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!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Good News! (Retranslated)

An outfit called the Conservative Bible Project plans a new Biblical translation to get rid of what it calls “socialistic terminology” that it believes permeates all English translations. According to the group’s statements, such language improperly encourages "social justice" among Christians. What is needed is emphasis on “free market parables.”

For example, it is pointed out, the conservative word volunteer is mentioned only once in the scandalously left-wing English Standard Version, yet the socialistic word comrade is used three times, laborer 13 times and fellow (as in fellow worker) 55 times! Moreover, words like peace and miracle need to be “updated.”

In a conservative translation, the “rich man” who will have as much trouble entering the Kingdom of God as a camel will have going through the eye of a needle becomes a “man who cares only for money”—thus removing the automatic stigma of being wealthy.

Another proposed re-rendering is to change “Blessed are the meek” in the Beatitudes to “Blessed are the God-fearing,” so as to avoid any hint of namby-pambyism.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is skeptical about the project and left these lines in a clump of bulrushes:

The Gershwins said one may be liable
To read a few things in the Bible
That ain’t necessarily so.
But soon we’ll have a new translation,
Free of liberal degradation,
And Scripture will be comme il faut.

We needn’t turn the other cheek,
Or hand the earth off to the meek.
Social justice? That’s passé.
Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked?
Those ideas are so half-bakèd,
And, besides, they just don’t pay.

No more peace and no more miracle,
They’re fuzzy-minded and too lyrical,
Free market values are the goal.
All that stuff about baptism
Can’t compete with capitalism
To save the righteous, right-wing soul.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Read All About It! (While You Can)

Daily newspapers are in serious trouble, as you know if you read a daily newspaper. Hardly a day passes without a report of a closure, a bankruptcy, or a massive staff layoff. I hear that one editor, in an economy measure, sent the sports editor to cover the Metropolitan Opera. He included this account in his review: "Levine, suffering from a recurrent shoulder injury, didn't have his best stuff, and the Met's manager pulled him at the end of the second act. A reliever from the bullpen finished the opera without a score." Well, that's what I heard.

Newspapers are getting much thinner and one unintended consequence is a shortage of material with which to line cat boxes, wrap garbage, and pack crystal. Desperate householders are turning to the more copious, but far less suitable, pages of the Victoria's Secret catalogue.

Most maddening of all, you often encounter news stories in the paper--which you have bought in order to read the news stories--that provide only teasing highlights and tell you: "For the full story, go to our website."

As the newsprint-loving Bard of Buffalo Bayou puts it:
One day soon we'll have to get
News only from the Internet.
The newspapers will cease to be,
And that's just fine--if you're a tree.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Casserole Model

Emeril Lagasse, the gregarious chef who likes to yell “Bam!” as he hurls seasonings at food, devoted an entire program recently to casseroles. “Are casseroles necessary?” is a question that James Thurber and E. B. White might have asked, but didn’t. One churlish chef has called the casserole:

Some meat and rice and cheese and nameless goop
That’s smothered in cream of mushroom soup.

Webster’s says casserole is Provençal and originally just meant a saucepan, but this information is followed by an unappetizing modern definition: “A mold of boiled rice, mashed potato, or paste, baked and afterward filled with vegetables or meat.” No, thanks. The Oxford English Dictionary came up with this 1706 definition: “a Loaf stuff’d with a Hash of roasted Pullets, Chickens, etc., and dress’d in a Stew-Pan of the same Bigness with the Loaf.” Today, the casserole is a staple of traditional “potlucks,” church suppers, family reunions, funerals, and any meal in Minnesota. The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has written this paean:

Nothing warms the troubled soul
Like meat and stuff tossed in a bowl
And baked till brown on red-hot coal:
The glorious, gooey casserole!
But still I wonder, entre nous,
Isn’t it really just a stew?

Monday, October 19, 2009

All Right, Already!

A New York Times Op-Ed page headlined a Paul Krugman piece "The Banks Are Not Alright." Far be it from me to challenge the gist of his premise; Krugman, after all, is a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and I am merely the runner-up of the 1950 National Spelling Bee. Anyway, as far as I can tell, he's right about the banks, all right--but not about "alright." It ought to be two words. The Oxford English Dictionary would have us believe that "alright" was first used as long ago as 1175 (or thereabouts) in the Lambeth Homilies, but who paid any attention to them even back then? It's true that "already" and "almighty" have now taken up permanent residence in the most gentrified lexicographical neighborhoods, but if we let "alright" slip in as well, it won't be long before "alalong," "alornothing," "altold," "alnight," and maybe even "alsaintsday" will join them. The thought of that worries me alot.

The proper usage can be observed in the words of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou:

Orville and Wilbur went drinking all night,
With an old friend by the name of Allbright.
Though their imbibing had made them all tight,
Orville and Wilbur next day were all Wright.