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January 2003 Archives

Mythical Places: Valhalla; Ultima Thule; Gotham; Arcadia; Timbuktu; cloud-cuckoo-land; Xanadu

Common Food Names with Interesting Stories: Jerusalem artichoke; turkey; lobster Newburg; corn; hot dog; French fried potatoes; sundae

Words from US Football: end run; political football; punt; quarterback; Hail Mary pass; moving the goal posts; Monday morning quarterback

Weird and Wonderful Words: fleer; handsel; gallimaufry; gammerstang; mundungus; wamble; moil (marge)


Mythical Places (Week of Jan. 6, 2003)

Our theme this week will be mythical places.

Valhalla – (often ironic; often lower case) the place of honor for heroic combatants

     From Valhalla, the great hall in Norse mythology where the heroic dead are received. They go forth daily to battle each other, just for fun, and return each evening to feast, their wounds magically healed. Neither AHD nor MW contemplate such non-literal use, and are more closely confined to the original Norse legend.


Regarding political infighting in the Opera Bastille in Paris:

[T]he Wagnerian context for this meeting had come to seem all too appropriate. Valhalla, in the shape of a $350 million opera house, stood awaiting its finishing touches, but Daniel Barenboim was barred from crossing the rainbow bridge that led to its portals.
– Rupert Christiansen, Vanity Fair, May 1989


Ultima Thule – a distant territory or destination; a remote goal or ideal

(ancient geographers' term for the northernmost region of the habitable world.  'Thule' pronounced as two syllables)

A reader notes: Thule is also the name of an USAF base in far northern Greenland.


From there I caught the train to Chernyshevsk, a blight of a settlement 180 miles north of Mongolia, six time zones east of Moscow, and as close to nowhere as one can get this side of Ultima Thule.
Jeffrey Tayler, This Side of Ultima Thule; A dispatch from Eastern Siberia, Atlantic Monthly, April 1997


In 330 BC the Greek explorer Pytheas sailed north from the Mediterranean and became the first recorded voyager to cross the Arctic Circle. He had learned of a mysterious archipelago called Thule (pronounced "too-lee"Ή), somewhere to the north. Thule became an irresistible attraction to the human imagination, but also an elusive goal. As the frontiers of arctic exploration moved north, so did Thule, until it took on mythical proportions, becoming in poetry "Ultima Thule" — the land farthest north. For centuries the quest for Ultima Thule became the pursuit of the geographic North Pole, the most coveted of all polar prizes.
– net travel site; note the variant pronunciation


Gotham – a common sobriquet for New York City. But why?


Washington Irving, the creator of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," attached the name to New York in 1807. He depicted "Gothamites" as wiseacres and know-it-alls.


Tracing back further, a 1460 book, Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham, collected legendary stories of English villagers. Legend hath that two centuries earlier King John, he of the Magna Carta, came to a Nottingham­shire village to acquire land for a hunting lodge. The villagers, having no wish to be taxed to support the King's Court, schemed to change his mind. Thus when the King's advance men arrived, the villagers behaved in a thoroughly demented manner, running wildly in circles. The King promptly dropped his plans to reside among madmen.

     The village was the named Gotham, and the wise fools there were said to have remarked, "More fools pass through Gotham than remain in it." Gotham itself passed into legend as the home of such wise fools, whose demented behavior has method in its madness.


Arcadia or arcadia – a region offering rural simplicity and contentment.

From an ancient Greek region of that name, whose inhabitants, relatively isolated from the rest of the known civilized world, proverbially lived a simple, pastoral life.


The brouhaha that erupted in Britain last month when it was learned that the prestigious Booker Prize might be opened to American writers by 2004 is one of those parochial flaps that reveal just how foolish the literary establishment can be. ... Through the end of the 19th century, Britain and Europe represented history and tradition and the sort of society of manners that Americans like Henry James felt that the United States still lacked, whereas America represented a kind of primeval Arcadia, vigorous and naοve, but lacking in sophistication. In the 20th century, the parent-child relationship between the Old World and the new began to shift.
– Michiko Katutani, "Britons Chafe at Giving Americans a Shot at the Booker Prize", New York Times, June 10, 2002


Timbuktu – a extremely remote place. going to Timbuktu – going to extremes

After the remote city in northwest Africa, in what is now Mali. Timbuktu was at one time a major outpost of the gold trade.


