Monday, November 30, 2015

Everything’s Cricket

The All-Star Cricket series recently played matches in three American cities, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, to promote the sport that is the second most popular in the world (after soccer). Cricket has long been associated with Great Britain and its colonies and now is dominated by teams from the Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Caribbean nations.

A wee bit similar to baseball, it involves a ball, a bat, and eleven players. The play consists of throwing the ball (“bowling”) so that the batsman has a chance of hitting it and running to score runs. That’s pretty much where the similarity ends.

The earliest known reference to the sport is in 1598, when it was known as “creckett” or “krekett,” although the game is thought to have been played as early as the 13th century. It was a popular game at the Royal Grammar School in 1550.

The origin of the word is highly speculative.  Some say it is from Anglo-Saxon cricc, meaning “crutch or staff.” Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century dictionary pegged it to the Anglo-Saxon cryce, meaning a “stick.” Criquet in Old French meant a “club” or a “goal post.”

The name may also have derived from the Dutch krick, which also means a “stick” and is cognate with the modern word crook. Another possible Dutch source, though this seems to be a stretch, is the Dutch krickstoel, meaning a long low stool used as a kneeler in church and thought to resemble the wickets (or stumps) used as markers in cricket. Yet another Dutch antecedent may be krick ket sen, a name for the game of hockey, referring to the hockey stick, which resembles the bat used in early forms of cricket.

In the sense of “fair play,” as in the phrase, “That isn’t cricket,” the first such used dates from the 1850s. 

Cricket, in referring to the sport, has no connection to the same word when used to mean an insect. That is a 14th-century word derived from the French criquer, to “crackle, creak, or rattle,” alluding to the noise made by a cricket.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always longed to play cricket, since he understands that free beer is often offered to the players following a game. 

            They hurled the cricket
            Ball at Crockett.           
            Then he’d kick it,
            And he’d knock it.
            But he hit a
            Sticky wicket
            When they told him           
            Where to stick it.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Oh, Men! Oh, Women!

Some feminists have objected to the words woman and women because they contain the words man and men and seem to define persons of the feminine gender only as a sub-category of the masculine. They have proposed womyn and wimmin as alternatives.

In fact, the word man referred to a person of either sex until sometime around the 8th century. Before then, a male person was known as a wer (a word now lost, except in a word like werewolf or as the origin of world), and a female person was a wif or wyf (a word that developed into wife with a specialized meaning). The term wifman was used to designate a female servant.

Sometime before the 12th century wifman and werman came into use to distinguish female and male persons. Wifman then morphed into woman, and werman lost its first syllable.

Thus woman developed independently of any reference to the male gender.

Incidentally male and female have no etymological connection. Female, a 14th-century word, derives from the Old French femelle, which is based on the Latin femella (“girl”), a diminutive of femina (“woman”). Male, also 14th century, comes from Old French masle, which originated in the Latin masculus (“male”). Femelle was changed to female because of the supposed association with male, but the words are not truly related in any way.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes that men are men and women are women and never the twain shall meet.  Someday he hopes to work that line into a poem. Until then, you’ll have to settle for this tripe: 

            There was a young woman
            Who married a Roman
            Who lived in a house near the Forum.
            She was a slattern
            Whose life formed a pattern
            Quite lacking in proper decorum. 

            Her husband (named Junius)
            Was so impecunious
            She felt she must earn a denarius,
            So she joined a bordello,
            Where every last fellow
            Found her talents were many and various. 

            Now Junius was sly
            And he turned a blind eye
            To his wife’s dissolute occupation,
            And he went on a spree
            To the Isle of Capri,
            For a fabulous five-star vacation.

Monday, November 16, 2015

East is East, Unless It’s Levant

No one seems able to decide whether to refer to the notorious Islamic terrorist group as ISIS or ISIL. The former stands for “Islamic State in Syria,” which seems to be the prevalent term, and the latter, less frequently used, means the “Islamic State in the Levant.” Levant?  What exactly does that mean?

It’s an imprecise term for the geographical area on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, which would include the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine—a good portion of what is now usually known as the Middle East. The word Levantine has been used to refer to someone of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin.

Levant entered English from French, derived from the Italian levante, meaning “rising” and refers to the rising of the sun in the east. Levant has been in use since the 15th century, its earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary being in the 1497 Naval accounts and inventories of the reign of Henry VII, which refers to a “viage [voyage] to be made to the levaunt.”
The word inevitably calls to mind the eccentric American composer, pianist, actor, and wit named Oscar Levant. He was seen in numerous American movies, usually playing a cynical, wisecracking piano player, and later became a ubiquitous guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight show. He became addicted to prescription drugs and spent considerable time in mental institutions after episodes of erratic behavior. Among his mordant witticisms are:
            “There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”
            “I'm controversial. My friends either dislike me or hate me.”
            “The pun is the lowest form of humor unless you think of it first.”
            “The last movie I made at Warner Brothers was with Doris Day. That was before she was a virgin.”
            “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”
            “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.”
            “Roses are red, violets blue, I’m schizophrenic, and so am I.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks of himself as an Oscar Levant manqué.  He lacks only the wit, the talent, and the fame of the original.

