Thursday, December 31, 2009

When They Begin the Begging

Have you ever begged a question?  You probably have and perhaps didn’t even know it at the time.  It is a technical term in logic, also known as petitio principii, meaning “a fallacy in which a premise is assumed to be true without warrant.” You could also call it circular reasoning, as in the following unsuccessful attempt to prove a statement:
            Dick (accusingly): Jane committed perjury!
            Perry Mason (with aplomb): How do you know Jane committed perjury?
            Dick (sputteringly): Because...she wasn’t telling the truth!
If that’s all the testimony Dick can muster, Perry will win yet another case, and Jane will get off scot-free.

In recent years, however, some people—even some who possess college degrees and unabridged dictionaries—have begun to use “beg the question” to mean “avoid asking the proper a question, or fail to provide an answer.” After providing the technically correct definition (i.e. the logical fallacy), The Oxford Companion to the English Language adds this second definition--with a caveat:  "Avoiding giving an answer or facing an issue.  Henry Fowler in Modern English Usage calls the second sense 'a misapprehension of which many writers need to disabuse themselves.'”  

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is absolutely dogmatic: "'Begging the question' does not mean 'evading the issue' or 'inviting the obvious questions,' as some mistakenly believe. The proper meaning is 'basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof as the conclusion itself.'"

All this suggests rather conclusively that using "beg the question" to mean "avoid answering a question" is sub-standard.  

But wait!  Help for the sub-standard among us is on the way!

In Webster's  Collegiate Dictionary"  (2007) this is the entire definition for "beg the question": "1. to pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled. 2. to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response."  
The meaning of the term has evolved, and linguistic purists, kicking, screaming and pulling their thinning hair, must forgo attempts to put this wayward genie back into the bottle.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose unerring logic beggars all description, begged that this meretricious bit of doggerel be appended to this otherwise scholarly monograph:

I tried to beg the question,
But you said “Not a chance.”
And then I begged to differ,
As you just looked askance.
I asked to beg a favor,
Then I was double-crossed.
And when I begged your pardon, 
You told me to get lost.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Bouquet of Crash Blossoms

The New York Times calls attention to a new phrase added to the language during 2009—“crash blossom.”  This neologism is used to refer to infelicitously expressed newspaper headlines that produce double entendres that might be interpreted in more than one way.  The example in the Times is SHARK ATTACKS PUZZLE EXPERTS, with assurances that it doesn’t mean Will Shortz and his confreres are in danger.

What the Times article does not explain is how the phrase “crash blossom” originated.  Your intrepid blogger delved deep into the files to unearth the headline responsible: VIOLINIST LINKED TO JAL CRASH BLOSSOMS.  It appeared in the online edition of Japan Today over a story about the musician Diana Yukawa, whose father had been killed in a Japanese airline crash and whose career was now flourishing. Subsequent comment on this headline on the website resulted in the coinage of the phrase. 

Newspaper headlines lend themselves to unintended ambiguity since the people who write them, even though they may have summa cum laude Harvard English degrees, have to cram a lot of information into a rigidly restricted space on a tight deadline. A few of the more provocative “crash blossoms” that I have encountered are:








The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who whiled away many halcyon hours on the rim of a newspaper copydesk writing his share of crash blossoms, phoned in this late-breaking bulletin for the final edition:

            Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
            If it’s in print, there’s no doubt about it.

            Here is the news you really don’t need:
            Here is the news you’re dying to read:

            All of the news that’s not fit to print,
            About matters medical, sordid, or phallic,
            Takes on an air of importance by dint

Friday, December 25, 2009

Round John Virgin and Other Mondegreens

Christmas seems to encourage mondegreens.  In case you were not paying attention in your rhetoric class, a mondegreen is a mis-hearing of a poem or song lyric that ideally precipitates gales of uncontrollable laughter.  The word was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright in an essay titled “The Death of Lady Mondegreen” in Harper’s Magazine.  Wright recounted that as a child she used to hear a Scottish ballad that went (she thought)

      Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
      O, where hae ye been?
      They hae slain the Earl o’ Murray
      And Lady Mondegreen.

What they had done, of course, was to have slain the Earl and laid him on the green, and thus gave rise to a new bit of wordplay. 

The most famous Christmas mondegreen is probably “Round John Virgin” in “Silent Night,” but there are plenty of others, all of which purport to be actual misapprehensions by some befuddled listener. You may have heard of Rudolph’s companion, “Olive, the other reindeer,” or perhaps you have sung joyfully, “Noël, Noël, Barney’s the King of Israel.” Others have proclaimed “Get dressed, ye married gentlemen, let nothing through this May.”

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” so the song says, and some people believe “they’re going to build a toilet town all around the Christmas tree.”  Probably the same people revel in a “Winter Wonderland” because “in the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is sparse and brown” and “later on we’ll perspire as we drink by the fire.”

The champion, however, is the poor benighted soul who conjured up the painful image in “The Christmas Song” of “Jeff’s nuts roasting on an open fire.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a little trouble these days hearing song lyrics (and other things, as well), but he managed to come up with this seasonal ditty; then, giving a nod, up the escalator he rose.

      It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
      I feel in very fine fettle.
      But the Salvation Army
      Sent its band to alarm me
      By playing a carol in front of my kettle.

      It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     And, it’s fun to be St. Nicholas,
     But Santas find it bewilderin’        
     That some little children
     Like to pull on our beards and pinch us and tickle us.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     In fact, I think Christmas is here.
     I’ll just pick up my check
     And then hope like heck
     That I won’t have to put on a red suit next year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Highest Dudgeon

Since a customer strode into the blog the other day “in high dudgeon,” some of you have asked what dudgeon might be.  The short answer is that it is a state of indignant anger, and it is virtually never heard except in the phrase “in high dudgeon.”

