Monday, April 25, 2011

Well Twained

Everyone knows, or at least believes, that Sam Clemens adopted the name Mark Twain because he heard Mississippi riverboat captains call out that phrase when measuring with a sounding line, indicating water depth of two fathoms, deep enough to be safe for boats.  More on that story later.  But what about the computer software protocol known as TWAIN?

The TWAIN technology regulates the way scanners and digital cameras communicate with personal computers. And what has it do with Mark Twain, or Shania Twain, or Lionel Twain?  Actually, nothing.  According to people who should know, TWAIN is an acronym of “Technology Without An Interesting Name.” 

Now what about that Mark Twain legend?  It’s true enough that riverboat captains used that phrase (twain comes from Old English twegen, meaning “two”).  But Twain gives credit to Captain Isaiah Sellers for having invented the name, which the captain used to sign short pieces of river news tidbits that he contributed to the New Orleans Picayune.

But wait!  Several authorities have questioned the whole business of the riverboat jargon and claim that mark twain refers to a running bar tab that Twain regularly incurred while drinking at John Piper's saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. Whenever he invited a friend to join him for a drink, he would tell the bartender to “mark twain,” meaning put two drinks on his tab.

Twain dismissed this tale as twaddle.  He wrote:

“Mark Twain was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who… died in 1869 and as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor's remains. That is the history of the nom de plume I bear.”

The word twain was memorably used by Rudyard Kipling in “The Battle of East and West,” in which he wrote that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.”  In 1889 in Elmira, New York, the young Kipling interviewed Twain, who had no idea who his interviewer was. He found out later, when both of them received honorary degrees from Oxford University in 1907.

No one knows who the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is, either, and what’s more, no one cares.  Can you blame them?

            “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the  
                     twain shall meet,
            Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great 
                     Judgment Seat.”
            So Kipling wrote, but he might wish to take that 
                     statement back,
            For there’s one place the twain can meet—and that is 
                     on the twack.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Simply Perfect

I can’t remember the last time I read a really good article on the perfect tense. Can you?  Like the subjunctive mood, the perfect tense never gets treated with the respect it deserves.  It’s time to change that.
The perfect tense has to do with verbs that represent completed action. The perfect tense may be present (“I have texted”), past or pluperfect (“I had texted”), present continuous progressive (“I have been texting”), past continuous progressive (“I had been texting”), future (“I will have texted”), or future continuous progressive (“I will have been texting”).

Some people may have been sexting, but that’s another issue.

Compared to the simple past tense, the perfect usually represents an indefinite period over which an action took place, rather than a specific instance. The simple past would be “I texted yesterday.” The perfect tenses would express that past action over a less specific period of time. The present perfect, extending into the present time, would be “I have texted” (and intend to continue doing so in the future) and the past perfect, indicating an action prior to some other action would be “I had texted” (but then I started Tweeting instead).

The future perfect refers to an event that will happen before some other future event: “I will have texted” twenty-seven people before you can stop me.

Texting does not come easily to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou (but then not much else does, either):

     Each time I text,
     I soon grow vexed
     To find I’ve Xed
     Out what comes next.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rock Pile

There are at least 200 genres and sub-genres of the musical form known as “rock.” Most of us know, or can figure out roughly, what is meant by such nomenclature as soft rock, folk rock, country rock, blues rock, jazz rock—and even, would you believe, symphonic rock.

But what on earth is meant by heavy metal, glam, punk, proto-punk, post-punk, alternative, emo, crunkcore, screamo, grunge, garage, goth, new wave, ethereal, neo-medieval, and  darkwave—all of which are separate and distinct musical genres?  I couldn’t hope to provide a comprehensive glossary of every form of rock—even if I had the space.  But today we’ll try to make sense out of a few of the more common—and bizarre—rock forms.   

One of the most common genres is heavy metal, which was an early 1960s term for addictive drugs, used by William S. Burroughs in some of his novels.  A 1968 song by Steppenwolf referred to “heavy metal thunder,” relating it to smoke, lightning, and racing with the wind. Heavy is used to mean “serious” or “profound”; metal probably refers to the steel or alloy often used for guitar strings, but has other possible explanations, such as a critic’s comment that listening to Jimi Hendrix was like “heavy metal falling from the sky.” Heavy metal is noted for loud amplification, emphasis on dense chords, a prominent bass line, an emphatic rhythmic beat, electronic distortion, and extended guitar solos.

