Monday, August 22, 2016

Broadly Speaking

“And she’s broad where a broad should be broad,” sing the love-starved sailors in “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. As everyone knows, broad is a rather inelegant American slang term for a woman.

An acquaintance of mine recently opined that the origin of the term was a shortened reference to “Broadway show girls.” As appealing as this etymology is, experts don’t agree. Experts don’t really agree on anything at all about the origin of the term, but here’s what I found:

In its first known usage in the early 20th century, the word was used to refer to a prostitute. The 1914 work A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang by Jackson and Hellyer defines broad  as: “Noun, current amongst genteel grafters chiefly. A female confederate; a female companion, a woman of loose morals.” But the term quickly came to mean any woman, with no pejorative connotation. In fact, this sense can be found as early as 1911, in the September issue of Hampton’s Magazine: “Pretty soon what is technically known as a ‘broad’—‘broad’ being the latest New Yorkese—hove into sight.”

Some possible explanations of its origin are:
1) It is a reference to a woman’s broad hips.
2) It stems from the transference of “broad,” meaning a “ticket” to refer to a pimp’s “meal ticket,” i.e. a prostitute.
3) It comes from the term “abroadwife,” which meant a woman living away from her husband in the 19th century
4) The word “broad” in the 18th century meant a wide playing card, especially one used in three-card monte, in which the goal is to pick the queen from three moving cards.  So the queen became known as a “broad.”

In its original meaning, referring to something of great breadth, broad derives from Middle English brood, Old English brad, and Old High German breit, all meaning “wide.”

The Broad of Buffalo Bayou,who is the Bard’s consort, finds the term broad to be demeaning to women, whom she prefers to call “dames.”

            There once was a fellow named Claude
            Who referred to his girl as a broad.
                        But Claude was rhotacistic,
                       And the girl went ballistic
            When he mistakenly called her a bawd.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

That’s No Yoke

A sermon by a noted man of the cloth in a recent Houston Chronicle article referred to the “yoke” of an egg.  For the record, eggs do not have yokes—unless, of course, two of them are joined together in the hope that they will somehow be able to pull a wagon or a plow. Yoke, meaning a wooden frame by which two draft animals are connected to each other, is a word that goes back a long way—to Middle English yok, Old English geoc, Latin jugum, Greek zygon, and Sanskrit yuga, all of which mean “join.”

Yolk, which is what every egg worth its salt has, is the yellow portion of a bird’s egg. Its origin also is Middle English, not yok, but yolke, which derives from Old English geoloca, which means, appropriately enough, “yellow.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is quite familiar with eggs, especially the rotten kind, which have often been tossed his way.

              Whenever I eat a soft-boiled egg,
              I laugh and laugh with mirthful glee.
              I always get yellow on my lap and my leg—
              And why do I laugh? ‘Cause the yolk’s on me!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Heroine Addiction

A newspaper description of an upcoming episode of the British detective series “Inspector Lewis” referred to a victim of a “heroine overdose.” At first I thought the poor soul must have had to endure too much Scarlett O’Hara or Jane Eyre or some other admirable female figure and longed for masculine role models. But then, quick as a flash, I realized that the writer meant “heroin” and not “heroine.”

The two words are entirely different, as you realize. But their origins are related. Heroine, with the final “e,” is a mythological or legendary woman having the qualities of a hero, and by extension any woman who is admired for her achievements. It is probably most frequently used to mean the principal female character in a literary or dramatic work. First used in 1609, its root is the Greek hērōinē, feminine of hērōs, “one who serves or protects.”

