Barbie has her roots in a German doll that wasn’t marketed to children
Q. Did you or your sister own a Barbie doll when you were growing up? What about your daughter? Did you know that Barbie had a secret former life as a “party girl”? A. Lilli started her life as a comic character in the German tabloid “Bild,” described as “an overly sexual starlet with revealing outfits, excessive makeup and hair that probably belonged best in a 1980s rock video,” says Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website. Based on Lilli’s popularity with readers, Bild make a plastic version of her with different removeable outfits and hair color. The Bild Lilli doll wasn’t for kids, though; rather she was marketed for men as a gag gift, given, for example, at a bachelor party. When Bild Lilli’s popularity reached into the pre-teen set, the manufacturer made accessories, furniture, even dollhouses, much to the young owner’s delight.
When businesswoman Ruth Handler and her family visited Germany, she encountered the Bild Lilli doll that was remarkably like the plastic, adult-bodied doll that she’d envisioned a few years earlier for her pre-teen daughter Barbara. But her husband Elliot, co-founder of Mattel, had rejected the idea, “believing that parents wouldn’t want to purchase a curvaceous, overtly sexual toy for their kids.” Wrong — as Bild Lilli had clearly demonstrated.
Mattel launched its original Barbie doll in 1959, similar to its German predecessor but with paler skin and less makeup. Production of Bild Lilli ended in 1964, as Barbie’s popularity grew. “According to the BBC (as of 2006), ‘three Barbie dolls are sold every second.’” Q. Oh, no! You’re on a business trip, talking on your cellphone with an important client, when you notice the phone’s battery is nearly drained. You look around the railway station and see that the few electric wall chargers are all in use. Do you have any other options? A. You just might if you’re in Istanbul or one of a few other cities with transit hubs equipped with public charging stations where you provide your own energy, reports “IEEE Spectrum” magazine. At one bicyclepowered charging kiosk at a railway station in Istanbul, “a generator delivers charge to your electronic device as you pedal — turning your muscle power into the ability to tweet and send emails.” Q. Words can be very versatile — and surprising — even offering meanings that show little connection to each other. Can you define any of the wildly different meanings for “columbine,” “gage,” “mizzle” and “raddle”? A. You’re probably familiar with “columbine” as a kind of plant which, inverted, resembles five doves, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website. From the Italian, “colombina,” for a small dove, it relates to “innocence” or “gentleness.” But it also can mean “a servant girl” or “a saucy sweetheart,” after Columbine, a stock character in commedia dell’arte and the mistress of Harlequin.
“Gage” can mean “a pledge — something offered as a guarantee,” or “an instrument or criterion for measuring or testing,” or even “the thickness or size of something,” like the distance between rails of a railroad track.”
From Middle English “misellen” (to drizzle) comes “mizzle,” a fine rain (earliest documented use 1439). But it also means “to leave suddenly” or “to confuse.”
“Raddle” too has a long history, dating back to 1325. From “rud” (red), it is “a red ocher, used for marking animals, coloring, etc.” But from the English dialect “raddle” (“a stick interwoven with others in a fence”) comes another meaning, “to twist together or interweave.” And a third definition is “to beat or cause to have a worn-out appearance,” as in Brian Purdy’s “The Ripper’s Wife” (2014): “Disease raddled Mr. Strike’s fine, generous mind.”