Monday, December 27, 2010

Mojo Lost, Mojo Regained

For a short period after the November elections, President Obama was beset with political problems—trying to get legislation through a sometimes hostile, lame-duck Congress, parrying attacks from the Tea Party right, and even having to fend off sharp criticism from some fellow Democrats. Pundits ascribed these troubles to the loss of his “mojo.”  The powers of persuasion, the irresistible charisma, the eloquent oratory that were so prominent in his campaign were failing him as President, said the analysts.

But with such successes as the passage of the tax-cut/stimulus package, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” approval by the Senate of the New START Treaty, enactment of the 9/11 compensation bill, and improved voter ratings, President Obama hit the comeback trail and seemed to have his mojo back.

So what is this thing called “mojo”?  Who has it? What’s it good for?  How do you get it?  Patience, and all will become clear.

I used to think “mojo” was some kind of compound word, constructed from “mocha” and “joe”—meaning a kind of coffee.   After that I got it mixed up with “Moho,” the nickname of the Mohorovičić Discontinuity, which is the boundary separating the earth’s crust from its mantle. Project Mohole was a failed attempt in the 1950s and 1960s to drill through the earth’s surface to reach the Moho.

The truth is “mojo” is a word of African and Creole descent that means “magical power.” The name was applied to a hoodoo amulet made of herbs and animal and mineral fragments wrapped in a red flannel cloth. It probably derives from the Fulani word moco’o (“medicine man”) and was first noted in American English usage in the 1920s.  In its broader usage, it means “self-confidence, sex appeal, dynamic personality.”

As it happens, there are lots of Mojos out there.   A Marvel Comics villain goes by that name, as do a video game, a British rock music magazine, a British black comedy by Jez Butterworth, a monkey helper on an episode of The Simpsons, and a Southwestern U. S. yogurt restaurant chain.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou lost his mojo some while ago, but he has never given up looking for it.  He thinks he may have accidentally left it in one of the shady establishments that he frequents while writing louche verses on the backs of napkins, to wit: 

            When I met V. P. Biden,
            I said to him, “You know, Joe,
            I think perhaps the Prez
            Has lost some of his mojo.”

            “His mojo’s fine,” said Biden,
            “Rest assured of that—
            Except when it is tried on
            A fellow Democrat.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Post and Mail

This is the time of year when our mailboxes (I mean the real kind, not the electronic ones) are filled with all manner of material—catalogs, Christmas cards, ads for caviar and candy, and cunning come-ons for charitable contributions. In the United States, that mail is delivered by the United States Postal Service.  In Britain, the post is delivered by the Royal Mail. Ask an Englishman if the “mail” has come, and he will probably figure out what you mean, but it will sound odd to him, just as it would if you ask an American if the “post” has come.

The word post is derived from the Latin posta and French poste, and originally meant a “stand, or station.”  From the late sixteenth century the word applied to men on horseback (think Pony Express) stationed at appropriate intervals on a road (later called a post-road), whose duty it was to ride with packets containing the King’s dispatches.  Pals of the King soon persuaded him to let the riders carry their messages, too, and the modern postal system began.

Mail is a word from Old High German malha and Dutch maal, meaning a “bag, packet, or wallet.” By 1654 people were talking about a “mail of letters,” meaning a batch of letters packaged up to be delivered by post. By 1674 post and mail were used synonymously, to mean the letters (in a packet) carried by the post-riders. 

In the United States, by 1890, mail by itself was used to mean the batch of letters delivered to a specific person.
Both Post and Mail have become popular names for newspapers, since the earliest news was conveyed by means of letters carried by the post-riders.  You might think it a bit redundant that there is one newspaper, in Columbia City, Indiana, that calls itself The Post & Mail.

