It’s time to rethink how we use the word “Sherpa”

© Byelikova Oksana

On April 18, sixteen Nepalese guides, known to us as Sherpas, were swallowed by an avalanche on Mt. Everest that “looked like a big snake coming down the mountain.” All are now presumed dead, making it the single deadliest accident on Everest.

The tragedy has brought to light the complex, dangerous nature of the Sherpas’ livelihood. Outside magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer recently put it this way: “Sherpas are Everest’s workforce—the literal backbone of the climbing industry there …Without the hard work of the Sherpa porters, it would be largely impossible for Americans and Europeans with slightly above-average physiology, and well above-average disposable income, to scale the world’s tallest mountain.”

Schaffer also notes that: “No service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.” It was only a matter of time before they demanded better working conditions, fair pay, and insurance in the event of the unthinkable. It turns out, that time is now – and one of the things coming to light is that what it means to be a “Sherpa” is widely misunderstood.

The mythology of the mountaineers
The Sherpa as trusty guide and porter entered the Western imagination when Edmund Hillary became the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, along with guide Tenzing Norgay, in 1953. But even this relationship was fraught with controversy over who allegedly reached the summit first. (Was it Hillary or Norgay? Who was the mountaineer with more skill?)

After Norgay’s famous ascent, the word “Sherpa” suddenly became synonymous with “porter” or “guide” in the context of climbing Everest. (Many mistakenly assumed that Sherpa was actually Tibetan for “guide.”) In fact, Sherpa comes from the Tibetan word sharpa, which means “inhabitant of an eastern country.” Today, the word refers to “a member of a Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet.”

In other words, Sherpa isn’t an occupation – it’s an ethnic group. And as one Sherpa who went to college in New Zealand poignantly wrote, to be Sherpa means being part of a bizarre model minority in the West (and apparently, being asked how much weight you can carry up a mountain):

“Uncharitably, I imagined them imagining themselves as conquering heroes, assisted by a legion of Sherpa faithful ready – and cheerful – to lay down sweat and lives in service for arduous, but ultimately noble and glorious, personal successes. Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us.”

This image of the cheery, willing and able Sherpa is compounded by the notion that climbing is literally in their blood, which has adapted over time to have an ‘oxygen affinity’ that makes living at higher altitudes possible. As a result, the Sherpa has come to be seen as part of the landscape, or a given part of the Everest experience. This translates to the idea that climbing isn’t just a job – it’s a calling. It’s who they are.

Anytime work is seen this way – as something that a particular group is expected to do because of who they are – it’s immediately undervalued (Why pay them money for something that’s simply part of their identity, right?) Not to mention, it’s pretty problematic to rigidly associate specific jobs with an entire group of people – after a while, this starts to sound uncomfortably like a caste system.

When we view Sherpas as an ethnic group in a poor country performing extremely dangerous work to make a living (rather than as cheerful porters effortlessly scaling mountains), it suddenly makes sense why there is a movement to “Reclaim Sherpa” from the “misappropriation and commodification” of the term by Western brands and companies. (No, kicking ass at marketing does not make you a Sherpa.)

With that in mind, it’s time to separate the word “Sherpa” from a romanticized notion of conquering Everest and create a culture where Sherpas don’t have to choose between their lives or their livelihood.

On the origins of ‘assload’ and ‘buttload’

© Eric Isselée - Fotolia.comIn America, we like big things — big cars, big beverages, and big stores that like to stay open on Thanksgiving so people can buy big piles of big stuff. (Fun fact: One of my top tourist stops when friends and family visit from abroad is Costco. Blows their minds every time…)

We’re so into the idea of “more is more” that we’ve built up a delightfully colorful vocabulary around expressing “an extremely large quantity of something.” Think about it — in our daily speech, we’re used to saying things like “an insane amount” or “a ridiculous quantity.” And when the amount of something really blows our minds, we’ve got hella, ginormous, crapload, shit-ton, and various other words of similar flavors.

It all started with a donkey
I started wondering how the excrement-inspired phrases came to be, seeing as a crap isn’t exactly a specific unit of measurement.  What is a crapload, and why do we think that’s a lot?  Well, my theory is that it all started with a donkey.

Once upon a time, an ass’s load was, well, how much a donkey could carry. The term was used in the Bible (according to this annotated Bible from 1832, an ass’s load was almost equivalent to 8 bushels) and it also appeared in one of Aesop’s fables and in arithmetic books through the 1800s. It seems the term started falling out of favor when people stopped using donkeys to carry things and as units of measurement became more exact.

