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?