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.”

Monday, June 5, 2017

Have Tux, Will Travel

The first tuxedo I ever acquired was when I was fifteen. Although I was definitely not a member of the elite upper crust, I was a student at a public high school (Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar) at which a considerable number of scions of well-to-do families were enrolled. It was the custom of these well-heeled young people to honor themselves from time to time throughout the school year with formal balls, usually held at the River Oaks Country Club, situated at the opposite end of the boulevard on which the high school faced.

Consequently, I was invited to a number of gala events that were several notches above my natural social station. My mother, a divorcée struggling to support her aged father, her feckless son, and herself on a secretary’s salary of $300 per month, soon found it was more economical to purchase a formal outfit for her social-climbing teenager than to rent all that gear several times a year.

At a discount clothing emporium known as SchwoBilt, now no longer with us, we purchased for a relatively modest sum a black jacket with faux-silk lapels, black trousers with a silk stripe down each leg, a white formal shirt, a maroon bow-tie and cummerbund (that color was the fashion then), a pair of cheap mother-of-pearl cufflinks and matching set of studs. Voilà! I was in high society!

That tuxedo, cheap as it was, lasted me through graduate school, after which I acquired a new one for my wedding. During my days at the Society for the Performing Arts, a tux constituted my ordinary evening workclothes, so I acquired yet another monkey suit, which has lasted me to this day.

The name tuxedo stems from Tuxedo Park, a summer resort for the wealthy in upstate New York, where the short black dinner jacket was first worn by daring young blades around 1886. Known in England as a dinner suit or simply a dinner jacket, the tuxedo coat was a departure from the long tailcoat that had been customary in formal dress. In France and most European countries, the tuxedo is known as a smoking, derived from the English smoking jacket, which was the first manifestation of a short coat for evening wear, introduced by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).

Tuxedo is etymologically derived from the Algonquin p’tuck-sepo, which means “crooked river.”

While we're on an etymological kick, I might as well mention that cummerbund has its origin in the Hindi kamarband, derived from Persian kamar ("waist") and band ("something that ties").

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou often appears in a tuxedo, so that he won't scandalize the neighbors by walking around in his skivvies while his overalls are at the cleaners.

            Tuxedoed, black-tied, cummerbunded,
            Too bad I’m also under-funded.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tea Formation

In honor of a visit by the Duchess of York, I see the high-society folks in Houston have thrown a little afternoon get-together that they called a “high tea.” Although I was not present at this gala event, I’m willing to bet that it was not high tea at all.

Most Americans have the mistaken notion that “high tea” is a very elaborate spread, replete with silver teapot, fine china cups, dainty finger sandwiches of cucumber and smoked salmon, rich cakes, delicate cream puffs, chocolate éclairs, crumpets, and buttery scones laden with clotted cream. 

That’s “afternoon tea,” albeit a very upscale one. A more typical afternoon tea would consist of a cup of tea, a few biscuits (cookies), and maybe a slice of cake.

Variations of afternoon tea include a “light tea,” in which the food is generally limited to sweets, such as biscuits, sponge cakes, madeleines, or trifle; “full tea,” in which various savory sandwiches are added to a large array of sweets; and “cream tea,” in which the principal food is scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry preserves. If fresh strawberries are served with the scones, the cream tea becomes a “strawberry tea.”

The misunderstanding about “high tea” comes from the interpretation of the word “high,” which is wrongly thought in this instance to mean “grand” or “elegant.” In fact “high tea,” usually served in working-class households, consists of simple, hot food—fried eggs, sausages, cheese, tomatoes, chips, beans, etc., as well as a cup of tea—and serves as the evening meal. Nowadays, one finds such a meal referred to as “high tea” mostly in Scotland and the North of England. In other places it may be known as “supper” of simply “tea.”

