Thursday, January 28, 2010

Are There Any News?

The on-screen description of the programming for BBC World News America says: “News from around the world are presented.”  Nowadays “news” are not often spoken of in the plural.

The word’s origin is the Anglo-Saxon adjective niwe, meaning “not existing before or not previously known.”  From it came the noun newes, which initially was used in the plural, meaning “new things” or “novelties,” like iPhones and chocolate Martinis. By 1500 the word came to mean the report of recent occurrences—not the happenings themselves, but Anderson Cooper’s interminable telling of them.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first instance of the word in the singular was in 1566. Thereafter it tended to be construed as a singular noun most of the time—but not always.

Shakespeare went both ways, as it were.  In Henry VI, Part 2, Queen Margaret favors the plural when she cries in despair, “Ay me!  What is this world! What news are these!” But Hamlet tells Rosencrantz, “Your news is not true.” From the sound of it, both of them were watching too much Glenn Beck.

Horace Greeley, the founding editor of the New York Tribune, always insisted that the word “news” was plural. The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who may be construed in either the plural or the singular, described this newsy exchange between Greeley and a foreign correspondent:

            When Horace Greeley looked at his New York Tribune,
            Page One, he thought, had far too little to peruse.
            He wired a correspondent: “Must hear from you soon—          
            Let me know at once if there are any news.”

            The correspondent answered Greeley right away:
            “Last week you may recall that we had quite a few,
            But when I looked around again the other day,
            I must report I couldn’t find a single new.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Yahoo, Bing, and That Whole Crowd

Since a recent entry on this blog about the origins of the name of the search engine Google, equal time has been demanded for rivals Yahoo, Bing, and several others.  No sooner said than done!

Yahoo, which entered the fray in 1994, started as “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” named by Jerry Yang and David Filo, who devised the system while they were graduate students in electrical engineering at Stanford.  That must have seemed a bit too homey--like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon, or Billie Jo and Myrtle’s Bank and Trust Company in Cut and Shoot, Texas. It was eventually changed to Yahoo, which is reputed to be an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.”  Yahoo also means “a filthy, degraded, vicious lout,” from the human-like creatures that are contrasted with the more civilized, horse-like Houynhmns in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Why this seems to be an appropriate name for a search engine is a mystery.

Bing, Microsoft’s search engine launched in 2009, is a lot easier to grasp. Originally known as MSN Search—not a very catchy name, you have to admit—the new Bing is an onomatapoeia, a word that imitates the sound it represents.  It’s supposed to remind you of the sound made by certain machines at the moment of the completion of a task (like a cash register ringing up a sale?) and also to suggest “Bingo!”, a word of triumph derived from the game played on cruise ships and in parish halls.  Bing Crosby, Bing cherries, and Sir Rudolf Bing do not seem to enter into it.

Alta Vista (“high view”), which has been around since 1995, was chosen in reference to the surroundings of the Digital Equipment Corp. at Palo Alto (“tall tree”), California.

Ask.Com is pretty straightforward, but you have to know it was originally Ask Jeeves, an allusion to Bertie Wooster’s infallibly helpful valet in the stories by P. G. Wodehouse.  

Yelp, another new alternative (2004) that specializes in local searches, is a word that means a sharp, shrill cry, from the Old English gielpan, meaning “boast.”

No one seems to have thought of naming a search engine Eureka (“I have found it”), the word uttered by Archimedes when he discovered a method for determining the purity of gold. 

