Monday, July 27, 2015

Are You A Ring-Tailed Tooter?

When someone was especially rambunctious or trouble-making or outlandish in any way, my Texas-raised mother would call that person a “ring-tailed tooter.” I don’t encounter that phrase much any more, but it certainly serves a purpose when needed. It can be used to describe mischievous children, especially the kind who leave a trail of wreckage behind them. But there’s also a hint of admiration (and maybe envy) in the epithet, giving credit to someone with a zesty approach to life. Perhaps the quintessential ring-tailed tooter would have been Huckleberry Finn, although I don’t believe Mark Twain ever referred to him as such.

The etymology is uncertain, the “ring-tailed” part seemingly referring to the pattern on the tail a raccoon, an animal noted for mischief, and the “tooter” perhaps alluding to someone blowing a horn, or maybe on a “toot” (that is, a spree or drinking binge). 

The first recorded use of the term was applied not to a person, but an event. It’s a description of a parade in The Red-Blooded Heroes of the Frontier, a 1910 novel by Edgar Beecher Bronson:            
     While the Cross Cañonites were liquoring at the Fashion Bar (Circuit drinking sarsaparilla), Lame Johny, the barkeeper, remarked: "You-uns missed it a lot, not seein' the pr'cesh. She were a ring-tailed tooter for fair, with the damnedest biggest noise-makin' band you ever heard, an' th' p'rformers wearin' more pr'tys than I ever allowed was made."
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is known in some quarters as “The Ring-Tailed Tooter of Poesy,” a title he lives up to with every stroke of his pen.

            When Henry VIII became loud and rambunctious,
            Cardinal Wolsey’s response was always quite unctuous.
            The more Wolsey “tsked,” the more Henry was boisterous,
            And if Wolsey rebuked him, then Henry grew roisterous.
            No monarch had ever been cruder or ruder,
            Which is why they called Henry a Ring-Tailed Tudor.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Eyes Have It


When you need to see an eye doctor, you can choose one of several kinds—all with names related to Greek or Latin words for the eye. I usually visit an ophthalmologist, but I’ve also had dealings with an optometrist, an optician, and an ocularist. Fortunately I have not (yet) needed an orthoptist.

If you are not certain of the differences among them, allow me help you see the light. An ophthalmologist is an M.D. with a specialty in the medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases and visual problems of all kinds. The word comes from the Greek ophthalmos (“eye”) and literally means “science of eyes.”

An optometrist is concerned primarily with improving vision, usually through diagnosis of visual disorders and the prescription of corrective lenses. Optometrists also hold doctoral degrees, but they are D.O.’s (doctors of optometry) rather than M.D.’s. Ordinarily optometrists do not treat eyes surgically. The word’s origin is the Greek opsis (“view”) and metron (“measurement”).

An oculist (from the Latin word for "eye") is a more general term for an eye specialist, which may refer to an ophthalmologist or an optometrist.

An optician is a technician who designs, fits, and dispenses corrective lenses, after a patient has been examined and the lenses have been prescribed by an ophthalmologist or an optometrist. Ordinarily an optician does not hold a doctoral degree. The word comes from the Greek optikos (“sight-related”) and the suffix –ician, which indicates “practitioner of.”

An ocularist (from the Latin ocularis, or “eye”) is a technician who specializes in the fabrication and fitting of ocular prostheses, or artificial eyes. Training and certification vary from state to state.  

And, finally, an orthoptist (from the Greek ortho, or “correct”) is a health-care professional who has received special training in the treatment of amblyopia (lazy eye), strabismus (squinting), and other eye movement problems. They are therapists who teach patients to manage these disorders through muscular control and other therapeutic exercises.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou always keeps his eye on the ball—which does limit what he is able to see.

     Please permit me to use the vernacular

     In relating the tale of Count Dracula,

            Who corrected his vision

            And could see with precision

     Through lenses you might call spectacular.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Pro- or Antimacassar?

