Monday, May 25, 2015

Handbasket to Hell

“Going to hell in a handbasket”—that is, a rapidly worsening situation—is a nineteenth-century phrase whose origin has been much discussed. An earlier version was “in a handcart,” but the basket seems to have prevailed. Some scholars say “handbasket” has no particular meaning and is simply an alliterative intensifier, and that any conveyance beginning with “h”—a hansom cab or a hardbody, say,  would suffice. 

One of the earliest instances of the “handbasket” phrase is found in documents of the U. S. Congress of 1867, in which a pro-Southern judge refers to men arrested for collaborating in a Confederate conspiracy as “rotting in Lincoln’s bastilles…if they were once at liberty [they] would send the abolitionists to hell in a hand-basket.”

“To hell in a hand-cart” is found as early as 1841 in a book of sermons by Elbridge Paige.

Some etymologists relate the phrase to a stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, which shows a scolding wife being carted away by the devil in a wheelbarrow.

A more fanciful explanation traces the phrase to the French Revolution, when aristocrats were guillotined and their heads fell into a basket, which would no doubt provide their speedy passage to the fiery netherworld.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks going to hell in a handbasket might be as comfortable a way to travel there as any.  He has one ready, just in case.

                        The road to hell is paved, they say,
                        With many good intentions.
                        You’ll find them all along the way,
                        As the poet Virgil mentions.

                        If I fall prey to heaven’s wrath
                        With the wicked and depraved,
                        And find myself upon that path—
                        I’ll be glad, at least, it’s paved.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hey, Dude

People of a certain generation (all of them younger than I am), talk of dudes, by which they apparently mean any male persons. Sometimes I hear young men address each other (and occasionally even me) as “Dude.” So where does this term come from and what does it mean?                         
 Pictured is Evander Berry Wall, known as "King of the Dudes," in 1888 in New York.

Oxford English Dictionary  and Webster’s New International agree that the word originally meant a man who was “overly fastidious” in matters of dress and style; in other words, a “dandy” or a “fop.” It later was used to man any urbanized man, or “city slicker.” By the 1960s the word had crept into Black English and into surfer slang as an alternate way of saying “fellow” or “guy.” Today, it’s generally used in that broader sense, usually in an approving manner, to refer to any boy or man. It also can be used as a verb, retaining its  original meaning, as when someone gets “all duded up” in fancy clothes.

As for the etymology of dude, all the overly cautious OED will say is “actual origin not recorded.” Webster’s is even more terse: “Origin unknown.”

Dude first popped up in the 1880s as a term of mockery directed at young men who kept up with the latest fashions. The general consensus among word sleuths who are willing to take a stand is that it derived from “Yankee Doodle,” the 18th-century song with which the British taunted the uncouth colonists. The term doodle first appeared in the 17th century, from Low German Dödel, meaning “simpleton.” In the song the bumptious “Yankee Doodle” sticks a feather in his cap and calls it “Macaroni.” The Macaroni wig was high fashion in the 1770s and became a synonym for foppishness.

In 1883, according to linguist Allan Metcalf, someone in New York began referring to foppish young men as “doodles,” soon shortened to “doods,” with the alternate spelling “dudes.” In that same year a political cartoon referred to the sartorially resplendent President Chester A. Arthur as “O Dude of all the White House residents.”

Some etymologists believe the first instance of "dude" was in a poem by Robert Sale Hill that appeared in January 14, 1883, issue of the New York World.  Hill supposedly coined the word as a cognate to the extinct bird known as the "dodo."

Another expert suggests the term derived from a sentence in Graphic magazinie of March 31, 1883, which said: “The silent, subfusc, subdued 'dude' hands down the tradition of good form.” Dude, says this expert, is just a shortened version of the word subdued, suggesting a person of good taste.