The longer answer (which you know I’m itching to provide) is circuitous.  Of unknown origin (Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionaries agree on this), it can be confused with another dudgeon, which means “a type of wood [assumed to be boxwood] used to make the handles of daggers,” and hence “a dagger-handle made of such wood” and “a dagger” itself. This dudgeon is found most famously in Macbeth’s hallucinated knife: “Come, let me clutch thee / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still; / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood." First found in English in the early fifteenth century, dudgeon is a borrowing from Anglo-French, although the ultimate origin is unknown. 

There is no obvious connection between the “anger” word and the “hilt-wood” word, but it might conceivably refer to someone grabbing a dagger in anger.

But the etymology grows even murkier.  In 1573, Gabriel Harvey in his Letter-book, wrote, “... in marvelous great duggin,” meaning “indignation.”  One suggestion is that this word comes from the Italian aduggiare ("to overshadow”), relating it to umbrage.  Another possible root is the Welsh word dygen, meaning "malice or resentment," but as the O.E.D. heartbrokenly laments, “There is a distressing lack of evidence for that theory.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose normal state of mind is one of extremely high dudgeon, snarled the following lines before vanishing in a wisp of acrid smoke:
Hell, yes, I’m in high dudgeon,
           With no plans to rise above it.
I’m a certified curmudgeon—
You wanna make something of it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lead On

In high dudgeon, a frequenter of this blog has called outraged attention to a news account on the Internet in which a suspect “confessed and then lead police to the crime scene.”  Said frequenter’s ire can be easily discerned in the fulmination directed at the news outlet: “I don’t know who wrote this article – no ‘credit’ is given – but does your Web site have a proofreader? And does that person read and write English?! The past tense of 'to lead' is LED, not LEAD [yes, it’s pronounced the same way – in SOME cases – but the latter pronunciation is a base metal and not a verb]. Basic English, basic proofreading, basic writing.”

One can hardly improve upon this diatribe, except to point out that lead even when pronounced led can also be a verb, meaning to add the metal lead to something, e.g. “to lead gasoline,” “to lead windows,” or “to lead the seat of your pants.”

One can’t avoid some sympathy for those who misuse lead. English being what it is, there’s bound to be confusion between the past tense of lead, which is led, and the past tense of read, which is read  (pronounced red, but spelled read).  And I hate to even contemplate plead, whose past tense can be pleaded, pled, or plead (pronounced pled). 

The name of the heavy-metal band Led Zeppelin is said to have originated when Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, predicted the new group would go over "like a lead balloon.” Bassist and keyboardist John Entwistle thought it would be "more like a lead zeppelin.”  Undaunted, the new band adopted that name, changing the spelling to led in order to avoid mispronunciation.

Making no commitment as to how the following rhyming words should be pronounced, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou offers this ambiguous triplet about someone who seems either to have stolen a quantity of metal or starred in a play.
            In all the papers that I read,
            How eloquently your case you plead:
 That you were right to take the lead.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Gremlin in the Kremlin

A recent news item about the Russian government’s attempt to increase the tax on cars brought to mind the 1975 visit to the United States by the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. One of the company’s principal dancers, the late Maris Liepa, wanted to buy an American car and he chose a sporty little subcompact made by AMC called a “Gremlin.”  Liepa liked to boast, “I will have the only Gremlin in the Kremlin!”

So what’s a gremlin?  Funny you should ask, because that happens to be the subject of this blog. The word refers to a gnome-like creature that loves to mess up things, especially on aircraft. It’s an odd name for a car, when you stop to think about it. (Not so odd, however, as Chevrolet’s compact Nova was when marketed in Mexico, where no va can mean “won’t go.”)

According to the timid and ill-informed Messrs. Merriam and Webster, gremlin was first used in 1941, and its origin is unknown. Not true!  Funk & Wagnall’s folklore dictionary boldly goes where no etymologist has gone before, in speculating that gremlin derives from Old English gremian (“to anger or vex”) or from the Irish gruaimin (“bad-tempered little fellow”), conflated with the –lin from goblin, which is a 14th-century word for an ugly, grotesque and mischievous sprite.  The word gremlin was popularized by the Royal Air Force possibly as early as World War I. First appearance of a gremlin in print was in a 1929 poem in the journal Aeroplane.

The goblin-like Bard of Buffalo Bayou has chosen the limerick, or perhaps you could call it a gremerick, as today’s method of assault upon your esthetic sensibility:

            A gremlin, quite pleased with himself,
            Courted girls with his mischief and pelf.
                         “Watch me throw this monkey-wrench!”
                          He crowed to one spunky wench,
            But she upped and eloped with an elf. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Graduation Day

A relentlessly curious customer of this blog asks, “When did Americans start saying ‘I graduated college’ instead of ‘I graduated from college’?” Always eager to provide customer satisfaction, I got the facts. Actually, it’s hard to pin it down to a specific date like July 17, 1953—but it was probably sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Such usage is a misunderstanding of the meaning of graduate—and, for that matter, so is “I graduated from college,” although that phrase has graduated to grammatical respectability

The transitive verb to graduate means to “move (someone) to a higher degree,” and the original usage of the word in the sixteenth century was that the college or university graduated the student. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1588 document with the phrase “to commence or graduate such students as have finished their course.” The student, somewhat passively, was graduated.

By 1807 to graduate was being used in an intransitive sense with the student as the doer, so that a student graduated. If you wanted to know at what institution this procedure occurred, you added a prepositional phrase, such as “at Jack Rabbit University.” After a while, clearly demonstrating eagerness to escape from the clutches of their educational institutions, people began to graduate from someplace.

Sometime in the 1950s, people (maybe the same people) began to drop the from, and the verb became transitive again, with the institution rather than the student as the direct object, as in she graduated college. Like people shouting into cell phones in public places, to graduate college is heard more and more frequently nowadays. But even though the president of Jack Rabbit University, or Harvard for that matter, may use the phrase, it is still sub-standard English.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose graduation days were greeted warmly by all of his teachers, offers this valediction:

     I fear you will not graduate,
     Now please don’t cry and snuffle.
     It really is too bad you ate
     Your prof’s last chocolate truffle.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bono and the Boys in the Band

Have you ever wondered why Sir Paul David Hewson, KBE, is better known as Bono?  And why the group with which he performs is called U2, and not simply Paul Hewson’s Band?  Well, if so, wonder no more.

