16 October 2021

Do you know the English word for this?

Growing up in India, we used to get our shoes repaired every time they sprung a hole or a nail got dislodged. I have not visited a cobbler ever since I came to this country. I suspect, it is cheaper to replace a pair of shoes than repair it these days. At least the kind of shoes I wear.

But in those days, a cobbler used to come by our neighborhood every Saturday and anybody who needed shoes repaired, got them done by him. As a small kid filled with curiosity, it was a marvel to watch the cobbler stitch the thread using a needle with a sidecut that would be used as a hook to loop the thread in and pull thru.

And he always carried a heavy anvil like the one in the picture. Do you remember this?

Did you know that there is an English word for this? I always thought of it as an anvil but as it turns out, there is an exact word to refer to this cobbler’s instrument.

What is it?

2 March 2019

Why do we say “silver bullet”?

This phrase came up during a conversation last night. Which got me thinking what might be the magic behind the silver in a bullet. Why does a bullet made of silver make it a “magical fix”? I was assuming it had something to do with the difference in the metallic characteristics between silver and lead.

Turns out, this is less based on actual scientific reasoning. While it seems there are many cultures that believed that a bullet made of silver has magical powers, the oldest mention I could find was from the 17th century when it was a common belief that only a silver bullet could kill a werewolf. (A vampire, on the other hand, was unfazed by a silver bullet – it needed a wooden steak driven thru its heart).

That apparently is at the root of why we use “silver bullet” to mean a reliable, magical solution to a complicated problem.

28 October 2018

Why do we say “stir-crazy”?

Last night, I was texting one of my friends to check up on him and he mentioned that he was going “stir-crazy”. Apparently, he had been in his basement the whole day working on stuff. We decided to go out for a quick drink. In about half an hour, we were at his favorite cigar place. My first question to him was “Why do we say ‘stir-crazy'”? Why “stir”? Both of us laughed it away since we had not a clue.

Of course, “stir-crazy” means to go crazy or disoriented after being cooped up or confined to one place for a long time.

This morning, as I started researching it, I ran into a very interesting history of the phrase. I did not realize that it came into American English as a slang among prisoners all the way from the gypsy language local to Romania via a particular prison in England!!

This is what I have constructed so far:

The word “stir” actually refers to “prison”. In England, during the nineteenth century, “stir” was a slang term used to refer to prisons. In the earlier part of twentieth century, the same use of the word caught up in America – especially as a slang term used by prisoners.

The origin for that slang use lies in a particular prison in England – the notorious Newgate prison – which was referred to as “Start” by the prisoners. Eventually, all prisons were colloquially called “Start”.

The word “start” itself had nothing to do with the English word “start”. It was actually derived from the Romani word “stardo” meaning imprisoned. In fact, Romani – the language spoken by the gypsies in Romania area has a lot of words with that root to mean something to do with prisons – e.g. “sturiben” is a prison and “staripen” is to imprison.

The only part that I have not been able to connect is the following – while scholars agree that the root of the slang “start” is the Romani language, why did the Victorian age thieves land up with a Romani word. Were there many gypsies in the prison? Was there some other reason?

Well, I am going to stop my research before I go stir-crazy! Ha, ha!!

16 August 2018

Some interesting and uncommon measurement units.

How many of these do you know? Google up the ones you did not know. It is a lot of fun to learn about about the names came about. If you are too lazy, I will post the answers tomorrow…

What do the following measure and how are they defined?

1. Donkey Power
2. Wheaton
3. Helen
4. Garn
5. Hobo Power
6. Mickey
7. Dol
8. Crab
9. Beard-second
10. Barn

Adding a bonus question – What is a New York Second?(remembered that after reading Narayan’s comment about cab rate)

9 April 2018

More word fun…. Baby animals

A few months back, I had posted a blog on collective nouns. Today is about baby animals or birds. I was listening to a radio show and they used the word “leveret”. For the life of me, I did not know what a leveret is… And that got me researching for uncommon names for baby animals or birds.

Do you know what kind of baby animals/birds are these?
(1) Leveret
(2) Cria
(3) Eyas
(4) Farrow
(5) Ephyra
(6) Puggle
(7) Flapper
(8) Pullet
(9) Cockrell
(10) Squab
(11) Elver
(12) Polliwog
(13) Wriggler or alternately tumbler
(14) Cosset
(15) Neonate

Before you Google, here are the animal/bird names… see if you can match them..
(a) Platypus
(b) Rooster
(c) Frog
(d) Snake
(e) Hawk
(f) Platypus
(g) Hen
(h) Eel
(i) Sheep
(j) Hare
(k) Jellyfish
(l) Dove / Pigeon
(m) Mosquito
(n) Alpaca / Lama
(o) Pig

If you can get one right, you are ahead of me!!!

