Monday, June 28, 2010

Plumb Wrong

A recent issue of Britain’s respected and usually grammatical newspaper The Guardian commented as follows on the new prime minister: “Cameron's powers of patronage are slightly reduced since he does not have power through government whips to hand out plumb posts chairing parliamentary select committees.”  The writer probably meant “plum” posts, which would mean jobs that were very desirable—especially those given as a reward. 

Plumb, from the Latin plumbum (meaning the metal lead), means “a lead weight on the end of a line used to establish a true vertical.”  By extension plumb can also mean “perfectly straight,” “immediately,” or “absolutely”—as in “you are plumb crazy.”

Plum, on the other hand, from the Latin prunum, refers to the purplish fruit, and,  likened to the sweetness of the fruit, to any desirable thing.  Food companies are now trying to persuade us that the food product so loved by costive oldsters and known for generations as a prune, should really be thought of as a dried plum, which is much more desirable.  No one ever talks about handing out “prunes” as rewards. 

Use of the wrong plumb in The Guardian may come as no surprise to those who remember the paper’s unfortunate habit (now largely a thing of the past) of making so many typographical errors—it once printed its own name as The Gaurdian—that the satirical magazine Private Eye began referring to it as The Grauniad.  

The Brad of Buffalo Bayou hardly ever makes typographical arrows, but he does perpetrate even worse linguistic offenses, like the following:


            You may find The Guardian
            A wee bit Edwardian.
            And perhapsThe Observer
            Could display some more fervour.
            It’s quite true that the Mail
            Is a tad shy on detail,
            And a few folks were slandered
            By that old Evening Standard
            The Daily Telegraph
            Can make a fella laugh,
            While The Daily Express
            Causes only distress.

            No hillside’s dew-pearled
            In the News of the World--
            But if you need some rhymes,
            Then you’d best get The Times

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Humpty Dumpty Et Al


English boasts many evocative reduplicative words—words in which a sound is repeated, usually preceded by a different consonant—namby pamby, mumbo jumbo, Turkey Lurkey. Such words are usually for either comic or emphatic effect. For some reason unknown to me, a great many of them begin with the letter h.  A dozen or more easily spring to mind: helter-skelter, harum-scarum, herky-jerky, hoi polloi, Henny Penny, hocus pocus, hubba hubba, hurly-burly, hoity-toity, hokey pokey, holy moley, hugger-mugger, higgledy-piggledy, hanky-panky, hodge podge, hob nob, hootchy-kootchy, hotsy-totsy, hubble-bubble, hurdy-gurdy, Humpty Dumpty, and, of course, Hammacher Schlemmer

Harum-scarum, meaning “reckless or irresponsible” stems from the roots of harass and scare (sort of like shock and awe, one supposes).   Helter-skelter (“confused, haphazard”) is probably from the Middle English skelten (“to come and go”).  Higgledy-piggledy, which similarly means “in jumbled confusion,” probably was inspired by the way a herd of pigs huddle in disarray.

Hodge-podge (originally hotch-potch) is also a jumbled assortment, and its root is the French hocher (“to shake together”) plus pot. Hocher may also be the root of hootchy-kootchy, a sinuous burlesque dance, which involves a good bit of shaking as well as couching, that is “bending the body.” ­Hocus-pocus, an imitative Latin phrase used as magical invocation, stems from the word hoax; and it morphed into hokey-pokey, which can be ice cream sold by a street vendor or a dance (not to be confused with hootchy-kootchy) involving various body parts.

Hoity-toity (“silly, frivolous, flighty”) comes from the English dialect word hoit (“to play the fool”).  Hoi polloi is Greek for “the general population or the masses.” Hurly-burly ("uproar or tumult") is thought to derive from the verb hurl. Hugger-mugger, of unknown etymology, means "secret or muddled confusion."  Hanky-panky, as if I had to tell you, is "sexual dalliance," and is also of unknown etymology.

You can probably figure out the etymologies of the rest if you put your mind to it.

What you probably cannot figure out is the rationale for verses like the following, which was turned out by the Bardy-Wardy of Buffalo Bayou:

            Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
            But a really lousy winter,
            He had the flu, and then a brawl,
            And infection from a splinter.

            Humpty hoped he’d have a fine spring,
            Filled with birds and flower blossoms.
            Instead, his arm was in a sling,
            And he was bitten by some possums.

            Humpty hoped for joy that summer,
            But it was not that way at all,
            Summer proved to be a bummer,
            And at its end—he had a great fall.           

Monday, June 21, 2010

Capsule Reviews

The television schedule in the nation’s tenth largest daily newspaper summarizes the movie Show Boat as: “A pregnant woman must perform in a cabaret.”  I seem to remember a few other plot elements in the epic sweep of Edna Ferber’s novel and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical book—but if you have to summarize in eight words, something’s got to give.

