Monday, March 30, 2015

Give Me A Break

When I was a newspaper copyeditor back in pre-digital days, national and international news was conveyed to our newsroom on a teleprinter known as “the wire.” This was an electro-mechanical typewriter that received and rapidly printed typed messages from news wire services like United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP). Enormous rolls of yellow copy paper were inserted into the machine, so that a continuous feed of news items was emitted. One of my jobs was to be sure that the roll never ran out (it did, once).

When something really important happened, a bell would ring on the machine, and the next news item was identified either as a BULLETIN or a FLASH. A “bulletin” was an out-of-the ordinary happening, usually a disaster, such as a major plane crash or the death of a foreign government official. A “flash” was something judged to be cataclysmic, such as the assassination of a famous leader or the declaration of war. I expect that a sure-fire cure for cancer or a communication from residents of Mars would also qualify as a flash. In my year-and-a-half of tending the machine, I can recall maybe half a dozen “bulletins” and only one “flash”—which was the onset of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the third world war was widely anticipated.  

Nowadays, we are beset on television and even in newspapers by a flood of what is called “breaking news.” In my day, we never used that term, since all news was “breaking,” in the sense that we were making it known to the public for the first time. Today, I gather, by “breaking news” the media mean something that is ongoing and continuing to occur as it is being reported.

Break is a versatile word, with more than 40 separate meanings listed in Webster’s New International Dictionary. Its origin is Old English brecan, “to shatter, burst, injure, violate, destroy, curtail, burst forth, spring out, subdue, or tame.” It derived ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bhreg with similar meanings. The meaning to “disclose,” as now applied to news, was first used in the 13th century. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is widely known for breaking things, including delicate crystal, promises, speed limits, and wind.

            With TV news, there’s no mistaking,
            It’s reported ipse dixit.
            And when they say the news is breaking,
            I think they ought to fix it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Happy Accidents

The other day I was ransacking a desk drawer looking for some receipts (it’s tax time again), when I unexpectedly came across a $5 bill lurking between two pieces of paper. This discovery of something valuable or agreeable purely by accident is known as serendipity. 

The word was first used in 1754 by Horace Walpole, an author and Member of Parliament, in a letter to an English friend in Italy. Walpole explained that he concocted the word from a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which he had read as a boy. Serendip is the Persian and Urdu word for the country now known as Sri Lanka.

The fairy tale is a translation of an Italian story by Michele Tramezzino, published in Venice in 1557. In it three princes set out on a journey during which they make a number of useful discoveries either by accident or by their native wit. 

Many readers have unexpectedly come upon the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou quite by accident. They invariably regard this untoward event not as serendipity, but as an unmitigated disaster. To live up to his tarnished reputation, the Bard offers two examples of his egregiousness:

            A rabbit came hopping up, hippity-hoo,
            To get his fur styled with some Dippity-Do,
                        Folks thought it funny
                        To see a chic bunny,
            And to find him by pure serendipity, too.

            We thought it was somewhat precipitous
            And not in the least serendipitous
                         When a villain appeared,
                         And he snarled and he sneered, 
            Then he curled his stiff upper lip at us.

Monday, March 16, 2015

All Smiles


The New York Times wrote recently of emoticons and emojis, using those two terms more or less interchangeably. But, in fact, they are quite different. An emoticon, a portmanteau word formed from emotion and icon, and pronounced ee-MOTE-uh-con, is a symbol composed of punctuation marks, letters, or numbers, in a text-only document, to indicate an emotional condition. Usually they must be read sideways. This is an emoticon indicating happiness :-).  Others may indicate unhappiness :-( or alarm :-o or humor ;-).

The person most often credited as the first to use emoticons in this sense is a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. 

Earlier prototypes, however, can be found.  The American humor magazine Puck published these examples created by a type-setter in 1881:

Some people think they have found an even earlier example in a New York Times transcript of a speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. What might be an emoticon representing amusement appears in the fourth line, after “applause and laughter.” Others insist this is merely a typographical error.

A kind of shorthand emoticon was designed in ten minutes in 1963 by an artist named Harvey Ball as a morale-building device for employees of the State Mutual Life Insurance Company. Ball was paid $45 for inventing the “smiley face” that is now ubiquitous.

An emoji, pronounced ee-MO-jee, is a Japanese word that means “picture character.” It is a more elaborate design that can represent any idea, object, or cultural meme. The first emoji was designed around 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese communications company. Since then, many different organizations have designed their own emojis for use in communications. Here are samples representing a dancer, from Apple, Google, and Twitter:

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is working on an emoji to represent him and his work; so far it’s just a big amorphous blob. 

       If I were asked to vote upon
       My favorite emoticon,
       I’m sure that I would think most highly
       Of a face that’s slyly smiley.

       Some days, though, are not so nice,
       When smiley faces won’t suffice,
       Grinning like some elf or brownie:
       Then I need a face that’s frowny.

Monday, March 9, 2015

It’s Flat, That’s That!

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about “flat whites” and didn’t have a clue what they were. At first I thought the term must refer to a casual white shoe to wear around the pool between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Or could it mean a house paint without a gloss? Then I thought perhaps it was an egg with no yolk cooked over easy. Now, thanks, to the inexhaustible font of information provided by the indispensable Wikipedia, I learn that a flat white is a beverage.

It is, in fact, a coffee beverage that was developed in Australia and New Zealand about 35 or 40 years ago. It is concocted by pouring what is known as “microfoam”—milk steamed with a wand to produce very fine bubbles—over a shot of espresso. Similar to a latte, it is smaller in volume and has a greater proportion of coffee to milk. It may provide a canvas for latte art.

Its name comes from the thin, flat layer of white microfoam, as opposed to thicker layers in lattes and cappuccinos.  If you have any more questions about flat whites, please apply at the nearest Starbucks.

With all that mlik, a flat white probably qualifies as a “cat-lap.” That is a British Victorian term for tea or coffee that was used disdainfully by those who preferred beer and stronger liquors as their beverage. Sometimes really hearty topers even used the term to refer to champagne.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes his coffee just like the verses he writes: strong, dark, bitter, and unpalatable.

            I like coffee,
            It suits me
            More than toffee,
            Toast, or tea.

            Make it black,
            Make it bitter,
            It will smack
            A tic or jitter.

            Make it strong,
            Yes, oh yes, oh
            How I long
            For an espresso.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Whence Lent?

Christians of a certain stripe—mostly Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox, and a few others—are now in the midst of Lent, the season of forty days preceding Easter that is devoted to prayer, fasting, and charitable works. In the Romance languages the word for Lent alludes to the forty days, based on the Latin quadragesima, which means “fortieth.” In Italian Lent is Quaresima, in French it’s Carême, and in Spanish Cuaresma.

Germans get right to the point and call the season Fastenzeit, “fasting time.”

The etymology of Lent in English is more complicated. The word cropped up in the fourteenth century, as a shortened form of Lenten, which derived from Old English lencten, meaning “springtime.” The root of lencten is West Germanic langatinaz, meaning “long days,” referring to the coming season’s increasing daylight.  

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thought he might give up versifying for Lent, but he came to realize that too many penitents rely upon reading his poetic detritus as atonement for their sins (when self-flagellation is not considered severe enough).

                        There was a devout Christian gent
                        Who quit smoking and drinking for Lent,
                                     But he ate so much fudge he
                                     Grew terribly pudgy,               
                        Which was certainly not his intent.
                        He decided he'd keep one bad habit,
                        Despite pleas from a priest and an abbot,
                                    So now he rejects
                                    All that junk food for sex,                              
                          And he's thin--but he acts like a rabbit.