Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “words”

How Cliché: That “F” list

Face the Music: to meet with consequences. An American saying that derived from the theater. An actor on stage would face the orchestra pit, and the audience. If the audience was a rough lot facing the music meant the actor had a tough performance ahead.

One way of facing the music (

Fair and Square: just with equity. Found in the 17th century the term is redundant since “fair” and “square” are similar in meaning. A “square deal” has similar meaning.

Fair to Middling: mediocre. In mid-nineteenth century America, Artemus Ward wrote in His Travels “The men are fair to middling” meaning things are so-so. Look over “Can’t complain.”

Mmm, average? (thefreedictionary)

Far and Wide: affecting those over great distances. One of the oldest clichés about, dating back to the year of 900. The Old English states it as, “feorr and wide.” Shakespeare added it to Romeo and Juliet with the line from Act Four, Scene Two: “I stretch it out for that word “broad”; which added to the goose, proves thee far and wide a broad goose.”

Feast or Famine: an overabundance or a severe deficit. The original expression stated: “either feast or fast.” During the twentieth century the original changed to the present form of “feast or famine.” Though cliché, it is a term that seems to remain applicable.

(Have a) Field Day: enjoy an outing or occasion. An expression from the 1700s that refers to the military proceeding with maneuver practices. The term then began to appear in the 1800s to civilian matters, such as schools taking students out on excursions. It can also mean to enjoy oneself away from the usual, expected routine or even to immerse in criticizing someone, as in the press having a field day with discovering an unsavory situation about a celebrity or politician.

My kind of field day (Reddit)

(To not care or not worth) A fig: worthless. In the Mediterranean area figs are plentiful, so if something is plentiful it’s not considered as valuable. However, in other parts of the world, such as England, figs have to be imported, so they would have value. This makes it interesting when Shakespeare used the expression in his Henry plays. Why did Shakespeare use the expression. I’m not sure–it’s Greek to me.

Filled to the brim: fulfilled to the absolute possibility. Both Shakespeare and Gilbert applied this cliché in their plays to create the meaning of utmost fulfillment as found Antony and Cleopatra (3:13): “He will fill thy wishes to the brimme” and in The Mikado‘s description of the three maids as “Filled to the brim with girlish glee.”

Or is this better for “My cup overflows”? (blogspot)

There are plenty more expressions for the “F” section. Stay tuned…

Any surprises in the discovered meaning?

How Cliché: Still Taking “A” Look

Back again this month as we continue looking at the clichés found in the “A” section of Christine Ammer’s Have a Nice Day–No Problem.

All that glitters is not gold - Meme Generator

All that glitters is not gold: what you see is not always the truth.
Though is not exactly the same wording the intent is found in Proverbs 13:7, NIV: “One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.” This expression is traced to a Middle Ages proverb and in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice during the suitor scene it is stated, “All that glisters is not gold.” It is an apt saying that has its time and place.

All to the good: everything will turn out well.
“Good” used to be an accounting term applied to overall profit. If something was “all to the good” that meant the outcome was profitable. Today it’s more of a term that indicates the situation might have had some bad moments, yet in the end it all worked out. Another one of those clichés that depends on perspective or use.

All wool and yard wide: the real item–not a fake.
Once upon a day in the yards-good industry, a person would be assured the measurement and quality of the goods was true by stating it was measured by the standard yard. This was an assurance that the item was genuine and substandard measurements were not used. Personally, never heard of this one.

I am Along for the Ride - Happy Grumpy Cat 2 | Meme Generator
Being passive doesn’t mean being unhappy

Along for the ride: passive participation
“I’m just along for the ride.” Might be considered as more of a clarifying statement than an actual cliche. It’s relatively new being traced to the mid-twentieth century.

Another day, another dollar: another work day accomplished.
Back in the day a day’s work would equal a dollar. Today the term is not so literal as it is figurative and is probably stated with a facetious or ironic tone.

Any port in a storm: accepted relief in a desperate situation, even if it isn’t the first choice.
Found in the 18th century in different plays, but thought to have been in use previously. One of those sayings that can truly fit certain occasions.

