April 2009 Archives

Band name

| No Comments

Just saw this headine:

Supreme Court Rules that Government Can Fine for 'Fleeting Expletives'

--Washington Post, April 28, 2009

Wouldn't "The Fleeting Expletives" be a good band name?

foul play

| 5 Comments

It struck me the other day that "foul play" is an odd sort of euphemism for murder. "Play"? What kind of play?

The Phrase Finder says Shakespeare probably coined the phrase and used it to mean "unfair behavior." (A search at RhymeZone Shakespeare seems to confirm that that was basically what he meant by it.) That seems plausible enough; I can imagine someone taking this common phrase and sort of jokingly and understatingly using it to refer to murder.

Except that MW11 defines it as "violence; especially: murder" and dates it to the 15th century, at least a hundred years before Shakespeare. Then again, MW3 (unabridged) says "unfair, dishonest, or treacherous conduct or dealing; specifically: violence."

Also, MW11 notes that "play" can mean "swordplay."

Anyway, I'm left without an answer to my question. I'm specifically wondering when and how "foul play" came to refer specifically to murder, as in "he met with foul play" or "there was no evidence of foul play." It's a phrase I associate with murder mysteries and detective stories; could it have entered popular use in this context via Arthur Conan Doyle? Agatha Christie? I don't know.

I suppose it could have started with the line from Pericles: "She died by foul play." But now I'm just guessing. Anyone know for sure?

Walking into a bar

| No Comments

Someone recently pointed me to A Guy Goes into a Bar, a list of guy-walks-into-bar jokes. I figured they would probably be mostly dumb, but it turns out there are several clever puns, including a couple that I had to read a couple of times before I got (but that then made me laugh).

Some of my favorites from that page, considering only the ones I hadn't heard before:

  • A default Sans Serif font walks into a bar. The bartender says, "We don't serve your type here!"
  • A guy walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Do you want to play a game? See those two rib-eyes nailed to the ceiling? You get to throw one dart. If you hit one, you get to take them home and I'll give you a free drink." The man says, "No thanks, the steaks are too high."
  • A guy walks into a bar with a newt on his shoulder. "What do you call that?", asks the bartender. "I call him Tiny, because he's my newt!"
  • Charles Dickens walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender asks, "Olive or twist?"
  • A guy walks into a bar with jumper cables. The bartender says, "You can come in, but don't start anything!"

thrupenny bits

| 1 Comment

Just encountered a comment in an article on Britain's Got Talent that refers to "a dancer who was show[ing] her thrupennie bits to the world."

Thruppence, or the threepenny bit, was, of course, a British coin worth three pence.

And "thrupenny bits" turns out to be Cockney rhyming slang for "tits."

I was working on various things while listening to music in the background, and the song "Marathon" came on, from the 1968 cast recording of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. As Wikipedia puts it, the song is "a charming encapsulation of the United States in the 20th century (mentioning, among others, Charles Lindbergh and Sacco and Vanzetti)." (Lyrics)

I've been listening to this album since I was in high school or college, but it never occurred to me until now to wonder: why was a Belgian singer/songwriter in the 1960s writing a song about the American ideas of the various decades of the 20th century?

That seemed possible, but it also seemed possible that the original song was (for example) a European view of those decades, and that the translators had substituted corresponding cultural references.

So I went and checked. And I was startled and amused to learn that in fact the original song had nothing to do with the decades of the 20th century, nor with history or pop culture, American or otherwise.

It's called Les Flamandes (lyrics), and it's about why and how Flemish people dance at different ages/stages of life (or maybe specifically Flemish women, I'm not sure). (I gather that the background of the song is deeply imbedded in Belgian ethnicity-politics--one YouTube commenter says that Brel was making fun of people with negative attitudes toward the Flemish, for example--but that discussion is beyond the scope of this entry.)

The two songs' lyrics both feature dancing, and both cover a century or so, but beyond that there's no resemblance.

I'm always intrigued by translations that take big liberties, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a "translation" that so completely ignores the original; really, this is more like a filk, in the sense of a different set of lyrics to the same tune.

Amusing juxtapositions at Time

| 1 Comment

I've recently read several news articles at time.com, and I keep being struck (and annoyed) by their links to marginally-related sets of pictures.

The links appear in parentheses at the ends of paragraphs, usually every three to five paragraphs. For example, in an article about the Moscow police:

Russia is currently 147th in Transparency International's annual corruption survey, alongside Syria, Kenya and Bangladesh. A recent poll by the independent Levada Center, meanwhile, found that while 85% of respondents believe officers do their job satisfactorily or very well, the majority also see the police as part of "repressive structures." (See pictures of London's police on duty.)

That's kind of random--the article has nothing to do with London's police. I'm guessing that they have an automated system that pairs keywords with existing sets of photos, in order to increase traffic to their photos. So since the article is about police, and the paragraph mentions police, the system generated a link to a photoset that's about police, even though it's about police in another country.

I don't know for sure that it's an automated system; it's certainly possible that a human chose that link. But if it's a human doing it, then they've got a kind of unusual idea of relevance.

Or possibly just a sense of humor, because some of the juxtapositions are outright funny, albeit wildly inappropriate in a serious article. The best one I've seen so far is from that same article about the Moscow police:

The code goes into striking detail on how officers should behave both in public and private. Police, it says, should avoid casinos, "indiscriminate sex" and "questionable relationships with people with negative public reputations such as criminals." Drinking on duty, talking on cell phones on public transport, using drugs, offering or accepting bribes and engaging in "gross jokes and wicked irony" are also out. (See 10 things to do in Moscow.)

(Of course, that particular article hovers right on the edge between serious and silly already. For example, in the photo at the top of the article, a Russian police officer appears to be making a face at the camera, and the caption refers to "reform[ing the] image of police.")

It reminds me a little of the snide responses in the sidebar of Colbert's "The Wørd" segments--it's like the magazine has hired an irreverent free-associationist to poke fun at their articles, to prevent any reader from taking the journalism too seriously. Kind of a neat undermining effect, but I doubt that's what Time intended.

obnubilate

| No Comments

Thanks to Naomi B for my favorite word of the week. It means to becloud or obscure something.

Example:

"It is the pity of the world, Dr. McAdam, to see a man of your parts obnubilate his mind with the juice of the grape."

--Patrick O'Brian

Distantly related to "nuance," of all things.

See Quinion's World Wide Words entry for more.

Block those metaphors

| No Comments

Benedict Carey of the New York Times sure does like using metaphors to describe science stuff.

At least, that's the conclusion I draw from reading his article Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory. It's an interesting article on an interesting topic, but I got a little distracted by the blend of metaphors for brain activity.

The article's main metaphor is introduced here:

[...] brain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell.

So far, so good. But then a few paragraphs later, things get a little out of hand:

In a series of studies, Dr. Sacktor's lab found that [the molecule PKMzeta] was present and activated in cells precisely when they were put on speed-dial by a neighboring neuron.

In fact, the PKMzeta molecules appeared to herd themselves, like Army Rangers occupying a small peninsula, into precisely the fingerlike connections among brain cells that were strengthened. And they stayed there, indefinitely, like biological sentries.

In short: PKMzeta, a wallflower in the great swimming party of chemicals that erupts when one cell stimulates another, looked as if it might be the one that kept the speed-dial function turned on.

Good thing we've got all those wallflower sentry Army Rangers to keep the speed-dial running.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2009 is the previous archive.

May 2009 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04