Category Archives: Language

Switzerland

To many Americans, Switzerland is either a) Sweden, b) a European theme park, or c) not real. To very few of us is it known as a small Alpine tassel adorning Italy’s boot. What we don’t know about Switzerland says as much as what we do know. For example, the fact that we don’t know Switzerland for its rampant gang-related violence – or for producing androgynous Europop stars – is a very good thing. With little to go on in the way of cold, hard facts, many Americans are forced to rely upon stereotypes to fill in the gaps. Now, I would as lief form judgments on a people group based solely on broad stereotypes as the next guy, but even Swiss stereotypes turn out to be vague and uninformative, and sadly, my countrymen go about their lives blissfully unaware of the awesomeness that is Switzerland.

Not from Switzerland

We know from common Swiss stereotypes that they make chocolate, cheese, clocks, army knives, banks and neutrality. In fact, according to a 2009 UN report, Switzerland is the number one neutrality producer in the world, accounting for 43% of earth’s neutrality. That’s more than Canada, Ireland, Sweden and Vatican City combined! But what does this tell us about Switzerland? That they can tell time? That they have currency? And how does making chocolate set them apart from any other European nation? Or for that matter any nation with access to cocoa and sugar? Or any nation founded after the advent of Dessert? We need more to go on!

There’s so much more to Switzerland than what products they export. Like the people who live there. The Swiss people speak four languages – French, German, Italian and Yodeling, reflecting their location between four countries we can prove exist – France, Germany, Italy and Austria – and one we can’t – Liechtenstein[1], as well as their eclectic mix of ethnic groups and lonely goatherds. The Swiss people may come from many different people groups, but they all have one thing in common: they make mediocre post-Cold War Bond villains.

One ethnically ambiguous Swiss banker on the wrong end of Mr. Bond's Walther.

Switzerland is also home of the Matterhorn, which, legend tells us, the last President of the Confederation will blow when all peace is lost in this world, when Swiss neutrality no longer protects them and their borders are overrun by foreign hordes. When the Matterhorn sounds, the last remnant of Switzerlanders will know to flee to the highest mountains to make their last stand.

The Matterhorn at the Annual St. Berchtold's Day Parade

Okay. Look, I’m going to level with you. I may have made some to all of that up. Swiss stereotypes really are all I have to go on, but you see, that is exactly what makes Switzerland so awesome. The less anyone knows about Switzerland, the longer it survives. It’s nearly impossible for a country as small as Switzerland to remain neutral when its next door neighbour is Germany, a nation which tried to take over Europe not once, but twice in the last 100 years. Italy, France and Austria don’t exactly have spotless records themselves. It’s far too risky to invade a country when you don’t know how many weapons they have, what kind of weapons they have or where those weapons might be. It’s even riskier when no one’s even exactly sure where the country is located. Sure, we all know Switzerland’s crammed in the middle of France, Germany, Austria and Italy, but finding it would be like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The Alps form an impossible labyrinth, not mention the country’s less than twice the size of New Jersey, and I bet most of you couldn’t find that on a map either.

Which one of these is Switzerland again?

If Germany tried to invade Switzerland during World War II, Hitler would have spent half the war digging under the couch cushions of Europe for it. Then he would have yelled, “Eva! Have you seen Switzerland?”

To which she would have replied, “What?!” from her room.

“I said, ‘Have you seen Switzerland?’ I could have sworn I saw it next to Austria this morning, but it’s not there anymore!”

Then Eva would have said, “Have you tried next to Austria?”

And Hitler would say, “That’s what I said! I already looked next to Austria!”

“Oh, well look on Italy!”

“It’s not on Italy! Don’t you think that’s the first place I would have looked?!”

And the next thing they would have known, the Allies would have invaded Berlin, and they would have been on fire in a ditch before the Americans even knew what was going on in Europe.

