Monday, April 30, 2012

Widows in Grass, Alas

Grass Widow is a post-punk trio based in San Francisco.  Post-punk is a musically complex form of rock, full of layered melodies, allusion, and metaphor, developed in the late 1970s from punk rock, which was noted for its lean instrumentation and anti-establishment sentiments.  Okay, but what is a Grass Widow?

The three women who form the band chose for their name a term that has a scattered history and more than one meaning.  It variously refers to a divorcee or woman separated from her husband, a woman whose husband is temporarily absent, an abandoned mistress, or an unwed mother. 

The estimable Michael Quinion of provides several possible etymologies, without committing himself.  It is possibly a corruption of grace-widow (French veuve de grace or Latin viduca de gratia), which referred in the medieval church to a woman divorced from her husband by a dispensation of the Pope.  Others, however, dispute this origin and say it is slang from the British Raj for wives who left the hot plains during the summer to estivate (and perhaps engage in hanky-panky) in cooler and “grassier” hill stations. 

But the phrase can be found much earlier—in Sir Thomas More’s 1528 Dialogue, in which it meant either an abandoned mistress or a woman who had cohabited with several men, perhaps expressing the notion that successive lovers had been “put out to grass.”  More writes:  “Tyndall wolde by thys waye make saynt Poule to say thus. Take & chese in but such a wydow as hath had but one husbande at onys...I thynke saynt Powle ment not so. For then had wyuys ben in his time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now. For they be yet as seuerall as a barbours chayre & neuer take but one at onys."

Another theory has it that the term came from the Latin bastum, meaning a pack saddle, and suggesting a child born after a brief encounter on an improvised bed, such as a packsaddle pillow.  Or maybe it’s just a reference to casual coition in the grassy fields

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the term to the 1520s and says it meant "discarded mistress," analogous to the German Strohwitwe, or "straw-widow," probably an allusion to casual bedding. The meaning of a "married woman whose husband is absent" is from 1846.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou enjoys the company of widows of all kinds, finding them willing to overlook his peccadilloes, since they have no paragons at home to whom they can compare him.

            O, once there was a grass widow,
            Who never could pay what she did owe.
                        Her husband, alas,
                        Was a snake in the grass,
            And left her in debt with a kiddo.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Getting Even

Have you ever wanted to fix somebody’s wagon or settle his hash? Idioms for getting even abound, suggesting that the desire for vengeance is deeply rooted in the human heart.  “I’ll fix your wagon,” “I’ll settle your hash,” “Your goose is cooked,” or “This will put a spoke in your wheel” are all ways of saying that those who have done us wrong (or tried to) will get what’s coming to them—and it won’t be good.

Basically an Americanism, “fix your wagon” had a predecessor in “fix your flint,” which was used in print as early as 1835 in “An Old Sailor’s Yarns” by Nathaniel Ames: “We’ll fix his flint for him before the cook’s dinner is ready.” 

In this usage fix is deliberately ironic, meaning “tamper with” or “damage” rather than “make right.”  Flint was used in firearms to produce a spark, and to “fix” an opponent’s flint would ensure that he could not use his gun against you.  Fixing someone’s wagon emerged in the early 20th century and probably referred to sabotaging an adversary’s means of transportation. The earliest citation I found was a 1936 Little Orphan Annie comic strip: “Hm-M-- Why not? Once I get the old fool talked into a business deal I’ll FIX HIS WAGON.”

In the mid-20th century, the phrase morphed into “fix your little red wagon,” little and red being used as demeaning references to a child’s toy.

Putting a spoke in someone’s wheel specifically means to make progress difficult for him.  It was used as early as the 16th century and stems from the days when wooden cartwheels were solid, with a single hole in them, which enabled a stick to be inserted and to function as a brake.

The meaning of “settle your hash” is “defeat definitively and finally.” Its usage dates to at least the mid-1800s.  The meaning probably stems from hash, referring to a “meat stew” and used colloquially to mean an “untidy mess.”To make a hash” of something is to muddle it. To settle someone’s hash, therefore, is to put the mess he is causing in order.  Hash dates to 1657 from the French hacher, meaning “axe.”  The word hatchet also derives from hacher, and one etymologist speculates unconvincingly that “settle your hash” refers to “burying the hatchet,” an Iroquois ceremony in which battle axes were literally buried to symbolize peace.

