Monday, January 30, 2012


G. K. Chesterton, in a book published in 1908, mentions a “taximeter cab.” This is a shortened form of “taximeter cabriolet,” which refers to a two-wheeled, one-horse carriage available for hire and equipped with a taximeter, a machine that would automatically measure the distance traveled and cleverly calculate the fare. (The tip is up to you.) This form of transport was introduced in London only a year earlier, in 1907, and is the source of the modern taxicab or just plain taxi.

Taximeter is a word derived from the French taximètre and the German Taxameter. Taxa is Middle Latin for “tax” or “charge,” and meter is from the Greek metron (“measure”).

The taximeter was invented in 1891 by a German engineer, Wilhelm Bruhn. Cabbies were not uniformly pleased with a device that limited what they could charge passengers to a sum they sometimes regarded as inaccurate and always as insufficient.  To show their feelings, several high-spirited drivers tossed Bruhn into the Spree River in Berlin.  Apparently he was able to emerge from it safely, but after that he undoubtedly walked a lot rather than hailing cabs.

As early as 1911 the verb taxi was used, for an airplane, to mean “moving slowly under its own power.” Webster, the OED, and the Online Etymological Dictionary all demurely decline to speculate about how the word came to be used in that way, but presumably it was a reference to the short-term movement of planes between runway and gate, analogous to the short trips made by a taxicab.

Similarly, A taxi-dancer, a term first used about 1930, is a person (usually female) available for short-term hire as a partner in a dance-hall.  One such was immortalized in the 1930 Rodgers and Hart song “Ten Cents A Dance” (“All that you need is a ticket, / Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.”)

The taxi squad of a football team, which dates to 1960, is reputedly so called because Arthur B. “Mickey” McBride, owner of the Cleveland Browns, would hire his reserve players to work at his taxicab company in order to keep them on the payroll.  Thus taxi squad came to mean injured or otherwise inactive players.

A Tijuana taxi is truckers’ and CBers’ slang for a police car with flashing lights or other prominent markings.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou once applied for work as a taxi-dancer and wound up parking cars.  He gave that up for driving iambs and dactyls around, but, as you will note, usually off the meter.

            I hailed a taxi
            In Cotopaxi,
            And my ride was quite deplorable.
            I failed to veto
            A trip to Quito,
            Which was not Ecuadorable.
            I gave a shout:
            “Just let me out!
            Your driving’s out of order!”
            But we just went faster,
            And I sensed disaster
            As we headed for the border.
            I plied the driver,
            With a ten and a fiver,
            And then with rums and brandies,
            But he pushed the pedal
            Right to the metal,
            And we drove up into the Andes.
            It was then I knew
            We were in Peru,
            A useless piece of trivia,
            For the crazy cabbie
            Was turning crabby
            As we crossed into Bolivia.
            At that moment, alas,
            We ran out of gas
            And sank in Lake Titicaca.
            The rest of my journey
            Was made on a gurney,
            On the back of an ancient alpaca.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What About Bob?

A few weeks ago this blog dealt with various meanings of the word jack.  If, for some unaccountable reason, you missed “You Don’t Know Jack,” you’ll find it by clicking:

Now comes bob, claiming to be an equally versatile word, and demanding equal space.  Actually I have already dealt with a couple of bobs—bobsled and the British phrase Bob’s your uncle—in an earlier blog.  If you missed that, too, try: 

But that only scrapes the top of the bob-barrel.  There are many more bob-words that cry out for explanations.

As a noun and a verb, bob has a number of meanings, most of them derived from the 14th-century Middle English word bobbe, meaning a “bunch or a cluster” of something.  From that usage, by the 1570s bob came to mean a horse’s tail cut short, into a knot. It developed into a verb meaning “to cut short” and hence the “bobbed” short-hair style popular with women in the 1920s.  From that hairstyle came bobby pin, which was used to keep the bobbed hair in place.

It wasn’t long until bobby socks, a new style of hosiery that came to just above the ankles, were named because they were “bobbed,” or shortened, when compared to knee socks. First usage of bobby socks is attested in 1927, and bobby-soxer, meaning a teen-age girl (probably swooning over Frankie Sinatra) in 1944.

From the meaning of “cut short,” we have also derived bobtail, meaning an animal (or vehicle) with its tail shortened either naturally or artificially.  A bobcat is one such animal with a stubby tail.

Other bob usages have nothing to do with that meaning.

The British policeman is known as a bobby owing to the introduction of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel.  For the same reason British cops were also known as peelers. First appearance of bobby in the constabulary sense is traced to 1844.

