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.
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.”
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.
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”
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
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
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,
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
"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
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.
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.
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, adivorcée 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).
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.
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.
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
lot of the speakers whom they invited were done just to illicit a reaction, to
cause a negative outburst.”
ludicrously erroneous illicit was
changed to elicit in the online
posting, but how it ever got past copy editors into the print edition boggles
is a verb, dating to the 1640s in English, derived from the Latin elicitus, past participle of elicere, “to draw forth, evoke.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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;
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.
V was a merry old soul,
a merry old soul was he,
the French was his favorite goal,
he set out to do with glee.
called for his soldiers, and then called for more,
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
Jointin 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
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
My joints are worn but they don’t creak
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
I am not ready yet to quit.
Instead, I think that I would rather
Find all those rosebuds I should gather.
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
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
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?
“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
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.
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
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.
Jim Bernhard holds an M.A. in English literature from England's University of Birmingham, where he was a Marshall Scholar and flâneur, and a B.A. in history from Rice University in Houston, where he was an inadvertent member of Phi Beta Kappa. He has pursued (though never actually caught) innumerable careers including those of author, playwright, lyricist, actor, newspaperman, college professor, theatrical producer, concert impresario, TV host, and cruciverbalist. He is purportedly the author of the forthcoming YOU'RE ON! THE THEATRE QUIZ BOOK, which will be available in the fall of 2017. He also claims to have written FINAL CHAPTERS: HOW FAMOUS AUTHORS DIED; PUNS, PUZZLES, AND WORD PLAY; PORCUPINE, PICAYUNE & POST: STARS IN YOUR EYES; and with his wife, Virginia, LIFE IS NOT A DRESS REHEARSAL (an Amazon ebook)--all of which have been overlooked for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His blog about words is at WordsGoingWild.blogspot.com and another about how famous authors died at DeadAuthorsSociety.blogspot.com. Bernhard and his wife, professor emerita of history at the University of St. Thomas, live haphazardly in Houston.