Monday, November 30, 2009

Little SPAM, Who Made Thee?

The origin of the word SPAM, a trademark of the Hormel Foods Corporation for its brand of canned pork and spices, has always been cloaked in mystery.  Hormel’s website disingenuously asks, “Does SPAM mean ‘spiced ham’?” and then coyly answers: “While some speculate the name came from mashing the two words together, SPAM family of products has come to mean so much more…the term ‘spiced ham’ simply doesn’t paint the right picture of what a can of SPAM Classic really is.  So in the end SPAM means SPAM.”  Huh?

To set the record straight, I cite an unimpeachable source, who requested anonymity on the grounds that she was speaking with her mouth full of SPAM.  The product first appeared in the 1930s as “Hormel Spiced Ham.” Ingredients listed on the can were chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Mmm, good!  One problem, however: anything labeled “ham” must consist entirely of meat from a pig’s hindquarters. A new name was desperately needed. 

At a New Year’s Eve party fun-loving company president Jay Hormel staged a contest for guests to come up with a name for the lunch meat.  The winner was the actor  Kenneth Daigneau, best known, if at all, for two Broadway flops (When in Rome and The Love Set).  He was no doubt glad to get a hundred dollars for suggesting SPAM, which at the time was said to be an acronym derived from “Shoulder of Pork And haM.”

Years later, in a skit on "Monty Python’s Flying Circus," chanting of the word Spam drowned out all the other dialogue, and hence the name was subsequently applied to unwanted email.  The new usage has been gamely accepted by Hormel in this statement issued with a noticeably forced smile:

"We do not object to use of this slang term, although…it should be used in all lower-case letters to distinguish it from our trademark SPAM, which should be used with all upper-case letters….Children will be exposed to the slang term 'spam' to describe unwanted commercial e-mail well before being exposed to our famous product SPAM. Ultimately, we are trying to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, 'Why would Hormel Foods name its product after junk e-mail?'"

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has been called both a ham and a turkey, found these lines in Dr. Seuss’s wastebasket:

    I do not like a can of SPAM,
    I do not like it cooked with yam,
    I do not like it smeared with jam,
    I do not like it served with lamb,
    I do not like it with a clam,
    I do not like one ounce, one gram,   
    I much prefer green eggs and ham.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Meryl Streep Can Make You Weep

Some of the customers of this blog have demanded to know exactly what a clerihew is, inasmuch as there have been some verses in earlier blogs characterized by that name. Okay: a clerihew is a verse form invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), an English journalist and author.  As a bored 16-year-old in chemistry class—and who hasn’t been?—he idly doodled these lines about the subject of that day’s lecture:

     Sir Humphry Davy
     Was not fond of gravy.
     He lived in the odium
     Of having discovered sodium.

Once he got in the habit of writing these bits of doggerel, he couldn’t stop (you know how that is), and in 1905, under the name of E. Clerihew, he published Biography for Beginners. It was a whole blooming book of four-line verses, in AABB rhyme scheme, in which the first line contained the name of a famous person, the second line rhymed with the name, and the last two lines made a whimsical comment about that person.  One of the terrific things about writing clerihews is that they don’t have to conform to metrical regularity, and you can toss around your dactyls and anapests with impunity.

Fuller details about E. C. Bentley and more samples than you would really like of actual clerihews (both his and mine) will be found in Words Gone Wild, a book-like object that will be on sale at your neighborhood icehouse next spring.  Meanwhile, please try to subsist on this latter-day clerihew, fetched up from the bottomless trunk of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.

    Meryl Streep
    Can make you weep,
    Especially when you see a
    Movie like Mamma Mia!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bah, humbug, everyone!

If Thanksgiving comes, can Christmas be far behind? In a New York Times review of the new movie A Christmas Carol, A. O. Scott commends the producers for retaining “much of the flavor of Dickens’s prose—not just the catchphrases like ‘Bah, humbug’ and ‘God bless us everyone,’ but also the formal diction and the moral concern.”  Well, okay, but to retain the flavor of Dickens’ catchphrases, you ought to catch ‘em the way he threw ‘em.

Ebenezer Scrooge never says “Bah, humbug”—run together, as Mr. Scott writes it, in a single utterance with only a comma between the two words.  Scrooge says “Bah!” (an interjection expressing contempt) only twice in the tale and both times it is followed not by a comma, but by an exclamation point, making it a complete and emphatic statement. “Humbug!” (a fraud or a hoax) follows, in both instances, as a separate statement with its own terminal punctuation.

