Monday, November 28, 2016

Alt! Who Goes There?

We’re hearing a lot these days about the “alt-right.” Short for “alternative right,” it’s a term widely attributed to Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who heads the National Policy Institute, a small think tank that spreads propaganda against racial equality.

Spencer used the term in 2010 to describe an extreme conservative faction as an alternative to the conventional mainstream conservatism, represented largely by the Republican Party. In fact, however, the term “alternative right” had been used earlier, in November of 2008 by Paul Gottfried, who is known as a "paleoconservative," in an address to the H. L. Mencken Club.

The alt-right today is associated (some would insist not accurately) with white supremacy, anti-immigration, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, and homophobia. 

In shortening “alternative right” to “alt-right,” political writers are following the lead of music critics who have spoken of “alt-rock” since the 1980s. “Alt,” or “alternative” rock music is a cutting-edge genre that is distinct from mainstream rock music, and includes “punk,” “underground,” “new wave,” “post punk,” “college,” and “indie” rock. Alt-rock is fiercely iconoclastic and non-commercial.

Some pundits are now also referring to an “alt-left,” by which they mean a radically liberal philosophy that looks to such icons as activists Saul Alinsky and William Ayers for its inspiration.

Alternative, as used in this sense, means “outside the established cultural, social, or economic system.”  Related but not identical in usage to the adjective alternate, it is derived from Latin alternus, which means “occurring by turns or in succession.”

“Right” and “left” became political terms during the French Revolution when members of the National Assembly who were conservative royalists seated themselves on the right side of the chamber, and those who were revolutionists seated themselves on the left. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always written what he regards as “alt-verse.”  Certainly it is an alternative to all we hold sacred.


            I’d call a halt
            To all that’s alt:
            I’m always orthodox.
            My crayon shines
            Inside the lines,
            And I think inside the box.

            It’s not my fault
            If you like alt,
            They say to each his own,
            I won’t complain
            If you remain
            Outside my comfort zone.           

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

It’s Only Trompe l’Oeil

This seems as good a time as any to explore the origins of the noun trumpery, which comes to us from the 14th-century Middle French word tromperie, derived from tromper, “to deceive.” The root is the same as that of trompe l’oeil, a style of painting that is an optical illusion, that is, literally, it “deceives the eye.”

Trumpery has a number of meanings, all related to the concept of deception. Its first meaning was simply “deceit,” “fraud,” or “trickery,” seen in print as early as 1456, in Sir Gilbert Haye’s disquisition on army law. In the same work trumpery was also used to mean “nonsense” or “rubbish.” A later meaning, “something of less value than it seems,” dates to 1531, and in 1600 it was used to mean “showy but worthless finery.”

Applied to religion, trumpery means “superstition,” and in gardening it refers to “weeds that hinder the growth of valuable plants.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is well versed in trumpery; in fact, all his verses may be regarded as prime examples of that quality.

            Spare me from Trumpery,
            It can be dangerous,
            Bet you know how.

            When the Republicans
            Come to their senses,
            Give me a heads-up
            Four years from now.       

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pejorocracy in America

Not that it’s relevant to any current affairs, of course, but I recently was introduced to the word pejorocracy, thanks to the British poet John Freeman, an old friend. The word means a system of government by the worst, rather than the best. In that sense it's the opposite of aristocracy. Pejorocracy is a hybrid formation from the Latin pejor (‘”worse”) and the Greek -kratia (“rule” or “dominion”). The Latin root also appears in the word pejorative.

Pejorocracy  was coined by Ezra Pound in Canto LXXIX of the Pisan Cantos, in which he refers to the “snot of pejorocracy.”

In an era of vigorous disputation about the pros and cons of such hegemonies as theocracy, plutocracy, meritocracy, and technocracy, as well as that old standby, democracy, it’s good to know there’s also a word to use when our government is in the hands of someone considered to be the worst of the worst—just in case such a circumstance should ever arise.   

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has lived for many years in a Chardonocracy, in which his life is ruled by the golden-hued contents of a green bottle, or should I say a series of such bottles. Chacun à son goût .

            We should all be very grateful
            That we live in a democracy,
            But it would be less hateful
            Without so much hypocrisy.            

