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November 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


For reasons that elude me but probably amount to nothing more than an early onset of cabin fever this year, we finally went to see the Facebook movie. What a strange, unpleasant little movie. If it turns out that we brought bedbugs back from the theater on account of this snooze-fest, I’m gonna be very ticked. You know you’re in a for a long slog when you find yourself rooting for Larry Summers. I left the theater wishing that the intelligent young woman who dumps Zuckerberg in the film’s opening scenes had just clobbered him with a brass spittoon and saved us all a lot of bother.

a wooden stake would work, too

For want of a spittoon....

She appears again briefly later in the film, as the oafish Mr. Z is becoming absurdly wealthy, just long enough to make it clear that she wishes nothing more than for him to permanently disappear. You and me both, lady. If this woman exists in real life, I’d like the opportunity to vote for her.

[Update: Here is a truly excellent article by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books about Facebook (both the movie and the thing) and Jaron Lanier’s latest book (You Are Not A Gadget). Lanier used to annoy me no end, but he’s absolutely right about Facebook.]

Elsewhere in Facebookia, our TWD-FB page, linked to in the right column over there, has attracted more than 400 “likes” so far, a fact which fills me with apprehension and anxiety. Just sending holiday cards to all those people is going to be ruinously expensive, and they, their children and their pets presumably all have birthdays as well. Thanks again, Zuckerberg. As for all of you who haven’t yet bitten the bullet and clicked the button, feel free. The more the merrier.

Speaking of financial exigencies, if I didn’t know better I’d suspect that the evil gnomes at Facebook have found a way to siphon off my precious reader support. In the past two months, the previously steady trickle of subscriptions keeping the kitties in Friskies has dwindled to a dribble. So if you were planning to subscribe soon, please make soon now.

Subscriptions make lovely holiday gifts, of course. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving, due to my chronic inattention to when folks’ subscriptions are supposed to run out. Let’s just say that we have spanned generations of readers simply from sloth.

And now, our monthly quiz. The National Weather Service has just announced that an incredibly violent line of storms, boasting winds of 70 mph, is heading your way, and it’s due to hit in about two hours. Since this in the middle of an unusually hot October day, there is the distinct possibility of tornadoes. Do you (a) run to the store (a 20-mile round trip) for batteries and water, since the lights are nearly certain to go out; (b) begin the tedious process of herding your two dogs and multitudinous cats into your tiny Civil War-vintage cellar, keeping in mind that it took well over an hour to find and apprehend Gus the Cat the last time he noticed that you were looking for him, or (c) wash the dishes?

Continue reading this post » » »



Dear Word Detective: The other day I happened to use a word which popped into my mind and I said, “It’s all out of kilter.” I had heard that expression used all my life and I think I understand what it means, “out of order,” in the sense I used it. But where did this word come from? The more I think about it, the more it seems strange to me. Can you clarify it for me? — John Sellars.

“Kilter” is a strange little word. By itself it means “good form, order, spirits or condition,” so, strictly speaking, it doesn’t need a qualifying adjective such as “good,” “bad,” “fine,” “satisfactory,” etc. If the marina manager says that a rental boat is “in kilter,” one does not expect to have to swim home. On the other hand, I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw “kilter” used in a positive, everything’s fine sense, even in an elaborated form such as “in good kilter.” In fact, the more than 800 uses of “kilter” found in a search of Google News at the moment seem equally divided between “out of kilter” and “off kilter.” I gave up looking for something “in kilter” or “in fine kilter” after the third page of results.

You might conclude, from that survey, that it’s just the world today that’s on the blink, but the whole history of “kilter” paints a portrait of a universe that doesn’t look or work quite right. “Kilter” first appeared in print in the early 17th century, but the term seems to have been used in English and Scottish dialects, in the form “kelter,” since the early 16th century. And the very first citation for “kelter” in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1643, speaks of selling armaments that are out of “kelter” to unsuspecting customers (“Their Gunnes they … often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter.”).

