Monday, April 27, 2015

English Not Spoken Here

Visiting Corpus Christi, Texas, recently, I was musing on the city’s name, which is Latin for “Body of Christ,” referring to the adjacent bay, which Spanish explorers named (probably with the encouragement of pious priests) to commemorate the Eucharist. 

Many American place names are actual words in other languages, provided by the explorers and settlers from various countries, mostly Spain and France, with occasional bits of Dutch or German. Among the French names are Baton Rouge (“Red Stick”), LA; Eau Claire (“Clear Water’) and Fond du Lac (“End of the Lake”), WI; Boise (“Wooded”), ID; Butte (“Ridge”), MT; Terre Haute (“High Ground”), IN; Des Moines (“of the Monks”), IA;  and La Grange (“The Barn”) and La Porte (“The Door”) in several states,

One unusual French name is Coeur d’Alene, ID. This was the French name for the Schitsu'umsh tribe in that area, and it means “Heart of an Awl.” The awl, a leather-working tool, is thought perhaps to indicate the skill of the Indian artisans or the fact that they were sharp traders in leather goods.

Spanish city names include El Paso (“the Pass”), Amarillo (“Yellow”), Refugio (“Refuge”), TX; Las Vegas (“Fertile Valleys”), NV; and Sacramento (“Sacrament”), Fresno (“Ash Tree”), and “Los Angeles” (“The Angels”), CA.  

Among the very few German names are Anaheim (“Anne’s home”), CA, and New Braunfels (“New Brown Rock”), TX.

One that’s always difficult for Americans to pronounce—even for those who live there—is the name of the area of New York’s Bronx known as Spuyten Duyvil.  It’s Dutch for “Spouting Devil,” referring to the rapid current in the waters.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is sometimes known as the “Spouting Devil,” a name he lives up to at every orifice.

            Oh, take me back to Spuyten Duyvil,
            No place on earth can ever rival
            The diabolic name of this strange curio.
            But if you cannot take me there,
            Then I’ll be happy anywhere--
            In Quitaque, Mexia, or Refugio.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Flash in the Pangram

Theatre Under The Stars’ Underground series recently produced a new musical called LMNOP, based on the novel  Ella Minnow Pea. (Notice the similarity!) This alphabetical drollery is predicated on the notion of a pangram, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. The musical’s fictional town has a motto that is a pangram coined by its founder—The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

This pangram, which totals 35 letters in all, repeats several letters—there are four “o’s”and three “e’s”—and the best pangrams use the smallest total number of letters, repeating the fewest.

In the musical, as letters begin to fall off the town’s motto one by one, the plot hinges on finding a new pangram, preferably shorter, which turns out to be: Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. It uses a total of only 33 letters.

Word buffs have come up with even shorter ones, which tend to make less sense the shorter they get. Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow uses only 29 letters.  Waltz quick, nymph, for bad jigs vex is only 28.

If you permit proper names and abbreviations, you can come up with pangrams that use each letter only once, for a total of 26. One of these is: Mr. Jock, TV quiz Ph.D., bags few lynx. 

When I was a wire editor for a Scripps-Howard newspaper, the teletype equipment was tested every morning by transmitting a pangram that no doubt reflected somebody's political views: William Jex quickly killed five dozen Republicans. 

This week’s New York Times had an acrostic puzzle that used a different type of pangram—a sentence in which each word begins with a consecutive letter of the alphabet. The example was: A black cat dreamt every fourth goose hunted invisible jellyfish, kindly let many nice ostriches pass quickly; rather stupidly, the umbrella voted when X-raying yellow zebras.

Another one I came across makes a little more sense—but has to be punctuated as more than one sentence to be fluent:  A brave, chance dance ended Fred's girlfriend hunt. Ingrid just kissed like magic! Nearby, once privately quartered, romance secured the unfolding victory with X-rated, youthful zest. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou decided he could write a pangrammatic verse. Hmmmm.

            Any boy can damage eggs,
            Frighten giddy hags,
            Injure jolly kiddies’ legs--
            Meretricious nags!