Monday, November 7, 2016

Of Treacle Tarts and Spotted Dick

Among the foods served at a British-style restaurant I visited last week are some whose names are not immediately clear to Americans. 

Eccles cakes are named for the town of Eccles, a suburb of Manchester, where these small, round cakes made from flaky pastry and filled with currants, were first served in 1793. They are similar to (and better known than) Chorley cakes, named for another Lancashire town, and made with shortcrust pastry. Blackburn is another Lancashire town that gets its name on a cake, this one using stewed apples instead of currants. And, of course, we’re all familiar with the Banbury cake, from Oxfordshire, which is quite similar to an Eccles cake, but oval in shape.

Another dessert, whose name tends to raise eyebrows in some quarters, is spotted dick, a sponge cake pudding made with suet and currants or raisins. The “spotted” part of the name refers to the currants that dot the outside of the pudding, but the “dick” has etymologists puzzled. It may be a corruption of the last syllable of pudding, which became puddink, then puddich, and finally, just dich. Others say it is a corruption of the word dough, and some insist it is a German word meaning “thick” or “viscous.” Among other nineteenth-century meanings of dick are “dictionary,” “apron,” “policeman,” and “riding whip”—although none of these seem to apply. Perhaps you can think of another meaning of dick, but establishing its relevance to a dessert pudding may take some doing.

Sticky toffee pudding is a moist sponge cake, made with finely chopped dates and covered in toffee sauce. Toffee is a confection made by caramelizing sugar or molasses, along with butter. The origin of the word toffee is unknown, but some experts say it is derived from a Creole word meaning “sugar and molasses.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1825 and says it’s a variant of taffy, which is also a confection made from caramelized sugar and is etymologically related either to tafia, a West Indian word referring to a rum-like liquor distilled from molasses, or to ratafia, a fruit-based cordial made in France.

Finally, many Brits adore treacle pudding, which is a steamed sponge cake with treacle poured over it, or treacle tart, a pie-like shortcrust pastry with a filling of treacle. Treacle is an uncrystallized syrup made during the refining of sugar. The two most common kinds are a light-colored one, called golden syrup, and a darker variety, which is also known as molasses. Treacle is a Middle English word that describes a medicine used to treat poison and snakebites.  It is derived from Old French traicle and ultimately from Latin theriaca, which means “concerning venomous beasts.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is very fond of golden syrup, especially the kind known as Chardonnay.

            The dick is spotted,
            The cream is clotted,
                        Hooray! Let’s sound the trumpets!
            The tea is potted,
            The pot is hotted,
                        It’s time to butter crumpets.
            My tie’s unknotted,
            And I’m besotted,
                        Now please send in the strumpets.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Okey Dokey?

A restaurant in Houston’s Heights specializing in British food calls itself “Hunky Dory,” which means “quite satisfactory or very fine.” Apparently lifted from the title of a 1971 David Bowie album, it’s an odd name for an establishment serving fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and spotted dick, since “hunky dory” is an Americanism. Beyond that, the experts can’t tell us much with any certainty.

Its earliest usage was in the 1860s. With a slightly different spelling, it appeared in the lyrics of a song used by the Christy Minstrels from 1862:
            One of the boys am I,
            That always am in clover;
            With spirits light and high,
            'Tis well I'm known all over.
            I am always to be found,
            A singing in my glory;
            With your smiling faces
            ‘Tis then I'm hunkey dorey.

The Galveston Daily News in a June 1866 article advised, “In the morning wash with Castile soap, in soft rain water, and you are all "Hunky-dore" - as fresh as a lily…”

The word hunky, without the dory, meaning “fit and healthy.” was around even earlier. A Civil War song in 1861 was called “A Hunkey Boy is Yankee Doodle,” and “hunkum-bunkum,” with the same meaning, was recorded in a newspaper as early as 1842.

“Hunk” probably derives from the Dutch word honk, meaning “goal” or “home,” in a children's game. From that usage it took on the meaning of “safe haven or place of refuge.”

There are at least a couple of theories about where “dory” came from. Most likely it is simply an instance of reduplication, the addition of a similar but meaningless sound to a word, often done, especially by children, to add colorful humor and emphasis. Examples of reduplication include “hocus pocus,” “hoity-toity,” “itty bitty,” “teeny-weeny,” and “mumbo jumbo.” According to that theory, though, the reduplication should have resulted in “hunky-dunky,” rather than “hunky dory.”

