Monday, October 31, 2011


Today, children, we celebrate (or in some cases deplore with dread and loathing) the holiday known as “Halloween” (or, if you wish to be pedantic, “Hallowe’en”). The word was first used in the 16th century, and it is too well known to mention that it derives from “Allhallows Even [Evening],” the night before November 1, the Christian All Saints’ Day, which honors the souls in heaven. (It is not to be confused with All Souls’ Day, November 2, which is for the benefit of the dear departed who haven’t yet made it to heaven but have high hopes.)

One of the customs of Halloween is to display a hollowed-out  pumpkin, with a carved face illuminated by a candle.  It’s called a “jack-o’-lantern.”  So today’s question, trick-or-treaters, is who was Jack?

There are several Irish myths about a disreputable old drunk known as “Stingy Jack,” who got into some kind of dispute with the Devil.  Some tales say it was an argument about who would buy the next drink, and others insist it had to do with the Devil’s climbing a tree to snatch a piece of fruit (shades of Adam and Eve!).  At any rate, the final result of the contretemps was that the Devil agreed that he would never claim Stingy Jack’s soul.

There was just one problem—when Jack died, he found that he wasn’t welcome in heaven, either.  Since the Devil had agreed not to take him, Jack was condemned to roam the earth, and, to help him find his way, the Devil gave him an ember, which Jack placed inside a carved-out turnip and used as a lantern.  The figure of “Jack of the Lantern” was used in the 17th-century to mean a night watchman, and the term was later applied to the ignis fatuus, mysterious lights that appeared over peat bogs.  

To commemorate this legend, it became customary among the Irish, the Scots, and the English to scoop out the flesh and carve faces in potatoes, gourds, beets, and rutabagas, as well as turnips.  When the Irish immigrants came to America, they discovered it was a heck of a lot easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip, and the plentiful autumn crop became the standard for jack-o-lanterns.

The Bard-o’-Lantern of Buffalo Bayou hides on Halloween, lest he be mistaken for a ghoulie or ghostie or long-legged beastie or thing that goes bump in the night. While in hiding, he conjures up incantations like this one:

            I hope I never meet the Devil--
            That would be most alarming,
            For I can tell you, on the level,
            I think I’d find him charming.

            He’d give me power and great riches
            And a big flat-screen TV,
            And send his warlocks and his witches
            To come and wait on me.
            He’d tempt me with Champagne and gin,
            Dark chocolate as well--
            And you can bet that I’d give in,
            And wind up down in hell.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Where Ya From?

People from England are English, people from China are Chinese, people from India are Indians, people from New Zealand are New Zealanders, people from Ecuador are Ecuadoreans, and people from Pakistan are Pakistanis.

Why not Englese, Chinans, Indish, New Zealandi, Pakistaneans, and Ecuadorers?

Thomas Tsoi, who teaches English to Hong Kongers at Holy Trinity College, has the answer, sort of. He has identified eight basic suffixes that indicate nationality in English (plus a few irregular ones). The basic eight are:
            -ian (Italian, Norwegian, Egyptian, Brazilian)
            -ean (Chilean, Korean)
            -an (American, Mexican, German)
            -ese (Japanese, Vietnamese, Portuguese)
            -er (Virgin Islander)
            -ic (Icelandic)
            -ish (Irish, Turkish, Swedish, Spanish)
            -i (Iraqi, Israeli, Yemeni)

The nonconformist ones include the endings of French, Argentine, Cypriot, Greek, Swiss, Dutch, Thai, Manx, Monegasque, and Seychellois, among others.

Some of these words can function as both adjective and singular noun (e.g., an American or Japanese person is an American or a Japanese); others do not (an English or Spanish person is not an English or a Spanish). 

Tsoi points out that the endings –ian, -ean, and –an are all variants of a Latin root meaning "pertaining to" and are the most commonly found suffixes in English. Which one is used depends primarily on how the name of the country is spelled.

The –ese ending comes from Italian (in which English, for example is inglese). Marco Polo and other Italian traders were the first Europeans to reach the Far East, and, as a result, the –ese ending is commonly used for Asian countries.  Why –ese is also used for some countries in Europe (Portuguese) and Africa (Senegalese) is the result of those countries’ colonial histories.

