Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Joint Endeavor

I recently came across a reference to someone “casing the joint.” It means to inspect premises, usually with the intent of robbing them. It originated as underworld slang around 1900. But why?

Joint  in old slang meant a criminal association, based on the fact that it was a “joint endeavor.” Later it meant a place where criminals gather.  By the 1880s in the United States joint referred specifically to an opium den, and from that use its meaning spread to include illegal saloon, brothel, gambling den, night club (“juke joint”), cheap restaurant, and, finally, any kind of place or establishment. It’s also suggested that its later meanings derived from the notion of a private side-room, “joined” to the main room of a place of business, where unsavory people might gather to gamble, drink, smoke, take drugs, and conduct illegal operations. 

The verb case, meaning “enclose in a case,” dates to the 1570s. Not until around 1915 did the word enter American slang with the meaning of “inspect or examine,” perhaps from the idea of looking at something from all sides, in the same manner as a case, or box, would enclose it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou cases every joint he frequents before he will enter it.  And he never gets too far from the door, so as to make a quick getaway if required. He’s also getting lazy, as evidenced by this reprint of a verse that appeared in this space a few years ago.  But it’s still valid!

            My joints are worn but they don’t creak yet,
            My plumbing’s old but doesn’t leak yet,
            My hair is thin and turning white,
            I cannot see things well at night.
            My heart needs help to keep its rhythm,
            My lungs, I’m sure, have things wrong with ‘em.
            My knees are getting very wobbly—
            I have a few years left, most prob’ly.
            But though I’m crumbling bit by bit,           
            I am not ready yet to quit.
            Instead, I think that I would rather
            Find all those rosebuds I should gather.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Wrack or Rack?

I have racked my brain to find someway to prevent the nation from going to wrack and ruin.

Or should that be “I have wracked my brain” to find some way to prevent the nation from going to “rack and ruin”?

Etymologists seem to waffle a bit on this one, with more than one so-called expert suggesting that either rack or wrack might be correct. 

Rack in the sense of “racking one’s brain” means to “torture,” in reference to the medieval practice of inflicting pain on recalcitrant heretics by placing them on a movable rack pulling their limbs in different directions. Oooh, that would hurt. The word has its origin in Old English reccan, meaning to “stretch.”

Bryan Garner, in his always reliable Dictionary of Modern American Usage is unequivocal. “The idiom is rack one’s brains,” he writes. “The root meaning of rack is to stretch, hence to torture by stretching.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference to this usage is in a 1583 poem by Edward Farr, in which he writes, “Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.” 

Some etymologists, however, suggest the idiom is “wrack—with a ‘w”—one’s brain,” that is to “destroy” it or “ruin it completely,” which is the meaning of wrack, stemming from the Old English wræc, or “misery, punishment.” That is clearly the reference in the phrase “wrack and ruin,” in which wrack means “utter destruction. 

The term “going to wreck” was used as early as 1548 by the clergyman Ephraim Udall, who wrote in a sermon, “The flocke goeth to wrecke and utterly perisheth.”  By 1577 the phrase “wrack and ruin” was used by Henry Bull in his translation of Luther’s Commentarie upon the fifteen psalms: “Whiles all things seeme to fall to wracke and ruine.”

But there has always been confusion about the word.  In 1599 historian Thomas Fowler in The History of Corpus Christi College wrote, "In the mean season the College shall goe to rack and ruin."

Maybe it would be better simply to think very hard about a way keep the country from going to the dogs.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou went to the dogs years ago and can’t get back.
       I’m sittin’ here frettin’ and cursin’ and stewin'
       While the country is goin’ to rack and to ruin.
       I’m waitin’ to see the next message on Twitter
       From the feverish brain of the orange-colored critter.
       Do you think it might be a good deal on Trivago
       For a really cheap rate at that swank Mar-a-Lago? 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“That Sucks! Or Does It?”

“Be lousy” was the clue in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle, and the correct solution was SUCK. Some linguistic purists raised eyebrows at the inclusion of this word in a popular daily puzzle that may be attempted by staid Presbyterian preachers, precocious third-graders, or prim maiden aunts. Its presence in a usually G-rated puzzle struck some critics as jarring—for a journal that regards any words that whiff of impropriety as not fit to print. But is the root of suck, when used to denote something undesirable, a reference to bodily functions best left unmentioned at the breakfast table—or did it originate in something quite innocuous?

