Monday, February 8, 2016

Be My Valentine

This week, if you’re so inclined, you can celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. This saint’s feast day, February 14, is typically associated with courtly or romantic love, and people like to send little missives embellished with hearts, roses, and twittering birds to their beloved (or would-be beloved) ones. Chocolate, champagne, and a bit of concupiscence may also figure in the celebration of the day.

How old St. Valentine became associated with all this amatorial activity is something of a mystery. There are, in fact, about a dozen St. Valentines (or Valentinus, the Latin version of the name, which stems from valens, meaning “worthy, powerful”), but the one usually identified with the holiday was a third-century priest (maybe a bishop) who was martyred near Rome by Emperor Claudius III because he was annoyed that Valentine tried to convert him to Christianity.

During the fourteenth century in France, the custom of choosing a sweetheart on St. Valentine’s day sprang up, presumably because birds were thought to choose their mates around the middle of February. The earliest English reference to Valentine’s Day in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1381 in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls:
“For this was on seynt Valentynes day
Whan euery bryd cometh there to chese his make.”

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the crazed Ophelia sings:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.”

The origin of the custom of sending a letter or a card to one’s sweetheart began in the early nineteenth century, and is first recorded in 1824.

In addition to being associated with lovers and happy marriages, St. Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers, epileptics, and plague-sufferers.

Speaking of plagues, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou must be heard from.

            Roses are red,
            Violets vermilion,
            This verse would rhyme
            If you were named Lillian.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Radio Days

Back in the days when radio announcers were stars, and I wasn’t yet even in my salad days, I used to sit in front of an old Philco for hours at a time listening to—and trying to emulate—such idols as Harlow Wilcox, Don Wilson, Bill Goodwin, Harry Von Zell, Ken Carpenter, Franklyn McCormack, Fred Foy, Wendell Niles, Ken Nordine, Dwight Weist, Glenn Riggs, Jimmy Wallington, André Baruch, and many others.

Any fluff in delivery, especially an error in pronunciation, struck terror into the heart of the poor soul who committed it. The networks had pronunciation tests that were administered to aspiring young announcers. The one at NBC began: “Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario and meandered in the congeries of her memoirs. There was Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy…”

At New York’s radio station WQXR, the test opened with: “The old man with the flaccid face and dour expression grimaced when asked if he were conversant with zoology, mineralogy, and the culinary arts.”

Not to be outdone, I have devised my own test for aspiring announcers—not that there is much demand for professionals of that sort these days.But if you can wrap your tongue around this narrative, you qualify as the next mellifluous voice to announce: “NBC presents The Hour of Charm, with Phil Spitalny and his All-Girl Orchestra, featuring Evelyn and Her Magic Violin!” 

 In the halcyon days of internecine tergiversation, a      
  concupiscent chargé d’affaires at the Tanzanian consulate 
  had the onerous assignment of arranging assignations 
  amongst Zbigniew Brzezinski, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, 
  Deng Xiao Peng, Angela Merkel, and Dmitri Medvedev.

  “What a concatenation of blackguards,” expatiated this 
  amanuensis, who was a bona fide dilettante.  “It’s a 
  veritable farrago of inextricable idiosyncrasies.  They will 
  discuss laissez-faire, hypotenuses, synapses, kamikazes, 
  Clio, Melpomene, Mnemosyne, and other such viragoes, 
  before arriving, apocalyptically, at the dénouement. 
  priori, it is de rigueur that I not err, though embarrassed 
  and harassed vituperatively by such vagaries.”

  Grasping his shillelagh ribaldly, as though he were a 
  mischievous member of Sinn Fein, he peregrinated, 
  redolent with desuetude, to the environs of the soigné 
  maitre d’.

   “I speak not in synecdoche, hyperbole, hendiadys, litotes, 
  or even metonymy,” he descanted, “when I say the menu is 
  to be table d’hôteprix fixe.  We’ll start with a mélange of 
  exquisite hors-d’oeuvres such as paté de foie gras, abalone, 
  escargots, prosciutto, salmon mousse, macadamia and 
  pistachio nuts, followed by tournedos in béchamel sauce 
  with kohlrabi, broccoli rabe, and rapini; followed a mere  
  soupçon of Calvados, Cointreau or Chartreuse.”

