Monday, December 30, 2013

Nothing But the Tooth

Among the gifts beneath your Christmas tree there may have been (if you were very good or, barring that, very rich) an electronic Bluetooth device.  Bluetooth is the name of a wireless technology for exchanging data over short distances.  Its uses include connecting mobile phones to car stereo systems or to headsets, wireless operation by a computer of a mouse or a printer, and intercom systems. And you thought I didn’t know anything about electronics—ha!

Now what does a tooth that’s colored blue have to do with all this high-tech magic? It turns out that it’s named for the tenth-century Danish king Harald Bluetooth (Blåtand in Old Norse), who united ornery Danish and Norwegian tribes into a single kingdom.  The technology was invented in 1997 by an engineer who was reading a novel about Harald, and he thought “Bluetooth” was a good name for his invention since it united communications protocols into a single standard, just as the old Scandinavian king united warring factions. Sounds like a stretch to me, but OK.  The Bluetooth logo is a rune that includes Harald’s initials.

Why Harald was known by the epithet “Bluetooth” is not clear. People in the 10th century had a bad habit of not writing down explanations.  Blue originally meant “dark,” not necessarily the specific color we associate with the word today, so possibly Harald had a rotten tooth that had turned dark in color.  Others say Harald loved blueberries and ate so many that they stained some of his teeth, or that he was always clad in blue garments, a traditional royal color.  Yet another theory is that “tooth” has nothing to do with oral hardware, but is a corruption of the English word thegn, meaning “chieftain,” and “bluetooth” meant that Harald was a dark-complexioned king.

In any event, Bluetooth should not be confused with “Blu-Ray,” which has no “e,” even though it derives from “blue-violet,” the spectrum of the laser ray used in an optical disc format to record high-definition video.  The “e” was omitted so the term “Blu-Ray” could be trademarked.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou always omits “e’s” when he uses his decrepit old L. C. Smith typewriter, which has a broken “e”-key that he is too indolent to have repaired.  See for yourself in the following “e”-less verse:

            Mary had a tiny lamb,
            Its wool was soft as snow,
            And if Mary should go out,
            That lamb would also go.

            Mary’s lamb to school did stray,
            Against all laws, alas!
            Boys and girls did laugh and play
            To find a lamb in class!  

Monday, December 23, 2013

Yule Never Know

Christmas is just around the corner, as are the Nativity, Noël, and Yule, which are all names for the same holiday. The etymological origins of Christmas, Nativity, and Noël are pretty straightforward—but Yule is another ball of tinsel.

Christmas is from the Old English Cristes mæsse (“Christ’s mass”), the religious service that is celebrated on the birthday of Jesus Christ.  A similar noun formation is seen in Michaelmas, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, celebrated on September 29.  So this is the form to use if you want to keep the Christ in Christmas and the Michael in Michaelmas.

Nativity, meaning “birth,” is from the Latin nativus, from which the Spanish word for Christmas, Navidad, also springs. Noël, the French word for “Christmas,” which English has also adopted, is a variant from the same root, by way of Latin natalis (“birthday”) via Old French nael. This root is also seen in Natale, the common Italian word for “Christmas.”

Which brings us to Yule, and that is not so easily explained.  Now seen in English mostly in the term Yuletide or as the Yule log, the word came directly from the Middle English yoole, in use from around 1450, which in turn came from Old English ġéol or ġéohol sometime before 900.  All these terms refer to the holiday now called Christmas.

Before that the origin of Yule seems to be Old Norse Jól, which referred to a pagan winter festival.  Here the meaning and origin become murky. 

Some say Jól derived from hjól, the Old Norse word for “wheel,” referring to the season when the year’s “wheel” is at its low point, ready to rise again in the spring.  The cycle, or wheel, of life was an important concept for Norse pagans, and the English word jolly, meaning “festive,” also originates with Jól.

Other, no doubt equally learned linguists, say that Jól’s origin is the Norse god Odin, known as jólfaðr (“father of the Yule”). Another theory is that the word stems from Old Norse ýlir, meaning something similar to “magic.”

Yet another linguistic camp points to Julius Caesar, from whose name came the Old English giuli, referring to a two-month winter season corresponding to the Roman December-January, which was a time of major feasts.

