Monday, April 28, 2014

Cat In A Box

The New York Times recently had a clever puzzle in which the final answer could be either HEADS or TAILS, depending on how you solved the clues for the crossing words.  There were four clues that could have been answered either H or T, E or A, A or I, and D or L, to provide the alternate solutions.  For example, “Improves, in a way” could have been answered with either HONES or TONES, “Diner menu item” could be either MELT or MALT, and so on.
Conundrums of this sort are known as Schrödinger puzzles, named for the logical paradox known as Schrödinger’s Cat. A response to what is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, it was devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The paradox posits a cat in a sealed container that will die if poison is released by a decaying subatomic particle. As there is no way to know whether the particle has decayed without opening the box, and therefore whether the cat is dead or alive, logical theory (says Schrödinger) demands that we conclude the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.
Understood?  Well, not by me.
The most acclaimed Schrödinger puzzle was created by Jeremiah Farrell and ran in The New York Times on Election Day 1996.  Depending on whether you answered BAT or CAT to the clue “Black Halloween animal”) and similarly for six other possibilities, the answer came out either CLINTON or BOB DOLE.  I guess you know which answer proved correct.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no problem with grasping Schrödinger’s principle, since he has been simultaneously lucid and incoherent all his life.  See for yourself:
            Old Bob Dole
            Fell in a hole
            And landed on his tush,
            But his rescue crew
            Did not have a clue
            Whether to pull or to push.
            So he stayed in the gorge,
            And his saviors, by George,
            Wandered off under a Bush.

Monday, April 21, 2014

True Blue

Many states have what are known as “Blue Laws”—legislation forbidding certain activities on Sundays and holidays. The rationale, a holdover from Puritan colonists, is that everyone ought to be in church for most of Sunday—not shopping or, especially, not drinking alcoholic beverages. 

Though most of the strictures have been greatly relaxed over the years Blue Laws still exist to some degree almost everywhere.  But why is such a law “blue”? 

Theories abound.  Some say it’s because the first such laws in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1656, were printed on blue paper or bound in books with blue covers. There’s no reliable evidence, however, that this is true.

And, anyway, the term “blue law” is not seen until the eighteenth century, first in 1755 in the New-York Mercury, and then again in 1781, when the Rev. Samuel Peters wrote in The General History of Connecticut, “Blue laws, i.e. bloody laws, for they were all sanctified with whipping, cutting off the ears, burning the tongue, and death.”  From Peters’ comment, blue law is thus thought by some to be a corruption of blood law.

Other theories point to a contemptuous reference to strict moralists as “bluebloods” who imposed their prohibitions on the rest of the populace.  Another etymologist speculates that blue was used because it represents the notion of coldness.

Bluestocking was a term used to refer to Oliver Cromwell’s moralistic Puritan supporters in 1653.

Curiously, in the nineteenth century, blue acquired an almost opposite meaning—“lewd, profane, or obscene.’’ An 1824 Scottish encyclopedia refers to Thread o’Blue  as meaning “any little smutty touch in song-singing, chatting, or piece of writing.”  Thomas Carlyle refers to blueness as meaning “indecent or indelicate” in an 1840 essay.

This meaning is said to originate in the blue dresses that were issued to prostitutes in French houses of correction. To “go into the blue” meant to “go astray.” 

But another slang authority suggests the term comes from the Bibliothèque Bleue, a series of almanacs in blue covers published in France from the early seventeenth century and often containing popular literature with a lurid touch. Blue is also associated with devils and flames of hell—a blue flame indicates a devil is present (or, maybe, just natural gas).  From this concept we get the term blue blazes.

Blue has also been associated since the sixteenth century with sadness and despondency, as in feeling blue or having the blues, probably originating in the concept of a blue devil, as Satan was sometimes depicted in medieval art, which supposedly brought on unhappiness.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks blue is an overworked color. He feels that puce and taupe have never been given their due, and he would like to see a lot more of them in the future.

            After waiting some while in a queue
            To use an unoccupied loo,
                        I lacked the small pittance
                        Required for admittance,
            And that made me terribly blue.

            Oh, oh, how I needed to go!
            But I couldn’t come up with the dough,
                        I hopped on one leg
                        And started to beg,
            But the people around me said, “No.”

