Monday, May 2, 2016

But Do Chicks Nix Chick Flix?

One of the most famous headlines ever to appear in Variety, the show business newspaper, was STICKS NIX HICK PIX. While the meaning may be obvious to some, to others it is unintelligible slang (which George M. Cohan felt needed an explanation in Yankee Doodle Dandy.) The gist of the story that follows the headline is that audience surveys indicate that movies about rural life are not popular with rural audiences.

Where do the words sticks, nix, hick, and pix originate? 

Sticks is a term for a rural location that dates to 1905 and derives from the term “living in the sticks,” meaning “living among the trees.”

Nix, meaning “refuse, reject, or forbid,” stems from the German word nichts, meaning “nothing.” It was first noted in English in 1789.

A hick is a rural person, usually with the connotation of social awkwardness. Its origin, in the 14th century, was Hikke, a popular pet name for Richard, a name that was associated with hackney drivers. Its use as an adjective, as in hick town, dates only to 1914.

Pix, of course, is a variant of pics, a shortened form of pictures, which refers in this case to “motion pictures.” The word pic has been in use since at least 1884, and as a reference to movies, since 1936. Today it has been largely replaced by flicks or flix, a term used for movies since 1926, derived from flicker, from the uneven projection quality of early films.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always been sympathetic to the producers of those hick pix, since he feels their pain. Not only hicks, but also city slickers, and everyone in between, have nixed the Bard’s work. Here’s why:

                        When I read Variety,
                        Though filled with great anxiety
                        About the notoriety
                        Provoked by impropriety,
                        Irreverent impiety,
                        And rampant insobriety           
                        Among show-biz society,
                        I never reach satiety!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Being Copacetic

After the recent deluge in South Texas, I wrote to a friend, expressing the hope that everything was “copacetic.” Copacetic (sometimes copasetic or copecetic) is a word that I used in my youth as a kind of joke, never thinking of it as a real word. Not heard as frequently today as it once was, it can be regarded as “semi-archaic” (as can I).   

It turns out copacetic is a real word, meaning “satisfactory,” and it made its first known appearance in print in 1919, in A Man for the Ages, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, in which Irving Bacheller wrote: “‘Now there’s the kind of a man! Stout as a buffalo an’ as to looks I’d call him, as ye might say, real copasetic.’ Mrs. Lukins expressed this opinion solemnly and with a slight cough. Its last word stood for nothing more than an indefinite depth of meaning.”

The origin of the word has etymologists stumped. Some think that Bacheller invented it. Others say it sprang from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s tap-dancing jargon, and thence into the vocabulary of Southern African Americans just after the turn of the 20th century. Whether Robinson invented the word or not, he was its chief popularizer.

Another theory suggests copacetic derives from one of two Hebrew wordsj—  hakol b’seder  (“all is in order”) or kol b’tzedek  (“all with justice”) introduced into the U. S. by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Cajun French speakers also claim to have introduced the word, as a variation of couper esètique, meaning either “final cut,” i.e. the point beyond which nothing can be changed, or “capable of being coped with.” Another French slang term, copain, c’est épatant (“buddy, that’s great!”) is sometimes cited as the source.

Some etymologists theorize copacetic derived from copasenee, a term used by the Chinook of the Pacific Northwest to mean “everything is satisfactory.” And, finally, one highly implausible explanation is that copacetic comes from a gangster expression, “the cop is on the settee,” indicating that the police are not actively patrolling and the coast is clear.

The old Bard of Buffalo Bayou feels copacetic on rare occasions, when unsuspecting strangers offer to buy him a glass of the cheap Chardonnay that he favors.

                        Whenever I’m waxing poetic,
                        I think everything’s copacetic,
                                    But the readers resent
                                    All the efforts I’ve spent
                        And say that my verse is pathetic.

                        Some readers are more energetic,
                        Their critiques are unkind and frenetic,
                                    My lack of pathos
                                    They blame on my bathos,
                        And they find my verses emetic.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Yeo, man!

 To accommodate an influx of female personnel, the United States Navy has been trying, so far without success, to come up with a gender-neutral word to replace “yeoman,” the job title for an enlisted person who performs administrative and clerical work. In the case of most specialist ranks, such as “machineman,” “hospitalman,” or “constructionman,” the “-man” element can simply be replaced by “technician” or “specialist,” which takes away its masculine taint. But “yeoman” does not lend itself to such an easy conversion. Being a “yeo specialist” or “yeo technician” doesn’t make any sense, since nobody really knows what a “yeo” is.