The Brits also used bob to refer to a shilling (or several of them), before they got all uppity and adopted decimal currency, doing away with the shilling altogether.  This usage dates to the late 1700s and probably from the word bawbee, which was 17th-century slang for a half-penny.  That word stemmed from the French bas billon, meaning debased copper money. In the 18th century a “bobstick” was a shilling’s worth of gin.

Finally, Yessirreebob, is an American expression meaning “Sure!” or, if you’re Sarah Palin, “You betcha!”  Yessirree, in which the “ree” is added as an intensifer to “Yes, sir,” has been used at least since 1846. The earliest known example of the exclamation Yessirreebob was in 1876, and the bob is probably a euphemism for “God,” similar to “gosh” in phrases such as “Oh my gosh!”

Just in case you’re wondering, I have excluded from consideration that fencing material made of twisted metal strands with sharp points that is known in some parts of the country as bobwar. 

The Bob of Buffalo Bayou has known a number of Bobs in his lifetime, which has been an inexplicably long one, given his profusion of deleterious habits.  He honors a few of these Bobs in these deathless lines:
            Dylan is willin’
            And Crosby was crowin’.
            Crane was insane,
            And Cummings was goin’.

            Marley was gnarly,
            And Newhart a true heart.
            Feller was stellar,
            But Lemon was too tart.

            Fosse was bossy,
            And Hoskins too hesitant.
            Schieffer is briefer,
            And Dole ran for President.

            Guccione was phony,
            Geldof economical,
            Hope was no dope,
            Like Elliot, quite comical.

            Costas loves pastas,
            And Kane gave us Batman.
            Wills gave us thrills,
            And Denver? You know that man.

            Linder won’t hinder
            Great music from Gaudio.
            Barker seems starker, 
            And Burns needs no audio.

            Weinstein’s no Einstein,
            And Keeshan was moody.
            Woodward’s are good words,
            As for Smith: “Howdy Doody!”

Monday, January 16, 2012


Everyone knows, I expect, that the word laser is an acronym of “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”  I had always thought that taser—you know, the supposedly non-lethal electric device police use to subdue obstreperous little old ladies—was formed from something similar.

But no!  It turns out taser has nothing to do with laser, except that it rhymes with it. Taser is actually a trademarked name for a device that fires electrified darts that will incapacitate rowdy human targets long enough for them to be handcuffed and trundled off to wherever it is they trundle trouble-makers off to.

The taser was invented by Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, and he named it after a favorite adventure novel called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, by Victor Appleton (a pseudonym for several writers in the Stratemeyer Syndicate), published in 1911.  Cover added a gratuitous middle initial to come up with the acronym Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, or taser. 

Those of you who had the decency to fork over $22.95 for my book Words Gone Wild (now available at for as little as $2.63) will know all about Tom Swift and the resulting Tom Swifty—wordplay derived from the (not quite accurate) observation that Tom’s statements were always qualified by adverbs, as in “I wouldn’t call a constable,” Tom said quietly.

The idea of a Tom Swifty (and its relative, the croaker, which uses verbs instead of adverbs) is to make the most outlandish pun possible.  A few notorious examples, some, but not all, of which can be found in the aforementioned book, are:

“Your honor, you’re crazy,” Tom said judgmentally.

“I haven’t had any tooth decay yet,” Tom said precariously.

“I love Brazilian dances,” Tom said somberly.

“I also like Cuban dances,” Tom rumbled.

“I love the French Riviera,” Tom said nicely.

“I especially like the film festival on the Riviera,” Tom said cannily.

“The umpire called me out,” Tom said baselessly.

“Elvis is dead,” Tom said expressly.

“My radio works perfectly now,” Tom said ecstatically.

“I work in the prison cocktail bar,” Tom contended.

Well, enough of that.  Let’s move on now to more sublime topics, for which we can always count (but not much) on the Bard of Buffalo Bayou: 

                       There once was a guy named Tom Swift,

                        Whose 9-to-5 shift got short shrift.

                        By noon he would lift

                        Several pints—get my drift?—

                        To show he was Swift getting squiffed.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Name That President!

