Monday, April 21, 2014

True Blue

Many states have what are known as “Blue Laws”—legislation forbidding certain activities on Sundays and holidays. The rationale, a holdover from Puritan colonists, is that everyone ought to be in church for most of Sunday—not shopping or, especially, not drinking alcoholic beverages. 

Though most of the strictures have been greatly relaxed over the years Blue Laws still exist to some degree almost everywhere.  But why is such a law “blue”? 

Theories abound.  Some say it’s because the first such laws in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1656, were printed on blue paper or bound in books with blue covers. There’s no reliable evidence, however, that this is true.

And, anyway, the term “blue law” is not seen until the eighteenth century, first in 1755 in the New-York Mercury, and then again in 1781, when the Rev. Samuel Peters wrote in The General History of Connecticut, “Blue laws, i.e. bloody laws, for they were all sanctified with whipping, cutting off the ears, burning the tongue, and death.”  From Peters’ comment, blue law is thus thought by some to be a corruption of blood law.

Other theories point to a contemptuous reference to strict moralists as “bluebloods” who imposed their prohibitions on the rest of the populace.  Another etymologist speculates that blue was used because it represents the notion of coldness.

Bluestocking was a term used to refer to Oliver Cromwell’s moralistic Puritan supporters in 1653.

Curiously, in the nineteenth century, blue acquired an almost opposite meaning—“lewd, profane, or obscene.’’ An 1824 Scottish encyclopedia refers to Thread o’Blue  as meaning “any little smutty touch in song-singing, chatting, or piece of writing.”  Thomas Carlyle refers to blueness as meaning “indecent or indelicate” in an 1840 essay.

This meaning is said to originate in the blue dresses that were issued to prostitutes in French houses of correction. To “go into the blue” meant to “go astray.” 

But another slang authority suggests the term comes from the Bibliothèque Bleue, a series of almanacs in blue covers published in France from the early seventeenth century and often containing popular literature with a lurid touch. Blue is also associated with devils and flames of hell—a blue flame indicates a devil is present (or, maybe, just natural gas).  From this concept we get the term blue blazes.

Blue has also been associated since the sixteenth century with sadness and despondency, as in feeling blue or having the blues, probably originating in the concept of a blue devil, as Satan was sometimes depicted in medieval art, which supposedly brought on unhappiness.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks blue is an overworked color. He feels that puce and taupe have never been given their due, and he would like to see a lot more of them in the future.

            After waiting some while in a queue
            To use an unoccupied loo,
                        I lacked the small pittance
                        Required for admittance,
            And that made me terribly blue.

            Oh, oh, how I needed to go!
            But I couldn’t come up with the dough,
                        I hopped on one leg
                        And started to beg,
            But the people around me said, “No.”

            To help me out of this pickle
            Some strangers advanced me a nickel,
                        I copiously thanked ‘em
                        And entered the sanctum,
            But by this time just managed a trickle.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Maundy Morning Quarterback

Later this week is Maundy Thursday, which is the Thursday before Easter, the day of the Last Supper, traditionally celebrated by Christians with the blessing of chrism oil, the ceremonial washing of feet, and the distribution to the poor of alms known as “Maundy money.”
Opinion differs about where the name Maundy comes from. Most linguists say it’s derived from Middle English and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another as I have loved you"), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John 13:34, in which he explained significance of washing his apostles’ feet. The phrase is used during the "Mandatum" ceremony at which a priest or bishop washes the feet of 12 persons chosen as a cross-section of the community. (You’ll recall Pope Francis kicked up a controversy last year when he included women and Muslims among his washees.)
But there is another theory: that Maundy arose from "maundsor baskets" or "maundy purses" of alms that the king of England distributed at Whitehall on that day. In this view "Maundy" is related to the Latin mendicare, and French mendier, “to beg.” 

In some countries there is a custom of eating various foods on Maundy Thursday, including sugared almonds, green salads, and pancakes, which, if taken together, make a rather odd meal.

In Scandinavian tradition the day is known as “Sheer (or clean) Thursday” (Skaer torsdag) from the custom of washing the feet.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou washes his feet (religiously) every month, whether they need it or not.

            Jesus and the twelve apostles
            Broke some bread and drank some wassails,
            Gathered in an upper room,
            Where one last supper they’d consume.
            When food was left from supper there,
            They wished they’d had some Tupperware.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Nine-Yard Dash

I have been reluctant to tackle the subject of the whole nine yards because there is such a welter of varying opinion about its origin that I hardly know where to begin—or to end.  One of my avidly curious readers, however, has raised the question, and in order to maintain my stellar reputation for customer satisfaction, it behooves me to attempt some disquisition of this enigmatic subject.           

