What’s In A Word: Chico The Barking Spider

I look into the origin of words or phrases that catch my interest

Definition of barking spider: What farts are blamed on when no dog is available.

A barking spider is a convenient scapegoat when you’re caught farting.

Here’s how I imagine this expression was born:

The scene is a college fraternity house in the early ‘60s, right out of the movie Animal House.

A bunch of guys lounge around, having a few beers, exchanging the usual raunchy banter, when… fuuurrp!

“Oh, jeesh! Beer fart!” — “OK… who did it?” — “Animal! Was that you?”

“No, man, not mine,” an unabashed Animal coolly replies. “It was a barking spider.” Uproarious laughter

Bodily function humor is best appreciated by staggeringly immature young men who’ve had too many beers.

I first learned about Chico The Barking Spider from my friend John Gallanos. Must have been around 1975 when I met that immensely likable, remarkably talented, and star-crossed individual.

I thought John giving the barking spider a name, Chico, was ingenious — the funniest thing I ever heard.

Especially as Chico is suggestive of Mexican food — all that cheese, beans, salsa, onions. Mex food is a prodigious producer of ass-whistles, butt thunder, and backdoor breezes.

I was young and staggeringly immature, and rarely let my blood-alcohol level fall lower than what’s known as Irish sober.

I couldn’t get enough to drink. If the Pacific Ocean were Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, I’d worry about evaporation. It was that bad.

I guess you had to be there, to see John’s trademark big, toothy grin and hear him shout “Chico!” whenever someone sat on a duck, shot a bunny, stepped on a frog, or just plain cut the cheese. John was our official fart alarm.

Now, at 62, I’m old and my blood’s alcohol free. But as you can tell by this post on farts and barking spiders, I haven’t matured much.

As my onetime friend Steve Rankin says, “You’re only young once, but you can be immature all your life.”

Boardwalk on Balboa Peninsula

I first heard Rankin say that to a bald-headed, middle-age guy who was walking along the boardwalk on Balboa Peninsula.

I dropped by Rankin’s second-story beachside apartment and found him on his balcony shooting off bottle rockets. One rocket exploded just above the poor man’s head.

The man looked up to see Rankin smiling down, about to light another rocket (embarrassed, I quickly crouched out of sight).

“Dammit! Why don’t you grow up?” the man shouted at Rankin.

“Sir,” says Rankin, “you’re only young once, but you can be immature all your life.” I’ve seen that bit of Rankin wisdom demonstrated many times over the years.

Rankin introduced me to John Gallanos. It figures those two madmen would be close friends.

And one day fifteen years after that introduction Rankin called me at work with sad news about John.

I was surprised to get a call from Rankin. Long estranged from all my old friends, I hadn’t seen John for years, and very little of Rankin.

My life had descended into alcoholism. Like all drunks, I had nothing to offer, wasn’t worth knowing.

“The other guys asked me to talk to you because I’m your best friend,” Rankin told me one day in the late ‘70s. “We’re tired of you coming over and drinking all our beer.”

One of many, many humiliations drinking caused me. And not the worst, by far not the worst.

When Rankin called, I was 7 or 8 years sober, but the damage was done. Some things are unforgettable, unforgivable. Not that I looked for Rankin’s (or anyone else’s) forgiveness. I can’t — I won’t — forgive myself.

Rankin called because he thought I should know: Last night, he said, John drove to a cliff in Malibu and ran a hose from his pickup truck’s exhaust to the cab. Suicide.

I had heard that John suffered back problems, took a lot of pills to kill the pain, couldn’t surf anymore, put on weight and was so out-of-shape, so different from the John I knew, that I wouldn’t recognize him. I heard that he married a horrible woman whom all his friends hated, and that she caused him a lot of pain before she dumped him.

I heard all this, but I had my own problems. Now I kick myself for not reaching out to my old friend, someone who meant so much to me. Too late, too bad.

Rankin said John’s family planned to scatter his ashes at sea.

The sea is where John forever belongs.

John was a great surfer: intense, aggressive, with tremendous strength and agility. He’d often get up before dawn to surf before going to work.

The last time I saw John was at Zunzal, El Salvador, near the legendary surfing spot, La Libertad.