6 March 2018

There are all these kinds of names for numbers?

You remember the other day I got a hotel room number 407 and I had written about how it is an Armstrong number? (which is a special case of Narcissistic numbers). Well that got me thinking what are the other kind of numbers that are out there? I was surprised to find out there are so many different names.

Let’s start with Narcissistic numbers itself. Do you know when is a number narcissistic?
If the number is equal to the sum of each one of its digits raised to the number of digits, then it is narcissistic. Let’s take the example of 407. There are 3 digits in it and 407 = 4 cubed plus 0 cubed plus 7 cubed. That makes it a narcissistic number. Or take 1634. There are 4 digits in it. 1634 = 1 to the power 4 PLUS 6 to the power 4 PLUS 3 to the power 4 PLUS 4 to the power 4.

Apparently there are only 88 such narcissistic numbers.

Do you know what a perfect number is?
If all the divisors of a number (other than the number itself) add up to the number itself, it is called perfect. For example, 28. The factors are 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14. And they add to 28. Similary, 6 is a perfect number as is 496 and 8128.

Did you know there are happy numbers and sad numbers?
Take a number like 19. The digits are 1 and 9. Square them up and add. You get 1+81 = 82. Do the same again – 8 squared plus 2 squared is 68. Do again – you get 100. And then you are stuck on a loop of 1.
Now try 7. You get 49. Then 97. Then 130. Then 10. Then 1
There are a few numbers where if you keep doing this – square the digits and add and then keep doing – they will get stuck in a loop (either at 1 or a loop that does not have 1). Such numbers are called happy numbers. Every other number is a sad number!

What is a strong number?
If you add the factorials of the digits of the number and you land back at the original number, it is called strong number! Try 145. 1 factorial PLUS 4 factorial PLUS 5 factorial is 1 + 24 + 120 = 145. Thus it is a strong number

You know what is a circular number?
If the square of the number ends with the number itself, it is a circular number. e.g. 6, 25 …

Now Google and find out what is a vampire number? or an odious number? hoax number? pandigital number?

If you find more interesting numbers, do write back…

17 February 2018

Where did that come from – a “checkmark”?

Have you noticed how in many forms and applications, you use the “checkmark” symbol to say “Yes”? It is often called – and I remember in India that is what we used to call – a “tick” mark in other parts of the world. Some of you growing up in India, probably also remember the “tick” mark on your answer sheet that the teacher used to put if you got the answer right and a big “X” if you got it wrong.

Almost universally, that “check” is used to say Yes and the “X” is used to say No. There are exceptions though. In many forms in US – in general when it is a multiple choice question – for example the US customs form, you put in a “X” to mark the correct option. Also in certain places like Sweden and Korea the check mark stands for “No” or “False”.

The question is – why do we say “Yes” or “True” with that weird character – one short stroke from left to right downwards first and then a longer stroke upwards left to right next. Turns out there is a very interesting history of this symbol. It goes way back to the Roman Empire.

In the Roman Empire, when voting, citizens would put a “V” sign against the candidate that they chose. The “V” stood for the latin word “veritas” – mean “true” or “affirm”. (Remember “In Vino, Veritas” – in wine lies the truth?). This “V” symbol took a life of its own as it got used over a long period of time.

So, how did we get to the short line on the left? Well, for that we have to blame fountain pens. Or rather the pre-cursor to fountain pens – the “reservoir pens”. While “dip” pens (like the quill pens) were simply dipped into ink and then written, the “reservoir” pens held ink inside of it (like a modern day fountain pen). References to these kind of pens go back earlier than the 10th century. I understand Leonardo da Vinci used to use a form of this pen too.

In any case, while this design took away the need to carry ink with you all the time (which was clumsy at best), the modern day engineering advances of nibs was still not available. The flow from the barrel of ink inside to the tip of the nib outside was not very smooth. If you wrote with those pens, for the first fraction of a second, you would not have any ink (the nib tip would have dried) but momentarily the ink would start flowing in (as the capillary action set in). This is what will happen to a modern day fountain pen too if you have not used it for some time resulting in dry ink in the nib. That is why often, after pouring ink in, you draw a lot of straight lines on a piece of paper till the ink starts flowing.

