Monday, January 29, 2018

Oscar and Tony and Emmy and Grammy

 The Grammy Awards aired the other night on television, to be followed in a month or so by the Oscars, then the Tonys, and, finally, in September, the Emmys. This makes me wonder what all those names mean.

The origin of the Oscar is both well-known and mysterious. First awarded in 1929, it was was known then as the Academy Award, named for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. There are conflicting stories of how it became known as the Oscar. The Academy’s executive secretary, Margaret Herrick, claimed that when she saw the statuette she thought it resembled her Uncle Oscar (actually her cousin, Oscar Pierce), and began calling it that. But actress Bette Davis maintained that she named the statue after her first husband, bandleader Harmon Oscar Nelson. The name remained unofficial until 1939, when the Academy officially adopted it.
The Tony Award, for excellence in the Broadway theatre, was established by the American Theatre Wing and named in honor of the organization’s co-founder, actor-director Antoinette (“Tony”) Perry, who died in 1946, the year before the first award was given.

Emmy Awards were first given in 1949 for TV shows produced in the Los Angeles area. They later became national in scope and are now administered by three separate but related television industry associations.  The first name proposed for the award in the early 1950s was the “Ike,” which was short for “iconoscope,” a tube used in television production.  But that term risked confusion with then President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was known as “Ike.” “Immy,” the common term for an “image orthicon tube,” used in early cameras, was chosen instead, and this was soon changed to the name “Emmy,” to match the feminine statuette that was given.

The first name proposed for the Grammy Award was the “Eddie,” for Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the phonograph (which used a cylinder recording).  But the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which gives the award, decided instead to name it for the gramophone, a German invention that was disc-based. The Gramophone Award, first given in 1958, was immediately shortened to “Grammy.”

These are regarded as the “Big Four” awards in entertainment, and only twelve artists are EGOTs—those who have won all four of them in competitive categories. They are: composer-musicians Richard Rodgers, Jonathan Tunick, Marvin Hamlisch, and Robert Lopez; actors Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, and Whoopi Goldberg; and producer-directors Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, and Scott Rudin.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has not won any of these awards, or any others, for that matter. The reason will be obvious if you read the following:

            Oh, I crave no prize,
            Even one of great size,
            Made of gold that would glisten and flash.
            Such an honor, you see,
            Was not meant for me—
            I’d much rather just have the cash.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Nifty Swifties

Some of the best Tom Swifties I’ve ever seen were posted recently on Facebook. For those who may have forgotten, Tom Swift is the hero of a series of boy’s books, the first of which, Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle, was published in 1910. They were written by the pseudonymous “Victor Appleton,” actually publisher Edward Stratemeyer and several of his employees. The same group also published books about the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, the Hardy Boys, Uncle Wiggily, Don Sturdy, and Nancy Drew—all by Stratemeyer and his team using various noms de plume.   

The style of the Tom Swift books was noted for usinig adverbial modifiers for many of Tom’s statements, as: “….Tom said cheerfully” or “…Tom said eagerly.”  This practice gave rise in the 1920s to a type of pun called a “Tom Swifty.”

Here are some of the examples I just came across:

“I can’t believe I ate that whole pineapple,” Tom said dolefully.
“I dropped the toothpaste,” Tom said, crestfallen.
“That’s the last time I pet a lion,” Tom said offhandedly.
“I’ll dig another ditch around the castle,” Tom said remotely.
“We need a home-run hitter,” Tom said ruthlessly.
“I shouldn’t sleep on the railroad tracks,” Tom said, beside himself.

And a variant: “You call this a musical?” asked Les miserably.

Some other gems, which, incidentally, can be found in my book Puns, Puzzles & Wordplay (originally Words Gone Wild), still available at a greatly reduced price at, are:

“Elvis is dead,” Tom said expressly.
“Your honor, you’re crazy,” Tom said judgmentally.
“I work in the prison cocktail bar,” Tom contended.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, in honor of this occasion, has resurrected one of his verses, which needed only a little resuscitation before showing signs of life:

           There once was a guy named Tom Swift,
           Whose 9-to-5 shift got short shrift.
               By noon he would lift
               Several pints—get my drift?               
           To show he was swift getting squiffed.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Milkshake Duck, Anyone?

The Oxford Dictionaries, publisher of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, has chosen youthquake as its word of the year. I suppose I might as well confess that I have never seen or heard this word before—even though it was allegedly coined in the 1960s by none other than Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue magazine. 

Youthquake’s self-evident definition is “significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions of young people.” Its equally self-evident etymology is from the words youth and earthquake.

While I’m on the subject, I might as well also confess that the runner-up words that the Oxford editors considered are also, for the most part, equally unknown to me: Those words are antifa, broflake, newsjacking, white fragility, gorpcore, kompromat, Milkshake Duck, and unicorn. 