Zunzal, El Salvador. Surfline.com says, “Extremely consistent quasi-world class rock-bottom right point. On a solid swell it can hold up to 10 feet plus, peeling evenly along the rocks. A 30-minute bus ride from La Libertad costs less than a dollar American. Just look for the bus marked “El Zunzal.”

I sat atop a big rock on the beach and watched John, the only surfer out that day, working the waves, tapping the source. I can see him in my mind now.

John surfed alone because he ignored warnings about the sharks.

Sharks were congregating off the beach at Zunzal. One surfer told me he saw a shark leap from the water and corkscrew in the air. He said a shark expert had come to Zunzal to study the phenomenon.

Even visiting Australian surfers stayed on the beach, complaining about all the “snappers.”

A shark had chased Rankin and me out of the surf.

See the waves breaking far on the outside in the above photo of the beach at Zunzal? That’s where Rank and I were body surfing, way out there.

Suddenly, Rankin took off. I watched him swimming madly toward the beach. “Where’s he going in such a hurry?” I thought, then turned around and saw the reason for his abrupt exit.

Thanks for the heads up on the shark, Rankin!

To be fair to Mr Rankin, there’s another angle to this true story that I hesitate to reveal, because I doubt you’ll believe me.

Neither of us was in his right mind. We were both under a chemical influence.

Let’s just say that if that shark had taken a bite of Rank or me, in about fifteen minutes that shark would begin to feel very, very strange: tangerine trees, marmalade skies, cellophane flowers of yellow and green, the works.

It was the 1970s, you know.

Though Rankin had a big head start, I caught up with him. I must have ran on top of the water. Entirely possible on a quarter hit of bulls-eye blotter acid.

As we scrambled out of the water, Rankin turned to me and said, “You’re eyes are as big as saucers.”

A Salvadoran walking along the beach witnessed the whole thing. “Tiburon, muy perigoso,” he informed us.

“No shit,” said Rankin.

I threw rocks as far out in the sea as I could, hoping to hit the shark in his cold, coal-black eye, the same eye I stared into, horrified, as the fucker passed a few feet from me, dorsal fin knifing the water, just like in the movies.

I admired John’s hardcore surfer attitude. All true surfers respect, not fear, sharks. Share the ocean.

I’m no surfer. I need a few breakfast beers, maybe two or three shots of Tic Tac, and to drop LSD before I’ll swim with sharks. Well, not knowingly swim with sharks. That was just my usual morning routine in El Salvador.

Tic Tac, the nasty, liver-rotting liquor of El Salvador.        I have sampled this product.

John and I almost died together not far from where he surfed and where the shark chased Rankin and me.

We were exploring caves that went deep into a cliff by the sea. You could tell from the clean-swept sandy floor and dank walls that the caves flooded when the tide came in.

Our timing was off. The tide came rushing in while we were poking around the hot, humid caves. We hustled to escape through a natural-worn tunnel when a rogue wave flushed us both out like turds down a toilet. Ended up a short swim near the beach.

How we weren’t drowned, smashed against the sharp rocks of the narrow tunnel walls, or swept out to sea, I don’t know. But if we had died that day long ago, we’d have both missed a lot of future misery. Too bad.

Odd that John ended up dying on top of a sea cliff at Malibu, when at Zunzal he almost died inside a sea cliff.

For more than 35 years, depending on the situation, I’ve blamed farts — my own or others — on Chico The Barking Spider. Just this morning my wife Lizzie attributed a toot I overheard to “a little Chico.”

I can’t mention Chico without summoning memories of my friend John Gallanos, now gone more than twenty years.

I’m sure John doesn’t mind associating his memory with farts. There are worse ways to be remembered. I should know.

Malibu at sunset. Here, John rides the waves forever. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times)

A man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus

In 1978, at Rankin’s invitation, John grabbed his surfboard and flew from LA to El Salvador to spend his vacation with The Three Steves during our epic, year-long journey through Mexico and Central America.

I wrote about that big adventure in an earlier post, Monkey Business, which includes photos (I lost the hat I’m wearing in photo below when John and I were flushed from the seaside caves). Check it out.

The Three Steves. From left, Steve Rankin, Steve Call, and me. Photo taken in 1978 at Cahuita, east coast of Costa Rica.


Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms, homophones, and confusingly similar words are fun.

I love’m.

