Monday, September 1, 2014

The Dessert Song



Confusion about the phrase “just deserts” has popped up recently—appearing as “just desserts"—in several news media, including the no-nonsense Business Week. Tch, tch.  As I’m sure you know without my telling you, the phrase has nothing to do with the sweet final course of a meal, which is spelled “dessert” and pronounced duh-ZURT.  But “just deserts” also has no relation to the verb “desert” (also pronounced duh-ZURT) that means “abandon or leave one’s duty,” or to the noun “desert” (pronounced DEZ-urt), meaning “arid wasteland.”
“Just deserts,” meaning “suitable reward or punishment,” had its origin around 1300 in Old French deserte, a noun formed from the verb deservir (“be worthy to have”), ultimately from the Latin deservire (“serve well”).  As Hamlet tells Polonius, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”
The verb “desert”, confusingly spelled and pronounced the same way, is late fourteenth-century, from the twelfth-century Old French word deserter, meaning “leave, forsake, abandon, give up,” derived from the Latin desertare.  “Desert” was first recorded in the sense of going AWOL from military duty about 1640.
 The identically spelled (but differently pronounced) noun “desert” originated in early thirteenth century, from the French desert meaning “wasteland, destruction, ruin,” derived from Late Latin desertum, meaning a “thing that has been abandoned.” By the Middle Ages the word commonly was understood as an “arid, treeless region.”
Finally, “dessert”—which we can have if we clean our plates—is a sixteenth-century word, from the French desservir, meaning “clear the table,” referring to the last course to be served.
The muddled situation is probably not helped by the town in Maine called Mount Desert, which is pronounced by many locals as “duh-ZURT,” in an imprecise approximation of the French name given to the area by explorer Samuel de Champlain, Île des Monts Déserts, “island of the bare mountains.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a sweet tooth and thinks his just deserts are just desserts.
            A sweet and toothsome young Peach Melba
            And a Charlotte Russe
            Competed fiercely for the favors
            Of a Chocolate Mousse.

            They called each other nasty names:
            “You’re overripe,” said Charlotte.
            To which the angry Melba yelled,
            “You spoiled and rotten harlot!”

            Distressed by their belligerence,           
            Which almost broke his heart,
            The Mousse took up with a Tipsy Cake            
            And a juicy Raspberry Tart.



Monday, August 25, 2014

Sump'n' to Think About



Where did the sump pump get its name? Was it: a) from its inventor, Archibald J. Sump; b) from a nonsense word chosen simply because of the euphony of rhyming with pump;  c) from a corruption of "something," coined by a farmer who wanted to pump "sump'n'" out of a hole but wasn't sure what it was; or d) none of the above.  Awww, I bet you knew it was none of the above.

A sump pump is so named because it removes water from a sump. And what, you may ask, is a sump?  A sump is a pit or reservoir designed to collect unwanted water, as in a subterranean basement.  The word was first used in the 1650s and is derived from Middle English sompe, from which the word swamp also comes.  An earlier cognate is the fifteenth-century Middle Low German sump, whose root is the Proto-Germanic sumpaz, a “marsh or morass.”

A sump pump usually stands in a specially constructed sump pit dug in the lowest part of a basement. As the pit fills with water, the pump automatically turns on and moves the liquid to a spot away from your home—like your neighbor’s back yard.  That solves your problem!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou discovered these lines scrawled on a parchment at the bottom of a sump pit, covered with what you might expect to find there.           

            When you’ve slipped in a slump,
            And the road’s hit a bump,
            And you’re flat on your rump,
            And you look like a frump
            And you feel like a chump,
                       
            And you’re down in the dumps,
            And you’ve taken your lumps,
            And you’re sick with the mumps—            
            Then put pumps in your sumps,
            And you’ll come up with trumps!

           

