Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What’s an Antille?



One of the customers recently asked me why there have not been any posts to Words Going Wild for several weeks.  Well, I’ve been pretty busy trying to keep count of the public figures who are apparently guilty of sexual harassment. Every time I think I’ve got a complete tally, whoops! here comes another one!  I’m going to need an abacus.

No matter. This seems as good a time as any to address the issue of the Antilles, where all those hurricanes recently caused such havoc. The “Antilles” is a term that refers to a string of islands in the Caribbean.

Specifically the “Greater Antilles” consist of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. The “Lesser Antilles” are divided into two sections: the “Leeward Islands” (away from the wind), which include the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, St. Kitts, Nevis, Barbuda, Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and a few others; and the “Windward Islands,” which curve southward (toward the wind), and comprise Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad, and Tobago.

In addition, just to complicate matters, there is a group along the northern coast of Venezuela, known as the “Leeward Antilles,” and they include Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, Tortuga, and Margarita.

So what is an “Antille”?  Actually, there’s no such thing as one Antille; it's what is known as a plurale tantum, or a noun that exists only in the plural, like “scissors” and “trousers.”

There are more than a couple of theories about the origin of the word.  Some say it is from the Portuguese ante (meaning “before”) and ilha (an archaic word for “island”).



Others say it's Gaelic, from an (“water”) and tealla (“land”). Another theory is that it comes from the word Anti (“opposite”) attached to ilhas, meaning the “Opposite Islands,” that is, those on the other side of the ocean.

Still other etymologists have tried to establish a connection with Plato’s Atlantis, the fictional “Island of Atlas” that appears in some of the dialogues, or with the Arabic al-Tin (“the dragon”), in reference to the sea-dragons usually pictured at the extremes of early nautical maps.

The term has been around since the Middle Ages. Some medieval maps show a mysterious land known as “Antilia” in various parts of the Atlantic Ocean. After the arrival of Columbus in 1492, the “West Indies” had a series of names, including the “Windward Islands” and the “Forward Islands.” In 1502 a Portuguese map called the Cantino Planisphere showed Las Antilhas del Rey de Castella (“the Antilles of the King of Castile”).

All this Antillean discussion has distracted me from counting sexual predators, and I see there are already several more waiting in line that I have to add to the list.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, in his usual enigmatic fashion, opines that we shouldn’t be surprised by all this masculine sexual misbehavior.

            Sexual harassment leads only to grief,
            But it’s not so surprising, for it’s been my belief
            That the precedent is ample
            When men follow the example
            That’s been set by the Predator-in-Chief. 
 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Bye, Bye, Copy Editors

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Earlier this summer, the venerable New York Times, long known as a bastion of meticulous editing, eliminated its copy desk. What this means is that there is no longer a department composed of copy editors, an elite group of specialists whose job it is to ensure that the writing is in acceptable style with correct grammar and word usage; check the accuracy of all assertions; verify any questionable sources; remove any potentially libelous or defamatory statements; assess the importance of a news story and assign it appropriate length and prominence in the page layout; and write a catchy, informative headline.

In times past the copy desk has been thought of as “the heart of the newspaper,” or as one copy editor put it, “its immune system.”  In the recent controversial elimination of the New York Times copy desk, on the other hand, its work was referred to as “low-value editing” and compared to “dogs urinating on a fire hydrant.”

In the future, all the editing tasks will be given to front-line editors, the same people who make the assignments to reporters and work with them on developing their stories. In other words, they will edit themselves.  And they’ll be told to hurry up—“streamlining” the process being one of the goals in getting rid of the copy desk.

This hardly strikes me as a prudent decision, especially in a time when the news media are being accused of perpetrating “fake news” on the public. To lose a complete step in the editing process can only increase the likelihood of inaccuracies in reporting.

On the most fundamental level, that of correct language usage, I have noticed an increasing sloppiness in the Times in recent weeks—solecisms that once would have been unthinkable in a paper of distinction. A few examples:

(In a nostalgic story about World War II): 
“Truman Calls on Nation to Forego Meat Tuesdays”

            What this says is that the nation is being asked to  
            “forego,” that is “go before” meat on Tuesdays.  The 
            correct word is “forgo,” meaning to "give up.”

They were their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit.”              
            This is simply a careless substitution of “were” for 
            “wear.” 