Other classics meet a similar fate in this zippy journal. The Bounty (Mutiny on the Bounty) gets this capsule treatment: “A captain struggles to keep his crew in line.” And The Alamo: “A small group of soldiers defend a San Antonio fort.”

Perhaps I could get a job as a summarizer.  Here are some samples of how I would encapsulate a few famous works if they were adapted for television.
Hamlet: Moody Danish prince acts crazy to nail dad’s killer, gets stabbed, dies.           

Don Quixote: Naïve Spanish retiree, with goofy chum, fights windmills, etc., repents, dies.
Les Misérables: Hungry Frenchman steals bread, is jailed, gets out, eludes mean cop, starts new life, dies.           

Moby Dick: Angry New England skipper hunts white whale that ate his leg,            
finds him, gets caught on harpoon line, dies.

Oedipus Rex: Clueless Greek king kills dad, weds mom, regrets it, puts out eyes, is exiled, does not die.
I may have to turn for assistance to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who scrawled a capsule TV version of Genesis shortly before he had a great fall. 

     World is created,
     God makes Adam.
     But he's unmated,
     Needs a madam. 

     So God makes Eve
     From Adam's rib--
     Hard to believe,
     But it's no fib.     

     The hapless pair
     In birthday suit
     Take Serpent's dare,
     Eat forbidden fruit.     

     God's double-crossed,
     And, boy, it shows:
     Tells them, "Get lost--
     Put on some clothes!"    

     After the Fall,
     It's all downhill.
     That's what you call
     Too much Free Will.    

     Will Original Sin
     Keep pair from heaven?
     Stayed tuned in--
     News at eleven.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Simply Blimply

A blimp is a blimp is a blimp.  As well as a dirigible.  But not a zeppelin.  So what’s the difference?  Well, since you asked, a dirigible, which comes from the Latin dirigere (“to drive”) is a lighter-than-air ship that can be driven, or steered, by a rudder, propeller, or thruster.  “Lighter than air” means the ship is held aloft, like a hot-air balloon, by the presence of a lifting gas (such as hydrogen or helium or simply heated air) in an inflated cavity. 

A zeppelin, named for the German Count Zeppelin, who designed the first one, is such a ship with a rigid framework inside the balloon.  The most famous of these (other than Led Zeppelin) was the Hindenburg, which crashed and burned in 1937, while landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 people.

A blimp is a non-rigid ship, that is one with no solid structure inside the balloon.  The word blimp, which was used as early as 1916, is said to derive from the listing of the two types of dirigible: A-rigid and B-limp.  Other word sleuths, however, insist that it’s an onomatopoeic word from the sound the balloon makes when you thump it with your thumb.  (Why would you do that?)

In the 1930s the cartoonist David Low created a character he called “Colonel Blimp,” a pompous, irascible, highly opinionated British army officer, who spouted passionately held views that were both reactionary and absurd.  Presumably the name was given to him because he was full of hot air.

Quite a different colonel is the subject of this hot air by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is up in the air most of the time:

            An amorous lieutenant colonel
            Took delight in his exploits noctolonel.
            Amor Vincit Omnia:
            Love cured his insomnia,
            As I read in today’s Wall Street Jolonel.           

Monday, June 14, 2010

Don’t Menschen It

Surely no other language has as many words for undesirable, unattractive, and hapless people as Yiddish.  It’s a treasure trove of descriptive nouns for jerks, dolts, bunglers, failures, boors, pests, slobs, and nonentities.   Each of them has its own nuanced meaning.

You can take your pick from the rich assortment that includes a schlemiel (an unlucky bungler), a schlimazel (an unlucky, inept, habitual failure), or a schnook (a stupid, unimportant, easily cheated dolt).  It’s been said that a schlemiel is the one who spills his coffee on the schlimazel—and the schnook has to mop it up. 

Then there's a schlub (a stupid, worthless unattractive boor) and a schlump (a sloppy, dowdy person).  The shmendrik--named for the title character of an 1877 operetta--is a clueless mama's boy.  The schnorrer is a wheedler.  

Perhaps the most offensive of all the offensive terms is schmuck, which was originally a term for the penis, but now means a jerk of the highest order.  It's synonymous with putz, which had the same original meaning. A schmo is a euphemistic variant of schmuck, and is also a jerk, but not such an odious one, and a yutz is a similarly inspired variant of putz.

The terms of opprobium are rounded out with nudnik (a pest, a pain in the neck), noodge (a nag, a whiner), nebbish (a pitiful, insignificant person), pisher (an inexperienced nobody), and everbody’s favorite—klutz (a clumsy person).

There seems to be only one word to describe a good person of integrity and honor, and that is mensch, something all of us schlimazels would like to be. 

