Monday, April 29, 2013

Pick A Picayune

The venerable New Orleans Times-Picayune, long the iconic daily newspaper of the Crescent City, has curtailed publication to only three days a week.  This is a sad state of affairs for a proud paper, with several Pulitzer Prizes, whose staff at various times included O. Henry, William Faulkner, cartoonist Walt Handelsman, and Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, who, as Dorothy Dix, dispensed advice to several generations of love-troubled readers.

The Picayune’s tragic decline calls to mind a perennial question: why would anyone name a newspaper the Picayune—a word that means “petty, paltry, contemptible, and insignificant”?

If you have read my book Porcupine, Picayune, & Post, you know the answer to this question, but for other less fortunate and benighted customers of this blog, I will lay out the background once more.  A picayune was initially a Spanish coin in Louisiana and Florida, worth a little more than 6 cents.  The word comes from the French picaillon, adopted from the Provençal picaioun, a diminutive of the Portuguese picalho, which means “money.”  After the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803, the name picayune persisted and was applied to the five-cent piece (also known as a “fippeny bit”).

When Francis Lumsden and George W. Kendall, two ambitious Easterners, arrived in New Orleans in 1837 and decided to start a newspaper, they tried to outdo the city’s other journals, which all cost a dime or more, by charging only five cents.  As a marketing ploy, they named the newspaper for what it cost—a picayune.  In 1914 the Picayune merged with the Times-Democrat and became the Times-Picayune. 

No coin is small enough to charge for the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. If there were something worth, let us say, 1/1,000th of a picayune, that would still be too much. Just see for yourself:

          Way down yonder in New Orleans,
           The land of those Creole cuisines, 
           With dirty rice, red kidney beans, 
           Filé gumbo, galantines, 
           Pompano and peppered greens, 
           Turtle soup and trout terrines, 
           Étoufées and smoked sardines, 
           Remoulades, pecan pralines— 
           Food that’s fit for kings and queens, 
           Not recipes of Paula Deen’s!

Monday, April 22, 2013

How the Cookies Crumble

The Oreo cookie celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and darned if I didn’t fail to observe the occasion. The first Oreos were produced in 1912 by the National Biscuit Company, and the name was trademarked on March 12 of that year. 

There is a lot of disagreement over the origin of the name Oreo.  One theory holds that it derives from the French word or, meaning “gold,” the color of the cookies’ original packaging.  Others say it stems from the Greek ōréos, a word for “beautiful” when applied to inanimate objects.  One outlandish notion suggests that it was formed by taking the re in crème (the vanilla filling) and placing those letters between two O’s formed by the two outer cookies.  If the folks at Nabisco know the truth, they aren’t telling.

It should be noted for the record that I also failed to observe the 100th anniversary of the very similar Hydrox cookie, which was launched in 1908—four years before Oreo. The name Hydrox is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, the constituents of water. Over the years Hydrox got the reputation of being a knockoff of Oreo, instead of the other way around.  After a series of transmutations, including one as Keebler’s “Droxies,” what used to be a Hydrox is now available only as a variety of Famous Amos.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has not eaten an Oreo in more than 50 years. He is a militant advocate of more healthful fruit products, especially the fermented variety.

            A tenor whose name was Vittorio
            Was jazzed up from eating an Oreo,
            So, thanks to Nabisco,
            He broke into disco
            While singing a Bach oratorio.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hork! Hork!

 A fascinating New York Times article about how the human mouth processes food contained this passage: “A less lethal and more entertaining swallowing misstep is nasal regurgitation. Here the soft palate — home turf of the uvula, that queer little oral stalactite — fails to seal the opening to the nasal cavity. This leaves milk, say, or chewed peas in peril of being horked out the nostrils.”

Emphasis is mine, to convey that I had never before come across the verb hork.  It’s used here in one of its many senses, “to cough or vomit in such a way that the expelled matter exits through the nose.”  But it turns out hork in modern slang has a vast array of meanings: “cough up a hairball,” “choke,” “gobble  food greedily,” “steal,” “break, ruin, or foul up,” “throw,” and “carry or cause to move.”

Determining the origin of the word is not so easy.  A blog with the alarming title “” has several suggestions.

1. Hork is a corruption of gork, a term used in hospital emergency rooms to describe a patient who is non-responsive for an undetermined reason. In a broader context, the word refers to anything that is non-functional.  The etymology of gork is unclear, but it may be an acronym of “God only really knows.”

2. Hork derives from the cartoon character Ren Hoëk (pronounced “Hork”), the mentally unstable Chihuahua on TV’s “Ren and Stimpy.”

3. Hork is an onamatopoeic approximation of the sound a cat makes when coughing up a hairball.

4. Hork is a corruption of hawk, a 16th-century imitative word defined as “to attempt audibly to raise phlegm by clearning the throat.”

Any or all of these may be correct, so take your choice.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou coughs up rhymeballs with distressing frequency.  There is no known cure for his condition. 

            Whenever I decide to hork, 
            It depends on how I feel, 
            As to whether I hork a haunch of pork 
            Or hork a hunk of veal. 

            I hork whatever is on my fork, 
            And I hork it through my nose, 
            I have even horked a cork 
            And a piece of garden hose. 

            I once horked something through my throat 
            That was rough and tasted bad, 
            I felt I’d horked a billy goat— 
            And, sure enough, I had!            


Monday, April 8, 2013

Hero Worship

John Montagu (1718-1792), the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who ordered his dinner meat served between two slices of bread so he could keep playing cribbage without getting the cards greasy, didn’t really invent the sandwich. People had been eating meat between pieces of bread for millennia—but his waggish friends thought it funny to call food served in that manner a “sandwich.” 

