Interesting If True - Episode 39: Bad Spellers Unite!
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast of dubious facts.
I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me is Aaron
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that Chewbacca is science-fiction’s most famous nudist.
Seriously, the only thing stopping you from seeing his little Ewok is that he’s basically a space alpaca.
So the other day I was reading a comic book, as I do, and I saw for the first time the word milquetoast spelled out, M I L Q U E toast for the uninitiated. I immediately looked it up and was surprised to find out the origin. This was my inspiration for tonight’s story, the origins of words I can’t spell!
Etymology – the study of word origins – is a fantastically interesting discipline that yields some incredible facts about where the hugely diverse array of words that make up the English language come from. The language is a quirky and nuanced one. It offers an enormous vocabulary and boasts status as a lingua franca, a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different. Our language is a melting pot, because of this we get some really interesting word origins.
I’ll start with Milquetoast since I don’t want to leave you in suspense for much longer. The term meaning lacking character and often is used to describe a weak or feeble person is a newer word first appearing in the New York World newspaper in 1924 in a comic strip called “The Timid Soul.” The comic featured the character Casper Milquetoast described by the author, H. T. Webster, as “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick”. The character’s name is a deliberate misspelling of the name of a bland and fairly inoffensive food, milk toast. Milk toast, light and easy to digest, is an appropriate food for someone with a weak or “nervous” stomach. Because of the popularity of Webster’s character, the term milquetoast came into general usage in American English to mean “weak and ineffectual” or “plain and unadventurous”. When the term is used to describe a person, it typically indicates someone of an unusually meek, bland, soft or submissive nature, who is easily overlooked, written off, and who may also appear overly sensitive, timid, indecisive or cowardly. Milquetoast appears in most American English dictionaries, but is not in many other English dictionaries.
This word I have been spelling wrong for the entirety of 2020, “quarantine” has its origins in the devastating plague, the Black Death, which swept across Europe in the 14th century, wiping out around 30% of Europe’s population. It comes from the Venetian dialect form of the Italian words “quaranta giorni”, or “forty days”, in reference to the fact that, in an effort to halt the spread of the plague, ships were put into isolation on nearby islands for a forty-day period before those on board were allowed ashore. Originally – attested by a document from 1377 – this period was thirty days and was known as a “trentine”, but this was extended to forty days to allow more time for symptoms to develop. This practice was first implemented by the Venetians controlling the movement of ships into the city of Dubrovnik, which is now part of Croatia but was then under Venetian sovereignty. We now use the word “quarantine” to refer to the practice of restricting the movements, for a period of time, of people or animals who seem healthy, but who might have been exposed to a harmful disease that could spread to others.
When someone “goes berserk”, they go into a frenzy, run amok, perhaps even destroying things. Picture someone going berserk and it’s not difficult to imagine the ancient Norse warriors to whom the word “berserker” originally referred. The word “berserk” conjured up the fury of these men and the untamed ferocity with which they fought, and it’s thought that the word came from two other Old Norse words, “bjorn”, meaning “bear” and “serkr”, meaning “coat”. An alternative explanation, now widely discredited, says that rather than “bjorn”, the first part of the word comes from “berr” meaning “bare” – that is, not wearing armour. Viking warriors looked to the god Odin to give them aggression and courage in battle, but the berserkers took this a step further. According to the sources they could rout an outnumbering force, and when they attacked they howled like mad dogs or wolves. It was said that neither iron nor fire could injure them, and they didn’t know pain. After a battle they were as weak as infants, totally spent both physically and psychologically. Some have said that the “berserkers” were so uncontrollably ferocious due to being in an almost trance-like state, either by working themselves up into a frenzy before battle, or by ingesting hallucinogenic drugs. So, next time you use the expression “going berserk” to describe someone acting irrationally, remember those battle-crazed Vikings and be glad that you’re not on the receiving end of the wrath of a real “berserker”!
In keeping with the Viking theme I started, let’s get awkward! Awkward arrived into English by Norse influences. It is built of two parts: awk- and -ward. Awk comes from Old Norse afugr which means “turned the wrong way.”
This comes from the Proto-Germanic afug-, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European apu-ko. These are all related to the early root apo-, which we see in apology, aposiopesis, apotheosis.