Monday, August 18, 2014

Hot Pink


 “I hope you are in the pink,” I recently said to a friend, who replied, “What does in the pink mean?”  Well, of course, it means “in good health,” or, in a broader sense, “excellence of any kind”—but why? 
Some think it refers to the rosy color of the cheeks of a healthy Nordic person. Others suggest it stems from the energetic qualities displayed by fox-hunters, who wear scarlet coats known as "pinks."  Still others believe it to be a corruption of pinnacle, meaning the top or highest point.           
There is no evidence to support any of these theories, and the most likely origin of the phrase is in the popular name of the dianthus, a favorite flower of the sixteenth century.  These flowers were commonly called “pinks”—because of the jagged edges of their petals, which look as if they had been “pinked” by pinking shears.  The origin of the verb pink is probably the Old English pyngan, from Latin pungere, meaning to “prick or pierce.” 
Since many of the dianthus flowers were of a pale rosy hue, the name pink was then applied to that color. 
The word pink became used as a synonym for flower, in the figurative sense of being “in full bloom.”  It meant being perfect in any way. In Shakespeare’s 1590 play Romeo and Juliet Mercutio says, “Nay, I am the very pincke of curtesie.” In his1621 play The Pilgrim John Fletcher wrote, “This is the prettiest pilgrim—The pink of pilgrims.”  And in the 1720 comedy Kensington Gardens John Leigh maintains, “’Tis the Pink of the Mode to marry at first Sight.” In 1845 Charles Dickens used the phrase ironically in a letter describing an Italian town to mean the ultimate in a pejorative sense: “Of all the picturesque abominations in the World, commend me to Fondi. It is the very pink of hideousness and squalid misery.”
By the early twentieth century the shortened phrase, simply in the pink, was being used to describe the height of good health.  By 1910 we find the phrase tickled pink to mean being “amused to the point that one glows with pleasure.”
As a description of someone whose political views are to the left, but not so red as an all-out Communist, pink was first used in the 1920s.  The Wall Street Journal referred to followers of the progressive Senator Robert LaFollette as “visionaries, ne’er-do-wells, and parlor pinks,” and Time Magazine coined the word pinko in 1925.                         
     One other derivative use of pink is in the phrase pinks and greens, referring to the World War II U. S. Army officers’ uniform, in which the jacket was a dark olive green (Olive Drab #51), and the trousers were a light tan color (Drab #54) with a slight reddish hue. 
Incidentally, the word pinkie, referring to the “little finger,” has nothing to do with the color pink.  It is from the Dutch pinkje, meaning “small,” and its use in English dates to 1840.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is sometimes in the pink—but more often in the red or white, dependingon which wine he is  drinking.                              
             If I’m feeling blue,
            Invite me for a drink--
            And if you offer two,
            That’ll put me in the pink.


Monday, August 11, 2014

The “Worsifier”



Ogden Nash was a descendant of Francis Nash, the Revolutionary War general for whom Nashville, Tennessee, is named.  Nonetheless, Nash chose to spend most of his life in Baltimore, where he became America’s undisputed master of light verse. 

Nash, who referred to himself as a “worsifier,” is known for such gems as “If called by a panther / Don’t anther”; and “I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance, Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance”; and the universally known “Candy is dandy / But liquor is quicker.”  My favorite of his verses is a little ditty called “Which the Chicken, and Which the Egg?”:
      He drinks because she scolds, he thinks;
      She thinks she scolds because he drinks;
      And neither will admit what's true,
      That he's a sot and she's a shrew. 
    
Before devoting himself fulltime to turning out inspired nonsense, he was a Wall Street bond salesman (who sold one bond in two years, to his godmother), a copywriter for the same ad agency that had employed F. Scott Fitzgerald, a book salesman for Doubleday, and a staff writer at The New Yorker—where he lasted only three months.

The poor man shuffled off this mortal coil when he was only 68, and his death was attributed to Crohn’s disease, aggravated by an intestinal infection triggered by a lactobacillus he had acquired from consuming tainted cole slaw.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes that had Nash not died before he could think of it, he might have observed:

            The sole flaw
            Of cole slaw:
            A bacillus
            That can kill us.

                       

Monday, August 4, 2014

And Away We Skedaddle!



Irving Berlin was a man of paradoxes.  Born in either Siberia or Belarus (opinions differ), he didn’t set foot in the United States until he was five—but still became a songwriter of iconic Americana. A Jewish agnostic, he nonetheless wrote the songs most closely associated with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, as well as the hymn-like invocation of the deity “God Bless America.”  Speaking only Yiddish until he was seven, he became a lyricist fluent in the nuances of American idioms. 
        Irving Berlin, 1910                                                                                                                           
One song that shows Berlin’s mastery of Americanisms was “I Got-A Go Back to Texas,” written for a 1914 Broadway show called Watch Your Step.   The fact that Berlin had never set eyes on the Lone Star state did not deter him from rhapsodizing about the “western sun blazing by the Rio Grande” or the “cattle grazing on the prairie land.”  In one lyric the singer proclaims, “I’m simply aching to skeedaddle upon a horse without a saddle."                                                                               
                                                                                                                                
Skeedaddle, or skedaddle without the double “e,” as it is more commonly spelled, is an Americanism, first used around 1860 as soldier’s slang in the Civil War.  It means to “retreat hastily or precipitately, in fright” or, in other words, to “run away.”  Whether Berlin understood it in quite this way is doubtful—few of us would be simply aching to flee in panic.
         
