Monday, December 26, 2011

Wildest Words

WARNING! Some material in this blog may not be suitable for younger or more sensitive readers.  Reader discretion is advised.

The Oxford English Dictionary is pretty much the gold standard for word usage, and when it admits new words to its hallowed lists, we’d better pay attention.  Three especially useful words for the flâneur’s vocabulary cropped up during the past year in an addendum to the OED, and just in case you’re not familiar with them, I’m here to call them to your attention and, what is more, explain them.

In alphabetical order, the first is bahookie. This is defined as “informal” for a person’s buttocks, Bahookie is Scottish in origin, first appeared in the 1930s, and is derived from blending behind and hough. Hough is an alternate spelling of hock (Old English hōh (“heel”), which can mean a part of the body extending from the tarsal joint some distance up the leg.  One hopes, of course, that one’s bahookie is callipygian.

Next is crunk, a type of hip-hop music characterized by shouted catchphrases and electronic dance music elements, such as prominent bass sounds. It can also refer adjectivally to a person who is full of energy, synonymous with “pumped up.”  Crunk originated in the 1990s and speculation varies as to its origin.  It may be an alternate past participle of crank, describing a condition that is “cranked up.” Or perhaps it is a portmanteau blend of crazy (or chronic or crack or coke) and drunk. One source says the word originated when comedians Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter devised an all-purpose swear word that could get past TV censors.

Finally, kiddies, let us consider twonk, another newbie in the OED.  It is “British informal” for a “stupid or foolish person.”  Scholars believe it is a combination of the words twit or twat and plonk.  Twit has been used since 1528 (long before Twitter was ever dreamt of).  It means a foolish person and stems from Old English ætwītan, meaning “to reproach.”  Twat, as you doubtless know, is extremely vulgar slang for female privy parts.  It is of obscure origin, the OED says primly, and was first noted in the seventeenth century. Plonk is British slang for cheap wine (probably a corruption of the French blanc).

An interesting literary sidelight about the word twat is that Robert Browning used it (by mistake) in his otherwise decorous Pippa Passes:
                        Then owls and bats,
                        Cowls and twats,
                        Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
                        Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!           
Browning thought the word meant a nun’s headdress, based on his misunderstanding of an anonymous bawdy satirical poem of 1660 called “Vanity of Vanities,” in which these lines appear:
                        They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat,
                        They’d send him as soon as an Old Nun’s Twat…
It is also notable that both Browning and his misinterpreted source pronounce twat to rhyme with bat and hat, although the customary modern pronunciation rhymes it with hot.

That old twonk, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, is well known for sitting on his bahookie and cranking out crunk clerihews like the following observations about Victorian poets:

            Robert Browning
            Was always frowning,
            Looking for his glasses,
            So he could see if Pippa Passes.
            Alfred Lord Tennyson
            Loved the taste of venison,
            And he often had a hunch
            That there’d be a haunch for lunch.           

            To use a loaded word like carnal ’d
            Be a stretch for Matthew Arnold.
            But he learned to overreach
            On Dover Beach.

            William Ernest Henley
            Wanted to be frien’ly,
            But his friends said, “You tricked us
            Into reading that Invictus.”           

            Gerard Manley Hopkins
            Always said “nopkins”
            And pronounced “napery”
            To rhyme with “foppery.”
            Algernon Charles Swinburne
            Loved to feel the gin burn
            His throat as it warmed him—
            But it never reformed him.

            Dante Gabriel Rossetti
            Liked to eat spaghetti,
            Because when he was little, he
            Learned his family came from Italy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Merry Little Christmas Rewrites

Lyricists have to work hard, especially when it comes to Christmas. A favorite song this time of year is Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” with its heart-warming lyrics that cheered up cute little Margaret O’Brien when Judy Garland sang them in Meet Me in St. Louis.  The original lyrics by Martin, however, were not all that heart-warming.  In fact, Garland and director Vincente Minnelli objected that they were downright depressing.  The original lyrics were:
             Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
             It may be your last,
            Next year we may all be living in the past.
            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Pop that champagne cork,
            Next year we will all be living in New York.

            No good times like the olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore,
            Faithful friends who were dear to us
            Will be near to us no more.

            But at least we all will be together,
            If the Lord allows,
            From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow,
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Martin at first refused to change the lyric, but at last he was persuaded to make the song more upbeat.  The Hollywood moguls also thought invoking the Lord was too overtly religious, so Martin’s new lyric was:


            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Let your heart be light,
            From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Make the Yuletide gay,
            From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

            Here we are as in olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore.
            Faithful friends who are dear to us           
            Gather near to us once more.

            Through the years we all will be together,
            If the Fates allow,
            Until then we’ll have to muddle through   


            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.  

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" for his album "A Jolly Christmas." Martin's new line—"Hang a shining star upon the highest bough"—is now more widely known than the original.

Yet another lyrical change was in store.  In 2001, Martin, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, wrote a religious version of the song:

            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Christ the King is born,
            Let your voices ring upon this happy morn.  
            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Serenade the Earth,
            Tell the world we celebrate the Savior's birth. 

            Let us gather to sing to Him
            And to bring to Him our praise, 
            Son of God and a Friend of all, 
            To the end of all our days. 

