August 30, 2015

Houstonize

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.

August 28, 2015

chauvinism


Pigs of the world, behold your namesake. The word that has become almost completely subsumed by the feminist movement is believed by many to be originally based on a French superpatriot who simply could not get enough of Napoleon.

n. absurd, unreasoning, and belligerent patriotism; the quality of being wildly extravagant, demonstrative, or fanatical in regard to national glory and honor
n. unreasoning devotion to one’s race, sex, etc., with contempt for other races, the opposite sex, etc.; as male chauvinism
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

While some modern researchers assert his existence is a myth, the traditional theory has been that Nicolas Chauvin was a French soldier born in Rochefort toward the end of the eighteenth century. Serving initially in the First Army of the French Republic and later in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée, Chauvin was wounded seventeen times and apparently so disfigured by the end of his career that he could no longer lift his sword. (With the typical French flair for irony, Chauvin was rewarded in his retirement with a ceremonial saber.)

Chauvin received a meager military pension but nevertheless maintained nothing but love for France and, especially, the Little Corporal. Even after Napoleon’s spanking at Waterloo in 1815 and subsequent fall from favor, Chauvin maintained his infallibility. So laughable was his idolatry that he caught the attention of France’s artistic community, including two playwrights, Jean and Charles Cogniard, who used him as a buffoonish character in their 1831 comedy La cocarde tricolore (The Tricolor Cockade). Other authors began using the old soldier as a caricature of fanatical patriotism as well, and his name entered the French lexicon as a synonym for bellicose nationalism.

Though English co-opted the French chauvinisme, it also produced its own synonym—jingoism. Though jingo (from Jesus) had been used as an exclamation since the seventeenth century, it was a British drinking song from the late nineteenth century that helped introduce the term jingoism by urging Great Britain to deter the Russian army from invading Constantinople in the Russo-Turkish War:

We don’t want to fight, yet by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,

And the money, too.

Independent British radical George Holyoake coined the term jingoism in a letter to the editor of the Daily News in 1878, and both jingoism and chauvinism were both used in the United States by the turn of the twentieth century to characterize any mindless belief in partisan superiority. The latter took on its now ever-present male tag in the 1960s when feminists began using the term male chauvinism (and, later, “male chauvinist pig”) to characterize the insufferable boors espousing delusions of female inferiority.

Nicolas Chauvin would likely not know what to make of this modern application of his name, but it is probable that he would have been more horrified by the slap to the collective French face in 2003 by the jingoistic American renaming of “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” (see Salisbury steak). For a true patriot, some insults simply cannot stand.

August 20, 2015

boycott

Today the Irish are celebrating the anniversary of the 1897 death of one of their great historical villains—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.

November 23, 2013

gerrymander

Today in 1814 died 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.

November 04, 2013

McCarthyism

Today is the birthday of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the political leader so successful (for a short time) at fomenting the second Red Scare of 1947 to 1957 that the Cincinnati Reds baseball team temporarily changed their name to “Redlegs” to avoid being branded as communists. Born in 1908, it is from the junior senator that we draw the word McCarthyism.

n. a mid-20th century political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations esp. on the basis of unsubstantiated charges
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

The word still used today to chastise demagoguery and bullying political douchebaggery is the namesake of Joseph Raymond McCarthy, voted “the worst U.S. senator” by the Senate press corps even before making his famous unsubstantiated claim in 1950 that he had an extensive list of known communists working in the State Department.

The early years of the Cold War in the United States were fraught with anxiety over Commie infiltration, and the government conducted more than one hundred investigations in the early 1950s trying to root out the Red Threat. Born in 1908, “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy was a marine combat pilot in World War II before becoming a senator in the 1940s and building his political reputation making unsubstantiated accusations of espionage and treason, leading to the imprisonment of hundreds of Americans and the unemployment of thousands. His namesake was first coined in a political cartoon in 1950 when Herblock (Herbert Lawrence Block) famously drew four Republicans trying to force a party elephant to balance atop a swaying stack of tar buckets, the largest one, on the top, labeled “McCarthyism.”

While he is often associated with the sexier witch hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, McCarthy never browbeat any starlets or blacklisted any directors. As head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy was his own jackanapes and focused on communist infiltration of the State Department, government broadcasters, overseas librarians (whose card catalogs were allegedly bursting with burnable communist propaganda), and the U.S. Army. However, his name has since come to represent the entire era of paranoia and persecution.