So much writing on the Web is boring. Blah, blah, blah. Quack, quack, quack.  Especially self-absorbed personal blogs like Steve of Upland.

A mischievous homophone can pull an unwary writer’s pants down. Hilarity results.

Take, for example, these newspaper headlines . . .
Woman Kicked By Horse Upgraded To Stable
Married Priests In Catholic Church A Long Time Coming
Child’s Stool Great For Use In Garden

If you don’t see what’s so funny about child’s stool, see homonyms for log in my list further down in this posting.

Homonyms are two or more words that share the same spelling, or the same pronunciation, or both, but have different meanings.

Examples: bow (type of knot) and bow (to incline), heal (restore to health) and heel (back part of foot), sewer (one who sews) and sewer (drain).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in spelling and meaning, such as there and they’re; to, too, two; and so, sew, and sow.

 Homographs share the same spelling, and sometimes the same sound, but have different meanings.

Sow, a female adult pig (pronounced sou), and sow, to scatter seed (pronounced soh), are homographs. Another example is well, as in wishing well, and well, as in well wishes.

A homonym you don’t often come across is the contranym. A contranym is a word that has two opposite meanings.

The word clip can mean attach to, as with a paper clip. Or clip could mean the exact opposite: cut away from. Clip this coupon and clip it to your grocery list

Contranym examples are dust (to sprinkle with something, as in dust crops) and dust (remove sprinkles from something, as in dust furniture); cleave (to cut apart) and cleave (to cling together); and pit (a hole, as in a coal pit) and pit (a solid core, as in a peach pit).

How the same word can have contradictory meanings is beyond me, but that’s the English language for you.

And then there’s just plain confusingly similar words, such as delegate and relegate, illicit and elicit, condensation and condescension.

Puns depend on homophones and confusingly similar words.

A pun, or play on words, is a cheap and easy way to get attention and (sometimes) a laugh, which is why annoying idiots like me like to use puns.

Businesses use puns to get attention and fix themselves in a customer’s memory

Such as the North Carolina window cleaning company Labor Panes.

Here are a few of my favorite business slogan puns:

Roofing company: For a hole in your roof or a whole new roof
Radiator shop: A great place to take a leak
Guns & ammo store: We aim to keep you loaded
Gynecologist: Dr Jones at your cervix
Butcher shop: Where quality meats service
Septic tank service: Your poop is our bread & butter
Plumber: A good flush beats a full house
Hair salon: We curl up and dye for you

A Call To Morrow Today Is All It Takes!

At the Sand Witch, a sandwich shop here in Upland, California, which (get it?) I visited Thursday (delicious roast beef sandwich, extremely fast & friendly service), a sign reads “Witch Parking Only, Violators Will Be Toad.”

I suspect the young ladies who run the Sand Witch Shop are witches, or Wiccans. I also suspect they’re Lebanese, if you know what I mean. Whatever. The sandwiches are devilishly good.

Rose between two thorns: The Sand Witch Shop has a gas station on one side and a recycling center on the other. It’s magic they do so well. Or maybe because the witches behind the counter are so friendly and the sandwiches so tasty.

Some (homophone: sum) of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:

air atmosphere
heir inheritor
ere  before

aye  yes
eye  the organ of sight
I  not you, me
Ay-Yi-Yi! Eileen, I have an eye on you! Aye, I do! Eye on you! 

boarder lodger
boarder one who rides a snowboard
border  the outer edge of something

cheap inexpensive; stingy
cheep to chirp
Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! All the little birdies say Steve is cheap, cheap, cheap. ‘Cause Steve buys his birdseed from the 99-Cents Only store. 

complement something that completes
compliment  flattering remark

desperate  having an urgent need; leaving little or no hope
disparate  distinct in kind; essentially different

hair of the head
hare  a rabbit

log  trunk or large limb of a felled tree
log  detailed record of a trip made by a ship or aircraft
log  long, solid mass of feces; a stool; big piece of shit
Steve looks with disgust at Ensign Pulver. “You’re sitting on the captain’s log,” says Steve acidly. Pulver jumps to his feet and exclaims, “LOG! What log? We’re shipwrecked on a bloody desert island, you fool!” Capt. Marlow furrows his brow and thinks, “Steve is cracking up. Obviously my log went down with the ship.”

mall  area set aside for shopping
maul  to beat; to handle roughly

mind  I lost mine years ago
 belongs to me
mine  tunnel into the earth or buried explosive device
mined  tunneled under or laid with land mines

unwanted  not wanted
unwonted  rare; unusual
Steve thought his blog Steve of Upland creative, brilliant, so incredibly  unwonted — one of the Web’s true gems. Everyone else on the planet dismissed it as dull, derivative, and unwanted.

walk  stroll; sidewalk
wok  cooking utensil

See my master list of all the homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words I’ve posted to date. And please comment with your favorite homonyms . . .  OK, don’t. I don’t care.

