Thursday, December 31, 2009

When They Begin the Begging

Have you ever begged a question?  You probably have and perhaps didn’t even know it at the time.  It is a technical term in logic, also known as petitio principii, meaning “a fallacy in which a premise is assumed to be true without warrant.” You could also call it circular reasoning, as in the following unsuccessful attempt to prove a statement:
            Dick (accusingly): Jane committed perjury!
            Perry Mason (with aplomb): How do you know Jane committed perjury?
            Dick (sputteringly): Because...she wasn’t telling the truth!
If that’s all the testimony Dick can muster, Perry will win yet another case, and Jane will get off scot-free.

In recent years, however, some people—even some who possess college degrees and unabridged dictionaries—have begun to use “beg the question” to mean “avoid asking the proper a question, or fail to provide an answer.” After providing the technically correct definition (i.e. the logical fallacy), The Oxford Companion to the English Language adds this second definition--with a caveat:  "Avoiding giving an answer or facing an issue.  Henry Fowler in Modern English Usage calls the second sense 'a misapprehension of which many writers need to disabuse themselves.'”  

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is absolutely dogmatic: "'Begging the question' does not mean 'evading the issue' or 'inviting the obvious questions,' as some mistakenly believe. The proper meaning is 'basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof as the conclusion itself.'"

All this suggests rather conclusively that using "beg the question" to mean "avoid answering a question" is sub-standard.  

But wait!  Help for the sub-standard among us is on the way!

In Webster's  Collegiate Dictionary"  (2007) this is the entire definition for "beg the question": "1. to pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled. 2. to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response."  
The meaning of the term has evolved, and linguistic purists, kicking, screaming and pulling their thinning hair, must forgo attempts to put this wayward genie back into the bottle.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose unerring logic beggars all description, begged that this meretricious bit of doggerel be appended to this otherwise scholarly monograph:

I tried to beg the question,
But you said “Not a chance.”
And then I begged to differ,
As you just looked askance.
I asked to beg a favor,
Then I was double-crossed.
And when I begged your pardon, 
You told me to get lost.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Bouquet of Crash Blossoms

The New York Times calls attention to a new phrase added to the language during 2009—“crash blossom.”  This neologism is used to refer to infelicitously expressed newspaper headlines that produce double entendres that might be interpreted in more than one way.  The example in the Times is SHARK ATTACKS PUZZLE EXPERTS, with assurances that it doesn’t mean Will Shortz and his confreres are in danger.

What the Times article does not explain is how the phrase “crash blossom” originated.  Your intrepid blogger delved deep into the files to unearth the headline responsible: VIOLINIST LINKED TO JAL CRASH BLOSSOMS.  It appeared in the online edition of Japan Today over a story about the musician Diana Yukawa, whose father had been killed in a Japanese airline crash and whose career was now flourishing. Subsequent comment on this headline on the website resulted in the coinage of the phrase. 

Newspaper headlines lend themselves to unintended ambiguity since the people who write them, even though they may have summa cum laude Harvard English degrees, have to cram a lot of information into a rigidly restricted space on a tight deadline. A few of the more provocative “crash blossoms” that I have encountered are:








The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who whiled away many halcyon hours on the rim of a newspaper copydesk writing his share of crash blossoms, phoned in this late-breaking bulletin for the final edition:

            Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
            If it’s in print, there’s no doubt about it.

            Here is the news you really don’t need:
            Here is the news you’re dying to read:

            All of the news that’s not fit to print,
            About matters medical, sordid, or phallic,
            Takes on an air of importance by dint

Friday, December 25, 2009

Round John Virgin and Other Mondegreens

Christmas seems to encourage mondegreens.  In case you were not paying attention in your rhetoric class, a mondegreen is a mis-hearing of a poem or song lyric that ideally precipitates gales of uncontrollable laughter.  The word was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright in an essay titled “The Death of Lady Mondegreen” in Harper’s Magazine.  Wright recounted that as a child she used to hear a Scottish ballad that went (she thought)

      Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
      O, where hae ye been?
      They hae slain the Earl o’ Murray
      And Lady Mondegreen.

What they had done, of course, was to have slain the Earl and laid him on the green, and thus gave rise to a new bit of wordplay. 

