As I was reading about the 250th anniversary of President Jackson’s birth today — reportedly Mr. Trump fancies himself like Mr. Jackson, but I doubt that the former has ever been in a single duel with actual pistols — it occurred to me that I didn’t know the term for 250th anniversary. Centennial, Sesquicentennial, Bicentennial, Tricentennial, those are well enough known. But 250?

Off to the lazy man’s fount of knowledge, Wikipedia, which lists “Sestercentennial” as the main answer, from the way the Romans said two and a half. Other suggestions include “semiquincentennial,” “bicenquinquagenry” (that’s not going to fly) and the unimaginative “quarter-millennial.”

Sestercentennial seems to have some currency, if you feed it into Google. At least two websites claim their purpose is to gear the nation up for its Sestercentennial on July 4, 2026. One seems faintly academic, the other a guy with a website and an odd dream.

Guess we’ll hear more about the 250th ca. 2024 and ’25. Entirely too much, if the Bicentennial is any guide. I’ll be 65 if I make it so long. On July 4, 1976, I was 15. It rained most of that day in San Antonio, so we didn’t go anywhere, not even for fireworks, which probably would have been at Fort Sam Houston. Or was that for Fiesta? Time muddles things.


Bitter cold days ahead, especially after weekend snow. These things happen in December — this far north, anyway — but it still seems a little early. This is like late January. Are we going to get a break in late January? I have a feeling we won’t.
At least an ice storm isn’t being predicted for this weekend any more.

As an old writing pro, I don’t use too many words that I know the readers won’t understand, just to show off. That’s the mark of an amateur, or even a dilettante. Still, I occasionally float something to my editors to see if it will pass, knowing it won’t. This week, for instance, I wrote a sentence that ended this way:

… an investment firm that does nothing but manage the Brobdingnagian funds of X and his family.

A completely accurate way to describe that particular fortune, believe me. Moreover, Brobdingnagian is a fine word that needs more currency. After all, no one would think twice about using Lilliputian in a sentence.

But I knew it wouldn’t survive the final cut. I was right.

… an investment firm that does nothing but manage the enormous funds of X and his family.

I would have substituted “vast,” but that’s just a personal preference. Probably should have used that in the first place.

More on Swiftian coinages here. I never knew that Yahoo, as in the search engine and related tech-ness, is supposedly an acronym: “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” I too am suspicious that it’s really a backronym.

RIP, Susan Disenhouse. I never met her in person, but she was a professional acquaintance via phone and email.

Fun With Autofill

Google autofill is reputed to say nice things about Hillary Clinton, but I have no way to judge whether that’s true or an election year canard or if it even matters. In the meantime, for fun, I put in “Hitler” for Google to autofill, because he always makes guest appearances in modern political rhetoric, which rarely mean more than, “I don’t like my opponent.”

Anyway, Google “Hitler” suggested (the other day, your results may vary) in order:

quotes, memes, youth, death, ‘s birthday, ‘s rise to power, salute, did nothing wrong [!]

Google News “Hitler” suggested, in order (caps added, because I’m an editor):

‘s birthday, death, and Trump, memes, compared to Trump, book, mustache, quotes, youth

For additional grins, I let Google autofill “Mussolini,” too. This is what turned up:

death, quotes, Trump, definition [?], speech, WW2, nickname

Google News autofilled “Mussolini” this way:

Trump, death, definition [who’s asking that?], facts, Italy, quotes

For a more contemporary autocrat, I then let Google autofill “Putin”:

bay, news, memes, net worth, on the ritz, Trump, poutine, height, wife

Google News “Putin”:

news, Trump, Greece, Russia, Syria, hockey, NATO, Obama

Graduate Names, Abdulaahi to Zell

Lately I’ve been able to look at the commencement program from Lilly’s graduation at some leisure. Most of it, of course, lists the names of the graduates. Interesting thing, a list of names. This one goes, in terms of last names, from Abdulaahi to Zell.

It’s a fine example of the American salad bowl of ethnicity. Some examples at random, though alphabetical: Admundsen, Bagaybagayan, Bjorkman, Campbell, De Ocampo, Fritz, Gonzalez, Hyc, Khan, Kopielski, McCoy, Muhammad, Patel, Son, Stribling, Stepanian, Uy.