A trivial point, I hear you say.  Bah!  Humbug!  What is punctuation, after all, but a few needless squiggles? WellIllsaymaybeyourerightbutmaybeyouarent.

Of more consequence is Mr. Scott’s parsing of “God bless us everyone.” What the absurdly cheerful Tiny Tim actually shrieks is “God bless us every one!”  I’m not so concerned about Mr. Scott’s omission of the exclamation point in this case—although its lack does give Tim’s outburst a curiously muted feeling for so festive an occasion—but more so about the running together of the two words every and one.  What Tim says, and what he undoubtedly means, is that he hopes that God will bless “us”—i.e. the Cratchit family—“every one,” that is each member of the family, without exception.  The use of the pronoun everyone, which means “all people,” goes far beyond the familial intent of Tim, whose exuberant benison follows the consumption of a slug of gin with lemon juice (what Dickens calls “hot stuff”).  No wonder he is so exuberant. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, not so fortunate as to be in the gin-infused state of euphoria that motivated Tiny Tim, threw a lump of coal on the fire, dipped his quill into the inkpot, and scratched out these sober words for the season:

    For all the joys of Christmas,
    We offer thanks galore
    To Charles John Huffam Dickens
    (And also Clement Moore).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Economics for Cynics

If Ambrose Bierce were around today—and, in fact, he might be, although remarkably advanced in years—he could explain the causes of the world’s economic troubles in a trice.  In 1905 Bierce published The Cynic’s Word Book, which was reissued in 1911 as The Devil’s Dictionary. In it he showed a sharper understanding of economic matters than those professional economists today who win Nobel Prizes by disagreeing vehemently with each other.  Bierce’s definition of Economy: “Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow you cannot afford.”

He also understood that greed on Wall Street was the source of much tumult.  He defined that bastion of financiers as “a symbol of sin for every devil to rebuke.” 

The complexities of Finance he reduced to one sentence, calling it “the art or science of managing revenues or resources for the best advantage of the manager.”

For solutions, Bierce had little confidence in either political point of view.  As a card-carrying cynic, he defined a Conservative as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

Journalist and short-story writer, Bierce was born in Ohio in 1842.  He was a newspaper editor and columnist in San Francisco, was later based in London, and then served as Washington correspondent for Cosmopolitan. In 1913 he went to Mexico, embedded himself as an observer in Pancho Villa’s army in Juárez, made it as far as Chihuahua, and has not yet been heard from since.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who cannot rival Bierce in either satirical skill or cynicism, try as he might—and he does—offers this modest clerihew in his memory:

     Ambrose Bierce,
     Though firm and fierce,
     Was easily annoyed by bureaucracy,
     Not to mention hypocrisy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stick to Your Principals

A recent newspaper article gave credit for a school’s higher test scores to its principle.  What powerful guiding principle governs this academy’s tutelage, I wondered. We should find out and glean wisdom from it. Could it be “Know thyself” or perhaps “The unexamined life is not worth living”?  Or maybe “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?  Reading further I discovered that this school’s principle is Shirley B. McFarland.

As you all realize, Shirley is the principal of the school, and while she may espouse noble principles and even impart them to her students, she herself is not one.  The words stem from the same Latin roots: primus (“first”) and capere (“to take”).  Principal, as an adjective meaning “most important,” directly from the Latin principalis, was used from the 12th century; by the 13th century it was a noun meaning the person who is the head of an organization.  Principle, which is always a noun, meaning “rule, law, doctrine, code of conduct,” has also been in use since the 13th century, having come to English via a detour through Middle French principe.

As the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary sagely advises: “If you are unsure which noun you want, read the definitions in this dictionary.”  Now why didn’t someone think of that sooner?

Leave it to the mostly unprincipled Bard of Buffalo Bayou to make the ultimate superfluous comment:

    I’m so confused about principal / principle
    I think my ignorance must be invinciple.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Full Monty

As part of what it called a “Python-A-Thon” the IFC cable channel recently aired a documentary conveying a few too many details about the British comedy show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” a mere 45 episodes of which are still providing endless hilarity on television 40 years after they were made.

Among the revelations was the origin of the show’s name. As explained by Pythons John Cleese and Eric Idle, it came about accidentally. While under development at the BBC, its bizarre wackiness caused it to become known, disparagingly, by staff members as the “flying circus” of its producer, John Howard Davies.  Some wag put the name “Flying Circus” in the BBC schedule, and higher-ups didn’t want to change it since it was already in print.  Idle came up with the idea of later adding a name in front of it, and he took “Monty” from a denizen of a pub he frequented, while Cleese suggested “Python” as a slippery surname connoting a reptilian entertainment agent.

