Monday, March 23, 2015

Happy Accidents

The other day I was ransacking a desk drawer looking for some receipts (it’s tax time again), when I unexpectedly came across a $5 bill lurking between two pieces of paper. This discovery of something valuable or agreeable purely by accident is known as serendipity. 

The word was first used in 1754 by Horace Walpole, an author and Member of Parliament, in a letter to an English friend in Italy. Walpole explained that he concocted the word from a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which he had read as a boy. Serendip is the Persian and Urdu word for the country now known as Sri Lanka.

The fairy tale is a translation of an Italian story by Michele Tramezzino, published in Venice in 1557. In it three princes set out on a journey during which they make a number of useful discoveries either by accident or by their native wit. 

Many readers have unexpectedly come upon the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou quite by accident. They invariably regard this untoward event not as serendipity, but as an unmitigated disaster. To live up to his tarnished reputation, the Bard offers two examples of his egregiousness:

            A rabbit came hopping up, hippity-hoo,
            To get his fur styled with some Dippity-Do,
                        Folks thought it funny
                        To see a chic bunny,
            And to find him by pure serendipity, too.

            We thought it was somewhat precipitous
            And not in the least serendipitous
                         When a villain appeared,
                         And he snarled and he sneered, 
            Then he curled his stiff upper lip at us.

Monday, March 16, 2015

All Smiles


The New York Times wrote recently of emoticons and emojis, using those two terms more or less interchangeably. But, in fact, they are quite different. An emoticon, a portmanteau word formed from emotion and icon, and pronounced ee-MOTE-uh-con, is a symbol composed of punctuation marks, letters, or numbers, in a text-only document, to indicate an emotional condition. Usually they must be read sideways. This is an emoticon indicating happiness :-).  Others may indicate unhappiness :-( or alarm :-o or humor ;-).

The person most often credited as the first to use emoticons in this sense is a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. 

Earlier prototypes, however, can be found.  The American humor magazine Puck published these examples created by a type-setter in 1881:

Some people think they have found an even earlier example in a New York Times transcript of a speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. What might be an emoticon representing amusement appears in the fourth line, after “applause and laughter.” Others insist this is merely a typographical error.

A kind of shorthand emoticon was designed in ten minutes in 1963 by an artist named Harvey Ball as a morale-building device for employees of the State Mutual Life Insurance Company. Ball was paid $45 for inventing the “smiley face” that is now ubiquitous.

An emoji, pronounced ee-MO-jee, is a Japanese word that means “picture character.” It is a more elaborate design that can represent any idea, object, or cultural meme. The first emoji was designed around 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese communications company. Since then, many different organizations have designed their own emojis for use in communications. Here are samples representing a dancer, from Apple, Google, and Twitter:

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is working on an emoji to represent him and his work; so far it’s just a big amorphous blob. 

       If I were asked to vote upon
       My favorite emoticon,
       I’m sure that I would think most highly
       Of a face that’s slyly smiley.

       Some days, though, are not so nice,
       When smiley faces won’t suffice,
       Grinning like some elf or brownie:
       Then I need a face that’s frowny.

Monday, March 9, 2015

It’s Flat, That’s That!

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about “flat whites” and didn’t have a clue what they were. At first I thought the term must refer to a casual white shoe to wear around the pool between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Or could it mean a house paint without a gloss? Then I thought perhaps it was an egg with no yolk cooked over easy. Now, thanks, to the inexhaustible font of information provided by the indispensable Wikipedia, I learn that a flat white is a beverage.

It is, in fact, a coffee beverage that was developed in Australia and New Zealand about 35 or 40 years ago. It is concocted by pouring what is known as “microfoam”—milk steamed with a wand to produce very fine bubbles—over a shot of espresso. Similar to a latte, it is smaller in volume and has a greater proportion of coffee to milk. It may provide a canvas for latte art.

Its name comes from the thin, flat layer of white microfoam, as opposed to thicker layers in lattes and cappuccinos.  If you have any more questions about flat whites, please apply at the nearest Starbucks.

With all that mlik, a flat white probably qualifies as a “cat-lap.” That is a British Victorian term for tea or coffee that was used disdainfully by those who preferred beer and stronger liquors as their beverage. Sometimes really hearty topers even used the term to refer to champagne.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes his coffee just like the verses he writes: strong, dark, bitter, and unpalatable.

            I like coffee,
            It suits me
            More than toffee,
            Toast, or tea.

            Make it black,
            Make it bitter,
            It will smack
            A tic or jitter.

            Make it strong,
            Yes, oh yes, oh
            How I long
            For an espresso.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Whence Lent?