            A young lady from the Levant,
            Longed to frolic with General Grant.
                        But she found that Ulysses
                        Was the biggest of sissies,
            For Grant just said, “No ma’am—I can’t.”

            So she turned to Immanuel Kant,
            Whom she thought she could surely enchant.
                        But she was too thick
                        To grasp the Ding an sich
            And Kant declared curtly, “I shan’t.”

            At last she corralled Buffalo Bill,
            And hoped he would give her a thrill.
                        She’d heard in the Wild West
                        Men had plenty of zest—
            And Bill said, “I can, and I shall, and I will!” 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Where It’s @

A recent New York Times article lamented the fact that Americans have no suitable name for the symbol we use every time we send an email or write a Twitter address: the @ sign. The official name is the commercial at, usually just called the at sign. Wikipedia claims that some people call it a strudel, but I’ve never heard that.

First used as a symbol on invoices, it meant “at a rate of,” as in the phrase “5 cases of Tanqueray gin @ £300 = £1,500.” Some form of the sign has been in use since the 16th century.

There is much speculation as to its origin.  Some say it’s just a cryptic form of “e.a.” (“each at”) with the “e” wrapped around the “a.” Others suggest it was a medieval monk’s abbreviation of the Latin ad (“at, toward, by, about”) used before a number. Or it might have been a corrupted form the old lower case “a,” which was written ∂; or the Greek ανά, meaning “at the rate of”; or the Norman French à, which means “at.”

However it came into being, our name for it is lame. There have been some attempts to come up with new terms for it—arobase (a French word), arroba (Spanish), asperand, ampersat, and the simple snake. But none of these have caught on.

Most Europeans and Asians have much more colorful nomenclatures.The Danish term translates as “elephant’s trunk.” The Dutch and the Poles think it’s more of a “monkey’s tail,” whereas the Czechs give it a culinary reference as a “rollmop.” Other terms are the Greek “duckling,” Italian “snail,” Russian “dog,” Taiwanese “mouse,” German “spider monkey,” Kazakh “moon’s ear,” Norwegian “curly alpha,” Bosnian “crazy A,” and the straightforward Bulgarian “badly written letter.”

Since the Bard of Buffalo Bayou never knows exactly where he’s @, he doesn’t care what you call it.

            There was an old plutocr@
            Who never knew where he was @,
                        He said, “What do I care
                        If I’m here or I’m there?”
            So he stayed right there where he s@.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Bare Facts

One of the customers recently asked if the correct phrase is bold-faced lie or bald-faced lie.

Whether it is bold-faced, bald-faced or possibly bare-faced, all of these expressions are derived from a reference to an unshaven or hairless face. In the 16th century when beards and mustaches were common, a smooth, bare face was unusual and was regarded as a sign of youthful impudence. By extension bare-faced came to mean “undisguised, brazen, shameless, unapologetic.”  Shakespeare speaks of “bare-fac’d power” in Macbeth in 1605.

As it applies specifically to an untruth, the earliest phrase was apparently bold-faced lie. The first known use of “bold-faced” in reference to a lie is a 1607 anti-Papist poem by Robert Picket: “Who so beleeues this Popish bold facest lie, / That’s grounded on, suppos’d admired Grasse, / May fatly feed, his follies foolerie: / Yet liue indeed, a very leane fed Asse.”

The earliest known example of barefaced lie is the late 18th century in a 1798 religious tract by John Fowler, who asks whether “watchmen would report a barefaced lie that would have criminated themselves” about the disappearance of Jesus’ body.

Bald-faced lie apparently didn’t show up until the mid-19th century. The earliest citation is a headline in an Iowa newspaper, the Sept. 12, 1860, issue of the Weekly Council Bluffs Bugle: “Another ‘Bald-Faced’ Lie Nailed to the Counter.”  

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been bare-faced most of his life, with the exception of a few periods during which he was in hiding from his numerous detractors behind a bushy facial growth.

            The notable Emily Brontë,
            Drank some bubbly that made her feel jaunty.
                        She told a fresh guy
                        A big bare-faced lie,                        
            And he pinched her Asti Spumante.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Just A Lot of Bunk

Listening to the multitudes of Presidential candidates, you can't be blamed if you mutter in response to some of their outrageous statements, “That’s just bunk”—meaning utter, unadulterated, unmitigated nonsense.