But some think “dory” is a bilingual pun, based on dori, a Japanese word for “street,” and honcho-dori, is a Japanese word for “main street,” or sometimes “easy street.” It was sometimes used by American sailors in Japan in the 1850s to refer to areas noted for easy virtue.

Critics of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou have never called his work “hunky dory.” Words that come to mind instead are “stinky-dinky,” “yucky-mucky,” and “lousy-wousy.”

            “Itsy bitsy, teenie weenie,
            Yellow polka-dot bikini”—
            Oh, how I wish those words were only mine!
            My royalties would go on forever,
            And with any luck I’d never
            Have to write another lousy line!

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Gin Game

I recently enjoyed an infrequent Martini—a drink sometimes called “Fred Astaire in a glass,” surrounded by a mystique of glamor, elegance, and mystery. The mystery consists largely in its origin and why it is called a “Martini.”

Made from London dry gin and dry vermouth, mixed in ice, with either an olive or a twist of lemon, and, in its earliest incarnations, other ingredients such as bitters and maraschino liqueur, the Martini originated in the 1880s, either in San Francisco or in New York, depending on which story you prefer. Its name may come from the brand of vermouth that was first used, Martini & Rossi, produced since 1863. Or it may have been born, under a slightly different name, in San Francisco, where the Occidental Hotel was serving a “Martinez cocktail” to patrons en route to the ferry to nearby Martinez, California. New Yorkers claim it originated at the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1912, when the chief bartender was Martini di Arma di Taggia.

The Martini’s ambrosial potency has elicited rapturous comments from many literary figures. E. B. White called it the “elixir of quietude.” Bernard De Voto said, “The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth, and one of the shortest lived….It is the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “I never tasted anything so cool and clean…They make me feel civilized.” James Thurber opined, “One martini is all right, two are two many, and three are not enough.” 

The Martini has inspired poetry by Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker and generated much controversy over whether it should be shaken (James Bond and Nick Charles) or stirred (Graham Greene and Auntie Mame), not to mention whether any concoction other than gin-and-vermouth may properly be called a Martini just because it’s served in a V-shaped glass. (The correct answer to the last question is no.)

Among the many notables who were partial to Martinis—W. H. Auden, Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock, Noël Coward, and Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush, to name a few—one of the most notable was Britain’s Queen Mother, who died at the age of 101, although she really preferred her gin laced with Dubonnet rather than vermouth. Once, when she was being served tea at an official gathering, her tactless host blurted, “I understand that you would really prefer gin.” The Queen Mum drew herself up with dignity and replied, “I did not realize I had such a reputation. But, as I do,” she continued, “would you kindly make it a large one.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t drink Martinis very often, as they do strange things to his libido, which is not a pretty sight.

            I always adore a Martini,
            That tang on the tongue till it tingles—
            But once, from my glass, came a genie
            Saying, “Barman, pour doubles, not singles.”

            The first drink he shook, then he stirred one,
            By then I was going full throttle.
            And when I had finished my third one,
            I said, “Hell, just hand me the bottle.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

Beguine Your Pardon

Why did they begin the beguine? This West Indian dance, probably best known from Cole Porter’s 1935 song “Begin the Beguine,” is a combination of Latin folk dancing and French ballroom dance, similar to the rumba, fairly slow in tempo and featuring a sensuous roll of the hips. It originated in the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. 
Some of the folks who are paid to study word origins say it is derived from the French colloquial word béguin, which can mean “flirtation,” “infatuation,” or a “boyfriend or girlfriend.”  Its original meaning was a a “child’s bonnet” and before that, i.e. the 14th century, a “nun’s headdress.” Others say, “bosh!” (or some similar word to that effect), the origin of beguine is in Creole Beke or Begue, which means “white person,” and Beguine is its female form. 
There is another kind of Beguine, the name of a member of a medieval spiritual order for laywomen, founded in 1180 in Liège in the Low Countries. They are believed by some to have taken their name from Lambert le Bègue, a priest who was instrumental in their establishment. He was also sometimes known as “Lambert the Stammerer,” undoubtedly because of some speech impediment. 

