Monday, December 15, 2014

The Dope on Dope

Doping has become a controversial topic in both professional and amateur sports. Cyclist Lance Armstrong, sprinter Ben Johnson, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, batting champ Barry Bonds, tennis whiz Andre Agassi, tiddlywinks ace Ladislav Paffufnikl—these are just a few of the myriad athletes who have taken various kinds of drugs that allegedly enhance their performance.

Admittedly, they may be dopes for doing so, but why are the drugs they take known as “dope”? 

Most etymologists trace the word to the Dutch doop, “thick dipping sauce or gravy,” which stems from doopen (“to dip”). It entered English as dope around 1800.

By 1851 it meant a “stupid person. This meaning probably relates to the notion of “thick-headedness,” analogous to the thickness of the dipping gravy.

By 1889, dope was extended to mean a “thick, oozy opium concoction” given to racehorses to enhance their speed on the track. Thereafter the word was applied to any illicit narcotics or addictive drug. 

As a word for “inside information,” this came around 1900, probably based on racing tips about which horses were “doped” to run faster.

A recent New York Times article cites a different etymology. It says the word derives from dop, a South African stimulant drink. In South Africa dop is also a word for an imprecise measure of any alcoholic drink, similar to a tot, a nip, a shot, or a slug. This meaning may have come from the same word, dop, which is a “copper cup in which diamonds are cut.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is proud to say he takes no artificial stimulants to enhance his poetic prowess, which comes perfectly naturally to him, but he is not averse to a tot, a nip, a shot, or a slug.

            Some athletes who took methamphetamine

            Thought that doping would be sure to get ‘em in

                        The hallowed Hall of Fame.

                        But when the time came,

            The powers that be wouldn’t let ‘em in.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chinese Checkers

A recent news story reported the alarming news that the Chinese government has banned puns in radio, TV, and films. The rationale is that wordplay makes promoting cultural heritage more difficult and tends to mislead people, especially children. A recent directive decreed, “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms.” Altering accepted patterns of speech risks “cultural and linguistic chaos,” the Word Nazis have decreed.

The director of Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, whose name, curiously enough, is David Moser, says that wordplay is part and parcel of Chinese heritage. He points out, for example, the traditional wedding gift of dates and peanuts stems from the fact that the Chinese words for these foods—zao and huasheng—are homophones for the phrase Zaosheng guizi, which means “May you soon give birth to a son.”           

Moser faults whoever gave this order as “conservative, humorless, priggish, and arbitrarily purist.” He suspects the real reason behind the ruling is to prevent jokes about government officials, which often rely on puns for their humor. One recent example plays on the nicknames of President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan to come up with the word for “marijuana.” In another political example Mao Zedong’s phrase “Serve the people” has been transformed into “Smog the people,” using two words that are homophones.

One rather naughty example of a political Chinese pun is the phrase “grass mud horse,” an anti-censorship symbol that has become a widely popular Internet meme. It is usually represented by an alpaca as the mascot for citizens fighting for free expression. In Mandarin Chinese the phrase “grass mud horse” sounds very much like the phrase “fuck your mother.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an inveterate punster—everything he writes is inverse.
            The Chinese all run from a pun,
            So this question is one they must shun;
                         It’s a terrible quandary
                        Much too double-entendre-y:
            Who came out? The sun or the son?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monkish Business

A television program on one of the higher-brow channels featured a day in the life of a cloistered Benedictine monastery. The day centered around the canonical hours—a set of prayers known as the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours—observed around the clock at intervals of three hours by extremely devout monks who apparently get by on brief snatches of sleep.

The practice began in the mid-6th century when St. Benedict of Nursia established an order of men dedicated to prayer and contemplation.

The daily prayers start at midnight with Matins, a word from the Latin matutinas vigilias (“morning watches”), derived from Matuta, the Roman goddess of dawn. Next comes Lauds, from the Latin laudare (“to praise”), at which Psalms of praise are sung. At 6:00 a.m. is Prime, so named from the Latin primus (“first”) because it is a prayer at the first hour of daylight. 

Terce, or sometimes Tierce, from the Latin tertius (“third”), is the third hour after Prime, followed at noon by Sext (from Latin sextus, “sixth”), which is the sixth hour (and under no circumstances should be confused with sext in the modern smart-phone sense). None (Latin nonus, “ninth”) is at 3:00 p.m.

