From telegraphs to Twitter: a short history of “wiretapping”

One of the earliest recorded instances of wiretapping involves an anecdote about how Confederate general John Hunt Morgan bet a Union soldier two cigars if he could spell the word Lebanon.

In a series of shocking tweets this weekend, President Trump, providing absolutely zero evidence, said President Obama wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign. The word wiretapping evokes Watergate and Cold War espionage, but its roots goes back a century earlier. For before we tapped telephones, we tapped telegraphs.

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Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?

With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.

This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported

Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathroom sign, courtesy of


This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).

Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?

Continue reading “Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?”

The etymological pivot of “pivot”

All eyes are on Donald Trump to see if he will pivot to a more presidential bearing now that he’s the presumptive nominee of the Republican party. But who am I kidding? All eyes have been on the businessman.

My etymological eyes, however, have been on pundits’ and reporters’ go-to term for Trump’s potential repositioning: pivot. Where does this word come from?

The blades of scissors pivot on the central pin. Just be sure to keep these away from Trump’s hair. Image by Alessandro Paiva from


Originally, a pivot was a “hinge pin” or “fulcrum”: a central rod around which a mechanism turns. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents the word in the compound pivot shears (“pevet-sheres”) by the very end of the 14th century. By the mid 1700s, pivot itself pivoted from mechanism to metaphor for any central part or person of an operation. The word has since been swiveling in military contexts, linguistics, sports, math, and even Japanese poetry. Come the 1830-40s, we find both the adjective pivotal (“crucial”) and the verb pivot.

As a verb today, pivot often expresses a very particular action: a swift and strategic turn on the spot, or, better yet, pivot . At least since the late 1890s according to the OED, basketball players have been so pivoting, with one foot pivoting on the floor, the other maneuvering for the best path to the basket. President Obama, for example, has been pursuing a foreign policy “Pivot to Asia,” shifting interests and investments away from the Middle East to East Asia and the Pacific.

Now, English’s pivot derives from the French pivot, also naming a “pivot,” though the record shows figurative extensions early on; one usage references a kind of dance. But from here, etymologists have oscillated on the word’s deeper origins.

Some look to the Spanish púa (“sharp point”), Catalan piu (“spindle”), and Occitan pivèu (“pivot,” in the earlier mechanical sense of the word). Perhaps, as Barnhart notes, all these pivot on the Old Provençal pua, the “tooth of a comb,” emerging from a pre-Celtic Indo-European *puga, a “point” or “peak.” A related form is the Latin pūgiō: a “dagger.”

Others, like Skeat, consider the Italian piva, a “pipe,” ultimately from Latin’s pipare, “to chirp like a bird,” and source of English’s own pipe. Italian, Weekley observes, also has a diminutive pivolo, a “peg,” “dibble,” and “penis.” The latter requires little of the imagination for its explanation.

We don’t know the ultimate origin of pivot, but, for many, its proposed roots may still apply to Trump’s presumptive nomination. Many on the right worry his nomination will be a lethal dagger to their party and principles. Many on the left – and right and center – think he’s a not so diminutive pivolo. But as divided as American politics may be, we can all agree Trump will definitely be relying on the teeth of a comb to keep his hair coiffed for the next phase of the campaign, regardless of whether or not he pivots.

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How did “lame duck” take flight?

Technically, President Barack Obama is not a “lame duck” until after the election in November. But with a gridlocked Congress, an unprecedented presidential campaign, and a sudden Supreme Court vacancy, pundits, the press, and politicos have been already quacking the fowl phrase a few months into the president’s final year.

There is even an egregiously false “lame duck” clause making the rounds online; citing Article III Section IV of the Constitution, which does not exist, it claims “the President may not nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court if the vacancy shall occur in the year leading up to an election, when the candidate be a ‘lame duck.'” The phrase lame duck did exist when the constitution was drafted, as we’ll see, but many decades passed before we started using in this way.

So, how did the expression lame duck take flight?

Lame duck

It wasn’t politics that first gave wing to the expression lame duck. It was stock brokering – or rather, bad stock brokering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes lame duck back to 18th-century broker slang for a “defaulter” in the (now) London Stock Exchange. Brokers who cannot pay off their losses, so it goes, are like ducks that can’t walk. Helping to further explain the metaphor, the dictionary cites David Garrick in a prologue to a comedy by Samuel Foote: “Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks!” The passage goes on to describe all sorts of colorful terms the papers were apparently using for gamesome folk: “The gaming fools are doves, the knaves are rooks, / Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks! But, Ladies, blame not your gaming spouses, / For you, as well as they, have pidgeon-houses!”