The best explanation I have come across as to why it’s called “high tea,” is that it was eaten around 6:00 p.m. by servants at a dinner table of standard height—as opposed to the low tea tables on which afternoon tea for the upper crust had been served, usually at about 4:00 p.m. Eaten from a more elevated table, the meal was therefore a “high” tea.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is usually high himself, but not from tea.

            The high and mighty
            Like their high tea,
            But I’ll take low tea
            Over no tea. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Illicit vs. Elicit

I could scarcely believe my eyes when The New York Times, which really ought to know better, quoted a student at the University of California, Berkeley, as saying:
            “A lot of the speakers whom they invited were done just to
illicit a reaction, to cause a negative outburst.” 

That ludicrously erroneous illicit was changed to elicit in the online posting, but how it ever got past copy editors into the print edition boggles the mind. 

Elicit is a verb, dating to the 1640s in English, derived from the Latin elicitus, past participle of elicere, “to draw forth, evoke.” 

Illicit, is an adjective, which goes all the way back to 1500, from the Old French Illlicite, meaning “illegal, forbidden,” from the Latin illicitus, which also means “not lawful.”

The two words are very similar in pronunciation, which no doubt accounts for their confusion with each other. Nonetheless, such an egregious misuse makes one wonder if copy editors are still employed at The New York Times. 

Illicit is only one of many adjectives that have been used to refer to The Bard of Buffalo Bayou. A few of the many others are immoral, obscene, repugnant, ridiculous, odious, and abhorrent. 

           There was a young lady named Bisset,
            Whose films were somewhat explicit.
                        When one went a bit far,
                        It was labeled with “R,”
            And the censors pronounced it illicit.

            The response that this did elicit
            From the highly indignant Miss Bisset
                        Was “Chacun à son goût,
                        If it’s too hot for you,
            The solution is simply to miss it.”                       

Monday, April 24, 2017

Once More Unto the Breeches

I’ve been collecting malapropisms from ostensibly very high-class publications, and it’s surprising how many usage errors turn up in journals who purport to use good English. Most of them are the type of malapropism known as an eggcorn, which is named for a mistake made by a woman who misunderstood the word acorn.

The New Yorker, of all esoteric literary magazines, recently wrote that the Royal Shakespeare Company had gone “once more unto the breech” in its productions of for history plays. According to my dictionary this might mean the RSC had betaken itself to half of a pair of short pants, to the rear end of someone's body, to a baby being born head first, or to part of a firearm to the rear of the barrel. None of these made much sense.

I think The New Yorker intended to say the Shakespeareans had gone to the breach, alluding to a quotation from Henry V:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
            Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In this sense breach means a “gap, as in a wall, made by battering.” It derives from Middle English breche, which means “an act of breaking.”

Among other such eggcorns I’ve encountered are “go to great links” (instead of “lengths”), “last-stitch effort” (“last-ditch”), “tow the line” (“toe”), “well-healed” (“heeled”), and “mute point” (“moot”). 

Malapropisms, by the way, as everyone knows, are named for the character Mrs. Malaprop, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, who says things like “illiterate” when she means “obliterate,” “illegible” when she means “ineligible,” and “contagious” when she means “contiguous.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou says exactly what he means, and the more’s the pity.

            Henry V was a merry old soul,
            And a merry old soul was he,
            Defeating the French was his favorite goal,
            And he set out to do with glee.
            He called for his soldiers, and then called for more,
            And told them go “unto the breach,”
            He vanquished the French by the end of Act Four,
            And then gave a very long speech.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Joint Endeavor

I recently came across a reference to someone “casing the joint.” It means to inspect premises, usually with the intent of robbing them. It originated as underworld slang around 1900. But why?

Joint  in old slang meant a criminal association, based on the fact that it was a “joint endeavor.” Later it meant a place where criminals gather.  By the 1880s in the United States joint referred specifically to an opium den, and from that use its meaning spread to include illegal saloon, brothel, gambling den, night club (“juke joint”), cheap restaurant, and, finally, any kind of place or establishment. It’s also suggested that its later meanings derived from the notion of a private side-room, “joined” to the main room of a place of business, where unsavory people might gather to gamble, drink, smoke, take drugs, and conduct illegal operations. 

