Monday, May 25, 2015

Handbasket to Hell

“Going to hell in a handbasket”—that is, a rapidly worsening situation—is a nineteenth-century phrase whose origin has been much discussed. An earlier version was “in a handcart,” but the basket seems to have prevailed. Some scholars say “handbasket” has no particular meaning and is simply an alliterative intensifier, and that any conveyance beginning with “h”—a hansom cab or a hardbody, say,  would suffice. 

One of the earliest instances of the “handbasket” phrase is found in documents of the U. S. Congress of 1867, in which a pro-Southern judge refers to men arrested for collaborating in a Confederate conspiracy as “rotting in Lincoln’s bastilles…if they were once at liberty [they] would send the abolitionists to hell in a hand-basket.”

“To hell in a hand-cart” is found as early as 1841 in a book of sermons by Elbridge Paige.

Some etymologists relate the phrase to a stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, which shows a scolding wife being carted away by the devil in a wheelbarrow.

A more fanciful explanation traces the phrase to the French Revolution, when aristocrats were guillotined and their heads fell into a basket, which would no doubt provide their speedy passage to the fiery netherworld.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks going to hell in a handbasket might be as comfortable a way to travel there as any.  He has one ready, just in case.

                        The road to hell is paved, they say,
                        With many good intentions.
                        You’ll find them all along the way,
                        As the poet Virgil mentions.

                        If I fall prey to heaven’s wrath
                        With the wicked and depraved,
                        And find myself upon that path—
                        I’ll be glad, at least, it’s paved.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hey, Dude

People of a certain generation (all of them younger than I am), talk of dudes, by which they apparently mean any male persons. Sometimes I hear young men address each other (and occasionally even me) as “Dude.” So where does this term come from and what does it mean?                         
 Pictured is Evander Berry Wall, known as "King of the Dudes," in 1888 in New York.

Oxford English Dictionary  and Webster’s New International agree that the word originally meant a man who was “overly fastidious” in matters of dress and style; in other words, a “dandy” or a “fop.” It later was used to man any urbanized man, or “city slicker.” By the 1960s the word had crept into Black English and into surfer slang as an alternate way of saying “fellow” or “guy.” Today, it’s generally used in that broader sense, usually in an approving manner, to refer to any boy or man. It also can be used as a verb, retaining its  original meaning, as when someone gets “all duded up” in fancy clothes.

As for the etymology of dude, all the overly cautious OED will say is “actual origin not recorded.” Webster’s is even more terse: “Origin unknown.”

Dude first popped up in the 1880s as a term of mockery directed at young men who kept up with the latest fashions. The general consensus among word sleuths who are willing to take a stand is that it derived from “Yankee Doodle,” the 18th-century song with which the British taunted the uncouth colonists. The term doodle first appeared in the 17th century, from Low German Dödel, meaning “simpleton.” In the song the bumptious “Yankee Doodle” sticks a feather in his cap and calls it “Macaroni.” The Macaroni wig was high fashion in the 1770s and became a synonym for foppishness.

In 1883, according to linguist Allan Metcalf, someone in New York began referring to foppish young men as “doodles,” soon shortened to “doods,” with the alternate spelling “dudes.” In that same year a political cartoon referred to the sartorially resplendent President Chester A. Arthur as “O Dude of all the White House residents.”

Some etymologists believe the first instance of "dude" was in a poem by Robert Sale Hill that appeared in January 14, 1883, issue of the New York World.  Hill supposedly coined the word as a cognate to the extinct bird known as the "dodo."

Another expert suggests the term derived from a sentence in Graphic magazinie of March 31, 1883, which said: “The silent, subfusc, subdued 'dude' hands down the tradition of good form.” Dude, says this expert, is just a shortened version of the word subdued, suggesting a person of good taste.