The endings –er and –ic are Germanic in origin are used in English for national endings mainly after the words land and island.  The –er typically refers to a person (Icelander), while the –ic is adjectival (Icelandic). (The –er is much more commonly used for residents of cities: New Yorkers, Londoners, Berliners, etc.)

The suffix -ish is also Germanic and means “belonging to.” In German, the –isch ending is very common: Italienisch, Französisch, Amerikanisch, etc.  English, which is basically a Germanic language, held on to a few of these endings. The
–ch in French and Dutch also stem from this German suffix.

Finally, the suffix –i comes from Arabic and is generally used only for Islamic countries (with the notable exception of Israel).

The Bard, who is proudly Buffalo Bayouish, is also a man of the world, as you can see.

            When The French
            Want to quench
            A really fierce thirst,
            They always turn first
            To a vin rouge or blanc--
            And who cares if it’s plonc?

            But the British,
            Who are skittish,
            Take their grub
            In a pub
            With a pint of good bitter,
            Than which nothing is fitter.
            Alas, the poor Irish,
            Whose troubles are dire-ish,
            Prefer a strong stout,
            But they’ll throw it out
            And shout, “Finis!”           
            If it isn’t Guinness.
            Now the Germans
            Will preach sermons,
            Or long, boring sagas
            About their great lagers.           
            It’s bier for those fellas,
            Both dunkles and helles.

            I hear that a Mexican
            Is so complex he can
            Dance a bolero,
            Around his sombrero,
            To prove that he’d feel a
            José Cuervo tequila.
            Of course, an American,
            Disdaining sherry, can
            Jump in his pool,
            Get nice and cool
            At his villa suburban,
            And sip Coke and bourbon.
            And as for the Bard,
            When he’s worked long and hard,
            Pushed himself to the max,
            Then he likes to relax
            With a teeny-weeny
            Dry gin Martini.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Name's the Same

Tautonyms are zoological terms for animals in which the genus and the species names are the same: Rattus rattus (black rat), Vulpes vulpes (red fox), Bison bison (American bison), and the self-explanatory Gorilla gorilla, for examples.

People can have tautonyms as well.  I’m thinking of the baritone Thomas L. Thomas, who was famous on the Voice of Firestone in the 1940s and 1950s.   Then there’s actress Evans Evans, who was in the movies Bonnie and Clyde and The Iceman Cometh

Both of them are of Welsh descent, as was James James, the 19th century harpist who composed the Welsh national anthem.  Welsh (as well as Scottish and Irish) names lend themselves to tautonymy owing to the frequent use of patronymics—given names derived from the name of the father or a paternal ancestor.

Martin Martin was an 18th century Scottish writer famous for A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland. An Irish counterpart, Henry Henry, was a 19th century Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor.

And then, there’s Lang Lang, the spectacular young pianist, whose double name is actually two different Chinese words that are pronounced slightly differently and mean “brilliant man.”

Two British writers who were contemporaries—Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) and Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)—also had tautonymic names, but they didn’t come by them honestly.  Jerome’s father, an ironmonger and non-conformist minister, was originally named Jerome Clapp, but for reasons best known to himself, he changed his name to Jerome Clapp Jerome, which also became his son’s name.  The younger Jerome, perhaps to distinguish himself from his father, changed his own middle name from Clapp to Klapka; hence the middle initial K. He is best known for the comic narrative Three Men In A Boat.

Ford, whose fame rests on the novel The Good Soldier, was born Ford Hermann Hueffer, but changed it after World War I because it sounded too German.

“Mutual Problem” is a bit of whimsy by William Cole, who seems to want to challenge the Bard of Buffalo Bayou for poetic primacy. Oh well, let him:

            Said Jerome K. Jerome to Ford Madox Ford,
            'There's something, old boy, that I've always abhorred:
            When people address me and call me 'Jerome',
            Are they being standoffish, or too much at home?'
            Said Ford, 'I agree;
            It's the same thing with me.'           
The Bard couldn’t resist adding this flourish:

            Said Thomas L. Thomas to the sprightly Lang Lang:
            “Is your name pronounced like ‘bang’ or like ‘bong’?”
            Lang Lang then snorted to Thomas L. Thomas:           
            “You tell me first if you’re Comus or commas.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

Talking Tacky

One of the customers of the blog, deploring last week’s posting about “piss-poor,” has upbraided me for being tacky.  Be that as it may, tacky is a word that demands—nay, screeches for—an explanation.

