March 09, 2016

Barbie


Today in 1959 Ruth Handler debuted the doll that was named after her teenage daughter Barbara.

Barbie
n. a woman who is likened to a Barbie doll, esp. in being pretty or shapely but passive, characterless, or unintelligent
Oxford English Dictionary

The original “Barbie” was an eighteen-year-old girl whose mother was convinced she would like to play with a German fashion doll for men, while the original “Ken” was her hapless brother who had the misfortune of being the only boy around when names were bandied about for Barbie’s on-again, off-again, sexually unthreatening “play pal.”

It all started with a sexy German toy sold in European bars and tobacco shops in the 1950s. Ruth and Elliot Handler bought several while traveling in Switzerland in 1956 and thought their teenage daughter Barbara would prefer them to the standard doll fare of the day. Under Ruth’s guidance, Elliott’s burgeoning toy company, Mattel, tweaked the design, named the plastic figure after their daughter, and introduced “Barbie” at the New York City toy fair in 1959. Two years later, in a marketing move that might just be as creepy as it sounds, the Handlers named Barbie’s boyfriend “Ken” after their real-life son Kenneth.

Ruth wanted her daughter and all young girls to have a doll that looked like a woman, and full breasts were always an essential part of the design. The original prototypes from the Japanese manufacturer were apparently so realistic that Mattel executives had to file down the nipples to make them less provocative, but the original proportions were still outrageous. The first Barbies on the market (a staggering 350,000 were sold in the first year alone), if extrapolated to human scale, would have had the unstable female measurements of a 39-inch chest, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips.


Social critics plagued Barbie from the beginning, and the new dolls sauntering on the scene often did not help matters. Slumber Party Barbie, issued in 1965, came with a bathroom scale indicating she weighed 110 pounds (approximately 35 pounds underweight given her projected 5-feet-9-inch height), and her packaging included a book on weight loss that advised girls not to eat. Researchers in Finland later theorized that a life-size Barbie would lack the body fat necessary to menstruate. Subsequent releases of Barbie warned girls that “Math class is tough!” and rolled around in wheelchairs that could not fit in the elevator of her own Dreamhouse.

And yet still they sold and continue to sell—two every second (if Mattel executives are to be believed)—in more than 150 countries. The word “Barbie” took on its derogatory bimbo meaning in the early 1970s, and the artistic backlash against the doll over the last thirty-five years has included Barbie bits in blenders, S&M outfits (see sadism and masochism), and countless parodies in print, television, and plastic. Daughter Barbara Handler seemed always to resent the association to her plastic namesake. “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the doll. I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.”

The epilogue of Barbie’s inventor is a remarkable story in and of itself, as the shape of women’s breasts once again provided the inspiration for her last commercial venture. Ruth Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970. Following a mastectomy, she ended up manufacturing a new, more-realistic prosthetic for women—the “Nearly Me.” Doctor Barbie—who debuted in 1987 with the tagline “She changes from doctor to glorious date!”—could not have been prouder. 

Molotov cocktail

Light some candles to celebrate Vyacheslav Molotov who was born today in 1890.

n. a makeshift incendiary device for throwing by hand, consisting of a bottle or other breakable container filled with flammable liquid and with a piece of cloth, etc., as a fuse
Oxford English Dictionary

How will history remember perhaps the only man to have shaken hands with Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? With a riot-rousing, tank-busting, flaming bottle of Finnish pride.

Just three months after Germany invaded Poland and sparked World War II, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939 and began what would be called the Winter War. Struggling against woefully outnumbered but frustratingly plucky Finnish snipers and camouflaged ski troops, the Soviets began relying on the RRAB-3, a cluster bomb dispenser. At the time, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov insisted in radio broadcasts that Russia was dropping food, and not bombs, on the starving Finns—which led to the RRAB-3s being dubbed “Molotov’s bread basket.” The Finns had used incendiary devices developed during the Spanish Civil War three years earlier to combat the invading Soviet tanks and called them “Molotov cocktails” as “a drink to go with the food.”

Molotov’s name came to encompass both the flaming mixture of ethanol, tar, and gasoline and the bottle that delivered it. The devices proved to be so successful that nearly a half million were mass-produced (and bundled with matches) during the Winter War. Early prototypes with burning rags in the mouth of the bottle were replaced by storm matches attached to the bottle and then to ones that ignited on impact.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Skriabin was born the son of a shop clerk in 1890. Before he turned twenty he had become a Bolshevik and decided he might bolster his political career by changing his name to Molotov from the Russian word for hammer, molot. Though many of his rivals considered him simply a mindless bureaucrat, he eventually became the protégé of Joseph Stalin. He was reviled by some and feared by many. Leon Trotsky famously called him “mediocrity personified,” while Winston Churchill considered him “a man of outstanding ability and cold-blooded ruthlessness.”

