Sometimes etymologies just drive home the point perfectly.

Ferguson, Missouri is named for one, William B. Ferguson, who allowed a railroad to go through his land in 1855. A train depot thereafter built there was named for him as part of the deal. The city–and now central station of an urgent debate on police militarization and racial inequality in the United States–grew from there.

This debate–this unrest–has thrust words like protest, curfew, and loot into my etymological spotlight. But perhaps it’s the origin of Ferguson itself that is most illuminating.


Ferguson is a Scottish surname. It’s Gaelic in origin, meaning “son of Fergus.” Fergus (or Fearghus) is a given name that combines two words. The first component, fer, means “man.” The second, gus, means “strength” or “ability.”

Fer has many friends, such as Latin’s vir (“man”), source of English virile and virtue, among others. It lives on, too, in world–and in the first part of werewolf–from its Old English iteration, wer.

At root is the Proto-Indo-European *wi-ro-, meaning, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, “man.” As the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) comments: “The reconstructed word *wi-ro-, a derivative of *the root weiə-, ‘to be vigorous,’ was used especially of men in their capacity as warriors or as slaves. (Slaves were often captured warriors.)”

Gus has also kept good company. We saw it before in disgust. The base is the Proto-Indo-European *geus-, with the curious dual meanings of taste” and “choose.” Choose and choice are descendants, as we saw, down the Germanic line, while the Italic route yielded gusto and gustatory. 

In the case of Fergus, it features the Celtic *gustu-, used in personal names. So, Fergus, the AHD observes, means “having the strength of men,” via Old Irish gus for “strength.”

So, Fergus is literally “man-strength.”  And the question Ferguson, Missouri is asking us is, in many ways, what really constitutes “having the strength of men”?

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comedy & tragedy

Tragos. Doodle by me.
Tragos. Doodle by me.

Comedy & Tragedy

According to Mallory and Adams in The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, there are 24 distinct verbs concerned with speaking in Proto-Indo-European. But if headlines these past weeks have been any measure, we all feel a bit speechless in our great many daughter Indo-European languages.

One such root for speech is *wed-, which Mallory and Adams gloss as “to raise one’s voice.”Oh, “the world may be too much with us; late and soon,” as Wordsworth moaned, but even he had to shout “Great God!” in that seismic volta.

In the Attic region of Ancient Greece, the famed Athenians there formed *wed– into oidos, a “singer” or “minstrel.” Indeed, that Romantic oidos John Keats versified many a great ode.

Some poets and actors of antiquity sang of the comic and were named komoidos. This comes from komos, meaning “a revel” or “merry-making”–or, properly, a “village festival,” according to Liddell and Scott’s seminal Greek dictionary. Latin borrowed the Greek komoidia to make comoedia, and English borrowed much later from French’s Latin-morphed comedie, staging comedy in the 14th century.

Others sang of the tragic, from tragos, a “he-goat.” This delivered tragodia or tragoidia, a “goat-song,” though this etymology is not settled. Mallory and Adams cite eight Proto-Indo-European roots for “goat,” four specifically meaning “he-goat.” Clearly, the goat–as sustenance and symbol–occupied a special, and frequently phallic, place in Indo-European life.

The Dramatic Goat 

So, if “goat,” why goat? Liddell and Scott note that ancient Greek tragedy was originally a “goat song, because in early times a goat was the prize [in a competitive event], or because the actors were clothed in goat-skins.”

Others, including the great Aristotle himself, argue this tragos points to the saturikon, the so-called satyric drama or satyr play, which featured tragic, though also comedic, tropes, motifs, and formulae involving satyrs, mythic creatures sometimes depicted as goat-legged men.

However, as The Oxford Classical Dictionary concludes, “tragoidia probably originally meant the song sung by singers at the sacrifice of a goat (in which the goat also may have been a prize), and has no inherent connection with the satyrs, who anyway were at this period more like horses than goats.”

Tragos traveled a similar path to komos to produce tragedy.