McCarthy was ultimately unable to prove any wrongdoing by anyone anywhere, and his attacks on the army for alleged security lapses were followed the next year by separate and unrelated charges of abuse of power brought against him by the army (it is the thirty-six days of televised proceedings of these hearings that people most remember). He was ultimately acquitted, but the damage to his reputation was done. McCarthy’s fellow senators ultimately censured him in 1954 through a decisive dressing-down vote of 67–22, and he lost all of his political power, leading President Eisenhower to refer to his former nemesis’s legacy as “McCarthywasm.” The senator slipped increasingly into bouts of alcoholism and finally died from inflammation of his liver in 1957 at the tender age of forty-eight.

During his life, McCarthy had fully embraced his namesake, even co-opting it for the title of his book McCarthyism: The Fight for America. But cartoonist Herblock ultimately had the last laugh regarding his creation. He insisted there was “nothing particularly ingenious about the term, which is simply used to represent a national affliction that can hardly be described in any other way. If anyone has a prior claim on it, he’s welcome to the word and to the junior senator from Wisconsin along with it. I will also throw in a set of free dishes and a case of soap."

November 25, 2012

Catherine wheel

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the unfortunate namesake of one of the cruelest torture devices ever devised.

n. the figure of a wheel with spikes projecting from its circumference (in reference to the legend of St. Catherine’s martyrdom), esp. in heraldry
v. to turn lateral summersaults (cart-wheel)
n. a window or compartment of a window of a circular form with radiating divisions or spokes
n. a kind of firework which rotates, while burning, in the manner of a wheel
Oxford English Dictionary

Much of what we know of St. Catherine of Alexandria may be shrouded in myth, but for those many thousands tortured on her wooden namesake in the Middle Ages, her legacy was a grisly reality.

Originating in ancient Greece, the “breaking wheel” was a primitive but effective torture device used for nearly three thousand years for interrogation or general cruelty. In most cases, a victim would be placed on the wheel and his or her limbs would be beaten with a cudgel through the spokes.

Alternatively, an executed body might simply be displayed on the wheel as a cautionary tableau. So gruesome were the torture sessions that took place (sometimes extending over days) that occasionally an executioner would deliver a deliberately lethal strike, known in French as a coup de grâce, or “blow of mercy.” (As a linguistic aside, when coup de grâce is mispronounced in English―as it most commonly is, with a dropped s sound―the phrase becomes coup de gras [blow of fat] or, worse, cou de gras [neck of fat].)

Religious lore has it that sometime around the turn of the fourth century AD, young Catherine of Alexandria allegedly visited the Emperor of Rome, perhaps Maximinus, and went on a bit of a conversion spree. Though she could not talk the emperor into easing up on the Christians, she did manage to convince his wife and several advisers to come around to Jesus. She was sent to jail for her efforts but ended up converting both her prison escort and all of those who came to visit her. The emperor ordered her to be executed on the breaking wheel, but it shattered when she touched it. She was then martyred instead with an ax. Devout followers believe that Catherine’s body was then delivered to Mount Sinai by angels and that Emperor Justinian I built a monastery there for her in the seventh century.

Over the next several hundred years, her association with the breaking wheel stuck, and the device continued to be used well into the eighteenth century. It was not banned in France, for example, until Louis XVI sensed the public disfavor with cruel and unusual punishment just prior to the French Revolution (see guillotine). By that time, the application of spiked wheels in heraldry or architectural design all bore Catherine’s name. Even today, her namesake wheel appears in countless stained-glass windows with a spoked design. In fact, “rose windows” such as the enormous one in the Notre Dame in Paris are sometimes referred to as “Catherine windows” in honor of the martyr.

However, the most immediately recognizable of Catherine’s namesakes to modern readers is likely the carefree tumbling known alternatively as “turning Catherine wheels” and “turning cartwheels.” In addition, her name has also become attached to several varieties of spinning fireworks.

St. Catherine of the Wheel is today recognized by many as the patron saint of wheelwrights, mechanics, and, of course, virgins.

November 22, 2012

Mae West


Today in 1980 died the long-lived, quick-witted, and amply proportioned actress Mae West.

n. an inflatable life jacket, originally one issued to R.A.F. servicemen in the Second World War
Oxford English Dictionary

Mae West once coyly asked a police escort “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?” Her buxom figure and unapologetic bawdiness made her a box-office star and a favorite of World War II British flyboys who notoriously named their life jackets after her, alleging that they “bulged in all the right places.”

Given her extraordinary career as a sex symbol that extended (perhaps regrettably) all the way into the 1970s, it may be difficult to believe that Mae West was born way back in 1893 in Brooklyn. Then Mary Jane West was the daughter of a prizefighter and corset model and was a professional vaudevillian by the time she was fourteen. Her “Baby Mae” character segued into male impersonation, blackface, and suggestive and salacious shimmying. Her big breakthrough came when she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in her first Broadway play in 1926—titled, simply, Sex. It was hugely popular, but the entire crew was eventually arrested for obscenity, and West spent two days in prison—“in her silk underpants,” she later confessed—before being released for good behavior. Subsequent plays brought on fussbudgeting from the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice (see Comstockery) and more police attention, but by that point, West was a star.

