Monday, August 25, 2014

Sump'n' to Think About

Where did the sump pump get its name? Was it: a) from its inventor, Archibald J. Sump; b) from a nonsense word chosen simply because of the euphony of rhyming with pump;  c) from a corruption of "something," coined by a farmer who wanted to pump "sump'n'" out of a hole but wasn't sure what it was; or d) none of the above.  Awww, I bet you knew it was none of the above.

A sump pump is so named because it removes water from a sump. And what, you may ask, is a sump?  A sump is a pit or reservoir designed to collect unwanted water, as in a subterranean basement.  The word was first used in the 1650s and is derived from Middle English sompe, from which the word swamp also comes.  An earlier cognate is the fifteenth-century Middle Low German sump, whose root is the Proto-Germanic sumpaz, a “marsh or morass.”

A sump pump usually stands in a specially constructed sump pit dug in the lowest part of a basement. As the pit fills with water, the pump automatically turns on and moves the liquid to a spot away from your home—like your neighbor’s back yard.  That solves your problem!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou discovered these lines scrawled on a parchment at the bottom of a sump pit, covered with what you might expect to find there.           

            When you’ve slipped in a slump,
            And the road’s hit a bump,
            And you’re flat on your rump,
            And you look like a frump
            And you feel like a chump,
            And you’re down in the dumps,
            And you’ve taken your lumps,
            And you’re sick with the mumps—            
            Then put pumps in your sumps,
            And you’ll come up with trumps!


Monday, August 18, 2014

Hot Pink

 “I hope you are in the pink,” I recently said to a friend, who replied, “What does in the pink mean?”  Well, of course, it means “in good health,” or, in a broader sense, “excellence of any kind”—but why? 
Some think it refers to the rosy color of the cheeks of a healthy Nordic person. Others suggest it stems from the energetic qualities displayed by fox-hunters, who wear scarlet coats known as "pinks."  Still others believe it to be a corruption of pinnacle, meaning the top or highest point.           
There is no evidence to support any of these theories, and the most likely origin of the phrase is in the popular name of the dianthus, a favorite flower of the sixteenth century.  These flowers were commonly called “pinks”—because of the jagged edges of their petals, which look as if they had been “pinked” by pinking shears.  The origin of the verb pink is probably the Old English pyngan, from Latin pungere, meaning to “prick or pierce.” 
Since many of the dianthus flowers were of a pale rosy hue, the name pink was then applied to that color. 
The word pink became used as a synonym for flower, in the figurative sense of being “in full bloom.”  It meant being perfect in any way. In Shakespeare’s 1590 play Romeo and Juliet Mercutio says, “Nay, I am the very pincke of curtesie.” In his1621 play The Pilgrim John Fletcher wrote, “This is the prettiest pilgrim—The pink of pilgrims.”  And in the 1720 comedy Kensington Gardens John Leigh maintains, “’Tis the Pink of the Mode to marry at first Sight.” In 1845 Charles Dickens used the phrase ironically in a letter describing an Italian town to mean the ultimate in a pejorative sense: “Of all the picturesque abominations in the World, commend me to Fondi. It is the very pink of hideousness and squalid misery.”
By the early twentieth century the shortened phrase, simply in the pink, was being used to describe the height of good health.  By 1910 we find the phrase tickled pink to mean being “amused to the point that one glows with pleasure.”
As a description of someone whose political views are to the left, but not so red as an all-out Communist, pink was first used in the 1920s.  The Wall Street Journal referred to followers of the progressive Senator Robert LaFollette as “visionaries, ne’er-do-wells, and parlor pinks,” and Time Magazine coined the word pinko in 1925.                         
     One other derivative use of pink is in the phrase pinks and greens, referring to the World War II U. S. Army officers’ uniform, in which the jacket was a dark olive green (Olive Drab #51), and the trousers were a light tan color (Drab #54) with a slight reddish hue. 
Incidentally, the word pinkie, referring to the “little finger,” has nothing to do with the color pink.  It is from the Dutch pinkje, meaning “small,” and its use in English dates to 1840.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is sometimes in the pink—but more often in the red or white, dependingon which wine he is  drinking.                              
             If I’m feeling blue,
            Invite me for a drink--
            And if you offer two,
            That’ll put me in the pink.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The “Worsifier”

Ogden Nash was a descendant of Francis Nash, the Revolutionary War general for whom Nashville, Tennessee, is named.  Nonetheless, Nash chose to spend most of his life in Baltimore, where he became America’s undisputed master of light verse. 

Nash, who referred to himself as a “worsifier,” is known for such gems as “If called by a panther / Don’t anther”; and “I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance, Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance”; and the universally known “Candy is dandy / But liquor is quicker.”  My favorite of his verses is a little ditty called “Which the Chicken, and Which the Egg?”:
      He drinks because she scolds, he thinks;
      She thinks she scolds because he drinks;
      And neither will admit what's true,
      That he's a sot and she's a shrew. 
Before devoting himself fulltime to turning out inspired nonsense, he was a Wall Street bond salesman (who sold one bond in two years, to his godmother), a copywriter for the same ad agency that had employed F. Scott Fitzgerald, a book salesman for Doubleday, and a staff writer at The New Yorker—where he lasted only three months.

The poor man shuffled off this mortal coil when he was only 68, and his death was attributed to Crohn’s disease, aggravated by an intestinal infection triggered by a lactobacillus he had acquired from consuming tainted cole slaw.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou believes that had Nash not died before he could think of it, he might have observed:

            The sole flaw
            Of cole slaw:
            A bacillus
            That can kill us.


Monday, August 4, 2014

And Away We Skedaddle!

Irving Berlin was a man of paradoxes.  Born in either Siberia or Belarus (opinions differ), he didn’t set foot in the United States until he was five—but still became a songwriter of iconic Americana. A Jewish agnostic, he nonetheless wrote the songs most closely associated with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, as well as the hymn-like invocation of the deity “God Bless America.”  Speaking only Yiddish until he was seven, he became a lyricist fluent in the nuances of American idioms. 
        Irving Berlin, 1910                                                                                                                           
One song that shows Berlin’s mastery of Americanisms was “I Got-A Go Back to Texas,” written for a 1914 Broadway show called Watch Your Step.   The fact that Berlin had never set eyes on the Lone Star state did not deter him from rhapsodizing about the “western sun blazing by the Rio Grande” or the “cattle grazing on the prairie land.”  In one lyric the singer proclaims, “I’m simply aching to skeedaddle upon a horse without a saddle."                                                                               
Skeedaddle, or skedaddle without the double “e,” as it is more commonly spelled, is an Americanism, first used around 1860 as soldier’s slang in the Civil War.  It means to “retreat hastily or precipitately, in fright” or, in other words, to “run away.”  Whether Berlin understood it in quite this way is doubtful—few of us would be simply aching to flee in panic.
The etymology of skedaddle is thought to be an alteration of the British dialectical scaddle, to “scare or frighten,” which stems from an earlier adjective that meant “wild, timid, or skittish.”  It’s from the Middle English scathel (“harmful, fierce, wild”) and is originally of Scandinavian origin, akin of Old Norse skathi (“harm”).  It is also probably related to the Greek skédasmos, or “scattering.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to skedaddle on numerous occasions and for good reasons that we won’t go into.  He tries to settle his nerves by repeating this mantra over and over:

            Whenever you need to skedaddle,
            Stay calm and straddle your saddle,
                        Don’t addle your poor noggin,
                        Just paddle your toboggan,
            And say to the world, “Fiddle-faddle!”