September 13, 2016


September 13 is the anniversary of the death of the whimsically whiskered Ambrose Burnside.

n. short whiskers grown only on the cheeks
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Though they enjoy a popular counter-culture resurgence every few decades (and remain a fashion mainstay for particular niches of the entertainment industry), the golden age of sideburns was unquestionably the American Civil War—led by the hirsute charge of Ambrose Burnside, who will long be remembered not for his positions as a general, governor, senator, or even president of the National Rifle Association, but for his outrageous facial hair.

Burnside was born in Indiana in 1824 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843. He guarded garrisons in the Mexican-American war, protected Western mail routes in the U.S. cavalry, and received an Apache arrow in the neck before first leaving the Army in 1853. He remained in the Rhode Island militia, however, and manufactured his namesake Burnside carbine rifle until a string of bad luck forced him to sell his patent after his factory burned down and he lost an expensive Congressional race.

The outbreak of the Civil War seemed to give him a second chance and, rising up from his position as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia, he commanded an entire brigade at the Battle of Bull Run. Despite his acknowledged lack of military experience and his repeated insistence to Abraham Lincoln that he was not qualified for the job, Burnside was eventually appointed to succeed General George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. However, after disastrous defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg and later the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Burnside finally decided to resign.

Widely regarded in retrospect as being unfit for high command, Burnside is nonetheless remembered as an extraordinarily nice guy. He shook enough hands and slapped enough backs to become a railroad mogul, a governor and senator of Rhode Island, and the very first president of the NRA. But it was his signature facial hair—flamboyant mutton chops conjoined by a hearty mustache with a clean-shaven chin—that gave him infamy. His “burnsides” eventually flipped syllables to give us our sideburns today.

Sideburns have varied in length, shape, and name in subsequent years. They are called side-whiskers or sideboards in the United Kingdom. They have spanned the social map from presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to actors (James Dean) to singers (Elvis Presley) to footballers (Joe Namath). There are mutton chops (flaring out across the jawline) and friendly mutton chops (connected with a mustache). There is even a special category for them in the bi-annual World Beard and Moustache Championships. A hairless chin remains sacrosanct, however, lest the jowls be joined to form a beard.

Among the most spectacular sideburns of history were the jaw-line drapes sported by Edward Sothern in his portrayal of the eccentric and dim-witted Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin (later made extraordinarily famous for being the featured entertainment the night Abraham Lincoln was shot). Sothern’s sweeping facial locks eventually merited their own name (see dundrearies).

But the original hipster, Ambrose Burnside, died in 1881. He was quickly immortalized in stone, and his boundless whiskers, astride his noble steed, are now permanent residents in Providence, Rhode Island’s Burnside Park.

September 12, 2016

Gatling gun

September 12 is the birthday of Richard Jordan Gatling (1903).

n. a form of machine gun, with a cluster of barrels into which the cartridges are automatically loaded at the breech
­—Oxford English Dictionary

In one of history’s great oxymoronic moments, well-intentioned doctor and inventor Richard Jordan Gatling devised his hand-cranked killing machine as a militaristic solution to the inconceivable loss of life in the American Civil War.

Gatling was a Southerner born in North Carolina in 1818 to a farmer and inventor. He initially followed in his father’s footsteps and developed a seed planter, grain drill, and shovel plow before earning a medical degree in 1850. Gatling moved north to Indianapolis to practice medicine but never strayed far from inventing. It was while watching returning Civil War soldiers die more often from battlefield illnesses than gunshot wounds that he decided to work on a hyper-efficient weapon.

Gatling was not so much a pacifist as a pragmatist. He did not seek to end wars, only to reduce the number of soldiers it took to fight them. Gatling wrote that “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” Sadly, this proved not to be the case, and Gatling had succeeded only in creating a precursor to the modern machine gun, which has been responsible for countless deaths in the past century (see also tommy gun and AK-47).

