Monday, March 29, 2010

Standing (Sort Of) at Armageddon

Two days after the recent long-awaited health care reform bill was signed into law, President Obama spoke in Iowa to explain that it might not be such a bad thing after all for the United States to inch closer to being a civilized country. “Leaders of the Republican Party,” he said, “called the passage of this bill ‘Armageddon.' Armageddon! End of freedom as we know it! So after I signed the bill I looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling. Some cracks opening up in the earth! Turned out it was a nice day!''  If it really had been Armageddon, what might we have expected to happen?

The New Testament’s Book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse, as it is sometimes called) alludes to a great world-ending battle between good and evil, and in Chapter 16, Verse 16, almost as an aside, it is mentioned that the warring forces will meet at a place called Armageddon.  The word is from the Hebrew har megiddo (Mount Megiddo).  Megiddo was an ancient city founded about 5,000 years ago and the site of many battles throughout history, including World War I.  Events at the final Armageddon may possibly include heat, fire, darkness, lightning, thunder, earthquakes, hail, rivers and oceans turned to blood, and quite a bit of blaspheming, according to the Good Book. 

Teddy Roosevelt made the term “Armageddon” politically famous in Chicago, on August 6, 1912, when he left the Republican Party (or acknowledged that it had left him) and founded the Progressive Party, telling his adherents, perhaps a wee bit overdramatically: “Our cause is based on the eternal principles of righteousness … to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing: We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”

Well, maybe.  Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected that year, and the world did not come to an end.  In any event “Armageddon” has entered the political vocabulary. It has a nice, apocalyptic ring to it, suggesting both “armies” and “God,” and politicians of certain persuasions toss it around to characterize their attempt to prevent almost any measure to which they are opposed but do not have the votes to stop.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has not been to Armageddon, and it is not high on his list of places he would like to visit.

            If I should go to Armageddon,
            Full-girded for a fight,
            I think my senses all would deaden
            And I wouldn’t sleep at night.

            I’d be a flop at Armageddon,
            The foe would have his way.
            My arms and legs would both be leaden
            As I went to the fray.

            I think I’ll pass on Armageddon,
            All that fire and smoke
            Would likely cause my eyes to redden
            And make me cough and choke.

            At Armageddon, I would lose,
            And things would be quite vile.
            Instead I’ll take a Caribbean cruise,
            That’s really more my style.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Please Be Gentle

Except when they are hurling accusations like “You lie!” and shouting epithets such as “Baby killer!” members of the United States House of Representatives are unfailingly courteous to a fault. They invariably refer to each other as the “Gentleman from Waxahachie” (or wherever) and never as “the idiot on the other side of the aisle.”  They seem a bit uncertain about protocol, however, when a member happens to be a woman.  If you watch Congressional proceedings on the indispensable C-Span, you will notice that a Congresswoman is not referred to simply as “the Lady from Dubuque” (or wherever), but as the “Gentlewoman” and sometimes, redundantly, as the “Gentle lady.”

A “gentleman” (the word gentle is from the Old French jentil, meaning “high-born”) was originally used to denote a man entitled to bear arms under heraldic rules, but who did not rank as high as the nobility (barons, earls, marquesses, and similar panjandra). The woman with whom a gentleman consorted came to be known as a “lady” (originally Old English hlaefdige, meaning “one who kneads the dough”), a term previously used for a female head of a household.  “Gentleman” and “lady” evolved to mean persons of a loosely defined social position—better than the rabble, but not necessarily ultra-highly elevated, a standard that was variable in different times and places.  Ladies and gentlemen were people who dressed in clean clothes, never said “I ain’t” or “you is,” didn’t slurp their soup, and generally conducted themselves with propriety—just like a member of the Congress.

“Gentlewoman” is an acceptable, though slightly archaic-sounding, synonym for “lady,” but it can also mean (as Shakespeare used it) an “attendant upon a lady of higher rank.”  Other than being the brand name of a model glider, “gentle lady” is apparently an invention of the Congress, for use when “lady” or even “gentlewoman” just doesn’t seem polite enough. 