Patel is the number-one most common name on the list, hands down: no fewer than 12 graduates have it as their family name. It’s the Indian equivalent of Smith, I said to Ann. Then she noted that there was only a single Smith on a graduate list. Hm. The list doesn’t represent the nation as a whole, after all. The Census Bureau still puts Smith as most common: more than 880 per 100,000 people. Then come Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez and Wilson.

I’m glad to report at least one other Lilly on the list, spelled that way, and a scattering of Anns, though more often than not it functions as a middle name, or a part of a combination first name. Wouldn’t want them to be too common.

A glance at the list tells me that not only are girls’ names of earlier generations gone, as you’d expect — the Berthas and Ethels and Ednas and Myrtles and Zeldas — so are perfectly fine girl names popular when I was born — the Barbaras, Cynthias, Deborahs, Lindas, Lisas, Karens, and Patricias of the world, and even the Marys are fairly scarce. A couple of years ago, during a conversation on names, Lilly characterized “Barbara” (for example) as an “old lady name.” Tempus fugit.

Boys’ names are more stable across the decades, but even so there seem to be fewer Johns, Michaels, and Roberts. Or Toms, Dicks and Harrys. I’m glad to see a Lars and a Homer and an Omar.

First names are a little harder to sort through, but I did pick out some interesting ones: Atyab, Breon, Da-Eun, Destinee (a friend of Lilly’s), Dwji, Heaven, Jax, Nuh, Yash.

I’ve Been Around for a Long, Long Year

Merriam-Webster has an interesting feature on its web site, “Trending Now,” referring to words in the online version of the dictionary whose look-up rates have increased. The other day I noticed that “Lucifer” was No. 1 (with a bullet? Maybe a pitchfork).

The dictionary explains that, “Lucifer rose up from the depths of the dictionary on April 29th, 2016, (spiking approximately 7700% over the previous day’s lookups) on the heels of news reports that former Speaker of the House John Boehner had referred to Senator Ted Cruz as ‘Lucifer in the flesh’ while speaking at Stanford University earlier in the week.”

You’d think that Lucifer would be a fairly familiar name. One of the classics. It’s not like Boehner called him the Beelzebub of the Stump or Astaroth in a Suit and Tie. Maybe people were investigating the nuances. Sure they were. Anyway, the dictionary continued: “Lucifer has been in the English language for a very long time, and has not solely carried the meaning of ‘Satan.’ The word comes from a Latin root — lucifer, in Latin, means ‘light-bearing’ — and has also been used by poets to refer to Venus, the morning star.

“Although it is possible that Boehner was making a muted classical reference, and intended to characterize Cruz as a bearer of light, this seems unlikely, as he in the same talk referred to the senator by another turn of phrase which is incompatible with this imagery.”

Heh-heh. Not a bad turn of insult, Mr. Boehner, delivered (as it turned out) toward the end of a dying campaign. Whatever the merits of either of those politicos, modern American politics needs more clever invective, like we had in the 19th century. We have plenty of invective now, of course, but especially during this campaign season, it’s as dumbed down as can be.

See You Later, Alligator

While walking the dog during the most recent warm day — a few days ago now — I passed a knot of grade-school kids and their bicycles across the street. I didn’t pay them much attention, but after I’d passed by, I clearly heard one of the boys say, directed at one or more of the others, “See you later, alligator! After a while, crocodile!”

People still say that? Kids still do? It sounded old even when I was young, though I can’t say I heard it much. Later I heard the mid-50s song of that name, recorded by Bill Haley, which seems to have popularized the phrase, but not invented it.

I’d always imagined it was from the ’20s. It sounds like it belongs in the same league as the bees’ knees or 23 skidoo or the like, but after looking around a little, its exact origin and timing remain elusive. One source speculates it started with Swing devotees of the late ’30s, which is plausible, but who knows?

On the other hand, I do know that the phrase lives on in the 2010s. Maybe some celebrity who appeals to kids is saying it now.

