Stupid Tuesday questions, Don Alverzo edition

When I was in high school, I was part of a chemistry demonstration team.  We would go to the local elementary schools and do fun, whiz-bang kinds of “experiments” for the students to get them interested in science and create the impression that chemistry was exciting.  One of mine was swirling a few clear solutions in a glass bottle, which then (as if by magic!  but really it’s science!) suddenly gets coated with a mirror-like silver lining.  I was also the MC for our little shows.

I’m just going to pause for a moment to let you sit in awe of how cool I must have been in high school.

Anyhow, the kids always seemed to think that the shows were a gas, and so the chemistry teacher who started the whole program signed us up to put one on at the state teacher’s convention a few hours away from my hometown.  And so we went and put on our little show, which was (if memory serves) well-received, and then we drove home.  It was a fun day.

On the trip back, one of my fellow nerds taught me a memory game.  It consists of a numbered sequence of items, increasing in length and silliness as the numbers get higher.

It starts:

One hen, two ducks, three squawking geese…

And ends with:

Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who haul stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time.

I am really good at memory games, and I had the whole thing memorized perfectly in short order.  (See above re: my coolness.)

Fast forward to the present.  The Better Half and I like to take walks with the kiddos, and we took a particularly long one the other day.  He heard me muttering to myself as we went along (a habit of mine, I’m afraid), and asked what I was muttering about.  Turns out the memory game described above had popped into my head, and I was running through it to see if I could still remember the whole thing.  Which I could, and promptly taught to the Better Half.

However, I was curious as to where it came from in the first place.  Voilà, the iPhone.  A few scant seconds after typing “One hen, two ducks” into the search bar, I learned that the whole thing is called the “Announcer’s test.”  Apparently it originated as a cold reading test of diction for prospective radio talent, and was popularized by Jerry Lewis.  The version I remembered is almost exactly the same as what I found on Wikipedia.

And there it was, the origins of this little artifact that I’ve carried around in my brain for twenty years.

So that’s this week’s Question — are there any little bits of varia that you’ve picked up in your life that you don’t (or didn’t) know where they came from or what they mean?  Any snippets or songs or symbols?  If so, did you ever discover where they came from?

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65 thoughts on “Stupid Tuesday questions, Don Alverzo edition

  1. Ohh tough question.

    There are some actor tongue twisters that were originally Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics and it took me a while to learn this because of my dislike of all-things light opera.

    The one actors used to say in undergrad was “To sit in solemn silence….” from the Mikado.

    I don’t know if this counts but the Internet lets me know about pop culture without really watching it. At least in a very rough sense. Every Monday, my internet sites like the Atlantic or my facebook feed is filled with recaps and discussions and observations on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Girls, and other upper-middle class urban “quality” TV shows. So I’m sure there are pop culture quotes I know but do not know the exact source or know the source and have never seen it. “I’m just a dude playing a dude” from Tropic Thunder comes to mind.

    I am working on a theory about why we seem to live in an age of super-pop culture and I don’t completely like it. The internet seems to work against high-culture because so much of it is live and local. The internet means a national or international audience and this means a national or international culture stuff to talk about. So far this is TV. Movies open at different times around the nation and world (especially non-blockbusters) but TV is always on at the same time.

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  2. Basically there are a lot of really popular movies that I have no interest in seeing like Office Space, anything by Adam Sandler, many special effects filled blockbusters, torture porn movies, etc.

    However these movies are very popular and it seems that the current culture considers it “witty” to repeat key quotations and scenes from the movies in everyday conversation. So I know about quotes like “Case of the Mondays”, “O-face”, etc.

    Meme culture also gives me more knowledge about popular culture than I would normally have.

    Now if anyone wants to discuss the French New Wave I will be over here.

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    • I get you on Adam Sandler, though I think you would like Funny People. It’s actually kind of a heady movie and I think it would be up your alley. Sandler trades on his reputation as a childish funny man to further the plot about a dying comedian trying to get his affairs in order. I’m not a fan of Sandler, but I liked that movie (in part because of the digs that Sandler takes at himself, to be honest).

      Office Space is more than pop culture. People like to quote the goofier portions and one-liners, but it’s actually culturally significant. It is popular precisely because it *spoke* to people.

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      • I don’t know about anybody else, but Office Space *nailed* that environment for me. I think our office had the same cubicle dividers, and I definitely recognized the phone on Peter’s desk. I also had a coveted stapler (it wasn’t red, but it was one of those industrial-type ones that will staple through ANYTHING. It had pride of place on my desk, and my office mates often stopped by to borrow it).

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      • I’ve largely avoided those kind of work environments so far in my life. *Knocks on wood.

