Monthly Archives: August 2012

Me Me Me . . . meme

Besides being what some people call their grandmother, memes are also what those cute pictures and clever visuals you see posted on Facebook are called. The biological term was coined before the digital age in 1976, and originally referred to shared cultural traits that were mimicked and passed on, not unlike genes. You can see how this came to be applied to Facebook and YouTube postings, which similarly are copied and shared, making the rounds until they become so popular as to be “viral” (another word borrowed from biology).

The word is a shortened form of mimeme, which has a Greek root meaning “that which is imitated.” The biologist who very consciously invented the term, Richard Dawkins, wanted a one-syllable word that sounded like “gene,” since memes share many similarities with genes. He even indicated how it should be pronounced, to rhyme with “cream.”

We have seen this word before, many years ago, before the modern photocopying machine was invented. Thomas Edison invented a duplicating machine in the late 1800s that came to be called a mimeograph, for obvious reason. “Meme” is also the French word for “same.”

In spite of the popularity of Internet memes, I don’t think the word is in widespread use yet. Try using it and see if people know what you’re talking about. A meme does not have to be visual, but can also be a word or catchphrase (“ermahgerd”). Former Star Trek actor George Takei is a prolific poster of pop-culture memes on his social media pages .

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Whoop-de-doo for Duparooh!

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It was invented in 1935 by scientists at DuPont, and introduced to the masses at the 1938 World Fair in New York, where nobody much cared. Today, it is hard to imagine life without it. It was meant to be a substitute for use in products no longer available from Japan due to hostilities prior to and during WWII. DuPont considered over 400 commercial names for their revolutionary “polyamide 66,” including “Duparooh,” which stood for “DuPont Pulls a Rabbit Out Of Hat.” Whatever they called it, it would be applauded by women and fishermen everywhere, not to mention the military. Today, you can find it in many household items and articles of clothing. It is stronger than steel. You can wear it, brush your teeth with it, sleep under it and cook with it. It’s the next best thing to plastic (no, it’s not plastic). It’s nylon.

So how did it come to be called “nylon?” It started out as “norun,” since DuPont recognized one of its main uses as material for stockings that, unlike Japanese silk, would be resistant to snagging or running. However, since “no run” was slightly misleading and they did not want to restrict its intended use to this one area, a change to “nuron” was proposed. Fearing this would be pronounced “neuron,” it was changed again to “nulon.” Due to further mispronunciation concerns it became “nilon,” and, finally, the less phonetically ambiguous “nylon.”

Word spread at the time that “nylon” was actually an acronym for “Now You Lose (or Lousy) Old Nippon,” but this was invented after the fact, compliments of anti-Japanese sentiment. The material did prove useful, however, during the war in the construction of parachutes, tents, rope and ponchos. Today it is omnipresent in carpeting and outerwear, in kitchens and operating rooms, music halls and tennis courts. It was the first synthetic fiber made by man. Remember that the next time you don a pair of duparoohs.

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Table for six – the Hooligan party . . .

You may have seen the recent news story about a Russian punk rock band, Pussy Riot, that was charged with hooliganism for staging a performance critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hooliganism? You can be arrested for that?

While you have no doubt heard of young thugs being referred to as hooligans in this country, to be arrested for being one sounds a bit silly to us: “What’r you in for?” “I’m a hooligan.” Sounds like something you should be sent to bed for without supper, not incarcerated.  In Russia, however, hooliganism is basically what they call political dissent or some other disrespectful act that the authorities have no tolerance for. It’s the adult version of acting up.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word’s origin is uncertain. It first appeared in newspaper articles of the late 1890s in loose reference to a gang (Hooley’s Gang), and it was also mentioned in a popular song of the day that told of a rowdy Irish family – the Hooligans. There was also a popular comic strip in 1900 that featured a hapless hobo called Happy Hooligan, so the name has several connections to this time period.

It occurred to me that “Hooligan” would be a most unfortunate last name to have (not unlike “Hitler.”) So I did some research. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the last name “Hooligan” is held by less than one hundred people, and possibly not by anyone (a full list of names is not available, only aggregates).

