image of Twitter feed

Catching up on my Twitter feed this morning. Ran across a Tweet from science writer Pamela Gay describing the exploration of the asteroid Vesta by the Dawn probe. “Vesta melted, formed iron core, may have an Ovaltine crust.” Wait, what?

Oh. Olivine, not Ovaltine. Okay, then.


image of clockCouldn’t sleep in this morning. I was trying, but when I crawled back into bed after a quick trip to the bathroom during the wee small hours, I heard a ticking or scratching sound, very faint but very persistent, in the bedroom. There was probably a mouse behind the book case or poking around in the closet, or maybe the house was settling. It was a pretty cold night.

But the noise was so annoying that, after ten minutes of listening to it, I sat up in bed to see if I could figure out which direction it was coming from. My attentiveness must’ve unnerved My Darling B. I thought she was asleep, but after I sat there for a minute she asked, “What?” in her wide-awake voice.



She paused, trying to decipher what I’d said, decided she couldn’t, and asked: “Bat?”


“No, that.

Pause. “Fat?”

“T, H, A, T: That. That ticking noise.” I laid back down and tried not to think about it. “Probably just the cat.”


“Great,” she said. “Now I hear it.”

I gave up sleeping, got out of bed and went to the kitchen to brew a big pot o’ joe. Felt pretty bad about leaving her there to try to sleep through the ticking, but I didn’t know what I could do about it, other than lay there, wide awake, listening to it myself and getting more annoyed by the minute.

As I sat in my basement lair, doinking around with the internet, I heard her get out of bed and cross the living room. Obviously, she hadn’t been able to deal with the ticking noise any better than I had. I went upstairs to apologize.

She was waiting beside the kitchen table with one of my many clocks in her hand. “There’s your ticking noise,” she said, then headed off back to kick the cat out of the warm spot on her side of the bed.

There must be a word for the thought that gets stuck in your head and becomes so persistently annoying that it won’t let you sleep. Until I find out what it is, I’m going to call it batfatthat.


Woke up at about four o’clock this morning to a massive downpour, lots of thunder and lighting and cats walking across my face, not technically part of what one would normally consider a downpour but it was happening, so I note it. Okay, just one cat. The other cat was taking up all the space at the foot of the bed where my legs would normally go, so that I had to dangle my legs over the edge of the bed. I still don’t know why I unconsciously make room for the cat like that. It’s my damned bed.

Anyway, water was falling out of the sky by the truckload this morning. Why doesn’t anybody say that ever? Why buckets? Truckloads are way more impressive. They’re bigger, for a start, and they’re mechanized. Buckets are smaller and they’re a lot of work to carry around. Who likes buckets more than trucks? And I see trucks carrying water all the time. It’s not like they’re rare. From now on, I’m not saying rain came down in buckets. It comes down by the truckload. Who’s with me?


For the first time in I don’t know how many months, I turned the page in The New York Times and found a crossword puzzle that I could finish in less than a week. As it turned out, I finished it in less than an hour. Almost made my head explode.

We used to subscribe only on weekends, when the puzzle was nearly so impossible to solve that I could only get one or two words, and they were usually gimmies with clues like, &#147She went up the hill with Jack.” I’d fill that one in, then bang my head against the rest of the crossword for four or five days before giving up without managing to figure out another clue. Not that I felt especially bad about it. They were all as cryptic as “The toenail of the Sphynx, in Latin?” I’d give up in disgust, but the next weekend would come along and I’d do it all over again.

Eventually, though, I gave up entirely. There’s only so much self-defeat a guy can take. I didn’t find out until much later that the Times runs crossword puzzles that start out easy on Monday and get progressively more difficult as the days go on, until by the weekend they’re as fiendishly, tortuously, maddeningly close to impossible as a crossword can be, so it wasn’t me. It was the puzzle. It was. That’s the story I’m sticking to.

Until this spring we only got weekend delivery, and I never picked one up in the store, so I hadn’t tried any of the weekly puzzles until last week Monday, when I turned the page, paused to look at the first few clues and thought, Hey, I know the answer to all of those, and kept on going. When I was pretty sure I could fill the top left corner, I got up out of my seat to look for a pencil. Less than an hour later, the crossword was done.