At the Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s home, the postman always rings twice.  That’s to rouse the Bard from the stupor in which he is sometimes found, while spinning gossamer verses like the following:

            Every time I get a letter,
            I wish that it were something better,
            Awarding me a Nobel Prize,
            A year’s supply of chocolate pies,
            Admission to the hall of heroes,
            Perhaps a check with lots of zeroes,           
            An invitation from a hottie
            To come and meet some literati,
            Or just a notice with the news
            I’ve won a Caribbean cruise.
            Instead—rejection slips from editors,
            Snarky claims from nasty creditors,
            Piles of bills I thought I’d paid,
            Appeals for cash I can’t evade;
            A magazine that I desired
            Says my subscription has expired;
            My bank insists I’m overdrawn,
            My broker says my nest egg’s gone.
            Mister Postman—I surrender,
            Take this junk, return to sender.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Apostrophe: It’s Finding Its Place

Matthew Inman, who writes a blog under the sobriquet “The Oatmeal,” recently posted a most useful poster called “How to Use an Apostrophe.”  You can see it at, or you can buy an 18”x24” copy to hang on  your living room wall for $11.95--but if you don’t want to bother with any of that, here’s a summary:

Don’t use an apostrophe to make a plural, except for letters of the alphabet and numbers. Do use an apostrophe followed by an “s” to indicate a possessive—unless it’s the possessive of a plural already ending in “s,” in which case the apostrophe follows the “s”—or unless it’s the possessive of a pronoun (like his, hers, ours, and its).  Do use an apostrophe to indicate contractions (omission of letters).

That’s about it.  The big trap to avoid is the its vs. it’s dilemma. It’s is a contraction of “it is” and its is the possessive of it.  The reason for this confusion is that when printers started using apostrophes in the sixteenth century, they served three purposes: to indicate the omission of letters, to distinguish a possessive from a plural, and to form a plural of certain words (those ending in vowels and the consonants z, s, ch and sh). For centuries people were unclear about which meaning was intended, and very respectable writers often misused the apostrophe. Washington Irving reportedly used apostrophes to indicate possessives less than half the time, and George Bernard Shaw never used them at all for contractions.  

By the way, other grammar posters “The Oatmeal” has available include How to Use a Semi-Colon, When to Use i.e. in a Sentence, and Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no posters available, but he will come to your home, often unbidden, and recite his gnomic work, such as the following:

            It kindles very little drama
            If someone finds a wayward comma;
            A colon and a semi-colon
            Don’t require the smarts of Solon;
            And there’s no problem with the myriad
            Misuses of the useful period.
            But there’s one punctuation mark
            That often leaves us in the dark,
            Wondering if it’s expressive
            Of contraction or possessive.
            And all too often the apostrophe
            Results in linguistic catostrophe.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Average

Every day we read about  “average” interest rates, “average” gas prices, batting “averages,” “average” SAT scores, and the iconic Dow Jones Industrial “Average”—among dozens of other numerical indexes that purport to denote the general state of affairs in many aspects of life.  But what, exactly, is an “average”?

One of the more appealing dictionaries (its cover is bright red) tells us that an average is “a single value that summarizes or represents the general significance of a set of unequal values.”  Ten bucks says you didn’t know it derives from an Arabic word used to describe a proportional allocation of costs arising from cargo damaged in shipping.  

If you read further, and at this point, you might as well, you will learn that there are three basic kinds of averages, and they do not necessarily produce the same result.  They are the arithmetic mean, the median, and the mode.  The mean is the quotient of the sum of a set of values, divided by the number of values in the set.  The median is the value at which there are an equal number of greater and lesser values.  And the mode is the single value with the largest number of instances in the set. (I knew I should have taken a math course in college.) 

For example, suppose you wanted to find the “average” hourly legal fee charged by attorneys in your town. (Don’t ask me why.) Let’s assume there are 11 lawyers; 5 charge $500 an hour, 1 charges $300, 4 charge $200, and 1 poor guy who barely passed the bar exam charges just $100 an hour and is lucky to get it when he does, which is seldom. What’s the average hourly legal fee? (I knew I should have become a lawyer.)

The mean would be the sum of the 11 lawyers’ fees ($3,700) divided by the 11 lawyers, or an average of $336.36 an hour (check the math if you don’t believe me).  The median, however, would be just $300, since there are an equal number of values below and above it.  Finally, if you preferred, you could say the average hourly rate is $500—since that is the mode, the value that is represented by the largest number of instances. 

Ergo, when someone quotes an “average” to you, be sure you know what is meant.

There is no way of knowing what is meant by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose poems have defied the most assiduous explication de texte.

            The average man is not too smart--
            He’s ignorant of modern art,
            Klee, Kandinsky and de Kooning
            Send him into fits of groaning.
            Grand opera he cannot abide,
            When Valkyries ride, he’ll hide.           
            Chamber music to him brings
            The sound of scraping on the strings.

