Monday, February 6, 2017

From Scratch

A recent news item opined that some Republicans wishing to scuttle the Affordable Care Act might be planning to "start from scratch." Do you suppose that meant they would begin by putting a band-aid on a minor scratch?  No, probably the writer meant they would "begin anew." But how did this meaning develop?

Scratch is a blend of two Middle English words, scratten and cracchen, both of which meant to “scrape or dig with claws or nails.” From this definitioin the noun scratch was derived, meaning “a slight tear in the skin.”

The phrase start from scratch originated in the sporting world, around the eighteenth century, where the starting point was denoted by “scratching” it into the ground. This might apply to the starting point for a race, the marking of batting and bowling creases in cricket, or the indication of the boxers’ positions in a prizefight. The first recorded instance of scratch being used as a sporting term was in 1778, in “The Hambledon Song,” an ode to cricket by the Rev. R. Cotton, who wrote:
            Your skill all depends upon distance and sight,
            Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.
The first athletes said to “start from scratch” were two runners in a handicap race in Sheffield, England, who were so described in a December, 1853, issue of The Era, a sports newspaper.

Golfing took up the word scratch, to apply it to a golfer who has a zero handicap. (A handicap is a number to be deducted from the actual number of strokes a golfer makes, to derive his final score. The handicap is calculated by one of several complicated systems that evaluate a player's skill relative to other players.)
By extension the phrase starting from scratch came to mean beginning any task under the assumption that no previous measures had been taken aimed at completing the task.

Nowadays you also hear it used for culinary terms, like “scratch biscuits,” that is those made without using a prepared mix.

Oh, about those Republicans trying to fix the health care system by starting from scratch, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, crank that he is, has this to say:

            O, send me somewhere,
            With Obamacare,
            Where the doctors don’t charge any fee,
            Where seldom is heard
            A Republican word,
            And the drugs on prescription are free.

            Please, send me somewhere
            With real news on the air,
            And not weird Breitbartian views,  
            Where Walter Cronkite
            Can be heard every night,
            And there’s not a peep from Fox News.
            Yes, send me somewhere,
            With no orange billionaire
            Surrounded by sycophant hacks,
            Where Bannon and Flynn,
            Conway and her kin
            Are all just alternative facts.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Abba Dabba Dabba

 One of the customers has asked the origin of the phrase “dab hand.” A “dab hand,” more used in the British Commonwealth countries than in the United States, is an expert. It is usually followed by “at” and the subject in which the person is adept, i.e. “a dab hand at tiddly-winks” or “a dab hand at mixing smooth Martinis.”    

The Oxford English Dictionary places the earliest use of “dab hand” in 1828 in a dialectical dictionary  It was Yorkshire dialect and did not enter widely into mainstream English until the mid-20th century.  

“Dab” by itself, also meaning “expert,” appeared in 1691 in the Athenian Mercury, a semi-weekly London periodical that doled out advice on a variety of subjects. Love is “such a Dab at his Bows and Arrows,” it opined. In the Dictionary of the Canting Crew, a glossary of criminal slang, published in 1698, dab is defined as “an exquisite expert” in some sort of roguery. Dab was incorporated into schoolboy slang by the early 19th century.

Etymologists do not appear to be dab hands at explaining the origin of the phrase. Some say dab is derived from Old Dutch dabben and German tappen, which in the 13th century meant “administer a sharp blow.” The meaning was later softened into “pressing lightly,” as in the phrase “dab at.”

Other not-so-dab hands think it may be a corruption of the word adept, or possibly dapper.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has not yet discovered the subject at which he is a dab hand. It certainly isn’t versifying, as you can see for yourself.
       When caught in a lie, don’t retract,
       Or the lie will lose its impact,
             To be a dab hand
             And remain in command,
      Say it's just an alternative fact.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"It Was A Dark and Stormy Night"

I have been remiss in the past few years in my reportage of the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This is an annual competition sponsored by San Jose State University’s English Department to honor bad opening sentences of imaginary novels. It was inspired by the legendary bad opening sentence of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford:  

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

As the department's website reports, in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner is awarded a pittance--which some reports indicate might be as much as $150.