Bottom-feeding on the World Wide Web, The Bard of Buffalo Bayou came up with this bit of detritus:
            I feel extremely sorry for my Ma and Pa, who
            Had no Alta Vista, Google, Bing, Ask, or Yahoo.
            You can very easily do the most difficult task
            With Alta Vista, Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Ask.
            Yes, indeed, you can discover every little thing
            On Google, Alta Vista, Ask, Yahoo, or Bing—
            There’s no need to be intellectually frugal
            With Ask, Alta Vista, Yahoo, Bing and Google.
            As for me, I never will be able to resist a

            Chance to learn why grain grows an arista,
            Or how the ancient Romans employed a ballista,
            Or what I could do if I had a nice, fresh genista,
            Or what Wikipedia says about Flockhart, Calista—   
            On Yahoo, Bing, Ask, Google, and Alta Vista.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Greengrocers’ Apostrophe

The Oxford Companion to the English Language cautions strongly against the use of what it calls the illiterate “Greengrocer’s Apostrophe.”  What that means is an apostrophe needlessly inserted to make the plural of a word—a practice for which British greengrocers (and maybe a few elsewhere) seem to have a penchant, as in:


Lynne Truss in her inexplicably best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves, has made a virtual career of ferreting out needless apostrophes, citing such horrific instances as:


The most egregious example surely must be the BBC web page announcement of a program about grammar for children, which read:


To be perfectly fair to those beleaguered greengrocers, I must point out that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before the Mrs. Grundys of grammar started making hard-and-fast rules, there was a perfectly respectable tradition of using apostrophes for plurals, especially for words ending in vowels--“We doe confess Errata’s” (Leonard Lichfield, 1641), “Comma’s are used” (Philip Luckcombe, 1771)--and for words ending s, z, ch, sh, tz (“waltz’s and cotillions”).  In these rule-ridden days, however, using an apostrophe for plurals other than numbers (7's), letters (W's), initials (B.L.T.'s) and a few oddities like “do’s and don’ts,” is definitely among the don’ts. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has apostrophized quite a bit in his time, is indebted to the rhythmic genius of the immortal Joyce Kilmer for the following:

                        I think that I would rather be
                        A dash than an apostrophe.
                        A dash is simple, strong, and firm,
                        Apostrophes just make you squirm.
                        But if somehow I had to be
                        A stupid old apostrophe,
                        I’d keep things strictly intramural
                        And never show up in a plural.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Outside the Box

We all like to believe that we can “think outside the box”—that is come up with imaginative solutions to problems, unconstrained by conventional wisdom.  But what is that “box” outside of which we like to think? A recent “Says You!” radio show (heard nationwide on many public stations) asked its panel if they knew the origin of the phrase.  The panel opined valiantly, trying to relate it to the box-like cubicles standard in offices today.

Host Richard Sher, however, provided the answer: the term relates to the imaginary square formed by nine dots lined up in three rows in a puzzle known, not surprisingly, as “the nine-dot puzzle.”  The challenge is to connect all nine dots with four straight lines, without lifting your pencil (or pen, if you’re really sure of yourself).  The only way to accomplish the feat is to draw the lines beyond the boundaries of the imaginary “box.”

The question of who first used the term “think outside the box” is not so easy to pin down.  The puzzle itself has been around at least since 1914, when it appeared in Cyclopedia of 5,000 Puzzles by Sam Lloyd, an American chess champion. It may have been devised by Lloyd’s frequent collaborator, Henry Dudeney, an English puzzle wonk.  Lots of hotshot management consultants now claim to have originated the phrase “thinking outside the box” (to describe their own genius compared to their hopelessly dopey clients) sometime in the 1970s, but no one can really say for sure who thought of it first.

 The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who does most of his thinking inside a large packing crate filled with excelsior, reacts as follows:

            Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
            Liked to think outside the box.
            And then for lunch he’d munch a bagel
            Smeared with cream cheese and some lox.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Puttin’ on Those White Shoes

Whenever I hear someone refer to a “white-shoe law firm,” I get this mental picture of a group of lawyers in their dark-blue pin-stripe Armani suits, Countess Mara power ties, starched Turnbull & Asser dress shirts--and white tennis shoes. In fact, the white shoes in question are not tennis shoes at all. The phrase refers to important old law firms, mostly in New York or Boston, whose members do not, as a rule, wear white shoes of any sort while actually practicing law, although they are fully shod in darker hues. 