You see, Switzerland grew up around bullies. Now, I’m a big fan of Germany, Italy and France. They’re our allies and our friends, but let’s face it: they’re bullies. To survive in a schoolyard full of bullies, the littlest kid in school either secretly takes karate lessons after school or he learns to hide really well. I suggest to you that Switzerland has learned to do both. Even if I’m wrong, even if Switzerland has no might to back up its neutrality, its existence is just vague enough to have kept more than one dictator from invading. That is no small feat, and it has earned Switzerland a permanent place in the annals of awesome.

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[1] The last Liechtenstein sighting was on July 27, 1978, in the form of a grainy photograph taken from the Austrian border by Swedish mountaineer and amateur cryptoethnologist, Erik Blomkvist. The so-called Blomkvist Photograph has gained its proponents, but it has yet to be verified by leading cryptoethnologists and is considered by many to be a hoax.

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The Autumnal Equinox

In recent years, a belief has spread that the Autumnal Equinox is the first day of Fall. This is clearly an urban legend with no basis in truth. Like all such myths, most of the support for this idea is based in tidbits of ‘scientific fact’ gleaned from internet forums and Wikipedia. Its proponents state that the Autumnal Equinox occurs when the axis of the earth is not pointed toward or away from the sun, resulting in roughly equal-length night and day. They also claim that ‘autumnal’ is an adjective meaning ‘pertaining to autumn’ and that ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin aequi meaning ‘equal’ and nox meaning ‘night.’ Such linguistic bamboozlement is a telltale sign of these modern tall tales, and is not to be believed under any circumstances.

Look at this carefully. It doesn't mean anything.

The truth about the Autumnal Equinox is far more interesting, and far older, than the explanation offered by poorly researched chatroom ‘science.’

The Autumnal Equinox is a legendary monster said to live in the ancient forests of Great Britain. The story goes that the  Celts and Anglo-Saxons who inhabited the forests and surrounding farmland lived in peace and security most of the year. But every September, for one night only, the Equinox would appear. The people would hear the ominous cry of the Equinox from the darkest parts of the forest exactly as the sun went down. It was the only warning they ever got. The Equinox would emerge from its secret den to prey upon the human population, gorging itself on the flesh of its victims. And then, just as quickly as it appeared, it would disappear at the crack of dawn, not to be seen or heard from again until the following year on the same night.

The word ‘autumnal’ is believed to originate with the Anglo-Saxon unman, meaning ‘un-man.’ The prefix aut-, from the Greek auto, meaning ‘self,’ was most likely added during the Jacobean period, when it was in vogue to attach Greek and Latin affixes to Anglo-Saxon roots. The overall sense of the word — literally translated ‘self-un-man’ — is of a creature originally human who for some horrible reason has willingly transformed himself into a monster by some agreement with dark forces. You see, the Equinox is no mere monster; it is the worst kind of monster: one that used to be man. It is no wonder, then, that the Autumnal Equinox held a place of special fear for the Celtic and Saxon tribesmen.[i]

The word ‘equinox’ is another example of Jacobean Latin-Saxon pairing. ‘Equi-‘ comes from the Latin equus, meaning ‘horse,’ and ox is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning, well, ox — literally translated, an ‘equine ox.’

A medieval portrayal of an Equinox killing a warrior with its dreaded projectile whatsit.

So the Autumnal Equinox is a monstrous beast — part horse, part ox — that used to be a rational man before he sold his soul to demons and was transformed into a flesh-eating hell beast.

Out of self preservation, the tribesmen started building large fires and holding religious ceremonies in order to ward off the Equinox. Later on a belief arose that if one could manage to balance an egg vertically on the night of the Equinox’s attack, it would act as amulet capable of warding the monster off. The custom continues to this very day.

Eventually, as the population of Britain grew, the forests were cut down, cities spread, technology improved, and the Equinox has scarcely been seen since. The only memory anyone has of it is in the continuing commemoration of the night named after it at the end of every September.

Still, there are those who say that if one is alone in an English wood on this inauspicious night, the ominous keening of the ravenous Equinox can still be heard.

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[i] The only creature more terrible and more feared than the Autumnal Equinox is the Vernal Equinox. ‘Vernal’ here is derived from the same Latin root as infernal, meaning ‘from hell.’

