Monday, September 24, 2012

“Just Call Me Mr. President”

The Presidential elections loom.  I urge all of you to be sure and vote, provided that your political views align with my own.  You know who you are.
If you are one of those benighted souls who plan to vote for the other side—and I know who you are—permit me to remind you what a glorious day November 6 would be for a long ride in a remote part of the country, far from jangling phones and crowded polling places.  Go early, to enjoy the sunrise, and stay till midnight.  
Those of you who are still considering the two nominees will want to know something about their names—other than what they are, I mean.  Earlier this year I provided you with the underlying meaning of the surnames of all the candidates at that time: seven Republican contenders and the sitting Democratic President.  See “Name That President!,” January 9, 2012 at:
Now, we have the opportunity of looking at the first names of the last two candidates standing: Mitt and Barack.
As for Romney, it’s probably well known by now that his first name isn’t really Mitt.  It’s Willard, a name he was given in honor of his parents’ good friend J. Willard Marriott, the hotel mogul. Usually pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, Willard is of Old English origin and means “strong desire.”
Mitt is a shortened form of Milton, after Romney’s cousin Milton “Mitt” Romney, onetime quarterback for the Chicago Bears. Milton is also Old English and can mean either a “town by a mill” or a “middle town.”
The President's first name, Barack, is Swahili and has its origins in Arabic. The original root of the name (B-R-K) means "blessed." The root word is used in many other phrases to denote blessings and to describe people who are blessed:
  • Mabruk! = "Congratulations!"
  • Barakallah feek = "May God bless you"
  • Barakah = blessings from God (feminine version of the name)

In its Hebrew form, barak, it is found throughout the Bible. It first occurs in Genesis 1:22: “And God blessed (ḇāreḵə) them, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.”

Obama's middle name is Hussein, which was his grandfather's first name. The name, of Arabic origin, means "good" or "handsome one."

Armed with this information, you cannot fail to make the right choice when marking your ballot. And may blessings rain upon you, handsome one.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has already voted (early and often), but he’s keeping mum about his choice.  Warren G. Harding would be my guess.   Elections notwithstanding, the Bard emerged from his lair down in the doldrums just long enough to leave this little calling card:

            Well, fiddle-dee-diddle,
            Mitt’s town’s in the middle
            Or perhaps it’s just by a mill.
            He has strong desire,
            No doubt, to acquire
            A job as the king of the hill.

            But wait, I have heard
            From a talkative bird,
            Who just flew in through the transom,
            That Barack is blessed,
            And the bird, when pressed,
            Added the fact that he’s handsome.

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Miniscule Momento

Each time I hear someone boast of having a treasured momento, I react with nearly as much violence as when I hear or read of something miniscule. These two “M” words—memento, meaning “souvenir” (or some other keepsake), and minuscule, meaning “very small”—are misspelled and mispronounced more often than not.  Why?

In the case of the former, I suppose it’s because of confusion in generally muddled minds with the word momentous, meaning “of great importance.”  The words, as you might expect, if you gave it any thought, come from two entirely different roots.

Memento is the imperative form of the Latin verb memenisse (“to remember”), and as a noun it referred originally to a prayer in the Roman Catholic Mass beginning “Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque,” or “Remember, O Lord, your servants.”  Later memento came to mean a “reminder”—especially of the fact that we are all going to die, in the phrase memento mori (“remember to die”)Nowadays, people probably would prefer their mementoes not to do that for them.

Momentous, on the other hand, is from the word moment, meaning “importance,” which is rooted in the Latini momentum (“movement”).  An event of moment meant something (like a Presidential election or a Lady Gaga concert, say) with the power to move one with force or excitement. 

As for minuscule, it derives from the Latin minusculus (“rather small”), a diminutive of minus (“less”), which, in turn, derives from minor (“smaller”).  Originally minuscule was used to refer to a medieval style of writing and subsequently to lower-case letters.

The prefix mini-, seen in many words such as minimum, minicar, minibus, minicomputer, and miniskirt (but not in minuscule!), also comes ultimately from the Latin minor—but by a different route, through minimus, meaning “the least or smallest.”

