Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Right Down to It

In the coming cataclysmic Armageddon—or should I say Presidential election?—it will soon be time to get down to the nitty-gritty. The nitty-gritty is defined as “essential, practical, basic details—often harsh or unpleasant.” And where, you ask, does the phrase originate?

It has been around since the 1930s, but gained great currency in the 1990s after President Bush 41, in a classic malapropism at a country music awards show, referred to the “Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird,” instead of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (In doing so, Mr. Bush rivaled John Travolta’s introduction of Idina Menzel at the Oscar awards as Adele Dazeem.)

Consult a dictionary and you will find that nitty-gritty’s etymology falls back on that favorite explanation: “origin unknown.” The term has etymologists stumped—but not for lack of trying.

It has been alleged that it started as a derogatory allusion to the scant belongings of enslaved Africans carried on British ships in the 18th century, with “nitty” perhaps a euphemism for another n-word.  But there is absolutely no evidence for this theory and the phrase does not appear in print until the 1930s.

The Online Etymological Dictionary suggests it has something to do with “grits,” i.e. finely ground corn, and was a term used by African-American jazz musicians. Other word sleuths point to the “nit” reference to head lice, without much logical justification. Still others, perhaps under the influence of President Bush’s favorite band, think it stems somehow from the qualities of dirt or gravel, and there have been attempts to link the phrase to the kind of stubborn determination known as “true grit” and to the lamebrained person we call a “nitwit.” None of these ideas can be substantiated.

Copyright records from 1937 show a song called “The Nitty Gritty Dance,” by Arthur Harrington Gibbs. The term pops up in Alice Childress’ 1956 novel Like One of the Family and in the phrase “nitty-gritty gator” (“a low-life dude”) in a description of hepcat slang in The Daily Journal of Commerce, Texas, in June of 1956.

But it was not until the 1960s that the term came into general usage, popularized by “The Nitty Gritty,” a song by Lincoln Chase, recorded by Shirley Ellis and later by Gladys Knight and the Pips. In the lyrics of that song,
            Everybody's asking what the nitty gritty,
            The nitty gritty's anything you want it to be,
            Just stir it up from the soul,
            And when it starts to fizz,
            That's what the nitty gritty is.

According to the blogger Azizi Powell, “getting right down to the nitty-gritty” in a dance context means “ to be real in the way that you dance–to put aside fake societal notions of being stiff, or refined, or too controlled in the way you move….to get funky.”

That may be all we ever know about “nitty-gritty”—and all we need to know.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t mind getting down to the nitty, but he prefers to have nothing to do with the gritty.
            There once was an old etymologist
            Who longed to be a philologist,
                        When he failed in that quest,
                        He said, “Still I’m blessed,
            For at least I’m not a proctologist.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Once More Unto the Breech!

Gaze upon these solecisms that have actually appeared in magazines and newspapers—publications that I would have thought employed editors schooled in the rudiments of the English language, but apparently do not:

            “A central tenant of the University’s philosophy…”

            “I would of helped if I could of….”

            “The excitement left me unphased….”

            “Put a cube of beef bullion in two cups of water…”

            “I promised to forego chocolate…”

I used to be a copyeditor for a daily newspaper, and believe me, if I had let one of these atrocities see print, I would have been ridiculed mercilessly, and probably hooted off the copy desk, by my colleagues. That was, of course, more than fifty years ago, when copyeditors were expected to be omniscient (reporters, not so much).

It goes without saying, or at least it should, that the correct words in each case are:

            “tenet” – Latin for “he holds,” from tenēre (“hold”), meaning a principle or doctrine generally held to be true.

            “would have…could have…” –  these are known as “past modal” verbs and are followed by a past participle to indicate action that did not take place but was possible.

            “unfazed” –  from Old English fēsian (“drive away”), meaning “disconcert, daunt.”

            “bouillon” – from French boillir (“boil”), meaning a “clear seasoned soup.” Bullion, meaning “gold or silver melted into bars,” is thought to be a conflation of Middle French bille (“ingot”) and Anglo-French buillon (“cauldron”).

            “forgo” –  from Middle English forgān (“pass by”), meaning “do without.” Although forgo should not be confused with forego, meaning “come before,” some dictionaries now throw up their lexical hands in frustration and say, “Go ahead and use the words interchangeably if you like.” Tch, tch.

            There once was a very sad gent
            In the cold, gray light of the dawn:
            His trouble was that he forewent
            When he clearly should have forgone.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Who’s A Bigot?

One of the customers has been investigating the origin of the word bigot. I suspect that his interest was piqued by the recent rise to prominence of certain politicians (their names will not appear in this apolitical blog, but you know who they are) whose pronouncements might lead one to believe the word applied to them. 

The primary meaning of bigot, from the 16th century, was “religious hypocrite,” but by the 17th century it had taken on the meaning of “a person obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a religious creed or opinion.” Abraham Cowley used the word in his 1661 Discourse Concerning Oliver Cromwell, in which he wrote, “He was rather a well-meaning and deluding Bigot, than a crafty and malicious Impostor.” Today the word has the added connotation of “intolerant.”

Where the word originally came from has provoked vigorous disagreement among scholars, with the result that nobody can really say. The best explanation that most dictionaries offer for its etymology is: “from French bigot (12th century), of unknown origin.”

The earliest French use of the word is in the 12th-century Romance of Girard de Roussillon, in which it is used to refer to the people living south of Gaul. From this instance, it has been inferred that bigot is a corruption of Visigoth. Since the Franks were Catholic and the Visigoths were Arian, the term might therefore have taken on the meaning of “foreign heretic.” But phoneticists claim there is no connection between bigot and Visigoth (although there is apparently a Middle Latin word Bigothi, in reference to Visigoths.)

