Monthly Archives: July, 2013

Call me Al

Al GorePaul and ChevyAl Grassby

A man walks down the street/
It’s a street in a strange world/
Maybe it’s the Third World/
Maybe it’s his first time around/
He doesn’t speak the language/
He holds no currency/
He is a foreign man/
He is surrounded by the sound/
The sound/
Cattle in the marketplace/
Scatterlings and orphanages/
He looks around, around/
He sees angels in the architecture/
Spinning in infinity/
He says Amen and Hallelujah!

Yes, those words are from ‘Call me Al,’ written by Paul Simon, on the Graceland album.

I love this song. I love the video clip featuring the composer dancing and lip-syncing with Chevy Chase. I love the driving beat, the catchy chorus and that brilliant palindromic bass guitar solo in the middle. Most of all I love the words. Paul Simon is a poet with a guitar, no question.

But what do the lyrics mean? Is it a mid-life crisis or description of a musical journey through South Africa during the apartheid era? Whatever your interpretation, that idiosyncratic title has little to do with either. Paul is recalling a meeting with French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez who misheard names at a party, calling the singer-songwriter ‘Al’ and mistaking Paul Simon’s wife Betty as ‘Peggy’. Inspiration time.

And who could take offence at that? Names that begin with Al are benign, aren’t they? There’s Al Jolsson, Al Gore, Al Pacino and Al Grassby – even Weird Al Jankovic. But Al names have not always been friendly (e.g. Al Capone, Al Qaeda and, on occasion, Al Jazeera).

So what of nouns and verbs starting with ‘al’? Do they all come to English via Arabic?

Many do. These ones, for sure: ‘alchemy,’ ‘alcohol,’ ‘alcove,’ ‘alembic,’ ‘algae,’ ‘algebra,’ ‘algorithm,’ ‘alibi,’ ‘alkali’ and ‘almanac’. It’s easy to spot the scientific and mathematical origins in the preceding list of words. We all owe a vast debt to Arabic culture. Those scribes and scholars kept the flame of learning from being extinguished when Europe plunged into darkness after the fall of the Roman Empire. Okay, a few of the words arrived in English after taking a stroll through Romance languages but what’s a linguistic melting pot between friends (just don’t mention the Crusades)?

Speaking of Rome, many ‘al’ words have come from the Latin word ‘albus,’ (as in Albus Dumbledore) meaning ‘white’. We can see it in albino, albumen, alabaster, albatross and album. And the language of Latin has given us a host of other ‘al’ words, many making their first appearance during the Renaissance, when classical vocabulary breathed new life into our arts and sciences. Examples include ‘alacrity,’ ‘aleatory,’ ‘algae,’ ‘alias,’ ‘alibi,’ ‘alumnus,’ ‘alimentary,’ ‘alimony,’ ‘alpine’ and ‘alto’. In the same era, Greek words arrived, some via Semitic languages (e.g. ‘alpha,’ ‘aleph’ and ‘alopecia’).

A little earlier, the formative centuries of modern English saw an influx of ‘al’ words arriving with the French and other romance language tribes, e.g. ‘alarm,’ ‘albeit,’ ‘alert,’ ‘alien,’ ‘align,’ ‘alas,’ ‘almond,’ ‘alone,’ ‘aloof,’ ‘already,’ ‘alter,’ ‘although,’ ‘altitude,’ ‘altogether’ and ‘altruism’. Only a handful of our modern-day words come relatively unscathed from Anglo-Saxon times: ‘alderman,’ ‘alive,’ ‘almighty,’ ‘almost,’ ‘alms,’ ‘also,’ ‘altar,’ and ‘always’.

But there remains something mystical and potent about the Arabic word ‘al’. Debate rages among historians about its precise derivation. Some say that it was born from two words merging: a definite article and a vowel-beginning word (much as in English ‘a naranj’ became ‘an orange’ and ‘a napple’ became ‘an apple’). This kind of language evolution may cause absurd redundancies when translated, whereby the definite article attaches to a word already containing a definite article, such ‘the algorithm’ or ‘the almanac,’ much as we ply contemporary tautologies like ‘PIN number’ and ‘ATM machine’.

‘Al’ perplexes scholars of Arabic when it attaches sometimes to a particle or verb but at other times appears as a relative pronoun. It can turn a verb into an imperfect tense or appear as a poetic device in verse to complete the meter, as English poets and ballad-writers might use ‘O’. Its most famous use as a prefix before a noun appears in the name for God. ‘Allah’ means ‘the Supreme Being’ (from the ancient word Al-ilah). My favourite theory relating to this use is the origin of the Spanish expression ‘Olé’ which might well derive from the seven-hundred-year epoch when the Ottoman Turks ruled the Iberian Peninsula, importing many an Arabic word. Could that most Spanish of cries be a distant echo of ‘Allah’?

All along along/
There were incidents and accidents/
There were hints and allegations

You can call me Al.

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Doctor Hoon

HoonHouyhnhnmDr Hoon

‘Hoon’ is an odd word. Is it slang, idiom or folk etymology?

Back at the close of the nineteenth century this word—not necessarily Australian in origin—meant a person who lived off the immoral earnings of women, i.e. a pimp. ‘Hoon’ even had its own rhyming slang code-phrase: ‘silver spoon’. Yet by some process of evolution, by the close of the twentieth century ‘hoon’ had transmogrified into a synonym for lair or young troublemaker on a motorbike or in a hotted-up car.

Where did ‘hoon’ come from? Is it a portmanteau word, combining hooligan and lunatic, whereby ‘hooligan’ becomes ‘hoon’ and ‘lunatic’ shortens to ‘loon’? That would make for a plausible origin but linguist Sidney Baker in The Australian Language (1945) suggests a more erudite theory. He suggests that ‘hoon’ (meaning ‘fool’) is a contraction of Houyhnhnm, the name for a fictional race of intelligent horses who appear in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. This is a cool idea. Even cooler is the irony that ‘hoon,’ thus derived, is a near doppelganger for its species opposite in Swift’s tale, the apelike Yahoos, a debased race of humans. If true, such a theory certainly fits with the word ‘hoon’ as it used today in Great Britain, to mean a fool or chump.

There’s one more possibility. The word ‘hoon’ savours of onomatopoeia, when used in association with blokes in hotted-up cars. People will talk of a driver and the occupants, or even the car itself, as ‘hooning down the road’ and highway laws have been passed to restrict ‘hoon behaviour,’ meaning road misconduct. Such bad behaviour can take the form of illegal drag racing, with its near-gastronomic vocabulary of ‘burnouts,’ ‘doughnuts’ and ‘fishtails,’ or it can just be bad motoring etiquette, such as tailgating, speeding and rapid lane-changing.

Leaving aside false origin and folk etymology theories for ‘hoon,’ there’s also the possibility of word evolution occurring along multiple timelines, something that the ever-changing Doctor of TARDIS fame would acknowledge. Why not? Words diverge in meaning all the time: witness the different directions that ‘skirt’ and ‘shirt’ have taken, or ‘vacate’ and ‘vacation’.

As for the Doctor, he gets younger in appearance and demeanour with each reincarnation, and he’s forever hooning around this or that galaxy or millennium. Should be a law against it. 900-year-old hooligan.