One final suggestion is that it stems from the Scottish word duddies for clothes, and this theory can point to the use of the word dudde in Putnam’s Magazine in 1876, making fun of the way a woman was dressed.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not quite a dude. But as you can see, he’s working on becoming one:

            I’m trying hard to be a dude,
            And prove I have blue blood;
            Just look at me and you’ll conclude,
            I’m almost one; i.e. a dud.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tut, Tut

The winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah, has occasioned much comment about the spelling of his name, which transposes “a” and “o.” It is a misspelling of Pharaoh, the title of ancient Egyptian kings up until the Roman conquest.

American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, who is an Egyptian by birth, maintains that the spelling is the result of an error by The Jockey Club, the organization that publishes the official American Stud Book. But the Club says that’s not so, that the name was spelled that way when it was submitted by its owner through an interactive digital registration site. Now, boys, let’s not fight about it. 

Pharaoh is derived from the Old English Pharon, which in turn came from Latin Pharaonem, Greek Pharao, Hebrew Par’oh, and, ultimately, Egyptian Per’aa (a transliteration of hieroglyphs). It means “great house.” Its unusual English spelling—a before o and h on the end—seems to have been influenced by both the Latin and Hebrew words.

Also misspelled—if a person can actually misspell his own name—are Jay Pharoah of Saturday Night Live and Pharoah Sanders, the jazz saxophonist. The former’s real name is Jared Farrow. The latter, born Farrell Sanders, was nicknamed Pharoah by bandleader Sun Ra. None of them is known to have won a spelling bee.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes he was a Pharaoh in a previous life. Oh, wait, not a Pharaoh—a ferret. That’s easier to believe.

          Hotepsekhemwy was a Pharaoh,
          And his friends all called him Hot.
          He always walked the straight and narrow,
          And he seemed to know what's what.
          His reign was long, but he wound up dead,
          And was made into a mummy,
          With a golden mask upon his head
          And a scarab on his tummy.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Hats Off!

I read the other day that when Mark Rylance, the brilliant British actor who is currently Thomas Cromwell on the PBS series Wolf Hall, ran London’s Globe Theatre, he always wore a hat to let people know when he was functioning as artistic director and not as actor. The hat was a trilby. (I also read, to my surprise, that Rylance grew up and graduated from high school in Milwaukee—but that’s another story.)
A trilby is a small, narrow-brimmed hat with a short, indented crown. It is worn with the brim snapped down in front and turned up in back. In shape it is similar to the Tyrolean hat. It is so named from the character Trilby O’Ferrall, who wore such a hat in the first production of the stage version of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby. 

Similar to a trilby is a fedora, which is also named for a character in a play. The fedora has a wider brim and a taller crown. It got its name from the character of Princess Fédora, who wore such a hat when played by Sarah Bernhardt in Victorien Sardou’s 1882 play Fédora.

Other hat names have mostly non-theatrical sources. The bowler was named for London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler, who designed it for a client in the 1820s.  When it crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s, it was called a derby because it was favored by the Earl of Derby, who regularly wore it to horse races. 

The homburg is a formal stiff hat with what is called a “gutter crown” with a single dent running down the middle and a stiff brim. It was named for the German spa Bad Homburg, where King Edward VII procured a hat of this type and then popularized it in England. 

The boater is a straw hat with a flat brim, which was fashionable at the beginning of the twentieth century at sailing events. For some reason, it was popular with FBI agents, almost as an unofficial uniform, in the 1910s and 1920s. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou wears a hat mostly for protection—to try to keep his head safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

            When Rylance is doing his work as director,
            He knows he must move in the management sector,
            And prove by whatever he puts on his head
            That he is the top guy whom all others dread.           

            A bowler or derby would just be a bummer,
            And people might think he was merely a mummer.
            A homburg is humbug and makes him look stuffy,
            He’d deplore a fedora, it’s so seedy and scruffy.
            The reason a boater would never apply
            Is that someone might think he was just F.B.I.
            Mr. Rylance’s headwear must be only a trilby,
            To show that he wants to be boss—and he will be.