Me Like Words
Friday, June 30, 2006
Peeping Tom
Peeping Tom is a slang term for a voyeur.

Who doesn't like a little voyeurism every now and then? It's what's made reality TV so popular, after all. But a Peeping Tom is more than a casual voyeur, he's the kind of guy who watches the Big Brother webcam, waiting for someone to take a shower. Creepy? Indeed it is. But who was the Tom who inspired the phrases? It all goes back to Medieval Times. No, not the dining/entertainment establishment where knights fight each other and you eat chicken with your hands; the real Medieval Times where knights killed each other and you'd probably be too poor to afford chicken.

A local noble named Leofric, earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, decided he wanted to lay a heavy tax on his peasants. They were pissed because, hey, they're peasants and could barely afford to eat cabbage with their hands. Leofric's wife, the famous Lady Godiva, begged him to lift the tax and he agreed he would under one circumstance; she ride through the town stark naked on a horse."

"Fine," she said, and ordered all the townspeople to shutter their windows and not to look. The townspeople were cool with missing the show because the tax would be lifted but one pervy little tailor named Tom just couldn't resist poking his head out, or peeping if you will. The tax was lifted and Lady Godiva passed into legend for her selfless act of kindness. But the story doesn't end there.

Since Tom had seen the divine naked body of Ms. Godiva he had to be punished, but how? The Middle Ages were a cruel time and this story is no exception, he was blinded in both eyes. Lady Godiva may have been a saintly woman trying to save her peasants from tyrannical rule but take one look at her good stuff and you'll find both your eyes removed. Just ask the world's first Peeping Tom.

As shown by this very ancient Medieval woodcut, Lady Godiva did indeed have the finest chest meat in the land.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
A large amphitheater in Rome whose construction was begun by Vespasian about AD 75 or 80

I'm sorry if I have a lot of Roman-related words on here but I was first introduced to the notion that words have a history by my 9th grade Latin teacher. One of those words was Colosseum. Of course, the Colosseum as it is know, was not the original name for the building of a thousand screams; it was called the Flavian Amphitheatre, after the family who built it.

But along came Emperor Nero, second of the 'Mad Emperors' and president of his local Red Headed Devil club. He may have fiddled while Rome burned but before that he found the time to erect a huge statue of himself right outside the Flavian Amphitheatre. The statue was so big, so opulent that the roman citizens compared it to the Colossus of Rhodes. That statue, being about the size of The Statue of Liberty and straddling the entrance to Rhodes' harbor was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Nero's statue was by no means equal in size or glory but, since Nero was pretty much hated by the people, they mockingly called his statue the Colossus. The building next door eventually become known as the Colosseum and has been ever since.

Interestingly, only the Colosseum in Rome is called the Colosseum. But what about where the Hartford Whalers used to play? I was just getting to that. The term Colosseum was so popular as a name for a huge sports/entertainment complex other structures began adopting it but with one important difference: they never spell the word the same way as the original. The Whalers played in the Hartford Coliseum, not Colosseum. Man, I really miss the Whalers.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
I know I said I would post a word a day on this site but I've been sick for the past few days and when faced with the choice of doing a post or spending a few quality days on my toilet, I chose the latter. Anyway...

A pejorative nickname for people who dwell in remote, rural, mountainous areas. In particular the term refers to residents of the Ozarks and Appalachia in the United States.

Oh man, do we hate poor people or what?! And besides White Trash I can't think of a better term to describe these country dwellin', pig eatin', bean grownin' sons o' bitches than Hillbilly.

The hill part is easy enough to understand; they lived in the Ozark and Appalachian mountains, both very destitute, poor places. The Appalachian region is especially poor and depressing. I know this because my Great Grandpa once told me that the only people who live up there are "sister f*ckers and inbred freaks with wop eyes and n*gger noses." I really miss him sometimes. He fought in Word War I, you know...

Anyway, we've got the Hill down, but what about the Billy? It seems that for about four hundred years up until fairly recently the word Billy has been meant fellow or guy. Armed with that knowledge the term Hillbilly simply means "Hill Guy." Or, to my Great Grandpa, "Slant-eyed, homo, sheep f*cking catholics livin' in sin up in the hills there. Boy, Don't let me catch you wandering up there; they'll eat you alive." The world got a little bit darker when he passed away.
Hillbillies are so scary that they inspired the holiday Halloween. It's true, but don't bother looking it up.

Friday, June 23, 2006
The Third Degree
Mental or physical torture used to obtain information or a confession from a prisoner

Torture is back in vogue these days so it's best to be prepared when this phrases comes up in conversation. Most people associate giving someone the third degree with cops beating the christ out of a prisoner to get information or a confession. Also, the phrase might conjure up images of a kid in the 50's saying "Heck Pa, quit giving me the third degree already. I didn't break Mrs. Sampson's window." Man, people back then talked like assholes, huh?

Anyway, even though we associate the term third degree with some sort of criminal justice its origins have nothing to do with law, they have to do with an secret order founded long ago. The Priory of Sion was established...Just kidding, the phrase originated with The Masons, who used to be comprised of actual stonemasons and were nothing more than an influential trade guild. Now they have lodges and won't let my neighbor in because his grandfather may have been a Jew. But that's neither here nor there.