            Modern novels are a bore,
            And poetry is even more.
            He won’t attend solo recitals
            Or watch a film that has subtitles.

            The average man’s a Philistine,
            His lack of learning is obscene,
            He shuns high culture when he can--
            Good grief! I am that average man!

Monday, November 29, 2010

No Sex, Please, We're Skittish

In his lengthily-titled 2004 book, The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time: Wit and Wisdom from the Popular "On Language" Column in The New York Times Magazine (whew!), the late pundit William Safire considers the difference between the words celibate and chaste. He admits to having once erred in a comparison of those words when he said (correctly) said that celibate means “unmarried,” but defined chaste (wrongly) as “refraining from all sexual intercourse.” 

Chaste (from the Latin castus, meaning “pure”) actually means abstention from unlawful sexual activity.  It is most commonly thought of as meaning no sex except between married partners. But—like what the meaning of is is—the definition of unlawful has many interpretations. 

In civil law, illicit sexual activity may be variously defined in different jurisdictions.  Adultery, for example, is perfectly legal in most European countries, but it is severely punished, with penalties including death, in some Middle Eastern lands. Adultery is illegal (though rarely prosecuted) in most U. S. states, but the offense is defined differently in North Carolina than it is in New York. 

Doctrines of certain religious groups permit practices (polygamy, say) that others regard as unlawful. Some religions permit same-sex marriages, while others require celibacy of their clergy.  So before you can try to be chaste, you have to know whose laws you’re living under.

The cultural historian Jacques Barzun (who, incidentally, celebrates his 103rd birthday tomorrow at his home in San Antonio) goes a step further in defining chaste.  He is quoted by Safire as saying: “It is quite possible to be unchaste in marriage—by excessive sexual indulgence, perpetual search for means to heighten pleasure, and anything like animal violence that disregards the partner…”

Celibate, from the Latin word for “unmarried”—caelibatus—is also loosely used sometimes, especially when applied to a religious vow, to mean abstaining from all sexual intercourse.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou recalls the young Catholic priest who, after taking his final vows, complained: “Now you tell me! I thought that word was celebrate.”  The Bard can usually tell one word from another, as you may judge from the following scurrilous screed:

            A young lady of questionable taste
            Said “yes” with unseemly haste
            When invited to bed,
            Because, as she said,
            She’d rather be chased than chaste.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Help! Call the Metaphor Police!

From time to time The New Yorker has column fillers quoting instances from other publications of metaphors that have gone wrong—either inappropriately mixed with others or extended far beyond their useful lives. 

For example, a periodical called Our Town quoted Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa as saying: “I’ve spent a lot of time in the subways. It’s a dark and dank experience….The moment that you walk into the bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you immediately cringe.”  The New York Times reported the words of an International Monetary Fund official: “As I look at it with a broad brush, there are a lot of things going south at the same time. There’s no silver bullet out there.” And I love the wildly improbable advice of a rhyming headline in The Tulsa World:
            STEP UP TO THE PLATE
            AND FISH OR CUT BAIT

Even more fun was a competition that The Washington Post used to sponsor in which readers were asked to become writers and submit entries for purposely atrocious metaphors or similes. A few of the best, or should I say worst:

            Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its   
sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

            His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and 
 alliances like underpants in a dryer without 
            Cling Free.

            He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from
            experience, like a guy who went blind because he 
            looked at
 a solar eclipse without one of those     
            boxes with a pinhole in 
it and now goes around the 
            country speaking at high 
schools about the dangers 
            of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those 
            boxes with a pinhole in it.     
            She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli, and 
 was room temperature beef.

            She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that 
            sound a
 dog makes just before it throws up.

            Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a

            The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But
            unlike Phil, this plan just might work.


            He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame 

            duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, 
 from stepping on a land mine or something.

            The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended 

            one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

Burning his candle at both ends while jumping out of the frying pan, throwing fat on the fire, and fanning the flames, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou keeps his head down, his chin up, his eyes wide open, his mouth shut, and his nose clean, as he slides effortlessly down the razor blade of life, dropping metaphors like bread crumbs as he goes:

            My life is just an open book,
            And it has been too brief.
            Each time I take another look
            At turning a new leaf,
            I find, alas, to my dismay,
            It’s just as I have feared:
            Nothing’s black-and-white—it’s gray,
            And every page dog-eared.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ha, Ha!

