Monday, December 31, 2012

Words of the Year

Legions of learned lexicographers annually nominate candidates for their Words of the Year, and 2012 was no exception.  The Oxford Dictionaries and the Merriam-Webster crowd are the chief perpetrators of this verbal pageantry, and among the past year’s leading contenders are:

Malarkey – This word was used by Vice President Joe Biden to describe GOP candidate Paul Ryan’s foreign policy ideas. It means “nonsense,” akin to baloney, or "insincere talk or writing intended to distract attention from ulterior motives." The origin of malarkey, sometimes spelled without the second “e,” is unknown, although Biden suggested it was Irish-American. It may be from the Irish surname Mullarkey, or, possibly, the Greek word malakia, which means “worthlessness.” The word first showed up in print (as Milarkey) in 1922 in a newspaper cartoon by T. A. Dorgan (“TAD”), and again in another of his cartoons (as Malachy) in 1924.

Meme – This is a trendy word that refers to a concept or a behavior pattern that spreads from person to person within a culture, rather like a contagious disease.  We get a lot of that these days, thanks to the Internet, which has popularized such memes as “Gangnam style” (the most widely viewed video on YouTube).  Other popular memes of 2012 include Mitt Romney’s “binders of women,” flash mobs in public places like train stations and airports, pictures of Hillary Clinton texting, and anything to do with Justin Bieber.  The word meme was first coined in 1976 by Oxford don Richard Dawkins in a book called The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins wanted a word that described the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest, so he adapted the Greek mimeme, from which we also get the words mime and mimesis.

Schadenfreude – This word is composed of the German words for "harm" and "joy" and means “pleasure one may feel in the troubles of others.” It was widely used by the media after the 2012 elections—referring to the feelings of guess which party. The word in English dates to 1895.
Touché – Thanks largely to "Survivor" contestant Kat Edorsson, who misused the word to mean "tough luck" before she was voted off the island, this word has gained traction. Its look-ups at were up sevenfold over 2011. From the French toucher  (“to touch”), it is a fencing term that acknowledges being hit, that is touched with the sword, by an opponent.  Figuratively, its use dates to 1904, and it means “your point is well, or wittily, made.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou rarely makes any point at all, let alone making it well or wittily.  When nudged into semi-consciousness from his customary stupor, he allowed the following balderdash to spew through his gin-washed lips:

         When Ryan spouted foreign policy
         Joe Biden was a little snarky,
         And said, “Now, listen here, by golly, see,
         Your views are just Malarkey!”
         But Ryan did not counter with “Touché,”
         Instead, he hollered “Bloody moidah!”,
         Allowing Biden, on Election Day,
         To bask in Schadenfreude.
         The moral of this cautionary tale:
         Don’t let your views become extreme,
         And if your words are chosen well, then they’ll
         Become a winning Meme.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Crèche Course

On a walk through our neighborhood, I saw a Nativity scene on a lawn and pointed out the “Christmas crèche” to the Chief Critic.  “Is there any other kind of crèche?” asked the C. C., in a slightly sassy tone.  Well, I wasn’t sure, so I looked it up. 

That hoary old standby, the Oxford English Dictionary apparently never heard of Christmas, for the only definition of crèche on offer is “a public nursery for infants of poor women while they are at work”; in other words, a day care center. The Online Etymological Dictionary cites an 1854 usage for this meaning.
The origin of the word is Old French cresche, meaning “crib, manger, or stall,” but there are cognates in Italian (grippa) and Old High German (kripja).

Webster’s dictionaries have more Christmas spirit.  The Second Edition International first gives “day nursery,” then “foundling hospital,” and, finally, the definition we expect: “a representation of the stable at Bethlehem, with the Infant Jesus, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, oxen, asses, adoring shepherds, and Magi.” It offers no usage history, but its cousin Webster’s Collegiate says it was first used in that sense in 1792—predating the “public nursery” meaning by 62 years.

The Collegiate adds that a crèche can also mean a “group of young animals (as penguins or bats) gathered in one place for care and protection.”  Who knew?

Certainly not the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who tried to steal the Magi’s gold from the last crèche he saw, but mistakenly grabbed a big pot of myrrh instead.

         That time I stole a pot of myrrh,
         It’s not what I hoped would occyrrh,
         It happened in a hazy blyrrh,
         When I had drunk too much liquyrrh.
         I now repent that I did yrrh,
         And acted like some amatyrrh!     

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Merry Little Christmas Bonus

In this week before Christmas, here is a reposting of a blog that ran last year, but I think it’s timely and interesting enough to re-run.  You may have missed it, and even if you read it, you have problably forgotten it.

A favorite song this time of year is Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” with its heart-warming lyrics that cheered up adorable little Margaret O’Brien when Judy Garland sang them in Meet Me in St. Louis.  The original lyrics by Martin, however, were not at all  heart-warming.  In fact, Garland and director Vincente Minnelli found them downright depressing.  The original lyrics were:
               Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
             It may be your last,
             Next year we may all be living in the past.
            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Pop that champagne cork,
            Next year we will all be living in New York.