Bunk is a shortened form of bunkum, and the origin of that word would probably annoy Col. Edward Buncombe of the Revolutionary Army if he were still around. It came about in 1820, when Felix Walker, the congressman from Buncombe County, North Carolina (named for said Col. Buncombe), was addressing the House of Representatives on the question of whether to admit Missouri to the Union as a free or slave state. As his lengthy speech wore on, and on, his colleagues stopped listening and drifted away, and eventually Walker was speaking to empty benches. But still he droned on. Later he was asked why he had continued to talk when no one was listening.  “Oh,” he said, “I’m speaking to Buncombe.” 

In its first known printed appearance, in 1828 in Niles’ Weekly Register, the word appeared as bunkum. The Wilimington Commercial in 1849 applied the term specifically to the utterances of "politicians who go for re-election merely."

By the 1830s the word was shortened to bunk, and used in a general way for bombastic political speeches or any senseless talk. The term debunk originated in the 1923 novel Bunk by  William Woodward,  to mean to "take the bunk out of things." H. L. Mencken called his collection of essays on 1920s and 1930s politics A Carnival of Buncombe. 

The word hokum, which entered the language around 1900, meaning “nonsense with the intent to deceive,” is a portmanteau word, derived from combining hocus-pocus with bunkum. 

Bunkum has nothing to with the “bunco squad” that Sergeant Joe Friday was often assigned to on the old radio-TV show Dragnet. Referring to a police unit specializing in apprehending con artists, it derives from a confidence game called bunco, similar to three-card monte, which in turn came from a Spanish card game called banca (“bank”).

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is sometimes also known as the Bard of Bunkum, as you will shortly see: 

            Officer Franco, whose assignment was bunco,   
            Took a wee drinko--in fact, he had cinco. 
            Under a ginkgo, his face turned quite blanco, 
            And he yelled, “I’m no pinko, it’s just that I’m stinko.”


Monday, October 19, 2015

Stuff and Nonsense

If you’re watching the baseball playoffs, you may hear the commentators discuss a pitcher’s stuff. “He’s got great stuff…nasty, off-speed stuff…mediocre stuff…tremendous stuff…plus stuff,” and so on. What exactly is “stuff”?

John Branch attempted to define it in a recent New York Times article, which concluded that stuff is an “inelegant word of ill-defined mush.” Like pornography, you know it when you see it, but you can’t really say what it is.

The etymological origin of stuff is Anglo-French estuffes, meaning “goods,” which derives from the French estuffer, meaning to “fill in with rubble, to furnish, or to equip.”   

In English stuff is a versatile word, with many varied meanings. Its fundamental definition is “materials, supplies, gear, unspecified substance." It can also mean "special knowledge,” as in "She knows her stuff"--the particular usage that is undoubtedly the source of the word's entry into baseball.          

Various explanations of stuff, as applied to a pitcher, have been suggested. Merriam-Webster says it means “spin imparted to a thrown or hit ball to make it change course, the liveliness of a pitch.” Others say it means “velocity” or “power.” One all-encompassing definition is “the ability to throw a pitch in the strike zone that will overpower or dominate a hitter.”

Stuff has been a baseball term since at least 1896, when an article in the New York Times said, “It is thought that he has some genuine baseball stuff in him, though it is in an immature state…” The next documented use of the word came in 1911, when Pittsburgh Pirates manager manager Jack Miller said of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, “He not only has better control, but he has more stuff—better speed and a better curve ball.”

Whatever stuff is, when it comes to hopes for a World Series championship, the starting pitchers might boast, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is very familiar with the term, since every time he starts to recite one of his verses, his fans shout, “Stuff it!”

                        Little Miss Muffet
                        Told her broker to stuff it
                        When she looked at her 401(k).
                        She won’t have to rough it
                        Since her pal Warren Buffet
                        Sold her on Berkshire Hathaway 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Is the Proof in the Pudding?

The other day I heard someone say, “The proof is in the pudding.” I think what was meant was something like “we’ll have to wait and see how things turn out.” I learned the phrase as The proof of the pudding is in the eating, meaning “the quality of anything can be tested only by putting it to its intended use.”

A similar saying dates back at least to the 14th century, when a poem called King Alisaunder contained the line “It is ywrite that euery thing Hym self sheweth in the tastyng.” In 1605 it showed up pretty much in its present form in William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine as “All the proof of a pudding is in the eating.”

The shorter form—the proof is in the pudding, which doesn't really mean much of anything—dates from the 1920s, the jazz age when everything was shorter.