Most interesting of all is the origin of “your goose is cooked.”  The 15th century Czech religious reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.  At the Council of Constance, which condemned him, Hus is said to have joked, “This Hus is not yet cooked and is not afraid of being cooked.”  Hus in Czech means “goose,” and thus the phrase made its way into England after Hus’s immolation.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s goose has been cooked for years; in fact, it’s burnt to a crisp. 

            I’ll fix your red wagon,
            Just you wait and see.
            I’ll sic a dread dragon
            On you with much glee.
            I’ll settle your hash, too,
            You won’t get away,
            Where you pedal or dash to,
            I’ll see that you pay.
            I’ll put a great big spoke
            Smack dab in your wheel,
            You’ll hate that your rig broke,
            And let out a squeal.
            Your goose and your gander
            Will be cooked to a turn,           
            And I’ll loosen your dander
            Till you do a slow burn.

            What say, then, Buster--
            You’re not scared to death?
            I may find this bluster
            Was a waste of my breath!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Don’t Call Me Ma’am!

A newspaper crossword puzzle offered the clue “Polite refusal to a lady,” for which the answer was NO MA’AM. But you’d better be forewarned that calling a woman “ma’am” is not always a good idea.  Senator Barbara Boxer reproved a general for calling her that at a Washington hearing. Writer Jill Soloway dislikes it because it makes her feel “fat and old, like an elderly aunt.” Natalie Angier did a long article in The New York Times cataloguing myriad objections to “ma’am.”

I was brought up—in the misleadingly named Beaumont, Texas (there is no mountain there, let alone a beautiful one)—to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” to all adult women. It is a custom that I still follow, as do many men, particularly those reared in the South.

“Ma’am,” of course, is a contraction of madam, a term of respect originally used by servants for their mistresses.  It’s from the French madame, “my lady,” originally from the Latin mea domina, or “my mistress of the house.” Lady, incidentally, is from Old English hlaefdige, meaning “one who kneads the dough,” a term Anglo-Saxons used for a female head of a household.  (Such breadwinners may well have needed lots of dough.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says that ma’am was formerly the ordinary respectful form of address to a woman of equal or superior rank or station, but now it is usually confined to the speech of servants or other persons of markedly inferior position. I guess they mean me.

In England the Queen and royal princesses are addresses as ma’am, after their initial appellation of “Your Majesty” or “Your Royal Highness.”  The word is correctly pronounced, just as in this country, to rhyme with “spam”—although many Brits say it to rhyme with “bomb” or “bum.”

In her Times piece, Angier points out that defenders of ma’am include Miss Manners, who regards it as a polite and dignified form of address. But Angier conducted a survey of her women pals and found that of the 27 who responded, 2 said they liked being called ma’am, 10 didn’t care one way or the other, and 15 disliked it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t care what you call him, as long as you don’t call him out.

        The road to transgression has been smoothed with macadam,
            Ever since Eve brought temptation to Adam.
                        This path to perdition
                        Includes the transition
            Of a genteel Madame to degenerate madam.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Obamacare and Other Eponyms

President Obama’s opponents have used the word “Obamacare” so often to refer to the Affordable Health Care Act that Democrats have now adopted it as a badge of honor.  “We LOVE Obamacare” and “Honk If You [Heart] Obamacare” signs are cropping up to praise the measure that will provide health insurance to 32 million people who currently don’t have any.

Having one’s name attached to something like Obamacare--an idea, a place, a discovery, a time period, or any other item—is known as an eponym.  You can probably guess that it’s Greek in origin: “attached to” (epi) and “name” (onyma).

Obama is among a handful of Presidents of the United States whose names have assumed new life in coined words.  There’s “Reaganomics,” a term for supply-side, trickle-down theories of tax policy, the same policy that the first President Bush labeled “voodoo economics.”

President James Monroe survives in the term “Monroe Doctrine,” a foreign policy designed to keep Europe out of the Western Hemisphere.

To his annoyance, President Herbert Hoover was remembered throughout the Depression by the unemployed who lived in “Hoovervilles”—memorialized in the musical Annie in the number “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover.”

Probably the most famous Presidential eponym is the “Teddy Bear,” a still popular toy named in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt after he indignantly refused to shoot a bear cub chained to a tree so as to make it easier to hit.  This was on a hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902, and by 1903 “Teddy’s Bear” was a popular toy item.

Of course, almost every President has had his name attached to a city, town, village, or wide place in the road—from Washington, D. C., to Tyler, Texas, to Van Buren, New York. Washington’s name graces both the nation’s capital and also a state.

