Monday, May 31, 2010

The Words, According to Emily Post

Older readers may recall the English teacher of a couple of generations ago who told her class, “There are two awful slang words in current use that I hope you will never use: one is swell, and the other is lousy.”  “Okay,” replied one student, “what are they?”

In that same era—around about 1940—the doyenne of etiquette, Emily Post, provided her own list of proper and improper words and phrases—the rationale for many of which is impossible to fathom in this permissive age.  According to Emily—uh, I mean Mrs. Post—you should never call anyone “wealthy”; say “rich” or “well-to-do” instead. (She is silent on how to refer to poor people.)  Never say someone has an “elegant home”; it should be “beautiful house.”  “Close friend”?  Uh-uh—it should be “best friend” or even (woo-hoo!) “intimate friend.” And as for those horrid truncated words—phone, auto, photo, and mints—don’t dare think of using them instead of the more proper telephone, automobile, photograph, and peppermints!

Some of her directives are peculiar.  While it’s okay to call an unmarried young woman a “girl” until her mid-twenties, any male over 21 must be called a “man” and never a “boy.”  A “lady friend” and a “gentleman friend” are not what well-bred people have; instead they have a “woman friend” or “my best girl” and “a man who is a friend of mine.”

Don't ask the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, "Who was that lady friend I saw you with?" He’s not talking.  Instead, he is trying to rhyme, and only partly succeeding:

            I’m sorry if my words offend,
            It isn’t what I meant a bit:
            I said that you were my best friend--
            And should have said that we were intimate.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Some Cockamamie Ideas

Some people think that the ideas expressed by Libertarian-Tea Partyish-Neo-Republicans like Rand Paul are refreshingly candid.  These ideas include the notion that civil rights legislation should not prevent racial discrimination by private businesses, that it’s un-American to criticize big business, and that the Federal Reserve should be eliminated—and while you’re at it, get rid of the income tax as well.  Other people think such ideas are simply cockamamie.

Far be it from this apolitical commentary to take sides on such a controversial issue, lest I offend my myriad Libertarian-Tea Partyish-Neo-Republican readers. But surely there’s no harm in taking a firm stand in favor of the word cockamamie—that is ridiculous, far-fetched, inane, crackpot, worthless, and nonsensical.   You can apply it to whatever ideas you think appropriate.

I had always thought cockamamie was a Yiddish word, synonymous with meshuggah; in fact, you’ll find it in some Yiddish word lists.  But as it happens—sacrebleu!—the word’s origin is French.  It stems from décalcomanie  (whence, also, decal), and was a word used in the mid-nineteenth century to refer to the peculiar craze for decorating objects with transfers.  The etymology is from décalquer (“to apply a tracing or transfer) and manie (“mania”).

Apparently, scads of American youngsters happily applied the colorful decals that came in candy wrappers to every surface they could find, including their own bodies. During the early twentieth century, especially in New York City, the practice became known as cockamamie, an English garbling of décalcomanie.  How the word took on its present meaning is not clear, but probably through some allusion to the tawdriness and absurdity of putting decals on one’s body.

Tawdriness and absurdity are the stock-in-trade of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose political views are difficult to comprehend and impossible to articulate. Here is his most recent campaign statement: 

            A decalcomanic dog and a cockamamie cat
            Were invited out to dinner by a borborygmic bat.
            Ere sitting down to dine
            They chatted over wine:
            Two were fierce Republicans, and one a Democrat.
            Quite soon the fur was flying in a heated conversation
            On national security, financial regulation,
            Health care and income tax,
            Bad deeds of Goldman Sachs,
            And things got really nasty when they mentioned immigration.
            They called each other dreadful names, and insults vile they spat,
            But finally they got hungry and decided that was that.
            They sat down to the table
            As fast as they were able—
            And found their food all eaten by an Independent rat.  

Monday, May 24, 2010

Come Fill the Cup

A neighborhood bistro I used to frequent wanted to be sure the sommelier clearly understood the patrons’ requests when ordering from its wine list.  A large placard over the bar instructed:

                     ORDER WINE ONLY BY THE NUMBER:
1.    RED
2.    WHITE

Time was when those two distinctions pretty much covered the American taste in wine.  Today, we have many more choices, but American wine-bibbers tend to be partial to four principal kinds: the red Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the white Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Even though they come from California, Australia, Chile, or even (mon Dieu!) Texas, the names are all French for particular varieties of grape. 