Police arrested a man for smuggling 21 rare yellow-crested cockatoos from the Indonesian island of Macassar, Sulawesi, or what used to be called the Celebes. Macassar is an ethno-linguistic group whose name springs from the word Mangkasara, meaning “people who behave frankly.” 

Macassar, or more precisely, antimacassar, was a  prominent word in nineteenth and early twentieth century English—not so much now. It is the word for a cloth placed over the backs, and sometimes also the arms, of chairs and sofas to prevent soiling of the upholstery. What was most likely to soil it in those days was macassar oil, a greasy hair tonic manufactured from ingredients—cocoanut oil, ylang-ylang oil, and other fragrant plant substances—that originally came from Macassar.
Antimacassars were initially made of stiff crochet-work, but later were fashioned from softer embroidered pieces of fabric or lace. They are still regularly found on the seatbacks of airliners, trains, and buses.

Those rare cockatoos, incidentally, were being transported in plastic water bottles, into which the birds had been crammed. Cockatoo, a type of parrot, is a word from the Dutch kaketoe, from Malay kakatua, possibly echoic of the sound made by the bird, or from the Malay kakak (“brother or sister”) and tua (“old”).  Its spelling is influenced by the English word cock. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou carries his own antimacassar with him wherever he goes. It’s used to protect his head from staining by the squalid surroundings in which he often rests it.

     They neglected to use an antimacassar
     On furniture bought for the college at Vassar,
             And the gunk from her hair
             That she left on his chair
     Led one student to doubt her professor would pass her.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Let’s Dance!

Ballroom dancing seems to be catching on again in some circles, and it’s always exhilarating to see elegantly clad couples doing the waltz or foxtrot, not to mention the more exotic forms like tango, samba, and rumba.

The etymologies of these dances come from a variety of sources.

Waltz, a round dance performed in three-four time, became popular in the late eighteenth century and is probably Bohemian in origin.  The word was first used in English in 1781, from the German Waltzer, derived from walzen, “to roll or dance,” from Old High German walzan, “turn, roll.”

Foxtrot, is a dance in two-four or four-four time involving slow walking steps and quick running steps, similar to the twostep. It became popular with the advent of ragtime music, around 1914. The name is based on the slow pace, with short steps, seen in a fox (or a horse).

Tango, which first burst upon the dance floor in 1913, is from Argentina. It is
in two-four or four-four time and is characterized by graceful posturing, frequent pointing positions, sinuous movement, and a great variety of steps, including the cross step, turning steps, and a backward kick.

Its name derives from an African word about which authorities disagree. Some say it is akin to the Ibibio word tamgu, meaning to “dance.” Others cite a Ki-Kongo word that means “moving in time to a beat.” And still others find an early root in West African dialects that mean “closed space” or “reserved ground,” referring to the area in which dancing was done. Others say it was part of a Spanish dance known as a fandango, whose origin is unknown.

Rumba is a Cuban dance, which made its appearance in 1919. It may take a variety of forms but usually is in two-four or four-four time, and involves a basic pattern of step-close-step, marked by a delayed transfer of weight and pronounced hip movements.

Its name may derive from the Spanish rumbo, meaning “spree” or “party,” a word that perhaps originated as a description of the course of a ship determined by a compass marked by a rhombus. Another source insists it comes from a Caribbean word, rumbear, meaning “going to parties, dancing, and having a good time.”

Samba, a Brazilian dance of African origin in four-four time, but with three steps to a bar, has a basic pattern of step-close-step-close and is characterized by a dip and spring upward at each beat of the music.

The word is of Portuguese origin, from Zemba, shorted from Zambacueca, an earlier dance whose name is influence by the Portuguese zamacueco (“stupid”), and zambapalo, a grotesque dance whose name derives from zamparse (to “bump or crash”).

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to bump and crash quite a lot, after sampling a few bottles that somehow fell into his hands off a passing truck.

                        A man who was dancing the tango
                        Took a break to consume a ripe mango,
                                    But his partners all fled,
                                    To which the man said,
                        “Where did that dang tango gang go?”

