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May 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


May, we hardly knew ye….  Seriously.  I guess we’ll just call this the Late May Issue, eh, kids?  I’d call it the June Issue, but there are people out there paying by the month to read this on Kindles and Nooks and iPhones and iPads and iLord-knows-what other satanic devices, and I don’t want to upset Steve Jobs, ’cause he’s already nuts enough.  Anyway, there will also be a June issue sometime before July. Honest.

There is, however, a case to be made for not updating this site at all, ever. I have come to the reluctant conclusion that it is, in fact, my frantic attempt to stick to something resembling a monthly schedule that has actually caused a recent series of disasters around here. It started a few years ago when I took a break from formatting this site to go downstairs and install a window air conditioner and was promptly struck by lightning. Then, just a few weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch in my office, again working on this site, when a sudden windstorm knocked half a large tree into the side of the house, missing the window behind me by about six inches. In late May I took a break from finalizing this issue to mow the lawn, and the mowing deck on the tractor went kafloozie, necessitating my spending several days on my face in the driveway trying to fix the damn thing, which isn’t fun when you have only limited use of your left arm and you really need said left arm to pull an idler pulley against a big spring so you can get the goddamn drive belt back on the deck. I ended up wrapping a steel cable around the pulley and getting Kathy to stand ten feet away and pull on it real hard. That was a separate ordeal, incidentally, from the day I spent unwinding the steel cable from the blades last month. Then the guy from DirecTV showed up to replace the satellite dish and turned out to be a major jerk who glared at us silently while he bent our brand-new gutters. Then the basement flooded and I had to stay up all night pumping it out through a garden hose. Then the well pump died on a Friday afternoon, and by the time we got it replaced we were (a) very thirsty and (b) in the hole for $1100 just to get back to where we’d been 36 hours earlier. And that appears to be the theme around here: even the most modest status quo cannot hold. If we could box and market high-speed entropy, we’d be rich, but we can’t and thus aren’t, so please subscribe.

In moments of reflection, which I do my best to avoid, Kathy and I often pine for our old fourth-floor walk-up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, an insanely cheap (at that time) duplex with a terrace, half a block from Central Park. She came up with a good, if very depressing, analogy a few days ago. Living in this 1860s house with all this land is like being responsible for the physical state (wiring, plumbing, roof, etc.) of our entire old apartment building plus being charged with the grooming of a sizable chunk of Central Park, trees and shrubs included. It’s nuts. No one without pots of money and a full-time lawn crew could manage it properly.

But hey, we now have a bunch of deer living in the big thicket of brush down by the road. I sit out on the front porch in the morning and wave at them. And I know where the chipmunks’ burrows are and where the snakes live. It’s just like the Upper West Side, except that all the people are wearing fur suits. Or feathers.  Or scales.

Lastly, thanks as always, for your financial support of this site, and a special my-jaw-dropped thanks to whoever sent me the nifty Acer netbook.  It is truly awesome and very useful.  In fact, I plan to use it to update this site next time, from a coffee shop safely miles away from here at Disaster Central.

p.s. — It came with Windows XP installed, but I set it up to dual boot with Ubuntu Linux Netbook Edition, and it’s truly a thing of beauty.

And now, on with the show….

Snoot Full

Tee many martoonies.

Dear Word Detective:  Whenever I drink alcohol, which has become all too often as of late, my nose always becomes “stopped up” for lack of a better term.  One night I told my husband that I know where the term “snoot full” came from because my nose was congested (I found a better term after all).  I was just joking at the time but then began to ponder where the term actually did originate.  Can you help? — Sally.

I’ll sure try.  But I’m operating at a disability, I realized when I read your question, because I’ve done it again.  First I forgot to get into sports, then I forgot to watch TV to the extent I’m supposed to (129 hours a week, I gather), and now I realize that somewhere along the way I forgot to take up drinking.  It sounds like fun.  So, if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to pop out to the truckstop and pick up some joy juice.

I’m back.  Hey, this “gin” stuff ain’t bad.  But is the room supposed to tilt like this?  My feet feel funny.  Why is the cat looking at me that way?  You got a problem, cat?

Just kidding, of course.  I have something better than booze, namely a brand new book by the always entertaining and awesomely erudite Paul Dickson.  In “Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary” (Melville House, 2009), Mr. Dickson notes that English has more synonyms for “drunk” than for any other word, and then proceeds to list more than 3,000 of them, complete with fascinating annotations and admirably strange little illustrations.  It’s impossible to pick a favorite from such a range, but “full of loud mouth soup” strikes me as true genius.  I’m also glad to see that Mr. Dickson includes “tired and emotional,” a euphemism invented by Spy magazine to describe, within the bounds of Britain’s strict libel laws, politicians discovered in a state of public intoxication.  Mr. Dickson notes that the US media similarly employs the terms “outgoing” for a happy drunk and “ruddy-faced” for a completely marinated public figure.  Now we know, eh kids?