West was already thirty-eight-years old when Hollywood came knocking in 1932, and she stunned everyone by successfully rewriting her roles to carve out a full-figured niche for herself. In her film debut she famously responded to a young girl’s breathless comment “Goodness! What lovely diamonds!” by saying “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie” (which would eventually become the title of her best-selling autobiography). Audiences adored her, and the conservative Production Code officers loathed her. She made nine more films in the thirties and early forties before switching to radio and getting herself banned from NBC radio after her “Eve” character told Don Ameche’s “Adam” that “I feel like doin’ a big apple.”

West maintained her sex-bomb persona into her twilight years, turning down the starring role in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard at nearly sixty because she was convinced she was a sexy as ever and would not be convincing as a has-been actress. She recorded three rock-and-roll albums in the late 1960s, including the double-entendred Great Balls of Fire in 1968 (at seventy-five), and starred in her last film Sextette in 1976 (at eighty-four) in which she played an aging sex symbol that everyone wants to bed, including her former husbands George Hamilton, Ringo Starr, and Tony Curtis, and an entire unidentifiable U.S. “athletic” team.

West died at home in 1980 at the age of eighty-seven, and her name is still used to this day to reference certain military life jackets, as well as the unfortunate, bulging, two-lobed appearance of a malfunctioning parachute. Most modern actresses would likely eschew having their torsos compared to inflatable rubber vests or parachutes, but West once advised women to “cultivate your curves—they may be dangerous, but they won’t be avoided.”

November 12, 2012

grog

Raise a glass of cheap swill to celebrate the birthday of Edward "Old Grog" Vernon, born this day in 1684.


n. a mixture of rum and water not sweetened; hence, any kind of alcoholic drink
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

It is perhaps doubly insulting to the grand and venerable Admiral Edward Vernon that his nickname “Old Grog” should come from the material of the coat he wore (grogram) and that his military legacy should be the concoction of cheap and diluted spirits to sober up the seamen who loathed him.

Edward Vernon was born in 1684 in Westminster, England, and rose quickly through the ranks of the British Royal Navy, achieving the rank of captain by the age of twenty-two. In his other role as a Parliamentarian, he famously argued in favor of retaliation against Spain in the case of Robert Jenkins, a British mariner whose ear was cut off by a Spanish commander in 1731, leading to the—honestly—War of Jenkins’ Ear waged between Britain and Spain in 1739. Vernon was eventually promoted to Vice Admiral and was somewhat conspicuously detested by the majority of the sailors who served under him—the notable exception of whom was George Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, who had served under the admiral in 1741 and decided to name the family estate Mount Vernon after his commander.

When strutting gallantly across the sea-swept decks, Vernon’s preferred outerwear was grogram, a coarse and all-weather weave of silk, wool, and mohair often stiffened with gum. John Ciardi* relates that Vernon further waterproofed his cloak with pitch and beeswax, which rendered it so stiff in the cold that both the grogram and the salty admiral had to be warmed by a stove to soften them—leading to the nickname of Old Grog.

Drunkenness once ran rampant on British ships as a result of spoilable fresh water being replaced first by a daily ration of a gallon of beer, then brandy, and finally a half pint of rum. To curb the inevitable alcohol-induced brawling aboard his vessels in 1740, Old Grog declared that rum rations would henceforth be cut with water (and eventually lemon juice to improve the stagnant flavor of the water). In howling opposition, the outraged sailors quickly dubbed the unintoxicating dilution grog, though the Royal Navy made the practice part of its official regulations in 1756 and Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) asserted that Vernon’s declaration was “perhaps the greatest improvement to discipline and efficiency ever produced by one stroke of the pen.”

What Vernon’s grumbling sailors did not realize at the time was that the occasional addition of citrus juice for flavor was giving them the extra vitamin C they needed to avoid scurvy, and, seven years later, James Lind formally proved the efficacy of citrus to curb the disease. The British Royal Navy eventually mandated a daily dose of what would become Rose’s Lime Juice, the bitter flavor of which was eventually improved with the addition of gin (see gimlet).

Old Grog himself died in 1757, but his name lives on in word and song.

Well it’s all for me grog
Me jolly jolly grog.
It’s all for me beer and tobacco.
Well I spent all me tin with the ladies drinkin’ gin           
Far across the Western ocean I must wander.

