Monday, July 30, 2012

Sly Fox

It is alleged in certain quarters that there are people in this country who watch the Fox News network for reasons other than its sometimes uproarious entertainment value. These people, or so it is said, look upon this television channel as an actual source of news.  Strange as this may seem, it does raise the question of why the network is called “Fox.”

Some would say it is because of a certain crafty slyness in its treatment of the facts.  Others find resemblances to more predatory vulpine qualities.  Webster’s tells us a fox is a carnivore, and certainly many Fox commentators love to throw red meat at their viewers.  The dictionary also says the fox is related to the wolf, and one must admit that there is a lupine rapacity in some Fox coverage.  Yet others, perhaps swayed by the sexy good looks of Greta van Susteren or Bill O’Reilly, insist the network is named for the “foxes” among its anchors.

Truth is, however, that the Fox name came along as part of the baggage when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired 20th Century Fox Pictures.  (Note to Mr. Murdoch: Shouldn’t the name now be changed to 21st Century Fox—although 19th Century Fox might be more appropriate?) 

William Fox, born in Hungary in 1879, of German-Jewish parents named Fuchs, came to the United States when he was nine months old.  In 1913, he founded and named for himself the Fox Film Corporation, which produced Movietone News. From 1928 until 1963, Fox Movietone newsreels were a major source of information to American audiences. In 1935 Fox Film merged with Twentieth Century Pictures, a company founded by Darryl F. Zanuck. 

Fox amassed a chain of more than 300 theatres nationwide—all named for him and many of them still functioning, in such cities as Atlanta, Detroit, and Oakland. Known as the “Lone Eagle,” Fox carried nothing smaller than $100 bills, refused to wear a watch, and always kept his office blinds closed “to make time stand still.” By 1932 Fox had lost his financial interest in the movie company and declared bankruptcy.  He served six months in prison in 1936 for trying to bribe a tax judge, and died in 1952, the man himself all but forgotten—but his name engraved forever in media history.

Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired 20th Centuy Fox in 1984, and then established Fox Broadcasting Corporation in 1985.  The 24-hour news network, started as a challenge to Ted Turner’s CNN, began operation in 1996.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not regarded as a fox or even as a wolf, although some have noted his resemblance to a hyena.  He laughs all the way to the bank, which is odd, since he doesn’t have an account there.  His currency, he claims, is his verse (but don’t try to spend it):

            It ain’t necessarily so,
            I just thought that you ought to know
            That the news on the box,
            As reported by Fox—
            It ain’t necessarily so.

            Now O’Reilly might use a big word,
            Perhaps one that you’ve never heard,
            He’s just bloviating,
            To keep up his rating,
            With viewers who don’t know he’s absurd.

            Ms. Van Susteren has got a sly grin,
            It can spread from her ear to her chin,
            And while she is smiling,
            Her guests keep reviling
            Obama and most of his kin.

            If Sean Hannity’s ready to fight,
            So what if it’s just out of spite?
            It increases the traffic
            By the Fox demographic
            He recruits from the radical right.

            See, it ain’t necessarily so,
            And somehow it just goes to show
            What you hear on that channel
            From a Fox network panel—
            Well, it ain’t necessarily so!

Friday, July 20, 2012

They’re the Top!

At the driveway entrance to a recent fund-raiser for Mitt Romney, held at an imposing estate in East Hampton, New York, a woman in a blue chiffon dress poked her head out of her car and called to a guard: “Is there a V.I.P. entrance?  We are V.I.P.”

Somehow the term “V.I.P.”—an initialism meaning “Very Important Person(s)”—loses its luster when it is self-applied.  Never mind that every guest at a Romney fund-raiser thinks of himself or herself as a V.I.P. to the nth power.  Maybe that goes for everybody rich enough even to be in the Hamptons (where the wine prices at Sag Harbor’s American Hotel stagger up toward $4,500 a bottle). 

In any event, there was no special entrance for the lady in blue, and she had to wait her turn in a line of 30 or more cars filled with other V.I.P.s (or maybe just I.P.s) eager to drop some of their wealth on the Republican nominee (as if he needed it).

The origin of the term V.I.P. is in some doubt.  Most sources trace it to the 1930s or 1940s.  One says it comes from a transliteration of the initials of the Russian phrase Vesima Imenitaya Persona and attributes its use in English to the Royal Air Force. Alternatively, it is suggested that the term originated with a U. S. Army transport officer arranging a secret flight of dignitaries to the Middle East during World War II; rather than disclosing their names on the flight plan, he listed them all with the initials “V.I.P.”

There are plenty of other ways to refer to those we regard as special—or who may regard themselves that way.  Fat cat, dating from the 1920s, is among the least appealing.  Bennett Cerf in 1949 wrote of “Hollywood celebrities and literary fat cats” in a decidedly pejorative tone.

The upper crust is thought by some to have its roots in the Middle Ages from unburnt top parts of bread loaves that were given to the gentry, while the peasants ate the less desirable bottom half.  Most etymologists snort at that tale, even though a 1460 text by John Russell advises “Kutt ye vpper crust for youre souerayne.” Instead, say the experts, upper crust wasn’t used to refer to the aristocracy until the early 19th century and referred to the outer crust of the Earth’s surface or to a person’s head or hat.  Hmmm.