 The word yeoman dates to the 13th century, referring to an “attendant in the household of an aristocrat.” By the 15th century it meant a “farmer with a small land holding” or a “rank of fighting man, below knight and squire.” By the 1660s it had been appropriated by the Royal Navy to mean a “petty officer in charge of supplies.”

Today the term also survives in the Yeomen of the Guard, who are the ceremonial bodyguards of the Queen of England, and in the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace, the guards, also known as "Beefeaters," who are seen at the Tower of London.  

 Speculation abounds on the origin of the word. It may be a contraction of the Old English iunge man, or “young man.”  Others trace it to the Old Engllish geaman, meaning “villager,” derived from gea, “district or region.” Some say it is from a German word meaning “additional,” to describe an extra servant. Or it could be something else that no one has yet discovered.

Theoretically, the word yeowoman could be used to refer to a female holding the position. But Alfred, Lord Tennyson has already explored the awkwardness of such usage in his poem “The Foresters,” in which Robin Hood tells Marian: “Nay, no earl am I. I am English yeoman.” And Marian replies, “then I am yeo-woman. O the clumsy word!”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is certainly not gender-neutral, has done yeoman service all his poetic life. Fat lot of good it has done him.

            A very feminine woman
            Longed to become a yeoman.
                        She said masculine gender
                        Would never offend her,
            For in Rome, she’d do as a Roman.

Monday, April 11, 2016

No Pishing! No Fooling!

Birdwatching is not one of my usual pastimes, but I joined some friends the other day for an expedition to the Houston Audubon Society’s bird sanctuary at High Island on Bolivar Peninsula to take a gander at blue herons, snowy egrets, and roseate spoonbills (but no ganders). At the entrance to the sanctuary is a sign enumerating its rules and regulations, among which is the stern admonition: NO PISHING. 

“Pishing” must be a typographical error, I assumed, either with a “P” mistakenly substituted for an “F,” or with an “H” in place of a second “S.” Either of these I thought would make sense as a reasonable prohibition. A third, but remote, possibility was that an “H” had been omitted after the “P,” and this was a warning not to try to electronically extract personal information from your fellow birdwatchers; that injunction, however, struck me as unlikely in a wildlife thicket.

It turns out that PISHING is not a typographical error, and it means just what it says. To pish is to imitate the sound of a songbird in order to lure it into the open. It is a technique of scientists doing avian surveys and of many birders to attract species that are difficult to find. Pishing is controversial, with some experts maintaining that it unethically disrupts the natural life of the birds, and others claiming it disturbs them no more than silently traipsing through their habitats. The Audubon Society seems to have decided that pishing is harmful, and therefore it is banned.

The etymology of pish is apparently simply an echo of the sound made by the most elementary type of bird luring—the unvoiced repetition of the syllable pish, pish, pish.  This is a sound that is similar to “sshh,” used to quiet someone, and  it will often lure birds to investigate what is going on.

An allied practice known as “squeaking” is noisily kissing the back of one’s hand, which mimics the sound of a bird scolding a predator.

The word pish is also an exclamation of contempt, dating to the 1590s, and is often found in combination forms such as “pish-tosh” or “pish-posh.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks his work is for the ages, but most people think it’s for the birds. 

            I write the poems that make the grown men cry.
            Oh, how I labor over every word!
            My deepest thoughts take wing and soar, they fly!
                 Then one of my readers flips me the bird.

Monday, April 4, 2016

They’re Off!

Next month on May 7 the annual Kentucky Derby will be run in Louisville, Kentucky, and as part of the festivities ladies in pastel dresses and feathered hats and gentlemen in bright plaids or seersucker blazers will be sipping (or maybe gulping, depending on the circumstances) ample quanties of an iced beverage called a Mint Julep. Of course everyone knows that a “derby” is a horse race named in honor of Edward Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby (1752-1834), who founded the English (now Epsom) Derby.  He also got a hat named for him. But what is the origin of a “julep”?

It’s an Old French word of the 14th century, meaning a syrupy liquid in which medicine is delivered, derived from medieval latin julapium, Arabic julab, and Persian gulab, meaning a “sweet drink.” In 1787, Americans latched on to this word to describe a concoction made with Bourbon whiskey, sugar, and fresh mint leaves.  It’s supposed to be served in a silver cup with shaved ice.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou finds mint juleps are a tad too sweet for his taste, and he prefers them without the sugar, or the mint, or the ice, or the silver cup. 

