A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A Twist of the Tongue

 I'm not the fig plucker,
I’m the fig plucker’s son,
But I'll pluck your figs
Till the fig plucker comes.

That’s a little ditty my father taught to me.  Yes, my father!  I didn’t know he knew about possibly lewd things like this.  I know my parents did somehow accidentally discover sexual intercourse, but it was just the one time, as I am an only child.

I had been telling him of the innocent, clean tongue-twisters I’d been teaching my young cousins.  Ones like Peter Piper, or she sells seashells.  And he popped up with that one.  Still, it’s served me well.

Tongue-twisters are phrases that are purposely constructed to be hard to articulate.  They have two or more sequences of sounds, often using alliteration, that require readjusting the tongue, and then those two sounds are repeated in different sequences.  The aforementioned she sells seashells switches between an s and an sh sound.  As rapidly as possible.

 The hardest tongue-twister in English, according to Guinness World Records, is “The sixth sick sheikh’s sixth sheep’s sick.”  That is a mouthful, but then so is this one:  “The seething sea ceaseth and thus the seething sea sufficeth us”.  All the more harder for us to pronounce because of the stilted language.  That one was from William Poundstone.

The slip of the tongue when speaking these tricky sentences results in spoonerisms, words or phrases where letters or syllables get swapped.  Thus “slips of the tongue” becomes “tips of the slung”.

Tongue-twisters are often used to teach students learning a language.  The careful annunciation is good for language learners and helps them to pronounce words better.  Imagine walking into an ESL class and hearing en masse:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
He would chuck, he would, as much as he could,
And chuck as much as a woodchuck would
If a woodchuck could chuck wood.

Every language seems to have tongue-twisters, attesting to their popularity.  Here are some to try:


"Fischers Fritz fischt frische Fische. Frische Fische fischt Fischers Fritz"
(Fisherman Fritz fishes fresh fish, fresh fish are fished by fisherman Fritz).

“In Ulm, und um Ulm, und um Ulm herum.“
(In Ulm and about Ulm and about all around Ulm.)

“Wer Kent kennt, kennt Kent. Wer Kent nicht kennt, kennt Kent nicht.”

Whoever knows Kent, knows Kent. Who doesn't know Kent, doesn't know Kent.


"Tata, ta tarte tatin tenta Tonton, Tonton tâta ta tarte tatin, Tata."
(Aunty, the apple tart tempts Uncle; Uncle has touched the apple tart, Aunty.) 

“Saucisses sèches sachant sécher sans s‘assécher.”

A sausage knowing how to dry must know how to dry without drying out!

“Si mon tonton tond ton tonton, ton tonton sera tondu.”

If my uncle shaves your uncle, your uncle will be shaved.


“Tres tristes tigres tragan trigo en un trigal.”

Three sad tigers swallow wheat in a wheat field.

“Como quieres que te quiera si al que quiero no me quiere como quiero que me quiera.”
How do you want for me to love you when the one I love doesn't love me like I want him to love me.

Some tongue-twisters are short words or phrases which become difficult when repeated quickly multiple times.  The classic English ones are toy boat and rubber baby buggy bumper.  Others are:

Irish wristwatch
unique New York
freshly fried flying fish
the epitome of femininity
Many an anemone sees an enemy anemone
Greek grapes

Imagine an imaginary menagerie manager imagining managing an imaginary menagerie.

A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.

And now, the ones you’ve all been waiting for…the ones you have to say VERY CAREFULLY…

I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit;
and on the slitted sheet I sit.

Mrs. Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.
Not a punt cut square,
Just a square cut punt.
It's round in the stern and blunt in the front.
Mrs Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.

Try not to share these with any English language learners, please!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Walla Walla Bing Bang


If you know where this post is heading, you've just dated yourself.  Back to 1958.  The song was Witch Doctor, and it was written and performed by a man named Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.

Of course, you know him as David Seville, his entertainer alter ego.  And the version you probably remember was recorded by his posse, The Chipmunks - Alvin, Theodore, and Simon.  (I liked Simon.  He wore glasses, and to my young mind, that meant he read books.)