At six o’clock in the evening, it’s time for Vespers, which comes from vesper, the Latin for “evening star,” derived from the Greek Hesperus (or Hesper), the personification of the evening star sometimes conflated with Venus.  (A Vesper is also a James Bond Martini, which made its appearance in Casino Royale and consists of 3 measures of Gordon’s gin, 1 measure of vodka, and a half-measure of Kina Lillet, shaken—not stirred—with ice, and garnished with a lemon peel. It is not traditionally served to the monks, who, after all, have their own tasty Benedictine liqueur.)
 Finally at 9:00 p.m. comes Compline, from Latin completus (“complete”), which ends the liturgical day.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, when given the chance, never fails to take part in Vespers, sometimes two.

            Liturgical Latin’s 
            Intoned for the Matins. 
            Each monk applauds 
            The hour of Lauds. 

            At six it is time 
            To kneel down for Prime. 

            Monks don’t converse 
            With heads bowed for Terce, 

            And they do not text 
            The prayers of Sext, 
            Nor do they phone 
            When they’re chanting None. 

            The first star of Hesper’s 
            Out for the Vespers, 

            At last, then, at nine, 
            No complaint—it’s Compline!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Food for Thought

Last week’s blog dealt with the origin of the word turkey, and this week the other foods that grace our Thanksgiving table have their turn.

Cranberry is a 17th-century word, adapted into American English from Low German kraanbere, which derived from the German word for “crane,” presumably because the stamens of the cranberry plant resemble the beaks of cranes. The German kraanbere was similar to the larger North American variety, also known as fenberries or mashwort. In New England cranberries were sometimes called bear-berries because bears devoured them greedily.

If you have sweet potato as a side dish, you’re really eating a redundancy, since the word potato really means “sweet potato” all by itself. It originated in the 1560s, derived from the Spanish patata, which was a corrupution of the Haitian Carib word batata, which is a sweet potato.  In the 1590s the name potato was extended to the white potato from Peru, which was regarded as a cheap and inferior substitute for the sweet variety.  The white potato was introduced to Ireland in 1565 and became indelibly linked with that country.

Similar to the sweet potato is the yam, which in the 1580s was known by the Spanish as an igname, from a West African language.  In African Fulani nyami means “to eat.”  By 1690 the word was shortened to yam in American and Jamaican English.

Finally, the pumpkin you may find in your pie is an alteration of pumpion, a word known in English in the 1540s, from the Middle French pompon and ultimately from Latin peponem and Greek pepon, or “melon.” The colloquial punkin is found by 1806.

Oh, one more thing: is that side dish made with bread, onions, celery, and sometimes rice, oysters, or chestnuts, properly called “dressing” or “stuffing”?  Logic would indicate that if it’s cooked inside the bird it’s “stuffing,” but if it’s cooked separately, it’s “dressing.” In fact, it’s a geographical distinction. In the South, where the dish is almost always made with cornbread, it’s always called “dressing,” whether inside or outside the bird. In the North and West, where it’s usually made with white bread, it’s called “stuffing.”

Now that you know where the names of your food come from, you can settle down and enjoy the feast. The Bard of Buffalo Bayou will be doing that as well, as soon as he finishes sampling his own concoctions--cranberry wine and sweet potato vodka.

            Thanksgiving is that special day
            We designate to say we’re grateful
            For morsels over which we’ll pray
            As soon as we have got our plate full.                       

            We’re thankful for our kin and kith,
            We’re also glad to have our health, 
            We’re grateful for the folks we’re with,
            And (if we’ve got it) for our wealth.

            We’re thankful for the U. S.A.,
            And for our Army and our Navy,
            But mostly thankful on this day
            For dressing laced with giblet gravy.            

Monday, November 17, 2014

Talking Turkey

For Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I explained the etymology of that fine old bird, the turkey.  Without going into the same detail, suffice it to say that the word derives from the country of Turkey, through which 16th-century English traders imported guinea fowl from Madagascar.  The birds became known as “Turkey-birds,” and this same appellation was mistakenly given to the larger North American fowl to which they bore some resemblance.

The wild turkey, the North American form of the bird, was so called from 1610s. By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas.

Other uses of the word turkey came much later. To talk turkey—“lay it on the level, speak candidly” (1824)—supposedly comes from an old tale of an Anglo pioneer attempting to swindle an American Indian in dividing up a turkey and a buzzard as food. The pioneer offered to let the Indian choose which he wanted: ''You take the buzzard and I'll take the turkey, or I'll take the turkey and you take the buzzard,'' whereupon the Indian declared that the Anglo was not “talking turkey to him.”