We’ve had a look in earlier blogs at the ugliest words in the English language as well as the most beautiful.  Now comes Robert Beard with a book called The 100 Funniest Words in the English Language. What’s next—the tackiest words, the nerdiest words, and the sleaziest words?  Go for it! 

Beard tackles the funny words in two ways: the way they sound and what they mean.  I’ve selected a few from his hundred that strike me as at least mildly amusing.  How about absquatulate?  From heaven knows what root words, it means to “depart” or also to “sit or squat.”  The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s a “factitious” word and sniffs further that it’s American in origin.  Webster’s New International cites the word in an Arnold Bennett quotation: “No, you take the armchair; I’ll absquatulate on the desk.”  Not on my desk, you won’t!

Callipygian comes to us from the Greek kalli (“beautiful”) and pyge (“buttocks”)—and that’s just what it means: having a pleasingly shapely derrière.

Codswallop appears in no dictionary I possess, but Dr. Beard says it means “nonsense,” and I’ll take him at his word.

A furphy, says Dr. Beard, is a portable water container, but my dictionary insists that it’s Australasian slang for a rumor—so-called from the Furphy Brothers, who made scavenger carts for use in an army camp in Victoria. 

Gazump is a useful word if you wish to buy something that has previously been promised to somebody else.  Again, my dictionaries are no help, so I’m not sure if gazump is transitive or intransitive: do you gazump the object you’re buying or the person from under whose nose you snatched it?  Or do you simply gazump?

In the same orthographic pew is gongoozle.  Once more I’m forced to take Dr. Beard’s word for its meaning—and even for its very existence—since I can’t find it in Webster or the O.E.D.  Supposedly it means to “stare at” or “kibitz.” 

When we get to mumpsimus, I’m on solid ground, for Webster not only defines it (“a custom or tenet held in error, or one who holds it”) but also tells the charming story of its alleged origin.  An aged priest for years had been misreading the Latin word sumpsimus (“we have taken”) in the missal as mumpsimus. When at last someone corrected him, he refused to change, saying he would not replace his old mumpsimus with a new sumpsimus.

To round out our short list of funniest words, how about snollygoster, “a person who cannot be trusted.”  As with many of the other funny words, the mainstream dictionaries won’t touch it—although, when I looked it up, I did come across another candidate for funniest word: slubberdegullion, which is a slob.

Well, anyway, after perusing all these funny words, I hope you’re ROFL.

As might be expected, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou wishes you to know that he can be funny, although he is usually just funny in the head.
            I hope that you’ll agree that it is not too late
            For every one who wishes to absquatulate,
            To get up off his callipygian rump,
            And show us that he’s able to gazump.
            Now should he chance to be a snollygoster,
            His name will never show up on our roster,
            And we’ll appreciate his firm refusal
            To sit around the house and just gongoozle
            Those who, like the famous writer Trollope,
            Have looked at life and said it’s all codswallop.          

Monday, November 8, 2010

How’s That Again?

A headline over a recent “Dear Abby” column in a newspaper whose copyeditors should know better proclaimed the plight of a troubled young woman thus:


My first thought, naturally, was what sort of hole would be suitably filled by a baby? Is it a hole in the ground, or in a wall, or maybe on a golf course?  What size and shape should the baby be?  Would the baby go into the hole head or feet first, or possibly lengthwise?  Would the baby provide a permanent filling to the hole, or would this be merely a stopgap solution?

You can imagine my surprise when I read the letter from “Lovesick” and discovered that the “hole” was apparently metaphorical and referred to a void in Lovesick’s life after her boyfriend left her. 

The unintentionally comical headline, a sort of double entendre sometimes known as a “crash blossom” (for reasons an entire blog was needed to explain last December), is an occupational hazard of newspaper copyeditors, who are rushed to convey the gist of a news article in a prescribed space on a tight deadline while a news editor yells at them, “Where’s that 2-column head for page three?”  It’s a wonder there aren’t more crash blossoms, but there are plenty, such as:






And now a few embellishments to the above headlines by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou:

            SAYS HE IS SORE!
            2 FOOT DOCTORS
            CAN’T REACH THE DOOR!
            BIG HEROINE BUST

            WHO DID HIMSELF IN,

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sculp or Sculpt?