Always polite enough, but sometimes just barely, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, proffers these lyrics with kid gloves:
            A little bit of politesse
            Can hide a multitude of sins.
            That’s why a villain with finesse
            Almost always wins.

             And so I say both “thanks” and “please,”
             And I obey the Golden Rule,
            ‘Cause if I mind my Qs and Ps,
            They won’t guess I’m a fool.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Adjectives Get Religion

Which adjective best describes your religious activity—devout, observant, practicing, fervent, militant (or none of the above)? Certain adjectives seem to attach themselves with greater regularity to some religious faiths than to others.  A highly scientific (I kept notes) Google search reveals the following interesting facts.

Among religionists who are devout (“warmly sincere, pious”), Catholics seem to have it over everyone else.  Google shows 289,000 references to “devout Catholic,” compared with 169,000 Muslims, 105,000 Jews, and 100,000 Mormons.  Among the most “devout” adherents, oddly, are Atheists, for whom Google lists 129,000 hits.

When it comes to being observant (“mindful of or careful in following rites, laws, and customs”), Jews take the cake, or maybe it’s the rugelach. Google finds 75,000 references to “observant Jew,” compared with 57,000 Muslims, 15,000 Catholics, and only 7 Unitarians, who, after all, don’t have much to be observant about.  Even Atheists do better than Unitarians, with 717 Google hits for being observant.

Catholics win again for practicing (“actively engaged in a specified way of life”) with 128,000 citations, followed very closely by Jews with 124,000 and Muslims with 59,000. Atheists hold their own with 14,000 references to those who “practice” their non-religion, as opposed to only 7,200 practicing Lutherans, 7,100 Baptists, 5,200 Episcopalians, 3,700 Unitarians, and a mere 2,900 Evangelicals.

Being fervent (“marked by great intensity of feeling”) is one area in which you might expect Evangelicals to score high—but, according to Google, with 9,900 citations for fervent Evangelicals, they trail Catholics, who have 37,000, but outdo the 6,200 Muslims, 1,700 Lutherans, 1,700 Jews, 1,100 Baptists, and a measly 104 Unitarians who are fervent in their religious lives.

Apparently there is a militant (“aggressively active, as in a cause”) Atheist lurking behind every tree and ranting on every street corner.  The non-believers win hands down for militancy—46,000 such Atheist references, compared with 38,000 Muslims, 20,000 Catholics, 3,100 Jews, 2,200 Mormons—and only 2 Episcopalian references as “militant.”  Even the Unitarians, with 356 citations, seem to be more militant than Episcopalians.

Caught in a posture that was far from militant, and certainly not fervent, devout, or observant—torpid might be the best description—the Bard of Buffalo Bayou offered this humble orison:

            I pray that, when I meet a fellow human being
            Who holds beliefs with which I'm strongly disagreeing,
            Who has ideas that I find lacking in validity,
            Whose actions seem to me to show extreme stupidity,
            Whose looks and dress and manners strike me as barbarity--
            I have the grace to treat that stupid jerk with charity.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Well, What Do You Know [Insert Punctuation Mark Here]

The New York Times
begs to inform us that a new punctuation mark has made its way into the books. It’s called a sarcmark, and its function is to identify sarcastic comments, especially in email messages, where context may be slight. Without a sarcmark, the danger is that your sarcasm in such statements as “I really love my boss” or “We had a delicious meal at Michael Pollan’s dinner party, didn’t we?” might be lost on the recipient.  This new punctuation mark has been developed by a Michigan company known as Sarcasm, Inc., which seems genuinely sincere when it offers software to imprint a sarcmark for $1.99.

