From an 1840 presidential campaign song...


January 25, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

RECENTLY I QUOTED from an 1840 presidential campaign song demeaning President Martin Van Buren as "a squirt-wirt-wirt."

What's a "wirt"? I asked. And you answered:

"My compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has a possible clue. 'Wirt. obs. var. Wherret. A sharp blow; esp. a box on the ear or slap on the face.' " -- Robert B. Alexander, Sykesville.

"I suspect that it was a nonsense syllable, used because it conveniently rhymed with both 'shirt' and squirt' [used elsewhere in the song]." -- Jack Fruchtman Jr., Baltimore. Mr. Fruchtman also referred me to the OED entry.

"Your comments brought back memories, and this may help. My grandmother was born near Anderson, Ind., on Apr. 15, 1865 -- the day Abraham Lincoln died. Whenever anything went wrong, I still recall her saying, 'Oh, my, wirt-wirt!' I'm not sure exactly where the expression came from, but I always had the opinion she was saying, 'It's time to worry.' " -- Jim Watson, Reisterstown.

"Onomatopoeia. The formation of a word by imitation of the natural sound associated with it. As a native of Charles Co., tobaccoland, where spittoons were accepted facilities in political circles, I believe this would apply. Another suggestion about a Charles Co. resident way back then, U.S. Atty. Gen. William Wirt. He also wrote a biography of [politician and writer] James Pendleton Kennedy." -- Mary P. W. Kendall, Baltimore.

"William Wirt (1772-1834), a Whig, was U.S. attorney general for 12 years under Monroe and Adams, resigning in 1829 when Jackson became president. A highly respected lawyer -- he argued McCulloch vs. Maryland before the Supreme Court -- he was also a well-known author. His biography of Patrick Henry was chiefly known for the quotation he assigned his subject: 'Give me liberty or give me death.'

"Wirt spent his later years in Baltimore and was the Anti-Masons' candidate for president in 1831 when they held their convention in the city. Though he died three years later, his name would still have been familiar to voters in 1840." -- James D. Dilts, Baltimore.


"Bush is a sick man! You can see it on TV. He moves like an old man, he speaks haltingly like an old man, he thinks like an old man, he looks old and decrepit." -- Walton W. Windsor, Baltimore. Letter written before the president's trip to Japan.

Speaking of Bush and Japan, you anti-Bushies out there should like this wisecrack from Terry Michael, a Democratic political analyst, summarizing the New Hampshire Republican primary: "New pit bull versus old lapdog, whose barf is worse than his bite."


And speaking of Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire, this from Thomas N. Barry, Palo Alto, Calif.: "Your column on Buchanan's panhandler plan was funny, but absurd."

I certainly hope so.

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