Sunday, 24 May 2015

the pen is mightier than the sword

'The pen is mightier than the sword' was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for his 1839 historical play Richelieu:
‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword.’

Bulwer-Lytton was preceded by several others who expressed essentially the same idea, though not in the same words:
– George Whetstone, in Heptameron of Civil Discourses, 1582, wrote ‘The dashe of a Pen, is more greevous than the counterbuse of a Launce.’
– In Hamlet, 1602, Shakespeare gave Rosencrantz the line ‘... many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.’
– Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621, includes ‘From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.’
– Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to Thomas Paine in 1796, in which he wrote: ‘Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.’
– Assyrian sage Ahiqar, who reputedly lived during the early 7th century BC, coined the first known version of this phrase. One copy of the Teachings of Ahiqar, dating to about 500 BC, states that ‘The word is mightier than the sword.’
– The Greek playwright Euripides, who died c. 406 BC, is supposed to have written: ‘The tongue is mightier than the blade.’ However, the quote does appear in the 1935 fictional work Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina by Robert Graves, and is thus possibly an anachronism.

In any case, none of those phrases survived except for Bulwer-Lytton’s. And, having been a fan of Charlie Brown and Snoopy for many years, I will always remember Bulwer-Lytton for his phrase, ‘it was a dark and stormy night.’

Wednesday, 20 May 2015


Lethologica  is a psychological disorder that inhibits an individual's ability to articulate thoughts by temporarily forgetting words, phrases or names in conversation. The word is derived from the Greek river Lethe, also known as the River of Oblivion, one of the rivers that flowed through Hades, from which the shades of the dead were forced to drink in order to forget their past lives on earth.

Lethologica was first identified as a serious, debilitating disorder by Carl Jung. Current research identifies the ailment as extremely prevalent but also highly variable in its severity of manifestation.

The severity is dependent upon stress, physical fitness, social interaction and base memory capacity. It’s a lifestyle disease which is also affected by individual personality traits. Lethologica afflicts in a manner almost opposite to that of other memory disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia in that strenuous mental exercise can precipitate an onset of memory loss.

The tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) is an experience with memory recollection involving difficulty retrieving a well-known word or familiar name. When experiencing TOT, people feel that the blocked word is on the verge of being recovered. Despite failure in finding the word, there is the feeling that the blocked word is figuratively ‘on the tip of the tongue’. TOT is a fairly universal phenomenon. TOTs occur about once a week and increase as one ages, and they are often caused by proper names.

The key feature of lethologica is that it is temporary. The duration of the temporary memory loss can vary, depending on the patient and the setting. Bouts of lethologica seem to be brought on by stress, including stress from being in a tense social situation, as well as intense physical exercise.

I’ve just always referred to this phenomenon as the ‘word eating black hole’ in my head. It’s definitely an ironic word, since I can never remember it when I need it.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Short takes

A dump truck turned onto the street in front of me this morning. Which was good for a half mile of chuckles. The sign across the back of the cab read “Nothing beats a good dump!”

Bumper sticker seen on the back of a pickup truck: “Silly cowboy! Pickups are for girls to drive.”

My favorite bumper sticker of all time is the inclusive: “Nuke a gay pregnant whale for Jesus.”

Egosurfing: seeing how many hits your name gets when you search for it on the web.

Logolepsy means 'fascinated by words.' I've been afflicted with logolepsy ever since I learned how to read.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

show your true colors

You show your true colors if you reveal your true character.

Ships would often carry flags from many nations so that they could deceive nearby vessels into thinking they were allies.  The rules of engagement, however, required that all ships hoist their true nation’s colors before firing upon someone.  Thus, it was common to hoist an enemy ship’s colors and hail them; once near, the ship showed its true colors and fired on the enemy.

Ships used to be identified solely by the flags or colors they flew to show which country or group they belonged to. Ships were soften fooled when pirates would sail under false flags from other countries and eventually the ship showed its true colors to the enemy by hoisting  its real flags, in this case a pirate flag.

