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April 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Just under the wire again.  Awesome.  Hey, your high school didn’t issue the yearbook in the first week of class, did it?  It took a while for April to sink in.

First up, thanks to all the folks who have generously contributed to my upkeep and the continued existence of this site.  Special super-duper thanks to S, J, and E for their ginormous generosity.  Your cats are in the mail.

I’ve been noodling around the internet for a long time, long enough that, when I started, the first thing I bought was a primer on Unix commands.  I think the reason I’ve managed to avoid a major disaster so far is my natural skepticism, which some people call paranoia, but you can call raspberry jam for all I care.  It works. Thanks to my deeply suspicious nature, I managed to use Windows computers for more than ten years and never caught a virus, trojan or spyware.  Yeah, I probably deleted a boatload of unopened hilarious and touching digital greeting cards from friends and relatives, but one must be strong.

Lately, however, I’ve felt a weird, inexplicable craving to join Facebook.  It comes on at strange times, often in the wee hours of the morning (which, for me, is nine or ten am), and manifests itself in a ravening desire to see what that kid from fourth grade has been up to for the past [mumble mumble] years.  I also know gazillions of people who have Facebook pages, and, since I’m famous for not answering email from them, being on the damn thing might make life easier.

But then I actually look at Facebook and it creeps me out.  The thought of being asked to “friend” people I barely know and may not actually … like … is bad enough.  The stress of just thinking about it makes me wish I drank.  Then there’s the distinct possibility that someone I “friend,” just to be nice, will turn out to have also “friended” the Pol Pot Fan Club or something similar.

But then I forget all that and just want to join and not be missing something.

Fortunately, about once a week for the past month, Facebook has stepped up to the plate and proven that I’m not the one missing something.  See also this.  And especially this.  And they’re not even good at being evil.  Long story short, these creeps are not your friends, and their promises are worthless.

But let’s look on the bright side of the net.  Futility Closet is always fun.  The Browser and Give Me Something to Read are good sources of things to, uh, read.  And Harper’s offers consistently good stuff.

The Journal of a Disappointed Man is fascinating.  The author, W. N. P. Barbellion, was an English diarist diagnosed, in 1915, with what is now known as multiple sclerosis.  The preface to the book (free to read at that first link) is by H.G. Wells.

Onward, ready or not.  I try to look forward to the coming of Spring, I really do.  But I think it’d be a lot easier to do so in New York City.  Last week I noticed that (a) our neighbors had apparently been mowing their lawns for a couple of weeks (maybe since January, who pays attention to that stuff?), and (b) our lawn was starting to look more than just a bit feral, like maybe there could be wolverines lurking in there.  Snakes, definitely.  Plus which Pokie would wander out there and get lost.  Of course, Pokie wanders into the living room and gets lost, but this was worse, because she’s both deaf and demented, so even if you spot Pokie and call really loud and wave your hands, she looks at you like she’s never seen you before and goes right back to licking the tree.  Pokie likes to lick trees.  Pokie also likes to lick the gravel in the driveway.  And the rug in the living room.  For hours on end.

Anyway, it was about his time that our neighbor stopped by and asked if I needed help fixing My Little Tractor.  This is about as subtle as it gets around here, but I was sharp that day and caught his drift.  So a couple of days later I pried the garage door open and fired up the beast, or tried to, but the battery was dead.  Rats.  Well, maybe next year, eh?

Continue reading this post » » »

Pump (shoe)

Shoes for industry!

Dear Word Detective:  How did a type of shoe come to be called a “pump”? — Adsaka.

That’s a good question, albeit a short one.  I actually prefer questions with a bit of backstory to them, such as “My mother says that the kind of shoe called a ‘pump’ got its name because in the early days of motor cars all the gas station attendants were female, men being considered unsuitable for the job because they smoked cigars.  Anyway, these female pump attendants supposedly all had to wear special shoes called ‘pumps’ that were designed not to slip on oily pavement.  Is Mom right, or should we have her committed?”

I have the horrible feeling that someday soon I’m going to run across that paragraph on the internet, copied and pasted as fact.  The funny thing is that the kind of shoe called a “pump” actually may be connected to “pump” in the “gas pump” sense.  By the way, the fancy word “albeit,” seen in my first sentence, is simply a Middle English shortening of “although it be.”  Go forth and impress your friends.

The word “pump,” as one would expect in a world where most of the water you’d like to drink is underground, is very old, first appearing in English in the 15th century with the basic meaning of “a mechanical device for raising water.”   Almost all pumps consist of a cylinder of some sort, within which moves a tightly-fitted piston or plunger that draws the water or other fluid through the tube, and a valve that prevents the water from going right back out when the piston goes down again.  There are, of course, types of pumps that don’t involve pistons, but for our purposes that piston is the part to remember.