Ode to Odes

Other derivatives of oidos include melody, quite literally a “song-song” in Greek. We also have rhapsodya “stitcher of epic songs,” and parody, featuring a specialized meaning of “mock” for the prefix para-, “beside.” The less common epode, hymnody, monody, and threnody are also from oidos 

If we are to push back against “the pressure of reality,” as another poet, Wallace Stevens, put it, the ancient root oidos teaches us that we must not be silent but must raise our voices. In song, whether comic or tragic, through language, through imagination, we can create order out of the otherwise insensible and senseless chaos.

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Buckaroo Jenner. Doodle by me.


For every deadly virus, we hope there is a vaccine. The word, it turns out, milks a very old root.

In 1796, British scientist Edward Jenner is credited with inventing the first vaccine by inoculating patients with cowpox in order to protect against smallpox.

That’s the nice way of putting it.

The story is more like this: Jenner, following in the efforts of many before him, took pus from a cowpox sore in a milkmaid and injected it into an eight-year-old. Then, Jenner injected the boy with some smallpox and he didn’t die.

OK, that’s a bit glib. Jenner, considered the father of immunology, was a much more methodical about it all–and put in place one hell of a protective measure to save countless, truly countless lives.

Two years later in 1798, he published a bookletAn Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire and Known by the Name of Cow Pox.

Jenner is said to have called this procedure vaccination. See, variolae vaccinae means “smallpox of the cow,” with vaccinae literally meaning “of the cow.” The Latin vaccinus is an adjective meaning “from the cow,” formed on vacca, meaning “cow.”


The Latin vacca shares a cognate in the Sanskrit vasa, also meaning “cow.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Sanskrit and Latin back to *wokeh-, one of three roots linguists have reconstructed for “cow.” (More on that soon.)

To the famed Frenchman Louis Pasteur, a cow was cache. He helped generalize vaccine (via French vaccin) for its uses beyond cowpox.

You may quickly recognize the Spanish for “cow,” vaca and vaquero, a “cowboy” or “herdsman.”  But buckaroo? Yep, this is how we Anglicized vaquero.

If we’re to remember Jenner, what better way than as the buckaroo of vaccines? It works on so many levels.

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For so many of us, a virus might spell the end of our computer–not our lives, as we are witnessing so tragically in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Sometimes a viral video is precisely what is needed to distract us from today’s feverish crises. Too often, though, a viral video may be distracting us from them.

But etymologies, I often feel, can bring us back down to earth–and quite literally so in the case of virus.


Originally referring to the “venom” of a snake in Middle English, virus is a Latin word, where it also named “venom” as well as “slime,” “stench,” and “poison.” An adjective form of the word, virulentus, or “poisonous,” provides us virulent. The pathological meaning of virus is attested in the first of the 18th century.

Etymologists like Eric Partridge offer an earlier Latin meaning of the “sap” or “juice” of a plant, especially a poisonous one. Sap can indeed be sticky, and hence the Romans spoke of viscum, “mistletoe,” whose berries yielded a sticky juice, which was spread on branches to trap birds–so-called “birdlime.”

Romantic, huh? The mistletoe tradition calls back Indo-European beliefs in the virility associated with the evergreen flora. Ironically, the tree’s berries are themselves virulent–well, poisonous–to humans. In its human designs, it spelled the end of many birds, many of which were actually depended on the plant for food.

From this viscum English has viscid and viscous.


As the American Heritage Dictionary diagnoses it, the Latin virus and its related forms are rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *weis-, which meant “to flow.” Other scholars, including Ernest Klein, specify the virulence of this particular effluvium as “to melt away” or “rot.”

Other derivatives of this *weis– may include a secondary meaning of ooze, referring to a “mire” or “mud,” from the Old English wase, recognizable certainly not in shape but in sound.

The other ooze–as in a grilled-cheese sandwich or pus–is traced to the Old English wos, meaning, perhaps like virus, “sap” or “juice.” Due to the close similarities in sound and sense, some etymologists take these words back to the same root meaning “wet.” The Ninja Turtles, though, certainly didn’t help uncover the etymological secret of ooze. 

