Monday, February 27, 2017

Gaby Talk

I have been rereading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which originally appeared in 1885, and which I first read a little while after that, when I was about five. I came across one line from a poem called “Good and Bad Children” that puzzled me then and puzzled me once more seventy-five years later.
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            All grow up as geese and gabies,
            Hated, as their age increases,
            By their nephews and their nieces.
What, I wondered at five, and again at nearly eighty, is a gaby?

It turns out it’s a British dialect word, from the Midlands and the North Country, which means “simpleteon.” Its first appearance in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796.

Its etymology mystifies the etymologists—so what are we poor mortals to make of it?  It’s possible it is related to the Old Norse gapa, which came down to us through Old English, and means “an openmouthed stare of wonder or awe.”  Some experts want to connect it to the Iceland gapi, which means a “rash or reckless person.” But no one has come up with a completely convincing rationale, so we’ll have to leave it hanging.

Many readers would like to leave the Bard of Buffalo Bayou hanging, as retribution for atrocities like this:

            I want no ifs, or buts, or maybes—
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            And folks who tweet in rampant rages
            Should be locked in padded cages,
            Lest their vehemence increases
            And they abruptly go to pieces.

Monday, February 6, 2017

From Scratch

A recent news item opined that some Republicans wishing to scuttle the Affordable Care Act might be planning to "start from scratch." Do you suppose that meant they would begin by putting a band-aid on a minor scratch?  No, probably the writer meant they would "begin anew." But how did this meaning develop?

Scratch is a blend of two Middle English words, scratten and cracchen, both of which meant to “scrape or dig with claws or nails.” From this definitioin the noun scratch was derived, meaning “a slight tear in the skin.”

The phrase start from scratch originated in the sporting world, around the eighteenth century, where the starting point was denoted by “scratching” it into the ground. This might apply to the starting point for a race, the marking of batting and bowling creases in cricket, or the indication of the boxers’ positions in a prizefight. The first recorded instance of scratch being used as a sporting term was in 1778, in “The Hambledon Song,” an ode to cricket by the Rev. R. Cotton, who wrote:
            Your skill all depends upon distance and sight,
            Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.
The first athletes said to “start from scratch” were two runners in a handicap race in Sheffield, England, who were so described in a December, 1853, issue of The Era, a sports newspaper.

Golfing took up the word scratch, to apply it to a golfer who has a zero handicap. (A handicap is a number to be deducted from the actual number of strokes a golfer makes, to derive his final score. The handicap is calculated by one of several complicated systems that evaluate a player's skill relative to other players.)
By extension the phrase starting from scratch came to mean beginning any task under the assumption that no previous measures had been taken aimed at completing the task.

Nowadays you also hear it used for culinary terms, like “scratch biscuits,” that is those made without using a prepared mix.

Oh, about those Republicans trying to fix the health care system by starting from scratch, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, crank that he is, has this to say:

            O, send me somewhere,
            With Obamacare,
            Where the doctors don’t charge any fee,
            Where seldom is heard
            A Republican word,
            And the drugs on prescription are free.

            Please, send me somewhere
            With real news on the air,
            And not weird Breitbartian views,  
            Where Walter Cronkite
            Can be heard every night,
            And there’s not a peep from Fox News.
            Yes, send me somewhere,
            With no orange billionaire
            Surrounded by sycophant hacks,
            Where Bannon and Flynn,
            Conway and her kin
            Are all just alternative facts.