The origins of the word “pump” are uncertain, but most authorities believe that “pump” was onomatopoeic (or “echoic”) in origin, simply formed as an imitation of the sound of a pump.  “Pump” is, of course, also a verb, and apart from its literal uses, “to pump” has acquired an impressive array of figurative senses over the past few centuries.  We “pump up,” strengthen and enlarge, our muscles at the gym, and we “pump” money or other things into places where they are thought to be needed (“The Fed is still pumping money into Wall Street”) or places where they are definitely not (“You never saw anybody that was deader.  Must have had thirty pills pumped in him,”  Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest, 1929).  Reporters “pump” (intensively question) sources for information, a usage that dates back to the 17th century, and a good speaker can “pump up” (excite) a crowd using nothing more than florid adjectives.

But even given the wide use to which “pump” as both a noun and verb has been put, it’s not easy to discern its connection to “pump” as a type of low-heeled, close-fitting women’s shoe, a usage that arose in the 16th century.  It has been suggested that “pump” in this sense is derived from “pomp” meaning “display of splendor and magnificence,” although the “pump” is usually a pretty simple shoe.

It seems more likely that the “pump” shoe owes its name to the humble mechanical “pump.”  The classic “pump” shoe lacks straps or other fasteners, and the key to the shoe staying on one’s foot is its snug fit, rather like the piston of a pump.  In fact, back in the 16th century, such pistons in pumps were known as “pump shoes” from their vaguely shoe-like shape.  It’s likely that the “pump” shoe took its name, in a 16th century pun, from these close-fitting “pump shoe” pistons.


A long time to be gone.

Dear Word Detective:  This one may not travel well across the Atlantic, but, whilst wandering round the pleasant and historic port of Whitby (see Captain Cook), I looked into one of the many antique shops and noticed a cabinet, full of carvings in wood, bone, shell and other such, labeled “Scrimshaw.”  At first I took that to be the name of the artist, but the shop assistant told me that that was the name of stuff carved or whittled by sailors of old on their interminable voyages.  Of course, when I looked later at various dictionary sources, the dreaded “origin unknown” came up.  Could you shed any light on the matter? — David, Ripon, England.

I’ll give it a shot.  By the way, your port of Whitby sounds quite similar, as a tourist attraction, to the Mystic Seaport near where I grew up on the coast of Connecticut.  Mystic was a major whaling center in 19th century New England, and today tourists flock to the recreated village and the historic ships berthed there, including the Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving whaling ship from the 19th century American fleet.  I vividly remember wandering around the decks of the Morgan as a lad, going below to see the crew’s quarters, peering into the whaleboats, and gawking up at the towering masts.  It was every seafaring story I’d ever read come to life, and it was even better because it was the real thing.

The origin of “scrimshaw” is, as you discovered, a mystery. It first appeared in print (as far as we know at this point) in 1825, in the variant spelling “scrimshonting.” Other forms include “scrimshander” and “scrimshandy,” and a maker of scrimshaw is called a “scrimshoner.”

There are, of course, theories as to the origin of “scrimshaw.”  One suggestion ties “scrimshaw” to a military term of the same era, “to scrimshank,” meaning “to shirk duty.”  That seems plausible, but it doesn’t get us very far because “scrimshank” appeared after “scrimshaw” was already in use, and no one has the faintest idea of where “scrimshank” came from either.

One of the more intriguing facts bedeviling etymologists for years is that “Scrimshaw” is also a surname in England.  No connection between the proper name and the ornate carvings has ever been established, although the existence of an especially artistic seaman named Scrimshaw is clearly a possibility.

Serendipitously, however, earlier this month Stephen Goranson, a poster to the American Dialect Society mailing list, suggested a truly plausible connection between the name and the carvings.  It seems that there was, in the 19th century, a woman in London named Jane Scrimshaw who was famously reputed to have lived to the age of 127 years.  The tale itself is obviously unlikely.  But Jane Scrimshaw’s name became synonymous with “a long time,” especially a long time served in an occupation or endeavor.  And in light of the fact that some early mentions of scrimshaw are actually phrased as “scrimshaw-work” (“… anything made by sailors for themselves in their leisure hours at sea is called Scrimshaw-work,” 1864), it seems likely that Jane Scrimshaw’s name and legendary lifespan gave us a word meaning “crafts done to pass the time while at sea for a really, really long time.”