Hewson, born and raised in Dublin, was a member of a street gang whose custom was to confer nicknames on each other.  At first Hewson was given a name taken from a hearing aid store in Dublin—Bono Vox of O’Connell Street— which is a mouthful, especially for a nickname, so it was shortened to Bono  (pronounced to rhyme with guano, which is pronounced to rhyme with Bono.)  Bono Vox is a pseudo-Latin phrase meaning “good voice.”
As for the band’s name, that subject is rife with controversy.  Its supposed origins include the American spy plane that crashed in the Soviet Union in 1960,  an alleged Irish unemployment form number, the classroom number of the band members when they were in school,  a Berlin railway line, a pun on the words “you too,” and a name suggested arbitrarily by a friend for its ambiguity and chosen from a list because it was the name the band members disliked the least.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has chosen these lines from his current scribblings as those he dislikes the least, which is not to say he doesn’t dislike them quite a bit.
Yoo-hoo, you two,
What’s this to-do due to?           
Are you two new to U2?
Well, they are new to you, too.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sloe Motion

I used to hear people talk about “slow” gin, and I thought it was gin produced by a process that took longer than “quick” gin of the bathtub variety. Or perhaps it was the beverage Robert Benchley had in mind when a friend warned him that Martinis were slow poison, and Benchley replied, “That’s all right, I’m not in any hurry.” Now in my dotage, I have come to understand that it isn’t “slow” gin at all, but “sloe” gin.

The sloe is a kind of plum, defined in rapturously poetic terms by the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as the “small dark globose astringent fruit of the blackthorn.” A liqueur called sloe gin is made by soaking the blackthorn fruits for a long, long time in regular London dry gin.

The word sloe descended from the Middle English slo and Old English slāh, meaning plum. It is related to Russian sliva, and it shows up in slivovitz, the plum brandy made in many Slavic countries. The root word is also cognate with the words lavender and livid, which originally meant purplish (like a plum) from bruising, and now can mean blue-black, gray, reddish, or simply angry. 

Plagiarizing the poetry of Merriam-Webster's definition, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose lips have never touched sloe gin, offers this paean to the fruit:

      O, small and dark and globose fruit,
      Astringent fruit, how succulent!
      I scratched my hand on your blackthorn,
      And now I’m feeling truculent.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Undercover Work

In 1955 the energetic singer-pianist Little Richard recorded a lively song called “Tutti-Frutti,” which had lots of airplay on rhythm-and-blues radio stations.  The buttoned-down, white-shoed, laid-back choirboy Pat Boone followed quickly with his own less obtrusive recording of the same song, which became an even bigger hit with middle-of-the-road audiences.  Boone’s recording became known as a “cover version,” and by the mid-1960s the word cover was in general use in the music industry for a new rendition of a song previously recorded by a different artist.

Versatile little cover popped up in English sometime in the twelfth century, from the Latin coperire, “to close.”  As both verb and noun, it has worked overtime, with meanings that include “to guard from attack,” “to have within one’s range,” “to make provision for,” “to hide from sight,” “to copulate with,” “to deal with,” “to report news about,” “to defray the cost of,” “to substitute (for someone),” “to meet the terms of (a bet),” “an animal shelter,” “a bed cloth,” “a container lid,” “the front and back of a book or magazine,” “a pretext,” “a table setting,” and “a charge for entertainment.”

But why was it used to describe a subsequent version of a song?  Speculation abounds!

From the original meaning of a white artist’s recording made for mainstream audiences, some think the term refers to “covering” or obscuring any chance of success the earlier version by an African-American performer might have had.  Others emphasize the meaning of “hiding” or “disguising” the original, alluding  to espionage, where spies have “covers” to mask their true identity.  Yet others opine that it’s used in the business sense of "covering," i.e. “blanketing” the market, or that it refers to putting the song in a different album cover.

The usage may simply be an extension of one of the earlier meanings of cover, "to treat or deal with," as a lecture might cover Victorian poetry. It could also mean "to remove from remembrance," as in Psalm 32's "Blessed is he whose sin is covered."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, in a misguided attempt to cover the earlier work of John  Keats and rhymesters of his ilk, has issued this new release, which he delusionally believes will sail to the top of the charts:

    I love “Tutti Frutti,”
    It’s so cute and clever.
    Thank you, Little Richard, for this tune.
    It’s a thing of beauty
    And a joy forever—
    But only when recorded by Pat Boone.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Come Rain or Come Shine

A customer of this blog, who lives in Mauritius, has written to observe the almost universal tendency of  radio and TV weather forecasters to assume, as he puts it: “sun good, rain very bad.”  Even for the arid Sahara, the BBC mindset is to rhapsodize over “a really nice sunny day in North Africa.” On the other hand, in Mauritius, says the customer, the common reaction to a thundershower is, “We had some really good rain today!” 

Suggesting that rain has gotten a bad rap, the Mauritian reader reminds us of Shelley’s “Cloud” (“I bring fresh showers to the thirsting flowers”) and Shakespeare’s Portia, for whom the “gentle rain from heaven” is like “mercy.” And don’t forget Buddy DeSylva’s lilting lyric for “April Showers”: “So when it’s raining, have no regrets / Because it isn’t raining rain, you know, it’s raining violets.”

For anyone who requires geographical edification: the Republic of Mauritius, a member of the British Commonwealth, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, explored in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese and the Dutch, who named it for Holland’s Prince Maurits. Mauritius was once the home of the now extinct flightless bird called a dodo (from the Portuguese doudo, “silly or stupid.”)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has never been to Mauritius but is considered by many to be the last surviving dodo, could not be deterred from spewing this pluvial apologia:

    The rain in Mauritius
    Is not as pernicious
    As forecasters might have you think.
    The precipitation
    Provides irrigation,
    A wash, and a bath, and a drink.
    Owes an apology
    For saying rain’s something to rue.
    If it weren’t for the water,
    We’d all be much hotter,
    And have no way to flush in the loo.

