Monday, January 19, 2015

Duck Soup

In the early years of World War II, when Britain had successfully resisted German air attacks, Prime Minister Winston Churchill recalled the dire prediction of the French Vichy government that England would collapse under the German assault, just as France had done: When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister, 'In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.' Some chicken! Some neck!"

There have been similarly dire predictions—citing a different hapless bird—about the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency: that he would be a “lame duck,” unable to accomplish anything. In view of his whirlwind of actions—restoring Cuban relations, issuing executive orders on immigration, agreeing on a climate change plan with China, making progress on a nuclear pact with Iran, securing approval of key appointments, steadily improving the economy—one can only echo Churchill by saying, “Some lameness!  Some duck!”

The phrase “lame duck” was coined in the 18th century at the London Stock Exchange, referring to a stockbroker who defaulted on his debts. The allusion is to an injured duck, unable to keep up with its flock, and thus becoming a target for predators. In 1861 the British historian and politician Horace Walpole used the term in a letter to Sir Horace Mann. Thomas Love Peacock wrote that a “lame duck is a man who cannot pay his differences, and is said to waddle off.”

“Lame duck” became a political term in the 19th century, used to refer to a public official serving out a term after losing an election (or becoming ineligible for re-election). The term is used in the official record of the U. S. Congress in 1863, when “lame ducks” was used to refer to “broken down politicians.” A newspaper article in 1878 recounted Abraham Lincoln’s earlier reference to a “senator or representative out of business” as a “lame duck” who “has to be provided for.”

Before the 20th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, he President and members of Congress continued to serve until March 4 of the year following the November elections, even if they had been defeated. The Amendment changed this to January 2 or 3, shortening the “lame duck” period.

When it comes to fowl, the Bard of Buffao Bayou prefers goose, hoping that someday it will lay him a golden egg. 

            When folks said Obama was just a lame duck,
            And predicted two years of his passing the buck,
                        McConnell and Boehner
                        Could not have been plainer
            In hoping the POTUS was bogged down and stuck.

            But Obama then showed he had plenty of pluck,
            And said, “The Republicans’ principles suck—
                        If executive orders
                        Overstep borders,
            Too bad—but you fellas are just out of luck.”

Monday, January 12, 2015

Love, Honor, and Oh, Bae!

 The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen vape as its “word of the year” for 2014, edging out bae for top honors. The meaning of vape—to use one of the new smokeless electronic cigarettes that produces a steam-like vapor—is fairly straightforward.  But what in the heck does bae mean, and why?

According to Time Magazine, bae, pronounced just like the word bay, began as a term of endearment, usually applied to one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. It first turned up in rap songs around 2005.

It took on a wider meaning for anything generally good or cool. You can even say “This sandwich is so bae” or “My new Calvin Klein underwear is really bae,” and people of a certain generation will probably know what you mean.

The origin of bae, like that of all good slang words, is debatable. Some say it’s an acronym meaning “Before Anyone Else.” Another theory says it’s simply a shortened form of baby or babe, the latter which would account for the peculiar juxtaposition of a and e.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is thinking of changing his sobriquet to The Bae of Buffalo Bayou. What do you think?

            It’s too bad folks have learned to vape,
            It’s now in their vocabulary.
            I guess there’s no way to escape
            The Oxford English Dictionary.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Bulls vs. Bears

Stocks and bonds ended 2014 in a bull market, and most investors hope the bears will stay away. A bear market is one in which prices are going down, as opposed to a bull market in which values are rising.

These designations for pessimism and optimism about the market outlook originated in the 18th century, but the exact origins are debatable. The bear as a symbol of pessimism can be traced to 1709 in a shortening of “bearskin jobber,” a term for a merchant who sells bearskins before the bear is caught and hopes that the price will go down by the time he provides the goods. From about 1720, the term was paired with bull, indicating one who believed that prices would go up. Some speculate that bull was adopted as an opposite to bear because of the use of those two animals in the sports of bear-baiting and bull-baiting.