*Good Words to You, Harper and Row, 1982.

leotard

Today marks the first public appearance of trapeze artist Jules Léotard in 1859. 

n. a close-fitting one-piece garment worn by acrobats and dancers
Oxford English Dictionary

Our word for the classic (and revealing) uniform of ballerinas and gymnasts is the namesake of Jules Léotard, a vainglorious French acrobat who wanted nothing more than female adoration of what he considered his “best features.”

Perhaps the directors of the 1984 Val Kilmer comedy Top Secret! had Léotard in mind when they featured a ballerina gracefully leaping from loin to loin in a gauntlet of male dancers, resting each time on their ridiculously exaggerated accoutrement to an appropriately chosen accompaniment from The Nutcracker.

Jules Léotard was born to circus performer parents in Toulouse, France, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Though originally on track to become a lawyer, he became enamored with the trapeze bars (and, apparently, his own physique) and joined the Cirque Napoleon in 1859. Donning his invention, what he called a maillot—a skin-tight, one-piece garment with long sleeves to allow free movement and to display his muscles—Léotard became the first trapeze artist to execute a mid-air somersault and the first to swing from one trapeze to another. All of this was in the days before safety nets (introduced in 1871). Léotard often performed over a stack of mattresses or, more often, directly over the heads of diners in music halls.

So impressive were his flights and flips that in 1867 he was the direct inspiration for what has become the anthem of aerial acrobats—”The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

“The girl that I loved she was handsome,
I tried all I knew her to please,
But I could not please her one quarter so well
As that man upon the trapeze.
He’d fly thro’ the air with the greatest of ease—
A daring young man on the flying trapeze—
His movements were graceful, all girls he could please,
And my love he purloined away.”

Léotard’s word maillot is now used for jerseys or swimsuits, having been replaced by leotard in 1866, nearly twenty years after the acrobat’s premature death from smallpox before his thirtieth birthday. The design was certainly created for men, and Léotard was quite explicit about the effect he hoped his invention would have, as he describes in his Memoires:

“Do you want to be adored by the ladies? [I]nstead of draping yourself in unflattering clothes, invented by ladies…put on a more natural garb, which does not hide your best features.”

November 11, 2012

Typhoid Mary


Today marks the anniversary of the death of "Typhoid" Mary Mallon in 1938.

n. one that is by force of circumstances a center from which something undesirable spreads

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

When wheezing and sneezing employees show up for work instead of taking an allotted sick day, they are often called a Typhoid Mary—invoking the dead and virulent namesake of hash- and fever-slinging Mary Mallon.

Like many unintentional bacterial gifts, typhoid fever is spread through the intake of food or water contaminated with infected feces (see also Maginot Line). While not typically fatal, it nevertheless plagues its victims with fever, sweating, diarrhea, and furious anger at whoever did not wash up after using the bathroom. The height of its mortality rate in the United States was in the late nineteenth century, just around the time Mary Mallon immigrated to the United States from Ireland.

Mallon was born in 1869, sought her fortune in the New World in 1884, and was well established as a cook in New York City by the turn of the century. However, when members of one of the families who hired her unexpectedly contracted typhoid, they hired civil engineer and typhoid research George Soper to investigate. Soper soon discovered that Mallon had sped through seven jobs between 1900 and 1907, leaving a wake of twenty-two typhoid cases and at least one death. Though a complete stranger to her, Soper approached Mallon, suggested she might have typhoid, and requested stool, urine, and blood samples. The Irish cook refused, and the rest is history.

Tensions escalated. Mallon herself did not feel or appear sick and was convinced she was being unfairly targeted as a working-class Irish woman. Soper, meanwhile, returned to question Mallon again, this time with a doctor, followed eventually by a New York City health inspector. Mallon refused them all. She was finally arrested, found to be a carrier for typhoid, and placed in isolation for three years by the board of health. Though Mallon was eventually released with the agreement that she would no longer work as a cook, she soon discovered that work as a laundress or other house servant paid comparatively little, so she assumed a fake name and took a job cooking again in New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women. While there, Mallon passed along her special sauce to twenty-five more unwitting victims, one of whom died.

Mallon’s identity was eventually discovered, and she was arrested and quarantined again on North Brother Island. By this point, Mallon was known to have infected fifty-three people total (three of whom died) and was referred to publicly as “Typhoid Mary.” Sympathy for her cause had evaporated, and she would spend the rest of her life under quarantine, suffer a paralyzing stroke, and ultimately die six years later of pneumonia in 1938 at the age of sixty-nine.

It has since been theorized that Mallon might have contracted typhoid from her mother before she was born and simply never experienced any symptoms. Though she protested her innocence to the end, an autopsy indicated that Typhoid Mary was still harboring live bacteria in her gallbladder when she died.

Bon appétit.