Monday, March 31, 2014

What’s That Rumbling?

A recent 1920s song played on Radio Dismuke extolled the joys of romance in that part of some older cars that is known as a rumble seat.  The lyrics went:
            Get her in a rumble seat.
            Girlies never grumble,
            Even though they stumble,
            Getting in a rumble seat.
            She can't resist you in your little runabout.
            She's got to hug you tight for fear she'll bounce right out.
            You won't have to worry
            If you only hurry.
            Get her in a rumble seat!
For those too young to remember, a rumble seat is pull-out seat at the rear of some vehicles that typically is large enough only for two passengers (tightly squeezed in). Such a seat first appeared on the 1908 Packard, which appropriately became known as the “Honeymoon Car.” In the 1920s the rumble seat was a popular feature of the Ford Model A.
The origin of the word came from horse-drawn carriages, which had a small folding seat attached to the back end for footmen to ride on.  It became known by 1801 as a “rumbler,” later simply a “rumble,” and then a “rumble seat,” because of the noise heard and the motion felt directly over the wheels.

Rumble, meaning “to make a deep, heavy, continuous sound, or to move with a rolling, thundering sound,” is a late fourteenth-century word, originating in the imitative Middle Dutch rommelen, Middle High German rummeln, and ultimately in Old Norse rymja (“to shout or roar”).   

In the 1940s rumble came to be used as a word for street gang fights, from its subsidiary meaning of “create disorder and confusion.”

(Radio Dismuke, by the way, is an online streaming station that plays only original recordings of the marvelous music of the 1920s and 1930s.)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not like to ride in rumble seats, since all the  bouncing invariably spills his drink.

                        I hate to ride the rumble seat,
                        It won’t go very fast.
                        Each time my car goes down the street,
                        The rumble gets there last.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Speaking Easy

A recent Huffington Post article listed a dozen or so “secret bars” around the country, among them the Midnight Cowboy on Sixth Street in Austin (but not Houston’s venerable River Oaks make-out bar, Marfreless).  These pseudo-speakeasies are generally unmarked and often require passwords for entry. 

The Midnight Cowboy is housed behind a misleading sign left over from a former tenant that reads “Midnight Cowboy Modeling Oriental Massage.”  Among its house rules are:
            We do not allow smoking, guns, phone calls, laptops or rowdiness. While               
            our cocktails might loosen inhibitions and the building's past might encourage 
            licentiousness, we ask that you refrain from excessive displays of public affection 
            and unwelcome advances towards members of other parties. Reservations are for 
            two hours. Should your table or room be available past your two-hour window, you 
            are more than welcome to stay longer. If walk-in tables are available, the vacancy 
            sign above the entry will be illuminated. Please ring the buzzer marked "Harry 
            Craddock" for entry.

We tend to think of “speakeasies” as a product of the Prohibition era, but in fact they came much earlier.  According to a September, 1899 issue of the Cheney Sentinel, a newspaper in Washington state, “Unlicensed saloons in Pennsylvania are known as ‘speak-easies.’” 

The name originated because it was thought to be a good idea to talk quietly about such places in public, and also to keep your voice down when you were inside, so that neither nosy neighbors nor intrusive police would be the wiser. The term is reported to have originated with saloon owner Kate Hester, who ran an unlicensed bar in the late 1800s on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. When things got too rowdy in the bar, she’d try to quiet the customers by whispering, “Speak easy, boys, speak easy.”

A low-class cousin of the speakeasy is a "blind pig," or sometimes "blind tiger." This name originated when Prohibition-era bar owners would acquire a blind pig or other exotic animal and charge customers to see it, throwing in a cocktail “free of charge.” They couldn’t be arrested for selling booze, as they were only selling entertainment and offering liquor as gratuitous amenity.

Two alternate explanations for the term “blind pig” were (a) a reference to police who turned a blind eye to the illegal bar activities, and (b) a description of the liquor served in such establishments that was said to be so bad it would “blind a pig.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never patronized speakeasies, which are much too noisy for him. He prefers to sip in total silence, with only the gentle tinkle of ice cubes in the martini pitcher to assault his eardrums.

                        In a part of the town that’s quite sleazy
                        You’ll find a squalid speakeasy,
                        Whose liquor will move you to wrath, bub,
                        For the gin comes straight from a bathtub--
                        If you drink it, you’ll be mighty queasy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Risqué Business

On this festive St. Patrick’s Day let’s lift a glass of green beer and pay tribute to the Irish origins of the verse form that everybody loves (except those who hate it)—the limerick!  Of course, it has something to do with the Irish county of Limerick but no one seems to know exactly what.  The name of the county itself probably derives from the phrase Loch Luimnigh, which means the “lake beside a barren spot of land.”  It was a pre-Viking settlement as early as 561 A.D.
The verse came somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, probably had its origin in “convivial” pub parties at which it was customary for guests, at the height of their conviviality, to compose salacious verses, raucously sung and ending in the line “Will you come up to Limerick?”  The first documented use of the word limerick to describe the verse was in the 1898 book Illustrated Limericks.
Although not known as such until later, the verse form was favored in the eighteenth century by a group known as the Maigue Poets, clustered around the River Maigue in County Limerick.  Based on a medieval English pattern, it has five lines in a rhyme scheme of AABBA, with three metrical feet in the first, second, and fifth lines, and two in the third and fourth.  One of the first examples was by a pub owner named Sean O’Tuama, who wrote:
            I sell the best brandy and sherry,
            To make all my customers merry,
                        But at times their finances
                        Run short as it chances,
            And then I feel very sad, very.

