Monday, May 27, 2013

“How Bona to Vada Your Eek!”

The word gam popped up the other day in reference to the late actress Betty Grable, who once insured her “million-dollar gams” for $500,000 each. Shortly afterwards I noticed a report about an ocean-going ship that was following a gam of whales.  It turns out that gam has two different origins, depending on its meaning. 

A gam might mean a “school of whales,” and probably derives from a Scandinavian word for “game,” emphasizing the social and sportive nature of a gathering of these sea-going mammals.

Grable’s gams, on the other hand, are rooted in Polari, a British jargon used by actors, circus-performers, and, most notably, the gay community beginning in the eighteenth century.  A gam derives from the Italian gamba or “leg.”  Polari has many varied linguistic sources: Italian, Romany (or Gypsy), Yiddish, cockney rhyming slang, East End canal-speak, back-formations of words, Shelta (the cant of Irish tinkers), circus slang, and theatrical argot.

Polari, sometimes palare or palyaree, which derives from Italian parlare (“talk”), was popularized on a 1960s BBC radio program that featured two screamingly camp characters, Julian and Sandy, shamelessly overplayed by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick.  One of their Polari catch-phrases was “How bona to vada your eek!”--which meant “How good to see your face!”

Other words in the Polari vocabulary, some of which are now in mainstream English, include camp (“exaggerated effeminate mannerisms”), naff  (“bad”), butch (“notably masculine”), fantabulosa (“wonderful”), scarper (“run away”), bonaroo (“excellent”), barney (“fight”), drag (“clothes, especially those of the opposite sex”), and oglefakes (“eyeglasses”).

Some people say the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was raised by a gam of whales, which is where he got all his blubber.  His work lends validity to this hypothesis.
            The glamorously gammed Betty Grable,
            Swathed in mink and in ermine and sable,
            In a Cadillac car
            That was fit for a star,
            Lived the high life till she was unable.

            Today, just like Hayworth or Gable,
         Her story’s no longer a fable,
            And her public now views
            Her films after the news
            That’s aired at eleven on cable.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bogus May Bug Us

I occasionally hear young people (anyone under 60) say something they don’t approve of is “bogus.”  In current usage, that word seems to mean “unbelievable, untrue, undesirable, or stupid.” 

Bogus was first used in early nineteenth century America to mean “counterfeit money,” and later to refer to anything “fake” or “ersatz.” Precursors of bogus can be found in English as early as 1500.  Middle English bugge meant a “frightening specter,” and is related to our modern word bug. Other related words include bogeyman, boggart, boggle, and bogle, a Scottish word for “ghost” popularized by Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

The variant bogus first referred to a contraption that printed counterfeit money, and later to the money itself.  Some trace this usage to the word tantrabobus (sometimes tantrabogus), an eighteenth-century Vermont colloquialism for any odd-looking object.  This might have its source in tantrabobs, a Devonshire word for the devil.

That old devil of Buffalo Bayou, a.k.a. the Bard, remains the champion of bogus verse, in all the above senses.     

            Experts have often asserted that orange 
            Is a word that all rhyming abhors, 
            But look into Webster’s and you will find “sporange: 
            A sac for asexual spores.” 

            But nothing shows up that matches with bogus— 
            It’s rhymeless, like purple and silver. 
            Now why can’t there be a word such as flogus, 
            Or pantheocurpal or trilver? 


Monday, May 13, 2013

The Real Skinny

The Skin Game, a 1931 Alfred Hitchcock film, deals with two families trying to get the better of each other in a land deal that is their mutual undoing. The term skin game was used again in the title of a 1971 movie starring James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. as two con men, one black and one white, in the pre-Civil War Midwest, who devise a scheme in which Gossett poses as a slave and Garner “sells” him to an unsuspecting townsman.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines skin game as a game that the “player cannot possibly win.”  Presumably this notion stems from the verb skin, meaning “get the better of someone,” derived from the act of skinning an animal for its valuable fur. Hence, a skin game is a swindle or confidence trick. “Fleecing” someone is an analogous term.  Paper dollars taken from the victims of skin games were referred to as skins.

A skin game is also defined as a “card game in which each player has one card which he bets will not be the first to be matched by a card dealt from the pack.”

In golf, a skin game involves a foursome betting against another in three categories: team play, individual “greenies” (closest to the pin), and individual “skins” (any single low score on a given hole). For obvious reasons, skin game (or skin trade) can also refer to the business of prostitution or pornography, as anyone who has ever visited a skin palace or watched a skin flick can eagerly testify.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou squeezes out his verses by the skin of his teeth, and if you don’t like them, well, it’s no skin off his nose.

            I like to play the skin game,
            And never miss a lotto.
            It is more fun than a gin game,
            That’s always been my motto.

            I also love a shell game,
            And dote on three-card monte,
            I think that it’s a swell game—           
             Come on, let’s play—avanti!

             Yes, I’ll play any con game,
             Be the butt of any joke—
             But they all become a non-game
             The minute I am broke.

Addendum: After a recent blog about the Oreo cookie and its predecessor, the Hydrox, some customers accused the Bard of Buffalo Bayou of following the path of least resistance by composing a so-called verse about Oreo but not Hydrox. Never one to let a challenge go unanswered, the Bard insisted on adding this entry to his already superfluous collected works:

           I think you might safely say Hydrox
            Would win a taste-test against dried rocks---
            But wait! Don’t be hasty!
            Dried rocks might be tasty,
            So we’d better wait till we’ve tried rocks.

Monday, May 6, 2013

False Fronts

On “60 Minutes” Lesley Stahl referred to a brand-new, but uninhabited, Chinese city as a Potemkin city.  Similarly, when President Obama visited Burma last year, the New York Times suggested that in sprucing up the decrepit University, authorities were creating a Potemkin campus. For me, Potemkin conjures up the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein, which dramatizes the 1905 mutiny aboard that ship.  So who or what is Potemkin?

Grigori Potemkin (1732-1791) was a Russian field marshal, statesman, and courtier of Empress Catherine the Great.  According to one account, during a visit by Catherine to the Crimea in 1787, Potemkin wanted to impress her with the value of the lands he had conquered in that region.  He had hollow façades of entire villages constructed along her route to make it look as if there were thriving communities in place, when in fact, the land was barren. 

Potemkin has thus come to mean any fabrication intended to make people believe something is better than it really is.

In a similar fashion, when Russian authorities toured poverty-stricken East Germany during the Cold War, local officials would refurbish only the ground floors of dilapidated buildings on the road from the airport, knowing that the officials would view them from the windows of their limousines, and the ground floor is all they would see.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been writing Potemkin verse since he first put pen to paper.  Try and see behind the glittery façade of this one: 

            When Potemkin built a façade, 
            Very few people hurrahed, 
            They said, “We don’t mind 
            That there’s nothing behind, 
            It’s what’s out in front that’s so odd.” 

            So Potemkin said, “All right, look here— 
            If the front of my builiding seems queer, 
           There’s no need to curse it, 
            I’ll simply reverse it, 
            And then feast your eyes on my rear.”