Department of Foot In Mouth

Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, got off to an inauspicious start at his first press briefing on Tuesday by using the term tarbaby when asked about the government collecting phone records on millions of Americans:

I don’t want to hug the tarbaby of trying to comment on the program, the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

The term has a history of use as a derogatory term for African-Americans. Snow was using the term in its sense meaning an intractable problem that brings discredit to those who attempt to solve it and undoubtedly did not intend any offense, but he did display significant insensitivity in using it.

The term comes from 1881 Joel Chandler Harris story of Uncle Remus, where Brer Fox smears a doll with tar in hopes of using it to ensnare Brer Rabbit:

Brer ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun what he call a Tar-Baby.

From this original use, the term was extended to its metaphorical sense of a difficult problem. But by the 1940s, the term was being used as a racial epithet. From Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal of 1948:

"I didn’t know she was a tar-baby.""Don’t be so dumb. Can’t you see it by her jaw?"

Sometimes people take offense at words and phrases like nitpicking, picnic, or call a spade a spade, falsely believing there to be a history of racist usage in them. In such cases, people should not be afraid to use the term in question–if someone takes offense, one can simply point out their error. But in this case, the term does have a long history of racist usage. Snow would have been better served choosing a more neutral metaphor like playing in traffic or touch the third rail.

Department of Motherhood & Apple Pie: Official, no wait, National, no wait, Common and Unifying

Is English the national language or is it a common and unifying language? In a fit of linguistic demagoguery the U.S. Senate would have it both ways. Within the span of a few minutes the Senate declared English to be the national language and then the common and unifying language. Not a single senator voted against both wordings. (Three were not present for the vote.)

On Wednesday, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) submitted an amendment to the immigration reform bill pending action in the Senate that would make English the "national language" of the United States. The United States has never declared an "official" or "national" language, although several of the individual states have. The amendment passed the Senate on Thursday in a 63-34 vote.

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Molecular Mixology

This Wednesday’s New York Times had an article by Peter Meehan ("Two Parts Vodka, a Twist of Science") that used the term molecular mixology, the practice of applying knowledge of chemistry and cooking techniques to make distinctive cocktails–I almost wrote original instead of distinctive, except that it seems most of these new cocktails are variants of old classics, like the Martini, instead of being new creations. The term was new to me, so I looked for its origin.

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Sit, Google, Sit

Objections in China over the name Google has chosen for itself in Mandarin. An online petition is circulating asking Google drop the name Guge. The name Guge is represented by the Chinese ideograms for harvest and song, or it can mean valley song or grain song. Chinese users of the search engine believe it has rural or traditional connotations, the opposite image the high-tech giant should be trying to cultivate.

A survey of Chinese internet users last year by the China Internet Network Information Company found that over half of the respondents failed to spell Google correctly. The search engine company is trying to counter this by pairing its English name with the Chinese name.

Some have suggested that Google be known as gougou, or dog dog. A suggestion that Google flatly rejects. Others suggest the English-Chinese blend Good gou, or good dog, in acknowledgement of Google’s behavior toward the Chinese government.

(Source: Straits Times, 22 & 30 April 2006)

Immigrants & The English Language

This past Monday was A Day Without An Immigrant, a one-day strike by immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, to demonstrate the economic importance of immigrant labor in the United States and to protest a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would make illegal immigration a felony.

This past week also saw a stir over a Spanish-language version of the national anthem, with many believing it is unpatriotic to sing the song in any language other than English.

As this newsletter is about language, this week we look at a couple of myths and misconceptions about immigrants and the English language.

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charger plate

For those of you that have not dined in a really fancy restaurant lately, a charger plate is a large dish that is on the table when you are seated and other plates and dishes are placed, or loaded, on top of it.

The word first appears as the Middle English chargeour in the c.1305 work Legends of the Holy Rood:

I was that cheef chargeour, I bar flesch for folkes feste.
(I was that chief charger, I bore meat for the people’s feast.)

The root in French is uncertain. It is either the Anglo-Norman chargeour meaning that which loads or the Old French chargeoir meaning a serving utensil.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


A chairman is the leader of a committee or parliamentary body. The origin is, as one might guess, a compound of the words chair + man. The chair is a reference to a seat or position of authority and the man is, of course, a reference to the person who occupies it. The word dates to 1654 when it appears in John Trapp’s Commentary of the Book of Job:

I sate chief, and was Chair-man.

In more recent times the word has come under criticism for being sexist as not all such leaders are male. A backlash by those who want to preserve the old patterns of speech has resulted in some propagating a false etymology that states the -man is not a reference to a person at all and is, therefore, not sexist. This ill-informed view states that the -man comes from the Latin manus, meaning hand, that the chairman is the hand of the one sitting in the chair guiding the meeting. This is complete bunk.

(Source Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Caesarean section..

A Caesarean section, also spelled Caesarian or Cesarean and often without the upper case C, is the surgical delivery of a child. It is a term with an interesting etymology and lots of associated folklore.

The Birth of J. Caesar, 1506 woodcut from Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve CaesarsThe term comes from the name of Julius Caesar, who according to legend was delivered by this method. From R. Jonas’s 1540 translation of Roesslin’s Byrth of Mankynde:

They that are borne after this fashion be called cesares, for because they be cut out of theyr mothers belly, whervpon also the noble Romane cesar the .j. of that name in Rome toke his name.

Although this is where the term Caesarean comes from, this legend about Julius’s birth is almost certainly false. While surgical deliveries were known in ancient Rome, they invariably resulted in the death of the mother and Julius’s mother, Aurelia, lived well into her son’s adulthood. It is possible that one of Julius’ ancestors was delivered in this fashion and bequeathed the name to the family. Although Pliny reports that the name comes from caesaries, or hair, as the future dictator of Rome was born with a full head of hair.

The term Caesarian section dates to 1615, first appearing in Helkiah Crooke’s A Description of the Body of Man.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; National Library of Medicine, Cesarean Section: A Brief History)


This phrase, meaning a situation where two bureaucratic regulations frustrate one another, comes from the 1961 novel of that name by Joseph Heller:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Within ten years of the novel’s publication, the term was being used generally. From the March 1971 Atlantic Monthly:

In the opinion of many sociologists, the "combination of diagnosis, evaluation, treatment and classification" so highly rated by Dr. Karl Menninger is in fact the Catch-22 of modern prison life.

Heller originally titled his novel Catch-18, but at the request of his publisher changed it. Leon Uris had just published Mila-18 and the publisher did not want confusion between the two books.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

capital / capitol

The words capitol and capital seem to be very similar, but they are from different Latin roots.

The more general term, capital, has various senses, meaning punishable by death, principal, a seat of government, and wealth used in an investment. It first appears in Middle English in the 13th century and comes, via Old French, from the Latin capit?lus. The Latin root, caput, means head or money paid out. (This Latin root is unrelated to the German kaputt, meaning broken.)

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