Heroin, on the other hand, is a brand name for diacetylmorphine trademarked by the German drug company Bayer. It was marketed in 1895 as an over-the-counter cough suppressant. Bayer’s advertising proclaimed it to be “non-addictive,” which proved to be something of an exaggeration. Like the other heroine, Heroin was also derived from the Greek hērōs, because of its perceived “heroic” effects upon the user. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou eschews heroin, and heroines eschew him.  So it works both ways.
              I get no kick from cocaine,
            As Cole Porter chose to explain.                      
                        But he'd go at full throttle
                        With a swig from a bottle
            Of Moët & Chandon champagne.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Led Astray

In three different media I have recently encountered sentences confusing the past tense verb "led" with the noun "lead."  Since publishing an outraged blog on "lead" and "led" almost seven years ago in this space, and another earlier this year, I have seen this deplorable solecism multiply in frequency.  Sad to say, my railing has seemed to be counterproductive.

Nonetheless, I think it is incumbent upon me to repeat the earlier explanations in the hope that some wayward copy editor (if any such still exist) may read it and see the light. Herewith are my previous posts from December 21, 2009, and March 14, 2016.  

From December 21, 2009:

In high dudgeon, a frequenter of this blog has called outraged attention to a news account on the Internet in which a suspect “confessed and then lead police to the crime scene.”  Said frequenter’s ire can be easily discerned in the fulmination directed at the news outlet: “I don’t know who wrote this article – no ‘credit’ is given – but does your Web site have a proofreader? And does that person read and write English?! The past tense of 'to lead' is LED, not LEAD [yes, it’s pronounced the same way – in SOME cases – but the latter pronunciation is a base metal and not a verb]. Basic English, basic proofreading, basic writing.”

One can hardly improve upon this diatribe, except to point out that lead even when pronounced led can also be a verb, meaning to add the metal lead to something, e.g. “to lead gasoline,” “to lead windows,” or “to lead the seat of your pants.”

One can’t avoid some sympathy for those who misuse lead. English being what it is, there’s bound to be confusion between the past tense of lead, which is led, and the past tense of read, which is read(pronounced red, but spelled read). And I hate to even contemplate plead, whose past tense can be pleaded, pled, or plead (pronounced pled). 

The name of the heavy-metal band Led Zeppelin is said to have originated when Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, predicted the new group would go over "like a lead balloon.” Bassist and keyboardist John Entwistle thought it would be "more like a lead zeppelin.” Undaunted, the new band adopted that name, changing the spelling to led in order to avoid mispronunciation.

Making no commitment as to how the following rhyming words should be pronounced, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou offers this ambiguous triplet about someone who seems either to have stolen a quantity of metal or starred in a play.
       In all the papers that I read,
       How eloquently your case you plead:
       That you were right to take the lead.

From March 14, 2016:

In at least three or four places during the last month I have seen sentences that use the verb lead as if it were in the past tense, e.g.: What has lead to this sad state of affairs?

The verb lead, pronounced LEED, is in the present tense. Owing to some arcane philological shenanigans by the Anglo-Saxons, who adopted a few Germanic verb forms, the past tense of lead is irregular, and rather than leaded, it is led, pronounced LED.

The reason that lead is often used for and pronounced like led is twofold. First, there is a noun, lead, meaning a metal, that is spelled in the same way as the verb that is pronounced LEED, but is pronounced LED. Second, the verb lead is understandably confused with the verb read, whose irregular past tense is spelled the same, read, but is pronounced RED.

I do hope that you have now read enough to understand what has led to this confusion.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is always confused, but that is because of the gargantuan swigs of Chardonnay with which he surreptitiously spices up his dreary workdays.

            The books I like to read
            Are ones I’ve never read,
            Until my eyes are red,          
            Though that is sure to lead,
            As it has always led,
            To eyes that feel like lead.    

Monday, July 11, 2016

Drop That Dime!

A vintage Hollywood crime thriller that I was avidly watching not long ago contained this dialogue: “She dropped a dime on him, and now he wants revenge.” To “drop a dime” is not a phrase that I come across every day, and I was a little uncertain of its meaning. 

According to Eric Partridge’s New Dictionary of Slang” it refers primarily to the act of making a phone call—dating from the pre-cellular 1950s, when pay phones required the deposit of ten cents to make a connection.

But why would a fellow want "revenge" just because someone telephoned him?  