What is the name of the "a-ok" sign "meme" (if you would call it that)?:  OutOfTheLoop
Pacha agrees that it’s all A-OK

A-OK: just about perfect.
The term “OK” is abbreviated from “okay.” The term “A-OK” is attributed to NASA’s Colonel Power who misunderstood Alan Shepard’s “okay” confirmation that the flight was going well as “A-OK.” It entered into the everyday lexicon and indicates that everything is excellent, the best it can be. That is, unless, one is being sarcastic and applies the term as irony.

A poor thing but mine own: as in “it’s not much, but it’s mine.”
This expression might have been derived from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It when Audrey says, “An ill-favour’d thing, sir, but mine own.” There are many variations of this and I heard it recently in an Australian whodunnit when the sheriff defended one of her officers by saying, “He might be (uncomplimentary term), but he’s our (term). So the expression can take on the sense of ownership pride, loyalty, identity, but then if it came from Shakespeare there are a multiple interpretations already implied.

As the crow flies: the most direct route
Probably originated before the 18th century, the expression is given when a person is getting directions. It should be duly noted that crows can fly over traffic jams, don’t have to stop at toll booths, and avoid gas stations. Then again they don’t have cruise control or tunes while traveling.

At one fell swoop: happening all at once, usually a description of a singular violent incident.
Shakespeare, once again, is the author of this expression which appears in Macbeth. “Fell” at that time meant “fierce” and when it applies to the metaphorical line of how Macduff’s family was brutally murdered as a hawk might swoop down and kill chickens, it is quite appropriate.

Oh I'm not at your beck and call? Yeah that's because I actually have a  life - Koala can't believe it | Meme Generator
So leaf me alone for awhile, ‘kay?

At one’s beck and call: being at someone’s demands.
Oh, we’ve been there, right? When it is required to meet a person’s every need, call, wish, command. “Beck” is no longer in use, but it means “a silent gesture” as in finger beckon or nod of the head. “Call” is to vocalize a need. To be at someone’s beck and call means to be in someone’s line of sight to watch for both a silent gesture or a vocalized instruction. Isn’t that why texting was invented?

At one’s fingertips: instantly ready.
There is an ancient Roman proverb that says, “To know as well as one’s fingers and toes,” meaning it’s readily available. Fingers transformed into fingertips in the USA around the 19th century. I don’t know about you, but my fingertips aren’t always instantly ready. Mixing up the meatloaf puts fingertips on standby status, among other occupations that come to mind.

At this moment/point in time: at a particular time.
My editing fingers get itchy at this phrase. “Wordy” is the penciled side note. Just say “now.” There is also the expression, “At this stage of the game” for sports fans. Where did this phrase originate? It’s thought Watergate leaned heavily on this construct. It was cliché before it left the building.

Are you feeling self-conscious of these expressions now that you realize they could be cliché candidates? Or have you found one that you will casually drop in a conversation some time? They are there at your fingertips and it is A-OK to use them at your beck and call.

Why We Say: From the Real McCoy to Getting Called on the Carpet

Not this McCoy–but the doc is considered a fighter

The real McCoy: When someone announces that someone or something is the “real McCoy” they are not referring to the curmudgeonly doctor from Star Trek’s Enterprise. The real, real McCoy goes back to a prize fighter of that name. The story goes that the fighter was being heckled by a bystander. McCoy did not engage with the man, due to his knockout ability, and those standing around told the heckler to stand down, that he was trying to take on the well-known pugilist. The bystander didn’t believe them, and by this time, he had annoyed McCoy enough to punch the man. While on the ground the heckler had time to ruminate and announced, “Yep, that’s the real McCoy.” I think we can agree that the Enterprise McCoy’s temper was real enough from classic and updated episodes .

Here’s Mud in Your Eye: When hoisting up a toast, someone might say, “Well, here’s mud in your eye.” Not the most favorable of toasts when exploring the original meaning, for it references to the other person being a loser. The expression is derived from a horse jockey alluding to winning since the other jockeys would become muddy from the dirt flung up by the front jockey’s horse hooves. To get mud in your eye simply means you are not considered a winner, and the person is in competition with you. I somehow imagine Cary Grant or Gary Cooper uttering this expression in a movie.