        This is partially because I tried for an artistic career for most of my twenties and my jobs ended up being for decidedly less big places or very short term. I would work as a freelance proofreader and be put in a conference room for jobs. I worked for a very small publishing company (I was employee three of three), and then as an independent supervisor at a non-profit.

        My freelance legal work has also given me a lot of autonomy. Even when I worked down at a firm, I was on a support staff floor and just did my work without heavy supervision. Now I work at home.

        Perhaps I will learn about the Office Space type of environment or perhaps not. My parents seem to think not. We had a conversation on Sunday night and they generally think I am too interesting to ever make it past a narrow-cast hiring person.

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      • This is not to say that my entire work career has been rosy and fun but I’ve had different stresses and issues.

        Bad theatre working experiences are very different than cubicle life. Working at the non-profit involved dealing with very institutionalized bad blood between aging leftists who had a schismatic split in the early 1970s and never recovered. It was also a very good example of how low-stakes can equal very high tensions because it is all they had. They were fighting for control of a community-supported radio station that was hip and cool and subversive and relevant in the 1960s but by the Aughts had become irrelevant with an audience of usually not wealthy and aging radicals. People who never left the 1960s.

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      • Kim,

        I don’t regret spending most of my 20s trying to be a theatre director and dramaturg. I like the fact that I got my MFA.

        I do think it makes me suspect in the eyes of many hiring managers/HR types because they are narrow cast on more typically striving types who did very practical things from Day One. My classmates with traditional law firm jobs (save one or two) tended to be more mainstream types. Practical major, maybe a few years of experience as a paralegal or other office/corporate job, then law school.

        They didn’t go and teach English in Japan for a year because why not, they certainly did not get MFAs or spend time interning at numerous theatres.

        I don’t know how they react towards seeing the fact that I was a drama major as an undergrad or have an MFA but I know most people seem to think I am very bold and probably kind of odd for trying. When I tell people I majored in drama, it always produces surprised reactions

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      • NewDealer,
        I think your idea of what HR is looking for, in places like Office Space (haven’t seen da show), might be a little different than what I’ve understood.

        I’ve known people who got into staplewars (and other nonsense).
        I’ve had people boast about looking at p0rn during work hours.
        My friends… oh, boy, what haven’t they seen?
        Did I mention the time someone evacuated an entire building because a goldfish died?
        Or the guy who tar and feathered the servers… then set the sprinklers off?

        I know what types of bosses won’t hire me.
        I’m female, and I do code, and I don’t take guff.

        But I’m working in a cube right now.

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      • Will,

        Law is basically office work but of a more prestigious nature. I thought the whole point of Office Space was that it showed office life for people much lower on the totem poll. Most lawyers at most firms have their own offices (at least the firms I have been to). There is a certain amount of respect that is given to lawyers as well by other lawyers, law is a guild more than a job. At least in my experience. I cant quite put it in words but the few scenes I’ve seen from Office Space seem like they cover people who never thought of career and passion going hand in hand.

        We have had this discussion before on this list and I’ve seen it on other places on the Internet. But there is a smallish percentage/group of people, largely from the upper-middle class, who expect personal satisfaction from their work. These people roughly translate to the upper-middle professional class, academics, artists and creative industry workers, and skilled tradesmen.

        The exception being people who do temp doc jobs that are basically in warehouses. A lot of people do this work nowadays.

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  3. I find that a lot of people are surprised to learn that lots of common phrases like “nothing new under the sun” come from the Bible, particularly the KJV. Same goes with a lot of Shakespere. I know my Bible and Shakespere so I’m not surprised but a lot of people are.

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    • In a creative writing class I had in college, I wrote a short story from Samson’s POV (well…you know what I mean).

      I had to explain to a few people what I was going for – I thought it was a well-known myth, equivalent to say Hercules; or like if you call someone a “Judas” or a “Jezebel” they know what that means. Just the phrase “Samson and Delilah” seemed to me to refer to an archetypal relationship. But many had no clue.

      It wasn’t a matter of it not being all that good a story (though it probably wasn’t all that good), but many people just have no background in the classics, at all.

      Whatever the other flaws of my private school education, they did cover Greek and Latin roots, as well as the KJV Bible (obviously), without which a lot of Western culture doesn’t make sense.

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      • Glyph,

        A lot of people are impressed by my cultural knowledge and such. I once was on a date at a museum and she was a bit stunned that I knew the greek myths that inspired some of the art. There are other examples of this.

        One philosophy professor in college took out time from class to comment on the amount of historical knowledge I had to the entire class.