The basic meaning of the word suck is to “draw liquid into the mouth through a vacuum created by moving the lips and tongue.” It ultimately comes from Latin sugere, via Old High German, Old English (sūcan), and Middle English (suken). Babies do it with milk, bees with nectar, and vampires with blood. The word is believed to be imitative, a re-creation of of the sound made when sucking. It’s been around in English since at least the ninth century.

British schoolchildren have used the phrase “sucks to you” as a term of contemptuous dismissal since the nineteenth century. The origin of that phrase is thought to stem from “go suck an egg.”

The first usage of suck to mean “be contemptible” or “be undesirable” has been traced by the Online Etymology Dictionary to 1971. There are several theories as to its origin.

One possibility is that it means simply to “suck the joy out of something.” Another is that it comes from the phrase often used by farmers to indicate something inferior: “it sucks hind teat,” referring to the position on the mother’s udder to which the runt of a litter of pigs is usually relegated. Some wordsmiths believe suck originated as a term among jazz musicians to indicate an inferior horn player who sounded as if he was sucking on his instrument rather than blowing.

There is, however, general agreement among etymologists that suck owes its usage as a derogatory term to a sexual connotation. The word was first used to refer to oral sex in 1928. Despite its seeming history, most etymologists also agree that over the years suck has lost its connection to a sex act and today, while it still may be slightly vulgar in polite usage, it is not regarded as obscene.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is almost always regarded as obscene, not only in his execrable verses, but also in his personal habits, of` which the less said the better.

            To read the failing New York Times
            Some think would be the worst of crimes.       
            They scan the paper’s Op-Ed pages
            And find opinions quite outrageous.
            Then, to hold on to their sanity,
            They turn to pseudo-news from Hannity.   

Monday, March 20, 2017

Wi-Fi Revisited

One of the customers recently asked the meaning of the phrase “Wi-Fi.” You see it advertised everywhere—hotels, bars, coffee shops, airports, airplanes—sometimes free and sometimes for a hefty fee.

What Wi-Fi means is the technology enabling electronic devices such as computers and phones to connect to the Internet without wired connections.  It is in fact a set of controls (officially designated “The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 Direct Sequence Standards”) allowing access to certain radio frequencies on which computer communication can be established.

The Wi in Wi-Fi obviously means “wireless.” But what about the Fi? I've covered this before in a blog, but apparently people forget.  Wi-Fi is a trademarked name that was coined around 1999 by Interbrand, a firm of brand consultants. According to the founder of the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi was created as a pun on Hi-Fi, which is short for “High Fidelity,” a phrase used by the audio industry to refer to exceptionally high quality sound reproduction. The Fi in Wi-Fi, then, really doesn’t stand for anything.  It just has a nice ring to it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t stand for anything either. But that’s fine with him, since his readers can’t stand his verses.

                        A high-tech young man uses Wi-Fi,
                        Reads Sci-Fi, and listens to Hi-Fi.
                                    And to prove his modernity,
                                    He joined a fraternity—
                        And now he’s a brother at Pi Fi.

Monday, March 6, 2017

“…As Long As They Spell Your Name Right”

P. T. Barnum is credited with famously saying, “Any kind of publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right.” This aphorism came to mind today when the Houston Chronicle had a front-page spread on a new energy exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which is being overseen by Paul Bernhardt. The Bernhardt in question is actually Paul Bernhard (with no “t”), who happens to be my son. C’est la vie.

As it happens, the original quotation is actually: “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” And Barnum is not the only person who is credited with assuring us that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, George M. Cohan, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, and President Harry S. Truman are among those to whom that quote has been attributed at one time or another.  Maybe they all said it, but which one was first?

In Safire’s Political Dictionary, the late New York Times columnist William Safire gave credit for the saying to “Big Tim” Sullivan. Sullivan was a controversial political figure prominent in New York’s Tammany Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He served briefly in Congress and was responsible for early gun control legislation known as the “Sullivan Act.”

But Michael Turney, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Kentucky University, has deduced  that Barnum must be the one who originated the saying. “Chronologically, he came first,” says Turney, “and, to me, he seems to have been the most outspoken and the most self-deprecatingly cynical… It simply sounds like something he would have said.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows plenty of names that are difficult to spell. He is especially troubled by “Taliaferro,” which for some arcane reason is pronounced “Tolliver.”