The etymology of skedaddle is thought to be an alteration of the British dialectical scaddle, to “scare or frighten,” which stems from an earlier adjective that meant “wild, timid, or skittish.”  It’s from the Middle English scathel (“harmful, fierce, wild”) and is originally of Scandinavian origin, akin of Old Norse skathi (“harm”).  It is also probably related to the Greek skédasmos, or “scattering.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to skedaddle on numerous occasions and for good reasons that we won’t go into.  He tries to settle his nerves by repeating this mantra over and over:

            Whenever you need to skedaddle,
            Stay calm and straddle your saddle,
                        Don’t addle your poor noggin,
                        Just paddle your toboggan,
            And say to the world, “Fiddle-faddle!”




                                 


Monday, July 28, 2014

Double or Nothing



Professor Irwin Corey, the World’s Foremost Authority, who turns 100 on July 29, is still making occasional nonsensical speeches in the well known double-talk that is his stock-in-trade as a comedian. Corey, who famously said, “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going,” uses a form of double-talk that relies on actual words used in an ambiguous manner to obfuscate sense.  One notable speech of his begins:

“However, we all know that protocol takes precedence over procedures. This Paul Lindsey point of order based on the state of inertia of developing a centrifugal force issued as a catalyst rather than as a catalytic agent, and hastens a change reaction and remains an indigenous brier to its inception. This is a focal point used as a tangent so the bile is excreted through the panaceas.”

There are many kinds of “double-talk,” which can be broadly defined as either (a) seemingly meaningful language that in fact mixes sense with nonsense, usually for comic effect, or (b) deliberately elaborate or ambiguous language used for purposes of deception.

The latter kind, also known as “double speak,” had its modern origin in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, when the government attempts to control thought by introducing ”Newspeak” and the concept of “Doublethink.”  In today’s political world, some examples of “double speak” are pre-emptive strike meaning “unprovoked attack,” enhanced interrogation meaning “torture,” extraordinary rendition meaning “abduction,” and collateral damage meaning “civilians killed in an attack on military targets.”

Among the great exponents of the humorous variety of double-talk was the comedian Sid Caesar, whose technique consisted of speaking rapidly in nonsense syllables that emulated the sounds of various foreign languages.

There’s a web site that generates nonsensical double-talk that peppers the text with false words that sound as though they might be real:

“Is the infrastructure too pervical for the modern day pig farmer, or do they affinate from the government, and when it opens is it moomis or are they frabbis like a local doggie bag?  Moreover, do you think the FBI furboglaft on the public or ovaloffer so much that it isn’t noticed?  Finally, does this place keep staniplad or are they farginomic with underkrep morning hours?

Another site provides a means of creating double-talk by adding the syllable “dag” in the middle of each actual syllable of every word. Thus the sentence “I would like a carbonated beverage becomes “Idagi wodagould lidagike adaga cadagar bodago nadaga tedaged bedage vedager adagage."

One computer-generated form of double-talk uses a data base of actual concepts recombined in a meaningless fashion:

“If one examines Lacanist obscurity, one is faced with a choice: either reject capitalist Marxism or conclude that the significance of the poet is social comment. However, if neodialectic cultural theory holds, we have to choose between subdialectic narrative and capitalist deappropriation. Marx suggests the use of the precultural paradigm of discourse to challenge class divisions.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an old hand at double-talk.  In fact, sometimes he lapses into triple-talk when he’s really waxing poetic.

            Professor Irwin Corey
            Had a moment of glory
            As the World’s Foremost Authority,
            When he tried to join a sorority.

            George Orwell
            Believed Nineteen Eighty-Four would score well,
            Even if Animal Farm 
            Lost its charm.

            Sid Caesar
            Was a funny old geezer
            Who could evoke a
            Lot of laughs with Imogene Coca.

If these clerihews strike you as being metrically ragged, ponder this observation by an anonymous wag:

            Edmund Clerihew Bentley
            Was evidently
            A man
            Who had a great deal of trouble getting his verses to 
                 scan.                 



Monday, July 21, 2014

Nimrod, You Nitwit!