Okay, I know about the radical leftist antifa (or anti-fascist) movement, especially with respect to its agitation against Confederate monuments. And of course I’m familiar with unicorns—I see them all the time—although I gather the word must have some more contemporary meaning to have been selected by the Oxford folks. 

But broflake?  Gorpcore?  Milkshake duck?  These are total strangers to my vocabulary. Who on earth uses these terms and what in blue blazes do they mean?

Well, for the benefit of those few of you who are as ignorant as I am of modern slang, here’s a quick glossary.

Broflake – a notably macho male who is easily offended, especially by liberal social reform.

Newsjacking – the art of subtly twisting a news item into a commercial plug or an endorsement of a point of view.

White fragility – discomfort by a white person when confronted with facts about racial injustice

Gorpcore – fashion design influenced by outdoors style, such as fleecy jackets, fannypacks, puffy sleeves, etc.  “Gorp” is a kind of trail food composed of granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts.

Kompromat – from a Russian portmanteau word meaning “compromising material” – damaging information used for blackmail or negative publicity of a public figure. 

Milkshake duck –  an internet meme consisting of a duck who can drink a milkshake, but who is later revealed to be a racist.  It now refers to anyone with feet of clay—originally enthusiastically praised but later found to have an unsavory side.

Unicorn – in its current sense, any product (especially food or drink) marketed in rainbow colors or decorated with glittery effects.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou and I are still trying to cope with the words of earlier years—like “swell,” “whoopee,” “the bees’ knees,” and “chuckaboo.”  Take that, Oxford Dictionaries!

            New words are a pain,
            They’re all so ephemeral.
            They just clutter my brain.
            I’d rather take Demerol.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hook, Line, & Sinker?

I’ve always been fascinated by business entities—mostly law offices, financial firms, and advertising agencies—whose names are a list of the principal partners. Such names have always possessed a certain poetry for me, and I loved to recite them aloud. The classic, which I came across in my childhood, was Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne—an ad agency whose name the comedian Fred Allen famously said “sounds like a trunk falling downstairs.”

Nowadays, the firm usually goes by BBD&O, which has much less romance to it.

Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Beane was another wonderfully named company, until Smith replaced Beane, and eventually it became known simply as Merrill Lynch, and was then gobbled up by Bank of America.

Law firms are prime examples of polynominalism.  Among the best are Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Accountants were no slouches in the multiple-name department. Touche, Ross, Bailey & Smart led the pack, followed by Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery; Deloitte, Haskins & Sells; and Peat, Marwick & Mitchell. Mergers have destroyed the magic, and now instead we have plain old Deloitte or a monstrosity like KPMG. For shame!

Growing up in Houston, I was entranced by the names of law firms such as Vinson, Elkins, Weems & Searls (later either Connally or Smith was added); Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman & Bates (later plus Jaworski); Baker, Botts, Andrews, Shepherd & Coates; Andrews, Kurth, Campbell & Bradley (later plus Jones); and  Butler, Binion, Rice, Cook & Knapp.  When switchboard operators answered the phone “Butler Binion,” it always sounded to me as if they were saying “Butter beans.”

My alltime favorite, which managed to squeeze six partners’ names into the title, was Hill, Brown, Kronzer, Abraham, Watkins & Steely.

The Houston ad agency of Goodwin, Dannenbaum, Littman & Wingfield was also a gem, too often shortened in common parlance to GDL&W.

When I was an alleged student of philosophy at The Rice Institute way back when, our textbook had a chapter on German philosophers, several of whom I thought should have gotten together and formed a firm. It would have been called Schlegel, Schelling, Schiller, Schopenhauer, and Schleiermacher. Now that’s poetry!

Poetry is an alien term to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose verbiage is something else—although no one knows quite what.

            Trump, McConnell, Ryan, & Pence,
            All, by repute, Republican gents,
                        Were first against Moore,
                         Then said they were for--
            But wished they could stay on the fence.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What’s an Antille?

One of the customers recently asked me why there have not been any posts to Words Going Wild for several weeks.  Well, I’ve been pretty busy trying to keep count of the public figures who are apparently guilty of sexual harassment. Every time I think I’ve got a complete tally, whoops! here comes another one!  I’m going to need an abacus.

No matter. This seems as good a time as any to address the issue of the Antilles, where all those hurricanes recently caused such havoc. The “Antilles” is a term that refers to a string of islands in the Caribbean.

Specifically the “Greater Antilles” consist of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. The “Lesser Antilles” are divided into two sections: the “Leeward Islands” (away from the wind), which include the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, St. Kitts, Nevis, Barbuda, Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and a few others; and the “Windward Islands,” which curve southward (toward the wind), and comprise Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad, and Tobago.

