Monday, August 30, 2010

Gussy Up

A friend recently returned from the opening night of Santa Fe Opera, at which she said the patrons were “all gussied up” even though the temperatures were uncomfortably warm.  “To gussy up” means to dress in your finery—those gold Versace gowns and midnight-blue Pierre Cardin tuxes—or to make something smarter or more interesting in a flashy way, like festooning a Presbyterian pulpit in chartreuse crepe paper.

The origin of the term, generally dated from the 1950s, is obscure.  Gussie is actually a 19th century Scottish word for swine, so maybe it all started with putting lipstick on a pig.  Since the first usage is in the 1950s in America, however, it’s probable that it has another origin.

Michael Quinion at his “World Wide Words” blog site suggests that Gussy was a 19th-century American term for a weak or effeminate man. Since it was written with a capital letter, Quinion surmises it came from a proper name, such as Augustus, although no specific Augustus is cited.

Since 1952 is the first recorded use of the verb gussy up, I think it is far more likely that the term derived from the American tennis player Gertrude Agusta Moran, who was known as “Gorgeous Gussie” after she wore frilly panties at the 1949 Wimbledon tournament.  The experts, however, insist on paying it safe and stick to “origin obscure.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes to get gussied up—although not in frilly panties—when he moseys out for a big night on the town.  Here’s what he brought back after his last one:

            A tennis-player named Gussie
            About her panties was fussy,
            She sewed on some frills
            To give the crowd thrills—
            But most of them thought her a hussy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

No Crosswordese, Please

When is the last time you found an olio of Oreo orts in your olla?  Did you ever see a naiad atop an arête on an ait in the Aare or the Isere? Does Oona ogle you through an ogee in an oda in Eire?  And I do hope that your ilia have never been injured one iota in a melee by an inee-tipped epee.  

The italicized words in the previous paragraph are all examples of crosswordese—words or names that tend to appear far more frequently in crossword puzzles than they do in ordinary discourse. Some of them are a wee bit archaic, perhaps, or a wee bit foreign, but you’ll find them in most standard dictionaries.  Ideally such words are avoided like noxious oil slicks when constructing a puzzle. But try as they may, editors can’t stamp them out completely; they will keep cropping up when a constructor is backed into a corner.

The reason they are so popular is that they are full of vowels, which tend to make it easier for the puzzle-maker to come up with words that will cross them to complete the grid. My favorite vowel-heavy word, which only rarely can I work into a conversation (or a puzzle) is giaour—a French-Italian-Turkish-Persian word meaning an infidel in the Islamic faith.           

The best puzzles are those with tricky clues for very ordinary words. They may be puns or phrases that can be taken more than one way.  Some of the cleverest I’ve come across are:

            West of Hollywood (answer: MAE)
            Place for notes on a piano  (TIP JAR)
            Bolt with no threads (STREAK)
            Norwegian city in Czechoslovakia (OSLO)
            Stale Italian bread (LIRA)
            French flower (SEINE)
            Pecking order (KISS ME)
            Perfect pitch (STRIKE)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never uttered a cross word in his life, but he has waxed poetic (not to mention floors) with undecipherable clues, like these:

            You cannot stand to have this—
            The answer is your LAP.
            It may give you a turn-on—
            The solution is a TAP.
            Stops crashes on your hard drive—
            Well, that would be a MAP.
            For the empty-headed—
            In just three letters—CAP.

Monday, August 23, 2010

One Man’s Epigram is Another’s Aphorism

In a BBC-TV adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown and the Three Tools of Death,” a police sergeant makes a smart-alecky remark, and his boss tells him, “I can do without the epigrams.”  The sergeant—proving he is, in fact, an incorrigible smart-aleck—replies, “Aphorisms, really.”  So what’s the dif?

Not much, when you get right down to it. An epigram, from Greek words meaning “to write or carve upon,” is a terse, sage, witty, often paradoxical, saying, sometimes in verse, but very often in prose. Musician and wit Oscar Levant said, epigrammatically, “An epigram is a wisecrack that played Carnegie Hall.”  A famous epigram is Benjamin Franklin’s “If we do not all hang together, we shall all hang separately.”