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Arms Akimbo and Krav Maga

Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo, a distant relative of Akimbo

Krav Maga (pronounced krov məgah) is a brutal Israeli martial art. It was originally developed in 1930s Europe to help Jews in the ghettos escape from Nazis and their anti-semitic collaborators. Krav maga was created for quick fights in streets and alleyways against an enemy with superior weaponry and numbers. It’s therefore designed to incapacitate or kill one’s opponent in under thirty seconds. It’s also the official martial art of possibly the most terrifying and determined military in the world: the ID-freaking-F.

Allow me to reiterate one important point in order to convey its full import: krav maga was made to kill Nazis. That puts it in the same category as the OSS, Indiana Jones, and the atomic bomb. Of all the awesome things in this world, Nazi-killers are among the most verendic. They’re up there with space marines, free refills and hugs.

Indy going krav all over this Nazi's maga.

And while we’re on the subject, that reminds me: never, ever, ever make the mistake of getting in the way of, defying, or even taking too lightly anyone or anything whose sole or primary purpose for existence is killing Nazis. A Nazi killer is someone or something you always want to have on your side. A point which will become clearer shortly.

But first, arms akimbo. Arms akimbo means to have one’s hands on one’s hips with the elbows turned outward. This a wonderful and versatile way to stand. It can be negative — expressing anger or frustration — or positive –expressing an unaffected nonchalance. It also comes in quite handy when one is nervous and doesn’t quite know what to do with one’s hands. And arms akimbo happens to be one of the most delightful expressions in the English language to say aloud.[ii]

I was developing a spiel in which I would convince you of the surprising connections between arms akimbo and krav maga, but it would have mostly been blarney, blandishment, bamboozling and alliteration.

They have only one real connection:

I decided a long time ago that if I were ever unfortunate enough to be in the position to need bodyguards, and ever fortunate enough to get to have bodyguards, I would name the one “Arms” Akimbo and the other Krav McGaw. Mr. Akimbo would be a tall Nigerian with a sour disposition and the biggest biceps you’ve ever seen. He would stand threateningly at my side with his arms eponymously akimbo. Krav McGaw would be a vaguely Eastern European man with a hooked nose, a beard and nasty scars on his face, neck and arms which he got wrestling a rabid porcupine.[iii] He would occasionally pull a quill out of his neck as a reminder of how hardcore he is.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as "Arms" Akimbo

Nobody would ever dare cross me with “Arms” Akimbo and Krav McGaw at my side. But don’t worry, lest you think I would become a villain. Another thing movies have taught me is that giant, terrifying men are always ironically sensitive and kind-hearted. So I’m sure Messrs Akimbo and McGaw would never do anyone any real harm. Except Nazis. All bets are off when it comes to Nazis.

An actor's portrayal of Krav McGaw, sans porcupine scars

If you were to have a bodyguard, what phrase would you name him after? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you, my taciturn reader.
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[i] “But a bit” is an phrase that when said in rapid repetition sounds like a horse galloping. Try it when no one’s in the room. It’s fun.

[ii] Try that as well when you’re finished saying “but a bit.”

[iii] He won.

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Tumbarumba

Tumbarumba is not to be confused with Chumbawamba, a band made famous for getting knocked down but getting up again. “You’re never,” representatives of the band assured us when called upon to comment, “going to keep us down.”

Chubby wombat, like Tumbarumba, sounds like Chumbawamba and comes from Australia.

A town in New South Wales, Australia with a scanty population of just under 1,500 people in 2006,[i] Tumbarumba is famous for its annual Beer Drinking Tournament, Croc-Wrestling Competition, Bar Brawl Invitational, Australian Stereotype Convention, and for not being famous. The most intriguing thing about Tumbarumba is the name itself. It’s rhythmic. It’s rhyming. It has a deep, primitive sound and feel to it; evocative of wild, untamable words like tumble, rumble and of the sound of thunder. Tumbarumba sounds like the verbal embodiment of outback Australia, similar to the American equivalent Podunk. Qualities which make it strangely onomatopoeic. But Tumbarumba’s real claim to fame comes from its being featured in an Australian poem.

