Monday, August 26, 2013


An online news service reported that owing to a lack of funds, conservation officials will release into the wild some desert tortoises they have nurtured. The account went on to say that experts would determine which of the tortoises “are hearty enough to release.”

Now the primary meaning of hearty is “enthusiastically supportive, jovial, cordial, full of warmth.” How does one gauge the cordiality of a turtle? Perhaps there will be a Congeniality Contest to pick the jolliest of these hard-shell reptiles, or maybe the ones with the biggest smiles or the firmest handshakes will get the nod.

What the writer meant, I think, is hardy, the primary meaning of which is “robust, healthy, capable of withstanding adverse conditions.”

The root of hardy is Middle English hardi, which stems from Old French hardir, “to make hard,” a word of Germanic origin related to the Old English heard meaning “hard.” Hearty derives from heart, whose root is the Old English heorte, referring to the bodily organ, but also, as early as the ninth century, to the source of courage and kind feelings.

To be fair, there is a secondary meaning for hearty—“healthy and robust”— that overlaps with hardy, but prudent usage avoids such ambiguity.

Prudent usage is the furthest thing from the mind of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  Madcap recklessness has always been his watchword.

            Myrtle was a turtle
            Who wished she could hurtle,
            But all she could do was creep.
            A hare named Pierre
            Said, “Let’s race to somewhere,”
            And Pierre showed how well he could leap.

            “You just pardon my dust,”
            Myrtle answered, non-plussed--
            And she went out and purchased a Jeep.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Gives A Dam?

A trouble-making reader of this blog has stirred things up by sending along his thoughts about “giving a damn.”  He suggests that when Clark Gable said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” he was really saying “I don’t give a dam.” A dam is a former Indian coin, worth perhaps 1/40th of a rupee (or even less, by some accounts), and, therefore, not worth a great deal. 

Linguists are at odds about this. One early example of the phrase is in 1849 by Thomas Babington Macaulay, who wrote “How they settle the matter I care not, as the Duke wrote, one twopenny damn.”  As Macaulay’s biograper, G. O. Trevelyan, maintains, the Duke in question was the Duke of Wellington, who had spent time in India, and the “damn” should have been rendered “dam,” referring to the coin.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, says such a supposition “has no basis in fact.”  It cites Oliver Goldsmith’s “I care not three damns what figure I may cut” in 1760—well before Wellington’s time in India and, in fact, prior to his very existence.   The OED suggests “damn” is derived from the Middle English phrase “not worth a kerse [curse].”

A similar dispute occurs with the phrase "tinker's damn." One school of thought says it should be a tinker's "dam"--referring, not to an Indian coin, but to a temporary clay or mud reinforcement that was used in the repair of pots and pans to hold solder in place while it solidified, and was then discarded. Most etymologists, however, believe that this was just a Victorian attempt to bowdlerize the phrase "tinker's damn"--derived from "tinker's curse," which can be cited as early as 1824.

As you might expect, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou gives neither a damn nor a dam about any of this, such discussion being far too much exertion for his Barleycorn-benumbed brain.  The following represents the highest level of mental activity of which he is capable.

                  The Duke of Wellington wrote Macaulay,
                        “I do not care a dam.”
                        But his writing was so scrawly,
                        It was a cryptogram.

                        Macaulay said to Wellington,
                        “You might as well just scram,
                        The way I read your spelling, son,
                        You do not care a damn.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Left In the Lurch

I heard someone complain about being left in the lurch, meaning “put in adverse circumstances without any assistance.” I wondered if this had to do with causing someone to lose balance or to stagger around. It turns they are two entirely different kinds of lurch, that have nothing to do with each other.

The off-balance lurch is thought to derive from an 18th-century nautical term, lee-latch, which was a term for a sudden movement of a sailing ship toward the leeside, that is, away from the wind. If the seaman at the tiller allowed a lee-latch (later, lee-lurch), the ship would lurch off-course.

To be left in the lurch, is an earlier term, probably 16th-century, which stems from the French word lourche.   This was a now unknown game, probably similar to backgammon, in which a player could demeurer lourche, that is “become lurch,” if defeated by a score more than twice as great as his own.  Thus, to be “in a lurch,” came to mean to be “in an undesirable position, for which there is no help.”

Yet another meaning of lurch is to “loiter about furtively,” probably a variant of lurk, which derived from the Middle English lorchen. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou lurches with some frequency, and you can probably guess why. 

            Left in the lurch by a lad, 
            The maiden thought he was a cad, 
                        And when he departed, 
                        She felt broken-hearted, 
            And more than a little bit mad. 

            She felt that she had been had, 
            And what made her feel really bad 
                        Was she had no way to find him 
                        So that she could remind him 
           Someone soon would be calling him “Dad.”

Monday, August 5, 2013

Laying an Egg

Several news items in recent weeks recounted the activities of newsmakers who wound up with “egg on their face.”  New York’s Mayor Bloomberg got stained from including one of the Boston Marathon bomber’s names on a list of “gun victims.”  Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe was “egged” for promising elections that never occurred.  And Brad Pitt narrowly avoided egg on his face when World War Z did better at the box office than most industry speculators predicted. These instances don’t include one literal case of egg on the face—Simon Cowell, of “Britain’s Got Talent,” who was pelted with rotten eggs by a disgruntled contestant.  Apart from Cowell, what do the other egg stains mean, and why do we say it?

To have egg on one’s face means “be embarrassed” or to “be humlliated.” Most evidence suggests it’s an American phrase dating from the middle of the nineteenth century.  The poet John Ciardi (How Does A Poem Mean?) thought it originated in burlesque or vaudeville theatres, where rowdy audiences would sometimes throw rotten eggs at unpopular performers to urge them to get offstage.

Other word sleuths think the phase originated in reference to a social gaffe by a sloppy eater who got into trouble with the yellow yolk of a soft-boiled or poached egg.

One enterprising theory is that it stemmed from working farm dogs who developed the bad habit of eating eggs from hens’ nests, to the great annoyance of their owners. Pejorative references to “egg-sucking” dogs can be found in printed accounts around the turn of the century.

As for a definitive answer, the linguistic jury is still out—fearful, it seems, of getting egg on their faces.

Egg is not the only thing the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has on his face; he also sports a goofy grin, a three-day growth of stubble, and dregs of cheap Chardonnay dribbling down his chin. 

         Eggs over easy, or sunny-side up, 
         Eggs in a skillet or in an egg-cup. 
         Eggs that are scrambled, and eggs that are poached, 
         Eggs that are rotten (and can’t be approached). 
         Eggs that are soft-boiled, eggs that are deviled, 
         Raw eggs on the morning after you’ve reveled. 
         Eggs that are hard-boiled, eggs that are shirred, 
         What kind of eggs do you think are preferred? 
         My favorite’s the one that I’ve always picked: 
         The Breakfast of Champions—Eggs Benedict!