Monday, November 28, 2011


It’s time for the Scrooges among us to begin the annual litany of “Bah! Humbugs!” that make this season of joy palatable. 

“Humbug” is a strange word, apparently having nothing to do with an insect that can carry a tune.  It means “a hoax, something intended to deceive,” or just “nonsense.” It was first used in student slang around 1750 in England, and wouldn’t you know that neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor any of the various Websters I consulted has a clue about its etymology. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word’s origin was a subject of much whimsical speculation even as early as the 1750s.

One blogger I found thinks that humbug may be derived from the Old Norse words hum, meaning “night” or “shadow” or “dark air,” and bugges, a variant of bogey, meaning “apparition” or "ghost."  In the absence of any better theories to the contrary, I’m willing to go with that.

In England, humbugs are hard candies with soft centers, usually peppermint flavored. They have been around since about 1825. They are especially popular around Christmas, so maybe Scrooge was really offering his visitors a piece of candy when he said “Humbug!”

If you’re looking for a gift for the person who has everything, you could hardly do better than a device called the “Baa Humbug,” which is available on for $11.75.  It’s a plastic sheep that poops humbug candies.  Mmmmm. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is full of humbugs, of all varieties, but soldiers on despite this infirmity.           

            Hey, you smart bugs and you dumb bugs,
            Don your homburgs, all you humbugs!
            In Christmas spirit we’re immersed.
            For Christmas comes but once a year,
            Spreading lots of mirth and cheer,
            With joy our hearts swell up and burst.
            Santa with his eight reindeer
            And bags of presents will appear,           
            With nuts and candies interspersed.
            A little eggnog or some beer
            Will help us to forget the fear
            Of how much money we’ve disbursed.
            Wait! Christmas really isn’t near,
            It’s weeks before it will be here—
            Somehow I find it rather queer
            It starts around November first.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Turkey Lurkey

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a holiday that honors turkey farmers and cranberry growers.  Although the occasion is not generally observed in Istanbul, there is a connection between the land of the Turks and the gobbler that graces our tables. 

The name of the country Turkey stems from Türkiyei in the Turkish language and is formed from the components Türk—derived from Tu-kin, a name of unknown meaning that the Chinese applied in the second century B. C. to people living south of the Altai Mountains—and the suffix –iyei, which means “land of.” 

In the early sixteenth century Europeans began to import guinea fowl (Numida meleagris) from Africa via a route that came through Turkey. As a result they were sometimes called “Turkey birds.” A similar, but much larger fowl, Meleagris gallopavo, native to the Americas, had been domesticated by the Aztecs and was introduced to Spain in 1523 by the conquistadores.  From there this bird spread to others parts of Europe.

The word turkey was first applied to the bigger bird in the 1550s because the English mistakenly assumed it was a version of the same guinea fowl they got via Turkey.  By 1575, turkey was the usual main course at an English Christmas dinner.  The Pilgrims in Massachusetts possibly served wild turkey for their Thanksgiving feast, and to this very day many Americans enjoy Wild Turkey on Thanksgiving--and eat roast turkey as well.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, widely known as a turkey himself, provides ample reason for that appellation with gobbled…er, garbled…verses such as the following:

            Some think a pheasant
            For dinner is pleasant,
            And others prefer a fat goose.
            Some pulses quicken
            At hot roasted chicken
            Bursting with flavorful juice.

            Some hunters’ cartridges
            Bag lots of plump partridges
            To grace their holiday table,
            And others munch duck
            For a tasty pot-luck           
            Just as long as their jaws remain able.

            Some like a smidgen
            Of quail or of pigeon,
            If they can’t get their teeth round a squab.
            Or perhaps they’ll espouse
            A morsel of grouse
            That’s skewered and served as kabob.

            But when I want to howl
            With a fine-feathered fowl
            That makes me feel peppy and perky,
            You can have all those birds,
            I refuse to mince words,
            For I much prefer to talk turkey.

Monday, November 14, 2011

You Don’t Know Jack

A previous dissertation on “Jack-o’-lantern” kindled memories of a charming poem by the late John Updike in a collection called “A Cheerful Alphabet of Pleasant Objects,” in which various meanings of the word jack were celebrated.  It went: 


                               A card, a toy, a hoist,
                               a flag, a stay, a fruit,
                               a sailor, John, a pot,
                               a rabbit, knife, and boot;
                               o’-lantern, in-the-box
                               or -pulpit, Ketch, a daw,
                               a-dandy, of-all-trades,
                               anapes, an ass, a straw.
                                                            From The Carpentered Hen © 1958 by John Updike

Less poetic, but more exhaustive, is the Oxford English Dictionary, which devotes ten-and-a-half minutely printed columns to multiple definitions of jack, and also tells us of its etymology:           

“The actual origin is disputed.  It has been generally assumed to be the same word as French Jacques…also a familiar name for a peasant, a man of the lower orders (cf. Jacquerie).  But it has been used in English from its earliest appearance [which the OED places in 1302] as a by-name for John.  The Scotch equivalent form of the name is Jock but this has not the transferred senses of Jack.”  