Christians of a certain stripe—mostly Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox, and a few others—are now in the midst of Lent, the season of forty days preceding Easter that is devoted to prayer, fasting, and charitable works. In the Romance languages the word for Lent alludes to the forty days, based on the Latin quadragesima, which means “fortieth.” In Italian Lent is Quaresima, in French it’s Carême, and in Spanish Cuaresma.

Germans get right to the point and call the season Fastenzeit, “fasting time.”

The etymology of Lent in English is more complicated. The word cropped up in the fourteenth century, as a shortened form of Lenten, which derived from Old English lencten, meaning “springtime.” The root of lencten is West Germanic langatinaz, meaning “long days,” referring to the coming season’s increasing daylight.  

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thought he might give up versifying for Lent, but he came to realize that too many penitents rely upon reading his poetic detritus as atonement for their sins (when self-flagellation is not considered severe enough).

                        There was a devout Christian gent
                        Who quit smoking and drinking for Lent,
                                     But he ate so much fudge he
                                     Grew terribly pudgy,               
                        Which was certainly not his intent.
                        He decided he'd keep one bad habit,
                        Despite pleas from a priest and an abbot,
                                    So now he rejects
                                    All that junk food for sex,                              
                          And he's thin--but he acts like a rabbit. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Traduttore Traditore

The Italian expression traduttore traditore may be translated as “the translator is a traitor”—meaning that any translation is always a betrayal of the true meaning of the original. This may be true, but it’s also a troublesome fact that some words pose particular challenges when you try to express them in other than their original languages.

Today Translations, a British company, has conducted a survey of translators worldwide, asking them the most difficult words they have encountered. Jurga Zilinskiene, head of the company, points out that while it may be easy enough to find a definition in a dictionary, true translation requires conveying the cultural experience and social context into a different language.

On that basis, the translators who were surveyed chose these as the ten words with the most elusive meanings:

ilunga  - Tshiluba for a person who will forgive any abuse for the first time and tolerate it a second time--but never a third time. Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in southeastern Congo and Zaire.

shlimaz - Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person.

radioukacz - Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.

naa - Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to express agreement or emphasis.

altahmam  - Arabic for a kind of deep sadness.

gezellig - Dutch for cosy.

saudade - Portuguese for a certain type of longing.

selathirupavar - Tamil for a certain type of truancy.

pochemuchka - Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions.

klloshar -Albanian for loser.

What’s that?  Oh, you don’t speak Tshiluba or Tamil and you want to know the most untranslatable words in English. Okay, here’s what the experts said—but you have to provide the definitions yourself:





 googly (British)



 bumf (British)

 chuffed (British)


The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s works have never been translated into any language, including English.

            Some say it’s debatable
            If words are translatable
            When they're untransmittable,
            Or just not admittable
            Because they’re inscrutable,
            Or maybe unsuitable.
            So since they’re not quotable
            And won’t ever be notable,
            Because they’re not writable
            Or not even citable,
            It may be regrettable,
            But they’re just forgettable.

Monday, February 16, 2015

I’ve Got Sixpence

In the years that I lived in England while studying at the University of Birmingham, the British monetary system had not yet been decimalized. It took some getting used to, but after two years I was pretty adept at handling half-crowns, thrup’ny bits, florins, ten-bob notes, and guineas, along with pounds, shillings, and pence. By the time I visited the British Isles again, they had converted to the decimal system, in which one pound was equal to a hundred pennies, just like dollars and cents. I was greatly annoyed that once I had conquered the previous arcane system, the Brits got rid of it!

The pound, or pound sterling as it’s sometimes called, is still the basic unit of currency. The word comes from Latin libra pondo, which meant an amount equivalent in weight to a specified number of grains of wheat. Proto-Germanic punda became pund in Old English. It was used as a unit of money equivalent to that weight in silver; hence, the term “pound sterling.” By the 13th century it was determined that the pound would contain 240 pennies and a penny would be equal in weight to 32 grains of wheat.

The penny can be traced back to as early as the 8th century, when King Offa ordered coinage of money in the shape of a flat disc, known in Old English as a penig.  Its ultimate origin is probably the Old Norse pengar, which meant simply “money.” It is thought that the word may stem from the fact that the coin is shaped liked a pan.

Between the penny and the pound was a shilling. A word from Proto-Germanic skilliingoz, which came into Old High German as skilling, into Norse as skillingri, Dutch as schelling, German as Schilling, and Old Engllish as scilling. It consisted of a varying number of pence, standardized by the 14th century as twelve. Thus twenty shillings made a pound.

