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Peeping Tom Cried “Mayday!” as he Ate an Avocado at Xmas

As I kept reading Charles Harrington Elster’s book “What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions About Language,” I found myself fascinated by the stories of how certain words or phrases began.

So, here are some more.

Avocado — From the Aztec word ahuacatl, which Spanish conquerors mispronounced as aguacate, which is what the fruit is called today. Other Spanish speakers translated ahuacatl as “avocado.”

Jiffy — It originates from the 1785 book “Baron Munchausen’s Travels” by Rudolph Raspe (other sources call it “Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia” by Rudolf Erich Raspe), who likely invented the word and used it as a measure of time (“six jiffies”).

Mayday — From the French m’aider, in the phrase venez m’aider, meaning “come help me.” In English m’aider is pronounced “mayday.”

Mind your p’s and q’s — Elster dismisses the notion it means “pints and quarts.” He says no one is really sure what it means, but the most likely answer comes from penmanship. P and Q follow each other in the alphabet, and the lower-case versions are often confused by youngsters just learning how to write them.

Peeping Tom — He was a tailor who bored a hole in his shutter and watched Lady Godiva ride by.

The whole story, from folklore and not literature, has Lady Godiva, wife of Leofric (sometimes spelled Leoffric), Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, riding through town naked (some sources says she wore form-fitting satin) because she cared about her subjects and wanted her husband to stop taxing them so highly, which he said he would do if she rode though the city. She issued a proclamation saying everybody stay inside with the windows and shutters closed while she did this. Tom was severely punished. Some sources say he was killed, others say he was blinded. None of them explain how he was discovered.

Xmas — X is the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, chi, and stands for Christ.

Until next time! Use the right words!


July 24, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How She Smells What I Hear

Recently, my daughter and I attended a piano recital. As the pianist played Chopin, my daughter turned to me and said, “That music smells like grape medicine.”


It made no sense to me. I thought that the sound triggered a memory of something she smelled when she as younger. How does a sound (that requires one to use the sense of hearing) have an odor (which requires one to use the sense of smell)? My daughter insisted that she could do this, much like a friend of hers can see colored auras around people.

Fortunately, some days later, my daughter directed me to a YouTube video about a condition called synesthesia. The word, Greek for “union of the senses,” refers to a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. This video made more sense than the dictionary definition of synesthesia: “a concomitant sensation, especially a subjective sensation or image of a sense other than the one being stimulated.”

Upon further research, I learned there are different forms of synesthesia. My daughter can tell me what color a word, letter or number is. This is called grapheme-color synesthesia. That my daughter can smell a sound is an example of auditory → tactile synesthesia. It is similar to the rarer  lexical-gustatory synesthesia, in which a word evokes a taste.

There are other forms. Chromesthesia is an association of sound to color. Those with spatial sequence synesthesia tend to see numerical sequences as points in space, either on a line, a curve, or as a clock. Misophonia is a neurological disorder in which negative experiences (anger, flight, hatred, disgust) are triggered by specific sounds.

All this means is my daughter’s not crazy, unless you think Duke Ellington, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Billy Joel, Nikola Tesla and Pharrell Williams are crazy. They are among the many who claim to have this condition.

Until next time! Use the right words!

May 22, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Seem to Remember “In The Back of My Mind …”

Recently, I heard someone use the term “back of my mind.” This made me wonder if the brain functions associated with the saying, worry and memory, are really in the back of the brain.

In my experiences with something in the back of my mind, I’m usually trying to remember something. It might be a neutral fact, or it might be something that causes me to pause and express concern, worry or anxiety.

Well, I looked online to find which brain parts control worry and memory. Both are controlled in the part of the brain called the limbic system. Inside it is the amygdala, which is the part that comes alive when we worry; and the hippocampus, which controls all or memory functions: sensory, short-term and long-term.

(Incidentally, hippocampus gets its name from its shape: It looks like a seahorse, and hippocampus is Greek for “coiled horse.”)

The only problem: the limbic system is in the middle of the brain, not the back.

Until next time! Use the right words!

August 22, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wide Variety Is Not A Plethora

From the “Even I can learn from this blog” files:

I had coffee with someone today who mentioned the word plethora. In context, she referred to a wide variety, and I’ve always thought that’s what plethora meant. To further emphasize, and to be silly using big-kid words, I would refer to a wide variety as a veritable plethora.

As I drank my coffee, I realized that I had never looked up plethora in the dictionary. Later, when I did, I was surprised.

Plethora, from the Greek meaning “fullness,” is a bodily condition characterized by excess red corpuscles in the blood or the increase of blood quantity. In other words, a fullness of blood.

The second definition read “excess; superfluity.” That is not a wide variety. Variety implies a large selection, and I suppose that could include items considered superfluous. But based on definition alone, I’ve been misusing plethora for a long time.

At least I used veritable correctly.

Until next time! Use the right words!


January 17, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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