Tolerance, Trousers, and Egyptian Bar Jokes

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June 18, 2022 by libroshombre

            International Tolerance Day won’t roll around until November 16, but it’s increasingly obvious we ought to celebrate “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own,” as Webster’s puts it, every day.  Helen Keller said that “the highest result of education is tolerance,” and can be obtained outside a classroom.  Reading about exploding pants and Godwin’s Law recently led to further observations about the virtues of tolerance.  Exploding pants was described in a Wikipedia article about “Depths of Wikipedia,” an Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok account established by Annie Rauwerda, a University of Michigan college student in 2020 to “share strange, surprising, and interesting facts from the English Wikipedia,”  While she draws from the entire 6,513,365 English articles (there are 55,966,448 articles, or 20.69 gigabytes, in the world-wide Wikipedia) she often mentions Wikipedia’s Unusual Articles page. 

            The “Exploding Trousers” article describes efforts in New Zealand in the 1930s to control ragwort, a pernicious weed.  “Farmers had been spraying sodium chlorate, a government recommended weedkiller, onto the ragwort, and some of the spray had ended up on their clothes. Sodium chlorate is a strong oxidizing agent, and reacted with the organic fibres (i.e. the wool and the cotton) of the clothes. Reports had farmers’ trousers variously smoldering and bursting into flame, particularly when exposed to heat or naked flames.”  An academic history of this hotpants outbreak, “The Significance of Mr. Richard Buckley’s Exploding Trousers,” won its author, James Watson, an Ig Noble Prize.  The MythBusters TV show’s producers needed convincing.  In 2006 they tested new cotton overalls treated with several potential combustible substances.  “Although not naming ‘the herbicide’ as sodium chlorate, they confirmed that trousers would indeed vigorously combust due to flame, radiant heat and impact … However, combustion (i.e. an exothermic chemical reaction between a fuel and an oxidant) is not the same as an explosion, which involves a rapid increase in volume accompanied by the release of energy in an extreme manner (i.e. a shock wave). Even so, a person witnessing such an event (especially if they were wearing the trousers) would likely describe such a sudden event as an explosion.”

            Wikipedia’s Unusual Articles page contains many other examples but has strict criteria inclusion.  Prospective articles must be about “something a reasonable person would not expect to find in a standard encyclopedia,” “a highly unusual combination of concepts, such as cosmic latte, death from laughter, etc.,” a “clear anomaly,” be “well-documented for unexpected notoriety,” and others.  Examples include spite houses, sexually active popes, and Rabbit Hash, Kentucky.  For “greater levity,” Wikipedia recommends its Silly Things page, where you’ll find Best Jokes, Other Funny Articles, but not to be confused with Wikipedia’s Bad Jokes and Other Deleted Nonsense.

            Some of that’s bound to steam up the less tolerant among us, and that’s where Godwin’s Law comes in.  According to his Wikipedia article, in 1990 Mike Godwin noticed how often online discussion degenerated into anger leading to someone compares another to Hitlers or Nazis and coined his law (“as an online discussion grows longer – regardless of topic or scope) – the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches 1”).  Godwin’s corollary is “when a Hitler comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever made the comparison loses whatever debate is in progress. This principle is itself frequently referred to as Godwin’s law.”

            Such behavior, the use of “loaded language” (“rhetoric used to influence an audience by using words with strong connotations”), is the tool of internet trolls who want to cause a ruckus, and by propogandists.  Wikipedia says “Politicians employ euphemisms, and study how to use them effectively: which words to use or avoid using to gain political advantage or disparage an opponent. Speechwriter and journalist Richard Heller gives the example that it is common for a politician to advocate ‘investment in public services,’ because it has a more favorable connotation than “public spending.  One aspect of loaded language is that loaded words and phrases occur in pairs, sometimes as political framing techniques by individuals with opposing agendas. Heller calls these ‘a Boo! version and a Hooray! version’ to differentiate those with negative and positive emotional connotations. Examples include bureaucrat versus public servant, anti-abortion versus pro-life, regime versus government, and elitist versus expert.”

            Some words appear more loaded than they actually are.  Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day blog recently featured “Words That Sound Dirty (But Aren’t),” that included “a nudum pactum” (an unenforceable agreement), “titubation” (unsteady movement), and “penetralia” (innermost secret).  However, real naughty humor is timeless, though the humor may lose some punch over time.  For example, Depths of Wikipedia says the earliest known “walks into a bar” joke was Sumerian and composed sometime between 4500-1900 BCE and goes like this: “A dog walked into a tavern and said, ‘I can’t see a thing.  I’ll open this one.”  An editor noted that “ne-en,” the Sumerian word for “this,” isn’t plural because Sumerian doesn’t usually make nouns plurals directly, relying on verbs to do that.  So, a clearer translation is “A friendly dog walks into a bar.  His eyes do not see anything.  He should open them.”

            Here’s an Egyptian rib-cracker from around 1600 BCE: “How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?  You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.”  That’s from the Westcar Papyrus, so-called because Henry Westcar, little-known “British adventurer” apparently discovered it in 1823 or 1824.  Fifteen years later his niece supposedly gave it to Karl Lepsius, a German Egyptologist.  However, the relevant Wikipedia article says “There are inconsistencies about the true nature of the acquisition and the subsequent whereabouts of the Westcar Papyrus. Lepsius writes that the document was on display in the Oxford Bodleian Library, but public exhibitions have been documented there since the early 1860s and Lepsius’ name does not appear in any lists or documents. Furthermore, Lepsius never made the text of the Westcar Papyrus public; he stored the papyrus at home in his attic, where it was found after his death. These inconsistencies have led to widespread speculation; many British historians speculate that Lepsius may have stolen the papyrus.”

            Profanity’s taken to the battlefields of Ukraine, according to a Guardian.com article, “How Swearing Became a Weapon of Resistance for Ukrainians.”  In it, Jamie Rann describes how “Cursing occupies an ambivalent position in Russian-language culture. On the one hand, Russian speakers take pride in the expressiveness of their swearwords, and thanks in large part to online gaming, this flair for foul language has found an international audience. On the other, Russian-speaking societies have maintained strong taboos against public profanity,” and “in both Ukraine and Russia anti-swearing legislation was introduced as recently as 2019 and 2021 respectively.”  However, to the four most taboo Russian words (referring to genitalia) Russian authorities have added a fifth forbidden term: “war.”  Now the Ukrainians have coined a Cyrillic word that means “Russian fascism and sounds like “Rashism,” with an “R” instead of a “F.”  Ukrainian is to Russian like Italian is to Spanish, but I think they get the point.

            I think Mr. Godwin might be tolerant enough to let Rashism slide, all things considered.   For he’s like you, me and, Comedian Stephen Fry, who said , “I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance.”

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