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Etymology of ‘Bullshit’ and ‘Factoid’

Have you ever wondered how male bovine excrement became synonymous with boldfaced nonsense? Many would say, ‘Well, because it smells’. But why bulls in particular? Are bull pies a particularly smelly brand of animal waste?

As it happens, bull, as a synonym for ‘deceitful foolishness’, dates all the way back to Middle English, and apparently comes from the Old French word bole, meaning ‘deception, trick, scheming, intrigue’.

It’s also important to make the distinction between bull and lies. Harry Frankfurt, the foremost academic on the subject of bullshit, says that lies must know the truth in order to actively conceal it, but bullshit doesn’t care what the truth is.

Another fun fact: the word factoid is synonymous with bullshit. Though people often use it to mean ‘a true but insignificant statement’, the more precise word is actually factlet. Norman Mailer coined factoid in the 1970s to mean ‘resembling truth while not necessarily being true’ (referring, of course, to tabloid ‘news’). The suffix -oid meaning ‘having the quality of, or relating to’. In essence, it’s all bullshit.

Part of Speech and Racial Insensitivity

Have you ever noticed that sometimes a word can be considered racially or culturally insensitive simply because of its part of speech? Adjectives used to describe groups of people (and generally considered politically correct)—like black or gay—can become racially or politically insensitive simply by transforming those words into nouns—like the blacks or the gays—with the most evident case being the adjective Jewish versus the noun Jew.

In fact, if you were to Google search the word Jew, websites for hate groups are often among the top results, and Google actually has a disclaimer explaining the issue. They say that while the results may be disturbing, “the word ‘Jew’ is often used in an anti-Semitic context”, and that “Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word ‘Jewish’ when talking about members of their faith.”

So the question is…why?

Well, consider this: If someone were to use the word dwarf, many would be more likely to think of the mythical being rather than a person with dwarfism, because that noun dehumanizes them. By referring to a group of people with a collective noun, we separate them as “others” rather than welcoming them as people who happen to have a particular trait different from us.

But if we set that trait apart by making it an adjective, we put emphasis on the person’s humanity: She’s not a Jew, she’s a Jewish person. He’s not a dwarf, he’s a person with dwarfism.

This is certainly a very fine distinction which some may find pedantic and another case of over political correctness, but from a linguistic standpoint, it is interesting how such a simple case of grammar might affect our perception of others.

Etymology of ‘Math’ and ‘Maths’

In North America, when discussing mathematics we use the abbreviation math, though UK English speakers choose to abbreviate the singular mathematic and then pluralize the abbreviation to maths.

Which begs the question, what is a mathematic?

British English speakers will often tease Americans for our misuse of the language that they invented, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the American shortening of mathematics dates back to 1890, while “the British preference, maths, is attested from 1911.”

So it seems that the word was corrupted in the opposite direction over the Atlantic. Imagine that.

Etymology of ‘Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too’

Has anyone ever told you, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too!” This has always baffled me. What’s the point of having a cake if you can’t eat it? Even Marie-Antoinette understood that cake is for eating, and gosh-darn-it she wasn’t going to get in the way of anyone enjoying cake if they wanted to (though not really).

This confusion comes from interpreting the “having” and “eating” of cake as sequential acts rather than concurrent. In early accounts the phrase was reversed to read, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” implying that once the cake is eaten, you can no longer possess it.

In fact, this archaic use of the phrase was used in identifying Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber.

James Fitzgerald, forensic linguist for the FBI, states that when coming across the reversed phrase in the Unabomber’s manifesto, “He technically had it right and the rest of us had it wrong. It was one of the big clues that allowed us to make the rest of the comparison.”

Of course, use of the word “wrong” is something grammatical pendants will argue, but in either case, our current use of “have your cake and eat it, too” certainly presents an issue of grammatical correctness vs stylistic correctness. While the sentence is grammatically correct and—if interpreted in a particular way—logically correct, it is still stylistically unclear. So if you also were confused by this saying, try switching your clauses, and breathe easy knowing that no one is stopping you from eating cake.

But remember: once you eat it, it’s gone.

Tricks, Treats and All Hallow’s Read

Trick-or-treating may have originated with Hallowmas caroling (or souling as it was known in mediæval times), but that doesn’t mean tricks and treats have to be pranks and candy. So this Hallowe’en, why not partake in All Hallows Read by tricking a friend with a terrifying tale or treating a child with a spooky story?

Handing out literature when children yell “Trick or treat!” (or as the Peanuts gang say, “Tricks or treats!”) may be grounds for getting you house egged, but telling ghost stories around a bonfire is a great way to bond with friends in the way humans have for thousands of years, and passing around a scary book is as great a way to prep for Hallowe’en as watching horror movies or listening to campy 80s metal.

‘The Sweet Old Etcetera’ and eLit

The Sweet Old Etcetera” (by digital artist Allison Clifford) is an interactive story animating the poetry of EE Cummings. Where Cummings used the typewriter to expand the boundaries of poetry, Clifford uses Flash to bring words to life.

This is eLit (electronic literature) at its best, where interaction adds to the experience rather than replacing it, and it proves that digital can be beautiful too.

Why and How: The value of a formal education

In earlier posts I’ve discussed academic addiction and the things that college and graduate school cannot teach you, but this is not to say that there is no value to higher learning.

Formal education and practical training teach two very different skill sets. What they seem to come down to is a matter of why vs how.

Why: A matter of context

Academic environments allow students the value of peers with differing viewpoints (whether they be other students, instructors or textbooks), and so an environment of argument is created where students can better understanding the context and historical placement of a discussion.