I’d never finished a New York Times crossword before then. I was so jazzed about it that, as soon as I got home Tuesday evening, I went ripping through the pages, looking for the next day’s crossword. Couldn’t find one. Wednesday, same deal. And again Thursday. Sadly, the Times prints crosswords on the weekend and on Monday, as it turns out. The mid-week crosswords are only available on-line, and I’m very much a guy who pencils in his word. How cruel can life be? Well, now I know.


What do you call that empty space at the top of a beer bottle? There’s already a word for it that goes back centuries, but I don’t think I heard anyone use one word consistently for it until the last five or ten years when I started hanging around beer brewers, who usually call it headspace.

The traditional name for it, going back a few centuries, is ullage. I wanted to find out where the term came from, so I looked it up in a two-volume Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary I snagged at Saint Vinnie’s a couple weeks ago for three bucks, a purchase I am still feeling well chuffed about. I have in my possession, ah, let us say, more than two dictionaries, but I digress. Ullage comes from a French word and, I have to assume, so does the clunky definition in my old dictionary:

ullage: the amount that a container lacks of being full.

“Lacks of being full?” What kind of incomprehensibly uptight way is that to describe a concept as simple as “the empty space above the liquid?” It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I looked it up in a modern edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that I have long regarded as the non plus ultra of desk dictionaries. It had the same goofy definition, word for word, as if they’d plagiarized it from Funk and Wagnall’s. I’m not saying they did, but it’s weird that Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate described ullage using the exact same, nearly opaque wording that Funk and Wagnall’s did nearly forty years earlier. And so did Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate. What the hell?

Descending to my basement lair, I consulted Volume Two of The New Century Dictionary of the English Language (pock-mark to zy-mur-gy, and supplements) to see if they spoke in this stuffy, backwards-assed manner in the 1920s. Well, duh. Of course they did. Verbatim. Almost as if an Intelligent Designer decreed many moons ago that ullage would for all time be known as “the amount that a container lacks of being full,” no matter how much it makes anyone sound like a complete doof.

Speaking of sounding like a complete doof, I might never have heard of this word if I didn’t incessantly read about the moon landings. Rocket fuel floats around in the tanks that hold it, just like astronauts float around inside their space ships, but like the gas tank in your car there’s only one way for the fuel to get out: through a pipe running from the bottom of the tank. To make sure the fuel is down there to feed the rocket, astronauts give the ship a little jog forward with the maneuvering thrusters just before firing the main engine, which they report to the ground by saying, “Ullage.”

Too bad the landings didn’t take place forty years later, when they could have said, “Headspace.”

talk talk

Hock rots. Puggled nose. Eye gron gree. Up up ter.

These are just a few samples of the first words used by our offspring. When the Seanster needed to blow his nose, for instance, he told his mother that his nose was puggled. It was a short jump from plugged so it was easy to figure out, and it was so endearing that both B and I started using puggled instead of plugged. The word has stuck with us to this day, as has Sean’s stated desire to satisfy an empty stomach: Eye gron gree.

Helicopters are up up ters. The first six months or so after Tim started talking were spent endlessly reciting nouns. He pointed at everything, everything and asked, “Whatsa?” Talking to him during those six months was like reading a dictionary out loud. One day he pointed at a helicopter and asked, so I told him. His rather fitting version came out up up ter. On the rare occasions when a helicopter appears in the sky, either B or I will almost always enthusiastically announce it to the other by pointing and shouting “Up up ter!” – usually drawing quizzical looks from passers-by.

Hock rots goes way back, and in our house only I use it, which is fitting because it originated with me, although I didn’t know that until a year or two ago. For the longest time I thought it was German or Czech or maybe even Polish, because my parents and their parents used to babble to each other using a mash-up of words and phrases from those languages, either to talk around the kids or just because, so naturally enough I thought hock rots must have been one of those words. On the few occasions that I wondered how it was spelled, I imagined it was something like haakrautz or hocrocz, but I was never able to find it in any dictionary no matter how many different variations I imagined. I always knew what it meant, though. That was never a secret. Whenever I started to hiccup, Mom or Dad would ask me, “Got the hock rots?”

Not long ago, after she described something using a smattering of German, I asked her about hock rots. “Where’s that word come from? I’ve never been able to find it.”

She laughed at me. “It came from you!” she said. Like Timmy’s up up ter, I mangled hiccups into hock rots, and Mom and Dad kept using it. I don’t get the hock rots much any more, but B does, so I still get to use it.

The End of the Lazy-Butt New Year’s Holiday

For the past two days I’ve indulged the hell out of myself: I parked my butt on the sofa Friday morning and have done practically nothing since then but drink coffee, read web comics, blog and read books. Just a total slug. And it was good.