  “Are you desirous of proffering homage to Escoffier,” asked 
  the supercilious garçon, “or merely of producing a satiety?”

  In this hiatus, the diplomatist, a quite pliant affiant, became 
  exquisitely quiescent and riant, in order to assuage the 
  boniface’s irascibility.

  “The artistes who will furnish vaudevillian divertissement,” 
  he specified, “will include a miscellany of eidolons of lauded 
  divas, primi ballerini assoluti, danseurs nobles, ingenues, 
  tragedians, and other virtuosi, of the magnitude of Amelita 
  Galli-Curci, Eleanora Duse, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Eugène 
  Ysaÿe, Josef Szigeti, Jussi Björling, Eugène Goossens (fils), 
  Beniamino Gigli, Feodor Ivanovitch Chaliapin, Frances 
  Yeend, Olga Preobrajenska, Maya Pliesetskaya,  and Olga 

  “For the locale,” he continued in his inimitable fashion, 
  clandestinely flicking a gnat from a piece of gnocchi on his 
  grosgrain habiliment, “I am contemplating a granary in 
  Aberystwyth or Abergavenny or maybe Clywd (should we 
  wish to be in Cymru), or perhaps Cannes or Caen, or Ixtapa 
  or Oaxaca, or possibly even Mexia or Refugio.”

  “How about Gruene?”

  “No, too fin-de-siècle,” grimaced the porcine legate with 
  authoritative panache, concluding the desultory tête-à-tête.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou can’t pronounce diddly-squat. Oh, well, who needs to say “diddly squat”?

            That announcer will drive me to mayhem,
            When he talks I feel I must slay him,
                       He says “lay,” but means “lie,”
                      And that’s good reason to die,
            And depart from both FM and AM.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Snuff and Nonsense

I’ve wondered if the phrase “up to snuff”—meaning “capable of performing the task at hand”—has anything to do with the powdered form of tobacco that my grandmother used to gleefully dip into. As it turns out, it does.

The phrase apparently originated in the early nineteenth century. In an 1811 parody of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by John Poole, he writes: “He knows well enough the game we’re after: Zooks, he’s up to snuff.” And in another place: “He is up to snuff, that is, he is the knowing one.”

In Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1823, “up to snuff and a pinch above” is described as meaning “flash,” that is “showy and ostentatious.” It is presumed that the derivation was from the powdered tobacco popular since the seventeenth century, in reference to the stimulating effect it had when taken orally. “Up to snuff” became associated with sharpness of mind and superior ability based on the fact that it was expensive and it was generally carried in ornately decorated boxes. Thus “up to snuff” came to mean “up to a certain high standard” of cost and artistic quality.

No one has figured out what the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is up to—but it probably isn’t snuff. 

            A French breakfast is not up to snuff--
            It’s just croissants and other such stuff.
                        No matter how much you beg,
                        You’ll be served only one egg,
            For the French say that one egg is un oeuf.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hale Colombia

A newspaper advertisement by a prestigious foundation touted its grants to successful immigrants, including one who had excelled at Columbia University.  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, the next item in the ad sang the praises of another grant recipient, who had immigrated to the U. S. from Columbia—Bogotá, to be precise. Not so good.

Norteamericanos often have trouble distinguishing Columbia from Colombia, and I’m here to help. Both names derive from the name of Christopher Columbus, who happened upon the Western Hemisphere in 1492, a date that will live in infamy. 

Columbia, with a “u,” as in the University, the Broadcasting System, the River, the gem of the ocean, the shade of blue, and the Pictures company, is a poetic appellation for the United States of America, which first appeared in England in 1738. The U.S. of A. might well have been named the U.S. of C., if it hadn’t been for another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who visited South America on behalf of the Portuguese around 1500. A German mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller, having read Vespucci’s journals, named the continent “America” (a Latinized version of Vespucci’s first name) on a map he published in 1507.