Where the names originally came from is a fairly arcane question that most etymological sources are too skittish to answer for sure. 

Chardonnay, for example, is the name of a village near Macon in Burgundy, too small to appear on most maps.  It is presumably the source of the white (i.e. green), fruity grape from which the French make a number of wines, including Chablis, Meursault, Montrachet, and Champagne.  The origin of Chardonnay is hard to pin down, since the village has been there for many centuries. Some say it came from its earlier Latin name, Cardonnacum, or “place of the thistles.” Others speculate it is from the Gaulish proper name Cardus or that it has some connection with the French word jardin (“garden”).  The name first appeared in English in 1911, in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Most experts agree that Sauvignon comes from the French word sauvage, meaning “savage” or “wild.”  The white Sauvignon grape is found in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, and is the basis of many wines, including Sauternes and Graves.

Merlot (or “little blackbird”) stems from the Old French word merle and refers to the color of the bird’s feathers, which are a deep reddish-blue, as is the grape of that name.  In the Bordeaux region, it is frequently blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet, an English word since 1911, is defined as a variety of black (i.e. dark red) grape.  It is a cross between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet’s etymology is problematic, possibly coming from the Latin caput, meaning “head,” for unclear reasons.  Others suggest it comes from carbonet, meaning “coal black.”

A fanciful explanation of Cabernet, however, comes from a Scottish blogger, who insists that in antiquity a team of Scottish athletes came to France to challenge the French to a game that combined the Scots’ tossing of a caber (a young tree trunk) with French football.  The object was to toss the caber into each other’s nets. Since they were hearty imbibers of the local wine, it was named in honor of this Caber-Net game and given a French pronunciation. Well, it’s a theory, anyway.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, when pressed, calls himself an oenophile; he thinks it has more class than wino. 

            Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir— 
            To them all I’m sympathetic
            Every time I pour.
            Now there is a new wine at my corner bar.
            They say that it’s a diuretic.
            They call it Pinot More.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Alphabet Soup

Acronyms and initialisms are useful linguistic devices that provide a means of referring to lengthy phrases without getting your tongue all tripped up.  You’ll agree (won’t you?) that it’s easier to say “NATO” than “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” or “laser” instead of “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.”   

An acronym generally means an actual word (“radar”) that is formed from the initials or first few letters of a phrase (“radio detection and ranging”), while an initialism is a set of letters pronounced individually to refer to the longer phrase (“CIA” instead of “Central Intelligence Agency.”)

Every time we use a computer we are beset by acronyms and initialisms, whose meanings are probably completely unknown to us.  We all use PDF files on occasion or see photographs in JPEG format.  We enter a URL into the little box on our browser, and the letters HTTP usually pop up before the actual address. What’s it all about, Alphie?     

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou (BOBB) offers this poetic mnemonic to help you remember some of the more common computer initials:

            To navigate through your computer
            You need some lessons from a tutor:
            The World Wide Web will never trouble you--
            It’s simply WWW.
            An ISP is what the insider
            Calls an Internet Service Provider.
            URL, which you’ll meet later,
            Is Universal Resource Locator.
             HTTP is not mere folderol,
            It’s HyperText Transfer Protocol.
             PDF? A Document Format
            That’s Portable, like a lightweight doormat.
            JPEG’s in this alphabetic soup--
            Joint Photographic Experts Group.
            Okay, class, learn those real well.
            Next: FTP and  DSL.


Monday, May 17, 2010

For Me and My Gal

First Lady Michelle Obama almost always speaks with impeccable grammar, but, sad to say, in a recent speech in Haiti, she lapsed into the peccable. Commenting on the visit that she and the Second Lady (Dr. Jill Biden) were making to the earthquake-ravaged land, Mrs. Obama said: "It was important for Jill and I to come now….”