But before we can get there, we must leave the  Australian outback and first travel back to Ancient Greece and Rome, where most stories involving words have their start. In Ancient Greek there was a rhetorical technique called tmesis, meaning ‘to cut.’ Tmesis involved splitting a word into two pieces and sticking another word in the middle for emphasis. The Romans, ever fond of rhetoric, picked up the habit as well and passed it on to their many linguistic children, both legitimate (Spanish) and illegitimate (English).

Immanuel Kant

If there’s anything English speakers love besides arguing about the pronunciation of “can’t” and “bath,” it’s prefixes and suffixes. We cram prefixes and suffixes onto words almost haphazardly to produce all manner of new words and to change the forms of existing words to suit our purposes. But there’s a third affix that goes almost entirely ignored in English known as the infix. It works much like a prefix or a suffix, but instead of sticking it on the beginning or end of a word, it gets crammed in the middle. There are very few examples of infixes in English, and they are all or nearly all considered informal and tend to be used by marginal groups in society.

A young Saddam Hussein and other members of the Ba'ath Party

A prime example would be the infix -iz- which is used almost exclusively by the hip hop community and only occasionally by lame white people who desperately want street cred, even though — if they’re anything like this lame white person — they’re not even sure what street cred is or what it involves. Some uses of the infix -iz- are:

house  –> hizouse
chain –> chizain
Mouri –> Missouri

Tmesis is a similar concept to infixes, but instead of putting an affix in the middle of a word, tmesis involves putting an entire word in the middle of another word. It’s like a verbal Dagwood sandwich. Tmesis is also considered informal in English, and so as with infixes, is generally employed by marginal groups in society. The marginalization of tmesis is only exacerbated by the fact that it is most commonly used with profanity. Fortunately, it’s almost as common to use euphemisms, and so we’ll do so here. We recommend you do the same. For the children.

A Dagwood sandwich

The first and probably the most common example of tmesis is freaking. If you’re from the UK or Australia, simply substitute freaking with bloody and you get the idea. The initial f and hard k sound, plus its seemingly infinite applicability, make freaking (and its obscene counterpart) the ideal emphasis word. Observe the examples below.

fantastic –> fan-freaking-tastic

absolutely –> abso-freaking-lutely

unbelievable –> unbe-freaking-lievable

la-di-da –> la-di-freaking-da

Vietnam –> Viet-freaking-nam

antidisestablishmentarianism –> antidisestablishmen-freaking-tarianism

Another, more Southern example is old.

anytime –> any-old-time

anyplace –> any-old-place

anywhere –> any-old-where

One of my favourites is the insertion of whole into another as in:

another issue –>whole nother issue.

If you want to be really annoying you can use -toota- as in:

absolutely –> abso-toota-lutely.

Tmesis can be used with any number of words, both expletives and pletives[ii], as fits the occasion. You can even fit an entire phrase or sentence into a word if you’re feeling adventurous. As in:

Becky Mc-I think I’m better than everyone else at the firm just because I graduated from Harvard and I drive a Lexus, even though my dad’s money paid for all of it-freaking-Callister.

The problem any developing trend in language faces is that unless it enters regular usage by the population of an entire nation, it’s not very likely to remain a permanent fixture. So when you have something as marginalized and often crass as tmesis tends to be, it would take an entire country of marginalized and often crass English speakers to popularize it. In other words: Australia. And that brings us back to Tumbarumba and its claim to fame.

Apparently, there was a poem written not too long ago by an Australian author and poet named John O’Grady[iii] entitled Tumba Bloody Rumba. I won’t include the poem here in its entirety, partly because its frequent use of the word bloody may offend some. Suffice it to say, the poem makes ample use of colourful tmesis with words such as “Tumba-bloody-rumba” and “kanga-bloody-roos.”

The result, thanks in no small part to the almost hypnotic power of the word, is that tumbarumba has now become a synonym for tmesis in the English language.

'I see you've played knifey spoony before!'

