Monday, December 26, 2016

"It Was A Dark and Stormy Night"

I have been remiss in the past few years in my reportage of the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This is an annual competition sponsored by San Jose State University’s English Department to honor bad opening sentences of imaginary novels. It was inspired by the legendary bad opening sentence of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford:  

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

As the department's website reports, in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner is awarded a pittance--which some reports indicate might be as much as $150.

To make up for lost time, here are the winners of the past three years’ competitions, beginning with 2016:

“Even from the hall, the overpowering stench told me the dingy caramel glow in his office would be from a ten-thousand-cigarette layer of nicotine baked on a naked bulb hanging from a frayed wire in the center of a likely cracked and water-stained ceiling, but I was broke, he was cheap, and I had to find her.”
                                                            —William "Barry" Brockett, Tallahassee, FL

“Seeing how the victim's body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer ‘Dirk’ Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase ‘sandwiched’ to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.”
                                                            —Joel Phillips, West Trenton, NJ

“When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.”
                                                            — Betsy Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA

That old Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no trouble in writing bad opening lines for his verse, not to mention all that lines that follow:

            A fellow they called Bulwer-Lytton
            Wrote the worst books that ever were written,
                 But he said, “What the hell,
                 As long as they sell,
            I’ll be top of the heap here in Britain.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Mondegreens

In case you were not paying close attention when I blogged about Christmas mondegreens seven years ago, I reiterate for your benefit that a mondegreen is a mis-hearing of a poem or song lyric, ideally one precipitating gales of uncontrollable laughter. The word mondegreen was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright in an essay titled “The Death of Lady Mondegreen” in Harper’s Magazine.  Wright recounted that as a child she used to hear a Scottish ballad that went (she thought):

      Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
      O, where hae ye been?
      They hae slain the Earl o’ Murray
      And Lady Mondegreen.

What they had done, of course, was to have slain the Earl and laid him on the green.  

Mondegreens are still with us, and Christmas seems to encourage them. A fellow named Gavin Edwards has even written a whole book called Deck the Halls With Buddy Holly, in which he's collected a bunch of them. The most famous Christmas mondegreen is probably “Round John Version” in “Silent Night,” but there are plenty of others, all of which purport to be actual misapprehensions by some befuddled listener. You may have heard of Rudolph’s companion, “Olive, the other reindeer,” or perhaps you have sung joyfully, “Noël, Noël, Barney’s the King of Israel.” Others have proclaimed “Get dressed, ye married gentlemen, let nothing through this May.”

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” so the song says, and some people believe “they’re going to build a toilet town all around the Christmas tree.”  Probably the same people revel in a “Winter Wonderland” because “in the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is sparse and brown” and “later on we’ll perspire as we drink by the fire.”

The champion, however, is the poor benighted soul who conjured up the painful image in “The Christmas Song” of “Jeff’s nuts roasting on an open fire.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a little trouble these days hearing song lyrics (and other things, as well), but he managed to come up with this seasonal ditty; then, giving a nod, up the escalator he rose.

      It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
      And I feel in very fine fettle.
      But the Salvation Army
      Sent its band to alarm me
      By playing a carol in front of my kettle.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     And it’s fun to be St. Nicholas,
     But I find it bewilderin’        
     That some little children
     Like to pull on our beards and pinch us and tickle us.

     It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
     In fact, I think Christmas is here.
     I’ll just pick up my check
     And then hope like heck
     That I won’t have to put on a red suit next year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

New York Times, Heel Thyself

If The New York Times is “failing,” as one prominent Twitter tweeter likes to say, it may be because its usage of the English language is becoming lax. I have blogged before—in July of 2013, to be precise—about the misuse of “well-healed” to mean “wealthy or well-off.” The correct term is “well-heeled.”   

Apparently The Times was not paying attention back then, because in today’s edition there is a reference to a “well-healed” hedge fund manager.  Now unless he was badly injured--savagely beaten, perhaps, by one of his clients--and is now on the mend, the meaning was probably that the hedge fund manager, like most hedge fund managers, had socked away a good bit of dough.

I suppose I’ll have to go over once more what I so painstakingly explained three-and-a-half years ago. Now listen up, New York Times!

Well-heeled, meaning “wealthy,” first appeared in print  in an 1897 novel called Bound In Shallows, by Eva Wilder Brodhead, in which a character says, “I ain’t so well-heeled right now.” In context, this clearly means “impecunious.” The etymology of the phrase is thought to derive from the fact that good quality shoes are a prime indication of one’s prosperity, and the heel of a shoe is the first place that shows wear.  The opposite of “well-heeled” is “down at heels.” 

Well-heeled has at least two other meanings which precede this one.  One is “provided with a weapon,” and it was first seen in 1873 in Undeveloped West, in which J. H. Beadle wrote, “To travel long out West a man must be, in the local phrase, ‘well-heeled’.” The context makes it clear that this means having a gun.

This meaning probably stems from the broader definition of well-heeled as “properly equipped,” which was first used in its literal meaning applied to the claws of fighting cocks. An 1866 account in the Dubuqe (Iowa) Daily Herald, reports that some birds "...resembled dung hill chickens thrown into the pit with their natural spurs, to meet and contend with game cocks well heeled. One stoke puts them to flight, squawking as they go; they cannot stand steel." Here, the “heel” is clearly an artificial spur with which cocks were equipped in order to fight. 

Well-heeled should never be confused with round-heeled, a term that dates to the 1920s and describes either an easily defeated prizefighter or a woman who readily bestows sexual favors. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou bestows no favors on anyone, especially those who are foolhardy enough to read his misbegotten screeds. 
            With rue my heart is laden 
            For good-time friends I had, 
            For many a round-heeled maiden 
            And many a lusty lad. 

            Now prim with coy compunction, 
            The maids are filled with malice, 
            And the lads can only function 
            With Viagra or Cialis.