What's in a Word?
Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel
By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The Roaring Twenties, coming between World War I and the Great Depression, were full of ebullience and confidence. Americans lived it up, blissfully unaware of the dire times that lay ahead.
The light-heartedness of the decade produced a torrent of slang. For instance, Sol Steinmetz, author of There’s a Word for It, writes that the Twenties gave us words such as “wow,” “gaga” and “nah.” Instead of saying “the best,” flappers (flamboyant young women) and their dates said “the bee’s knees,” “the cat’s meow” or "the cat’s pajamas.”
Sometimes pinning down the exact origin of a slang expression is difficult. Long before communication went viral, the process of starting and spreading slang was still informal. People picked up words and phrases from others and made them their own, just at a slower pace than now and often without formal documentation. Historians do know, however, whom to credit for “cat’s meow” and "cat's pajamas."
The hep cat (someone keeping up on the latest trends) was cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who worked first for San Francisco newspapers and then for the New York Journal. Since he signed his drawings as TAD, he became known as Tad Dorgan.
photo of Tad Dorgan courtesy of Wikipedia
(originally from Project Gutenberg archives)
According to Wikipedia, “Dorgan is generally credited with either creating or popularizing such words and expressions as "dumbbell" (a stupid person); "for crying out loud" (an exclamation of astonishment); "cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas" (as superlatives); "applesauce" (nonsense); "cheaters'" (eyeglasses); "skimmer" (a hat); "hard-boiled" (a tough person); "drugstore cowboy" (loafers or ladies' men); "nickel-nurser" (a miser); "as busy as a one-armed paperhanger" (overworked); and "Yes, we have no bananas," which was turned into a popular song.”
Dorgan’s successful career as a cartoonist demonstrates how one can turn adversity into opportunity. “When he was 13 years old, he lost the last three fingers of his right hand in an accident with a factory machine,” according to Wikipedia. “He took up drawing for therapy. A year later at the age of 14 he joined the art staff of the San Francisco Bulletin.”
An inspirational story like that is truly "the cat’s meow.” So is the news that the lynx are again thriving in Colorado. For more details on that, see the editorial below.
By Debra Dobbins
Monday, September 20, 2010
Ancient Romans really got around. They dominated much of what we know as Europe and northern Africa for centuries. Because the Romans invaded the British Isles, we still have many Latin words in modern-day English.
The country we now know as Greece was also among Roman conquests. The Romans borrowed freely from Greek culture, taking words, gods and goddesses into their own way of life.
The word herculean is the adjective form of the proper noun Hercules. A Roman demigod, he was the son of Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) and a mortal woman. The Romans adapted this demigod from the Greeks’ Heracles, according to Wikipedia.
Hercules is best known for completing 12 strenuous labors. Thus, his name is associated with extreme courage, perseverance and/or strength. His name is also given to a large northern constellation, according to Webster’s.
Herculean is a good word to think of when one savors the delicious, but labor-intensive, creations of local Greek bakers such as those ladies in the photo below. As a lucky participant in past Greek festivals, I can definitely say their herculean labor results in delicacies “fit for the gods.”
By Debra Dobbins
Friday, September 17, 2010
Powerful people understand that words have power. Case in point: the phrase “evil empire,” coined by President Reagan in a speech he gave in 1983 in Orlando, Fla.
Speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan took a hard-line approach to the Soviet Union, considered at that time our nation’s chief enemy.
Toward the end of his speech, he said, “So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
The phrase “evil empire” has since made its way into popular usage. According to Wikipedia, Wal-Mart is sometimes called this because of its “controversial labor tactics,” and advocates of free software use it to describe Microsoft.
The phrase also shows up in popular music. For example, it appears in the lyrics of “Du Og Meg” (You and Me) in the 2007 album, Icons, Abstract Thee by the American band, Of Montreal.
In the sports world Wikipedia notes that the rivals of the Edmonton Eskimos, a Canadian football team, call them the “evil empire” because of their success over the last 50 years. The New York Yankees, again according to Wikipedia, have this nickname because of their astronomical salaries and their seeming ability to sign any player they want:
“The first usage of this term relating to the Yankees was from Boston Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino, after the Red Sox lost out to the Yankees in a bidding war for Cuban pitcher José Contreras. After initially not commenting on the signing, a frustrated Lucchino told the New York Times ‘No, I'll make a comment. The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.’ The nickname, though derogatory towards the team, has since been embraced by Yankee fans.”