From *weis-, Walter Skeat argues for wizen, “to shrivel” or “dry up,” living on in wizened. This probably from a different root meaning “to wither,” however.

Yet others propose weasel and bison, as well as the bison’s European cousin, the wisent. Apparently, this is from the fact that, as Jordan Shipley puts it, “some animals…smell, especially at rutting time.” Some cry foul at these derivations, though a Sanskrit cognate in meaning “musty-smelling” is interesting.

The Greek ios, Sanskrit visam, and Old Irish fi–all meaning “poison”–also derive from *weis-. 

Vulnerable Language

Virus indeed has an ancient root, but many of its uses are recent.

The Ebola virus was only first observed in 1976 in the Ebola river valley in the Congo. And David Gerrold is credited with one of the first uses of a computer virus in his 1972 science fiction novel When HARLIE Was One.

In today’s hectic information age, it’s easy to think that these kinds of things have been just always been around, so lodged these words are in our lexicon and consciousness.

But, more important, in our day-to-day motions, as we observe a crisis from a distance and try to understand an out-of-the-ordinary disease, it’s also easy to forget how truly devastating something like the Ebola virus. In its historical roots in senses of “stench,” “slime,” and “poison,” perhaps its etymology can make virus less abstract–and far more of the earth, our language reminders of vulnerability.

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rockets & missiles

Rockets and missiles have been too much with us.  Where do the words come from?


Originally referring to “fireworks,” rocket derives from the Italian rocchetto–passing into English from the French roquette in the early 1600s–where it referred to something far gentler and more productive: a “bobbin,” a spool around which yarn is wound. The word is a diminutive form of rocca, a “distaff,” a textile technology similar to the “bobbin” in that it is a staff for holding flax, wool, or other fibers for spinning. The propulsive rocket, then, is named from its resemblance to the cylindrical shape of the distaff.

“Distaff” by Pearson Scott Foresman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

That puts a whole new spin on yarn bombs, doesn’t it?

Mostly likely, the Italian rocchetto was a loanword from a Germanic source. Old Norse has rokkr and Old High German rocko, giving English rock (not that rock, but like rocket, a “distaff”), whose threads leads us back to a Germanic root, *rukkon. Proto-Indo-Europeanists posit a broader Germanic and Celtic root in *ruk-, meaning “fabric” and “spun yarn.”

I think we should put seamstresses and tailors in charge of geopolitics.

Related are ratchet (from the French racquet, “head of a lance”) as well as rocambole (a kind of garlic, shallot, or leek, via the Germanic rocko) and rochet (from French, naming the white “over-tunic” for priests’  choir dress). Rochet‘s clerical associations lead us to the frock, whose unknown origin a few have placed in *ruk-. 


Now principally a noun, missile came into English in the mid-1600s as an adjective, meaning “capable of being thrown.” It was launched ultimately from Latin, missilis, signifying much the same, from the past participial form–missus–of the verb “to send,” mittere. It could also mean “let go” or “throw.”

The derivatives of this verb in English are plentiful. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots lists the following (and keep in mind most have additional, derivational forms, like commission or unremitting):

Mass, mess, missile, mission, missive, admit, Christmas, commit, compromise, demit, dismiss, emit, intermit, intromit, Lammas, Martinmas, Michaelmas, omit, permit, premise, pretermit, promise, remit, submit, surmise, transmit.

Get the message? That’s another.

We’re not really sure where mittere comes from. An older form may be smitterewhich has compelled a few etymologists to propose a Proto-Indo-European root, *(s)meit-, “to throw” or “send.”

In his work, Jordan Shipley saw this *(s)meit- also as the source of smite and smegma and immaculate, as the origin of mittere and commented:

The first sense seems to have been ‘to throw,’ as cow dung at a wall, to dry for fuel. I have seen freight cars at a siding in India with their south sides completely  covered with spats of drying dung.

