Aug 17

Virtue Signaling and Republican Communication

Virtue Signaling and Republican CommunicationThis morning, Brian Beutler wrote History Will Remember the Republicans Who Appeased Trump. And he introduced me to the concept of “virtue signaling.”

This is where you indicate to other people that you are virtuous. Normally, virtue signaling is something that conservatives attack liberals for. If I write an article bemoaning the treatment of native Americans, I might be accused of virtue signaling because I’m not native American. But generally, the person who would make such a claim does it because they don’t care about native American rights and so can’t imagine that I really care about them either.

Paul Ryan’s Virtue Signaling

Beutler used the term in relation to Paul Ryan who has made statements against racism and white supremacy without linking them to Donald Trump or the Republican Party. For example, Ryan tweeted, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”

In so doing, someone like David Duke can think, “He’s just signaling what a virtuous guy he is to the liberal press, but I know what he really thinks! He’s on my side!” This is a different take on virtue signaling. And it’s useful stuff. Let’s face it: Republicans are good at this.

The Power of Dog Whistles

In this form, virtue signaling is just a specialized form of dog whistling. I’m not saying that Republicans are the only ones who use it. But they’ve made an art of it. How else could they have been so successful electorally with policies that are so unpopular? A majority of Republicans are actually economically liberal. Think of the so called Reagan Revolution. All those people who voted for Reagan did so because of his social signaling — not his economic policies.

As a liberal, I know just how frustrating dog whistling is. Conservatives manage to imply the most offensive things. But if liberals call them out on it, the conservatives play naive.

Returning to Reagan, there is the “states’ rights” speech that was the first he gave after winning the Republican nomination in 1980. It was given right outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was where three civil rights workers were murdered by Klan members in 1964. It’s obvious what Reagan was signaling to bigots: I’m on your side.

Of course, conservatives defend the speech to this day by saying that Reagan meant no such thing. It’s just us liberals who see racism in everything. That’s why dog whistles are so powerful.

Trivializing Language

But as a man who makes his living communicating with words, I find this pretense at naivete offensive. It asks us to pretend that language is simplistic — that it doesn’t have layers of meaning. And sadly, it is the moderates — those who are supposed to define what norms are (people like nightly network newscasters) — who allow Republicans to get away with this.

I don’t think for a minute that Paul Ryan thinks that his tweet is virtue signaling. But given that not offending Trump or his most vile supporters takes precedence over his hatred of racism, it does come off as facile. It is hard to think that he’s doing anything but virtue signaling. It is certainly true that the racists who think that are far closer to the truth than the “both sides do it” moderates who applaud such statements as though they were bold stands against racism.

The Rise of Virtue Signaling in Republicans

The reason that virtue signaling has not been a major part of the Republican lexicon is because it is only fairly recently that the party has gotten so far outside the mainstream that they’ve needed to. In the past, they didn’t really need to worry about alienating Pat Buchanan’s base. But now it is the Republican Party base itself. If you really think racism is a bad thing, you are not going to last long as a Republican politician.

Just the same, virtue signaling is one of the least powerful forms of dog whistling. And I wonder if the Republicans haven’t reached the point where they can’t manage the inherent contradictions in their party. If they have to polish every speech so that it is palatable to unabashed white separatists, it may be impossible to hang on to the latent racists that have so long been base of their party.

I remember reading an article several years ago where a guy said, “The worst thing about being a Republican was never being able to say what you actual thought.” That’s true. And it is only getting harder as their party slips into actual white supremacy and fascism.

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Aug 16

It’s the Treason, Not the Slavery, Mr President

Robert E Lee: It's the Treason, Not the Slavery, Mr PresidentAt his press conference yesterday, President Trump got into a exchange with a reporter about slavery. He said, “George Washington was a slave owner, so will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? Do you like him? Okay good, are we going to take the down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue?”

