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May 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


All right, already. I know it’s May (just barely), and we sort of slid past April. There are two reasons, which I will explain. Briefly.

Number one is that my ability to walk seems to be fading fast. At the moment I can only sort of shuffle along unsteadily, and on a scale of 1 to 10, I’m about two clicks away from calling the Scooter Store. I’m kidding, of course. I’ll crawl across the floor before I do that. Anyway, that plus the really quite annoying now-constant pain in my legs has been very demoralizing and a major distraction.

I was also knocked a bit off course by the death of Annette Funicello, on whom I had a huge crush as a little kid, of the same sort of ms (primary progressive) that I have. She was, of course, in far worse shape than I am ever likely to get, but still, I was knocked a bit sideways. Here is a well-made (by CTV in Canada) three-part program on her struggles with ms. I admire her husband’s determination to help her, but I’m more than a little leery of the surgical procedures she underwent. The CCSVI procedure in particular is widely regarded by most ms experts as expensive and dangerous quackery.

Anyway, I used to walk faster than anyone I knew. When we lived in NYC, I walked like a typical New Yorker, zipping in and out of crowds on the sidewalk, stepping off the curb if necessary without a second thought. I’d mentally fume at the tourists in their Hard Rock t-shirts lumbering down Lexington Avenue six abreast at lunchtime (“Is that the Chrysler Building? The guide says that’s the Chrysler Building.”). I never actually said anything rude to such people, but one day a guy next to me addressed the herd blocking our way with a very loud “You people walk like you’re dead!” and a dozen New Yorkers in the vicinity started laughing and clapping.

So I really miss walking. And New York. The 4th floor walkup, not so much. But now I can walk on our road as slowly as I want and as wobbly as I am and only worry about being taken for a straggler by the coyotes. I saw one last week wearing what looked like a tattered Hard Rock t-shirt. Karma: It’s the Law.

Reason number two for the delay is that our dear little dog Pokey died last week of lymphoma, after going downhill for several months. Taking care of her in her last month was taxing but I’ll always be glad we did. She couldn’t manage the back steps any longer, so I had to carry her out and back in, and while she was nowhere as big as Brownie, our beloved dog who died last fall, Pokey was still about 30 lbs., which made every excursion an adventure in precarious balance. We kept her eating by cooking all sorts of people-food for her (she was partial to scrambled eggs and noodles), but eventually she could no longer stand much of the time and had difficulty swallowing food. So we fed her with a spoon and washed her with washcloths. She was still in there. She was still our little Pokey.

When Pokey wandered in 15 years ago (she followed Kathy home from a walk in the woods down by the old Ohio-Erie canal nearby), she had been neglected, abused, and apparently finally dumped in the frigid January woods. She looked like a dog built by a demented committee, maybe a cross between a corgi and a small pig, covered in a Harpo Marx wig of yellow curls topped off with an absurd feather-boa tail. We think she had recently given birth to puppies (the probable motive for her abandonment), who most likely had ended up in the icy canal.

Pokey in her chair, 2002

I had to keep Pokey in my office until she learned to tolerate cats, and I used to sit on the futon she slept on and tell her bedtime stories about a lucky little dog who’d never have to worry again. It must have worked, because once she felt at home, Pokey was the most relentlessly happy dog I’ve ever known — she’d literally jump up and down at the sight of the same old boring canned dog food in her bowl. Sadly, she had never learned to play as a puppy, so while Brownie chased Frisbees with manic energy, Pokey just wandered around the yard looking for things to eat in the tall grass. Indoors, she spent a typical evening wandering around the kitchen licking the floor and stealing … things …  from the cats’ litter box. Letting Pokey lick your face, or even your hand, was a very bad idea. A walk with Pokey meant stopping literally every few yards for her bathroom breaks; I used to joke that she was actually a purebred Shih Tzalot. Children and cats loved Pokey, though she seemed strangely oblivious to the cats and would walk right over them if they happened to be between her and food.

Pokey & Brownie; Pokey had already eaten her antlers.

She was a sweet, sweet little doggie who followed me from room to room and up and down stairs a dozen times a day. She was  happiest when I would sit on the top step of the stairs with my arm around her and sing her silly songs about Pokey-Dokey the Flying Dog, whereupon Brownie would race up the stairs and demand that we make room for her. By the time Brownie died, Pokey had survived heartworm, the loss of most of her teeth, partial blindness and near-total deafness. We were lucky to have her for so long — we never knew her exact age, and she may have been as old as 17 or 18 — and now, with both Brownie and Pokey gone, the house seems intolerably quiet. Every morning for fifteen years I’ve gone downstairs, put on water for coffee, and headed for the leashes hanging by the back door. I still start for the door before I remember.

So, anyway, that was my month. Tune in next time when I’ll tell you something interesting about Thomas Pynchon’s novel Vineland (seriously). In the meantime, please consider subscribing or just contributing. We have always been dependent on the kindness of youse guys.

And now, on with the show….

Bill of goods

From the people who brought you “Serving Suggestion.”

Dear Word Detective: I have heard the phrase “been sold a bill of goods” used, I think, to mean that the buyer has been swindled in some way. But what does it mean? Have I bought a list of various items, or “goods” on the “bill of goods” only to find that they are nonexistent? Or what? — Allan Pratt.

Or what, indeed? A bill of goods would seem to be a good thing, like a receipt. Speaking of receipts, how many of you folks closely examine your receipts from the supermarket? Until recently, the only time we did was when we got home and something we knew we had bought wasn’t in the bag, which seems to happen fairly often. There’s a cashier in one store we go to who apparently likes to sell the same package of boneless chicken over and over again. Anyway, we were checking the receipt last week and came across an entry right in the middle that said “Police Beverage: 0.00″ OK, I understand it was a free drink for a cop, no problem, but why on our receipt? Are we being shadowed by a thirsty flatfoot?