            No good times like the olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore,
            Faithful friends who were dear to us
            Will be near to us no more.

            But at least we all will be together,
            If the Lord allows,
            From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow,
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Martin resisted changing anything, but finally agreed to make the song more upbeat.  His new lyric was:

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Let your heart be light,
            From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Make the Yuletide gay,
            From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

            Here we are as in olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore.
            Faithful friends who are dear to us           
            Gather near to us once more.

            Through the years we all will be together,
            If the Fates allow,
            Until then we’ll have to muddle through   
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.  

You’ll note that the “Lord” is changed to the “Fates.” Apparently, Hollywood felt you shouldn't be too religious about Christmas!

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" for his album "A Jolly Christmas." Martin's new line—"Hang a shining star upon the highest bough"—is now more widely known than the original.

Yet another lyrical change was in store.  In 2001, Martin, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, wrote a religious version of the song:

            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Christ the King is born,
            Let your voices ring upon this happy morn.  
            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Serenade the Earth,
            Tell the world we celebrate the Savior's birth. 

            Let us gather to sing to Him
            And to bring to Him our praise, 
            Son of God and a Friend of all, 
            To the end of all our days. 

            Sing hosannas, hymns, and hallelujahs, 
            As to Him we bow, 
            Make the music mighty as the heav'ns allow, 
           And have yourself a blessed little Christmas now.
So take your choice—depressing, uplifting, or religious—but since Martin died last year, at the age of 96, there probably won’t be any more versions.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is not yet 96 but after years of dissipation looks about 105, spins out new versions of his stuff with alacrity, hoping someday to get it right.  So far, he hasn't.
             Whenever I’m lyrical,
             I’m a song-writing miracle,
             A self-serving Merlin,
             Just like Irving Berlin,
             When I wave my wand, I’m
             A new Stephen Sondheim.
             My songs are high-powered,
             Like those of Noel Coward,
             You’ll find that my arts are
             The same as Lorenz Hart’s are,
             My grammar’s fine,
             Like Hammerstein,
             And my wit is much rarer
             Than spoofs by Tom Lehrer,
             Words spun from my web
             Rival those of Fred Ebb,
             They’re snappier and shorter
             Than songs by Cole Porter.
             When I’m in my prime,
             There’s no name I can’t rhyme!
             Just take Ira Gershwin….
             Well… maybe I’d better not give up my day job.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Chimping Champs No Chumps

Chimping, I am advised by a customer who is a noted photographer and linguistic gadabout, is a term that describes the activity of checking each image on the display screen of a digital camera immediately after taking the picture.

Among the first users of this word was Robert Deutsch, a USA Today staff photographer, who wrote of “chimping” in an email newsletter in 1999. There are two competing explanations of this word’s origin, neither of them entirely compelling.

One school of thought holds that chimping derives from the noises photographers make when appraising their photos—“ooh, ooh, ah”—which are regarded as similar to those made by an excited chimpanzee.  This strikes me as a bizarre and unpersuasive explanation, inasmuch as I often check my own digital pictures and have never uttered an “ooh” or an “ah” in so doing.  For that matter, I’ve never heard anyone else make such noises.

The second explanation is that the word is an acronym of “CHecking IMage Preview.”  This strikes me as a back-formation, devised in an attempt to explain the word after it came into being.  Why would you say “image preview” instead of just “image”?

One online commentator believes chimping means something else entirely—holding the camera over your head at crowded events and shooting blindly, hoping to come up with a usable photo.  The analogy is to the old saw that if you put a chimpanzee in a room with a typewriter, eventually it would write Hamlet and War and Peace. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been trying to write Hamlet for many years now, somehow having failed to realize that it has already been written quite satisfactorily.  Here’s his latest effort, which you will agree still needs a little tweaking:

            To be, or not to be, or maybe not,
            I must take arms against a sea of troubles.
            Oh, what outrageous fortune I have got, 
            The fire burns and cauldron bubbles.

            To die, oh, yes, perhaps, and then to sleep!
            To sleep, or just count sheep, aye, there’s the rub!
            While deep asleep, I creep without a peep,
            Right down the street into the local pub.
            Our conscience then makes cowards of us all,
            We shuffle off this mortal coil—to bed,
            But soft! The fair Ophelia comes to call:
            I think I’ll just pretend that I am dead.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Slinging Slang with the Hash

Did you encounter Adam and Eve on a raft this morning?  Or perhaps it was two chicks looking at you with Noah’s boy?  If you did, you were having breakfast in one of the few remaining establishments in which the staff still uses the once ubiquitous but now rapidly fading diner slang. 

Adam and Eve on a raft is a way of saying two poached eggs on toast, and two chicks looking at you with Noah’s boy is two eggs fried straight up with a slice of ham.

Other breakfast items might include cackleberries (eggs), which could be blindfolded (basted), flopped (over easy), deadeye (poached), or wrecked (scrambled). They could be served on a log (with link sausage), or instead, the waitress might tell the chef two spots and a dash (two fried eggs with bacon). And of course you’d accompany them with a blonde in the sand (coffee with cream and sugar).