Others trace the bull and bear to the London Stock Exchange during the Crimean War in the 1850s. Britain was typified in political cartoons as “John Bull” against its Russian adversary, usually depicted as a bear. Even though John Bull is not an animal at all, but a stout country squire, and the lion is the customary English animal, the bull-bear symbols were picked up by London stock traders for positive and negative positions.
It’s also suggested that the bull-bear symbolism stems from the fighting styles of the two animals that parallel movements on the stock market: when attacking a bull thrusts his horns up in the air, while a bear strikes downward. Thus if the price of stocks moves upward, it’s a bull market, and if they’re going down, it’s a bear market.
Finally, some say the symbols simply reflect the personality of the two animals: bulls charge ahead and bears move cautiously.
Wherever the symbolism originated, it was popularized in the 1860s by cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. In 1879 William Holbrook Beard painted a notable work called “The Bulls and Bears in the Market,” an image of the two animals fighting each other in front of the New York Stock Exchange.  And in 1883 a board game called “Bulls and Bears: the Great Wall Street Game” became popular.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is so full of bull that people cannot bear him, unfortunately remains undeterred by his defects. 

            The Russian symbol is the Bear,
            The Brits’, the Lion most regal,
            And matched against this awesome pair,
            Americans have their Eagle.

            But by that Eagle, I’m appalled:
            He’s not so very brainy,
            He’s predatory, mean, and bald—
            Reminds me of Dick Cheney.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Joint Is Jumpin’

A recent Houston Chronicle article about barbecue joints explored the origin of the word joint as applied to an eating or drinking establishment. As the article pointed out, in addition to barbecue joints, we speak of “hamburger joints,” “beer joints,” and “pizza joints.” In this sense the word means a “restaurant or bar that is informal, simply decorated, and inexpensive.”

Originally, a joint was something not so savory. It is recorded in English slang in 1877 meaning a “place where persons meet for shady activities.” In the U. S., the first use of joint was recorded in Harper’s Magazine in 1883, meaning an “opium-smoking den.”

The etymology is thought to be based on the fact that these places for illicit activities—drugs, gambling, or liquor—were usually separate side rooms “joined” to a legal operation such as a restaurant or retail establishment. 

Joint took on a more general connotation of disrepute in the 1940s when juke joints were widespread in the United States, especially in the South. These were working-class African-American drinking and dancing clubs, noted for their rowdiness. Juke is derived from the word joog in Gullah, a Creole language in coastal South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida. It means “wicked and disorderly.” The music in these clubs gave rise to the term juke box.

The Oxford English Dictionary also cites joint as a late 19th-century term for outdoor bookmakers' booths that contained various gambling paraphernalia joined together in movable segments.

Eventually joint lost the connotation of “disreputable” and referred to any casual eating or drinking place. Today even upscale restaurants are sometimes referred to as “classy joints.”

A joint is similar to a dive, an American term for a “shabby and disreputable bar,” so-called because such places were usually in basements.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou avoids joints and dives with their stale air and dirty glasses. He prefers the refined elegance of his own home, where he can drink straight from the bottle.

            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.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Elf Defense

Santa’s elves are busy this week, hammering together the last of the toys for good children, baking gingerbread men, and cleaning up after those notoriously messy reindeer, who always suffer digestive problems from too many goodies. We think of Santa’s elves as happy, cheerful, benevolent creatures, exuding good will and Christmas joy. Yeah, maybe. But lurking beneath that veneer of effervescent chirpiness is a wicked malevolence that is up to no good and longs to wreak unholy havoc. 

In Germanic folklore an elf was one of a race of powerful, supernatural beings  who typically did nasty things: made sexual threats against people, seduced both women and men, ruined crops, and caused nightmares, hiccups, and other physical and mental illnesses to people and livestock.

The word comes from Northumbrian ælf and West Saxon ylfe, meaning “sprite, fairy, goblin, or incubus.” Its further derivation is from Proto-Germanic albiz, Old Norse alfr, and the German alp, meaning “evil spirit or goblin.” Some linguists trace its origin to Proto-Indo-European albho, meaning “white”—perhaps alluding to ghosts or to illnesses that caused white skin.

By the Middle Ages elves were confused with fairies and became a little more benevolent. The Christmas elf showed up in the 19th century. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas referred to Santa Claus himself as “a right jolly old elf.” In 1850 Louisa May Alcott wrote (but did not publish) a book called Christmas Elves. Godey’s Ladies Book had an image of elves in Santa’s workshop in 1873.

Today, the cherubic Elf on a Shelf is ubiquitous at Christmas time—but I’d be careful about turning my back on him if I were you.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows when he comes up against a better rhymester, and he grudgingly yields his usual place this week to the superior artistry of the late Morris Bishop, who wrote the quintessential paean to elves.

                        How To Treat Elves

                        I met an elf man in the woods,
                        The wee-est little elf!
                        Sitting under a mushroom tall—
                        'Twas taller than himself! 