Reagan, an actor turned politician, was acutely aware of the power of words. While he might have been well pleased that “evil empire” is now a common phrase, perhaps his biggest pleasure would have come from knowing the effect of his words on a Jewish refusenik in a cell in Siberia.
For that story, go to
To read the story on Denver Water, go to www.gjsentinel.com. or to our print or e-editions.
By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, September 16, 2010
“Goodbye” is a poignant (emotionally touching) word in the headline of the story below. It is a contraction of the centuries-old phrase “God Be With Ye.”
May God be with James Kurtz and his family.
By AMY HAMILTON
Delta parents Nichole and Joe Kurtz are tasked with the unfathomable Saturday when they plan to end the life of their precious 16-month-old baby, James, who is surviving on life support at a Denver-area hospital.
Life has not been easy for the family who have another child, Joseph, who turned 4 last week.
James can’t breathe without a ventilator or eat without nourishment being pumped into his body through tubes, and his organs deteriorate more every day. Nichole Kurtz said she and her husband would have taken James off life support a week earlier, but they wanted to wait until after Joseph’s birthday.
Baby James seemed healthy when he was born April 22, 2009, weighing 7 pounds, 8 ounces, and measuring 20 inches long. But almost immediately the infant developed complications, and he and his family have been fighting for his life ever since.
Meanwhile, the heartbreaking journey of this family has touched countless other lives after Nichole, 30, started documenting her son’s battle on a blog, and friends created a Facebook page for the child who has an exceedingly rare and terminal disease.
“If anything, this has taught us understanding and patience and given us a deeper sense that life is short,” Nichole said of her family Wednesday, talking on a phone while at her baby’s side at The Children’s Hospital in Denver. “I’ve been like a hermit going through this, but all these people have been here the whole time. I’ve had people tell me it shows them how precious children are, and others have made amends with friends and family. It’s just sad it has to take something like this.”
Friends and family will have a vigil for James at 7 p.m. Friday at the hospital. As family and friends say their goodbyes to the child, local supporters are invited to do the same during a vigil at the same time Friday at Confluence Park in Delta.
Nichole estimates her son has lived half his life in a hospital, and Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of his first emergency helicopter flight to The Children’s Hospital.
James was born with cataracts, an unusual condition for a newborn, and about a month later the family received the devastating diagnosis of Septo-Optic Dysplasia. That includes developmental disabilities, poor vision and other conditions. At 3 1/2 months, James was using oxygen and had been in and out of hospitals after his lungs filled with fluid, unable to shake a case of pneumonia. When James’ weight dipped back to his birth weight, surgeons at The Children’s Hospital inserted a feeding tube to get nourishment into his tiny body. Family at that time, last October, braced themselves for the worst when doctors told them that if James did survive the surgery, he would need to be on a ventilator for the rest of his life.
“James proved them wrong and came out stronger than when he had gone in. He shocked us all ...” Nichole posted on her blog.
After multiple genetic tests, doctors finally determined that James had Vici Syndrome, the only disease that explained the range of James’ conditions, even down to his blonder-than-blond hair and ivory complexion. The diagnosis was not cheery, the disease documented in only 40 other children worldwide and promising a life-expectancy of no more than about six months to three years.
Of all the documented cases, a doctor told Nichole, her son’s condition was the most severe on record.
As James’ organs started to fail while he was in a hospital bed, his family clung to his small victories. Though James has never smiled or spoke, family celebrated the first time at about 5-months-old when he brought his hands to his mouth. It again was monumental when James allowed his mother to hold him, chest to chest without crying. Children with developmental disabilities often need to feel secure from the front and back, Nichole explained.
Finding toys that would engage James was a challenge, and the family was overjoyed when he clung for up to 20 minutes to a lighted rope of Christmas lights and when he was delighted to have a battery-operated vibrating massager placed underneath his legs.
People say having a child will change your life, but having a child with disabilities, “really, really changes your life,” Nichole said, listing all the equipment needed to make a simple outing. With the multitude of hospital stays, a steady flow of physicians and the numerous times they worried into the night, the Kurtzes’ lifestyle for more than the past year has been their new normal. James’ brother, Joseph, wondered aloud, “Why?” when he saw another infant, and the baby didn’t have tubes to help him breathe. Another question the toddler asked more recently nearly choked up his mom.
