Checking Up On “Checkered”

Yesterday I heard somebody being congratulated for “a really checkered career.”

The word “checkered” in this sort of context usually has a negative meaning, suggesting that a person with a checkered past committed serious faults. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means “diversified in character; full of constant alternation (especially for the worse).”

The original expression stems from comparing the black and white squares on a chessboard to the bright and dark spots in someone’s life.

I imagine the speaker meant something like “varied,” “many-sided,” “multifaceted,” or “wide-ranging.”

Richard Nixon, who came to national prominence with his “Checkers speech,” had an especially checkered career.


Alien Apostrophes Invade American Department Store!

In the wake of the current controversy over major stores dropping Ivanka Trump’s line of products, we’re seeing a lot of references to “Nordstrom’s."

Unlike Macy’s, “Nordstrom” is the official name of the chain. No apostrophe. No final S.


Just one more thing about apostrophes . . .

On the podcast we’ve been discussing apostrophe usage for the past three weeks. There are a lot of comic strips weighing in on the subject lately.

Here's a pretty clever example from Wizard of Id.


About the Size of It

From New York Times article about desertification in China:
One recent estimate said China had 21,000 square miles more desert than what existed in 1975—about the size of Croatia.
Does knowing that Croatia comprises 21, 851 square miles help you envision how big that is?

I thought not.

Where is Croatia, anyway? Is that really a country? Somewhere in Eastern Europe, right?

The name may not sound all that familiar because if you’re older than 25 you were born before the modern state of Croatia was created out of part of the former Yugoslavia. Remember Croatia? Bosnia? Serbia?

That area.

And that is where?

On the coast of the Adriatic Sea. That help?


You know where Italy is, right? Upper right is Venice. Look due east on the map. That's Croatia.

But wait, it's really a weird shape, looks like a gerrymandered electoral precinct. Lots of little inlets and islands, zigs, zags, and wiggles all over the place. Hard to use as an imaginary unit of measure.

Americans are notoriously fuzzy about geography outside of the US, but we have a couple of standard units of measure. The most common is the football field.

Examples from recent news stories:

Migrating monarch butterflies in Mexico cover an area about the size of  2 1/2  football fields.

An oil spill in Alberta covered an area the size of 5 football fields.

China's building a radio telescope the size of  30 football fields.

The new Tesla factory outside of Reno is going to be the size of 107 football fields.

And China has created 20 football fields’ worth of new land in the Spratlys.

Sort of clear, right?

But football fields aren't that helpful when we're talking about more sizeable areas. Croatia, for instance,  is the size of almost 10 million football fields.

So we can go up to the second most common US unit of measure for areas: the Rhode Island.

Mark Twain may have been the first author to use this unit, in Following the Equator. He remarked that the Australian state of Victoria was about the size “of fifteen or sixteen Rhode Islands.”

Journalists like Rhode Islands because Rhode Island is actually really small—the smallest of all the states—so it's easy to say something is several times bigger than a whole honkin’ STATE!

The valley in Pakistan where Malala Yousafzai grew up is about the size of 2 Rhode Islands.

Ted Turner owns a little under 3 Rhode Islands’ worth of property.

The ocean preserve that Obama recently created covers an area equivalent to roughly 550 Rhode Islands.

So. Croatia is about 18 Rhode Islands big.

That's a lot of Chinese desert.


London, that Doddlin’ Town

One of the more amusing misspellings I’ve encountered lately: “doddle” for “dawdle.”


From a TripAdvisor restaurant review:
“Always a treat... just don't doddle”

From a Facebook post:
“Home buyers in these markets can’t doddle when it comes to finding their dream home.”

From a Christian post about running away from temptation:
“We shouldn't delay.  We shouldn't doddle.  We should run.  Run fast.  Run far.”

It might not be flagged by spelling checkers, though. It's also a noun in casual British English meaning “something easy to accomplish” and there's a UK parcel delivery service named “Doddle” which aims to make your shipping simple.


Brewing up a Storm on “Brouhaha”

Brouhaha is a French word meaning “commotion” or “hubbub.” The French Littré etymological dictionary cites one use of it in the 18th century by Saint-Simon and three by Molière. It was adopted with this meaning into English in the late 19th century.

Ortolang (Outils et Ressources pour un Traitement Optimisé de la Langue) states that the earliest use on record of this combination of syllables occurred in a16th century farce in which a priest disguised as a devil tries to terrify someone by shouting Brou, brou, brou, ha, ha, Brou, ha, ha. So it may have begun as merely a scary noise, similar to "boo!"

But it seems there may be more to the story than this. Some etymologists have suggested a much more interesting derivation. Here’s a summary of their view from Merriam-Webster:
There is a bit of a brouhaha over the etymology of brouhaha. Some etymologists think the word is onomatopoeic in origin, but others believe it comes from the Hebrew phrase bārŪkh habbā’,meaning "blessed be he who enters" (Psalms 118:26). Although we borrowed our spelling and meaning of brouhaha directly from French in the late 19th century, etymologists have connected the French derivation to that frequently recited Hebrew phrase, distorted to something like brouhaha by worshippers whose knowledge of Hebrew was limited. Thus, once out of the synagogue, the word first meant "a noisy confusion of sound" - a sense that was later extended to refer to any tumultuous and confused situation.
But this could be a mere coincidence, right? How many Christians would have understood enough Hebrew or even had the opportunity to hear it spoken in a synagogue to export it into the wider community? Seems a pretty far-fetched derivation to me.

[Side note: my computer’s auto-correct feature suggests Merriam-Webster is in error in spelling "worshippers" with two P's. It's got some nerve!]

Of course the priest in the old farce could be supposed to be parodying the Hebrew expression, but the fact that the original citation has each syllable repeated separately makes me wonder whether these were just scary noises that happened to sound like the Hebrew phrase.

Ortolang also cites as an example supporting this theory a passage by François Rabelais in 1552 in the fourth volume of Gargantua et Pantagruel in which the bawdy French priest-satirist seems to be using a variation on the phrase from the old farce by depicting a crowd of clerics striking cymbals together and shouting like devils:  Hho, hho, hho, hho, brrrourrrourrrs, rrrourrrs, rrrourrrs. Hou, hou, hou. Hho, hho, hho. 

Ortolang notes that the learned Rabelais could have been directly based on Psalm 118 since he exhibits in his writings some awareness of Jewish writings, but it is far from clear that he could actually read Hebrew.

Even the distinguished Larousse Dictionnaire de français has adopted this etymology without comment:
altération onomatopéique de l'hébreu bārākh habbā, paroles d'un psaume
Whatever its origins, the spelling is definitely not “brew ha ha,” but there are plenty of examples of this amusing version on the Web. Here are just three, all in the context of current political controversies:
But evidently … there is no such rule. Hence … all the brew ha ha.
The whole thing strikes me as a huge brew-ha-ha that started with Scott Brown and has gained life as a meme that won't die.
A huge brew ha-ha occured and the two candidates that were against the IA were Nolan & Turkel.
But an involuntary pun like this is inevitably also made deliberately into the name of some occasion involving beer:
I was reminded while going through these references of the old tradition of having crowd noise created in a play by having the extras mumble over and over phrases like “sodawater bottle” and “rhubarb, rhubarb.” Combining the two creates an even more convincing hubbub. This sort of thing is known as “walla” (do the good folks of Walla Walla, Washington know about this?).

So your depending on your choice of drink a commotion can be hopped up or merely fizzy.