Trump clearly thought that he was on top of it. He had an argument that no one could counter. Trump is at his worst when he’s smug. As is usually the case, he had nothing to be smug about. I feel kind of silly even bringing it up, but the argument for taking down Confederate statues has nothing to do with the fact that the figures owned slaves.

Yes, there are some people who think being a slave owner — at least one of the particularly repugnant American system — is enough to make them unworthy of honor. I’m more or less one of those people. I have incredible misgivings about Thomas Jefferson[1], for example. He’s a mixed bag and I really don’t think that the good outweighs the bad.

The Confederates Committed Treason

But none of that matters. It still makes sense to have Jefferson statues. He was, after all, our third president. He is part of the history of our country. Robert E Lee is a totally different case. Having a statue celebrating him is like having a statue celebrating Julius Rosenberg. Is it possible that half the nation, including the President of the United States, does not understand this?

Robert E Lee — just like all the other leaders of the Confederacy — was a traitor to his country. He committed treason to keep slavery alive.

The biggest mistake of the Civil War was how the north ended it. They wanted to heal the wounds. As a result, no one was tried for treason. So within a decade, pretty much all of these southern traitors got their old lives back. And what did we get? Generations of southerns who act like they were the ones who were wronged.

Confederate Monuments Are Jim Crow Vestiges

But the situation is worse than that. The vast majority of these Confederate monuments were not erected directly following the Civil War. Instead, they were erected as part of Jim Crow — as a way to put people in their place — and most of all to say that the Confederacy might have lost the war but it wasn’t wrong.

I see Confederate monuments as a sign of arrested development. It’s been over 150 years since the Civil War. The world has made revolutionary changes in that time. But we still have certain sad people who just can’t get over that war. And it is impossible to not see that what they are really pining for is the days when white people could own black people. Those days are not coming back, but these Confederation lovers just can’t let go.

The American Sickness

And now, the sickness has really gone mainstream. We have a president who celebrates treason. In the end, did Julius Rosenberg really do much damage to the United States? Certainly not in comparison to the damage that Robert E Lee did.

I am disgusted by all this. We shouldn’t be having a conversation about Confederate monuments. We should be shamefully removing them at night. There is no more argument about this than that Jews are subhuman and deserve to be destroyed. And the fact that half the country thinks there is an argument shows that we have a terrible sickness. And it is one that will destroy us if we don’t cure it.

Update

I see that Matt Yglesias made much the same point, The Huge Problem With Comparing Lee and Davis to Washington and Jefferson. But he made an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of:

Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and the other politicians and generals who served the Confederate States of America aren’t noteworthy historical figures who also happened to benefit from the institution of slavery. They are historical figures who are noteworthy almost exclusively because they led an insurrection against the United States of America, an insurrection whose primary purpose was to perpetuate slavery.

His main point is that people like Thomas Jefferson for the good things he did. They like Lee because of the bad things he did.


[1] To see what a charmer Jefferson was, check out Jefferson’s Declaration of “Merciless Indian Savages” and Thomas Jefferson’s Entitlement

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Aug 15

SB Nation and the Failure of Capitalism

SB Nation and the Failure of Capitalism

We were having a conversation about Vox Media in the comments and someone sent me a very interesting article, How SB Nation Profits Off an Army of Exploited Workers. It’s long and deeply reported. I recommend checking it out. But I wanted to discuss it in a general sense: how companies manage to exploit free labor.

Rewards Don’t Follow Contribution

One of my main interests in economics is how rewards don’t go to those who do the best or most important work. Instead, rewards go to those who just happen to make a contribution at the right time. Any major innovation is the result of countless people working over variable time scales. But if you are unlucky enough to add to the innovation at a point when it can’t be monetized, you are largely out of luck.

What is going on with many internet companies is similar to this. Since most people weren’t on the internet in the 1980s, let me explain what it was like. Because it was something of a small community made up of relatively affluent people, there was great altruism. (It’s easier to be altruistic if you aren’t worried about making the rent.) People created software and just gave it away, for example.

