Tuesday, June 21, 2016


In a recent op-ed article Garrison Keillor wrote that one of the Presidential candidates (feel free to guess which one) is: “…the class hood, the bully and braggart, the guy revving his pink Chevy to make the pipes rumble…the C-minus guy who sat behind you in history and poked you with his pencil and smirked when you asked him to stop…the first punk candidate to get this close to the White House.”

I do not recall when we have had a prominent politician who might credibly be called a “punk.”  What does that mean?

The most prevalent current definition of punk is “worthless person.” But it has many other applications, from rock music to clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, jewelry, and body modifications. The word has a long and sordid etymological history.
In its first incarnation, in the late sixteenth century, a punk was a female prostitute. Shakespeare uses the word in three of his plays, including Measure for Measure, in which Duke
Vincentio asks Mariana if she is a maid, a wife, or a widow, and she says no to all three. Lucio intervenes: "She may be a punk, for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife." Also in All's Well That Ends Well, the Clown tells the Countess of Roussillon that his answer to one of her questions is "As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney, as fit as your French crown for your taffety punk." ("French crown" refers not only to the King of France and his bald pate, but also to a symptom of syphilis.) 

The word panjandrums don’t know the origin of this meaning of punk, but other definitions soon derived from it: “nonsense, foolishness,” “young, inexperienced person, novice,” “obnoxious child,” “petty gangster, hoodlum, ruffian,” “young homosexual partner, especially among hoboes or in prison.”  By the 1920s punk was generally established as meaning “good-for-nothing.”
(From an entirely different etymological stream, beginning with Delaware Algonquian ponk, meaning “dust, powder, ashes,” came the definition of punk  as “rotten wood used for tinder.”)

So if you haven’t guessed which candidate the word punk was applied to, here’s a hint: it is the candidate who, in Keillor’s words, is “obsessed with marble walls and gold-plated doorknobs, who has the sensibility of a giant sea tortoise.”

And no, he’s not referring to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. He has the sensibility of laughing hyena—and the eloquence of an earthworm.

When Jefferson and Adams sparred,
The insults flew with no holds barred.
To help their Presidential aims,
They called each other awful names,

“Coward, hypocrite, and libertine,
Weakling, fool”—oh, they were mean!
“Criminal, tyrant, atheist.”
But there is one slur that they missed.

Despite their penchant for hyperbole
And all the potshots they took verbally,
Neither of them would have thunk
A White House hopeful was a punk.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Blighty Is A Bit of All Right

A friend in Mauritius recently wrote to me of his reminiscences of the days when we both lived in Blighty. Blighty, or “dear old Blighty,” as it’s most commonly known, is an affectionate name for England primarily used by expatriates as they long nostalgically for the joys of home. The word originated in Victorian India under the British Raj and became widely used during the Boer War and especially in World War I, when it showed up in poems about homesickness on the battlefield by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

According to most sources, the origin of the word is the Urdu vilāyatī, and a regional variation, bilayati, which apparently meant “courage,” but came to be used as a synonym for “foreign” or “European” and later, specifically, “English.” During World War I, the British War Office published a magazine called Blighty, with material written by men on the front lines. From this came the term “Blighty wound,” which was an injury severe enough to get a man sent home, but not bad enough to be life-threatening. (It was not unknown for such “Blighty wounds” to be self-inflicted.) In the 1950s there was a racy humor magazine called "Blighty."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou sometimes thinks about his days in dear old Blighty, where fish and chips were only a shilling and a half-pint of bitter could be had (in one of the less fashionable pubs) for eightpence. That was before the Bard had established his reputation as purveyor of execrable verses of questionable taste, such as:

                        There was a young lass from Old Blighty,
                        Who fancied herself Aphrodite.
                                    It set off alarms
                                    When she flaunted her charms
                        By parading around in her nightie.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Right Down to It

In the coming cataclysmic Armageddon—or should I say Presidential election?—it will soon be time to get down to the nitty-gritty. The nitty-gritty is defined as “essential, practical, basic details—often harsh or unpleasant.” And where, you ask, does the phrase originate?

It has been around since the 1930s, but gained great currency in the 1990s after President Bush 41, in a classic malapropism at a country music awards show, referred to the “Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird,” instead of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (In doing so, Mr. Bush rivaled John Travolta’s introduction of Idina Menzel at the Oscar awards as Adele Dazeem.)

Consult a dictionary and you will find that nitty-gritty’s etymology falls back on that favorite explanation: “origin unknown.” The term has etymologists stumped—but not for lack of trying.

