Monday, March 28, 2016

Good Oil About Bilbies

I had the good fortune recently to be interviewed on Australian radio about my book Final Chapters. In fact, I was interviewed three times, for ABC Radio National in Melbourne, ABC Overnights in Sydney, and ABC Radio Adelaide. The host on one of these shows mentioned that he had just finished wolfing down an Easter egg and a bilby. The Easter egg was all right, but he had me stymied with “bilby,” which sent me to the dictionary.

A bilby is an endangered native Australian marsupial, also known as a rabbit-bandicoot. It is a loan word from the  Yuwaalaraay aboriginal language of northern New South Wales, and it means “long-nosed rat.”

To call attention to its endangered status, conservationalists in the 1990s began selling chocolate Easter bilbies at the Warrawong Sanctuary as an alternative to Easter bunnies. Feral rabbits, incidentally, are hated creatures in Australia, where they cause much damage to crops. So Easter bilbies are a benign replacement, and they are now widely popular all over Australia.

Note: “Good oil” is an Australia term meaning “useful information.”              

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never been to Australia, but he does have kangaroos loose in the top paddock—and that’s fair dinkum!

            There was an old boozer from Sydney,
            Who drank till he ruined one kidney.
                        He drank and he drank,
                        As it shriveled and shrank,
            But he had a good time doin’ it, did’n’ he?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Clever Alexander

When I was young and sassy, my mother would often tell me, “Don’t be such a smart aleck.” I knew exactly what she meant, but it never occurred to me to ask who Aleck was or why I was being compared to him. Now, it turns out, Professor Gerald Cohen of the Missouri University of Science and Technology has discovered the original actual smart Aleck was a 19th-century pimp.

Defined as a “bumptious, conceited wise guy,” who is too smart for his own good, smart Aleck (or Alec) first appeared in print in 1862 in a Nevada newspaper, referring to a know-it-all convict. It all started with Alexander Hoag, born in New York in 1809, who became a successful confidence man. Known as Alec, Hoag set up a prostitution business with his wife, Melinda. Their scheme was for Melinda to lure a customer into a dark alley, distract him by embracing and fondling him, and while he was in the throes of erotic ecstasy, pick his pocket and pass the loot to her husband lurking in the shadows. 

Some of the customers didn’t care for this kind of gratification, and they reported the Hoags to the police. To protect his business, Hoag offered to pay the cops  a share of his loot, and he found a few who gladly accepted his largess in exchange for leaving him alone. Now emboldened by police protection, Hoag refined the operation into a more elaborate ploy.  In a specially constructed room, as an 1844 book by George Wilkes explains:

“Melinda would make her victim lay his clothes, as he took them off, upon a chair at the head of the bed near a secret panel, and then take him to her arms and closely draw the curtains of the bed.  As soon as everything was right and the dupe not likely to heed outside noises, Melinda would give a cough, and the faithful Alec would slyly enter, rifle the pockets of every farthing or valuable thing, and finally disappear as mysteriously as he entered.”

Greedy Alec decided to increase his profits by short-changing the crooked cops, and he began to lie about the amount of his hauls. When the cops found out (as cops always do), they arrested Hoag and he soon found himself behind bars for a long stretch. With typical police humor, the officers began referring to Hoag ironically as “smart Alec,” implying that he was too smart for his own good. Within a decade, the term had spread to general use, and it is with us till today.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has sometimes been called a smart Aleck, which he says is better than being called a dumb Aleck.

                        A Parisian pimp named Alec,
                        Determined to downplay the phallic,
                                    Offered quiche by the slice
                                    In each hooker’s price,
                        For he thought that was suitably Gallic.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Lead On!

In at least three or four places during the last month I have seen sentences that use the verb lead as if it were in the past tense, e.g.: What has lead to this sad state of affairs?
The verb lead, pronounced LEED, is in the present tense. Owing to some arcane philological shenanigans by the Anglo-Saxons, who adopted a few Germanic verb forms, the past tense of lead is irregular, and rather than leaded, it is led, pronounced LED.

The reason that lead is often used for and pronounced like led is twofold. First, there is a noun, lead, meaning a metal, that is spelled in the same way as the verb that is pronounced LEED, but is pronounced LED. Second, the verb lead is understandably confused with the verb read, whose irregular past tense is spelled the same, read, but is pronounced RED. 

I do hope that you have now read enough to understand what has led to this confusion.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is always confused, but that is because of the gargantuan swigs of Chardonnay with which he surreptitiously spices up his dreary workdays.

            The books I like to read
            Are ones I’ve never read,
            Until my eyes are red,           
            Though that is sure to lead,
            As it has always led,
            To eyes that feel like lead.     

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Who’s On Fleek?

 A recent article in the San Antonio Express-News observed, “Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry proved his troll game is on fleek Wednesday after a state court dismissed abuse-of-power charges against him.”

To people of a certain age, of whom I am one, that sentence makes almost no sense. Troll game? On fleek?  Off to the internet I went and discovered as follows:

Troll is slang for a person who sows discord on the internet by posting inflammatory messages with the deliberate intent of annoying readers and provoking them into a heated response. In other words, Perry enjoys being a smart-aleck trouble-maker. Okay, I’ll buy that.

On fleek is a bit more complicated. The closest thing to a definition I could find is that it means “on the mark” or “on point” or “just right.” The earliest example cited dates back to 2003, when it was submitted to the Urban Dictionary as a term meaning “smooth, nice, sweet.” The term gained wide currency in June of 2014 owing to a mini-video on Vine, the online video-sharing service, posted by one Peaches Monroee. Ms. Monroee (yes, there is a second “e” in her name) can be viewed preening and saying something that sounds like “We in dis bitch, finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek, dafuq?”

This is helpfully translated by a hip blogger as “We are in the car, fixing to have a wild time. My eyebrows look absolutely fabulous, so what the heck?”

Apparently fleek is a word that is used almost exclusively to refer to the condition of exemplary eyebrows. Etymologists surmise that it is a variant of flick, a term sometimes used by cosmeticians to describe various configurations of the eyebrows. One advertiser promises its cosmetic techniques will perfect “your feline flick.” Another offers “7 hints for Creating Perfect Eyeline Flick.” Flick is apparently a reference to exaggerated shapes made by eyeliners on the outer edges of eyes. Think Amy Winehouse.

Flick, meaning "a light blow or stroke," dates to the 15th century, and is probably imitative of the sound of lightly slapping with a whip. The earliest recorded use is in the phrase "not worth a flykke," meaning "useless."

Whether the Express-News is referring specifically to Perry’s eyebrows is an open question—but he wasn’t known as Governor Goodhair for nothing.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has good hair—it just doesn’t doesn’t grow in the right places.

            The governor was mighty fleek,
            His eyes were bright, his hair was sleek,
            A rosy glow was on his cheek,
            He had a muscular physique.
            But when the gov. began to speak,
            An “oops” was all that he could shriek.
            Oh what fiascos fate doth wreak,
            To flick such flak at one who’s fleek!