Was ‘Pocahontas’ Her Real Name?

Tuesdays are traditionally wordplay days over here, and my original intent was to do a short post on Dictionary.com’s word of the year, “complicit.” Then President Trump went and again referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and, as he does, changed the game.

So, real quick, here’s something I learned today, while researching the real-life woman we call Pocahontas: Pocahontas wasn’t her real name. Not really, at least.

Like many Powhatan Indians, “P” was given a series of names throughout the course of her life: her birth name was Matoaka, meaning “bright stream between the hills;” she was later given the name Amonute, which doesn’t translate from Powhatan to English; and later in life, after marrying John Rolfe and converting to Christianity, she changed her name to Rebecca.

According to Jamestown Secretary William Strachey, Pocahontas was a childhood nickname given to her by her father; translated to “little wanton,” it captured her adventurous independence. But according to William Stith, a 19th century historian who devoted his life to studying the Virginia colony, Pocahontas was something of a codename to ward of white curses. From his 1865 The History of the First Settlement of Virginia:

“The Indians carefully concealed [her real name] from the English and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious fear, lest they, by the knowledge of her true name, should be enabled to do her some hurt.”

As someone who just completed a book all about American myths, I understand this could be apocryphal; and it’s just as possible the name Pocahontas was both a childhood nickname and a curse deterrent. But if Stith’s correct and “Pocahontas” was something of a shield against vexation, then there’s a certain irony to Trump and his supporters using the sham sobriquet to slur Elizabeth Warren. The Powhatan prophecy came true, only for a woman by another name.

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

 

Trump Makes a Story

As a journalist who has struggled with how, when and sometimes even why to cover Trump, I understand the media’s obsession with covering this “unconventional president.” I’m also aware of how people’s own disbelief over and outright repulsion to this president has shaped coverage of his administration. Hopefully this analysis from the Washington Post will make all media folk question their motives when pursuing a Trump-related story:

Most national media only started to pay attention to Puerto Rico after days of silence by Trump (as they jumped on the story, they seemed to forget the fact that they had also undercovered the island’s plight). When Trump started a fight with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, Puerto Rico finally started to get more coverage.

I agree this president needs to be taken to task for the many offensive, outlandish and un-American things he has done, is doing and will undoubtedly do, but it is worth constant reflection to make sure stories are being pursued for the right reasons. The PR story should have been a story before the Trump angle. It’s great that the administration’s lackluster, potentially corrupt and undoubtedly race-based response to the PR crisis is getting attention, but shouldn’t people have cared about Puerto Ricans’ struggles before Trump ignored them?

The Original Definition of “Harass” Is Most Apt

1. Harassment. We all know the word. Or, I hope we all know the word — just as I hope we all have a general sense of its meaning, something along the lines of Merriam-Webster’s definition of the verb “harass,” “to create an unpleasant or hostile situation…especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.” But this common conception is in fact the second, newer interpretation of the word; it’s original definition is both more and less specific and altogether appropriate in today’s context.

Briefly used in the 1610s as “to lay waste,” mainstream usage of “harass” shifted in the 1620s, veering toward “to vex by repeated attacks,” a definition derived from the 16th century French verb harasser, or “to tire out.” Though the specific origin of the French harasser remains hazy, the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests it comes from a mélange of harer, an Old French term for “to provoke or set a dog on,” and the equally Old French harier, as in “to draw [out] or drag [on].” In this light, “harassment” is tenacious and corrosive, pernicious and erosive. Defined by MW as “exhaust or fatigue,” harassment in this light is by definition perpetual and ongoing, a fact to which many women can attest.

Though the term “sexual harassment” didn’t arise until the early 1970s, the pairing of those two words couldn’t be more fitting. Women since time immemorial have been cat called and harangued, pinched and poked, raped and molested, and generally treated like objects by predatory men.* They have been tormented by repeated, caustic incidents like those we’re reading about on the daily. Thankfully, we’re seeing a backlash against such virulent behavior. All the repetitive and successive intrusions meant to erode women’s wherewithal have prepared them for this watershed moment we’re experiencing today. Now it’s time for men like Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Donald Trump, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose et al. to be vexed themselves.

(*I know it’s not only women who face harassment — Terry Crews and Tony Goldwyn have come forward with their own stories of being manhandled and verbally harassed, and half-a-dozen men have already accused Kevin Spacey of harassing and/or assaulting them — but women are harassed more often and openly than men.)

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

Save Elephants by Hunting Elephants, Says Trump (Update)

In what may be the most grotesque move in the grotesque Trump administration’s frenzied efforts to undo all things Obama, the White House is lifting the ban on importing African elephant heads, “trophies,” acquired while hunting in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Former President Obama prohibited the practice in 2014 because African elephants are endangered, thanks in part to hunting expeditions and the ivory trade. But now, under Trump’s tutelage, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims that elephants can only be saved by hunting them, because then locals conserve elephants for more hunting. Or something.

From FWS: “…Sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation.”

How long before we have “Trump International Elephant Farms,” where the complex and intelligent creatures are bred simply for execution?

Update: Due to massive and justified anger over this decision, Trump has decided to hold off on reversing the ban for the moment.

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.

Two Stories, One National Divide

Two stories caught my eye this morning. One is GQ‘s announcement that Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL footballer who started the knee-taking national anthem protest against police brutality, is their citizen of the year. This is a wonderful honor for a deserving person. And, considering the second article that snagged my attention, it’s more than necessary.

From a Washington Post article called “Tough-talking Sheriffs raise their voices in Trump era:”

[County] sheriffs are mimicking his antagonistic political style, alarming progressives and some legal observers who fear an increasingly undisciplined justice system. Some have even gone to battle with Democratic officials, bucking their “politically correct” policies and using rhetoric that puts some residents on edge.

So, we have county sheriffs, leaders who are supposed to uphold the rule of law and equality for all, pledging allegiance to a man who has no concept of law, order, fairness, justice or inclusion….

We need more sensitive, patriotic Colin Kaepernicks up in here to counter these Trumpian “my un-American way or the highway” tough guys.

Trump Loves Taking Advantage of People

After years of trashing China on the campaign trail and to supporters, it was time for Donald Trump to make nice during an official state visit to the communist nation. And make nice he did: Completely changing tones, from bellicose to cloying, Trump insisted that the U.S. and China’s “one-sided relationship” was the fault of previous administrations, not Chinese politicians. And then he praised China for “taking advantage” of the American people: “I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country that is able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”

Trump liked the line so much that he later repeated it on Twitter: “I don’t blame China, I blame the incompetence of past Admins for allowing China to take advantage of the U.S. on trade leading up to a point where the U.S. is losing $100’s of billions. How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would’ve done same!”

Yes, you did do the same: to the American people, when you ran for president, pretending to care about anyone but yourself. But what should we expect? You’re just living up to your last name’s original definition.