Blog

  • Gambling the Planet
    Between nuclear power plants spewing radiation in Japan, fighting over oil fields in Libya, the Gulf oil spill off Louisiana, sundry coal mine disasters, and water pollution resulting from “fracking” …
  • Euphemism of the Week
    While driving from Ohio to Philadelphia and back I was struck by how many stores beside I 70 sell “adult,” which is to say pornographic, items.  So is “adult” now so synonymous with “pornography” that …
  • Euphemism of the Week
    In the runup to the Super Bowl, a journalist visiting Pittsburgh found that locals thought little of the Steelers’ quarterback.  The journalist reported that they considered Ben Roethlisberger a “jago …
  • Euphemism of the Week
    During her campaign for mayor of Chicago, Carol Mosely Braun  said she had “an advanced degree from Harvard.”  She doesn’t.  Her campaign later said Braun “misspoke.”
  • Euphemism of the Week
    Avada advertises an inexpensive hearing aid as one that can be purchased “at a more moderate investment level.”
  • Euphemism of the Week
    During NPR’s “On Point” show, a guest referred to cows in  feed lots so crowded that they must stand in their own “substance.”  Host Tom Ashbrook called this substance “product.”
  • Euphemism of the Week
    Sadly, the euphemism of the week is “second amendment remedies.”
  • Euphemism of the Week
    The commander of a ship based in San Diego was recently fired by the Navy for being “unduly familiar” with members of his crew.
  • Euphemism of the Week
    A recent New Yorker article reported that an outside auditor assessing a school building project in Nepal was called “very healthy” by locals. This was their euphemism for “massively obese.” According …
  • Euphemism of the Week
    When an engine blew up on a Quantas flight from Singapore to Sydney, its pilot told 440 passengers that the airplane had a “technical issue.”
  • Euphemism of the Week
    To explain his conviction that global warming is natural, incoming House Speaker John Boehner said “Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”
  • From Jewels to Junk
    The most discussed euphemism of recent times is junk (as in “Don’t touch my junk,” during an airport patdown). How we got from “family jewels” to “junk” escapes me. Today’s junk is yesterday’s stones, …
  • Be Like Sacha
    When determining who to blame for the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, don’t’ forget Sacha Baron Cohen. More than any other single person Cohen has established that it’s okay to lure others …
  • The Medium is the Message
    In a recent photo of the Obamas bicycling on Martha’s Vineyard, Michelle and their two girls are wearing helmets, Barack isn’t.   Message to the world: women and children need to wear bicycle helmets; …
  • Ambivalence About Google
    I can tell from the way my book The Quote Verifier gets referred to online these days that most of those who refer to it have only seen that work on Google Books. Needless to say this doesn’t please m …
  • Feeling Immortal
    Years ago, while doing research for a book on risk-taking (Chancing It: Why We Take Risks), I interviewed lots of skydivers, rock climbers and the wire walker Philippe Petit. Even though such activiti …
  • Knees and Butter
    I’ve been a runner for decades, fully aware that the pounding was probably destroying my knees. A recent article in the Times says that to the contrary, this longtime conventional wisdom is wrong. Stu …
  • Learn something every day.
    During a Los Angeles radio show about retrotalk, a caller told me that someone had recently told him, ‘’Don’t gaslight me.’’ The host, Patt Morrison – more of a movie buff than me – said that this all …
  • Rather be Canada?
    In our debate about health care, the clinching argument by opponents of significant reform is usually “Do you want a health care system like Canada’s?” Any time I’ve asked a relative or friend in Cana …
  • E-Books and Real Books
    Several years ago we had to decide what kind of piano to buy for our children. Electronic keyboards were attractive because of their size, economy and versatility. But most reviews I read compared the …
  • Negotiators or Escorts?