An aphorism, also Greek, from a root meaning “shaped by boundaries,” is a concise statement of a principle. Sounds pretty much the same as an epigram, with more truth and less paradox. An aphorism that expresses the same thought as Franklin’s epigram is “There is safety in numbers.”

While we’re on the subject, we might as well let it all hang out and let you know that an adage, from a Latin root meaning “I say,” is a saying, often metaphorical, that embodies a common observation. “Birds of a feather flock together” is an adage that expresses the same notion of solidarity as the epigram and aphorism above.  A maxim, from the Latin for “largest,” is a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct. “Be loyal to your friends” is a good maxim to follow.

If you need to know any more, well, there’s a dictionary in every public library, which is the last possible place you might expect to find the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who ventured outside his unkempt lair just long enough to slip the following epigrams—or are they aphorisms?—under the door:

            A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,
            And a slap on the back is worth two on the tush.   

            A stitch in time, they say, saves nine—
            But to go without a stitch is also fine.

            A fool and his money may soon be parted,
            When the fool has a car that can’t be started.

            A rolling stone will gather no moss,
            And a stone with no moss is like a goose with no   

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Y Not?

The Young Men’s Christian Association, commonly known as the Y.M.C.A., has let it be known that henceforth it wishes to be called simply “The Y.”  Irrespective of the fact that most people already refer to it that way, this re-branding fails to take into account several contraindications.  In New York especially, “the Y” more often than not refers to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, specifically the one on 92nd Street, which has already beaten the Christians in the abbreviated name game by calling itself simply “92Y.”

Then there’s the matter of women.  “Y” could also mean the Young Women’s Christian Association or the Young Women’s Hebrew Association.  But maybe the Young Men think they have a chromosomal claim to the “Y.”

Finally, there’s the problem of the Village People’s song “Y.M.C.A.”  Change it to “Y” and you’re going to be short three syllables, and a melisma can carry you only so far.

The Y’s decision reflects a trend toward shorter and shorter commercial names.  It probably started with IBM, which does not like to be called International Business Machines any more, or with KLM, which realized early in the game that it wouldn’t attract many English-speaking passengers as Koninklije Luchtvaart Maatschappij.  Nowadays the single letter “E,” embellished with an exclamation point, is a television network, “V” is a perfume, and versatile “W” is a hotel chain, a fashion magazine, and a former president.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose sobriquet is far too long, has decided to join the trend.

            YMCA is now the Y,
            The Entertainment Network’s E!
            Someone, somewhere, is surely π,
            And Valentino’s perfume’s V.
            If Bush is W, then I
            Think it’s O.K. if I am B.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Caught in the Web

The World Wide Web is a wondrous resource, brimming with useful facts, relevant data, and accurate information—except when it isn’t. For example, if you google “Shakespeare quotes,” one of the sites to which you will be referred ascribes the following quotation to the Bard of Avon:

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”

Anyone who has read ten lines of Shakespeare’s should know that he could not have written these words.  In the first place, no source, either play or poem, is given, and that immediately arouses some suspicion about the authenticity of the quotation. The diction of the passage could not possibly be earlier than late nineteenth century; more likely it is mid-twentieth or later.  The style is pedestrian, lacking any of the poetic imagery that infused every line Shakespeare wrote.  And the cloying sentiment, with its message of uncritical encouragement of personal self-fulfillment, is a contemporary notion, something you might expect to find in a New Age sermon to a happy-clappy congregation—not in the rigorous ethos of Elizabethan England with which Shakespeare was imbued. 

No, this is a spurious Shakespearean quote—which is attributed to him on more than 7,000 websites!  It was initially posted either as a hoax or as the result of exceedingly careless research, and then picked up and replicated by thousands of others without checking.  Beware the Web.

That other Bard, who splashes about in the sepia waters of Buffalo Bayou, was duly impressed by the alleged work of his colleague:

            Who knew that Will, our best of bards,
            In his spare time wrote Hallmark cards?