        This is what happens when you spend most of your free time reading.

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      • One of the few benefits of being raised in a fundamentalist Christian church (and, admittedly, being the kind of nerd inclined to pay attention and learn when enjoined to do so) is that I learned in detail all the Bible stories that informed the mass of Western culture for centuries.

        I would have been (impolitely) dumbstruck to meet people who had no idea who Samson was.

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      • Samson was the masked mexican wrestler who fought the vampire women in that MST episode. I think Samson also fought space aliens and the mummy in other flicks. He was really Santo though, Samson was just his US name.

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      • Glyph, American schools have always been bad about teaching the foundational texts of Western civilization. We used to teach the Bible but that was done in a way that really infringed on the First Amendment. As far as I know, there was never a time where all American kids were expected to read and know the Classics like European school kids. I understand that many European high schools still expect kids to master Latin and Greek and know the Classics.

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      • ND, we also went to a very academic high school by American public school standards. Our sports teams were jokes and nobody cared about Home Coming. The theatrical events of the drama club were much more popular than any football game and 12th grade social studies was either a crash course in philosophy or economics.

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      • A truly well-educated and well-rounded person would get all the references in the song below, as well as appreciating the fact that it was written by Ring Lardner:

        Who discovered the land
        Of the brave and the free?
        I don’t know, I don’t know.
        ‘Twas Christy Columbus
        Is what they tell me.
        May be so, I don’t know.
        There’s only one Christy
        That I know at all
        One Christy that I ever saw.
        He’s the one who discovered
        The fade away ball,
        And he pitches for Muggsy McGraw

        Baseball, baseball
        Ain’t it a wonderful game?
        Old Christy Colum’
        Found this country, by gum
        But the extras don’t carry his name.
        If old man Columbus
        Had sat in the stand
        Had seen Matty pitching that
        “Fader” so grand
        He’d have said
        Boys, I’m glad I discovered this land.
        Gee! it’s a wonderful game.

        Who lost out in the battle
        Of old Waterloo?
        I don’t know, I don’t know.
        They say ’twas Na-po-le-on
        May be it’s true.
        May be so, I don’t know.
        The pink sheets don’t print
        Mr. Bonaparte’s face
        No stories about him today,
        ‘Cause he never could hold down
        That old second base
        Like his name sake,
        Big Nap Lay’-oo-way.

        Baseball, baseball
        Ain’t it a dandy old game?
        The gen’ral of France
        Couldn’t lead ’em like Chance,
        So no wonder his Waterloo came.
        If down in his pocket
        Napoleon had dug,
        Had paid his five francs
        To see Tyrus Cobb slug,
        He’d have said, I give up:
        I’m a bug, I’m a bug!
        Gee! it’s a wonderful game

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  4. One summer’s day in the middle of the night
    Two dead brothers got up to fight
    Back to back they faced each other
    Drew their swords and shot one another
    A deaf policeman, alarmed by the noise
    Got up and shot the two dead boys
    If you don’t believe all this is true
    Ask the blind man, he saw it too.

    I have no idea why this is in my head.

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  5. This maybe isn’t quite responsive to the question, but when I finally saw Casablanca I was surprised at how many bits from that film have permeated through culture, and not just the most well-known bits that I knew going in.

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  6. For years I wondered about the phase “happy as a clam,” which my dad used a lot. I knew what it meant, I could just never figure out why it meant what it did. I mean, i would get happy as an otter, or happy as a hummingbird, or happy as a springer spaniel. But what does a clam have to be happy about? It’s a fishing clam. A few years ago I found out that the expression is a contraction of the original early American expression, “happy as a clam at high water.” That makes sense.

    I have had similar questions about the origins of “bees knees” and “cat’s pajamas,” but I’ve never seen an explanation that doesn’t sound like a shot-in-the-dark guess.

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  7. So, growing up about an hour away from Mount Shasta, I heard the occasional tale about the Lemurians that lived under the mountain. Always as silly stories for children, on par with stories of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

    It was a bit of a shock to learn that this was actually a thing people believed for real.

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  8. Not me – or at least not that I can think of. But a couple of years back, my younger sister asked me, “So do you have ANY idea what this song is:

    I miss Billy the Kid
    Time after time
    And time again

    I cracked up because it was a mash-up of 2 different country songs, set to an incredibly annoying original tune, that we four siblings had made up as kids, basically to be the worst country song EVAR. We would sing it at my mother when she made us listen to the country radio station in the car, until she got so annoyed she would turn off the radio. (Yes, I know, we were brats.) My sister had completely forgotten its origins and had acquired it as an earworm that she couldn’t shake. Oh, the karma.

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