Friday, December 4, 2009

‘When You Got It, Flaunt It!’

Stop the presses! No, no, in this case, keep them rolling. It is rare to encounter the verbs flaunt and flout in the same newspaper article—and, moreover, used correctly. But such was the case in a New York Times piece by Lawrence Sheets.  Writing about the Russian-Georgian conflict, he observed, “As if to flaunt their impunity…the Russians refused to let the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conduct observation patrols…”  Later Mr. Sheets insisted that “Moscow is openly flouting the cease-fire agreement it signed.…”

As if you didn’t already know, flaunt from Old Norse flanan (“to run around”) means to “display ostentatiously,” as Max Bialystock shouts to the world in The Producers: “That’s it, baby, when you got it, flaunt it!” Flout  (from Middle English flouten, “to play the flute”) means to “treat with contempt,” as Ross complains to Duncan in Macbeth:  “Norwegian banners flout the sky.”

But wait!  The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary says a secondary meaning of flaunt is “to treat contemptuously” (i.e. “to flout”), and it lists authors no less distinguished than Louis Untermeyer, Marchette Chute,  and R. T. Blackburn—writing in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Profesors, to boot!—as evidence.  The lexicographer adds, however, that if you use flaunt in that way, people may think you’re wrong.

What to do?  What to do?  The flat-footed Bard of Buffalo Bayou flounced in, fluttered a bit, and fluted as follows:

    Flaunt or flout?
    Flout or flaunt?
    Day in, day out,
    They tease and taunt.

    But I’m undaunted
    And never doubted
    They're often flaunted
    But seldom flouted.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Growing Pains

The Wall Street Journal reported a company’s “attempts to raise funds to grow the business had been unsuccessful.”  In the Chicago Tribune a banker said, "We're not going to be able to grow the economy fast enough.” The use of the verb grow in a transitive sense, meaning to cause something to increase, is both recent and archaic.  Howzat again?

As we all knew in the third grade, but may forget unless we remind ourselves every day, transitive verbs are those that take a direct object: I make trouble. Intransitive verbs are cleverly defined by grammarians as those that do not take a direct object: I persist. Some verbs, of course, are both transitive and intransitive: I drink. I drink gin.

Grow is a verb that can be both, but its transitive sense for most of recent history has been limited to either cultivating crops (I grow corn) or allowing something to develop on one’s body (I grow a beard).  To use grow to mean “increase or enlarge” something is both a very old usage and a relatively new one.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says such usage is obsolete, and it lists as its most recent instance a 1481 document in which King David grew Jerusalem.

Nowadays, however, grow has reasserted itself in a broadly transitive sense. Until quite recently, you would simply do what you could to help your business or your nest egg grow, all on its own. But starting a few years ago you had to get up out of the executive chair and grow it yourself. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary cites as authority for such usage a writer named J. L. Deckter—who (based on results of a Google search) exists only in the pages of Merriam-Webster.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, against all advice, has persisted himself to come up with this supplication:

     Please thrive me in the bloom of health,
     And flourish me with whiter dentures.
     And while you’re at it, grow my wealth
     And prosper me with prime debentures.   

Monday, November 30, 2009

Little SPAM, Who Made Thee?

The origin of the word SPAM, a trademark of the Hormel Foods Corporation for its brand of canned pork and spices, has always been cloaked in mystery.  Hormel’s website disingenuously asks, “Does SPAM mean ‘spiced ham’?” and then coyly answers: “While some speculate the name came from mashing the two words together, SPAM family of products has come to mean so much more…the term ‘spiced ham’ simply doesn’t paint the right picture of what a can of SPAM Classic really is.  So in the end SPAM means SPAM.”  Huh?

To set the record straight, I cite an unimpeachable source, who requested anonymity on the grounds that she was speaking with her mouth full of SPAM.  The product first appeared in the 1930s as “Hormel Spiced Ham.” Ingredients listed on the can were chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Mmm, good!  One problem, however: anything labeled “ham” must consist entirely of meat from a pig’s hindquarters. A new name was desperately needed. 

At a New Year’s Eve party fun-loving company president Jay Hormel staged a contest for guests to come up with a name for the lunch meat.  The winner was the actor  Kenneth Daigneau, best known, if at all, for two Broadway flops (When in Rome and The Love Set).  He was no doubt glad to get a hundred dollars for suggesting SPAM, which at the time was said to be an acronym derived from “Shoulder of Pork And haM.”

Years later, in a skit on "Monty Python’s Flying Circus," chanting of the word Spam drowned out all the other dialogue, and hence the name was subsequently applied to unwanted email.  The new usage has been gamely accepted by Hormel in this statement issued with a noticeably forced smile:

"We do not object to use of this slang term, although…it should be used in all lower-case letters to distinguish it from our trademark SPAM, which should be used with all upper-case letters….Children will be exposed to the slang term 'spam' to describe unwanted commercial e-mail well before being exposed to our famous product SPAM. Ultimately, we are trying to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, 'Why would Hormel Foods name its product after junk e-mail?'"

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has been called both a ham and a turkey, found these lines in Dr. Seuss’s wastebasket:

    I do not like a can of SPAM,
    I do not like it cooked with yam,
    I do not like it smeared with jam,
    I do not like it served with lamb,
    I do not like it with a clam,
    I do not like one ounce, one gram,   
    I much prefer green eggs and ham.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Meryl Streep Can Make You Weep

Some of the customers of this blog have demanded to know exactly what a clerihew is, inasmuch as there have been some verses in earlier blogs characterized by that name. Okay: a clerihew is a verse form invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), an English journalist and author.  As a bored 16-year-old in chemistry class—and who hasn’t been?—he idly doodled these lines about the subject of that day’s lecture:

     Sir Humphry Davy
     Was not fond of gravy.
     He lived in the odium
     Of having discovered sodium.

