And say hi to Eddie Haskell.
Dear Word Detective: I’m curious about why love notes are called “mash notes.” Is it because people mash themselves together when they get “romantic”? — Nerdmonkey.
All right! At last a question from the past. I’m sick of those guys with no hair coming here from the future and getting me to do their research for them. Since you’re asking about “mash notes,” I’m guessing you’re from 1954, 1957 at the latest, right? Do me a favor when you go back. Warn them about Facebook, OK? The guys from the future say it’s the reason no one in their time has an IQ above 26.
But seriously, people still talk about “mash notes”? That is so totally sweet. I was told that puppy love had bought the farm, but I guess it’s time to break out the bobbysox and cardigans again.
A “mash note” is, as you say, a love note, especially one professing intense infatuation, often unsolicited but not necessarily unwanted. The question, of course, is where that “mash” came from. “Mash” first appeared as a noun in Old English, meaning a soft, pulpy mixture of malt, grain, etc., used to brew various kinds of alcoholic spirits. As a verb, “to mash” meant “to crush, pound or smash to a pulp” just about anything from potatoes to people, as if creating a brewery “mash.” Voila, “mashed” potatoes. “Mash” also carried the sense of “to mix together,” and subsequent uses of “mash” in figurative senses carried either or both of the “crush” and “mix” meanings (“Ye are so forward to mash the Innocent and Guilty together,” 1722). Incidentally, our modern English words “mush” and “mosh” (as in “mosh pit”) are thought to have originated as modifications of “mash.”
The “mash” of “mash note” appeared as slang in the US meaning “an infatuation” or “a flirtation” around 1870. By extension, a “mash” could also be the object of such affections or advances (“She is met by a gallus young fellow in a checked jumper. He is her ‘mash’,” 1879). “Mash note,” a letter, card, etc., expressing such an infatuation, dates from the same period, as does “masher” meaning a person, usually a man, who considers himself irresistible but whose attentions are unwanted.
This kind of “mash” may well be just an extension of “crush into a pulp” sense of “mash,” carrying the sense of “pressing on” and “softening” the emotions of the object of the “mash note.” But there is the possibility that this “mash” has nothing whatever to do with “mashing” potatoes, etc.
Apparently “to mash” in this sense first appeared as theater slang in the US, meaning an actor or actress smiling at, or otherwise attempting to charm, individual members of the audience and thus breaking the “fourth wall” of the theater, a serious breach of stage propriety. The goal of such “mashing” was usually either to attract either financial patronage or solicit romantic conquests from the audience, and such behavior could get a performer fired.
This first appearance of “mash” in the world of the theater has led to another theory about its origin, unrelated to the “smash or mix” kind of “mash.” It has been suggested that “mash” (or “masherava”) is a word meaning “to entice, allure or delude” in Romany, the language of the Roma, whom we more often call the Gypsies. Since there were several well-known Roma families of actors active in the theater in the late 19th century, goes the theory, this Romany “mash” was picked up by the theater world generally, from where it spread into wide usage.
Unfortunately, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “mash” and/or “masherava” have yet to be found in any known Romany dialect, which undercuts (but does not definitively rule out) that theory. Personally, I suspect that the “press and soften” sense of the English “mash” lies behind “mash note,” but as of now the case of the mysterious “mash” remains unsolved.
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Yeah, well, OK, it’s March. What, you miss February? Let’s review: around here we had ice, snow, ice, ice, high winds, snow, ice, slush, mud, more mud and frozen mud, and then we finished up with a “rare late-winter” tornado that took out a farm a mile away from us. And I’m not even counting when the power went out because some enterprising miscreants broke into the substation and stole a bunch of copper wiring. This whole place is starting to look a bit post-apocalyptic at the edges; the latest thing is to break into businesses while they’re closed on the weekend and steal all the plumbing and heating fixtures.
By the way, can someone please explain why we have Ohio Air National Guard Black Hawk helicopters flying low over the house several times every day now? When we first moved in we had the four o’clock Huey every afternoon, a homey old Vietnam-era bird (with that thud-thud-thud sound you could hear ten miles away) which just sort of floated slowly by in the distance. Now these things come in a treetop level and make the whole house shake. Last week we had one sort of hovering at low altitude over our north field for no apparent reason. If they know what they’re doing, fine, but I’m getting a very disquieting student-driver vibe from this behavior.
So AOL bought the Huffington Post. This is hilarious. A zombie falls in love with a fluff farm. The schmuck who runs AOL just got through admitting that 60% of their profits come from people who pay $25/mo. for AOL dialup accounts they don’t need because they have broadband access and AOL is free on the web. Heckuva business model, dude. What’s next, Medicare fraud?
As far as I know I still have a free AOL “press” account they gave me back in 1994 when I was writing a book about the internet. It still worked a couple of years ago, and I have no doubt that, had I been paying for it, they’d still be charging me.