There’s no conclusive evidence for Shipley’s etymology, but, hey, I’ll take yarn bombs and flung dung over rockets and missiles any day.

Except for space rockets. I think we’re all secretly–hell, openly–space nerds.

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amnesty & coyote

Two other words central to the language of the US border crisis debate are amnesty and coyote. Regardless of your feelings about the implications of their meanings, they certainly make me continually appreciate the diversity of our “immigrant” English tongue.


Amnesty–a government’s official forgiveness of offenses–came into English in the late 1500s, French via Latin, from the Greek, amnestos, literally, “not remembering” or “forgetfulness (of wrongs),” as Skeat glosses it. The Greek joins a– (a negation prefix, or not”) and mnestos, “remembrance.” You might recognize these elements in amnesia. Mnestos, whose core element you also see in mnemonic, ultimately comes from a Proto-Indo-European root, *men, or “mind” and “thought,” which deserves its own entry.


An Aztec language is making its first appearance on the Mashed Radish. In the mid 1700s, English borrowed coyote (which, in immigration discourse, refers to a human smuggler, if you aren’t familiar) from Mexican Spanish, which in turn borrowed it from an indigenous Mesoamerican language in the Uto-Aztecan language family, Nahuatl, which still claims 1.5 million speakers to this day. (Talk about immigration, er, colonization, right?)

In Nahuatl, coyotl referred to the “coyote,” or the “prairie dog” as some will gloss it. Some Mesoamerican scholars will cite coyotl meanings of “trickster,” given the animal’s place in indigenous mythology, but I imagine that this meaning would have come along secondarily.  Others cite a yellowish color and perhaps the animal’s name indeed came after a salient shade of its pelt. Coyotes are often solitary creatures,  but coyote is not a solitary loanword, as we’ll see in an upcoming discussion of other Aztec borrowings.

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Last post, we looked into the origins of border, which turned up many planks and ships. But what of immigration?


The homeland of immigration is the Latin verb, migrare, “to move” or “change residence.” Immigrate features the prefix im-, a form of in-, “into,” assimilated to the root’s m to ease pronunciation. Immigrate‘s counterpart, emigrate, uses e-, “out of,” to make its meaning.

The Latin migrare has a yet more distant motherland in that rich earth of Proto-Indo-European’s *mei-. According the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *mei– meant “to change, go, move; with derivatives referring to the exchange of goods and services within a society as regulated by custom or law.” In the case of immigration, *mei– took some extra bags with it to become, essentially, *meigw-.

We’ve actually encountered *mei before on the Mashed Radish in the surprising case of mad. As the American Heritage Dictionary will have you recall, Old English is hypothesized to have had *gemædan, “to make insane or foolish,” from the Germanic *ga-maid-az, “changed (for the worse)” or “abnormal.” This is then traced back to *mei-.

Immigrant Tongue

In many ways, English is an immigrant language. It both welcomes other languages and, to put it mildly, welcomes itself in others.

At its core, English is a Germanic language, but over half of its vocabulary is from Latin, much of it directly from the French, particularly during the Middle English period, which Deputy Chief Editor of the OED studies in his Borrowed Words.  But everything from Arabic to Celtic to Navajo to Spanish to Yiddish have made their great presences known on our magnificent bastard tongue, as linguist John McWhorter delightfully calls it in his work of the same name.

But we can’t really speak about English as much as we should speak about World English. According to Ethnologue, over 330 million people speak English as their first language, while over 500 million speak it as a second language, adapting it in wondrous and beautiful ways to fit their cultural and conceptual needs.  There isn’t English: there are Englishes.

Immigration may be an apt metaphor for English, but so it is for language itself. Yes, the story of English is a wildly successful one, but that is due to historical power and patterns, not inherent superiority. (Ask French and Latin about their ultimate fortunes as seemingly irrevocable global languages.) English is adapted and adaptable not because of its Englishness, but because of its language-ness. Language is adapted and adaptable because human purposes are. Because the human experience is a messy one, a busy one, a complex one, a changing one, whether battling the elements on an ancient savannah or battling traffic on the commute to work. We are in constant contact with others, with environments, with concepts, and our language acts as mediator, as migrator, if you will. And thus, in so many ways, the aptest metaphor is the root of immigration–*mei-, change, particularly in that sense of exchange.

