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Trivia

All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2018 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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May 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

Whaddaya mean May? I distinctly said to wake me in April. This is an outrage.

But wait! Look over there! A kitty! Apparently reading Slashdot. Odd. Anyhoo, this is Marley, one of the famous Garage Kittens from about eight years ago, now all growed up and permanently ensconced on my desk. Seriously. All the other cats wander around the house, find new favorite spots, look out the window, chase mice in the kitchen, but not Marley. Marley has a job: sitting on my desk, and he takes it very, very seriously. Marley never moves. Marley is bolted to my desk.

Marley on the desk.

Actually, Marley does sometimes wander off to eat, repel invaders, and so forth, and sometimes Marley will be standing on the couch or a table when he senses that I am about to walk past, headed for the desk. Marley waits until the last possible moment and then quickly leaps toward the desk so that he sails across my path, clearing me by mere inches. Actually, that’s on a good day. On a bad day, he either slams into my arm or misjudges the distance and lands on the floor.

Marley, incidentally, is discouraged from going out in the hall because he has a record of attempting to leap from the hall table to the banister above the stairwell and overshooting the mark. Marley apparently cannot fly, and is very lucky the stairs are thickly carpeted.

But mostly Marley just sits on my desk. Staring at me. For hours at a time. Staring at my face. Sitting or lying next to the keyboard, staring at my face without blinking or moving a muscle. I know he does this because he likes me (at least I hope that’s it). Occasionally he’ll make his signature noise, which is the sort of chirping trill usually associated with songbirds. (Marley can also say one word — “Hi” —  very clearly. This cat ain’t normal.) Every so often he’ll reach out verrrry slowly and tap me on the nose if he senses I’m not paying attention. Apparently I’m supposed to stare at him all day, too. If I finally can’t take it anymore and stand up and gently carry Marley over to the nice soft couch where the other kitties snooze, he flies back to his spot on the desk before I get back to my chair. I sit down and there he is, staring at me, now with a hurt expression on his kitty-cat face. Then I have to watch a half-hour of Maru videos with him to cheer him up. Marley loves Maru. He’s also the only cat I’ve known who really enjoys watching TV; he’s endlessly fascinated by Mister Ed.

Marley is not a small cat, and I’m always surprised by how heavy he is, a fact that suddenly became important about two weeks ago. I have a smaller writing desk behind my big desk, where I sometimes type on my laptop. I’ve been dragging this little desk around since 1969, so it has considerable sentimental value. But its real attraction lately has been that if I’m typing on it with my laptop, there’s no room for Marley. He has to stay on the big desk behind me. This understandably frustrates him, and he occasionally leans over and taps me on the shoulder to get me to turn around and pet him a little.

So one evening two weeks ago, I’m typing away at my little desk when Marley realizes he’s been patient long enough and decides to leap from the big desk to the little one, apparently planning to land in my coffee cup. Unfortunately, I picked the exact moment of Marley’s takeoff to swivel in my chair towards the big desk, and  Marley hit the side of my head going full tilt. He must have had a good bit of momentum, because I felt like I’d been beaned with a fur-covered bowling ball. Wow.

Continue reading this post » » »

Dirty Pool

And they never buy the house with clothes in the closet.

Dear Word Detective: I remember hearing people say that such and such behavior seems like “bad pool”– meaning that it seemed underhanded or sneaky. Yet I find very few examples of the phrase on a Google search, and no discussions about the origin or meaning of the phrase. Is it even a real expression, or did I just mishear something? And if it is for real, why is it so rare? And where did it come from? Thanks for any info you can provide! — David A.

Whoa. You and me both, dude. I’ve just spent about ten minutes staring at your question and racking my brain about “bad pool.” I thought it sounded familiar, and I instinctively knew what it means, but I couldn’t remember ever actually hearing the phrase. It’s a creepy sort of feeling, as if someone in your family just referred to a sibling you never knew you had. The worst part was that this sort of thing has happened before. About 15 years ago, in answering a reader’s question, I convinced myself that the verb “stinch,” meaning “to be cheap,” not only existed, but that I had actually used it as a child. It doesn’t, and I didn’t. I was, in my garbled memory,  apparently combining “stint” (meaning “to cut short or restrict”) with “stingy.”

In this case, the phrase you are thinking of (and which I was temporarily unable to retrieve  from the sticky sludge of my mind) is not “bad pool,” but “dirty pool.” You may indeed have heard “bad pool” at some point, but “dirty pool” is definitely the common form of the phrase. Yup, “dirty pool,” and there’s no need to take away my car keys just yet.