Now, this is still true of the internet. The difference is that there are so many people trying to make a profit off all this free work. And note: it wasn’t just software. I remember in the early 90s, there was this guy on rec.arts.startrek.tng who each week wrote a narrative summary of the new Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in addition to a surprisingly deep analysis of it. He did it for no reason other than that he was a fan and wanted to share it. He got lots of positive feedback as well, of course.

SB Nation Steals From Creators

And that’s kind of how SB Nation works. It started with sports fan blogs. Tyler Bleszinski and Markos Moulitsas looked at this and said: light bulb! Just as DailyKos had been very successful that leveraging people’s natural tendency to want to share their political beliefs, SB Nation would leverage the same thing for sports. And it’s amazing how successful a company can be when all it does is sell work that people do for free.

If we lived in a rational society that hadn’t been fed capitalist propaganda from before living memory, we would see this for what it is: stealing. But trust me: I know what the capitalist apologist will say, “But these people had the brilliant idea of leveraging all this free work. Besides, no one is forcing these people to write for SB Nation!”

You can say the same thing for stealing, “But I had the idea of stealing that car you never use. Besides, it’s not like you need it!” The idea of economic systems is that they are supposed to distribute resources. Capitalism does a really bad job of this. It rewards the very worst aspects of human behavior.

And note: I’m not saying that distribution is valueless. It’s like banking. Bankers should make money for distributing capital to where it ought to go. But when you find that 40 percent of your economy is tied up in finance (as it was before the crash of 2008), then you know that something is wrong. And in the case of SB Nation, something is clearly wrong: their outlay for all their fan sites is in the low single digits of millions of dollars for a billion dollar company.

The Failure of Capitalism

My concern isn’t about SB Nation particularly. It is rather that we all accept the idea that those who are rewarded in our economy are not those who really create things. We accept, without thinking, that there is nothing wrong with the SB Nation model.

All of this brings us back to the “gig economy.” It is the polar opposite of the union economy. Businesses love it because they not only don’t have to deal with the combined power of labor, they don’t even have to worry that any union will be created. Those people at SB Nation who do get paid (extremely poorly — like $600/month for a site editor, which is a full-time position) are independent contractors.

Every time I bring these kinds of issues up, I get push-back from people. First they point out that the Soviet Union failed. Well first, I’m not proposing the Soviet Union as a system. But let’s assume I was. The truth is that people did much better under the Soviet Union than they did under the tsars. And I can’t say that they have done better since. So this idea that the Soviet Union was a failure is mostly just western dogma that few people take the time to think about. They just know.

Then they talk about all the great things capitalism has brought us. This I find bizarre. People get blinded by shiny objects. As Ha-Joon Chang pointed out in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, the washing machine had a far more profound effect on our lives than the computer. So it’s ridiculous to think that unless we have people starving in the streets we won’t have iPhones.

Demand a Better System

So we could have a better economic system. We could have a system that more closely matches reward with contribution. (Note: I am not calling for a meritocratic economic system; I’m just noting that it would be better than what we have.) But such a system would never have the kind of economic inequality that the power elites now believe is their right. And the rest of us will never call for it as long as we are blinded by the idea our weird form of capitalism is an unquestioned good.

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Aug 14

Trump’s Grudging Condemnation of White Supremacists

Matt Yglesias - Trump's Grudging Condemnation of White SupremacistsDonald Trump’s statement today on Saturday’s murder in Charlottesville — a grudging, teleprompted address that came only after days of foot-dragging and criticism — is the latest edition of a well-warn tango.

Time and again, Trump loudly and clearly signals solidarity with the worst and most deplorable elements in American life, only to grudgingly back away in a manner designed more to give his fellow Republicans cover than to redress any actual harms.

There was nothing in today’s remarks that couldn’t have been said two days ago, and there was no hint of remorse or self-reflection over the pain his behavior has caused.

