Monday, February 28, 2011

Hunting the Snark

The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring is a collection by Lawrence Dorfman of comments that embody the irascible, snappish, witty quality known as snark.  A few snarky examples:

            I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening.  But this  
            wasn’t it. (Groucho Marx)

            Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a 
            member of Congress.  But I repeat myself. (Mark 

            What do I think of Western civilization?  I think it 
            would be a very good idea. (Mahatma Gandhi)

            This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly.  It should
            be thrown with great force. (Dorothy Parker)

            Don’t be humble.  You’re not that great. (Golda Meir)

            Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his 
            shoes.  Then you’re a mile away from him and you 
            have his shoes. (Anonymous)

Well, you get the idea. Or, if you don’t, there’s no hope that you’ll ever learn to be snarky yourself. 

But where did we get the word snark?  It’s been around at least since 1866, when the Oxford English Dictionary cites its use as a verb (derived from Middle Low German snarken) meaning to “snore or snort.”  From that meaning, it was used by 1882 to mean to “find fault with or to nag.”

In 1876 Lewis Carroll wrote “The Hunting of the Snark,” a poem about a mythical creature that he named by combining snail and shark.  Jack London’s 1911 Cruise of the Snark is an account of a voyage across the south Pacific in a ketch called the Snark. These uses do not seem related to snark’s contemporary meaning.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary suggests that snark, meaning “sarcastic, irreverent, or impertinent” dates from 1906 and comes from nark, meaning to “annoy,” a word derived from the Romany nak or “nose.”  In the Snark Handbook, Dorfman maintains the word is a telescoping of  “snide remark.” 

Wherever the word came from, it is a perfect description of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who snarks (as follows):

            Of friends I have but very few,
            But I don’t think that is so terrible,
            Because (and this is entre nous)
            I find the ones I have unbearable.

Monday, February 21, 2011

With A Twist

The wildly popular movie The King’s Speech deals with the use of tongue-twisters in teaching England’s King George VI to conquer his stammer.  In the film his vocal coach prescribes this phrase:            

            “I have a sieve full of sifted thistles and a sieve full of  
             unsifted thistles, because I am a thistle sifter.”
Under what circumstances the King, having mastered this phrase, might be able to use it is not clear. Perhaps thistle-sifting is more pervasive in the British Isles than it is here.

It seems to me that we should concentrate on coming up with really useful tongue-twisters that we might able to slip into casual conversation at the corner bar or use the next time we’re making a speech to the PTA.  I mean such phrases as:

            Mirroring Marilyn Marlowe’s mercurial murmuring, 
            Muriel Marley merrily married Marlon Morley.

            The cheeky sheikh shocked sleek Chuck, shook slack 
            Chick, and sacked slick Shaq for schlepping schlocky 

            The plural of isthmus—is it isthmuses or isthmi?

And while we’re at it, we ought to learn a few foreign tongue-twisters that would put us in good stead when we’re overseas. Next time you’re in Paris, stop the nearest gendarme and confide in him:

            Didon dîna, dit-on, d’un dos du dodu dindon, don d'un 
            don du Dordogne, à qui Didon a dit: Donne, donc, 
            don, du dos d'un dindon.

What you will have told him (I think) is “Dido dined, they say, on the back of a fat turkey, the gift of a Spanish grandee from the Dordogne River region, to whom Dido said: ‘Give me, then, sir, a turkey’s back.’”  That should make your Parisian sojourn one to remember.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a twisted tongue, caused by trying to uncap beer bottles without the use of an opener.  It does not stop his nattering:

            She sells seashells
            By the Seychelles seashore.
            The seashells she sells
            She sells by the score.

            He sells seashells,
            Seychelles seashells galore,
            She’ll say he sells
            His shells in a store.
            Sure, she sells shells,
            And she will sell more
            Than all the shells he sells
            In the Seychelles seashell store.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What’s Buzzin’, Cousin?

Confusion abounds over the difference between a “second cousin” and a cousin “twice-removed.”  If you don’t believe me, just ask the next cousin you come across. I’m here to resolve that problem for all time. 

Since about the thirteenth century, second has been used to indicate “next in line,” and around about 1660, it was applied to cousins, to indicate the relationship between the offspring of first cousins. Your first cousin, of course, is the offspring of your parent’s brother or sister. In other words, your mother’s sister’s daughter Griselda is your first cousin. Griselda’s son, the mischievous Herkimer, and your daughter, the adorable little Marzipan, are second cousins.

You and Herkimer are first cousins once-removed. The adjective removed has been used since 1548 to mean “a generation younger or older.” So when Herkimer and his future wife, the shrewish Anaconda, give birth to little Pococurante, that child (of indeterminate gender) will be your first cousin twice-removed.