The whole nine yards—meaning “everything, completely, to the maximum, the full extent”—is a surprisingly recent arrival on the idiomatic scene.  The earliest anyone claims to have seen it in print was July 1956, in Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, a magazine devoted to hunting and fishing in the Bluegrass State.  The magazine listed some fishing prizes to be awarded and concluded, “So that’s the whole nine-yards.”

A satisfactory explanation of the phrase has eluded the most dedicated word sleuths. Ben Zimmer, who writes about language for The New York Times, likens the search to the quest for the Holy Grail.

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, listed the most popular theories about its origin as the amount of cloth in a Scottish kilt, the capacity of a concrete truck, and the length of aircraft machine gun belts in World War II. The late New York Times pundit William Safire devoted nine different columns to the whole nine yards, before concluding firmly in favor of the cement mixer—as expressed in cubic yards.

Michael Quinion, who writes the blog World Wide Words, puts forward several other possibilities: the length of a standard bolt of cloth, the amount of fabric needed for a three-piece suit, the size of a nun’s habit, the length of a maharajah’s sash, the capacity of a West Virginia ore wagon, the volume of rubbish in a standard garbage truck, the length of a hangman’s noose, how far you would have to sprint from the cellblock to the outer wall in a jailbreak, the length of a shroud, the size of a soldier’s pack, a reference to a group of nine shipyards in the World War II, or a distance in football.

Earlier examples—the first in 1912—have been found of the phrase whole six yards, leading to the conclusion that none of the explanations is correct and that the number nine is merely arbitrary, not referring to anything in particular. Jesse Sheidlower, an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is of this opinion.  “The existence of a six-yard variant,” he says, “shows pretty clearly that it’s not about yards of anything”
Several terms similar in meaning are equally obscure in origin, namely whole hog (1828), whole shebang (1869), and whole ball of wax (1882).  If you’re really interested in this, see my earlier blog on shebang at:
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou insists that the phrase refers to nine yards of ale, the amount he regularly consumes on his visits to a nearby pub, before scrawling claptrap like the following on the men’s room wall:    
            A daring young Captain of Guards
            Was intent on advancing nine yards,
                        The first eight were fine,
                        But he hit a land mine
            At the ninth—please send sympathy cards.

Monday, March 31, 2014

What’s That Rumbling?

A recent 1920s song played on Radio Dismuke extolled the joys of romance in that part of some older cars that is known as a rumble seat.  The lyrics went:
            Get her in a rumble seat.
            Girlies never grumble,
            Even though they stumble,
            Getting in a rumble seat.
            She can't resist you in your little runabout.
            She's got to hug you tight for fear she'll bounce right out.
            You won't have to worry
            If you only hurry.
            Get her in a rumble seat!
For those too young to remember, a rumble seat is pull-out seat at the rear of some vehicles that typically is large enough only for two passengers (tightly squeezed in). Such a seat first appeared on the 1908 Packard, which appropriately became known as the “Honeymoon Car.” In the 1920s the rumble seat was a popular feature of the Ford Model A.
The origin of the word came from horse-drawn carriages, which had a small folding seat attached to the back end for footmen to ride on.  It became known by 1801 as a “rumbler,” later simply a “rumble,” and then a “rumble seat,” because of the noise heard and the motion felt directly over the wheels.

Rumble, meaning “to make a deep, heavy, continuous sound, or to move with a rolling, thundering sound,” is a late fourteenth-century word, originating in the imitative Middle Dutch rommelen, Middle High German rummeln, and ultimately in Old Norse rymja (“to shout or roar”).   

In the 1940s rumble came to be used as a word for street gang fights, from its subsidiary meaning of “create disorder and confusion.”

(Radio Dismuke, by the way, is an online streaming station that plays only original recordings of the marvelous music of the 1920s and 1930s.)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not like to ride in rumble seats, since all the  bouncing invariably spills his drink.

                        I hate to ride the rumble seat,
                        It won’t go very fast.
                        Each time my car goes down the street,
                        The rumble gets there last.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Speaking Easy

A recent Huffington Post article listed a dozen or so “secret bars” around the country, among them the Midnight Cowboy on Sixth Street in Austin (but not Houston’s venerable River Oaks make-out bar, Marfreless).  These pseudo-speakeasies are generally unmarked and often require passwords for entry. 