All My Eye and Betty Martin, Thursday Edition

Sure enough, more snow yesterday. But not much more, and most of it melted today. The snowfall didn’t even mess up the roads very much. Or my driveway. If you don’t have to shovel it, you can’t say it really snowed.

Been reading more by the chattering classes than usual lately, maybe because they’re chattering a lot now. With some reason. There’s also a sizable share of hyperventilating Chicken Little-ism about the political rise the short-fingered vulgarian. He’s going to be the end of Republican party! Of movement conservatism! Of American democracy! Of truth, justice and the American way!

I have to be skeptical on all counts. Of course, I could be wrong, and I’ll be the first to admit it as soon as goons come to take me to one of the detention camps of the new order.

This is some hard candy Yuriko brought back from Japan last month. Or rather, these are images of the Gold Coin of the Meiji Era tin, front and back. We’ve almost finished the candy inside.

Gold Coin of the Meiji EraGold Coin of the Meiji EraThe candy, which is roundish and yellow, is pretty good, but I like the name best of all. The coin pictured on the tin isn’t some fanciful latter-day re-creation, but an image of an actual gold coin of the Meiji era, just like this one, dated 1870 (Meiji 3). Except that the one on the tin is a 20-yen piece, rather than two yen.

Quite a bit of money at the time, and a coin of great beauty, from the looks of the photo. I wouldn’t mind having one, but it isn’t something I want to spend big bucks for. I’ll settle for the Meiji-era copper two-sen coin that I do have, which only cost a few modern dollars.

One more thing along these lines: We cast pearls before swine. The Japanese give gold coins to cats: 猫に小判 (neko ni koban).

And one more coffee cup currently on our shelf.

Oh ShitLilly got that from a friend of hers for Christmas this year. Ha-ha. It reminds me that adults should not use that word. In fact, anyone older than about six or seven should steer clear of it. Certain words should be confined to little children, and that’s one of them. Yet I’ve seen poop used in more-or-less serious writing by people whom I assume are grown. Knock it off.

Coffee Makes Me Crap would be the slogan for short-fingered vulgarians, maybe. Funnier would be Decaf Makes Me Defecate. I don’t drink coffee anyway. Better for me would be Tea Makes Me Pee. True indeed.

Sorry, Ocker, the Fokker’s Chocker

Australia Day has rolled around again, and what better way to take note than with a little Oz slang?

In November 2000, my brother Jay forwarded me the word of the day from Wordsmith: ocker.

ocker (OK-uhr), noun
1. An uncultured Australian male.
2. An uncouth, offensive male chauvinist.
3. Of or pertaining to such a person.
4. Typically Australian.
[After Ocker, a character in an Australian television series.]

While Australian sports teams and individuals continue to soak up success everywhere you look, the average ocker is getting lazier and putting on the beef.” Daniel Gilhooly, Aussies with gold in laziness, Daily News, Sep 11, 2000.

Also in the email: the following comment from A Word A Day Mail Issue 20 (feedback on recent word of the day columns). Apocryphal or not, I like it:

From: Monica Clements
Subject: ocker

Seeing the word ocker reminds me of a story told by a friend. It took place during the Australian air traffic controllers’ strike of the 1980s, when interstate travellers were desperate for any form of airborne transport and all the light planes were full.

My friend’s father was one of the people who tried to hitch a ride on a light plane. He rushed up to the steward — about to close the plane doors — and asked breathlessly whether there was any room, only to be answered with the immortal line: “Sorry, ocker, the Fokker’s chocker.”

Lost Beauties of the English Language

Lost Beauties of the English LanguageMy edition of Lost Beauties of the English Language, a book originally published in 1874, is a reprint published in 1987 by Bibliophile Books in the UK. How it came to be in the Chicago bookstore where I bought it toward the end of the ’80s — maybe the incomparable Stuart Brent Books on Michigan Ave. — I don’t know.

But I’m glad I have it. All dictionaries are good for browsing, but Lost Beauties is especially charming. You find things like:

Barrel fever: the headache caused by intemperance in ale or beer.
Crambles: boughs and branches of trees, broken off by wind.
Farthel: the fourth part of anything (related to farthing, which I figure is pretty much lost as well).
Glunch: to frown.
Keech: a fat, round lump, whence also a keg (of butter).
Pingle: to eat with very little appetite.
Well-will: the opposite of ill-will.
Wordridden: to be a slave to words without understanding their meaning; to be overawed by a word rather than by an argument.

