Monday, November 28, 2016

Alt! Who Goes There?

We’re hearing a lot these days about the “alt-right.” Short for “alternative right,” it’s a term widely attributed to Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who heads the National Policy Institute, a small think tank that spreads propaganda against racial equality.

Spencer used the term in 2010 to describe an extreme conservative faction as an alternative to the conventional mainstream conservatism, represented largely by the Republican Party. In fact, however, the term “alternative right” had been used earlier, in November of 2008 by Paul Gottfried, who is known as a "paleoconservative," in an address to the H. L. Mencken Club.

The alt-right today is associated (some would insist not accurately) with white supremacy, anti-immigration, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, and homophobia. 

In shortening “alternative right” to “alt-right,” political writers are following the lead of music critics who have spoken of “alt-rock” since the 1980s. “Alt,” or “alternative” rock music is a cutting-edge genre that is distinct from mainstream rock music, and includes “punk,” “underground,” “new wave,” “post punk,” “college,” and “indie” rock. Alt-rock is fiercely iconoclastic and non-commercial.

Some pundits are now also referring to an “alt-left,” by which they mean a radically liberal philosophy that looks to such icons as activists Saul Alinsky and William Ayers for its inspiration.

Alternative, as used in this sense, means “outside the established cultural, social, or economic system.”  Related but not identical in usage to the adjective alternate, it is derived from Latin alternus, which means “occurring by turns or in succession.”

“Right” and “left” became political terms during the French Revolution when members of the National Assembly who were conservative royalists seated themselves on the right side of the chamber, and those who were revolutionists seated themselves on the left. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always written what he regards as “alt-verse.”  Certainly it is an alternative to all we hold sacred.


            I’d call a halt
            To all that’s alt:
            I’m always orthodox.
            My crayon shines
            Inside the lines,
            And I think inside the box.

            It’s not my fault
            If you like alt,
            They say to each his own,
            I won’t complain
            If you remain
            Outside my comfort zone.           

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

It’s Only Trompe l’Oeil

This seems as good a time as any to explore the origins of the noun trumpery, which comes to us from the 14th-century Middle French word tromperie, derived from tromper, “to deceive.” The root is the same as that of trompe l’oeil, a style of painting that is an optical illusion, that is, literally, it “deceives the eye.”

Trumpery has a number of meanings, all related to the concept of deception. Its first meaning was simply “deceit,” “fraud,” or “trickery,” seen in print as early as 1456, in Sir Gilbert Haye’s disquisition on army law. In the same work trumpery was also used to mean “nonsense” or “rubbish.” A later meaning, “something of less value than it seems,” dates to 1531, and in 1600 it was used to mean “showy but worthless finery.”

Applied to religion, trumpery means “superstition,” and in gardening it refers to “weeds that hinder the growth of valuable plants.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is well versed in trumpery; in fact, all his verses may be regarded as prime examples of that quality.

            Spare me from Trumpery,
            It can be dangerous,
            Bet you know how.

            When the Republicans
            Come to their senses,
            Give me a heads-up
            Four years from now.       

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pejorocracy in America

Not that it’s relevant to any current affairs, of course, but I recently was introduced to the word pejorocracy, thanks to the British poet John Freeman, an old friend. The word means a system of government by the worst, rather than the best. In that sense it's the opposite of aristocracy. Pejorocracy is a hybrid formation from the Latin pejor (‘”worse”) and the Greek -kratia (“rule” or “dominion”). The Latin root also appears in the word pejorative.

Pejorocracy  was coined by Ezra Pound in Canto LXXIX of the Pisan Cantos, in which he refers to the “snot of pejorocracy.”

In an era of vigorous disputation about the pros and cons of such hegemonies as theocracy, plutocracy, meritocracy, and technocracy, as well as that old standby, democracy, it’s good to know there’s also a word to use when our government is in the hands of someone considered to be the worst of the worst—just in case such a circumstance should ever arise.   

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has lived for many years in a Chardonocracy, in which his life is ruled by the golden-hued contents of a green bottle, or should I say a series of such bottles. Chacun à son goût .

            We should all be very grateful
            That we live in a democracy,
            But it would be less hateful
            Without so much hypocrisy.            

Monday, November 7, 2016

Of Treacle Tarts and Spotted Dick

Among the foods served at a British-style restaurant I visited last week are some whose names are not immediately clear to Americans. 

Eccles cakes are named for the town of Eccles, a suburb of Manchester, where these small, round cakes made from flaky pastry and filled with currants, were first served in 1793. They are similar to (and better known than) Chorley cakes, named for another Lancashire town, and made with shortcrust pastry. Blackburn is another Lancashire town that gets its name on a cake, this one using stewed apples instead of currants. And, of course, we’re all familiar with the Banbury cake, from Oxfordshire, which is quite similar to an Eccles cake, but oval in shape.

Another dessert, whose name tends to raise eyebrows in some quarters, is spotted dick, a sponge cake pudding made with suet and currants or raisins. The “spotted” part of the name refers to the currants that dot the outside of the pudding, but the “dick” has etymologists puzzled. It may be a corruption of the last syllable of pudding, which became puddink, then puddich, and finally, just dich. Others say it is a corruption of the word dough, and some insist it is a German word meaning “thick” or “viscous.” Among other nineteenth-century meanings of dick are “dictionary,” “apron,” “policeman,” and “riding whip”—although none of these seem to apply. Perhaps you can think of another meaning of dick, but establishing its relevance to a dessert pudding may take some doing.

Sticky toffee pudding is a moist sponge cake, made with finely chopped dates and covered in toffee sauce. Toffee is a confection made by caramelizing sugar or molasses, along with butter. The origin of the word toffee is unknown, but some experts say it is derived from a Creole word meaning “sugar and molasses.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1825 and says it’s a variant of taffy, which is also a confection made from caramelized sugar and is etymologically related either to tafia, a West Indian word referring to a rum-like liquor distilled from molasses, or to ratafia, a fruit-based cordial made in France.

Finally, many Brits adore treacle pudding, which is a steamed sponge cake with treacle poured over it, or treacle tart, a pie-like shortcrust pastry with a filling of treacle. Treacle is an uncrystallized syrup made during the refining of sugar. The two most common kinds are a light-colored one, called golden syrup, and a darker variety, which is also known as molasses. Treacle is a Middle English word that describes a medicine used to treat poison and snakebites.  It is derived from Old French traicle and ultimately from Latin theriaca, which means “concerning venomous beasts.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is very fond of golden syrup, especially the kind known as Chardonnay.

            The dick is spotted,
            The cream is clotted,
                        Hooray! Let’s sound the trumpets!
            The tea is potted,
            The pot is hotted,
                        It’s time to butter crumpets.
            My tie’s unknotted,
            And I’m besotted,
                        Now please send in the strumpets.