The sarcmark can now take its place alongside another little-used punctuation mark, the interrobang, which was invented in 1962 by an advertising man named Martin K. Specter. It’s a combination question mark and exclamation point (which is known as a “bang” in printer’s slang), to be used at the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question, such as “How am I supposed to take a shower when you’ve used all the hot water” or “What do you mean that’s cranberry sauce on your shirt collar” 

Specter proposed the new mark in an article in the magazine TypeTalks and asked readers to suggest a name for it.  Other contenders included rhet, exclarotive, and exclamaquest. In 1966, Richard Isbell of American Type Founders issued a font that included the interrobang as one of the characters. By 1968, an interrobang key was available on some typewriters.  Over the years use of the interrobang has fizzled and now it is difficult to find in most type fonts—although Miscrosoft Word offers it as a Wingding.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is a self-styled font (of specious wisdom), suggests the following additional punctuation marks, and to represent them, he proposes employing some of the weird symbols in the Microsoft Webding catalog whose actual usage he does not know.

    Gloomaloop -  to express extreme sadness or distress:
    My computer crashed, and I lost the 200,000-word autobiography that I’ve been working         on for thirty years [gloomaloop here]

    Sneeracle - to express utter contempt:
    So you thought Robert Downey Jr. was a better Sherlock Holmes than Basil Rathbone             [sneeracle here]

    Geewhizzer  - to express astonished disbelief:
    You have won a Nobel Prize for your chocolate chip cookie recipe  
           [geewhizzer here]

    Dubitab - to express maximum uncertainty:
    Try plugging this prong into that socket and see if it works [dubitab here]

Other suggestions are welcome, but no prize of any kind will be awarded.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pigs' Skins and Cats' Guts

No, Virginia, footballs are not really made from the skins of pigs, and violin strings are not made from the intestines of actual cats.  So how did the words pigskin and catgut originate?

In the case of pigskin, sometime around the 8th century, the Saxons invented a game of primitive football, in which rowdy mobs tried to kick a ball-like object from their end of town to their opponents’ territory.  It may not seem very sporting of them, but the ball-like object they used was the severed head of a defeated Viking invader.  Later, when Vikings became less numerous (you can see why), the avid athletes began to use animal bladders, sealed and inflated. Sometimes they were pig bladders but more often those of cows and sheep.     

In the mid-19th century, thanks to Charles Goodyear, who invented vulcanized rubber, the bladders and Viking heads were replaced with rubber balls, usually covered with animal hides to make them more durable.  Although the hide was usually cow leather, the old “pigskin” designation was resurrected by an imaginative sports writer around the turn of the century.  And it stuck.

Catgut is the name given to a cord usually made from the intestines of sheep or goats.  It is sometimes used to make strings for some musical instruments.  While the innards of horses, mules, pigs, and donkeys are also sometimes used, the cord has never been made from cats. 

Theories abound about the origin of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it’s a reference to “caterwauling” by an inept string player.  Others think it may be a contraction of “cattle gut” or a confusion of the word kit, meaning a small fiddle, with kitten. 
Our old friend, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, turned to Mother Goose, who always has a few choice words about various critters—cows, horses, lambs, blackbirds, and spiders—as well as pigs and cats.

    Tom, Tom, the running back,
    Stole the pigskin and went on attack.
    As he picked up yardage down the field,
    The pigskin just sat back and squealed.

    Hey diddle, diddle,
    The cat and the fiddle—
    Now here’s the scuttlebutt.
    A Perlman cadenza
    Gives a cat influenza

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Doing It Widdershins

In a British murder mystery that forced itself upon me the other day, I read that the Detective Chief Inspector “stirred his tea widdershins.”  Well, what do you know about that? Do all British cops do it?  Or is it just a DCI thing?  What the heck does it mean anyway?   

Widdershins, or withershins, as some persnickety dictionaries prefer, is a devious word whose true meaning is a little hard to grasp.  Here are some of the definitions: “in a left-handed, wrong, or contrary direction; counterclockwise; in a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun; contrariwise; topsy-turvy; in a direction opposite to the usual.” The Oxford English Dictionary says your hair is widdershins if it’s standing on end.