By the mid-1950s, Nikita Khruschev and other Communist leaders began denouncing Stalin’s legacy, and Molotov was first removed as Foreign Minister and then expelled from the Communist party altogether in 1961. He was eventually allowed to rejoin the Party in 1984, but died two years later at the age of ninety-six. The Soviet Union dissolved five years later.

Early in his career, the Soviet leader’s name was also attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin, a non-aggression treaty that lasted only two years before Hitler turned his conquering eyes from France to the Soviet Union. But this association is just a historical footnote. Molotov’s etymological infamy will forever reside with his “bread basket” and, especially, “cocktail” namesakes—somewhat ironically, as Molotov was actually a teetotaling vegetarian. 

masochism


Today is the anniversary of the 1895 death of the original masochist—Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch.

n. the getting of sexual pleasure from being dominated, mistreated, or hurt physically or otherwise by one's partner
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Our psychological term for this sexual fetish was coined by an Austrian psychiatrist in 1886 but inspired by author Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, who is destined to be remembered not for his writings on Anti-Semitism or women’s suffrage but for his secret penchant for domination by women wearing fur.

Von Sacher-Masoch was born in 1836 in a province of the Austrian Empire that is now part of Ukraine. Raised in Roman Catholic household with a police chief as a father, Masoch’s early writings as a professor were fairly standard Austrian fare—history, folklore, and ethnic short stories. But it was 1870’s Venus in Furs, the only one of his short novels still commonly available in English, that brought him notoriety. It was the first glimpse into his particular fetishes and described in detail his fantasy of dominant fur-clad women.

Masoch found a willing partner with an early mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor—herself an emerging writer who approached him for help with her work. Masoch eventually coaxed Pistor into signing a contract that enslaved him to her for a period of six months in 1869 with his only stipulation being that she should wear furs as much as possible. Their experiences served as the fodder for Venus in Furs, in which the main character asks to be degraded by his dominatrix and is eventually further abused by a trio of African women. Unfortunately, he found less willingness to indulge his fantasies from his first wife, Aurora von Römelin, whom he married in 1873 and eventually divorced over obvious “irreconcilable differences.” He eventually married his assistant.

It was around Masoch’s fiftieth birthday that Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing introduced the term masochism in his famous series of case studies of sexual perversity—Psychopathia Sexualis. The Latin title was a deliberate attempt to discouraging reading by an enthusiastic lay audience with purely prurient interests in such formerly taboo topics as female sexual pleasure and “contrary sexual desires.” Krafft-Ebing was a strict procreationist and believed that any sexual activity strictly for gratification was perverse (interestingly, while rape was considered deviant, it was not strictly perverse in that pregnancy could still result).

To the great dismay of Masoch, Krafft-Ebing co-opted the author’s name to describe gratification derived from receiving pain or humiliation. “...I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly ‘Masochism,’ because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writings…. During recent years facts have been advanced which prove that Sacher-Masoch was not only the poet of Masochism, but that he himself was afflicted with the anomaly.” In fact, the specific details of Masoch’s private life were relatively unknown until his first wife’s memoirs were published in 1905.

Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of Krafft-Ebing, would eventually assert that the impulse for masochism is often accompanied by an impulse for sadism (gratification derived from inflicting pain or humiliation)—a term based on the life and writings of Marquis de Sade (see sadism)—leading to a completely new term, sadomasochism.

Despite founding an association for adult education with his second wife in 1893 and becoming a tireless opponent of anti-Semitism and equally tireless supporter of women’s rights late in his life, Masoch’s name is inextricably linked with sexual deviance—beyond the clinical diagnoses, he and Venus in Furs have been pop-referenced by bands ranging from The Velvet Underground to Marilyn Manson to Bauhaus.

Masoch spent the last years of his life under psychiatric care in Germany. He died in 1895.

