Monday, July 28, 2014

Double or Nothing

Professor Irwin Corey, the World’s Foremost Authority, who turns 100 on July 29, is still making occasional nonsensical speeches in the well known double-talk that is his stock-in-trade as a comedian. Corey, who famously said, “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going,” uses a form of double-talk that relies on actual words used in an ambiguous manner to obfuscate sense.  One notable speech of his begins:

“However, we all know that protocol takes precedence over procedures. This Paul Lindsey point of order based on the state of inertia of developing a centrifugal force issued as a catalyst rather than as a catalytic agent, and hastens a change reaction and remains an indigenous brier to its inception. This is a focal point used as a tangent so the bile is excreted through the panaceas.”

There are many kinds of “double-talk,” which can be broadly defined as either (a) seemingly meaningful language that in fact mixes sense with nonsense, usually for comic effect, or (b) deliberately elaborate or ambiguous language used for purposes of deception.

The latter kind, also known as “double speak,” had its modern origin in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, when the government attempts to control thought by introducing ”Newspeak” and the concept of “Doublethink.”  In today’s political world, some examples of “double speak” are pre-emptive strike meaning “unprovoked attack,” enhanced interrogation meaning “torture,” extraordinary rendition meaning “abduction,” and collateral damage meaning “civilians killed in an attack on military targets.”

Among the great exponents of the humorous variety of double-talk was the comedian Sid Caesar, whose technique consisted of speaking rapidly in nonsense syllables that emulated the sounds of various foreign languages.

There’s a web site that generates nonsensical double-talk that peppers the text with false words that sound as though they might be real:

“Is the infrastructure too pervical for the modern day pig farmer, or do they affinate from the government, and when it opens is it moomis or are they frabbis like a local doggie bag?  Moreover, do you think the FBI furboglaft on the public or ovaloffer so much that it isn’t noticed?  Finally, does this place keep staniplad or are they farginomic with underkrep morning hours?

Another site provides a means of creating double-talk by adding the syllable “dag” in the middle of each actual syllable of every word. Thus the sentence “I would like a carbonated beverage becomes “Idagi wodagould lidagike adaga cadagar bodago nadaga tedaged bedage vedager adagage."

One computer-generated form of double-talk uses a data base of actual concepts recombined in a meaningless fashion:

“If one examines Lacanist obscurity, one is faced with a choice: either reject capitalist Marxism or conclude that the significance of the poet is social comment. However, if neodialectic cultural theory holds, we have to choose between subdialectic narrative and capitalist deappropriation. Marx suggests the use of the precultural paradigm of discourse to challenge class divisions.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an old hand at double-talk.  In fact, sometimes he lapses into triple-talk when he’s really waxing poetic.

            Professor Irwin Corey
            Had a moment of glory
            As the World’s Foremost Authority,
            When he tried to join a sorority.

            George Orwell
            Believed Nineteen Eighty-Four would score well,
            Even if Animal Farm 
            Lost its charm.

            Sid Caesar
            Was a funny old geezer
            Who could evoke a
            Lot of laughs with Imogene Coca.

If these clerihews strike you as being metrically ragged, ponder this observation by an anonymous wag:

            Edmund Clerihew Bentley
            Was evidently
            A man
            Who had a great deal of trouble getting his verses to 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nimrod, You Nitwit!

I was working a crossword puzzle (what else is new?) the other day, and saw the clue “stupid person.”  The solution was six letters, and I already had the first two as NI. Confidently, I filled in NITWIT.  Wrong. It turns out the answer being sought was NIMROD.

This definition of Nimrod is new to me.  As you will undoubtedly recall from your assiduous study of The Bible, Nimrod appears in the Book of Genesis as the son of Cush and grandson of Noah.  He is described as a “mighty hunter,” and the idiom “eager Nimrod” is sometimes used to mean an “especially avid aspirant”—something like the early bird who catches the worm.  Nimrod, incidentally, is sometimes credited with (or blamed for, depending on your viewpoint) building the Tower of Babel.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary nimrod, for unknown reasons, came to mean a “geek or klutz” in teenage slang sometime in the 1980s.  Other authorities put its use as a “stupid or dimwitted person” even earlier, as far back as the 1930s.

One possible source of this meaning is Looney Tunes movie cartoons, in which Bugs Bunny sometimes refers to his nerdy adversary Elmer Fudd, who is often seen in hunter’s garb carrying a shotgun, as a “nimrod.”  Fudd’s stupidity, which always allows the “wabbity wascal” to get the better of him, may account for nimrod’s usage to mean a dimwitted person. Nimrod is also sometimes used to refer to an inexperienced and clumsy hunter.

The term for “inexperienced and clumsy” versifier is The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who eagerly presents his wares hereinbelow.

            A dimwitted nimrod quite eager
            To play ball as a star major-leaguer
                        Couldn’t pitch, run, or hit,
                        Or catch a fly in his mitt,
            So he found that his chances were meager.

            He decided instead to try tennis,
            His backhand, he felt, was a menace,
                        But his use of the racquet
                        Kept him out of a bracket,
            And he shipped out to find work in Venice.

            He signed on as a new gondolier,
            But this job lasted less than year,
                        For he needed a trio
                        To sing “O Sole Mio,”
            Since it turned out he had a tin ear.
            Poor Nimrod was left with no hope,
            He had reached the end of his rope,
                        Since he can’t be a star,
                        He now props up a bar,
            Where he finds it’s no problem to tope. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hold the Haggis!

Haggis, that Scottish concoction of chopped sheep’s entrails, has been in the news lately.  The Scots, as you may know, are going to have a referendum on September 18 to determine whether they wish to secede from the United Kingdom and become an independent nation.

