Cool Spellings

January 20, 2011

Currently, Yahoo has a story on its front page about Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington D.C. The school’s sports teams are nicknamed “Rough Riders,” and for the past several years, the basketball team has had the single word “Riders” on the front of its jerseys. Not this year, though. This year the players are sporting jerseys that say “Ryders,” as in The Ryder Cup or Ryder Trucks or perhaps Ruff Ryders, none of which is traditionally associated with Teddy Roosevelt or the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry. The best part of the story is the explanation/excuse that the jersey vendor gave the basketball coach: Ryders is the “cool” way to spell it.

Look, okay, we all know that English spelling is a bit wonky. Granted, traditional spelling gives us an idea of the history and etymology of a word, but it’s kind of a pain. So why not get rid of traditional spelling and give up on the dream of a simplified and phonetically consistent system of spelling. Instead, let’s adopt “cool spellings.” Oh sure, that means that spellings will become faddish and ephemeral. Presumably, language designers will bring out new spelling lines at least twice a year. I think it’s worth it, though. We don’t want other languages to make fun of our frumpy spellings.

ES at Skeptycle Hoomanatees

Letters in the Eyes of the Mona Lisa?

January 20, 2011

The recent accounts in the media that an Italian researcher had uncovered tiny letters in the eyes of the Mona Lisa seemed suspicious, especially since in no account that I have seen has anyone bothered to print a picture of the supposed micro-signature. Well, Joe Nickell has seen this sort of claim before, and he has some background on the people who are making this extraordinary claim.  (Spoiler: They harbor  all manner of  improbable beliefs.)


Chaucer’s Cunt

January 18, 2011

Now that I have your attention, I regret to inform you that he didn’t have one. On several occasions recently, sometimes in conversations about censorship, I have heard people say that Chaucer used the word “cunt.” Indeed, Wikipedia says, “The word appears several times in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390) in bawdy contexts, but it does not appear to be considered obscene at this point, since it is used openly.” Similarly, RationalWiki proclaims that “Chaucer used the word unblushingly in his Canterbury Tales.”

Oddly, these statements are followed by quotes from The Canterbury Tales that belie them, for the word that Chaucer uses is not “cunt,” but “queynte.” “Queint,” as a noun, literally means “a clever or curious device or ornament” (Middle English Dictionary) or an “elegant, pleasing thing” (Riverside Chaucer). When used to refer to a woman’s genitalia, it is both a euphemism and a pun.

Chaucer uses “queint” several times in his earthier tales. The Miller’s Tale is a fabliau about a carpenter, his much younger wife, a young Oxford clerk who is lodging with them and another clerk, who is somewhat squeamish about farting. Both clerks have naughty feelings toward the young wife, and she reciprocates the lodger’s lust. The tale involves adultery, farting, pissing, a badly misplaced kiss, a burning poker in a very sensitive area and a fake deluge. One day, when the carpenter is away, the lodger, Nicholas, begins “to rage and pleye” with Alison, the young wife, and…

As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte,
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (MT I (A) 3275-3278)

(As clerks are very ingenious and clever, and discreetly he caught her by the pleasing thing and said, “Indeed, unless I have my will, I will spill (die) for secret love of you, my dear.”)

Chaucer also uses “queint” in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. In lecturing one of her husbands, she says that, as long as he has enough of what he wants, he shouldn’t care what other folks get:

For, certeyn, olde dotard, by youre leve,
Ye shul have quente right ynogh at eve (WBP III (D) 332-333)

(For indeed, old dotard, by your leave, you shall have plenty of the precious thing (or, more generally, sexual gratification) in the evening.)

Later she asks,

What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone?
Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone? (WBP III (D) 444-445)

(What ails you to complain and groan so? Is it because you alone would have my precious thing? NB One of the manuscripts, Cambridge, University Library II.3.26, does read “cunte” in this passage)

A few lines later, she refers to her favorite body part as her “bele chose” (Fr. belle chose, lovely thing).