Originally, dropping a dime on someone simply meant to call them on the phone.  But during the late 1950s or early 1960s, a writer of hard-boiled detective stories—Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, or Mickey Spillane perhaps; no one seems to know who or just when—first used the phrase “drop a dime on” to mean "call the police to inform on a wrong-doer." So now it primarily means to "act as an informer, or to snitch."

Sports announcers have adopted the phrase to mean an “assist” in basketball, derived from the connotation that someone who snitches on a criminal is “assisting” the police.

Someone ought to drop a dime on the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, but it’s probably too late for that to do any good.

                        A gal who was quite a rip-snorter
                        Told the guy who had asked to escort her,
                                    “You can have a good time
                                    For only a dime,
                        But just think what you’d get for a quarter.”

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bad Words

“Word aversion”—the phenomenon of feeling repugnance toward certain words, not necessarily connected to their meaning, was the topic of a recent New York Times article. Studies have been done at Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago to try to determine what causes this reaction. So far the results are inconclusive.

The Times asked its readers to submit words which repulsed them, and the most frequently disgusting word was moist. Despite its positive associations with such things as chocolate cake and fertile soil, moist also apparently makes people think of bodily fluids. Similar connections with sexual, excretory, or other bodily functions no doubt account for the loathing of such words as groin, crotch, belly, flesh, flabby, tummy, turd, pimple, plaque, pustule, piehole, fart, flatulence, discharge, panties, douche, brassiere, and bosom.

Less easy to explain is the aversion reported by readers to gulp, gargle, grunt, groan, and gasp. The infantile silliness of such words as hubby, tummy, and yummy provides a rationale for their unpopularity.

But I’m stumped when I try to think of what might cause aversion to husband, fiduciary, crucial, whoosh, unguent, orchards, pulchritude, charcuterie, lugubrious, placate, cornucopia, fudge, squab, meal, and velvet, all of which received multiple thumbs-down from Times readers.

Readers of the verses of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou have reported aversions to every word he uses, including “and” and “the.” 

            A most fastidious Persian
            Suffered extreme word aversion,
                        His vocabulary
                        Offered up nary
            A word that escaped his aspersion.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


In a recent op-ed article Garrison Keillor wrote that one of the Presidential candidates (feel free to guess which one) is: “…the class hood, the bully and braggart, the guy revving his pink Chevy to make the pipes rumble…the C-minus guy who sat behind you in history and poked you with his pencil and smirked when you asked him to stop…the first punk candidate to get this close to the White House.”

I do not recall when we have had a prominent politician who might credibly be called a “punk.”  What does that mean?

The most prevalent current definition of punk is “worthless person.” But it has many other applications, from rock music to clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, jewelry, and body modifications. The word has a long and sordid etymological history.
In its first incarnation, in the late sixteenth century, a punk was a female prostitute. Shakespeare uses the word in three of his plays, including Measure for Measure, in which Duke
Vincentio asks Mariana if she is a maid, a wife, or a widow, and she says no to all three. Lucio intervenes: "She may be a punk, for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife." Also in All's Well That Ends Well, the Clown tells the Countess of Roussillon that his answer to one of her questions is "As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney, as fit as your French crown for your taffety punk." ("French crown" refers not only to the King of France and his bald pate, but also to a symptom of syphilis.) 

The word panjandrums don’t know the origin of this meaning of punk, but other definitions soon derived from it: “nonsense, foolishness,” “young, inexperienced person, novice,” “obnoxious child,” “petty gangster, hoodlum, ruffian,” “young homosexual partner, especially among hoboes or in prison.”  By the 1920s punk was generally established as meaning “good-for-nothing.”
(From an entirely different etymological stream, beginning with Delaware Algonquian ponk, meaning “dust, powder, ashes,” came the definition of punk  as “rotten wood used for tinder.”)

So if you haven’t guessed which candidate the word punk was applied to, here’s a hint: it is the candidate who, in Keillor’s words, is “obsessed with marble walls and gold-plated doorknobs, who has the sensibility of a giant sea tortoise.”

