Monday, August 31, 2015

No Extra Charge

Years ago I heard the word lagniappe I (pronounced lan-yap), used to mean “something extra”—a bonus thrown in without extra charge. I assumed it was a French word, and I used it in conversation with a friend who I knew was fluent in French. He had no idea what I was talking about. I immediately turned to my handy Larousse dictionary to confirm my erudition--and to my astonishment lagniappe was not listed!

It turns out that lagniappe isn’t French at all. It’s New Orleans Creole, and it originated as a word to describe something extra given to customers by shopkeepers and street vendors. Bakers, for example, might throw in a thirteenth beignet to make a “baker’s dozen,” or vegetable-sellers would add a free bunch of cilantro or chili peppers to a larger purchase.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain observed of his visit to New Orleans, “We picked up one excellent word -- a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice, limber, expressive, handy word -- 'lagniappe.' They pronounce it lanny-yap. …. It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying — ‘Give me something for lagniappe.’ The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don't know what he gives the governor; support, likely.”

The most probable theory about the origin of lagniappe is that it is a corruption of la ñapa, which in some Spanish dialects means “the gift, something added.” The term can be traced back to the Quechua word yapay (“to increase; to add”). It is an ancient custom in Andean markets to ask for a ñapa when making a purchase.

Never one to hog the spotlight (or to work when he can avoid it), the Bard of Buffalo Bayou this week offers readers a bit of lagniappe­—a limerick by none other than Mark Twain himself!
            A man hired by John Smith and Co.
            Loudly declared he would tho.
            Man that he saw
            Dumping dirt near his store.
            The drivers, therefore, didn’t do.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Rash of Eggcorns

In the past few weeks, I have encountered a rash of eggcorns.  Don’t get excited; they’re not contagious. They are, however, a nuisance, an abomination, or a source of great amusement, depending on your point of view. Eggcorn is the term that describes a misuse of a well-known phrase or idiom, as a result of misunderstanding or mishearing the speaker.

The ones I have recently come across both online and in printed material are:

            Make due without

             I shutter to think

           New leash on life

           Right of passage

           Tow the line

           Pet peas

           Brass tax

           Take a new tact

I presume you know what the correct phrases should be—unless of, course, you have fallen victim to eggcornitis, as well!

The term eggcorn was coined by a linguist at the University of Edinburgh,Geoffrey Pullum, in September of 2003, in response to an article by Mark Liberman, a fellow linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, on the website Language Log. Liberman related the case of a woman who substituted the phrase egg corn for the word acorn, and he lamented that there was no name for this kind of solecism. Pullum suggested using "eggcorn" itself as a label.

The phenomenon is very similar to other kinds of wordplay, including the pun, which is an intentional restatement of a sound for humorous effect; the malapropism, which usually involves the pretentiously mistaken use of one long word for another similar sounding one; and the mondegreen, which is a mishearing of a song lyric.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is an old hand at eggcorns; much of his life has been based upon misunderstandings.

            For all intensive purposes,
            I’m just biting my time,
            Till the day that I pass mustard
            And learn to step on a dime.

            When I was just a whimper-snapper,
            My clothes were handy-down.
            But now I am of lethal age,
            And happy as a clown.            

Monday, August 17, 2015


There is no shortage of words for offensive people—many of them vulgar terms derived from the names of body parts that are not uttered in polite company. One of the seemingly more acceptable words, which has stood the test of time, is jerk.  But its origin may not be as squeaky-clean as we think.

Jerk, defined as a “tedious, ineffectual, or stupid person,” has been around since the 1930s, and most etymologists trace its origin to the phrase “jerkwater town.” Such a town was too small to have a regular railroad station, but since steam engines needed water periodically, these villages served as “water stops,” where trains would remain only long enough to fill up. The water was usually held in a tower with a hanging chain, which the train’s boilerman would “jerk” to start the water flowing. Hence, the towns were known as “jerkwater towns.” Traveling carnival performers began to refer disdainfully to people who lived in these insignificant towns as “jerks.” The term gradually came to have a wider application to anyone deficient in certain desirable qualities. Today you can even find numerous jerks in our largest metropolises. 

Other word sleuths think that jerk may have had its origin in, or at least have been influenced by, jerk-off, which is one of the less imaginative terms for male masturbation. 

