Monday, September 28, 2015

Shenanigans, Anyone?

This Victorian image of a young man on a tricycle, stating that he is on his way to attend the shenanigans, has appeared on Facebook lately. Although I thought it amusing, I wasn’t precisely sure what shenanigans were.

Usually in the plural, shenanigans has two possible meanings. One is not so nice, especially when observed in public officials. It means “trickery, evasion, deviousness, or questionable practices, for underhand purposes.” It’s what a political challenger often accuses the incumbent of being up to.

The other meaning is more fun: “foolery, high-spirited, mischievous behavior.”  That’s what I expect the young man in the photograph has in mind.

The word can be traced to 1855 in California, but its etymological origin is highly uncertain. 

Some think it derives from the Irish Sionnach uighim, which translates literally as “I act the fox” or “I play tricks.” Others favor a Spanish origin in the word chanada, shortened from charanada, “trick or deceit.” There are those who insist on a German etymology, from Schenigelei, which is peddler’s slang for “work  or craft.” And there is at least one linguist who believes the word came from a Chinese expression, which can be transliterated as Shi nan ni gan, meaning “it's hard to catch you.”

Whichever theory you prefer, next time you’re up to shenanigans, just be sure they’re not the malfeasant kind.
So the next time you’re up to shenanigans, just be sure they’re not the malfeasant kind.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s life has been one long shenanigan.  And he shows no signs of reforming:

            Whenever Patrick Flanagan
            Got up to some shenanigan,
                        His friends would inquire,
                        Is he out of the fire,
            And into the frying pan again?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Cross Examination

In a newspaper article about vandalism at a church, there was a photograph that the caption identified as a crucifix. The photo, however, was not a crucifix, but a cross. These words are often used interchangeably in an ecclesiastical context, but they are not the same thing.

A cross, from the Latin crux through Old Norse kross into Old English, is a shape consisting of an upright bar transversed by a horizontal beam. Structures of this sort were used by the Romans for executions, known as crucifixions.

A crucifix, from crux + the Latin figere (“to fasten”), is a word used exclusively to mean a representation of Jesus Christ fastened on a cross. It is almost always a Latin cross, one in which the shorter crossbar is toward the top of the upright. To be a crucifix, the cross shape must include the image of Christ (referred to as the corpus), usually carved in three dimensions.

Both crossses and crucifixes are used as symbols of Christian faith. Crucifixes are most often associated with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and even a few high-church Methodists.  Baptists and other Protestants generally prefer a plain cross, of the old rugged kind. The use of a crucifix, rather than a plain cross, gives particular emphasis to the suffering and death of Christ.

The verses of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou are a cross that must be borne by readers of this blog:

                        A cross-eyed bear named Gladly
                        Could see—but exceedingly badly.
                                    He mistook some guy’s shotgun
                                    For a Krispy Kreme hot bun,           
                        And for Gladly, the story ends sadly.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Up or Out?

The New York Times recently reported an investigation of harsh punishment doled out to students who were “acting out” in class. When I was growing up, unruly children were said to be “acting up.” What’s the difference?

According to Merriam-Webster, act up means “to behave in an unruly, recalcitrant, or capricious manner” or, in the case of mechanical objects, to “function improperly.” The Online Etymological Dictionary says the phrase has been in use in the United States since 1903.

Act out is a much more recent innovation, dating from 1974. Its use originated with psychiatrists, and it means to “behave badly or in a socially unacceptable, often self-defeating, manner as a means of venting painful emotions.” 

So I suppose that everyone who acts out in this sense is acting up, but not everyone who acts up is acting out.
Act out, of course, has another meaning that predates its psychological usage, to “portray in action,” as acting out one’s beliefs or acting out a dramatic scene.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known (in his younger days) to find work as an actor in roles that no one else wished to play. When the Bard acts, it is not up, it’s down and out.
            A lustful Shakespearean named Seth
            Made love until quite out of breath.
                        He conquered Ophelia
                        As well as Cordelia,
            But was stymied by Lady Macbeth.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Forgoing Foregoing

Labor Day is a day when many people are able to forgo labor and enjoy the fruits of their other 364 days of toil. Please notice that they “forgo” labor; they do not “forego” it. Increasingly these two words are confused, usually by people wanting to stick an “e” where it doesn’t belong.

Forgo means to “pass up voluntarily, or do without.” Its root is Middle English forgan (“pass by”), from the prefix for- (“so as to involve prohibition, exclusion, or omission”) and gan  (“to go”). It entered the language sometime before the 12th century.

Forego (with the “e") means to “precede, occur prior to” and it stems from the Anglo Saxon foregan and the German vorgehen, which mean the same thing. It, too, has been in use since before the 12th century. Forego is most often used today in its past participle form, as in the phrase “foregone conclusion”—an answer that is decided before the question is asked.

Sad to say, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, now accepts forego as a “variant” of forgo. O tempora!  O mores!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou does not limit the forgoing of labor to one day a year. He hasn’t done a lick of honest work since he took up versifying.

            There was a young man from Taiwan,
            Whose conclusions were always foregone.               
                   His cart, of course,
                   Came before his horse,
            And he got off before he got on.