And no, he’s not referring to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. He has the sensibility of laughing hyena—and the eloquence of an earthworm.

When Jefferson and Adams sparred,
The insults flew with no holds barred.
To help their Presidential aims,
They called each other awful names,

“Coward, hypocrite, and libertine,
Weakling, fool”—oh, they were mean!
“Criminal, tyrant, atheist.”
But there is one slur that they missed.

Despite their penchant for hyperbole
And all the potshots they took verbally,
Neither of them would have thunk
A White House hopeful was a punk.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Blighty Is A Bit of All Right

A friend in Mauritius recently wrote to me of his reminiscences of the days when we both lived in Blighty. Blighty, or “dear old Blighty,” as it’s most commonly known, is an affectionate name for England primarily used by expatriates as they long nostalgically for the joys of home. The word originated in Victorian India under the British Raj and became widely used during the Boer War and especially in World War I, when it showed up in poems about homesickness on the battlefield by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

According to most sources, the origin of the word is the Urdu vilāyatī, and a regional variation, bilayati, which apparently meant “courage,” but came to be used as a synonym for “foreign” or “European” and later, specifically, “English.” During World War I, the British War Office published a magazine called Blighty, with material written by men on the front lines. From this came the term “Blighty wound,” which was an injury severe enough to get a man sent home, but not bad enough to be life-threatening. (It was not unknown for such “Blighty wounds” to be self-inflicted.) In the 1950s there was a racy humor magazine called "Blighty."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou sometimes thinks about his days in dear old Blighty, where fish and chips were only a shilling and a half-pint of bitter could be had (in one of the less fashionable pubs) for eightpence. That was before the Bard had established his reputation as purveyor of execrable verses of questionable taste, such as:

                        There was a young lass from Old Blighty,
                        Who fancied herself Aphrodite.
                                    It set off alarms
                                    When she flaunted her charms
                        By parading around in her nightie.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Right Down to It

In the coming cataclysmic Armageddon—or should I say Presidential election?—it will soon be time to get down to the nitty-gritty. The nitty-gritty is defined as “essential, practical, basic details—often harsh or unpleasant.” And where, you ask, does the phrase originate?

It has been around since the 1930s, but gained great currency in the 1990s after President Bush 41, in a classic malapropism at a country music awards show, referred to the “Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird,” instead of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (In doing so, Mr. Bush rivaled John Travolta’s introduction of Idina Menzel at the Oscar awards as Adele Dazeem.)

Consult a dictionary and you will find that nitty-gritty’s etymology falls back on that favorite explanation: “origin unknown.” The term has etymologists stumped—but not for lack of trying.

It has been alleged that it started as a derogatory allusion to the scant belongings of enslaved Africans carried on British ships in the 18th century, with “nitty” perhaps a euphemism for another n-word.  But there is absolutely no evidence for this theory and the phrase does not appear in print until the 1930s.

The Online Etymological Dictionary suggests it has something to do with “grits,” i.e. finely ground corn, and was a term used by African-American jazz musicians. Other word sleuths point to the “nit” reference to head lice, without much logical justification. Still others, perhaps under the influence of President Bush’s favorite band, think it stems somehow from the qualities of dirt or gravel, and there have been attempts to link the phrase to the kind of stubborn determination known as “true grit” and to the lamebrained person we call a “nitwit.” None of these ideas can be substantiated.

Copyright records from 1937 show a song called “The Nitty Gritty Dance,” by Arthur Harrington Gibbs. The term pops up in Alice Childress’ 1956 novel Like One of the Family and in the phrase “nitty-gritty gator” (“a low-life dude”) in a description of hepcat slang in The Daily Journal of Commerce, Texas, in June of 1956.

