When Did the Do Not Call List Stop Working?

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There was once a time when picking up a call from an unfamiliar number didn’t guarantee you’d be talking to a robot. For several years following its introduction in 2003, the Do Not Call list successfully sheltered individuals from unwanted calls about gym memberships and cheap travel packages. Companies respected the list, and if they didn’t, they faced legal ramifications.

Then, at the turn of the decade, something changed. Telemarketing scams began trickling through the cracks, and today the Do Not Call list is about as effective as a free cruise offered over the phone is free.

So what happened? It may not be evident to current members, but the National Do Not Call Registry does work—with some numbers, at least. According to the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act, telemarketers (excluding surveyors, politicians, and charities) can be fined up to $40,000 for ignoring the list. So when it comes to calls from legitimate, law-abiding businesses within the U.S., the Do Not Call list is a useful barrier. Problems arise when callers never intend to follow the law in the first place.

Around 2010, the same time the internet made international calls a lot less expensive, phone scammers began relocating outside the U.S. Whether they’re calling from India or Jamaica, voice over internet protocol technology makes spamming numbers with prerecorded messages cheap and easy. Another trick, known as "call spoofing," allows frauds to input fake caller IDs to make it seem like they’re calling from within the country. Some telemarketers even go so far as to call from the recipient’s home area code, leading the person on the receiving end to think it’s someone they know.

“It’s difficult to identify who’s actually placing the call because of the call spoofing,” Maureen Mahoney, a public policy fellow for Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign, tells Mental Floss. “So that also makes it difficult to track these people down.” Even when authorities do catch up to operations working in foreign countries, most of the money scammed from consumers has already been spent. It’s no wonder that the U.S. loses billions of dollars to scam calls each year.

Phone owners are well aware of the problem. “We actually sent out an email to our list asking what’s one of the issues you’re most concerned about, and overwhelmingly the response was robocalls,” Mahoney says. Consumers Union took action by launching their campaign to end robocalls in 2015. Instead of going after lawmakers, who often receive the brunt of the public’s blame, the initiative targets phone companies. A petition on the organization's website calls on phone company CEOs to “provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach my phone.”

“We really believe that the phone companies are in the best position to address the problem,” Mahoney says. “They’re the ones with the best engineers and the technology and the know-how.” Some industry leaders have taken steps to tackle the issue. Time Warner customers have the option to sign up for Nomorobo, a service that blocks illegal robocalls, for free. AT&T made a similar option available for select devices in December, and T-Mobile rolled out a robocall-blocking feature of its own in April. But there are still many companies that have no such resources available, or only offer them at an additional cost.

If electing to block robocalls through your service provider is impossible or impractical for you, there are other ways to protect yourself. When an unknown number lights up your screen, don’t pick up. Sometimes a “hello?” is all the information telemarketers need to confirm you’re a living human being who is worth calling again. If you do decide to answer, don’t be afraid to hang up as soon as things start feeling fishy. Staying on the phone gives scammers more opportunities to squeeze information from you, so even asking to be taken off their list is more trouble than it’s worth.

One of the most notorious scams to look out for today is the IRS phone scam. To trick their victims, callers (sometimes calling from a bogus Washington D.C. area code) will say they work for the IRS and demand to be paid immediately. Americans have been cheated out of tens of millions of dollars as a result of this scheme.

Mahoney also warns consumers to be wary of calls claiming to come from card services (“We can offer you a lower interest rate!”), tech support (“We can fix your computer!”), and even your phone company (“You need to pay your bills! Could we have your card information?”). Even if you suspect the call's legitimate, it's always best to end the conversation and call back using a number you trust. “If someone’s asking for your personal or financial information, hang up the phone right away,” Mahoney says. “Report it to the FCC.” You can contact the Federal Communications Commission with your complaints here.

We already know that the Do Not Call Registry alone isn’t enough to keep telemarketers at bay, but it doesn’t hurt to keep your name on the list—even if all it does is cut down the amount of robo-harassment you receive each week by a call or two.

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What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

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iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

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