Monday, December 28, 2015

How's That Again?

If you ever wonder why foreign relations are fraught with misunderstandings of the other guy’s meanings and motives, you need look no further than an online translation site. These sites, devised by experienced linguists, interpreters, and computer experts (one supposes), offer what people probably believe are accurate translations from one language to another.

While one hopes that the world’s diplomats do not rely upon these online services, such as Google Translate, Babelfish, and Worldlingo, many of them are hearing their fellow diplomats’ ideas filtered through the perhaps even less reliable interpreters who bring their own inadequacies and prejudices to on-the-spot instantaneous translation of complex world issues.  It’s no wonder that a few nuances may be lost in translation.
To test the efficacy of the online translators, I tried a little experiment with a couple of simple English children’s verses. To reflect the major languages spoken in the world, I translated each of them successively from English into Russian, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, and then back into English. Here are the results. I started one experiment with:

          Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
          How I wonder what you are,
          Up above the world so high,
          Like a diamond in the sky.

And ended up with:

        I turned,
            And I do not know how to do some of the stars,
            And a flash from the top of the world,
            Like diamonds.

For a second attempt, I started with: 
        Mary had a little lamb, 
        Its fleece was white as snow,
        And everywhere that Mary 
        The lamb was sure to go.
The resulting translation, after going through eight other languages and then back into English was:

            Mary, Mary, was wherever he may be,
            Please go ahead,
            Lamb and wool in the snow,
            And pregnancy.

To test how the online translator would do with an actual current political statement, I chose one that has made the news rather recently, by one of the more bellicose presidential candidates, who said of ISIS: “I would carpet-bomb them into oblivion.”  That statement went through the translation process and emerged simply as:

“I had forgotten the bombing.”

Some other examples of translation fiascos can be found in my book, Puns, Puzzles and Word Play, including a surreal rendition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

 Maybe the best diplomacy is just to keep your mouth shut.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never learned to keep his mouth shut and is resigned to the fact that he will never be Secretary of State.
             Mary had a little lamb,
            Potatoes, and mint jelly,
            Pickles, slaw, and deviled ham
            She brought home from the deli.
            A tummy-ache made Mary weep.
            She cried, “How sick I am!”
            Then, like Bo-Peep, who lost her sheep,
            Mary lost her lamb.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Merry Little Christmas, Revisited

In this week before Christmas, here is a reposting of a blog that most recently ran three years ago, but I was asked about it the other day, so I think it’s worth recycling once more.  You may have missed it when it appeared before, and even if you read it, you have problably forgotten it. (Yes, you have.)

A favorite song this time of year is Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” with its heart-warming lyrics that cheered up adorable little Margaret O’Brien when Judy Garland sang them in 1944 in Meet Me in St. Louis

The original lyrics, however, were not at all heart-warming. In fact, Garland found them downright depressing. “If I sing that lyric to little Margaret O’Brien,” she said, “the audience will think I’m a monster.” See for yourself:
               Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
             It may be your last,
             Next year we may all be living in the past.
            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Pop that champagne cork,
            Next year we will all be living in New York.

            No good times like the olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore,
            Faithful friends who were dear to us
            Will be near to us no more.

            But at least we all will be together,
            If the Lord allows,
            From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow,
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Though credited to Blane and Martin, the song was completely written by Martin, and he resisted changing anything. Tom Drake, the actor who played Judy’s romantic interest in the movie and a friend of Martin’s, told him: “You stupid son of a bitch! You’re gonna foul up your life if you don’t write a new verse!” So Martin finally agreed to make the song more upbeat. His new lyric was:

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Let your heart be light,
            From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Make the Yuletide gay,
            From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

            Here we are as in olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore.
            Faithful friends who are dear to us           
            Gather near to us once more.

            Through the years we all will be together,
            If the Fates allow,
            Until then we’ll have to muddle through   
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.  

You’ll note that the “Lord” is changed to the “fates.” Apparently, Hollywood felt you shouldn't be too religious about Christmas!

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" for his album "A Jolly Christmas." Martin's new line—"Hang a shining star upon the highest bough"—is now more widely known than the original.