Well, so, every time, they wrote a big “V” to ascertain their choice and opinion, the top of the left line (which is where you start) would not get marked since the ink would have not pushed thru the dry portion of the nib yet. But moment it came in, the rest of the letter would be fine.

Over the years, all those “V”s in elections and other choices, tended to have a short left line and then eventually, it became a symbol unto itself – which is today known as a “check” mark or a “tick” mark!

31 January 2018

How did that come around? – “Under the Weather”

I was on a birthday call with one of my friends in Singapore yesterday and she mentioned that her teenager son has been under the weather for the last couple of days. After keeping the phone down, I started wondering why do we say somebody is “under the weather”?

Of course the phrase means “being sick”. The first instinct I had was that inclement weather or season had to do with the source of sickness. But why “under”? In a very abstract sense, weather coming from mostly elements like cloud, skies, wind etc etc, in general, you would think that you are always “under” it, would you not?

After researching quite a few etymological sources, I learnt that this is actually a nautical term. (Is it not crazy how many nautical terms have made it to our day to day English?). While a couple of sources mention about the side of the ship during bad weather and one mentions about how when all the sick sailors names were written, some of them would spill over to the column under the “Weather” section in the log book, the most prevalent and accepted reason is slightly different.

During the sea-faring days, on a day of rough weather, a ship would sway from side to side and be tossed around violently. This would cause some of the passengers or sailors to get sick (seasick). The normal procedure was to then send them downstairs to floors lower than the deck since there would be far less swaying there.

This is what gave rise to the phrase “under the weather” – you are sent below the deck level when you get seasick from the ship’s violent swaying caused by rough weather.

Learnt something yesterday.

22 December 2017

Professional test. Word check.

If you sit down and start rattling off the different names of professions you can think of, I bet you that you will surprise yourself. In these days of hyper specialization, there are more professions (along with their specializations) than you can shake a stick at. Just think of the generic profession of “doctor”. Now think of how many different kinds of doctors you can think of – surgeons, podiatrist, oculist, optometrist, dentist, psychiatrist, cardiologist, anesthesiologist, immunologist, dermatologist, gynecologist, oncologist, pediatrician, urologist, rheumatologist…. you get the idea right?

Let’s try some unique words for professions today. Admittedly, some of these are uncommon these days.

Avoid writing the answers in the Comments section to give others a chance. However, feel free to write down how many answers you knew (just the number) before you start Googling.

1. Let’s start with the good old days when bows and arrows were the chief mechanism for hunting and defense. What do you call somebody whose job is to make bows? Believe it or not, there is a word for somebody who specializes in making arrows too. Do you know that name?

2. You will probably recognize who a blacksmith is. (worker of iron). Or a goldsmith or silversmith. Now, who is a redsmith? And who is a whitesmith?

3. Who is a catchpole?

4. There are carpenters who specialize in making chests and boxes (as opposed to doors, for example). What do you call them?

5. Who is a wainwright?

6. Long back, before alarm clocks were around, in England, there were professional people who would go around knocking on people’s doors and windows to wake them up on time. What were they called? (Interestingly, there was a time that professionals would dart peas out of a blowpipe to hit the windows of higher floors to wake people up on time!!!)

7. Making wigs is a profession unto itself. What are such wigmakers called?

8. Who is a castermonger?

9. You know all those cadavers that are used – for example – medical purposes? There are professional grave diggers who dig up recently buried coffins to retrieve the cadaver to be used for various purposes. What are they called?

10. And finally, who is a lector?

30 November 2017

Word puzzle: Birds of a feather…

Some of the most interesting revelations I had the other day was trying to learn the collective nouns of birds. I am sure you have heard a “murder” of crows is the proper way to describe a bunch of crows. I thought a “parliament” of owls was a hoot – ha ha!

Try these.

1. A _ of eagles
2. A _ of falcons
3. A _ of hens
4. A _ of nightingales
5. A _ of parrots
6. A _ of pelicans
7. A _ of sparrows
8. A _ of storks
9. A _ of turkeys
10. A _ of woodpeckers

11. Here is a bonus question: What is the difference between a “gaggle” of geese and a “skein” of geese? Take a guess. If it helps, it is the same difference as a “committee” of vultures and a “kettle” of vultures!!!

Now Google the answers… how many did you get?

[I will post the answers in 24 hours]