One final suggestion is that it stems from the Scottish word duddies for clothes, and this theory can point to the use of the word dudde in Putnam’s Magazine in 1876, making fun of the way a woman was dressed.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not quite a dude. But as you can see, he’s working on becoming one:

            I’m trying hard to be a dude,
            And prove I have blue blood;
            Just look at me and you’ll conclude,
            I’m almost one; i.e. a dud.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tut, Tut

The winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah, has occasioned much comment about the spelling of his name, which transposes “a” and “o.” It is a misspelling of Pharaoh, the title of ancient Egyptian kings up until the Roman conquest.

American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, who is an Egyptian by birth, maintains that the spelling is the result of an error by The Jockey Club, the organization that publishes the official American Stud Book. But the Club says that’s not so, that the name was spelled that way when it was submitted by its owner through an interactive digital registration site. Now, boys, let’s not fight about it. 

Pharaoh is derived from the Old English Pharon, which in turn came from Latin Pharaonem, Greek Pharao, Hebrew Par’oh, and, ultimately, Egyptian Per’aa (a transliteration of hieroglyphs). It means “great house.” Its unusual English spelling—a before o and h on the end—seems to have been influenced by both the Latin and Hebrew words.

Also misspelled—if a person can actually misspell his own name—are Jay Pharoah of Saturday Night Live and Pharoah Sanders, the jazz saxophonist. The former’s real name is Jared Farrow. The latter, born Farrell Sanders, was nicknamed Pharoah by bandleader Sun Ra. None of them is known to have won a spelling bee.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes he was a Pharaoh in a previous life. Oh, wait, not a Pharaoh—a ferret. That’s easier to believe.

          Hotepsekhemwy was a Pharaoh,
          And his friends all called him Hot.
          He always walked the straight and narrow,
          And he seemed to know what's what.
          His reign was long, but he wound up dead,
          And was made into a mummy,
          With a golden mask upon his head
          And a scarab on his tummy.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Hats Off!

I read the other day that when Mark Rylance, the brilliant British actor who is currently Thomas Cromwell on the PBS series Wolf Hall, ran London’s Globe Theatre, he always wore a hat to let people know when he was functioning as artistic director and not as actor. The hat was a trilby. (I also read, to my surprise, that Rylance grew up and graduated from high school in Milwaukee—but that’s another story.)
A trilby is a small, narrow-brimmed hat with a short, indented crown. It is worn with the brim snapped down in front and turned up in back. In shape it is similar to the Tyrolean hat. It is so named from the character Trilby O’Ferrall, who wore such a hat in the first production of the stage version of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby. 

Similar to a trilby is a fedora, which is also named for a character in a play. The fedora has a wider brim and a taller crown. It got its name from the character of Princess Fédora, who wore such a hat when played by Sarah Bernhardt in Victorien Sardou’s 1882 play Fédora.

Other hat names have mostly non-theatrical sources. The bowler was named for London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler, who designed it for a client in the 1820s.  When it crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s, it was called a derby because it was favored by the Earl of Derby, who regularly wore it to horse races. 

The homburg is a formal stiff hat with what is called a “gutter crown” with a single dent running down the middle and a stiff brim. It was named for the German spa Bad Homburg, where King Edward VII procured a hat of this type and then popularized it in England. 

The boater is a straw hat with a flat brim, which was fashionable at the beginning of the twentieth century at sailing events. For some reason, it was popular with FBI agents, almost as an unofficial uniform, in the 1910s and 1920s. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou wears a hat mostly for protection—to try to keep his head safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

            When Rylance is doing his work as director,
            He knows he must move in the management sector,
            And prove by whatever he puts on his head
            That he is the top guy whom all others dread.           

            A bowler or derby would just be a bummer,
            And people might think he was merely a mummer.
            A homburg is humbug and makes him look stuffy,
            He’d deplore a fedora, it’s so seedy and scruffy.
            The reason a boater would never apply
            Is that someone might think he was just F.B.I.
            Mr. Rylance’s headwear must be only a trilby,
            To show that he wants to be boss—and he will be.