The most famous Christmas mondegreen is probably “Round John Virgin” in “Silent Night,” but there are plenty of others, all of which purport to be actual misapprehensions by some befuddled listener. You may have heard of Rudolph’s companion, “Olive, the other reindeer,” or perhaps you have sung joyfully, “Noël, Noël, Barney’s the King of Israel.” Others have proclaimed “Get dressed, ye married gentlemen, let nothing through this May.”

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” so the song says, and some people believe “they’re going to build a toilet town all around the Christmas tree.”  Probably the same people revel in a “Winter Wonderland” because “in the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is sparse and brown” and “later on we’ll perspire as we drink by the fire.”

The champion, however, is the poor benighted soul who conjured up the painful image in “The Christmas Song” of “Jeff’s nuts roasting on an open fire.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a little trouble these days hearing song lyrics (and other things, as well), but he managed to come up with this seasonal ditty; then, giving a nod, up the escalator he rose.

      It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
      I feel in very fine fettle.
      But the Salvation Army
      Sent its band to alarm me
      By playing a carol in front of my kettle.

      It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     And, it’s fun to be St. Nicholas,
     But Santas find it bewilderin’        
     That some little children
     Like to pull on our beards and pinch us and tickle us.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     In fact, I think Christmas is here.
     I’ll just pick up my check
     And then hope like heck
     That I won’t have to put on a red suit next year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Highest Dudgeon

Since a customer strode into the blog the other day “in high dudgeon,” some of you have asked what dudgeon might be.  The short answer is that it is a state of indignant anger, and it is virtually never heard except in the phrase “in high dudgeon.”

The longer answer (which you know I’m itching to provide) is circuitous.  Of unknown origin (Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionaries agree on this), it can be confused with another dudgeon, which means “a type of wood [assumed to be boxwood] used to make the handles of daggers,” and hence “a dagger-handle made of such wood” and “a dagger” itself. This dudgeon is found most famously in Macbeth’s hallucinated knife: “Come, let me clutch thee / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still; / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood." First found in English in the early fifteenth century, dudgeon is a borrowing from Anglo-French, although the ultimate origin is unknown. 

There is no obvious connection between the “anger” word and the “hilt-wood” word, but it might conceivably refer to someone grabbing a dagger in anger.

But the etymology grows even murkier.  In 1573, Gabriel Harvey in his Letter-book, wrote, “... in marvelous great duggin,” meaning “indignation.”  One suggestion is that this word comes from the Italian aduggiare ("to overshadow”), relating it to umbrage.  Another possible root is the Welsh word dygen, meaning "malice or resentment," but as the O.E.D. heartbrokenly laments, “There is a distressing lack of evidence for that theory.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose normal state of mind is one of extremely high dudgeon, snarled the following lines before vanishing in a wisp of acrid smoke:
Hell, yes, I’m in high dudgeon,
           With no plans to rise above it.
I’m a certified curmudgeon—
You wanna make something of it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lead On

In high dudgeon, a frequenter of this blog has called outraged attention to a news account on the Internet in which a suspect “confessed and then lead police to the crime scene.”  Said frequenter’s ire can be easily discerned in the fulmination directed at the news outlet: “I don’t know who wrote this article – no ‘credit’ is given – but does your Web site have a proofreader? And does that person read and write English?! The past tense of 'to lead' is LED, not LEAD [yes, it’s pronounced the same way – in SOME cases – but the latter pronunciation is a base metal and not a verb]. Basic English, basic proofreading, basic writing.”

One can hardly improve upon this diatribe, except to point out that lead even when pronounced led can also be a verb, meaning to add the metal lead to something, e.g. “to lead gasoline,” “to lead windows,” or “to lead the seat of your pants.”

One can’t avoid some sympathy for those who misuse lead. English being what it is, there’s bound to be confusion between the past tense of lead, which is led, and the past tense of read, which is read  (pronounced red, but spelled read).  And I hate to even contemplate plead, whose past tense can be pleaded, pled, or plead (pronounced pled). 

The name of the heavy-metal band Led Zeppelin is said to have originated when Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, predicted the new group would go over "like a lead balloon.” Bassist and keyboardist John Entwistle thought it would be "more like a lead zeppelin.”  Undaunted, the new band adopted that name, changing the spelling to led in order to avoid mispronunciation.