The truth is no one really knows the origin of Yule, so all we can hope to do is join the merry Yuletide chorus, after decking the halls with boughs of holly.  Someone ought to deck the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, as well, in order to prevent such travesties as this:

                        As a general rule
                        You should celebrate Yule
                        On the twenty-fifth day of December.
                        But I’m afraid nowadays
                        Merchants find that it pays
                        To begin by the first of November.
                        There’s no doubt in my mind
                        That quite soon we will find
                        Christmas coming sometime in September.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Going Commando

 A recent clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle was “Not cover one’s butt?”  The answer, which I guessed (but just barely), is GO COMMANDO, which means “not wearing underwear.”

The origin of the phrase “go commando”—like so much else in this tempestuous world—is uncertain.  It has been traced to usage on college campuses in the 1970s (an inevitable result of panty raids), and it is inferred that it sprang from the Viet Nam war, where soldiers often went without underwear for comfort and dryness. Another theory of its etymology is that the absence of undergarments leaves certain parts of the body “without support”—like a commando unit in battle.  It’s also speculated that the phrase derives from “going regimental,” a Scottish military term used in World War I to describe the customary practice of omitting underwear beneath a regimental kilt.  And some say that it merely refers to a characteristic of commando forces who are “ready for action” at all times.

A commando in military parlance is a member of a raiding unit used to conduct hit-and-run operations behind enemy lines.  The word derives from Afrikaans and originally meant any military unit under a commander.  During the Boer Wars, from 1880 to 1902, the Boers used commandos as raiding parties against more conventionally arrayed British troops, and the word took on its current meaning.  In 1940 British commandos were organized as shock troops to repel any German invasion of England. 

Command, meaning to “direct in an authoritative manner,” derives from the Latin commendare, which means “to entrust” and hence to “direct those whose charge has been entrusted to one.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou takes a dim view of going commando for reasons that may be discerned in the following scurrilous verses. 

            An aspiring film stud from Orlando 
            Aimed for stardom by going commando. 
                        He thought tight-fitting jeans 
                        Worn in all of his scenes 
            Made him look like a young Marlon Brando. 

            But his friends said he’d best think again, 
            For no giant was he among men, 
                        His hopes were all hollow, 
                        And instead of Apollo, 
            He looked much more like Barbie’s friend Ken.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hello, Godot!

The New York Times recently considered, inconclusively, the vital question of how to pronounce Godot, the absent title character in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot.  Originally written in French and translated into English by the author, the play conveys the bleak, existential angst of two tramps repeatedly awaiting the arrival of a mysterious figure known as Godot, who never appears.

The usual American pronunciation of Godot  is “guh-DOE,” with an accent on the second syllable.  British actors typically say “GOD-oh,” transferring the accent to the first syllable.  The French pronunciation would be “GOD-OH,” with equal accents on each syllable.  (Anyone who pronounces the “t” at the end of the word need not apply.)

The Beckett estate suggested that the playwright himself pronounced the name in the French manner, but no standardized pronunciation is now prescribed.

Who Godot is and what he may represent are the subject of much speculation.  An obvious reading is that Godot is a stand-in for God, and the two tramps are twentieth-century humanity, searching in vain for religious faith.  Some commentators say this interpretation is too obvious and simplistic, and they object to the pronunciation that emphasizes the syllable “God” as being an easy way out.  But wait! This verbal symbolism would apply only to the English version anyway, and would be meaningless in the original French, in which the word for “God” is Dieu.

The current Broadway revival features two knights of the realm, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, who, being loyal Brits, say “GOD-oh.”  They also clown around a lot, winning easy laughs, emphasizing only the comedy and skipping lightly over the tragedy in the tragicomedy.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has his own pronunciation problems, often being unable to remember how to say “Chardonnay.” 

         All that waiting for Godot
         Is too existential,
         My spare time is devoted
         To things more essential,

         Such as surfing on Facebook
         And making new friends,
         While burning my candles
         At both of their ends.

         And someday if Godot
         Does decide to appear,
         Just bring him to my place
         And we’ll have a cold beer.       


