Monday, April 24, 2017

Once More Unto the Breeches

I’ve been collecting malapropisms from ostensibly very high-class publications, and it’s surprising how many usage errors turn up in journals who purport to use good English. Most of them are the type of malapropism known as an eggcorn, which is named for a mistake made by a woman who misunderstood the word acorn.

The New Yorker, of all esoteric literary magazines, recently wrote that the Royal Shakespeare Company had gone “once more unto the breech” in its productions of for history plays. According to my dictionary this might mean the RSC had betaken itself to half of a pair of short pants, to the rear end of someone's body, to a baby being born head first, or to part of a firearm to the rear of the barrel. None of these made much sense.

I think The New Yorker intended to say the Shakespeareans had gone to the breach, alluding to a quotation from Henry V:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
            Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In this sense breach means a “gap, as in a wall, made by battering.” It derives from Middle English breche, which means “an act of breaking.”

Among other such eggcorns I’ve encountered are “go to great links” (instead of “lengths”), “last-stitch effort” (“last-ditch”), “tow the line” (“toe”), “well-healed” (“heeled”), and “mute point” (“moot”). 

Malapropisms, by the way, as everyone knows, are named for the character Mrs. Malaprop, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, who says things like “illiterate” when she means “obliterate,” “illegible” when she means “ineligible,” and “contagious” when she means “contiguous.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou says exactly what he means, and the more’s the pity.

            Henry V was a merry old soul,
            And a merry old soul was he,
            Defeating the French was his favorite goal,
            And he set out to do with glee.
            He called for his soldiers, and then called for more,
            And told them go “unto the breach,”
            He vanquished the French by the end of Act Four,
            And then gave a very long speech.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Joint Endeavor

I recently came across a reference to someone “casing the joint.” It means to inspect premises, usually with the intent of robbing them. It originated as underworld slang around 1900. But why?

Joint  in old slang meant a criminal association, based on the fact that it was a “joint endeavor.” Later it meant a place where criminals gather.  By the 1880s in the United States joint referred specifically to an opium den, and from that use its meaning spread to include illegal saloon, brothel, gambling den, night club (“juke joint”), cheap restaurant, and, finally, any kind of place or establishment. It’s also suggested that its later meanings derived from the notion of a private side-room, “joined” to the main room of a place of business, where unsavory people might gather to gamble, drink, smoke, take drugs, and conduct illegal operations. 

The verb case, meaning “enclose in a case,” dates to the 1570s. Not until around 1915 did the word enter American slang with the meaning of “inspect or examine,” perhaps from the idea of looking at something from all sides, in the same manner as a case, or box, would enclose it.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou cases every joint he frequents before he will enter it.  And he never gets too far from the door, so as to make a quick getaway if required. He’s also getting lazy, as evidenced by this reprint of a verse that appeared in this space a few years ago.  But it’s still valid!

            My joints are worn but they don’t creak yet,
            My plumbing’s old but doesn’t leak yet,
            My hair is thin and turning white,
            I cannot see things well at night.
            My heart needs help to keep its rhythm,
            My lungs, I’m sure, have things wrong with ‘em.
            My knees are getting very wobbly—
            I have a few years left, most prob’ly.
            But though I’m crumbling bit by bit,           
            I am not ready yet to quit.
            Instead, I think that I would rather
            Find all those rosebuds I should gather.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Wrack or Rack?

I have racked my brain to find someway to prevent the nation from going to wrack and ruin.

Or should that be “I have wracked my brain” to find some way to prevent the nation from going to “rack and ruin”?

Etymologists seem to waffle a bit on this one, with more than one so-called expert suggesting that either rack or wrack might be correct. 

Rack in the sense of “racking one’s brain” means to “torture,” in reference to the medieval practice of inflicting pain on recalcitrant heretics by placing them on a movable rack pulling their limbs in different directions. Oooh, that would hurt. The word has its origin in Old English reccan, meaning to “stretch.”

Bryan Garner, in his always reliable Dictionary of Modern American Usage is unequivocal. “The idiom is rack one’s brains,” he writes. “The root meaning of rack is to stretch, hence to torture by stretching.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference to this usage is in a 1583 poem by Edward Farr, in which he writes, “Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.” 

Some etymologists, however, suggest the idiom is “wrack—with a ‘w”—one’s brain,” that is to “destroy” it or “ruin it completely,” which is the meaning of wrack, stemming from the Old English wræc, or “misery, punishment.” That is clearly the reference in the phrase “wrack and ruin,” in which wrack means “utter destruction. 

The term “going to wreck” was used as early as 1548 by the clergyman Ephraim Udall, who wrote in a sermon, “The flocke goeth to wrecke and utterly perisheth.”  By 1577 the phrase “wrack and ruin” was used by Henry Bull in his translation of Luther’s Commentarie upon the fifteen psalms: “Whiles all things seeme to fall to wracke and ruine.”

But there has always been confusion about the word.  In 1599 historian Thomas Fowler in The History of Corpus Christi College wrote, "In the mean season the College shall goe to rack and ruin."

Maybe it would be better simply to think very hard about a way keep the country from going to the dogs.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou went to the dogs years ago and can’t get back.
       I’m sittin’ here frettin’ and cursin’ and stewin'
       While the country is goin’ to rack and to ruin.
       I’m waitin’ to see the next message on Twitter
       From the feverish brain of the orange-colored critter.
       Do you think it might be a good deal on Trivago
       For a really cheap rate at that swank Mar-a-Lago?