Individual reloading during the Civil War was a time-consuming process. The Gatling gun featured multiple rifle barrels mounted around a crankable shaft, so one gunner could fire as many as 400 rounds per minute and pick off countless unlucky single-shooters at a range of up to twenty football fields. There were many eponymous machine guns invented during the Civil War (e.g., the Gorgas, the Ripley, the Claxon, and the Williams), some of which also featured rotators and multiple barrels to avoid overheating, but only the Gatling had a fool-proof, gravity-fed reloader that meant it could be operated by anyone.

Gatling’s gun was perfected by 1862, but Union forces did not buy any great number until 1866, after the war’s end. Gatling sold his gun patents to Colt in 1870 but remained president of the Gatling Gun Company for nearly twenty years as he pursued other invention patents including an “Apparatus for Cleansing Wool” in 1892 and a “Flushing Apparatus for Water Closets” in 1901 (see also crapper). Even in the final days before his death in 1903, he was working on a patent for a type of tractor that he called a steam-powered “motor plow.”

Though no one speaks of true Gatling guns being used anymore, the doctor’s legacy has been preserved in a shortened slang form first used by the criminal underworld at the turn of the twentieth century and more recently by urban rappers—the gat. 

September 11, 2016

graham cracker

September 11 is the anniversary of the death of of vegetarian, minister, and vehement abstainer Sylvester Graham. Remember him with a flavorless biscuit, a glass of water, and a steamy session of hand holding.

graham cracker
n. a slightly sweet cracker made of whole wheat flour
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

The innocuous brown bookends surrounding the toasted marshmallows and melted chocolate of a s’more are the namesake of one of the founders of the American vegetarian movement—Sylvester Graham. While many associate graham crackers with the dessert course of a summer campfire feast of hot dogs and hamburgers or they pour a hefty serving of milk over a breakfast bowl of Golden Grahams cereal, poor Reverend Graham is rolling over in his grave.

Graham was a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister who was convinced that an austere diet and healthy living could help curb sexual urges—particularly “self-abuse,” as he called it—as well as alcoholism. Graham was born in 1794, the seventeenth of seventeen children, and became ordained as a minister in 1826 at the peak of a health food craze and temperance movement in the United States.

Though an early and ardent member of the Pennsylvania Temperance Society, Reverend Graham was, first and foremost, a crusader against lust—and he believed that bland foods were just the ticket to put out the forbidden fire. For Reverend Graham, unhealthy diets awoke excessive sexual desire, which led to disease. He once posited that ham and sausage “increase the concupiscent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs.”

The Graham Diet, as it was known, was comprehensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables were okay; meat and spices were not. Only very fresh milk, cheese, and eggs could be consumed, while butter was discouraged. Modern graham crackers, which would not be named as such until nearly thirty years after his death, would have horrified Reverend Graham with their refined, bleached white flour. His original versions—called Dr. Graham’s Honey Biskets—called for the use of a hard, unsifted, and coarsely ground whole wheat flour called “Graham flour,” which was introduced in 1829. The Graham Diet eventually worked its way even into the houses of higher learning. Oberlin College instituted such a strict version of it (abandoned in 1841) that many students opted to eat off campus, and a professor was terminated for bringing in contraband pepper to season his food.

To be sure, Graham was an early whistle-blower on some pretty reprehensible food industry practices. He opposed the increasingly popular bakery additives of the time, such as alum and chlorine, used to make bread bake faster and appear artificially whiter. Many consumers, particularly in urban areas, regarded “refined” bread (i.e., white bread) as a more pure product. Responding to this perception, unscrupulous dairies added chalk and even plaster of paris to their milk to make it whiter. Unfortunately, Graham’s rejection of meat and industrialized bread and dairy led to frequent riot threats from commercial bakers and butchers when his lectures were advertised.