It has been alleged that it started as a derogatory allusion to the scant belongings of enslaved Africans carried on British ships in the 18th century, with “nitty” perhaps a euphemism for another n-word.  But there is absolutely no evidence for this theory and the phrase does not appear in print until the 1930s.

The Online Etymological Dictionary suggests it has something to do with “grits,” i.e. finely ground corn, and was a term used by African-American jazz musicians. Other word sleuths point to the “nit” reference to head lice, without much logical justification. Still others, perhaps under the influence of President Bush’s favorite band, think it stems somehow from the qualities of dirt or gravel, and there have been attempts to link the phrase to the kind of stubborn determination known as “true grit” and to the lamebrained person we call a “nitwit.” None of these ideas can be substantiated.

Copyright records from 1937 show a song called “The Nitty Gritty Dance,” by Arthur Harrington Gibbs. The term pops up in Alice Childress’ 1956 novel Like One of the Family and in the phrase “nitty-gritty gator” (“a low-life dude”) in a description of hepcat slang in The Daily Journal of Commerce, Texas, in June of 1956.

But it was not until the 1960s that the term came into general usage, popularized by “The Nitty Gritty,” a song by Lincoln Chase, recorded by Shirley Ellis and later by Gladys Knight and the Pips. In the lyrics of that song,
            Everybody's asking what the nitty gritty,
            The nitty gritty's anything you want it to be,
            Just stir it up from the soul,
            And when it starts to fizz,
            That's what the nitty gritty is.

According to the blogger Azizi Powell, “getting right down to the nitty-gritty” in a dance context means “ to be real in the way that you dance–to put aside fake societal notions of being stiff, or refined, or too controlled in the way you move….to get funky.”

That may be all we ever know about “nitty-gritty”—and all we need to know.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t mind getting down to the nitty, but he prefers to have nothing to do with the gritty.
            There once was an old etymologist
            Who longed to be a philologist,
                        When he failed in that quest,
                        He said, “Still I’m blessed,
            For at least I’m not a proctologist.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Once More Unto the Breech!

Gaze upon these solecisms that have actually appeared in magazines and newspapers—publications that I would have thought employed editors schooled in the rudiments of the English language, but apparently do not:

            “A central tenant of the University’s philosophy…”

            “I would of helped if I could of….”

            “The excitement left me unphased….”

            “Put a cube of beef bullion in two cups of water…”

            “I promised to forego chocolate…”

I used to be a copyeditor for a daily newspaper, and believe me, if I had let one of these atrocities see print, I would have been ridiculed mercilessly, and probably hooted off the copy desk, by my colleagues. That was, of course, more than fifty years ago, when copyeditors were expected to be omniscient (reporters, not so much).

It goes without saying, or at least it should, that the correct words in each case are:

            “tenet” – Latin for “he holds,” from tenēre (“hold”), meaning a principle or doctrine generally held to be true.

            “would have…could have…” –  these are known as “past modal” verbs and are followed by a past participle to indicate action that did not take place but was possible.

            “unfazed” –  from Old English fēsian (“drive away”), meaning “disconcert, daunt.”

            “bouillon” – from French boillir (“boil”), meaning a “clear seasoned soup.” Bullion, meaning “gold or silver melted into bars,” is thought to be a conflation of Middle French bille (“ingot”) and Anglo-French buillon (“cauldron”).

            “forgo” –  from Middle English forgān (“pass by”), meaning “do without.” Although forgo should not be confused with forego, meaning “come before,” some dictionaries now throw up their lexical hands in frustration and say, “Go ahead and use the words interchangeably if you like.” Tch, tch.

            There once was a very sad gent
            In the cold, gray light of the dawn:
            His trouble was that he forewent
            When he clearly should have forgone.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Who’s A Bigot?

One of the customers has been investigating the origin of the word bigot. I suspect that his interest was piqued by the recent rise to prominence of certain politicians (their names will not appear in this apolitical blog, but you know who they are) whose pronouncements might lead one to believe the word applied to them. 

The primary meaning of bigot, from the 16th century, was “religious hypocrite,” but by the 17th century it had taken on the meaning of “a person obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a religious creed or opinion.” Abraham Cowley used the word in his 1661 Discourse Concerning Oliver Cromwell, in which he wrote, “He was rather a well-meaning and deluding Bigot, than a crafty and malicious Impostor.” Today the word has the added connotation of “intolerant.”

Where the word originally came from has provoked vigorous disagreement among scholars, with the result that nobody can really say. The best explanation that most dictionaries offer for its etymology is: “from French bigot (12th century), of unknown origin.”