Miranda (Warning and Rights)

Today is the birthday of Ernesto Mirando in 1941. As this is little cause for celebration, you can feel free to invoke your right to withhold best wishes.

adj. of, relating to, or being the legal rights of an arrested person to have an attorney and to remain silent so as to avoid self-incrimination
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Despite the Constitutional warm fuzzies invoked in the United States by the Amendment-imbued words “You have the right to remain silent…,” the namesake of the pop culturally clichéd “Miranda Warning” was an extraordinarily sad scumbag.

Ernesto Arturo Miranda was born in 1941 in Mesa, Arizona, and was a convicted criminal before finishing the eighth grade. By his eighteenth birthday, he had additionally been convicted of burglary, arrested on suspicion of armed robbery and assorted sex offenses, spent several years in reform school, and deported back to Arizona from California. A brief and dishonorably discharged stint in the Army was followed by arrests and jail time for vagrancy in Texas and driving a stolen car in Tennessee before Miranda finally settled down in Arizona in the early 1960s.

In March of 1963, Miranda was arrested in Phoenix and confessed (after interrogation) to the rape of an eighteen-year-old girl, and his voice was positively identified by the victim. He dutifully wrote down his confessions on police stationery with printed certification on the top of each page that all statements were made “with full knowledge of my legal rights.” During his trial, Miranda’s court-appointed lawyer raised the objection that his client had not been informed of his Constitutional rights to remain silent (and avoid self-incrimination) or to have an attorney present during his confession. The judge overruled the objections and sentenced Miranda to twenty to thirty years each for charges of rape and kidnapping.

Miranda appealed the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court only to have it uphold the original ruling. In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ultimately overturned his conviction with Chief Justice Earl Warren insisting that the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause and the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney meant that a confession could be used as admissible evidence only if a suspect had been made aware of his rights and then waived them. Following Miranda v. Arizona, police across the United States were required to issue a “Miranda Warning” to all criminal suspects in custody, making them aware of their Constitutional rights—somewhat erroneously now identified as Miranda rights. Despite the rote treatment it gets on television cop shows, there is remarkably no single wording that has to be used for the warning as long as the gist is conveyed.

Miranda still went back to jail. His case was retried using evidence besides his confession, he was convicted again, and he served eleven more years. He was turned down for parole four times before finally being released. He made the most of his ongoing notoriety by selling autographed Miranda Warning cards, getting arrested for moving violations and gun possession, working as a delivery driver, and gambling. Miranda was killed in a knife fight at a Phoenix bar in 1976 at the age of thirty-four.

The prime suspect in Miranda’s killing had the Miranda warning read to him from a small card, invoked his right to remain silent, and allegedly escaped to Mexico to avoid prosecution.

March 07, 2016

Comstockery

n. zealous suppression of plays, books, etc. considered offensive or dangerous to public morals
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Today is the birthday of Anthony Comstock in 1844. Comstock was the American incarnation of Britain’s Thomas Bowdler (see bowdlerize), and it was none other than famed playwright George Bernard Shaw who immortalized this moral zealot’s priggery when he wrote, “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.”

In 1844, many years before the Village People convinced a 1970s generation that it was fun to stay there, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in London to give factory workers an alternative to a sinful life on the street. It provided prayer and Bible study to improve “the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades.” It was also the same year that Anthony Comstock was born. Two decades later, after serving in the American Civil War, Comstock worked in the New York City YMCA before launching a Victorian crusade against birth control and what he deemed to be obscene literature.

In 1873 a politically savvy Comstock conceived the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and persuaded Congress to enact the Comstock Act, a federal law that criminalized sending “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail—which included not only pornography but also contraceptive “equipment” and advertisements as well as anatomy textbooks. For his definition of obscenity, Comstock relied on the standard set by the unfortunately (or aptly) named Lord Cockburn in England five years earlier. In 1868, Lord Chief Justice Alexander James Edmund Cockburn defined as obscene materials those that “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence.” Inspired by Cockburn’s articulations, Comstock soon became an armed U.S. Postal Inspector, conducted raids on bookstores, prosecuted more than 3,500 people, and destroyed more than 160 tons of allegedly obscene material.

Comstock attacked George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession in 1905 and referred to Shaw as an “Irish smut dealer,” to which Shaw responded with his now famous comment (quoted above) forever linking Comstock’s name with bigoted censorship. Not to be outdone, Comstock embraced the term and described it as “the applying of the noblest principles of law . . . in the interest of Public Morals, especially those of the young.” Referring to himself as a “weeder in God’s garden,” Comstock referred to his liberal targets as “long-haired men and short-haired women” and boasted that his prosecutions had driven at least fifteen people to commit suicide.

