You’ll find the story behind this week’s word, blue falcon, over at Strong Language, the sweary blog about swearing. What does blue falcon have to do with swearing? A couple of hints: It’s a bit of coded military jargon that became a Twitter hashtag after an emotional speech delivered by White House Chief of Staff (and retired Marine general) John Kelly.
“The tale of ‘scofflaw,’ born in Boston at a time when Prohibitionists were staging mock funerals of ‘John Barleycorn’ and fleets of Coast Guard rum-chasers patrolled Boston Harbor, shows that sometimes real words can actually be invented on demand. They just don’t always behave exactly the way their engineers hope they will.” (Boston Globe, via @ammonshea.) I wrote about “scofflaw” in a 2011 blog post. More on the language of Prohibition in this 2010 post.
[T]he project leader’s initial idea was straightforward: the Anti-Qassam, referring to the type of missiles most commonly fired by Hamas. When that was rejected as “problematic,” he and his wife came up with Golden Dome, an image that brings to mind the palaces of Kubla Khan or perhaps (closer to home) the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. That name was rejected as being too ostentatious, so under the pressure of time, gold was reduced to a lesser metal, and Iron Dome was born.
Umcka products are derived from the medicinal plant Pelargonium sidoides, a type of geranium native to southern Africa. The brand name comes from a Zulu word for the plant, umckaloabo, which translates to “heavy cough.” According to the Umcka website:
In 1897, Englishman Charles Stevens went to South Africa hoping to cure himself of a respiratory illness. While there, an African tribal healer gave him a remedy made from Pelargonium sidoides roots (a plant native to the coastal regions of South Africa). Fully recovered, Stevens brought the remedy back to England where it became popular as Stevens’ Consumption Cure.
After excursions through Switzerland and homeopathy, Umcka came to American drugstore shelves as a sub-brand of Nature’s Way.
Today the bank has branches along the Pacific coast between San Francisco and Seattle. Umpqua Bank was founded (as South Umpqua State Bank) in 1953 in Centerville, Oregon. According to a Wikipedia entry, the bank’s founders were “a group of people working in the timber-logging business who wanted to create a means for their loggers to cash their payroll checks.” Earlier this week, the bank’s parent company, Umpqua Holdings Corporation, approved a merger with Sterling Financial Corporation of Spokane.
Umpqua is the Native name for several tribes that live in present-day south-central Oregon; the word has been variously translated as “thundering waters,” “across the waters,” and “satisfied.” It’s an unusual name for a bank—and Umpqua presents itself as an out-of-the-ordinary financial institution—but not an unusual word in its place of origin: southern Oregon is home to the Umpqua River, the Umpqua National Forest, Umpqua Community College, Umpqua Dairy, and Umpqua Transit (“UTrans”). The umpqua.com domain is owned by Umpqua Feather Merchants, which makes fly-fishing ties.
Umpty: a word meaning “of an indefinite number.” The OED calls it “a fanciful verbal representation of the dash (—) in Morse code,” and dates it back to 1905. But a World Wide Words entry (under “Weird Words”) found much earlier citations “in which it was a nonsense syllable in poetry, for example as umpty-tumpty-tiddle-dee.” The earliest WWW citation is from 1884. WWW also mentions a more recent British expression, “give it some umpty,” (“an encouragement to effort”).
Iddy-umpty is early 20th-century military slang for Morse code. (Likewise, “umpteen” is believed to have originated among soldiers in World War I.) I found this in a post on the Virtual Linguist blog:
Troops were apparently taught to recognise whether a dot or a dash was being transmitted by the sound of the machine. A dot made an 'iddy' sound and a dash sounded like 'umpty'.
Iddy Umpty card game from 1920: “Quickly teaches you to read Morse.” Source: Board Game Geek.
A.A. Milne (yes, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh) used “umpty-iddy-umpty” and its variations in a passage about Morse code in his 1921 short story “The Red House Murder,” published in Everybody’s Magazine.
Covering a vast array of verbal blunders, from Spoonerisms to malapropisms to “uh” and “um,” linguist and author Erard creates a unique narrative blend of science, history, pop culture, and politics that gets at what really matter when we speak — and when we listen.
Trebuchet: A stone-throwing engine of war. The word was imported from French into English in the 13th century, when the device was invented; the French verb trabucher meant “to overturn, overthrow,” from tra- (from Latin trans-, here expressing “displacement”) and Old French buc “trunk, bulk.” (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary.)
Drawing from Real World Physics Problems, which notes that “the payload could be thrown a far distance and do considerable damage, either by smashing down walls or striking the enemy while inside their stronghold.”