The earliest French use of the word is in the 12th-century Romance of Girard de Roussillon, in which it is used to refer to the people living south of Gaul. From this instance, it has been inferred that bigot is a corruption of Visigoth. Since the Franks were Catholic and the Visigoths were Arian, the term might therefore have taken on the meaning of “foreign heretic.” But phoneticists claim there is no connection between bigot and Visigoth (although there is apparently a Middle Latin word Bigothi, in reference to Visigoths.)

Bigot later became a French derogatory term for the Normans, and one story is that it originated in the refusal of Rollo, the Viking ruler of Normandy, to refuse to kiss the foot of the 10th-century Carolingian King Charles the Simple, by defiantly shouting “Ne se, bi go”—a supposedly Germanic way of saying “No, by God!” Normans were allegedly fond of uttering “bi go” as a common oath. Bigott shows up as a Norman surname as early as the 11th century.

Try as they might, etymologists have not been able to establish a connection between bigot and the Spanish bigote, which means “mustache.” The chief virtue of the theory, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, is that “there is no evidence for or against it.”

Others think the early use of bigot to mean “religious hypocrite” sprang from the Beguines, a 12th-century community of women ascetics in The Netherlands, who took their name from Lambert le Bègue ("Lambert the Stammerer”), a priest who was instrumental in their founding. The order later attracted mendicants who sought contributions in the guise of religion—giving rise to the word beggar.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou rejects the notion that he is a bigot. He says that all his benighted opinions, to which he clings immovably, are not only reasonable but self-evident.
            I’m not a bigot, no I’m not,           
            The word does not apply to me.
            But of my friends, I know a lot—
            All those with whom I disagree.

Monday, May 9, 2016


One hears a lot these days about the evils of “bullying,” especially among teens and pre-teens using online social media. Bullying is often spoken of as if it were some new and unspeakably horrid societal illness that must be stamped out like a forest fire. Many steps have been taken to eliminate it, seemingly without much success, and its presence on on the Internet only intensifies its animus. As much as we may deplore it, we should probably acknowledge that bullying is an inherent human behaviorial trait that we have to live with as a necessary evil.

In my schooldays, there was plenty of bullying among boys of my acquaintance. Those who were so inclined would taunt, make jokes about, and sometimes do (relatively mild) physical violence to male classmates (myself among them on occasion) who wore glasses, did well (or notably badly) in academics, were fat (or skinny), lacked the physical coordination to excel in sports, played a musical instrument, belonged to a religious denomination other than mainline Protestantism, or were perceived to be lacking in testosterone, observant of regulations, submissive to authority, or well-liked by teachers. Although I have no personal knowledge of girls’ behavior, I expect the same was true of them. Most of those who were bullied fretted about it for a while, but then got over it moved on.

Literature is filled with bullies: Creon, who badgered Antigone; Goneril and Regan, who pushed their old dad around; Jane Austen’s Emma, who was snide to Miss Bates; Jack, who bullied everyone in The Lord of the Flies; and the tormentors of Holden Caulfield’s unfortunate classmate James Castle who responds by jumping out a window to his death.

So just what is a bully? Today the word means someone who is cruel to those who are different from and presumably weaker than the bully. But originally, in the 16th century, it was just the opposite—a bully was a “sweetheart,” of either sex. It derived from the Middle Dutch broeder (“brother”) and Middle High German buole (“brother”). Bully is cognate with the modern German Buhle (“lover”). 

Over the centuries, the meaning of bully deteriorated, first meaning a “fine fellow,” then a “blusterer or a braggart” and finally by the late 17th century, “harasser of the weak.” This may have been influenced by the similarity of the word bull (“male bovine”), although its root word is entirely different.  One etymologist theorizes that the connection between “lover” and “ruffian” may have originated from “protector of a prostitute,” which was an early 18th-century meaning of bully.

As a throwback to the earlier, positive sense of the word, “bully” is also an expression that means “admirable, good, superb,” as in the expression “Bully for you!” or “bully pulpit,” a coinage of Theodore Roosevelt’s referring to the presidency as a platform from which to advocate policy.
Not surprisingly, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is often bullied by fellow poets, but usually he is too deep into the Chardonnay to realize it, so their ridicule never fazes him.

            There once was a student who was clever and quick
            At reading and writing and ‘rithmetic.
            One day he was bullied, and he told them to stop,
            Then he told the teacher, and she called a cop.

            The cop hauled the bullies straight down to the jail,
            And the judge threw the book at them, granting no
            The bullies have promised that they’ll mend their 
            When they get of jail in about thirty days.

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?