This is where it gets weird. The -ward suffix comes from the Old English -weard, which means “turned toward.” -Weard stems from the Proto-Germanic warth.
Taking a step even deeper is the Proto-Indo-European wert. The root meaning here is “to turn or wind” or “turned towards.”
So awkward is etymologically autological. It literally means “turned towards being turned away from.”
Gerrymandering is the rigging of elections by changing the boundary lines to give one party an advantage through the distribution of voters. The rigging of elections is as old as democracy but the act only gained its name in the 19th century. The governor of Massachusetts in 1812 was Elbridge Gerry, representing the Democratic-Republican party, in opposition to the Federalist party. Seeking to gain the upper hand in the Senate race of that year a bill was passed changing the districts by which voters were grouped. This explains the Gerry portion of the word, but the -mander? The shape of the districts after the passage of the bill was said to resemble a salamander or, as someone suggested, a Gerrymander.
Very few words in the English language contain the consonant cluster –rtg-, and in only one of those words (and its derivatives) is the t silent: mortgage. How did that silent “t” get in there?
Let’s start at the end of the word. Gage is a Middle English word meaning “pledge,” and especially a pledge to do battle. In tales of knights and chivalry, we often find it used in conjunction with a gauntlet, or armored glove, being thrown down as a pledge to fight someone. In fact, gage is sometimes used to mean both the glove and the pledge that the glove represents. Considering a mortgage as a type of pledge makes perfect sense — you’re pledging to pay back your loan over time. But what kind of a gage is a mortgage? Any guesses?
The mort-, believe it or not, comes from the Latin mortuus, “dead” — the same root that gives us the words mortuary, mortal, and post mortem. Etymologically then, a mortgage is a “dead pledge” — not because you’ll be paying on it until you die, but because the pledge “dies” either when a payment is not met or all payments are made. It still feels a bit like death when I make that payment thought.
A sycophant is an “insincere flatterer, ” a kiss ass if you will. Its original meaning from greek comes from sukon, a fig, and phainein, to show. Literally a fig shower. One theory has it that it relates to a period when the exportation of figs from ancient Athens was prohibited by law, something we know about from the writings of Plutarch. So the word could refer to somebody who informed on those who broke the law in this way, like a fig tattle tale. But there’s no evidence and modern scholars dismiss it.
A better explanation is that giving someone the fig is an ancient expression for the obscene gesture of putting the thumb between two fingers. (The word for fig in Greek, Italian, English and other languages has long been a low slang term for the female genitals, from a supposed resemblance.) It could be that the Greek word referred to the action of an informer figuratively (so to speak) giving the fig to the criminals he informed against. When sycophant first appeared in English in the sixteenth century it had this original meaning of an informer, but quickly moved through a sense of someone who bears tales to a person of higher status to its modern sense.
Smart alecks are people who are obnoxiously conceited and think they’re pretty clever. I thought the term was simply generic and that Alec wasn’t actually a real person. But research done by Professor Gerald Cohen in 1985 for “Studies of Slang Part 1,” as well as research by other historians, has shown—based on considerable newspaper article evidence—that “Aleck” was probably a real person, namely Aleck Hoag.
Hoag was a pimp and a thief in New York City in the 1840s. He would rob his wife Melinda’s “customers” while she distracted them. At first, the scheme worked like this: Melinda led a victim into a dark alley, where she picked his pockets. Then she embraced the victim and held her hand out behind him, where Hoag was hiding to grab the stolen goods.
Inevitably, some of these men would go to the police to report the thefts. To protect himself and his wife from arrest, Hoag enlisted a couple of police officers by promising to split the stolen goods with them. But Hoag’s downfall came when he ran into some financial difficulties and couldn’t give the officers their fair share.
Initially, he got away with this by operating a “panel game” con. Melinda would bring the men back to her apartment—and then
“Melinda would make her victim lay his clothes, as he took them off, upon a chair at the head of the bed near the secret panel, and then take him to her arms and closely draw the curtains of the bed. As soon as everything was right and the dupe not likely to heed outside noises, Melinda would give a cough, and the faithful Alec would slyly enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.”
