Archive for ‘Language’

January 5, 2019

Gadfly

Plato Apology

gadfly is a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potently upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities. The term is originally associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, in his defense when on trial for his life.

The term ‘gadfly’ was used by Plato in the ‘Apology’ to describe Socrates’s relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. The word may be uttered in a pejorative sense or be accepted as a description of honorable work or civic duty.

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December 30, 2018

The Negro Motorist Green Book

The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guidebook for African-American roadtrippers. It was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966, during the era of Jim Crow laws, when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against non-whites was widespread.

Although pervasive racial discrimination and poverty limited black car ownership, the emerging African-American middle class bought automobiles as soon as they could, but faced a variety of dangers and inconveniences along the road, from refusal of food and lodging to arbitrary arrest. In response, Green wrote his guide to services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans, eventually expanding its coverage from the New York area to much of North America, as well as founding a travel agency.

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August 1, 2018

Star-crossed

Pyramus and Thisbe

Star-crossed‘ or ‘star-crossed lovers’ is a phrase describing a pair of lovers whose relationship is often thwarted by outside forces. The term encompasses other meanings, but originally means the pairing is being ‘thwarted by a malign star’ or that the stars are working against the relationship. Astrological in origin, the phrase stems from the belief that the positions of the stars ruled over people’s fates, and is best known from the play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Shakespeare. Such pairings are often said to be doomed from the start.

It also refers to destiny and the inevitability of the two characters’ paths crossing. It usually but not always refers to unlucky outcomes, since Romeo and Juliet’s affair ended tragically. Further, it connotes that the lovers entered into their union without sufficient forethought or preparation; that the lovers may not have had adequate knowledge of each other or that they were not thinking rationally.

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July 30, 2018

Lügenpresse

Fake News

Lügenpresse (lit: ‘lying press’) is a pejorative political term used largely by German political movements for the printed press and the mass media at large, when it is believed not to have the quest for truth at the heart of its coverage.

The Nazis adopted the term for their propaganda against the Jewish, communist, and later the foreign press.

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July 6, 2018

Slippery Slope

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

slippery slope argument (SSA), in logic, critical thinking, political rhetoric, and caselaw, is a consequentialist logical device in which a party asserts that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant (usually negative) outcome.

The core of the slippery slope argument is that a specific decision under debate is likely to result in unintended consequences. The strength of such an argument depends on the warrant, i.e. whether or not one can demonstrate a process that leads to the significant effect. This type of argument is sometimes used as a form of fear mongering, in which the probable consequences of a given action are exaggerated in an attempt to scare the audience.

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June 7, 2018

Swan Song

led zeppelin

The swan song is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. The phrase refers to an ancient belief that swans sing a beautiful song just before their death, having been silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime. This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in ancient Greece by the 3rd century BCE, and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.

In Greek mythology, the swan was a bird consecrated to Apollo and was therefore considered a symbol of harmony and beauty.

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May 29, 2018

Trust, But Verify

Reagan and Gorbachev by Terry Mosher

Trust, but verify is a Russian proverb that became well known in English when used by President Ronald Reagan on multiple occasions in the context of nuclear disarmament.

Suzanne Massie, an American author living in Russia, met with President Ronald Reagan many times between 1984 and 1987. She taught him the proverb, advising him that ‘The Russians like to talk in proverbs. It would be nice of you to know a few. You are an actor – you can learn them very quickly.’ The proverb was adopted as a signature phrase by Reagan, who subsequently used it frequently when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Using proverbs that the Russians could relate to may have helped relations between the two leaders.

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October 3, 2017

Whole Nine Yards

The Doom Pussy

The whole nine yards is a colloquial American phrase meaning ‘everything, the whole lot’ or, adjectivally, ‘all the way.’ Its origin is unknown and has been described by Yale University librarian Fred R. Shapiro as ‘the most prominent etymological riddle of our time.’

The Oxford English Dictionary finds the earliest published non-idiomatic use in an 1855 Indiana newspaper article. The earliest known idiomatic use of the phrase is from 1907 in southern Indiana. The phrase is related to the expression the ‘whole six yards,’ used around the same time in Kentucky and South Carolina. Both phrases are variations on the ‘whole ball of wax,’ first recorded in the 1880s. They are part of a family of expressions in which an odd-sounding item, such as ‘enchilada,’ ‘shooting match,’ ‘shebang,’ or ‘hog,’ is substituted for ‘ball of wax.’ The choice of the number nine may be related to the expression ‘To the nines’ (to perfection).

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September 5, 2017

Pseudo-anglicism

Spanglish

Pseudo-anglicisms [ang-gluh-siz-uhms] are words in languages other than English which were borrowed from English but are used in a way native English speakers would not readily recognize or understand.

Pseudo-anglicisms often take the form of compound words, combining elements of multiple English words to create a new word that appears to be English but is unrecognizable to a native speaker. It is also common for a genuine English word to be used to mean something completely different from its original meaning.

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September 1, 2017

The Exception Proves the Rule

All models are wrong

The exception [that] proves the rule‘ is a saying whose meaning has been interpreted or misinterpreted in various ways. Its true, or at least original, meaning is that the presence of an exception applying to a specific case establishes (‘proves’) that a general rule exists.

For example, a sign that says ‘parking prohibited on Sundays’ (the exception) ‘proves’ that parking is allowed on the other six days of the week (the rule). A more explicit phrasing might be ‘the exception indicates the existence of the rule.’

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August 3, 2017

Nominative Determinism

Implicit egotism

Nominative [nom-uh-nuh-tivdeterminism [dih-tur-muh-niz-uhm] is the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. The term was first used in the magazine ‘New Scientist’ in 1994, after its humorous ‘Feedback’ column noted several studies carried out by researchers with remarkably fitting surnames.

These included a book on polar explorations by Daniel Snowman and an article on urology by researchers named Splatt and Weedon. These and other examples led to light-hearted speculation that some sort of psychological effect was at work.

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June 7, 2017

Woke

Awaken, My Love

BLM

Woke is a slang word from African American vernacular which refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social and racial justice. The related phrase ‘stay woke’ refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, a decentralized campaign against violence and systemic racism toward black people.

‘Oxford Dictionaries’ records early politically conscious usage in 1962 in the article ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’ by William Melvin Kelley in ‘The New York Times’ and in the 1971 play ‘Garvey Lives!’ by Barry Beckham (‘I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.’)

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