Bigwigs have been with us since the 18th century, referring to the powdered wigs worn by the gentry—and, supposedly, the bigger the wig, the more important the person. A 1792 letter from Robert Southey contends, “Though those big-wigs have really nothing in them, they look very formidable.”

The brass appeared in The Boston Herald in 1899, referring to the gold braid on uniforms of high-ranking military officers.  It is now used to refer to any important individuals, military or civilian.

Big shot has been used since the 1930s and probably derived from the expression to carry big guns, in use since the 1860s.  Big wheels started rolling in the 1950s with the rise of the automobile as a common means of transportation, and big cheese, borrowed from the French le grand fromage, can be traced to the 1920s.

A top banana, meaning the most important person in a group, originated in burlesque, but nobody knows exactly how.  Phil Silvers said that a comedian named Harry Steppe invented the term, based on a comedy routine full of double-talk in which three comedians tried to share two bananas.  Others say that a banana was given to the comedian who delivered the punch line of a particularly funny joke.  And still others maintain that it came from the position of the center dancer in a configuration of chorus girls that resembled a bunch of bananas.

High muck-a-muck (or sometimes muckety-muck), is easier to pin down. It’s from the Chinook Indian phrase hiu muckamuck, meaning “plenty of food,” and was used as early as 1856 to refer to a prosperous person.

Finally, head honcho comes from a G. I. slang term during the U. S. occupation of Japan following World War II.  It stems from the Japanese word hanchō, meaning “group (or squad) leader.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is noted for his output of V.I.P.—in this case, that means “Vilely Improper Poppycock.”

            Those V.I.P.,
            I guarantee,
            Are not for me,
            I’ll let ‘em be,
            And you would see
            Me dance with glee           
            If V.I.P.
            Would all agree
            To R.I.P.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Toujours Gai

Now that Anderson Cooper has come out of the closet, mercifully leaving more space for his black suits, matching ties, and other sartorial bric-a-brac, it’s an appropriate time to consider once again how the word gay turned out as it did.

It entered English in the 12th or 13th century, from the Old French gai, meaning “happy, pleasant, charming.” An earlier root was Old High German gahi  (“quick or sudden”). Very soon gay took on the added meaning of “wanton, lewd, or lascivious”—presumably because people of that type seemed so happy and pleasant and charming. 

One of those louche folks, the Wife of Bath, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 1390s, says of her fifth husband:
         But in oure bed he was so fressh and gay…
         When that he wolde han my bele chose.
This can be modernized to mean: “In bed, he was so forward and high-spirited, when he wanted to enjoy my vagina.”  Gay is thus vigorously heterosexual, as far as Chaucer is concerned.

Gay retained its meanings of “merry,” as well as “morally loose,” for the next 500 years.  Both meanings were conflated in such usages as the Gay Nineties, gay blade, and a profusion of Gaiety Theatres usually housing vaudeville or burlesque.

The earliest that anyone has traced gay to mean “homosexual” is the late 19th century. John Ayto in 20th Century Words cites an 1868 song, "The Gay Young Clerk in the Dry Goods Store," sung by female impersonator Will S. Hays, in which the meaning of gay is ambiguous but may imply effeminacy.

Hugh Rawson in Wicked Words makes note of a male prostitute using gay in reference to male homosexuals in London's Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, in which a male brothel was raided by police.

In the 1890s  the term gay cat was used to mean a “young hobo,” one who is new on the road—and possibly recruited as a same-sex partner by older tramps. Gay cat meaning  "homosexual boy" is attested in the 1933 dictionary Underworld & Prison Slang.

The Dictionary of American Slang reports that gay was used by homosexual men among themselves in this sense since about 1920.

In the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby Cary Grant's character is forced to wear a woman's frilly gown in one scene. When asked why, he replies, "Because I just went gay...all of a sudden.”  This line, an ad lib by Grant, was probably interpreted by most people to mean "frivolous or silly," but an underlying homosexual allusion can also be read into it.

By the 1960s gay was clearly established to mean “homosexual.” In 1963 it was used by Albert Ellis inThe Intelligent Woman's Guide to Man-Hunting. Similarly, Hubert Selby Jr. in his 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn wrote, "[He] took pride in being a homosexual by feeling intellectually and esthetically superior to those (especially women) who weren't gay..."

Recently, a new pejorative use of gay has entered teenage language, with the derisive meaning of “stupid” or “ridiculous,” as in the phrase “That is so gay.”  While not specifically a homosexual reference, it does carry the implication of something “weak” or “unmanly.”

The only things weak about the Bard of Buffalo Bayou are his moral resolve and the quality of his verse, both of which are on shameless display in this appalling vignette:

         A studious young intellectual
         Found that sex was quite ineffectual—
                  All attempts at coition
                  Fell short of fruition,
         Both homo- and heterosexual.        