“Have tread.” 
            The verb “tread” has a profusion of past participles: 
            “trod,” “trodden” and “treaded” are all acceptable.   
            “Tread,” however, is not. 

“Laying in the bed.” 
             I think every educated person knows this should be  
             "lying." 

I have little doubt that these errors are a result of hasty and perfunctory editing by people who are reporters are heart, without the concern for correct form found in a good copy editor. This is one more example of the deterioration of modern society, and I regret that the New York Times has succumbed to it.

Full disclosure: I began my brief career in the newspaper business as a copy editor on the old Houston Press, a Scripps-Howard daily that was swallowed by the Houston Chronicle in 1964.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is among those who has little truck with copy editors. He feels they inhibit the natural outpouring of his genius.

            You have to shell out many dimes 
            To get a copy of The Times, 
            And when you do, you’d like to think 
            The grammar’s right in all that ink. 

            But now The Times regards its editors 
            As little more than vicious predators, 
            And to our fear of terrorism
            It adds the threat of errorism.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Slanted Definitions

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Some years ago, when I was on a national tour of the musical Mame starring Juliet Prowse, I published a weekly newspaper for the company called The Mame Bugle. It was usually two sides of an 8-1/2x14-inch sheet, which I composed on a portable electronic typewriter and had a printed at various local copy shops along the way. Our company numbered 55-60 actors, musicians, technicians, dressers, chaperones, tutors, infants, a road manager, and, for a brief period, a dog.

The newspaper’s contents consisted of articles on each of the 23 cities where we played, a recap of the previous week’s attendance, info on the following week’s hotels, personal news in a column called “Tour Tidbits,” games in which readers were to guess the identity of company members from clues given, crossword puzzles, word games, poetry, bad jokes, and the “Everyone-Noticed-You” column, which awarded a prize for the most egregious aberration in performance.

I was abetted in this journalistic endeavor by an actor named Neil Badders, who wrote much of the copy, and we also solicited contributions from company members.

This was a submission from our star, the late and much lamented Juliet Prowse:

“Slanted Definitions”
Bacteria – Lunchroom for chiropractors
Filly – Nonfenfical or ridiculouf
Gladiator – How the lion felt after consuming the Christian
Melanesia – Loss of memory in cantaloupes
Ragamuffin – Something to eat at a Ravi Shankar concert
Worcester – Even worse than worst

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a native of Worcester, as readers of his verse are quick to note.
                                   
                                    Miss Juliet Prowse
                                    Was taking her bows
                                    After a Mame matinee.
                                    When along came a spider,
                                    Who sat down beside her
                                    And said he had just seen the play.
                                   
                                    Then he got analytic,
                                    Said he was a critic,
                                    And began to attack and deride her.
                                    So Miss Prowse took her shoe
                                    And did just what I’d do—
                                    And that was the end of the spider.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Rocket Man vs. Dotard


When President Donald Trump referred to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un as “Rocket Man,” later amplified to “Little Rocket Man,” it got Kim’s dander up. His snappy comeback was, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U. S. dotard with fire.”

“Rocket Man” was presumably a reference to the Elton John-Bernie Taupin song of that name, which ends with the lyric, “Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.”

“Dotard,” on the other hand, is a once popular term that has fallen into disuse. Pronounced DOE-terd, it’s defined as a “person who is senile and has lost mental alertness.”

“Dotard” has a sterling literary history. Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales refers to an “olde dotard shrew.”  Shakespeare uses the word several times, notably in The Taming of the Shrew when Baptista says of Vincentio, “Away with the dotard!” In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Denethor tells Gandalf, “I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart.” Union General George McClellan said of his predecessor, Gen. Winfield Scott, “I don’t know whether he is a dotard or a traitor.”

But the word now is admittedly old-fashioned.

According to the Associated Press, what Kim actually called Trump was a “neukdari,” a derogatory Korean word for an “old person.” The North Koreans are known to use outdated Korean-English dictioinaries, so when the Korean news agency translated Kim’s remarks, “dotard” popped up as a synonym for “neukdari.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been in his dotage for many years. He’d like to remain there for some while, since there’s only one alternative. 

            You “Rocket Man,” said Mr. Trump,
            With a nod to to Elton John.
            He thought that it would make Kim jump
            And feel most put upon.