Cold turkey (1921) as a sudden method of totally giving up addictive substances, so-called because, like a meal of previously cooked and refrigerated turkey leftovers, it requires no preparation.

Turkey’s show-biz meaning—“inferior show, flop”—can be traced to 1927 and probably arose from the bird’s alleged stupidity.  Irving Berlin’s show business anthem speaks of a “turkey that you know will fold.”  Out of this grew the word’s use as a “stupid, ineffectual person,” which” dates only to 1951.

Turkey shoot, referring to "something easy," is World War II slang, alluding to marksmanship contests where turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads showing as targets. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou occasionally partakes in Wild Turkey, but only if it comes in a bottle.

            The Turkey once was King of Beasts,
            And showed all critters who was boss.
            But he became the King of Feasts,
            With dressing, yams, and cranberry sauce.

            He had an heir whose name was Tom,
            By whom the royal robes were taken,
            But Tom, his siblings, and his Mom
            Are now a slab of turkey bacon.

            The line of kings had one more Turkey,
            And shortly he was royally crowned.
            But he wound up as Turkey Jerky
            At nineteen ninety-five a pound.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Red State Blues Redux

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, many folks in red states are feeling mighty blue. Well, that can’t be helped, so it’s time to move on to the next bout in the ballot box, which will be in just 23 months and 51 weeks.  Better get busy!

The fact that red is associated with Republicans and blue with Democrats may seem counter-intuitive.  Red, which derives from the Sanskrit rudhirá (“blood”), has historically been associated with left-wing political causes. On the other hand, blue, which originated in proto-Indo-Euroean bhel, meaning “light-colored, yellow, or burnt,” and later Old Norse bla (“livid, discolored as in a bruise”), is traditionally the color of conservatism.

Red and blue took on their current political associations in the presidential election of 2000, thanks to network TV, as I pointed out in a similar blog two years ago.

Colors were first used on electronic election maps in 1976, when NBC depicted Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy Carter in red. In 1984, NBC showed Ronald Reagan’s landslide of 44 states as a “sea of blue.”  CBS used the opposite colors—red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. At ABC blue and yellow were the choices.

During this period the three major networks informally agreed on a uniform red-blue scheme that would alternate every four years, being assigned according to who were the incumbents (blue) and who were the challengers (red).

By 2000 all the broadcast and cable networks used this system, and it was the incumbent Democrats’ turn to be blue.  Because of the prolonged controversy over the election outcome, coverage dragged on for weeks, and commentators began to refer to a state as “red” or “blue,” according to which party had carried it.  From that time on, the red-state/blue-state dichotomy became ingrained in American political dialogue.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is also ingrained—or, rather, he’s into grains, mostly the distilled neutral kind.  Today, like most days, he has the blues.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            Surrounded by a crowd with wing-nut views,
            First Rick Perry, now Greg Abbott,
            Like some hard-to-kick bad habit,
            They try to be more right-wing than Ted Cruz.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            I’m in a land where folks believe Fox News,
            And for Tea Party theatrics,           
            You cannot top Dan Patrick’s,                    
            And now another Bush for us to choose.
            When I’m resting in my arbor, oh
            How I dream of old Ralph Yarborough,
            I’d bring back Barbara Jordan, if I could.
            Mickey Leland, Henry B. Gonzalez,
            Ann Richards, too—oh, they were hot tamales—
            And right now even Lyndon’s looking good!

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            A feeling that goes right down to my shoes,
            There’s just one chance in a billion
            Texas won’t remain vermilion,
            Oh, Lordy, yes, I got those ever-lastin’, Lone Star, 
                     Red State Blues.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Called to the Bar

Bar is a versatile word. Its definitions—as a noun—in the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition) take up more than six columns.  Some of the meanings are:  a piece longer than it is wide, of wood, metal, stone, soap, chocolate, etc.; a heraldic device of two lines drawn horizontally across a shield; the transverse ridged divisions of a horse’s palate; that which confines, limits, or closes; a vertical line across a stave to divide a musical composition; a game also known as prisoner’s base; a legal plea of sufficient force to stop an action or order; an obstacle, a barrier; a court of law; the whole body of barristers (lawyers); a barrier separating the seats of spectators from the official portion of a court or other assembly, to which students were called when they had attained sufficient learning, hence the word barrister; a large European fish also known as a maigre; a barrier or counter over which food or drink is served, and hence, sometimes the whole establishment; a standard (as in raising the bar); a handrail used by ballet dancers for support while exercising (although balletomanes prefer the Frenchified spelling barre). 