But food was merely one part of a larger puritanical lifestyle. In addition to restrictions on eating, he advocated frequent bathing and hard mattresses and he opposed social drinking. Zealots attended his lectures in droves, and he was famously explicit in his descriptions of despicable behavior. Women allegedly fainted when he outlined the adverse effects of masturbation.

Grahamites, as his followers were called, stayed in “Graham Boarding Houses” in New York and Boston, where they abstained from alcohol, tobacco, meat, and sexy thoughts while reading his many writings—including Lectures to Young Men on Chastity. Among these followers were newspaperman Horace “Go West, Young Man” Greeley and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of cornflakes.

Reverend Graham was instrumental in founding the American Vegetarian Society in 1850, one year before his death.

Though Americans today enjoy a sweetened, less wholesome, and perhaps more lustful version of Reverend Graham’s tasty namesake, it is perhaps more fitting that we remember him as Ralph Waldo Emerson dubbed him—“the poet of bran and pumpkins.”

July 27, 2016


Today is the birthday of Harmen Knickerbocker (1779), New York blueblood and notorious namesake of two things best not discussed in polite company—the New York Knicks and underwear.

n. pl. a short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment
Oxford English Dictionary

The word knickers comes from the leggings worn by the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose name was derived from the austere and very real Harmen Knickerbocker. Suffice it to say that many members of the Knickerbocker lineage in New York have had their knickers in a twist over this for the last two hundred years.

Harmen Knickerbocker was the clan patriarch of a prominent social and political family in upstate New York in the early 1800s. He was friends with the legendary writer and historian Washington Irving, who used “Knickerbocker” as a pseudonym for his creation of a crotchety Dutch historian.

Irving is most famous for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” but it was his 1809 satire A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty that made its fictional author—Diedrich Knickerbocker—a household name. Irving’s mockery of inflated local history and small-minded politics was a huge success, and the name Knickerbocker eventually became a nickname for anyone living in Manhattan (shortened to Knicks for those who merely play basketball there).

Eventually, an English edition of the book featured illustrations by the classic Charles Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank, who drew the fictitious and stodgy Knickerbocker family in loose, knee-length Dutch breeches. Over the next few decades, the short and loose ladies’ undergarments that became popular in England were dubbed “knickers.”

Knickers aside, Washington Irving further lampooned New York’s power brokers in a literary magazine called Salmagundi under the pseudonyms William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff. It was here that he was the first to describe New York City as “Gotham,” which is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town.” He was also the first to coin the phrase almighty dollar, in 1837’s “The Creole Village,” and it was a dream sequence in an 1812 revision of A History of New York that first featured old St. Nick cruising the Christmas skies in a flying wagon.

But to return to pantaloons, while knickers (and their twisting) became standard British slang for delicate unmentionables, baggy trousers for women in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were called “bloomers,” named for early feminist Amelia Jenks Bloomer. But that is another story.

July 26, 2016


Today is the anniversary of the death of Samuel Houston in 1863.

v. to beat up a Congressman
—William Craigie’s Dictionary of American English, 1940
(reference courtesy of Jeffrey Kacirk’s
Forgotten English)

Though this word does not appear in most modern dictionaries, the story is simply too perfect to be lost to etymological history. Thankfully, Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English rescued it from obscurity. Usage lasted for about one hundred years after Sam Houston delivered a bicameral beating to Representative William Stanbery in 1832.

Samuel Houston was a hard-drinking, straight-shooting pioneer renegade born in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1793 who ran away to live with a Cherokee tribe after his family moved to Tennessee. When he finally returned home in 1812, he built Tennessee’s first schoolhouse, joined the army to fight the British in the War of 1812, and took an arrow in the leg and a bullet in the shoulder before leaving the military, becoming a lawyer, and being elected to the House of Representatives in 1822.

Houston eventually married and became the governor of Tennessee in 1827 but failed to serve even a single term before leaving his wife, becoming a drunk, and returning to live with the Cherokee Nation. He bigamously married a Cherokee widow and spent the next several years petitioning Washington to improve the plight of his adoptive tribe. Houston’s noble cause and his notorious temper entered the national spotlight when he decided to beat the buckeyes out of Ohio congressman William Stanbery in 1832.

