Monday, August 29, 2011


The winner of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest is Sue Fondrie, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The contest, sponsored by the San Jose State University English Department, honors bad writing by asking entrants to submit the opening sentence of an imaginary novel.  It memorializes Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the 19th-century English author, whose novel Paul Clifford opens with this much-mocked sentence:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The winning 2011 entry:

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”

Britain’s Guardian likes to find egregiously bad sentences from actual novels. A few it has come up with are:

Danielle Steel in Star: "She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco.”

Lindsey Davis, Shadows in Bronze: “By the end of the alley the fine hairs in my nostrils were starting to twitch.”

Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Synthetic Men of Mars: “From Phundahl at their western extremity, east to Toonol, the Great Toonolian Marshes stretch across the dying planet for eighteen hundred earth miles like some unclean, venomous, Gargantuan reptile - an oozy marshland through which wind narrow watercourses connecting occasional bodies of open water, little lakes, the largest of which covers but a few acres.”

If you’d like to submit an entry for next year’s Bulwer-Lytton contest (the prize, according to the website, is a pittance), the email address is:  Entries are accepted 365 days a year.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not enter contests, inasmuch as he believes his writing is bad enough without anyone awarding him a prize for it.  Judge for yourself:

            I’ll bet my writing’s more egregious,
            Mawkish, crude, and sacrilegious
            Than anything that has been written
            Since the days of Bulwer-Lytton;
            Worse than any Harlequin romance
            By Barbara Cartland, Judith Krantz,
            Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel--
            Compared to them, I’ve no appeal.           
            I’m worse than Mary Higgins Clark
            Or any literary matriarch
            Like Stephenie Meyer and Anne Rice.
            With all their vicious vampire vice.
            Mickey Spillane and Louis L’Amour?
            I’m worse by far, and that’s for sure!
            Why, I am even lower down
            Than Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown.
            Nora Roberts? I’d almost forgotten her—
            Not to worry, I’m much, much rottener.
            So if all my prose and all my verse
            Are really bad and couldn’t be worse,
            And like those I’ve named, I’m booed and hissed,
            Why ain’t I on the best-seller list?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Look Out! Your Domain Is Imminent!

The Houston Chronicle recently reported that “[Governor Rick] Perry… signed imminent domain legislation because ‘ownership of personal property is crucial to our way of life.’”

What the Texas governor feels is threatening our sacred lifestyle is eminent (not imminent) domain, the right of the government to take private property for public purposes, by virtue of its sovereignty over lands within its jurisdiction. Of course the Gov may be worried that eminent domain is imminent, and he certainly wouldn’t want it to be immanent—that might be treacherous, er, treasonous.

It’s easy to confuse eminent with imminent and immanent, not to mention emanant, especially if you pronounce your vowels with a Texas twang, as the Gov usually does, especially when campaigning in the state for one or more offices.

Eminent, meaning “prominent,” comes from the Latin eminere, which means “to stand out, like a mountain.”  It suggests that the government’s domain, or area of jurisdiction, is superior to that of a private individual.  Imminent, meaning “ready to take place,” usually with the suggestion of threat, comes from a similar Latin root, imminere, meaning “to project, in a threatening manner, like a mountain.”

Neither eminent nor imminent should be confused with immanent (“indwelling, inherent,” from the Latin immanere (“to remain in place”), or with emanant (“issuing or flowing forth”) from the Latin emanare (“to flow”)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose eminence and immanence may be in doubt, but whose imminence and emanance are both unquestioned, was inspired by the Governor’s views to make this typically insouciant observation:

            O, give me a home
            Where Republicans roam
            And there is no eminent domain.
            Where taxes are low,
            Just like I.Q.s, you know,
            And Rick Perry wins every campaign.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Riff and Raff

The New York Times Magazine now has a section called “Riff”—which apparently describes musings on whatever topic the writer of the day has in mind. Recent “riffs” have consisted of innocuous observations about attitudes toward celebrities and about the joys of reading Harry Potter books. But what’s a “riff”? 

One Times writer, Ben Ratliff, has noted an explosion of its use in that newspaper.  He found 57 instances of “riff” in 1990, 131 in 2000, and 221 in 2010. (Aren’t searchable texts wonderful?) 

As originally used, a riff is a “short, repeated phrase in jazz music.”  Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary believes it was first used around 1935 and had its origins as a shortened and altered version of the word refrain.

Today, a riff has broader applications—as a variation on a previous account, or as a succinct or witty comment, or, broadly speaking, a version of something, such as someone’s particular “take” on a topic under discussion. 

Riff is evidently not related to riffraff, meaning “the rabble or the mob.”  This word is a shortening of rifle et rafle, from the Old French riffler and raffler, both of which mean “to plunder”; hence rifle et rafle means every scrap of something, or “the sweepings, the refuse, the rubbish” and, by transference to human beings, “the rabble.” 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has an elitist background—his second cousin once removed was the Count of Monty Crisco—and that may account for the Bard’s inordinate fear of the hoi polloi, as expressed in this ballad, which he is wont to sing as he accompanies himself on a kazoo:

            The riffraff will grab you,
            If you don’t watch out.
            Then, when they nab you,
            They’ll knock you about.
            They’ll slap you and slam you,
            And hit you with rocks,
            And then they will cram you
            Into a small box.
            Of course they will rob you—
            Every nickel and stitch,
            And then they’ll just fob you
            Off in a ditch.