Two of my favorite lost beauties are actually prefixes, namely alder- and um-.

Alder: a prefix formerly used to intensify the meaning of an adjective in the superlative degree — as if to better the best, and heighten the highest… In Wicliff’s Bible, the Almighty is called the Alder-Father and also the Alder-Creator.

Other examples: alderbest, alderfirst, alderforemost, alderhighest, adlerlast, adlertruest, alderworst, and I guess it does survive in fossilized form in “alderman.” A little bit better than the best seems to defy the internal logic of superlatives, but language isn’t entirely subject to logic. There’s clearly a place for the alder- formation in English, or there could be.

Um: round or around.

Umgang: circuit, circumference
Umlap: to enfold
Umset: to surround

The author, Charles Mackay (1814-89), was a Scotsman better known for writing Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), which covered a lot of ground, including the South Sea Company Bubble, tulip mania, witch hunts, alchemy, crusades, fortune-telling and more. “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one,” Mackay wrote. Sounds about right to me.

One of the more interesting aspects of Lost Beauties, as least for an American reader in our time, are the words he includes that aren’t lost to American English. Perhaps Mackay didn’t know that they were still used on this side of the Atlantic, or maybe some of them were revived in the 20th century in American English. But I think it’s more likely that he knew that some of the words were spoken here, but also felt that that didn’t count.

Such as: egg on (verb), gruesome, laze (verb), pinchpenny, rung (as in the step of a ladder), swelter (in the heat), watershed.

Guy Fawkes & Martians &c

One more warm day. Then no more. Unless the forecasts about next week are right. What kind of November is this?

It’s Guy Fawkes Day again, and not a burning effigy in sight. It’s really something we should import. Lately I’ve been reading What If? 2, a collection of counterfactual history essays that I picked up used for 50 cents, but “What If Guy Fawkes Had Succeeded?” isn’t one of the subjects. Naturally that question’s been taken up elsewhere.

All of us went to see The Martian on Sunday. All in all, a well done bit of hard SF. Titanium hard, though considering the story, the focus on the technology of space travel and survival in a hostile environment isn’t misplaced. The movie also managed to present its exposition — and there was a lot of it — in a way that didn’t goo up the narrative, which is no small trick.

One thing (which the author of the book has acknowledged): the Martian atmosphere is so thin that a raging storm of the sort that got the hero in his jam would be impossible. The planet does have dust storms, of course, but not hurricanes of dust. Never mind.

There’s no overt indication of when the story takes place, so I figured it was either 20 years or so from now — very optimistic indeed, considering the sluggish pace U.S. manned space exploration these days — or in a present-day world in which a program to send people to Mars got started in earnest in the 1990s (it was, after all, something the elder Bush proposed). The flags on the spaceships and shoulder patches, I noticed, had 50 stars. A nice detail would have been to use the 51- or 52-star designs.

I suspect the only way U.S. astronauts are getting to Mars in a few decades is if the Chinese decide to attempt it.

From a web site I’d never heard of before but happened across recently, purporting to cover real estate news (all sic): “According to Investor Daily, TIAA-CREF’s Phil McAndrews has recently stated that the United States economy is under fairly good state that tantamounts to the continuing optimistic forecasts for the commercial property segment.”

That’s a sample from an item laid out like a real article, but clearly not written by a native speaker of English. The item, in fact, is a little hard to read, and larded with advertising links and other annoyances. And then it crashed my browser with an irritating “Unresponsive Script” message. I’m not overly worried about competition from such Mickey Mouse efforts as this.

Does anyone use “Mickey Mouse,” as in amateurish, any more? I had a teacher in junior high, our band director Mr. Fields, who was fond of the term. Now it sounds like it belongs to an earlier generation — Mr. Fields’ generation, or about the same age as Mickey himself. Maybe in more recent years, Disney minions have made trouble for anyone who uses Mickey like that. I’d better watch out.