Writing Well

Advice I’m following to write well      

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.
Samuel Johnson


Kurt Vonnegut Explains the Shapes of Stories

Do you want to write a screenplay to a blockbuster movie? Or NY Times bestseller?

In less than five minutes, Kurt Vonnegut shows you how to connect to the widest possible audience.

In this 2005 video at kotke.org, the late author of Slaughterhouse Five, uses a chalkboard and a simple graphical axis to reveal the system behind great storytelling.

Profound. Original. Straightforward.

And because it’s Kurt Vonnuegut, mixed with humor and biting satire.

Here’s a taste from the video’s transcript:

I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G – I axis: good fortune – ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here – great prosperity, wonderful health up there.

Your average state of affairs here, in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].

This is the B – E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G – I axis].

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G – I axis].

You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole.

It’s somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.

Another is called “Boy Meets Girl,” but this needn’t be about a boy meeting a girl [begins drawing line B].

It’s somebody, an ordinary person, on a day like any other day, comes across something perfectly wonderful: “Oh boy, this is my lucky day!” … [draws line downward]. “Shit!” … [draws line back up again]. And gets back up again.

How many movies can you think of that fit the first two graphs of Vonnuegut’s presentation? Every Disney movie ever made uses one of these two graphs.

It’s easier to think of movies that don’t fit those broad storylines.

Vonnuegut applies his system to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

You’ll never guess what the graph looks like.

People have been puzzling over Hamlet for more than 400 years. Vonnuegut nails it, at least for me he does. Can’t wait to reread the play.

And get back to that novel I’ve been writing the last six years. Maybe I should turn it into a movie script. Sell it to Disney. Thanks, Kurt!

Watch Kurt Vonnegut Explains the Shapes of Stories


Writing ain't easy!

Where I go for inspiration and to learn the mechanics of writing well 

Cinnamon Finder. Wait… I Mean, Synonym Finder

I love homonyms, homophones and other confusingly similar words: they’re mischievous and fun.

Always ready to trip the unwary writer, homonyms can magically turn sleepy writing into a wild, crazy party.

Take, for example, this newspaper headline: Police: Crack Found in Man’s Buttocks. (Don’t believe me? View article).

Synonyms, in contrast, are serious, sober, precise communicators.

Synonyms are words having the same or nearly the same meaning. For example, overbeyond and exceeding are synonyms of above.

Yawn.  Synonyms, compared to homonyms, are party-poopers.

If you want to throw a wet towel on your writing, use a thesaurus. A thesaurus is a reference work where you can find synonyms and word suggestions.

Budding writers often get this advice: “Use a thesaurus to spice up your writing! When you create sentences, you can make them more interesting by using words that mean the same as the word you are speaking about. This allows you to add flavor to your writing.” (They’re talking about using synonyms, not cinnamon).

To this advice, I say, “Hogwash, bunk, drivel, and nonsense.”

To emphasize my negative opinion, I used a thesaurus  to find the above synonyms for bullshit. But this is a rare instance of reaching for my dusty thesaurus.

Treat a thesaurus as you would a loaded gun. Handle with great care. Leave it alone unless you really know what you’re doing.

The casual use of this loaded reference work is prone to backfire. To sour more often than sweeten your writing.

When to use a thesaurus

You are empty on imagination. You keep using the same words over and over.

Each time my friend Bryan says literally, I literally want to tear my hair out. I’d literally be a millionaire if each time he used literally, he’d literally have to give me a nickel.

How do you know if you’re overusing a word? If a word (noun, verb, adverb, adjective) appears more than four or five times, unless the word is a key word in your title.