Its earliest meaning was apparently a “stake or iron rod used to fasten a door or gate.” The OED’s first instance was in 1175, when The Lambeth Homilies mention “the barren of helle.” Wyclif’s 1388 Bible uses the word in its rendition of Numbers Chapter 4 verse 10—“Thei schulen putte in barris,” which the King James Version has as They shall put it…upon a bar.”

By the 1580s bar meant a bank of sand in a harbor or river mouth (which is what Tennyson referred to in “Crossing the Bar”), and by 1833 soap came in bars. Not until 1906 did chocolate make it is appearance in that form. “Bar graphs” appeared 1925, “behind bars” meaning to be in prison in 1934 (although by 1642 Richard Lovelace told us that “stone walls do not a prison make/nor iron bars a cage”); and “bar code” in 1963.

As a verb,  bar has several more columns in the OED.

The word first popped up in Middle English barre, adopted from Old French barre, a phonetic descendant of late Latin barra—which is, as you might have guessed, of unknown origin. Friedrich Diez, a 19th-century German etymologist, thought it came from Old Irish barr, meaning “bushy top”—but that theory has been dismissed by most linguists, who point out that it has no relationship to any of the meanings of the word.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows of only kind of bar, out of which he has been tossed on numerous occasions for conduct unbecoming a poet. 

            “D. Boon kilt a bar”
            Was carved upon a tree,
            Not very circumspectly.
            Just five words there are,
            And if you look, you’ll see
            Only one is spelled correctly.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Slice of Life

I had a mediocre slice of pizza the other day and began to think back to the first time I ever ate pizza—in the early 1950s at a now defunct restaurant on South Main Street in Houston called Valian’s.  Redolent of spicy pepperoni sausages, gooey mozzarella cheese, black olives, mushrooms—and the pièce de résistance, salty, ocean-scented anchovies—it was a masterpiece of a pizza—known then as “pizza pie.”

Texans were late in embracing pizza, which was popular among Italian immigrants on the East Coast of the United States from the turn of the century. The first New York pizzeria was opened in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi in his grocery store on Spring Street in Lower Manhattan.  His brother, Bruno, opened a similar establishment on Chicago’s Loop around the same time. It was 1939 before pizza made it to Los Angeles.

Before World War II, pizza consumption in the United States was pretty much limited to the Italian population, but American GIs became familiar with it in Italy and brought home their craving for it.

While a pizza-like dish can be documented as far back as 997 A.D. in what is now Italy—and even longer ago in parts of the Middle East—it is the nineteenth-century Neapolitan Italian version of the dish, thin flatbread with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni sausage, that has become the standard.  This form of pizza was created by a baker named Rafaele Esposito, and the first pizzeria in Naples was the Port ‘Alba, opened in 1830 and still operating.  Its menu today offers more than 50 kinds of pizza, including the famed Pizza Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil), supposedly invented by Esposito in honor of Queen Margherita and embodying red, white, and green ingredients—the colors of the Italian flag.

The origin of the word pizza is obscure.  The Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana (1907) suggested it came from the Italian dialectical word pinza (“clamp”) and ultimately from Latin pinsere (“to pound or stamp”).  Other linguists point to the Greek pitta (“cake or pie”), which derived from peptos (“cooked”). The word entered the English vocabulary in the 1930s.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou enjoys a pizza now and then, but it gives him gas, which is most uncomfortable for him since he is already filled to capacity with hot air.

            When my friend Luigi heats a
            Nice and greasy, cheesy pizza,
            He removes the pepperoni,
            Then adds Spam and fried baloney.

            He won’t touch the mozzarella,
            Parmesan or mortadella,
            Luigi really likes to eat a
            Sandwich made with Kraft Velveeta.

            All that flatbread makes him sick,
            Whether it is thin or thick.
            When he wants to be well fed,
            His pizza’s made on Wonder Bread.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Yo Ho Ho

“Piracy is not a victimless crime,” as one inevitably must read at the beginning of most DVDs and downloaded movies.  Well, who ever said it was?  Did we imagine that Captain Kidd and Henry Morgan and Bluebeard—and Captain Hook and those sinister Somalis in the Indian Ocean, for that matter—didn’t prey upon victims when they plundered their loot?  It seems needless to remind us that piracy takes two, one of whom is the pirate and the other is the victim.