It all started with a contract to provide rations to the Native Americans who were about to take a long and unpleasant walk along the Trail of Tears thanks to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Houston, a friend of Jackson’s but not always of his policies, was one of the bidders on the contract, and Stanbery decided to attack him verbally on the floor of the House of Representatives to indirectly incense Jackson, his political enemy. Full of piss and vinegar (and, likely, whiskey), Houston waited for Stanbery on Pennsylvania Avenue, pummeled him mercilessly with a stick in broad daylight, and later pleaded not guilty to the assault, claiming he had acted in “self-defense.”

The whole affair was a veritable cavalcade of American frontier folklore. Davy “Killed Him a Bear When He Was Only Three” Crockett had joined Houston in his opposition to Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans. Meanwhile, Francis Scott “Star-Spangled Banner” Key was Houston’s lawyer, and future president James “Napoleon of the Stump” Polk helped reduce his sentence after he was found guilty. After also losing a separate civil suit and being fined $500, Houston did what any sensible convict would do and fled to the then Mexican state of Texas.

Houston had an equally extraordinary second life in Texas. He was its first and only president when it became an independent republic in 1836, its senator after it joined the Union, and its governor until it tried to secede before the Civil War (which he opposed). Houston finally died of pneumonia in 1863, and despite Houstonize not surviving into modern times, this frontier maverick is remembered through his namesake city, countless streets, parks, and schools, and a slightly larger-than-life sixty-seven-foot statue in Huntsville, Texas.

July 18, 2016


July 18 is the birthday of Vidkun Quisling (1945), a true Norwegian rat.

n. a person cooperating with an occupying enemy force; a collaborator; a traitor
Oxford English Dictionary

Arab diamond traders used to grade gems as first water, second water, and third water—diamonds of the first water being perfect, flawless ones—with water signifying the transparency of the diamonds. Europeans used the Arab grading system for more than three centuries, and the expression “of the first water” has remained in English as a synonym for superlative perfection. Vidkun Quisling was a jackass of the first water, and his last name has been used as a synonym for traitor ever since the betrayal of his native country of Norway to the Nazis in World War II.

Quisling was born in the Telemark county of Norway in 1887. He quickly distinguished himself as an extraordinary student and wanker by sending in corrections to Norway’s national textbook for mathematics while still a young teenager. He became a major in the Norwegian army in his early twenties before moving into politics. In 1933, Quisling and a lawyer friend founded the National Unity Party (Nasjonal Samling)—an anti-democratic and anti-Semitic, but pro-fascist and pro-Nazi political group—with Quisling self-appointing himself the Fører—the Norwegian equivalent of Hitler’s Führer. He was only able to muster a small following for his party, and membership was around 2,000 on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940.

Unfortunately, while most Norwegians considered him to be a bit of a right-wing lunatic, the Nazis had colluded with Quisling in advance of their April 9 attack and planned to capture the king and prime minister and appoint Quisling as the new puppet prime minister. Quisling could not contain himself (or wait for the Nazis) and commandeered a radio station, proclaiming himself the prime minister and insisting that Norwegians cease all resistance to Hitler. Though this initial self-aggrandizement backfired after Quisling received no popular support from his own countrymen, the Nazis did eventually succeed in abolishing the monarchy and appointed Quisling the Minister President in 1942. Then he really went bonkers.

Quisling began driving around in a bulletproof limousine that was a gift from Hitler. He employed 150 bodyguards and insisted on having official tasters ensure that his food was not poisoned. He issued postage stamps bearing his likeness and insisted that portraits of him be hung all over his palace. Most tragically, he encouraged Norwegians to serve in the Nazi SS, he deported Jews, and he orchestrated the execution of Norwegian patriots.