The Midnight Cowboy is housed behind a misleading sign left over from a former tenant that reads “Midnight Cowboy Modeling Oriental Massage.”  Among its house rules are:
            We do not allow smoking, guns, phone calls, laptops or rowdiness. While               
            our cocktails might loosen inhibitions and the building's past might encourage 
            licentiousness, we ask that you refrain from excessive displays of public affection 
            and unwelcome advances towards members of other parties. Reservations are for 
            two hours. Should your table or room be available past your two-hour window, you 
            are more than welcome to stay longer. If walk-in tables are available, the vacancy 
            sign above the entry will be illuminated. Please ring the buzzer marked "Harry 
            Craddock" for entry.

We tend to think of “speakeasies” as a product of the Prohibition era, but in fact they came much earlier.  According to a September, 1899 issue of the Cheney Sentinel, a newspaper in Washington state, “Unlicensed saloons in Pennsylvania are known as ‘speak-easies.’” 

The name originated because it was thought to be a good idea to talk quietly about such places in public, and also to keep your voice down when you were inside, so that neither nosy neighbors nor intrusive police would be the wiser. The term is reported to have originated with saloon owner Kate Hester, who ran an unlicensed bar in the late 1800s on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. When things got too rowdy in the bar, she’d try to quiet the customers by whispering, “Speak easy, boys, speak easy.”

A low-class cousin of the speakeasy is a "blind pig," or sometimes "blind tiger." This name originated when Prohibition-era bar owners would acquire a blind pig or other exotic animal and charge customers to see it, throwing in a cocktail “free of charge.” They couldn’t be arrested for selling booze, as they were only selling entertainment and offering liquor as gratuitous amenity.

Two alternate explanations for the term “blind pig” were (a) a reference to police who turned a blind eye to the illegal bar activities, and (b) a description of the liquor served in such establishments that was said to be so bad it would “blind a pig.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never patronized speakeasies, which are much too noisy for him. He prefers to sip in total silence, with only the gentle tinkle of ice cubes in the martini pitcher to assault his eardrums.

                        In a part of the town that’s quite sleazy
                        You’ll find a squalid speakeasy,
                        Whose liquor will move you to wrath, bub,
                        For the gin comes straight from a bathtub--
                        If you drink it, you’ll be mighty queasy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Risqué Business

On this festive St. Patrick’s Day let’s lift a glass of green beer and pay tribute to the Irish origins of the verse form that everybody loves (except those who hate it)—the limerick!  Of course, it has something to do with the Irish county of Limerick but no one seems to know exactly what.  The name of the county itself probably derives from the phrase Loch Luimnigh, which means the “lake beside a barren spot of land.”  It was a pre-Viking settlement as early as 561 A.D.
The verse came somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, probably had its origin in “convivial” pub parties at which it was customary for guests, at the height of their conviviality, to compose salacious verses, raucously sung and ending in the line “Will you come up to Limerick?”  The first documented use of the word limerick to describe the verse was in the 1898 book Illustrated Limericks.
Although not known as such until later, the verse form was favored in the eighteenth century by a group known as the Maigue Poets, clustered around the River Maigue in County Limerick.  Based on a medieval English pattern, it has five lines in a rhyme scheme of AABBA, with three metrical feet in the first, second, and fifth lines, and two in the third and fourth.  One of the first examples was by a pub owner named Sean O’Tuama, who wrote:
            I sell the best brandy and sherry,
            To make all my customers merry,
                        But at times their finances
                        Run short as it chances,
            And then I feel very sad, very.

Although the limerick historically tends to be bawdy, the best known popularizer of the form in the nineteenth century, Edward Lear, wrote squeaky clean ones that you could read in (most) Sunday school classes.  This is one of Lear’s best:

            There was an Old Man who supposed
            That the street door was partially closed,
                        But some very large rats
                        Ate his coat and his hats
            While that futile old gentleman dozed.

The racy nature of the earlier and later limerick was characterized by Morris Bishop:

            The limerick is furtive and mean;
            You mus keep her in close quarantine,
                         Or she sneaks to the slums
                         And promptly becomes
             Disorderly, drunk, and obscene.  

Or, as another, unknown wag put it:
            The limerick yields laughs anatomical,
            In a form that is quite economical,
                        And the good ones I’ve seen
                        Are so seldom clean,
            And the clean ones are so seldom comical.

Incidentally, this and much more limerick lore can be found in my book that used be known as Words Gone Wild, but has been recently reissued and is now widely available under the alias Puns, Puzzles, and Word Play.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou dabbles in limericks, which he cloaks in meretriciously pseudo-literary garb in a vain attempt to mask their vile disreputability:

            Did you hear about poor Julius Caesar?
            He just can’t admit he’s a geezer;
                        Making to love to Calpurnia,
                        He developed a hernia
            Attempting some tricks that might please her.