    When such as Bill Clinton, or Bill Richardson, or Jesse Jackson travel abroad to “negotiate” the release of hostages, aren’t they more like escorts sent to accompany home those whose release has alrea …
  • Men Among Men
    Would Sgt. Crowley have arrested Dr. Gates if he’d been alone?  The reason I ask is a longstanding observation that when in the presence of each other, men tend to behave far differently than when the …
  • Chauncey Gardiner
    A New Yorker writer recently called Iran’s president “Chauncey Gardinerish.” In the 1979 movie Being There, Peter Sellers played a dim-bulb gardener named Chance who is, when dressed in the well-tailo …
  • Dashboards
    A reader has asked about “dashboard,” a word being used for computer programs whose elements are laid out on a “dashboard.” This term originally referred to the angled board used to protect buggy user …
  • 'Splainin'
    During Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn told her “You have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.” The press helpfully pointed out that this was something Ricky Ricardo often sa …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Luddite.
    Three centuries ago English textile manufacturers began to use mechanical looms. They then dismissed some employees and reduced the wages of others. Textile workers organized protests under the aegis …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Slipshod.
    Centuries ago, loose-fitting “slipshoes” were worn inside British homes. Some wore them outside as well. This was not considered good form. During the 16th century anyone who wore slipshoes in public …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Whistlestop.
    A century ago, towns too small to merit regular train service were called “whistle stops.” Trains stopped there only when a passenger pulled a signal cord.  The engineer would then blow his whistle to …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Loose cannon.
    Early warship cannons were mounted on wheels so they could be rolled into place for loading and firing. Those not then lashed securely to the deck were liable to careen about uncontrollably, especiall …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Only when I laugh.
    In an old joke a survivor of a wagon train massacre lies on the ground with an arrow in his back. When asked by rescuers if it hurts, the man moans, “Only when I laugh.” Truman’s Secretary of State De …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Maverick.
    In the mid-19th century, on Texas’s Gulf Coast, Samuel Maverick was given four hundred head of cattle to settle a debt.  Maverick had little interest in ranching, and didn’t even brand his calves. As …
  • Latest op ed.
    An op ed I wrote is in today’s Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0526/p09s01-coop.html
  • Retroterm of the Day: Woodshed.
    When most homes were heated with burning logs, woodsheds were a common sight outside. Most of these ramshackle outbuildings were far from houses themselves, making them an ideal location for smoking c …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Iron curtain.
    “Iron curtain” was the name given fireproof metallic curtains that were first installed in theaters during the late eighteenth century. Since the early twentieth century iron curtain has been used by …
  • Retroterm of the day: Limelight.
    During the 1820s a new type of lamp incorporated a rotating container of incandescent lime which was heated to the point that it gave off intense light. So-called limelighting was used by theaters aro …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Double whammy.
    In the comic strip Li’l Abner, a gnomish, scowling hoodlum named Evil Eye Fleegle could flatten any man or woman alive by focusing one eye on his targets while pointing in their direction. That was a …
  • "Why I Write"
    Publishers Weekly recently ran my essay on “Why I Write.” http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6657139.html
  • Retroterm of the Day: Jump on the bandwagon.
    Ornately decorated vehicles wended through towns where circuses were about to appear. Musicians atop this “bandwagon” blasted their instruments.  During the late 19th century politicians employed “ban …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Scoop.
    After the Civil War, reporters borrowed “scoop” from merchants who used that verb to mean going one up on competitors. Journalists still use scoop to mean being first out with a news story.  That term …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Goldbrick.
    In the late nineteenth century goldbrick referred to a piece of cheaper metal that con men painted to look like gold. Eventually this term referred to all manner of swindles. By 1918 goldbrick was app …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Pollyanna.
    In Eleanor Porter’s 1913 novel Pollyanna, eleven-year-old orphan Pollyanna Whittier lives in the dark attic of her dour aunt’s home. Through the power of irrepressible good will Pollyanna melts the fr …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Pyrrhic victory.
    In what is now northwestern Greece and southern Albania, King Pyrrhus who ruled a small country called Epirus, was notorious for tolerating enormous casualties among his troops. After suffering a hide …
  • Retroterm of the Day: The real McCoy.