            Sing hosannas, hymns, and hallelujahs, 
            As to Him we bow, 
            Make the music mighty as the heav'ns allow, 
           And have yourself a blessed little Christmas now.
So take your choice—depressing, uplifting, or religious—but since Martin died in March of this year, at the age of 96, there probably won’t be any more versions.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is not yet 96 but hopes to be, spins out new versions of his stuff with alacrity, hoping someday to get it right.  So far, he hasn’t.

            I’m a songwriting miracle
            Whenever I wax lyrical--
            A versifying Merlin,
            To rival Irving Berlin,
            When I wave my wand, I’m
            Up there with Stephen Sondheim.
            Oh, yes, I find my art
            Compares to Lorenz Hart,
            And songs spun from my web
            Are like those of Fred Ebb,
            And snappier and shorter
            Than ditties by Cole Porter.
            And, sure, my grammar’s fine,
            Just like Oscar Hammerstein.
            You see—I’m in my prime!
            There’s no name I can’t rhyme!
            For example: Ira Gershwin….
            Well… maybe I’d better not give up my day job.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Subordinate Claws

An earlier effusion from the Bard of Buffalo Bayou dealt with an amorous oyster and a scallop that was playing hard to get, so now it’s time to examine two louche and lustful lobsters—Lobster Newburg and Lobster Thermidor, to name names.
The two dishes are pretty similar, consisting usually of butter, cream, cognac, sherry, eggs, paprika, and Cayenne pepper—and, oh yes, a little lobster meat, if you’re lucky.

Lobster Newburg (or Newberg) was created in 1876 when a sea captain named Ben Wenberg asked Charles Ranhofer, the chef at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, to recreate a dish he had enjoyed in South Africa. After adding a few culinary touches of his own, Ranhofer put it on the menu as “Lobster à la Wenberg.”

But one night Wenberg got into a drunken brawl at the restaurant. Owner Charles Delmonico banished him from the premises and removed the dish named for him from the menu.  Patrons complained so loudly, however, that Delmonico restored the lobster dish—but rearranged the letters in Wenberg to read “Newberg” on the menu.

Lobster Thermidor, which adds Gruyère cheese and mustard to the Newburg ingredients, was devised Chez Marie, a Paris restaurant, in 1894.  It honored the opening of Victorien Sardou’s play Thermidor, which took its name from the eleventh month of the French Revolutionary calendar. Corresponding to July-August in the Gregorian calendar, Thermidor means “gift of heat” in Greek.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not regard heat as a gift, especially when the heat is on, as it is in this little ditty:

            A tough New Jersey mobster,
            Said, “I want some lobster, 
            Lightly steamed wit butter--
            It makes my tummy flutter
            Just thinkin’ of my favorite food in all da woild.”       

            But he found it wasn’t tender,            
            And he said, “Retoin to sender—          
            You may think dat I am selfish,     
            But I gotta teach dis shellfish            
            Dat I’m de only one who gets to be hard-boiled.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Getting Your Kicks

Thirty-six synchronized Rockettes are kicking up a storm four or five times a day in the current Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.  With all that kicking, you’d think they might have been named the Kickettes—but thereby hangs a tale.

The Rockettes originated when a Broadway dancer named Russell Markert saw the John Tiller Girls in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies. Markert is said to have said: “If I ever got a chance to get a group of American girls who would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks... they'd knock your socks off!" He got his chance in St. Louis in 1925 when he put together a tall, long-legged, tap-dancing, high-kicking, socks-knocking-off group of precision dancers he called the Missouri Rockets.

They danced all over the Midwest and in 1930 came to the attention of New York producer and theatre owner Samuel Lionel Rothafel.  Rothafel was known as “Roxy”—a nickname he acquired when he played on a Pennsylvania baseball team, and as he ran on an iffy double, a little boy yelled “Slide, Roxy!”  When Roxy opened a snazzy Broadway theatre in 1927, he modestly called it the Roxy.

Rothafel installed the 50 Missouri Rockets in the Roxy’s vaudeville show—and renamed them—what else?—the “Roxyettes.”

In 1932, Rothafel opened the new Radio City Music Hall, and moved his dancers there, once again renaming them, this time as the “Rockettes.” Markert remained their choreographer until he retired in 1971. The number of dancers eventually stabilized at 36, and a legend was born.

The legendary Bard of Buffalo Bayou was not born, but sprang full-grown from the brow of Edgar Guest.  As hommage to his mentor, the Bard makes this poetic offering:

            Foxy Roxy,
            Full of moxie,
            Was a Broadway pro.
            His Rockettes
            Turned pirouettes
            And put on quite a show.
            Sky-high kicks
            Made fans all shout “Bravo!”
            But Roxy cried,
            “Not satisfied!
            Those kicks are much too low!

            Now I require
            That you kick higher,
            And please don’t tell me ‘no’!”
            The girls complied,
            And they all tried,
            As high as they could go.
            “Now don’t get bitchy,”
            Declared the itchy
            “I won’t relent,
            Or be content,
            Until my fortunes grow!”

            Up to the sky,
            The girls kicked high,
            But they brought Roxy woe—
            The Rockettes’ magic
            Turned sadly tragic
            When they got vertigo.