The nation of Colombia, where the coffee, the cut flowers, and the cocaine come from, was also named in honor of Christopher Columbus, in the Spanish version, Cristóbal Colón; hence an “o” where the English put a “u.” Francisco de Miranda, the Venezuelan revolutionary who coined the name Colombia, intended it to be used for the entire New World. The newly formed Republic of Colombia claimed the name in 1819.

Now, for a simple mnemonic to distinguish the two:
            The capital of Colombia is BOgOtá.
            Columbia is the name of a University.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a Latinophile because geographic names in South America are easier to rhyme than places like Connecticut and Massachusetts, not to mention Schenectady and Hamtramck.

            May your home-away-from home be a
            Cozy casa in Colombia,
            Nestled high upon a hill
            Looking down upon Brazil,
            Where you will dine on choicest filet 
            Of tender Kobe beef from Chile,
            Hoppin’ john with kangaroo,
            And Lima beans grown in Peru,
            Served with favas and farina
            From the fields of Argentina,
            And from sunny Uruguay
            A toasted ham-and-Swiss on rye,
            With luscious hearts of baby palm
            From balmy, palmy Suriname,
            Then, perhaps, a piece of pie
            Of peaches picked in Paraguay,
            Topped by chunks of sweet banana
            From plantations in Guyana.
            Escoffiers from Ecuador
            May make some petite petits fours,
            And then the maître-d’ will give ya
            Some bollitos from Bolivia;
            At last, to make it gaily gala,
            Viva vino from Venezuela!

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Relevance of Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio is receiving a lot of attention for a new film called The Revenant, in which he endures a number of unpleasant experiences, including being roughed up by a cantankerous bear and having to dine on a raw bison liver. The life of a Hollywood star is not as sybaritic it’s cracked up to be!

As the star in the title role, Mr. DiCaprio is “the revenant,” a word we don’t see much of these days. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to 1828, in Sir Walter Scott'sThe Fair Maid of Perth, where it means “one who returns from the dead; a ghost.” Formed from the present participle of the French revenir (“to return”), revenant can also mean “one who comes back after a long time away.”

Incidentally, Webster wants us to pronounce the word in the French manner, i.e. rev-uh-NONH, although it allows an anglicized REV-uh-nunt as second choice.

The film, written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a man with one too many diacritical marks in his name, is based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke called The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. Since writing it, Punke has become U. S. Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, and as a government official, he is forbidden from publicizing the reissue of his novel. “He can’t even sign copies,” complains his publicist. Punke, however, is not forbidden from collecting the royalties, which will no doubt be ample.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is always eager to sign copies of his work.  He has a closetful of them, waiting for someone to ask for one.

            Did Leonardo’s tummy quiver
            When he had to eat that liver,
            Or did he say, “It’s all for art—
            Please pass the kidneys and the heart”?           


Monday, December 28, 2015

How's That Again?

If you ever wonder why foreign relations are fraught with misunderstandings of the other guy’s meanings and motives, you need look no further than an online translation site. These sites, devised by experienced linguists, interpreters, and computer experts (one supposes), offer what people probably believe are accurate translations from one language to another.

While one hopes that the world’s diplomats do not rely upon these online services, such as Google Translate, Babelfish, and Worldlingo, many of them are hearing their fellow diplomats’ ideas filtered through the perhaps even less reliable interpreters who bring their own inadequacies and prejudices to on-the-spot instantaneous translation of complex world issues.  It’s no wonder that a few nuances may be lost in translation.
To test the efficacy of the online translators, I tried a little experiment with a couple of simple English children’s verses. To reflect the major languages spoken in the world, I translated each of them successively from English into Russian, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, and then back into English. Here are the results. I started one experiment with:

          Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
          How I wonder what you are,
          Up above the world so high,
          Like a diamond in the sky.

And ended up with:

        I turned,
            And I do not know how to do some of the stars,
            And a flash from the top of the world,
            Like diamonds.