In addition, just to complicate matters, there is a group along the northern coast of Venezuela, known as the “Leeward Antilles,” and they include Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, Tortuga, and Margarita.

So what is an “Antille”?  Actually, there’s no such thing as one Antille; it's what is known as a plurale tantum, or a noun that exists only in the plural, like “scissors” and “trousers.”

There are more than a couple of theories about the origin of the word.  Some say it is from the Portuguese ante (meaning “before”) and ilha (an archaic word for “island”).

Others say it's Gaelic, from an (“water”) and tealla (“land”). Another theory is that it comes from the word Anti (“opposite”) attached to ilhas, meaning the “Opposite Islands,” that is, those on the other side of the ocean.

Still other etymologists have tried to establish a connection with Plato’s Atlantis, the fictional “Island of Atlas” that appears in some of the dialogues, or with the Arabic al-Tin (“the dragon”), in reference to the sea-dragons usually pictured at the extremes of early nautical maps.

The term has been around since the Middle Ages. Some medieval maps show a mysterious land known as “Antilia” in various parts of the Atlantic Ocean. After the arrival of Columbus in 1492, the “West Indies” had a series of names, including the “Windward Islands” and the “Forward Islands.” In 1502 a Portuguese map called the Cantino Planisphere showed Las Antilhas del Rey de Castella (“the Antilles of the King of Castile”).

All this Antillean discussion has distracted me from counting sexual predators, and I see there are already several more waiting in line that I have to add to the list.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, in his usual enigmatic fashion, opines that we shouldn’t be surprised by all this masculine sexual misbehavior.

            Sexual harassment leads only to grief,
            But it’s not so surprising, for it’s been my belief
            That the precedent is ample
            When men follow the example
            That’s been set by the Predator-in-Chief. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Bye, Bye, Copy Editors

Earlier this summer, the venerable New York Times, long known as a bastion of meticulous editing, eliminated its copy desk. What this means is that there is no longer a department composed of copy editors, an elite group of specialists whose job it is to ensure that the writing is in acceptable style with correct grammar and word usage; check the accuracy of all assertions; verify any questionable sources; remove any potentially libelous or defamatory statements; assess the importance of a news story and assign it appropriate length and prominence in the page layout; and write a catchy, informative headline.

In times past the copy desk has been thought of as “the heart of the newspaper,” or as one copy editor put it, “its immune system.”  In the recent controversial elimination of the New York Times copy desk, on the other hand, its work was referred to as “low-value editing” and compared to “dogs urinating on a fire hydrant.”

In the future, all the editing tasks will be given to front-line editors, the same people who make the assignments to reporters and work with them on developing their stories. In other words, they will edit themselves.  And they’ll be told to hurry up—“streamlining” the process being one of the goals in getting rid of the copy desk.

This hardly strikes me as a prudent decision, especially in a time when the news media are being accused of perpetrating “fake news” on the public. To lose a complete step in the editing process can only increase the likelihood of inaccuracies in reporting.

On the most fundamental level, that of correct language usage, I have noticed an increasing sloppiness in the Times in recent weeks—solecisms that once would have been unthinkable in a paper of distinction. A few examples:

(In a nostalgic story about World War II): 
“Truman Calls on Nation to Forego Meat Tuesdays”

            What this says is that the nation is being asked to  
            “forego,” that is “go before” meat on Tuesdays.  The 
            correct word is “forgo,” meaning to "give up.”

They were their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit.”              
            This is simply a careless substitution of “were” for 

“Have tread.” 
            The verb “tread” has a profusion of past participles: 
            “trod,” “trodden” and “treaded” are all acceptable.   
            “Tread,” however, is not. 

“Laying in the bed.” 
             I think every educated person knows this should be  

I have little doubt that these errors are a result of hasty and perfunctory editing by people who are reporters are heart, without the concern for correct form found in a good copy editor. This is one more example of the deterioration of modern society, and I regret that the New York Times has succumbed to it.

Full disclosure: I began my brief career in the newspaper business as a copy editor on the old Houston Press, a Scripps-Howard daily that was swallowed by the Houston Chronicle in 1964.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is among those who has little truck with copy editors. He feels they inhibit the natural outpouring of his genius.

            You have to shell out many dimes 
            To get a copy of The Times, 
            And when you do, you’d like to think 
            The grammar’s right in all that ink. 

            But now The Times regards its editors 
            As little more than vicious predators, 
            And to our fear of terrorism
            It adds the threat of errorism.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Slanted Definitions


Some years ago, when I was on a national tour of the musical Mame starring Juliet Prowse, I published a weekly newspaper for the company called The Mame Bugle. It was usually two sides of an 8-1/2x14-inch sheet, which I composed on a portable electronic typewriter and had a printed at various local copy shops along the way. Our company numbered 55-60 actors, musicians, technicians, dressers, chaperones, tutors, infants, a road manager, and, for a brief period, a dog.

