Thursday, February 25, 2010

And Bob’s Your Uncle!

Bobsleddding (or bobsleighing) is a winter sport in which teams of two or sometimes four foolhardy individuals, for reasons best known to themselves, try to see who can slide fastest on a gravity-powered contraption down a narrow, twisting ice track. Don’t ask me why, but they delight in reaching speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour. If you’ve been watching the Olympic games, you’ve probably seen enough of the sport to make you long for a leisurely ride in a one-horse open sleigh.  But why is the thing called a bobsled? 

Was there an early champion of the sport named Bob?  No, that was a man named Caspar—Caspar Badrutt—who owned a hotel in St. Moritz and built the first half-pipe track for racing the sleds around 1870.  That track has hosted two Olympics and is still in use today.

Dictionaries are a little skittish about asserting the origin of bobsledWebster’s New International (Second Edition) uncharacteristically offers no explanation at all with its perfunctory definition of “a short sled, mostly used as one of a pair.”  Webster’s Collegiate says the word dates from 1837 and hesitantly suggests, with specious logic, that it might have something to do with the kind of bob that means a “bunch or a cluster.”  The Oxford English Dictionary cites its earliest print appearance in 1848 in John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, which regards the device as a means of carrying logs over frozen snow.

Some misguided etymologists say the name comes from the tendency of teams to “bob” their heads and bodies back and forth to gain speed.  There are two problems with this explanation.  First, any movement by the riders slows down the sled, rather than increasing its speed.  And second, the word bobsled  predates the sport of bobsled-racing by several decades.

A website called speculates that the word comes from the design of the log-carrier in two sections, with a set of runners in the front section that had been “bobbed,” or cut short, and a longer set of runners in the rear section.  The reason for this design was to stabilize the sled when crossing rough terrain and prevent the logs from falling off.

And Bob’s your uncle!  That phrase, a British term meaning “and there you have it” or “it’s as easy as pie,” calls for its own bobology, which is even more elusive than bobsled.  As good as any is the suggestion that it refers to Lord Frederick Roberts, a respected nineteenth-century general known affectionately by his men as “Uncle Bobs,” and the phrase originally meant all would be well under his command.

The Bob of Buffalo Bayou came bob, bob, bobbin’ along with this ode to the Olympians.

            Dashing down the chute
            In an old two-man bobsleigh,
            O’er the ice we scoot,
            Racing all the way.
            We better win the gold,
            Or silver anyway,
            Why else would we get freezing cold    
            Atop this stupid sleigh?   

Monday, February 22, 2010

Last Quango in London

Winston Churchill—or was it Dylan Thomas or maybe George Bernard Shaw?—having told us that Great Britain and the United States are separated by the barrier of a common language, I was not surprised to be unable to make my way through a recent issue of The Times of London without resorting to an online dictionary—even though The Times is no longer the Keeper of the King’s English that it was before being Murdochized.  Nonetheless, three words leapt out at me in a recent perusal of the venerable Thunderer’s news pages.

First was a story about the waste of money on a quango that was unable to take action owing to delay by the government in issuing guidelines.  The headline even referred to the situation as a “Quango Tango.”

Next, I read that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a bit too frit to answer certain Parliamentary questions before the next election.

And finally, Parliament was considering new regulations relating to asbos.

Quango? Frit? Asbos? Printed lexicons were of no help, since these are all coinages too recent to make it into their pages.  The Internet, God bless its perverse little heart, came to the rescue.  I was able to ferret out the following definitions:
Quango – An acronym for a “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization.” In the United States I suppose you could call the Postal Service and the Federal Reserve “quangos,” although most people prefer to call them something else.
Frit – A colloquialism from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s native Lincolnshire, derived from “frightened” and when used in a political sense meaning “cowardly.”  Mrs. Thatcher famously used the word in a 1983 speech about a political opponent in which she shyly asked, in her demure and dulcet tones: “The right honorable gentleman is afraid of an election, is he?  Frightened?  Frit?  Couldn’t take it?  Couldn’t stand it?”  Fraught with frit, the poor fellow froze on the spot. 