Monday, December 2, 2013

All Together Now

The Houston Chronicle recently had a Page One photograph of a flock of birds, which it called a “murmuration.”  Murmuration, usually referring to a group of starlings, is one of the more exotic “nouns of assembly” that are traditionally applied to specific kinds of animals when gathered in large numbers.  Some of the most common are pride of lions, herd of cattle, school of fish, and gaggle of geese. 

These terms originated in the traditions of French and English venery, or hunting of animals, in the 14th and 15th centuries. Using such terms was regarded as fashionable, showing that one was in the know.  The specific terms might spring from observation of an animal’s behavior or from a whimsical play on words based on some perceived characteristic of the animal.   

Most of these terms are now obsolete, but some of the most colorful ones are surely worth preserving.  I’d hate to lose references not only to a murmuration, but also to an exaltation of larks, charm of goldfinches, murder of crows, shrewdness of apes, piteousness of doves, busyness of ferrets, mischief of mice, pandemonium of parrots, unkindness of ravens, skulk of foxes, whoop of gorillas, scurry of squirrels, ambush of tigers, and lamentation of swans.

Incidentally, the word venery is interesting in itself.  From the 14th century, it meant “hunting” or “animals that are hunted,” derived from the Latin venari (“hunt” or “pursue”), from which the word venison also stems.  In the 15th century another unrelated venery, meaning “pursuit of sexual pleasure,” developed from the Latin prefix vener-, which came from Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Try not to confuse the two.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou belongs to a very selective group of versifiers that are known as an abomination of poets.             
            A hunter whose style was imperial 
            Told his wife he’d had exploits venereal.
                        She said, “I’ll teach you to trifle,” 
                        Then she picked up his rifle— 
            And I fear things are now quite funereal.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Fancy That!

The other day, with Thanksgiving feasting just around the corner, I bought some dried apricots that were described in large letters on the label as “Fancy.”  I wondered if these were elaborately ornamental apricots, or perhaps very swanky and exclusive apricots, or maybe especially whimsical apricots.  What could it be that made these particular apricots “fancy,” instead of the plain old apricots I had been used to in my drab former life?

The adjective fancy is a contraction of fantasy, and its original meaning as a noun in the mid-fifteenth century was a “whim or desire, based on imagination or illusion.”  Its origin was Old French fantaisie (“vision, imagination”), from the Latin and Greek phantasia (“appearance, image, perception”), ultimately from the Greek phainesthai (“appear”) and phainem (to “show or bring light”).

Its adjectival use dates from the eighteenth century, and over the years it has assumed many meanings, among them “whimsical,” “ornamental,” “swanky,” “of particular excellence, the highest grade,” “impressive,” “bred especially for bizarre or ornamental purposes without regard to utility,” “extravagant,” “executed with exceptional skill or dexterity,” “multi-colored,” “overly elegant or refined,”  “flamboyant,” and “morally lax.”  Which of these applied to my apricots?

It turns out that “fancy” is a technical term used by the United States Department of Agriculture to grade certain fruits, vegetables, and prepared products, based on their color, size, shape, maturity, flavor, texture, appearance, and the absence of any defects. There’s one grade higher than “fancy,” which is “extra fancy,” but it’s a rare occurrence to find a product that measures up to that level.

The USDA doesn’t mess around when setting these standards. Nothing is left to guesswork. Take apples, for instance.  Here’s the official definition of a “fancy” apple:

“U.S. Fancy” consists of apples which are mature but not overripe, clean, fairly well formed, and free from decay, internal browning, internal breakdown, soft scald, freezing injury, visible water core, and broken skins. The apples are also free from damage caused by bruises, brown surface discoloration, russeting, sunburn or sprayburn, limb rubs, hail, drought spots, scars, stem or calyx cracks, disease, insects, bitter pit, Jonathan spot, or damage by other means, or invisible water core after January 31st of the year following the year of production, except for the Fuji variety of apples. Invisible water core shall not be scored against the Fuji variety of apples under any circumstances. Each apple of this grade has the amount of color specified for the variety.”

Now that’s a pretty fancy apple! I’m not sure why Fuji apples get a pass on “invisible water core,” whatever that is, but after all it’s invisible, so who cares?

