Monthly Archives: June 2013

Barbie in the backyard

Here’s a shocker: the word barbecue originally had nothing to do with food.

Spelled many different ways since 1700, it is of both Spanish and French origin. It refers to a framework of sticks that people slept on to be up off the ground, not something that you slap steak onto. That connotation came along in the late nineteenth century, when fish and other food “slept” on a barbecue as they were being cooked. The modern spelling and pronunciation may derive from the French phrase barbe a queue, which means “beard to tail” and has nothing at all to do with the word barbecue.

In the mid 1970s, the Australians shortened the word to barbie, and the movie Crocodile Dundee helped bring the shortened form to America.

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Words to live by


Every state has a motto. Some are in English, many are in Latin, and one is in Greek (California’s “Eureka,” or “I found it”). Oddly enough, Maryland’s is in Italian (“Fatti maschii, parole femine” for “strong deeds, gentle words”). The word “motto” itself comes from Italian, probably via French, and refers to a clever, witty saying. Connecticut’s motto is a bit cryptic, the Latin phrase “qui transtulit sustinet,” or “he who transplanted still sustains.” It is a reference to God watching over the colonists after they uprooted from their native land, and may have had its inspiration in the vines of Psalm 80. Only four of the state mottoes reference God (Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and Connecticut). Curiously, the United States itself had no official motto until 1956’s “In God We Trust,” signed into law by President Eisenhower. The unofficial motto up until that time was “e pluribus unum,” or one (nation) from many (states).

Three states have two mottoes: South Carolina, North Dakota and Kentucky. The Latin phrase uttered by John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln, “sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants) is the state motto of Virginia. Seven states have one-word mottoes, including our neighbors, Rhode Island (“hope”) and New York (“excelsior” or upward), and one motto was a song (Kentucky’s “United we stand, divided we fall”).

Ohio had no state motto for almost a hundred years, until a nine-year-old boy led a three-year campaign for the only state motto that directly quotes Scripture, “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), adopted in 1959.

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A fancy word for rain

cats and dogs

When something causes or brings about something else, we say it precipitates the latter. However, when it rains, we also term it precipitation. What is the connection here?

Precipitate comes from a Latin root that means to fall or hasten. There is a sense of suddenness, force or severity. We can see from this why rain is termed precipitation, ¬†as rain usually has a sense of suddenness about it and seems to fall from the sky with intensity (there is also a connection here to the word precipice). As for the “bringing about” meaning, this comes from the same sense of suddenness, but without the falling connotation.¬† If my calling the boss a moron precipitates my getting fired, there is the implication that my action hastened along the end result. And no, I’m not calling my boss a moron. Bad example. I hope he doesn’t read this.

Speaking of rain, why do we sometimes¬† say it’s “raining cats and dogs?” According to British linguist Gary Martin, it likely originated in a poem of Jonathan Swift’s (he of Gulliver’s Travels), wherein he describes rain so heavy that it washed drowned cats and dogs down the street. This is an allusion to the poor sanitation practices of the time, as Swift often criticized London society. In other words, the filthy street conditions precipitated the precipitation of felines and canines.

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