This is not the earliest evidence the OED gives for lame duck, though. It first cites a letter written by English scholar and politician Horace Walpole: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck, are?” Indeed, the duck is not the only animal in the stock market’s menagerie; stockjobbers have been referring to bears and bulls since the early 1700s. In his letter, Walpole expresses dismay for moneyed interests in conflicts with the Spanish at the time. He goes on to answer his question: “Nay, nor I either; I am only certain they are neither animals nor fowl, but are extremely interested in the new subscription. I don’t believe I apply it right here; but I feel as if I should be a lame duck if the Spaniards take the vessel that has my Altar on board.” (Altar? Walpole famously collected art and historical artifacts, if I reckon correctly. Subscription I assume refers to some sort of financial investment opportunity.)

For all of lame duck’s disability, it definitely winged its way across the pond. The OED finds it in US political contexts as early as a January 1863 edition of the Congressional Globe, deriding the United States Court of Claims: “In no event…could it be greatly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politics.” Lame duck easily jumps from maimed finances to crippled politics.

By the early 1900s, we see lame duck flocking to its current usage, the session after an election before a new office-holder takes their seat. It was used especially of Congress at first. In 1910, the New York Evening Post noted that reporters chattered of the “‘Lame Duck Alley’ …a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.” Ducks, for the good of your name, you should really start avoiding alleyways.

Ratified in 1933, the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution is also known as the Lame Duck Amendment: It ended a president and vice president’s term on January 20 and Congress on January 3, moved up from March 4. This prevents lame ducks from being lamer ducks, shall we say. Also, office-holders just don’t need as much time to get ready for their service as they did centuries back, I imagine.

A picture from the National Archives of the Joint Resolution ratified as the 20th Amendment. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lame duck has been used of broken-down ships, commercial enterprises, and persons, more generally. The OED also notes a related expression predating its first citation of lame duck: “to come by the lame post (of news),” to be “behind the times” in the 17th century.

Today, I hear lame duck usually characterizing the powerlessness of a president in a final term. But, in an age when being a politician can be like being a professional fundraiser, a lame duck can reassemble that other national bird: the eagle, for a lame-duck president’s wings aren’t clipped by running for re-election. That is, if your opponents aren’t out hunting.

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This week, we lost two greats to cancer: David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Their passing so sudden, the news hit many hard, but cancer, as so many know too well, can be such a creeping foe. In its own small way, the etymology of cancer bears this out.

“Cancer.” Doodle by me.


Cancer spread into English from French and Latin, both taking the forms cancer. Latin’s cancer is ultimately connected to Greek’s καρκίνος (karkinos)As in its root tongues, the word cancer has had several meanings: “sore” or “ulcer,” the constellation Cancer and sign of the Zodiac, and, unifying these, “crab.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest English record of cancer comes in the late 1300s and is astrological, referring to the fourth sign of the Zodiac, representing the constellation Canceror the crab. The sign’s symbol, ♋, is said to depict the claws of a crab.

Hercules, so it goes, crushed a crab while fighting the Hydra. To honor the slain crustacean, Hera, that hater of Hercules, placed the crab among the stars, whose form clusters Cancer’s stars, at least to the ancient imagination.

In the early 1400s, English sees a reference to cancer, meaning “crab,” though the creature is likened to disease, in particular ulcers and sores, such were the early meanings of the word. References to tumors appear by the 1500s at least. It seems to me that something approaching a more modern sense begins to emerge in the late 1600s.

While cancer has a very specific medical meaning today, long has it named a spreading and creeping medical malignancy. And ancient, too, is the crab-like depiction of cancer (or the sorts of sores the word denoted in early healthcare).  As the Barnhart etymology dictionary explains:

The sense of a spreading sore developed, according to the Greek physician Galen, from the resemblance of the swollen veins surrounding the sore to the legs of a crab.

Galen was an influential and physician working in 2nd century CE – and should now have ruined crab legs for you.

The Latin and Greek roots of cancer also cause other English words. Canker is the oldest. It’s cited in early Old English and was associated with ulcers. Via a French form, chancre, especially allied with venereal lesions, comes in the late 1500s. As does carcinoma, which shows its Greek roots (karkinos) more conspicuously. Like carcinogen, a mid-19th century word formed on carcinoma. (Carcinogen, we saw not too long ago, ruined bacon for you.)

As for the deeper origins of cancer and karkinosIndo-Europeanists diagnose *kar-, a root hypothesized to mean “hard” – and indeed related to English’s very hard. These ancient words for crab, so it goes, are named for their hard, outer shell. (This root also produced a Greek word for “rule” and “strength,”  preserved in the suffix -cracy, as in democracy.)

To put it very mildly, cancer is hard. Really effin’ hard. But that hasn’t stopped us from searching for its Hercules. Indeed, in his final State of the Union address this past week, US President Barack Obama announced a mission to find a cure for cancer – a new moonshot. Which is metaphorically apt for our etymological purposes here, for, perhaps somewhere beyond the constellation Cancer, live on Ziggy Stardust and Alexander Dane.

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