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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A more modern pooter

Some time ago, I created this blog entry on pooters, and later, I also did a Youtube clip for the National Library of Australia. That showed in careful detail, how to make a pooter.

Unfortunately, both of those are about the design that you can see on the right,  which uses a 35 mm film canister, and those canisters are now hard to get.

Some little while back, I sat down and considered the pooter (also called an inhalator). It has a tube that insects and other small animals are drawn up in, a chamber they are held in, and another tube, with a filter, which the user sucks in on.

Don't forget the filter!

And so, the design above was born.

Making it is easy: here on the right is what you need. The only thing missing is the drill, because the bottle lid was already drilled when I took this shot.  It is essential that you do the drilling on a piece of scrap board, not on the best dining table, and adult supervision is important.

By the way, you can click on most of these pics to embiggen them.

Now here is a set of shots that show the process of assembly:

The thing that is missing here is how I tape a small square of cloth over the end of the sucking tube (the longer one), holding it in place with wrapped-around sticky tape.

Just one thing: the plastic tubing: you can buy it from an aquarium shop, but I got my last lot from Bunnings (if you are outside Oz, that's a large hardware chain.) Oh, and you need a drill that makes a hole that is a tight fit.

All you have to do after that is put the cap on, and start catching animals.

Now here, just to finish up, are a couple of shots that I took after a praying mantis laid eggs near my screen door. The eggs hatched, and I scooped them up for these photos before dispersing them. You need to do that, because otherwise, they will eat each other!  You will notice that in the first shot, while it was recent, I used the older-style pooter.  I have lots of them, you see, because I have been making them since about 1992.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The nature of a scuff

We sometimes hear people speaking of seizing somebody or something by the scruff of the neck, but if we want to be fully correct, the word is 'scuff'.

The origin of this is obscure, but 'scruff' can also be used for scurf, through a change called 'metathesis', which is simply a fancier way of saying 'transposition'. And since scurf can be a thin coating or layer on something, perhaps this is why we speak of the scruff of the neck.

Scuff is also what we do when we rub our feet, and this is a satisfying word, because it is also onomatopoeic, imitating the sound we make as we scuff our way along, but once again, the derivation appears to be from 'scurf' as our feet lightly graze the surface they walk over. If something has been given a rough treatment, we may say that the surface is scuffed, but there is a cure for a floor that is scuffed: it needs to be buffed.

The footwear scuffs are rather unsightly items on the feet. Once, the word meant a pair of soles with just a strap across the front of the foot, but more recently, it became one of the names given to items variously called jandals, thongs, flip-flops, zoris or scuffs, in various parts of the Pacific, while in Australia, they are sometimes known jokingly as Japanese gumboots.

For formal occasions, Australians decorate their footwear with barnacles.
The clearest derivation is that for the zori, since this is just the Japanese name for the rubber-soled, rubber-strapped footwear, while 'flip-flop' and 'scuff' refer to the noises these items make as somebody walks in them. The name 'jandal' is applied in a few places, New Zealand among them, and it is short for 'Japanese sandal'.

The word 'thong' is one of those delightful terms that reminds us of how we are separated by a common language. Americans, and much of the rest of the English-speaking world, regard a thong as a skimpy item of apparel, either for underwear, or as beach attire. When they hear of Australians wearing thongs on their feet, images of broken elastic erupt unbidden in non-Australian minds.

If those same people were to hear of the Australian traditions of thong-throwing (like the discus, but less damaging if it goes into the crowd) or thong-clapping, they would be totally non-plussed, but these thongs are just flip-flops, named by the rubber thong that holds the rubber sole on the feet. Thong-throwing, by the way, is just one of many Australian sports which involve throwing everyday items such as bricks, rolling pins, beer kegs, bags of wheat, mallee roots, gum boots (Wellington boots) or anything else which attracts their fancy or comes to hand.

About the only thing Australians don't use for distance throwing contests is the boomerang. They could do so if they wished, since there is a non-returning form of this device, but they don't, and neither does a well-aimed thong return, except when it is directed into a headwind.

Thongs are convenient for walking to the beach, though most Australians will remove them when they reach the sand, to avoid flicking sand at the backs of their legs and at those they pass. Most Australian children learn the art of wading through the shallows with thongs, raising the toes as they move their feet, so the sole is held on.

Whatever you call them, this scuff form of footwear is less than suitable for the workplace, as they leave the feet vulnerable to heavy weights, sharp objects, and hot and corrosive liquids. So in a country where the footwear is highly popular, and workers need to be reminded of the dangers of wearing a simple open rubber sole in the workplace, the Australian name is a felicitous one, lending itself to posters with the caption "the thong is ended but the malady lingers on".

Saturday, 19 September 2015


Sorry, I have been rather busy, finishing a couple of books, so I can sell them. I'm back, now...

Charcoal is almost pure carbon, a name we get from the Latin name for this substance, carbo. Originally, the English knew only one sort of coal, and that was the stuff made from wood. In Old English, a col was a piece of carbon glowing but not flaming, making the expression 'glowing coals' tautologous. By the time people spoke Middle English, this had become charcoal, but nobody seems to know why the prefix was added.

One theory takes us to the Old English cerr, or cerran, meaning to turn, which became 'char' in more modern English, the idea being that charcoal was wood turned into coal, but this seems to have little backing. Oddly enough, 'char' still exists in two quite different forms: as a word that survived in America, to spread over the world.

Daily 'chores' are ordinary tasks that turn up again, day by day and must be done, and come from cerr. So does the charwoman ('charlady' if you have pretensions to gentility), who does the chores, if you can afford to pay somebody to do them.

