Monday, March 29, 2010

Etymologist and Chess Player

Chess and other puzzle-solving activities seem to attract people of the same habits of mind: people who, when faced with a mystery, feel compelled to figure it out (no matter what else they should be doing).  I touched on this subject in "Why Chess Sticks," where I suggested that the game continually presents those who study it with "knowledge gaps." As each new gap is filled a new one opens up, so we are continually drawn into new mysteries to explore.  That abyss of ever expanding problems to solve represents both the attraction and the danger of the game. To outsiders, the danger is significant, since chess players out to solve a chess mystery seem to be tilting at windmills (as the "Knights Errant" well know).   

Thinking about these issues, I was naturally intrigued by Michael Brick's "Etymologist on a word quest, from 'Big Apple' to 'Dallas'" (The Dallas Morning News, March 28, 2010), which tells the story of amateur word sleuth and chess master Barry Popik, best known for tracing the origins of the term "Big Apple" to describe New York City.  The story of Popik's quest to solve the mystery of "The Big Apple" is well told -- beginning with his motives for taking it up:
[Popik thought:] "I'll answer the question about the Big Apple; it's the most asked question at the New York Public Library. People asked about it because there wasn't an answer – this was before the Internet – and I'll answer it and the mayor will give me a gold medal." 
After a considerable amount of squinting into microfilm, Popik tracked the term far beyond its use as a tourism slogan in the 1970s, all the way to 1920s horse racing writer John J. Fitz Gerald, who had likely appropriated it from New Orleans stable hands. 
He scoured reports from the winter racing season, a feat of diligence at which mainstream researchers would later marvel. His work, which would eventually become grist for an eight-part series on his Web site (one part is called "1970s-present: False Etymologies"), gained the attention of prominent lexicographers. 
"The Big Apple racing circuit had meant 'the big time,' the place where the big money was to be won," Popik wrote. "Horses love apples, and apples were widely regarded as the mythical king of fruit." 
Respectful citations followed, but no gold medal.
Popik's story may be every chess player's story.  Some of us just take on problems that other people care about enough to give out gold medals....


Jaques london said...

Fantasic blog :) keep up the great work.....we love our chess in the jaques family!

Bob Long said...

Hi Michael
Was especially taken by your comment on the chess Mission Impossible episode. Yes, I occasionally read your blog, easily one of the better ones on chess.

I know you are one of the followers on "thechessmuseum" but dag nab it, how do I get Google to index me?

Bob Long