Once he got in the habit of writing these bits of doggerel, he couldn’t stop (you know how that is), and in 1905, under the name of E. Clerihew, he published Biography for Beginners. It was a whole blooming book of four-line verses, in AABB rhyme scheme, in which the first line contained the name of a famous person, the second line rhymed with the name, and the last two lines made a whimsical comment about that person.  One of the terrific things about writing clerihews is that they don’t have to conform to metrical regularity, and you can toss around your dactyls and anapests with impunity.

Fuller details about E. C. Bentley and more samples than you would really like of actual clerihews (both his and mine) will be found in Words Gone Wild, a book-like object that will be on sale at your neighborhood icehouse next spring.  Meanwhile, please try to subsist on this latter-day clerihew, fetched up from the bottomless trunk of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.

    Meryl Streep
    Can make you weep,
    Especially when you see a
    Movie like Mamma Mia!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bah, humbug, everyone!

If Thanksgiving comes, can Christmas be far behind? In a New York Times review of the new movie A Christmas Carol, A. O. Scott commends the producers for retaining “much of the flavor of Dickens’s prose—not just the catchphrases like ‘Bah, humbug’ and ‘God bless us everyone,’ but also the formal diction and the moral concern.”  Well, okay, but to retain the flavor of Dickens’ catchphrases, you ought to catch ‘em the way he threw ‘em.

Ebenezer Scrooge never says “Bah, humbug”—run together, as Mr. Scott writes it, in a single utterance with only a comma between the two words.  Scrooge says “Bah!” (an interjection expressing contempt) only twice in the tale and both times it is followed not by a comma, but by an exclamation point, making it a complete and emphatic statement. “Humbug!” (a fraud or a hoax) follows, in both instances, as a separate statement with its own terminal punctuation.

A trivial point, I hear you say.  Bah!  Humbug!  What is punctuation, after all, but a few needless squiggles? WellIllsaymaybeyourerightbutmaybeyouarent.

Of more consequence is Mr. Scott’s parsing of “God bless us everyone.” What the absurdly cheerful Tiny Tim actually shrieks is “God bless us every one!”  I’m not so concerned about Mr. Scott’s omission of the exclamation point in this case—although its lack does give Tim’s outburst a curiously muted feeling for so festive an occasion—but more so about the running together of the two words every and one.  What Tim says, and what he undoubtedly means, is that he hopes that God will bless “us”—i.e. the Cratchit family—“every one,” that is each member of the family, without exception.  The use of the pronoun everyone, which means “all people,” goes far beyond the familial intent of Tim, whose exuberant benison follows the consumption of a slug of gin with lemon juice (what Dickens calls “hot stuff”).  No wonder he is so exuberant. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, not so fortunate as to be in the gin-infused state of euphoria that motivated Tiny Tim, threw a lump of coal on the fire, dipped his quill into the inkpot, and scratched out these sober words for the season:

    For all the joys of Christmas,
    We offer thanks galore
    To Charles John Huffam Dickens
    (And also Clement Moore).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Economics for Cynics

If Ambrose Bierce were around today—and, in fact, he might be, although remarkably advanced in years—he could explain the causes of the world’s economic troubles in a trice.  In 1905 Bierce published The Cynic’s Word Book, which was reissued in 1911 as The Devil’s Dictionary. In it he showed a sharper understanding of economic matters than those professional economists today who win Nobel Prizes by disagreeing vehemently with each other.  Bierce’s definition of Economy: “Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow you cannot afford.”

He also understood that greed on Wall Street was the source of much tumult.  He defined that bastion of financiers as “a symbol of sin for every devil to rebuke.” 

The complexities of Finance he reduced to one sentence, calling it “the art or science of managing revenues or resources for the best advantage of the manager.”

For solutions, Bierce had little confidence in either political point of view.  As a card-carrying cynic, he defined a Conservative as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

Journalist and short-story writer, Bierce was born in Ohio in 1842.  He was a newspaper editor and columnist in San Francisco, was later based in London, and then served as Washington correspondent for Cosmopolitan. In 1913 he went to Mexico, embedded himself as an observer in Pancho Villa’s army in Juárez, made it as far as Chihuahua, and has not yet been heard from since.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who cannot rival Bierce in either satirical skill or cynicism, try as he might—and he does—offers this modest clerihew in his memory:

     Ambrose Bierce,
     Though firm and fierce,
     Was easily annoyed by bureaucracy,
     Not to mention hypocrisy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stick to Your Principals

A recent newspaper article gave credit for a school’s higher test scores to its principle.  What powerful guiding principle governs this academy’s tutelage, I wondered. We should find out and glean wisdom from it. Could it be “Know thyself” or perhaps “The unexamined life is not worth living”?  Or maybe “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?  Reading further I discovered that this school’s principle is Shirley B. McFarland.

As you all realize, Shirley is the principal of the school, and while she may espouse noble principles and even impart them to her students, she herself is not one.  The words stem from the same Latin roots: primus (“first”) and capere (“to take”).  Principal, as an adjective meaning “most important,” directly from the Latin principalis, was used from the 12th century; by the 13th century it was a noun meaning the person who is the head of an organization.  Principle, which is always a noun, meaning “rule, law, doctrine, code of conduct,” has also been in use since the 13th century, having come to English via a detour through Middle French principe.

As the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary sagely advises: “If you are unsure which noun you want, read the definitions in this dictionary.”  Now why didn’t someone think of that sooner?

Leave it to the mostly unprincipled Bard of Buffalo Bayou to make the ultimate superfluous comment:

    I’m so confused about principal / principle
    I think my ignorance must be invinciple.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Full Monty

As part of what it called a “Python-A-Thon” the IFC cable channel recently aired a documentary conveying a few too many details about the British comedy show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” a mere 45 episodes of which are still providing endless hilarity on television 40 years after they were made.

