Monday, June 29, 2015

Dunce Upon A Time

It is ironic that one of history’s greatest scholars, John Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher and thelogian, is the origin of the word dunce, which means a “slow-witted or stupid person, especially an under-achieving student.” Duns Scotus was probably born between 1266 and 1270, most likely in Duns, Berwick County, Scotland. He became a Franciscan friar, studied at Oxford, and was on the faculty of the prestigious University of Paris by 1304. His contribution to medieval thought is ranked with that of Thomas Aquinas and William of Occam. Scotus died unexpectedly in 1308 in Cologne. 

Scotus was called the “Subtle Doctor” for his nuanced, precisely reasoned views on such abstruse topics as the univocity of being, the formal distinction between the conceptual and the real, and haecceitas, or “thisness,” of each individual entity.  Widely admired in scholarly circles, he drew a large number of devotees who were known as “Dunsemen” or simply “Dunses,” a term that bore no pejorative connotation.

In the sixteenth century, however, Protestant and humanist scholars of the Renassance rejected Scotus’ hair-splitting theology, which was regarded by them as narrow, close-minded, and legalistic. “Dunses” became objects of reproach, and soon the term was applied to all the more conservative philosophers, who were thought of as hopelessly old-fashioined fuddy-duddies clinging to outmoded beliefs. By the 1570s, “dunce” had been expanded to apply to any dullard or slow-learning student. 
The “dunce cap”—the conical headpiece sometimes inscribed with the letter “D” that is sometimes associated with dunces—is also said to be derived from a practice of Duns Scotus. He considered the cone-shaped caps as “funnels” of knowledge into the brain, pointing out that wizards were depicted as wearing them, and he thought that they would enhance scholars’ ability to learn. Eventually, along with the word dunce, the hats became associated with ignorance instead of learning.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a closet full of dunce hats—one for every social occasion. He also puts one on whenever he writes verse.


  Those thinkers Aquinas and Occam and Scotus
  Were smart theologians, who said, “Please don’t quote us.”
  It wasn’t that Scotus and Occam and Aquinas
  Were noted for modesty, meekness, or shyness.
  The truth is Aquinas and Scotus and Occam
  Were terribly fearful the Pope would defrock ‘em.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Trippingly on the Tongue

An article in London’s Independent purported to list the ten most difficult words to pronounce in English, based upon a survey conducted in the social medium Reddit. Some of the listed words obviously are difficult only because of the ignorance of the speaker. If you know the anomalies of the orthography in colonel, choir, otorhinolaryngologist, and Worcestershire, for example, they are no problem to pronounce.

Others, however, are genuinely difficult to say, even for educated speakers. Some of them appear in tough tongue-twisters to prove it. Although only fifth on the Independent’s list, my nominee for the toughest is isthmus. Try saying “Six thick isthmus thistle sticks.” Another toughie is sixth, as in the “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”

Among the other most difficult ones are rural (“A rural juror in a brewery robbery case”) and anemone (“A minimum enema for many an enemy anemone”).

An interesting sidelight is the word squirrel, which gives particular difficulty to German-speakers and was used as a shibboleth to detect them in World War II.  Oddly enough, the German word for squirrel, Eichhörnchen, was used by Germans to detect English-speakers.

Most Americans tend to rhyme squirrel with Pearl, although some favor the British style, which sounds more like Cyril. To reinforce this pronunciation the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has adapted a well-known limerick, which, despite the Bard’s attempt to make it fit for polite consumption, remains a trifle ithyphallic. Sensitive readers are cautioned. 
        There once was a young man named Cyril, 
        Who had an affair with a squirrel, 
                 And it made Cyril smile 
                 For quite a long while-- 
        Just as long as the squirrel was virile.

Monday, June 15, 2015

One, Two, Twee

Recently I've seen the word twee in print several times, describing art works, fashion, movies, and even an individual or two. I don’t recall ever coming across this word prior to about ten years ago, although the Online Etymological Dictionary says it’s been around since 1905. Twee doesn’t even make it into Webster’s New International Second Edition, published in 1949, except as a variation of tweeze.

Twee means “cute, dainty, quaint, precious, mawkish, affected, sentimental, and cloying.” More widely used by Brits than Yanks, it usually is a derogatory term, referring to something that is sweet to the point of being nauseating. You can probably think of things you regard as twee (and they may not be the same things I would categorize in that way). For me, what comes to mind as twee are the use of baby talk especially among adults, or overly affected speech with obsessively precise enunciation, or excessive niceties in one’s manners, such as extending the little finger when drinking a cup of coffee or tea. 

Twee has a specialized use to refer to pop music of a simple, sweet kind—also known as “cuddlecore,” “cutie pop,” and “jangle pop” and performed, or so I understand, by such artistes as Velvet Underground, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Orange Juice, Stone Roses, Dinosaur Jr., The Field Mice, Razor Cuts, Belle and Sebastian, and C86.