Well, of course, me and you know that she meant “Jill and me.”  The preposition for takes the objective case (me).  No one would say “It was important for I to come now.”  But when another pronoun or a noun is inserted first, there is a tendency to make the pronoun nominative.  The grammarian Henry Sweet in 1882 explained the phenomenon that first occurred in English centuries ago:
            “Usage was more unsettled than now, the nominative being as freely                     
            substituted for the objective as vice-versa, as in such constructions as ‘tween you and
            I.  You and I were so frequently joined together as nominatives—you and I will go   
            together, etc.—that the three words formed a sort of group compound, whose last 
            element became invariable.” 
The fact that you is both nominative and objective certainly contributes to the confusion.   

It’s a very common error that most of us—that is, you and I—have probably made unthinkingly.  In fact Mrs. Obama is in very good company—including William Shakespeare, who has the usually grammatically precise Othello saying: “Yes, you may have seen Cassio and she together.”

Between thee and me, not to mention thou and I, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou begs to be heard, and he has penned this impeccable verse for you and I, as well as they and them, to enjoy: 

           Michelle Obama
           Can deal with a comma
           And parse a long sentence
           Just like the best of us.

           But sometimes her objective
           May be slightly defective
           And she feels repentance
           Along with the rest of us.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lest We Forget

Lest we all lose sight of the sole reason this blog sprang into life, I find it incumbent upon myself to remind the few readers who are hanging on by their droopy eyelids that it’s all done as a subliminal means of promoting my new book, Words Gone Wild, which is to be published in June by Skyhorse Publishing Co. Okay, that’s enough of subliminal techniques—advance orders are now being taken at,, and other web sites yet unknown.

As just a sample of the verbal delights that await the perspicacious purchaser of this slim but meaty volume, try these on for size:

            Out of every two dozen squid, there's always one who doesn't know how to swim away quickly--but twenty-three squid do.

Naughty limericks:                        
            At the beach a gent from Toledo            
            Ogled a gal in a Speedo.
            He liked both her suit,           
            Which he thought was quite cute,
            And the way it aroused his libido.

Tom Swifties:
            “I’ll try again to learn this code,” Tom said remorsefully.

            Bats might bite gnats by night, but note gnats might not bite nits or mites.

WGW (as it is affectionately known in certain esoteric literary circles) also contains a profusion (some would say a glut) of clerihews, anagrams, palindromes, mondegreens, feghoots, crosswords, cryptic and acrostic puzzles, light verse that beggars description, lipograms, spoonerisms, malapropisms, double entendres, euphemisms, rhopalics, and I don’t know what-all. If you love words, or if you need a highly effective fly-swatter (place the insect between two pages and slam shut with force), this volume is for you.

Although fundamentally opposed to all commercial enterprises, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was persuaded (by a handful of salted nuts and a glass of cheap Australian Chardonnay) to add his dubious talents to the cause.  Following is one of the Bard’s promotional verses, which I hasten to assure you, does not appear in the book I am hawking:

            Words Gone Wild is bound to thrive,
            It’s witty, it’s fun—it’s almost alive!
            It’s a whimsical book,
            And the principal hook
            Is that it’s just twenty-two ninety-five.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pop! Goes the Mountweazel

Have you run across any Mountweazels lately?  The chances are you wouldn’t know it if you did.  The word was coined by Henry Alford in a 2005 “Talk of the Town” item in The New Yorker, and it is defined as an erroneous item of information purposely inserted into a reference work in order to detect plagiarism.  Such phony listings are also known as “copyright traps” and “Nihilartikels.”

The term Mountweazel stems from a spurious listing in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia for one Lillian Virginia Mountweazel.  According to this bogus biography, she was born in 1942 in Bangs, Ohio (which is an actual town) and pursued a career as a fountain designer and then as a photographer, most famous for her photos of New York City buses, Parisian cemeteries, and American rural mailboxes.  She died in 1973 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose biography, like himself, is completely bogus, mused as follows:

            Crowed Ms. Mountweazel
            To Lady Teazle:
            “My dear, I’m in the media.
            Just a gal from Ohio,
            But you’ll find my bio
            In the Columbia Encyclopedia!”

            Sniffed Lady T.:
            “What’s that to me?
            You’re a phony and a harridan!
            On the other hand—I 
            Was created by
            Sir Richard Brinsley Sheridan!”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Telling It Like It Is

The American tendency to issue political jeremiads was noted by journalist Wen Stephenson in a recent New York Times Magazine. Stephenson regards many of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama as jeremiads.  Jeremiah, the Hebrew priest and prophet of the 5th and 6th centuries BC, was only one of several historical figures who gave their names to diatribes of one sort or another.