Could the names of Presidential candidates hold any clues as to their suitability for office?  Probably not.
For example, the Bush family name is Anglo-Saxon and refers simply to a person who lives by a bush, probably meaning a wine merchant, since the image of a bush adorned the customary sign for a vintner. Clinton is Old English for a “fenced settlement,” derived from the town of Glympton in Oxfordshire.  And Reagan is Irish, meaning son of Riag (“king”), or “little king.”
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to probe the onomastics of current Presidential politics.
Take Romney.  Please.  I mean take the name “Romney.” Its origin is a bit obscure. Some sources say it’s Norman and first showed up in the 11th century in a village in Kent over which Robert de Romenel presided. Others say it’s of Welsh origin and means “a winding river.”  And yet another learned scholar opines that it’s Anglo-Saxon, derived from rum, meaning “spacious” and ea, “river”—i.e. “Big River.”
Santorum is from the Latin word sanctus, meaning “saint,” of which sanctorum is the plural genitive, which would mean “of the saints.” Other Italian names like Santorini and Santorello stem from the same root.
Paul, as in Ron, derives from the Roman family name Paulus, which means "small" or "humble" in Latin; an English cognate is the word few.
As for Gingrich, it’s of Swiss Mennonite provenance, originally Günderich, meaning “power battle,” or words to that effect. Gunderic was also a 5th century Vandal chieftain.
At the back of the GOP heap, Perry has several possible origins.  It could be a derivative of the Latin peregrine, meaning “wanderer,” “traveler,” or “stranger.”  It might also originate in the Anglo-Saxon pyrige, or “pear tree,” meaning a person who lived near such a tree. Perry may also have sprung from the Welsh ap Herry, meaning “son of Harry or Henry.” And yet another possibility is the Norman French perrieur, or “quarryman.”  You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Bachmann could be German, Catalan, Polish, Hebrew, or English in origin and what it means depends on the language.  In German it would be either “baker” or “person who lives by a stream.” The latter is also its English meaning. In Catalan, it would mean “a dark or shady person.” In Hebrew it derives from ben chayim, or “son of life.” And in Polish it’s somebody who comes from Sebaste, a town in Turkey.
Finally, Huntsman is more or less what it sounds like—an English name meaning either a man who hunts, or the servant of such a hunter.  The candidate will probably opt for the former.
Oh—and what about our sitting President?  Obama is derived from the Dohluo language spoken by the Luo ethnic group in Kenya.  Bam means “bent” or “slightly curved” or “crooked,” and O- means “he.”  Many Kenyan names begin with O- (just like in Ireland).  The best guess of most linguists is that the name Obama originated with one of the President’s ancestors who was bow-legged.
Bow-legged or not, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou hobbles lickety-split down Dactyl Drive to Anapest Avenue, laying waste to sundry poetic monuments in his path.
            Will long-running Romney
            Be the GOP nom’nee?
            Or will it be Gingrich,
            That guy who is bling-rich?
            Maybe Santorum
            Will find folks are for ‘im.
            Or possibly Paul
            Will win it all.
            I do believe Perry
            Is unlikely—very.
            It sure won’t be Huntsman,
            Although he’s no dunce, man.
            And as for Bachmann,
            Ach! Mann!
            Oh, yes—poor old Cain
            Found running was vain,
            The same as Pawlenty
            Who quite early had plenty.
            Best stick with Obama,
            Or the Dalai Lama.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Just for Laughs

Last year I posted a blog about the funniest words in the English language—you remember: absquatulate, callipygian, gazump, gongoozle, snollygoster, and a few more.  I’m going to start the New Year with another list, which I suppose you’d have to call the second funniest words in English, since they didn’t make the first cut.

I like abibliophobia, which comes from the Greek words for “without,” “books,” and “fear.”  And it means just what you might think: a dread of running out of reading material.  Frankly, I think anyone who suffers from that is engaging in batrachomyomachy, which is Greek again and means a battle between frogs and mice, in reference to an ancient Greek parody of The Iliad.   If you used the word today (which is highly unlikely) it would probably mean something like making a molehill out of a mountain.  And speaking of frogs, if you’re ranivorous, you like to eat them. 

Crapulence does not stem from the rude word you might think it does—but it might be related nonetheless.  It stems from the Latin crapulus (“intoxicated”) and it means discomfort caused by too much drinking or eating.  That’s an ailment unlikely to beset a gaberlunzie, which is a wandering beggar, as if you didn’t already know, and, like so many weird words, is Scottish. Another word that isn’t what it sounds like is turdiform, which means having the shape of a lark—not a word you can find many uses for in this larkadaiscal age.

To round out our funnies for today, there’s gobemouche a French word (literally a “fly-swallower’) for a highly gullible person; slangwhanger, a user of abusive slang words; and wabbit, which besides being Elmer Fudd’s word for that wascally Bugs, also means exhausted, and, naturally, originated with those widiculous Scots.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has reached out for some funny words—and when he reaches, it’s really a stretch, as you can see.

            A snollygoster with a snickersnee
            Was lollygagging and gongoozling.
            A cockalorum with a bumbershoot
            Thought the snool was just bamboozling.
            The panjandrum whacked him on the sinciput,
            Which gave him eructating collywobbles,
            And made the jackanapes remugient,
            Prolonging all their sudorific squabbles.