Collusion Is Not Innocuous

As a follow-up to last week’s etymological dissection of “meddling,” and inspired by all the real news about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, I decided this week to take a closer look at another word frequently used in these stories, “collusion,” as in this Newsweek headline from this morning: “Evidence of Trump-Russia Collusion Already Exists, Watergate Prosecutors Say.” Here’s what I found…

Used in its current form since the 14th century, the Old French “collusion” originates from the Latin collusionem, which comes from the verb colludere, an amalgamation of the prefix “com,” as in “with” or “together,” and ludere, which means “to play” and is the same root for ludicrous. Married into one term, “com” and “ludere” mean, loosely, “coming together to play.”

It almost seems innocuous, and even jocular. We of course know otherwise. As legendary English lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler noted, “The notion of fraud or underhandedness is essential to collusion.”

For more Fun with Words, click HERE.

“Symbolaton,” a Failed Neologism

My first book hit stores this week. Called  The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, it traces American history via uses and cultural representations of our nation’s favorite hard wood, the titular log cabin. It’s a fun and informative little tome — and, most importantly, it’s filled with hundreds of awesome images.

Three years in the making, the projects’ impetus came in part from my own bafflement over how the log cabin became such a beloved symbol: What forces shaped our collective national consciousness to make us so blindly, unquestioningly adore what is essentially a stack of sticks? The answers are in the book. What’s not in the book? The word “symbolaton.”

An amalgamation of “symbol” and “automaton,” the term was meant to be a neologism meaning, roughly, “an automatic symbol,” i.e.: an object or totem that Americans worship without considering why or how — kind of like the national anthem or the pledge of the allegiance. [I guess my work has a theme, huh?]

Unfortunately, “symbolaton” doesn’t quite work because “automaton” means, literally “self-motion,” which gives the impression that the log cabin is moving by its own will, its own power. Though the structure indeed took on a life of its own over the years, and was certainly axiomatically perpetuated in America, the locution lacked the precision I sought. It’s close, but not cigar.

The term “symbolicon” was also thrown around in my noggin and then tossed out, largely because it doesn’t really mean anything, and so too was the phrase “zombie icon,” which comes closest to what I hoped to convey but which still didn’t make the cut. Oh well.

But even though there are no neologisms in The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, it’s still an entertaining and — gasp! — educational read. Please check it out.

And for more Fun with Words, click HERE.

‘Meddling’ Once Meant ‘Screwing’

“Russian meddling.” We hear the term a lot in stories about how Vladimir Putin and company interfered with the 2016 election that installed Donald Trump in the White House. But what is meddling?

Merriam-Webster defines it as “interest[ing] oneself in what is not one’s concern,” or, “to interfere without right or propriety,” but if we go back to the word’s first vernacular explosion, the early 1300s, it’s defined as “to mingle and blend,” from the 12th century Old French “mesler,” which itself evolved from the Latin word “miscere,” to mix. The present participle version we currently use, “action of blending,” didn’t arise until the 1520s.

But, fun fact — and, I think, fitting in this context — from the late 1300s until the 1700s, “meddling” was slang for “having sexual intercourse,” or, another way, “fucking.” As with the roots of “Trump,” this seems more appropriate for the Russia-related headlines, as in “Russia fucked with the election.”

For more Fun with Words, click HERE.

Donald Trump is the Definition of “Trump”

While we’re on the subject of the English language, let’s talk about “Trump.”

When used as a verb, U.S. president Donald Trump’s surname is most often interpreted as “to surpass” or “to beat,” a terminology familiar from card games. Such usage  was popularized in the 1580s, when Middle English reigned, and which traces its origins to around the 1520s, when “to trump” was first used as “to triumph.” But this is not the first “ to trump,” and while Donald Trump undoubtedly prefers this dominant definition, the first, which is worse, is far more fitting — and French!

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What Would EM Forster Say About Anonymous’ Warning?