To make up for lost time, here are the winners of the past three years’ competitions, beginning with 2016:

“Even from the hall, the overpowering stench told me the dingy caramel glow in his office would be from a ten-thousand-cigarette layer of nicotine baked on a naked bulb hanging from a frayed wire in the center of a likely cracked and water-stained ceiling, but I was broke, he was cheap, and I had to find her.”
                                                            —William "Barry" Brockett, Tallahassee, FL

“Seeing how the victim's body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer ‘Dirk’ Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase ‘sandwiched’ to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.”
                                                            —Joel Phillips, West Trenton, NJ

“When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.”
                                                            — Betsy Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA

That old Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no trouble in writing bad opening lines for his verse, not to mention all that lines that follow:

            A fellow they called Bulwer-Lytton
            Wrote the worst books that ever were written,
                 But he said, “What the hell,
                 As long as they sell,
            I’ll be top of the heap here in Britain.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Mondegreens

In case you were not paying close attention when I blogged about Christmas mondegreens seven years ago, I reiterate for your benefit that a mondegreen is a mis-hearing of a poem or song lyric, ideally one precipitating gales of uncontrollable laughter. The word mondegreen was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright in an essay titled “The Death of Lady Mondegreen” in Harper’s Magazine.  Wright recounted that as a child she used to hear a Scottish ballad that went (she thought):

      Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
      O, where hae ye been?
      They hae slain the Earl o’ Murray
      And Lady Mondegreen.

What they had done, of course, was to have slain the Earl and laid him on the green.  

Mondegreens are still with us, and Christmas seems to encourage them. A fellow named Gavin Edwards has even written a whole book called Deck the Halls With Buddy Holly, in which he's collected a bunch of them. The most famous Christmas mondegreen is probably “Round John Version” in “Silent Night,” but there are plenty of others, all of which purport to be actual misapprehensions by some befuddled listener. You may have heard of Rudolph’s companion, “Olive, the other reindeer,” or perhaps you have sung joyfully, “Noël, Noël, Barney’s the King of Israel.” Others have proclaimed “Get dressed, ye married gentlemen, let nothing through this May.”

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” so the song says, and some people believe “they’re going to build a toilet town all around the Christmas tree.”  Probably the same people revel in a “Winter Wonderland” because “in the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is sparse and brown” and “later on we’ll perspire as we drink by the fire.”

The champion, however, is the poor benighted soul who conjured up the painful image in “The Christmas Song” of “Jeff’s nuts roasting on an open fire.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a little trouble these days hearing song lyrics (and other things, as well), but he managed to come up with this seasonal ditty; then, giving a nod, up the escalator he rose.

      It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
      And I feel in very fine fettle.
      But the Salvation Army
      Sent its band to alarm me
      By playing a carol in front of my kettle.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     And it’s fun to be St. Nicholas,
     But I find it bewilderin’        
     That some little children
     Like to pull on our beards and pinch us and tickle us.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     In fact, I think Christmas is here.
     I’ll just pick up my check
     And then hope like heck
     That I won’t have to put on a red suit next year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

New York Times, Heel Thyself

If The New York Times is “failing,” as one prominent Twitter tweeter likes to say, it may be because its usage of the English language is becoming lax. I have blogged before—in July of 2013, to be precise—about the misuse of “well-healed” to mean “wealthy or well-off.” The correct term is “well-heeled.”   

Apparently The Times was not paying attention back then, because in today’s edition there is a reference to a “well-healed” hedge fund manager.  Now unless he was badly injured--savagely beaten, perhaps, by one of his clients--and is now on the mend, the meaning was probably that the hedge fund manager, like most hedge fund managers, had socked away a good bit of dough.

I suppose I’ll have to go over once more what I so painstakingly explained three-and-a-half years ago. Now listen up, New York Times!

Well-heeled, meaning “wealthy,” first appeared in print  in an 1897 novel called Bound In Shallows, by Eva Wilder Brodhead, in which a character says, “I ain’t so well-heeled right now.” In context, this clearly means “impecunious.” The etymology of the phrase is thought to derive from the fact that good quality shoes are a prime indication of one’s prosperity, and the heel of a shoe is the first place that shows wear.  The opposite of “well-heeled” is “down at heels.” 

Well-heeled has at least two other meanings which precede this one.  One is “provided with a weapon,” and it was first seen in 1873 in Undeveloped West, in which J. H. Beadle wrote, “To travel long out West a man must be, in the local phrase, ‘well-heeled’.” The context makes it clear that this means having a gun.

This meaning probably stems from the broader definition of well-heeled as “properly equipped,” which was first used in its literal meaning applied to the claws of fighting cocks. An 1866 account in the Dubuqe (Iowa) Daily Herald, reports that some birds "...resembled dung hill chickens thrown into the pit with their natural spurs, to meet and contend with game cocks well heeled. One stoke puts them to flight, squawking as they go; they cannot stand steel." Here, the “heel” is clearly an artificial spur with which cocks were equipped in order to fight. 

Well-heeled should never be confused with round-heeled, a term that dates to the 1920s and describes either an easily defeated prizefighter or a woman who readily bestows sexual favors. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou bestows no favors on anyone, especially those who are foolhardy enough to read his misbegotten screeds. 
            With rue my heart is laden 
            For good-time friends I had, 
            For many a round-heeled maiden 
            And many a lusty lad. 

