Monday, October 24, 2016

The Gin Game

I recently enjoyed an infrequent Martini—a drink sometimes called “Fred Astaire in a glass,” surrounded by a mystique of glamor, elegance, and mystery. The mystery consists largely in its origin and why it is called a “Martini.”

Made from London dry gin and dry vermouth, mixed in ice, with either an olive or a twist of lemon, and, in its earliest incarnations, other ingredients such as bitters and maraschino liqueur, the Martini originated in the 1880s, either in San Francisco or in New York, depending on which story you prefer. Its name may come from the brand of vermouth that was first used, Martini & Rossi, produced since 1863. Or it may have been born, under a slightly different name, in San Francisco, where the Occidental Hotel was serving a “Martinez cocktail” to patrons en route to the ferry to nearby Martinez, California. New Yorkers claim it originated at the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1912, when the chief bartender was Martini di Arma di Taggia.

The Martini’s ambrosial potency has elicited rapturous comments from many literary figures. E. B. White called it the “elixir of quietude.” Bernard De Voto said, “The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth, and one of the shortest lived….It is the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “I never tasted anything so cool and clean…They make me feel civilized.” James Thurber opined, “One martini is all right, two are two many, and three are not enough.” 

The Martini has inspired poetry by Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker and generated much controversy over whether it should be shaken (James Bond and Nick Charles) or stirred (Graham Greene and Auntie Mame), not to mention whether any concoction other than gin-and-vermouth may properly be called a Martini just because it’s served in a V-shaped glass. (The correct answer to the last question is no.)

Among the many notables who were partial to Martinis—W. H. Auden, Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock, Noël Coward, and Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush, to name a few—one of the most notable was Britain’s Queen Mother, who died at the age of 101, although she really preferred her gin laced with Dubonnet rather than vermouth. Once, when she was being served tea at an official gathering, her tactless host blurted, “I understand that you would really prefer gin.” The Queen Mum drew herself up with dignity and replied, “I did not realize I had such a reputation. But, as I do,” she continued, “would you kindly make it a large one.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t drink Martinis very often, as they do strange things to his libido, which is not a pretty sight.

            I always adore a Martini,
            That tang on the tongue till it tingles—
            But once, from my glass, came a genie
            Saying, “Barman, pour doubles, not singles.”

            The first drink he shook, then he stirred one,
            By then I was going full throttle.
            And when I had finished my third one,
            I said, “Hell, just hand me the bottle.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

Beguine Your Pardon

Why did they begin the beguine? This West Indian dance, probably best known from Cole Porter’s 1935 song “Begin the Beguine,” is a combination of Latin folk dancing and French ballroom dance, similar to the rumba, fairly slow in tempo and featuring a sensuous roll of the hips. It originated in the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. 
Some of the folks who are paid to study word origins say it is derived from the French colloquial word béguin, which can mean “flirtation,” “infatuation,” or a “boyfriend or girlfriend.”  Its original meaning was a a “child’s bonnet” and before that, i.e. the 14th century, a “nun’s headdress.” Others say, “bosh!” (or some similar word to that effect), the origin of beguine is in Creole Beke or Begue, which means “white person,” and Beguine is its female form. 
There is another kind of Beguine, the name of a member of a medieval spiritual order for laywomen, founded in 1180 in Liège in the Low Countries. They are believed by some to have taken their name from Lambert le Bègue, a priest who was instrumental in their establishment. He was also sometimes known as “Lambert the Stammerer,” undoubtedly because of some speech impediment. 

Others, however, say the name stems from St. Begga, a 7th-century Frankish nun, or possibly from the Saxon word beggen, meaning “pray.” These Beguines were not known to engage in hip-swinging Latin dances, so the two kinds of beguine are probably not related.

A male order founded in imitation of them in the 1220s was known as the Beghards. They were itinerant mendicants who gave rise to the word beggar.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never learned to dance the beguine.  But after a few Chardonnays, he can execute a mean box step

            There once was an old college dean            
            Who just loved to dance the beguine.
                        But when he did dips
                        And rotated his hips
            The students all called it obscene.           

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Who’s Hue?

A weekly publication asked, “Can you imagine the ‘family values’ hue and cry” if Hillary Clinton was accused of the sexual comments of which Donald Trump was guilty on that infamous tape? That got me to thinking, not about how unlikely such an eventuality would be, but about “hue and cry.” The phrase means to “make a noise.” The “cry” part seems obvious enough, but what is a “hue”?

There is some difference of opinion on that question. One source says its an onomatopoeic word, probably from the Old French heu, suggesting a “hoot.” Others think the phrase is an Anglicization of the Latin term hutesium et clamor, meaning “sounding a horn and shouting.” Still others attribute the source to the Old French huer (“shout”) and crier (“cry”).

The phrase apparently originated in the 13th century, probably in the Statute of Westminster of 1285, which provided that anyone witnessing a crime should make a “hue and cry” against the fleeing criminal from one town to the next until the evil-doer was apprehended and delivered to the sheriff. All that hueing and crying must have made for awfully noisy law enforcement.

There is a constant hue and cry against the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, but he only hears what he wants to.

                        There was an old fellow from Rye,
                        Always making a big hue and cry.
                                    When asked why the noise,
                                    He lost all his poise
                        And confessed that he, too, wondered why.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Poodle Doodles

“Too many people still think of Liszt as a long-haired, pianistic poodle-faker, seducing aristocratic ladies with superficially glittering pieces that have more notes than substance,” said an article in The Daily Mail. Whatever you may think of Liszt’s music, what do you think of his poodle-faking? And what is a poodle-faker?

It’s defined as a man who seeks out the company of upper-status women to advance himself socially or professionally.The term originated in the British Army around 1900 and alludes to the attempts of young officers to insinuate themselves into the favor of influential women in the manner of a lap dog, or “poodle.” The poodle, from the German Pudel (puddle), is a breed developed to retrieve game from the water.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou aspires to be a poodle-faker, and for many years he has led a dog’s life.

       A social-climbing noodle-baker
       Knows how to be a poodle-faker,
              And if a lady is loath      
              To plight him her troth,
       Somehow that dude’ll make her.

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.