Dates, Thumbs, and Popeye1
February 1, 2017 by libroshombre
Horace Walpole once wrote, “I sit with my toes in a brook,/ And if anyone axes forwhy?/ I hits them a rap with my crook,/ For ‘tis sentiment does it, says I.” Well, I’m sentimental about particular reference books, like “Chase’s Annual Events: The Ultimate Go-to Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months.” In PC (pre-computer) days, many reference searches were happily resolved with Chase’s 4,000 birthdays, 1,400 anniversaries, 650 world-wide holidays, and much more date-related information.
So I had to buy the superannuated 2016 Chase’s when I spied it in our library’s booksale bins. The large, floppy paperback was fifty cents, each penny going towards new library books. Besides its sentimental value, Chase’s makes wonderful browsing. For example, December 31 list included Anchorage’s Town Square New Years Eve Celebration, John Denver’s birthday, the anniversary of the first U.S. bank in Philadelphia in 1781, and “Make Up Your Mind Day” (“for all those people who have a hard time making up their minds”).
It’s also New Year’s Eve Banished Words List Day, sponsored since 1976 by Lake Superior State University. W.T. Rabe, an LSSU public relations director, and some faculty members at a holiday party started the list of words to ban “from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use, and General Uselessness.” Nowadays people from all over submit words worthy of banishment, and this year’s winning entries include “on fleek” (when something’s “flawlessly styled, groomed,” especially eyebrows), “ghost” (“to abruptly end communications, especially on social media”), and “dadbod” (“the flabby opposite of a chiseled-body male ideal”).
“Post-truth,” recently named OxfordDictionaries.com’s word of the year, also made the banished word list. For all I care, you can banish “dumpster fire,” BusinessInsider.com’s word of the year, too. However, BusinessInsider.com’s list had a slew of subcategories, such as “Euphemism of the Year,” which “dumpster fire” could have won as well. A euphemism, according to Macmillan Dictionary, is “a word or expression that people use when they want to talk about something unpleasant or embarrassing without mentioning the thing itself.” The winners in that Euphemism of the Year category – “alt-right,” “tiny hands,” “fake news,” and the winner “locker-room banter” – all seem wan compared to “dumpster fire.”
In his essay “Euphemise This,” Columbia University professor John McWhorter said humans inevitably mount a “euphemism treadmill” once one is started. “This is because thought changes more slowly than we can change the words for it, and has a way of catching up with our new coinages.” An example he described is “crippled,” which “began as a sympathetic term. However … there are negative associations and even dismissal harbored against those with disabilities. Thus ‘crippled’ became accreted with those overtones … to the point that ‘handicapped’ was fashioned as a replacement term free from such baggage … it was impossible that handicapped would not, over time, become accreted with similar gunk. Enter ‘disabled,’ which is now long-lived enough that many process it, too, as harboring shades of abuse, which conditions a replacement such as ‘differently abled’.”
Another euphemism, “thumbs up,” has troubled me since reading “On Thumbs,” Michel Montaigne’s essay in which he said Roman spectators showed approval by extending their thumbs downward, and disapproval by gripping their thumbs with their other fingers. Did “thumb’s down” mean “I approve his death” or “Let him live”? Turning to another library school favorite, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, I learned “If they wished him to live, they enclosed their thumbs in their fists … if they wished him to be slain, they turned their thumbs out.”
When consulting Brewer’s, inquisitive readers must glance at nearby entries, like “Thummy Cap” (a sprite described as a “queer-looking little auld man,’ whose exploits are generally laid in the cellars of old castles”), and “Thug” (a “worshipper of Kali, who practiced ‘thuggee,’ the strangling of human victims in the name of religion”). And there was “Thule” (“name given by the ancients to an island, or point of land, six-days’ sail north of Britain”), the homeland of Hal Foster’s comic strip Prince Valiant.
And according to Brewer’s, January 17 was the anniversary of Popeye’s first appearance in the funny pages in 1929. And there are 364 more days awaiting browsing! Stay tuned!
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