White supremacists like David Duke who see Trump as winking at them will, rightly, feel that once again the president’s willingness to take political heat on their behalf constitutes a not-so-subtle thumbs up. Americans who feel alarmed by the growing boldness of white nationalists will, rightly, feel that the president doesn’t take their concerns seriously. But Republican Party members of Congress and conservative media and institutional leaders who were discomfited by Trump’s odd behavior will have the license they need to pretend that everything is fine.

–Matt Yglesias
The Trump Tango Is Tiresome and Pointless

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Aug 13

A Better Deal?!

Chuck Schumer - A Better Deal?The Democrats have released a program to make all our lives better called A Better Deal. And there is much in it to like. But I think I can be forgiven for being a tad skeptical about it.

As part of it’s release late last month, Chuck Schumer wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, A Better Deal for American Workers. At the beginning was some language that sounds, well, familiar, “There used to be a basic bargain in this country that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could own a home, afford a car, put your kids through college and take a modest vacation every year while putting enough away for a comfortable retirement.”

That’s taken right from Obama’s 2008 stump speech. And I just wonder: after 8 years of Obama supposedly trying to make that happen, the country choose as it’s president an incompetent bigot? Regardless, we sit here 9 years later still thinking back on that basic bargain. Now there’s a real question as to whether this bargain ever existed. It certainly didn’t for a huge percentage of the population. Just the same, I don’t think there is any reason that we couldn’t make it true today.

Mushy Thinking in A Better Deal

Looking at A Better Deal itself shows that it is a mixed bag. For example, it doesn’t call for a $15 minimum wage. Instead, we get this, “As part of the Better Deal, many Democrats are calling to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and have cosponsored the legislation to make that happen.” I don’t know what that means. It sounds a lot like: as part of Obamacare, many Democrats are calling for a public option. You all know what happened to the public option: it was killed by conservative Democrats — most of whom go voted out anyway.

But what most upset me was the third part of A Better Deal, “Build an economy that gives working Americans the tools to succeed in the 21st Century.” The summary starts:

Americans deserve the chance to get the skills, tools, and knowledge to find a good-paying job or to move up in their career to earn a better living. We will commit to A Better Deal that provides new tax incentives to employers that invest in workforce training and education and make sure the rules of the economy support companies that focus on long-term growth, rather than short-term profits.

Two Problems

Get that?! There are two major problems here. The first is that this is the same old stalling tactic that we’ve been fed for decades. The unstated assumption here is that companies are not hiring because workers don’t have the right skills. Now to start with, the unemployment rate is 4.3 percent right now. The truth is that there is no skills mismatch. American workers are qualified for the jobs that exist. Saying they need “skills” is just a way of doing nothing. And if wages are down, that isn’t because of a lack of skills. How about the Democratic Party standing up for unions?

That all is bad enough. But the idea that workers lack skills and so we should give money to corporations is insulting. Do the Democrats want to see Trump have two terms as president? This is madness!

So to summarize: the Democrats think that Americans need more job training (which they don’t) and they think corporations should be given the money to do this useless job training.

Better Than Nothing

The rest of the proposal looks okay, but it isn’t as clear as it could be. We Democrats seem to be incapable of that. And some things hearken back to Obama, like reducing the price of prescription medication. Yeah, that’s something we were talking about in 2008. It seems like we could have done something about that. It seems like we could have done something about the big drug company giveaway that is Medicare Part D.

But I suppose we should give the Democrats some credit. They seem to be waking up to the need for a turn away from the road that led from Bill Clinton and NAFTA to Barack Obama and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Afterword

People bring up a lot of reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the last election. I wonder if having Obama running around pushing the TPP wasn’t also a drag on her campaign. It certainly reinforced the idea that Clinton was against the TPP now but that she would be for it once in office.

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Aug 13

President Trump Won’t Blame Nazis for Murder

President Donald TrumpWhite nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend against the removal of Confederate statues in public spaces. White nationalists attacked counter-protesters on Friday night, punching and kicking them and (reportedly) pepper-spraying them. One counter-protester was killed and several were injured when a car rammed into them after accelerating for over a block.