                        "How do you do, little elf," I said,
                        "And what do you do all day?"
                        "I dance 'n fwolic about," said he,
                        "'N scuttle about and play;" 

                        "I s'prise the butterflies, 'n when
                         A katydid I see,
                        'Katy didn't' I say, and he
                        Says 'Katy did!' to me! 

                        "I hide behind my mushroom stalk
                        When Mister Mole comes froo,
                        'N only jus' to fwighten him
                        I jump out'n say 'Boo!' 

                        "'N then I swing on a cobweb swing
                        Up in the air so high,
                        'N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing

                        "'N then I play with the baby chicks,
                        I call them, chick chick chick!
                        'N what do you think of that?" said he.
                        I said, "It makes me sick. 

                        "It gives me sharp and shooting pains
                        To listen to such drool."
                        I lifted up my foot, and squashed
                        The god damn little fool.

                                                      From Spilt Milk, The Putnam Publishing Group, © copyright 1941, 1969 by Morris Bishop

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Dope on Dope

Doping has become a controversial topic in both professional and amateur sports. Cyclist Lance Armstrong, sprinter Ben Johnson, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, batting champ Barry Bonds, tennis whiz Andre Agassi, tiddlywinks ace Ladislav Paffufnikl—these are just a few of the myriad athletes who have taken various kinds of drugs that allegedly enhance their performance.

Admittedly, they may be dopes for doing so, but why are the drugs they take known as “dope”?

Most etymologists trace the word to the Dutch doop, “thick dipping sauce or gravy,” which stems from doopen (“to dip”). It entered English as dope around 1800.

By 1851 it meant a “stupid person. This meaning probably relates to the notion of “thick-headedness,” analogous to the thickness of the dipping gravy.

By 1889, dope was extended to mean a “thick, oozy opium concoction” given to racehorses to enhance their speed on the track. Thereafter the word was applied to any illicit narcotics or addictive drug.

As a word for “inside information,” this came around 1900, probably based on racing tips about which horses were “doped” to run faster.

A recent New York Times article cites a different etymology. It says the word derives from dop, a South African stimulant drink. In South Africa dop is also a word for an imprecise measure of any alcoholic drink, similar to a tot, a nip, a shot, or a slug. This meaning may have come from the same word, dop, which is a “copper cup in which diamonds are cut.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is proud to say he takes no artificial stimulants to enhance his poetic prowess, which comes perfectly naturally to him, but he is not averse to a tot, a nip, a shot, or a slug.

            Some athletes who took methamphetamine
            Thought that doping would be sure to get ‘em in
                       The hallowed Hall of Fame.
                       But when the time came,
           The powers that be wouldn’t let ‘em in.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chinese Checkers

A recent news story reported the alarming news that the Chinese government has banned puns in radio, TV, and films. The rationale is that wordplay makes promoting cultural heritage more difficult and tends to mislead people, especially children. A recent directive decreed, “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms.” Altering accepted patterns of speech risks “cultural and linguistic chaos,” the Word Nazis have decreed.

The director of Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, whose name, curiously enough, is David Moser, says that wordplay is part and parcel of Chinese heritage. He points out, for example, the traditional wedding gift of dates and peanuts stems from the fact that the Chinese words for these foods—zao and huasheng—are homophones for the phrase Zaosheng guizi, which means “May you soon give birth to a son.”           

Moser faults whoever gave this order as “conservative, humorless, priggish, and arbitrarily purist.” He suspects the real reason behind the ruling is to prevent jokes about government officials, which often rely on puns for their humor. One recent example plays on the nicknames of President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan to come up with the word for “marijuana.” In another political example Mao Zedong’s phrase “Serve the people” has been transformed into “Smog the people,” using two words that are homophones.

One rather naughty example of a political Chinese pun is the phrase “grass mud horse,” an anti-censorship symbol that has become a widely popular Internet meme. It is usually represented by an alpaca as the mascot for citizens fighting for free expression. In Mandarin Chinese the phrase “grass mud horse” sounds very much like the phrase “fuck your mother.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an inveterate punster—everything he writes is inverse.
            The Chinese all run from a pun,
            So this question is one they must shun;
                         It’s a terrible quandary
                        Much too double-entendre-y:
            Who came out? The sun or the son?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monkish Business

A television program on one of the higher-brow channels featured a day in the life of a cloistered Benedictine monastery. The day centered around the canonical hours—a set of prayers known as the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours—observed around the clock at intervals of three hours by extremely devout monks who apparently get by on brief snatches of sleep.

