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.

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