"Mold or shape” was a crossword puzzle clue in a recent issue of well respected newspaper in an Eastern metropolis (it was The Boston Globe, if you must know). The answer was SCULP. If this word looks odd to you, I am not surprised.  I should have thought SCULPT was the word, and the puzzle-maker was in error.  But it’s more complicated than that.

According to most dictionaries, the preferred verb is to sculpture, same as the noun.  Sculpt is a back-formation, which was first noticed by an observant lexicographer in 1864.  Sculp, says Bryan Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is a “needless variant” of sculpt

But the big Webster’s says sculp is both “obsolete” and “humorous,” and, furthermore, says the word also means to remove the skin and blubber of a seal or to break slate into slabs. The Oxford English Dictionary finds that sculp was used as early as 1784, so it predates sculpt by sixty years. The OED labels sculp as “jocular” and sculpt as “ludicrous,” so maybe we’d just better say carve and let it go at that.

The sculptured visage of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was frozen in a maniacal rictus when he read over these lines before forwarding them in a plain brown envelope for publication:
            A sculptor who was brave and gallant,
            Did not possess a crumb of talent.
            His carving of a local hero
            Would barely earn a grade of zero.
            The patron viewed it with dismay,
            And angrily refused to pay.
            The sculptor said, “I want what’s due,
            So I’m afraid I’ll have to sue.”
            And when the suit wound up in court,
            The judge dismissed it with a snort,
            Invoking, in his observations,
            The sculptor’s Statue of Limitations.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fire When Ready

During these tough economic times, a goodly number of unfortunate people have had to ankle their jobs. Ankle, with the suggestion of walking, is Variety-ese for “to leave a position,” either voluntarily or otherwise.  The otherwise part, as many know too well, can be expressed in a variety of words meaning “to dismiss” or “to discharge” an employee.  Some have long etymological histories, which you probably didn’t stop to investigate when you were being fired, sacked, canned, or axed. 

Most common nowadays is to fire, or, if on the passive side of the equation, to be fired. As a metaphorical verb, fire has been around at least since the 12th century, when it meant “to arouse or excite,” stemming from the Old English word fyrian, “to supply with fire.”  The first known usage of the word meaning “to dismiss from employment” occurred in the 1880s. It probably originated as a play on the two meanings of discharge, i.e. “to fire a gun” and “to terminate employment.” Originally the phrase was fired out (of a job), but in 1889, the Pall Mall Gazette used the word in its modern sense: “A Commissioner who should be discovered to have reported a subordinate unjustly would be fired from his high post.”

To sack a worker has even older provenance.  Perhaps originating from the idea of an artisan going away with his tools in a bag, the original term was to give the sack (to someone).  A 17th century French occurrence of the phrase luy a donné son sac has been noted by the Online Etymological Dictionary. An 1841 article in the Catholic News reported: “He said that he had just come from Glasgow, and that he had been ‘sacked.’”

To can, meaning to preserve foods in tin cans can be found as early as 1871, but its use as a synonym for dismiss—probably with the connotation of one’s being put out of circulation—dates only to 1905. And ax, meaning to economize either by cutting expenses or cutting employees from the payroll, came into general usage in the 1920s.

The British, in their inscrutable delicacy, prefer to make an undesired worker redundant

Redundancy is the raison d’être of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, to wit:  

            No sooner had the boss agreed to hire me,
            Than she began to threaten she would fire me,
            Ax me, can me, sack me, terminate me.
            And that began to really aggravate me.
            But most of all it would antagonize me
            If I heard her threaten to downsize me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lopping Sweaters

Weekend Edition, heard Sundays on National Public Radio, recently had a contest for listeners to create a riddle whose answer is a spoonerism.  As you all know, or should if you read Words Gone Wild (Skyhorse Publishing, $22.95), a spoonerism is a transposition of the initial sounds of two words so that it results in two other words, preferably humorous in their context.  The Rev. William Archibald Spooner, who was a very dizzy bean of New College at Oxford University, was noted for committing this verbal blunder—expressions such as “the Lord is shoving leopard” and the like.