Among the revelations was the origin of the show’s name. As explained by Pythons John Cleese and Eric Idle, it came about accidentally. While under development at the BBC, its bizarre wackiness caused it to become known, disparagingly, by staff members as the “flying circus” of its producer, John Howard Davies.  Some wag put the name “Flying Circus” in the BBC schedule, and higher-ups didn’t want to change it since it was already in print.  Idle came up with the idea of later adding a name in front of it, and he took “Monty” from a denizen of a pub he frequented, while Cleese suggested “Python” as a slippery surname connoting a reptilian entertainment agent.

Cleese’s name, by the way, is not accidental; his father purposely changed it from the original Cheese, with which it rhymes.  Tall person, silly walker, and fellow blogger Cleese, in fact, signs his blogs (at as “Jack Cheese.”  This clerihew by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou may strike you (even more than his usual output) as a bit cheesy:
        John Cleese
        Is really the Big Cheese.
        Cheddar, Cheshire, Stilton, Double Gloucester, Leicester—
        Any one will do for this Courtly Jeicester.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't Drive Fastly

A law-abiding driver I know encountered a sign that cautioned him to “Drive Slowly.” Never one to waste letters, he asked me whether the sign shouldn’t read “Drive Slow.” Never one to commit myself, I suggested that either slow or slowly would be correct. 

That is not my opinion only, but also that of others who actually receive money for sitting around thinking about such things.  One of them, Bryan A. Garner, opines in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: "Slow has long been treated as an immediate adverb, i.e. one not requiring the -ly suffix. It is ill-informed pedantry to insist that slow can only be an adjective. Though slowly is more common and is certainly correct, slow is often just as good. Let rhythm and euphony be your guides."

Accordingly, “Drive Slowly” sounds fine to me. It might sound even better and be more effective to admonish the hurried driver to “Go Slow.”  As Rex Stout the creator of Nero Wolfe (that portly detective who cavils at using contact as a verb) said: "Not only do I approve of the idiom 'Go Slow,' but if I find myself with people who do not, I leave quick."

If you drive the highways of Texas, you may spot an official road sign urging you to “Drive Friendly.” That sounds mighty neighborly, but most grammarians would wince at the use of the adjective friendly as if it were an adverb. There are quite a few adjectives—leisurely, lowly, saintly—spelled with –ly, tempting people to use them as adverbs, even though they aren’t. But trying to make proper adverbs out of them pushes one into absurd and virtually unpronounceable territory.  “Drive Friendlily”?  Approach such usage gingerlily.

The homely Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who moves more slow these days than in the past and likes to think things over as leisurelily as he can, managed to scholarlily scribble these words:

        To use the right term
        Take it easy, not easily.
        Be sure you act firm,
        Not firmly—that’s weasely.

        You must behave mean,
        And not ever meanly,
        And always come clean,
        Don’t try to come cleanly.
        If you’re in a saloon,
        Most inopportunely,
        You’d better leave soon,
        Or perhaps even soonly.

Friday, November 13, 2009

'Motley's the only wear'

A BBC commentator recently referred to the world economic picture as ‘mottled,” which he explained as meaning having some bright spots and some dark. The word can be traced to the 17th century and is a back-formation from the word motley, a 14th-century word whose origin, as dictionaries sheepishly admit, is obscure, but is probably from the Middle English mot, meaning “speck.” Motley means having diverse colors or variegated, sometimes incongruous elements. 

Motley was the design traditionally worn by court jesters and by the character of Harlequin in commedia dell’arte. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jaques expatiates upon a “motley fool” that he had met, concluding, “Motley’s the only wear.”  Motley fabric, made of green, red, and blue patchwork, set jesters apart from others at court and protected them from punishment when they irreverently spoke truth to power. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Wanda Sykes, and others of their clan might want to consider the prudence of wearing coats of many colors when they’re working.

Motley was the name adopted by three noted British costume designers, Margaret and Sophie Harris and Elizabeth Wilmot, who flourished in London and on Broadway from the 1930s to the 1960s.  “Costumes by Motley” was a frequent credit in theatre programs.

In the 1980s a hard rock band called Suite was formed by Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee.  Noted for hard living, disreputable attire, heavily tattooed bodies, and tasteless material, they were referred to by another band as a “motley looking crew.” They were apparently flattered by this sobriquet and decided to change their name to “Mötley Crüe,” adding irrelevant umlauts in tribute to Löwenbräu beer, then their beverage of choice.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a motley reputation himself, evident in his fascination with the diacritical marks, the umlaut and its identical twin, the diaeresis. 

    The umlaut and the diaeresis 
    Are simply pairs of dots.
    And you could write a lengthy thesis
    On the use of these small spots.

    The umlauts bring the Germans joy
    And thankfully allow
    Beer-halls to serve them Löwenbräu
    Instead of Loewenbrau.

    The diaeresis may look showy,
    But it makes sure you know

    A lovely, lilting name like Chloë
    Is not pronounced like Joe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'What A Coincidence!'

Caution: Sensitive young persons and some members of both political parties may find the following material offensive.

California’s Republican governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently stirred up a linguistic fuss with an allegedly rude message that accompanied his veto of a bill sponsored by a Democratic legislator who had heckled him and called him a liar. Did Schwarzenegger send an acrostic insult along with his reasons for vetoing the bill?

Acrostics are an ancient form of wordplay, in which the initial letters of the lines in a poem spell words.  The Greek word akrostichis means “the beginning of the line.” Greek poets loved to write acrostic love poems, spelling out the name of the beloved.  In England the acrostic experienced a revival under Queen Elizabeth I, who delighted in seeing her name spelled out in verses written in her praise. Queen Victoria wrote and published acrostic puzzles herself.

You be the judge of Schwarzenegger’s intent. This is the message sent with his veto of a bill dealing with financing for the port of San Francisco:

For some time now I have lamented the fact that major issues are overlooked while many
unnecessary bills come to me for consideration. Water reform, prison reform, and health
care are major issues my Administration has brought to the table, but the Legislature just
kicks the can down the alley.

Yet another legislative year has come and gone without the major reforms Californians
overwhelmingly deserve.  In light of this, and after careful consideration, I believe it is
unnecessary to sign this measure at this time.

