Wrapped Around the Axel

To be wrapped around the axel is to be in a difficult situation from which it’s hard to extract oneself. It seems that anything with an axel, from a horse-drawn wagon to a wheelbarrow, has been considered a possible source.

Phrase Finder had some hypotheses but no citation. But here’s a citation I found in wikipedia:

As The New York Times noted in its obituary of the dancer on 15 September 1927, ‘The automobile was going at full speed when the scarf of strong silk began winding around the wheel and with terrific force dragged Miss Duncan, around whom it was securely wrapped, bodily over the side of the car, precipitating her with violence against the cobblestone street. She was dragged for several yards before the chauffeur halted, attracted by her cries in the street. Medical aid was summoned, but it was stated that she had been strangled and killed instantly.’

Ug! Certainly dramatic enough to stick in the public mind and perhaps become this phrase.

Third and Final [?] Phase of America’s Civil War

Phase 1 of America’s Civil War was a horror – the number of soldiers who died from a combination of battle and illness was over 750,000, “far greater than the number of men who perished in all other U.S. wars put together.” Ecstatic Nation

Human beings are complex creatures and many things drove the war, but slavery was at its core – in the new states of the west as well as the old south.

After such a terrible war, the North was willing to turn towards commerce and away from black citizens. Today, we might call the Klu Klux Klan and Jim Crow an insurgency – it certainly was violent enough to qualify.

There was a huge riot in New Orleans, which really turned into a massacre against the black community in 1866, and then there were acts of mob violence against black voters. And in broader Louisiana, you had some of the worst political terror and mob violence committed in all the Reconstruction years, most famously the Colfax massacre of 1873, which was the largest mass killing in American history until 9/11. Isaac Chotiner slate.com

Gradually the violence decreased (though it never disappeared) and a new normalcy settled on the backs of black Americans. Many whites in the defeated South began to “write magnolia-scented history” where Lee was nobler than Grant and Confederates were finer men than Unionists. In an exception to the common view that the victors write history, the South was fairly successful in their efforts. Ecstatic Nation

Phase 2 launched a hundred years later with the Civil Rights Movement– there was more violence but also more progress towards a fair and democratic America. In the mid 1970s, society settled down again – another new normal.

Perhaps we are entering Phase 3 after only forty more years. Continue reading

Sold a Bill of Goods – Not Good at All

The phrase means to be cheated, though I didn’t understand why – “goods” is a general term for merchandise so surely buying goods is, well, good. And a bill of goods must be some sort of receipt – which also sounds good.

Word Detective says

“Bill of goods” was used in the non-pejorative “list of stuff” sense for many years until the 1920s, when it suddenly took on a negative spin… (“Selling a big bill of goods hereabouts, I’ll wager, you old rascals?” Eugene O’Neill, Marco Millions, 1927). “Bill of goods” very quickly almost entirely lost its simple, honest mercantile sense and became a synonym for “scam.” Just how this transformation happened is something of a mystery.

The site speculates that the phrase means the list was given to the purchaser but the goods never delivered. I’ll add my own observation that the switch to meaning a swindle occurred during America’s Prohibition era which makes me think of rum-running and accompanying swindles. I assume the phrase must have been known before O’Neill used it in a book.

A wordoriginsorg forum agrees with the O’Neill citation and includes several uses of “bill of goods” as a simple listing rather than a swindle before the 1920s, including by Mark Twain  in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889.

Preaching to the Choir – a much safer audience

This phrase refers to attempts to convert someone who is already a believer – that is, a waste of time. According to Phrase Finder, this is a fairly recent phrasing, originating in the United States, based on an older version.

The first reference is from The Lima News, Ohio, January 1973:
“He said he felt like the minister who was preaching to the choir. That is, to the people who always come to church, but not the ones who need it most.”

An earlier English version dates back around a century further and is first cited in a letter to The Times in November 1857:
It is an old saying that to preach to the converted is a useless office, and I may add that to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.

It was subsequently made popular by John Stuart Mill.

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading

Doing Something That Doesn’t Work For Five Hundred Years

Drunkenness of Noah - a problem that's been with us a long time

Drunkenness of Noah – a problem that’s been with us a long time

Author Susan Cheever sets out to fill a gap in American History with Drinking in America, Our Secret History, and her personal life doubtlessly influences her writing. A third of the way through the book, Cheever writes of her own family’s battle with alcohol and notes that “alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.” She herself stopped drinking when “brought to my knees by alcoholism.” Authors of straight history “texts” don’t get personal in the body of their work.

