Monday, January 27, 2014

A Flair to Remember

I recently encountered this bit of vivid writing in a music review: “A pianist of flashy, almost rococo, technique, he executed the complicated cadenza with great flare.”  Hmmm. Among his spectacular qualities, he also seems to be a pyromaniac.

The flare with which he attacked all those black and white keys is “a fire or blaze of light used to signal or illuminate.”  The noun was first used around 1580, but its etymological origin is unknown.

As a verb flare has two meanings.  One is to “burst out in flame or violent emotion,” like a tea party member when Obamacare is mentioned.  The other is to “open and spread outward,” like the nostrils of a tea party member when Obamacare is mentioned.  In the latter sense it may spring from the Dutch word vlederen, to “flutter.”

What the reviewer probably meant was flair, meaning “style, or a uniquely attractive quality.”  A much more recent word in English, from around 1880, it derives from Old French flairier, which, rather surprisingly, means, “to give off an odor” and has its root in the Latin fragrare. 

Many critics urge that a flare be applied to every scrap of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s hen-scratchings, which, unfortunately, are not quite illegible enough to be ignored while they are still intact.

            A man hailed a taxi with flair,
            Said he had to get to the fair.
                        But the taxi broke down
                        On the way out of town,
            And the fare hailed a new cab with flare.
            That cabbie called his wife to declare
            “I’ll be late home, ‘cause I have a fare.”
                        When he got home, she shot him,
                        Then explained why she got him:
            “I thought he said ‘an affair’.”

            A tough guy who swaggered with flair
            Pinned a red rose in his hair.
                        Dressed in high heels and pearls
                        Just like one of the girls—
           Now his picture’s in Vanity Fair.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tilting with Wend Mills

Before the 15th century, you might “go” somewhere or you might just as easily “wend” there.  Both words mean to “move on a course, or to pass from one point to another.”  Nowadays, you hardly ever see “wend,” except in the phrase “wend your way.” 
Both words had German origins, “go” from gehen, which made its way into Middle English as gan, and “wend” from wenten (“turn or go”), which became wendan in Old English.   The past tense of “go” was gaed, and the past tense of “wend” was went.  Sometime in the 15th century, “go” became the dominant verb, and “wend” passed into disuse—except for its past tense, went, which survived as a very irregular past tense for “go”—and in the phrase “wend one’s way,” that is “clear a path through a passage that is twisted or strewn with obstacles.”
The verb wend should not be confused with the noun Wend, which refers to a person of Slavic descent in Germanic areas. It comes from Old English Winedas, derived from German (Wenden), Swedish (Vendere), Polish (Wendowie), and Old Norse (Vindr). The largest settlement of Wends in the United States came in the 1850s and mostly wound up in Lee County, Texas, in an unincorporated town known as Serbin.  Also known as Sorbians, the Wends are Lutherans who are now affiliated with the Missouri Synod.
Some people say the Wends are the same as the Vends, but others maintain that Vends were a Latvian tribe with a Finnic language who moved into Wendish territory in the twelfth century and became absorbed into the Wends.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been wending his way through life for many decades, not always completely successfully.

            And blended.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Call the Cops!

Everyone probably knows that a British policeman is known as a bobby because the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act that created the police force was introduced by Home Secretary Robert Peel.  For the same reasons cops in Britain and Ireland were sometimes called peelers.

But why are they called cops?  The word is a shortened form of copper, dating from around 1704, which derives from a northern British dialect word cop, meaning “seize or catch,” from the French caper (“take or seize”), ultimately from the Latin capere (“take”). 

As logical as this etymology is, some people prefer a more exotic version of the origin of copper. They say it refers to the helmets, uniform buttons, badges, or truncheons used by police and made of copper.  Yet another specious explanation stems from the color of early police cars in the western United States, and still another from the acronym “Constable On Patrol.” 

To which one can only say “Cheese it”—a thieves’ slang phrase of unknown origin, dating to 1812 or earlier, meaning “depart quickly.”  It is mostly heard when the police arrive in a 1940s crime movie and someone in the act of committing an offense says, “Cheese it—the cops!”

Cheesy (especially the stinky kind) is undoubtedly the word that best describes the sour curds produced by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou—to wit:  

            Next time you’re in a jam and need crime-stoppers,
            And you don’t want to simply call the coppers,
            Expand and sharpen your vocabulary,
            Learn all the names of the constabulary:
            When you’re required to nab a crook or mobster,
            Then call a Flatfoot, Smokey Bear, or Lobster,
            The Fuzz, the Pigs, the Brass, the Doughnut Squad,
            Or Johnny Law, Town Clown, or Mister Plod.
            And when a crime’s committed by a baddie,
            Hail a Muldoon, Blue Meanie, or a Paddy,
            A Mork, an Asphalt Cowboy, or a Swine,
            An Ossifer, the Man, the Thin Blue Line,
            The Mounties, Brownies, Barneys, Boys in Blue,
            A Muppet, Rozzer, Bizzie, Bull, Gumshoe,
            A Stick Man, String Top, Roach, Bluecoat, or Dick—
            One of these is sure to do the trick.
            If not, there’s Scuffers, Five-Os, Ducks and Geese—
            Or maybe you could simply yell, “Police!” 

Monday, January 6, 2014

But Sirioiusly…

 If you use an iPhone, you are probably familiar with the irritating, know-it-all, robotic voice known as Siri, who purports to be a fount of infinite knowledge about locations, retail establishments, lodgings, biographical facts, historical events, and, well, pretty much anything you want to ask.  The last time I asked Siri something, she replied, “I am not accepting any questions at this time.” I guess even robots get holidays.

It turns out that Siri is not a robot at all, but a voice actor named Susan Bennett, who lives in Atlanta. She recorded many hours of text that included all conceivable combinations of words and sounds, which are then “sampled” by the tiny computer inside an iPhone to produce the desired response. 

Siri is a Norwegian name, which means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory.” (And I always thought that was Nike.)  It is supposedly the name that Siri’s inventor also intended for his first child.

In Britain, iPhone users hear a male guide called Daniel, who is voiced by an actor named Jon Briggs.  In Australia, there is another female, named Karen, who speaks “Strine,” and is voiced by Karen Jacobsen, an Australian-born New Yorker who also sings, entertains, writes songs, gives inspirational speeches, and, for all I know, may juggle plates. She’s a busy gal, also providing voices for several GPS devices.

Why Daniel was chosen as the British name isn’t obvious. It’s Hebrew and means “God is my judge.” Karen is a Danish name, short for Katherine, which was originally Greek and means “pure”—but the chances are, the name was picked because it happened to be the name of the voice actor.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou prefers to get the scanty facts he requires from old volumes with cracked bindings and yellowing pages that line the shelves of his decaying bookcase. 

            I’m weary of Siri, that smart-ass young oracle,
            I wish that she would sail off in a coracle,
            Instead of pronouncing her words allegorical
            In a voice that is pompous and too oratorical.

            As for Daniel, his name is clearly historical
            But maybe it’s just a bit metaphorical.
            Whom should I choose?  The question’s rhetorical—
            I’m going with Karen—and that’s categorical.