Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“That Sucks! Or Does It?”

“Be lousy” was the clue in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle, and the correct solution was SUCK. Some linguistic purists raised eyebrows at the inclusion of this word in a popular daily puzzle that may be attempted by staid Presbyterian preachers, precocious third-graders, or prim maiden aunts. Its presence in a usually G-rated puzzle struck some critics as jarring—for a journal that regards any words that whiff of impropriety as not fit to print. But is the root of suck, when used to denote something undesirable, a reference to bodily functions best left unmentioned at the breakfast table—or did it originate in something quite innocuous?

The basic meaning of the word suck is to “draw liquid into the mouth through a vacuum created by moving the lips and tongue.” It ultimately comes from Latin sugere, via Old High German, Old English (sūcan), and Middle English (suken). Babies do it with milk, bees with nectar, and vampires with blood. The word is believed to be imitative, a re-creation of of the sound made when sucking. It’s been around in English since at least the ninth century.

British schoolchildren have used the phrase “sucks to you” as a term of contemptuous dismissal since the nineteenth century. The origin of that phrase is thought to stem from “go suck an egg.”

The first usage of suck to mean “be contemptible” or “be undesirable” has been traced by the Online Etymology Dictionary to 1971. There are several theories as to its origin.

One possibility is that it means simply to “suck the joy out of something.” Another is that it comes from the phrase often used by farmers to indicate something inferior: “it sucks hind teat,” referring to the position on the mother’s udder to which the runt of a litter of pigs is usually relegated. Some wordsmiths believe suck originated as a term among jazz musicians to indicate an inferior horn player who sounded as if he was sucking on his instrument rather than blowing.

There is, however, general agreement among etymologists that suck owes its usage as a derogatory term to a sexual connotation. The word was first used to refer to oral sex in 1928. Despite its seeming history, most etymologists also agree that over the years suck has lost its connection to a sex act and today, while it still may be slightly vulgar in polite usage, it is not regarded as obscene.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is almost always regarded as obscene, not only in his execrable verses, but also in his personal habits, of` which the less said the better.

            To read the failing New York Times
            Some think would be the worst of crimes.       
            They scan the paper’s Op-Ed pages
            And find opinions quite outrageous.
            Then, to hold on to their sanity,
            They turn to pseudo-news from Hannity.   

Monday, March 20, 2017

Wi-Fi Revisited

One of the customers recently asked the meaning of the phrase “Wi-Fi.” You see it advertised everywhere—hotels, bars, coffee shops, airports, airplanes—sometimes free and sometimes for a hefty fee.

What Wi-Fi means is the technology enabling electronic devices such as computers and phones to connect to the Internet without wired connections.  It is in fact a set of controls (officially designated “The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 Direct Sequence Standards”) allowing access to certain radio frequencies on which computer communication can be established.

The Wi in Wi-Fi obviously means “wireless.” But what about the Fi? I've covered this before in a blog, but apparently people forget.  Wi-Fi is a trademarked name that was coined around 1999 by Interbrand, a firm of brand consultants. According to the founder of the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi was created as a pun on Hi-Fi, which is short for “High Fidelity,” a phrase used by the audio industry to refer to exceptionally high quality sound reproduction. The Fi in Wi-Fi, then, really doesn’t stand for anything.  It just has a nice ring to it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t stand for anything either. But that’s fine with him, since his readers can’t stand his verses.

                        A high-tech young man uses Wi-Fi,
                        Reads Sci-Fi, and listens to Hi-Fi.
                                    And to prove his modernity,
                                    He joined a fraternity—
                        And now he’s a brother at Pi Fi.

Monday, March 6, 2017

“…As Long As They Spell Your Name Right”

P. T. Barnum is credited with famously saying, “Any kind of publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right.” This aphorism came to mind today when the Houston Chronicle had a front-page spread on a new energy exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which is being overseen by Paul Bernhardt. The Bernhardt in question is actually Paul Bernhard (with no “t”), who happens to be my son. C’est la vie.

As it happens, the original quotation is actually: “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” And Barnum is not the only person who is credited with assuring us that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, George M. Cohan, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, and President Harry S. Truman are among those to whom that quote has been attributed at one time or another.  Maybe they all said it, but which one was first?

In Safire’s Political Dictionary, the late New York Times columnist William Safire gave credit for the saying to “Big Tim” Sullivan. Sullivan was a controversial political figure prominent in New York’s Tammany Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He served briefly in Congress and was responsible for early gun control legislation known as the “Sullivan Act.”

But Michael Turney, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Kentucky University, has deduced  that Barnum must be the one who originated the saying. “Chronologically, he came first,” says Turney, “and, to me, he seems to have been the most outspoken and the most self-deprecatingly cynical… It simply sounds like something he would have said.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows plenty of names that are difficult to spell. He is especially troubled by “Taliaferro,” which for some arcane reason is pronounced “Tolliver.”

            I met a young lady named Taliaferro,
            At a matinee showing of “Oliaferro!”
            Her looks made me quiaferro
            From my lips to my liaferro,
            In fact I was quiaferroing alliaferro!