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Nostalgia

In 1688, young Swiss physician Johannes Hofer announced he’d identified a new disease.  He introduced this disease as mal du pays, but also referred to it as mal du Suisse and Schweizerheimweh.  The term mal du pays is still used in modern French, but it has come to mean homesickness.  What Hofer was trying to identify was something a little different, which was the earliest use of what we now call nostalgia.
The word nostalgia was coined from two Greek words: νόστος (/nɔsˌ tos/ or NOS tos), meaning homecoming, borrowed directly from Homer’s Odyssey, and ἄλγος (/alˌ ɡos/ or AL gos), meaning ache.  The other two terms, mal du Suisse  and Schweizerheimweh applied to Dr. Hofer’s definition because they translate specifically as “sickness for Switzerland”.  The idea wasn’t that Switzerland made anyone sick, but rather, it was being away from Switzerland that was the root of the problem.  Hofer used this term to describe something he noticed among Swiss mercenaries who often left home to fi…
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President for a Day?

Of the 44 men who have so far served as President of the United States, Historians generally agree that the term of William Henry Harrison, which lasted from March 4, 1841 to his death on April 4, 1841, was the shortest.  “But wait!” says the trivia collector at the end of the bar, ready to take bets from all patrons, because he knows that’s wrong. “I can name a president who held the job less than that!” “No!” respond the other customers, sure that the old souse doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  But he does—sort of. So when the bar patrons place their bets, the old souse offers up a name, and the arguing begins.
The name, of course, is David Rice Atchison, a Democratic senator from Missouri, and the storied “president for a day.”  Your school textbooks and restaurant placemats with the portraits of all the presidents might never have mentioned him, but he was real, and quite popular in his day.  He was popular enough in the Senate for his colleagues to elect him President Pro …

Croissants: An Austrian Gift to France

When you think of croissants, what country comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably thought of France, and indeed, the French do make great croissants. They even gave us the word for them. But as famous as the French are for them, the croissant is not a French invention. The origin of the croissant is actually a ways to the east, in Austria. Specifically they were invented in Vienna, in 1683. That year, the city of Vienna was under siege by a massive Ottoman army composed of approximately 140,000 soldiers. To put this in perspective, the population of the Ottoman Empire at the time was somewhere around 11 million, which meant that more than one out of every hundred Ottoman citizens were in Austria for the siege of one city. Less than 300 years later, the United States would deploy roughly one out of every 100 citizens to fight World War II, across Europe and the Pacific, over a four-year span. The Ottoman Empire was investing the equivalent in blood and money t…

Jumping the Shark

The Saturday Night Massacre

“When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”—Richard Nixon, 1977

President Nixon in the famous Nixon/Frost interview, 1977 On June 17, 1972, a group of men were caught breaking into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.  This was the beginning of the famous Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon hired agents to conduct espionage on the Democratic Party, hoping to give himself an extra advantage in the presidential election that year.  When the election took place that November, Nixon won in a landslide, carrying 49 states.  Only Washington, DC and Massachusetts voted for his Democratic rival, Senator George McGovern.  Needless to say, Nixon was probably being a little too cautious where his reëlection was concerned.



Word got out, and the people and Congress started to call for an investigation.  Facing growing pressure, President Nixon asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.  T…