Auntie Em and the hex wrench

Two cartoons in today’s feed: the 4/5/10 One Big Happy, in which James copes with an unfamiliar technical label by assimilating it to a name he knows; and the 3/21 Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, with a cute play on hex wrench.

Auntie Em. The strip:

(#1) The Auntie Em Card

James hears /e ti ɛm/ card, which at his age I might have guessed meant, mysteriously, ’80 M card’, but James  reaches for something he actually knows, the phonologically more distant /ænti ɛm/ ‘Auntie Em’, the name of a Wizard of Oz character (Dorothy Gale’s aunt).

In this telling of the story, it fails to occur to both James and me that /e ti ɛm/ is an initialism, ‘A T M’, referring to those cash machines. Maybe you know that the initialism originally stood for automated teller machine, in which case it will make some sense for you — so long as you understand about tellers in banks, and about machines that automatically replicate some of the functions of such tellers; otherwise the expression automated teller machine is just as opaque as the letter-sequence ATM.

In any case, James’s reaching for Auntie Em is a triumph of the hope that apparently novel expressions will turn out to be familiar ones, or at least be analyzable into familiar parts.

[Brief digression on replaying the strip. OBH is working its way through day-by-day replays of 2010, which is fine with me, since I didn’t start reading the strip until 2012, so it’s all new to me. But I did wonder whether Rick Detorie has gone into some form of retirement, and is mostly living off the fruits of his earlier work (not that there would be anything wrong with that). It turns out that it took quite some time for him to luck on the idea of One Big Happy; he was, in fact, 36 when the strip debuted in 1988. He’s now 69 (born 11/10/52), and entitled to do whatever he wants with the strip.]

Hex Wrench. It’s right there in the title “Hex Wrench”, of today’s Bizarro (Wayno’s extra title is “Six Sides, No Waiting”):

(#2) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

An elaborate pun on hex

From NOAD on one hex:

verb: North American [with object] cast a spell on; bewitch: he hexed her with his fingers. noun: a magic spell; a curse: a death hex.

The English noun and verb hex (OED2: ‘chiefly US’) come from the Pa. Dutch folk; the Pa. German verb corresponds to Standard German hexen ‘to work magic, to practice witchcraft’ (die Hexe ‘witch’).

But then there’s a second hex, a clipping from hexadecimal (referring to a numeral system with 16 = 6 + 10 basic symbols) or hexagon(al) (referring to something with 6 sides ) — both using Gk. hex ‘six’. It’s hex ‘hexagon(al)’ in #2.

The two senses come together in the tent of Gypsy magic, where Romany spells, charms, and fortunes are for sale. (Nobody expects the Romany incantation!)

In this case, the young woman is purchasing a charmed device that will put a hex on the target of her fury, by casting a frog-transformation spell on him. (The musical accompaniment for this is “I Put a Hex On You”, discussion below.)

The charmed device for this purpose is a (6-sided) Allen wrench — also known as an Allen key, a hex key, or, yes, a hex wrench. From Wikipedia:

(#3) (photo from Wiktionary)

A hex key (also, Allen key and Allen wrench [and hex wrench]) is a simple driver for bolts or screws that have heads with internal hexagonal recesses (sockets).

Hex keys are formed from a single piece of hard steel hexagonal rod having blunt ends that fit snugly into similarly-shaped screw sockets. The rods are bent to 90º, forming two arms of unequal length resembling an “L”. The tool is usually held and twisted by its long arm, creating a relatively large torque at the tip of the short arm; it can also be held by its short arm to access screws in difficult-to-reach locations and to turn screws faster at the expense of torque.

(Hex wrenches typically come in sets, with heads in a range of sizes.)

She’s going to hex him with a hex wrench — obviously the right tool for this purpose.

The music. I have, alas, given myself a terrible earworm, but the musical accompaniment for the Bizarro cartoon is clearly Candye Kane’s “I Put a Hex on You”, from her 2009 album Superhero — a feminine revenge song that you can listen to here. The crucial bit:

I left it on your doorstep
On a moonlit night
You did me wrong before
You can’t make it right
You thought it was so easy
You didn’t have a clue
… I put a hex on you

From Wikipedia (much edited down) about the singer, who was one tough broad (in my book, that’s very high praise):

Candye Kane, born Candace Hogan (November 13, 1961 [in Ventura CA] – May 6, 2016), was an American [bisexual] singer-songwriter of Jewish descent. She was best known in the blues and jazz genre. … She also had a career as a pornographic actress during porn’s golden age.

… she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer [in 2008 and] died from the disease [in] 2016, aged 54.

Bonus: more hex. From my 7/31/13 posting “Wednesday puns”, about two strips, the second of them a Pearls Before Swine with the word play Hex-Mex (for a kind of restaurant), which through the Pa. Dutch link in the history of English hex led me to Pa. Dutch hex signs. The Pearls:

(#4) Rat the restaurant entrepreneur

From Wikipedia:

Hex signs are a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art … found in the Fancy Dutch tradition in Pennsylvania Dutch Country [AZ: my mother’s people]. Barn paintings, usually in the form of “stars in circles,” grew out of the fraktur and folk art traditions about 1850 when barns first started to be painted in the area.

(#5) A barnstar from the Glencairn Museum (Bryn Athyn PA) site on the 2019 exhibition “Hex Signs: Sacred and Celestial Symbolism in Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Stars”

By the 1940s commercialized hex signs, aimed at the tourist market, became popular and these often include stars, compass roses, stylized birds known as distelfinks [literally ‘thistle-finches’: in ordinary English, goldfinches], hearts, tulips, or a tree of life.

(#6) A distelfink hex sign (also featuring two tulips and a heart)

Two schools of thought exist on the meaning of hex signs. One school ascribes a talismanic nature to the signs, the other sees them as purely decorative… Both schools recognize that there are sometimes superstitions associated with certain hex sign themes, and neither ascribes strong magical power to them.

… the term “hex sign” was not used until the 20th Century, after 1924 when Wallace Nutting’s book Pennsylvania Beautiful was published.

(#7) The commercial folk art is often quite beautiful: above, a double unicorn by artist Jacob Zook

I have suppressed the desire to unload a great pile of images here; I take great pleasure in the designs, and they’re also deeply nostalgic.


One Response to “Auntie Em and the hex wrench”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The only thing missing is a suggestion that one of the women in the Bizarro strip could be a Hex Wench.

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