            I’d much rather have a cold mint julep
            Than a lily or a rose or an old Dutch tulip.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Good Oil About Bilbies

I had the good fortune recently to be interviewed on Australian radio about my book Final Chapters. In fact, I was interviewed three times, for ABC Radio National in Melbourne, ABC Overnights in Sydney, and ABC Radio Adelaide. The host on one of these shows mentioned that he had just finished wolfing down an Easter egg and a bilby. The Easter egg was all right, but he had me stymied with “bilby,” which sent me to the dictionary.

A bilby is an endangered native Australian marsupial, also known as a rabbit-bandicoot. It is a loan word from the  Yuwaalaraay aboriginal language of northern New South Wales, and it means “long-nosed rat.”

To call attention to its endangered status, conservationalists in the 1990s began selling chocolate Easter bilbies at the Warrawong Sanctuary as an alternative to Easter bunnies. Feral rabbits, incidentally, are hated creatures in Australia, where they cause much damage to crops. So Easter bilbies are a benign replacement, and they are now widely popular all over Australia.

Note: “Good oil” is an Australia term meaning “useful information.”              

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never been to Australia, but he does have kangaroos loose in the top paddock—and that’s fair dinkum!

            There was an old boozer from Sydney,
            Who drank till he ruined one kidney.
                        He drank and he drank,
                        As it shriveled and shrank,
            But he had a good time doin’ it, did’n’ he?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Clever Alexander

When I was young and sassy, my mother would often tell me, “Don’t be such a smart aleck.” I knew exactly what she meant, but it never occurred to me to ask who Aleck was or why I was being compared to him. Now, it turns out, Professor Gerald Cohen of the Missouri University of Science and Technology has discovered the original actual smart Aleck was a 19th-century pimp.

Defined as a “bumptious, conceited wise guy,” who is too smart for his own good, smart Aleck (or Alec) first appeared in print in 1862 in a Nevada newspaper, referring to a know-it-all convict. It all started with Alexander Hoag, born in New York in 1809, who became a successful confidence man. Known as Alec, Hoag set up a prostitution business with his wife, Melinda. Their scheme was for Melinda to lure a customer into a dark alley, distract him by embracing and fondling him, and while he was in the throes of erotic ecstasy, pick his pocket and pass the loot to her husband lurking in the shadows. 

Some of the customers didn’t care for this kind of gratification, and they reported the Hoags to the police. To protect his business, Hoag offered to pay the cops  a share of his loot, and he found a few who gladly accepted his largess in exchange for leaving him alone. Now emboldened by police protection, Hoag refined the operation into a more elaborate ploy.  In a specially constructed room, as an 1844 book by George Wilkes explains:

“Melinda would make her victim lay his clothes, as he took them off, upon a chair at the head of the bed near a secret panel, and then take him to her arms and closely draw the curtains of the bed.  As soon as everything was right and the dupe not likely to heed outside noises, Melinda would give a cough, and the faithful Alec would slyly enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.”

Greedy Alec decided to increase his profits by short-changing the crooked cops, and he began to lie about the amount of his hauls. When the cops found out (as cops always do), they arrested Hoag and he soon found himself behind bars for a long stretch. With typical police humor, the officers began referring to Hoag ironically as “smart Alec,” implying that he was too smart for his own good. Within a decade, the term had spread to general use, and it is with us till today.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has sometimes been called a smart Aleck, which he says is better than being called a dumb Aleck.

                        A Parisian pimp named Alec,
                        Determined to downplay the phallic,
                                    Offered quiche by the slice
                                    In each hooker’s price,
                        For he thought that was suitably Gallic.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Lead On!

In at least three or four places during the last month I have seen sentences that use the verb lead as if it were in the past tense, e.g.: What has lead to this sad state of affairs?
The verb lead, pronounced LEED, is in the present tense. Owing to some arcane philological shenanigans by the Anglo-Saxons, who adopted a few Germanic verb forms, the past tense of lead is irregular, and rather than leaded, it is led, pronounced LED.

The reason that lead is often used for and pronounced like led is twofold. First, there is a noun, lead, meaning a metal, that is spelled in the same way as the verb that is pronounced LEED, but is pronounced LED. Second, the verb lead is understandably confused with the verb read, whose irregular past tense is spelled the same, read, but is pronounced RED. 

I do hope that you have now read enough to understand what has led to this confusion.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is always confused, but that is because of the gargantuan swigs of Chardonnay with which he surreptitiously spices up his dreary workdays.