President Trump blamed both sides.

–Dara Lind
Donald Trump Refuses to Name the Problem of White Supremacist Violence

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Aug 12

Checking In

Frank MoraesHi, you all. I don’t feel like writing an Odd Words post, so I thought I would just check in with you. I also don’t feel like writing any of the posts that have been piling up in my head — one about Glenn Greenwald may be so out of date by the time I write it that I may not write it. But the truth is that I’m tired.

Early this last week, I wrote to my doctor, complaining of three things: breaking out into sweats; losing 15 pounds; and having high blood pressure. She set up some tests and told me to schedule an appointment after the results were back.

So on Tuesday, I went in to see the Kaiser Permanente vampires to give them four vials of blood. Because I walked the four miles to the office, I was somewhat dehydrated when I got to the draining office. And the phlebotomists had a hard time. I went through three of them. The last one got me in my hand. She was only just able to fill the fourth vial; the vein was giving out. And she left me with a pretty bad bruise afterward — which was kind of cool.

Nine Tests

My doctor had 9 tests run. I got to see the results before the appointment, so I was pretty sure what I was going to hear when I went in. Pretty much everything looked great. The only exceptions were that my cholesterol was a bit high — which is not surprising given how much I love cream sauces. And my thyroid was not functioning as well as it should be. So I figured she would increase my thyroid medication.

When I met with her, she did exactly what I expected. But the most interesting thing about my health this last few months is that I constantly feel — it’s hard to explain — dazed, perhaps? I feel like the outside world is unreal. It’s kind of like being a little drunk, but without the mental impairment. And so I asked my doctor if high blood pressure could do that. She said, “No. But stress will.”

Stress Kills — And So Much More!

From the moment we met, she took it for granted that I was suffering from stress. And I know that. It’s one of the reasons that I have avoided going to the doctor. It’s hard to seek help for something that you feel is your own damned fault. And that’s the thing with this stress: it is of my own making.

It would be one thing if I worked in an emergency room. But I don’t. I’m a writer. Nothing I do is that important. But I put a lot of pressure on myself — especially when I don’t think I’m doing a good enough job. And that has certainly been the case the last few months.

My doctor recommended that I see a counselor. (She shoved a bunch of papers at me with information on getting a counselor.) And she recommended that I go to a stress-reduction workshop. (She shoved a bunch of papers at me with information on when the workshop was offered.) And then she went over the standard stress-reduction things that everyone mentions: meditation, yoga, and binge-watching the entire Kung Fu series.

She also recommended a number of different teas. My doctor is a big tea drinker — as am I (I don’t know if that is on my chart). But I’ve never been big on herbal teas. But I’ll give it a try.

You Aren’t in Control

The whole thing is very weird, though. I feel like I should just be able to turn it off. But I can’t. I know that stress kills. And here is my mind — killing itself. It’s like a movie: watching yourself as the conveyor belt moves you ever closer to the spinning blade.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. But I fear all of us are hostages to parts of the brain we can’t control. I’m still hopeful. And tomorrow, maybe I’ll write about politics.

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Aug 10

Odd Words: Coelostat

CoelostatAre you ready for page 57 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition?! Well, even if you aren’t, here it is. It is mostly a rant about one word. And then we will get on to today’s word: coelostat.

Little Men

I have never heard the word “cockalorum” before. It is “a conceited or pretentious little man.” I am short, and for most of my life I was painfully thin. And it has always bugged me that small men have special words and phrases to describe them. The best known, of course, is the Napoleon complex. But isn’t that just like a short man to be bugged by such a thing?

Here’s the thing: we don’t have special words for big men who are conceited or aggressive or whatever. And what’s going on is exactly what’s going on with women. The assumption is that it is somehow wrong for a small man or a woman to be strong. So while a large man’s aggressiveness might be seen as him being “a go-getter,” it indicates some kind of pathology in a small man.

