Monday, September 30, 2013

All-Day Soccer

Football season once again has us by the throat, and the mayhem can be enjoyed on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes other days as well.  When Americans speak of “football,” they don’t mean the same thing as most of the rest of the world.  They mean a brutal tackling game that developed in this country in the 1860s and nowadays requires helmets and heavy padding.  When the rest of the world speaks of “football,” it means what Americans call “soccer.”

Soccer originated in the 1840s in England and became known as “Association football,” named for its governing organization, the Football Association.The modifier “Association” was needed to distinguish it from another form of football that developed in 1840s England, “Rugby football,” named for Rugby School, at which it was first played. 

The term “soccer” originated in the 1880s, as Oxford student slang, which playfully added “-er” or sometimes “-ers” to the roots of certain words.  “Champagne,” for example, was referred to by Oxonians as “Champers.”  Breakfast was “brekker.” The "Bodleian Library” morphed into “Bodder.” “Rugby football” was known as “rugger.”  And in the same way, “Association football” was “Assoccer,” shortened in the 1890s to simply “soccer.”

When the game was taken up by non-university players, they rejected the Oxford “soccer” as too twee, and simply called it “football.”  Rugby remained a game of the educated classes and thus retained the name “rugger,” by which it is commonly known today.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has his own brand of football, which consists of rocking on the balls of his feet in the direction of the nearest bar.  After a few hours of this sport, he is able to come up with messages like this:

            There was a pair of soccer kickers
            Who suited up in knickerbockers.
            At night, they worked as pocket-pickers
            And stored their loot in liquor lockers.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Beware of Grecians

President George W. Bush once referred to our “Grecian” allies.  Knowledgeable people like you and me laughed at this silly misusage, knowing as we do that the correct adjective for people from Greece is “Greek.”

But look up the definitions of “Greek” and “Grecian” in the dictionary and you will find them almost identical—“of or pertaining to Greece or its people.”  So what’s so wrong with talking about that nice “Zorba the Grecian” who makes “Grecian salads” and “Grecian yogurt” and attends the “Grecian Orthodox Church”?

Both “Greek” and “Grecian” stem from the Latin Græcus, referring to things Greek, but “Greek” traveled into Old English by way of Germanic variants, and “Grecian” made its way to Middle English via French roots.  Both terms survive, but “Grecian” is now used mostly to refer to certain aspects of ancient Greece, such as its architecture, art, fashion, and physiognomy.   Keats wrote about a “Grecian urn,” you might have a “Grecian nose,” and a company in White Plains, New York, makes a men’s hair dye called “Grecian Formula.”  Otherwise, you’re mostly better off with “Greek.”

The work Graikhos, from which “Greek” is derived, means an inhabitant of Graia (“gray”), a town on the coast of Boeotia.  Colonists from Graia founded the city of Cumae in southern Italy around the ninth century B.C., and these were the first Greeks encountered by the Romans.

Ancient Greeks called themselves “Hellenes,” inhabitants of “Hellas,” a name derived from Hellen (not Helen of Troy), the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha in ancient Greek mythology.  Hellen’s sons, Aeolus, Dorus, and Xuthus (through his sons Achaeus and Ion), were the founders of the primary ancient Greek tribes.

“Hellenic,” incidentally, now refers to Greek culture up to 336 B. C., when Greece came under the rule of Alexander the Great, who spread its culture throughout the Near East.  Post-Alexandrine Greek civilization and cultural influences are called “Hellenistic.”

All of this is Greek to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has other things on his so-called mind.
                        A Greek who drank too much retsina
                        Played so badly on his concertina
                        That Dmitri Mitropoulos 
                        Came down from the Acropolis
                        And served him with a subpoena.
                        So the Greek played his concertina
                        In the Italian town of Messina,
                        Until Riccardo Muti
                        Said, “I hate to seem snooty,
                        But you massacred ‘La Golondrina’.”
                        Then the Greek, with his concertina,
                        Came to Texas and found Pasadena.
                        That’s where Mickey Gilley
                        Said, “I may be a hillbilly—
                        But you sound like a laughing hyena.”
                        So the Greek scrapped his concertina,
                        Found a boat at a nearby marina,
                        And with John Barbirolli
                        And two cases of Stoli, 
                        Sailed the seas till they reached Catalina.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Legs

Everyone knows, I hope, that it’s bad luck to wish an actor “good luck.”  Instead you’re supposed to say, “Break a leg”—not with the intent that the actor really breaks a leg (unless you’re the understudy), but with a kind of reverse psychology that is understood to mean wishing something good.  The origin of the phrase “break a leg” is, as you might expect, obscure. 

One theory has nothing to do with the kind of legs you walk around on, but with theatrical legs—the usually black curtains that mask the backstage area.  To run onstage for a curtain call would “break” the plane of these “legs” so that the actor was visible to the audience, and thus “breaking a leg” would mean taking a well-deserved bow. 

Other theatre historians trace the phrase to the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick who allegedly was so focused during a brilliant performance as Richard III that he failed to notice that he had fractured his leg.  Thereafter, his colleagues urged him to “break a leg” in order to maintain the same level of excellence.   