The “pool” in the phrase “dirty pool” is not a puddle of unsanitary water, but the game of pool, played with cues and balls on a rectangular table with raised, cushioned edges. “Pool” takes its name from the Old French “poule,” and was originally a card game (with a “pool” of stakes in the middle of the table). “Poule” is also French for “hen,” and the theory is that if you trace “pool” even further back, you’ll find a Medieval game that consisted of throwing things at a chicken. Seriously.

By the way, for you HGTV “House Hunters” fans, if the home buyers inspect a house containing a pool table, that’s the one they’ll finally “pick” (they’ve actually already bought it). The same table will appear in the “after” shots, often accompanied by a little fable about how they bought it from the previous homeowners. Now turn off the TV and go play outside.

The “dirty” in “dirty pool” is the adjective used in its sense of “morally unclean,” as in such  now-antiquated phrases as “dirty movie.” In the mid-18th century “dirty” first appeared in the sense of “earned by dishonest or despicable means,” and by the early 20th century, “to do the dirty” meant “to play an underhanded trick” (“The Germans have been ‘doing the dirty’ on us by donning khaki and kilts to approach our trenches,” 1914). “Dirty trick” employs the same “sneaky, underhanded” sense of “dirty.”

So “dirty pool” refers to a game of pool, and by extension nearly any endeavor, conducted in a dishonest, dishonorable fashion, especially by lying, cheating or exploiting an unfair advantage. “Dirty pool” first appeared as an idiom meaning “unfair tactics” in Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel The Cane Mutiny (“I played pretty dirty pool, you know, in court”), and remains widely in use today. The phrase carries a strong connotation of disapproval, i.e., the tactic being described as “dirty pool” would be beneath the dignity of a decent person (“If Russia badly needs food to replace crops ruined by the nuclear plant accident, should the U.S. use its surplus food as a weapon? … No. That would be dirty pool,” 1986).

Long in the tooth

He’ll give you the answer that you’ll … endorse?

Dear Word Detective: My local computer guru has labeled my three-year old computer “long in the tooth.” What is the source of this now seldom-used phrase? — Dick Stacy.

Oh boy. Three years old, eh? That’s a pretty good illustration of why “local computer guru” strikes me as one of the most ominous phrases in the English language, right up there with “Free Estimate” and “Your call is important to us.” A three-year old computer is not “long in the tooth” on my planet. I’m typing this on one that’s almost ten. But I may not a good judge of such things. I realized recently that I’ve been wearing the same belt every day for more than twenty years. Hey, it’s a nice belt. Well made, obviously.

“Long in the tooth” is, of course, a venerable English idiom meaning “showing its age,” “of advanced years,” or simply “old,” with strong implications of decrepitude. The earliest printed instance of the phrase found so far is from the 19th century, but it may be much older (“She was lean, and yellow, and long in the tooth; all the red and white in all the toyshops of London could not make a beauty of her,” WM Thackeray, 1852).

The source of “long in the tooth” was, fittingly, the primary mode of transport at that time, the humble horse. Fans of TV’s Greatest Sitcom Ever, Mister Ed, will remember that when Ed talked, his teeth were very prominent. (Some people say that Ed didn’t really talk, and in moving his mouth he was only trying to remove peanut butter that the TV crew had put there, but people who say that are joyless cynics.) The Wikipedia entry on Mister Ed is fascinating, by the way.

In any case, apparently it’s not all that easy to tell from just looking at a horse just how old the critter is. But when horses age, their gums recede, eventually to the point where the roots of Horsie’s teeth are visible, which makes the teeth themselves appear longer. Thus a horse visibly  “long in the tooth” would be judged to be very mature at least, and possibly quite old. So a method of judging the age of a horse, originally of interest only to horse-traders and racing touts, gave us the common expression “long in the tooth,” meaning “over the hill.”

Judging a horse’s age by prying open its mouth and looking at its teeth does seem a rather obscure source for such a popular figure of speech as “long in the tooth,” but that was not the only common saying born of the practice. If you happened to be given a horse as a gift, it was considered very rude and ungrateful to immediately take a close look at its teeth to judge its age, especially in the presence of the gift-giver. Thus as long ago as the 16th century the proverb “Never look a gift horse in the mouth” served as a general warning never to criticize or find fault with a gift or an occasion of good fortune (“It is a madness … to look a gift Horse in the Mouth,” 1707). As a figure of speech meaning “to show ingratitude,” “to look a gift horse in the mouth” was followed about 200 years later by an equally vivid phrase, “to bite the hand that feeds you.” I’ve always wondered if that latter saying might have been inspired by a resentful horse who was tired of having his mouth pried open.