Women

The issue is obviously more important socially as it affects women. It tells half the population that they should be demure. Should they demand equality, there are lots of verbal smears that will be used on them. I might hate words like “cockalorum,” but there’s a whole industry devoted to creating words to keep women in their places. In some cases, it works well in that you know pretty much all you need to about a man who uses the word “feminazi.”

On the other side of this is that short men (and women) tend to be ignored. There is a joke I’ve seen a few times in movies and television shows. In it, a woman will say something in a business meeting, and everyone ignores it. Then a man says it and everyone congratulates him on his great idea. (See, for example, Miss Congeniality.) This has happened to me. I suspect I’m not alone among smaller men. And certainly this is something that happens to women commonly.

Small Men Are Less Aggressive

As a result, you would think that small men would exhibit signs of the Napoleon complex. The society certainly pushes them to. But at least one study found that this wasn’t the case. It found that taller men were more likely to lose their temper than short men. (I don’t think we need a study for women.)

Of course, if you think about it, it makes sense. When you find a hyper-aggressive short man, it sticks out. It’s not because he’s short; it is because it is so unusual. I find the whole thing ridiculous and annoying. But as I noted before, isn’t that just like a small man?

Coelostat

I probably should have known this word because I have used the device before. I used to be very involved with astronomy. But I always came at it from the computer end. I didn’t know anything cool like how to look up where a star is in the sky and then how to find it. Anyway, this is a great device, but not so great a word: coelostat.

Coe·lo·stat  noun  \sē’ləstat\

1. a telescope fitted with an adjustable mirror used to reflect the light of a star, etc, into the telescope.

Date: late 19th century.

Origin: from Latin caelum, which means “sky.”

Example: Naturally, Griffith Observatory is hosting a viewing event, featuring telescope viewing from the lawn, sidewalks, and on the coelostat (solar telescope) in the Hall of the Sky (note: personal telescopes aren’t allowed). –Gwynedd Stuart, Where to Watch the Solar Eclipse in LA.

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Aug 09

Odd Words: Cloche

Vilma Banky in ClocheToday, we do page 56 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! It’s an excellent page, and it introduced me to a new kind of hat: cloche.

All the Words I Knew Before

Page 56 had a lot of words I knew, and I don’t see why I should deny them to myself. I was thinking about how we all know just when we learned some words. One example of that is the word “clique.” It is “a small, exclusive circle of people, especially with identical interests.” I learned it when I took Psychology when I was in high school.

Interestingly, it was taught by the music teacher. It was very much pop psychology. I think the instructor, Mr Wright, had received a minor in it when he was in college. You could get much the same education from reading Psychology Today. Or perhaps even that is putting on airs. Nevertheless, it was a fun and interesting class.

“Solitary, Celibate, I Hate It”

Similarly, I know when I learned the word “cloistered” (or close enough). It means “alone; separated from everything else; sheltered away from the world.” Or so the dictionary says. It has specific religious meanings. And I learned it when I was perhaps 12 years old. I was in the habit of checking out original cast albums of musicals from the library. One of them was 1776.

In the song “Yours, Yours, Yours,” Abigail sings, “I live like a nun in a cloister; solitary, celibate, I hate it.” So I looked it up. (It’s interesting that people consider me an intellectual; the only thing that is different between me and others is that I drag out the dictionary.) Here is the song. It’s very sweet:

Dropping Stock of Clone

Now a word I have no recollection of learning is “clone.” I won’t bother defining it. But it does seem that the idea of cloning had a great hold on our society in the early 70s. There were lots of movies about it. People were fascinated about it. Now that it is a real thing, people aren’t as interested.

All the Words I Didn’t Know Before

Some words seem too bizarre to be real. Thus it is with “clinker built,” even though I know it is a real thing. I’m sure for people into boating it is something they take for granted, but I have no experience with it. It means “(of ships) having boards or planks that overlap.” I was thinking of making it the word of the day, but I got distracted.

