Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hark! The Quark

Be warned: this is going to get messy.  Any time I attempt to discuss a scientific topic—especially one that deals with physics—the words turn to gibberish the moment they hit the page.  Nonetheless, today’s lesson is about the quark.  What is it and why is it called that?

What-is-it is the hard part.  As best I can figure it out, a quark (rhymes with pork) is a little-bitty piece of something that gets together with other little-bitty pieces to form a little bit bigger piece of something called a hadron, a word that includes protons and neutrons.  Having found these little-bitty pieces, scientists discovered there were six types (or “flavors” as they like to say)—up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange.  Okay, that’s all the science you’re going to get out of me. 

Why is it called a quark?  That’s slightly easier to explain.  The little-bitty pieces were discovered along about 1964 by a physicist named Murray Gell-Mann, who decided to name them after the sound a duck makes.  Why a duck?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But a duck sound is a quack, not a quark.  At about the same time, however, Gell-Mann was reading James Joyce’s unintelligible novel Finnegans Wake, and he came across the phrase “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” As Gell-Mann himself tries to explain it:

            I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been “kwork.”  Then I came across the word “quark” in the phrase “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Since “quark” (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with “Mark,” as well as “bark” and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as "kwork.”…From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar.  I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry “Three quarks for Muster Mark” might be “Three quarts for Mister Mark,” in which case the pronunciation “kwork” would not be totally unjustified.

Uh-huh. Excuse me, Professor--will this be on the final? 
Harald Frietzsch, a student of Gell-Mann’s, offers a novel explanation of why the word “flavor” is used to denote the various kinds of quarks.  One day, he says, he and Gell-Mann stopped at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop and remarked that the 31 flavors were more than the three kinds of quark that were then known.  Gell-Mann picked up on the word “flavor” and used it for his quarks.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is full of quirks, but he is willing to set them aside long enough to consider the quark.

            An up quark in upstate New York
            Wed a down quark on the farm.
            The stork brought them a baby quark,
            And it was such a charm.
            A top quark and a bottom quark
            Their marriage did arrange.
            This time the stork was just a dork,
            And their baby quark was strange.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Don’t Refudiate Neologisms

Alaska’s ex-Governor Sarah Palin in one of her more creative moments urged right-thinking Muslims (and the more right, the better) to “refudiate” the plans for a mosque on the site of Ground Zero in Manhattan.  It seems clear that she was conflating the words refute (or possibly refuse) and repudiate to come up with a new portmanteau word—a neologism that combines elements of two different words, both of which it contains supposedly in the manner of a portmanteau suitcase. Our language is full of them.  One of the most famous portmanteau words that has survived and flourished is Lewis Carroll’s coinage of chortle, a combination of “chuckle and snort.”

Before you sic the Language Police on ex-Governor Palin, consider this. She invoked William Shakespeare to defend her creative vocabulary. And she has a point. The Bard (of Avon) is known for coining hundreds of new words or using existing words in a new context.  Among words thought to be invented or re-purposed by him are auspicious, bedazzled, birthplace, clangor, dauntless, employer, eventful, eyesore, silliness, and whirligig.  He also invented quite a few that never caught on: attasked, cadent, fracted, irregulous, propugnation, and unsisting. Do you suppose misunderestimated  might be somewhere in the canon as well?

The test for a new coinage is survival, and that depends on whether it fills a need. Carroll’s slithy (“lithe” and “slimy”) apparently was not one that did.  In the case of refudiate, it combines a word meaning “to prove wrong or to deny the truth of” and one meaning “to disown or to reject as untrue or unjust.”  A case might be made for the usefulness of such a new word, and ex-Governor Palin should claim credit for it in the next Oxford English Dictionary.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou takes a dim view of coining new words, inasmuch as he has yet to assimilate fully the ones that already exist, as you can tell by the disarray of his verbiage:
            When Sarah Palin starts to yammer,
            Pay no attention to her grammar,
            Then, if a new word she invents,
            You’d better say that it makes sense,           
            And don’t knock her vocabulary—
            Or she’ll call the constabulary.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

When Things Go Badly…

The leaking BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has been consistently referred to in the news as a “disaster.”  No argument there.  But English has several words besides disaster that can indicate a state of affairs less than ideal, including fiasco, calamity, catastrophe, cataclysm, and the ever popular tragedy.  Although sometimes used interchangeably, these words all have their own nuanced meanings. 