Nest egg: Those who are establishing retirement funds are quite familiar with building a nest egg. Back in the day when it was more common to keep chickens in the backyard, people would leave behind one egg so that the hen would be encouraged to keep laying. From this practice the idea of setting aside a bit of money to ensure its growth developed. The strategy being to continue to add to what is already there. An interesting side note is how a team of researchers tried out this theory on a nesting songbird by taking away all of its eggs but one. The songbird continued to lay eggs to get its clutch up to the usual amount of eggs. The researchers kept taking away eggs, but one. Apparently the songbird laid over seventy eggs. I would like to see my financial nest egg keep laying even if I took away some of the investment.

Nick of time: Hearing someone arrived in “the nick of time” or something happened in “the nick of time” sounds like disaster was utterly avoided. In actuality the “nick” served as an attendance marker back in the day. To keep track of those attending classes or church, the “tally” or attendance stick would be marked or “nicked” to show the person’s presence. To arrive in “the nick of time” means to show up. Not that dramatic after all. Then again, showing up can have impact, especially if you are a dog at the edge of a cliff.

O.K.: If everything is fine we usually signify by saying it’s “OK.” This expression comes from the 1840 presidential campaign with Martin Van Buren. Born in a Hudson Valley village known as “Old Kinderhook” the name became part of a Van Buren support group in New York who dubbed themselves “The Democratic O.K. Club.” Eventually the term OK developed into a rally cry signifying that their candidates were “all right.” Hmm, is being all right politically inclined?

Getting called on the carpet: Oh, oh–getting called on the carpet does not bring up positive images.

Comic Strip

In the former times, the boss’s office would be the only one to have carpet. If an employee was “called on the carpet” it meant a meeting with the boss. This meeting could be pleasant or unpleasant. Note: not all boss offices come complete with kitty litter.

Any of these expressions dazzle you with their origins?

I know I’m going to extra careful around any real McCoys when I make a toast, making sure its ok to joke about their nest egg, hoping my poor humor will save me in the nick of time from being called into the boss’s office. Wait a minute–does my boss even have carpet in his office?

Word Nerd Confessions: October

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I might have mentioned it before that my heritage harkens back to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Since that discovery I have grown more aware of all that is Scottish. This month I favor words that have Scottish roots. I might have to dedicate a post to famous Scots. I do enjoy listening to David Tennant and his broguish wit.

Who has the knack for Scottish wit and bravado? The Doctor, of course.

grumphie: a pig

hooly: gently

sennachie: a storyteller

blellum: an indiscreet talker

atweel: surely

shavie: a trick or a prank

I’ve come across other Scottish words in my readings of authors such as D.E. Stevenson and Allan MacKinnon that leave me puzzled to the point of setting my book down and searching out its meaning.

One of the words that stumped me was “ken.” Sentences like, “I ken your meaning,” really threw me. Context sleuthing pointed me towards understanding, but I finally looked it up and got this from dictionary. com:

verb (used with object),  kenned or kent, ken·ning.

Chiefly Scot.

  1. to know, have knowledge of or about, or be acquainted with (a person or thing).
  2. to understand or perceive (an idea or situation).

Scots Law. to acknowledge as heir; recognize by a judicial act.Archaic. to see; descry; recognize.

To “ken” something means to have a deeper understanding that just a mere acknowledgement. It’s one of those words that doesn’t translate well out of its cultural context–I ken that some words do better in their home language.

What Scottish words have you come across? Better yet, which of the above is one you are adopting? I’m leaning towards grumphie, as I do enjoy Guinea pigs. Then again, tossing out hooly at the right instance could be satisfying.

Word Nerd Confessions: September

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September equals schoolish thoughts. Here are some words that get us on track for edumacating (which is found in the Urban Dictionary) our minds:

nisus (noun): an effort or striving toward a particular goal or attainment; impulse. “Receiving stellar marks is a worthy nisus,” noted the counselor upon hearing the student’s dream of attending Vassar.

intellection (noun): the action or process of understanding; the exercise of the intellect;  reasoning;a particular act of the intellect;a conception or idea as the result of such an act; notion; thought. The purpose of a sound education is to increase one’s intellection.

brio (noun):
vigor; vivacity. “One must continue with tenacity and brio,” the teacher encouraged her students already showing signs of Senioritis.