The ultimate source of the word is debatable, and may come from either of two Germanic words: skell  (“ring or resound”) or skel (“cut”). The ending –ing is a Germanic form meaning “fractional part.” The –ing is seen also in farthing, a coin no longer in circulation that was worth one-fourth (Old English feorða) of a penny.

In addition to pounds, shillings, and pence, British monetary policy sometimes referred to a half-crown. It was the value of two-and-a-half shillings, or 2 shillings and sixpence. There was a silver coin called a crown (because it bore the emblem of the royal headpiece) minted until 1965, but it was rarely in actual circulation because of its large size.

Pre-decimal coins in circulation in addition to the shilling were the florin (worth two shillings), so-called from a European coin of similar size that was named from the Latin floremi (“flower”) because early Italian versions were imprinted with a lily; a sixpence coin; and a three-penny coin known as a thrup’ny bit.

I used to hear some prices quoted, not in pounds, but in guineas. A guinea was a coin made of about one-fourth ounce of gold; it was minted between 1663 and 1814. At first it was worth the same as a pound, twenty shillings, but increases in the price of gold upped it to as high as thirty shillings, until 1816, when it was standardized at twenty-one shillings. The name came from the Guinea region of West Africa, source of most of the gold. Although it no longer existed as a unit of currency by the 1950s, it was still used to quote prices of expensive luxury goods, in order to make them seem less expensive. A tag of 299 guineas seems less than its equivalent value of £314.

All this talk of money upsets the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who practices his craft for the sheer love of the art, not for any tawdry monetary reward (which he has tried repeatedly to obtain, but without any luck).

            For less than a guinea
            You’ll get twenty blini
            And then if you’d like to have fillings,
            Like mushrooms and ham,
            Or whipped cream and jam,
            Then throw in a couple more shillings.

            While some think it’s nice
            To add a big slice
            Of whitefish or salmon or sturgeon,
            It’s better by far
            With fine caviar,
            So hope that your sturgeon’s a virgin.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Help! Call the Word Police!

Several solecisms popped up in print recently, provoking me to summon the Word Police to clean up the mess.

First I read that a well-known basketball coach was “loathe” to criticize the obviously mistaken call of a certain referee, meaning that he was “reluctant.” As the Word Police were far from loath to point out, the word should be “loath” (even though certain permissive modern dictionaries list both “loathe” and “loth” as alternates). Loathe, with an –e on the end, is a verb, meaning to “hate intensely or despise.” Both words are rooted in in Old English lað, meaning “hated, hateful, hostile, or repulsive.” It came into English from Proto-Germanic laithaz and is related to the French laid (“ugly”). The contemporary meaning with its lessened sense of “reluctant or disinclined” was first seen in the late 14th century.

Then I saw that a ruling by the Supreme Court had caused one legal question to become “mute.” Of course, what was meant was “moot.” The term now usually refers to a topic that is of “no practical importance, or purely hypothetical.” Originally, from the 12th century, moot was a noun meaning “assembly of freemen,” that is, a deliberative body, derived from Old English gemot (“meeting”). From this meaning came the adjectival use of moot as “debatable, arguable, undecided.” The term was often used by law schools to describe practice arguments of hypothetical cases, and from that usage it gained its present meaning. 

Mute, meaning “silent” is a late 14th-century word, derived from Old French muet and Latin mutus, with the same meaning, ultimately from the Greek myein (“to be shut, as of the mouth”).

Finally, someone reported on Facebook that she was blind-sighted by an unexpected turn of events. While the W. P. admit that this usage has a certain compelling logic, the term actually is blind-sided, alluding to “being hit from one’s blind side.”

Having done their duty, the Word Police respectfully tipped their caps and silently stole away.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has bestirred himself from his customary substance-induced torpor, to opine as follows:

            A playboy with two girlfriends was loath
            To pledge either young lady his troth,
                        Thus far as of yet
                        The two girls haven’t met,
            So he thinks he can hold on to both.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dangerous Words

Some accounts of the horrific assassinations at Charlie Hebdo in Paris referred to that satirical journal’s irreligious cartoons, which touched off the murderous barbarity, as “blasphemous.” Others said they were “sacrilegious.” What’s the difference?

Sacrilege means the “violation of or injury to a sacred object, person, or idea.” It was first noted in English around 1300 and derives from the Latin sacrilegium, meaning “temple robbery.” Its roots are sacrum (“sacred object”) and legere (“take”). It took on the broader meaning of “profaning anything sacred” by the late fourteenth century. (The second part of the adjective sacrilegious has nothing to do with the word religious, although many people think so and consequently misspell it.)