Although the limerick historically tends to be bawdy, the best known popularizer of the form in the nineteenth century, Edward Lear, wrote squeaky clean ones that you could read in (most) Sunday school classes.  This is one of Lear’s best:

            There was an Old Man who supposed
            That the street door was partially closed,
                        But some very large rats
                        Ate his coat and his hats
            While that futile old gentleman dozed.

The racy nature of the earlier and later limerick was characterized by Morris Bishop:

            The limerick is furtive and mean;
            You mus keep her in close quarantine,
                         Or she sneaks to the slums
                         And promptly becomes
             Disorderly, drunk, and obscene.  

Or, as another, unknown wag put it:
            The limerick yields laughs anatomical,
            In a form that is quite economical,
                        And the good ones I’ve seen
                        Are so seldom clean,
            And the clean ones are so seldom comical.

Incidentally, this and much more limerick lore can be found in my book that used be known as Words Gone Wild, but has been recently reissued and is now widely available under the alias Puns, Puzzles, and Word Play.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou dabbles in limericks, which he cloaks in meretriciously pseudo-literary garb in a vain attempt to mask their vile disreputability:

            Did you hear about poor Julius Caesar?
            He just can’t admit he’s a geezer;
                        Making to love to Calpurnia,
                        He developed a hernia
            Attempting some tricks that might please her.

            A Shakespearean actor named Seth
            Liked to do it till quite out of breath.
                        He had fun with Ophelia,
                        And the same with Cordelia,
            But was stymied by Lady Macbeth.

            In 1 Henry IV is recorded
            What Prince Hal and a comely young whore did,
                        They began in Act One,
                        By Act Five they were done—
            What occurred in between was quite sordid.
Better stop the Bard here before his disgusting utterances turn completely unprintable.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Great Granma!

The Cuban government has a new upscale housing project it’s calling Project Granma.  No, it's not a retirement home for grandmothers, but rather fancy apartments for certain loyal government officials. So what’s Granma got to do with it?

Granma, a variant spelling of Grandma, was the yacht that was used to carry 82 Cuban Revolutionists from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to try to overthrow the Batista regime. A 60-foot cabin cruiser built to accommodate 12 people, it was named by the original American owner as a tribute to his grandmother. The yacht was bought from the Schuylkill Products Company by a Mexican gun dealer named Antonio “The Friend” del Conde, who was secretly acting for Fidel Castro.

Although the coup was not successful until a few years later, Granma has become an icon of the Cuban Revolution.  The official daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Central Committee is also called Granma.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou did not have a grandma or grandpa since he was found as an infant hidden in some bulrushes wrapped in an old copy of Variety.  He has been “on” ever since, but it is not clear on what.

            When I’d snorkel and I’d scuba
            In the waters down by Cuba,
            I'd drop in on a bar quite near Havana,
            Where I’d sip a Cuba Libre
            Like a very thirsty zebra,
            And sometimes munch an overripe banana.
            One day I met a young barista,
            Who urged me to go see Batista,
            But the people had decided to rebel,           
            And in el jefe’s chair was Castro,
            So from way back on the last row,
            I stood and shouted out, “Hola, Fidel!”

            “Viva Marx!” the rebels shouted,
            And since I felt those Marxists doubted
            Me, I tried to act just like a gaucho.
            “Viva Marx!” I answered proudly,
            Then I added, very loudly:
            “Three cheers for Harpo, Chico, and for Groucho!” 

Monday, March 3, 2014


It’s easy these days to find people doing things that deserve a Bronx cheer—or, if you prefer, a raspberry. This rude sound, used to show displeasure, is made by blowing through lips that are slightly parted with the tongue loosely placed between them. It can properly be directed toward the craven politicians, overpaid CEOs, grasping bankers, callous pharmaceutical manufacturers, hypocritical clergymen, duplicitous sports figures, or self-indulgent show-biz stars of your choice.  And maybe a few others, for good measure.

A “raspberry” gets its name from the Cockney rhyming slang term “raspberry tart”—a polite way of saying “fart,” a physical occurrence whose sound resembles the rude noise made with the lips.  The term has been in use since 1890.  “Raspberry tart” becomes simply “raspberry” through the Cockney custom of using only the first part of a two-part rhyme to stand for the thing that is signified:  thus, plates of meat, shortened to “plates,” means feet; loaf of bread, or “loaf,” means “head”, and trouble and strife, or “trouble,” means “wife.”

The same noise has been called a “Bronx cheer” since 1929 and probably had its origin in the noises made by New York Yankees fans to show their displeasure at an unfavorable umpire’s ruling or a boneheaded play by one of the teams. Yankee Stadium is located in the Bronx. 

Raspberry, meaning the fruit, also has an interesting etymology.  Known since 1540 as a raspis berry, it is probably derived from its similarity in color to raspise, a sweet, rose-colored wine also known as vinum raspeys. It was made from pomace, a paste made by grinding grapes, and the file used to grind them was called a raspa. Others say the roughness of the fruit’s exterior gave it its name from its similarity to the rasp itself.

Older and therefore more well-informed readers may remember a character in the comic strip “Li’l Abner” named Joe Btfsplk.  Always pictured with a black cloud over his head, he was the epitome of hard luck. His creator, Al Capp, said his surname was pronounced just like the raspberry sound.

Raspberries have never been the favorite fruit of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  He has always been more partial to the grape in its liquid form.

            Never have I met a crude gent
            Cruder than the lewd Ted Nugent,
            And if his presence is a habit
            For the GOP’s Greg Abbott,
            Then it would appear that Greg
            Thinks he can pull the voters’ leg.