Some Presidents’ names have survived in vague adjectives that have no specific meaning, but suggest an attitude, a philosophy, or a style: “Jeffersonian,” “Jacksonian,” “Lincolnesque,” “Wilsonian,” and “Kennedyesque” are the most frequent. 

And we mustn’t overlook “Bushisms”— malapropisms or nonsensical statements inadvertently uttered under the pressure of political speeches, to which President George W. Bush had an uncanny propensity.  Some of his most notable examples:
* “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.”
* “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
* "Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."
* “They misunderestimated me.”
* “Our enemies…never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
* ”There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."
* “I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being President."

The interesting thing about being the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is that he gets to publish nonsensical verses every week, even though no one actually reads them.  This week he accepts the challenge to use three Presidential eponyms in his drivel:

            O, send me somewhere,
            With Obamacare,
            Where the doctors don’t charge any fee,
            Where seldom is heard
            A Republican word,
            And the drugs on prescription are free.

            Yes, send me somewhere
            With a vin-ordinaire
            That’s as good as a sparkling champagne,
            Where only the comics
            Discuss Reaganomics
            And other such legerdemain.

            Please, send me somewhere
            With my old Teddy Bear,
            Where the beer and the cantaloupe spray,
            Where seldom is seen
            Fox News on the screen,
            And Rush Limbaugh has nothing to say.


Monday, April 2, 2012


The New York Times, bastion of all the news that’s fit to print, and then some, opened a recent story with the sentence “Whatever happened to Ron Paul?”  Somewhere on the staff of that august publication there must be editors who know better. 

In that sentence, as in the classic movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, what  and ever should be two words.  What is an interrogative pronoun, requesting information about “the identity, nature, or value of an object or condition,” and ever is an adverbial modifier meaning “over a period of time.”

The same paper in another story indicated that Mitt Romney will do “whatever it takes” to win the Republican nomination.  Maybe so, but at least this time they got whatever right. In this case it is properly one word, a pronoun meaning “anything,” “everything,”  “no matter what,” or “other similar things.” For example: Whatever I say, you tell me to “shut up” or I enjoy Chardonnay, bock beer, single-malt whiskey, or whatever.

The one-word whatever can also be an adjective, meaning “of any kind” or an adverb meaning “in any case.”  For example: I’ll take whatever money you have or There is no point whatever in your resisting because I have a gun.

Contemporary usage of the one-word whatever, following a question and usually accompanied by a rolling of the eyes and/or a shrug of the shoulders, is adverbial in this sense, with an added connotation of “why are you bothering me with this?”

What ever became of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou?  Whatever.

            Mitt Romney on the Campaign Trail
            I’m not concerned about the poor,
            They have a safety net.           
            Ten thousand dollars says that you’re
            Not going to take my bet.
            I really like it when I’m able
            To fire the people who
            Repair my cars, install my cable,
            Or give me a shampoo.

            You’re out of work? Now, listen—shucks,
            I, too, am unemployed.
            Of course, two hundred million bucks
            Does help to fill the void.
            My income taxes cause me pains—
            Almost fifteen percent!
            I try to save my capital gains
            (But some of them I spent).

            I do get speakers’ fees and such
            At places I appear,
            But they don’t amount to much—
            Just half–a-mill last year.
            Corporations?  They are people,
            Just like me and you.
            Just wait—that Democratic Veep’ll
            Claim that isn’t true.
            My love of sports goes to extremes,
            I love to cheer and yell,
            I follow almost all the teams
            And know their owners well.

            How often do I wish again,
            That I could catch a flight
            To see those trees in Michigan—
            They’re just the perfect height.

            Home ownership? We need much more
            To make our nation thrive,
            Why, I myself own three or four—
            Or possibly it’s five.
            Obamacare’s abomination,
            I really do abhor it,
            With just one tiny reservation:
            In my state I was for it.

            For the price of gas we owe great thanks
            To Democrats who tax:
            It makes it hard to fill the tanks
            Of all my Cadillacs.

            On my lawn crew, I told their foreman,
            Hire no illegal alien.
            After all, I am a Mormon—
            And not Episcopalian.

            They say I’m like an Etch-a-Sketch,
            But, heck, that’s just plain nutty,
            When there’s a fact I have to stretch,
            I’m more like Silly Putty.

            As for that dog, atop my car
            To Canada—I swear,
            It really wasn’t all that far,
            And the dog just loves fresh air.
            You won’t find more, if you should delve
            Much deeper into Romney.
            Just vote for me in 2012,
            And I mean Anno Domini.