Disaster, originally an astrological word rooted in the Latin astrum (“star”), meant an ill portent caused by the misalignment of the stars or planets. Nowadays, it’s an all-purpose word for any sudden and extraordinary misfortune of whatever kind.  The Gulf oil spill certainly qualifies.

A fiasco, from the Italian word for “bottle,” literally meant making a bottle, that is failing completely to achieve expected results—almost always with an element of the ridiculous.  It is especially applied to theatrical performances and other pretentious activities.

A calamity, from the Latin calamitas and the Greek kolobos (“harmed, mutilated”) is a great misfortune that causes extensive harm—perhaps loss of power by ESPN in the final moments of the World Cup would qualify as a calamity. 

It is similar to a catastrophe, which comes from Greek kata + strephein (“overturn”) and means a misfortune that changes the fundamental order of things, with a note of finality. Imagine, for example, American Idol going off the air permanently. Catastrophe, in fact, was originally a show-biz term, referring to the denouement in a drama.

Cataclysm from the Greek kataklysmos (“flood”) is a violent physical event—earthquake, hurricane, flood, very large lightning bolts hurled by Zeus—that alters the earth’s surface.

And, finally, our old friend tragedy, which is trotted out by the news media anytime someone dies of whatever cause.  It’s another term from Greek drama—originally tragoidia, meaning “goat-song,” so called from the goatskins that were worn as costumes (pre-Bob Mackie) by early tragedians.  The story they told was always about a noble leading character brought to his or her death or some other unpleasant conclusion by a character flaw or an excess of passion—Lindsay Lohan’s tragic incarceration, for example?

You may take your pick of the above terms for disaster and apply any one of them to the gibberish that constitutes the poetic oeuvre of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  As he is wont to say, “It’s no skin off my elbow.”

            If disaster should befall you, you should bear it with a smile,
            Don’t let tragedy appall you, just keep grinning all the while.
            Turn misfortune into gladness, say that everything’s idyllic.
            You will conquer all the sadness—and be labeled imbecilic.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I Love Me

On the same page (Op-Ed) of a recent New York Times two well-known personalities were identified as narcissists.  One is Mel Gibson, who has been receiving tons of publicity (all of which spelled his name right) for reportedly berating, cursing, demeaning, and possibly striking his inamorata.  The other supposed narcissist is the late Larry Rivers, an artist who created a cinematic history of his two pubescent daughters’ developing breasts; the films are now the subject of a dispute between Rivers’ foundation and the adult daughters, who regard them as an invasion of their privacy.

The merits of these two sensational cases, replete with juicy revelations, are not the subjects of today’s disquisition—but lest you be disappointed, I assure you that things are likely to get fairly libidinous anyway.  Narcissism is a Freudian term denoting an exclusive absorption with oneself. It may include an erotic desire for one’s own body and personality.  Normal in childhood, so the Freudians say, narcissism becomes a pathological disorder in an adult when it impairs social functioning.  A narcissist has an exaggerated sense of his own importance, suffers delusions about his unique abilities, and depends on others to reinforce his self-image.  (I use the pronoun his, since the individuals mentioned are male, but females can also be narcissists.  Can you think of any?)

The term comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. As the Roman poet Ovid tells the story, Narcissus was an incredibly handsome youth about 16 years old (think Justin Bieber) who disdained all who loved him. One day he was followed into the woods by a beautiful young nymph (or perhaps she was a nymphet—think Miley Cyrus, or, on second thought, maybe not) named Echo.  She was unable to utter a word, and finally he heard her footsteps.  “Who’s there?” he called.  And she answered, “Who’s there?”  It went on like that for a few more exchanges until Echo rushed forward and embraced Narcissus.  He pushed her away and told her to leave him alone.  Heartbroken, she spent the rest of her life pining away for him until only her voice remained—but not before she had asked the goddess Nemesis to take revenge on Narcissus for rejecting her.

