Thursday, February 2, 2017

Displacement activity

Michael - Thursday

As a displacement activity to the news, I’ve been letting my mind come up with a phrase or saying which seems to fit, and then focus on that. Then I think about the origin or derivation of the phrase and what I know (or not) about it. Not only does this lead to some entertainment, but it takes my mind off the news and that’s a very good thing these days.

"A big, beautiful wall"
The first one was the Two Thousand Mile Wall. You know, the one Trump wasn’t really going to build, it was all playing to the crowds? Well, the bulldozers are on the way, and so is a trade war with Mexico. The phrase ‘a white elephant’ immediately popped into my head, and I was intrigued. Obviously a white elephant is an albino elephant and such creatures certainly occur. But why the connection with something useless, and even worse, something that is not merely a waste of money, but also going to be a pain to keep? To quote a definition “a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.” That seems to fit the Wall to a tittle. If you think at least Mexico will pay for it one way or the other, you may want to take a look at what Paul Krugman has to say about that.

Indra riding a white elephant
It turns out that white elephants are sacred in the Buddhist and Hindu religions and highly prized for their rarity. Kings of Burma and Thailand who possessed them were thought to rule with power and justice. Naturally the kings made a point of collecting as many as they could. And the gift of one to a courtier or trusted lieutenant was a sign of particular favor. 
White elephant at Amarapura palace
Except there was a catch. If the king gave you such a noble gift, you certainly couldn’t give it away or sell it. What would you do the next time the king popped round and asked to see how dear old Jumbo was getting on?  Also, since they were sacred, you couldn’t put your white elephant to work, so you received no return on the tons of food it was eating and the people you had to employ to look after it. An empathetic monarch would find other gifts to bestow favor on his less wealthy underlings, but a sly one might well present a white elephant to bankrupt a courtier he wanted to dispense with.

White elephant in Myanmar
The phrase seems to have come into English usage through PT Barnum’s fixation on obtaining a rare white elephant for his circus. He paid $100,000 to a nobleman in Siam (presumably enough money to be worth the wrath of the king) and tried to smuggle it out of the country, but it was poisoned and died. Eventually another $200,000 bought him one from the king of Burma. The wretched creature cost him a fortune to transport and feed, and turned out in reality to be very pale grey with some pinkish blotches. Hardly a superstar attraction.

Then, we recently had a meeting of the ANC Executive here to discuss a motion of no confidence in our president, Jacob Zuma. Plagued by multiple scandals, mismanagement, and corruption, it’s hard to see how anyone could have confidence in him. Yet in the end he squeaked through. Saved by the bell, I thought.

No mystery with that phrase, right? A boxer on the ropes or on the mat, being saved by the end of the round. Yet there is another possible origin for the phrase that is popular as much for being colorful as for being correct.

In the nineteenth century, when medical science hadn’t developed much beyond leaches, there was quite a widespread fear of being buried alive. This was not a vain fear; everyone had heard of miraculous recoveries of people pronounced dead only to revive from a coma. An enterprising inventor came up with an idea for a ‘safety coffin’ and patented it in the mid eighteen hundreds. The device allowed the incumbent to pull on a cord which was then connected to a bell on the surface. Thus if you recovered from a premature departure, you would be able to ring the bell and gravediggers would rush to exhume you and allow you to rejoin the world. Hence you would be ‘saved by the bell’.

Sadly, there is no evidence that the safety coffins were ever actually built or used, let alone that anyone was ever saved by one. Even more damning, the first recorded use of being ‘saved by the bell’ was at the end of the nineteenth century and was a newspaper report of a boxing match. Anyway, if our president chose to be put to rest in a safety coffin to be on the safe side, and the bell started to ring after the state funeral, I’m sure it would rapidly be disconnected.

For that matter a ‘dead ringer’ was supposed to come from the same coffin idea, but that one is much more prosaic. A ‘ringer’ is a horse being passed off for another, and ‘dead’ has the alternate meaning of ‘exact’. Too bad. Made a nice story.

Finally, a positive note. The Finance Minister here says the economy has bottomed out and we've turned the corner. Well, as a South African he should know since the phrase comes from ships turning north after coming south on the trip round the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.

Enough. I’ll leave you with a parting shot: if you look a gift horse in the mouth, you may find it long in the tooth. Let's see what Jeff does with that one!


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


Won the 2016 Prix Marianne for the Lagos Lady, the French translation of Easy Motion Tourist:

Easy Motion Tourist / Lagos Lady, was number 2 on Le Monde's list of best thrillers of 2016:

Easy Motion Tourist featured in the Guardian's Best Recent Crime Novel Review Roundup:
Upcoming Event:

March 7 to 16: South African Word Festival, Stellenbosch.


Strange Gods: Paperback, Felony and Mayhem, Feb 2016
Idol of Mombasa: Paperback, Felony and Mayhem, Oct 2016
Sunshine Noir: Editor, White Sun Press, Oct 2016


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, comes out June 6, 2017.
Just signed the contract for the next two Aimée Leduc investigations in Paris with Soho Press.


Signed two-book contract with Severn House.


2016 Barry Award Finalist for Best Novel.

Upcoming Events:

Thursday, February 2, 2017 @ 7:30 PM
Orange, CA

Friday, February 3, 2017 @ 7:30 PM
San Diego, CA


Sunshine Noir: Editor, White Sun Press, Oct 2016


  1. Did you just Play The Trump Card?

  2. Were you avoiding the white elephant in the room??

    1. Alan, I think Annamaria's idea below is perfect in every way except one. I didn't think of it first.

  3. Michael, you do know that the elephant is the symbol of the Republican Party in the US, don't yo? Their elephant logo is usually grey. I think making it a white elephant would be so very apropos. They are a drain on the country, passed off as something positive, but really dragging us all on the road to bankruptcy--moral and otherwise.

    1. I think this is an excellent idea. And really there is nothing grey about them - everything in black and white. Hmm. Let's make that only white. So a white elephant is perfect. Any friends in the KKK who might suggest it to them?

  4. The reason one never looks a gift horse in the mouth is both simple and appropriate to our modern dilemma: it might bite your head off.

    Barumphump. Better yet, Barnumandtrump.