The song is about a man in love with a woman who doesn't love him back.  His longing for her leads him to a witch doctor.  The witch doctor tells him, "Oo ee, oo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang."  This is a love song, sure to win the woman's heart.  No one has ever sang it to me, so I can neither confirm or deny its efficacy.  Unless you count The Chipmunks.  Maybe that's why I'm so fond of Simon.

Ross Bagdarian, Sr.

Bagdasarian was born in 1919, in Fresno, California.  My father was born in Fresno, and I can tell you from my several visits a year there growing up, not much was going on.  But Bagdasarian was the cousin of writer William Saroyan, so creativity was in his genes. Bagdasarian was an actor, and even appeared in Saroyan's play The Time of Your Life.  While on a road trip the two of them wrote a song called Come On-A My House.  In 1951, Rosemary Clooney recorded it and scored a huge hit with it.

In the meantime, Bagdasarian had a read a book called Duel With The Witch Doctor.  Inspired, he wrote the song, then played with recording it at half speed in his bathroom, then playing it back full speed.  (His uncle had just moved to Walla Walla, Washington.)  The public loved it.  It was number one on the charts for three weeks.

Now this is weird to me.  It was a number one R&B hit.  R&B as in Rhythm and Blues, a term that was the politically correct one that replaced race music (i.e. the good stuff).  But in the late 50s and early 60s, anything that was a novelty was labelled R&B.  Think Yakety Yak by the Coasters, Splish Splash by Bobby Darin, Get a Job by the Silhouettes, and even Volare by Domenico Modugno.

Regardless, it was a hit.  Bagdasarian wrote several songs, including Sittin' in the Balcony that was Eddie Cochran's first recording, and the forgettable So Young, recorded by young Robert Wagner.  He re-recorded Witch Doctor in 1960 with The Chipmunks (see video below).  It's been recorded by quite a few artists since then, including hip hop versions, notably by Devo and Sha Na Na.

Are you the victim of unrequited love?  Try singing this to your heartthrob.  Let me know how it works for you.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open sesame...

Ali Baba by Aubrey Beardsley, 1897.
For the magical opening of secret passages, a must for everyone, we have the command, "Open sesame."  We all remember as kids the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.  What we probably don't know is how dark it is.  Very violent.  The version we heard as children had been bowdlerized.  This story is from the medieval Arabic collection, One Thousand and One Nights.  How we came to know it is a story in itself.

Antoine Galland
Antoine Galland was an 18th century French orientalist, famous as the author of  Les Mille et Une Nuits, or The Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights in English).  Galland was the first translator of these stories, and his books, twelve volumes published between 1704 and 1717, were a huge success.  Years earlier, in the 1690s, his friend Charles Perrault had published fairy tales.  These were so successful that they influenced Galland’s style, as he wished to conform to the new vogue.  So he left out the erotic passages and poetry, and made them more palatable to current literary tastes.

Some of his stories, seven of them including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, have led critics to believe that Galland added tales to The One Thousand and One Nights because they are not found in any traditional sources.  Sir Richard Burton, who also published a version that was more flamboyant and sumptuous, not to mention erotic – definitely not the one we heard as kids - claimed that the Ali Baba story was part of the original.  That being so, there are no Arabic manuscripts of the Ali Baba story that predate Galland’s.  Galland claimed to have met a Maronite monk, Danna Diab from Aleppo in Syria, who recited fourteen tales from memory, which Galland wrote down.  Ali Baba was one of these.

Sir Richard Francis Burton by Lock & Whitfield
Woodburytype, 1876, National Portrait Gallery, London
So we have a story that is not attested to in any written form prior to Galland’s writings, which may or may not have been his own invention.  The "cave of Ali Baba" is an expression in Arabic meaning a place where there is a lot of wealth.  From what I've read it's been around for a long time, which could mean the story did actually predate Galland, even if it isn't found in any extant manuscripts.  We may never know, unless a manuscript that is unknown, perhaps in some family library, comes to the attention of scholars.