Making no commitment as to how the following rhyming words should be pronounced, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou offers this ambiguous triplet about someone who seems either to have stolen a quantity of metal or starred in a play.
            In all the papers that I read,
            How eloquently your case you plead:
 That you were right to take the lead.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Gremlin in the Kremlin

A recent news item about the Russian government’s attempt to increase the tax on cars brought to mind the 1975 visit to the United States by the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. One of the company’s principal dancers, the late Maris Liepa, wanted to buy an American car and he chose a sporty little subcompact made by AMC called a “Gremlin.”  Liepa liked to boast, “I will have the only Gremlin in the Kremlin!”

So what’s a gremlin?  Funny you should ask, because that happens to be the subject of this blog. The word refers to a gnome-like creature that loves to mess up things, especially on aircraft. It’s an odd name for a car, when you stop to think about it. (Not so odd, however, as Chevrolet’s compact Nova was when marketed in Mexico, where no va can mean “won’t go.”)

According to the timid and ill-informed Messrs. Merriam and Webster, gremlin was first used in 1941, and its origin is unknown. Not true!  Funk & Wagnall’s folklore dictionary boldly goes where no etymologist has gone before, in speculating that gremlin derives from Old English gremian (“to anger or vex”) or from the Irish gruaimin (“bad-tempered little fellow”), conflated with the –lin from goblin, which is a 14th-century word for an ugly, grotesque and mischievous sprite.  The word gremlin was popularized by the Royal Air Force possibly as early as World War I. First appearance of a gremlin in print was in a 1929 poem in the journal Aeroplane.

The goblin-like Bard of Buffalo Bayou has chosen the limerick, or perhaps you could call it a gremerick, as today’s method of assault upon your esthetic sensibility:

            A gremlin, quite pleased with himself,
            Courted girls with his mischief and pelf.
                         “Watch me throw this monkey-wrench!”
                          He crowed to one spunky wench,
            But she upped and eloped with an elf. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Graduation Day

A relentlessly curious customer of this blog asks, “When did Americans start saying ‘I graduated college’ instead of ‘I graduated from college’?” Always eager to provide customer satisfaction, I got the facts. Actually, it’s hard to pin it down to a specific date like July 17, 1953—but it was probably sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Such usage is a misunderstanding of the meaning of graduate—and, for that matter, so is “I graduated from college,” although that phrase has graduated to grammatical respectability

The transitive verb to graduate means to “move (someone) to a higher degree,” and the original usage of the word in the sixteenth century was that the college or university graduated the student. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1588 document with the phrase “to commence or graduate such students as have finished their course.” The student, somewhat passively, was graduated.

By 1807 to graduate was being used in an intransitive sense with the student as the doer, so that a student graduated. If you wanted to know at what institution this procedure occurred, you added a prepositional phrase, such as “at Jack Rabbit University.” After a while, clearly demonstrating eagerness to escape from the clutches of their educational institutions, people began to graduate from someplace.

Sometime in the 1950s, people (maybe the same people) began to drop the from, and the verb became transitive again, with the institution rather than the student as the direct object, as in she graduated college. Like people shouting into cell phones in public places, to graduate college is heard more and more frequently nowadays. But even though the president of Jack Rabbit University, or Harvard for that matter, may use the phrase, it is still sub-standard English.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose graduation days were greeted warmly by all of his teachers, offers this valediction:

     I fear you will not graduate,
     Now please don’t cry and snuffle.
     It really is too bad you ate
     Your prof’s last chocolate truffle.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bono and the Boys in the Band

Have you ever wondered why Sir Paul David Hewson, KBE, is better known as Bono?  And why the group with which he performs is called U2, and not simply Paul Hewson’s Band?  Well, if so, wonder no more.

