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The Illogical Fate of Cretans


Yesterday (Pentecost) in church, our minister read the well-known Biblical passage of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. They were then able to speak their native languages to the Jews in Jerusalem who’d traveled far and wide. The Book of Acts lists the places they’d come from. I pondered the multicultural nature of first-century Judea. We still struggle with that today.

Then, within that list, I heard a clunker. Cretans.

Unfairly, I admit, it took me right out of the moment. I know. They were people from Crete. But today, their name has a different meaning. It was like listening to a list of Europeans. “There were British and Norwegians, Icelanders and French, Idiots and Swiss.”

It made me wonder. What was the deal with the Cretans that their name became synonymous with dunderheads? The answer is more complex than I’d expected. There are two explanations of the term’s etymology. One in a positive sense and the other negative. First, the older of the two.

In the 6th century B.C.E., a poet from Crete named Epimenides formulated the first known mathematical paradox, often called the Cretan Paradox. As with everything else from ancient days, it’s surrounded by controversy, but it basically said, “All Cretans are liars.” Being Cretan himself, is Epimenides’s statement true? If so, Epimenides is a truth-teller, which makes the statement false.

We can go ’round and ’round with this, but likely this was an exercise in logic that got out of hand. Fast forward six hundred years to the Apostle Paul, who wrote “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true.” (Titus 1:12-13)

Apparently, Paul, and likely others in the Mediterranean world, missed the point. Epimenides’s logic experiment became a scathing condemnation of all people from Crete. Well, that sucks for them.

A more positive explanation of our use of ‘cretin’ today—which is spelled with the ‘i’ and not the ‘a’, states that the term has nothing to do with the island of Crete. It comes from a medical condition resulting from a lack of iodine known as cretinism. This used to be common in southern Europe, resulting in stunted growth, impaired mental abilities, and other malformations.

According to The Word Detective, “The word ‘cretin’ itself is derived from the Swiss French Alpine dialect word ‘crestin,’ from the Latin word ‘Christianum,’ which means ‘Christian.’” (

That raises the question of why the term for this disease comes from “Christian.” Also disputed among etymologists, one explanation says it was an appeal to people to see the sufferers as human beings, not grotesque creatures to be shunned or mistreated. An outlook we need more of today, as well.

And yet, if this explanation is correct, good intentions devolved over time to a word meaning “one who is less than others, mentally or in terms of character.” And we still think of people from Crete.

Sorry, Cretans. Sometimes you just can’t win.

epimenides 2
“I’m surrounded by cretins.”
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Attack of the Cacarootches


Okay. Last night my husband, Wendy, and I called it a night around 9:30. An unusual feature of our bedroom is a door leading outside. As I climbed into bed, I heard a ‘thump’ on the aluminum storm door. Odd.

Then another. And another.

“Something’s pounding against that door,” I told Wendy as he finished brushing his teeth.

“I know. I already looked out there. It’s either some bug or a bird.”

Well, there are two doors between whatever it was and me, so I continued playing Words With Friends on my phone. The thumping continued. I was not surprised when my husband investigated further. He’s not good at ignoring aggravating sounds like that.

He opened both doors to have a look and a large bug, with I’m sure an enormous sense of victory, soared into the bedroom. As it zoomed over the bed, I saw it was the dreaded flying cacarootch!

Starting my new book set in colonial South Carolina, I wanted a character to disparage his enemies by referring to them as these undesirable creatures. On Saturday, I looked up ‘cockroach’ on one of my favorite sites,

I learned that in 1624, John Smith wrote, “A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.”

Excusing John Smith’s spelling issues, we can see why folklore claims the first syllables, ‘caca,’ refer to poop. It’s that ‘ill-sent’ and shiver of disgust they leave behind. While historically, I could have used the modern-day ‘cockroach,’ who can resist ‘cacarootch’? Not me. It’s in the book.

In the meantime, the vermin soared over my bed, bringing out my true nature. I lay on the pillow with the covers pulled up yelling, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”

If it flew from the room down the hall, would we ever find it? I started to get up and close the bedroom door when Wendy called, “Don’t move.”

I froze as he whacked his camouflage croc a hair’s breadth from my left thigh. The evil intruder had landed right beside me. Severely wounded, he was scooped up by Wendy’s wadded toilet paper and whooshed down the Waterslide to Eternity.

Then I heard it. Thump!

Wendy announced, “There’s a whole swarm of them out there.”

Holy moley! We’ve been in this house almost four years with no cacarootch issues. All I could think about was that commercial with an approaching zombie apocalypse. Foregoing the more usual, subtle approach, these flying fiends have attempted an overt frontal attack. What next?

zombie apocolypse (2)

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The Title is the Story


I am often asked about the title of my first published book, Aroon. Where did I get that name? What does it mean?

The answer seems, at first, mundane. But as you will see, the story takes a surprising turn. It’s not one of my plot twists. It’s—well, decide for yourself.

On my trip to Ireland in 2005, I visited a wonderful book store in Dublin. Chapters, I believe it was. In any event, it was vast and magnificent. I bought several books. It’s rare I visit anywhere that sells books and leave empty-handed, and this was that on steroids.