EM Forster’s best known for novels like A Room with a View and Howard’s End, but the English author also wrote extensively about politics and civil society, including an essay called “Anonymity: An Enquiry.” Originally published in November 1925’s The Calendar of Modern Letters, Forster’s piece seems relevant today, ahead of A Warning, the forthcoming tell-all by the anonymous White House staffer who wrote last year’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” I expected freedom of speech-loving Forster to support anonymity, full stop, but his take’s more nuanced, though perhaps not nuanced enough.

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Brett Kavanaugh’s Drinking Problem

Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony last week made me want to wretch. And it wasn’t just for his grotesque display of white male rage at — the gall! — having to explain himself. Nor was it Kavanaugh’s “One of my closest friends to this day is a woman who was sexually abused” remark, though that was something truly repulsive. What really irked me, as a recovering alcoholic, was Kavanaugh’s repeated implications that his successes preclude a potential drinking problem. In the Supreme Court nominee’s mind, someone like him — a Yale graduate, a golden man-child, a former football player — could never have a drinking problem. Kavanaugh never said this outright, but this odious misconception wafted through the subtext like a stale beer.

I caught the first real whiff during Kavanaugh’s tense exchange with Senator Mazie Hirono, after the Democrat from Hawaii asked Kavanaugh if he’d been a heavy drinker in college. Kavanaugh, floundering and seething at this suggestion, deflected: “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.” While Kavanaugh’s entire defense that day was built around his triumphs, here he was using his CV more pointedly: to nullify any implication of a drinking problem. In Kavanaugh’s eyes, academic and professional success not only negate any responsibility for alleged alcohol abuse — he made up for it in gold stars —, but the very possibility of alcohol abuse in the first place.

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All the LGBT Books Around My House

Pride month ends today, and I still haven’t penned anything LGBTQ-related. Considering so much of my career has been in gay media, that seems wrong. But what to write? I’m pretty out of touch with queer politics and culture at the moment, so I guess I’ll just keep it simple: a cruise through lavender-tinged titles around my house.

Starting in my office, where I spend most of my time, the top row of a tall brown Ikea Billy bookshelf holds many homo-related hardbacks: Leo Lerman’s diaries, The Grand Surprise, abut Between Me and Life, Meryle Secrest’s biography of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks, which are next to the equally Sapphic Selected Letters of Willa Cather, which is pressed against The Days of Anna Madrigal. Theoretically the rest of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series should be up here, but those paperback copies are elsewhere.

On that same row you’ll find Tim Murphy’s Christadora, about the lives, loves and losses of people in the East Village apartment building of the same name, and Cathers’ collection of short stories, Obscure Destinies, which I’ve never read but hope to soon. Speaking of, I’m not sure where my copy of O Pioneers! moseyed off to; I do know My Antonia was abandoned on a Brooklyn stoop — I didn’t care for her. Meanwhile, a few titles over from Destinies, are three EM Forster tomes: his realist and oh-too-relevant political collection, Two Cheers for Democracy; the heart-breaking Maurice; and a collection of the English author’s short tales. (Howard’s End is elsewhere.)

Finally, off to the right, a recently acquired paperback of John Rechy’s raunchy Rushes lays on its side, appropriately removed and aptly aloof.

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Abbey Road’s 1936 Hit: Bach

I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music lately, mostly because the absence of words makes finding my own that much easier. Last night, while researching upcoming historical events — funny phrase — for this very site, my Spotify shuffled over to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007.”

You know this tune — even if your only exposures to classical music are film and TV, you know it; it’s one of the most famous pieces of music in the world. To refresh your memory, here’s Yo-Yo Ma performing it.

See? That song. Again, it’s super famous — but it wasn’t always this way.

Though Bach penned his cello suites between 1717-1720, these tracks were neglected for over two centuries; they didn’t gain widespread exposure or popularity until 1936, after cellist Pablo Casals, who stumbled across the music in a vintage shop, recorded them at Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles and Pink Floyd later recorded. Soon Bach’s 300-year old Cello Suite No. 1 was inescapable, becoming one of the most hottest singles in the world — or something like that.

You know, just in case you’re interested….

‘Ultra Rich’ In America, 1883-Today

Hundreds of the planet’s richest and glitziest will gather today to kick off the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. That said, this week’s etymological adventure revolves around the term “ultra-rich.”

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