“He said, ‘Are you sure my brother has to go to heaven?’ ” Nichole recalled. “I have to be thankful that James never lived with the fear he was dying.”
During the ordeal, Nichole has been able to be by her son’s side at hospitals while Joe works when he can at his job at Oxbow Mining in Somerset.
Joe, 27, has used most of his vacation time from work, and when he doesn’t work and needs to be near his son, he doesn’t get paid.
Thankfully, the company has kept their medical insurance intact, Nichole said.
Bills for simply eating at the cafeteria for weeks on end have topped $7,000. That won’t come close to the cost of a bevy of hospital bills that will soon come due.
As if they weren’t burdened enough, the Kurtzes were alarmed when their bank account had been cleaned out of about $1,800. Additional bank fees for being overdrawn nearly caused them to miss a mortgage payment, Nichole said. Some family and friends helped pay the house payment, and their bank has since promised to refund their stolen money.
“I just hope whoever stole it needs it more than us,” Nichole said.
In the coming months, Nichole said, she hopes to organize a day-care-sharing network to help families with children who have disabilities.
As a longer-term project she plans to start a nonprofit to help families be with their children if they are hospitalized. Nichole said it was difficult for her to see so many children at the hospital without parents who had to be working.
Sometimes loved ones’ best intentions to console the family came out wrong, like when people said she and Joe were chosen to be parents of James, Nichole said. A nurse explained the sentiment in a different way, one that offered Nichole and Joe a sense of peace.
Nichole recalled the nurse saying, “I think God tells certain souls you’re going to go to Earth and be sick the whole time. Who do you want to take care of you?”
By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Tom Friedman is a disciplined writer, so I found it interesting that he did not explain in his column today that The Greatest Generation was a book written by Tom Brokaw.
Brokaw is a retired NBC News reporter and anchor. Published in 1998, his book lauds (praises) men and women born roughly between 1920 and 1935 who fought valiantly in World War II and then used the same courage and resolve at home to build prosperous lives for themselves and their families.
Friedman is a New York Times columnist who reported on the Middle East for many years and wrote five books. He is well known for The World is Flat, a book he alludes (refers) to in the final paragraph of today’s column. I highly recommend this book for students who need to understand the international competition they will face in a computer-driven world.
Perhaps Friedman decided that the phrase has now taken its place in the vernacular (common speech) of educated people. So, when he did not attribute, he might just have been complimenting a fellow reporter.
Friedman’s column and a corresponding political cartoon appear below.
U.S. needs values of Greatest Generation if we are to succeed
I want to share a couple of articles I recently came across that, I believe, speak to the core of what ails America today.
The first was in Newsweek under the ironic headline “We’re No. 11!” Michael Hirsh wrote: “Has the United States lost its oomph as a superpower?” It noted that the U.S.A. ranks 11th in Newsweek’s list of the 100 best countries in the world.
The second piece, which could have been called “Why We’re No. 11,” was by the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson. Why, he asked, have we spent so much money on school reform in America and have so little to show for it in terms of scalable solutions that produce better student test scores? Maybe, he answered, it is not just because of bad teachers, weak principals or selfish unions.
“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. ... The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well.”
Samuelson has a point — and it is a microcosm of a larger problem we have not faced honestly as we dig out of this recession: We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.
Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things, they earned global leadership the only way you can, by saying: “Follow me.”
Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation. Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” Solutions must be painless. Which would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans?
For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down. Our message to the world (except for our brave soldiers): “After you.”
So much of today’s debate between the two parties, notes David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar, “is about assigning blame rather than assuming responsibility.”
Rothkopf and I agreed we would get excited about U.S. politics when our debate is between Democrats and Republicans who acknowledge we can’t cut deficits without both tax increases and spending cuts — and then debate which ones and when. Politicians who acknowledge that we can’t compete unless we demand more of our students — and then debate longer school days versus school years. Leaders who acknowledge that bad parents who don’t read to their kids and do indulge them with video games are as responsible for poor test scores as bad teachers — and debate what to do about that.
China and India have been catching up to us, not only because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had.
In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, and as long as that is the case we’ll be No. 11!
The New York Times