Now, back to those apricots. The rules are just as stringent.  In order to be classified as “fancy,” they must “possess a practically uniform, bright typical color, characteristic of well-matured apricots. The fruit may possess pale yellow areas around the stem end that do not exceed an area equivalent to one-eighth of the outer surface side of the unit. Not more than a total tolerance of 10 percent, by weight, may be slabs, immature, or may possess pits or pieces of pits; may be damaged by discoloration, sunburn, hail marks, scab, disease, insect injury, or other similar defects; or may be affected by mold, decay, insect infestation (no live insects are permitted), imbedded dirt, or other foreign material: Provided, that, not more than two-fifths of the total tolerance, or 4 percent, by weight, may be affected by mold, decay, insect infestation (no live insects are permitted), imbedded dirt, or other foreign material: And further provided, that, not more than one-tenth of the total tolerance, or 1 percent, by weight, may be affected by decay.”

I sleep a little easier every night knowing that these standards are being maintained for fancy fruits.

It’s not widely known that the plain old Bard of Buffalo Bayou is something of a fancy-Dan himself when he dons his fancy pants and shows that he’s fancy-free (and full of fun). 

            There was a young fellow named Clancy, 
            And when young women tickled his fancy, 
                        He’d drive his Mercedes 
                        To thrill all those ladies— 
            Beyond that, his prospects were chancy. 

            Clancy met a young woman named Nancy, 
            And the two became rather romancy, 
                        But she said, “Take your Mercedes 
                        And drive it to Hades, 
            You’re no more than a quick passing fancy.”


Monday, November 18, 2013

Bungee Binge

One of the customers wonders about the word bungee, as in bungee cords, the cloth-covered rubber cords that are used for bungee jumping. One end of these “elastic ropes” is attached to a high jumping-off point and the other end to the ankles of a thrill-seeking idiot who then jumps, hoping the elasticity of the cord will enable the jumper to bounce up and down without touching the ground.

Nobody wants to say for sure where the word comes from.  The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of bungee by Oliver Goldsmith in 1760, but that refers to a kind of silk cloth and probably was a confusion with the word pongee. 

Bungie is a nineteenth-century West Country English dialect word meaning “short, thick, and squat,” a meaning that gave rise to bungey, meaning a “milk cart.” In the nineteenth century bungie also meant a “rubber eraser.” According to the late word-pundit William Safire, this usage stems from india-bungey, an Anglo-Indian slang term for “india rubber.”

Another claim to the word’s origin is in the Anglo-Indian lexicon known as Hobson Jobson, in which the word bangy, rooted in the Sanskrit vihangama, is defined as "a shoulder-yoke for carrying loads, the yoke or bangy resting on the shoulder, while the load is apportioned at either end in two equal weights, and generally hung by cords."

The earliest known use of bungee as an elastic rope is in 1930. The OED cites its usage in 1938 as a cord used to launch gliders. The Online Etymological Dictionary surmises that it might be a portmanteau word composed of “bouncy” and “spongy.”

The first known modern bungee-jumping was on April Fool’s Day in 1979, when members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club rigged themselves with elastic strands extracted from woven nylon and jumped from the 245-foot-high Clifton Bridge in Bristol, England.  “Quite pleasurable, really,” remarked one member after the jump.

Legend has it that similar jumps—using jungle vines instead of elastic cords—have been a coming-of-age ritual on some South Pacific islands for centuries.

A. J. Hackett, who opened the world’s first commercial bungee jumping establishment in New Zealand, claims bungee (or bungy) is Kiwi slang for “elastic strap.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou loves to bungee-jump, but so far he’s only managed to fall from the height of a barstool to the floor (and he always forgets to wear a cord). 

            A man who was feeling quite grungy 
            Decided to jump with a bungee. 
            But he measured it wrong, 
            And the cord was too long— 
            And now he’s not grungy, he’s spongy. 


Monday, November 11, 2013

Daylight Raving Time

The world recently made its annual conversion from daylight savings time to standard time. An occasional reader of this blog complains that even from such a fortress of pristine usage as NPR he hears “Daylight Savings Time,” instead of the correct “Daylight Saving Time” (without the added “s”).  He is quite right that “saving” is technically the proper form.  But the question then arises: is “saving” a present participle used in an adjectival sense, as in running water (“water that runs”) or is it a gerund, used as an adjectival noun, as in hunting season (a season for hunting).

