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June 2009 Issue


June, moon, boon, loon. Much better month than May, dontcha think? Aren’t you actually sort of glad I skipped that nasty old month?

Besides, every recent monthly issue of this little circus has contained eighteen columns, six more than the twelve I write every month, so I’m really only a half a month late, right?  Furthermore, at this rate, sooner or later I’m going to catch up with myself and disappear into some sort of ink-stained singularity unless I take a month off every so often.  So I’m actually doing y’all a favor by goofing off.  If this seems a bit confusing, you’re probably better off subscribing to TWD-by-Email, which will ensure the prompt arrival of my deathless prose in your e-mailbox every two weeks like clockwork. And by subscribing you’ll also be helping to pay the hosting bills of this site and buy food for the kitties.  You do like cats, don’t you?  They like you.  Several of them mentioned you just today.

[Note: I wasn’t really goofing off. Warm weather makes my ms much worse, and my energy level has been in the negative numbers lately.]

By the way, if you have problems reading actual content on the web (as opposed to, for instance, spending all day browsing LOLcats, like some people I could mention), check out Readability.  It’s a browser bookmarklet that transforms the typical cacophony of type and ads on a page into one eminently readable column of nice, simple type.  I have problems with my vision from the ms, and it has saved my sanity many times.  If you just want to see the page as is, but with type large enough to read without messing with magnification settings every time you go to a site, NoSquint (an add-on for Firefox) is the ticket.

Continue reading this post » » »

Stars and garters

I’ve always been partial to “Gracious Snakes,” myself.

Dear Word Detective:  I grew up in Mississippi hearing my mother say, usually in exasperation with me, “Oh my stars and garters!”  I moved to Vermont years ago and forgot this expression, which had always mystified me.  Last month, I phoned someone up here to tender profuse apologies for some minor discourtesy.  The response was, “Oh my stars and garters, Shelby.  Don’t be silly.”  That’s the way it was always used — as a more colorful version of “Oh, for pity’s sake!”  Whence this phrase, please? — Remystified, Shelby Grantham.

It’s funny how things like that pop up after all those years, isn’t it?  I remember as a child encountering the phrase “I swan” in books and movies (mostly set in the South, as I recall).  I gathered that it was an antiquated expression of surprise, but since no one I knew in Connecticut used the expression, I filed it away under “Weird things grownups say that you don’t have to understand.”  It was only many years later, when I heard my mother-in-law in Ohio say “I swan” in nearly every conversation (she was perpetually appalled by modern life), that I finally got around to looking it up.  “I swan” turns out to be simply the somewhat slurred northern English dialect pronunciation of “I shall warrant” in the sense of “I declare” or “I swear.”

“Oh my stars and garters” serves much the same purpose as “I swan” as an expression of surprise, but adds a jocular twist (“and garters”) to signal that it’s not to be taken too seriously.  “My stars!” (no garters) has been an expression of mild astonishment since the late 16th century, rooted in a time when astrology was taken very seriously and certain stars were thought to rule one’s fate.

I had initially assumed that the “and garters” part of the phrase was purely a joking extension of “my stars,” chosen for the “stars/garters” rhyme and perhaps for the slightly risque overtones of “garter.”  But Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ( points out that “stars and garters” has a history all its own in Britain.  Knighthoods and such honors usually come with star-shaped medals, and the Order of the Garter is the highest rank of knighthood.  Thus “stars and garters” has been slang shorthand in Britain since the early 18th century for all the trappings of knighthood (“He … Despised the fools with stars and garters, So often seen caressing Chartres,” Jonathan Swift, 1731).

At some point, probably early in the 19th century, someone familiar with both the idiom “stars and garters” and the exclamation “Oh my stars!” fused the two, producing “Oh my stars and garters,” which must have struck quite a few people as enormously silly and clever, which it was.  So what we have in “Oh my stars and garters” is, essentially, a 200-year old one-liner.


Bad horsie.

Dear Word Detective:  While composing an email, I recently used the word “roughshod,” as in “to ride roughshod” over someone.  I was surprised when the spellchecker did not disagree with my first hack at spelling the unusual word, as it just looked wrong.  Despite having used the word verbally on many occasions, I didn’t recall ever writing it or having seen it in print.  I know the meaning of the phrase is to be domineering.  I can only guess the phrase is an allusion to being run over by someone or something outfitted or “shod” with something rough, shoes or tires perhaps. — Major Thomas Bauchspies, Baghdad, Iraq.

Well, that’s the problem with computer spellcheckers.  You never know whether they (and you) are spelling the word correctly, whether someone has made a mistake in the dictionary file they check things against, or whether they’re just messing with your mind.  I have mine set to just underline suspect words, and it usually flags typical errors like “teh.”  But occasionally it will quietly accept something one of the cats types while I’m out of the room (such as “WiDdl3e9lim” or “7thtro!!”), which are interesting words but usually not what I had in mind for my next sentence.  It really makes me wonder what else it’s considering perfectly acceptable.

For an idiom that’s been around since the late 18th century, “to ride (or “run”) roughshod” remains remarkably popular today.  A search for the phrase on Google News returns 113 hits from current news sources.  The phrase seems especially popular in sports coverage (“Rangers ride roughshod over Falcons”), where it’s used as a synonym of “vanquish” or “decisively defeat.”  But it’s also popular in political coverage (“Now, after years of being allowed to run roughshod over Wisconsin’s political process, these ‘independent expenditure’ groups may find themselves forced to compete on a level playing field,” Green Bay Press-Gazette, 11/13/08).  This is more in line with the full modern meaning of “to ride roughshod,” which is “to act without any consideration for legal constraints, norms of behavior, or the feelings of others.”

All of these meanings are, however, figurative, not literal.  The original literal meaning of “to ride roughshod” was far more brutal.  In the 17th century, a horse that was “roughshod” was shod with horseshoes with the nailheads, or sometimes metal points, projecting from the bottom of the shoe.  This gave the horse better traction on slippery ground or ice.  But when cavalry horses were “roughshod,” they became brutal weapons in a charge against foot soldiers.  As bad as being trampled by a horse must be, being struck by “roughshod” hooves is apparently far worse.

Thus “to ride roughshod” began as a synonym for “to brutally crush or tyrannize,” and only after several centuries was it diluted to its modern metaphorical meaning of “to charge ahead with no regard for the rules.”