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October 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


It occurred to me the other day that I’m going about this whole monthly update thing wrong. I usually babble on about books or TV or cats for a thousand words or so, and then, in the last paragraph, ask folks to either subscribe or donate to this site. So this month I’m just going to reverse the routine and ask for help up front.

So here’s the deal: about seven years ago, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. At the time I was glad they had found an explanation for the strange symptoms that had suddenly appeared (although some of them were apparent 20 years earlier), but, apart from my left leg not working right and intermittent vision problems, I figured it it must be progressing very slowly and wasn’t going to amount to much. Wrong-o-rama. I had apparently failed to fully appreciate the “progressive” part, and, for whatever reason, it has sped up. It’s only six years later and I have seriousĀ  trouble standing, can barely walk, can’t really use my left hand, and my vision only works right about half the time. There are more bizarre and debilitating dimensions to the whole tiresome business, which can be perused at the Wikipedia article. My favorite glitch is that if I do manage to pick up something with my left hand, I have enormous trouble letting go of it. Yes, it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds, and it proved inconvenient the other day when I was using a match held in my left hand to light our broken stove. Bad idea. I couldn’t put it down after the burner lit, but I couldn’t raise my arm to get it close enough to my mouth to blow it out. I ended up prying it free with my right hand in a desperate imitation of Dr. Strangelove. Never a dull moment. Perhaps I should rent myself out for children’s parties.

When I first started this website, I sold email subscriptions mostly to pay the hosting fees, etc. My columns ran in several newspapers, I wrote books and articles for other outlets frequently, and I was getting by. Since 2001, newspapers have atrophied (to put it mildly) and book publishing has been remade in Jeff Bezos’ image, which is to say that living on advances and royalties is a thing of the past. So this website and subscriptions have become a far more important — uncomfortably vital — part of my income. Unfortunately, our readers have not escaped the ravages of our new minimum-wage economy, and lately those vital doubloons have been thin on the ground. And it shows. Our house is full of things we can’t afford to fix, including the stove, water heater, bathroom floor (it’s collapsing), the water softener and my teeth. Our 16-year old car (bought used) needs serious work.

So please consider subscribing or donating. Any amount will help; if you have a spare ten grand lying on the piano, that would be awesome, but even $15 is more help to us than most people wanna think about.

Oh yeah, the TV report. There’s been an interesting epilogue to the conversion of OTA (over the air) TV from analog to digital. Many local stations have established digital sub-channels and filled them with old movies and low-cost syndicated shows, mostly from the 1950s and 90s, providing something to watch for folks who can’t afford cable (which is a lot of people). Around here we get, in addition to some really bad movies and horse operas, many of the shows I watched as a kid, including Mister Ed, Sea Hunt, Twelve O’Clock High and my absolute favorite then and now, Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford. Apart from the weirdly addictive charm of these shows (cop cars with huge tail fins!), they’re notable for the number of major stars who appeared in supporting roles early in their careers. I’ve seen Leonard Nimoy, for instance, playing criminals in at least two Sea Hunt episodes.

So there you go. Please remember to subscribe or donate. And now, on with the show….


Dear Word Detective: The word “formica” seems to have a diverse (or is it divers?) set of meanings. On the one hand we have the Latin word for ants, on the other, a hard laminated surface for tacky furniture. Is there a connection? I assumed there was some chemical (maybe formic acid?) used in the manufacture of the laminated material, but I can find no support for that theory. One dictionary suggests that formica is a shortening of the words “for mica” meaning a replacement for the mineral mica. I find this unappealing since I’ve never seen furniture topped with mica. Any theories? — Jim Brown.

Whoa. I thought you’d never ask. Not “you,” personally, but “anybody.” A few years ago I wrote a book, titledĀ From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names, which explained the stories behind popular company and product names. It got great reviews and was excerpted in People and Reader’s Digest, but never made it into the major US bookstore chain because, it turned out, said chain (rhymes with Farnes and Zoble) wanted to kill the book so that they could offer a year later (they really did this) to “republish” it on the cheap under their own imprint. Uh, no thanks. It’s still available at Amazon.

Anyway, for old times’ sake and as a belated plug for my poor, mistreated book, I’m going to reproduce the entry on “Formica” from way back in 2004:

Devotees of TV home-renovation and decorating shows know that the really important decision in re-doing the family kitchen today has nothing to do with appliances, lighting, or what you put on the floor. No, it’s by your counter-tops that you will be judged, and many’s the home loan that has been floated to bridge the golden gap betwixt faux marble and the real, preferably imported Italian, article. Whether the subsequent bologna sandwiches taste better for being prepared on such a pricey surface is, of course, debatable.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, however, the fashionable modern home was one whose owners had sprung for the countertop of the future — Formica. By the late 1960s and 70s, in fact, Formica seemed to top nearly every flat surface in the land. Restaurant tables, school desks, retail counters and even the floor of Radio City Music Hall in New York City were all made of sleek, smooth Formica.