            The books I like to read
            Are ones I’ve never read,
            Until my eyes are red,           
            Though that is sure to lead,
            As it has always led,
            To eyes that feel like lead.     

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Who’s On Fleek?

 A recent article in the San Antonio Express-News observed, “Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry proved his troll game is on fleek Wednesday after a state court dismissed abuse-of-power charges against him.”

To people of a certain age, of whom I am one, that sentence makes almost no sense. Troll game? On fleek?  Off to the internet I went and discovered as follows:

Troll is slang for a person who sows discord on the internet by posting inflammatory messages with the deliberate intent of annoying readers and provoking them into a heated response. In other words, Perry enjoys being a smart-aleck trouble-maker. Okay, I’ll buy that.

On fleek is a bit more complicated. The closest thing to a definition I could find is that it means “on the mark” or “on point” or “just right.” The earliest example cited dates back to 2003, when it was submitted to the Urban Dictionary as a term meaning “smooth, nice, sweet.” The term gained wide currency in June of 2014 owing to a mini-video on Vine, the online video-sharing service, posted by one Peaches Monroee. Ms. Monroee (yes, there is a second “e” in her name) can be viewed preening and saying something that sounds like “We in dis bitch, finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek, dafuq?”

This is helpfully translated by a hip blogger as “We are in the car, fixing to have a wild time. My eyebrows look absolutely fabulous, so what the heck?”

Apparently fleek is a word that is used almost exclusively to refer to the condition of exemplary eyebrows. Etymologists surmise that it is a variant of flick, a term sometimes used by cosmeticians to describe various configurations of the eyebrows. One advertiser promises its cosmetic techniques will perfect “your feline flick.” Another offers “7 hints for Creating Perfect Eyeline Flick.” Flick is apparently a reference to exaggerated shapes made by eyeliners on the outer edges of eyes. Think Amy Winehouse.

Flick, meaning "a light blow or stroke," dates to the 15th century, and is probably imitative of the sound of lightly slapping with a whip. The earliest recorded use is in the phrase "not worth a flykke," meaning "useless."

Whether the Express-News is referring specifically to Perry’s eyebrows is an open question—but he wasn’t known as Governor Goodhair for nothing.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has good hair—it just doesn’t doesn’t grow in the right places.

            The governor was mighty fleek,
            His eyes were bright, his hair was sleek,
            A rosy glow was on his cheek,
            He had a muscular physique.
            But when the gov. began to speak,
            An “oops” was all that he could shriek.
            Oh what fiascos fate doth wreak,
            To flick such flak at one who’s fleek! 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Hoist the Wenches!

The Houston Chronicle reported last week that a new sculpture depicting bird migration that is being installed at the George R. Brown Convention Center could be moved by an elaborate system of wenches. The story did not specify how many wenches were involved or how they came to be employed for this unusual purpose. During times when there is no need to move the sculpture, I presume the wenches will be put to work at other tasks more suitable to their qualifications. I’m sure they’ll be especially busy when conventioneers are in town.

The same rapidly thinning newspaper also stated recently that an engineer was pouring over the plans for a new freeway system. With typical lack of detail, it did not specify what the engineer was pouring over the plans, or why. It could have been water, milk, beer, oil, Koolaid, or any one of hundreds of other liquids, for all I know. I do think responsible journalists should report the full story.

On a final note, it was not the Chronicle but the New York Times that reported that someone was advised to lay low. What was to be laid and how low it was to be laid were of no concern to the Times’ feckless correspondent. Details, good Old Gray Lady, please!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has plans for a system of wenches for his bedroom, where he could be laid as low and as often as he liked. Unfortunately, he poured Chardonnay over his plans and now they’re all wet. 

            There once was a wench from Missouri, 
            Who disposed of a guy in a fury. 
                        But she claimed self-defense 
                        To twelve upright gents 
           And charmed the pants off that jury!


Monday, February 22, 2016

You Gotta Believe!

Much has been said about the importance of religious evangelicals in the current Presidential nomination process, especially in the Republican three-ring circus. In their efforts to win these sanctified votes, some candidates have miraculously changed themselves from politicians trying to get elected into divinely inspired prophets leading the way to the Promised Land.

Despite pious invocations of the Almighty by Cruz, Rubio, and Carson, and, until they fell from electoral grace, by Huckabee, Jindal, Perry, and Santorum, evangelicals surprisingly are giving their strongest support to Donald Trump, whose ecclesiastical credentials are on the light side, to say the least. It is has been suggested that it is Trump’s frequent belligerent assaults on political correctness, which evangelicals associate with anti-Christian liberalism, that attracts them to him.