But things fall apart, as they say, and it’s time to start battling the evil forces of entropy, starting with a quick clean-up of the house. My Darling B led the charge by breaking out the cleaning rags and assaulting the kitchen head-on, with an assist from me because I had to clean the dishes out of the sink before she could really get into it and she won’t touch the dishes because that’s my department. She puts food on the dishes, I clean them up, that’s the deal, and the delicious delights she comes up with make it worth scrubbing every cooked-on slick of scum off the cooking pans. I just want to make sure I add that.

Then I grabbed the vacuum cleaner and started hoovering up all the clumps of gray crud that have accreted along the edges of the stairs. And there’s your word of the day: “accrete.” It’s erosion in reverse, a build-up of stuff. I had to point it out because “accrete” doesn’t get used enough, so load it up in your vocabulary and lob it out there the next time you get a chance. Thank you. Love and Kisses, from The Pedantic Lexicographers.

I think the crud on the stairs starts out as mere dust, but when it combines with the kitty litter that gets tracked up the stairs by our live-in mousetraps it takes on a shape and texture that reminds me of lichens and probably occupies the same level of the chain of life, inanimate but not unliving, waiting for its chance to evolve into something mobile with fangs and glowing goat-eyes that’ll be able to erupt from the darkness of the basement and devour me as I saunter down there one night to get a beer. Or at least that’s as far as I let it get before I grab a vacuum cleaner and vigorously suck it out of the corners.

Then I vacuumed up the dust under the sofa, and then the shredded carpet around the scratching post, and the dirt in the hallway, and finally the hairballs in the bathroom before I bowed to the inevitable, pulled on my extra-large rubber gloves and started scrubbing down the rest of the bathroom. Talk about a breeding ground for killer life forms. Every time I get down on my knees so my eyes are close enough to the floor to see what’s going on down there, I wonder how we’ve managed to live through the week. Sometimes it’s a blessing being nearsighted.

Some three hours and several gallons of industrial-strength cleanser after I started, I was scrubbing my own skin with a loofa while standing under a shower of scalding water in the hopes of feeling clean again some day. It could happen.


A wandering mind reads the morning news…

I get The New York Times delivered to my door on the weekends because I like reading a newspaper. Our local paper, noble effort that it may be, is rather thin on content compared to a paper like the Times, or even to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, and I understand some of the reasons for that, but when I sit down at the kitchen table with a newspaper I would like to run out of coffee before I run out of newspaper. I can read just about all of the Wisconsin State Journal during a single fifteen-minute break at the office. I almost never finish the Times in one sitting.

What catches and holds my eye when reading the Times is the language their writers use. Adam Nagourney wrote about a politician’s “propensity to puffery” when referring to the way they toot their own horns. Alliteration: It’s what’s for breakfast.

Nagourney was writing about Congressional doothead Mark Kirk, who made himself out to be an Iraq War veteran by saying he served in the invasion of Iraq, until it was pointed out he was in the States at the time of the invasion. He has since changed his web page to read that he was serving during the invasion of Iraq, covering his ass with the excuse that he “misremembered it wrong.”

“Misremembering it wrong” is a literally funny way to put that. I recall “misremembering” to be a nonsensical word coined by President Bush the Second in one of his more lucid moments. It’s now apparently being used in all seriousness by Kirk in a way that changes its meaning to the polar opposite of what he would seem to want it to mean. “Remember” means “to put the pieces together; “misremember” suggests that you made a mistake putting the pieces together. Does “misremembering it wrong” indicate that your mistake was wrong, that you mistakenly put the wrong pieces together, or that you’re negating the action of mistakenly putting the pieces together? I’m upgefuddled.

“Cypriot religious and political leaders unleashed a furious broadside on Friday…” began the story of the pope’s visit to Cyprus. How curiously appropo to couple the Catholic Church with an archaic term like broadside, a salvo fired from the main guns of one battleship at the flanks of another. Battleships haven’t fired an actual broadside in combat since the beginning of the Second World War, when aircraft carriers became the castles of the seas and made battleships obsolete. Well, I couldn’t help drawing the parallel. Mea culpa.

Bonus mixed metaphor: Why would a broadside yearn to be “unleashed,” as if it were a rag-tag collection of snuffling house mutts straining toward the next fire hydrant during an evening stroll? Not even the dogs of war were unleashed.