Narcissus came across a pool of water and, bending over to take a drink, saw a reflection of himself for the first time in his life. He fell in love with the beautiful boy he saw—not realizing at first that it was himself.  When he finally figured this out, he became upset, flailed about, and died. His soul went to hell, where he continues to gaze at his image in the River Styx. A flower called the narcissus (a.k.a. amaryllis, daffodil, or jonquil) sprung up where he had died.  Anyway, that’s the story, which you can believe or not. 

More shrinking violet than narcissus, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was in full bloom when he wrote the following:

            There was a young man named Narcissus,
            Who said, when disdaining a missus,
            “My image and I
            Are both quite a guy,
            There must be some way we can kiss us.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Slip-Sliding Away

One of the customers, who usually devotes himself to more cosmic ideas, asks where the term “slider” came from.  Sliders—those little three-bite mini-hamburgers—are ubiquitous these days, everywhere from greasy spoons to classier joints with white tablecloths and sommeliers.  Their price ranges from 50 cents to as much as ten bucks each—depending on where you wish to consume them and whether you want them plain or decked out with trimmings like paté de foie gras and truffles.

As with most etymologies, there’s a little indecision in pinning down the precise origin of the word.  Most people agree that the White Castle hamburger chain, which flourishes in the Midwest and has served mini-burgers since the early 1920s, provided the inspiration for the name.  As food writer Florence Fabricant tells the tale in a New York Times dissertation:

“Originally, the term ‘slider’ for the White Castle burger was derogatory, having to do with the ease with which the greasy sandwiches went down….White Castle did their best to ignore the term. That was, until 1993, when it trademarked its sandwiches as ‘slyders.’

“’The spelling had to do with our legal history, a decision made on the corporate side to claim it was a distinctive name,’ said Jamie Richardson, the vice president for corporate affairs at the company’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. ‘In our cultural history there were folks in the company who weren’t fond of it, but it’s now a term of affection.’ Printed fliers in the White Castle stores call the burger ‘the classic slider.’”

There’s a large body of evidence that suggests the term “slider” originated in U. S. Navy slang.  Wednesday, it is said, was called “slider day,” because the menu rotation called for grilled hamburgers, which were notoriously greasy, to be served throughout the fleet on that day.  The greasiness would suggest and the sailors maintained that the burgers not only slid down easily, but also slid all the way through you with the same ease. 

There are other etymological theories including the burgers’ supposed resemblance to the red-bellied terrapin known as a slider, or the fact that burgers slide onto the grill and then onto the bun, as opposed to hot dogs, which roll.  Another pundit says the term referred to an ice cream sandwich in 1915 and then was applied to the burger that resembled it.  Yet another scribe quotes the Oxford English Dictionary’s listing of “slider” meaning a coaster holding a decanter, which was slid along the table, and suggests the mini-burger resembled this object.  You pays your money and you takes your (greasy) choice.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been sliding for years, with no end in sight.  He bestirred himself from his customary torpor to spin this gossamer web of gustatory rhyme:

            Take back your fine filet mignon,
            Dom Perignon in crystal flutes,
            The choicest chef’s Chateubriand—
            For these I wouldn’t give two hoots.

            I’ll have a burger, if you please,
            Grilled on a grimy, greasy griddle,
            With mustard, onions, cheddar cheese,
            And kosher pickles in the middle.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Welch, as in Squelch

A major airline currently involved in merger negotiations was accused in an article in a major newspaper of being allowed to “welch” on its pension obligations.  Supercilious readers, like me, read that and sniffed, “Tut-tut—whoever said that should have known it’s not welch, but welsh.” But wait a minute, smarty-pants, not so fast! 

The verb, which means “to swindle by refusing to pay a debt,” stems from the adjective describing a native of Wales.  The pejorative verb originated in the 1850s in British horse-racing circles, in which presumably one or more Welsh bookies refused to pay winning bettors and absconded with the money. English mockery of the Welsh, however, goes back even further, as the nursery rhyme “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief” has indicated since the late 1700s.