The winning entry of the NPR competition was from Michael True of Falls Church, Virginia—or was that Michael Falls of True Church, Virginia?  Anyway, his riddle, judged the best of probably hundreds, maybe thousands, that were submitted, is: What’s the difference between a wedding chapel and a restaurant’s daily specials? The answer: One is a marrying venue, and the other is a varying menu.

The runners-up were pretty good, too.  Pat Mauer of Los Angeles wanted you to guess the difference between a guinea hen and a young witch, and if you didn’t know, you would be told: One is a wild chicken and the other is a child Wiccan.

I also liked Gary Disch’s third-place entry, all the way from Ottawa: the difference between a dasher and a haberdasher is that one makes short spurts and the other makes sports shirts.

The Bud of Barfalo Bayou has been known to spoonerize in his time, too.

            In full-length mink and fine fur hat,
            She thought that she disguised her fat.
            Most people found her fur suit hairy,
            And thought she was a hirsute fairy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beauty Contest

A couple of blogs ago I provided readers with some of what are regarded as the ugliest words in the English language—you remember flatulent, cacophony, sticktoitniveness, phlegm, kumquat, and all those others.  Now the Beautiful People who use Beautiful Words have demanded equal time and space. 

There is no shortage of words regarded as beautiful.  Not too long ago in The New York Times “On Language” column, Grant Barrett reported that an incredible number of people think that the most beautiful word we can come up with (actually two words) is cellar door.  Among those who have unaccountably expressed such a view are H. L. Mencken, Albert Payson Terhune, Henrik Willem Van Loon, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Jean Nathan, C. S. Lewis, Norman Mailer, and Dorothy Parker (although she confessed she really preferred the words check enclosed).  The screenplay of Donnie Darko also explores the idea of cellar door’s beauty.  

Cellar door was not among the words Wilfred Funk (you know, Funk & Wagnalls) offered in a lengthy list, topped by asphodel, fawn, dawn, chalice, anemone, tranquil, hush, golden, halcyon, camellia, and bobolink.

Wordmaster Willard R. Espy (An Almanac of Words at Play) compiled his own list of beauties for The Book of Lists.  Heading Espy’s list (surprise!) is gonorrhea, presumably chosen for its sound alone.  Others Espy favors are gossamer, lullaby, meandering, mellifluous, murmuring, onomatopoeia, Shenandoah, and wisteria.

Dr. Robert Beard, who operates a website called AlphaDictionary, has a list of one hundred beautiful words, in alphabetical order, a few highlights of which are:  chiaroscuro, diaphanous, evanescent, epiphany, languor, mellifluous, obsequious, penumbra, propinquity, symbiosis, and syzygy.

A survey of noted authors turned up these favorites: home (Lowell Thomas), Chattanooga (Irvin S. Cobb), violet (Louis Untermeyer), and cuspidor (James Joyce).  Maybe Joyce was actually thinking of cellar door.

Finally, the British Council polled non-English speakers who were learning the language, and their choices for most beautiful English words included:  mother, love, passion, smile, eternity, destiny, bliss, cherish, enthusiasm, lullaby, sunshine, sweetheart, bumblebee, coconut, flabbergasted, hiccup, peekaboo, and whoops.

Your nominees for Most Beautiful will be read with interest by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, before he tosses them into the wastebasket.

            Oh, how I love you, cellar door,           
            You are a joy, a thing of beauty,
            Much nicer than the basement floor,
            Although that, too, can be a cutie.

            O, cellar door, please give me more,
            You always make me feel ecstatic.
            The first-floor door is such a bore,
            And I hate the doorway to the attic.

            For cellar door I shout “Encore!”
            I dream of you in restless slumber.
            What is it that I so adore?
            You’re just some hardware and some lumber.

            No, it’s not a hasp or plank
            That thrills me with such blissful twinges,
            For what I love—and I’ll be frank—
            O, cellar door, is all your hinges!

Monday, October 4, 2010

That’s So Retro!

Taken pictures with a film camera lately?  Ridden an upright bicycle?  Or eaten any pork bacon?  These seemingly redundant expressions are known as retronyms—new terms created from existing words in order to distinguish the original referent from a later one, usually as a result of technological advance. The word retronym was coined in the 1980s, from the Latin retro (“backward”) and the Greek onuma (“name”).

