Monday, July 27, 2015

Are You A Ring-Tailed Tooter?

When someone was especially rambunctious or trouble-making or outlandish in any way, my Texas-raised mother would call that person a “ring-tailed tooter.” I don’t encounter that phrase much any more, but it certainly serves a purpose when needed. It can be used to describe mischievous children, especially the kind who leave a trail of wreckage behind them. But there’s also a hint of admiration (and maybe envy) in the epithet, giving credit to someone with a zesty approach to life. Perhaps the quintessential ring-tailed tooter would have been Huckleberry Finn, although I don’t believe Mark Twain ever referred to him as such.

The etymology is uncertain, the “ring-tailed” part seemingly referring to the pattern on the tail a raccoon, an animal noted for mischief, and the “tooter” perhaps alluding to someone blowing a horn, or maybe on a “toot” (that is, a spree or drinking binge). 

The first recorded use of the term was applied not to a person, but an event. It’s a description of a parade in The Red-Blooded Heroes of the Frontier, a 1910 novel by Edgar Beecher Bronson:            
     While the Cross Cañonites were liquoring at the Fashion Bar (Circuit drinking sarsaparilla), Lame Johny, the barkeeper, remarked: "You-uns missed it a lot, not seein' the pr'cesh. She were a ring-tailed tooter for fair, with the damnedest biggest noise-makin' band you ever heard, an' th' p'rformers wearin' more pr'tys than I ever allowed was made."
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is known in some quarters as “The Ring-Tailed Tooter of Poesy,” a title he lives up to with every stroke of his pen.

            When Henry VIII became loud and rambunctious,
            Cardinal Wolsey’s response was always quite unctuous.
            The more Wolsey “tsked,” the more Henry was boisterous,
            And if Wolsey rebuked him, then Henry grew roisterous.
            No monarch had ever been cruder or ruder,
            Which is why they called Henry a Ring-Tailed Tudor.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Eyes Have It

When you need to see an eye doctor, you can choose one of several kinds—all with names related to Greek or Latin words for the eye. I usually visit an ophthalmologist, but I’ve also had dealings with an optometrist, an optician, and an ocularist. Fortunately I have not (yet) needed an orthoptist. 

If you are not certain of the differences among them, allow me help you see the light. An ophthalmologist is an M.D. with a specialty in the medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases and visual problems of all kinds. The word comes from the Greek ophthalmos (“eye”) and literally means “science of eyes.”

An optometrist is concerned primarily with improving vision, usually through diagnosis of visual disorders and the prescription of corrective lenses. Optometrists also hold doctoral degrees, but they are D.O.’s (doctors of optometry) rather than M.D.’s. Ordinarily optometrists do not treat eyes surgically. The word’s origin is the Greek opsis (“view”) and metron (“measurement”).

An oculist (from the Latin word for "eye") is a more general term for an eye specialist, which may refer to an ophthalmologist or an optometrist.

An optician is a technician who designs, fits, and dispenses corrective lenses, after a patient has been examined and the lenses have been prescribed by an ophthalmologist or an optometrist. Ordinarily an optician does not hold a doctoral degree. The word comes from the Greek optikos (“sight-related”) and the suffix –ician, which indicates “practitioner of.”

An ocularist (from the Latin ocularis, or “eye”) is a technician who specializes in the fabrication and fitting of ocular prostheses, or artificial eyes. Training and certification vary from state to state.

And, finally, an orthoptist (from the Greek ortho, or “correct”) is a health-care professional who has received special training in the treatment of amblyopia (lazy eye), strabismus (squinting), and other eye movement problems. They are therapists who teach patients to manage these disorders through muscular control and other therapeutic exercises.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou always keeps his eye on the ball—which does limit what he is able to see.

     Please permit me to use the vernacular
     In relating the tale of Count Dracula,
            Who corrected his vision
            And could see with precision
     Through lenses you might call spectacular.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Pro- or Antimacassar?

Police arrested a man for smuggling 21 rare yellow-crested cockatoos from the Indonesian island of Macassar, Sulawesi, or what used to be called the Celebes. Macassar is an ethno-linguistic group whose name springs from the word Mangkasara, meaning “people who behave frankly.” 