“Cunt,” like many naughty words for body parts and bodily functions, probably has its origins in Old English. It certainly has cognates in other medieval Germanic languages, such as Old Norse kunta and Old Frisian, Middle Low German and Middle Dutch kunte (Oxford English Dictionary). There are no known instances of it in Old English, however. James McDonald, in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo, suggests that it may be related to Old English cynd, which means “origin, generation, birth, kind, offspring” and can also mean “genitalia” (Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary).

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of “cunt” is in the street name “Gropecuntelane” (c. 1230). The earliest instance of “cunt” used to refer to the vagina comes from around 1325 (OED, MED). McDonald also cites several personal names that incorporate “cunt” (a number of these are earlier than “Gropecuntlane”). He lists the women’s names Gunoka Cuntles (1219) and Bele Wydecynthe (1328) and men’s names Godwin Clawecuncte (1066), Simon Sitbithecunte (1167), John Fillecunt (1246) and Robert Clevecunt (1302). Ladies, if you ever meet a man named Godwin Clawcunt or Robert Cleavecunt, run!

According to McDonald, “cunt” was used to refer to the vagina without any suggestion of vulgarity until roughly the end of the fourteenth century. Chaucer, who died in 1400, was therefore writing The Canterbury Tales at a time when cunts were disappearing from polite society; consequently, he hinted at the word without actually using it.



Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Gen. ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton, 1987.

Clark Hall, J. R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Suppl. by Herbert D. Merritt. 4th ed. Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 14. U of Toronto P, 1960.

McDonald, James. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo. Ward, Herts.: Wordsworth, 1996.

Middle English Dictionary Online. University of Michigan.

Oxford English Dictionary: OED Online. Oxford UP, 2010. Subscription only.

Antivaccine Rhetoric vs. History

January 17, 2011

Tonight, Mayer Eisenstein hosted a webinar (shudder) about vaccines. Ostensibly, the online event was to tell people how to write vaccine exemption letters. It was a Cirque du Soleil-sized extravaganza of clownishly sloppy logic and at-best-half-truths. I’ve watched some webinars before, and they are simply online Powerpoint presentations with audio. We see the speaker’s screen while they talk, and there is usually a chat room where the audience can interact. I have no idea how well attended Eisenstein’s event was, but it lasted for an hour and ended with about a 10-minute sales pitch for his miracle cure, Vitamin D, and his books.

The basic argument that Eisenstein was pushing was “use the religious protections provided by the First Amendment to justify vaccine exemption,” a cynical use of religion if I have ever seen one (and I’ve seen several). I thought that I would see how cynical he could possibly be, so in the chat room I asked, “Is there an option for atheists to claim religious objections?” Heehee.

His answer?

“I think all lawyers are atheists so [unintelligble] when they get in front of a jury they say, ‘I pray that the jury gives a verdict for me.’  Oh, or ‘I religiously believe that I believe this person is negligent or guilty.’ So I had a lawyer tell me that he felt the religious exemption had nothing to do with the belief in God, that a personal, specific religious belief–if you look up the word ‘religious,’ it’s very closely held position, uh, believing that there is some higher order or higher power, and you know, I think it’s close enough. If it’s not close enough for you, well, I’m not sure how you would go about it. Even if there’s a belief that there’s a natural order in the universe, that in itself is a religion. Don’t take the word religion to be so narrowly defined. Take a more, ah, expansive position.”

You could look at this answer in a couple of ways. The first way to see it as a string of loosely connected statements of a person on their way out, and while that is tempting, we do far more damage to the cause of public health when we underestimate our ideological adversaries. Even this guy.

But if you look at the underlying logical structure of that first part, he seems to be saying, “Well, atheist lawyers often pretend like they have religion to appeal to juries. Wink wink, nudge nudge.”

I am also bemused by the way he went straight to “negligent,” as his medical practice, according to the Chicago Tribune

“was on the losing side of one of the largest U.S. jury verdicts — $30 million — ever awarded to the family of a newborn in a wrongful-death suit.”

Anyway, then he tries on another fundamentally cockamamie argument, that “religion” doesn’t really mean “religion.” It really just means, “closely guarded belief.” This, of course, inflates the meaning of the word “religion” to almost complete uselessness: “Even if there’s a belief that there’s a natural order in the universe, that in itself is a religion.” Yeah, only if you are an intelligent design advocate, bucko. So sayeth the courts.