A lot of diner slang is associated with breakfast, but such other staple items as stew (Bossy in a bowl, clean the kitchen, sweep the floor, or customer will take a chance) come in for their share of colorful language. 

Burn one means a well-done hamburger, or, if really well done, a hockey puck. Walk a cow through the garden means a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onion. Or the waitress might say Two cows—make ‘em cry, paint ‘em red, and drag ‘em through Wisconsin, but keep off the grass—which would mean two hamburgers, with onions, ketchup, and American cheese, but no lettuce.

The Old Testament provides a wealth of diner slang.  In addition to the previously mentioned Adam and Eve and Noah’s boy, Eve with a lid on means apple pie and Eve with a moldy lid is apple pie with cheese. First lady is an order of spare ribs (since Eve was made from Adam’s rib, right?).  And kill Lot’s wife would have to mean hold the salt.

Noah’s boy, by the way, might be ordered with Murphy carrying a wreath, which would mean ham with potatoes and cabbage.

Other colorful bits of lingo include foreign entanglements (spaghetti), put the lights out and cry (liver and onions), burn the British (toasted English muffin), dough well done with cow to cover (buttered toast), zeppelins in a fog (sausage with mashed potatoes), shingle with a shimmy  (toast and jelly), and the ultimate commentary on a diner’s taste, why bother (decaffeinated coffee with non-fat milk).

The origin of diner slang, and the reasons for it, are uncertain.  Most authorities conclude it started in U. S. eateries in the 1880s, probably as an inside joke among African-American waiters and cooks, partly for amusement and partly as easily understood mnemonic devices.  Such a usage as whiskey down for “rye toast” probably originated as a means of being quickly and clearly understood in the clamor of a busy kitchen.

Some diner terms, like mayo, BLT, and short stack (two pancakes), began as specialized lingo, but have now entered the general vocabulary.

Diner argot is dying out for a variety of reasons.  The prevalence of franchised fast-food establishments with limited, regimented menus (hamburgers, pizza, chicken) has seen the disappearance of the all-purpose diners that served many different kinds of short-order foods. Further, restaurant personnel consisting of short-term student help and immigrants for whom English is not a native language make the use of slang unlikely. 

But here and there, “retro” diners are springing up, fashioned like the shining railway cars of the past, and maybe their personnel will try to keep diner slang alive, along with the juke boxes and chrome trim.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou rarely eats in diners, preferring to take his nourishment from a bottle.  He writes, incoherently, from some sordid den of unspeakable iniquity:

            The cook is in the diner,
            And the cow is in the corn.
            The sheep is in the meadow,
            And the snail is on the thorn.

            The fox is in the henhouse,
            And the pea is in the pod,
            The cream is in the coffee,
            And the bricks are in the hod.           

            The lark is on the wing,
            And the butter’s on the bread,
            The sun has crossed the yardarm,
            And The Bard is still in bed.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Getting In Whack

Recently I have come across the terms “whackos” and “whack jobs” and sometimes “wackos” and “wack jobs.” These were references, of course, to certain members of Congress whose names must not be spoken. Tea, anyone?

But which word is correct?  Is it “wacky” or “whacky”?  Well, actually, it can be either.

Whack started as a verb, in the eighteenth century, meaning to “strike sharply.” Its origin was probably echoic, possibly derived from the earlier word thwack, from the sound of such a sharp blow.  First noted as a verb in 1719, whack was used as a noun in 1737, meaning a “vigorous blow.”

By 1785 whack was used to mean a “just portion or share” of something. It is speculated that this usage originated with thieves’ sharing their loot and giving each robber his proper cut (or whack). Whack was later used to mean the agreement on which the sharing of the loot was based, and, by extension, any agreement that all parties regard as just.

As a noun referring to a “fool or crazy or eccentric person,” whacky was in use by the late nineteenth century.  It probably originated to suggest that the person had been rendered senseless by a blow or “whack.” The variant wacky, without the “h” and used as an adjective, is first cited in 1935. Although the original spelling was “whacky,” the current dominant spelling is “wacky,” and if you use the older form, people are likely to think you’re wacky.

To say something is out of whack, meaning not working properly, derives from the thieves’ meaning of “agreement,” with the connotation that something is not done correctly, as it was agreed.

Out of whack is a cousin of out of kilter—and that mysterious phrase deserves a blog all its own. 

Speaking of whack jobs, you need look no farther than the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who fills the bill in every respect.

                        TO-DO LIST

                        Whack a wacky wicket,
                        Pick a pokey pocket,
                        Kick a khaki cricket.
                        Lick a lucky locket.
                        Back a bulky bucket,
                        Pack a plucky packet,
                        Thwack a talky tucket,
                        Junk a jockey jacket.

                        Wreck a rookie Rocket,
                        Block a balky Beckett,
                        Seek a sticky socket,                       
                        Hook a hokey Hecate.
                        Rake a reeky racket,           
                        Truck a tacky ticket,
                        Poke a peaky packet,
                        Track a tricky thicket.