Monday, September 29, 2014

Master Mind

A critic praised the director’s work in a recent play, calling it “masterful.” Since the primary definition of masterful is “imperious, domineering, bullying,” it might be supposed that the word should have been masterly.  Masterly means “demonstrating a thorough knowledge, a superior skill.”

This distinction between the two words is insisted upon in the Oxford English Dictionary. Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage upholds that view, suggesting the words are often confounded because of the awkwardness of saying masterlily, when the word is used adverbially.  It sounds much better to say the play was “masterfully directed.”

But wait!  Merriam-Webster says this hard-and-fast distinction between the two words is a recent innovation, and that historically masterful and masterly both had two meanings: “domineering, like a master,” but also “skilled and knowledgeable, like a master.” Both –ful and –ly (as well as –ous and ­–ish) are suffixes that can be attached to nouns to form adjectives indicating likeness. Sometimes as with masterful and masterly (or wonderful and wondrous), adjectives with similar meanings develop with different suffixes.

Both masterful and masterly developed by the fifteenth century with the same double meanings. Somewhere along the way masterly lost the primary meaning of “imperious” and came to mean only the second, i.e.  “skilled and knowledgeable.”

According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, an unnamed twentieth-century grammar Nazi decreed that since masterly had lost one of its meanings, it would be only fitting that masterful should also lose one.  Therefore, this pundit concluded, masterful henceforth could mean only “domineering,” not “skillful.”

So go ahead and call the director “masterful” if you like. She may be skillful, but chances are, being a director, she's probably pretty imperious, too.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou qualifies as a master—of cognitive chaos, philosophical incoherence, and verbal dreck.  A case in point:

            A masterly Master of Arts
            Was renowned for the sound of his farts.
                        Each time he was goosed,
                        The effect it produced
            Was greater than the sum of his parts.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Though A Hiccough Is Enough, Plough Through This Trough

                                                                                                                               Gerard Nolst Trenité
One of the customers has forwarded a long verse that points out some of the blatant inconsistencies in English pronunciation.  Called The Chaos, a few of its dozens of stanzas will give you the idea:

            Dearest creature in creation
            Studying English pronunciation,
            I will teach you in my verse
            Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

            Pray, console your loving poet:
            Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
            Just compare heart, hear and heard,
            Dies and diet, lord and word.

            Now I surely will not plague you
            With such words as vague and ague,
            But be careful how you speak,
            Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

            Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
            Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
            This phonetic labyrinth
            Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

            Have you ever yet endeavoured
            To pronounce revered and severed,
            Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
            Peter, petrol and patrol?

This ironic rhyme (which you can read only if you already know the correct pronunciations) is the work of a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité, who was born in 1870 and died in 1946.  The poem first appeared in an appendix to Nolst Trenité’s 1920 textbook for non-English speakers, Drop Your Foreign Accent. A virtuosic linguistic feat, the full work runs some 274 lines and covers 800 of the most notoriously difficult words in English.

Nolst Trenité was educated in The Netherlands and by 1894 was working as a private teacher of English to foreigners in California. He returned to Holland, where he taught school and published several books in English and French.  Under the pseudonym “Charivarius,” he also wrote a column on language for a weekly newspaper called The Green Amsterdammer. “Charivarius” probably derives from the French satirical magazine Le Charivari and the British Punch or the London Charivari. “Charivari,” variously pronounced, means a noisy, festive serenade—rendered as “shivaree” in American slang.

Nolst Trenité recognized the futility of getting every pronunciation right in so illogical a language.  His final stanzas counseled resignation:

            Don't you think so, reader, rather,
            Saying lather, bather, father?
            Finally, which rhymes with enough,
            Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough,  
            Hiccough has the sound of sup...
            My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

The entire poem can be viewed at

That other Bard—he of Buffalo Bayou, whose name must not be spoken—  throws up his hands in awe and wonderment at such a masterly poetic  accomplishment, and from his uncouth southern mouth he spews forth his two-bits’ worth of unstable parables.
            It shakes me up and makes me shivery
            When I hear someone say “Shuh-RIV-ur-ee.”
            Of course, I’m also very wary
            To hear them call it “Shah-ree-VAIR-ee.”           
            And I am genuinely sorry
            When folks pronounce it “Shah-ree-VAHR-ee.”
            All of them sound so absurd,
            Perhaps we’d best retire the word.

Monday, September 15, 2014

How Zat?