One hilariously titled chapter of the Comstock chronicles, however, involved a confiscated shipment of contraceptives from Japan to New York City in 1932. The slightly ribald case of United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (diaphragms) in the U.S. Court of Appeals directly confronted the standing prohibition against importing or mailing birth control. It had been these laws that led to the decidedly not hilarious multiple arrests of Planned Parenthood founder (and coiner of the term birth control) Margaret Sanger. The ban on contraceptives was eventually declared unconstitutional, but many other portions of the Comstock Act still stand today.

Anthony Comstock died in 1915. Lawyer, author, and free speech activist Theodore Schroeder later railed that Comstock “stood at the mouth of a sewer, searching for and devouring obscenity for a salary.” It is perhaps fitting that the encyclopedic collection of pornography currently owned by the Library of Congress was established with contraband confiscated under the Comstock Act of 1873.

March 05, 2016

mesmerize

Today is anniversary of the death of Franz Anton Mesmer (1815), born nearly 300 years ago (1734) but still spellbinding to this day.


v. to affect (a person) as if by hypnosis; to fascinate, hold spellbound
Oxford English Dictionary

When we find ourselves mesmerized, perhaps by the champagne-glass shape of a courtesan’s bosom (see pompadour), we are invoking the memory of Franz Anton Mesmer, an eighteenth-century German physician whose controversial theories formed an early basis for hypnosis.

History cannot quite decide what to make of Dr. Mesmer—whether he was a quack, a con man, or a visionary. In any case, he was born Friedrich Anton Mesmer in 1734 in Swabia, Germany, and studied medicine at the University of Vienna. The late 1700s were sort of an experimental free-for-all in European medicine. In 1774, Mesmer was able to convince a patient to create an “artificial tide” in her body by swallowing a solution of iron and then surrounding her with magnets. Mesmer attributed the “mysterious fluid” she felt coursing through her, and the subsequent relief of her symptoms, not to the effect of the physical magnets but to his own magnétisme animal. He was not referring to his powerful mojo. Instead, Mesmer believed in an ethereal medium that existed in animate beings that he could manipulate through animal magnetism, quite separate from mineral magnetism, cosmic magnetism, or planetary magnetism.

Reports vary on how and how well this actually worked. In many cases, Mesmer would hold the thumbs of his patients, sit with his knees touching theirs, and stare into their eyes. For the next few hours he would alternately pass his hands up and down their arms and press on their lower abdomens. Convulsions were common. For those more interested in a group scene, Mesmer could accommodate up to twenty people at a time, all seated around a short vessel (called a baquet) studded with iron bars and ropes for each patient to complete the “circuit” and communicate between the baquet and the patients as Mesmer conducted his invisible fluid in a collective trance.

This all went on for a number of years, with Mesmer now living in France amid divided opinion on whether he was a charlatan or a great physician. He caused such a stir that Louis XVI convened a French Royal Commission to determine if the supposed magnetic fluid was real. Included in the august group were then ambassador Benjamin Franklin, Antoine “Father of Chemistry” Lavoisier, and physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, whom history has inaccurately saddled with the invention of a mechanical death machine (see guillotine).

While the commission could not find any evidence for the existence of Mesmer’s mystical fluid, they did not dispute the fact that his treatments were effective. Unfortunately for the good doctor, however, they asserted that his cures were more than likely due to the imaginations of his patients. Mesmer was never vindicated, though subsequent “mesmerists” developed further techniques for suggestion-induced trances, leading to the development of modern hypnosis in the midnineteenth century, many years after Mesmer died in relative obscurity in 1815.

Though current practitioners would dispute Mesmer’s belief that a hypnotic trance is mediated by “animal magnetism,” some American settlers thought it seemed reasonable. One account for the naming of Mesmerizer Creek, Texas, is that an early resident struck on a novel way to domesticate American bison—through hypnosis.

March 03, 2016

Ponzi scheme


Today is the birthday of Charles Ponzi (1882). Any gifts will be turned over to the receiver.

n. a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by payment of quick returns to first investors using money invested by others
Oxford English Dictionary

Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion swindling operation was described as the largest Ponzi scheme in history, and it's only appropriate to draw attention to the original Ponzi schemer—Charles Ponzi.