Use a thesaurus to avoid using the same word too repetitively, redundantly, recurrently, incessantly…

You are lazy & pretentious. You jack-up or mask what little you have to say with five-dollar words. A thesaurus is indispensable for desperate writers who decide if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

If you’re lured to utilize the thesaurus on the subsequent occasion you’re toiling on a treatise, mull over what just transpired to this stretch.

You are a nit-picker. Lawyers, for example, are painstaking in their choice of words.  They sift through synonyms to find exactly the right word, either to clarify without ambiguity or to obfuscate the facts — whichever suits their purpose.

Each synonym has a slightly different meaning. The synonym you choose influences the way in which people interpret what you’ve written.

To a jury, there’s a subtle difference between “Did you see  Lindsay Lohan take the necklace?” and “Did you see Lindsay Lohan steal the necklace.”

A hypernym is a synonym of a given word that is more generic — a little more general and less precise. The hypernym of steal is take, just as dog is the hypernym of collie.

The thesaurus lists hypernyms and subordinate words for your search word — the whole family, including distant relations.

You are looking for a jump-start. OK, this is when I turn to a thesaurus. The right word escapes me — it’s on the tip of my tongue but it won’t let go.  I use the thesaurus (Shift+F7) in Word when I’m stuck.

Presented with a choice of related words, I think more about what I’m trying to say.

I grudgingly admit a thesaurus, on occasion, is a catalyst for clarity, for tying together the loose threads of an inchoate thought.

A thesaurus used creatively can yield jackpots. Years ago, an advertising copywriter searching for a catchy slogan for a new breakfast cereal, Rice Krispies, turned to a section in his edition of Roget’s Thesaurus headed “Sudden Violent Noise” and found  “snap; crackle; pop.”

“Use the thesaurus to increase the effort and work of creating, not as a quick replacement of hard work.”
Trent Lorcher, Improve Writing by Improving Word Choice

You are a logophile, a lover of words. If you can get lost for hours in a dictionary, a thesaurus is just as entertaining. Knock yourself out.

If obscure English words fascinate you — words like horbgorbling, mautuolypea, or amomaxia — may I suggest Charles Harrington Elster’s There’s A Word for It! A Grandiloquent Guide to Life.

Alternatives to a thesaurus

Use a reverse look-up dictionary. I found the word logophile by going to OneLook.com and searching by definition – in this case, lover of words.  I plug in what I want to say and, viola, there’s a word for it.

Be careful, though, in choosing an obscure word, even if it’s one you happen to know. Not everyone is a former Jeopardy champion and shares your limitless vocabulary. If that word is a head-scratcher for most of your readers, you’re not communicating. (Yeah, and I’m the one who used inchoate a few paragraphs ago.)

Today, the Word of the Day from dictionary.com is entelechy, meaning “a realization or actuality as opposed to a potentiality.”

I can’t imagine ever using entelechy, outside of Scrabble or a college class in philosophy. I want people to understand what I’m writing.

  • Write in your own words. Be honest and authentic. Write just as if you were talking to a friend.
  • Read a lot. Be omnivorous: Read a variety of sources. Read to learn new words. Read to learn original ways of expressing old ideas. Old magazines in the doctor’s office are a goldmine — you’re forced to read what you would never have given a second glance.
  • Run your copy through the EditMinionEditMinion, your personal copy editor, will check for overused words, weak words, clichés, adverbs, “said” replacements, passive voice, often misspelled words, and sentences ending with a preposition (as in, on, by, to, since). And EditMinion is free.

The best way to connect to your readers is to pick an interesting subject and don’t let your writing get in the way.

Best practices: Strangers in the Night

Be creative: Slam unrelated words together for fresh perspectives and memorable meanings.

It’s called Poetry.

Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate,  claims “there is no such thing as a synonym.” Billy says to avoid bland, uninspired writing, keep your thesaurus high on a shelf, out of reach.


by Billy Collins

It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs,
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.

Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.

Peter Mark Roget was about my age, in his early sixties, when he conceived the idea and seventy when he began work on his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, classified and arranged so as to facilitate the expression of ideas and to assist in literary compilation. 

First published in 1852, Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print. With each succeeding edition, the popularity of the work has increased.
Here’s a short bio of Dr. Roget.

Access Roget’s International Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases online at www.Bartleby.com