Monday, October 27, 2014

Slice of Life

I had a mediocre slice of pizza the other day and began to think back to the first time I ever ate pizza—in the early 1950s at a now defunct restaurant on South Main Street in Houston called Valian’s.  Redolent of spicy pepperoni sausages, gooey mozzarella cheese, black olives, mushrooms—and the pièce de résistance, salty, ocean-scented anchovies—it was a masterpiece of a pizza—known then as “pizza pie.”

Texans were late in embracing pizza, which was popular among Italian immigrants on the East Coast of the United States from the turn of the century. The first New York pizzeria was opened in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi in his grocery store on Spring Street in Lower Manhattan.  His brother, Bruno, opened a similar establishment on Chicago’s Loop around the same time. It was 1939 before pizza made it to Los Angeles.

Before World War II, pizza consumption in the United States was pretty much limited to the Italian population, but American GIs became familiar with it in Italy and brought home their craving for it.

While a pizza-like dish can be documented as far back as 997 A.D. in what is now Italy—and even longer ago in parts of the Middle East—it is the nineteenth-century Neapolitan Italian version of the dish, thin flatbread with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni sausage, that has become the standard.  This form of pizza was created by a baker named Rafaele Esposito, and the first pizzeria in Naples was the Port ‘Alba, opened in 1830 and still operating.  Its menu today offers more than 50 kinds of pizza, including the famed Pizza Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil), supposedly invented by Esposito in honor of Queen Margherita and embodying red, white, and green ingredients—the colors of the Italian flag.

The origin of the word pizza is obscure.  The Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana (1907) suggested it came from the Italian dialectical word pinza (“clamp”) and ultimately from Latin pinsere (“to pound or stamp”).  Other linguists point to the Greek pitta (“cake or pie”), which derived from peptos (“cooked”). The word entered the English vocabulary in the 1930s.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou enjoys a pizza now and then, but it gives him gas, which is most uncomfortable for him since he is already filled to capacity with hot air.

            When my friend Luigi heats a
            Nice and greasy, cheesy pizza,
            He removes the pepperoni,
            Then adds Spam and fried baloney.

            He won’t touch the mozzarella,
            Parmesan or mortadella,
            Luigi really likes to eat a
            Sandwich made with Kraft Velveeta.

            All that flatbread makes him sick,
            Whether it is thin or thick.
            When he wants to be well fed,
            His pizza’s made on Wonder Bread.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Yo Ho Ho

“Piracy is not a victimless crime,” as one inevitably must read at the beginning of most DVDs and downloaded movies.  Well, who ever said it was?  Did we imagine that Captain Kidd and Henry Morgan and Bluebeard—and Captain Hook and those sinister Somalis in the Indian Ocean, for that matter—didn’t prey upon victims when they plundered their loot?  It seems needless to remind us that piracy takes two, one of whom is the pirate and the other is the victim.

Such a reminder is equivalent to those idiotic notices on reply envelopes telling us that the Postal Service will not deliver mail unless it has a stamp on it.  Golly, I knew there must have been something missing on those naked envelopes I’ve been dropping into the letterbox.  Next they’ll be telling us we have to put addresses on them, too.

Of course, my idea of a pirate is an unshaven man with an eye-patch, a peg leg, a three-cornered hat, a parrot on his shoulder, and a penchant for glugging rum and roaring, “Arrr, avast ye, matey!”

Nowadays, however, the entertainment industry has appropriated the word pirate to mean someone who downloads or otherwise acquires content without paying for it.  And, of course, since the electronic pirate can’t see the victim, one might like to think that there isn’t one, when in fact hundreds of poor writers, actors, producers, and technicians (and a few wealthy ones, too) lose their royalties and residuals to a thief every time a film is viewed without paying for it.  

Pirate first appeared in 1387, when the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden’s history Polychronicon was translated from Latin to English by John of Trevisa. In it Higden speaks of Danish “sea thieves” or, in Latin, “Dani piratae.”  The word’s origin is the Greek peiran, meaning to “attempt.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou set out to apprentice with a pirate—but there was some confusion and he wound up instead as assistant to a parrot.  Unfortunately, the parrot had apprenticed with a poet, causing him to spew stuff like this:
            A pirate who came from Penzance
            Stepped into a hill full of ants.
                        But their stings he withstood
                        With his leg made of wood—
            So the ants took a chance in his pants. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

The End

Subtle differences exist in the meanings of many words that we think of as synonyms. Happiness, joy, felicity, bliss, and ecstasy, for example, mean roughly the same thing but there are connotations that determine the most appropriate one to use.  The same is true for anger, rage, ire, fury, and wrath and many other similar meaning words.  

Most dictionaries, for example, list finished, complete, concluded, ended, and done as having the same meaning. But a competition in London (probably apocryphal) asked entrants to provide an “easy-to-understand” explanation of the difference between two of those words—finished and complete.  The winner, whose prize was reported to be dinner with Queen Elizabeth and a case of El Dorado rum (not necessarily in that order), offered this distinction: 

“If a man marries the right woman, he is complete.  If he marries the wrong woman, he is finished. And if the right one catches him with the wrong one, he is completely finished.” 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou was completely finished before he ever started, but he just won’t quit.  A case of El Dorado rum will be given to the person who can force him to retire.  On second thought, let’s give the rum to the Bard and see if that puts a crimp in his style.

            Finished, through, complete, terminated,
            Brought to a close and then consummated,
            All over, done, concluded, and ended,
            Wound up, and clinched, and finally suspended,
            Lapsed, and then waned, topped off, and expired—
            Gee, it’s no wonder that I am so tired!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Snizzo, Moff, And Jinky, Too!