Trebuchets have been in the news lately because of their role in the antigovernment protests that have been taking place in Ukraine since November 2013. “The Battle for Ukraine Is Being Fought Using Ancient Military Tactics” read a January 22 headline in Business Insider. While protesters favoring European integration built a trebuchet in the capital city of Kiev (or Kyiv), government forces adopted an ancient Roman shielding tactic called the testudo, Latin for “tortoise.”
What’s the difference, you ask, between a trebuchet and a catapult? I looked it up for you. According to Jarod’s Forge, a history blog written by museum curator Jarod Kearny, a catapult is “any device that throws an object, although it commonly refers to the medieval siege weapon”; a catapult uses tension for its throwing force. Trebuchets “are a TYPE of catapult, using gravity (with a counterweight) or traction (men pulling down), to propel the arm and often employing a sling at the end of the arm for greater distance.”
The distinction is sometimes overlooked in coverage of the Ukrainian conflict. RT.com (formerly known as Russia Today) called the machine a catapult:
Puzzled protesters and journalists watched Monday as a group of masked people studied some plans, standing next to a pile of long wooden poles they had carried to a central Kiev area earlier. It soon turned out the protesters were building a catapult – or, as some argued, a trebuchet.
And there was this:
RT @Walldo: naturally the homemade catapult used by protesters in Ukraine has its own Twitter account -> @ukr_catapult
Other words that frequently appear in coverage of the protests include Maidan (square, plaza), a word with cognates in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu; Berkut (“golden eagle”), the riot police; and Moskal (a derogatory term for a resident of Moscow). For more, see this Radio Free Europe glossary.
Previous Fritinancy coverage of antique weapons: Bayonets.
Fifty shades of blue. Can you discern the difference between LinkedIn blue and Disqus blue? IBM blue and Evomail blue? Test your powers of perception at Name That Blue, then graduate to pinks, reds, purples, greens, and a whole lot of tech companies you’ve never heard of.
Helvetica the perfume. “We have created the ultimate Modernist perfume – a scent distilled down to only the purest and most essential elements to allow you, the content, to convey your message with the utmost clarity.” Translation: for $62, not including tax and shipping, you get distilled water in a clear bottle with a label.
“For those who dare to be the same.” Image via AdFreak.
Hideous holiday music. I note with sadness the passing in 2013 of Jim Nayder, curator of Chicago Public Radio’s Annoying Music show (frequently heard on NPR); and of Regretsy (“Where DIY Meets WTF”), the blog that compiled the very worst of Etsy craft projects. But there’s hope for both camps of mourners: the multitalented April Winchell, who ran Regretsy for four years (posting as Helen Killer), can still be found on her eponymous blog. And in an effort that would do Jim Nayder proud, she’s compiled her own catalog of wretched holiday tunes, from “Homo Christmas” (by Pansy Division) to the Bethlehem Rap, from “I Yust Go Nuts on Christmas” and “Yingle Bells” by that great, great faux-Swedish entertainer Yogi Yorgesson (né Harry Stewart) to the world’s worst version of “O Holy Night.”
And speaking of holiday traditions, watch this space for my annual Festivus Airing of Grievances, coming later this week.
During the lead-up to D-Day—June 6, 1944—the Allied nations undertook an elaborate deception strategy designed to mislead the Germans about the real date and location of the Normandy invasion. The overall plan was called Operation Bodyguard; one of its more bizarre elements—the creation of a decoy army, complete with inflatable tanks and fake artillery—had the code name Operation Fortitude.
The choice of code name for this particular operation—the crux of Bodyguard—was much debated. [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill had given instructions that no code name should be selected that might seem flippant in retrospect or give a hint of the individual or action involved. But he also disliked code names that meant nothing at all, which is why the original choice, “Mespot,” was rejected. Also vetoed were “Bulldog,” “Swordhilt,” “Axehead,” “Tempest,” and, obscurely, “Lignite.” Finally, a name was selected that seemed to evoke the resolution required to pull it off: Operation Fortitude.
The story of Operation Fortitude is told in a new documentary by Rick Beyer, “The Ghost Army,” that had its premiere Tuesday night on PBS. (Repeat broadcasts are scheduled throughout the week.)
It wasn’t only the operations that were deliberately named. The code names of the double agents who worked for MI5, the British intelligence agency, were also chosen with care and a hefty dash of dry humor. Dusko Popov, for example, a risk-loving Serbian playboy, was dubbed “Agent Tricycle.”
This may have been, in part, a reference to Popov’s insatiable appetites and his reputed but probably apocryphal taste for three-in-a-bed sex. It also recognized that the Tricycle network now consisted of one big wheel—Popov—supported by two smaller ones, Agents Balloon and Gelatine.