Such a reminder is equivalent to those idiotic notices on reply envelopes telling us that the Postal Service will not deliver mail unless it has a stamp on it.  Golly, I knew there must have been something missing on those naked envelopes I’ve been dropping into the letterbox.  Next they’ll be telling us we have to put addresses on them, too.

Of course, my idea of a pirate is an unshaven man with an eye-patch, a peg leg, a three-cornered hat, a parrot on his shoulder, and a penchant for glugging rum and roaring, “Arrr, avast ye, matey!”

Nowadays, however, the entertainment industry has appropriated the word pirate to mean someone who downloads or otherwise acquires content without paying for it.  And, of course, since the electronic pirate can’t see the victim, one might like to think that there isn’t one, when in fact hundreds of poor writers, actors, producers, and technicians (and a few wealthy ones, too) lose their royalties and residuals to a thief every time a film is viewed without paying for it.  

Pirate first appeared in 1387, when the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden’s history Polychronicon was translated from Latin to English by John of Trevisa. In it Higden speaks of Danish “sea thieves” or, in Latin, “Dani piratae.”  The word’s origin is the Greek peiran, meaning to “attempt.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou set out to apprentice with a pirate—but there was some confusion and he wound up instead as assistant to a parrot.  Unfortunately, the parrot had apprenticed with a poet, causing him to spew stuff like this:
            A pirate who came from Penzance
            Stepped into a hill full of ants.
                        But their stings he withstood
                        With his leg made of wood—
            So the ants took a chance in his pants. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

The End

Subtle differences exist in the meanings of many words that we think of as synonyms. Happiness, joy, felicity, bliss, and ecstasy, for example, mean roughly the same thing but there are connotations that determine the most appropriate one to use.  The same is true for anger, rage, ire, fury, and wrath and many other similar meaning words.  

Most dictionaries, for example, list finished, complete, concluded, ended, and done as having the same meaning. But a competition in London (probably apocryphal) asked entrants to provide an “easy-to-understand” explanation of the difference between two of those words—finished and complete.  The winner, whose prize was reported to be dinner with Queen Elizabeth and a case of El Dorado rum (not necessarily in that order), offered this distinction: 

“If a man marries the right woman, he is complete.  If he marries the wrong woman, he is finished. And if the right one catches him with the wrong one, he is completely finished.” 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou was completely finished before he ever started, but he just won’t quit.  A case of El Dorado rum will be given to the person who can force him to retire.  On second thought, let’s give the rum to the Bard and see if that puts a crimp in his style.

            Finished, through, complete, terminated,
            Brought to a close and then consummated,
            All over, done, concluded, and ended,
            Wound up, and clinched, and finally suspended,
            Lapsed, and then waned, topped off, and expired—
            Gee, it’s no wonder that I am so tired!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Snizzo, Moff, And Jinky, Too!

The Online Slang Dictionary lists several hundred ways to say “excellent” in modern slang.  Some are established words given a new or intensified meaning; others are coinages, often nonsensical.

A very short list of some the more familiar (and socially acceptable) words are awesome, bodacious, bomb diggity, crunk, epic, fly (and superfly), kick in the pants, gnarly, jinky, moff, phat, primo, righteous, rufus, schway, sicknasty, skinny, skippy, snizzo, tuff, wizard—and my favorite, which I can hardly wait to work into my next conversation, smoochie boochies.

Some of these words are of recent invention.  Others go way, way back. Time Magazine recently had a chart showing the earliest known use of many English words that have meant “excellent,” starting in 1225 with special.

A few of the other ear-catching examples with their years of origin are gay (1375), golden (1400), tight (1607), spanking (1666), swell (1810), slick (1833), hot (1845), nifty (1865), choice (1880), fly (1896), ace (1929), cool (1933), solid (1935), groovy (1937), and such later twentieth-century usages as neato, bad ass, smoking, radical, killer, crucial, bangin’, beast, and chronic.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been bodacious, bomb diggity, and decidedly phat for years, ever since he was keeping cool with Coolidge.