Macassar, or more precisely, antimacassar, was a  prominent word in nineteenth and early twentieth century English—not so much now. It is the word for a cloth placed over the backs, and sometimes also the arms, of chairs and sofas to prevent soiling of the upholstery. What was most likely to soil it in those days was macassar oil, a greasy hair tonic manufactured from ingredients—cocoanut oil, ylang-ylang oil, and other fragrant plant substances—that originally came from Macassar.
Antimacassars were initially made of stiff crochet-work, but later were fashioned from softer embroidered pieces of fabric or lace. They are still regularly found on the seatbacks of airliners, trains, and buses.

Those rare cockatoos, incidentally, were being transported in plastic water bottles, into which the birds had been crammed. Cockatoo, a type of parrot, is a word from the Dutch kaketoe, from Malay kakatua, possibly echoic of the sound made by the bird, or from the Malay kakak (“brother or sister”) and tua (“old”).  Its spelling is influenced by the English word cock. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou carries his own antimacassar with him wherever he goes. It’s used to protect his head from staining by the squalid surroundings in which he often rests it.

     They neglected to use an antimacassar
     On furniture bought for the college at Vassar,
             And the gunk from her hair
             That she left on his chair
     Led one student to doubt her professor would pass her.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Let’s Dance!

Ballroom dancing seems to be catching on again in some circles, and it’s always exhilarating to see elegantly clad couples doing the waltz or foxtrot, not to mention the more exotic forms like tango, samba, and rumba.

The etymologies of these dances come from a variety of sources.

Waltz, a round dance performed in three-four time, became popular in the late eighteenth century and is probably Bohemian in origin.  The word was first used in English in 1781, from the German Waltzer, derived from walzen, “to roll or dance,” from Old High German walzan, “turn, roll.”

Foxtrot, is a dance in two-four or four-four time involving slow walking steps and quick running steps, similar to the twostep. It became popular with the advent of ragtime music, around 1914. The name is based on the slow pace, with short steps, seen in a fox (or a horse).

Tango, which first burst upon the dance floor in 1913, is from Argentina. It is
in two-four or four-four time and is characterized by graceful posturing, frequent pointing positions, sinuous movement, and a great variety of steps, including the cross step, turning steps, and a backward kick.

Its name derives from an African word about which authorities disagree. Some say it is akin to the Ibibio word tamgu, meaning to “dance.” Others cite a Ki-Kongo word that means “moving in time to a beat.” And still others find an early root in West African dialects that mean “closed space” or “reserved ground,” referring to the area in which dancing was done. Others say it was part of a Spanish dance known as a fandango, whose origin is unknown.

Rumba is a Cuban dance, which made its appearance in 1919. It may take a variety of forms but usually is in two-four or four-four time, and involves a basic pattern of step-close-step, marked by a delayed transfer of weight and pronounced hip movements.

Its name may derive from the Spanish rumbo, meaning “spree” or “party,” a word that perhaps originated as a description of the course of a ship determined by a compass marked by a rhombus. Another source insists it comes from a Caribbean word, rumbear, meaning “going to parties, dancing, and having a good time.”

Samba, a Brazilian dance of African origin in four-four time, but with three steps to a bar, has a basic pattern of step-close-step-close and is characterized by a dip and spring upward at each beat of the music.

The word is of Portuguese origin, from Zemba, shorted from Zambacueca, an earlier dance whose name is influence by the Portuguese zamacueco (“stupid”), and zambapalo, a grotesque dance whose name derives from zamparse (to “bump or crash”).

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to bump and crash quite a lot, after sampling a few bottles that somehow fell into his hands off a passing truck.

                        A man who was dancing the tango
                        Took a break to consume a ripe mango,
                                    But his partners all fled,
                                    To which the man said,
                        “Where did that dang tango gang go?”

                        He decided to essay the samba,
                        But he moved like an African mamba,
                                    Looking very reptilian
                                    Instead of Brazilian,
                        And the bandleader cried, “Ay, caramba!”

                        At last it was time for a rumba,
                        And he thought this was surely his number,
                                    But the band played a waltz
                                    Filled with Viennese schmaltz,
                        And his partner reacted like lumber.