The verb jerk, on which these meanings are based, means to "lash, strike as with a whip." It was first used in the 1540s and is probably echoic in origin, suggesting the sound that might be made by hitting certain things. By the nineteenth century jerk was a noun meaning an "involuntary spasmodic movement of limbs or features."

These meanings have nothing to do with the method of preparing food that we find in “jerked chicken” or “beef jerky.” This jerk comes from the Quechua word ch’arqui, which means dried and salted meat.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s products can also be dry and salty, as well as tedious, ineffectual, and stupid.

            A king of Persia named Xerxes
            Plans to confiscate land that the Turks seize.
                        When he looks at a map
                        Drawn up by some sap,
            He snorts, “They’ve got more than that jerk sees.”

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Bazoo Story

One of those websites full of trivia came up with a list of outmoded slang words from the trash bin of popular culture. Among them were such gems as spizzerinctum (1920, “high spirits”), ginchy (1950, “excellent”) and “bazoo,” which these experts said was a 1940 word for “mouth.”

Bazoo goes much further back than that. In 1892 Walt Whitman, in his essay collectioin November Boughs, refers to a Missouri newspaper called the Sedalia Bazoo. It had been established in 1870s. There were also newspapers known as the Bazoo in Elmira, New York, from 1877; in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, from 1888; and in Batesville, Arkansas, as far back as 1862 (although the Arkansas paper was spelled Bazzoo, with two z’s). 

Webster’s New Internationa Dictionary is not brave enough to come up with an etymology for bazoo, but it does provide three possible meanings: a “kazoo,” “loud boastful talk,” and a “person’s mouth.”

Bazoo has other possible meanings, of varying degrees of propriety. Richard A. Spears in his Slang and Euphemism Dictionary offers two more meanings: a “jeer,” synonymous with “raspberry,” and a euphemistic term for female genitalia. Spears also relates bazoo to wazoo, which he says can mean the “mouth” or “any unnamed anatomical area that can be tantalizingly hinted about”—most frequently the lowest portion of the alimentary canal. Another online dictionary insists bazoo refers to a person’s buttocks.

The Urban Dictionary thinks bazoo is a slang term for a substandard motor car that elicits rude comments. Bazoo is also a dance band from Thailand, known for an album called Phee Faa Party. In a children’s book called Ride the Blue Bazoo by Laurie B. Clifford, the bazoo is modified moped.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is known for the copious verses that spew from his bazoo—located at whichever end of his anatomy seems most appropriate.
            The wizened Wazir of Waziristan
            Has wizards up the wazoo,
            Who play bezique in a boozy bazaar           
            To the tune of a Kwanzaa kazoo.
            They’re bizarre and berserk, like a buzzing bazooka,
            Or some Byzantine bozo’s bazoo. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Roll Call

Every four years about this time, I feel it is incumbent on me to write about the origin and meaning of the name of each presidential candidate—just in case such information might prove helpful to you in the voting booth (which I doubt). This year there is a surfeit of names to deal with, thanks mainly to the Republicans, so hold on to your hats!

To avoid any suggestion of partisan bias (and how blue I would be if that happened), we’ll take them alphabetically, first by political party and then by candidate name.

To start with Democrats (D comes before R—remember), Chafee has more than one possible etymology. Some say it came from the village of Chaffcombe in Somerset, England. The name was listed in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book in 1086, so it goes back a long way. Others insist it is of French Norman origin, introduced to England just after the Conquest of 1066, derived from Old French chauf and Latin calvus, meaning “bald.” Variants of this name include Caff, Chaff, Chafe, Chaffe, Chaffey, Chaffee, Cave, La Cave, and Le Chauf. 

Clinton is Old English for a “fenced settlement,” derived from the town of Glympton in Oxfordshire. 

O’Malley is an ancient Irish clan name from the province of Connacht. It derives from the Gaelic O’Maoileoin, dating from before the 10th century, and means “a descendant of a follower of St. John.” The clan was renowed for its prowess on the seas and was once led by a woman sea captain, the famous Grace O’Malley (1530-1600).

The origin of Sanders is the name Alexander, meaning “helper of mankind.” It was common for the firstborn sons of European families in the Middle Ages to be named in honor of Alexander the Great, and the name appears as Alessandro in Italy, Alisandre in France, and Zander in German, as well as Sanders and Saunders in Great Britain. 

Webb is an English and Scottish occupational name, from the Middle English Webbe, referring to a weaver.

That takes care of the Dems.  Now for the G.O.P., or Gop, and the list is long, so better grab a cold sarsaparilla, put your feet up, and relax. 

