Long ago, I had a fantastic summer newspaper internship in Buffalo, N.Y.
Not once while I was there did I hear someone use the verb to buffalo.
Of course the word buffalo is a noun for a big, cowlike animal with a bit of a hunchback. They do not have wings that you can marinate in spicy sauce. But the verb to buffalo, The American Heritage Dictionary says, is to intimidate or frighten, as by a display of authority.
Merriam-Webster uses a definition with heavy assonance: bewilder, baffle or bamboozle.
Finding an article that used it was a little difficult, but I found one in the Tallahassee Democrat:
[The Department of Children and Families] chieftains, lawyers and public relations people are well-acquainted with the expertise and persistence of the Miami Herald's Carol Marbin Miller, a veteran investigative reporter who knows the difference between transparency and transparent nonsense.
But they keep trying to buffalo her anyway.
Still, I didn't understand how the verb came to be associated with the animal. One theory is that the animals are known for mass panic, as one source says. But another source says, "When hunted by humans, buffalo have a reputation for circling back on their pursuers and counter attacking."
Which source is trying to bamboozle me?
ON THE BRINK
I recently heard the word brinkmanship, and I had to know where it was from. I had thought the word was brinksmanship, and that is, indeed, an alternative spelling.
Merriam-Webster's definition is: "the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to the limit of safety, especially to force a desired outcome."
I had trouble thinking of an example of my using brinkmanship. Maybe balancing precariously on the top step of a ladder to paint an annoyingly high ceiling?
Once, my brother and his friend were popping soap bubbles that I was sending their way. My brother used his toe as his bursting instrument. His friend used a long kitchen knife. (Reader, the toe and the knife collided. Blood was shed. The brinkmanship ceased.)
Brink is the key word in the meaning. A brink is the very edge of a precipice. Step one inch more, and you fall and fall.
The American Heritage Dictionary says brinkmanship is similar in form to the words salesmanship and sportsmanship.
The word was the result of 1956 Life magazine article about U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (a D.C. airport is named for him). He believed in diplomacy mixed with a tinge of danger.
"The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. ... If you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost," he said.
Adlai Stevenson, a diplomat who helped form the United Nations and who ran twice, unsuccessfully, for president, wasn't pleased. He said Dulles was wrong because he boasted "of his brinkmanship — the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss."
(I also looked up brinkman, which is not a word or a thing. The dictionary asked me whether I meant to find brineman, which I did know was something. That's a man who makes the brine to preserve foods such as vegetables and meat. I suppose brinewomen exist, too. Some people brine their turkey, so the brinemen of the world are probably just coming off the busy season. Now back to the column ...)
PLED OR PLEADED?
I saw a funny tweet about the ongoing battle between pleaded and pled as the past tense of plead. I've written about it because the Associated Press Stylebook recently changed its rule on this. Newspapers for years had used pleaded. I often heard from lawyers who thought newspapers should use pled instead. Recently The AP decided it wouldn't fume over the use of pled. It wasn't a stirring endorsement, though: "We no longer have strong feelings about it. Our preference is pleaded. Webster's New World College Dictionary recognizes both pleaded and pled."
So, on Twitter, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, mentioned that a T-shirt company was selling dueling shirts. One said, "It's Pleaded (not pled)," and one said "It's Pled (not pleaded)." At the time of the tweet, "It's Pled" was in the lead by 8-to-1.
And I'll end with some contemplation about machination.
I always think it's pronounced mash-i-NAY-shun, because I can clearly see most of the word machine in there. But it's mack-i-NAY-shun. I know that at this very second because I just listened to the person on the dictionary site say it. But I will have forgotten within the hour. I am constantly looking it up after I hear someone on TV say it.
While machines are often good for us, machinations usually are not. A machination is a scheme that usually has evil purposes. Its synonyms tell it all: plot, intrigue, conspiracy, cabal.
From The Washington Post:
“Another strange Pentagon machination was the proposal ... floated in mid-December to separate the code-breaking National Security Agency from U.S. Cyber Command.”
Beware the machination.
Sources include Merriam-Webster, American Heritage Dictionary, Online Etymology Dictionary, Britannica, The Washington Post, The Tallahassee Democrat, African Wildlife Detective. Reach Bernadette at