Sometime after that, Alec would bang on the door, and Melinda would make out that he was her husband who had returned early from some trip. The victims then would hastily grab their clothes and escape through the window. The police soon discovered Hoag was cheating them out of their share by this new tactic and arrested Hoag and Melinda. Hoag promptly escaped from prison, with the help of his brother, but was eventually recaptured.
Alec Hoag was then given the nickname “Smart Alec” by the police for being too smart for his own good. The thought is that the police then used this term when dealing with other criminals who seemed a little too smart for their own good, often thinking of ways around giving police their payoffs: “Don’t be a Smart Alec.”
This term, as an expression, then took about 20 years to germinate and eventually found its way into print in 1865, and popular culture shortly thereafter.
Silhouettes were once a highly fashionable form of art which displayed their subjects in outline with no other features. Portraits of this type have the benefit of being cheap and quick to make compared to painted portraits. During the Seven Years War the state of French finances became perilous, this was around the 1750’s. The finance minister of the time was Etienne de Silhouette who, to save the French economy was forced to put in place harsh measures to raise funds. The nobility and clergy who were normally not called on to pay taxes but Silhouette levied taxes on various luxuries which hit the wealthy. Because of this he was ridiculed and forced from his position. His name became attached to anything seen as cheap. When profile portraits became popular they were sneered at as cheap (or to use the French “à la Silhouette”) and the name stuck.
To talk Bunkum is to talk nonsense, and perhaps fittingly is derived from the US House of Representatives. In 1820 an important debate was held on whether the state of Missouri would be admitted to the union a slave-holding or free entity. Slavery had long been a contentious issue and fierce arguments were expected on both sides. When Felix Walker, representative of Buncombe County, began to speak his colleagues were bemused to find his speech did not seem to address the matter at hand, but some local affair. When asked what he was doing he replied “I was not speaking to the House but to Buncombe.” From then on, speaking to Buncombe meant to speak irrelevantly.
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No… not the Norwegian black metal band… or terrible emo goth-vampire, Harry Potter-Twilight crossover fanfic. God damn that was hot garbage… but also, not at all hot.
We’re going to talk about actual immortality. Unfortunately, it’s not the cool Highlander kind, or even the lame Ghost In The Shell version. This is “Biological Immortality” which is, apparently, something that happens on Earth in real reality.
And I don’t mean in some heady, theoretical, feel-good “the kids are our future” or the internet is forever so “some part of you lives on through your podcast” bs.
There are, on Earth, creatures who can actually, properly, live forever… so long as nothing eats them I guess.
Sometimes referred to as bio-indefinite mortality is, basically, living without terminal aging. There are a number of uni- and multicellular life forms that manage this, but we’ll talk about the big ones because it’s hard to make a single celled organism funny. That said, there is an interesting note worth mentioning, biologically immortal is also a term applied to cells which lack or disobey the Hayflick limit (aka, Hayflick phenomenon), which describes the number of times a normal human cell population will divide before cell division stops. Hayflick described the cellular life cycles in phases: 1, the start of the experiment; 2, the time during which cells proliferate; and 3, which he called senescence, wherein cell replication dramatically slows or stops entirely.
Senescence—the process of biological aging and thereby deterioration until death, or more commonly, dying of old age—is what we’re talking about avoiding today.
Most creatures, including us, age and with that aging we lose our youthful spark. Until, robbed of vitality and unable to fend for ourselves we languishing in our own misery, tired and spent, husks of our former selves waiting for death’s sweet release to emancipate us from a dodgy retirement home’s Den of ever-looping WW2 documentaries… Oof, you know what, I’m hearing it out loud now and… it’s been a long ass week ya’ll.
Annnnnyway. The point here is that most of the time nature’s course steers us toward the ruin of old age and the inevitable. So I won’t be talking about whales, sea turtles, or parrots, long lived though they may be, a life span of 2 to 5 hundred years is impressive, but still JV league when compared to Hydra.