Today, we think of assload as a vulgar American slang term that means “a lot.” But just for the record, next time someone says they have an assload of something, you know they mean roughly 8 bushels… Naturally, I assumed that words like  buttload evolved from assload over time — but surprisingly, I was wrong.

A buttload = 491 liters
As I started digging into the word buttload, I was surprised to find that a “butt” is an actual unit of measurement.  It’s an outdated term referring to a large cask used for liquids (esp. beer, wine, or water) or a specific unit of liquid measurement equivalent to 108 imperial gallons, or 491 liters. So yes, a buttload is a whole lot of liquid and it’s very specific.

From words like assload and buttload, it seems we applied our trademark American creativity and fashioned words like shitload, crapton, and all the other fabulously filthy words that end with -load or -ton to express our awe at having a whole lot of stuff.

So with that, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving filled with an assload of food, family and reflection.

Why do we sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to end one year and kick off the next?

Nouvel an horloge à 2013Well, since the world didn’t end on December 21st, we can officially celebrate the start of another new year. (I’m sure you’re breathing a sigh of relief.)

But when it comes to having an array of catchy tunes to help celebrate the season, New Year’s is the ugly stepchild of Christmas. It gets secondary, parenthetical billing in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year),” and the other song or two we associate with the holiday — like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — are decidedly melancholy.

Still, nothing reminds us of the fleeting nature of time and the importance of long-standing friendships like the song that gets drunkenly belted out at raucous New Year’s parties around the English-speaking world: “Auld Lang Syne.” We sing it with gusto every year, but what does it mean and how did it become the go-to ballad of New Year’s Eve?

“Auld lang syne” simply means “times long past,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although the American Merriam-Webster gives it a cheerier spin by defining it as “the good old times.” The phrase was popularized by Robert Burns’ version of “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788, though the melody is much older, stemming from traditional Scottish folk music. This little ditty became an American standard in the 1930s thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo, the man who owned New Year’s Eve long before Dick Clark.

If you’ve ever sung the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” and thought to yourself, “What the heck am I singing?” or “Why is this so freaking depressing?” you’re not alone. Here are the words that we use to welcome the new year (the full version of the song is much longer):

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

This is the most well-known portion of the English translation of this song — so if you find this confusing, don’t even try to sing the rest of the song with its pint-stowps and running around the braes. But I think it’s time to put that famous question from “When Harry Met Sally” to rest:

Harry: [about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.

It turns out, neither of them are quite right. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” is actually a rhetorical question that’s meant to make you reflect: Should we forget our old friends and loved ones? Should we forget the good times gone by? The obvious answer, which goes unspoken, is no. And that becomes more apparent with the rest of the lyrics, which are largely about buying pints for friends (along with some dining and frolicking).

Who wants to forget friends like that? So tonight, when you belt out “Auld Lang Syne,” impress your friends with the fact that really, they’re just asking a rhetorical question (since I’m sure it’ll just come up naturally, of course). Happy new year!

From good tidings to Parson Brown, find out what your favorite holiday tunes actually mean

Victorian christmas carolers making a vintage cardThe holiday season seems to be the only time of year that we Americans happily revert to Victorian English, singing songs about donning gay apparel and demanding figgy pudding. Since we’ve been singing these songs since childhood, it’s only natural that we don’t pause to wonder what these phrases mean or where they come from…

But after yet another year of hearing Ray Charles belt out something about a dude named Parson Brown in “Winter Wonderland,” I decided it was time to get to the bottom of what a few of my favorite carols really mean… For starters, what is a carol? Well, the word dates back to 1300s France, where it meant “a joyful song or dance in a ring.” It became more strongly associated with religious Christmas songs in 1500s England, although today we use the word to describe pretty much any song associated with the holiday.

So, here’s a look at where a few favorite modern-day carols come from, as well as what some of those perplexing lyrics really mean:

1.) Winter Wonderland: Who the heck is Parson Brown?
This 1930s tune has a line so odd and perplexing, it has its own Snopes entry:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say, ‘Are You Married?’ We’ll say, ‘No man,
but you can do the job while you’re in town!’

So who is Parson Brown? It turns out this verse is about a couple frolicking in the snow, imagining their snowman is a traveling parson who’ll help them elope. Yeah, not exactly the stuff of kids’ songs, which is why Parson Brown got the boot for a circus clown in the ’50s.