    In mid-19th century Edinburgh, the G. Mackay distillery produced a well-regarded whiskey. When comparing this product to imitators, Scotsmen talked of “the real Mackay.” Scottish migrants brought this …
  • Retroterm of the Day: On tenterhooks.
    Beginning in the Middle Ages washed wool fabric was stretched tightly on wooden frames called tenters.. The wet fabric was attached to L-shaped hooks along the tenter’s perimeter to keep it from shrin …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Mr. Peepers.
    Robinson J. Peepers, the bespectacled junior high school science teacher played by Wally Cox on television from 1952 to 1955, left his name behind as shorthand for timid, spectacles-wearing men like h …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Doofus.
    In 1958 a new character was introduced to the comic strip Popeye: a dimwitted nephew of the sailor man named “Dufus.”  Over time the re-spelled term “doofus” became slang for clueless individuals. …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Dance card.
    At parties a century ago women hung small cards from their wrist on which they jotted down whom they’d be dancing with.  That’s what we refer to when we say “My dance card’s full.”
  • Retroterm of the Day: No skin off my nose.
    Calling an inconsequential event “no skin off my nose” references the way boxers described a wimpy punch:  too weak to scrape skin off an opponent’s nose
  • Retroterm of the Day: Scuttlebutt
    On nineteenth-century British ships, a wooden cask, or butt, held drinking water. Its lid had a dipping hole called a scuttle. The two pieces combined were called a scuttlebutt. As would later be true …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Mrs. Robinson
    In honor of movie character “Mrs. Robinson,” the older woman played by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate who tried to seduce young Dustin Hoffman, we still call a seductress like her Mrs. Robinson. This i …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Cliffhanger.
    Those who filmed oldtime weekly movie serials knew moviegoers were likely to return if they left their hero or heroine in dire distress at the end of each segment: tied to railroad tracks as a train a …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Stump speech.
    European settlers noted that Indian leaders stood on stumps of downed trees to address members of their tribe. This made so much sense that they adopted the practice themselves. By the mid-nineteenth …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Drop a dime.
    Back in day making a call from a public telephone cost ten cents.  These phones were commonly used by whistle blowers to anonymously report misdeeds.  They dropped a dime.  Those who did this were cal …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Moxie.
    When we say someone has “Moxie,” we hark back to a soft drink that was the leading pepper-upper of its era. In its heyday before World War II this drink was so popular that a song was written about it …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Alphonse and Gaston.
    A popular comic strip a century ago featured two bowing and scraping French dandies who treated each other with elaborate deference. “After you, my dear Alphonse,” one would say, only to be told, “No, …
  • Retroterm of the Day: In lockstep.
    A century ago, many American prisoners were made to march with their right hand resting on the right shoulder of the man before them. With heads bowed, no talking allowed, they could only shuffle awkw …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Cha ching.
    This slang term for money comes from a 1992 ad for Rally’s hamburgers that featured a fast-food guy at a rival chain who shouts “Cha ching!” every time he rings up a pricey new item. His shout mimicke …
  • Retroterm of the day: On the wagon.
    Beginning in the late nineteenth century men with drinking problems showed their resolve to quit by vowing that they’d rather drink water from the wagon that wetted down dusty roads than liquor. They …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Cooties.
    That’s what soldiers in World War I’s verminous trenches called body lice, adapting “kutu,” the Malay word for louse. After the war American soldiers brought this term home along with their ribbons an …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Gangbusters.
    Gang Busters was a fast-paced cops ‘n’ robbers radio show that featured the sounds of glass breaking, whistles blowing, guns blasting, and sirens wailing. Within a few years of its 1935 debut, “like g …
  • Retroterm of the Day: Drink the Kool Aid
    This allusion to fervent loyalty harks back to the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana massacre in which hundreds of followers of the Rev. Jim Jones obeyed his orders to commit suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced …