polycule

Polycule is a relatively new word from the world of polyamory. A blend of poly[amory] and [mole]cule, it refers to a graphical or physical model of a polyamorous relationship, and by extension a name for the group of people in that relationship.

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butler

A butler is the chief servant in a household. The word comes to us from Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England following the Norman Conquest. The Anglo-Norman word was buteiller, a cup-bearer or servant who served wine. The word ultimately comes from the medieval Latin buticularius. It is cognate with the word bottle, which is from the Anglo-Norman botel and the medieval Latin buticula

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saved by the bell

Saved by the bell, which the OED defines as “to be rescued from a difficult situation,” comes to us, as should be no surprise, from the world of boxing. It originally and quite literally referred to a boxer who was about to be beaten into submission only to have the bell ring, signaling the end of round. The origin is so obvious that it shouldn’t require evidence, but there is an absurd-on-its-face explanation that the phrase comes from devices rigged onto coffins that those buried alive could ring if they woke up after having been buried. This myth is pernicious and is repeated by many who should know better.

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Bechdel test

The Bechdel test is an informal way to determine whether a film or TV show exhibits bias against women in the female characters it presents. It’s named for its inventor, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test, including Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, whom Bechdel credits with the idea. The test is in three parts:

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incel

Incel is a portmanteau of involuntary celibate, referring to a person, usually a heterosexual man, who desires a sexual or romantic partner but is unable to find one. The term arose as a self-identifier and spawned a virtual subculture as those people reached out for support on the internet. But over the years that subculture and the term itself morphed into one associated with violent misogyny. Ironically, however, the movement was started and the term incel was coined by a bisexual woman.

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cotton-picking, cotton-picker

Cotton-picking is a difficult adjective. On the one hand its origin is rooted in a metaphor for slavery in the American South, and as such carries racist connotations with it. But on the other hand, it’s often used without any racist intent at all. So while someone might use it innocently, that person’s audience might legitimately misinterpret the speaker’s intent.

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white shoe

The adjective white shoe is used in the United States to denote the establishment, the privileged, moneyed, and usually conservative, elites who traditionally run American businesses. But why white shoes?

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yodel

Yodeling is associated with Alps, so it’s no surprise that the English word is borrowed from German. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb to yodel as “to sing or call using a distinctive style of vocalization characterized by repeated rapid alternations of pitch between the low chest voice and the high falsetto or head voice.” The German verb jodeln dates to at least the eighteenth century, and the older Middle High German jolen meant to sing loudly and wildly.

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run it up the flagpole

The phrase run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes is credited to Madison Avenue admen of the 1950s. The phrase, and many others like it, is used in the context of brainstorming or “spitballing ideas” and refers to making a suggestion to see if people like it.

The earliest use of the phrase that I can find is in the April 1957 film 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Reginald Rose, where it is uttered by Juror #12, a feckless advertising executive played by Robert Webber:

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nimrod

The use of nimrod to mean an idiot or inept person is often said to come from young viewers misinterpreting a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Warner Brothers cartoon does play a role in the word’s history, but it’s not Bugs Bunny, but rather Daffy Duck, who utters the word. Nor did Daffy invent the insult, rather it comes from a slow change in the word’s meaning over the years.

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