One popular variety of the Earl’s delight is known today by many names in different regions: po-boy, submarine, hero, hoagie, grinder, blimpie, torpedo, rocket, zeppelin or zep, bomber and bap. The origin of some of these names is obvious when one looks at the sandwich, which consists of an oblong roll of French or Italian bread, sliced lengthwise, and filled with some combination of meats, cheeses, fish, lettuce, tomato, pickles, peppers, onions, and condiments.   The shape of such a concoction is clearly reminiscent of such devices as a submarine, a torpedo, a rocket, a blimp, a zeppelin, or a bomber.

But what about po-boy, hoagie, hero, grinder, and bap?  The stories are as varied as the ingredients of the sandwiches. 

The most likely origin of the po-boy (a dialectical version of “poor boy”) was in the New Orleans restaurant of Benny and Clovis Martin, both former streetcar conductors. During a streetcar strike in 1929, the Martins helped their erstwhile colleagues by serving them free sandwiches, filled with odd scraps of beef. The restaurant staff jokingly referred to the strikers as "poor boys", and soon the sandwiches themselves took on that name.

The hoagie has many possible origins, all in Philadelphia.  It may have started in World War I, when Italian-American workers in a shipyard known as “Hog Island,” introduced an Italian-style sandwich that became known as a “Hog Island” sandwich, then a “hoggie,” and finally a “hoagie.”  An alternate explanation is that it’s a word derived from “Hogan,” a nickname for Irish workers in the shipyard, referring to the “hog meat” or pork in their sandwiches. Another theory holds that the sandwiches were first sold in Philadelphia in 1879 by street vendors known as “hokey-pokey men”; hence, a “hokey” sandwich.  Yet another possible origin is the phrase “on the hoke,” which referred to a destitute person in Philadelphia’s Italian community. Deli owners would give away meat scraps in bread to the poor and called these sandwiches “hokies.” Finally, some linguists think that it was originally a “hooky” sandwich, originating with truant youngsters who ate them while skipping school. No one really knows the truth.

A hero is a New York term, first seen in 1937.  Some people say it was invented by Clementine Paddleford, a food writer for the New York Herald-Tribune to refer to a sandwich of great, or “heroic,” size. Others point to a corruption the Greek sandwich known as a gyro, even though the sandwich is identified with Italians.. 

Grinder is a New England term, and yet again we owe it to Italian immigrants, who used the word to refer to dock workers, who were partial to the sandwich.  Or maybe the term originated from the difficulty in chewing the crusty bread. (In Boston the grinder is sometimes calle a spukie or spucky, from a kind of Italian bread known as spucadella.)

Finally, bap is a Scottish term for a soft, floury roll, about 5 inches in diameter, usually more round like a hamburger bun than oblong, which may or may not be stuffed with various fillings. The origin of the word, which dates from the 16th century, is unknown—but may have sprung from pap, a Scottish word for the mammary gland, which the roll resembles in shape and size. In fact, in today’s British slang baps can mean “breasts.” A bap is used to make what the Brits call a “chip butty,” which is a buttered roll filled with fried potatoes and malt vinegar.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is filled with vinegar and heaven knows what else.  Whatever it is, some of it has oozed out in the following verses:
            One day Bacall said, "Listen, Bogie,
            I'm feeling pretty tired and logy,
            It makes me act like some old fogey—
            You know, I think I'll eat a hoagie,
            Ideally, one stuffed with pierogi."
            She ate, and then she smoked a stogie,
            Then roped and saddled up a dogie,
            And rode him off to see a yogi.

            Way out west, in far Toledo,
            There a lived a bold and bad bandido,
            Who said in life his only credo,
            Was just to sharpen his libido
            By putting on a sexy Speedo
            And strolling up and down the Lido
            While lunching on a huge torpedo.           

            The mighty Roman emperor Nero
            Thought that he might try a hero,
            But instead he opted for a gyro,
            Because its price was almost zero.

            Those TV friends, both Ren and Stimpy,
            One day were feeling rather gimpy,
            They moped around and looked quite wimpy.
            At last they thought they’d have a blimpie,
            But, sad to say, they found it skimpy.
            It's said that there's no girl and no boy,
            No roly-poly Pillsbury Doughboy,
            Who would refuse a luscious po-boy
            When served upon an antique lowboy.

            Now this is just a quick reminder
            That you can put into a binder:
            You really ought to wear a blinder
            When you consume a greasy grinder--
            For that will make you feel much kinder.
            I say, old chap,
            I took a nap,
            Put on my cap,
            And bought an app
            To make a map
            To find a bap
            Right in my lap.
            And that’s a wrap!

Monday, April 1, 2013

New definitions

A list of creative definitions that are supposedly the winners of a contest in The Washington Post has been circulating—apparently for years—on email.  The contest asks entrants to come up with a new way to define existing words. While there is little evidence that such a competition actually exists, some of the alleged entries are bizarre enough to bear repeating, especially in a blog as disoriented as this one. To wit: 

Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled to find how much weight one has gained. 

Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk. 

Willy-nilly, adj.  Impotent. 

Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp. 

Ventricle, n. Leakage from an air-conditioner grill. 

Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash. 

Crepuscular, adj. Oozing from a thin pancake. 

Tempestuous, adj. Constantly annoyed by part-time workers.

Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

Pokemon, n. A Jamaican proctologist.

New definitions are not unusual for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  Every time he spews out a word, it means something different.

            A proctologist I’ll call Doctor Janus
            Had a patient whose conduct was heinous, 
                        As the doc checked his rear, 
                        He’d recite from Shakespeare--
            What a pain in the Coriolanus!