                        He decided to essay the samba,
                        But he moved like an African mamba,
                                    Looking very reptilian
                                    Instead of Brazilian,
                        And the bandleader cried, “Ay, caramba!”

                        At last it was time for a rumba,
                        And he thought this was surely his number,
                                    But the band played a waltz
                                    Filled with Viennese schmaltz,
                        And his partner reacted like lumber.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Dunce Upon A Time

It is ironic that one of history’s greatest scholars, John Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher and thelogian, is the origin of the word dunce, which means a “slow-witted or stupid person, especially an under-achieving student.” Duns Scotus was probably born between 1266 and 1270, most likely in Duns, Berwick County, Scotland. He became a Franciscan friar, studied at Oxford, and was on the faculty of the prestigious University of Paris by 1304. His contribution to medieval thought is ranked with that of Thomas Aquinas and William of Occam. Scotus died unexpectedly in 1308 in Cologne. 

Scotus was called the “Subtle Doctor” for his nuanced, precisely reasoned views on such abstruse topics as the univocity of being, the formal distinction between the conceptual and the real, and haecceitas, or “thisness,” of each individual entity.  Widely admired in scholarly circles, he drew a large number of devotees who were known as “Dunsemen” or simply “Dunses,” a term that bore no pejorative connotation.

In the sixteenth century, however, Protestant and humanist scholars of the Renassance rejected Scotus’ hair-splitting theology, which was regarded by them as narrow, close-minded, and legalistic. “Dunses” became objects of reproach, and soon the term was applied to all the more conservative philosophers, who were thought of as hopelessly old-fashioined fuddy-duddies clinging to outmoded beliefs. By the 1570s, “dunce” had been expanded to apply to any dullard or slow-learning student. 
The “dunce cap”—the conical headpiece sometimes inscribed with the letter “D” that is sometimes associated with dunces—is also said to be derived from a practice of Duns Scotus. He considered the cone-shaped caps as “funnels” of knowledge into the brain, pointing out that wizards were depicted as wearing them, and he thought that they would enhance scholars’ ability to learn. Eventually, along with the word dunce, the hats became associated with ignorance instead of learning.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a closet full of dunce hats—one for every social occasion. He also puts one on whenever he writes verse.


  Those thinkers Aquinas and Occam and Scotus
  Were smart theologians, who said, “Please don’t quote us.”
  It wasn’t that Scotus and Occam and Aquinas
  Were noted for modesty, meekness, or shyness.
  The truth is Aquinas and Scotus and Occam
  Were terribly fearful the Pope would defrock ‘em.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Trippingly on the Tongue

An article in London’s Independent purported to list the ten most difficult words to pronounce in English, based upon a survey conducted in the social medium Reddit. Some of the listed words obviously are difficult only because of the ignorance of the speaker. If you know the anomalies of the orthography in colonel, choir, otorhinolaryngologist, and Worcestershire, for example, they are no problem to pronounce.

Others, however, are genuinely difficult to say, even for educated speakers. Some of them appear in tough tongue-twisters to prove it. Although only fifth on the Independent’s list, my nominee for the toughest is isthmus. Try saying “Six thick isthmus thistle sticks.” Another toughie is sixth, as in the “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”

Among the other most difficult ones are rural (“A rural juror in a brewery robbery case”) and anemone (“A minimum enema for many an enemy anemone”).

An interesting sidelight is the word squirrel, which gives particular difficulty to German-speakers and was used as a shibboleth to detect them in World War II.  Oddly enough, the German word for squirrel, Eichhörnchen, was used by Germans to detect English-speakers.

Most Americans tend to rhyme squirrel with Pearl, although some favor the British style, which sounds more like Cyril. To reinforce this pronunciation the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has adapted a well-known limerick, which, despite the Bard’s attempt to make it fit for polite consumption, remains a trifle ithyphallic. Sensitive readers are cautioned. 
        There once was a young man named Cyril, 
        Who had an affair with a squirrel, 
                 And it made Cyril smile 
                 For quite a long while-- 
        Just as long as the squirrel was virile.