            My pheet are phlat,
            My phingers phat,
            My phace is philled with phright.
            My phlesh is phlayed,
            My phemur phrayed--
            In phear I’d phain take phlight.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Master Mind

A critic praised the director’s work in a recent play, calling it “masterful.” Since the primary definition of masterful is “imperious, domineering, bullying,” it might be supposed that the word should have been masterly.  Masterly means “demonstrating a thorough knowledge, a superior skill.”

This distinction between the two words is insisted upon in the Oxford English Dictionary. Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage upholds that view, suggesting the words are often confounded because of the awkwardness of saying masterlily, when the word is used adverbially.  It sounds much better to say the play was “masterfully directed.”

But wait!  Merriam-Webster says this hard-and-fast distinction between the two words is a recent innovation, and that historically masterful and masterly both had two meanings: “domineering, like a master,” but also “skilled and knowledgeable, like a master.” Both –ful and –ly (as well as –ous and ­–ish) are suffixes that can be attached to nouns to form adjectives indicating likeness. Sometimes as with masterful and masterly (or wonderful and wondrous), adjectives with similar meanings develop with different suffixes.

Both masterful and masterly developed by the fifteenth century with the same double meanings. Somewhere along the way masterly lost the primary meaning of “imperious” and came to mean only the second, i.e.  “skilled and knowledgeable.”

According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, an unnamed twentieth-century grammar Nazi decreed that since masterly had lost one of its meanings, it would be only fitting that masterful should also lose one.  Therefore, this pundit concluded, masterful henceforth could mean only “domineering,” not “skillful.”

So go ahead and call the director “masterful” if you like. She may be skillful, but chances are, being a director, she's probably pretty imperious, too.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou qualifies as a master—of cognitive chaos, philosophical incoherence, and verbal dreck.  A case in point:

            A masterly Master of Arts
            Was renowned for the sound of his farts.
                        Each time he was goosed,
                        The effect it produced
            Was greater than the sum of his parts.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Though A Hiccough Is Enough, Plough Through This Trough

                                                                                                                               Gerard Nolst Trenité
One of the customers has forwarded a long verse that points out some of the blatant inconsistencies in English pronunciation.  Called The Chaos, a few of its dozens of stanzas will give you the idea:

            Dearest creature in creation
            Studying English pronunciation,
            I will teach you in my verse
            Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

            Pray, console your loving poet:
            Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
            Just compare heart, hear and heard,
            Dies and diet, lord and word.

            Now I surely will not plague you
            With such words as vague and ague,
            But be careful how you speak,
            Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

            Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
            Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
            This phonetic labyrinth
            Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

            Have you ever yet endeavoured
            To pronounce revered and severed,
            Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
            Peter, petrol and patrol?

This ironic rhyme (which you can read only if you already know the correct pronunciations) is the work of a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité, who was born in 1870 and died in 1946.  The poem first appeared in an appendix to Nolst Trenité’s 1920 textbook for non-English speakers, Drop Your Foreign Accent. A virtuosic linguistic feat, the full work runs some 274 lines and covers 800 of the most notoriously difficult words in English.

Nolst Trenité was educated in The Netherlands and by 1894 was working as a private teacher of English to foreigners in California. He returned to Holland, where he taught school and published several books in English and French.  Under the pseudonym “Charivarius,” he also wrote a column on language for a weekly newspaper called The Green Amsterdammer. “Charivarius” probably derives from the French satirical magazine Le Charivari and the British Punch or the London Charivari. “Charivari,” variously pronounced, means a noisy, festive serenade—rendered as “shivaree” in American slang.

Nolst Trenité recognized the futility of getting every pronunciation right in so illogical a language.  His final stanzas counseled resignation:

            Don't you think so, reader, rather,
            Saying lather, bather, father?
            Finally, which rhymes with enough,
            Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough,  
            Hiccough has the sound of sup...
            My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

The entire poem can be viewed at

That other Bard—he of Buffalo Bayou, whose name must not be spoken—  throws up his hands in awe and wonderment at such a masterly poetic  accomplishment, and from his uncouth southern mouth he spews forth his two-bits’ worth of unstable parables.
            It shakes me up and makes me shivery
            When I hear someone say “Shuh-RIV-ur-ee.”
            Of course, I’m also very wary
            To hear them call it “Shah-ree-VAIR-ee.”           
            And I am genuinely sorry
            When folks pronounce it “Shah-ree-VAHR-ee.”
            All of them sound so absurd,
            Perhaps we’d best retire the word.