For a second attempt, I started with: 
        Mary had a little lamb, 
        Its fleece was white as snow,
        And everywhere that Mary 
        The lamb was sure to go.
The resulting translation, after going through eight other languages and then back into English was:

            Mary, Mary, was wherever he may be,
            Please go ahead,
            Lamb and wool in the snow,
            And pregnancy.

To test how the online translator would do with an actual current political statement, I chose one that has made the news rather recently, by one of the more bellicose presidential candidates, who said of ISIS: “I would carpet-bomb them into oblivion.”  That statement went through the translation process and emerged simply as:

“I had forgotten the bombing.”

Some other examples of translation fiascos can be found in my book, Puns, Puzzles and Word Play, including a surreal rendition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

 Maybe the best diplomacy is just to keep your mouth shut.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never learned to keep his mouth shut and is resigned to the fact that he will never be Secretary of State.
             Mary had a little lamb,
            Potatoes, and mint jelly,
            Pickles, slaw, and deviled ham
            She brought home from the deli.
            A tummy-ache made Mary weep.
            She cried, “How sick I am!”
            Then, like Bo-Peep, who lost her sheep,
            Mary lost her lamb.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Merry Little Christmas, Revisited

In this week before Christmas, here is a reposting of a blog that most recently ran three years ago, but I was asked about it the other day, so I think it’s worth recycling once more.  You may have missed it when it appeared before, and even if you read it, you have problably forgotten it. (Yes, you have.)

A favorite song this time of year is Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” with its heart-warming lyrics that cheered up adorable little Margaret O’Brien when Judy Garland sang them in 1944 in Meet Me in St. Louis

The original lyrics, however, were not at all heart-warming. In fact, Garland found them downright depressing. “If I sing that lyric to little Margaret O’Brien,” she said, “the audience will think I’m a monster.” See for yourself:
               Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
             It may be your last,
             Next year we may all be living in the past.
            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Pop that champagne cork,
            Next year we will all be living in New York.

            No good times like the olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore,
            Faithful friends who were dear to us
            Will be near to us no more.

            But at least we all will be together,
            If the Lord allows,
            From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow,
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Though credited to Blane and Martin, the song was completely written by Martin, and he resisted changing anything. Tom Drake, the actor who played Judy’s romantic interest in the movie and a friend of Martin’s, told him: “You stupid son of a bitch! You’re gonna foul up your life if you don’t write a new verse!” So Martin finally agreed to make the song more upbeat. His new lyric was:

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Let your heart be light,
            From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Make the Yuletide gay,
            From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

            Here we are as in olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore.
            Faithful friends who are dear to us           
            Gather near to us once more.

            Through the years we all will be together,
            If the Fates allow,
            Until then we’ll have to muddle through   
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.  

You’ll note that the “Lord” is changed to the “fates.” Apparently, Hollywood felt you shouldn't be too religious about Christmas!

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" for his album "A Jolly Christmas." Martin's new line—"Hang a shining star upon the highest bough"—is now more widely known than the original.

Yet another lyrical change was in store.  In 2001, Martin, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, wrote a religious version of the song:

            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Christ the King is born,
            Let your voices ring upon this happy morn.  
            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Serenade the Earth,
            Tell the world we celebrate the Savior's birth. 

            Let us gather to sing to Him
            And to bring to Him our praise, 
            Son of God and a Friend of all, 
            To the end of all our days. 

            Sing hosannas, hymns, and hallelujahs, 
            As to Him we bow, 
            Make the music mighty as the heav'ns allow, 
           And have yourself a blessed little Christmas now.
So take your choice—depressing, uplifting, or religious—but since Martin died a few years ago, at the age of 96, there probably won’t be any more versions.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is not yet 96 but after years of dissipation looks about 105, is now specializing in non-sequitur verses, which have nothing to do with the blog to which they are appended. He says it’s a new art form:

       In a fierce game of bridge, I try to play smart,
       And I slam down my tricks with a thump.
       With a club or a diamond, a spade or a heart,
       But the tricks that are best are no-Trump.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Conversion Table

This conversion table was recently passed on to me by a scientific friend. Some of the equivalencies may be worth noting for future needs:

Ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter = Eskimo pi

2,000 pounds of Chinese soup = won ton

Time between slipping on a peel and hitting the pavement = 1     bananosecond

Weight of an evangelist = 1 billigram

Half a large intestine = 1 semicolon

Shortest distance between two jokes = a straight line

2,000 mockingbirds = two kilomockingbirds

1,000 ccs of wet socks = 1 literhosen

2 physicians = 1 paradox
2.4 statute miles of surgical tubing at Harvard Medical School = 1 IV league
1 millionth of a truite meunière in a bistro = 1 microfiche
6 witches’ spells removed = 1 hexagon

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows about spells: when he saw a Mickey Mouse cartoon, he had a Disney spell.

            There were three witches in Macbeth,
            Their cauldron filled with doom and death,
                 The first said “Bubble, bubble,”
                 The second, “Toil and trouble,”
            The third said, ”Whew! I’m out of breath.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


On a recent journey to that City of Bright Lights and Shattered Dreams (I mean, of course, New York), I noted that Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport offers free Wi-Fi, as did the hotel at which I stayed. This is a great service to travelers who wish to connect their laptops, smartphones, tablets, digital audio players, and the like to the Internet.

I know that the “Wi” of “Wi-Fi” is a shortened form of “Wireless,” but I wondered about the “Fi.”  Let’s see now, “Hi-Fi” means “High Fidelity,” “Sci-Fi” means “Science Fiction,” and the U. S. Marine motto sometimes shortened to “Semper Fi” is “Semper Fidelis.” So “Wi-Fi” obviously means “Wireless….uh….Wireless….what?”

It turns out the “Fi” doesn’t really mean anything.  It’s just a catchy term, analogous to “Hi-Fi,” coined in 1999 by the Interbrand Corporation and trademarked by The Wi-Fi Alliance. It is a little easier to remember than Wi-Fi’s official name: “The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 Direct Sequence Standards.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a devotee of Whi-Fi—which in his case stands for Whisky Fifths.

            A very shy fly endeavored to try
            To fly as high as the pie in the sky.
            But close to the sun, he began to fry.                       
            He’s buzzing now in the sweet by-and-by.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Everything’s Cricket

The All-Star Cricket series recently played matches in three American cities, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, to promote the sport that is the second most popular in the world (after soccer). Cricket has long been associated with Great Britain and its colonies and now is dominated by teams from the Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Caribbean nations.

A wee bit similar to baseball, it involves a ball, a bat, and eleven players. The play consists of throwing the ball (“bowling”) so that the batsman has a chance of hitting it and running to score runs. That’s pretty much where the similarity ends.

The earliest known reference to the sport is in 1598, when it was known as “creckett” or “krekett,” although the game is thought to have been played as early as the 13th century. It was a popular game at the Royal Grammar School in 1550.

The origin of the word is highly speculative.  Some say it is from Anglo-Saxon cricc, meaning “crutch or staff.” Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century dictionary pegged it to the Anglo-Saxon cryce, meaning a “stick.” Criquet in Old French meant a “club” or a “goal post.”

The name may also have derived from the Dutch krick, which also means a “stick” and is cognate with the modern word crook. Another possible Dutch source, though this seems to be a stretch, is the Dutch krickstoel, meaning a long low stool used as a kneeler in church and thought to resemble the wickets (or stumps) used as markers in cricket. Yet another Dutch antecedent may be krick ket sen, a name for the game of hockey, referring to the hockey stick, which resembles the bat used in early forms of cricket.

In the sense of “fair play,” as in the phrase, “That isn’t cricket,” the first such used dates from the 1850s. 

Cricket, in referring to the sport, has no connection to the same word when used to mean an insect. That is a 14th-century word derived from the French criquer, to “crackle, creak, or rattle,” alluding to the noise made by a cricket.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always longed to play cricket, since he understands that free beer is often offered to the players following a game. 

            They hurled the cricket
            Ball at Crockett.           
            Then he’d kick it,
            And he’d knock it.
            But he hit a
            Sticky wicket
            When they told him           
            Where to stick it.