animal feed additive called “ractopamine” (aka “Paylean”) that is banned in 100 countries, including the European Union, Taiwan and China because of its potential effects on humans? Have another chili cheeseburger! Sorry, just thinking about the word “killjoy” brings out my Debbie Downer tendencies. But not to worry. That asteroid’s gonna get us long before the iffy pork chops do. The asteroid. The one on the news. Never mind. I have to go buy more gin now.

I’m sure that every language has a word or two synonymous with our “killjoy,” since the urge to ruin someone else’s fun seems to be a very primal human impulse. But “killjoy” itself is purely English, first appearing in print in the late 18th century. “Killjoy” is simply a combination of “kill,” meaning in this case to extinguish, plus “joy,” meaning pleasure, happiness or delight (from the Latin “gaudere,” to rejoice). We use “killjoy” primarily as a noun, to mean a person or thing that undermines happiness, inhibits enjoyment, or throws a pall of gloom over a situation (“Reserve, if apparent, is the real kill-joy of conversation,” 1896). But “killjoy” can also be an adjective applied to the bummer itself (“Halfway though the wedding reception, the cops showed up with a killjoy warrant for the groom’s arrest”).

“Killjoy” seems like a uniquely inspired creation, but it didn’t just pop into existence from a vacuum. English at the time sported a number of “kill” combinations, including “kill-courtesy,” a boorish or loutish person (“This lack-loue, this kil-curtesie,” Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1600) and “kill-pot” (1637) meaning a hard drinker (who “killed” the whole pot). There was also “kill-cow” (1590), a large, terrifyingly powerful bully (who could presumably kill a cow barehanded), his cousin “kill-buck” (1612), and the much more serious “kill-man,” a person who had actually murdered someone. On a brighter note, there was “kill-devil” (1593), defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a recklessly daring fellow,” one who would fight the devil and win. “Kill-devil” was also used, not surprisingly, as a colloquial name for rum, which, in sufficient quantities, might well put you in a “kill-devil” mood. “Kill-devil” is rarely seen these days, but its descendant “dare-devil” or “daredevil” (1794), meaning one who is brave and reckless enough to metaphorically dare the devil, is still popular, especially in the adjectival form (“Daredevil skydiver seeking altitude record,” Google News, 3/16/12).

One word that is not related to this “kill” family is the name of the small bird, a member of the plover species, known as the “killdeer” (or “killdee”). In the summer we see many of these little critters in the open fields near our house, and they’ve always sounded like small seagulls to me, but evidently someone a few centuries ago decided that their calls sound like “Kill deer! Kill deer!”