Bringing things closer to home and the present, perhaps 'showing your true colors' means not wearing makeup.

Sunday, 10 May 2015


Jaywalking occurs when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. Examples include wandering across the street between intersections without yielding to drivers and using a crosswalk when the signal is against you.

This term arises from the fact that ‘jay’ used to mean someone who was an idiot, a rube, unsophisticated or poor.  More precisely, it was once a common term for country bumpkins or hicks, often erroneously seen as stupid by city folk.

Thus, to ‘jay walk’ was to reveal one’s stupidity by crossing the street in an unsafe place, as might happen with some country visitor who wasn’t used to the rules of the road for pedestrians in an urban environment. As was stated in the New York Times in 1937, “In many streets like Oxford Street, for instance, the jaywalker wanders complacently in the very middle of the roadway as if it was a country lane.”

The first documented use of the word ‘jaywalking’ was from a 1909 Chicago Tribune issue where it stated, “Chauffeurs assert with some bitterness that their ‘joyriding’ would harm nobody if there were not so much jaywalking.” 

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1917. The term's dissemination was due, in part, to a deliberate effort by promoters of automobiles, such as local auto clubs and dealers, to redefine streets as places where pedestrians do not belong.

Originally, the legal rule was that "all persons have an equal right in the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users of the way." In time, however, streets became the province of motorized traffic, both practically and legally. Automobile interests in the USA took up the cause of labeling and scorning jaywalkers in the 1910s and early 1920s; a counter-campaign to name (disapprove of) "jay drivers" failed.

It shouldn’t have failed, though. Those bitter chauffeurs who objected to their “joyriding” being interrupted might more accurately have referred to their “jayriding.”

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

eating humble pie

In Britain , humble pie is what we’re supposed to eat when forced to recant something we’ve said. How humiliating! It means the same as ‘eating crow,’ which is used in North America, though I suspect the terms are interchangeable almost anywhere.

The expression derives from umble pie, which was a pie filled with the chopped or minced parts of a beast's 'pluck' - the heart, liver, lungs or 'lights,' and kidneys, especially of deer but often other meats. Umble evolved from numble, (after the French nomble) meaning 'deer's innards.'

The adjective humble, meaning 'of lowly rank' or 'having a low estimate of oneself' derived separately from umble. The words sound the same and umble pie was often eaten by those of humble station which may have been the reasons for 'eat humble pie' to have its current idiomatic meaning.

There are many references to both words in Old English and Middle English texts from 1330 onward. Umbles were used as an ingredient in pies, although the first record of 'umble pie' in print is as late as the 17th century. Samuel Pepys makes many references to such pies in his diary. Although ‘umbles’ and ‘humble’ are etymologically unrelated, each word appeared both with and without the initial "h" after the Middle Ages until the 19th century.

It is possible that the pies caused the move from numbles to umbles. 'A numble pie' could easily have become ‘an umble pie,' in the same way that 'a napron' became 'an apron' and 'an ewt' became 'a newt.' This changing of the boundaries between words is called metanalysis and is commonplace in English.

If ‘humble pie’ was a synonym for ‘shepherd’s pie,’ I would probably arrange to be humble much oftener.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

breaking the ice

To break down social formality and stiffness.

The earliest meaning of this phrase, ‘to forge a path,’ refers to the breaking of ice on a river or the ocean, to allow the navigation of boats. But it was late in the 17th century when the meaning changed to become ‘break up socially awkward situations and get people talking to one another.’

Two hundred years later, 'breaking the ice' reverted to its original usage, when specialist ships, known as ice-breakers, were introduced. These ships had strengthened hulls and powerful engines and were employed in exploring polar regions.

Then, of course, the term 'ice-breaker' began to be applied to social initiatives intended to get strangers acquainted and comfortable with one another. Mark Twain used the phrase that way in Life on Mississippi, in 1883.

As for me, I really don’t want to think about ice, unless it’s in a glass. After all, it IS almost summer!