            Now prim with coy compunction, 
            The maids are filled with malice, 
            And the lads can only function 
            With Viagra or Cialis.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Alt! Who Goes There?

We’re hearing a lot these days about the “alt-right.” Short for “alternative right,” it’s a term widely attributed to Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who heads the National Policy Institute, a small think tank that spreads propaganda against racial equality.

Spencer used the term in 2010 to describe an extreme conservative faction as an alternative to the conventional mainstream conservatism, represented largely by the Republican Party. In fact, however, the term “alternative right” had been used earlier, in November of 2008 by Paul Gottfried, who is known as a "paleoconservative," in an address to the H. L. Mencken Club.

The alt-right today is associated (some would insist not accurately) with white supremacy, anti-immigration, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, and homophobia. 

In shortening “alternative right” to “alt-right,” political writers are following the lead of music critics who have spoken of “alt-rock” since the 1980s. “Alt,” or “alternative” rock music is a cutting-edge genre that is distinct from mainstream rock music, and includes “punk,” “underground,” “new wave,” “post punk,” “college,” and “indie” rock. Alt-rock is fiercely iconoclastic and non-commercial.

Some pundits are now also referring to an “alt-left,” by which they mean a radically liberal philosophy that looks to such icons as activists Saul Alinsky and William Ayers for its inspiration.

Alternative, as used in this sense, means “outside the established cultural, social, or economic system.”  Related but not identical in usage to the adjective alternate, it is derived from Latin alternus, which means “occurring by turns or in succession.”

“Right” and “left” became political terms during the French Revolution when members of the National Assembly who were conservative royalists seated themselves on the right side of the chamber, and those who were revolutionists seated themselves on the left. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always written what he regards as “alt-verse.”  Certainly it is an alternative to all we hold sacred.


            I’d call a halt
            To all that’s alt:
            I’m always orthodox.
            My crayon shines
            Inside the lines,
            And I think inside the box.

            It’s not my fault
            If you like alt,
            They say to each his own,
            I won’t complain
            If you remain
            Outside my comfort zone.           

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

It’s Only Trompe l’Oeil

This seems as good a time as any to explore the origins of the noun trumpery, which comes to us from the 14th-century Middle French word tromperie, derived from tromper, “to deceive.” The root is the same as that of trompe l’oeil, a style of painting that is an optical illusion, that is, literally, it “deceives the eye.”

Trumpery has a number of meanings, all related to the concept of deception. Its first meaning was simply “deceit,” “fraud,” or “trickery,” seen in print as early as 1456, in Sir Gilbert Haye’s disquisition on army law. In the same work trumpery was also used to mean “nonsense” or “rubbish.” A later meaning, “something of less value than it seems,” dates to 1531, and in 1600 it was used to mean “showy but worthless finery.”

Applied to religion, trumpery means “superstition,” and in gardening it refers to “weeds that hinder the growth of valuable plants.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is well versed in trumpery; in fact, all his verses may be regarded as prime examples of that quality.

            Spare me from Trumpery,
            It can be dangerous,
            Bet you know how.

            When the Republicans
            Come to their senses,
            Give me a heads-up
            Four years from now.       

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pejorocracy in America

Not that it’s relevant to any current affairs, of course, but I recently was introduced to the word pejorocracy, thanks to the British poet John Freeman, an old friend. The word means a system of government by the worst, rather than the best. In that sense it's the opposite of aristocracy. Pejorocracy is a hybrid formation from the Latin pejor (‘”worse”) and the Greek -kratia (“rule” or “dominion”). The Latin root also appears in the word pejorative.

Pejorocracy  was coined by Ezra Pound in Canto LXXIX of the Pisan Cantos, in which he refers to the “snot of pejorocracy.”

In an era of vigorous disputation about the pros and cons of such hegemonies as theocracy, plutocracy, meritocracy, and technocracy, as well as that old standby, democracy, it’s good to know there’s also a word to use when our government is in the hands of someone considered to be the worst of the worst—just in case such a circumstance should ever arise.   

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has lived for many years in a Chardonocracy, in which his life is ruled by the golden-hued contents of a green bottle, or should I say a series of such bottles. Chacun à son goût .

            We should all be very grateful
            That we live in a democracy,
            But it would be less hateful
            Without so much hypocrisy.            

Monday, November 7, 2016

Of Treacle Tarts and Spotted Dick

Among the foods served at a British-style restaurant I visited last week are some whose names are not immediately clear to Americans. 

