Friday, October 25, 2013

Well, Make A Wish

Everyone likes to have well-wishers around. Well-wishers are those who wish you well, right?  But in doing so, do they offer you, as people often say, “well wishes”—or should it be “good wishes”? 

Well is an irregular adverbial form of good. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon wel, meaning “according to one’s will.” When you do well, you accomplish something in a satisfactory or advantageous manner.  When you do good, you perform a virtuous deed.  When it’s an adjective, well most often means “healthy or cured of some illness.”

Believe it nor not, the reliable Second Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary admits the noun well-wish with its built-in adjectival well as “a good and kindly wish.”

So go ahead and let your well-wishers, wish you well with their well-wishes if you wish. See if I care.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not care either. He is carefree, not to mention meter-free, rhyme-free, and sense-free in most of his work. 

            Well, I saw an old well-wisher fall,
            And I noticed as he fell,
            This well-wisher didn’t mind at all--
            For he fell into a wishing-well. 

            Well, the well was full of soapy water, 
            Which the well-wisher thought was swell, 
            For when the water in the well got hotter, 
            He could do his washing well.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Sliced Ham

I recently encountered a hotel full of hams. No, it wasn’t a convocation of pork butchers peddling their wares, nor was it a gathering of over-the-top actors looking for scenery to chew.  This was a meeting of amateur radio operators, hundreds of them, sizing up weird-looking equipment and trading tales of shortwave brief encounters with distant colleagues.

How did it happen that ham is the word applied to all of them? Ham is the meat of a hog’s hind leg, usually salted, dried, or smoked.  Its earliest use in English was in the 1630s.  It derives from the Old English hamm, meaning “bend of the knee,” ultimately from Proto-Indo-European konemo, “shin bone.” 

Ham, meaning “an inferior performer”—especially one who over-emotes—was first mentioned in America in the 1880s. It is a shortening of ham-fatter, which is thought to refer to the practice of amateur actors, especially minstrel performers, to remove their makeup with ham fat.  Somehow or other, the term is also related to a popular 1863 minstrel show song called “The Ham-Fat Man,” which was about the appeal of ham frying in a pan. It may also have been conflated with ham, used in the 1880s to refer to an incompetent prizefighter, derived from ham-fisted, that is “equipped with fists as clumsy as a couple of hams would be.”

When it comes to radio operators, the etymology is even less clear.  Some say a ham operator is simply an extended meaning of ham actor, a pejorative reference to the inferior skills of amateurs. One early usage is in the August, 1915 Technical World Magazine: "Then someone thought of the 'hams'. This is the name that the commercial wireless service has given to amateur operators..." Like other terms that started as unfavorable—Obamacare, for instance—it was adopted as a badge of honor by the very people to whom it referred.

But there are other claims on the etymology for ham radio. One is that it derives from the Cockney pronunciation of amateur, with an aspirated “h” sound preceding it. Others say it is from the word hammer, as a description of the insensitive way early radio operators hit the hand-operated telegraph keys.  Some insist it is a tribute to three radio pioneers, using their last initials: Heinrich Hertz, Edwin Armstrong, and Guglielmo Marconi.  One problem with this theory is that Armstrong was still unknown at the time ham was first used. Similarly, some people say ham is an acronym of a magazine, Home Amateur Mechanic, which covered radio topics.  Opinions differ on whether such a magazine ever existed. A few kind-hearted souls believe ham stems from the initials of the phrase “Help All Mankind,” referring to the occasional rescue activities of ham operators in their early days.

By far the most elaborate explanation is that it came from an amateur radio station operated in 1911 by three Harvard students named Albert S. Hyman, Bob Almy, and Poogie Murray, who assigned their last initials as the station’s call letters. As the story goes, they originally called the station “Hyman-Almy-Murray, which was cumbersome to type, so they changed the designation to “HY-AL-MU,” but that became confused with radio signals from a Mexican ship called the “Hyalmo,” so the intrepid trio settled on the simple “HAM.”  Hyman later testified at a Congressional hearing on amateur radio regulation, and his impassioned plea for exemption from licensing resulted in HAM being used as a symbol for all small amateur radio operators.

You’ll have to decide which explanation you prefer.

Something you definitely would not prefer is the work of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou—a rhymester of the school that Ogden Nash referred to as “worsifiers.” 

            A Virginia ham felt forsaken
            When he found all the lady hams taken,
                        So he took some Viagra 
                        And ran off to Niagara 
           With a sizzling Canadian bacon. 