I often find myself looking for the name for a group of animals. There’s a great webpage for this: Animal Group Names. But only today I learned that there is a word for a group of cats: “clowder.” Although according to that page, a group of wild cats is called a “destruction.” That’s pretty cool.

There is also the simple word “cloy,” which is “to satiate or become distasteful through excess.” The word kind of makes me hungry. For the last month or so, food has tasted off. So the idea of eating enough to get sick of food sounds appealing. But this probably explains why I have now lost 15 pounds.

Cloche

I have a great fondness for women’s fashion. I used to really enjoy going clothes shopping with my wife. So I’m naturally drawn to any words that relate to women’s fashion. And I really like this: cloche.

Cloche  noun  \klōsh\

1. a glass cover, usually bell-shaped, placed over plants to protect them from frost.

2. a woman’s close-fitting, brimless hat.

Date: late 19th century.

Origin: from French for “bell.”

Example: The “flapper hat,” as it is often called, is actually a cloche hat. It works best with short, cropped hair, which was the style in the 1920s –Lena Maikon, Knitter’s Lib: Learn to Knit, Crochet, and Free Yourself from Pattern Dependency

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Aug 08

Odd Words: Clepsydra

ClepsydraAll I can say is “Happy, happy! Joy, joy!” as we do page 55 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. It’s actually a pretty good page. And the word is odd indeed: clepsydra.

Civil Rights?!

The first entry on page 55 was “civil rights.” That’s interesting. The dictionary was published in 1972. I’m surprised they felt that need to define it. After all, it had been in all the papers! Today, I understand, that many people don’t understand what civil rights means. They think it means protecting the heads of “thugs” as they are put into the backs of police cars. But the definition is the same as it was then: “a citizen’s right to personal liberty as established by the US Constitution.” (Actually: there is nothing about needing to be a citizen in the Constitution.)

Clubs

There are two different words that have the exact same definition: “having the shape of a club.” They are: “clavate” and “claviform.” It’s odd to have two words that are so similar. What is even the point? I know: foolish me for looking for rationality in the English language. But still.

Other Words

There were a lot of good words that I already knew like “clairvoyance” and “clandestine.” But there were also good ones that I didn’t know. Even though it is easy enough to figure out, I like “cleptobiosis.” It is “a mode of existence in which one species steals food from another.” This is the mode of existence of the rich in the middle third of North America.

A really delightful word is “claque.” It is “a group of persons hired to applaud a theatrical performance.” That’s what I need. I need to hire a group of people to follow me around and laugh when I make a joke, applaud when I cross the street without incident, and otherwise murmur “Oh, very insightful” whenever I say something that isn’t funny.

And it seems appropriate to end with “climacteric,” which is “a period in life leading to decreased sexual activity in men and to menopause in women.” Although it appears to me that men have more profound changes than simply a reduced sex drive. Feel free to school me on this.

Clepsydra

Today’s word actually just means “water clock.” But for some reason, the dictionary wanted to describe it. So ladies and gentlemen, here is “clepsydra.”

Clep·sy·dra  noun  \klep’-sidrə\

1. an apparatus for measuring the passage of time by the regulated flow of water.

Date: late Middle English.

Origin: from Latin via Greek klepsudra, based on kleptein, which means “steal water.”

Example: The device above is known as a clepsydra (Greek for “water-thief”), which is a gourd with one hole in the top and one-to-many holes in the bottom. –Ethan Siegel, Yes, New York Times, There Is A Scientific Method

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/08/08/clepsydra/

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Aug 07

Odd Words: Cirque

Cirque de Gavarnie

Page 54 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition was a very difficult one! I’ll explain in a moment. But first, today’s word: cirque.

Around the Page!