Tacky, now meaning “trashy” or “inappropriate,” has a circuitous etymological path.

The Online Etymological Dictionary traces the word to 1800, spelling it tackey and meaning a “small or inferior horse.” By 1852 it was used to mean “in poor taste.” 

The Oxford English Dictionary finds it was spelled tackie in 1860 and suggested that the meaning of a “broken-down or worthless horse” was unkindly extended to the poor white class of the Southern States, sometimes known, even more unkindly, as “white trash.” Thereafter, "tacky" became a popular insult among the well-to-do, and has been ever since a synonym for "shabby," "cheap," "tawdry,” “gaudy,” “dowdy,” or “lacking good breeding.”

The standard references decline to tackle tacky’s etymology, the OED calling its “origin obscure” and the Onliine Etymological Dictionary “uncertain.”  Come on, gang, you can do better than that.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, in whom are conflated all the various meanings of tacky (including “stickiness”), nonetheless maintains he was born with a silver spoon in his eye.  That may account for the deplorable lack of vision represented by this collection of undiluted detritus:

            Jackie is tacky,
            And Blackie is wacky,
            And Mackie, by cracky,
            Is tawdry.
            Maudie is gaudy,
            And Toddy is bawdy,
            And nobody’s broader
            Than Audrey.
            Billy is silly,
            And Millie is chilly,
            And Willie (that nut)
            Is just dowdy.
            Bobby is snobby
            And Robbie is knobby,
            And Jabba the Hut
            Hollers “Howdy!”

            Jerry is merry
            And Perry is scary,
            And Terry has nary
            A care.
            Janie is zany
            And Lainie is brainy,
            And Cheney’s got grainy
            Gray hair.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Someone sent me an email claiming that the expression “piss-poor” stemmed from days in which urine was used to tan animal skins.  Families, said this epistler, peed in a pot, and once a day the accumulation was sold to the tannery.  If you had to do this to survive, you were “piss-poor.”

It’s a cute story, but ‘tain’t funny, McGee.* ‘Tain’t true, either.

The word piss dates to the 14th century and is from the Vulgar (that is, as spoken by ordinary Romans) Latin word pissiare, a word of imitative origin, meaning just what you think it does.  In phrases such as piss-poor (or piss-ugly, or piss-elegant, for that matter), piss is used as a pure intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability. Ezra Pound used the phrase piss-rotten in 1940 in his Canto LXIX.

Similar usage of piss- developed in the United States in the mid-20th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is by A. L. Hench, who reported in 1946 that an Air Corps sergeant had told him the term “was used by all the soldiers he came in contact with as descriptive of a thing in its lowest condition … e.g. ‘This is a piss-poor outfit. My job is a piss-poor one.’”

The phrase “so poor he didn’t have a pot to piss in” predates “piss-poor.”  It was used by Djuna Barnes in her 1936 novel Nightwood:  “My heart aches for all the poor creatures putting on dog and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”

By the way, pissant, meaning insignificant, is formed from the words piss and ant—but you hardly needed me to tell you that, did you?

The prudish Bard of Buffalo Bayou is reticent about using words like the one under discussion, so he has chosen to take a different tack:

            Does Ezra Pound the pavement,
            And will Horton Foote the bill?
            Can William Tell what they’ve meant
            If they see Iggy Pop a pill?
            Does Robert Stack the deck,
            Dame Diana Rigg elections,
            And does Johnny Cash a check
            And give Glenn Close inspections?           
            I wonder, will Claire Bloom,
            And also, does Al Hirt,
            To see what Elaine May consume
            As Jeremy Irons a shirt?
            Will Nicolas Cage a beast
            And Cary Grant a wish,
            And should Edith Head out east,
            To help Barbara Cook a fish?
            Does Martin Mull great notions
            And Bob Hope for the best,
            Does Tom Cruise all the oceans,
            And has Rip Torn his vest?
            And does Jim Carrey keys           
            And Chevy Chase sopranos,
            Just as Hugh Downs trees
            And helps Tommy Tune pianos?
*Only readers of a certain vintage will recognize the allusion to Fibber McGee and Molly, a staple of NBC radio from 1935 until 1952.