Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Dibs on Nibs

Not many readers, I expect, will recall the pop-jazz singer of the 1940s and 1950s who was invariably introduced as “Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs.” It was a nickname conferred on her by the radio host Garry Moore, playing on the common phrase “His Nibs,” a satirical title of honor for a person of self-importance.

No longer much in use, “His Nibs” first appeared in 1821 and its origin, according to all the etymological experts, is obscure.  Clearly, it is not related to nib in the singular, which is a variant of neb, and means either a “beak” or a “pen point.” It derives from the Old Norse nef (“beak”). 

More likely, “His Nibs” had its origin in nabob, a word that came from the Hindi navāb and Urdu nawāb, which are words for a provincial governor of the Mogul Empire in India and, hence, a “person of great wealth and power.”
Nabob also gave us nob, which appeared in 1703, a slang term for a person of the upper class. San Francisco’s Nob Hill, was named for four such persons, the railroad tycoons Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis Huntington, who built mansions there.

Another variant also probably descended from nabob is nabs, dating from 1790, and used with a possessive as a jocular designation of an important person, i.e. “His Nabs.”

Georgia Gibbs was born Frieda Lipschitz in 1919 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and became known, first as Fredda Gibson and then as Georgia Gibbs, as a singer whose hits included “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake,“ “Kiss of Fire,” and “Dance With Me, Henry.”  She died in 2006 at the age of 87.

His Nibs, The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, would like to hobnob with nabobs, but most of them prefer to avoid him.

                  I once had a pal who was known as His Nibs,
                  And he could not abide anyone who told fibs.
                                    If someone strayed from the truth
                                    He would say, “That’s uncouth!”
                  And poke the offender quite hard in the ribs.

                  If His Nibs were around in 2018,
                  And tuned to Fox News on the big TV screen,
                                    When he heard all the inanity
                                    Of Carlson, Ingraham, and Hannity,
                  There’d more aching ribs than you’ve ever seen. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Bar Talk

Normally, I don’t like to steal material from other writers to use in this blog.  Well, that’s not entirely true; I steal a lot, but I usually try to disguise the theft. In this case, however, I’m reprinting verbatim a very clever Facebook post, whose author is anonymous, but nonetheless deserves to stand up and take a bow.

Herewith, a few variations on the “man walks into a bar” jokes:

            A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

            A bar was walked into by the passive voice.

            An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.

            Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”

            A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.

            Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.

            A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

            A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.

            A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.

            Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.

            A synonym strolls into a tavern.

            At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar -- fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.

            A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.

            The conditional and the subjunctive would walk into a bar, if it were possible.

            A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned a man with a glass eye named Ralph.

            The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

            An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars.

            A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.

            A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.

The Bard of Buffalo bayou walks into a bar every chance he gets.  When he comes out, he’s usually staggering and clutching a sheaf of dubious verses, such as:

             A florist walked into a bar,
            And said, “I’ll have two Buds.”
            A laundress who was with him said,
            “Just pour me up some suds.”

            “On second thought,” the laundress said,
            “Make that a cup of Cheer.”
            And then an undertaker said,
            “I think I’ll have a bier.”           

            An optician walked into the bar
            And said, “I’d like two glasses.”
            A fisherman then said, “I want
            Some ale—make that two Basses.”

            A milkman walked into the bar,
            And said, “I’ll take a quart.”
            A sailor right behind him said,
            “I’m really into port.”

            A cotton farmer in the bar
            Remarked, “I need a gin.”
            A census-taker then came in
            And asked for Mickey Finn.

            A contortionist squeezed in
            And called out, “Bottom’s up!”
            Omar Khayyam came in then
            And wrote, “Come fill the cup.”

            A gunman walked into the bar
            And said, “I’ll take a shot.”
            A realtor scanned the drink list and
            Declared, “I’ll have the lot.”

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.