November 25, 2015

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, the correct pronunciation is COOD-gras. When 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 23, 2015


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 22, 2015

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, 2015


Today marks the anniversary of 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, 2015

Typhoid Mary

Today is the anniversary of the death of "Typhoid Mary" Mallon (1939).

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.

November 10, 2015

AK-47, Kalashnikov

Happy Birthday to Mikhail Kalashnikov, born this day in 1919.

n. an automatic kalashnikov rifle; esp. (more fully AK-47) a model of this rifle, first manufactured in 1947
­—Oxford English Dictionary

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the quiet and conscientious creator of one of the most notorious weapons in history, insists that it is only historical circumstance that led him to create assault rifles instead of lawnmowers.

Atomic weapons and firebombings aside, World War II featured cramped combat between troops that necessitated special equipment. Unlike the British more than 100 years earlier who wanted to be able to kill more people at a distance (see shrapnel), the Germans realized that most rifles were too powerful for close encounters and wanted a weapon that could wreak havoc in tight quarters (see tommy gun). Hitler referred to their first mass-deployment creation as a Sturmgewehr, “storm rifle,” which became translated to “assault rifle.” The Russians were assaulted repeatedly by the German wondergun and were duly impressed.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was a tank driver in the Red Army in 1938 and promoted to commander before being wounded by Germans during the Battle of Bryansk in 1941. As he was recovering from his injuries, he began thinking about how best to drive the German hordes from his homeland. As he later mused, “It is the Germans who are responsible for the fact that I became a fabricator of arms. If not for them, I would have constructed agricultural machines.” Kalashnikov decided to start entering gun-building contests and finally came up big in 1947. His invention, was special because it was a true assault rifle (good for shooting on the run), had selective fire (semi-automatic for judicious firing and fully automatic for a kill-crazy rampage), was gas-powered (cartridges were almost magically chambered and ejected), and, most importantly, was cheap, durable, and easy to use—even in the cold and muddy conditions of the Russian front.

The Soviet Army officially accepted the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 (AK-47) in 1949, and, in the six decades since, more AK rifles have been produced than all other assault rifles combined. Kalashnikov was promoted to Lieutenant General but claimed never to have profited from the more than 100 million weapons bearing his name circulating around the world, surviving instead on a state pension. “My work is my life, and my life is my work. I invented this assault rifle to defend my country. I am proud that it has become synonymous with liberty.”

The AK-47 appears on the flags of Mozambique and Hezbollah, the coats of arms of Zimbabwe and East Timor, and the logo of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. For most of his life, Kalashnikov was philosophical about his namesake and generally impervious to insomnia. “If someone asks me how I can sleep at night knowing that my arms have killed millions of people, I respond that I have no problem sleeping, my conscience is clean.”

There is a museum and a monument honoring the gun designer in Izhevsk, Russia, where he died in 2013, but it is perhaps Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown who sums up Kalashnikov’s legacy most eloquently. “AK-47. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every mother****** in the room, accept no substitutes.

November 08, 2015

Molotov cocktail

Light a candle to remember Vyacheslav Molotov who died today in 1986.

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. 

November 04, 2015


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."

October 30, 2015


Raise a glass of cheap swill to celebrate the memory of Edward "Old Grog" Vernon who died October 30, 1757.

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.

October 24, 2015


Today is the anniversary of the death 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.”