While working on my thesis, I had a professor who described the thesis as this:

You enter a cocktail party, and join a group of people discussing something that interests you, but before you join the conversation there are a few things you must first understand:

  • You must understand the lingo everyone is using.
  • You must know where every participant stands in the argument, and what arguments have already been made.
  • You must understand the accepted truths of the group so as to prove yourself a member.

Just imagine what an ass you’d make of yourself if you started forming arguments before you understood the conversation. Educations helps students to better understand the conversation.

Formally educated students understand why things are the way the are and have been encouraged to ask why do them in the first place?

How: A matter of practical insight

But sometimes why isn’t enough. Field experience teaches the practical insight that schools often cannot offer. They understand how things are done.

While academics stress on theory, those with practical experience are the ones who figure out how. This come down to the difference between being able to talk about something and being able to do it.

Why and How: A matter of Truth

Asking why and how both help us arrive at Truth. Theories do not always translate to reality, and so practical experience is necessary to weed out bad theories. But not all truth is detectable by our senses, and so theory is necessary to arrive at higher consciousness.

Francis Cugat’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote “I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it”, also calling the cover art “the book jacket for a book of bad science fiction”, but Francis Cugat’s illustration for The Great Gatsby has endured as one of (if not the) most famous book covers of all time.

The cover art, which Cugat had submitted before the manuscript itself had been finished, had inspired Fitzgerald enough that he even worked it into the story. Many believe the sad blue eyes are reflected in the billboard for Dr TJ Eckleburg.

Charles Scribner III (one of the publishers of The Great Gatsby) details the history of this famous book cover in an essay written while at the University of South Carolina.

The Elements of Style

In America, William Strunk Jr and EB White are to writing what the Duke of Windsor is to menswear: the undisputed arbiters of style. They may favor Fowler in the UK, but across the United States English 101 students are being forced to read buy Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but I say why read it when you can just watch the rap video?

If you do end up buying the Elements of Style I suggest hunting down this beautiful illustrated edition by Maira Kalman, because if there was ever a book that desperately called for illustrations, it’s a writing style manual. These may very well be the nerdiest things I’ve ever seen (and I mean that with love).

Pop Culture’s Effect on Society

In the 1940s and 50s, comic books were blamed for corrupting our children. In the 90s, rap music was blamed for everything from school shootings, to violence towards women, to the promotion of gang culture. And more recently, videogames have been the scapegoated as the source of America’s fascination with violence.

Often, members of these scapegoated communities will argue back with similarly misguided rhetoric. Many will say something like, “I’ve been playing video games since I was 3 and I didn’t turn out into some violent ghoul”.

But this statement is only half correct. Of course an entire medium cannot be trivialized into being inherently good or bad, but the statement also seems to suggest that the things that define our culture (videogames, movies, TV etc) have no effect on how we behave as a culture.

And how can that be true? How can something people engage in so closely and passionately have no influence on people and how we think?

Pop Culture Can Affect Us in Positive Ways

Tell the makers of Journey or Shadow of the Colossus that videogames are just expensive time-wasters. Tell Public Enemy and KRS-One that their rhymes about the black experience have had no effect on society. Tell Alan Moore that V for Vendetta will never affect the way people think or motivate anyone to action. Art influences and is influenced by our views, our values and our culture, and these things inform our actions.

By making the argument that pop culture doesn’t affect people’s actions, you belittle the very thing you’re trying to protect. The problem is you can’t have it both ways. If we believe that we can inspire with our music and films and other forms of entertainment, then we must concede that when used improperly, our creative works can have negative implications as well.

Social Vices Are Like Paints for Artists to Create With

Hip Hop journalist Harry Allen once said about music sampling, “Sampling is like the color red. It’s like saying, ‘Is the color red creative?’ Well, it is when you use it creatively.” Similarly, sex, violence, racism, drug use and other vices are all different paints that an artist may use to comment on culture, but it’s not the paint that makes a painting good or bad, but how that paint was used.

In 1971, Stan Lee wrote a story arc for The Amazing Spider-Man that involved drug abuse. At the time, it was largely impossible for mainstream comics to even mention such topics, because it couldn’t be passed by the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing body formed to screen comic books for appropriateness. Yet, the story arc became one of the first comics to be printed without the seal of approval from the Comics Code Authority since its formation, and since its publication the story has proceeded to win awards.

Though the CCA disapproved of any instance of drug use, Stan Lee proved that he could use the paint with creativity.

Vice in Pop Culture Should Be Criticized on a Case by Case Basis

Discussion should not be about violence in videogames, but about particular instances violence—not about sex and nudity on TV, but about particular instances of sex and nudity.

Whether they be comic book writers, rappers or videogame creators, the people behind the media we consume are engaged in artistry, and as I’ve said before, all art is rhetoric. Even the Nazis knew that the way to reach people is through pop culture and other creative media. Every song, movie and TV show is making some statement, and we should judge them not on the topics they discuss, but by how they treat that topic.’s Gladstone recently made similar comments about the current debate surrounding “rape jokes”. The point he argues is that you cannot have a discussion about rape jokes, because you must take them on a case by case basis and analyze what the joke is saying. Is it making fun of rape? Is it belittling rape? Or is it commenting on how we as a culture view rape?

No topic should be so off limits that we don’t discuss it, whether it be through artistic expression or cultural debate. Violence, sex, racism and the Holocaust are all viable topics for jokes, movies or videogames, but we must carefully judge each instance on what is being said.