I’m sure that Ms. Huffington is as happy at being crowned Queen of AOL as a shape-shifting reptilian overlord can be. And I’m sure that we can look forward to many more features hewn of the same fearless journalistic stock as her now-legendary “What Time Does the Superbowl Start?.” (That article has since been re-written to seem less whorish, but it originally began:”Are you wondering, “what time does the Superbowl start?” It’s a common search query, as is “what time is the super bowl 2011,” “superbowl time” and “superbowl kickoff time 2011,” according to Google Trends the evening before the Super Bowl. It’s easily answered too. Super Bowl 2011 will take place on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.” As one commenter noted, “Most pathetic SEO spam ever.”)
Unfortunately for Arianna 2.5, less than a week after the grand announcement of the sale, Google released a crowd-sourcing plug-in for its Chrome browser that lets the common folk blackball “scraper” sites like HuffPo, and a bit later re-jiggered their search algorithms to devalue “content farms” and thinly-disguised search-engine whores (and plagiarism factories) like … HuffPo. It would appear that Google, which has profited enormously from promoting garbage search results for years, has recognized that the worm has turned and that they had better clean up their act. That is not good news for HuffPo, Demand Media, and their idiotic how-to-boil-water ilk.
Um, what else? We had a Kindle for about a week but sent it back. The screen is gray. Did you know the screen is gray? If you have anything wrong with your eyes, it’s damn near impossible to read the thing. And there are no page numbers. And you have to jump through hoops to find the table of contents of books. Kathy (it was hers) hated it and, after playing with it for 30 seconds, I concurred. Creepy little gizmo. But your mileage may vary. I played with a iPad in an Apple Store for a few minutes a few weeks ago, and it’s much easier to read on one of those, but they’re heavy and expensive.
Onward to movie reviews! I recently saw Green Zone on cable and actually liked it a lot. The more you know about the run-up to the Iraq war, the more sense it makes, though the character played by Amy Ryan is a very mild take on its apparent inspiration, Judith Miller. Matt Damon is very good, and I think I may have finally overcome my tendency to confuse him with Brad Pitt.
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Dear Word Detective: I have been trying for some years to determine the origin, and original meaning, of the term, “Mexican standoff.” At one time, one could not find this anywhere (or anywhere that I found); but now, there are some “authorities” that provide a definition, but no origin. As far as I can see, those definitions define what is usually called a “standoff”; there is no is no information as to what would render a standoff “Mexican.” My belief is that the term “Mexican standoff” refers to a particular kind of standoff, christened for some incident (in the Mexican-American War, perhaps?). I have a vague recollection of being told by someone (not an authority) that a “Mexican” standoff is one in which either advance or retreat would be fatal for either side, whereas in a normal standoff, one or both sides may have the possibility of non-fatal retreat. I have no solid references for this, however. If you can solve this one, I will be tremendously thankful and impressed. — Mikael.
Hey, me too, because the question itself is giving me an anxiety attack. I have a lifelong aversion to personal confrontations, so I rarely end up in any sort of standoff. In fact, I routinely agree to all sorts of things just to avoid conflict, which is how I’ve managed to wind up simultaneously belonging to the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Young Socialists League, the NRA and PETA. I’ve definitely got to stop answering the door.
Your question about “Mexican standoff,” a phrase which first appeared in print around 1891, is actually two questions: first, how does a Mexican standoff differ from a “regular” standoff? Secondly, what makes that kind of standoff “Mexican”?
As to the first question, opinions evidently vary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “standoff” (they prefer “stand-off,” which seems a bit stand-offish) as “Any uneasy stalemate or deadlock; an impasse,” but also as “A draw or tie, as in a game…,” a definition that Oxford notes comes from an 1895 dictionary. A “Mexican standoff” seems to be a subset of the more general “standoff.” The OED defines “Mexican standoff” as “A deadlock, stalemate, impasse; a roughly equal (and frequently unsatisfactory) outcome to a conflict in which there is no clear winner or loser,” and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines the term as “A situation in which nobody clearly has the advantage or emerges a clear winner.”
The key difference between a “Mexican standoff” and a garden variety “standoff” seems to be the equal strength of the two parties and thus the lack of a clear result. A regular standoff may be a temporary roadblock or impasse, in negotiations, for example, that eventually ends in either a surrender or an agreement, albeit grudgingly. A “Mexican standoff,” however, is a complete stalemate, and both sides lose by being forced to walk away without a victory.
Several sources I have found suggest that the “Mexican” modifier in the phrase refers to a supposed proclivity of 19th century Mexican “bandits” for running away from a fair fight. But the first example of “Mexican standoff” found so far in print used the phrase to describe a baseball game ending in a tie, and subsequent uses employ the term as a simple synonym of “stalemate” with nary an actual Mexican in sight. The “Mexican” in “Mexican standoff” is thus almost certainly just another entry in the long and shameful roster of US slang terms employing “Mexican” as a slur meaning “fraudulent, inferior, or marked by poverty, poor sanitation, lack of sophistication or ignorance.” Such formations as “Mexican bankroll” (one large denomination bill wrapped around a roll of smaller bills), “Mexican athlete” (a phony braggart) and “Mexican breakfast” (a cigarette and a glass of water) all reflect the same derogatory national rivalry. A “Mexican standoff,” in this light, is called “Mexican” because it is pointless, inconclusive and unproductive, not because it has any actual connection to Mexico.