Monday, June 15, 2015

One, Two, Twee

Recently I've seen the word twee in print several times, describing art works, fashion, movies, and even an individual or two. I don’t recall ever coming across this word prior to about ten years ago, although the Online Etymological Dictionary says it’s been around since 1905. Twee doesn’t even make it into Webster’s New International Second Edition, published in 1949, except as a variation of tweeze.

Twee means “cute, dainty, quaint, precious, mawkish, affected, sentimental, and cloying.” More widely used by Brits than Yanks, it usually is a derogatory term, referring to something that is sweet to the point of being nauseating. You can probably think of things you regard as twee (and they may not be the same things I would categorize in that way). For me, what comes to mind as twee are the use of baby talk especially among adults, or overly affected speech with obsessively precise enunciation, or excessive niceties in one’s manners, such as extending the little finger when drinking a cup of coffee or tea. 

Twee has a specialized use to refer to pop music of a simple, sweet kind—also known as “cuddlecore,” “cutie pop,” and “jangle pop” and performed, or so I understand, by such artistes as Velvet Underground, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Orange Juice, Stone Roses, Dinosaur Jr., The Field Mice, Razor Cuts, Belle and Sebastian, and C86.

Linguists suggest the etymology of twee is from a mispronunciation of sweet in baby talk—but by which baby in what place and under what circumstances they do not say.

Whatever you might say about the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, you probably would not call him twee. Nauseating, to be sure, but not twee.

                        I’m sure that I shall never see
                        A word as sickening as twee.
                        A word whose cloying lips will pucker
                        And plant a kiss upon some sucker
                        Who is sufficiently unwary
                        To welcome twee’s vocabulary,
                        Like tummy, blankie, pee-pee, poo-poo,
                        Din-din, jammies, num-nums, choo-choo—
                        Those words are precious, mawkish, quaint,                                   
                        But on my lips is what they ain’t.
                        Some folks think twee is mighty cute,
                        But I’m not one who gives a hoot.

Monday, June 8, 2015

“I Quit!” and Other Performatives

A grammatical term new to me cropped up in Anu Garg’s email “A-Word-A-Day.” It’s performative, and it refers to a self-actualizing statement—that is an utterance that performs an action merely by saying it.

For example, “I quit” constitutes both one’s intent to terminate one’s position—and the actual termination, which is achieved by making the statement. Other examples of performative statements might be “Thank you,” “You’re fired,” “I hate you,” “I vote no,” “I forbid it,” “I bet five dollars,” “I’m talking now,” “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I surrender,” and “The meeting is now adjourned.”

The Oxford Companion to the English Language also cites a hedged performative, which is a statement like “I really must apologize,” in which the speaker merely expresses an obligation to apologize, but implies that acknowledging the obligation is the same as apologizing.

Some utterances may be interpreted either as performative or non-performative, such as when A asks B, a fellow diner at the table, “Can you reach the salt?” B will probably interpret the question as performative, indicating that A wishes to have the salt passed, and will do so. But in a non-performative sense, B might simply ascertain that the salt is indeed within his reach and reply, “Yes, I can,” without passing it.

The etymology of performative is from the French parfournir (par meaning “through” and fournir meaning “furnish”). Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says the word can be traced only to 1955, but Garg, without specifying, maintains citations can be documented as early as 1922.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is mostly non-performative, preferring to rest upon his withered laurels.

            “Can you reach the salt?” I said,
            Just as the meal began.
            My dinner partner chewed some bread
            And answered, “Yes, I can.”

            “Well, can you pass it, then?” I cried,
            While eyeing my ragout.
            My dinner partner then replied,
            “Yes, I can do that, too.”

            “Would you pass the salt?” I barked,
             Intent upon my mission,
            “I would,” he pleasantly remarked,
            “But under what condition?”

