Things I Learned While Researching Other Things

I give all credit for the idea of this post to the late journalist Sydney J. Harris, who would occasionally include something he called “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things” in his syndicated column.

This is a post about words and phrases. These are my building blocks, so they’re something I’m always interested in.  You understand the sometimes frustrating task of trying to find the correct word or phrase.

Occasionally, I’ll read or type words that I may understand in the context in which I’m seeing or using them, but will suddenly realize that I’m not certain where the words or phrases originated.

In this amazing Computer Age, I can afford a few minutes of distraction to investigate them further.

Right off the bat — As expected, the phrase “right off the bat,” meaning “immediately; at once; without delay” is a sports metaphor that has been traced back to the late 1880s with that usage. I just made the assumption that the sport was baseball—and it probably is—but some suggest that it may have originated with cricket (as baseball did).

Nitpicker — The word nitpicker means someone who finds faults, however small or unimportant, everywhere they look. We all know someone like that. If we don’t, it’s probably us. The word itself is relatively new, from about 1950 or so. It comes from the idea of picking nits (or lice eggs) out of someone’s hair. A nitpicker is as meticulous about finding faults as a literal nitpicker should be at finding each louse egg. Yes, it’s kind of a disgusting word origin, which is why nitpicker has negative connotations.

Top-notch — We know that top-notch means “excellent” or “of the highest quality.” But, what are its origins? It seems that no one really knows. It first appeared suddenly in its current usage in the mid-19th century. It has been suggested that it originated from one of several tossing games imported from Scotland that required a player to throw a weighted object over a horizontal bar. The best score would be when the bar was in the “top notch,” naturally. This sounds reasonable, but it’s really just a guess. Other guesses have it relating to logging, with the best lumberjacks able to cut from the highest notches, or some such thing. Another had something to do with candles and courting, but that’s been mostly debunked. Bottom line: we don’t know.

Since Hector was a pup* — Meaning “for a long time.” I can’t say this is exactly a regional colloquialism, although I heard it the first (and only) time from some guy in South Carolina. He said that it was something his dad always said, and, in the context it was used, the meaning was obvious.  Best guess, according to Internet sources, is that it is referring to the Trojan War hero Hector, since the phrase originated during a time when people were more well-versed in the classics. And that was, indeed, a long time ago.

Hemming and hawing — The phrase means to hesitate to give a definite answer. It dates back to the 1400s and is echoic in nature. A more modern interpretation would be “um-ing and er-ing” probably, with “um” and “er” being common filler sounds in hesitant speech. I always assumed it had something to do with either sewing or sailing. I was mistaken.

Gamut — I used the word “gamut,” knowing that its definition meant the complete range or scope of something. My actual sentence began “our entertainment choices run the gamut from …” But, where did the word “gamut” come from? It turns out that gamut originally meant “lowest note in the medieval musical scale” and it was a contraction of Medieval Latin gamma ut, from gamma, the Greek letter indicating a note below A, plus ut (later called do (as in “do re mi”), the low note on the six-note musical scale. So the word gamut was originally all about music, but later morphed into meaning “the whole musical scale,” or, figuratively, “the entire range or scale” of anything. Its first usage in this manner can be traced to the 1620s.

Honeymoon — The word and concept of the honeymoon owes more than a little to alcohol (as do some weddings: but, I digress—). The medieval tradition of drinking honeyed wine for a full moon cycle after a wedding was supposed to ensure a fruitful union between the new bride and groom. I guess Champagne is a modern-day analogue to honey wine.

Throwback — It means a person or thing that is similar to something of an earlier type or time. It was already in use with more or less the current definition in the mid-19th century. It is a combination of the verb “throw” and the adverb “back.” I can’t find a more pithy origin story for the word, even apocryphal stories that have been debunked. I was sure it would have its origin in the sport of fishing.

Venting your spleen — This particular idiom means “to express your anger.” From medieval times until the 19th century, the spleen—an organ in the body near the stomach—was thought to be the source of the “humors” that caused the emotion of anger. This is a colorful and archaic phrase. I contracted hepatitis as a 12-year-old.  (My mother called it jaundice, because I turned a lovely yellow/orange color from all the excess bile in my system.  I couldn’t keep food or drink down for two weeks, and lost 20 pounds – not a good thing on a skinny, stick-thin kid.)  But, I digress— anyway, my spleen was swollen while I had jaundice. I don’t recall being angry, but I did throw up a lot.

One to grow on — I thought an origin for this idiom would be easy to find, but it remains mostly a mystery.  When you had a birthday, it was a tradition to receive your birthday spanking by your friends or family, with the flat of the hand or with a paddle or belt. One person on-line said the birthday person would be “lightly paddled.” They didn’t live anywhere near me. Anyway, you’d get one swat for each year of your age, and then one extra swat, called the “one to grow on.” It’s like the baker’s dozen of birthday-themed beatings. I still don’t know the origins. Here’s one guess: you say something “grows on” you to mean that you become accustomed to it. Is the birthday punishment tradition meant for you to get used to pain because that’s all adulthood has to offer you in the future? That’s a little bleak, but it will serve as a placeholder until someone can offer me a better explanation.

* * * * *

Things I Learned While Researching Other Things = TILWROT
Remember that!  
As a lover of words, I know I’ll keep collecting these. Plus, I’ll keep posting them, I’m sure.

*Actually…. My Mother used to say, “Since ‘Towser’ was a pup.”  Now I’m off to research ‘Towser.’  Lord knows what I’ll find.