Time was when all cameras used film, all bicycles were upright, and all bacon was as porcine as Paddy’s pig.  But then came digital cameras, recumbent bicycles, and turkey bacon, so the qualifier was needed for the originals.  Same thing with acoustic guitars, cloth diapers, snow skis, beef fajitas, analog clocks, hot tea, biological parents, manual typewriters, push mowers, the naked eye, and snail mail. Even real life has been coined to distinguish what we live every day from soap operas or simulated life in a game with avatars.

Wikipedia goes so far as to suggest that George H. W. Bush is a retronym, since he used to be plain George Bush, but felt the need to be distinguished from his son, and you can understand why.

Speaking of “backward,” one is inevitably put in mind of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose middle name is Retro.

            With that indispensable utensil,
            A plain old yellow wood-and-graphite pencil,
            A writer once could make a sentence caper
            Upon a ragged sheet of wood-pulp paper.
            But now a writer has to be astuter
            And utilize a digital computer
            In order to be praised as smart and metro,
            And not condemned as something old and retro.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ugly, Ugly, Ugly

Which words do you think are the ugliest in the English language?  Apparently everybody has a different set of words they dislike, and many people feel compelled to make lists of them. 

There are at least three factors operating in choosing ugly words—sound, meaning, and appearance.  For some really ugly words, all three elements are operative at once.  Here are a few of the ugliest, so deemed by various parties. (Obvious four-letter profanities and vulgarisms don’t count.)

In 1946 the National Association of Teachers of Speech issued this list of the ten ugliest words based on a survey of its membership:

            cacaphony, crunch, flatulent, gripe, jazz, phlegmatic, plump, plutocrat, sap, treachery

Mississippi State University Professor Robert E. Wolverton polled 75 students in his classics classes and came up with:

            vomit, moist, puke, phlegm, slaughter, snot

Willard R. Espy, an old hand at wordplay, compiled this list of his favorite uglies for the Book of Lists:

            aasvogel, Brobdingnagian, cacaphonous, crepuscular, fructify, gargoyle,             jukebox, kakkak, kumquat, quahog

A website called puts forward this batch of repulsive abominations:

            smegma, phlegm, pus, pregnant, rural, moist, juror, regurgitate, crotch,             bunion, pulchritude, schmear, scab, sticktoitiveness, discharge, blog, synergy, crepuscular, ointment, chunk, curdle, tax, fetid, routine, honk

Our British cousins have their own ideas. The Guardian assembled this list after asking its readers to submit their nominees:

            crotch, sac, fiscal, gusset, nappy, gutted, rectum, gash, pustule, obligate,          
spatula, privilege, masticate, kudos, boobs, feisty, veggie, kooky, pasty, pamphlet, spouse, poet

What are your choices for the ugliest words in English? Don’t be bashful! Click that comment link and talk nasty.

You will note that the Brits put poet among their ugliest words.  This indicates that they are undoubtedly familiar with the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has attempted to write the ugliest verse in the world (and has almost certainly succeeded).

            Vomit, smegma, phlegm, and pus, all pasty in a sac,
            Schmeared with a fetid spatula upon a plump kakkak,
            Discharge a kumquat ointment on the scab of that smallpox,
            Then honk in moist cacaphony in the jazz of some jukebox.
            The curdled veggie, full of snotty sap--just masticate;
            If kooky, flatulent, don’t gripe or puke—regurgitate.
            A gargoyle with no boobs is feisty, pregnant and phlegmatic,
            For routine slaughter, kudos for a pustule plutocratic.           
            A gutted, Brobdingnagian, crepuscular quahog           
            Has so much sticktoitniveness, you can crunch it in a blog.
            A bunion on a rural juror’s crotch is treachery,
            Pulchritude and privilege fructify with synergy.
            My spouse’s fiscal tax will leave my gusset with a gash.
            Tell me what aasvogel means, I’ll give you a chunk of cash!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ave Atque Vale, Edwin Newman

According to The New York Times’ obituary, Edwin Newman, the pundit, newsman, and defender of the English language who died last month in London at the age of 91, could not abide jargon, idiosyncratic spellings like “Amtrak,” the non-adverbial use of “hopefully,” the conversational filler “y’know,” awkward prefixes and suffixes such as “de-,” “non-,” “un-,” “-ize,” “-wise,” and “-ee”; and using a preposition to end a sentence.