            “Just pass the goddam salt!” I screamed,
            “Or I’ll push you in the queso!”
            “Oh, you want the salt?” he beamed,
            “Well, why did you not say so?”

Monday, June 1, 2015

To Bee or Not To Bee

Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were declared co-winners of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. The final ten contestants also included Dev Jaiswal, Siddharth Krishnakumar, Tejas Muthusamy, Siyona Mishra, and Snehaa Ganesh Kumar.

The last eight winners of the Bee were Sameer Mishra, Kavya Shivashankar, Anamika Veeranmani, Sukanya Roy, Snigdha Nandipati, Arvind Mahankali, Sriram J. Hathwar, and Ansun Sujoe.

The dominance of spellers of South Asian ancestry, primarily Indian, has been a phenomenon of the Bee since about 2000. A recent article by the LearnThat Foundation suggests these reasons for the superior performance by students of Indian ethnicity:

1. Indian culture values education and regards memorization as a building-block towards higher knowledge.

2. South Asians maintain closely knit family and community groups, which value academic achievement.

3. There are some preliminary spelling contests specifically for Indian-Americans that encourage participation in the national bee.

Another possible explanation is that anyone who learns a second language through study will have a better command of spelling and grammar than native speakers.

The winning words this year were Scherenschnitte and nunatak. Other words that contestants negotiated were rollmops, arcology, apivorous, gibus, naranjilla, cimex, rechauffe, colcha, railleur, and syrette. 

When I was the runner-up in the 1950 National Spelling Bee, I lost on the word haruspex. The co-winners that year were Diana Reynard of Cleveland, Ohio, and Colquitt Dean of Atlanta.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a pretty fair speller himself. He can even spell the names of some of this year’s contestants. 

            Participial Bugs I Have Known
            A praying mantis of my ken, 
            Whose name was Myrtle Morrison, 
            Always said, “Amen, amen” 
            At the end of every orison. 

            A kissing bug has lots of fun 
            And thinks it’s really neato 
            To buzz the gals, then kiss and run, 
            Ahead of the mosquito. 

            A jumping bean contains a moth 
            That someone did deposit. 
            The moth would much prefer some cloth 
            Inside a darkened closet.

            A tiny spelling bee won’t lose 
            A word game to his betters, 
            Because he knows his P’s and Q’s, 
            And all the other letters. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Handbasket to Hell

“Going to hell in a handbasket”—that is, a rapidly worsening situation—is a nineteenth-century phrase whose origin has been much discussed. An earlier version was “in a handcart,” but the basket seems to have prevailed. Some scholars say “handbasket” has no particular meaning and is simply an alliterative intensifier, and that any conveyance beginning with “h”—a hansom cab or a hardbody, say,  would suffice. 

One of the earliest instances of the “handbasket” phrase is found in documents of the U. S. Congress of 1867, in which a pro-Southern judge refers to men arrested for collaborating in a Confederate conspiracy as “rotting in Lincoln’s bastilles…if they were once at liberty [they] would send the abolitionists to hell in a hand-basket.”

“To hell in a hand-cart” is found as early as 1841 in a book of sermons by Elbridge Paige.

Some etymologists relate the phrase to a stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, which shows a scolding wife being carted away by the devil in a wheelbarrow.

A more fanciful explanation traces the phrase to the French Revolution, when aristocrats were guillotined and their heads fell into a basket, which would no doubt provide their speedy passage to the fiery netherworld.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks going to hell in a handbasket might be as comfortable a way to travel there as any.  He has one ready, just in case.

                        The road to hell is paved, they say,
                        With many good intentions.
                        You’ll find them all along the way,
                        As the poet Virgil mentions.

                        If I fall prey to heaven’s wrath
                        With the wicked and depraved,
                        And find myself upon that path—
                        I’ll be glad, at least, it’s paved.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hey, Dude

People of a certain generation (all of them younger than I am), talk of dudes, by which they apparently mean any male persons. Sometimes I hear young men address each other (and occasionally even me) as “Dude.” So where does this term come from and what does it mean?                         
 Pictured is Evander Berry Wall, known as "King of the Dudes," in 1888 in New York.