Bigot later became a French derogatory term for the Normans, and one story is that it originated in the refusal of Rollo, the Viking ruler of Normandy, to refuse to kiss the foot of the 10th-century Carolingian King Charles the Simple, by defiantly shouting “Ne se, bi go”—a supposedly Germanic way of saying “No, by God!” Normans were allegedly fond of uttering “bi go” as a common oath. Bigott shows up as a Norman surname as early as the 11th century.

Try as they might, etymologists have not been able to establish a connection between bigot and the Spanish bigote, which means “mustache.” The chief virtue of the theory, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, is that “there is no evidence for or against it.”

Others think the early use of bigot to mean “religious hypocrite” sprang from the Beguines, a 12th-century community of women ascetics in The Netherlands, who took their name from Lambert le Bègue ("Lambert the Stammerer”), a priest who was instrumental in their founding. The order later attracted mendicants who sought contributions in the guise of religion—giving rise to the word beggar.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou rejects the notion that he is a bigot. He says that all his benighted opinions, to which he clings immovably, are not only reasonable but self-evident.
            I’m not a bigot, no I’m not,           
            The word does not apply to me.
            But of my friends, I know a lot—
            All those with whom I disagree.

Monday, May 9, 2016


One hears a lot these days about the evils of “bullying,” especially among teens and pre-teens using online social media. Bullying is often spoken of as if it were some new and unspeakably horrid societal illness that must be stamped out like a forest fire. Many steps have been taken to eliminate it, seemingly without much success, and its presence on on the Internet only intensifies its animus. As much as we may deplore it, we should probably acknowledge that bullying is an inherent human behaviorial trait that we have to live with as a necessary evil.

In my schooldays, there was plenty of bullying among boys of my acquaintance. Those who were so inclined would taunt, make jokes about, and sometimes do (relatively mild) physical violence to male classmates (myself among them on occasion) who wore glasses, did well (or notably badly) in academics, were fat (or skinny), lacked the physical coordination to excel in sports, played a musical instrument, belonged to a religious denomination other than mainline Protestantism, or were perceived to be lacking in testosterone, observant of regulations, submissive to authority, or well-liked by teachers. Although I have no personal knowledge of girls’ behavior, I expect the same was true of them. Most of those who were bullied fretted about it for a while, but then got over it moved on.

Literature is filled with bullies: Creon, who badgered Antigone; Goneril and Regan, who pushed their old dad around; Jane Austen’s Emma, who was snide to Miss Bates; Jack, who bullied everyone in The Lord of the Flies; and the tormentors of Holden Caulfield’s unfortunate classmate James Castle who responds by jumping out a window to his death.

So just what is a bully? Today the word means someone who is cruel to those who are different from and presumably weaker than the bully. But originally, in the 16th century, it was just the opposite—a bully was a “sweetheart,” of either sex. It derived from the Middle Dutch broeder (“brother”) and Middle High German buole (“brother”). Bully is cognate with the modern German Buhle (“lover”). 

Over the centuries, the meaning of bully deteriorated, first meaning a “fine fellow,” then a “blusterer or a braggart” and finally by the late 17th century, “harasser of the weak.” This may have been influenced by the similarity of the word bull (“male bovine”), although its root word is entirely different.  One etymologist theorizes that the connection between “lover” and “ruffian” may have originated from “protector of a prostitute,” which was an early 18th-century meaning of bully.

As a throwback to the earlier, positive sense of the word, “bully” is also an expression that means “admirable, good, superb,” as in the expression “Bully for you!” or “bully pulpit,” a coinage of Theodore Roosevelt’s referring to the presidency as a platform from which to advocate policy.
Not surprisingly, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is often bullied by fellow poets, but usually he is too deep into the Chardonnay to realize it, so their ridicule never fazes him.

            There once was a student who was clever and quick
            At reading and writing and ‘rithmetic.
            One day he was bullied, and he told them to stop,
            Then he told the teacher, and she called a cop.

            The cop hauled the bullies straight down to the jail,
            And the judge threw the book at them, granting no
            The bullies have promised that they’ll mend their 
            When they get of jail in about thirty days.

Monday, May 2, 2016

But Do Chicks Nix Chick Flix?

One of the most famous headlines ever to appear in Variety, the show business newspaper, was STICKS NIX HICK PIX. While the meaning may be obvious to some, to others it is unintelligible slang (which George M. Cohan felt needed an explanation in Yankee Doodle Dandy.) The gist of the story that follows the headline is that audience surveys indicate that movies about rural life are not popular with rural audiences.

Where do the words sticks, nix, hick, and pix originate? 

Sticks is a term for a rural location that dates to 1905 and derives from the term “living in the sticks,” meaning “living among the trees.”

Nix, meaning “refuse, reject, or forbid,” stems from the German word nichts, meaning “nothing.” It was first noted in English in 1789.

A hick is a rural person, usually with the connotation of social awkwardness. Its origin, in the 14th century, was Hikke, a popular pet name for Richard, a name that was associated with hackney drivers. Its use as an adjective, as in hick town, dates only to 1914.

Pix, of course, is a variant of pics, a shortened form of pictures, which refers in this case to “motion pictures.” The word pic has been in use since at least 1884, and as a reference to movies, since 1936. Today it has been largely replaced by flicks or flix, a term used for movies since 1926, derived from flicker, from the uneven projection quality of early films.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has always been sympathetic to the producers of those hick pix, since he feels their pain. Not only hicks, but also city slickers, and everyone in between, have nixed the Bard’s work. Here’s why:

                        When I read Variety,
                        Though filled with great anxiety
                        About the notoriety
                        Provoked by impropriety,
                        Irreverent impiety,
                        And rampant insobriety           
                        Among show-biz society,
                        I never reach satiety!