I was working a crossword puzzle (what else is new?) the other day, and saw the clue “stupid person.”  The solution was six letters, and I already had the first two as NI. Confidently, I filled in NITWIT.  Wrong. It turns out the answer being sought was NIMROD.

This definition of Nimrod is new to me.  As you will undoubtedly recall from your assiduous study of The Bible, Nimrod appears in the Book of Genesis as the son of Cush and grandson of Noah.  He is described as a “mighty hunter,” and the idiom “eager Nimrod” is sometimes used to mean an “especially avid aspirant”—something like the early bird who catches the worm.  Nimrod, incidentally, is sometimes credited with (or blamed for, depending on your viewpoint) building the Tower of Babel.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary nimrod, for unknown reasons, came to mean a “geek or klutz” in teenage slang sometime in the 1980s.  Other authorities put its use as a “stupid or dimwitted person” even earlier, as far back as the 1930s.

One possible source of this meaning is Looney Tunes movie cartoons, in which Bugs Bunny sometimes refers to his nerdy adversary Elmer Fudd, who is often seen in hunter’s garb carrying a shotgun, as a “nimrod.”  Fudd’s stupidity, which always allows the “wabbity wascal” to get the better of him, may account for nimrod’s usage to mean a dimwitted person. Nimrod is also sometimes used to refer to an inexperienced and clumsy hunter.

The term for “inexperienced and clumsy” versifier is The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who eagerly presents his wares hereinbelow.

            A dimwitted nimrod quite eager
            To play ball as a star major-leaguer
                        Couldn’t pitch, run, or hit,
                        Or catch a fly in his mitt,
            So he found that his chances were meager.

            He decided instead to try tennis,
            His backhand, he felt, was a menace,
                        But his use of the racquet
                        Kept him out of a bracket,
            And he shipped out to find work in Venice.

            He signed on as a new gondolier,
            But this job lasted less than year,
                        For he needed a trio
                        To sing “O Sole Mio,”
            Since it turned out he had a tin ear.
           
            Poor Nimrod was left with no hope,
            He had reached the end of his rope,
                        Since he can’t be a star,
                        He now props up a bar,
            Where he finds it’s no problem to tope. 
                       

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hold the Haggis!

Haggis, that Scottish concoction of chopped sheep’s entrails, has been in the news lately.  The Scots, as you may know, are going to have a referendum on September 18 to determine whether they wish to secede from the United Kingdom and become an independent nation.

Making every effort to woo the loyalty of the Caledonians to keep them in the union, the London government is trying to persuade the United States to lift its ban on the importation of Scottish haggis containing sheep’s lungs. Exporting the stuff is apparently one of Scotland’s major cottage industries, and Scots contend that the allowable haggis, without the lungs, is only a pale imitation of their national dish.

Whether it is a good idea to import any kind of haggis, with or without lungs, is a highly debatable proposition.  Consider what it’s made of: sheep’s pluck, i.e. heart, liver, as well as lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and mutton stock, then encased in a sheep’s stomach (whether it’s the same sheep who provided the heart, liver, and lungs is not important), simmered for three hours, and slapped onto a plate, along with “neeps and tatties”—mashed rutabagas and potatoes.  The only remotely saving grace to this culinary monstrosity is that it is traditionally served with a hefty portion of Scotch whisky.

The word haggis dates from the early fifteenth century.  There are two theories as to its etymology: from the French agace or “magpie,” alluding to the bird’s habit of collecting odds and ends, or from the Old English haggen meaning to “chop,” which is also the root of hack.

Robert Burns idolized the dish in his “Address to a Haggis,” which begins:
            Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
            Great chieftain o’ the puddin'-race!
            Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
            Painch, tripe, or thairm:
            Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
            As lang's my arm.


The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a fan of only the final course of a haggis dinner, the one that comes in a shot glass. 
            
            One thing that always makes me gag is
            That Scottish dish that’s known as haggis,
            With some old sheep’s heart, lung, and liver,
            In suet pudding, all aquiver,
            Then stuffed into the old sheep’s belly,
            Where it reposes, ripe and smelly.

            Forget about the neeps and tatties,
            They’ll only turn us into fatties.
            If this all sounds a trifle risky—
            Then serve it with a triple whisky.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Cardinal Virtues


When a Roman Catholic cardinal is mentioned in print, sometimes he is referred to with the title “Cardinal” before the first name, as in Cardinal Irving Goldberg, and sometimes with the title between the first name and the surname, as in Irving Cardinal Goldberg.  Why this difference?