Any one of the putdowns listed above would be a perfect fit for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou:

            When I was young and just a schnook
            I’d always get a dirty look
            From each and every person I would see.
            But then I grew up as a nudnik,
            A certified A-1 no-goodnik,
            And now the dirty looks all come from me.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Dyeing Art

The New York Times must have a shortage of e’s in its type font.  That is the only explanation I can think of for Christopher Buckley’s recent satirical op-ed piece that referred to a hairdresser “dying her ladies’ locks with Egyptian henna.”  All together now, class: dying is the present participle of die, an intransitive verb that means to “pass from physical life, cease to exist, disappear, sink, languish, stop.”  None of those meanings suggest themselves as anything a hairdresser—even a satirical one—would do to a client’s tresses.

I suspect what Mr. Buckley and the slipshod editors on the Times copy desk intended to say was dyeing, the present participle of dye, which means to "impart and new and often permanent color to."  Oh, for want of an e, the world was lost!

The e in “dye” and “dyeing” is our good old friend Silent E. Tom Lehrer’s song about that character didn’t get around to “dyeing,” although he did point out that Silent E could turn a dam into a dame, but when he tried the same thing on Sam it came out the same.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose hair is dying but is not yet either dead or dyed, pays his tribute to the English language’s favorite letter in this Owed to E.

            Hail to thee, blithe, brilliant E!
            Silent though you often be.
            Like white wine? Please have some more—
            See those e’s you can ignore?
            Noisy letters can’t keep quiet,
            Some can cause a jangling riot,
            Such as f, j, q, r, v—
            Rest in peace with silent E.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Now! At A Book Store Near You

The free ride is over.  It’s time to pay up.  The book-like object known as Words Gone Wild, of which this blog is a mere harbinger, is now available for purchase.  It’s in book stores hither and thither, and it’s on-line at,,, and other cyber-outlets.  (How these sites already have “used copies” available, I couldn’t say; someone is reading too fast.)

The good news is the book’s list price, before any discounts, is only $22.95. That comes to only 5.1 ten-thousandths of a cent per word.  And some of them are very long words.  Such a deal!                        

Remember, too, that even if you don’t care to read it, its size and weight make it suitable for use as a doorstop, paperweight, fly-swatter, or blunt weapon.  You may think of other ways to use it on your own; if so, please share them with Martha Stewart.

A word of caution: there is another book out there with the same title. The other one is a book of serious poetry.  Be sure you know which one you’re ordering!

As you are aware, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is loath to lend his talents, such as they are, to commercial enterprises.   He knows, however, which side his bread is buttered on, and he has therefore agreed—churlishly, to be sure—to do what he can to promote the sale of this gallimaufry by providing a Table of Contents:

            Limericks, clerihews, comic palaver, 
            Puzzles, and games by the score,
            Hysterical puns that could charm a cadaver,           
            Malapropisms, and more,

            Double-entendres (rather risqué),
            Nifty Tom Swifties galore,
            Tangy tongue-twisters too tricky to say—
            Like “Edith thinks sick thoughts of Thor,”

            Oodles of nonsense verse for the nonce,
            Slang words at which you will roar,
            Riddles to which you’ll give a response,
            And knock-knocks—who’s that at the door?
            Feghoots, and croakers, and odd spoonerisms,
            Acrostics you’ll simply adore,
            Rhopalics and eggcorns, a few euphemisms--
            Soon you’ll be shouting “Encore!”
            Anagrams, mondegreens, row upon row,
            To thrill you right down to the core,
            Palindromes going both backward and fro—
            Words Gone Wild is now at your store.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Re: Re and Re

Crossword puzzle constructors can take almost any verb and put re- in a front of it and say it means to do whatever it is again.  Rerun is a frequent puzzle entry, and of course it means “to show on TV again.”  Reshoot is “to film again,” rename “to dub again,” rewrite “to pen again,” etc.  I’ve even seen some stretches of usage like relook, respend, and restand.

There are other “re”-words, though, that don’t mean to do something for the second time.  Reply, repent, recline, regurgitate, and rescind, for example, do not mean “to ply, to pent, to cline, to gurgitate, and to scind” again.

The difference is in the prefix re-, which has two meanings.  The commonly used one simply means “again.”  But another Latin meaning is “back in a former state or position,” and words starting with his kind of re came to us from Latin with the prefix already in place. Reply, for example, doesn’t mean “to ply again,” but comes to us intact from the Latin replicare meaning “to fold back.”

Some words can have both kinds of re- attached to them and mean two different things, as in the story of the upholsterer who accidentally fell into his machine and is now completely recovered.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou will probably never be completely recovered from whatever ails him, but he keeps trying to rid himself of toxins such as the following:

            “Your test score is a B,”
             The old professor barked.
            “But it really rates a C,”
             He suddenly remarked.