Monday, September 26, 2011

Seeing Dots Before Your i's

Have you ever wondered why we put a dot over a lower-case i and j?  Well, if you haven’t you should have, and here’s the answer, even if you didn’t ask the question.

According to word maven David Crystal, the letter I was a consonant in the Semitic alphabet and a vowel in Greek; it was adopted by Latin with both consonant and vowel values.  The inscription over the cross of Christ illustrates the consonant value:  INRI are the initials of the words Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). 

J was developed in the Middle Ages as a fancy calligraphic variant of I, but later came to replace I whenever a consonant value was required. The dot on the lower case i and j was originally a diacritical mark used by medieval scribes, similar to an acute accent, to distinguish the stroke of an i from the identical strokes of m, n, and u when they appeared adjacent to the i

So you’d better dot you i’s—and cross your t’s, too, while you’re at it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou likes to fool around with letters of the alphabet, and he is lucky that he hasn’t been caught at it yet.             

            If i’s a little dotty,
         And t’s a little cross,
         It’s because the literati
         Forget who is the boss.
         For i or t alone,
         Counts little, they’ll admit,
         But it clearly can be shown
         That, together, they are it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Junket Mail

One of the customers of this blog (a non-paying customer, of course) asked if I remembered Junket, a dessert of my long-ago youth that was occasionally served when gelatin products were not available, owing to the disturbance in Europe and the Pacific at the time.

Junket (a trademarked brand name) is still manufactured, believe it or not, in Little Falls, New York.  It is made with sweetened milk and rennet.  Rennet, from the Old English word rynet (“cause to run together”), is a digestive enzyme found in calves’ stomachs that curdles milk, producing a custard similar to the curds and whey of which Little Miss Muffet (but not I) was so fond. 

In the Middle Ages, junket (not trademarked at that time) was a food favored by the nobility that was made with cream, not milk, and flavored with rosewater and spices.

The word's etymology is related to the Norman jonquette, a mixture of milk, egg yolks, sugar, and caramel--mmmm. Originally, a jonquette (or jonket) was a basket of rushes, in which the cream preparation was typically made. It derives from the medieval Latin word juncata.

Junket later took on the meaning of a feast of any kind of tasty food. Jonathan Swift’s instructive Directions to Servants in 1731 advised: “Whatever good Bits you can pilfer in the Day, save them to junket with your Fellow-servants at Night, and take in the Butler, provided he will give you Drink.”

By amplification, junket is now used to mean a trip (usually paid for by someone else) during which rich food and hearty drink are enjoyed, most typically by dedicated public servants on fact-finding missions to Las Vegas, the Caribbean, and the Riviera. 

No one has offered the Bard of Buffalo Bayou any junkets—of whatever variety—lately, and if the following is any indication, it is unlikely that anyone ever will.

            I feel so cool and mellow.
            Each time that I eat Junket®™.
            It tastes a lot like Jell-O®™.
            Good gracious, who’d a-thunk it?
            But it’s proclaimed just like a tenet
            On each package that they sell it in
            That Junket®™’s made with rennet,
            And Jell-O®™’s made with gelatin.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Signor Ponzi and the Governor

The governor of Texas, who has put himself forward as the cowboy candidate for president, is campaigning on the platform that global warming is a fraud perpetrated by crazed scientists lusting for cash, evolution is a hare-brained theory on the agenda of godless (never mind the redundancy) atheists, capital punishment is a sacred institution even if an occasional unlucky innocent person is exterminated, and Social Security is a vicious Ponzi scheme.  I leave the merits, if any, of his opinions to more learned savants, including those of the idiot variety, and limit my comments to the meaning of “Ponzi scheme.”

First noted in general usage about 1957, a “Ponzi scheme” refers to an investment scam in which early investors are paid using the contributions of later ones, and so on, and so on.  It is similar to plans known as “pyramid clubs,” but unlike them, it implies specific criminal deception.

The term got its name from Carlo Ponzi, who was born in Italy, near Parma (where the ham and cheese come from), in 1882. Something of a ham himself, he also hoped to be a big cheese. He came to the United States in 1903 and worked in various cities as dishwasher, waiter, clerical assistant, translator, bank teller, smuggler, and embezzler, finally settling in Boston, where he got a bright idea.  In 1919 he established an outfit he called the Security Exchange Company (has a sort of familiar ring, doesn’t it?), which promised investors a 50% return in 90 days.  Where do I sign up?

The plan, which he marketed from Montreal to Florida, was immensely successful. Ponzi used the money of succeeding waves of investors to make the promised pay-offs to earlier investors (pocketing what he wanted along the way). Such schemes were nothing new; they’ve been around for centuries—one is even mentioned in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit.  But Ponzi did it on a grander scale than ever before and at one point was taking in more than a million dollars a week—and in those days, a million dollars was real money. Theoretically this could have gone on for years, until the wealth of the entire planet was recycled and the final group of investors was left holding a great big empty bag.

But people caught on. Eventually Ponzi was charged with mail fraud and larceny.  He jumped bail and was arrested in New Orleans by a Texas deputy sheriff, acting outside his jurisdiction, brought to Texas, and extradited to Massachusetts. He served several years in prison, was then deported to Italy, and wound up in Brazil, where he died in poverty in 1949.  The wages of sin were the death of him.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou operates a kind of Ponzi scheme in verse, in which he takes thousands of words from unwitting writers, keeps a few for himself, and recycles the rest in supposed payoffs like these:
              Carlo Ponzi, the conman of Parma,
              Had skills that allowed him to charm a
              Whole host of investors,
              Who turned to protesters
              When they found he had very bad karma.

              Rick Perry, the Sage of Paint Creek,
              Declares that he really cain’t speak
              About Social Security,
              ‘Cause it’s full of impurity,
              And by gum, it simply ain’t chic.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Pains

With widespread homage to indolence, Americans like to celebrate Labor Day by lolling at the beach, lying in hammocks, and slurping beer on their verandahs. This annual observance was established nationally by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, following the killing of several workers by the U. S. military and U. S. marshals during what was known as the Pullman Strike against railways. 

Cleveland purposely avoided choosing May 1, the more common international workers day, lest it stir up memories of the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886, which occurred around that date. 

In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and other countries of the British Commonwealth, the May 1 observance is known as Labour Day.

The absence of a u in the American spelling can be traced to that old fussbudget Noah Webster, who wrote The American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. He saw no need of that useless u in words like labour, colour, neighbour, favour, honour, and flavour—so he got rid of it.

That pesky -our came into English from the snooty Normans, whose Frenchified spelling du jour was thought (by the Normans) to have an elegant je ne sais quoi, even though the original Latin words on which they were based got along just fine with a plain -or.  It was the 1755 dictionary of Dr. Samuel Johnson, a fussbudget of even higher standing than Webster, that perpetuated all those -our spellings.  Johnson even insisted on governour, horrour, tenour, and terrour, which are now thought to be in errour, even by the Brits.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou engages in as little labo(u)r as is humanly possible.  Certainly, very little of it was required to produce this scrawl:

            You work and work           
            Till you’re berserk,
            And then you reach retirement.
            Relax, you’re told,
            This age is gold,
            To rest is your requirement.
            “The best, you see,
            Is yet to be”—
            I wonder what that liar meant?