Making every effort to woo the loyalty of the Caledonians to keep them in the union, the London government is trying to persuade the United States to lift its ban on the importation of Scottish haggis containing sheep’s lungs. Exporting the stuff is apparently one of Scotland’s major cottage industries, and Scots contend that the allowable haggis, without the lungs, is only a pale imitation of their national dish.

Whether it is a good idea to import any kind of haggis, with or without lungs, is a highly debatable proposition.  Consider what it’s made of: sheep’s pluck, i.e. heart, liver, as well as lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and mutton stock, then encased in a sheep’s stomach (whether it’s the same sheep who provided the heart, liver, and lungs is not important), simmered for three hours, and slapped onto a plate, along with “neeps and tatties”—mashed rutabagas and potatoes.  The only remotely saving grace to this culinary monstrosity is that it is traditionally served with a hefty portion of Scotch whisky.

The word haggis dates from the early fifteenth century.  There are two theories as to its etymology: from the French agace or “magpie,” alluding to the bird’s habit of collecting odds and ends, or from the Old English haggen meaning to “chop,” which is also the root of hack.

Robert Burns idolized the dish in his “Address to a Haggis,” which begins:
            Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
            Great chieftain o’ the puddin'-race!
            Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
            Painch, tripe, or thairm:
            Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
            As lang's my arm.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a fan of only the final course of a haggis dinner, the one that comes in a shot glass. 
            One thing that always makes me gag is
            That Scottish dish that’s known as haggis,
            With some old sheep’s heart, lung, and liver,
            In suet pudding, all aquiver,
            Then stuffed into the old sheep’s belly,
            Where it reposes, ripe and smelly.

            Forget about the neeps and tatties,
            They’ll only turn us into fatties.
            If this all sounds a trifle risky—
            Then serve it with a triple whisky.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Cardinal Virtues

When a Roman Catholic cardinal is mentioned in print, sometimes he is referred to with the title “Cardinal” before the first name, as in Cardinal Irving Goldberg, and sometimes with the title between the first name and the surname, as in Irving Cardinal Goldberg.  Why this difference?

It goes back to the Middle Ages, when the title of “cardinal” was given to pastors of prominent churches, who also wielded considerable political power.  They were regarded as the equivalent of secular nobility.  In fact, in 1630 Pope Urban VIII decreed their rank was equal to that of a prince, making them second only to crowned monarchs.  Even today, in the Church of England, the Lords Spiritual, as bishops of the more important dioceses are known, continue the medieval tradition of being seated in the House of Lords.

It was customary for a secular peer to style himself with his given name, followed by the word “Lord”—as in Alfred, Lord Tennyson or George Gordon, Lord Byron.  The reason for this was that often the name of the peerage was completely unrelated to the actual name of the person who held it.  John Smith, for example, might inherit the title Lord Windermere, so in order to clarify his identity, he became known as John (or sometimes John Smith), Lord Windermere.

Since cardinals were regarded as the equivalent of peers, they adopted the same practice for the placement of their titles.

After the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the Catholic Church discontinued this usage as outmoded.  Today the Vatican website refers to cardinals with the title before the whole name, i.e. Cardinal Irving Goldberg.  Most newspaper stylebooks also follow this practice.

Some diehard traditionalists, however, including many cardinals themselves--no doubt wishing to show their pious respect for the office--cling to the old habit of inserting the title between the first and last names, so it still often appears that way.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou would like to insert his title between his first and last names, but he cannot remember either of them.

            A cardinal whose head was quite fat
            Couldn’t fit in his little red hat,
                        He tried a big miter,
                        But it was still tighter,
            So instead of his prayers, he said “Drat!”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Brits Have A Word for It

The posting of this blog has been erratic for the past couple of weeks.  The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been visiting some of the disreputable haunts of his dissolute youth in the British Isles, and it was necessary for me to accompany him, in order to ensure that he would quit the pubs quietly at closing time without causing unseemly disturbances, as is his wont.

While I was there, I took the occasion of visiting a few of my own friends, during the periods that the Bard was sleeping off his debaucheries of the previous evenings.  Several times I passed through Charing Cross Station, that busy hub in central London.  A friend related the popular version of the origin of the name “Charing Cross”—that “Charing” is a corruption of the French chère reine, or “dear queen,” a reference to King Edward I’s queen, Eleanor of Castile.

It’s a lovely story, but etymologists say it isn’t so.  They say that “Charing” derives from the Old English word cierring, which means a “bend in the river,” and describes that point on the Thames where the village of Charing had existed since the 12th century.

Queen Eleanor is responsible for the “Cross” portion of the name.  Edward erected a memorial cross to his Queen, who died in 1290, at each of twelve overnight stops of the procession carrying her body from Lincoln to Westminster. One of these “Eleanor Crosses” was erected near Charing; hence the name “Charing Cross.”  It was destroyed in 1647 and replaced by a statue of Charles I.

The Bard has recovered sufficiently from his sybaritic dissipation to scribble the following lines on the label of an empty bottle of Fuller's London Pride bitter beer.

            As I was going to Charing Cross,
            Quite near that pub—The Albatross—
            I met a man with seven wives,
            And they were going to St. Ives.
            Each wife could rest her feet on
            Seven bags by Louis Vuitton.
            Each bag held seven phones

            And seven chocolate ice-cream cones.
            Cones, phones, bags, and wives,
            How many were going to St. Ives?

            If you can’t tell, to save your lives,
            How many were going to St. Ives,
            The answer is none—for, willy-nilly,
            The train broke down at Piccadilly!