            To help me out of this pickle
            Some strangers advanced me a nickel,
                        I copiously thanked ‘em
                        And entered the sanctum,
            But by this time just managed a trickle.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Maundy Morning Quarterback

Later this week is Maundy Thursday, which is the Thursday before Easter, the day of the Last Supper, traditionally celebrated by Christians with the blessing of chrism oil, the ceremonial washing of feet, and the distribution to the poor of alms known as “Maundy money.”
Opinion differs about where the name Maundy comes from. Most linguists say it’s derived from Middle English and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another as I have loved you"), the statement by Jesus in the Gospel of John 13:34, in which he explained significance of washing his apostles’ feet. The phrase is used during the "Mandatum" ceremony at which a priest or bishop washes the feet of 12 persons chosen as a cross-section of the community. (You’ll recall Pope Francis kicked up a controversy last year when he included women and Muslims among his washees.)
But there is another theory: that Maundy arose from "maundsor baskets" or "maundy purses" of alms that the king of England distributed at Whitehall on that day. In this view "Maundy" is related to the Latin mendicare, and French mendier, “to beg.” 

In some countries there is a custom of eating various foods on Maundy Thursday, including sugared almonds, green salads, and pancakes, which, if taken together, make a rather odd meal.

In Scandinavian tradition the day is known as “Sheer (or clean) Thursday” (Skaer torsdag) from the custom of washing the feet.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou washes his feet (religiously) every month, whether they need it or not.

            Jesus and the twelve apostles
            Broke some bread and drank some wassails,
            Gathered in an upper room,
            Where one last supper they’d consume.
            When food was left from supper there,
            They wished they’d had some Tupperware.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Nine-Yard Dash

I have been reluctant to tackle the subject of the whole nine yards because there is such a welter of varying opinion about its origin that I hardly know where to begin—or to end.  One of my avidly curious readers, however, has raised the question, and in order to maintain my stellar reputation for customer satisfaction, it behooves me to attempt some disquisition of this enigmatic subject.           

The whole nine yards—meaning “everything, completely, to the maximum, the full extent”—is a surprisingly recent arrival on the idiomatic scene.  The earliest anyone claims to have seen it in print was July 1956, in Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, a magazine devoted to hunting and fishing in the Bluegrass State.  The magazine listed some fishing prizes to be awarded and concluded, “So that’s the whole nine-yards.”

A satisfactory explanation of the phrase has eluded the most dedicated word sleuths. Ben Zimmer, who writes about language for The New York Times, likens the search to the quest for the Holy Grail.

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, listed the most popular theories about its origin as the amount of cloth in a Scottish kilt, the capacity of a concrete truck, and the length of aircraft machine gun belts in World War II. The late New York Times pundit William Safire devoted nine different columns to the whole nine yards, before concluding firmly in favor of the cement mixer—as expressed in cubic yards.

Michael Quinion, who writes the blog World Wide Words, puts forward several other possibilities: the length of a standard bolt of cloth, the amount of fabric needed for a three-piece suit, the size of a nun’s habit, the length of a maharajah’s sash, the capacity of a West Virginia ore wagon, the volume of rubbish in a standard garbage truck, the length of a hangman’s noose, how far you would have to sprint from the cellblock to the outer wall in a jailbreak, the length of a shroud, the size of a soldier’s pack, a reference to a group of nine shipyards in the World War II, or a distance in football.

Earlier examples—the first in 1912—have been found of the phrase whole six yards, leading to the conclusion that none of the explanations is correct and that the number nine is merely arbitrary, not referring to anything in particular. Jesse Sheidlower, an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is of this opinion.  “The existence of a six-yard variant,” he says, “shows pretty clearly that it’s not about yards of anything”
Several terms similar in meaning are equally obscure in origin, namely whole hog (1828), whole shebang (1869), and whole ball of wax (1882).  If you’re really interested in this, see my earlier blog on shebang at:
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou insists that the phrase refers to nine yards of ale, the amount he regularly consumes on his visits to a nearby pub, before scrawling claptrap like the following on the men’s room wall:    
            A daring young Captain of Guards
            Was intent on advancing nine yards,
                        The first eight were fine,
                        But he hit a land mine
            At the ninth—please send sympathy cards.