Among those transferred senses, in addition to the ones Updike rhymed, are a serving-man, an attendant, a laborer, a machine for turning the spit in roasting meat, a contrivance for pulling off boots, part of a harpsichord or spinet, a small amount, a quarter of a pint, a small brick, a ladies’ man, a close-fitting garment, and a joint of mutton.  And those are just the tip of jack’s iceberg!  What a guy!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is no Jack Updike, but he has his own litany of Jacks:

Albertson, Armstrong, Benny, and Carson, Cassidy, Dempsey, and Black,
Nicholson, Weston, Worthing, and Heifner, Macgowran, LaLanne, Kerouac,                             
Richardson, Robinson, Carter, and Daniel, Douglas, and Elam, and Bailey,
Kennedy, Klugman, London, and Frost, Kevorkian, Leonard, and Haley,                               
Ruby, and Oakie, and Nicklaus, and Lord, and Gelber, and Sparrow, and Warner,                  
Johnson, and Jones, and Lemmon, and Lang, and Palance, and Garner, and Horner,  
Lescoulie and Handy, McBrayer, and White, and Abramoff, Yates, and Hightower, 
Higgins, and Kemp, Webb, Wagner, and Smith, and Flash, and Valenti, and Bauer,            
Russell and Trussel, Teagarden and Warden, Welch, Soo, Paar, and O'Brien,                         
And that leaves but one, to finish the rhyme, and that would be Tom Clancy's Ryan.             

These are all the Jacks whose names have come to my attention,
But there may be many others I have failed to mention.                               


Monday, November 7, 2011

Out of the Friaring Pan

In an episode of Inspector Lewis, the spin-off of the Inspector Morse detective series on TV, the highly secular Lewis refers to a group of robed clerics as “monks.”  His theologically-minded partner, Sergeant Hathaway, corrects him: “Not monks—friars, actually.”

So what’s the difference?

Well, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a friar (derived from the Latin fratres and French frère, meaning “brother”) was originally any member of a religious order who had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some may have been confined to cloisters, where they led lives of eremitic contemplation; others participated in various public ministries. By the thirteenth century, however, friar was generally restricted to mean a member of one of the mendicant orders who had no fixed revenues and depended on voluntary offerings to support various services to the community.

Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, there are four principal orders of friars: the Dominicans (known as “Black Friars,” from the color of the mantle worn over their white robes); Franciscans (“Grey Friars” or “Brown Friars,” from the color of their robes), Carmelites (“White Friars”), and Augustinians, who wear black robes—but sorry, guys, you lost out to the Dominicans in claiming the nickname.

A monk, from the Greek word monos (“single, alone”) refers to a member of a religious order, usually Benedictine, who lives either in complete solitude (an eremite) or in a cloistered community, under a regimen consisting of prayer, contemplation, and worship, with no public ministry (unless you count producing tasty beverages like the eponymous Benedictine liqueur, yellow and green Chartreuse made by Carthusian monks, and Chimay beer brewed by the Trappists—all of which were invented to revive weary monks after a hard day’s comtemplation).

A monk is not to be confused, in most cases, at least, with a monkey, a small primate mammal with a tail, no liqueur, and a completely different etymology. Monkey originated as the name Moneke, the son of Martin the Ape in the German version of Reynard the Fox, a fable published in 1580.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou leads a semi-eremitic life, filled with monkey business, among which is the scratching of his thoughts upon tree bark. An example follows:

            A young, monastic oyster,
            Too boisterous for his cloister,
            Was smitten by a plump and shapely scallop.
            As the oyster grew much moister,
            He had an urge to hoist her
            On his shell and take off at a gallop.

            Through murky shoals he sped
            Straight for an oyster bed,
            To frolic with the luscious bivalve girl.
            “If you and I were wed,”
            The lusty oyster said,
            “We’d shuck these shells and make a little pearl.”

            The scallop was quite shocked,
            And said, “You’d be defrocked
            If you should try to take me in a tussle.
            You shouldn’t run amok,
            I’m no coquille St.-Jacques— 
            My boyfriend is a big and brawny mussel!”

            “You needn’t take that tone,”
            The oyster said. “Don’t moan—
            If you don’t want to play, then I’ll just scram.”
            So he left her all alone,
            Then he found a cherrystone
            And did a little necking with the clam.