            They’ll beat and desert you,
            They’re not at all sweet--
            But riffraff won’t hurt you
            Like the bankers on Wall Street!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Who Said "Uncle"?

During the recent acrimony between Republicans and Democrats in their struggle to pass debt ceiling legislation, one financial analyst observed: “I don’t think there’s anyone on Wall Street who doesn’t believe that the people who are being difficult on Capitol Hill are ultimately going to say uncle.” “Uncle,” as you must remember from your playground wrestling days, is an American expression used to indicate submission when you’re fighting. Some people suggest it was the Democrats who said uncle first—but the Republicans didn’t even realize it.

Be that as it may, wouldn’t you like to know whose uncle is being referred to? The Online Etymological Dictionary says the phrase was first used in 1918 and is of “uncertain signification.”

The intrepid Michael Quinion, in his blog “World Wide Words,” won’t settle for such shilly-shallying. He proposes, but cannot prove, that “uncle” is a corruption of an Irish word—anacol—that means “an act of protecting, deliverance, mercy, safety,” derived from the Old Irish aingid (“protects”).

Another theory, suggested by William and Mary Morris (they have a college in Virginia named for them, don’t they?), wants us to believe that “uncle” goes back to a Latin expression, patrue mi patruissime, meaning “uncle, my best of uncles,” used as a shout for help by ancient Roman youths who got into trouble. Hmmm…that sounds like one of those New Yorker Magazine “shouts we bet never got shouted.”

One other possibility ties the phrase to a joke that appeared in U. S. newspapers in the 1890s: A man was given a parrot by his nephew. He tried to get the parrot to say “Uncle,” but the parrot wouldn’t speak a word, so he angrily yelled “Say ‘Uncle,’ you beggar!” and then, throttling the bird’s neck, he threw him into a pen with ten prize fowls. Later, fearful he had killed the parrot, he returned to the pen and found nine dead fowls with their necks wrung. The parrot was standing on the tenth, twisting its neck, and screaming, “Say ‘Uncle,’ you beggar, say ‘Uncle’!” (When I read this joke, I thought the punch line had been omitted, but apparently, that is it.)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, adopting his most avuncular style, has chosen to muse upon a variety of uncles:

My Uncle Sam
Is such a ham,
Decked out in red and white and blue.
I get a thrill,
And always will,
To hear him thunder, “I want you!”

Old Uncle Remus
And Nicodemus
Sat swapping tales, as was their habit.
Said Uncle Remus, “It would please us
If you told us about Jesus,
Then I will talk about Brer Rabbit.”

Do not pester
Uncle Fester
Or he might dynamite you,
Or, even worse,
Get out his hearse
And run you down to spite you.

Uncle Miltie
Pleaded guilty:
He killed ‘em on TV.
Now he’s gone,
But still lives on,
Alive on DVD.

I’ve often heard it said that Stanislavski,
When he directed Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,”
Liked to hum a few bars of Tchaikowsky
And “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Ya’.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Hard-Boiled Eggcorns

In its account of the death of “Dr. Death” (Jack Kevorkian), CBS News online reported that his attending physician said that “he had a cancerous legion that was inoperable.”  I find it hard to believe that Dr. Kevorkian’s problem was, as the report states, several thousand Roman footsoldiers, whether or not they were malignant.

What the physician probably said was that he had a cancerous lesion, which is an “abnormal change in the structure of an organ.”  Somewhere along the way, somebody misunderstood the word.

Such mishearings of spoken words are known as eggcorns—a word that is attributed to Geoffrey Pullum, who coined it in 2003 in a blog about a woman who substituted the phrase egg corn for acorn.  Some commonly heard eggcorns are:

            Go at it hammer and thongs (tongs).

            That’s a mute (moot) point.

            What’s the windshield (wind chill) factor?”

            I need a drink to slack (slake) my thirst.

            It’s impolite to easedrop (eavesdrop).

            Americans living abroad are known as ex-patriots (expatriates).

My favorite eggcorn was a closed-caption TV report about “Firefighters who have to deal not just with the fire but also with people fleeing the fire and ejaculating on all the major highways.”

Eggcorns are related to malapropisms, a word derived from Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals.  She liked to use big words, which tended to be the wrong ones—illegible, say, for ineligible. Another type of mis-hearing is known as a mondegreen, which is the misunderstanding of a poem or song lyric.  Mondegreens were discussed extensively in my blog of December 25, 2009, which you can (and should without delay) read at:

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou tends to mis-hear almost everything that is said to him, especially requests to shut up, which he misunderstands to mean please continue.

            I fried an eggcorn for my lunch,
            And it was fairly tasty--but
            The moment I began to munch,
            I felt a pain down in my gut.
            The reason was (I have a hunch)
            The eggcorn really was a nut.