Monday, October 29, 2012


An eminent drama critic for one of the nation’s most distinguished daily newspapers (well, perhaps I stretch a point or two) recently suggested that an overblown touring production of that overwritten musical Jekyll & Hyde might have benefited from the “soft-peddling” of certain lurid elements.  It is natural to assume that he meant “soft-pedaling,” the usual idiomatic phrase, derived from the left-hand pedal on most pianos, which mutes the sound, meaning to “underplay or de-emphasize.”

On mature reflection, however, I am willing to admit that “soft-peddling” might be equally apt, implying a “soft-sell” rather than a “hard-sell” approach.

Whichever the critic intended, pedal and peddle are often confused in contemporary usage.   Just for the record: pedal, from the Latin pedalis, is a “lever or treadle, usually pressed by the foot, to activate a mechanism on a musical instrument or other mechanical device (such as a bicycle).” The word first appeared in print in the seventeenth century.

Peddle is an older word—fourteenth or fifteenth century—and is a back-formation from peddler, which derives from the Middle English pedder, meaning a “person who travels about with wares to sell.” A ped is a “pack or basket.”

Piddle, meaning either to “act in a trifling way, dawdle, dally, or toy” or, informally,  to “urinate,” probably is a corruption of peddle, dating from the eighteenth century.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a piddler of great renown, and one can view the results of his piddling hereinbelow:
            Never piddle in a puddle,
            Or try to treadle while astraddle,
            And don’t coddle as you cuddle
            And canoodle in your saddle.

            In a huddle never doodle
            With a poodle who can waddle,
            Do not diddle with a noodle.
            And don’t dawdle as you toddle.
            In the middle of a muddle
            Please don’t meddle with a paddle,           
            Never addle as you fuddle—
            Just hit the pedal and skedaddle!


Monday, October 22, 2012

God Save the Queen’s English

Recent articles in both The New York Times and the BBC Magazine commented on the increasing invasion of Britishisms (or “Briticisms,” as they used to be known) into American English. Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic regarded the phenomenon as the Yanks’ attempt to sound sophisticated. 
The articles didn’t point out that the cross-pollination works both ways.  In recent years, on visits to the United Kingdom, I’ve been startled to encounter cookies where biscuits once were served (chocolate-chip, at that!), bags of potato chips rather than crisps, sidewalks instead of pavements, elevators replacing lifts, and periods at the ends of sentences where full stops used to sit. Whether that makes the Brits sound sophisticated I couldn’t say.
On the other hand, here’s a quick primer of some words that used to be strictly British but have inched their way into the American vocabulary:
Bum – “buttocks,” used since the fourteenth century where Americans would say butt. Bum, from the Middle English bom, is thought to be onomatopœic, analagous to other similar words meaning a “protuberance or swelling,” such as bump, bud, and burr.  Butt is the older term, from the late thirteenth century, derived from buttock, which came from buttoc, meaning the “end of a small piece of land.”
Cheeky – “insolent, impudent, or audacious,” in use since 1840, probably from the same anatomical notion that gave rise to jaw or mouth off, alluding to insolent speech. Cheeky monkey is an especially evocative characterization of a saucy young person.
Chuffed – “elated, very pleased,” from the now obsolete chuff (“swollen with fat”), which was last used in that sense in the sixteenth century. If you read the Inspector Lynley mystery novels by Elizabeth George (who is, oddly enough, an American), you’ll encounter this word a lot.
Dodgy – “risky, dangerous, suspicious,” first used around 1860 and probably derived from the verb dodge, meaning “evade.”
Gobsmacked – “flabbergasted, struck dumb with amazement,” attested only since the 1980s, and probably derived from gob meaning “mouth” and smack meaning “hit.”
Knickers“undergarment for women, i.e. panties,” most often seen in the idiom “Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” meaning “calm down.” Not to be confused with the old-fashioned American word that meant knee-breeches, knickers derives from knickerbockers, so-called from their resemblance to the trousers worn by Dutch settlers in New York as depicted in the George Cruikshank illustrations of Washington Irving’s History of New York, published in 1831, written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker.
Loo – slang for “lavatory or toilet,” in use since the 1920s, probably derived from French lieu d'aisance, "lavatory," literally "place of ease," a euphemism picked up by British servicemen in France during World War I. Others say it may be a pun on Waterloo, based on water closet.
Shag – a vulgarism meaning to “copulate with,” dating to 1788, probably from the obsolete verb shag (late fourteenth century) meaning “shake or waggle.”