Once the war ended, the oft-named “Hitler of Norway” was finally arrested on May 9, 1945. The country’s civilian courts had not executed anyone in nearly sixty years, but such was the public and political outrage at him that Norway applied its military penal code to allow for the death penalty in anticipation of his case. He was found guilty of treason, murder, and theft and then executed by firing squad on October 24, 1945.

Quisling’s name was used to signify traitorous behavior almost immediately after the 1940 Nazi invasion. Within six days (April 15), the British newspaper The Times had set the brand:

“Comment in the Press urges that there should be unremitting vigilance also against possible ‘Quislings’ inside the country.”

Using quisling to describe a traitor has been common in the press and popular media ever since. For humorous effect, everyone from a cartoon turkey (about Daffy Duck) to Peanuts’ Linus (about Snoopy) to David Letterman (about Saturday Night Live’s Norm MacDonald) have called others quislings.

What is curious is the incredible staying power of Quisling’s name. There were certainly other Nazi collaborators whose names were initially used to imply treason—Frenchmen Henri Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval, in particular, had short-lived runs at etymological infamy—much as Americans still use Benedict Arnold’s name today. But it is only Vidkun Quisling who had his name lowercased and dropped into common usage. Perhaps its persistence owes the most to the very satisfying quality it provides as it rolls off the tongue, as The Times pointed out in the same April 15, 1940 edition:

“To writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor... they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Actually it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous.” 

July 17, 2016


July 17 is the birthday of Elbridge Gerry, the slippery statesman whose name has become synonymous with the serpentine strategy known as gerrymandering.

v. to divide (a voting area) in such a way as to give an unfair advantage to one political party
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Were it not for the artistic pen of a political cartoonist, the sharp wit of a newspaper editor, and his own brazen corruption, Elbridge Gerry might be remembered for signing the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and serving as both a governor and vice president of the United States. Instead, his legacy is an eternal pairing with a salamander.

Gerry was a lifelong Massachusetts man, born in 1744 in Marblehead, graduating from Harvard, and serving as a delegate from the Bay State (then the Bay Colony) to the Continental Congress in 1776, where he refused to sign the Constitution until it included a Bill of Rights. After a short stint in Congress, Gerry eventually joined the Democratic-Republican Party in 1800 and lost four consecutive bids to be the governor of Massachusetts before finally securing one-year terms in 1811and 1812. He then blew his chance at a respectable legacy with some cartographical chicanery.

As the incumbent political party, Gerry’s Democratic-Republicans hoped to preserve their power by redrawing several voting districts to concentrate opposing Federalist support in a few isolated districts while maintaining their own majority everywhere else. Benjamin Russell, the outraged editor of the Centinel, a Federalist newspaper, allegedly hung a map in his office illustrating the absurd new serpentine senatorial district of Essex County approved by then governor Gerry. Some early accounts report that celebrated portraitist Gilbert Stuart (who drew George Washington’s face on the one-dollar bill) added a head, wings, and claws to the map to create the political “salamander” that Russell dubbed the “Gerry-mander.” However, the more widely accepted theory is that painter, designer, and engraver Elkanah Tisdale drew the political cartoon of the now infamous namesake that would ultimately be published in the Boston Gazette and spawn a household word within months.

Most often employed by an incumbent power, gerrymandering typically either concentrates blocks of voters into one district to minimize their impact on other districts or spreads them out over multiple districts to dilute their power. Though a single word for it did not enter the political lexicon until after the Massachusetts map scandal of 1812, the practice had been around since the country’s founding and exists to this day. In 1778 Patrick “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” Henry and his anti-Federalist cronies famously overhauled a Virginia congressional district to keep future president James Madison out of the House of Representatives, while more than 220 years later Pennsylvania Republicans gerrymandered a finger-shaped district so meticulously that it stopped at a rival candidate’s street and included his house but not his parking space.

