Monday, April 25, 2016

Being Copacetic

After the recent deluge in South Texas, I wrote to a friend, expressing the hope that everything was “copacetic.” Copacetic (sometimes copasetic or copecetic) is a word that I used in my youth as a kind of joke, never thinking of it as a real word. Not heard as frequently today as it once was, it can be regarded as “semi-archaic” (as can I).   

It turns out copacetic is a real word, meaning “satisfactory,” and it made its first known appearance in print in 1919, in A Man for the Ages, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, in which Irving Bacheller wrote: “‘Now there’s the kind of a man! Stout as a buffalo an’ as to looks I’d call him, as ye might say, real copasetic.’ Mrs. Lukins expressed this opinion solemnly and with a slight cough. Its last word stood for nothing more than an indefinite depth of meaning.”

The origin of the word has etymologists stumped. Some think that Bacheller invented it. Others say it sprang from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s tap-dancing jargon, and thence into the vocabulary of Southern African Americans just after the turn of the 20th century. Whether Robinson invented the word or not, he was its chief popularizer.

Another theory suggests copacetic derives from one of two Hebrew wordsj—  hakol b’seder  (“all is in order”) or kol b’tzedek  (“all with justice”) introduced into the U. S. by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Cajun French speakers also claim to have introduced the word, as a variation of couper esètique, meaning either “final cut,” i.e. the point beyond which nothing can be changed, or “capable of being coped with.” Another French slang term, copain, c’est épatant (“buddy, that’s great!”) is sometimes cited as the source.

Some etymologists theorize copacetic derived from copasenee, a term used by the Chinook of the Pacific Northwest to mean “everything is satisfactory.” And, finally, one highly implausible explanation is that copacetic comes from a gangster expression, “the cop is on the settee,” indicating that the police are not actively patrolling and the coast is clear.

The old Bard of Buffalo Bayou feels copacetic on rare occasions, when unsuspecting strangers offer to buy him a glass of the cheap Chardonnay that he favors.

                        Whenever I’m waxing poetic,
                        I think everything’s copacetic,
                                    But the readers resent
                                    All the efforts I’ve spent
                        And say that my verse is pathetic.

                        Some readers are more energetic,
                        Their critiques are unkind and frenetic,
                                    My lack of pathos
                                    They blame on my bathos,
                        And they find my verses emetic.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Yeo, man!

 To accommodate an influx of female personnel, the United States Navy has been trying, so far without success, to come up with a gender-neutral word to replace “yeoman,” the job title for an enlisted person who performs administrative and clerical work. In the case of most specialist ranks, such as “machineman,” “hospitalman,” or “constructionman,” the “-man” element can simply be replaced by “technician” or “specialist,” which takes away its masculine taint. But “yeoman” does not lend itself to such an easy conversion. Being a “yeo specialist” or “yeo technician” doesn’t make any sense, since nobody really knows what a “yeo” is.

 The word yeoman dates to the 13th century, referring to an “attendant in the household of an aristocrat.” By the 15th century it meant a “farmer with a small land holding” or a “rank of fighting man, below knight and squire.” By the 1660s it had been appropriated by the Royal Navy to mean a “petty officer in charge of supplies.”

Today the term also survives in the Yeomen of the Guard, who are the ceremonial bodyguards of the Queen of England, and in the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace, the guards, also known as "Beefeaters," who are seen at the Tower of London.  

 Speculation abounds on the origin of the word. It may be a contraction of the Old English iunge man, or “young man.”  Others trace it to the Old Engllish geaman, meaning “villager,” derived from gea, “district or region.” Some say it is from a German word meaning “additional,” to describe an extra servant. Or it could be something else that no one has yet discovered.

Theoretically, the word yeowoman could be used to refer to a female holding the position. But Alfred, Lord Tennyson has already explored the awkwardness of such usage in his poem “The Foresters,” in which Robin Hood tells Marian: “Nay, no earl am I. I am English yeoman.” And Marian replies, “then I am yeo-woman. O the clumsy word!”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is certainly not gender-neutral, has done yeoman service all his poetic life. Fat lot of good it has done him.

            A very feminine woman
            Longed to become a yeoman.
                        She said masculine gender
                        Would never offend her,
            For in Rome, she’d do as a Roman.

Monday, April 11, 2016

No Pishing! No Fooling!

Birdwatching is not one of my usual pastimes, but I joined some friends the other day for an expedition to the Houston Audubon Society’s bird sanctuary at High Island on Bolivar Peninsula to take a gander at blue herons, snowy egrets, and roseate spoonbills (but no ganders). At the entrance to the sanctuary is a sign enumerating its rules and regulations, among which is the stern admonition: NO PISHING. 

“Pishing” must be a typographical error, I assumed, either with a “P” mistakenly substituted for an “F,” or with an “H” in place of a second “S.” Either of these I thought would make sense as a reasonable prohibition. A third, but remote, possibility was that an “H” had been omitted after the “P,” and this was a warning not to try to electronically extract personal information from your fellow birdwatchers; that injunction, however, struck me as unlikely in a wildlife thicket.

It turns out that PISHING is not a typographical error, and it means just what it says. To pish is to imitate the sound of a songbird in order to lure it into the open. It is a technique of scientists doing avian surveys and of many birders to attract species that are difficult to find. Pishing is controversial, with some experts maintaining that it unethically disrupts the natural life of the birds, and others claiming it disturbs them no more than silently traipsing through their habitats. The Audubon Society seems to have decided that pishing is harmful, and therefore it is banned.

The etymology of pish is apparently simply an echo of the sound made by the most elementary type of bird luring—the unvoiced repetition of the syllable pish, pish, pish.  This is a sound that is similar to “sshh,” used to quiet someone, and  it will often lure birds to investigate what is going on.

An allied practice known as “squeaking” is noisily kissing the back of one’s hand, which mimics the sound of a bird scolding a predator.

The word pish is also an exclamation of contempt, dating to the 1590s, and is often found in combination forms such as “pish-tosh” or “pish-posh.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks his work is for the ages, but most people think it’s for the birds. 

            I write the poems that make the grown men cry.
            Oh, how I labor over every word!
            My deepest thoughts take wing and soar, they fly!
                 Then one of my readers flips me the bird.

Monday, April 4, 2016

They’re Off!

Next month on May 7 the annual Kentucky Derby will be run in Louisville, Kentucky, and as part of the festivities ladies in pastel dresses and feathered hats and gentlemen in bright plaids or seersucker blazers will be sipping (or maybe gulping, depending on the circumstances) ample quanties of an iced beverage called a Mint Julep. Of course everyone knows that a “derby” is a horse race named in honor of Edward Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby (1752-1834), who founded the English (now Epsom) Derby.  He also got a hat named for him. But what is the origin of a “julep”?

It’s an Old French word of the 14th century, meaning a syrupy liquid in which medicine is delivered, derived from medieval latin julapium, Arabic julab, and Persian gulab, meaning a “sweet drink.” In 1787, Americans latched on to this word to describe a concoction made with Bourbon whiskey, sugar, and fresh mint leaves.  It’s supposed to be served in a silver cup with shaved ice.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou finds mint juleps are a tad too sweet for his taste, and he prefers them without the sugar, or the mint, or the ice, or the silver cup. 

            I’d much rather have a cold mint julep
            Than a lily or a rose or an old Dutch tulip.