Despite his willingness to see the First Amendment misapplied, he did make some rather staggering comments that do fall directly under the purview of this new skeptical humanities site. He made a rather large claim when someone asked a question about diseases like polio:

“Well, that opens up a big can of worms. Because, I don’t want anyone to leave tonight saying Mayer Eisenstein isn’t worried about, uh, diseases. I’m more worried about…most doctors will scare you with the disease, I’m going to scare you with the side effects.”

Yeah, he actually said that. I know.

“We now know that we have had thousands and thousands of people die from contamination of the, of the, uh, polio vaccine. The polio vaccine, many of the doses were contaminated with SV40 virus, and I talk about it in my book, Making an Informed Vaccine Decision. […] Polio died out in Europe even in countries that didn’t give the polio vaccine, and the big push for the polio vaccine came with President Franklin Roosevelt who allegedly got polio as an adult. Allegedly. I’ve read some very credible reports that, um, he most probably had Guillain-Barré from the, um, Guillain-Barré from the flu vaccine, because, I don’t, I can’t remember, another adult who got polio. I’ve never seen it in almost 40 years in medicine. Now you know I came in a little bit after the adult era, but I should have seen, especially 35 and 40 years ago adults who contracted polio.”

Then he prattles on about what’s in vaccines, as if it helped his case.

Many of the assertions in this especially densely-packed drivel are historical questions. Take, for instance, his statement about the SV40 virus. According to the CDC, the Simian Virus was found in kidney cells of rhesus monkeys, which (I’m supposing) were used as a growth medium for attenuated polio virus in early polio vaccine. Quoth the CDC:

“More than 98 million Americans received one or more doses of polio vaccine during the period (1955–1963) when some of the vaccine was contaminated with SV40. SV40 has been found in certain types of human cancers, but it has not been determined that SV40 causes these cancers. The majority of evidence suggests there is no causal relationship between receipt of SV40-contaminated vaccine and cancer; however, some research results are conflicting and more studies are needed.”

Further, the contaminated strains have been yanked, and there has been no SV40 in polio vaccines since the early 1960s. I don’t know how he can say that deaths were caused by the presence of the virus in vaccines. Does he have access to research that the CDC doesn’t? Swing and a miss, Mayer.

The likelihood that a younger Mayer Eisenstein would likely have encountered a case of polio in the 1970s is also one that can be clarified by looking at history, again provided by the CDC:

There were usually about 13,000 to 20,000 cases of paralytic polio reported each year in the US before the introduction of Salk inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) in 1955. Polio peaked in 1952 when there were more than 21,000 reported cases. The number of cases of polio decreased dramatically following introduction of the vaccine and the development of a national vaccination program. In 1965, only 61 cases of paralytic polio were reported compared to 2,525 cases reported cases just five years earlier in 1960.

By the time Eisenstein graduated from short pants, the cases of paralytic polio were down to 61. The chances that he would have seen polio in the 1970s as a med student are vanishingly small. One interesting side note, Eisenstein mentioned over the course of the webinar that Amish kids don’t get autism, and he says it is because they don’t get vaccines. But they sure as hell got polio, as an Amish community hosted the last natural outbreak of polio in the US in 1979.  Strike two. No batter, no batter.

By far, my favorite assertion by Mayer was that FDR did not suffer from polio but Guillain-Barré syndrome brought on by flu vaccine.

I have access to a truly fantastic set of databases that I use in my research almost constantly. A source does exist that discusses the of FDR having Guilain-Barre, an article from 2003 in the Journal of Medical Biography by Armond Goldman, which according to the abstract:

“Posits that the conditions around the diagnosis of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s illness indicate that he likely suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune polyneuritis, rather than paralytic poliomyelitis.”

So, we have a retrospective study based on available historical documents at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York, and the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. It’s possible, I imagine. However, I looked at 5 cross-disciplinary databases looking for “Roosevelt and Guillain-Barré” and found that all of the mentions of the hypothesis in the press were references to Goldman’s article. So, it’s nothing like the consensus view at this point. (I have ordered the article, however, and look forward to seeing it.)