Linguists suggest the etymology of twee is from a mispronunciation of sweet in baby talk—but by which baby in what place and under what circumstances they do not say.

Whatever you might say about the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, you probably would not call him twee. Nauseating, to be sure, but not twee.

                        I’m sure that I shall never see
                        A word as sickening as twee.
                        A word whose cloying lips will pucker
                        And plant a kiss upon some sucker
                        Who is sufficiently unwary
                        To welcome twee’s vocabulary,
                        Like tummy, blankie, pee-pee, poo-poo,
                        Din-din, jammies, num-nums, choo-choo—
                        Those words are precious, mawkish, quaint,                                   
                        But on my lips is what they ain’t.
                        Some folks think twee is mighty cute,
                        But I’m not one who gives a hoot.

Monday, June 8, 2015

“I Quit!” and Other Performatives

A grammatical term new to me cropped up in Anu Garg’s email “A-Word-A-Day.” It’s performative, and it refers to a self-actualizing statement—that is an utterance that performs an action merely by saying it.

For example, “I quit” constitutes both one’s intent to terminate one’s position—and the actual termination, which is achieved by making the statement. Other examples of performative statements might be “Thank you,” “You’re fired,” “I hate you,” “I vote no,” “I forbid it,” “I bet five dollars,” “I’m talking now,” “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I surrender,” and “The meeting is now adjourned.”

The Oxford Companion to the English Language also cites a hedged performative, which is a statement like “I really must apologize,” in which the speaker merely expresses an obligation to apologize, but implies that acknowledging the obligation is the same as apologizing.

Some utterances may be interpreted either as performative or non-performative, such as when A asks B, a fellow diner at the table, “Can you reach the salt?” B will probably interpret the question as performative, indicating that A wishes to have the salt passed, and will do so. But in a non-performative sense, B might simply ascertain that the salt is indeed within his reach and reply, “Yes, I can,” without passing it.

The etymology of performative is from the French parfournir (par meaning “through” and fournir meaning “furnish”). Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says the word can be traced only to 1955, but Garg, without specifying, maintains citations can be documented as early as 1922.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is mostly non-performative, preferring to rest upon his withered laurels.

            “Can you reach the salt?” I said,
            Just as the meal began.
            My dinner partner chewed some bread
            And answered, “Yes, I can.”

            “Well, can you pass it, then?” I cried,
            While eyeing my ragout.
            My dinner partner then replied,
            “Yes, I can do that, too.”

            “Would you pass the salt?” I barked,
             Intent upon my mission,
            “I would,” he pleasantly remarked,
            “But under what condition?”

            “Just pass the goddam salt!” I screamed,
            “Or I’ll push you in the queso!”
            “Oh, you want the salt?” he beamed,
            “Well, why did you not say so?”

Monday, June 1, 2015

To Bee or Not To Bee

Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were declared co-winners of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. The final ten contestants also included Dev Jaiswal, Siddharth Krishnakumar, Tejas Muthusamy, Siyona Mishra, and Snehaa Ganesh Kumar.

The last eight winners of the Bee were Sameer Mishra, Kavya Shivashankar, Anamika Veeranmani, Sukanya Roy, Snigdha Nandipati, Arvind Mahankali, Sriram J. Hathwar, and Ansun Sujoe.

The dominance of spellers of South Asian ancestry, primarily Indian, has been a phenomenon of the Bee since about 2000. A recent article by the LearnThat Foundation suggests these reasons for the superior performance by students of Indian ethnicity:

1. Indian culture values education and regards memorization as a building-block towards higher knowledge.

2. South Asians maintain closely knit family and community groups, which value academic achievement.

3. There are some preliminary spelling contests specifically for Indian-Americans that encourage participation in the national bee.

Another possible explanation is that anyone who learns a second language through study will have a better command of spelling and grammar than native speakers.

The winning words this year were Scherenschnitte and nunatak. Other words that contestants negotiated were rollmops, arcology, apivorous, gibus, naranjilla, cimex, rechauffe, colcha, railleur, and syrette. 

When I was the runner-up in the 1950 National Spelling Bee, I lost on the word haruspex. The co-winners that year were Diana Reynard of Cleveland, Ohio, and Colquitt Dean of Atlanta.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a pretty fair speller himself. He can even spell the names of some of this year’s contestants. 

            Participial Bugs I Have Known
            A praying mantis of my ken, 
            Whose name was Myrtle Morrison, 
            Always said, “Amen, amen” 
            At the end of every orison. 

            A kissing bug has lots of fun 
            And thinks it’s really neato 
            To buzz the gals, then kiss and run, 
            Ahead of the mosquito. 

            A jumping bean contains a moth 
            That someone did deposit. 
            The moth would much prefer some cloth 
            Inside a darkened closet.

            A tiny spelling bee won’t lose 
            A word game to his betters, 
            Because he knows his P’s and Q’s, 
            And all the other letters.