Monday, October 26, 2015

Just A Lot of Bunk

Listening to the multitudes of Presidential candidates, you can't be blamed if you mutter in response to some of their outrageous statements, “That’s just bunk”—meaning utter, unadulterated, unmitigated nonsense.

Bunk is a shortened form of bunkum, and the origin of that word would probably annoy Col. Edward Buncombe of the Revolutionary Army if he were still around. It came about in 1820, when Felix Walker, the congressman from Buncombe County, North Carolina (named for said Col. Buncombe), was addressing the House of Representatives on the question of whether to admit Missouri to the Union as a free or slave state. As his lengthy speech wore on, and on, his colleagues stopped listening and drifted away, and eventually Walker was speaking to empty benches. But still he droned on. Later he was asked why he had continued to talk when no one was listening.  “Oh,” he said, “I’m speaking to Buncombe.” 

In its first known printed appearance, in 1828 in Niles’ Weekly Register, the word appeared as bunkum. The Wilimington Commercial in 1849 applied the term specifically to the utterances of "politicians who go for re-election merely."

By the 1830s the word was shortened to bunk, and used in a general way for bombastic political speeches or any senseless talk. The term debunk originated in the 1923 novel Bunk by  William Woodward,  to mean to "take the bunk out of things." H. L. Mencken called his collection of essays on 1920s and 1930s politics A Carnival of Buncombe. 

The word hokum, which entered the language around 1900, meaning “nonsense with the intent to deceive,” is a portmanteau word, derived from combining hocus-pocus with bunkum. 

Bunkum has nothing to with the “bunco squad” that Sergeant Joe Friday was often assigned to on the old radio-TV show Dragnet. Referring to a police unit specializing in apprehending con artists, it derives from a confidence game called bunco, similar to three-card monte, which in turn came from a Spanish card game called banca (“bank”).

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is sometimes also known as the Bard of Bunkum, as you will shortly see: 

            Officer Franco, whose assignment was bunco,   
            Took a wee drinko--in fact, he had cinco. 
            Under a ginkgo, his face turned quite blanco, 
            And he yelled, “I’m no pinko, it’s just that I’m stinko.”


Monday, October 19, 2015

Stuff and Nonsense

If you’re watching the baseball playoffs, you may hear the commentators discuss a pitcher’s stuff. “He’s got great stuff…nasty, off-speed stuff…mediocre stuff…tremendous stuff…plus stuff,” and so on. What exactly is “stuff”?

John Branch attempted to define it in a recent New York Times article, which concluded that stuff is an “inelegant word of ill-defined mush.” Like pornography, you know it when you see it, but you can’t really say what it is.

The etymological origin of stuff is Anglo-French estuffes, meaning “goods,” which derives from the French estuffer, meaning to “fill in with rubble, to furnish, or to equip.”   

In English stuff is a versatile word, with many varied meanings. Its fundamental definition is “materials, supplies, gear, unspecified substance." It can also mean "special knowledge,” as in "She knows her stuff"--the particular usage that is undoubtedly the source of the word's entry into baseball.          

Various explanations of stuff, as applied to a pitcher, have been suggested. Merriam-Webster says it means “spin imparted to a thrown or hit ball to make it change course, the liveliness of a pitch.” Others say it means “velocity” or “power.” One all-encompassing definition is “the ability to throw a pitch in the strike zone that will overpower or dominate a hitter.”

Stuff has been a baseball term since at least 1896, when an article in the New York Times said, “It is thought that he has some genuine baseball stuff in him, though it is in an immature state…” The next documented use of the word came in 1911, when Pittsburgh Pirates manager manager Jack Miller said of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, “He not only has better control, but he has more stuff—better speed and a better curve ball.”

Whatever stuff is, when it comes to hopes for a World Series championship, the starting pitchers might boast, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is very familiar with the term, since every time he starts to recite one of his verses, his fans shout, “Stuff it!”

                        Little Miss Muffet
                        Told her broker to stuff it
                        When she looked at her 401(k).
                        She won’t have to rough it
                        Since her pal Warren Buffet
                        Sold her on Berkshire Hathaway 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Is the Proof in the Pudding?