Grammar guru Bryan Garner thinks that “savings” came into usage to avoid such confusion. As he explains: ““The rise of daylight savings time appears to have resulted from the avoidance of a miscue: when saving is used, readers might puzzle momentarily over whether saving is a gerund (the saving of daylight) or a participle (the time for saving). Using savings as the adjective—as in savings account or savings bond—makes perfect sense.  More than that, it ought to be accepted as the better form.”  Whichever form you prefer, says Garner, you can prevent most miscues by hyphenating the phrasal adjective: either daylight-savings time or daylight-saving time. 

Brits avoid all this—but in the process create their own ambiguity—by calling it “summer time.”  That might be taken to mean any time when the livin’ is easy.

Benjamin Franklin thought up daylight-savings time, in order to save money on candles (You know, “early to bed, early to rise, etc.”). During World War I, a number of countries adopted the plan in order to burn less coal.  The idea was revived again in World War II and then caught on almost universally because it was thought to save on electrical consumption. But some studies show it results in higher usage of electricity, as well as sleep deprivation, increased pollution, and greater frequency of heart attacks.

Today more than seventy countries (including every U. S. state except Arizona and Hawaii) adopt daylight savings time from March to November.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t care what time it is since he’s been off the clock for decades. 

            The time has come, the walrus said, 
            To talk of many things, 
            Of why there’s daylight savings time 
            And Paul McCartney’s Wings, 
            And whether Justin Timberlake 
            Or Miley Cyrus sings.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Moist on Its Own Petard

Word aversion, the subject of much linguistic study, is a phobic reaction to the sound of certain words. The seemingly innocuous moist is one of the words that people find most unpleasant.  A survey at Mississippi State University found that moist was second only to vomit among detested words, ahead of such other nasties as phlegm, ooze, mucus, puke, scab, and pus. There is even a moist-hating Facebook page with nearly 8,000 “friends.”  

Reasons given for hating moist relate to words and ideas that it evokes.  Some people say it makes them think of “squishy” and “slimy.”  Others say it elicits thoughts of soiled underwear, sweaty palms, or other body parts dampened by various secretions.  Some say it conjures up unpalatable food. In urban slang moist can be a synonym for “embarrassing,” “unpleasant,” or “sexually aroused.”

This aversion might be explained by competing theories of the etymology of moist.  A fourteenth-century word meaning “slightly wet,” it derives from the Old French moiste, meaning “damp, wet, or soaked.”  One school says its Latin root is musteum, meaning “fresh, green, or new.”  But another linguistic camp thinks it stems from the Latin mucidus, which means “slimy, moldy, or musty.”

As for me, I am a great fan of moist—especially in a slice of rich, moist chocolate cake or in an ice-cold, straight-up dry martini with beads of lovely moisture condensing on the outside of the glass.

As for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, he is all wet.

            Water, water, everywhere,
            It’s all I have to drink.
            A taste of plain vin-ordinaire
            Would put me in the pink.

            I wish I had a mug of beer—
            I hear the glasses clink,
            But my beverage is pure and clear,
            Straight from the kitchen sink.

            A shot of bourbon, scotch, or gin
            Would iron out every kink,
            I’ll even bet a Mickey Finn
            Would taste real good (wink, wink),

            There’s not a drop of Chardonnay
            Or cognac here to drink—           
            I wonder if ‘twould be okay
            If I tried a glass of ink?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Well, Make A Wish

Everyone likes to have well-wishers around. Well-wishers are those who wish you well, right?  But in doing so, do they offer you, as people often say, “well wishes”—or should it be “good wishes”? 

Well is an irregular adverbial form of good. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon wel, meaning “according to one’s will.” When you do well, you accomplish something in a satisfactory or advantageous manner.  When you do good, you perform a virtuous deed.  When it’s an adjective, well most often means “healthy or cured of some illness.”

Believe it nor not, the reliable Second Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary admits the noun well-wish with its built-in adjectival well as “a good and kindly wish.”

So go ahead and let your well-wishers, wish you well with their well-wishes if you wish. See if I care.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not care either. He is carefree, not to mention meter-free, rhyme-free, and sense-free in most of his work. 

