ALPHABETS--PIGMENTS FOR "PAINTING" THOUGHTS
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 04 March 2011
"Quotation, n: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another." Ambrose Bierce
Today, though there's an especially rich pot of national and international drama (e.g., rogue world leaders, rogue U. S. politicians, rogue pirates, rogue actors, rogue athletes, unemployment, soaring gas prices, a nasty war, border problems, etc.) from which to pull, no politics, no military--per se, no controversial current events, nothing heavy today. Something light--for fun. A little history--a little this and a little that. But still not the light-hearted Commentary prepared for two weeks ago--interrupted by the Marine second lieutenant diptych--but it's coming. Next week, maybe.
Besides, there's no shortage of news sites and bloggers opining about all the nonsense. And you're not likely to read anything like what follows elsewhere.
Maybe today's words fall in the 'Life in General' arena. Yes, 'Life in General.' Here goes...
As pigments and paints are the medium for painters to express ideas, the alphabet(s) and words are the analogous medium for writers--of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, etc., etc., etc., and oral storytellers. Not a revelation but noted for the record.
With a handful of pigments possible color combinations for a skilled artist are essentially limitless.
The same limitlessness goes for what is possible from our collective of 26 letters (and characters of other languages, too). And frankly the world of words may be beyond limitless. For if the right word does not exist for something new, thing or not, a new word is simply invented.
New words and phrases come along all the time. For example, "Seinfeld" gave us "Yada, yada, yada" to politely describe casual intimate relations. And the perfect new word (that's been around a while) to accompany this short paragraph: blog (and the person who blogs--blogger).
There's a couple of particularly interesting aspects of pigments and paints and alphabets and words; their origin(s), and how they evolve--whether from the minds of the skilled or general public group-think.
So today's Commentary will delve into the origins and meanings of words and phrases that have recently come to attention via email. Some, though interesting, did not make first cut. Then after scratching out the draft others had to go. There's time for four. Perhaps more in the future.
This just might prove to be more interesting reading than you imagine; indulgence, please.
Only within the last week did the most probable origin of this first phrase, that's come to mean manly (but gender neutral) moxie, courage, and maybe even stupidity, come to mind. And that happened only because an email from a friend, who forwards emails from an air-wing sized cohort of friends who have nothing better to do than cruise the Internet looking for obscure trivia, arrived and sparked the thought.
Our first of the top four, the phrase: "You've got a lot of balls" or "That took a lot of balls"
The background: Thank you Bartholomaus Girandoni (1744-1799) German inventer of his namesake firearm the Girandoni Air Rifle. Sometime around 1779 he introduced his air-powered repeating rifle that fired a .46 caliber ball at a remarkably high velocity. But the weapon's idea, like much genius does, far eclipsed the day's technology to make it practical to manufacture or feasible for field use. Though it did see some action with a pair of famous explorers and their expedition, the rifle did not endure.
However, a reminder of the weapon did survive and is part of many languages (though in different words) to this day. As go history books, per regulations of the late 1780s, every rifleman armed with the Girandoni was outfitted with a few compressed air reservoirs--the punch behind the round. Too, the men carried a terribly inefficient hand pump (to replenish air reservoirs), a bullet mold, a lead ladle, tools, and, of course, cleaning gear (research did not reveal if the gear was stored in the butt of the weapon as with today's M-16; probably not).
Anyway, here is where the story gets relevant to today's Commentary...each combatant carried at least 100 lead balls. One hundred lead balls. Imagine the weight. Eighty of the balls were distributed in tin tubes holding 20 each and 20 balls were loaded in the rifle's built-in magazine. Essential gear not otherwise attached to the rifle was carried on the warrior's back in a leather backpack. (Note: More than two centuries later and not much has changed for the infantryman who carries one hell of a load.)
As lore supposedly goes, the heavy load of ammunition--100 (sometimes more) lead balls--carried by the rifleman led an astute non-combatant (probably a forefather to today's enterprising contractor), while remarking about solving the heavy load problem, to opine to a soldier, ""Man, you've got a lot of balls."
The phrase stuck.
So during the past 232 years that saying has moved away from having anything to do with firearms to being associated with virility.