Monday, April 27, 2015

English Not Spoken Here

Visiting Corpus Christi, Texas, recently, I was musing on the city’s name, which is Latin for “Body of Christ,” referring to the adjacent bay, which Spanish explorers named (probably with the encouragement of pious priests) to commemorate the Eucharist. 

Many American place names are actual words in other languages, provided by the explorers and settlers from various countries, mostly Spain and France, with occasional bits of Dutch or German. Among the French names are Baton Rouge (“Red Stick”), LA; Eau Claire (“Clear Water’) and Fond du Lac (“End of the Lake”), WI; Boise (“Wooded”), ID; Butte (“Ridge”), MT; Terre Haute (“High Ground”), IN; Des Moines (“of the Monks”), IA;  and La Grange (“The Barn”) and La Porte (“The Door”) in several states,

One unusual French name is Coeur d’Alene, ID. This was the French name for the Schitsu'umsh tribe in that area, and it means “Heart of an Awl.” The awl, a leather-working tool, is thought perhaps to indicate the skill of the Indian artisans or the fact that they were sharp traders in leather goods.

Spanish city names include El Paso (“the Pass”), Amarillo (“Yellow”), Refugio (“Refuge”), TX; Las Vegas (“Fertile Valleys”), NV; and Sacramento (“Sacrament”), Fresno (“Ash Tree”), and “Los Angeles” (“The Angels”), CA.  

Among the very few German names are Anaheim (“Anne’s home”), CA, and New Braunfels (“New Brown Rock”), TX.

One that’s always difficult for Americans to pronounce—even for those who live there—is the name of the area of New York’s Bronx known as Spuyten Duyvil.  It’s Dutch for “Spouting Devil,” referring to the rapid current in the waters.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is sometimes known as the “Spouting Devil,” a name he lives up to at every orifice.

            Oh, take me back to Spuyten Duyvil,
            No place on earth can ever rival
            The diabolic name of this strange curio.
            But if you cannot take me there,
            Then I’ll be happy anywhere--
            In Quitaque, Mexia, or Refugio.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Flash in the Pangram

Theatre Under The Stars’ Underground series recently produced a new musical called LMNOP, based on the novel  Ella Minnow Pea. (Notice the similarity!) This alphabetical drollery is predicated on the notion of a pangram, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. The musical’s fictional town has a motto that is a pangram coined by its founder—The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

This pangram, which totals 35 letters in all, repeats several letters—there are four “o’s”and three “e’s”—and the best pangrams use the smallest total number of letters, repeating the fewest.

In the musical, as letters begin to fall off the town’s motto one by one, the plot hinges on finding a new pangram, preferably shorter, which turns out to be: Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. It uses a total of only 33 letters.

Word buffs have come up with even shorter ones, which tend to make less sense the shorter they get. Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow uses only 29 letters.  Waltz quick, nymph, for bad jigs vex is only 28.

If you permit proper names and abbreviations, you can come up with pangrams that use each letter only once, for a total of 26. One of these is: Mr. Jock, TV quiz Ph.D., bags few lynx. 

When I was a wire editor for a Scripps-Howard newspaper, the teletype equipment was tested every morning by transmitting a pangram that no doubt reflected somebody's political views: William Jex quickly killed five dozen Republicans. 

This week’s New York Times had an acrostic puzzle that used a different type of pangram—a sentence in which each word begins with a consecutive letter of the alphabet. The example was: A black cat dreamt every fourth goose hunted invisible jellyfish, kindly let many nice ostriches pass quickly; rather stupidly, the umbrella voted when X-raying yellow zebras.

Another one I came across makes a little more sense—but has to be punctuated as more than one sentence to be fluent:  A brave, chance dance ended Fred's girlfriend hunt. Ingrid just kissed like magic! Nearby, once privately quartered, romance secured the unfolding victory with X-rated, youthful zest. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou decided he could write a pangrammatic verse. Hmmmm.

            Any boy can damage eggs,
            Frighten giddy hags,
            Injure jolly kiddies’ legs--
            Meretricious nags!

