Friday, January 22, 2016

Inane in the Membrane

For no reason whatsoever, I recently found myself repeating four words that sound nonsensical, which is appropriate, because they connote idiocy.

Pell mell.

Harum scarum.



I'm a word nerd, a grammar geek, a usage unicorn. Wait, that last one doesn't make sense. I love using obsolete or obscure words and phrases, such as "What the deuce!" and "satchel." So as I repeated the four words above, I realized I needed to know more about them. So on, then, to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Pell mell -- adv.: in a confused and hurried way; Middle French pĂȘlemĂȘle; first known use, 1590.

Via Google Books, I found a great usage of the word from Chambers's Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art. In an essay dated December 28, 1889 and titled, "Remarkable Charities," the author recalls days gone by when the well-to-do of England would donate food, drink and tobacco to the poor.

Referring to "the lord of the manor" giving "a bull, a boar, a sack of wheat, and a sack of malt" to the less fortunate, the author says that at some point this practice was discontinued in favor of beef and mutton being distributed.

"The origin of this seems lost in obscurity, and the practice whilst it lasted seems to have been productive of much intoxication and riot; the poor paraded the streets during the whole night preceding the distribution with an incessant clamor. In the morning they marched in crowds to the donor's house, and when the doors were opened, rushed in pell-mell to the feast prepared for them, often inflicting wounds on one another with their knives in their struggle for priority."

Like Dave Barry, I often find myself, when confronted with an interesting word or phrase, thinking, "That would be a good band name."

Ladies and gentlemen, Pell Mell:

I picked this song at random on YouTube, but realized almost immediately that it was familiar. Turns out it was played on HBO's "Six Feet Under" for the first two seasons during the previous episode recap at the beginning of each show.

Harum scarum -- adj.: reckless, irresponsible; perhaps from archaic hare to harass, and scare; first known use, 1751.

Also, an Elvis Presley movie, "where the slave girls and sultans are swingers":

You see, The King is in Iraq, I think, or perhaps Saudi Arabia or even the Garden of Paradise, and all those swingin' chicks are his harem, so, well you can make the connection.

Willy-nilly -- adv. or adj.: in a careless and unplanned way; in a haphazard or spontaneous way; alteration of will I nill or will ye nill ye; first known use, 1608.

You could straight up use Willy Nilly as a punk rock stage name, or perhaps a porn appellation. Singer/songwriter/dancer/comic entertainer Rufus Thomas ("Do the Funky Chicken") used it as a title for a catchy R&B romp:

Helter-skelter -- adv.: in a confused and careless way; perhaps from Middle English, skelten, to come, go. First known use, 1593.

This one, of course, also has a music tie-in, but it's a bit more complicated than the other ones. Paul McCartney wrote "Helter Skelter," so the story goes, in an effort to pen the loudest, most un-ballad-like song he could muster. Released on the White album, the song relies on two definitions of "helter-skelter": the one I've indicated above, but also the British term for an amusement park slide ("When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide").

Let's listen to it, shall we, in all its mania and dishevelment, before we discuss the darkness. Unfortunately, the Overlords of Beatles Central have evidently made sure that YouTube is void of any decent McCartney/Lennon version of this song, so you get this gamer's video featuring "Helter Skelter" as a soundtrack, and not the full song.

Helter Skelter from Dag@bert on Vimeo.

Charles Manson. Yes, we need to discuss the mastermind behind the Tate-LaBianca murders, in which seven people were killed in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969. Somehow, he interpreted the lyrics in "Helter Skelter" as a call to wage an apocalyptic race war.

"Helter Skelter is confusion. Confusion is coming down fast. If you don't see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It's not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says 'Rise!' It says 'Kill!' Why blame it on me? I didn't write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness."-- Charles Manson, November 1970 (I took this from The Beatles Bible web site)

Well, let's not waste any more time on that.

Did I forget any similar words? Let me know. Now pardon me while I go run amok.