            A Shakespearean actor named Seth
            Liked to do it till quite out of breath.
                        He had fun with Ophelia,
                        And the same with Cordelia,
            But was stymied by Lady Macbeth.

            In 1 Henry IV is recorded
            What Prince Hal and a comely young whore did,
                        They began in Act One,
                        By Act Five they were done—
            What occurred in between was quite sordid.
Better stop the Bard here before his disgusting utterances turn completely unprintable.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Great Granma!

The Cuban government has a new upscale housing project it’s calling Project Granma.  No, it's not a retirement home for grandmothers, but rather fancy apartments for certain loyal government officials. So what’s Granma got to do with it?

Granma, a variant spelling of Grandma, was the yacht that was used to carry 82 Cuban Revolutionists from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to try to overthrow the Batista regime. A 60-foot cabin cruiser built to accommodate 12 people, it was named by the original American owner as a tribute to his grandmother. The yacht was bought from the Schuylkill Products Company by a Mexican gun dealer named Antonio “The Friend” del Conde, who was secretly acting for Fidel Castro.

Although the coup was not successful until a few years later, Granma has become an icon of the Cuban Revolution.  The official daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Central Committee is also called Granma.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou did not have a grandma or grandpa since he was found as an infant hidden in some bulrushes wrapped in an old copy of Variety.  He has been “on” ever since, but it is not clear on what.

            When I’d snorkel and I’d scuba
            In the waters down by Cuba,
            I'd drop in on a bar quite near Havana,
            Where I’d sip a Cuba Libre
            Like a very thirsty zebra,
            And sometimes munch an overripe banana.
            One day I met a young barista,
            Who urged me to go see Batista,
            But the people had decided to rebel,           
            And in el jefe’s chair was Castro,
            So from way back on the last row,
            I stood and shouted out, “Hola, Fidel!”

            “Viva Marx!” the rebels shouted,
            And since I felt those Marxists doubted
            Me, I tried to act just like a gaucho.
            “Viva Marx!” I answered proudly,
            Then I added, very loudly:
            “Three cheers for Harpo, Chico, and for Groucho!” 

Monday, March 3, 2014


It’s easy these days to find people doing things that deserve a Bronx cheer—or, if you prefer, a raspberry. This rude sound, used to show displeasure, is made by blowing through lips that are slightly parted with the tongue loosely placed between them. It can properly be directed toward the craven politicians, overpaid CEOs, grasping bankers, callous pharmaceutical manufacturers, hypocritical clergymen, duplicitous sports figures, or self-indulgent show-biz stars of your choice.  And maybe a few others, for good measure.

A “raspberry” gets its name from the Cockney rhyming slang term “raspberry tart”—a polite way of saying “fart,” a physical occurrence whose sound resembles the rude noise made with the lips.  The term has been in use since 1890.  “Raspberry tart” becomes simply “raspberry” through the Cockney custom of using only the first part of a two-part rhyme to stand for the thing that is signified:  thus, plates of meat, shortened to “plates,” means feet; loaf of bread, or “loaf,” means “head”, and trouble and strife, or “trouble,” means “wife.”

The same noise has been called a “Bronx cheer” since 1929 and probably had its origin in the noises made by New York Yankees fans to show their displeasure at an unfavorable umpire’s ruling or a boneheaded play by one of the teams. Yankee Stadium is located in the Bronx. 

Raspberry, meaning the fruit, also has an interesting etymology.  Known since 1540 as a raspis berry, it is probably derived from its similarity in color to raspise, a sweet, rose-colored wine also known as vinum raspeys. It was made from pomace, a paste made by grinding grapes, and the file used to grind them was called a raspa. Others say the roughness of the fruit’s exterior gave it its name from its similarity to the rasp itself.

Older and therefore more well-informed readers may remember a character in the comic strip “Li’l Abner” named Joe Btfsplk.  Always pictured with a black cloud over his head, he was the epitome of hard luck. His creator, Al Capp, said his surname was pronounced just like the raspberry sound.

Raspberries have never been the favorite fruit of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  He has always been more partial to the grape in its liquid form.

            Never have I met a crude gent
            Cruder than the lewd Ted Nugent,
            And if his presence is a habit
            For the GOP’s Greg Abbott,
            Then it would appear that Greg
            Thinks he can pull the voters’ leg.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Gone, But Not Forgotten

In a recent blog I referred to words that were “obsolete and archaic.”  I really should have said “obsolete or archaic,” because a word cannot be both at the same time.  What’s the difference between the two terms?