Blasphemy is a kind of sacrilege, specifically verbal, meaning “speaking ill about God or sacred things.” Its root is the Latin blasphemia and Greek blasphemos. The Greek word is formed from blaptikos (“hurtful”) and pheme  (“utterance”). The word entered English in the early 1300s.

If sacrilege is specifically physical, involving the destruction, damage, or theft of sacred objects, it is often called desecration, formed from de- (“do the opposite”) and “consecration” (“making holy”).

And, incidentally, in case you haven’t come across it elsewhere, the name Charlie Hebdo originated in the character of Charlie Brown in “Peanuts” comic strips, which were initially a regular feature of the magazine, plus hebdo, an abbreviation of hebdomadaire, which is French for a “weekly publication.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is following the prudent lead of Will Rogers, who, after satirizing Democrats, Republicans, and several other groups in his comic routine, remarked: “And then there’s the Ku Klux Klan (long pause)—you ain’t gonna catch me tellin’ no jokes about them.”

            I could make irreverent jokes
            About the poor benighted folks
            Whose creeds and violent acts convulsive
            I find repugnant and repulsive,
            I could be very funny--but            
            I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut.

Monday, January 26, 2015

At the Drop of a Hat

Political wheels are already getting oiled for the 2016 presidential bandwagons. Numerous hats have been tossed into the ring, especially on the Republican side. Does anyone still wear a hat? Not so much, but they still get thrown proverbially into that ring. Why?

Stories vary, and about the only thing they agree upon is that the phrase originated in nineteenth-century America. Most sources trace its origin to the sport of boxing. In the early nineteenth century, almost all men wore a hat or cap of some kind. Early fights were less organized than today’s sport and often took place in an informal circle surrounded by a noisy crowd. At the end of a fight, if a new challenger wished to take on the champ, the clearest way to make known his intentions over the din was to throw something into the open space—and the handiest thing for most people would be their hat.

On early citation was found in 1805 in The Sporting Magazine, which reported of a boxer, “Belcher appeared confident of his success, and threw his hat into the ring, as an act of defiance to his antagonist.” In 1810, there is a reference in a publication called The Mirror of Taste that explains in more detail how the hat-in-the-ring process worked: “A young fellow threw his hat into the ring and… the … umpire called out ‘a challenge’...He then walked round the ring till a second hat was thrown in, and the umpire called out, ‘the challenge is answered.’" 

The first use of the phrase in a political context may have been in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt, an avid amateur boxer himself, announced his intention to challenge William Howard Taft for the U.S. presidency by proclaiming, "My hat's in the ring."

Other soi-disant authorities attribute the first use of the phrase to much later sources. One says it was the boxer John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion from 1882 to 1892, who originated the phrase, as he challenged spectators to a round in the ring with him. Another tale has Woodrow Wilson attending a circus performance in 1916 and announcing his candidacy for a second term by throwing his hat into the circus ring. Based on that unlikely event, some people credit P. T. Barnum, founder of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” as the coiner of the term. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t often wear a hat (unless he's keeping something under it), so he is unlikely to throw one anywhere. That doesn’t stop him (alas!) from commenting when others do.
            Two, four, six, eight—
            It’s almost time to nominate!
            Republicans must dig and delve
            To narrow down their field of twelve.

            It might be Romney’s turn again—
            Does he know when he should say when?
            He’s in the same boat with Santorum,
            They know the ropes, we can’t ignore ‘em.

            And way down South, that purple corridor,
            The enigmatic state of Florida
            Cannot decide to pull or push—
            Propelling Rubio or Bush.

            Texas, too, thinks more is merry,
            Their favorite son is Cruz—or Perry?
            Poor Perry may be in a hole
            Unless he turns on Cruz control.

            Fox News has lost its Huckabee,
            So he can run again, quite pluckily,
            Unless, of course, he’s just a stalker
            For some much darker horse like Walker.
            Doc Carson’s new, and bright, and breezy,
            And thinks it should be easy-peasy
            To sing the Democrats some dirgery—
            After all, it ain’t brain surgery.
            Some folks think that he’s too noisy,
            But Christie’s shown that in New Joisey
            He’s as happy as a clam
            If he can cause a traffic jam.
            Four years ago, who would have reckoned
            That this year we’d have Paul the second?
            And finally, speared upon the spindle,
            The most unlikely name of Jindal.

            After fighting tooth and nail,
            The strongest of them will prevail
            And be acclaimed upon the pillory
            As man enough to tackle Hillary.

P. S.:  One more would-be on the scene,
            Brings the number to thirteen—
            Lindsay Graham is just “exploring”;
            He may discover that he’s boring.

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.”