            But Kim was not to be outdone,
            And to a bookshop motored
            To seek a word with which to stun—
            And he discovered “dotard”!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


BOOK   SIGNING

YOU’RE ON!
The Theatre Quiz Book
by
JIM BERNHARD
˜
Thursday, October 5 – 4:30-6:30 p.m.
River Oaks Bookstore
3270 Westheimer at River Oaks Boulevard
Refreshments!







Monday, September 4, 2017

How’s the Bayou By You?


In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s horrendous rainstorm, which caused many of Houston’s bayous to go over their banks, one of the more scholarly customers has sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal with some surprising information about the word bayou.

As the article notes, bayou, which means “slow-moving or sluggish creek or river,” may look and sound as if its origins are French, but in fact they are probably Native American. The word is principally used in the Gulf Coast region; elsewhere a similar waterway would more likely be called a stream, a brook, a river, or a canal.

The origin of bayou is believed to be bayuk, a Choctaw word, taken from a tribe that populated Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama until the 1830s, when they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Bayuk, generally spelled bayouque, later shortened to bayou, entered North American French sometime in the eighteenth century, and English-speakers soon borrowed it. Some etymologists say it first passed through a Native American pidgin called “Mobilian Jargon” that various tribes spoke among themselves.

Another entirely different theory traces bayou to the Spanish bahía, which means “bay.”

Houston is criss-crossed with bayous, including White Oak, Brays [pictured above, before and after flooding], Greens, Sims, Halls, Cedar, Armand, Vince, Luce and Carpenters—in all more than 2,500 miles of them, giving Houston the sobriquet “Bayou City.” 

The most prominent is Buffalo Bayou, which runs through downtown Houston, and where, in palmier days, the Bard could often be found lounging atop a pile of empty Chardonnary bottles, as fulsome lyrical effusions issued from his pen. Here is one of his most detested efforts from that era.

            I’ve never known if bayou
            Is pronounced to rhyme with Hi, you!
            Or if, when I say bayou,
            It should sound more like Ohio.

           

           

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hunkering With Harvey


During Hurricane Harvey and its long-lasting rainy aftermath, Houstonians were advised by public officials, news media, solicitous friends, and even a few total strangers to “hunker down.”  I’ve never been very clear about how I should go about hunkering. It sounds as if it involves some contorted physical effort which, at my age and in my condition, would be inadvisable. I generally prefer to “settle back” instead.

Everyone agrees the original meaning of the word “hunker” was to “crouch or squat.”  But etymologists are divided about its origins. Some trace it to 1720 in Scotland, theorizing it was a nasalized borrowing of the Old Norse huka (“crouch”) or hokra (“crawl”).  Others wish to establish a relationship with the northern British noun “hunker,” which means “haunch.” Webster traces it to Middle Low German hoken, which means either “squat” or “peddle.”

In any event, “hunker” found its way into Southern U. S. dialect around 1900, coupled with the word “down,” and meaning to “dig in for a sustained period.” For some unexplained reason the term “hunker down” entered widespread general usage around 1965.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou hunkers down a lot, but that’s because he can’t move from that position after his third glass of cheap Chardonnay.

            A banker who hankered to hunker
            Settled down for a while in a bunker.
                        But that dirty old stinker
                        Was a punk and a drinker,
            And he hunkered until he got drunker

                       

Monday, August 21, 2017

Typo-theticals

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One wrong letter in a phrase can make a lot of difference in its meaning. Here are some fanciful typographical errors in famous movie quotes, with whimsical suggestions of how they might be repurposed.

"Frankly, my bear, I don't give a damn." 
--Goldilocks reacts when accused of eating all the porridge.

"You know how to whittle, don't you? You just put your tips together and blog."
 --Bacall urges Bogey to share his woodworking skills on the Internet. 

"I have always depended on the kindness of stranglers.” 
--Blanche DuBois meets a serial killer in Boston. 

“We don't need no stinkin’ badgers!” 
--Mr. Toad erupts in anger at Mole, Rat, and their friend. 

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to reduce me, aren’t you?” 
--Dustin Hoffman responds to a woman’s observation that he is overweight. 

“Get thee to a gunnery.”
 --Hamlet urges Ophelia to acquire a firearm for her protection. 

“Here’s looking at you, Syd.”
 --Bogart enjoys a drink with Greenstreet between takes. 