vinculum (noun):
a bond signifying union or unity; tie. After spending nearly twelve years together in school, the seniors form quite a vinculum by the time they graduate.

august (adj): inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; 
majestic. An august performance of academics is not usually expected of students in September.

athenaeum (noun):
an institution for the promotion of literary or scientific learning; a library or reading room. The teacher momentarily stymied her students when she announced, “We are going to check out your books in the athenaeum.”

solecism (noun): a nonstandard or ungrammatical usage, as unflammable and they was. solecism (noun):

diapason (noun):
a full, rich outpouring of melodious sound. The band teacher smiled in rapture at the unexpected diapason when the first piece was played by his fall students.

hypocorism (noun):
a pet name. Students referred to the principal, Mr. Alderson, as Sonny–never to his open acknowledgement, of course.

sequacious (adj):
following with smooth or logical regularity. The kindergarten teacher held her breath as she led her students down the hallway, hoping they would do so in a sequacious fashion and not fan out like distracted duckling like the last time.

excogitate (verb):
to think out; devise; study intently and carefully in order to grasp or comprehend fully. “One must practice excogitation to fully appreciate James Joyce, ” the English teacher encouraged her students. Silence was her reply.

sennight (noun): a week. The first seven days of school makes for a long sennight.

bezonian (noun):
an indigent rascal; scoundrel. Mr. Jameson felt a headache forming as he checked his roster of new students and noticed Bobby Mack’s name, who had earned a reputation as a bezonian among last year’s students.

lateritious (adj):
of the color of brick; brick-red. Loren always associated education with a lateritious feeling, perhaps due to all her schools being old-fashioned brick buildings.

mea culpa (noun): “my fault!” an acknowledgment of one’s responsibility for a fault or error. Julius Caesar as a student might have admitted “mea culpa!” as opposed to the modern counterpart of “my bad!”

omnifarious (adj):
of all forms, varieties, or kinds. As the students walked in through the front doors it became clear to the admin staff greeting them that they were in for quite a year as the omnifarious batch of teenagers sauntered on towards their classes. Strangely enough, the students were thinking the same of the staff.

having failed, missed, or fallen short, especially because of circumstances or a defect of character; unsuccessful; unfulfilled or frustrated: The teachers gathered and conferred about the manque of several students not having produced a single completed homework assignment all semester.

contextomy (noun):
the practice of misquoting someone by shortening the quotation or by leaving out surrounding  words or  sentences  that  would  place  the  quotation in context. Winston Churchill’s famous WWII speech has fallen under contextomy as most people quote him as saying “Blood, sweat, and tears,” when he actual said “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

univocal (noun):
having only one meaning; unambiguous. “Late is late,” the teacher reminded the student who traipsed in four minutes after the bell rang. “Late is univocal.”

hypnopedia (noun): sleep learning. Placing her French textbook under her pillow at night proved to be an ineffectual attempt at hypnopedia.

And there is your September batch of Word Nerds. True to course here is a short quiz.

  1. Sleep learning is associated with what word?
  2. Nefarious sounds quite a bit like which word?
  3. Sennight means?
  4. What word might a choir teacher appreciate?
  5. Why might having brio be considered a compliment?

Well, what did you learn today? BtW, if you scored at least 4/5 you may pull out your SSR book and read the last five minutes of class.

Why We Say: A Twist on Past Words

Language is fluid. It can start out with one meaning and morph into another definition over time. Here’s a batch of words that have come into their own meaning through the advent of social media:

Tagging, traffic, fan, wall, hacking, search, viral, link, ping, feed, alert, tweet, are just a few. Here are a few others that have changed:


Past: a large nasty creature who hung out under bridges. Sometimes a word used with fishing.

Now: Someone who pokes around online and stirs up responses.


Past: pinkish spongy mystery meat squished into a can.

Now: Unwanted, annoying messages that arrive through email or even as texts.


Past: a chosen companion who shared common interests.

Now: a button-click indicating a degree of superficial commitment.


Past: a preference signifying a degree of indication of favor.

Now: a click response of rating that operates as a indicator of popularity.


Past: to send a written communication through the postal service

Now: a written communication sent through social media most likely as a blog (a neoplasm and a separate post).

What words have you seen come into existence or change due to the influence of social media?