Hewson, born and raised in Dublin, was a member of a street gang whose custom was to confer nicknames on each other.  At first Hewson was given a name taken from a hearing aid store in Dublin—Bono Vox of O’Connell Street— which is a mouthful, especially for a nickname, so it was shortened to Bono  (pronounced to rhyme with guano, which is pronounced to rhyme with Bono.)  Bono Vox is a pseudo-Latin phrase meaning “good voice.”
As for the band’s name, that subject is rife with controversy.  Its supposed origins include the American spy plane that crashed in the Soviet Union in 1960,  an alleged Irish unemployment form number, the classroom number of the band members when they were in school,  a Berlin railway line, a pun on the words “you too,” and a name suggested arbitrarily by a friend for its ambiguity and chosen from a list because it was the name the band members disliked the least.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has chosen these lines from his current scribblings as those he dislikes the least, which is not to say he doesn’t dislike them quite a bit.
Yoo-hoo, you two,
What’s this to-do due to?           
Are you two new to U2?
Well, they are new to you, too.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sloe Motion

I used to hear people talk about “slow” gin, and I thought it was gin produced by a process that took longer than “quick” gin of the bathtub variety. Or perhaps it was the beverage Robert Benchley had in mind when a friend warned him that Martinis were slow poison, and Benchley replied, “That’s all right, I’m not in any hurry.” Now in my dotage, I have come to understand that it isn’t “slow” gin at all, but “sloe” gin.

The sloe is a kind of plum, defined in rapturously poetic terms by the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as the “small dark globose astringent fruit of the blackthorn.” A liqueur called sloe gin is made by soaking the blackthorn fruits for a long, long time in regular London dry gin.

The word sloe descended from the Middle English slo and Old English slāh, meaning plum. It is related to Russian sliva, and it shows up in slivovitz, the plum brandy made in many Slavic countries. The root word is also cognate with the words lavender and livid, which originally meant purplish (like a plum) from bruising, and now can mean blue-black, gray, reddish, or simply angry. 

Plagiarizing the poetry of Merriam-Webster's definition, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose lips have never touched sloe gin, offers this paean to the fruit:

      O, small and dark and globose fruit,
      Astringent fruit, how succulent!
      I scratched my hand on your blackthorn,
      And now I’m feeling truculent.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Undercover Work

In 1955 the energetic singer-pianist Little Richard recorded a lively song called “Tutti-Frutti,” which had lots of airplay on rhythm-and-blues radio stations.  The buttoned-down, white-shoed, laid-back choirboy Pat Boone followed quickly with his own less obtrusive recording of the same song, which became an even bigger hit with middle-of-the-road audiences.  Boone’s recording became known as a “cover version,” and by the mid-1960s the word cover was in general use in the music industry for a new rendition of a song previously recorded by a different artist.

Versatile little cover popped up in English sometime in the twelfth century, from the Latin coperire, “to close.”  As both verb and noun, it has worked overtime, with meanings that include “to guard from attack,” “to have within one’s range,” “to make provision for,” “to hide from sight,” “to copulate with,” “to deal with,” “to report news about,” “to defray the cost of,” “to substitute (for someone),” “to meet the terms of (a bet),” “an animal shelter,” “a bed cloth,” “a container lid,” “the front and back of a book or magazine,” “a pretext,” “a table setting,” and “a charge for entertainment.”

But why was it used to describe a subsequent version of a song?  Speculation abounds!

From the original meaning of a white artist’s recording made for mainstream audiences, some think the term refers to “covering” or obscuring any chance of success the earlier version by an African-American performer might have had.  Others emphasize the meaning of “hiding” or “disguising” the original, alluding  to espionage, where spies have “covers” to mask their true identity.  Yet others opine that it’s used in the business sense of "covering," i.e. “blanketing” the market, or that it refers to putting the song in a different album cover.

The usage may simply be an extension of one of the earlier meanings of cover, "to treat or deal with," as a lecture might cover Victorian poetry. It could also mean "to remove from remembrance," as in Psalm 32's "Blessed is he whose sin is covered."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, in a misguided attempt to cover the earlier work of John  Keats and rhymesters of his ilk, has issued this new release, which he delusionally believes will sail to the top of the charts:

    I love “Tutti Frutti,”
    It’s so cute and clever.
    Thank you, Little Richard, for this tune.
    It’s a thing of beauty
    And a joy forever—
    But only when recorded by Pat Boone.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Come Rain or Come Shine

A customer of this blog, who lives in Mauritius, has written to observe the almost universal tendency of  radio and TV weather forecasters to assume, as he puts it: “sun good, rain very bad.”  Even for the arid Sahara, the BBC mindset is to rhapsodize over “a really nice sunny day in North Africa.” On the other hand, in Mauritius, says the customer, the common reaction to a thundershower is, “We had some really good rain today!” 