Unfortunately, no one has ever come up with an even vaguely plausible explanation for the origin of “kelter” or “kilter.” There are, as it happens, other “kelters” in English dialects. One means “rubbish or nonsense,” another is used to mean “money or cash,” and a third is a term for a very rough sort of cloth used at one time in coats in Northern England. But there appears to be no connection between any of those “kelters” and our “kilter.”

There’s also no connection, in case you were wondering, between “kilter” and “kilt,” the pleated tartan skirt worn as part of traditional Scottish dress. “Kilt” comes from Scandinavian roots carrying the general notion of “to tuck up” or “to gird up one’s skirts around the waist,” as if in preparation for battle.

Flight (wine samples)

Good for the goose, but the gander has to drive.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering what the origin of the word “flight” is when used in connection with sampling wines. Why do we say “wine flight” instead of something simpler like “samples?” When did this all start? So far my theory has been that it will become obvious once I have enough hands-on experience with wine flights themselves, so I’m am drinking myself smarter and waiting for my epiphany. But just in case this line of inquiry doesn’t pan out, would you be able to shine any light on the subject? — Wayne Walker.

Sounds like a great plan. Incidentally, it occurs to me, having been involved in publishing for longer than was good for me, that you’ve stumbled on a sure-fire bestselling book title. I guarantee that “Drink Yourself Smarter” would be an instant hit with both the self-improvement bores and the Duff Beer couch-dwelling crowd. You’d probably have to use larger type and shorter sentences towards the end of the book, but the good news is that you could fill the last hundred pages or so with long, rambling, pointless stories and no one would complain.

As usual when dealing with the general topic of alcohol, I should note that I missed school the day they explained the importance of booze, so I never developed a taste for the stuff. Thus I am neither an oenophile (wine lover or “wino,” from the Greek “oinos,” wine) nor an oenophobe, and you mustn’t be surprised if I flub some esoteric winey point in the course of this expedition. Wait, you folks don’t call yourselves “winos”? I’m dreadfully sorry.

There are actually two different “flight” nouns in English, with separate, unrelated origins. The older “flight,” meaning “the action or manner of flying through the air” (either literally or in myriad metaphorical senses), appeared in Old English as “flyht,” derived from the Germanic root “flukhtiz,” which was related to the same root that gave us the verb “to fly.”

You’d be justified in assuming that one of the derivatives of “flight” in this “up in the air” sense was “flight” meaning “the act of running away” (as in “flight to evade prosecution”), but that’s actually a completely different word. That “flight,” first found in print around 1200, came from the same root that gave us “flee.”

“Flight” meaning “sample of wine” is a specialized use of the first “flight,” the “fly through the air” one. This use of “flight” seems to be a relatively recent arrival, first appearing in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in 1978 (“There were four flights of wines, as they say in the trade, four sp├Ątleses, four ausleses,..[etc.], N.Y. Times). The OED defines this “flight” as “A selection of small portions of a particular type of food or drink, especially wine, intended to be tasted together for the purpose of comparison,” and most uses of the term I have found online speak of “tasting flights,” consisting of at least three (and sometimes many more) small samples of various wines offered to participants in a wine tasting.

The OED is, unfortunately, silent on the logic of using “flight” for a range of wine samples, but there are some precedents in usage of the word that may provide a clue. “Flight” has been, since the 13th century, used to mean “a group of things or beings flying through the air together,” whether birds, airplanes or angels (“Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest..,” Shakespeare, 1602). My guess is that “flight” in the wine tasting world was adopted to convey the sense of a gathering of varied small samples, like a flock of little birds, invoking a feeling of lightness and grace. From a public relations perspective, “flight” is probably better than “flock” and certainly beats “herd.” Flights sip lightly and gracefully, like sparrows at a fountain. Herds guzzle like yaks at a trough. But I’ll bet the yaks have more fun.