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Short (But Not Short Enough) Physics Course

You needn’t pay too much attention to the following, as I shall be explaining a topic that I know nothing about. You might better spend your time in a short nap or watching the Kardashians.
Last week, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva got all crunked up because they said they had found the Higgs boson. Many people have expressed: a) bewilderment at what this means, b) pseudo-learned explanations of what it means, or c) total indifference to what it means. My own response is a combination of all three.
(Here’s where you can nod off if you like.) The Higgs boson is a subatomic (i.e. really, really, really small) particle whose existence was hypothesized in the 1960s by the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs, who thought it up one day while chewing on a tough piece of haggis, and slapped his name on this presumptive teensy little dot even before he could prove it existed. 
Scientists get all worked up about it because it supposedly would explain how the universe began, based on a theory called the “Standard Model,” which holds that the universe is composed of fermions (solid matter) and bosons (the force of energy between the fermions).  
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman (who has no boson named for him) went so far as to call the still unseen Higgs boson the “God particle.”   Saints preserve us!
Higgs surmised that fermions (named for Enrico Fermi) get their  mass when electrons, protons, and neutrons pass through an electromagnetic field (which, of course, is known as the Higgs field) in which the Higgs boson combines with them to produce solid particles. This would explain how the universe originated—or so a lot of scientists say. 
A boson—that word was coined in 1947 for Indian physicist Satyendrenath Bose—is a meson, or subatomic particle, whose spin is zero or an integral number.  (A fermion, by contrast, has a spin that is an odd multiple of ½.) Spin is a characteristic of elementary particles visualized as rotation by the particle on an axis and that measures angular momentum and the distance to a particular axis or point.

There are lots of little particles with different names ending in -on, like proton, electron, neutron, meson, photon, pion, and kaon.  The suffix –on is Greek, from the word ienai (“to go”) and can mean an atom, a group of atoms, or a subatomic particle that may carry a positive or a negative charge as the result of having lost or gained electrons.

That pretty well sums it up.

The quiz that was scheduled following this explanation has been canceled owing to the indisposition of the lecturer.  No such luck surrounds the lucubrations of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who may not have seen a Higgs boson, but nonetheless is convinced he is one.

            The eminent Professor Higgs
         Peers closely at some thingamajigs,
         While searching for one special boson—
         A teensy dot that’s subatomic,
         Whose existence would be astronomic,
         A subject Higgs can wax verbose on.

         Someone in a learned article
         Conferred the high-flown name “God particle”
         On Higgs’s hypothetical what’s-it,
         And physicists from here to Pismo
         Search high and low to find that gizmo—
         Each hoping he’s the first who spots it.
         Now one of them, who just won’t quit,
         Has seen a speck he thinks is it,
         And cries, “Give me some elbow room,
         For I have found just where it’s at!”
         Then to this speck he doffs his hat
         And says, “Higgs boson, I presume?”        

         The boson says, “No, I’m afraid
         An awful error has been made,
         And even though you think it’s odd,
         I’m not the boson that you thought—
         The one that all you fellows sought
         Has changed his name from Higgs to God!”

Monday, July 2, 2012

101 Mistakes

I keep seeing references to the Disney movie 101 Dalmations [sic]. Apparently it’s reissued every so often to an eager audience, and it’s frequently spelled with –ions at the end just like “Intimations of Immortality" or a “consummation devoutly to be wished.” 

But the name of the breed comes from Dalmatia, a region along the Adriatic Sea in what is now Croatia.  You might as well speak of 101 Italions or 101 Albanions or 101 Brazilions as of 101 Dalmations. 

During the onset of the Iraqi war, the United States was trying hard to cobble together a multi-national force with troops from other countries, who were understandably reluctant to send their forces off to fight a trumped-up war.  Many nations turned down the request to send so much as a bugler, but one day the Secretary of Defense reported excitedly to the President: “We have a commitment for a hundred Brazilian troops.”  “Great!” replied the President.  Then, after pausing and furrowing his brow, he asked, “How many is a brazillion?”

Dalmatians have been used as guard dogs in the region for which they are named since the eighteenth century, but it’s not certain that they originated there.

They can be seen in paintings set in other parts of Europe as early as the fourteenth century, so perhaps the Disney movie should properly be called 101 Liechtensteiners, but that doesn’t have the same ring as Dalmatians.

According to the infallible Wikipedia, the name Dalmatia derives from a local tribe called the Dalmatae, which stems from the Illyrian word delme, which means “sheep.” Dalmatia also gave its name to the dalmatic, a knee-length tunic worn as a liturgical and coronation vestment.  It was originally a Byzantine garment that was adopted by Emperor Paul I of the Russian Empire.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou dislikes Dalmatians (the dogs, not the people, whom he finds most congenial, especially after a few slugs of slivovitz), but then he also dislikes cocker spaniels, Lhasa Apsos, Jack Russell terriers, German shepherds, Bouvier de Flandres, dachshunds, Shih Tzus, pit bulls, Weimaraners, poodles, and, most especially, Chihuahuas.  He’s not hesitant, however, to unleash his own doggerel: 

            Man’s best friend? That’s what they say,
                        But I think a dog is a danger
                                    Who is eager to lunge at my throat.
            No, man’s best friend had best stay away,
                        I’d rather that he’d be a stranger.
                                    For a pet, just give me a goat.