We can, however, use history to completely demolish the boneheaded assertion that FDR got…whatever he had… from a flu vaccine, as he fell ill in August 1921. The first experimental influenza vaccine was developed in 1936, according to Stanley A. Plotkin, Walter A. Orenstein, and Paul A. Offit. Strike three, big guy. YEEEEEEEROUT!

History spanks cranky antivaxxers.


A note: I did subsequently find another reference to an article from the Journal of Medical Biography that suggests that Roosevelt may not have had polio (top of list), but diagnostically, I am told, we would need to see his spinal fluid to get a final answer about what caused his paralysis. Good luck with that.

Conspiracy in the News (15 Jan 2011)

January 16, 2011

Tonight I resurrect, like a twisted necromancer, a feature from my old website in which I take a look at the conspiracies that make our wacky world go ’round. Honestly, the conspiracy flies so thick and fast on the web that it is impossible for any single mortal to keep up with. This week, a lot of it has related back to the Giffords’ shooting, and, let’s face it, the shooter is bizarre: he has left tracks all over and believed that grammar was being used by the government as a method of control. If you see that much agency where there cannot possibly be agency, you are flying over the cuckoo’s nest.

Gordon Duff found a Jewish angle to the attack, because he is such a delight.

Before It’s News found five sinister reasons for the attack. (Misery is like porn to these people.)

The other major conspiracy theory story this week has been about animals “dying off” all over the world, starting with the aflockalypse in Arkansas. This of course is bullocks as similar incidents happen all the time; the only thing different this time is an especially fatuous news cycle. So, here’s the obligatory link to that conspiracy, with a dash of apocalyptic Christianity thrown in for good measure.

Mnookin’s new book, The Panic Virus, discusses how conspiracy theories can have deadly real-world effects.

Are the floods in Australia the work of HAARP? Of course not, but here’s a video with snappy music (btw, the comments are worth reading):

Also, discredited anti-vaccine fraud Andrew Wakefield was recently interviewed on Anderson Cooper and resorted to conspiracy theories to defend himself. Super-weak:

According to the Canada Free Press (in my experience, appending “free press” to your website’s name indicates “otherwise unpublishable”), secular humanists are using evolution to dismantle American democracy. Check out the CrAzY CaPs that the author “USES”!!!!

Liberty News Online issues a crazed statement of belief or something. I like where they describe the TSA as Nazis. The Nazis were primarily known, of course, for especially vigorous pat-downs. The bastards.

Fluoridation is still a controversial topic in certain sections of the undeveloped world. Like Wyoming.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week

The Zionists are behind the “new” astrological zodiac. Somehow they are going to copyright Ophiuchus and make a killing. This one was on the JREF forums, where goofy ideas often collide. It’s like an LHC of hilarity.


The Panic Virus

January 13, 2011

On the Media, one of my favorite podcasts, interviewed Seth Mnookin about his new book, The Panic Virus, which is about the vaccine scare brought on by Andrew Wakefield, who remains happily complicit in unprecedented child suffering and death.

I am excited about this in particular because host Bob Garfield uses the phrase “false balance” to describe the disproportional representation of vaccine fears in the media despite vaccines’ statistically insignificant risks.

We included On the Media in the podcast section of the website because Bob Garfield, Brooke Gladstone and their producers and contributors do a fantastic job of showing how often-unseen forces affect the news and media consumed by the public. I’ve been hooked ever since 2004, when they explained exactly how everyone on NPR sounds so damned good. The report is a classic, and I still recommend it.

Oh, this week they also mention Allen Gribben’s shamefully bowdlerized new edition of Huckleberry Finn, which substitutes the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” They are not the same thing, Allen. I was going to hurl a pithy Twain quote at him (“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it”), but I can’t verify that it is actually Twain’s. Oh well.


Conspiracy and Violence in Tuscon

January 12, 2011

I’ve been following the shooting in Arizona for the last few days, and I’m as disgusted as everyone else is, I’m sure. I’m reading with special interest because of how elements of conventional political conspiracy theories appear in the assassin’s truly disjointed and incoherent worldview.