But though modern infantrymen still have and carry a lot of balls, when hearing the phrase today we think in terms of extraordinary courage or sheer stupidity. And with few knowing much, if anything at all, about Mr. Girandoni--who was anything but stupid and likely did not lack courage.
The second of four is a two-syllable, two-word descriptor that's morphed into one word: dip sh*t to dipsh*t (the asterisk for civility)
The background: These words or word can actually be traced back centuries--dating to times before man figured out how to manage human waste through troughs, outhouses, septic systems, and long, long before indoor plumbing and community sewage systems.
The story goes that every family or small clan assigned a member (or two or three)--usually the youngest--to empty the family's/clan's waste pots. There was a special tool invented and passed down through generations devised for this not-so-pleasant but necessary task. The tool, for all intents and purposes, was so well designed at inception that there's no history of change either in shape or materials used to fabricate it. The closest English translation available for the tool's name: "diptheschicter."
As generation after generation after generation improved sanitation and control of waste the term likewise went through "improvements"--namely being shortened. All earlier variations are not known but good authority has it there was at least three mods before the word "dipthschick" appeared.
It was only a generation later the word was again shortened to "dipschick." There are no known variants between "dipthschick" and "dipschick."
As more sophisticated means for waste management and disposal moved into the late 19th and 20th centuries, the "diptheschicter" (also the name for the operator of the namesake tool) was no longer necessary and so the distasteful chore faded into the annuls of human evolution.
But (and seriously, no pun intended), so as not to lose an important movement (again, no pun intended) in the progress of humankind, someone, and their identity remains untraceable, coined the term "dipstick" to sarcastically refer to someone who served no useful purpose other than for emptying waste pots.
The precise decade, much less year, when the term shifted meaning is not possible to pinpoint but eventually "dipstick" morphed into "dipshik" (some argue that was an opportune mispronunciation of "stick") with little change as to meaning.
Later, as you might expect, "shik" became "sh*t" leading us to our current term "dip sh*t or dipsh*t"--a term used liberally when referring to anyone who does something remarkably dumb or is, generally speaking, a complete screw-up.
Two down, two to go.
The third of four is quite intriguing, fascinating really, and a story you'll especially enjoy. The phrase: "All that and a bag of chips."
The background: This phrase dates back so far it's origin, even to pinpoint within a century or two is impossible. As far as you know the phrase was first used by livestock farmers. As managing big herds was labor intensive and the work brutal, personnel turnover--either through death (e.g., dangers of the business, disease, natural causes, bunkhouse knife and gun fights, etc.), routine comings and goings of wanderers, and firing of inept or untrustworthy hands, farmers put heavy responsibilities on their ranch hands. In addition, to basic chores new hires were laden with duties bagging chips--dried cow chips, that is, into 100lb capacity burlap sacks. The farmers used the chips for sundry purposes.
And so the common hiring offer from the farmer to a group of new hands after a hasty interview went something like this, "So, there you have the chores, Jake, Les, Stuart, and Colby--I pay good and fair wages for all that and you bag the chips."
Now I remember hearing the phrase, "All that and a bag of chips," well over 40 years ago but cannot remember the context in which it was used, but it certainly was not around a livestock operation. Recently, within the past few weeks, it turned up in an email a friend (different friend) sent to me. It was one of those "aha" moments--I've heard this before. It made me smile. And think about simpler times. And marvel at human memory which I studied in college--somewhere in the deep, deep recesses lingered that tidbit just waiting for its number to be called. It was. Wonderful! And for some odd reason I then thought of George Miller (cognitive psychologist) who hypothesized a theory of memory he called, "The Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two" (maybe something for another Commentary).
Anyway, a few days later I spoke with that friend and made mention of the phrase. She told me she'd never heard it till recently when her high school teenage daughter came home with it from school a few months ago. All she heard around the house day after day for months was, "All that and a bag of chips." She thought it was something new the kids had come up with. "No, no," I said, "...it's been around for a long time. I guess the kids just found it laying around somewhere and thought it was cool, or 'sick.'"