The Online Slang Dictionary lists several hundred ways to say “excellent” in modern slang.  Some are established words given a new or intensified meaning; others are coinages, often nonsensical.

A very short list of some the more familiar (and socially acceptable) words are awesome, bodacious, bomb diggity, crunk, epic, fly (and superfly), kick in the pants, gnarly, jinky, moff, phat, primo, righteous, rufus, schway, sicknasty, skinny, skippy, snizzo, tuff, wizard—and my favorite, which I can hardly wait to work into my next conversation, smoochie boochies.

Some of these words are of recent invention.  Others go way, way back. Time Magazine recently had a chart showing the earliest known use of many English words that have meant “excellent,” starting in 1225 with special.

A few of the other ear-catching examples with their years of origin are gay (1375), golden (1400), tight (1607), spanking (1666), swell (1810), slick (1833), hot (1845), nifty (1865), choice (1880), fly (1896), ace (1929), cool (1933), solid (1935), groovy (1937), and such later twentieth-century usages as neato, bad ass, smoking, radical, killer, crucial, bangin’, beast, and chronic.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been bodacious, bomb diggity, and decidedly phat for years, ever since he was keeping cool with Coolidge.

            My pheet are phlat,
            My phingers phat,
            My phace is philled with phright.
            My phlesh is phlayed,
            My phemur phrayed--
            In phear I’d phain take phlight.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Master Mind

A critic praised the director’s work in a recent play, calling it “masterful.” Since the primary definition of masterful is “imperious, domineering, bullying,” it might be supposed that the word should have been masterly.  Masterly means “demonstrating a thorough knowledge, a superior skill.”

This distinction between the two words is insisted upon in the Oxford English Dictionary. Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage upholds that view, suggesting the words are often confounded because of the awkwardness of saying masterlily, when the word is used adverbially.  It sounds much better to say the play was “masterfully directed.”

But wait!  Merriam-Webster says this hard-and-fast distinction between the two words is a recent innovation, and that historically masterful and masterly both had two meanings: “domineering, like a master,” but also “skilled and knowledgeable, like a master.” Both –ful and –ly (as well as –ous and ­–ish) are suffixes that can be attached to nouns to form adjectives indicating likeness. Sometimes as with masterful and masterly (or wonderful and wondrous), adjectives with similar meanings develop with different suffixes.

Both masterful and masterly developed by the fifteenth century with the same double meanings. Somewhere along the way masterly lost the primary meaning of “imperious” and came to mean only the second, i.e.  “skilled and knowledgeable.”

According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, an unnamed twentieth-century grammar Nazi decreed that since masterly had lost one of its meanings, it would be only fitting that masterful should also lose one.  Therefore, this pundit concluded, masterful henceforth could mean only “domineering,” not “skillful.”

So go ahead and call the director “masterful” if you like. She may be skillful, but chances are, being a director, she's probably pretty imperious, too.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou qualifies as a master—of cognitive chaos, philosophical incoherence, and verbal dreck.  A case in point:

            A masterly Master of Arts
            Was renowned for the sound of his farts.
                        Each time he was goosed,
                        The effect it produced
            Was greater than the sum of his parts.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Though A Hiccough Is Enough, Plough Through This Trough

                                                                                                                               Gerard Nolst Trenité
One of the customers has forwarded a long verse that points out some of the blatant inconsistencies in English pronunciation.  Called The Chaos, a few of its dozens of stanzas will give you the idea:

            Dearest creature in creation
            Studying English pronunciation,
            I will teach you in my verse
            Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

            Pray, console your loving poet:
            Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
            Just compare heart, hear and heard,
            Dies and diet, lord and word.

            Now I surely will not plague you
            With such words as vague and ague,
            But be careful how you speak,
            Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

            Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
            Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
            This phonetic labyrinth
            Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

            Have you ever yet endeavoured
            To pronounce revered and severed,
            Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
            Peter, petrol and patrol?

This ironic rhyme (which you can read only if you already know the correct pronunciations) is the work of a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité, who was born in 1870 and died in 1946.  The poem first appeared in an appendix to Nolst Trenité’s 1920 textbook for non-English speakers, Drop Your Foreign Accent. A virtuosic linguistic feat, the full work runs some 274 lines and covers 800 of the most notoriously difficult words in English.

Nolst Trenité was educated in The Netherlands and by 1894 was working as a private teacher of English to foreigners in California. He returned to Holland, where he taught school and published several books in English and French.  Under the pseudonym “Charivarius,” he also wrote a column on language for a weekly newspaper called The Green Amsterdammer. “Charivarius” probably derives from the French satirical magazine Le Charivari and the British Punch or the London Charivari. “Charivari,” variously pronounced, means a noisy, festive serenade—rendered as “shivaree” in American slang.

Nolst Trenité recognized the futility of getting every pronunciation right in so illogical a language.  His final stanzas counseled resignation:

            Don't you think so, reader, rather,
            Saying lather, bather, father?
            Finally, which rhymes with enough,
            Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough,  
            Hiccough has the sound of sup...
            My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

The entire poem can be viewed at

That other Bard—he of Buffalo Bayou, whose name must not be spoken—  throws up his hands in awe and wonderment at such a masterly poetic  accomplishment, and from his uncouth southern mouth he spews forth his two-bits’ worth of unstable parables.
            It shakes me up and makes me shivery
            When I hear someone say “Shuh-RIV-ur-ee.”
            Of course, I’m also very wary
            To hear them call it “Shah-ree-VAIR-ee.”           
            And I am genuinely sorry
            When folks pronounce it “Shah-ree-VAHR-ee.”
            All of them sound so absurd,
            Perhaps we’d best retire the word.