Cleese’s name, by the way, is not accidental; his father purposely changed it from the original Cheese, with which it rhymes.  Tall person, silly walker, and fellow blogger Cleese, in fact, signs his blogs (at as “Jack Cheese.”  This clerihew by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou may strike you (even more than his usual output) as a bit cheesy:
        John Cleese
        Is really the Big Cheese.
        Cheddar, Cheshire, Stilton, Double Gloucester, Leicester—
        Any one will do for this Courtly Jeicester.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't Drive Fastly

A law-abiding driver I know encountered a sign that cautioned him to “Drive Slowly.” Never one to waste letters, he asked me whether the sign shouldn’t read “Drive Slow.” Never one to commit myself, I suggested that either slow or slowly would be correct. 

That is not my opinion only, but also that of others who actually receive money for sitting around thinking about such things.  One of them, Bryan A. Garner, opines in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: "Slow has long been treated as an immediate adverb, i.e. one not requiring the -ly suffix. It is ill-informed pedantry to insist that slow can only be an adjective. Though slowly is more common and is certainly correct, slow is often just as good. Let rhythm and euphony be your guides."

Accordingly, “Drive Slowly” sounds fine to me. It might sound even better and be more effective to admonish the hurried driver to “Go Slow.”  As Rex Stout the creator of Nero Wolfe (that portly detective who cavils at using contact as a verb) said: "Not only do I approve of the idiom 'Go Slow,' but if I find myself with people who do not, I leave quick."

If you drive the highways of Texas, you may spot an official road sign urging you to “Drive Friendly.” That sounds mighty neighborly, but most grammarians would wince at the use of the adjective friendly as if it were an adverb. There are quite a few adjectives—leisurely, lowly, saintly—spelled with –ly, tempting people to use them as adverbs, even though they aren’t. But trying to make proper adverbs out of them pushes one into absurd and virtually unpronounceable territory.  “Drive Friendlily”?  Approach such usage gingerlily.

The homely Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who moves more slow these days than in the past and likes to think things over as leisurelily as he can, managed to scholarlily scribble these words:

        To use the right term
        Take it easy, not easily.
        Be sure you act firm,
        Not firmly—that’s weasely.

        You must behave mean,
        And not ever meanly,
        And always come clean,
        Don’t try to come cleanly.
        If you’re in a saloon,
        Most inopportunely,
        You’d better leave soon,
        Or perhaps even soonly.

Friday, November 13, 2009

'Motley's the only wear'

A BBC commentator recently referred to the world economic picture as ‘mottled,” which he explained as meaning having some bright spots and some dark. The word can be traced to the 17th century and is a back-formation from the word motley, a 14th-century word whose origin, as dictionaries sheepishly admit, is obscure, but is probably from the Middle English mot, meaning “speck.” Motley means having diverse colors or variegated, sometimes incongruous elements. 

Motley was the design traditionally worn by court jesters and by the character of Harlequin in commedia dell’arte. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jaques expatiates upon a “motley fool” that he had met, concluding, “Motley’s the only wear.”  Motley fabric, made of green, red, and blue patchwork, set jesters apart from others at court and protected them from punishment when they irreverently spoke truth to power. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Wanda Sykes, and others of their clan might want to consider the prudence of wearing coats of many colors when they’re working.

Motley was the name adopted by three noted British costume designers, Margaret and Sophie Harris and Elizabeth Wilmot, who flourished in London and on Broadway from the 1930s to the 1960s.  “Costumes by Motley” was a frequent credit in theatre programs.

In the 1980s a hard rock band called Suite was formed by Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee.  Noted for hard living, disreputable attire, heavily tattooed bodies, and tasteless material, they were referred to by another band as a “motley looking crew.” They were apparently flattered by this sobriquet and decided to change their name to “Mötley Crüe,” adding irrelevant umlauts in tribute to Löwenbräu beer, then their beverage of choice.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a motley reputation himself, evident in his fascination with the diacritical marks, the umlaut and its identical twin, the diaeresis. 

    The umlaut and the diaeresis 
    Are simply pairs of dots.
    And you could write a lengthy thesis
    On the use of these small spots.

    The umlauts bring the Germans joy
    And thankfully allow
    Beer-halls to serve them Löwenbräu
    Instead of Loewenbrau.