            Older people quickly run,
            Seeing tawdry urban view,
            Wrecking xenophobically, 
            Yokohama’s zoo.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mum’s the Word

A recent article reported that a certain murder suspect who has been much in the news lately had appeared on a TV special during which he murmured to a mirror, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” Today’s disquisition is not about whether he killed them all, or even any one of them, but whether he murmured those words, or mumbled them, or perhaps muttered them.

Those three words have the same fundamental meaning, to “speak quietly and indistinctly.”  But they have differing nuanced connotations, about which not all lexicographers agree. Mumble is the most straightforward of the three, having little meaning beyond its primary one, although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may also denote “speaking with the lips partly closed.” This may derive from its etymology, Middle English momelen, which meant to “eat in a slow, ineffective manner,” and as a result, perhaps to talk with one’s mouth full. Its current meaning is from the mid-14th century.

Murmur has the additional connotation, according to both the OED and Webster’s, of being a continuous sound, without interruption. Again, etymology may be the clue, since the origin of murmur is the Proto-Indo-European reduplicative base mor-mor, which is of an imitative origin, alluding to the sound of “roaring, boiling, buzzing, or crackling (as in a fire).”

In addition, both dictionaries suggest murmur has the added meaning of “discontent” or “complaint,” synonomous with “grumbling,” dating to the 14th century in English and to the 12th century in the Old French murmure, which meant the “sound of human voices arguing.” Its meaning to “speak indistinctly” dates only to 1670.

I would further suggest that murmur can carry with it a romantic or sensuous aspect, as a brook may murmur, or a sweetheart may murmur sweet nothings to his beloved.

In this sense murmur is related to a susurrus, from the the Latin susurare, to “hum” or to “whisper.”

Everyone agrees that mutter carries with it the connotation of “dissatisfaction that one dare not utter more openly.” Its root is 14th-century Middle English moteren, which stems from the Proto-Indo-European stem mut-, meaning to “grunt.”

Given these variations, I would opt for mumble in the case of the alleged killer-in-the-mirror. But I expect trying to reach a verdict on this question would produce a hung jury.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou once served on a hanging jury. The other eleven members tried to hang him, but he got away in the nick of time.

            I could not be surer or clearer or firmer
            In my views about mumble and mutter and murmur:
            If you talk with your mouth full, it shows you’re a 
            Without any manners—what’s more, you’re a  
            If you wish to complain about things you can’t utter,
            When you speak, it is certain you’re going to mutter.
            To your honey or dearie, however you term her,
            Sweet nothings are said in an amorous murmur.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter (a.k.a. Passover) Parade

Christians and Jews both spent this past weekend celebrating major events: Easter for the Christians and Passover for the Jews. While the two holidays commemorate different religious events, they originally were exactly the same etymologically.

Passover derives from the Hebrew word Pesach, which is generally taken to refer to God’s having passed over the Hebrew people to exempt them from the slaughter of the firstborn recounted in the Book of Exodus. It now commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The word Passover first appeared in English in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible in the 1530s.

There is some debate about whether Pesach should be translated as “pass over.” Some scholars think it means “he had pity” and others prefer the translation “he hovered over, guarding.”

In any event, when Christians began to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which occurred during the period when Passover was celebrated, they used the same term to designate it. In the Romance languages today, Passover and Easter are in fact the same word, derived from Pesach via Latin paschalis: Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, and Pâque (Passover) and Pâques (Easter) in French. (The extra “s” for Easter was added by the French sometime after the fifteenth century to distinguish the two holidays.) In Middle English Easter was sometimes referred to as Pasch, and in modern English the word Paschal can also be used to allude to the Easter period.

The word Easter (and, in German, Ostern) is related to the German word for east, and according to the Venerable Bede it derived from the Old English Ēostre, the Germanic goddess of spring and fertility, who was associated with the dawn. She was worshipped by pagan Anglo-Saxons, and when they were Christianized, they kept the same name for the new festival, which also occurred in the spring.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou celebrates the season by reciting a verse written especially for the occasion, despite being implored not to by leaders of every major religion and several minor ones.

                        There once was was a gluttonous feaster,
                        Who gorged himself every Easter
                                    On boiled colored eggs
                                    And Chardonnay dregs,
                        Till he keeled over flat on his keister.