Yet another lyrical change was in store.  In 2001, Martin, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, wrote a religious version of the song:

            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Christ the King is born,
            Let your voices ring upon this happy morn.  
            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Serenade the Earth,
            Tell the world we celebrate the Savior's birth. 

            Let us gather to sing to Him
            And to bring to Him our praise, 
            Son of God and a Friend of all, 
            To the end of all our days. 

            Sing hosannas, hymns, and hallelujahs, 
            As to Him we bow, 
            Make the music mighty as the heav'ns allow, 
           And have yourself a blessed little Christmas now.
So take your choice—depressing, uplifting, or religious—but since Martin died a few years ago, at the age of 96, there probably won’t be any more versions.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is not yet 96 but after years of dissipation looks about 105, is now specializing in non-sequitur verses, which have nothing to do with the blog to which they are appended. He says it’s a new art form:

       In a fierce game of bridge, I try to play smart,
       And I slam down my tricks with a thump.
       With a club or a diamond, a spade or a heart,
       But the tricks that are best are no-Trump.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Conversion Table

This conversion table was recently passed on to me by a scientific friend. Some of the equivalencies may be worth noting for future needs:

Ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter = Eskimo pi

2,000 pounds of Chinese soup = won ton

Time between slipping on a peel and hitting the pavement = 1     bananosecond

Weight of an evangelist = 1 billigram

Half a large intestine = 1 semicolon

Shortest distance between two jokes = a straight line

2,000 mockingbirds = two kilomockingbirds

1,000 ccs of wet socks = 1 literhosen

2 physicians = 1 paradox
2.4 statute miles of surgical tubing at Harvard Medical School = 1 IV league
1 millionth of a truite meunière in a bistro = 1 microfiche
6 witches’ spells removed = 1 hexagon

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows about spells: when he saw a Mickey Mouse cartoon, he had a Disney spell.

            There were three witches in Macbeth,
            Their cauldron filled with doom and death,
                 The first said “Bubble, bubble,”
                 The second, “Toil and trouble,”
            The third said, ”Whew! I’m out of breath.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


On a recent journey to that City of Bright Lights and Shattered Dreams (I mean, of course, New York), I noted that Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport offers free Wi-Fi, as did the hotel at which I stayed. This is a great service to travelers who wish to connect their laptops, smartphones, tablets, digital audio players, and the like to the Internet.

I know that the “Wi” of “Wi-Fi” is a shortened form of “Wireless,” but I wondered about the “Fi.”  Let’s see now, “Hi-Fi” means “High Fidelity,” “Sci-Fi” means “Science Fiction,” and the U. S. Marine motto sometimes shortened to “Semper Fi” is “Semper Fidelis.” So “Wi-Fi” obviously means “Wireless….uh….Wireless….what?”

It turns out the “Fi” doesn’t really mean anything.  It’s just a catchy term, analogous to “Hi-Fi,” coined in 1999 by the Interbrand Corporation and trademarked by The Wi-Fi Alliance. It is a little easier to remember than Wi-Fi’s official name: “The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 Direct Sequence Standards.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a devotee of Whi-Fi—which in his case stands for Whisky Fifths.

            A very shy fly endeavored to try
            To fly as high as the pie in the sky.
            But close to the sun, he began to fry.                       
            He’s buzzing now in the sweet by-and-by.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Everything’s Cricket

The All-Star Cricket series recently played matches in three American cities, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, to promote the sport that is the second most popular in the world (after soccer). Cricket has long been associated with Great Britain and its colonies and now is dominated by teams from the Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Caribbean nations.

A wee bit similar to baseball, it involves a ball, a bat, and eleven players. The play consists of throwing the ball (“bowling”) so that the batsman has a chance of hitting it and running to score runs. That’s pretty much where the similarity ends.

The earliest known reference to the sport is in 1598, when it was known as “creckett” or “krekett,” although the game is thought to have been played as early as the 13th century. It was a popular game at the Royal Grammar School in 1550.

The origin of the word is highly speculative.  Some say it is from Anglo-Saxon cricc, meaning “crutch or staff.” Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century dictionary pegged it to the Anglo-Saxon cryce, meaning a “stick.” Criquet in Old French meant a “club” or a “goal post.”