2.) We Wish You a Merry Christmas: I brought good tidings, now give me pudding.
Dating back to 16th-century England, this fine tune was sung by carolers who’d bring “Good tidings for Christmas and a happy new year.” (A tiding is simply “a piece of news,” though now we usually use it in the plural and associate it with good news.)

This jovial little line is followed by a much more demanding one: “Now bring us some figgy pudding! Yes, bring us some figgy pudding! Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it out here.” Carolers would typically be rewarded by the wealthy in a community with treats like figgy pudding. Much like the word tidings and the tradition of caroling, this treat has fallen out of fashion, too — so don’t go around asking people for pudding in exchange for your tidings.

3.) Deck the Halls: Decking, donning and trolling the holidays away
This little Christmas ditty has become a modern-day American classic, but the melody dates back to 16th-century Wales. The lyrics we sing today were popularized in the mid-1800s, which is why we have no idea what the hell they mean. Some choice phrases:

Deck the halls: Decorate the halls lavishly (related to “getting decked out”)
Don we now our gay apparel: We’re sporting our finest threads!
Troll the ancient yuletide carol: Sing that old Christmas tune in a round (you know, like “Row, row, your boat…”)

4.) Jingle Bells: I told you to jingle those bells, dammit!
I know what you’re thinking — “I understand Jingle Bells perfectly fine, thank you!” But do you?  Do you really? Did you ever stop to wonder, just who or what is jingling those bells? Grammatically speaking, the phrase “jingle bells” could mean a number of things:

Jingle, bells!: Hey, bells! You better jingle if you know what’s good for you…
Jingle bells (noun): A specific kind of bell (esp. the kind on a one-horse open sleigh)
– (You) jingle bells!: Hey, dude driving this sleigh — make those bells jingle!

It turns out the third one (“jingle bells” as an imperative phrase) is actually what the songwriter intended. He also wrote this as a Thanksgiving song.  Go figure.

These factoids are my gift to you — now go forth and amaze (er, annoy) your friends and family at that holiday dinner party.

Learn how to insult people like Thaddeus Stevens does in ‘Lincoln’

© KarSol - Fotolia.comThe mid-1800s were a colorful time for the American language, when quick-witted historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain roamed the earth. As American English separated from its mother tongue across the pond, our language seemed to change and grow as rapidly as the nation’s borders were expanding and other languages were making their way onto our shores (it was also a bit saltier back then, much like the pioneers who pushed their way westward).

As a result, it turns out some pretty strange insults – many of which we still use today in one form or another – come from the mid-1800s, particularly around the time of the Civil War. (Unfortunately, some of the most racist terms stem from that time period, too…) But it wasn’t our man Abe who won the dis wars in ‘Lincoln’ – it was Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful Republican leader in the House of Representatives under Lincoln, whose wit makes “Your momma” jokes seem like child’s play.

So, with a nod to Tony Kushner’s screenplay for ‘Lincoln,’ here are a few 19th century-style insults that would be worthy of retorts like “Burn!” or “Ooh, no he didn’t!” today:

1.)    You fatuous nincompoop! (21st century version: You smug idiot!)
This is my favorite insult uttered by Thaddeus Stevens in ‘Lincoln’ – it’s spoken with so much vitriol and sarcasm, he doesn’t need to use four-letter words to convey his contempt.

2.)    Why, you ignoble scalawag! (21st century version: You good for nothing low-life!)
Today, we think of a scalawag as a rascal. But the original definition of scalawag (c. 1848) is a white Southerner acting in support of reconstruction after the Civil War, often for private gain.

3.)    Ain’t that a heap of bunkum! (21st century version: What a pile of s@#t!)
We know it as bunk today. But bunkum dates back to 1845, often attributed to a congressman’s claim that an irrelevant speech he gave was only meant for the people of Buncombe, NC.

4.)    Enough of your palaver and carpet-bagging! (21st century version: I’m tired of your corrupt bulls#@t!)
Post-Civil War, carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved to the South for private gain – but history shows that while some were corrupt, others helped rebuild the Southern economy.

5.)    “I do not believe I could learn to like her except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight.” – Mark Twain on Lilian Aldrich (wife of poet Thomas Bailer Aldrich)
Mark Twain seemed to be friends with the Aldriches in the late 1800s, so it’s unclear what the context of this quote is. But it is clear that Mark Twain was a master of the witty insult.

Of course, if you’re not particular about whether your insults are American or British, you can always build your own 1800s insult using handy cheat-sheets like this one.