Monday, June 24, 2013

The Schooner the Better

How about a nice schooner of ice-cold ale?  That sounds refreshing on a warm summer day—but what, you ask, is a schooner?

Originally it was a small sea-going vessel, with sails fore and aft, and one or more topsails.  The first such ship was constructed in the early 18th century.  No one quite knows why it was called a schooner, but the prevailing story, as told by the Oxford English Dictionary, is that when one was launched, about 1713, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a spectator cried “Oh, how she scoons!”  The ship’s builder, Captain Andrew Robinson, replied, “A scooner let her be!” Scoon is a dialectical word of Scandinavian origin that means “to skim or skip across the water.”  The h was added to the spelling of schooner somewhat later, probably by analogy to the word school. 

None of the so-called experts will hazard a definitive opinion  on how the word became applied to a glass for beer. Apparently it was first used in that sense in America in the 1870s for a tall glass approximately double the size of a regular tumbler.  Some  think it has to do with the way spirits were served in the Royal Navy, which served drinks in two measures, the smaller clipper and the double-measure schooner. The British have since adopted the term schooner as a precise measure for beer and ale, equal to 14 ounces.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou regards 14 ounces as a “sip,” an uncounted number of which he knocks back before setting one syllable on paper. 

            A convention of hot-air ballooners 
            Hoisted a few rounds of schooners, 
            They got pretty high, 
            But not in the sky, 
            And a few of them turned into mooners.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Knowing Beans About Beans

A customer recently asked if I knew the origin of the expression “doesn’t know beans” (meaning “knows next to nothing”). You’ll have to choose from the following possibilities that vie for linguistic approval.

Some say the phrase originated in early nineetenth century American mercantile stores that stocked a variety of legume called “blue beans.” The outer skin had a bluish tint, but when it was removed, the interior was white. A popular riddle was “How many blue beans make seven white beans?” If you didn’t know the answer was seven, then you didn’t know beans!

In A Hog On Ice and Other Curious Expressions, Charles Earle Funk (yes, that Funk, onetime editor-in-chief of Funk & Wagnalls) suggests that it is likely that “not to know beans” arose from some now-forgotten story in the early nineteenth century. He thinks it may have originated from some dispute over the cowpea, which, despite its name, is related to the bean not the pea.

Another theory is that the idiom refers to Boston, known for its baked beans, where it would be the worst kind of ignorance not to know that the dish must be made of a specific variety of small white bean known as the 'pea bean.'

Finally, some linguists surmise the phrase comes from the British expression "to know how many beans make five,” meaning that one is no fool.

“Not knowing beans” gained literary stature in a verse that appeared in no less learned a journal than the Yale Literary Magazine in 1855: 
            “When our recent Tutor is heard to speak, 
            This truth one certainly gleans, 
            Whatever he knows of Euclid and Greek, 
            In Latin he don't know beans.” 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is known to be full of beans, and you know what that causes. 

            An old man in Brooklyn (or Queens) 
            Consumed such a big batch of beans, 
                        His toots and his honks 
                        Could be heard in the Bronx, 
            And they had to call out the Marines.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Plumb Pudding

The New York Times mentioned that someone had taken a “plumb job.” The writer probably meant a “plum” job, which would mean a job that was very desirable—especially one given as a reward.

A plumb, from the Latin plumbum (meaning the element lead), is “a lead weight on the end of a line used to establish a true vertical.”  By extension of this meaning, plumb can also be an adjective denoting “perfectly straight” (“The window frame isn’t plumb”) or an adverb meaning “without deviation, or absolutely” (“You are plumb crazy” or “I plumb forgot.”)

A plum, on the other hand, from the Latin prunum, is a purplish fruit, and,  because of its juicy sweetness, it can refer to any desirable thing.  Food companies are now trying to persuade us that the food product to which costive oldsters are partial, known for generations as a prune, should really be thought of as a dried plum, which is much more desirable.  After all, no one ever talks about handing out “prunes” as rewards. 

The only reward offered for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is on a "Wanted" poster, followed by the words "Dead or Alive."  But someone (it must have been a vandal) has crossed out the word "alive."
            I think that I shall never hum 
            A tune as lovely as a plum, 
            A plum of gorgeous purple hue, 
            Upon whose skin rest pearls of dew. 

            A plum is tangy on the tongue, 
            Its many virtues go unsung, 
            I’d like to shout and beat a drum, 
            To spread the praises of the plum. 

            But juicy plums, I must agree, 
            Won’t help with regularity, 
            So if you want to go—and soon— 
            I guess you'd better have a prune.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Heel Thyself

Well-heeled is usually used to mean “wealthy.”  Its first appearance in print was evidently in Bound In Shallows, an 1897 novel by Eva Wilder Brodhead, in which a character says, “I ain’t so well-heeled right now.” In context, this clearly means “impecunious.”


The etymology of the phrase is thought to derive from the fact that good quality shoes are a prime indication of one’s prosperity, and the heel of a shoe is the first place that shows wear.  The opposite of “well-heeled” is “down at heels.” 


Well-heeled has at least two other meanings which precede this one.  One is “provided with a weapon,” and it was first seen in 1873 in Undeveloped West, in which J. H. Beadle wrote, “To travel long out West a man must be, in the local phrase, ‘well-heeled’.”  The context makes it clear that this means having a gun.


This meaning probably stems from the broader definition of well-heeled as “properly equipped,” which was first used in its literal meaning applied to the claws of fighting cocks. An 1866 account in the Dubuqe (Iowa) Daily Herald, reports that some birds "...resembled dung hill chickens thrown into the pit with their natural spurs, to meet and contend with game cocks well heeled. One stoke puts them to flight, squawking as they go; they cannot stand steel." Here, the “heel” is clearly an artificial spur with which cocks were equipped in order to fight. 


Well-heeled should never be confused with round-heeled, a term that dates to the 1920s and describes either an easily defeated prizefighter or a woman who readily bestows sexual favors. 


The Bard of Buffalo Bayou bestows no favors on anyone, especially those who are foolhardy enough to read his misbegotten screeds. 


            With rue my heart is laden 

            For good-time friends I had, 

            For many a round-heeled maiden 

            And many a lusty lad. 


            Turned prim by coy compunction, 

            The maids are matrons now, 

            And the lads can only function 

            With Viagra, they avow.