Asbo – Another acronym, for “anti-social behaviour order,” which is something like a restraining order imposed to prohibit minor objectionable actions that do not warrant criminal prosecution, such as swearing, drinking to excess, noisemaking, or possibly listening to Britney Spears CDs.  It is sometimes alleged that youthful delinquents in Britain regard having an asbo issued against them as a badge of honor (or, rather, honour). 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a whole drawer full of badges of honor, none of them earned by him, but nonetheless he offers these verses to memorialize these unusual words:

            I just adore the taste of satin mangos,
            And must deplore the haste in Latin tangos,
            And trust no more the waste and fat in quangos.

            Somewhere I think that it is writ
            That you must be a native Brit
            In order for you to be frit.

            The young delinquent whom they razz so
            Lives his life as though it has no           
            Rules—and so he needs an asbo.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Brief Commentation

You’ve probably heard the old joke (which certainly does not bear repeating, but try and stop me) about the aristocratic young potato whose parents would not allow her to marry Dan Rather because he was only a common tater.  But today’s question is: does a commentator commentate?  By the same token, does an administrator administrate, does an orientation orientate, and do planes in formation formate?

The answer to all the above is yes—sort of.  All those verbs—commentate, administrate, orientate, and yes, believe it or not, formate—are back formations that were formated—oops, formed—from longer words mistakenly assumed to be derivatives of non-existent shorter ones. These back-formed –ate words derive from Latin and French and came into English without reference to the shorter English words that they resemble.  Commentator, for example, from which commentate was invented, was from the Latin commentatio (“a study or meditation”) and not from the English word comment.  Commentator was used in English from the 14th century, and commentate as a verb came along by the end of the 18th century. 

Most back-formed words are considered sub-standard, needless variants--comment, administer, orient, and form will usually suffice--but sometimes the back-formations, such as donate, notate, sedate, and spectate, achieve accepted status. 

Not all back-formations end in –ate. Others, of varying degrees of acceptability, include emote, enthuse, diagnose, intuit, and reune. Some are often purposely used for humorous effect, like buttle, burgle, couth, kempt, and shevelled.   P. G. Wodehouse once wrote of a man, “…if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who was in a brace for weeks after trying some back-formations, insists on trying again:

            In a creet hotel in a mid-sized urb,
            The sign on the door commands, “Do Turb.”
            The gruntled occupants are trying to coze
            So don’t surveil them, for heaven knows
            They’re still gidding from their recent marriage,
            And not one visitor will they dain or parage.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"A nibble” weird

New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer wrote recently, “It is a nibble weird that a guy who describes his relationship to Christmas as ‘hostile’ runs around greater Los Angeles in a floppy red Santa hat….”  We’re not here to analyze the eccentric behavior of this reluctant St. Nick (after all, he does live in Los Angeles, where the bizarre is the norm), but rather to muse on Ms. Steinhauer’s use of the phrase “a nibble.”   She apparently means it in the same sense as “a bit,” that is “somewhat or rather.”

No other instances of “a nibble” in this sense are readily found among the trillions of words on the Internet, nor does such usage appear in any dictionary visible around here.  One must conclude, therefore, that it is a new use, so congratulations on your coinage, Ms. Steinhauer—stand up and take a lexiconic bow!

Computerese has already appropriated the word “nibble” to mean “half a byte,” although in keeping with the variant spelling of “byte,” it is often spelled “nybble.”   A “byte,” for those (like me) who did not know, is eight “bits,” and a “bit” is a unit of computer information equivalent to the result of a choice between two absolute opposites.  This kind of bit is a portmanteau word, made up of the first two and last letters of the phrase “binary digit .”     

But we digress. “Nibble” was first a verb, from the Low German nibbelen, meaning “to take little bits of something.” By the sixteenth century “nibble” was also a noun, meaning the act of nibbling, especially when done by a fish on a piece of bait.  Nowadays a nibble can also be an expression of interest in an offer to sell something.

The phrase “a bit,” meaning “somewhat,” derives from the word “bite,” so etymologically there’s no reason why “nibble” couldn’t be used in the same way. There are other nouns that have become adverbial idioms defining a quantity, such as “a tad” (from the word for a small child) and “a lot” (from the word meaning all the members of a group), as in “I like Maserati sports cars a lot, but they are a tad expensive.”

