Monday, June 27, 2016

Bad Words

“Word aversion”—the phenomenon of feeling repugnance toward certain words, not necessarily connected to their meaning, was the topic of a recent New York Times article. Studies have been done at Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago to try to determine what causes this reaction. So far the results are inconclusive.

The Times asked its readers to submit words which repulsed them, and the most frequently disgusting word was moist. Despite its positive associations with such things as chocolate cake and fertile soil, moist also apparently makes people think of bodily fluids. Similar connections with sexual, excretory, or other bodily functions no doubt account for the loathing of such words as groin, crotch, belly, flesh, flabby, tummy, turd, pimple, plaque, pustule, piehole, fart, flatulence, discharge, panties, douche, brassiere, and bosom.

Less easy to explain is the aversion reported by readers to gulp, gargle, grunt, groan, and gasp. The infantile silliness of such words as hubby, tummy, and yummy provides a rationale for their unpopularity.

But I’m stumped when I try to think of what might cause aversion to husband, fiduciary, crucial, whoosh, unguent, orchards, pulchritude, charcuterie, lugubrious, placate, cornucopia, fudge, squab, meal, and velvet, all of which received multiple thumbs-down from Times readers.

Readers of the verses of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou have reported aversions to every word he uses, including “and” and “the.” 

            A most fastidious Persian
            Suffered extreme word aversion,
                        His vocabulary
                        Offered up nary
            A word that escaped his aspersion.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


In a recent op-ed article Garrison Keillor wrote that one of the Presidential candidates (feel free to guess which one) is: “…the class hood, the bully and braggart, the guy revving his pink Chevy to make the pipes rumble…the C-minus guy who sat behind you in history and poked you with his pencil and smirked when you asked him to stop…the first punk candidate to get this close to the White House.”

I do not recall when we have had a prominent politician who might credibly be called a “punk.”  What does that mean?

The most prevalent current definition of punk is “worthless person.” But it has many other applications, from rock music to clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, jewelry, and body modifications. The word has a long and sordid etymological history.
In its first incarnation, in the late sixteenth century, a punk was a female prostitute. Shakespeare uses the word in three of his plays, including Measure for Measure, in which Duke
Vincentio asks Mariana if she is a maid, a wife, or a widow, and she says no to all three. Lucio intervenes: "She may be a punk, for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife." Also in All's Well That Ends Well, the Clown tells the Countess of Roussillon that his answer to one of her questions is "As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney, as fit as your French crown for your taffety punk." ("French crown" refers not only to the King of France and his bald pate, but also to a symptom of syphilis.) 

The word panjandrums don’t know the origin of this meaning of punk, but other definitions soon derived from it: “nonsense, foolishness,” “young, inexperienced person, novice,” “obnoxious child,” “petty gangster, hoodlum, ruffian,” “young homosexual partner, especially among hoboes or in prison.”  By the 1920s punk was generally established as meaning “good-for-nothing.”
(From an entirely different etymological stream, beginning with Delaware Algonquian ponk, meaning “dust, powder, ashes,” came the definition of punk  as “rotten wood used for tinder.”)

So if you haven’t guessed which candidate the word punk was applied to, here’s a hint: it is the candidate who, in Keillor’s words, is “obsessed with marble walls and gold-plated doorknobs, who has the sensibility of a giant sea tortoise.”

And no, he’s not referring to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. He has the sensibility of laughing hyena—and the eloquence of an earthworm.

When Jefferson and Adams sparred,
The insults flew with no holds barred.
To help their Presidential aims,
They called each other awful names,

“Coward, hypocrite, and libertine,
Weakling, fool”—oh, they were mean!
“Criminal, tyrant, atheist.”
But there is one slur that they missed.

Despite their penchant for hyperbole
And all the potshots they took verbally,
Neither of them would have thunk
A White House hopeful was a punk.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Blighty Is A Bit of All Right

A friend in Mauritius recently wrote to me of his reminiscences of the days when we both lived in Blighty. Blighty, or “dear old Blighty,” as it’s most commonly known, is an affectionate name for England primarily used by expatriates as they long nostalgically for the joys of home. The word originated in Victorian India under the British Raj and became widely used during the Boer War and especially in World War I, when it showed up in poems about homesickness on the battlefield by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

According to most sources, the origin of the word is the Urdu vilāyatī, and a regional variation, bilayati, which apparently meant “courage,” but came to be used as a synonym for “foreign” or “European” and later, specifically, “English.” During World War I, the British War Office published a magazine called Blighty, with material written by men on the front lines. From this came the term “Blighty wound,” which was an injury severe enough to get a man sent home, but not bad enough to be life-threatening. (It was not unknown for such “Blighty wounds” to be self-inflicted.) In the 1950s there was a racy humor magazine called "Blighty."

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou sometimes thinks about his days in dear old Blighty, where fish and chips were only a shilling and a half-pint of bitter could be had (in one of the less fashionable pubs) for eightpence. That was before the Bard had established his reputation as purveyor of execrable verses of questionable taste, such as:

                        There was a young lass from Old Blighty,
                        Who fancied herself Aphrodite.
                                    It set off alarms
                                    When she flaunted her charms
                        By parading around in her nightie.