Obsolete, from the Latin obsoletus (“worn out, gone out of use”) and obsolescere (“to wear out, grow old, decay”), refers to a word that is no longer in use (except in quoting historical material).  Most dictionaries use the date 1755 as the cutoff date, and if no instances of the word can be found in any writing since then, it is labeled obsolete. That happens to be the publication date of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.

A few obsolete words, which I daresay are not part of your vocabulary, are snoutfair (“an attractive person”), brabble (“argue loudly about something inconsequential”), slubberdegullion (“a slovenly person”), gobemouche (“a silly person”), roinish (“despicable”), and pudibund (“bashful”).
Archaic derives from French archaïque (“antiquated”), which had its origin in ancient Greek arkhaikos (“old-fashioned”), which ultimately came from the verb form arkhō (“I am first”).  Linguistically, an archaic word is one that is rare, but is still in use, even if only in specialized situations.

A few examples of archaic words, which you probably use sparingly, are avaunt (“begone”), ere (“before”), hark (“listen”), sooth (“truth”), and whilom (“formerly”). 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou cannot decide whether he is archaic or obsolete, but there is no doubt that he is uncouth, unkempt, disheveled, unhousled, disappointed, and unaneled.  Despite these disadvantages, he soldiers on.

            Three words I met upon the street—
            Hither, and thither, and yon
            Wanted to be obsolete,
            Just like a mastodon.

            But all their efforts were in vain,
            And those three are still prosaic,
            And like anon, anent, and fain,
            Content to be archaic.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hockey on the Rocks

The United States men’s and women’s hockey teams have both played well in the winter Olympics--on ice, of course. The unadorned word hockey in North America and Europe generally refers to the sport played on an ice rink, but it was originally played on a grassy field, and the grassy version, or field hockey, is still the national sport of India and Pakistan. The icy variety is Canada’s favorite pastime. 

The origin of the word hockey is uncertain, with the first known usage in English occurring in 1527, when a manuscript referred to “the horlinge of the litill balle with hockie stickes of staves.”  (No prizes for spelling in those days.)  The next appearance of the word in print is not until two and a half centuries later.  Was no one playing the game during that time, or did people just not want to talk about it?

In any event, the origin of the word is probably the French hoquet, meaning a “shepherd’s staff or crook,” alluding to the stick used in hockey, which is crooked. Hoquet derives from Old French hoc (“hook”), which migrated to Old English as hōc.

Hockey ought not to be confused with hooky, which appears almost exclusively in the phrase play hooky and means to absent oneself from school without permission. The phrase probably derives from a nineteenth-century slang expression, hook it, meaning to “clear out.”  As for the origin of hook it, your guess is as good as mine or Webster’s.

You could of course play hooky to play hockey.  But that would be hokey.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been playing hooky (certainly not hockey) all his life, and this is all he has to show for it:

            A jailer, a judge, and a jockey
            Decided they’d like to play hockey,
                        And to save a few bucks,
                        In place of real pucks
            They used extra large pieces of gnocchi.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Relataively Speaking

Some useful words that I’ve never known about just showed up in a Facebook post.  They’re obsolete and archaic terms for family members that define their relationships much more precisely than modern English does.  You no longer have to stop and figure out how you’re related to Cousin Elmer or Aunt Elmira.  Think how useful these descriptions can be when you’re seating family members for Thanksgiving dinner or deciding whom to leave out of your will.  

Patruel is a child of a paternal uncle or aunt, or a child of your own brother. Instead the loosey-goosey terms “cousin” and “niece” or “nephew,” you can say “patruel” and be much more specific. It is from the Latin word patruus, “father’s brother,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of its use in 1603. 

You can also stipulate which kind of uncle or aunt you mean. Avuncle is a maternal uncle, the brother of your mother.  We have the word avuncular in modern English, which means “like an uncle (of any kind),” but its origin is the Latin avunculus, literally “little grandfather.” Avunculus, of course, is the root of uncle, which came to English through the French oncle.

If you don’t like avuncle, eam is an Old English word that means the same— maternal uncle.  It stemmed from Old High German oheim via the Dutch oom.

A maternal aunt can be referred to as the Old English modrige, from Pro-Germanic mōdrijō.

Old English also had words for paternal uncle (fædera) and aunt (fadu), which are derived from Proto-Germanic fadurjô via Old High Gereman fataro.

 The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is nobody’s uncle and nobody’s aunt.  He’d like to think he was also nobody’s fool—but that’s hard to prove.  


     There once was a very sick uncle,
     With a badly infected carbuncle.
                The doc, at his appointment,
                Said, “Here’s two tubes of ointment—
     If the goo doesn’t cure you, the gunk’ll.