When questioned about the possibility that an acrostic message was addressed to the legislator, a Schwarzenegger spokesman said, “My goodness!  What a coincidence!”  Mathematicians who claim to know how to figure such odds placed the possibility of its happening by chance as 10 million to 1—which makes it slightly more likely than winning the California lottery.

The cynical and sometimes foul-mouthed Bard of Buffalo Bayou penned this ode to the Gov.:

    How very effective I found your acrostic!
    Ornery enemies better beware.
    Lines like yours can be very caustic,
    You’d better be sure you construct them with care.

    Some folks might find your message offensive,
    How they would think that I really don’t know.
    It must be those Democrats—they’re too apprehensive
    To tell a coincidence from a clever bon mot.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Blob of Bloggers?

The English language has a number of specialized collective nouns that refer to groups of animals. The ones with obvious derivations are commonplace; we speak regularly and unthinkingly of a herd of elephants or cattle, a bed  of oysters or clams, a flight of birds, and a yoke of oxen. 

Others are less common, but still identifiable as variations on foreign or archaic words: a clowder (“clutter”) of cats, a kindle (from German kinder  or “children”) of kittens, a covey  (from Anglo-French covee , meaning “sit upon”) of quail, a gaggle (Middle English gaggelen or “cackle”) of geese, a litter (from an old word for animal bedding) of pigs,  a school  (Old English scolu or “multitude”) of fish, and a sleuth (“animal track”) of bears. 

Some phrases are clearly descriptive of the appearance, sound, action, or quality of the animal to which they refer: a pride  of lions, a crash of rhinoceroses, a leap of leopards, a cry of hounds, a spring of teals, a cloud of gnats, a knot of toads, and a nest of vipers.  Others are more obscure and have no ready etymological explanation: a grist of bees, a brace of ducks, a cast of hawks, and a husk of hares.

But best of all are those flights of poetic fancy that, through an imaginative leap that transcends etymology, seem precisely right for the animals they are describing: an exaltation of larks, a charm of goldfinches, a muster of peacocks, and a murder of crows. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes the language needs collective nouns for people as well, and he proposes the following for your consideration, and invites your additional suggestions:

    A stanza of poets
    An appeal of lawyers
    A consultation of physicians
    A syllabus of teachers
    A scoop of journalists
    A suite of hoteliers
    An exhibition of curators
    A genome of biologists
    A swatch of interior decorators
    A sack of investment bankers
    A fist of money-lenders
    A clutch of hedge-fund managers
    A porkbarrel of legislators
    A claim of insurance executives
    A miter of bishops
    A casserole of church ladies
    A bombast of talk-show hosts

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Fewer the Better

An astute follower of this blog, a Ms. Marsh of Frogmorton or thereabouts, comments with unconfined joy that the supermarket at which she purchases her vegetable marrows has erected signs at the express checkout counters that read “10 Items or Fewer.”  The cause of her elation is not that she is able to whisk through the line in a speedier manner—but that some greengrocer-grammarian recognizes the difference between fewer and less.

Conventional rules prescribe that fewer should be used for numbers of things ("I want fewer  than ten bottles of beer") and less for quantities and units of measure ("I want less beer" or "I want less than three pints of beer").  But nothing is as simple as it seems, even for a beer-soaked village grammarian.  As the estimable Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by lawyer-lexicographer Bryan A. Garner, explains, “The exception in using fewer occurs when count nouns are so great as to render the idea of individual increments meaningless. So less  is used correctly with time or money.” In other words, you should say a goal was achieved in “less than ten years” or that something will cost you “less than two dollars a day."

Sometimes it gets tricky, depending on inexpressible contextual factors.  You might, quite correctly, rob four banks in “less than ten days,” but then you might, equally correctly (if leniently), be sentenced to “fewer than ten days in jail.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou took fewer than eleven moments to come up with the following suggestion for those supermarket signs:

     If you’re quite sure
     You’ve ten or fewer
     Items on your shopping list,
     Check out quickly—we insist!

     For ten or less
     There’s no express—
     Get in line, for in this store
     We believe that less is more.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Brum's the Word

A recent dust-up on Twitter was occasioned by a posting—from “brumplum”—criticizing the popular British actor Stephen Fry.  The nature of the criticism was minor, apparently nothing more than calling Fry’s own posts “boring,” but Fry has nearly a million admiring Twitter followers, many of whom erupted in anger at the audacity displayed by “brumplum.” Brumplum was identified in the press only as someone named Richard, from the English city of Birmingham (pronounced BURM-ing-um.) 

Birmingham is the origin of the “brum” part of the Twitter moniker (you may speculate about why Richard regards himself as a plum).  Brum is a slang contraction of Brummagem, which was a dialectical name for Birmingham, probably derived from the city’s Saxon name of Bromwicham. Etymologists believe the name Birmingham derives from Beorma inga's ham ("homestead of the people of Beorma,” who was reputedly a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon king.)  Beorma is not known to have visited Alabama, but no doubt would be pleased to know his name is also memorialized there.

Natives of the English Birmingham (and students and alumni of its university) are sometimes referred to (affectionately or contemptuously, as the case may be) as “Brummies.”  The word brummagem, sad to say, also means “counterfeit or tawdry,” the result of a spate of bogus coins produced there in the 17th-century and also of the city’s reputation in the 19th century for manufacturing cheap jewelry, toys, and souvenirs.

Full disclosure: The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a Brummie, having spent two years enrolled as a graduate flâneur at the University.  His dissertation consisted of this cryptic comment:
        There’s a limerick that’s very risqué
        That’s been around for many a day
            About two girls from Birmingham
            And the Bishop confirming ‘em—
        But that’s all that I’m going to say.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nice Try

In The New York Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan suggested that the most popular word in English is nice.  He recalled its ubiquity in his British childhood as a catch-all word for “near-approval” in such contexts as a “a nice cup of tea,” a “nice teacher,” and the Prime Minister’s “nice smile.”

