Monday, November 24, 2014

Food for Thought

Last week’s blog dealt with the origin of the word turkey, and this week the other foods that grace our Thanksgiving table have their turn.

Cranberry is a 17th-century word, adapted into American English from Low German kraanbere, which derived from the German word for “crane,” presumably because the stamens of the cranberry plant resemble the beaks of cranes. The German kraanbere was similar to the larger North American variety, also known as fenberries or mashwort. In New England cranberries were sometimes called bear-berries because bears devoured them greedily.

If you have sweet potato as a side dish, you’re really eating a redundancy, since the word potato really means “sweet potato” all by itself. It originated in the 1560s, derived from the Spanish patata, which was a corrupution of the Haitian Carib word batata, which is a sweet potato.  In the 1590s the name potato was extended to the white potato from Peru, which was regarded as a cheap and inferior substitute for the sweet variety.  The white potato was introduced to Ireland in 1565 and became indelibly linked with that country.

Similar to the sweet potato is the yam, which in the 1580s was known by the Spanish as an igname, from a West African language.  In African Fulani nyami means “to eat.”  By 1690 the word was shortened to yam in American and Jamaican English.

Finally, the pumpkin you may find in your pie is an alteration of pumpion, a word known in English in the 1540s, from the Middle French pompon and ultimately from Latin peponem and Greek pepon, or “melon.” The colloquial punkin is found by 1806.

Oh, one more thing: is that side dish made with bread, onions, celery, and sometimes rice, oysters, or chestnuts, properly called “dressing” or “stuffing”?  Logic would indicate that if it’s cooked inside the bird it’s “stuffing,” but if it’s cooked separately, it’s “dressing.” In fact, it’s a geographical distinction. In the South, where the dish is almost always made with cornbread, it’s always called “dressing,” whether inside or outside the bird. In the North and West, where it’s usually made with white bread, it’s called “stuffing.”

Now that you know where the names of your food come from, you can settle down and enjoy the feast. The Bard of Buffalo Bayou will be doing that as well, as soon as he finishes sampling his own concoctions--cranberry wine and sweet potato vodka.

            Thanksgiving is that special day
            We designate to say we’re grateful
            For morsels over which we’ll pray
            As soon as we have got our plate full.                       

            We’re thankful for our kin and kith,
            We’re also glad to have our health, 
            We’re grateful for the folks we’re with,
            And (if we’ve got it) for our wealth.

            We’re thankful for the U. S.A.,
            And for our Army and our Navy,
            But mostly thankful on this day
            For dressing laced with giblet gravy.            

Monday, November 17, 2014

Talking Turkey

For Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I explained the etymology of that fine old bird, the turkey.  Without going into the same detail, suffice it to say that the word derives from the country of Turkey, through which 16th-century English traders imported guinea fowl from Madagascar.  The birds became known as “Turkey-birds,” and this same appellation was mistakenly given to the larger North American fowl to which they bore some resemblance.

The wild turkey, the North American form of the bird, was so called from 1610s. By 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas.

Other uses of the word turkey came much later. To talk turkey—“lay it on the level, speak candidly” (1824)—supposedly comes from an old tale of an Anglo pioneer attempting to swindle an American Indian in dividing up a turkey and a buzzard as food. The pioneer offered to let the Indian choose which he wanted: ''You take the buzzard and I'll take the turkey, or I'll take the turkey and you take the buzzard,'' whereupon the Indian declared that the Anglo was not “talking turkey to him.”

Cold turkey (1921) as a sudden method of totally giving up addictive substances, so-called because, like a meal of previously cooked and refrigerated turkey leftovers, it requires no preparation.

Turkey’s show-biz meaning—“inferior show, flop”—can be traced to 1927 and probably arose from the bird’s alleged stupidity.  Irving Berlin’s show business anthem speaks of a “turkey that you know will fold.”  Out of this grew the word’s use as a “stupid, ineffectual person,” which” dates only to 1951.

Turkey shoot, referring to "something easy," is World War II slang, alluding to marksmanship contests where turkeys were tied behind a log with their heads showing as targets. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou occasionally partakes in Wild Turkey, but only if it comes in a bottle.

            The Turkey once was King of Beasts,
            And showed all critters who was boss.
            But he became the King of Feasts,
            With dressing, yams, and cranberry sauce.

            He had an heir whose name was Tom,
            By whom the royal robes were taken,
            But Tom, his siblings, and his Mom
            Are now a slab of turkey bacon.

            The line of kings had one more Turkey,
            And shortly he was royally crowned.
            But he wound up as Turkey Jerky
            At nineteen ninety-five a pound.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Red State Blues Redux

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, many folks in red states are feeling mighty blue. Well, that can’t be helped, so it’s time to move on to the next bout in the ballot box, which will be in just 23 months and 51 weeks.  Better get busy!