So was the DCI stirring his coffee counterclockwise, wrongly, with his left hand, opposite from the sun’s course, differently from the way he usually stirred it, or while he was having a bad hair day?  Take your choice.

The word’s origin is Germanic: widar (“back against’) + sinnen (“to go”). 

For those of you who care about such things (and I expect the number is exceedingly small) the opposite of widdershins is deasil (pronounced just like the fuel).

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has kicked a few widders’ shins in his rambunctious salad days, is more ruminative of late, especially about murder mysteries.
            Oh, Detective Chief Inspector,
            Have you solved the murder yet?
            Was it the dapper Duke who decked her,
            Or the boorish Baronet?

            The Husband also is suspicious,
            For he inherits all her cash.
            The Maid is known to be malicious—
            Her actions seem a little rash.

            It could have been the victim’s Doctor,
            But he’d use poison, wouldn’t he?
            Instead, it seems the villain knocked her
            In the head quite brutally.

            Ah! Perhaps it was the Vicar
            Who dispatched the fatal blow,
            When he has a drop of liquor,
            He turns belligerent, you know.
            Of course, her Lawyer might have killed her,
            It’s rumored he has been disbarred.
            So many suspects must bewilder
            All your men at Scotland Yard.
            But your deductions are much subtler,
            No culprit’s safe from your attack—
            What? You say it was the Butler?
            Good grief!  I want my money back.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Where the Buck Stops

President Obama, in discussing accountability for security measures, invoked the memory of former President Harry Truman when he told Americans, “The buck stops with me.”  Truman had a little plaque on his desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here!”  The sign was made by an uncredited artisan forever condemned to oblivion, an inmate of the federal reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma.  So what’s a buck, and why do strong leaders say it stops with them?

The phrase stems from “pass the buck,” which everyone agrees means to “evade responsibility,” a practice usually tinged with pusillanimity.  So whoever the buck stops with is the person responsible, and most Americans would prefer that person to be the President, as opposed, say, to some gum-chewing border guard, preening social secretary, or, heaven forfend, ranting talk show host.

Word sleuths agree that buck in this sense originated in the game of poker.  It was a marker of some sort that was placed on the table and moved from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to deal.  Some say the marker was a knife with a buckhorn handle; others that it was a buckshot or the tail of a buck deer, carried as a talisman. By passing the buck (whatever it was) to the next player and giving up his turn, a player avoided both the requirement to ante for a new hand and the responsibility of being accused of a crooked deal.  Timorous souls preferred not to be the dealer.

Mark Twain’s Innocents at Home, published in 1872, was the first printed source of the term “pass the buck.” In it a poker-player says: “You ruther hold over me, pard. I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”

One authority (or so he claims to be) opines that instead of an actual buck, sometimes a silver dollar was used as a marker, but it was still called a buck, giving rise to the slang word for a dollar.  The Oxford English Dictionary sniffs at any such etymology and simply says the origin of buck meaning “dollar” is “obscure.”  Webster’s concocts some elaborate and unconvincing theory about buck deriving from sawbuck, a ten-dollar bill, which in turn stemmed from the Dutch zaagbok or sawhorse.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who would love to have more bucks, just like Daddy Warbucks, will certainly not earn them with pseudo-poetic spoutings like this:

            In the woods lived a cute little deer,
            And a big, antlered buck was her beau.
            “The buck,” she said, “always stops here,
            So he can make a little doe.”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I Say 'Mad Props!' What Do You Say?

A recent New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle, reputedly the most difficult of the week, led off with the definition “Big-time kudos,” the solution to which (I learned a very long while later) was MADPROPS (you have to figure out for yourself if the answer is one word or more).  I stared at this entry, trying vainly to make sense of it. Did it mean a wild proposition of some sort? Did it have something to do with Madison Avenue P. R. opportunities?  Was it a deranged stagehand?