While we’re at it, the word cousin also has an interesting history.  It’s from the Latin consobrinus, which means “mother’s sister’s daughter” (such as Griselda is to you)—but it later had the meaning of either parent’s sibling’s child of either gender.  Some languages still retain different words for each of the eight possible “cousin” relationships—mother’s brother’s son, father’s sister’s daughter, etc., etc., etc.

In a broader sense cousin is often used to mean any relation beyond one’s immediate family.  Since the early fifteenth century, cousin was a Cornish term of address for anyone related to you either by blood or friendship.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has few cousins, and they tend to avoid each other whenever possible, for reasons that are clear in this verse:

            My cousin is an awful boor--
            He’s churlish and uncouth.
            His presence no one can endure,
            And that’s the gospel truth.
            His conduct must be disapproved,
            This rude and loutish cad,           
            Until he’s gone—then, once removed,
            This cousin’s not so bad.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Yes, We Have No Canolas

Nutritionists are always telling us to use either olive oil or canola oil to be healthy.  And olives themselves, they say, are also good for you.  But why is it we are never urged to eat some nice fresh canolas?  

To my surprise, I recently discovered there’s no such thing as a canola!  The oil that goes by that name is made from rapeseed.  Rape, pardon the expression, is an herb in the mustard family, and its name comes from the Latin rapum, which means “turnip.” 

So where does “canola” enter the picture?  The rapeseed from which the oil is pressed was bred in Canada during the 1970s.  It was regarded as a particularly beneficial oil for human consumption because it was low in something unpleasant called erucic acid.  Hence the name “canola” was coined from “CANadian Oil- Low Acid.”  The term has been in use since 1979.

Low acid is not a trait of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who concocts verses that are wildly acerbic when they are not incomprehensible, like the following. 
            And Emile Zola
            One day chanced to meet.
            Said Emile Zola:
            What would you like to eat?”

            “Some Coca-Cola
            From Pensacola,”
            Savonarola said.
            “And Gorgonzola,
            Fried in canola,
            Then I will be well fed.”

            “We’ve no canola,”
            Said Emile Zola.
            “It’s something you can’t get.
            Like the Victrola,
            And the Crayola,
            It’s not invented yet.”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dandy Danglers

Quick—what do hoop earrings, carrots, bungee jumpers, the late Michael Jackson’s baby, and participles have in common?  Why, they’re all things that may dangle.  Today we’re going to concentrate on participles and other modifiers that dangle. 

The dictionary says dangle  means to “hang loosely, without being firmly attached,” and a dangling modifier is a word or phrase in a sentence that is not clearly attached to the word that it modifies. The most famous occurrence is that of a present participle, whose subject is separated from it or unstated: “Watching television, time flew by quickly.” It was not the time that was watching television, but the people (unstated) who were helping time fly.  You might say, “Watching television, we passed the time quickly” or “As we watched television, time flew by quickly.”  In either event, they were probably not watching the same TV shows I see, which move very slowly.

Many other modifiers—past participles, adjectival and adverbial phrases, objective clauses—may dangle, as the following examples, drawn from actual items in print, will demonstrate:   
            Yoko Ono will discuss husband John Lennon's murder 
            during an interview with Anderson Cooper.

            Tonight at 8:00 Terry Waite discusses five years in a 
            Beirut prison cell with Barbara Walters.

            Although irregular, I will consider your request.

           The convicted killer was given life in prison with the 
            possibility of parole after four hours of deliberation.

            Tickets will go on sale for the Yankees-Red Sox game
            at 6:00 p.m. in the box office.
            Bill Smith photographed bears scooping up salmon 
            using a Nikon camera.            
            Researchers will study women who became pregnant 
            after the age of 40 with the help of a National Science 
            Foundation grant.            
            He ran after a cat in his pajamas.
            We sat under the ancient trees that had survived for  
            centuries drinking beer.
            Hidden in a small kitchen drawer, Mrs. Johnson   
            safeguarded her neighbor's house key.

            Police submitted a report on the sale of $1 million in 
            heroin to the district attorney.
            The law is aimed at punishing hunters who illegally 
            shoot deer and the merchants who sold them the 
            We saw many bears driving through Yellowstone Park.

            Jogging in the park, a tree branch fell on Mary.

            He almost kicked the ball 60 yards to score a field 

            She would only play bridge with Harvard graduates.

            Actors who argue with directors frequently are 

            Prisoners who smile often are paroled.

            Totally smashed, Ed viewed his car with alarm.

            Ignoring all strictures against allowing his participles to dangle, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou came up with this bit of grammatical horror resting in his hammock:

            Strolling with my sweetheart at the zoo,
            Making goo-goo eyes,
            A lion came into my view,
            Taken by surprise.
            With vicious teeth and claws and fearsome roar,
            Preparing to attack,
            I faced him like a matador,
            Advancing, he fell back.
            “My hero!” cried my sweetheart, smiling wide—
            And then I thought I’d strangle.           
            “I meant that kingly lion,” she cried,
            “Not you—your modifiers dangle.”