"I coulda been a cowtender.” 
--Brando regrets he never worked on a ranch. 

“Show me the honey!”
 --Winnie the Pooh finds the pantry empty. 

“I’ll get you my pretty, and your little hog, too!” 
--The Wicked Witch of the West hankers for some bacon. 

"We’ll always have Parts.”
 --Bogart and Bergman acknowledge that superstars are never out of film work. 

"I’ll save what she’s having.” 
--Meg Ryan’s dinner companion asks for a doggy-bag. 

“You’re gonna need a bigger goat.” 
--A troll under a bridge asserts his superior size. 

"A nose by any name would smell as sweet.” 
--Juliet admires Romeo’s schnozz. 

"I’ll make him an offer he can’t recuse.”
 --Trump considers a new attorney general.

The Bird of Buffalo Bayou owes his success, or lack thereof, to typographical errors. They always make his verse look better than it is.

            A mischievous young holy terror 
            Was so naughty that no one could bear her, 
                   She was born overseas, 
                   And her parents said, “She’s 
           A topographical error.”






Monday, August 14, 2017

Let's Go Downtown!


In New York, New York, where “the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” the term downtown makes perfect sense. Downtown is the southern tip of the island (also known as “lower Manhattan”), just as it appears on most maps—down at the bottom. Uptown, of course, is north, at the top, and midtown is in the center. These terms came into use among New Yorkers around 1830.

But downtown developed another meaning, as Petula Clark told us in the ‘60s. It’s where you can “listen to the music of the traffic in the city,” and where the “lights are much brighter,” and where you can “forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”  In that sense downtown has nothing to do with direction; it means “central business district.” Traditionally, downtown is not only the commercial heart of a city, it’s also where most of the stores, hotels, theatres, restaurants, night clubs, and traffic congestion are found.

This meaning became widespread in North America around 1900. Of course, in recent years suburban flight and urban sprawl have diminished the importance of downtown as a city center. 

How did this usage of downtown come about?  Opinions differ. Some say it’s because suburbs were typically built on higher ground than the central part of the city. Possibly this is because many cities were originally founded on rivers, and to gain easy access to the water, they were situated at the lowest area in the river valley.

Other people say that downtown has its origin in the direction of a river’s flow with reference to a given point. If the given point is the earliest settlement in an area, further development likely occurred downriver, as movement of goods and people would have been easier in that direction.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t get downtown often any more; he says the hustle upsets his artistic equilibrium. Most people would say he had no equilibrium to begin with, owing to that third glass of Chardonnay.

            An entrepreneurial clown
            Liked to wait on a corner downtown.
                        Then he would holler,
                        “Give me a dollar,
            And I’ll stand on my head upside down.”


Friday, August 11, 2017

Any Portmanteau In A Storm


I read this morning about maglev trains, which will be able to transport passengers some 300 miles in about half an hour. I wasn’t familiar with the word maglev, so I looked it up and found that it is a portmanteau word derived from magnetic and levitation.

Portmanteau words are words formed by combining parts of two words, each of which describes some aspect of an object. A portmanteau is a type of suitcase popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that consisted of two sections that folded together, each designed to carry a specific type of clothing. Portmanteau is itself a portmanteau word, derived from the French porter (“carry”) and manteau (“coat”).

As applied to words, the term was more or less invented by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass, when Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the meaning and origin of some of the words in the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky.”  For example, mimsy is a combination of miserable and flimsy, slithy comes from slimy and lithe, and chortle (which has found a permanent place in the English language) was created from chuckle and snort.

English has adopted a great many portmanteau words as standard: sitcom, labradoodle, infomercial, glitterati, newscast, televangelist, motorcycle, taxicab, botox, camcorder, carjack, cyborg, vitamin, motel, etc.

Like Ogden Nash, who called himself a “worsifier,” the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has also come up with a portmanteau word to describe himself: chrymester.

                        Said Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell,
                        “Gee, little girl, I think you’re swell.           
                        You’re so light that I can carry you,
                        You know, I think I’d like to marry you!”

                        Said Alice Liddell to Lewis Carroll,
                        “I’m afraid that you are over a barrel,
                        You might think wedlock would be heaven,
                        But you forget I’m just eleven.”