Charcoal was an excellent fuel for weight, and unlike timber, it came in small manageable lumps. It was made in wooded areas by independent craftsmen, who were always individualists, if we are to believe Aristophanes, who features elderly charcoal burners as the chorus in his comedy The Acharnians, men who made what the Greeks called anthrax (which gives us 'anthracite'), just a few kilometres out of Athens at Acharnae, where they made charcoal from holm-oak (ilex) and maple. 

Once they had made it, the charcoal could be shovelled into sacks and carried from place to place.
Until coke was made from mineral coal, and the right ways of smelting metals and making glass with coke were found, all metal and glass needed charcoal for fuel, so charcoal burners, the blackened individualists, were always a necessary part of pre-industrial society. 

The verb 'to char' is a more recent usage, and though many houses were left as charred ruins in the Great Fire of London, it would be another 13 years before anybody would use that term in print.

Charcoal burners, 1879, Wikimedia
In Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare has Hostess Quickly of the Boar's Head in Eastcheap telling Falstaff "Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire . . ."   

This sort of fire must have been to Quickly's taste, for we find her speaking again of one in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in the only other reference in Shakespeare to this form of coal.

By Shakespeare's heyday, Spain's Armada had failed, but there was still a threat, and the oak tree, long used to make charcoal, suddenly took on a new value as a material for making ships. The average ship consumed a thousand trees, and new laws were brought in to ensure that good timber was not wasted on fuel. Now sea coal became the fuel of choice.

The coal of Britain had been mined as surface deposits from the time of Roman Britain, and used for domestic heating, but now it was mined in a more systematic way, and carried by ship to London, where it was known as sea coal, to distinguish it from the more normal coal, and it became more common. 

In fact, there are records of complaints of the pollution and smoke caused by sea coal in Britain as early as the 13th century, and in the 17th century, the diarist John Evelyn wrote of a 'hellish and dismall cloud of sea-coal' over London.

In the 19th century, a far cleaner form of heating from coal, in the form of coal gas, formed by heating coal to make a gas with enough carbon monoxide in it to make it an effective killer, and certainly less painful than Porcia's way of dying: tradition says that the wife of Brutus, committed suicide, after her friends had removed all other means of killing herself, by swallowing live coals.

Coal gas production also gave us coal tars, from which we got artificial dyes, an understanding of organic chemistry that led to plastics and the biological stains that reveal the intimate structures of cells. The switch from charcoal to coke, to allow more fighting ships changed our lives more than anybody could have guessed, but we lost the independent charcoal burners.

But I won't discuss the Carbonari here, because that's another story...

Sunday, 6 September 2015

On being at loggerheads

These days, we speak of this term in two main ways: either in the expression 'at loggerheads', or in the names of animals such as loggerhead turtles, often referred to in the plural as just 'loggerheads', but in the past, it seems to have been mainly a term of abuse.

In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal is asked where he has been, and he answers "With three or four loggerheads amongst three or fourscore hogsheads." In Love's Labours Lost, Berowne calls Costard "you whoreson loggerhead", while in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio calls his servants "you logger-headed and unpolish'd grooms".

Lanius ludovicianus. Wikimedia

Centaurea pullata. Wikimedia
At sea, though, a loggerhead need not necessarily be a blockhead or a dolt. A whaleboat typically had a stout post at the stern, to which a line could be attached, while on land, the loggerhead can also be an American shrike of the genus Lanius, or a plant of the genus Centaurea, but most commonly, it meant somebody of seriously impaired mental agility.

In the case of the loggerhead turtle, the name just indicates that the turtle has a disproportionately large head, and since these animals are not renowned for their fighting skills, it seems unlikely that our modern use 'at loggerheads' came from there. In fact, about the only renown these animals seem to have today is a peaceful one which came to light, shortly after the turtle, Caretta caretta, gained legal standing, along with two other species of turtle.

The three chelonians were named as lead parties, and complained, through their attorneys, about people driving on beaches at night. Perhaps they might have been said to be at loggerheads with the four-wheel drivers, but all was settled amicably in the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. A few months later, researchers revealed that the turtles contribute to the maintenance of Florida beaches, because the eggs laid by the turtles leave a valuable supply of nutrients in the sand, and these nutrients support the plants which bind the sand together, maintaining the coastline.

At one time, there was a common English inn sign which read "We three blockheads be", while featuring just two wooden heads. The idea, of course, was to wait for somebody to come along and ask where the third blockhead was, and then tell such questioners that they fitted the role well. That, of course, might lead to feelings of fury and anger, but is that where the expression 'at loggerheads' came from?

It seems not, for there is another type of loggerhead, explained in the OED as an iron instrument with a long handle, and a ball or bulb on the end, which was used for melting pitch, and used as far back as 1687. This is also claimed by people with little experience of warfare at sea under sail to be a device used for pouring hot pitch on the enemy at close quarters.

This might possibly work on a mill-pond, except that part of clearing for action on a wooden sailing ship involved putting out all fires, so the pitch would soon go cold and solid. No, the loggerhead was never used to assail an enemy on another ship.

The long iron handle of the loggerhead allowed it to be placed in a fire or furnace, operated in a safe part of a ship, and the bulb would store enough heat to allow the furnace's heat to pitch in some other part of the ship, without any risk of fire, allowing pitch to be melted onto ropes to preserve them, and timbers to seal them against leaks, and the loggerhead, with a long handle and a knob on the end, was a common item on a ship.

Friction between sailors could often lead to hard feelings, and a loggerhead would make a useful makeshift mace, and it seems likely that it is this meaning, rather than any other, which gives us the term we sometimes use to describe strained personal relations.