            Well, I saw an old well-wisher fall,
            And I noticed as he fell,
            This well-wisher didn’t mind at all--
            For he fell into a wishing-well. 

            Well, the well was full of soapy water, 
            Which the well-wisher thought was swell, 
            For when the water in the well got hotter, 
            He could do his washing well.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Sliced Ham

I recently encountered a hotel full of hams. No, it wasn’t a convocation of pork butchers peddling their wares, nor was it a gathering of over-the-top actors looking for scenery to chew.  This was a meeting of amateur radio operators, hundreds of them, sizing up weird-looking equipment and trading tales of shortwave brief encounters with distant colleagues.

How did it happen that ham is the word applied to all of them? Ham is the meat of a hog’s hind leg, usually salted, dried, or smoked.  Its earliest use in English was in the 1630s.  It derives from the Old English hamm, meaning “bend of the knee,” ultimately from Proto-Indo-European konemo, “shin bone.” 

Ham, meaning “an inferior performer”—especially one who over-emotes—was first mentioned in America in the 1880s. It is a shortening of ham-fatter, which is thought to refer to the practice of amateur actors, especially minstrel performers, to remove their makeup with ham fat.  Somehow or other, the term is also related to a popular 1863 minstrel show song called “The Ham-Fat Man,” which was about the appeal of ham frying in a pan. It may also have been conflated with ham, used in the 1880s to refer to an incompetent prizefighter, derived from ham-fisted, that is “equipped with fists as clumsy as a couple of hams would be.”

When it comes to radio operators, the etymology is even less clear.  Some say a ham operator is simply an extended meaning of ham actor, a pejorative reference to the inferior skills of amateurs. One early usage is in the August, 1915 Technical World Magazine: "Then someone thought of the 'hams'. This is the name that the commercial wireless service has given to amateur operators..." Like other terms that started as unfavorable—Obamacare, for instance—it was adopted as a badge of honor by the very people to whom it referred.

But there are other claims on the etymology for ham radio. One is that it derives from the Cockney pronunciation of amateur, with an aspirated “h” sound preceding it. Others say it is from the word hammer, as a description of the insensitive way early radio operators hit the hand-operated telegraph keys.  Some insist it is a tribute to three radio pioneers, using their last initials: Heinrich Hertz, Edwin Armstrong, and Guglielmo Marconi.  One problem with this theory is that Armstrong was still unknown at the time ham was first used. Similarly, some people say ham is an acronym of a magazine, Home Amateur Mechanic, which covered radio topics.  Opinions differ on whether such a magazine ever existed. A few kind-hearted souls believe ham stems from the initials of the phrase “Help All Mankind,” referring to the occasional rescue activities of ham operators in their early days.

By far the most elaborate explanation is that it came from an amateur radio station operated in 1911 by three Harvard students named Albert S. Hyman, Bob Almy, and Poogie Murray, who assigned their last initials as the station’s call letters. As the story goes, they originally called the station “Hyman-Almy-Murray, which was cumbersome to type, so they changed the designation to “HY-AL-MU,” but that became confused with radio signals from a Mexican ship called the “Hyalmo,” so the intrepid trio settled on the simple “HAM.”  Hyman later testified at a Congressional hearing on amateur radio regulation, and his impassioned plea for exemption from licensing resulted in HAM being used as a symbol for all small amateur radio operators.

You’ll have to decide which explanation you prefer.

Something you definitely would not prefer is the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou—a rhymester of the school that Ogden Nash referred to as “worsifiers.” 

            A Virginia ham felt forsaken
            When he found all the lady hams taken,
                        So he took some Viagra 
                        And ran off to Niagara 
           With a sizzling Canadian bacon. 

           That old ham was a trifle cocksure, 
           With his hickory-smoked paramour, 
                        She cried, “You’re a flasher! 
                        You couldn’t be rasher— 
           What you need is a good sugar-cure.” 

            Then the bacon said, “You’re such a brute, oh! 
            I wish I could send you to Pluto! 
                        I don’t want a vendetta— 
                        What I crave’s a pancetta 
            Or maybe a spicy prosciutto.”    

