April 6, 2015 by libroshombre
Ralph Waldo Emerson described studiers of word origins this way: “The etymologist finds the deadest words to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.” I’m also fascinated by how words reflect what life was once like, but I’m more dabbler than linguist. Nevertheless, librarians carry auras of deep knowledge, like preachers being automatically spiritual. I’m no dynamo at Trivial Pursuit, but while I often don’t know the answers to questions posed out of the blue, I usually know where to look.
Take “scoundrel,” for example. I’m an eager student at many Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes, including “Scoundrels in Northern History,” a history course that’s led by Dave Norton. A classmate asked Dave where the word “scoundrel” comes from, and he deferred to me, who was absolutely clueless but knew where clues are. “Scoundrel” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary and Black’s Law Dictionary, among other reputable sources. I own the Compact OED, which comes with a magnifying glass due to its tiny print, and found “scoundrel” defined as “an audacious rascal,one destitute of all moral scruple.” Calling the public library reference staff (459-1046) produced Black’s definition (“an opprobrious epithet implying rascality, villainy, or a want of honor”), and the knowledge that calling someone a scoundrel isn’t actionable as slander.
My copy of Eric Partridge’s “Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English agrees that “scoundrel” is “of obscure origin,” but said it was analogous with “wastrel” in the Anglo-French word “escoundre,” which came from the Old French “escondre.” Whatever its origin, there are some wonderful related quotes I can’t argue with, such as George Bernard Shaw’s “Every man over forty is a scoundrel,” and Samuel Johnson’s “Whoever thinks of going to bed before midnight is a scoundrel.”
Baseball season is upon us, and that game’s possessed plenty of interesting scoundrels, from the Black Sox, on up to the beefy consumers of performance enhancing drugs. Sad to say, these include the former Goldpanners Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. However, Giambi ‘fessed up, cleaned up, and took his punishment, while Bonds hasn’t, and will consequently never make the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although baseball’s arrival is a perennial harbinger of spring, rebirth, and renewed hope, let’s look at the scoundrels behind “Casey at the Bat.”
“The outlook was brilliant for the Mudville nine that day,” Ernest Thayer’s poem begins, “The score stood four to two, with but one more inning to play.” By the way, “inning,” according to the OnlineEtymology.com, comes from the Old English “innung,” which meant “a taking in, a putting in.” It was first used as “a team’s turn in a game” in reference to cricket in 1735 and was adopted by American baseball.
I read in HistoryBuff.com that Thayer invented Casey for the San Francisco Examiner, being hired by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper’s new twenty-something publisher, who had edited the Harvard Lampoon, and whose father gave it to him upon graduating from Harvard. Hearstbrought along three fellow Lampoon editors to the Examiner, including Thayer, who contributed regular humor pieces under his pseudonym, “Phin.” One was “Casey at the Bat,” published June 3, 1888. No one noticed it, until it was republished in the New York Sun several weeks later and attributed to “Anonymous.” This was clipped out by Archibald Gunter, a novelist who scoured newspaper for ideas. When Gunter read in August 1888 that the New York and Chicago baseball teams would attend a performance by his friend, comedian De Wolf Hopper, he gave “Casey” to Hopper for his act, and the poem was a huge hit. Hopper performed it regularly thereafter, and three scoundrels subsequently claimed authorship, but couldn’t prove it. Five years later Thayer, the antithesis of scoundreldom, returned East and attended Hopper’s show, heard his poem, and afterwards gave the comedian royalty-free performance rights.
Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice composed “Casey’s Revenge” in 1908 that’s more suited to the optimism of spring, when every team’s a contender. “Oh somewhere in this favored land dark clouds may hide the sun;/ And somewhere bands no longer play and children have no fun;/ And somewhere over blighted loves there hangs a heavy pall;/ But Mudville hearts are happy now – for Casey hit the ball.”