What, precisely, are these evangelicals whose votes are so highly sought?

The word evangelical derives from the Late Latin evangelicus, which came from the Greek evangelikos, both of which mean “relating to good news,” a reference to the Christian gospel. The Greek roots are eu-, meaning “good,” and angelos, meaning “messenger” (the same root as the English word angel).

The modern Christian evangelical movement traces its origins to the eighteenth century, especially in the teachings of English Methodists and German Moravians and Lutheran Pietists. It gained great momentum in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in the religious revivals known as the “Great Awakenings.” Today Christians of an evangelical persuasion can be found in all denominations, though they are largely concentrated in Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal congregations.

According to the National Association of Evangelicals, the hallmarks of evangelical belief are Conversionism (the need to be transformed by a “born again” experience), Activism (the spreading of the gospel by missionary work and social reform efforts), Biblicism (an acceptance of the Bible as the ultimate authority), and Crucicentrism (a stress on the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only means by which human beings are saved).

Many evangelicals are also Fundamentalists, meaning that it is “fundamental” to their beliefs that the Bible is literally and unerringly true. Some are also Dispensationalists, who hold that the Bible teaches that human history is divided into periods (known as “dispensations”), each of which has a different divine plan. The typical Dispensational division of history is into seven periods, commencing with the innocence of Eden and culminating in the millennial reign of Christ.

Evangelicals tend to be highly conservative in social policy, although there is a branch of progessive evangelicals whose views are more moderate.     

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou finds these theological concepts very difficult to wrap is little brain around and prefers to the see the Presidential campaign in a different light.

            From seventeen (or was it more?)
            Republicans, it’s down to four,
            Who still remain (or is it five?)
            Hoping that their chances are alive.

            The Democrats began with five,
            Now only two of them survive.
            Though you may try, you can’t ignore
            A race with candidates galore.           

            And after all is said and done
            In nine more months, there’ll just be one.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dead As A Ringer

There’s meme making the rounds that claims to provide etymologies for a number of common expressions, one of which is dead ringer. This specious missive would have us believe that the phrase originated in the sixteenth-century practice of burying the dead with a string tied to their wrists and attached to an outside bell. In the event someone had been mistakenly buried alive (which did occasionally happen), he or she could then pull the string and ring the bell summoning someone to open the grave. Such a person, though really alive, was facetiously known as a dead ringer (who was, of course, saved by the bell).
That’s a festive enough explanation, but it doesn’t appear to have a grain of truth in it. First of all, it has nothing to do with the meaning of dead ringer—which is “one who bears a strong resemblance to” someone else. 
A far more likely explanation stems from American horse-racing in the 1880s, when a horse fraudulently entered in a race under the name of a slower one became known as a ringer. This derived from an obsolete meaning of the verb ring, attested in 1812, “exchange or substitute.” 
A dead ringer is a perfect match for the original, with dead being used in the adverbial sense of “quite, precisely, or extremely,” as in dead drunk, dead heat, and dead center.
And saved by the bell is a nineteenth-century term derived from a boxer who was knocked down, but prevented from being counted out by the ringing of a bell ending the round.
Nonetheless, I’m going to ask for a string tied to my wrist when I’m buried.
There are no strings attached to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, although there are some folks who would like to see him strung up. Read this litany of opposites that have oozed through his pores, and you’ll understand why:
            Dead ringer, live wire,
            Sharpshooter, flat tire,

            High hopes, low fat,
            Black gold, white hat,           
            Small talk, big top,
            Good book, bad cop,
            Left Bank, right brain,
            Day bed, night train,
            Fast food, slowpoke,
            Clean sweep, dirty joke,
            Dry run, wet dream,
            Sour grapes, sweet cream,
            Bottom line, top dog,
            Half note, whole hog,
            Soft soap, hard sell,
            Smart phone, dumbbell,
            On target, off base,
            Sad sack, Funny Face

            Hot dog, cold feet
            Cold cash, hot seat

            Fat cat, slim chance,
            Plain Jane, fancy pants,
            Stalemate, fresh air,
            Shortcut, long hair           
            Round table, square meal,
            Odd lot, even keel,
            Full house, empty nest,
            Base pay, acid test,
            In-group, outhouse,
            Country mile, city mouse,

            Late show, early bird,
            First aid, last word!