Friday, October 11, 2013


What do polka dots, you ask, have to do with the lively folk dance known as the polka?  Nothing at all, you might think if you recall the dreamy, un-polka-like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” Frank Sinatra’s first hit recording with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra.  But, as it turns out, there is a connection—tenuous, to be sure—between the dot and the dance.

Large coin-shaped spots first became popular as a pattern on fabric in Germany in the nineteenth century, and they were called Thalertupfen, which means “spots in the shape of the thaler,” a silver coin in wide circulation then.  Around the same time, the dance known as the polka became a fad throughout Europe and America, and it was so popular that many unrelated products were marketed with that name, such as polka gauze, polka jackets, and polka hats. When the dotted pattern became popular in women’s clothing, the name polka was applied to it to enhance its popularity.

Coincidentally, James K. Polk was elected president of the United States in 1844, and his name with an added “a” was jestingly attached to certain products as a marketing tool, in the same way that Theodore Roosevelt later gave rise to a “teddy bear” or Ronald Reagan to “Reaganomics.”

The first known use of polka dot in print was in 1854 in a story in the Yale Literary Magazine that contained this passage: “Maybe she should wear her red chiffon with the white polka-dots. She would see how it looked anyway.  Max would like it because it was bright and summery.” In 1857 the American women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book referred to a “scarf of muslin, for light summer wear, surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots.”

The word polka, referring to the Bohemian peasant dance in 2/4 time, has several possible origins.  The word means “Polish woman” in Polish, but it might also be an alteration of the Czech word pulka, meaning “half,” in allusion to the half-step pattern.  Or it could be a portmanteau word, blending two other Polish dances, the polonaise and the mazurka. However it came to be named, it gained huge popularity in the mid-1830’s in Prague and thereafter throughout the rest of the world.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou won’t dance, don’t ask him.  He will, however, recite nonsensical verses, like the following, at the top of his lungs till the cows come home. 

                  Dancing With the Stars (of Yesteryear) 

            Oscar Homolka 
            Is great in a Polka, 
            And you can’t beat Blanche Yurka 
            When she does the Mazurka. 

            Alla Nazimova 
            Has a smooth Bossa Nova, 
            Likewise Zachary Scott 
            With a graceful Gavotte. 

            You’ll adore Peter Falk 
            In a lithe Lambeth Walk, 
            And Rosalind Russell 
            Performing the Hustle. 

            There’s Basie and Ella 
            In a swell Tarantella, 
            And Madeleine Kahn 
            With a perfect Pavane. 

            See gruff Gabby Hayes 
            Do a brisk Polonaise, 
            And droll Benny Hill 
            In a quirky Quadrille. 

            That Veronica Lake 
            Can sure Shimmy-Shake, 
            And demure Sally Rand 
            Does a grand Sarabande, 

            While that scamp Theda Bara 
            Vamps a hot Habanera, 
            And the great Steve McQueen 
            Will begin the Beguine. 

            But you’ll go quite berserk 
            When you see Billie Burke 
            Really get down and Twerk.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Known for Renown

It's getting tiresome to see how frequently writers who are paid to know how to use words say that someone is “renown”—meaning “famous” for being great at something. 

Renown (rhymes with clown) is not an adjective; it’s a noun meaning “fame, or the state of being acclaimed or highly honored.” Its root is the Middle English renoun, from the Anglo-French renomer, meaning to “report or speak of.” Ultimately it comes from the Latin nominer, “to name.” If you want to use in adjectival form, the word is renowned.

The misusage undoubtedly stems from confusing the –nown in renown with the –nown in known.  Known, which rhymes with own, is the past participle of know, and it can, of course, be used adjectivally.  You can be known for your ability to play Beethoven’s Ninth on a kazoo—or you can be renowned for it.

I don’t want to repeat this lesson, so I hope those of you who have committed this atrocity have paid attention.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not pay attention to anything, and that lackadaisical attitude will someday be either his downfall or his comeuppance.  But not today. 

              When I was walking into town, 
              I met a man of great renown, 
              One eye was blue, and one was brown. 

              The wind came up and soon had grown 
              Quite strong, and as you might have known, 
              His eyes it blew, so both were blown.