Oxford English Dictionary  and Webster’s New International agree that the word originally meant a man who was “overly fastidious” in matters of dress and style; in other words, a “dandy” or a “fop.” It later was used to man any urbanized man, or “city slicker.” By the 1960s the word had crept into Black English and into surfer slang as an alternate way of saying “fellow” or “guy.” Today, it’s generally used in that broader sense, usually in an approving manner, to refer to any boy or man. It also can be used as a verb, retaining its  original meaning, as when someone gets “all duded up” in fancy clothes.

As for the etymology of dude, all the overly cautious OED will say is “actual origin not recorded.” Webster’s is even more terse: “Origin unknown.”

Dude first popped up in the 1880s as a term of mockery directed at young men who kept up with the latest fashions. The general consensus among word sleuths who are willing to take a stand is that it derived from “Yankee Doodle,” the 18th-century song with which the British taunted the uncouth colonists. The term doodle first appeared in the 17th century, from Low German Dödel, meaning “simpleton.” In the song the bumptious “Yankee Doodle” sticks a feather in his cap and calls it “Macaroni.” The Macaroni wig was high fashion in the 1770s and became a synonym for foppishness.

In 1883, according to linguist Allan Metcalf, someone in New York began referring to foppish young men as “doodles,” soon shortened to “doods,” with the alternate spelling “dudes.” In that same year a political cartoon referred to the sartorially resplendent President Chester A. Arthur as “O Dude of all the White House residents.”

Some etymologists believe the first instance of "dude" was in a poem by Robert Sale Hill that appeared in January 14, 1883, issue of the New York World.  Hill supposedly coined the word as a cognate to the extinct bird known as the "dodo."

Another expert suggests the term derived from a sentence in Graphic magazinie of March 31, 1883, which said: “The silent, subfusc, subdued 'dude' hands down the tradition of good form.” Dude, says this expert, is just a shortened version of the word subdued, suggesting a person of good taste.

One final suggestion is that it stems from the Scottish word duddies for clothes, and this theory can point to the use of the word dudde in Putnam’s Magazine in 1876, making fun of the way a woman was dressed.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not quite a dude. But as you can see, he’s working on becoming one:

            I’m trying hard to be a dude,
            And prove I have blue blood;
            Just look at me and you’ll conclude,
            I’m almost one; i.e. a dud.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tut, Tut

The winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah, has occasioned much comment about the spelling of his name, which transposes “a” and “o.” It is a misspelling of Pharaoh, the title of ancient Egyptian kings up until the Roman conquest.

American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, who is an Egyptian by birth, maintains that the spelling is the result of an error by The Jockey Club, the organization that publishes the official American Stud Book. But the Club says that’s not so, that the name was spelled that way when it was submitted by its owner through an interactive digital registration site. Now, boys, let’s not fight about it. 

Pharaoh is derived from the Old English Pharon, which in turn came from Latin Pharaonem, Greek Pharao, Hebrew Par’oh, and, ultimately, Egyptian Per’aa (a transliteration of hieroglyphs). It means “great house.” Its unusual English spelling—a before o and h on the end—seems to have been influenced by both the Latin and Hebrew words.

Also misspelled—if a person can actually misspell his own name—are Jay Pharoah of Saturday Night Live and Pharoah Sanders, the jazz saxophonist. The former’s real name is Jared Farrow. The latter, born Farrell Sanders, was nicknamed Pharoah by bandleader Sun Ra. None of them is known to have won a spelling bee.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes he was a Pharaoh in a previous life. Oh, wait, not a Pharaoh—a ferret. That’s easier to believe.

          Hotepsekhemwy was a Pharaoh,
          And his friends all called him Hot.
          He always walked the straight and narrow,
          And he seemed to know what's what.
          His reign was long, but he wound up dead,
          And was made into a mummy,
          With a golden mask upon his head
          And a scarab on his tummy.