Monday, January 24, 2011

Incontestably Indigestible

The formation of an adjective indicating capability or fitness is normally formed nowadays by adding the suffix –able to a verb. For example, you may find “American Idol” watchable, Lady Gaga listenable, and Gummy Bears desirable. To each his own.

But, for reasons we need not go into because no one really knows them, some adjectives were formed historically by adding –ible instead of -able. Thus, I find “American Idol” incomprehensible, Lady Gaga unintelligible, and Gummi Bears inedible.

If you can connect two objects, they are connectable, but if you wish to make a hobby of collecting those objects, they become collectible. Don’t ask why, that’s just the way it is.

The even more unfortunate fact is there’s no rule about which adjectives are spelled which way; it’s just something you have to memorize.  You may find this state of affairs indigestible, but it’s nonetheless incontestable.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is incorrigible, but no less blamable, in his savage outpourings:

            My income tax is truly terrible,
            And my distress is ineluctable,
            Each year when it becomes unbearable
            To find expenses non-deductible.
            By now that outcome should be guessable,
            But it is always unexpectable.
            Too bad my money’s inaccessible
            And my taxes uncollectible.
            My dear, I find you irresistible,
            To me, your love is indispensable,
            But why your telephone’s unlistable
            Is something that’s incomprehensible.
            My love’s so great it’s unassessable,
            And I hope that it’s permissible
            To say I find it inexpressible
            That you’re so huggable and kissable.

            My grades are just passable,
            That’s incontrovertible.
            That it makes me irascible
            Is strongly assertable.
            It’s just not acceptable           
            That things indiscernible
            Are quite imperceptible
            And largely unlearnable.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sundae School

Few words in English are more difficult to pin down with precision than sundae—that concoction of ice cream, chocolate (or some other) syrup, and maybe a few chopped nuts, topped with whipped cream and a cherry.  Why is it called a sundae? 

H. L. Mencken in The American Language speculates without much conviction that the word originated in a sudden craze to enforce Blue Laws in some unknown southern state, making it illegal to sell an ice-cream soda on the Christian Sabbath. To get around this law, some enterprising druggist offered ice cream and syrup without the offensive soda, calling it an “Ice Cream Sunday.”  Presumably some people objected to the Sabbath day being included in the confection’s name, so he changed the spelling to sundae.

The Oxford English Dictionary’ s first citation of the word is in 1904.  In one newspaper it’s spelled sundi, but the word appeared as sundae in The Minneapolis Times in the same year.

According to Wikipedia, many U. S. cities claim to be the first to serve a sundae, maybe as early as 1881.  They include Ithaca, New York; Two Rivers Wisconsin; and both Evanston and Plainfield, Illinois.  All the claimants agree about the general reason for its invention—to evade laws against ice cream sodas.  Apparently soda water is the beverage of the Devil. 

The beverage of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou varies, depending on the circumstances, but when he has too much of it, as he often does, he is moved to spew out incomprehensible drivel like the following:

            I ate a Sundae on a Monday,
            And played a stirring March in May.
            I dined on Turkey in Burundi,
            And I was made a Knight one Day.

            Sinking Slowly in the Quicksand
            On the Square I saw a Ring.
            Names will never hurt, but sticks and
            Stones might cause a Fall in Spring.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Going to Pot

Everyone who has an opinion on the matter seems to agree that the word pot, meaning “marijuana,” has its origin in the Mexican-Spanish word potiguaya, an abbreviated form of potación de guaya (“drink of grief”), a wine or brandy in which marijuana buds have been steeped.  John Sutherland in his Curiosities of Literature tries vainly to make a case for pot’s origin in Lord Dunsany’s “The Hashish Man,” in which the smoking of hashish is described as partaking in the “pot of dreams.”

But what about the word marijuana?  Where does it come from?  It’s a lot harder to pin down.  Alan Piper has done a lengthy, scholarly piece—“The Mysterious Origins of the Word Marihuana”—which appeared in the Sino-Platonic Papers of July 2005.  Piper says the earliest appearance in an English publication of a similar word referring to a hallucinogenic plant (mariguan) was in 1894 in Scribner’s Magazine. Punch Magazine mentioned marijuma in 1905. Piper speculates that it might have originated in the Chinese words for “cannabis flower seeds”—ma-ren-hua—which were brought to Mexico by Chinese laborers as early as the seventeenth century.

But there’s also a connection with the Middle Latin word maioriana, or “marjoram,” which was thrown on the fire and its smoke inhaled as an intoxicant in ancient Thrace.  And there’s a word—mariguanza—in Chilean Spanish that means a leap in a dance by a shaman casting a spell, which might be descriptive of the behavior of a cannabis user.  Further, there is speculation that the word derives from a conflation with the name Maria Juana—with an allusion to the Virgin Mary, to whom Mexican folklore attributes the mystical powers of certain herbs.

Other linguists cite the Brazilian Portuguese term maraguango, meaning “smoking, drinking, or snuffing any substance” that alters mental capacity.  There may also be a connection to the Arabic word murr, meaning bitter aromatic herb, as found in myrrh, which one of the Magi was toting.

In his conclusion, Piper is forced to admit the word marijuana may be a nineteenth-century folk term with no discernible etymology.

Under the misapprehension that pot was short for potato, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou became extremely ill smoking dried potato peelings, under the influence of which he composed these lines:
            Perhaps I might enjoy a joint,
            But all to no avail.
            For I would fail to get the point,
            And I would not inhale.
            ‘Cause if I puffed a tiny spliff
            Of wacky old tobacky,
            All it would take is just one sniff
            And I’d do something tacky.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Pea? Oui!

A pea sprout nearly two inches long was recently found growing in a man’s lung.  This may be carrying Candide’s admonition to “cultivate our garden” to extremes, but it does show how hardy the pea plant is.  According to most reports the pea in question was an English pea.

English peas were first called that in the seventeenth century in the southern United States, to distinguish them from the more common black-eyed peas (of which I hope you had your share on New Year’s Day, to bring a prosperous twelve months).  Known in England as simply “peas,” “garden peas,” and if very small, “petits pois,” or if still in the pod, “mange tout,” English peas were developed in several varieties in England in the sixteenth century and were brought to the colonies as early as 1620 by the Pilgrims.  The term “English pea” has been found as early as 1634.

Peas were originally a singular collective noun—pease—like spinach or cabbage, but the “s” sound on the end made people think it was a plural, and so the singular pea came about as a back-formation.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is known for minding his peas and his cues, and offers this vegetable slumgullion for your delectation:
            I think that I shall never see
            A kumquat lovely as a pea.
            A pea that is so round and green,
            No finer pea has e’er been seen.
            A pea that makes me salivate           
            To watch it roll around my plate.

            It looks so juicy, firm, and plump,
            Not like potatoes, in a lump.
            A pea is perfect, has great class—
            Unlike a bean, won’t give you gas.
            My poems are read by fools like thee,
            But only I can eat this pea.