But it was not until the 1960s that the term came into general usage, popularized by “The Nitty Gritty,” a song by Lincoln Chase, recorded by Shirley Ellis and later by Gladys Knight and the Pips. In the lyrics of that song,
            Everybody's asking what the nitty gritty,
            The nitty gritty's anything you want it to be,
            Just stir it up from the soul,
            And when it starts to fizz,
            That's what the nitty gritty is.

According to the blogger Azizi Powell, “getting right down to the nitty-gritty” in a dance context means “ to be real in the way that you dance–to put aside fake societal notions of being stiff, or refined, or too controlled in the way you move….to get funky.”

That may be all we ever know about “nitty-gritty”—and all we need to know.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t mind getting down to the nitty, but he prefers to have nothing to do with the gritty.
            There once was an old etymologist
            Who longed to be a philologist,
                        When he failed in that quest,
                        He said, “Still I’m blessed,
            For at least I’m not a proctologist.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Once More Unto the Breech!

Gaze upon these solecisms that have actually appeared in magazines and newspapers—publications that I would have thought employed editors schooled in the rudiments of the English language, but apparently do not:

            “A central tenant of the University’s philosophy…”

            “I would of helped if I could of….”

            “The excitement left me unphased….”

            “Put a cube of beef bullion in two cups of water…”

            “I promised to forego chocolate…”

I used to be a copyeditor for a daily newspaper, and believe me, if I had let one of these atrocities see print, I would have been ridiculed mercilessly, and probably hooted off the copy desk, by my colleagues. That was, of course, more than fifty years ago, when copyeditors were expected to be omniscient (reporters, not so much).

It goes without saying, or at least it should, that the correct words in each case are:

            “tenet” – Latin for “he holds,” from tenēre (“hold”), meaning a principle or doctrine generally held to be true.

            “would have…could have…” –  these are known as “past modal” verbs and are followed by a past participle to indicate action that did not take place but was possible.

            “unfazed” –  from Old English fēsian (“drive away”), meaning “disconcert, daunt.”

            “bouillon” – from French boillir (“boil”), meaning a “clear seasoned soup.” Bullion, meaning “gold or silver melted into bars,” is thought to be a conflation of Middle French bille (“ingot”) and Anglo-French buillon (“cauldron”).

            “forgo” –  from Middle English forgān (“pass by”), meaning “do without.” Although forgo should not be confused with forego, meaning “come before,” some dictionaries now throw up their lexical hands in frustration and say, “Go ahead and use the words interchangeably if you like.” Tch, tch.

            There once was a very sad gent
            In the cold, gray light of the dawn:
            His trouble was that he forewent
            When he clearly should have forgone.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Who’s A Bigot?

One of the customers has been investigating the origin of the word bigot. I suspect that his interest was piqued by the recent rise to prominence of certain politicians (their names will not appear in this apolitical blog, but you know who they are) whose pronouncements might lead one to believe the word applied to them. 

The primary meaning of bigot, from the 16th century, was “religious hypocrite,” but by the 17th century it had taken on the meaning of “a person obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a religious creed or opinion.” Abraham Cowley used the word in his 1661 Discourse Concerning Oliver Cromwell, in which he wrote, “He was rather a well-meaning and deluding Bigot, than a crafty and malicious Impostor.” Today the word has the added connotation of “intolerant.”

Where the word originally came from has provoked vigorous disagreement among scholars, with the result that nobody can really say. The best explanation that most dictionaries offer for its etymology is: “from French bigot (12th century), of unknown origin.”

The earliest French use of the word is in the 12th-century Romance of Girard de Roussillon, in which it is used to refer to the people living south of Gaul. From this instance, it has been inferred that bigot is a corruption of Visigoth. Since the Franks were Catholic and the Visigoths were Arian, the term might therefore have taken on the meaning of “foreign heretic.” But phoneticists claim there is no connection between bigot and Visigoth (although there is apparently a Middle Latin word Bigothi, in reference to Visigoths.)