            I met a young lady named Taliaferro,
            At a matinee showing of “Oliaferro!”
            Her looks made me quiaferro
            From my lips to my liaferro,
            In fact I was quiaferroing alliaferro!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Gaby Talk

I have been rereading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which originally appeared in 1885, and which I first read a little while after that, when I was about five. I came across one line from a poem called “Good and Bad Children” that puzzled me then and puzzled me once more seventy-five years later.
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            All grow up as geese and gabies,
            Hated, as their age increases,
            By their nephews and their nieces.
What, I wondered at five, and again at nearly eighty, is a gaby?

It turns out it’s a British dialect word, from the Midlands and the North Country, which means “simpleteon.” Its first appearance in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796.

Its etymology mystifies the etymologists—so what are we poor mortals to make of it?  It’s possible it is related to the Old Norse gapa, which came down to us through Old English, and means “an openmouthed stare of wonder or awe.”  Some experts want to connect it to the Iceland gapi, which means a “rash or reckless person.” But no one has come up with a completely convincing rationale, so we’ll have to leave it hanging.

Many readers would like to leave the Bard of Buffalo Bayou hanging, as retribution for atrocities like this:

            I want no ifs, or buts, or maybes—
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            And folks who tweet in rampant rages
            Should be locked in padded cages,
            Lest their vehemence increases
            And they abruptly go to pieces.

Monday, February 6, 2017

From Scratch

A recent news item opined that some Republicans wishing to scuttle the Affordable Care Act might be planning to "start from scratch." Do you suppose that meant they would begin by putting a band-aid on a minor scratch?  No, probably the writer meant they would "begin anew." But how did this meaning develop?

Scratch is a blend of two Middle English words, scratten and cracchen, both of which meant to “scrape or dig with claws or nails.” From this definitioin the noun scratch was derived, meaning “a slight tear in the skin.”

The phrase start from scratch originated in the sporting world, around the eighteenth century, where the starting point was denoted by “scratching” it into the ground. This might apply to the starting point for a race, the marking of batting and bowling creases in cricket, or the indication of the boxers’ positions in a prizefight. The first recorded instance of scratch being used as a sporting term was in 1778, in “The Hambledon Song,” an ode to cricket by the Rev. R. Cotton, who wrote:
            Your skill all depends upon distance and sight,
            Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.
The first athletes said to “start from scratch” were two runners in a handicap race in Sheffield, England, who were so described in a December, 1853, issue of The Era, a sports newspaper.

Golfing took up the word scratch, to apply it to a golfer who has a zero handicap. (A handicap is a number to be deducted from the actual number of strokes a golfer makes, to derive his final score. The handicap is calculated by one of several complicated systems that evaluate a player's skill relative to other players.)
By extension the phrase starting from scratch came to mean beginning any task under the assumption that no previous measures had been taken aimed at completing the task.

Nowadays you also hear it used for culinary terms, like “scratch biscuits,” that is those made without using a prepared mix.

Oh, about those Republicans trying to fix the health care system by starting from scratch, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, crank that he is, has this to say:

            O, send me somewhere,
            With Obamacare,
            Where the doctors don’t charge any fee,
            Where seldom is heard
            A Republican word,
            And the drugs on prescription are free.

            Please, send me somewhere
            With real news on the air,
            And not weird Breitbartian views,  
            Where Walter Cronkite
            Can be heard every night,
            And there’s not a peep from Fox News.
            Yes, send me somewhere,
            With no orange billionaire
            Surrounded by sycophant hacks,
            Where Bannon and Flynn,
            Conway and her kin
            Are all just alternative facts.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Abba Dabba Dabba

 One of the customers has asked the origin of the phrase “dab hand.” A “dab hand,” more used in the British Commonwealth countries than in the United States, is an expert. It is usually followed by “at” and the subject in which the person is adept, i.e. “a dab hand at tiddly-winks” or “a dab hand at mixing smooth Martinis.”    

The Oxford English Dictionary places the earliest use of “dab hand” in 1828 in a dialectical dictionary  It was Yorkshire dialect and did not enter widely into mainstream English until the mid-20th century.  