As for the original gerrymanderer, the stinging portmanteau did little to ruin the Massachusetts governor’s political career. The year after his namesake was coined, Gerry was chosen to be the fifth vice president of the United States, under James Madison, serving for a year and a half before dying of heart failure in 1814.

June 21, 2016

tommy gun

June 21 is the anniversary of the death of John Taliaferro Thompson, co-inventor of the infamous Prohibition-era firearm.

n. a Thompson submachine gun
n. loosely, any machine gun
­—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

The 1920s provided dark fodder for the introduction of new words into our lexicon. The gangster era “hijacked” us, took us “for a ride,” and served us “bathtub gin.” But the “gun that made the twenties roar” was the invention of a World War I general and one-time bovine executioner who wanted a compact “trench sweeper” for close-quarter encounters.

Born into a military family in 1860, John T. Thompson quickly distinguished himself as a soldier and, during the Spanish American War in 1898, became the youngest colonel appointed in the Army. He became a munitions expert and even helped form a Gatling gun unit (see Gatling gun) that supported then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s bloody charge at San Juan Hill. Three years later, then-President Roosevelt requested ordnance tests that would eventually bring Thompson to the Chicago stockyards in 1904 to fire different handguns, calibers, and bullet styles at live cattle (in fairness to the steers, Thompson also used human cadavers to assess various ammunitions). Thompson would have an on-again, off-again relationship with the military forever after.

Thompson retired from the Army in 1914 and became a chief engineer for Remington. As World War I was marching along without involvement from the U.S. Armed Forces, Thompson became fascinated by the increased use of trench warfare and convinced that troops could really use a handheld, one-man machine gun that could clear out an enemy’s position. Working with the designer of a similar weapon, he began work on a prototype for a charming, new, compact, large-caliber submachine gun called “The Annihilator.” Thompson briefly returned to the military after the United States joined the fight and was a brigadier general in charge of small-arms production before retiring at the war’s end in 1918.

Though The Annihilator arrived too late to be used by the military, post-war marketing meetings led its manufacturers to rename it the “Thompson submachine gun” and "Thompson Anti-Bandit Gun" for civilian sales. Costing nearly the half the price of a new car, the Thompson soon experienced illicit distribution into the Prohibition-era underworld where it acquired its street names of “tommy gun,” “Chicago Typewriter,” and “Chopper.” Gangsters loved it, and it achieved peak notoriety in 1929 following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in which Al Capone’s henchmen delivered seventy machine-gun bullets and two shotgun blasts into seven of “Bugs” Moran’s gang.

It was not until after Thompson’s death at the age of seventy-nine in 1940 that the U.S. military bought substantial numbers of the weapon for eventual use in World War II, the Korean War, and even Vietnam. Thompson was buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Though his namesake was eventually embraced by gangsters and generals alike, its earliest proponent was an unlikely customer—The United States Postal Service—which purchased the first tommy guns in 1921 following a rash of mail robberies. Decades later, the now-infamous “going postal” madness of the early 1990s led to the eventual prohibition of firearms in all mail facilities. 

June 19, 2016


June 19 is the anniversary of the death of one of the great historical villains of Ireland—Charles Cunningham Boycott. Now memorialized in German (Boykott), Italian (boicottaggio), and French (boicot), among many others, Boycott has emerged as one of the most notorious figures of all time.

n. withdrawal from social or commercial interaction or cooperation with a group, nation, person, etc., intended as a protest or punishment
Oxford English Dictionary

Historical relations between England and Ireland have always been strained, and Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott certainly did nothing to help matters. His unwillingness to negotiate resulted in his name being eternally maligned in more than a half dozen languages around the world.

The Emerald Isle has had a rough go of it over the years. St. Patrick and the Christians overwhelmed the pagan tribes in the fifth century AD, the Vikings wreaked havoc for a century or so, and then the Normans and the English settled in for the long haul. As the Irish Catholic landowners slowly lost their property to Protestant British settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, times got pretty tough for your average Irish farmer.