Suss – “come to understand, figure out, " in use since 1966, a slang shortening of the police jargon usage of the verb suspect.

Wonky – “shaky or unsteady,” first noted in 1919, and of unknown origin, possibly from the German prefix wankel-, which has a similar sense, or from surviving dialectal words based on Old English wancol  ("shaky, tottering").

Britishisms used by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou are pretty much limited to “another pint of bitter” and “where’s the loo?”  Nontheless, he has tried his hand at a little transatlantic debauchery, which we all hope will do nothing to imperil the Special Relationship.

            Don’t be perplexed by pedagogy,                       
            And sit around just feeling stodgy,
                        Listen, chum,
                        Get off your bum,
            Go out and do a deed that’s dodgy.

            When you are weary, wan, and wonky,
            And feel as dumb as some old donkey,
                        Don’t be non-plussed,
                        You’ll get it sussed--           
             Just hang out in a honky-tonky.

            When your lamplight fades and flickers,
            And you’re lapping up a load of liquors,
                        Don’t feel rebuffed,
                        You can be chuffed,
            Just knock the knots out of your knickers.
            If you are growing old and creaky,
            And find your plumbing’s rather leaky,
                        Here’s what to do:
                        Step in the loo,
            And come out chipper, chic, and cheeky.

            If you are drooping and you’re dragging,
            And your libido’s lame and lagging,
                        Don’t be gobsmacked,
                        It’s time to act--
            ‘Cause sure as shooting, you’re shy some shagging.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Caught Knapping

Remember that old song “The Happy Wanderer,” sometimes known as “Valderi, valdera”?  The lyric oozed pastoral charm:
            I love to go a-wandering
            Along the mountain track,
            And as I go, I love to sing,
            My knapsack on my back.

I’ve always wondered what a knap was and why the wanderer had one (or more) in his sack.

Nowadays, there are no knaps, but when the word knapsack came into use (the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1603), it stemmed from the Low German knappsack, which derived from knappen meaning “to make a snapping noise,” which was interpreted to mean “to eat.”  Sack is also Low German and—guess what—means “sack.” So the knapsack presumably was where the happy hiker carried food on which he could chomp away, no doubt making a snapping noise as he smacked his lips.

The knapsack’s cousin, the backpack, is pretty much the same thing, except it’s usually mounted on a metal frame.  Its use was first noted in 1914.

The cheeky Urban Dictionary tells us that the versatile backpack can also mean a form of hip-hop music that is socially conscious, a person who constantly hovers too close to his or her mate or dancing partner, a person with muscles on his back, a nerd who contributes nothing to a gathering but a sour disposition, a manager who oversupervises, or a few other interesting things that I would blush to mention.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to blush on rare occasions, when discovered in flagrante delicto.  Here is one of the more flagrant of his delicta:
            I love to go a-wandering
            Along the Vegas Strip,
            And as I go, I tightly cling
            To one lone poker chip.

            That one chip is all that’s left
            Of all the cash I had,
            And now I’m broke and so bereft,
            I hope Steve Wynn is glad.

            But losing all my hard-earned cash
            Was not so bad a thing
            As when I broke out in a rash
            To hear Wayne Newton sing.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Let’s Do Lunch

Hungry, anyone? The New York Public Library currently has a fascinating exhibit about the history of lunch in New York.  It includes the background of the power lunch, the 3-cent school lunch, and such iconic emblems as the sidewalk cart, the Automat, the deli, the diner, the hot dog, the soft pretzel, and hot pastrami.  It also devotes a panel to the origin of the word lunch, which, as it turns out, is rather complicated.

The word can be found in English literature as early as 1591, but with a different meaning than it has today.  A Spanish dictionary of that year lists lunch as the meaning of the Spanish lunja, literally a “loin” or “a hunk of ham or bacon.”