You'd also like your project site to have a short and simple URL, rather than stretching to Timbuktu and back, peppered with tildes.
– Linux Journal, May, 2000


Timbuktu is an expression that commonly signifies the limit of the world.[Novelist Paul] Auster explains. 'People say I've been to Timbuktu and back, when half the time all they mean is that they've been on a shopping trip to Manhattan.' A bit shame-faced, I tell Auster that I once made the same mistake. I'd followed a road in the desert, signposted to Timbuktu, for miles before I realised that it was going nowhere. It was just a joke. That's funny, he said, because, even if Timbuktu exists, which it does, he says, it's an oasis in the desert somewhere in Africa. Still, it exists more as an idea than as a place. In the world, our world, Timbuktu is fiction. And, as Auster might say, all the more real for that.
– Suzie Mackenzie, The Guardian, May 29, 1999


cloud-cuckoo-land – someone is said to live in cloud-cuckoo-land when they seem optimistically out of touch with reality


University heads were living in "cloud cuckoo land" if they thought they would get the £9.94bn they are asking for over the next three years, Margaret Hodge, the higher education minister, told them bluntly today. ... "It is cloud cuckoo land because it [Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors] has not addressed priorities and it has assumed a public spending envelope which is totally unrealistic," she added.
– The Guardian, September 17, 2002


On Thursday, the Bush administration announced that it would join with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia to host an international peace conference to settle the conflict in the Middle East. No location was announced for this meeting, but I can suggest a neutral country that would be perfect for the idea: Cloud Cuckoo Land.
– Robert W. Tracinski, Jewish World Review, May 8, 2002


A reader notes: Cloud-cuckoo-land comes from Aristophanes' play The Birds, where the world's birds adopt a grandiose scheme to seize supreme power. They will establish a kingdom in their habitat, between heaven and earth. With that central position they can dominate the gods by intercepting their sacrificial supplies, and can terrorize mankind by the threat of devastating the crops. (Sort of an ancient version of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.)

     The birds name their kingdom Nephelokokkygia, greek for Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.


Xanadu – an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place

From Coleridge's poetic idealization of Xandu, the city in Mongolia where Kubla Khan had his summer palace. The poem opens:  In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn / A stately pleasure dome decree: / Where Alph, the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.


In his lonely Xanadu on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Citizen Nixon of Oliver Stone's sprawling new biography is let to contemplate what history has in store.
Janet Masli, New York Times, Dec. 20, 1995, reviewing the film Nixon



Common Food Names with Interesting Stories (Week of Jan. 13, 2003)

This week we'll talk about food names. These aren't words that will increase you vocabulary, for most of them are familiar names -- but ones that have an interesting story behind them.


Jerusalem artichoke 'Sunflower' is girasole in Italian. We have corrupted girasole to Jerusalem, and we call the sunflower root the. It is not an artichoke at all, and has nothing to do with Jerusalem.


How did the turkey, a native American bird, become named for a country 4,000 miles away?


Turkeys first arrived in England from Spain, where they had been brought by Cortιs in 1519. The English mistakenly believed they had come from Turkey. Indeed, the first English colonists in the new world were surprised to find that the land abounded in turkeys. (Other European nations made similar mistakes of geography. The French called the bird 'chicken of India', that is, poulet d'Inde, which has evolved into their current name in French, dindon. The Germans, Dutch, and Swedes identified the bird with the city of Calicut (Calcutta), and called it Kalekuttsch Hόn, kalkoen, and kalkon respectively.)


Delmonico's Restaurant in New York (1827-1923) created lobster ΰ la Wenburg to honor an esteemed client, Ben Wenburg. After a falling out, however, the restaurant re-ordered the initial letters, calling the dish Lobster Newburg.


The Waldorf-Astoria hotel, creator of the Waldorf salad, also concocted a hangover cure for a Mr. Samuel Benedict. The cure? Eggs Benedict.


In England the word 'corn' means 'grain' of any sort, but in the United States it means the specific grain maize.  How did this difference of meaning arise?


Though the Pilgrim colonists brought wheat with them, it was devastated by a fungal disease native to the Americas. However, the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow maize, which the Indians had grown for centuries. (Teaching was needed because maize had evolved to the point that it would no longer self-propagate; it is entirely dependent on human help.) Since maize was the only grain available in the colonies, the word 'corn' came to mean that specific grain in US speech.