           That old ham was a trifle cocksure, 
           With his hickory-smoked paramour, 
                        She cried, “You’re a flasher! 
                        You couldn’t be rasher— 
           What you need is a good sugar-cure.” 

            Then the bacon said, “You’re such a brute, oh! 
            I wish I could send you to Pluto! 
                        I don’t want a vendetta— 
                        What I crave’s a pancetta 
            Or maybe a spicy prosciutto.”    

Friday, October 11, 2013


What do polka dots, you ask, have to do with the lively folk dance known as the polka?  Nothing at all, you might think if you recall the dreamy, un-polka-like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” Frank Sinatra’s first hit recording with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra.  But, as it turns out, there is a connection—tenuous, to be sure—between the dot and the dance.

Large coin-shaped spots first became popular as a pattern on fabric in Germany in the nineteenth century, and they were called Thalertupfen, which means “spots in the shape of the thaler,” a silver coin in wide circulation then.  Around the same time, the dance known as the polka became a fad throughout Europe and America, and it was so popular that many unrelated products were marketed with that name, such as polka gauze, polka jackets, and polka hats. When the dotted pattern became popular in women’s clothing, the name polka was applied to it to enhance its popularity.

Coincidentally, James K. Polk was elected president of the United States in 1844, and his name with an added “a” was jestingly attached to certain products as a marketing tool, in the same way that Theodore Roosevelt later gave rise to a “teddy bear” or Ronald Reagan to “Reaganomics.”

The first known use of polka dot in print was in 1854 in a story in the Yale Literary Magazine that contained this passage: “Maybe she should wear her red chiffon with the white polka-dots. She would see how it looked anyway.  Max would like it because it was bright and summery.” In 1857 the American women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book referred to a “scarf of muslin, for light summer wear, surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots.”

The word polka, referring to the Bohemian peasant dance in 2/4 time, has several possible origins.  The word means “Polish woman” in Polish, but it might also be an alteration of the Czech word pulka, meaning “half,” in allusion to the half-step pattern.  Or it could be a portmanteau word, blending two other Polish dances, the polonaise and the mazurka. However it came to be named, it gained huge popularity in the mid-1830’s in Prague and thereafter throughout the rest of the world.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou won’t dance, don’t ask him.  He will, however, recite nonsensical verses, like the following, at the top of his lungs till the cows come home. 

                  Dancing With the Stars (of Yesteryear) 

            Oscar Homolka 
            Is great in a Polka, 
            And you can’t beat Blanche Yurka 
            When she does the Mazurka. 

            Alla Nazimova 
            Has a smooth Bossa Nova, 
            Likewise Zachary Scott 
            With a graceful Gavotte. 

            You’ll adore Peter Falk 
            In a lithe Lambeth Walk, 
            And Rosalind Russell 
            Performing the Hustle. 

            There’s Basie and Ella 
            In a swell Tarantella, 
            And Madeleine Kahn 
            With a perfect Pavane. 

            See gruff Gabby Hayes 
            Do a brisk Polonaise, 
            And droll Benny Hill 
            In a quirky Quadrille. 

            That Veronica Lake 
            Can sure Shimmy-Shake, 
            And demure Sally Rand 
            Does a grand Sarabande, 

            While that scamp Theda Bara 
            Vamps a hot Habanera, 
            And the great Steve McQueen 
            Will begin the Beguine. 

            But you’ll go quite berserk 
            When you see Billie Burke 
            Really get down and Twerk.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Known for Renown

It's getting tiresome to see how frequently writers who are paid to know how to use words say that someone is “renown”—meaning “famous” for being great at something. 

Renown (rhymes with clown) is not an adjective; it’s a noun meaning “fame, or the state of being acclaimed or highly honored.” Its root is the Middle English renoun, from the Anglo-French renomer, meaning to “report or speak of.” Ultimately it comes from the Latin nominer, “to name.” If you want to use in adjectival form, the word is renowned.

The misusage undoubtedly stems from confusing the –nown in renown with the –nown in known.  Known, which rhymes with own, is the past participle of know, and it can, of course, be used adjectivally.  You can be known for your ability to play Beethoven’s Ninth on a kazoo—or you can be renowned for it.

I don’t want to repeat this lesson, so I hope those of you who have committed this atrocity have paid attention.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not pay attention to anything, and that lackadaisical attitude will someday be either his downfall or his comeuppance.  But not today. 

              When I was walking into town, 
              I met a man of great renown, 
              One eye was blue, and one was brown. 

              The wind came up and soon had grown 
              Quite strong, and as you might have known, 
              His eyes it blew, so both were blown.