The verb case, meaning “enclose in a case,” dates to the 1570s. Not until around 1915 did the word enter American slang with the meaning of “inspect or examine,” perhaps from the idea of looking at something from all sides, in the same manner as a case, or box, would enclose it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou cases every joint he frequents before he will enter it.  And he never gets too far from the door, so as to make a quick getaway if required. He’s also getting lazy, as evidenced by this reprint of a verse that appeared in this space a few years ago.  But it’s still valid!

            My joints are worn but they don’t creak yet,
            My plumbing’s old but doesn’t leak yet,
            My hair is thin and turning white,
            I cannot see things well at night.
            My heart needs help to keep its rhythm,
            My lungs, I’m sure, have things wrong with ‘em.
            My knees are getting very wobbly—
            I have a few years left, most prob’ly.
            But though I’m crumbling bit by bit,           
            I am not ready yet to quit.
            Instead, I think that I would rather
            Find all those rosebuds I should gather.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Wrack or Rack?

I have racked my brain to find someway to prevent the nation from going to wrack and ruin.

Or should that be “I have wracked my brain” to find some way to prevent the nation from going to “rack and ruin”?

Etymologists seem to waffle a bit on this one, with more than one so-called expert suggesting that either rack or wrack might be correct. 

Rack in the sense of “racking one’s brain” means to “torture,” in reference to the medieval practice of inflicting pain on recalcitrant heretics by placing them on a movable rack pulling their limbs in different directions. Oooh, that would hurt. The word has its origin in Old English reccan, meaning to “stretch.”

Bryan Garner, in his always reliable Dictionary of Modern American Usage is unequivocal. “The idiom is rack one’s brains,” he writes. “The root meaning of rack is to stretch, hence to torture by stretching.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference to this usage is in a 1583 poem by Edward Farr, in which he writes, “Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.” 

Some etymologists, however, suggest the idiom is “wrack—with a ‘w”—one’s brain,” that is to “destroy” it or “ruin it completely,” which is the meaning of wrack, stemming from the Old English wræc, or “misery, punishment.” That is clearly the reference in the phrase “wrack and ruin,” in which wrack means “utter destruction. 

The term “going to wreck” was used as early as 1548 by the clergyman Ephraim Udall, who wrote in a sermon, “The flocke goeth to wrecke and utterly perisheth.”  By 1577 the phrase “wrack and ruin” was used by Henry Bull in his translation of Luther’s Commentarie upon the fifteen psalms: “Whiles all things seeme to fall to wracke and ruine.”

But there has always been confusion about the word.  In 1599 historian Thomas Fowler in The History of Corpus Christi College wrote, "In the mean season the College shall goe to rack and ruin."

Maybe it would be better simply to think very hard about a way keep the country from going to the dogs.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou went to the dogs years ago and can’t get back.
       I’m sittin’ here frettin’ and cursin’ and stewin'
       While the country is goin’ to rack and to ruin.
       I’m waitin’ to see the next message on Twitter
       From the feverish brain of the orange-colored critter.
       Do you think it might be a good deal on Trivago
       For a really cheap rate at that swank Mar-a-Lago? 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“That Sucks! Or Does It?”

“Be lousy” was the clue in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle, and the correct solution was SUCK. Some linguistic purists raised eyebrows at the inclusion of this word in a popular daily puzzle that may be attempted by staid Presbyterian preachers, precocious third-graders, or prim maiden aunts. Its presence in a usually G-rated puzzle struck some critics as jarring—for a journal that regards any words that whiff of impropriety as not fit to print. But is the root of suck, when used to denote something undesirable, a reference to bodily functions best left unmentioned at the breakfast table—or did it originate in something quite innocuous?