According to Masonic customs there are three levels to membership: the kind your dad is, the kind your grandpa is and the kind your family isn't wealthy enough to be. These stages are called the first, second and third degrees. Before one can be elevated to the third degree he must undergo a harrowing evaluation during which he is tested and quizzed and, maybe, beaten with the carcass of a deceased animal covered in chalk...maybe. Anyway, the general public co-opted this piece of Masonic tradition and applied it to any situation where one is being grilled for information. Thus getting the third degree was born.

Third Degree Stonemasons practicing their ancient craft.

PS: DO NOT Google image search the term 'third degree'. Aside from pictures of burn victims, 'third degree' is also a kind of
hemorrhoid. You've been warned.

Thursday, June 22, 2006
A stadium: a large structure for open-air sports or entertainments

Arena is by no means an obscure or interesting word on its own. We've all been to an arena at some point, all watched a game or band in an arena and all wondered who that chick sitting at the 50 yard line had to blow to get there. But the word Arena has been around longer than football or soccer or even Monsters of Arena Rock IV. It goes all the way back to roman times.

Romans loved nothing more than watching a good public murder. Of course, these murders were nothing more than gladiatorial fights (or lions eating Christians). The problem with killing people in an amphitheater is that people are full of fluids, like blood and urine. When you stab someone, and right before you stab someone, those fluids tend to exit the body. Not even the Roman slaves wanted to spend time scrubbing blood stains out of floorboards so they came up with ingenious method for soaking up all that blood: sand. The Latin word for sand was arena and that name has since applied to any large venue where people gather to watch competition. There may not be brutal killings going down at Giants Stadium (unless you count Jimmy Hoffa) but I will forever be indebted to the hundreds of thousands of people who died so I could write this little blog post about where the word arena comes from.
Blood and piss on your floor? Well not anymore! Introducing Sand, the revolutionary new way to soak up your victims sanguine fluids!
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Let The Cat Out Of The Bag
To let a secret be known

While letting a cat out of a bag is a kind and humane gesture when you're speaking literally, in the figurative sense the phrase means to let out the truth or, as the above states, to let a secret be known. The phrase has it's origins in the marketplaces of medieval Europe, just like my families history of chronic gout.

Pigs were sold at these markets just like used cars are sold today; customers perused the various offerings and eventually settled on one to purchase. However, imagine if when you were browsing the auto lot all of the cars were driving back and forth, whipping themselves into a frenzy. That's what pigs do when you try to confine them to small spaces, and the market stalls back then were very small indeed. Therefore, in that beautiful age before PETA when cruelty reigned free, livestock dealers simply put the pigs into burlap sacks to keep them somewhat docile.

But where does this cat business come into it? Well, just like the kid sold me an ounce of oregano in middle school, there were hustlers back then as well. These frauds would put a cat in the burlap sack instead of a piglet and, since no one wanted to risk chasing a pig around the crowded marketplace, the dirty deed often wasn't discovered till the buyer arrived back at his cave or whatever they lived in back then. Once the bag was opened, the secret was out and the cat was, literally, out of the bag.

An angry buyer vents his frustrations at a fraudulent purchase

A highly addictive drug derived from morphine, is obtained from the opium poppy

People wonder whether heroin the drug and heroic have the same root. In fact they do. It's the Greek word heros. But why was heroin named so proudly to begin with? It all has to do with the drug business, but not the kind you're thinking about. Heroin was invented in 1874 by an English chemist named C.R. Alder Wright but he didn't do much with it. But when the recipe found its way over to Felix Hoffmann at the German drug company, Bayer (yes, the same Bayer), things began to happen for little heroin. Heroin, the word itself, was a registered trademark, like Jell-O or Coca-Cola. It was the name by which Bayer was going to market their new pain killer, and market they did. The name was chosen, obviously, because during testing users said it made them feel heroic. Heroin was marketed from 1898-1910 by Bayer as an alternative cold medicine and also as a cure for morphine addiction. When someone discovered that heroin turns into morphine in your liver, Bayer was embarrassed. Finally, in 1914 the US outlawed heroin altogether and it's never been used or abused since!

Oh, but back to that German chemist Hoffmann for a second. He was having a busy couple of weeks around the time he registered the Heroin trademark. He had invented and registered Aspirin only 11 days earlier (yes, aspirin also was a trademarked term). In fact, one reason he developed heroin into a medicine was because he feared 'possible side effects' of aspirin. If he only knew...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
The study of the origins and history of words

That pretty much sums it up. Everyday I will attempt to post a word or interesting phrase and tell you where it came from. If you like finding out why the Canary Islands are so called or where the phrase 'cold shoulder' comes from, you'll probably enjoy this blog. If you couldn't care less about any of this than you clearly had more friends than I did in high school.
I (me) like words. And even more than liking words I like to know where they come from and how they ended up in my mouth. It's called 'Etymology,' and I hope you like words as much as me do. If you have a word or phrase you've been pondering send it to me at with 'Me Like Words' as the subject.

Location: New York City, New York, United States
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