Not only is tumbarumba a fan-freaking-tastic addition to the English language, it also may very well be the only real contribution the Australians ever make to global English as a whole. I mean, unless you count “That’s not a knife. This is a knife.” And, granted, I’m tempted to out of nostalgia for the 80s. But there’s no way any of us will ever have another use for the words ‘Yahoo Serious,’ as awesome as Young Einstein was. And does anyone even know what a billabong is? If so, is it even legal to own one?

Using tumbarumba isn’t going to get you any job offers or endear you to the ladies/the gentlemen, but that’s not its purpose anyway. Tumbarumba is a cultural ambassador, like the koala bear and Mel Gibson – a token of amity and fraternity from Australia to the rest of the English-speaking world. Like all things Australian, tumbarumba has the power to add spice and adventure to your life. So let’s do as the Australians do, if only this once, and spice up our vocabu-flipping-lary with a little tumbarumba.

Yahoo at his most Serious

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[i] http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/ABSNavigation/prenav/LocationSearch?collection=Census&period=2006&areacode=UCL176000&producttype=QuickStats&breadcrumb=PL&action=401

[ii] Inpletives? Impletives?

[iii] I could find nothing concrete online confirming Mr. O’Grady as the author of the poem. And unlike Yale University, I’m not comfortable using Wikipedia as a sole source of my information. See Yale University Library’s blurb on O’Grady here.

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The Binturong

Chances are you don’t know what a binturong is, and that’s exactly how they like it. The binturong is nature’s reclusive, creepy curmudgeon who lives down the street in the house with all of the junk piled out front who only comes out of his house to pick up the paper and scare the local kids. The binturong isn’t elusive because it’s endangered (because it isn’t) or because it’s stealthy (because it isn’t), but because it just doesn’t like other animals or people. It wants to be left alone so it can nurse both its aching war wound and its seething bitterness. And it would thank you very much to stay the heck off its lawn and let it live its own life in peace.

So jealous is the binturong of its own privacy that everything about this creature is designed to mislead and misinform so that, hopefully, no one will ever find it.

This binturong is just a cub and yet it already appears to be smoking.

Starting with its name, binturong is Malay for “bear cat” even though it is neither a bear nor a cat. If its name doesn’t confuse zealous girl scouts and Census Bureau volunteers enough to keep them looking for bears and/or cats and away from its front door, there is yet another layer of deception hidden within the binturong’s monicker. In Malay bear-cat is the word for binturong, but in Chinese it’s the word for panda. And it just so happens that the binturong is native to China just like the panda. This is no accident. The binturong is pretty much banking on more than a few pandas being snagged in a case of mistaken identity.

If a binturong isn’t a bear or a cat, what is it? It’s a relative of the civet and the genet. And what in the name of great Caesar’s ghost are civets and genets? Exactly. No one’s really sure. And I mean no one. If I had to describe either a civet or a genet, I would say it looks like the cross between a bear and a cat. Seriously.

A civet

And that’s the brilliance of the binturong’s defense techniques. If someone is bent on selling the binturong a subscription to Viverrid Monthly, or killing it and selling its meat and fur at a market, they would be sent around in circles until they gave up. If a person started looking for a binturong based on its name, they’d end up knocking on the door of every bear or cat in the phone book until they might eventually stumble upon a civet or a genet instead. If they realized they’d been duped and they tried to figure out what the heck a civer or a genet is, they’d eventually end up right back at bears and cats.

Eventually, though, a binturong needs to drive to the local gas-n-go to grab another 40 ounce and a pack of smokes. And every once in a while, one of them gets caught and taken to a zoo. The binturong isn’t a dangerous animal when considered on the grand scale of dangerous animals – with bears and dolphins at the most dangerous extreme, and pandas and sugar gliders on the other. Any danger a binturong poses isn’t because it’s fierce as much as because it’s just plain ticked off. Binturongs are even known to pace around cages in zoos angrily grunting to themselves.[i] The look on a captured binturong’s face also resembles less a deer in headlights and more Nick Nolte’s mugshot.