The basic meaning of the word suck is to “draw liquid into the mouth through a vacuum created by moving the lips and tongue.” It ultimately comes from Latin sugere, via Old High German, Old English (sūcan), and Middle English (suken). Babies do it with milk, bees with nectar, and vampires with blood. The word is believed to be imitative, a re-creation of of the sound made when sucking. It’s been around in English since at least the ninth century.

British schoolchildren have used the phrase “sucks to you” as a term of contemptuous dismissal since the nineteenth century. The origin of that phrase is thought to stem from “go suck an egg.”

The first usage of suck to mean “be contemptible” or “be undesirable” has been traced by the Online Etymology Dictionary to 1971. There are several theories as to its origin.

One possibility is that it means simply to “suck the joy out of something.” Another is that it comes from the phrase often used by farmers to indicate something inferior: “it sucks hind teat,” referring to the position on the mother’s udder to which the runt of a litter of pigs is usually relegated. Some wordsmiths believe suck originated as a term among jazz musicians to indicate an inferior horn player who sounded as if he was sucking on his instrument rather than blowing.

There is, however, general agreement among etymologists that suck owes its usage as a derogatory term to a sexual connotation. The word was first used to refer to oral sex in 1928. Despite its seeming history, most etymologists also agree that over the years suck has lost its connection to a sex act and today, while it still may be slightly vulgar in polite usage, it is not regarded as obscene.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is almost always regarded as obscene, not only in his execrable verses, but also in his personal habits, of` which the less said the better.

            To read the failing New York Times
            Some think would be the worst of crimes.       
            They scan the paper’s Op-Ed pages
            And find opinions quite outrageous.
            Then, to hold on to their sanity,
            They turn to pseudo-news from Hannity.   

Monday, March 20, 2017

Wi-Fi Revisited

One of the customers recently asked the meaning of the phrase “Wi-Fi.” You see it advertised everywhere—hotels, bars, coffee shops, airports, airplanes—sometimes free and sometimes for a hefty fee.

What Wi-Fi means is the technology enabling electronic devices such as computers and phones to connect to the Internet without wired connections.  It is in fact a set of controls (officially designated “The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 Direct Sequence Standards”) allowing access to certain radio frequencies on which computer communication can be established.

The Wi in Wi-Fi obviously means “wireless.” But what about the Fi? I've covered this before in a blog, but apparently people forget.  Wi-Fi is a trademarked name that was coined around 1999 by Interbrand, a firm of brand consultants. According to the founder of the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi was created as a pun on Hi-Fi, which is short for “High Fidelity,” a phrase used by the audio industry to refer to exceptionally high quality sound reproduction. The Fi in Wi-Fi, then, really doesn’t stand for anything.  It just has a nice ring to it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t stand for anything either. But that’s fine with him, since his readers can’t stand his verses.

                        A high-tech young man uses Wi-Fi,
                        Reads Sci-Fi, and listens to Hi-Fi.
                                    And to prove his modernity,
                                    He joined a fraternity—
                        And now he’s a brother at Pi Fi.

Monday, March 6, 2017

“…As Long As They Spell Your Name Right”

P. T. Barnum is credited with famously saying, “Any kind of publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right.” This aphorism came to mind today when the Houston Chronicle had a front-page spread on a new energy exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which is being overseen by Paul Bernhardt. The Bernhardt in question is actually Paul Bernhard (with no “t”), who happens to be my son. C’est la vie.

As it happens, the original quotation is actually: “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” And Barnum is not the only person who is credited with assuring us that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, George M. Cohan, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, and President Harry S. Truman are among those to whom that quote has been attributed at one time or another.  Maybe they all said it, but which one was first?

In Safire’s Political Dictionary, the late New York Times columnist William Safire gave credit for the saying to “Big Tim” Sullivan. Sullivan was a controversial political figure prominent in New York’s Tammany Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He served briefly in Congress and was responsible for early gun control legislation known as the “Sullivan Act.”