As the late word maven William Safire explained it, the phrase derives from "white bucks," a type of laced suede or buckskin shoes with dark red soles that have been popular for more than half a century among moneyed New Englanders, especially fraternity men at Ivy League colleges. “White-shoe” is defined by Wordnet as "denoting a company or law firm owned and run by members of the WASP elite."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose modest legal affairs are tended by an equally modest lawyer in scuffed brown loafers, filed this brief as amicus curiae.


I’m puttin’ on my white shoes,
           Snappin’ shut my briefcase,
           Thinkin’ of my fee.
           I’m polishin’ those white shoes,
           Sittin’ here admirin’
           My Ivy League degree.           
           I'm off to court today
           And there is no delay 
           To plead my client’s case 
           And I must
           Be sure the verdict’s just-- 
           ‘Cause there’s no second place!
           I’m dressed for power, 
           In my Armani outfit
           And my fancy white shoes, 
           Billin’ every hour!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Go, Go, Google

You might think that Google is a shiny new word, right out of the box, since it refers to a computer search engine that came into being only in 1996. On the contrary, google has a long, long history—so long, in fact, that it is listed by some dictionaries as “obsolete.” 

Google is a variant of goggle, which dates at least to the sixteenth century, and is an adjective meaning “protuberant, prominent, or rolling,” or a verb meaning “to turn the eyes, to look sidelong, or to squint.”  A googly (probably adapted from either goggle or google) is a cricket ball thrown to curve in one direction and break in the other.  Googly-eyed is the same as goggle-eyed, “having bulging or rolling eyes.”

Fast forward to the turn of the twentieth century, when English music-hall performer Fanny Wentworth and Carl Smith wrote a song called “The Goo-Goo Song,” giving rise to goo-goo eyes, meaning “loving or enticing looks.”

We’re still a long way from the search engine, but bear up! In the wake of “The Goo-Goo Song,” the word google was resurrected in 1913 in The Google Book, a children's book about an imaginary creature called the Google (think “Grinch”) who lives in Googleland.  To capitalize on the word’s popularity, Billy DeBeck in 1919 started a comic strip called “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.”  This gave rise to a 1923 song by Con Conrad and Billy Rose about “Barney Google, with His Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.”

Okay, we’re getting there.  In the late 1930s Columbia University mathematician Edward Kasner wanted to devise a name for a number equal to the number “1” followed by one hundred zeroes, which is more than even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett can count.  His nine-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, a fan of the Barney Google comic strip, suggested google.  Kasner liked the sound of it, but decided to change the spelling, and he introduced the word googol in his 1940 book Mathematics and the Imagination.

This is the term Larry Page and Sergey Brin had in mind when they named their company in 1996—but they misspelled it (presumably intentionally), thus reintroducing with a new meaning a 500-year-old word that had served many purposes.  Now google has made it back into the dictionaries, obsolete no more, not only as a trademarked noun, with a capital G, but also as a lower-case verb meaning “to search for on the Internet.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who invites you to google him at any time, mused as follows:

           My eyes start to goggle, my nose starts to wriggle,
My brain starts to boggle, and soon I may giggle, 
I’ll play on my bugle a tune that’s quite fugal
And make goo-goo-googly eyes while I google.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Bee and All That Buzz

The first U. S. National Spelling Bee was in 1925, and Frank Neuhauser of Louisville, Kentucky, won it by correctly spelling gladiolus.  Every year, glassy-eyed, word-weary students up to the eighth grade compete in the event, which offers prizes of cash, gold medals, trips to Washington and New York, and the chance to get your picture, either gleefully smiling or joyfully tearful, in your hometown newspaper.

