The Triumph of the Long Jump

By Hugh Rawson

One of the classic track and field events in the Olympic Games is the long jump, but this is a relatively new name for what used to be known as the broad jump.  The name change was made in the 1960s, and had nothing to do with the nature of the athletic feat itself. This was strictly a case of political correctness. To begin at the beginning:

The first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, included a standing broad jump and a running broad jump. (They also featured a standing high jump as opposed to a running high jump. The standing versions of both events were dropped from the Games after the fourth Olympiad in 1912.) Back then almost everyone in the English-speaking world would have described a running jump of this sort as being broad, not long. For example, reporting on an international, intercollegiate track meet in 1895 between Oxford and Yale universities, a British publication, Outing, An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, summed up Oxford’s victory, saying, “Oxford won all the runs, the high hurdle, and tied in the high jump with Yale, losing only the weights and the broad jump.” Continue reading “The Triumph of the Long Jump”

Political Geography

By Hugh Rawson

Incensed over what it views as a Western-Arab plot, Iran on Thursday threatened to sue Google for deleting the name Persian Gulf from its online mapping service and leaving the body of water nameless
– The New York Times, May 18, 2012

The poor Google mapmakers. They were caught in the middle of a political controversy and wound up with a “nameless” compromise that couldn’t have satisfied anybody.

The Iranians have always insisted that this body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia be called the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Saudis and other Arab states prefer to think of it as the Arabian Gulf or, simply, The Gulf. This is an old dispute that flares up from time to time. In 2010, it led to the cancellation of the Islamic Solidarity Games – the Olympics of the Muslim world, in effect. Because Iran, the host nation, insisted on using Persian Gulf in promotional materials about the games and on medals for events, the Arab states declined to participate. Of course, Iran itself is a relatively new name (since 1935) for the country that used to be known as Persia. To the outside observer, it is a wonder that the former Persians haven’t insisted on calling this strategically important body of water the Iranian Gulf. Continue reading “Political Geography”

Watching What You Eat

By Hugh Rawson       

“Man is what he eats,” according to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach – but may not want to know too much about the origin of what’s being eaten.

One of the most common ways of maintaining willful blindness is to translate English words for foods into French ones. In part, this is a tribute to the general admiration for that nation’s culinary expertise. But it also has the great advantage for English-speaking diners of blurring one’s mental image of what is being served up for their consumption.

Take filet mignon, for example. This  translates literally as “delicate” or “dainty slice.” In actuality, though, as pointed out by semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, “finest quality filet mignon” is just another way of saying “first-class piece of dead cow.”  Which tastes better to you? Continue reading “Watching What You Eat”

Who will be the next Potus and Flotus?

By Hugh Rawson

The words look like they might be Latin, perhaps something you would find scrawled on a wall in Pompeii, but they are not. Potus is an acronym, composed of the initial letters of the phrase, President of the United States. Flotus is his wife, the First Lady of the United States. (It should be pronounced FLOE-tus to rhyme with POE-tus.)

Once used mainly by the Secret Service and other White House insiders, the acronyms have slipped into the public domain. For example, historian David Brinkley, in a review of  Jodi Kantor’s The First Marriage, a new book about Barack and Michelle Obama, noted that the author “became intensely interested in the working relationship between Potus and Flotus” after interviewing them in 2009 (The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2012). Continue reading “Who will be the next Potus and Flotus?”

Gender Benders

by Hugh Rawson

In Connecticut, where I live, women’s basketball is one of the most popular sports. Many people arrange their lives around the schedule of the University of Connecticut’s women’s team.  Fans (the word is short for fanatic, by the way) don’t want to miss a game even though the outcome is rarely in much doubt.