The question remains, where did the phrase open sesame come from?  The term is thought by some scholars to be an Anglicized form of open simsim, simsim being the Arabic word for sesame.  However there is no “p” sound in Arabic.  Some have even suggested that Simsim was the name of one of the thieves, but somehow that just doesn’t fly, to my mind. 

Other scholars claim the phrase "iftaH ya simsim", the correct Arabic term, has been mispronounced as open sesame.  The late professor Jonas C. Greenfield in an article in the Journal of the American Oriental Society mentions that simsim can mean “gate” in Arabic, although it’s rarely used.  This makes the most sense to me.

Ali Baba by Maxfield Parrish, 1909
Probably what has cemented “open sesame” in our minds happened when we were kids.  It came from one of the best episodes of Popeye the Sailor.  As often happens, especially when referencing the non-Western world, this episode combines the Ali Baba story with another one, that of Sinbad the Sailor (Sindebad albaHrii in Arabic).  Popeye is Sinbad and Bluto is the leader of the thieves (of course).  Olive Oyl, as you would guess, is a harem woman that they fight over.  Popeye roasts the Roc, a monstrous bird, in the end, whose name is from the Arabic rukhkh and is also from the Sinbad story.

Therefore, what some of us know of Arabic literature comes to us from a bowdlerized version of a tale, that may or may not be authentic, further filtered through a mish-mash of combined tales by cartoon characters.  Thus we become misinformed from childhood about Arab culture.

All images except as noted from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Abracadabra and all that Hocus Pocus...

Stone age cave painting of aurochs at Lascaux, France.
Magic.  Since the dawn of time, the concept has enchanted humans.  The oldest cave painting are thought to be a form of hunting magic.  Some of the most ancient texts are about magic.  Today magic shows and magicians are still popular, as they have been for centuries. There are a couple of terms, associated with magic, that everyone has known and used, albeit I have never heard that they worked.  They are very old and yet very commonplace.

Abracadabra is a cabalistic word which is supposed to possess the power to heal, especially when written in a triangular shape, folded in a way that the writing is concealed, stitched with white thread, then worn around the neck as an amulet.  It was a remedy for fever and ague.

A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A  B  R  A
A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A  B  R
A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A  B
 A  B  R  A  C  A  D  A
 A  B  R  A  C  A  D
  A  B  R  A  C  A
  A  B  R  A  C
   A  B  R  A
   A  B  R
   A B

The first four letters may stand for the first letters of the Hebrew words for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - Ab Ben Rauch Acadosh.  Some believe it came from the Hebrew phrase abreg ad habra, which is an invocation to strike dead with lightning.

Abracadabra charm from Britain.
The first mention of the word is from a book from the 2nd century CE entitled Liber Medicinalis, or De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima, by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus. Sammonicus was physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla, and he prescribed it specifically for malaria.  He stated that the evil spirit of the disease would release its hold when this amulet was worn.  The Roman emperors Geta and Severus followed his teachings and may have worn the amulet as well.

Victorian era amulet with Egyptian symbols and turquoise.
Image courtesy of Adin, fine antique jewellers.
It's claimed that the Alexandrian sect of Basilides, a group of Gnostics, used it to invoke beneficial spirits against disease.  The inscription is found on Abraxas stones that were worn on amulets.  According to their history abracadabra was an Aramaic curse meaning, "let the thing be destroyed."  Its use spread, although today it is considered gibberish, commonly used by stage magicians and on cartoons.

Hocus pocus is another term used in play to bring about a change magically.  This term has an interesting history, and may have been derived from an ancient language.  Its derivation has been attributed to several sources.

According to the OED, it originates from hax pax max deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase, used by conjurers to convince their audiences.  Another thought is that it's a parody of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist that states hoc est enim corpus meum.  This theory was espoused by Anglican prelate John Tillotson in 1694.

Ochus Bochus?