“A lot,” by the way, is two words and looks like a head-on train wreck if written “alot,” as it is by an astonishing number of people.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not among them, however, and rather than nibbling, he suggests that you chew on this nonsense rhyme until you find some meat in it:
            If I choose to eat a bit,
            Then I would have a bite.
            And if I choose to sit,
            It can be upon a site.
            And then if I should spit,
            Why, it might be just for spite.
            Now it’s almost time to quit—
            But not quite.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Number, Please

Inquiring minds are so inquisitive!   One of the customers now asks whether one should say “a number of [insert items here] are” or “a number of [insert items here] is”….

Honestly, the things some people worry about!

The choice of a singular or plural verb with nouns that describe amount or quantity—such as “number” or “percentage”—is governed by a principle called "synesis," a concept developed in the 1860s by the English grammarian Henry Sweet (undoubtedly known to his intimates as “Sweetie”).  "Synesis," from the Greek for "sense" or "understanding," is a grammatical construction made according to the meaning to be expressed, rather than according to strict syntax.  

The classic example of synesis is "A number of items are...." The same principle applies to units of measure that have a collective sense: "Two quarts of Southern Comfort is all I can drink at one time."  Some grammarians take the principle of synesis so far that they will accept the construction "If anyone calls, tell them I'm out," the meaning being tell all the people who call that I am out (out cold, that is, from all that Southern Comfort).  

It is customary in the case of "a number of items" to use the plural verb; but in the case of "the number of items" the singular is more usual: "A number of people were invited to my party this year," but (since I served only Southern Comfort last year) "the number of people who accepted was small."

A number of people have requested that the Bard of Buffalo Bayou cease and desist from his quasi-poetic activity; in fact the number of such people is astronomical.  But their pleas (usually without “please”) have fallen on deaf ears. 

            Whenever “number” rhymes with “lumber,”
            It means it’s artithmetical.
            But when “number” rhymes with “dumber,”
            It’s something anesthetical.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sit on a Potato Pan, Otis

Have you ever tried to write a palindrome that made sense?  You know, one of those sentences that is identical when read forward and backward. Everyone knows “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” which Napoleon would have said if he had thought of it and had been speaking in English.  My new book, Words Gone Wild (which will be at a book store or junk shop near you in the spring) has a section on palindromes, including a few of my own, which are mostly gibberish.

There are lots of nifty ones by other folks that do make sense:  “Dennis and Edna sinned”; “Madam, I’m Adam”; “I saw desserts; I’d no lemons, alas, no melon.  Distressed was I”; and the inevitable “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama!” James Thurber mastered the art form with “He goddam mad dog, eh?”  One short, simple, plainspoken palindrome asks and answers a question: “Did Mom poop?  Mom did.”  (It would also work with Dad.)

Will Thomas has written a 5,000-word palindrome called “A Gassy Obese Boy’s Saga”; Lawrence Levine, penned a 37,000-word novel called “Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo”; and David Stephens’ “Satire: Veritas” is reputedly 50,000 words (but who counted?).

The problem with most long palindromes is that, in order to keep the letters in the right sequence, they begin to wander away from coherence. Demetri Martin, an American comedian and actor who has been seen frequently on The Daily Show and other late-night TV venues, likes to play around with palindromes.  He’s famous for his 223-word creation “Dammit, I’m mad,” which makes pretty good sense, and he also came up with this one, a mere 113 words, which borders on the fringe of intelligibility:

Wow. O.K.
A still animal sits afoot. Tones I ring.
I sing (i.e. ride it, nuts open). On or off, I riff.
Uh… I, to lasses, say, "Oh aha, hah, all!"
It's tops. It is a Tao, bro, to my baby demo.
Can one poet arise so rosy?
As "D" I star. Comedy, baby. My my, a show.
Oh say "my my," baby.
Democrats? I'd say so. (Roses irate.)
Open, on a comedy baby motorboat. As "it"
I spot still a "ha hah!" ahoy. Assess a lot.
I huff, I riff, or on one post untied, I reign.
I sign. I rise, not too fast.
I slam. In all, it's a K.O. wow.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who thinks of himself as a palindrome, since he never knows whether he’s coming or going, writes:

            To write a palindrome I fear is much too hard:
            Drab am I. Mood dim. Ah! Amid doom, I’m a bard.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who Dat Say Who Dat?