Etymologists believe that the modern meaning of lunch derived from luncheon, which appears in print eleven years earlier, in 1580, with a similar meaning, in this case a “hunk of cheese.”  Luncheon is believed to have its root in nuncheon, a corruption of nonechenche, from the Latin nonus (“noon”) and Old English scenc (“to pour out” or “to drink”). 

Other wordsmiths point to the German non lunchentach, meaning a noon drink of ale, usually with bread.

By 1660 luncheon was used to mean any noontime meal, probably consisting of bread and cheese or other light fare. The shorter form of lunch developed later and was regarded as vulgar.

In his 1755 Dictionary of English Language, Samuel Johnson defines lunch as “As much food as one’s hand can hold.”  He suggests it comes from the word clutch or clunch, although he also includes a possible derivation from the Spanish louja [sic].

In its present sense of a meal at midday, lighter and less formal than an evening dinner, the first usage of lunch found by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1829, although the Online Etymological Dictionary finds lunch as both verb and noun, meaning “a light meal” or “to partake” of it, as early as William Davies’ 1786 play The Mode, in which this racy dialogue appears:

            MRS. PRATTLE: I always to be sure, makes a point to keep up the dignity of the family I lives in.  Would you take a more solid refreshment?—Have you lunch’d, Mr. Bribe?”
            MR. BRIBE: Lunch’d O dear! Permit me, my dear Mrs. Prattle, to refresh my sponge, upon the honey dew that clings to your ravishing pouters. O!  Mrs. Prattle, this shall be my lunch. (He kisses her).

With such usage it should come as no surprise that lunch was still regarded as a vulgarism as late as the 1820s.  Brunch, by the way, a portmanteau word combining breakfast and lunch, wasn’t used until 1896.

All the Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows about lunch is that there is no such thing as a free one, although he keeps looking.

            Last week I had this great hunch
            (Goodness knows)
            I knew how I could get a free lunch
            (So it goes).
                        Having eaten my fill,
                        I just tore up the bill!
            But the waiter then gave me a punch
            (In the nose).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Little Epergne, Who Made Thee?

Bill Bryson, the prolific Anglo-American author who writes about everything under the sun and sells lots of books doing it, has a problem with epergne. The word, which denotes an elaborate, tiered centerpiece typically holding several dishes or vases, certainly looks French.  But Bryson says the word doesn’t exist in the French language and no one knows its origin. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, he writes, “For a century or so, no table of discernment was without its epergne, but why it was called an epergne no one remotely knows. It just seems to have popped into being from nowhere.”

But words don’t pop out of nowhere, do they?

Certainly, it’s not unusual for a word’s origin to be uncertain.  Roughly half the words I look up in the Oxford English Dictionary offer only weaselly, wishy-washy, namby-pamby etymologies.  In Bryson’s defense of its non-French origin, epergne does not have an acute accent on the first e, as you might expect, as in étagère. And the pronunciation is invariably given as EE-PURN (or sometimes A-PURN), but never with the second syllable rendered as anything resembling PAIRN-YA, as a French word might be pronounced.

On the other hand, a lot of French transplants, like epaulet, lose their accents crossing the Channel.  And don’t forget the Brits have always been impatient with foreign pronunciations—some of them even insisting the Belgian town of Ypres is called “Wipers.”

But where did epergne come from, then?

The O.E.D. is willing to admit that it is perhaps….just perhaps…a corruption of the French épargne, which means “saving” or “economy.”  It’s a leap from that meaning to a table centerpiece, but Wikipedia’s language expert suggests that diners were able to help themselves to finger foods like fruit, nuts, sweetmeats, pickles, etc., from the epergne, and were thus  “saved” the trouble of passing their plates. Hmmmm.

If an epergne revolves, it might be called a “lazy Susan,” an Americanism from 1906, for which none of the discreetly prudent dictionaries I have seen wishes to venture an etymology.

In French, incidentally, an epergne is known as a surtout, which also means “above all” or “especially.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes to fill his epergne with gummy bears and jelly babies to provide a wholesome snack as he puts pen to parchment to regale his dwindling coterie of fans with semi-verses like this one:

            The hoity-toity epergne,
            It may not surprise you to lergne,
            Has ergned the disdagne
            Of folks who are plagne,
            And really just don’t give a dergne.