Why do we call it a hot dog?


The butchers' guild of Frankfurt introduced this form of sausage in 1852. Folklore claims that it was made curved at the behest of a butcher who had a pet dachshund, and who convinced co-workers that a dachshund-shaped sausage would win the locals' hearts and stomachs. In any event, a vendor who hailed from that town popularized this food at America's Coney Island, in the 1890's. The sausage went under a many names: frankfurter or frank, wienerwurst or wiener (after the city of Vienna, spelled "Wien" in the native tongue), and dachshund sausage. "Dachshund sausage" was the name used by the vendors who sold it at New Your baseball games in 1906.


Enter Tad Dorgan, syndicated cartoonist for the Hearst newspapers. He sketched a cartoon of a dachshund smeared with mustard, sandwiched in a bun. But since he was unable to spell dachshund, he settled on "dog," captioning the picture "Get your hot dogs!"


Then name not only stuck, it virtually obsoleted its predecessors, and soon spun off terms like the exclamations "hot dog!" and "hot diggity dog".


Note: My source for this is Charles Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Thing (including the verb "to obsolete"). Other print sources confirm the Dorgan story, though some say the catchphrase "hot dog" was already sweeping the nation and helped support the name for the sausage, rather than vice versa. In fairness, I'll add that snopes and word-detective stoutly deny the Dorgan story – but until otherwise shown, I'm putting my money with the published-in-print sources.


French fried potatoes are not named for France. Rather, the verb 'to french' means "to cut into strips or slices, before cooking'.


Why is an 'ice cream sundae' named after a day of the week?


The authorities agree that this Americanism, from the late 1800's, comes from the day of the week. The majority view cites the "blue" laws of the period, which often forbade the sale on the Lord's Day of intoxicating sprits – and which viewed carbonated soda as an "intoxicating spirit". On Sunday, then, an ice cream parlor would have to modify its ice cream sodas by removing the soda water, and use only ice cream and syrup – the ice-cream sundae.

     But what city thus given birth to the sundae? Several claimant cities can show that the term was used on their local menus from that time. The various authorities list as possible cities Evanston, Illinois, Norfolk, Virginia and Ithaca, New York.

     I tend to go with Evanston, for two reasons. First, almost every authority lists it as a "possible". Second and more important, Evanston was the national headquarters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a very active organization, and was notorious for the strictness of its blue laws.



Words from US Football  (Week of Jan, 20, 2003)

Coming next Sunday is the biggest sporting event on the US calendar. A billion people worldwide watch the Super Bowl, the championship game of the US professional football league, and several billion dollars are bet on the game.


We would be derelict if we did not devote our week's theme to such a major event. Today we offer the first of a week's worth of terms from football. I will be curious whether these terms are familiar to our non-USn's.


end run – to bypass (an impediment) often by deceit or trickery (AHD). an evasive trick or maneuver (MW) The term can be used as either a noun or a verb.


I view the term as simply going around an obstacle rather than fighting to overcome it – usually, but not necessarily, involving trickery.  Those who oppose the action will of course think it a knavish trick.


State motor vehicle agencies are working on a plan to create a national driver's license ... that could end-run civil rights and political opponents ... privacy advocates and politicians of wide-ranging persuasions ... see it as a de facto national identification card and a tool for extensive invasions of privacy.
– Dee Ann Divis and Nicholas M. Horrock, UPI, Foes fear states' end-run on privacy, Washington Times, April 18, 2002


political football – a problem or issue that is discussed among groups or persons without being settled.  Wordcrafter comment: often with the sense that groups are keeping the issue unresolved to be used for political benefit. I am frankly surprised how widespread the term has become. Here are examples from the UK, Canada and India.


I am increasingly intrigued by the psychology of those who claim to care about the poor of the world but then distort the historical record by suggesting the poor are getting poorer and everything is going backwards. This is not true. We will not improve the lives of the poor by using them as a political football. We must focus on their true situation and what needs to be done.
 Speech by Rt Hon Clare Short, MP, Clare Short, the United Kingdom's Secretary for International Development, Oct. 19, 2001


If liberal leader Danny Graham intends to use the controversy over the Tory government’s use of funds from the Millennium Scholarship Foundation as a political football, he needs to be careful. He may well find himself thrown for a loss on the play.
 Editorial, Halifax Daily News, Dec. 3, 2002


Even as the farmers of South Haryana are anxiously waiting for the construction of the SYL canal, the issue has become a political football for the politicians to gains mileage by criticising each other.
– NCR Tribune (India), January 13, 2003


A reader questions:  What makes you think that this saying comes from the American version of football, rather than UK football [which USns call soccer]?

