Monday, September 26, 2016

With the Greatest Respect…

Some astute person with one foot on each side of the English Channel (try that sometime and see how comfortable it is) has published a translation guide that may explain why the British chose to exit the European Union: it was all a big misunderstanding. Try as they might, the Brits and their Continental colleagues—or the Americans, for that matter—just don’t speak the same language. This is clear from the following examples:

What the British say:           What the British mean:            What the European hears:

“I hear what you say.”            “I disagree and do not               “He is sympathetic to my      
                                                wish to discuss it further.”          point of view.”

“With the greatest                   “You are an idiot.”                     “He greatly respects me."

“That’s not bad.”                     “That’s bad.”                             “That’s good.”

“Quite good.”                           “A bit disappointing.”               “Very good.”

“Very interesting.”                    “That is clearly nonsense.”       “He is very interested."

“I almost agree.”                       “I do not agree at all.”              “He is close to         

“That is a brave proposal.”       “You are insane.”                      “He thinks I’m courageous.”

“Oh, incidentally…”                   “This is the main point.”           “This is not important.”

“I’m sure it’s my fault.”              “It’s your fault.”                         “Why does he think it's his 

“I’ll bear it in mind.”                  “I have forgotten it already.”       “He’ll almost certainly do it.”

No one has ever understood what the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is saying, and that is not surprising.

            With the greatest respect, I hear what you say,
            I’ll bear it in mind, very good.
            That is not bad, I almost agree…
            How I hope that I’m misunderstood!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Laying It On the Loin

A friend recently asked if I knew the origin and precise meaning of to gird one’s loins, meaning to “prepare for action or for strenuous activity.” 

The phrase appears frequently in the Bible, especially the Old Testament. In Exodus  the Lord tells Moses and Aaron how to eat the Passover meal: “And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand.” The Lord tells Job: “Gird up thy loins like a man.”

Almost any material could be used for girding. In I Kings the defeated Syrians “girded sackcloth on their loins” before begging for mercy. In II Kings Elijah is described as “an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins.”  Jeremiah is told: “Go and get thee a linen girdle, and put it upon thy loins.” Daniel has a vision of man “whose loins were girded in fine gold.”

Gird, derived from Old English geard (“yard, or enclosure”) and Latin hortus (“garden”) means “encircle or bind with a flexible material.” More often than not, it refers to wrapping something around the waist, either for protection or to hold in unwanted flab. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck says “I’ll put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.”
As for the loins (derived from Anglo-French loigne (“loin’), they are primarily defined as “the parts of a quadruped on each side of the spinal column between the hip bones and the false ribs.” In the human body this is the area within which are contained the reproductive organs, so that by the 16th century the loins referred specifically to the genitalia and, by extension, to a person’s source of physical strength and generative power.

Thus, to gird one’s loins, then, means both:
            1) to cover those parts of the body that modesty would demand, and              
            2) to protect those parts as the source of reproduction.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s loins are perpetually girded, since he never knows when he may have to spring into action.

            Her rebuke was was sharply worded
            To the handsome young Apollo:
            “You, sir, keep your distance!”
            For she knew his loins were girded
            And she feared that he would follow
            The loin of least resistance.

Friday, September 16, 2016

“Better Than the Next!”

A recent advertisement from a theatre company promised: “We have a wonderful season for you. Each show is better than the next!”

I hate to say so, but this is hardly an inducement to buy a season ticket—if every performance I attend will be worse than the one I saw last time.

On the other hand, “Each show is better than the last!” (which is what I presume the writer meant to suggest) may promise improvements over the season, which is certainly preferable. But still it makes you wonder why the same level of quality that is promised later in the season could not be achieved from the beginning.

If I were trying to sell as season, I think my slogan would be: “Each show is just as good as every other show!” Now that’s a goal to try to live up to!

As you have no doubt observed, if you are a Constant Reader, the verses of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou are all worse than the last ones.

            A West Indian impresario
            Put on a show in Ontario.
                        But he found the Canadians
                        Not as droll as Barbadians,
            And they yawned throughout his scenario. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Order, Please!

A recent Facebook post pointed out that when multiple adjectives precede a noun, we instinctively put them in a fixed order, depending on their function. First comes the determiner, denoting the number and specific designation of the noun: “a,” “the,” “your,” “some,” “few,” “several,” “fourteen,” “thousands,” etc. Next come adjectives that express an opinion (“good,” “bad,” “wonderful,” “terrible,” etc., followed by adjectives relating to size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose.

For example we might say: My lovely little old curved green French silver whittling knife. Rearranging the order of those adjectives is likely to result in something very peculiar sounding: My old lovely green French little whittling silver curved knife.

Here are some other examples whose word order you may change at your peril!

o   That charming small 18th-century oval dark brown Italian mahogany knick-knack shelf.  

o   Your handsome large new square red English walnut dining table.

o   Three ugly big old round orange German plastic coffee pots.

o   Two dozen useful thick new legal-size yellow Lithuanian parchment note pads.

Of course, this prescribed word order can sometimes be altered to good effect, as in Shelley’s description of George III in his sonnet “England 1819”:   “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows a lot of adjectives, but he has never quite figured out the right order in which to put them:

              A rich, old, fat, and greedy miser
             Grew much older but no wiser.
             And he, when all was done and said,
             Was rich, old, greedy, fat and dead. 


Monday, August 29, 2016

O tempora! O mores! O copyeditors!

Three errors in word usage in the media within one week call for a word or three of stern reproof.  

Item 1: “I really believe that this is a big issue in this race—that I am the one candidate that will stand up to whomever is in the White House…” (Sen. Kelly Ayotte, quoted by CNN)

Whoever is correct since it is in the nominative case as the subject in the dependent clause “whoever is in the White House.” The entire clause, not just the pronoun, is the object of the preposition to.

Item 2: “This augers a shift in policy.” (Houston Chronicle)

It should be augur. Auger is a noun that means “a tool for boring holes.”  Its root is Old English nafu (“hub of a wheel”) and gar (“spear”). Augur  is a verb meaning “foretell , give promise of,” derived from the Latin augere, a diviner of ancient Rome.

Item 3:Nixon in China showed immense theatrical flare.” (The Guardian, as quoted in the Houston Chronicle)

It should be flair. Flare is a noun meaning “a device that produces a blaze used as a signal” or a verb meaning “burn with an unsteady flame.” It can also mean “spread out or bulge.” It is of unknown etymology. Flair, meaning “style, or uniquely attractive quality” is from the French flairier (“give off an odor”), derived from Latin fragrare.

Now that those items have been disposed of, the Bard of Buffalo would like to commit a few egregious stylistic errors of his own.

            Alas, the hordes of evil predators
            Have killed off all the copyeditors,
                        Whom newspaper bosses,
                        When beset by huge losses,
            Have sacrificèd to their creditors.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Broadly Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 15, 2016

That’s No Yoke

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 8, 2016

Heroine Addiction

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

Led Astray

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

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

From December 21, 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

From March 14, 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 11, 2016

Drop That Dime!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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