“Dab” by itself, also meaning “expert,” appeared in 1691 in the Athenian Mercury, a semi-weekly London periodical that doled out advice on a variety of subjects. Love is “such a Dab at his Bows and Arrows,” it opined. In the Dictionary of the Canting Crew, a glossary of criminal slang, published in 1698, dab is defined as “an exquisite expert” in some sort of roguery. Dab was incorporated into schoolboy slang by the early 19th century.

Etymologists do not appear to be dab hands at explaining the origin of the phrase. Some say dab is derived from Old Dutch dabben and German tappen, which in the 13th century meant “administer a sharp blow.” The meaning was later softened into “pressing lightly,” as in the phrase “dab at.”

Other not-so-dab hands think it may be a corruption of the word adept, or possibly dapper.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has not yet discovered the subject at which he is a dab hand. It certainly isn’t versifying, as you can see for yourself.
       When caught in a lie, don’t retract,
       Or the lie will lose its impact,
             To be a dab hand
             And remain in command,
      Say it's just an alternative fact.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"It Was A Dark and Stormy Night"

I have been remiss in the past few years in my reportage of the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This is an annual competition sponsored by San Jose State University’s English Department to honor bad opening sentences of imaginary novels. It was inspired by the legendary bad opening sentence of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford:  

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

As the department's website reports, in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner is awarded a pittance--which some reports indicate might be as much as $150.

To make up for lost time, here are the winners of the past three years’ competitions, beginning with 2016:

“Even from the hall, the overpowering stench told me the dingy caramel glow in his office would be from a ten-thousand-cigarette layer of nicotine baked on a naked bulb hanging from a frayed wire in the center of a likely cracked and water-stained ceiling, but I was broke, he was cheap, and I had to find her.”
                                                            —William "Barry" Brockett, Tallahassee, FL

“Seeing how the victim's body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer ‘Dirk’ Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase ‘sandwiched’ to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.”
                                                            —Joel Phillips, West Trenton, NJ

“When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.”
                                                            — Betsy Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA

That old Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no trouble in writing bad opening lines for his verse, not to mention all that lines that follow:

            A fellow they called Bulwer-Lytton
            Wrote the worst books that ever were written,
                 But he said, “What the hell,
                 As long as they sell,
            I’ll be top of the heap here in Britain.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Mondegreens

In case you were not paying close attention when I blogged about Christmas mondegreens seven years ago, I reiterate for your benefit that a mondegreen is a mis-hearing of a poem or song lyric, ideally one precipitating gales of uncontrollable laughter. The word mondegreen was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright in an essay titled “The Death of Lady Mondegreen” in Harper’s Magazine.  Wright recounted that as a child she used to hear a Scottish ballad that went (she thought):

      Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
      O, where hae ye been?
      They hae slain the Earl o’ Murray
      And Lady Mondegreen.

What they had done, of course, was to have slain the Earl and laid him on the green.  

Mondegreens are still with us, and Christmas seems to encourage them. A fellow named Gavin Edwards has even written a whole book called Deck the Halls With Buddy Holly, in which he's collected a bunch of them. The most famous Christmas mondegreen is probably “Round John Version” in “Silent Night,” but there are plenty of others, all of which purport to be actual misapprehensions by some befuddled listener. You may have heard of Rudolph’s companion, “Olive, the other reindeer,” or perhaps you have sung joyfully, “Noël, Noël, Barney’s the King of Israel.” Others have proclaimed “Get dressed, ye married gentlemen, let nothing through this May.”

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” so the song says, and some people believe “they’re going to build a toilet town all around the Christmas tree.”  Probably the same people revel in a “Winter Wonderland” because “in the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is sparse and brown” and “later on we’ll perspire as we drink by the fire.”

The champion, however, is the poor benighted soul who conjured up the painful image in “The Christmas Song” of “Jeff’s nuts roasting on an open fire.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a little trouble these days hearing song lyrics (and other things, as well), but he managed to come up with this seasonal ditty; then, giving a nod, up the escalator he rose.

      It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
      And I feel in very fine fettle.
      But the Salvation Army
      Sent its band to alarm me
      By playing a carol in front of my kettle.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     And it’s fun to be St. Nicholas,
     But I find it bewilderin’        
     That some little children
     Like to pull on our beards and pinch us and tickle us.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     In fact, I think Christmas is here.
     I’ll just pick up my check
     And then hope like heck
     That I won’t have to put on a red suit next year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

New York Times, Heel Thyself

If The New York Times is “failing,” as one prominent Twitter tweeter likes to say, it may be because its usage of the English language is becoming lax. I have blogged before—in July of 2013, to be precise—about the misuse of “well-healed” to mean “wealthy or well-off.” The correct term is “well-heeled.”   