Thursday, August 12, 2010


You may remember the late legend Ray Charles singing about his financial troubles in a song called “Busted”:
            “The fields are all bare and the cotton won't grow,
            Me and my family got to pack up and go,
            But I'll make a living, just where I don't know, cause I'm busted.”
The lyrics—by Harland Howard (who also wrote such country hits as “I Fall to Pieces” and “Heartaches by the Number” and who described country music as “three chords and the truth”)—use “busted” to mean “bankrupt or broke,” a slang usage since 1837. 

Steven Greenhouse used “busted” in quite a different way, when he wrote in a recent issue of The New York Times: “…shoppers at a Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, N.Y., busted through the doors…”  Here “busted” is used as a synonym for “burst”—meaning “entered by causing something suddenly to give way to impact or pressure.”  This usage of “busted” (and its present tense cousin “bust”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “dialectical and vulgar pronunciation of burst, especially in the U. S.” It did seem a peculiar usage, to say the least, in the pages of The Times, but things are getting slipshod everywhere these days.

Americans have been using the vulgar pronunciation “busted” since 1806 to mean a variety of things: broken or made inoperable (“BP’s oil rig was busted”), arrested (“Lindsay Lohan was busted for violating probation”), to bring to an end (“Liz busted up Debbie’s marriage”), tamed (“the cowboy busted ten broncos in one day”), worked hard (“the U. S. soccer team busted their butts to no avail”), demoted (“General McChrystal was not busted to three stars”), to lose at cards by exceeding a limit (“that ten of diamonds busted me at the blackjack table”), hit (“Sean Penn busted the photographer over the head”), and raided (“Belgian police busted the bishops’ conclave”).   Such a useful to word to be so vulgar!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is second to no one in being vulgar, but as to being useful, the jury is still out—and you can reach a verdict based on this evidence:

            A lover of sculpture had such a great lust
            For torsos of Caesar he felt that he must
            Exhibit his passion
            In suitable fashion--
            So he bussed out to Rome, where he bussed an old bust.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Toward A More Perfect Onion

In Hamlet, the treacherous King Claudius plans to poison Hamlet’s wine cup, saying:
            “The King shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath,
            And in the cup an union shall he throw…”
So what does he put in the cup? With “an” preceding the word, it looks as though he might have meant to say an “onion.”  That’s hardly the thing for better breath, is it? No, actually what the King puts into the wine is a pearl—and presumably one that has been dipped in some lethal marinade.

The word union and the word onion are from the same Latin root—unionem, meaning “oneness, especially that formed by joining separate parts.”  So how did this abstract concept of unity become the name of a both a precious gem and a pungent vegetable that adds zest to bland food?

Evidently the term unionem was used in colloquial Roman Latin to mean, first a pearl of high quality, believed to occur singly, and then an onion—owing to its resemblance to the pearl, plus the fact that it was formed of successive layers of skin joined into one whole, as opposed to the solid structure of its culinary mate, garlic.

By the 12th century, oignon was an Old French word for the vegetable, and in English spelled union or unyoun.  By the 14th century the u had become an o, and Chaucer refers to “garleek, oynons, and lekes.”  The sense of “pearl,” spelled union, remained in usage until about the 17th century.

The “pearl onions” that one sees on a toothpick in Gibson cocktails are something of a redundancy, since a pearl is an onion, and an onion is a pearl, and they are both unions.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is no pearl, but he does exude a certain pungency on occasion, sometimes in his verses:

            I like onions, garlic, jalapeños,           
            Barbecue, hot wings, chiles relleños,           
            Corn dogs, bacon burgers, guacamole,
            Tiramisu, cherry pie, cannoli,
            Filet mignon, béarnaise sauce, spumoni,
            Gorgonzola, Stilton, cannelloni,
            Vindaloo, biryani, curry powder,
            Deep-fried shrimp and scallops, lobster chowder,
            Kippers, salmon, oysters, baked potatoes,
            Ice cream, chocolate, and fried tomatoes.
            And when at last I’ve finished all the crumbs,
            I’m also fond of Rolaids and of Tums.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It’s the Pits

If a prune or an olive is “pitted,” it means the pits have been removed.  If a grape is “peeled” (as a Mae West character once asked Beulah to do for her), it means the peeling has been taken off.  And if your knee is “skinned,” it means there’s no skin left on that unfortunate spot. 