“Snoot full” is here as well, while the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) prefers the spelling “snootful.”  The term “snoot,” meaning the human nose, is actually just a very old dialectical variation of the word “snout,” which comes from the same Germanic root that gave us “snot.”  Interestingly, the first recorded written use of “snout’ in English, from around 1220, uses the term  to refer to the trunk of an elephant.

The earliest citation for “snootful” in print in the OED is surprisingly recent, from 1918, but the term is almost certainly several centuries older than that.  There doesn’t seem to be any connection between “snootful” or “snoot full” and nasal congestion.  “Having a snoot full” is simply one of a number of terms for “drunk” that conjure up an image of the drinker’s body as being literally either partially or completely filled with alcohol (“had a skinful,” “drunk to the gills,” “full to the brim,” etc.).  The popularity of “snootful” may also be due to the fact that consumption of alcohol, in some people, can cause a reddening of the face, especially the nose, thus making the “snoot” a highly visible barometer of inebriation.


Get that thing away from me.

Dear Word Detective:  My wife and I were having a discussion during which we both used the word “untoward” to describe unwanted or disagreeable results of some action. It occurred to me that this is a very odd word.  Does it have anything to do with the common “toward” as in an “untoward” result being something that I move away from (un-toward) because it is undesirable?  That sort of makes sense, but seems kind of goofy for an etymology. Is that really how the word came to be?  Some on-line references give “untowardly” and “untowardness” as related words, neither of which I’ve ever heard, and both of which sound even goofier than their parent. — Rich.

By gumbo, you’re right.  “Untoward” is a very odd word.  And the longer I look at it, the odder it gets.  Of course, reading or speaking any word over and over again can make the  word seem odd and meaningless.  There’s actually a term for this phenomenon: “semantic satiation.”  You can try it yourself by simply picking a word, even “dog” or “cat,” and repeating it aloud.  After thirty seconds or so, the word will seem completely disconnected from Fido or Fluffy.  Psychologists used to assume this effect was due to simple cognitive fatigue, but neuroscientists have discovered that hearing or saying a word causes specific neural pathways in the brain to activate, and repetition actually provokes a desensitizing “inhibition” effect on these neural reactions (much as your third slice of pie never tastes as good as the first, I suppose).

In any case, “untoward” may be an odd little word, but it’s also a very interesting one.  The first element of “untoward” is, of course, our helpful little friend the prefix “un,” meaning “none” or “not.”  The meat of “untoward” is the word “toward,” which has its own story.    We inherited “toward” from the Old English “toweard,” which was a combination of “to” and “weard,” which came from a prehistoric Germanic root meaning “to turn,” and which we know today as a suffix used to mean “in the direction of,” as in “homeward” and “backward.”

We usually use “toward” as a preposition, describing position (“He kept his back toward me”), actual motion (“We drove toward home”), or figurative progress (“I have twelve dollars toward the mortgage payment”).  As an adjective, however, “toward” has a number of now rarely-used meanings, among them, describing people, “willing to learn” and “compliant” (“Miss hath hitherto been very tractable and toward,” 1713) and, of things, “favorable” and “propitious.”  The general sense of this “toward” is “making progress, moving forward toward a goal.”

It was these rosy adverbial senses of “toward” that “untoward” popped up to counter in the 16th century.  Its original meaning was “not showing an inclination or aptitude for something” (“The Captains were yet not skilled in managing their Men, and the Men were untoward to be commanded,” 1665).  “Untoward” was also used to mean “difficult to manage, unruly and perverse,” as well as “awkward,” “unlucky” and “ungraceful.”  Eventually, all these senses also produced “untoward” meaning “unseemly or improper” (“They came to a very wicked man’s house, where they had very untoward entertainment,” 1658).  Today we use “untoward” to mean “unruly,” “unlucky,” “not favorable” and “improper.”  The forms “untowardly” (unbecoming or improper) and “untowardness” or “untowardliness” (the quality of being “untoward” in its various senses) are rarely seen today but not much weirder than “untoward” itself.

Incidentally, “toward” is the more popular form in the US, while in Britain you’re more likely to encounter “towards.”  There is no semantic difference between the forms, and both are equally proper.  “Untoward,” however, has no “s” form.