Some say the term has something to do with John Wilkes Booth’s claim that he broke his leg jumping onstage after shooting Abraham Lincoln—but it does seem improbable that you would hope that an actor would assassinate a president in the course of a performance.  Still others say it had to do with Roman gladiators being urged to break their opponents’ legs, rather than killing them outright.

Since usage of the phrase can be traced only as far back as 1920, most of these theories seem specious. 

Wishing an actor bad luck is fairly universal in the theatre. The German good-luck phrase is Hals und beinbruch, which means “break both your arm and your leg.”  The origin of this phrase is allegedly in a corruption of the Yiddish Hastlohke un brokhe, which means “Good luck and be blessed.” 

The French (as well as English-speaking dancers) wish actors Merde, a much more elegant word than its English counterpart, which is “shit.”  In Spanish it’s mucha mierda, which is simply a lot of the same.  The Italians have another image for theatrical good luck, In bocca al lupo, which emphasizes the risk involved in acting by urging the player to put his head in the mouth of a wolf.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s head has never been in a wolf’s mouth, but he has stuck his nose into a lot of equally unsavory places.
            The amours of an actor named Seth
            Always left him quite out of breath.
                        He had fun with Ophelia,
                        Even more with Cordelia,
            But was stymied by Lady Macbeth. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sign of the Times

An intellectually voracious customer of the blog points out the great ambiguity we exhibit in deciding what to call the # symbol.  You know, it’s the thingamajig right above the 3 on most keyboards and in the lower right-hand side of most telephones.

Usually in North American it’s called the pound key. That is probably because of a nineteenth-century telegraph coding system, in which the British symbol for a pound sterling (£) was used to shift from letters mode to numbers mode.  When adopted in the United States, the £ symbol was arbitrarily changed to #. Sometimess it was still called the pound key, but it also took on the name of number sign.

But there are plenty of other names and purposes for this symbol.  It has been confused with the other meaning of “pound” and is now used following a number as an indication of weight, as in 5# of sugar.   

When it comes before a number, as in #2 pencils or Apartment #4-B, it’s a number sign. 

Outside of North America, it’s often halled a hashmark.  Twitter and other social networks have adopted this usage in their “hashtags” system of organizing messages on the same topic.

Other names and uses for the symbol include:
-Cross – English-speaking Chinese typically use this     
-Hex – Commonly used in some parts of Asia.
-Octothorp – This term was invented in the 1960s by Bell 
     Labs engineers as an inside joke.
-Sharp – A similar, though not identical symbol, is used in 
     music to indicate a key designation.  The sharp symbol 
     actually differs in the angle of the horizontal crossstrokes.
-Space – a proofreader’s symbol indicating the need for a 
     space between words or lines.

Yet more names for this useful glyph are crosshatch, fenceposts, garden gate, mesh, flash, grid, pig-pen, tic-tac-toe, scratch, hak, oof, sink, corridor, crunch, and punchmark. You’ll have to figure out for yourself what the oof, hak, sink, crunch and punchmark are used for.  They’ve got me stumped.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is never stumped, although he is often stomped upon, unfortunately, to little effect. 

   “Thanks for calling: now before you speak,
    Please notice that this menu changed last week.
    First, if you know the number of the line
    You want, press '1' and then the '#' sign;
    This activates the direct-dialing mode,
    Then you can dial the seven-digit code.
    If you just know your party's name, you’d better
    Press a ‘2’ and then the name’s first letter.
    If you wish to hear all this repeated,
    Just say “Repeat again,” and when completed,
    Wait seven seconds, then you press the ‘4’
    And in a while you’ll hear it all once more.
    If you’re unsure of what you want, then you   
    Must press the '*' to hear a new ‘Menu.’
    If all else fails and you need help, why then
    Press '5' and then the '#' sign once again,
    When prompted, then you just say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’—”
    Oh, never mind, I hung up long ago.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Be On the Look-Out!

Today is Labor Day in the United States and Labour Day in Canada.  I’ve blogged previously about why American words like labor become labour, ending in –our, in the United Kingdom, Canada, and other British Commonwealth countries. The reason is complicated, and William the Conqueror and Noah Webster are both to blame.  Instead of writing again about Labor Day, I’ll just refer you to my previous blog at:

Today, instead, let's consider BOLO—a term I heard on a television newscast referring to a search for a fugitive in one of the heinous crimes with lurid accounts of which ghoulish TV anchors like to regale us.  Now in my youth, I was a great fan of “Dick Tracy,” “Dragnet,” “Mister District Attorney,” “Gangbusters,” and a host of other police shows on radio, so I know that when they’re looking for a crook on the lam, police send out an APB—“All Points Bulletin,” a message intended for everyone, everywhere.   BOLO was new to me.

BOLO, it turns out, is more commonly used among police operatives, and it stands for “Be On the Look-Out,” presumably “for” someone who will then be described.  No one seems to know when police began using the acronym. 

APB, according to the On-Line Etymological Dictionary, dates to 1957 and probably originated in detective fiction, rather than actual police usage.  Some agencies also use ATL–“Attempt To Locate.”

Do not attempt to locate the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  You might find him, and you wouldn’t want that to happen.

            There’s no need to be on the lookout
            For the thief who came to our cookout.
                        He got drunk on our beer,
                        And now he’s still here—
            Won’t someone please throw this crook out!