Okay.  But if a bird is “feathered,” it does not mean that it has had its feathers removed—just the opposite. And if a possum—or a fashionable socialite—is “furred,” the creature is not deprived of its warm fluffy coat, but is swathed in it. (If the fur coat is removed, has the creature then been “defurred”?)

Just to make matters even more confusing, if lemons are “seeded,” the seeds have been removed, but if soil is “seeded,” seeds have been planted in it.

Brits refer to small seeds in fleshy fruit as “pips.”  But I have never heard fruit from which seeds have been removed referred to as having been “pipped” or even “depipped.”

The differences in usage can only be explained, I suppose, through the inexplicably wondrous development of the English language by people who use it to mean what they want it to mean.  Or, as the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who says it’s no skin off his nose, wonders:

            Birds of a feather
            Flock together.
            But do fish of a fin
            Swim with their kin,
            Do hares of a hide
            Run side by side,
            Do prunes of a pit
            Stay closely knit,
            Do grapes of a seed
            Become friends indeed,
            And are pears of a peel
            The real deal?

Monday, August 2, 2010

How Cool Is This?

Would you believe that the term “cool” meaning “very good” or “fashionable” was in use as early as 700 A.D.?  Well, I wouldn’t either, but the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, written about that time, begins a long etymological path, down which “cool” evolved from a word for “moderately cold” into its current hip meaning. Courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, here are four steps in that path, beginning with a few familiar lines in Old English:

1. “Cool” - Dispassionate, calm, composed (700):                        
            “Gyf him edwendan æfre scolde
            bealuwa bisigu bot eft cuman,
            ond þa cearwylmas colran wurða…”
                (“If evil woes should ever retreat, and comfort 
                follows, and seething sorrow turns cool [colran]…”  
               Beowulf, ca. 700)

            “Such seething braines…that apprehend more
            Than cool reason ever comprehends” (Shakespeare,  
            Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1600)
            “A man of understanding is of an excellent cool spirit.” 
            (Authorized Version of the Bible, 1611)
            “The bloody actor is less detestable than the cool       
            unfeeling historian.” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of  
            the Roman Empire, 1781)
            “While she wept, I strove to be cool.” (Tennyson,  
            Maud, 1855)

            “Don’t get stampeded.  Just keep cool…” (King,  
            Stampede Pass, 1890)

2. “Cool” - Attractively shrewd or clever; sophisticated, stylish, classy; fashionable, up to date; sexually attractive (1884):

            “Dat’s cool!” (J. A. Harrison, Negro English in Anglia, 

            “A cool kid” (Bodleian Quarterly Record, 1918)

            “She was a cool put-together chick that made men 
            thrill.” (Frank Loesser, "Hamlet," 1949)
3. “Cool” - A general term of approval, admirable, excellent (1933):           
            “And whut make it so cool, he got money 'cumulated.  
             And womens give it all to 'im." (Zora Neale Hurston,  
             Story, 1933)
            “This is a cool pad, man.” (Neurotica, 1950)

            “These jeans are so cool.” (Anne Beattie, Falling in 
            Place, 1981)

4. “Cool” - And, finally, in a diminished sense, to mean satisfactory, OK, acceptable, safe (1951)

            “He [the marijuana dealer] was absurdly cautious. ‘Got
             to look out for myself, things ain't cool this past 
             week.’” (Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1951)

            “He had seen Devon in the street and hid from him, 
            unable to smile in his face and say that everything 
            was cool.” (Gareth Joseph, Homegrown, 2001)

“Cool” is not one of the words that come to mind to describe the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  “Scary” is more apt, especially when he’s caught red-handed in the act of poiesis.
            Cool or hot? That question may seem dotty.
            Although truly,
            Wouldn’t you prefer to be a hottie
            Than a coolie?