    The diaeresis may look showy,
    But it makes sure you know

    A lovely, lilting name like Chloë
    Is not pronounced like Joe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'What A Coincidence!'

Caution: Sensitive young persons and some members of both political parties may find the following material offensive.

California’s Republican governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently stirred up a linguistic fuss with an allegedly rude message that accompanied his veto of a bill sponsored by a Democratic legislator who had heckled him and called him a liar. Did Schwarzenegger send an acrostic insult along with his reasons for vetoing the bill?

Acrostics are an ancient form of wordplay, in which the initial letters of the lines in a poem spell words.  The Greek word akrostichis means “the beginning of the line.” Greek poets loved to write acrostic love poems, spelling out the name of the beloved.  In England the acrostic experienced a revival under Queen Elizabeth I, who delighted in seeing her name spelled out in verses written in her praise. Queen Victoria wrote and published acrostic puzzles herself.

You be the judge of Schwarzenegger’s intent. This is the message sent with his veto of a bill dealing with financing for the port of San Francisco:

For some time now I have lamented the fact that major issues are overlooked while many
unnecessary bills come to me for consideration. Water reform, prison reform, and health
care are major issues my Administration has brought to the table, but the Legislature just
kicks the can down the alley.

Yet another legislative year has come and gone without the major reforms Californians
overwhelmingly deserve.  In light of this, and after careful consideration, I believe it is
unnecessary to sign this measure at this time.

When questioned about the possibility that an acrostic message was addressed to the legislator, a Schwarzenegger spokesman said, “My goodness!  What a coincidence!”  Mathematicians who claim to know how to figure such odds placed the possibility of its happening by chance as 10 million to 1—which makes it slightly more likely than winning the California lottery.

The cynical and sometimes foul-mouthed Bard of Buffalo Bayou penned this ode to the Gov.:

    How very effective I found your acrostic!
    Ornery enemies better beware.
    Lines like yours can be very caustic,
    You’d better be sure you construct them with care.

    Some folks might find your message offensive,
    How they would think that I really don’t know.
    It must be those Democrats—they’re too apprehensive
    To tell a coincidence from a clever bon mot.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Blob of Bloggers?

The English language has a number of specialized collective nouns that refer to groups of animals. The ones with obvious derivations are commonplace; we speak regularly and unthinkingly of a herd of elephants or cattle, a bed  of oysters or clams, a flight of birds, and a yoke of oxen. 

Others are less common, but still identifiable as variations on foreign or archaic words: a clowder (“clutter”) of cats, a kindle (from German kinder  or “children”) of kittens, a covey  (from Anglo-French covee , meaning “sit upon”) of quail, a gaggle (Middle English gaggelen or “cackle”) of geese, a litter (from an old word for animal bedding) of pigs,  a school  (Old English scolu or “multitude”) of fish, and a sleuth (“animal track”) of bears. 

Some phrases are clearly descriptive of the appearance, sound, action, or quality of the animal to which they refer: a pride  of lions, a crash of rhinoceroses, a leap of leopards, a cry of hounds, a spring of teals, a cloud of gnats, a knot of toads, and a nest of vipers.  Others are more obscure and have no ready etymological explanation: a grist of bees, a brace of ducks, a cast of hawks, and a husk of hares.

But best of all are those flights of poetic fancy that, through an imaginative leap that transcends etymology, seem precisely right for the animals they are describing: an exaltation of larks, a charm of goldfinches, a muster of peacocks, and a murder of crows. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes the language needs collective nouns for people as well, and he proposes the following for your consideration, and invites your additional suggestions:

    A stanza of poets
    An appeal of lawyers
    A consultation of physicians
    A syllabus of teachers
    A scoop of journalists
    A suite of hoteliers
    An exhibition of curators
    A genome of biologists
    A swatch of interior decorators
    A sack of investment bankers
    A fist of money-lenders
    A clutch of hedge-fund managers
    A porkbarrel of legislators
    A claim of insurance executives
    A miter of bishops
    A casserole of church ladies
    A bombast of talk-show hosts

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Fewer the Better

An astute follower of this blog, a Ms. Marsh of Frogmorton or thereabouts, comments with unconfined joy that the supermarket at which she purchases her vegetable marrows has erected signs at the express checkout counters that read “10 Items or Fewer.”  The cause of her elation is not that she is able to whisk through the line in a speedier manner—but that some greengrocer-grammarian recognizes the difference between fewer and less.