A binturong's mugshot

Nick Nolte's mugshot

The best part about the binturong is also the fakest sounding part: the binturong smells like popcorn; like real, buttered popcorn. And I more than half suspect it’s nature’s way of making sure the binturong can’t be too much of a recluse. The fact that nature’s crankiest loner smells so huggably delicious is entirely fitting. If movies and TV have taught me anything at all besides crime pays and only hot people[ii] crash on islands, it’s that curmudgeons might have a tough exterior, but they’re all lovable softies on the inside. You see, the binturong isn’t a bad or evil creature by any means. It’s not a fierce man eater. It just projects an image of wanting to be left alone when in truth this is only because it doesn’t know how to reach out and be friends. But God has caused this creature to smell like buttered popcorn as a sign of the golden, gooey heart that beats within its off-putting, red eyed exterior.


[i] It’s really true. They do.

[ii] And the occasional fat guy.

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Noses

What a Google image search for "Greek nose" yielded.

Noses are perhaps the most distinguished, and most unappreciated, facial feature. On the one hand, noses are greatly respected. A person with an unsightly olfactory organ might be said to have a nose with “character.”

Character. It is perhaps an all too transparent euphemism, but it’s still a pretty fantastic thing to say. And it’s true. Noses truly do imbue their bearers with a great deal of character. A lot can be told, or at least imagined, about a person based on their nose.

That lady with the high nose bridge looks snobby. The gentleman with the hooked nose looks villainous. The boy with the upturned nose that’s always an unhealthy shade of red looks perpetually ill, and therefore somehow sympathetic. The older man with the likewise red nose looks perpetually inebriated. Perhaps these generalizations are unfair[1], but they’re also very fascinating. If another facial feature on someone’s face is less than perfect, it might make them look angry, sad, silly or just plain ugly, but it won’t turn them into a character to populate the world of our imaginations like noses do.

The snobby lady with the high nose bridge isn’t just a snob, she’s a spinster school marm named Eliza Dewey who uses her aloofness as a defence because she was wounded deeply by a love affair gone wrong when she was a young lady.

The man with the hooked nose isn’t simply mean, he truly is a villain — Jimmy ‘The Crow Bar’ LeFontaine is his name. He used to be the most notorious safe cracker in the lower 48 until a botched bank job forced him to shoot his way out, which is how he discovered he makes a better hit man than safe cracker.

The boy who always looks sick isn’t really sick, he’s just allergic to anything made of nuts, wheat, milk, eggs, pollen, dust, or air. His name is Rob, and he’s a good hacker. Actually, he’s not just good. He’s great. And unfortunately for him, he’s stumbled upon something much bigger, and much more dangerous, than he imagined possible.

You see, the young man, named Victor, who broke our spinster’s heart, faked his own death to get away from some gangsters he borrowed money from several years back in his native country of Balislava. In order to work off his debt, he had to become an errand boy. He tried to put aside as much money as he could to marry the spinster and run away with her where the gangsters could never find them. But they discovered his plan and broke all the fingers in his hand. They threatened to go after his girlfriend next if he ever tried anything like that again. So he faked his death. He knew it would break the heart of his beloved, but he just couldn’t live with himself if he allowed any harm to come to her.

That’s where Rob the hacker comes in. The not-actually-dead lover of the spinster secretly contacted the hacker about three weeks ago asking him to transfer money from his offshore bank account into his spinster’s bank account. It was risky. It might indicate to the wrong people that he’s still alive, but it was a risk he had to take. He had to provide for his love, even if it meant risking his cover being blown. The hacker reluctantly agreed to help. Unfortunately for him, it would be the last thing he ever did.

The gangsters’ boss, a ruthless and unscrupulous kingpin by the name of Vladimir Petrovich, owns the bank the spinster holds an account at and he was having his minions keep tabs on her account in case some mysterious deposits were made. He suspected the boyfriend wasn’t really dead and that he would eventually try to reach out and contact his former lover. Petrovich knows of only one man good enough to hack through his security system — our hacker friend Rob — so he sends Jimmy ‘the Crowbar’ LeFontaine to deal with him.