Eccles cakes are named for the town of Eccles, a suburb of Manchester, where these small, round cakes made from flaky pastry and filled with currants, were first served in 1793. They are similar to (and better known than) Chorley cakes, named for another Lancashire town, and made with shortcrust pastry. Blackburn is another Lancashire town that gets its name on a cake, this one using stewed apples instead of currants. And, of course, we’re all familiar with the Banbury cake, from Oxfordshire, which is quite similar to an Eccles cake, but oval in shape.

Another dessert, whose name tends to raise eyebrows in some quarters, is spotted dick, a sponge cake pudding made with suet and currants or raisins. The “spotted” part of the name refers to the currants that dot the outside of the pudding, but the “dick” has etymologists puzzled. It may be a corruption of the last syllable of pudding, which became puddink, then puddich, and finally, just dich. Others say it is a corruption of the word dough, and some insist it is a German word meaning “thick” or “viscous.” Among other nineteenth-century meanings of dick are “dictionary,” “apron,” “policeman,” and “riding whip”—although none of these seem to apply. Perhaps you can think of another meaning of dick, but establishing its relevance to a dessert pudding may take some doing.

Sticky toffee pudding is a moist sponge cake, made with finely chopped dates and covered in toffee sauce. Toffee is a confection made by caramelizing sugar or molasses, along with butter. The origin of the word toffee is unknown, but some experts say it is derived from a Creole word meaning “sugar and molasses.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1825 and says it’s a variant of taffy, which is also a confection made from caramelized sugar and is etymologically related either to tafia, a West Indian word referring to a rum-like liquor distilled from molasses, or to ratafia, a fruit-based cordial made in France.

Finally, many Brits adore treacle pudding, which is a steamed sponge cake with treacle poured over it, or treacle tart, a pie-like shortcrust pastry with a filling of treacle. Treacle is an uncrystallized syrup made during the refining of sugar. The two most common kinds are a light-colored one, called golden syrup, and a darker variety, which is also known as molasses. Treacle is a Middle English word that describes a medicine used to treat poison and snakebites.  It is derived from Old French traicle and ultimately from Latin theriaca, which means “concerning venomous beasts.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is very fond of golden syrup, especially the kind known as Chardonnay.

            The dick is spotted,
            The cream is clotted,
                        Hooray! Let’s sound the trumpets!
            The tea is potted,
            The pot is hotted,
                        It’s time to butter crumpets.
            My tie’s unknotted,
            And I’m besotted,
                        Now please send in the strumpets.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Okey Dokey?

A restaurant in Houston’s Heights specializing in British food calls itself “Hunky Dory,” which means “quite satisfactory or very fine.” Apparently lifted from the title of a 1971 David Bowie album, it’s an odd name for an establishment serving fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and spotted dick, since “hunky dory” is an Americanism. Beyond that, the experts can’t tell us much with any certainty.

Its earliest usage was in the 1860s. With a slightly different spelling, it appeared in the lyrics of a song used by the Christy Minstrels from 1862:
            One of the boys am I,
            That always am in clover;
            With spirits light and high,
            'Tis well I'm known all over.
            I am always to be found,
            A singing in my glory;
            With your smiling faces
            ‘Tis then I'm hunkey dorey.

The Galveston Daily News in a June 1866 article advised, “In the morning wash with Castile soap, in soft rain water, and you are all "Hunky-dore" - as fresh as a lily…”

The word hunky, without the dory, meaning “fit and healthy.” was around even earlier. A Civil War song in 1861 was called “A Hunkey Boy is Yankee Doodle,” and “hunkum-bunkum,” with the same meaning, was recorded in a newspaper as early as 1842.

“Hunk” probably derives from the Dutch word honk, meaning “goal” or “home,” in a children's game. From that usage it took on the meaning of “safe haven or place of refuge.”

There are at least a couple of theories about where “dory” came from. Most likely it is simply an instance of reduplication, the addition of a similar but meaningless sound to a word, often done, especially by children, to add colorful humor and emphasis. Examples of reduplication include “hocus pocus,” “hoity-toity,” “itty bitty,” “teeny-weeny,” and “mumbo jumbo.” According to that theory, though, the reduplication should have resulted in “hunky-dunky,” rather than “hunky dory.”

But some think “dory” is a bilingual pun, based on dori, a Japanese word for “street,” and honcho-dori, is a Japanese word for “main street,” or sometimes “easy street.” It was sometimes used by American sailors in Japan in the 1850s to refer to areas noted for easy virtue.

Critics of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou have never called his work “hunky dory.” Words that come to mind instead are “stinky-dinky,” “yucky-mucky,” and “lousy-wousy.”

            “Itsy bitsy, teenie weenie,
            Yellow polka-dot bikini”—
            Oh, how I wish those words were only mine!
            My royalties would go on forever,
            And with any luck I’d never
            Have to write another lousy line!