Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dust Off Your Lustrum

In the vintage John Wayne-Katharine Hepburn film Rooster Cogburn, the local federal judge tells U. S. Marshal Cogburn that he has served the court almost “two lustrums.” Cogburn is understandably puzzled (as was I) until the judge explains that a lustrum is a period of five years.

It’s a Latin word, as you undoubtedly recognize, denoting an ancient Roman animal sacrifice that was customary between 566 B.C. and 74 A.D., following the taking of a census. Intended as an act of purification for the Roman populace, lustrum most likely derives from luere (“to wash”), a verb akin to the synonymous lavere, which survives in lavatory and other English words.   

The Roman censuses were taken at five-year intervals, so the term lustrum evolved to mean “a period of five years.”

It would be a fine thing if the Bard of Buffalo Bayou took some time off lasting two or three lustra, or maybe more, but no such luck!  Fearing he might lose his quickly fading luster, he bounces back every week, like a demented ping-pong ball.

         Once, or maybe twice, in a lustrum,
         Too much wine puts me in a flustrum,
         And when I feel gaga,
         At the end of the saga
         I fall down face-first in Ligustrum.  


Monday, March 18, 2013

Words of the Year

The Oxford University Press has chosen a “word of the year”—by which it presumably means the word it regards as most representative of that year’s zeitgeist. Naturally, the OUP’s British and American lexicographers have very different ideas about which words are tops.             

For 2012, the Brits chose omnishambles—defined as a “situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged and is characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.”  Wonder what they had in mind?  A shambles, from the Middle English schamel (“vendor’s table”), is a slaughterhouse, and, hence, “a scene of great destruction or disarray.” 

Omnishambles occasionally shows up in a variant—Romneyshambles—referring to the disastrous public relations fiasco the former U. S. Presidential candidate created during his pre-Olympics visit to the United Kingdom.

Runners-up included mummy porn (or “mommy” porn in Americanese), a “literary genre represented by Fifty Shades of Grey”; and green-on-blue, “military attacks by forces regarded as neutral,” derived from the color of the uniforms of Afghan attackers of NATO forces.

Believe it or not, the word of the year chosen by American editors was GIF. That’s an acronym of “graphic interchange format,” a method of posting to the Internet those images of cute kittens, precocious children, and heaping plates of food that we all love to see. GIF can be used either as a noun or a verb.

Runners-up in the Yanks’ competition included Eurogeddon (the potential financial collapse of Greece and other countries in the Eurozone), superPAC  (those political action committees the Supreme Court unleashed on our recent elections), nomophobia (a “fear of being without one’s mobile phone”), and Higgs boson, of which by now everyone knows the meaning.

Ironically, selection as word of the year does not guarantee inclusion in any Oxford dictionaries.  That honor demands long-time usage, which few neologisms can muster.  There are five factors in a word’s survival, according to wordsmith Allan Metcalf: frequency of use, 
, diversity of users and situations, generation of other forms and meanings, and 
endurance of the concept.

There is only one factor in the continued survival of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou: sufficient Chardonnay to fuel his late-night lucubrations, which generate such droolings of rhyming spittle as the following:

            My life is one big omnishambles,
            In which I love to wallow,
            As through the mess my spirit ambles,
            In hopes the Muse will follow.

            At night I lie upon a bed
            Beneath a weeping willow,
            Till morning comes l rest my head
            Upon a sodden pillow.
            I try to rise, to no avail,
            Amidst the hurly-burly,
            But like a little piglet’s tail,
            Eight o’clock’s twirly.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Making the email rounds recently was a collection of sentences supposedly known as paraprosdokians.  They are defined as “figures of speech consisting of a sentence of which the latter part is unexpected, and frequently humorous.” Examples given are:

         “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”  (Groucho Marx)

         “The last thing I want to do is hurt you—but It’s still on the list.”