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“Border crisis” may be the noun phrase of the American moment. Not too long ago, I looked at the origin of crisis in a different border battle. But the word border itself may be having something of its own etymological crisis.


Border, attested in the geographic sense in the 1500s, is first documented in the English of the 14th century, traced to the French bordure, referring to an “edge,” frequently of a shield. Indeed, bordure still refers to the edge of shield in heraldry. The French term is widespread in the Romance languages and may be from a Romanic root *bordus.

This is where the borders get blurred, because border may abut the same origin as board.

Board is from the Old English bord. This bord had two meanings: 1) a plank, or a material board; and 2) the side of a ship, an edge. These words and their origins get confusing and confused. They may ultimately be the same word; they may not. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology casts doubt on a common origin, while the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds them in the same source.

From the first, we get things like cardboard and cupboardTables were made of boards, where food was eaten, hence room and board. Important people gather around tables for important meetings, and thus we have school board and the boardroom. Thus, board meaning table, food, or a certain collection of people functions as form of metonymy, which has graced us with its presence quite a bit lately (cf. gavel and sekw).  Seaboard retains the meaning of “edge,” and I couldn’t have typed this without my keyboard.

“Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard / To give the poor dog a bone”: from the Sarah Catherine Martin’s “The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog,” first published in England in 1805. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This board may have built bordello, from the French bordel, a “small hut,” from borde, a kind of wooden “hovel.” The word, obviously, came to refer to a brothel.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology takes this board back to a Germanic base, *borðam, formed on *breð-. The root meaning is glossed as “board.”

From the second board, we get things like starboard and to board a planeStarboard has nothing to do with stars, as the first element is related to the word steerLarboard had to walk the plank for port; its first element may be connected to load. This board goes back to a Germanic base, *borðaz.

This Germanic *borðaz may have taken up as the Romanic *bordus we saw before. French developed bord (also, bort) for “side of a ship” but also as “plank,” confusing the already confused Old English bord, which could mean “side of a ship” and “plank.” Eesh. This is partly why it’s hard to sort the boards out.


One side of the border are those, like the Oxford scholars, who keep the boards separate. On the other, we have scholars of the American Heritage Dictionary who join them way back in the Proto-Indo-European *bherdh-, “to cut.”

Both board and border, as American Heritage surveys the territory, were descended from the root’s Germanic heir, *burdam, which is proposed to mean “plank,” “board,” and “table,” returning us right back to our drawing board.  Planks, boards, tables, ship sides–all cut from wood. Edges, borders–the cutting off point, so to speak.

Board may play its games, but bordersas well see all too often, whether in North American, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, are certainly no board games.

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From Wimbledon to SCOTUS, court has been busy this past week. And while both courts are arguably the most prestigious on their respective, well, courts, the word court is humbler in its origin.


The English court comes from the Old French, cort, which was naming royal residences by the 12th century. It, in turn, originates in the Latin cohors, contracted to cors. This cohors had a few meanings, including a “retinue,” or, much more specifically, a military unit of 600 men, equivalent to 3 maniples, 6 centuries, or a tenth of a legion, if you care for martial mathematics.

This meaning survives in the English cohort, now often used in educational contexts.

Monarchy and might? Still pretty prestigious.

 But how about “barnyard” and other areas where livestock were kept? For, at the heart of court is “yard.” The Proto-Indo-European root is *gher-, a fertile base meaning “to grasp” or “enclose.”

In Latin’s cohors, we see *gher in the word’s second element: co-, “together,” and hors, from hortusmeaning “garden.” Perhaps you can see the connection to horticulture. So, cohors literally denotes “something enclosed together,” yielding both an enclosure, like a “barnyard,” or people grouped together, like a “retinue” of soldiers.

