Monday, June 25, 2012

Assling Around

Among the colorful vulgarisms spoken by characters in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (a raucous entertainment of dubious propriety in which I recently essayed a small role) is the phrase “assled around.”  It purports to be an authentic bit of Texas country slang, although as a lifelong Texan, I must confess the first time I ever encountered the term was in the show’s script by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson.

Its meaning is fairly clear from the context. Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (the estimable Kevin Cooney in Theatre Under The Stars’ production) is complaining to Miss Mona (Michelle DeJean) that he didn’t see Lee Harvey Oswald shot on television because “I assled around and missed it.”  The invaluable online Urban Dictionary clarifies further in advising that assle is a verb derived from ass (meaning “buttocks”) and means “to vary from a direct course (especially so as to hinder those behind you, causing aggravation),” and in a more general sense, “to drag one’s feet, lag behind, meander, be dilatory or a slowpoke.” 

Vance Randolph in Blow the Candle Out, “Unprintable” Ozark Folksongs and Folklore, comes closer to Ed Earl’s usage in defining assle around as “loaf or wander idly about.”

The precise nature of the derivation from ass is left to the reader’s imagination, probably related to either sitting on it or being slow in moving it.

Neither The Oxford English Dictionary nor any of the various Websters I consulted has a listing for assle (or its variant assel), but they are helpful in letting us know that ass (and its British counterpart arse) stem from the Greek ourra (meaning “tail”), and that it has been in English usage since at least the year 1000 A.D., when the Benedictine Abbot Aelfric referred to someone’s “bare ers.” (He wasn’t a great speller, even though he was called “Aelfric the Grammarian.”)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a degree with honors in assling around, from an institution of higher learning that prefers to remain anonymous, for reasons that are abundantly clear from the following:

            An apostle in a castle
            Wet his whistle with a wassail
            From the vessel of a vassal
            Who was facile as a fossil.

            Then he tusseled with the tassel
            On a fissile sessile thistle
            As he wrestled with a passel
            Of epistles full of gristle.           

            On a trestle he would assle,
            Far from hustle and from bustle,
            Until jostled in a hassle
            By a missile on his muscle.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Joan of Where?

I’ve always wondered why Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d'Arc, if you want to get all Frenchy about it) was called that—since she was born in Domrémy, a village in the Vosges department of northeast France, the area known as Lorraine. 

As it turns out, she wasn’t really “of Arc” at all. Her father, Jacques, born in Ceffonds, did not come from Arc either, although his surname was d’Arc. The name d’Arc stemmed from the fact that Jacques’ ancestors had lived in the village of Arc-en-Barrois, and thus the surname d’Arc was handed down to him through them.

Joan never called herself Jeanne d’Arc or used her father’s surname at all.  When she left Domrémy she liked to be known as Jeanne la Pucelle, or “Joan the Maid.” Sometime later she took on the sobriquet “Joan of Lorraine” and also “Maid of Orléans,” from the place where she victoriously led the French in the Hundred Years War.  At any rate it was the custom in those days for unmarried daughters to take their mother’s maiden name, so had she chosen to use it she would have been Jeanne Romée. 

After Joan’s death, King Charles VII honored her family with a coat of arms containing the fleur-de-lis, which granted them the right to change the family name to Du Lys.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is always known by that name, except when he is arrested and, for ample reasons, uses a variety of aliases. But there is no way to arrest his attempts to versify:

            Joan of Arc and Helen of Troy
            In many ways were the same.
            They both caused armies to deploy
            And they shared the same middle name.
            One more peculiarity
            Of which I am aware is
            Another similarity:           
            Both of them loved Paris.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Ram Sang

Anagrams have been around at least since the Greeks invented the word anagrammatismos, meaning “transposition of letters.”  Perhaps the concept is even older, dating to the time of Moses, when Themaru, or “changing,” was allegedly used to find hidden meanings in names. The Hebrew letters in Noah, for example, could be rearranged to spell the word for “grace” or those in Messiah to spell “he shall rejoice.”

The earliest Greek anagrammatist is thought to be Lycophron, a poet who flourished around 280 B.C.  He liked to make anagrams of names, including one about Atlas, the Greek letters of which can be arranged, to mean “wretched” (presumably because of his being bent over with the weight of the world).

Nowadays we have the help of a website at, which has an anagram server that can instantaneously produce hundreds and sometimes thousands of words from famous names. 

With a stretch of the imagination, you can even make a wee bit of sense out of some of them, especially if the words are laid out like telegraphic newspaper headlines:

Inert Passerby
Britney Spears
(Best in Prayer)
Betrays Sniper,
Nips Betrayers,
Nearby Priests

Aeolian Jingle:
Join Agile, Lean
Angelina Jolie
In Jail—Ale Gone,
Alien Jig Alone

Noah and Silly
Lindsay Lohan
Had Only Nails,
Dahlia Nylons,
Shady Lanolin,
And Holy Snail

So much for the famous ladies of song and screen. What about politicians?

Well, there’s the famous rearrangement of George Bush to spell He bugs gore. Or better yet: Go, hug beers. Unfortunately, the best you can do with Gore’s name is the ungrammatical A ogler, or maybe Lo gear.

I tried my hand with politicians who are currently in the news and came up with the following bits of gibberish:

Moment I Try
Mitt Romney
I Torment My
Enmity to M.R.

Too bad Rick Santorum is no longer in the running, as his name lends itself to dozens of richly suggestive anagrams:

Rick Santorum,
Tourism Crank,
Struck A Minor
In Scrotum Ark;
Mourns A Trick
Run Riot, Smack
Into Rum Racks.
Rumors: Catkin
Rusk Romantic

But, alas, our President’s name has too many vowels and not enough consonants to yield much meaning:

Barack Obama
Amok!  Bar A Cab!
Ram A Boa Back!
Bam! Croak! Baa!

The Anagram Server can make 71,439 anagrams out of The Bard of Buffalo Bayou—not one of which makes any sense, and that is entirely appropriate.

            This is an anagram—
            A maharani’s sting
            Gains artisan ham,
            Ah! As mantra I sing!

            I, Satan, mash a ring,
            Again smash train,
            A mania has string,
            A gamin has strain.

           Asthma rains gain,
           A gas marina hints,
           Again harms stain--
           Aha! Sangria mints.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Keeping Up with the Jonesing

A review of a new PBS television series suggests that it’s so good “that you will be jonesing for more.”  To jones (for) is a relatively new verb (1970s) meaning “to crave something strongly.”  It derives from the noun jones, from the 1960s, meaning a habit, a desire, or an addiction—especially to heroin.

Around the midpoint of the 20th century jones was used in drug-culture slang to mean heroin itself and thence an addiction to heroin. draws a blank when it tries to trace the origin of this usage.  Best guess is that there once was a notorious drug dealer by that name or, more likely, that ‘Mister Jones’ was a frequent euphemism for a local drug pusher.

Jones is a common Welsh name, the earliest record of which in England is in the late 13th century. The name derives from a patronymic form of the Middle English name Jon (or Jone), and means “son of Jon.” The Anglo-Saxon equivalent would be Johnson.

Another well-known phrase, keeping up with the Joneses, is from the title of a 1916 comic strip by Arthur R. Momand in which he parodied American domestic life.

Few people have a jones for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s miasma of words, but inexplicably, he continues to spew them out anyway.  

            There was a young lady named Jones,
            Who couldn’t abide baritones.
            If one sang a cadenza,
            She’d contract influenza,
            And drown out the sound with her moans.