Category Archives: History
Euphemisms… we use them daily, whether we realize it or not. They abound in English, multiplying like rabbits in every dark corner of life. In fact, they hardly ever multiply in the sunny spots, because we don’t require them there. The very definition of the word confirms that notion: “The use of a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive, blunt or vulgar than the word or phrase which it replaces.”
Every generation creates new ones, because a parent’s euphemism becomes the general term which is then too close to the original meaning, and so the children get creative with words, and so on. There are a few euphemisms that have remained unchanged over centuries, such as passed away, which came into English from the French “passer” (to pass) in the 10th century; others shift gradually, such as the word “nice”: When it first entered English from the French in the 13th century, it meant foolish, ignorant, frivolous or senseless. It graduated to mean precise or careful [in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Anne Elliot is speaking with her cousin about good society; Mr Elliot reponds, “Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.” Austen also reflects the next semantic change in meaning (which began to develop in the late 1760s): Within “Persuasion”, there are several instances of “nice” also meaning agreeable or delightful (as in the nice pavement of Bath).]. As with nice, the side-stepping manoeuvres of polite society’s language shift over time, giving us a wide variety of colourful options to choose from.
Recently, my husband and I were talking about the topic, and the specifics of the word stupid came up; so without further ado, here’s a round-up of ways of getting around describing someone as stupid, dumb, or, well, an ass:
- Thick as a post
- Doesn’t have both oars in the water
- Two sandwiches shy of a picnic
- A beer short of a six-pack
- A brick short of a load
- A pickle short of a barrel
- Has delusions of adequacy
- Has a leak in their think-tank
- Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
- Not the sharpest tack in the box
- Not the sharpest pencil in the box
- Not the sharpest tool in the shed
- His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
- His cheese has slipped off his cracker
- The light’s on but nobody’s home
- If you stand close enough to them, you’d hear the ocean
- Mind like a rubber bear trap
- Would be out of their depth in a mud puddle
- Their elevator is stuck between two floors
- They’re not tied to the pier
- One prop short of a plane
- Off his rocker
- Not the brightest light in the harbour
- Not the brightest bulb in the pack
- Has a few loose screws
- So dense, light bends around them
- Their elevator/lift doesn’t reach the top floor
- Dumber than a bag of rocks
- Dumber than a hammer
- Fell out of the family tree
- Doesn’t have all the dots on his dice
- As slow as molasses in winter
- As smart as bait
- Has an intellect only rivalled by garden tools
- A few clowns short of a circus
- Silly as a goose
- A few peas short of a casserole
- Isn’t playing with a full deck of cards
- Has lost his marbles / isn’t playing with all his marbles
- Has bats in his belfry
- A dim bulb
- He’s got cobwebs in his attic
- Couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag
- Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
- If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose
I’m sure there are dozens more! If you know of any that haven’t made this list, please put them in a comment below!
Depending on where you are in the world, right now you’re feeling the effects of our global village more or less than others. Here in Switzerland, the Corona Virus is headline news. We’ve had a few cases here – 43; the government has issued instructions on how to sneeze properly (into your sleeve “elbow” or into a tissue), to stay home when sick, and to cease greeting rituals (here, that would involve either hand-shaking, three kisses on the cheeks, or hugs). Gatherings of over 1,000 people have been banned – goodbye, sports fan sections and exhibitions. Below that number, lists of participants must still be kept to trace any spread to a patient zero. This includes our church; it was strange not to hug people, and to checklist who attended. It might be just a matter of time before facemasks are commonly worn in public (they’re sold out here, but I’ve yet to see someone wearing them in public).
The global village is also felt in the breakdown of the chain of supplies for goods; many shelves in our supermarkets are empty. If tin cans are made in some outback area of China that has now been quarantined by the Chinese government, then companies canning foods in Europe don’t get the wares they need to keep their factories running – as soon as one interruption happens, it breaks the steady flow. If enough shelves empty, people begin to panic and hamster supplies. Remember Y2K? The panic induced by the media, in the end, came to nothing. Yet the media are once again being panic mongers by continually focusing on this issue. What else is happening in the world? I have no idea, because the Corona Virus has taken over the world press. What I do know is that this is now the new reality; we’ll just have to get used to it and get on with our lives.
While I take all of this as seriously as it needs to be taken and find some of these measures sensible in any case of sickness, even the common cold, I am also a lover of history – so let me put the present crisis into a larger context:
- The World Health Organization (based here in Switzerland, by the way) estimates that worldwide, annual influenza epidemics result in about 3-5 million cases of severe illness and about 291,000 to 646,000 deaths. That’s the old, run-of-the-mill flu, something that most of us, if not all, have had once (or even multiple times) in our lives.