Despite her family, Cheever acknowledges that alcohol, and the “unstoppable” “crazy courage,” “both brilliance and incompetence” of drunks, has contributed to America. Drinking has led to American disasters and triumphs. “Rum could make you brave, confident, and scornful of conventional obstacles.”

She offers excellent retellings of many familiar pieces of history: the Pilgrims and Puritans (not the same people at all!), the Revolution, Civil War, woman’s suffrage and Prohibition, Kennedy’s assassination – with vivid details I had never read. The idea that some of the Pilgrims’ difficulties were due to most of them being drunk (by modern standards) almost all the time is intriguing. And you’ll find some famous names revealed as heavy drinkers, along with others who hated alcohol and drunkenness, beginning with the Pilgrims. Reviewers on Amazon point out Cheever’s speculation and factual errors (“riddled” says one), and her book isn’t footnoted like a text would be, but it’s worth your reading time.

But I’d like to note her comments on history. While there have been historians seeking to push an agenda or prove a point, “modern history, for the most part, claims to be objective… observant neutrality occasionally punctuated with some wise commentary. There are many advantages – no ax to grind, no idea to sell, no political point to make. But there are disadvantages… Historians miss a lot.”

This view of history limits our perspective. She notes that, after reading “hundreds of indexes and tables of contents, and dozens of books… [she finds that] few historians even mention drinking and its effects.”

I assume historians skip across drinking in history, in part, because ascribing any positive outcome to drunkenness is embarrassing – or at least, counterintuitive. The idea that inebriation was part of daily life for men, women, and children (!) as well as founding fathers and Nobel winning authors simply doesn’t click.

Yet it seems to me that the truth is worth knowing, and Cheever’s book offers something to add to my view of history. It does reinforce my basic feeling that The War on Drugs is a mistake, and I try to be skeptical of books that confirm my pre-existing biases. But even punishments from the 1600s that would be considered torture today didn’t stop drunkenness, which pretty much agrees with the effects of modern punishments on drug addicts. Perhaps, by ignoring an element of history, we are repeating it.

American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace

american-dreamerI obtained this book through the interlibrary loan system with the single purpose of checking out an original reference for the book I’m writing about the Rocky Flats Plant during the Cold War. I was surprised that the book has over 600 pages, checked the page with the reference I wanted, and then began skimming it. Much to my surprise the book drew me in. For those unfamiliar with him, Henry Agard Wallace was a fascinating character. He grew up in a farm family that published a newspaper that focused on farming and political issues associated with farming. He was raised to be a completely moral Christian, and seldom allowed even the most vicious political attacks he would eventually suffer later in his public life to stir him to do more than offer a reasoned defense.

Most people probably know something about Wallace because John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President for his first two terms, strongly opposed FDR running for a third term. (Garner had been chosen as the Vice President in a deal that allowed FDR to receive his first nomination by the Democratic Party. FDR and Garner were polar opposites, and my impression is that they detested each other and went out of their way to avoid the need to have any contact.) A large slate of candidates wanted to have the VP slot, but FDR chose Wallace.

FDR had chosen Wallace to be his Secretary of Agriculture during his first two terms despite the fact Wallace was a Republican. Party difference was immaterial, because Wallace was a strong Progressive. He also was a brilliant man who studied and comprehended the role of genetics in crop yields. He and his wife formed a hybrid corn seed business that eventually made them wealthy. The chickens he bred eventually provided a substantial portion of eggs to the nation and the world.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about the key role Wallace played in his position of Secretary of Agriculture in the New Deal during years when famers were being crushed by the Great Depression. Fans of small government will be astonished and disturbed at the growth and reach of his department. His first personnel action was to appoint Milton Eisenhower, Ike’s brother, head of information services with instructions “…to transform the department immediately into a vast action agency to restore parity of income to American farmers.” The primary focus of the many government actions taken under Wallace’s leadership was to improve farm income by the “…promotion of planned scarcity.” Wheat was the easiest crop for the new strategy, because many wheat growing areas were experiencing a crushing drought. “It would not be necessary to plow under growing wheat; nature had done it—unequally, cruelly, to be sure, but decisively…” Millers and bakers didn’t like the new processing tax that paid expenses for the new program until they understood they could blame the price increases on the government. Continue reading