Bigot later became a French derogatory term for the Normans, and one story is that it originated in the refusal of Rollo, the Viking ruler of Normandy, to refuse to kiss the foot of the 10th-century Carolingian King Charles the Simple, by defiantly shouting “Ne se, bi go”—a supposedly Germanic way of saying “No, by God!” Normans were allegedly fond of uttering “bi go” as a common oath. Bigott shows up as a Norman surname as early as the 11th century.

Try as they might, etymologists have not been able to establish a connection between bigot and the Spanish bigote, which means “mustache.” The chief virtue of the theory, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, is that “there is no evidence for or against it.”

Others think the early use of bigot to mean “religious hypocrite” sprang from the Beguines, a 12th-century community of women ascetics in The Netherlands, who took their name from Lambert le Bègue ("Lambert the Stammerer”), a priest who was instrumental in their founding. The order later attracted mendicants who sought contributions in the guise of religion—giving rise to the word beggar.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou rejects the notion that he is a bigot. He says that all his benighted opinions, to which he clings immovably, are not only reasonable but self-evident.
            I’m not a bigot, no I’m not,           
            The word does not apply to me.
            But of my friends, I know a lot—
            All those with whom I disagree.

Monday, May 9, 2016


One hears a lot these days about the evils of “bullying,” especially among teens and pre-teens using online social media. Bullying is often spoken of as if it were some new and unspeakably horrid societal illness that must be stamped out like a forest fire. Many steps have been taken to eliminate it, seemingly without much success, and its presence on on the Internet only intensifies its animus. As much as we may deplore it, we should probably acknowledge that bullying is an inherent human behaviorial trait that we have to live with as a necessary evil.

In my schooldays, there was plenty of bullying among boys of my acquaintance. Those who were so inclined would taunt, make jokes about, and sometimes do (relatively mild) physical violence to male classmates (myself among them on occasion) who wore glasses, did well (or notably badly) in academics, were fat (or skinny), lacked the physical coordination to excel in sports, played a musical instrument, belonged to a religious denomination other than mainline Protestantism, or were perceived to be lacking in testosterone, observant of regulations, submissive to authority, or well-liked by teachers. Although I have no personal knowledge of girls’ behavior, I expect the same was true of them. Most of those who were bullied fretted about it for a while, but then got over it moved on.

Literature is filled with bullies: Creon, who badgered Antigone; Goneril and Regan, who pushed their old dad around; Jane Austen’s Emma, who was snide to Miss Bates; Jack, who bullied everyone in The Lord of the Flies; and the tormentors of Holden Caulfield’s unfortunate classmate James Castle who responds by jumping out a window to his death.

So just what is a bully? Today the word means someone who is cruel to those who are different from and presumably weaker than the bully. But originally, in the 16th century, it was just the opposite—a bully was a “sweetheart,” of either sex. It derived from the Middle Dutch broeder (“brother”) and Middle High German buole (“brother”). Bully is cognate with the modern German Buhle (“lover”). 

Over the centuries, the meaning of bully deteriorated, first meaning a “fine fellow,” then a “blusterer or a braggart” and finally by the late 17th century, “harasser of the weak.” This may have been influenced by the similarity of the word bull (“male bovine”), although its root word is entirely different.  One etymologist theorizes that the connection between “lover” and “ruffian” may have originated from “protector of a prostitute,” which was an early 18th-century meaning of bully.

As a throwback to the earlier, positive sense of the word, “bully” is also an expression that means “admirable, good, superb,” as in the expression “Bully for you!” or “bully pulpit,” a coinage of Theodore Roosevelt’s referring to the presidency as a platform from which to advocate policy.
Not surprisingly, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is often bullied by fellow poets, but usually he is too deep into the Chardonnay to realize it, so their ridicule never fazes him.

            There once was a student who was clever and quick
            At reading and writing and ‘rithmetic.
            One day he was bullied, and he told them to stop,
            Then he told the teacher, and she called a cop.

            The cop hauled the bullies straight down to the jail,
            And the judge threw the book at them, granting no
            The bullies have promised that they’ll mend their 
            When they get of jail in about thirty days.