Well, inevitable for us, but evitable for creatures like Hydra. Ugh, so many clarifications this week. Not Hydra like the greek myth or Marvel’s re-historic, hooded, cabal-founding reptoids. Hydra are agenus of the Cnidaria phylum. For all the other art majors out there that’s the kingdom Animalia containing over 11,000 species of aquatic animals. Remember Finding Nemo? Yeah, these are all the squiggly things on the ocean floor. These Hydra look like wee-tiny cartoon cactuses. In a four-year study, 3 cohorts of Hydra showed no increased mortality with age. This is called the “late-life mortality plateau” which describes a still-disputed theory that as age increases, hazard rates increase at a decreasing rate than than increasing exponentially as Gompertz law suggests. Gompertz was, it seems, a buzz kill.
So, simplistically, the older you get more stable your biological condition becomes and, at a certain point of maturity, you reach a plateau wherein your risk of death … plateasus, just like the gains you’ve probably stopped seeing from those New Year’s resolutions.
Along the same lines as the Hydra is the Polycelis felina, a freshwater flatworm, which can reproduce asexually. If you’ve ever heard that urban legend about cutting a worm in half and now you have two worms instead of a dead mess—that’s this worm. Essentially, so long as resources hold out, it can divide and/or self replicat forever.
It can seemingly self-replicate without any shortening of it’s telomere length. Telomeres are the protein structures found at the ends of each Chromosome, think of them like aglets on shoelaces. They protect the genome from becoming frayed or interchromosomal fusion and play a vital role in keeping you, you. Unfortunately, as cells reproduce telomeres shorten which is expressed in a number of ways but most notability and germain to this show is age.
As creatures get bigger, biological immortality becomes more and more rare, but we do have creatures like lobsters. As cells divide the aforementioned telomeres become shorter and shorter until the cell can no longer divide—also known as cell death. Lobsters produce a nearly infinite supply of telomerase, an enzyme that regenerates telomeres. Nearly all creatures have this enzyme, but most, including humans, only produce it during the embryonic life stage. So, while not truly immortal by today’s definition they could be, at least, forever young and growing. Perhaps you’ve heard that lobsters don’t get older, they just get bigger. That’s largely a myth but this is what it’s based on.
While impressive, all these creatures pale in comparison to the life cycle of Turritopsis Dohrnii, or a very small jellyfish. This jellyfish (and perhaps more that are yet unknown) has a unique lifecycle. Unlike our other long-lived contenders the jellyfish doesn’t worry about fighting cellular entropy. It just pulls a Phoenix. Beginning is life as an egg that grows into a larval state called a planula. From there it sticks to something, rocks, boats, whatever, and grows into a gross colony of polyps—like the mother gum in Adventure Time. Eventually, a few polyps break off or develop “feet” and jump off, becoming ephyrae or young jellyfish. Then they grow into a medusae, or adult jellyfish and go about their life. Once at this, for most creatures, very final stage of development the jellyfish can go about its jelly business, which includes matting. However, if something happens to the jellyfish (that isn’t immediately fatal that is) it can revert into a pre-polyp, lump-of-cells, state and begin its life cycle all over. Once it returns to the polyp stage it will again turn into a colony that produces potentially hundreds of genetically identical … family?
Now, it’s not all good news. First, we can’t and probably wouldn’t want to, go this route ourselves. Though there is some interest in understanding how the jellyfishes cells can, in the process of regrowing, switch from being muscle cells to brain cells, or whatever, because this means switching on and off genes. And, if we could, for example, figure out how to switch off run-away mitosis… well that’s good for cancer sufferers. Meanwhile, because of this one-becomes-many phoenix-like life cycle the tiny jellyfish have spread far and wide, often becoming a detrimental invasive species.
Our last brief mention, really a runner up award because we honestly just don’t know, is the Pando. Located in nearby Utah on the Fishlake National Forest, Pando weighs in at nearly 13 million pounds, spreads over 106 acres of land, and is made up of over 40,000 trees. Pando is an aspen colony, not forest, as it shares a common root structure. Considered by some to be the world’s largest single organism it is most often referred to as a colony. Dating is difficult but most estimates put it cerca Vandal Savage, or approximately 80,000 years old. While that doesn’t make it immortal, but extraordinarily long lived, there seems to be no reason why it couldn’t continue on as it has for another 80k or more, which, in my book, makes you immortal.
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that when you die your voice is added to the chorus of children yelling “Aye, Aye Captain” in the Spongebob intro. Before we go I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-host Aaron.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms.
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