Yet another theory exists stating the word came from the name of a Norse folklore demon and magician, Ochus Bochus.  O.B. himself maybe derived from the god Bacchus, who was a conjuror known for turning water into wine (where have we heard that before?) and the hero of oenophiles everywhere.

The Welsh have a term - hovea pwca, which is a trick played by a hob-goblin.  (Keep in mind that in Welsh some consonants, like "w", are vowels.)  This character is also called a pooka and personally Puck.  He was a shape-shifter and sometimes considered an incarnation of the devil.

Thomas Ady, writing in 1656, said the following, from his book A Candle in the Dark:

I will speak of one man... that went about in King James his time... who called himself, The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus, and so was he called, because that at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, "Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo", a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currently without discovery, because when the eye and the ear of the beholder are both earnestly busied, the Trick is not so easily discovered, nor the Imposture discerned.

And with that, I'm off to eat an Abba-Zaba bar.  Let's see what happens with that.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Acey, Deucey, One-Eyed Jack

I, like most people, enjoy playing cards.  Unfortunately I don't play often enough, and it takes me a while to get my card chops back.  Except for poker.  I have the worst poker face ever.  I'm guessing my pout and displeased expression must give away a bad hand.  But if I have a good hand (and I always play with a little sheet my husband made me to remember what's what and what's higher) I'm like a dog being told that it's time for a walk.  Tongue hanging out, tail wagging, I can barely contain myself.  If I were a playing card, I'd be the joker.
Playing cards, like chess, are believed to have been invented in India.  The oldest Indian cards were divided into ten suits representing the ten incarnations of the god Vishnu.  They were round in shape and hand painted, and some even had thirty-two suits.  Ganjifa is a card game from Persia that was popular with the Mughals in 15th century India, but it’s not clear which influenced which, ganjifa or Indian cards.

Cards from a Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa set.  From top left across:
6 white horses with parasols  of the Kalki suit; four tigers  of the
Narasimha suit; seven tortoises  of the Kurma suit; 3 axes of the Parashurama
suit; minister on horseback of the Vamana suit; 3 ewers of the Vamana suit;
10 quivers of the Lakshmana suit; boar incarnation of the Varaha suit; 5 lotuses
of the Buddha suit; 6 peacock feather crown of the Taj (Crown) suit.
Rajasthan, India, 19th century,  LACMA.

Chinese playing card
found near Turfan,
c. 1400 CE
Museum fur Volkerkunde
Cards were found in China as early as the 9th century, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).  Ancient Chinese cards have four suits, and feature ideograms.  There is a suggestion that these early cards may have been a form of currency.  Modern Mahjong tiles possibly evolved from these.

How playing cards got to Europe is debatable.  Some say Marco Polo brought them back from China, but he seems to be the go-to guy for anything in Europe derived from Asia.  Most references state the Saracens introduced them.  They are mentioned in documents from the late 13th century in Europe.  Charles VI of France bought three decks of cards we know from a receipt from 1392.  (Mother always told me to save all receipts.)  They became very popular, were taxed, and had import restrictions on them.  There are some historians who claim that playing cards came from tarot cards, but the two types of cards developed independently.  (The use of the tarot deck exclusively for divination is in the U.S.  Other countries use the deck, usually with modifications, to play card games.)

The first cards were very expensive because they were made by hand.  In the 15th century woodcuts were used to create printed decks.  Most of these woodcut printed cards were hand colored.  Soon engraved cards appeared, which was an even more expensive process.  These are very collectable, as are playing cards in general, should you have too much money and wish to spend it on something.  (I have other ideas in this regard - just email me.)

The seven of hearts,
1803, from Metastasis, the first
complete set of transformed cards
published by John Nixon.
3 of cups, c. 1520
Topkapi Seray Museum,
It wasn’t until 1832 that Thomas de la Rue invented a typographic process that was used in making cards, and the “double-headed” cards became the standard.  These featured images that were duplicated in reverse, so they could be viewed from either end.  This was an important feature since prior to that astute players would be able to figure out how many court cards a rival had when s/he turned them right side up.