Why We Say: #33–“V”

This month we explore vaccinations, vagabonds, and villains.

Pintrest: “You want me to volunteer for what?”

Cows are the hero in this exploration of vaccinations. Way back when, smallpox was a dreaded disease that disfigured and could be fatal. Interestingly enough, doctors, particularly Dr. Jenner, noticed cows suffered only a mild case of the pox. Someone decided, “You know, by taking a bit of blood from a cow infected with the virus and injecting it into a person, that would probably give that person just a mild case of cowpox.” And because there must have been another astute doctor on this way back when research time, the additional reply might have been:

“Yeah–so if a person gets cowpox, he wouldn’t get smallpox, right? All we need is a volunteer.”

Did they found a willing volunteer or did they do a best Two out of three round of rock-paper-scissors?

By the way the “vacca” in vaccination means cow in Spanish. Consider mooing your thanks to a cow for their contribution to medical science.


well-dressed vagabonds


Before permanent theaters were established in Shakespeare’s time, actors traveled the countryside performing wherever they could. Taking the cue from the Latin “vagaries” meaning “to wander,” these wanderers became known as vagabonds. Eventually the term attached itself to anyone without a fixed home.



image: “Don’t have a cow, Loki. You are a villain.”

Oh those evil people that cause our heroes so many problems: Snidely Whiplash, the Joker, Loki, just to drop a couple of names. Yet, originally there was no evil in the word; in fact, the Latin “villanus” means one who lives on a villa, which was often a farm. A villain was applied to one who worked on a villa or farm. And because these workers were usually poor or of low birth, the wealthy thought these villains to be evil (naturally, right?).


Maybe one villain test could be if the bad guy knows how to milk a cow–wait, Loki wears cow horns. Maybe there is something to this after all.

Why We Say: #31 Tumblers, Turkeys, and Turns


There are many ways to categorize people. Dogs or cats? Soccer or football? Gelato or frozen yogurt? And the big one: glass up or glass down in the cabinet?

Housecleaning isn't what it used to be. Four hundred years ago it was even more of a problem. In fact, it was such a problem, especially dust issues, that glasses were designed with a pointed bottom so that when stored they would "tumble" over unless stored rim side down. Having a German mother, however, I do know about house cleaning, so this entry about tumblers took me to wondering just why we store our glassware in the manner of upside down. And yet, I'm wondering about how people actually used the glasses since they couldn't be set on the table. Were there catchers for these tumblers?


The Ben Franklin story about wanting the turkey as our national bird is not this story. This story sounds like a bit of a fairytale though. Apparently tradesmen having discovered some birds, guinea hens, and sent them back to England by way of Turkey. Do you see what's going to happen here? When the birds arrived they were naturally named Turkey after the country they were thought to have originated from, which is why when settlers from England arrived to America and saw the natives with birds that looked like turkeys they were called turkeys.

I'm having a difficult time with this one too. Sometimes my little Why We Say… book has some really interesting explanations. Checking it out I found this information: maybe my little book isn't so wrong after all.


Taking a few turns…

Turning thumbs up or down

This one is so well known that you probably already know that a gladiator's fate was not always determined by whether he won the fight, but rather how well he fought. Thumbs up–he lived. A turn of the thumb, well, job security as a gladiator was a bit tenuous back then.


Originally, to prevent people from traveling down the road without paying for that privilege, a pike or bar was swung into place. And you thought those little gates were annoying.

Turn the Tables

Just like it sounds, during a certain card game a player could turn the table to replace his perceived poor hand with perhaps a better hand held by his opponent. Wait! That reminds me of a Bugs Bunny cartoon gag (around 3:35–the old carrot juice switcharoo).

Words of Wonder: first set

As a confessed word nerd my thoughts on subscribing to a word-a-day service shouldn’t be too surprising. I know you all have been waiting patiently for my list of words of wonder, words I’ve just learned.

A little background first. As a teacher of Advanced Placement English I know how important finding just the right word can be, and how the essay readers do delight in the right diction. 

With this in mind I polished up a vocabulary system for my students, both Language and Literature, and have enjoyed their weekly sentences. This means my word-a-day segment has slipped to the wayside in our routine. Yet, these words are so delightful I cannot allow them to languish. I have harvested an abundance of verbiage, and like those extra apples on the tree, I feel compelled to share my bounty with my neighbors. 