I do know this – if my last name were Hooligan (I am Irish, after all), I’d be soooo tempted to name my firstborn “Happy.”

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Grammar Cop, Episode One: Bad Signs

I’m going to do something a bit different today – different in that it’s not about word origins but the improper use of words, which could be a blog all on its own. We all make grammatical mistakes, even me sometimes (gasp!). There are many complex and often irregular rules in our language, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it can be funny. Here are some recent examples:

Advertisement spotted in the window of a True Value hardware store: “Coupon Sale!” I always thought they were free. These two words should probably not be used together. “Coupon Event” works better if the idea is a sale involving coupons.

Sign in rest room at work (yes, for real, at my workplace): “Employees must wash your hands before returning to work.” Who is the “your” in this message? Are the employees supposed to wash the hands of the person reading the sign? If so, they’re going to have a long wait!

An internet seller of home security systems promises “piece of mind” if I buy their products. Are they going to give me unsolicited advice at no extra charge? I think I’d rather just have an instruction manual or some free batteries.

And, one of my favorites, a case of bad abbreviation at work. The people at our corporate headquarters who program our inventory system with item descriptions made an unfortunate truncation of a product name. When we scanned the item electronically to make a sign for it, here is how it  printed: “Russell Stover Ass. Chocolates, $3.99.”

They didn’t sell very well.

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It’s a bird! It’s a crane! It’s – origami!

Sixty-seven years ago this week, President Truman authorized two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan, their first – and thankfully only – use in warfare, killing almost 200,000 people. One of those was twelve-year-old Sadako Sasaki, who was two when the bomb fell on Hiroshima. Ten years later it was discovered that she had leukemia, or the “A-bomb disease,” as a result of the radiation. While in the hospital, her friend brought her a paper crane which the Japanese called “origami,” meaning folded paper. The friend told her of a legend concerning these small pieces of paper folded in the shape of a crane. The crane, a sacred bird to the Japanese, was said to live for a hundred years, and that anyone who folded 1000 of these paper cranes would recover from any illness. Sadako folded just under 700 during her ordeal, but ultimately succumbed to the disease before finishing.

Her classmates formed the Paper Crane Club to honor her and raise money for a monument, which was erected in Hiroshima Park near the site of the bombing. To this day, origami in the shape of a crane are left at the base of the monument by visitors, and the pieces of folded paper have thus become a symbol of peace. This week, President Truman’s grandson is in Japan taking part in commemorative ceremonies. He met Sadako’s 71-year-old brother two years ago and decided to participate in efforts to deepen understanding between the United States and Japan concerning the bombings.

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On this august occasion

Being the first day of August, I thought some discussion of our new month’s name would be in order.

What we now know as August, the eighth month, used to be the sixth month in the ancient Roman calendar (since the year began in March) and was called, appropriately, Sextilis. The name of the month was later changed to honor Augustus (meaning “revered”), the founder of the Roman Empire. Many significant events in his life happened in this month, which is why it was chosen to honor him.

His great-uncle, Julius Caesar, also lent his name to a month, July, not to mention to the calendar itself, the Julian Calendar. However, because this calendar slightly miscalculated the length of a year, the newer Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, was created and is still in use.  It correctly adjusts the recording of time via the selective use of leap years. The church did this to correct the occurrences of Easter to always coincide with the spring equinox (when the change to the new calendar was made, ten days were skipped to make up for prior errors).

The fact that what we now know as August was once the sixth month is reflected in the names of the months that follow it:  September means seventh (as in septendecennial, or every seventeen years), October means eighth (as in octopus and octagon), November means ninth (seen only in botanical and zoological  names), and December means tenth (as in decimate and decahedron). Obviously, these numbered months no longer line up with their place in the modern calendar.

And what did the Romans call the first day of the month? “Calends,” from which we get the word “calendar,” which means to announce or proclaim. The middle day of the month, which Caesar knew all too well, was called the “ides.”

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