Others, however, say the name stems from St. Begga, a 7th-century Frankish nun, or possibly from the Saxon word beggen, meaning “pray.” These Beguines were not known to engage in hip-swinging Latin dances, so the two kinds of beguine are probably not related.

A male order founded in imitation of them in the 1220s was known as the Beghards. They were itinerant mendicants who gave rise to the word beggar.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never learned to dance the beguine.  But after a few Chardonnays, he can execute a mean box step

            There once was an old college dean            
            Who just loved to dance the beguine.
                        But when he did dips
                        And rotated his hips
            The students all called it obscene.           

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Who’s Hue?

A weekly publication asked, “Can you imagine the ‘family values’ hue and cry” if Hillary Clinton was accused of the sexual comments of which Donald Trump was guilty on that infamous tape? That got me to thinking, not about how unlikely such an eventuality would be, but about “hue and cry.” The phrase means to “make a noise.” The “cry” part seems obvious enough, but what is a “hue”?

There is some difference of opinion on that question. One source says its an onomatopoeic word, probably from the Old French heu, suggesting a “hoot.” Others think the phrase is an Anglicization of the Latin term hutesium et clamor, meaning “sounding a horn and shouting.” Still others attribute the source to the Old French huer (“shout”) and crier (“cry”).

The phrase apparently originated in the 13th century, probably in the Statute of Westminster of 1285, which provided that anyone witnessing a crime should make a “hue and cry” against the fleeing criminal from one town to the next until the evil-doer was apprehended and delivered to the sheriff. All that hueing and crying must have made for awfully noisy law enforcement.

There is a constant hue and cry against the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, but he only hears what he wants to.

                        There was an old fellow from Rye,
                        Always making a big hue and cry.
                                    When asked why the noise,
                                    He lost all his poise
                        And confessed that he, too, wondered why.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Poodle Doodles

“Too many people still think of Liszt as a long-haired, pianistic poodle-faker, seducing aristocratic ladies with superficially glittering pieces that have more notes than substance,” said an article in The Daily Mail. Whatever you may think of Liszt’s music, what do you think of his poodle-faking? And what is a poodle-faker?

It’s defined as a man who seeks out the company of upper-status women to advance himself socially or professionally.The term originated in the British Army around 1900 and alludes to the attempts of young officers to insinuate themselves into the favor of influential women in the manner of a lap dog, or “poodle.” The poodle, from the German Pudel (puddle), is a breed developed to retrieve game from the water.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou aspires to be a poodle-faker, and for many years he has led a dog’s life.

       A social-climbing noodle-baker
       Knows how to be a poodle-faker,
              And if a lady is loath      
              To plight him her troth,
       Somehow that dude’ll make her.

Monday, September 26, 2016

With the Greatest Respect…

Some astute person with one foot on each side of the English Channel (try that sometime and see how comfortable it is) has published a translation guide that may explain why the British chose to exit the European Union: it was all a big misunderstanding. Try as they might, the Brits and their Continental colleagues—or the Americans, for that matter—just don’t speak the same language. This is clear from the following examples:

What the British say:           What the British mean:            What the European hears:

“I hear what you say.”            “I disagree and do not               “He is sympathetic to my      
                                                wish to discuss it further.”          point of view.”

“With the greatest                   “You are an idiot.”                     “He greatly respects me."

“That’s not bad.”                     “That’s bad.”                             “That’s good.”

“Quite good.”                           “A bit disappointing.”               “Very good.”

“Very interesting.”                    “That is clearly nonsense.”       “He is very interested."

“I almost agree.”                       “I do not agree at all.”              “He is close to         

“That is a brave proposal.”       “You are insane.”                      “He thinks I’m courageous.”

“Oh, incidentally…”                   “This is the main point.”           “This is not important.”

“I’m sure it’s my fault.”              “It’s your fault.”                         “Why does he think it's his 

“I’ll bear it in mind.”                  “I have forgotten it already.”       “He’ll almost certainly do it.”

No one has ever understood what the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is saying, and that is not surprising.

            With the greatest respect, I hear what you say,
            I’ll bear it in mind, very good.
            That is not bad, I almost agree…
            How I hope that I’m misunderstood!