Apparently The Times was not paying attention back then, because in today’s edition there is a reference to a “well-healed” hedge fund manager.  Now unless he was badly injured--savagely beaten, perhaps, by one of his clients--and is now on the mend, the meaning was probably that the hedge fund manager, like most hedge fund managers, had socked away a good bit of dough.

I suppose I’ll have to go over once more what I so painstakingly explained three-and-a-half years ago. Now listen up, New York Times!

Well-heeled, meaning “wealthy,” first appeared in print  in an 1897 novel called Bound In Shallows, by Eva Wilder Brodhead, in which a character says, “I ain’t so well-heeled right now.” In context, this clearly means “impecunious.” The etymology of the phrase is thought to derive from the fact that good quality shoes are a prime indication of one’s prosperity, and the heel of a shoe is the first place that shows wear.  The opposite of “well-heeled” is “down at heels.” 

Well-heeled has at least two other meanings which precede this one.  One is “provided with a weapon,” and it was first seen in 1873 in Undeveloped West, in which J. H. Beadle wrote, “To travel long out West a man must be, in the local phrase, ‘well-heeled’.” The context makes it clear that this means having a gun.

This meaning probably stems from the broader definition of well-heeled as “properly equipped,” which was first used in its literal meaning applied to the claws of fighting cocks. An 1866 account in the Dubuqe (Iowa) Daily Herald, reports that some birds "...resembled dung hill chickens thrown into the pit with their natural spurs, to meet and contend with game cocks well heeled. One stoke puts them to flight, squawking as they go; they cannot stand steel." Here, the “heel” is clearly an artificial spur with which cocks were equipped in order to fight. 

Well-heeled should never be confused with round-heeled, a term that dates to the 1920s and describes either an easily defeated prizefighter or a woman who readily bestows sexual favors. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou bestows no favors on anyone, especially those who are foolhardy enough to read his misbegotten screeds. 
            With rue my heart is laden 
            For good-time friends I had, 
            For many a round-heeled maiden 
            And many a lusty lad. 

            Now prim with coy compunction, 
            The maids are filled with malice, 
            And the lads can only function 
            With Viagra or Cialis.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Alt! Who Goes There?

We’re hearing a lot these days about the “alt-right.” Short for “alternative right,” it’s a term widely attributed to Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who heads the National Policy Institute, a small think tank that spreads propaganda against racial equality.

Spencer used the term in 2010 to describe an extreme conservative faction as an alternative to the conventional mainstream conservatism, represented largely by the Republican Party. In fact, however, the term “alternative right” had been used earlier, in November of 2008 by Paul Gottfried, who is known as a "paleoconservative," in an address to the H. L. Mencken Club.

The alt-right today is associated (some would insist not accurately) with white supremacy, anti-immigration, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, and homophobia. 

In shortening “alternative right” to “alt-right,” political writers are following the lead of music critics who have spoken of “alt-rock” since the 1980s. “Alt,” or “alternative” rock music is a cutting-edge genre that is distinct from mainstream rock music, and includes “punk,” “underground,” “new wave,” “post punk,” “college,” and “indie” rock. Alt-rock is fiercely iconoclastic and non-commercial.

Some pundits are now also referring to an “alt-left,” by which they mean a radically liberal philosophy that looks to such icons as activists Saul Alinsky and William Ayers for its inspiration.

Alternative, as used in this sense, means “outside the established cultural, social, or economic system.”  Related but not identical in usage to the adjective alternate, it is derived from Latin alternus, which means “occurring by turns or in succession.”

“Right” and “left” became political terms during the French Revolution when members of the National Assembly who were conservative royalists seated themselves on the right side of the chamber, and those who were revolutionists seated themselves on the left. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always written what he regards as “alt-verse.”  Certainly it is an alternative to all we hold sacred.


            I’d call a halt
            To all that’s alt:
            I’m always orthodox.
            My crayon shines
            Inside the lines,
            And I think inside the box.

            It’s not my fault
            If you like alt,
            They say to each his own,
            I won’t complain
            If you remain
            Outside my comfort zone.