            Older people quickly run,
            Seeing tawdry urban view,
            Wrecking xenophobically, 
            Yokohama’s zoo.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mum’s the Word

A recent article reported that a certain murder suspect who has been much in the news lately had appeared on a TV special during which he murmured to a mirror, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” Today’s disquisition is not about whether he killed them all, or even any one of them, but whether he murmured those words, or mumbled them, or perhaps muttered them.

Those three words have the same fundamental meaning, to “speak quietly and indistinctly.”  But they have differing nuanced connotations, about which not all lexicographers agree. Mumble is the most straightforward of the three, having little meaning beyond its primary one, although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may also denote “speaking with the lips partly closed.” This may derive from its etymology, Middle English momelen, which meant to “eat in a slow, ineffective manner,” and as a result, perhaps to talk with one’s mouth full. Its current meaning is from the mid-14th century.

Murmur has the additional connotation, according to both the OED and Webster’s, of being a continuous sound, without interruption. Again, etymology may be the clue, since the origin of murmur is the Proto-Indo-European reduplicative base mor-mor, which is of an imitative origin, alluding to the sound of “roaring, boiling, buzzing, or crackling (as in a fire).”

In addition, both dictionaries suggest murmur has the added meaning of “discontent” or “complaint,” synonomous with “grumbling,” dating to the 14th century in English and to the 12th century in the Old French murmure, which meant the “sound of human voices arguing.” Its meaning to “speak indistinctly” dates only to 1670.

I would further suggest that murmur can carry with it a romantic or sensuous aspect, as a brook may murmur, or a sweetheart may murmur sweet nothings to his beloved.

In this sense murmur is related to a susurrus, from the the Latin susurare, to “hum” or to “whisper.”

Everyone agrees that mutter carries with it the connotation of “dissatisfaction that one dare not utter more openly.” Its root is 14th-century Middle English moteren, which stems from the Proto-Indo-European stem mut-, meaning to “grunt.”

Given these variations, I would opt for mumble in the case of the alleged killer-in-the-mirror. But I expect trying to reach a verdict on this question would produce a hung jury.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou once served on a hanging jury. The other eleven members tried to hang him, but he got away in the nick of time.

            I could not be surer or clearer or firmer
            In my views about mumble and mutter and murmur:
            If you talk with your mouth full, it shows you’re a 
            Without any manners—what’s more, you’re a  
            If you wish to complain about things you can’t utter,
            When you speak, it is certain you’re going to mutter.
            To your honey or dearie, however you term her,
            Sweet nothings are said in an amorous murmur.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter (a.k.a. Passover) Parade

Christians and Jews both spent this past weekend celebrating major events: Easter for the Christians and Passover for the Jews. While the two holidays commemorate different religious events, they originally were exactly the same etymologically.

Passover derives from the Hebrew word Pesach, which is generally taken to refer to God’s having passed over the Hebrew people to exempt them from the slaughter of the firstborn recounted in the Book of Exodus. It now commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The word Passover first appeared in English in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible in the 1530s.

There is some debate about whether Pesach should be translated as “pass over.” Some scholars think it means “he had pity” and others prefer the translation “he hovered over, guarding.”

In any event, when Christians began to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which occurred during the period when Passover was celebrated, they used the same term to designate it. In the Romance languages today, Passover and Easter are in fact the same word, derived from Pesach via Latin paschalis: Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, and Pâque (Passover) and Pâques (Easter) in French. (The extra “s” for Easter was added by the French sometime after the fifteenth century to distinguish the two holidays.) In Middle English Easter was sometimes referred to as Pasch, and in modern English the word Paschal can also be used to allude to the Easter period.

The word Easter (and, in German, Ostern) is related to the German word for east, and according to the Venerable Bede it derived from the Old English Ēostre, the Germanic goddess of spring and fertility, who was associated with the dawn. She was worshipped by pagan Anglo-Saxons, and when they were Christianized, they kept the same name for the new festival, which also occurred in the spring.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou celebrates the season by reciting a verse written especially for the occasion, despite being implored not to by leaders of every major religion and several minor ones.