The other day I heard someone say, “The proof is in the pudding.” I think what was meant was something like “we’ll have to wait and see how things turn out.” I learned the phrase as The proof of the pudding is in the eating, meaning “the quality of anything can be tested only by putting it to its intended use.”

A similar saying dates back at least to the 14th century, when a poem called King Alisaunder contained the line “It is ywrite that euery thing Hym self sheweth in the tastyng.” In 1605 it showed up pretty much in its present form in William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine as “All the proof of a pudding is in the eating.”

The shorter form—the proof is in the pudding, which doesn't really mean much of anything—dates from the 1920s, the jazz age when everything was shorter.

The pudding in question was not a sweet dessert but more likely a savory meat concoction, like a sausage, which before the age of refrigeration might very well require some taste-testing before it was heartily consumed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a medieval pudding as the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled. If not “proved,” that is tested, before eating, such a dish might well produce severe gastric consequences.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou often suffers severe gastric consequences, but not so much from questionable sausage as from the highly dubious cheap Chardonnay that he favors in absurdly large quantities. The following no doubt was conceived during such an attack:

            An attractive young lady from Groton
            Ate some pudding that tasted quite rotten.
                        It made her turn green
                        And do something obscene—
            (And the last line I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Bull Session

With the death of New York Yankee legend Yogi Berra, the world lost one of its great aphorists. Although Yogi’s background is as Italian as Giuseppe’s pig, his quotable comments are a kind of oxymoron known as “Irish bulls.” An Irish bull is a self-contradictory or logically absurd statement, ostensibly uttered unwittingly by the speaker.  

The origin of the phrase is obscure. Bull in this sense may be related to Old French boul, meaning “fraud, deceit, or trickery”; Icelandic bull, meaning “nonsense”; or Old English bull, meaning “falsehood.” The term bull has been applied to paradoxical statements since the seventeenth century.

The addition of Irish is a nineeenth-century development, stemming from the Irish love of colorful figures of speech, their volubility, their generally poetic usage of the English language, and their supposed lack of logical reasoning. As a comic device, the Irish bull is also much used by Jewish comedians.

The “Father of the Irish Bull” is a sobriquet often applied to eighteenth-century politician Sir Boyle Roche, who once asked, “Why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?" Roche is ofen thought to have been the model for Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals.

Some notable Irish bulls are:

“He’ll regret it till his dying day, if he lives that long.” (“Red 
      Will” Danaher in The Quiet Man)
 “If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man 
     alive.” (Samuel Goldwyn)
 “I’m overpaying him, but he’s worth it.” (Goldwyn)
 “May you never live to see your wife a widow.” (Irish toast)
 “If you fall and break your legs, don’t come running to me.” 
     (Irish saying)
 “Here lies the body of John Mound / Lost at sea and never 
     found” (Irish epitaph)

Some of Yogi’s most memorable words of such wisdom are:

 "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded!"
 "It's deja vu all over again!"
 "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
 "I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4."
 "It gets late early out there."
 "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."
 “Half the lies they tell me aren’t true.”
 "Always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise they won't
     go to yours."
 "You can observe a lot just by watching."
 "It ain't over 'till it's over."
 "I really didn't say everything I said."
 "Prediction is hard, especially about the future."
 “Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”
 “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”
 “You gotta be careful when you don’t know where you’re 
      going, or you might not get there.”

Born Lawrence Peter Berra, the son of Italian immigrants, Yogi got his nickname while growing up in St. Louis, either from future teammate Jack McGuire or from his childhood friend Bobby Hoffman. In either case it was because his posture and demeanor reminded his friends of a Hindu yogi. The cartoon character Yogi Bear is named for Berra.

Everyone I know hopes the Bard of Buffalo Bayou will come to their funerals, because they can’t wait to go to his. The reason will be obvious if you have endured any of his work:

            There once was a lusty young bull,
            Whose love life was varied and full.
                        When he’d done with the cow,
                        And the mare and the sow,
            With ewe he’d start gathering wool.