Monday, May 26, 2014


On Memorial Day many people choose to chillax—a portmanteau word formed from chill and relax.  Chillax is actually a bit redundant, since chill, or sometimes chill out, first used in the 1970s, by itself means to “calm down, relax, take it easy.”

The earliest citation of chill in that sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 1979, in a hip-hop song called “Rapper’s Delight,” recorded by the Sugarhill Gang. A whole gang of what must be writers is credited with those lyrics—including Sylvia Robinson, Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, Master Gee, Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers, and Alan Hawkshaw, so it’s impossible to know who actually came up with the line “A time to break and a time to chill, To act civilized or act real ill.”

In 1983 Time Magazine ran a piece that observed, “It’d be nice to just chill out all the time and hunt and fish.”

By 1985, chill also meant to “hang out,” that is, to “spend time in idleness or non-specific activity, especially with other members of a group.”

A versatile word through the ages, chill derives from Old English ciele, which means “cold or coolness.”  In the 16th century to chill meant to “lower the spirits or to make sad,” and by the 18th century, it was used to mean almost the opposite, to “quiver with excitement, to thrill.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an old hand at chilling, especially when bottles and ice-chests are involved. 

                        A hopped-up but happy hip-hopper
                        Took a sight-seeing ride on a chopper,
                                    But while he was rapping,
                                    The pilot was napping,
                        Which the hip-hopper thought was improper.
                        So the hip-hopper summoned a copper,
                        Who proved to be not a crime-stopper:           
                                    The cop thought it amusing
                                    That the pilot was snoozing,
                        And the chopper soon came a cropper.           
                        Now you may think this tale is a whopper,
                        But I heard from a trusted eavesdropper
                                    That the pilot, the copper,
                                    And the hapless hip-hopper
                        All met the fate of Big Bopper.                       

Monday, May 19, 2014

What’ll You Have?

One of the customers was speculating the other day about the origin of the word cocktail.  It’s a subject I have not previously dealt with because cocktail is one of those words whose etymology ought to be very straightforward, but, in fact, is cloaked in such an enigmatic miasma of wispy supposition that tracking it down becomes frustrating.

The first recorded use of the word (actually two words) to mean a beverage was in the May 6, 1806 edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a newspaper in Hudson, NY. A reader was so puzzled by this usage, that he asked for an explanation, and the editor (whose reply betrays his Federalist political preference) obliged the following week: “As I make it a point, never to publish anything but which I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters; it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”

Originally, most pundits agree, the word was an adjective describing a “creature with a tail resembling that of a cock, or rooster,” specifically a horse with a “docked” tail—one from which the hair has been trimmed down to the fleshy part of the tail.  This was a customary treatment for hunting and coach horses. A non-thoroughbred racehorse, descended from such cock-tailed horses, became known disparagingly as a cocktail.  Later, a person trying to pass as a gentleman, but lacking proper breeding, was called a cocktail. Such an adulteration of pedigree, some linguists suggest, was analogous to the adulteration of liquors in the drink that took on the name cocktail sometime around the turn of the nineteenth-century.

This is a pretty circuitous chain of reasoning, and the acerbic H. L. Mencken, who was known to lift a few cocktails in his prime, was not convinced by such far-fetched explanations. In The American Language Mencken wrote, “The etymology of the cocktail has long engaged the learned, but without persuasive result.” 

He went on to cite William Henry Nugent in an article about cock fighting that surmised that cocktail derived from a mixture of stale bread, beer, wine, and spirits, as well as herbs and seeds, that was prepared by nineteenth-century Irish and English gamecock trainers to condition the birds for fighting.  The trainers began to sample this concoction (before adding the stale bread) and found it to their liking. They called it cock-bread ale, or cock ale, and in the spelling of the time, it became cock ail, and somehow a t was added. 

Another theory suggested by Mencken came from a 1926 article by Marcel Boulenger arguing that cocktail was derived from coquetel, the name of a drink known for centuries in the vicinity of Bordeaux. No explanation is given for the etymology of coquetel.

Yet another version of the word’s origin traces it back to coquetier, which is French for “egg-cup.” Supposedly around 1795 Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary (who invented Peychaud bitters), mixed toddies with his bitters and brandy and served them to fellow Masons in an egg cup—and the drink took on the name coquetier, or cocktay and later cocktail in English.

Some other ideas that have been put forth are:

 • Bartenders would drain the dregs of all the barrels and mix them together to serve at a reduced price.  A spigot was called a “cock” and the dregs were “tailings,” so this drink was known as “cock-tailings” or later simply cocktail.

• These leftovers were served from a ceramic vessel shaped like a rooster, with a tap in the tail.

• Doctors treated throat problems with a pleasant-tasting medicine applied to the tip of a feather from a cock's tail.

• The word refers to the fact that a potent drink will "cock your tail," i.e., get your spirits up.

• The word derives from a sixteenth-century drink known as “cock-ale,” whose ingredients included a ground-up boiled rooster.