                        There once was was a gluttonous feaster,
                        Who gorged himself every Easter
                                    On boiled colored eggs
                                    And Chardonnay dregs,
                        Till he keeled over flat on his keister.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Give Me A Break

When I was a newspaper copyeditor back in pre-digital days, national and international news was conveyed to our newsroom on a teleprinter known as “the wire.” This was an electro-mechanical typewriter that received and rapidly printed typed messages from news wire services like United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP). Enormous rolls of yellow copy paper were inserted into the machine, so that a continuous feed of news items was emitted. One of my jobs was to be sure that the roll never ran out (it did, once).

When something really important happened, a bell would ring on the machine, and the next news item was identified either as a BULLETIN or a FLASH. A “bulletin” was an out-of-the ordinary happening, usually a disaster, such as a major plane crash or the death of a foreign government official. A “flash” was something judged to be cataclysmic, such as the assassination of a famous leader or the declaration of war. I expect that a sure-fire cure for cancer or a communication from residents of Mars would also qualify as a flash. In my year-and-a-half of tending the machine, I can recall maybe half a dozen “bulletins” and only one “flash”—which was the onset of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the third world war was widely anticipated.  

Nowadays, we are beset on television and even in newspapers by a flood of what is called “breaking news.” In my day, we never used that term, since all news was “breaking,” in the sense that we were making it known to the public for the first time. Today, I gather, by “breaking news” the media mean something that is ongoing and continuing to occur as it is being reported.

Break is a versatile word, with more than 40 separate meanings listed in Webster’s New International Dictionary. Its origin is Old English brecan, “to shatter, burst, injure, violate, destroy, curtail, burst forth, spring out, subdue, or tame.” It derived ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bhreg with similar meanings. The meaning to “disclose,” as now applied to news, was first used in the 13th century. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is widely known for breaking things, including delicate crystal, promises, speed limits, and wind.

            With TV news, there’s no mistaking,
            It’s reported ipse dixit.
            And when they say the news is breaking,
            I think they ought to fix it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Happy Accidents

The other day I was ransacking a desk drawer looking for some receipts (it’s tax time again), when I unexpectedly came across a $5 bill lurking between two pieces of paper. This discovery of something valuable or agreeable purely by accident is known as serendipity. 

The word was first used in 1754 by Horace Walpole, an author and Member of Parliament, in a letter to an English friend in Italy. Walpole explained that he concocted the word from a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which he had read as a boy. Serendip is the Persian and Urdu word for the country now known as Sri Lanka.

The fairy tale is a translation of an Italian story by Michele Tramezzino, published in Venice in 1557. In it three princes set out on a journey during which they make a number of useful discoveries either by accident or by their native wit. 

Many readers have unexpectedly come upon the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou quite by accident. They invariably regard this untoward event not as serendipity, but as an unmitigated disaster. To live up to his tarnished reputation, the Bard offers two examples of his egregiousness:

            A rabbit came hopping up, hippity-hoo,
            To get his fur styled with some Dippity-Do,
                        Folks thought it funny
                        To see a chic bunny,
            And to find him by pure serendipity, too.

            We thought it was somewhat precipitous
            And not in the least serendipitous
                         When a villain appeared,
                         And he snarled and he sneered, 
            Then he curled his stiff upper lip at us.

Monday, March 16, 2015

All Smiles


The New York Times wrote recently of emoticons and emojis, using those two terms more or less interchangeably. But, in fact, they are quite different. An emoticon, a portmanteau word formed from emotion and icon, and pronounced ee-MOTE-uh-con, is a symbol composed of punctuation marks, letters, or numbers, in a text-only document, to indicate an emotional condition. Usually they must be read sideways. This is an emoticon indicating happiness :-).  Others may indicate unhappiness :-( or alarm :-o or humor ;-).

The person most often credited as the first to use emoticons in this sense is a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. 

