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.