Do you speak in a dialect?  Or with an accent?  Is your usage colloquial or vernacular, or do you prefer slang, argot, or jargon?

A number of words relating to non-standard usage of language are similar in meaning and are often used interchangeably.  But each of them means something slightly different. The words include dialect, accent, colloquialism, vulgarism, vernacular, patois, slang, argot, cant, jargon, lingo, and pidgin.  Explaining the differences gets complicated, so I recommend that you pay close attention and avoid texting (and for that matter, sexting) while reading this.

First there’s a dialect, a regional variety of a language, distinguished from other regional varieties by vocabulary, grammar, idiom, and pronunciation—but   together with other dialects constituting a single language.  Sometimes dialect can also refer to the way language is spoken by a specific social class, occupation, or ethnic group. In English there are hundreds of dialects—ranging from Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Midlands, Geordie, and BBC, to Australian, Canadian, and numerous American dialects. The word is from Middle French dialecte, derived from Latin dialectus (“local language or way of speaking”), from Greek dialektos (“talk, conversation”), and ultimately from Greek dia (“across, between”) + legein (“speak”).

Included within a dialect are accents, colloquialisms, and vulgarisms.

An accent is a distinctive way of speaking that is related largely to pronunciation, voice quality (i.e. drawl, brogue, burr, lilt, twang, etc.), and syllabic stress. Its origin is Middle French accenter (“intonation”) and ultimately from Latin cantus (“song”).

Colloquialisms are conversational or informal usages of language, a word stemming from the Latin colloquium (“speaking together”).

Vulgarisms in one sense are words or phrases chiefly used by illiterate persons.  At one time words like zoo, auto, phone, and photo were considered vulgarisms when used in place of the proper zoological garden, automobile, telephone, and photograph. A vulgarism can also mean an obscenity.  The word stems from the Latin vulgus (“common people, multitudes”). 

Related to this word is vulgate, which refers to speech of the common people and is mostly used now in reference to early Latin translations of the Bible, especially that of St. Jerome in 405, so-called because they made the Scriptures accessible to the ordinary people of Rome. 

Closely related to the vulgate is the vernacular, the normal spoken language of a region or country, as opposed to literary, cultured, or foreign languages.  It derives from the Latin vernaculus, meaning “native or indigenous” and originally came from an Etruscan word (verna) that referred to a home-born slave.

Patois is a dialect, other than the standard or literary dialect, used in provincial areas or by uneducated persons.  Sometimes patois can also mean the slang or jargon of a particular group. The French word patois dates back to the thirteenth century and is of uncertain origin, probably from Old French patoier ("handle clumsily”) from pate ("paw").

Slang is a specialized form of dialect peculiar to a particular group.  It is typically composed of unique coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and facetious or extravagant figures of speech.  In 1756 the word was used to refer to the special vocabulary of tramps and thieves and by 1801 applied to the specialized language used in certain professions. The word’s origin is uncertain, probably from the Norwegian slengenamm (“nickname”) and slengja kjeften (literally to “sling the jaw” or “abuse with words”).

Slang is often used as a synonym for both argot and jargon. Argot, from the Middle French word for “a group of beggars,” means an often more or less secret vocabulary and idiom peculiar to a particular occupation or social group. It generally implies that it is unintelligible to persons outside the group. 

Jargon means just about the same thing and was a fourteenth-century word for “unintelligible talk, gibberish,” which stemmed from the Middle English verb jargounen (“chatter”) and the French word jargon (“chattering of birds,” probably of echoic origin). It is now specifically applied to the specialized language of an occupation or professional group, especially law, medicine, and science.

The same is true of cant, derived from Latin cantus (“song”) and originally used to refer to the chanting of monks, then the sing-song of beggars, and finally to the language of the underworld.  It is used specifically to confuse and exclude outsiders.

Lingo is defined as strange or incomprehensible language or foreign language.  Its English usage dates from 1650 and it probably is a corruption of lingua franca, a Latin phrase meaning “language of the Franks” and used to describe a form of communication used in the Middle East consisting of simplified Italian with additions of Spanish, French, Greek, Arabic, and Turkish words. Sometimes also known as bastard Spanish, it got its name from the Arabic custom of calling all Europeans “Franks.”

Finally, pidgin is a specialized lingua franca, a form of simplified speech, derived from the phrase pigeon English, first used in 1859 in China as a means of communication between Chinese and Europeans.  The word pigeon derives from the perceived Chinese pronunciation of “business.”  Today pidgin can refer to any simplified language.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has his own non-standard usage, known only to himself and a small group of fans, largely illiterate.