Suggesting that rain has gotten a bad rap, the Mauritian reader reminds us of Shelley’s “Cloud” (“I bring fresh showers to the thirsting flowers”) and Shakespeare’s Portia, for whom the “gentle rain from heaven” is like “mercy.” And don’t forget Buddy DeSylva’s lilting lyric for “April Showers”: “So when it’s raining, have no regrets / Because it isn’t raining rain, you know, it’s raining violets.”

For anyone who requires geographical edification: the Republic of Mauritius, a member of the British Commonwealth, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, explored in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese and the Dutch, who named it for Holland’s Prince Maurits. Mauritius was once the home of the now extinct flightless bird called a dodo (from the Portuguese doudo, “silly or stupid.”)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has never been to Mauritius but is considered by many to be the last surviving dodo, could not be deterred from spewing this pluvial apologia:

    The rain in Mauritius
    Is not as pernicious
    As forecasters might have you think.
    The precipitation
    Provides irrigation,
    A wash, and a bath, and a drink.
    Owes an apology
    For saying rain’s something to rue.
    If it weren’t for the water,
    We’d all be much hotter,
    And have no way to flush in the loo.

Friday, December 4, 2009

‘When You Got It, Flaunt It!’

Stop the presses! No, no, in this case, keep them rolling. It is rare to encounter the verbs flaunt and flout in the same newspaper article—and, moreover, used correctly. But such was the case in a New York Times piece by Lawrence Sheets.  Writing about the Russian-Georgian conflict, he observed, “As if to flaunt their impunity…the Russians refused to let the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conduct observation patrols…”  Later Mr. Sheets insisted that “Moscow is openly flouting the cease-fire agreement it signed.…”

As if you didn’t already know, flaunt from Old Norse flanan (“to run around”) means to “display ostentatiously,” as Max Bialystock shouts to the world in The Producers: “That’s it, baby, when you got it, flaunt it!” Flout  (from Middle English flouten, “to play the flute”) means to “treat with contempt,” as Ross complains to Duncan in Macbeth:  “Norwegian banners flout the sky.”

But wait!  The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary says a secondary meaning of flaunt is “to treat contemptuously” (i.e. “to flout”), and it lists authors no less distinguished than Louis Untermeyer, Marchette Chute,  and R. T. Blackburn—writing in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Profesors, to boot!—as evidence.  The lexicographer adds, however, that if you use flaunt in that way, people may think you’re wrong.

What to do?  What to do?  The flat-footed Bard of Buffalo Bayou flounced in, fluttered a bit, and fluted as follows:

    Flaunt or flout?
    Flout or flaunt?
    Day in, day out,
    They tease and taunt.

    But I’m undaunted
    And never doubted
    They're often flaunted
    But seldom flouted.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Growing Pains

The Wall Street Journal reported a company’s “attempts to raise funds to grow the business had been unsuccessful.”  In the Chicago Tribune a banker said, "We're not going to be able to grow the economy fast enough.” The use of the verb grow in a transitive sense, meaning to cause something to increase, is both recent and archaic.  Howzat again?

As we all knew in the third grade, but may forget unless we remind ourselves every day, transitive verbs are those that take a direct object: I make trouble. Intransitive verbs are cleverly defined by grammarians as those that do not take a direct object: I persist. Some verbs, of course, are both transitive and intransitive: I drink. I drink gin.

Grow is a verb that can be both, but its transitive sense for most of recent history has been limited to either cultivating crops (I grow corn) or allowing something to develop on one’s body (I grow a beard).  To use grow to mean “increase or enlarge” something is both a very old usage and a relatively new one.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says such usage is obsolete, and it lists as its most recent instance a 1481 document in which King David grew Jerusalem.

Nowadays, however, grow has reasserted itself in a broadly transitive sense. Until quite recently, you would simply do what you could to help your business or your nest egg grow, all on its own. But starting a few years ago you had to get up out of the executive chair and grow it yourself. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary cites as authority for such usage a writer named J. L. Deckter—who (based on results of a Google search) exists only in the pages of Merriam-Webster.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, against all advice, has persisted himself to come up with this supplication:

     Please thrive me in the bloom of health,
     And flourish me with whiter dentures.
     And while you’re at it, grow my wealth
     And prosper me with prime debentures.