November 25, 2008


Quarantine - A condition of enforced isolation.

The word comes from a Venetian custom in the Middle Ages when ships arriving from the reported plague-stricken countries were obliged to spend 40 days (Italian "quaranta" or "forty" comes from the Latin "quadraginta," also meaning 40) at the port, in isolation, before being allowed to unload its cargo and crew. Venice, in those days, was the chief European port of entry and Europe had experienced many epiemics of plague. Forty days was supposed to be long enough to kill the infection for goods (and people) by exposure to air and sunlight.
The current usage of the word is not limited to 40 days but "any period" of isolation.

Trivia: Quarantine first appeared as a legal term in 1609, as the period of 40 days in which a widow could remain in her dead husband's house before creditors could seize it.

Sources:,, Wikipedia

November 21, 2008

Tar Baby

Tar Baby - a sticky situation: a situation or problem from which it is virtually impossible to disentagle oneself or that is only aggravated by efforts to solve it.

Continuing with the coal theme: here's an expression that received a lot of (unwanted???) attention when Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney used it to describe a construction project in 2006 but was "hauled over the coals" for what is considered a racial epithet by some.

The tar baby is supposedly a popular character from African folklore. It gained popularity in the 19th century United States in the written form in one of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, a collection of stories based on African-American folklore, narrated by the fictional Uncle Remus, a former slave. In the story, "Tar Baby" is a doll made of turpentine and tar, built by Brer Fox to entrap his enemy, a tricky and cunning Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit talks to the doll, and when it doesn't answer, he hits it, and gets stuck in the tar. The more he struggles with it, the more he is entangled in it.

It sounds like yet another harmless story, doesn't it? For reasons better known to this hard-to-comprehend world, (or perhaps I am missing some subtle nuances here???) the expression has been occasionally used as a derogatory term for African-Americans. Needless to add, public figures who choose to use it encounter controversy.

Source:, Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia (Br'er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby, drawing by E.W. Kemble from The Tar-Baby, Joel Harris, 1904)

November 13, 2008

Carrying Coal to Newcastle

Meaning - To do something that is obviously superfluous

The phrase, "carrying coals to Newcastle," means spending an inordinate amount of energy on something useless, fruitless, or redundant. This idiom arose in the 15th century because Newcastle, England was known throughout the country as a major exporter of coal. Therefore, "carrying coals to Newcastle" would do you no good, because there was more coal there than anywhere else. Variations on the saying include "bringing," "taking," or "moving" the coal.

Other countries have similar phrases; in German it's 'taking owls to Athens' (the inhabitants of Athens already having sufficient wisdom). 'Selling snow to Eskimos', which in many people's understanding is also the same, has a different connotation. Both the Dutch and Spanish having sayings, 'like bringing water to the ocean'. In Poland and Sweden, you'd hear, 'bringing wood to the forest'. Some regionally specific idioms for redundancy include Russia's 'taking samovars to Tulu,' a city famous for its spigotted teapots.

Ironically, in 2004 Newcastle began importing coal from Russia.

November 08, 2008

Canary in a Coal Mine

Life for an actual canary in a coal mine could be described in three words - short but meaningful. Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems, so miners would routinely bring a caged canary into new coal seams. Canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, which made them ideal for detecting any dangerous gas build-ups. As long as the canary in a coal mine kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary in a coal mine signalled an immediate evacuation.
Even as gas detection technology improved, some mining companies still relied on the 'canary in a coal mine' method well into the 20th century. Other animals were used occasionally, but only the canary had the ability to detect small concentrations of gas and react instinctively.
Today, the practice of using a canary in a coal mine has become part of coal mining lore, but the ideology behind it has become a popular expression. The phrase living like a canary in a coal mine often refers to serving as a warning to others. The actual canary in a coal mine had little control over its fate, but it continued to sing anyway. In one sense, living like a canary in a coal mine indicates a willingness to experience life's dangers without compromise