Conventional rules prescribe that fewer should be used for numbers of things ("I want fewer  than ten bottles of beer") and less for quantities and units of measure ("I want less beer" or "I want less than three pints of beer").  But nothing is as simple as it seems, even for a beer-soaked village grammarian.  As the estimable Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by lawyer-lexicographer Bryan A. Garner, explains, “The exception in using fewer occurs when count nouns are so great as to render the idea of individual increments meaningless. So less  is used correctly with time or money.” In other words, you should say a goal was achieved in “less than ten years” or that something will cost you “less than two dollars a day."

Sometimes it gets tricky, depending on inexpressible contextual factors.  You might, quite correctly, rob four banks in “less than ten days,” but then you might, equally correctly (if leniently), be sentenced to “fewer than ten days in jail.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou took fewer than eleven moments to come up with the following suggestion for those supermarket signs:

     If you’re quite sure
     You’ve ten or fewer
     Items on your shopping list,
     Check out quickly—we insist!

     For ten or less
     There’s no express—
     Get in line, for in this store
     We believe that less is more.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Brum's the Word

A recent dust-up on Twitter was occasioned by a posting—from “brumplum”—criticizing the popular British actor Stephen Fry.  The nature of the criticism was minor, apparently nothing more than calling Fry’s own posts “boring,” but Fry has nearly a million admiring Twitter followers, many of whom erupted in anger at the audacity displayed by “brumplum.” Brumplum was identified in the press only as someone named Richard, from the English city of Birmingham (pronounced BURM-ing-um.) 

Birmingham is the origin of the “brum” part of the Twitter moniker (you may speculate about why Richard regards himself as a plum).  Brum is a slang contraction of Brummagem, which was a dialectical name for Birmingham, probably derived from the city’s Saxon name of Bromwicham. Etymologists believe the name Birmingham derives from Beorma inga's ham ("homestead of the people of Beorma,” who was reputedly a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon king.)  Beorma is not known to have visited Alabama, but no doubt would be pleased to know his name is also memorialized there.

Natives of the English Birmingham (and students and alumni of its university) are sometimes referred to (affectionately or contemptuously, as the case may be) as “Brummies.”  The word brummagem, sad to say, also means “counterfeit or tawdry,” the result of a spate of bogus coins produced there in the 17th-century and also of the city’s reputation in the 19th century for manufacturing cheap jewelry, toys, and souvenirs.

Full disclosure: The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a Brummie, having spent two years enrolled as a graduate flâneur at the University.  His dissertation consisted of this cryptic comment:
        There’s a limerick that’s very risqué
        That’s been around for many a day
            About two girls from Birmingham
            And the Bishop confirming ‘em—
        But that’s all that I’m going to say.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nice Try

In The New York Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan suggested that the most popular word in English is nice.  He recalled its ubiquity in his British childhood as a catch-all word for “near-approval” in such contexts as a “a nice cup of tea,” a “nice teacher,” and the Prime Minister’s “nice smile.”

The original meaning of nice, however, you would not think very nice if applied to you. It came from 14th-century French and meant “ignorant,” from the Latin nescius. Later it evolved into “stupid, foolish, wanton, lascivious, lewd, slothful, lazy, rare, uncommon, and strange.”  Somehow, by the 17th century it meant “cultured or refined,” as well as “delicate and in need of tactful handling, coy, reticent, punctilious, and finicky.” How versatile it has been!

In the first edition of his Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755, Samuel Johnson defines nice simply as “accurate, scrupulous, delicate.”  In the 1773 edition, he added a number of meanings with literary attributions: “often used to express a culpable delicacy” (Sidney); “scrupulously and minutely cautious” (Shakespeare); “fastidious, squeamish, refined” (Milton).

But it was someone whom the Oxford English Dictionary identifies as Miss Carter who first wrote the word nice with its modern meaning of “agreeable and pleasing,” in a letter in 1769: “I intend to dine with Mrs. Borgrave, and in the evening to take a nice walk.”  Everyone jumped on that nice bandwagon, and by 1837 a Major Richardson wrote of “The Commandant, whom I found to be a very nice fellow.” Later the word  also came to mean “polite, proper, respectable, well-bred.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose guide in lexicography is not Samuel, but the Runyonesque Nicely-Nicely Johnson, is loath to forgo archaic meanings because he never knows when they may come in handy. He forwarded this verse, which nicely makes his point:

     If you say I am nice, you mean I’m cultured and refined,
     Polite, well-bred, agreeable, respectable, and kind.
     But when I say you’re nice, it’s in quite a different mood:
     You’re stupid, lazy, ignorant, lascivious, and lewd.