The name may also have derived from the Dutch krick, which also means a “stick” and is cognate with the modern word crook. Another possible Dutch source, though this seems to be a stretch, is the Dutch krickstoel, meaning a long low stool used as a kneeler in church and thought to resemble the wickets (or stumps) used as markers in cricket. Yet another Dutch antecedent may be krick ket sen, a name for the game of hockey, referring to the hockey stick, which resembles the bat used in early forms of cricket.

In the sense of “fair play,” as in the phrase, “That isn’t cricket,” the first such used dates from the 1850s. 

Cricket, in referring to the sport, has no connection to the same word when used to mean an insect. That is a 14th-century word derived from the French criquer, to “crackle, creak, or rattle,” alluding to the noise made by a cricket.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always longed to play cricket, since he understands that free beer is often offered to the players following a game. 

            They hurled the cricket
            Ball at Crockett.           
            Then he’d kick it,
            And he’d knock it.
            But he hit a
            Sticky wicket
            When they told him           
            Where to stick it.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Oh, Men! Oh, Women!

Some feminists have objected to the words woman and women because they contain the words man and men and seem to define persons of the feminine gender only as a sub-category of the masculine. They have proposed womyn and wimmin as alternatives.

In fact, the word man referred to a person of either sex until sometime around the 8th century. Before then, a male person was known as a wer (a word now lost, except in a word like werewolf or as the origin of world), and a female person was a wif or wyf (a word that developed into wife with a specialized meaning). The term wifman was used to designate a female servant.

Sometime before the 12th century wifman and werman came into use to distinguish female and male persons. Wifman then morphed into woman, and werman lost its first syllable.

Thus woman developed independently of any reference to the male gender.

Incidentally male and female have no etymological connection. Female, a 14th-century word, derives from the Old French femelle, which is based on the Latin femella (“girl”), a diminutive of femina (“woman”). Male, also 14th century, comes from Old French masle, which originated in the Latin masculus (“male”). Femelle was changed to female because of the supposed association with male, but the words are not truly related in any way.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes that men are men and women are women and never the twain shall meet.  Someday he hopes to work that line into a poem. Until then, you’ll have to settle for this tripe: 

            There was a young woman
            Who married a Roman
            Who lived in a house near the Forum.
            She was a slattern
            Whose life formed a pattern
            Quite lacking in proper decorum. 

            Her husband (named Junius)
            Was so impecunious
            She felt she must earn a denarius,
            So she joined a bordello,
            Where every last fellow
            Found her talents were many and various. 

            Now Junius was sly
            And he turned a blind eye
            To his wife’s dissolute occupation,
            And he went on a spree
            To the Isle of Capri,
            For a fabulous five-star vacation.

Monday, November 16, 2015

East is East, Unless It’s Levant

No one seems able to decide whether to refer to the notorious Islamic terrorist group as ISIS or ISIL. The former stands for “Islamic State in Syria,” which seems to be the prevalent term, and the latter, less frequently used, means the “Islamic State in the Levant.” Levant?  What exactly does that mean?

It’s an imprecise term for the geographical area on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, which would include the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine—a good portion of what is now usually known as the Middle East. The word Levantine has been used to refer to someone of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin.

Levant entered English from French, derived from the Italian levante, meaning “rising” and refers to the rising of the sun in the east. Levant has been in use since the 15th century, its earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary being in the 1497 Naval accounts and inventories of the reign of Henry VII, which refers to a “viage [voyage] to be made to the levaunt.”
The word inevitably calls to mind the eccentric American composer, pianist, actor, and wit named Oscar Levant. He was seen in numerous American movies, usually playing a cynical, wisecracking piano player, and later became a ubiquitous guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight show. He became addicted to prescription drugs and spent considerable time in mental institutions after episodes of erratic behavior. Among his mordant witticisms are:
            “There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”
            “I'm controversial. My friends either dislike me or hate me.”
            “The pun is the lowest form of humor unless you think of it first.”
            “The last movie I made at Warner Brothers was with Doris Day. That was before she was a virgin.”
            “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”
            “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.”
            “Roses are red, violets blue, I’m schizophrenic, and so am I.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks of himself as an Oscar Levant manqué.  He lacks only the wit, the talent, and the fame of the original.

