The Idle American: When Words Become Worrisome…


Sand lines have been drawn by many of us, indicating that we know as much as we care to about certain topics. Faced with repeated barrages, we either ignore them or strike back with unambiguous “we’ve-had-enough” gestures.

Granted, such scenarios are played out largely by “geezers” and “geezerettes,” mostly because there’s so much “new stuff” to digest these days. We choose to let the younger set chew on most of it, even if they elect to expectorate whatever doesn’t go down well.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, of course, and most of us stop well short of such danger zones….

For several decades, I’ve expounded--tongue in cheek, of course--that Howard Payne University is the knowledge center of the world. Noting audiences’ questioning facial expressions, I’ve quickly added, “With freshmen bringing so much knowledge in, and with seniors taking so little out, it’s stacking up.” I’ve told this joke many times about my alma mater where I was president for a dozen years, all in the 20th century….

At a slower pace these days, I’m more interested in learning about old words and expressions than I am new ones. (Truth to tell, I’m flabbergasted about long lists of new words introduced annually, often without mention of the dismissal of words no longer needed.)

My curiosity is significantly piqued about expressions that have been around for decades. I care not, for example, what advantages may accrue with the introduction of phone companies’ new 5G networks.

Here’s a current ponderance. When and why did the expression “on the fritz” catch on? There are several opinions, but the one I like best started in 1897, when the Katzenjammer Kids first appeared in newspaper comics. When things broke down, “on the fritz” came to be a term used to describe out-of-order conditions, usually mechanical ones….

Many goings on today warrant “on the fritz” descriptions, perhaps the kindest comment we could make about some topics.

Learning more about the expression turned out to be intriguing.

Up popped a website I’d never heard of called “The Straight Dope.” It provides answers to what usually are trivial questions, such as “whatever happened to mercurochrome?” (In my early days, we called it “monkey blood.”)….

The website slogan is attention-grabbing: “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973. But, it’s taking longer than we thought.”

One questions why there is no blue food. Another asks why our internal organs are not symmetrical.

It likewise provides answers to many other questions, such as a query about how “nuts” and “bananas” came to mean “crazy”? A favorite comes from a guy caught squarely between a dilemma’s horns: “If head trauma is so dangerous to humans, how do woodpeckers make it?”...

If digression were a novel, mine would be a long one. I didn’t foresee wandering down so many side trails. Earlier I was on the main road about my interest in the origins of words and phrases.

Thus, I return to the already-mentioned “Katzenjammer Kids.” They were “funny paper” sensations for a half century, based on a children’s story written in the 1860s. Twins Hans and Fritz daily trod the trail resisting authority, with the latter usually blamed for whatever “busted loose.” Then came the description of brokenness--mechanical or otherwise--that has been called “on the fritz” for more than a century. It’ll likely remain a handy term until Gabriel blows his trombone….

I am disappointed that some words’ original definitions have been ignored.

Last October, I had a heart attack while making announcements at a Sunday church service, falling from the podium head first into our pastor seated on the front pew.

Over the years, the masses have decided that the word “podium” is synonymous with lectern, pulpit or rostrum. (“pod” actually references a platform for feet.) Should I properly say that I fell from the podium? Many would question why I was standing on it, anyway. Oh, well….

Dr. Newbury, longtime university president, continues to write regularly and speak throughout Texas. Contact: 817-447-3872. Email: Facebook: Don Newbury. Twitter: @donnewbury