         “She was good, as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went.”  (Saki)

Paraposdokian is asserted in these emails to be a word that originated in classical Greek rhetoric, derived from para (“against”) and prosdokia (“expectation”). Some linguists, however, argue that the word is not classical Greek or even medieval Latin, but a modern coinage.

A convincing case against the word’s historical authenticity is made by Canadian linguist William Casselman, who calls it a “bogus word made up by some semiliterate doofus.” He believes it originated in the late 20th century and never appeared in Greek literature. He notes that the word, though used as a nominative, appears in a form that is accusative in Greek—a fact that suggests someone ignorant of Greek grammar cobbled it together. 

Casselman acknowledges that there are, of course, sentences with surprise endings.  He says that linguistic experts refer to these as “sentences with surprise endings.”

Some paraprosdokians (if I may be permitted to perpetuate usage of a dubious word) also change the meaning of the words between the first and last part of the sentence.  The classic example (attributed to Groucho Marx, that champion paraprosdokiast) is:

         “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

This is a form of pun that can also be called an antanaclasis (“reflection”), of which other classic examples include:

         “If we do not all hang together, we shall all hang separately.”  (Ben Franklin)


         “If you’re not fired with enthusiasm, then you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.” (Vince Lombardi)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been fired numerous times, almost invariably with enthusiasm bordering on desperation.  Unfortunately, this blogger is powerless to prevent him from perpetrating his poetic pustules:

         I had a lovely evening
         But this sure wasn’t it.
         The chairs were made of cast-iron,
         And pained me just to sit.

         The smiling host and hostess
         Insisted I’d have fun
         Conversing with their children,
         Aged five, and three, and one.

         They had a German shepherd
         Who slobbered on my knees,
         While baring teeth and snarling,
         And infesting me with fleas.
         The other guests were zombies,
         Addicted to Fox News,
         Insisting that I listen
         To wild Tea Party views.
         The drinks were clearly watered,
         I know that’s true becuz
         I downed at least a dozen
         And never felt a buzz.

         Dinner, said our hostess,
         Would be a little late,
         Perhaps about ten-thirty,
         When we’d been asked for eight.

         And when the food appeared,
         The meat was tough and cold,
         The veggies all were soggy,
         The bread was edged with mold.

          When asked to linger longer,
         I managed to resist
         And made a hasty exit—
         Then tripped and broke my wrist.

         No more boring evenings,
         With bad food, kids, and pets!
         Next time that I’m invited,
         I’m sending my regrets.        

Monday, March 4, 2013

Long Shots

When Brits want to say “not by a long shot,” they say “not by a long chalk” instead.  Why the difference?

The American expression, meaning “not likely” or “not even close,” is fairly straightforward in its etymology. The phrase “long shot,” has been in use since the late eighteenth century and refers to the difficulty of hitting a target with a gun fired from a great distance. By the 1880s the term was commonly applied to horses with little chance of winning a race. But it’s not until 1867 that we find the figurative use of “not by a long shot,” meaning extremely unlikely.

What about “long chalk”? That was first used in 1824 and derives from the custom in British pubs of keeping the score of a darts game by scrawling it with chalk on the wall or other convenient surface. A “chalk” was a mark indicating a single point or score, so if you were losing a game by a large margin, you would be losing by a “long chalk,” i.e. a big score.  The phrase “not by a long chalk” probably originated from a losing player’s indicating he was not to be put out of the game, not even by a “long chalk.” Like long shot, long chalk has come to have the sense of “insuperable odds.”

Someone should tell the Bard of Buffalo Bayou that the odds are worse than insuperable against his writing anything intelligent, or even intelligible. You’ll have to be the one to tell him, though; I’m afraid to go near him—as you’ll understand when you read his most recent eructation:

            Cheeky chicks in Chickamauga 
            Chucked a chunk of chalk, 
            Creaky cranks in Chattanooga 
            Cooked a cask of caulk, 
            Crooked crickets crunching crackers 
            Croaked and cracked a crock, 
            Cackling cuckoos, all in chokers, 
            Clicked a clacking clock.