The words “Who dat?” will resound throughout the land in the coming weekend, as the New Orleans Saints attempt to work one of their miracles on the frisky Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl.  “Who dat?—or its longer version, “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?”—has for almost 30 years been the motto of the now triumphant football team that was once so bad that its fans hid their faces under paper bags.

So who dat who said “who dat” first?  It began, of course, with the phrase “Who’s that?” As you are well aware, the “th” sound in “that” is a voiced fricative, which is formed by the frictional rustling of air through narrowed passages in the oral cavity.  The substitution of a dental or “d” sound for the “th” is common in certain English speakers, including those whose native tongues are German, French, and many Asian languages, which do not have the “th” sound, and also among Irish, Irish-Americans, and African-Americans.  The “d” sound is often heard in Brooklynese, as in “dem bums” (who proved they really were by moving to Los Angeles), and in the Cajun and Creole patois of Louisiana.

The catch-phrase “Who dat?” probably originated in American minstrel shows in the 1800s.  A song of 1898 was called “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?” (lyrics by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar).  Many minstrel show skits featured the phrase “Who dat?” answered by “Who dat say who dat?” and then the never-fail punch line, “Who dat say who dat when I say who dat?”

As a sports chant, it was used by the Jaguars of Southern University in Baton Rouge from the 1960s and then spread to New Orleans public schools and to LSU before the Saints adopted it.

The National Football League has now sent cease-and-desist letters (i.e., if you don’t stop doing whatever it is you’re doing, a highly obnoxious lawyer will make life unpleasant for you) to vendors selling T-shirts with “Who Dat?” emblazoned on them.  The NFL claims to own a trademark on those words, although a company called WhoDat, Inc. claims to have registered the trademark in 1983 for a recording of “When The Saints Go Marching In” featuring the repeated chant of “Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints?” (recorded by Aaron Neville and several Saints players). It became more or less official for the Saints after the recording was widely publicized by sportscaster Ron Swoboda.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou begs to inform you of the earliest instances that he has found of the phrase, to wit:

            When Hamlet’s guards were at their post,
            They thought they saw his father’s ghost,
            And trembling as they stood thereat,
            Their only question was, “Who dat?”

            Macbeth encountered Witches three,
            And he was nervous as could be.
            The thane politely doffed his hat,
            And asked those three old crones, “Who dat?”
            And when poor Desdemona heard
            A long soliloquy, she stirred,
            And, thinking that it was the cat,
            She called out sleepily, “Who dat?”
            And thus you see that “other” Bard
            Was clearly in the avant-garde
            And with his feather-pen begat
            That oft-repeated phrase, “Who dat?”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Agonizing Reapprisal

A BBC announcer—one of those news readers who Dylan Thomas said sound as if they “have the Elgin marbles in their mouths”—recently reported that the U. S.  Secretary of Defense had been “appraised” of a bombing in Afghanistan.  How much will you bet that’s not what was meant?

Appraise means “to set a value on, to evaluate the worth or significance of, or to give an expert judgment about.”  Its root is Anglo French appreiser, meaning  “to prize or to praise.”  Your gorgeous new home, with the cathedral ceilings, four working fireplaces, Calder mobiles, Aubusson tapestries, Jacuzzi tub, Persian carpeted walk-in closet, and Olympic-sized infinity swimming pool will certainly be appraised by appropriate taxing authorities—and when they have appraised it, they will apprise you of their appraisal, which will be much higher than you would like. Apprise means “to inform or tell, give notice to,” and its root is the French appris, past participle of apprendre, “to learn or to teach.”

There’s no question that the Secretary of Defense would have to appraise the situation in Afghanistan, but one hopes it would be only after he had been apprised of what was going on there.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks such distinctions are pedantic, and he obviously went off on a tangent (a scarlet one, no doubt) before he was apprehended and appropriately sedated:

            Appraise a prize
            Then raise your eyes
            And apprise me of your praise.
            Then rise and raze
            The rows of prose
            That rose in prime arrays.