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


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.”

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.