A reader responds:  "Political football: origins, and OED's goof " 'Football' has long been used in this figurative sense. OED lists examples going back to 1532, and though the earliest seems rather doubtful, the one from c1600 seems apt: "I am the verye foote-ball of the starres." It seems clear that this usage is too early to be of US origin.

     However, the term 'political football' is another matter. OED gives three cites, all recent (1971, 1975 and 1977), and none from the US.  OED is simply wrong. The web reveals that 'political football' appeared in a U.S. political cartoon in Judge magazine during the term of President Harrison, 1889 to 1893. The cartoon's caption:  Political Football. President Harrison – "What can I do when both parties insist on kicking?"


punt – to cease doing something; give up, as in punt on the issue of


Interestingly, sources indicate that in Australian slang the term means the opposite, 'to attempt a difficult task'. I understand that the British meaning is 'to bet'.


Congress should not continue to punt on the issue of quota-based management. Why should fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest be forced to participate in dangerous derby fisheries simply because Congress is

afraid to tackle this difficult issue?
– Massachusetts senator John Kerry. per third-party report, Sept. 2000, on-line

We have decided entirely to punt on the issue of longterm solvency. Don't try to tell me the private sector is going to come up with wonderful solutions to all the problems, because they ain't, and we are going to end up with surpise on our face.

-- Rep. John D. Dingell, per 1998 on-line third-party report citing Amy Goldstein in Washington Post


quarterback – to lead or direct the operations of

(After the name of a particular position in football, the quarterback. Use as a verb dates from the late 1940's.)  Wordcrafter note:  I view this definition, from AHD, as superior to M-W's in that it implies a more active role. However, AHD says this use is 'slang'; MW does not; and in this I think M-W is correct.


The word in recent use, regarding efforts to control asbestos litigation:


The offensive team is now in danger of getting tangled up in its own legs. Insurers, auto companies, chemical firms and former asbestos makers all have their own idea about legislation. Urgently needed is strong quarterbacking from the White House to get these players moving downfield in concerted fashion.
– Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2003


Hail Mary pass – a desperate, last-minute attempt to save a losing situation.


My definition. This meaning, apart from the literal football use, is not included in any dictionary I have found, but seems reasonably accepted in the media. Coined December 28, 1975 by quarterback Roger Staubach.


Why doesn't Al Gore just commit suicide right now? In a desperate Hail Mary pass to save his inert candidacy, his flacks are wildly spreading rumors about some rather mundane infractions George W. Bush committed decades ago.
– Columnist Anne Coulter, Nov. 6, 2000


Gateway, the maker of low-end PC clones, is running ads for its new Profile 4 computers comparing them -- gasp -- to the new flat-panel iMac. Gateway is that losing team, and the Profile is its Hail Mary pass. ... And I'm sure Apple is laughing all the way to the bank.
– Bob Levitus, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 13, 2002


moving the goal posts – changing the rules in the middle of the game; changing what is required to win


The environmentalists kept moving the goal posts farther and farther back. Nothing was ever good enough for them.
– Ron Arnold, of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 1995


Vietnam has received a reputation among some investors and business people as the "land of the moving goal posts," making it difficult for businesses to score successes.
– William H. Carlile, Arizona Republic, April 17, 1996


Monday morning quarterback – a second-guesser; one who criticizes or passes judgment from a position of hindsight.


I am terribly anxious to state the facts as they were, from my viewpoint - not from someone else’s - what I saw and what I acted on, not as a Monday-morning Quarterback. I want to state conditions as they were then ... and the steps that were taken to meet the situation [after North Korea invaded South Korea].
– President Harry S Truman, Presidential memoirs interview, February 16, 1955


[Question] Do you believe that the U.S. missed a chance prior to Sept. 11 to negotiate successfully with the Taliban? Bergen: It's an interesting question ... but it's easy to Monday-morning quarterback all these decisions after the fact.
– CNN analyst Peter L. Bergen, interviewed Feb. 11, 2002 in Washington Post



Weird and Wonderful Words (Week of Jan.  27, 2003)


Finding a truly weird and wonderful word is like meeting a gorgeous person who is also a good cook and will help you move.
Erin McKean, in introducing her book Weird and Wonderful Words


"There are plenty of words that are weird without being the least bit wonderful," says Ms. McKean, "– nectocalyx is orthographically weird, but [its dreary scientific meaning] is sadly lacking on the wonder scale." Conversely, "There are wonderful words, such as brio and luminescent, which long familiarity has deprived of any weirdness."