The Times writer goes on to point out that this highly prescriptive approach to English usage had critics, such as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who complained that Newman never cited a dictionary or a standard grammar book to back up his dicta.  “Evidently,” said Nunberg, “one just knows these things.”

Well, yeah.  That’s what being able to speak and write with ease means.  You can’t be stopping every few seconds to verify that this is what Webster or Fowler or Garner will justify.  You simply know what sounds or looks right and you say it or write it.

I’ve never been as insistent as Newman on certain rigors.  Jargon has its place (a contract just doesn’t sound official unless there’s a “party of the first part”), “Amtrak” and its cousins such as “Kwik-Kopy” and “E-Z Pass” have a nice, breezy ring to my ear; “hopefully” has clawed its way to an acceptable adverbial role by simply refusing to give up gracefully; to unionize, theatrewise, is a non-issue to me; and ending a sentence with a preposition has been OK in my book since Winston Churchill (allegedly) said a rule against doing so was the “kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put.”  But y’know, I’m not going to defend “y’know,” which is an abomination.

The important thing is to pay attention to what you say and write. Language usage evolves, and the deadly sin is to let it do so on its own, without the control of the user. Carelessness, not error, is the great enemy of grammar, a sentiment with which I think Newman and Nunberg would both agree, not to mention Webster, Fowler, and Garner. 

As for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, well, he naturally takes an idiosyncratic view:
            If you are lacking proper grammar,
            You do not speak, you only yammer.
            If you’re deficient in your diction,
            It is a monstrous great affliction.
            If you can’t parse a compound sentence,
            Get on your knees and start repentance.
            If you should fail to spell correctly,
            Beg forgiveness most abjectly.
            Still, these faults will qualify you
            To be a Bard on Buffalo Bayou.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Verb That Noun!

A recent newspaper ad for a bank had a headline that read: "Feel the EARN" (the point being that its CDs would earn high yields for the investor).  It’s an example of what is called “conversion” (or “anthimeria” if you want to be grammatically technical)—the use of one part of speech as if it were another.  In this case the verb earn is used like a noun.

Some people deplore this practice.  I have friends who grow livid with rage, with flaming daggers shooting from their eyes and smoke emanating from their ears, if anyone uses contact, access, or impact as a verb.  Others regard such conversions as a natural evolution of language or perhaps as creative poetry.  Will Shakespeare was especially fond of turning nouns into verbs, with such locutions as: 

            "Season your admiration for a while..."
            "It out-herods Herod..."
            "No more shall trenching war channel her fields..."
            "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle..."
            "Julius Caesar / Who at Philippi the good Brutus     
            "Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels..."
            "I am proverbed with a grandsire phrase..."
            “The hearts that spaniel’d me at heels”.

Tom McArthur in The Oxford Companion to the English Language writes, “Conversion has for centuries been a common means of extending the resources of English and creating dramatic effects: It is often said that there is no noun in English that can't be verbed: bag a prize, doctor a drink, soldier on.”  

Ben Zimmer, writing in The New York Times, pointed out a new verb now used in Oympic sports: to podium. To medal has been around for a while, and will surely soon by followed by such verbs as to Oscar, to Tony, to Grammy, to Emmy, to Pulitzer, and to Nobel.

Conversion works the other way as well, with verbs changed into nouns, e.g. "a good read," "an invite to the party," "it's a go," "come in and have a sit," "take a bite," "I went for a long run and a short walk."  Some are jocular but others are now standard.

Adjectives are also getting into the swing of things, becoming nouns in phrases like "my bad," "come here, my pretty," and "do you want a long or a short?" Sometimes nouns become adjectives: kitchen sink, church music, theatre party, voice mail, text message, computer screen.

It’s all a bit much for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has enough trouble as it is, sorting out all the parts of speak.

            There was a little noun, who said, “I’d like to be a verb,
            And learn to run, and jump, and skip—oh, that would be superb!”
            And so he practiced every day, to try to learn to move,
            For he supposed that if he could, then that would surely prove
            That as a verb he’d be the very best you ever saw,
            And all the other parts of speech would simply stand in awe.

            Alas, it worked out otherwise—his efforts met defeat:
            Before that noun could even crawl, why, he was obsolete.