Monday, July 25, 2011

Bedtime for Gonzo

The name of Hunter S. Thompson is rarely seen without being accompanied by the epithet “gonzo journalist.”  What makes a journalist (or anything else, for that matter) “gonzo”?

It essentially means a style of first-person journalism, in which colorful writing takes priority over factual reporting. It frequently includes humor, exaggeration, sarcasm, and profanity.

Copping out, in typical fashion, Webster’s Collegiate says the phrase originated in 1971, but its origin is “unknown.”  Unknown by Webster’s, perhaps, but others purport to have the inside skinny.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary the term “gonzo” was first used around 1970 by Bill Cardoso, editor of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine.  Wikipedia further amplifies this to report that Cardoso used the term to describe an article entitled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” by Thompson, which appeared in Scanlan's Monthly.

Cardoso explained its origin as South Boston Irish slang for the last man standing after an all-night drinking binge. He said it was a corruption of the French Canadian gonzeaux, which inexplicably means “shining path.”

Wikipedia says another speculation is that the word was inspired by a 1960 song called “Gonzo” by New Orleans blues pianist James Booker.  According to Booker’s biography, the title came from a drug-dealing character in a movie called The Pusher, inspired by a 1956 Evan Hunter novel of that title.

If you’re looking for a gonzo rhymester, look no further than the banks of Buffalo Bayou, where the Bard hangs out.

            I like my gonzo in Gor-gonzo-la,
            I like my coke in Coca-Cola,
            I’m retro as to LSD—
            Since DSL is fine with me.
            And as for stuff like snow and smack,
            To me, it’s all a crock of crack.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Whole Shebang

An online news site reported the following:

"’I do believe I can win’ a national election, Sarah Palin has declared to Newsweek. The latest teaser from Palin seems to indicate that she's about to go for the big shebang.”

Okay, what is this thing called a “shebang” that ex-Governor Palin is about to go for?  Well, no one quite seems to know, which may be just the thing for someone whose presidential aspirations are unclear.  Maybe she and Rick Perry could join forces and double their chances to acquire a shebang, whatever it is. 

The earliest citation of the word in print is in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, 1862: "Besides the hospitals, I also go occasionally on long tours through the camps, talking with the men, &c. Sometimes at night among the groups around the fires, in their shebang enclosures of bushes." Whitman uses shebang to describe some kind of primitive dwelling. (Just the place for Palin and Perry.)

The word turns up with wildly different meanings later on: a “vehicle” in 1872, a “saloon” in 1878, “any sort of house or office” in 1869. In Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain opted for the vehicle: "Take back your money, madam. We can't allow it. You're welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang's chartered, and we can't let you pay a cent."

In the same year the Sedalia (Missouri) Daily Democrat used the word pretty close to its present meaning, that is “any complicated matter of concern”: "Well, the Democracy can flax [thrash or beat] the whole shebang, and we hope to see our party united."

Nowadays the word is almost always used in the phrase “the whole shebang,” synonymous with the “whole ball of wax,” “the whole enchilada,” “the whole kit and caboodle,” and “the whole nine yards.” 

As for shebang’s etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary (typically) cops out with "of obscure origin,” but other sources suggest a derivation from French charabanc, which is a bus-like wagon.  Others speculate that there might be a connection between shebang and the Irish shebeen, which is a place where liquor is sold without a license.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has opted not to go for the whole shebang, but he has a political observation that he cannot suppress:

            Palin, Paul, and Perry,
            And Bachmann, Trump, and Romney,
            My goodness, it is very
            Hard to pick a nominee!
            Huckabee and Cain,
            And Huntsman and Santorum,
            Now Gingrich may campaign--           
            Isn’t that a quorum?
            Strictly off the cuff,
            I count almost twenty!           
            Do we have enough?
            Oh, yes, we have Pawlenty!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Little Oxford Comma

I have been fighting for years—since 1961, actually, when I sat on the rim of the copy desk at the old Houston Press—against those who wish to eradicate what is sometimes known as the Oxford (or Harvard) Comma.  This is the comma that comes before the “and” or “or” in a series of three or more items.  For example, The U. S. flag is red, white, and blue.   I do not like vodka, rum, cognac, or tequila.

It's known as the Oxford Comma because it was traditionally used by editors at the Oxford University Press. How Harvard nosed itself into the phrase I cannot say.  Some people call it the serial comma. 

In the United States, the serial comma is standard usage in most non-journalistic writing, but newspaper stylebooks, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, mandate its omission.  British English usually does without the serial comma, except for some university presses and the recommendation of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Stylebooks notwithstanding, the Oxford Comma is often necessary to clarify meaning. For example, in a book dedication the author might write:

            To my parents, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Henry Kissinger.