The UConn women are good shooters, of course, but their success over the years has always depended a lot on their defensive skills. They switch between zone defenses, where players guard particular areas around their basket, and man-to-man defenses, where each player is responsible for a different member of the opposing team. And man-to-man, if you pause to think about it, is a bit odd in the context. After all, there are ten women on the floor. No men. Why don’t sportscasters say woman-to-woman or, since these are young women, girl-to-girlContinue reading “Gender Benders”

Merry Xmas

by Hugh Rawson

Many people – including leading authorities on language on both sides of the Atlantic – frown on the use of Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas. For example, Eric Partridge, the British lexicographer who did so much to popularize the study of slang, declared in his book on style, Usage & Abusage, that Xmas is “barely allowable in its common use in writing and printing” and is “intolerable in the pronunciation, Exmas.”  The editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language came to the same conclusion, noting that “In spite of a long and respectable history, today Xmas is offensive to many, perhaps because of its associations with advertising. It is not used in formal writing.” Continue reading “Merry Xmas”

Colorful Revolutions

by Hugh Rawson

The world has been blessed lately with a number of relatively nonviolent demonstrations by citizens of different nations that have led to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Some of these protests – in Tunisia and Egypt, for example – have amounted to revolutions.  But this has created a problem for the media: The word “revolution” implies violent, usually bloody change. Therefore, reporters and pundits have cast around for ways to qualify, or soften, the violent word, often by using the names of colors and flowers.

 The first of the recent series of popular uprisings came in Tunisia toward the end of 2010. Soon after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January of 2011, the foreign press began referring to Tunisia’s jasmine revolution. The name seemed appropriate, at least to outside observers.  Jasmine is Tunisia’s national flower. And the phrase had been used before. Mr Ben Ali came and went smelling of flowers: His original seizure of power in 1987 also was called a jasmine revolution. Continue reading “Colorful Revolutions”

Blue Talk

by Hugh Rawson

Our language is nothing if not colorful. A person can be said to be green with envy. Overly fancy writing is called purple prose. A coward is yellow or even yellow-bellied. A formal report may be described as a white paper. The demand for money in return for silence constitutes blackmail. Red-light districts are inhabited by prostitutes, who were known well into the twentieth century as scarlet women. The letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, was an A for Adultery. To be in a brown study is to be deep in thought. And so it goes. Continue reading “Blue Talk”

Baloney and Other Disparaging Dishes

by Hugh Rawson

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made headlines recently when rejecting criticisms of a Muslim-American whom he had nominated as a state judge. “It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background,” said the Governor. “I’m happy that he’s willing to serve after all this baloney.”

Christie’s use of baloney in the sense of “nonsense,” “rubbish,” or “foolishness,” as opposed to the kind of baloney, or  bologna sausage, that one buys in a supermarket or delicatessen, has many precedents in American politics. New York Governor Al Smith helped popularize baloney in this sense  in the 1920s and ’30s. When declining to pose with trowel in hand for a cameraman at a cornerstone-laying ceremony in 1926, Smith said “That’s just baloney. Everybody knows I can’t lay bricks.” More famously, he objected to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s devaluation of the dollar in 1933, saying he was “for gold dollars as against baloney dollars.” And Smith’s speeches in support of Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 presidential election, included the memorable refrain, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.” Continue reading “Baloney and Other Disparaging Dishes”

Down the Slippery Slope with Banana Republic

by Hugh Rawson

Banana republic started out around the turn of the last century as a demeaning description of various Latin American nations but has shown remarkable staying power and since been applied to countries around world, whether or not they grow bananas.

The phrase was initially pinned on Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other small countries that were republics in name only. They tended to be politically turbulent, led by dictators and wealthy elites, themselves dominated to different degrees by foreign corporations that exploited such agricultural resources as rubber, coffee, mahogany, and, of course, bananas.

Banana republic was probably coined by the American writer William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name, O. Henry, and was most certainly popularized by him. The earliest known example of the phrase is from “The Admiral,” one of a series of O. Henry stories published in Ainslee’s Magazine, starting in 1901: “In the constitution of the small, maritime banana republic was a forgotten section that provided for the maintenance of a navy.” Continue reading “Down the Slippery Slope with Banana Republic”