But Michael Turney, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Kentucky University, has deduced  that Barnum must be the one who originated the saying. “Chronologically, he came first,” says Turney, “and, to me, he seems to have been the most outspoken and the most self-deprecatingly cynical… It simply sounds like something he would have said.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows plenty of names that are difficult to spell. He is especially troubled by “Taliaferro,” which for some arcane reason is pronounced “Tolliver.”

            I met a young lady named Taliaferro,
            At a matinee showing of “Oliaferro!”
            Her looks made me quiaferro
            From my lips to my liaferro,
            In fact I was quiaferroing alliaferro!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Gaby Talk

I have been rereading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which originally appeared in 1885, and which I first read a little while after that, when I was about five. I came across one line from a poem called “Good and Bad Children” that puzzled me then and puzzled me once more seventy-five years later.
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            All grow up as geese and gabies,
            Hated, as their age increases,
            By their nephews and their nieces.
What, I wondered at five, and again at nearly eighty, is a gaby?

It turns out it’s a British dialect word, from the Midlands and the North Country, which means “simpleteon.” Its first appearance in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796.

Its etymology mystifies the etymologists—so what are we poor mortals to make of it?  It’s possible it is related to the Old Norse gapa, which came down to us through Old English, and means “an openmouthed stare of wonder or awe.”  Some experts want to connect it to the Iceland gapi, which means a “rash or reckless person.” But no one has come up with a completely convincing rationale, so we’ll have to leave it hanging.

Many readers would like to leave the Bard of Buffalo Bayou hanging, as retribution for atrocities like this:

            I want no ifs, or buts, or maybes—
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            And folks who tweet in rampant rages
            Should be locked in padded cages,
            Lest their vehemence increases
            And they abruptly go to pieces.

Monday, February 6, 2017

From Scratch

A recent news item opined that some Republicans wishing to scuttle the Affordable Care Act might be planning to "start from scratch." Do you suppose that meant they would begin by putting a band-aid on a minor scratch?  No, probably the writer meant they would "begin anew." But how did this meaning develop?

Scratch is a blend of two Middle English words, scratten and cracchen, both of which meant to “scrape or dig with claws or nails.” From this definitioin the noun scratch was derived, meaning “a slight tear in the skin.”

The phrase start from scratch originated in the sporting world, around the eighteenth century, where the starting point was denoted by “scratching” it into the ground. This might apply to the starting point for a race, the marking of batting and bowling creases in cricket, or the indication of the boxers’ positions in a prizefight. The first recorded instance of scratch being used as a sporting term was in 1778, in “The Hambledon Song,” an ode to cricket by the Rev. R. Cotton, who wrote:
            Your skill all depends upon distance and sight,
            Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.
The first athletes said to “start from scratch” were two runners in a handicap race in Sheffield, England, who were so described in a December, 1853, issue of The Era, a sports newspaper.

Golfing took up the word scratch, to apply it to a golfer who has a zero handicap. (A handicap is a number to be deducted from the actual number of strokes a golfer makes, to derive his final score. The handicap is calculated by one of several complicated systems that evaluate a player's skill relative to other players.)
By extension the phrase starting from scratch came to mean beginning any task under the assumption that no previous measures had been taken aimed at completing the task.

Nowadays you also hear it used for culinary terms, like “scratch biscuits,” that is those made without using a prepared mix.

Oh, about those Republicans trying to fix the health care system by starting from scratch, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, crank that he is, has this to say:

            O, send me somewhere,
            With Obamacare,
            Where the doctors don’t charge any fee,
            Where seldom is heard
            A Republican word,
            And the drugs on prescription are free.

            Please, send me somewhere
            With real news on the air,
            And not weird Breitbartian views,  
            Where Walter Cronkite
            Can be heard every night,
            And there’s not a peep from Fox News.
            Yes, send me somewhere,
            With no orange billionaire
            Surrounded by sycophant hacks,
            Where Bannon and Flynn,
            Conway and her kin
            Are all just alternative facts.