One was Irish Words & Phrases by Diarmaid O’Muirithe. Once I returned home, I was spending a lazy afternoon scanning the book and I came across ‘arun,’ which is Anglicized as ‘aroon.’ It stated the definition as ‘my secret’ or ‘secret love.’ While my story is not a romance, the word had significance to the plot. Plus, I liked the sound of it.

The more the word rolled around on my tongue, the more I liked it, until I locked it in as my book’s title. Ta da!

But that wasn’t the end of it. Three months ago, I contacted a local Tipperary historian who has helped me with my research, particularly for Book Two, Harps Upon the Willows. I’d bought Ed O’Riordan’s comprehensive book on Father Nicholas Sheehy, the basis of my novels, and received a signed copy. Which I treasure. My latest communication was to tell him I had finished my stories.

To my great pleasure, he responded, “I LOVE the titles and I am sure I will love the contents.”

Ed O’Riordan and his ancestors have made it their passion to honor and maintain Father Sheehy’s gravesite and keep his 250-year-old story alive. Just four years ago, eight years after my own visit to the sarcophagus, Mr. O’Riordan arranged for a new plaque for the tomb.

On it, he had etched ‘Sagart Arun.’

This couldn’t be true! I quickly clicked on Google and searched for a translation: Dear Priest.

No, Ed O’Riordan explained. That translation was too weak.

“I suggest Beloved Priest,” he wrote. “It’s a powerful title you have on your book!!”

This still raises the hair on the back of my neck. How did I scan a phrase book so long ago and come up with a title because I liked its sound, while the caretaker of the very man I was writing about used that same word on his tomb?

Coincidence? Maybe. Somehow, it feels like much more. What do you think?

conserved fr Sheehy Tomb
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Word Histories: In Defense of Rush

A Man of the Ages
Off the bat, I admit this defense is slow in coming. The controversy I hope to put to rest occurred over three years ago, but is there any statute of limitations on rectifying slurs against a man’s character?
You may remember 2012 when the question of contraception as a standard healthcare benefit was being hashed out in the public discourse. A law student from Georgetown University, Sandra Fluke, argued passionately that this must be universally covered.
Rush Limbaugh made a simple comment taken completely out of context. Commenting on Ms. Fluke, Rush said—and I quote, “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?”
Oh, the flap that followed! So many were appalled at this “attack” on the character of the young woman.
But consider that Rush is a man of the ages. The term “slut” only took on the current sexual context in 1966. Yes, you read that right—1966! And Rush is so much older than that. He, I’m sure, is aware that the word has a wide and varied history that has nothing to do with this vulgar definition.
The word came into being in the 14th century as a description of a “dirty, slovenly, or untidy woman.” Chaucer referred to an untidy man as one. Basically, the word described a lazy slob, man or woman. If a kitchen maid kneaded her bread poorly, the little hard pieces in the loaf were called “slut pennies.” So, come on. It’s not what you were thinking.
In fact, Samuel Pepys, a pretty well-respected guy from the 1600s, wrote in his famous diary, “My wife called up the people to washing by four o’clock in the morning; and our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others, and deserves wages better.”
While some of you with wicked minds might find this strange, Pepys was merely being playful with the word, like calling his child a scamp or a rascal.
Which is no different than the misunderstood Rush Limbaugh. Surely, he was calling Sandra Fluke a “scamp” or “rascal” who pleased him mightily. After all, he’s just a big, cuddly grandfather figure.
Shut up, Rush.
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Word Histories: Gorilla

Hanno! What an asshat.

I wanted one of my characters in Aroon to call someone a gorilla. They couldn’t. The word as we know it today didn’t exist in 1750 when my book takes place.

An American missionary to Liberia, Thomas S. Savage, first acquired bones of a new species of ape. In 1847, Savage and naturalist, Jeffries Wyman, presented their findings to the Boston Society of Natural History where they gave the skull and bones the scientific name of Troglogdytes gorilla.

Savage and Wyman got the word “gorilla” from Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer of the fifth or sixth century B.C. who took 60 ships through Pillars of Heracles (Strait of Gibraltar) and down the West African coast. How far south he traveled is controversial. It seems Hanno and his Carthaginian colleagues made changes in the distances and directions of his account to conceal the true routes. They were determined to remain masters of the seas.
You know what they say about Carthaginians.

One strange excerpt of his logbook states that they came to an island “inhabited by a rude description of people. The females were much more numerous than the males, and had rough skins: our interpreters called them Gorillae. We pursued but could take none of the males; they all escaped to

“My bad.”

the top of precipices, which they mounted with ease, and threw down stones; we took three of the females, but they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors, that we killed them, and stripped off the skins, which we carried to Carthage: being out of provisions we could go no further.”

That is disgusting. I would imagine they came across actual gorillas that the explorer thought were rough, hairy people. Seriously, Hanno? The skins they stripped from the females were taken back to Carthage where, it is said, they remained on display for 350 years until Carthage fell to Rome.

The term “gorilla” came from Hanno’s native interpreters, leading Online Etymology Dictionary to speculate it was an African word. When Thomas Savage and Jeffries Wyman encountered this new species, they decided the creatures were the ones described by Hanno centuries ago.

I guess gorillas were Sasquatch of the 1800s.