Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hunkering With Harvey

During Hurricane Harvey and its long-lasting rainy aftermath, Houstonians were advised by public officials, news media, solicitous friends, and even a few total strangers to “hunker down.”  I’ve never been very clear about how I should go about hunkering. It sounds as if it involves some contorted physical effort which, at my age and in my condition, would be inadvisable. I generally prefer to “settle back” instead.

Everyone agrees the original meaning of the word “hunker” was to “crouch or squat.”  But etymologists are divided about its origins. Some trace it to 1720 in Scotland, theorizing it was a nasalized borrowing of the Old Norse huka (“crouch”) or hokra (“crawl”).  Others wish to establish a relationship with the northern British noun “hunker,” which means “haunch.” Webster traces it to Middle Low German hoken, which means either “squat” or “peddle.”

In any event, “hunker” found its way into Southern U. S. dialect around 1900, coupled with the word “down,” and meaning to “dig in for a sustained period.” For some unexplained reason the term “hunker down” entered widespread general usage around 1965.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou hunkers down a lot, but that’s because he can’t move from that position after his third glass of cheap Chardonnay.

            A banker who hankered to hunker
            Settled down for a while in a bunker.
                        But that dirty old stinker
                        Was a punk and a drinker,
            And he hunkered until he got drunker


Monday, August 21, 2017



One wrong letter in a phrase can make a lot of difference in its meaning. Here are some fanciful typographical errors in famous movie quotes, with whimsical suggestions of how they might be repurposed.

"Frankly, my bear, I don't give a damn." 
--Goldilocks reacts when accused of eating all the porridge.

"You know how to whittle, don't you? You just put your tips together and blog."
 --Bacall urges Bogey to share his woodworking skills on the Internet. 

"I have always depended on the kindness of stranglers.” 
--Blanche DuBois meets a serial killer in Boston. 

“We don't need no stinkin’ badgers!” 
--Mr. Toad erupts in anger at Mole, Rat, and their friend. 

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to reduce me, aren’t you?” 
--Dustin Hoffman responds to a woman’s observation that he is overweight. 

“Get thee to a gunnery.”
 --Hamlet urges Ophelia to acquire a firearm for her protection. 

“Here’s looking at you, Syd.”
 --Bogart enjoys a drink with Greenstreet between takes. 

"I coulda been a cowtender.” 
--Brando regrets he never worked on a ranch. 

“Show me the honey!”
 --Winnie the Pooh finds the pantry empty. 

“I’ll get you my pretty, and your little hog, too!” 
--The Wicked Witch of the West hankers for some bacon. 

"We’ll always have Parts.”
 --Bogart and Bergman acknowledge that superstars are never out of film work. 

"I’ll save what she’s having.” 
--Meg Ryan’s dinner companion asks for a doggy-bag. 

“You’re gonna need a bigger goat.” 
--A troll under a bridge asserts his superior size. 

"A nose by any name would smell as sweet.” 
--Juliet admires Romeo’s schnozz. 

"I’ll make him an offer he can’t recuse.”
 --Trump considers a new attorney general.

The Bird of Buffalo Bayou owes his success, or lack thereof, to typographical errors. They always make his verse look better than it is.

            A mischievous young holy terror 
            Was so naughty that no one could bear her, 
                   She was born overseas, 
                   And her parents said, “She’s 
           A topographical error.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

Let's Go Downtown!

In New York, New York, where “the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” the term downtown makes perfect sense. Downtown is the southern tip of the island (also known as “lower Manhattan”), just as it appears on most maps—down at the bottom. Uptown, of course, is north, at the top, and midtown is in the center. These terms came into use among New Yorkers around 1830.

But downtown developed another meaning, as Petula Clark told us in the ‘60s. It’s where you can “listen to the music of the traffic in the city,” and where the “lights are much brighter,” and where you can “forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”  In that sense downtown has nothing to do with direction; it means “central business district.” Traditionally, downtown is not only the commercial heart of a city, it’s also where most of the stores, hotels, theatres, restaurants, night clubs, and traffic congestion are found.

This meaning became widespread in North America around 1900. Of course, in recent years suburban flight and urban sprawl have diminished the importance of downtown as a city center. 

How did this usage of downtown come about?  Opinions differ. Some say it’s because suburbs were typically built on higher ground than the central part of the city. Possibly this is because many cities were originally founded on rivers, and to gain easy access to the water, they were situated at the lowest area in the river valley.

Other people say that downtown has its origin in the direction of a river’s flow with reference to a given point. If the given point is the earliest settlement in an area, further development likely occurred downriver, as movement of goods and people would have been easier in that direction.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t get downtown often any more; he says the hustle upsets his artistic equilibrium. Most people would say he had no equilibrium to begin with, owing to that third glass of Chardonnay.

            An entrepreneurial clown
            Liked to wait on a corner downtown.
                        Then he would holler,
                        “Give me a dollar,
            And I’ll stand on my head upside down.”

Friday, August 11, 2017

Any Portmanteau In A Storm

I read this morning about maglev trains, which will be able to transport passengers some 300 miles in about half an hour. I wasn’t familiar with the word maglev, so I looked it up and found that it is a portmanteau word derived from magnetic and levitation.

Portmanteau words are words formed by combining parts of two words, each of which describes some aspect of an object. A portmanteau is a type of suitcase popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that consisted of two sections that folded together, each designed to carry a specific type of clothing. Portmanteau is itself a portmanteau word, derived from the French porter (“carry”) and manteau (“coat”).

As applied to words, the term was more or less invented by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass, when Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the meaning and origin of some of the words in the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky.”  For example, mimsy is a combination of miserable and flimsy, slithy comes from slimy and lithe, and chortle (which has found a permanent place in the English language) was created from chuckle and snort.

English has adopted a great many portmanteau words as standard: sitcom, labradoodle, infomercial, glitterati, newscast, televangelist, motorcycle, taxicab, botox, camcorder, carjack, cyborg, vitamin, motel, etc.

Like Ogden Nash, who called himself a “worsifier,” the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has also come up with a portmanteau word to describe himself: chrymester.

                        Said Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell,
                        “Gee, little girl, I think you’re swell.           
                        You’re so light that I can carry you,
                        You know, I think I’d like to marry you!”

                        Said Alice Liddell to Lewis Carroll,
                        “I’m afraid that you are over a barrel,
                        You might think wedlock would be heaven,
                        But you forget I’m just eleven.”

                        And Lewis said, “Tut, tut, a shame!
                        But wait! Instead, I’ll put your name
                        In my new book. Won’t that be grand?”
                        Ergo:  “Alice in Wonderland.”