The French language of the court gave English: courtesy, originally the kind of behavior expected at the court; curtsy, originally a gender-neutral display of respect at court formed off a variant of courtesycourtierfrom a verb “to frequent a court”; courtesan, via the Italian cortigiana, a “woman of the court,” though also “prostitute”; and to court, from an expression for paying homage at a court. And the name Curtis is essentially courteous. Courtney, however, is unrelated.

Cortege, from the Italianand curtilage are yet more derivatives.

In the Middle Ages, courts took on their judicial senses; in the Renaissance, their sports, originally referring to tennis.


As I mentioned, *gher was, aptly, a productive root.

In the Germanic branch of Indo-European, *gher yielded English’s girdgirt, and girthas well as garden and the later component of kindergartenAsgard, mythological home to some very powerful Norse gods, would be nothing without it. (We saw the origin of the first part, As-, in the post on Oscar.)

In the Balto-Slavic branch, *gher has helped to name cities, as we see in the Russian Novogorod and Leningrad or the Serbo-Croatian Belgrade.

Old English had geard, which became and meant “yard” (no relation to the measurement), as well as figures in the latter half of orchardHangar, as in an airplane hangar, may be cognate, too.

Speaking of latter halves, yard keeps busy in English compounds. More specifically, as the so-called “head” of many compounds:

We have backyards and dooryardsscrapyards and junkyardslumberyards and shipyards, farmyards and stockyards. We have schoolyards. We have graveyards. We have vineyards, featuring some real shortening of vowelsWe also have common noun phrases like front yard and railroad yard

And my personal favorite? Courtyard. Which,  if you will, is an etymological pleonasm–as *gher-gher, a redundant expression.

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Independence Day celebrates the United States’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain, in case you’ve never heard of this country called the United States) on July 4, 1776.  Celebrants mark the day with parades, barbecues, fireworks–and, if you’re me, etymologies, because nothing says “stars and stripes” quite like a good word origin.

I, for one, am going to declare independence independent from all its morphological bunting. That is, if we strip down to its root, what do we find?

First, here, in- means “not,” so we are left with “not dependence.” Then we have -ence, a suffix that forms abstract nouns from verbs, leaving us with “the condition of being dependent.” It varies with the French -ance (Latin, –entia), with French shifting Latin’s e to an a, though the endings are doing the same work. English has a fanfare of words like appearance in some cases and word like existence in other cases, all depending, shall I say, on which words were altered back from the French spelling to conform with the Latin spelling in Modern English’s early days.

So, now we are looking at depend, which, again, is Latin via French. The Latin dependēre, literally meaning “to hang down,” with de- denoting “down.”  At this point, we have Latin’s pendēre, “to hang,” cousin to pendere, “to weigh,” depending on the length of the vowel. (The bar above the e in pendēre is called a “macron,” signifying, essentially, a long vowel.)

The root, then, is pendwhich is hanging down from the Proto-Indo-European (s)pen-, “to draw, stretch, spin.” Down Germanic lines, the root gave English spin and span and a whole host of related words. Down the Italic line, with some vowel changes and some suffixes to the root, we get words like pound and ponderous. Of course, Latin’s very own pend- (in both forms) produces everything from appendix to compensate to pensive to stipend. Indeed, metaphor is having an impressive fireworks display with all that it has done with this root.

And then we have spangle, as in that star-spangled banner, the American flag and title of the US national anthem. (I could see the word becoming fossilized in the phrase; it’s certainly the only context I ever hear or see it in.)


The star-spangled banner said to have inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem and, later, US national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Anyways, spangled is “decorated with spangles,” little pieces of glittering metal or the decorative like. The word most likely comes from the Middle Dutch spange, a “clasp” or “brooch,” with the notion of ornament as the connecting sense. Etymologists aren’t sure, but this spange may point back to a Germanic base, *spango-, a derivative of (s)pen-.

For my compatriots, Happy Fourth. But we all know what we’re really celebrating is that the holiday falls on a Friday. And nothing says “America” like a 3-day weekend.