Just to set the record straight a jeremiad is a prolonged complaint or cautionary harangue, especially one that chides people for failing to live up to their own principles.  Jeremiah, who issued his jeremiads in Jerusalem, complained about the Jews’ sexual immorality, social injustice, ingratitude to God, and many other faults that got his goat.  He predicted dire consequences as punishment, including captivity by Babylon, and he turned out to be right about that.

Another kind of harangue is a philippic, which is also a tirade full of bitter condemnation.  The name came from Philip II, king of Macedon, who in this case was the object of denunciation. In 351 BC Demosthenes objected to Philip’s aggressive military conquest of Greek areas and repeatedly gave him what-for. Demosthenes is the guy who taught himself to be a great orator by talking with pebbles in his mouth, which makes you wonder whether his philippics were completely intelligible.

Another type of criticism is described as thersitical, named for Thersites, a loud-mouthed, profane, and abusive Greek in the Trojan War, who railed against everyone, especially Agamemnon, Ulysses, and Achilles. Achilles really didn’t take criticism well, finally had enough, and knocked Thersites in the head so hard that his teeth fell out and he died. 

A Cassandra is a predictor of fortune and disaster, especially one who isn’t taken seriously. It is the name of the daughter of the Trojan king Priam.  She had been granted the power of prophecy by Apollo, who fancied her, but when she spurned his advances, he decreed that no one would believe her predictions.  And they didn’t.

Finally, among those who gave their names to critical comments, was Zoilus, a Greek grammarian and literary critic in the 4th century BC.  Grammarians are known to be cranky, and Zoilus was no exception, heaping severe criticism on Homer and Plato, among others, for failing to write good Greek.  A zoilism is any carping and harsh criticism of another person.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou takes jeremiads, philippics, and other gloomy prophecies with a grain of salt (or salt-substitute).

            Repent!  The end is near!
            So said the Voice of Doom.
            Alas, I didn’t hear
            Him say the end of whom. 


Monday, May 3, 2010

Not A Rod to Spare

In discussing a recent study whose conclusion was that spanking children turns them into bullies, CNN commentator Roland Martin invoked the “Biblical” injunction: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Close, Mr. Martin, but no cigar.

The old proverb as we know it in English appears in the works of many early writers, none of them Biblical. The earliest known source is William Langland’s Piers Plowman in 1377, in which is found: “Who-so spareth the sprynge [switch made from a tree branch], spilleth [spoils] his children.”

Another early source for the maxim is Richard Mulcaster’s 1582 grammar manual, known as The Elementaire, in which he opines: “Comma, is a small crooked point, which in writing followeth som small branch of the sentence, & in reading warneth vs to rest there, and to help our breth a litle, as Who so shall spare the rod, shall spill the childe. “

The first known appearance in the exact wording that we know today—“Spare the rod and spoil the child”—was in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, a 1639 compilation of proverbs in English and Latin.

King Solomon, author of the Biblical Proverbs, was credited with the adage in a sermon by Edward Symmons in 1642, but the quotation as such does not appear in any English translation of the Bible.

In Hudibras, a satirical poem in 1662 or thereabouts, Samuel Butler used the phrase in quite a different context, having to do with cooling the passions of an ardent wooer, not with the discipline of children.

Solomon does indeed endorse the notion of beating up on your kids to make them behave. Proverbs 13:24 counsels, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” (Try and say that three times fast.)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who was caned regularly as a child but spoiled rotten nonetheless, has some proverbs of his own:


     If at first you don’t succeed,
     It’s likely that you never will.
     The chances that a friend in need
     Will show up when you call are nil.

     An apple a day, I can affirm,
     Will cost you more than half a buck.
     The early bird may catch the worm,
     The early worm is out of luck.

     Now if you told the truth, no doubt
     You would admit that you believe
     That when the gifts are handed out,
     It’s really better to receive.

     The road to hell the preacher always mentions
     Is followed by the wicked and depraved.
     That road, they say, is paved with good intentions—
     But I say, what the hell, at least it's paved.