The practice began in the mid-6th century when St. Benedict of Nursia established an order of men dedicated to prayer and contemplation.

The daily prayers start at midnight with Matins, a word from the Latin matutinas vigilias (“morning watches”), derived from Matuta, the Roman goddess of dawn. Next comes Lauds, from the Latin laudare (“to praise”), at which Psalms of praise are sung. At 6:00 a.m. is Prime, so named from the Latin primus (“first”) because it is a prayer at the first hour of daylight. 

Terce, or sometimes Tierce, from the Latin tertius (“third”), is the third hour after Prime, followed at noon by Sext (from Latin sextus, “sixth”), which is the sixth hour (and under no circumstances should be confused with sext in the modern smart-phone sense). None (Latin nonus, “ninth”) is at 3:00 p.m.

At six o’clock in the evening, it’s time for Vespers, which comes from vesper, the Latin for “evening star,” derived from the Greek Hesperus (or Hesper), the personification of the evening star sometimes conflated with Venus.  (A Vesper is also a James Bond Martini, which made its appearance in Casino Royale and consists of 3 measures of Gordon’s gin, 1 measure of vodka, and a half-measure of Kina Lillet, shaken—not stirred—with ice, and garnished with a lemon peel. It is not traditionally served to the monks, who, after all, have their own tasty Benedictine liqueur.)
 Finally at 9:00 p.m. comes Compline, from Latin completus (“complete”), which ends the liturgical day.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, when given the chance, never fails to take part in Vespers, sometimes two.

            Liturgical Latin’s 
            Intoned for the Matins. 
            Each monk applauds 
            The hour of Lauds. 

            At six it is time 
            To kneel down for Prime. 

            Monks don’t converse 
            With heads bowed for Terce, 

            And they do not text 
            The prayers of Sext, 
            Nor do they phone 
            When they’re chanting None. 

            The first star of Hesper’s 
            Out for the Vespers, 

            At last, then, at nine, 
            No complaint—it’s Compline!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Food for Thought

Last week’s blog dealt with the origin of the word turkey, and this week the other foods that grace our Thanksgiving table have their turn.

Cranberry is a 17th-century word, adapted into American English from Low German kraanbere, which derived from the German word for “crane,” presumably because the stamens of the cranberry plant resemble the beaks of cranes. The German kraanbere was similar to the larger North American variety, also known as fenberries or mashwort. In New England cranberries were sometimes called bear-berries because bears devoured them greedily.

If you have sweet potato as a side dish, you’re really eating a redundancy, since the word potato really means “sweet potato” all by itself. It originated in the 1560s, derived from the Spanish patata, which was a corrupution of the Haitian Carib word batata, which is a sweet potato.  In the 1590s the name potato was extended to the white potato from Peru, which was regarded as a cheap and inferior substitute for the sweet variety.  The white potato was introduced to Ireland in 1565 and became indelibly linked with that country.

Similar to the sweet potato is the yam, which in the 1580s was known by the Spanish as an igname, from a West African language.  In African Fulani nyami means “to eat.”  By 1690 the word was shortened to yam in American and Jamaican English.

Finally, the pumpkin you may find in your pie is an alteration of pumpion, a word known in English in the 1540s, from the Middle French pompon and ultimately from Latin peponem and Greek pepon, or “melon.” The colloquial punkin is found by 1806.

Oh, one more thing: is that side dish made with bread, onions, celery, and sometimes rice, oysters, or chestnuts, properly called “dressing” or “stuffing”?  Logic would indicate that if it’s cooked inside the bird it’s “stuffing,” but if it’s cooked separately, it’s “dressing.” In fact, it’s a geographical distinction. In the South, where the dish is almost always made with cornbread, it’s always called “dressing,” whether inside or outside the bird. In the North and West, where it’s usually made with white bread, it’s called “stuffing.”

Now that you know where the names of your food come from, you can settle down and enjoy the feast. The Bard of Buffalo Bayou will be doing that as well, as soon as he finishes sampling his own concoctions--cranberry wine and sweet potato vodka.

            Thanksgiving is that special day
            We designate to say we’re grateful
            For morsels over which we’ll pray
            As soon as we have got our plate full.                       

            We’re thankful for our kin and kith,
            We’re also glad to have our health, 
            We’re grateful for the folks we’re with,
            And (if we’ve got it) for our wealth.

            We’re thankful for the U. S.A.,
            And for our Army and our Navy,
            But mostly thankful on this day
            For dressing laced with giblet gravy.            