Glam rock is any kind of rock music with supposed glamorous qualities of showmanship, such as elaborate costuming and makeup, glittery sets, and spectacular visuals involving light, smoke, fireworks, and other effects.  Psychedelic rock is a form of glam rock, emphasizing hallucinogenic images.

Punk rock is noted for the rawness of its musical qualities and angry political and social criticism. Its predecessor, proto-punk, is another name for so-called garage rock, which has a primitive, amateurish quality to it, as if recorded in someone’s garage (as it may have been). Garage rock has emotional lyrics, often speaking to high school angst, usually growled or screamed. Post-punk is musically experimental and complex. New wave is similar to punk, with emphasis on such elements as electronic and experimental sounds, the “mod” subculture, disco, and 1960s pop. Progressive rock is also related, with a supposed emphasis on artistic embellishments.

Alternative rock (alternative to what, one wonders?) is more a matter of attitude than a specific musical sound.  It is largely defined by a rejection of commercialism and mainstream culture. Alternative bands generally play in small clubs, record for independent labels, and spread their popularity through word of mouth. The New York Times in 1989 asserted that the genre is "guitar music first of all, with guitars that blast out power chords, pick out chiming riffs, buzz with fuzztone and squeal in feedback." Sounds may include the “dirty” (distorted) guitars of grunge and the gloomy qualities of gothic rock.

Crunkcore, also known as crunk punk and screamo-crunk, is a minimalist Southern hip-hop style, with techno breakdowns, barked vocals, and what has been described as “party-till-you-puke poetics,” whatever that may mean.

Finally, emo, which is short for emotion, is a form of rock noted for emphasizing melody, musicianship, and personal, often confessional, lyrics.

Now, we can rock around the clock!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou prefers his heavy metal in the form of gold ingots, and he likes to kick back and listen to Shep Fields and his Rippling Rhythm, Jan Garber, the Idol of the Airlanes, and Guy Lombardo with the Royal Canadians, who play “the sweetest music this side of heaven.” 

            If you are a rock star,
            Then each and every groupie
            Will groove to your vibrations.
            But if you are a Bach star,
            Then you’ll be makin’ Whoopi
            Goldberg Variations.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mencken’s Vocabulary

The indomitable Russell Baker, in a review of Prejudices, a collection of H. L. Mencken’s journalism, lists 17 words that sent him scurrying to Webster’s Unabridged, before he gave up for fear of wearing out the dictionary.  How many of these words, which seem to flow naturally from Mencken’s typewriter, would you have to look up?

            Confutation, Fantee, Usufructs, Punctilio,   
            Bedizenments, Laparatomy, Enharmonic, 
            Endoneurium, Corpora quadrigemina, 
            Hypertmetropic, Mariolatry, Haruspices, 
            Oedematous, Gerousia, Hunkerous,
            Socianism, Struthious

Mencken, who said he wrote just to find out what he was thinking, lacked a college education, but dipped extensively into American and British literature on his own. His writing is characterized by a florid use of long words, based on his belief that the joy of reading (as he said of Chaucer) comes out of the mere “burble of the words,” not their meaning.

To save you the trouble of looking up the seventeen words—many of which you won’t find in a standard desk dictionary—here’s a capsule definition of each:

Confutation – overwhelming rebuttal
Fantee – a tribe and language of the African Gold Coast
Usufructs – rights to use the property of another
Punctilio – a minute detail of a code of conduct  
Bedizenments – gaudy adornments
Laparatomy – abdominal incision
Enharmonic -  describing musical notes that are written 
       differently but sound the same, e.g. A-flat and G-sharp
Endoneurium – connective nerve tissue
Corpora quadrigemina – parts of the brain
Hypermetropic – farsighted 
Marioloatry – idolization of the Virgin Mary
Haruspices – Roman soothsayers
Oedematous – swollen by fluid accumulation
Gerousia – council of elders 
Hunkerous – opposed to progress 
Socinianism – a sixteenth-century Christian heresy
Struthious – pertaining to ostriches and similar birds

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou uses a number of words you would probably have to look up – but you wouldn’t find them, at least not in any self-respecting dictionary.

            Tending to use a very long word
            Is known as sesquipedalian.
            And when such a word is occasionally heard,
            Chances are it’s said by an alien.