The Americans took a different approach to code names. When Popov came to Washington in 1941 on an assignment from MI5, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who regarded foreign spies as “just another species of criminal,” was not amused. “The FBI did not go in for jocular code names,” Macintyre tells us. “Popov was ‘Confidential Informant ND 63,’ an austere title that aptly reflects the bureau’s chilly attitude.”
How can a brand name convey a specific benefit—in this case, underwear so smooth and sleek it’s almost like wearing no underwear at all—without resorting to descriptive terms (Vanishing Edge, Invisibles)? For one U.S. company, the solution came from Vietnam-era slang.
Commando is a brand of elastic-free women’s underwear and hosiery designed with smooth edges that don’t show under clothing. Founded in 2003 by husband-and-wife team Kerry O’Brien and Ed Biggins, the company is based in South Burlington, Vermont, far from major garment-industry capitals; products are made in the U.S. and sold at department stores and online.
“Commando” is an excellent example of a suggestive name—and by suggestive I mean not only the dictionary sense of “implying something slightly improper” (completely appropriate in this context) but also the trademark sense: “indirectly alluding to a quality of a product.” That’s because of commando’s metaphorical secondary meaning.
Commando first entered English in the late 18th century, a borrowing from Portuguese that originally referred to “an armed and mounted party of men” or the expedition undertaken by such a party. It wasn’t until World War II that the word referred to a single person—specifically, according to the OED, “a member of a body of picked men trained originally (in 1940) as shock troops for the repelling of the threatened German invasion of England, later for the carrying out of raids on the Continent and elsewhere.” Until 1942, “commando” was capitalized.
The underwear brand Commando isn’t about shock troops: it’s about “going commando,” a slang phrase first documented (again according to the OED) in 1974, in Current U.N.C. [University of North Carolina] Slang: “to wear no underpants (beneath one’s clothing).” “The origin of this use is obscure,” the dictionary notes; “the allusion appears to be to commandos’ reputation for action, toughness, or resourcefulness rather than to any specific practice.”
When did the term “going commando” enter the civilian lexicon? The phrase dates back to at least the middle of the 20th century, when Americans used it to mean “toughening up.” (That meaning persists to this day in some contexts.) The phrase’s more common connotation dates back to at least 1974, when it appeared in a source on college slang. The phrase “crotch rot" emerged during the same period: It first appeared in 1967. It's possible that “going commando” first poked its way into the public consciousness during the Vietnam War, when American special forces were spending extended periods in hot, wet jungle environments. The phrase got its big break in 1996, when Joey and Rachel went commando on an episode of Friends.
Ross: Okay, now hold on. Joey, why can’t you just wear the underwear you’re wearing now? Joey: Because, um, I’m not wearing any underwear now. Ross: Okay, then why do you have to wear underwear tonight? Joey: It’s a rented tux, Okay. I’m not gonna go commando in another man's fatigues.
As Joey’s line and the military history suggest, “to go commando” is traditionally associated with men; appropriating it for a women’s brand makes it that much more dramatic and memorable.
Commando is a popular trademark for many products other than underwear: I found records in the USPTO database for Commando padlocks, lubricants, auto parts, tires, coffee, beer, and jerky. I also discovered that Commando the underwear company—which to date has been a women-only brand—has filed for protection of “Commando Naked,” a men’s line.
Co-founder O’Brien says on the Commando website that the company’s products are “sometimes saucy” and “put the fun in functional.” Most of the product names, however, are descriptive: thong, high-rise panty, cami, half-slip, control brief. Nope, nary a cheekini in the lineup—although I admit the “Commando” brand name had me seeing the descriptive term tank in a new light. It’s in the “accessories” category that Commando lets its guerrilla flag fly.
The very first Commando product, in fact, was named Takeouts (“The Better Boob Job”). The “full-cup-boosting” silicone inserts—known generically as cutlets—cost $48 and are “grope tested,” it says here.
Other accessories with creative names include Low Beams (single-use nipple covers), Top Hats (reusable nipple covers), Matchsticks (double-stick tape for bra straps), Match Tips (double-stick adhesive dots), and Cleavage Cupcakes (“a perky plump-up for what nature already gave you”). The cheeky names are supported by playful copy that spins each metaphor for everything it’s worth.
By the way, Commando’s URL is WearCommando.com. Commando.com is a communications agency in Chicago. As I’ve said before, you don’t need a “pure” URL when you’ve got a plausible alternative and a strong brand story.