Monday, November 17, 2014

Talking Turkey

For Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I explained the etymology of that fine old bird, the turkey.  Without going into the same detail, suffice it to say that the word derives from the country of Turkey, through which 16th-century English traders imported guinea fowl from Madagascar.  The birds became known as “Turkey-birds,” and this same appellation was mistakenly given to the larger North American fowl to which they bore some resemblance.

The wild turkey, the North American form of the bird, was so called from 1610s. By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas.

Other uses of the word turkey came much later. To talk turkey—“lay it on the level, speak candidly” (1824)—supposedly comes from an old tale of an Anglo pioneer attempting to swindle an American Indian in dividing up a turkey and a buzzard as food. The pioneer offered to let the Indian choose which he wanted: ''You take the buzzard and I'll take the turkey, or I'll take the turkey and you take the buzzard,'' whereupon the Indian declared that the Anglo was not “talking turkey to him.”

Cold turkey (1921) as a sudden method of totally giving up addictive substances, so-called because, like a meal of previously cooked and refrigerated turkey leftovers, it requires no preparation.

Turkey’s show-biz meaning—“inferior show, flop”—can be traced to 1927 and probably arose from the bird’s alleged stupidity.  Irving Berlin’s show business anthem speaks of a “turkey that you know will fold.”  Out of this grew the word’s use as a “stupid, ineffectual person,” which” dates only to 1951.

Turkey shoot, referring to "something easy," is World War II slang, alluding to marksmanship contests where turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads showing as targets. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou occasionally partakes in Wild Turkey, but only if it comes in a bottle.

            The Turkey once was King of Beasts,
            And showed all critters who was boss.
            But he became the King of Feasts,
            With dressing, yams, and cranberry sauce.

            He had an heir whose name was Tom,
            By whom the royal robes were taken,
            But Tom, his siblings, and his Mom
            Are now a slab of turkey bacon.

            The line of kings had one more Turkey,
            And shortly he was royally crowned.
            But he wound up as Turkey Jerky
            At nineteen ninety-five a pound.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Red State Blues Redux

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, many folks in red states are feeling mighty blue. Well, that can’t be helped, so it’s time to move on to the next bout in the ballot box, which will be in just 23 months and 51 weeks.  Better get busy!

The fact that red is associated with Republicans and blue with Democrats may seem counter-intuitive.  Red, which derives from the Sanskrit rudhirá (“blood”), has historically been associated with left-wing political causes. On the other hand, blue, which originated in proto-Indo-Euroean bhel, meaning “light-colored, yellow, or burnt,” and later Old Norse bla (“livid, discolored as in a bruise”), is traditionally the color of conservatism.

Red and blue took on their current political associations in the presidential election of 2000, thanks to network TV, as I pointed out in a similar blog two years ago.

Colors were first used on electronic election maps in 1976, when NBC depicted Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy Carter in red. In 1984, NBC showed Ronald Reagan’s landslide of 44 states as a “sea of blue.”  CBS used the opposite colors—red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. At ABC blue and yellow were the choices.

During this period the three major networks informally agreed on a uniform red-blue scheme that would alternate every four years, being assigned according to who were the incumbents (blue) and who were the challengers (red).

By 2000 all the broadcast and cable networks used this system, and it was the incumbent Democrats’ turn to be blue.  Because of the prolonged controversy over the election outcome, coverage dragged on for weeks, and commentators began to refer to a state as “red” or “blue,” according to which party had carried it.  From that time on, the red-state/blue-state dichotomy became ingrained in American political dialogue.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is also ingrained—or, rather, he’s into grains, mostly the distilled neutral kind.  Today, like most days, he has the blues.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            Surrounded by a crowd with wing-nut views,
            First Rick Perry, now Greg Abbott,
            Like some hard-to-kick bad habit,
            They try to be more right-wing than Ted Cruz.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            I’m in a land where folks believe Fox News,
            And for Tea Party theatrics,           
            You cannot top Dan Patrick’s,                    
            And now another Bush for us to choose.
            When I’m resting in my arbor, oh
            How I dream of old Ralph Yarborough,
            I’d bring back Barbara Jordan, if I could.
            Mickey Leland, Henry B. Gonzalez,
            Ann Richards, too—oh, they were hot tamales—
            And right now even Lyndon’s looking good!

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            A feeling that goes right down to my shoes,
            There’s just one chance in a billion
            Texas won’t remain vermilion,
            Oh, Lordy, yes, I got those ever-lastin’, Lone Star, 
                     Red State Blues.