1. quotidian: usual or customary; everyday: quotidian needs.

Sarah languished in her quotidian routine living on her family’s Kansas farm, and longed for the glamour of New York that she read about in her subscription magazines.

2. obdurate: stubbornly resistant to moral influence; persistently impenitent; unmoved by persuasion, pity, or tender feelings; stubborn; unyielding.

Franklin and Giselle valiantly attempted to persuade Uncle Max from wearing the garish lavender tie inset with tropical fishes to the awards banquet, and the more they pleaded with him, the more obdurate he remained in his refusal to wear the selected navy tie.

3. galimatias: confused or unintelligible talk.

Mrs Lignise sighed as she unfailingly attempted to tune out the loud, annoying galimatias surrounding her, chiding herself for her decision to chaperone the seventh graders on their bus trip to the museum.

Fave Pick of the Week: galimatias

It’s almost onomatopoeic: gal-uh-MEY-shee-uh s

It sounds all garbly and confused. A delicious word.

I’m hoping to interject a shortened version, thus creating a new word adoption.

I introduce “gali” as in: 

She just went on and on about the importance of prepositions. Honestly, it was just gali after the first two minutes.

Hoping your day has been brightened through these wonderful words.

Remember: Avoid lapsing into becoming obdurate about including new words in your quotidian outings.

Why We Say #25: re(a)d

With school starting up again, red is an appropriate color for this month.

image: Twitter

Before delving into our feature, here is another word related to school:


Have you ever wanted to be the originator of a word, to be the one Wikipedia can proclaim as the inventor, to be the one who is lauded as the first to start it all? It can be done, at least according to Why We Say…

Apparently, about a hundred or so years ago, a Dublin theatre manager proclaimed he could create a new word and make it popular enough that it would become part of everyday use, and he could accomplish this in 24 hours. He printed Q-U-I-Z on walls all over the city. The meaning of the word: practical joke. Its use then moved towards meaning a question or a series of questions. I think that explains why my students always say, “Is this a joke?” when they find out there is a pop quiz.

Read the Riot Act

More than one student has been read the riot act for bringing home bad grades–usually a result of not doing well on all those pop quizzes. While getting read the riot act today can involve an angry parent scolding a child, King George I of England in 1716 meant it to be something else. It seems King George did not want any disturbances to break out and one way to stop them was to let the people know of the consequences before they acted up. If the riot did occur the penalty would be servitude for life. Whether that was for the law enforcers or the law breakers is a bit hazy.

Red Cross

What would school be without the school nurse? Due to budget cuts, the school nurse is most likely a box attached to wall with medical supplies. That red cross on the box signifies the Red Cross organization. It’s the reverse of the Swiss flag design of a white cross on a red field. The original intent of the Red Cross was to relieve the suffering caused by wartime injuries, the idea being the inspiration of a Swiss man named Jean Henry Dunant in 1862.

Red Sea

Should this question pop up on a quiz you’ll now know the answer: The Red Sea is so named because the water is so clear that a person can see the beds of red coral, which gives the sea the appearance of being red.

Red Letter Day

Getting an “A” on a quiz (especially a tough one that hadn’t been studied for) might cause celebration as a Red Letter Day. Originally a red letter day signified a feast day for Christians marked on the 15th century calendar. A red letter day came to mean a special day or a special event.

Red Tape

When you think of a process that gets slowed down because it’s tied up in red tape, you aren’t too far from the true meaning. Way back in England, government documents were stored in envelopes secured with red tape because string might damage the contents. Why red? Unknown at this press release. If someone could not get access to a document they needed it was due to it being tied up in red tape. A case of the literal moving to the metaphorical.

Seeing Red

If you are seeing red, perhaps due to a bad quiz grade or getting paperwork work mired in red tape, that you are no doubt as mad as a bull being taunted by a matador waving a red cape. Actually, bulls are color blind, it’s the waving of the flag that annoys them. So next time you are really mad, get away from whatever is waving at your face. You’ll feel much better.

Hoping your back to school season is a red letter day that avoids red tape and pop quizzes so you can sea clearly and not see red enough to require Red Cross.


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