                        And Lewis said, “Tut, tut, a shame!
                        But wait! Instead, I’ll put your name
                        In my new book. Won’t that be grand?”
                        Ergo:  “Alice in Wonderland.”

Monday, June 5, 2017

Have Tux, Will Travel


The first tuxedo I ever acquired was when I was fifteen. Although I was definitely not a member of the elite upper crust, I was a student at a public high school (Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar) at which a considerable number of scions of well-to-do families were enrolled. It was the custom of these well-heeled young people to honor themselves from time to time throughout the school year with formal balls, usually held at the River Oaks Country Club, situated at the opposite end of the boulevard on which the high school faced.

Consequently, I was invited to a number of gala events that were several notches above my natural social station. My mother, a divorcée struggling to support her aged father, her feckless son, and herself on a secretary’s salary of $300 per month, soon found it was more economical to purchase a formal outfit for her social-climbing teenager than to rent all that gear several times a year.

At a discount clothing emporium known as SchwoBilt, now no longer with us, we purchased for a relatively modest sum a black jacket with faux-silk lapels, black trousers with a silk stripe down each leg, a white formal shirt, a maroon bow-tie and cummerbund (that color was the fashion then), a pair of cheap mother-of-pearl cufflinks and matching set of studs. Voilà! I was in high society!

That tuxedo, cheap as it was, lasted me through graduate school, after which I acquired a new one for my wedding. During my days at the Society for the Performing Arts, a tux constituted my ordinary evening workclothes, so I acquired yet another monkey suit, which has lasted me to this day.

The name tuxedo stems from Tuxedo Park, a summer resort for the wealthy in upstate New York, where the short black dinner jacket was first worn by daring young blades around 1886. Known in England as a dinner suit or simply a dinner jacket, the tuxedo coat was a departure from the long tailcoat that had been customary in formal dress. In France and most European countries, the tuxedo is known as a smoking, derived from the English smoking jacket, which was the first manifestation of a short coat for evening wear, introduced by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).

Tuxedo is etymologically derived from the Algonquin p’tuck-sepo, which means “crooked river.”

While we're on an etymological kick, I might as well mention that cummerbund has its origin in the Hindi kamarband, derived from Persian kamar ("waist") and band ("something that ties").

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou often appears in a tuxedo, so that he won't scandalize the neighbors by walking around in his skivvies while his overalls are at the cleaners.

            Tuxedoed, black-tied, cummerbunded,
            Too bad I’m also under-funded.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tea Formation


In honor of a visit by the Duchess of York, I see the high-society folks in Houston have thrown a little afternoon get-together that they called a “high tea.” Although I was not present at this gala event, I’m willing to bet that it was not high tea at all.

Most Americans have the mistaken notion that “high tea” is a very elaborate spread, replete with silver teapot, fine china cups, dainty finger sandwiches of cucumber and smoked salmon, rich cakes, delicate cream puffs, chocolate éclairs, crumpets, and buttery scones laden with clotted cream. 

That’s “afternoon tea,” albeit a very upscale one. A more typical afternoon tea would consist of a cup of tea, a few biscuits (cookies), and maybe a slice of cake.

Variations of afternoon tea include a “light tea,” in which the food is generally limited to sweets, such as biscuits, sponge cakes, madeleines, or trifle; “full tea,” in which various savory sandwiches are added to a large array of sweets; and “cream tea,” in which the principal food is scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry preserves. If fresh strawberries are served with the scones, the cream tea becomes a “strawberry tea.”

The misunderstanding about “high tea” comes from the interpretation of the word “high,” which is wrongly thought in this instance to mean “grand” or “elegant.” In fact “high tea,” usually served in working-class households, consists of simple, hot food—fried eggs, sausages, cheese, tomatoes, chips, beans, etc., as well as a cup of tea—and serves as the evening meal. Nowadays, one finds such a meal referred to as “high tea” mostly in Scotland and the North of England. In other places it may be known as “supper” of simply “tea.”

The best explanation I have come across as to why it’s called “high tea,” is that it was eaten around 6:00 p.m. by servants at a dinner table of standard height—as opposed to the low tea tables on which afternoon tea for the upper crust had been served, usually at about 4:00 p.m. Eaten from a more elevated table, the meal was therefore a “high” tea.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is usually high himself, but not from tea.

            The high and mighty
            Like their high tea,
            But I’ll take low tea
            Over no tea.