The elements of truly run-of-the-mill conspiracist thought–at least the stuff that appears in Loughner’s youtube videos–are usually encountered as elements of larger, more complete and fleshed-out narratives. These narratives are really quite well developed, often repeated and reprinted verbatim. Elements in Loughner’s ramblings suggest exposure to a certain type of conspiracist thinking, the gold standard conspiracy: “No! I won’t pay a debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver!” In its most general form, this conspiracy theory posits that BAD GUY (pick your favorite demonic Other: the Fed/international bankers/Jews/Illuminati/Boy Scouts) has taken us off of the gold standard in order to impose an easily manipulated fiat currency. In the most popular conspiracy theories, the bad boy is the Federal Reserve, who controls the entire economy, printing money and deflating the value of the paper money in your pocket. (There is far more wrong about this than I can reasonably write about in a quick blog post, but suffice it to say that it is not even the Fed that prints money, rather the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Mega-fail. The Fed can infuse banks’ reserves with cash, but it can also reduce liquidity and does so often.) It’s probably worth mentioning that his statement, “No! I won’t trust in God!” immediately follows his statement about precious metals and that it is at least as much a reference to what is printed on US currency as it is religious expression.

Loughner also has an abiding fear of mind control. Often, this is found on the (super-way-out-there) extremes of conspiratorial thought. Mind control, in conspiracist circles, can range from media control (or just influence) of popular opinion, the softening of the resistance to suggestion through fluoridation, chemtrails or the quality of popular entertainment, to the implantation of subliminal messages in corporate logos and advertisements, to the actual taking over of minds by remote, telepathic or technological means. It includes everything from “political spin” to the belief that one is not thinking one’s own thoughts.

Other signs that Loughner has been influenced by established conspiracy theories include the brief list of favorite reads that includes Animal Farm and Brave New World, Mein Kampf and The Republic, all of which have some authority and currency in white supremacist and far-right separatist circles. Of course, he also includes the Communist Manifesto, which decidedly does not. It occurs to me that if Animal Farm appears on his reading list, he may have picked up notions about how mind control can be achieved through the use of language in Orwell’s other works, including 1984 (consider Newspeak, which is an attempt to limit the types of thoughts it is possible to have) or his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell confronts and criticizes “language as an instrument […] for concealing or preventing thought.” At the same time, I have no confidence that someone with the writing skills like those displayed in his videos or someone whose logic is so jumbled could even be considered a nihilist, since I can’t even be sure that he understood what he had read.

If you look back at Richard Hoffstadter’s classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” you see that he attempted to distance the “paranoid style” from clinical paranoia, arguing that the clinically paranoid perceived illusory designs against them personally, while people who participate in paranoid politics perceive threats against a nation and entire way of life. Loughner’s rantings blur these lines. Some of it is especially local and relevant to his life, “The Pima Community College police are unconstitutionally working.” But he also talks about his understanding of the Constitution and other large issues like the currency. Hoffstadter’s essay does not help us much here. I suspect that what happened in Tuscon could be described as the deliberate political act of a disordered mind, but I am at a loss to discern to what degree politics determined his decisions.

In his essay, Hoffstadter tries to make it clear that he does not equate “paranoid” politics with clinical pathology, but the blunt fact remains that the word comes with connotations that may be profitable to explore, and I wonder if there is not some sense in which we could justifiably call conspiratorial political thought pathological. (Of course, that would entail defining “non-pathological” political thought. Yikes!)

FYI, I am going to be bringing back my weekly conspiracy round-up soon. (I tell you, though, I am getting sick of reading about Julian Assange and the damned birds dying off.)

A thoughtful, extended, and ongoing discussion about the role of mental illness is going on at PLoS, at Neuroanthroplogy. Daniel Lende makes excellent points about not presuming that mental illness is the most important issue here. It’s probably the best thing that I have seen on this issue so far.



It seems that according to the Washington Post that Loughner was involved with the message boards at AboveTopSecret, and that the people there also saw that something was demonstrably abnormal, even for that site. My favorite comment at the end of the article was a reply to Loughner: “they faked the moon landing yes .. but the mars rover .. i dont think so.”

Also, for Ken–linking Assange to the bird die-offs: HAARP killed the birds using alien technology, the acquisition of which Assange will disclose in the next group of documents. All of these are real theories.