For a biology student of the day, the name Formica must have presented a bit of a puzzle. “Formica” is also the genus name of the taxonomic family Formicidae, those pesky little insects better known as “ants.”

Fortunately, there is no connection between the name “Formica” and ants, but the path Formica took from its invention to America’s counter-tops was a bit convoluted. Way back in 1912, Dan J. O’Conor was a young engineer working for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh when he had a good idea. If you were to coat fabric with resin while it rolled onto a spindle, you could then cut the roll lengthwise, flatten it, and, after curing, you would have a laminate material that would be light, durable, and, most important to O’Conor’s line of work, an excellent electrical insulator. O’Conor promptly took his invention to his bosses at Westinghouse, who agreed that it was a clever idea and paid him, according to standard company policy, the princely sum of one dollar for the patent.

Mr. O’Conor must have been less than thrilled with this treatment, because within weeks he and his friend Herbert A. Faber both quit Westinghouse and started their own company to produce the material. At that time the standard material for electrical insulators was mica, a natural family of minerals. As the new synthetic material was intended as a substitute for mica, the name “Formica” was a natural.


Think of me as the little man who won’t be there.

Dear Word Detective: I was looking at our team’s schedule for the next three months and exclaimed to my colleagues that it was “choc-a-bloc”! They looked at me mystified because they had never heard that term. I have always used the term, but when I went to look it up in Wiktionary and my trusty Chambers, I could not find it. I use it to mean “absolutely full.” Is that right, and where does it come from? — Tony Munns.

Well, there you go. That’s why I’ve never joined a team or a club — I need all the free time I can get. I realize that this puts me completely out of step with our busy-busy-busy society, where everyone has self-assigned activities hanging over their heads like airplanes circling LaGuardia. But look at it this way: somebody has to avoid joining reading circles, civic clubs, softball teams and political organizations so there will be somebody out there with the time to come to all your events. That doesn’t mean I’ll actually show up, of course, but you never know. Besides, it’s the game that counts. Have fun.

I was surprised that your Chambers, a reputable dictionary, doesn’t include “choc-a-bloc,” until I read your letter more closely and remembered that it’s usually spelled “chock-a-block.” If it doesn’t list that spelling, I’d take it back to the dictionary store. You’re bang on target, however, in using “chock-a-block” to mean “absolutely full,” or, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helpfully elaborates, “jammed or crammed close together; also of a place or person, crammed with, chock-full of” (“The city’s two or three inns were chock-a-block and men were sleeping three, four and five in a bed,” Somerset Maugham, 1946).

“Chock-a-block” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century as a seafaring term. To understand it requires a bit of explanation of both “block” and “chock.” Both words mean, in their most basic senses, “a chunk of wood.” “Block” has gone on, of course, to acquire dozens of derivative uses based on the sense of something bulky and vaguely square, from a city “block” of buildings to “block” as a verb meaning “to prevent or impede.”

“Chock,” however, has had a more limited evolution, and is most often used today to mean a block of wood (often wedge-shaped) that is used to immobilize something (such as the wheels of parked airplanes). This noun use gave us the adverbial “chock” meaning “as close or tight as can be” (OED), with the sense of something being pressed tightly against something else, preventing its movement.

Meanwhile, one of the senses acquired by “block” was that of a block of wood housing pulleys, used with ropes to lift heavy objects (the blocks and ropes together being called “block and tackle”). Block and tackle aboard ships or loading cargo from docks often used several “pulley blocks” in tandem, but when the lower block rose to the point where it met the upper block, the load could be lifted no higher, and the situation was described as “chock-a-block,” i.e., “tight up against the block.”

This nautical use of “chock-a-block” first appeared in print in R.H. Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast in 1840, but within just a few years it had come into use in its modern figurative sense of “packed closely together” (“I’m blessed if we ar’n’t about chock a’ block here!” Herman Melville, 1850). It is possible that the verb “to choke” also played a role in the development of “chock-a-block,” as it seems to have done in the case of “chock-full,” also meaning “stuffed or crammed full.” The earliest appearances of “chock-full,” which dates back to the 1400s, were in the form “chokke-fulle,” and only much later did “chock-full” become standard in the US (while “choke-full” is still found in the UK). Whatever the roots and original form of “chock-full,” however, the term almost certainly contributed to the later popularity of “chock-a-block.”