- The Covid-19 flu strain (known as the Corona Virus) is 10x likelier to be fatal.
- The Spanish flu, which struck just after WW1 (and which is related to the Swine flu of 2009), killed an estimated 40-50 million (but could have been as high as 100 million). The common name is a misnomer: The reporting of the flu in Allied countries and in Germany was suppressed by wartime censors to avoid damaging already-low morale, but the newspapers were allowed to report cases in other countries, such as Spain. As a result, people thought the flu was heaviest there or had even begun there; thus, the common name. To put that in perspective of the Great War, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I is estimated to be about 40 million.
- Going further back, the Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th century (1346-53) – that was roughly 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time. It reset the economic and social structures, ending centuries of feudalism with its systems of lords, vassals and fiefdoms; it also killed off a disproportionate number of priests as they were infected while helping the sick (as well as the fact that they lived in closed communities). This necessitated a restructuring even of the church in some countries, opening the way for lay preachers and access to the Bible for common people (that’s a whole other topic).
These statistics shouldn’t induce panic; on the contrary: It shows us that life goes on. We should take precautions and practice sensible hygiene – washing hands when we come home from shopping or work, using hand disinfectant* when out, keeping distance as much as possible between ourselves and strangers when out in public, avoiding crowds of people, and avoiding physical contact with people outside the immediate family. But in the end, it is what it is; we can do what we can do, and no more. [* In case hand disinfectant is sold out in your area, you can make your own: Proportion into a pump or squeeze bottle 1/3-1/2 aloe vera gel (as close to 100% aloe vera as you can get), 2/3 rubbing alcohol or any alcohol with 60% vol. or more, and a few drops of essential oils for scent.]
How we respond to the present crisis will show our mettle; there’s no need to panic, to hoard, or to isolate ourselves behind closed doors. Hopefully, the current climate of raised awareness will linger; that it will teach people to consider others (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been greeted with three kisses, only to be told after the fact that the other person is sick! I’d rather be warned and be able to have a choice in exposing myself or not, thank you very little…) and to generally adopt more hygienic practices even when sick with a common cold.
For me, far more important than the outward circumstances is the heart of a community that manifests itself in times of crisis. If we could look into individual communities in those past ages, we would almost certainly see people supporting others; groups who united to help the families affected. The human stories would most certainly be inspirational. There are numerous contemporary examples of natural disasters in which people have pulled together, whether locally or internationally, and helped the helpless. I can think of a dozen people in our church who would cook meals or run errands for those who are sick, and I’m sure there are far more people out there willing to step out of their own isolated, daily bubbles – and that’s where such a crisis becomes a blessing to communities, in the long run.
I do a lot of crafts. I mean, a lot variety-wise, and a lot quantity-wise. When I’m not writing, managing our household, planning meetings or teaching students (I’m a vocal coach and an English teacher for adults), I’m usually doing some kind of craft, and it more often than not involves some form of upcycling – turning “trash” into “treasures”. Recently, I’ve been making sheets of plastic-confetti-filled bubble wrap, ironed into what’s known as “ploth” (plastic cloth). These can then be sewn into bags, etc. It got me to thinking about just how bubble wrap came to be. I have tons of the stuff, stashed here and there in the craft room, for such projects – and I’m constantly on the lookout for creative uses for that poppable fun.
Did you know that originally it wasn’t intended as packing material but as wallpaper? In 1957, Swiss chemist Marc Chavannes and his business partner, Alfred Fielding, wanted to make a wallpaper that would appeal to the emerging Beat culture [for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it was a generation of post-war, anti-establishment rebels who were more or less the precursor to the 60’s hippie and counterculture movements]. What the partners did was simple enough: They put two layers of a plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine. But it came out in what they first saw as a failure, with air bubbles trapped between the two layers. They figured they were onto something, failure or not, and so they got a patent and then began experimenting to find other uses. Wallpaper wasn’t popular; neither was their suggestion to use it as insulation for greenhouses (perhaps that was simply a matter of marketing to the wrong demographic). Then, around 1960, IBM began shipping their newly-designed 1410 computers and needed a way to protect the delicate dinosaurs – eh, I mean, computing mammoths. That’s a LOT of bubble wrap. The rest is, as they say, history. And in case you’re wondering, yes, people have been popping the bubbles from the beginning, just for fun. So much fun, in fact, that the last Monday of every January is officially “Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day”.
Click on the image below to watch an IBM recruiting film (1 minute), from 1960. You can also see one of IBM’s massive scientific mainframes being used by the original “computers” of NASA in the film “Hidden Figures“.