Me Like Words
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
 
The Grapevine
Gossip spread by spoken communication

We've all heard the phrase, "heard it through the grapevine." It's almost impossible to say without humming along to Marvin Gaye's catchy tune about a cheating woman. But the term is far older than Mr. Gaye. It originated in New York City back in the 1820's and, yes, it does have something to do with an actual grapevine (although not the magic kind that can tell you secrets).

In the 1700's a roadhouse was erected at West 11th Street and 6th Ave (for you out-of-towners, that's the corner where 11th Street intersects with 6th Ave). The house was named the Old Grapevine in homage to the large vine that grew across its facade. By the 1820's, as development moved north, the Old Grapevine became a popular saloon frequented by actors, poets and bohemians. Because the place attracted so many people involved in similar pursuits, news and gossip were disseminated amongst the regulars with lightening speed. The customers started referring to this means of obtaining information as "hearing it on the grapevine." The term stuck and was carried by soldiers into the Civil War during which it was spread all over the country. I heard the rest is history.

As for the Old Grapevine tavern, it stood in the same spot until it was torn down in 1914. Curiously, when the building was demolished, articles published about it made no reference to it as the birthplace of the famous phrase.

Amazing! New York once had trees!
 
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
 
Oscar The Grouch
C'mon, we all know who Oscar the Grouch is.

Though technically not a word or phrase I stumpled upon the origins of Oscar the Grouch in a great book - "Only in New York," by the writers of the New York Times' FYI column - and thought this would be a good place to tell you about it. Oscar, we all know, is the garbage can-dwelling green monster who is always bumming out the rest of the block on Sesame Street. I could make a joke about how I'd be in a bad mood too if I lived in a garbage can, but I would never do something like that. Anyway, the story of Oscar is short and involves two key players: a waiter and a cab driver.

Jim Henson and Jon Stone, two Sesame Street creators, used to dine at a place called Oscar's Tavern in Manhattan. It so happens that one day their waiter was very surly and rude. He must have really been a dick because the two concieved the character of Oscar the Grouch based on that angry, prickish waiter. He was named Oscar in homage to the restaurant where the idea had struck.

The voice of Oscar, provided by one Carroll Spinney, is an impression of one particularly gruff and raspy cab driver who drove him to the studio. There you have it, the origins of Oscar the Grouch.

Interesting sidenote, Oscar was bright orange in the first season and changed to that familiar green before season 2.

See, I wasn't lying.
 
Monday, September 18, 2006
 
Led Zeppelin
Rock band from the 70's


Led Zepplin made the music your parents used to get high to. They - Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and the wonderfully excessive, and deceased, John Bohnam - rocked harder than just about anybody and you can hear their samples today in anything from P. Diddy to Weird Al (that's true, get his new CD). They're also infamous for their supposedly mad partying back in the 70's which ultimately lead to the death of the great Bonzo himself. But all that aside, how did they come up with the name Led Zeppelin?

First off, you need to understand that Zep wasn't just some startup rock n' roll band; they were formed from the rubble of another band. Jimmy Page had been the lead guitarist for the Yardbirds, a popular 60's band. When they were in the process of falling apart, Page talked with some other musicians about forming a super group. All of the other musicians dropped out and what eventually did come together was Led Zeppelin: three virtually unknown musicians and the guitarist from The Yardbirds...not exactly the super group Page had hoped for. In fact, the groups prospects looked so frim that Who drummer Keith Moon - also a lunatic, by the way - suggested that they would go down faster than a "lead zeppelin." That also happened to be a term for a bad gig. The name was catchy but their manager suggested dropping the "a" from "lead" so as not to confuse people into pronouncing it "leed." There you have it, the fathers of heavy metal came from a joke told at their expense.
 
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
 
Cold Shoulder
Snub: a refusal to recognize someone you know

Nothing feels quite as bad as getting the cold shoulder from someone you love, especially if that someone is your Dad...why wouldn't he just play catch with me? Anyway, ignoring a friend is nothing new and neither is this phrase which has its roots in jolly old England at about the time Willy Shakes was writing his plays.

Back in those days it was common to have visitors and travellers drop in unannounced. Hotels didn't really exist yet and your best bet for finding a bed was to just knock on someone's door. Now, if someone agreed to let you in they were also obligated to feed you, which is a great custom. Most visitors got good hearty food but if someone came in who was a persona non grata he would be given the less than desirable cut of meat: the cold shoulder of beef.

The phrase stuck and travelled the time highway all the way to us. It was the best our ancestors knew how to insult someone; they didn't have "Yo Mama" back then.

Now imagine eating it cold...
 
Thursday, September 07, 2006
 
The Big Apple
The "Big Apple" is a nickname or alternate toponym for New York City.

Ah, New York City: the capital of the 20th century, the crowded island at the center of the world and, most importantly, where I live. New York has many nicknames, from Gotham to the city that never sleeps (not true), but none have stuck out quite as much as The Big Apple. Most of us are so comfortable calling New York the Big Apple that we don't even stop to think about how ridiculous it sounds. So, how did we come to call the greatest American city a piece of large fruit? It all has to do with jazz and horse racing.

The term's first appearance was in a column by New York Morning Telegraph writer John Fitzgerald. He was writing about horse racing and used the term, which he credited to a black stable boy in New Orleans.
J. P. Smith, with Tippity Witchet and others of the L. T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for “the big apple” to-morrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace.
New York races at the time were by far the best, hence the need for a nickname. After that, Big Apple started to pop up more and more in horse racing columns and Fitzgerald continued to push it's use. After a short while, Big Apple spread beyond the racing world and was picked up by jazz musicians.

The story goes that jazz musicians had a saying: "Every city you play you pick a little apple; but when you play New York you pick the big apple." Or something like that. Either way, jazz spread the use of Big Apple further and a jazz club called The Big Apple opened in Harlem and a dance was invented also bearing the same name.

It's pretty much been that way ever since. In the 1970's the city officially adopted Big Apple as their symbol to lure tourists to the declining metropolis. Obviously, it worked.


I really do apple New York, now that I think about it.
 
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
 
Skid Row
A city district frequented by vagrants and alcoholics and addicts

Ever since my Dad went to Seattle last month he's been pestering me to post the knowledge he gained there; namely, the origins of the term Skid Row. Being that he just paid for my groceries and some new clothes, I feel it's the least I can do to appease him. So Dad, this one's for you!

Seattle isn't that old but it's certainly done a lot in it's 150 or so years on the map. One of those things was to provide a lot of trees to the rest of the country. If you know anything about trees - and, honestly, you really should - you'll know that they are big and heavy and not easy to move. Enter the coduroy road, a method for moving logs across smaller logs covered in sand. Lo and behold, old Seattle had just such a road.

The corduroy road - or skid road - lead down to water where the logs would be transported to Henry Yesler's lumber mills. The street, which was actually called Yesler's Way, was commonly known as skid road or skid row. But how did it come to mean a trashy street?

That came courtesy of the Great Depression which turned the street into a desolate alleyway filled with 'riff raff.' The term stuck and now almost every big city has a filthy street they have christened their own skid row. Being a New Yorker, we claim The Bowery as ours.

There. Are you happy dad?


The OTHER Skid Row
 
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 Streeter@StreeterSeidell.com with 'Me Like Words' as the subject.

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