Monday, December 30, 2013

Nothing But the Tooth

Among the gifts beneath your Christmas tree there may have been (if you were very good or, barring that, very rich) an electronic Bluetooth device.  Bluetooth is the name of a wireless technology for exchanging data over short distances.  Its uses include connecting mobile phones to car stereo systems or to headsets, wireless operation by a computer of a mouse or a printer, and intercom systems. And you thought I didn’t know anything about electronics—ha!

Now what does a tooth that’s colored blue have to do with all this high-tech magic? It turns out that it’s named for the tenth-century Danish king Harald Bluetooth (Blåtand in Old Norse), who united ornery Danish and Norwegian tribes into a single kingdom.  The technology was invented in 1997 by an engineer who was reading a novel about Harald, and he thought “Bluetooth” was a good name for his invention since it united communications protocols into a single standard, just as the old Scandinavian king united warring factions. Sounds like a stretch to me, but OK.  The Bluetooth logo is a rune that includes Harald’s initials.

Why Harald was known by the epithet “Bluetooth” is not clear. People in the 10th century had a bad habit of not writing down explanations.  Blue originally meant “dark,” not necessarily the specific color we associate with the word today, so possibly Harald had a rotten tooth that had turned dark in color.  Others say Harald loved blueberries and ate so many that they stained some of his teeth, or that he was always clad in blue garments, a traditional royal color.  Yet another theory is that “tooth” has nothing to do with oral hardware, but is a corruption of the English word thegn, meaning “chieftain,” and “bluetooth” meant that Harald was a dark-complexioned king.

In any event, Bluetooth should not be confused with “Blu-Ray,” which has no “e,” even though it derives from “blue-violet,” the spectrum of the laser ray used in an optical disc format to record high-definition video.  The “e” was omitted so the term “Blu-Ray” could be trademarked.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou always omits “e’s” when he uses his decrepit old L. C. Smith typewriter, which has a broken “e”-key that he is too indolent to have repaired.  See for yourself in the following “e”-less verse:

            Mary had a tiny lamb,
            Its wool was soft as snow,
            And if Mary should go out,
            That lamb would also go.

            Mary’s lamb to school did stray,
            Against all laws, alas!
            Boys and girls did laugh and play
            To find a lamb in class!  

Monday, December 23, 2013

Yule Never Know

Christmas is just around the corner, as are the Nativity, Noël, and Yule, which are all names for the same holiday. The etymological origins of Christmas, Nativity, and Noël are pretty straightforward—but Yule is another ball of tinsel.

Christmas is from the Old English Cristes mæsse (“Christ’s mass”), the religious service that is celebrated on the birthday of Jesus Christ.  A similar noun formation is seen in Michaelmas, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, celebrated on September 29.  So this is the form to use if you want to keep the Christ in Christmas and the Michael in Michaelmas.

Nativity, meaning “birth,” is from the Latin nativus, from which the Spanish word for Christmas, Navidad, also springs. Noël, the French word for “Christmas,” which English has also adopted, is a variant from the same root, by way of Latin natalis (“birthday”) via Old French nael. This root is also seen in Natale, the common Italian word for “Christmas.”

Which brings us to Yule, and that is not so easily explained.  Now seen in English mostly in the term Yuletide or as the Yule log, the word came directly from the Middle English yoole, in use from around 1450, which in turn came from Old English ġéol or ġéohol sometime before 900.  All these terms refer to the holiday now called Christmas.

Before that the origin of Yule seems to be Old Norse Jól, which referred to a pagan winter festival.  Here the meaning and origin become murky. 

Some say Jól derived from hjól, the Old Norse word for “wheel,” referring to the season when the year’s “wheel” is at its low point, ready to rise again in the spring.  The cycle, or wheel, of life was an important concept for Norse pagans, and the English word jolly, meaning “festive,” also originates with Jól.

Other, no doubt equally learned linguists, say that Jól’s origin is the Norse god Odin, known as jólfaðr (“father of the Yule”). Another theory is that the word stems from Old Norse ýlir, meaning something similar to “magic.”

Yet another linguistic camp points to Julius Caesar, from whose name came the Old English giuli, referring to a two-month winter season corresponding to the Roman December-January, which was a time of major feasts.

The truth is no one really knows the origin of Yule, so all we can hope to do is join the merry Yuletide chorus, after decking the halls with boughs of holly.  Someone ought to deck the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, as well, in order to prevent such travesties as this:

                        As a general rule
                        You should celebrate Yule
                        On the twenty-fifth day of December.
                        But I’m afraid nowadays
                        Merchants find that it pays
                        To begin by the first of November.
                        There’s no doubt in my mind
                        That quite soon we will find
                        Christmas coming sometime in September.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Going Commando

 A recent clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle was “Not cover one’s butt?”  The answer, which I guessed (but just barely), is GO COMMANDO, which means “not wearing underwear.”