Bush is Anglo-Saxon and refers to a person who lives by a bush, probably meaning a wine merchant, since the image of a bush adorned the customary sign for a vintner. 

Carson is a name of Scottish origin, probably from a now-forgotten place-name. It is seen in Dumfries records in the 13th century in the form of Acarson and a’Carson. The first record of the name is Sir Robert de Carsan, dated 1276, in the "Records of Holm Cultram", during the reign of King Alexander III of Scotland. 

Christie is a patronymic meaning “son of Christian” or “son of Christopher.”  Since the candidate’s full name is Chris (short for Christopher) Christie, he is “Christopher, son of Christopher.” Christopher means “Christ-bearer,” alluding to the mythical Saint Christopher, who was said to have carried the young Jesus across a river. 

Cruz is of Iberian origin, first known in Castile, Spain, and is the Spanish word for “cross” (as in the cross we have to bear). 

Fiorina comes from the Latin root "Flōs", meaning “flower, blossom” or, figuratively, “innocence, virginity.” It is Italian in origin and related to Florio and Florens (“bloom, flourish, prosper, be overjoyed”). Flōra in Roman mythology was the goddess of flowers, gardens and spring. 

Gilmore is either Irish or Scottish in origin, from the Gaelic Mac Gille Mhoire or Mac Giolla Mhuire, meaning a “son of a servant of the Virgin Mary,” or “servant of St. Mura.”  It might also mean “son of a spirited lad.” 

Graham is an Anglo-Saxon name, later transplanted to Scotland and Ireland, derived from the town of Grantham, Lincolnshire. It means “homestead on the gravel.” 

Huckabee is an English variant form of the surname Huckaby or Huckerby. Its origin could be either from the town of Huckaby in Devonshire or from Uckerby in North Yorkshire. It is derived from the Old English woh, meaning “crooked,” and byge, meaning “river bend.” It is also possibly related to Old Norse origins meaning the “farmstead of Ukyrri.”

[Did I mention this is a long list?] 

Jindal is a gotra (or clan) name in the Agrawal province of India. The Jindal clan is a subgroup of the Baniya, a class of wealthy merchants, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit for trader, and who largely control India’s economy. 

Kasich is a Latin spelling of the original Cyrillic КАСІЧ'. It is of Croatian origin, and my best guess it is that it is derived from the Old Slavic kazac, meaning "to order, command," referring to one whose authority was obeyed. 

Pataki is a Hungarian habitational name for someone from any of several places in Hungary called Patak, or a topographic name for someone who lived near a creek.

[We’re getting there.] 

Paul derives from the Roman family name Paulus, which means "small" or "humble" in Latin. 

Perry has several possible origins. It could be a derivative of the Latin peregrine, meaning “wanderer,” “traveler,” or “stranger.”  It might also originate in the Anglo-Saxon pyrige, or “pear tree,” meaning a person who lived near such a tree. Perry may also have sprung from the Welsh ap Herry, meaning “son of Harry or Henry.” And yet another possibility is the Norman French perrieur, or “quarryman.” You pays your money and you takes your choice. 

Rubio is Spanish for “red,” probably referring to someone who has red hair or a red beard or comes from a state he hopes will be red a year from November. 

[Hang on, there are just two or three more.]

Santorum is from the Latin word sanctus, meaning “saint,” of which sanctorum is the plural genitive, which would mean “of the saints.” Other Italian names like Santoro, Santorini, and Santorello stem from the same root. 

Trump is either an English name, from Devonshhire, referring to someone whose occupation is trumpeter, from Middle English trumpe (“trumpet”), or a German name from Bavaria, referring to a drummer, from Middle High German trumpe, meaning “drum.” 

Walker is an occupational name for a fuller (dresser of cloth), from the Middle English walkere, Old English wealcere, a derivative of wealcan (“to walk, tread”). The name might also refer to an officer whose duty consisted of walking forests, in order to inspect them. The origin may also be Dutch or German as Walker is the modern German for “Fuller.”

Believe it or not, at least 200 others have officially declared their candidacy for President, including a Democrat named President Emperor Caesar and a Republican named Ole Savior, not to mention other party candidates—but no one I know has ever heard of any of them.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is thinking of declaring, but he doesn’t think he fits in any known political party. It’s just as well.
           The candidates warm up their legs

            For the race that’s just begun.           

            They all remind me of fried eggs—

            When you poke them, then they run.