The fact that red is associated with Republicans and blue with Democrats may seem counter-intuitive.  Red, which derives from the Sanskrit rudhirá (“blood”), has historically been associated with left-wing political causes. On the other hand, blue, which originated in proto-Indo-Euroean bhel, meaning “light-colored, yellow, or burnt,” and later Old Norse bla (“livid, discolored as in a bruise”), is traditionally the color of conservatism.

Red and blue took on their current political associations in the presidential election of 2000, thanks to network TV, as I pointed out in a similar blog two years ago.

Colors were first used on electronic election maps in 1976, when NBC depicted Gerald Ford in blue and Jimmy Carter in red. In 1984, NBC showed Ronald Reagan’s landslide of 44 states as a “sea of blue.”  CBS used the opposite colors—red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. At ABC blue and yellow were the choices.

During this period the three major networks informally agreed on a uniform red-blue scheme that would alternate every four years, being assigned according to who were the incumbents (blue) and who were the challengers (red).

By 2000 all the broadcast and cable networks used this system, and it was the incumbent Democrats’ turn to be blue.  Because of the prolonged controversy over the election outcome, coverage dragged on for weeks, and commentators began to refer to a state as “red” or “blue,” according to which party had carried it.  From that time on, the red-state/blue-state dichotomy became ingrained in American political dialogue.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is also ingrained—or, rather, he’s into grains, mostly the distilled neutral kind.  Today, like most days, he has the blues.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            Surrounded by a crowd with wing-nut views,
            First Rick Perry, now Greg Abbott,
            Like some hard-to-kick bad habit,
            They try to be more right-wing than Ted Cruz.

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            I’m in a land where folks believe Fox News,
            And for Tea Party theatrics,           
            You cannot top Dan Patrick’s,                    
            And now another Bush for us to choose.
            When I’m resting in my arbor, oh
            How I dream of old Ralph Yarborough,
            I’d bring back Barbara Jordan, if I could.
            Mickey Leland, Henry B. Gonzalez,
            Ann Richards, too—oh, they were hot tamales—
            And right now even Lyndon’s looking good!

            Oh, Lord, I got those Lone Star, Red State Blues,
            A feeling that goes right down to my shoes,
            There’s just one chance in a billion
            Texas won’t remain vermilion,
            Oh, Lordy, yes, I got those ever-lastin’, Lone Star, 
                     Red State Blues.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Called to the Bar

Bar is a versatile word. Its definitions—as a noun—in the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition) take up more than six columns.  Some of the meanings are:  a piece longer than it is wide, of wood, metal, stone, soap, chocolate, etc.; a heraldic device of two lines drawn horizontally across a shield; the transverse ridged divisions of a horse’s palate; that which confines, limits, or closes; a vertical line across a stave to divide a musical composition; a game also known as prisoner’s base; a legal plea of sufficient force to stop an action or order; an obstacle, a barrier; a court of law; the whole body of barristers (lawyers); a barrier separating the seats of spectators from the official portion of a court or other assembly, to which students were called when they had attained sufficient learning, hence the word barrister; a large European fish also known as a maigre; a barrier or counter over which food or drink is served, and hence, sometimes the whole establishment; a standard (as in raising the bar); a handrail used by ballet dancers for support while exercising (although balletomanes prefer the Frenchified spelling barre). 

Its earliest meaning was apparently a “stake or iron rod used to fasten a door or gate.” The OED’s first instance was in 1175, when The Lambeth Homilies mention “the barren of helle.” Wyclif’s 1388 Bible uses the word in its rendition of Numbers Chapter 4 verse 10—“Thei schulen putte in barris,” which the King James Version has as They shall put it…upon a bar.”

By the 1580s bar meant a bank of sand in a harbor or river mouth (which is what Tennyson referred to in “Crossing the Bar”), and by 1833 soap came in bars. Not until 1906 did chocolate make it is appearance in that form. “Bar graphs” appeared 1925, “behind bars” meaning to be in prison in 1934 (although by 1642 Richard Lovelace told us that “stone walls do not a prison make/nor iron bars a cage”); and “bar code” in 1963.

As a verb,  bar has several more columns in the OED.

The word first popped up in Middle English barre, adopted from Old French barre, a phonetic descendant of late Latin barra—which is, as you might have guessed, of unknown origin. Friedrich Diez, a 19th-century German etymologist, thought it came from Old Irish barr, meaning “bushy top”—but that theory has been dismissed by most linguists, who point out that it has no relationship to any of the meanings of the word.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows of only kind of bar, out of which he has been tossed on numerous occasions for conduct unbecoming a poet. 

            “D. Boon kilt a bar”
            Was carved upon a tree,
            Not very circumspectly.
            Just five words there are,
            And if you look, you’ll see
            Only one is spelled correctly.