To confuse matters even further, miniature, which now means “small replica,” comes from an entirely different root—miniare, which means to “paint with the color vermilion.”  It referred originally to paintings colored red in medieval illuminated manuscripts.  Such paintings were necessarily small, so miniature  evolved to mean anything smallish.

Well, I trust you’ll be able to sleep nights now that we’ve settled that.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no trouble sleeping nights, or days, for that matter.  He claims it’s because of his clear conscience; others insist he has just passed out from too much booze.  You be the judge:

            If you find in your mailbox a story
            With goings-on ghastly and gory,
                        Dealing with death
                        And someone’s last breath—
            Well, that’s a memento mori.                       

            Thanks, but no thanks, I get quivery
            Just thinking of that special delivery,
                        You tell the Grim Reaper
                        I won’t answer his beeper—
            I prefer a memento vivere.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Say Hello to Fais Do Do

I was invited recently by a friend of Cajun descent to a “fais do do.”  I had a vague notion of a fais do do as being some kind of celebration, but I wasn’t sure what kind. 

It turns out that it’s a dance party, generally one featuring zydeco music and plenty of crawfish jambalaya and beer.  The term apparently originated in Louisiana in the period just before World War II.

It comes from the French words meaning “make sleep,” or, in more idiomatic English, “go to sleep.”  “Do do,” pronounced to rhyme with “go go,” is Cajun baby talk for “sleep,” deriving from the word dormir. 

There are slightly differing stories of the how the term was applied to the party. One is that parents would urge their small children to “go to sleep” or “fais do do,” as quickly as possible, so the parents could leave them and go to enjoy the revelry. 

The other is that the party’s host customarily provided a separate room for small children to sleep during the festivities, and a lady charged with looking after them would repeatedly say, “Fais do do,” so les enfants could get to sleep in the midst of the adjacent merry-making.

In any event, the fais do do to which I was invited was several hundred miles away, and I was forced to decline.  I stayed home and fis do do myself.

The old Bard of Buffalo Bayou is something of a dodo, in that, for all practical purposes, he is extinct—or at least obsolete. So is the pitiful detritus of his meretricious musings, to wit:

            Had I invented Silly Putty,
            I’d be so rich I could act nutty.
            If I had thought up Etch-A-Sketch,
            Think of the money it would fetch!
            Were I the first to make a Slinky
            I’d wear big diamonds on my pinky.
            And I would hold a fais do do,
            If I’d earned lots of Play-Doh dough.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Note (Again!) to the Editors of The New York Times

You—yes, you—you so-called editors at The New York Times—are you aware you have a serious “what ever/whatever” problem? In a recent arts page story, you announced a new remake of that classic horror movie “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”  Tch, tch! How many times must I remind you that what ever, in this sense, is two words?  I did just that in a previous blog of April 12 this very year.  Please see, without delay:

I must admit, it’s getting tiresome to have to keep correcting you about such a simple and straightforward grammatical matter, over and over again.  Okay, Times editors, listen up, once more:

In that movie title you mentioned, what is an interrogative pronoun, requesting information about “the identity, nature, or value of an object or condition,” and ever is an adverbial modifier meaning “over a period of time.”

Now if you should have a sentence in which whatever can be used as one word, it would be something like this one: “Whatever happened to Baby Jane is a matter of indifference to me.” Or “Whatever they do, The Times editors cannot seem to remember the difference between what ever and whatever.”

In these cases, whatever is one word, a pronoun, meaning anything,” “everything,”  “no matter what,” or “other similar things.”  It can also be an adjective, meaning “of any kind” or an adverb meaning “in any case.”  For example: “Whatever grammar book you’re using doesn’t seem to help,” orMy corrections of your solecisms seem to do no good whatever.”

Just in case youTimes editors need some reinforcement, I’ve asked the Bard of Buffalo Bayou to whip up a little sestet as a reminder—and if you get it wrong again, he’s going to write a whole sonnet, something we want to avoid at all costs!

            What ever became of the rules of good grammar?
            Today’s writers think rules don’t have enough glamour,
            So the rules have to be pounded in with a hammer.

            Whatever they write in their latest endeavor
            Today’s writers think is exceedingly clever,
            But as for the grammar, they just shrug, “Whatever.”