Thursday, June 19, 2014

Take A Letter

Years ago I used to oversee a competition for readers of Performing Arts Magazine.  Each month was a different contest—such as composing a clerihew or providing the last line of a limerick—always dealing with the arts.  One such competition asked readers to alter one letter in the title of a familiar opera, play, or musical to yield a new meaning and then provide a brief synopsis.  Although this was more than a quarter of a century ago, some of the winning answers are worth repeating even now.

The top prize-winner was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Frying—Japanese sushi millionaire conquers American fast-food market with semi-raw chicken.

Others that struck the judges’ fancy were:

Seven Bribes for Seven Brothers—Scandal rocks the Osmond clan.

Desire Under the Elks—Passion in a flat located beneath a men’s lodge.

Doc Giovanni—M*A*S*H’s Trapper John relocates from Korea to Italy.

Heath of A Salesman—Poignant drama of the bitter turf wars fought by Scottish commercial travelers.

Children of a Lesser Cod—Two poor fish grow up near Squid Row.

An American in Parts—Gruesome discovery in the left-luggage departments of several European railway stations.

Porgy and Bass—The management of Catfish Row decides to diversify. 

The Subject Was Noses—A day in the life of a plastic surgeon.

No prize will be awarded for any additional submissions by readers of this blog—but they are welcome, anyway!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is certainly no prize.  But you have to admire (or deplore) his persistence.

            A contest was offering a prize
            Of quite a considerable size,
                        An amount that exceeds
                        Ten years of my needs—
            So I entered with several replies.

            It was a most fierce competition,
            And to win it was my great ambition—
                        But my entries were nixed,
                        For the contest was fixed
            (Which always had been my suspicion.)

            I vowed I’d compete one more time,
            And this time my plan was sublime:
                        I paid off the judge—
                        But he still wouldn’t budge,
            And bribery, I learned, is a crime.

            So they charged me with misdeeds aplenty,
            Now I’m serving from ten years to twenty
                         In a fine calaboose,
                        And until I’m turned loose,
            I’ll just bask in my dolce far niente.

Please note that the Bard has given notice that he will be away for a few days on one of his sporadic tasting tours of the Gin Country.  That being the case, I shall take this opportunity to get a little rest as well.  A day away from the Bard is like a month in the country (as someone once said of Tallulah Bankhead). In the meantime, talk among yourselves.

Monday, June 16, 2014

By Any Other Name

Pen names have been used by hundreds of writers for dozens of reasons. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was shy, so he Latinized his first two names, then re-Anglicized and transposed them to become Lewis Carroll.  François-Marie d’Arouet wanted a clean break from his family, so he made an anagram of his surname and added two letters indicating “the younger,” thus creating Voltaire.  (He later used hundreds of other noms de plume).  Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was fleeing creditors after a stay in debtors’ prison, so he adopted the name of a village in southern France and was suddenly Molière. 

The Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily thought they’d do better as novelists if readers believed they were men, so they issued their works, respectively, as Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell.  (Brontë itself was an invention of their Irish father, who thought it more elegant than his real name, Brunty.)  Benjamin Franklin was trying to be funny when he called himself Silence Dogood, and Erle Stanley Gardner didn’t want readers to tire of his prolific mystery novels, so he signed some of them A. A. Fair.

How William Sydney Porter came to be known as O. Henry can be explained (or not) by several theories—one of them possibly accurate.  Porter used the name O. Henry—a “pen name” in more than one sense—on a story written while he was serving a federal prison term in Ohio for embezzling from an Austin bank.  The reasons for a convict to use a nom de plume seem obvious.  But where did the name come from?

William Trevor, in the The World of O. Henry writes that when Porter was in prison there was a guard captain named Orrin Henry, who typically signed himself as “O. Henry,” and Porter borrowed the name.

Another scholar, Guy Davenport, prefers to explain that “O. Henry” is a cryptic construction from the first two letters of Ohio and the second two and last two of penitentiary.

Adrian Room in A Dictionary of Pseudonyms points out that Porter was a pharmacy worker in prison and used a pharmacopoeia called U. S. Dispensatory, in which a French pharmacist named Étienne-Ossian Henry is mentioned.  It is suggested that’s where the name came from.

Another tale is that an Austin family with whom Porter stayed had a cat named Henry the Proud and he was regularly called with the phrase “Henry, oh, Henry!”  (This version begins to encroach on the candy bar of that name.)