The entire first column on page 54, and a little bit more, was made up of circum– words. I can’t say that I knew all of them, but it was trivial to figure out what they meant. Or close enough. They started with “circumambient.” A surprising number of these words just meant what this one did: “encircling; encompassing.” People apparently need a lot of different worlds to say “around.”

This set of words ended with “circumvolve.” I’m sure few will be surprised to learn that it means “to wind about or around; rotate.”

The only really useful word of the bunch was “circumlocution,” which is about the only word that I specifically remember seeing. It’s a pretty common word meaning “excessive use of words to express an idea; an evasive or round about way of speaking.” I won’t name anyone, but it is a word that I associate very much with one of my close friends. (I’ll leave it to them to fight over who it is.)

My Side of Whatever

Almost a quarter of page 54 was made up of cis– words. In Latin, cis means “on this side of.” And that is what this prefix does to words. For example, “cisalpine” means “on this (the Italian) side of the Alps.” And then “cismontane” is a slightly more general “cisalpine,” meaning “on this side of the mountains.”

Similarly, there is “cislunar,” which is “lying between the Earth and the Moon.” And you know, even though it isn’t part of the classic thought experiment, if there were a teapot orbiting cislunar, we would very likely not have noticed it.

Cirque

And so, that takes us to today’s word, which despite a difficult page, is quite useful: cirque.

Cirque  noun  \surk\

1. a basin in a mountain forming a circular space like an amphitheater.

Date: late 17th century.

Origin: from Latin circus, which is a circular line.

Example: Each lake occupies a glacial cirque ­– a type of basin named for its shape — with steep banks. –Deborah Wall, Lakes Loop Trail a Highlight of Great Basin

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/08/07/cirque/

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Aug 06

Odd Words: Cicatrix

CicatrixIt is not with a great deal of pleasure that I present page 54 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. But it’s like a chore, so let’s get through it. I do at least like today’s word because it is very useful: cicatrix.

Useless Words

No words are truly useless. But some are so specialized as to make me wonder what they are doing in a dictionary of this type.

One such word is “chyle.” It is “lymph containing emulsified fats formed from chym in the small intestine.” And, of course, “chyme” is “the semiliquid mass of partially digested food formed by gastric secretion.”

Now I have little doubt that these are perfectly good words for biologists and doctors. But really: when would I use these words? And who could I be talking to who I could expect to know them?

Who? Nobody.

Useful Words

And then there are some very useful words. One of them is today’s word. Or maybe I just think that because I have scars.

The first word on page 53 is “chutzpa.” (The accepted spelling of it is “chutzpah.”) Most people know this word: “gall; audacity; impudence.” It’s a great word. And it sounds so great!

The last complete word on page 53 is “circuitous.” It is “roundabout; indirect.” I probably overuse the word. But it is so accurate, especially if it brings to mind a circuit board. And it does for me.

Cinema!

There were a few words related to the cinema. I believe they are all coined from the word “cinema” itself.

The first is “cineaste.” It is “an enthusiast for motion pictures, especially in their artistic and technical aspects.” That’s a word I’ve seen around a lot. There is also “cinema verite,” which is “motion pictures that are imitative of real life.” I just checked and before this article, I’d used the phrase in six articles on Frankly Curious.

But the third cinema word I have never seen and I kind of doubt it is a real word: “cinematics.” It’s easy enough to guess: “the art or technique of motion picture making.” I’m curious if anyone has ever run into it.

Cicatrix

And that leads us to today’s word:

Cic·a·trix  noun  \sik’-ətriks\

1. the scar that forms on a wound, which has healed.

2. a mark left on a stem by a fallen leaf.

Date: late Middle English.

Origin: from Latin cicatrix. which means “ulcer.”

Example: This apparatus was rather heavy and cumbersome and attended with the objection that the end of the thigh stump had to carry the weight of the body, and the stump cicatrix had to endure a constant pressure. –Berry Craig (quoted), Sixteenth Century French Barber Surgeon: A Man of Many Talents

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/08/06/cicatrix/

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