Since 1925, other winning words (or losing words, depending on your point of view) have included: sacrilegious, chlorophyll, insouciant, soubrette, catamaran, eudaemonic, smaragdine, esquamulose, shalloon, hydrophyte, maculature, elucubrate, psoriasis, milieu, odontalgia, antipyretic, spoliator, fibranne, elegiacal, staphylococci, antediluvian, xanthosis, vivisepulture, chiaroscurist, logorrhea, succedaneum, autochthonous, Ursprache, serrefine, guerdon, and Laodicean­—a few of which are actually in real people’s vocabularies.  Don’t you just love it when those autochthonous Laodiceans in their eudaemonic shalloon bring out their smaragdine serrefines and want to start elucubrating about antipyretic vivisepulture? 

No one really knows (or perhaps cares) why a spelling bee is called a “bee.” The Oxford English Dictionary thinks that quilting bees, husking bees, and other such events that bring people together for a common purpose derive from the activity of the humble bumblebee. Other scholars, however, say fie upon the busy buzzing bees, believing instead that the word is related to the Middle English bene, meaning a favor, and, by extension, a group of volunteers getting together to help a neighbor.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who, as runner-up of the 1950 National Spelling Bee, misspelled the word haruspex (a Roman soothsayer who reads animal entrails), offers his apologia somewhat more than half a century late.

I’d be as great as Julius Caesar,
Or any other Roman geezer,
And the populus would think I was a wizard,
If I were an old haruspex
Who tracked down wicked, evil suspects
By studying the liver of a lizard.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Blue Moon

Nothing in recent memory has enchanted the weather forecasters so much as the blue moon observed over the New Year holiday.  None could resist pointing out its rarity by telling us it came only “once in a blue moon.”  Okay, so what is a “blue moon”?

It’s a full moon that occurs outside the regular monthly pattern.  Most years have one full moon each month, but each solar calendar year has roughly eleven days more than a lunar year, so the extra days accumulate and once every two or three years there’s an extra full moon, which is called a “blue moon.” So  actually it’s not all that rare, and it’s probably a mistake to say that something truly unusual—like a friendly post card from the IRS—comes once in a blue moon. 

Is it so-called because it looks blue?  Maybe, or maybe not.  If you had a look at our recent blue moon, it was difficult to see any color in it.  The term goes back to the sixteenth century, when church officials, in using a full moon to calculate the date for Easter, noticed that every few years there was an extra full moon, which threw their calculations awry, and so they referred to this moon as a “false moon” or a “betrayer,” using the Old English word belewe, meaning “to betray.”  There was a reference to a “belewe moon” in a 1528 pamphlet. 

Other stubborn people insist that the phrase refers to an infrequent moon that visibly appears to be bluish in color, a phenomenon that might be caused by dust particles or smoke.  After the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the moon looked blue for two years.

Rodgers and Hart’s ballad “Blue Moon” refers to a stroke of romantic luck in which the beloved is seen “standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own,” an occurrence that was so rare that it must have happened under a blue moon. (The first lyric was quite different, written for Jean Harlow in a 1933 movie, in which she was saying her prayers and sang, to the same melody, “O, Lord, if you’re not busy up there, I ask for help with a prayer, so please don’t give me the air.”  Later, lyricist Lorenz Hart resurrected the tune for another movie, with new lyrics: “Act One, you gulp your coffee and run, into the subway you crowd, don’t breathe—it isn’t allowed.”  Hart came up with still another set of lyrics in 1934: “Oh, Lord, I could be good to a lover, but then I always discover the bad in every man.”  None of the previous versions having become hits, by 1935 the song was recycled yet again, with the lyrics it now sports, all of which just proves that you should never give up on anything, even the Houston Texans and the Chicago Cubs.) 

Once in a blue moon the Bard of Buffalo Bayou tries to spin out some romantic verse, and this is his most recent billet-doux:

            I recall an event that was one in a million:
            A pale lustrous moon in the somber gray skies,
            Then through the mist I saw something vermilion:
            The two glowing dots of your little red eyes.