It goes back to the Middle Ages, when the title of “cardinal” was given to pastors of prominent churches, who also wielded considerable political power.  They were regarded as the equivalent of secular nobility.  In fact, in 1630 Pope Urban VIII decreed their rank was equal to that of a prince, making them second only to crowned monarchs.  Even today, in the Church of England, the Lords Spiritual, as bishops of the more important dioceses are known, continue the medieval tradition of being seated in the House of Lords.

It was customary for a secular peer to style himself with his given name, followed by the word “Lord”—as in Alfred, Lord Tennyson or George Gordon, Lord Byron.  The reason for this was that often the name of the peerage was completely unrelated to the actual name of the person who held it.  John Smith, for example, might inherit the title Lord Windermere, so in order to clarify his identity, he became known as John (or sometimes John Smith), Lord Windermere.

Since cardinals were regarded as the equivalent of peers, they adopted the same practice for the placement of their titles.

After the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the Catholic Church discontinued this usage as outmoded.  Today the Vatican website refers to cardinals with the title before the whole name, i.e. Cardinal Irving Goldberg.  Most newspaper stylebooks also follow this practice.

Some diehard traditionalists, however, including many cardinals themselves--no doubt wishing to show their pious respect for the office--cling to the old habit of inserting the title between the first and last names, so it still often appears that way.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou would like to insert his title between his first and last names, but he cannot remember either of them.

            A cardinal whose head was quite fat
            Couldn’t fit in his little red hat,
                        He tried a big miter,
                        But it was still tighter,
            So instead of his prayers, he said “Drat!”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Brits Have A Word for It


The posting of this blog has been erratic for the past couple of weeks.  The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been visiting some of the disreputable haunts of his dissolute youth in the British Isles, and it was necessary for me to accompany him, in order to ensure that he would quit the pubs quietly at closing time without causing unseemly disturbances, as is his wont.

While I was there, I took the occasion of visiting a few of my own friends, during the periods that the Bard was sleeping off his debaucheries of the previous evenings.  Several times I passed through Charing Cross Station, that busy hub in central London.  A friend related the popular version of the origin of the name “Charing Cross”—that “Charing” is a corruption of the French chère reine, or “dear queen,” a reference to King Edward I’s queen, Eleanor of Castile.

It’s a lovely story, but etymologists say it isn’t so.  They say that “Charing” derives from the Old English word cierring, which means a “bend in the river,” and describes that point on the Thames where the village of Charing had existed since the 12th century.

Queen Eleanor is responsible for the “Cross” portion of the name.  Edward erected a memorial cross to his Queen, who died in 1290, at each of twelve overnight stops of the procession carrying her body from Lincoln to Westminster. One of these “Eleanor Crosses” was erected near Charing; hence the name “Charing Cross.”  It was destroyed in 1647 and replaced by a statue of Charles I.

The Bard has recovered sufficiently from his sybaritic dissipation to scribble the following lines on the label of an empty bottle of Fuller's London Pride bitter beer.

            As I was going to Charing Cross,
            Quite near that pub—The Albatross—
            I met a man with seven wives,
            And they were going to St. Ives.
            
            Each wife could rest her feet on
            Seven bags by Louis Vuitton.
            Each bag held seven phones

            And seven chocolate ice-cream cones.
            Cones, phones, bags, and wives,
            How many were going to St. Ives?

            If you can’t tell, to save your lives,
            How many were going to St. Ives,
            The answer is none—for, willy-nilly,
            The train broke down at Piccadilly!
           

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Take A Letter


Years ago I used to oversee a competition for readers of Performing Arts Magazine.  Each month was a different contest—such as composing a clerihew or providing the last line of a limerick—always dealing with the arts.  One such competition asked readers to alter one letter in the title of a familiar opera, play, or musical to yield a new meaning and then provide a brief synopsis.  Although this was more than a quarter of a century ago, some of the winning answers are worth repeating even now.

The top prize-winner was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Frying—Japanese sushi millionaire conquers American fast-food market with semi-raw chicken.

Others that struck the judges’ fancy were:

Seven Bribes for Seven Brothers—Scandal rocks the Osmond clan.

Desire Under the Elks—Passion in a flat located beneath a men’s lodge.

Doc Giovanni—M*A*S*H’s Trapper John relocates from Korea to Italy.

Heath of A Salesman—Poignant drama of the bitter turf wars fought by Scottish commercial travelers.