Following the Act of Union (which was not nearly as sexy as it sounds) between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, absentee British landlords were common across the Irish isle, with local farmers renting and working the land. One of these landowners was John Crichton, the third earl of Erne, who hired Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott to manage his estates at Lough Mask House in Connaught, County Mayo, Ireland.

Born in Norfolk in 1832, Boycott served in the military before becoming a land agent in 1872. He had unfortunate historical timing for beginning this unsavory career (an 1843 Royal Commission described land-agent “middlemen” as “the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country”). Boycott’s new position came a short twenty years after the end of the Great Famine in Ireland (in which tenant farmers surviving solely on a diet of potatoes died by the hundreds of thousands) and just prior to the formation of the reformist Irish National Land League.

The Land League sought to protect farmers from exploitation, through the “Three Fs” of fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale. When his tenants requested more reasonable rents in 1880 after several bad harvests, Boycott unwisely suggested a graphic fourth “F” for them to go and act upon themselves and even tried to evict one of them. The Land League’s president, Charles Stewart Parnell, urged a local audience, “When a man takes a farm from which another had been evicted you must shun him on the roadside . . . , you must shun him in the streets . . . , you must shun him in the shop . . . by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

Boycott’s workers left him, neighbors ignored him, his farm was vandalized, local stores would not serve him, and even the mailman would not deliver to him. Local officials organized a “Boycott Relief Expedition” under military protection to help save his harvest, but the land agent and his family were eventually forced to flee. Local newspapers began referring to successful ostracizing as “boycotting,” and a lamentable legacy was born.

Boycott endured seventeen years of etymological smearing before dying back at home in England in 1897.

June 03, 2016


Today is is the birthday of Henry Shrapnel (1761). 

n. shell fragments scattered by any exploding shell
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

War is hell. The historical trick seems to be figuring out the most unpleasant ways of unleashing that hell on your opponents. Our modern usage for the maiming detritus of an explosion actually originates with a very specific type of explosive developed by Henry Shrapnel for the British artillery corps at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Shrapnel was an inventive British lieutenant in the Royal Artillery who was bucking for a promotion. Without a doubt, the canister shot that the British had been using since the 1400s did a pretty good job of killing people at close range. Canister shot essentially relies on the shotgun principle, in which you blast a bunch of metal balls, nails, or shards out of a muzzle and spray your enemies with hellfire. An alternative technology is the cannon, which hurls a larger ball, loaded with powder, much farther but only kills those in the immediate vicinity of its landing. Shrapnel wondered if there might be some way to marry these two widow-makers. Enter the delayed-action fuse.

In the mid-1780s, Shrapnel figured out a way to pack a projectile with all sorts of unpleasantness and have it detonate above the heads of enemy troops. Eventually his namesakes became so effective that the bullets he filled his shells with became superfluous as the shell casings themselves proved deadly enough.

The British army administrators did not embrace Shrapnel immediately. While they liked killing people, particularly at a distance, they did not come around to accepting the volatile invention until 1803, at which point Shrapnel was quickly promoted to captain, then major, and then colonel-commandant. By 1814, Shrapnel had been awarded a lifetime stipend of £1,200 for his good deeds. The Duke of Wellington used Shrapnel’s shells successfully to kill scores of Napoleon’s soldiers during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Shrapnel would ultimately be promoted to major general.

After Waterloo, the world could not get enough of Shrapnel’s shells. Few refinements to it were made through the course of World War I and into World War II. Even the modern cannonades of Vietnam featured the canister-shot artillery that Shrapnel had pioneered. It was not until the advent of the modern high-explosive charges that soldiers enjoy today that Shrapnel’s shells faded into military history. But his name lives on in any small projectile fragments that shower a battlefield. And his invention will forever be remembered in the national anthem of the United States. Francis Scott Key describes not only shrapnel, but also the Congreve rockets (another notorious namesake) during the terrifying British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814):

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Henry Shrapnel died in 1842, presumably of natural causes.