The woman in the photo may appear to be thanking a sky deity, but the copy provides a different answer to the headline’s question: “Thank the Technion.”
The grammatical correctness of “Whom Do We Thank for Iron Dome?” is unimpeachable: whom is the object of thank. But I can’t help thinking it’s a little too correct — stilted, even – given the context.
Iron Dome, in case you haven’t been following the latest Israeli-Palestinian troubles (and who could blame you for tuning out?), is the defensive anti-missile system developed in large part by graduates of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, with American backing. According to the American Technion Society’s website, Iron Dome “saved countless lives on both sides” in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict. (The James Bond-ish name “Iron Dome” is a beefed-up translation of the Hebrew kipat barzel, or “iron cap”; kipa can also mean “yarmulke.” The English term carries echoes, intentionally or not, of Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.)
Iron Dome performed better than expected, according to Israeli defense spokesmen, but it’s expensive: each Iron Dome missile costs $50,000. And the rockets it’s designed to intercept, writes Dan Ephron in The Daily Beast, “are manufactured in Gaza at a fraction of the price—sometimes for just a few hundred dollars.”
And while “countless lives” may have been saved, many other lives were lost. Advanced technology or no, war is still hell.
Which is why, even though I acknowledge the correctness of whom in the ad, I think it’s lipstick on a pig. I’d have recast the headline to avoid fussy points of grammar. And while I was at it, I’d have changed the question to a declarative statement.
The leaves are falling, the turkey’s defrosting: It must be time for the first Word of the Year 2012 announcement! Oxford Dictionaries, the traditional early bird, picked one WOTY for the US, GIF (the verb), and one for the UK, omnishambles. For background on omnishambles—which made a brief appearance in the US this year as well—see my post on “wazzock.” And for background on how Oxford chose GIF, see this hilariously be-GIFed blog post.
“I’ll know what I want when I see it.” – Clients everywhere
Astronomy and space startup Uwingu – that’s oo-WING-oo, the Swahili word for “sky” – is building “a baby book of names” for newly discovered planets. For 99 cents per nomination, you can submit a name to the database; for another 99 cents, you can vote for your favorite name on the list. The money goes to a good cause, of course. According to the Bad Astronomy blog, “The folks in charge are professional astronomers and space scientists at the tops of their fields, people like Alan Stern and Pamela Gay.”
Cast your vote for the name of the year at Baby Name Wizard. The NOTY “isn't necessarily the most popular baby name,” writes BNW’s Laura Wattenberg. “It’s a name that changed during the course of the year, and points to more changes around us. It’s a one-name time capsule that reminds us of how names are woven into our lives, connecting to and reflecting everything that goes on in our culture.” The 2011 winner was Siri.
Do we need a new name for the fiscal cliff? The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein proposes “austerity crisis”; his readers have their own suggestions, including Policy Meltdown, Lemmings Moment, Fiscal Spliff, and Mole Hill. (What’s the fiscal cliff, you ask? Here you go.)
Minor hockey (not to be confused with minor-league hockey) is divided into narrow age ranges, and the names for those ranges vary wildly and whimsically around the world. In Canada the 9-10 age group is called “Atom”; in France the 10-11 group is called Poussins (“young chickens”). More minor hockey lore at (where else?) Wikipedia. Hat tip: Bruce Fulton.
Remember Cuil, the search engine that was supposed to be a Google-killer? It died in 2011, possibly of pronunciation failure. “You might think that making a pronounceable name is a no brainer,” writes Andrew Hennigan on his blog about communications, “but there are actually several separate issues you need to think about, and Cuil got all three wrong.” (Hat tip: FussFactory.)
Speaking of meaningless, William Germano has had it with passion. He writes in Lingua Franca: “In its new, overexposed phase, passion has come to mean something else. I’d hazard the definition ‘an outsized, all-consuming enthusiasm that leads to achievement.’ That seems to be where passion is drifting in our outcome-driven society: It’s become a word signifying the precondition of success.” I’ve written about passion overload a number of times myself, starting with a 2006 post, “Our Passion Is Your Problem.”
The Romney campaign named its (badly botched) get-out-the-vote program Project ORCA, but why? Language Log’s Mark Liberman goes fishing: “It would be a little weird, in my opinion, to name a GOTV program after a boat used to hunt a fictional monster shark. Clearly the shark would be Obama, or perhaps Obama’s appeal — but in that metaphor, where are the Romney voters?”
After Hurricane Sandy struck, New York City gained a new neighborhood: SoPo, for “South of Power.” As The Atlantic Wire’s Jen Doll tells it, “New York City has a history with this sort of name.” (Hat tip: @nextmoon.)