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AWADmail Issue 487

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

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From: Jos Du Toit (glenjos mweb.co.za)
Subject: Fool's errand
Def: An absurd or futile undertaking.

The best example I know of a fool's errand is: searching for Adam's navel.

Jos Du Toit, Cape Town, South Africa

From: Jack Pavia (pavia ithaca.edu)
Subject: We don't say my ocean, his stars, or their sun

Sadly both nationalism and religions are apt to claim what is not theirs. Mussolini called the Mediterranean "Mare Nostrum" (our sea), Japan championed "Dai Toa Kyoekan" (The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, i.e. Asia under Japanese rule) and there was an American song entitled "To Be Specific It's Our Pacific." Religions and political candidates often claim absolute ownership of morality.

Jack Pavia, Ithaca, New York

From: Siva N.S. (siva.ns sonata-software.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--fool's errand

People do say "my ocean". Hundreds of fishermen are getting shot/killed because of "my ocean". Guess that makes it a fool's errand.

Siva N.S., Bengaluru, India

From: Henry Willis (hmw ssdslaw.com)
Subject: My Stars!

More than thirty years ago, when I was a student at Berkeley, I bought a deed to one sixteenth of an acre of the moon sold on the street corner by a huckster dressed entirely in what looked like an aluminum foil space suit, with a nice-looking helmet to lend him that added air of authority. Seemed like a bargain at $5.00; I'm afraid, however, that I have since lost the deed.

Henry Willis, Los Angeles, California

From: Judy Epstein (jepstein mail.com)
Subject: Potis

It was fascinating to learn today that "potis" means (having the power). Perhaps that was the subtext to the acronym POTUS for the President Of The United States -- they're pronounced the same, and POTUS surely has "potis" even in these diminished times!

Judy Epstein, Port Washington, New York

Email of the Week (Brought to you by One Up! -- The Word War Game Smart-Alecks Love.)

From: Marvant Duhon (mduhon bluemarble.net)
Subject: Gentlemen's Agreement
Def: An agreement that's based on honor and not legally binding.

A "gentlemen's (or gentleman's) agreement" is based only on the honor of the participants, but the definition is incomplete without adding that it is usually an agreement to do something quite dishonorable.

I have most often seen the phrase applied to the outcome of the 1876 Presidential election, in which Tilden did more than just win the popular vote. In four states of the former Confederacy, still under military occupation, there were governmentally established polling places that admitted (as required by the Constitution) voters of all races, and the Ku Klux Klan polling places, which only admitted whites. The "Gentlemen's Agreement" of 1877 was to throw out all the legal votes and count only the Klan votes, in return for letting the whites of the South trample the rights of the blacks. The fraud was especially egregious in Florida, where most citizens (for that matter, a majority of white voters) voted in the legal voting places, and Florida was necessary to electorally steal the election. Considerable bribes flowed as well. I do not know how early the term was applied to the event, but I have seen it ascribed to the 1877 conversations of the participants.

Many gentlemen's agreements are to illegally fix prices. The gentlemen's agreement of 1907 was a racist American immigration policy against Japan. And at the top of the google list for this phrase is the 1947 Academy Awards Best Picture (link) of the same name, about anti-Semitism.

Marvant Duhon, Bloomington, Indiana

From: Mitch Schapira (mitch schapira.org)
Subject: Gentleman's agreement

Sir Harry Vaisey (1877-1965) said, "A gentleman's agreement is an agreement which is not an agreement, made between two people neither of whom are gentlemen, whereby each expects the other to be strictly bound without himself being bound at all."

Mitch Schapira, Anchorage, Alaska

From: Debra Poulter (poulterdl yahoo.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--dogsbody
Def: A menial worker; drudge.

Love to get your daily mailings...

Just one bone to pick with you. For me, my co-workers and friends, "a dog's life", in this day, refers to a pampered existence. A day of food, drink, sleep, and affection... What more could one ask for? However, looking back a couple centuries, a dog's life was probably one of scavenging and cold damp places to lie.

Debra Poulter, New York, New York

From: Jeb Raitt (jbrmm266 aol.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--dogsbody

When in junior high school, I read an autobiographical account of an RAF fighter pilot's experiences during the Second World War. His squadron's self-assumed nickname was Dogsbody. This gives me some idea of the wry humor that prompted the nickname.

Jeb Raitt, Norfolk, Virginia

From: Tom Priestly (tpriestl shaw.ca)
Subject: dogsbody

Another example of the linguistic mistreatment of man's best friend is "you really made a dog's breakfast out of that!"

Tom Priestly, Edmonton, Canada

From: Jill Fosse (jfosse umd.edu)
Subject: Beginner's luck
Def: The initial good fortune supposedly enjoyed by a novice in a game or another activity.

I know that phenomenon. As a teenager I attended a summer fair organized by my father's company -- sideshows, try your luck, all that sort of thing. I thought I'd try archery, though I'd never picked up a bow before. My very first arrow shot straight to the heart of the bullseye, to the stunned amazement of everyone watching, including me. The rest of my arrows didn't even hit the target. Beginner's luck indeed.

Jill Fosse, University Park, Maryland

From: David Ferrier (ferrierd shaw.ca)
Subject: beginner's luck

I think the best example of "beginner's luck" is in the film The Karate Kid. This web page gives an interesting deeper look.

David Ferrier, Edmonton, Canada

From: George Dunlap (dunlapg umich.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--beginner's luck

The counterintuitive phenomenon of a novice having success in an activity has been called beginner's luck. It may simply be confirmation bias: one remembers hits, but ignores misses. Earliest documented use: 1897.

In many areas, it may be survival bias as well. If 100 people give gambling a try, for instance, most of them will win some and lose some. But some portion will lose nearly all the time, and some other portion will win nearly all the time. The ones who win most of the time enjoy it the most, and are most likely to continue to become regular gamblers.

Or to put it the other way, most regular gamblers have experienced "beginner's luck", because if they hadn't, they wouldn't be regular gamblers.

George Dunlap, Ann Arbor, Michigan

From: Rebecca Jessup (jessupr comcast.net)
Subject: Driver's seat
Def: A position of power, control, or dominance.

The Russian poet Yevtushenko gave a reading I attended many years ago, and while he was answering a question about translating (his long-time translator and friend being present), he confessed that his favorite American descriptive term was "backseat driver".

Rebecca Jessup, New Harmony, Indiana

From: Eric Shackle (ericshackle bigpond.com)
Subject: theme - whose what

Shakespeare's works is another example of this week's theme. Two controversial films have explored theories that Edward de Vere or Christopher Marlowe was the real author of the superb plays and poems that most of us attribute to William Shakespeare. For more, see Nimble Nonagenarians.

Eric Shackle, Sydney, Australia

When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly, -- as that a sentence must never end with a particle, -- and perceive how implicitly even the learned obey it, I think: Any fool can make a rule. And every fool will mind it. -Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862)

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