There are currently various types of playing cards within the many countries that use them.  The number of cards and suits differ; the English adopted the French deck.  The French deck originated circa 1480 CE, with four suits:  the trèfle, or club, mostly liked derived from an acorn; the pique, or spade, from the leaf used in German decks; hearts and diamonds, which are self-explanatory.

The court cards developed in the 15th century, representing European royalty.  Thus there were kings, queens, and knaves.  The knaves were changed to Jacks in the 17th century.  Primarily this change occurred when indices were printed on the corners of cards, so the player could fan his/her holdings in one hand and know what cards were there.  Since “K” (for king) and “Kn” (for knave) looked too closely alike, the change to “J” was thought to facilitate a quicker reading of the cards by the players.

In the earliest games the king was always the highest card, but in the 14th century the ace, then the lowest card, gained significance.  It is believed that by the 18th century, the French Revolution cemented that ace high concept as a symbol of the lower class rising above royalty.  The word ace was ultimately derived from the ancient Roman aes, the smallest unit of coinage.

A vehicle for a political statement, this card of
the French Revolution symbolizes brotherhood.
During this time Kings, Queens, and Jacks became
Liberties, Equalities, and Fraternities, as a good
revolutionary wouldn't associate with royalty.
This concept was reversed with Napoleon.

The U.S. introduced the joker into the deck, whose identity was similar to the fool in the tarot deck.  It was devised for the game of Eucre, which was very popular in the 19th century.  The name of the character is believed to have derived from juker, a different pronunciation of the game.  The standard deck of 52 cards includes 13 cards of each of the four suits, plus two jokers, which are removed for most games.  Although English or American decks differ from what is used in France, they are still considered French decks.

Image of the 3 of clubs from a deck called
The Key to the Kingdom  commissioned by
London's Victoria and Albert Museum of
Childhood, created by Tony Meeuwissen.
Set was published in 1992 and featured
nursery rhymes and poems.

Even though some of the design elements of the cards are rarely used in games they are notable.  The jack of spades, jack of hearts, and king of diamonds are featured in profile, and referred to as “one-eyed”.  “Acey, deucey, one-eyed jack” means that aces, twos, and one-eyed jacks are wild cards.  Since the king of hearts originally was the only king without a moustache and had a sword behind his head, it lead to his moniker of “suicide king”, or “false king”.  On some decks a closer look reveals that there are four hands, and the sleeves of the arm holding the sword don’t match his, meaning he is being murdered.  It turns out it is the arm of the queen of spades.  The explanation for this card seems to be lost.  There are many theories about just who these royal cards represent, but today’s cards have been distorted and carry no significance.  The following are some of the traditional references to the royal cards:

King of Spades            David
King of Hearts             Charles (possibly Charlemagne, or Charles VII)
King of Diamonds       Julius Caesar
King of Clubs              Alexander the Great
Queen of Spades          Pallas
Queen of Hearts           Judith
Queen of Diamonds     Rachel
Queen of Clubs            Argine (possibly an anagram of regina, which is Latin for queen,
Knave of Spades          Ogier the Dane/Holger Danske (a knight of Charlemagne)
Knave of Hearts           La Hire (comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc/member of Charles VII's court)
Knave of Diamonds     Hector
Knave of Clubs            Judas Maccabeus, or Lancelot

Again, there are many other decks.  A 32-card deck is known as a piquet deck and used in Europe for games including Belote, the most popular card game in France.  Skat, the national card game of Germany, uses a similar deck.  A 48-card deck is popular in Japan.  But the most popular card game worldwide is bridge, although poker is probably catching up if it hasn't already.

Today, decks are inexpensive and available all over in the United States.  Cards have held on to their popularity since their introduction, and with the advent of children’s games, like Old Maid, most people grow up playing some kind of card game.  Of course, the most memorable one is the one you learned to play immediately the first time – 52 Pickup.  Even I remember how to play that, no crib sheet necessary.
All images except as noted from Wikipedia