Born Carlo Ponzi in Italy in 1882, this natural rogue dropped out of the University of Rome in 1903 and headed to America to make his fortune. He worked as an assistant teller in a failing Canadian bank that catered to Italian immigrants and used the money from new accounts to pay off interest payments of bad real-estate loans. He later became a check forger and immigrant smuggler and spent five years in prison before finally making his way to Boston in 1917.

Always keen to find a get-rich-quick scheme, Ponzi fell upon an unglamorous but shrewd investment loophole. Nine years earlier, in 1906, the Universal Postal Union congress in Rome started issuing international reply coupons (IRCs)—vouchers that could be sent to a participating foreign country in lieu of a self-addressed stamped envelope that a recipient could exchange for local postage to send a reply. Ponzi realized that American inflation after WWI resulted in postage in Italy costing far less than its equivalent in America, which meant that IRCs purchased cheaply in Italy could be cashed in for stamps in the United States and then sold at a tidy profit, all perfectly legally. Of course, to make real money with the system would require millions of coupons to be purchased and traded in for millions of stamps to be sold. Ponzi needed a few saps.

Ponzi was dapper and charismatic, and his slogan of a 50 percent return on investment in ninety days attracted enough early interest to get him rolling. He formed the Securities Exchange Company and paid back initial investors handsomely with funds from later investors, which led to a flurry of investment from regular Joes hoping to beat the system. Between December of 1919 and August of 1920, a mere eight months, he had collected around $8 million from more than 10,000 individuals investing their life savings, mortgaging their homes, and reinvesting earlier earnings instead of cashing out. Meanwhile, Ponzi had never purchased a single coupon. What he did purchase was a mansion, a limousine, and passage for his mother to come from Italy to the land of opportunity.

There were eventually a few skeptics, including some investigators from the Boston Post, Clarence Barron (the financial analyst for the Barron’s financial paper), and a number of state officials. It was Barron who revealed that Ponzi’s company would require 160 million postal coupons to cover all investments—while the United States Post Office confirmed there were only 27,000 circulating, with none being bought in serious quantities in the United States or Italy. In August of 1920, federal agents raided the Securities Exchange Company and found no coupons. Ponzi was arrested, pleaded guilty to mail fraud, and spent three and a half years in federal prison before facing a nine-year state prison sentence. He quickly jumped bail, fled to Florida to set up a property scam, was deported to Italy where he was less successful as a swindler, and finally died penniless in a Rio de Janeiro charity hospital in 1949.

The term Ponzi scheme is generally an American usage. Elsewhere in the world, it is almost always described as a “pyramid scheme,” although there are several important differences, the most important of which is that pyramid schemes are often quite explicit in their admissions that new investors will be the sole source of payout for early investors (i.e., a portion of each new investor’s money is directed to earlier investors, who cash out of the system). The problem with this exponential model is that it is unsustainable, and the funds generated by new participants are soon vastly outpaced by the number of earlier investors expecting payout, at which point the system crashes.

In contrast, a true Ponzi scheme requires that the schemer be directly involved with every investor, usually under the guise of some innovative new investment approach, and there have been many, both before and after the rise and fall of its namesake. In 1880, Sarah Howe opened the bogus “Ladies Deposit” in Boston promising 8 percent interest “for women only” before she vanished with the money. More than 100 years later, Louis Jay Pearlman ran an extraordinary Ponzi scheme in the 1990s in which he bilked more than $300 million from individuals investing in the fictitious Trans Continental Airlines, Inc. (though his greater crime against humanity is surely the fact that he was the one-time manager for American boy bands ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys).

Since Ponzi’s day, the selling price and exchange value in stamps for international reply coupons have been adjusted to remove the potential for profit that he exploited. Regrettably, no similar regulations exist to remove the potential for profit from boy bands.

March 02, 2016

Houstonize

Today is the birthday of Samuel Houston in 1793.

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.

February 28, 2016

epicure


Historians believe that Epicurus, namesake of the word epicure, was born some time in February of 341 BC.

n. one who gives himself up to sensual pleasure, esp. to eating; a glutton, sybarite
n. one who cultivates a refined taste for the pleasures of the table; one who is choice and dainty in eating and drinking
Oxford English Dictionary

The Greek philosopher Epicurus would likely be horrified by the dinner-party dilettantes who invoke his name as a coat of arms for their hedonistic pursuits, and he certainly would not be swapping recipes with them at Epicurious.com. The unfortunate legacy of this peaceful thinker is a misunderstanding that has overshadowed his original beliefs for more than two thousand years.