So in our modern lexicon the phrase has endured except the wording has changed from, "you bag the chips" (cow) to "a bag of chips" (potato). And consequently the meaning has moved from tending to animal waste to meaning something along the lines of the dandy little term "lagniappe" often heard in New Orleans which means "a little something extra"--that's all good.
And if you're familiar with the cuisine and way of life in the Big Easy then you know after preparing your Po-boy or Muffaletta the server always asks, "Baby, would you like something to drink with that and a bag of chips?" True.
And to continue...
Four of four. The best for last. And as far as I know the first time introduced in the at-large public arena. The word: klum
The background: Compared to the long and colorful histories of the other three, this is a newbie. It was birthed spontaneously at a most unlikely place (later the irony will be apparent)--a once important but even then abandoned, somewhat overgrown, airfield named "Fairchild" in a once thriving mill town nestled in the Piedmont of North Carolina; that would be Burlington.
Coined in the late-60s on a chilly Christmas morning, it was a nonsensical blurt during a moment of light-hearted frustration by an elder trying to get a handful of young boys to fly a brown and white Styrofoam and soft yellow plastic bald eagle; a Christmas present from Santa.
The toy, called "Zoar" made by Mattel and marketed to "fly"--did not live up to its billing of jaw-dropping sustained gliding flight. My ignorance as to the science of aerodynamics prevents me from elaborating, but it's moot to the origin of the word. Bottom line, though the box's colorful illustrations indicated otherwise, this eagle was not going to fly like nature's model.
The magic moment happened when one of the youths--will remain nameless to protect the innocent--whose coordination lagged behind his rapidly growing body, was running with the string-tethered (like kite string but once at altitude a yank released the bird and, at least in theory, Zoar soared) mock bird of prey when he tripped, fell, and broke part of a wing.
Memories confirm that the crunch of Stryofoam and plastic echoed (well, maybe not "echo'ed" but was heard) across the airfield.
The exasperated elder calling the lad's name, "...blah, blah, blah...'klum'!"
The boys looked at one another--puzzled.
What's a klum? Do you know? I don't know. Don't look at me, I don't know. Me either.
And then they snickered. Started to giggle. Then laughed. So is the memory.
And they have been snickering, giggling, and laughing for over 40 years.
Conclusion for the misspeak: "klum," n: a bumbler somewhere between a klutz and a club.
It could arguably be a nick for "clumsy," but that definiton from the originator was never offered in defense after the blurt (nor after) therefore is, to this day, without merit. And will be forever.
Zoar did not soar again--in the 60s glue and Styrofoam were not good bedfellows. I'm not so sure that has changed.
But "klum" stuck in their vocabulary; like super glue.
Don't bother looking it up. "Klum" has yet to make the Merriam-Webster Dictionary--print nor online editions.
In my hard-copy desktop edition it would fall between "klieg or kleig light-n: a powerful lamp used in making movies" and "klutz-adj: a clumsy person."
So perhaps time has come to submit the word recommendation along with the story--while giving full credit, with golf applause, to its creator; our dear ol' Dad.
Good one, Dad!
Now the world has access to "klum."
And time will tell if it endures.
And those, folks, are your top four.
Today's Commentary mostly fiction except for the Girandoni air rifle and ammo, and "klum." Why? Noone would have bit if posting on 01 April; which falls on a Friday (usual post day) this year.
Google "Girandoni" and learn all about the man and his brilliance.
"Klum" happened. Two witnesses--one of whom Santa gave Zoar--went on to soar like an eagle--earning 'Wings of Gold' as military aviators and spending lots of time at airfields. Ironic? Yep. Oh, and neither's call sign was "Zoar." Dad later earned his pilot's license. So did Mom. Dad bought an airplane. He painted it red, not brown (like an eagle), and white. And he painted Snoopy, not Zoar, on the tail. Anyway, who knew what a toy would lead to. Not qualified for military aviation, I traveled via 'Black Cadallics'--the boots of an infantryman, and sometimes carried lots of balls (ammo) in my backpack.
A quote stumbled on while preparing today's words that seemed appropos.
"The right word may be effective, but no word was as ever effective as a rightly timed pause." Mark Twain