The original meaning of nice, however, you would not think very nice if applied to you. It came from 14th-century French and meant “ignorant,” from the Latin nescius. Later it evolved into “stupid, foolish, wanton, lascivious, lewd, slothful, lazy, rare, uncommon, and strange.”  Somehow, by the 17th century it meant “cultured or refined,” as well as “delicate and in need of tactful handling, coy, reticent, punctilious, and finicky.” How versatile it has been!

In the first edition of his Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755, Samuel Johnson defines nice simply as “accurate, scrupulous, delicate.”  In the 1773 edition, he added a number of meanings with literary attributions: “often used to express a culpable delicacy” (Sidney); “scrupulously and minutely cautious” (Shakespeare); “fastidious, squeamish, refined” (Milton).

But it was someone whom the Oxford English Dictionary identifies as Miss Carter who first wrote the word nice with its modern meaning of “agreeable and pleasing,” in a letter in 1769: “I intend to dine with Mrs. Borgrave, and in the evening to take a nice walk.”  Everyone jumped on that nice bandwagon, and by 1837 a Major Richardson wrote of “The Commandant, whom I found to be a very nice fellow.” Later the word  also came to mean “polite, proper, respectable, well-bred.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose guide in lexicography is not Samuel, but the Runyonesque Nicely-Nicely Johnson, is loath to forgo archaic meanings because he never knows when they may come in handy. He forwarded this verse, which nicely makes his point:

     If you say I am nice, you mean I’m cultured and refined,
     Polite, well-bred, agreeable, respectable, and kind.
     But when I say you’re nice, it’s in quite a different mood:
     You’re stupid, lazy, ignorant, lascivious, and lewd.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

L’État, C’est Moi

October 30 is the birthday of legendary tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who died in 2004 at 81. With Tennessee Williams, Texas Guinan, Minnesota Fats, Florida Friebus, Dakota Staton and Dakota Fanning, he is among a handful of notables whose first names are the names of American states.

Louisiana-born Jacquet was originally Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet, the middle name chosen to honor a Chicago friend of his mother’s. When he moved to Houston, “Jean-Baptiste” proved difficult for Texans to pronounce, so he began to go by Illinois.  Williams, né Thomas Lanier,  changed his name to Tennessee, his father’s birthplace. Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan, the 1920s New York saloon-keeper, got her nickname from the state of her birth. Pool champion Minnesota Fats, actually Rudolf Walter Wanderone, Jr., adopted his professional name from the 1961 movie The Hustler, in which he claimed the character played by Jackie Gleason was based upon him. Among those whose first names are genuine are Florida Friebus, a writer and TV actress, and jazz singer Dakota (North or South not specified) Staton. Teenaged actress Dakota Fanning, however, is really Hannah Dakota Fanning.

Indiana Jones and Nevada Smith don’t count, since they are fictional characters, and neither do surnames like Indiana (Robert), Montana (Joe), and Arizona (Nathan). The same goes for Georgia, Virginia, Carolina, and Washington, all perfectly proper names independent of any allusion to states.

The undisputed champion of state names is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor of the Wall Street Journal—Vermont Connecticut Royster.  His family had a tradition of naming sons after states, and his great-uncles were Arkansas Delaware, Wisconsin Illinois, Oregon Minnesota, and Iowa Michigan.

As usual, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou can’t keep his feet out of his mouth, and he scribbled the following while in an agitated state:
    O, Mr. Royster, we all want

    To know the proper etiquette.
    Were you addressed as just Vermont,
    Or as Vermont Connecticut?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Eyeball This!

There is a growing tendency to use nouns as if they were verbs. The practice has always occurred to some extent in an evolving language like English; it no longer sounds grammatically odd for someone to “author” a book, “ink” a contract, or "chair" a meeting. Even notable writers have "verbed" nouns, often with great rhetorical effect.  In Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Duke of York angrily tells his disloyal nephew, Bolingbroke, “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.” 

For reasons that have nothing to do with grammar, companies like Google and Xerox deplore the use of their names as verbs, since such lower-case common usage dilutes their legal standing as trademarks.  The battle may already be lost in those cases, since most people now “google” rather than “search on Google,” and when was the last time you heard someone say “photocopy this” rather than “xerox it”? 

Lately, however, the desire to turn nouns into verbs seems to be proliferating.  Your boss may "task" you with responsibilities, or you may be instructed to "architect" a new software system, or at least to "network" with your colleagues and "dialogue" about it.  Athletes now "medal" at the Olympics, bar patrons are "carded," and unwanted items are "regifted."

With his usual perspicacity, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has versed as follows:

With no debts or troubles onus me,
And on my Facebook page, please friend me.
Goldman Sachs, I hope you'll bonus me,
And ExxonMobil, dividend me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Going in Style

Mark Garvey’s new book Stylized  tells the back story of how The New Yorker magazine writer E. B. White took his former teacher Will Strunk’s The Elements of Style, a long-forgotten “little book” of grammar rules, self-published in 1918, and turned it into a best-seller. 

In 1959, White, who regarded some of Strunk’s prescriptions as “narrow and bewildering,” rewrote many of the rules, discarded a whole chapter on spelling, and added one of his own about how to write well — presumably in the sometimes bewildering style of The New Yorker.  The changes White made were dazzlingly successful: Strunk’s book had long since fallen into disuse, and only one copy remained gathering dust in Cornell University’s library. In the fifty years since White’s revision was published, The Elements of Style  has sold more than ten million copies.

Stylized recounts how Strunk turned D-student White into a stellar stylist as they discussed the art of writing while sipping shandygaffs (a noxious blend of beer and lemonade). The Bard of Buffalo Bayou imagines this reaction by White when he appraised Strunk’s book:

Said White to Strunk:
“The way you write
I think you’re drunk
Or slightly tight

From shandygaffs
That we’ve been guzzling.
Your paragraphs
Are sometimes puzzling.

Now, Will, just look,
You're some great speller,
But your little book
Is no best-seller.

It’s far too dry
Too full of grammar—
Now I’m the guy
Who’ll add some glamor.”

Thus White took hold,
With little fuss,
And now it’s sold
Ten million-plus!