Epicurus was born in 341 BC at the tail end of the golden age of philosophy. Plato died seven years before he was born and Aristotle died nineteen years after. Contrary to the modern gastronome perception, Epicurus was a model of moderation and self-control. The very inscription above the gate to his garden warned visitors that they might expect only bread and water. The philosopher took little pleasure in eating or drinking or any other physical pursuit (including sex) and taught that comfort can best be achieved through simple existence free of family and political life.

Epicurus founded the “Garden School” in Athens, where students ate his bread, drank his water, and shared his noble thoughts for more than two hundred years. He posted another sign at the entrance to his garden (next to his culinary warning about prison victuals) welcoming, “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” This concept of hedonism has always been a bit of a sticky wicket, and part of the confusion of the epic of Epicurus lies in his notion of pleasure. He certainly argued that pleasure provided the happiness of life—but he had no use for sensuality. Unfortunately, over time, some of his students did. Many began buttering their daily bread and some later toasted it into croutons on beds of arugula. Epicurus’s serene and secular individualism became bastardized into wantonness and debauchery. It is only in recent memory that epicures are even considered discerning connoisseurs—for years they were merely self-gratifying slobs.

For centuries after his death, some of Epicurus’s followers were equated with another gluttonous gathering of ancient Greeks—the Sybarites. Representing their own notorious namesake in the modern form of sybarite (notoriously luxurious), their legacy is a key descriptor in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of epicure. Predating Epicurus by a few hundred years, the inhabitants of the Greek colony of Sybaris in southern Italy were extraordinarily wealthy and self-indulgent. In a Grecian version of the princess and the pea, legend has it that a Sybarite was once unable to sleep because of a single rose petal under his body.
 
As for Epicurus, he suffered from kidney stones into his seventies. Given this diagnosis, today’s holistic foodies would have approved of his love of water but probably would have warned him away from salty snacks. Calm and cheerful to the end, gentle Epicurus died in 270 BC.

ottoman

The birthday of Osman I is unknown, but it is believed that he died in February of 1326.

n. a low, cushioned seat without a back or arms
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

It is truly a shame that a man once seated at a throne atop the entire world should be reduced to a lowly stuffed footstool, but such is the unfortunate legacy of Osman I.

In the late thirteenth century, a shift in the balance of world power was taking place. Following the death of Genghis Khan, hordes of Mongols were pillaging their way west toward Europe at the same time that the Christian Byzantine Empire began losing its stronghold over mostly Muslim Asia Minor. From the middle of this cultural sandwich rose the Ottoman Empire, which would rule for more than six hundred years.

Born in 1259, Osman I was the sultan of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in the early fourteenth century. He managed to band his Turkish countrymen together with the mercenaries and refugees fleeing the Mongolian raiders and successfully established his people as the Islamic successors to the Byzantine Empire (the eastern version of the Holy Roman one next door). Building upon his legacy, within two hundred years the Ottoman Empire sprawled across most of western Asia, southeastern Europe, and northern Africa. Its capital, Constantinople, was the crossroads for the eastern and western worlds for most of the prior millennium. Osman himself was celebrated in poem and song for centuries after for his bravery, beauty, and, strangely, for his “wondrous length and strength of arm.” Turkish delight on a moonlit night, indeed.

How Osman became a glorified hassock is a bit more of a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary places the first written usage of ottoman as furniture in 1789, from no less than jaunty trendsetter Thomas Jefferson. Europeans in the eighteenth century simply could not get enough of the marvels of the Near East and provided an eager market for the pillows, carpets, and low-slung furnishings that satisfied the fantasies of an exotic Arabian night. The rich textiles imported from the Ottoman Empire were variously called ottomane (French), ottomana (Italian), otomana (Spanish), and Ottomane (German). Following the lead of the French, the English word morphed from the textured fabrics to divans and then from chairs to footstools.

Osman died in 1326, but the Ottoman Empire was not dissolved and succeeded by the Republic of Turkey until 1923. Despite his namesake being well represented as a home furnishing by that point, Osman and the Turkish wards of his empire did ultimately have their etymological revenge against the Western infidels. Though it had been called Byzantium, New Rome, and Stamboul at various points in history, in 1930 Constantinople was officially renamed Istanbul—the Turkish name for the city since the tenth century. The Four Lads immortalized the cartographical coup in their swing hit “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” in 1953, as did a revival of the song in 1990 by alt-pop darlings They Might Be Giants.