The pudding in question was not a sweet dessert but more likely a savory meat concoction, like a sausage, which before the age of refrigeration might very well require some taste-testing before it was heartily consumed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a medieval pudding as the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled. If not “proved,” that is tested, before eating, such a dish might well produce severe gastric consequences.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou often suffers severe gastric consequences, but not so much from questionable sausage as from the highly dubious cheap Chardonnay that he favors in absurdly large quantities. The following no doubt was conceived during such an attack:

            An attractive young lady from Groton
            Ate some pudding that tasted quite rotten.
                        It made her turn green
                        And do something obscene—
            (And the last line I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Bull Session

With the death of New York Yankee legend Yogi Berra, the world lost one of its great aphorists. Although Yogi’s background is as Italian as Giuseppe’s pig, his quotable comments are a kind of oxymoron known as “Irish bulls.” An Irish bull is a self-contradictory or logically absurd statement, ostensibly uttered unwittingly by the speaker.  

The origin of the phrase is obscure. Bull in this sense may be related to Old French boul, meaning “fraud, deceit, or trickery”; Icelandic bull, meaning “nonsense”; or Old English bull, meaning “falsehood.” The term bull has been applied to paradoxical statements since the seventeenth century.

The addition of Irish is a nineeenth-century development, stemming from the Irish love of colorful figures of speech, their volubility, their generally poetic usage of the English language, and their supposed lack of logical reasoning. As a comic device, the Irish bull is also much used by Jewish comedians.

The “Father of the Irish Bull” is a sobriquet often applied to eighteenth-century politician Sir Boyle Roche, who once asked, “Why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?" Roche is ofen thought to have been the model for Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals.

Some notable Irish bulls are:

“He’ll regret it till his dying day, if he lives that long.” (“Red 
      Will” Danaher in The Quiet Man)
 “If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man 
     alive.” (Samuel Goldwyn)
 “I’m overpaying him, but he’s worth it.” (Goldwyn)
 “May you never live to see your wife a widow.” (Irish toast)
 “If you fall and break your legs, don’t come running to me.” 
     (Irish saying)
 “Here lies the body of John Mound / Lost at sea and never 
     found” (Irish epitaph)

Some of Yogi’s most memorable words of such wisdom are:

 "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded!"
 "It's deja vu all over again!"
 "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
 "I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4."
 "It gets late early out there."
 "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."
 “Half the lies they tell me aren’t true.”
 "Always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise they won't
     go to yours."
 "You can observe a lot just by watching."
 "It ain't over 'till it's over."
 "I really didn't say everything I said."
 "Prediction is hard, especially about the future."
 “Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”
 “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”
 “You gotta be careful when you don’t know where you’re 
      going, or you might not get there.”

Born Lawrence Peter Berra, the son of Italian immigrants, Yogi got his nickname while growing up in St. Louis, either from future teammate Jack McGuire or from his childhood friend Bobby Hoffman. In either case it was because his posture and demeanor reminded his friends of a Hindu yogi. The cartoon character Yogi Bear is named for Berra.

Everyone I know hopes the Bard of Buffalo Bayou will come to their funerals, because they can’t wait to go to his. The reason will be obvious if you have endured any of his work:

            There once was a lusty young bull,
            Whose love life was varied and full.
                        When he’d done with the cow,
                        And the mare and the sow,
            With ewe he’d start gathering wool. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Shenanigans, Anyone?

This Victorian image of a young man on a tricycle, stating that he is on his way to attend the shenanigans, has appeared on Facebook lately. Although I thought it amusing, I wasn’t precisely sure what shenanigans were.

Usually in the plural, shenanigans has two possible meanings. One is not so nice, especially when observed in public officials. It means “trickery, evasion, deviousness, or questionable practices, for underhand purposes.” It’s what a political challenger often accuses the incumbent of being up to.

The other meaning is more fun: “foolery, high-spirited, mischievous behavior.”  That’s what I expect the young man in the photograph has in mind.

The word can be traced to 1855 in California, but its etymological origin is highly uncertain. 

Some think it derives from the Irish Sionnach uighim, which translates literally as “I act the fox” or “I play tricks.” Others favor a Spanish origin in the word chanada, shortened from charanada, “trick or deceit.” There are those who insist on a German etymology, from Schenigelei, which is peddler’s slang for “work  or craft.” And there is at least one linguist who believes the word came from a Chinese expression, which can be transliterated as Shi nan ni gan, meaning “it's hard to catch you.”

Whichever theory you prefer, next time you’re up to shenanigans, just be sure they’re not the malfeasant kind.
So the next time you’re up to shenanigans, just be sure they’re not the malfeasant kind.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s life has been one long shenanigan.  And he shows no signs of reforming:

            Whenever Patrick Flanagan
            Got up to some shenanigan,
                        His friends would inquire,
                        Is he out of the fire,
            And into the frying pan again?