Children of a Lesser Cod—Two poor fish grow up near Squid Row.

An American in Parts—Gruesome discovery in the left-luggage departments of several European railway stations.

Porgy and Bass—The management of Catfish Row decides to diversify. 

The Subject Was Noses—A day in the life of a plastic surgeon.

No prize will be awarded for any additional submissions by readers of this blog—but they are welcome, anyway!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is certainly no prize.  But you have to admire (or deplore) his persistence.

            A contest was offering a prize
            Of quite a considerable size,
                        An amount that exceeds
                        Ten years of my needs—
            So I entered with several replies.

            It was a most fierce competition,
            And to win it was my great ambition—
                        But my entries were nixed,
                        For the contest was fixed
            (Which always had been my suspicion.)

            I vowed I’d compete one more time,
            And this time my plan was sublime:
                        I paid off the judge—
                        But he still wouldn’t budge,
            And bribery, I learned, is a crime.

            So they charged me with misdeeds aplenty,
            Now I’m serving from ten years to twenty
                         In a fine calaboose,
                        And until I’m turned loose,
            I’ll just bask in my dolce far niente.

Please note that the Bard has given notice that he will be away for a few days on one of his sporadic tasting tours of the Gin Country.  That being the case, I shall take this opportunity to get a little rest as well.  A day away from the Bard is like a month in the country (as someone once said of Tallulah Bankhead). In the meantime, talk among yourselves.


Monday, June 16, 2014

By Any Other Name


Pen names have been used by hundreds of writers for dozens of reasons. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was shy, so he Latinized his first two names, then re-Anglicized and transposed them to become Lewis Carroll.  François-Marie d’Arouet wanted a clean break from his family, so he made an anagram of his surname and added two letters indicating “the younger,” thus creating Voltaire.  (He later used hundreds of other noms de plume).  Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was fleeing creditors after a stay in debtors’ prison, so he adopted the name of a village in southern France and was suddenly Molière. 

The Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily thought they’d do better as novelists if readers believed they were men, so they issued their works, respectively, as Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell.  (Brontë itself was an invention of their Irish father, who thought it more elegant than his real name, Brunty.)  Benjamin Franklin was trying to be funny when he called himself Silence Dogood, and Erle Stanley Gardner didn’t want readers to tire of his prolific mystery novels, so he signed some of them A. A. Fair.

How William Sydney Porter came to be known as O. Henry can be explained (or not) by several theories—one of them possibly accurate.  Porter used the name O. Henry—a “pen name” in more than one sense—on a story written while he was serving a federal prison term in Ohio for embezzling from an Austin bank.  The reasons for a convict to use a nom de plume seem obvious.  But where did the name come from?

William Trevor, in the The World of O. Henry writes that when Porter was in prison there was a guard captain named Orrin Henry, who typically signed himself as “O. Henry,” and Porter borrowed the name.

Another scholar, Guy Davenport, prefers to explain that “O. Henry” is a cryptic construction from the first two letters of Ohio and the second two and last two of penitentiary.

Adrian Room in A Dictionary of Pseudonyms points out that Porter was a pharmacy worker in prison and used a pharmacopoeia called U. S. Dispensatory, in which a French pharmacist named Étienne-Ossian Henry is mentioned.  It is suggested that’s where the name came from.

Another tale is that an Austin family with whom Porter stayed had a cat named Henry the Proud and he was regularly called with the phrase “Henry, oh, Henry!”  (This version begins to encroach on the candy bar of that name.)

If his own version can be believed, Porter gave this account to an interviewer from The New York Times:

It was during the New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: "I'm going to send out some stuff. I don't know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one." He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. "Here we have our notables," said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, "That'll do for a last name," said I. "Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me." "Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?" asked my friend. "Good," said I, "O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is." A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, "O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver." And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, it should be noted in the interest of full disclosure, is a pen name.  In real life, he is The Slob of Sleazy Swamp. 

            Shakespeare took a walk in the Forest of Arden,
            And encountered Voltaire, who said, “Beg your   
                  pardon,
            But I happened to notice this very long weed,
            And I’ll mention to you, as I counseled Candide,
            You should spend some more time cultivating your 
                   garden.”                       

            “Fie!” replied Shakespeare, “I’m onto your game,
            You won’t find me gardening—if that is your aim.
            All about nothing you’ve caused much ado,
            For that is no weed that in my garden grew—            
            It’s only a rose by some other name.”