Monday, September 30, 2013

All-Day Soccer

Football season once again has us by the throat, and the mayhem can be enjoyed on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes other days as well.  When Americans speak of “football,” they don’t mean the same thing as most of the rest of the world.  They mean a brutal tackling game that developed in this country in the 1860s and nowadays requires helmets and heavy padding.  When the rest of the world speaks of “football,” it means what Americans call “soccer.”

Soccer originated in the 1840s in England and became known as “Association football,” named for its governing organization, the Football Association.The modifier “Association” was needed to distinguish it from another form of football that developed in 1840s England, “Rugby football,” named for Rugby School, at which it was first played. 

The term “soccer” originated in the 1880s, as Oxford student slang, which playfully added “-er” or sometimes “-ers” to the roots of certain words.  “Champagne,” for example, was referred to by Oxonians as “Champers.”  Breakfast was “brekker.” The "Bodleian Library” morphed into “Bodder.” “Rugby football” was known as “rugger.”  And in the same way, “Association football” was “Assoccer,” shortened in the 1890s to simply “soccer.”

When the game was taken up by non-university players, they rejected the Oxford “soccer” as too twee, and simply called it “football.”  Rugby remained a game of the educated classes and thus retained the name “rugger,” by which it is commonly known today.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has his own brand of football, which consists of rocking on the balls of his feet in the direction of the nearest bar.  After a few hours of this sport, he is able to come up with messages like this:

            There was a pair of soccer kickers
            Who suited up in knickerbockers.
            At night, they worked as pocket-pickers
            And stored their loot in liquor lockers.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Beware of Grecians

President George W. Bush once referred to our “Grecian” allies.  Knowledgeable people like you and me laughed at this silly misusage, knowing as we do that the correct adjective for people from Greece is “Greek.”

But look up the definitions of “Greek” and “Grecian” in the dictionary and you will find them almost identical—“of or pertaining to Greece or its people.”  So what’s so wrong with talking about that nice “Zorba the Grecian” who makes “Grecian salads” and “Grecian yogurt” and attends the “Grecian Orthodox Church”?

Both “Greek” and “Grecian” stem from the Latin Græcus, referring to things Greek, but “Greek” traveled into Old English by way of Germanic variants, and “Grecian” made its way to Middle English via French roots.  Both terms survive, but “Grecian” is now used mostly to refer to certain aspects of ancient Greece, such as its architecture, art, fashion, and physiognomy.   Keats wrote about a “Grecian urn,” you might have a “Grecian nose,” and a company in White Plains, New York, makes a men’s hair dye called “Grecian Formula.”  Otherwise, you’re mostly better off with “Greek.”

The work Graikhos, from which “Greek” is derived, means an inhabitant of Graia (“gray”), a town on the coast of Boeotia.  Colonists from Graia founded the city of Cumae in southern Italy around the ninth century B.C., and these were the first Greeks encountered by the Romans.

Ancient Greeks called themselves “Hellenes,” inhabitants of “Hellas,” a name derived from Hellen (not Helen of Troy), the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha in ancient Greek mythology.  Hellen’s sons, Aeolus, Dorus, and Xuthus (through his sons Achaeus and Ion), were the founders of the primary ancient Greek tribes.

“Hellenic,” incidentally, now refers to Greek culture up to 336 B. C., when Greece came under the rule of Alexander the Great, who spread its culture throughout the Near East.  Post-Alexandrine Greek civilization and cultural influences are called “Hellenistic.”

All of this is Greek to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has other things on his so-called mind.
                        A Greek who drank too much retsina
                        Played so badly on his concertina
                        That Dmitri Mitropoulos 
                        Came down from the Acropolis
                        And served him with a subpoena.
                        So the Greek played his concertina
                        In the Italian town of Messina,
                        Until Riccardo Muti
                        Said, “I hate to seem snooty,
                        But you massacred ‘La Golondrina’.”
                        Then the Greek, with his concertina,
                        Came to Texas and found Pasadena.
                        That’s where Mickey Gilley
                        Said, “I may be a hillbilly—
                        But you sound like a laughing hyena.”
                        So the Greek scrapped his concertina,
                        Found a boat at a nearby marina,
                        And with John Barbirolli
                        And two cases of Stoli, 
                        Sailed the seas till they reached Catalina.