Meanwhile, in Mid-Town Manhattan, a man sits alone at McGillacuddy’s, a dim and greasy Irish dive. He’s grizzled, slightly overweight and has a red nose that makes him look perpetually drunk. That’s because he almost always is. His name is detective Finn Munroe, and he’s about to get the call that’s going to make his career. “Dang it, Kowalski,” he says to himself as he downs that final shot of whiskey before heading out to the crime scene, “why’d you have to go and die, you no good son of a gun. This is just the kind of crap you loved.” After throwing on his trench coat, he pauses a moment. Then he pours one last shot of whiskey onto the floor as if in libation to his dead partner. Everyone at the precinct always says Munroe is a tad melodramatic.
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Can lips do all of that? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, the nose is greatly maligned, or at least under-appreciated, by the populous as a whole. Consider the expressions we have in English involving noses:

If someone pries or gets to involved in another’s affairs we call them ‘nosy’ and tell them not to stick their nose in others’ business.

A person who sucks up is called a ‘brown noser’ for unpleasant reasons.

An ignorant person is said to be unable to see ‘further than their nose.’

Snobs ‘turn up their noses’ or do things ‘with their nose in the air.’

People with unpleasant voices are often described as ‘nasal’ or as ‘speaking through their nose.’

Every facial feature is beautiful, and therefore awesome, in its own right, and each performs a function both physiologically and aesthetically that I’m sure we’d all rather not live without. But the nose is special. It’s the first part of a face a person sees. It comes in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes and sizes, but I am firmly convinced that each and every one of them is beautiful — something I wouldn’t say about eyes, ears and lips — but more than that: each nose is fascinating. A nose sketches a portrait of a person’s character and ancestry in a split second. I know that for better or worse, people will make conclusions about my personality and my life based on my nose. Sure, a lot of these conclusions are unfair. But I enjoy the thought that the people I pass in the street might imagine me to have ‘the nose of a scholar’ or ‘the nose of a janitor’ or ‘the nose of a musician’ or any number of other personas. I enjoy that in the passing fancy of people I know and don’t know, I might live out a thousand lives as all manner of heroes, villains and anything in between.

Besides, I’m proud of my nose in all its imperfection. It speaks of where I came from — where my people came from — and while that is not who I am, it is an integral part of who I am. And it is one of my life’s small pleasures to enjoy that in others as much as in myself.

So, my dear reader, don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Give your nose, and the noses of others, the appreciation it deserves.

What a Google image search for "French nose" yielded.

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[1] They are, but you’re only going to know that if you bother to read the footnotes.

[2] This footnote doesn’t even correspond to anything in the body of the post. Aren’t you glad you moseyed on down here to the footnote section?

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Bee Fears, Bears and Beards

I had intended to write this post about the etymology of the word carnival, because it’s quite an interesting one. This got me researching useful carnival terms like the fear of clowns, coulrophobia, and the fear of bears. But wait. Five or six consecutive Googlings, in which I employed the sum of my knowledge from almost fifteen years of search engine experience, netted not one single credible source for a term meaning ‘the fear of bears.’

Terrifying. Utterly terrifying.

This could mean several things, all of which confuse and concern me.

It could mean there is no confirmed psychological condition for the fear of bears (if there were it would probably be called ursophobia, and so we will call it henceforth). After all there is a veritable plethora of fake or medically unverifiable phobias drifting about the internet these days. Hippopotomonstrosequippedaliophobia — purported to be the term for ‘the fear of long words’ — is a prevalent find, though I have serious doubts about the medical credibility of the term, which itself appears to be nonsense (hippopoto- coming from the Greek for ‘river horse,’ the literal translation of hippopotomus, and by extension a synonym for ‘big’; monstro- coming from the Latin root for ‘monstrous,’ also by extension a synonym for big; and sesquipedalian, a real English word meaning ‘pertaining to long words,’ literally ‘foot and a half long’ in Latin.) and more than likely a mean-spirited joke at the expense of people who have such a fear. So maybe ursophobia is just another fake phobia. But that’s the problem. The fake phobias are just as easy to come by on the web as the real ones. Fictional phobia or not, a search for ‘the fear of bears’ should result in more than just a few unfounded conjectures on forums suggesting the existence of such a condition.

