Monday, January 25, 2016

Snuff and Nonsense

I’ve wondered if the phrase “up to snuff”—meaning “capable of performing the task at hand”—has anything to do with the powdered form of tobacco that my grandmother used to gleefully dip into. As it turns out, it does.

The phrase apparently originated in the early nineteenth century. In an 1811 parody of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by John Poole, he writes: “He knows well enough the game we’re after: Zooks, he’s up to snuff.” And in another place: “He is up to snuff, that is, he is the knowing one.”

In Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1823, “up to snuff and a pinch above” is described as meaning “flash,” that is “showy and ostentatious.” It is presumed that the derivation was from the powdered tobacco popular since the seventeenth century, in reference to the stimulating effect it had when taken orally. “Up to snuff” became associated with sharpness of mind and superior ability based on the fact that it was expensive and it was generally carried in ornately decorated boxes. Thus “up to snuff” came to mean “up to a certain high standard” of cost and artistic quality.

No one has figured out what the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is up to—but it probably isn’t snuff. 

            A French breakfast is not up to snuff--
            It’s just croissants and other such stuff.
                        No matter how much you beg,
                        You’ll be served only one egg,
            For the French say that one egg is un oeuf.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hale Colombia

A newspaper advertisement by a prestigious foundation touted its grants to successful immigrants, including one who had excelled at Columbia University.  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, the next item in the ad sang the praises of another grant recipient, who had immigrated to the U. S. from Columbia—Bogotá, to be precise. Not so good.

Norteamericanos often have trouble distinguishing Columbia from Colombia, and I’m here to help. Both names derive from the name of Christopher Columbus, who happened upon the Western Hemisphere in 1492, a date that will live in infamy. 

Columbia, with a “u,” as in the University, the Broadcasting System, the River, the gem of the ocean, the shade of blue, and the Pictures company, is a poetic appellation for the United States of America, which first appeared in England in 1738. The U.S. of A. might well have been named the U.S. of C., if it hadn’t been for another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who visited South America on behalf of the Portuguese around 1500. A German mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller, having read Vespucci’s journals, named the continent “America” (a Latinized version of Vespucci’s first name) on a map he published in 1507.

The nation of Colombia, where the coffee, the cut flowers, and the cocaine come from, was also named in honor of Christopher Columbus, in the Spanish version, Cristóbal Colón; hence an “o” where the English put a “u.” Francisco de Miranda, the Venezuelan revolutionary who coined the name Colombia, intended it to be used for the entire New World. The newly formed Republic of Colombia claimed the name in 1819.

Now, for a simple mnemonic to distinguish the two:
            The capital of Colombia is BOgOtá.
            Columbia is the name of a University.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a Latinophile because geographic names in South America are easier to rhyme than places like Connecticut and Massachusetts, not to mention Schenectady and Hamtramck.

            May your home-away-from home be a
            Cozy casa in Colombia,
            Nestled high upon a hill
            Looking down upon Brazil,
            Where you will dine on choicest filet 
            Of tender Kobe beef from Chile,
            Hoppin’ john with kangaroo,
            And Lima beans grown in Peru,
            Served with favas and farina
            From the fields of Argentina,
            And from sunny Uruguay
            A toasted ham-and-Swiss on rye,
            With luscious hearts of baby palm
            From balmy, palmy Suriname,
            Then, perhaps, a piece of pie
            Of peaches picked in Paraguay,
            Topped by chunks of sweet banana
            From plantations in Guyana.
            Escoffiers from Ecuador
            May make some petite petits fours,
            And then the maître-d’ will give ya
            Some bollitos from Bolivia;
            At last, to make it gaily gala,
            Viva vino from Venezuela!

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Relevance of Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio is receiving a lot of attention for a new film called The Revenant, in which he endures a number of unpleasant experiences, including being roughed up by a cantankerous bear and having to dine on a raw bison liver. The life of a Hollywood star is not as sybaritic it’s cracked up to be!

As the star in the title role, Mr. DiCaprio is “the revenant,” a word we don’t see much of these days. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to 1828, in Sir Walter Scott'sThe Fair Maid of Perth, where it means “one who returns from the dead; a ghost.” Formed from the present participle of the French revenir (“to return”), revenant can also mean “one who comes back after a long time away.”

Incidentally, Webster wants us to pronounce the word in the French manner, i.e. rev-uh-NONH, although it allows an anglicized REV-uh-nunt as second choice.

The film, written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a man with one too many diacritical marks in his name, is based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke called The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. Since writing it, Punke has become U. S. Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, and as a government official, he is forbidden from publicizing the reissue of his novel. “He can’t even sign copies,” complains his publicist. Punke, however, is not forbidden from collecting the royalties, which will no doubt be ample.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is always eager to sign copies of his work.  He has a closetful of them, waiting for someone to ask for one.

            Did Leonardo’s tummy quiver
            When he had to eat that liver,
            Or did he say, “It’s all for art—
            Please pass the kidneys and the heart”?