Without the serial comma, it would appear that the author’s parents are Zsa Zsa and Henry, a situation that, while not inconceivable, is probably not what was meant.  With the serial comma, we find that the author is dedicating his book to three unrelated entities:

             To my parents, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Henry Kissinger.

Ironically, the inclusion of an Oxford comma can also cause its own ambiguity, as in this dedication:

            To my mother, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Henry Kissinger.

In this case, the comma could indicate an appositive rather than a series, meaning that the author’s mother is Zsa Zsa.  The best way around this kind of confusion is probably to rephrase:

            To my mother, and to Zsa Zsa Gabor and to Henry Kissinger.

In her inexplicably best-selling book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the British journalist Lynne Truss writes:  
"There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou can take the Oxford Comma or leave it alone, but mostly he takes it:

            McConnell, Cantor, Boehner and Obama
            Faced off one day across a great divide.
            From right to left, there was a panorama,           
            The gap between their views was very wide.
            The air was tense, and you could feel the drama,
            Until, at long last, Boehner upped and cried:
            “Wait! Wait! Insert an Oxford Comma,
            Or folks might think I'm on Obama’s side!”

Monday, July 11, 2011

Fixin' To

Most people think of the term fixing to (or, as it’s usually spoken, fixin’ tuh), meaning “just about to,” as a sub-standard expression common only among backwoods Texans and other unlettered types, such as hillbillies, rednecks, and crackers.  The phrase is generally used to express intent to complete an action in the near future: I’m fixing to watch “Gone With the Wind” or She’s fixing to go to Neiman-Marcus.
Actually, fixing to has a distinguished etymological history, dating at least to the 14th century, when fix meant “to set one’s eye or mind on something,” as in I am fixed on winning the fair Rowena’s hand in matrimony (or words to that effect).  Such usage stemmed from the Latin fixus, meaning “immovable, settled, or established.” It’s the past participle of figere, which simply means “to fasten.”
The meaning of “getting ready” or “preparing” is strictly American and can be traced to the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from 1716: “He fixes for another expedition.”  In 1871 Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, “He was fixin’ out for the voyage.” 
By 1854 the phrase shifted pretty much to its current meaning, as in the O.E.D.’s citation of “Aunt Lizy is just fixing to go to church.” In 1907 the Springfield (Massachusetts) Weekly Republic proclaimed, “What a pretty night!  The moon is fixing to shine.” In 1910 Gertrude Atherton wrote, “I meet schoolgirls so painted up they look as they was fixin’ to be bad.”  A 1967 song by Country Joe and the Fish bemoaned, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is usually in a fix of some intricate and inexplicable nature, which he resolves through sublime flights of lyric poetry like the following.

            I’m fixing to fax further facts to the flacks
            For Fox flicks with their factional fiction,
            In a flexible fluxion of flax and of phlox
            As they flex all their fractional friction.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Perennial Ennials

Today marks the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which, for both the mathematically and historically challenged, occurred in 1776.  This anniversary apparently does not have a high-fangled appellation like sesquicentennial or bicentennial.  Such Latinate sesquipedaliae are presumably thought to have a more celebratory sound than the prosaic “150th or 200th anniversary.”

Some folks have devised Latinate terms for most of the celebrations at 25-year intervals—other numbers need not apply for such special status.  Going from the notion that one hundred years is a “centennial” (from the Latin centum or “hundred” and annus or “year”), fifty years is a “semicentennial” (or, in another version, “quinquagenary”) and two hundred years is a “bicentennial.” 

That all seems straightforward enough, but the going gets tricky when you try to pin down some of the other anniversaries.  Sesquicentennial, for 150 years, is derived from the Latin sesqui, meaning “one and a half feet” (the same root as the word sesquipedalian).  If it’s 75 years, you’re supposed to call it a dodranscentennial, from the Latin de quadrans, which means “a whole unit of something less one-quarter.” By the same formula a 175-year celebration is a dodransbicentennial.

Quasquicentennial is a term for “125th anniversary” supposedly coined by Robert Chapman, an editor for Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, in 1962.  It’s derived from the Latin quadrans (“quarter”) joined to centennial by the Latin conjunction que. It is not recorded precisely what happened in 1837 to provoke Mr. Chapman’s celebration.

Five hundred years is a quincentennial, and 250 is half of that, or a semiquincentennial. Disdaining the unfinished implications of semi, several universities (including Princeton) have called their 250th anniversaries bicenquinquagenaries—a coined word that some Latin scholars insist really means 10,000 years—a milestone that even Oxford and Cambridge haven’t yet reached!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou finds that most of his milestones are really millstones, but, like Sisyphus, he keeps rolling them up the hill.

            Sometimes I wonder just how many’ll
            Come to celebrate my centennial--
            ‘Twill be in 2037.
            My guests won’t care about the menu,
            No, their concern is for the venue:
            Will it be in hell or heaven?