“Bill of goods” is a rather mundane phrase to have acquired such nefarious overtones. In its literal sense, a “bill of goods” is simply a list of items sent or consigned to another party for safekeeping, for sale, or in return for payment (i.e., essentially an itemized receipt). If I ran a shop selling only boneless chicken, for instance, I would expect the wholesaler who delivered the chicken to me in big boxes to provide me with a “bill of goods” detailing what I had bought.

The “bill” in “bill of goods” is the common English word meaning, at its most basic level, “written statement, document or list.” The word “bill” first appeared in English in the 14th century, from the Anglo-Norman “bille,” which was an adaptation of the Latin “bulla.” In Medieval Latin “bulla” meant “document,” but in Classical Latin it meant “bubble, blob, lump,” which referred to the wax seal used to seal official documents. A “Papal Bull,” an official edict from the Pope, is so-called because of the wax seal (“bull”) affixed to the document. Wax seals being largely obsolete, “bill” is now used for all sorts of documents, from laws passed by Congress to that itemized invoice from the phone company festooned with 419 dubious surcharges. “Bill” is also sometimes used to mean simply an itemized list, such as the “bill of fare” (menu) in a restaurant or the Bill of Rights.

“Bill of goods” was used in the non-pejorative “list of stuff” sense for many years until the 1920s, when it suddenly took on a negative spin in such colloquial phrases as “to sell someone a bill of goods,” meaning “to deceive or swindle; to persuade someone to accept something undesirable” (“Selling a big bill of goods hereabouts, I’ll wager, you old rascals?” Eugene O’Neill, Marco Millions, 1927). “Bill of goods” very quickly almost entirely lost its simple, honest  mercantile sense and became a synonym for “scam.”

Just how this transformation happened is something of a mystery; there does not appear to have been any famous case of fraud that might have made the phrase notorious. It’s more likely that the negative use began as a rueful acknowledgement of falling for a fraud (e.g., “Harry thought he bought nine crates of French champagne, but all he really bought was a bill of goods”) which became generalized as it spread in vernacular use. A similar process long ago transformed the phrase “don’t buy a pig in a poke” (referring to a suckling pig — often actually a stray cat — sold in a burlap sack) from advice to Medieval market-goers into a wise warning for 21st century consumers.


Mix and match misanthropy.

Dear Word Detective: As a teenager I had a friend who used “mudgeon” as a suffix, usually to insult someone. Example: if he wanted to imply you were less than manly, he would call you a “pussmudgeon.” A girl he deemed homely was an “ugmudgeon,” etc. The only common word I can think of containing “mudgeon” is “curmudgeon.” Any thoughts? — Bruce Brantley.

That’s, um, very interesting. A curious mixture of erudition (many teenage boys would likely never have encountered “curmudgeon”), analytical thinking (extracting what appears to be a suffix), creativity (coining words), and a pretty disturbing anti-social streak. I’m guessing that today this guy either works in advertising or sells bogus herbal remedies on the internet.

Apart from your friend’s malicious inventions, “curmudgeon” is indeed the only English word that ends in “mudgeon.” There are, however, at least eight other English words that end in “udgeon,” only two of which, “bludgeon” and “dudgeon,” are at all common. We know “bludgeon” as a verb meaning “to beat and/or to knock down with a heavy club or similar weapon,” but it first appeared in the early 18th century as a noun meaning “a short stick or club,” usually with one end weighted. The roots of “bludgeon” are, unfortunately, unknown, though a connection to the Dutch “bludsen,” to bruise, has been suggested.

“Dudgeon” is a fine word meaning “a feeling of anger, resentment or simmering outrage,” today usually encountered in the phrase “in high dudgeon” (“[He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon,” 1885). The origin of “dudgeon” is another mystery, although it may be connected to the obsolete English term “dudgen,” meaning “trash” or “mean, contemptible.”

The other “udgeon” words in English are either obscure or obsolete today. There’s another “dudgeon” meaning a low grade of wood used for tool handles, the “gudgeon,” a kind of small fish, the “humdugeon,” an imaginary illness (“hum” in the sense of “hoax” found in “humbug,” plus “dudgeon” in the sense of “disorder”), an entirely different “gudgeon” meaning a hinge, swivel or the like, and “trudgeon,” meaning a toddler or someone who “trudges” (probably just a fanciful invention based on “trudge”).

“Curmudgeon,” meaning an irritable, intolerant, and miserly person, dates back to the late 16th century. For most of its history, “curmudgeon” has meant a throughly unpleasant person (“Certain greedy curmuggions, who value not the leaving of a good name behind them to posterity,” 1656), usually a man. In recent decades, the term has softened somewhat, and now is usually applied to an irascible but (at least on TV and in the movies) ultimately lovable old codger whose forbidding attitude can be melted into treacle by the approach of a small orphan.

The origin of “curmudgeon” is, predictably, uncertain. It has been suggested that the “mudgeon” comes from the Middle English “muchen,” to steal, and that the “cur” refers in some respect to a dog (thus either someone who steals dogs or a “dog” of a man who steals). It has also been suggested that “cur” was perhaps originally “corn,” making the curmudgeon a “corn thief.” In his landmark 1755 dictionary, Dr. Samuel Johnson reported that an “unknown correspondent” had advanced the possibility that “curmudgeon” came from the French “mechant coeur,” or “evil heart,” but no actual etymological evidence has been found to support that theory.