The origin of the phrase “go commando”—like so much else in this tempestuous world—is uncertain.  It has been traced to usage on college campuses in the 1970s (an inevitable result of panty raids), and it is inferred that it sprang from the Viet Nam war, where soldiers often went without underwear for comfort and dryness. Another theory of its etymology is that the absence of undergarments leaves certain parts of the body “without support”—like a commando unit in battle.  It’s also speculated that the phrase derives from “going regimental,” a Scottish military term used in World War I to describe the customary practice of omitting underwear beneath a regimental kilt.  And some say that it merely refers to a characteristic of commando forces who are “ready for action” at all times.

A commando in military parlance is a member of a raiding unit used to conduct hit-and-run operations behind enemy lines.  The word derives from Afrikaans and originally meant any military unit under a commander.  During the Boer Wars, from 1880 to 1902, the Boers used commandos as raiding parties against more conventionally arrayed British troops, and the word took on its current meaning.  In 1940 British commandos were organized as shock troops to repel any German invasion of England. 

Command, meaning to “direct in an authoritative manner,” derives from the Latin commendare, which means “to entrust” and hence to “direct those whose charge has been entrusted to one.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou takes a dim view of going commando for reasons that may be discerned in the following scurrilous verses. 

            An aspiring film stud from Orlando 
            Aimed for stardom by going commando. 
                        He thought tight-fitting jeans 
                        Worn in all of his scenes 
            Made him look like a young Marlon Brando. 

            But his friends said he’d best think again, 
            For no giant was he among men, 
                        His hopes were all hollow, 
                        And instead of Apollo, 
            He looked much more like Barbie’s friend Ken.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hello, Godot!

The New York Times recently considered, inconclusively, the vital question of how to pronounce Godot, the absent title character in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot.  Originally written in French and translated into English by the author, the play conveys the bleak, existential angst of two tramps repeatedly awaiting the arrival of a mysterious figure known as Godot, who never appears.

The usual American pronunciation of Godot  is “guh-DOE,” with an accent on the second syllable.  British actors typically say “GOD-oh,” transferring the accent to the first syllable.  The French pronunciation would be “GOD-OH,” with equal accents on each syllable.  (Anyone who pronounces the “t” at the end of the word need not apply.)

The Beckett estate suggested that the playwright himself pronounced the name in the French manner, but no standardized pronunciation is now prescribed.

Who Godot is and what he may represent are the subject of much speculation.  An obvious reading is that Godot is a stand-in for God, and the two tramps are twentieth-century humanity, searching in vain for religious faith.  Some commentators say this interpretation is too obvious and simplistic, and they object to the pronunciation that emphasizes the syllable “God” as being an easy way out.  But wait! This verbal symbolism would apply only to the English version anyway, and would be meaningless in the original French, in which the word for “God” is Dieu.

The current Broadway revival features two knights of the realm, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, who, being loyal Brits, say “GOD-oh.”  They also clown around a lot, winning easy laughs, emphasizing only the comedy and skipping lightly over the tragedy in the tragicomedy.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has his own pronunciation problems, often being unable to remember how to say “Chardonnay.” 

         All that waiting for Godot
         Is too existential,
         My spare time is devoted
         To things more essential,

         Such as surfing on Facebook
         And making new friends,
         While burning my candles
         At both of their ends.

         And someday if Godot
         Does decide to appear,
         Just bring him to my place
         And we’ll have a cold beer.       


Monday, December 2, 2013

All Together Now

The Houston Chronicle recently had a Page One photograph of a flock of birds, which it called a “murmuration.”  Murmuration, usually referring to a group of starlings, is one of the more exotic “nouns of assembly” that are traditionally applied to specific kinds of animals when gathered in large numbers.  Some of the most common are pride of lions, herd of cattle, school of fish, and gaggle of geese. 

These terms originated in the traditions of French and English venery, or hunting of animals, in the 14th and 15th centuries. Using such terms was regarded as fashionable, showing that one was in the know.  The specific terms might spring from observation of an animal’s behavior or from a whimsical play on words based on some perceived characteristic of the animal.   

Most of these terms are now obsolete, but some of the most colorful ones are surely worth preserving.  I’d hate to lose references not only to a murmuration, but also to an exaltation of larks, charm of goldfinches, murder of crows, shrewdness of apes, piteousness of doves, busyness of ferrets, mischief of mice, pandemonium of parrots, unkindness of ravens, skulk of foxes, whoop of gorillas, scurry of squirrels, ambush of tigers, and lamentation of swans.

Incidentally, the word venery is interesting in itself.  From the 14th century, it meant “hunting” or “animals that are hunted,” derived from the Latin venari (“hunt” or “pursue”), from which the word venison also stems.  In the 15th century another unrelated venery, meaning “pursuit of sexual pleasure,” developed from the Latin prefix vener-, which came from Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Try not to confuse the two.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou belongs to a very selective group of versifiers that are known as an abomination of poets.             
            A hunter whose style was imperial 
            Told his wife he’d had exploits venereal.
                        She said, “I’ll teach you to trifle,” 
                        Then she picked up his rifle— 
            And I fear things are now quite funereal.