Words & Stuff

s: Beware of Greeks Bearing Poems

(11 May 1997)

Recall from column d that a double dactyl is a poem of roughly this form:

Higgledy Piggledy
First name and last name here,
Then something clever on
What he/she did.

Stanza two uses a
Finish it up with a
Topper or lid.

The word "dactyl" derives from the Greek word meaning "finger" (as in "pterodactyl"). I'm amused that the word now refers to a foot... At any rate, poetry (or at least doggerel) and Greek (or Greeks) often go hand in hand. Or do I mean finger in finger?

The relatively recent demise of Spiro T. Agnew (whose original family name was "Anagnostopoulos," which apparently means "seller of books" in Greek) prompted a veritable flood of articles and comments about his penchant for interesting and often offensive phrasing. He's been cited as saying "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all"; he referred to reporters as "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "an effete corps of impudent snobs"; and he called my alma mater, Swarthmore College, "the Kremlin on the Crum" (referring to Crum Creek, which runs through campus, and the college's traditional leftist bent). In Agnew's honor, I composed the following bit of doggerel, though alas I had to stretch the rules of the double-dactyl form a bit.

Spiro T. Agnew was
once quite accomplished at
turning a phrase:

"Nattering nabobs of
negativism" were
those who derided con-
servative ways.

On seeing the above, a friend gently (although a trifle arrhythmically) corrected me about the authorship of the phrase:

Patrick Buchanan would
write Spiro's speeches with
William saFIRE.

Armed with thesauri, and
alliteration, they'd
measure successes in
liberal IRE.
—James Kushner

(About the regrettable Mr. Agnew's penchant for unfortunate gaffes, rudenesses, and insults, Elliott Moreton has said: "After a while, people took to showing up at his public appearances with signs saying APOLOGIZE NOW, SPIRO. IT WILL SAVE TIME LATER. One suspects that he cannily saved even more time by not apologizing at all.")

Much further back in political history, a stop to poke fun at the Stoics (from "stoa," meaning "porch," which is where Zeno taught from):

Higgledy piggledy
Marcus Aurelius,
Greatest of emperors,
Stoic and prude,

Wrote Meditations, but
Killed lots of Christians -- now,
Wasn't that rude?

And going even further back, a friend once told me about a dinosaur called parasaurolophus [a name, of course, derived from the Greek], which had a huge nose; scientists speculate that the schnoz in question was (ahem) blown in the manner of a trombone, and was used to produce mating calls. I was so taken with the name that I came up with the following:

Huffle-us Snuffle-us
Had a trombone-nose with
Which to call mates,

Proving that studying
Doesn't quite teach you how
Best to get dates.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>