Welsh has a long, long etymological history from the time the ancient Romans referred to residents of southern Gaul as Volcæ. The word made its way into Anglo-Saxon as wealas, meaning a non-Germanic foreigner. Among the dozens of permutations listed in the Oxford English Dictionary are Wiliac, Wilsc, Wylsc, Welsc, Welisc, Welsse, Welshe, Walish, Walische, Walyach, Walch, Walsh, and, yes—Welch. In fact, the first printed use of the word to mean “swindle” was in London’s Morning Chronicle of June 8, 1857, which observed of a scurrilous individual: “He got his living by ‘welching'…” Welch is regarded by both Oxford and Webster as a perfectly acceptable alternative to welsh.

So if the major airline (no, you’re not going to catch me naming it; I bet there are hordes of idle libel lawyers just sitting around waiting to pounce on some poor chump like me) wishes to “welch” on its commitments it may do so with linguistic, if not ethical, impunity.

Impunity is the watchword of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who likes to argue in circles because then he can’t be cornered. 

            My friend Bert’s in the habit
            Of craving Welsh rabbit
            And Caerphilly eating the cheese.
            After that, he will beg
            For a luscious Scotch egg
            To eat with some fresh English peas.
            Then to wash it all down,
            At the old Rose & Crown,
            He’s picky in choosing his quaff—he
            Won’t touch any Scotch whisky
            And finds English ale risky—
            Just give him a strong Irish coffee.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fiddling Around

Why, queries a correspondent who lives not far from the spot on which William the Conqueror defeated Harold in the Battle of Hastings, do we say someone is “fit as a fiddle”?  Sometimes I do feel like a bit like a Stradivarius myself—that is one that has been around since about 1690. Being fit as a fiddle, on the other hand, means to be “in excellent form or condition.”  What makes a fiddle so fit?  Why couldn’t you be as hale as a horn or as glad as a glockenspiel?

Well, first we need to find out where fiddle, as a word for a violin, comes from.  Via Old English, Old Norse, Middle Dutch and German, the word ultimately sprang from the Latin vidula, a stringed instrument, which in turn came from the name Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy and victory.  So from its earliest origin, the fiddle was associated with feeling good.

The earliest known use of the English phrase “fit as a fiddle” was in William Haughton’s 1598 play Englishmen for My Money, in which the term refers to an agreeable state of affairs. Not until 1889, in a work called Fifty Years on the Trail by Harrington O’Reilly, does the Oxford English Dictionary have a reference to the phrase in its current usage: “I arrived at my destination feeling fit as a fiddle.”

Wordman Charles Earle Funk has the funky idea that the phrase came about because the shape, form, and musical tone of violins were so pleasing that they invited complimentary comparisons to human beings.  Well, maybe.  Another source, who for reasons of uncertainty wishes to remain anonymous, offers the dubious explanation that the original phrase was “fit as a fiddler” and referred to the stamina of musicians who played hours upon end for dances without a break.  This was before the days of the musicians’ union, of course.

Be that as it may, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou wishes it to be known that he is as unfit as an untuned ukulele and has the following off-key verses to prove it:

            FIDDLERS THREE

            Sir Yehudi Menuhin
            Sounded quite genuine
            But not very hilarious
            When he played a Stradivarius.           

            Stephane Grappelli
            Hated celli,
            But he was always smilin’
            When he heard a violin.

            Jack Benny
            Could play any
            Song under the moon,
            Out of tune.

And one more, for good measure:

            Joshua Bell
            Sells very well,
            Because everyone expects he
            Will always look sexy.

And if you want a rhyme for Itzhak Perlman, you’ll have to come up with it yourself.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Slightly Sprightly

“Remarkably spritely” is how Jennifer Steinhauer described Senator John McCain in a recent New York Times article.  The adjective “spritely,” whatever it might mean, is obsolete.  The most recent usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary was in the eighteenth century.  The noun “sprite,” which is still in current usage, is a “disembodied spirit, ghost, elf, or fairy.”  Whatever you may think of Senator McCain, you’re unlikely to think of him in those terms.