If his own version can be believed, Porter gave this account to an interviewer from The New York Times:

It was during the New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: "I'm going to send out some stuff. I don't know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one." He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. "Here we have our notables," said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, "That'll do for a last name," said I. "Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me." "Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?" asked my friend. "Good," said I, "O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is." A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, "O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver." And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, it should be noted in the interest of full disclosure, is a pen name.  In real life, he is The Slob of Sleazy Swamp. 

            Shakespeare took a walk in the Forest of Arden,
            And encountered Voltaire, who said, “Beg your   
            But I happened to notice this very long weed,
            And I’ll mention to you, as I counseled Candide,
            You should spend some more time cultivating your 

            “Fie!” replied Shakespeare, “I’m onto your game,
            You won’t find me gardening—if that is your aim.
            All about nothing you’ve caused much ado,
            For that is no weed that in my garden grew—            
            It’s only a rose by some other name.”

Monday, June 9, 2014

Weird Words

There’s a vocabulary test going around on line that in four minutes purports to tell you how well you speak English.  I’ve taken the test a couple of times, once scoring 96%, which is excellent, and another time 73%, which is…well, not so hot. 

The test, however, has one big flaw.  It asks you to indicate whether or not you recognize several words, some of which are non-words created just to fool you. If you say you know those non-words, it counts against your score. The trouble is, some of the so-called non-words turn out to be real words.  I said I recognized some of them and lost points for it. For example, I found balker and cuffer in Webster’s dictionaries, even though the online test claims they were made-up words.

Here are some words you may or may not find in a dictionary.  They’re all purported to be real words—but most of them are obsolete or so uncommon that most dictionaries won’t fool with them.  As with many weird words, a lot of them are Scottish in origin.

Snoutfair: A person with a handsome face

Lunt: Walk while smoking a pipe

Groak:  Silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them

Jirble: Pour out (a liquid) with an unsteady hand

Curglaff: The shock felt when one first plunges into cold water

Spermologer: Gossip monger

Tyromancy: Divining by interpreting the coagulation of cheese

Resistentialism: Seemingly spiteful behavior exhibited by inanimate objects

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a prime example of resistentialism, in that he is almost invariably both spiteful and inanimate.  He also jirbles quite a lot.

            They say that using lots of words
            Will make you seem sophisticated,
            But that advice came straight from nerds
            Who phoned talk shows and bloviated.           

            A case in point: a famous poet,
            Uses lots of words in rhymes,
            But even though he might not know it,
            He repeats some several times.
            Don’t give me more vocabulary,
            Or think that I’m a cognoscente—
            I’ll summon the constabulary;
            The words I know right now are plenty.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Help! Police!

If you find yourself in a foreign country and suddenly have a need for law enforcement, the chances are good that you’ll be understood if you say “Police!”  The similarity in words for the constabulary in languages as diverse as Finnish (poliisi), Azerbaijani (polis), Basque (poliziak), and Swahili (polisi) is remarkable.  In Germany you call the Polizei, in Spanish-speaking countries make that the policía, in Estonia it’s politsei, and when in Rome do as Romans do and ask for polizia. In Bosnia, Lithuania, and Latvia, the cops are the policija, and it Norway it’s the politiet. Even in Russia, once you transliterate the Cyrillic alphabet (полиция), you'll wind up with the politsija. 

And so it goes around the world—except for a few outliers like Hungary, where you would summon the rendőrség (if you knew how), Iceland (lögreglan), Viet Nam (công an), and Wales, where you’d have to shout yr heddlu at the top of your lungs and and hope an officer would respond. 

The word police entered English in the early sixteenth century, from the Middle French police, which stemmed from Latin politia and meant "civil administration."  Its ultimate source was the Greek politeia, meaning "citizenship or civil organization," which derived from polis, meaning "city."  By the eighteen century the French began to use police to mean the "administration of public order."

In 1798 the English formed a unit of officers to protect the port of London, and they called this the Marine Police. This was the only usage of the term to mean a body of law enforcement officers until 1830, when the British established the New Police, a more general organization of crime-fighters. Thereafter other bodies of peace-keepers began organizing as police forces, and the term police was incorporated into various languages worldwide. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou tries to avoid the police whenever possible, and, having once dealt with him, the police try equally hard to avoid the Bard.

            The police had to work overtime
            On the day they arrested a mime.
                        Though the mime remained silent,
                        He became rather vi’lent,
            When accused of unspeakable crime.