The newspaper’s contents consisted of articles on each of the 23 cities where we played, a recap of the previous week’s attendance, info on the following week’s hotels, personal news in a column called “Tour Tidbits,” games in which readers were to guess the identity of company members from clues given, crossword puzzles, word games, poetry, bad jokes, and the “Everyone-Noticed-You” column, which awarded a prize for the most egregious aberration in performance.

I was abetted in this journalistic endeavor by an actor named Neil Badders, who wrote much of the copy, and we also solicited contributions from company members.

This was a submission from our star, the late and much lamented Juliet Prowse:

“Slanted Definitions”
Bacteria – Lunchroom for chiropractors
Filly – Nonfenfical or ridiculouf
Gladiator – How the lion felt after consuming the Christian
Melanesia – Loss of memory in cantaloupes
Ragamuffin – Something to eat at a Ravi Shankar concert
Worcester – Even worse than worst

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a native of Worcester, as readers of his verse are quick to note.
                                    Miss Juliet Prowse
                                    Was taking her bows
                                    After a Mame matinee.
                                    When along came a spider,
                                    Who sat down beside her
                                    And said he had just seen the play.
                                    Then he got analytic,
                                    Said he was a critic,
                                    And began to attack and deride her.
                                    So Miss Prowse took her shoe
                                    And did just what I’d do—
                                    And that was the end of the spider.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Rocket Man vs. Dotard

When President Donald Trump referred to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un as “Rocket Man,” later amplified to “Little Rocket Man,” it got Kim’s dander up. His snappy comeback was, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U. S. dotard with fire.”

“Rocket Man” was presumably a reference to the Elton John-Bernie Taupin song of that name, which ends with the lyric, “Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.”

“Dotard,” on the other hand, is a once popular term that has fallen into disuse. Pronounced DOE-terd, it’s defined as a “person who is senile and has lost mental alertness.”

“Dotard” has a sterling literary history. Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales refers to an “olde dotard shrew.”  Shakespeare uses the word several times, notably in The Taming of the Shrew when Baptista says of Vincentio, “Away with the dotard!” In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Denethor tells Gandalf, “I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart.” Union General George McClellan said of his predecessor, Gen. Winfield Scott, “I don’t know whether he is a dotard or a traitor.”

But the word now is admittedly old-fashioned.

According to the Associated Press, what Kim actually called Trump was a “neukdari,” a derogatory Korean word for an “old person.” The North Koreans are known to use outdated Korean-English dictioinaries, so when the Korean news agency translated Kim’s remarks, “dotard” popped up as a synonym for “neukdari.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been in his dotage for many years. He’d like to remain there for some while, since there’s only one alternative. 

            You “Rocket Man,” said Mr. Trump,
            With a nod to to Elton John.
            He thought that it would make Kim jump
            And feel most put upon.

            But Kim was not to be outdone,
            And to a bookshop motored
            To seek a word with which to stun—
            And he discovered “dotard”!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


The Theatre Quiz Book
Thursday, October 5 – 4:30-6:30 p.m.
River Oaks Bookstore
3270 Westheimer at River Oaks Boulevard

Monday, September 4, 2017

How’s the Bayou By You?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s horrendous rainstorm, which caused many of Houston’s bayous to go over their banks, one of the more scholarly customers has sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal with some surprising information about the word bayou.

As the article notes, bayou, which means “slow-moving or sluggish creek or river,” may look and sound as if its origins are French, but in fact they are probably Native American. The word is principally used in the Gulf Coast region; elsewhere a similar waterway would more likely be called a stream, a brook, a river, or a canal.

The origin of bayou is believed to be bayuk, a Choctaw word, taken from a tribe that populated Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama until the 1830s, when they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Bayuk, generally spelled bayouque, later shortened to bayou, entered North American French sometime in the eighteenth century, and English-speakers soon borrowed it. Some etymologists say it first passed through a Native American pidgin called “Mobilian Jargon” that various tribes spoke among themselves.

Another entirely different theory traces bayou to the Spanish bahía, which means “bay.”

Houston is criss-crossed with bayous, including White Oak, Brays [pictured above, before and after flooding], Greens, Sims, Halls, Cedar, Armand, Vince, Luce and Carpenters—in all more than 2,500 miles of them, giving Houston the sobriquet “Bayou City.” 

The most prominent is Buffalo Bayou, which runs through downtown Houston, and where, in palmier days, the Bard could often be found lounging atop a pile of empty Chardonnary bottles, as fulsome lyrical effusions issued from his pen. Here is one of his most detested efforts from that era.

            I’ve never known if bayou
            Is pronounced to rhyme with Hi, you!
            Or if, when I say bayou,
            It should sound more like Ohio.



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