What Ms. Steinhauer or her orthographically-challenged editor undoubtedly meant to say was that the Arizona Republican was “sprightly,” a word that once meant “ghostlike,” but in modern usage means “vigorous, brisk, lively, full of animation.”  Now that sounds more like McCain, doesn’t it?

The noun “spright,” which, like the adjective “spritely,” is now obsolete, was a variant spelling of “sprite,” introduced in the sixteenth century, in an erroneous analogy to Anglo-Saxon words like “light,” “might,” and “right.” “Sprite” derives, not from Anglo-Saxon, but from the French esprit and Latin spiritus (“breath”).   “Sprightly,” the adjective formed from “spright,” stayed in the language, while “spright” faded away.  It also changed its meaning from “ghostlike” to its present vivacious one.

Unlike Senator McCain, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou can be thought of as a disembodied spirit, ghost, or elf, but probably not a fairy.  Showing his non-partisan (some would say apolitical) nature, the Bard submits the following for your degustation or your disgust, whichever comes first:

John McCain
Can never explain
Anything economic.
When he tries, it’s tragi-comic.

Harry Reid
Knows how to lead.
If Republicans are for it in the Senate,
He’s agin it.
                        John Boehner
                        Is such a complainer--
                        Even if a Democrat is correct,
                        He’ll object.

                        Nancy Pelosi
                        Thinks everything’s rosy
                        And things would be bleaker
                        If she weren’t the Speaker.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Eponymic Earls

If you happen to be playing bridge after the Kentucky Derby, while eating a sandwich, wearing your new cardigan underneath your chesterfield, and idly admiring an orrery, when you are suddenly dealt a yarborough—then you are making use of six eponyms derived from British earldoms. As if you didn’t already know, an eponym (from the Greek epi meaning “attached to” and onyma meaning “name”) is a person for whom something is named.

Six British earls gave their names to the items above.  In case you’re wondering who they are, please read on.

Edward Stanley (1752-1834), 12th Earl of Derby, founder of the horse race known in his honor as the English (now Epsom) Derby, a name adopted by other annual horse races.  He can brag of a double-whammy in the eponym department: in 1888 he visited America wearing a rounded, rigid hat known in England as a bowler (from its manufacturer, the London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler), and Americans named the style of hat as a tribute to the Earl.

John Montagu (1718-1792), the 4th Earl of Sandwich, ordered his dinner meat brought to him between two slices of bread so that he could continue playing cribbage without getting the cards greasy (as he would have done by eating the meat with his fingers, as was his custom). He didn’t really invent the sandwich—people had been eating meat between pieces of bread for millennia—but his friends soon started referring to food served in that manner as a “sandwich.”

James Thomas Brudnell (1797-1868), 7th Earl of Cardigan, was a British cavalry officer for whom a sweater that buttons in the front was named.  No one seems to know what the Earl’s connection to the sweater was, but so what, who cares?
An overcoat with concealed buttons and a fur collar is known as a chesterfield, named for one of the 19th-century Earls of Chesterfield, but nobody seems to know which one or why.

Charles Boyle (1676-1731), the fourth Earl of Orrery, commissioned a model of the solar system, including the sun, the moon, the earth and all the other known planets in approximate scale to each other and mechanized to make orbital movements.  This device, often seen in science museums, is known as an orrery.

Charles Anderson Wosley (1809-1897), the 2nd Earl of Yarborough, was a betting man, and he offered £1000 to anyone who was able to deal a bridge hand containing no card higher than a nine—provided the opponent paid the Earl  £1 each time he failed to achieve such a hand.  The Earl was on solid ground, since the odds of getting such a hand (in a fair deal, of course) are 1827 to 1. Such a hand has since been known as a yarborough, in the Earl’s honor.

Nothing has ever been named for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, but that has not stopped him from resolutely turning out metrical slop like the following:

            There was a worried little eponym—
            Who always feared someone would step on him.
            He longed, instead, be a toponym,
            And then, he said, there’d be no stoppin’ him.