A trip to the trusty on-line Urban Dictionary (no point bothering Webster or Oxford with this one) explained that I am just not hip enough to have come across this very common expression, on the tip of everyone’s tongue, except mine.  It means, as the clue “Big-time kudos” clearly tells you, “thank you” or “congratulations” as an expression of appreciation or respect.  One of the contributors to this web site suggests the etymology is mad=extreme and props=support. This site also insists that the expression originated with the character of Margot in the Broadway musical Legally Blonde when she exclaims (and how!) to Elle, “Mad props!  He’s the campus catch! You’re a perfect match””

Another web site, The Maven’s Word of the Day, sounds it as if it knows what it’s talking about when it says the phrase has its origin in the hip-hop culture of young African-Americans in the 1990s.  Mad, says the maven, is either an adjective meaning “plenty of,” as in mad publicity, or an adverb meaning “extremely”, as in mad coolProps is a shortened form of "proper respect or credit."

While we’re at it, we might take a look at the word kudos.  It’s from the Greek kydos, and it means “fame, prestige, renown, praise for achievement.”  Kudos is a singular noun, though lots of people think it’s a plural and may extend to you a single kudo.  Not only does that sound a little chintzy, there’s technically no such thing as a kudo.

Trying to be as hip as the next guy (whoever the next guy might be), the Bard of Buffalo Bayou wants to get into the swing of things and so he extends “mad props” to one and all, especially the following.

    You’ve had visits from the stork, glad pops?
    Mad props!
    You’ve decided to go straight, bad cops?
    Mad props!
    You’ll cheer up when you become less vain, sad fops.

    Mad props!
    You like alumni dances they call grad hops?
    Mad props!
    You Scots all like to wear plaid tops?
    Mad props!
    You cleaners using Swiffers where once you had mops—
    Mad props!

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Noble Endeavour

Flush with success, the American space shuttle Endeavour recently concluded a mission to install a new $19-million toilet on the space station.  You’d think Joe the Plumber might have been able to do the job for a few bucks less. Besides this commendable step toward better hygiene, one other notable feature of the mission was the spelling of the shuttle’s name--in the British manner with a “u” between the “o” and the “r,” instead of the good old plain American Endeavor.  What’s going on here, a British takeover of the American space program, requiring our astronauts to use a loo?

As it happens, the orbiter was named, in a contest for schoolchildren, in honor (or perhaps in honour) of the British ship, the HMS Endeavour, on which Captain James Cook sailed around the world from 1768 to 1771, discovering a lot of places that the English didn’t know existed.  This spelling of Endeavour confounds some Americans, including NASA itself, which has been known to misspell the name of its own spacecraft.   

That settles that question.  But it leaves unanswered why the British and American spellings differ on so many words ending on an unstressed –or or, alternatively –our—like color, neighbor, favor, flavor, and labor.  Blame it on Noah Webster, who wrote The American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Noah, described by Bill Bryson as  “a severe, correct, humorless, religious, temperate man who was not easy to like,” didn’t see the need of that useless “u” in all those words, so he got rid of it. 

Even before Webster, the spelling of such words was lackadaisical.  In Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he mentions “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour,” but the final version makes it “honor.”

The -our spelling came into English words from the snooty Normans, whose Frenchified spelling was considered to have an elegant je ne sais quoi, even though the original Latin words on which they were based were spelled “-or.”  It was the 1755 dictionary by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a man whose many eccentricities have subsequently been ascribed to Tourette Syndrome, that perpetuated all those -our spellings, even in words like governour, errour, horrour, tenour and terrour, which by now have drifted back to their original Latinate spellings, even in Britain.

In his idealistic youth, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou dreamt of being an astronaut, but unavoidable circumstances put an end to his endeavor, as he explains:

            I’d like to travel into space
            And walk upon the moon.
            And meet an alien face-to-face--
            Perhaps we could commune.

            And then I’d orbit ‘round the earth,
            I’d be so overjoyed
            To circumnavigate its girth
            And dodge an asteroid.

            On second thought, a rocket trip
            Can wait another day.
            Right now I think I’ll sit and sip
            Just one more Chardonnay.