            A young lady from the Levant,
            Longed to frolic with General Grant.
                        But she found that Ulysses
                        Was the biggest of sissies,
            For Grant just said, “No ma’am—I can’t.”

            So she turned to Immanuel Kant,
            Whom she thought she could surely enchant.
                        But she was too thick
                        To grasp the Ding an sich
            And Kant declared curtly, “I shan’t.”

            At last she corralled Buffalo Bill,
            And hoped he would give her a thrill.
                        She’d heard in the Wild West
                        Men had plenty of zest—
            And Bill said, “I can, and I shall, and I will!” 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Where It’s @

A recent New York Times article lamented the fact that Americans have no suitable name for the symbol we use every time we send an email or write a Twitter address: the @ sign. The official name is the commercial at, usually just called the at sign. Wikipedia claims that some people call it a strudel, but I’ve never heard that.

First used as a symbol on invoices, it meant “at a rate of,” as in the phrase “5 cases of Tanqueray gin @ £300 = £1,500.” Some form of the sign has been in use since the 16th century.

There is much speculation as to its origin.  Some say it’s just a cryptic form of “e.a.” (“each at”) with the “e” wrapped around the “a.” Others suggest it was a medieval monk’s abbreviation of the Latin ad (“at, toward, by, about”) used before a number. Or it might have been a corrupted form the old lower case “a,” which was written ∂; or the Greek ανά, meaning “at the rate of”; or the Norman French à, which means “at.”

However it came into being, our name for it is lame. There have been some attempts to come up with new terms for it—arobase (a French word), arroba (Spanish), asperand, ampersat, and the simple snake. But none of these have caught on.

Most Europeans and Asians have much more colorful nomenclatures.The Danish term translates as “elephant’s trunk.” The Dutch and the Poles think it’s more of a “monkey’s tail,” whereas the Czechs give it a culinary reference as a “rollmop.” Other terms are the Greek “duckling,” Italian “snail,” Russian “dog,” Taiwanese “mouse,” German “spider monkey,” Kazakh “moon’s ear,” Norwegian “curly alpha,” Bosnian “crazy A,” and the straightforward Bulgarian “badly written letter.”

Since the Bard of Buffalo Bayou never knows exactly where he’s @, he doesn’t care what you call it.

            There was an old plutocr@
            Who never knew where he was @,
                        He said, “What do I care
                        If I’m here or I’m there?”
            So he stayed right there where he s@.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Bare Facts

One of the customers recently asked if the correct phrase is bold-faced lie or bald-faced lie.

Whether it is bold-faced, bald-faced or possibly bare-faced, all of these expressions are derived from a reference to an unshaven or hairless face. In the 16th century when beards and mustaches were common, a smooth, bare face was unusual and was regarded as a sign of youthful impudence. By extension bare-faced came to mean “undisguised, brazen, shameless, unapologetic.”  Shakespeare speaks of “bare-fac’d power” in Macbeth in 1605.

As it applies specifically to an untruth, the earliest phrase was apparently bold-faced lie. The first known use of “bold-faced” in reference to a lie is a 1607 anti-Papist poem by Robert Picket: “Who so beleeues this Popish bold facest lie, / That’s grounded on, suppos’d admired Grasse, / May fatly feed, his follies foolerie: / Yet liue indeed, a very leane fed Asse.”

The earliest known example of barefaced lie is the late 18th century in a 1798 religious tract by John Fowler, who asks whether “watchmen would report a barefaced lie that would have criminated themselves” about the disappearance of Jesus’ body.

Bald-faced lie apparently didn’t show up until the mid-19th century. The earliest citation is a headline in an Iowa newspaper, the Sept. 12, 1860, issue of the Weekly Council Bluffs Bugle: “Another ‘Bald-Faced’ Lie Nailed to the Counter.”  

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been bare-faced most of his life, with the exception of a few periods during which he was in hiding from his numerous detractors behind a bushy facial growth.

            The notable Emily Brontë,
            Drank some bubbly that made her feel jaunty.
                        She told a fresh guy
                        A big bare-faced lie,                        
            And he pinched her Asti Spumante.