 

Edison On Religion


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Alva Edison:

…What I have denied and what my reason compels me to deny, is the existence of a Being throned above us as a god, directing our mundane affairs in detail, regarding us as individuals, punishing us, rewarding us as human judges might.  When the churches learn to take this rational view of things, when they become true schools of ethics and stop teaching fables, they will be more effective than they are to-day… If they would turn all that ability to teaching this one thing – the fact that honesty is best, that selfishness and lies of any sort must surely fail to produce happiness – they would accomplish actual things.

Religious faiths and creeds have greatly hampered our development. They have absorbed and wasted some fine intellects. That creeds are getting to be less and less important to the average mind with every passing year is a good sign, I think, although I do not wish to talk about what is commonly called theology.

The criticisms which have been hurled at me have not worried me. A man cannot control his beliefs. If he is honest in his frank expression of them, that is all that can in justice be required of him. Professor Thomson and a thousand others do not in the least agree with me. His criticism of me, as I read it, charged that because I doubted the soul’s immortality, or ‘personality,’ as he called it, my mind must be abnormal, ‘pathological,’ in other, words, diseased…

I try to say exactly what I honestly believe to be the truth, and more than that no man can do. I honestly believe that creedists have built up a mighty structure of inaccuracy, based, curiously, on those fundamental truths which I, with every honest man, must not alone admit but earnestly acclaim.

I have been working on the same lines for many years. I have tried to go as far as possible toward the bottom of each subject I have studied. I have not reached my conclusions through study of traditions; I have reached them through the study of hard fact. I cannot see that unproved theories or sentiment should be permitted to have influence in the building of conviction upon matters so important. Science proves its theories or it rejects them. I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.

I earnestly believe that I am right; I cannot help believing as I do… I cannot accept as final any theory which is not provable. The theories of the theologians cannot be proved. Proof, proof! That is what I always have been after; that is what my mind requires before it can accept a theory as fact. Some things are provable, some things disprovable, some things are doubtful. All the problems which perplex us, now, will, soon or late, be solved, and solved beyond a question through scientific investigation.

The thing which most impresses me about theology is that it does not seem to be investigating. It seems to be asserting, merely, without actual study….Moral teaching is the thing we need most in this world, and many of these men could be great moral teachers if they would but give their whole time to it, and to scientific search for the rock-bottom truth, instead of wasting it upon expounding theories of theology which are not in the first place firmly based. What we need is search for fundamentals, not reiteration of traditions born in days when men knew even less than we do now.

Evolution of Intelligence

 

Bible

 

 

 

 

 

Is Evolution Proven?

A reader complained that two Provincial politicians have gone out of their way to deny evolution.  These politicians are correct.  The root word for evolution is evolve, and the word evolving means an on-going process.

Taken in that light, are those who believe in evolution not humans, or are they not humans anymore?  When a farmer plants corn seeds in the spring, does evolution – an ongoing process – yield a different crop?

And by the way, did corn, trees, weeds, flowers also originate from the same cell that developed monkeys, humans and animals?  Did stones also originate from that same cell?  Is evolution a proven fact? (1)

The writer also stated that politicians cannot express their Christian beliefs because, “their religion does not belong on Parliament Hill.”  Yet he implies that it is OK to bring his religion to Parliament Hill, because, when I do a Google search for a definition of religion, among the Oxford Dictionary meanings given is, “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.”

This man puts his trust in man, and believes that man can save himself, and Christians believe in God, knowing that God is the only one who saves. (2)

Ignorance is not a quality I value in my government, nor should you, yet this letter writer demonstrates that very ignorance.

Faithful Christian

dinosaur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evolution Not Debatable

I wonder if Faithful Christian’s anti-evolution objections are cynical, straw-man arguments, or merely the ignorant type.

To even suggest that crops would evolve in a single growing season displays a disturbing ignorance of the mechanics and time-line of evolution.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  It usually takes millennia, or eons.  Guided by farmers, knowledgeable in its workings, the corn grown today only vaguely resembles that found by explorers, 500 years ago.

The intelligent humans of today who believe in evolution, evolved from ignorant Neanderthal cavemen.  And yes Faithful, the first living cell, produced by God, obeyed His directives, and split many times, in many ways, to evolve into the almost infinite range of life here on His Earth.

To speak of stones having cells is, at best, hypocritical, but even stone evolves.  Spewed lava eventually evolves into basalt, and plain, loose sand, crushed beneath the weight of miles of seawater, evolves into firm sandstone.

“Evolution” is not a test of faith; it’s a test of intelligence.  God is not lying to us.  Fossils really are millions of years old.

Grumpy Old Archon

 

So, I was forced to miss yet another chance to keep my mouth shut.  Several newspaper readers had been writing about how much salt they had to use to achieve the municipally-mandated ‘bare concrete’ walkways in front of their houses.  Salt kills grass, pollutes waterways, ruins shoes and rusts out cars.

I was going to send in a letter suggesting that people try Urea crystals.  It melts like salt, but is a fertilizer, without salt’s bad side effects.  The biggest problem is finding it, and cheaply.  As a fertilizer, summertime and agricultural Co-ops yield the best results.

When I saw the above letter, I couldn’t resist tweaking the nose of another ‘Good Christian’, especially when he claimed to decry ignorance, and then asked such ignorant questions, and made such ignorant claims.

(1)

I cringed when I read the original subject letter, with its claim that evolution is a ‘fact.’  It appears to have more supporting evidence, but must still be taken on faith, just like religion.

(2)

This passage has absolutely nothing to do with the validity, or lack, of evolution.  The letter writer just throws it in to provide an emotionally-charged, fear-of-Damnation-raising, broad, believable base, for his otherwise baseless objections.