• There was an Aztec princess named Xochitl (anglicized as Coctel) who was fond of fermented beverages to which she gave her name.

Such confusion is enough to drive you to drink straight gin, as the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to do. The incoherence caused by such overindulgence persists in his surviving works, like the following:      
              A florist walked into a bar,
            And said, “I’ll have two Buds.”
            A laundress right behind him asked,
            “Could I just have some suds?”

            “On second thought,” the laundress said,
            “Make that a cup of Cheer.”
            And then an undertaker croaked,
            “I think I’ll have a bier.”           

            An optician walked into the bar
            And said, “I’d like two glasses.”
            A fisherman declared, “I want
            Some ale—make that two Basses.”

            A milkman walked into the bar,
            And said, “I’ll take a quart.”
            A sailor right behind him piped,
            “Just let me drown in port.”

            A cotton-farmer in the bar
            Remarked, “I need a gin.”
            A census-taker then appeared
            And asked for Mickey Finn.

            A contortionist squeezed in
            And called out, “Bottom’s up!”
            Omar Khayyam came in then
            And wrote, “Come fill the cup.”

            A gunman walked into the bar
            And said, “I’ll take a shot.”
            A realtor scanned the drink list and
            Declared, “Give me the lot.”

Monday, May 12, 2014

While You’re Up, Mix Me A Metaphor

The attempt to write vividly carries many inherent verbal pitfalls, one of which is the mixed metaphor. That is an expression in which two or more figurative idioms are used together without considering how their juxtaposition may suggest improbable images.  A classic example, from a 1790 speech in the Irish Parliament:
            Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat.  I see him floating in the air.
     But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud. 

A scientist once described a new subject of research as “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities.”

The New Yorker magazine has an occasional filler item called “Block That Metaphor!”, from which came this example:
            So now what we are dealing with is the rubber 
     meeting the road, and, instead of biting the bullet on 
     these issues, we just want to punt.

The estimable columnist Frank Rich once wrote in The New York Times:
            Top Bush hands are starting to get sweaty about 
     where they left their fingerprints. Scapegoating the rotten 
     apples at the bottom of the military's barrel may not be a 
     slam-dunk escape route from accountability anymore.

Another metaphorical stew quoted in The New York Times:
            As I look at it with a broad brush, there are a lot of 
     things going south at the same time. There’s no silver 
     bullet out there.

The Tulsa World attempted to get cute in a rhyming headline:
            STEP UP TO THE PLATE
            AND FISH OR CUT BAIT

The champion metaphor-mixer, in my view, is Curtis Sliwa, the anti-crime activist who founded the Guardian Angels.  He was quoted as saying rather graphically:
            I’ve spent a lot of time in the subways. It’s a dark and 
     dank experience….The moment that you walk into the 
     bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you 
     immediately cringe.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes to mix metaphors almost as much as he likes to mix gin and vermouth.  But not quite.

            Your horse is of another color,
            And your pig is in a poke.
            Than dishwater you could not be duller,
            And where there’s fire, there’s smoke.

            You let the cat out of the bag,
            And also spilled the beans.
            And now you want to chew the rag--
            Tell that to the Marines.

            You’ve got your knickers in a twist,
            And you waved the bloody shirt,
            For someone’s mill you’ll just be grist,
            Yes, grist that’s old as dirt.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Much Brouhaha About Nothing

A recent news story observed, “The Republican brouhaha over how to go about repealing Obamacare is never-ending.”  Setting aside the foolishness of wanting to get rid of this country’s first halting step toward civilized medical care, let’s first consider the word brouhaha, meaning “noise, uproar, hubbub, confusion.”

First seen in English around 1890, it apparently was not yet respectable enough to be admitted to either the 1928 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary or the 1934 Webster’s New International.

Etymologists are a little wishy-washy about where brouhaha originated.  It was supposedly a phrase used in medieval French drama as a cry of the devil when disguised as a clergyman. (Nowadays such a cry is more along the lines of “Send a contribution today.”) It is speculated that brouhaha may be a corruption of the Hebrew barukh habba’, which means “blessed be the one who comes.”  Or it could be a modification of the stereotypical evil laugh bwahaha, an indispensable attribute of villains in amateur theatrical productions.

One nice thing about pronouncing the word: according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (to which brouhaha has now gained admission), you can put the accent on any syllable you like—BROO-ha-ha, broo-HA-ha, or broo-ha-HA, or even give equal stress to them all.

About that brouhaha over Obamacare: the Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks that anyone who wants to repeal it suffers from a pre-existing condition of mental illness (which, of course, is covered by insurance under the Affordable Care Act). 

            It shouldn’t take a Thomas Edison
            To invent a means to access medicine.           

            Fifty million uninsured
            Means fifty million won’t be cured.

            I hope a medal is awardable
            To those who keep health care affordable.

            For better health and trauma care,
            Bring on the Obamacare.

            If Obamacare makes you a fretter,
            Then you come up with something better.