            When touring through the south of France
            You must acquire the lingo,
            Or you might lose your shirt—and pants—
            With some casino’s bingo.

            On English roads you must be keen
            To speak the native argot,
            It’s petrol and not gasoline
            That makes your hired car go.

            In exotic and remote bazaars,
            If you don't know the jargon,
            You could wind up with nasty scars
            Instead of some great bargain.
            When traveling in the Middle East,
            Be sure to learn the patois,
            Or you might find yourself deceased
            From flouting someone’s fatwa.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Eat Up!

A recent news article referred to a celebrity as a “gourmand.” The story went on to say that the well-known personality, who loved to entertain, had a vast knowledge of French cookery and was a whiz in whipping up a sauce ravigote or a bombe glacée.  It did not suggest that the notable in question was a gluttonous pig who consumed enormous quantities of food.  I concluded, therefore, that the writer intended to say gourmet rather than gourmand.
While the two words both deal with attitudes toward food, they are by no means synonymous—and derive from entirely different roots. Gourmand is defined as “one who is excessively fond of eating and drinking; one who overeats.” Gourmet is “a connoisseur of food and drink, one who has a discerning palate.” 
In modern usage, the two words often overlap, blurring the distinction between them.
Gourmand is from an Irish Celtic word, gioraman, meaning “one who has a good appetite.”  Initially, it was thought of as a complimentary term, indicating a robust and hearty constitution.  The word passed into Middle French as gourmant and took on the meaning of “glutton.”
Gourmet is from the Dutch grom, meaning “young man”—the same word as the English groom.  In fifteenth-century France a groume or groumet was the servant who brought in the wines.  The word later modified into gourmet. Strictly speaking, gourmet applies only to one who is expert in wines, that is a sommelier, but it soon became used for one who was knowledgeable about both wine and food.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s wines are limited to the bottles on the lowest shelves, of which he has not so much a vast knowledge as an insatiable thirst. 
            “May I sing?” asked Miss Eydie Gormé,
            My response to her was, “You shore may!”
                        In her throat a small frog
                        Made her voice velvet fog—
            And she sounded just like Mel Tormé.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Dessert Song

Confusion about the phrase “just deserts” has popped up recently—appearing as “just desserts"—in several news media, including the no-nonsense Business Week. Tch, tch.  As I’m sure you know without my telling you, the phrase has nothing to do with the sweet final course of a meal, which is spelled “dessert” and pronounced duh-ZURT.  But “just deserts” also has no relation to the verb “desert” (also pronounced duh-ZURT) that means “abandon or leave one’s duty,” or to the noun “desert” (pronounced DEZ-urt), meaning “arid wasteland.”
“Just deserts,” meaning “suitable reward or punishment,” had its origin around 1300 in Old French deserte, a noun formed from the verb deservir (“be worthy to have”), ultimately from the Latin deservire (“serve well”).  As Hamlet tells Polonius, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”
The verb “desert”, confusingly spelled and pronounced the same way, is late fourteenth-century, from the twelfth-century Old French word deserter, meaning “leave, forsake, abandon, give up,” derived from the Latin desertare.  “Desert” was first recorded in the sense of going AWOL from military duty about 1640.
 The identically spelled (but differently pronounced) noun “desert” originated in early thirteenth century, from the French desert meaning “wasteland, destruction, ruin,” derived from Late Latin desertum, meaning a “thing that has been abandoned.” By the Middle Ages the word commonly was understood as an “arid, treeless region.”
Finally, “dessert”—which we can have if we clean our plates—is a sixteenth-century word, from the French desservir, meaning “clear the table,” referring to the last course to be served.
The muddled situation is probably not helped by the town in Maine called Mount Desert, which is pronounced by many locals as “duh-ZURT,” in an imprecise approximation of the French name given to the area by explorer Samuel de Champlain, Île des Monts Déserts, “island of the bare mountains.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a sweet tooth and thinks his just deserts are just desserts.
            A sweet and toothsome young Peach Melba
            And a Charlotte Russe
            Competed fiercely for the favors
            Of a Chocolate Mousse.

            They called each other nasty names:
            “You’re overripe,” said Charlotte.
            To which the angry Melba yelled,
            “You spoiled and rotten harlot!”

            Distressed by their belligerence,           
            Which almost broke his heart,
            The Mousse took up with a Tipsy Cake            
            And a juicy Raspberry Tart.