Earlier prototypes, however, can be found.  The American humor magazine Puck published these examples created by a type-setter in 1881:

Some people think they have found an even earlier example in a New York Times transcript of a speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. What might be an emoticon representing amusement appears in the fourth line, after “applause and laughter.” Others insist this is merely a typographical error.

A kind of shorthand emoticon was designed in ten minutes in 1963 by an artist named Harvey Ball as a morale-building device for employees of the State Mutual Life Insurance Company. Ball was paid $45 for inventing the “smiley face” that is now ubiquitous.

An emoji, pronounced ee-MO-jee, is a Japanese word that means “picture character.” It is a more elaborate design that can represent any idea, object, or cultural meme. The first emoji was designed around 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese communications company. Since then, many different organizations have designed their own emojis for use in communications. Here are samples representing a dancer, from Apple, Google, and Twitter:

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is working on an emoji to represent him and his work; so far it’s just a big amorphous blob. 

       If I were asked to vote upon
       My favorite emoticon,
       I’m sure that I would think most highly
       Of a face that’s slyly smiley.

       Some days, though, are not so nice,
       When smiley faces won’t suffice,
       Grinning like some elf or brownie:
       Then I need a face that’s frowny.

Monday, March 9, 2015

It’s Flat, That’s That!

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about “flat whites” and didn’t have a clue what they were. At first I thought the term must refer to a casual white shoe to wear around the pool between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Or could it mean a house paint without a gloss? Then I thought perhaps it was an egg with no yolk cooked over easy. Now, thanks, to the inexhaustible font of information provided by the indispensable Wikipedia, I learn that a flat white is a beverage.

It is, in fact, a coffee beverage that was developed in Australia and New Zealand about 35 or 40 years ago. It is concocted by pouring what is known as “microfoam”—milk steamed with a wand to produce very fine bubbles—over a shot of espresso. Similar to a latte, it is smaller in volume and has a greater proportion of coffee to milk. It may provide a canvas for latte art.

Its name comes from the thin, flat layer of white microfoam, as opposed to thicker layers in lattes and cappuccinos.  If you have any more questions about flat whites, please apply at the nearest Starbucks.

With all that mlik, a flat white probably qualifies as a “cat-lap.” That is a British Victorian term for tea or coffee that was used disdainfully by those who preferred beer and stronger liquors as their beverage. Sometimes really hearty topers even used the term to refer to champagne.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes his coffee just like the verses he writes: strong, dark, bitter, and unpalatable.

            I like coffee,
            It suits me
            More than toffee,
            Toast, or tea.

            Make it black,
            Make it bitter,
            It will smack
            A tic or jitter.

            Make it strong,
            Yes, oh yes, oh
            How I long
            For an espresso.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Whence Lent?

Christians of a certain stripe—mostly Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox, and a few others—are now in the midst of Lent, the season of forty days preceding Easter that is devoted to prayer, fasting, and charitable works. In the Romance languages the word for Lent alludes to the forty days, based on the Latin quadragesima, which means “fortieth.” In Italian Lent is Quaresima, in French it’s Carême, and in Spanish Cuaresma.

Germans get right to the point and call the season Fastenzeit, “fasting time.”

The etymology of Lent in English is more complicated. The word cropped up in the fourteenth century, as a shortened form of Lenten, which derived from Old English lencten, meaning “springtime.” The root of lencten is West Germanic langatinaz, meaning “long days,” referring to the coming season’s increasing daylight.  

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thought he might give up versifying for Lent, but he came to realize that too many penitents rely upon reading his poetic detritus as atonement for their sins (when self-flagellation is not considered severe enough).

                        There was a devout Christian gent
                        Who quit smoking and drinking for Lent,
                                     But he ate so much fudge he
                                     Grew terribly pudgy,               
                        Which was certainly not his intent.
                        He decided he'd keep one bad habit,
                        Despite pleas from a priest and an abbot,
                                    So now he rejects
                                    All that junk food for sex,                              
                          And he's thin--but he acts like a rabbit.