This week we present weird and wonderful words, with useful meanings. We'll even choose ones that sound so ordinary and unassuming that one could work them into everyday conversation without drawing attention; that is they are useable as well as useful. No sesquipeds here! As a bonus, the sounds of each word give a grin and, perhaps, reflects its meaning.


fleer – to laugh in a disrespectful or jeering way. prob. of Scand. orig.


Our quote concerns the adoption of "standard time" -- time zones -- in the late 1800's, supplanting each city's and town's use of its own local time. The railroads sought that change for uniformity, lest scheduling confusion produce the unfortunate result of two trains attempting simultaneously to occupy the same track.


Railroads had long since accelerated the tempo of life. But [that] had occurred gradually, and under the cover of celebration. Standard time focused a delayed ambivalence. "Damn Vanderbilt's time! We want God's time," one old party fleered at a railroad time consultant. Many non-codgers felt the same way.
– Jack Beatty, "The Track to Modernity", in The Atlantic, Jan. 2, 2003


handsel – a gift as a token of good luck, such as one upon a graduation, new year, wedding or opening-of-business. Also, the first money taken in at a shop.


In Scotland, the first Monday of each year was celebrated as the holiday of Handsel Monday.


gallimaufry – an absurd medley; a hodgepodge (This word originally meant "a hash of various kinds of meats". It traces back to Old French for "to make merry" (source of English gala) + "to eat much", and to Medieval Dutch for "to open one's mouth wide".)


Today bilingual programs are conducted in a gallimaufry of around 80 tongues, ranging from Spanish to Lithuanian to Micronesian Yapese.
– Ezra Bowen, "For Learning or Ethnic Pride?" Time, July 8, 1985 (special thanks to for this entry)


gammerstang – a tall, awkward woman


Sometimes you'll find this lovely word defined with further shades of meaning, such as "with bad manners" or "with bad morals". Gammerstang seems to be principally of british use; can any of our british readers shed further light? The word is too rarely used to find a published sample-sentence.


mundungus – foul-smelling tobacco.

How lovely to be able to say, "Get that mundungus out of my home, please."


Mundungus has apparently has become slang, in the Royal navy, for any useless or unwanted material (like gubbins, wiffen, etc.) Mundungus Fletcher is a minor character in JK Rowling's Harry Potter books.


Lizo: Is there anything that you can tell us about book five? Any new characters?

JK: Well, we've obviously got a new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher ... You may see a little more of Mundungus and there's a new sorting hat song.
– CBBC interview with JK Rowling, 19 September 2002


wamble – to move in a weaving, wobbling, or rolling manner (noun: a wobble or roll)

from ME wamelen = to feel nausea

also, when referring to the stomach: to turn or roll (noun: an upset stomach)


Note: the vowel sound in the first syllable can be pronounced either as in 'pot' or as in 'pat'.


Yes, I believe ye. That's just it. I KNOW Grace will gradually sink down to our level again, and catch our manners and way of speaking, and feel a drowsy content in being Giles's wife. Fancy her white hands getting redder every day, and her tongue losing its pretty up-country curl in talking, and her bounding walk becoming the regular Hintock shail and wamble!
– Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders, Chapter 11


moil – to work with painful effort; to toil; to drudge (noun: toil; hard work; drudgery);

also, to churn or swirl about continuously (noun: confusion; turmoil)


Doesn't this sound of this word somehow conjure up an image of mole-like beasts slaving away in the dark?


Now he must moil and drudge for one he loathes. – Dryden

Dusty and dim are the eyes of the miller,
Deaf are his ears with the moil of the mill.
– Robert Louis Stevenson, Keepsake Mill, from 'A Child's Garden of Verses'

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the margeΉ of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
– Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee


ΉBonus word: marge – border; margin; edge; verge