It could mean people, on the whole, don’t fear bears at all. The idea that there is no psychological condition called ursophobia is a reasonable one. That’s where a great deal of these fake phobias come from: people have a fear of something that doctors have not observed and confirmed as a psychological condition, so people make a word for it themselves. My, admittedly so-unqualified-it’s-ridiculous, understanding is that a phobia is more than a fear or distaste for something, but an irrational, crippling fear or hatred. And that’s why it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a real ursophobia: because it’s completely and solidly rational to fear bears.

I don’t trust animals that 1) can walk on their hind legs, 2) recognize themselves in a mirror, or 3) have thumbs. As scientists learn more about the mysteries of animal intelligence, it becomes clearer and clearer all the time that we humans might just be holding onto our position as the dominant species by our fingernails[1]. Bears are one of the few animals that can walk on their hind legs. That should scare us enough, especially if they ever learn how to carpool and wear suits. But they’re also much, much bigger than humans, with giant claws and teeth that could tear us to shreds in a matter of seconds. Don’t let the fact that they eat berries mislead you. Don’t be fooled by their beguiling cuteness and huggability. These are adaptations designed to trap their human prey. Bears are stone cold killers whose very nature it is to hunt down and eat people. There’s probably a bear watching you right now. Whatever you do, don’t look him in the eye and don’t rub his belly, no matter how much his lovable smile makes him look like he wants you to. It would be the last thing you ever did.

And so, if we want to keep our job as the dominant species on this planet, we need to fear bears. It’s right and rational for us to.

Which brings me back to the first issue raised: why isn’t there a phobia of bears? There are so many other zany phobias out there. And I mean real, medically documented phobias. Take linonophobia, which is, I kid you not, the fear of string. Not the fear of rope (or hanging by one), not the fear of chains, not the fear of whips, garrotes or wires. The fear of string. Then there’s pogonophobia, which is the fear of beards, a word many foreign people confuse readily with bears, but still — it’s not ursophobia.

And speaking of confusing bears with other words: melissophobia. Despite it’s appearance, melissophobia is not the fear of women named Melissa, though both words have the same root. It’s the fear of bees.[2] But if one Googles the phobia of bears, melissophobia comes up most frequently. That’s because people are stupid; another reason we need to watch out for bears and other ambitious species who might exploit our intellectual failings. In fact, I’m willing to bet money it was a bear who posted the misinformation about melissophobia in the first place.

I am officially a honeybeephobe.

You might be asking yourself ‘what’s so awesome about any of this?’

Well, it’s awesome that enough people have the good sense to fear clowns that we had to coin a word to explain it. Clowns have lost the element of surprise. That means we’re safe from clowns taking over as the dominant species, at least for now.

It’s awesome that melissophobia is a real condition, and it may just be the key to protecting us from a unified ursine power play. Everyone knows bears love honey. It’s like catnip, crack and coffee for bears all rolled into one. Bees have stingers, in part, as a means of defending the honey from animals such as bears. For their own survival, bears have adapted to become melissophobes. If the human race learns to use this to our advantage, we can deal the bears a blow so crippling, they’ll never recover. If we fail, it could mean the end of us all. And I fear the bears may have struck first. They are, after all, the most likely culprits behind the mysterious deaths of honey bees. That should tell us something about their resolve; that bears are willing to give up their favourite addiction forever in order to win the great Urso-Human Wars.

We could all learn something from the bears.

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[1] Even those we share with other primates, who meet all three of the aforementioned criteria above, earning my eternal mistrust.[i]

[2] Ironically, honeybeephobia is the fear of women named Melissa. The scientist who named these two phobias is a direct descendent of the Viking in charge of the Greenland/Iceland debacle of ’86 (886, that is).

[i] or is it distrust?

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Filed under Animals, Cuteness, Food, Language, Ridiculon, The Future